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Friday, Dec 1, 2006


There is no more miserable a miser than Ebenezer Scrooge. Proprietor of Scrooge and Marley moneylenders, practically every merchant in London owes a debt—not of gratitude but of usury—to this horrible old goat. While Scrooge seems to hate all of life in general, there is no more wretched a time for him than Christmas, a season of good cheer and generosity. Owning neither of those aforementioned emotions, but imbued with a substantial wealth of wickedness, the terrible tyrant dismisses his nephew’s holiday invitation, bullies those collecting for charity, and hollers at his hapless employee, the humble Bob Cratchit. Indeed, Scrooge considers the entire celebration a load of “humbug,” and can’t be bothered with its benevolence.


However, things will not be quite so normal this Christmas Eve. Scrooge is shocked to find himself visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns the villain of his vainglorious ways. Marley further condemns Scrooge to be visited by three other spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Be—to show Ebenezer that only by allowing the festiveness of the feast into his soul will he be able to avoid a horrible fate, both in this world and in the hereafter. It will be a journey both enlightening and frightening as a standard Christmas carol turns into the portents of doom for one Ebenezer Scrooge.


Perhaps better at capturing the spirit of Dickens’s beloved Christmas classic than the exact particulars of the plot, Scrooge is still a potent, powerful Yuletide treat. Made in 1970 near the end of the musical’s prominence at, and dominance of, the box office (Oliver! was a universal smash—and Oscar winner—just two years before), this recasting of A Christmas Carol and the tightfisted Ebenezer Scrooge was the brainchild of legendary lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Famed for his partnership with Anthony Newley (the two were responsible for such time-honored favorites as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off, as well as some well-remembered duds like the original Doctor Doolittle), Bricusse decided to go it on his own in this, his second solo outing providing both words and music. The results are something splendid indeed, a mix of Old World Victorian sentiment with traditional big-budget musical splendor, creating a sumptuous figgy pudding of a film.


Granted, Bricusse is not blessed with Newley’s gift for instantly hummable melody (only the rousing “Thank You Very Much” and “I Like Life” tend to stay with you after the final credits roll). But thanks to the daring, dynamic direction of Roland Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch), the superficial tenets of the tunes are replaced by a real feeling of lushness and depth. Neame gives us a London circa 1860 that we can really sense and experience.


There is an amazing sequence toward the beginning of the film—as Bob Cratchit buys his family’s Christmas feast—where the class system in English society is clearly and cleverly delineated (Cratchit buys the same items as the rich patrons do, with either side of the street representing the chasm in financial standing and means). From the gloomy expanse of Scrooge’s creepy mansion to the iconic elements that we expect from A Christmas Carol (the boisterous Spirit of Christmas Present, the cadaverous Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be), Neame’s eye for detail and design land us squarely in the time and place of this striking, sensational vista.


One of the main reasons why this version of Dickens’s classic is so potent is that Scrooge does a very nice job of rounding out the title character. Usually portrayed as a strange, psychotic skinflint who needs to be bombarded by glad tidings and fear factors before he repents, there is almost always a kind of whiplash schizophrenia to the character as he’s been personified over the years. But in Albert Finney’s case (with additional thanks to Michael Medwin’s wonderful script), this Scrooge is a bastard to be sure, yet one with a heart once much softer, but now hardened by the hardships of life in general. Allowing us a chance, through vignette and song, to learn how Ebenezer Scrooge was abandoned as a boy, unloved as a child, and confused as an adolescent youth, the buildup of personality layers make the parsimonious prig more pitiable than vile. Surely, he says things that stink of sadism and scorn, but there is also a hint of sadness and sorrow in those terrible tirades.


