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Thursday, May 31, 2007
by Amy Depaul and Marco Ursi

Dear Marco,


Greece or Rome? Jordin or Blake? Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?


It’s hard to resist comparing two obvious rivals, and Internet-based publications Salon and Slate are no exception. To be fair, these two online magazines are close cousins, both offering a mix of politics, culture, the arts and some blogging. In addition, they both feature lively writing that goes heavy on the irony. But Salon is the better magazine.


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Sometimes, a monster merely happens. You can argue all the FBI profile material, and trace a killer’s lineage back to days vivisecting his (or on rare occasions, her) pets, but the truth is that evil doesn’t necessarily need a clinical explanation. If we are to believe the dogma and the organized ritualization of same, it is a constant within our ethical purview, and battles constantly with good for domination over our soul. So do we really need to clarify why bad things happen, or why individuals forsake morality for something more mean-spirited and sinister – even when the entity in question is a maniacal medico who likes to cannibalize his victims with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?


Hannibal Lecter, especially as personified by actor Anthony Hopkins in three separate films – The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon – remains a stalwart cinematic sicko, a fiend formed out of everyone’s own internal horror hierarchy and imagination. Some see him as horror humanized. Others tend to treat him like the granddaddy of death, the far more eloquent bunkmate of figures as fiendish as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger. He doesn’t demand elucidation – he readily infers his foulness. So what’s the best way to destroy said demon, to undermine his already potent noxious nature? Why, give him a rationale for being so repugnant, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Hannibal Rising does.


While not the worst prequel ever made, this might just be the most pointless. It draws on luxuriant imagery and old world charms to try and defend the insane actions of a future madman. It provides excuses instead of scares, psychological underpinnings where a couple of good gore sequences would have sufficed. Unlike the previous pieces in the Lecter legacy, Rising isn’t really about police procedure or burrowing into the mind of a serial killer. No, this is your standard revenge flick, Michael Myers and his growing slice and dice dementia moved half a world away and several decades into the past. Here, we meet the mighty Lecter clan, wealthy Lithuanian land owners who are naturally caught up in the middle of the Nazi/Russian flare-ups of late World War II. Hoping to avoid the fate of many of their fellow countrymen (including several singled-out Jews), the entire clan flees to the country. There, a pre-pubescent Hannibal and his beloved younger sister Mischa can become instant orphans and take turns starving.


The narrative catalyst that will come to guide the rest of the storyline – and by inference, the rest of our psycho’s despondent life – arrives in the pretense of some jaundiced German sympathizers led by the god-awful, grotesque Grutas (a barely recognizable Rhys Ifans). Along with his four flunkies, this misguided mercenary has been changing allegiance and looting the countryside, all in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When they see the Lecter little ones, they automatically think ‘bargaining chips’. But as the war drags on, and rotten potatoes and scrapbook leather become scarce, little Hannibal and his precocious sibling start looking like lunch. Before you can say “pre-schooler soup’s on!”, an atrocity occurs, and our title terror is left to die in the woods. Thankfully, he is rescued and sent to a Russian orphanage. The rest, as they say, is half-baked history.


From the minute we meet Gaspard Ulliel as the adolescent Lecter, we start to sense where the rest of this tale will be taking us. In his adult years, our villain is portrayed as an intellectualized façade housing an animalistic viciousness. As he’s eating the meat off another human’s cheek, he’s simultaneously rationalizing and relishing it. Here, Ulliel is given a different task all together. He is supposed to be youth corrupted by circumstances, naiveté obliterated by the horrors one human can inflict on another. As he escapes his institutionalized captivity, he leaves the orphanage bully scarred and scared. When he arrives in France (to hook up with his Samurai loving Japanese Aunt – don’t ask), he embraces chivalry to a fatal fault. All the while, our actor resembles a reject from an Armani ad, high cheekbones and chiseled jawline making him the most sinister supermodel on the planet.


Up until this time, we’ve been patient with Hannibal Rising. We’ve accepted the overlong warfare footage (expanded, if only a little, on the new Unrated DVD released by Genius Productions) and snickered ever so slightly at all the feudal Asian claptrap. Gong Li is wasted as Hannibal’s arch relative. Frequently dispossessed of her only means of support or shelter, she still manages to act and dress like a character carved out of Memoirs of a Geisha. There is supposed to be some connection to her sword and sandal traditions and Hannibal’s eventual descent into death dealing, but we never see it. Perhaps it was something that screenwriter (and novel author) Thomas Harris left for readers to discover. The final piece of the puzzle is a shot of sodium pentothal. It helps our troubled anti-hero find some clarity, and before you know it, he’s traipsing around Europe exacting retribution on the men who made Mischa-bobs out of his kin.


