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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

Are scribes really lazy bums?

When a rock star lashes out at journalists, you know that there’s got to be a reaction.  On a mailing list for writers, there was a lot of discussion about Jack White’s put-down of writers as being lazy and inaccurate (see NME story), specifically because too many scribes were getting the facts wrong about the White Stripes.  As a writer, my reflex action is to get defensive but truth be told, White isn’t entirely off the mark.


Start with this quote from White: “Journalists are inherently the laziest people on earth. Even in the age of Google, they don’t do any work to check what they’re writing about.”  I’d counter that civil servants definitely take the slacker prize but he’s not totally off base here.  With powerful search engines like Google, it’s easier than ever for anyone to read up on any subject and get background information.  Even with those kind of tools at their fingertips, it’s inevitable that writers are still going to make mistakes.  Admittedly, sometimes they (and their editor or fact-checker at their publication) don’t acts dig into details as they should but nobody’s perfect when it comes to their work, not even White himself.


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Sunday, Aug 5, 2007


It’s safe to say that, unless they are based on some similarly styled source material (book, play, etc.), the motion picture trilogy is a product of popularity. Though its narrative and cinematic symmetry can be breathtaking to behold, most three part films were not preplanned. Instead, they were forged out of a desire to please the audience mixed with a need to repay the cast/crew. George Lucas can argue all he wants to that his Star Wars saga was always intended as three separate three-part projects (guess the crappy prequels destroyed that dream, right big G?) but Fox barely wanted to release the first film. So what fodder did he have for contemplating such a massive vision? The answer is obvious – he didn’t. Like most eventual franchises, box office gave Luke Skywalker’s real pappy a chance to dream, resulting in the genre’s first example of the law of diminishing returns.


There are a couple of factors inherent in determining the best trilogies of all time. First, the three films included have to be linked in some significant way. They can’t be a pure product of money-oriented moviemaking. Secondly, all three movies must be worth watching. A sloppy second act or atrocious third movement means the overall quality is compromised. A few can survive this kind of scrutiny – most cannot. Finally, there is a subjective element known as “completeness”. Do the films that make up this multi-faceted narrative really deliver on their designs, is there an all encompassing arc, or are we stuck seeing the same old story told over and over again? By answering these important questions, and taking into consideration other objective criteria like continuity and completeness, a final assessment can be reached.


This does mean, however, that there are a few examples that barely miss making the list. For all the splendor and drama they bring to the artform, the Godfather Trilogy is hampered by a third film that just can’t match its Best Picture winning brethren. Similarly, we won’t know if Dario Argento has completed his Three Mothers triptych until sometime later this year. While Suspiria and Inferno are masterworks, early buzz suggests a less than successful conclusion. Speaking of the Italian maestro, one could consider his infamous slasher style/giallo efforts – Profundo Rosso, Tenebrae, and Opera – to be some manner of Gloved Killer trilogy, but without anything linking them besides the murderer’s methodology, that may seem like a reach. Similarly, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman may have invented the gore film, but their Blood Trilogy is a collection of corpuscle caving in name only.


Others miss out because of the director’s desire to keep tapping into the same cinematic source. George Romero would easily make the list if it weren’t for the wonderful Land of the Dead. The fourth time around for the politically tinged zombie series was excellent, but warrants a new quadrilogy classification. The same goes for the Alien films (though they’re decidedly more tenuous in their polish). Die Hard could have made the final list if it weren’t for the obvious cash grab of the Live Free installment, while Indiana Jones junked his chances with its fourth dip into the audience goodwill well. Indeed, at a certain point, a potential interconnected threesome makes the leap over to full blown franchise status. So if you’re a superhero (Batman, Superman) or a serial killer (Freddy, Jason, Hannibal), chances are your potential inclusion on this list was ruined several sequels ago.


With Jason Bourne bludgeoning the box office in the latest installment of Paul Greengrass’s action narrative tilt-a-whirl, now’s as good a time as any to countdown the all time greats of triangular tale-spinning. Some may surprise you. Others will shock you. But in the context of this discussion, all are worthy of classics consideration.


