Friday, December 31, 2004

Greetings from Santa Cruz

Just hanging out this afternoon with friends here on California's beautiful Central Coast, where it has been raining just about non-stop since I arrived. What a terrific vacation. And then I get to go home to Los Angeles on Monday and start my new video store job. 2005, here I come!

I'm just being curmudgeonly because my three more musically-inclined friends have been downstairs attempting to play "I Am The Walrus" on a set of acoustic guitars for about the past hour, and I'm getting a bit tired of hearing Aaron screech the part about custard dripping from a dead dog's eye over and over again. But the feeling will pass. Tonight, we're headed to the San Francisco area for a bit of New Year's celebrating and whatnot, but there really isn't anything more exciting than that to report, I'm afraid.

Oh, yeah, there was one more thing to talk about. I got a very intriguing comment on my previous "bestiality" post from the same guy who informed me that the word is spelled "bestiality" as opposed to "beastiality." He goes by mynym, in case you're interested.

Anyway, in response to my declaration of opposition to sex with animals on the basis of consent, here's what mynym had to say:

Consent cannot be the real reason that you want to keep that sexual taboo, given what is done to animals without their consent. I.e., hunting, butchering, etc.

It's certainly a unique argument...If you extend it far enough, it states that carniverous people by definition have no rational basis for opposing animal cruelty. You approve of killing animals for food, therefore you approve of doing anything you please to an animal.

The idea of animals consenting to something like "hunting" is also amusing to me. Kind of defeats the purpose of hunting, if you're going to have to ask for permission from your prey. Like, "Well, Mr. Deer, I'd really like to shoot you this afternoon. If I could just get you to sign this consent form...Oh, you have no opposable thumbs. And you don't speak English. Well, how about you just make a mark with your antlers?"

He also implies that I hold certain moral values merely because they are commonly acceptable, and that he's insightful whereas I am closed-minded, which is always appreciated. That's the fun of having a blog, really. Not getting any comments in response to your constant posting, except for the occasional philosopher who swings by to inform you that you're ill-informed.

Unfortunately, mynym's main argument, though appealing in its casual dismissal of commonly-held moral conceits, makes little sense. I'm okay with raising and slaughtering cows to provide hungry people with a meal, sure. Would I be in favor of slowly torturing this cow for several hours until it finally died from pain and fatigue? Of course not.

There is a big difference between finding the consumption of animal flesh acceptable and finding the torture of animals acceptable, and having sex with an animal against its will would certainly classify as torture. Or, at the very least, we consider it torture if you do it to a human being.

Certainly, mynym is aware of this, which just leads me to wonder if he is playing Devil's Advocate. I mean, I like beef and pork and chicken a lot, but that doesn't mean I think it's okay to cruelly gratify one's sexual urges on a helpless living creature.

So, that's something (albeit something unpleasant) to think about this lazy afternoon while I wait to ring in the New Year. It beats listening to my guitar-happy companions, who have now switched over to "Come Together."

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Behind Those Lizard Glasses Lie The Cold Dead Eyes of a Killing Machine

You guys all know Greg Raymer, 2004 World Series of Poker Champion? 300 pound collector of fossils and wearer of silly dinosaur eyeglasses who won $5 million on ESPN this year in Texas Hold 'Em? It seems two guys tried to hold him up at the Bellagio Casino this week following a cash game, only to find that he's a troublemaking resistor.

Check out this quote from the man...He has the heart of a champion...

On a poker message board, Raymer recently wrote: "I don't write this to brag, I just want any robbery-minded people out there who hear about this to know that I'm a tough mark, and they won't get that much off me even if they succeed."

For a burly, middle-aged guys, he sure can talk tough. Did he really say "I'm a tough mark"? What, did he eat Charles Bronson?

No, I kid Greg Raymer! Actually, I guess this kind of makes him a hero both on and off the green felt of the poker table. He's the kind of sports champion all of America can get behind. Literally.

No, no, that's another joke! What I wanted to point out was that the Yahoo story concludes one of the men who held up Raymer was another competitor in his cash poker game at the Bellagio that night. Which just goes to show you how little the game of poker has progressed since Prospector Times. They're still waiting to shoot you in the back for your Ace's and Eight's.

Well, that's enough blogging for now. See you all in a few days!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Paranoid About Androids

I just wrote an e-mail to a friend of mine at Universal about robots, and made a strange observation. The idea of robots attacking large cities has recently become something of a common theme in pop culture, just over the last few years. Consider these examples:

  • I, Robot, in which Will Smith saves us all from evil artificial intelligence on the rampage
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, in which an evil German scientist sets a team of oversized robots against all of the world's major population centers
  • The Incredibles, in which a diabolical villain creates a robot capable of leveling a city, so that he can then save the world from it and become a hero
  • The Flaming Lips' album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," which tells the story of a brave Japanese girl who saves Tokyo from an army of, well, pink robots
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, in which two battling androids take out major swatches of the American landscape in a fight over the survival of Clare Danes and the dude from "Carnivale"

That's a lot of evil robots! So, it got me to thinking, why all the robot paranoia? What did robots really ever do to us, aside from grow us in fields and imprison our minds in a computer simulation of the real world while sucking out the electrical energy produced by our nervous system for their own nefarious ends?

And then I took a look over at the Sony website, at their latest robot creation, QRIO. According to the website, "QRIO wants to be friends with you." That sounds good. "He makes life fun, makes you happy." Okay, I'm still interested. "QRIO gets around on his own accord. He can dance. Recognize people's voices and faces, and carry on conversations." Hmmm, this is getting kind of creepy. Do I really want a dancing robot hanging around my house, trying to start conversations with me? I have drunk friends for that!

Here's where it gets really bizarre. "QRIO's dreams are limitless." Ummm.... "QRIO uses body language to convey a feeling of intimacy." Okay, that's it for me. QRIO has got to go. I don't want a robot conveying feelings of intimacy towards me. Unless, you know, it's a sexy chick robot. And a sexy chick, QRIO is not.

Seriously, go check out the website. It's rather unsettling stuff.

So, maybe this robot paranoia makes sense, in an odd way. I can't see an army of QRIOs wrecking havoc on Beverly Hills just yet, but you never know...His dreams are limitless.

Won't Somebody Please Think of the White Children?

More people are picking up on my "why do we only give a shit about tragedy that affects white people" meme from the other day. Okay, it may not be my meme, but it's a meme I was discussing before most other people. Plus, I just like using the word "meme."

Anyway, here's uggabugga noticing that news reports tend to be focusing on white children and how these horrific tsunamis have affected them, instead of the vast majority of people who have been affected, who are brown.

This isn't surprising, really. Journalism schools all teach students how to craft stories that will "hit home" with their readers, which these days is really just code for "make it somehow about white suburban assholes who don't matter." So 60,000 people die in South Asia, and it's a story about some white kids unfortunately trapped over there.

Or about how Bush has allocated $15 million for disaster relief, less than he will spend on the media blitz for his own upcoming inauguration. Oh, you didn't hear about that? Yeah, Bush is spending around $30 million (of your money!) on his inauguration, not counting security costs! From MSNBC:

The estimated budget for the event is $30-40 million, but that will not cover security costs.

The Department of Homeland Security has designated the inauguration as a National Special Security Event, which makes the high-profile gatherings eligible for federal money and heightened security overseen by the Secret Service.

But I digress. What I was talking about is the massive egotism on the part of Americans that requires that people just like them be the center of each and every event, story or article. We need a new President? Fuck the War in Iraq, I want a guy who's the same religion as me. You want to make a movie about the last samurai? Better put Tom Cruise in there, asshole, or I won't go to see it. This ethnocentrism just freaks me out. I find it bothersome. So, everybody, stop it, okay?

This Is Just a Tribute

I first saw Tenacious D open for Pearl Jam at the Forum during my collegiate years. I'm not 100% certain, but I would guesstimate the year as 1997. Of course, this was long after they had built a sterling reputation among mavens of the underground Los Angeles comedy scene from their shows at the Largo. Anyway, I thought it was brilliant, and the ensuing HBO short films only enhanced my view of Jack Black and Kyle Gass' comedy rock project.

Now, of course, Jack Black is a huge film star and Tenacious D has released an album on a major label with guest musicians like Dave Grohl, The Dust Brothers and members of Phish, so it's hardly an underground sensation any more. I saw self-proclaimed "Greatest Band in the Universe" The D at the Wiltern a few years ago, and though it was a fun show, and the energy level was exceptionally high, the act has lost something over the years.

When they first got going, the joke was simple. Jables and Rage Cage played in-your-face, big-time arena rock, and they did they whole rock god swagger act, but they were really just two overweight guys with acoustic guitars singing songs about demons and bukkake. Now, though, when you see Tenacious D perform, it's world-famous movie star Jack Black and his comedian buddy doing a funny skit where they pretend to be rock stars. I'm not accusing Jack Black of selling out by any means. I really think he's a funny guy, and I dig a bunch of his movies, like High Fidelity and School of Rock. And I can't wait to see him star (along with the always delicious Naomi Watts) in Peter Jackson's upcoming King Kong.

But this is one case where massive popularity really did kill the act. The D isn't really funny now that their bizarre prophecies of worldwide stardom have come true, and they're actually guest-starring in Hollywood movies together (and making one of their own!). That was the whole joke in the first place.

So, anyway, all this is lead-in to the link to an interview with Wonderboy and Young Nastyman over at Aint It Cool News. It's a funny little piece where they discuss (among other things) the upcoming Tenacious D movie and their further plans to tour and continue rocking.

If You're Going to San Francisco...

Don't forget to wear flowers...Oh, wait, now I've got that damn hippie song in my head...Better put on "The Safety Dance."

Okay, it's gone. That's a good tip, by the way. If you ever get a song stuck in your head that really begins to annoy you, simply listen to Men Without Hats' 1980's classic "The Safety Dance," and it will become unstuck immediately. Of course, then you'll have Men Without Hats' 1980's classic "The Safety Dance" in your head, but what am I, a psychologist? Figure that one out for yourself.

