Saturday, January 29, 2005

In the Realms of the Unreal

That's the name of the 15,000 page unpublished novel by Henry Darger, a Chicago janitor who spent the bulk of his life silently composing art about an imaginary war in a fantasy land of his own design. He never got to know anyone well, and made only one real friend. Even children, whom he claimed in his writing to love above all else, had no place in his reality. There exist only three pictures of the man.

Jessica Yu's documentary on Darger, nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, doesn't really attempt to explain Darger's work or life. The film acknowledges the unknowable aspect of a life led in isolation. Darger never attempted to show his art or writing to anyone, and though the written manuscript itself seemingly aspires to one day be absorbed by the multitudes, Darger himself had no interest in gaining the attention of other people. According to those who knew him, his constant refrain was "leave me alone."

Rather than open Darger up for psychoanalytic or sociological interpretation, Yu focuses on the known events of Darger's life and how they relate to the ongoing events in his Unreal universe. Though it's impossible to listen to the fictional stories Darger composed and not connect their events to his autobiographical details, there's a constant sense of mystery to Yu's narrative. Just as Henry Darger himself didn't allow anyone inside the private world of his imagination, Yu's film refuses us total access.

In addition to the three still images of Darger himself, we see the panoply of acquaintances who assisted him during his final years. There's the friendly couple who rented out the apartment in which he lived and created his artwork, and the neighbor who lived just across the way. Also, an altar boy who saw Darger at Daily Mass, which he attended, well, religiously. They provide a vague and often inconsistent account of the man. At one point, we hear from different sources that Darger always sat in the front, middle and back of his local church.

While we in the audience are looking with wonder at the man's impressive volume of work, those around him had no sense that the quiet janitor with the odd habits was special in any way. He was just another lonely old bachelor, roaming the streets around Lincoln Park, dressed like a homeless person, living in poverty. How is it possible, the film seems to ask us, that someone with so much to say never felt the need to actually speak?

The content of Darger's work is disarmingly odd, and actually can be quite creepy. The narrative concerns a brutal ongoing war between good Christians and the evil Glandelinian army. The Glandelinians, you see, use child slaves, whom they beat and torture. At one point, a child's rebellion breaks out, led by the seven pure, virtuous, and beautiful Vivian Girls. As Darger's life would change, so would his story, and he even worked himself into the narrative at one point, casting himself as a brave American who led the international cause against the enslavement of the Vivian Girls and other children.

Yu's film suggests that Darger's traumatic childhood inspired the bulk of his work, and it's seemingly difficult to argue otherwise. HIs mother had died giving birth to a younger sister whom he'd never know. He spent his childhood first at a rough orphanage, doing backbreaking labor on a farm for 12 hours a day. Then, because of his odd behavior, he was sent to an asylum for troubled children, where he was tormented by nuns. All of these elements are weaved throughout the narrative of Realms of the Unreal. His fear and anger towards adults who mistreated him as a child acts itself out against the epic canvas of a holy war, with heroes and angels fighting and dying to defend the rights in kids to be kids.

But the film is far more nuanced and complex than this description would indicate. Yu gives us voice-over readings from Darger's autobiography and stories over animations based on his artwork, and the result isn't so much a peek inside Darger's mind as into the world he created around himself. The Vivian Girls, over years of writing, became a part of his personality. His neighbors speak in the film about hearing Darger speaking to himself in a variety of voices. One theorizes that perhaps Darger was replaying arguments he was too meek to engage in during the day. But I'd say it's possible he was enacting his stories, giving voice to the Vivian Girls and their enemies in an attempt to bring them a bit closely to his mundane everyday reality.

I was reminded of stories I'd heard about J.R.R. Tolkein and the creation of Middle-Earth. At first, it was just the setting for his initial story, "The Hobbit." But, as he said, "the tale grew in the telling," and before long, he was composing a dense collection of work set in the fictional world of his creation, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to "The Simarillion," a history of the Elves. And certainly there were details of Tolkein's own life experience sprinkled throughout his stories. His service in WWI, his hatred of technology and love of nature all became themes of his work. These elements don't conflict with Tolkein being considered a serious writer. We don't hear these details and think to ourselves that the man was crazy or unstable.

Yet there was something about Darger's unique devotion to his work that crosses that line between genius and madness. He definitely didn't require supervision, and probably would have lived a happier life had he not suffered the indignity of being committed at such an early age, but there is undeniably an undercurrent of insanity to some of his rambling writings and his lifestyle. For example, many of the female child slaves appear nude in Darger's paintings, and all of them have penises. Is it possible Darger was not aware that women and men have different sex organs? Though it's impossible to know for certain, there is no evidence presented in the film that he ever engaged in sexual activity of any kind, and in his writing, it seems evident that he didn't understand the meaning of the term "rape." Yet he had such an inquisitive side, and was such an avid reader, it seems entirely improbably he would never have encountered a description or image of a vagina.

These are some of the unanswerable questions about the life of Henry Darger. Yu's wonderful film is playing right now in one theater in Los Angeles, and I can only hope it will open wider for more people to see. Glancing around the Internet, I see that there are already books and exhibits available about Darger's life, and I'm simply uncultured for not having heard of him previously, so maybe you're already up on all this stuff. I found it entirely fascinating.
Interesting that I saw it just a few days after seeing Ray, an utterly artless piece of tripe that also examines the life of an artist through the filter of his traumatic childhood. But whereas Ray is content to explain away all of its subjects behavior through lame flashbacks, Realms of the Unreal allows the past to remain what it obviously is: a mystery.

Dumbest Thing Glenn Reynolds Has Said in a Few Days

And that's saying something, because this pro-Bush pro-war pro-fessor pro-duces idiotic blog entries at a fantastical rate. His Instapundit is updated almost as often as this blog, if you can imagine such a thing.

So, anyway, here's one of the many dumb things Glenn Reynolds said:

There was a time when the Left opposed fascism and supported democracy, when it wasn't a seething-yet-shrinking mass of self-hatred and idiocy. That day is long past, and the moral and intellectual decay of the Left is far gone.

Okay, this guy is a professor, right? So, he understands that fascism would be an extreme growth out of the far right of the political spectrum, and not the left...Communism would be the example of an extreme left-wing movement. Therefore, by definition, The Left opposes fascism.

But let's look at the point he's getting it. Because leftists in America right now oppose George W. Bush, we're pro-fascism. Is he projecting? People who didn't want to remove the leader of another country and then go to war with them, only to hold bogus elections to install a puppet regime, are fascist? What about the party that conducts all its business in secret, while spending more than any other administration in American history on propaganda? That's not fascist? Huh?

And any time you accuse another group of people of "moral and intellectual decay," your hysteria betrays your message. Please, people, if you read a political columnist using this sort of heated terminology, tune out. It means they don't have anything real to say, and are hoping to use flowery, overstated rhetoric to convince you of the depth of their reasoning.

(And my thanks to MaxSpeak for the link!)

For those of you not living in crippling poverty...

might I recommend that you attend one of the upcoming performances by Bob Dylan at Los Angeles' very own semi-historic not-at-all-warehouse-like Pantages Theater. He'll be playing with special guest Merle Haggard, and as with all Dylan shows, he will, in fact, be rocking out with his cock out. So, be warned.

In all seriousness, folks, I've seen Bobby D. twice, and I can tell you that he puts on a hell of a rock and roll show. You hear a good mixture of classic tunes, covers and newer Dylan songs, but he reinvents each one to fit his current style, mood or however he's feeling that night. On the last tour, he played almost exclusively on the keyboards and left the guitar work to his (very capable) band, but you never quite know what you're going to get anyway. The old guy is full of surprises.

