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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007


Unlike previous weekends where cleaning out your closet or reorganizing your sock drawer would have provided more palpable entertainment fodder, the major cable channels are actually putting up some interesting small screen cinematic fare. Even the usually unreliable pay networks are digging out a few of their choicest motion picture nuggets. As summer slowly catches up to us, and the blockbuster prepares to dominate the pop culture dynamic for the next four months, the appropriately named boob tube will try to complement such commercialization with as many name features as possible. This doesn’t mean that every offering from now until August will be worth its weight in celluloid, but the SE&L selection for 31 March sure deserves such a status:


Premiere Pick
Slither


Writer (and now director) James Gunn holds a very odd place within current fright filmography. Responsible for the terrific Tromeo and Juliet and the quite decent remake of Dawn of the Dead, he has also foisted the forgettable pair of Scooby-Doo features on film fans’ fragile heads. This makes his first solo effort all the more creatively complicated. Gunn gives us a true splatter filled return to the days when he worked closely with indie icon Lloyd Kaufman, as well as a taste of the contemporary scares that have been his box office bread and butter. Overloaded with homages to zombie films, alien invasion flicks and mindless mutant monster b-movies, Gunn delivers the kind of sensational, satiric schlock that many post-modern genre films sorely lack. Here’s hoping there’s more of this kind of movie in his future. Fear often needs a shot of silliness to keep it from going completely astray. (31 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Rumor Has It


In reality, this is not a bad idea for a movie – a young woman, curious about her past, discovers that her family may actually be the inspiration for one of the ‘60s most famous works – in this case, the novel and film known as The Graduate. Unfortunately, first time filmmaker (and screenwriter) Ted Griffin was yanked from the director’s chair when fading superstar Kevin Costner found him wanting. In stepped the equally evaporating Rob Reiner, and together a motion picture disaster was fashioned. (31 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Special Edition


In an obvious bid for some Lord of the Rings style revenue, Disney teamed up with late author C.S. Lewis’s multi-volume Christian allegory, and laid on as much CGI spectacle as they could. The result was a fairly well regarded hit. While Starz already premiered the film back in September 2006, the new “extended” edition bows this month. (31 March, Starz, 9PM EST)


Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic


She’s a very polarizing comedienne, one you either love, or loathe. In addition, her take on humor is either envelope pushing, or gimmicky for the sake of shock value. As it stands, this combo concert film will give you an opportunity to decide for yourself. But be warned – Silverman doesn’t stand by modern PC pronouncements. (31 March, ShowCase, 9:45PM EST)

Indie Pick
This Film is Not Yet Rated


It’s rare when any film, including a clever documentary, manages to make significant changes in the subject matter it focuses on. But after viewing this stinging denouncement of the MPAA and all its insular, self-serving trappings, current President Dan Glickman promised that the seemingly arbitrary way in which movie ratings are assessed will be reviewed. Not bad for a filmmaker – Kirby Dick –who just wanted to discover the names of those people sitting on the organization’s “concerned parents” board. What he got instead was a lesson in Hollywood backslapping, Washington D.C. style spin, and the truth behind the Tinsel Town tribunal’s veil of secrecy. With the wealth of revelations Dick presents here, Glickman will be doing a great deal of responding in years to come.  (31 March, IFC, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
Dogville


Leave it to a foreign filmmaker – in this case, Dogma ‘95 founder Lars Von Trier – to take on the history of America and its unhappy Civil War/slavery narrative. In this first of a proposed trilogy, Nicole Kidman is a woman wandering West who ends up in the title town. With its unusual approach to production design (no sets, bare bones backdrops) Von Trier hoped to focus on ideas, not images. He mostly succeeds. (3 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Memento Mori


It’s your standard Asian horror premise – the journal of a dead student brings death to whomever reads it – but there is more to Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min’s suicide scarefest than meets the eyes. In a country where discussions of homosexuality are highly taboo, the lesbianism theme presented here becomes a benchmark for future Korean scare films. If you like your terror on the suggestive and subtle side, this film is for you. (3 April, Sundance, 11:45PM EST)

It’s All Gone, Pete Tong


It’s the UK version of This is Spinal Tap  - read: a well meaning, sometimes hilarious mock-biography about a deaf DJ named Frankie Wilde. The Tap tie-in revolves around the actual nature of Wilde, who some say actually existed, but in fact turns out to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the filmmakers. Overloaded with bouncing electronica and dance music, along with a nice helping of standard Brit wit, this is a sleeper that deserves wider attention. (5 April, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

