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Friday, Aug 10, 2007


It’s a tough week for the homebound film fan. Unless you can get out and hit a Cineplex, or find the opportunity to enjoy an out of the way arthouse offering, the choices churned up buy the pay cable channels are “challenging”, to put it mildly. Two are clearly not worth your time, and another follows the familiar strains of the “go team” genre to a “T”. As a matter of fact, you could probably use your experience within this particular entertainment dynamic and just fudge to your friends about how this ‘football as faith healer’ work turns out. Indeed, some will look at SE&L’s selection, quite ‘controversial’ to say the least, and believe we’ve slipped a few aesthetic cogs. While horror is frequently marginalized as the bottom feeder of the film arena, many consider what Eli ‘wrought’ to be degradation at its most decadent. Of course, you can always wander down the page and pick out something suggested from the Indie or Outsider section. In any case, there should be something to reward your entertainment intentions comes 11 August, beginning with:


Premiere Pick
Hostel


Eli Roth took a lot of grief for delivering what many consider the opening volley in a new, sick cinematic genre – torture porn. But his ‘gorno’ leanings aside, this film remains one of nu-horror’s defining moments. Disregard its ugly American undercurrent, its obvious swipes at male-pattern sexism, and the notion of Eastern Europe as an enclave of ‘anything for a buck’ opportunists, but this benchmark movie will, in the future, stand as something significant. It works as both satire and scarefest, walking effortlessly between its bravado and body parts. Some will accuse the filmmaker of lowering the level of motion picture macabre, but such a staunch criticism is missing the point. Hostel functions as the opening salvo in the latest example of post post-modern genre tweaking. It may not always be pleasant to look at, but it’s obviously unable to be dismissed outright. Otherwise, why would we still be talking about it so long after its release? Time will only add to its tripwire tension. (11 August, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Man of the Year


Robin Williams tries desperately to reinvigorate his failing serious satire status by once again teaming with his Good Morning, Vietnam co-hort, Barry Levinson. The results, however, are far from ribtickling. Indeed, most critics were caught off guard by the movie’s second act switch into political conspiracy theorizing, more or less vacating the “Everyman as President” plot. This is definitely not Dave, nor is it a return to form for the fading funnyman. (11 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning


If Hostel represents the future of fright (at least, during this recent renaissance), then this horrid, unnecessary prequel to the otherwise decent Michael Bay produced remake begins the death knell. Nauseating in its desire to undermine one of the more important franchises in all of horror, we wind up with an origin story that focuses more on R. Lee Emery’s “Sheriff” Hoyt than how the iconic Leatherface got his groove on.  (11 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Gridiron Gang


What former wunderkind Phil Joanou is doing helming this formulaic sports film is a mystery only mainstream Hollywood could solve. Granted, he does the moments of athleticism exceptionally well, but the rest of this pointless feel good fodder is just the same old clichés collected and metered out in the standard stereotypical way. Props also go to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for his excellent turn as a parole officer hoping football will straighten out his juvenile charges. He overcomes what should have overwhelmed. (11 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Gosord Park


While he was noted for jumping around genres, Robert Altman and the British drawing room whodunit seemed like the absolute oddest of cinematic pairings. Known for his complicated, interconnected takes on modern life (usually set within an unusual or telling situational backdrop), the twee aspects of such a film should have flown directly into the face of the antsy artist. But leave it to the man behind such brilliant, baffling works as 3 Women and Short Cuts to find the familiar humanism inside all the misplaced manners. With the fireworks generated by his A-list cast (no matter the project, Altman always worked with the best) and his attention to narrative detail, he lifted the standard murder mystery to shockingly sublime heights. As his definitive post-millennial effort, Gosford Park remains a delightful tangent for an otherwise very modern moviemaker. Aficionados of the auteur – and anyone else who likes quality cinema – should definitely check it out.  (15 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Acacia


Korea continues to differentiate itself from the typical J-Horror histrionics (the Japanese do prefer their spirits and superstitions) with efforts like this – a 2003 creepfest that focuses on a childless family and the unusual child they adopt. Things seem desperate for the Kim family, until little Mi-sook comes into their life. At first, he’s fine. Then the couple discovers that they are finally going to have a child of their own. Guess who doesn’t take the news all that well. (12 August, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle


For some reason, Alan Rudolph can’t break into the mainstream. His movies have always been viewed with a mostly favorable eye by critics, but audiences are turned off by his insular, obtuse take on cinema. A perfect example is this otherwise excellent look at the famous writer and her snide cohorts of the notorious Algonquin Round Table. It’s the perfect subject for a witty, biting comedy, and Rudolph gathered a primo cast. Audiences still ignored it. (12 August, IFC, 6:45PM EST)

C.R.A.Z.Y.