At only 34 years of age, Albert Finney is absolutely brilliant in this film, giving perhaps one of his best Method performances. Some could confuse the occasional theatrics and desire to be even more direct with the role as over-the-top histrionics. But remember what was just said before—Finney was only thirty-four at the time he made this movie, and never once do we doubt Scrooge’s position, age, or resentment. Indeed, when we see the older and younger Ebenezer together during a Christmas Past flashback, we are taken aback for a moment by how startling the actor’s transformation is. Hunchbacked, barking his orders in bitter bon mots, and contorting his face in an attempt to hide all the hidden pain he is feeling, Finney is fabulous, the main reason why any fan of A Christmas Carol would want to visit this song-filled retelling. With a remaining cast that is equally adept at playing both the seriousness and the celebration of the story, you will probably not find a better performed version of this tale anywhere.


Another plus for Scrooge is its attention to terror. Other versions of the Dickens tale forget that it is supposed to be a ghost story, a spook show in which ethereal elements conspire to convert a penny-pinching soul. Instead of serving the spiritual aspects to heighten the horror, many of these miscues downplay the phantasms for a more syrupy, saccharine take. Thankfully, Scrooge avoids this silly soft soap to give their take on A Christmas Carol some spectral teeth. As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness is brilliant, bringing a resigned evil to the role of the messenger of the macabre. His Marley even manages to survive a forgettable song to guide the scared but surly grouch through a whirlwind of creepy spooks (the effects are very good for pre-CGI creations). Though the last act journey to Hell seems a tad out of place (obviously used to really get the message across about Scrooge’s afterlife fate), it is this decision to heighten, not hide, the horror that makes Scrooge such a sweet, substantive seasonal treat.


And don’t be put off by thoughts that this is a musical; indeed, it plays more like an operetta than a song and dance production. Finney is in fine voice (perfectly matching his character’s crotchety conceits), and the compositions all have a mostly downbeat tone, lending the sentiments that much more seriousness. Certainly, the penultimate number “Thank You Very Much” is carved out of the same West End wood as, say, “Consider Yourself,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” or “Every Sperm is Sacred” (with the Pythons’ lifting some of Scrooge‘s staging for this wacky Meaning of Life sing-along), but when Scrooge and his lady love Isabel share their romantic intentions, it is with a little set of sonnets, each intermingling into the other to perfectly capture the mood and melancholy of their doomed relationship. Too bad Bricusse couldn’t find the same sort of salient melodic cue for his other heart-tugging number, Tiny Tim’s “The Beautiful Day.” Though achingly rendered by boy soprano surprise Richard Beaumont, the tune is so minor, so tossed off and over with before it can settle in and have an impact, that we almost forget it is supposed to be Tim’s signature internal joy.


Indeed, most of the music in Scrooge is equally evasive. Bricusse’s desire to downplay the showstopper for a more muted, emotional scoring leaves the audience a little bewildered as to why the harmonious moments need to be included at all. The “Christmas Children” number gets annoying by the 15th or 16th inclusion of the word “Christmas,” and “December the 25th” is just an excuse to run the “-ith” rhymes into the ground. While the finale, in which Scrooge experiences his change of heart and gives presents to everyone in town, does a nice job of wrapping up the aural attractions by reprising almost every song sung, what Scrooge really needed was a sonorous end number, something like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, or “Being Alive” from Company. Though it’s rather nitpicky to intone the lack of dynamics in the soundtrack, the truth is that for any and all of its minor flaws, Scrooge simply “feels” right, presenting the Dickens favorite in a totally fresh and yet completely familiar light


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Friday, Dec 1, 2006

In the “couldn’t have said it better myself” department, more groups are lining up to protest the FCC’s insane fining policy over indecency.  From a Variety article, some wise words in the friend-of-the-court briefs:


“The FCC’s arbitrary censorship system is no more tolerable than allowing government agents to tear pages out of library books”


“A vague and ill-defined standard of decency is a threat to the freedom of expression that AFTRA members and all Americans hold dear” (AFTRA = American Federation of Television and Radio Artists)


And my favorite:


“To effectuate its new clean-up-the-airwaves policy, the commission has radically expanded the definition of indecency beyond its original conception; magnified the penalties for even minor, ephemeral images or objectionable language; and targeted respected television programs, movies, even non-commercial documentaries”


Whether these wise words will actually sway a board that holds its own inconsistent view of morals above the law is questionable though it’s good to see that more people are lining up to remind us how off-base and detached from reality that the FCC has become.


