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by Bill Gibron

22 Jun 2009

When it hit the web last week, film geeks everywhere felt the hairs on the nape of their neck tingle just a tiny little bit. Sure, we were dealing with that cinematic inconsistency known as Roland Emmerich, a man who made a definitive alien invasion film with Independence Day, and one of the dopiest Earth vs. nature romps with The Day After Tomorrow. But with an exclusive look at the first trailer for his upcoming catastrophe epic 2012 waiting in the wings (a tantalizing teaser had arrived late last year), a few guilty pleasure palpitations could be expecting. Now, after witnessing the nearly three minutes of mindless Armageddon madness the new preview offered, the ‘Net is in almost universal agreement: Screw this Summer’s sloppy CG action fests. What we need right now is a major dose of Emmerich patented disaster porn, and FAST

Oddly enough, 2012 was bumped to November of 2009 when it was deemed that May through August was too jam-packed with greatness. Of course, after two months, it says something about said popcorn season that Star Trek remains the best stunt and spectacle flick of the lot. Indeed, J.J. Abrams able reboot has bested an anemic Wolverine, a toxic Land of the Lost, a sheepish Terminator, and a paltry Pelham 1 2 3. And with few potential challengers waiting in the wings - it’s hard to imagine Transformers, Public Enemies, Harry Potter, or GI Joe besting the sensational voyages of this particular Starship Enterprise - it may be up to Emmerich to save the blockbuster, albeit a whole three months too late. From the looks of the trailer, it has everything that’s missing from the current crop of movies - chutzpah, vision, and an undeniable desire to destroy any and all things in its path.

When 2012 was first announced, it seemed like another tawdry tie-in to a hot button outsider issue. Conspiracy theorists and similarly skittish people have been predicting the end of times ever since the Mayan Calendar got some critical analysis. Everything from worldwide plague to total planetary devastation has been predicted with little more than some ancient ruins and an equally rudimentary grasp on what these primitives actually believed and bothered to record as the basis. And the initial teaser for the film provided one of those patented movie money shots guaranteed to get viewers gaping while wondering just what the Hell it all means. Indeed, as a monk rings a bell indicating some manner of impending crisis, a wall of water comes streaming over the mountains, indicating one massive tidal wave is about to wipe out all manner of civilization in its wake - and several thousand feet below it.

Now comes the full blown trailer and it’s a masterpiece of mass destruction. It begins with the typical tabloid news montage, 24 hour channels cheering the various omens with the standard doom and gloom prostylitizing. Soon, things start going boom. The Vatican watches as St. Peters literally falls apart. Elsewhere, John Cusak and his family are attacked by what appears to be every meteorite and/or asteroid in the entire Milky Way. Random shots of Los Angeles in full blown earthquake mode are witnessed, while the entire state of California appears to disappear into the Pacific after said “big one” concludes. There are cities on fire, deep snowbanks outside a desolate Washington DC, and an argument between co-stars Oliver Platt and Chiwetel Ejiofor about who can evacuate the planet in one of America’s waiting space arks.

That’s right - space arks - huge starships that, in less than three years, will apparently be revealed as our last best hope of survival against a world quickly given over to cosmic climate shifts. As people gather to take refuge, as Air Force One (containing President Danny Glover, one imagines) is overwhelmed by massive swells of unholy aquifer, Cusak and his family make a mad dash to the spacecraft, hopefully to travel to a world less prone to prophetic pronouncement. Scattered in between are shots of the Washington monument toppling over, a small plane flying between two collapsing skyscrapers, and as the giddy pièce de résistance, the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy riding another tidal wave, this one aimed directly at the White House.

While it sounds like nothing but 180 seconds of unbridled mayhem, the kind of over-the-top spectacle that the Sci-Fi Channel has been riding on since the laptop gave birth to computer generated destruction, no one can deny Emmerich’s eye. This is a man who clearly enjoys dismantling the various landmarks and wonders of the ancient/modern world. While the sequences offered in the 2012 trailer probably represent the key “wow” moments in the movie, one imagines even more noted vistas getting vivisected by the jolly German. He’s made mincemeat out of so many of our recognizable metropolises that there will probably be a call for him to make another movie of this type, if only to sacrifice those cities he’s somehow missed.

But it’s more than just the concept of chaos. Emmerich is a champion at what could best be called the “believability factor”. Oh sure, his 10,000 BC antics were about as fake as falsies on a longshoreman, but it’s hard to deny the impact of New York’s “drowning” under Tomorrow‘s perfect flood. Similarly, when our angry ETs obliterate the Empire State Building (and much of Manhattan in the process), Emmerich gets the god-awfulness absolutely right. He understands both the awe and the horror of having reality spin wildly out of control, though his films frequently miss the boat in most other important filmmaking facets (character, narrative clarity, artistic bravado). Still, when you want someone to destroy the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, you’ve got to get Emmerich.

