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Friday, Sep 15, 2006

To follow-up a previous post, I can across a Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi called Americans in Denial About 9-11, which argues that not only haven’t we figured out what the root cause of it but that it also did nothing to change American society.  While the first point is worth repeating and definitely not a closed case (“they hate our freedom”??), the second point is dead wrong.

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Thursday, Sep 14, 2006

September is starting to become the month of mediocrity on your favorite premium cable channels. This week alone offers one average box office hit, two ‘one week and out’ theatrical bombs, and a ‘could have been a cult contender’ urban comedy. When you put them all together, they make for a quartet of questionable entertainment offerings. As a matter of fact, you’d be better served heading over to Turner Classic Movies on 16 Saturday and catching the classic Casablanca at 6:00pm EST, and then Paper Moon at midnight, rather than scanning through the atrophying amusement on hand here. Still, if you must get your pay TV money’s worth this week, you’re going to have to lower your cinematic standards a series of significant notches. Honestly SE&L and PopMatters can’t recommend any of the offerings making their premiere this week. For those still interested in what’s available, here’s the rundown on 16 September:

HBOFantastic Four

When it was originally release in 1994, the Roger Corman production of this classic Marvel title was done purely as a legal maneuver. When purchasing the title, a deal was struck. Unless a film was made of this potential property within a given time frame, the rights would revert back to the original owners. Never one to let a missed monetary opportunity pass him by, the famed b-movie maverick rushed out this sloppy, stupid spectacle. So here’s the question – what was 20th Century Fox’s excuse? They had time, talent and an eager comic geek audience on their side. Granted, this story of astronauts bombarded by space radiation, rendering them suddenly gifted with superpowers, has its fans and made enough of a box office splash to warrant a sequel, but its still substandard on many moviemaking levels. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxThe Ice Harvest

Second only to a failed horror film in cinematic sadness is the lax dark comedy. This one should have been better. It had lots of noted names behind the scenes (director Harold Ramis, screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton) and a more than competent cast (Billy Bob Thorton, John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Yet this crime caper, part cynical seasonal struggle, part overly clever caper, suffers from an unsure tone, careless plotting and a less than satisfying conclusion. While some critics enjoyed the combination of Cusack and Thorton, and forgave the film its scattered sensibility, audiences obviously didn’t agree. Barely making back half of its $18 million budget, this frozen funny business got a clear cold shoulder from the majority of movie mavens. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

StarzAn Unfinished Life

Like Madonna before her, Jennifer Lopez has been riding on the success of her first few film roles – Selena, Out of Sight, The Cell – for far too long now. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that this Empress has no cinematic clothes. Recent efforts like Angel Eyes, Enough, Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner have been hits, but not necessarily because Ms. Cullo Grande has anything to offer as an actress. A clear example of this concept comes to us via this resoundingly rejected weeper about family and fathers. Taking on the role of J-Lo’s pop is the ethnically unbelievable Robert Redford (???) who spends a lot of time with his best pal Morgan Freeman. Talk about diversity in action. Sadly, not even the racial mix can make this movie work. It’s a slow slog through an equally muddy motion picture bog. (Premieres Saturday 16 September, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowtimeSoul Plane

Here’s a lesson for first time feature filmmaker Jessy Terrero – never promise a crude, rude urban comedy when you have absolutely no desire to deliver one. Soul Plane stumbles, and finally stinks, for reasons that are so obvious that race plays little part in the pathetic nature of this nonsense. With a cast that combines ultra cool rappers (Snoop Dogg, Method Man), sensationally gifted stand-ups (Mo’Nique, Loni Love, D.L. Hughley) and a few off the radar has-beens (Tom Arnold), what should have been a combination of Airplane! and Dolemite ends up being a boring, bewildering, unfunny farce. When you can’t even get a pimp joke right, when your flatulence riffs are just repugnant, you don’t deserve your wit wings. (Saturday 16 September, 8pm EST)

PopMatters Review


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 16 September through 22 September:


Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen’s love letter to his favorite musical artform, this genuinely jazzy fictional biopic has Sean Penn delivering yet another of his definitive bravura performances.
(Saturday 16 September, 9:35pm EST)

Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The best movie of the ‘90s, bare none. The Coen Brothers borrow the crime genre from all its motion picture practitioners and make it wholly their own.
(Sunday 17 September, 6:25pm EST)

Auto Focus (2002)
The life and times of Bob Crane has always cried out for a brazen biography. Thankfully, Paul Schrader delivers a devastating look at the doomed TV icon.
(Tuesday 19 September, 11:15pm EST)

Female Trouble (1974)
John Water’s second certifiable masterpiece is also his most accessible. If you don’t mind being offended by blatant bad taste, you’ll love this loony laugh-a-thon.
(Wednesday 20 September, 10:35pm EST)

