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Saturday, Sep 30, 2006


It was meant to be the sword and sorcery equivalent of Star Wars (Jedi was about to break and finalize the trilogy), an epic fantasy that was part space opera, part Renaissance fair, and all speculative spectacle. What it ended up being was a massively hyped flop that saw more merchandising then moviegoers over the course of its limited box office run. Oddly enough, the most lasting element of this otherwise forgettable battle between good, evil and a strange circular weapon (called a “glaive”) was a video game that stormed arcades for months after the movie was more or less forgotten. Still, over the years, Krull has developed a determined following, devotees able to overlook the narrative’s nonsensical elements (Laser spears? A less than convincing Cyclops?) to enjoy the average adventure at hand. In the hands of the prolific Peter Yates (responsible for such ‘70s classics as Bullitt and Breaking Away) what should have been an epic entertainment stumbled under Lucas like expectations, poorly realized effects, and performances that seemed pitched just a tad too high for the relatively low brow material.


Featuring a “dark” beast who lives in a constantly movie fortress of blackness, a prince with the power to control “the elements”, an apprentice wizard with a reckless habit of ill-timed shapeshifting, a dainty damsel in distress, and a band of compassionate criminals lead by Liam Neeson and featuring Robbie Coltrane, Krull‘s confusing mythology left many an intended audience member scratching their adolescent head. Main characters died for relatively dopey reasons, plot points got lost inside all manner of interstellar/medieval malarkey, and the polished level of visuals that fans were used to (thanks to American companies like ILM) was all but absent in this bungled British production. Still, in its own awkward way, Krull creates a kind of amusement amalgamation, a formula for fun that argues it attributes in the following fashion: if you don’t like one particular character or circumstance, just wait - something completely different is just around the corner. Today, such an all encompassing approach is part of cinematic sensibility. But back in the early ‘80s, film wasn’t supposed to be so fractured.


As a result, Krull is the perfect pick up film – a movie you can catch in snatches while it plays on some pay cable channel. No matter what point you come in on the story, no matter what sort of scene is playing out before you, the lack of continuity and context actually allows you to take pleasure in the individual moment, and if so inclined, to stick around for another exciting sample in just a few minutes. Things do sort of come together at the end, especially when the prince and princess jointly use their love – or some other manner of emotion – to provide power to smite the beast. As the monolithic castle implodes upward, moving shard by shard into the stratosphere, we are overcome by a feeling of ridiculous resolve. Evil has been defeated, virtue has triumphed, and miniature pieces of a movie set are flying off into space. If that doesn’t sum up a typical Greed era entertainment, what does?


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006


Sean Penn is a terrific actor, but is that all it really takes to become a memorable film director?


Yes and no. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Penn has a rabid appreciation for craft, in addition to working with some of the most acclaimed thespians the world over. His understanding of the skill involved in great film acting (both his own and that of the people he directs) borders on the preternatural.


Penn’s 1995 tension filled-drama The Crossing Guard falls into some amateurish territory at times (with bizarrely maudlin and faux-artsy camera work), but when it comes to generously giving his company their respective moments, Penn excels. Each actor appearing here is able to register fully with the viewer, even when his or her screen time is brief. Case in point is Priscilla Barnes (who, at one point in her career replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company), playing the emotionally bruised stripper pal of a central character. She has maybe two scenes but conveys a lifetime of hurt within them. The same goes for veteran character actors Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford, who also really pop out in their cameos. Penn, with even the slightest performance, clearly defines the role for the viewer. It is an apparent generosity that undermines his gruff, outspoken reputation and his penchant for lurid, pulpy material.


The story is simple: a man (David Morse) kills the young daughter of a jeweler and his wife in a drinking and driving accident. He goes to jail and is let out after five years. Played by former paramours Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, (who has only four scenes in the entire film, but remains a constant, strong presence. When paired against her longtime real-life love, after a huge personal scandal, her hurt and bitterness seem even more poignant), the couple goes their separate ways: she tries to better her life while he just disintegrates. He is hell bent on killing the man who killed his little girl. The actors fully explore the dark corners of guilt and rage and are able to show quite clearly all of the fractures a trauma can cause to anyone connected. I really liked that Penn chose to explore all of the possible paths that grief can lead to and how it affects everyone in such a radically different way. The parallels to Penn’s other 1995 work, Dead Man Walking, where he played a murderer on Death Row, are evident: the films have a similar tone that don’t come off preachy despite their explosive subject matter. Each film is courageous enough to let whoever watches them to make up their own mind.


