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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008


They’ve been known to predict the eventual Oscar winner close to 95% of the time. They also seem to have a handle on which films will get nominated, and which movies will be overlooked come the actual Academy Awards. The Director’s Guild of America announced its choices for 2007’s best filmmaking, and it’s an eclectic group at best. Aside from a pair of previous nominees (the Coens caught one for Fargo in 1997), everyone else on this list are first timers. Even more interesting, three aren’t necessarily known for their work behind the camera. We have an artist, an actor, and a writer who made his first foray into the world of direction. Of course, this means that none of the nominees have ever won before, which makes the accomplishment twice as rewarding.


Without actually handicapping the outcome, SE&L will step in and offer its thoughts on the choices, as well as highlighting a few names that could have been substituted for at least one individual on the list. While many feared 2007 would be a slack year, cinematically speaking, the last four months have offered up such astonishing fare that, in the end, it turned out to be one of the best ever for the artform…and the names found below are a big part of the reason why. Without their good, good work, we’d be stuck with an endless outpouring of Michael Bay megabusters. One shudders to think.


The Nominees:



Joel and Ethan Coen No Country for Old Men


It’s hard to say if the brothers really deserve an Oscar for what they do as directors. Certainly, their films are stunning realizations of pragmatic and artistic ambitions, and there are times when their technique seems in sync with the very gods themselves. But how much of this is direction, and how much is pure production acumen. They know how to write (and how!). They cast flawlessly. Their editing is always superb, and they combine music, theme, and subtext in a way few craftsman can. But it seems so, well, SMALL to call them mere ‘directors’. That’s why they probably won’t win. What they did with Cormac McCarthy’s novel was much more than mere behind the lens guidance.



Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood


Like Barack Obama in the last few weeks, praise and plaudits for this mostly unseen masterwork by the Boogie Nights auteur has been growing by leaps and bounds. Critics groups have been frothing to foist as many accolades on the film as possible, and Anderson has gone from retro-revisionist to a full blown motion picture master. Everything about Blood is a direct reflection of his vision and attention to detail. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis’ striking turn as Daniel Plainview seals the deal, but without the barren old West backdrop to play against, the performance would be nothing but Method mannerism. Thanks to Anderson, it becomes the fodder for a true epic.



Sean Penn Into the Wild


Breaking away from the no nonsense neo-realism pose his last few films have taken, Penn has lightened up as a director, and as a result, discovered a lyrical soul beneath his hardened show biz shell. Instantly recalling the more experimental end of the post-modern movement circa the ‘70s, there are moments of great joy mixed in with the inevitable sadness of Christopher McCandless’ self-imposed exile from society. With solid support from his cast, and an evocative score courtesy of pal Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), this may be the first time Penn’s skill in front of the lens translates successfully behind it.



Tony Gilroy Michael Clayton


This remains the one odd choice out of the five. SE&L is still trying to figure out what everyone sees in this otherwise routine corrupt corporation thriller. Could be that lingering (man) crush everyone has on Clooney, who is very good in the film. Perhaps it’s Gilroy’s compensation for making Matt Damon into a believable action hero (he’s responsible for the Bourne trilogy scripts). It could be that scene where co-star Tilda Swinton is locked in a bathroom stall, fear and flop sweat staining her power suit. In a year where there were other deserving nominees (see below), this appears like a very odd, very insider choice.



Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


Here’s the reason why this former painter turned filmmaker is here - he used a gimmicky, borderline obnoxious approach to the first half of his movie (we see everything from the point of view of a paralyzed magazine editor) and it didn’t drive critics crazy. Instead of being overly ambitious and smugly self conscious, it allowed audiences into the mind of a man “locked in” place. Just like an artist, Schnabel understands the value in sketching out his designs before attempting the big picture canvas. In this case, the small moments that open the film lead to some major revelations later on.


Missing, Deserving a Mention


Again, there were several sensational masterworks this year that deserve some manner of recognition. Yet, regrettably, it looks like both the Guilds and the AMPAS will be ignoring in the next two months. As a service to all cinephiles, SE&L then offers the following selection of alternate choices. Any or all deserve a place with the personalities noted before, beginning with:



Tim Burton Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


One guesses that everyone’s favorite Goth guy was left off the list because, when it comes right down to it, this artistic anarchist could direct this film in his sleep. He’s had casual daydreams scarier than the bloody and brooding masterpiece he forged out of Sondheim’s equally magnificent musical. Still, for its Victorian vomitorium vogue, Burton deserved a nod.



