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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007

Yesterday’s FT had an article about Wal-Mart’s recent environmental commitments and whether the company should be lauded or criticized as not going far enough. The gist is that they can function the way the state of California does with auto-related legislation—if the state mandates changes, the automakers must accommodate to preserve access to the largest vehicle market in America. Likewise, if Wal-Mart insists that its suppliers avoid using certain chemicals in its products, they have to change their ways. (Wal-Mart has already ruffled the feathers of the Vinyl Institute with its intention to stop buying products made with PVC.) If Wal-Mart orders a huge amount of concentrated laundry detergent (saves water) or fluorescent lightbulbs, then the price and production of these items are affected accordingly. And Wal-Mart, as one of the nation’s biggest commercial real-estate owners, can have a big impact if it makes all of its sites energy-efficient, as it plans to.


So what could be wrong with all of that—with the world’s largest company using its leverage to force changes for the better. It seems rather straightforward but there are a few wrinkles. First, these environmental changes, laudable as they may be, may be part of a smokescreen distracting Wal-Mart’s critics from its dubious labor practices. By being on the green forefront, Wal-Mart can divide and sap the power of the various groups that had aligned against it and begun to lobby for regulation and state intervention into its practices. It also doesn’t address the fundamental problem of its business model, which is to prevent the lowest possible prices, labor and environment be damned. Generally speaking, Wal-Mart off-shores miserable labor conditions so that it can present its goods at rock-bottom prices with relatively clean hands. And then it can point to its sales figures as a kind of pseudo-democratic endorsement of its methods—see? the people love it! And the low prices are seen as extending more power to poor consumers, who get more bang for their buck. But low prices are a product of failing to internalize the true cost of cheap goods, of the wastefulness of shoddy, disposable products. The blight of consumerism may be considered a kind of moral pollution that can’t be adjudicated economically. Were Wal-Mart truly committed to change, it might make an effort to have prices reflect the true costs (if they could somehow be determined outside of market forces) of its wares, or it might make efforts to attract consumers with some other lure than low prices, though when it tried an upscale move last year, it lost market share (and who is to say an upscale move is any more laudable than a commitment to cheapness; that replaces disposability with a climate of status envy). From this point of view, Wal-Mart’s low prices offer cosumers a Faustian bargain of purchasing power at the expense of political power.


But the main reason that critics need to continue to gripe about Wal-Mart is that its recent gestures toward sustainability and environmental concern are essentially marketing gimmicks, a product of the pressure already put on them by critics—it’s all basically a PR move necessitated by the volume of complaining. Basically, nothing Wal-Mart can do should stop the bad PR, since the bad PR is arguably all that has been demonstrated to motivate the company to change. Otherwise it might revert to being guided by ruthlessly seeking effiency and wrenching out all it can from its supply chain by any means necessary. Currently, Wal-Mart seems to be seeking a middle ground, pursuing green initiatives that are also economically efficient, that won’t be in danger of alienating not-so-green shareholders. Until Wal-Mart makes bottom-line concessions in the name of environmentalism, compromising profits in some explicit way, there’s no reason for critics to temper their criticism. The vehemence of that criticism is what’s pricing the value of Wal-Mart’s moves.


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007


As the Fall continues to bombard us with its cultural relevance, the DVD distributors are maintaining a sales status destined to complicate and perplex the entertainment picture. This week alone offers titles that should be coming out next month, when monsters and madmen are more relevant and revered. Then, there’s a small character study from Canada more or less fated to get lost in the significance shuffle. Two Hong Kong action aces deliver some of their most divisive works, while a notoriously unreleasable film from Sam Fuller finally gets a digital airing. In fact, the surreal nature of the selections seems to indicate a lack of counter programming skills, especially in light of autumn’s catch-all commercialization. Still, anytime a lost classic like our SE&L selection shows up on store shelves, able to be purchased in a version that does the title justice, we won’t care what time of the year it is. So here’s the best bet for 11 September, and a few more intriguing choices to go along with it:


From Beyond


Stuart Gordon went from Chicago theater company director to horror geek God with his wildly invention H.P. Lovecraft zombiethon Re-Animator. When it was announced that he’d follow-up that film with yet another tale from the eccentric genre scribe, his newfound fans freaked out. What possible terrors would he uncover this time around? When they saw the results, however, they were less than impressed. For some reason, From Beyond is not as well regarded as its companion piece, and after watching the film again after several years, the lack of abject appreciation is even harder to fathom. This is a first rate offering of offal, an F/X free for all with blood, bodies, and entrails everywhere. Maybe it was all the talk of engorged pineal glands that made audiences uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the strange, mid-movie S&M workout. It could be that Gordon’s devotes just wanted more of Herbert West and his living dead dark comedy. Whatever the reasons, this is a BETTER overall film than Re-Animator. It proves that this mild mannered moviemaker was more than a geek show carnival barker.

Other Titles of Interest


Away From Her


Sarah Polley, perhaps best known as the Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the chief female zombie fighter in Zak Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, takes the director’s chair for this fascinating film about Alzheimer’s Disease and letting go. The radiant Julie Christie is the aging woman afflicted with the illness, who finds life in a nursing home equally unsettled. An audience and critical favorite, home video now provides a chance at broader appreciation.

The Burning


After Halloween and Friday the 13th established the slasher film as the pop culture commercial cause celeb, everyone and their knife-wielding brother wanted in on the windfall. This 1981 knock-off has an intriguing lineage. It features a story by Harvey “Miramax” Weinstein and acting turns by Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. Tom Savini supplied the gruesome special effects. While far from a scarefest classic, it does have its decidedly disturbing – and disgusting – moments.

D.O.A.: Dead or Alive


Corey Yuen, a Hong Kong action maven noted for such films as Jet Li’s The Enforcer and The Transporter, brought every adolescent boy’s favorite female based video game to the big screen – and no one cared. Shuffled around from release date to release date, and given little or no publicity, it’s no wonder its target demo missed the call. They probably didn’t know it existed. DVD will hopefully show how Yuen supports a slight story with lots of signature martial arts bravado.

Face/Off


When John Woo went Hollywood, few expected something this downright delightful - especially after the seeming missteps of Hard Target and Broken Arrow. But thanks to stellar performances by Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, and an unusual and unique premise, the results are one of the director’s few English language masterworks. True the outsized story can, occasionally, barely contain the acting histrionics on display, but with Woo’s patented slo-mo mayhem, it goes down like candied crack.


White Dog


Maverick auteur Sam Fuller caused quite an uproar with his follow-up to the well received war film The Big Red One. Accused of racial insensitivity – and in some cases, outright bigotry – the filmmaker adapted Romain Gary’s tale of a seemingly calm canine ‘programmed’ to attack only black people, and the resulting firestorm sent him into European exile. Apparently, early ‘80s audiences didn’t understand the metaphor Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson were going for. Maybe the post-millennial mob will.


And Now for Something Completely Different
American Cannibal: The Movie


It’s one of the weirdest movies to come down the pike in quite a while. Imagine Borat, except instead of sending a fake Kazakhstani journalist around America making fun of our foibles, we have a pair of reality show creators trying to sell the various networks on a show involving people eating. There has been a lot of Internet arguing over whether or not this is a 100% legitimate effort or not (a great deal of it is staged and scripted, the subjects clearly in on the ‘joke’), and how you come down on that question will color your overall perception of the picture. Even outside such issues, the film has its flaws. Our two leads do so much handwringing over the whole reality show concept that you wonder how they ever survived in such a cutthroat business. Then there’s the lack of closure come finale time. Too may questions are left laughingly unanswered. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for a Blair Witch kind of openness. The only thing they manage to achieve is a similar sense of overhyped dissatisfaction.

 


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007
Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises


“Had I been blind and deaf, or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?”
—Jean Dominique Bauby


I am a guy who isn’t particularly afraid of being in touch with his sensitive side. In fact, there are days where the people who know me best might even say that I take it one step too far. I rarely cry at movies, especially in the theater in front of a groups of strangers (at home, well, that’s another story). There are certain features I can recall that evoked that response from me, and made me break my “no crying in public/be a man” rule: American Beauty, The Royal Tenenbaums, Thelma and Louise, and Dead Man Walking (damn you, Susan Sarandon!) each broke me down.


