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Sunday, Apr 29, 2007


Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.


So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.


This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:


Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer


Let’s face it – the original wasn’t some massive megahit. It did rather nicely for its studio ($155 million), especially for a movie very few people actually liked (Rotten Tomatoes Rating – a mere 26%). And up until the sequel was announced, many in the comic book fanbase felt that this entire franchise would end up a well deserved one-off deal. Now comes the inevitable follow-up (thanks in part to the success of the film on DVD and cable TV showings) and with it, a villain guaranteed to make audiences groan. Back in the day, the Silver Surfer was a misunderstood alien dude who came to Earth to wreck some havoc, only to fall into the whole peace and love vibe of the magical ‘60s, and end up a kind of counterculture convert. Here, he’s the T-1000 on a CG boogie board. While geeks have been salivating over the possibility of this character’s arrival from the moment the original Roger Corman adaptation of the quartet was released, it remains difficult to figure out just who’s anxious to see Michael Chiklis in a bad Ben Grimm outfit again (Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm? That’s another story altogether). Indeed, everything about this cinematic series feels second rate and underdone, which translates into very little blockbuster potential.

Live Free or Die Hard


Sorry Bruce, it just won’t work this time. Over the 12 years since the last installment in this series, you’ve done a wonderful job of dispelling your ‘action hero only’ mythos, and settled into a nice rut as a talented, reliable actor. Sure, you’ve certainly stumbled along the way (The Story of Us, Perfect Stranger), and your rocky personal life didn’t help matters much, but you did a decent job of leaving John McClane and his “yippee yay kay aye-ing” in your wake. So why pick him back up after all this time? It’s not like the latest generation of film fans has been eager to see you return to the agent against the. apocalypse format, and this latest idea (a supersmart computer hacker tries to give the entire world a crippling virus) is just so Y2K. And the choice of Len Wiseman as a director? PU! Come on, this is a guy whose been making werewolf vs. vampire films for the last four years – and when he’s done with you, he’s back to the paranormal with yet another installment in the Underworld franchise (this time out, it’s a prequel). Unless the stunt setpieces redefine the concept of action, this latest series installment looks dead on arrival.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry


This is clearly a case of a high concept losing sight of what truly makes people laugh. Now, if you get a bunch of drunken frat boys in a room together and tell them a slew of homophobic jokes, you’re bound to get some beer-soaked guffaws. But in our proto-PC society, where humor has to now walk a fine line between crass and considerate, something like this sloppy same sex stupidity can’t possibly work. Adam Sandler appeared to move beyond his arrested adolescence aura with Click, and for the most part, his fanbase decided to join him. But he has long stopped being the clown prince of the college crowd, and trying to reenergize your star status by making fun of gay men seems like a tricky proposition. Certainly you’ll draw the Neanderthals and those predisposed to prejudice as pratfalls, but there is something uneasy about the whole forced machismo and ‘emotions are emasculating’ narrative undercurrent.  Rumor has it that the studio ran this film by GLAAD before approving its release. It was also true that this script sat around for years, with many famous A-listers a tad antsy about how it would play in this supposedly enlightened post-millennial age. Here’s guessing it won’t.

Underdog


Talk about your animated sacrilege! Underdog may have been many things – a rhyme obsessed goody two shoes, a blind as a bat paramour for an eager Sweet Polly Purebred, a simpleton superhero battling less than capable crooks – but he was never, ever, EVER! considered to be real. Anthropomorphized and pictured in pen and ink, but no child ever thought he was an honest to goodness pup. So what do those dunce caps over in Tinsel Town try to pull on us? They figure that they can turn this entire project into a live action kiddie action film and no one will really care. They’ll even give the title character a hip adolescent swagger, turning him from a moralizing mensch into a skaterat with a tail. Didn’t these people learn ANYTHING from the whole Itchy/Scratchy/Poochie fiasco? You don’t mess around with the classics – even if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon the brilliant casting decision of Peter Dinklage playing villian Simon Barsinister. Belgian director Frederik Du Chau may have the proper family film credentials (he made the semi-successful Racing Stripes) but this pile of hound hashwey appears ready to crash and burn. Those who remember the old series won’t darken its big screen doors, and by this time in the season (mid-August), the wee ones are just worn out.

