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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

Sick of the bland, unimaginative playlists at most stations?  Wish that you could have more of a choice on the radio?  Then you need to support low power radio so that it will flourish throughout the land.  A bill is coming up in Congress now and you can do your part to support this cause.  See the Take Action site for more details.


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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

When I was a teenager, one of the main reasons I liked to write short stories was that I liked to invent names for the characters. I remember being fascinated by this passage from John Irving’s The World According to Garp when the main character, a writer, spends afternoons reading the phone book looking for rich, evocative names. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want my adult life to be like—I didn’t realize that the passage was about anomie and the sterility of writer’s block.


Back then, I had a John Hughesian taste for names like Sloane and Chase and Ferris and Blaine; these seemed the names of privileged 1980s teendom. To my mind, if you knew people with names like that, you were running with a pretty fast set and what you were up to was almost inherently glamorous. Only later did those names seem like so much pretentious twaddle, as juvenile as the films themselves. (They seem to foreshadow the spate of suburbanized names like Travis, Cody, Kyle, Reed, etc., names that for me conjure images of bratty entitlement and Dennis-the-Menace levels of yell-talking.) But is their awfulness a matter of fashion trends changing, or is there something about the combination of syllables and sounds that make names like Claire Standish seem so implausible and absurd, so obviously made up by someone who is not a parent but a writer?


What started me thinking about this was this article from today’s WSJ about the nascent baby-naming industry. Apparently people have allowed themselves to be convinced that naming is so complicated, with so many intricate prosodical and astrological, and numerological considerations to master, that a special class of experts should be consulted to navigate them through the process.


Why anyone would pay someone to come up with appropriate names for their baby is beyond me, honestly, and the article didn’t really convince me that these people were anything other than idiotic. But the article did raise an interesting point about naming consciousness ands the rise of branding’s importance in our culture.


Growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”


I guess that explains why Sweden had forbid parents from naming their children Ikea. It would be a blatant theft of brand equity.


Names in the past signified kinship ties in social groups that were generally small enough for that data to mean something. The explosion of cities necessitates new rationales, perhaps, for naming, and the procedures of mass marketing supply one. Not to get all Burkean here, but the fact that our culture’s saturation with brands would inspire parents to turn away from tradition, reject continuity with a lost era of community and familial obligation, and embrace a synthetic individualist credo in naming seems a pretty compelling and disturbing point, proof that marketing indeed reshapes not merely our opinions toward a specific product but toward the way we comprehend the principles along which we reproduce society generally. Baby-making for the bourgeois management class begins to resemble a project-management task, with the baby being conceived and named along the same lines a company might launch a new product, only after carefully collecting the data to assure that a niche exists for it and that its name tests well with the appropriate demographic.


Marketing imperatives have so penetrated ideologically that they seem like commonsense considerations in something as time-honored and intimate as naming one’s offspring. Naming one’s baby to give it iconic selling power almost seems sensible. Hence the pathetic quandary of people like the following, and their desperate turn to a kind of consultancy that has never before in the history of human society had reason to exist:


Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn’t want their son to be “one of five Ashtons in the class,” says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a “cool” name that would help his son stand out. “An unusual name gets people’s attention when you’re searching for a job or you’re one in a field of many,” he says.


How sad is it that these parents don’t think their child will be cool inherently, that they feel it needs a snappy branding to become worthy and capable of thriving in the world? And don’t these clowns who sell lists of names feel ashamed for taking advantage of people in a moment of heightened insecurity? Actually, ignore that question. Of course they don’t. Our economy has built entire sectors on that business model.


I can’t really understand the trend toward wacky, “unique” names—it’s as if these parents believe the child’s actions won’t suffice to make them unique; that instead they need to be named Trafalgar or Wooster. Weird names seem like a curse to a child, who will forever stand out for a quality that he had nothing to do with. His parents’ self-consciousness will hang like an albatross around his neck, making sure he is always seems like he is trying to hard (like Hughes when he conjured up Sloane Peterson), always is at one remove from himself, evaluating what superficial impression he is making. Having a jazzy name means like you are selling yourself before you even have a self to be aware of. It means going through life always dogged by unearned attention. So I’m comforted by this:


Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of “The Baby Name Report Card,” has conducted surveys of how people react to different names. He found that more common names elicited positive reactions, while unusual names typically brought negative responses. To him, giving children names that stand out may ultimately be no different than sending them to school with their hair dyed blue. “Yes, you can have someone stand out by being bizarre, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good,” he says.



