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Thursday, May 17, 2007


It’s time to get out that eye patch, warm up some scurvy, and preen your shoulder parrot as pirates rule the roost this weekend. In preparation for what promises to be one of those ‘record breaking’ stints at the Cineplex come 25 May, Starz is offering the pay cable premiere of a certain House of Mouse franchise flick. It remains one of those flummoxing cinematic flukes – Disney destroys its legacy with an attraction-based Country Bears effort and an equally awful Haunted Mansion mess, but then takes a bunch of cutthroat scallywags and an actor unknown for his box office appeal and manages to create one of the biggest cinematic cash machines EVER. And with the final (?) installment just seven short days away, you’ll be up to your ears in buccaneers for the next several media cycles. So grab your bottle of rum and work on your ‘yo ho hos’ as SE&L sums up the choices the week of 19 May in one simple soundbite – ARRRRR!:


Premiere Pick
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest


This is SE&L‘s selection for most unnecessarily maligned ‘good’ movie of 2006. Why the vast majority of writers constantly picked this film apart when it was actually an excellent throwback to the blockbusters of days gone by remains a mystery. Granted, anytime a stand-alone epic (The Matrix, Spider-Man) suddenly shifts into a multi-installment franchise, the narrative dynamic gets complicated and confused. But the amount of invention and visual innovation offered by director Gore Verbinski should be enough to overcome such plot point shimmying. And when you add in the still sensational performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, only the most cynical of self-stylized critics should complain. Now, just in time for the final film in the ‘trilogy’, Starz premieres this wonderfully engaging entertainment. Perhaps Public Enemy said it best when they warned “don’t believe the hype”. In this case, it’s a sentiment that applies equally to things labeled both bad and good. (19 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
V for Vendetta


Many predicted this pointed political commentary would fail to generate much motion picture interest, especially with Matrix makers The Wachowski Brothers behind the scenes. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of 2005’s best films. While the small screen may lessen some of the story’s sizeable impact, this visually arresting offering speaks volumes about our current social status – and the threats that lie both without, and within. (19 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

Waist Deep


It’s hard to know what to make of this movie. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with a mindless action thriller where a helpless individual (in this case, an ex-con trying to go straight) gets caught up in a crime (a carjacking) that results in a personal score to settle (the kidnapping of his son). Still, many criticized this ‘gansta’ take on the subject, pointing out its farcical, fictional facets. (19 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Mission Impossible III


A certain couch jumping Scientologist took a lot of heat for this proposed blockbuster’s saggy performance at the box office. In reality, it was the franchise, not the famous face, that needed overhauling. Mission Impossible 1 & 2 were both overdone contrivances that substituted uber-complex narratives for suspense.  Lost/Alias’ J.J. Abrams tried to inject new life into the series with a more straightforward approach. It almost worked. (19 May, ShowTOO, 7:55PM EST)

Indie Pick
Marebito


Proving he is the master of Asian creepiness, Ju-On creator Takashi Shimizu took the eight day break he earned before helming the American remake The Grudge to shoot this sly, suspenseful story about a fear obsessed free lance photographer and an unsettling urban legend about a demonic presence in the Tokyo subway system. Avoiding his usual ‘silence is scarier’ mandate, Shimizu has his lead narrate every aspect of the adventure, and there are moments of disturbing gore, another element usually missing in the J-Horror paradigm. In fact, it’s a shame how this filmmaker has been marginalized ever since he helped create the Far East horror fad. Efforts like this and the recent Reincarnation prove that there is more to Shimizu than stringy haired spooks doing the spider crawl down a set of stairs. Don’t be surprised when he ends up a formidable movie macabre force OUTSIDE of the foreign film category. (20 May, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Additional Choices
Lost Highway


David Lynch’s disjointed masterpiece remains as stunningly convoluted as ever - never mind the myriad of words written about its supposed meaning. Like a fever dream folded onto itself and then buried in battery acid, this bifurcated tale of a man charged with murder and his sudden “shift” into a mechanic making time with a mob moll is so outrageous it defies defense – that is, until you realized how mesmerized you are by what’s happening onscreen. (20 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

When We Were Kings


He remains one of sports’ most powerful symbols, and this staggering documentary about his heavyweight fight against George Forman in Zaire, Africa proves that point with crystal clarity. Mohammed Ali’s arrival for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was just the beginning of a whirlwind expression of hype, hero worship, and hope, culminating in the entire nation rallying around the champ. It set up a perfect pugilist backstory, making the bout itself that much more important. (21 May, Sundance, 10:30PM EST)

The Station Agent


The remarkable Peter Dinklage is a little person who takes the loss of his business partner quite badly. Moving into the abandoned train station he inherited from his friend, he longs to live an isolated, hermetical existence. Unfortunately, he runs into a confused couple who have their own issues to deal with. The result is one of 2003’s most genuinely affecting films. (23 May, IFC, 5:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Duel


