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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro

The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.

Week 8: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (“Something’s Happening”)
1998, Color, Hindi.
Dir: Karan Johar
Karan Johar is the boy wonder of Bollywood. He wrote and directed Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when he was only 25. It went on to become the biggest hit in Indian cinema - surpassing even DDLJ. What was the secret to the phenomenal success of this sweet musical romantic-comedy? That idyll of bourgeois pleasure and prosperity: 1960s America.  Johar, like many Indians from wealthy families, grew up reading Archie comics and watching Disney films and The Brady Bunch.  Archie and his gang of frisky teenage friends and that co-ed paradise of jocks and cheerleaders known as Riverdale High serve as the inspiration for Johar’s tale of Punjabi puppy love. Cocky playboy Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) falls for the principal’s stylish daughter, Tina (Rani Mukherji), breaking the heart of his best friend, brash tomboy, Anjali (Kajol). Tina dies shortly after childbirth leaving poor Rahul to raise their daughter alone. But through the help of Tina’s letters, Rahul and Tina’s daughter, who Tina named Anjali (a little cloying, perhaps?), reunites Rahul with his best friend and fated love, Anjali.. The appeal of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai operates largely on nostalgia—Archie, The Parent Trap, Beach Blanket Bingo, the Hollywood movies of the ‘60s that worshiped teens, mass consumption, and the wholesome nuclear family. And Johar cleverly reunited Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, two stars whose palpable on-screen chemistry was endearing and achingly tender.

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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2006

Televising blackjack, as CBS is planning to do, has got to be one of the more desperate attempts to cash in on the poker craze; the thinking seem to be that because they are both gambling games involving cards, audiences will embrace them both with equal fervency. (I guess that’s why we aren’t seeing World’s Ultimate Keno Championship). But playing blackjack isn’t all that exciting; watching it even less so. What’s the pitch?  “You’ll thrill as player A contemplates hitting a soft 17. You’ll gasp when player B steals the dealer’s bust card. You’ll writhe in envy as player C splits eights with the dealer showing 6. You’ll marvel as drunk tourists pass out at the table while trying to figure out what his cards add up to. Watch in amazement as player D doubles his initial betting increment after achieving a favorable count!” As this article in today’s WSJ points out (buried in the last paragraph), quoting a LV Hilton gambling boss, “Blackjack is what it is; the game itself is strategy and if you know basic strategy, you either hit or you stand.” Though CBS has likely tried to add the semblance of show-downs and drama, blackjack’s not really a competition against other players so much as it is a feat of mathematics, of counting the deck and hedging one’s bets accordingly. There are no bluffs, no betting ruses—no psychology involved whatsoever if its being played at the highest level. The only suspense is to see whether an audacious better turns out to be unlucky.

When I lived in Vegas, blackjack was what you’d play when you wanted to chill out from the gambling games that are actually exciting and move quickly (craps) or involve multiple levels of analysis and courage (poker). There is no need for assessing personalities in blackjack as there is in poker, and there is no infectious excitement or momentum to sweep you up into gambling euphoria, as there is at a craps table, when a hot roller is visibly multiplying chip stacks all around you and creating mountains of wagers before your eyes on the green felt and the dealers’ patter becomes more animated, as they get cut in on all the action, and the bettors cheer like its the world series and total strangers start slapping high-fives with each other. At the blackjack table, a much more muted camaraderie develops, one that revolved around how frequently the cocktail waitress returned. The pace, with the frequent reshufflings to stifle card counters, can be glacial, and because it requires no time to make decisions about play (every choice about whether to hit or double down can be determined in advance—some players bring a chart with them to the table), every pause by another player feels excruciating. When you can see the cards of your tablemates, as with some games, you want to shout out what they should do and get on with it. Really, blackjack is an extremely inefficient slot machine, with lots of room for human error (or crooked deck mechanics).

So I’m guessing TV blackjack will fail. You can’t really learn anything from watching it, and it lacks drama because the outcomes seem almost entirely random. But maybe people watch gambling for some other reason, for a vicarious thrill at seeing money treated as points. No longer a matter of survival, money becomes merely a means of keeping score, in gambling games, and perhaps there’s something liberating in that.

