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Friday, Jul 13, 2007

Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.

Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.

All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.

Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.

This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.

Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.

By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.

And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.


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Friday, Jul 13, 2007

Don’t ask me why, but I was daydreaming today about what it would take for there to be a resurgence of popular interest in 18th century novelist Samuel Richardson and concluded that he would need to be repackaged as a business author. No one was more insistently didactic (and patronizingly pedantic) than Richardson, and this was once a strong source of his appeal, when he was the most popular author writing in English, for about 30 years, from 1740 to 1770. Today, we eschew didacticism in novels but embrace it, no matter how simplistic the advice is, in business and management manuals, which are genially simplistic and generally moronic. And it seems like you have a fair chance of success if you take some historical artifact—the Art of War, the travel diary of Shackleton, etc.—and proclaim you’ve derived all these ingenious truths about how things work from it. Maybe this strategy could work with Pamela, Richardson’s first novel, which, after all, is all about employer-employee relations, about workplace politics, and human-resources dilemmas. Though the novel originally evolved out of Richardson’s money-making scheme to supply a stock of pre-written letters for the newly literate (Familiar Letters for Domestic Occasions), and became quite explicitly a conduct manual for women of the emerging middle class, nevertheless, when viewed from the proper perspective, it can be understood as the story of how you make a disgruntled, frightened employee into a docile, complacent one, especially if you include the sequel, which only graduate students and other boredom junkies bother to read these days.

The story’s told in letters and a diary written by Pamela—which her boss, Mr. B, naturally reads—so the derived business bestseller could be billed as “What your employees really think of you—and how to turn it to your advantage.” The story includes another employee, “odious” Mrs. Jewkes, who serves as a useful point of comparison for highlighting important differences among workers. Jewkes dutifully follows orders but with perhaps too much relish, and she secures the contempt of her fellow worker, Pamela, who describes her as “a broad, squat, pursy fat Thing, quite ugly, if any thing God made can be ugly” and notes that she “glories in her Wicked Fidelity.” Management tip: set boundaries around your instructions, so that workers don’t become overeager. Ideally, you’ll make your orders seem like your workers’ idea, just as Pamela does when, after some harassment, comes to see her compliance to Mr. B as her own intention.

The novel puts a lot of stock in the value of Pamela’s virtue, which is conceived as being sexual in nature. But her virtue, her innocence, her inner purity—perhaps these could be understood as that essential labor value that Mr. B the manager must seek to extract and employ economically (as he eventually will in Pamela 2 by which time Pamela has become a fearsomely efficient domestic worker). Pamela would have us believe that God protects her in all the attempts on that innocence she is born with, but does God make it so precious? Her parents put a lot of stock in it, enough to enjoy seeing Pamela put to the test (“What blessed things are Trials and Temptations to us, when they be overcome?”). It may be we are being invited to see that virtue as the only kind of dowry the Andrewes are able to give their daughter, and while they don’t want it squandered, they certainly don’t mind seeing its value go up through those trials and temptations. So is that virtue so valuable because it replaces money for a poor family? That doesn’t seem to go far enough to explain Pamela’s satisfaction in it, though it seems to explain the parents’ attitude: “Let none ever think Children a Burden to them; when the poorest circumstances can produce so much riches in a Pamela! Persist my dear Daughter in the same excellent course, and we shall not envy the highest estate, but defy them to produce such a daughter as ours.”

The value of Pamela’s virtue to Pamela is that it organizes her experience, gives coherence to it to make it able to be narrated. It puts her to that particular kind of intellectual work, begins her transformation from blue to white collar worker. It’s what makes her management material. The more she writes, the more sturdy her virtue seems, the more it seems to be proven. She seems like an ideal candidate to keep the minutes at meetings or compose memorandum after memorandum.

