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Monday, Jul 14, 2008

Got a spare 30 minutes? Head over to the Mail Online for the most delicious read of the week: a long excerpt from Christopher Ciccone’s Life with My Sister Madonna. Just make sure those 30 minutes really are spare, because once you start, you won’t stop. This is first-class juice. And not the sort of Andrew Morton, third-party, he’s-full-of-crap juice. This is horses mouth stuff! It’s like Rupert Everett’s book all over again. Sure, it’s slanted, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so damned enthralling.


Chris on Guy Ritchie:


Guy’s pride in his own heterosexuality swells noticeably when he’s in the presence of a gay man like me. And in his wedding week, with these after-dinner toasts seemingly aimed at underscoring his overt masculinity, he is in his element. I, however, am far from amused when many of the speeches trumpeting Guy’s heterosexuality include the word ‘poofter’, a derogatory British expression for gay.


Chris on the Madonna Mythology:


She is a middle-class girl who propagates the story that she landed in Times Square with just a pair of ballet shoes and $35 to her name. But that’s pure mythology and the further she progresses, the more mythological her life story becomes ... Far from being this lost and friendless little waif who didn’t even have a crust of dry bread to eat, when Madonna went to New York she had money in her pocket, plenty of contacts and a support system all in place.


Chris on “Mrs. Ritchie”:


In August 2002, Madonna invites me to her birthday party at Roxbury. The invitation is from ‘Mrs Ritchie’. When she was married to Sean, she never called herself Mrs Penn. Now she has relinquished practically the most famous name in the universe—just to make Guy feel better about himself.



So, you can see, he’s not pulling any punches. He doesn’t so much out his sister as a vicious bitch, but more a confused woman who’s spent so much time trying to remain relevant through so-called re-invention that she might not really know who she is. Ciccone appears to want to let us in on just how a tough-talking all-American chick from Detroit who represented individuality and personal freedom became an English castle dweller with fancy cutlery and a bigoted husband. This is the “great tale” he has to tell, Ciccone told Good Morning America. It’s not about revenge, he reckons, but revelation.


ABC Online also has a story up about Ciccone’s book. In it a family therapist is consulted to help us understand where Ciccone is coming from with his unflattering stories. The bottom line? Envy, as if we didn’t know. Marshall is quoted: “If [Ciccone] was on the Madonna gravy train and she cut him off, he could feel like he’s going to get his no matter what, one way or the other ... When people operate at primitive levels and get their feelings hurt or nose out of joint, they always want the other person to pay for making them feel neglected or like a failure.”


Either way, it is a great story. It’s all perception, though, and until Madonna has a go at her own book, it’s the best we’ve got. I wonder, though, if Madonna’s not secretly thrilled about the book, considering I haven’t cared about anything she’s done since “Cherish” and here I am reading about her, blogging about her, pondering her life choices. She’s relevant again and she hasn’t lifted a finger!


 


 


 


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Monday, Jul 14, 2008

Okay, that entry title makes no sense for a post about the impending Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae bailout, but I just wanted to make a pun referencing the funniest movie of the 1990s.


Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are in the business of guaranteeing residential mortgages, and not an inconsiderable amount of them—more than half, as economist Jared Bernstein notes here. Freddie and Fannie masquerade as independent companies, but investors have always assumed that they are really government agencies and therefore can never go broke. If a spate of mortgages they had guaranteed went bad, taxpayer money would simply be requisitioned to allow the firms to continue operating, since they clearly don’t have the capital on hand to deal with any significant problems. The wisdom of that assumption is now being put to the test, as Fannie and Freddie are spirialing into oblivion.


As mortgages became more and more subprime, they chose to keep up their market share, as Tanta at Calculated Risk details in this comprehensive post. Because of restrictions in their charters, they managed to avoid the worst of the housing bubble’s excesses, but, as Tanta argues, they therefore missed the opportunity to use their clout to impose some discipline on the subprime business, and instead it remained the wild west of financing, a place full of dupes, dishonest brokers, and fat profits to reap—as long as housing prices continued rising. That didn’t happen, as many housing bubble skeptics including Dean Baker and Nouriel Roubini had predicted at the time. To ease problems the credit crunch brought to the private-lending market, legislators pushed to expand Fannie and Freddie’s operations, a idea that investors are now seeming to recognize is a pretty bad one, likely to make their loan portfolios—already threatened by sinking home prices everywhere—become even worse.

