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by Stephen Becker / The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

12 Sep 2008

Opening Sept. 19:

THE DUCHESS - Keira Knightley goes 18th-century this time, playing the extravagant Duchess of Devonshire, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage.

GHOST TOWN - Ricky Gervais momentarily dies during an operation and gains the ability to talk to ghosts.

IGOR - John Cusack, John Cleese and Eddie Izzard lend their voices to this animated film about a lab assistant who dreams of becoming an evil scientist.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE - A police officer (Samuel L. Jackson) isn’t at all happy that an interracial couple has moved into his neighborhood.

MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL - Jason Biggs, Dane Cook and Kate Hudson star in this story of a man who asks his best friend to take out his ex to show her what a great boyfriend she is missing.

TOWELHEAD - Based on Alicia Erian’s novel, the story revolves around an Arab-American girl who battles a sexual obsession and a tough family during the Gulf War.

by Bill Gibron

11 Sep 2008

Sometimes, an excess of talent can lead to very little in evidence. Put another way, you can overload a film with artistic aspirations, failing to see that several pluses can still create a great big minus. Ten years ago, any film starring Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino would have been cause to celebrate - or at least to pay attention. And after Spike Lee’s sensational take on his Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gerwitz also represents a fairly hefty amount of commercial viability. Toss in a decent supporting cast that includes John Leguizamo, Donny Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, and Brian Dennehey and stick them all under Jon Avnet’s capable if sometimes clunky direction and the results should speak for themselves, right? Well, in the case of the new cop thriller, Righteous Kill, the resulting oration is not exciting. In fact, it’s ordinary at best.

Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) are two longtime partners in the NYPD. Both have seen their fair share of injustice, and when a child killer is set free, the duo decides to frame him. Shortly thereafter, more scumbags start turning up dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, a nursery rhyme like poem left at each scene. With the help of officers Perez and Riley, and forensics specialist Corelli, the pair hone in on the potential murderer. One lead takes them to a nightclub run by suspected drug dealer Spider. Another takes them directly to the door of one of their own - namely Turk. Seems everyone on the case considers this seasoned veteran the prime suspect. After all, he had access, motive, and a means of covering it up. Of course if it does turn out to be a cop, it could be anyone on the squad…even someone himself desperate to solve the crimes.

Righteous Kill is so average that the standard bell curve can’t calculate just how general it is. Locked into the standard crime and punishment paradigm, with a genre mandated twist at the end, this is not so much a missed opportunity as a subpar story making the most of its limited appeal. The pairing of our former powerbrokers, each one covered in the less than appetizing patina of tainted Oscar, has none of the indomitable force we were promised. Instead, as in Michael Mann’s Heat, DeNiro and Pacino play off each other marvelously - and then that’s about it. The script provides inadequate opportunity for the (former?) A-listers to move beyond their basic personalities. Of the two, Pacino comes out the clear winner. His Rooster character is a collection of snarky comments and lightning one-liners. Most of the time, Big Bob is like Travis Bickle with a goiter, indigestion, and a tight fitting truss.

The rest of the cast is really no help. Leguizamo and Wahlberg pull shtick that seems left over from their often spotty resume, and Gugino is given the thankless role of a polished professional who trades it all in once the badge comes off for some dangerous and kinky sleazeball sex. With 50 Cent along for added street cred (which the movie fails to capitalize on, by the way) and various faceless performers playing random felonious archetypes, DeNiro and Pacino are left doing most of the movie’s manual labor. There are scenes where you can literally see the former giants pushing the plot forward. Avnet, for all his hit or miss mannerisms behind the camera, really can’t be faulted here. He’s firm, if a tad too flashy. No, all the flaws extend directly from Gerwitz’s work. The story is less than solid, and some of the sequences definitely needed another trip through the word processor - or a toss in the trash.

