It’s the annual end of Summer holiday. Time to reflect on the final week of the popcorn moviegoing experience, the upcoming end of the year awards anarchy, and all things Fall. Of course, no Labor Day would be complete without a visit from the genius himself, Jerry Lewis. Here is our tribute to the comic titan from last September. Enjoy!
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More and more, it seems as though a psychological corner has been turned. There is a growing sense that the consumer-credit bubble is over, and as a result the gap in lived experience between the rich and the poor (who lived richer thanks to credit) are about to widen, as Steven R. Waldman explains here:
Of course, the poor spend more than they earn primarily by taking on debt. In the halcyon days of 2006, that was no problem. Credit flowed like honey, and what could always be refinanced need never be repaid. It’s a wonder we didn’t do away with the whole “money” thing entirely. If you can spend all the way down to negative infinity, it hardly matters whether your starting wealth is one dollar or a billion dollars. Why keep track?
But, alas, people did keep track. They also stopped lending to people who might not be able to repay, people who, you know, spend more than they earn. Which means, even putting aside the terrible hardship of bankruptcy, or struggling to pay down old loans, all of a sudden the lived experience of inequality must come very much to resemble those unpleasant income inequality statistics. Are we cool with that?
In a way, the credit crisis comes out of a tension between the broad-middle-class America of our collective imagination and the economically polarized nation we have in fact come to be. We borrowed to finance an illusory Mayberry. The crisis won’t be over until this tension is resolved. Either we modify the facts of our economic relations, or we come to terms with a new America more comfortable with distinct and enduring social classes….
I’m sure this is a bit polemic, but I don’t think it is much overstated. Credit was the means by which we reconciled the social ideals of America with an economic reality that increasingly resembles a “banana republic”. We are making a choice, in how we respond to this crisis, and so far I’d say we are making the wrong choice. We are bailing out creditors and going all personal-responsibility on debtors. We are coddling large institutions of prestige and power, despite their having made allocative errors that would put a Soviet 5-year plan to shame. We applaud the fact that “wage pressures are contained”, protecting the macroeconomy of the wealthy from the microeconomy of the middle class.
For the rest of us, as we are weaned off the tendency to live beyond our means and keep up with the levels of consumption touted in the culture industry as normal, we can now embrace thriftiness, the Aldi alternative.
Accordingly, thrift is beginning to trump branding in retailers’ efforts to reach customers, if you take anecdotal evidence like this post seriously—it details efforts Whole Foods is making to seem cheap, and has a link to an article about Target’s suddenly struggling because of its “classier” image.
As Target released its second-quarter earnings Tuesday, the Minneapolis-based discount retailer said it will not meet long-term expectations if consumer cutbacks continue. Part of the problem is that, much as Target has tried to trump up the “pay less” side of its slogan, consumers don’t believe it.
“The perception is that because it’s more visually appealing than Wal-Mart, that prices are higher,” said Stephanie Hoff, a retail analyst with Edward Jones in New York. “They’re just going to have to figure out a way to communicate that to their customers better. They’re trying to do that, but it could take some time.”
Also, efforts to restigmatize borrowing are starting to permeate economic commentary. There is a general sense that consumer behavior needs to adapt to dwindling credit and make do with less immediate gratification. Easy credit enabled more people to participate in a sort of protracted drama of shopping, in purchasing big-ticket items as a kind of experience. Marketing theory more and more began to argue that the experience was more significant to consumers than the purchased good in the end, and retailers, recognizing the superior margins to selling experiences to goods, embraced this ideology and emphasized it. Brands took on new significance as the starting points for consumer fantasies, and advertising worked to make the brands into more effective triggers for those fantasies.
But without easy credit, the model no longer works as effectively. Daniel Gross, too, proclaims the end of the credit-card-fueled economy in this Slate article. “The endless willingness of lenders to lend and borrowers to borrow—...kept the consumer economy humming uninterrupted from the early 1990s, straight through the brief recession of 2001, until the credit meltdown of 2007.” But now
Retailers who freely extended credit to any customer with a pulse are deploying bean counters armed with sophisticated software to sniff out potential deadbeats. And when higher rates and fees don’t deter their borrowers, credit-card companies resort to slashing credit lines. “We predicted there would be some degree of spillover from the mortgage meltdown,” said Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. “But the credit line reductions by big credit card companies in the last six months have been fairly unprecedented.”