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Friday, Dec 1, 2006

The early history of advertising is dominated by patent medicines—proprietary nostrums of dubious efficacy whose curative powers often rely on whether the placebo effect takes hold (that is if opium wasn’t a primary ingredient). Not only do these products target a universal human vulnerablility, but they testify to our eternally renewable capacity for hope and faith in the face of hard reality. When commercial interests seized some of the power away from the church to cater to our unfortunate awareness of our physical and spiritual fraility, patent medicines quickly came to the forefront, the most efficient means for reifying human anxiety and capitalizing on it. The patent medicine was often nothing in itself, just a brand name, and ads were necessary to build up the products’ aura of effectiveness—consuming a patent medicine was essentially swallowing the ad copy, literally. The brand name itself generates a placebo effect; its value lies in the often spurious belief it can inspire. The power of a brand also rests in its reputational history, its fashion value, and the manner in which it signals the capital invested in it; but there’s still that leap of faith that lets you consume the brand in lieu of the object that’s branded—that lets you eat the cheeseburger but taste McDonald’s, that lets the name affect the way something tastes as though it were an added spice. That requires both suspension of disbelief and an investment of one’s imagination. With old-time patent medicines, the degree to which one was seduced by the ads probably had a lot to do with how effective one eventually felt the medicine was; if one cooperated with the promoters and optimistically seized upon the ads’ suspect promises, one was likely to have a better experience of the product. For the consumerist economy, skeptics need not apply.


Patent medicines seemed to me paradigmatic of consumerism in general, one of the quintessential consumer products, doing to health and the survival instinct what pornography does for sex and the libido: if we are willing to be seduced by products and open ourselves to the sweet nothings of commercials, we can use them to construct a pleasing fantasy world independent of the product’s apparent function. The incantatory, repetitive nature of advertisements collectively seems ultimately suited to lulling us into that passive and pleasing state of receptivity, in which we suspend disbelief and want to believe in the tangential effects products are alleged to have on our essential being— a car really can change our personality, having a beer really is relaxing, makeup really is glamorous, cough drops really do provide relief. This led me to suspect that ads and popular entertainment work in mutually reinforcing ways—both want to convince us that suspending disbelief, embracing that as a kind of optimism an dimaginative investment, is pleasing for its own sake, and both use similar tactics (humor, suspense, acute irrationalism, non sequitur, genre convention; encouaging absorption in a comfortably formulaic and highly structured plot) to accomplish that aim. Slowly we become convinced that consuming something (entertainment, a branded product) is equivalent to doing something—that our imaginative investment in a product makes us creative, more alive. By believing completely in the fiction, we demonstrate the superiority of our imagination while at the same time reaping the benefits of it; ads and popular culture exercise our imagination, and the exercise feels good. Why bother with the perversity of resisting?


The conflation of production and consumption operates on many levels, from planning an evening around watching TV shows to the elaboration of theory which argues a consumer actually produces the product he consumes through his unique manner of consuming it. (“When I listen to Bad Company, I’m resisting its cliches about the rocker as outlaw while using them to interrogate the cultural system that both demonizes and lionizes the performer as icon” or “By putting myself in the place of the characters on Veronica Mars, I am imaginatively reproducing the show in my mind, producing conclusions that the show’s creators could not have expected me to come to.”) To a certain extent such elisions between production and consumption are inevitable; resources are consumed in the production of anything. But when we regard cultural consumption as the consumer’s production of emotional states within himself, we have shifted the locus of meaningful work away from society—from the shared world of experience in which we enrich and validate what one another achieve—to our interior consciousness.


