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Monday, Apr 28, 2008

Recently I started making my way through Irish author Eoin “It’s Pronounced ‘Owen’!” Colfer’s popular Artemis Fowl series. I’ll admit, I’m rather behind on the times—the original Artemis Fowl was published in 2001, and the following four books (plus one due out this July) about the boy genius have emerged at roughly the rate of one per year.


I believe it was in early 2004 that a fellow student of fine literature mentioned the Fowl series to me and heartily recommended them—knowing that I had just finished the latest Harry Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and would have to wait another year for the next segment of the Hogwarts adventure. The magical elements and witty writing style of Colfer’s work were sure to appeal. I have mentioned before that young adult fiction is not just meant for teenagers—anyone with a short attention span or simply a love of a well-spun tale is sure to enjoy.


My friend failed to mention the enormous difference between J.K. Rowling’s work and Colfer’s. Artemis Fowl is a criminal mastermind. That is, he enjoys cheating other people out of money for profit. And he only seems to do it in order to increase his family’s fortune, which is already extensive. He gets away with it (and keeps the reader’s interest) because he has a high IQ, and some excellent (and entertaining) backup in the form of his martial arts aficionado and gun-wielding ‘man-mountain’ servant known as Butler.


The reason one reads on is because Artemis is so darned clever, first of all, and secondly, there are moments when his humanity shines through (though he tries so hard to be evil) and the reader begins to like him despite his shabby, selfish actions.


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Like the Harry Potter series, Artemis Fowl is supported by supplementary short stories and even graphic novels; the first Artemis Fowl movie is rumored to be in the works. The books are quick adventures and easy reading; I made it through The Arctic Incident before the break and neglected to check out the third book in the series, The Eternity Code, but it is on my library shortlist.


Last week I wrote optimistically about my spring break reading—thinking I’d use a little LEPrecon fairy magic to stop time and get through a stack of magazines. Unsurprisingly, not much progress was made. Did you get through your vacation reading?


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008


Tradition holds that, for Hollywood, the Spring represents the end of ballyhoo - and the business year. During the four month flatline between January and April, every unmarketable mess, every experimental excuse, every contractually obligated star vehicle, and otherwise underdone effort would get a mandatory release - a few days of bewildering box office glory before fading into VHS obscurity. It was always an aesthetic stop gap, a means of making talent happy, critics cranky, and audiences wary. Summer would come soon enough, and with it, the far more palatable popcorn fare. Yet for over 16 weeks, we had to tolerate some pretty pathetic offerings. All of that changed a few years ago when Hollywood realized it could up the ante, just a little, by providing a couple less than mediocre movies. The accompanying turnstile twists proved their approach correct.


Now, Spring is a battle between horrendous and highlights. There are still more stumbles than sonnets, but when you consider the crap that used to pour forth, literally nonstop, a few fine films is all one can ask for. Yet oddly enough, 2008 saw a trend toward documentaries that indicates a real failing among fiction films. While the studios seem convinced that everything old is repackage-able again, the men and women exploring the reality around us are doing it with style, wit, and a clean, clinical eye. They say that everyone has a story to tell, a narrative that if captured properly, would give the old “truth is stranger than…” mantra a clear run for its money. Two of the five films listed below do indeed bring that maxim to startling life.


But there were other excellent offerings that deserve a runner’s up mention: the beat-happy British heist flick The Bank Job; Leatherheads, the half-successful screwball comedy from George Clooney; the uneven document Sputnik Mania, centering on a certain Soviet satellite and the effect it had on a worried West; and the gonzo zombie stomp of Shine a Light, featuring the undead Rolling Stones in all their going through the maverick motions glory. In addition, the underserved demographic of Florida finally got to see two outstanding foreign films from 2007 - The Counterfeiters and Persepolis - movies that would have made this list had they not already had their moment of glory last year. So here is what SE&L thought were the best Spring flings of 2008, beginning with:



# 5 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall dir. Nicholas Stoller


While some may believe - falsely - that the Apatow era of feature length funny business has peeked and begun to ebb (thanks to Dewey Cox or Drillbit Taylor, take your pick), the truth is that there’s lots of satiric fire left in the old furnace. Case in point, this wonderful brom-com from Freak and Geeks costar Jason Segel. While the story of a rather caustic breakup may seem like the last place heart or hilarity could be found, there’s a heaping helping of both in this tale of a struggling composer dumped by his TV star girlfriend. Our hero hopes a trip to Hawaii will cure what ails him. Turns out, his ex is there with her slezoid British boy toy as well.