Gross notes that the absence of credit confronts consumers with the “pain of paying,” the reality of what things actually cost, which is an obvious deterrent to spending. This inhibits the popular notion that shopping is an “experience” rather than a transaction.
Consumers may have to recalibrate their expectations of what a shopping experience is and adapt to consuming unbranded goods. No more will shopping seem designed to single individuals out, flatter them and encourage them to see the retail universe as fashioned specifically for them. Shopping is more likely to be the semi-alienating Wal-Mart or Aldi experience, where you wander through piles of unbranded goods in cardboard boxes on the floor, than the repeat engagement with brand-inspired fantasies. Perhaps, we will shop less to foster identity than to simply acquire more fundamental necessities, and identity could be developed in some other social arena outside of amassing possessions and brandishing brands, through some other means than being catered to by retailers and orchestrating a lifestyle through curating and displaying the correct set of belongings.
Someone once said that all men live lives of quiet desperation. For those in middle management, said anxiety can be anything but silent. It’s never the big picture issues - the purpose of their productivity, their place within the larger corporate scheme. Instead, it’s the smaller things - petty differences, personality clashes, bumbling bureaucracy - that carry the biggest impact. So advancement is typically based on how well you maneuver the various minor concerns. Make a mistake, and it will cost you. Traverse it all successfully, and you still have to battle nepotism, the omniscient cronies, and the notion of being locked in something more or less dead end for the rest of your days. A movie like The Promotion understands this problem all too well. Too bad it doesn’t deliver the message in a consistently droll manner.
Donaldson’s Supermarket is about to open a new store in suburban Chicago, and longtime assistant manager Doug Stauber really wants the top job. While his current boss considers him a shoo-in, a recent transfer from Canada named Richard Welhner also seems up for the position. Initially, Doug’s not too concerned about the competition. He feels he has the inside track. But soon, Richard is working the coveted inside position, taking over important contacts like Pepsi. Doug, on the other hand, is dealing with the lot, and the gang of local thugs who intimidate and ridicule the customers. Corporate is not pleased with either candidate, and gives them time to shape up or ship out. Naturally, the men begin to instinctually undermine each other, doing whatever it takes to please their family and land that promotion.
The Promotion (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is the very definition of a human comedy. Again, it’s not uproariously funny, or even laugh out loud clever most of the time. It doesn’t dial into the new “anything for a giggle” movie mystique, nor does it try to deliver mirth with over the top antics and outsized caricature. Instead, Steven Conrad’s likeable little film falls somewhere between heartfelt and hopeless. Thematically following the foibles of two men who’ve allowed their job to define their purpose, what we wind up with is an inconsistent entertainment that never ceases to stumble over moments that should simply just soar.
Some of the sequences (the abusive gang members harassing the customers) are clearly played for stock shock value. Others try to find that ironic insight that all post-millennial movies must now strive to attain. But thanks to the acting, and some interesting narrative choices, we wind up championing most of what happens. It’s not like The Promotion is out to trick us, or provide some manner of plot point misdirection. Conrad’s approach is clear - take tiny little moments, slices of every workaday existence and link them together to tell a recognizable story.
In what is rapidly becoming a New Age film genre, we are once again confronted with the ‘male alone” syndrome. Locked in a somber situation of their own making, and unable to let their partners or friends make up the difference, we get several scenes of leads Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly staring pensively off into the distance. Realizing that it’s no longer a man’s world, but forced into an instinctual need to hunt, gather, bring home the bacon, and increase their professional power, they are lost and forlorn. Even when they try to connect among each other, the pheromone scented posturing prevents any kind of asexual intimacy.
