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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

As much as I enjoyed her work at the New York Times, Ann Powers is doing even better work at the L.A. Times now, more than ably replacing Robert Hilburn there.  She’s thoughtful as hell and knows how to dig into deep into ideas and concepts surrounding some of the biggest rock and pop acts around today.  Yes, she’s a popist but unlike others of that clan, she’s not snobbish about it and doesn’t dole out pot-shots, instead she’s “just try(ing) to turn Kylie into Dylan, in a lot of ways” (though she’s still a Dylan fan too).  If she’s got any faults, it’s that sometimes, she pushes for a zeitgeist angle too much.  Nothing wrong with that- from her exclusive perch, she should take advantage of it and try to make grand statements.


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Monday, Feb 5, 2007


It’s a week of great ideas vs. divergent execution. Indeed, one of the defining skills for a filmmaker is the ability to translate what everyone agrees is a stellar premise into an equally intriguing movie. Sometimes, the combination creates a classic work of art. But in most cases, the lack of imagination destroys the fascinating narrative foundation, reducing the translation to something miserable and misguided. Luckily, most of the entries in this week’s inspiration against implementation contest came up winners. See for yourself as you peruse the titles for 6 February, including our main selection:


The Science of Sleep


When you consider its cinematic pedigree, and its remarkable visual invention, it’s unfathomable why more people didn’t respond to Michel Gondry’s fracture fable. Like an incomplete European version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (his collaboration with Charlie Kaufman) the fascinating French auteur explored the battle between fantasy and reality, and how it relates to love, in a way that was stunning in its message and meaning. Never closing off any avenue of emotion, and using his dualistic characters (named, ironically enough Stephane and Stephanie) to constantly challenge the standard conventions of onscreen romance, Gondry does something very daring with this otherwise whimsical workout. He never offers any closure, instead looking at relationships as they really are – complicated, dense and often open-ended.

Other Titles of Interest


Blume in Love


Using the unique construct of following a divorce lawyer as his own marriage breaks up, counterculture stalwart Paul Mazursky serves up one of his last iconoclastic efforts. George Segal expertly embodies a man incapable of understanding his own role in the dissolution of his relationship. This is the rare comedy that transcends its joke-oriented trappings to find the truth behind commitment and its collapse.

Crossing Delancey


Amy Irving is a good Jewish girl, content with her life. Her grandmother wants her to find a good Jewish man. But she balks when it’s suggested she see a yenta (a.k.a matchmaker) – that is, until she meets up with pickle maker Peter Riegert. While things are complicated at first, this romantic comedy overcomes its uniquely ethnic trappings to work as both laffer and love story.


Flag of Our Fathers


It’s a brilliant subject for a film – how the famed image of the flag rising over Iwo Jima came about. Oddly enough, Clint Eastwood opted for jingoism over explanation, focusing mostly on the men post-event, and how they were honored, and exploited, for appearing in the photo. Most believe that his companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, is the much better WWII testament.

Hollywoodland


In one of the more tragic tales of typecasting ever, B-movie staple George Reeves could never live down his TV’s Superman persona. So the kept man finally killed himself – or did he? That’s the unusual premise for a detective story dissection of the actor’s supposed suicide. Thanks to an amazing turn by Ben Affleck, this occasionally convoluted story shines through.

A Summer Place


Pure processed American cinematic cheese, filtered through an angst-ridden soap style that’s awfully hard to resist. More obsessed with sex and hate than clique-ish middle schoolers, this puerile potboiler has the most hissable villain in the entire canon of melodramatic camp. Add in more mindless innuendo, a sulking Sandra Dee and total lack of subtlety and you’ve got a choice cheddar classic.


And Now for Something Completely Different


Mad Monkey Kung Fu


Okay, it’s true confession time. We here at SE&L have never even seen this infamous martial arts movie. We wouldn’t begin to know how inventive or thrilling it is. We’re not even sure if it has the kind of gravity defying fight scenes that make the genre so sublime. But what we do know is – you gotta love that title! Thanks to a bit of research, we have learned that “Mad Monkey” is a style of combat, and that the movie represents some of the best-choreographed illustrations of the format ever committed to film. While it probably was too much to hope for simian streetfighters kicking the crap out of each other, we’ll still line up for a copy of this long out of print chopshocky epic.

