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by Sarah Zupko

17 Dec 2008

This is my pick for the finest DVD collection of the year. American Experience’s biographies of U.S. presidents are engrossing, definitive, illuminating and often surprising. You’ll learn more history in the shortest period of time by watching these shows than virtually anything else you can do. It’s the perfect gift for both the history buff and the political junkie, as well as for those who want to better understand the American present and how it has developed. That didn’t mean to sound stuffy either. These documentaries are seriously addicting, filled with stories that grab you more than the latest prime time soap, while being healthy brain food at the same time.


by Bill Gibron

16 Dec 2008

Who, exactly, is the audience for a World War II film in which a certain group of Nazis are portrayed as the good guys? Do children really want family films that tackle tough speculative themes and/or adult-level sexual innuendo and violence? Does quirk and idiosyncrasy taken to outrageous, Herculean limits have a viewership, and does a comic who once did exaggerated mugging to massive box office notoriety fit into today’s Apatow oriented bromance slacker laughfest world. These are the questions critics contemplate while sitting in a screening, bored out of their mind and/or wondering if what they are watching will ever see the light of a legitimate commercial day. It happens more times than we’d care to admit, actually.

This past week, Delgo, an incredibly mediocre CG cartoon, earned the distinction of being the lowest earning film in wide release EVER! According to Yahoo Movies, the fantasy’s “two people per theater per showing” extrapolation marks it as the biggest bomb ever. Yes aside from the movie’s obvious creative and entertainment limitations, was there ever going to be an major audience for shell-less turtles taking on pissed off dragonflies, their race-baiting battles resulting in near genocide levels of death? Sure, it was a labor of love for the filmmakers (close to a decade in the contemplating and making) and an attempt to wrestle the animation mantle from the likes of Disney, Pixar, Fox and Dreamworks, but did the six screenwriters - SIX - ever think that the material they were marketing had limited to almost no appeal?

It’s the same with Charlie Kaufman’s sad, funny, bodily fluid and illness obsessed solo writing/directing debut, Synecdoche, New York. Beginning with the linguistical twist in the title, and moving through the life of a self-absorbed, unlucky in anything remotely related to interpersonal affection, theatrical director, we get industry in-jokes, spiraling self-referentialism, allusions to death and the meaninglessnes of life, and some random shots of stool samples - all colors. Expanding on the absurdist surreality of his previous work with Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. - and Michel Gondry - Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - it’s the rare mad genius that makes such strangeness appear to create some manner of sense. But beyond the college age noncomformist who believes that all cinema exists either to serve the Establishment or speak to the medium as meaningful art, who exactly is going to line up to see this?

Clearly, some studios recognize the value in demographically specific targeting. Twilight is considered a major hit, tapping into the already flush Mamma Mia! pool of unfulfilled spinsters, merry widows, bored housewives, and hormonally overcharged tween to teen girls. Disney could put its name on a pseudo-snuff film with anthropomorphic household items acting out revenge fantasies and a horde of blinkered boomers would drag their aging offspring to see it. Tyler Perry, in true Gospel roadshow circuiting, continues to give the underserved urban crowd his various takes on “black is bankable” morality plays, while subgenre horror still rakes in the adolescent allowances. But there are those who take the concept too far.

With Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Dreamworks decided that the best way to handle the return of its quartet of clueless globetrotting zoo animals was to take them back to the land of their ancestral birth, and then toss the entire book of bad movie clichés at the camera. The amount of forced laughter coming from the preprogrammed throngs is matched only by the rampant use of fear and danger as a plot device, occasional lapses into racially inappropriate stereotyping, and a weird, almost pornographic reliance on passion to sell any kind of sentiment. Let’s face it, this is a movie where a 3D giraffe wants to nuzzle up to a plus-size Hippo who herself has the hots for a deep voiced, awkwardly muscled member of her own species. Ew.

In other instances, star power (or the presumed last bastions of same), is the implied reason. While he stands somewhere between his former superstar glories and a bumbling buffoon leaping on alarmed talk show hosts’ couches, Tom Cruise is still considered something of an international icon. Yet after the one-two thud of Mission: Impossible III and the horrific Lions for Lambs, the former Top gunner was clearly looking to re-elevate his floundering fame. While the cameo in Tropic Thunder was a brilliant sideways shift, the hero laden loopiness of his turn as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Bryan Singer’s Third Reich thriller Valkyrie seems like a stretch. First, those in the audience familiar with history will experience little or no suspense, and while the first half of the film plays like a crackerjack espionage actioner, the last 45 minutes are Fail Safe shuttled over into an “is he or isn’t he” deathwatch for a supposedly assassinated Fuhrer.

