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Thursday, Oct 5, 2006

Call it an ‘Awards Wannabe’ weekend on the premium movie channels. Mixed in among all the mindless comedies, baffling ‘b’ genre efforts, uninspired action films and draggy dramas, three of the big four film networks are breaking open the Oscar addled entries from last year’s frustrating Fall season to hopefully provide some glamour to their otherwise gratuitous offerings. Frankly, such a switch up is more than welcome, especially when you consider the completely brainless crud that could be currently available - or sadly, is destined to be part of the future programming schedule for this frustrating quartet. At least three of the offerings are well worth a Saturday night sitting in front of the TV (or an attempted TiVo recording, depending on your social plans) and individually, all argue for a sense of artistry comparatively absent within your typical Tinsel Town fare. Even without a statuette in hand, all four of these films are worth your consideration. Available for sampling the weekend of 7 October are:

HBOWalk the Line

Boy oh boy does Tinsel Town love actors who can sing and dance. Granted, it’s part of the medium’s luminous past, and argues for a talent far beyond the standard Method acting elements of modern moviemaking. Still, critics went crazy for this Johnny Cash biopic, with most noting how honorable it was to see leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing the songs in their own voices. Similar to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (but unlike Jessica Lange in the Patsy Cline drama Sweet Dreams) the result was an Oscar for Witherspoon, serious consideration for Phoenix, and a decent box office run. Frankly, there is much more to this movie than a couple of younger generation Hollywood superstars warbling a collection of country and rockabilly classics. Both leads do something that’s rare in a cinematic biography – they get to the true heart of their celebrated counterparts. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review


Sam Mendes must have done something in his past to deserve such a rollercoaster ride. When American Beauty hit theaters in 1999, it was immediately embraced as a sensational, satiric skewering of strangled suburban sexual politics. What a difference a few years, and dozens of messageboard debates, makes. Mendes is now condemned for helming one of the worst Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy and his own award is dismissed as a the result of standard Oscar overkill. All of this applies to his fine follow-up, the Gulf War epic Jarhead in the following, unfortunate manner. Instead of embracing this latest effort as its own visually stunning experiment in storytelling, it was cast aside as another example of Mendes meaninglessness as a cinematic entity. As a result, what should have been an acknowledged minor masterwork was poisoned by the Internet’s inane ability to turn everyone into a critic. How horribly unfair. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

StarzMemoirs of a Geisha

Ever since the book became a bestseller, rumors were flying about the eventual big screen adaptation of this project. For the longest time, Stephen Spielberg was positioned as a possible director, and right up to the moment he pulled out, his imprint was all over the approach. With his leaving came a creative void that needed desperately to be filled. With his Best Director nomination in hand for helming Chicago, Rob Marshall was put in charge of the production, and the rest is mediocre moviemaking history. All arguments about the ethnicity of the cast aside (Chinese playing Japanese, for starters) and the misguided decision to make non-English speaking performers phonetically fudge their Western dialogue, Memoirs is still a visually sumptuous effort. Yet many feel this film is all style and absolutely no substance – at least none that was included as part of Arthur Golden’s book. Whether or not they’re right is up for argument, and thanks to Starz and its various premium channel showcases, they’ll be plenty of chances for viewers to decide for themselves. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowtimeDave Chappelle’s Block Party

While he was apparently too whacked out on sudden fame to continue his Comedy Central series, the brilliant, if baffling comedian Dave Chappelle was well enough to collaborate with French auteur Michel Gondry for this Wattstax-inspired concert film. With such a substantive cinematic heritage to contend with (the 1973 effort is one of live music’s forgotten masterpieces) and the baggage the star brought along, success seemed slight – or at the very least, destined to be determined demographically. Unbelievably, the movie was incredibly well received, with appeal that crossed over generations, races and other social classes. Thanks to Gondry’s inherent ability behind the lens, and Chappelle’s unbridled braveness in front of it, what could have been a standard concert experience becomes a celebration of humor and humanity that’s infectious in its effectiveness. While the small screen may diminish some of its impact, this is still an experience to seek out and enjoy. (Saturday 7 October, 7:05pm EST)

PopMatters Review

Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the second seven selections unearthed this week include:

7 October - Jay-Z: Fade to Black
The rap impresario used his “retirement” from performing to put on this star studded live concert. One of the best hip hop happenings every captured on film.
(The Movie Channel – 11:20PM EST)

