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Thursday, Jul 5, 2007

After dumping on the hype about the iPhone, I can’t resist adding another piece of information about why I’m suspect about (nearly) everyone’s favorite gadget of ‘07.  This Alternet article lays out the case that the Working Assets group has against Apple’s product.  While telecomms bowed to the Bush administration’s illegal wire tapping scheme, Apple was happy to work with one of them but as the article points out WA might have unwittingly too.  Be that as it may, the larger point is that Apple has tied down their system to one single carrier (AT&T) while shutting out the other phone companies, who (in fairness) did have a shot at the iPhone previously.  Not only does it force any drooling consumer to drop their carrier for AT&T but it also stifles any innovation or new players in a tightly controlled (aka monopolized) market.


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Thursday, Jul 5, 2007

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times ran a story about a Telemundo news correspondent who has been assigned to cover politics, local news and the city’s mayor for the last year and a half. Turns out she’s been covering him closely. REALLY closely. As in she’s-the-reason-he-no-longer-wears-a-wedding-ring closely.


The story dutifully consulted experts who explained it’s something of a faux pas to sleep with sources. In the Times article, Telemundo defended its correspondent, one Mirthala Salinas.


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Wednesday, Jul 4, 2007

Basically, movie soundtracks are divided into three generic types. The first is the most recognizable and familiar - the basic score release, a composer-created set of cues that illustrate the basic sonic signatures in the film. Sometimes, an original number of two can be added to amplify the mercantile possibilities, but for the most part, it’s all instrumentals and mood. The second kind of collection was forged most successfully in the ‘80s. Call it the K-Tel conceit, or the packaging of potential hits, but these pop song laden albums are meant as slyly subtle tie-ins to the motion picture proper. Sometimes, the tunes featured are merely “suggested” by the title they are connected to (meaning they don’t actually appear in the movie itself). The last soundtrack standard is the one based on the actual movie musical. Prior to its death as a cultural commodity around 1975, original cast recordings from the song and dance epics were chart topping smashes. They ruled Billboard before The Beatles came along and realigned the entire notion of popularity.


In this first edition of SE&L’s revamp of the PopMatters’ Surround Sound brand (it will be a blog feature from now on), we get an interesting overview of all three concepts. First up is a mostly wordless workout on a terribly tired A-list entity. While it hopes to hint at hep-ness, it’s more vague than Vegas. Second, there’s a CG cartoon companion piece that often feels like the bumper tunes played at the Caribbean version of the Super Bowl. One amazing moment of artistic clarity stands out, though. And finally, one of the most anticipated movies of Summer 2007 delivers its pre-release set of shifted over showtunes. Oddly enough, it appears that something incredibly campy and busy found its way from the boards of Broadway to the encoded information of the aluminum disc. While perhaps not the best examples of movie music’s power and potential, the trio of albums here do a bang up job of illustrating the kind of releases the studios depend upon to heighten overall awareness.


Ocean’s 13 [rating: 5]


There is something very cold and calculated about the oh so hip ‘coolness’ composer/DJ David Holmes is putting forth on this, his third dip into Danny’s Ocean. The latest aural investigation of the Stephen Soderbergh Rat Pack redux finds Holmes still generating that old fashioned space age bachelor pad Muzak via some decidedly high tech toys, lost in a natty nostalgia that seems geared to those who get their sonic memories supersized via Starbucks.  The results sound oddly familiar and yet almost antiseptic, reminiscent of what robotic lounge lizards would generate if they were in charge of the party. There’s no denying the initial allure – jazzy horns and tumbling vibes always bring out one’s inner jet setting bon vivant – but Holmes is merely the student hoping to imitate a far more formidable set of masters. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the studio tosses in tracks from Frank Sinatra (“This Town”) and Puccio Roelens (a rather dry version of the standard “Caravan”) just to show how far off base he really is.

Still, there are elements here that really do set the proper playful tone for the film – which is all a score is supposed to do, at the end of the day. Indeed, the very first track, “Not Their Fight” will probably be absconded one day by Quentin Tarantino, so strong is it’s trippy throwback mentality. Driven by a particularly slinky bass, the kicky “Kensington Chump” is all burbles and undulating aural quirks. “Laptops”, only a minute long, sounds like the greatest unused opening riff in all of late ‘60s rock, while “Dice Men” could have been the backdrop to any number of Peace Generation acid casualty love ins – that is, until it breaks into a series of ‘70s cop show shout-outs, and more or less arrests itself. But the real standout inclusion is by another non-Holmes’ contributor. Motherhood, which can best be described as the real deal, delivers the dynamic “Soul Town”, a collection of concrete hooks and haunting female trills that literally sends the short hairs on the back of your neck craning upward for a listen. It has an electricity that Holmes himself and the rest of the Ocean 13 CD can barely muster.