Outsider Option
Below


In 2002, horror was reestablishing its footing. The Asian fad was in full swing, and remake fever was already sweeping the studio system. But along the fringes were filmmakers willing to take a risk by refitting the motion picture macabre into different, difficult settings. Beginning with the already creepy and claustrophobic backdrop of a damaged submarine during World War II, director David Twohy (best known for his work on genre efforts The Arrival and Pitch Black) used the appearance of the survivors from a sunken hospital ship as the keystone for amplifying the angst. When the supernatural spit hits the fan, the terror turns titanic. Some dismissed this movie as too much manipulative pomp and not enough scare circumstance, but as an exercise in mood, atmosphere and unyielding dread, this underwater dark house horror film is actually very effective. (4 April, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sisters


In what promises to be the last series rerun before the start of new installments, Brian DePalma’s twin terror schlocker gets the Rob Zombie treatment. Practically bursting with those optical illusions – split screen, double exposure – that the director is famous for, this is a bloody good time for lovers of old school scares. (30 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Xanadu


ELO’s Jeff Lynne must be SO proud – it’s his disco roller boogie musical misstep, for all the world to see. Olivia Newton-John was at the height of her power as a singer/star when she agreed to play a muse to Michael Beck’s disgruntled album cover artist. Her inspiration – open a trendy nightclub. It all goes downhill from there. Featuring The Tubes and Gene Kelly, though God only knows why. (3 April, Retroplex, 6:20PM EST)

Frances


1983 was Jessica Lange’s year. She had a major mainstream hit with Tootsie, and she starred in this fascinating bio-pic about the doomed Hollywood glamour gal Frances Farmer. To top it all off, she received an Oscar nomination for both efforts. Though she won for Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing comedy, this was by far her stronger work. It remains a performance of devastating dimensions. (5 April, Flix, 9:45PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007

Microfinance—the provision of basic banking services in places where they otherwise don’t exist—has a pleasing commonsense “teach a man to fish” logic to it which makes it seem like an unequivocal good. It seems to make charity somehow less patronizing after you dress it up with the trappings of a loan; you are theoretically no longer supporting an indigent way of life but supplying the capital to break the chains of poverty. The Economist naturally would like to see microfinance become even more businesslike, subject to the same pressures of competition and profit-taking self-sufficiency; in other words, they would like to see it cease to be a charity altogether and instead become another way of investing in developing economies.


some argue that irresponsible lending by philanthropists is just as harmful. They, too, can crowd out for-profit money and, more importantly, local deposits which provide sustainable funding, and also a safe place for the poor to save. Foreign money, public and private, can provide an “important stop-gap”, says Elizabeth Littlefield, chief executive of CGAP, but “I worry that it is not necessarily catalysing the creation of a sustainable, savings-based financial system in poor countries.”
Still, the transformation is happening in snippets, particularly in Latin America. Pichincha, Ecuador’s largest bank, established a microfinance subsidiary in 1999 with backing from an American development agency. Today the subsidiary contributes 12% of Pichincha’s total profits, with arrears of less than 2%—while providing loans to the poor at competitive rates. Citibank houses its microfinance transactions in its bank, not in its community-development group, as others do.
The turning point will come, according to Ms Littlefield, when microfinance is seen not as a new asset class—which “ghettoises” the poor—but as the newest product line for retail banks. The industry has already transformed itself once, from a financial curiosity to a cause célèbre. In so doing, it has created millions of micro-capitalists in poor countries. Now it needs to attract throngs of big capitalists from rich ones.


If microfinance becomes another asset class, then theoretically the global economic system will have established itself firmly in these destitute regions, overcoming the local tribulations (corruption, etc.) to bring the prosperous market system to stay. Multinational banks would then be functioning to override existing arrangements in a society that control the flow of capital to provide a new supply that doesn’t abide by any traditional scheme of values. It allows the profit motive to supersede any other value system, which, when it supplants entrenched bigotry that prefers to see the human potential of a certain subset of humanity go wasted, seems like a good thing.


So microfinance, in this idealized view, is a trojan horse for introducing secular capitalist values; the charitable gift microfinanciers give is the discipline of profit-seeking, the right to be exploited in a systematic rather than haphazard way, at reasonable interest rates rather than usurious or arbitrary ones. It replaces local middlemen, who exploit local conditions, with transnational ones, which are indifferent to local conditions. It connects them to the international credit system, and its more or less stable rules, and the stability of the system teaches the poor the rewards of discipline by guaranteeing them the eventual fruits of hard work (after extracting its expected percentage).