10. The Flesh Trilogy
The Touch of Her Flesh/The Kiss of Her Flesh/The Curse of Her Flesh


Miscreant Michael Findlay and his wife Roberta made a lot of sleazy exploitation flicks in their time, but these were, perhaps, their most repugnant. Not for what they showed on screen – this was the mid ’60s after all, not the most lenient of censorship eras. No, these three films formed the foundation of the modern slasher shocker, with the mindless torture and killing of nubile young women at the fore. Cringe all you want at their seedy mix of sex and slaughter, but you’ll never look at your favorite knife-wielding maniac the same way after watching madman Michael (who also starred as the killer) put the wicked wanton smack down. 

9. The ORIGINAL Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes 4 through 6)
Star Wars/ The Empire Strikes Back/ The Return of the Jedi


What? You think we’d leave this off? No way, woo-kie. George Lucas may be a money grubbing, soul stealing, dream dashing basta…businessman, but he did help co-create the entire popcorn movie era of cinema. Unlike anything anyone had seen at the time of its release, the original Wars stands as one of those unique audience epiphanies. After a decade drenched in sodden self examination and social commentary, movies were actually fun again. And with the release of each additional installment, things just got better and better. Sure, over time, Darth’s real demagogue has drained all the joy out of his original vision, but we still have our memories. Luckily, he can’t digitally redesign them.


8. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy
Curse of the Black Pearl/ Dead Man’s Chest/ At World’s End


Who would have thought that the man responsible for Mouse Hunt and The Mexican would end up singlehandedly reinvigorating the sword and surf surreality of the swashbuckling pirate film? Gore Verbinski was considered a lot of things, but the maker of larger than life blockbuster entertainment was not one of them. Sure, some will argue that the Disney revamp of its theme park attraction lost a little of its luster along the way, but they’d be missing the bigger picture. Thanks to this director’s attention to detail, and the vast cinematic canvas he works within, there’s nothing here but acknowledged talent and an astonishing array of stylistic strengths.

7. The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix/ The Matrix Reloaded/ The Matrix Revolutions


Oh stop whining. If Lucas belongs here, so do the Wachowskis. Bellyache over the final two phases in this virtual reality rigormoral, but when the Annotated History of Future Shock is written, the story of Neo, the Machines, and the saving of Zion will have its own hollowed place. Besides, it’s rare when a single film can jumpstart a whole genre, and yet the first installment proved that audiences were hungry for speculation done with flash, finesse and just a small amount of philosophizing. Granted, some of the intelligence got lost along the way, and the final battle with Agent Smith is overkill for excess’s sake, but these are good movies. Go on, admit it.

6. The Back to the Future Trilogy
Back to the Future/ Back to the Future Part 2/ Back to the Future Part 3


Just like the POTC production legend, here is another case where a fantastic first film mandated another two trips to the box office trough. Luckily, director Robert Zemeckis and his buddy Bob Gale were along for all three time travel tales. Some complained that Part 2 was nothing more than an extended set up for the last episode, but there is still a great deal of imagination and invention inherent in the crazed continuum cock-up. Better still was the decision to move the entire narrative back to the Wild Wild West, thereby completing the sense of apocryphal Americana. Like well tuned machines, these movies still work on many endearing levels.

5. The Evil Dead Trilogy
The Evil Dead/ Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn/ Army of Darkness


Sam Raimi was too young to have such success. By 22, his debut horror film was being heralded by none other than Stephen King as the most terrifying scarefest ever. By 28, he was every fright geek’s favorite filmmaker. And by 33, he was ready to jump into the ranks of Tinsel Town titans. Oddly enough, each of these milestones was met by an installment of his sensational (and influential) Evil Dead efforts. By bending genres to fit his needs, investing fear with funny business and heroism with the hackneyed, he formed the basis for an entire generation of reference-happy visionaries. Looking over the 2007 cinematic landscape, his imprint still remains.

4. The Vengeance Trilogy
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/ OldBoy/ Lady Vengeance


It should come as no surprise that Korean director Chan-wook Park was a student of philosophy at Sogang University in Seoul. His movies are as much about virtue as they are about violence. For many in the West, Oldboy announced this filmmaker’s fanciful way with payback. Yet it was the other parts of his terrific trilogy that argued for his place among the current track of trendsetters. It was there where he merged ethics with evil, the need for personal justice accented by the desperation of human pain. Like all feats of greatness, it takes time for a clear critical consensus to be formed. But it’s coming – if it hasn’t already arrived.

