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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007


It looks like 2008 will be the beginning of a new Crusade. Thankfully, it will only be a cinematic one, not a blood-soaked battle waged between fractious warring armies under differing dogmatic flags. Creed will still play a part in it, but not in the heathen/hero manner. You see, sometime in said year, two documentaries will be vying for the hearts and minds of the faithful and skeptic, the saved and the cynical. On one side are the atheists. Bill Maher has been working with Borat director Larry Charles on a yet to be titled film exposing the fallacy that is organized religion. Hoping to use humor and a glorified “gotcha” approach, the host of HBO’s Real Time aims to undercut all fundamentalists as deluded dimwits, using a fractured fairy tale as a means of undermining the civility and safety of the entire world. 


Taking up the mantle for the Messiah, among other Christian conceits, is actor/political aid/game show host Ben Stein. The artist formerly known for calling the name “Ferris Bueller” in the seminal coming of age flick and putting speechified words into the mouth of Richard Nixon is spearheading an anti-Evolution effort entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Focusing on the latest attempts by evangelicals and religious activists to get Darwin out of the classroom and supplement science with a newfangled principle entitled ‘Intelligent Design’, Stein has been quoted as saying, “Big Science in this area of biology has lost its way.” He goes on to argue that, as members of academia, any idea should be open to scrutiny and debate, no matter the outcome. Of course, his cause is hoping that the result is more school boards adding the cockeyed Creationists concept to their curriculum.


The Stein film is just the latest effort by Motive Entertainment, a small independent marketing company out of Westlake Village, California, to bring God and all his glory to mainstream moviegoers. Frequently cited as instrumental in the massive returns scored by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the company (which also worked on The Chronicles of Narnia and had a hand in United 93 and Rocky Balboa as well) specifically targets niche demographics – usually centering on local churches and faith outreach programs. As a result, it has been unusually successful. Even with titles not noted for their spiritual underpinnings, founder Paul Lauer has been praised for proving that movies with a strong, positive message (with or without a basic Biblical underpinning) can generate big profits, just as long as the right non-secular salesmanship is applied.


Now, Hollywood and the holy have never been productive playmates. Religion has always been viewed as a focus group limiting ideal, appealing only to those who specifically believe, or consider faith an integral part of their life. Besides, when preachers and conservative pundits want a scapegoat for all the sin and inequity in the world, the media usually ends up the Whore of Babylon – with Tinsel Town turning the most tricks. Even well meaning movies that offer only the slightest sense of spirituality are viewed as divisive and insensitive within our mandated multi-cultural community ideal. Unless the message can be made universal without upsetting or supporting any one sect or scripture, studio suits want nothing much to do with it. It’s the kind of outright rejection Gibson received when he pitched Passion. Luckily, he had his own money to funnel into the project. It’s also a good thing that his brand of arcane orthodox Catholicism doesn’t require a vow of poverty.


It was Roger Ebert who once said that no good movie is ever too long, and a parallel rationale can be applied to faith-based films. Spirituality is never the real reason a religious oriented movie succeeds or fails. It’s the quality of the cinema containing the concerns that is of utmost importance. For all its flaws, The Passion is an amazing artistic statement. Gibson may seem goofy in the way he treats the teachings of the Good Book, but he definitely gets the ephemeral depiction right. Looking like a series of canvases right out of the Vatican’s gilded gallery, the iconography offered by the visuals is what is most important. Christianity is heavy with significant symbols, and Gibson’s direction hit each and every one. Deny its power as a drama or as dogma, but The Passion has the kind of undeniable imagery that will easily live on long after any controversy about the violence – or the vileness of the man who made it – can or will. 


It’s the same for something as speculative and questioning as Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture. When it arrived in theaters back in 1991, it was seen as a low budget stunt on the part of the man responsible for the bilious industry satire The Player. Many giggled at its mixing of scandalous sex and immovable religious fervor. For those unfamiliar with this minor masterpiece, Tolkin choose to focus his narrative on a bored and cynical telephone operator played by Mimi Rodgers. A swinger in her private life, she finds anonymous trysts and changing partners a kind of compensation for what’s missing in her life. Overhearing some coworkers discussing the return of Christ, Rogers’ Sharon tries to join in. But they make it very clear that, without a requisite Jesus-based epiphany, she will never know God. Even worse, when the title apocalypse occurs, she will be cast out and unable to enter the kingdom of Heaven.