 


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Monday, Feb 5, 2007

The BPS Research Digest reports on a study about boredom whose findings make a kind of intuitive sense to me. Researchers issued questionaires to students and found that those “who said they suffered from more boredom also tended to report difficulty identifying their emotions and being externally focused.” The researchers somewhat poetically explain the problems of looking to external stimuli to cure boredom: “Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life.” Looking for distractions only yields further distraction, more boredom. The psychology of this strikes me as correct, and I have argued before that consumer societies have to manufacture this state in its populace. Boredom has to be built in to consumer society’s products, and its discourse needs to continually reinforce the notion that we owe it to ourselves to be bored, lest we recognize the resources we have within ourselves. Boredom is a learned habit, not an accident of circumstances. Here’s what I wrote about it then:


Since we’re trained from childhood not to value the luxury of free thought, and since all initiative to think for ourselves and all cultural validation for autodidacticism has been effaced from the working world, we experience this erstwhile freedom to think undirected thoughts as boredom, as sullen blankness. Given this dire scenario, the culture industry’s primary function becomes one of habituating workers to their fate: to routinely expect boredom and to see the oscillation in and out of states of boredom as the only kind of joy. So accordingly, mass entertainments, with their interchangeable stories and their quick-cut edits and their rejection of complexity, carefully cultivate the short-attention span, continuing the cultural work initiated at the multiplex during the children’s movie. Concentration is counterproductive in a consumer, whereas boredom suits the consumer economy: incapable of forming deep attachments to cultural commodities and spurred by sublimated class envy, shoppers become perpetually restless for novelty, making serial purchases with spiraling frequency until the ever more tenacious habit of boredom renders them instantaneously empty upon possession. At that point, the act of acquisition is the only moment of pleasure, and one’s life becomes a perpetual buying spree.



How then do we get in touch with our emotions if consumer society conspires against us to induce alexithymia? Having recently seen David Lynch field questions about his TM practices and lulled by his repeated allusions to the ocean of bliss within, I wonder if meditation could form a bulwark against the hedonistic materialism’s snares, keeping us in a state of pristine emotional biofeedback. I don’t know. Meditiation seems kind of boring.


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Sunday, Feb 4, 2007


It used to be a yearly tradition. For fans of the NFL’s annual love fest, a glorious, bloated example of excess meshed with merchandising, the Super Bowl stood as a benchmark for the Spring/Summer movie line-up. With the Winter and all its awards season brouhaha finally winding down, and the game’s notoriety as a showcase for advertising excellence and experimentation, studios wishing to launch major movie buzz would always buy up large blocks of time to test out the latest trailers. In past years, blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man 2 and Fantastic Four used the massive viewing audience and instant exposure of the gridiron classic to begin the push for warm weather consideration. As with most of the game’s greatest ads, Hollywood usually leveraged its creative conceits to offer up something truly special.


Not this year, however. Granted, it was a bad year overall for Super Bowl commercials. When you consider that Bud Lite and its joke-based series was challenged for entertainment supremacy by the same old GoDaddy.com sexism, it really wasn’t a great year for pigskin-fueled purchasing propaganda. But the four tepid trailers served up by Tinsel Town, each one no more than 30 sloppy seconds and all offering little or nothing in the way of interest or intrigue, were a blight on the pinnacle of the new American pastime. Sadder still, almost all were previewed on the Internet before showing up during the Indianapolis Colts containment of the Chicago Bears. For anyone who sits through the game solely for the chance to see what show business has in store for their future leisure time, there were more compelling ads for CBS shows than viable cinematic substance.