This is probably something that is so much more common place than I am giving it credit for, but today I found myself bawling at one film in the theater, which somehow was OK because the entire theater seemed to be weeping; and getting extremely choked up over two others. Now liberated of any shame, and still able retain my dignity in the face of public sobbing, let me share my findings on four of the Toronto International Film Festival’s finest offerings with you:


Again, there are major spoilers ahead:


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007

These were inspired by reading this alternately brilliant and irritiatingly self-involved essay in the Guardian by Jonathan Lethem.


1. George Harrison released the best solo album by a Beatle. This, of course, is Cloud Nine. Okay, it’s All Things Must Pass, and you have to ignore the god-awful third disc of jams appended to it. What this suggests is that Harrison had become the best songwriter in the Beatles by the end of their career, which is borne out by his contrbutions to Abbey Road and maybe even the Get Back sessions prior to that. By the end, McCartney was content to try to rewrite “Hey Jude” style anthems over and over, and Lennon couldn’t muster anything other than rote blues jams for the most part.


2. Ringo’s not such a bad drummer. Sure,  he’s not Ginger Baker back there, but he stays out of the way of the songs and plays admirably economical fills that have become part of the vocabulary of pop music. They are in fact a huge part of what signifies “Beatlesque.”


3. Lennon’s attempts at political expression are unfortunate. His heart was probably in the right place, but his attempts to be relevant weren’t particularly insightful. The band’s mere popularity was enough of a political statement in itself; the lyrics really didn’t need to make any sociocultural statements. It’s a shame because Lennon’s genius was for writing songs about personal pain: “Help”, “I’m a Loser”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”


4. The Beatles became archetypes after the fact. They became famous as a group and thus ended up being interpreted in the media in terms of group-psychology notions about family dynamics and sociological types. The band members’ identities were defined in relation to one another on the basis of very limited samples of behavior and then became self-reinforcing. These identities seem to apply only to the individual Beatles as Beatles, and in terms of how they are understood publicly. Their private characters remain especially unknowable, though I think we know more about John and Paul’s “real selves” from Walls and Bridges and Give My Regards to Broad Street respectively then from any accomplishment they had while Beatles.


5. Beatles songs are in danger of becoming simply the soundtrack to the story of their own rise and fall. The proliferation of an industry based on the Beatles’ celebrity threatens to make their songs significant only in the context of the band’s history rather than standing alone and being absorbed into the private and personal life of listeners. Instead of being tied to the listener’s specific memories, the songs tend to signify first and foremost the Beatles themselves. The same way Abba’s songs are now the soundtrack to a broadway musical rather than possibly the soundtrack of your life, the Beatles songs mark moments of progress of the Fab Four on their way to beatification. You can vicariously pretend to their lives, but it’s much harder to imagine they had your dilemmas in mind when they were churning out hits.


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007

New and old iPods, new and old complaints

An old truism is that you never buy the first or latest version of any software or techie device.  The reason’s simple- the newest version is bound to have bugs and problems and you effectively are providing research and development for the company while also paying for the privilege to do so.  But ultimately, that’s the price of having the latest slick little device in our consumer culture.  How many iPhone users had buyers’ remorse when they first found out that the product was discounted $200 only two months after they bought theirs?  They were pretty pissed of course and eventually Apple had to offer discount vouchers though they’re for half the price and only good to trade in for more Apple merchandise.  As a ZNet article pointed out, the $100 that they “refund” the original iPhone customers ain’t gonna buy you much through Apple.  This literal/figurative miscalculation on the part of Apple may do their brand more damage than any of their perspective competitors: there’s surely going to be less people ready to buy the next slate of new Apple products when they come out, feeling burned by the iPhone (though rest assured, plenty still will).  If you’re still not convinced that Apple ain’t the most consumer-friendly corporation out there, ask yourself why they’re offering new iPod classic models with a whopping 160MB capacity but only offering Wifi capabilities in their new iPod Touch models with a measly 16GB capacity.  Clearly, they don’t want to cut into their own iPhone biz but they’re driving trying to carve up the market as best they can by not offering all the bells and whistle in one place (i.e. large capacity plus connectivity).  Still, they own the market for portable music and will probably for a while.  Unless of course, they keep screwing up these roll-outs…


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