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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

This Cursed House
Quite Scientific Records
Download “Beige Stationwagon” (MP3, 192kbps)
Download “Hexenhaus” (MP3, 192kbps)
Download “Record Function” (MP3, 192kbps)
“It is finally here and we couldn’t be more proud. Made for everyone living within Detroit and its surrounding populous comes This Cursed House, the debut LP from seven southern Michiganders with an obviously envious eye to the north. Recorded in the dark of winter on a soundboard originally built and used in the early ‘80s to mix the second and third installments of the Star Wars trilogy, comes an unexpectedly warm record of art-folk arrangements featuring dual cellists, melodica, shout & response vocals, glockenspiel and rhodes piano. The band known as Canada has fast become the answer to the stuffy misaligned garage scene that has largely monopolized Detroit’s weary image in the minds of the masses. This is what music from the mitten is about… it’s the scene you should’ve been hearing from all along.”—Quite Scientific Records
Buy at iTunes Music Store

Motion Man
Pablito’s Way
Threshold Recordings, LLC
Download “Confidence” (MP3, 192kbps)
Download “Pablito’s Way” (MP3, 192kbps)
“The long awaited return of Motion Man. Pablito’s Way is destined to be a classic album to cross boundries and unite hip-hop fans from many tastes.”—threshold recordings
Buy at iTunes Music Store

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Monday, Sep 18, 2006

Finally, a week worth getting excited about. For more than a month, SE&L has watched as, with rare exceptions, DVD distributors have unleashed their seemingly endless stream of substandard fare to your local retailer. From major motion picture flops to endless reissues of titles long since technically perfected, there has been little in the way of compelling consumer goods. In fact, the selection has been scattershot to say the least. Ah, but this Tuesday is different. Again, Criterion comes through, delivering two unsung masterworks to the digital format, while a fascinating rock doc, a collection of ‘80s style movie macabre and a couple of hard driving dramas also spark our cinematic interest. Also of note is a Playstation take on terror that is probably best left for those still sold on their Sega Dreamcast. So grab your wallet and head to your favorite B&M as these are the compelling offerings for 19, September:

The Devil and Daniel Johnston*
This is the kind of documentary that invents all the eventual critical clichés. It’s masterful proof that fact is far more intriguing than fiction. It uses the thread of celebrity as a means of binding together the eccentricity of musicians, the pain of dreams deferred, and the social/interpersonal unacceptability of mental illness. Yes, Johnston comes off like an underground Brian Wilson, a naïve creator of magical pop music whose bubbling inner demons eventually damaged and destroyed his soul. But perhaps the greatest lesson we ultimately learn is that some minds are never meant to heal. In Johnston’s case, they are to be tolerated and celebrated. Thanks to gifted director Jeff Feuerzeig, we can do just that. This is definitely one of the year’s best films.

PopMatters Review 

The Elvira Movie Macabre Collection*
While she may be best known for another “body” of work, Cassandra Peterson – a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – is also noted for continuing the late night horror host tradition started decades before by numerous noteworthy individuals, including her obvious inspiration, Vampira. Her sassy, entendre laced remarks, mixed in with some cutting commentary on the flawed films being presented, lead to a considered cult following that has only grown over the years. Now, digital archivists Shout! Factory have released six select titles from her Movie Macabre series: The Devil’s Wedding Night, Werewolf of Washington, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Count Dracula’s Great Love, Legacy of Blood and The Doomsday Machine. Whether you crave this schlocky six pack, or are only interested in said vixen’s viable assets, these ‘80s throwbacks are a terrifically tacky treat.


Hard Candy*
It was only a matter of time before the Internet and the proliferation of pedophiles became the frightening fodder for the thriller genre. Thankfully screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David Slade went for subject matter more creepy and confrontational than exploitative. Turning the tables on a possible predator, young Hayley Stark (played by actress Ellen Page) is fiercely determined to exact her moralistic revenge in the most precise painful way possible, and for most people, that would be just fine. The subject matter of online deviants drives us in that direction. Then Nelson and Slade twist things up once again. Before long, you won’t know who to root for, and whom to revile. A two character, single setting drama with acting excellence to spare, this difficult, disquieting film offers not easy answers or allies. Instead, it asks us to see both sides of an incredibly controversial circumstance - and harder still, understand it.

PopMatters Review

Jigoku: The Criterion Collection*
This film tells a familiar story – a young man, involved in the accidental death of a pedestrian, faces inner torment and guilt. Yet in the hands of famed Japanese genre filmmaker Nobuo Nakagawa, this vignette heavy glimpse of Buddhism’s Eight Great Hells is like some kind of visceral visualized damnation. What begins as a conventional tale of bad decisions and karmic coincidences devolves into a pagan Pilgrim’s Progress with no shepherd to guide this sheep through the vile Valley of Death. Many have compared Nakagawa’s work here to that of José Mojica Marins, a.k.a. Brazil’s infamous Coffin Joe. Stunningly graphic, even today, with substantive amounts of evisceration and dismemberment, this is more of an experiment in terror than cold cautionary tale. Yet Nakagawa never lets us forget the humanity inside the horror, mixing imagery of reality with his revolting interpretation of the underworld.


