Saturday, April 02, 2005

Pat Buchanan Sprayed With Ranch Dressing

I was going to think of a better, more wordplay-esque headline, but in this case, nothing is quite as amusing as the truth. Check out this video of Pat Buchanan having ranch dressing thrown in his face by an unnamed assailant during a Q&A session at Western Michigan University.

Ha ha! A dip being hosed down with dip! It's like a visual pun.

According to this article on the incident, the protester yelled "Stop the bigotry" before splashing an entire bottle of dressing in Buchanan's face.

After he was hit, Buchanan cut short his question-and-answer session with the audience, saying,

"Thank you all for coming, but I'm going to have to get my hair washed.'' The demonstrator, identified by authorities as a 24-year-old student at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, was arrested and faces a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace. He was released on a $100 cash bond, pending his April 14 arraignment.

"He could have faced a felony assault charge, but Pat Buchanan decided to not press that charge,'' university spokesman Matt Kurz said.

Okay, so, we're more than halfway through that news article, and there has been nothing about why the man might have actually thrown dressing at Buchanan. The only point they've made so far is that Buchanan was a good guy for not pressing charges.

But check this out:

Buchanan's visit had evoked controversy on campus because it fell on the birthday of the late Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez. Buchanan favors tighter controls on immigration.

Well, I'm not saying that it's neccessarily a complaint worthy of splashing ranch dressing on someone, although I do think it's terribly amusing. I'm just saying that this protester may not have just been some lunatic looking for attention. He might genuinely be trying to bring attention to a worthy cause, misguided though he may be.

But now here's my favorite part - insane conservative whackjob Michelle Malkin on why I'm a bad person for finding a clip of PB coated in Ranch funny:

The assailant doused Buchanan's face completely with salad dressing. He screamed, "Stop the bigotry!"before charging within inches of Buchanan and nearly hitting him in the head with the bottle as well.

If you think this is funny, you are sick. This is madness and it is chilling.

I've give Michelle this...She doesn't beat around the bush. No explanation, no warning...If you think a public official being embarrassed by having ranch dressing thrown at them is in any way amusing, you're sick. Case closed.

Well I am not sick. Pat Buchanan was not hurt, he was fine. He even joked around right after the incident, saying he had to get his hair washed.

And I have no idea where she's getting that "nearly hitting him in the head with the bottle" line. I watched the video, and the bottle comes somewhat near his head, but it's clear the guy isn't trying to actually assault Buchanan in any way. The doesn't even touch him. Yeah, maybe it's uncivil and inappropriate, but Patrick Buchanan is a rather outspoken racist and elitist, so you've got to expect a little friction when you appear in public at a university.

These unhinged moonbats have more thoroughly exposed the great myth of liberal tolerance than any conservative critic could. For that, I suppose we should be grateful.

It is time, however, for the Left to get a grip. Get back on your meds. In the end, you are only harming yourselves.

Okay, fine, whatever. This is just more conservative blather that we can safely ignore. I just wanted to point out that these sorts of comical attacks on conservatives are funny, but in the end, they do more harm than good. Morons who read and believe Michelle Malkin constantly conflate young, outspoken, radical leftists with other, more moderate liberals. Now they get to argue that "The Left" is out of control and attacking people. It just fuels the propaganda machine.


It's no fun for me to trash James Brooks. The guy produces my favorite show of all time, "The Simpsons." He was a major creative force behind what I feel is the most significant television show of our time. So, you know, I like the guy. I think he's made some good movies. And I think he's probably a well-intentioned sort who wants to entertain people and make them think at the same time. Admirable. But his much-lauded As Good As It Gets sucked, and his significantly less-lauded 2004 release Spanglish sucks even harder.

It gives me no pleasure to bash the man. I'm just calling it as I see it.

When you hear the premise, you can tell Spanglish will be a tough film to pull off. It's a comedy-drama about the cultural and social collision that occurs when a recent Mexican immigrant and her daughter move in with an upper-class and dysfunctional white family in Los Angeles. Certainly, there is a lot to say on this topic from both perspectives. These are the situations that go on in Los Angeles and other American cities every single day, and it's about time a mainstream filmmaker tried to tackle the issue of Mexican-American social relations.

But James Brooks just isn't the right guy. A story like this requires both compassion and removal. You need to be able to see the perspective of both sides, but with a discerning, cynical eye. And Brooks is just too compassionate a filmmaker. He falls in love with all his lead characters, and winds up making them too cuddly for their own good.

Think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. At the start of the film, he's supposed to be a monster. A nebbishly loner with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a mysogynist, a homophobe, a racist and a hater of animals. The whole purpose of the film is to show his transformation into a sensitive romantic. But Brooks just doesn't have it in him to really make the Nicholson character mean. He makes him a bit rude. Slightly malevolent but not evil. And he renders the real disease OCD so feebly, it seems more like an eccentric tick than a potentially crippling psychological disorder.

This goes back to a lack of subtlety that likewise doesn't serve Spanglish well. It's a film that cares about entertainment above observation. Rather than realistically render his scenario, to give us people with whom we can relate and come to learn from, he sketches caricatures and sets them against one another. It's an ultimately shallow exercize.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I should at least tell you what happens in the film. Right away, things get off on the wrong foot as we hear a voice-over from a girl named Christina, relating the story of her mother in a college admissions essay.

I'd like to state for the record that I have no problem with voice-overs in movies. In fact, I like them. Many films use voice-over narration to great effect, including this weekend's thrilling Sin City. But what I don't like is over-explained voice-overs. Writers who feel that they must use a voice-over to bookend a story. These are almost always cheesy, overcooked and overlong prologues and epilogues that do nothing to enhance the overall film.

Take The Green Mile, for example. That movie would be a lot better if we didn't have to bounce around in time to meet the Tom Hanks character as an old man. The movie's so long anyway, and all the best material is reserved for the flashback. Why include it at all?

Why not just never bother to explain the voice-over? A character is telling us a story. Fine. Done. It's a movie, so we'll accept that. Double Indemnity is narrated by a character who's dead before the movie begins, and no one ever questioned that. And that movie's a classic.

And having Christina (played in the film by Shelbie Bruce) narrate the story barely makes sense, considering she's not really involved in 80% of the action. Not to mention that the story she tells is hardly appropriate admissions essay material, and doesn't have a bit to do with her interests, motivation, drive or scholarship.

You get the idea. Anyway, Christina relates the story of how she and her mother Flor (Paz Vega) immigrated to America and eventually found their way to the home of the Claskys. John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is a world-renowned chef running his own LA restaurant. He's married to Deborah (Tea Leoni), who is the most insane, neurotic, evil woman on the planet Earth.


Once again, Brooks proves he has no sense of subtlety whatsoever. Eventually, the film will develop a restrained romance between John and Flor, and the rivalry between Flor and Deborah is the conflict that drives most of the story, so I suppose Brooks felt he had to make her somewhat unlikable. But did he really have to go so far?

This is clearly not Leoni's fault. She's actually kind of magnificent in the role, clearly not holding anything back. But the stuff of social satire this is not. This is like some BBC sitcom about a normal, likable guy who starts a family with a beautiful yet psychotic woman. In fact, if their name in the show was Pew or Hew or something like that, you could call it "Taming of the Pews."