3. The Man with No Name Trilogy
A Fistful of Dollars/ For a Few Dollars More/ The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly


Sergio Leone never set out to redefine the western. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to use the spaghetti style to revisit the Hollywood staple. But thanks to his directorial disregard for convention and cliché, his literal view of the old fashioned oater as real horse opera, and the stellar actors he chose to work with, the results speak for themselves. Though many of his fellow Mediterranean moviemakers ventured deep into the bullets and black hats genre, none left the artistic impact of this cinematic maestro. When you add in his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, the case is all but closed.

2. The Ageism/Dream Trilogy
Time Bandits/ Brazil/ The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


Here’s hoping that Terry Gilliam can get off his self-serving soapbox sometime soon and start making movies again. To listen to him talk, he’s a picked-on pariah who can’t catch a break in the conspiratorial, commercial-minded industry. Yet he’s often his own worse enemy (right, Mr. Could Have Helmed Harry Potter???). In either case, we will always have these examples of celluloid spectacle to fall back on. Of the three, Munchausen remains the most underrated – which is odd, considering it focuses on an angry old man who, Don Quixote style, fights off the imaginary bullies who propose to steal his joy. Now why does that sound so familiar?

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring/ The Two Towers/ The Return of the King


Peter Jackson rules, while all other trilogies drool. Let’s face facts – the man made a nearly 13 hour epic in 18 months – and the fans are still foaming for more. Unlike most of the other entries on this list, his take on Tolkien’s time honored novels just keeps getting deeper and richer with age. This is partly due to Jackson’s intrinsic belief in the emotional impact of film. All other media may make its importance known, but no other format finds a direct and undying connection with the audience easier than the motion picture. It’s safe to say that, even if every other entry on this countdown lost its legacy luster, this terrific triptych will still be standing, strong and ever so tall.

 


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Sunday, Aug 5, 2007

Jon Krakauer on his recent rereading of Capote’s In Cold Blood:


“After I learned of his boast that he wrote all the dialogue from memory, much of it struck me as having been invented.”


You know, that’s a good point. A good point, of course, only a writer of Krakauer’s intensity is allowed make and not seem snide, bitchy, or entirely misinformed. He makes the statement in the 13 August issue of Newsweek in an article focusing mainly on his five favourite books, Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father and Tracy Kidder’s House among them. Capote’s groundbreaker falls under the provocative category “a classic that, upon re-reading, [I found] disappointing”.


This tiny, fascinating article sent me on a mission to find other lists, in which published authors discuss their favourite books. Lists aplenty showed up on my Google search—though, sadly, not so many “classics that really suck” lists, but I’m still looking. Here’s a sample ...


My First Literary Crush at Slate.com
Check out what Harold Bloom, Christopher Hitchens, and Judd Apatow found ‘mesmerizing” in college. It’s a good list, if a little bit male (though a Seinfeld writer lists Erica Jong as influential, which shakes things up slightly).


Barnes and Noble: Meet the Writers
These snippety interviews / profiles are excellent in gaining better insight into your favourite writers. Check out the “author recommendations” sections and find out what Lisa See, Chuck Klosterman, and Gregory Maguire want us to read over the summer.


Best Adaptations at Book Forum
A bit off-track but nonetheless fascinating, this recent Book Forum article is essentially a list of authors’ favourite film adaptations. Armond White, Joy Press, and Francine Prose are among the participants. 


What Writers Read at The Main Switch
This article from late last month takes a close look at what local Maine authors are reading over the summer. Meet Joel Ross, Lily King, and Hannah Holmes and discover just how diverse and exciting their reading choices are.


As for books not to read, the best I could find was Lucy Day’s Books I Hate webpage. She hates a lot, particularly books by L. Ron Hubbard. Her summation of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman: “This book is supposedly fantasy/horror. Emphasis on the horror. I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, but this is not a genre I am comfortable with. Noble quest, yes.  Magical worlds and creatures, yes. But worth reading?  No.”


Fair enough. Still, there’s just not enough author-hate out there. Like I said, I’m looking.