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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

At 27, six-year reporting veteran Cindy Carcamo of the Orange County Register is already a graduate of “old school” journalism. She has interned and worked her way around a number of daily newspapers, and for most of the last three years, has manned the cops beat at the Register, a newspaper of record with close to a million readers in the suburban powerhouse of Orange County, California.


She recently got a new beat, the city of Huntington Beach, which may be best known to the world as a surfing hotspot. (The city houses a surfing museum.) But her change in assignment is only one of many transitions that Carcamo is negotiating at her newspaper.


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Thursday, Jun 21, 2007


Will this month ever end? It seems like we’ve been talking about June for at least the last four weeks, if not longer – and believe it or not, there’s another seven days left. Is the calendar purposefully creeping along or what? Let’s face it; summer is a time of entertainment overkill. The young ones are out of school and loaded down with disposable income, their parents are desperate to get them out of the house and into the marketplace, and Hollywood is working overtime to give them both as many monetary excuses as possible. The pay cable channels are no better. While Cinemax continues with its pledge of first run retreads from last blockbuster season, the rest are regurgitating fare that few should focus on. Seems they’ve given up on the audience as well, assured they will be parked in the local Cineplex waiting for Pixar or John McClane to save the cinematic day. By the looks of 23 June, they’ll be lingering there a long, long time:


Premiere Pick
The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now. (23 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (23 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Night Listener


Robin Williams needs to stop making movies pronto. His hirsute hack stench is ruining what would otherwise be fairly intriguing titles. Take this one for example, the story of a radio talk show host haunted by a phone call from a desperate young boy. Before he knows it, the child has disappeared – though it’s possible he never really existed in the first place. Promising premise, right? Williams whizs it right down his hairy leg. (23 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Last Holiday


The transformation of Queen Latifah from rap icon to marginal movie star has nothing to do with her talent (and she has some) and everything to do with Hollywood’s race based mea culpa-ing. If you need further proof of such a safe strategy, look at this urbanized disease of the week waste. How the talented Wayne Wang (Smoke, Eat a Bowl of Tea) came to be associated with this drivel is a mystery for movie scholars. (23 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Dark Water


Perhaps you’re familiar with the remake – a decent enough effort starring Jennifer Connelly and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. But it’s the original Japanese effort, helmed by the wonderful Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Kaidan) that’s well worth looking up. One of the better J-Horror exports, the first film is far darker and more depressing than the equally evocative Hollywood revamp, but there’s just something about the long haired creepy ghost girl that the Asians have down pat. Particularly intriguing are the scenes where lead Hitomi Kuroki must react to the never ending frustrations of the Japanese legal system. She is so effective here that when she starts stumbling over into the supernatural, we believe her baffled confusion. Sure, the ending still stinks, the kind of ‘could have seen it coming’ cop out that almost ruins everything that came before, but thanks to his subtle style and way with visuals, Nakata singlehandedly saves the story. That’s the sign of a true cinematic artist. (27 June, Sundance Channel, 5:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bend It Like Beckham


He’s supposed to be coming to the US to reinvigorate the flatlining sport of professional soccer, but if he was smart, David Beckham would remain a staunchly European icon. Then, he could inspire more marvelous movies like this clash of cultures comedy from Gurinder Chadha. While it does deal with subjects more closely associated with the West Indian way of doing things, the message of self esteem is universal – just like the appeal of football around the world. (23 June, IFC, 7PM EST)

