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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

RENDITION (dir. Gavin Hood)


Okay, okay, we get it. In the name of the War on Terror, the United States has screwed up—BIG time. We’ve made massive military and diplomatic blunders, turned ourselves from last remaining superpower to international laughing stock, and allowed our Red State leanings to manifest themselves in the biggest set of civil rights abuses since African Americans were forced to drink from segregated water fountains. So here’s a message to Hollywood—enough already. We GET IT. Uncle Sam has ruined his reputation, our own government is complicit in major infractions of the Geneva Convention, and none of this is making us safer. So you’ve got plenty of targets to take out. Terrific. Just know this—you sell your media-minded position a lot more successfully when you remember to make your harangues entertaining. Without that, there’s just empty, obnoxious jingoism.


Rendition is the result of such pompous over-pronouncements. It’s a well-intentioned screed undone by its desire to make all sides of its conflict saintly simplistic. It wastes prodigious talents both in front of and behind the camera in service of a tale that’s so obvious in its moral underpinnings and thankless in its idea of subtlety that it even finds nobility in a suicide bomber. Any film founded on secret US torture sights should have the backbone to place the blame squarely on the bureaucratic shoulders where it belongs. But in Gavin Hood’s showy storytelling designs and all sides supporting the center script, what we wind up with is black and white cast as all gray and not gray enough. Issues of security and wartime intelligence are indeed important. But Rendition is so existentially earnest that you’re not quite sure where your true feelings are supposed to lie.


While on his way home from a business trip, Egyptian born Anwar El-Ibrahimi is suddenly detained at the Washington DC airport. Seems a well known terrorist has contacted his cellphone number, and the CIA wants to know why. Of course, this leave his pregnant wife Isabella in a quandary, especially when he fails to show up as planned. Though the airlines argue he was never on the flight, our heroine discovers otherwise. She seeks the help of an old college friend, a Senator’s aide who has connections to tough Agency head Corrine Whitman. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, El-Ibrahimi is interrogated by the tough Abasi Fawal. Under the watchful eye of field agent Douglas Freeman, the seemingly innocent man is tortured for information. While his wife waits for word, he’s clinging desperately to life.


There is much more to Rendition than this—too much more. Fawal has a daughter who is defying his arranged marriage wishes, leading to all manner of domestic strife for the belligerent bulldog of a man. Freeman is having his own internal crisis, a life as CIA lackey leaving him empty and prone to personal doubt. Isabella is pregnant, and her past ties to the Congressional assistant seem to cement the investigation. Then there is the Arab’s anarchic child, pining away for a fellow student and finding herself locked in a surreal interpersonal holy war between rising fundamentalism, a group of terror minded leaders, and the man she thinks she loves. It’s enough to make your head spin, and Hood apparently wants it to corkscrew right off.


Instead of presenting events as they are meant to play out, we get a Pulp Fiction tweaking of the plot point time lines. It’s so jarring, so in your face obvious and arty that, when discovered, we find ourselves rewinding the movie in our mind to see if Hood stayed true to the tactic. Sadly, it also saps any inherent emotion out of the story. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood has gotten the idea that certain standard relationships don’t require character defining backstory. Star-crossed lovers—especially in a strict foreign country—are supposedly intriguing in and of themselves, while a mixed marriage in the United States (especially one so clearly contrary to our post-9/11 tolerances) earns intrigue by merely existing. But that’s not the case. Rendition relies too heavily on inference and supposition. As a result, we never identify with these individuals, or empathize when there life goes wildly out of whack.


And that’s a shame, especially since Hood sets up big scope moments of universal import as a means of making us feel. Reese Witherspoon, who’s more or less blank here, gets one of those screeching confrontations that pass for dramatics, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s CIA stooge has a taking a stand situation that’s supposed to turn him from rube to hero. But since we literally know nothing about these people, we never feel their pain. Even strapped naked to a water torture device, Omar Metwally’s El-Ibrihimi is nothing more than a pathetic prop. Granted, Hood stacks the deck during these scenes, turning the interrogation by Yigal Noar’s Fawal into Hostel with higher ambitions, but since we don’t have a stake in this game (and the passé explanation about the title act of illegal detention is not enough to provide one) we end up shrugging our shoulders when we should be shielding our eyes.


Indeed, Rendition’s biggest obstacle is the inordinate number of “who cares?” interactions. What are we really supposed to gain from the Arab boy-girl puppy loving?  Is there anything other than kitchen sink drama attached on Papa Fawal’s strident parental approach? Is the presence of El-Ibrihimi’s patient and philosophical mother in Isabella’s life nothing more than a countermand to all the foreign zealotry, and should Meryl Streep play evil when she’s given nothing more than bureaucratic shorthand as speeches? Hood, who filled his Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi with a real sense of time and place, feels flummoxed here. You can almost sense the pull between paradigms going on in this South African born, American influenced filmmaker. Part of him is looking for all the local color he can get. The rest is wrestling with the standard cinematic designs of the genre (thriller) he’s attempting.


