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Friday, Oct 12, 2007

Is the culture industry responsible for democratizing better access to the celebrities it manufactures in the mass media? Or to put that more plainly, should every kid have just as much of a chance of seeing Hannah Montana live as they do of seeing her on the Disney channel or hearing her sing on the radio? In the Financial Times yesterday, John Gapper analyzed the problem of ticket brokers cornering the market in Hannah Montana tickets, which are apparently as highly demanded as Tickle Me Elmos and Cabbage Patch Dolls were in their day.


So popular is the show with tweens that the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tour is a red-hot ticket. Tickets with a face value of up to $64 each are selling for an average of $232 on StubHub, an internet trading site. That is higher even than average secondary prices for the Bruce Springsteen and The Police tours, although the latter charged up to $250 per ticket.
Fair enough, you may think. Companies such as Google initially set the price for shares in IPOs and from then on the secondary market decides. When demand outstrips supply, prices rise. The same goes for bands: they sell tickets at face value through a distributor (in this case Ticketmaster). Prices then fluctuate on secondary sites such as StubHub.
But thousands of parents who failed to snag Hannah Montana tickets from Ticketmaster are not so phlegmatic. Nor are the attorneys-general of Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri and Pennsylvania. They are apoplectic.


Is equal access to a pop star who appeals across the classes to children of all income brackets a standard of fairness that mass media generates, along with the illusion of equality that the quasi-egalitarian nature of wide distribution evokes? Because so many have access to celebrities in the media, consumers may develop the expectation that access to them is an entitlement, and ever more intrusive coverage of celebrities would seem to only enhance that expectation. In line with that expectation, promoters set the prices at a rate that they think demonstrates their intentions of making them affordable for middle-class fans (whom they don’t want to alienate), but this only prompts ticket brokers to buy as many as they can and resell them. As Gapper explains, “The courts have not yet decided whether these tactics are illegal or merely unpleasant. It clearly puts Ticketmaster at a disadvantage to banks that allocate shares to investors in IPOs because it has lost control of who gets scarce tickets.”


The notion of fairness embedded in free-market economics would require that we let markets determine the value of things by letting prices rise in order to find the equilibrium between supply and demand. This rids us of “artificial” constraints, and lets whoever wants something badly enough (desire being measured by a willingness to spend) get it. But when you don’t have money to spend, you can’t express desire through a willingness to spend it. Instead, you have to express it by either (a) working hard to get more money, or (2) complaining to authorities who might then intervene in markets on your behalf. Thus, parents want to force tour promoters to restrict access to tickets, so that more non-brokers have the ability to buy them at face value, which the secondary market proves are far too low.


Markets are often regarded as inherently democratic in the way they bring goods to more and more consumers and allow consumer-citizens to feel they have the same rights because they shop in the same store. But the prevalence of abundant,  quasi-democratically distributed goods tends to make the demand even more fierce for positional goods, and what the frenzy over Hannah Montana tickets suggests is that they have become, essentially, as much a positional good as oceanfront property. What makes them valuable is the very fact that not every kid can have one, and kids may be learning very early not merely the hard lesson of scarcity’s effect on prices, as Gapper suggests, but the peculiar excitement of winning the snob game of having something other people want—as well as the corollary notion that it’s more important to have something others envy than something you personally enjoy. In fact, kids may not be too young to absorb the cynical idea that they should condition their own preferences in accordance to those of their peers. It’s never too early to learn that only the very naive can believe that their tastes are wholly their own.


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


For the weekend of 12 October, here are the films in focus:


Michael Clayton [rating: 7]


Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.

Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. read full review…


Elizabeth: The Golden Age [rating: 6]


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany.

Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young English actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins. read full review…


We Own The Night [rating: 5]


Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts.

Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes its rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa. read full review…


 


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young Australian actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins.


