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Friday, Dec 28, 2007

The Economist‘s year-end double issue seems to be a catch-all for all the evergreen articles that could find no comfortable place in the magazine’s rigorously formatted weekly structure. It’s comparable in a way to the New York Times Magazine‘s annual year in ideas feature, but far more discursive, almost arbitrary. Among this year’s “Chirstmas specials” (as the table of contents deems them) are articles about Mormons, poker, census-taking, skydiving, Esalen (with some sadly egregious typos in the dek—probably a printer’s error; my heart bleeds for their copy editors) and the sex life of pandas. The two I found most interesting were one about the rise and fall of shopping malls (a photography exhibit prompted me to write about them in the past) and another on the moribund entertainment piers found in coastal resort towns—places in Atlantic City or Santa Monica where you are encouraged to free yourselves of ordinary constraints and waste money on cheap distractions (my favorite is Skee-ball) and synthetic candy and the like.


Why commercialize piers? Not necessarily for their natural beauty, though that can be impressive—I like staring out into the awesome nothingness, the endless horizon, as much as anyone. It’s seductive on several levels, as piers strain and stretch to extend those horizons for us, even if it’s for only a few feet. But as with malls and casinos, piers are disorienting places, making them ideal for separating people from their money. According to the article, pier owners turned away from a strategy of exclusivity to instead cater to ordinary people, believing that they “could profit instead from the mob’s adventurousness: that sense of being in limbo, neither on sea nor on land, suspended in a state of fantasy.”


Because piers are classic liminal spaces—suspended between land and sea, breeching a conceptual boundary immutable categories—the article suggests this creates an opportunity for a “sense of self-discovery” but it is also a place where you know you have reached the end of the line—hence the frequency with which people attempt suicide from them. If one doesn’t opt for that direction, it can be reassuring to know that at that point, there is no other direction to go in but the way back. Retracing the same ground can be tedious, or a kind of tacit admission of defeat, but not at the end of a pier. Then, I accept that there is no shame in going back from where I came.


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Thursday, Dec 27, 2007


No critic can see every movie in a single year. There are only 365 days from 1 January to 31 December (366 with that added leap), and even if you saw two movies a day, you’d barely get through the entire 2007 release calendar. Someone with much more time on their hands calculated that over 750 films were offered over the last 52 weeks - nearly 15 per 7 day cycle. That includes direct to DVD entries, long shelved titles finally seeing a perfunctory distribution, and standard Cineplex offerings. Toss in a few ‘yet to find a release’ efforts and those given a mere limited showcase for award consideration and you can see how the numbers add up. SE&L struggled to see 125 films theatrically this year - that’s just over 10 a month. When you add in digital releases and other options (pay per view), the number moves closer to 250.


Still, we didn’t see everything - and as a result, we didn’t get a chance to review everything. Yet over the next five Fridays (with the occasional break for a noteworthy new 2008 film), we will try and play catch-up. These left-overtures, made to guarantee a more informed, inclusive assessment of 2007 will cover heretofore unknown documentaries, several celebrated movies that simply slipped through the cracks, and more than a few unknown quantities. First up, however, are four highly anticipated and high profile releases. Each one stands as a significant part of the current cinematic calendar, and no overview of the year in film would be complete without at least a marginal discussion. Granted, a few of the remaining major titles will get the full review treatment (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this section hopes to address the more glaring aesthetic gaps quickly and efficiently. It all begins with:


Once [rating: 8]
Once is a nearly flawless little film - emphasis on the word ‘little’. It’s not out to tell a grandiose tale of unrequited love or star-crossed passion. Instead, it lets lonely people - in this case, a struggling street musician and an earnest immigrant from the Czech Republic - discover each other, connect, and then slowly drift apart. It uses songs to tell of their growing affection and respect, and the music also fills in the blanks regarding emotional context and personal angst. There is a real familial texture to the film - writer/director John Carney was in a band with lead actor/featured busker Glen Hansard, and the lead collaborated with actress Markéta Irglová on several of the key numbers. Performed live, with as much raw power and synergy as possible within a very low budget scheme, what we wind up with is an epic told in incomplete lyric lines, a classic fable forged out of slowly strummed guitar, lilting piano, and strained, struggling voices.