So, anyway, he's at the Pantages March 21-26, and I highly recommend checking it out. For more details, see the man's web page here. He's a solid dude.

A Sliver to a Slice to a Slab to a Slob

I'm a messy person.

I think it's because I was raised by my mother, who is an obsessively clean and neat person. It was like a crime lab where I grew up, white and sterile, as if William Peterson was going to burst in any moment and demand the results of his DNA sample. You could probably eat off the floor of the garage.

True story: I've been lectured before for leaving my shoes on the floor by the stairs, as opposed to on a pre-specified step itself. And not just told not to leave my shoes on the floor. Lectured. Scolded, you might say.

So, my messiness might just be rebellion against an uptight, rigid tyranny of hygiene during my youth. Or maybe I'm just too lazy to clean all the time. I can't know for sure.

But today, I've finally become disgusted enough by my room to clean up. First, I threw out all the trash. There were two large trash bags worth. Considering that my room has roughly the same square footage as my high school locker, this is far too much. Then, I went through the large pile of dirty laundry on the floor next to my bed, sorting out "Clothes That, While Somewhat Dirty and Already Worn Don't Give Off An Offensive Odor" from "Clothes So Messy They Have Comic-Strip-Style Stink Lines Radiating Off Them And Flies Buzzing Around."

Now, I'm taking a short break. I believe the next step will be to actually do some of this laundry, and dare I say, perhaps even run a vacuum. The last time my room was vacuumed was when it was made of molecules, and all the matter is the universe was compressed into a small ball in the vacuum of space. It's been a while, is what I'm saying.

It sucks to work all week and then have two precious little days off, and then you feel guilty and spend them cleaning. How about a little me time, damned!

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Man Who Invented Christmas

That's going to be the name of my upcoming film about the life of Charles Dickens. You see, I've been inspired by Ray, a sub-moronic piece of claptrap attempting to explain away all the events of Ray Charles' complicated life via gauzy flashbacks. That movie has garnered multiple Oscar nods for doing nothing more than connecting events in Ray Charles' life to the images and ideas in his songs. So, that's what my Charles Dickens movie will do.

It will be about the time in Dickens' life when he wrote "A Christmas Carol." That is, late 1862 and early 1863. Dickens was middle-aged at this point, and divorced, and had just returned to England from a lengthy trip to America. We open with his country childhood, celebrating Christmas in a drunken revelry, presided over by a character who will become the jolly Fezziwig in the story. Then, we jump a few years ahead, to the fall of the Dickens family, when young Charlie was forced to take a job in a blacking factory. (A blacking factory, by the way, is a shoeblacking factory, where Dickens' parents sent him to work, removing him from the bucolic idyll of his childhood. I had to look it up.)

So, anyway, for the whole movie, we'll have flashbacks to young Dickens in the shoeblacking factory, toiling away and dreaming of the day when he'll be rescued from his horrible toils by some wealthy old guy, possibly having a spectre-related change-of-heart.

Cut to 1862, Dickens returns from America, where it was gloriously snowing in New York prior to his depature. The London he returns to is a dreary, rainy mess. One day, he sees a young homeless boy begging on a street corner, and he treats him to some soup. The boy's name is...say it with me now...Tiny Tim.

You get where I'm going with this. Tiny Tim has a hard-working father who himself has a miserable, dare I say Scrooge-esque, troll of a boss. And a relative of Dickens' ex-wife Catherine dies, a Jacob something-or-other, dragging him back into the painful business of his broken family and raising fears of eternal damnation. Blah blah blah.

The point isn't that I'm going to make this movie. I'm not. I'm not going to make any movies. I have, like, $18 to my name. The point is, this story could be theoretically true. I'm sure it's not, but it lines up to reality. Dickens really was returning from America to England, he really did live with his middle-class family in the country until being cruelly sent away to work in a shoe polishing warehouse, and he really was divorced in 1858.

The point is, I made this shit up in about 10 minutes, and you could too. It's easy. Pick a famous person and something famous they created - Whistler's Mother or Dr. Seuss' The Grinch or Fellini's 8 1/2 or Phillip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" - and trace some element of the story back to their own lives. Fill in the rest with sappy bullshit, and blammo, instant Oscar bait.

I'd like to add, if you're a powerful movie executive, then I really could write this in about 2 weeks. Plus, I have a lot of other ideas. Did you know that a young Marty Scorsese really spent time at a neighborhood mob hangout? It's true!


This piece of shit hits DVD shelves on Tuesday. Hollywood has dedicated the full might of its propaganda machine towards convincing you that Taylor Hackford's insipid look at the life and times of Ray Charles isn't a lame, tired, completely vapid waste of time. But it is. Despite a nice performance (and great impersonation) by Jamie Foxx and the talents of a large cast and crew of solid professionals, Hackford and screenwriter James White found themselves completely unable to give Ray any sense of narrative cohesion or emotional maturity. Movies like this are the reason staid Oscar-contending biopics have such a bad reputation.

I don't know that I've ever seen a movie with less to say than Ray drag on for so long. Hackford and White fill their movie up to overflowing with tiny, meaningless details without ever stumbling on to insight, even by accident. We see familiar and a few unfamiliar events in the life of Ray Charles play out over the course of 2.5 hours, but we're getting everything in such small, generic blips, it's impossible to glean any information about Ray's internal life, his motivation, his drive, or what inspired his beautiful, inspirational and highly influential music.

The film opens with Ray as a young man (still using his original name, Ray Robinson) leaving his home in Northern Florida for Seattle. In one of the movie's trademark oversights, we're not told why Ray would choose Seattle over the many other cities one might think of as hotbeds for popular music at the time. We're told that some cliched racist Southern guy didn't want to let him on the bus, and that he outwitted them using his wits, but not where he's going, or why, or what he hopes will happen when he arrives there.

What happens is a series of introductions to other characters of no significance to the story, who will soon disappear. There's Larenz Tate as Quincy Jones, who appears, I think, just so someone can utter the line "Hi, Ray, I'm Quincy Jones!" giving audience members a cheap thrill at recognizing the name of a celebrity. I'd be willing to wager that you could have taped a random drunken conversation between Quincy Jones and Ray Charles in the late 1940's, and it would be a hell of a lot more interesting than the entire film Ray. But the movie has no time to show us anything interesting about Quincy, or Fathead Newman, or Mary Ann Fisher, or any of the other characters that populate the early sequences of the film.

Hackford and White are too busy cutting to poorly-designed flashbacks to Ray's childhood, or showing him empowering himself over and over again by conquering racists and shady promoters. Ray in these early sequences seems more like Encyclopedia Brown than a brilliant musician starting his musical career. We spend almost no time developing who this man is, and lots of time showing how he put racists and greedy hucksters in their place. Right on, Brother!

And about those flashbacks...They permeate the whole movie, and they're completely ridiculous. Hackford films everything set in the distant past in a color-saturated digital hellscape, making it look like Ray grew up in Toontown, not Florida.

These flashbacks give us a vague run-down of the early events in Ray's life. His father was not in the picture. His mother was a fiercely independent and proud woman who toiled endlessly in the care of her two sons, Ray and George. George dies in a tragic accident, and Ray never forgives himself for not doing more to save his sibling's life. Then, Ray goes blind, and his mother teaches him to never become a cripple, to always be self-reliant and never feel self-pity.

