Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

If there is one genre that’s in desperate need of a post-modern make-over, it’s the tearjerker. Comedy gets retrofitted every few years, while the action film scours the globe for as much Hong Kong parkour butt kicking uniqueness as possible. Even horror goes through its commercially mandated cycles (we’re back to slasher, FYI). But for those who like a good cry, the weeper stands steady, static and virtually unchanged. It’s always the same disease-of-the-month, only-the-good-die-young dynamic overhauled with a new set of A-list actors and the typical formula of maudlin manipulation and emotion tweaking. Seven Pounds wants to change all that. It wants to earn its pain in a nontraditional, uniquely ambitious manner. And if anyone can sell such an unusual take on this kind of material, it has to be the current reigning box office king, Will Smith, right? Well…

IRS agent Ben Thomas is apparently about to commit suicide. Before he does, however, he intends to change the lives of several people he is currently ‘auditing’. There’s a blind customer service rep with dreams with a good, honest soul. There’s a young leukemia patient who needs some rare bone marrow. An abused woman and her children require a new place to live, while a kidney given to a new hockey coach will give him one more chance on the ice. For Ben, the decision to help goes beyond want or need. It’s connected to a tragedy in his past, the death of his wife, and the total such a loss has taken on him physically and spiritually. But when he meets up with Emily Posa, a young print artist overwhelmed by a literally failing heart, Ben must reconsider his plan. Falling in love was never part of the scheme, and in doing so, he risks his ability to cope - and to care for those he promised to provide for. 

Told in an initially engaging, yet eventually aggravating piecemeal style, Seven Pounds is either a wonderful weeper or two-thirds of an actual mainstream film. It finds Will Smith in full inferred hero mode, avoiding the obvious champion histrionics of something like Hancock for a more subtle, if still substantive, I Am Messiah message. As long as he keeps the various seemingly dispirit parts in the air, filmmaker Gabrielle Muccino (of Smith’s last awards season bid for nomination consideration, The Pursuit of Happyness) manages to maintain the audiences attention. Like a puzzle slowly putting itself together, we take the small amounts of information given in each scene and process them within a wildly vague and frequently unfulfilling plotline. That Smith can sell it - well, at least some percentage of it - speaks for his continued commercial drawing power.

But Seven Pounds does overstay its welcome, working one too many scattershot flashback over material that already seems like an incomplete portrait of otherwise important particulars. We never learn many of the main motives for the character’s actions. Smith starts the film by cursing out a blind Woody Harrelson. Then he visits a nursing home physician who goes from tax cheat to elderly abuser in the course of a single patient Q&A. Before long, a concerned brother of Ben’s is making the kind of haunting, prophetic phone calls that only exist in the movies. If a real relative called you up and spoke in such dire, foreboding half-sentences, you’d immediately put he or she on your “Ignore” list. Along the way, obvious future plot elements (jellyfish, printing press, scars) bubble up to the surface before slowly sinking back into the impressionistic landscape.

Smith can be commended for being slightly nasty within his otherwise incredibly noble manner. He spends many a significant close-up on the verge of tears, his gaunt and grieving face revealing a level of truth that Seven Pounds frequently fails to reach otherwise. He is joined in his excellent (if erratic) performance patterns by the ravishing Rosario Dawson. Though dressed down significantly here, she still comes across as too dynamic to be barely alive. There is a real chemistry between the couple, and a last act romance that really works. But because Muccino and his movie have tried so hard to keep the connections at bay, there is an arm’s length like distance between us and the actors that makes the sentiment hard to sell. We believe they are in love - we just don’t feel it.

Indeed, a lot of Seven Pounds plays like something we view rather than experience. When Ben’s ruse is revealed, when his brother chews him out for the risks he’s been taking and the trouble he could be in, we fail to see the significance. Once again, the unusual storytelling style fails to provide the necessary backstory or context. Even more confusing are the various denouements we experience once Smith’s situation is (semi)explained. Why these people, we wonder. Can the poor Hispanic family really afford the multi-million dollar seaside homestead that Ben readily gives to them? If our hero is doing this because he sees the inherent “good” in people, why can’t he forgive himself? And again, if that guilt is so strong and all consuming, how can he abandon it for someone like Dawson?