It’s too bad that we’ve stopped caring. You see, the inherent problem with Hannibal Rising is not its exterior make-up. Ms. Li aside, the performances are fine, and Ulliel is diabolical and dapper. We don’t even mind the war criminal crusading police officer, or the less than effective henchmen who surround Ifan’s indelible antagonist. In fact, if we didn’t realize that this entire narrative is building up to the creation of that master of corrupt quid pro quo, this would be a well made, period horror film with lots of atmosphere and some effective moments of dread. We’d even forgive the last act’s sudden shift into slasher film territory, Hannibal creating cleverer and cleverer ways to exact his wounded revenge. But the prequel specter hangs heavy over this entire production, leaving one feeling disoriented and angry. Two plus two does not equal four in Hannibal Rising. No, this is a movie that wants to question the existence of addition before even getting down to the brass tacks of finding said sum.


Indeed, the two concepts of Hannibal just don’t gel. The cold blooding killing is there, as is the unhealthy appetite for corporeal foodstuffs, but when you view this newest version of the character alongside the one well established over the last two decades, it’s like seeing a bad Turkish knockoff. There’s a basic recognizability, but the pieces aren’t quite fitting together. Forget the attempted nods to Hopkins characterization – this Lecter is light years away from his eventual self. In fact, one could easily argue that this entire film is merely the opening salvo in a series of Hannibal prequels where we learn – over time and many body parts – how a cruel kid from Lithuania turned into the bane of Will Graham and Clarice Starling’s existence. It’s not that Hannibal Rising lacks justification. It’s more that these descriptions just aren’t good enough. Lecter is larger than life, a freakish combination of dozens of other famous mass murderers filtered through one man’s incredibly inventive mind. But here, Harris is resorting to tabloid basics. As a result, we spend most of the time wondering when young Hannibal will stop sulking and start carving up his hamsters.


Showing the same deftness for period flare as he did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber acquits himself quite well. He doesn’t understand the first elements of suspense or thriller pacing, but he can offer up a nicely evocative abandoned cottage. He does rely a little too heavily on chaos-creating montages and quick cuts meant to hide most of the hideousness, but he delivers the dramatics with practical aplomb. It’s a shame then that he’s left holding the Lecter mythos bag. Had this been any other lunatic, Webber would be welcomed as the newest member in the macabre makers fan club. As it stands, he sits lording over the shattered remains of a once viable film franchise. At least he has a co-conspirator. Thomas Harris was thought of as the gold standard of horror literature. But thanks to this unappealing prequel, he’s now a sell-out shill. And that’s more terrifying than anything present in Hannibal Rising


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Today’s Wall Street Journal has exactly the kind of story I’ve been hoping to eventually see about the troubles with subprime lending. It’s a case study by Mark Whitehouse about subprime lending’s impact on a block in a Detroit minority neighborhood. Lenders, having detected lots of untapped equity in the neighborhood (itself a product of discriminatory lending practices in the past—“redlining”—which forced blacks to buy homes outright or put down big down payments), decided to unleash a massive marketing campaign in order to earn risk-free fees for writing a bunch of lucrative adjustable-rate loans, which could be packaged and resold on Wall Street.


Suddenly, mortgage lenders saw places like West Outer Drive as attractive targets for new business, because so many families either owned their homes outright or owed much less on their mortgages than their homes were worth. Lenders seeking to tap that equity bombarded the area with radio, television, direct-mail advertisements and armies of agents and brokers, often peddling loans that veiled high interest rates and fat fees behind low introductory payments. Unscrupulous players had little reason to worry about whether or not people could afford the loans: The more contracts they could sign, the more money they stood to make.


Generally speaking, lenders used deceptive sales techniques or preyed on the borrowers’ financial ignorance.


“A lot of people were steered into subprime loans because of the area they were in, even though they could have qualified for something better,” says John Bettis, president of broker Urban Mortgage in Detroit. He says a broker’s commission on a $100,000 subprime loan could easily reach $5,000, while the commission on a similar prime loan typically wouldn’t exceed $3,000.