 


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Saturday, Aug 4, 2007


Underdog is so piecemeal it should come with a roll of duct tape. It’s so desperate to be everything to everyone that it ends up being very little to nobody in particular. Scripted by a committee that obviously didn’t contain a logician, a comedian, or someone adept at characterization, what we wind up with is a one trick dog and pony show without the little horse. As family films go, it’s about par for the pathetic course. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t care if it entertains – it just needs to recoup its minimal monetary outlay and guarantee a decent sell through return come DVD time. It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting about this post-millennial live action update – the way it talks down to, and then plays perfunctorily, to its intended audience, or the opening credits callback to the original series, complete with material showing the classic cartoon icons we’ve come to know and love.


Forgoing the original animated series sense of serious heroics, this version of the crime-fighting cur begins with our hapless hound flunking some kind of police dog test. Picked up off the street by mad scientist Simon Barsinister and his conceited cohort, Cad, our perfectly ordinary pup becomes infused with mega-manipulated DNA, and before you know it, he’s talking, flying, and doing his damnedest to take a bite out of crime. Somehow, through contrivance or convenience, he ends up with widower ex-cop Dan Unger and his unhappy son Jack. At first, his domestic situation is perilous. Dan likes the mutt, but Jack could care less. Yet once he learns that his pet can converse, kick butt, and canvas the cityscape looking for lawlessness, our adolescent has a change of heart. They team together to rid Capital City of its occasional criminals, while fighting off the advances of Barsinister. Seems the brainiac has gone bonkers, and won’t rest until he has the newly crowned “Underdog”’s genetic material for some misguided course of world domination.


When you’re a genre – the kid’s flick – that has a hard enough time keeping one narrative conceit viable and floating in the air, trying to tackle several is creative suicide. Yet Underdog wants to walk along the course of the superhero film, the casual family drama, the retro-cool cartoon callback, and the basic boy and his dog spiel. Add in the whole anthropomorphized angle, the CGI spectacle, the grade school level humor, and the thriller-lite logistics and you’ve got the equivalent of a regurgitated Milk Bone. Indeed, there’s a real “insert idea” here dynamic at play in the film, a sense that someone came along and, for example, mandated a “father/son sitdown”, leaving the director to figure out how to wedge it in. It’s hard to fault Belgian Frederick Du Chau. He’s not really dealing with Shakespeare, and he does infuse the animal scenes with much of the magic he gave to the surprise sleeper Racing Stripes. Still, he’s not completely off the hook. He does let his action scenes veer wildly out of control, dominating the smaller facets of the film.


As for the cast, there are misguided decisions everywhere. The only clever choice was putting Peter Dinklage in the role of the psycho Simon Barsinister. While he never fully channels the animated evildoer’s maniacal menace, he is very good at stunted insanity. Unfortunately, he is given the attempted scene stealing of Patrick Warburton to work alongside. As Cad, the supposedly stupid sidekick, our pal Puddy is all over the map – cracking wise, playing dumb, attempting his own course of criminal mischief – and absolutely none of it works. He is so outside the whole Underdog ideal that you can literally see the sequences where he’s barely holding on. In the pinnacle role of human transponder, young Alex Neuberger is bad. Not ‘fall on his face, never work in show business again’ bad, but his performance argues a real inability to connect convincingly with the inanimate. This kid obviously had to work very closely with a regular dog (or a cardboard mock up) and his lack of inherent interest shows. It frequently feels like he’s merely repeating lines, not interacting with an intelligent pal.


And then there’s Jason Lee. First, a minor creative caveat – no matter how hard they tried, the creators of this cornball cash grab were never going to be able to match Wally Cox’s wonderful work on the animated series. The perfect pipsqueak, the bespectacled actor did an amazing job of both presenting Shoeshine Boy’s good natured wholesomeness and Underdog’s mutt machismo. Wisely, the movie takes the character in a different direction, and for what it’s worth, Lee is very good as the insecure hound who starts to recognize his own innate powers – its just not Underdog. He’s goofy, funny, personable, and zippy – he’s just not Underdog. In fact, the filmmakers would have been more honest with their audience had they changed the name of this film to Super–Bud (in honor of the long running athletic Golden Retriever franchise) and left it at that. It’s painful watching the story try to find ways to reference the cartoon (as when our hero mangles the English language looking for a way to say his noted catchphrase), and since it really wants to avoid the old school stance, it’s a more than mutual divorce.


