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by Bill Gibron

28 Apr 2008

Tradition holds that, for Hollywood, the Spring represents the end of ballyhoo - and the business year. During the four month flatline between January and April, every unmarketable mess, every experimental excuse, every contractually obligated star vehicle, and otherwise underdone effort would get a mandatory release - a few days of bewildering box office glory before fading into VHS obscurity. It was always an aesthetic stop gap, a means of making talent happy, critics cranky, and audiences wary. Summer would come soon enough, and with it, the far more palatable popcorn fare. Yet for over 16 weeks, we had to tolerate some pretty pathetic offerings. All of that changed a few years ago when Hollywood realized it could up the ante, just a little, by providing a couple less than mediocre movies. The accompanying turnstile twists proved their approach correct.

Now, Spring is a battle between horrendous and highlights. There are still more stumbles than sonnets, but when you consider the crap that used to pour forth, literally nonstop, a few fine films is all one can ask for. Yet oddly enough, 2008 saw a trend toward documentaries that indicates a real failing among fiction films. While the studios seem convinced that everything old is repackage-able again, the men and women exploring the reality around us are doing it with style, wit, and a clean, clinical eye. They say that everyone has a story to tell, a narrative that if captured properly, would give the old “truth is stranger than…” mantra a clear run for its money. Two of the five films listed below do indeed bring that maxim to startling life.

But there were other excellent offerings that deserve a runner’s up mention: the beat-happy British heist flick The Bank Job; Leatherheads, the half-successful screwball comedy from George Clooney; the uneven document Sputnik Mania, centering on a certain Soviet satellite and the effect it had on a worried West; and the gonzo zombie stomp of Shine a Light, featuring the undead Rolling Stones in all their going through the maverick motions glory. In addition, the underserved demographic of Florida finally got to see two outstanding foreign films from 2007 - The Counterfeiters and Persepolis - movies that would have made this list had they not already had their moment of glory last year. So here is what SE&L thought were the best Spring flings of 2008, beginning with:

# 5 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall dir. Nicholas Stoller

While some may believe - falsely - that the Apatow era of feature length funny business has peeked and begun to ebb (thanks to Dewey Cox or Drillbit Taylor, take your pick), the truth is that there’s lots of satiric fire left in the old furnace. Case in point, this wonderful brom-com from Freak and Geeks costar Jason Segel. While the story of a rather caustic breakup may seem like the last place heart or hilarity could be found, there’s a heaping helping of both in this tale of a struggling composer dumped by his TV star girlfriend. Our hero hopes a trip to Hawaii will cure what ails him. Turns out, his ex is there with her slezoid British boy toy as well.

There’s so much more to this movie than raunch and the risqué. Sure, penis abounds, but so does some emotional insights into how love can linger long after it really should. Besides, there’s puppets - putting on a production of Dracula - with music! How much more do you want. While Segel is a strange leading man, he is surrounded by a capable cast including Kristen Bell (riffing on her current career arc with self-deprecating brilliance), Mila Kunis, and UK yutz Russell Brand, playing every Amy Winehouse inspired pub spud imaginable. Together they take a subject that should sink like a stone and make it laugh out loud loveable. And rumor has it that Segel will be scripting the new Muppets movie. How weird is that?

# 4 - The Dhamma Brothers dir. Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein

We really don’t know what to do with our exploding prison population, do we? We love the notion of warehousing the dangerous and deadly, keeping ourselves and our wee ones away from the true (yet undeniable) horrors of the world. Yet mention the concept of rehabilitation or rights and the cold, conservative nature inherent in all of us leaps to the fore. We don’t want inmates given a chance. Instead, we demand that they be kept locked away forever - no matter what the judges, juries, or sentencing guidelines suggest. It’s from this narrow-minded premise that this look at the use of Buddhism in an Alabama penitentiary gets its undeniable power.

Certainly, there is every reason to be skeptical. As one of the guards convincingly argues, prisoners will “fake it ‘til they make it”, meaning they will do anything to gain some early release favor. But Vipassana (a tiring ten day ritual) seems like an insane way to achieve that ends, especially with all the deep-seeded personal problems and unhealed wounds it tends to open up. We learn a lot about these men - stories that seem antithetical to the crimes they committed and yet completely in line with the standard police profiling. Their tales of abandonment and abuse are horrific, just like the ways they choose to compensate for them. This is as eye opening and uneasy as fact filmmaking gets.

# 3 - Cloverfield dir. Matt Reeves

Sure, the viral marketing campaign that swept the Internet last summer seemed overly calculated, guaranteed to make whatever turned up in theaters four months later appear simultaneously exciting and exasperating. Who knew that producer JJ Abrams and a couple of his TV pals (Felicity‘s Matt Reeves and Lost‘s Drew Goddard) would turn the whole thing into one of the finest genre efforts of the new millennium. Sure, some consider this monster movie nothing more than Godzilla with a Blair Witch POV, but that’s just part of the film’s appeal. There are also riffs on 9/11, our current sense of social fear, and the notion that nothing is real unless it’s viewed through a camera or featured on TV.

