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.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Ebert's Best Films of 2004

Rog has posted his annual list. It includes a few big surprises. Kill Bill 2 at #2! That's gotta be the highest ranking I've seen it given yet. And Spider-Man 2 at #4? Really, Roger? That much better than Sideways or Before Sunset? Seems odd to me.

Anyway, I'll try to get my list up as soon as possible. I'm seeing Finding Neverland a little later, and The Aviator this week. I'll still have missed House of Flying Daggers and Very Long Engagement, but what can you do? I have more than enough films already to fill the list up as is, so I'll go ahead shortly. Don't want to shortchange Marty, though, so I'll wait at least until Friday.

Stop Turge Babonet

You remember Turge Babonet, of course...He's the possibly fictional film producer whose advertisement in Craig's List I brought to your attention in this post.

As you'll recall, I couldn't find this man, who purported to be a big-time film producer, on either Google or IMDB, leading me to believe that it was a false identity, and the whole post was a joke. But now, we have an Anonymous post on that article directing me to a site campaigning against the scourge of Turge Babonet, whom they claim is widely considered "the Flemish Orson Welles."

Am I the victim of some mass Internet prank? Is this all a publicity campaign for Christopher Guest's new mockumentary, chronicling the life of one Mr. Turge Babonet? Or is Turge for real, an artistic genius unfortunately directing films in a language spoken only by 6 million people worldwide? I'll do my best to find out for you, Inertia-ites, if you define "my best" as "nothing except wait for more clues in my comments section."

Bob & Carol & Ted & Amanitas & Friends

Caught an all-acoustic set from up-and-coming Los Angeles legends Amanitas and Friends last night at the world-famous Westwood Brewing Company.

No, seriously, these guys are a kickass local ska/funk/comedy/rock/hip-hop (seriously!) band whom I happen to know personally, granting them an additional aura of indie coolness.

Their #1 smash hit "Looks Like Bukkake" has already been featured on "The Howard Stern Show," known far and wide for outstanding excellence in broadcasting, and they will be playing more shows in and around Los Angeles, I guarantee. Plus, half of their songs are about smoking goo. How can you go wrong with a winning formula like that?

So, why not check out and give 'em a listen? Eh? You're here, so you obviously have nothing better to do.

Don't Drink and...that's it...just don't drink

The University of Oklahoma has banned drinking in residence halls and fraternities after a student died from alcohol poisoning. Here's the quote from the Yahoo story:

University President David L. Boren called underage drinking a "national epidemic" and handed down a strict alcohol policy.

In a 15-point plan announced Dec. 1 and approved five days later by the university's Board of Regents, Boren banned alcohol in residence halls and fraternity houses. Some campus-affiliated organizations will be allowed to serve drinks, but only on weekends.

This is totally not going to work. The article goes on to quote community leaders who agree with me, but I can make the case as well as any of them. Kids of collegiate age want to get drunk. I did when I was that age. It's a combination of curiosity and availability. Most kids begin to experiment with alcohol (and drugs, particularly weed) in high school, so by the time they get to college, it's less the curiostiy and more the availability. Limit one, and watch the other go up.

Seriously, the more strongly you forbid alcohol, the more kids want to drink it. Not that they wouldn't already, but I've found that in environments where alcohol is readily available, people soon learn to moderate their drinking, except alcoholics or those with alcoholic tendences. And those people are going to either deal with their problem or not, regardless of school policy.

These sort of laws come from a very simple, basic impulse. Kids are drinking too much? Make sure they can't get booze! But it just doesn't work. Better to advise kids against excessive drinking, punish places that serve alcohol to minors or serve alcohol without a license, and hope for the best.

When I was a senior at UCLA, the people who lived in the Westwood community pressured the college to forbid a practice called the Midnight Yell, when students relieve the stress of studying for finals by screaming out the windows and in the streets at midnight. It was a silly little ritual, but students had been doing it for years, and felt somewhat protective of it, I suppose. So, when it was forbidden, students overreacted, pouring into the streets to yell (and occasionally light a sofa on fire).

Unfortunately, instead of letting this extremely minor uprising go without reaction, the Westwood police responded the next night by showing up in droves, clad in riot gear, arresting anyone out on the streets who seemed suspect. And what do you suppose the reaction was? Full-on rioting for an entire week. I knew students who were arrested, I saw furniture lit on fire and tossed from balconies. I witnessed chaos of a controlled but unsettling nature. And all because the response to perceived misbehavior was overly extreme.

And that's what will happen at the University of Oklahoma. Call it needlessly rebellious, call it junveile, but college kids want to drink, feel it is their right as college students to drink, and are going to drink no matter what you lame adults have to say about it. The more you force it underground, the worse it's going to get.

Merry Holidays!

