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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


The War in Iraq is destined to leave yet another battle-weary scar on a nation finally recuperating from the one it received three decades before. Both sides can argue their rosy Red pros and basic Blue cons, but when all is said and done, all conflict is about people, not positions. They are the ones who pay the price, not the politicians. So what does it say about Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, his post-Crash comeuppance to everyone who thought his 2005 racial roundelay didn’t deserve the Oscar, that our brave fighting men are actually the bad guys here. Not unsympathetic bureaucrats, career minded Congressmen, or bomb building extremists, but the boys and girls wearing the stars and stripes. Granted, this laconic whodunit is based on actual events, but one still has to wonder if this is the right story to tell, given the current climate in the country.


When he goes AWOL after returning home from Iraq, the parents of Private Mike Deerfield get a fateful phone call. Father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military policeman himself, immediately heads over to his boy’s base to see if he can aid the investigation. However, his worst nightmares are realized when a badly burned, and crudely cut up, body is found along a deserted roadside. It is his son, the obvious victim of foul play. Promising his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that he will get to the bottom of the crime, Hank contacts local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Unappreciated by the male members of the bureau, and battling against stonewalling Army brass, she initially gives up on the case. But when inconsistent statements and some illegally obtained video footage suggest something far more sinister, she decides to help Hank. Together they will try and figure out why Mike became the target of such a senseless slaughter.


Wearing its holier than thou attitude on its blood-soaked sleeves, In the Valley of Elah is the most underhanded, backdoor anti-war film ever attempted. It takes a standard murder mystery, wraps it up in a torn and tattered flag, and flies the entire narrative upside down and a little lower than half mast. As a thriller, it’s a swing on a country porch. As a diatribe, it’s like listening to a well-intentioned teen explain politics. There is literally nothing wrong with Haggis’ approach, or his appreciation of the toll the Iraq War is taking on everyone involved – family, friends, and those in the line of fire. And he does make his characters complex enough to sustain such a subtle, slowpoke storytelling stratagem. But by the end of its overlong running time, when the final loose thread has been neatly knitted back into place, one can’t help but think that there was a better way to make this material work. Sometimes, a scream is preferable to a whisper.


Yet Haggis is content to keep his voice down. There are moments when this movie appears to be barely moving, when our director is purposefully stalling for significance. For example, when Tommy Lee Jones checks into a local motel, we witness his entire bed making routine. Similarly, we catch almost all of his character’s morning hygiene ritual, with an accidental shaving cut accentuated for future plotpoint portents. Indeed, a great deal of In the Valley of Elah wastes time laying cinematic booby traps. The aforementioned facial laceration will end up bleeding on a list of heretofore unknown subjects, while an inappropriate racial epithet will turn into an invitation for background information. Haggis wants to hide his symbolism as much as celebrate it, and with the cinematography’s dour, faded color scheme and vague visual palette, he creates the perfect vista for such an approach. Unfortunately, this film is so restrained that it frequently feels inert.


Granted, one doesn’t come into a tale like this expecting the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but Haggis’s halting style can be very aggravating at times. At one point, Sarandon phones Jones to tell him that a package from their dead son has just arrived. Immediately, he warns her not to open it, and after a brief back and forth she acquiesces. But then the subject is never mentioned again, with almost an hour going by before the envelope makes a last minute reappearance. As a dramatic device, it may have some significance, but we are smack dab in the middle of a murder investigation – a crime that may have some connection to the soldiers Mike served with. And you’re NOT going to investigate a mysterious parcel sent from the front lines which, perhaps, holds a key to solving the case? Right, that makes perfect sense.


Haggis’s politics are also problematic here. Thematically, In the Valley of Elah ascribes to the theory that war turns the innocent into bloodthirsty butchers, and in the case of the Iraq conflict, it has the potential to turn the best and brightest into unstable, antisocial psychopaths. There are several senseless sequences of foreboding offered, as when a scared military wife warns the police that her husband has started acting weird (he goes berserk and drowns the family dog). Yet instead of taking it seriously, the other officers in the station make goofy animal noises as Charlize Theron tries to comfort her. The whole chauvinistic take on the lawmen of Tennessee is equally odd, since the justification being forwarded is that, as ex-military men, it’s part of their noble nature. Indeed, time and time again, Haggis argues that everybody’s favorite iconic Uncle is really the Son of Sam. In his world, being all you can be means eventually turning into Ted Bundy.


