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by Bill Gibron

29 Apr 2009

Welcome back traditional Spring film season - how we missed you so. You remember don’t you, the times we used spend together? We’d take four months out of every year and just hang out, your weekly selection of Summer/Awards cast-offs and long delayed failures clogging up the local Cineplex with nothing but shoulder shrugging specials. This is the way it used to be, the way we film fans remember the span between January and May - before the blockbuster moves in and takes over the ticket line landscape. There’s no popcorn fare in your past - just lots and lots of ideas that got really, really lost in the tepid translation. Oh sure, you tried to pad your rep, resorting to surprise hits like 300 and Passion of the Christ to change your image. But now…now things are back to the way they used to be, and the feeling of familiarity is intoxicating.

Indeed, Spring 2009 was terrible, the overall perspective more mediocre than memorable. This was the time of Blart, of Mall Cops so warm and cuddly that they made the chunky in the demographic wet themselves, Susan Boyle style. It was the quarter of bad future shock (Push) and even worse action antics (Transporter 3, Dragonball Evolution). It was the period that gave us Inkheart, The Soloist, Sunshine Cleaning, and the piled up cordwood corpses of A Haunting in Connecticut. Not every offering was so horrific, but we did have to suffer through Hannah Montana’s movie, said series’ purity ring off-shoots, and the fourth Fast and Furious film. Things were so bad this time around that Tyler Perry’s latest, the hit and miss Madea Goes to Jail, was more satisfying than most of what came out of Tinsel Town’s tainted factory.

Still, there were five that really stood out, five that made their limited running time in the theater the cinematic equivalent of being waterboarded with Sean Hannity. Some of them were obvious from the minute they were announced - even a ‘minkey’ could see that. Others snuck up on you like unwelcome relatives at a social occasion. Eventually, it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. While we still have an astonishing nine more months until this year is officially over, one wonders how high up some of these turkeys will land come final annual aesthetic tally time. More disconcerting is the notion that, indeed, things can and WILL get worse. Let’s begin with:

5. The Uninvited

Nothing sucks harder than sitting in the theater watching a supposedly suspenseful film and then realizing, halfway through, you remember the third act plot twist that’s still 20 to 30 minutes away. It’s all downhill from there - and that’s exactly what happened with this remake of the Korean hit The Tale of Two Sisters. Long before the dramatic denouement, this critic experienced the kind of narrative déjà vu you don’t want to have during a thriller. By the time of the reveal, he was practically screaming for the spoiler to show up and get it over with. The rest of the movie has a moody atmosphere that can only come from an older man sleeping with a much younger trophy wife, and the Hand that Rocks the Glass House Cradle conceits are truly dull and lifeless. Of the many wannabe fright flicks of the Spring, this was the most disappointing.

4. He’s Just Not That Into You

By its very definition, a romantic comedy has to have (a) romance, and (b) laughs. What this dreadful dissertation, based on that most elusive of literary sources - the self help book, has is lots of screaming women and their equally whiny weepy best friends. This is the kind of movie that, if it were possible, would have Susan B. Anthony and her fellow zombie suffragettes rising from the grave in order to stage posthumous protests. Nothing works - not the quasi-chemistry between to the onscreen lovers, not the male POV advice from a seemingly lost Justin Long, not the patented ditz of Drew Barrymore or the barely alive ennui of Jennifer Connelly - and that’s just the talent with their names above the credits. This film truly contains the single worst performance of 2009 so far - the cloying, cliché-filled failure that is Ginnifer Goodwin’s grating, borderline retarded Gigi. It’s a literal pain to watch.

3. Outlander

Okay, here’s the deal. This is clearly the work of some insular geek who invests way too much time in Viking themed role playing games and not enough actually experiencing the real world. In between servings of Hot Pockets and mediocre science fiction, he dreams up this idea of an alien crash landing in the middle of a Nordic reenactment society, and then adds a glowing CG monster just to make things more “nerdgasm”-esque. Ew. That’s right, folks - a blink and you missed it affair starring Mel Gibson’s favorite big screen savior (James Caviezel), John Hurt, and Ron Pearlman - it was clearly paycheck cashing time all around. The only thing missing was Ben Kingsley and Uwe Boll’s name on the credits. Had any of the material come close to meeting the expectations of the D&D dork who dreamed it up, we could have had a guilty pleasure. All we wound up with was a bunch of Valhalla vomit.

