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Friday, Mar 9, 2007

While it’s understandably a source of celebration that major radio conglomerates are paying up for their pay-offs, for some reason, I’m not too optimistic that they’re going to play clean from now on, especially given their track record.  Start with these stories detailing the settlements:


Broadcasters Agree To Fine Over Payola


Payola pact could boost airplay for indie music


Even there, you’ll notice some skepticism that the broadcasters will find some way around this by not giving indie music prime time slots or loosely defining what “indie” means.  It’s kind of the same problem that the FCC busted Univision over recently when they played fast and loose with what constituted “educational television” that they were required to broadcast- they showed cartoons to fill in this gap and obviously, that doesn’t cut it.  Like I said, don’t be surprised to see this repeated again with the payola settlement.


And then there’s the very troubling rate increase that might shut down internet radio as we know it.  Soundexchange, the RIAA’s (and by proxy, the major label’s) company to set rate made an six to twelve percent increase in the cost that they charge per listener for the music the stations are allowed to play:  Royalty Hike Panics Webcasters.  That can add up to so much money (and be retroactive for years) that stations won’t have the funds to cover it anymore.  The end result would be that the stations won’t be able to afford to play music anymore.  And here we have yet another example of a greedy industry stupidly trying to squeeze money from other sources and managing to quietly kill off support of legitimate product (just like the lawsuits and DRM have managed).  A chilling prediction from the Wire article linked above: “If the new rates stick, online music fans may come to expect far less innovation, variety and quality when it comes to internet radio. Some industry experts fear that even more users could be driven to illicit services that pay no royalties or those that operate from other countries.”


Though congressional hearings are pending, you can also make your own voice heard about this tragic idiocy: Save Internet Radio petition.


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


Spring has sprung – so get out and live your life. Take some time. Stop and smell the flowers. Do anything and everything you can, but whatever you do, DON’T WATCH THE PREMIUM CABLE MOVIE CHANNELS THIS WEEKEND. All four films being offered, including one made exclusively for the coaxial market, are absolutely lame. They lack sufficient cinematic and artistic cred, and consistently undermine the individuals responsible for their creation. Where once the arrival of winter’s thaw marked the dog days at the local Multiplex, it appears pay TV is the new landfill for lost motion picture prattle. If you insist upon cranking up the cable box and bothering with any of these offerings, SE&L can only sell you on one – and the pitch is pretty weak. In fact, this may be a good time to explore other options in Saturday evening adventure. Here’s what’s waiting on 10 March:


Premiere Pick
Stay Alive


You know the pickings are exceptionally slim when SE&L goes about recommending a rather under-baked video game styled horror film as its premium channel pick – especially one as slipshod as this one. Tripping lightly into Silent Hill territory, with just a smidgen of Final Destination to add to the illogic, what starts off interesting (including a nice bit of immersive 3D animation) ends up inert as old legends come back to life for absolutely no good reason. The cast is comprised of unimpressive actors, each one looking lost in what is essentially a slasher film with microchips instead of machetes. With an overblown ending and more than its fair share of plotholes, the only entertainment you’ll get from this failed horror hackwork will come from second guessing the characters. Sadly, you will probably overestimate their intelligence every single time. (3 March, Starz, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Life Support


It’s more issue-oriented fare for the Emmy winning network as Queen Latifah stars in this based on a true story drama. Her character is an urban activist, a former junkie now infected with AIDS who wants to help others avoid her physical fate. In addition, there’s an older daughter whose overflowing with bitterness regarding her upbringing, and various stoic subplots that take attention away from the main narrative. For all its noble intentions, this is nothing more than a mediocre made for TV weeper. (10 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (10 March, Cinemax, 9PM EST)


The Pink Panther


Steve Martin should be ashamed. Shawn Levy should also hang his head in collaborative guilt. Together, these two supposedly talented men shit all over the legacy of Peter Sellers and his slapstick collaborations with the brilliant Blake Edwards. And rumor has it that a sequel may be in the works. Apparently, audiences enjoyed this update on the modern Inspector Clouseau character enough to warrant a return to the well. Here’s hoping all involved drown. (10 March, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


