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Thursday, Jun 28, 2007
by Gail Shister [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

Show us the money.


Instead of network-news divisions continuing their pretense of - wink, wink - not paying for big interviews, they should come out of the closet and tell viewers how much was ponied up.


Paris Hilton is just the latest example.


Reports surfaced last week that NBC Entertainment offered the embattled heiress $1 million to do her first post-prison interview on “Today,” produced by the news division.


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Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007


They call it the ‘sophomore slump’. It’s a phrase reserved for any artist/filmmaker/musician that follows up an initial success with a decidedly underwhelming second project. In the realm of the motion picture, a perfect example would be Richard Kelly. In 2001, he concocted a little science fiction freakout named Donnie Darko. It’s tale of time travel and suburban foreboding struck a chord with disenfranchised and alienated teens everywhere, and while not a major box office hit, it found a massive audience when it was release on home video. There was even a director’s cut DVD. Yet his second film, the still unreleased Southland Tales, was met with unmitigated hatred when it premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. From “unwatchable” to “a work of wounded hubris”, the outright rejection from audiences has held up any major theatrical play dates (it’s now tentatively scheduled for March 2008!).


James Wan was a little luckier than that. His Dead Silence only took four years from conception to release, and instead of blatantly burying the Australian filmmaker’s second major fright film, Universal actually gave it a massive mainstream roll out (over 1800 screens). Critics responded like they do for most horror films - i.e. they dismissed it outright without much analytical thought - and the film flopped. Of course, it didn’t help matters much that the publicity department kept stressing for director’s connection to the name-making Saw. The two movies couldn’t have been more dissimilar in tone, concept or execution.


Wan, along with writing partner Leigh Whannell, did indeed make waves in 2003 with their Sundance smash about a pair of unrelated individuals trapped in a booby-trapped bathroom, and the warped serial killer named Jigsaw who controlled their fate. Literally unknown, the pair became major macabre players thanks to the title’s cult-like success. A popular precursor to what is now called ‘torture porn’, the otherwise solid psychological thriller became an even bigger horror franchise, spawning two sequels so far (a third is on the drawing board). Whannell stayed on to guide the scripts, while his partner planned his next foray behind the lens. It turned out this old fashioned groovy Gothic ghost story was the proposed production.


For this film, Wan and Whannell developed a ghoulish female ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, and borrowing a bit from A Nightmare on Elm Street, gave her a fatalistic backstory involving child murder and citizenry revenge. Jumping forward to the present, we are introduced to Jamie Ashen, who has just lost his wife to a hideous murder. On the same night that he received one of Shaw’s demonic dummies, his spouse Lisa had her tongue ripped from her mouth. Returning to Raven’s Fair, the town he grew up in, Jamie uncovers the truth about the murdered performer and her bevy of disturbing dolls. He also confronts his cold and distant father over the clan’s connection to her crimes. When the detective investigating Lisa’s death shows up to keep his eye on Jamie, they are both tossed into an unnerving cycle of restless spirits and supernatural revenge.


While it is true that Dead Silence is nothing like Saw, it is also a fact that it’s far from a failure. Indeed, if you take the movie on its own, unusual terms, it ends up being an effective and suspenseful spook show. Now, there are a couple of elements you have to buy into in order to thoroughly enjoy this film. First and foremost, you have to believe that ventriloquist dummies are inherently frightening. Seeing them, sitting there, human-like eyes staring at you, burying their gaze directly down into your soul - this has to send several unsettled shivers right along your stone cold spine. If that doesn’t happen, or you haven’t built up enough gruesome goodwill after seeing Magic, The Great Gabbo, Devil Doll, or Dead of Night, then much of what Wan wants to do just won’t work. While it references other fright flicks – especially those of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento – it’s a premise that can be problematic.