Okay, so, so far, I'm describing pretty much every Hollywood biographical film about an artist or entertainer. It's self-important, indulgent, silly and filled with stupid connections between the artist's famous work and their personal lives. I'm reminded of this year's other idiot yet strangely lauded biopic disaster, Finding Neverland, in which we see Julie Christie holding a coat hanger as the inspiration for Captain Hook.

Here, we see Ray picking out snatches of conversations and turning them into classic songs. In one of the film's most dreadful, unrealistic scenes, Ray and his mistress Margie (a wasted Regina King) stop in the middle of having an argument and begin spontaneously singing Ray's immortal
"Hit the Road Jack." This is so ludicrous, such an obvious set-up for a segue into another limply-shot third-of-a-performance scene, that it's amazing any editor permitted it to remain in the movie. I'm surprised Foxx and King didn't speak to Hackford about having this scene removed. What kind of people act like this? Oh, yeah, people in bad movies.

But, anyway, if these were the film's only crimes, it would merely be a bloated, overrated slice of standard mediocrity. What makes it utterly incomprehensible is the film's insistance on tying each and every event in Ray's life to his traumatic childhood through endless flashbacks and dream sequences.

There's an old screenwriting saw that goes "Show, Don't Tell." Every screenwriting teacher on Earth drills this into the heads of their students. Movies work when they demonstrate for their audience how things work, not when they feature characters talking about how things work. Ray does nothing but tell. It tells you that Ray felt bad about his brother's death.

In one scene, Ray packs up his clothes for a trip, and then imagines (and we see) his suitcase filling with water, and his dead brother's foot poking out.

This is lazy filmmaking. Hackford has no idea how to communicate to us that Ray felt guilty about his brother, and that his guilt haunted him well into his successful adult life. He lacks the skill to demonstrate this concept visually. He lacks the faith in his actors to allow them to express these real emotions. Instead, he uses a cheap special effect, and has Jamie Foxx blubber and fumble around rather than emote. Wouldn't it have been more powerful, more potent, to simply show us at the film's opening (in chronological order, for a change) Ray's brother dying, and then allow us to infer how this event affected his life?

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator has taken a lot of heat for something similar. In the opening scene of his film, he shows us Howard Hughes' mother bathing him compulsively, filling his head with strange paranoid ideas about germs and phobias. I agree with critics that complain about this scene, how it attempts to "explain" Hughes' bizarre behavior rather than simply showing it to us. But it was just one scene, a forgivable misstep in an otherwise fascinating and challenging enterprise. Ray is like an entire movie made up of just that one scene.

But it isn't just Ray's sense of well-being that's affected by his lingering feelings of shame. Hackford ties his chronic womanizing to a need for forgiveness from his mother, ties his heroin addiction to his need to "forget" about seeing his brother die, ties even his blindness in some way to his grief. Anyone with any sort of functioning brain can tell that people make decisions for a variety of reasons, and that no one's life can be reduced to one event that, domino-like, set every future event into motion. But Hackford and White don't care about subtlety, about getting to anything deep, significant or telling about Ray Charles. I don't know what they do care about, really. I can't imagine a more narrow, flat, meaningless film could be made out of such an interesting life.

I'll leave you with one final example of why this movie is an obvious, dumb and frustratingly childish attempt to garner critical praise and Oscar noms. Towards the film's end, Quincy Jones returns to the film for no reason other than to tell Ray he should stop playing to segregated audiences. Ray disagrees, arguing that people want to see him play in the South, and you can't play the South without segregation. Then, Ray goes to a Jim Crow gig, and as he's walking toward the stage door, a random protestor stops him and tells him basically the exact same thing as Quincy Jones.

For no reason, Ray relents and cancels the gig on the spot. Why now, and not when Jones was informing him of such in the previous scene? It's unclear. Why hadn't these protestors made any impression on Ray in the past, seeing as he'd been playing the segregated South for years? No one knows. Isn't it possible that the real Ray Charles simply decided to make a stand for his own moral principles, and not because it's what two different people told him to do?

Hackford utterly refuses to allow for any such ambiguity. We know Ray didn't want to play for segregated crowds any more because this is what we're told. We know he gave up the junk because of his dedication to his family because that's what he says in the movie. We know he was a great man because we see the State of Georgia give him an award. This is maybe the least insightful film about an artist I have ever seen. It's not surprising, in the end, that Taylor Hackford has such little insight into the mind of a creative person, being so uncreative himself.

If you want to see a great Jamie Foxx performance, rent Collateral. Or even Any Given Sunday, a deeply flawed film that nonetheless features some of the best work Foxx has ever done.

Richard and Art Linklater

I'm sorry, but every time I hear director Richard Linklater's name, I think of Art Linklater. And I only know Art Linklater because, in the 80's and early 90's, he was the spokesman for the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. All Americans my age, particularly ones who enjoyed more than 3 hours of television per day, remember the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed commercials. Linklater would stride on to a set made up to look like some old fart's bedroom, and the guy and his comely wife would be lying on a contraption that resembled a bed, except that it was contorted into an extremely odd position. The Craftmatic Adjustable Bed, to me, appeared about as sleep-inducing as a fog horn operated by Gilbert Gottfried. But then, I was not an old fart at the time. I was just a kid.

But that's not important right now. The point of this blog entry is that Richard Linklater, the Austin, TX director-guy, has a new film coming out called A Scanner Darkly, based on a Phillip K. Dick story, and it sounds awesome.

The Austin Chronicle has several stills from the film, animated in the style of Linklater's head-trip Waking Life. They call the technique rotoscoping: basically, actors and backgrounds are filmed first on digital video, then the images are loaded into computers and animated over, creating a film that is both live-action and animation at the same.

Here's my favorite image from Scanner Darkly. It's Woody Harrelson, animated as a character named Luckman.

Production company Flat Black Films said the following in the article:

Whereas our previous feature, Waking Life, aspired to a painting aesthetic, A Scanner Darkly aims to look more like a finely detailed, well-drawn comic book or graphic novel.

I'd say that's exactly what they've got. This may be my most anticipated film of 2005.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Inaugural Balls

You all know Paul Weyrich, right? He's the shadowy evil figure behind shadowy evil arch-conservative "think" tank, the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation. Here's an excerpt from his official biography:

He has been described by The Economist as "one of the conservative movement's more vigorous thinkers." Voted three years in a row from 1981 – 1983 by readers of Conservative Digest as one of the top three "most popular conservatives in America not in Congress," Mr. Weyrich has been named by Regardie's Magazine as "one of the 100 most powerful Washingtonians."

He has been married since 1963 to the former Joyce Smigun, is the father of five children, and serves as a deacon in his church.

Aren't you impressed? He made Regardie's Magazine. Too bad that bitch Naomi Campbell made the cover.

And I wonder who the other two "most popular conservatives in America not in Congress" were from 1981 to 1983, according to the Conservative Digest...I tried to look it up on Google, but Conservative Digest doesn't have a website. Possibly because it no longer exists.

Still, Paul, you're doing super. I love the way you donate a lot of money to the president and then tell him what you do. It's super.

Anyway, Paul's upset that so many lefty bloggers and writers made such a big deal about how much ol' Georgie's recent inaugural celebration cost. I mean, come on, it's only $40 million...When Paul Weyrich takes a shit and there's no toilet paper around, he wipes his ass with $40 million, people.

All the money has been raised by friends of the President. Critics are insisting the parties and inaugural balls be cancelled and the money sent to the victims of the tsunami in Asia.

The critics say to have lavish parties going on when men and women of the Armed Forces are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is unseemly. I don’t recall these same critics having anything to say when Lyndon Johnson had his Inaugural Balls in 1965 during the Viet Nam War.

