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Friday, Mar 16, 2007


300 defies description. Every attempt by mainstream critics to categorize or contextualize the film is more or less wrong. This is not some manner of anti-war propaganda piece (or worse, a pro-US boast for its Arab/Persian aggression). About the only real connection to the world of video games comes in the stylized presentation of violence which, frankly, is no more poetic than what Frances Ford Coppolla accomplished with the infamous “baptism” scene at the end of The Godfather. It is neither a historically accurate recreation of a famous battle, nor is it a slam against any specific region or peoples. What Zach Snyder has accomplished here is something quite miraculous. What he’s made—thanks in part to Frank Miller’s imagination and a ton of computer processing power—is a real Rorschach test for why people go to the movies. 


Think on that for a moment—why DO you go to the movies. To be entertained? To spend a few hours away from the family? To lose yourself in worlds only imaginable through the lens of a cinematic artist? To be moved? To laugh? To cry? As the famous one-line once said, to kiss $8.50 goodbye? Within each or all of these questions lies some element of the answer. Of all the mediums, it is often said that film is the least personal and most group-oriented. There are those who argue that horror films are scarier with an angst-filled audience surrounding you, sharing the dread. Others recognize that the mob mentality of such a communal experience renders even the most routine comedy uproarious. So it’s clear we come to film as kind of a litmus test, to weigh our opinion against that of our fellow filmgoers to determine an entertainment’s true value.


So in truth, 300 cannot work the same for all of us because it is the kind of movie that challenges the very nature of why we love, or hate, film. It takes a decidedly hoary old genre—the sword and sandal epic—infuses it with all the technological magic it can, and then sticks a fuse of fantasy straight into its belly. Once said wick is lit, the resulting fireworks either inspire or enrage you. There is no real middle ground here—people either adore or deplore this incredibly well choreographed dance with death. Far better than the highly overrated Gladiator (a true blight on Oscar’s already tenuous history) and a mighty millennia away from the pulpy peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Synder wants to turn such tales back on their origins. He wants to use celluloid to re-establish the literal meaning of such a tale’s ‘epic poem’ status.


No two words better describe this film. This is vision amplified by ability, lyricism made manly by the imposition of well-formed physiques. Make no doubt about it, the Sparta at the center of the story is a brutal world overloaded with ego, testosterone and sweat. It’s the kind of country that kills off the weak and unwieldy, even hours after they are born, and believes in such forgotten human virtues as duty, honor, and glory. It may seem overly simplistic and a tad shortsighted, but this is not the modern world. This is not a planet interconnected and constantly communicating with each other. This is the land of myths and legends, oracles and gods. This is a place of men, in all their strengths - and all their superstitions.


As a result, some may be put off with all the moralizing and mysticism. They will see the sequence where the diseased priests prophesize—with the help of their naked teenage girl Oracle—that no war can occur during the High Holy days and scoff at such a suggestion. They will see Xerxes in his fey, flouncing demeanor, face painted up like an Egyptian drag queen, and giggle at the implied femininity. They will wonder where the various monsters come from, how an executioner can look like a boss from their favorite Playstation product, and believe this a film for an entirely different generation. But the truth is that 300 is a return to the world of visual storytelling, a place rarely visited by our mainstream manufacturing plant known as the Hollywood film business.


Indeed, we have forgotten the power in images. We forget what it felt like when the Mothership first appeared over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or when Neo first realized he could defy both time and physics in The Matrix. Peter Jackson or George Lucas can overwhelm us with their ideas (and the realization of same) and yet the effects seem to fade the minute we leave the theater. This is home video’s truest legacy. As a result of such overwhelming access to any and all cinematic stimulus, we’ve lost the inherent naiveté required to really enjoy someone’s creative approach. Instead, we play a never ending game of considered comparison, wondering what that scene reminds us of, contemplating if said shot actually adds to a film’s overall narrative language.