After The Big Lebowski failed to make them mainstream heroes, the Coen Brothers decided to step back and regroup. Fargo Oscars in hand, the boys called on some odd source material (Homer’s The Odyssey) to forge their next effort, a rustic riot that stands as one of their best films ever. George Clooney, in the Clark Gable part, leads thick-witted associates Delmar and Pete through a sticky Alabama backwater, all in an attempt to locate a tantalizing treasure that may or may not exist. Aside from the amazing performances and pitch perfect casting (including Brother favorites John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and John Turturro), the movie featured a Grammy winning soundtrack of classic country and bluegrass songs. Indeed, thanks to that T-Bone Burnett produced collection, more people were exposed to the Coen’s creative conceits than ever before. (11 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Human Nature


Back before they were both big names, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry delivered this quirky romantic comedy. Or is it really a science fiction fantasy. The premise has scientist Tim Robbins and his hirsute girlfriend Patricia Arquette (she has a biological condition that produces excess body hair) discovering a real ape man – that is, a feral human raised in the wild. The result is some surreal interpersonal problems and a lot of strophic sexuality. (10 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Jesus Christ, Superstar


While not quite as controversial as Martin Scorsese’s take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Norman Jewison still fielded a lot of public grief from bringing this blasphemous rock opera to the big screen. Even worse, he filled his cast with clear counterculture types, turning the hit musical into a statement about the National disconnect over the Vietnam War. It remains a wonderful version, with some stellar turns both vocally and acting-wise. (15 March, Sundance, 7PM EST)

Fahrenheit 451


It remains a minor glitch in a true cinematic giant’s substantive resume. By the end of filming, both actor and director couldn’t stand each other. And as book to film adaptations go, it stands as a solid, if slight, effort. For François Truffaut, there would be other triumphs. But fans of author Ray Bradbury still wonder why no one has picked up the remake mantle on this classic tale of totalitarianism run amuck. (12 March, Sundance, 6AM EST)

Outsider Option
Dawn of the Dead (2004)


It shouldn’t have worked. When zombie king George Romero delivered his sequel to the stellar Night of the Living Dead in 1978, he had to do so without a rating. The material was so horrifying, and the amount of gore so generous, that the MPAA would never approve the picture. Fast forward 26 years, and first time filmmaker Zack Snyder decided to helm this remake, complete with as much arterial spray as possible. Thanks to a clever update from genre genius James Gunn (the first ten minutes alone are refreshingly frightening) and a decision to turn the living dead into fast moving monsters, what could have been a disaster ended up one of 2004’s certified smashes. Now, as Synder’s sword and sandal epic 300 prepares to hit theaters, revisit this filmmaker’s fascinating vision with this unholy look at a world gone horrific – and hungry. (10 March, Starz, 11:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
I Bury the Living


After more than a month off, TCM brings back its Underground series, and horror host Rob Zombie. This time out, we get an Albert Band classic, a grisly little tale of a cemetery worker whose casual placement of pins on a graveyard map causes the death of said plot owner. With a terrific performance by Richard Boone, and a last act twist that helps up the ick factor, this is old fashioned fright filmmaking at its finest. (9 March, Tuner Classic Movies, 7:30PM EST)

Blue Sky


While it may seem like she fell off the face of the Earth since this, her last major Oscar nominated performance (which she won for, by the way), Jessica Lange has actual been featured in nearly 20 projects over the last 13 years. Still, how she moved from the A-list to an afterthought remains a motion picture mystery, especially considering her remarkable work in this period drama. Sadly, this was also the last film for the award winning Tony Richardson.(12 March, Movieplex, 9PM EST)

Blue Thunder


A perfect example of ‘80s high concept action and adventure, this clever retrofitting of the chase/conspiracy picture found Roy Scheider behind the controls of an experimental helicopter. Thanks to a sly little script by Dan “Alien” O’Bannon and definitive direction from genre master John Badham, this technological take on the standard morality tale was a surprise hit that still manages to hold up, even under today’s F/X fancying demands. (13 March, Flix, 10PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007

I was saddened to see that Baudrillard had succumbed to the most fatal strategy of them all: death. He argued that most experience in capitalist culture consists of simulacra and simulation; death presumably is exempted from this—the one authentic experience not subject to amplification through media representation or manufacture. Though he’s mainly remembered for his media criticism, his ideas about pseudoevents and which always runs the danger of being oversimplified or sensationalized (or turned into a Keanu Reeves movie), his early work on consumerism shouldn’t be neglected; I’ve certainly got a lot of mileage out of For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, which grounds his ideas about hyperreality, consuming on the symbolic level and signs supplanting what they signify in Marxist terms, remaining far more systematic than the later works, which tend to follow a free-associational logic. It seemed to be the case that it had become fashionable to dismiss Baudrillard as a philosopher clown and his works as stunts—he was more interested in coming across outrageously and incomprehensibly than in formulating clear and convincing analyses; but now perhaps his death will restore some dignity to it and let us go back to it and read it with attention that’s sure to be repaid in insight. But it’s sad that he’ll say no more to complicate whatever understanding we struggle to come to of what’s he already written.


