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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

Ever since the mid-‘80s, pay movie channels like Home Box Office, Cinemax and Showtime have offered Saturday Night premieres of first run Hollywood films—or, at the very least, what THEY consider to be first run Hollywood films. Anyway, as part of the Short Ends and Leader Blog. PopMatters will look at these upcoming debuts, as well as point out other notes of cinematic interest available on the network schedule. For the week of 4 August, here is what’s arriving:



HBOMr. & Mrs. Smith

Okay, okay, everyone is just plain sick and tired of Angelina and Brad by now. They’re really hot. They’ve had a baby. Blah, blah, blah. While deciphering why the public is so fascinated by this couple, you can experience the film that started their fairy tale freefall into tabloid tenancy. Call it a hyperactive War of the Roses, or an overdone screwball comedy, but this he and she hitman saga is a less than perfect offering that still crackles with enough glittering superstar spark that it almost overcomes many of its missteps.  (Premieres Saturday 5 August, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters review: Click HERE


Cinemax The Island


Gee, another pair of famous faces, another high concept action movie that didn’t really live up to expectations. Godfather of the gauche epic, Michael Bay, may have thought he could fool film fans with his high tech retread of Parts: The Clonus Horror, but by casting the frequently flat Ewen McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, this sterile sci-fi film was guaranteed never to quite take off. Heck, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night than with a superficial serving of speculative silliness. Besides, no one knows action better than Bay. (Premieres Saturday 5 August, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters review: Click HERE


STARZThe Fog (2005)

Signaling the exact moment when the ‘70s/’80s horror remake revival hit the wall, this rotten retread of John Carpenter’s already nominal scary sea shanty offered proof positive that there is nothing frightening about a murky PG-13 macabre. Directorial lightweight Rupert Wainwright can’t match the level of dread contained in the original, and frequently substitutes shoddy CGI for anything remotely terrifying. Investigate this murky mess at your own risk. (Premieres Saturday 5 August, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters review: Click HERE


Showtime TooCrash

Six months out and people are still clamoring over this surprise Oscar victor. Did it really deserve the Best Picture trophy? Was there something political (or anti-agenda based) in its victory over a certain cowboy drama? Who actually produced this thing, and will they ever see a residual check for the efforts? If you are unfamiliar with Paul Haggis’s interlocking take on racism in America and its seemingly universal effects, perhaps it’s time to pay it a visit and consider its value – not just as an award winner, but as an overall social statement as well. (Saturday 5 August, 7pm EST)


PopMatters review: Click HERE


Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each day long promotion as an excuse to screen several offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 4 August to 11 August are:



5 August – Humphrey Bogart

One of the few true icons of the studio system silver screen, Bogie gets his well deserving due when TCM airs the following films (all times EST):
6:00am: The Racket Busters (1938)
7:15am: The Petrified Forest (1936)
8:45am: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
10:30am: Action in the North Atlantic (1943)
12:45am: High Sierra (1941)
2:30pm: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
4:15pm: To Have and Have Not (1944)
6:00pm: The Big Sleep (1946)
8:00pm: Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
10:15pm: Across the Pacific (1942)
12:00am: Knock on Any Door (1949)
2:00am: They Drive By Night (1940)
4:00pm: All Through the Night (1942)


6 August– Robert Duvall

Moving up to the post-modern Method generation of actors, the quiet intensity of Duvall’s onscreen counterparts is on full display in this set of career-defining films (all times EST):
6:00am: Tomorrow (1972)
8:00am: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
10:15am:Captain Newman, .M.D. (1964)
12:30pm: Tender Mercies (1983)
2:15pm: Countdown (1968)
4:00pm: The Outfit (1973)
6:00pm: The Conversation (1974)
8:00pm: The Godfather (1972)
11:00pm: The Godfather Part II (1974)
2:30am: THX 1138 (1971)
4:15am: Lawman (1971)