Surf’s Up! [rating: 4]


As with most varying artist outtakes, b-sides, and popular hits compilations, the mood of the movie moment is clearly and loudly signaled by each and every song. Indeed, all throughout Up’s amiable track list, we can experience the film’s two overriding levels of honest emotion – call them “Let’s Party!” and “Let’s Chill”. On the side of sun and fun are random auditory clichés like the Romantics thoroughly overplayed Kinks vamp “What I Like About You” as well as retakes on time tested tunes like “Wipe Out” (by Big Nose) and “Reggae Got Soul” (by 311). But when the narrative needs to turn all pensive or prophetic, it pulls out the slow, languid acoustics of Nine Black Alp’s “Pocket Full of Stars” or Incubus’ “Drive”. In fact, you can almost set your internal emotional clock by the way this CD unfolds. Happiness leads to heartbreak as histrionics meld into heroism. By the end – a rather routine “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai) by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – you can just visualize the 3D cartoon characters walking into the computer generated sunset, story told and overall entertainment value confirmed.

There are some surprises here. Pearl Jam, a band one wouldn’t normally associate with a family film soundtrack, pops up to provide its standard angst-propelled passion for the appropriately titled “Big Wave”, while those lost superstars the New Radicals are revisited with their signature anthem “You Get What You Give”. A big surprise here is the inclusion of a track by Ms. Lauryn Hill. Absent from the charts since 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2, her inclusion – a gorgeous ghetto groove called “Lose Myself” – maintains her continuing status as an artist of infinite possibilities. The scratchy funk backdrop, met almost instantly by some spacey, ethereal ‘80s new wave keyboards, leads to a melodic and lyrical intensity that causes one’s jaw to drop…into an easy smile. In some ways, this is the former Fugees’ rewrite of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” – there’s the same pure pop conceit, but an undercurrent that downplays the inherent effervescence. Unfortunately, it’s a level of musical mastery that makes even the classic tracks on this hit-oriented collection blush in aesthetic embarrassment.


Hairspray the Musical [rating: 5]


To the unfamiliar ear, the score for the hit Broadway extravaganza based on John Waters’ far wittier coming of age comedy was like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors fused to a determined devotee’s idea of what a Great White Way show should sound like. It’s big! It’s brassy! It’s beaming with all kinds of gonzo gay pride! And yet for some reason, the fevered pitch via which composer Marc Shaiman vamps his vision of Baltimore circa 1962 is both sincere and kind of shallow. There’s a crowdpleaser desperation buried at the base of each number, a ‘sell it to the balcony’ sense of showmanship that can be both glorious and grating. Similar to how Mel Brooks managed a Tony out of what is basically a bunch of forgettable, half-formed songs, Hairspray tries to walk the walk, but ends up drowning in its own disposability. Fifty years from now, when directors are hungry for solid shows to revive, this is one that won’t be tallying up those longevity royalties.


Indeed, without someone like South Park’s Trey Parker alongside to balance out the kitsch factor (the two collaborated on the Oscar nominated songs for the cartoon’s big screen debut), Shaiman is shameless. He borrows so much from the aural clichés of the era that you find yourself playing an internal guessing game over who he’s stealing from/homaging next. “Good Morning Baltimore”, the show’s (and movie’s) opening number is like a gigantic girl group tribute taken to tacky extremes. Sadly, Rachel Sweet did it much better when she crafted the title track to Waters’ film. Even the new songs, specifically fashioned for this release (and added Academy attention come awards time), are almost too familiar to be considered original. Indeed, the first ‘single’ from the soundtrack, Zac Efrom’s “Ladies Choice” is just “Hand Jive” with tween appropriate sentiments. While it’s a kick to hear star John Travolta croon alongside screen ‘hubby’ Christopher Walken on the number “(You’re) Timeless to Me”, this is one CD that needs the musical from whence it came, and all the goodwill associated with same, to overcome its ditzy desperation.



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Tuesday, Jul 3, 2007


With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2007 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining, has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a little less exciting (theme for the season so far– the Year of the Underwhelming Disappointments). No one movie has broken out from the pack, becoming the “must see” event the warmer months typically demand, and while a few films have struck a chord of universal acclaim, audiences aren’t responding with the usual fiscal fall out. Instead, it looks like a kind of entertainment ennui has set in, viewers responding to the lack of legitimized excitement by satisfying themselves with a single viewing –- or even worse -– not showing up to the Cineplex at all.


It’s unclear whether the next nine weeks will change any of this. Michael Bay’s megawatt Transformers will give it a fiery Fourth try, but the deeply divided sentiments among reviewers won’t help the bottom line. Harry Potter is back for a fifth cinematic fling, but age –- and the soon to be released, spoiler filled final installment in the literary series –- may derail its popularity and profitability. The Simpsons could jumpstart (albeit belatedly) a nice turnstile tidal wave, but those who are banking on Hairspray to save the cinematic day could be overplaying the musical genre’s heft. After that, it’s one of the less impressive Augusts on record. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 13 films it experienced since a certain webslinger arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!