8 October - In Cold Blood
With Infamous hitting theaters and Capote fresh in everyone’s mind, here’s a chance to see Richard Brooks’ masterful 1967 take on the celebrated “nonfiction novel”.
(Flix – 10:15PM EST)

9 October - Dances with Wolves
Some argue that Kevin Costner was unduly rewarded for this overlong horse opera. Presented in its almost four hour splendor, such sentiments may now be prescient. 
(Encore Western – 8PM EST)

10 October -Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
With the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis was looking for another horror film to sustain her career. She got this camp classic instead.
(Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)

11 October - The Waterboy
Believe it or not, Sandler plays a real character here, a hopelessly hindered mama’s boy who discovers the joy of team sports – and the local Cajun gal who loves him.
(Encore – 8PM EST)

12 October - Deliverance
While it’s hard to imagine how the censorship-happy channel will handle the infamous “squeal like a pig” sequence, it should be fun finding out.
(American Movie Classics – 8PM EST)

13 October -Wild Wild West
Okay, it’s awful, but it’s filled with inventive visuals to go along with its incredibly lame logistics. Beside’s it’s the perfect bad movie for a day overloaded with silly superstitions.
(TNT – 11PM EST)

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Thursday, Oct 5, 2006

Buying extended warranties is foolish, as this Washington Post article clearly shows.

“The things make no rational sense,” Harvard economist David Cutler said. “The implied probability that [a product] will break has to be substantially greater than the risk that you can’t afford to fix it or replace it. If you’re buying a $400 item, for the overwhelming number of consumers that level of spending is not a risk you need to insure under any circumstances.”

Since extended warranties don’t typicallly cover wear and tear damage—the main reason consumer goods fail—you would basically be buying insurance that covered an extremely unlikely event, that a product would suddenly become a lemon after the manufacturer’s warranty lapsed. At the point an extended warranty kicks in, you’d generally be better off replacing whatever item it is with the up-to-date model rather than having a third-party repairman of the insurance company’s choosing fix an outdated piece of electronics, probably at great inconvenience to you. You would do better putting that extended warranty money into a slot machine and setting aside whatever money resulted in a repair/replacement kitty.

Behavioral economists point to extended warranty purchases as an example of irrational risk sensitivity, but it seems to me like more a case of asymmetrical information. Spending makes consumers feel vulnerable, and retailers exploit that discomfort buy selling them an insurance product they know their customers don’t really need. Customers buy a sense of well-being that evaporates, probably the minute they walk away from the register, away from the salesperson’s nagging predictions of doom. (A variant on this is the pernicious practice of rental-car agents forcing unnecessary insurance on customers in an even more confusing retail and regulatory environment, typically conjuring up doomsday scenarios and implying legal ramifications for customers that are dubious to say the least.) You end up with the feeling that the company hopes the product it just sold you will break, to spite you for rejecting their warranty—which is where it makes its money.

For what’s startling, and what helps explain their popularity, is this fact, also highlighted by Tyler Cowen in this Marginal Revolution post: “Neither Circuit City nor Best Buy discloses how much of its bottom line comes from extended warranty sales.  But analysts have estimated that at least 50 percent and in some lean years 100 percent of profits at the electronics retailers come from extended warranty sales.” No wonder the salespeople are so pushy.

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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2006

As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the genre-saving stylizing of Sam Raimi

Though he’s mostly known as a genre icon, his creative canon is limited to only four true examples of motion picture macabre. As a matter of fact, many may now consider him the founding father of the truly great comic book hero adaptation rather than the man who first introduced pizzazz to the previously static scary movie. But from the very first frames of his very first film, Sam Raimi brought horror up to date, signaling a stylistic renaissance that continues today. His impact was so immediate, and his influence so important that it’s no wonder he’s become the benchmark for postmodern horror.

Like Quentin Tarantino in the ‘90s, Raimi reinvented the fright film in the ‘80s, adding elements both esoteric and experimental to the tried and true facets of fear. Without his Evil Dead trilogy, or his first attempted epic Darkman, we wouldn’t have the current creative concept of mixing genres and substance shuffling that helped make dread a full fledged fan obsession. By utilizing approaches both serious and slapstick, satiric and spectacular, Raimi proved that a fright flick could be anything it wanted to be, as long as the director stayed true to his vision, and understood the ramifications of messing with the genre.