It’s a standard family drama with a unique allegorical twist. It’s a tired take on interpersonal relationships dolled up with unnecessary quirk. It’s energetic. It’s exasperating. It’s a 2005 Canadian effort that many have praised passionately, while others have dismissed as whimsy gone wonky. Thanks to the programmers at Sundance, you can make up your own mind. Will you come away a convert, or will you sit and stare in startled disbelief over how anything this hamfisted became so celebrated? (12 August, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dreamchild


Before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, Dennis Potter was famous for creating one of British television’s considered classics – 1986’s masterpiece The Singing Detective. But the year before, he developed a fantasy biography of the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson (also known to literary fans worldwide as Lewis Carroll), incorporating the fall out for the real life Alice with some sour, almost sinister views of the world beyond the rabbit hole and outside the looking glass. The intention was to infer as much as explain, using the religious figure’s too familiar obsession with the pre-pubescent child as a metaphor for the meaning inside of Wonderland’s surreal situations. When juxtaposed together – scenes of young Alice interacting with Dodgson, an older woman begrudgingly celebrating the infamous tome, animatronic character from the classic looking shabby and sounding seedy – we wind up with an intriguing interpretation of both the book and the man who made it. (15 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

Additional Choices
Price Night


It’s the Summer Under the Stars (or something like that) over at TCM, and in celebration of one of films foremost macabre maestros, the network will uncork a collection of Vincent Price standards. Highlights include The Tingler, The Last Man on Earth, and The Masque of the Red Death. While a few of the featured titles will test even the most ardent fan, the actor remains the golden standard of b-movie schlock. A marathon not to be missed. (10 August, Turner Classic Movies, 11AM – 6AM EST)

Don’t Knock the Rock


Parents in the ‘50s had it all figured out. Their kids were turning into juvenile delinquents not as an act of rebellion or white flight restlessness, but because of that demonic music known as rock and roll. Hollywood tapped into the medium’s notoriety by releasing talent-heavy quickies which used the boss new sound as the foundation for standard morality tales. This one features DJ Alan Freed and the proto-punk Bill Haley and the Comets. (14 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Aliens


James Cameron really had his work cut out for him when he landed the gig to follow-up Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial “haunted house in space” saga. His artistic decision was a brilliant one – instead of going for more fright, he’d make a John Wayne war movie and set it on a planet overrun by a plague of the title characters. The results are one of the ‘80s best films, a whiz bang actioner that’s visionary and vibrant. (15 August, ActionMax, 5:40PM EST)

 


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Friday, Aug 10, 2007

It’s not a good thing when central banks decide that they need to pump money into the financial system on an ad hoc basis in response to a market meltdown. This means the system as a whole has unexpectedly frozen up, or to put it another way, that liquidity has dried up, which means simply that no one wants to buy the assets that everyone is desperate to sell. In this case, that means mortgage-backed securities, which the Fed is now buying as a means to inject cash into that market.


Why won’t investors playing with their own money touch these? That’s a somewhat long story, but it boils down to a massive failure to responsibly assess the risk of lending to borrowers with questionable ability to repay. What drove this irresponsibility was not naivete or ignorance but, not surprisingly, greed. Investors grew restive earlier this decade at the unexciting yields offered in the bond market. Because Asian central banks were buying so many Treasurys (in part to keep their currency weak relative to the dollar and keep their exports affordable in the American market), the yield curve was unusually flat. This created an appetite among institutional investors for more risk, which seemed capable of being well-hedged via various derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, and the like.


The main strategy, apparently, was to get good ratings from credit-rating agencies (Moodys, S&P) for once-risky loans made to subprime borrowers—people in America who wanted houses they probably couldn’t afford in the past—which made them salable to a wider span of pension-fund and fixed-income investors. Good ratings were obtained mainly by dividing loans into tranches by quality and regrouping them in various proportions into packages that the raters would certify. With the loans readily resalable, it became exceedingly profitable to get into the mortgage-writing business, as you could collect fees for making the loan and then sell off the risk without having to worry about whether the borrowers could ever repay.