If one thing saves this overly stoic statement, it’s the overall level of proficiency in the performances. Jones, Theron, and Sarandon all own Oscars, and they legitimately deserve said accolades. While he’s nothing more than a hospital corner’s curmudgeon at the beginning, Hank Deerfield is modified nicely over the course of the narrative, thanks in part to Jones’ desire to dimensionalize this despondent dad. Sarandon gets two excellent scenes (a morgue visit, and a late night phone call) and she makes the most of them. Oddly enough, Theron’s efforts may be the most intriguing. Dressed down, but never out (it’s hard to make this classic beauty look bad, unless you’re stopping off at the special effects tent), she comes across as jaded and unstrung, a woman waking everyday to a series of traumas that have as much to do with her career as crime. Her single-motherhood is hyped to no real end, but the connection with her kid makes for some intriguing and enlightening nuance.


Yet it’s these types of tangents that ultimately derail In the Valley of Elah. It seems like, every time a clue is unearthed, it requires a lengthy rationale and off topic backstory to certify it. Papa Deerfield swipes his son’s cellphone from the barracks, and within its damaged memory is a series of cryptic video clips. Of course, we get to witness almost all of these overlong ‘flashbacks’ in technologically deficient detail. As the picture pixelates, jumping and jerking to mimic handheld, in battle ‘realism’, we wait for the denouement. Sadly, Haggis hampers his own vindications by employing such a strange, scattered approach. Yet each video has an explanation, and we are constantly thrown off the case itself, to explore these occasionally unnecessary facets. It’s like the title analogy (Jones tells Theron’s little boy the story of David and Goliath): we are supposed to see the allusion between small town cop and the big, bad US military, but because the movie avoids such bravado confrontation, the link appears hallow.


Maybe the message will save In the Valley of Elah. Polls indicate that most Americans are sick of Iraq and its jumbled, no-endgame policies. As such, Haggis plays right into their worst, most horrifying fears. He shows an army incapable of achieving its objective while excusing the off-base criminality of its soldiers as simply “blowing off steam”. The grunts themselves are strip club settled and pimply, like hyperactive kids in an oversized candy store. When we learn what happened, both at home and abroad, we’re not shocked as much as saddened. The US has always suspected that its ‘unnecessary’ wars lead to unseen post-traumatic consequences. As a filmmaker, that’s all Haggis has to offer. Relying on it may be politically, or philosophically right, but it doesn’t necessarily serve a murder mystery thriller. Perhaps that’s why In the Valley of Elah seems so subdued. When questioning the heroism (not the heart) of the men who serve our nation, it’s best to speak softly. You don’t want to rile the resolved.


 


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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007

The Leader Who Silently Leads


Monks protest in Burma

Monks protest in Burma


Over the last month images have begun appearing in newspapers around the world of monks walking along streets, sometimes wading through water, in protest in Burma. “Armed only with upturned begging bowls, chanting Buddhist monks in Myanmar have caught the country’s military rulers off guard with their peaceful protests,” reported ABC News. “The monks have emboldened the public to take to the streets by the thousands to support the most dramatic anti-government protests the isolated Southeast Asian nation has seen in a decade.” It’s a story told mostly silently, related symbolically, through actions and gestures. “The monks’ peaceful protests, which have drawn thousands of people onto the streets clapping and smiling in Yangon and other cities, have turned into the most prolonged show of defiance in nearly 20 years against the junta,” wrote Agence France Presse. “Deeply respected in the devoutly Buddhist country, the monks have breathed new life into the anti-junta movement after initial street protests broke out one month ago following a massive hike in fuel prices.” Yesterday the protesters were allowed to march past the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightful leader of Burma, who has been detained for much of the past seventeen years.


