Friday, March 30, 2007

Camera Obscura - 'Lookout'; Neo-Noir; and 'X-Files 2'

I've got a stack of good movies to recommend this week - since last week was all whiney-ranting on a movie I hated. It's far more fun to share the good stuff with you, and there's some to pick from in the theatres and on DVD, much of it based on top-notch writing.

Opening today is the directorial debut of Scott Frank, "The Lookout". Some big-name directors were up for this project, like David Fincher, Michael Mann and Sam Mendes, but writer Frank got to take the reins himself and that was a smart move. This crime-thriller is centered on a young man whose mind has been almost washed away following an accidental brain injury. By the time you follow the damaged and lost Chris Pratt (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to a bank robbery, you're already deeply interested in these characters. Frank is an expert at making fascinating characters and at making solid thrillers.

His past work is part of the best in Neo-Noir thrillers - crime stories grounded in strong characters - such as "Get Shorty", the short-lived TV series "Karen Sisco", and "Out of Sight," all movies based on the writings of one of the best crime writers in America, Elmore Leonard.

Critics agree that in addition to the script and deft direction, the lead as played by Gordon-Levitt is worth the price of admission. He's been turning in gutsy performances in movies like "Brick" and "Mysterious Skin".


The character of US Marshal Karen Sisco created by Leonard and featured in the TV series (played by Carla Gugino) and the movie "Out of Sight" (played by Jennifer Lopez) surely gave Frank good ideas in building and developing stories. "Out of Sight" is a minor-classic -- often funny, filled with realistic and oddball criminals, danger lurking close by which is just as real.

If you haven't seen it - do so. In addition to Lopez, the movie stars George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn and others who all create vivid characters.

Another book turned into a movie worth repeated viewings is "Children of Men", now available on DVD. Based rather loosely on P.D. James book, the movie is set in London in the year 2027, in a world which has fallen apart, ravaged by terrorism, disease and corruption and where no human child has been born in nearly 20 years. The reason why - or the lack of a reason - shapes the lives of everyone.

Director and screenwriter Alfonso Cuaron fills every frame with society worn down and wasting away, from hatred, from fear, from religious strife, and everyone seems to move in dull inertia. Without children, the world is without hope. The movie has echoes of earlier apocalyptic cinema, like "Soylent Green", but Cuaron and the cast (Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore) have made something very new and very topical.

There's a scene early in the film between the estranged couple of Owen and Moore, just after Owen's character has barely escaped a deadly suicide bomb attack. He complains of a constant ringing in his ears, and she tells him that sound is the sound of cells dying, a frequency he will never hear again. A bit later in the movie, an explosion brings about yet another ringing in Owen's ears, and he and the audience understand he has lost something even more valuable than part of his hearing range. It's a sharp script and another excellent movie from Cuaron.

By sheer accident this week I watched a film I had seen on video shelves for some time, never giving it a chance. Big mistake. So I'm also urging you to seek it out as well. The movie is based on the novel "Doctor Sleep", by Tennessee native Madison Smartt Bell, and retitled "Close Your Eyes."

Bell's story slyly and expertly draws you into a crime scene via the life of Michael Strother, played by Goran Visnjic, working in London as a hypnotist who helps people quit smoking. But his skill includes a more occult ability to see what others see in their own mind. When he counsels a woman who has an image of a drowning child in her mind, he learns she is a policewoman working a case involving children who are kidnapped and murdered in a ritualistic nightmare. Reluctantly, he agrees to help her work the case.

There are many layers of story here, blending crime drama with eldritch religious groups. Bell, in an interview, remarked that "Doctor Sleep" was a culmination of work for him. Much of his previous work used the noirish world of crime and led the reader somewhere else:

"
To my mind, Dr. Sleep was the end of a whole trend in my work. The book is basically structured as a prayer, and Stother's internal monologue drives the story. After I had finished it, I realized in a way I hadn't before that all the novels I had written up to that time were spiritual pilgrimages of one kind or another. Though they are by and large couched in the form of thrillers, they're essentially experiments in religion. My model for that is Dostoyevsky, who was basically a thriller writer with a lot of religious obsessions that he was trying to work out. I wasn't completely aware of this strain in my own work until I'd finished Dr. Sleep, or was well on the way to finishing it."