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I was comped at one of Tokyo’s finest; today, on my own dime, I am in one of the more plebian of stop-spots. A difference of 2 stars, but in the end, does it really matter? All we peripatetiques require is a hole to sit over to deposit our wastes, a spigot to cleanse us, a bed to lay our heads on; if possible, a television to enlighten or entertain, a closet to hang clothes so they don’t inordinately wrinkle and smudge, a fridge to store and keep some liquids and edibles cool.


The rest? The bidet, the fully stocked fridge, the movies on demand, the internet hook-up, the room service, the pool or exercise room? . . . In the end, like life, it is only a matter of degrees. Everything beyond basic is merely an exercise in ostentation; leaps in perception.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 7, 2007


It’s time to take a step back, to get our motion picture priorities in order. We need to move away from extremes, accept certain elements and ideas as a given, and return to the basics of standard cinematic criticism. In the case of a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this may seem like an analytic impossibility. After all, this was the movie that many considered to be one of the funniest of all time. It was an example of those rare lightning in a bottle entertainment explosions that had individuals on both sides of the phenomenon shoring up their positions and pissing off the opposition. You still have those who recklessly defend the meandering mock documentary as the greatest satire in the last 20 years, while others find nothing remotely funny about a man making jokes at the expense of innocent people’s privacy and personal points of view.


Still, Sacha Baron Cohen touched a nerve, tapping into a zealous zeitgeist that obviously couldn’t wait to see the self-righteous and the self-absorbed reduced to stuttering piles of inarticulate smugness. This undeterred demographic, anxious for the smallest amount of scandal, and hungry for proud non-PC pronouncements absorbed everything this British comic was dishing out, and like a motherly mocking bird, regurgitated it to those they felt would react the same way. The result was the best kind of product publicity, a literal word of mouth that propelled the finished product into the ticket sales stratosphere. While some could argue that Cohen’s appearance in Talladega Nights, or his cult comedy series on HBO Da Ali G Show, were natural stepping stones toward Borat‘s success, it was the ambush antics of the title character that resonated further than any of the comedian’s previous foundational facets.


Similarly, those against the movie and its made-up mannerisms tried to refocused the frequently blurred line between ruse and reality. They leapt on the news of angry lawsuits, and supported anyone who felt used by Cohen and his con artist cinema verite approach. For them, Borat is a miserable excuse for entertainment, a slapdash production that can’t even get its attitude adjusted properly. Instead of making everyone the butt of his jokes, critics point out Cohen’s proclivity for picking on the obvious (white people) and the odious (…umm, white people?). Minorities are made out to be tolerant (the group of African American men shooting crap in Atlanta) or somehow saintly (the actress turned pretend prostitute Luenell). Even its own self-imposed intolerance is pitched so perfectly over the top that the slanderous stereotyping doesn’t really hurt.


So, some six months later, after all the praise and the panic, the backlash and the false Academy bravado, what have we got?  What is Borat, in the end? In truth, what one winds up with is a really well done fish out of water comedy that goes wildly off course after about 45 minutes and never regains its footing. Right around the time of the infamous naked brawl, shortly after the title character has pissed off a posh dinner party by insulting the guests and inviting a prostitute to be his escort, Borat goes bad. Why? Well, it’s hard to say, really. Nothing much changes. We do lose the amazing Ken Davitian as our lead’s producer and sidekick Azamat Bagatov, and the nonsensical narrative involving Pamela Anderson starts to dominate the direction of the film. Then there is that horrendous sequence where Borat coerces a bunch of drunken fratboys into doing what they do best – sticking their inebriated asses directly into each other’s mouths. Maybe it’s the incredibly false moment where our hero is “healed” during a “been there, seen that” revival meeting filled with crazed Christians.


