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Sunday, Apr 8, 2007

I’ve been wavering on the verge of swallowing the right-wing spin on the subprime mortgage market, that its vast expansion in previous years was somehow a extension of the American dream to those too poor to previous partake in the almighty glory of real estate ownership (and mortgage-interest tax deductions—the feature on my tax program that allows me to compare my tax burden with that of others in my age and income demographic depressed me a little bit). I felt as though I were feeling around in the fog, looking for the way out of the miasma of conservative complacency regarding inequities in the credit market, so Gretchen Morgenson’s piece in today’s NYT business section came at the right time for me, helping me regain my bearings. It would be one thing if subprime borrowers were doing some kind of semi-charity work, along the lines of microfinanciers, extending reasonable loans to those the market rejects as too risky or unprofitable (i.e. small, short term “paycheck loans”, which big banks won’t bother with), with charities (or the government, in a society serious about mitigating income inequality) absorbing the losses that makes them bad business. But criticizing subprime credit lenders should not be conflated with criticizing subprime borrowers, who are invited into credit markets only on terms that, as Morgenson details, seem to guarantee their failing into a trap, rolling over refinancing fees and interest payments into an ever-growing debt burden. Lenders, who couldn’t be troubled with small-time borrowers before, suddenly find it worth their while to pocket fees from the origination and refinancing of subprime loans with teaser rates, adjustable rates, higher fees and penalties, and so on—especially when they can repackage the risk in default swaps. This gave lenders the incentive to sell the loans to prospective borrowers, promising them participation in the American dream of home ownwership and the free money of the ever inflating housing bubble (never too late to cash in! houses never go down in price!). Hence the tricks that make initial payments seem reasonable, within reach, sustainable—until the new rates kick in, or the tax assessment comes, for which funds apparently aren’t put in escrow for some subprime loans. With routine mortgages, borrowers often set aside money for taxes and fees into an escrow account as part of their mortgage payments. This makes the payments higher, hence the desire to exclude escrow payments in subprime loans, where the main idea is to dupe borrowers into buying homes they can’t really afford (on which the tax burden is likely higher, as well). Now, with rates and expected payments higher, and the housing market unable to sustain refinancing based on the presumed increase in property values, subprime borrowers face foreclosure and subprime lenders face, well, nothing at all—they walk away with the profits, a nice little transfer of wealth from a broad, poor segment of society to a narrow, already wealthy one. Just one of the many ways American society has come up with for funneling money to the top on false promises of democratization. “Democracy” means in this instance, being taunted and enticed by admonitions that everyone should aspire to the same sorts of homes. The equality in regard to what we can dream about and aspire to (the doors are seemingly open to us all, but the difference in the terms on which they ar eopen is masked) becomes a desperate attempt in reality to live beyond our means while someone else profits from our floundering.


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Friday, Apr 6, 2007


It’s not the most visualized holiday in the motion picture canon. Perhaps it has something to do with the bifurcated nature of the celebration. On the one hand, you’ve got the solemn grace of the Christian conceit, a moving proclamation of faith and forgiveness as best illustrated by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, for some perfectly pagan reason, this honorarium for the dead turned into a brightly colored pastel puke fest, as baskets laden with all manner of glucose grotesqueries became the annual endowment to dentists and dieticians everywhere. Even worse, the King of Kings was cast aside for some oversized animal with a tendency toward rapid preproduction and raisin pellet feces. Trying to explain this all to an impressionable youth has got to be one of the greatest challenges in all of parenting. No wonder they saddle their bratlings with all kinds of caffeine and caramels instead.


Hollywood’s been no help. They’ve treated Easter like a leper in the motion picture punchbowl, sticking with either the saintly (The Robe) or the silly (Easter Parade) to illustrate their interest. Of course, kids catch the brunt of it, with all manner of egg and eye candy creations used to keep their attention off the obvious death and dying subtext. Between standard animated offal (It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown) and the unusual ersatz religious revamps (the Veggies Tales take on Dickens called An Easter Carol) it’s no wonder children choke down sweets. But here’s a way of avoiding all this conceptual contradiction. As part of our cinematic service to the planet’s populace, SE&L suggests tossing out the typical and trying a few new entertainment entries this holiday. While they probably won’t fill you with much spring spirit, they will definitely make the time period more tolerable. Divided into the recognizable symbols of the season, let’s begin with:


Rabbits – Night of the Lepus (1972)


So you think all bunnies are cute as a button and snuggly as freshly dried cotton fluff? Well, the gigantic clod hoppers at the center of the surreal creature feature hope to cure you of your one note view of the long eared brotherhood. In one of those typical “science gone screwy” concepts, standard desert pests are given an injection of hump-hindering genetic material to keep them from…well, you get the idea. Anyway, as kind of an infertility payback, the bunnies go ballistic, growing to over 50 feet in size and packing an equal quantity of ludicrousness. Traipsing in between all this Hellspawn hasenpfeffer are noted has-been movie icons Stuart Witman, Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelly and Rory Calhoun, each one testing their acting mantle in respond to good luck charms the size of an SUV. Even Mr. McGregor would have a hard time keeping these elephantine entities out of his precious cabbage patch.

