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Friday, Mar 30, 2007


It’s sad but true – mainstream movie critics hate horror. Not in the conventional way, mind you. No, the standard print or online journalist hates motion picture macabre in a manner that seems inherent to its very makeup. It’s like how little kids hate vegetables or teenagers hate authority. Put something scary out into the marketplace and watch the negative notices pile up. Don’t believe it? Well, let’s look at the stats, shall we. Picking the major theatrical releases of 2006, and finding the ones that specifically deal with standard genre themes, the results are absolutely shocking. There is a definite anti-terror sentiment. Even recent outings by James Wan (Saw) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes 2) remain with low double digital decisions on the webs’ review database, Rotten Tomatoes.com.


It’s not just the standard fright flicks either. Big budget Hollywood horror, anchored by box office favorites like Jim Carrey (The Number 23), Sandra Bullock (Premonition) and two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank (the soon to be released The Reaping) are being purposefully pigeon-holed as garbage by a journalistic paradigm that dismisses supernatural and paranormal elements as third class cinematic citizens – and it’s done automatically and en masse. Let’s go back to the beginning of 2006, shall we, and revisit the release of Eli Roth’s drop dead brilliant Hostel. Destined to be the Halloween of its generation, a movie as influential within the genre as it will be among the fanbase, the 93 writers who bothered to see the film ardently dismissed it (it earned a 59% approval rating). While certain caveats must be considered when dealing with such a gratuitously gory film, to read the blurbs posted, Roth committed some manner of horror movie hate crime.


It’s a revulsion that permeates almost all movie criticism. Though comic book movies and action films must endure the same perplexing prejudice, it seems that anything given over to terror just can’t catch a break. And if you combine the two – look out! Take Silent Hill. A video game adaptation (strike one) helmed by a style oriented foreign filmmaker (strike two) that dealt with themes and imagery revolving around death, religion, and surrealistic shocks (strike three), Christophe Gans’ groundbreaking masterpiece failed to fire up the Fourth Estate. Instead, they saddled the film with one of its lowest overall ratings – 27% - and argued that the visual brilliance on display was not enough to overcome the narrative’s intrinsic shortcomings. And almost all pointed out its PS2 platform origins.


It’s the same situation that happened when the first Hills Have Eyes remake hit theater screens. Granted, there is no love lost between franchise founder Wes Craven and those who write about film for a living. Their adore/deplore battle has extended as far back as the director’s first fright landmark, the nauseating and nasty Last House on the Left. Perhaps it’s his lofty ambitions for what are essentially exploitation flicks (he tends to defend his ideas by providing sound scholarly support for same), or the ruthlessness in their execution, but the two have been at loggerheads for decades. When a Hills revamp was announced, most applauded the decision, especially since those old enough to remember the original didn’t hold it in high regard. The second supposed stroke of genre genius came when director Alexandre Aja was chosen to steer the scarefest. His Haute Tension was a tasty slasher throwback, and all believed he could resurrect this sleazoid tale of a family vacation gone cannibal. Finally, we were dealing with a remake here – a somewhat proven entity seeming capable of providing the foundation for some funky fear factors.


With more than 50% of the press hating it, the Hills revamp turned out to be a major mistake. Not to fans, mind you. They loved the fact that Aja gave his flesh eating fiends a no nukes nastiness that clarified their repugnant ravenousness. But for those so-called sophisticates who bring their anti-dread baggage with them whenever they opine, Hills was a geek show glammed up with recognizable actors and overdone special effects. In fact, if one were to peruse every terror title released, over the last couple of years, they would see a similar set of descriptions used to undermine the genre’s very elements. “Too gory”, some will say, or “Not enough character development”, others will state. “Over the top” or “extreme” become the mantras for demeaning the decision to go for the throat, while “far too subtle” and “somber” illustrate when a critic feels the movie is making its case with mood and atmosphere alone.


It’s an unusual situation, one that becomes even more striking when you compare it to other cinematic categories. Comedies do get busted for lacking laughs, while dramas are frequently faulted for offering melodrama instead of reality, ennui instead of emotional impact. Action films can feel fake and underdeveloped, while family films are torn apart for failing to deliver the kind of whimsical delights their demographic demands. But in horror’s case, the cuts seem particularly cruel. If a slasher film is only trying to kill off one dimensional teens in as many imaginative ways as possible, doesn’t it live up to its expectations? If a monster movie delivers a beast that simultaneously scares and intrigues you, doesn’t that have some manner of viable value? Not every movie can be The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet you can find writers who’ve readily dismissed each and every one of these examples. So the current trend against the genre is not a new one – but the bias has become far more prevalent of late.