Anyway, the original point of this post (there was one, I swear) is to inform you that I'll be in Santa Cruz and San Francisco this weekend to celebrate the New Year, possibly with whippets, so I won't be blogging for a few days. You'll just have to get your Smarmy Jew fix somewhere else...Might I recommend comedian David Cross? He's hilarious, and about as smarmy a Jew as you're likely to find.

Wingnut of the Year Awards

Wingnuts, for those of you who don't check other leftist blogosphere locations, are right-wing assholes whose brand of rhetoric is particularly bizarre or wrong-headed. Ann Coulter is a fine example, and probably a solid nominee for Wingnut of the Year each and every year. Other big nominees this year are sure to be Michelle Malkin ("Japanese internment was awesome!"), David Brooks ("Bad economies are actually totally good!"), my hero, the Distinguished Gentlemen from Satan's Rectum, Bill O'Reilly ("Secularists want to kill Christmas!") and, of course, Jerry Falwell, who has so many wingnuttish comments about the gays and the liberals and the Mooooslims and the Jews this year, putting a sarcastic one in paranthesis seems unneccessary.

Anyway, if you want to vote, head on over to Crooks and Liars. My thanks, as always, to PSoTD for the link.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Only a Carpathian Would Come Back Now And Choose New York!

Have you ever read any of the "Left Behind" series? You have? What the hell are you doing on my blog? You'd probably be more comfortable at Christian Spotlight on the Movies.

For the rest of you, the "Left Behind" books are huge massive bestselling pieces of trashy, poorly-composed fiction about the end of the world filled with characters with names like Buck Williams. It's a whole series of books that starts with the Rapture, and all the good Christians being taken up to Heaven, and then follows a group of survivors as they discover Jesus and try to save souls. The enemy, by the way, is The Antichrist, Nicholae Carpathia, who also tries to grab as many souls as he can before the End Times, um, end.

Yeah, it's dumb, but the worst part is, a lot of the fools that read this trash think that there is real Biblical prophecy around to back up all this stuff. Slacktivist is doing a great job of combing through this detestable trash and teasing out all the bizarre assumptions being made by bonehead authors Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

When I worked at Barnes & Noble years ago, these things were the new hot shit, and all kinds of suburban assholes were buying them. All the time, middle-aged ladies would come up to the cash register and ask me if I'd read any of these wonderful "Left Behind" books, and didn't I think they were just the greatest book I'd ever read, or failing that, the only book I'd read in the past several years. And I'd always inform them that, thanks for the tip and all, but I'd prefer to read actual books by real authors, like a video game strategy guide, or possibly "Where's Waldo."

These people aren't really the kind of evil bigots at which End Times fantasies are typically aimed. They're just not really readers, so they don't have a concept of media literacy. They can't process what they read and figure out the real message being expressed. They just read stuff and think they've heard a good story, and then go watch "Everybody Loves Raymond."

I feel like this all goes back to the way we teach kids to read in public schools. First off, we only teach children to read novels. Never magazines or newspapers or other kinds of media. So, we make that mistake right away, because though I enjoy fictional pleasure reading, most Americans don't. Most Americans need to know how to read non-fiction, news media and process this information in a thoughtful way. If we trained Americans to look at a piece of media and determine its meaning, biases and journalistic value quickly and efficiently, Fox News would be out of business within a year. But we don't, so Billy O remains the Ratings King.

Secondly, we make reading long novels into homework, a chore, and we assign tests and questions about the reading, to make it even more punishing. Reading should be about exploring new ideas and making your own conclusions, not about remembering what really pisses off Holden Caulfield more than anything else in the world (HINT: phonies). This is why J.K. Rowling is kind of an international hero. The "Harry Potter" books have made children excited to read something. It has given them an ongoing story to look forward to and anticipate, and as much as I enjoyed the third "Potter" film, the books are valuable because they have given children back their imagination from TV and movies and the Internet and other media.

So, my point is that the readers of these idiot "Left Behind" books aren't to blame. It's our education system for letting students down, for not fostering a love of reading from a young age, for dumbing down the lessons so that any kids can pass and feel informed.

Susan Sontag, Dead at 71

Can you believe this didn't even make the Yahoo front page? I guess 50,000 or so Asians die and suddenly the American intellectuals cease to matter.

I don't know a ton about the work of Ms. Sontag. Only that she wrote "On Photography," which I was forced to read during my graduate film studies, and that she was an outspoken lefty of the Noam Chomsky variety, prone to perfectly true yet inflammatory statements like "the white race is the cancer of human history."

I was intrigued to discover, upon reading the Yahoo obit, that Sontag wrote an essay, "Notes on Camp," that helped to create the modern notion of art being "so bad, it's good." I'm not sure if this is a step forward or backward for human history, but it's certainly an achievement, I'll give her that.

If You're Reading This In Damascus, Duck!

Uh oh. The Bush Administration came out today and accused the Syrian government of aiding the Iraqi insurgents. And if you're a Middle Eastern country, and you find the Bush Administration accusing you of something having to do with terror or terrorism, it's a good bet you're going to be getting the shit bombed out of you very soon.

Here's the paragraph from the Yahoo story I found intriguing:

Syria has shrugged off U.S. complaints, saying it was being made a scapegoat for U.S. failure to stop the uprising in Iraq.

Reports circulated in Damascus, meanwhile, that key support for the insurgents in Iraq was coming from a half brother of Saddam Hussein and Baath Party leaders in the Syrian capital.

Syria shrugged off US complaints? Have they not been paying attention? The last time a country in the Middle East shrugged off US complaints, Ann Coulter started talking about killing their leaders and converting them to Christianity.

And mysterious "reports" are already circulating spreading questionable intelligence about Baath Party leaders in the Syrian capital. Why do I have the feeling this isn't going to end well?

Monday, December 27, 2004

Dave Barry's Year in Review

Dave Barry has just published his delightful annual wrap-up of major events. Barry is one of those guys who was very important to the early development of my sense of humor, and I still think my writing style is heavily informed by his old collections of columns.

What's that? You want a highlight, to sample the sort of humor in store for you should you click that link? How's this suit you?

The big entertainment news in May is the much-anticipated final episode of "Friends," in which Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe suddenly realize that that they are, like, 53 years old.

Not chuckling yet? Check this out:

Perhaps most alarming of all, Cher yet again extended her "farewell" tour, which began during the Jimmy Carter administration and is now expected to continue until the sun goes out.

Now go read.

Get Well Soon, George

Yahoo tells me that the Greatest Comedian of All Time, Mr. George Carlin, has entered a drug and alcohol treatment program for what he describes as excessive use of "wine and Vicodin."

Now, it's no surprise that George Carlin was and probably remains a drug user. Many of his routines are about drug use, he famously battled cocaine addiction in the 80's, and he played a reformed addict on his short-lived Fox sitcom "The George Carlin Show."

I guess it's George's cynicism that intrigues me about this item. He strikes me as the sort of person that would reject organized drug treatment centers immediately, finding them overly authoritarian, beurocratic and theological. I mean, I'm sure this is a medical program, not a 12-step program, but isn't the very idea that you can "kick" drinking wine if you want to kind of, I don't know, anti-Carlin?

Anyway, it sounds like it isn't too serious, and, as an enormous fan, of course I wish Mr. Carlin a speedy recovery.

Tin Men

I've never been the biggest Wizard of Oz fan, and the last few Muppet movies haven't been terribly spectacular, but I couldn't resist posting this incredible photo (courtesy of Aint It Cool News) of the Tin Gonzo from the upcoming Muppet Wizard of Oz anyway. This is one of the coolest-looking Muppets I have ever seen. Over at Aint It Cool, they have Kermit as the Scarecrow and Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion as well, but neither of them look this good.

7 9-11's

Like everyone else in the world, I've been following the news of this unfathomable disaster in South Asia. A 9.0 earthquake? Unthinkable, even here in Southern California, where all the buildings are retrofitted and prepared for a massive shaker. In Colombo, Sri Lanka, there isn't any money to keep buildings safe or prepare evacuation plans. When an egregriously oversized earthquake hits, that's it...your home collapses.

It's that death toll number that keeps coming back into my mind. 22,000 dead. Over 7 9/11 disasters. Most of all, it makes me feel very small. How many people dying in that disaster were young men just like me, filled with hope about their lives, possibly even thinking that this would make a great update for their blog moments before a gi-normous tidal wave hits their village and wipes out everything they've ever known about, forever. It's tragedy on a mind-numbing scale.

So, that's about all I have to say about it. I promise to go back to discussing which movies are the most 1337 now, or some crap.

Oh, just one more thought on this subject...How come, whenever there's some international tragedy in some far off place like Colombo, Sri Lanka, the American media has to give us a story about how many Americans died there? For example, right next to the Yahoo headline that reads "Tidal Waves Kill 22,000 in Nine Countries," there's a headline that reads "Eight Americans Confirmed Dead in Tsunami." Who gives a shit? It's 8 Americans. That many people die each day choking on breakfast burritos, jumping out of moving golf carts, listening to Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" too loud. It's an insignificant story. Are our egos so massive that we can't take an interest in 22,000 people dying unless 8 of them were good white folks from Mobile, Alabama?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Best Films of 2004

UPDATE: I originally published my Best of 2004 list in late December. This was totally stupid, because there were a whole lot of movies I hadn't yet seen that are exceptionally worthwhile. So, I've rewritten a lot of the below content, added some films, taken some films off, and modified my comments in other subtle ways. Enjoy.

#10 - The Incredibles

These PIXAR guys are geniuses, and you combine them with the comic talents of Brad Bird (who worked on "The Simpsons" as well as The Iron Giant, don't you know), and you get the most entertaining comic book movie of the year, and possibly the best comic book-inspired films ever made. Don't listen to Ebert: Spider-Man 2 was labored and dreary whenever Doc Ock wasn't on-screen. The Incredibles creates a whole world of superheroes from whole cloth, with stunning detail and fantastic wit. The vocal talents are terrific, the CG animation has never looked better, and it's one of the most fun family films in years. Another complete triumph for PIXAR, giving them the best track record in Hollywood (and one of the best track records in movie history).