Oh, wait, I forgot Cloris Leachman, who plays Deborah's alcoholic ex-jazz singer mother! Only she's not really an alcoholic, because she's an old lady with no discernable health problems who can stop drinking whenever she likes. So it's another Brooksian adorable disease like Debra Winger's in Terms of Endearment or Jack Nicholson's OCD in As Good As It Gets.

So, you see where I'm going with this. Eventually, Deborah and Flor discover their massive shared cultural differences, particularly as concerns raising children. I'm not sure what Brooks was trying to say here exactly. I think the idea is that people shouldn't interfere with other people's children, which is a fine message, I suppose.

The movie takes a very odd turn in its final third, however. I don't want to give anything away, but...

John and Flor develop a mutual attraction and...

Eventually, Deborah tries to get Christina into a good private school with her own daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele...more on her in a bit...), and Flor gets very angry.

This strikes me as very odd, and a bit condescending, particularly from a white male writer/director. Brooks seems to argue that Flor's pride prevents her from wanting the best for her child. On Christina's first day of school, she's excitedly getting on the school bus, and Flor, after giving a meek wave, stomps away, pouting. She's angry; Deborah's exerting too much influence over her child.

But would most Latina women really let something like pride keep their child from getting the best education possible? I don't know...maybe Brooks does. I can't say I know what most Mexican mothers would do when faced with this decision, but my gut tells me all moms want what is best for their kids. Though inside she may not like it, Flor would likely do what's best for Christina, which would probably be to let her go to the best school she can.

But for Brooks to make this position so forcefully and clearly, to state without doubt that it is the superior position for a proud mother to raise her child in poverty if that means maintaining cultural heritage and dignity, oversteps his bounds as a middle-aged white guy.

Also, the John-Flor romance seems a bit of a liberal white guy fantasy. A rich white guy has a beautiful Latina come into his home, take care of his kids and clean for him, and while she's doing his laundry, she falls in love with him. Puh-leeze. Has this ever happened? Maybe...but I'm not convinced. And, sure, John seems like a pretty cool guy. In arguably the best scene in the movie, he makes a delicious-looking egg and tomato sandwich.

But the entire thing just rings false. Brooks wants to have it both ways. He wants Flor to represent the proud Mexican culture that doesn't need the charity or pity of white Americans, but only a fair opportunity to rise up and succeed on their own. But he also wants her to go all soft when a white guy takes care of her and treats her right.

And he also wants to sugarcoat the hard details of his story. Remember, Brooks is both a writer/director. He's the one that chose to tell the story of a single mom who shuttles her child into America searching for a better life. So why not tell the immigrant story truthfully? Instead, we get a cutesy sequence, played for laughs, in which Flor hurries Christina across the border. Why not show the poverty in which Flor and Christina lived accurately? Instead, we get a dream-like sequence in which Christina describes how perfect and happy their lives were prior to meeting the Claskys?

Because children having to cross the border illegally and live in poverty just doesn't play. It's not funny and entertaining. There's no opportunity for snappy one-liners and over-the-top sketch-comedy charicterizations. So Brooks skips it, and gets to the part where the girl walks into the closed sliding door and bonks her head (yeah, seriously, he trots that one out...)

That's lazy and insulting. If you want to make that movie, go for it, but don't pretend it's social commentary. Don't tackle real-world issues in such a flippant, mindless manner. Leave that to the professionals, please.

Okay, one final note. There's an abandoned subplot here about Bernice, the Clasky's daughter, who has something of a weight problem. Deborah, in full-on harpy mode, purposefully buys her new clothes that are too small, so she can "grow into them." I thought for a while that Brooks might have something ambitious in mind for this subplot. Maybe he really had something to say about the recent American panic over obesity, or about how we teach kids nutrition. But he's just using this as a way to bring Flor and Deborah into conflict, it's just plot fodder, and we never return to this subject.

IMDB as well tells me that Sarah Steele, the high school student who makes her film debut with Spanglish, gained 15 pounds in order to play the role of the chunky Bernice. How sick. Why not really hire an overweight girl to play the part of an overweight girl? Why get a thin girl and then make her get fat? Talented young actresses with a few extra pounds on them are probably desperate for work. And this guy force-feeds some waif?

Also, it can't be healthy for a girl at that age to cram on 15 pounds in a short period of time. Come on, Jim! I hope that tidbit isn't true...

Weight issues aside, Steele's good in the role. She's quite possibly my favorite character, the only one who truly feels like she might exist outside in an objective reality, outside of a James Brooks movie.

One more thing I failed to bring up...

Where are all the Mexican men? Sure, it's Flor and John's story, and it's about how they find themselves falling for one another, but surely Flor knows some Mexican men? She has a few female friends, and her daughter, but that's it. I can recall one single Mexican man in the entire movie, and he's a rather off-putting caricature, again played for non-existant laughs. A little guy in a wife beater working on his car whom Leoni asks to translate for Flor. Of course, he pauses halfway through to start hitting on her.

Wilting at Windmills

I got back not long ago from the desert. Palm Springs, to be precise. I'm not quite sure why we all went out there, as there isn't much to do in the desert that you can't do in Los Angeles, which has the added advantage of already being where I live.

My high school friend Dave is getting married in May, you see, to (I'm told) a lovely young woman named Jen. They live in Pittsburgh, so I will regrettably be unable to attend the wedding. Oh, I'd like to, as I've never been to the wedding of a peer before, and I expect it would be a fascinating and highly bloggable experience. But I can no more afford a trip to Pittsburgh as I could a trip to Ganymede.

Oh, look it up.

So, anyway, I can't go to Pennsylvania, but Dave was good enough to fly out this weekend to visit some of his California friends for a sort-of weekend bachelor party. This is nice for me, I suppose, because none of my peers thus far have gotten married, so I've yet to experience a true bachelor party.

Okay, well, one of my friends did actually get married, but he eloped and didn't tell any of us until afterwards, so it doesn't count. This guy actually did assemble a "second wedding" for the benefit of those of us on the Left Coast, but no "second bachelor party." No bachelor party at all, from what I understand. This is clearly cheating. He's not even married any longer, but I still think we ought to just throw him an impromptu make-up bachelor party, just so we don't fall behind. Really, I just need more good excuses to go to a strip club.

But anyway, back to Palm Springs. We went out there for some reason, even though it was hot and we're all under 70 years of age, and none of us really golf to the best of my knowledge. It's about a 2 and a half hour drive due East. This is probably the dullest drive, scenery-wise, in all of Southern California. You can't really drive a few hours in Southern California without bumping into, merely by chance, some incredibly beautiful vista. Yeah, sure, most of the city of Los Angeles is a real garbage dump, even on the coast, but drive for a few hours and you'll get somewhere that looks like a postcard.

But when you drive East, you're mainly going through San Bernadino and Oxnard and Colton and other miserable little dirt pockets where the chief natural resource is leftover LA smog. Seriously, San Berdoo may be the least attractive city on the planet. I've seen dust bunnies with more lush greenery. And then you get to the big fields filled with half-working windmills, and then you get to Palm Springs.

When we got to the motel, I saw a weird brochure. It turns out, they actually run tours around the windmills! For real! I mean, you've already passed them on the road when you get to Palm Springs. Isn't that enough, really? Do we need to learn all about how the windmills work? Who cares? They work, kinda, but not too well, or we'd all be using them. That about does it for me.