With the companies’  insolvency looming, the government has to do something (without them, buying and selling houses in America could become well nigh impossible), but the Republicans in charge are loath to admit the necessity of nationalizing them, nor are they eager to stick it to Wall Street by letting all of Fannie and Freddie’s investors burn. So Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, confronted by a kind of ideological zugzwang, tried to gain a tempo by making an ambiguous speech (admirably parsed here by Felix Salmon). And that’s where things stand currently.


At the FT site, Willem Buiter has the best explanation of what’s wrong with all of this: it’s “dishonest socialism”:


There are many forms of socialism. The version practiced in the US is the most deceitful one I know. An honest, courageous socialist government would say: this is a worthwhile social purpose (financing home ownership, helping my friends on Wall Street); therefore I am going to subsidize it; and here are the additional taxes (or cuts in other public spending) to finance it.
Instead the dishonest, spineless socialist policy makers in successive Democratic and Republican administrations have systematically tried to hide both the subsidies and size and distribution of the incremental fiscal burden associated with the provision of these subsidies, behind an endless array of opaque arrangements and institutions. Off-balance-sheet vehicles and off-budget financing were the bread and butter of the US federal government long before they became popular in Wall Street and the City of London.
The abuse of the Fed as a quasi-fiscal agent of the federal government in the rescue of Bear Stearns is without precedent, and quite possibly without legal justification. The creation of the Delaware SPV that houses $30 billion worth of the most toxic waste from the Bear Stearns balance sheet (with only $1 billion of JP Morgan money standing between the tax payer and the likely losses on the $29 billion committed by the Fed to fund the SPV on a non-recourse basis) is the clearest example of quasi-fiscal obfuscation I have come across in an advanced industrial country. The decision by the Fed to ‘invite’ the primary dealers and their clearers to collude in the (over) pricing of illiquid collateral offered by the primary dealers to the Fed at the newly created TSLF and PDCF (by the Fed accepting the pricing/valuation by the clearers of the illiquid collateral) is another example of the abuse of the Fed as a vehicle for channeling taxpayer-financed subsidies to the primary dealers. This form of socialism for the rich is therefore well-established.


This is how oligarchs prefer the economy to operate: Privatize the gains, socialize the risk. And it seems to me that the obfuscation brought on by the sacredness attributed to homeownership—that anything is excusable as long as it helps “families” experience the indelible blessing of owning property—is what enables it.


 


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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-14

Welcome to E3 Week, people!  Since nobody on our illustrious staff is actually going to E3, you’d probably be better off going to one of those other gaming sites if it’s comprehensive E3 news coverage that you’re looking for.  Otherwise, you can count on us to make occasional remarks on the big news stories and keep reviewing games.  You know, kind of like we always do.


McFadden is good and all, but he's no James Starks.

McFadden is good and all, but he’s
no James Starks.


I can’t imagine that most publishers think to themselves, “you know when a good time would be to release a game?  E3 week.  Nobody could possibly get too distracted by the overload of gaming news to forget about Big Release X, could they?”  Of course they could.  As such, there’s very little motivation to put out big releases this week, since the attention is bound to be diverted to other things.


Given the light and decidedly unimpressive list of releases this week, then, there’s only one thing that really sticks out as something I’d particularly like to play: NCAA Football 09.  Can EA put enough improvements into their yearly college football game to warrant yet another purchase?  ‘Tis the eternal question!  It is true, though, that I tend to welcome excuses to try and take my alma mater’s football program (University at Buffalo, and yes, they have a football team.  Kind of.) to a bowl game, since I’m relatively sure such an occurrence will never happen in the real world in my lifetime.  Um, Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!


OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!

OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!