Like most influential filmmakers, Raimi was practically born making movies. Along with friend Bruce Campbell (who would later star as Ash in the Dead trilogy), he would create Super-8 ‘experiments’, usually centering around his two favorite cinematic categories – horror and slapstick comedy. Raimi and his friends were particularly taken with The Three Stooges, and modeled a great deal of their amateur actions on the trio’s well choreographed and over the top physical humor. Once bitten by the celluloid bug, Raimi was determined to have a career as a filmmaker. By 1978 he cobbled together a 32 minute short/resume reel entitled Within the Woods and shopped it around to various businesses and merchants. Raimi was hoping to finance a full blown version of this seemingly straightforward story. Sure enough, he and his partners raised just enough cash to start his first feature film - the soon to be classic The Evil Dead.

For many, this single setting exploration of demonic possession and human bloodletting was the most vicious, violent and unrelenting work of shock cinema created to date. Raimi, realizing that he probably only had one shot at sustaining a career from this initial foray into film, pulled out all the stops to deliver what is still considered to be the first really great post-modern macabre classic. The narrative is deceptively simple – a group of friends venture to a cabin in the woods. There, they unwittingly unleash some dark demonic forces, determined to possess their bodies and swallow their souls. As a premise, there was nothing really new or novel. But once Raimi got beyond the basics of his platform plot, his visual acumen argued for a new, novel sense of filmic style.

The key to any Raimi film is the view from the lens. As a filmmaker, he is very aware, almost compulsively focused on what the camera ‘sees’. Unlike other directors who determine the action, and then place their frame in the best position to capture it, Raimi makes the compositions a part of the process. Take the opening shot of Evil Dead. As the friends drive up to the cabin, something slowly moves across the forest floor. As we cut between the car and the “creature”, Raimi keeps the movement fluid (or as fluid as possible with his camera rigged to a 2x4) and hints at some eventual collision between the two. As the discussion in the car heats up, the movements in the woods become more swift and definitive. We just know something bad is about to happen. As the images hurtle forward, preparing us for something shocking, we are totally locked into Raimi’s reality. Thanks to how he uses his lens, we are lost within his own personal paradigm of horror.

But there was more to his genre-shattering style than just a collection of camera angles. Raimi realized that, like an artist, all artforms are made up of potential possibilities as well as tried and true technical procedures. By embracing them all, and juxtaposing or jerryrigging as many as he would or could, he’d create something unusual and unique. When the demons first possess Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), her eerie overdubbed dialogue and strange body movements are the result of age old optical and aural tricks. To achieve the jagged motion, footage of Sandweiss’ “backwards acting” was shot, then reversed. Similarly, vocal effects were used to tweak her voice into something truly terrifying.

This kitchen sink approach would become his trademark – and the initial criticism of Raimi’s cinematic style. Many wondered why he would employ so many visual cues (animation, rear projection, homemade steadicam) when most horror hacks could barely settle on one. The answer of course lies in what exactly a movie macabre is supposed to be. Fear is an emotion, just like happiness or sadness. It is easy for ‘straight’ films to achieve those said sentiments since words can be just as powerful as images, perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, unless you’re filming a series of campfire tales with expert spinners of ghost stories in the bunch, you can’t really achieve terror with talking. No, true fright is an involuntary response, a real time reaction to what you perceive as a threat, or can’t quite understand. Yes, the unknown is probably the biggest fright factor in the whole horror catalog. To achieve that on film requires skill, and more importantly, style.

Raimi proved this when he went back and revisited The Evil Dead for its sequel – Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. In truth, it was more of a remake than an actual follow-up, with the events of the first film playing out in a prologue before the new material kicked in. In addition, Raimi was also ready to include more of his own idiosyncratic ideas into the story this time around. After all, he had already established his creepy credentials. With Evil Dead 2, he was prepared to push the limits of the genre as far as they would go. For many, this distinction between pure terror and the kind of monster mash-up that he was after was not unlike the difference between original Hitchcock and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Many people couldn’t fathom the use of humor or homage in horror. Both concepts seem antithetical to the concept of “the unknown”.