In fact, nowhere was the critic’s bile more inexplicable than in regards to the works of Glen Morgan. With only two major motion pictures under his belt (2003’s Willard and 2006’s Black Christmas) this former X-Files anchor has had the unfortunate luck of helming two major mainstream flops. Willard actually got some good notices, even though it failed to make a dent in the all important fiscal aspects of the industry. But last year’s remake of the Bob Clark classic was literally annihilated. It sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been taken to task for everything - from being unlike the original (unfair) to lacking depth and complexity (again, untrue). Nothing more than a slasher redux with an eye for detail and demented killer backstory, Morgan crafted a clever complement to Clark’s genre-defining shocker. And still, you could feel the verbal tar and feathering commencing all throughout the analytical flogging.


Yet what’s even more interesting about the entire situation is the number of critics who actually review these kinds of films. A recent release like Norbit can offer 111 different reviews, while a major motion picture like The Departed can see upwards of 200. But Black Christmas was discussed by only 47 critics. Hostel found 94 souls brave enough to take on its tawdry delights, while Silent Hill could only manage 78. Of course, this counts those who’ve waiting until DVD to discuss the film, so perhaps a better gauge of how much coverage the horror genre gets can be seen with the previously mentioned (and barely two weeks old) James Wan (Dead Silence) and Hills Have Eyes (the Part 2 sequel) titles. The 22% score for Silence comes from a mere 37 writers, while Eyes 2 gains it 13% from only 31. The importance of noting this is two-fold. First, it argues that only a small minority of the massive print and online community are even considering these films. If a potential pool of, say, 120 exists, only 25% are even bothering to address the release.


But it’s the second factor that’s even more disconcerting. It’s clear that, as a genre, horror is mired in a state of callous disregard. Critics who can’t get into free advance screenings obviously fail to follow up and pay to see the film, nor do they try and broaden their perspective on the artform by taking in such titles in their spare time. While they see dozens of dramas and several comedies per year, a horror film may only cross their path once or twice (and, again, if they don’t get to see it beforehand…), and without the effort to see it and properly contextualize it, there is no room for solid scholarship. A major monster effort like Slither can be easily stereotyped as a Troma film, creating a cynical shortcut to actually reviewing what’s on the screen. Similarly, blood and violence are so tied up in the continued juvenilization of our society that many critics can’t see past the PC pronouncements to respect gore or gratuity for its viable visceral power.


In essence, as a ‘minority’ within the ‘majority’ of mainstream moviemaking, horror continues to suffer from a sort of reactionary racism. This isn’t arguing that every macabre movie made is worthy of praise (just take a look at Turistas, or the recent AfterDark Horrorfest for proof), but, equally, not everyone is worthy of condemnation. Sadly, this is the way it’s always been, and as most fright fans fear, it will remain this way for decades to come. If you ever wondered why, years later, a forgotten horror film is suddenly embraced as a forgotten classic, part of the answer lies herein. The knee-jerk reaction by the critical community to the very idea of a scary movie exposes an undercurrent of intolerance that is both unreasonable and unprofessional. All film should be judged on what it has to offer, not on the bias of those providing opinions. It’s time to review what’s on the screen, not what is in the minds of those who propose to know better. Apparently, they don’t.


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Friday, Mar 30, 2007



The picture above may seem familiar, since I posted it yesterday. Today I want to talk a bit about it – about what is most perceptible to the naked eye, and about what is not. In particular, about the things that flow from one to another—from the “is” to the “isn’t clear” (but is there nonetheless). How physical evidence out in the social stream provides information that announces thoughts and tendencies and behaviors of people and how this information tells us, by extension, about the society that people live in. And how such information may also communicate whether or not such a society is writ small, or large: on a micro or a macro scale.


But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start at the top, which is to say, with the breasts. Because that is, after all, where this disquisition begins.