It’s lose/lose all the way. There is a good story buried somewhere in Kelley Sane’s scattered screenplay, a tale to be told about a government so paranoid about losing power—and innocent people—that it would stoop to ridiculously reactionary measures to achieve minor Intel-objectives. Let’s not forget that El-Ibrihimi’s ordeal occurs because a random CIA agent is killed in a suicide bombing. Linking this man to the insignificant organization we see (these are radicals who plot their protests out in the open, after all) seems like much ado about saber rattling. None of the participants on either side of the situation seem to care about such a slash and burn approach. Apparently, they’d use a nuke to find a needle in a haystack as well.


Without superb acting to pull us through the rougher bits, without a clear emotional connection to the events unfolding—heck, without a concrete idea about what is happening when—Rendition renders itself moot. It becomes an argument where the winner has already been determined, a debate without a clear pro/con dichotomy. Neither side we see is defensible, nor is it determinative. It appears to merely be the best way for Hollywood to state its artistically slanted agenda. Right or wrong, a sledgehammer and additional salt for the wounds never won anyone over—not even the already converted. Rendition is the reactionary as reality. It paints a portrait that very few, if any, can salute. 



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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

Given the Bush administration’s past crowing about the “ownership” society and the conservative pundits’ view that predatory lending is a way of democratizing credit, it was momentarily disconcerting to see Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson rip into “shameful” lenders. The timid NYT account goes like this:


Mr. Paulson made it clear that he was dissatisfied with what had happened in the marketplace and that he wanted to push for change. But on many issues, he stopped short of advocating proposals of his own.
He sharply criticized credit rating agencies that had failed to recognize the risks in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities. But he tiptoed around the issue that many analysts have argued is a central conflict of interest for rating agencies: that they earn their fees for evaluating a new security offering only after the offering has been sold to investors.
Mr. Paulson mentioned the issue, saying that “we must examine the role of credit rating agencies, including transparency and potential conflicts of interest.”


The Financial Times was considerably more vivid:


The Treasury, he said, was working on developing a “blueprint” for the overhaul of the country’s fragmented financial regulatory structure but such “fundamental changes” would take years to implement.
Saying the US needed to “ensure yesterday’s excesses are not repeated tomorrow”, he stressed interim changes were needed. These should focus on disclosure, mortgage origination, predatory lending and liability.
Home buyers “get writer’s cramp from initialing pages and pages of unintelligible and mostly unread boilerplate that appears to be designed to insulate the [mortgage] originator or lender from liability rather than to provide useful information to the borrower”, Mr Paulson said.


I’d guess Paulson’s turnabout on this issue has something to do with the way sloppy lending at the level of shady brokers taking advantage of poor rubes has trickled its way up to where it is crippling investment banks and hedge funds and constraining credit for private equity. But it’s still strange to hear him talk like a “Democrat-lite,” as Chuck Schumer called him.


But as weird as that was, reading this bit from Collin Peterson, Democratic chair of the agriculture committee, was even weirder:


Collin Peterson, chairman of the House of Representatives agricultural committee, says the farm sector that raises organic produce and grass-fed beef for local consumers needs little federal help. “It is growing, and it has nothing to do with the government, and that is good,” he told the FT. “For whatever reason, people are willing to pay two or three times as much for something that says ‘organic’ or ‘local’. Far be it from me to understand what that’s about, but that’s reality. And if people are dumb enough to pay that much then hallelujah.”


You have to presume that democrats in Minnesota’s seventh district are not conforming to the ““Whole Foods-loving yuppies” stereotype.


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Thursday, Oct 18, 2007

After two days at CMJ, the mad dash to make every shows subsides, and you begin to feel a lot more comfortable going with your gut. This year, day two’s artists made that easy, maintaining remarkable energy even as the listeners themselves started to feel the strain that comes with getting out to so many shows. There’s a lot of sweat in today’s pics from our friends at Flavorpill, so best to view from a distance — unless you’re carrying a towel of course.


Check out Flavorpill’s CMJ preview...