The Proposition*
Gloom and doom rocker Nick Cave, not previously known for his adeptness at writing Westerns, crafted this critically divisive revamp of the Outback oater, focusing on a gang of outlaw brothers and their blood drenched adventures. Starring the almost always good Guy Pearce, and peppered with performances by Ray Winstone and Noah Taylor, this John Hillcoat helmed slice of horse opera revision definitely flummoxed most film reviewers. Some called it the best film of 2005, while others can’t quite get over Cave’s overcomplicated dialogue and cinematic shortcomings. Whatever camp you’re in – pure Wayne or pro Peckinpah, The Proposition is definitely violent. But is it brutal for the sake of shock, or is there a method to Cave’s cruelty. You be the judge…jury…and Old West executioner.


PopMatters Review

Spirit of the Beehive: The Criterion Collection*
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining childhood, the Spanish Civil War, the growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood. Told completely through the eyes of our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.

Stay Alive: Director’s Cut
Granted, this is no Silent Hill. As a matter of fact, it may not even be a House of the Dead. All Dr. Uwe Boll references aside, most critics complained that this video-gamed based horror film was juvenile, illogical and incredibly ineffective – kind of like the latest release for the Xbox 360, huh? Anyway, some kids come across an illegal game (wow, how Ring-ish) that one of their friends died playing. So, naturally, they hop right in. Random garroting ensues. While the cinematic vision of the film was stuck in stupefying PG-13 land, this unrated director’s cut promises lots of excess carnage. Will the additional gore be enough to save this effort from being a Commodore 64 crapfest? Or will genre fans get their Nintendo Wii’s worth? Perhaps you need to press play and find out.

And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 19 September:

Brain Damage*
Frank Henenlotter was already famous for his ode to 42nd Street and exploitation movies when he made this follow-up to that glorified geek show, Basket Case. Using a brain sucking, if personable, talking parasite as his allegorical stand-in for drugs and addiction, this sly schlock meister got his “Just Say No” message across without having to rely on pontification or preaching. Instead, Henelotter used a considered performance by future soap star Rick Hearst and a lot of Manhattan atmosphere to show that dependency is not only harmful – it’s downright fatal to almost everyone involved. While this DVD is not as tricked out as previous versions – in fact, it’s basically bare bones – that is still not a reason to avoid this crazy cult classic. Pay close attention to the voice of the psychedelic slug “Elmer”. That’s beloved TV icon Zachary behind those sonorous tones.

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Monday, Sep 18, 2006

I usually ignore the update notifications that iTunes pops up everytime I reopen it, because I expect them to eventually drop some digital-rights hammer on my music collection and render it inoperable. (Kind of like what Microsoft apparently plans to do with its future Zune player.) It will start to doing some unrequesting “analyzing”, going through all my songs one by one, and then boom, none of them will work without some kind of certification. That’s probably unduly paranoid, but at some point it seems inevitable. Eventually music players and subscription services will dominate the music industry (this article in today’s WSJ about the innovations of Apple’s digital music player rivals gives a peek at the future), and the idea of collecting music may become as moribund as collecting pogs. It’s hard to imagine not claiming a sense of ownership over music, but it wasn’t so long ago that the best people could do was own sheet music. Music must have meant something very different then; it was always an activity rather than ambient wallpaper or a passive hobby. So attitudes toward music are clearly very malleable and responsive to distribution technology. Future distribution may make music more like on-demand cable TV, where we pay monthly to check in and hear something new whenever we want to, or it may merge seamlessly with satellite radio. Once ownership of some tangible product is undermined as a motive for buying music, the stage is set for a resurgence of the significance of radio. What is the difference between radio and subscriptions to massive music libraries, anyway, other than who picks the songs? Most people want some one else to do that work anyway. I imagine the subsciption services will offer playlists to download as well as individual songs.

Anyway, I broke down and upgraded to iTunes 7 last night, mainly because I was enticed by the promise that I could have the iTunes store get all the missing album artwork for me. Of course I had to log in to the store and let them store a credit-card number—but I took the bait; it seemed a fair trade and I like seeing the covers. Apple has obviously decided that pushing album art is important to the next phase of digital music’s takeover. Not only does the promise of all that free art get more customers into their database, one click away from purchasing media, it also brings the experience of digitized music ownership one more sensual step closer to accurately simulating the collecting experience. The new iTunes lets you browse your collection by album cover, which makes a surprising difference in terms of how I understand all the junk I’ve got on my hard drive. The program even has an option that lets you flick through a virtual shelf of “albums” with mouse clicks, letting you see all the covers lined up neatly next to each other as if they were mounted on a vertical Rolodex. It’s a still a little clumsy, but it definitely seems like a move toward a whole new paradigm for computerized music consumption that attempts to provide consolation for the loss of the fetishized object. Next some enterprising entrepreneur will get to work scanning the back covers.

Update: The program is extremely buggy for Windows and I’ve had to rollback to iTunes 6. Look at pretty covers while browsing isn’t worth my computer freezing up every time a new song comes on.

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