“We were overwhelmed and some of us could not control our tears,” one witness told Reuters after 1,000 monks held a 15-minute prayer vigil at the lakeside home in Yangon where Suu Kyi is confined. “Aunty Suu also prayed for the well-being of all. Making a gesture of respect with her two palms, Aunty Suu came out through a small door of the gate. She was flanked by two women. She looked quite okay,” the witness said. “The monks chanted prayers and wished her good health.”


In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won the first multi-party election to be held in Burma since 1960 but the military refused to let her take office. With calm dignity and equanimity she has stayed in her country, accepting the years and years of house arrest and detention imposed upon her. In 1991 her son, Alexander Aris, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf.


Poster image from FreeBurma.org.uk

Poster image from FreeBurma.org.uk


Speaking as her son ... I personally believe that by her own dedication and personal sacrifice she has come to be a worthy symbol through whom the plight of all the people of Burma may be recognised. And no one must underestimate that plight. The plight of those in the countryside and towns, living in poverty and destitution, those in prison, battered and tortured; the plight of the young people, the hope of Burma, dying of malaria in the jungles to which they have fled; that of the Buddhist monks, beaten and dishonoured. Nor should we forget the many senior and highly respected leaders besides my mother who are all incarcerated. It is on their behalf that I thank you, from my heart, for this supreme honour.


The Burmese people can today hold their heads a little higher in the knowledge that in this far distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded. We must also remember that the lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection. The Prize, I feel sure, is also intended to honour all those engaged in this struggle wherever they may be.


Jose Ramos Horta. Photograph from The Sydney Morning Herald

Jose Ramos Horta. Photograph from The Sydney Morning Herald


The Melancholy Difficulties of Freedom


The President sets an earnest pace on his dawn walk to Jesus. He nods a morning hello at the gate of his compound, then pounds his way down the street he renamed Robert F. Kennedy Boulevard. It’s a road of stunted gums and barren soils, like Broken Hill by the sea. Across the water, through mangroves and mud, the morning lights of Dili are bobbing on the bay, while the headland in the distance is dominated by the enormous statue of Christo Rei—Christ the King.



In a story as exquisitely observed as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Greg Bearup writes of the sadness and challenges that freedom can bring, in his Sydney Morning Herald profile of President Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful persistence for his country’s freedom. (He shared the 1996 prize with Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.) It’s a profile that’s reported with a deep attentiveness that makes the reader feel transported to the “impoverished, fragile” East Timor, and breathes life into the complex hero of the story capturing his flaws as well as his strengths. 


Bearup was in East Timor just after the recent elections when it fell to Ramos-Horta to appoint who would lead the country after an indecisive result. Former President and fellow freedom fighter, Xanana Gusmao, who had been East Timor’s first President threaded together a co-alition and was eventually declared Prime Minister over former Prime Minister Mari Alkitiri, who he’d worked with during the struggle to try and gain independence for East Timor. The fighting and rioting that had been going on periodically since May erupted again.


Greg Bearup concludes the story with Jose Ramos-Horta commenting on the rioting in East Timor. “Sometimes we should look at ourselves in the mirror and say what a bunch of f…ing idiots we are. The moment the Portuguese granted us an opportunity to be free, after 500 years, we fought our first civil war. So who do we blame? The Indonesians for stirring trouble? The Australians for not paying attention? Or should we blame ourselves? And now, again we have the chance. I will do everything I can to make it work this time. If we fail again, only God can help us.” Earlier in the story he’d quoted him saying, “I said to Xanana yesterday he had always been a champion for negotiations. I said to him, ‘You talked to the Indonesians. You embraced them. You hugged and kissed them. And now, you don’t even talk to your own comrade.’ At crucial times, like now, we should all unite. I fear I will not be able to bridge the two extremes. And if I cannot, only God can.”


