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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


They don’t call them ‘the formative years’ for nothing. Our past constantly crashes into the present reminding us of the many reasons we become the people we are. As a result, we love to wallow in such nostalgic glimpses of shame, frustration, and accomplishment. They seem to support our own shaky self image, and add up to a universal connection between generations and personalities. Perhaps one day, a filmmaker will come along and find a way to tap into the inherent satiric possibilities of such blissful backwards glancing. If you’re looking for a joyless, toothless mess of a comedy that tries to use individual development as a means of metering out laughs, than the sad excuse for entertainment known as Mr. Woodcock will be right up your mangled memory lane.


There is a decent idea for a movie buried somewhere in this attention span testing nightmare. It floats along the surface of what is, in essence, a very forced bit of funny business. Even the story screams stupidity. After years away, self help guru John Farley (a desperate Seann William Scott) is awarded the Golden Corn Key by his Nebraska hometown. Using a trip back as an excuse to avoid a mind numbing book tour (organized by agent as soused aggravation Amy Poehler), John reconnects with his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and discovers the shocking news. The widow has been dating again – as a matter of fact, she’s going out with her son’s sadistic gym teacher from middle school, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thorton). The news dredges up painful, problematic memories for John, reminders of being mocked and abused by the buzz cut wearing jerk. He decides to use any means necessary to stop this possible partnership, especially now that wedding bells may be about to ring.


With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could be some hilarious stuff. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. For example, when John complains to Woodcock that he doesn’t want to conform to some request, the emotionless man deadpans “do what you want. This isn’t Russia”. Similarly, during a last act battle royale for some manner of interfamilial superiority, every cornball catchphrase the PE coach has pulled out over the running time is regurgitated, as if to reemphasize how one note and completely superficial his prickly personality really is. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with Woodcock, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness. 


In yet another variation of his by now stereotypical ornery, wiry SOB persona (something he popularized with similarly styled efforts like Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears remake), Thorton plays the title character like a man wearing a peanut sized jock strap. His body suggests a few stints in rehab, not a lifetime in service of the President’s Physical Fitness Program. As a star, he really only has two modes – passive and peculiar – and yet he manages neither here. There is no chemistry with co-star Sarandon (who seems to be following the Diane Keaton “do any script that comes your way” version of a late in life career change) and very little believable combativeness with Scott. Indeed, when watching him work, you’d swear that Thorton was phoning this one in – and using one of those early ‘80s shoe box sized suckers to do it with.


The story also suffers from being wildly unfocused and full of unexplored tangents. Scott is given a gal pal, apparently, to prove he’s not some manner of failed momma’s boy, yet the possible plot thread NEVER goes anywhere. Similarly, he hooks up with one of his old classmates (My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee) in his plot for revenge. After one stint with a video camera, and another involving a little breaking and entering, said avenue of discovery is tossed aside. Even during one of several false finales (Scott lets the town have it in a pseudo scathing, subpar speech) we feel the ethereal brakes constantly being applied, filmmakers or fixtures behind the scenes stopping the comedy from ever getting too extreme or biting. Indeed, when a raging lush like Poehler’s character can’t get her alcohol fueled groove on (she has a sad seduction sequence in a bar), we’re witnessing watered down humor at its most bland.


None of this speaks well for novice director Craig Gillespie. A creator of TV commercials for the last two decades, his idea of cinematic innovation and intrigue is to preprogram specific beats and overlong laughter pauses into the actually narrative. Thorton will let rip with one of his listless macho man maxims, and the movie will actually wait until you’re done chortling. Even worse, sight gags and slapstick are regularly stifled so that the accompanying audience appreciation can be metaphysically measured. If timing is everything in comedy, Gillespie is a broken Bulova that’s lost its quartz crystal. From the lack of any realism in the performances (though humor can be fanciful, it should have an anchor in some kind of authenticity), to the sloppy and unsatisfactory wrap up, to the various dangling plot points, this is a director who suggests that every new film will be another act of apprenticeship.