Well, Paul, I'd have loved to complain about Lyndon Johnson having a lavish Inaugural Ball in 1965, but I was still 13 years away from being born. Also, implying that people who are now liberals didn't bitch about LBJ during his tenure as president evidences a tremendous, egregious lack of any information or knowledge about that era of American history. I mean, LBJ was not exactly beloved in his time. He didn't even run for a second term. If only W had followed suit.

World War I and especially World War II involved the whole country much more than does the Iraqi war. This is not to take away from any of the more than 1,100 killed among our armed forces as well as the thousands who have been injured in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and other places where our military serves.

If the war in Iraq had reached the level of intensity which the two World Wars had, then it might be appropriate to cancel the balls, the parade and other celebrations which are being held. But it isn’t that magnitude of war.

Yowza. This guy is crass. Does he not realize? He's paid to write and philosophize about this shit on the Internet, after all. How can he not realize it's inappropriate to imply that 1,100 deaths (by the way, Yahoo calls the death toll today at 1,400) isn't enough reason to cancel a party?

But, no, Weyrich's right, it's nothing like those other wars. If you get shot in Iraq, about a half-hour later, the bullet just pops right out of you and you're fine again!

And he kind of forgets about that tsunami thing, too, huh? Oh, right, 150,000 dead Asians! But we already called the caterers! Oh, come on, stop bitching! It's a party, people! Four more years!

Then, he ends with more ludicrous insanity:

Bush should go ahead with all of the activities associated with the election. The nation needs to celebrate. First, we have not been attacked since 9/11. That is reason to celebrate alone. Second, we have been through a lot as a nation. This is a national event. People from all over the country come to the celebration. And even if you voted for Bush’s opponent, you should celebrate that we have peaceful elections. None of them will be thrown in prison nor will they have to fear being shot because they voted for the loser. It is still great to be an American.

Hey, yeah, our electoral system was crudely manipulated by liars who made people believe that voting for his opponant equals burning the Bible and encouraging kids to have gay sex! Let's have a fucking party!

Also, he stops even trying to be a real writer by this point in the essay. Look at these sentences..."People from all over the country come to the celebration." Frankenstein Like Bush! Fire..............BAD!

But, yeah, it's great to be an American. No floods, possibly un-rigged elections and all the wars get fought in front of someone else's house. God Bless the USA.

Alien vs. Predator

I knew it would be bad. You all know it's bad. It's directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, whose resume reads like a Hamas To-Do List.

I'll give you a second...

Yes, that's right. It's full of bombs. Well done. Now that you fully appreciate my wit, you can see a bland still from this bland movie.

Okay, so, there's aliens, there's predators, what could go wrong, right? Well, this is P.W.S. Anderson, folks. Most people agree that his best film to date is an adaptation of a video game that itself adapts old George Romero movies. He made Event Horizon, for fuck's sake. ANd Soldier. Let's not even discuss Mortal Kombat. Why would anyone turn over the reigns to not just one but two franchise characters to someone so clearly inept? It would be like hiring Stephen Hawking to install light fixtures. YOU ALREADY KNOW HE CAN'T DO IT BEFORE HE EVEN BEGINS.

The story doesn't matter because it's so dumb. A group of scientists are rounded up in a sequence strikingly similar to Jurassic Park, and find themselves exploring an underground pyramid of unknown origin beneath the surface of Antarctica. Once inside, they discover that the pyramid is a temple where young Predators train to kill by fighting armies of Alien enemies. The end.

Alien vs. Predator makes more mistakes at the conceptual stage than I have time to recount on this blog. I'll list a few of the most glaring tactical errors:

  • The movie is rated PG-13. All of the other films featuring either the Alien or the Predator characters have been rated R. Every single one. The original Predator is a searingly violent movie about mercenaries fighting in a war, distracted from their own assignment to battle a warrior from outer space. It's blatantly obvious that the film mutes itself to avoid a more stern rating. Even so, it's still too violent and disturbing for young children anyway. And why would kids even care about this movie? It's based on two franchises far too old for them to even be familiar with. Hell, I was too young to see the original Predator in theaters upon its release.
  • The movie creates unneccessary backstory, requiring too much exposition. I don't think any fans of this genre or either of these characters wanted Alien vs. Predator to explore a lot of new territory. Anderson spends far far far too much time creating a complex history uniting Aliens, Predators and Humans in series of synergistic working relationships. You want to see these two monsters kill a bunch of humans and kick one another's respective asses. But instead, we're treated to what feels like hours (even though the whole film comes out to an amateurish 87 minutes) of exposition, with characters describing strange historical rituals to us involving human sacrifice, pyramind training grounds miles beneath Antarctica and even the unification of all human cultures under the iron fist of a Predator government. But all this is in the movie. Seriously.
  • The movie ignores each franchise's unique mythology and history. For the entire second half of the film to work, we must accept that a Predator would team up with a plucky human female if the circumstances required. Of course, this is ridiculous. Totally against the very concept of the Predator as ultimate outer space killing machine. He's not down for bonding and cracking wise...This isn't T2, people, it's go time, there's aliens around every corner. But beyond this, the movie alters so much of the story and conception of Aliens and Predators, the film begins to feel totally ancillary to both franchises. Instead of feeling like they've finally united two great series of action films, I feel like they've swirled them into a bland mush that doesn't resemble either of the original works.
  • The movie assumes we'll side with humans because they are human. Though we end up having to spend an hour watching this group of scientists explore this temple, no effort whatsoever is expended on giving anyone a personality. They bumble through this adventure, shining flashlights on the floor and reciting expository dialogue designed only to advance the plot. Ewan Bremner, known to the world as Spud from Trainspotting, obviously has a lot of personality and screen presence, and he's given not a thing in the world to do. He walks around, bugs his eyes out once or twice, and then he's gone. Why even hire actors at all? Why not just sic a couple special effects on some mannequins and call it a day?

I could go on, but I won't. You all know this movie sucks. So, even out of curiosity, don't bother renting it. Not worth your time in any way, shape or form. It makes Freddy vs. Jason look like The People vs. Larry Flynt.

Just Think, The Colonel Only Used 11 Herbs and Spices

A 66 year old British grandmother has been arrested for serving meals to her neighbors and friends laced with marijuana.

I'm going to type that again, because it's such a cool sentence.

A 66 year old British grandmother has been arrested for serving meals to her neighbors and friends laced with marijuana.

This is true! I read about it in the Mirror, which is from the UK and not America, so there's a chance it might actually be true, and not based on some Republican talking point.

Patricia Tabram, according to the article, starting cooking with God's Gift to Lazy College Students Everywhere after suffering from a painful back injury following a car crash. But she kept doing it because it's so goddamn fun. And she started serving it to her friends because...well, the article doesn't say. Maybe she forgot it was illegal. If you smoke enough, this is entirely possible, trust me. Or maybe she was just trying to make a point:

"I believe cannabis should be made legal for medical reasons - it's a natural herb. It has given me pain relief, as it has for my other friends who are suffering from MS and other conditions. If they send me to jail, I can finish writing my book, Grandma Eats Cannabis - about the merits of medicinal herbal cannabis."

Okay, so Gram sounds like something of a nutter...I certainly wouldn't buy a book called "Grandma Eats Cannabis." Now, "Grandma Takes Sick Tokes Out Of Her Double-Barrelled Skull Bong," that would probably rocket right to the top of the NY Times Bestseller List. You know you'd at least check out that inside flap.

Okay, last part of the article I'll repost:

On the last raid, police found 242 grams (8.5oz) of the stronger skunk variety of the drug, worth around £850.