Whatever the case, the chief reason why most viewers are probably experiencing motion picture morning after regret is that, in general, Borat isn’t the second coming of comedy. It barely breaches the tenets of tenacity needed to make such a statement stand up. Over the last two decades, TV shows like South Park and The Simpsons have managed just as much mean-spirited social commentary without having to resort to Howard Stern/Stuttering John or Jackass like antics.  Indeed, it can be said that a well written and performed observation is always better than one captured, piecemeal, out amongst the amiable if awkward public. Any documentary filmmaker will tell you – stick a camera in someone’s face and watch them make a fool of themselves. But in Borat‘s case, the joke is jaundiced by an underhanded conceit that forces foolishness where such stupidity may not exist. Baiting someone into bigotry is one thing. Trying to turn it into an innocent discovery of a deep seeded hatred is another.


Oh, make no doubt about it – America is a racist hole. We live in a vacuum of self-subjective import where “love it or leave it” is supposed to sound friendly, not fascist. We smile politely and wear our shallow sensitivity happily along our heart heavy and diverse shirtsleeves. So when Cohen gets a Texas good old boy to lambaste the Middle East, or finds the desire for a return to slavery in the mind of a misguided South Carolina college student, he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know. In many ways, Borat is aimed at the viewer more or less blind to the realities of the US of Asses. For said generation, feminism is funny on face value, since dames ain’t supposed to be sniveling over their rights. Anything revolving around sex is equally hilarious, since the ongoing battle between morality and reality has resulted in a definite demonization of said basic biological function. On the one hand, this is a movie that plays perfectly to those without a smidgen of big picture perspective. It’s satire – if there is any – exists only in the small, not the substantive. Besides, Cohen is not that coarse. You can see him striving for more than that throughout Borat‘s beginning arc.


Indeed, had he simply stayed with a SCRIPTED look at his Kazakhstani homeland, expanding the characters, his job as a reporter, and the obvious hatred for gypsies and the surrounding former Soviet territories, we’d have an amazing motion picture. Indeed, even if the decision was made to move the lampoon over to our shores, a carefully crafted script which allows for both the shock AND the solution would have served this material much better. There could have also been room for some improvised bits. An excellent example is the bed and breakfast segment. Even with all its anti-Jewish jibes, the joke ends up being on Cohen and Davitian, not the kindly couple. It’s their reactions, not the horribly derogatory things they are saying, that drives the humor. As it stands, Borat is sporadic and sly, cutting when it wants to be, and lazy when the situation requires. You can see it during the opening ride in the subway. The minute Cohen is confronted by a couple “takin’ no shit” city folk, he cowers like a little school girl and shuts up. On the other hand, when the target is in on the ruse – namely Pam Anderson and her peeps – we get the takedown, the tackle and the use of excessive force.


To make matters worst, the recent DVD release offers up several deleted scenes which prove that, when it comes to pushing buttons, even the filmmakers recognize the need for a reality check. A sequence where Borat proposes to adopt a puppy (which he then proclaims he will have sex with and then eat) is so incredibly crass that it’s not funny or informative. Similarly, a moment where a naked Cohen continually mounts a hotel masseuse loses its entire lunatic luster when, for once, the targeted party merely goes along with the goof. From the many missing scenes provided, it is clear that the final version of Borat is a carefully cut together post-production invention. Indeed, one could argue that Cohen and collaborator Larry Charles (director of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) began this project with a collection of stolen moment skits (the interview material) and then mapped a movie around it.


But all of this still doesn’t answer the basic question – is Borat a good or bad movie? In the final analysis, “neither” seems to be the best response. To call it good, or even great, is to find material inside this movie that just doesn’t exist. To dismiss it outright is to underestimate the power in many of the sequences (like Woody Allen before, Cohen is the new king of hilarious self-mocking Anti-Semitism). And no matter how many times it’s mentioned, the notion of collecting gypsy tears to prevent AIDS just SOUNDS funny. No, in the end, Borat is two thirds of a terrific motion picture. Unfortunately, it’s that last fraction that forces it out of any conversation about its long-term legacy. At least one thing is clear. Cohen better enjoy this time as a cultural talking point. His ship has set sail, and a Roberto Benigni style barrier reef is looming, dead ahead. 


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