Sharon eventually has a major spiritual awakening. She leaves her lover and ends up married to a man who agrees with her new found fundamentalism. Tragedy changes everything, however. Alone with a child to support, Sharon is convinced that the Rapture is indeed coming. She heads out into the wilderness to await the arrival of the Four Horsemen. What happens next stands as a definitive statement on the requirements of faith, and how strident and strict the concepts of Christianity and Armageddon can actually be. Posing tough questions like “how far would you go in defense of your beliefs”, it remains one of the best meditations on the nature of literal religion ever offered. While it failed to make an impression in theaters, it’s grown into a major artistic and cultural statement on video and DVD.


Where you will often find strong, supportive religious messages are in independent films. In 2002, Joshua offered up a wonderful “what if” narrative, asking the important question about how a community would react if Christ – in this case, in the form of the title town newcomer – actually did comeback. The results were evenhanded and far from preachy. Indeed, it stands as a solid entertainment. That same year, Hometown Legend used the notion of personal conviction and belief in a higher power as the means of moderating a standard sports drama. While the facets of football were fudged significantly in order to drive the plotpoints, the characters – especially Lacey Chabert’s God-fearing gal – were presented in a surprisingly subtle and skillful manner. Granted, both films are so non-confrontational in their stance on spirituality that if you blinked hard enough, you’d probably miss the evangelical message. While some may feel it follows the “Hollywood’s hidden secret” stance, the outsider arena frequently enjoys bringing The Word to those who want it in ways they least expect it. 


But once you move into the realm of the real, all bets are off. Fiction is fine as a maker of metaphors for religious meaning, but when you take on the actual tenets of faith, the converted tend to get their vestments in a bunch. And it’s not hard to see why. Recent documentaries like Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp have painted participation in organized faith in fairly large brushstrokes. The common comical conceit that all priests are pedophiles was not helped by the former film’s focus on a disgusting, defrocked pervert named Fr. Oliver O’Grady. In the case of the lamentable latter work, it was the ballsy brainwashing of young converts by Becky Fischer at her Kids on Fire summer seminars that raised a ruckus. Since so few films focus on subjects such as these (and other related topics like suicide bombers and totalitarian theocracy), the audience is given a limited, non-enlightened exposure to the material. This results in the standard social stigmatizing and the notorious kneejerk reaction.


Both Maher’s movie and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed seem poised to significantly ratchet up this pissing match. Though he claims he will mock and marginalize everyone, the political comedian has a real Jones for the Christian conservative movement, and here’s betting they’ll be the butt of more jokes than some mainstreamed Muslim or brave faced Buddhist. Stein’s effort seems almost unforgivable. Like asking a mostly proven set of facts to share space with someone’s far flung notions of the truth, the notorious non-science of Intelligent Design is desperate to redefine the way children learn the origins of the species. As with any affront to faith, the believer has every right to be upset with science for raining on their procreation parade. But to substitute a new age amalgamation of old school Creationism is like asking for trouble.


Which, of course, leads to the real reason these movies get made. While it’s hard to see the agenda inside something like The Rapture (unless it’s to show the perils of blind faith), the rest of the films mentioned are driven by one simple desire – to convert. In the case of The Passion, Joshua, or Hometown Legend, it’s the promise that belief adds to and advances human existence. It’s the quaint “God supports those who believe in his might and majesty” ideal. In the case of Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp, it’s ‘Secularism Saves’. Rejecting at the very least the organized aspect of religion, they hope to show that they welcomed the power, and the protection, over individuals like Fr. O’Grady and Becky Fischer. Granted, it’s another of those arguments in the extreme, a dispute with no middle ground and very little room for consensus or clarity. The last thing either side wants is compromise. It would show weakness - or worse, wrongness.


