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by Bill Gibron

23 Jun 2007

When someone says they don’t make movies like they used to, they are probably referring to a title like 1408. Reviving a lost subgenre like the psychological thriller is not an easy task, and when you consider the author of the source material is none other than cinematic hit or miss Stephen King, the odds are substantially stacked against you. Even worse, the release carries a PG-13 rating, which tells most dread die-hards that the narrative they’re about to see has been sanitized for the protection of the viewing public. The final nail in the nonevent coffin is the presence of Swedish unknown Mikael Håfström behind the lens. While his native language efforts have been well received, his 2005 disaster Derailed doesn’t speak well for his ability with suspense.

Luckily, the planets were all in alignment when stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack decided to take on this basically two person drama, and the results more than speak for themselves. While not actually scary, 1408 is unsettling and intense, taking its own sweet time building to a truly disconcerting climax. Predating post-modern horror by a chainsaw or two, and delivering ample angst without having to resort to bloodshed or gratuity, Håfström helms the perfect antidote to all the ‘gorno’ currently claiming the creepshow mantel. His take on King’s sensational short story is a devious little mind game, an eerie examination of one man’s inner demons and how those pent up issues can do much more than haunt a human soul. They can take on an afterlife in the real world as well.

Cynical as hell and falsely heroic, Cusack is Mike Enslin, a writer of horror-themed travel guides. He visits supposedly haunted locales and writes up reviews, Michelin style, of their significant scare factors. Of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a dyed in the wool skeptic and blames desperate hotel owners for concocting – and in some cases, creating – the spook shows for the benefit of their lagging bottom line. One day, Enslin receives a postcard warning him away from the title room, a particularly evil space in New York’s old money Dolphin Hotel. Only problem is, the establishment won’t let him in. After confronting manager Gerald Olin (a smooth and suave Samuel L.) over occupancy, Enslin gets his wish – and a warning. No one has ever lasted more than an hour in the room, the result being death, or dementia. It’s the kind of challenge Enslin can’t pass up. Once he’s inside 1408, however, he realizes he should have heeded Olin’s advice.

To go any further in the plot summary would ruin 1408’s many macabre moments (though, as usual, the preview trailers have happily spoiled more than one). To his credit, Håfström doesn’t rush his prologue. We get to know Mike Enslin very well, his superstitious little quirks, the stinging sarcasm covering up for deep personal pain, and as he moves ever so steadily toward his confrontation with the name terror, we begin to build up a lot of sympathy and caring for him. True, this is your typical King protagonist – self destructive and markedly egotistic, requiring a kind of metaphysical just deserts to reset his stagnant priorities – but thanks to Cusack’s ability to humanize Enslin’s hubris, we find ourselves on the world weary writer’s side. On the other hand, Sam Jackson is not given much to do, but what he has to work with is choice. His initial meeting with Cusack is so classic in its performance potency, it’s like the Closer’s Contest pitch made by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.

While there are other famous names in the cast – Tony Shalhoub as Enslin’s publisher, Mary McCormack as his distant wife – they are more like cameos. This is Cusack’s show almost exclusively and your reactions will be wholly based on how you connect with him. He gives an amazing turn, on screen alone for minutes at a time and capturing completely a man caught off guard by circumstances he didn’t anticipate. Nothing is more deliciously enjoyable than watching a know it all proven unprepared, and the initial scenes where room 1408 starts to take on a life of its own offers the actor at his best. Later on, Cusack must turn on the waterworks and the histrionics, and for the most part, he keeps his obvious emotions in check. It’s a tour de force, and the production couldn’t have picked a better star to handle it.

On the other hand, Håfström’s work is much more subtle. There are riffs to many previous King adaptations (The Shining and The Dark Half for starters) and this Swedish cinephile understands the basic elements of suspense. There are several edge of the seat sequences in 1408, moments where we fear, along with our hero, what’s around the next corner, or waiting for us in the shadows of the ceiling vent. This is not a film that wants to quicken your pulse or send shockwaves through your spine so much as deliberately dig down just beneath the top layers of your flesh to settle in under your skin. For every set piece of rushing water, freezing interior spaces and grue-gushing walls, there are small, seemingly insignificant beats which tend to amplify the angst. There are even a couple of epic CG shots to spice up the spectacle. But by constantly keeping the film founded in the personal, Håfström’s paranormal excesses work that much better.

It has to be said that the last few decades, a time that literally redefined and reconfigured the thriller/chiller genre, will render 1408 inconsequential to some fright fans. For them, nothing says fear like flowing rivers of bodily fluids, along with the occasional misplaced organ. Others need the celluloid rollercoaster simulation – build-up/release, build-up/release – of the genres more extreme examples. But when you look at how well made and managed this movie is, when you recognize that the seemingly random scenes all have a logical reason to exist (and potentially payoff in the end) you can’t deny 1408’s effectiveness. You can mock its casual style and lack of aggressive arterial spray, but the refreshing nature of such a narrative twist will end up annoying only the most narrow-minded of macabre mavens.