Mr. Woodcock is not really a crowd pleaser or some kind of ‘dumb as dirt’ delight. Instead, it’s an apparent attempt to reset the demarcation when determining the lowest common denominator. If you enjoy wit wrapped around the repetition of one single snicker (John has to hear the employees of a pizza parlor constantly referencing his mother’s sexual prowess with the title character), or an obvious joke name (the brain pan appreciation of Beavis and Butthead immediately comes to mind), then this cinematic sludge is your perfect escapist exercise. Finding it mindless won’t be hard, since there’s not a single slice of gray matter swimming in its spoof. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than a movie that can’t manage the opportunities it has is one that specifically ignores them to go for the crotch shot. This is the filmic version of a football to the groin – with only the plentiful pain remaining.



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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007

America has a reputation for being fairly anti-intellectual, which is an impression created mostly by how the reactionary religious aspects of American culture have influenced politics and by extension culture—politicians cater to small but noisy constituencies who are invested in repression, straitened gender roles, self-righteous moralism, and censorship, and then suddenly Janet Jackson’s tit exposure becomes big news, a societal touchstone. But put aside that element, and America is a pretty good place to be an intellectual, for the reasons Scott McLemee touches on in this review of Russell Jacoby’s somewhat notorious book, The Last Intellectuals. In America there are lots of ideologically derived jobs that call for public intellectualizing, only in America we shy away from calling those who perform them intellectuals. (Thanks to that aforementioned corps of reactionaries, intellectual, like feminist or liberal, have become pejorative appellations in America.) Often these people are functionaries in the media feeding the voracious maw of the new outlets online, or they are adjuncts at state-supported universities. They are writing proposals or grants for a wide variety of philanthropies or NGOs; they are producing research or policy papers for one of any number of lobbies or think tanks. They are part of the army of commentators, professional or semiprofessional, supporting the edifice of mediated public life, convincing us that celebrities are important, or that the new books and TV shows and films and songs coming out are critically important and crucially significant. Perhaps America seems anti-intellectual because so many people have reasonable cause to fancy themselves as intellectuals, and the word has lost all relative meaning. What were once rootless intellectuals have become today’s “creatives,” who are repopulating cities to lead their boundlessly creative lifestyles, absolutely sure of their own centrality to the zeitgeist, their own fecundity.


McLemee cites this observation of Irving Howe’s:


The kind of society that has been emerging in the West, a society in which bureaucratic controls are imposed upon (but not fundamentally against) an interplay of private interests, has need for intellectuals in a way that earlier, “traditional” capitalism never did. It is a society in which ideology plays an unprecedented part: as social relations become more abstract and elusive, the human object is bound to the state with ideological slogans and abstractions—and for this chore intellectuals are indispensable; no one else can do the job as well. Because industrialism grants large quantities of leisure time without any creative sense of how to employ it, there springs up a vast new industry that must be staffed by intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals: the industry of mass culture. And because the state subsidizes mass education and our uneasy prosperity allows additional millions to gain a “higher” education, many new jobs suddenly become available in the academy: some fall to intellectuals.


Bohemia as a site of struggle and intellectual foment disappeared, to be replaced with a consumerist phantasmagoria. Intellectuals were drafted into the business of marketing, sometimes in positions were it was easy to disguise one’s own promotional function from oneself, particularly when what was being marketed was “cool”, and the intellectual labor to market hipness could be fobbed off as some sort of process of self-discovery.