The movie has real scares and chills, created by your own connections to the characters and the maze of storytelling which easily twists you around. A very surprising find -- too bad the project was shelved for some years, barely marketed and dumped without notice onto DVD.

Finally, I have this bit of news for fans of "The X-Files" show and movie. Star David Duchovny says the project for a sequel is almost set and filming will begin soon .... he hopes,

Thursday, March 29, 2007

From Vice-President to Charlie's Angel

Boy, when the day turns bad, it really turns bad:

"
STRATFORD — A man claiming to be Vice President Dick Cheney led authorities on a high-speed chase through town Monday night, colliding with a patrol car before he was shocked with a stun gun and arrested, police said.

John Spernak, 42, of Meadow Street, claimed during his arrest to be the vice president as well as the husband of Nicky Hilton, sister of pop celebrity Paris Hilton, police said. He was charged with attempted first-degree assault, engaging police in a pursuit, reckless driving, criminal mischief, interfering with police and being in a town park after dark.

While in custody, police said, Spernak admitted he wasn't Cheney, but rather Jaclyn Smith, former star of the television show "Charlie's Angels." He was taken to Bridgeport Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

Police said officers were patrolling Long Beach after 10 p.m. when they spotted Spernak parked in a 1994 Cadillac Eldorado. Officers approached the car when it suddenly took off at high speed, police said. The car traveled along Main Street, exceeding 90 mph. At Blakeman Place, the Cadillac crashed into the driver's side of a patrol car, and then kept going, police said.

Police said Spernak eventually pulled into his own driveway on Meadow Street. But even then, they said, he refused to get out of the car, forcing an officer to shock him with a stun gun so that he could be placed in handcuffs."



via The Connecticut Post

The Tortured Media

Maybe we need a new catchphrase for it, some word-bundling which easily fits into headlines and ad copy and gives the buzz of it's discussion an easily identified handle.

"It" is a topic I've been writing some about recently, mostly in entertainment posts or film reviews. But a couple of stories I've seen in the last week has nudged my thoughts on it again. "It" is the fairly recent trend of horror/thriller movies and television shows where torture and it's every agonizing detail is prominent - and more important - financially rewarding for the makers and distributors.

In the last few weeks some billboards advertising a movie called "Captivity" from Lionsgate Films appeared in NY and LA that started a firestorm of anger at the way actress Elisha Cuthbert was shown under headings like Capture, Confinement, Torture and Termination. Jill Soloway wrote about her shock and disgust and her actions to get the billboards removed in this piece at Huffington Post. She and others were successful in getting the billboards removed and the film is now using it's "banned billboard" incident as part of the film's advertising.

Last week, a TV Guide blog reported the National Organization of Women was complaining about an episode of a "reality" show, "America's Next Top Model" for making a competition for the would-be models by having them pose as semi-naked corpses in fake crime scene photos. You can, if you wish, take a peek at the NSFW pics via this LiveJournal page where fans/detractors discuss and debate the show, just scroll to the top of the page for the images.

Now let me explain something here -- you can do your own searches for the "Captivity" billboard if you wish, but I decided to include the link to the ANTM pics since they were featured nationwide, not just a few billboards in two cities. This show was available to any home with a cable TV connection. So it isn't as if the images are obscurities --though, no, I don't think this ANTM show is very highly rated. But it's been on for years and makes lots of cash for Tyra Banks. It's a show focusing on what it takes to reach the heights of Fashion.

And for me, it shows what has been a constant theme in film and TV (and some books too), violence and women and sexuality all stirred together in a strange psychobabble language. There is an inherent oddness of Voyeurism in TV and movies, the topic of endless thesis papers and master's degrees and semiotic/cinematic studies. Yet, it seems of late the imagery is "fashioned" more starkly and more grim.