Sundance Channel

Fearless Freaks (2005)
Though considered part of the fringe facets of the music biz, the Flaming Lips get the regular royal treatment in this fascinating documentary look at their crazy career. 
(Sunday, 17 September, 7:15pm EST)

The Beguiled (1971)
Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel delivered more than just cowboys and cops with their collaborations. This Civil War thriller is proof of their rich cinematic range.
(Monday, 18 September, 12:00pm EST)

Ju-On (2000)
No one does J-Horror better than the Japanese. Witness Takashi Shimizu’s original Grudge fest, a wonderfully wicked look at secrets and their sinister consequences.
(Thursday, 19 September, 12:30am EST)

Topsy Turvy (1999)
Mike Leigh usually doesn’t do historical figures as part of his improvisational output. But this look at Gilbert and Sullivan is a sensational and effective period piece.
(Friday, 21 September, 10:00pm EST)

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Thursday, Sep 14, 2006

At the American Prospect‘s blog, Ezra Klein and Garance Franke-Ruta combine to refute the myth of meritocracy David Brooks conjured in his NY Times op-ed of September 3. (Elsewhere economists Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein dispense with his specious use of statistics.) Responding to the econo-blogo-sphere debate about income inequality Brooks attempted to buoy the conservative line that inequality (pre-tax) is the natural consequence of differing skills and education, exacerbated by technology (i.e., educated people use computers and get better-paying jobs; poor people fear computers and continue to sweep floors and pick vegetables) rather than any governmental policy (like union-busting, globalization, de facto wage freezes). Arguing that “higher education pays off because it provides technical knowledge and because it screens out people who are not organized, self-motivated and socially adept” and that the “high social and customer-service skills” the well-to-do possess explains the inequalities, Brooks claims that if anything, “the meritocracy is working almost too well.”

Well, not really. As Klein explains, we’re supposed to “believe that the top one percent now gets paid 16 percent of the total income in this country because they developed ‘high social and customer-service skills.’ ” (Brad Plumer has more statistics that illustrate the ludicrousness of this here as well as a good reminder of why this all matters: economic inequality produces political inequality, which reinforces and worsens the economic inequality.) Klein sees Brooksian meritocacy as a transparent alibi for gross inequality: “In Brooks-land, riches come from being likable, and who could argue with that? All of us think of ourselves as likable, or at least imagine we have the potential to become so. And so all of us can clamber atop that massive income gap and become rich. It’s a comforting fiction. To bad it’s so wildly wrong.” Hence he dubs Brooks’s fantasy world “the likability economy,” which is extremely apt considering that much of what goes into “likability” are those aspects which can be used to suppress merit, to thwart the premises of meritocracy—the social and cultural capital that allows merit to become operable, the networks and the habitus of the well-to-do that distinguishes them immediately from the lower classes (which is why mixed income housing is an effective way to reduce poverty—the middle-class habitus rubs off on the poor). Franke-Ruta links to the relevant data in this post, where she argues that “merit is a product of social position”—that is “what America’s powerful institutions today call ‘merit’ is the manufactured product of a lifetime of education, training, and invested social capital, and that what the leaders of institutions prefer is also a product of their own biases. This is especially true when personality characteristics are used as employment criteria.”

So I’m more skeptical than Klein about the usefulness of the likability economy as alibi, of our being able “to imagine we have the potential to become” likable people. We don’t see likability as a means to social mobility unless we already have the social and cultural capital to make it so. Otherwise we just notice how we are inexplicably unlikable to prospective connections and employers. Likability seems a primary way inborn merit is separated from the socially produced version; it’s what is used to strain out those who threaten existing class boundaries without having the discrimination become too overt. The issue, as Reihan Salam gets at in this post, is whether average Americans retain their believe in social mobility despite statistics which dispute it. Part of the problem may be a simple skepticism of economic data, which are often confusing and easily distorted to suit the rhetorical and ideological aims of whoever is using them. Salam suggests that Americans have a “deep-seated bias against zero-sum politics” and rejct the idea that the top one percent’s good fortunes have anything to do with their situation. That seems possible; it would naturally result from an ideology that rejects the interconnectedness of social life and permits individuals that illusion of total autonomy and responsibility; but I don’t think it holds for those who butt up against the likability bias, who discover that no amount of good-naturedness can overcome the ingrained biases of class to protect its own privilege, the values of which reside in their positional and exclusive status.

Update: Read here and here for an elucidation of this kind of nebulous discrimination in action—Ivy League schools’  efforts to avoid admitting too many Jewish and then Asian American students, rejecting them on the basis of their “lacking character.”

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Thursday, Sep 14, 2006
by Philip Wuntch [The Dallas Morning News]

New version of Robert Penn Warren’s novel about a Huey Long-type politico has a powerful cast, including Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and Patricia Clarkson. Penn’s southern drawl is an earful.

+ + +

The original gang, including Johnny Knoxville and Chris Pontius, are with us once again.