DAN DEACON


CMJ Day 2: Moshing On-Stage to Dan Deacon


Dan Deacon shows tend to have an aura of crowd participation. This was the case at the Bowery Ballroom, first when L.A. punk duo No Age started an on-stage mosh pit which escalated into guitarist Randy Randall riding on someone’s shoulders while rocking out the set’s final song. Then, as usual, Dan Deacon took it to the next level, inviting the crowd on stage while he set up on the floor to exude his electronic mayhem. After performing in complete darkness, except for the glow of a skull strobe light, Deacon requested the house lights be turned up and cleared the dance floor to allow space for a spastic dance contest. The prolific production artist Diplo was on hand, rocking out to Deacon’s electro-anthems, and even received a congratulatory round of high fives from the crowd. The party atmosphere was admittedly not fitting for the more cerebral, white-noise-inspired sound of Deerhunter whose lead singer Bradford Cox called Deacon “a tough act to follow”. Nevertheless, Deerhunter killed with a set of their atmospheric rock from their stellar Cryptograms album. Cox’s airy vocals and the band’s spatial pop songs were a welcome reprieve from the over-indulgence of the previous acts.
Joe Tacopino


DEERHUNTER


IDA MARIA


NO AGE


PONYTAIL
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Wednesday, Oct 17, 2007


Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s collaborative cinematic crack, the brilliant and brash Grindhouse, was a failure in perception, not in execution. Opening up a blood and body part drenched motion picture the weekend of Easter may have seemed like the biggest bonehead move since Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake bowed at the very end of Summer (?), but what the three hour return to exploitation’s gruesome Golden Era proved was that, as revivalists, these moviemaking mavericks really understood their subject. For Tarantino, it was West Coast sex slaughter – slutty gals doing erotic things before meeting their anarchic action film fate. Rodriguez, on the other hand, delved right into the drive-in motif of macabre – whisper thin premise, smoking hot stars, unholy helpings of human suet. Together, they offered an overview of the taboo-busting film format, the moment movies woke up from their Hays Code induced coma and found their sex and violence voice.


Of the two, Planet Terror stands as the most faithfully inappropriate. Unlike his partner in retro crime, Rodriguez purposefully avoids any semblance of the arthouse to literally throw balls to the wall. In a MPAA mandated mentality that believes all cruelty creates socially inappropriate behavior, it’s Ritalin’s regressive antidote. Bringing the best bits of splatter directly into the new CGI heavy horror film while remembering to accent the physical, it’s a movie made up of iconic insanity and moments of proto-porn wackiness. Though it deals with such fright film standards as a corrupt military, a science experiment gone sour, and hundreds of flesh feasting zombies, there is more to this movie than mere bloody cinematic showdowns. What Rodriguez has accomplished is something very rare – a crowd pleasing celebration of all that Hollywood hates, filtered through a true geek’s love of glop.


When we first meet our heroine Cherry Darling (an absolutely brilliant Rose McGowen), she’s leaving her life as a go-go dancer and pursuing a dream as a stand up comic. Stopping off at local BBQ pit The Bone Shack on her way out, she runs into ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddie Rodriguez, grade-A badass). In the meantime, there’s trouble over at the military base. A noxious cloud of green gas has been unleashed, turning the local population into brain-hungry members of the undead. As law enforcement, including a serious sheriff (Michael Biehn) and his lunkheaded deputies (Tom Savini, Carlos Gallardo) battle the fiends, the doctors on call at the hospital (Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton) are seeing an increase in infected individuals. They have their own personal problems making matters worse. Eventually, it’s survivors vs. soldiers to determine who will live, and who will become part of this unending nightmare.


With his creative cameos, attention to genre detail, and meta-manipulation of the medium itself, Rodriguez’s Planet Terror stands as a pert post-modern masterpiece, one of the best self-referential scarefests ever conceived. On par with the brilliance that is Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and aided by a homage-heavy aesthetic, it’s Lucio Fulci with a funny bone, Cannibal Ferox with a crackerjack sense of sexy humor. Unabashed in its motives and fearless in how it realizes them, it’s a highlight reel with very little filler, a collection of horror hits that worms its way directly into your sickening slime time aesthetic. When offered up originally, truncated by a few minutes to meet the 85 minute mandatory for Grindhouse’s running time, it was a scrapbook of sensational arterial spray. Now, on DVD, we can see what Rodriguez was really driving at – and we enjoy the journey even more.

In his sensational audio commentary, the director points out the one thing he hated loosing in the original edit – the transitions. Trying to replicate the experimental extremism of exploitation’s heyday, he purposefully made each scene meld into the next. Sequences ending with a walk through a doorway would match new segments starting with same. Faucets turned on in one setting would lead to water covering someone’s foot in the next. These are wonderfully arty touches, moments of mise-en-scene that make you smile by their very obviousness. There are also little character tags, snippets of dialogue and interpersonal interaction that held to broaden our understanding of the relationships at work. We get more of Michael Park’s cancer ridden wife in the DVD version, explanations of why the marriage between Brolin and Shelton is falling apart. Unlike Death Proof, which Tarantino reconfigured into a weird internalized take on every ‘70s movie he’d ever seen, Rodriguez stayed firmly ensconced in the passion pit – and its shows. 


