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Friday, Aug 24, 2007

Before you believe the hype of the Institute for Policy Innovation’s study on music piracy, you should also read this Ars Technica article which dissects the study and points out its many flaws.  One in particular is the iffy argument that unauthorized downloads automatically translate into lost sales on a one-by-one basis.  Other studies have said that the opposite actually happens- many downloaders actually go out and buy the albums they like too.  Of course, this won’t stop the RIAA from touting this study and saying that it bolsters their rationales for their endless lawsuits. 


Speaking of which, the RIAA flowchart might not be too offbase as it seems…


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Friday, Aug 24, 2007


Though it’s still officially several weeks off, SE&L senses that fall is finally on the horizon. Sure, it’s still stifling outside, temperatures matching the amount of money your average Hollywood blockbuster rakes in, so it’s hard to get completely into that autumnal feeling. But the sad fact is that, within the next month, leaves will begin to turn and days will start getting shorter. Movies will also be transforming, shuffling away from popcorn pulp and into more awards baiting brashness. You can see the dichotomy clearer over the 25 August weekend. On Saturday night, you can see 2006’s winner for Best Picture, a highly publicized, Internet fueled horror romp, a sad scarefest, and an amazing indie experience featuring an Oscar worthy performance. In essence, it’s a lot like how September through December will look – a few amazing movies surrounded by varying degrees of cinematic support. If it’s not already part of your collection, do yourself a favor. Switch over to Cinemax on Saturday and see one of the decade’s best efforts. It’s certified SE&L sublime:


Premiere Pick
The Departed


As the illustrious LL Cool J once warned, don’t call it a comeback. Indeed, Martin Scorsese has not been hiding along the fringes of cinema, waiting for another certified gangster blockbuster to resurrect his implied lagging artistic credibility. Since his last film, The Aviator, was nominated for several Oscars, it seems silly to suggest that the certified American auteur is arriving from anywhere but the top. Besides, some of his best films – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ – have nothing to do with mean streets and goodfellas. This does not lesson the impact or import of this brilliant Boston crime drama – no one does operatic brutality better – but Scorsese is much more than movie mob boss. He doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. And besides, he finally got the industry recognition he’s so richly deserved. Comeback? More like a stand down. (25 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Snakes on a Plane


One of last year’s most debated films finally arrives on the small screen with none of its pleasures, or problems, lost. The Fourth Estate foamed over how the supposed push from the Internet failed to fulfill its blockbuster potential, but this doesn’t mean the final product is bad. In fact, this is one of the great guilty pleasures of the last two decades, a dopey action spoof with a lot of humor and a juicy amount of gore.  (25 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Grudge 2


As the fortunes of J-Horror slowly fade back into the fad gadget woodwork, here’s an opportunity to see how wrongheaded the genre can go. Trading on the first film’s archetypal narrative – ghost haunts house and causes curse – and moving headliner Sarah Michelle Gellar to cameo status, we get more of the same strictures that eventually killed the up and coming dread category. Sadly, director Takashi Shimizu has signed on for…you guessed it…The Grudge 3. (25 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Sherrybaby


In what many are calling a career defining turn, Secretary/World Trade Center star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an ex-con trying to reconnect with her young daughter after an extended stay in prison. With the cloud of drugs and abuse constantly shadowing her efforts, the story becomes more than a mere formulaic melodrama. It actually touches on what makes people susceptible to such self-destructive situations. Thanks to her performance, Gyllenhaal finds the truth inside her character’s torment. (25 August, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
House of 1000 Corpses


It’s clear from the opening moments of this movie that Zombie recognized the rarity of being able to direct a film. Thousands dream of the chance, yet few if any ever really get it. So as his (conceivably) one and only shot at bringing his love of the horror genre to the screen, this full blown macabre obsessive was going to make every second count. That is why House is so overwhelmingly busy, teeming with ideas, and seismic in its tonal shifts. Zombie more of less filtered his fright Id through an undying love of exploitation fare and forged the kind of reference heavy homage that only equally batshit film fans would adore. From the far too clever casting to the occasional clips from classic terror titles, this is the man’s sinister scrapbook come to life. Granted, a lot of it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when our sole survivor ends up in the lair of a poorly defined Dr. Satan, but the ride is filled with exceptional individual moments.(30 August, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices


The Human Stain


We expect much more from the three people behind this middling melodrama. Robert Benton is an Oscar winning director (for Kramer vs. Kramer) and noted screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (several of the best Star Treks) had Phillip Roth’s intense novel to work from. Of course, casting can kill you, and that’s basically what happened here. Both Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins don’t work. Once you know the plot, you completely understand why. (26 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Writer of O