By the same logic then, we should support the expansion of the subprime lending market, which also expands the population subject to discipline of credit and consequences. Now that it is coming undone, we shouldn’t burden it with regulations that would restrict the manner in which companies lend to high-risk borrowers. Thus, on the Economist’s blog, we find this:


many people look at the high default rates in the subprime markets and sniff that lenders are “abusing” subprime borrowers.  One often hears this case made in reference to credit cards and payday lenders.  But it seems to me that there are two possibilities.  The first is that the poor are spending the money on things they don’t need, and then defaulting, in which case it isn’t clear to me who the abuser is.  And the other is that they really need the money for emergencies, in which case would they really be better off with no payday lenders or credit cards?  After all, the informal credit markets these places have displaced (pawnshops and loan sharks) are even less desirable than the high credit card interest rates.


But really this is an argument against microfinance—this is arguing that usury is better than nothing, that there is no need to protect the poor from whatever financial services institutions deign to offer them; that other kinds of institutions—governmental or nonprofit or otherwise—should basically stay out of it. If people want to take out loans they can’t ever possibly repay and get themselves trapped in never ending cycle of debt, that’s their business. What separates bad credit risks in America from those in poor countries presumably is the opportunity the American poor have to be imprudent—to be tempted into wasteful discretionary purchases that aren’t an option for the truly poor. The underlying implication to this, then, would be that with a thriving consumer society—one that encourages us to buy all sorts of crap we don’t need—must come a usurious credit system to keep people in check, to supply the discipline that the advertising promoting consumerism tends to erode. Consumerism extends the magical promise of something for nothing, of all your dreams for free; the exploitative credit market then develops to capitalize on those who believe in it, and punish them for their gullibility.


In other words, while microfinance meets the demand for credit in places that hardly understand the workings of it in order to further rudimentary production (the classic microfinance example of allowing poor entrepreneurs in a village to buy a cow), consumer society creates demand for credit where it might otherwise be unnecessary, stimulating a malaise of discontent remediable only through novelty consumption. It may be that subprime lending has assimilated real estate speculation to the model of therapeutic shopping. This analysis at the blog Calculated Risk inspired my line of thinking on this:


I am puzzled by the phrase “expanded access to subprime mortgage credit.” This assumes that “access” is a question of borrowers having access to creditors, rather than, perhaps, a question of creditors having access to borrowers. The whole idea of “predatory lending,” which is a subset of subprime lending, is that there are lenders who want to lend going after borrowers who may not have supplied the “demand” until someone fast-talked them into it. Even in the more “respectable” parts of the subprime and Alt-A business, I would argue, the “disintermediation” of “national markets, technology, and securitization,” which rely to a large extent on the “intermediation” of brokers, can function as much as supply creating demand than the other way around.


Those who wish to throw the Econ 101 textbooks at me will have to explain to me just how, exactly, borrower demand for loans they obviously do not understand, and that are not anywhere close to being in their best interest, gets created. Are we talking about a demand for credit or a demand for income-substitutes? And those who want to say that it’s all a matter of borrowers substituting short-term interest for long-term interest need to explain this EPD epidemic to me. Either those EPD loans were 100% fraudulent—borrowers who never intended to own the property or make the payments—or some of them were borrowers who never stood a chance of receiving even short-term benefit from the loan. I’m not sure which case is more comforting, but I surely can’t see here unambiguous evidence for pent-up demand that simmered for years until the “new mortgage market” Braunstein discusses suddenly offered the product everyone had been waiting for. Next thing you know, someone is going to tell me about the invention of advertising.