For all its ambitions, however, Seven Pounds ultimately fails in the one arena where it should be a cinematic slam dunk - the production of tears. Instead, the finale melds into a kind of New Age answer to amateur hour, with characters we’ve seen before reconfigured into survivors and symbolic placeholders. We’re slightly more informed about what was going on than when we saw Smith ambling around LA in his beat-up old car, case file loaded with potential problems he was looking to magnanimously fix. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. As an idea for a movie, the story of one man’s personal crusade to use his body and his ability as a means of making amends for past transgressions has a great deal of potential. It could even be deemed tragic. But by deconstructing the genre, Smith and Muccino mess it up ever so slightly. And unlike other film types, this version of the five handkerchief heart-tugger can’t take it. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

Love isn’t easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it’s weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman’s latest Rubik’s Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who’s spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?

Indeed, Caden Cotard is an artist of large ambitions and even greater interpersonal problems. His wife, famed miniature painter Adele Lack, is leaving for Germany, and doesn’t want her husband along for the ride. His four year old daughter loves him, but finds his lack of attention frustrating. Caden also catches the eye of box office cashier Hazel, a fiery redhead who literally lays it on like a house on fire. When he wins a genius grant, our hapless hero decides to produce something “real” - a kind of performance piece in which actors portray character living actual, real time lives. He also includes himself and Hazel in the “play”, improvising dialogue and narrative to give the roles shape. Caden soon finds the production consuming his every waking moment. Even worse, his obsession with getting to the heart of human existence soon starts spiraling out of control.

Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman’s latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion (“synecdoche” is a Greek word for a concept that’s a distant cousin to the metaphor) and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse. It deals specifically with characters that just cannot connect while implied universal links via the always prescient concept of theater. As with many of Kaufman’s more confounding works - Human Nature, Being John Malkovich - there is a distinct feeling of being tossed into the middle of a performance without a playbill, a cast list, or a clue about the previous backstory or context. Indeed, the Oscar winning writer often creates works that feel insular and incomplete, as if a special key to understanding everything is missing or purposefully left out.

This doesn’t make his movie bad, however, just terribly confounding - and Synecdoche, New York is definitely mystifying. But not in a bad way. In fact, Kaufman is one of those rare strangled geniuses who can make the most absurd idea or approach seem sane. He’s like David Lynch if Mr. Blue Velvet dropped the dream logic and applied a more analytical angst to his projects. Even better, Kaufman is never dull. He may push the boundaries of our patience and understanding, but he does so in ways that are endlessly fascinating. As a first time director, he avoids obvious tricks or gimmickry. For all its frustrating surrealism and unexplained exposition, this is really just a quiet character study, an ensemble work in which everyone appears to be playing out their own unique and often contradictory set of motives.

There will be those who mistake Kaufman’s convex/concave creativity as unremittingly hedonistic. After all, is there really an audience for a film in which the title character fishes through his stool, cries during sex, and purposefully puts off the only woman who shows him any kind of affection or attention? He’s a nebbish that needs a swift kick in the ass, not some manner of shrink. As portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the bravest performances of his already illustrious career, Caden is karma bottled up and bloated. In many ways, Synecdoche, New York is like Woody Allen with all the linking verbs taken out. As it mines its incongruous insights, it stays closed off to even the most rudimentary internal investigation.

The rest of the cast also serves the movie well. Catherine Keener is making a new career out of Earth mother meanness, while Jennifer Jason Leigh is a revelation as a nationality shape shifting lesbian. Samantha Morton is amazing as Hazel, while her cinematic soulmate Emily Watson makes a clever, quirky in-joke of a doppelganger. Tom Noonan’s take on Hoffman as Caden is also interesting, since he seems to wean out the passion to produce a more dictatorial, dimensionless version of our hero, and Dianne Wiest steals every scene she’s in as an actress eager to take on any “part” in Caden’s life. Toward the end, when everyone is playing individuals of the opposite sex and sliding in and out of what passes for reality (Kaufman envisions a future filled with revolution, police states, and random airships), we sense that whatever’s happening here means something significant to the man behind the camera.