I recall one trip to Las Vegas with my family where we took an afternoon to drive out to the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam is a very impressive thing to see. It's absolutely massive, and when you really think about the effort it must have taken nearly 100 years ago to construct something like that, it's difficult to even imagine. But you really really really really so don't need to go on that tour. I suspect even a structural engineer would have been bored on this tour. The building of a dam just isn't a tourist-friendly activity, I suppose, unless the crowd you're entertaining is a large group of beavers.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the motel. It smelt vaguely of bug spray. The lobby and the rooms. That's a real glass half empty-glass half full, optimist vs. pessimist kind of observation.

An optimist would say, "It's great that everything smells like bug spray. That must mean the hotel is very clean and and diligent about pest control!" A pessimist, such as myself, would (and did) say, "Why does the entire hotel smell like bug spray? What are they trying so desperately to get rid of?" I imagined a bizarre sighting in Room 237 that compelled the hotel manager to hose the entire place down with enough Raid to kill every insect from there to Indio.

As for the "party" itself, four of us went to see Sin City and then were joined by a fifth for drinks and dinner at the Yard House next to the theater. Two of the attendees, Dave and Chuck, were old friends of mine from my high school days whom I haven't spent a lot of time with since. They, however, have remained close throughout this past, well, decade.

And it has been almost a decade. Dave reminded me that our 10 year high school reunion will be held next year. (Class of '96, baby!) Yowza. This will not be a fun event for me to attend. I'll be meeting up with old classmates who have spouses, families, careers, money and significantly less acne, whereas all I have to show for the past decade are a few good screenplays and a quickly-receding hairline.

Anyway, it was strange to see my old friends who have stayed so close while I fell out of touch. We slipped surprisingly easily into our old conversation patterns, but it did feel different, especially when Dave would discuss his upcoming nuptials. That's a weird word, nuptials. I tend to avoid it as I'm always afraid I'm going to use it incorrectly.

Dave and I are on pretty much polar opposite paths. He's always been in a hurry to grow up. He graduated from UCLA early as an undergrad to move back to Orange County and start working. He was eager to get into the business world and start a career. Now, he's going to have a wife and a home and a suburban middle-class lifestyle at 26.

I, on the other hand, have been trying to regress as far back as possible. I was pretty miserable as a teenager, yet I try to duplicate as much about my teenage lifestyle as I can, right down to the contempt for authority and occasional failure to shower. I crave free time and hate structure. I live as cheaply as I can without finally caving and going on the collegiate all-Ramen diet. I can no more balance a checkbook than balance a coffee table on my head. I do my laundry about as frequently as the Vatican switches popes.

What...too soon? Do I have any Catholic readers? If so, please send hate mail to

My point is, though Dave and I still get along, it's clear that we're headed to very different places. Him to a comfortable family life in a nice suburb of Pittsburgh and me to Fatburger for some chili fries.

I don't really remember where I wanted to end up when I started writing this post. As you can probably imagine, it has been a while. Just wanted to let you all know where I've been, really. I imagine people thought it was strange that a day went by without 7 or 8 updates.

Oh! One more thing I wanted to talk about! Quoting from movies and TV! This is a habit that I have had all my life. When I see something funny in a movie or TV show, I tend to memorize it. Not intentionally, mind you. I don't stay up nights looking at myself in a mirror repeating old jokes from movies. Just thinking about that image kind of weirds me out.

No, I just remember them. Always have. I can't remember where I park my car most of the time, and I never remember to buy paper towels when I'm at the grocery store, but I can recall several entire films verbatim, and many comedy scenes and sketches, stand-up routines, even (and now I'm embarrassing myself) cartoons.

In middle school and high school, I would have whole conversations with people made up of quotes from "The Simpsons" or Spaceballs or Princess Bride or other highly quotable movies and shows. I've since stopped doing this (for the most part), because it's pretty lame, and because most of the people I spend time with now couldn't compete with me in this manner no matter how hard they tried. Except with The Big Lebowski, which basically everyone I know can recite word-for-word. It's just that good.

But when Chuck and I got together this weekend....WHAMMO! That guy has a steel-trap comic mind that kind of scared me a bit. Monty Python, "Family Guy," you name it, Chuck could come up with a conversation-appropriate sound bite. I hadn't even thought about this kind of behavior in many many years.

What could possibly be the psychological cause? Is it to fill empty conversational space that would otherwise be occupied by uncomfortable silence? I don't think so, as we actually had plenty of non-quoting things to talk about, and rarely had conversational lulls. Is it the fact that, long ago, we bonded over this material, so discussing it again satisfies some sort of need for nostalgia and authenticity? Maybe.

Or perhaps we're simply huge dorks.

Sin City

This was one of my most anticipated movies of 2005. I've never really gotten into the "Sin City" graphic novels by Frank Miller, but I'm a fan of the genre, the style and almost all of the actors. Plus the thing is directed by Robert Rodriguez, who has made a lot of fun if not spectacular films over the years, and guest directed by QT himself, Quentin Tarantino.

After the film, my friend Dave said it was not what he expected. I think it was what I expected times 10. Sin City lacks a lot: a sensible plot, character development, nuance and common decency. It's also the most fun film Rodriguez has ever made, a stunning feast for the eyes and the best adaptation of a graphic novel since Ghost World. It's not for everyone, but for people savvy and, well, nerdy enough to get it, it's complete aesthetic overload. Sin City is geek porn.

Three main interlocking stories unfold in Basin City, a noir fantasia made up entirely of criminals, dirty cops and other assorted underworld characters. In his comics, Frank Miller assembled a universe culled from years of pouring over pulp novels, hard-edged crime films and detective comics, and Rodriguez has used state-of-the-art technology to realize this world on screen.

Much has been made of the phenomenal effects work already, so I won't devote too much time to it, but Rodriguez has somehow found a way to perfectly translate the understated black-and-white sketch style of the "Sin City" comics into a moving images populated by real actors and sets without losing anything in the translation. Every shot of this film could be framed and hung on a wall (a comment made this weekend by a friend, as well, about the Coen Brothers masterpiece The Man Who Wasn't There).

Of particular note is the blend of black-and-white with color. Sin City ostensibly is a black-and-white film, but every once in a while, some aspect of a shot will be highlighted digitally with color. I can recall one other film that used this effect repeatedly, Gary Ross' cornpone allegory Pleasantville, but in that film it served mainly as a gimmick to move along a tired story. Here, Rodriguez perfectly makes use of the technique to highlight the drama, focus the eye and, well, to make the movie look unbelievably gorgeous.

In one scene, a cop pulls over a nervous Dwight (Clive Owen), who's transporting the mutilated corpses of several gang members in his back seat and trunk. As the cop shines his flashlight in Dwight's face, it appears for a moment in brilliant technicolor, before the light is moved away and everything returns to black-and-white. And that's just one fine example out of dozens.

You may have noticed in that previous paragraph that Clive Owen spends a good deal of time driving around a car filled with mutilated corpses. If that sounds extreme, consider that he also has, in the passenger seat, the dead body of an undercover cop named Rafferty (Benicio del Toro, unrecognizable in heavy-duty make-up) with a broken-off chamber from his gun lodged in his forehead and his throat slit "like a Pez Dispenser." Finally, consider that Dwight and Rafferty only came into contact because of Rafferty's predilection for beating the snot out of his girlfriend, call girl Shellie (Brittany Murphy). (CORRECTION: I have just been informed in the Comments by pajamo that Brittany Murphy's character is in fact a bar maid and not a call girl. Sorry...the movie whizzes by so fast, I must have missed this detail.)