It’s a shame our eyes are so jaded now, because lying in wait, right outside the typical and the remade, are persons ready to reinvent the old magic. They will take a sword fight between two Spartans and hundred of Persians and manufacture it in such a way that every clang of metal, every spray of blood, becomes another stroke on a grand master’s canvas. They will render even the most meaningless scene—a conversation between husband and wife, king and queen—into a stunning experiment in shadow and light. Call it an attempt to jumpstart our imagination or a metaphoric map to rediscovering our inner joy, but 300 is built for spectacle, not scholarship. All it wants to do is present a piece of the movies’ past in a new and novel light. And it accomplishes said goal amiably.


This is a rousing, reinvigorating effort, the traditional reason why people USED to go to the movies. A couple of famed critics who sadly stand as the last of a literally dying breed used to say that movies act as kind of a mental vacation. They are meant to whisk you away to places, and introduce you to people, that you wouldn’t normally visit in reality. Like 300, film is supposed to inspire awe and disregard expectations. It is its main purpose for being. But for some reason, perhaps due to their ready availability and post-modern disposable nature, we no longer value such statements. To the new moviegoer, film is fodder for endless online conversations, debates over issues that, more times than not, have very little to do with the movie in question.


But Zach Snyder steps up and asks—nay, DEMANDS—to be taken seriously as a director of sound mind and superb vision. This is a movie as sumptuous feast, an eye candy extravaganza that never once becomes overpowering or overblown. Instead, all the stunningly stylized violence fills a void usually lacking in this kind of action film—the sadistic nature of war and battle. Where once gore was avoided to keep the nobility of the heroes intact, Snyder uses it as a symbol of determination. The more blood that’s shed, the lesser the enemy’s resolve. He also accomplishes his fatalistic determination by careful, clever casting. No one would ever imagine the man behind the mask in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera would pack on the pounds, bulk up his body, and turn into the very emblem of Spartan pride. But Gerard Butler is a stellar King Leonides, containing everything we’ve come to expect from such a character. When he makes his stand against Xerxes, determining the fate of his men, and his country, the power within his persona—and the performance - shows through. 


In addition, 300 does indeed reinvent the notion of how action accentuates and accessories a film. In something as obvious as a battle scene, where we know blows will be exchanged, it is up to the filmmaker in charge to keep us engaged and interested, less it all become a mere free for all. With his carefully controlled compositions, expert framing, and desire to deliver both the Spartan and Persian attacks in grand operatic style, Snyder gives us real insight into combat. We learn the strategies meant to conquer as well as the mistakes that lead to defeat. We also recognize where heroism and valor lie. It’s not in the remarkable moments where heads leave bodies in balletic grace, nor is it in the sequences where arms and legs are sheered away. No, where true gallantry lies is in the guts to face almost impossible odds, and laugh squarely in the face of said annihilation. And nothing cackles quite as convincingly as 300.


So complain all you want to about the lack of factual accuracy. Argue that Snyder is all style and no substance, or that his cast is made up of out of work Chippendale dancers trying to turn slaughter into something serene. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss 300 as anything less than a work of visionary expertise. While your aesthetic complaints may have merit (albeit a minor amount), from a truly technical standpoint, this is what the cinematic artform actually looks and feels like. Instead of chastising a movie for taking such a risk, we should be celebrating. It’s a shame we’ve lost that ability. Thankfully, we have electrifying efforts like these to remind us of what we are missing.


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Friday, Mar 16, 2007

The subprime mortgage situation is reaching a crisis point, warranting multiple stories in multiple sections of the WSJ every day. Here’s what was on page A4 today:
• Subprime Troubles Bite Into Office-Space Sector
• Subprime Mortgage Woes Are Likely to Spread
• Mortgage Woes May Help Revive FHA


The last of those stories is especially interesting, as it recounts the growth of subprime lenders, which used to teasers like low initial rates and interest only payment periods to lure people away from FHA loans, which are subsidized by the government to expand credit offerings for low-income borrowers.