Jacoby’s book is often cited as one of many works pointing out the irrelevance of academics as opposed to the intellectuals who truly did affect culture and steer the avant-garde from their rootless place at society’s margin and is thus seen as a lament for some lost golden age. But McLemee aptly points out that there was probably nothing particularly glorious in that life of insecurity, even if it did generate truly penetrating critiques of society from an “unattached” outsider’s perspective. But their critical apparatus didn’t prevent them from selling out at the earliest opportunity. Consumer capitalism was able to thrive so vigorously in post-war America in part because it found a place for these erstwhile rootless intellectuals, who primarily became apologists and heralds for the new order. Those who didn’t work to commercialize the public sphere and make it safe for “cool” retreated into obscurantism and hyperspecialism, content to rehearse overly subtle arguments for no one’s behalf. McLemee traces this point to Marcuse:


Marcuse admitted that his analysis yielded “two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.” But the recuperative capacities of a prosperous, bureaucratically administered consumer society were formidable, tipping the balance. Such a condition, as Marcuse wrote, “shapes the entire universe of discourse and action, intellectual and material culture,” and generates “an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives.”


So the position of unaffiliated intellectual has been swallowed up by history. Where does critique emanate from now? From blogs and other unpaid, unrequested forms of mental labor being performed at the far reaches of the long tail? Or are these too just niches being filled to smooth over and firm up the impenetrable facade the consumer culture and the cult of narcissistic self-fashioning now present us with?


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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007

While business analysts view search as a Goliath (Google) versus David (every other company) battle for wrapping advertising around people’s need to find information, the local news portal, Outside.in, has quietly changed the nature of the game, and made local information matter. Outside.in may be the future of search.

Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir

Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir


It may seem like nothing at all that Outside.in —an aggregator of local information from blogs and news organisations—has added the ability to make a general “search within the site”, but in its own quiet way Outside.in may be altering what it means to search for information on the internet in a way that will eventually have everyone else scrambling to catch up with them.


Conventional wisdom has it that in “web years” we’re in the second, adolescent, phase. The first was the invention of the internet, the second was the ability to connect, the third—web 3.0 as it’s sometimes known—is referred to, by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners Lee , as the ‘semantic’ web. With web 3.0 we’ll move from the phenomenal amount of connections (a Google search for Tim Berners Lee turns up 1,840,000 entries) to results that are dense, specific and meaningful, the adult’s lifetime of knowledge and experience distilled into wisdom. But while companies define meaning as an index, and see it as revenue enhancing, Outside.in has defined meaning as value. Information means something because it has a context, it’s not just a series of answers pruned by a human (as you’ll find on Mahalo) it’s locally tested information from neighbours.


We are pleased to announce that the exciting technology known as “search” has come to outside.in. That’s right - as of today you can actually enter a word or phrase into a search box on the home page, and see the results immediately. Amazing, huh? We know that this might not strike some of you as groundbreaking, but what makes search at outside.in so useful is what you’re searching: we have over 500,000 pages of web content, all organized by city, neighborhood and topic. We have over 30,000 pages relating to the places in your cities and towns. We have maps for local blogs in your area, and stories and comments submitted by your neighbors. We have topic pages for every neighborhood and city that show you all the recent discussion of “music” or “politics” (and many other topics) in that area. And we get bigger every day. Almost all of that information is news and commentary coming from the people who actually live in these communities: local bloggers and outside.in neighbors and local media. So if you’re looking for information about that new real estate development that’s being built down the street, or gossip about the new principal at the local public school, or the latest update about a crime that happened in the neighborhood—you should think of outside.in as the first place to look.
From an e-mail to Outside.in “neighbours” from co-founder John Geraci


The conceptual leap that Outside.in has made is that “local” is a frame-of-mind. Joseph Campbell, just before he died in 1987, said that he believed the mythology for this new century would be something that encompassed everywhere in the world, at once. The photograph of the earth from the moon’s orbit, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, showed us a view outside of ourselves that went deeply inside as well, showing us that we are all connected, on one earth, bound together. The computer tools and commercial tracking and mapping devices that came to market spun off from the space research and missions made possible Google earth, whose maps are Outside.in’s “glue” holding all of the information together, geotagged and pinned to a map.