The Invasion


Reshoots months after a movie has wrapped are never a good sign. Reshoots helmed by a completely different director many months after a movie has wrapped is basically box office poison. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the dynamic German director behind the fabulous Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich was handpicked by Joel Silver to realize this more or less unnecessary update of the classic Body Snatchers as his first foray into big time Hollywood filmmaking. What he wasn’t prepared for was the meddling by the manic producer, an accident which sidelined one of his stars (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden Bond-ing of male lead Daniel Craig. With his cut delivered in early 2006, Silver decided to simply sit on it. Then, when V for Vendetta proved popular, he contacted director James McTeague to reform the film. He, in turn, brought along the Wachowski Brothers, and soon Hirschbiegel became a creative persona non grata. But all of this is really ancillary to Invasion‘s biggest problem – there are already three versions of this idea sitting out in the motion picture marketplace – and two out of the three are considered classics. With its tentative production rep and a legitimate legacy to live up to, this film can’t ‘replicate’ past successes.


During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.


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Sunday, Apr 29, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Elliott Smith
High Times [MP3]
     


Buy at Kill Rock Stars Pre-order


New Moon contains 24 songs recorded 1994-1997, a prolific time in Smith’s career, when he recorded his self-titled album and Either/Or (both also released by Kill Rock Stars). Arguably the most gifted song-writer of his generation, Elliott Smith produced a large body of work that includes five solo albums, as well as From a Basement on the Hill (2004), a collection of songs completed before his death in 2003. Like his other work, New Moon reflects the power of Smith’s ability to integrate rich, melodic music with poetic, multi-layered lyrics.”—Kill Rock Stars [releasing 8 May 2007]


The Saturday Knights
45 [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“The Saturday Knights are a culmination of four freaks, a jaw-jacking combination of performing personalities: Storyteller and entertainer Tilson, who can tickle any lady’s funny bone; low-income yarn spinner and urban graffiti poet Barfly; indie rock and hip-hop mutli-instrumentalist B-Web, who brought together those genres on his joints for Olympia, Washington label K Records; and pumped up by the big beats and psychedelic turntable-art of DJ Suspence.”—Light in the Attic Records


Tarwater
A Marriage in Belmont [MP3]
     


St. Vincent
Now. Now. [MP3]
     


Shannon Wright
Everybody’s Got Their Own Part to Play [MP3]
     


 


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Saturday, Apr 28, 2007


For Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), the trip back to Pine Island is bittersweet. He’s married to Helen (Constance Ford), a woman he can’t stand, and raising a daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), confused about the difference between his permissiveness and his wife’s frigid primness. Moreover, the residential resort holds a lot of mixed memories for Ken. He was a lifeguard there in his youth, working for the Hunter family and wooing local lass Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire). Desperate to make something of himself, Ken left his love, and she wound up marrying the bumbling son of the owners. As an adult, Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) has squandered the family fortune and spends his days in a half-drunken stupor. Luckily, the couple has a conscientious son named Johnny (Troy Donahue), who wants to help as much as he can.


The reunion between the parties is problematic, especially with Helen acting extremely suspicious and the young people discovering a burning desire for each other almost instantaneously. Things come to a loggerhead when Ken and Sylvia begin an affair, a series of secret encounters that leads to the break-up of their respective families. Naturally, the teens are devastated, hoping to keep their love alive. But with the infighting and legal wrangling, feelings get deeply hurt. Even a new marriage can’t mend the damage. As they struggle to stay together, Molly and Johnny long for A Summer Place, somewhere they can go and be happy—and alone.


