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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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Thursday, Sep 13, 2007


Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty to instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.


With a title that suggests the start of an epic poem or perhaps a fairy tale, The Brave One is a startling achievement for stars Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard, and yet another notch in the growing artistic oeuvre of Neil Jordan. On its surface, it’s a standard revenge flick, the story of a young woman torn apart by violence and loss. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an excuse for empowerment in a post 9/11, Red State/Blue State, Yellow Alert existence. It’s Bernard Goetz bobbed up and beautified. It’s every bad cliché about the criminal element crammed into a single symbol of white flight disgust. Compare it to Foster’s first Oscar nominated effort or the shallowest of Charles Bronson’s deathly designs, but the final statement argues for our identification as an audience and our sense of satisfaction as a citizenry. That’s why it’s manipulative and ethically unstable. It’s also why this becomes one of the best, most deep and disarming films of the year.


At the heartbroken center of this story is Erica, a maturing Manhattan gal who spends her days “walking the city”. As part of her public radio show, our heroine captures the tantalizing tone poems that make up her frequently baffling burg, and she translates them into thoughts of endearment, of specialness, and space. She’s madly in love with her doctor boyfriend David, and the two share a kind of intimate peace that veils them in a shroud of sensed security. All of that changes one fateful evening. David is beaten to death by a nameless gang of thugs, and Erica is left in a coma. Once she awakens, she’s unable to cope with her loss. Days are spent drifting from dawn to darkness. Nights are lost in cold sweat visions of her violation. Deciding the only way to reclaim her life is via personal protection, Erica buys a gun.


Thus begins her decent into a kind of unfathomable urban madness. A freak use of the weapon creates a combination of physical unease and psychological satisfaction. Another use and Erica begins to change. Jordan’s main theme here is the notion of transformation. He uses the character to explore dozens of life altering events. Within the span of a few short weeks, our heroine loses her lover, her impending marriage, her inherited in-laws, her plans for the future, her stability within her insular world, the career she counted on (it’s still there, but in fragments), her physiological wholeness, her freedom, her faith in her fellow man, her naiveté, her understanding – and last but certainly not least – her principles. When she pulls out her handgun for the first time, it’s as if a foul force of nature has taken over. By the end of the movie, such an action becomes disturbingly instinctual.


Mirroring this fate in flux conceit is Erica’s “nemesis” – the cop on the beat who intends to take down this vigilante scourge. The tender Terrence Howard seems, at first, an odd choice for the role. He doesn’t bring his bad mother trucker game from Hustle and Flow, nor is he trying to be a basic by the book policeman. Instead, we sense a similar emptiness in him, a hollowed out place where his ex-wife, his career, and his belief in justice used to be. When he lies to Erica (they meet several times throughout the course of the narrative) he feigns a more or less mild interest in what she does. Eventually we learn he is a true fan, someone who bought into every fanciful facet of her New York as Neverland experience. In many ways, The Brave One is a film about growing up. It’s about learning that the boogeyman really exists, and that in almost every situation you can imagine, it’s impossible to completely avoid his tainting touch.


Though it sounds slightly sexist to say it, The Brave One then becomes a movie about “manning up”, about taking the responsibility for your own being on your less than established shoulders.  The reasons why the performances here are so flawless (Foster alone deserves another Oscar, especially since she’s better here than in either of her previous award winning turns) is that Jordan makes his heroes all too humble. Even when she’s sensing the building bravado of pointing a loaded pistol at a sleazy pervert, or reclaiming a small part of her past by tracking down her original assailants, Erica is not a champion. Indeed, in Foster’s fascinating way, we realize how desperate and destructive each act of reciprocal violence is. When shown, the killings are bloody and very brutal, overemphasized stylistically with amplified sound and slow motion fervor. Jordan is announcing the importance of each act, signifying how they will come to mold our lead, as well as underscore every event that comes afterword. Erica’s actions are not without consequences. Whether they’re ever linked to her is another story all together.