In the past, I have not been the biggest fan of Nicholson’s work, which for many film lovers borders on sacrilege. I find him slightly overrated, with a few bright exceptions (Ironweed and Penn’s follow-up to The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, being two of my favorites). His hostility towards his ex-wife, himself and Morse’s character are intense and wholly realized. He packs such nuance into the most ordinary gestures here and in scenes of extreme cliché he stays grounded. I felt like this was something deeply personal for the actor to do. His range, along with the sheer truth of this emotion is staggering. What is fascinating about Nicholson, in his later career stage, is watching the actor eagerly shed his own outrageous persona and going into completely foreign territory as a performer. Like him or not, Nicholson must be given credit for his ability to make risky choices.


My favorite of the cast, by far, was Morse. When I first saw this film, I wasn’t sure how the story would work (after all, we are expected to sympathize with a very unlikable situation and man) but Morse plays everything so subtly (which is something he has done again and again as a performer, perfecting the type most notably in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark). He is so wounded by his actions and his guilt that it cripples him. For such an imposing man, he manages to cut right to the heart of this character that made a terrible error in judgment and will pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s a brilliantly thought-out, incredibly detailed performance that defines the old line “you can’t judge a book by its cover” as Morse turns in one surprise after the next.


While the cast was really shockingly good and the story serviceable, ultimately Penn as a director falls flat, as he did with his first effort The Indian Runner. He has the ability to wrest interesting performances from not only his principles but also his ancillary cast and does a really good job exploring the bare bones of the script through character; but ultimately his visual style meanders and is sort of blasé. No matter, there will always be a line at his door when he begins casting on a new movie. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his career of being a great actor himself.


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006

In my post about aggressive driving, I mentioned that particular species of economic reasoning that holds you are less safe if you wear seat belts, because you will drive more recklessly—you diminish your incentive to be careful by having taken safety procautions earlier. Steven Landsburg makes that classic case in the first chapter of The Armchair Economist. Mark Thoma has another example here, where he links to a study that reveals “Cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to be knocked off their bicycles than those who do not, according to research. Motorists give helmeted cyclists less leeway than bare-headed riders because they assume that they are more proficient. They give a wider berth to those they think do not look like ‘proper’ cyclists, including women, than to kitted-out ‘lycra-clad warriors.’ ” Tyler Cowen takes the opportunity to remind readers of the Tullock Effect, which argues that the most important safety device one could add to a car is a spike mounted on the steering wheel pointed at the driver’s heart.


This is precisely the sort of economic thinking that non-economists find baffling, if not repellant, because it seems smugly contrarian, mimicking the perversity tropes that Alfred Hirschman has identified as the hallmarks of reactionary rhetoric. Not only do helmets not make you safer, they put you at greater risk. When you make your silly little attempts at affecting what will happen to you, you actually undermine yourself. But economists aren’t typically reactionaries. They seem to prefer to see themselves as radical truth-tellers, burning away clouds of rationalization and demogoguery to reveal the consequences of incentives at work. But I wonder if there isn’t some kind of risk compensation going on for economists themselves, snug in the safety of their own mathematical models, protecting from the ambiguities in the world that they have rendered invisible.


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Though the Byrds only reached the popular heights of the Beatles, the Who, and the Stones for a short period in the mid-’60s, their influence is arguably greater than any of their peers.  Their folk jangle still resonates in bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., and the Jayhawks.  And, if you wanted to take a wider view, you could say that everyone labeled red dirt, space rock, cosmic rock, alt-country, or just plain folk owes some debt to the Byrds.”—Michael Franco, PopMatters review: The Byrds, There Is a Season


The Byrds—Turn, Turn, Turn [The Ed Sullivan Show, 1965]


The Byrds—Mr. Tambourine Man [The Ed Sullivan Show, 1965]


The Byrds—I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better [Hullabaloo, 1965]


The Byrds—All I Really Want to Do [Top of the Pops, 1965]


The Byrds—The Bells of Rhymney


The Byrds—Eight Miles High


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

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