A Summer Place is a movie about sex. And hate. Actually, it’s a film about the unbridled passions of ardent lovers separated, either by distance or design, and how they will stoop to all manner of anger-based schmaltz to realize their throbbing biological urges. Based on the scandalous novel by Sloan Wilson (also famous for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), this overheated sudser, loaded with more histrionics and innuendo than a tent full of Cub Scouts with a National Geographic, does almost anything to draw us in. It provides one of the most heinous, hissable villains of all time—a woman who has basically boiled life down to a series of prejudices, predilections, and presumptions. This porkpie shrew, expertly essayed by Constance Ford, is the kind of cow who makes you want to reach out into the screen itself and choke that smug smirk off her obviously overfed face. She delivers such devastating attacks on everyone in the film—her fragile daughter, her dour husband, the innkeepers of the vacation spot—that you wait in desperation for her well-earned comeuppance. In fact, you beg the movie for the moment where all the cards she’s carefully stacked against the rest of her brood come falling back on top of her. Unfortunately, A Summer Place doesn’t provide that kind of denouement. Instead, it has other things on its mind, issues involving carnality and its expression, both physically and emotionally.


If you weren’t aware that it wasn’t invented until the mid ‘90s, you’d swear the entire cast of this film was strung out on maximum-strength Viagra. Wild cats with biologically modified animalistic urges aren’t in this much heat. Our primary horndog is Richard Egan, playing the husband of the horrid housefrau mentioned before. His position as a lowly teen lifeguard was especially helpful in wooing the ladies, and as he’s aged into a man of wealth, he’s got lovin’ on his brain morning, noon, and night. Having never gotten over his affair with Pine Island local Sylvia, he despises his wife for withholding her prudish favors and preaches a kind of corporeal clemency to his hormonally hopped-up daughter. In fact, it’s safe to say that if he didn’t invent the hedonistic philosophy, Egan’s Ken Jorgenson was a staunch advocate of the “if it feels good, do it” mantra. As a result, his offspring, essayed with a syrupy strangeness by ‘50s cinematic chastity belt Sandra Dee, is simultaneously stunted and sizzling, ready to rock and roll once the right guy comes along, only to feel tremendous guilt afterwards. In essence, she’s organized religion without the burden of the “Big V.” Lucky for her then that Troy Donahue is in residence. The minute she meets him, it’s major lip lock time, with just a few cautionary words about “being good” before proceeding through the rest of the adolescent “bases.”


Naturally, all of this makes Donahue’s parents all the more unhappy. In fact, the filmmakers felt so bad for mother Hunter, played by Dorothy McGuire, that they had to put a glaucoma-level of soft focus on her just to keep the lust issues in check. In a scene guaranteed to give the casual viewer a compositional headache, Egan and his former love have an attic assignation where, half the time, you can barely make out the features on McGuire’s face. Granted, she was five years older than her costar, but the more unbelievable element was the film’s apocryphal timeline. Sylvia and her swim stud were teens when they made their “mistake.” He hasn’t been back to the island in nearly 20 years. He has a daughter whose 16, while she has a 17-year-old. Math majors out there will see that the McGuire, pushing 44, is trying to pass for mid-30s. Even worse, Egan, who looks like a bulldog beaten about the face and head with a case of bourbon and Old Spice, is also in his post-20s prime. Call it an old-fashioned casting conceit, but these two make youthful indiscretion seem positively prehistoric. And then there’s Arthur Kennedy. As McGuire’s husband Bart, this constantly inebriated loser is like old money gone to super seed. Aperitif glass permanently glued to his hand, conversational skills both enhanced and exaggerated by his constant snorts of booze, he’s supposed to be the unredeemable harlequin of this menagerie. His bon mots are aimed at making him seem witty despite his permanently pickled nature. He simply turns out as pathetic as a human can possibly be without resorting to stories of childhood molestation.