Ratatouille


Easily the winner when it comes to major releases. Brad Bird’s unbelievably dense narrative, combined with Pixar’s pristine animation, makes for one amazing visual journey. As we follow a wannabe rodent on his quest for culinary recognition, the artists and designers responsible for the film’s fascinating look constantly surprise us. But it’s the emotional elements in the narrative that truly astound.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


SiCKO


The know-it-alls like to beat up on Michael Moore for not getting every single solitary nuance of the facts 100% aligned with their particular view of things. This doesn’t mean that his latest documentary is a failure. In fact, it may just be the most potent piece of filmmaking the director has ever done.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Knocked Up


Finally! A comedy that’s actually funny! Judd Apatow deserves some sort of special place in the current industry hierarchy for delivering audiences from the scourge of humorless half-baked fare. In its place, the 40 Year Old Virgin auteur fashions a callous chick flick where geeks, gals and the occasional gross out gag can live in harmonious hilarity.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


Somewhere between the decision to turn the Disney attraction into a feature film, and the concept of increasing the franchise to fill up a supposed trilogy, critics bailed on this set of stellar action/adventure romps. Destined to be viewed with new appreciation decades from now, this last installment truly represents the pinnacle of old fashioned blockbuster moviemaking.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Fido


Believe it or not, zombies actually make a wonderful metaphor for the corrosion of conformity that was the 1950s, but not because they represent the mindless mob mentality. No, they are the perfect mirror for Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie’s clever take on intolerance and fear. The undead are only acting on instinct. It’s the corporate controlled suburbanites that pose the real threat.

+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Live Free or Die Hard


We know, we know; we picked this fading franchise to deliver one of Summer 2007’s biggest bombs. We may have been misguided. While not up to the level of the previous installments in this once influential action series, star Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman still deliver spectacular stunt set pieces and enough bad ass machismo to satisfy filmgoers.

+ PopMatters Review


Hostel Part II


Don’t believe the agenda-based hype. Eli Roth’s return to the former Eastern Bloc is not the original film reconfigured with babes, or the most violent atrocity against the female species ever put on film. Instead, it’s a completely unique sequel, a revisit that totally rewrites everything about the initial ‘gorno’ classic… and finds equally effective fear factors.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


1408


It’s the antidote for the blood and guts gratuity of post-millennial horror, as well as a stunning tour de force by actor John Cusack. More an old fashioned thriller than a modern movie macabre, this delightful journey into dread proves that Stephen King is not cinematic poison. Instead, in the hands of the right creative team, he remains a formidable fright force.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Spider-man 3


The list of complaints is long, and the sense of disappointment palpable, but it seems silly to think that Sam Raimi and the rest of the Spidey set could repeat the bravura brilliance of Spider-man 2. While the villains are more than viable, and the new black suit mojo cleverly illustrated, the movie still feels scattered and strained.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


28 Weeks Later


Danny Boyle’s original was more about deconstructing society than rewriting the rules of zombie lore (all right, they’re NOT the living dead). But in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s take on the material, it’s the US military that takes it on the chin – over and over again. The result is a fractured sense of fear, with the humans packing more precariousness than the Rage-infected horde.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Evan Almighty


Why this genial family comedy is not a bigger hit says more about the movie going habits of the general public than what the film itself has to offer. Sure, it’s cloying and incredibly mannered, the filmmakers avoid anything remotely serious or sacrilegious, but there is still enough here to easily entertain those so inclined. A truly perplexing commercial conundrum.

+ PopMatters Review


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer


Aimed at the kiddies yet barely capable of sustaining such creative overreaching, director Tim Story once again argues for his place as the worst interpreter of comic book material out there. This time around, the title heroes are hampered by a cosmic planet killer, his slick metallic messenger…and tabloid fame. Oddly enough, the press comes across as the most threatening.

+ PopMatters Review


Shrek the Third


Like an old sitcom that just won’t die, this ongoing CG stupidity argues for its lack of viable funny business as well as the eventual death of 3D animation. Horribly dull and equally uninspired, what once seemed novel and ironic now feels like an extended advertisement for yet another installment (and it worked –- number four is in the works. Groan).

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


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Tuesday, Jul 3, 2007

Most of the girls look like rock-solid citizens in this stronghold of Islam, but in the privacy of their homes (often vast sprawling affairs with home cinemas and swimming-pools) they throw parties (women only, of course), eat Burger King, watch cable television (Sex and the City is a big favourite), and live an undercover life that is an extraordinary ‘pot-pourri’ of West and East. They flirt with boys on the internet in Arabish (a mix of Arabic and English), send their drivers to pick up Frappuccinos from Starbucks, talk about ‘front bumpers’ and ‘back bumpers’ (breasts and bottoms) and reveal a world where women hide more than their desires under their long black abayas.


The UK Telegraph magazine has a fascinating interview, published last week, with Rajaa Alsanea, the 25-year-old Saudi Arabian author of Girls of Riyadh.


The book is making waves just about everywhere due to its frank portrayal of young, upperclass Saudi women. The Boston Herald has a piece on Alsanea, as does the San Francisco Chronicle. The Arab News has a revealing piece on the controversy, too.


The book is out Thursday, from Penguin.


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