Howard is also looking to connect, and the lack of fairness in this – or any other – world is what binds him so solidly to these crimes. In some ways, he’s as much an enabler as someone trying to stop the spree. His conversations with Foster are filled with emotional fissures, gaping holes of humanity looking for emotional mortar to fill them. We see the union building between the pair, the sheepish grins they share in each other’s presence, the critical game of cat and mouse they play as hunter/prey and victim/vindicator. Some will miss all this subtle subtext, viewing the relationship between Erica and Mercer as a RomCon conceit without the bravery to take it to the next level. Others will see it as service to a story that doesn’t want to turn Jodie Foster into a cosmopolitan version of Henry Lee Lucas. But the fact is, we are dealing with a bond built on vicarious role reversal. Erica is doing what Mercer can’t. He’s finding the meaning his now joyless job once held. Similarly, she’s wielding the power a policeman holds. It can’t replace David, but perhaps, the sense of strength and purpose can begin to close the wound.


This is monumental, moving stuff, the kind of film that folds you into it cinematic sphere of influence and never lets go for the entire running time. Long after it’s over, the circumstances and situations keep playing over and over in your head. Indeed, if you really want to see the difference between mere professional filmmaking and a near masterwork, just check out James Wan’s journeyman take on similar subject matter, Death Sentence. There, Kevin Bacon turns into a skin-headed psycho, a man so overwhelmed with gratuitous grief (his entire family is slaughtered) that he turns to wrath as a means of marking time. But when Foster fires her weapon, and feels the release and the revitalization that occurs, we are seeing something more than just payback. We are witnessing the awakening of something dark and disturbing. Once unleashed, however, it can never be contained. Perhaps that’s why bravery is required – both to live with it, and through it.


 


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Thursday, Sep 13, 2007
Magazine article from 1940 on the New York Worlds Fair

Magazine article from 1940 on the New York Worlds Fair


THE OP-ED AS A RE-BRANDING TOOL


In July Ken Silverstein of Harpers Magazine went undercover as a vaguely defined marketing figure asking lobbying companies for briefs on sprucing up the image of Turkmenistan.


I would have difficulty passing for Turkmen, I knew, so rather than approaching the firms as a representative of the government itself, I instead would be a consultant for “The Maldon Group,” a mysterious (and fictitious) firm that claimed to have a financial stake in improving Turkmenistan’s public image. We were, my story ran, a group of private investors involved in the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Ukrainian and other Eastern European markets. We felt it would strengthen our business position in Turkmenistan if we could convey to American policymakers and journalists just how heady were the reforms being plotted by the Berdymukhamedov government.


If flacking for Turkmenistan did not in itself trouble the lobbying firms, my description of The Maldon Group was designed to raise a number of bright red flags. Turkmenistan has vast reserves of natural gas, from which it earns about $2 billion per year in export revenues, but the whole business has been marked by flagrant corruption—as can be ascertained very quickly by anyone who cares to perform a Google search. A 2006 study by London-based Global Witness reported that Niyazov kept billions of dollars in gas revenues under his effective control in overseas accounts. “Perhaps the murkiest and most complex aspect of the Turkmen-Ukraine gas trade,” the report went on to say, is the role of the intermediary companies that have inserted themselves for more than a decade between Turkmenistan, Russia, Ukraine and Europe. These companies have often come out of nowhere, parlaying tiny amounts of start-up capital into billion-dollar deals. Their ultimate beneficial ownership has been hidden behind complex networks of trusts, holding companies and nominee directors and there is almost no public information about where their profits go.



By going undercover and creating a false identity he was attacked by members of the media in op-ed pages. An ironic twist in that one of the strategies the lobbyists mentioned was using the op-ed pages of credible news organizations to put forward a shinier, friendlier images of monstrous figures.


In addition to influencing news reports, Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers. “We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would say, ‘On the one hand this and the other hand that,’ and we place it as a guest editorial.” Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had someone on staff who “does nothing but that” and had succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.