There’s so much more to this movie than raunch and the risqué. Sure, penis abounds, but so does some emotional insights into how love can linger long after it really should. Besides, there’s puppets - putting on a production of Dracula - with music! How much more do you want. While Segel is a strange leading man, he is surrounded by a capable cast including Kristen Bell (riffing on her current career arc with self-deprecating brilliance), Mila Kunis, and UK yutz Russell Brand, playing every Amy Winehouse inspired pub spud imaginable. Together they take a subject that should sink like a stone and make it laugh out loud loveable. And rumor has it that Segel will be scripting the new Muppets movie. How weird is that?



# 4 - The Dhamma Brothers dir. Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein


We really don’t know what to do with our exploding prison population, do we? We love the notion of warehousing the dangerous and deadly, keeping ourselves and our wee ones away from the true (yet undeniable) horrors of the world. Yet mention the concept of rehabilitation or rights and the cold, conservative nature inherent in all of us leaps to the fore. We don’t want inmates given a chance. Instead, we demand that they be kept locked away forever - no matter what the judges, juries, or sentencing guidelines suggest. It’s from this narrow-minded premise that this look at the use of Buddhism in an Alabama penitentiary gets its undeniable power.

Certainly, there is every reason to be skeptical. As one of the guards convincingly argues, prisoners will “fake it ‘til they make it”, meaning they will do anything to gain some early release favor. But Vipassana (a tiring ten day ritual) seems like an insane way to achieve that ends, especially with all the deep-seeded personal problems and unhealed wounds it tends to open up. We learn a lot about these men - stories that seem antithetical to the crimes they committed and yet completely in line with the standard police profiling. Their tales of abandonment and abuse are horrific, just like the ways they choose to compensate for them. This is as eye opening and uneasy as fact filmmaking gets.



# 3 - Cloverfield dir. Matt Reeves


Sure, the viral marketing campaign that swept the Internet last summer seemed overly calculated, guaranteed to make whatever turned up in theaters four months later appear simultaneously exciting and exasperating. Who knew that producer JJ Abrams and a couple of his TV pals (Felicity‘s Matt Reeves and Lost‘s Drew Goddard) would turn the whole thing into one of the finest genre efforts of the new millennium. Sure, some consider this monster movie nothing more than Godzilla with a Blair Witch POV, but that’s just part of the film’s appeal. There are also riffs on 9/11, our current sense of social fear, and the notion that nothing is real unless it’s viewed through a camera or featured on TV.

Now that it’s out on DVD, the movie can be studied more closely (and without some of the accompanying handheld shaky-cam nausea), and some interesting elements definitely come to the fore. The relationship between the friends (and former lovers) becomes even clearer, the emotional needs that each carries adding to the seriousness of the situation. The monster’s movements are also clarified, thanks to the lack of an anticipation/shock factor. We get to see the amazing CG destruction in all its wow-factor glory. It all makes for one of the most creative kaiju-like efforts ever.



# 2 - Be Kind, Rewind dir. Michele Gondry


No, this was not that wacky, weirdo comedy that the presence of Mos Def or Jack Black would indicate. Nor was it just another piece of Michele Gondry wistfulness mistaking pure imagination for screenwriting. Instead, this is the finest love letter to the VCR and the videocassette ever constructed, a story that requires audiences to drop their pretexts and perceptions and recognize exactly what the scenes are saying. What we are witnessing here is not just the recreation of classic ‘80s films by a bunch of video store employees turned amateur auteurs. Instead, the so-called “Swedeing” that occurs is a reflection of just how pervasive cinema has become as part of our everyday lives.


As with most broad canvases, it’s the details that get lost. When Black and company make their new versions of these well-remembered films, they are done so without any real reference - no script, definitely no VHS copy to consider. Instead, this is moviemaking from memory, the rote revisiting of favored titles by people who have them memorized. All geek love should be this pure and pristine. Thanks to Gondry’s vision, which places all the action in a gee-whiz setting of communal consideration, we witness the first movie ever to acknowledge the seismic change that occurred when theaters headed home. Destined to be considered a modern masterpiece in the future.



