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Friday, Mar 7, 2008

What a scandalous week we’ve had: lies, fakery, back-pedalling. Publishers are pulling books left, right, and centre, hoping against hope that we forget the name Margaret B. Jones just as we forgot Kavya Viswanathan a few years back. Industry commentators have had a field day, and will likely continue to as the flames die down. Hard to believe, but there’s been some other newsworthy stuff going on in Book World this week, not least of which was World Book Day, which the Welsh seemed to celebrate harder than anyone else. Freya North revealed revealed she’s so enamored of Gordon Bennett, her daughter thinks he’s the Prime Minister of England. While, the former Prime Minister of England is outed as a CIA agent in a new book (albeit fiction—or is it?).


Here are some other news that caught my deceit-weary eyes:


Eminem is writing his autobiography
Do you think Dutton Books, publishers of Eminem’s upcoming “raw and uncensored” tome, will do their fact-checking? Not that I would doubt Eminem’s integrity as a memoirist. But, you know, in light of recent events… The book, according to the rap star’s publicist will “[offer] a window on the star’s private thoughts on everything from his music and the trials of fame to his love for his daughter, Hailie,”


Frank Portman visits Sacramento State
The author of King Dork talks to Sac State students about writing, teenhood, and old girlfriends. He also describes his rise from punk rocker to literary star: “Portman said it wasn’t even his idea to write a book. One of his fans became a literary agent and presented the idea to Portman. He began with a 20-page demo of what eventually became King Dork. To his surprise, his fan sold the King Dork idea to Random House and gave him the green light to finish on the rest of the novel.”


James Patterson admits he’s less a writer, more a brand
But we all knew that. His honesty in this article, however, is refreshing. The truth of it, though, is frustrating and depressing. I really need to get over my Patterson-hate, right? After all, he has my number: “There are thousand of people don’t like what I do, millions of people do ... fortunately, there are million who do.” This article informs me, though, for the first time, that those co-authored James Patterson books are actually outlines he’s written and given to some else to flesh out. Apparently, these outlines are so strongly detailed that anyone could turn them into novels. I find this weird, as Patterson’s novels are already really choppy outlines for potentially larger works.


Peter Carey says writers are “magicians”
Carey’s quotes at the Adelaide Writers Festival are made slightly more interesting with all the inventing going on over on the bio shelves. The author of His Illegal Self talked to festival goers about his experiences at a hippy commune that informed his newest work. But the ability to invent situations not experienced is what makes a talented writer. “Maybe writers of fiction should insist they are magicians,” he said.


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Friday, Mar 7, 2008

It’s an indicator of the degree to which women’s liberation was at the forefront of American culture in the early 1970s that a book like The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone (subtitle: “The case for feminist revolution”) was not only issued in a mass-market pocket-size paperback by Bantam Books but also sold enough copies to now routinely turn up in thrift stores from Arizona to South Dakota to Delaware, where I bought it for probably the fourth time. I’m trying to imagine this book on a Rexall’s rack in 1970, and what sort of consumer would have been drawn in by this cover line: “The HUMAN ALTERNATIVE to 1984—a slashing attack on male supremacy that charts the end of the sexual class system.” It’s hard to conceive of our culture being this interested in feminism, to the extent where a fairly radical version of it could be advertised as a selling point rather than be regarded as an awkward embarrassment. Women’s lib was a mainstream consideration that must have seemed omnipresent relative to our own “post-feminist” epoch.


But was that just because its novelty could be exploited commercially by the media industries? I wonder if transforming women’s lib into Bantam paperbacks wasn’t some way of attempting to neutralize the threat, turn feminism into another shoddy, sensationalized product that could be consumed as fantasy by some Stepford Wife who had the little book stashed away in a handbag and could secretly thrill to exhortations to abolish childhood and traditional sex roles, or could be dismissed as mass-produced crap, as pop psychology or specious self-help, or could be read as an alarming warning of the crazy things these women’s libbers had in mind. (It’s generally a good reactionary strategy to find the most extreme voices for the reform you oppose and try to popularize the idea that they are representative of the movement as a whole.)


In general, the mass-produced paperback format has the effect of bathing the work in the aura of disposable entertainment. Similarly, today’s ubiquitous trade paperback (for me anyway) has an effect of gentrifying ideas, making them into dainty knick-knacks on my intellectual mantelpiece. Because publishers are so complicit with capitalism, their material products end up embodying capitalist ideals, even if the ideas in the pages are undiluted Marxist propaganda. Maybe that means the Web will be a better source for the promulgation of radical ideas?


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


For the weekend beginning 7 March, here are the films in focus:


The Bank Job [rating: 7]


(The Bank Job is) efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements.