In fact, what Disney should have done was step back for a moment and think this whole thing through. Instead of using Underdog for its foundation (obviously tagged for all the tie-in value, including name recognition and possible DVD offerings of the old show), they could have concocted their own talking dog adventure. They could have mined some of the same territory that Babe did, using the element of interspecies communication to anchor an entire animal oriented crime fighting unit. Like 2001’s Cats and Dogs, except with a sense of purpose, they could make their hero hound an undercover champion, playing fetch with his family by day, heading out into the city to stop crime at night. Tie it to the whole notion of what the phrase “man’s best friend” really means, and use the imagination that, at one time, made the House of Mouse famous to jumpstart your own kid-friendly franchise. Why sully a sentimental favorite with blatant product placement (General Mills) and tween tested poop jokes – especially when you have no real desire to replicate the original?


For the answer to these and other questions, there is no need to tune in tomorrow. Underdog is here today, and if the wee ones haven’t already inundated you with requests to hit the Cineplex, they will (or worse, demand a copy of their own come turnaround time). The featured beagle is very cute, endearing in a puppy dog eyes kind of way. Meshed with Lee’s likable personality, he becomes the companion every child would want. You can’t buy this kind of commercial drawing power – it’s instinctual in the prepubescent set. Though its lacks anything remotely novel or fresh, and fails to provide much in the way of adult-oriented laughs (unless you consider watching Jim Belushi’s aged behind bumble up some stairs the height of humor), the demographic will be delighted by Underdog’s zero-to-hero hokum. Who cares if the studio suits dropped the ball on this one: the little people pleasing pooch is right there, ready to fetch it all the way to the bank.


 


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Saturday, Aug 4, 2007

Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath has won the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay award for journalism. The awards were established in 1957 to honor the third Philippine president, and are described as the “Nobel Prize of Asia.” Recognition, honor and respect are at the heart of everything Sainath does. He’s the rural affairs editor of national newspaper, The Hindu, and is its Mumbai bureau chief. He’s famed for bearing witness to the plight of India’s poor farmers, his sharp and insistent reporting giving a voice and identity to people who are usually only anonymously grouped together as statistics.



There have been around 11,500 farmer suicides in the last six years. Sainath writes movingly of the world of these farmers in a story from September of last year:


“Something very fundamental is happening. The central, driving factors behind the suicides remain the same. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices, a credit crunch and so on. But the outcome now adds up to more than just the sum total of these factors. After 15 years of a battering from hostile policies and governments, the world of the peasant has turned highly fragile. Problems that would not have driven many to suicide a decade ago do so now. It takes less to push farmers over the edge because their resistance is down. So fragile is their economy and equilibrium. The studies and surveys seldom account for one vital actor — the worldview of peasants. How that is changing as their links to the land erode. How their hopes of what’s possible are constantly dashed. How, losing their anchor, they drift to a frightening future. How it feels to watch your child drop out of school or college because education has become too expensive. Even as your daughter’s marriage is off, because you cannot afford it. You fail to get your ailing mother to a hospital because health is the most costly thing in your world. All this while agriculture itself is tanking. And there’s less food on the table. For too many, pessimism soaks the worldview this shapes. And despair gains ground as the coming deity.”


But he also reports on those who prepare reports on the farmers, and in the same story writes of a study carried out in the Vidarbha region.


“Teams of psychologists, revenue officials and doctors went out to Vidarbha’s villages from as early as 2004. To counsel the poor, disturbed souls. In one village, an old farmer greatly embarrassed such a team: “You’ve given us fine advice on so many things. On coping with stress, curbing our drinking, not fighting with our wives and so on. And you’ve asked us so many good questions, too. Now ask us one more. Ask us why farmers, who produce the nation’s food, are starving. Ask us why the children of those who grow your food, are starving.” The team remained silent. Some of the learned - and well-meaning - team members had been to great medical colleges. And one of the first principles they learned there is sound. “What the mind does not know, the eye cannot observe.” Very true. But the old farmer was posing a larger point before society as a whole, not just to the doctors. What the heart does not feel, the eye can never see.”


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