Anyway, what started me thinking about patent medicines was this articleby Zachary Seward in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about the recent craze for resveratrol, a substance found in red wine that has apparently prolonged the life of lab rats in recent studies. Resveratrol’s rise from obscurity to mass-market supplement seems a modernized version of the old patent medicine story, with some new wrinkles. First, rather than rely on medicine show hucksterism and bald-faced lies, newfangled cure-alls rely on the journalistic abuse of scientific studies to generate hype. The most optimistic implications are extrapolated from the limited conclusions of a study because this will give readers’ imaginations the most substantive meat to feast on. These studies provide the germ of scientific fact upon which a fantasy of control over our own mortality can be elaborated and marketed. Then, skirting FDA regulation and the intermediaries of medical professionals, the herbal product can be marketed directly to consumers:


More than a dozen supplements featuring resveratrol are sold in health-food stores and online. But dietary supplements are only lightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and manufacturers don’t have to demonstrate efficacy in order to market a product.
Despite those caveats, several retailers report a large jump in sales of resveratrol supplements. Whole Foods Market Inc., the national health-foods chain, sold out of its resveratrol product at many stores earlier this month, though a spokeswoman declined to give sales figures.
Bill Sardi, founder and president of Resveratrol Partners LLC, which since 2003 has marketed online a supplement derived from giant knotweed, a Chinese plant, says, “I’m having to place rush orders from China because this thing is wild.” Mr. Sardi says his company sold as many boxes of its product, Longevinex, in the week after the first study appeared in the journal Nature as it did in the previous six months. Vitacost.com Inc., a large online retailer in Boynton Beach, Fla., says sales of its resveratrol supplements increased tenfold in that week. Source Naturals Inc., another supplement maker, says it has seen a “large jump” in sales of its resveratrol product.


Whether or not it really works is irrelevant to the story, as irrelevant as whether or not Huck Finn or Sherlock Holmes really existed. That its efficacy remains undetermined means only that it engages consumers on a more imaginative level than, say, Nexium. It provides an occasion for the exercise of faith and optimism, which we are always reminded are extremely positive qualities, for their own sake. In the absence of proof there blossoms the possibility for any number of pleasing stories; hence a tactic very familiar from patent medicine ads—the testimonial:


William S. Gruss, a cardiologist whose image, signature and testimonial—“there’s absolutely no risk”—are featured prominently in Revatrol’s marketing, says Renaissance paid him but declines to say how much.
“Am I going to live longer because of Revatrol? I’ll let you know,” says Dr. Gruss. “But if it turned out not to live up to all of its promises, well then, no harm done.”


No harm done? What about the millions of dollars wasted on a placebo? But if the placebo effect has worked, people are likely happy to have paid for the privilege. Essentially, using patent medicines or unproven herbal supplements is an experiential good, the same way going to Disneyland or the James Bond movie are. So the return on money spent on Revatrol won’t be measured in terms of how many years it extends your life but how much of a sense of control it gives you, how much it permits you to tell stories to yourself that make you happy.


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Thursday, Nov 30, 2006


Here’s something to ponder as your perusing the listings of the latest pay channel premieres – who in their right mind invented eggnog? There are some that argue that Europe is responsible, but they already can lay claim to Nazism and techno, so it’s unfair to pile on so. Others point to the unusual name and take linguistic pot shots at the derivation of the second syllable. Nog could mean ‘noggin’, a little wooden cup. It could also come from ‘grog’, an alcoholic treat taken internally by those with a wish to party holiday hearty. In either case, we here at SE&L can suggest a dozen other drinks to go with a Saturday night of mindless movie watching that are preferable to uncooked eggs laden with liquor. How about warm apple cider loaded with mulling spices and a smart shot of brandy. Or better yet, for the teetotalers in the house, a piping hot mug of Dr. Pepper with a snappy cinnamon stick as garnish. If you like your beverages a little more meaningful, a stout like Guinness could do the trick. But perhaps the best libation this holiday season is a timeless classic – a fluted glass loaded with vintage champagne. Whatever you choose to chug over the 2 December weekend, here are the accompanying cinematic chasers:


HBOA History of Violence*

One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid , Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly , eXistenZ , or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch , Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. (Saturday 2 December, 8pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxKing Kong (2005)*