For everyone else, 1408 will be a nostalgic callback to a time when films used ideas and invention to sell its scares. There is nary a moment of snuff stunt showboating or special effects sluice to be seen. In its place are tight construction, tripwire direction, superb acting, and an uncomfortable sense of the sinister. While it may not answer the near half century old debate regarding subtlety vs. splatter as the most successful fear factor, Håfström’s engaging experiment in unforced fright is well worth a look. It definitely defines the kind of movies old fashioned film fans pine for – and may even capture the imagination of the contemporary doom and gloom crowd as well.

7 out of 10

by Farisa Khalid

22 Jun 2007

When Gigi took the Best Picture Oscar in 1958, sweeping the ceremony with a startling nine wins, it signaled the end of an era. For the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli and producer, legendary MGM Svengali Arthur Freed, the movie symbolized the zenith of their professional success in a partnership that produced an array of breezy ‘50s Technicolor extravaganzas - Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Brigadoon; But the massive productions, complete with unfolding glittering sets and hordes of extras, were becoming too expensive for the studios to finance given the increasingly modest revenues they were generating. The Hollywood musical was losing its popularity. People were more easily bored; they became less inclined to sit through a twenty-minute interpretive dance sequence, even if Gene Kelly was its star. By the time the screen rights for Gigi were up for grabs in the early ‘50s, no studio wanted to touch it. When Paramount passed, MGM gingerly bought them, due in part to the pleadings of its musical-theater genius, Minnelli.

The trends of pop culture, like history, are cyclical. Musicals are back. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls are lavish spectacles in the tradition of Freed and Minnelli. It’s a trend that began with Baz Luhrman’s irreverent, iconoclastic, Moulin Rouge, a heady blend of Minnelli, Ken Russell-rock opera (Tommy and Mahler) and plodding Gilbert and Sullivan. I think something about troubled political times makes us cling to the enchantment of musicals and its promise of escapism, whether you’re trying to cope with the memory of a devastating world war, or struggling to deal with a current one.

Gigi is not as well known today as the other Lerner and Loewe favorite that it’s compared too, My Fair Lady. Both are about eager, gauche young women who are transformed into graceful swans by a little manners, money, and the love of a shallow, but earnest, rich young man. Sounds an awful lot like the storyline to Pretty Woman. The plot is banal, and the movie is no more than an Ugly Duckling-style romantic comedy, but it’s enough. It’s not the reason why the movie is a success, or why you should watch it in the first place.

Leslie Caron plays as the adolescent girl, Gigi, who is tutored to be a courtesan by her great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold), but is so charmingly innocent and guileless that she winds up married to the richest, handsomest young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan).  Jourdan, arch and imperially slim, brings the appropriate hauteur to the part of this jaded dandy.  Like Rupert Everett, he has the insolent confidence and the elusive sophistication that can turn mannerisms into style. 

In between, the film is serenaded by the august Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s worldly uncle. Chevalier’s years of experience and his love of performing come together joyously.  His easy manner recalls the atmosphere of 1920s Parisian music halls seen most recently in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf’s biopic, La Vie en Rose - eloquent, sophisticated and unapologetic - a style of entertainment that got France through two world wars, and defined their culture through the 20th century.

Chevalier’s knowing rendition of, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung as he leeringly gazes at burgeoning young pre-adolescents in the Bois de Boulougne does not go over so well in our age as it did back then. We’re asked essentially to applaud this dirty old man, and marvel at his wit. The screen persona spawned a thousand imitations, everything from Chuck Jones’s Pépé le Pew to Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.

But one of the basic joys of Gigi is pure escapism. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people are drawn to movies: to marvel at the flow of moving images across the screen. The picture has a buoyancy and playfulness that few movie musicals have. The glorious saturated Technicolor of Minnelli’s images: the oxblood red of the brocade walls of Mamita’s apartment; the vivid green and purple tartan of Gigi’s dress; the sleekness of the men and women all taken from images out of Renoir’s paintings, (the stately tour of Parisian high life is like a two-hour slide show for art-history majors); Cecil Beaton’s lush costumes, all lace and crinoline (he transferred his memories of Edwardian England onto 1900s Paris); the energy and dynamism of the score, jaunty and robust in its musical depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, which evokes Bizet and Offenbach.

There are some glorious moments: the gossip at Maxim’s sequence is a masterpiece of balletic musical theater. Minnelli with his costume designer and set consultant, artist and bon vivant, Cecil Beaton, recreate an environment of elegance and imaginary innocence. And the scene where Gaston mulls over his growing fondness for Gigi, his top-hatted silhouette against the nighttime streets and fountains of Paris as he roams disconsolately, stunned by the realization that he’s falling in love, is a beautifully laid out sequence—a late Impressionist mood-piece haunted by sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Minnelli was a director primarily interested in the pictorial effect of cinema.  He connected deeply with painters and his most successful, lovingly made movies, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, reflect his vision of a film a moving canvas.  He understood more than anyone else that the spectator’s receptiveness to film hinges on visual pleasure, and Gigi is rapturous in that respect.