Jose Ramos-Horta, who worked as a journalist after leaving school spent 24 years in exile, campaigning tirelessly for his nation’s freedom, travelling the globe, talking to anyone who might listen, undaunted by the lack of interest in his cause. He tells Bearup that this campaigning has prepared him to be an effective eventual United Nations Secretary General, a position he plans to lobby for. “I know the world like no one,” he tells Bearup. “None of the previous UN secretaries-general has had my field experience and visited as many countries as I have visited. I have visited over 100 countries. I was born barefoot in one of the poorest areas of East Timor, that means one of the poorest areas of the world. No UN secretary-general has had this type of poor background. I am far more sensitive to issues of poverty than anyone—from UN secretaries-general to Jeffrey Sachs or those heads of the World Bank.”


The images of poverty and suffering that Bearup describes in East Timor are powerfully affecting. The barren land, the poor and starving people, the aid money that goes unspent because it’s difficult to set up plans to make use of it. When the rioting broke out earlier this year Ramos-Horta opened the gates to his property and 500 people ended up living in his house and garden. “I told my staff, open the gates—anyone who feels unsafe and wishes to come in may come in—so they came in. There were beds everywhere.” Several dozen still remain.


Ramos - Horta says he has set up an anti-poverty taskforce and written a plan to overhaul the tax system, so that only the rich, like him, would pay tax. He will push the new Parliament to allocate him funds, bypassing the bureaucracy, to allow the allocation of small grants to the poor. “I want to be a friend and an advocate of the poor,” he says with conviction. “I don’t think there is any more noble mission in life for me, or for any leader, than to fight poverty. I really don’t care all that much about the abstract notions of democracy if it doesn’t bring food to the table.”


From “Local Hero” by Greg Bearup. Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Good Weekend’ supplement, September 22, 2007.


Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra


Pankaj Mishra Assesses Sixty Years of Indian Democracy


Pankaj Mishra begins his New Yorker essay on the sixtieth anniversary of the partition of India by commenting that a few hours before making the formal declaration, the ViceRoy of India, Lord Mountbatten and his wife Edwina watched the Bob Hope movie “My Favorite Brunette”.


Large parts of the subcontinent were descending into chaos, as the implications of partitioning the Indian Empire along religious lines became clear to the millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs caught on the wrong side of the border. In the next few months, some twelve million people would be uprooted and as many as a million murdered. But on that night in mid-August the bloodbath—and the fuller consequences of hasty imperial retreat—still lay in the future, and the Mountbattens probably felt they had earned their evening’s entertainment.


Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had arrived in New Delhi in March, 1947, charged with an almost impossible task. Irrevocably enfeebled by the Second World War, the British belatedly realized that they had to leave the subcontinent, which had spiralled out of their control through the nineteen-forties. But plans for brisk disengagement ignored messy realities on the ground. Mountbatten had a clear remit to transfer power to the Indians within fifteen months. Leaving India to God, or anarchy, as Mohandas Gandhi, the foremost Indian leader, exhorted, wasn’t a political option, however tempting. Mountbatten had to work hard to figure out how and to whom power was to be transferred.


On July 26, the national Indian newspaper, The Hindu, reviewed an essay by Ravi Kalia about the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s urban planning concepts conceived with the architect Le Corbusier, which sought solutions to the resettlement of refugees, and the question of what form freedom should take in Indian cities.


Nehru demanded the creation of a city ‘unfettered by tradition’. To him and the internationally influential Swiss architect and city planner Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier (originally, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), “the machine age held the promise of liberating individuals and improving society, to be achieved by the simple, but powerful dictum: modernise your house and your life will follow,” narrates Kalia.


“For both men, India offered unimaginable freedoms played out in a vast and exotic landscape: skyscrapers and steel/chrome/aluminium factories announcing the aesthetic potential of new materials that were already transforming life outside the home. Modernism offered a shimmering vision of escape from everything conservative, tradition, and limited.”