Up and around the rest of the release list, Southpeak’s Mister Slime actually has nothing to do with the Dragon Quest series (unfortunately!) but it still looks like a fun little puzzle game, and Her Interactive moves their Nancy Drew series to the Nintendo DS, where it seems like it would be a perfect fit for its female adolescent target audience.  We Love Golf! is, for obvious reasons, a perfect fit for the Wii, and there’s a PlayStation 2 exclusive (I had no idea those still existed!) called B-Boy, which is You Got Served!-style breakdancing action.  Given that my 4-year-old fancies himself a breakdancer of late, I may just end up with that.


The full list of releases, along with a trailer for NCAA Football 09, is after the jump.  Happy E3 week, everyone!  Try


not

to hit information overload!


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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
We constantly hear the argument that people aren't listening to music any more. How is that even possible when there's so much of it?

“I think it’s an exciting time,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recently told the LA Weekly. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear.” I admit there’s a certain idealistic thrill at watching those quixotic majors slash and tumble on their way down after creating so many years of misery for their talent and their consumers. I don’t have to explain what they’ve done to deserve such bittersweet schadenfreude at this point. We’ve all read the Albini essay. The heads of music are like all those Bush appointees who spent their entire lives preaching against the superfluousness of the department they’ve now been selected to run. They don’t like music, musicians, or music fans. Just taking a huge margin off the top.


Of course it’s shameful, looking at the industry as a whole like a crumbling morass of cynical greed and perpetual ineptitude. It’s more like the toppling of the Saddam statue, being that those who will really suffer for these sins will be the low cats on the totem poll. All the executives sleeping in their beds full of dirty money will be just fine. They’ll make their mortgage payments and keep their swimming pools. For the rest of them, it’s back to Tower Records… er, Sam Goody… er, Wal-Mart? 


Still, even for an industry that took so many consistent wrong turns, the mainstream music empire has to be the most deeply out-of-touch monolith to ever sustain itself since the fall of Rome. Way back when people were still buying CDs, the record companies dealt with their wealth by raising wholesale and list prices, as documented by Bill Wyman here. The gratuitous litigation complex alone could probably snip a dollar or two off the list price of every disc. But as Wyman shows in a more recent post, we’re still having the conversation about pricing years later as physical music gets trampled by digital media in the pricing wars.


Nevermind that there are boatloads of music fans who don’t even get their music this way. If the record industry is going to throw all its efforts behind the traditionalist market like it’s still 1994, they might as well do it right. Half of all music sales are made at Wal-Mart not because they understand or even give a shit about music. It’s because they offer music at market values that may actually be worth the product they’re getting. Speaking strictly in terms of material value, a consumer “gets” far more out of a DVD or a video game than a CD, yet they’re paying essentially the same price for each medium’s back stock.


Even after displaying utter contempt for their consumers by suing and taxing their enthusiasm for the product, you’d think the record companies, radio, and/or print media might actually take time to find out who their buying audience is. With most big media divesting massive energy into public relations and individualized target marketing, the music industry has consistently tried to treat the lot of its consumer base as if they were a herd of sheep, limiting their options, doling out ubiquitous product, disengaging with technology or innovation, spewing disposable waste, and recycling faded heroes. Mainstream music hasn’t even been able to manufacture a lasting movement with a significant cultural impact since Alternative and Gangsta Rap, with the possible exception of American Idol. This has to be due in part to the fact that the industry buying and selling all this music doesn’t have a fucking clue who’s listening to it.


Theirs is a culture pre-branded with rebellion and individualism, one that thrives on, right or wrong, the listener being the center of the universe. It’d be common courtesy to try to find out what their wants and needs are. Yet the music industry consistently tries to manufacture these desires, not realizing how fragmented and polarized its audience really is. Not only do different listeners have highly specialized aesthetic tastes, but their preferences for how they experience, consume, interpret, and utilize music are as disparate as all those different listening subcultures.