+ + +

Jet Li plays martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia, who overcame tragic odds to become China’s greatest fighter at the turn of the 20th century.

+ + +

James Franco and Jean Reno are among the stars in this tale of the Lafayette Escadrille, the first fighter pilots.


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Wednesday, Sep 13, 2006

Famed French filmmaker Luc Besson announced Monday 11, September that, after the release of his latest directorial effort, the live action and CG animated Arthur and the Minimoys (set for a 12 January release in the U.S.), he is leaving the industry to concentrate on “charity” work. It’s a semi-stunning announcement from a fairly prolific artist. Aside from the ten films he’s helmed over his career (which he lovingly refers to as his “babies”) Besson has been a major figure in International cinema. He has written scripts for such high profile action series as the Taxi films, the Transporter and it’s sequel, and two of Jet Li’s most popular efforts, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (2005) – later retitled Unleashed. Yet its as a producer where the 46 year old has truly thrived, guiding dozens of films through their creation. Without him, such efforts as District B13 (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) and the stellar slasher update Haute Tension (2003) may never have been made.

Now this announcement is really nothing new. As a matter of fact, it was sort of expected. Besson has been very vocal in interviews and comments about leaving the director’s chair after his 10th film, and apparently he is holding steadfast in this decision. Still, he does have his creative fingers in many motion picture pies. So unless this retirement includes his efforts behind a typewriter or managing a production’s bottom line, Besson will remain a very viable force behind the scenes of modern moviemaking. With that settled, the concern then becomes what we as an audience will fail to see with his departure. In essence the issue becomes what has Besson really given cinema that will be missed once he’s gone. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like very much, at least upon a fleeting first glance.

With rare exceptions, Besson’s films exist in a weird world made up of stunt work, speculation, and shootouts. Of the ten ‘children’ born in the 25 years of creating his filmic family, only three - The Big Blue, Atlantis and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - could be classified as defying the Besson basics. Two (Blue, Atlantis) are clearly based in his childhood love of the sea (Besson was raised by scuba diving instructor parents). The last, his interpretation of Saint Joan, was a far more personal undertaking for his then wife Milla Jovovich. The rest of his films – The Last Battle (1983), Subway (1985), Le Femme Nikita (1990), Leon/The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and next year’s Arthur – all maintain an awkward balance between fantasy and reality, using clear genre ideals to modify standard human stories. Some of these yarns - Element, in particular – were written while he was still a teenager, and often show their obvious adolescent ideas about heroism, love and the pathway to progress. 

There is one thing that’s certain, however; all of Besson’s films have a strong visual component. You can’t look at something like Le Femme Nikita or Leon and not be startled by the way in which this director’s camera moves. Sure, he can be too tricky and twee (Angel-A and Subway suffer from some of his more obvious cinematic tricks) and he frequently overloads the frame with more compositional elements than are necessary for the narrative. Sure, it’s an amazing looking moment when Jovovich’s character in Element stands on the ledge of a building overlooking a frighteningly futuristic New York City, but the density of the visuals actually detract from the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the scope of something when you’ve purposely rendered it infinite. Similarly, Besson believes in a primordial kind of plotting, a storyline that strongly follows a good vs. evil dynamic while sprinkling in a little eccentricity and character quirks along the way. There are always heroes and villains in a Besson film, though sometimes who’s who can be confusing and unclear. Yet thanks to their pure kinetic power, their daunting desire to light up the screen with their spectacle, a movie by Luc Besson gets a lot of logistical leeway. We appreciate the effort more than the effect.

But the fact of the matter remains, will anyone other than the Besson nation really care if this French fantasist hangs up his chapeau – at least for the time being? If Stephen Spielberg had stopped creating after a mere ten films, we would never have had Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Munich. In the case of Martin Scorsese, we’d have never seen The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps it’s a clear case of a filmmaker knowing his limits. Besson must sense his stylistic and substantive aspects are restricted by his areas of interest, and there’s no branching out into other forms of filmmaking. He’s become known for his hyperactive action set pieces and frequently ingenious flights of fancy. After conquering the family film (the trailer for Arthur looks interesting, to say the least) Besson must believe there is nothing left to try. And as long as he can add to the steady stream of writing/producing credits, he will almost always be around.

So don’t mourn the loss of another “visionary” filmmaker – celebrate the fact that Besson knew better than to overstay his already waning welcome. Angel-A barely got distribution in the US, and without the standard CGI stunt casting (Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Madonna are part of the English-speaking cast) it’s hard to know if the Weinstein Company would have picked up the Minimoys film for US distribution. When filmgoers are demanding remastered DVD versions of your earlier films over the delivery of something new – as is the case with Element and Leon – perhaps its time to pack your bags. Whether or not he ever really does focus on community work with kids as he says, Besson will best be remembered as a French firebrand who carved a special niche out of a tired Tinsel Town tenet. In this case, parting is not such sweet sorrow – it seems like the logical thing to do.

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