She revealed she bought it from contacts through various cafes. One dealer told her: "You look like a woman I can trust."

8.5 oz? What's she cooking, Weed Turducken? She's a could she possibly require 8.5 OUNCES of pot at a time? I don't know if you're all up on your quantities of drugs, but 8.5 ounces of pot would take a young male stoner of around my height, weight and build 7 or 8 months to smoke. And that's if they smoked every day, fairly relentlessly.

But, you know, I'm just guessing. I don't do drugs because they make Baby Jesus cry.

The Adventures of Super-Ringo: Episode IV: The Cheap Marketing Ploy...OF DOOM!

When we last left our hero, Super-Ringo, he was serving as drummer for the Greatest Rock Band in the History of the World. Yes, that's right, Sum 41. No, no, I'm kidding. Linkin Park.

Ha ha! No, no, The Beatles.

But now, the ravages of time have left the brave and stalwart Super-Ringo without a steady source of income. His backing band, Ringo's All Starrs (ho ho!), having failed to protect his stellar reputation as "the unneccessary Beatle", have gone their separate ways.

So, it's up to Ringo's newest sidekick, comic book creator Stan Lee to save the universe. Or at least move some units to pay for an additional TIVO hook-up in the Starr Estate.

Yeah, anyway, if you didn't catch the drift of my spiel above, E! reports today that Ringo Starr and Stan Lee will team up to create an awful comic book character based on Ringo's wacky personality. Here's Stan's take on the genesis of this, um, terrific idea:

"We were talking and kidding around and I said [to Starr], 'You're known all over the world, and you've got the most distinctive way of talking, and I think if we did a cartoon of you it would be fantastic," the comic-book legend said. "Wouldn't it be cool if we could make you a superhero?"

Yes, that's what any classic superhero needs. A distinctive way of talking. And, you know, a little help from his friends.

This is just kind of sad. I don't know if you've heard about how Marvel keeps trying to screw Stan out of the money he rightfully deserves for creating just about their entire library of good characters. I mean, there's lots of Marvel characters Lee didn't create, but not many good ones.

Fantastic Four? Check.
Incredible Hulk? Check.
X-Men? Check.
Spider-Man? Check.

If he doesn't deserve subsidiary rights from all these new movies based on these characters, who does? Oh, that's right! High-ranking Marvel executives! How silly of me.

So, anyway, Stan's apparently been reduced to whoring himself out to any idiotic cartoon concept that comes his way. Remember how he put his name on that Pamela Anderson nonsense on Spike TV, "Striperella"? The guy created freaking Wolverine, okay, he shouldn't have to spend his days making up superpowers to give aging celebrities in shitty direct-to-DVD cartoons!

And Ringo! How much money could you possibly need? Is that "Octopus' Garden" sheet music just not raking in the royalties like you'd hoped? Why did the classy Beatles have to die early, leaving us with Paul "I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom" McCartney and Super-Ringo? I mean, I love love love love love The Beatles, but I sort of can't stand seeing them this way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

And the Razzie Goes To...

I did the Oscar round-up, so of course, I have to cover the Golden Raspberry Awards as well. It's only fair, right?

So, let's stop fucking around and get to it:


Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2
Surviving Christmas
White Chicks

Out of all these films, White Chicks was the only one on my personal Worst Films list. Though it was a healthy #2, behind only Zach Braff's 9-reel shit sandwich. Then again, the only other one I've seen is Catwoman, which, I'll admit, was really bad.


Ben Affleck, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl
George W. Bush, Fahrenheit 9/11
Vin Diesel, Ridicules of Chronic...I mean, Chronicles of Riddick
Colin Farrell, Alexander
Ben Stiller, Along Came Polly, Anchorman, Dodgeball, Envy, Starsky and Hutch

Love the political commentary explicit in these nominations. It would be great if George W. wins, and Michael Moore shows up to give an acceptance speech on his behalf. Too bad the Razzies don't command the viewership to warrant broadcast on television. Or radio. Or even regular Internet updates.

Oh, and I have to give props to my man Dave Lau for the excellent Chronicles of Riddick/Ridicules of Chronic pun. That's why he's a poet, and I'm a guy with a blog working at a video store...Cause he can think of shit like that.


Halle Berry, Catwoman
Hilary Duff, Raise Your Voice and A Cinderella Story
Angelina Jolie, Alexander and Taking Lives
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, New York Minute
Shawn and Marlon Wayans, White Chicks

Angelina Jolie's nomination seems a bit harsh. She was okay in Taking Lives, which wasn't great but also wasn't nearly bad enough to rank among the year's worst. It wasn't even the year's worst serial killer movie (that would be the asinine Saw).

I'm thinking Olsen twins for the win, but Halle Berry is atrocious in Catwoman. And it's definitely time for some blowback from her ridiculous Oscar win for Mark Forster's insipid Monster's Ball.


Ben Affleck and J. Lo/Liv Tyler, Jersey Girl
Halle Berry and Benjamin Bratt/Sharon Stone, Catwoman
George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice/His Pet Goat, Fahrenheit 9/11
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, New York Minute
The Wayans Brothers, White Chicks

How can Mary-Kate and Ashley be both the worst actress and the worst couple? Are they two separate people or not? I need answers!


Carmen Electra, Starsky and Hutch
J. Lo, Jersey Girl
Condoleeza Rice, Fahrenheit 9/11
Britney Spears, Fahrenheit 9/11
Sharon Stone, Catwoman

Okay, so the Razzie Committee likes easy targets. Britney Spears is in all of one minute of Fahrenheit 9/11, though her blind devotion to the president is both adorably naive and chilling.

And I forgot Carmen Electra was even in Starsky and Hutch. In fact, I kind of forgot about the existence of Starsky and Hutch until just now. Damn it! Now that's back in my brain!


Val Kilmer, Alexander
The Governor of California, Around the World in 80 Days
Donald Rumsfeld, Fahrenheit 9/11
Jon Voight, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2
Lambert Wilson, Catwoman

Who the hell is Lambert Wilson? I just watched Catwoman on DVD a few nights ago, and I have no recollection of this person...Now that they've reminded me of the movie Starsky and Hutch, I'm inclined to say Snoop Dogg deserved this nod.


Bob Clark, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2
Renny Harlin/Paul Schrader, Exorcist: The Beginning
Pitof, Catwoman
Oliver Stone, Alexander
Keenan Ivory Wayans, White Chicks

Catwoman is probably the worst-directed film of the year. It's so noisy and busy and obnoxious, you can barely even get a grip on what the hell is going on. The camera whirls around, up and down, never stationary, never giving you a good view of anything, as if Pitof's trying to win some award for making everyone in the theater nauseated.

Oh, wait, he is winning an award!


Alien Vs. Predator
Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid
Around the World in 80 Days
Exorcist: The Beginning
Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

I'll post my review of AVP soon. Short version: it's horrible, a waste of both franchises.


Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2
Surviving Christmas
White Chicks

White Chicks, all the way. From its tortured premise to its total lack of jokes to its complete reliance of cheesy stereotypes and dumb cliches, White Chicks is the least inspired comedy in a long long while. Horrible from beginning to end.

Who Rigs Every Oscar Night?

UPDATE: I had to update this article. I will be doing this with the Top Films of 2004 soon as well. Basically, I've seen an additional movie since this time, Ray, which is completely awful, and I would be remiss if I did not amend my previous statements to reflect this fact. You may now continue with your regularly scheduled article-reading:

We do....Weeeeee doooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Ahem, sorry. I couldn't help myself.