11 August – Katherine Hepburn

Another one of those rare Hollywood symbols, this stubborn individualist left behind a oeuvre overflowing with amazing work, many of which TCM will air as a tribute to her talent, and tenacity (all times EST):
6:00am: Katherine Hepburn: All About Me (1993)
7:15am: Little Women (1933)
9:15am: Quality Street (1937)
10:45pm: Stage Door (1937)
12:30pm: Bringing Up Baby (1938)
2:15pm: The Philadelphia Story (1940)
4:15pm: Woman of the Year (1942)
6:15pm: Adam’s Rib (1949)
8:00pm: The African Queen (1951)
10:00pm: Rooster Cogburn (1975)
12:00am: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
3:00am: Spitfire (1934)
4:30am: Christopher Strong (1933)


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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006


What makes Clerks II one of the best movies of the summer? Is it the focus on interspecies erotica? The discussions centering on body parts that aren’t necessarily supposed to be combined? Maybe it’s the mindless debate over which is better—Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—or the pop culture poetry of hearing the Go-Bots referred to as the “K-Mart of Transformers”. Whatever the rationale, writer/director Kevin Smith has done the impossible: he stayed true to his original black and white opus from 1991, while successfully arguing for the value of sequels. It turns what could have been bothersome into pure cinematic bliss.


You don’t have to be a member of the filmmaker’s fanboy View Askew universe to appreciate the many insular intricacies present. Smith has always been known for his clever, cutting scripts, but elements like emotion and context occasionally escape his grasp. With this return to Randall and Dante’s slacker domain, replete with familiar faces (Jay and Silent Bob) and wonderful new additions (Trevor Fehrman’s fantastic Elias, Rosario Dawson’s dynamic Becky) Smith discovers new layers to explore. He acknowledges the passing of time, allowing what seemed like a reasonable lifestyle choice a decade ago to now come across as lazy and aimless. By using throwback musical moments (the Jackson Five’s “ABC”, The Smashing Pumpkins “1979”) to underscore his viewpoint, he even manages to move us.


Some may say that every Kevin Smith movie is the same. Take a few dozen of his obsessions, mix them with a heaping helping of foul language, and stir in some scatological silliness just to spice things up, and there you have it. Unfortunately, such a simplistic description doesn’t even begin to address Clerks II’s many significant joys. Before it gets bumped out of theaters, treat yourself to one of the best collections of dirty diatribes you’ll even overhear. The art of conversation may indeed be dying, but with Kevin Smith around, there’s hope for the verbal life skill yet.


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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

Recently Wal-Mart announced it was retreating from the German market and would sell all its stores there to a German competitor, the Metro Group (proprietors of European hypermarkets Real and Extra). This could be celebrated as a proof of the resilience of global diversity, as Reason editor Kerry Howley suggests. And for those in America who would like to see Wal-Mart’s influence recede in their own country, perhaps there are lessons to be drawn from this, though Wal-Mart’s scale and its already established discount-dictating power over producers for the American market make American defeat unlikely—in fact WSJ online’s “MarketBeat” cites financial analysts who think Wal-Mart didn’t aim high enough: “However, its ventures in China and Japan haven’t been as successful. Fast-growing India is another option, if restrictions on foreign investment there are eased. A.G. Edwards analyst Robert Buchanan said Wal-Mart will fare best if it focuses on markets where it has the potential to open at least 100 stores. “Just as the legendary Moby Dick had no business swallowing minnows, we believe Wal-Mart has no business operating 16 stores in South Korea and 85 money-losing stores in Germany,’’ he wrote in a note, adding that Wal-Mart should also get rid of its 11 stores in Argentina.”