I've been talking a bunch on this blog about Bill O'Reilly and his outrageous accusations that "secular America" is trying to destroy the holiday of Christmas. All you need to do is look around to see that isn't true. "Jingle Bell Rock" is getting more play this week than Kanye West and Beyonce put together, and that song is unlistenably bad. Seriously, I know you guys love you some Christmas songs, and it can't always be "Silver Bells" and that one about Good King Wencelas, but "Jingle Bell Rock" is a travesty. It's not even rock! It's barely country!

But I digress. My point was that Billy O has made up all these lies about secularists trying to steal Christmas, and he mainly bases the case on this idea that department stores are instructing their employees to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas."

This is not only incredibly stupid (as retail stores should be allowed to instruct their employees however they wish, so long as the instructed behavior is not illegal or immoral), but old news. I worked at Barnes & Noble four Christmases ago, and we always said "Happy Holidays" to customers rather than "Merry Christmas."

So, this is a dumb argument. Granted, no dumber than other arguments Bill McO'Reilly makes, but dumb all the same.

But Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly takes the question a step further. To wit:

No, what I want to know is this: how do they spread these memes so damn fast? I mean, liberals are just barely starting to get a smidgen of attention for the proposition that Social Security isn't really in serious trouble — a meme that has the advantage of actually being true — while the "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" meme has exploded onto front pages around the country (and the world!) in a matter of days.

And he's right! I can think of all kinds of sound liberal arguments that get lost in the white noise of political discourse, but these kind of dumb Republican non-issue issues always become big news.

Atrios offers the theory that Republicans have an organized system in place for dispersing information quickly to the masses. In essence, it goes like this:

Local News --> Free Republic --> Drudge --> Talk Radio --> Some Wingnut Congressperson/State Legislator --> Fox News --> Lou Dobbs/Scarborough/etc... --> Another round on local news --> CNN --> mainstream print media

That does seem to be the route these stories take, but I'm not sure that liberals couldn't make use of a similar system.

I think the more serious problem is that, more often than not, these right-wing memes are so stupid, liberals like myself can't help but retell them to other people in order to mock them. (For example, this blog entry, or the many others I've done debunking stupid crap Bill O'Reilly says).

So, you get the enemy helping you to spread your latest dish around as well as your media friends, and your information gets out to the people that much faster. So, what can be done? Shut down liberal blogs in the hope that we won't shoot ourselves in the foot trying to dispel stupid, pointless rumors? Rant about the growing right-wing control of the major media in this country? I honestly have no idea.

TIME's Functionally Illiterate Person of the Year Is...

George W. Bush!

Oh, of course! Because, remember, Man (erm...Person) of the Year is based on who was most important that year, not who was most worthy of commendation. I'd have gone with guys getting married, myself, or Jesus, or something gay like that.

What does the man himself have to say?

"I've had a lot going on, so I haven't been in a very reflective mood."

George Bush, not in a reflective mood? Hard to believe, I know...Usually, he's such a deep thinker!

But what was TIME's reasoning? According to the article:

As he says this, George W. Bush is about to set a political record. The first TIME poll since the election has his approval rating at 49%. Gallup has it at 53%, which doesn't sound bad unless you consider that it's the lowest December rating for a re-elected President in Gallup's history.

Sounds like Person of the Year material to me.

I mean, even if you want to give it to the Republicans, I would have picked Karl Rove. The success of the Republicans in Election 2004 had a lot more to do with his strategizing than anything Mumbly McMalaprop said or did. Hell, the guy can barely go out in public without giving his critics some fodder to use against him (see picture immediately below this article).

The Man in the White Cowboy Hat

Yahoo is running this picture of our President today along with a story about security plans for his upcoming 2nd Inauguration.

Apparently, the Secret Service has decided to keep Bush safe by disguising him as a gay Bond villain. You can't tell me those two dudes standing behind him aren't laughing to themselves, just a little bit.

Tucker Everlasting

Media Bistro reports today that Tucker Carlson is getting his own primetime show on MSNBC. Oh, joy.

I hate this bowtied freak, and not just because Jon Stewart had the grapes to call him out on national television, either. Because he's a spineless wonk, a tool of the extreme right wing who makes their ridiculous ideas about government more palatable to ill-informed voters. And as if this weren't enough, he then pretends to be an impartial, journalistic observer, merely reporting what he sees. Disgraceful.

For example, here's a quote from a Salon interview with Carlson in September of 2003:

I'm not a Bush defender, particularly. I defend him when his actions intersect with my beliefs, but I'm not a partisan at all. I'm not interested in parties, in fact I'm opposed to party loyalty in principle. It sort of makes me sick, actually.

Partisan politics make him physically ill? The guy who represents the Right every week on "Crossfire"? Huh?

Anyway, I can't wait to not watch this guy every day on MSNBC. Maybe he'll join Billy O in our Inertia Hall of Shame. Although, I'd have to watch him in order to pull out funny quotes, and I'm not sure I'm ready to devote myself to this pursuit all that fully.