 


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Friday, Mar 30, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
BIRDMONSTER [Photo: Chad Wadsworth]

BIRDMONSTER [Photo: Chad Wadsworth]


Birdmonster
Cause You Can [MP3]
     


Skeleton Suit [MP3]
     


Kate Havnevik
Unlike Me [MP3]
     


J Dilla
The $ (Madlib Remix) [MP3]
     


Dinosaur Jr.
Almost Ready [MP3]
     


Patrick Wolf
The Magic Position (promo mix) [MP3]
     


The Black Lips
Buried Alive [MP3]
     



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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007


Unlike previous weekends where cleaning out your closet or reorganizing your sock drawer would have provided more palpable entertainment fodder, the major cable channels are actually putting up some interesting small screen cinematic fare. Even the usually unreliable pay networks are digging out a few of their choicest motion picture nuggets. As summer slowly catches up to us, and the blockbuster prepares to dominate the pop culture dynamic for the next four months, the appropriately named boob tube will try to complement such commercialization with as many name features as possible. This doesn’t mean that every offering from now until August will be worth its weight in celluloid, but the SE&L selection for 31 March sure deserves such a status:


Premiere Pick
Slither


Writer (and now director) James Gunn holds a very odd place within current fright filmography. Responsible for the terrific Tromeo and Juliet and the quite decent remake of Dawn of the Dead, he has also foisted the forgettable pair of Scooby-Doo features on film fans’ fragile heads. This makes his first solo effort all the more creatively complicated. Gunn gives us a true splatter filled return to the days when he worked closely with indie icon Lloyd Kaufman, as well as a taste of the contemporary scares that have been his box office bread and butter. Overloaded with homages to zombie films, alien invasion flicks and mindless mutant monster b-movies, Gunn delivers the kind of sensational, satiric schlock that many post-modern genre films sorely lack. Here’s hoping there’s more of this kind of movie in his future. Fear often needs a shot of silliness to keep it from going completely astray. (31 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Rumor Has It


In reality, this is not a bad idea for a movie – a young woman, curious about her past, discovers that her family may actually be the inspiration for one of the ‘60s most famous works – in this case, the novel and film known as The Graduate. Unfortunately, first time filmmaker (and screenwriter) Ted Griffin was yanked from the director’s chair when fading superstar Kevin Costner found him wanting. In stepped the equally evaporating Rob Reiner, and together a motion picture disaster was fashioned. (31 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Special Edition


In an obvious bid for some Lord of the Rings style revenue, Disney teamed up with late author C.S. Lewis’s multi-volume Christian allegory, and laid on as much CGI spectacle as they could. The result was a fairly well regarded hit. While Starz already premiered the film back in September 2006, the new “extended” edition bows this month. (31 March, Starz, 9PM EST)


Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic


She’s a very polarizing comedienne, one you either love, or loathe. In addition, her take on humor is either envelope pushing, or gimmicky for the sake of shock value. As it stands, this combo concert film will give you an opportunity to decide for yourself. But be warned – Silverman doesn’t stand by modern PC pronouncements. (31 March, ShowCase, 9:45PM EST)

Indie Pick
This Film is Not Yet Rated


It’s rare when any film, including a clever documentary, manages to make significant changes in the subject matter it focuses on. But after viewing this stinging denouncement of the MPAA and all its insular, self-serving trappings, current President Dan Glickman promised that the seemingly arbitrary way in which movie ratings are assessed will be reviewed. Not bad for a filmmaker – Kirby Dick –who just wanted to discover the names of those people sitting on the organization’s “concerned parents” board. What he got instead was a lesson in Hollywood backslapping, Washington D.C. style spin, and the truth behind the Tinsel Town tribunal’s veil of secrecy. With the wealth of revelations Dick presents here, Glickman will be doing a great deal of responding in years to come.  (31 March, IFC, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
Dogville


Leave it to a foreign filmmaker – in this case, Dogma ‘95 founder Lars Von Trier – to take on the history of America and its unhappy Civil War/slavery narrative. In this first of a proposed trilogy, Nicole Kidman is a woman wandering West who ends up in the title town. With its unusual approach to production design (no sets, bare bones backdrops) Von Trier hoped to focus on ideas, not images. He mostly succeeds. (3 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Memento Mori


It’s your standard Asian horror premise – the journal of a dead student brings death to whomever reads it – but there is more to Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min’s suicide scarefest than meets the eyes. In a country where discussions of homosexuality are highly taboo, the lesbianism theme presented here becomes a benchmark for future Korean scare films. If you like your terror on the suggestive and subtle side, this film is for you. (3 April, Sundance, 11:45PM EST)