 


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Friday, Sep 14, 2007


Part of the fun of Fall is seeing the kind of creativity (thematically and/or pragmatically) that Hollywood has determined deserves awards consideration. So far, it seems like acts of gregarious violence, self-destruction, and vigilante justice are earning all the hype. Toss in takes on the Iraq war, the standard familial malaise, and a singing serial killer/barber, and it’s going to be an eccentric mix to say the least. It’s a lot like the offerings on your favorite pay cable channels this week. Mixed in with an independent comedy and some quirky rock and roll retardation, there is a decent detective flick and a horrendous kiddie fantasy adventure. For SE&L’s scratch, the best offerings remain limited to the Indie and Outsider arena. Still, as more and more Oscar bait hits the theaters, you can count on your televisual buddy to pony up the paltry, the processed, and the prepackaged. It seems to go with the seasonal territory. Whatever the case, here’s your best bet this 15 September weekend:


Premiere Pick
Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny


Though he seems like nothing more than a post-millennial anomaly, Jack Black has been around a lot longer than you think. From a minor role in Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts to a noted turn as a gung-ho soldier in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, the slightly psycho comedian has been acting, consistently since 1991. Yet it was his pairing with Kyle Gass and the creation of the Tenacious D – both as a band and HBO series – that skyrocketed him into the realm of…well, let’s just say it put his already known name definitively on the mainstream map. Since then, he’s made waves in big time blockbusters (King Kong) and his own idiosyncratic starring parts (Nacho Libre, The School of Rock). So why did this D revisit fail to ignite box office benefits? Part of the reason remains the program’s considered cult status. But it’s also clear that Black has outgrown the madman metal head persona. And audiences weren’t ready to see him revisit his past – at least, not yet.  (15 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Hollywoodland


The death of TV Superman George Reeves is still shrouded in mystery. A notorious kept man, many have ruled his apparent suicide the act of a criminal cabal hoping to remove the taint of scandal from a high profile Tinsel Town marriage. This fictional film version of the tale implies and infers a great deal. Unfortunately, aside from the excellent performances, we really gain very little legitimate insight. It ends up a standard incomplete whodunit. (15 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

Zoom


Kid cinema has earned a rather repugnant reputation as of late, and movies like this one are the readily apparent reason why. Tim Allen freefalls even further in an already dying career arc as the ex-super hero leader of a think tank desperate to bring new underage conquerors to the world of humanity saving. It’s basically Mystery Men for the tween set, with lots of toilet humor and slapstick stupidity to reinforce the falseness. (15 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

50 Pills


There is nothing more frustrating in the world of independent cinema than a filmmaker who doesn’t recognize the inherent value in the story they are striving to tell. Somewhere along the line, first-time feature helmer Theo Avgerinos got his cinematic wires crossed. Instead of taking this screenplay and cutting out all the quirky callbacks, he let the eccentricities subvert his subject, leaving us feeling overwhelmed by goofiness and angered by the lack of emotional heft. (15 September, Showtime, 12:30AM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Swingers


Eleven years ago, Jon Favreau and Doug Liman paired up with pals Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston to create this cult classic about pals putting on airs to score with the ladies. In retrospect, the combo didn’t do too bad for themselves. Liman went on to direct the first Jason Bourne film, as well as the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie romcom shoot ‘em up Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Favreau is currently in the creative hot seat, taking on comic book hero Iron Man for his long awaited big screen incarnation. And Vaughn has vaulted to the A-list of actors with his turns in Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball and the upcoming seasonal comedy Fred Claus. Yet the fun of revisiting this film more than a decade later is seeing all this talent concentrated in one small budgeted space. The movie’s mix of moxie and the moronic created a minor cultural phenomenon, with college kids calling each other “money” as a term of endearment. Nowadays, it functions as a window into the world of up and coming ‘90s icons. (20 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Siesta