Indeed, if Grindhouse was divided – yin and yang style – into two halfs, Planet Terror would be the portion that eats. It’s the movie directed at the audience, not the critic, and contains more applause/shout/scream worthy moments than the entire Hollywood horror output of 2006. One of the DVD’s biggest surprises is a second auditory track which offers up actual reactions recorded during a packed house showing of the film. The gasps, shouts, and shrieks are priceless, like the Beatlemania of b-moviedom. It illustrates how effectively Rodriguez was at tapping into the splatter fanatic zeitgeist. While it’s clear that the biggest cheers and jeers come at the proper scary movie moments, it’s a hoot to hear such a unified front. Since the advent of home video, the theatrical experience has been marginalized to the point of meaninglessness. Planet Terror argues that, in the right setting, with the right mindset, group participation is a film’s greatest purpose.


For those wondering if the “unrated” label means more and more gore, the answer, oddly enough is undecided. Rodriguez mentions a couple of scenes where the ratings board mandated massive trims (they involve brain eating and torso tearing), but the added back bits don’t really accentuate the excess. Similarly, the director states over and over that he purposefully held back in certain moments, the use of post-production print deterioration and aging helping to increase the level of brutality in his mind. So aside from a few additional seconds of melting testicles, and an overall augmented level of post-gunshot spray, Planet Terror plays exactly like it did in theaters. McGowen still swivels her hips and picks off bad guys with leg weapon ease. Actor Rodriguez is still Rambo with a rebel’s edge. Brolin is still a cuckold clinging to his own inner rage, and Shelton stands in stark contrast to the champions surrounding her. When required to step up, however, she does.


Individuals interested in the backstage particulars of this production will also love the second disc full of behind the scenes info. The “10 Minute Film School” highlights how CGI and camera tricks created many of the movie’s most memorable sequences while “The Badass Babes and Tough Guys” featurette focuses on the cast. “Sickos, Bullets, and Explosions” deals with the movie’s amazing stunts, while “The Friend, The Doctor, and The Real Estate Agent” centers on pals of Rodriguez who stepped up to participate in the film. As usual, the filmmaker uses the DVD format as a way of imparting knowledge and hands-on information to the uninitiated. Perhaps the most telling stat is his desire to keep his part of Grindhouse as cheap as possible, knowing the expanded scope Tarantino was planning for his installment.


If there is one downside to the whole Planet Terror experience, it comes about three-quarters of the way through Rodriguez’s commentary. There, during a lull in the action, he lets the double dip secret out – there will be a legitimate, two disc DVD release of the original Grindhouse sometime in the format’s near future. Now before you go ballistic and start screaming sell-out, remember this: as a project, this daring double feature was always about the films first, the experience second. The unflinching success of both solo outings confirms this fact. Had they been planned as a chaotic combo platter only, neither movie would work outside the setting. But Planet Terror, ‘missing scene’ still intact (yep – no extra McGowan nudity – sorry guys), easily survives its initial attack of cinematic separation anxiety. It remains a great film, and an excellent first digital package.


 


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Wednesday, Oct 17, 2007

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day . . .


All things must pass
All things must pass away


George Harrison, All Things Must Pass


Deborah Kerr passed today. As with all people and all things, eventually there comes a passing.


Being of a different generation, I didn’t have intimate awareness of Kerr. But sharing the common cloth that enfolds all generations through pop, I knew of her. In their twenties and thirties, my parents sat in theaters—smiling, chuckling, weeping, fretting in relative reel-time—as Kerr emoted and kissed and sang and danced on-screen. I, probably like you, have only known her from images like the one below, in coffee-table books, or else in scenes flitting across the TV screen or on DVD.


 


So, when I read the obit here what had been basically just a name and a set of two-hour diversions, became something more substantial; something organic and teeming with life.  For those of you - like me—who really only knew Kerr second hand, it turns out that she had quite a life. Quite a PopMatters kind of life. The kind of life that contributed to the popular, entertainment and artistic currents of our times. The times of your grandparents’ or parents’ lives, sure, but yours, too, Even if you’ve never seen From Here to Eternity or The King and I or An Affair to Remember, or . . . for that matter, Sleepless in Seattle. Because, Kerr was part of the stream—a significant stone in that stream—who helped, in some small way, to shape the popular world of today. The one burbling around us; the one that washes up over us in an incessant torrent—no different that the waves crashing over the lovers in From Here to Eternity . . .


 


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