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Friday, Apr 11, 2008
Google unwittingly sent me to PETA this week. I have to admit -- I was surprised at what I found...

Here’s why Google is great, and their advertising scheme works:


Just last week, I was sending an e-mail to somebody about Super Mario something-or-other (I think it was an Ebay seller about a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 or something, but that’s not all that relevant here).  I couldn’t help but notice that, after I sent the mail from my Gmail account, one of those little one-line text ads popped up at the top, saying something like “Like Super Mario Bros.?  Try Super Chick Sisters!”  What kind of responsible journalist would I be if I didn’t click on that link?


Hovering over the link, I couldn’t help but notice that I was on my way to PETA’s website, but I clicked anyway.  There’s a certain sleaziness about PETA that’s hard to shake, in that what they’re doing tends to be motivated by good (or at least understandable) causes, but their methods tend to be a bit, well, questionable.


Super Chick Sisters has actually been around for almost a year now, as it turns out, and it’s easy to see why it continues to draw visitors:  For a piddly little Flash game, its production values are quite high, and its presentation pretty slick.  Pamela Anderson has been kidnapped, you see (just before she was about to break the story that KFC’s methods are, um, unsavory, to put it lightly), and it’s up to Mario & Luigi

Nugget & Chickette to save the day from the evil corporate KFC warlords who have kidnapped her!  As is told in a variety of cute little cutscenes between levels, Mario & Luigi have been afflicted with “Wiitis”, which I think roughly translates to Wii Sports: Tennis elbow.


It’s not just the cutscenes that are “cute”, either; the entire game has a gloss and a happy feel to it that’s entirely at odds with the information being presented.  It’s classic let-down-your-guard kind of stuff, presenting a Mario-esque functionality and power-up system with a Sonic the Hedgehog Green Hill Zone sort of happy shinyness to it (the first level is most reminiscent of the latter, but the happy shinyness never really lets up).  As you run around stomping on Colonel-bots and whatnot, you also get information from randomly scattered people as to the specifics regarding KFC’s cruelty.  Example: They cut off the beaks while the chickens are still alive.  It’s a terribly gruesome thought, and the juxtaposition of this sort of education with the primary-colored glare that comes off of the game is difficult to resolve.


The difficult thing about Super Chick Sisters is that it’s actually sort of fun as far as Flash games go.  Not only that, but the presence of actual unlockables (in a Flash game!) and an ever-changing landscape is enough to keep you going.  The thing is, the propaganda never, ever lets up.  You see tale after tale about the overcrowded, crippling conditions, and you become either an activist or an accomplice; there’s really no in between once the game beats you over the head with its message long enough.


As such, as much as I’m loathe to allow a game to muck with my psyche as much as this one does, I think it’s a brilliantly executed stunt on PETA’s part.  They have actually managed to tread the line that makes a game casual enough to draw you in and absorbing enough, once you’re in, to keep you for the long haul (something that far too many big name developers have been trying and failing at for years).  As long as they keep you, then, they can slowly wear down your defenses, to the point where you’re putting Pamela Anderson in your MySpace top 8, dousing yourself in sheep’s blood and yelling things outside KFC’s corporate headquarters.  This is brainwashing at its most subversive, and as such, it’s really rather brilliant.


Since the release of Super Chick Sisters, PETA has actually released another game, called Bloody Burberry: The Fur Fighters.  While it appears to use the same color palette, its PETA-specific activities, bleak tone, and questionable attempts at humor (models are stupid, tee hee!) don’t capture the imagination nearly to the extent that something like Super Chick Sisters can.  If you haven’t before, go give Super Chick Sisters a try, and let me know how you feel once you’re done.  Are you comfortable with getting preached at while you’re trying to enjoy a game?  Was the message easy to ignore in the name of silly fun?  How did this survive the legal hand of the mighty N?  Drop your thoughts in the comment box, and, of course, enjoy your weekend.