Yeah, the whole movie is like that. Most people will find it, I suspect, off-putting. The film doesn't just relate grisly, unpleasant stories. It revels in them, delights in recounting the specifics behind each dastardly, morbid act. This is a movie obsessed with dismemberment, torture, violence, hatred and cruelty. In one memorable scene, psychotic goon Marv (Mickey Rourke) hunts down and captures the mysterious serial killer (Elijah Wood) who murdered and then devoured his prostitute one-night-stand (Jaime King). Yes, Frodo eats people in this movie. The punishment meted out by the heartsick Marv could be the most outrageous ever featured in a mainstream studio film.

The sexuality of the film, as well, pushes the envelope. In addition to Carla Gugino performing nearly her entire role nude, every female cast member is asked to dress skimpily, gyrate provocatively and act like either a whore or just a slut. Most of the female protagonists are, in fact, strippers and prostitutes. This includes gang leader Gail (Rosario Dawson), Alexis Bledel of "Gilmore Girls" making an impressive film debut as hooker Becky, the aforementioned characters played by Brittany Murphy and Jaime King, and an extremely sexy turn by Jessica Alba as stripper Nancy Callahan.

This attitude towards women is at best juvenile, and at worst utterly offensive. But what can you say? It is what it is. Miller wrote an homage to the pulp fiction of a different era, and Rodriguez directed an homage to Miller's work, and all of it happens to look upon women as objects to be alternatingly oogled and derided.

Part of the appeal of Sin City for a fan like me is this sense of audacity. Violence, cruelty and kinky, dangerous sexuality are the themes that fill the pages of the comic book, and rather than translate this message into something even a touch more uplifting for the big screen would be cheating. That wouldn't be Frank Miller's Sin City, as this film is titled. It would be someone else's, a cheap copy of a daring, original work.

I suppose it's kind of unfair to argue that there's no redemptive side to Rodriguez's narrative whatsoever. Though they behave in crazed, maniacal and occasionally very sick methods, most of the "heroes" of these stories do fight for a higher purpose, generally the safety or honor of a kidnapped or murdered woman. Bruce Willis' Hartigan pays a lifetime of punishment for daring to rescue Nancy Callahan as an 11 year old. Owen's Dwight risks death at least a dozen times in the service of his girlfriend Gail. Even Rourke's seemingly irrideemable mad dog Marv kills for the memory a dead call girl.

These characters don't do what's right, they don't serve the law (except possibly Hartigan, but not really), but that doesn't mean they don't govern their behavior by some rules. What Sin City does is explore their world, their bizarre and possibly misguided sense of justice and morality, and it has a lot of outrageous fun while doing so.

This is the film Robert Rodriguez was born to make. His movies have always lived or died on their pure adrenaline rush. From his initial breakthroughs El Mariachi and it's American semi-remake Desperado, he's thrived on fast-cut, whirling action and gleefully amoral logical leaps. When he tries to fashion a film built around narrative, it's generally a disaster along the lines of The Faculty. Finally, he's found a project that really suits his abilities and interests, a nonstop cavalcade of carnage that cares way more about dismemberment than development. Not only is this his best film, but I kind of doubt he'll ever find material that suits him as well.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Panic in the Streets

After seeing Pickup on South Street last week, I wanted another Richard Widmark film. And this one's fresh out on DVD with a beautiful transfer. Plus, it's directed by Elia Kazan, famed helmer of classics like Streetcar Named Desire. I've actually seen this film once before, and was so-so on it, but after a recommendation from my movie nerd e-mail circle, I decided to bring it home.

Basically, my earlier appraisal was confirmed. There are very effective moments in Kazan's Panic in the Streets, and an overall mood of foreboding that I very much enjoy. Also, it includes a fabulously cold, mean-spirited performance by Jack Palance, even if he's woefully underused. But it's not really a movie that maintains my interest like the really classic noirs. All the ingredients are there, but it doesn't add up to the same impact as other films of the same genre and era.

In fact, that may be the problem right there...the films overstuffed and kind of undercooked. In the best noirs, no matter how scattered and complicated the plotting gets (and some of it gets very complicated in films like The Big Sleep, for example) there's always a central figure to focus in on, someone navigating the mystery so we the viewer can relax and enjoy ourselves.

Panic instead focuses on several storylines unfolding simultaneously, and though the ambition inherent in Kazan's approach is admirable, it's not really the most interesting way to tell this story. The film's central plot remains fairly straight-forward. The police find the body of an unidentified man dumped at the docks who has been infected with The Plague. They must find everyone who has come into contact with the man within 48 hours, before they can spread the infection to other people and start an epidemic.

Sounds like a set-up for a police procedural, really. In fact, it could be the exact plot of some "CSI" "Law and Order"-type show on prime time television. But Kazan chooses to jump back and forth between three different storylines. In the primary story, a government public health official (played by Widmark) and a cynical local cop (a flat Paul Douglas) bicker as they search for clues, first to the missing man's identity and second to the identities of the man or men who shot him.

In the secondary story, the hooligans who killed the foreigner following a poker game gone wrong (ably played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) search the city for the dead man's cousin, Poldi (Tommy Cook). They misunderstand the police interest in finding the killer's of a lowly immigrant, suspecting that he has brought something valuable into the country rather than hosting an infection.

I'd say this storyline works the best, and Kazan might have been well served by devoting more of the film's running time to Palance and Mostel. They make an exceedingly unlikable and yet fascinating twosome, with Palance's Blackie vascillating between simply evil and downright psychopathic. He makes a terrific villain, and gets almost all of the film's best lines. Mostel, as well, works as toady Raymond Fitch, who follows Blackie around like a dog and takes the brunt of his verbal abuse.

In one highly effective, almost difficult-to-watch scene, Blackie torments and taunts Fitch in front of the man's wife, with no real purpose aside from his friend and colleague's utter debasement and humiliation. That's way more interesting than the cop arguing with the health inspector.

And about Widmark's straight-laced Dr. Clinton Reed. He's the focus of the film's third and least engaging storyline, a predictable side plot about Reed's often difficult relationship with his loving wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes, best known to me as Midge in Alfred Hitchcock's immortal Vertigo). I honestly don't understand Kazan's decision-making here at all. He's got, on one hand, a massive municipal crisis. Every cop in New Orleans is out looking for Blackie, Blackie himself is scanning all the back alleys for a man he mistakenly thinks is holding out on him, and Kazan spends the bulk of the film's final half hour dissecting the government suit's marriage?

Maybe if the family drama here were really interesting, I could understand the decision to completely derail the entire "killer plague" storyline. But it's actually pretty rote - Reed learns that he should be more patient with his family, that their happiness is even more important to him than the safety and health of all the citizens for whom he's employed. Oh, and I think he learns something about controlling his temper and being less self-centered, but I'm not really sure. You see, he had to leave therapy for a few minutes to save the entire planet from The Plague!

You can spot the influence of Panic in the Streets in just about every subsequent disaster film. Take Armageddon, for example, another film that ties worldwide calamity to interpersonal conflict within one family. Or Volcano, which also features a plucky protagonist whose descriptions of tragedies destined to occur fall on deaf ears. Or The Perfect Storm, where two professionals who don't get along agree to make up and work together in order to get the job done. I could go on and on, but you get the message. I can't say if any of this speaks well for Panic on the Streets. I've grown tired of these kind of formula disaster films by now, as I expect most Americans have.