# 1 - Young@Heart dir. Stephen Walker


Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are additionally viewed as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and The Clash as points of sonic reference.


This fantastic feel good documentary, chronicling the preparations by the Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), is so uplifting that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Balancing the joy inherent in making music with the inevitability of a life slowly fading away, we meet individuals so inspiring they practically preach to us. Certainly, British filmmaker Stephen Walker pushes a few buttons here and there, and middle aged choir director Bob Cilman can ham it up with the worst of them, but these are minor quibbles in what is destined to be another overlooked fact-film come Oscar time.


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008

Once seen as a contender to take on the majors, Starbucks is now retreating from the music biz.  So much for synergy and branding but don’t believe that this is the end of big name brands outside the industry pushing music.  The industry is in such disarray that any established major brand can consider inking deals with artists to put out their music, get some hip cache from the connection and push their product alongside their own.


Speaking of industry woes, music publications are suffering also, with ad revenue way down now for some of the biggest players, excluding Spin magazine.  Maybe that’s why Paste is putting ads down in the page number footers and Rolling Stone is trying to get its readers to look for ads outside the magazine.  Expect to see more unorthodox ad experiments, especially if these pan out.  Come to think of it, expect to see more of them even if they don’t pan out.  Things are THAT bad…


 


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
Ugenia Lavenderby Geri HalliwellMacmillan UKMay 2008, 160 pages, 6.99

Ugenia Lavender
by Geri Halliwell
Macmillan UK
May 2008, 160 pages, 6.99


“I know there is prejudice against celebrity authors but if you read my stories you’ll know they’re not ghost written—only I could be that bonkers!”


Geri Halliwell makes it hard not to love her. Even despite the “It’s Raining Men” cover and the yoga videos. She’s got a determination about her, and a killer sense of humor. Her post-Spice life, too, is filled with achievements to rival the biggest celebrity goodwill givers. She been a representative for the United Nations Population Fund, touring family planning clinics women’s groups in the Philippines. She produced a documentary series on her UN work, which saw her visiting with kids from different social backgrounds around the world. In 2006, she toured Zambia raising awareness about maternal death rates and HIV. And that’s just the beginning. Geri, it would appear, lives her Girl Power motto.


Now Geri’s bringing that motto to Britain’s over-sevens. She’s written a series of books, all featuring a feisty nine-year-old called Ugenia Lavender. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Geri as saying that while Ugenia’s adventures are based on Geri’s own childhood, the character herself is actually inspired by the varied personalities that made up the Spice Girls.


“[P]art of the motivation for creating this character was that I wanted to find a new medium for Girl Power. Ugenia is like all the Spice Girls rolled into one.”


So, let’s see—a girly, sassy, sporty chick who can balance her energy and her innocence? I like her already.


Her first adventure is out in the UK on May 2, with illustrations by Rian Hughes.


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008

God, how I wanted to love the new Portishead record, to the point of erring on the side fandom: making excuses, exceptions, at times pretending to love a song that was actually causing vertigo. I understand that the progenitors of a genre that quickly descended into high-end frock shop soundtracks would want to make their long awaited comeback something of a departure. But why a decapitation?  I know that psychologizing people you don’t know is usually just an exercise in projection, but I do get the impression that Geoff Barrow resented Beth Gibbon’s centrality in their previous work. Her voice is abraded and assaulted, on this track trying to mournfully bleed through cold, staccato bullet beats. This is hardly the album exception: “Hunter” strangles and scribbles on her voice, backdropped with a lullaby rhythm where the cradle has fallen and been shattered by the 18-Wheeler from the “Enter Sandman” video.


The video helps little, framing the song in the cold mechanization of a factory studio, like H.R. Giger built it for them. I’ve been in a lot of studios and they don’t have to look like the torture rooms from Hostel. The song and visuals offer nothing but the experience of occlusion and abjection, a sad descent for a band that at the very least used to be able to do depressing well. This isn’t depression, it’s an adverse psychiatric drug reaction. Even more distressing, it’s not interesting, the very least you can offer a listener if you choose to be intractably difficult about rejecting your past. Both the video and song simply alternate between flat planes of abrasion while Gibbons clamors for air. It’s dull and lifeless. I’m open to having my mind changed on this; sometimes all it takes is for a thoughtful person to offer an alternate view that wholly alters your perception. But for now, at least, I think this is pure cantankerous clamor.


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