Danny Boyle Sunshine


If he had spent the last few years remaking Trainspotting over and over again, delivering film after film of British quirk, Boyle would probably be on the list this year. His amazing bookend to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is the first serious science fiction film not clouded by the shroud of Star Wars. That, in and of itself, deserves recognition.



David Fincher Zodiac


You gotta love the revisionist history on this title. Back in January 2006, critics were more or less lukewarm on this fabulous police procedural throwback. Eleven months later, it’s cropping up on ‘Best of’ lists everywhere, with Fincher equally feeling the love. Perhaps if journalists had owned up to how amazing this movie was beforehand, the mind behind Se7en would be part of the process, not a noted also-ran. 



Ben Affleck Gone Baby Gone


If Tony Gilroy can get a nod for his Verdict homage, why can’t the actor formerly known as ‘Bennifer’ get one for his far superior Mystic River riff. Without a doubt, this was one of the strongest, most centered thrillers of the entire year, and made the hindering histrionics of Clayton seem downright showboaty by comparison. Affleck and his artistry, deserved better.


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

Not that you need us to. Funny how everything falls by the wayside when you find yourself trapped in a good book? I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s book last night in preparation for an upcoming viewing of the movie, and so far I’ve bypassed breakfast, lunch, a shower, a dog-walk, and very nearly today’s blog update, just to get the thing finished.


It’s enthralling. I’m jumping, sweating, freaking out ... the tension built is out of this world, and the characters are something else again. These are the kinds of people you long to get to know, to understand, to watch how their choices direct them. Every character in this thing carries a distinct fascination, from the weary Sheriff to the sadistic killer right on down to the recovering night clerks at the local motel.


I’m about a hundred pages from the end, and my current thought is—if this is what I’ve dealt with two-thirds of the way in, I don’t know if I can handle the final third. I realise, too, I’m a little behind on this one. The book was praised up and down upon release two years ago, and the film is all over the place,t opping best-of lists the world over. Still, better late than never, I guess.   


The word on Cormac McCarthy and No Country for Old Men:


From Business Wire: “No Country for Old Men” Writers Take USC Libraries Scripter, New Prize Honors Steven Zaillian


From Time Out London, an interview with the Cohens about the film: The Cohen Brothers Interview


Read a bio of the author that looks at McCarthy’s Roman Catholic upbringing through to his reclusive life today.


New York mag tells here of McCarthy’s ill-fated Oprah appearance discussing his book, The Road.


This Entertainment Weekly interview with Tommy Lee Jones (the star of the film) makes many comparisons between the book and the film. Says Tommy Lee Jones: “I think it comes from the book. I think the book is very funny. You either think it’s funny or you don’t. Ed Tom’s got a pretty good sense of humor. It may be what some people call gallows humor, but it is funny. And he does nothing in the movie that’s not derived directly and faithfully from the book.”


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

Again, I scratch my head at a pair of stories… What’s stranger?  Contestant number one is a combination taser gun and MP3 music player (dig the leopard design one) so you can look stylish and listen to your favorite tunes as you subdue your least favorite attacker.  Contestant number two is former American idol winner Taylor Hicks who got the boot from Sony/BMG because he only reached number 2 on the charts and ONLY sold 699,000 copies of his last album, which should help to explain why the music biz is in such trouble.  Maybe they should invest in the tasers…


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

In a few essays in Choice and Consequence, economist Thomas Schelling investigates problems of self-command, which in his view is central to the vicissitudes of a consumer society:


I propose that people concerned about consumer ignorance, about the inability of consumers to budget, the inability of shoppers, especially poor people, to spend money wisely, and about the consequences of misleading advertising—including the advertising that convinces people they feel bad or smell bad and need something that comes out of a spray can or a medicine bottle—all together add up to no more than the inadequacies of consumer self-management. In other words, if people could reliably do, or abstain from, the things that in their serious mode they resolved to do and to abstain from (or would resolve if they didn’t give it up as hopeless), it would make as much difference in the aggregate as if all those other familiar problems of consumer ignorance and budget management could be dissolved away.


