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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reflections on Student Media

Here we go again. Another college administration is sabotaging its student newspaper.

At St. Louis University, a college board recently gave administrators approval to rescind the newspaper’s charter, which was written by students, and write a new one. College officials have stated this move will improve the overall quality of the newspaper. Students argue it is a veiled form of censorship aimed at a newspaper that has been critical of the administration and its decisions.


Examples of censorship and a “controlled press” on U.S. campuses abound. Unfortunately, these threats to free speech and a free press are littering many bucolic campuses. At times, it sadly seems that those campuses whose administrations don’t interfere with their students’ newspapers are becoming the exception and not the standard.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


If there is such a thing as a successful piecemeal horror film, 28 Weeks Later is it. A sequel in source only to the wildly inventive 2002 Danny Boyle classic, this latest twist on the zombie genre (Okay! Okay! Let’s just call them ‘murderous maniacs’ and be done with it, all right?) suffers from a great many missteps. It gives us protagonists we really don’t care about, follows a very uncomfortable extreme vs. ennui narrative structure, and substitutes gallons of grue for ideas and innovation. And then there are the problems it could not have anticipated. Thanks to last year’s stunning Children of Men, the notion of a devastated UK as a symbol for social decline and war torn terrorism has already been purchased and spent. This makes any attempt at commentary by new director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo feel like a parable without a point.


We get off to a good start, however. It’s been several months since the outbreak of the Rage Virus in Great Britain and the US military has stepped in to start cleaning up the country. London itself is basically quartered off into two main areas – the danger free “Green Zone” (oh, how Iraq War) and everything else. Outside the boundaries of the tough talking, foul mouthed yanks, the countryside is crawling with the infected…as well as a few survivors. Don and Alice are two of the barricaded refugees, eking out a meager life inside a squalid yet secure cottage. They are joined by the home’s original owners, an elderly couple, as well as a pair of unidentified men. There is also a young woman whose boyfriend has gone out looking for help. Conversation naturally turns to this act of desperation, and after much hopeless banter, a knock at the door brings the group the latest in a seemingly neverending list of ‘do or die’ quandaries.


At this point, 28 Weeks Later makes its first minor fumble. The argument over who to let behind the intricate set of locks and barricades itself leads to a massive slaughter spree, and while the terror element is fantastic, the logical aspect is daft. One of the key flaws in this film is the idea that youth trumps everything. It is the reason Don and Alice end up staring into the face of horror yet again, and it will also become the catalyst for the film’s far more devastating plot decision. As stated before, the US military is envisioned as a sex obsessed, by the book battalion of bumblers who are supposed to guarantee the Green Zone’s security. Yet they can’t seem to stop a pair of pretentious kids from crossing over into danger. Backtracking for a moment, these juvenile lawbreakers are Don’s kids, released from a refugee camp in Spain and part of the lucky 15,000 individuals allowed back into London. So naturally, the first thing they want to do upon entering the country is sneak off to their old abode to snag some mementos.


It’s a jarring, unimaginable narrative fumble, the kind of logistical left turn that literally derails the film. In fact, it is so outrageously bad that Fresnadillo must spend the entire rest of the movie making up for it. And just as he almost succeeds, a second sloppy situation stuns the story. At that point, 28 Weeks Later is beyond saving. This is not to suggest what we have here is a horrendous flop. On the contrary, the visual elements employed and the generous amounts of inventive gore do a splendid job of supplementing our incredibly weak internal rationales. Even as more baffling incongruous coincidences occur (the kids found more than just keepsakes during their journey), leading to perhaps the most ludicrous re-infestation ever conceived for a fright film, the way Fresnadillo handles the artistic aspects is absolutely fascinating.


Still, there is a lot of ludicrousness to pardon here. Again, the Americans are looked upon as clueless, reduced to basically two surprisingly simple strategies – preserve order, or nuke everybody. When called to respond to the new epidemic, their carefully plotted out plan is basically this – unload your entire magazine into any crowd you see. Similarly, the lack of crystal clear characterization makes everyone’s motives seem suspect. Take the troublesome adolescent twosome. First they seem happy to be in England. Then they miss their ‘mum’. Then they act like spoiled little brats when they wind up in quarantine, and before long, their whimpering like whelps to be saved and protected. Similarly, our GI Joe hero shifts wildly from cocky to caring, arrogant to altruistic without a clear reason for the massive mood swings. The rest of the cast comes from the one note school of genre performance. They just keep hitting that single stance over and over again until we finally give up and concede the personality point.