But you can't fault the original for that. In its time, Kazan's film was rather innovative. And as I mentioned before, the black and white cinematography is gorgeous, the dialogue really crackles on occasion, and there's enough solid performances and great little moments to make it worthwhile as a film. It's just not in the same category as the other noirs released recently by Fox (Laura and Call Northside 777), nor the other noirs and crime dramas I've reviewed lately (like Asphalt Jungle or Pickup on South Street). Those films are classics, this is merely effective entertainment.

Exceedingly Rough Drafts

I've written a screenplay entitled Funny Man. I don't like the name. At various times, I've called it Listening to Los Angeles, Brand New Love and even, believe it or don't, Crushed by Inertia. But all of those were too cumbersome or awkward (and the first two rejected titles are ripped off from a Soul Coughing song and a Sebadoh song, respectively).

But name aside, there are a few things about the script I like. It's the most personal thing I've ever written, and also the only thing I've composed thus far that I would say has even a remote chance of turning into a good movie. When I first began writing scripts, I lacked any ability to discern their quality. I found every word flowing out of my brain to be absolutely perfect. My first script was, by far, the most erudite, sensitive, bold piece of fiction ever transcribed since the dawn of language.

After a while, this trend reversed itself, and everything I wrote seemed to me the most odious non-literary garbage imaginable. I'd prefer watching Garden State in a continuous loop while having my nose hairs individually plucked out by Ann Coulter as she read to me from her latest manifesto entitled "Economics: Turning Mindless Rhetoric Into a Publishing Empire."

I've settled now into something of a comfortable middle ground. I can read my own work, realize that it's complete and utter shit, and revise it until it somewhat less resembles shit. I've never actually written anything that I feel strongly positive about, but then again, I've been writing screenplays for less than a decade, and it takes time to get really good at something so nuanced and complex.

You know what expression/bad old joke I dislike? That saying "what I really want to do is direct..." Is that a quote from some actual film, or it is just some old saw handed down through the generations, implying that everyone working on movies secretly harbors a desire to control the entire undertaking.

I bring it up because it appears I may be turning over Funny Man to an actual director, who may want to make it into an actual movie. Actually.

Now, of course, this is LA and nothing is certain. I've had more pre-production meetings for projects that never went anywhere than Steve Guttenberg, but without his startling five-year window of success. People here love to talk about creative undertakings, they even like planning fundraisers designed to sponsor future creative undertakings. They just don't actually like undertaking anything creative, per se.

How many times have I written something for a project that no one actually wants to work on? Many. The most recent example concerns an Internet cartoon I wanted very much to develop. A friend of mine had come up with what I thought was a very promising premise for a cartoon, something we could work with collaboratively and shape over time into a profitable venture. And the thing just derailed before my eyes. I don't think it was my own shortcoming. I was nothing but enthusiastic about the project and willing to do my share to bring it to fruition.

Were you to look at my hard drive, you'd find at least 5 completed scripts for this cartoon.

Also, tentacle porn.

I went to meeting after meeting, inspected drawings and design sketches, listened to music samples of possible theme songs, even recorded samples of character voices. And after all this effort, the sum total of more than a year's worth of labor and effort, the project's about as active as Terri Shiavo's medulla ablongada.

Too soon?

Oh, come on, she's been dead for 15 years. When her brain turned to frappucino, Kurt Cobain was still that scruffy young blonde guy from Seattle and there was an entirely different, still evil but much saner President Bush.

But back to my original point...I can't be certain that this time, the movie/show/project will actually get going in earnest. But I'm as hopeful as I've ever been. There's a capable director who's already screened a film at Cannes interested in the script, after all. And it's a female, which is kind of a dream come true, as the script involves a lot of women characters and I have no idea how their mind works (clearly...) I have no insight whatsoever into the female experience. I can't even get inside a girl's apartment, let alone her head.

Then there's that whole money thing, but how much can it cost to make one single feature film, right? I mean, I do, after all, work at a video store, the nerve center of the entire retail industry. I'm literally making dollars an hour. What could go wrong?

Legendary Comedian Mitch Hedberg, Dead at 37

Too soon, man, too soon. I know Mitch had his problems; run-ins with the law, battles with heroin addiction and so on. But a heart attack in a New Jersey hotel room at 37? That's no way for a genius to go out. It's a sad, sad world.

No less than 3 people called me at work today to tell me the sad news. That's the level of appreciation for Mitch Hedberg among my circle of friends. 3 people didn't call me on September 11th to talk about the day's events, okay? We take comedy pretty seriously.

And Mitch Hedberg wasn't just some ordinary run-of-the-mill comedian. He didn't do jokes about how white people vary from black people, or how his girlfriend always wants him to buy her stuff, or about adorable children and the wacky, unexpected things they say. He attempted something bolder, a revivial of the one-liner concept founded by greats like Henny Youngman and refined by masters like Stephen Wright.

It was Wright with whom Mitch was most often compared, but they weren't really that similar. Wright was kind of a world-weary intellectual, a man attempting to find logic in the world by focusing on the illogical and working backwards. Mitch was more like a wildly ingenious version of Spicoli, a guy with a million bright ideas who was so stoned, he could only get one or two out per hour.

Here are some of my favorite Mitch Hedberg jokes:

At my hotel room, my friend came over and asked to use the phone. I said "Certainly." He said "Do I need to dial 9?" I say "Yeah. Especially if it's in the number. You can try four and five back to back real quick."

A friend asked me if I wanted a frozen banana. I said, "No, but in an hour, I'll want a regular banana. So, yeah."

The thing about tennis is: no matter how much I play, I'll never be as good as a wall. I played a wall once. They're fucking relentless.

I bought a doughnut the other day and the guy behind the counter asked if I wanted a receipt. I said, "Let us not bring ink and paper into this. I give you the money, you give me the doughnut, end of transaction." The only reason I would need a receipt is if I had some skeptical friend who did not believe I had paid for the doughnut. "Don't even act like I didn't get that doughnut! I've got the documentation right here. It's in my file at home. Under D. For Doughnut."

Someone handed me a picture and said, "This is a picture of me when I was younger." Every picture of you is when you were younger. "Here's a picture of me when I'm older." Where'd you get that camera man?

I used to do drugs. I still do drugs. But I used to, too.

Okay, so that last one is kind of bittersweet now that he's dead of a heart attack at age 37. But I'm hoping the world will remember Mitch for the incredible humor he created, rather than the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.

Today at the video store, every person over 30 who heard about this news couldn't help but reflect on their own lives. "Man, I'm almost that age...I haven't done anything with my life!" And that's fine. I'm an introspective person myself. I guess we can't help but relate tragedies like this to our own lives.

But I wanted to talk about the genius of Mitch Hedberg, a guy who was certainly one of my favorite working comedians (if not my absolute favorite). He'd compete right now with David Cross, George Carlin, Chris Rock and maybe Patton Oswalt for the title. Other than Carlin, he's the most original voice on that list. I mean, come on, Carlin practically invented modern stand-up...It's still high praise, dammit.

I saw Hedberg perform three times. The best was the first, at the Largo in West Hollywood. At that time, I was in college and Mitch was already a local comedy legend. I'd learned of him through his breakthrough "Comedy Central Presents" half-hour, and soon he'd gain greater attention on the late-night shows of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. He was such a terrific, gracious performer, always self-effacing and ceaselessly interesting.