2. The Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience

Miley Cyrus may be the female equivalent of the entertainment antichrist, but these three losers from the rejected pages of a pedophile’s Tiger Beat truly wear the number of the beast, and it’s significantly less that 666 if you go by the box office. Bombs don’t thud quite as hard as this craven concert movie, especially when there was so much pre-publicity hype about how popular these wholesome rockers really were/are. Apparently, like their proposed talent, said build-up was all desperate House of Mouse smoke and mirrors. Some have argued that the movie’s box theatrical release comings can be linked to parents finally figuring out that the Jonases are nothing more than a way to sell sex to their pre-pubescent tween children. Of course, the fact that their tepid music blows donkey butt doesn’t mean anything, right? When The Monkees, Menudo, and The Banana Splits have more artistic integrity, you know you’re bound to fail.

1. Pink Panther 2

This one is so bad, so egregiously awful, that the rest of the list looks like 2001, Citizen Kane, and The Dark Knight by comparison. Someday, perhaps when he’s dead, a tell-all tome will come out about Steve Martin, and at that time, the bile soaked grudge he has against the late, great Peter Sellers, and the reason he keeps pissing all over the man’s memory with a vengeance, will be revealed. There is no excuse for this film save for one - money. The first remake was an unfathomable hit, so following the Hollywood maxim, the more cash you make, the more copies you’ll create. Never mind that the script appears gleaned from a dozen dopey slapstick efforts, and Martin has aged out of his physical comedian shtick. The direction, by someone named Harald Zwart, takes every tired idea and drives it into the ground with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And that’s just the tolerable bits.

by Rob Horning

29 Apr 2009

First, I saw this PSFK item that posited a link between the economic downturn and the reutrn of some grunge-fashion tropes.

Ripped stockings, boots, and short babydoll dresses (in floral and solids) are being donned by women, while boys are sporting the ubiquitous flannel button down and tights pants…. One theory on why these trends are re-emerging is that perhaps in times of economic instability youth prefer to dress down out of modesty and solidarity with those experiencing hardship, as opposed to showing off an opulent style, which is prevalent during boom times. This idea isn’t that far-fetched in that grunge fashion as we know it grew to popularity during the recessions of the early ‘90s, and that the king of all British fashion movements, punk, was in theory started as a social reaction and act of rebellion as opposed to merely a fashion statement. While for some time trend watchers have predicted the demise of heavily branded logo apparel, it seems that conspicuous consumption has truly become gauche in the fashion world.

by Tara Malone / McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

29 Apr 2009

CHICAGO — As newspapers reinvent themselves, high school newsrooms are locked in their own transition amid the economic tumult that has jolted the industry.

Several school newspapers in Illinois, for example, now publish online only, while others are turning to the Internet to post stories edged out of a shrinking newspaper.

These days, the pressures of tighter budgets, thinner papers and slumping ad sales are as central to the lessons of journalism as beat reporting and editing, educators said. “If we want to make it as real world as we can make it, you’ve got to be able to pay for the pages (through advertising). If you can’t pay for the pages, you figure out another way to do things,” said Michael Gordy, adviser to Antioch Community High School’s paper, The Tom Tom.

by Rob Horning

28 Apr 2009

An NYT piece by Joanna Kaufman wonders whether the Kindle will rob people of the opportunity to do what I talked of yesterday, judge people based on what sort of books they own.

How will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle — that’s how many it holds — does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf? (For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve actually read a couple of them.)
The practice of judging people by the covers of their books is old and time-honored. And the Kindle, which looks kind of like a giant white calculator, is the technology equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms.

by Bill Gibron

28 Apr 2009

It’s funny to watch the pundits weigh in, humorous in the kind of sick, twisted and very dark way that comedy can occasionally creep up on you. Critics were kept away and still they had comment on how something so obviously mediocre (since it wasn’t screened for them, you see) ended up becoming a $29 million pre-Summer season smash. Many point to the actress (or “talent”, in this case, one Beyonce Knowles), while others suggest that the urban market, well known for supporting their favorites, took some of the money they set aside for Tyler Perry every year and spent it instead on this ersatz thriller. There’s even the suggestion that race - in this case, the African American as victim vs. Caucasian as cruel villain angle - brought in viewers ready to uncork four decades of civil rights struggles on their local Cineplex.