11:14


Some have called it a riotous Rashaman. A few have labeled it a comic Crash. But the five stories served up by writer/director Greg Marcks are meant to act as a commentary on small town life, and how one event (an automobile accident at the title time) can bring divergent lives together. While critics claim that Marcks is more a Tarantino wannabe than an individual talent, others have really gotten behind the filmmaker’s dark and devious way with a knotty narrative. (23 June, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Intacto


Many fans feel that the multifaceted story of separate lives in sync and destiny deconstructing us begins and ends with 21 Grams/Babel auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu. But 28 Weeks Later helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo would definitely have something to say about that. This 2001 effort finds the filmmaker intertwining several threads to tell of tale of how the ‘gift’ of luck creates an underground subculture of divergent personalities. (26 June, IFC, 12:50AM EST)


Outsider Option
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!


Ah, the joys of sweet sour mash. Leave it to those solid sons of the soil, otherwise known as hillbillies, to bring moonshine and the still to the cultural forefront. In actually, no one really gives a rat’s patoot about how a redneck lubes his lifestyle, but for some reason, the makers of exploitation felt the rube was ripe for a little erotic exploration. Sure, ever since Lil’ Abner proved that Daisy Mae’s feminine wiles could make men weak, the buxom beauty from the backwoods was potent fantasy fodder. But most of these movies were cut from the same clunky cloth – way too much corn and not enough pone. At least Herschell Gordon Lewis was behind this mess. He could make a boring bootlegger comedy into something quite surreal – and he does so with this brazen bit of rot gut. SE&L suggests you sample at your own risk – too much bumpkin buffoonery could be hazardous to your health. (25 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Honeymoon Killers


In writer/director Leonard Kastle’s creative zenith, Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler play a mismatched couple who use death as a means of cementing their relationship. He’s an oily lothario. She’s an obese nurse who’s never known real passion. Together, they forge a bond that begins to unravel into madness and murder. Avoiding almost all the standard thriller clichés, this is a crazed character study first, a wonderful work of cinematic art second. (22 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Man With the Screaming Brain


Everyone’s favorite b-movie badass, Bruce Campbell, plays a wealthy industrialist who has his brain transplanted with that of a Russian cab driver. Of course, all kinds of horror/humor hijinx ensue. While not the classic it could have been, the presence of everyone’s favorite Evil Dead symbol makes this a lot more fun than it should be. Too bad the premise can’t match the title’s ability to inspire waves of schlock sensationalism. (23 June, Sci-Fi Channel, 9AM EST)

Little Voice


It’s movies like this one, the story of a lonely girl with a great big singing voice, that makes fans question the talents of the actors involved – in a good way. While Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine are always magnificent, who knew that Jane Horrocks (best known as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous) had such sensational pipes. Her ability to mimic famous divas is only part of what makes this movie so fascinating. (28 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2007


It’s too bad that Evan Almighty is merely a fluffy summer trifle. It really wants to be something more – or at the very least, it appears to strive for something greater. And once you hear the entire backstory of the film’s production (studio wants sequel, star Jim Carrey passes, Bruce co-star Carell gets the call up, Noah’s Ark script gets the Almighty revamp) you begin to understand the dilemma. The notion of a modern, everyday man with real problems and a regular, day to day existence, suddenly getting the calling to build the Bible’s big boat, and convincing his skeptical family that he’s not a nutjob, has the makings of a meaningful cinematic statement. Toss in issues of faith, how we as a society react to questions of religion and belief, and a last act catastrophe that allows the special effects to turn the small moments into something epic, and you’d have a potential classic on your hands. It could be a grand motion picture spectacle and masterful human drama. There’s even room for comedy in the complicated mix.


But this is not the road Evan Almighty wants to travel down. Oh, you see it every once in a while – a noble look in lead Steve Carell’s electric eyes, a sequence of natural beauty as the world’s animals prepare to board - but, in general, this is a film that wants to mainstream and dumb down all of its ideas. Indeed, if you start questioning the logic of certain elements and the last act denouement, you soon realize that the entire narrative is built on the foundation of find a “reason” for the finale’s flood (this is not a spoiler, the most recent trailers and TV ads show the floating zoo navigating some rough waters). In turn, this renders most of the comedy flat and much of the emotion hollow. What we wind up with is a decent diversion that never quite gels into a clever comedy, or an Old Testament thriller. Instead, it straddles the fine line between missed opportunity and craven crowdpleaser.