The first movie trailer to appear during the actual Super Bowl broadcast itself (nothing prior to kickoff was considered as those offerings are not, traditionally, touted as part of the post-game Madison Avenue scorecard) was for the feel good sports movie Pride. It’s yet another in a long line of inspirational stories in which a decent and deserving coach – in this case, Hustle and Flow‘s breakout star Terrence Howard – meets up with a band of misfits and/or disenfranchised kids and leads them through life lessons based in teamwork and physical acumen. Howard’s Jim Ellis starts a swim team for underprivileged and troubled black teens at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Stinking of the whole “based on/inspired by a true story” stigma, and featuring a graying Bernie Mac as what appears to be the standard sober sage character, this ‘us against them’ workout has the added element of race to make it play more important than it probably is.


Not that the trailer tells us this. Loaded with labored jump cuts and more than a few shots of suspicious Caucasian kids looking at their urban competition with white flight disgust, the key components of the ad appear to be prejudice and prostylitizing. How Hollywood can keep churning out this overdone genre (didn’t we see the same story a few months back when it was starring The Rock and featured a bunch of juvenile delinquents suiting up to play football as part of some Gridiron Gang?) and still expect audiences to respond is a question only a Hum V driving show biz bean counter can answwer. Maybe Howard and his fifteen-years-in-the-making overnight success can sell some tickets. But with four names on the screenplay and untried director Sunu Gonera behind the lens, this looks like a loser, plain and simple.


So does Hannibal Rising, come to think of it. In the world of popular literature, no one has wasted as much salivating cinematic goodwill as Thomas Harris. Lucky to have Michael Mann bring his Red Dragon to life (forget the Brett Ratner remake – its good but not great) as Manhunter, he saw his Silence of the Lambs become a certified Oscar winner and bravura best seller. So what did this inventive author do? Why, he wrote Hannibal, a tome that more or less shit all over the legacy established in his first two Lecter novels. Indeed, the sense of outrage and repugnance was so great in the creative community that the project was stalled for several months, and Jodie Foster blatantly refused to reprise her Clarice Starling role. Since the one time FBI bright light was destined to become the cannibal doctor’s accomplice and lover, the reason for such a rejection seemed pretty clear.


Frankly, someone at MGM should have used the same power of de-persuasion on the morons behind this mockery of a movie. Looking like Little Hanny Goes Nutzoid in the Super Bowl preview (as well as the numerous online ads that have turned up over the last few weeks) French pretty boy Gaspard Ulliel gets the perplexing prequel duties. Forced to inhabit Harris’s new WWII-set storyline about Lecter, his sister, and some flesh feasting members of the Axis powers, this looks like Glamour Shots as grindhouse gratuity. Thanks to the training of some Japanese relative (a widow of an uncle) and something called “The Tale of Genji”, Lecter learns to channel his pain into repugnant, nauseating revenge. Like the recently released Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which promised to show us how Leatherface became a Black and Decker desiring death dealer, Rising is reported to answer all the questions about the compelling character’s past, and people-eating proclivities.


The ad is certainly sketchy enough – several shots of snow-covered fields, frightened little faces, and an overly groomed adolescent grinning as blood spatters his Abercrombie and Fitch formed face. We see the flash of a blade, hear the sound of steel slicing the air, and then for some strange reason, an illustrated façade of Anthony Hopkins morphs into our youthful lead, iconic restraining mask squarely in place. For anyone who still feels a kinship with Harris’ Grand Guignol post Lambs horror hackwork, this looks like another wanton waste of time. The period piece setting doesn’t do a great deal for the already reaching storyline, and the whole Asian angle feels like a tacked on tip of the hat to the J-horror fad of a few years back. Genre fans will line up for almost anything, but it looks like only the most ardent devotees to dread will queue for this uninspired effort.