The proof was in the popularity, however. Even critics who typically dismissed Raimi came out to praise Evil Dead 2. Some cited the obvious references to those beloved Stooges, the Grand Guignol level of gore, and the terrifically trippy camerawork. But what Evil Dead 2 was most responsible for was barely even mentioned. Like the fright films of the ‘50s that relied on tacky monsters and bad filmmaking as a means to achieve their drive-in movie end, Raimi reintroduced pure fun back into the genre. Instead of the super serious efforts of the ‘70s, or the toneless slasher films that started the decade, this director determined that anything could be clever. A detached hand would become a brilliant comic foil, a room full of furnishing could magically come to life. Heck, even an eyeball got its own action sequence. Between the slicing and dicing, demonic dancing, chainsaw fu and rampant visual invention, Evil Dead 2 became a total tour de force. Had he done nothing else ever in his entire creative career, this sensational sequel would stand as one of horror’s shiniest, silliest moments.

Unfortunately, such a standard would be hard to beat, and try as he might, Raimi just couldn’t recapture the freaked-out fun of Evil Dead 2 in its inevitable follow-up, Army of Darkness. Financed by the notoriously intrusive Dino De Laurentis, and formulated around another favored film type – the stop motion animation adventures of Ray Harryhausen – Army added its own special spice to the series, but by the time of its release (1992) funny and frightening had been long established motion picture playmates. What once seemed cutting edge was now commonplace, and many of the movie’s more amazing sequences (the windmill attack, the final battle) drew more heavily on other genres – sword and sorcery, full blown fantasy – than actual horror. Still, the industry praised Raimi for consistently elevating his level of originality and daring. Along with the underrated comic creation Darkman, Raimi was ready for the non-genre big time.

And he’s been there ever since. From smart, solid thrillers (The Gift, A Simple Plan) to a hyperstylized Western (The Quick and the Dead) and a straightforward sports drama (For the Love of the Game) Raimi wandered the filmic landscape, looking for a place to reestablish his personal creative acumen. While he continued to influence horror through his numerous production credits (including adapting the J-Horror classic Ju-On for the big screen), what Raimi really wanted was a broad creative canvas upon which to unleash his own insane cinematic Id. The opportunity came when he was handed Spider-Man. A longtime dream for this funny book fan, Raimi realized that, finally, here was a chance to truly reinvent the genre. With all the money he needed to back up his aesthetically overreaching ideas, there was no way he could fail.

He was right. Spider-Man and its even better sequel, Spider-Man 2 totally changed the look and feel of the barely breathing comic book movie. Everything he did three decades before, all the invention and innovation he brought to horror easily transferred over to the big budget action blockbuster. Suddenly, what once seemed like a last ditch effort by studios to shore up some easily available material became one of the most successful motion pictures of all time. Raimi’s talented twist was all about style with substance, the mixing and matching of cinematic categories to achieve the perfect combination of craftsmanship and chutzpah. Without his efforts, terror would still be a great big Gothic goof. Raimi realized its potential, and with it came the true birth of postmodern dread.

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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2006

Wal-Mart is by no means the only employer who is guilty of the labor practices this NY Times article details, but as Ezra Klein never tires of pointing out, Wal-Mart sets the standard that others will have to follow to be able to compete. (After all, it is the world’s largest employer.) These most recent moves—purported to allow the company flexibility to efficiently deal with fluctuations in store sales volume due to seasonal variation, bagaries of the business cycle—seek to undermine the benefits that accrue to employees through longetivity. Also, old workers are prone to expensive inconveniences like sickness, and tend to be more “inflexible” in their ways (they are less amenable to having ther hours rejuggered at management’s whim) that put a burden on the company.

some Wal-Mart workers say the changes are further reducing their already modest incomes and putting a serious strain on their child-rearing and personal lives. Current and former Wal-Mart workers say some managers have insisted that they make themselves available around the clock, and assert that the company is making changes with an eye to forcing out longtime higher-wage workers to make way for lower-wage part-time employees.

Since most workers in discount retail don’t really gain any skills from long-term employment, and since they have been successfully prevented from unionizing, they are easily and ideally replaceable every so often, before they reach any service-related goals and raises that may have been dangled before them to keep them striving and focused while on the job. “These moves have been unfolding in the year since Wal-Mart’s top human resources official sent the company’s board a confidential memo stating, with evident concern, that experienced employees were paid considerably more than workers with just one year on the job, while being no more productive. The memo, disclosed by The New York Times in October 2005, also recommended hiring healthier workers and more part-time workers because they were less likely to enroll in Wal-Mart’s health plan.” Experienced employees figure out how to make the employer’s system work more to their advantage. That’s why you need to lean on them until they quit.