As you probably have heard from some reputable, timely news source by now, the 2005 Oscar Nominations were announced early early early in the wee hours of this morning. And I'm going to tell you what I think, goddammit, whether you want to hear it or not.

I'll run down all the major nominations, and maybe even pick a few winners, though lots can change between now and when the final ballots are mailed in. I must admit, I've had wicked good ability in the past to pick Oscar winners...I guess I just know how aging, soulless Hollywood insiders think.

For a complete rundown of all nominations, check the Yahoo page here.


The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Million Dollar Baby

Okay, I haven't seen Ray. I doubt it's the year's best movie, but I'll be officially ignorant of that in all nominated categories. Wanted to let you know that right-off. It's nothing personal against Ray Charles or Jamie Foxx. I like some of Charles' music (particularly his note-perfect cover of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," every bit the equal of the original recording). It's just that I have a strong feeling I won't like this traditional-style bio-pic...I almost never like these broad, paint-by-the-numbers Lives of Great Men movies...

[Ray is one of the worst films of the year. Jamie Foxx is not the problem, but his performance is limited. There aren't really any scenes more than a few minutes long. He doesn't have time to develop a sustainable character, and the narrative is so choppy and unfocused, there's little he can do to prevent the movie from spiraling completely out of control. He was better in Collateral, and should be nominated in this category for that work and not in Supporting Actor. He will likely win, which is fine with me, so long as the film receives no other honors, because it is really horribly bad.]

Anyway, of course it sucks that my favorite film of the year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wasn't nominated, but I wasn't expecting that anyway. And my #3 (Sideways) and #4 (Aviator) both made the cut. So it's not all bad.

Finding Neverland getting all of these accolades is a total joke. That movie is hacky with a capital H, a blatant attempt to wring some sadness out of you by playing on the oldest, most dreary stereotypes imaginable - a man who appreciates the wonderment of children, a droopy-eyed boy without a father, a parent dying of Movie Wasting Away And Coughing Disease. Aren't people sick of being manipulated so crassly and without purpose? I guess not.

I predict: It's between Aviator and Million Dollar Baby. Too close to call right now, but I'll go with Aviator because it has more nominations and because Scorsese's overdue for a night of accolades.


Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Taylor Hackford, Ray
Alexander Payne, Sideways
Mike Leigh, Vera Drake

Haven't seen Vera Drake. I'd really like to, but I think I'll have to wait until DVD, unless the studio wisely decides to do a re-release in light of the nominations.

Out of these, the obvious choice is Scorsese. I loved Sideways, but it was the writing and performances that really drove it home for me. In fact, I kind of found the washed-out cinematography unpleasant after a while. A finely-tuned, well-directed film, but not the sort of virtuoso production Scorsese's been mounting for years now.

I'll predict Scorsese to take it.

[Taylor Hackford's nomination in this category is unthinkable. Directors like Michel Gondry, Quentin Tarantino, Brad Bird, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann and Richard Linklater all did award-worthy work. And, let's face it, some of those guy are due for some love. And Hackford's direction is the worst thing about Ray, which is a movie that has a lot of things wrong with it. It's like honoring a 747 for its contribution to the World Trade Center.]

[Too soon? Seemed funny to me.]


Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Jamie Foxx, Ray

You think Jamie Foxx feels silly now about adopting that stage name? I mean, when he started going by Jamie Foxx, he was a ribald comedian on the Def Comedy circuit. Now that he's Hollywood's favorite leading man, headlining films with Tom Cruise and topping everyone's list of predictions for Best Actor, it's unfortunate he didn't go for something a bit more dignified.

Oh well...this is clearly his year, and though I haven't seen the film, I don't doubt it's a great performance. He certainly seems to have captured the mannerisms and style of Charles in the clips I've seen.

[It's a good performance, but again, this isn't Foxx's fault. He did capture the mannerisms and style, particularly in terms of the physicality. I preferred the DiCaprio performance in The Aviator, and of course, the unnominated Paul Giamatti's work in Sideways.]

But, ahem, Depp for Finding Neverland? I'm a big fan of JD, but why does he only get attention from award committees when he stars in total shit? Like this or Chocolat?


Alan Alda, The Aviator
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Jamie Foxx, Collateral
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
Clive Owen, Closer

Clive Owen's performance in Closer ranks among the year's best. I've been into his work since Croupier, and he just keeps getting better. (The little-seen and highly creepy I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, also from last year, similarly featured an intense turn from Owen).

He'd be my pick. Although Haden Church puts up a strong argument for his hilarious sleazebag groom-to-be in Sideways.

It's odd, by the way, that Jamie Foxx is nominated here for Collateral, when clearly he's the lead in that film. It's his character's story - Tom Cruise merely comes in and out of the action to inspire Foxx's Max to action. Foxx was great in Michael Mann's movie (which I liked considerably more than some of this year's Best Picture nominees), but he likely won't win here because voters are anticipating his Best Actor win.


Annette Bening, Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

So, this is the category where Eternal Sunshine will finally get its recognition? Lead Actress? I'm not gonna complain, and Kate Winslet's great in the movie, but it's really Michel Gondry and Jim Carrey's movie. Oh well, nice to see it get some nominations and attention, considering it opened back in February.

But my preference would be Moreno for Maria Full of Grace. Great, small debut film with a tremendous central performance from this young unknown. She's so abosorbing in the film - her character could be just a victim of the system, but she comes across as an earthy, likable girl with a charming personality, facing insurmountable odds during her strange journey to America.

And have you noticed something odd? Million Dollar Baby has been nominated in every single category I've discussed so far. Did Clint Eastwood put his pheremones in the LA Drinking Water or something? How does he do this year after year? I mean, it's a good movie, I liked it, but come on! It's essentially a formula boxing film. A well-made one, sure, but 2004 had some real challenging, daring cinema. Movies with ideas, like I Heart Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine and Closer and Before Sunset. Why monopolize all the major categories every time Clint Eastwood makes a genre film with good actors?


Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
Natalie Portman, Closer

Last year, the nominees were Renee Zellweger, Marcia Gay Harden, Patricia Clarkson, Holly Hunter and Shohreh Aghdashloo, for House of Sand and Fog. This year, the nominees are Cate Blanchett, Laura Linney, Virginia Madsen, Natalie Portman and...Sophie Okonedo, for Hotel Rwanda.

Sensing a trend?

Let's go one more year back...In 2003, the nominees were Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kathy Bates, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and...wait for it...Queen Latifah, nominated for Chicago. (She lost to her castmate, Zeta-Jones).

Okay, so, they always nominate four white ladies and one minority. And the minority, um, how shall I put this, doesn't ever win. So, sorry, Sophie, but I wouldn't spend too much time on that acceptance speech.

I'd go with Natalie Portman, were I voting, although all the other nominees were good. This is kind of a hard category to call, but I think Virginia Madsen will likely win for Sideways. The Academy always likes a good comeback story.


John Logan, The Aviator
Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Keir Pearson & Terry George, Hotel Rwanda
Brad Bird, The Incredibles
Mike Leigh, Vera Drake

Again, haven't seen two of these five nominees, so it's hard to talk about who should win in any substantive way. But it's nice to see The Incredibles get at least one major nomination. It's almost assured a win in the Animated category, but this is its only other shot.

My vote would, of course, go to Kaufman, Gondry and Bismuth for Eternal Sunshine. They have a good chance, I'd say. There's a long history of the screenplay categories going to smaller films that hit it big with selected audiences (think Usual Suspects).


Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Kim Krizan, Before Sunset
Jose Rivera, The Motorcycle Diaries
David Magee, Finding Neverland
Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby
Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, Sideways

For me, this one's a two-way race - Before Sunset vs. Sideways. It's a tough contest. I might give Sideways the heads-up, if only because so much of Before Sunset was improv, it's hard to think of it as a screenplay-based film at all. (That's why co-stars Delpy and Hawke are credited as co-writers). But, then again, I'd really like to see Sunset win something, if only to see Linklater get to take the stage at the Oscars (after his brilliant Waking Life failed to even earn a nomination in the Best Animation category...Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was nominated that year instead! An outrage!)

And I don't even need to say that David Magee's numbingly simplistic, formula retread Finding Neverland has no business in such auspicious company. Will he feel embarrassed to hear his name called amongst the nominees on Oscar night? He should.


As It Is in Heaven - Sweden
The Chorus - France
Downfall - Germany
The Sea Inside - Spain
Yesterday - South Africa

Many people are very upset to see that House of Flying Daggers failed to earn a nomination here. I have not seen that film, or any of these, so I'm totally ignorant here on the issue.

I'm just upset that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring failed to earn a nomination. That movie was friggin' brilliant.


The Incredibles
Shark Tale
Shrek 2

This is bullshit. I mean, obviously The Incredibles will win and should win. It's genius. But Shark Tale doesn't deserve an Oscar nomination! Come on, people! Neither does Shrek 2. It was watchable, but that's it.

It sucks that this category was created to open the Oscars up to less conventional "great, important films," but has just become a roll-call of all the big studio CG-animated films in any given year.

Surely there are anime films that deserve recognition on a mass level, right? What about Ghost in the Shell 2? That doesn't count for anything?

And that's without even discussing whether Sky Captain deserved a nomination in this category. That whole movie was animated except for the human actors, right? We don't consider I, Robot an animated film just because one of the main characters is animated...why doesn't that work both ways?


Robert Richardson, The Aviator
Caleb Deschanel, The Passion of the Christ
John Mathieson, The Phantom of the Opera
Zhao Xiaoding, House of Flying Daggers
Bruno Delbonnel, A Very Long Engagement

Haven't seen Very Long Engagement still, and it's killing me.

I called that Passion would get this nomination. They'd get way too much flack if they let the year pass without honoring the year's most popular and one of its most successful films. Plus, it was a pretty well-shot film. Nothing in it was particularly worth shooting, but the shooting that was done came out nice.

I'd choose Richardson, though he should have been nominated for his fantastic work in Kill Bill V. 2 rather than his similarly fantastic work in The Aviator. What a year this guy's had.

[I change my vote. Very Long Engagement was the best-looking live-action film this year, hands down. Bruno Delbonnel's work in this film is staggeringly beautiful.]


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
I, Robot
Spider-Man 2

Bullshit bullshit.

Harry Potter had some of the best effects work of 2004. I loved the look of that movie, and if it wins, I'll feel alright about things.

But no nomination for Sky Captain in this category is the ultimate smack in the face. That movie was the definition of ground-breaking. It's THE BEST effects film of the year BY FAR. I get that some people didn't like its antiquated style, clipped dialogue and silly gags. But you can't really fade the way the movie looks. It's a stunning visual achievement, and I, Robot doesn't hold a candle.

I liked the effects in Spidey as well, by the way, but not nearly as much as Sky Captain. Or Eternal Sunshine, which has the kind of subtle visual trickery that's never noticed in this category.

A Day in the Life

My life has grown dull. Not that it hasn't been dull all along. But it has grown dull in a new way. In a non-blogworthy way. So, you'll forgive me if I'm stretching it a bit with this post. But I've had two strange encounters with two Los Angelinos in the last two days, and I figured, since nothing else of note seems to be happening to me lately, I might as well report on that.

The first incident occured the other day at Laser Blazer. A man, whose name I could provide you, because I remember it, came into the store and purchased a copy of the venerable James Bond favorite Diamonds are Forever. This is not what I'd call first-tier Bond, but it has Connery, so it's better than most.

And about one minute (actually, less than one minute) after the transaction was completed, The Customer (Mr......No, I can't...That would be wrong...But his first name rhymes with "wan") asked if he could return it. Which normally would be fine.

But here's the thing. He said that he wanted to buy the movie, but that he owned a copy of Hero that he wanted to bring into the store and exchange.

But he didn't have a copy of Hero with him. In fact, he had nothing with him. Except the copy of Diamonds are Forever, which he now said he didn't want, even though he actually did want it. We kept going on like this for about 20 minutes.

Here's my theory: We don't offer cash back for returns, only store credit. So, he couldn't just get his money back for Diamonds are Forever, he could only get credit to pick out another DVD. But what he really had wanted to do, and just forgot or something, was to return Hero and use the credit from that movie to buy Diamonds are Forever. But of course, he couldn't do that, because he hadn't brought Hero to the store. And he'd already bought Diamonds are Forever.

It's retarded and confusing, and the guy was very insistant that what he wanted made sense and that he was not an idiot. But, like in so many other areas of life, I'm sure, he discovered that he was wrong.

Okay, on to the second odd incident that made me reflect on the relative craziness of my fellow citizens here in the Wasteland.

I'm parallel parking today after work. As I begin to back my car up, a maroon Volvo behind me, coming up the street, begins honking at me. Soon, the honking becomes more adamant. I make the international symbol for "go around me, jagoff" by waving my arm out the window, but the Volvo continues sitting motionless and honking.

So, I turn to see what they want, and there's a woman in the car loudly yelling at me.

But I'm in a car and she's in a car and there's other traffic and I can't hear a goddamn word she's saying. So, I park. And then she pulls up next to me (blocking traffic in one direction, mind you).

"You just hit that other car!" she yells at me, while gesturing to the white Toyota behind me.

"No, I didn't...I just backed up...You started honking before I had even parked," I responded, reasonably.

"I saw you! You just hit that car!"

Now, folks, I have no reason to lie. If I had slammed into a car tonight and tried to get away with it, I would fess up to you good people. Or, more realistically, I would not have brought this up as a blog item at all, content to review some obscure Japanese movie or regale you with just the one anecdote about the crazy guy trying to return a movie he hadn't brought with him.

But I hadn't slammed into a car, or even love-tapped another car, as is my right as a parallel parker in Los Angeles.

Eventually, due to the honks of I would estimate 500,000 other motorists, the crazy Volvo lady moved on, possibly to harrass some other guy in some other car across town. In any case, I suspect she's due back at Hogwarts soon for the start of the Spring Semester, so let's hope I don't run afoul of her again in the near future.

So, that's about the most interesting stuff that's happened to me in the past few days. Oh, and I mooched some money off of my parents. And I watched Radio with Cuba Gooding Jr. with my roommates. It's unimaginably offensive to both the viewer and retarded people in general.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Eel

The guys at the video store assured me this movie was not to be missed. I have never seen a film by Japanese director Shohei Imamura, but he's well-known in Asia and respected around the world. I was going to check out another well-regarded film of his, The Pornographers, but my fellow clerks insited upon me that this was really the primo Imamura selection.

And I took their word on it. After all, the last employee selection I went with, Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels was terrific. These rentals are also free, after all.

Although I should note these guys argue fervently for the Matrix sequels and Star Wars prequels, so we may not see eye-to-eye on everything movie-wise.

And while I admire much about The Eel, and remained interested in the movie for its full 2 hour running time, I doubt I'd eagerly recommend it to anyone. I watched it several hours ago and am still not sure how to take it. One thing I know is that it's certainly not the complete success advertised to me by zealous Laser Blazer attendants.

But it's not just my co-workers who were taken with The Eel. The film beat out favorite LA Confidential to win the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1997. Not to mention winning a slew of Japanese Academy Awards.