By D. Murali. The Hindu



Pankaj Mishra grew up in small towns in north and central India in the 1970’s and 1980’s and published a book on his travels through small Indian towns in 1993. In an editorial in The Guardian on August 14 he writes of the dwindling Indian middle-class that had been made possible by Nehru’s reforms and their replacement by “long-muffled peoples (who) are building their own vindictive new hierarchies of power and wealth. Given the long decades of darkness they have known, they are in no mood to accommodate old elites. Democratic ideals and beliefs have aroused in them not so much a sense of reciprocal citizenship as an impatient expectation of what is owed to them.”


“Perhaps this dwindling of middle-class culture was inevitable, part of the price of “progress”. A generation ago, my own parents and their peers had moved out of their restricted settings and taken up jobs in remote cities and towns. Their children are now scattered across India (and increasingly across the world). Besieged by the usual middle-class anxieties of jobs and careers, we lose touch, forgetting names and faces. Few people show up when some of these children get married or have their thread ceremonies. Deaths and funerals have turned into lonely, often desolate affairs. Two years ago, one of my uncles, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, watched his wife bleed to death after an accident at his home in a Lucknow suburb - a fate unimaginable in the close-knit world of his childhood.


Of course, the destruction of old bonds of family and community and shared culture has been faster elsewhere, in Europe, America - even China. Poverty and crime are more vicious in many American cities than in Lucknow and Allahabad. And, compared with the Indian poor, who are perennially at the mercy of criminals and corrupt policemen, the old middle class is still relatively protected. Still, it is hard today, 60 years after independence, not to see poignancy in the Nehruvian elite’s tryst with destiny; to realise how little the makers of modern India knew of their suburban future: the high-rise apartment complexes in which they would die pining for a patch of weak wintry sun on a green lawn.”


Pankaj Mishra. “Death of the Small Town.” The Guardian. August 14, 2007



Pankaj Mishra is direct and open about the problems modern India faces while celebrating its strengths and diversity, and writes about the complex issue of religious divisions and violence with clarity and great heart. In an editorial for The Guardian on September 14, he contrasted India and Europe.


The scale of political-religious violence in India dwarfs anything suffered by western Europe in the postwar era. Yet India’s unique liberal tradition, which respects minority identity and community belonging, remains central in the country’s intellectual life. Indian economists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, novelists and journalists are deeply divided on many political and economic issues. But, apart from a minuscule few, they remain wedded to India’s founding vision of pluralism.


Not surprisingly, these postcolonial Indians are bewildered to see liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe embrace a majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what, by Indian standards, seems a very limited experience of social diversity and political extremism. Acts of terrorism in the post-9/11 period have shocked many Europeans into a new awareness of an alienated minority group in their midst. It is clear that recklessly globalising capital and technology, and the failed modernisation of much of the formerly colonial world - of which religious extremism and migration are consequences - pose daunting challenges to European societies. But instead of facing them squarely, many Europeans have retreated into old insecurities about Islam and Muslims.


 


 


 


 


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Friday, Sep 21, 2007


While turkeys and the resulting leftovers are still two months away, your premium pay cable channels think the weekend of 22 September is theatrical Thanksgiving. They’re dishing out a depressing collection of half-baked entrees, with nary a satisfying side dish or desert in sight. An obvious reaction to the rising importance of awards season and its continuing collection of proposed available Academy taste tempters, the main movie channels have decided to acquiesce to averageness – at least for now. While one film definitely stands out among the others, the overall pickings are less than rib sticking, and will definitely leave you hungry for more. It will be interesting to see where this kind of counterprogramming eventually goes. If the substandard showcases continue, there’ll be a mass exodus from the idiot box before long. Hopefully, some of this Spring’s bigger titles will find their way into the Saturday premiere collection. Without them, it could be a rather regressive Fall, even with offerings like this one:


Premiere Pick
Stranger than Fiction


They say that every actor wants to be a rock star, and visa versa. Truer still is the notion that every comedian wants to tackle serious subject matter now and again – even if it means the end of their solid slapstick spoils. The latest former funnyman going the quasi-dramatis route is Will Farrell, and he appears to be following in the footsteps of one James “Jim” Carrey to get there. This Truman Show like effort, in which Farrell’s IRS agent Harold Crick begins to hear a disembodied voice narrate his life like it’s a novel, flummoxed fans of his SNL style silliness, while providing diehards attracted to his big screen fare (Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory) with a reason for pause. Overall, the novelty of the narrative helps us past some of the more pat and cloying circumstances, and the supporting cast (including Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman) help round out a remarkable company of characters. Still, the question becomes – do the devoted want to see their jester putting on the realism, or the ridiculousness?  (22 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Black Dahlia


Brian DePalma, once a Hollywood heavyweight with his Hitchcock homage style, has fallen on some substantial hard times as of late. This LA Confidential retread, a routine reading of James Ellroy’s novel about the mysterious murder of a Hollywood starlet, is ample proof why. Instead of focusing on the compelling real life case, he goes off on tangents so surreal that even diehards couldn’t figure out his motives. The result was one of 2006’s biggest blunders. (22 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

You, Me and Dupree


If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create one of several reasons why Judd Apatow had to step in and save big screen comedy. (22 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Mission: Impossible III


Tom Cruise tempted filmic fate one too many times with the further adventures of Ethan Hunt and his IMF gang. The only individual who actually benefited from this non-charming third time though was director JJ Abrams. While the movie may have been a less than spectacular blockbuster, it gave the man behind Lost enough cinematic stature to take over the Star Trek franchise. Talk about failing upward. (22 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Death Becomes Her


15 years ago, audiences were agog at the brand new CGI stylings of Robert Zemeckis’ brazen black comedy, a film fashioned to take on the superficiality of stardom and the overemphasis on anti-aging. Though the physical effects were also impressive, it was the concept of combining the real with the motherboard rendered that truly impressed audiences. Even the critical community, who found numerous flaws in both the storyline and the casting, couldn’t deny the visuals’ visceral power. After all, you had Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep systematically destroying each other in a baffling biological battle royale. Oddly enough, the last decade and a half have only amplified Zemeckis’ message. And with the prevalent plastic surgery that’s now part of the cultural dynamic, the plot’s focus on an “anything for looks” ideal is even more potent. Why this one time blockbuster has ended up on the independent oriented Sundance Channel is something to take up with their staff. But as an example of how the cutting edge can remain razor sharp, this is a timeless wonder. (23 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sleep With Me


There’s a gimmick at the core of this 1994 off the radar entry – six separate writers collaborated to create the overall narrative drive. Such cinematic stunts usually don’t work, and for many, the results here were only average. Yet there are ardent defenders of this romantic drama. Be on the lookout for Quentin Tarantino as a boorish party guest who lets rip with a tirade on the obvious homoerotic overtones in Top Gun. (24 September, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Memories of Murder


South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, got his first big exposure in the West with this sly, subtle serial killer procedural. Apparently, Asian law enforcement is ill-prepared for dealing with such systematic slaughter, and Bong infuses his film with some darkly humorous material, almost always at his bumbling policemen’s expense. While not as universally appealing as his follow-up, the monster on a rampage The Host, this is still an intriguing insight into crime in another culture. (24 September, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Pumpkin


Christina Ricci continues to polish her creative indie cred with this interesting romcom about a sorority girl who falls for a handicapped man. Life lessons are learned and horizons are broadened. For first time filmmakers Adam Larson Broder and Anthony Abrams, the biggest hurdle wasn’t avoiding cliché or maximizing character. It was getting this little seen gem any notice whatsoever. (29 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It remains a strangely satisfying experiment in terror: writer/director Jack Hill hired former fright master Lon Chaney Jr., turned him into a sympathetic caregiver for a collection of craven creeps, and gave the whole thing a freak show veneer of macabre monochrome. Subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told, no other underlying label ever did a better job of describing a yarn’s intentions. Featuring future human oddity Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, and Mantan Mooreland in a minor cameo role, this arguably bizarre family fright night substituted novelty and wit for nastiness and the wicked. Still, it will be hard for newcomers to forget the truly horrific ending. Paired up with another nightmare novelty from the ‘60s (Die! Die! My Darling), we’ve got one of the better double features offered by Turner Classic Movies late night film fest. Here’s hoping that a post-Halloween Rob Zombie can make an appearance as host. He single handedly resurrected Haig’s career, and his comments would be very telling indeed. (28 September, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The War (Ken Burns)