By the end of the night, he'd long since run through any new material, and reverted to some of his classic routines. The entire crowd said the punchlines along with him - we'd all memorized the Comedy Central show and any recordings we could get our hands on. Rather than get upset, he started to take requests. After the show, I went up to him to shake his hand, but he insisted that he had gross crud from the microphone on him and just said hello instead.

Hedberg appeared briefly in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (as the Eagles tour manager!). According to IMDB, he wrote, directed and starred in the 1999 film Los Enchiladas, though I can't say for certain as I've never seen any evidence that this film really exists. My friend Elena (one of my three callers at work today) and I have searched for it since '99 with no success.

So, this has become something of a long, rambling, maudlin post. I'll wrap it up now. Just wanted to note the passing of this hilarious guy. How depressing - we've already lost both Mitch and Hunter Thompson in the early days of 2005. Oh yeah, and that Johnny Cochran guy, too, who I didn't much care for. And maybe The Pope.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Asphalt Jungle

You may recall that a few weeks ago, I reviewed Raoul Walsh's High Sierra, and commented on the massive influence of the script by John Huston. Well, it put me in the mood to see more of Huston's work from the era, so I rented this 1950 Huston noir classic. I'd seen it before, but noticed much more of the nuance and artistry this time around. Huston is one of the greats in the history of the cinema (sure to make any well-reasoned list of greatest American directors), and Asphalt Jungle plays to his strengths.

As in the director's great Maltese Falcon, all the events in Jungle revolve around a legendary "score." In the former, the object of everyone's desire is a jewel-encrusted bird. Here, it's a stash of rare jewels, purportedly worth more than a million dollars. Among those involved in the caper to steal the jewels: a recently-paroled German emigre named Reidenschneider (whose name was borrowed by the Coen Brothers in Man Who Wasn't There), a hired gun played by Sterling Hayden, bankrupted captain of industry Alonzo Emmerich, club owner Cobby and private detective Bob Brannum.

How these characters come to double cross one another in pursuit of the gems is hardly the point. I could write an involved paragraph laying out for you the specifics of the caper - how the Doc devises a plan that requires the participation of a safe-cracker, a driver and a "hooligan" and so forth - but even Huston breezes past this material. He rightly senses that a heist will entertain audiences for about 10 minutes, but that a dynamic internal conflict will keep people's attention for a good 2 hours.

I was reminded while watching this film of, well, a ton of movies, because Huston helped invent the entire noir genre, and in films like Falcon and Asphalt Jungle, he honed the archetypes that dominate crime films, and crime fiction in some ways, to this very day. But what I was going to say was that I'm reminded of Sexy Beast a bit. That's a film that opens with the elaborate plans for a daring heist and then abandons the caper storyline until the very end to focus on the bizarre psychosexual downfall of gangster Don Logan (played by Ben Kingsley in one of his all-time great performances).

Similarly, Huston deals with the caper itself only in one delightfully intense sequence, when the explosion of a safe sets off all the burglar alarms on an entire city block. As police cars and fire trucks dart about, looking in on each of the buildings, the burglars swifty and nervously complete their work.

But the focus of the film remains on the individuals completing the heist. Hayden's Dix Handley and Sam Jaffe's Doc Reidenschneider become fast friends. A word about Sam Jaffe: he portrayed hideous, embarrassing stereotype Gunga Din in the film of that name, and here portrays a old German man with some degree of success. The guy obviously was a very capable actor, except when he was limited by, you know, unthinkable racism.

Oh, and Emmerich's loyal mistress is portrayed by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first screen roles. It's odd to see her as a supporting player. Within the next few years, she'd make Let's Make It Legal, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and finally The Seven Year Itch five years later in '55 that would cement her as the era's defining sex symbol. Here, she has a few brief scenes in which she performs ably, but there's only a whiff of the legend she'd become.

Huston always had a gift for creating memorable characters occupying the fringes of society. Recall his father Walter's timeless portrayal of a prospector in Treasure of Sierra Madre, or, hell, the entire cast of Key Largo. Asphalt Jungle introduces us to near a dozen colorful occupants of the grimy underbelly of the City, all of whom have one fatal weakness that brings about his or her undoing. Some of their undoings are violent, some merely tragic, but one sequence strikes me whenever I see it as one of the most subtle and heartbreaking in the history of noir.

Reidenschneider has hired a taxi to drive him out of town, to Cleveland, where he can hole up for a while and perhaps find a fence for the jewels. They stop in a small town diner to get a bite to eat and fill the car up with gas for the long drive. Reidenschneider sees a beautiful young girl dancing at the jukebox, and pauses a moment before leaving to flirt with her and leave her with extra nickels. We can see through the window that the police are outside waiting to arrest him. He's an old man; he'll likely die in prison. But he doesn't know (or possibly even care). He's lost for that indulgent moment, watching a beautiful girl dance for him.

It's a perfect moment, hitting all the right notes, but not overplaying the emotion or turning it into melodrama. There just isn't heartfelt filmmaking like this done any more, at least not in American film. It's a nearly lost form.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

John Gibson vs. Kofi Annan

Once more, Fox News' John Gibson has posted a column, embarrassing himself before the entire world. I can't believe this guy is willing to post his blatherings online! Does he think no one is reading? Isn't he ashamed at bi-weekly revealing to everyone who cares to breeze past his website his complete lack of depth, knowledge or intelligence? His writing is the literary equivalent of a guy accidentally pissing his pants at work and then finishing the rest of the day without cleaning up, pausing occasionally to point out his crotch stain to a stranger. Self-effacement to the point of masochism.

Take his latest screed against the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. John's all fired up about an interview Annan gave last week. A reporter asked if he should possibly step down from his position for the "good of the UN." And Annan replied "Hell no." But it's not the use of the word "Hell" of which John Gibson disapproves. No, he wrote an entire column about how it appeared to him that Annan's response to the question was "staged."

The "Hell no" part is good — tough, assertive, solid — all the stuff Kofi is generally not. But the shifty eyes tell me this was a media advisor's piece of work.

Somebody worked up a focus group, or it seems like it anyway. They studied the people who hate the U.N — the same people who thought it was cool that Dick Cheney told Pat Leagy what he could do to himself, if you get my drift. Those people might think better of Kofi if he said something like the U.N. version of John Wayne.

Wait, John, slow down. That's too much stupid crap for me to respond to in only one post...Can't you spread out the idiocy over several days so I might adequately fisk it all? Nope? Okay, fine.

Anyway, John's theory that a media advisor may have coached Kofi Annan's response is ludicrous for a variety of reasons, regardless of whether or not it's even true. Who gives a shit if Annan dealt with a "media advisor"? Every politician does! John Gibson really ought to confer with a media advisor. Their advice would probably go as follows:

"John, baby, you've got to stop writing columns online...Or at least run them by an editor first or something. I mean, 'Pat Leagy'? It's Leahy, you moron! And try not to look so much like a weasel. That'll be several hundred thousand dollars."

And John's personal hero, our President, the Honorable Orangutan from, wait, Washingt...oh yeah, I mean, um, Texas...G. Dub Shrub...George Walker Bush? Would John criticize the President for dealing with a media advisor? The president's got more people handling his press than Lindsay Lohan's entire family. His media advisors have media advisors.

But, no, international diplomat Kofi Annan's not allowed to dart his eyes around a bit during a response. Doesn't John remember George Bush in the first Presidential debate? He didn't look coached, he looked like he had Asperger's Syndrome. Which is worse?