#9 - Closer

This movie is intense, man. I wasn't expecting it. I thought I was getting some Mike Nichols dramedy about love in the 00's, but instead I got a scathing indictment of infidelity and honesty that out LaBute's Neil LaBute. Nichols really sharpened his blade for this film, and he goes for the jugular, getting real, honest, raw performances from actors who usually keep their defenses up, like Julia Roberts and Jude Law. Clive Owen does some incredible work here, as does Natalie Portman, in her first "adult" role. Sure, she was the sex interest in Garden State, but Zach Braff has about as much sexual charisma on-screen as Kuato. (If you get that joke, you're a movie dork). As unflinching and gritty a portrait of the dynamics of trust as I have seen.

#8 - Napoleon Dynamite

Yes, it's silly. Yes, it's stupid. They said that about "Beavis and Butthead," too, not to mention "South Park," Clerks, Swingers and "The Simpsons." The fact is, comedy about stupidity often appears stupid itself, when actually it takes a calculated wit to pull it off properly. And Dynamite's got that kind of wit in spades. Don't believe me? Try to find a DVD copy around LA this week. It's sold out at every store. People who like this movie, who appreciate the characters populating Jared Hess' world of misfits, love it, treasure it, value it like Napoleon values his dance mix or his unicorn T-shirts. There's something so specific that star Jon Heder captures about petulant, cynical youth that's truly amazing. One of the most underappreciated films of the year, this is one of those 2004 movies I can see myself watching in a decade's time. Trust me: the years will be kind of the reputation of Napoleon Dynamite. Gosh! What do you think!

#7 - Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring

The only foreign film in the Top 10, this masterpiece from South Korea has introduced the world to a staggering new talent, director Kim Ki-Duk. As I said in my recent review, this movie is a one-of-a-kind meditation on aging, loss, regret and renewal told with uncommon grace. I have yet to see Ki-Duk's previous, well-received The Isle, but I intend to watch it as soon as possible.

#6 - Before Sunset

I'm a big Richard Linklater fan, and Before Sunrise was always one of my favorites of his films. He can craft natural dialogue about as well as any writer working in movies today, and that's all that movie was: a very natural, off-handed dialogue between two strangers who meet and fall in love over the course of one day in Vienna. For the inevitable sequel, he took the challenge a step further: most of the dialogue between the two former strangers is now improvised, and the story is told in real time. And not only are Linklater and his stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, up to the challenge, they rise to the occasion, giving us a pitch perfect update of these two characters nine years after they first met on the train. As they wander around Paris, what at first seems like another fanciful, off-the-cuff dialogue quickly changes directions, as we come to realize what effect their initial meeting has had on the lives of both of these people every day, ever since. The movie becomes a meditation on lost chances, on how the decisions we make on an ordinary day can shape the course of our entire existance. It closes with one of the most beautiful final scenes in any film I have ever seen, and I would not dream of spoiling it for you. Just go rent both movies and watch them back to back, then come here and thank me later.

#5 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Not just the best of the Potter films, not just the best fantasy film of the year, but one of the best children's movies of our time. I had the distinct feeling while watching this movie that today's children will grow up savoring it, as I grew up savoring Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future. Alfonso Cuaron takes what Chris Columbus' pedestrian adaptations made somewhat interesting and fills it with life and sorrow, with exuberance and melancholy, and with some of the best special effects of any movie this year. The English countryside becomes a character in this film, with its deep greens and greys serving to isolate the Hogwarts school. Everything seems a bit darker this time around, a bit less safe, and a bit less rote, and this makes the "magic" of the story come alive. The stakes are higher, the mysteries matter more, and the performances are more intense. And bringing in actors of the caliber of Gary Oldman and David Thewlis has really granted this whole series an aura of class and distinction that I did not expect. I can't wait for Chapter 4 if it's going to be half this good.

#4 - The Aviator

Martin Scorsese does it again, delivering this handsome, sharp, epic saga of brilliance, bravery and madness that is every bit the equal of his best work. I just finished my review of this film for the blog a short time ago, so I won't belabor the point, but everything about The Aviator sings, from the perfect evocation of the 1930's and 40's to the performances from Alec Baldwin, DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and John C. Reilly to the encroaching insanity that Scorsese treats with empathy and care rather than caustic hand-wringing. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it's the longest film on this list, but I felt ready to watch it a second time as soon as it ended. Another triumph from the Greatest Living American Filmmaker. Yeah, I said it.

#3 - Sideways

I thought for a while this would be my favorite film this year, but after watching #1 and #2 a few more times, I had to knock it slightly down the list. I loved Alexander Payne's Election and was lukewarm on About Schmidt, but this is clearly his best film to date. A sad and affectionate portrait of middle-age, Payne reinvents the buddy movie with this tale of two guys touring the wine country before one of them settles in for a marriage. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church do tremendous work as Miles and Jack, the former looking to wine as an escape from the pain of his failed life and the latter looking to get laid a few times before tying the knot with his bride-to-be. It's a comedy that's more moribund than funny, the kind of comedy where you laugh so that you might not cry, and it's touching in a way few movies even attempt. Again, it's Payne's attention to the small details of his character's lives, from Miles ordering a spinach croissant for breakfast on the road to Jack's constant swirling of wine glasses to "enhance the flavor," that makes the movie so warm and affecting. I had a few issues with the final scenes, but these are quibbles, really. Payne has made the most humane movie of the year, and Giamatti gives a sincere, heartbreaking performance.

#2 - Kill Bill, Volume 2

If the two Kill Bill movies were fused together, they would be the best film of 2004, and possibly the best film of the decade (though, I don't know...Mulholland Drive?) As it is, Vol. 2 is better than the first, less an action movie than a meditation on what action movies really mean, and why we like them so much. David Carradine is absolutely killer here as Bill, and his final showdown with The Bride (Uma Thurman, as good as she's ever been) is Tarantino at his absolute best - there isn't any action, really, at the end of this long, bloody action picture, because there doesn't need to be. Everything that can be solved by violence has long been solved, whether it's escaping from being buried alive in the California desert to training in the misty mountains of China, and all that is left are two warriors, sharing notes. The joys of the Kill Bill movies, from Pai Mei's Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique to Bill's theory on Clark Kent, are too numerous to contain here on a blog. Suffice it to say that Vol. 2 feels more like a Tarantino film than Vol. 1, fusing his love of chop-socky and kung fu cliches in with the flashy dialogue and observational wit we've come to love from Q.T., and it's one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences imaginable.

#1 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I said back in March this was the film to beat for Movie of 2004, and though I saw a lot of good movies, nothing was really up to the challenge. Michael Gondry didn't just adapt Charlie Kaufman's words, he translated Kaufman's world to the screen. A world like our own, but with the potential for us to look inside of ourselves, to escape the boundaries of physics and come to understand one another as emotional, rather than corporeal, beings. As much as I love Spike Jonze, no one has really ever understood Kaufman on a level this deep, and so none of the prior adaptations of his work have had this sort of power or understanding. Eternal Sunshine is a transcendant film, a movie that understands more about the power of memory and consciousness than a million gimmicky tricks like Memento or Being John Malkovich. (Both of which are movies I love!) Plus, the movie looks terrific, is really funny, and features career-best work from Jim Carrey, who can really sell sincerity when directors force him to abandon his usual schtick. I have watched this movie 5 times now, and seen something new in there every single time. It's one of the most sad and tender films about lost love I have ever seen, the kind of movie that makes you want to call old girlfriends even though you know you shouldn't, because they don't really want to hear from you.

Honorable Mention:

These are movies I liked but that didn't quite have the zing to make the final list. Despite what you may have heard, this was quite a good year for cinema. I usually don't have so many runner's up:

Million Dollar Baby

I've had some intense arguments lately about this film. I thought it was terrific, a fine example of a director with decades of experience applying his craft to a traditional Hollywood story. Some friends found it, instead, to be a masterpiece of uncommon artistry and resonance. They feel it's among the best films of the decade, I saw it more as a significantly better-than-average boxing story. Regardless, there's no argument about the skill with which it's made. Eastwood has been making films long enough to get all the small details right, from the jet-black shadows that fill the movie's gymnasium setting to the straight-forward, unadorned dialogue. I could have done without a few of the film's hammier touches, like the Morgan Freeman deadpan narration or the cliched redneck trailer trash family, but these are small problems in the overall. This is Eastwood's best work since Unforgiven.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

This movie was just such a breakthrough, I feel I couldn't not include it on a list of the most notable films of 2004. Absolutely stunning visual work, and I found the story to be zippy, fun and engaging, even though most people seemed to be bored with it. A movie that knows what it is, knows what it wants to do, and has a great time getting there, I very much look forward to more work from Kerry Conran.

The Woodsman

Kevin Bacon's fine performance in this film was highly touted in the early run-up to awards season, but it never won over an audience large enough to matter in terms of Oscars. But don't let that dissuade you from seeking it out when it comes to DVD. I found it to be a searing portrayal of a man's struggle with his own personal demons, highlighted by terrific supporting work from Mos Def and some really insightful, honest direction from first-timer Nicole Kassel. In a year of auspicious debuts, from Sky Captain to Maria Full of Grace to Napoleon Dynamite, this film gives us another exciting new talent.


The best actual comic adaptation of the year. Guillermo del Toro proves once again that he has the visual flair to recreate graphic novels for the screen. And Ron Perlman is Hellboy. Can't wait to see a sequel.


By the end, it degrades into a silly Training Day rip, but for most of the running time, Michael Mann's film is a stunning exploration of the dark side of the big city, with Tom Cruise as a cocky, over-confident hitman and Jamie Foxx as the cabbie who shuttles him around. One of the best-looking movies about LA I've ever seen.