Maybe the real reason Righteous Kill is not more engaging is that, as an entertainment, the police procedural has gone the way of the romantic comedy and the erotic thriller. Call it the CSI influence, or better yet, the overexposure of the category via the direct to DVD market, but every time your turn around, another 88 Minutes or Untraceable is stinking up the Cineplex. DeNiro and Pacino would have to be packing major motion picture moxie to reinvigorate the format, and they don’t appear too excited to be taking on the challenge. While not quite the perfunctory payday of some of their recent efforts, Kill does contain enough problems to prevent its straightforward embrace.

And yet, thanks to the inherent nature of the storyline, the desire to get to the end and see how everything wraps up, we more or less stick with this unspectacular stuff. Oddly enough there are some big laughs here, moments where Rooster ridicules his fellow boys in blue with a kind of loveable crassness. We also find some solace in that the victims are all vile, indefensible scum of the earth. But then Gerwitz gives us the aggravating narrative device of having DeNiro appear on screen, right up front, and ‘confess’ to the crimes. It deadens the impact of the true finale. The film would work much better if the story was left open, the eventual lead to a cop coming from hard work and deduction, not a cinematic gimmick. But then we wouldn’t get those meaningless monologues, Turk looking into a surveillance lens and spilling his (or someone’s) guts about the joys of killing.

Because they do work well together, because we get the innate appeal of having the two major league Method actors tumbling within a formula they are familiar with, Righteous Kill gets off easy. Taking away our touted leads and substituting any number of nominal celebrity skins would result in something almost wholly unwatchable. But with DeNiro and Pacino at the helm, and Avnet doing little to get in their way, we end up with a decent, derivative journey through material that should have crackled with sizzling urban suspense. Such lax results couldn’t have been part of the plan. But then again, putting these firebrands together was never a guarantee of success in the first place. Nothing they’ve done since turning in their talent for some trinkets indicates otherwise.

by PopMatters Staff

11 Sep 2008

PopMatters gave The Old Believers’ Eight Golden Greats an “8”. “The Old Believers have built a cozy, comfortable world—strange but at the same time utterly familiar—and it’s one where you want to spend more time,” writes Maura Walz.

Keeley Boyle and Nelson Kempf settle in to share some of their strange worlds with PopMatters 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Keeley Boyle Dr. Zhivago.
Nelson Kempf I’ve never cried in my life. Horton Hears a Who put me damn close, though.

2. The fictional character most like you?
KB Wendy from Peter Pan.  I’ve always been terrified of growing up.  I started an anti-adolescence club in 4th grade, and swore I wouldn’t go through it.  I also promised myself I’d be playing with my dolls until I was 40. 
NK No way, dudes. Questions like that scare me.

3. The greatest album, ever?
KB Flying Cowboys by Rickie Lee Jones.
NK Ummmm. Trout Mask Replica! and Blood on the Tracks and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Kings of the Wild Frontier and Sexy Back? And Imperial Bedroom.  And also, The Fugs First Album.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
KB Both.
NK Star Trek is great and all, but definitely, definitely Star Wars

5. Your ideal brain food?
KB National Geographic.
NK French New Wave movies at night, Tape Op magazine in the car, weird cheeses at lunch.  But mainly, that peace of mind that comes once a whole moon when life actually seems to be moving at the proper pace and everything seems to fit just perfectly and you know you’re exactly where you should be.  I can write songs like a motherfucker when I tap that shit.

by Jason Gross

11 Sep 2008

Admittedly, he has his own vested interest in the topic but MP3Tunes honcho Michael Robertson has an interesting perspective about why label-approved digital music services fail in this article from the Register.  The problem he sees is that the labels make such high financial demands that it’s almost impossible for any music service to recoup enough money to stay in service.  He’s got a good point there.  Even though iTunes is the number one music retailer out there (for the U.S.), Apple makes its money from selling iPods, not from the thin profits they get from selling songs (that’s part of the reason that they don’t want to unlock those little gadgets and give other players/manufacturers the chance to hone in on their biz).  Similarly, big box retailers like Best Buy can deep discount their CD’s and put them in the back of the store because they also are trying to get you to buy more expensive items once you walk into their store (i.e. stereos, TVs, fridges).