How can you help but notice the large presence in TV and films for deeply detailed forensics/crime stories and graphic torture? But the themes extend far beyond such graphic images from a modeling shoot or the latest episode of "24."

I'm perplexed that people tune in to watch something like "The Apprentice", eliciting drama/comedy from wondering who's the next to get fired, who'll fail the popularity poll of "American Idol," who will fail on "Survivor", who will be "The Weakest Link", who will fail in "The Amazing Race," and on and on the list goes. I'm sure you'll say most people are tuning in to see who wins, but all the weeks of watching which occur and sustain these shows concern those who fail.

It's a tough, tough world, yep. But entertaining myself in the evening watching someone struggle to get a job, become a chef, a model, a pop singer, or the no-longer-popular performers who try and lose weight, get off drugs, learn a dance step, check into rehab - whatever - watching such stuff is not on my list of things to do.

And for any regular reader here, I've confessed it before, many times - I am a horror movie/fiction fan. I have been reading Poe and Lovecraft and watching vampires and monsters and all the things that bump you into the world of fantasy or dystopia for most of my life. I just see a difference between those manufactured works and the manufactured "realities" of what's often on television. The difference would take me far too long to explain, though I'll try.

It's kind of like this -- I've taught classes on horror films, researched and studied them and written them for years. I've learned there are easy ways to make an audience frightened or uncomfortable and there are subtle and more complex ways to achieve that as well. There are constants in the struggle of Life and Death, sometimes told in a story very well, sometimes clumsily hurled at you in hopes of making a quick profit. Sometimes imagery emerges in the media that seem to appear as if from nowhere, as if some mad thing has gotten hold of the image-making machinery with nothing in it's cold heart but cruel exploitation.

However ....

There is the reality today in this country of such struggles taking place on a global scale. All day, for many years now, the imagery and the language of our society is fused with references to torture, to cruelty, to despotism. It's natural, I think, for the collective American mind to start displaying similar images via a movie or TV show or even a billboard. We observe the imagery, we perhaps say "this crosses the line we should not cross." It's far simpler to identify and excoriate a billboard than to identify the real life line-crossing actions conjuring with torture, endless or secret imprisonment, and the nefarious secret plots of cults to dismantle and destroy a place, a people or a policy.

So I'm not really surprised our media culture continues to mirror bizarre horrors. It's one, albeit murky, way to talk about the things we fumble to understand.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

400 Nashville Students Are Fashionably Challenged

Wonder how much educational time, resources and money were wasted by herding 400 students in Nashville high schools into detention in a single day for violating dress code policies?

The Tennessean report says about "200 students at Overton High and 200 at Antioch High were removed from class and given in-school suspension. They sat in a large group in the auditorium or gym, according to school officials."

All this occurs as the Metro board considers whether or not or how mandatory school uniforms should be used. I've seen plenty of anecdotal reports from parents and others who claim that just by having kids dress uniformly improves everything at a school.

Empirical data says ... no evidence of a correlation between uniforms and behavior or achievement in academics exists.

A 2005 report in Education Week says:

"
Despite the media coverage,” David Brunsma writes in The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education, “despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, uniforms have not been effective at attacking the very outcomes and issues they were assumed to aid.”

That means, he says, that uniform policies don’t curb violence or behavioral problems in schools. They don’t cultivate student self-esteem and motivation. They don’t balance the social-status differences that often separate students. And they don’t improve academic achievement. (In fact, uniforms may even be associated with a small detrimental effect on achievement in reading, his research shows.)

"In conducting hundreds of analyses, Brunsma looks for effects among individual students and entire schools, and among younger children and teenagers. He also controls for differences that might also account for varying test scores, such as the socioeconomic status or race of students. And, for the most part, he continues to come up empty-handed on any evidence that school uniform policies are effective."