Former music video director Mary Lambert made an impressive big screen debut with this surrealistic story of an amnesiac who can’t remember what she did the day before. Somewhere, in her head, she believes she may have killed someone. Overloading the noir-ish narrative with all manner of visual flair, many believed this director was destined for greatness. Sadly, she seems to have only stumbled since. (17 September, Sundance Channel, 10:50PM EST)

Project Grizzly


Troy Huturbise is fascinated by grizzly bears. Unfortunately, his desire to study them up close has lead to a problem – potential death. Viciously attack and left barely alive, it’s been his overriding goal to build an armored suit to allow for such intimate study. This documentary investigates the obsessed man’s motives, as well as the many machinations his bear-proof get up has gone through. (17 September, Sundance Channel, 11PM EST)

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels


Guy Ritchie gave gun heads something to cheer about when he combined the best of Hong Kong ammo action and Quentin Tarantino’s rapid fire resolve to create this kinetic UK crime comedy. While not as good as the near flawless Snatch, it is a perfect example of what made the moviemaker a cause celeb several years ago – and why his fading fortunes are all the more depressing. (18 September, Sundance Channel, 11:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Intermezzo


It’s impossible to deny Ingrid Bergman’s beauty. The Swedish knock out was indeed incredibly easy on the eyes. Yet she was also a terrific actress, bringing a genuine warmth and sense of sophistication to the roles she essayed. In this, her first American feature, she plays the new piano instructor of a married violinist’s little daughter. The two adults become instantly smitten, and while on tour, their feelings grow. Yet the noted virtuoso (played expertly by Leslie Howard) realizes he still has strong ties to his wife and kids. It all gets very melodramatic and weepy (most movies in the 1930s were like that), but thanks to the stellar performances, and Gregory Ratoff’s direction, audiences left more than happy. Many will continue to claim that the original Swedish version of the story (this Intermezzo is a remake) was more powerful, but for bringing Bergman to our sunny shores, this film deserves its due. (20 September, Retroplex, 6:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Phantoms


Dean R. Koontz has consistently found himself a literary second to genuine horror maestro Stephen King. But one place where the pair of genre novelists seems to find common ground is in lame cinematic adaptations of their work. While Maine’s finest can claim more examples of bad filmmaking, Koontz’s works are also exasperatingly awful. Not even an appearance here by Ben Affleck can save this good vs. evil in a small town tripe. (20 September, Flix, 6:15PM EST)

Pinball Summer


It’s time for a little Canadian coming of age as two teenage boys chase girls and get in trouble during one memorable ‘70s sun-drenched vacation. Though the title was eventually changed to Pick-up Summer (perhaps to stress the random nudity involved), the film still feels like a routine rite of passage. So tap into your last lingering hormones and get ready to finger the flippers until the machine goes TILT! (20 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 7PM EST)

The Black Sleep


It’s the standard scare stuff – a heartbroken scientist goes mad trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor. A few dozen disturbing cranial operations later, and he’s managed to create a race of fiendish freaks. But thanks to the presence of the stellar Basil Rathbone, this TCM Underground offering promises some bold b-movie pleasures.  (21 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2:15AM EST)

 


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Friday, Sep 14, 2007

One of my favorite conspiracy theories revolves around the Denver Airport, which ties into CIA mind control, extraterrestrials, devil worship, sex slavery, the Masons, the Mayan calendar and the Queen of England. The article linked above explores this through the lens of Coast to Coast radio, an overnight radio show devoted to the paranormal that was once broadcast from the Kingdom of Nye with Art Bell at the helm, but now administered by his disciple George Noory. But to truly appreciate the mystery of DIA, you must contemplate its truly bizarre murals.


What fascinates me about this conspiracy is how hard it labors to explain things—the delays in construction, the inconvenient location, the Byzantine baggage system, the amateurish mural painting that are probably just the result of an incompetent bureaucracy, poor planning, and feather-bedding contractors. If only there were schemes this far-reaching and nefarious. But then maybe by disbelieving, I’m living in a dream world. Maybe skepticism is just our last line of psychological defense.


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