The second issue has already been mentioned. Without giving too much away, Mary Shaw is a kind of sideshow Freddy Krueger. She killed children, but for reasons less sexually repugnant than our bad guy burn victim in a green and red sweater. Still, their origins are very analogous, and the whole nursery rhyme angle really seals the similarities. This will cause many fans to have a ‘been there, done that’ feeling that will cloud their potential enjoyment. It is a shame that Wan and Whannell couldn’t come up with something more original. After all, Mary Shaw has some really weird ideas about how to optimize her doll’s ‘realism’ – couldn’t that be murderous motivation enough. And since the character is played onscreen by the wonderfully enigmatic Judith Roberts, an actress capable of inciting fear with a simple look, you don’t need much more than dementia to direct your dread.


Those two elements aside, Dead Silence is a sensational looking film. Wan has lost known of his Saw-inspired directorial flair – he merely applies it in a much more controlled and colorful manner. This is a movie loaded with atmosphere and mood, where fog fills the woods and buildings practically breathe under the weight of their own disquieting ambience. Wan went all out to make Raven’s Fair the most menacing ghost-town in training since Collinsport and Collinwood withered under the residency of their namesake’s Dark Shadows. Especially eerie is the setting for the film’s finale, the decrepit old Guignol Theater. Since we also get to see it in its heyday, the transformation from showplace to sinister is truly bone chilling. But nothing can top the extremely disconcerting corpses in this film. Shaw’s murderous modus – pulling out people’s tongues - leaves horrific visages of dead bodies with their mouths unhinged and hacked open. Either in full view or suggestion, it’s potent paranormal stuff.


There are aspects to this movie that don’t quite gel, however. It seems that anyone who had just experienced the death of their spouse would want nothing to do with the doll at the center of the slaying, as well as the various unholy locales associated with it. Secondly, Wan and Whannell drop a couple of interesting subplots (the mortician’s crazy wife, the problems between Jamie and his distant dad) in favor of more moody walks through gloom drenched ruins. There is also something a tad artificial about Wan’s overall aesthetic approach. The movie looks great, but he relies on repetitive shots (cars traveling along superimposed maps) and specific framing devices (all buildings are composited head on and symmetrical) to drive the narrative. The acting is excellent all around, but we never find ourselves emotionally involved in the fate of our hero. Our attention is turned a little too much on how all this is going to turn out.


The answer is both satisfying…and a little sick. Wan and Whannell indeed save the best for last here, answering several questions (and raising a couple) with a conclusion that builds on almost everything we’ve seen before. It wraps up the film in a nice, nasty little bow, and quells any concerns that our pair couldn’t pull this off. Still, it’s strange that the final version (the unrated DVD adds some extra elements that really help establish the horror) didn’t connect with audiences. It’s the same kind of mood-oriented spine-tingler that 1408 has ridden all the way to the bank. Maybe it’s the two tenuous facets mentioned before. It could be that fans of Saw weren’t interested in something old school and subtle. Perhaps March is just a bad time to forward a fright flick. Whatever the case, Wan has survived. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next feature, a Death Wish inspired vigilante drama entitled Death Sentence (starring Kevin Bacon). Still, for fans looking for an alternative to all the blood and guts gumming up the current genre trappings, give this excellent effort a try. It’s an amazingly winning little creepshow. 


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Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007

Thanks to an obedient media that works so well for Steve Jobs, the hottest item this summer (and no doubt for Xmas) will be the iPhone.  The flood of glowing reports are only matched by the stories about the frenzy surrounding the arrival of the phone itself- it’s a perfect self-feeding story.  Make no mistake, this little gadget will indeed change the game for the several devices it’s meant to replace- cell phone, MP3 player, web browser, digital camera- mainly because it offers you all these things in one place.  Of course, just like the original cell phones themselves (not to mention many models today), the I-Phone actually offers you half-assed scaled down versions of each of these items but that’s not the point.  You’re getting them all in one place and adding to your convenience supposedly. 


Even more important, it’s the hottest little electronic toy of ‘07.  So if you have 500 or 600 dollars to blow, go for it.  Just remember that you’re paying to be a guinea pig.  Any sensible consumer never buys the first version of any electronic product- have we learned nothing from Windows?  These always have the bugs in them that still have to get worked out.  As you complain about this to friends and message boards and salesman, you’re providing research and development info for Apple.  Plus, you’re paying for the privilege to do that!