For decades, the FHA was a major backer of mortgage funding for borrowers with poor credit. But the FHA’s share of the market has dropped sharply in the past decade as hordes of aggressive subprime lenders wooed away borrowers with an array of seemingly attractive options, including no-money-down mortgages and interest-only payments. The subprime players also offered faster approvals, instant home appraisals, less paperwork and fewer hassles, winning over consumers even though subprime mortgage rates were generally higher than rates for FHA-insured mortgages.


In other words, bankers chasing profit exploited the sector’s ignorance, greed, laziness, and impatience—but who should be held accountable?


Honky-tonk legend Johnny Horton has a song with a chorus that goes, “If there’s such a thing as overloving you, then overloving you is what I’m gonna do.” I thought of this when I read this EconLog entry in which Arnold Kling speculates about how so many dubious subprime loans were made and to whom. If there’s such a thing as overborrowing, is overborrowing what people are inevitably going to do?


In his post, Kling rejects the idea that the defaults happen particularly in regions where speculation was most rampant, pushing mortgages out of line with wages, and instead argues that subprime borrowers are essentially subprime human beings:


My guess is that the typical defaulter today is not some prudent individual who happened to buy a home that strains his paycheck. Instead, my guess is that the typical defaulter is somebody who is poor at managing spending and credit. Of course, either defaulter is going to appear to be “over his head.”


Is taking out a bad mortgage a personal failing, a de facto proof of vanity (I have to have the biggest house to show people what a successful person I am…) if not outright fraudulence (...and I’ll fudge my income data to get it!)?


The Economist’s blog has a slightly more generous analysis:


Some people, undoubtedly, were just folks with bad credit who were thrilled to find that they suddenly qualified for a mortgage.  Others were people whose income was not stable enough or high enough to get them into a house with a regular mortgage; that group ... priced out of housing in bubbly markets.
Ironically I suspect that the latter group is probably in bigger trouble than the merely chronically irresponsible. The former group probably has the money to make their mortgage payment; they just don’t manage it well. The threat of foreclosure is a great thing for focusing one’s mind on financial matters.
The latter group on the other hand, is almost mathematically certain to be unable to meet their mortgage payment when the rate adjusts, unless there has been some sizable improvement in their financial circumstances. They will have to default if they can’t sell.


I am less sanguine that the chronically irresponsible would suddenly start making payments under the threat of foreclosure—this is a variation on the conservative line of thinking that assumes people need to be disciplined by economic hardship to make prudent moral choices. It seems more likely that the chronically irresponsible lack the fundamentally ability to manage money—its a deficiency of a kind of cultural capital. They lack the training and familiarity with a way of life that generates savings and prioritizes prudence. I don’t think economic hardship instills that cultural capital all of a sudden. It just inflicts suffering.


So the latter group are victims of the bubble, and the former have just been waiting for a reason to be more efficient. It seems more responsibility for the subprime market tanking rests with the “unscrupulous lenders” of liberal rhetoric—the banks that had incentives to make loans without having to worry what effect the loans would have on the recipients or whether they could pay them back—the loans would be immediately sold off to be lumped into CDOs. Under the guise of expanding opportunity to a marginalized group, they effectively exploited them, which is generally what happens in the absence of regulation—advantages are leveragaed against the disadvantaged until they have nothing left to offer. That’s simply the logic of the system.


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Friday, Mar 16, 2007


It’s actually not so cold here. I mean, the sun is out. The sky plays peek-a-boo with the clouds which, for the most part, are white. The thermometer I walk under hangs above the door of a home furnishings shop; it registers 8. I guess that would be Celsius. Not frigid, mind you, but one does have to keep moving or the digits will likely grow numb. I am told that the last snow was a couple of weeks ago, but descending into Oslo airport, the surrounding hinterland is revealed to be thoroughly caked in white. Lots of fir making like plenty of Christmas trees.