He was young, cocky, and out to prove himself. Luckily, the suits over at Universal were more than willing to give the young directorial novice a shot. After all, he had done some great work in their episodic series, so why not let him helm a standard suspense TV movie. Little did they know that they were about to launch the career of one of Hollywood’s true legendary commercial filmmakers. Steven Spielberg’s taut little thriller remains an amazing accomplishment when you consider his age (he was 25 at the time) and his experience. Still, many swear that the techniques he developed here are easily identifiable in his later, more mainstream triumphs. With a great performance by Dennis Weaver and lots of nail-biting road rages, this is one fun first film. (24 May, Retroplex, 11:40PM EST)

Additional Choices
Electra Glide in Blue


After showing up on Canada’s Drive-In Classics channel, its now time for this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 to get a Rob Zombie-less airing. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (18 May, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Tom and Viv


Willem Dafoe is Tom Elliot. Miranda Richardson is his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. He ends up becoming prized poet TS Elliot. She slowly devolves into madness and delusion. Chronicling the couple’s life together, this intriguing 1994 film avoided a great many of the period piece pitfalls inherent in such a story. The Oscar nominated performances helped as well. (22 May, Indieplex, 7PM EST)

Face


The serial killer film has been floundering of late. Perhaps filmmakers could take away a few lessons from this satisfying Korean horror saga. Directed by Sang-Gon Yoo and focusing on a maniac who murders his victims and burns off their faces with acid, some find the CSI material more intriguing than the supernatural elements. But most agree that, in a genre were the redundant and the dull have ruled the day, this is a novel, noble attempt at something different. (22 May, Starz 5 Cinema, 1:15PM EST)

 


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Thursday, May 17, 2007

In their inimitable style, Becker and Posner, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of dry libertarian analysis, take on the question of the value of higher education, having earlier discussed the dubiousness of the U.S. News and World Report school rankings (schools can game the system in response to the more or less arbitrary way they are determined). Posner finds that college is mainly a way for businesses to offload the costs of screening potential applicants to the state and the potential employee.


Colleges and graduate (including professional) schools provide a screening and certifying function. Someone who graduates with good grades from a good college demonstrates intelligence more convincingly than if he simply tells a potential employer that he’s smart; and he also demonstrates a degree of discipline and docility, valuable to employers, that a good performance on an IQ test would not demonstrate. (This is an important point; if all colleges did was separate the smart from the less smart, college would be an inefficient alternative to simple testing.) An apprentice system would be a substitute ... but employers naturally prefer to shift a portion of the cost of screening potential employees to colleges and universities. Because those institutions are supported by taxpayers and alumni as well as by students, employers do not bear the full cost of screening.


Because college performs this screening function regardless of whether what you learn has any relevance to anything—the substance of education is meaningless since its function is primarily to signal how well you can follow directions and work the bureaucracy. So if Posner is right, fights over the canon of what gets taught is essentially an academic parlor game with little ramifications beyond whose ego is assuaged.


Posner also argues that college is privately useful but far from a collective good, as the ceaseless calls from politicians for more college graduates might lead you to believe.


I am skeptical that it should be a national priority, or perhaps any concern at all, to increase the number of people who attend or graduate from college. Presumably the college drop-outs, and the kids who don’t go to college at all, do not expect further education to create benefits commensurate with the cost, including the foregone earnings from starting work earlier. This would be an entirely rational decision for someone who was not particularly intelligent and who did not anticipate network benefits from continued schooling because the students with whom he would associate would not form a valuable network of which he would be a part, either because he could not get into a good school, in the sense of one populated by highly promising students, or because if he did get into a good school the other students in the school would not consider him worth networking with.


He’s perfectly to leave the “not particularly intelligent” to their rational choices—one thing this line of argument illustrates is the difference between intelligence (a socially useful ability) and rationality (mental biofeedback). But it is also pretty harsh, indicative of the Brave New Worldish thinking that inevitably haunts meritocracy, a sense that there is a biological destiny behind one’s place in society and it does little good—is downright irrational—to fight it by, say, trying to get an education.


The marginal students are unlikely to be kids who, with a little more education, would make the kind of contribution to society that a worker is unable to capture in his wage. Nor are these marginal students likely to be educated into an interest in political and societal matters that will make them more conscientious voters or otherwise better citizens.


These marginal types are society’s Epsilons, and we shouldn’t waste money trying to change that even if they don’t have the good sense to accept it.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Before the days of DVD, when commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes were restricted to the occasional Criterion laserdisc, the only way to get the making-of scoop on your favorite troubled production or flamboyant film personality was to actually pick up a book and read. Indeed, this sort of non-fiction reportage had the specific goal to lifting the lid on major motion pictures (especially highly publicized fiascos and flops) and the people who made them, providing the insider information that studio publicity people fought so stridently to restrict. Even today, in the tell-all tabloid nature of the media, there are many untold stories, onset situations and backstage dramas that never get divulged. So it’s up to the willing journalist to smoke out the scandal and discover the real reasons why a tripwire talent implodes, or a promising production ends up causing chaos – both critically and commercially.