Speaking of underwhelming, Disney dished up another glimpse of its under the radar CGI spectacle Meet the Robinsons. So far, the trailers have all played like JOHNNY Neutron: Boy Genius, featuring a real lack of legitimate laughs (seriously – does ANYONE think the overly perky lady wearing dozens of caffeine patches is remotely funny? Or clever?). Even worse, these ads tell very little about the time traveling sci-fi storyline, leaving us to infer what the heck the deal is with the Snidely Whiplash wannabe featured throughout. Granted, the T-Rex’s response is kinda cute, but the latte swipe is just lame. Rumor has it that new Disney animation honcho John Lassiter has provided a little of his patented Pixar magic during post-production. Judging from this lackluster collection of clips, the size of the contribution better be massive. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be another in a long line of House of Mouse missteps, made worse by what is a purposefully vague promotional campaign.


All of which leads to the winner of the worst ad of the entire evening, a preview so painful that members of the Chicago Bears defense actually felt superior to the sizable Super Bowl egg this family friendly flop laid. Here’s hoping that Hairspray can save his hemorrhaging prestige, because John Travolta looks lost in the trailer for Wild Hogs. As a matter of fact, after his last few films, the one time superstar’s resurrected post-Pulp Fiction career seems MIA as well. In the loud, boorish PG-13 comedy (always a sign of generic ordinariness) the once and future Vincent Vega teams up with Tim Allen (ugh!), Martin Lawrence (oh no…) and William H. Macy (hmmm…) as four best friends who decide to micromanage their midlife crisis by taking a cross country trip – on motorcycles. Unfortunately, they run into a band of Hell’s Angels-esque bikers and all manner of stale hijinx ensue.


Representative of the sorry state of onscreen comedy, this creaky, imitative effort from Van Wilder ‘genius” Walt Becker just smacks of creative bankruptcy. The whole ‘born to be mild’ vibe given off by the trailer, a hyperactive ad with ADD that never once slows down to establish mood or character, reminds one of the high concept films of the early 80s. Those prefab farces delivered dumb ideas wrapped around an unlikely onscreen presence – in this case, Lawrence and Macy represent the strained stunt casting – hoping to generate a little off the cuff cleverness. Travolta and Allen appear to be taking turns as pre-adolescent party boys, giving a bad name to growing old gracefully while simultaneously subjecting us to erectile dysfunction jokes (or what appears to be the AARP equivalent of same). It’s a grating, groan-inducing mess, the kind of calculated crap that makes one wonder how it ever found its way inside the biggest sports showcase of the year.


The answer, oddly enough, is Variety. Reporting on the lack of prime Hollywood hoopla this time around, the industry publication discovered that studios would rather sponsor an entire pre-game show or segment (as Eddie Murphy’s Norbit and Sony’s Ghost Rider did) than throw their millions away on an ad with little to no box office impact. According to sources, post-game studies show that more people remember a rabid squirrel protecting its master’s Bud Lite than recall the selling points of some ersatz blockbuster. In fact, ever since Independence Day and it’s exploding White House became a water cooler moments for Tinsel Town trailers back in 1996, film companies have had a love/hate relationship with the big game’s advertising agenda. As prices continue to rise (over $2 million and counting this year) and audiences turn to alternate sources of filmic information, the need to blow a massive amount of the publicity budget on a Super Bowl ad seems silly.


Indeed, gone are the days when David Fincher and Ridley Scott could stop a nation cold with their particular brand of artistic advertising. We no longer live in an era of Super Bowl as super salesman. Unless it has something to do with cars, beer or CSI (in any of its many forms), 2007 will definitely be remembered as the year when Hollywood failed to bring it’s A-Game…not unlike the Monsters of the Midway. Call it contractual obligation, or chasing bad money after worse, but here’s betting that Pride, Wild Hogs, Hannibal Rising and Meet the Robinsons fail to get a single mention when Monday morning Madison Avenue quarterbacking begins. After sitting through the 210 minute marathon to experience them, these trailers tell a tale more troubling than tempting. Based on this lame representation, we could have a spectacularly substandard year at the cinema on our hands.


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Sunday, Feb 4, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Albert Hammond Jr.
In Transit [MP3]


Boredoms
Jungle Taitei [MP3]


Grand Champeen
One and Only [MP3]


The Icarus Line
Get’s Paid [MP3]


Goldrush
Every One of Us [MP3]


Calla
Bronson [MP3]


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