Oh, Rudolph?


Oh, yes . . . this is that place; the land of that animal. And, in fact (and I kid you not) at the reception I went to tonight, the platters of meat wraps were, alternately, (according to the staff serving the stuff): “fins” and “Rudolph”. By which I think they meant: salmon and reindeer.


As a matter of fact, I think that shiny thing I ate was . . .


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Thursday, Mar 15, 2007


Going through the possible motion picture presentations every week, it’s fascinating to see how the premium movie channels are expanding and diversifying. For example, Moveiplex (a division of Starz) has just announced the start-up of two new services – Indieplex and Retroplex. Each one addresses what the company sees as underserved cinematic categories – in this case, independent films and classics from the past – and each one is hoping that rabid film fans will agree. It’s not an unusual move – Encore (another Starz subsidiary) has always divided up its content into mysteries, romance, westerns, etc. But as more and more outlets open up – channels devoted exclusively to foreign films, or horror – it becomes harder and harder to keep track of the options. With the big pay networks offering multiple feeds and On-Demand services as well, the choices are almost limitless. Thankfully, for the weekend beginning 17 March, one easily accessible feature clearly stands out:


Premiere Pick
Silent Hill


It’s all about the creepy in this big screen adaptation of the popular videogame series. Thanks to the brilliant direction of Brotherhood of the Wolf‘s Christophe Ganz, and the spectacular set design and F/X work of his capable crew, what could have been your standard scary movie becomes a troubling look at an (after)world gone insane. Many of the more frightening moments have very little to do with the odd assortment of monsters and mayhem that actresses Rahda Mitchell and Laurie Holden must overcome. No, the real terror lies in not knowing the rules of this particular locale, and the consequences that occur whenever an eerie air raid siren sounds, signaling the return of ‘the darkness’. It’s hard to describe how vibrant and visceral this movie is, especially in an era which substitutes blood and brutality for genuine scares. In a year of many excellent fright fests, Silent Hill stands as one of the genre’s best. (17 March, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Take the Lead


Antonio Banderas goes Mad Hot Ballroom on a group of troubled New York kids, arguing that there is no problem in life that cannot be overcome through dance. While it’s territory that’s been covered a hundred times before, something about the sight of Mr. Melanie Griffith shaking his moneymaker has an indescribable charm. If you can overcome the schmaltz, you might enjoy this feel good urban pulp. (17 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Family Stone


One of last year’s under the radar delights, former fashion executive Thomas Bezucha deconstructs the knotty connections between kinfolk with this fresh, occasionally formulaic comedy. Sarah Jessica Parker is the uptight, Type-A personality who finds herself awash in the title clan’s free-spirited spontaneity. Dermot Mulroney is her boyfriend, and the prodigal Stone. While there is much more drama here than humor, Bezucha keeps the revelations and the reactions honest. (17 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Devil’s Rejects


Rob Zombie taps into the long lost exploitation zeitgeist to create this superior follow up to his 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses. Less stylized than said spook show debut, and featuring some amazing moments of disturbing viciousness, this shock cinema vérité is unbelievably accomplished. Sadly, this promising terror auteur seems to be going backwards with his upcoming Halloween remake. (17 March, Showtime, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Audition


Ten years ago, he was literally unknown to Western audiences. Then this startlingly original movie came along, and cinephiles everywhere stood up and took notice. Noted for his combination of the beautiful and the grotesque, and never sparring his audience the onscreen shivers that can come from both, the talented Takashi Miike has since gone on to become a certified cult icon. From Ichi the Killer to his banned Masters of Horror episode, Imprint, he has consistently pushed the envelope when it comes to blood and guts. That’s clearly the case here, the story of a widower holding ‘try outs’ for a nonexistent film as part of a plan to choose a new bride. To say the tables are turned on this lonely lothario is an understatement. While there are many who believe Miike merely makes geek shows, there is a lot of artistry here as well. (20 March, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Additional Choices
Boogie Nights