While SE&L normally ignore TV offerings, the latest from The Civil War’s Ken Burns deserves a mention. This time, the talented documentarian takes on another country-defining conflict – WWII – and the results are reportedly masterful. One thing’s for sure – come Sunday night, the DVD player will be pushed aside for what promises to be seven nights of fact filmmaking at its finest. (23 September, PBS, Check Local Listings)

The End


Back when Burt Reynolds was the reigning box office God, he flexed his fiscal reputation on the occasional obscure effort. This remains one of his best, the story of a dying man who enlists the aid of a manic mental patient to commit suicide. This ballsy black comedy defied expectations in 1978 and stands as proof that there was more to the actor’s persona than Smokey and the Bandit. (24 September, Retroplex, 10PM EST)

At the Earth’s Core


Sometime in the mid ‘70s, American International Pictures decided that Doug McClure was an action star. Go figure. The company created a set of schlocky projects for the former TV talent, and along with The People that Time Forgot and The Land that Time Forgot, this Edgar Rice Burroughs bunk ruled the passion pits. That’s okay – no one really knows why, either. (26 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 12:15AM EST)

 


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Friday, Sep 21, 2007

Superbad hits it big, America Ferrara wins and Emmy, and nerds are cool again. Or are they?


By the time I was asked to care whether one pasty white guy beat another pasty white guy in reaching Donkey Kong’s legendary “kill screen,” I was off the bus. Geeks may be Hollywood’s idea of a politically correct hero—who could object to the 95-pound weakling getting the girl?—but by summer’s end, the revenge of the nerds was beginning to feel like a permanent occupation.


That’s Ann Hornaday, reporting on the rRise of Nerdcore at the Washington Post. She’s not convinced. Lynn Andriani might be, though—she offers another take on the current fashionableness of the nerd at Publishers Weekly with reviews of two new books on nerd culture: Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg and American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent. Hers is a celebration of nerddom—check out the list of literary nerd heroes at the article’s close.


 


 


 


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Thursday, Sep 20, 2007


The glamorization of crime has as much to do with the mob as it does the movies. Because of its strictures that exist outside the limits of the law, the rights and duties, honors and codes becomes the art design for a million cinematic statements. Part of the relish in something like The Godfather is watching these ritualistic rationales play out, as well as sneaking a peek behind a frequently unseen curtain. But the genre itself is also a mirror, reflecting the level of sameness in, say, a South Central Los Angeles gang and a high ranking Hong Kong triad. It’s all about family, force, and the freedom to indulge in the blurry border between capitalism and corruption. In his latest mean streets masterwork, Eastern Promises venereal horror icon David Cronenberg takes the Russian mafia to task. It’s part of a bigger picture dissection of how obsession makes even the most moral individual turn.


Our story begins when midwife Anna (a wonderful Naomi Watts) stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she’s desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl’s name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur Semyon (a diabolic Armin Mueller-Stahl). When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana’s situation. But since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains suddenly threaten the incognito mobster’s standing. He puts his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, stealing every scene he’s in) and dedicated ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana’s baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for Semyon’s omnipresent power structure.


At first, it feels like Eastern Promises is going to revolve around an unconscionable connection between Anna and Nikolai. They run into each other several times during the opening act, and each time, there’s a growing sense of attraction and mystery between the pair. We keep waiting for the inevitable moment, the situation which allows both characters to remove their outer façade and become real, recognizable people. But Cronenberg isn’t out to explore that particular narrative thread. Indeed, many of the standard crime story motifs that have come to define the cinematic category are completely ignored by this wonderful film, making it an anomaly in an otherwise recognizable realm. Sure, there is blood, and death hangs its shingle over almost every onscreen action, but as a director, this is one artist who is looking for new canvases to compile. Eastern Promises will remain recognizable, but only partially so.