That was the hedge-fund investor’s problem, not the small-time mortgage brokers’. These brokers had virtually no incentive to investigate a borrower’s credit history or prospects, and plenty of reason to help these borrowers falsify information to qualify for loans with the larger banks the brokers were working with. The banks could turn a blind eye, because the investment banks were eager to suck up the loans from them to securitize the debt (turn it into something more easily exchanged) and sell it all off to hedge funds. This NYT graphic from Sunday has a good graphic representation of the process, though I don’t think it was as sequential a situation as the chart implies—many of the stages were occurring simultaneously. Securitization was meant to so widely disperse risk so that it wouldn’t compound itself. But as we are seeing now, it merely spread it so that all corners of the world’s markets would be affected by the same group of borrowers’ failure to pay. As economist John Kay explained in this FT editorial, “If trading was motivated not by differences in attitudes and preferences but by differences in information and understanding, risk would gravitate not to those best able to bear it but those least able to comprehend it.” Risk doesn’t end up spread out, it ends up consolidated with the greedy and ignorant.


So what happened to make so many borrowers suddenly default or fall behind on payments? Basically the housing bubble popped. Previously, as real-estate values were doubling yearly and buyers were falling over one another to buy properties, the brokers and small banks, as we have seen, had plenty of incentive to say whatever they had to overcome the subprime borrowers reluctance to get in over their heads. If they could write them loans, they could pocket the fees and sell the risk down the line. Thus they advertised the availability of credit heavily in less-than-affluent areas and pushed loans with attractive initial rates (teaser loans, interest-only loans, ARMs, no money down loans, etc.) to make payments seem within borrowers reach and they downplayed the long-term consequences of such loans—the way payments would skyrocket when interest rates reset.


For a while, though, none of this mattered, because the housing market was booming. The expansion of mortgage credit meant that housing prices were bound to bubble up, fueling speculative interest. The increase in value of the properties borrowers were buying with their non-traditional mortgages meant they could always refinance if they fell behind in payments. Others took out home equity loans against their houses’ new value. Interest rates remained low, in part because of Greenspan’s generous rate policy in the wake of 9/11, so ARMs did not reset to higher rates for many borrowers. And those who got into the home-buying frenzy early were among the better credit risks.


And as Paul Krugman argues in his column today, this led to a sense that risk itself had disappeared, prompting investors to act as though there was no difference between junk bonds and T-bills. (The yield spread between the two was at a unusually low level as of a few months ago.)


But eventually inflation began to leak out of the housing sector and into the economy at large. Bernanke took over for Greenspan as Fed chairman, and needed to prove his bona fides as an inflation fighter to assuage Wall Street. Rates began their inexorable climb to their present level. And everyone who was paying attention knew that this meant trouble for all those borrowers. Mortgages would become more expensive and more difficult to come by, leading eventually to a downturn in the housing market. This would make it harder for existing owners to refinance, or to sell if worse came to worse. And higher rates meant that ARM borrowers would face higher payments, ones they may not have been prepared for. Also, grace periods began to come to end, also presenting borrowers with steeper payments. Inevitably, defaults began to climb—and the pain of these losses began to spread through the financial system, into all the corners where the dicey loans had been hidden away.


So now we have lots of nervous investors, who, thanks to the complicated diversification of risk, have no idea how much exposure they or their money managers have to bad mortgage debt, and have no clue which hedge fund will implode next. And the people who were lured into mortgages they couldn’t afford—whether by unscrupulous lenders or by their own optimism—find themselves in danger of losing their homes and having even worse an even worse credit rating. Only the institutions that collected fees and walked away from these loans have made out scot free. But it will likely turn out that we have all paid their fees, in a way, as a likely outcome is that the government will have to bail out the default-ready debtors by extending them fixed-rate loans they can afford (perhaps through Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, though our wise president rejects such an arrangement, preferring to have faith in the wonderful market that brought us the current crisis) while buying up the securitized bad debt that no one else wants to touch, all with taxpayer dollars.


It would seem that regulators should step in and prevent this kind of crisis from happening again by curbing the abuses the previous arrangement invited. But it is at this point that free-marketeers and conservative skeptics of government intervention step in and start whining about “credit snobbery” as in this recent Economist editorial. Such critics reject regulation of the subprime market on the basis that it will restrict credit availability, contending that lenders were doing otherwise uncreditworthy debtors a favor by extending them credit at usurious rates, because the borrowers could decide for themselves whether it was worth it—despite the heavy advertising, misleading terms, and fraudulent representations of brokers in many instances. But banks didn’t decide to lend to bad risks out of moral generosity; they did so because they thought they could charge rates usurious enough that Wall Street would have incentive to make the risk seem to disappear through their dark arts of securitization. And even if the subprime borrowers (i.e. poor people) elude the debt traps that the editorial writer seeks to convince us are myth, they still are saddled with a burden that the middle and upper class borrowers escape, and this burden stigmatizes. Credit snobbery, in the minds of conservative critics, is when we don’t trust the poor to borrow on whatever terms they can, but it’s better understood as the institutionalization of the idea that those without a good credit history should be exploited to preserve the advantages of those who’ve managed to climb out of that situation. 