So while we sit and wait, watching the trailer over and over again for clues and continuing clarification on just what might be happening to our favorite solar system member, it’s clear that 2012 will be a big fat hype heavy wait-and-see subject among many in Nerd Nation and its multiple messageboard suburbs. Sure, the buzz has more or less died down after a relatively fast start, but as the Summer lags and the big guns sputter and misfire, fans of larger than life obliteration will be looking to Emmerich to appease their need. 2012 could be an undeniable epic of Grand Canyon Guignol proportions. It could also be so cheesy and rank that sewer rats can’t cotton to its flavor. Whatever the case, the opening sales pitch salvo sure looks smashing. For anyone underwhelmed by what the year has had to offer so far, five months will be a Helluva long wait.

by shathley Q

21 Jun 2009

It was a strange year, 1836. It was the year that would invent the twentieth century.

Naturalist Charles Darwin stepped off the HMS Beagle on the morning of October 2nd, seeing his native England for the first time in five years. Novelist Charles Dickens would begin publishing his first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club serialized for weekly publication. And Sam Colt would finally perfect his invention of the revolver.

For Darwin it would be the beginning of a long career, one that would enshrine him as one of the greatest scientific minds of his age, and one that would bring him into conflict with the established power of the Church of England and its dogma. Ten weeks into publication of The Pickwick Papers Dickens would spark a cultural revolution. His character Sam Weller would be so highly regarded that it would be openly stolen and reproduced in bootleg copies of his work, Sam Weller Joke Books and various other merchandizing. Dickens would helm a new kind of literature that would set the tone for such later innovators as Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka and R. Crumb. And Sam Colt would, with a single stroke, reconstitute the way our species conceives of justice, law, injury and animosity. We would not need a writer the quality of Tom Fontana to remind us that with the advent of the revolver “the wound is personal”.

Each of these revolutions could be seen to engage with the writings of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, whose dystopian view of the world arose from his famous slogan: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Malthus would use this offer a savage critique of the welfare system of 19th century England. It is in this way that 1836 holds up a mirror to the global economic collapse of 2008. Economics as the crucible for three cultural revolutions; one of scientific and religious conflict, one of literary innovation, and one of civilian armament.

While the visionary work of manga writer Yasuhiro Nightow in his anime series Gungrave offers comment on the confluence of Colt’s legacy and Darwin’s (in Nightow’s series dead gangsters dressed as cowboys hunt down genetically engineered zombie supersoldiers), it is 1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes edited by Mark Waid and written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum that offers a perspective on the confluence of Darwin, Colt and Dickens.

Five years after the economic collapse of the United Planets, the idealistic Legion of Super-Heroes crawl from the wreckage, now jaded by the failure of their dream. Things were not supposed to be this bad. Now facing a galactic society on the brink crumbling into civilian militias, the Legion must confront the encroaching threat of an expansionist xenosociology. The story is told on the same 3x3 grid popularized by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, but to a far more brutal effect.

This Wednesday’s Iconographies feature explores how 1989’s reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes offers comment on both 1836 and 2008.

by PopMatters Staff

21 Jun 2009

Master shredder Marnie Stern was lounging poolside with her sweet little dog when she spoke to PopMatters about her love of Hella, her current collaboration with Mary Timony, and many other subjects. Her current album, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, is out on Kill Rock Stars.

by Bill Gibron

21 Jun 2009

A foreboding metropolis that chews up young people, relegating their dreams to a distant memory within servitude and sacrifice. A society so strapped by tradition and “face” that the arrival of a gruff, disgusting foreign throws them into a tizzy of tabloid temptation. A people so lost in their own hermetic insularity that human connections seem alien and almost dangerous. If you listen to three of the world’s foremost film directors - Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-Ho - this is Tokyo, Japan’s unyielding urban giant. This is the way the sprawling skyscraper vista works. This is the way it bustles and ebbs. This is the way it is viewed by friend and critic alike. In the amazing anthology named for what is arguably the world’s largest city, different aspects of Tokyo life are explored and systematically deconstructed. Some may consider it a callous critical evaluation. In truth, it’s nothing short of a luxuriant love letter.