Defenders of Wal-Mart like to point out that its succesful not because of some nefarious conspiracy but because Americans like to shop there, and the company’s experience in Germany may lend some credence to this idea. The story usually told about Wal-Mart is that it succeeded in America by appealing to lower-class customers’ wallets, offering deep discounts on virtually everything. If this were so, you might expect the company to succeed in Germany, which, as this NY Times piece mentions, is home to consumers who are “one of the most parsimonious and price-conscious in Europe.” But Wal-Mart failed in Germany in part because they could not discount enough to compete with the so-called hard discounters, epitomized by Aldi, which has recently begun to appear in America. For Americans, Aldi can be extremely disconcerting for three reasons—its stock is restricted to far fewer items than you’d expect in such a store, customer service is virtually non-existent, and virtually all of its products are unbranded. Germans were thrown by the inverse of these qualities at Wal-Mart: According to the NY Times article, “The company initially installed American managers, who made some well-intentioned cultural gaffes, like offering to bag groceries for customers (Germans prefer to bag their own groceries) or instructing clerks to smile at customers (Germans, used to brusque service, were put off).” But how “well-intentioned” are these gaffes? Even if you put aside the cultural insensitivity, you still have to wonder. The intention is to make money, a neutral intention at best. (If you see profit seeking as the baseline definition of rationality, than it is simply beyond evaluation.) German customers likely see these service wrinkles for what they are, extra expenses eventually passed through to them that also connote a fundamental distrust of the consumer, a belief that the conusmer won’t know what he wants without salesperson intrusion. As I’ve argued before customer service demeans both clerk and customer, it’s a disguised form of petty surveillence.

Germans also reject the convenience of one-stop shopping, thereby nullifying the loss-leader strategy typical of American grocery retailers. The Wall Street Journal reports that Germans “are willing to buy laundry detergent at one store and then go to another to get a better price on paper towels. That behavior is called basket splitting.” You can quibble over whether this is an efficient use of time, going from store to store to round up necessaries, but one thing such a default shopping mentality may ensure is that you don’t waste time buying things that aren’t necessary. Deliberately hewing to an approach that makes bargain hunting to be so ruthless as to be inconvenient is that it keeps you from buying on impulse—the whimsical purchase being one of the most illusory pleasures promoted in America (an escapist thrill with no lasting satisfaction supplied and lasting consequences potentially for one’s credit).


But what I found most interesting is Germans’ relative lack of interest in branded goods: The Wall Street Journal notes that “Metro’s acquisition of Wal-Mart’s German stores has some retail analysts questioning Mr. Körber’s logic. “It is in no way guaranteed that this will result in a vibrant hypermarket chain,” says James Bacos, director of the retail and consumer-goods practice at Mercer Management Consulting in Munich, Germany. Mr. Bacos and others say Real must define a pricing strategy against Germany’s so-called hard discount chains, stores that sell mostly private-label goods that cost less than brands and account for roughly 40% of the country’s food sales. Like other hypermarkets, Real has had to lower prices of many basic goods to match those of hard discounters like Aldi Einkaufs GmbH or Lidl GmbH. But Real, like Wal-Mart, had higher operating costs than those no-frills chains. So Real partly offset its lost margins with higher prices on branded products, a strategy that backfired because it led many shoppers to think of Real as expensive. Real also cut prices more aggressively at some times than at other times, which further blurred its image in the minds of its shoppers.” So in other words, retailers that rely on the mark-ups on branded goods struggle in Germany, where the consumers care more about price and trust their own judgment as to a product’s quality.


All of these things probably boil down to convenience—branded goods, one-stop shopping and customer service all involve a trade-off where the customer trusts in the retailer in exchange for the ability to be more lazy. Wal-Mart has managed to capitalize on these trends toward convenience the most, accelerating them with the momentum of its own success and increasing monopsonistic reach. American consumers would need to suddenly turn away from brands and convenience if they wanted to stop the big-boxification of society, a prospect which, with youth allegedly embracing branding as synonymous with personal style, seems increasingly unlikely. I’ll venture a gross overgeneralization in hopes that it might make a point with a kernal of truth in it: German consumer behavior manifests one ideology of dignity, rooted in self-reliance; American consumer behavior exemplifies another, rooted in belonging to logo-laden cliques. Which side are you on?


 


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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

According to the First Church of Godz website (which honors the ‘60s psychedelic band and not the ‘70s metal band), the former members of the Godz are suing ESP Disk to block a box set that the label is planning.  The band is also looking to reissue its own albums.  Here’s hoping that they resolve this soon.