Borrowers were easy pickings, as well, because many feared financial insecurity stemming from downturns in manufacturing and the auto industry. They could be sold a line of credit as a way of maintaining a standard of living in the face of economic adversity.


For many who already owned their homes, offers of easy credit came at a time when a severe economic downturn had left them in need of money to maintain middle-class lifestyles. Since the year 2000, the decline of the auto industry has cost the Detroit metropolitan area about 20,000 jobs a year, helping turn the shopping areas near West Outer Drive into scenes of defunct businesses, payday lenders and liquor stores. According to the latest data from the Internal Revenue Service, households in the 48235 ZIP Code reported an average adjusted gross income of $32,902 in 2004, up slightly from $32,817 in 2001 but down 6% in inflation-adjusted terms.


A few of the locals quoted in the story seem willing to take responsibility for accepting the credit on bad terms—“I knew better than to be stupid like that”, “A lot of people took the cash. I wish I’d never done it myself”—but it sounds as though the evidence is strong that advertising created a destructive demand for credit, leading those with the least-stable long term economic future into the most-destabilizing of all possible loans. It’s hard to see the sense (other than the cold, hard business sense, that is) in giving the loans that are most difficult to keep up with to the people least likely to have the means to do it. It’s pretty depressing that they then blame themselves for falling into the trap.
After detailing how many homes on the block are affected, Whitehouse suggests some of the consequences.


Both Ms. Williams and Mr. Walker have found themselves in a predicament now common among homeowners in Detroit: They’ve tried to sell their houses, but can’t find buyers willing to pay what they owe on their mortgages. After two years on the market, Ms. Williams says her house has attracted a high bid of $140,000, nowhere near the $211,000 debt she must settle to avoid eviction. That leaves her with no option but to abandon the house—the worst possible outcome for the neighborhood, because it means the property could end up gutted with a big red debris bin out front….
Now in foreclosure, Ms. McNeal has until early July to come up with the money or be evicted. She doubts she can sell the house, and the missed payments have dented her credit to the point where she can’t get another loan. So she’s letting the dandelions grow.


And just like that the neighborhood begins to slide past the point of salvation, at least for a generation or two: As one of real estate agents quoted remarks, “Nobody’s going to want to buy into a neighborhood with 20% foreclosures.” The question is whether the easy money from subprime loans delayed the inevitable or inflated the bubble so that it would pop more easily, and once and for all.


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

As you probably heard by now, another major media company has swallowed another big Internet phenom.  Beyond the news, it’s worth pondering what this means for both “old media” and “new media.”  One of the few places that gives you that vital info is here: Caroline McCarthy What does CBS want with Last.fm?


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Sacala Bailar [MP3]
     


Buy at Six Degrees Records
Buy at iTunes


On United We Swing, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra continues with their tradition of classic-meets-contemporary “Salsa dura” sound with refreshing originality.”—Six Degrees Records


Spanish Harlem Orchestra - Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival


Mansbestfriend
Missile Defense [MP3]
     


Buy at Rhapsody


“New instrumental album under Sole’s alter-ego Mansbestfriend. While past Mansbestfriend projects dwell in a glorious sort of doom, Poly.sci.187 plays ethereal and heavy like a series of ghost dreams drifting through thick Arizona air. The title reads as the foregone conclusion of Sole’s notable ventures, both philosophical and literal, into a world of human strife and dirty politics: “Political Science: This Shit’ll Kill You.” But without true lyrical content, the instrumental Poly.sci.187 occupies a space more reflective than edifying, its songs positing suggestion and sentiment in the mind of the listener about our most current troubled times.”—Anticon Records


Madagascar
When Last We Heard of Gentlemen [MP3]
     


Goodbye East, Goodbye West [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“The second album from Balitmore band Madagascar. Balkan folk meets Eplosions in the Sky meets Devotchka. Goodbye East, Goodbye West documents the refinement and growth of the Madagascar’s unique sound. Each track uses crisscrossing accordion, saw, and glockenspiel melodies; anchored by bass, acoustic guitar, and percussion. These instrumental elements are perfectly punctuated with beautiful wordless vocals. From playful waltzes and clanky dirges, to minimalist scrapes and drones, to their arrangement of the Chanukah staple “S’vivon,” Goodbye East, Goodbye West, is a uniquely satisfying and mystifying collection of songs.”—Western Vinyl Records



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