Now that it has had almost a year to reconfigure its relevance in the realm of cinema, Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic can finally demand the respect it so richly deserves. The small screen may not be the perfect place to appreciate the epic scope of this undertaking (SE&L still remembers the massive case of vertigo it got during the climactic battle atop the Empire State Building) but it’s hard to deny Jackson’s way with action and adventure. Some may still feel that this geek freak filmmaker let his love of the subject matter overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance, but for our scratch, no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzEight Below

Frank Marshall, famous for his collaborations with a certain Steven Spielberg (a trip over to IMDb confirms his connections – and stature) has made a few movies of his own over the last two decades. Unfortunately, they have names like Alive , Congo and Arachnophobia . Here he’s dealing with the semi-true story of a group of sled dogs forced to fend for themselves in the frozen tundra of Antarctica. Naturally, the inherent cuteness of the mutts is balanced out by the potential life and death struggle – at least, at first. Then Marshall realizes that kids will probably cry, A LOT , if something horrible happens to these loveable curs. So he cuts back on the action and inserts more unnecessary subplots involving human ‘hero’ Paul Walker. Really nothing more than family friendly filler for a wired wee one’s weekend eve.
(Premieres Saturday 2 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowCaseSuspect Zero

Now here’s a movie with a far more interesting backstory than the actual narrative up on the screen. Screenwriter Zak Penn saw his serial killing serial killer story get bumped around from studio to studio/superstar to superstar for over seven years. Frustrated by the rejection he was even more dejected when Suspect Zero finally saw the light of day. What was supposed to redefine the genre came out sloppy and silly. Audiences obviously agreed, as this so-called thriller came and went with little or no fanfare. Two years post-release and many still see it as a Silence of the Se7en Lambs rip-off. Not even the outlandish cinematic flare of director E. Elias Merhige (of Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire fame) could infuse this flop with the necessary stylized suspense. (Saturday 2 December, 10:05pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 1/2 December, the late, great Vincent Price is featured in:


The Conqueror Worm
Price gives one of his best, most commanding performances as a traveling prosecutor of witches in 17th Century England.
(2am EST)


The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Campy but cruel, Price is incredibly effective as the title terror, an disfigured physician seeking revenge on those he believes are responsible for his wife’s death.
(3:30am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year , right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 2 December are:



White Christmas
(Turner Classic Movies, 1 December, 11:30AM EST)
Actually, this is the SECOND time the seminal seasonal song by Irving Berlin was featured in a Yuletide movie starring Bing Crosby. The first? Holiday Inn , of course.


Santa Claus: The Movie
(ABC Family Channel, 2 December, 11:30AM EST)
Featuring death, greed and undersized British actors as elves, this holiday horror is so bloated on its own brazen belief in self that it has to be seen to be appreciated.


The Polar Express
(ABC Family Channel, 8 December, 11:30AM EST)
Sure, the 3-D animation renders all the humans in the film robotic and creepy, but there is still something quite endearing about this Robert Zemeckis effort.


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Thursday, Nov 30, 2006

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Kubricks [Rockstar Games - $35.99]


The mere existence of a product like this is bound to have you feeling warm and fuzzy for the holidays.  Have you ever seen a “Kubrick”?  It’s like a little posable Lego dude, painted up to look like a given character.  Medicom Toys worked with Rockstar on these, and, well, you almost have to see them to believe them.  Of course, Tommy Vercetti is bound to be a popular figure, but even more popular will be one Ms. Candi Suxx, the adult film star here given endowments worthy of Picasso.  If your target gamer has every game he or she could ever want, if there’s no peripheral that must be had, if the Playstation 3 is hopelessly sold out, well… think of these Kubricks as an investment—maybe by next year they’ll be going for exorbitant prices on EBay.  Besides, the fully-posable nature of the figures means that you’re only a step away from modeling Hot Coffee, Vice City-style… and who wouldn’t want that? [Rockstar Games]


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