In the ‘60s/‘70s, The Story of O was a scandalous bestseller. It brought the fetish of sadomasochism to the forefront in a way that few factual documents had ever dared. For decades, the identity of the author remained a mystery, cloaked in a veil of ambiguity that suggested some smattering of reality inside all the highly sexualized romance. In the early ‘90s, the truth was finally revealed, and this fascinating documentary followed the fall out.  (27 August, Sundance Channel, 10:30PM EST)

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man


Though he’s never had a major hit on his own, several singers and musical pioneers have plumed his catalog for their career highlights. Now the Canadian troubadour gets a celebratory documentary on his life and times, mixing tributes from the rock and roll elite with performances in recognition of his amazing music. Some will find the juxtaposition a tad tenuous, but it’s the sonic statements that end up painting the more valid picture. (28 August, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
2010


Peter Hyams was just asking for trouble. No one takes on the mantle of Stanley Kubrick and comes out clean – just ask Steven Spielberg. Still, after the success of his High Noon in space (Outland) and the vigilante justice joke The Star Chamber, he made a sequel to the seminal 2001 his next project. Granted, original author Arthur C. Clarke had continued the epic journey of the alien monoliths in a series of books, but the cinematic statement made by the original movie seemed too monumental to overcome. Still, Hyams tried, and with the appearance of Keir Dullea as the ‘embodiment’ of missing astronaut Dave Bowman and the original voice of HAL the computer in tow, things seemed stable. Even the advances in special effects helped to sell the sometimes silly storyline. But it was one auteur’s undeniable genius that hampered this production from the get go. It remains the reason the rest of Clarke’s Odyssey books have avoided a big screen adaptation. (29 August, American Movie Classics, 12PM EST)

Additional Choices
Wild at Heart


David Lynch gives us a post-modern Wizard of Oz and then replaces all the recognizable iconography with sex and violence. The surreal story of Sailor and Lula is often heralded as one of the director’s dopier works, and if you go by the more “pharmaceutical” definition of the word, you’d be right. Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage are dynamite, and the visual flourishes used throughout sell the story’s strange designs very well indeed.  (27 August, Indieplex, 11PM EST)

The Graveyard


Yes, it’s another in a long, LONG line of stupid slasher films. Yes, it features the unfathomable premise of a cemetery sitting smack dab next to a summer camp (taxidermy must be one of the arts and crafts), and it offers the standard slack-jawed teens getting killed for reasons of randiness and retardation. So why is SE&L recommending this slop? Because, every once in a while, your aesthetic needs an enema – and this is it. (30 August, Showtime Beyond, 12AM EST)

Erika’s Hot Summer


With a tagline like “She Forced an Entire Lifetime of Passion Into One Lust Filled Summer!”, how can you resist. Back before porn was a slow dial-up connection away, the tempted took their chances on softcore shams like this. Granted, star Merci Montello makes for some damn fine eye candy, and the notion of inherent naughtiness in such a production provides some decent eros. But if you’re looking for the hard stuff, you’ll be ‘doubly’ disappointed. (31 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

 


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Friday, Aug 24, 2007


In the midst of an extended Parisian idyll, time for a change. Even with so many things not yet accounted for—its people, streets, buildings, art – well, that is life. Like that. A number of realities forestalled; any number of entries that may have to wait: entries worth the wait. Because one can always return to Paris. Paris will always be there. Forever beckon. Paris will always pull visitors into its sinewy, supple, sensual embrace. For now, I am back on the road – or in this case the air – onto another continent, across another ocean.


Tonight it’s the red-eye. LA into New York. How I got to the west coast is another story. Happened in a wink. Life like that. Close your eyes and risk missing the next possibility, delight, worry, intervention, solution. Life being best when it is precisely like that.


 


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Friday, Aug 24, 2007

Ken Goldberg, a pioneer of telerobotic art projects on the Internet, has just become the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media. I’ve been following, and writing about, his projects for over ten years now, since we first met at one of Peter Lunenfeld’s Mediawork gatherings at Art Center in Los Angeles. He’d been a professor with the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research department at Berkeley and had a dual identity: as a scientist he invented new tools, and as an artist he found cultural applications for them and critiqued them. His branch of robotics is telepresence, which grew out of the second world war atomic bomb project’s need to work with dangerous objects at a distance. Telepresence was brought into the popular realm when Dr. Robert Ballard’s remotely operated robots discovered and explored the wreck of the Titanic. Ken developed a theory, ‘telepistemology’, to explore what we can know from a distance, and he’s wary of how people unquestioningly accept the veracity of what they find on the internet. “I’m trying to facilitate the resumption of disbelief,” he says.