Spain is ensconced in an unending holy war. The Inquisition, incited by King Phillip II, is determined to eradicate all European heathens – and top on their list is Britain’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. As part of a mandate from God, Phillip ransacks his coffers, strips the countryside bare, and builds a massive fleet with the distinct purpose of crossing the Channel and ridding England of its whore sovereign. As the first step, however, a plan of assassination will be put into place. In the meantime, Her Majesty has found favor in newly arrived explore Walter Raleigh. He’s engaging and brash, unafraid to approach her as a woman as well as his ruler. At first, it appears Elizabeth’s days as the “Virgin” Queen of her country will end. But then her potential paramour’s eyes wonder to the Court Lady-in-Waiting, Bess. Soon, it will be their love that sets aristocratic tongues wagging. Naturally, the Spanish complete their mission, and set sail toward their destiny. It is up to Elizabeth to rally her troops, gain favor with the various military minds, and court public opinion as a strong, supportive monarch. If she can’t, her nation is doomed. 


Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany. Featuring stellar performances from a well rounded cast, and a narrative that’s so circular it’s almost surreal, we get the shorthand version of 16th Century British monarchy. Director Shekhar Kapur wants us convinced that the events playing out in the House of Tudor are no different than the petty behind the scenes scandals that plague modern royalty. We have a depressed and lonely ruler, a usurper mounting favor along the fringes, a close confident violating the Queen’s trust, and a swashbuckling pseudo pirate whose playing hearts to forward his own agenda. Add in the Inquisition, Spain’s redolent religious fervor, the familial double crosses, and general sovereign uncertainty and you’ve got the material for a virtuoso bodice ripper.


But Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is more interesting in channeling all these catalysts into a kind of mythos mudslinging. We are supposed to see Mary Stuart as a spoiled and arrogant cur, so highly strung that her cheekbones seem supported by guide wires. Instead of a victim of circumstance, or a fatality of standard 1500’s skullduggery, she’s as guileless as she is guilty. Yet Kapur envisions her as a villain, a martyr to a mission she will naturally never benefit from, but still willing to press the issue until she appears mad. Samantha Morton’s cocksure performance doesn’t dissuade our opinion. She plays Mary like the spoiled unseated Prom Queen who’s convinced the entire student body will finally come to their senses and vote her back as the bell of the ball. When she dies – and that’s not a spoiler, for those who remember anything about high school – Kapur holds the camera on her like a comic book antagonist getting her just rewards.


This pomp as pulp ideal ruins many of Elizabeth’s quality interactions. When the Spanish Ambassador and his diplomatic armada saunter into the Court like members of a comedy troupe, you half expect to hear Terry Jones and Eric Idle exchanging Monty Python bon mots. Even better, Clive Owens’ Walter Raleigh is like an outcast in his own epoch. He’s so progressive, so filled with the wanderlust of exploration and the vastness of the new world that you sense he would levitate out of his shoes just on the sheer concept of circumnavigation. He comes off as a Classics Illustrated version of himself, a man made out of his legacy and historic contributions, not the human being about to live them. Part of the problem is Owen – he’s just too modern a man to play an Elizabethan dandy. We keep waiting for him to break into his seedy Sin City drawl or - in logistically appropriate fashion – save the infertile of the UK from themselves.


He is countered, of course, by Cate Blanchett. Having walked away with an Oscar nod the first time she donned Her Majesty’s various wigs, it’s a role she’s all too familiar with. Part determined leader, part cowardly interpersonal demagogue, the many moods the character must go through are reflected expertly in the English rose’s reddened face. Blanchett was born to play this part, even if Kapur undermines her effectiveness by altering truth to placate his vision. While age is never discussed in the film, Elizabeth fluctuates wildly from youthful spirit to aged spinster, sometimes in the same sentence. Even worse, his last act stand against the sailing Spanish fleet betrays history in order to forge some kind of irrelevant iconography. Oddly enough, her reign is saved by happenstance and naval heroism, not anything she does directly.