This is in no way surprising. Employers have no incentive to show any loyalty to their employees—the illusion that they have ever cared has always stemmed from the pressure the existence of strong unions exerted on them. Pensions, benefits and such—the entire concept of human resource departments (which are detestable precisely because they pretend to perform the function of union representatives while working in management’s interest)—were often concocted to forestall the progress of unions. But things have changed, and employers have nothign to fear anymore, nothing to prevent them from shifting all the insecurities of the business cycle onto workers, those least fit for coping with them. As Klein explains,

Folks forget sometimes that unions aren’t just there to argue for better benefits and salaries, but better working conditions, more stability in hours, more respect for seniority, and easier mediating between family and work. They exist, in other words, to ensure that employers uphold their end of the “work hard and get ahead” bargain. Except, unions don’t really exist anymore, and they certainly don’t at Wal-Mart. This is the result.

The point is that there is no such bargain in American society, and that there ever was one in the good old days is an illusion. Employers regard labor as a cost to be controlled, not as people whose welfare needs to be considered—such bleeding-heart sentiment was proven useless with the “defeat” of socialism and the proclaimed end of economic history. If workers and employers both prosper, it’s not because of some spirit of fair play and ethics, it’s not because some employers are congenitally nice and paternalistic, it’s because both sides have leverage over each other that forces them to split the proceeds. The bargain, to the extent that it existed, was forced by labor having a representative in the negotiation in the form of unions. Unions, though, have been systematically stripped of their ability to effectively organize, and the NLRB is staffed with Republicans hostile to their very existence. So employers rationally extend their advantage and insulate stockholders at the expense of employees. This leaves workers to fight with other workers for what protection remains, continually undermining one another while the company blithely sails along, meeting its growth targets and pleasing Wall Street. It’s an old story, and it probably sounds like a string of leftist cliches, but the utter boring predictability of it, and the reluctance to tell that same old tired workers-getting-screwed story yet again is one of the most potent weapons management has in its arsenal.

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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Richard Buckner —"Town" From Meadow on Merge Records. Meadow is the 8th full-length recording from Richard Buckner, and the latest chapter in a story that began in San Francisco, back in the early 90’s and has seen Buckner travel across the U.S. and Canada many times. Buckner’s body of work has always seemed to be about motion vs. stillness, whether it be running away or toward something, or watching something or someone leave or approach: the restless energy of the heart, full speed ahead, the consequences taken and embraced, the good and the bad. The false starts, roadblocks and pitfalls along the way only add to the richness of the journey.

Xiu Xiu—"Boy Soprano" From The Air Force on Kill Rock Stars. It comes in waves of nausea and unease. The Air Force is a wraith, and wraithlike it moves according to genuine, human rhythms; we see frontman Jamie Stewart staring into the void, or into the past, or dipping his hands into the sick pink hues of human grease, into bad love, suicide, rape, sex, stormy friendship, domination, dependency, with husky voiced lyrics that come rising up like steam from some deep and dark and cold dungeon miles below Earth’s surface.

Portastatic—"Sour Shores" From Be Still Please on Merge Records. If I were clever, I’d tell you to think of Be Still Please as the introverted sister to Bright Ideas. But I’m not. So I’ll just tell you that Mac McCaughan is better than he’s ever been – the guy is on a hot streak right now that I’d chart somewhere between Mascis ‘87, Coppola ‘74 and Dwyane Wade ‘06.

Novillero—"The Hypothesist" From Aim Right For the Holes in Their Lives on Mint Records. Pop-rock music rarely weaves its namesake styles effectively. Pop music overrides rock music most often and turns it into a wimpy mush. Or bands are too concerned with rocking out and they forget the importance of hooks and wit. Novillero don’t have that problem. The hooks are plentiful, the arrangements are varied, the melodies are memorable and immediate, and the horns are tastefully implemented.

The Fix —"Rat Patrol" From At the Speed of Twisted Thought on Touch and Go Records. Within a period of 22 odd months or so, The Fix came blazing—pillaging your town, exploding and burning fast before you knew what hit you. And it’s only now that you remember how awesome 1981 was—or at least blessed now with the hearsay and memories because you couldn’t have been there to witness The Fix.

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