There are reasons, however, to really like this scattershot effort. As stated before, Fresnadillo really wants to be a movie macabre innovator. He’s desperate to diffuse the typical dread dynamic by employing filming techniques that draw the audience right into the action. By mixing quick cutting, jagged handheld camerawork, mangled mise-en-scene and any other untested trick he can come up with, he allows us to experience both the fear and the frantic pace of a siege situation. Similarly, he uses this inventive approach to keep as much of the brutality intact as possible. There are sequences of violence in 28 Weeks Later that rival their literal zombie brethren in nastiness and effectiveness. Again, Fresnadillo must be livid that Grindhouse hit theaters first. His clever helicopter gag is actually better than Robert Rodriguez’s splatter session.


In addition, Fresnadillo is not afraid of flaunting convention. There are several moments in this movie where a firm foundation in standard Tinsel Town tendencies are tossed out the window in favor of shocking, sometimes sickening realities. No one is safe, anyone can die at any time, and the typical caveats against killing children, the innocent and the infirmed are almost wholly abandoned. Of course, for every shocking stance like this, we must suffer through a series of unbridled happenstances that are supposed to have some manner of emotional resonance. Instead, we as the audience become keenly aware that somewhere, in a studio bungalow, a group of screenwriters (four are credited here) actually concocted this forced accidental tripe. With an ending that’s uninvolving and kind of flat (never mind the direct rip off of Stephen King’s tunnel sequence from The Stand), and the purposeful placement of facets to form 28 MONTHS Later, what should have been a knock out can barely manage a decision on technical merits.


And yet there is something about 28 Weeks Later that definitely gets under your skin. Perhaps it’s the last remnants of Boyle’s initial inventive conceit. Maybe us horror fans are so sick of lackluster living dead movies that we will accept anything remotely resembling the genre just because it manages to be competently made and expertly manipulated. It could be the amount of bloodshed strewn across the screen, or the expressionistic way the violence is tempered (can’t wait for the UNRATED DVD edition). Whatever the case, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is definitely a filmmaker worth following. His future is very bright indeed. After this unexceptional sequel however, few will be anticipating another return to this fractured franchise.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

At BusinessWeek‘s website is this debate between economists Nouriel Roubini and Tyler Cowen about what, if anything, should be done about predatory lending. The debate hinges on whether it’s okay for firms to exploit the financial ignorance of a populace—whether it’s okay to base your business model on other people’s stupidity. In general, this seems bad to me, because it gives people a vested interest in the stupidity of others, which ultimately disserves society as a whole. the predatory lenders profit at the expense of the general well-being of society, assuming society profits from having smart people in it who understand how to make economic exchange more efficient and are more capable of watching out for their own interests. This is essentially what Roubini is arguing when he suggests unrest and misery in subprime credit markets can spill over and present us all with a recession. The ignorance of borrowers and the cupidity of lenders don’t merely affect those involved in the exploitative arrangements, but they have macro effects.


The case for predatory lending is that, well, they are better than loan sharks, to whom bad credit risks would have to turn for their needs. But this doesn’t address the real problem, which is how unscrupulous lenders use deceptive practices to put borrowers in debt traps. Borrowers fail to understand the ramifications of the loans they agree to and aren’t aware of alternatives. To Cowen, this is a matter of choices: some individuals choose to be ignorant (it costs more in time and effort than it is worth to them—financial stupidity is valuable), and choose bad loans, and we shouldn’t force them to do otherwise and trample on their right to make bad decisions. (Alas, freedom means freedom to fail.) Writes Cowen: “Government cannot protect us from every possible form of our own stupidity, and it’s often counter-productive for it to try.” The thing is, deception can make almost any of us look stupid after the fact; the line between deception and opportunity is hard to draw. Is hiding fees deceptive or just good business sense? The emotional pressures and desperation involved in emergency borrowing are sure to cloud judgment and invite lenders to cut corners or make misleading promises that may not be deceptive on paper but are surely deceptive in practice, in the moment. The definition of what constitutes deception can be especially nebulous, making it far from a simple proposition to restrict government’s role to be “to ensure transparency of terms and protect against fraud” as Cowen recommends.