In fact, if one had to venture a guess as to what Synecdoche, New York really means, the notion of art abjectly reflecting an individual’s inner being seems central to what is happening in the plot. As he moves through his continuously irregular psyche, landing on random patterns and perspectives that illustrate his lack of success with other individuals, Caton contemplates how all of life is like Shakespeare’s proverbial stage. Of course, once you start believing in, and then starring in, your own personal production, the lines between fact and fiction become blurred, debased, and then erased all together. Somewhere, in a warehouse recreation of New York City, a cast of characters sits, waiting for its motivation. Apparently, in the pursuit of life and love, we find that purpose - or at the very least, a plot toward same. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking.

Thankfully, actual Italians don’t see things in such a revisionist, rose-colored manner. Gomorrah, the great new film from Matteo Garrone, shows the notorious Neapolitan syndicate Camorra (the title is a take-off on their name) in all its toxic waste poisoning, apartment building territoriality, and ruthless gun battle ambivalence toward human life. Applying a City of God, neo-realistic style to his interlocking stories of youth caught up in the corruption of the area, the film mixes narratives to show us how deep the roots of evil actually go, and how futile it seems to try and eradicate this mob-rule menace from its firmly ensconced arenas.

We are first introduced to Toto, a young teen who delivers groceries to the people living in a standard, sprawling Naples apartment complex. On either side of the structure are various affiliated gangs, each controlling and patrolling their own terrain. The lure of fast money and fake machismo draws him into the grasp of one of the rackets. Elsewhere, cash mule Don Ciro makes his various deliveries among the units. Paying out hush money to people protected by the mob, he’s constantly harassed by those who want more, and those who want him out of the area for good. Within the more “legitimate” ends of the business, a mafia wheeler-dealer buys up property from farmers to use as landfills for illegal dumping, and a pair of hoodlum wannabes spends their days defying the local leadership and acting out their Scarface influenced fantasies.

For all its “you are there” authenticity and sense of raw edged realism, Gomorrah is really nothing more than a well made cautionary tale draped in the dreary everyday truths of life in a Naples ghetto. It’s a brilliantly told exploration of how the modern mafia works, from the standard street hustling of crack and cocaine to more aggressive approaches like international business and influence within the fashion industry. Along the way, director Garrone gives us the hauntingly familiar foundations for why so many so-called “good” people end up as part of an octopus-like criminal element. The most fascinating characters here are the wannabe Tony Montana and his ‘Hello Skinny’ sidekick. With their put-on cockiness, sense of illogical entitlement, and nonstop riffing about the glory of guns (“I gotta SHOOT!” our Pacino channeler yells during one memorable scene), they’d be the comic relief here - that is, if their shtick wasn’t so pitiful, and didn’t hit so close to home.

Elsewhere, we marvel at the salesman like somberness of Don Ciro, failed ‘family’ man who is relegated to handing out payoffs to keep the organization’s loose ends as tied up as possible. As he handles each situation, from hospitality to degrading abuse, he shuffles along, silently acknowledging his never-ending indebtedness to the mob. Other characters are less clearly defined. A friend of Toto’s “defects”, going over to the other side of the struggle. This makes his mother an instant target, though we really can’t figure out why she has to ‘pay’. There are also other random killings where the objective is literally unknown to us. Certainly, this underscores Gomorrah‘s planned randomness, but it makes for a draining, disconnected experience.

Still, Garrone deserves a lot of credit for not turning things into a Tarantino like look at organized crime and its often too cool cinematic components. No one here is worth emulating, either in word, thought, or deed. The citizenry is seen as simultaneously cowardly and confrontational, pushing as far as they can before turning back to the bad guys for protection and support. Interestingly enough, there is very little law enforcement present, clearly something Garrone uses to suggest a inferred lack of police effectiveness in stopping the crime sprees, and in the end, few of who we met are left standing, either literally or metaphysically. Indeed, Gommorah is a movie so unlike the typical Hollywood crime film that it shocks us with its antithetical approach.