Runner-Up: Evil Anthony conjures up a horrifying rabbit of Hate in Joe Dante’s entry from Twilight Zone: The Movie.


Eggs – Aliens (1986)


As a symbol of fertility and the creation of life, the familiar oblong shape we associate with this time of year can actually hold a deep dark evil. Take the final sequence in James Cameron’s brilliant follow-up to Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space epic. Our heroine, reluctant warrior Ellen Ripley, must take on the monstrous Alien queen to save her Newt, the orphaned child she’s come to care for. Walking directly into the creature’s incredible brooder, the character is confronted by hundreds of face-hugger filled pods. Ripley’s solution? Blast the bejesus out of them with a flamethrower and grenade launcher. Naturally, our birthing beastie gets good and pissed. High octane action ensues. If your own lasting memory of Easter Egging is the slight scent of vinegar and the reluctant discovery, six month later, of the particularly rotten remnants of same, then this battle between the species for the fate of the cosmos will provide a welcome alternative.


Runner-Up: Chad Everett takes on an underwater mutant hatched from a prehistoric omelet in The Intruder Within.


Sweets: The Ice Cream Man (1995)


What do you do when you’re a well meaning maniac, freshly released from the local loony bin and looking to make little children happy with your heartfelt, wholesome intentions? Why, if you’re the stiflingly psychotic Gregory, played with proto-punk brilliance by that human goofball Clint Howard, you don a Good Humor uniform and dish up the frozen treats. Oh, and if you run out of tri-colored Rocket pops – or mood altering medication – you can always add a few corpses to your creamery. Thus we have the perfect antidote for all the sugar-addled pre-adolescents who view the Easter extravaganza as part of a bi-annual excuse to push their internal diabetic tolerances to their very limits. One visit from this frozen custard creep and you’ll be rotting in the ground, instead of your tooth enamel. Besides, nothing can beat Ron’s resplendent little brother as a gap-toothed terror with a 31 flavors jones.


Runner Up: The sickly sweet killer cream at the center of Larry Cohen’s satiric The Stuff.


The Passion:  Dead Alive (1992)


If Mel Gibson’s mega-hit from two years ago taught us anything about the trial and persecution of Jesus Christ, it’s that the Romans really dug their gore. Their skin shredding lashing of the Lord God and Savior was as brutal as it was bloody. If you’re looking for a similar amount of mindless flesh tearing to remind you of the deliverer’s time under the lash, then cast your eyes upon this pre-LOTR classic from Oscar winning wunderkind Peter Jackson. Applying his love of unbridled bloodletting to a surreal story involving a whipped Mama’s boy, the gypsy girl he falls for, and the infected bite of a Samarian rat monkey, it’s not long before the grue goes gonzo and our hero is surrounded by all manner of reanimated zombies. Eventually, claret literally covers every inch of the set. Equally hilarious in its darkly comic creativity, you’ll get a mountain of meaningful violence out of this brilliant bit of bile.


Runner Up: The Japanese argue for the title of most depraved fright fans around thanks to the callous corpse grinding of the Guinea Pig series.


The Resurrection: Deathdream (1974)


In case the brain dulling chocolate rush you’re experiencing has given you a kind of spontaneous amnesia, the main reason most religious types sanctify this time of the year can be summed up in a single phrase – “after three days, he rose from the dead.” Of course, for even the most avid believer, coming back from the grave sounds suspiciously scary. So how about a movie that plays on these allegorical elements to significantly amplify the angst. A masterpiece of uneasy dread, the late Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (known by most under the title Deathdream) uses the old ‘monkey’s paw’ myth to tell the story of a fallen Vietnam soldier “returning” home to his family. In a clear case of being extremely careful what you wish for, our reanimated vet starts exhibiting behavior that would be unacceptable, even in the middle of a murderous war. And all his parents can do is pray – pray that he doesn’t target them for his evil vampiric desires.