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find. read full review…


Sputnik Mania [rating: 7]


...when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful.


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.


But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.read full review…


10,000 BC [rating: 4]


As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility.


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day [rating: 6]


What do you get when you cross the stiff upper lip British perseverance of a pre-WWII London with the classic American screwball comedy? Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day might just be the answer. How two seemingly incongruous elements like the mannered and the madcap fit into the 2008 movie landscape is an issue that Indian filmmaker Bharat Nalluri handles quite well. He takes the tale of a prudish nanny (Frances McDormand) with a tendency toward unemployment, and finds a natural foil in a ditzy Yank actress (Amy Adams) juggling three different gentlemen. Together, the pair serpentines through social faux paxs, personal indiscretions, and soul-searching moments of the heart. Miss Pettigrew - as a persona and a film - is far from perfect. There’s a laid back quality to the narrative that really needs a breakneck pacing to stay potent. And Adams remains Hollywood’s go-to gal for unnatural perkiness. But Nalluri finds a halfway decent balance between his incompatible approaches, resulting in a likeable, if often lumbering, Golden Age piffle.


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.


Somewhere in a mixed up pre-history, the father of D’Leh leaves his hunter/gatherer tribe and sets out for unknown territories. This labels him a coward, and his son an outcast. When a blue eyed girl named Evolet shows up, village shaman Old Mother predicts doom. The proposed wooly mammoth hunt will not go well, and even worse, ‘four legged demons’ will arrive and decimate the clan. Sure enough, an invading horde of evildoers arrives and takes all available inhabitants hostage. They will be marched across the empty wilderness and then used as slave labor for a sitting ‘god’ of a legendary domain known as ‘the head of the snake.’ Along with elder Tic-Tic, and a few remaining men, D’Leh builds up his courage and follows the kidnappers, rallying the remaining tribes along the way. He then plans to take on the imposing figure building an empire off the backs of some very unwilling captives, and rescue Evolet.


As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility. It is cinema that strains to be relevant while failing every test of scope or significance. Emmerich, who has made chicken nuggets out of pullet poo in the past (Independence Day remains a relatively guilty but undeniable pleasure) never fully realizes his aims here, instead squandering potential moments of power for ambiguous folklore, prophetic convenience, and a true sense of scattered purpose.


There is very little that makes sense, from the reason our hero can’t carry the sacred white spear, the entire Saber-toothed Tiger sequence (which plays out like a sloppy Aesop version of Hercules and the Lion) to the last act almost reveal of our villain. And then there’s the malarkey of the “magical” ending. In many ways, 10,000 BC feels like a badly constructed parable, the ever-present narrator (Omar Sharif) getting many of the facts wrong and more or less making it up along the way.


The references to other movies are so readily apparent you can practically smell them wafting off the screen. Emmerich must have been moved by Mel Gibson’s Mayan bloodbath. He’s incorporated many of that film’s white hat/black hat simplicity and foreign language oddness. Instead of going all native, however, this director gets mixed linguistics, meaning some characters speak English, while others use their own words with (or without) translation. Nothing inspires drama quicker than waiting for a day player to explain what a supporting hero just said. Sometimes, Emmerich supplies subtitles. At other moments, the words supposedly have no meaning. When it tries for significance, it sinks. When it simply goes along lumbering under bitmap versions of ballyhoo, it’s mildly endearing.


Better casting definitely could have helped this film. 10,000 BC relies far too readily on pretty faces with empty magnetism to power its purpose, with even the more unusual and unknown foreign actors rendered generic by Emmerich’s ham-fisted touch. Our leads could easily be lumped into the “anyone from the OC” category, and we never care about the outcome of our lover’s dilemma. There’s a real sense of situational contrivance here, bad things easily circumvented by plot point coincidence or storyline self-adjustment. You can actually feel the screenwriters reacting, seeing a potential pitfall and then cooking up a clunky way out. Your unconscious viewership shifts so often under the weight of so many unexplained issues and phony motion picture happenstance that you get woozy.


While no one goes into this kind of movie expecting absolute authenticity and scientific accuracy, some of the taken liberties are downright insane. There’s a moment where pissed-off dino-birds go Jurassic Park on our traveling warriors, and the ancient priests who serve the villainous uber God look like rejects from a drag version of 300 by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Emmerich pitches everything so high, so vast if clearly vacant, that we get a strange feeling of entertainment vertigo. It’s as if, at any moment, the massive holes in 10,000 BC will open up and swallow us up. Unlike past attempts to revive dead genres - Gladiator and the sword and sandal peplum, Lord of the Rings and the entire fantasy film category - there is no way this movie would resurrect the caveman picture. It’s not engaging or original enough.


