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Friday, Oct 13, 2006


It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42, among many others) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. It utilizes the recognizable realities of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting and then scans the surfaces for the ugly underneath.


Eventually, we start to see the horrors hiding behind the antique old-world gentility, Like all great genre efforts, The Other uses a familiar foundation—in this case, a child’s reaction to death and other domestic strife—to forge a significant supernatural pathway. Tyron wants us to see the unsettled state of youth and how it can easily, and eerily, turn over to the dark side. Through an expert maintenance of atmosphere and action, along with a directorial flair that never telegraphs the tricks or overemphasizes certain elements, we wind up with a significant motion picture masterpiece, a missing link in the growing maturation of the overall genre.


This is not a rock ‘em, sock ‘em shocker however, even without its delicious third act denouement. No, like the slowly decaying portrait of Dorian Gray, Mulligan and Tyron use the idyllic backdrop of the Perry estate—all Victorian flounce and spreading countryside—and slowly begin to peel back the paint. Soon, evil is uncloaked in the secrets being stored inside—all the dead bodies, all the shattered souls, all the unspoken horrors. One of the most successful elements of The Other is its perfectly paced storytelling. Mulligan never rushes his reveal, never hurries his delicate horrors. Instead, he moves us through this summer of suffering and has us in the palm of his knotty narrative right from the start.


We are intrigued by the presence of a mother pining away in her self-imposed exile, of the fruit cellar where father died, the grouchy neighbor hinting at the devilment contained inside the twins, and the odd symbiotic siblings who seem carved out of one complete identity. Setting each one of these inherently interesting pieces inside his jaded jigsaw, Mulligan makes us care about the characters and the circumstances first. Then, once he has us hooked, he is more than capable of turning the suspense screws. A literal reflection of the personal fears onscreen, The Other is so magnificently moody that future filmmakers should study it for lessons in how to create, and control, angst and dread.


That’s because, at its heart, The Other is a film that uses calm and ease to manage corruption and evil. Its story is a symbol of both sides of the human personality, in ways both obvious (the twins) and less iconic (the mother’s madness, Ada’s affection). While it does trade on substance that is both stereotypical (the bad-seed brother) and surreal (the “game” that the boys and Ada play), this masterful horror film never once loses its amazing, frightening focus. We feel the cold hand of destiny enveloping the Perrys in its vice-like (and filled) grip. We sense the damaging truths lying just beneath the frilly lace and country quaintness. Victims make themselves known from the moment we lay eyes on them—they pretend to see beneath the surface and must pay the ultimate price for doing so.


Yet the villainy here is varied—in the eyes of a child, the lost look of a fractured mother, the acquiescing affection of an elderly grandmother. Some or all play a part in the death surrounding The Other’s often ordinary elements. When we get to the telling twists—made a little less effective because of time and familiarity, not anything inherent in the movie—we feel somewhat vindicated for our suspicions. Then The Other takes another, more mean-spirited step and, suddenly, all bets are off. The final shot fulfills all the promise only hinted at during the rest of the film, and makes us reconsider everything that came before.


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Friday, Oct 13, 2006

One of the things I used to naively romanticize about the Soviet Union as a teenager was the idea that there were purportedly so few choices among consumer goods, that the stores were bereft of brands. I felt terrorized by the need to own brand-name clothing and crap like that, so I used to daydream about the land beyond such distinctions. This image that I found on the English Russia blog, pretty well illustrates what my austere fantasies were like.


Since then I’ve adopted a different attitude toward the defunct Soviet system, but I’m still skeptical about the need for so many consumer choices. Convinced by Barry Schwartz’s analysis in The Paradox of Choice, I usually think of the problem of too much choice in terms of optional paralysis: the existence of more choices defers our need to make a decision and enhances our fear we’ll make a less than optimal choice. The more choices we are presented with, the more likely it is we’ll become a “maximizer” and cease being a “sufficer,” to use Schwartz’s terminology. Apparently people can generally adapt to whatever course they have chosen and rationalize it as the best choice retrospectively, but that benevolent process won’t kick in as long as we suspend ourselves over multiple possibilities and “keep our options open.” One of my main gripes about cell phones and other communications technology is that it encourages precisely that behavior, a refusal to commit to any plan and an attitude that all decisions are provisional. This, I think leads to greater uncertainty and further unhappiness and a certain irrational insecurity that manifests, for example, in the insane compulsion to spend every moment while walking down a sidewalk on the phone with someone else. Because one’s own decisions have been made provisional, one probably assumes everyone else’s have become that way too, and therefore we must keep calling each other up to firm up plans or lobby for what has already supposedly been agreed upon. This adds to the sum total of insecurity we all must wrestle with everyday, yet it is extremely difficult to perceive that systemic low-level insecurity; instead we remember those instances when cell phones prove truly convenient.