It’s All Gone, Pete Tong


It’s the UK version of This is Spinal Tap  - read: a well meaning, sometimes hilarious mock-biography about a deaf DJ named Frankie Wilde. The Tap tie-in revolves around the actual nature of Wilde, who some say actually existed, but in fact turns out to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the filmmakers. Overloaded with bouncing electronica and dance music, along with a nice helping of standard Brit wit, this is a sleeper that deserves wider attention. (5 April, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

Outsider Option
Below


In 2002, horror was reestablishing its footing. The Asian fad was in full swing, and remake fever was already sweeping the studio system. But along the fringes were filmmakers willing to take a risk by refitting the motion picture macabre into different, difficult settings. Beginning with the already creepy and claustrophobic backdrop of a damaged submarine during World War II, director David Twohy (best known for his work on genre efforts The Arrival and Pitch Black) used the appearance of the survivors from a sunken hospital ship as the keystone for amplifying the angst. When the supernatural spit hits the fan, the terror turns titanic. Some dismissed this movie as too much manipulative pomp and not enough scare circumstance, but as an exercise in mood, atmosphere and unyielding dread, this underwater dark house horror film is actually very effective. (4 April, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sisters


In what promises to be the last series rerun before the start of new installments, Brian DePalma’s twin terror schlocker gets the Rob Zombie treatment. Practically bursting with those optical illusions – split screen, double exposure – that the director is famous for, this is a bloody good time for lovers of old school scares. (30 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Xanadu


ELO’s Jeff Lynne must be SO proud – it’s his disco roller boogie musical misstep, for all the world to see. Olivia Newton-John was at the height of her power as a singer/star when she agreed to play a muse to Michael Beck’s disgruntled album cover artist. Her inspiration – open a trendy nightclub. It all goes downhill from there. Featuring The Tubes and Gene Kelly, though God only knows why. (3 April, Retroplex, 6:20PM EST)

Frances


1983 was Jessica Lange’s year. She had a major mainstream hit with Tootsie, and she starred in this fascinating bio-pic about the doomed Hollywood glamour gal Frances Farmer. To top it all off, she received an Oscar nomination for both efforts. Though she won for Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing comedy, this was by far her stronger work. It remains a performance of devastating dimensions. (5 April, Flix, 9:45PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Mar 29, 2007

Microfinance—the provision of basic banking services in places where they otherwise don’t exist—has a pleasing commonsense “teach a man to fish” logic to it which makes it seem like an unequivocal good. It seems to make charity somehow less patronizing after you dress it up with the trappings of a loan; you are theoretically no longer supporting an indigent way of life but supplying the capital to break the chains of poverty. The Economist naturally would like to see microfinance become even more businesslike, subject to the same pressures of competition and profit-taking self-sufficiency; in other words, they would like to see it cease to be a charity altogether and instead become another way of investing in developing economies.


some argue that irresponsible lending by philanthropists is just as harmful. They, too, can crowd out for-profit money and, more importantly, local deposits which provide sustainable funding, and also a safe place for the poor to save. Foreign money, public and private, can provide an “important stop-gap”, says Elizabeth Littlefield, chief executive of CGAP, but “I worry that it is not necessarily catalysing the creation of a sustainable, savings-based financial system in poor countries.”
Still, the transformation is happening in snippets, particularly in Latin America. Pichincha, Ecuador’s largest bank, established a microfinance subsidiary in 1999 with backing from an American development agency. Today the subsidiary contributes 12% of Pichincha’s total profits, with arrears of less than 2%—while providing loans to the poor at competitive rates. Citibank houses its microfinance transactions in its bank, not in its community-development group, as others do.
The turning point will come, according to Ms Littlefield, when microfinance is seen not as a new asset class—which “ghettoises” the poor—but as the newest product line for retail banks. The industry has already transformed itself once, from a financial curiosity to a cause célèbre. In so doing, it has created millions of micro-capitalists in poor countries. Now it needs to attract throngs of big capitalists from rich ones.


If microfinance becomes another asset class, then theoretically the global economic system will have established itself firmly in these destitute regions, overcoming the local tribulations (corruption, etc.) to bring the prosperous market system to stay. Multinational banks would then be functioning to override existing arrangements in a society that control the flow of capital to provide a new supply that doesn’t abide by any traditional scheme of values. It allows the profit motive to supersede any other value system, which, when it supplants entrenched bigotry that prefers to see the human potential of a certain subset of humanity go wasted, seems like a good thing.