I'm not sure if this will count on people's Best Of lists for 2004 or 2005. I know it was released last year, or maybe even the year before that, in Thailand. Anyway, I wanted to include it because it's incredible. Sure, the plot kind of lags, as with a lot of kung fu movies, in my opinion. But the fight choreography and stunt work here is among the best I have ever seen. These are real fights, not special effects, and you could swear at some points that these guys are making real contact with one another. A real treat for fans of visceral, intense martial arts action.

The Life Aquatic

Wes Anderson's movie lacked the heart that makes his Rushmore and Tennenbaums among my all-time favorites, but this is clearly one of the most successful straight-up comedies of the year. Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum are hilarious, and the film's cinematography and design are, of course, top notch.

I Heart Huckabee's

Oh, this one was close to knocking off Sky Captain. David O. Russell is a funny funny guy, and also quite thoughtful, so I guess it was a natural combination for him to make a metaphysical screwball comedy. What's amazing is how well it works. Jason Schwartzman hires Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin to solve the great mysteries of his life, but they wind up creating a lot more questions for him than answers. Mark Wahlberg does career-best work as a frustrated fireman who thinks he's stumbled upon the meaning of life: nihilism.

Fahrenheit 9/11

If Kerry had won, this would have been the most important film of the year. As it is, it's an interesting historical relic, the best single piece of anti-Bush propaganda that came out of this whole miserable election year. Of course it's propaganda, but of course it's a real documentary, assholes. And what it documents is really important: the way the US government managed faked the need for a war, and sent thousands of young kids to their deaths in a country halfway around the world. The fact that it documents this truthful argument with wit and entertainment value is a tribute to the immense talents of filmmaker Michael Moore. Not his best movie, but probably his most important work.


Takashi Miike's completely insane homage to both David Lynch and Francois Truffaut (yeah, I know!) is both brilliant and maddening. Like all of Miike's films, it drags in the middle, overstuffed with just plain old weirdness, but every time you start to get really bored, there's some Japanese freaky super-weirdness to bring you right back around again. It's nominally the story of two yakuza soldiers lost in a bizarre village in the country, but really it's some sort of bizarre psychosexual exploration of filial love and bisexuality. I think. Or it's about trained yakuza killer chihuahua's. I'm pretty sure it's one of those.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Will Ferrell is a genius. This movie isn't as good as Old School or Elf, but this guy could do most anything for 2 hours and keep me laughing. He's perfectly cast as a pompous, chauvanistic 1970's news anchor, and the rest of the cast, which includes SNL alumni David Koechner, Vince Vaughn and Christina Applegate, keep the comedy moving quickly. An amusing trifle.

Dawn of the Dead

The single best horror movie this year. I know, it surprised me too. This ultra-violent retelling of the George Romero classic goes on a bit too long, but it gets so much right that it would be churlish to complain. The opening 15 minutes or so, when the world is actually overtaken by zombies, forcing the lead characters into a mall for survival, is among the most tight mainstream filmmaking of 2004.

Ocean's Twelve

A great sequel that improves upon the original. Soderbergh wisely removes most of the actual heist footage in favor of light comedy and 1960's style shenanigans with his immense cast in Europe. I had a great time with this movie - it's light as a feather, pure entertainment and little else. And it includes the best cameos of the year.

Maria Full of Grace

A touching, heartfelt and above-all intensely realistic portrayal of a young Columbian girl's trip to America as a coke mule. This feels like a segment from Soderbergh's Traffic that was removed - it shares that film's gritty slice-of-life tone while adding in a luminous lead performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno. A fantastic debut from Joshua Marston.

The 5 Worst Films of 2004

Most movies are mediocre. Not good or bad. They just are. Someone wrote a story and someone else filmed it. It's the rare movie that's actually great, but it seems to me that a movie being truly miserably awful is a lot less rare. Why is that? Shouldn't it be a bell curve type situation, where there are very few really great and really awful movies? It's not. That's why lists like these are so easy to do, every year:

#5 - Secret Window

What the hell happened here? This was directed by the same guy that made Stir of Echoes, which is a great, underappreciated little horror film that had the unfortunate timing to open right around The Sixth Sense. This one is based on some old ridiculous Stephen King story with one of the most laughably bad, silly, predictable endings imaginable. John Turturro shows up at Johnny Depp's cabin claiming to have authored a story that Depp published as his own in a recent book. Oh, and some people wind up murdered. And there's a twist. And lots of corn. It's retarded. Includes the Single Most Overused Ending of the Year, which is will now blow for you: He's crazy! They're the same person! The movie sucks!

#4 - Dodgeball

Wowzer, when comedy is not funny, it's really really not funny. A lot of the people involved in Zoolander were also involved in this, and while that movie's no tremendous glowing achievement, it is quite watchable, and has a few big laughs, whereas every single joke in Dodgeball lands with an enormous thud. The only one that has a chance is Rip Torn chucking a wrench at some kid, and that's in the previews. Ben Stiller's character here is grating with a capital G, and Vince Vaughn seriously looks embarrassed to even be in that shitkicker. Neither of these guys have had a year to be proud of...They both need to get Will Ferrell involved in some movie they're doing, and bring out the funny, chop chop, because I'm getting impatient.

#3 - Finding Neverland

Mark Forster, you suck. Okay? You just do. You have no tact, no class, no subtlety, and no craft. You just make stories about sensitive people dying and hope that's enough to move an audience. But that's not drama, it's just maudlin tearjerking manipulative bullshit. That's how I feel about this movie, J. Depp's second entry in the year's worst list. His Willy Wonka better be the shit next year to make up for 2004. This story about the conception of Peter Pan is everything I hate about uptight costume dramas: it's self-important, bogus and fake.

#2 - White Chicks

The Wayans Brothers, I can only assume, do not spend any time with black or white people. They have no idea how people of either gender of either race speak, move, think or interact. This movie might as well be called White Aliens: the brothers don't look like chicks, don't sound like chicks, don't talk like chicks, and are not for a single moment believable as chicks. They look disgusting, disfigured, like freaks. The story, in case you missed the barrage of previews when this shitkicker opened in the summer, concerns the two worst FBI agents of all time, who foolishly think they can dress up like white girls and move incognito to foil a kidnapping plot, despite being unfunny black men with dangerously low IQ's. They proceed to engage in a whole lot of racial comedy that might be funny if, as I noted before, the Wayans had any idea how to act white or black. But they don't. All they have at their disposal are cheap, ancient stereotypes that were tired by the time Archie Bunker uttered them on national television 30 years ago.

#1 - Garden State

I fucking hate you, Zach Braff. I hope you get cancer.

This movie is fake. I referred to it earlier this year as Cinema du Poseur, and I am going to reiterate that title here. See, what Zach did is watch a lot of good movies...French New Wave movies, and David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey, and Wes Anderson films...movies with quirky characters who move through alternate kind of realities, stumbling upon wisdom and learning about themselves and about life. And then he tried to write one of his own.

All this is fine. I've done this. It's how most new screenwriters get started.

But Zach took it a step further. He decided, why simply be inspired by other filmmakers and artists, when I can just rip off their ideas? So there's a shot from a Danny Boyle movie here, a shot from Wes Anderson here, a Shins song here (along with a blatant, "please respect me" piece of dialogue cluing the audience in to how hip and indie the filmmakers are), a Godard reference here, and when you're all done, you have a movie that looks and feels like 00's independent cinema, but that has no soul. A Frankenstein monster of a movie that wants you to like it so badly, it forgot to have an idea, a point, a message or a brain.

Garden State represents the worst of not just movies, but of art. It represents a desire to go back and create a pastiche of what's been done, rather than a desire to take what has been done and push it further. Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation says that writing should always be an exploration into the unknown. Zach Braff wants to take you where he's already been before, to let you know how cool he is for going there. Fuck him.

The Aviator

Watched the new Marty Scorsese film with an entirely rude audience in my hometown of Irvine, California on Christmas Day. Usually, Christmas Day movie audiences are well-behaved Jews looking for something to do while everything else is closed, but this crowd was rowdy, talkative and didn't seem to be enjoying the movie nearly as much as they should.

I pity them, because they missed one of the year's best films, and I hate them because they decreased my enjoyment just a little bit.

So, yes, The Aviator will definitely be on my list of the year's best films (coming very soon to this very website, I hope!) I didn't like it quite as much as Gangs of New York, possibly because that film is so massive and has a character as alive and intense as Bill the Butcher at its center. But it's an impressively made film, a soaring tragedy about the cost of greatness. Scorsese's Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his best performance to date) is a great man because of his outsized ambitions, and his bravery in risking all that he has to see these ambitions realized. But he also pities him, because the world can never live up to the imaginations of dreamers like Hughes, and so his movie ends not in joy and triumph, but in desolation and sorrow.

Like all of Scorsese's protagonists, Hughes lives to achieve everything he could ever want, only to see his fantasies tainted and eventually undone by paranoia, jealousy, greed and hubris. The first hour of the film feels like a rush of adrenaline, like the best sequences in the most fun Scorsese pictures. It's akin to the opening of Goodfellas, when young Henry Hill runs through the streets in his expensive guido suit, high on the power and respect granted to him by his mob associations. Howard Hughes inherits his money from his dead parents, sure, but it's his direction of Hell's Angels, his aircraft designs and his constant drive and ambition that earns him his noteriety.

Scorsese takes his time setting up Howard's success, introducing him to the world Hollywood's rich and powerful elite with some of the most luminous faux Technicolor cinematography imaginable. Between this and Kill Bill 2, Robert Richardson has comfirmed himself in 2004 as one of our finest working cinematographers. The Aviator recreates the feeling of old Hollywood epics down to every last detail.

And speaking of vivid, remarkable recreations, Cate Blanchett's Katherine Hepburn is the greatest performance given by any actor, male or female, this year. She remakes Hepburn from the inside out, fitting her voice into that sharp Connecticut argot while investing this outsized woman into reality in a way the screwball comedies of the 30's never could. In the film, Hughes meets Hepburn and is immediately taken with her. Though he would notoriously cheat on her with a variety of young starlets and wannabes, and go on to romance Ava Gardner (here played enchantingly by the stunningly beautiful Kate Beckinsale), The Aviator presents Hepburn as the center of Hughes' romantic world, the only woman who could ever keep up with his wild exuberant imagination. A late scene between the two of them, spoken entirely between a wall with Hughes already sealed off from the world in an advanced state of delusional paranoia, proves so heartbreaking and personal, it's nearly unthinkable that the subjects are two of the greatest icons of the 20th Century.