 


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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007

The ever-hungry beast of gentrification has claimed two more New York clubs: Sin-E and Tonic.  Great clubs and music institutions for sure (especially loved the wine-keg tables at the Sub-Tonic and was honored to do a reading at Sin-E).  Now they’ll make way for expensive housing.  And this just months after CGBG’s bit the dust.  Incredibly, just to appear as contrary (which is usually Slate’s job), the New York Times ran a piece at the time of CB’s closing explaining how the NYC music scene is actually thriving.  Dream on.  Anything that’s not turned into a condo or NYU housing will likely become a boutique store here in Gotham as this trend continues.  Add this up with the cabaret crackdowns and it’s obvious that NYC is not a place that’s friendly to small clubs anymore as we’re running out of affordable neighborhoods for artists and club owners- the end result will be that we’ll suffer a creative drain as artists look for more reasonable housing and supportive towns and cities elsewhere.  NYC is turning more and more into a playground for six-figure yuppies and providing no breathing room for the middle class.  The best I’ve heard this dire situation summed up is in a letter than I quoted from a CBGB’s article I wrote for Popmatters:


“I don’t understand why New Yorkers are so casual while our politicians destroy every landmark they can…. Nothing is safe… No wonder everyone says NYC is dead and it’s all mall-culture now.” —Shauna Erlbaum, letter to AM New York about CBGB’s closing, October 19, 2006


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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007



After a long trip to the cold(er) North-East(ern) territories, I’ve taken this week to dry out in the South(west). Europe for America is not an equal exchange for many, but with a cough rattling around in my chest and phlegm coating my airways, at this point I’ll take it. Besides, there’s JACK-FM, where “we play what we want” and, therefore, the morning drive from my here to my kid’s there is punctuated by “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, “Desire” by U2, “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent, “Crying” by Aerosmith, and “Don’t Take Me Alive” by Steely Dan.


Yeah, with JACK pulsing from the speakers, I could stay busy for minutes on end, slamming the steering wheel and wailing in the direction of my dash. Not a care in the world. Life in paradise.



Although I’m here now, I’m reminded of the place from whence I’ve come. The last stop on this peripatetique‘s mystical mastery tour.


 


That stop was not the home town In which I now sit recuperating; rather it was Oslo, on my final day. Then, it was in a public garden—an amazing park featuring over 200 statues, friezes, molds, gates, grates, and figures designed by the twentieth century Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 28, 2007


You have to feel sorry for Glen Morgan. Here’s a director so desperate to bring some manner of meaning to the horror film that he literally takes his fright film’s failures personally. Case in point – 2003’s brilliant update of the killer rat epic from the ‘70s, Willard. Featuring the masterstroke casting of Crispin Glover in the title role, and reconfiguring the standard revenge motivations of the original to expand the psychological landscape of the characters, Morgan tried his darnedest to combine the best of all macabre mannerisms. Indeed, that film was the rare combination of the sinister and the shocking, the up front and the undercurrent. When it failed to find an audience, it devastated Morgan. As his hard earned efforts slowly faded from theaters, he fell into a deep depression. Convinced he would never direct again, he saw his chances at making the kind of creature features he craved slowly diminish.


With this revelation, just part of the insightful bonus features offered on Dimension Films DVD release of Morgan’s 2006 Black Christmas (yes, another remake, this time of the 1976 underground cult classic) we gain a new perspective about what drives an artist like Morgan. Long noted for his work on The X-Files TV series, as well as his writing/producing credits on the Final Destination franchise, this is a man who clearly holds genuine genre credentials. But he takes things so personally, from criticism to complements, that it’s hard to believe he can maintain a successful show business career. Even his wife, actress Kristen Cloke (who co-stars in Christmas and adds her own two cents to the “behind the scenes” material) laments the toll each film takes on her man. His is a concern bordering on the obsessive – meaning every decision, creative or commercial, weighs heavily on his frequently shrugged shoulders.


This makes his continued career choices all the more puzzling.  Beyond the initial reaction of “why God, why?”, remakes face several uphill entertainment challenges. Perhaps the most difficult one to overcome remains the lingering legacy of the project being pilfered. When a Michael Bay announces he will produce an update of the classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre masterwork by Tobe Hooper, the various indisputable images associated with the film rise from the genre grave like emblematic zombies and immediately start stalking the artistic landscape. Their presence is palpable, their ability to be ignored almost impossible. Then there is the redux that reduces the original concept to a mere stepping off point. In the case of John Carpenter’s terrific take on The Thing, the notion of a monstrous creature from outer space stalking a group of polar explorers was twisted into a glorious celebration of geek show gore.


As for Bob Clark’s classic seasonal scarefest, Black Christmas, the stakes get raised even higher. Hitting theaters a good four years before John Carpenter would prove that the slice and dice dynamic had real financial teeth, Clark’s ideas were radical and, for the most part, unrealistic. He wanted to make a mad killer movie without ever contextualizing the fiend. His Billy would have no past, no present, no motive and most of all no backstory. He would simply exist as an object of terror for a group of holiday minded sorority sisters. Even worse, the murderer would be made even more enigmatic with the use of POV techniques. Billy would never be seen. Instead, the audience would view the world through his sick, twisted eyes. With an ambiguous ending and the introduction of elements (a dead girl near the lake, the oddball boyfriend played by Keir Dullea) that hinted at horror but never paid off, it was as if Clark had anticipated the formulas and stereotypes that would mar the genre in the decades to come, and subverted them before they even started.