Indeed, a lot of the film feels misdirected away from the center. The set up of Spain as a bastion of radicalism is given more import than Elizabeth’s current political situation. Lady in Waiting Bess becomes the fulcrum between Raleigh’s infatuation and the reality of wooing the Queen. Sir Francis Walsingham (a great Geoffrey Rush) has the competing claims of a possible royal assassination and his own failing health to keep him full formed. Even the minor characters, like the evil Jesuit played by Rhys Ifans, seem as integral to the overall approach as anything that happens in Her Majesty’s bedchamber. It’s indicative of where Elizabeth: The Golden Age looses the audience over and over again. For every golden moment of actual meaning, there’s a flash of false idolatry. Kapur is really indulgent here, so in love with the look of things that he fails to move beyond the pretty pictures. While we’re supposed to scoff at the irrationality sealing Spain’s fate, we can’t help but be wowed by the CGI fleet on the horizon.


But what finally fells Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a lack of significance. Perhaps to a nation steeped in the legacy of a great leader, this superficial swipe with many historic alterations would suffice. You get your symbolism and your sense of country too. But outside that interested realm, the relationships and realities play like Harlequin romances with exaggerated chutzpah. That’s the problem with the past – like science fiction, it’s been used for much more than mere factual recounting. Decades of romance novels and equally syrupy cinema have robbed it of its power and scope. Yet a director like Kapur should know better than to pull punches for the sake of spectacle. There is no doubt that his vision is filled with wonder and beauty. Too bad the rest of this film feels flimsy and single minded.


 


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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Pundits love to smear Hollywood with a single, ‘bereft of ideas’ swipe. Of course, such pronouncements seem very accurate in light of endless remakes, cookie cutter vanity fair, and the relentless pursuit of the all mighty dollar. While you can understand an industry’s desire to continue manufacturing the product that makes it rich, art tends to get stale when it constantly mimics itself. Sadder still are the situations where a seemingly new take on archetypal material winds up playing out as predictable as the efforts it’s avoiding. Thus we have the problem facing We Own the Night. When you hear the premise – brothers on either side of the law butt heads as they reconnect over issues of loyalty and duty – you hope something new can be found in the formula. Unfortunately, the only thing writer/director James Gray can offer that’s different is a glimpse inside the Russian mob – and he himself covered this territory a decade before with Little Odessa.


When we first meet Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the loose living nightclub manager is pursuing hedonistic pleasure with reckless abandon. Considered an indirect member of the criminal Bujayev family, he tries to keep his nose clean while avoiding confrontations with his cop relatives. Brother Joseph (Mark Walhberg) is one of New York City’s finest, and dad Burt (Robert Duvall) is a well respected captain. They’ve always viewed Bobby as a black sheep, from his choice of girlfriend – skanky Puerto Rican party girl Amanda (Eva Mendez) to the decision to change his last name from ‘Grusinsky’ to ‘Green’. Still, the man has his inroads with the mob, and so when his kin comes calling for a favor (Joseph wants to put the pinch on Russian dope dealer – and Bujayev nephew - Vadim Nezhinski) – Bobby tries to help. The resulting mess puts his father and brother in harms way, and threatens his comfortable, if morally ambiguous, place between right and wrong.


In a world where movies like State of Grace, Carlito’s Way, The Departed, Eastern Promises, and other dark double crossing mafia dramas didn’t exist, We Own the Night might have worked. Indeed, it offers exceptional performances, a twisty, complicated script, and lots of subjective scope. From the massive opening sequence inside the multi-story El Caribe nightclub, to the last act firefight along the New York/New Jersey shoreline, this is a movie that understands the need for impressive backdrops. It even provides a potent action scene or two, as when a wet and rainy day turns into a life or death car chase between our players. There is palpable urban grit, a real sense of a city under siege. Why Gray chose to set the film in the mid ‘80s remains a mystery, however. Aside from a few shots of post-disco decadence, the era is not really important.


Yet that minor detail perfectly illustrates We Own the Night’s main failing. Several times throughout the course of this otherwise average thriller, we find ourselves wondering about the artistic and narrative choices being made. For example, the Grusinsky family seems like your typical blue collar clique. They embrace each other with a weariness born out of the immigrant experience. But there’s very little insight into their interpersonal problems. It appears to be as simple as “be a policeman” or “be an enemy”. Neither Duvall nor Phoenix have a moment that fully describes their distance from each other, while Walhberg appears pissed off as a matter of implied birthright. We get ancillary comments from the personal peanut gallery (when did Toma’s Tony Mussante get so old?) but the lack of an actual anchor keeps us from really getting to know these men.