Runner Up: The black zombie “redeemer” leading his fellow ghouls out of bondage in George Romero’s Land of the Dead.


The Redemption: The Omega Man (1971)


Ask any Christian you happen to see, and they will tell you that the reason Easter is important is that it signifies Jesus’ sacrifice for all of mankind. In essence, he died on the cross so that the entire world could live. Counteracting such a selfless stance may seem impossible – unless, of course, you’re the fabulous Chuck Heston. First, you warned the world about a certain meat by-product based snack in Soylent Green, and then you challenged mean-spirited mutants in a blitzed out LA as The Omega Man. Either one of these arch epics would satisfy your annual altruistic needs, but the best Messianic complex bet remains Omega Man. Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s masterful I Am Legend, our hopeful hero spends his days driving around an abandoned metropolis. At night, he battles albino throwbacks who want him to die for their new world order. Kind of sums the whole Easter ideal up in a nice little nutshell, doesn’t it?

Runner Up: An international team of scientists, military men, and hack actors all try to save the planet from a Virus that threatens to turn everything into one big Japanese disaster movie.


And there you have it – six films guaranteed to get that nasty taste of bargain basement discount department store pseudo-milk chocolate bunny out of your mouth once and for all. No matter your denomination, or beleaguered belief system, everyone could use a break from tried and true tradition. So give the MGM musicals a rest, and try not to subject yourself to another helping of James Caviezel’s snuff film style scourging at the hands of some psycho-Italianos. Nothing beats the boredom of another mindless spring fling better than something that smotes it right in the repetitive ribcage. With this sly sextet of offerings, it may be a halfway Happy Easter after all.


 


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Friday, Apr 6, 2007

When drops in productivity (the measure of how much you get out of what inputs are put into production) are reported in the media, usually the stern, glum assessment reads something like what’s found in this piece from last weekend’s WSJ by Greg Ip:


The U.S. productivity boom that began in the mid-1990s is showing signs of running out of steam. If it proves more than a temporary lull, slower growth in productivity—that is, output per hour worked—could lead to slower growth in living standards, more difficultly paying for the baby boomers’ retirements and a greater risk of inflation. Inflation fears would make the Federal Reserve more reluctant to lower interest rates.


This conforms to the conventional view of economists and is essentially a matter beyond argument, something built in to the very definitions and analytical tools of the profession. No one roots for less productivity any more than they seek to pay more to get less, or buy high and sell low.


Some gains in productivity come from technology—the 1990s saw the implementation of computerized networks for communication, logistics, inventory control and data processing, and this obviously allowed workers to become far more productive than they had been, despite the endless distractions the internet spawned as byproduct. The productivity boost of having Internet access in offices yields the free time workers can waste reading blogs and watching awesome videos on YouTube like this one. But ultimately, productivity increases come from the sweat of workers’ brows, as this post serves to remind us:


Take poor productivity, for instance. The very tone of the phrase, “poor productivity,” strikes me as negative spin. When was the last time you got a new job? How much did your new employer pay you? Most companies want to pay their employees the least amount of money they’re willing to work for. This isn’t because those companies are devious cheapskates; it’s just the basic idea behind having employees.
Poor productivity is the same thing in reverse. Employees are extracting the most amount of money from the least amount of work. This is a bad thing? Why? The time and energy you save just from being inefficient are like money in the bank. After all, time is money. Wise employees turn a profit by paying themselves in time.


This echoes the ideas about workplace tactics that sociologist Michel de Certeau recounts in The Practice of Everyday Life—workers make the best of an exploitative arrangement by staging invisible slowdowns, stealing supplies, loafing, using company time for personal projects, taking sick days for vacation, and so on. One might argue that these abuses are expected, built into the unspoken employer-employee contract to vent pressure that might otherwise build up as company profits mount while wages remain stagnant. The relation of productivity to wages evokes the question of what purpose management serves: It often seems that management’s job is to maximize productivity while disguising the wage discrepancy—in fact management’s productivity would seemingly be defined by the extent of that discrepancy.


The productivity slowdown makes me somewhat skeptical of pieces such as this one from the Guardian, which frets about workplace boredom.


“Boredom is a protest when the job doesn’t seem part of who you feel you are,” says Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. “You feel negative about the organisation and lack job satisfaction. It is a risk when you are not being told what your job means.”