Earlier in the film, during their initial courtship, Hepburn tells Hughes that they are not like other people, and are unfit to mingle in common society. "Too many acute angles, too many eccentricities," is how she puts it, and it's an apt description. As Hughes invests in TWA (eventually buying a controlling share of the company), and takes on Pan Am mogul Juan Trippe (a delightfully menacing Alec Baldwin), he finds himself suddenly unable to deal with the spotlight on his personal life, and the demands of living as a public figure. This man, who in one scene smashes an experimental spy plane into a Beverly Hills neighborhood, and in another accompanies Jean Harlow to the premiere of his own film, the most expensive of all time, begins to come apart from all the attention, driven mad by small fears, of germs and clammy handshakes and spoiled milk.

Scorsese is at the peak of his powers in these sequences, showing a man who knows and understands that he is being driven to madness by isolation and paranoia, but who is helpless to resist his bizarre urges. I was reminded of Jake LaMotta, knowing his brother has not slept with his wife even as he makes the accusation. Or Henry Hill, snorting his own stuff even though Paulie, Jimmy and everyone else told him not to start using drugs. Men of power, men of tremendous ability, who still cannot withstand their inner demons, their feelings of predestined failure. The Aviator joins these other films as one of Scorsese's most gripping examinations of this timeless narrative.

And this is not even mentioning the aviation sequences themselves, surely among the most impressive ever filmed. We open with the shooting of Hell's Angels, a remarkably complicated war film involving the use of dozens of recreated planes and an unheard-of-at-the-time 24 cameras. But the film also includes the aforementioned Beverly Hills crash landing, the breaking of a speed barrier, and the flight of the Hercules (nee the Spruce Goose) in Long Beach Harbor. Scorsese uses computer generated effects in these sequences to give us a genuine feeling for Hughes' love of flight, and the freedom it allowed him. Some of the aerial photography is truly breathtaking.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Sorry I've been remiss in updating for you, Inertia-sters, but, you know, 'tis the season and all that shite.

Spend Christmas Eve Day at my parent's house, hanging out with them and eating dinner and discussing the events of the year, particularly the ongoing drama of that idiot Bill O'Reilly. Went out last night to spend some time with the Lau family during their Christmas Eve celebration, and then we mystically managed to find an open bar in Long Beach.

Spending the night with another family really drove home the differences between people, and how they interrelate when they all get together. When I arrived in Cypress at the Laus, they were all sitting together, three generations of a family, singing songs and playing guitar and laughing. At my house, the most togetherness you'll ever see is all of us screaming at one another about the sorry state of Social Security while fighting over the last piece of chocolate upside-down cake. Not that I'm saying my family is hostile and the Lau Family is perfect an angelic. It's just different.

We wound up at a bar, as I said, and everyone had a good time. I talked to my friend Aaron about my idea for a new fantasy novel, he told me about his concept for a movie and his scholastic hopes for the New Year, and everything seemed happy and optimistic, like George W. Bush wasn't even the President at all, and we could relax for just one night.

I guess that's some of the Christmas magic I've heard so much about. It's not so much the Jesus thing, as it is the one time of the year when everyone relaxes their petty neurosis and agrees to get together, drink, have a good time and stop worrying.

Happy holidays to one and all.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Top 50 at the Fork

Pitchfork published its annual Top 50 Albums of the Year today. Lots of good stuff on there. In fact, 6 of my Top 10 of the year list is included somewhere on their list as well. So, you know, I'm not just pulling this stuff out of my ass. There is real knowledge here dammit.

Big Surprises:
I knew Morrissey would make the list, but #38 seems about where he ought to be. I thought he'd rank much higher, to be honest. I was most surprised to see Interpol on there at all, but #27? There are two good songs on that album: "Take You on a Cruise" and "Slow Hands." Otherwise, it's pure mediocrity.

People Who Totally Got the Shaft:
No love at all for Architecture in Helsinki? What the hell up with that? I only heard about the album because of Pitchfork, it's clearly one of the year's best, and it doesn't even make the top 50 albums of the year? And Elliot Smith? The guy's dead and he releases a great album, and doesn't make the cut.

AIR's "Talkie Walkie" is at #20 and that album is b-o-r-i-n-g. And let's not even discuss Kanye West at #18, please. Outranking TV on the Radio and Modest Mouse and the Walkmen? Making the list when there's no room for Secret Machines?

But the biggest surprise and shaft of all...Wilco! "Ghost in Born" doesn't even rank on the top 50 albums of the year. Guys, fellas...I know it's a change of pace...but come on. That Bjork album is nice and all, but Jeff Tweedy just keeps on getting it done year after year.

Anyway, I found that highly surprising.

Albums that get just the right amount of love:
Arcade Fire: #1. You knew it was coming.
Madvillain and Blueberry Boat: Top 10. Booya.

Anyway, it's a really good list. You should check it out. But still, no Wilco...That's a huge surprise for me.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Get Used to Disappointment

Newsweek has run its Most Disappointing Movies of 2004 List. It's mostly filled with predictable fare like Ollie Stone's Alexander and Van Helsing, but check out #6...Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow!

This ambitious CGI experiment—everything but the actors was digitally created—produced some stunning retro sci-fi images. But who could care, when the human drama was so anemic? A stylish bore.

A bore? This movie was fantastic from beginning to end. One of the most exciting, impressive, visually astounding films of the decade. To dismiss it as disappointing is utter rubbish, and makes me doubt the rest of the list.

They also have John Sayles' Silver City on the list, which is only disappoiting if you consider it against Sayles in his prime (in films like Brother From Another Planet or Lone Star). This was a fun satire with a great Chris Cooper performance exposing the realities of the current political landscape. Certainly not worthy of inclusion on such a list.

Show them you care...

by giving your friends and loved ones an honorary donation to the Parent's Television Council. For your generous donation, you'll receive a tax credit! And look at all the good your donation will do:

Gifts to the PTC help us ensure that the FCC, advertisers and Hollywood don’t produce programs that can harm our children. So this holiday season consider putting the "gift" of a world without sex, violence and blatant profanity in every home.

Censorship! And Moralizing! And demonizing people who live in Los Angeles! Isn't that what the holiday season is all about?

The Lateness of the Hour

Is it a bad move to show up for a job interview 2 hours early? I was supposed to be at Laser Blazer today at 2 for a meeting, but instead I foolishly showed my face at noon. So, they sent me home and I'll head back there in a little over an hour.

My question is, how will this reflect on my chances of being hired? Will it be a situation where it seems like I can't follow basic directions, and am therefore undesirable as an employee? Or a case where they'll understand it was a simple misunderstanding, applaud my eagerness to get there whenever I was needed and hire me for my additional effort. Or, will they just hire me and then tell this amusing story behind my back whenever two or more non-Lons employees are hanging around with nothing to do?

I don't know. I just hope I get the job and don't have to move in with my parents. At this point, I'd rather stay at OJ's pool house, mysterious bumps in the night or no.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

One for the Road

Just returned from taking my roommate to LAX. Sigh. It's a crummy morning, waking up at 7:00 to drive to a large airport jammed full of holiday traffic, then sitting in more traffic all the way up Sepulveda until finally arriving back at home close to 8:30.

I don't mind doing the occasional favor for friend and roommate, but I do sometimes have the distinct feeling I'm being taken advantage of. I have a comfortable, roomy kind of car, whereas my roommates have (1) an old Cadillac with extremely poor gas mileage and a leaky transmission problem and (2) a Toyota from the Silver or Bronze Age that magically still runs. Seriously, the very idea that my roommate Chris drives this up the 405 to work every day proves that he is a man of great faith and serenity. This is a car that would make Xzibit grimace. It doesn't just need pimping, it needs a doctorate in pimpology.

So, I end up driving most places, which is usually fine, unless I have had a few cocktails, in which case it is fine but potentially life-threatening. But after driving one friend to the airport (twice!) to fly to Texas on stand-by, driving another friend to Orange County to fly out of John Wayne Airport (where you can't fly if you're a filthy red savage!) and today taking Chris to LAX, I feel like I've done enough airport shuttling trips to earn at least 3 years of good "ride" karma. It's exhausting, being this good a person.

Abort the Mission!

I'm a big fan of legal abortion. Not of abortion in particular, which I, like every other non-sociopath, finds kind of nasty and unpleasant. But of the legality of the practice. This seems like it would be obvious in the 21st Century, know...lots of things that seem obvious in the 21st Century have not come to pass. Look who's President.

Anyway, Planned Parenthood has just announced a rather brilliant scheme to dissuade the Jesus-inclined from protesting outside of their clinics? The idea: clinics with a lot of protestors will get additional donated funds, thereby reversing the entire idea of the protesting. Here's the concept as laid out on the Planned Parenthood website:

Here's how it works at Planned Parenthood of Central Texas (PPCT) in Waco, where the Pledge-a-Picket program is going strong: Each time a protester shows up at the clinic, a donation is made to PPCT. This campaign makes lemonade out of lemons by allowing Planned Parenthood supporters to pledge between 25 cents and one dollar per protester.

Brilliant! This is exactly the sort of thinking we need to outwit the rednecks (oh, excuse Ingenious, crafty and local! Keep it coming, folks.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

8 Best Concerts of 2004

Well, obviously, I have no way of knowing that. I didn't go to every concert of 2004. I didn't even go to half of the concerts I wanted to see right here in Los Angeles. So, this is by no means meant as definitive. I was just thinking about all the shows I saw in 2004 - probably around 25 - and figured I'd write about the ones that proved memorable or noteworthy. And it worked out to 8, which is a pretty solid average, I'd say.

So, here we go...


