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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Oakley Hall —"No Dreams"


From I’ll Follow You on Merge Records Oakley Hall’s I’ll Follow You, their fourth full length and first for Merge Records, is the crowning achievement in a headspinning 18 months that saw the band release two LPs, Second Guessing and Gypsum Strings—both mainstays on many critic’s best of 2006 lists—and emerge from the Brooklyn underground on several national tours with the likes of M. Ward, The Constantines, Calexico, and most recently with Bright Eyes and Gillian Welch.


Rose Hill Drive —"Man on Fire"


From Rose Hill Drive on Megaforce Records It can be said that a true artist can only be judged by its live abilities. Rose Hill Drive took this maxim and put it to the test before ever releasing an album. The band built an enormous underground fan base with thrilling live shows, with lyrics that connect, and with a completely earnest approach. It’s a re-awakening of the spirit of music that motivates this band, and Rose Hill Drive’s spiritual connection with its congregation remains unparalleled. This organic and grass roots process has let the fans and then the music business come to them. It’s very important to the band that it happened in that order -– music first, business later.


AA Bondy —"There’s a Reason"


From American Hearts on Superphonic Records Recorded and mixed in a month at The Red Barn in Palenville, NY in January 2007, American Hearts is dark and sardonic but it’s not as claustrophobic, tortured nor troubled as you’d expect. The record is actually quite beautifully stark and stripped-down and well played, filled with great melodies and warm production. The songs are wonderfully influenced by an amalgam of folk and blues, filtered through the mind of someone who knows what makes a great rock song breathe.


Imperial Teen —"Shim Sham"


From The Hair The TV The Baby & The Band on Merge Records Imperial Teen is back!! With sly style and knowing sass, Will, Roddy, Jone and Lynn return with their trademark infectious hooks and impeccable pop sensibilities. Let the party begin!!


Caribou —"Melody Day"


From Andorra on Merge Records From its humble beginnings with the theft of a sampler gathering dust in his high school’s music department, through four acclaimed albums and an absurd collision with a litigious wrestler, Dan Snaith’s (aka Caribou) musical life has followed anything but a predictable trajectory.


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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007

Why would anyone buy a digital book reader? I found myself asking this question while reading this somewhat nonsensically titled BusinessWeek piece, “Making Digital Books into Page Turners.” (Huh? I guess they thought best-seller and head turner were too cliche, so they went for an only tangentially related set phrase. Does “Turning the Page on Digital Books” make more sense?)


The market for digital books is nascent, and Sony, despite the Reader’s less-than-splashy debut, still sees its potential, believing people will eventually warm to reading on a flat screen everything from books to the magazine you’re holding now.


The strange thing is, I’ve already got a machine that can do this, and in fact I read those very words on its screen. I wasn’t holding a magazine at all! No, I’m not a magician or a time traveler from the future; I’ve got this thing called a “laptop” and it can do many other neat things beside display the pages of a book. It displays these things called “web pages” that have all sorts of information on them, and I can even use what’s known as a “search engine” to find just about any information I want. When prices of cheap laptops are going ever downward, who the hell wants a stupid toy that only displays proprietary pages? What was in Sony’s mind, besides greed, when it decided to limit its digital reader to its files alone? When will media companies get it that no one is going to pay for digital information the way they did for collectible things?


Book buyers like to collect things; reading the books is somewhat incidental. If they wanted merely to read, they could go to library. And no one likes reading on screens; they will do it however if the content is free. They are never, ever, going to pay the same amount for a digital book, as Sony seems to expect, as they would for a real one—they will not pay for the eyestrain and the absence of an object to arrange on their bookshelves. Only when real books cost $150 will people consent to explore the possiblities of digital ones for $20. And at that point, people will have mastered the art of distributing books as pdfs anyway. I’m sure you could search torrent sites now for pdfs of just about any best-seller as well as just about any magazine. People will go to the trouble if its free. If they wanted to pay, they would buy the actual object. So this makes no sense:


To stoke sales, Sony has knocked $50 off its original price for the Reader and rolled out a new print ad campaign in publications such as The New York Times (NYT ), USA Today, and Vanity Fair. As part of this marketing push, Sony is offering new buyers, who are also registered Connect users, credit for 100 free classic titles, such as Great Expectations and Moby-Dick. “In terms of timing, with people going back to school, there is a lot of interest in classic literature,” said Jim Malcolm, director of marketing for Sony Electronics. “It gives people an incentive to buy.”


But you can download classic novels, for which there is no copyright, for free already. You can get many of them in cheap print editions as well.