Corresponding with music business’s mighty fall comes an era when its product is at its most omnipresent. You literally can not escape it. Popular music has seeped into every crevice of social and particularly consumer life. It’s coming out of speakers in cars, at work, in stores, in waiting rooms, on airplane headsets, in restaurants, and on alarm clocks easing us back into consciousness. It’s inundated behind television programming, advertisements, films, and video games. It shouts at you as you click on a website or a MySpace profile. It harasses you when you’re trying to ignore it. It intimidates you when you’re parked next to it. It finds you when you’re trying to ignore it. The government even uses it as a torture device, a kind of mass culture bomb to deafen, disarm, and dehumanize ascetic Islamists suspected of terrorism. It provides the soundtrack to the mundane for millions of headphoned wanderers on buses, trains, jogs, workouts, or long car rides. In universities, file sharing is a communal rite, allocated with the same philanthropic spirit of passing a joint. Peer-to-peer network have also increased the average middle-of-nowhere suburban kid’s musical acumen exponentially. I myself owe a great deal of my own musical knowledge to the access gained through my early college years and the ubiquity of Napster, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, and the Massachusetts-specific Flatlan software.


There are hit TV shows about performing songs, dancing to songs, knowing the lyrics to songs, and reminiscing about songs (“I Love The [Insert Decade]‘s”). This is not to mention the ease in which any one and their kid sister can make their own profession-quality songs on a standard grade laptop, post them on the internet, and win an instant fan base. Overall, despite the music industry’s failure and segregating its attentions, there are more people exposed to, interested in, involved with or knowledgeable about music than ever before. The quality of their relationships to the music is largely irrelevant in a market context. The fact is, regardless of what the broadsheets say, people have not given up on music.


In upcoming posts, I will attempt to profile the different types of listeners and how their habits and attitudes fit into the cultural marketplace, from the professional thieves to the perpetually loyal benefactors, in the hopes to convey the multivalence of a broad and increasingly unclassifiable strata of music fans.


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Sunday, Jul 13, 2008

With another $34 million in its coffers and a growing word of mouth campaign, Will Smith’s latest pseudo sci-fi exercise, Hancock, is shaping up to be one of the summer’s biggest surprises. Not a shock when you consider the star power behind the project, but unusual in that the movie continues to build on its opening despite mostly negative reviews. Now critics never contribute to or cause the commercial fortunes/misfortunes of a release, but many believed Hancock was very minor Smith at best (only a 37% favorable consensus). With $165 million already accounted for, and much more on the horizon, this so-called misfire could end up one of the actor’s strongest outings.


Some have suggested that race has fueled the film’s success, a recent rant by none other than Sean “P Diddy” Combs claiming that African Americans have been desperate for a black superhero to support. Of course, from a superficial standpoint, that concept would seem obvious. Minorities rarely figure into the comic book universe - at least the version Hollywood chooses to support - and the arrival of an original creation, a character build out of certain cultural complements would definitely be unique. But to suggest that John Hancock, a champion rarely spoken of in racial terms (if at all), translates into some kind of Jackie Robinson moment for the genre is just surreal.


Earlier in the year, Iron Man introduced two characters of color into its mix - Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Both have origins in graphic novel mythos (though some see Fury’s transformation as more about casting than consistency), and will play more prominent roles in future installments. While Terrence Howard and Samuel L. Jackson both had minor moments in the first film, one can see their importance once the pre-Avengers narrative continues. And if one was looking to move beyond the Marvel/DC domain, there are examples of earnest, if ineffective, offerings like Meteor Man that function as a better “been there first” foray.


No, it’s the fact that an A-list African American actor is now poised to have his own high profile popcorn franchise that may explain the excitement - and yet again, this is nothing new for Smith. He rode the Men in Black franchise to two successful films, and would probably revisit any number of his previous roles should the script (and the payday) seem right. Hancock, of course, has a far more interesting backstory, something that could easily be explored in variations of the sequel theme. His transformation from drunk and insolent to tender and heartrending marks the calling card of a potentially classic character. And since his reality is rather esoteric and ephemeral, it could definitely generate repeat investigations.