The same goes for the Bujayevs. Sure, Gray needs to maintain a certain level of secrecy in order to get his last act reveals to work, but aside from a kind hearted momma earnestly shoveling food toward Bobby, we get no firm indication of how they interact. Unlike Cronenberg’s Promises, which this film had the unfortunate luck of following, We Own the Night never allows us behind the scenes of the inner working of the Russians. Even supposed heavy Vadim Nezhinski supplies a kind of villainy in name only. He’s intimidating, and appears capable of some substantive cruelty, but he’s not the threat we need in this type of thriller. He’s more of a look than a legitimate enemy. And since the storyline centers on dope – not something more enigmatic like white slavery or influence peddling – the routine aspects of such an approach become all the more apparent.


Thankfully, the acting saves this sagging excuse for a crime flick. Phoenix has the much more difficult role here, and he brings a nice believable balance between duty and disinterest. We feel his need to be accepted, to be part of a group that appreciates him for what he is, not what he can be. Similarly, Duvall delivers on what is, in essence, a thankless icon role. As the dad who’s demanding to a fault, he gives good paternalism. But there are times, as when violence threatens his sons, where he turns off the machismo and lets his feelings show. Wahlberg, sadly, is a waste. While trying to play tough, and then troubled, he comes across as weak and wimpy. Gone is the chest-thumping bravura of The Departed. In its place is a weird wounded quality that never quite provides a sense of dimension. With Eva Mendez taking back everything good she did in Ghost Rider (she is insignificant here) and Danny Hock delivering a star-making turn as Bobby buddy Louis, it is safe to say that We Own the Night is as mixed in its performances as it is in its messages.


Indeed, Gray really does offer nothing new here. We get the same old statement of blood being thicker than watered-down business associations, and the denouement depends on something we’ve seen in dozens of derivative gangster efforts. With limited amounts of blood, a real attempt to have events play out in some manner of insular, unidentifiable logic, and the persistent problem of witnessing characters do things that are no longer new or novel, James Gray ends up providing further proof that, as a meaningful marketplace of invention, Tinsel Town is trapped in an endless cycle of sameness – and its not just the redux fueling the reputation. At this point in the artform, certain genres need a well deserved rest. The mafia may still grab the culture’s attention, but as We Own the Night illustrates, the window of viability has narrowed significantly.



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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. So Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.


Most films with this much quality and caliber behind them usually find ways to reach a kind of creative convergence. Like the movie it’s most akin to – Sidney Lumet’s masterful The Verdict – there’s a strange subjective synchronicity that occurs. Everything blends – the acting, the script, the direction, the art design, the subplots, the supporting players, even the seemingly insignificant sequences - to propel us from point A to point B on a cushion of able aesthetic air. Michael Clayton doesn’t contain this. Instead, it’s an overwritten work that reaches beyond its corporate intrigue basics to address issues both metaphysical and downright meaningless. The immense amount of aptitude inherent in everyone involved is a huge benevolent barricade to overcome. But first time feature filmmaker Tony Gilroy (responsible for the coolly kinetic scripts for the Bourne franchise) lets tangents and unnecessary histrionics mar what would otherwise be a winning awards season home run.


Our plot begins in the middle, with the title character (played with angst driven darkness by a great George Clooney) locked in mid-meltdown. The high level New York law firm, where he works as a ‘fixer’ – read: solver of the unsolvable problems - has been involved in a massive class action civil suit for the last six years. They represent the corrupt chemical firm U/North, a faceless international agricultural conglom that’s accused of poisoning the people of small farms all throughout the United States. Thanks to the maverick decisions of senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) however, the pre-litigation process has dragged on and on, providing lots of billable hours. One day, the man loses his mind, stripping naked in the middle of a deposition and spewing semi-psychotic rhetoric. Even with his history of manic depression, Clayton recognizes something is significantly wrong. The crackup calls into question the firm’s ability to represent their client, and this causes U/North’s in-house council (Tilda Swinton) to panic. She calls in her own group of ‘maintenance’ men, who have much deadlier ways of dealing with this kind of concern.