The Fiery Furnaces at the Echo
Echo Park, CA
October 16

The Furnaces play live in the same manner as the White Stripes, even though those guys aren't real siblings. They play about an hour, straight-through, with no breaks between songs, melding their entire universe of music together into one bizarre jam session. It sounds like it would be annoying, but it's really great. They performed songs from both of the Fiery Furnaces albums, plus a few B-sides, but all in the style of their latest LP (and my #1 album of 2004), "Blueberry Boat." Plus, drummer Andy Knowles is a wildman on stage, and a good deal of fun to watch. This was great to see in a small setting like The Echo, and since I got near the front for once, I could actually see the band, rather than half of the band and half of some couple taking breaks from deep-throat kissing to swill domestic beer or chat loudly on a cell phone.


The Wrens at the Knitting Factory
West Hollywood, CA
March 26

For the first few songs, my friend and I thought opening act The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up was The Wrens, and we were getting kind of pissed off. "Why don't they play songs from 'Meadowlands,' dammit?" we were heard to remark. But once we realized the issue, we enjoyed the rest of the Pile-Up's performance a good deal. And then the Wrens came out, played a whole bunch of great pop rock from "Meadowlands," and kicked all our collective asses. These guys don't rock like the middle-aged dudes they are, but like a fresh young band, albeit a fresh young band that plays together like they've been practicing in a New Jersey garage for a few decades. "Thirteen Grand" and "Faster Gun" were highlights, but this was just an overall great show.


The Decemberists at Spaceland
Silverlake, CA
January 16

That's right! I remembered to include this show from all the way in January. So, you know it's good! Actually, my friend Jason made a bootleg of the show for me, so I've been listening to it all year. Great show. These guys bring along a ton of instruments, from eight-string guitars to accordians, so they can really replicate the complex production sounds of their albums in a live setting. Lead singer Colin Meloy has a fantastic voice and impressive range, as well, which is why I'm hoping to see him during his solo acoustic tour next month. My favorite tune was "Legionnaire's Lament," though getting to hear the entire "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" suite during the encore was terrific. The first (and hopefully not last) time I've seen this terrific band.


Bob Dylan at the Bren Events Center
Irvine, CA
October 20

Bob ranks this low only because I've seen him once before, and he played several of the same songs. But this was still a truly terrific show. He did "Highway 61 Revisited" right into "Boots of Spanish Leather," as well as the best, most hard-rocking version of "It Ain't Me, Babe" I have ever heard (and I've heard a number of live bootlegs). Bob mixes up how the songs sound live completely, so any purists wanting to hear the classics done in their original style would be better off purchasing a Best Of collection. But for anyone open-minded (or highly familiar with the nuances of the Bob Dylan catalog), these shows are a non-stop delight. The guy may have lost his looks and some of his upper vocal registers with age, but not much else.


TV on the Radio at the Echo
Echo Park, CA
April 29

These guys sound great on record, but the live show is unlike anything else I have ever seen. Half art-rock project, half acapella singing group, it's like hearing 1930's hip-hop, or a barbershop quartet that just smoked about a pound of hashish. Anyway, they played a whole bunch of their debut LP, "Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes," coincidentally also ranking #4 on the Best Albums of 2004 list. But the highlight was a hurried-up stacatto rendition of "Blind" from their EP, "Young Liars."


David Bowie at the Arrowhead Pond
Anaheim, CA
April 23

Yeah, I saw this the same week as TV on the Radio. It's all kind of a blur. I had never seen Bowie before, and we had crummy seats, and the opening act was the endlessly obnoxious Polyphonic Spree, so I had very limited expectations. And I was, of course, blown completely away. This guy is a total dynamo, a great entertainer, showman and songwriter running around the massive stage of his Reality Tour like a guy half his age. Bowie's a freaking legend, and it was a thrill to see him live...I'm not afraid to say it. And he played so many classic songs so well, it's almost unbelievable. "Life on Mars," "Quicksand," half the "Ziggy Stardust" album, "The Man Who Sold the World," "Under Pressure." He even covers The Pixies' "Cactus." My parents went along to this show, and we all had a blast.


AIR, Stereolab and a Full Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl
Hollywood, CA
September 26

Amazingly, AIR had never tried this before. After Stereolab played a terrific combination (half-set by themselves and then a half-set with a small orchestra backing them up), AIR came out and played with a full orchestra, conducted by Roger Neill, and it was really something to behold. On record, I enjoy AIR's music. It's soothing, nice stuff to relax and smoke, um, incense to at the end of a long day. But it can get a bit tedious after a while. I keep waiting for something to happen, but these two Frenchmen are not interested in going up-tempo or playing with complex arrangements. Their music is slow, deliberate and relaxed. The orchestral accompaniment aided the sound seamlessly, and seeing this out under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl was a beautiful experience. "Remember" and "Kelly Watch the Stars," off of their best CD, "Moon Safari," were particular highlights. I also greatly enjoyed "Alone in Toyko," the song AIR lent to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.


Coachella Music and Arts Festival
Indio, CA
May 1 & 2

Is it fair to consider this one concert? It was over 2 days, and I saw at least 8 or 9 bands over the course of the concert, so I'm not sure. But it was, like, 100 degrees the whole time, and we were outside, so the fact that I still had a good time at all demonstrates what a classic collection of music this was. Check this list of bands I personally got to see: And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, The Pixies, Radiohead, Beck, Broken Social Scene, Cursive, Dizzee Rascal, AIR and The Flaming Lips. And there were tons of acts I didn't even get to see whom I would have loved to, like MF Doom or Stereolab or Kraftwerk or Pretty Girls Make Graves.

Rumors are already flying around about next year's show, and I'll go if the line-up is as good, but I'm not sure that anything can match the thrill of seeing The Pixies (in their first reunited performance in California) and Radiohead back to back. And Radiohead (in their only North American performance this year) was in rare form on this night, rounding out a set that included "Paranoid Android," "Exit Music (for a Film)" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" with a haunting version of "Creep" and "Planet Telex," neither of which I had ever heard live previously.

Really, other than The Flaming Lips having to cut their set short (after Wayne Coyne wasted a bunch of time floating in a giant inflatable ball above the 100,000+ crowd), the two-day show went off flawlessly. I mean, I had to sleep on the floor of a Motel 6 in Indio, but that's hardly the Coachella Festival's fault.

Yellow Bastard!

I haven't read much of Frank Miller's "Sin City" comics, but what I have read, I've enjoyed. And next year, we get Robert Rodriguez's intriguing big-screen adaptation. I'm glad there is a guy out there like Robert Rodriguez, making big-scale indie action pictures on the cheap and what have you, but I can't say I've ever been enthusiastic about one of his movies. Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn and Once Upon a Time in Mexico all have their moments, but none of them is worth watching more than once or twice.

So, anyway, all this is lead-up for me to present the new trailer for Sin City, courtesy of Aint It Cool News. Wow! This thing looks sweeeeeeeet. I, for one, love the bizarre mix of color and black and white. And what a cast! Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Michael Madsen, Clive Owen, Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson, Elijah Wood, freaking Benicio del Toro? Good stuff. IMDB informs me that Rodriguez is actually co-directing this with the man himself, Frank Miller, whose previous foray into motion pictures included writing the script for Robocop 2. So, as Camper Van Beethoven might say, everything seems to be up in the air at this time.

Jew Eat? Not Did You Eat. Jew Eat? Jew?

In Orangetown, in upstate New York, someone is vandalizing menorahs. In fact, only hours after a rally to protest the initial vandalizing of a large publicly displayed menorah, the same menorah was vandalized again, in the same way. Face.

Oh, and they're probably the same people who have been leaving swaztikas around and distributing anti-Semetic literature.

Now, this doesn't really hurt my feelings. I know that there are people out there who hate Jews for no good reason. Their parents hated Jews for no good reason, or one time someone told them some lie about Jews being behind the 9/11 attacks, or they found out about that whole "killing Jesus" thing. Whatever. It doesn't matter.

I just find it very interesting that this has not made the national news, to the best of my knowledge. The article I've linked there comes from the NY Journal News, which is the local paper for this part of the country. Atrios mentioned it on his blog, which is where I saw it. But with all the noise certain people (okay, Bill O'Reilly) have been making lately about secularists trying to kill of the holiday of Christmas, this is kind of an interesting counterpoint, no?

What I'm trying to say is, this is clearly the work of evil secularists attempting to destroy the holiday of Hannukah, and I for one will not stand for it. I defend my right to distribute latkes in public or spin a dreidel at school, goddammit! Stop trying to oppress me beliefs!

Urgent Exploitation Update!

I've just been informed by an inside source that the two films scheduled for screening tonight at the New Beverly Cinema have changed:

Bloody Birthday has been replaced, regrettably, due to an unavailable print. In its place will be 1977's drive-in standard The Child. Here's the description, straight to your eyeballs from IMDB:

A newly-hired housekeeper in a remote area is alarmed to discover that her boss's eleven-year-old daughter is using her supernatural powers to take revenge on the people she holds responsible for her mother's death, with the aid of her flesh-eating zombie 'friends'...

What's with the ... at the end there? Are they implying that the flesh-eating zombies may not be the 11 year old's friend after all?!? Why ruin the movie for me before I even get a chance to see it?

Three Panels

I mentioned before that I'm thinking about working on this Internet cartoon, right? Well, one of the ideas we had was to try and do maybe a semi-daily comic strip (not a few per day, once every few days, you dig?) So, I've just been sitting here thinking about telling a joke in three panels, and attempting to draw out a few on my own, Harvey Pekar-style.

I can't draw. At all. I have absolutely no hand-eye coordination, which makes a lot of things difficult for me in day-to-day life. Like drawing. And all sports, games and physical activities. And let's not even discuss video game playing. I'm absoutely hopeless with video games. The only way I can beat a game, and this includes games I've owned for years, is to set it on the easiest level and play the shit out of it for weeks. I own "Grand Theft Auto 3," and still haven't finished that one. There are two sequels on the market already.