In the end, it’s all in service of cheese so ripe and sensationally stinky that we anticipate every amazingly aromatic moment of it. Writer/director Delmer Daves, whose pen was responsible for the whacked-out weeper An Affair to Remember and whose eye delivered Dark Passage and the baby-on-fire masterpiece Susan Slade, is an expert at making this kind of potboiler pulp percolate with sentimentality and spice. Not one for subtlety, he keeps his characters cranked over to “11” and never once stops to examine the authenticity of his moments. Instead, he takes the standard soap opera material and makes an elephantine opera out of the smallest situations. Preempting John Waters in the Christmas tree defilement department, and letting each face slap—and threat of medical virginity checking—sink in like an interpersonal war crime, he’s not just making a regressive romance picture. No, Daves is delving into the heart of human darkness, illustrating the actual ways in which people decipher and destroy each other. Rendering every conversation an experiment in socio-anthropology and reducing the slow sensual burn into an aberrant art form, the end result is an unapologetic campfest fashioned onto a cleaned-up copy of The Kinsey Report. You’ll hate yourself for loving every insinuation-laced minute, and the aftershock is akin to a hangover from too many bottles of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine. But you’ll be as happy as a casino-ed clam once it’s all over.


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Friday, Apr 27, 2007


Liv Ullmann is one of the most talented, visionary, and literate performers in modern acting’s history. She also happens to be a hopelessly addicted to Henrik Ibsen’s simple and eloquent play, A Doll’s House. Throughout her long, illustrious career, the plum role of Nora has lingered in her work, making her (in this writer’s opinion) one of the actresses to best equipped to navigate the tricky depths and glossed over surfaces of this complex character.


Ullmann, who like Ibsen is Norwegian, has said she has a strong connection to Nora. There are many similarities between the actress’s real life and that of the character: she had a long, ongoing relationship with a much older, semi-controlling man (Swedish director Ingmar Bergman), her fame and personality were largely related to her relationship with Bergman, and as a performer, Ullmann is always putting on appearances like Nora; she has many great, fascinating layers. As Ullman puts it:


“This woman, who uses and manipulates those around her while at the same time wanting to help and love them, refuses to do something she feels is morally repugnant to her when the decisive moment comes. It is beyond her imagination to conceive of exploiting the situation when Dr. Rank declares his love and begs to give her the money she so badly needs… When she finally sees, she also understands the anger she feels over everything that is false between them is directed just as much against herself as against him. Her responsibility was as great as his. She hopes that the change will also take place in him—not for her sake, but for his own… In the first acts Nora is not just the songbird and the squirrel; neither is she pure wisdom and feminine strength in the last.”


Her first appearance as Nora would, technically, have to be in the early 1970s, as Marianne in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film is a thinly veiled, more modern version of Ibsen’s domestic epic. Scenes tells the story of a brutally unhappy couple examining their relationship; he is older, she seems easily controlled by him. Like Nora, Marianne must put on appearances for the couple’s friends and the general public.


By the end of the film, Marianne comes into her own. She finally lets her strong personality shine through, allowing her marriage to Johann disintegrate in the process. As Marianne says in the film “For my sisters and me, our entire upbringing was aimed at our being agreeable”—something that could also ring true for Nora. It’s as though she is able to, for the first time, be on her own without the punishing influence of her overbearing husband.


One other interesting detail of note is the fact that Scenes takes place mainly in the mundanely decorated living room of the middle-class couple. It’s a nice representation of the couple’s bourgeois normality. Early on in the film, Bergman even has Johann and Marianne returning from a performance of A Doll’s House as if to really drive his point home.


Many Swedish film scholars would argue that Ullmann has played versions of Nora in just about all of her films with Bergman. In efforts such as Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, and even in Cries and Whispers, she essays variations of the sheltered woman-child wife, each creation seemingly fragile but ultimately steely.