Now that it’s out on DVD, the movie can be studied more closely (and without some of the accompanying handheld shaky-cam nausea), and some interesting elements definitely come to the fore. The relationship between the friends (and former lovers) becomes even clearer, the emotional needs that each carries adding to the seriousness of the situation. The monster’s movements are also clarified, thanks to the lack of an anticipation/shock factor. We get to see the amazing CG destruction in all its wow-factor glory. It all makes for one of the most creative kaiju-like efforts ever.

# 2 - Be Kind, Rewind dir. Michele Gondry

No, this was not that wacky, weirdo comedy that the presence of Mos Def or Jack Black would indicate. Nor was it just another piece of Michele Gondry wistfulness mistaking pure imagination for screenwriting. Instead, this is the finest love letter to the VCR and the videocassette ever constructed, a story that requires audiences to drop their pretexts and perceptions and recognize exactly what the scenes are saying. What we are witnessing here is not just the recreation of classic ‘80s films by a bunch of video store employees turned amateur auteurs. Instead, the so-called “Swedeing” that occurs is a reflection of just how pervasive cinema has become as part of our everyday lives.

As with most broad canvases, it’s the details that get lost. When Black and company make their new versions of these well-remembered films, they are done so without any real reference - no script, definitely no VHS copy to consider. Instead, this is moviemaking from memory, the rote revisiting of favored titles by people who have them memorized. All geek love should be this pure and pristine. Thanks to Gondry’s vision, which places all the action in a gee-whiz setting of communal consideration, we witness the first movie ever to acknowledge the seismic change that occurred when theaters headed home. Destined to be considered a modern masterpiece in the future.

# 1 - Young@Heart dir. Stephen Walker

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are additionally viewed as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and The Clash as points of sonic reference.

This fantastic feel good documentary, chronicling the preparations by the Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), is so uplifting that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Balancing the joy inherent in making music with the inevitability of a life slowly fading away, we meet individuals so inspiring they practically preach to us. Certainly, British filmmaker Stephen Walker pushes a few buttons here and there, and middle aged choir director Bob Cilman can ham it up with the worst of them, but these are minor quibbles in what is destined to be another overlooked fact-film come Oscar time.

by Jason Gross

28 Apr 2008

Once seen as a contender to take on the majors, Starbucks is now retreating from the music biz.  So much for synergy and branding but don’t believe that this is the end of big name brands outside the industry pushing music.  The industry is in such disarray that any established major brand can consider inking deals with artists to put out their music, get some hip cache from the connection and push their product alongside their own.

Speaking of industry woes, music publications are suffering also, with ad revenue way down now for some of the biggest players, excluding Spin magazine.  Maybe that’s why Paste is putting ads down in the page number footers and Rolling Stone is trying to get its readers to look for ads outside the magazine.  Expect to see more unorthodox ad experiments, especially if these pan out.  Come to think of it, expect to see more of them even if they don’t pan out.  Things are THAT bad…

 

by Nikki Tranter

28 Apr 2008

Ugenia Lavenderby Geri HalliwellMacmillan UKMay 2008, 160 pages, 6.99

Ugenia Lavender
by Geri Halliwell
Macmillan UK
May 2008, 160 pages, 6.99

“I know there is prejudice against celebrity authors but if you read my stories you’ll know they’re not ghost written—only I could be that bonkers!”

Geri Halliwell makes it hard not to love her. Even despite the “It’s Raining Men” cover and the yoga videos. She’s got a determination about her, and a killer sense of humor. Her post-Spice life, too, is filled with achievements to rival the biggest celebrity goodwill givers. She been a representative for the United Nations Population Fund, touring family planning clinics women’s groups in the Philippines. She produced a documentary series on her UN work, which saw her visiting with kids from different social backgrounds around the world. In 2006, she toured Zambia raising awareness about maternal death rates and HIV. And that’s just the beginning. Geri, it would appear, lives her Girl Power motto.

Now Geri’s bringing that motto to Britain’s over-sevens. She’s written a series of books, all featuring a feisty nine-year-old called Ugenia Lavender. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Geri as saying that while Ugenia’s adventures are based on Geri’s own childhood, the character herself is actually inspired by the varied personalities that made up the Spice Girls.

“[P]art of the motivation for creating this character was that I wanted to find a new medium for Girl Power. Ugenia is like all the Spice Girls rolled into one.”

So, let’s see—a girly, sassy, sporty chick who can balance her energy and her innocence? I like her already.