Read between the lines of that, though, and you come away with the fact that often boredom is a choice, not an imposed condition, a product of unreasonable expectations about the nature of institutionalized work. You expect to define yourself through your job, but then also wait for the manager to supply the definitions. By changing the rules or hiding the logic behind various tasks, managers are just carrying out their mission of masking the true value of anyone’s contribution and suppressing disruptive individuality. Any efforts at making work meaningful cannot be imposed from without, by someone higher up in the hierarchy.


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Friday, Apr 6, 2007


 



Norway’s National Gallery is in Oslo, tucked into a corner of Oslo University. It houses a modest collection, with the main focus on Norwegian artists, spanning the past 4 centuries. Still, there is a room devoted to Munch, another set aside for Impressionists (mainly Renoir, Gaugin, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh), along with a few works by Cubists Picasso and Braque. Most pieces in the Gallery are of the “I didn’t know” variety, worthy of cursory inspection, and little more. Still, there are a few stunning pieces, ones that make a viewer linger, even sit and study for minutes; engage in minute scrutiny and contemplation.


To enter is to invest a few hours and leave feeling the time was not fully wasted.


 



I generally take in at least one museum per peripateic tour. It’s a personal rule. To help make me feel I am getting my money’s worth. Or perhaps just so that I can point to something concrete that I did which has socially-sanctioned value. Who knows, maybe one day all this museum-going will transform me into someone cultured . . . well, one can always hope in life, can’t they?


Yet ,when I go to museums—whatever their quality and wherever they may be—I notice that they don’t always render me cultured as much as they tend to turn me into a philosophe. Well, of sorts. As in quizzical and confused. Full of questions to which I have no answers.


Possibly because they are temples of a certain kind of worship; mystical chambers that prompt mysterious queries. It could be that; or else it is something less complicated (though no less fathomable). Perhaps the intellectual excursion is because I can’t completely comprehend what it is I have just done; leading me to wonder why.


Why have I gone and committed this act of artistic experience? Why have I willingly exposed myself to various forms of communication from unknown others?


Such questions lead, naturally, to more questions; ones more extensive and far-reaching than puny me and my modest world can possibly bear. Questions such as: what is the purpose of art? Is there something beyond communication? What explains its attraction? And why am I—and many others (who are not necessarily at all like me)—so compelled to consume and experience it?


Such questions have answers—although possibly not perfectly easy ones.


 


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Thursday, Apr 5, 2007


Well, well, well…what do you know? A weekend where the available choices range from pretty good to actually great. Isn’t that odd? Must be something in the air over at the premium pay movie channels – either that, or the crap film warehouse has run out of available made for cable dung to deliver. In either case, it’s time to feast while the banquet is bountiful. Indeed, choosing between the top three offerings on Saturday night may be quite a chore. While some would look at the titles and figure “no problem”, there is enough entertainment value in either the Sandler sob story or the Reeves/Bullock spook show to satisfy even the most discerning cinematic pallet. And with Russ Meyer and Roger Corman waiting in the wings, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of fun filmmaking to choose from. Starting with the mainstream blockbuster that redefined the career of a notoriously outspoken director, here is what SE&L will be celebrating come this Easter weekend:


Premiere Pick
Inside Man


Spike Lee spices up the heist film with his own unique brand of urban angst, and brings Tinsel Town A-teamers Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen along for the ride. He ended up with the biggest box office hit of his career, and an outpouring of critical affection almost unheard of in this auteur’s 20-plus years behind the lens. While some felt the ending was unsatisfying, especially in light of all that came before it, this is still one of the most entertaining and engaging films in the director’s diverse career. Along with his definitive documentary on Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts), 2006 showcased a maturity and an intelligence that argues for a new phase in the filmmaker’s always contentious canon. (07 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Lake House


Audiences avoided this Western remake of the Korean classic Siworae, ignoring the hype surrounding the much anticipated re-teaming of Speed co-stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. Now, The Lake House seems ready for redemption. There is something cathartic about a good old fashioned weeper, and while many critics seem to shutter at the thought of something emotional, Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti mostly avoids the maudlin. (07 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Click


Starting off high concept and only rarely venturing into the low brow, Click represents a kind of career stepping-stone for the superstar Adam Sandler. Getting to the point, age wise, when his goofy fratboy foolishness stops looking hilarious and begins feeling pathetic, this family farce tried mightily to move in directions the comic never before considered. Click is more than just a remote control gimmick – it’s every man’s middle aged crisis come to life. (07 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Jiminy Glick in Lalawood