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Friday, Apr 11, 2008

There’s all sorts of chaos at American airports right now mainly because American Airlines had to ground a bunch of planes over a particular flaw in a particular jet model. This juxtaposition in the NYT report seems telling:


American’s chief executive, Gerard J. Arpey, tried to address concerns, saying that the inspections were no cause for alarm.
“Irrespective of F.A.A. oversight, no one would put a plane in service that wasn’t safe,” he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I put my kids on these airplanes all the time.”
The White House also tried to assure passengers that planes were safe.
“Right now, we have a very safe airline transportation system,” a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said. “That is not by accident. That is due to the work of the F.A.A. and the airlines to make sure that safety is first and foremost front of mind.”



What a curious coincidence that a Texas company and a Texas president should be spinning this instance of reckless endangerment on the part of business. This is pure irresponsible innuendo, but would anyone be shocked to discover that the FAA had been stocked with Bush cronies who believe regulatory agencies’ primary function is to help business evade regulation and make more money? And that only increased congressional oversight ended the party?


Reading about this unfolding crisis, and thinking about the unpleasantness of taking any flight (it’s almost worse than the bus, at this point, and rife with at least as many indignities) tempts one to become nostalgic about the old days when airlines were heavily regulated and air travel was a true luxury good. Every trip was made somewhat special by the high price of tickets, and the airline service was apparently geared toward making the trip feel like a stay in a high-end hotel. Protected against competition (and protected against having to drive downmarket, sacrificing everything to low price in order to maximize customer volume), the airlines may have been lazy about being efficient, but the arrangement imposed discipline on travelers, who had to choose much more carefully where to go and what to blow their travel budget on.


Air travel now become a good that’s vaguely similar to homeownership, with air travel presented as almost an end in itself, a “right” that should be extended to everyone by making it affordable—in other words, by cutting corners on safety, diminishing service quality, implementing confusing and highly discriminatory pricing schemes (i.e. you pay whatever you are tricked into paying as true prices disappear into a haze of promotional flim-flam and frequent flier discounts). Everyone shouldn’t expected to travel by air, anymore than everyone shouldn’t automatically expect to own real estate. There are other ways to travel, and other ways to secure shelter, that suit the variety of situations people find themselves in.


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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


For the weekend beginning 11 April, here are the films in focus:


The Counterfeiters [rating: 8]


What’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era are reduced to a filmic footnote.


By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered. read full review…


The Dhamma Brothers [rating: 8]


(W)hat many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men.


A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging. read full review…

Other Releases - In Brief


Street Kings [rating: 6]


There’s nothing new about crooked cops taking their suspect agenda out on unseemly street types for the sake of a morally ambiguous ends. Even more derivative is the double cross that ends up pitting police against each other in a surreal game of whose the most desperate and/or professionally bankruptcy. Coming from the pen of James Ellroy, who created the crackerjack L.A. Confidential, we have a Matrix-less Keanu Reeves as Detective Todd Ludlow, doing a decent job as an alcoholic hotshot who rights-violating past is coming back to haunt him. As an ex-partner prepares to rat him out to Internal Affairs, a gangland style assassination saves our hero’s reputation. But as he investigates the shooters, he stumbles upon a convoluted corruption storyline, complete with easily turned allies, unlikely suspects, and more oddball casting choices than a David Lynch drama. Training Day writer David Ayers delivers just enough moxie both behind and in front of the camera to keep us interested, and there are times when he even transcends the tired movie mechanics being employed. But Street Kings is not crime thriller royalty. Instead, it frequently plays like a perfunctory pretender to the throne.


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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging.


Into this unstable fray, a world where law and order don’t mix as much as mitigate each others’ existence, comes the Vipassana, a rigorous 10 day course of meditation and self discovery. It’s one of the toughest disciplines in all of enlightenment. For the inmates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in the very rural South, the chance to apply the teachings of Buddha provides some optimism for their otherwise hopeless lives. For the residents surrounding the imposing facility, including the conservative Christian community, such Eastern promise smacks of leniency - something these convicts don’t require.