If we want to expand credit—if we are willing to wager that poor credit risks are simply needing an opportunity to establish a reputation—better that the risk be borne socially, and the loans administered through the government offering market rates available to ordinary borrowers. Let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issue more loans—that is what they are for, to broaden credit availability without magnifying risk due to borrowers’ ignorance and lenders’ greed and irresponsible fee-taking. If government agencies were involved in expanding credit, and the costs and risks truly spread out via use of tax dollars, this would have the beneficial side effect of making it clear that the society as a whole was determined to leave behind “class warfare.” But if we leave credit expansion up to the market and for-profit banks, risky borrowers will continue to be exploited and their ignorance reinforced so that it may be taken advantage of and so that the government’s ultimate largesse (in bailouts or loan repurchases) will go toward underwriting profits already booked by middlemen.


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Friday, Aug 10, 2007

The long-awaited StarCraft II has garnered much attention as more and more information has been released. As a sequel to the hit computer game, StarCraft, SCII will be taking the best from both worlds, incorporating new and old features. Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, has produced such hit games franchises as Warcraft and Diablo, and produced World of Warcraft, an MMORPG with over nine million players worldwide. Although a multiplayer demo was previewed at Blizzcon 2007, SCII will be released after this year.


Official In-Game Demo with Commentary:



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Friday, Aug 10, 2007


For those in America, of a certain generation (or two), a knowing smile, perhaps. For, the words in the title form the catch-phrase associated with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous struggle to define pornography. For most of us, it may be clear what porn is (within a relative range of gradations, accommodating blips of difference here and there), but can we actually define it? Can we articulate the standard by which


this one is and that

one isn’t?


Like many aspects of our social world, hard and fast rules often elude us over the most consequential of matters.


(For instance?

Nation X is part of the “Axis of Evil”. Hence, we


must attack them for possessing weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, Nation Y is also a part of the “Axis of Evil”. Hence, we must refrain from attacking them

for possessing weapons of mass destruction . . .

. . . now, wait a minute, I know I was making a point here . . . )



. . . Ah yes, the relativism of “I know it when I see it” (since “it” might end up being two and the same thing, at once).



That point was driven home the other day when I visited the Pompidou, the site of Paris’s National Museum of Modern Art. Leading to a variation on the Potter Stewart (and, by deficiency of ratiocination, the George W. Bush) test.


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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007


Chris Tucker is smart as Hell. Don’t believe it? Well, can you name another actor earning $25 million for doing the same thing he’s done for the last nine years – the EXACT same thing, mind you. In 1998, the African American comic moved from minor supporting roles in films like Jackie Brown and Dead Presidents to a starring stint alongside then hot Hong Kong action icon Jackie Chan. The movie, Rush Hour, directed by novice filmmaker Brett Ratner, went on to be a massive hit, spawning a sequel and a whole new career for the newly minted megastar. After Rush Hour 2 did similar boffo box office, Tucker’s professional path was clear: do nothing; wait around until the audience demands another dose of Detective James Carter; maximize the upfront money. It didn’t matter if Rush Hour 3 was a derivative take on the previous cross culture buddy pic. It would be time, once again, to give the people what they want.


And you know what – he’s worth it. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Rush Hour 3 is junk – witless, uncomplicated, consisting of disposable vignettes of vaudeville like burlesque followed by borderline racist returns to the days of Mantan Moreland. That last analogy is rather appropriate – Tucker’s Carter isn’t a clever or confident police officer. He’s a prop, sent into each and every scene as a low brow Greek chorus waiting to make with the urban smart-ass spiel. Instead of bugging his eyes and mangling the language like those outrageous and despicable portrayals of minorities past, he’s a post-modern pawn screaming his shrill one-liners about Michael Jackson and booty with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He’s not an actor – he’s the Corbin-screeching character from The Fifth Element refitted with some styling clothes and a hip-hop swagger. And the audience just eats it up.