How former SCTV star Martin Short managed to milk this mediocre Comedy Central character into a full blown mock doc motion picture is anyone’s guess. He must have some racy photos of Hollywood Execs laying around his Canadian estate. Whatever the reason, this effete fatso with a penchant for corrupting his celebrity junket interviews in about as hilarious as a hemorrhoid. This film is the perfect example of a sketch being stretched beyond its talent tolerance levels. (07 April, ShowToo, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls


Working within the confines of an actual motion picture studio for the first time in his career, and wanting to see just how far he could push the typical milquetoast mainstream, exploitation master Russ Meyer teamed up with buddy Roger Ebert to craft this story of an all female rock band’s pilgrim’s progress through the entertainment biz. Required to tone down the level of smut inherent in his other work, and unable to achieve the same outrageous surrealism he often strived for, Meyer managed to make a movie that both alienated audiences and flummoxed true fans. Thanks to time, and a little retrospection on the part of critics, what was castigated back in 1970 is now seen as campy, kitschy and decidedly deranged some 37 years on. While not the best example of Meyer’s infamous ‘babes and boobs’ dynamic, what we have here is highbrow schlock, carefully crafted by an auteur always aiming for somewhere around said aesthetic. (07 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Last Seduction


It was a cause celebre when it arrived, an argument against the Academy’s rules about release dates and allowable nomination medium. Since it made its first appearance on cable TV, star Linda Fiorentino and director John Dahl were automatically disqualified from Oscar consideration. This didn’t stop critics from campaigning for this unusual post-modern noir, or from Dahl becoming a filmmaker of note throughout the rest of the ‘80s and ‘90s. (8 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Unborn But Forgotten


As part of the Sundance Channel’s weekly dive into Asian horror (under Tartan’s Extreme tag), we are presented with this standard Eastern spook show about a haunted website that kills you 15 days after you visit it. Does that premise “ring” a bell with anyone? Anyway, as South Korean creepfests go, this is no Two Sisters, but if you don’t mind seeing yet another example of stringy haired ghost girls doing the creature crawl, you may enjoy this overly familiar frightmare. (8 April, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Breathless


As one of French New Wave wonder Jean-Luc Godard’s certifiable masterpieces, Breathless remains a unique and undeniably original take on the crime caper. With Jean-Paul Belmondo as a car thief on the lam and Jean Seberg as his muse/moll, Godard takes the language of cinema and retranslates it through an ‘anything goes” ideal. The results are resplendent in their deconstructive power, a film that finally examines what makes movies artificial…and artful. (9 April, Sundance, 10:30AM EST)

Outsider Option
A Bucket of Blood


Though not as well loved as Roger Corman’s other horror comedies (in particular, the crackpot classic The Little Shop of Horrors), this incredibly whacked out wonder deserves more respect than it gets. Goosing bohemia and its beatnik brethren, AIP staple Dick Miller plays an artist who’s only inspired when corpses become part of his sculpting strategy. Naturally, fame and notoriety are his undoing. With that standard combination of craven terror and unsubtle satire that Corman did so well, what could have been another House of Wax turned into a crazy cult creation. Presented as part of TCM’s Underground movie series (one wonders if the deep in production Rob Zombie will make an appearance), here’s hoping that Walter Paisley and his tainted tableaus find the same accepting audiences that Seymour Krelboyne and his killer plant Audrey have enjoyed for over 40-plus years. (6 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Double Indemnity


Billy Wilder built his entire auteur reputation on being a filmmaker unhappy to stay stuck in one particular genre. While most remember his comedies, or his operatic dramas, this amazing film noir stands as a telling testament to his talent and tenacity. Featuring fabulous performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray, and enough twists and turns to keep the plot percolating, this suspense standard bearer remains one of the director’s numerous motion picture masterworks. (10 April, Retroplex, 9:40PM EST)

Kaw


First off – big ups to that title. Nothing screams ‘cheesy b monster movie’ better than a single syllable shout out to a creature’s signature sound. Here’s hoping the rest of this knotty narrative about a “conspiracy of ravens” overrunning a small town can live up to such humongous horror hype. Since it’s making its debut on the SciFi Channel, however, there’s not much hope in that. (7 April, SciFi Channel, 9PM EST)

Deep Impact


It remains the “emotional” disaster movie from 1998, one of two competing ‘asteroids hitting Earth’ epics to come out that year. Using subtlety over bombast, director Mimi Leder proved that even the most outrageous special effect film can have a heart. While it looks a little clunky nearly a decade on (the CG destruction of New York does not hold up), it feels more fully realized than Michael Bay’s awkward Armageddon. (9 April, TNT, 11PM EST)

 


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