Like Fight Club predicted nearly a decade ago, the new male is really a dude, a dumb animal offshoot that tends to crap where it eats, and likes it quite a bit. Most of The Promotion is taken up with this kind of testicular one-upmanship, Doug digging Richard as he plots to put him down. We never really understand the internal motivation for such a circumstance - both men are genuinely decent and likeable - but the lure of Donaldson’s managership (and the accompanying cash) seems to drive both to distraction. While their battles make for some amusing sidebars, they never really seem to contemplate the consequences. All the brown nosing and butt kissing can’t overcome a failed drug test, or a dreaded inter-store complaint.
Part of the problem with The Promotion (and the facet that also keeps it from failing outright) is Conrad’s skill at observation. He understands the world of work, how people function as colleagues and employees. The stand offs with the Board (featuring a soulless Gil Bellows as the corporate speak executive) have a realistic ring, and when Scott and onscreen spouse Jenna Fisher discuss their privacy free apartment dwelling, we instantly recognize the repartee. But then there are times when Conrad’s scrutiny goes cheap, as when he has Reilly asking a Hispanic female cashier about her “p*ssy” sauce (it’s all part of a stock boy set up). Similarly, the gay banjo player interrupting Seann and Jenna’s closeness seems lifted from a bad SNL sketch.
Luckily, the first time director (noted for his screenplays The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness) has that wonderful cast to keep him afloat. As a matter of fact, it’s something he acknowledges as part of the DVD’s intriguing audio commentary. Seann William Scott is truly emerging as a sharp leading man. While some of his American Pie posturing is still intact, he comes across as far less mannered here. Additionally, Fisher finds the right note as the more than willing to compromise spouse. But Reilly is the real revelation here. So internally tortured and pent up that he seems permanently constipated, his about to crack Canadian provides a uniquely engaging side to the actor. We are used to seeing him blustery and befuddled. Here, he seems to be living every mistake he ever made over and over again in his mind.
Elsewhere, the extras argue for the limited budget Conrad had to work with. While this does not excuse the film’s shrunken scope, it does explain why we don’t see more of its Midwest locale. Indeed, The Promotion is a small film, and as such, warrants equally limited expectations. If you base your potential response on what Scott and Reilly have done in the past, you’ll be bored before the first moment of comic clarity. But if you recognize that this movie wants to say something rather significant about the human experience, to showcase how some men are born to faux greatness while others are continually beaten to the professional punch, you’ll enjoy the 90 minute ride. Work may not truly define us, but it tends to make the most of its first impression. The Promotion suggests that, somewhere between exaggeration and exactness lies the reason for our desperation - quiet or otherwise.
It’s the final week of Summer 2008, and believe it or not, not a single tentpole release (Babylon A.D.) or fringe title (College, Disaster Movie) was screened for the press. Still, there are a few films we can focus on for 29 August, including:
Sukiyaki Western Django [rating: 8]
Some forty years later, the spaghetti western remains one of the most unique subgenres in all of film. As a reflection of America as seen through the eyes of the world (and the US media), it stands in startling contrast to the conservative oaters that inspired it. But even more intriguing, the multicultural facets of the format provide insight into the shared heritage and history of each creating nation. A perfect example of how this all comes together can be found in Takashi Miike’s astonishing Sukiyaki Western Django. While it may sound like nothing more than a love letter to a certain Mediterranean country and its inventive horse operatics, the infamous filmmaker’s broadened approach brings in everything from Shakespeare to standard samurai tradition. The results are ridiculously fun. read full review…
Hamlet 2 [rating: 4]
There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest. read full review…
Transsiberian [rating: 7]
The little lie begins the deceit. Soon, the lack of truth clouds everything - from love to legality. Within days, loyalties which once seemed firm are tested, while newfound friendships provide the catalyst for even more distrust. All the while, the deception cuts as deeply as the Siberian cold, the temperature unable to freeze out the feeling of isolation or the need to be insincere. Soon, there is nothing left but a mountain of fabrication, its uneasy equilibrium waiting for one loose element to cause it all to come crashing down. That uncertain fragment is Jessie, the wife of rightly religious hardware store owner Roy. While her troubled past is now a faint memory, what she will do presently along the couple’s Transsiberian train trip will call into question everything she ever was - or wanted to be. read full review…