But I digress. So, yeah, I can't draw in the least, so I'm putting down stick figures and trying to give them witty dialogue. But I'm used to a screenplay (or I blog), where I can ramble endlessly and hope that a joke or two sneaks its way in there amidst all the babble. For an example, re-read the two paragraphs that got you here. See what I mean?

So, compressing this sort of thing into dialogue bubbles isn't possible. I just have to change the way I think about humor if I want to do this. I've always had the notion in my head (from somewhere...don't ask me where...) that a good writer can translate these abilities into writing just about anything, from the copy on the back of an action figure box to a novel to a blog to a three-paneled comic strip.

Perhaps I'm cowed by my adoration for other comic strips. I'm a lifelong "Calvin and Hobbes" fan, and perfectly aware that I'll never have even the talent for writing of Bill Watterson, so it's a bit hard to get started, when you've already considered your limitations.

I don't know...I guess I'm just using this blog entry as an excuse to stop trying to think of comic strip ideas for a few minutes. I'll get back to it now, I promise.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Oh Holy Shit...The Stars Are Brightly Shining

Bill O'Reilly, ranting again about how some shadowy group of evil anti-Christian fascists want to rid the world of the holiday of Christmas on his show, just said the following sentence on national television:

"The secularists want to get rid of all this religious stuff so it will make it easier to get their things through."

Let no one ever again identify this man as a real broadcaster. Could there be a less specific, more vague, oversimplified way of making an argument? Shall I fisk it a touch?

Let's start with "the secularists." What does Bill mean here? Who are these secularists? Groups that oppose organized religion, like the Center for Inquiry? Non-Christian groups, like B'nai B'rith? Groups that favor civil rights, like his public enemy #1 the ACLU? Why can't Bill address his comments to a more direct group, or a person even, with whom he disagrees, rather than use the meaningless term "the secularists"? And if this is again the fault of his favorite strawmen, the ACLU, why doesn't he address it as such? And isn't this placing too much importance on what is, in reality, just one of many partisan groups fighting on all sides of the civil rights debate?

You know my theory, if you've been an attentive reader...Bill sets up nonsensical arguments that he can then loudly and forcefully oppose on his show, making it seem like he's fighting the good fight to viewers with tunnel vision, when in reality he's yelling into a void. No one is out there trying to get rid of Christmas. Sure, you hear about the occasional town that doesn't want to put up a nativity scene, thereby angering local Christian fanatic nutbags, but it's not like there is some national conspiracy on behalf of anti-religious people, trying to destroy Christmas for all the merry happy Christians. The very idea, when spelled out this way, is ludicrous, of course, which is why Bill has to constantly disseminate, as in the above quote.

Let's get back to that quote..."want to get rid of all this religious stuff." What does Bill mean by religious stuff? What specific instances is he speaking about, when people tried to "get rid of religious stuff"? Of course, there aren't really any specific instances. He's talking right now about a case in the Bay Harbor Islands, where a woman wanted to put up a nativity scene in a public square, next to a Christmas tree and a menorah, and the town initially refused. So, she sued the town.

In this case, is it fair to say that secularists wanted to get rid of religious stuff? Isn't a Christmas tree religious? The answer is yes, because I don't believe in Christ or celebrate Christmas, and therefore I don't have a Christmas tree. So, the tree was there, and a menorah was there (also religious, when last I checked). The non-secularist city council didn't want a nativity scene because they felt it would violate the separation of church and state. Whether or not you agree, it certainly wouldn't be fair to classify this as a case of some large group of secularists opposing a display of Chrsitmas. It's a case of a local governing body making a decision about what sort of holiday display is appropriate for city property. It's not even remotely newsworthy, by the way, and has only made a primetime newscast because it (rather poorly) fits O'Reilly's bizarre thesis.

Okay, back to the quote. " it will make it easier to get their things through." This is where it gets really indecipherable. Let's take it piecemeal. What "things" are "secularists" attempting to get through? A Christmas ban? Unlikely, as it's already a federal holiday, as well as a religious holiday. Plus, everyone likes getting Christmas off from work and school, even anti-religious Jews like myself. Not to mention that you could never get a majority of people in any community in America to vote against Christmas. The freaking Fairfax District is probably going to be pro-Christmas, when you get right down to it. I like Gingerbread Lattes at Starbucks, if that counts.

Okay, so what other "things"? It seems to me that it's super-religious people that are often trying to change legislation in their favor. Like wanting displays put up of the Ten Commandments. There aren't already Ten Commandments hanging in classrooms that "secularists" want to take down. It's religious fanatics who want to put them up. Or wanting to make abortion illegal. Or wanting to prevent San Francisco and Boston from allowing gay marriage, even if the people living there are fine with it. Or wanting to ban "offensive" artwork and books from public galleries and libraries. Society is already pretty secular, because it's the law, so there isn't a lot of work to be done on behalf of secularists. The Founding Fathers kind of did our work for us.

And now let's take apart the other assumption here, that getting rid of Christmas would somehow "make it easier" to "get [our] things through." This is total balderdash. I don't know what Bill bases this on. He has no background in political science, journalism or law, and that's always been abundantly clear, but why on Earth anyone would just take his word on it that a Christmas ban is an essential first step in a gradual takeover of government by secularists is certainly a mystery to me.

Can you believe that's what he's saying on television every day? This is a best-selling author, a man watched by millions of Americans each day, a man who won an interview with our President when he refused to speak to almost any real journalists during his entire campaign...and he's telling his viewers every day that secularists are attempting to slowly eliminate all religion from American society, starting with a ban on public displays having to do with the Christmas holiday.

Does that make sense to you? Does it seem like something that is actively happening in your community? How does one man become so unbelievably full of shit?

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Wow, what a great title. It just rolls off the tongue.

Anyway, this is the #1 movie in America this week, and I caught it at an afternoon show today back in Orange County with my brother Jon and his lovely girlfriend Paula. Children had the run of the theater, much to the chagrin of my younger sibling, who prefers a more somber, hushed film-viewing atmosphere.

Anyway, the film is based on the first three books in a long series of children's adventures of the same name. Lemony Snicket, the fictional psudonym of author Daniel Handler, played in the film by a silhouette of Jude Law, relates the tragic misadventures of the Baudelaire children after the death of their parents in a massive fire. His narration, wry and British in its foreboding warnings and exaggerated language, provides some insight into the filmmaker's intentions: their story is scary enough to please children who have outgrown saccharine entertainment like "The Littlest Elf," but not so scary that they won't be able to sleep that night for fears of death by arson.

More and more unfortunate events follow the children even once their parents are buried. Their home consumed by flames, and with no close relatives or friends to turn to, eldest daughter Violet, middle child Klaus, and infant Sunny are sent to live with failed actor Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who plans to kill them and steal their stately inheritance. Even after the kindly but non-observant banker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) frees them from Olaf's evil clutches, placing them with a variety of other relatives that includes friendly herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery (Billy Connelly) and the highly neurotic Aunt Josephine, they are not safe from his wild scheming, as he chases them from foster home to foster home in a murderous frenzy.

This sharply dark sense of humor is something of a relief, seeing it as I did the day after I witnessed the treacly horror that is Finding Neverland. I don't know when I've last seen a children's film with death so clearly in mind at all times (okay, I do...Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and it's refreshing that director Brad Silberling refuses to soften the harsh realities of life for his young protagonists, providing them with a steely resolve in the face of countless setbacks and unimaginable suffering.

He is aided in this task by the entire effects and design team, who have created for Lemony Snicket a vast storybook world mirroring our own, but definitely apart from it. The sets, particularly Olaf's deteriorating mansion and the home of Aunt Josephine, literally teetering on the edge of a rocky cliff, echo the gothic themes of the storytelling, and never fail to impress. The effects work similarly dazzles. Clearly, a lot of very talented artists spent a great deal of time fashioning a unique visual style for the film, and all of their hard work appears on the screen.

And let me just say that Jim Carrey has had, in 2004, his best year of film acting yet. His performance in this year's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the best, most subtle work he's ever done, and Count Olaf provides him with the most promising comic role he's had to date. Though Snicket's production brings considerable charm and flair along with it, Carrey runs away with the show, zapping the movie full of much-needed life, particularly during a slowly-paced final half hour. Olaf, who fancies himself a Master of Disguise, has frequent need to stalk the orphans incognito, the better to carry out his nefarious plans, providing Carrey with a reasonable excuse to engage in his usual brand of over-the-top shenanigans. But it's in some of the quieter moments between him and his tempermental charges that Carrey really shines, imbibing Olaf with a gleeful menace he's never really carried off before (particularly in his abysmal portrayal of The Riddler in Batman Forever).

It's not all gravy, unfortunately. Though all the aforementioned factors fit nicely into place, and Snicket is a solid-enough literary adaptation sure to please fans of the original books, the movie never really comes together as a whole. It was entertaining enough, sure, but I doubt it's a classic children will return to over the years. The storytelling has wit and charm, but never dares to explore the emotional life of any of its characters.

This is understandable, in a way. So many horrors face the Baudelaire children that to deal with them honestly for even a few scenes could kill any comic momentum the film had built up. But with such a segmented story (it is, after all, based on three separate novels) and so many cartoonish set pieces, Lemony Snicket barely finds time to make us invest in its world of wonders at all. It feels oddly distant, like an exhibition we are invited to admire but not to touch, placing it completely at odds with Cuaron's Harry Potter film of this year, that enveloped the viewer in the cool blues and grays of the English countryside.

And the children don't much help matters. Sure, I feel weird writing a review bagging on child actors, and they are by no means horrible performers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, whereas most child actors annoy me by "acting," speaking their lines as if they've had tremendous amounts of preparation from overly attentive stage mothers, these actors underplay most of their scenes. Subtlety of performance is great, but these kids can barely work up a sob when they are told of their parents untimely demise. In fact, the most dramatic shot in the film, which Silberling comes back to several times, shows only the shadows of the orphans backlit through a tent, with the outlines of their parents projected above them. It's pretty telling that the most emotionally involving moment in the entire movie features not a single actor's face on screen.