Maybe Islam has the right idea. As part of an interpretation of the Qur’an and the accompanying hadiths, they restrict images depicting the Prophet Muhammad (apparently, from research, there is no outright ‘ban’). When the late Moustapha Akkad - producer of among other things, the Halloween series of films - wanted to make a movie about his religion and its international impact, he formally followed the rule. While other members of Muhammad’s inner circle and family were portrayed, the religious leader was not. It made his 1976 epic Muhammad: Messenger of God awkward, but as close to his core concept and beliefs as possible. He hoped to bridge the Eastern and Western worlds with the movie’s teachings, and educate the masses on the many misconceptions in his religion. Oddly enough, he would die in 2005 at the hands of terrorists. He was in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Amman when Al-Qaeda blew the building up. His daughter died instantly. He held on for several days before succumbing to his wounds.


Makes the oncoming clash in 2008 seem all the more meaningful…or perhaps, meaningless. 


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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007


I think I’ve talked about one of my travel companions before. Although perhaps not by name. She has sat alongside me in planes, ridden in my lap by rail, strolled hand in hand with me along cobblestone pathways, cooed and aahed into my ear in front of canvases at famous galleries and in the mezzanine at the world’s major theatres. She’s a constant inspiration and flirt. Insatiably curious, wholly unpredictable. Her name? Sara N. Dippity. Although she also has answered to “felicity”, “bonne chance”, “open opportunity” and “unexpected happenstance”. But I just call her “Sara”. Sometimes “Sara N”. As flighty as she is, Sara is anything but dippy.


 



I tell you about Sara because this trip to New York and Massachusetts, though planned, was pretty much laid at her feet, or, if all went swimmingly, on her wings. And after swallowing the inevitable, unavoidable, New York City hotel fare—261 bucks per night for a room with moldy carpets and a forlorn view of adjacent pollution-encrusted brownstones —we ventured out along route 87 without any particular target in mind, without any confirmed abode in sight. And somewhere short of Albany, we happened into a rest stop which featured Sara at the automatic entryway—in the form of a green advertiser. Yes, Sara is a shape-shifter; and this time she took the form of a book of coupons offering reduced rates in various outlying roadside inns. Once I thumbed through it I could immediately recognize Sara winking at me. But in a good way.


As soon as I creased the guide I could hear Sara whispering: “here is a real coup for anyone traveling on a fixed budget with few grand schemes in mind.”


Sara was saying: “Here is the perfect opportunity for the kind of traveler who depends on the good graces and beneficent offices of Sara N. Dippity.”


Folks needing a coup or two in their life. Folks like me.


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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Oakley Hall —"No Dreams"


From I’ll Follow You on Merge Records Oakley Hall’s I’ll Follow You, their fourth full length and first for Merge Records, is the crowning achievement in a headspinning 18 months that saw the band release two LPs, Second Guessing and Gypsum Strings—both mainstays on many critic’s best of 2006 lists—and emerge from the Brooklyn underground on several national tours with the likes of M. Ward, The Constantines, Calexico, and most recently with Bright Eyes and Gillian Welch.


Rose Hill Drive —"Man on Fire"


From Rose Hill Drive on Megaforce Records It can be said that a true artist can only be judged by its live abilities. Rose Hill Drive took this maxim and put it to the test before ever releasing an album. The band built an enormous underground fan base with thrilling live shows, with lyrics that connect, and with a completely earnest approach. It’s a re-awakening of the spirit of music that motivates this band, and Rose Hill Drive’s spiritual connection with its congregation remains unparalleled. This organic and grass roots process has let the fans and then the music business come to them. It’s very important to the band that it happened in that order -– music first, business later.


AA Bondy —"There’s a Reason"


From American Hearts on Superphonic Records Recorded and mixed in a month at The Red Barn in Palenville, NY in January 2007, American Hearts is dark and sardonic but it’s not as claustrophobic, tortured nor troubled as you’d expect. The record is actually quite beautifully stark and stripped-down and well played, filled with great melodies and warm production. The songs are wonderfully influenced by an amalgam of folk and blues, filtered through the mind of someone who knows what makes a great rock song breathe.


Imperial Teen —"Shim Sham"


From The Hair The TV The Baby & The Band on Merge Records Imperial Teen is back!! With sly style and knowing sass, Will, Roddy, Jone and Lynn return with their trademark infectious hooks and impeccable pop sensibilities. Let the party begin!!


Caribou —"Melody Day"


From Andorra on Merge Records From its humble beginnings with the theft of a sampler gathering dust in his high school’s music department, through four acclaimed albums and an absurd collision with a litigious wrestler, Dan Snaith’s (aka Caribou) musical life has followed anything but a predictable trajectory.