Ullmann originally played the stage role of Nora in its native Norwegian language, and said she found it incredibly difficult to transition to English when she brought an acclaimed version of the play to Broadway in 1975. Nonetheless, she managed to overcome the language barrier with an acute, complex performance. The actress explains some of the challenges in working in both languages:

“Performing ‘A Doll’s House’ in a foreign language, after having played it in Norwegian is extremely difficult for me. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. Read and read. Make a lot of changes in the translation because Nora’s words are so full of meaning for me. I know them so well, and I think the English translation has missed a lot of what is Nora’s distinctive quality.


One of the problems I have is ‘washing’ the Norwegian text from my head. It is essential for me now to think in English and I cannot leave the Norwegian associations behind me, I will never be able to manage this.


Here, I have to acquire a new set of images, a new grid of references; Nora in New York can never be the same as Nora in Oslo.”

In her later life, as Ullmann left her relationship with Bergman, she abandoned acting for a new career as a stage and film director. Her long-planned big-screen version of Ibsen’s play was never realized, but it was set to star Kate Winslet as a Nora for the new millennium, and co-star John Cusack as Helmer. It is a damn shame that this Doll’s House expert was not allowed to give us yet another brilliant interpretation of this classic. After all, she knows this material better than anyone. She lived it.


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Friday, Apr 27, 2007

Via Chris Hayes, a link to an essay by Nicolas Carr equating blogging and other user-generated and/or user-organized web content to sharecropping. His point here hinges on the way social networking sites are at once monolithic and composed of millions of highly individualized pages.


What’s being concentrated, in other words, is not content but the economic value of content. MySpace, Facebook, and many other businesses have realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.


In other words, you maintain your social life on a corporately-owned networking site while that corporation reaps advertising rewards for the vibrancy you bring there. What do you get? The right to broadcast your life to millions of potential viewers on a branded portal.


It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale - on a web scale - that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.


In an earlier essay, Carr challenges the technophilia of proselytizers for Web 2.0 and the inevitable evolution in human consciousness its most zealous proponents argue for.


When we view the Web in religious terms, when we imbue it with our personal yearning for transcendence, we can no longer see it objectively. By necessity, we have to look at the Internet as a moral force, not as a simple collection of inanimate hardware and software. No decent person wants to worship an amoral conglomeration of technology.
And so all the things that Web 2.0 represents - participation, collectivism, virtual communities, amateurism - become unarguably good things, things to be nurtured and applauded, emblems of progress toward a more enlightened state. But is it really so? Is there a counterargument to be made? Might, on balance, the practical effect of Web 2.0 on society and culture be bad, not good?


As evidence he cites some egregious Wikipedia entries and wonders “when the intelligence in ‘collective intelligence’ will begin to manifest itself.”


No wisdom of crowds for Carr. He argues that our enthusiasm for the technology of Web 2.0 leads us to value what it makes possible and ascribe goodness to it automatically—we commit the teleological fallacy and assume all change is always for the better, that the quest for greatness is what always motivates lasting historical change. So amateur content and aggregated opinion become bastions of truth and authenticity as opposed to the decadent moribund world of professionalized media and individual experts. Carr rejects all this, siding with the professionals over the amateurs. His argument is pretty compelling, though he sometimes seems unduly defensive, as if he were one of those moribund experts trying to prevent the commercial value of his expertise from eroding.


And so, having gone on for so long, I at long last come to my point. The Internet is changing the economics of creative work - or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture - and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.


This is what the Tsarist bureaucrats and petty bourgeois mensheviks must have sounded like to the bolsheviks in October 1917.


He’s arguing for the economic value of gatekeepers, but the argument seems predicated on the idea that a flood of ideologically sanctioned amateur-produced junk will make us all forget real quality when we see it, and I’m not sure that’s true. For an elite group of futurists and technonerds, Web 2.0 is ideologically salient, but I think most people respond to user-generated content in the opposite way, viewing it not as faultless but as illegitimate, and they cling more to sanctioned brands in a confusing and chaotic marketplace of ideas.  Good filters are more valuable than ever and perhaps this is Carr’s point in the later post I initially cited—the more free content produced, the greater the value of the paid filter, be it Google or something else.


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