In “Interior Design”, Gondry gives us the story of Akira and Hiroko. He’s a wannabe filmmaker. She’s his assistant and his support - both on and off the set. With nowhere to live and limited funds, they impose upon school friend Akemi, herself living in one of the smallest apartments in town. As a couple of days turn into weeks, our novices learn how easily Tokyo takes you apart, reducing you to your basic, subservient self. In “Merde” (French for “shit”), Carax creates a sewer dwelling deviant who wrecks havoc among the polite population, rising from the underground to act in rude and inappropriate ways. When finally caught for his increasingly heinous crimes, he becomes a media star, and the subject of much debate amongst foreigners and fringe groups alike. Finally, Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” offers a shut-in (or in Japanese, a “hikikomori”) who hasn’t ventured out of his house in over a decade. When he finally makes contact with an eccentric pizza delivery gal, his world is literally rocked to its foundation.

As examples of interpretation, Tokyo! offers a wholly unique cinematic experience. It’s fun, and often frustrating, to see what each filmmaker is offering with their clearly personalized and oddly perturbing take on this icon of the Eastern empire. There is no attempt to explain the city, no offering of history or pragmatic context. Like a dance meant to symbolize something outside its individual steps, Gondry, Carax, and Bong have braved the wrath of nearly 35 million Japanese to give Tokyo! the artistic analytical patina it apparently needs. For many in the West, the city stands as the center of a once mighty economic behemoth, a workaholic wasteland of technological progress and entertainment oddity. But buried within the fiscal fallacies, freak game shows, and 80 hour weeks are smaller stories, pieces of a personal puzzle that makes any attempt at generalization seems petty and pointless.

And this is exactly what Tokyo! wants to focus on. For Gondry’s characters, there is no need to dream. One can’t be picky about where they want to live, nor can they claim a career outside the mainstream when said sentiments are often viewed as silly or idiotic. For Akira, an eventual part-time job as a package wrapper seems to suck all the energy out of his desire to make movies. But it’s worse for Hiroko. As the woman behind the man, as the cleaner of her careless lover’s many messes, she’s a cipher, a vacant facet of a fleeting urban reality. When she finally resolves herself to an accessory-like existence in the service of someone else (instead of exploring her own wistful wants) things become settled - and quite sad. As he often does, Gondry pushes the boundaries of both realism and fantasy to forge a truth few could easily see before.

Carax is not that subtle. He is out to attack Japan like the green-suited Godzilla his Monster from the Sewers represents. It what is clearly the most clichéd of all Tokyo! ‘s conceits, the Frenchman fidgets with the Asian ideas of etiquette, social acceptability, and public reactions to same. We see actor Danis Lavant, looking a lot like a repugnant leprechaun, rising from the streets to confront his prey - and while his initial actions are simply rude (stealing cigarettes, eating potted plants, licking a young girl’s armpit), the tone grows more and more menacing. Finally, the discovery of a box of old World War II grenades - gotta love the understated symbolism involved - allows the Monster to truly live up to his title. From then on, Carax indulges in a countryman’s comedy of the absurd, Lavant trading nonsense gobbledygook with an imported lawyer played with equal oddball verve by Jean-Francois Balmer. Their wholly private pantomime leaves the Japanese stunned - that is, until the villain reveals who he really might be. Then we get even more East meet West weirdness.

Unlike Carax’s hammer-over-the-head (and still wholly entertaining) obviousness, Bong believes in giving very little away. His segment is a lot like the main character he features - meticulous, studied, and reluctant to open himself up. As we watch the OCD like living arrangements, as we marvel at a house that’s as neat as a pin but as sterile as such a setting creates, we wait for the next emotional shoe to drop, and when Bong finally decides to deliver it, it’s devastating. The last act then becomes a kind of communal mea culpa, a way of showing how life in a city this size can create a populace only plagued by what they personally obsess on. Gone is our hero’s hikikomori psychosis. In its place is a desperation for human contact, the kind of fear that will make even the most insane individual snap out of their practiced routine. As with the other two installments, Bong is not out to illustrate some massive philosophical point. This kind of one-on-one want is how he sees the traps within Tokyo.

As with any translation over to home video, some might feel robbed of this film’s substantial scope and visual panache. There is actually no need to worry on that front as the Blu-ray release of Tokyo! looks amazing. The 1080p offering brings out all the optical detail Gondry, Carax and Bong managed to add to their efforts, and the city itself (when shown) has the kind of sizable sprawl that puts the whole enterprise into aesthetic perspective. Even better, Liberation Entertainment gives this digital package a push toward completeness by adding interviews with all three filmmakers, as well as behind the scenes glimpses of how each movie was made. By looking at these bits of added content in conjunction with the film itself, we begin to understand the motive behind each episode and realize how such seemingly obtuse approaches can lead to some potent metropolitan maxims.