RE-BRANDING A NATION


The new Monocle magazine has taken the re-positioning notion a step further, in an issue devoted to how nations can change how they’re perceived. “With corporate brands more powerful than country brands, there’s a lot of work out there for agencies keen to rethink a nation’s identity. Monocle looks at the construct of countries.” For example, Monocle muses, Liguria and Monaco could merge under the new brand/nation name “Costazurra”. “A failed Italy and a Grimaldi household in shambles presents the perfect opportunity for a marriage of convenience between Liguria and Monaco in 2014. If it sounds like a storyline from our manga series, it might well be, but it also gave us a starting point to do a bit of nation branding of our own. Welcome to Costazzurra - the hub of the Mediterranean.” Monocle gives tips on how a country might make a favorable impression: having an excellent airline, a snappy visual on a flag, don’t release too many postage stamps (this annoys collectors).


LOW-RES RE-BRANDING


The communist era created powerful, visually sensational graphics and obscenely empty slogans but behind the shiny hoardings were dark secrets and deeds. In the post cold-war world it seems that Russia is trying to promote openness by being all message, no marketing. In a speech re-printed in the quaint and visually sombre (no colour, no images, no graphics, no website) INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: A Russian Journal of World Politics, Diplomacy and International Relations.[Issue Number 3. 2007] Russian leader Vladimir Putin says, in the ‘state of the union’ like address to the people instituted by Boris Yeltsin in 1993:


“The protracted economic crisis the country has gone through has had severe consequences for our country’s intelligentsia, for the situation in the arts and literature, for our people’s culture and creativity. To be honest, these difficulties have all but led to the disappearance of many of our spiritual and moral traditions. And yet, the absence of cultural beacons of our own,a dn blindly copying foreign models, will inevitably lead to us losing our national identity. As Dmitry Likhachev wrote, “State sovereignty is also defined by cultural criteria.” Having a unique cultural and spiritual identity has never stopped anyone from building a country open to the world. Russia has made a tremendous contribution to the formation of European and world culture. Our country has historically developed as a union of many peoples and cultures and the idea of a common community, a community in which people of different nationalities and religions live together, has been at the foundation of the Russian people’s spiritual outlook for many centuries now.”



A NEW MEDIA WORLD


In its July issue, Fast Company magazine profiled Al Gore’s media company and business interests. He’s created a new model for using business and catching the incoming wave of new media trends to create the kind of stewardship usually created by figures in government.


After the 2000 election, Joel Hyatt began talking with Gore about the sorry state of television and the role that the broadcast media play in the public sphere. “The line between news and entertainment is blurred,” as Gore now puts it. “Much of TV is mind deadening. It’s a one-way conduit of knowledge.” The two men discussed what Hyatt calls “an utter lack of innovation in the media industry”—a barely disguised oligopoly, as they saw it, controlling both content and competition. “We decided that we wanted to build a new kind of media company to democratize—small d—television first and the media industry generally,” Hyatt says. They would give viewers from 18 to 34 the means to create and control what went on the air—a user-generated model now familiar thanks to the likes of YouTube and MySpace, but a shot in the dark for TV back in 2002. [This became the company Current TV.]


...Gore sees no reason to apologize for not wanting to jump into the electoral fray. As a businessman, he can speak with a candor few successful politicians can maintain. He has made an enormous amount of money and achieved positions of influence from technology to financial services to media. He and Tipper are even setting themselves up as angel investors for a few early-stage tech companies they believe in. In doing one end run after another around the status quo, he has created a new life: a perfect amalgam of environmental activism and a new type of capitalism in which there is more than one bottom line to consider, more than one master to serve.



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Thursday, Sep 13, 2007

The excellent Soul Patrol site/network has two great round-tables recently posted that are definitely worth your time to listen to, both from their Philadelphia convention on May 27, 2007


Black Music Cultural/Social Impact: Moderator: Darrell McNeil- BRC, Patricia Wilson Aden- Exec. Dir. R&B Foundation, Mark Anthony Neal- Author/Educator, Dr. Ric Wilson- Artist, Jimmy Castor - Artist, Charles Wright- Artist


Jazz Panel: Moderator: Tee Watts- Broadcaster/Journalist, Geri Allen- Artist/Activist, Kayte Connelly- Former Berks Jazz Fest Exec Dir, Kenny Mead- Jazz Producer, TS Monk- Artist/Activist, Onaje Allan Gumbs- Artist/Activist


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