Does this mean it’s the best film of its kind, ever? Actually, no. Dramatic license allows for aspects of character and conceit to be explored in a way that actually further contextualizes the underlying themes and ideas. Instead of getting a straightforward set of good guys and worse guys, we get complex considerations of life, reputation, dignity, revenge, family, friendship, and the ever clichéd honor among the crooked. Gommorah doesn’t go in for all that nonsense. Instead, it peels back the continental façade of its Naples backdrop and lets the hideous horrors inside show through - warts, wasted lives, and all. Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.

by Rob Horning

18 Dec 2008

Reading this post in whcih Adam Levitin recounts credit-card lenders’ abuse of behavioral finance—key excerpt:

The card lender often isn’t looking to get the principal repaid. Instead, the interest rate and fees returns are high enough that they cover the cost of the principal. The principal remains outstanding, and the ideal consumer makes minimum payments forever, making enough new charges to keep the balance from ever amortizing. In effect, the consumer becomes an annuity.

—right after this post about the potential incentive to voluntarily participate in a Ponzi scheme if you are expecting a bailout—key excerpt from a paper by Utpal Bhattacharya:

We argue in this paper that if agents correctly believe in the possibility of a partial bailout when a gigantic Ponzi scheme collapses, and they recognize that a bailout is tantamount to a redistribution of wealth from non-participants to participants, it may be rational for agents to participate, even if they know that it is the last round.

—led me to this question: If credit-card companies can expect a bailout if a critical mass of borrowers default, do they become aware of point at which it becomes more prudent to lend to everyone and encourage them to charge up a storm rather than perform due diligence on the risks various individual borrowers represent? They can collect their fees from customers until the whole thing collapses, hopefully with a loud enough crash that the state will restore much of the principal. A related question: Did mortgage lenders reach that point a few years ago? Is this how investors’ cupidity led them to interpret the implicit government backing of Fannie and Freddie?

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008

The importance of people can never be underplayed in any form of social upheaval. Good or bad, well-intentioned or anarchic in purpose, the inherent power in the citizenry is what makes change possible - be it organized or organic. America was founded on revolution. Russia rejected the Czar and eventually became a Soviet superpower thanks to armed uprising. China grew to distinction under its “cultural” uprising, while all over Africa and South America, factions and sects are today taking the concept of self-determination into their own often bloody hands.  Violence is indeed a byproduct of most upheaval, the struggle to gain/sustain power taking on ugly, unapologetic means. Perhaps that’s why the thought of revolution, while tempting, is tempered by the potential harms to all side.

Yet this didn’t stop the all important individual from trying. Just look at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.

As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name (currently available in a deluxe, three disc DVD and accompanying coffee table book by Priit Veslilind), Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.

Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.

Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.

Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.

As with any political thriller, this is incredible compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.

In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually run off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.

Such a sentiment is supported when viewed in this deluxe DVD presentation. We are treated to over four hours of additional material, interviews and historical documents detailing the history of the region, the ever-changing maps, and the newsreels that highlighted the major political events from the ‘30s to the ‘50s.  If the devil is in the details, a digital package like this clearly provides the minutia meant to establish the USSR’s ruthlessness since they exerted their force in the Balkans decades before. Vesilind’s book is even more in-depth. There are chapters focusing on the “Birth of a Modern Nation”, the “Push to Independence”, and the all important “Summer of Song”. While it follows the film quite closely, the prose style used captures a kind of urgency and intrigue that the documentary fails to capture. Here, Vesilind can set the tone and atmosphere in our mind’s eye. It makes the entire Singing Revolution experience far more personal, and powerful.

It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - in the people. 

//Mixed media
//Blogs

'SUPERHOTLine Miami' Is Exactly What It Sounds Like

// Moving Pixels

"SUPERHOTLine Miami provides a perfect case study in how slow-motion affects the pace and tone of a game.

READ the article