Morgan makes no such aesthetic choices. Instead, he develops discernible visual (eyes) and metaphysical (family) themes. Then he tosses all of his deep rooted musings into a good old fashioned splatter fest, turns the entire enterprise sideways, and sprinkles in a little Scream style self-referential irony to polish off the presentation. This makes his version of Black Christmas simultaneously old school and new jack swinging, a gloriously goopy retread and a brilliant post-modern comment on the sticky state of cinematic terror. Certainly fans will feel cheated if they go in thinking that Morgan is making his own genre-redefining joke. Black Christmas does occasionally feel like a spoof that forgot to be funny, or better yet, a surefire schlock shocker that occasionally meanders over into satire. It’s this uneasy tone that tends to throw your typical fear aficionado. With the recent J-Horror fad, overloaded with tradition and superstition, and the current violence porn paradigm that prioritizes cruelty over cleverness, cinematic terror supposedly must contain a laser-like, singular focus.


But Black Christmas isn’t interested in a mere one note dynamic. Morgan intends for his film to be as much a character study as an extravaganza in evil. By making his Billy – now given the last name of Lenz – a wholly rounded work of perverted parenting, by giving him a disturbing yellow jaundiced pallor and a tendency toward incest and cannibalism, the typical motion picture murder ideal is definitely in place. But Morgan wants to argue that only monsters begat monsters, and he provides his freakish fiend with a mother so heinous that even Norman Bates would holler, “Damn!”. During the flashback portions of the film, Morgan finds the proper balance between disturbing personality tweaking and fudged up familial fright. Once we leave that scenario, our patience rewarded with a wonderful Grand Guignol joke, the slasher material can seem a little underwhelming.


But for anyone alive when names like Voorhees and Myers jammed the pop culture zeitgeist, Black Christmas will be like the return of a slightly insane best friend. Though the girls featured as victim fodder are given a few more post-modern dilemmas vs. their early ‘80s slut and slaughter counterparts, Morgan is more concerned about the stalk and the stab than the starting point. Even adults Andrea Martin (the only member of the original Christmas cast returning here) and Cloke are kept at arms length, reduced to being the bearers of constant warning when things start getting dangerous. There are some sensational kills here – icicles through the eye, glass unicorns through the head (a nice homage to the first film)  - and a real sense of atmosphere. As he describes his efforts in the DVD EPKs, production designer Mark Freeborn strove to make the sorority house it’s own creepy character. Thanks to the way it was situated and shot, he managed that near impossible feat rather well.


All of which begs the question of why Black Christmas was met with such harsh condemnation come holiday season 2006. Granted, there were better horror films during the year, landmark movies like Silent Hill and Hostel. In addition, the timing for such a release seemed a bit off. Bob Clark’s version had just been given a stellar new release on the digital format, so many people were just learning about the film, and were perhaps unprepared for it to be so quickly ‘remade’. But the best answer is obviously the simplest. Like Willard, Morgan clearly made a movie that only a certain selective sector of fans could really appreciate. Mainstream reviewers, who more or less avoided the movie because of the clear horror bias that exists within the critical community, would have you believe that Morgan is the second coming of Ed Wood with this effort. They tore it apart in ways that seem too severe to merit real analytic concern.


Of course, this must make Morgan feel twice as bad. For someone who takes every artistic effort he makes as seriously as possible, such sweeping dismissal is hard. And let’s get one thing straight – this Black Christmas is not the original. As one of the actresses says in the DVD bonus material, this is more a movie “based on” Bob Clark’s creepfest, not an exact duplicate. With its jaunty retro vibe, ample arterial spray and aggressive narrative drive, this update acts as a perfect complement to the ambiguous thrills provided by its namesake. It’s not a flawless film, and one could argue that its more fun than frightening, but it is not the full bore flop the rest of the world would have you believe it is. Instead, it’s a statement of one man’s desire to take terror in a decidedly different direction. If he has to suffer for such a stance, so be it. After all, nearly all creative types endure the pain of production for their art, don’t they?



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