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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007

Why would anyone buy a digital book reader? I found myself asking this question while reading this somewhat nonsensically titled BusinessWeek piece, “Making Digital Books into Page Turners.” (Huh? I guess they thought best-seller and head turner were too cliche, so they went for an only tangentially related set phrase. Does “Turning the Page on Digital Books” make more sense?)


The market for digital books is nascent, and Sony, despite the Reader’s less-than-splashy debut, still sees its potential, believing people will eventually warm to reading on a flat screen everything from books to the magazine you’re holding now.


The strange thing is, I’ve already got a machine that can do this, and in fact I read those very words on its screen. I wasn’t holding a magazine at all! No, I’m not a magician or a time traveler from the future; I’ve got this thing called a “laptop” and it can do many other neat things beside display the pages of a book. It displays these things called “web pages” that have all sorts of information on them, and I can even use what’s known as a “search engine” to find just about any information I want. When prices of cheap laptops are going ever downward, who the hell wants a stupid toy that only displays proprietary pages? What was in Sony’s mind, besides greed, when it decided to limit its digital reader to its files alone? When will media companies get it that no one is going to pay for digital information the way they did for collectible things?


Book buyers like to collect things; reading the books is somewhat incidental. If they wanted merely to read, they could go to library. And no one likes reading on screens; they will do it however if the content is free. They are never, ever, going to pay the same amount for a digital book, as Sony seems to expect, as they would for a real one—they will not pay for the eyestrain and the absence of an object to arrange on their bookshelves. Only when real books cost $150 will people consent to explore the possiblities of digital ones for $20. And at that point, people will have mastered the art of distributing books as pdfs anyway. I’m sure you could search torrent sites now for pdfs of just about any best-seller as well as just about any magazine. People will go to the trouble if its free. If they wanted to pay, they would buy the actual object. So this makes no sense:


To stoke sales, Sony has knocked $50 off its original price for the Reader and rolled out a new print ad campaign in publications such as The New York Times (NYT ), USA Today, and Vanity Fair. As part of this marketing push, Sony is offering new buyers, who are also registered Connect users, credit for 100 free classic titles, such as Great Expectations and Moby-Dick. “In terms of timing, with people going back to school, there is a lot of interest in classic literature,” said Jim Malcolm, director of marketing for Sony Electronics. “It gives people an incentive to buy.”


But you can download classic novels, for which there is no copyright, for free already. You can get many of them in cheap print editions as well.


Perhaps Sony has seen what digital music has done to company balance sheet and are trying to get ahead of the curve. The digital-music-marketplace logic seems to be this: when distribution costs zero, you only have to sell a few to be profitable. So then if you can guilt some small proportion of the public into paying for digital content with the intellectual-property boogeyman or the specter of your crack legal team, you might still have a viable business. But music and books are not particularly comparable goods. Music affords an immediate experience and often serves as a backdrop for setting a mood or manifesting an identity. Books require attention, a commodity becoming rarer all the time. When people have the attention to pay, they’ll invest it in such a way to maximize the pleasure and utility it affords them—that means getting comfortable with a printed book, or getting utilitarian with a wide array of digital materials to that may be cut and pasted and reincorporated in whatever it is the user is trying to accomplish.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007


Sometimes, dumb is all you need. Not a Larry the Cable Guy level of retardation, or a Carrot Top concept of the doltish. No, what really gives the cinematic pallet a high-quality cleansing is a ripe old fashioned dose of certifiable stupid. And Balls of Fury is that heaping helping of sensational single digit IQ-uity. Actually, it’s unfair to call this witty, borderline satiric spoof of martial arts movies and sports films brainless. It’s actually very smart in its silliness, a good natured goof that wants to earn its hilarity any witty way it can. Yes, it’s frequently sophomoric and slightly scatological, and it riffs on so many comic cross references that you can get lost in all the homages, but the fact remains, this is a wonderfully effective little film. It’s the kind of insane entity that will probably get lost in all the summer shilling. But here’s betting it becomes a major cult classic once it dives onto the digital domain.


In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him – his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon). Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant - who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in – the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! – that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here. For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers – mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand up God Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight – and slightly overweight - sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation. We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses its way about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it just appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before our long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime. In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career. They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success – or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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