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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006


It’s official: on 31 July, Warner Brothers announced that Christopher Nolan would return to helm the sequel to his well received reimagining of the Batman saga. Entitled The Dark Knight, it also marks star Christian Bale’s return as the tortured superhero. However, the most surprising piece of information in the otherwise standard studio statement was the confirmation of one of the ‘Net’s worst kept secrets: Heath Ledger, star of last year’s Oscar hopeful Brokeback Mountain, and relative newcomer to the Hollywood A-list, would walk into the shoes formerly worn by Caesar Romero and Jack Nicholson. That’s right; Ledger has landed the plum role of supervillain The Joker, crazed comic counterpart to Bruce Wayne’s brooding crime fighter.


With production set to begin sometime in early 2007, there is still time, however, for Warners and Nolan to rethink this position. Sure, all the contracts have been signed and the PR machine is already gearing up, but one can still envision a quick casting change, especially when considering what the role would look like in the hands of a better suited star. In all honesty, Ledger may be terrific. His recent efforts in films like Lords of Dogtown and Casanova have won him an amazing amount of industry respect, and when you add the Best Actor nod for Mountain, his hiring seems wise from both a performance and fiscal standpoint.


But there are other actors who could equally fill this villain’s natty purple suit – and they wouldn’t have near the homophobic baggage that has already resulted in some horrendously tasteless messageboard joking. Here is a short list of possible substitutes should Ledger – or his employers – get a case of comic book geek cold feet.


Crispin Glover:
In a perfect world, this incredibly gifted – and granted, eccentric - actor would be turning down offers instead of plying his perverse persona in such off-radar Indie fare as Simon Sez and a Wizard of Gore (???) remake. He’s proven his mantle as both a straight (Back to the Future) and surreal (Wild at Heart) presence, and even showed his action movie mantle by twice wielding a sword at Charlie’s able Angels. While age may be a factor (Glover’s in his mid 40s vs. Ledger’s late 20s) his work in 2003’s Willard redux indicates that no one can do determined dementia like David Letterman’s favorite talk show guest.


Jude Law:
Though many in geekdom have already designated Law as the go to guy whenever the freshened franchise gets around to adding The Riddler to the mix. There’s a better argument to be made for this fine formal actor as the killer clown. Constantly shrouded in a good guy gloss, Law could stand getting his perfect cheekbones and supermodel looks messed up for a down and dirty stab at essaying Batman’s nemesis. Sure, it may be a stretch to think of Gigolo Joe, or the updated Alfie as the manic murderous harlequin, but acting is about challenge, and right about now, Law could use one.


Adrien Brody:
He’s got the range. He’s got the look. And he’s got the prestige of both an Oscar and a turn opposite the world’s largest simian spectacle on his side. All Brody needs is a chance to prove that he’s more than just a surprise beneficiary of the Academy’s desire to celebrate the wayward Roman Polanski and he could be giggling away in psychotic glee. Though his career path both pre and post The Pianist has seen more peaks and valleys that an expedition into the Himalayas, the opportunity to play the Dark Knight’s white faced archenemy could be the focus his fading star status desperately needs.


Ewan McGregor:
After three consecutive films playing the bland bright spot - Obi Wan Kenobi - in George Lucas’s career killers, McGregor could use a bit of a goodwill boost. Sure, he’s got more projects under his belt, and on the horizon, than anyone else on this list (he’s got seven films already in production or preparing to start) but unless he finds an antidote to the mind-numbing awfulness of the Star War’s prequels, McGregor may be looking at a lifetime signing autographs at sci-fi conventions. While taking on the Joker may seem like a step backward into the same old greenscreen routine, it’s actually a way of balancing out the groan-inducing good of a galaxy far, far away with some incredibly bad ass evildoing.


Michael Keaton:
Talk about taking the series full circle – why not give the original big screen Batman a chance to channel his own inner demons. Sure, Keaton’s in his mid-50s and is therefore probably too old to convincingly star alongside the toned and twee Bale, but there is something rather intriguing about seeing the man who many thought incapable of playing Bob Kane’s cracked champion take a turn at bringing the Bat’s best known antagonist to life. Let’s fact it - anyone who can stare down the deranged Method madness of Jack Nicholson, and come out the crazier, deserves a shot at embodying the Joker’s jolly jaundice.


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