From that description alone, Michael Clayton appears masterful. It has the look of legitimate Oscar bait, from its muted cinematography and sweeping compositional grandeur to the moments of individual nuance, as when Swinton’s stressed out witch sweats through her clothes during a bathroom panic attack. Yet combating those stylistic strategies is dialogue that’s dripping with freshly scribbled insignificance, rants meant to sound formidable but end up appearing rather surreal. Since we don’t meet Wilkinson’s eccentric attorney until he’s already swung over to the demented dark side, we have little to compare against his ever present speechifying. There’s no balance to his nuttiness, no way of seeing beyond the bare ass brimstone caught on tape. While he’s an intriguing catalyst for all that will come, he’s hollow as the center of self-righteous indignation.


Clooney is much better at metering out morality while avoiding its ethical sting. When we first meet Clayton, he’s in the midst of a hit and run jam. Setting right a priggish client who expects miracles instead of a visit from the police, we get the standard reactionary riot act. But then Gilroy gives Clooney an additional moment, a chance to give this jerk a definitive dressing down that underscores his overall dissatisfaction with his job. Like a superhero for screw-ups, Clayton is an overworked wizard, and the procedural aspects of his job would make a stellar suspense flick in their own right. But our screenwriting savant can’t leave well enough alone. He has to pile on the problems – gambling, indebtedness, bad business sense, a drug addled brother, pain in the butt ex, seldom seen son, and a glum, unforgiving family. By the time our lead discovers the cabal plotting against him, we sense its purpose could come from a dozen different interpersonal directions.


Oddly enough, it’s the supporting parts that help keep things in check. Sydney Pollack plays a partner with a combination of tenacity and culpability. He recognizes how crooked his firm is, but also senses that things haven’t reached John Grisham territory – at least not yet. Michael O’Keefe is excellent as the asshole that sees through everyone while compelled to hurl those harmful glass house stones, and Sean Cullen is cool if cranky as Michael’s less than understanding cop sibling. Since they appear only briefly and must make their impact immediately, Gilroy doesn’t goof around. He keeps these ancillary facets tight and direct. It’s in stark contrast to one of the movie’s more disturbing subplots – the fact that Wilkinson’s character appears to be indirectly seducing the teenage sister of one of the plaintiffs.  While it may be nothing more than a case of insanity fueled white knighthood, there is a creepy, near pedophilic vibe to the material that makes us uncomfortable.


Besides, Michael Clayton doesn’t really need to go and push those buttons. It’s already overstocked with far too many possible dramatics. It doesn’t have to expand into faulty fringe elements or disturbing depravity. But Gilroy trips up and gives in to the temptation to expand whenever the magnifying muse calls, and the story starts to unravel about halfway through. All the late night cellphone calls and dirt digging may seem suspenseful, but when placed aside a man who screams about saving innocence, our corporate counsel with hitmen on her speed dial, and a protagonist who will play all sides against each other to complete the mandatory last act comeuppance, it becomes ambiguous. Maybe post-millennial audiences will respond to a movie that appears incapable of maintaining a single, strong focus. They’re probably used to such ADD styled situations from their own personal plight.


Still, Michael Clayton does offer some entertainment heft. It anticipates our expectations and prepares an answer in advance. It sees human foibles as badges of honor, and views the standard business model as an evil means to an always criminal ends. As a main man crush, Clooney could cobble together a series of scenes based on the phone book and viewers would still find him imminently fascinating. It’s to Gilroy’s good fortune that he agreed to hop on board. Without him, this otherwise fractured non-noir would turn tumbleweed and simply blow away. Everything here adds up to a wonderful mainstream achievement. Sadly, there’s very little art or its mastery to be found.



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