So microfinance, in this idealized view, is a trojan horse for introducing secular capitalist values; the charitable gift microfinanciers give is the discipline of profit-seeking, the right to be exploited in a systematic rather than haphazard way, at reasonable interest rates rather than usurious or arbitrary ones. It replaces local middlemen, who exploit local conditions, with transnational ones, which are indifferent to local conditions. It connects them to the international credit system, and its more or less stable rules, and the stability of the system teaches the poor the rewards of discipline by guaranteeing them the eventual fruits of hard work (after extracting its expected percentage).


By the same logic then, we should support the expansion of the subprime lending market, which also expands the population subject to discipline of credit and consequences. Now that it is coming undone, we shouldn’t burden it with regulations that would restrict the manner in which companies lend to high-risk borrowers. Thus, on the Economist’s blog, we find this:


many people look at the high default rates in the subprime markets and sniff that lenders are “abusing” subprime borrowers.  One often hears this case made in reference to credit cards and payday lenders.  But it seems to me that there are two possibilities.  The first is that the poor are spending the money on things they don’t need, and then defaulting, in which case it isn’t clear to me who the abuser is.  And the other is that they really need the money for emergencies, in which case would they really be better off with no payday lenders or credit cards?  After all, the informal credit markets these places have displaced (pawnshops and loan sharks) are even less desirable than the high credit card interest rates.


But really this is an argument against microfinance—this is arguing that usury is better than nothing, that there is no need to protect the poor from whatever financial services institutions deign to offer them; that other kinds of institutions—governmental or nonprofit or otherwise—should basically stay out of it. If people want to take out loans they can’t ever possibly repay and get themselves trapped in never ending cycle of debt, that’s their business. What separates bad credit risks in America from those in poor countries presumably is the opportunity the American poor have to be imprudent—to be tempted into wasteful discretionary purchases that aren’t an option for the truly poor. The underlying implication to this, then, would be that with a thriving consumer society—one that encourages us to buy all sorts of crap we don’t need—must come a usurious credit system to keep people in check, to supply the discipline that the advertising promoting consumerism tends to erode. Consumerism extends the magical promise of something for nothing, of all your dreams for free; the exploitative credit market then develops to capitalize on those who believe in it, and punish them for their gullibility.


In other words, while microfinance meets the demand for credit in places that hardly understand the workings of it in order to further rudimentary production (the classic microfinance example of allowing poor entrepreneurs in a village to buy a cow), consumer society creates demand for credit where it might otherwise be unnecessary, stimulating a malaise of discontent remediable only through novelty consumption. It may be that subprime lending has assimilated real estate speculation to the model of therapeutic shopping. This analysis at the blog Calculated Risk inspired my line of thinking on this:


I am puzzled by the phrase “expanded access to subprime mortgage credit.” This assumes that “access” is a question of borrowers having access to creditors, rather than, perhaps, a question of creditors having access to borrowers. The whole idea of “predatory lending,” which is a subset of subprime lending, is that there are lenders who want to lend going after borrowers who may not have supplied the “demand” until someone fast-talked them into it. Even in the more “respectable” parts of the subprime and Alt-A business, I would argue, the “disintermediation” of “national markets, technology, and securitization,” which rely to a large extent on the “intermediation” of brokers, can function as much as supply creating demand than the other way around.


Those who wish to throw the Econ 101 textbooks at me will have to explain to me just how, exactly, borrower demand for loans they obviously do not understand, and that are not anywhere close to being in their best interest, gets created. Are we talking about a demand for credit or a demand for income-substitutes? And those who want to say that it’s all a matter of borrowers substituting short-term interest for long-term interest need to explain this EPD epidemic to me. Either those EPD loans were 100% fraudulent—borrowers who never intended to own the property or make the payments—or some of them were borrowers who never stood a chance of receiving even short-term benefit from the loan. I’m not sure which case is more comforting, but I surely can’t see here unambiguous evidence for pent-up demand that simmered for years until the “new mortgage market” Braunstein discusses suddenly offered the product everyone had been waiting for. Next thing you know, someone is going to tell me about the invention of advertising.


 


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