At the film's close, we are treated to a single scene of pathos, where the children resolve to remember their parents warmly and get on with their lives, but by then, it is too late. The movie has zigged and zagged through a thousand Looney Tunes set-ups by that point, and we have stopped viewing the Baudelaire's as a real family confronted by dangers, but as pawns in a labrynthine chess game being played by Lemony Snicket and Brad Silberling.

To make matters worse, rather than resolve the numerous mysteries the film has set up, Silberling and screenwriter Robert Gorden have seen it fit to keep their ending completely open-ended. We get no information on the fate of the Baudelaire's or Count Olaf, and don't get any conclusion on the investigation the children have conducted for the film's entire running time. I understand that more Snicket movies will likely follow (the book series already contians 11 volumes), but that is no excuse for failing to finish a movie at all. Even Jude Law sounds perplexed by his narration at the film's conclusion, letting us know that the Baudelaires will be fine because they have each other, but that he has no idea what it is that actually happens to them once the action of the film has ceased. This is unsatisfying in the extreme.

So, some good and some bad. If you have any interest in the film at all, I'd recommend seeing it in theaters, where its visual splendor will not be lost on you. The children sitting around me really didn't seem all that captivated by the movie, except when Jim Carrey was on-screen hamming it up, but this could be as much a product of sugar overload as a failure on the part of the filmmaking. I enjoyed the movie, but would be loathe to rewatch it any time soon. Like the first Harry Potter film, it provides workmanlike entertainment with the promise of greater things to come.

Finding Neverland

I had resisted seeing Finding Neverland because I really disliked the previous film from director Mark Forster, Monster's Ball. That film had been universally praised by critics (including Ebert, who called it the best film of 2002) and won Halle Berry an Oscar, while I found it to be an ineffective, over-the-top tearjerker. However, my friend Cory won the day, and convinced me to check out a late show this evening at the Century City Mall.

And, man, let me tell you, it is really hard being right all the time. I'll say this: Finding Neverland will not go down as the Most Annoying Movie of 2004, that prize remaining reserved for Zach Braff's cinema de poseur, Garden State. But it's bad...really bad. Ridiculously, shamefully, embarrassingly bad. If you can't tell this movie is bad, there's a good chance you have poor taste in movies overall.

Why is it so bad? Well, allow me to begin at the beginning. The film follows playwrite J.M. Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) over the course of several months of 1903, as he is writing his most famous play, "Peter Pan." According to the film (which claims in the opening credits to be "based on true events," though the veracity of most of the situations would be difficult to verify), Barrie based his creation on the Davies family, a widow (an underused Kate Winslet), her four boys and her overbearing, shrewish mother (Julie Christie), whom he met one day in the park. His relationship with this surrogate family winds up taking a toll on his own marriage (to the movie's back-up shrew, played by Radha Mitchell in the film's only realistic performance), as well as causing a minor scandal within London high society.

But, of course, Barrie doesn't care about being political, or impressing high-falutin' society types. He's a free spirit, you see, in the grand tradition of most characters Johnny Depp has played during his long career. Depp was obviously cast to give Barrie a childlike aura, the same zany, unhinged spirit he brought to projects like Ed Wood, Bennie and Joon, Ed Wood and Pirates of the Carribean, and will no doubt bring to next year's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But there is a problem: the spectre of all these other movies. There's an unshakable feeling that we've seen Johnny Depp do this bit before, whether it's dancing around with his oversized dog or amusing the children with funny faces while the stiff, boring adults converse at the dinner table.

And, to be honest, I'm never really that impressed by movies about free spirits who inspire us with their gee-whiz, wide-eyed, optimistic approach to life. I'm sure there have been winning movies about dreamers (and that's part of the promise of The Aviator, I suppose, though I still haven't seen the film), but this movie definitely falls into the trap of presenting a thoroughly unbelievable protagonist, and then asking us to not only accept but embrace his delirious, often nonsensical take on the world.

Depp's Barrie seems completely incapable of anticipating the emotions of others, and I don't think this was thematically intended by Forster or screenwriter David Magee (as for the intentions of author Allan Knee, who wrote the play upon which the script was based, I can only guess).

Rather than see him as an innocent with enviable imagination and wonderment, I came to view Barrie as something of a monster, fun enough to spend time with, but utterly shut off from the realities of day-to-day living. He befriends four fatherless children without considering what effect this will have on their lives. He ignores and soon deserts his wife to, by his own admission, spend "every moment [he] can" with his new, young friends. While minding the children, he becomes distracted at a crucial moment, allowing an accident to endanger one of them.

Perhaps most befuddling, Barrie remains strangely asexual throughout the film. Quite obviously, the work "Peter Pan" carries with it the odd subtext of adolescent sexuality. And Finding Neverland at its heart deals with the close friendship between a grown man and four pre-pubescent boys. So, Forster can't exactly sidestep the issue completely. There is one throwaway scene in which a friend (Ian Hart) queries Barrie about his relationship to the Davies family, and intimates that people have suggested he may be molesting the boys, but Barrie brushes off this suggestion as nonsense, and the film never brings up the issue again.

I mention this not because I think Barrie was definitely a pederast, or because the film portrays him as such, but because he appears entirely unattracted to either the Widow Davies or his own wife, both of whom are attractive woman who are, for the most part, available to him at all times during the story. Save one extremely tepid kiss on the cheek, Barrie and his wife are at no time seen in a romantic way (possibly the director's ham-handed way of suggesting marital strife, though even unhappy couples probably pretend in public now and again). And, though Barrie's refusal to accept reality and insistance on living in the fantasy world of imagination might suggest a freedom from conventional morality, he never once even seems remotely tempted to move his relationship with the Widow Davies in a romantic direction.

I recognize that the film is rated PG, and obviously someone thought it would have appeal for families (though I think children would be extremely bored by this nonsense, as I was). But in taking on themes of love, infidelity, marriage and family, Forster cheats by not really dealing with any of them head-on. He allows all of the details to slide into the margins, focusing the movie intently on praising Barrie for his upbeat outlook, and condemning those curmudgeons whose solemnity and seriousness would not allow them to appreciate his good humor.

That there is barely a whiff of sexuality to any of Barrie's relationships, child or adult, might be forgivable, if the film had higher concepts on its mind, but it decidedly refuses to engage in any matter that might be in the least bit innovative or interesting. For example, though Barrie is shown playing Cowboys and Indians with the boys, thereby fortelling of the inclusion of Indians in his play, the racism in the depiction of Native Americans in "Peter Pan" is overlooked entirely. The character of Tiger Lily, despite being a major character in the play, is mentioned only once by name, off-handedly by Dustin Hoffman, in a forgettable side role as Barrie's American producer. And she is seen one time as well, near the film's end, but not identified. Obviously, Forster had aimed his film elsewhere, but would the inclusion of small details like these not have given his world a bit of added realism? Was it impossible to fit in some actual storytelling in with all the sickly coughing and tomfoolery?

Forster is a man who seems totally lacking in subtlety. In Monster's Ball, he took a film that could have been a meditation on racism and loneliness, and turned it into a melodramatic mess, an endless stream of tragedy that left the viewer not so much moved as numb. This is a man who is willing to run over a fat kid with a car to make a point, willing to debase his actor's by shooting one of the ugliest sex scenes ever filmed, willing to kill three, four characters in the course of an hour. Whatever it takes to move someone, to get that one person in the theater who always cries at movies to cry. And now, in Neverland, he's at it again. On top of the aforementioned near-fatal accident, there's a failed marriage, a dead father, a dead brother, a sick mother and a dead husband. And that's not even mentioning all the fairies that died because kids didn't believe in them.

A movie like this needs a delicate touch to pull off. Inspirational, moving drama is fleeting and fragile. Once you get that feeling that someone is trying too hard, when there is strain evident to wrench pathos from a situation, a movie falls flat on its ass. Think Patch Adams - a movie with a silly but reasonable-enough premise: a doctor who heals patience through laughter as well as good medicine. But the movie stinks, because director Tom Shadyac couldn't stop pathetically begging his audience for approval for one second. When he wasn't celebrating Robin Williams inane schtick, he was telling us through cinematography and musical cues how great this guy was, how we should all be more like him. And that's J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. By the end, you can practically hear Forster weeping on the soundtrack. The film reverberates with the thirst for acclaim: award me, tell your friends about me, just don't doubt my power, my energy, my sadness. Shut up, I say.

I mentioned that Kate Winslet is underused. She's playing a harried mother of four, and she does well enough at reflecting how enamored this woman and her family becomes of this strange man in their lives. But, though the film indulges itself in seemingly endless "fantasy" sequences, in which the imagination of Barrie comes to life through cheeseball special effects made to look like stagecraft, the actors are never really called upon to reflect any kind of real wonderment. Winslet already has demonstrated she can interact with fantasy, as in Peter Jackson's tremendous Heavenly Creatures.

In that film, as in this one, Winslet's character befriends an oddly imaginative person and they become embroiled in a limited fantasy world of their own. But in that movie, the performances rose above the special effects, to capture the importance of these visions to the characters. Here, it's all spelled out neatly for us: Barrie makes wondrous worlds of cheeseball special effects appear to people wherever he goes. Why, he's just like a grown-up Peter Pan! Aw, shucks.

Plus, there's a whole lot of horrible, horrible dialogue about looking in your heart in order to find Neverland, a magical place where nothing hurts and everything is magical and your parents don't ever die and your shrewish wife doesn't tell you to come home for supper when you are out playing pirates with your cool new 8 year old friends. Everybody's asking Mr. Barrie how to find the way to Neverland. Haven't they even read his damn play? It's second star to the right and straight on till morning, assholes.

This stuff is pure hokum. Finding Neverland is the cinematic equivalent to a 64-ounce Dr. Pepper from 7-11. It will fill you up for a few hours, but it's just empty calories, so you won't get anything out of the experience except a mild feeling of indigestion and a taste for bean and cheese burriots. At least, that's what happened to me.