And there is a lot to like in this strange, twisting story. A Japanese businessman named Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) receives a series of letters from a mysterious stranger, informing him that his wife has been cheating on him during his late-night fishing trips. So, one night, he cuts his fishing trip short and returns home early, sure enough finding his wife in the throes of passion with another man.

So, he does what anyone would do, and brutally murders them both with a butcher knife. The scene is surprisingly gruesome, and makes use of the same blood-spattering-on-the-camera technique that made the shootouts in Fallen Angels so immediate and affecting.

So, Yamashita turns himself into the police and goes to jail for 8 years. Upon his release, he leaves with nothing but the clothes on his back, the aid of a kindly old reverend and a pet eel in a plastic bag. He took the eel as a pet, he says, because it listens to him talk and doesn't talk back.

And from here on out, the movie basically becomes a romantic comedy. Which is weird, because the opening placed it, for me, in Hitchcock territory. Yamashita sets up a barber shop in a small fishing village (he learned to cut hair in the joint). Just as he's getting settled, he stumbles upon a girl, Keiko (Misa Shimizu), who has taken too many sleeping pills in an attempt to commit suicide. He saves her life and the two form an uneasy partnership, with Keiko helping Yamashita to run his barber shop and gradually becoming a part of his life.

All of this material is handled a bit languidly for Western tastes, but with the utmost concern for subtlety and character development. We slowly get to know the personalities of the village's residents, from the wacky delusional who waits to be contacted by aliens to the kindly fisherman who teaches Yamashita how to catch eels with a spear, to the creepy fellow ex-con who jealously reveals Yamashita's secrets to everyone.

Both Yakusho and Shimizu, as well, do a nice job of convincing us that these very different characters could find a way to relate to one another. Their performances are quiet and mellow, but heavily syncopated to one another. We get a sense early on, through body language more than dialogue, of how these two fit together into a domestic partnership. There aren't really romantic sparks between the two actors, but there is a clear sense of mutual appreciation and understanding. Just as Yamashita talks to his eel to avoid having to communicate with those around them, so too has Keiko shut herself off from humanity following an abusive relationship with the vile Dojima.

After the film has spent an hour easing the audience into the laid-back calm of Japanese country life, Imamura kick-starts his over-busy plot again, inventing a silly side-plot about embezzlement from Keiko's insane mother and intrigue involving her ex-boyfriend. And everything culminates in a series of slap-dash, poorly choreographed fight scenes which are played for laughs but fail to deliver on just about any level. And the film ends with a bizarre scene that seems to contradict all that has come before.

The Eel was an intensely frustrating film to watch. So much of it is carried off tremendously well. Despite their obvious quirks and the convenience of many of the characters in this village, I came to care for many of the people and enjoy watching a slice-of-life film about a community so foreign to my own. But the constant churning of Imamura's plot, and his insistance on switching genre and tone so rapidly, repeatedly refuse any attempt to actively engage his audience.

A prime example is the motif of Yamashita's eel. Upon his initial release from prison, the eel is his most valued possession and best friend. He speaks to it more than he speaks to anyone else, and spends most of his first day out of prison attempting to find it a comfortable bucket of water in which to rest. But soon after, the eel is practically forgotten about, a prop in the back of the barber shop until it is called into use again during the film's final moments. We never get a sense of what exact significance the eel had for Yamashita, whether he genuinely heard the eel responding to him or whether he merely liked to pretend. What we do get is a well-written but ultimately meaningless monologue about how eels migrate thousands of miles from Japan to spawn, only to have their offspring migrate all the way back.

I think the idea here is that, like migrating eels, human beings take paths in life that lead to all sorts of unpredictable destinations and outcomes. And despite where we have been before or what we have done, everyone deserves to have a chance to improve their lot, to be loved, and to prosper somewhere else, even if it's just a patch of mud in some other country.

And this is why the final scene, that seems to pessimistically imply that we all must deal with the life we are given, contradicts so much of what has come before.

So, The Eel is a confused and confusing effort. I'm surprised it was such a smashing success at Cannes, and not at all surprised it did not find an international following after its initial release. I will definitely rent The Pornographers next, if only because I appreciated so much of the style and honesty of Imamura's film, but I was definitely disappointed by this rather middling effort.

Johnny Carson, The Only Entertainer Greater Than Krusty The Clown, Dead at 79

I figured I wrote a short obit when Susan Sontag passed, so it would be improper of me not to honor the memory of Johnny Carson, whose peaceful death at 79 paves the way for Conan O'Brien's official coronation as the New King of Late Night.

I remember Carson's days on The Tonight Show vaguely, as I was only 13 when he left the show in 1992. For me, watching Carson was one of those rare, exotic late-night pleasures that you rarely enjoyed, this odd old guy with a desk chatting with movie stars when everybody ought to be sleeping.

I worked on some of the old Tonight Show episodes at me previous job at the subtitle factory. It was the usual late-night tomfoolery. Carson with a monkey spazzing out on his head. Carson talking to some woman when he flubs what he's saying and cracks up. Carson with that bizarre swami hat on.

But these goofball antics can make you overlook the tremendous impact Carson's "Tonight Show" had on American comedy. In Jerry Seinfeld's documentary Comedian, he discusses how an appearance on Carson's show was how a comedian knew he (or she) had truly arrived. And if Carson actually asked you to sit down with him and do an interview after a set (as he did with Seinfeld), it was like the Holy Grail of television comedy.

So, even though we hadn't seen much of him publicly in the past decade, Carson's spirit will be missed. I'm sure we're in for some lame televised tribute in the near future. And then get ready for the onslaught of "Classic Tonight Show Moments" on DVD and elsewhere. In our crass society, death is just another excuse to move some units. And that, my friends, is weird, wild stuff.

But Is It Art?

Kind of a weird story from Yahoo tonight. I only clicked on it because the headline referenced two tenured UCLA professors resigning, and I matriculated at UCLA, so I thought there was a possibility I knew or had heard about the professors.

I hadn't.

But the story was interesting anyhow. Even though I feel like vital information is missing from this initial article.

It goes something like this. An unnamed student in a performance art class did a brief presentation wherein he pointed what appeared to be a loaded gun at his head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. But then the student left the room, and a sound effect of a gun going off was played.

Okay, so that's the story. It's maybe not the most brilliant, moving piece of performance art ever created. But then, they are just students, right? That's why you go to college to study these things, is it not? I mean, was, um, uh...someone who's famous for performance art...did they come up with something amazing on their first day? Probably not!

So, the school refused to suspend the student, claiming that there isn't enough evidence of wrong-doing to hold him accountable. And so two teachers resigned in retaliation, saying that they feel this incident amounts to "domestic terrorism."

And this is why I feel like there must be something more to the story. Would two teachers, two performance artists in their own right, really care so much about suspending a student, possibly ruining his future chances of becoming an artist, just because of some bad project he'd been working on? I mean, maybe the idea was a bit misguided. The teachers are saying that the audience felt "genuine fear" during the performance.

But, I mean, they knew they were seeing a piece of performance art, didn't they? If it was so convincing that they felt genuinely afraid, doesn't that sort of mean the guy did a good job? And nothing bad happened. They can't even prove the guy had a real gun! So, what's the big fucking deal?

I don't know...there's something else going on here, and I plan to find out what it is. No, that's a lie, I have no intention of finding anything else out about this story, unless they run it on the front page of Yahoo, or some other place on the Net I look all the time when I'm bored and looking for things to blog about.

YOKO ONO! That's someone who's famous for performance art! Yes!!!!