In the end, our newly arrived couple appear content - or at the very least, one half seems resolved to play her part. The Monster is quelled, and lessons are learned that many couldn’t have easily anticipated when the fiend first made his merciless presence known. And while the city might fall - or simply crumble under the influence of numerous geological aftershocks - at least two people have seen the light - or more literally, stepped out of the darkness of their own self-made world long enough to realize it’s safe…sort of. In truth, these could be the stories of any urban landscape - New York, Mexico City, or San Paolo. But within the specific culture of Tokyo! , a trio of directors found the kind of inspiration that unlocks a thousand ideas. Luckily, the talent involved only needed a few to come up with something special. 

by Rob Horning

20 Jun 2009

Conor Friedersdorf—currently blogging for the Atlantic’s ideas blog—made an interesting point about this WSJ op-ed about grocery chain Safeway’s health-care plan. In the op-ed, Safeway’s CEO touted how his company’s health-careplan emphasized personal responsibility as a means to control costs:

Safeway’s plan capitalizes on two key insights gained in 2005. The first is that 70% of all health-care costs are the direct result of behavior. The second insight, which is well understood by the providers of health care, is that 74% of all costs are confined to four chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity). Furthermore, 80% of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is preventable, 60% of cancers are preventable, and more than 90% of obesity is preventable.
As much as we would like to take credit for being a health-care innovator, Safeway has done nothing more than borrow from the well-tested automobile insurance model. For decades, driving behavior has been correlated with accident risk and has therefore translated into premium differences among drivers. Stated somewhat differently, the auto-insurance industry has long recognized the role of personal responsibility. As a result, bad behaviors (like speeding, tickets for failure to follow the rules of the road, and frequency of accidents) are considered when establishing insurance premiums. Bad driver premiums are not subsidized by the good driver premiums.

This seems like an expression of a classic conservative position: In the last analysis, individuals can shape their living conditions in a meaningful way and consequently can be held responsible for their own suffering. Charging high-risk people (“fair risk pricing”) more for their insurance seems to make good common sense; they should have their insurance coverage supply a sort of moral hazard. Probably no one says to themselves, “Fuck quitting smoking. If I get lung cancer, my insurance will pay for it,” but they may not take the sort of precautions to prevent illness because nothing in the structure of their lives provides a incentive counterbalance to the immediate pleasures (such as they are) of smoking, drinking, eating poorly, getting a tattoo, etc. (It’s worth noting that currently, in some private plans, certain sorts of preventive care are regarded as elective care and thus are not always covered.) It seems obvious to build an insurance system that rewards healthy behavior in patients and penalizes known unhealthy behaviors.

Friedersdorf says as much, but also points out the downfall of such a plan—where do you draw the line on what sort of behaviors insurance companies should be permitted to police? Isn’t monitoring for “unhealthy” behavior a wedge for introducing Minority Report-style total surveillance? With a note of libertarian alarm, Friedersdorf writes, “Smoking today. Alcohol, downhill skiing, and premarital sex tomorrow? Pricing unhealthy habits means testing for them in ways intrusive enough to reliably detect them. What are your vices? Do you want your employer or your government determining which vices cost you money?” Or do you even want that data, for that matter, cataloged somewhere, becoming an albatross around you worse than a credit report? Instead of prison-inspired panopticism, perhaps the Foucaldian nightmare that awaits us is a medicalized one, along the lines of The Birth of the Clinic. The state derives new power and leverage from its control of the social definition of health.

Of all the arguments against nationalized health-care, this seems to me the strongest: that once taxpayers are footing the bill for the avoidable health risks other citizens take on, it’s only a matter of time those taxpayers demand further regulation of those risk-taking individuals’ behavior. And whether or not something constitutes a health risk is open to a lot of interpretation (think of the nebulous studies that lead science writers to proclaim the health risks or benefits of caffeine, red wine, etc., etc.)—it could become a site of ideological struggle, with healthfulness being used as a pretense to prescribe certain standard, predictable ways of life. After all, insurers’ main concern is risk that can’t be anticipated and controlled. The social pressure toward conformity could become even stronger than it already is now. It’s a wonder old-school conservatives—who want nothing more than to prescribe a “traditional” lifestyle—aren’t more in favor of state-supplied health care.

Perhaps the future of health care will involve private insurers undercutting the cost of the state-offered plan, and a mandate that all individuals be covered. (That’s part of what makes the auto-insurance market work.) If you want to pay extra for privacy, you can opt for the national plan. If you are comfortable having your health data monitored to save a few dollars, a private insurer could offer that.

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Hitchcock's 'Suspicion', 'I Confess' and 'The Wrong Man' Return in Blu-ray

// Short Ends and Leader

"These three films on DVD from Warner Archives showcase different facets of Alfred Hitchcock's brilliance.

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