The Telegarden. Image courtesy of Ken Goldberg.

The Telegarden. Image courtesy of Ken Goldberg.


Among his projects are The Telegarden, where people planted and tended a community garden in a large flowerbox, by controlling a robot arm over the internet; Dislocation of Intimacy, a meditation on how both Plato’s Cave Parable, and Duchamp’s surrealist art translate to the internet; recent explorations of surveillance technologies in an anonymous monitoring system after John Baldessari’s ‘bubbles’ project, that obscured the faces of the people he photographed; and Ballet Mori, where San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre improvised a dance to a live feed of activity from the Hayward earthquake fault—translated into sound—on the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.


His first release as Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media reminds us just how crucial scientific innovation is in shaping the direction and content of media.


A medium, from the Latin for “middle element”, acts as a lens between observer and object, or between subjects. New Media refers to media that are discovered, invented, or adopted during a particular point or period in history. The alphabet was a new medium in 1800 BCE; subsequent new media include the printing press, telescope, camera, X-Ray, and the electric light. Contemporary new media range from Wifi to Wii to Wikipedia. Lenses both transmit and distort. As Sophocles observed, “nothing vast enters the life of motals without a curse.” One goal of the BCNM is to highlight and critically examine the opportunities and risks associated with new media, and to consider how they can constructively benefit education, political engagement, privacy and aesthetic experience.


Organizations such as the Berkeley Center for New Media help compensate for the way that the mainstream media is failing us through its lack of understanding and involvement with the process of the invention of new tools and lack of engagement with the artists and critics who link the new storytelling methods with ancient traditions and put timeless symbols and parables, that guide and sustain us, into context for the time were living in. There’s just a restless anxiety, a fear exhibited by media organizations, that by not grasping what’s happening they’ll be bumped off the gravy train as it hurtles down the information highway. Wired reports in it’s August issue that marketing and advertising executives are rushing to be a part of the synthetic environment “Second Life”, afraid to miss out on the hot new phenomenon, even though it’s becoming apparent that it’s not living up to its hype. “It’s as if the moon suddenly had oxygen. Nobody wants to miss out,” wrote Frank Rose. “Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled “My Virtual Life” more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. (Wired created a 12-page “Travel Guide” last fall.) Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t justify the excitement.” In the same issue it was Martha Stewart who proved to be the tech savvy one, with hints on making a digital sound system disappear in the home, and how to manage banks of battery charging devices, by showing an awareness that technology is for communications.  “I think we are insane,” she said. “I used to get 120 to 140 phone calls a day. And now rarely does the phone ring — other than a few archaic friends who call me — because of the BlackBerry…. I think it’s awful. My daughter emails me. When your daughter starts to email you instead of talk to you… It’s horrible. You cannot forget human communication.”


“New media can transform how we perceive, learn, communicate and experience the world,” says Ken Goldberg. “What is ‘new’ is accelerating rapidly with emerging technologies, yet remains deeply rooted in powerful aesthetic, cultural and political forces.”


 


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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007


Sometimes, you have to forgive a subject’s more sensational elements. While a documentary is supposed to be, first and foremost, a work of plainspoken truths, there are elements inherent in any exploration that tend to unintentionally glamorize or glorify issues. Take Michael Moore’s recent SiCKO. Sure, people can argue that the filmmaker manipulates situations to satisfy his own, idealized agenda, but when the material is as mangled as the US Health Care system, the reality is always going to override the outrage. It’s a similar problem facing first timer Jason Kohn. Tackling the reign of terror flowing throughout South American stronghold Brazil, a fear based on a fracturing class system, high level political corruption, and a freakish fad of kidnappings for quick cash, he sometimes delivers more histrionics than hard facts. But Manda Bala –translated, “Send a Bullet” – believes whole heartedly in its exotic exposé, and for the most part, it wins us over as well.


Similar to the stance taken directly after 9/11, when antibiotics and duck tape streamed off store shelves (in anticipation of another attack), wealthy Brazilians have taken to tapping into a massive cottage industry of security. We hear tales told by businessmen and big wigs about daily abduction attempts, and as a result, classes in personal protection (including REAL defensive driving) and car bulletproofing are all the rage. They represent a status symbol of sorts, a way to differentiate the important people living in Sao Paolo’s futuristic high rises from the fringe factions metering out a meager living inside the ghetto slums. Kohn connects this Wild West level of criminality with a famous political corruption case. Permanent government fixture Jader Barbalho managed to skim more than 2 BILLION dollars off the top of the Brazilian coffers, thanks in part to a bogus Amazon development fund and a frog farm that functioned as a money laundering scheme. Though hounded by the Courts and the special police task forces, he remains a powerful Teflon titan.