The most sober article I’ve seen about the iPhone is this one from CNN, which lays out the pitfalls plus the marvels of the device.  As they say, let the buyer beware.


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007


SiCKO is sensational. It’s perhaps the best movie Michael Moore has ever made. Granted, there will be those who view his anti-gun screed Bowling for Colombine as his most heartfelt effort (it did earn him an Oscar for Best Documentary) and now that the firestorm has died down, and the winds of change are basically blowing in his direction, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks more and more like a prescient populist prophecy. But those two amazing movies, along with the retro-reactionary Roger and Me and the rest of his confrontational canon really pale in comparison to this detailed dissection of the American Heath Care system. Looking at the problem from both the inside out and the international inward, Moore manages to do what his previous films have failed to accomplish. SiCKO, more than any other movie he’s made, is guaranteed to provide a cinematic catalyst for change.


Don’t think so? Unsure that people will rise up to challenge the substandard status quo of insurance coverage for the US population? Well, just remember this. A film is forever. Mock its methods or question its facts, but once it takes a stance, that statement is set in celluloid stone. From then on, it is up to others to redirect the dialogue, to challenge its veracity and pick apart the particulars. But at the end of the day, after all the agenda-based attacks and website scrutinizing, Moore will have delivered the first AND last word on the subject. And since the enemy he picks is well known and hated by a vast majority of the paying populace, it will survive the government threats, the industry lawsuits, and the brazen backlash from dozens of self-styled experts. In turn, Moore’s version of reality will become the JFK of the HMOs. The essentials may be specious, but the overall message is right on goddamn target.


During the film’s clever opening, we see immediately where Moore is going. He discusses the case of two people sans insurance, and immediately tosses their frightening fate aside. We can’t deal with this issue, you can hear the filmmaker thinking, it’s too much of a common man slam dunk. Instead, the focus of SiCKO is on people who actually have coverage, and how said supposed security blanket is actually a lifestyle (and life) threatening ruse. We get testimonials from individuals who’ve lost loved ones thanks to seemingly random decisions by blank corporate facades, and then Moore turns around and puts a mug onto those crass kill(er)joys. It’s this material that’s the most fascinating in SiCKO. Everyone has a horror story about being denied in a time of crisis, but when do we ever get to see the person behind the decision. Granted, these former insurance company workers are all miserable and overflowing with mea culpas. But no amount of forgiveness can erase the dollar oriented disasters that lay in their wake.


Throughout this initial half of the film, Moore sets up the first of his two main themes – that insurance companies are in it for the money, not the health care management. The resounding ‘D’uh” following said sentiment should argue against his success as a pundit. But Moore knows movies, and he understands that the right story can sidetrack an entire library of statistics and consulting reports. Thus, he presents the Smith family. Amiable, hard working, and dedicated followers of America’s Middle Class dream, we watch as Mom and Pop Smith are devastated by several personal problems (him – heart attacks, her – cancer) and slowly swallowed up by the bureaucratic bankruptcy of the system. The co-pays and deductibles, let alone the financial reality of dealing with six kids of their own, sends them into a downward spiral of money problems. Eventually, they must sell their home and move into a cramped basement computer room (with bunk beds!) in their daughter’s home.


Like the scene in Roger and Me where a kind-hearted sheriff’s deputy dispossess a distraught family, watching real people suffer in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ manner is the most effective way of getting your point across. This is not an issue of mismanaged funds or individual liability. The Smiths bought into a system (paid into it, actually) that never intended to indemnify them come crunch time. Imagine – your car insurance suddenly stops taking effect right in the middle of a post-accident repair job. Your life insurance annuity ceases paying at the discretion of the company, not the contract. You sign up for disaster insurance before boarding a plane, and as the engines start to fail and the stewardesses shout out final instructions, the head rest phone rings. It’s your company, suddenly cutting off your coverage as a ‘potential risk’. Along with the other examples he provides in this section, Moore’s makes SiCKO a strong case for massive corporate reforms.