Both Hansard and Irglová deserve a lot of credit for how open and honest they are, artistically speaking. Music is a tough undercurrent in any film, its sonic significance meaning the world to some, a cloying, clumsy conceit to others. Here, Carney lets it do most of the heavy lifting, leaving his actors time to bring the nuances of the narrative to life. There are dozens of memorable scenes here - Hansard playing his songs (for the first time, supposedly) to his dad, the hastily cobbled together band impressing a hardened studio exec. - but it’s the morbid, moving tunes scattered throughout that leave the biggest impression. If you’re hoping for overblown romance set inside an equally grandiose or glamorous setting, Once will fail to deliver (Ireland is very cold and claustrophobic here). Love is not the main driving force between these two empty souls. As a matter of fact, both believe they can overcome the sentiment’s inherent limits and rediscover (or restart) it’s fire. No, what this film wants to champion is the collaboration in creativity, and how substantial (and superficial) it can be. For Once, it’s wonderful.


The Kite Runner [rating: 6]
It would take a viewer with the aesthetic skills of an Olympian to overcome the horrendous hurdles placed in entertainment’s way by this well-meaning but misguided adaptation of the famed bestseller. First and foremost, the story is full of purposeful convolutions. Events happen without rhyme, reason or clear set-up, simply stated for automatic acceptance and rote response. Characters aren’t dimensional - they’re mechanical, purposely created to fit certain narrative demands and manipulative paradigms. Our lead is a coward - and never changes from youth to adulthood. And child rape and sexual abuse are the poisonous plotpoints du jour. While many who love Khaled Hosseini’s novel will be happy with the adaptation (many of the main beats have been kept almost intact), fans unfamiliar with the tale of two boys - well off Amir and servant boy Hassan - living life in a pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan will wonder why everything has to be so cruel. Seeing older kids bully younger ones is standard schoolyard shtick. Letting those threats end up in sodomy and defilement seems outrageous, and without proper dramatic foundation.


The Kite Runner is indeed a film dense with cultural disconnect. Perhaps if filmmaker Marc Forster had abandoned the books manipulative material and dealt with the elements of the story that were really interesting (what happened to the young victim during the reign of the Soviets and the rise of Islamic extremism) instead of focusing on the mopey, depressed, guilt ridded Amir, we’d feel more engaged. The featured transition from whiny kid to dour adult is neither compelling nor credible. Even when given the chance to fight for what he wants toward the end of the story, he lets another little boy do the defending. While the kite tournament material is intriguing (even with all the obvious CGI sophistication) and the history harrowing, Forster can’t find a way to make the many divergent threads work in complete consort. The end result feels incomplete, missing important moments and a real message. While it’s wonderful to see the Middle East painted in less than jingoistic images, the parts don’t add up to a substantial sum. This is one Runner that stumbles before hitting the finish line.


Atonement [rating: 8]
For those of you who miss the bodice ripping regality of a good old fashioned period piece weeper, Atonement will fulfill your Merchant/Ivory five hankies hankering quite nicely. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s beloved novel, and dealing with a love that transcends Earthly trappings (like class, law, and war), we witness the story of destined lovers James McAvoy (as Robbie Turner, the educated servant’s son) and Keira Knightley (as upper crust babe Cecilia Tallis). Skittering around the fringes is jealous tween Briony, longing for the much older man she can’t have and jealous of a sister whose much more refined and beautiful than she. During a dinner party, the child witnesses something that sets her off. One false accusation later and Robbie is in jail, Cecilia has disowned her family, and Hitler is invading France. The film then fast forwards to a world ravaged by conflict as the couple attempts to get back together (he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse). Along the way we get reminders, both subtle and starkly repugnant, that nothing in a time of international crisis ends up sunshine and secret rendezvous by the sea.