In the end, 10,000 BC fails because its unwieldy parts can come together to create an intriguing whole. Emmerich constantly goes for the money shot, making F/X rule where people should actually count. But since he’s gotten away with it before - The Day After Tomorrow is mostly event driven - this is one director who figures that such a strategy will always work. It doesn’t. Unless you like your fromage on the incredibly stinky and stale side, kitsch or camp value overwhelmed by a Limburger level of ludicrousness, then avoid this fossilized flop. Roland Emmerich can make decent disposable entertainment. This is one effort that’s more of a throwaway than a treat.



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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.


But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.


We begin with the event itself, the launch ‘heard’ all over the planet. On 4 October, the secret project successfully beat the Americans at their own progressive game. Within weeks, President Eisenhower was challenged as to the superpower’s response. In between, the media went wild, frenzied over the event and its significance. Equally insightful was the Russians continued confidence that they would be the leaders in space exploration. But soon, the military began suggesting something far more sinister - Sputnik was merely a decoy, a chance for the USSR to test the effectiveness of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (or ICBMs). Previously, the US felt confident that its chief enemy couldn’t reach its borders with an H-bomb. Sputnik’s delivery system instantly changed that perspective.


From this point forward, Hoffman builds a convincing case for outrageous reactions, political subterfuge, and eventual acquiescence by Eisenhower. Before long, he is caving to demands both inside and outside the Oval Office. He greenlights Vantage, only to see it fail. He’s suspicious of Explorer because of its Army connection and the input of ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. Success leads to short term elation. But when the Soviets amplify the stakes by putting a dog named Laika into orbit, it appeared the US would never catch up. Luckily, the canine suicide mission, turned into a PR nightmare for the Communist nation.


There are lots of insightful moments like this in Sputnik Mania. While some may find it nothing more than an inflated History Channel special, there is a definite message beneath Hoffman’s fact parade. The key point made by this movie is that, for the most part, the satellite’s launch was wildly misinterpreted. While intelligence suggested a nuclear capability, all signs pointed to a purely scientific design. The other intriguing element is the back and forth beneath both leaders - Eisenhower in the West and Nikita Khrushchev in the East. At a summit near the end of the film, both men discover that the post-Sputnik Arms Race was more of a generals and majors idea than a clear mandate from the Commanders in Chief.


With access to a wealth of stunning stock footage and a talking head approach from those who were on the sidelines during the growing conflict, we get a wonderful overall picture of the times and temperament. The information on Vantage and Explorer is eye opening, as these American attempts at besting the Soviets are frequently forgotten in the situation’s mythos. There is also an Atomic Café style sequence where propaganda films and other media maelstroms are exposed for the short-sighted misinformation they were. Certainly, some of Hoffman’s choices are odd (pro-Communist rants fro Khrushchev’s son, comedian Robert Klein discussing civil defense dog tags) and there are moments of planned overkill (the notion that, in 1958 alone, Russia and the US detonated a nuclear weapon once every three DAYS! ). But there are also revelatory incidents, like the accidental bombing of a South Carolina city (a nuke came loose from an overhead plane and struck the town without exploding).


When it stays in this arena, when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful. But just like the title, which seems a tad twee for the material, Hoffman tends to add unnecessary satire to the mix. Sure, the clips from A-bomb era movies are fun, but they tend to diminish the impact of the actual truth. Also, there are times when a surreal sense of inadvertent hero worship unfurls. When he appears indecisive and ill-prepared to respond to Sputnik, Eisenhower is viewed as a fool. But the minute he makes space a “peaceful” proposition - including the last minute stunt of Project SCORE and the championing of NASA - he’s seen as almost saintly.


It’s a weird juxtaposition, and argues for the difficult balancing act that any director must maintain. On the one hand, there is a desire to view this all as ridiculous, to see the struggle between two mighty nations for some proposed Star Wars scuffle in space to play like Buck Rogers gone potty. Yet some of these confrontations are laughable, legitimate fears exaggerated out of a lack of information and a sense of sudden morality. MAD - or mutual assured destruction - is never mentioned outright, but it is clear that the massive build-up of arms in the year after Sputnik may have actually saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.


Still, there is a lot of chest pounding and hand wringing here, the feigned nobility of the many boy’s rocket clubs that grew out of the era matched against the passionate animal lovers who challenged Russia about purposefully killing their space dog. Yet we buy most of it, if only because we believe so strongly in the storyline. Just like the attacks on 9/11, Sputnik reshaped the American mindset in a single foreign act. Responses, naturally, would be all over the map. Whoever breached the heavens first was more or less destined to determine the fate of mankind - if only for a little while. Sputnik Mania argues that, while the Soviets started the fire, the US clearly fanned the flames. Luckily, both sides came to their senses before it was too late.



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