An intriguing film about the practice from three first time documentarians, The Dhamma Brothers, delves deep into the battle of wills between hardened criminals, a reluctant administration, an uncaring society, and a pair of wide-eyed teachers whose only desire is to see men change through individual illumination. In some ways, the story is simple. We quickly learn that the secret of Vipassana is the acceptance of personal responsibility. During the ordeal, where for nine days the prisoners cannot speak to or communicate with each other, their crimes and catastrophic past become burdens they have to acknowledge and manage through quiet contemplation and chanting.


For the basic bleeding heart, it’s a humane way of dealing with the long considered barely human. For the jingoistic jail proponent, it’s all part of the “fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality of inmate con jobbing. There’s an incredible sequence about a third of the way in where locals are given a chance to comment on the prison’s decision. One calls Buddhism “witchcraft”, while another stresses that these men lost any chance at compassion when they killed/robbed/raped who they did. It’s both sides of a single compelling argument, one that The Dhamma Brothers never fully addresses, or puts to rest. 


This is especially true when the mandatory denouement occurs. It’s not a case of recidivism or criminal chicanery. Instead, the State of Alabama listens to the pleas of several concerned religious organizations, and determines that the Vipassana, as well as the ability for these inmates to meet on a daily basis for medication, constitutes a “preaching” of a particular belief system. As such, it violates the long established “Go with Jesus” gerrymander. It’s a stupid sentiment, but it works. By the time the program returns four years later, its original removal is chalked up to politics played as usual.


While the personal angle really sells the film, these outer issues really are important to understanding The Dhamma Brothers’ dilemma. We see that the process really does provide some manner of rehabilitation for even the most unapologetic lifer, but to argue that it violates religious freedom when the Courts have constantly held such a preference quasi-Constitutional paints Alabama in a bad light. At least the directors - Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein - don’t demonize the prison staff. Everyone, from the warden to the guards, is given a chance to question the practice…and then offer their indirect apologies when the convicts disprove their apprehension. 


Still, what many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men. Grady Bankhead, inside for murder, tells of how his mother took he and his brother to an abandoned farmhouse when they were very young, kissed them on the forehead, told them to be good, and simply left them there to die. It’s a astonishing revelation, as are many of the personal stories and memories offered. Perhaps even more stunning is how open and honest these men eventually become. Vipassana has forced them to confront their darkest fears and recollections. The act of mental attrition, of drawing into oneself and meditating on the horrors within, has emboldened each and every one.


It’s a feeling that flows even through the more stereotypical aspects of the narrative. As a talking heads piece, the actual Buddhist rituals requiring isolation (and therefore, no filming) to be effective, we get little insight into the process. It would be nice to see some hidden camera footage of the men interacting, of how a typical day plays out for them. Much of the Vipassana is left unexplained, as if the teachers want the technique protected out of reverence - or maybe something more mercenary. Yet it’s hard to imply anything truly sinister to what we see here. There is so much good being done that finding fault is next to impossible.


The Dhamma Brothers does, however, lack one element that’s mandatory for a great documentary. Call it an entertainment epiphany, or a moment of cinematic transcendence, but we never feel lifted outside the experience at Donaldson to see a bigger cosmic, or karmic, picture. Instead, stories play out, men learn from the experience, and while some slip, others like Bankhead or confirmed convert Rick Smith successfully pitch and preach. In the end, we recognize the value and vital importance of such a program, and we wonder why other institutions haven’t employed the technique instead of simply using captivity for their collection of ‘animals’.


If anything, Vipassana suggests that, once a man gets to truly know himself, and has the opportunity to regularly explore such a domain, he’ll find his place within the civilized social order. It may not forgive him for what he’s done, and oddly enough, few feel the need for such clemency. Instead, all they want is the chance to investigate themselves further, to use the techniques taught to moderate internally what they couldn’t while out in the world. The sooner the penal system accepts that, the quicker collections like The Dhamma Brothers can spring up around the country. It seems like the only sensible solution in a realm replete with tired old tendencies - and abject failures.



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Thursday, Apr 10, 2008


By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered.