But what about those studies which do show huge changes once uniforms are require? Turns out the studies were sponsored by a company called French Toast, which makes, no, not breakfast -- they make and sell school uniforms.

"
Brunsma says newer case studies looking at uniform-adoption efforts in schools in Baltimore, Denver, and Aldine, Texas, a suburban Houston district—all of which also point to positive effects—have an additional shortcoming. Besides being largely anecdotal, they were sponsored by French Toast, a leading manufacturer of school uniforms based in Martinsville, Va.

“If you look at the published stuff on this, the ones that conclude positive results, by and large come from clothiers,” he says, noting that school uniforms have grown into a multimillion-dollar industry. Another study of school uniforms was financed by Dodgeville, Wis.-based Lands’ End Inc., which started its school uniform division in 1997."

Most studies and cases indicate one clear result of requiring uniforms -- parents and others "perceived" a change took place and therefore believed all was made well.

Fashionable fixes and fads are easy. Education is hard
.

Shut Down the Plan to End Local Control of Cable Franchises

I'm encouraging all readers of this page and residents statewide to voice a loud opposition to a bill before the legislature which drains funds away from cities and counties, removes local control over cable franchise rights, and essentially hands the telephone companies both an unfair advantage and reduces existing standards of service.

It's worth noting that for the first time, federal taxpayers have a chance to get a small refund from from the telecoms for a tax first added to telephone service in the 1800s, money they've collected for decades and are only refunding now after the government intervened.

It's also worth noting that in the early days of Internet usage, the vast majority of users had to use a dial-up service and pay a per-minute fee for access. Thankfully, technology made such high prices outmoded.

And if the state does approve the end of locally created franchise agreements, the cities and counties will be looking for new ways to replace that lost income - more taxation.

The bills under review are currently headed into committees for debate in early April, but the time to speak out is now, before it's too late.

Taking a cue from this post at KnoxViews, simply send an email to your representative and senator, such as the one below, mentioned at KV. A link to the Senate directory is here. A link to the House directory is here.

Dear Rep. ____________
Dear Sen. ____________

I urge you to vote against and actively oppose SB1933/HB1421, which eliminates local control of cable franchises, regulates local franchise fees, restricts or eliminates customer service and quality standards, provides state regulation of local public right of way for the benefit of cable companies, restricts or eliminates local build-out requirements, and allows cable companies to create statewide franchises.

Contrary to claims of the lobbyists who wrote it, this legislation is not good for consumers or for local governments who know best what is needed in their communities and which areas are undeserved. Local governments have a duty to maintain infrastructure rights of way for the benefit of all citizens and taxpayers in their communities.

I urge you to vote for and actively support the following three bills that would help expand broadband access in Tennessee. Broadband access, and particularly rural broadband access, is vital to our economy in terms of availability for businesses relocating here and maintaining a qualified workforce, and will also help cure the "digital divide" between poor working people and the more affluent.

HB2100/SB1572 would establish a non-profit "Tennessee Broadband Access Corporation to facilitate the deployment of broadband technologies across the state."

HB2103/SB1716 requires "the department of economic and community development to establish a ConnectTN program to bring statewide broadband expansion."

HB2099/SB1580 "Expands the membership of the Tennessee Broadband Task Force to include a representative of the department of education and requires the task force to submit an assessment of the state of broadband deployment on an annual basis.

Thank you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Monday, March 26, 2007

The New Tennessee-Style Ethics

A new Ethics Reform law now required by county governments in Tennessee seems to offer little to deter elected officials or employees from worrying too much about conflicts of interest and ethical standards in general.

Case in point - a report in the March 24, 2006 Greeneville Sun about a county commissioner, Hilton Seay, who is also chairman of their newly created Ethics Committee. When a vote concerning an attorney Seay does business with was presented, Seay never mentioned his business relationship, claiming he simply forgot.

Now there are a few prominent failures, in my opinion, of this Ethics Reform Act, chiefly, that if an official does in fact announce he/she may or has a "conflict of interest" in a pending vote, the act approved by the state does not actually require the official to recuse themselves from the vote. Seems a rather toothless law. But more on that in a moment.