If there is one glaring flaw in this otherwise faultless film, it’s the character of Briony. She’s a monster, more brazen Bad Seed in her purposeful destruction than scared, green-eyed innocent. We watch her, soulless sense of entitlement driving her to acts of unconscionable cruelty, and wonder if she’ll ever be redeemed (or as the title suggests, held accountable for her numerous sins). The answer, sadly, is no. Even when Vanessa Redgrave shows up two hours later to give the girl an older, wiser veneer, we still see someone who barely comprehends how horrendous their actions really were. Luckily, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright distracts us with lots of amazing cinematic statements. There’s an incredible tracking shot that follows Robbie and his fellow soldiers through a Hellish maze of military mayhem along a French coastline, and the final images of our long suffering lovers are simply stunning. Yet one can’t help but feel the impenetrable pall cast by Briony over the entire affair. It’s a necessary contrivance to keep the plot moving (and the tragedy fertile), but without a sense of justice, Atonement just doesn’t pay its penance. It turns a potentially magnificent movie into something that’s merely good.


Juno [rating: 8]
Juno is a snarky afterschool special for the Pinkberry crowd. It’s Knocked Up for the non-Britney brigade. It’s a movie with its own built in sense of Mystery Science Theater 3000 self-referential satire and one of the brightest humoresques in a genre stumbling for a rebirth. Some may see it as the nu-millennial notion of irony as genuine wit taken to ungodly extremes, and others will read the name “Diablo Cody” on the credits (born Brook Busey, she’s the screenwriter swimming in all the Tinsel Town juice right now) and wince at the proto-porn moniker. Yet as with any fairytale, no matter how supposedly nascent, you have to take the flights of fancy with the familiar. After all, this is the story of a teenage gal (the title trooper, played to perfection by Ellen Page) getting pregnant, and no one really having a conniption as a result - clearly a work of fabulist fiction. Deciding against abortion and going for the other “A” word (adoption), our hyper-spunky heroine looks for the perfect parents. Thus begins the film’s biggest paradigm: who makes the best parent - the cool guy who loves alternative rock and exploitation gore films, or the stuck up career woman who emotionally understands the burden of a baby. Tough call.


Yet thanks to Cody’s quirky dialogue, driven by one too many games of Trivial Pursuit and a couple of correspondence courses from the Quentin Tarantino School of Slam Speak, and Page’s flawless manipulation of said mouthfuls, we sail along on rays of Kevin Smithey sunbeams. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t let his outward love of Wes Anderson’s static tableaus undermine the mirth. Instead, his is a cinematic comic timing practically bred into his DNA (his Dad is Stripes/Ghostbusters’ Ivan). With equally engaging work from an all star cast - JK Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney - and a story which sells none of its problematic potential short, we wind up with something that’s smart, sassy, a tad too big for its broadminded britches, and a clear companion piece to the year’s other kings of much cruder comedy. In a world where every underage choice gets its own issue oriented movie of the week on Lifetime, Oxygen, or a combination of the two, Juno’s jaded joking is a breath of really fresh air. It stands as one of 2007’s brightest, best - and frequently, most baffling.


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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007


From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like Will Smith, Christopher Nolan, and the elusive Wachowski Brothers. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:


Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo Del Toro returns to the comic book genre with this sequel to his superb take on Mike Mignola’s classic character.


The Dark Knight
It’s Batman vs. The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s continuing reconfiguration of the super hero film. Looks amazing.


Speed Racer
Talk about eye candy! The minds behind The Matrix update the Japanese animation icon with some stunning visual flair.


Sex and the City
For some, this is a big “who cares?”, but fans of the fiery femme foursome can’t help but wonder what this big screen adaption will bring.