You gonna quit, you lousy Euro wimp — you hand-wringing corruption-tolerating anti-American? Hell no John Wayne growls. But if it's John Wayne, he crawls through the TV and punches me out for saying those other things about him.

Okay, John's using a very familiar rhetorical device here called projection. He's trying to say mean things about Kofi Annan without actually stating them as his own opinion. He shifts the attitude to a "typical American." You know, the typical American who thought Dick Cheney insulting Patrick Leagy...Leahy!...was rip-roaring hilarious. So, you can't accuse John Gibson of calling Kofi Annan a "lousy Euro wimp," certainly one of the most inane insults ever published. He was just repeating an attitude he assumes someone out there in red state America must have.

And I don't understand what he means in that second sentence...John Gibson's actually seen John Wayne emerge from his television set, Ring-style, to punch him in response to an insult? Or is this some failed attempt at humor?

Look, Kofi looked the other way while Saddam Hussein tried to bribe the security council; he let his staff and his son pick up the loose change that fell out of Saddam's pockets; he spent a year telling the world the U.S. was a rogue, lawless state that had no right, and no reason to start the Iraq war; and he ran like a rabbit the first time some U.N. people got killed in Iraq.

I know this Oil-For-Food scandal went down during Kofi's watch, and that he shoulders some of the responsibility...but still, Gibson's hardly made the case that Annan must be removed from power. Especially considering the corruption in our current government. No one's asking Rumsfeld or Cheney to step down over their various scandals, and their guilt has long been established.

Plus, is this guy totally mental? Opposing the American war in Iraq means that Kofi Annan should lose his job? He's the head of the UN, and the vast majority of the world agrees with his position! What part of that is a fireable offense again?

And, John, the United States is a rogue, lawless state that had no right and no reason to start the Iraq War. Annan was right! What was the reason for the Iraq War, real quick? Nope, not freedom on the march. Stockpiles of WMD that didn't exist.

I want a UN leader who will try to stop mass killing, dammit.

The U.S. got Kofi's predecessor moved out. What's the problem moving Kofi out? Oh right, we don't want the world thinking we think we are the world's most important nation, which we are, because it's too triumphalist to be caught thinking such a thing.

Did you know that, if you're under 30 and have a good educational background, it's amazingly easy to gain Canadian citizenship? It's true! They have an underpopulation problem in the Great White North. I hear Montreal and Vancouver are beautiful cities...I don't know if I can share a nation with a despicable character like John Gibson.

Read that paragraph, really read it. It's not just pompous and snarky. It's racist and insulting. We are not, John, the world's most important nation. There's no such thing. And if there were, I'd say it's the nation with the largest human population. So, China and then India.

But that's beside the point. There is no most important nation because that's an idiotic, oversimplified and, by definition, self-centered, navel-gazing way to view the world. We're a collection of nations. Some have more power and influence than others, but we should try to counteract that whenever possible.

Our goal should always be to enfranchise those with no voice and uplift those with no opportunity. Not to flaunt our position, gained because we're the most corrupt nation that's managed to exploit the most people the most successfully, in the faces of everyone else.

To demand that international leaders step down when they disagree with us. John wants to complain that we can't loudly declare our greatness to everyone else for fear of seeming triumphalist? Say what?

Recently, I watched the documentary Control Room, about the inner workings of the Al-Jazeera TV network and the journalists employed there. It's a fascinating look inside the War on Terror from the perspective of forward-thinking, Western-educated citizens of the Middle East, both Arab and otherwise.

In one scene, an Al-Jazeera story editor comments on America's role in the Middle East. He opines that America wants not only to rule the world, but to make the world like it. And the rest of the world will never fully concede power in this way. We can use our power and oppress others, but we can't make them love us.

That's what John Gibson wants - a world not only pressed under America's thumb, but happily smiling all the while. He wants a UN that's really just an American puppet, an organization to greenlight any horrific military action US economic interests deem worthy of attention. It's a sickening, selfish, abhorrent worldview. Once again, I'm forced to ask myself how Americans can call themselves a "Christian nation" while treating everyone around them so cruelly. It's not very Jesus-y.

We are a humble nation. But Kofi should go. Hell yes!

John's just trying to make me laugh now. After this villainous tirade, he declares America (and by extension, himself) to be humble. Maybe it's just a typo, or he doesn't know what the world humble means. Maybe he thinks it's a synonym for "kickass" or something. Yeah, that must be it.

Beck's "Guero"

So, the new Beck album "Guero" officially hit stores this week. It has been available online for illegal download for over a month now. Not that I'm suggesting you should be illegally downloading Beck's music...I'm just saying some people have already heard it enough times to know how awesome it is. Including me.

Oh, cut me a break. I work at a video store! I'm paid my salary in free rentals and discount microwave popcorn!

Anyway, "Guero" features very strong work from Beck. That's not surprising considering what an overall strong career he's had, and the remarkable consistancy in quality of his music. I mean, not only have the last few Beck albums been overall great, but it's difficult to find even a bum song on the last few collections.

"Midnite Vultures," "Mutations" and "Odelay" are wall-to-wall goodness, albums I listen to straight through without skipping a single track. I can't even say that for every Radiohead album, and they're my favorite working band.

And even "Sea Change" and "Mellow Gold," on which I'm not quite as hot, contain far far more appealing, enduring songs than filler.

So, yeah, the fact that almost all the songs on "Guero" are terrific isn't surprising. What's surprising is how approachable the songs are, how breezy and effortless it seems for Beck to once again mix genres and shift styles.

As you've probably heard, this is the Beckmeister's second time working with The Dust Brothers. The Brothers Dust are best known for their producing duties on the Beastie Boys absolutely 100% certified genius "Paul's Boutique" double album, but they also produced Beck's smash hit 90's classic "Odelay." While I can't say they bring the same inspiration and originality to Beck's most recent effort, they provide probably the most Beck-like album the man's ever produced. It's designed as a crowd-pleaser and it delivers.

Mr. Hansen's a musical chameleon, taking on different genres and morphing his songwriting style to fit them. He's always Beck, and certain aspects of the songs remain consistant (the nonsensical Beckisms, the bouncy hooks, the odd combination of hip-hop, country and folk, etc.), but with each album his persona seems to shift, his influences seem to coalesce and break back apart.

"Midnite Vultures" was a funk party album and "Mutations" a collection of folky, bluesy ballads. "Guero" doesn't fit quite so neatly into a single concept. Much of the album is made up of "Odelay"-throwbacks like "Girl" and "Hell Yes," but Beck makes time for straight-up hip-hop songs like "Que Onda Guero" and even a tropical-flavored track, "Missing," eerily reminiscent of a 90's Beck radio hit, "Tropicalia."

It's strange to hear a new Beck album that's so, well, familiar as "Guero," but I don't really mean that in a bad way. In fact, some of the songs on here rank among his most impressive, catchy and effervescent, particularly the infectious "Broken Drum." That's my favorite song on the album for now, but that may change in a few days.

Okay, I'm out of stuff to say about how much I've enjoyed this album. "Guero" along with The Decemberists' "Picaresque," Bloc Party's "Silent Alarm," the unreleased but masterful new album from Fiona Apple and the debut from Louis XIV, 2005 is shaping up as something of a strong year in music.


Thanks to my new friend Michelle, I got into a sold out sneak preview of the new Todd Solondz film Palindromes. This is a director I've liked and admired for some time, ever since Welcome to the Dollhouse. He makes unique films, movies that touch on extremely sensitive, uncomfortable topics in a humane, direct and most importantly humorous context. I can't think of another filmmaker who manages to satirize America so sharply, and yet come away seeming good-natured and inclusive.