*Gigi will be playing on Turner Classic Movies at 11AM, Sunday, 1 Julyt

by Jason Gross

22 Jun 2007

Sick of the bland, unimaginative playlists at most stations?  Wish that you could have more of a choice on the radio?  Then you need to support low power radio so that it will flourish throughout the land.  A bill is coming up in Congress now and you can do your part to support this cause.  See the Take Action site for more details.

by Rob Horning

22 Jun 2007

When I was a teenager, one of the main reasons I liked to write short stories was that I liked to invent names for the characters. I remember being fascinated by this passage from John Irving’s The World According to Garp when the main character, a writer, spends afternoons reading the phone book looking for rich, evocative names. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want my adult life to be like—I didn’t realize that the passage was about anomie and the sterility of writer’s block.

Back then, I had a John Hughesian taste for names like Sloane and Chase and Ferris and Blaine; these seemed the names of privileged 1980s teendom. To my mind, if you knew people with names like that, you were running with a pretty fast set and what you were up to was almost inherently glamorous. Only later did those names seem like so much pretentious twaddle, as juvenile as the films themselves. (They seem to foreshadow the spate of suburbanized names like Travis, Cody, Kyle, Reed, etc., names that for me conjure images of bratty entitlement and Dennis-the-Menace levels of yell-talking.) But is their awfulness a matter of fashion trends changing, or is there something about the combination of syllables and sounds that make names like Claire Standish seem so implausible and absurd, so obviously made up by someone who is not a parent but a writer?

What started me thinking about this was this article from today’s WSJ about the nascent baby-naming industry. Apparently people have allowed themselves to be convinced that naming is so complicated, with so many intricate prosodical and astrological, and numerological considerations to master, that a special class of experts should be consulted to navigate them through the process.

Why anyone would pay someone to come up with appropriate names for their baby is beyond me, honestly, and the article didn’t really convince me that these people were anything other than idiotic. But the article did raise an interesting point about naming consciousness ands the rise of branding’s importance in our culture.

Growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”

I guess that explains why Sweden had forbid parents from naming their children Ikea. It would be a blatant theft of brand equity.

Names in the past signified kinship ties in social groups that were generally small enough for that data to mean something. The explosion of cities necessitates new rationales, perhaps, for naming, and the procedures of mass marketing supply one. Not to get all Burkean here, but the fact that our culture’s saturation with brands would inspire parents to turn away from tradition, reject continuity with a lost era of community and familial obligation, and embrace a synthetic individualist credo in naming seems a pretty compelling and disturbing point, proof that marketing indeed reshapes not merely our opinions toward a specific product but toward the way we comprehend the principles along which we reproduce society generally. Baby-making for the bourgeois management class begins to resemble a project-management task, with the baby being conceived and named along the same lines a company might launch a new product, only after carefully collecting the data to assure that a niche exists for it and that its name tests well with the appropriate demographic.

Marketing imperatives have so penetrated ideologically that they seem like commonsense considerations in something as time-honored and intimate as naming one’s offspring. Naming one’s baby to give it iconic selling power almost seems sensible. Hence the pathetic quandary of people like the following, and their desperate turn to a kind of consultancy that has never before in the history of human society had reason to exist:

Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn’t want their son to be “one of five Ashtons in the class,” says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a “cool” name that would help his son stand out. “An unusual name gets people’s attention when you’re searching for a job or you’re one in a field of many,” he says.

How sad is it that these parents don’t think their child will be cool inherently, that they feel it needs a snappy branding to become worthy and capable of thriving in the world? And don’t these clowns who sell lists of names feel ashamed for taking advantage of people in a moment of heightened insecurity? Actually, ignore that question. Of course they don’t. Our economy has built entire sectors on that business model.

I can’t really understand the trend toward wacky, “unique” names—it’s as if these parents believe the child’s actions won’t suffice to make them unique; that instead they need to be named Trafalgar or Wooster. Weird names seem like a curse to a child, who will forever stand out for a quality that he had nothing to do with. His parents’ self-consciousness will hang like an albatross around his neck, making sure he is always seems like he is trying to hard (like Hughes when he conjured up Sloane Peterson), always is at one remove from himself, evaluating what superficial impression he is making. Having a jazzy name means like you are selling yourself before you even have a self to be aware of. It means going through life always dogged by unearned attention. So I’m comforted by this:

Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of “The Baby Name Report Card,” has conducted surveys of how people react to different names. He found that more common names elicited positive reactions, while unusual names typically brought negative responses. To him, giving children names that stand out may ultimately be no different than sending them to school with their hair dyed blue. “Yes, you can have someone stand out by being bizarre, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good,” he says.

by Amy DePaul

22 Jun 2007

At 27, six-year reporting veteran Cindy Carcamo of the Orange County Register is already a graduate of “old school” journalism. She has interned and worked her way around a number of daily newspapers, and for most of the last three years, has manned the cops beat at the Register, a newspaper of record with close to a million readers in the suburban powerhouse of Orange County, California.

She recently got a new beat, the city of Huntington Beach, which may be best known to the world as a surfing hotspot. (The city houses a surfing museum.) But her change in assignment is only one of many transitions that Carcamo is negotiating at her newspaper.

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A Chat with José González at Newport Folk Festival

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