Interspersed throughout this class structure symbolism is the sickening underside of all this body snatching. The desperate criminals, wanting to prove that they mean business, make a habit of chopping of the ears of their victims. It is these souvenirs, along with cruel and condemning notes that figure into every citizen’s nightmares. A famed plastic surgeon, who specializes in ocular reconstruction, explains his burgeoning practice, while an actual victim recounts her maiming at the hands of some heinous cutthroats (it happened during a marathon showing of Alfred Hitchcock films, no less). The final straw suggesting a link between all these situations is an actual sitdown with an authentic abductor. Considering himself a kind of Robin Hood for his shanty town (“when they can’t afford medicine, I buy it for them”) we are supposed to see the connection between poverty’s protection of the gangster, and a failed electorate securing an obviously crooked Congressman’s greed. As long as they keep their people happy, the police will be kept at much more than arm’s length.


Granted, for most of Manda Bala, the links are limited and without context. Kohn prefers to build a puzzle rather that spell everything out, so the first few minutes spent on a slightly disgusting frog farm appear to make no sense. Similarly, our villain is introduced in an offhand, almost slight manner. He’s called a criminal by several people, but it’s not until Kohn explains his failed assistance organization, SUDAM, that we see how horrible Barbalho’s acts really are. Then the tie-in to the amphibian agriculture is established, and things begin to make sense. In essence, Manda Bala wants to view Brazil as an emerging international power, an overpopulated place of possible prosperity riddled with the frequently foul growing pains of any soon to be superpower. Kohn wisely avoids all the culture shock, the abhorrent obsession with beauty (and the surgical manipulation of same), as well as the rampant materialism in the region. Instead, this is a story about immorality of the highest level – between people and people, and citizens and their social structure.


As an apprentice to Errol Morris, Kohn should have recognized that a narrower focus would serve this material well. After all, he stumbled upon a potential superstar in Dr. Avelar. Not afraid to take credit for almost every medical discovery involved in his profession, he represents the best of both narrative worlds. On the one hand, his practice revolves around rebuilding the faces of those kidnapped and scarred. We see, first hand, the kind of scalpel and cartilage miracles he can create. On the other hand, he’s rich, and as a wealthy member of Sao Paolo’s elite, he runs the risk of having himself (or more likely, his family) abducted. So he extols the virtues of his many bodyguards, pimped out – if high profile – car, and his secluded country retreat. In this one character, all the elements the director hopes to discuss in this documentary are present. Instead of trying to manipulate four separate storylines, this one significant player could have provided a fulcrum for a clearer conversation.


Still, Manda Bala is unbelievably effective, the kind of film that gets you wondering when these horrible inhumane practices will finally reach the Northern Hemisphere. While there’s a much greater police presence in the US than in Brazil (a startling statistic states that for the 20 million citizens in Sao Paolo, there is a kidnapping task force of only 800), the abduction tactic is reminiscent of the car jacking craze and home invasion phenomenon of the late ‘90s. It speaks to a brazenness of the new criminal, the kind that sees the end goal without ever once taking into consideration the consequences – legally or ethically. While it may seem silly to say this, most crime prevention is based on the deterrent quality of laws. The theory states that people will tend to avoid felonious acts (especially in cases of murder and drug dealing) because the penalties will be excessive and severe.


But with a clear culture of corruption seeping through all manner of South American society, and a message that states that even the most obvious acts will go unpunished, the opposite is occurring. If politicians can prosper and profit without feeling the pinch of the police, why should the more desperate and dependent care? After all, they have the backing of the vast majority of the population (the poor won’t be traded for cash anytime soon) and with the aforementioned acts of goodwill, they tend to be borough heroes.  Indeed, Kohn argues that the newfangled industries that cater to the wealthy’s nervous needs actually feed into the problem. As the targets become warier of the criminal’s ways, the bad guys switch up and shift their attention. In the end, it’s a vicious cycle that suggests there really is no end in sight.


Even with its occasional faults, Manda Bala does what documentaries do best – illuminate an intellectual or social situation that our otherwise narrow Western viewpoint would never even consider. The visual beauty in the film – Brazil is one of the most inviting looking regions in the entire world – contrasted with the cynical, almost comic approach to the problems, lends to moments of well earned epiphany, as well as frequently flops back into directorial self-indulgence. The story of how the influential of Sao Paolo came to this fraudulent conclusion makes for an incredibly insightful experience. Here’s hoping the eventual reform movement gets as much prescient attention. 



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