Mirrors [rating: 5]
If we weren’t already aware of Hollywood’s brain dead inability to fashion such a conspiracy, one would swear that Tinsel Town was out to destroy horror once and for all. Their weapon of choice? The J-Horror remake. Their intended targets? Foreign filmmakers who’ve proven they can master macabre with a diligent, dread-induced professionalism. In the last year alone we’ve seen the talented combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, responsible for the terrific thriller Ils, helm the horrible Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye. Now, Alexandre Aja, fresh from proving he could take on even the most tired material (in his case, the Wes Craven quasi-classic The Hills Have Eyes), is given the god awful task of updating the Korean creeper Into the Mirror. That he almost succeeds suggests that an untapped talent that no studio suit can truly stop. read full review…
Rain of Madness [rating: 6]
Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. The same could be said for the latest offshoot from the Thunder-dome: a mock documentary fashioned after the fabled Apocalypse Now memoir Hearts of Darkness. Entitled Rain of Madness, this spoof of a making-of of a lampoon is wonderfully wicked - and sadly, too short. read full review…
Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. The same could be said for the latest offshoot from the Thunder-dome: a mock documentary fashioned after the fabled Apocalypse Now memoir Hearts of Darkness. Entitled Rain of Madness, this spoof of a making-of of a lampoon is wonderfully wicked - and sadly, too short.
For German born director Jan Jürgen, the notion of war and its various horrors is not as interesting as the realities of making a movie about said combat. So he decides to follow filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) as he prepares to shoot the cinematic adaptation of “Four Leaf” Tayback’s (Nick Nolte) Vietnam chronicle, Tropic Thunder. From the casting of all the leads - Australian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), crude comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) - to the troubled situations onset, Jürgen deconstructs the overblown Hollywood hatchet job. Placing the blame squarely on prima donna performers and an inexperienced director, previously unknown facets of the film are disclosed, including the shocking final footage shot by Cockburn…before he and his cast vanished!
Combining the best of the mock doc format while finding a way to incorporate some obvious outtakes, Rain of Madness pushes the absolute limits of Tropic Thunder‘s original premise. Making a fake film about another phony production practically screams cheek, and for that reason alone this movie is worth the free ITunes download. But don’t expect to be bowled over by new material. Some of the stuff here is clearly linked to improvised scenes, cut comedy bits, and purposely bogus EPK interviews with the cast and crew in character. Almost everyone involved here is goofing it up before the camera - some more than others. Downey Jr. has an amazing sequence when he meets up with his character’s “real life” Texas family. His meltdown is memorable indeed. Similarly, the endless mugging for “MTV” by Jackson’s Chino is priceless. Black is less involved, as is Stiller, but Baruchel continues to be Thunder‘s undervalued VIP. His scenes as the sole participant in Cockburn’s pre-filming boot camp are classic.
Equally entertaining are Coogan’s newer moments in front of the lens. Rather marginalized in the movie itself (he’s literally gone in a flash), Cockburn is seen as much more of a screw up during Rain, his limited knowledge of movie making logistics really adding up when it comes to controlling his hack-tors. While it would have been nice to see more of Tom Cruise or Matthew McConaughey, there absence is clearly the result of location, not personal limits. Since much of the material was filmed on Thunder‘s Hawaiian sets, it seems illogical to expect two extended cameos to take part in this public-private lark. Still, there is a lot of fun to be had here, especially when Jürgen does his best Werner Herzog for a last act look at Cockburn’s death scene (ala Grizzly Man, we don’t see it, just Jürgen’s reaction - over and over again).
At only 30 minutes, Rain of Madness does feel awfully short. Maybe it’s the amount of material Coogan and co-writer Justin Theroux had to work with. Perhaps the running time is connected to the willingness of the A-list cast to participate. Certainly, the format itself limits the amount of opportunities, along with obvious fears of overstaying one’s welcome. Still, as part of the big picture putdown of the business called show, Rain makes a wonderful companion piece to Thunder. While you may want to wait for the inevitable DVD release (ITunes is a tad proprietary), this short is still a lot of fun. It’s always a joy to peer into the specious soul of Hollywood’s own horror show to see the Satan underneath.