Jim Carrey has also been riding the white horse toward commercial obscurity in the last few years. Outside of the Lemony Snicket film from 2004, and his turn as the title elephant in the animated Horton Hears a Who, the rubberfaced funnyman has starred in a comedic dud (Fun with Dick and Jane) and a hackneyed horror film (The Number 23). Yes Man will be hailed by some as a return to form, but the interesting premise - Carrey is a man who must always say “Yes” to any opportunity, no matter how outrageous, as part of a self-help seminar promise - wants to be Liar, Liar without the magic realism. Instead, the idea of self-discovery and the potential in PMA is constantly countermanded by moments of certified Carrey craziness and action scenes which seem oddly pointless.

In both cases, Hollywood clearly hopes that, like muscle memory or the maxim regarding riding a bike, audiences won’t forget what made Cruise and Carrey ‘80s/‘90s moneymaking behemoths and flock back to the Cineplex in cash flush droves. Yet neither movie really offers the predisposed their Benjamins worth. Yes Man will be a hit since it tricks the viewer into thinking its more of an Ace Ventura styled romp than it really is, while Valkyrie will get some initial interest, before word of mouth undermines its spoiler-stoked backlash. And again, the question becomes - who thought these films would find their audience. Something like Che, or the Brad Pitt epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stand as clear cinematic triumphs, but do mainstream moviegoers really want to see three to four hour films as dense, directorial showcases?

From little kids dying in concentration camps to horndog teens having sex with former war criminals, from 100 minutes of people getting shot in the face to laborious love scenes between actors with no chemistry whatsoever, Tinsel Town seems stunted in how to make meaningful films that also support a sense of entertainment and enjoyment. One should never watch a movie wondering who is the aimed for audience, and will said spectators respond. In a business that is already a big fat gamble, it seems like Hollywood is recklessly rolling the dice over and over again. Oddly enough, ‘craps’ appears to be an appropriate sentiment/metaphor when all is said and done.

by Rob Horning

16 Dec 2008

Rob Walker’s column about the “new frugality” nicely skewers the concept.

We were told our willingness to spend more — on fair-trade coffee, eco-friendly totes, organic dog food — demonstrated a fresh consumer sophistication that would change the marketplace. Now, suddenly, our values are reflected in cheap shirts from Costco.
A new normal that revolves around buying lots of stuff while bragging about our bargain-hunting skills doesn’t seem to reflect changed values.

That’s a good concise way of getting across something I’ve been trying to express but have managed only to formulate somewhat inchoately in posts like these.

Walker ends the essay on this faintly hopeful conundrum: “If there’s a deeper shift in our thinking, it’s still to come. And maybe it will. After all, the mere fact that we have managed to characterize consumer shock as frugality chic offers a perverse form of hope: That whatever happens, we’ll never lose our tendency toward optimism — even, it turns out, about our pessimism.” But to be honest, this strikes me as all the more reason to be pessimistic, since optimism usually strikes me as ideologically induced naivete. It’s better than being miserable, but it licenses our perpetuating in the same self-defeating practices with regard to consumerism all in the name of a dream—that dream of finding our perfect reflection there in the world of things rather than discover it through the more arduous but more fulfilling route of making and doing. (I can anticipate the objections: Shopping is doing! Consuming is producing! I would argue that they successfully simulate those things while simultaneously promising an escape from them. Shopping has developed the alibi of plausibly passing as “self-actualizing.”) I have a hard time reconciling optimism to anything but sunny yes-man-ism, and some critical scrutiny on a society-wide scale will be necessary to uproot consumerist fall-backs.

PSFK linked to this LA Times article that basically epitomizes the new dispensation on consumer behavior. The key goal for service-feature writers in the mass media is to show us how we can maintain the consumer mindset—shopping with style for self-definition—only without our having to spend as much (for the time being). This allows us to hold the cherished consumerist attitude in abeyance, keep it well-exercised and prevent it from atrophying while we wait for the economy to turn. Doing away with the mind-set is, of course, unthinkable.

Here, in this article, the formula is simple: Send a celebrity to a closeout discounter and watch him turn junk into magic with his imprimatur! In this case, Philippe Starck.

Famous for putting a modern spin on 18th century French furniture and for creating exquisite environments using expensive materials and craftsmanship, Starck also embraces sensible consumerism. Buy quality over quantity, he says.
“You must be very rigorous,” he says, sifting through discounted wares in search of the gems. “Try to find the essence, the most iconic or simple representation of a thing. Look for the bowl that looks most like a bowl. That means we must avoid colors and patterns, and everything that can be trendy.”

Starck is also worried about the kids:

“In a crisis, we have to think about our children and especially push their creativity,” he says. “If capitalism is failing because it is a selfish system, we can teach them to reinvent society so that it is based on sharing.”

A nice sentiment—but what prompted this reflection? Prada green.

Starck is pleased by the store’s furnishings and art supplies for kids. He picks out the aforementioned folding table and chairs, as well as sidewalk chalk, a 240-piece paint and marker set, a packet of paper in a color he dubs “Prada green” and a 10-pack of No. 2 pencils. Total: less than $50.