What Robertson misses as part of the argument is that the labels aren’t the only players in this game, as he should well know.  For a digi service to offer up music, they need also need the consent of the publishing companies and artists (assuming they have contracts to cover this).  After they all take their share, the services offering up music have even less money coming in from music sales.

Robertson goes on to say that the remedy for the problem of starting a legit digi music business is the courts- once they provide guidance and set precedent, everything will be peachy-creamy.  Obviously, that’s not gonna cut it.  It’ll take years for the courts to sort things out and it’s far from guaranteed that they’ll come up with anything final, much less come to a decision that’s totally beneficial to digi services.

Instead what has to happen is that digi services have to take initiative and negotiate contracts with labels/publishers/artists where all involved can survive financially.  And what would that include?  As they say, if I had the answer, I’d be a rich guy by now.  But… we can still guess at what needs to be done.  Most importantly, the digi biz would have to get a bigger piece of the pie (aka music sales) to survive.  Obviously, the other labels/publishers/artists (aka LPA) wouldn’t be thrilled with this.  They’d point out that they’re doing much better with other digi-biz’s so why should they take less money?  The brash new digi-biz would need to have a convincing answer for this.  If they can’t offer as much dough, maybe they could offer… stock options, some ad revenue?

Another way that this imaginary brash, bold digi-biz could rake in enough dough to survive would be to pick up ideas from other services as they attract consumers (and eventually money) other ways.  As with publications, ad money is important and the digi-biz would have to be creative about the packages that they’ve offer to be attractive.  Also, offering some music, video and interview exclusives would draw in users and with higher web traffic, the digi-biz can wave this in front of advertisers and try to turn that into revenue.

Mind you this is coming from a non-MBA but you get the point.  The digi-biz’s are gonna have to get creative and strike up deals that are more beneficial to them.  If anything I said does help our your biz and provide beneficial, don’t feel embarrassed to give me a gratis account to your wonderful new music service…

by Bill Gibron

10 Sep 2008

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.

In all honesty, there is nothing new about this Arab-angled coming of age saga. When she is caught having her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, 13 year old Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. Preferring the suburbs because they are safer, Rifat works for NASA, and while putting on airs of sophistication and patriotism, he burns with a chauvinistic and racist fire. While under his emotional and physically abusive care, Jasira learns about her period, about tampons, about dirty magazines, about masturbation, and about the predatory habits of two new male influences in her life. One is fellow middle schooler Thomas. The other is the family’s next door neighbor - a bigoted reservist with an unhealthy eye on Jasira’s budding sexuality. 

Ball clearly wants to redefine the maturation experience for kids circa the new millennium. He wants to break down barriers, tackle taboos, and in general toss out into the open the private topics and traumas that every young girl faces. It’s the kind of thematic universality that drives both the movie and the semi-autobiographical novel (by Alicia Erian) upon which it is based. There is no real discussion of religion (“we’re Christians, just like everyone in Texas” Jasira chides to a clueless kid) and for a film founded in the first Gulf War, there is precious little politics. No, Towelhead revolves exclusively around sex - menstruation, orgasms, molestation, virginity, blood, condoms, lies, seduction, underage nudity, and the adult manipulations and misunderstandings that occur because of same.

When Larry Clark does it, critics complain. Movies like Kids and Ken Park have been labeled pornographic and offensive, treating the teenage years of its characters like a visit to Caligula’s falling Rome. Towelhead is not that bad. In fact, it’s worse. Clark doesn’t dress up his portrayals in symbolist bullshit, nor does he try to apologize for his film’s hedonistic tone. In his mind, he is telling the world about the reality of youth culture - it’s emphasis on drugs, debauchery, and the decision to overindulge in both. Ball doesn’t dare bring this angle to Towelhead, perhaps because the book doesn’t lend itself to said approach. But when dealing with the horrific consequences of abuse - sexual or physical - it seems disingenuous to spin it within a slick suburban pseudo-satire.