And how to spin Mr. B’s lechery into management lessons? It’s not much of a stretch to argue that Pamela’s virtuous posture is only acceptable in light of her elaborate expositions of Mr. B.‘s transgressions. Mr B is half-right to fling this accusation at Pamela (as he does frequently), and that he gives her a story to tell is most of why she eventually falls in love with him (in spite of his many attempts to rape her). Mr. B’s attention turns a “helpless and even worthless young Body” into a soul, she notes, with an identity and a center that coheres. It might be going too far to claim that her innocence has its origin in his delinquency; but he is probably as much the source of it as her parents and God, the other two things Pamela loves so much. Pamela loves them because they make her aware of her innocence, which makes her aware of herself as a separate self, an individual whose “soul is of equal importance with the Soul of the Princess.” But this is the paradox that makes this book so interesting: Pamela becomes a worthy soul, an individual soul by becoming an “equal” soul, a soul that is quantitatively the same as someone else’s. If souls are virtue and virtue is equal only to its reward, than this paradox is impossible to surmount, you become a somebody by being somebody else. You become Pamela by becoming Mrs. B. You become a complete individual by being a better cog in the machine, by disappearing into the role assigned you. The book immerses in the subjective perceptions of what it is like to be an object, what it is like to finally accept yourself as an object, a pawn of God’s Providence. Pamela finally writes herself, over the course of pages and pages, into nothing; she writes to foster her resistance to Mr. B, and those writings then eliminate what had to be resisted; her written words are given credit for reforming Mr. B, though this is a pretty dubious reformation. It’s Pamela who changes in writing. If we make the claim that her identity appears in her writing, then it is an identity that seeks to annihilate itself. Providence, if it operates, leaves no place for individual identity, any more than a well-run company does—it needs interchangable parts.

Like any worker, Pamela needs to feel valued and rewarded, yet she can’t have too much of a sense of her own agency. Richardson solves this problem by having Providence and that proxy for it, God-given beauty, weigh heavily in her destiny. With beauty comes responsibility, Mr. B points out, through words and deeds—responsibility for his lechery and his reform. Beauty, Mr. B seems to think, generates certain responsibilities in its possessor to be compliant. This seems to be the source of what Mr. B terms her hypocrisy. Her beauty leaves Mr. B “bewitched,” and having created this in him, she must be able to remedy it, or accept the consequences of it, or else she becomes a hypocrite. (In Pamela’s eyes it works like this, though: her beauty is what allows her to have any kind of pride, and that pride is then used to disavow the importance of her beauty, that she is more than that.) The management lesson? Use your employees abilities against them; make them believe that they owe it to themselves to let you exploit their capabilities to the maximum.

This is drifting off topic a bit, but there’s a famous scene in the novel when Mr. B catches Pamela in her peasant clothes and finds himself “inflamed.” What she thought would be a more fitting a natural way to present herself is taken by Mr. B as a scheme—he denies her the ability to achieve naturalness, to feel authentic in herself. The scene is interesting because it conflates disguises, identity and beauty all together. Mr. B sees her and pretends to think she is someone else to allow himself some liberties with her. Pamela protests her identity: “I am Pamela, indeed I am: Indeed I am Pamela, her own self!” The clothes she wears threaten to steal her identity from her; she is in danger in becoming merely what she appears, with no consistent core or center. The disguise one appears in dictates how one is to be treated, or how one is to be treated. Pamela, in trying to dress in a way she feels is appropriate to her station suddenly becomes less herself to Mr. B. She tries to explain to him about how she had been in disguise, and that she is now more herself, but he end result is to give us a sense that all is a shift of disguises with shifting perspectives. Implied is that Pamela’s beauty somehow disguises her true nature, as it invites assaults upon itself that she doesn’t wish, while at the same time, those assaults are necessary to establish that virtue. Perhaps that is why only the beautiful can be truly virtuous. Beauty becomes the necessary prerequisite for proving virtue. Her beauty becomes the costume or disguise which paradoxically provides her with a sense of herself, even while she feels the stability of that sense slipping out of her control. She wants to look like who she is, but who she looks like, the effects of her look are not hers to determine. Anyway, Pamela feels that her identity, as she has pictured it, has been stolen from her in some way, reduced to a disguise, but Mr. B tells her that she has “robb’d” him—stolen from him his peace of mind, I suppose, and his wish to see her in the way he wants. Mrs. Jervis tells her that “you owe some of the danger to the lovely Appearance you made.” Pamela claims she “expected no Effect from them, but if any, a quite contrary one.” This is quite a typical claim of Pamela’s. First she disavows any agency or intent—what she does is for herself, but then she confesses the truth, that she wanted to affect Mr. B with her humility.