In general, the media-appointed style mavens always make an appeal to art and timelessness, which on its face seems ludicrous, since nothing is less enduring than fashion dictates. But the trope is important as an analogue for what is truly timeless from the point of view of the fashion industries—that is, consumerism. The idea that we’ll all reach a point where we don’t care about the message we send with the “essence” of our bowls and our Prada green is too terrible for them to contemplate.

by Sean Murphy

16 Dec 2008

From The Smoking Gun, an update on the infamous Van Halen M&M myth here (good news, it’s not a myth; bad news: it is, apparently, explicable):

“While the underlined rider entry (“M & M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES”) has often been described as an example of rock excess, the outlandish demand of multimillionaires, the group has said the M&M provision was included to make sure that promoters had actually read its lengthy rider. If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance—lighting, staging, security, ticketing—may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.”

So, one of the most notorious instances of pop star prima donna antics is debunked, and for what turns out to be (ostensibly) legitimate reasons? That is almost enough to make one…respect Van Halen. And, well, I’m sorry but that is simply unacceptable.

Actually, even if this turns out to be the case (the band was as anal about their onstage performances as they were about their back-stage performances), it’s more difficult to dismiss them as the biggest buffoons in rock. Wait, no it isn’t. This is, after all, the band with David Lee Roth in it. This is the band that, once David Lee Roth left, never made any good music (man, that has to kill Eddie Van Halen). It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Eddie, knowing he had to work with David Lee Roth all those years. Then you realize: wait, Eddie might be even more insufferable than David Lee Roth! (Exhibit A: “Hey Michael Anthony, we’re finally doing that reunion tour thing; all the shows are sold out in advance…by the way, you’re not invited!”) But hey, I’m sure fans were delighted to see those stellar backing vocals provided by Eddie’s cherubic son Wolfgang (and by cherubic I mean chubby).

But more importantly, if we start acknowledging that some of these Spinal-Tap-inspiring anecdotes are not based in reality, we may be obliged to begin questioning how debased our rock gods actually were, back in the day. What’s next? Jimmy Page was actually just eating tuna fish on that boat? Gene Simmons did not bed 4,000 women? (Well, considering that Simmons, like David Lee Roth, is so obviously gay, this one is not such a stretch to disbelieve). Mick Jagger and David Bowie were just making sweet music together, literally? Ozzy Osbourne did not actually urinate on the Alamo in the early ’80s? (That would be the unkindest cut of all; I need Ozzy to have urinated on the Alamo.)

All this on the heels of the news that guitar guru Brian May just completed his PhD (!), in Astronomy (!!). More revelations like this and we may well be approaching DEFCON 1 status in terms of authentic rock and roll debauchery. James Hetfield? Clean and sober. Nikki Sixx? Same. Courtney Love? (Who cares). Practically all the others have now become the designated drivers that Keith Moon, John Bonham and Janis Joplin (to name a handful of favorite hard-cases) could have used, back in the day. At least we can still count on Keith Richards, right? Well, except for the fact that it’s pretty apparent even he doesn’t know who he is these days. Too many brown M&Ms will do that to you, apparently.

by Jason Gross

16 Dec 2008

After reading a great article in the Wall Street Journal about holiday music, I thought back to a few days ago when I was finishing up my seasonal shopping.  As I heard the 50th version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” cycle through on the store’s speakers after being there for only a few minutes, I wondered what it would be like to have to hear that for about 7 hours a day.  “Does that drive you nuts?” I asked a sales clerk.  She couldn’t even answer- she just rolled her eyes and shook her head.

The WSJ article does go some way to explain the tradition of communal songs and why we like them (though we say we hate them) but I lean much more towards “hate” when I hear these tunes too much.  One reason that I love to shop online now isn’t just because I don’t have to deal with the crowds but also because I don’t have to deal with the same holiday music again and again.

Don’t get me wrong- I don’t hate holiday music.  I actually like to write about it and I always collect holiday albums.  In this week’s edition of Time Out New York (print edition), I wrote about a heavy metal Xmas album, a singing saw Xmas album (from Merge Records), a movie star’s band doing Xmas music (Billy Bob Thorton’s Boxmasters), a garage-rock Xmas album (Fleshtones) and a collection of festive humorous Jewish music.

The common thread is that this ain’t music that you’re gonna hear in malls and stores and that’s exactly why I enjoy it (also try out this mash-up holiday music).  As the WSJ article points out, the mush they play in stores is purposely generic so it’ll appeal to the most people.  Not to me though- I’ll try to block out that music and eventually just leave a store if I can’t and not even buy the present I wanted there.  It’s kind of a horrible reminder about everything that we hate about the holidays- how commercial it is, how sickly sentimental it is, how we have to buy into someone else’s version of being happy that time of year.  It can actually get pretty damn depressing when you think about it and the same ol’ music doesn’t help.

So why can’t stores be just a little more adventurous and try something other than the sappy, syrupy garbage that they belch out every year?  You might even attract some customers in this crummy buying season. 

If you need some other ideas for alternative holiday music, Other Music has thoughtfully provided some good downloads.

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