To explain what I'm talking about, let's consider another popular American satirist - Alexander Payne. Or more specifically, let's take his wonderful satire Election. That's a film with a lot to say about American politics and the way humanity interacts with beurocracy. But it can also be a mean-spirited and cold film, dissecting its characters with precision and, occasionally, contempt. Solondz films instead confront us with characters doing either reprehensible things, shameful things, embarrassing things or degrading things and then asking us not only to accept them but love them.

With Palindromes, he's made a frank film about pregnancy and abortion in America. It's a movie with a clear viewpoint that nonetheless manages to see both sides of these issues. Don't get me wrong - Solondz obviously has an opinion on abortion. At the Q&A following the movie, he referred to abortion doctors as "heroes," if that gives you an idea of where he stands. And the film doesn't sell out his opinion for some bogus notion of inclusiveness.

But it does give you a sense that everyone thinks they are on the right side of this issue, and it allows you to understand the commonality of that feeling, at the very least. It's an essential human trait to embrace ones position against all others, to identify by ones allegiances, and the argument about a woman's right to choose hits at the very core of American's divergent attitudes on faith and medicine.

It's also his warmest, most visually impressive and quite possibly best film.

I've already spent two paragraphs on Palindromes without discussing the conceit lying at its heart. My bad. The film concerns one 13-year old female protagonist named Aviva, who is played in various segments by a variety of actresses. Sometimes, the actress playing Aviva resembles the character's "actual" race and age (a 13 year old white girl). But in some scenes, she's played by an obese, full-grown black woman (that's her above), a boy or Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Aviva's story takes her from her parent's home (Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur) in New Jersey clean across the country to Kansas. She's run away from home after being forced into getting an abortion. After taking up briefly with a trucker, she finds herself at the home of Mama and Bo Sunshine, a religious couple who have taken in a variety of troubled, disabled children. And this is where the film forces a variety of conflicts between Aviva and her new family, allowing Solondz a chance to explore the craggy terrain of American politics without ever abandoning the very human story at the film's center.

I could explain for you why Solondz chose to cast his film this way. If you watch the movie, you'll probably understand what he's getting at. But giving it away in this review wouldn't really be fair. Suffice it to say, he did this for a reason, it connects to the film's plot and it's not a stunt. And it also gives him a chance to explore the character in a variety of ways. Some actresses play Aviva as sullen, shy and almost eerily silent. The lone male, Will Denton, doesn't speak a word as Aviva at all, though his segment may be the film's most visually splendid and well-conceived.

The film links up narratively with Solondz's breakthrough indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse. Aviva's family is cousins with the Weiner's, the family at the center of that film, and nerdy older brother Mark Weiner appears during a few crucial sequences of Palindromes. But this is no Kevin Smith-style self-referential humor. The films are tied thematically, keenly observing trauamtic, alienated adolescence with a sharp eye for detail and a cynical, almost dire, outlook.

We laugh at Solondz's films because of the outrageousness and witty dialogue, and because of their sheer audacity. But the films are almost uncomfortable in a way because of their intense observation, their acute realism. I'm reminded of the long sequences in Happiness, in which Dylan Baker's suburban father drugs his young son's friend in order to molest (and possibly rape) him. Baker wears a look we can recognize - he's terrified of being caught, by kind of exhiliarated by the thrill of getting away with something.

Hopefully, none of us can relate to that specific situation. But we can relate to that feeling. We've all done something we're not proud of, something we hoped and prayed no one we know would ever see, and regardless of what that thing specifically is, all of us recognize that aspect of Baker's situation. So, even with this villainous pedophile, we share some common humanity.

That might be the singular theme of Solondz's films. He focuses on extreme outcasts and then forces us to recognize the massive amount that we share with these people. And Palindromes makes this point while being extraordinarily entertaining and artfully made. I've enjoyed all of his films up until now, Happiness being my favorite, but this may be the man's best yet. It opens in cool cities on April 15th.

The Vanishing

No, I'm not reviewing the movie The Vanishing, starring Keifer Sutherland. Though I've seen it, and it's not a great movie.

Oh, crap, I actually did just review the movie The Vanishing. Well, forget about that. It's just a headline, dammit.

What a lovely post I wrote for you all this morning! I had to work at 11:30, so I got up at 10, just to blog and stuff before I showered and went to work. (Just because the customers don't shower doesn't mean I can skip one).

Anyway, I was attacked by a kill-crazy man-eating spider in my bedroom this morning. This spider actually physically leapt from the wall towards me, in an offensive manner, without the even the aid of a web. I didn't know such things were even possible. Tobey Maguire would have stood no chance against this spider. The thing was fired up. He was basically the Jose Canseco of spiderdom.

And after I squished him, I wrote a, quite honestly, completely hilarious blog post about the experience. And guess what, folks? Blogger deleted it. That's right, before I could even post it! I clicked my little button here that says "Publish Post," but Blogger apparently misunderstood the command. It thought I had clicked the "delete most recent post causing you to mash the keyboard in an angry fashion with your left palm" button.

Which is understandable, as it's right there to the left.

So, it was gone, vanished like the remains of that spider. And I went to work with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling.

And that is the end of the story. I tried to provide some amusing reading material for you all today, but was outwitted by technology. So, for those keeping score:

Me - 0
Computers - 5 hundred billion

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Lons and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day

Happy Easter. Or Merry Easter. Or whatever the hell you say to people on Easter. Have a joyous Resurrection Day.

Anyway, my Easter so far has really sucked big time. I've been running the video store all day. Just when one of the two other employees working went to lunch, we got a sudden surge of customers. Probably people who had planned the first hour of their Easter Sunday with the family (wake up, eat breakfast, open baskets, eat chocolate bunny head before getting sick of chocolate, pick up bits of plastic fake grass stuff from carpet) and then run out of non-movie-related activities.

Normally, this would not be a big deal. We get surges of customers all the time. But today, we had a sudden surge of customers and a simultaneous complete printer meltdown. This means we had people buying DVD's, but could not print out the reciepts letting them know vital information like how much they paid for these DVD's, what the tax was, and today's date. And some people really need that information. For their records, or something.

I don't keep financial records, so the whole thing seems anal retentive to me. Why would you ever need to look up in your files how much you paid for Jess Franco's Venus in Furs? When will that become a tax issue?

Anyway, while all this was going on, a man came in with several dozen movies to trade in for cash. So I had to simultaneously find a receipt somewhere for one guy, fix the printer, continue checking out customers, count DVD's and do the math for a trade in, and call the store owner to come in and help with all these outstanding issues. It was a very stressful hour.

Some people thrive on this kind of chaos. There are executives whose entire position is called "crisis management," who purposefully go to work at companies where something horrific is going on and try to fix or stabilize the situation. I would not be good at this kind of job. I'd pretty much prefer a position in "rabid wolverine management" to "crisis management." Maybe "risk management" also, if I knew what that was.

When these situations begin, I get very frazzled. I like having one activity to occupy me at a time. I can finish a project very quickly if left alone, but once projects begin to stack up, I start to lose my focus and things go haywire. This is why I need to be a writer or something. Any job where you can sit in your room and zero in on one specific activity is alright with me. And if you can do this same job in your underwear while enjoying a tall, frosty glass of Coca-Cola, so much the better.