This time around, smarmy news anchor Evan Baxter (Jim Carrey’s nemesis from the first film) is a newly elected Congressman from New York. He moves his doting wife and cookie cutter trio of sons to a massive DC suburb, the kind of planned community that stinks of developer corruption and government payoffs. Sure enough, Evan’s first day on the job finds him admiring his huge new office – and taking an important meeting with a senior Representative. Congressman Long (an uncomfortable John Goodman) wants Evan to support a piece of legislation that would allow our National Parks to be parceled off for – you guessed it - more planned communities. At first, Evan is on board. But then he starts having premonitions about a specific Bible verse (Genesis 6:14), and before you know it, God himself is asking this pampered politician to build his new Ark. Of course, his new objective flies directly in the face of Congressman Long’s plans, and his family’s tolerance of their ‘distant’ dad.


Part of the problem lies with the film’s tone. This is a subtle smile maker that believes it’s an uproarious farce. The script – credited to Steve Oedekerk alone – keeps giving the cast the smallest of jokes, and yet director Tom Shadyac demand his actors swing wildly at each and every one. What are really nothing more than quirky character beats are broadened into the movie’s main yucks. Similarly, the real cinematic strengths of the film (the ark building, the moments of God-like majesty) are marginalized – or worse - become fodder for mindless musical montages. As a matter of fact, you can actually see the focus group reactions to such struggles. They exist in every insert shot of crazy comedian Wanda Sykes cracking wise. So blatantly last minute in their addition that they actually function like a commentary on the film’s success as an entertainment, you can just hear the studio suits screaming “the sassy black assistant scored well. Let’s bolster her profile!”


Sadly, Sykes alone can’t save Evan Almighty’s funny business from flatlining now and then. It doesn’t help matters much that the usually ebullient John Goodman is reduced to a rotund Simon LeGree, or that Knocked Up’sJonah Hill is mandated to play creepy instead of clever.  John Michael Higgins does his best with limited material (it’s all those Chris Guest improv fests paying off) and Morgan Freeman is the coolest higher power this side of The Simpsons. But for every decent turn, there is a performance that’s particularly disturbing – and Lauren Graham just can’t stop giving it. She is horrible here, a shrew in a situation she knows nothing about, an irredeemable downer throughout the first two acts of the story. Gilmore Girls or not, her last minute conversion is cold and completely calculated. Even after her so called ‘enlightenment’, she’s the party pooper that no one really invited.


The one saving grace is Carell. Sure, he frequently flies into freak out mode when a far wittier rejoinder would have worked (his declaration of “SHEEEEEEP!” is classic, however). When he tones it down and plays to the possibilities within the story, he almost pulls the entire project off. His interactions with the animals (real and CGI) are warm and wonderful, and he does find the proper balance between cut-up and concerned toward the end. But we need Evan Baxter to be a more well-rounded personality, to have more to his individual eccentricity than a desire to cleanse his nostrils of nose hair. Indeed, the entire narrative simply races right into the God stuff, barely letting us catch our breath before the omens start overriding everything. But this is a movie that’s not intelligent enough to tell the story it should be exploring. Instead, it skirts smarts to go for the easy gag (lots of bird poop and monkey shines) and manipulative sentiment.


Of course, none of these criticisms will really matter. Evan Almighty is expertly forged to be a superficial audience friendly phenomenon, the kind of movie that has critics and the cultured scratching their heads over its continued success. It is all set up and expected payoff, with just a little ‘Go with God’ positivity to flesh out the lilting life affirmations. It’s destined to drum up box office even as word of mouth wavers between excellent and “eh?”. Modernizing the Bible’s many important parables would seem like a filmmaker’s dream – the stories are sensational and the themes strike all the right chords of righteousness. But Evan Almighty just wants to get in, get out, and leave you feeling somewhat entertained along the way. And frankly, that’s all it does.



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