If there is any rationale for his outsized payday, it’s the fact that Tucker knows his demo. He’s not playing to suburbia, or the critics who seem to find nothing but fault in his donkey bray bravado. No, he’s directly connected to the hardworking, hope-driven people who, after paying their carefully controlled disposable income, merely want to sit back and have a good time. When he channels James Brown via the King of Pop during an opening setpiece underscored by Prince’s “Do Me Baby”, it’s not meant to have narrative or aesthetic significance. It’s a stand-up shout out to the people paying to see him. Similarly, he gets another onscreen song and dance when he tries to save a suspected informant by crooning Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You”. Tucker knows these crowdpleasing vanity fairs leave the fanbase reeling. This means that Rush Hour 3 as a thriller or other cinematic genre has to do very little to get by.


For those interested in the backdrop to all this buffoonery, Tucker and Chan reteam when an Asian ambassador to the World Criminal Court (???) is gunned down by an assassin. Turns out this hitman is working for the Triad, whose goal is to protect the identity of someone or something called the ‘Shao Shin’. All leads point toward France, and so our slightly ditzy duo is off to Paris to procure the mysterious item. There, they meet a sadistic police chief (a weird cameo from Roman Polanski), an American-hating cabby, and the standard array of misplaced Hong Kong killers. After a few dust-ups and a completely gratuitous car chase, our heroes end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they must take on gun totting hoods, rescue the kidnapped daughter of the now hospitalized diplomat, and find an efficient way of tying all the loose ends together from their sloppy, shoestring plot.


Now, some will sneer and say that us ‘haters’ shouldn’t be so dismissive. After all, this is just some mindless fun fostered by a couple of likable screen gems. That being said, success breeds imitation, and if the studios ever figure out how to create another martial arts/mismatched personality pariah like this (watch out, Jet Li), we could find ourselves back in 1986. Indeed, much of Rush Hour 3 feels like a throwback to the days when lazy scriptwriters cooked up half-assed premises so that otherwise talented men and women could walk away with an easy paycheck and a bit of bankability on their resume. While the post-millennial versions are really no better (the Ocean’s films, for one), this trending back to the days of Gordon Gecko only works when you have something novel (Live Free or Die Hard) or naughty (Superbad) to say. 


Besides, the inherent value in this long delayed tre-quel could be summed up by the proverbial statement, ‘absence (in this case, from the Cineplex) makes the heart grow fonder’. Since Tucker chooses to stay outside the cultural fray until one of these immaculate paydays come along, he gets the benefit of perspective and popularity. Had he been making movie after movie, honing his craft and redefining his skills, his fans would be angry with such a treading water workout. But since they’ve had to wait nearly a decade to see their favorite funnyman act the fool, they’re willing to leave the lack of context at the turnstile. It’s the same, more or less, with Chan. After the mediocre combo of Shanghai Knights and The Medallion, he went back to Asia and continued his A-list career. Rush Hour 3 his first Hollywood film since the incredibly lax Around the World in 80 Days remake from 2004.


Even more disconcerting, the man has gotten OLD. Gone are the days when the genial Asian action hero looked like a bewildered little boy. The last decade seems to have dragged the majority of vitality out of his persona, replacing it with a quiet resolve that, if exploited properly, could lead to a late in life resurrection as a character actor. Yet people want to see him stunt it up, and time has apparently mandated the need for the heretofore verboten double. It’s obvious during the opening act car chase through LA (especially when “Chan” is crossing a busy freeway), and as part of the last act fight at the top of the Eiffel Tower. There is no begrudging the 53 year old a little help – he’s been a more than impressive daredevil for far too long. But it doesn’t bode well that Chan is in the last phase of his signature stage. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.


So, in what appears to be a case of either studio shrewdness or luck-induced synchronicity, New Line seems to be striking while the iron is as hot as its going to get. Besides, since they are fully aware of the film’s inherent silliness (it could be subtitled Abbot and Costello-san Meet the Chinese Mafia) and lack of sophistication, they are banking on the frequently potent paradigm known as “the lowest common denominator” to see them through. Success will not be based on the wit – after all, do audiences still find old white ladies talking jive and oily loser lotharios funny? – nor will it be founded on the hackneyed whodunit - see if you can’t guess the secret bad guy before the initial credits are complete. No, Rush Hour 3 will earn its scratch on the carefully controlled commerciality of Chris Tucker. Just don’t be surprised when, eight years and $30 million dollars from now, he comes crawling out of the woodwork for another anemic encore. It’s apparently all he, and this franchise, seem good at.


 


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