But in certain cases, too much choice can lead to misery for another reason: overconsumption. This post from economist Chris Dillow’s blog Stumbling and Mumbling, cites a study about TV watching that reveals that “For the 10% of people who watch most TV, relative to what you’d expect from their demographic features, moving from 3 to 10 TV channels depresses well-being by one-third of the effect of getting divorced.” Dillow evokes the notion of akratic individuals—i.e. people with less than average willpower who can’t resist temptations they would otherwise prefer to resist—for whom the additional options prompts unwarranted and ultimately undesired consumption. Akrasia poses a difficulty to neo-classical economic thinking, which holds that consumer choices reveal preferences and that people are in effect incapable of doing things they don’t really want to do (and if they say they have they are lying to themselves and putting up a false front of vortuousness or morality or modesty or what have you). What’s more people are presumed to make choices among potential pleasures that will unerringly yield them the most satisfaction. We are supposedly inherent maximizers, of a sort, but with none of the decision making agony—we just automatically find the most utility available to us at the margin. From this point of view, overconsumption is a ludicrous oxymoron.


But evidence and anecdotal experience seems to point the other way. Overconsumption occurs; rational choice isn’t a given. Environmental and psychological factors lead people to choose poorly and against their interests and intentions. But because perfect rationality is enshrined in the received analyses of capitalism, and because capitalism shapes our consciousness in ways we can hardly even begin to enumerate, we tend to expect of ourselves this perfect rationality, we tend to overrate the “freedom” that comes from consumer choice and underrate other forms of political and social freedom—or rather we see our ability to vote, to participate in civil society, to expresses ourselves more or less freely as finding their most perfect expression in market situations, in the choice among products we’ll own. And since we are encouraged by the standard economic analysis of capitalism (which trickles down throughout capitalist culture) to never regard our free choices as constrained or curtailed or shaped by any force other than our own will, we believe the exercise of that will in the market is the most meaningful self-defining activity we can undertake—consumption trumps production, and we are what we own rather than what we make and do. Also, it gets harder to understand what is happening when the market disappoints us, when we discover we have made the false choices that received ideology have taught us are impossible. Society allows no space for such disappointment to exist, since we can’t blame our perfectly rational selves or the perfectly efficient market. So it just builds as a kind of dark matter, perhaps finding expression in the rise of mental illness, stress, and fundamentalist spirituality.


 


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Friday, Oct 13, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Lynyrd Skynyrd was probably the greatest American rock band of all time, backing their triple threat guitar sound with exceptional songs that brought significant elements of blues, soul, and country music to the mix.”
—Roger Holland, PopMatters review of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gold.


Lynyrd Skynyrd—“Gimme 3 Steps”


Lynyrd Skynyrd—“Call Me the Breeze” [crank up the volume, the sound quality is poor, but this is one of Skynyrd’s finest songs, especially live]


Lynyrd Skynyrd—“Free Bird” [Live in Oakland]


Lynyrd Skynyrd—“Sweet Home Alabama” [Live on The Old Grey Whistle Test]


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Thursday, Oct 12, 2006

Though at first glance it may not appear to be true, it really is a celebration of foreign films this weekend on your favorite movie channel. Three of the four entries discussed in this installment of Viewer Discretion Advised come from people and places outside our own broad borders. Granted, two were made by Canadians and one is an Aussie export, but the outsider mentality is still strong in this interesting creative collection. As a matter of fact, when placed up against the sole bit of America motion picture making on the schedule, us Yankees look pretty pathetic. Between terse looks at the horrors of human hostility and the ways in which stardom breeds contempt and corruption, a dopey little actioner about genetic engineering doesn’t stand much of an aesthetic chance. Perhaps it’s proof that, when it comes to exploring the extremes of cinema, international contingents have a better handle on the difference between art and artifice. For those interested in what’s cooking on those preeminent pay stations for the week of 14 October, here are the choices:


HBOThe Island

One of 2005’s biggest debacles, here was a typical 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. If you can get through the cheesy first hour, filled with way too much sloppy future shock speculation and Big Brother bullshit, you may actually enjoy yourself. 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. Sister station Cinemax has had this flawed, bloated pseudo-blockbuster plastered all over its channels for the last couple of months. Now its time for those only privy to Home Box Office to experience this serving of entertainment entropy.(Premieres Saturday 14 October, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxA History of Violence

*
One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid, Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly, eXistenZ, or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch, Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. Not since David Lynch’s masterful Blue Velvet has small town life seemed so sinister. (Premieres Saturday 14 October, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzWolf Creek

*
Heavily hyped upon its release to theaters, this Australian horror film never quite connected with audiences. Granted, it’s gritty low budget leanings may have turned off fright fans used to the gloss of the mainstream movie macabre, and the narrative does borrow liberally from other cruel classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Hostel. But with its “based on true events” tagline, and gratuitous influx of gore, what should have been a sleeper hit instead just calmly came and went. As part of Starz’s 24 hour terror marathon (starting on Friday 13 October with the channel’s documentary on the slasher film) the small screen may be the perfect place for this overlooked effort. In the comfort of your own home, the intense atmosphere of dismay and eventual unrelenting violence may seem less shocking. One thing’s for sure – the Down Under tourist boards can’t be happy about the impression this film offers.  (Premieres Saturday 14 October, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowTOOWhere the Truth Lies

*
What if the break up between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, history’s most famous and popular entertainment duo, was driven by elements other than ego? What if there was a nasty secret between the pair, a secret shrouded in murder, and a massive cover-up? This is part of the premise for Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Rupert Holmes’ novel centering on the ominous reasons behind the split of a fictional comedy act. With Kevin Bacon assuming the Lewis role and Colin Firth essaying a real Rat Pack composite, the acting is excellent. Unfortunately, many found Egoyan’s tone at odds with the narrative’s more darkly comic elements. And some may still be put off by the film’s unrelenting reliance of sex to sell its sleaze and subtext (the movie was originally rated NC-17, before edits). Still, for a drama with a decidedly different bent, this is one of last year’s lost treasures. (Saturday 14 October, 10:00pm 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 third sequence of seven films featured this week includes:



14 October - Mystery Train
Jim Jarmusch’s triptych take on the King is both boldly original and oddly effecting. Besides, any film featuring Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is all right in SE&L’s book.
(Flix – 10PM EST)


15 October - Primer
Four friends develop a device which may or may not be some sort of time machine. The implications, or the lack thereof, become the basis for this fine low budget effort. 
(Movie Channel – 9:45PM EST)


16 October - Basic Instinct (Edited Version)
Another entertaining exercise in editing courtesy of those crackpots over at American Movie Classics. Only slightly better than the CGI bikini and bottoms of VH-1’s censored Showgirls.
(AMC – 8PM EST)


17 October -The Misfits
Clark Cable. Marilyn Monroe. Eli Wallach. Montgomery Clift. Arthur Miller. John Huston. Enough said.
(Encore Westerns – 8PM EST)


18 October - The Magnificent Ambersons
If you failed to catch this flawed Orson Welles masterwork when it was part of a day long celebration of star Joseph Cotton, now’s the time to take a look.
(Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)


19 October - Dune
David Lynch takes on one of sci fi’s most beloved novels, and delivers his own unique take of speculative fiction. Not to be missed.
(Movie Plex – 8:45PM EST)


20 October -Deep Blue Sea
Want proof that Samuel L. Jackson can elevate even the lamest cinematic premise. Along with LL. Cool J, our man Sam saves this ‘Smart Sharks in an Underwater Laboratory” lunacy.
(TNT – 11PM EST)


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Thursday, Oct 12, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


“The Waylon Jennings boxset Nashville Rebel gives reason to consider Jennings as not just a country-music outlaw, but a Wurlitzer Prize winner, whose voice from a jukebox can erase all the pain in the world just by giving voice to it.”
—Dave Heaton, PopMatters review of Nashville Rebel


Waylon Jennings - “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”


Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson—“Good Hearted Woman”


Waylon Jennings—“Me & Bobby Mcgee”


Waylon Jennings—“Lonesome On’ry and Mean”


Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash—“There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang”


Waylon Jennings—“Amanda”


Waylon Jennings on Austin City Limits


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