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Monday, May 14, 2007


Saddle up shoppers – this is going to be one confusing (and cash draining) DVD roundup. On top of the titles chosen by SE&L as representing the releases to look out for, there are dozens of previously available offerings (Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, The Omega Man) making a reappearance on the medium for absolutely no good reason. In fact, we can’t tell if these are merely re-priced reprints looking for a little budget buying power, or barebones versions of still available special editions. Whatever the case, make sure you’re paying attention as you pick through the digital doggies waiting to be corralled. Indeed, you might wind up with a busted bronco instead of a magnificent mustang. Of course, you can avoid all the confusion and simply stick with this week’s prize pony, an overlooked masterwork that deserves to be the premium pick of 15 May:


The Fountain


Darren Aronofsky deserves SO much better. When he first pitched this time travel love story five years ago, he had Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and a $70 million budget ready to realize his dream. Come 2006, he had to settle for a magnificent Hugh Jackman, an equally radiant Rachel Weisz, and a clear critical and commercial conundrum. More or less dismissed during its theatrical release, what most audience members saw as self-indulgent and confusing was actually the makings of a post-modern masterpiece. There have been lots of cinematic stories about death and the loss of a loved one, but nothing has done a better job of tapping into the internal struggle over the acceptance of same than this fascinating film. Aronosfky’s decision to go as lo-tech as possible with his F/X gives the entire production an earthy, natural glow, and the passion between his characters is palpable. Ignore it if you must, but decades from now it will be listed among the medium’s greats. Guaranteed.

Other Titles of Interest


Becket


It contains a cast of British acting heavyweights – Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud – and a story of substantive historical significance. But when it came time for the 1965 Academy to divvy up trophies, its 12 nominations could only manage a single screenplay win. So what beat this otherwise exceptional period drama – why, the lightweight musical mediocrity known as My Fair Lady.

Bill


Okay, this was a TV movie, so we’re sort of violating our own ‘theatrical only’ rules. But Mickey Rooney was just so good as a mentally handicapped man finally escaping his life under institutional control. With a VERY young Dennis Quaid as the documentary filmmaker that helps Bill out, it remains a weeper that definitely earns its emotions. The sequel was equally satisfying.

The Dead Girl


A lot has been written about this under the radar indie drama – and almost all of it has been better than good. Using the identity of the title entity as a means of tying many divergent characters and storylines together, actress Karen Moncrieff’s second full length feature crackles with a complexity and collection of perfect performances that few Hollywood efforts just can’t achieve.

Pan’s Labyrinth


The left over Oscar argument from 2007 will always be whether Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others deserved to win the award for Best Foreign Film over this clear fan favorite. After revisiting it recently on home video, it is obvious that Guillermo Del Toro’s adult fairytale about war and sacrifice is a stellar motion picture. In fact, its timeless nature will keep it considered long after Lives is forgotten.

Stomp the Yard


The black college tradition of stepping definitely deserves more than this hackneyed formula film, especially given director Sylvain White’s remarkable way with a camera. He brings an energy and a vitality to the ‘dance’ sequences, experimenting with shot selection and post-production optics to tweak convention. Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection


Finally! Every other half-baked animated creature seems to be getting a major DVD release these days, and yet Tex Avery’s dour hound dog always gets left behind. It’s hard to describe what makes Droopy so incredible – his hurdy gurdy nerdy voice, the intensely violent physical comedy that forms his humor, or the hyper-stylized way Avery and his crew realized his pen and ink personality. Whatever the reasons, this two disc set – offering 24 theatrical shorts and a bevy of added content – promises to make fans of the zany animator and his prized pooch happy indeed. We here at SE&L are smiling all the way to the brick and mortar. Now, if they could only find a way to bring the complete Screwy Squirrel to the digital medium.

 


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Monday, May 14, 2007
by Edward Wasserman [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

The Wall Street Journal gave itself a black eye last month by withholding the sensational news that media baron Rupert Murdoch was trying to buy its owner, Dow Jones & Co. Murdoch submitted a $5 billion bid in mid-April to the Dow board. Journal editors learned about it around that time but didn’t tell their readers until after the story was broken by cable network CNBC two weeks later.


Why did the world’s top business newspaper sit on one of the year’s top business stories? The tale, disclosed initially not by the Journal, but by its uptown rival, The New York Times, is full of ironies: Murdoch emasculating the news organization he was pledging to protect; professional duty stumbling over company loyalty; a tenet of journalistic principle fashioned into a gag to silence a newsroom and keep it from its core mission—getting publicly significant information before the public.


Here’s what happened, according to The Times and a later account in the Journal.


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