Her first adventure is out in the UK on May 2, with illustrations by Rian Hughes.

by Terry Sawyer

28 Apr 2008

God, how I wanted to love the new Portishead record, to the point of erring on the side fandom: making excuses, exceptions, at times pretending to love a song that was actually causing vertigo. I understand that the progenitors of a genre that quickly descended into high-end frock shop soundtracks would want to make their long awaited comeback something of a departure. But why a decapitation?  I know that psychologizing people you don’t know is usually just an exercise in projection, but I do get the impression that Geoff Barrow resented Beth Gibbon’s centrality in their previous work. Her voice is abraded and assaulted, on this track trying to mournfully bleed through cold, staccato bullet beats. This is hardly the album exception: “Hunter” strangles and scribbles on her voice, backdropped with a lullaby rhythm where the cradle has fallen and been shattered by the 18-Wheeler from the “Enter Sandman” video.

The video helps little, framing the song in the cold mechanization of a factory studio, like H.R. Giger built it for them. I’ve been in a lot of studios and they don’t have to look like the torture rooms from Hostel. The song and visuals offer nothing but the experience of occlusion and abjection, a sad descent for a band that at the very least used to be able to do depressing well. This isn’t depression, it’s an adverse psychiatric drug reaction. Even more distressing, it’s not interesting, the very least you can offer a listener if you choose to be intractably difficult about rejecting your past. Both the video and song simply alternate between flat planes of abrasion while Gibbons clamors for air. It’s dull and lifeless. I’m open to having my mind changed on this; sometimes all it takes is for a thoughtful person to offer an alternate view that wholly alters your perception. But for now, at least, I think this is pure cantankerous clamor.

by Rob Horning

28 Apr 2008

In my local grocery store the other day, I was flabbergasted to find that it was stocking no generic brand breakfast cereals among the Fruit Loops and Special K and whatnot. Sure, it was a city grocery store and space is at a premium, but this still seemed odd. I didn’t crack and pay the extra money for the branded product; I have been years without cereal and nothing but whim (and soy milk left over from a cooking project) was prompting me to move to end that embargo. And the brand is adding especially little to my enjoyment of cereal—I never could taste any difference, and I wasn’t going to score any style points with anyone or in my own imagination for eating Kelogg’s instead of Jewel-T. I didn’t expect my cereal brand to project any sort of message to anyone or to myself. I just wanted it to be cheap or else I was going to forgo. However, cheap is a relative thing—the absence of generics made me assume that all the cereals were overpriced, though someone else might draw the opposite conclusion.

As someone who enjoys the illusion of saving for its own sake, I always look for off-brand goods, and the unanticipated absence of generic cereals made me wonder if I was hallucinating or having false memories when remembering having bought unbranded Corn Flakes in the past. It never occurred to me that generic products at the supermarket come and go with economic conditions, as this post at Calculated Risk details. CR links to a NYT story about the recession driving consumers to come up with “creative ways” to save money on shopping: Apparently these crafty innovators are starting “to switch from name brands to cheaper alternatives, to eat in instead of dining out and to fly at unusual hours to shave dollars off airfares.” How very ingenious. I wonder how these consumers came up with these radical ideas!

The underlying assumption is that consumers only think to cut back on branded goods when they can’t afford them—that generics are what economists call inferior goods, demand for which rises as income falls. They are “inferior” because they are not the preferred option but the substitute for when the preferred option becomes prohibitively expensive. Grocery stores respond the shift in demand—or rather to the downward shift of the trigger point at which people will buy—and stock more off-brand goods, protecting their volume of sales, which are of crucial importance to their low-margin business. It’s a little disorienting to realize that they don’t automatically supply cheaper options until necessity forces them to, that is, consumers don’t ordinarily demand the cheapest options and grocers get away with stocking only expensive goods. Why they do this is probably a matter of positioning themselves in the marketplace—too many generics out of season and you risk being mistaken for Aldi.

But there is something significant though in the impulse that drives the NYT business reporters to call this sort of switching between goods “creative.” Such a rhetorical move makes it seem as though there is a huge mental leap necessary to abandon brands, when in fact it seems more natural to assume generally that a huge intellectual jump is necessary to believe that there is value in brands, that they bring enough added value to leave in their wake a category of inferior goods—generics. In other words, we default to branded products, a stance that we must learn through ideology, through subtle cues that branded goods are “normal” and the unlabeled products are suspect, inferior. Thanks to how well I’ve absorbed that ideology, I can feel rebellious and subversive when I shop generic—and keep on shopping, which is the essential upshot of the NYT piece: Consumption continues despite the diminishing consumer confidence as the recession takes hold and people grow more and more economically insecure. That people might consume less, not just in dollar terms but in terms of time spent shopping isn’t directly considered, and is hinted at though it were some insane option, rather than a typical choice made at the margin. This may be a semantic conundrum; I have a hard time getting it through my head how broad and flexible a concept consumption is for economists, and that it is different from consumerism, which is the orientation of society toward maximizing consumption for its own sake. Still, I wonder if this indicates some lump-of-consumption fallacy—that there is always some raw amount of consumption determined by the size of a population, and all that varies is the value in dollar terms assigned to it—being promulgated to make us interpret the rational choice to spend less time on consumption as a crazy whim, a desperate measure.

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