So which is it? Why did Obsessed, a poorly received, sneaking through the backdoor entry into the typically tepid Spring movie cavalcade, become the exception and not the rule. Tracking had the film making something in the middle teens over the 24 April weekend, and yet when all was said and done, that tally was almost double. It’s nothing new. Every year, some movie comes in with mediocre expectations and thoroughly exceeds them. It’s as much a given as some highly hyped mega-hit in the making walking into the blockbuster foray and coming up short - as in ‘someone’s gonna get fired’ short. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a suggestion that seems incongruous to the way we view the social fabric and, instead, signals a jaded and somewhat racist view of the media, and the movies that rely on it for publicity and purpose.

Going back to our man in drag for a second, it’s always stunning to watch young white male journalists joust over why a film like The Family That Preys or Madea Goes to Jail winds up near or at the top of the three day totals. They blame organized church groups and other special interests for stepping in and buying up entire theaters, while others use an insulting “they don’t know any better” sort of rationale. When teens show up en masse for another Saw sequel, PG-13 horror romp, or stupid sex comedy, they aren’t accused of being compelled as a group no matter the title, or even worse, aesthetically out of step with what is proper and right. True, fright films are often dismissed outright because of their content and craven appeal. But when it comes to movies made for a certain niche, the analysis is not so nice.

Though it might sound brazen to suggest it, people like Tyler Perry and producer William Packer (who tackled both Obsessed and the previous stepping hit Stomp the Yard) realize that, like George W. Bush, Hollywood hates black people. Oh, they don’t dislike their money, or their motivation to see something familiar and fun (right Transporter and Fast and Furious series?). No, what Tinsel Town takes away from all ethnic cinema is the same narrow-minded, common denominator view that finds them changing the nationality of the main characters in 21, or allowing M Night Shyamalan to hire non-Asians to play Asian characters in his anime adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since they don’t understand people outside their own xenophobic sphere of influence, they instead dumb everything down to a level of ludicrousness that’s truly offensive.

Granted, no one is saying that Perry or his offshoots make the most complicated or realistic looks at life within their community, but if African Americans were really offended by their antics, they certainly wouldn’t line up to fund their farcical morality plays. No, what a film like First Sunday, or Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins offers is a motion picture experience that actually understands (or tries to understand) the minority experience from the inside out. As Spike Lee has often said, filmmakers of color are the only one’s capable of speaking to their people’s sensibilities. And when you have 85% to 90% of Hollywood run by Caucasians, what does that tell you about the ‘voice’ within the films being made? The stereotyping is so blatant that it’s been the source of several scholarly looks at the industry’s inferred intolerance.

Again, no one is arguing for the artistic merit of a movie aimed specifically at a certain sector of society. There are dozens of high minded entries that fail to resonate with their proposed demographics’ ideals. When you watch one of Tyler Perry’s PLAYS (not the film adaptations of same), you instantly understand the difference. The playwright turned cultural phenomenon doesn’t start with characters or situations, he starts with philosophies and racial identity. He combs through the community and picks out things that matter the most - love, religion, hardship, faith, hope, displacement, togetherness, the inevitability of failure, and the enduring reality that family can overcome almost all such strife. He then pulls out some noted archetypes, plugs in some amazing gospel soul music, and - viola! - an instant hit.

It’s not unlike what someone like Judd Apatow does. Knocked Up is nothing but accidental promiscuity taken to the ultimate biological ends, the shiny white TV goddess given over to a relationship with a schelpy Jewish boy in hopes that he will mature enough to become a meaningful partner. Toss in some stoners, a collection of couples clichés, and enough scatology to make it all seem like a frathouse joke, and you’ve got a movie still praised by critics (including yours truly) as something genuinely clever and insightful. Yet how many would argue that a film like Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? or Meet the Browns isn’t the same thing, just shifted over into the world of African American? Even more homemade efforts like So Fresh, So Clean and Family Reunion, The Movie resonate better than a standard slate of opening weekend offerings.

So it’s not surprising that Beyonce, a superstar within the music business, and a movie geared toward taking the minority position in a standard he said/she said thriller winds up walking away with box office gold. Just like when Perry hired Janet Jackson and Jill Scott to be in one of his films, such tied promotion pushes the media transversely across boundaries it may never experience otherwise. Of course, the kicker comes when you look beyond the numbers and see what is really going on behind the scenes. Obsessed may have been produced by people of color, but it was actually directed by a white man from London (Steve Shill), and written by another member of the majority (David Loughery) responsible for other ‘race’ related material like Lakewood Terrace and Passenger 57. Talk about a twist ending. Maybe Hollywood has finally wised up. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re doing what they do best - carpetbagging a concept that someone did first, and does better. 

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