Be Kind, Rewind
After taking on an abandoned NYC this winter, Will Smith returns to summer as a reluctant superhero with a really bad reputation. Hmmm…



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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007

Just a quick note that my list of best music journalism of ‘07 will appear in PopMatters in a few weeks- I’m makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, etc..  As for New Year’s resolutions… I want to try to keep concentrating on my writing and editing so that hopefully I’ll become better at each (which means my reissue project work is still on hiatus).  Also, I’ll try to make a better effort not to be too disgusted and snobby about mainstream artists with abhorrent personalities- after all, I do like Amy Winehouse but I draw the line at Britney.  Hopefully, I can also report here about some positive things happening in the biz and some good role models instead of just ranting about the evils of the RIAA or FCC (which should both go to hell and burn).  Have a good holiday and I’ll see you online in ‘08.


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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007

This item from BusinessWeek about Southwest Airlines’ recent adjustments highlights a dilemma between treating people fairly and treating them equally:


When Southwest Airlines (LUV) rolled out its new business fares and boarding procedures in early November, the carrier’s blog quickly became crowded with comments. Nearly 500 impassioned remarks have been posted recently about the changes, which shook up Southwest’s longstanding first-come, first-served boarding policy. The old method often meant long waits in line at the gate. The new way assigns passengers a specific place in line and gives priority to frequent travelers and people who pay extra for “business select” fares. Families with small children who don’t check in early now wait longer to board.


To me, these sound like sensible changes. Who wants long waits at the gate? Isn’t waiting in the insane security line with your shoes off and your pants falling down indignity enough? First-come, first-serve makes sense on the Greyhound (though watch out for the ex-cons), but when you pay hundreds of dollars to travel somewhere, you should be able to book a seat. It makes much more sense to fill the seats in the order that they are purchased, or (most economists would likely argue) to use variable pricing to induce customers to pay extra for the privilege of securing advantageous seats. What is most fair, in terms of being most economically efficient, is to let each seat fetch whatever airlines can get for them. But when you sit beside someone on the same flight, enjoying a comparable square foot of personal space, and find out they paid hundreds of dollars less than you for the opportunity, this doesn’t seem so fair. It seems like some kind of discrimination has taken place and that you’ve been had. At that point, a customer is likely to think, What, is he better than me? Why should he pay less than me for the same thing? Same goods, same price: It seems the democratic way.


Hence Southwest customers don’t like that some customers can buy or travel their way into preferential treatment. Part of what travelers had paid for in flying Southwest, apparently, is the leveling experience of having to scramble for seats at departure time. It was a way to purchase an ersatz egalitarianism, since it stood in stark contrast to the first-class, second-class, etc., seating systems at other airlines. Getting that first row seat on a Southwest flight because you camped out at the gate and earned it was a way of erasing extraneous advantages, of getting a perk that is ordinarily unreachable to those who can’t afford to spend a fortune. What Southwest offered was an escape from money-based meritocracy, an escape from having what you are willing to spend serve as a proxy for your worthiness. Of course, most of these same consumers want precisely the opposite from their employers—they want to be rewarded specially for their merit and for their special talents. Perhaps this inconsistency is a way that consumerism helps capitalist democracies smooth over the perpetual conflict between justice and equality, or to put it another way, between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. As part of the production cycle, we want meritocracy, we want disparate outcomes to reflect our different abilities, ambitions, and efforts. But in the consumption cycle that occurs simultaneously, we want the illusion of egalitarianism, of an equal outcome regardless of effort or ability—we want the shortcuts and the conveniences to the feeling that no one else’s money is better than our own.


But that doesn’t take into account positional goods, which people consume to specifically destroy the spirit of egalitarianism. Positional goods allow us to express the class prerogatives and inherited advantages that distort our opportunities in general in the realm of consumption, where the market would seem to afford the same opportunities to all. The illusion of the democratic marketplace is useful to a point—to keep a class-riven society complacent through the magic of purchasing power—but beyond that point it is far more lucrative to exploit class insecurities, to manufacture scarcity and sell the thrill of exclusivity while fattening profit margins.


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