However, the low down dirt is not always found in a detail-oriented dissertation or an interview-laden overview. Instead, several famous faces have decided to expose themselves, giving incredible insight into the mechanics of moviemaking – the dizzying highs and the Hellish lows. Even the standard biography, crafted by someone on the outside looking in, can offer a wealth of worthwhile context. It’s just a matter of picking through the glorified love letters and pasted together products to find something that supplies both substance and spice. While the following list is far from all inclusive, it does represent the kind of benchmark these books should strive for. Indeed, after paging through any or all of these varied volumes, you’ll be a much more qualified film fanatic. Without them, you’re just a sham cinephile. Let’s begin with:


Shock Value by John Waters (1981)


The man responsible for the bad taste triumphs Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble has actually led a life as interesting – or in some cases, more so – than his famously campy trash classics. From a childhood fascination with car accidents to an ongoing obsession with crime, this collection of clever essays touches on all aspects of his career, including in-depth descriptions of his various low budget epics.

Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach (1986)


After taking home Oscar gold for his grossly overrated The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino had his heart set of making a post-modern Western revolving around a mythic range war between cattlemen and immigrant farmers. Unfortunately, his attention to obsessive detail bankrupted the production and destroyed a studio. One of the most notorious cases in all of cinema, Steven Bach’s brilliant breakdown stands as an amazing must-read.

The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon (1991)


If you want a blueprint for how a high concept adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel can go horribly, horribly wrong, look no further than this intriguing take on the Brian DePalma disaster known as Bonfire of the Vanities. Salamon doesn’t hold back, offering scathing criticism of everyone involved, saving special ire for the idiots who took Thomas Wolfe’s tome and robbed it of all its social satire.

Step Right Up!: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America by William Castle (1992)


As the king of hucksters, the bad boy of ballyhoo, William Castle turned borderline b-movie garbage into sensational cinematic schlock thanks to his various inventive promotional gimmicks. Here, in his own words, he explains his profession both behind and in support of the camera, and argues that all movies would benefit from his concrete carnival barker approach. In retrospect, he couldn’t have been more right.

Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher (1998)


Long before the controversial film hit theaters, Natural Born Killers had a simmering scandal going on behind the scenes. Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino was livid at how director Oliver Stone had eviscerated his original vision, and he was taking it out on producers Don Murphy and Hamsher. In this wonderfully vitriolic bit of backwards glancing, we learn that Hollywood is actually ruled by two things – money, and unchecked hubris.

 


A Youth in Babylon by David F. Friedman (1998)


He is known as the Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Game, and after reading this amazing autobiography, it’s not hard to see why. A confirmed carny at heart, Friedman helped form the 40 Thieves, a band of producers who prowled the unheralded underbelly of the taboo-busting genre, and created the grindhouse ideal that’s recently become a cultural lynchpin. A great man, and an even better storyteller.

The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut by Jack Matthews (2000)


Terry Gilliam’s career has been a contentious and continuous war between artistic merits and artificial mandates – none more notorious than his confrontation with Universal head Sid Sheinberg over the director’s brilliant dsytopic fantasy. From the role played by the LA film critics to the full page ad antagonism used by Gilliam to embarrass the corporate head, this is as perplexingly personal as the film business gets.


Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga by Andrew Yule (2000)


After his less than happy experience with his previous spectacle, Terry Gilliam was hoping that this adventure romp centering on the famed Germanic fairytale legend would be smooth sailing. Instead, it turned into one of the more infamous production nightmares in moviemaking history. Everything that could go wrong did, from unseasonable weather to financing in freefall. Unlike Brazil, however, the battle was all on set.


The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough (2001)


He’s one of exploitation’s unsung heroes, a director who lived the psychosexual potboilers he wrote and directed. In fact, had he not been aiming at the needs of the metropolitan raincoat crowd, Milligan may be viewed today in a similar light as Kenneth Anger or The Kuchar Brothers. Instead, he is continually categorized by his association with softcore cinema. Thanks to his amazing bio, his reputation can finally be rebuilt.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell (2002)


Somewhere, in one of the special circles of Hell, there is a place for every studio executive or foolish filmmaker who ever denied the vainglorious appeal of our man Ash. Campbell’s amusing memoirs are so self-deprecating that you wonder if he’s ever really serious. Then you read between the lines and see a savvy performer who’s more than content to pave his own way through the Tinsel Town jungle.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.


Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.


If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.


One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?


Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.


At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:


  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 


A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 


 


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
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