Perhaps Sony has seen what digital music has done to company balance sheet and are trying to get ahead of the curve. The digital-music-marketplace logic seems to be this: when distribution costs zero, you only have to sell a few to be profitable. So then if you can guilt some small proportion of the public into paying for digital content with the intellectual-property boogeyman or the specter of your crack legal team, you might still have a viable business. But music and books are not particularly comparable goods. Music affords an immediate experience and often serves as a backdrop for setting a mood or manifesting an identity. Books require attention, a commodity becoming rarer all the time. When people have the attention to pay, they’ll invest it in such a way to maximize the pleasure and utility it affords them—that means getting comfortable with a printed book, or getting utilitarian with a wide array of digital materials to that may be cut and pasted and reincorporated in whatever it is the user is trying to accomplish.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007


Sometimes, dumb is all you need. Not a Larry the Cable Guy level of retardation, or a Carrot Top concept of the doltish. No, what really gives the cinematic pallet a high-quality cleansing is a ripe old fashioned dose of certifiable stupid. And Balls of Fury is that heaping helping of sensational single digit IQ-uity. Actually, it’s unfair to call this witty, borderline satiric spoof of martial arts movies and sports films brainless. It’s actually very smart in its silliness, a good natured goof that wants to earn its hilarity any witty way it can. Yes, it’s frequently sophomoric and slightly scatological, and it riffs on so many comic cross references that you can get lost in all the homages, but the fact remains, this is a wonderfully effective little film. It’s the kind of insane entity that will probably get lost in all the summer shilling. But here’s betting it becomes a major cult classic once it dives onto the digital domain.


In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him – his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon). Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant - who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in – the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! – that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here. For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers – mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand up God Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight – and slightly overweight - sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation. We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses its way about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it just appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before our long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime. In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career. They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success – or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?


After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin’s excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin’s ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It’s an original, complex, moving book.


Possible spoilers ahead


The Night Listenerby Armistead MaupinBantam2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it’s almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.


Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It’s difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film’s opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.


Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can’t get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.


Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete’s existence drives the book. It’s a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone’s relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It’s very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it’s so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.


The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone’s driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid’s existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid’s mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book’s final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man’s creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn’t want to create doubt. In the book, Noone’s quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what’s real and what isn’t in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.


And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid’s mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she’s apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.


Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen “that didn’t happen!”, “this isn’t right!”, “what’s happening to this beautiful story?”


It’s a real mystery.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

The political reaction to the recent credit crisis has been in some ways predictable: Democrats (like Barney Frank in this FT editorial) have called for more regulation of rapacious, predatory lending markets that thrive on the ignorance or irrationality of their victims, while conservatives defend the ability of markets to sort out their own problems without government intervention or “nannying.” We wouldn’t want to hamper the innovation of financiers with regulatory impediments. That stance gets trickier, though, when it comes to what they argue the Fed should do. Wall Street types tend to cheer for a rate cut because it stimulates growth, which they are positioned to capitalize on. But the intellectually consistent—the ecnono-conservatives—want to see the Fed, like lawmakers, do nothing (not cut the federal funds rate, that is), thereby letting those who got themselves into trouble with reckless borrowing or financing be punished. This, the argument goes, will prevent moral hazard—the danger of lending recklessly because one is confident that the Fed will bail them out of any real trouble with a rate cut, the same way wearing a seat belt is presumed by some to make one a more reckless driver. Fed watcher James Grant, in a NYT editorial on Sunday, got into this:


What could account for the weakness of our credit markets? Why does the Fed feel the need to intervene at the drop of a market? The reasons have to do with an idea set firmly in place in the 1930s and expanded at every crisis up to the present. This is the notion that, while the risks inherent in the business of lending and borrowing should be finally borne by the public, the profits of that line of work should mainly accrue to the lenders and borrowers.


Nanny conservatives (as economist Dean Baker has styled them)—the bad-faith free marketeers who want profit without risk—expect government bailouts for poorly judged risks taken with ridiculous leverage but then fret and fulminate over “wasting” money on “handouts” to the poor. So it’s nice to see some commentators stick to their guns, even to the point of arguing that a recession might do the U.S. some good, as the Economist does in its most recent issue.


The economic and social costs of recession are painful: unemployment, lower wages and profits, and bankruptcy. These cannot be dismissed lightly. But there are also some purported benefits. Some economists believe that recessions are a necessary feature of economic growth. Joseph Schumpeter argued that recessions are a process of creative destruction in which inefficient firms are weeded out. Only by allowing the “winds of creative destruction” to blow freely could capital be released from dying firms to new industries.


This logic would seem to be even more persuasive with regard to the current problems in the credit market, which are a matter not of misallocated capital but mostly what might be considered phantom capital—paper assets generated by the loose money regime that has prevailed for the past half decade. What better than to blow away the profits investment banks secured without verifying the value of the underlying assets backing their loans—assets that vanished with the subprime borrower’s ability to make payments on a rejiggered ARM loan. Unfortunately these nonexistent assets were crafted (then aggregated and leveraged and collateralized and so on) from the toil of overstretched borrowers who seemed to have little idea of what they were getting into. Anecdotal reports suggest that many marginal mortgage borrowers were assured about the plausibility of their being able to make their payments by lenders who probably barely believed what they were saying. If the Fed bails out the financial sector with rate cuts, little of that benefit will trickle down to the borrowers already foreclosed upon, though the lenders will have already moved on to another round of victims, with fresh new cheap interest rates to tout.


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