Instead of going for gratuity, Cronenberg is out to understand human arrogance. He wants to know what makes one group of people – in this case, displaced Russian hoodlums – think they can flaunt the conventions of civilized society. He does so by contrasting Semyon with his son, offering an older man of unspeakable evil with a young stud who barely has the backbone to handle the small stuff. Obviously doomed from the start, Vincent Cassell turns Kirill into a walking contradiction, a man who loves power but can’t wield it in a way that’s successful or substantive. He lucks into his tainted triumphs, and relies heavily on Nikolai to mop up his messes. Semyon, on the other hand, is cruelty covered in a fine patina of paternity. He’s like everyone’s elderly grandpa - that is, if said relative was a repulsive, irredeemable rapist. It’s to his credit that Cronenberg never lets Mueller-Stahl act on his reputation. Suggestion works much better than having all of it shown.


At the opposite end is Mortensen’s Nickolai. His is a brute that is all outer trappings, from his jet black wardrobe and Secret Service sunglasses to the elaborate tattoos that trace his horrible history of violence. We are given reason to fear this mystifying man, especially after witnessing the offhand way he handles the disposition of a corpse. Even more intriguing, you will never see a gun in Eastern Promises. Every act is tactile, requiring a knife or handy tool to tackle. When Mortensen’s character is confronted in a bath, his full frontal nude body battling with two dagger wielding hitmen, it’s more than just a homoerotic stunt. Cronenberg wants to illustrate that real men don’t need a phallic substitute (read: a firearm) to create unspeakable destruction. All they need is a sharpened blade and a will to survive. As one of the film’s setpiece splatter sequences, Nickolai’s naked clash is a classic.


But it’s also antithetical to the movie’s main point. As with most syndicate activity, insinuation and rumor is far more effective at keeping things under control than direct confrontation and destruction. It’s obvious from the moment Semyon learns of the diary. The contents do indeed worry him, but the sign of weakness amongst the other bosses is far more problematic. Like a massive game of multilevel chess, the slightest miscalculation can mean utter defeat. It’s the reason the understated Don is so mad at his son. He sees recklessness and a streak of irredeemable drunken sloppiness – elements that function in direct contrast to the strategic aims of the syndicate. It’s a model of interconnected complexity that illustrates how difficult these dynasties are to take down. But it also underlies the notion that everyone here is out for their own selfish motives. Even the supposed heroine is far from pristine.


Indeed - don’t be fooled. Naomi Watts’ Anna is no innocent here. She has her own selfish reasons for learning of Tatiana’s family, though the underpinning isn’t apparent at first. Cronenberg only hints at the pain this childless woman experiences especially as someone serving biology day in and day out while her own personal prayers go unanswered. Yet in several close contact conversations with her mother, we begin to see the truth. Without spoiling the situation, it’s clear that circumstances in Anna’s past are coloring her concern, leading all pathways directly back to her own maternal instincts. No one else in the film feels the same way, and it’s shocking the Cronenberg would introduce such a mercenary facet into this narrative. But because we keep expecting certain ‘good vs. evil’ avenues, it’s that much easier of the director to take us down an unexplored backstreet.


As a matter of fact, much of Eastern Promises is a window into a world we know little about. While pageantry and grandeur paint the Russians as much as the Italians (a major confrontation occurs during a ceremonial banquet), Cronenberg stuffs this storyline with all manner of insider details. We learn of the Yakuza-like significance of body art, what stars on one’s knees means, how slander and sexual defamation means more than a random killing, and why the collapse of communism led to such inhuman hostility. It’s intriguing material, made even more emblematic by how this director incorporates it into the subtext. Some hold a significant place in the plot. Others are asides that only come back to resonate later.


Perhaps the best thing about Eastern Promises, however, is its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character “where are they now.” But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person’s slow, controlled deliberation. It’s a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggest definiteness, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he’s working in, it explains crime’s continuing hold on our consciousness.


 


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