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Friday, Jul 13, 2007

Comedian Bill Maher continues to captivate audiences with his witty jabs at both the American government and American culture. Previously, Bill Maher hosted the political talk show, Politically Incorrect, but after a comment about the 9/11 attacks six days later, ABC cancelled his show. To ensure this does not happen again, Maher moved to HBO to host Real Time with Bill Maher, a show lacking censorship and commercial breaks.  Currently, while his show is on hiatus, Bill Maher performs stand-up comedy, bringing the same politically edgy attitude he has always brought.

His “New Rules” segment from March 15th:

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Friday, Jul 13, 2007

You might have read in a recent New Yorker article reporting that General Antonio Taguba faced retaliation for exposing Abu Ghraib prison abuses, but did you know that Taguba is “regarded as a hero in the Filipino community for the stance he took”?

Taguba’s Filipino pride, as well as his leadership in seeking benefits for Filipino veterans of the second world war who fought alongside American soldiers in the Pacific Theater, are among the topics explored in New America Media.

New America Media is a website of ethnic news that features original reporting as well as articles culled from some 700 media organizations, ranging from to the Korea Times to Hispanic Business to the Washington Informer (African-American) and many, many others.

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Thursday, Jul 12, 2007

Man it’s hot. To paraphrase Ms. Lulu Fortune, it’s more blistering than Georgia asphalt. The whole country has been gripped by that most uncomfortable of seasonal slights – the heat wave – and while the North can expect a respite come September, those of us in the more temperate part of the nation will be sweating like overweight businessmen well into November. Add on the yet to begin hurricane season and it feels like Summer is just getting…warmed up (Sorry). Anyway, here’s a good way to beat the sun’s incessant rays – take in a film. If you don’t’ have adequate air conditioning (or the means to afford it), the Cineplex is usually ice cold and loaded down with some nifty blockbuster quaffs. If, on the other hand, your central system can manage the triple digit temperatures – well, it might be good to get out after all. The premium movie channels are back in the doldrums this week, tossing out a few off-title treats that more or less died at the box office. But if you’re stuck inside this 14 July, you may be able to find some relief – environmentally and entertainment wise – from these rather slim pickings:

Premiere Pick
My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Uma Thurman should be a superstar. Not that she isn’t already, but it seems odd that the woman behind pivotal roles in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill would still be slugging away in under-developed dreck like this. At the core of this film is a very interesting idea – how would a superhero live amongst real people (in this case, already jaded New Yorkers) and deal with her depressing love life. Unfortunately, director Ivan Reitman, a one time comic genius, decided to bring the horribly miscast Luke Wilson along for the answer. The results are some of the least funny moments in a recent Tinsel Town laughfest. While she retains most of her dignity, Thurman is also lost, relying on quirks and tics to take the place of actually character development. And the storyline is so sloppy – we are introduced to a villain (played by a lax Eddie Izzard) and yet the good vs. evil dynamic fades into more romantic ridiculousness. As spectacle, it’s stunted. As entertainment, it’s even worse. (14 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices

Who, exactly, are Broken Lizard, and more importantly, why do they keep getting chances to make movies? Artist like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch have to struggle to finance their films, and yet this so-called comedy troupe has had three flaccid projects greenlit – Super Troopers, Club Dread and this inconsistent alcohol comedy. The plot has a pair of brothers competing in a German Fight Club style drinking competition. Sounds like a subpar Simpsons episode gone even more sophomoric. (14 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

All The King’s Men

For a long time, it was poised as guaranteed Oscar bait. Even with its remake status, no one could imagine Arthur Penn Warren’s political drama being bad. But somehow, Steve Zaillian found a way to reduce the narrative into a series of grandstanding stunts. Sean Penn is pretty good as Willy Stark, but the rest of his co-stars seem blindsided by the Louisiana heat. They’re so under-baked it’s like watching dough deliver dialogue. The best advice is to enter at your own risk. (14 July, Starz, 9PM EST)


In the Mix

Here’s a horrible idea done just as ineffectually. R&B star Usher is a DJ (big stretch) who inadvertently helps a young woman one night. Turns out she’s a mobster’s daughter, and he’s repaid for the favor by becoming her bodyguard. Huh? Anyway, this lame rom com is further proof of director Ron Underwood’s (City Slickers) fall from grace. Guess helming The Adventures of Pluto Nash will do that to you. (14 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick

As the first installment of what would later be dubbed ‘The Death Trilogy’ (along with the Columbine inspired Elephant and the Kurt Cobain fantasy biopic Last Days), Hollywood heavyweight Gus Van Zant tried to reconnect to his indie roots with this luminous two person drama. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon are pals out on a desert hike, wandering aimlessly like a couple of post-modern Godot watchers. Unfortunately, neither one brought any food or water, and as the elements start to take their toll, the duo must improvise ways of dealing with the harsh habitat that is swallowing them whole. Before long, fatigue sets in, and the pair is faced with very hard, very human choices. Such a shocking change of pace from his trite Tinsel Town efforts (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, the Psycho remake), this is the Van Zant that critics first fell in love with – beautiful, demanding, abstract and incredibly powerful. (18 July, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Who Gets to Call It Art?

Ever wonder how modern art, with its convention breaking canvases and radical aesthetic ideas, got its start? Oddly enough, almost all major inroads lead to Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler. During the ‘60s, New York’s fledgling bohemian scene was expanding in dozens of different directions – and Geldzahler was there to chronicle it all. Perhaps no other person did more to legitimize the many differing styles and conceits. He remains a crucial link in non-traditional technique’s eventual acceptance. (16 July, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

CSA: The Confederate States of America

Here’s a great bit of speculative satire – what if the South, not the North, had won the Civil War? What would America look like today with an antebellum administration in place? Filmmaker Kevin Willmott concocted this brash mock documentary, a Ken Burns like ‘what if” that examines the aftereffects of a Dixie victory. Of course, there is still slavery. And the horrifyingly racist products presented actually derive from our own real history. (16 July, IFC, 11PM EST)

Darwin’s Nightmare

Brought to Africa in the ‘40s and ‘50s to help wipe out hunger, the Nile Perch has created quite the opposite – a major natural disaster. It destroyed all other native species, and yet European markets have only increased demand. The local residents are left with nothing – no financial windfall, no fish, no natural resources to rely on. This brutal documentary, laying the blame at the feet of many, pulls no punches as it examines the horrendous exploitation of the region. (17July, Sundance Channel, 9:35PM EST)

Outsider Option
200 Motels

Frank Zappa was never what one would call a conventional musician, so its only right that his motion picture output would be equally unusual. Take this bizarre quasi-performance piece. While on tour with the Mothers of Invention in the early ‘70s, the madman virtuoso decided to chronicle life on the road. Of course, he decided to channel it via his own unique perspective and filter it through the last dying vestiges of the imploding counterculture.  The end result is a surreal stream of consciousness loaded with sex, drugs, and Zappa’s own brand of usual rock and roll. The narrative – the band’s search to get paid and laid – is secondary to all the hallucinatory visuals, wild casting choices (Keith Moon? Ringo Starr? Theodore Bickel?), and overall feeling of excessive experimentation. Not usually listed among the essential music-based movies of all time, the decades have helped temper many of the late luminary’s movie’s more outrageous aspects. Some, believe it or not, are now quite quaint. (15 July, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula/ Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter

Whoever concocted the idea of a Western melded with a crappy creature feature deserves a motion picture medal – or a good beating. Actually, William “One Shot” Beaudine was behind this ditzy double feature, the last in a very long line of fringe films. Neither is very good, either as horse opera or horror, but the truth is that the inherent wackiness of the premises helps pull the audience along – if only barely. (13 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Friday the 13th Part III

Among all the Jason Voorhees inspired sequels, this third journey into the murderous Camp Crystal Lake featured a novelty outside the standard slice and dice narrative – 3D! That’s right, the original theatrical release relied on that old ‘50s cinematic stunt to lure audiences. It made for some obvious camera tricks (items zooming directly toward the lens) and a few nasty innovations (can you say flying eyeball?). (14 July, American Movie Classics, 12:15AM EST)

Broadway Danny Rose

It’s perhaps the last pure comedy American auteur Woody Allen ever created, a fully realized vision of awkward acts, tacky talent agents, and the mafia connections floating between the two. While Mr. Annie Hall is excellent as the nebbish artist’s representative, it’s former flame Mia Farrow who really shines as a gum-smacking moll with a soft spot for lifelong losers. (18 July, Indieplex, 7:30PM EST)


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