After Hard Eight failed to deliver anything but major critical kudos, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to fully explore his Robert Altman-esque muse with this multi-layered, multi-character look at porn through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Featuring a star making turn for Mark Wahlberg, and a momentary career rebirth for Burt Reynolds, this impressive human dramedy remains one of the ‘90s great masterworks. (18 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

sex, lies and videotape


It was the film that announced the independent film renaissance, a stunning dissection of life and love between detached, alienated individuals. Introducing Stephen Soderbergh as a director to watch, and giving the brilliant James Spader the role of a lifetime, this Cannes Film Festival winner remains a powerful, personal statement.  (19 March, IFC, 7:10PM EST)

Road to Guantanamo


It’s an odd experiment in narrative assemblage – a part documentary, part fiction film revolving around the Tipton Three, a trio of British Muslims arrested and held in the infamous American military prison for two years – only to be released, uncharged. Thanks in part to the shocking recreations, based on the testimony of the men involved, we get a window into the way in which our current government manages the so-called ‘war’ on terror. (19 March, Sundance, 10:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It had a reputation of carnival barker proportions. Supposedly lost, then rumored to be too “shocking” for release, this low budget brain bender from writer producer Jack Hill still stands as an idiosyncratic eye-opener. Featuring Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his last roles, as well as the sensationally surreal sight of newcomer Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, this madcap macabre touches on murder, mayhem, and that tasty taboo of the post-modern world – cannibalism. Presented as part of Turner Classic Movie’s new Underground series (though typical host Rob Zombie is AWOL thanks to present production commitments), you will not spend a better 81 schlock filled minutes in your fright fan lifetime. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore – and once you’ve seen Spider Baby, you’ll know why. This is one seriously screwed up horror comedy. (16 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


Taking on the classic (?!?) Wes Craven cannibal epic, French fright master Alexandre Aja (the wonderful Haute Tension) decided to explore the backstory of the horrifying mutants at the center of the scares. The result was one of the most startling last act confrontations in recent cinema, and a remake that surpasses the original freak show gratuity. The upcoming sequel will apparently offer more of the same. (19 March, ActionMax, 8PM EST)

Babette’s Feast


Food is frequently used as a metaphor in film – as an extension of, reason for, or substitute to living. Here, Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel uses the title repast as a way of bridging the gap between family, religion and the past. Winner of the 1988 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it’s the kind of movie that whets your appetite as it simultaneously stimulates your emotional core. It’s indeed a meal fit for a king. (19 March, Indieplex, 11:45PM EST)

The Long Goodbye


When approached about remaking the classic Raymond Chandler story, American auteur Robert Altman felt a little uneasy. The material, in his mind, needed to be modernized and filtered through a post-counterculture concept of cynicism and mistrust. In the end, he delivered one of the ‘70s defining films, a narrative perfectly in sync with the Watergate weakened resolve of a stunned society. (21 March, Retroplex, 8PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 14, 2007


Last year, about this time (give or take), I was heading for Dresden. That was an eventful trip. I had originally dubbed it “the trip out of hell” because of a dirty trick someone pulled on me that led to the cancellation of my ticket (and during the World Cup, to boot!). But faithful readers of this blog know that, to paraphrase the inimitable words of Stealer’s Wheel, “everyone’s agreed that everything turned out just fine”.


In fact, that was one fantastic voyage. Dresden was a great little city, if a bit under-developed and, okay, drab.  Still, roll in Leipzeig and Berlin, Frankfurt and stops inbetween, and Germany was a revelation. The personal growth stemming from that trip, too, wouldn’t be traded for a library of books (well, okay, maybe a stack at B.Dalton). But I changed in palpable, significant ways.


Which is what peripatacity—the restless urge to explore and experience—is all about.
 
Leaving it up to the next dot on the world map to qualify as “trip out of hell”. And, I may have just found it. On the long, never-ending road to Oslo.


 


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