When we first meet Sorowitsch, he is gambling in a Monte Carlo casino. As he places a bet, his mind wanders back to pre-War Berlin. The Nazi party is making life impossible for members of his faith, but he feels invincible—after all, he’s the best phony paper pusher in the country. Unfortunately, he is captured, and sent to a concentration camp. There, his unique talents are championed by Lagerkommandanten Herzog. In charge of Hitler’s plan to undermine the British and US economy, he wants Sorowitsch to counterfeit the pound sterling. If he’s successful, America’s dollar is next. Among his group of well cared for inmates is a Communist print master named Adolph Burger. He wants nothing to do with the scheme and hopes to rise up against his captures. But Sorowitsch is only out for himself, no matter how selfish that sounds.


There are times when you want The Counterfeiters to be great, to stand up and recognize the inherently intriguing tale it has to tell and do so magnificently. You want it to stop meandering about, to cease giving unnecessary time to Burger and his tired whining and posturing, and instead really explore the dynamic of turning rags and inks into top quality currency. This is a film that hints at the process, but never digs deeper. But it’s impossible to deny the quantitative curiosity factor present, or the unusual way writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky tells the tale. Applying a Dogma ‘95 like technique, scenes are lit naturally, scenes playing out amongst minimal sets. All the Holocaust horrors remain indirect, experienced through sound cues, suggestion, and the occasional half-glimpsed moment of gore. This is not just Sorowitsch’s story, yet who he is remains the center of the situation at hand.


It’s a weird dilemma for the criminal. In one way, he is helping his persecutor undermine his potential liberator. He understands the rules of survival and how to bend them just enough to get what he wants. He’s surrounded by accomplices and antagonists, men willing to play along with the Nazi plan and those already defeated by their torturous treatment. In essence, Ruzowitzky needs the battle of wills between Sorowitsch and Burger, letting each one have a pro/con position before turning the evidence against them. Logic argues for our hero’s stance. He does what he’s told in hopes it will save his life. His chief antagonist is more interested in the soul. He can’t see aiding and abetting a bunch of demons, no matter the protection it provides.


In the middle are the rest of the counterfeiting crew, and one of the film’s few weaknesses is its treatment of these people. They come across as clichés, the supplicant and the surly, each one trying their best to find a way to deal with the death around them. Rozowitzky wisely keeps them off to the side, decided to focus on Sorowitsch, Burger, and Herzog instead. The camp commandant is an interesting character, unlike any we’ve seen in recent Holocaust recreations. He’s compassionate without being kind, ruthless without taking out his agenda on the prisoners. He demands results and doesn’t mind using intimidation and anger as a way of getting them. But there is also a surreal side to his personality, something that intimates a kind of caring for those he’s exploiting.


A good way of seeing this dichotomy arrives when Sorowitsch is invited to the Commandant’s house for an important meeting. In a short, savvy montage, the director offers the officer’s shrewish wife, a perfect Aryan fright with a smiling face that barely covers her genocidal disgust. Though it flashes by in a few seconds, it says a great deal about why Herzog is not really a villain. He’s bad—a last act event will definitely underline this—but he’s also the picture perfect illustration of the mind “merely taking orders”. Just to be safe, Rozowitzky gives us a couple of jackbooted Sturmbannführers so as not to lose sight of the real issues involved—that is, the extermination of an entire people.


Indeed, what’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era—the deplorable conditions, the inhuman suffering, the random violence—are reduced to a filmic footnote. In its place is another kind of abomination, one that rests solely on morality and how people will subvert their will and principles for the sake of saving their skin. It’s not just that Sorowitsch and his crew are willing to help the Nazi’s undermine the Allies—it’s that they actually succeed. In one of the few cases where a German plan managed to achieve its evil ends, England was flooded with millions in bogus currency.


Still, it’s the subtler moments that resonate the fullest: Sorowitsch’s tireless struggles to defeat the dollar; the arrival of a ping pong table; the realization that their dressier clothes have comes from other camp victims; the fate of the ‘new shoe’ gang. It all adds up to a powerful, if rather predicable vision. We know where most of this story is going (after all, it’s being told in flashback). But the journey toward such a revelation is rife with engaging ideas and unforgettable performances. The Counterfeiters may represent a heretofore unknown aspect of Hitler’s reign of terror, but it remains a story well worth telling.



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