But what’s the model we should use? Which countries have the best universal coverage – or at least, in Moore’s opinion, put the American system to shame. The answer to this question composes the second half of SiCKO, and will probably be the sequence viewed with the most cynicism. Providing us a USA-ridiculing walking tour of the Canadian, French and British health care arrangement, Moore plays dupe to a bunch of everyday citizens who can’t imagine living in a country that doesn’t provide some manner of socialized medicine. Our intrepid reporter asks the same question over and over again – “what did it cost you?” – and the look of disconnect and confusion on these foreigners’ faces is classic. Time and time again, the answer is “nothing”, and Moore mimics their disbelief by wondering “what’s the catch”. Well, exploring said specifics and restrictions is not what SiCKO is on about. Again, the big picture is important here. No matter what it says in the fine print, almost every industrialized Western country has some form of universal health coverage – except the US.


Of course, the devil is always in the details, and there will be those who harp on minor misconceptions and abject realities as a means of trying to deflate SiCKO’s strategies. Unfortunately, said potshots won’t make the movie any less entertaining. The reason people will pile on this film has nothing to do with its ideas and everything to do with its effectiveness. If Moore was a moviemaking incompetent, unable to maintain a level of interest in what is an inherently intriguing idea, then his efforts would tour a few underground film festivals and that’s it. But people will be lining up to learn the lessons this director wants to discuss, and it’s the intrinsic draw of film that has opponents flummoxed.


If Moore was inherently wrong with what he puts out in SiCKO, that would be one thing. He’s not using one or two rare instances to make a gross overgeneralization about the US Health Care system. Instead, he is avoiding the 10 or 20% of satisfied citizens to focus on the far more prevalent problems. It’s not a question of balance – if 10 people out of 100 get good, trouble free service, representing their viewpoint does not provide equilibrium to the situation with the other 90. Neither does pointing out the number of areas where America beats the rest of the world in medical technology. Saving lives is one thing. Having access to the science that does such rescuing is the issue at hand. It is conceivable that the citizens of the countries Moore champions would have varying versions of their socialized medicines success. But complaining that problems exist in an arguably imperfect system is like saying an inexact science is wrong now and again. Besides, what’s more important – the fact that everyone is covered, or that when such universal coverage is in place, flaws are inevitably found? 


There will be those who cannot forgive his histrionics, who see him standing on Cuban soil, chronically ill volunteers from 9/11 in tow, calling over to Guantanamo Bay and asking for the same health care that we are giving to the terrorists, and complain about the obvious exploitation. Others will attack the man and consider it a criticism of the movie. But in a nation of apathetic arrogance, that has begun to believe much of its own hyped hubris, SiCKO needs to be seen. It does the two most potent things any successful screed can – it enlightens while it entertains. In addition, it sets the tone for the rest of the debate, providing proof against all the industry apologists while offering potential solutions, no matter how suspect. It’s what any good discussion should encompass. It’s also the foundation for any masterful film…and SiCKO definitely falls into that category.


 


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007

Two of Americans’ least favorite subjects remain race and class.  They’re not pleasant subjects, not easy to resolve or always get a grip on and inflame strong passions in many people.  All the more reason why these subjects fascinate me and make me want to learn and read more about them.  As I gradually wrap my brain around a Frantz Fanon book (Black Skin White Masks from Grove Press) that my girlfriend got me for my b-day, I also note Dr. Edward Rhymes’ Caucasian Please (Black Agenda Report) which explores the deep and long-running roots of misogyny, crime-glorification and other vices or as Rhymes puts it “Never do we ask, ‘What has been society’s role in shaping and influencing hip-hop?’”  He gets some rock facts fudged but his general point is well-taken.  Then there’s Danah Boyd’s Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.  Boyd lays out an interesting class divide between MySpace and Facebook that points out divisions reflected online and offline, though some of his research methodology is a questionable (i.e. the age information and other vital info given on MySpace definitely ain’t always on the up and up).


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