Take a read of the story and the players according the the Sun's report:

"
County Commissioner Hilton Seay, chairman of the Greene County Commission’s Ethics Committee, said Monday that he did not think of mentioning his personal attorney-client relationship with Greeneville lawyer Robert Foster when a vote about Foster came before the Ethics Committee in January.

According to records filed in Claiborne County Chancery Court, Foster has represented Seay in a probate matter in Claiborne County since March 2006. That case is continuing. The probate matter was brought to the newspaper’s attention by an anonymous letter that was apparently also sent to several Greene County commissioners a few days ago.

“I never even thought about it,” Seay told The Greeneville Sun when asked Monday about his Ethics Committee vote and his failure to mention that Foster was representing him in a matter of personal business.

On Jan. 10, the Ethics Committee narrowly defeated two measures concerning Foster, each time by 4-to-3 votes. Seay voted on the side most favorable to Foster in each instance.

[snip]

County Commissioner Tim White had asked the committee to reprimand County Mayor Alan Broyles for hiring Foster part-time to handle duties in the county’s Building and Zoning Office without consulting the County Commission.

White also asked the committee to recommend that the County Commission terminate Foster’s employment.

In each instance, Seay, who is the committee chairman and also the chairman of the commission’s Republican caucus, voted against the proposed action.

White and others said then that they believe Foster was hired as a reward for work he did in Broyles’ election campaign last summer.

Foster was vice chairman of the Greene County Republican Party at that time, and is now county chairman of the party.

Asked Monday about his votes and his client-attorney relationship with Foster, Commissioner Seay said that, in hindsight, he wishes that he had remembered that Foster was working for him in the probate matter.

Had he remembered, Seay said, he would have told the committee before the vote that he had retained Foster almost a year earlier, and that Foster was still representing him.

However, Seay said, although he would have made the disclosure if it had occurred to him, “It wouldn’t have changed the way I voted.”

CTAS, an advisory service for county government, offered this comment to the newspaper:

"
Rick Hall, a CTAS county government consultant based in Johnson City, said he talked with David Conner, a CTAS legal consultant, after being asked about Commissioner Seay’s Ethics Committee votes at a time when Seay was using Foster’s services in a probate case unrelated to the county.

According to Hall, Conner “does not see any conflict-of-interest here whatsoever".

The entire article is worth a read, if only to reveal how Ethics Committees in the state's counties operate.

Also of note is the suggested Ethics Policy Resolution via CTAS offered to counties, available online here.

It should be noted that the state law which requires all counties to create a "local ethics policy" by June 30th 2007. If a county creates such a policy on it's own, it must send a copy to the state's Ethics Commission. However, if a county simply adopts the Resolution offered by CTAS, all that is needed is a letter of notification that a county has voted to adopt a policy.

From what I've been reading, most counties are adopting the CTAS model, which requires simply a statement from an official or employee that a conflict may or does exist, but that the individual is free to vote on that very issue.

The state's Ethics Reform Act, according to CTAS, also offers this nugget of information on just how toothless or meaningless this Act :

"The Ethics Reform Act does not contain any provisions regarding enforcement of the ethical standards or specific penalties, but instead provides that violations of ethical standards are to be enforced under existing law. While it is not required under the Ethics Reform Act, the model policy creates a local ethics committee as a mechanism for filing complaints of violations of the policy and maintenance of records. Although the CTAS model policy provides for the creation of a local ethics committee, the Ethics Reform Act does not mandate the creation of an ethics committee or the designation of any other local office to receive complaints."

I'm not claiming that Commissioner Seay is guilty of some wrong-doing. But for a chair of an Ethics Committee to forget to follow the tenets of his own commission is a dubious beginning for affirmative change. And the overall impact of this "reform act" will be minimal at best and likely require a citizen take action, such as a lawsuit, to investigate any potential problems.