Towelhead never tells us what to think. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder what the point is. Can Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Something similar happens when the filmmaker focuses on Jasira’s discovery of masturbation. We see her scissor legs strategy in class, while babysitting, in the school cafeteria. It’s not really a question of inappropriateness. It’s an issue of purpose. 

As stated before, this is the kind of film that embraces its own sense of fearlessness, that focuses almost exclusively on how much it can get away with in the name of 2007 social malaise. When Jasira’s father smacks her square in the face, when he bruises her leg and spits on her, we never get the required retort. He’s just a mixed up MAN from the Middle East, that’s all. Similarly, our military pedophile, drooling over Jasira the minute he sees her, gets a last act slice of redemption that’s supposed to soften the blow of his battery. Yet Ball can’t manufacture the necessary outrage or criminal context. Even as Aaron Eckhart is faux fingering 18 year old actress Summer Bashil, it’s like the writer/director never saw There’s Something About Amelia.

Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors. Perhaps Ball thought that he was creating the ultimate adult nightmare, an experience in which everything you suspected about your barely tween son or daughter was disturbingly true. For a seminar of sociologists, maybe but not for a crowd just coming down from Summer’s popcorn swelter. It’s hard to imagine adolescents flocking to this film, especially given the sheepish, almost consensual way Jasira treats her ordeal. Dad beats her? She simply bows her head. Mom lays into her about any and every thing? She’s apologetic. Classmates call her all manner of racial epithets? She finally gets up the nerve to hit a neighbor in the arm. That’s courage.

Maybe they are counting on the carnal curiosity factor. After all, a review like this could easily spark the imagination of the more sleaze minded moviegoers in the demo. One can just see a certain kind of teen boy giggling in the back row, digital camera capturing the few brief glimpses of Bashil sans skivvies (she is never shown full on naked)…and let’s not even mention the adults who are titillated by this kind of content. Naturally, there will be apologists, people who can easily overlook elements like age, age, and age to suggest that Ball has tapped into the harsh realities of growing up. Right…and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a mere lesson in making better guardianship arrangements.

It’s not just that Towelhead is tawdry and tasteless. It’s not the oppressive unrelenting focus on Jasira’s warp speed hormones. It’s not even the notion that someone without a clear frame of reference can proclaim to understand the teen girl experience from the inside out. No, what Ball does here is something similar to an old ‘60s parental caveat - i.e. some things shouldn’t be aired in public. In book form - and especially considering the potential for authenticity from an experienced author’s standpoint - this material may work. Most literature can manage this kind of material because the theater of the mind is so selective and personal. But when given a concrete depiction, the surrounding social/legal/public facets fill in gaps that some of us may not want to see.

In many ways, Towelhead is like Funny Games without the snooty Euro-centric sneer. Ball isn’t out to rub our nose into the notion of middle schoolers gone wild, and the appearance of a hippy dippy couple as cultural conscience toward the end seems to suggest a kind of metaphysical mea culpa. Indeed, the film takes us through some horrifically uncomfortable material only to attempt to make it all better in the end. As the movie moves along, you can literally feel the shift - Eckhart’s sex scene with Bashil is all suggestion, unlike the similarly styled moment between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in Beauty. But that doesn’t excuse the underage aspect, or the clear come-on/tease element inferred. On some level, Ball appears to suggest Jasira deserves what happens to her. Open up the personal Pandora’s ‘box’ and…

It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Critics are allowed to like or loathe anything that falls into their professional lap. But as with the aforementioned affront by Michael Haneke, Towelhead is provocation for the sake of being sensational. We don’t feel any empathy or come to any clear conclusions. Instead, we spend nearly two hours in voyeuristic disgust as a young girl is ground up like grist for a lax media mill. There is no denying that there is honesty here. But it is buried in a sloppy cinematic strategy that can’t stop fixating on the physicality of its lead. Everything here - from the Busby Berkeley inspired Playboy centerfold photo shoot fantasies to Jasira’s asexual striptease - is meant as nothing more than confrontation. After a while, we simply grow tired of the assault. Too bad Ball and his characters don’t feel the same.

//Mixed media

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