Which leads us to the other element that people are using to support Hancock’s box office take. Outside of the man in the suit situation, the twist is getting a great deal of press. For those unaware of the third act switch-up a SPOILER warning will be issued. It’s impossible to talk about this part of the film without giving it all away, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to remain oblivious to it charms/harms, skip down to the final paragraph. Otherwise, the plot point that transforms the film from a basic action spectacle into something slightly tragic and almost epic is often cited as part of Hancock‘s appeal. Several critics have commented that it more or less makes or breaks the movie.


All throughout the first two acts, Hancock’s interaction with PR man Ray Embrey has been tainted by his wife Mary’s unusually harsh attitude toward the hero. Every time he’s around, she reacts with a combination of anger and revulsion. It turns out that there’s a reason for this - Mary is the same as Hancock, gifted with the same superhuman powers. In a city destroying showdown, she finally reveals her existence. Later, she offers the reasons for her fear. It seems that whomever put these entities on the planet (one of the best explanations is that they are mythic “Gods’ like those of the ancient Greeks), paired them up. Together, they have the potential to sap each others strength. Stay too long together, and they will turn mortal, and be susceptible to injury - or even death. 


Mary has been desperate to stay away from Hancock because, in their long and illustrious past together, their partnership has lead to disaster and pain. She explains several examples of their near misses. By remaining apart, both can lead their lives, be it as house wife or a crime fighter. In the end, after being exposed to her, Hancock is wounded and sent to the hospital. When Mary shows up, she too is shot. It takes a Herculean effort from our injured hero to escape his treatment, head out into the street, and save himself and Mary. The farther he gets from her, the more his (and her) powers return. Eventually, we learn that Hancock has taken up residence in New York City, far away from Mary and her family. Both are happy…and more importantly, fully restored.


It’s possible to argue over the effectiveness of this surprise, to suggest as others have that it turns a satiric romp into something far too serious - or in other opinions, striking and rather substantive. The notion of how Mary’s revelation affects the film can be saved for another day. Indeed, it may be more of a personal preference than anything clearly cinematic. What one can argue over is the claims that this is one of the best twists in the history of the type. Parallels to The Sixth Sense and Fight Club have been frequent, suggesting that audiences are really responding based on this outright denouement. By adding the secret, it gives the movie an added punch that a standard ending probably would lack.


Unfortunately, such comparisons are crazy. The Hancock reveal is more about motive than narrative drive. It does affect the way our hero acts for the last 30 minutes of the movie, but it’s not a Kaiser Sose kind of rewrite. Anyone who knows film will see the situation hinted at the minute Charlize Theron makes an appearance. Her shifty eyes and uncomfortable smiles signal something is amiss with this supposedly typical suburbanite. By the time she turns up kicking Hancock’s butt, there’s little shock. True, where the movie takes the material is rather interesting, especially the notion that emotional sacrifice and a lack of partnership must follow these creatures for all eternity (they appear fated to fall in love with each other). But it’s not a definitive turn.


No, Hancock‘s twist is not on the level of 1968’s Planet of the Apes, the truth behind Soylent Green‘s secret recipe, or ‘man/woman’ charade of The Crying Game. In some ways, it’s on par with the whole ‘deal with the Devil’ finale of Angel Heart. It’s a plot point that propels us sideways instead of backward, that doesn’t get us rethinking what we’ve seen transpire so much as contemplating the meaning of such a fact. Sure, it may change the tone of the film, and provide a more somber sort of conclusion that one expects from a big budget popcorn romp, but Hancock doesn’t live or die by said shift. 


No, what’s clear is that, as he ages, Will Smith is becoming a certifiable screen presence, someone who can put butts in seats based on his name and his name alone. Sure, there is something to be said for both the race and reveal issues, but neither is as important as who is standing in front of the camera. As his career continues, Smith illustrates the concept that hard work and determination - as well as a deft way with choosing projects - can propel even the most unusual talent into the upper echelon’s of the Hollywood elite. The color of his skin or the last act surprise may be part of Hancock‘s appeal, but they’d be nothing without the former Fresh Prince. Nothing. The best thing this movie has to sell is Smith himself.


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