This verges on the tautological: If consumers weren’t tempted by ads, they would be able to not do the irrational things that ads tempt them to do. But I think Schelling’s point is that consumers are not the rational, unitary individuals we for convenience sometimes assume they are; that instead we are made up of multiple selves with competing agendas, and the problem rests there rather than with the evil intentions of those companies seeking to exploit that fact.


And since we are made up of multiple selves—the self that wants to eat at Carl’s Jr. vs. the self that wants miso and wakame; the self that wants to read Hegel vs. the self that wants to play River Raid on an Atari emulator—Schelling laments the fact that we can’t enforce the contracts one of our selves make with another.


The law has grasped the paradox that freedom should include the freedom to enter into enforceable contracts; it seems to overlook the need that people often have, and perhaps the right that they should have, to constrain their own behavior for their own good.


The problem is that no one has an interested in enforcing our contracts with ourselves. As Schelling explains, no one else cares whether he actually gets up and does 20 push ups every morning. There’s only you, and who knows which you will be deciding whether your excuses for not keeping your word to yourself are sufficient. Contacts need to be reciprocal, Schelling notes, and we can’t have reciprocity with ourselves.


One solution is to make your pacts for self-improvement with a wrathful god, whose punishment you expect if you stray and whose church you can enlist for “social and institutional support,” Schelling points out. Perhaps religion is mainly a means of enforcing otherwise unenforceable contracts; it gives a slightly different wrinkle to Pascal’s wager—it’s to our own benefit to believe in God because then we can then use our belief as leverage against our recalcitrant selves. If we choose not to believe in God, not only do we risk God’s wrath and potentially miss out on infinite reward, but we subject ourselves to unlimited responsibility for ourselves.


Other solutions for the self-management problem involve various forms of voluntary paternalism, in which people consent in advance to have restrictions imposed upon them later by some outside force—friends, neighbors, the state. In other words, we would enlist the government to help us make irrevocable decisions. A cursory reading of 18th and 19th century novels quickly reveals how society used to work much more strongly in this regard, perhaps because there were fewer people, less social and geographical mobility, and a more widely shared moral code. People couldn’t as easily evade the reputation that they developed, and society was organized around promulgating the known reputation of others and generating consequences for ethical lapses. English novels are full of women worrying about being lady-like, men being gentlemanly; this upheld a specifically patriarchal system of gender relations, but the sexist system perhaps managed to entrench itself because it fulfilled a necessary social function of constraining behavior to a predictable range. And one thing that’s especially palpable in all the Trollope novels I’ve read recently is that his characters love restrictive mores, as a source of gossip and regimentation and, maybe most important, self-ordering. They have an easy time convincing themselves that the contracts they’ve enacted with themselves are backed by the force of society’s contempt. They seem to enjoy taking dishonor seriously, because it allows them to truly feel honorable.


Schelling also worries about how to determine which of our multiple selves is the authentic one. Which self would have the right to have the upper hand in contract negotiations? (Postmodernist theory seems to suggest either all or none of them.) When external codes of conduct limit what one can feasibly conceive of doing, certain selves become unthinkable, disqualified, inauthentic automatically. From this stems the joys of conformity.


But consumerism relies on the joys of individuality, which ironically calls for giving our multiple selves free play, and subjecting ourselves to continually reversing on ourselves or revising our desires. All the potentially negative traits that derive from a disunified self—impulsivity, indecision, behavioral incoherence, unpredictability, unreliability, inability to plan or follow through, irrationality, inefficiency—seem to be exacerbated intentionally in consumer societies, precisely because these states of mind are conducive to shopping. We express individuality through the freedom to do whatever—to be inconsistent—rather than by having a clearly defined and consistent self.


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Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008

Pakistan Tops List of Journalists Killed in 2007


In 2002 Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan. His widow, Mariane, also a journalist, wrote a book about her search for him that was adapted into a movie that was released in 2007. “I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do what she did,” Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane Pearl, told Voice of America, “and when I first saw her interviews and the way she responded to what happened to her husband ...and she was able to go on days later and say ‘ten other people died this month and they were all Pakistani and they are suffering as much as we are…’ I could not, when I first heard that, understand how she was able to come to that so quickly; and having gotten to know her and understand where that is coming from and the importance of having dialog and trying to go that higher ground to find solutions - I have learned that and it is a big lesson.”


Journalists are still dying in Pakistan. Several days after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto the South Asia Free Media Association reported that seven journalists had been killed in Pakistan in 2007, six in Sri Lanka, and five in Afghanistan. “The Pakistani journalists killed were - Mehboob Khan, a freelancer, Noor Hakim Khan of Daily Pakistan, Javed Khan of Markaz and DM Digital TV, Muhammad Arif of ARY One World TV, Zubair Ahmed Mujahid of Jang, Nisar Ahmed Solangi who worked for a Sindhi daily, and Syed Kamil Mashadi, who worked with a private TV channel.”


For security reasons Angelina Jolie’s scenes were shot in India but Dan Futterman, who played Daniel Pearl, went to Pakistan and filmed his scenes in Karachi, in the actual locations where Pearl had been living and researching his stories. “To be there and get a sense of Urdu being spoken on the street, the sort of incredible chaos - both in good and bad ways of that city ...it is an amazing place, teeming with 14 million people in greater Karachi, and you get the sense of sort of bursting at the seams,” he told Voice of America. “I don’t think you could get that anywhere else. It was incredibly important to the texture and the feel of the movie to be shooting actually where things happened.”


“The Pakistani detective who solved the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has joined the probe into the killing of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto,” Agence France Presse reports officials saying. Zubair Mahmood, a Pakistani detective, is portrayed in the movie as Captain. He’s joined the British detectives from Scotland Yard investigating the assassination. In November of 2006 the Christian Scientist Monitor interviewed him when the movie was being shot.


He risked his life and reputation.On the one hand, the current attention makes Mr. Mahmood proud. But five years later, he still has concerns about how the film will be received here. “I did something good and have recognition for that. But it brings a threat to me; it compromises my security,” he says. “There are so many who don’t like me, who think I’m a traitor - because I arrested one of their good friends.” But in the spirit of the film, Mahmood says he won’t be swayed by fear. Instead, he hopes that in highlighting the efforts of his investigative team, the film can create a positive impression of Pakistan. “The movie will bring a good name to my country in a way.”


David Montero. Christian Science Monitor. November 8, 2006


AFP Photo of Fatima Bhutto by Rizwan Tabassum

AFP Photo of Fatima Bhutto by Rizwan Tabassum


A Journalist In The Bhutto Dynasty


On November 14 last year the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Benazir Bhutto’s niece. “We Pakistanis live in uncertain times. Emergency rule has been imposed for the 13th time in our short 60-year history,” Fatima Bhutto wrote. “Thousands of lawyers have been arrested, some charged with sedition and treason; the chief justice has been deposed; and a draconian media law—shutting down all private news channels—has been drafted.”


“Fatima Bhutto, the daughter of Benazir’s late brother Murtaza, is a poet and politician who became a harsh critic of her aunt. But after her death, Fatima issued a public call for calm in the family,” reported the Associated Press, which quoted from a piece she’d written for The News in Pakistan. “I never agreed with her politics. I never did. I never agreed with those she kept around her, the political opportunists, hangers-on, them. They repulse me. I never agreed with her version of events. Never. But in death, in death perhaps there is a moment to call for calm. To say, enough. We have had enough. We cannot, and we will not, take anymore madness.”


In an opinion piece published in the Telegraph in London, Jemima Khan, ex-wife of former Pakistan Cricket Captain Imran Khan, who has his own political party in Pakistan, suggested Fatima as a future leader.


The justification for the selection of Benazir’s son as chairman was that only a Bhutto could provide unity within the party. If so, then why not 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto, who is arguably more qualified for the job than her teenage Facebooking cousin? If everything’s in a name, Fatima need not have changed hers in order to inherit. Brought up in Pakistan, unlike Bilawal, and a native speaker, she is an established writer and political commentator. At least she has some work experience. Aunt Benazir’s first-ever job was prime minister of a 160-million-strong nation.


It helps, in a lookist society, that she’s also as beautiful as her aunt - a young Salma Hayek lookalike - and has similar tragic appeal: orphaned, like most Bhuttos, as a result of a political assassination. Fatima is also politicised and outspoken. Too much so. She repeatedly accused her aunt of being complicit in the murder of her father and savagely opposed Zardari. That ruled her out.


The real reason Fatima is my favourite Bhutto, though, is that she has the sense to realise that a few good articles and the right surname don’t qualify her for leadership. Unlike others in the family, she rejects the notion that political power is her birthright: “I don’t think my name qualifies me or makes me the best person.”


 


 


 


Tagged as: cricket, india, media, pakistan
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