Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Driver

In 1978, when he made The Driver, Walter Hill was at the beginning of an incredible run of motion pictures. The next year, he was listed as a producer on Alien, a film he'd at one time hoped to direct himself, and to which he provided invaluable creative input by the admission of the film's eventual creative team. He'd also direct the urban dystopia classic The Warriors in 1979. Then came The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours and Streets of Fire. Not a bad run.

You can see a lot of the themes that would play out in later Hill movies in The Driver, a taut action film centered around a series of intense car chases. Many of Hill's films borrow elements of the Western and insert them into urban crime films, and The Driver is no different. We follow a criminal as he's hunted relentlessly by a bad cop, and their cat-and-mouse game (and eventual stand-off) mirrors the dramatic clashes of personalities of the Old West.

Appropriately enough, our hero is a Man With No Name, known only as The Driver. He's played by Ryan O'Neal at his most deadpan, and Ryan O'Neal is about as deadpan as they come. The character's purposefully flat and emotionless, understanding as he does that emotional responses get you caught, whereas cool heads have a shot at getting away. The Driver works as a freelance getaway driver. For $10,000 and 15% of the net profits, he'll get you the hell out of Dodge. And as we see during a daring opening bank robbery, he's good at his job.

That robbery goes haywire, arousing the interest of a self-delusional, ego-maniacal headcase of a cop, known only as The Detective (Bruce Dern). This kind of character was Dern's bread-and-butter in the 70's, a half-insane, amoral whackjob abusing a position of authority. It worked terrifically in The Laughing Policeman, it's highly amusing in The Trip, but Dern really outdoes himself here. His Detective sees himself not as a cop but as a crusader. "I'm going to catch the cowboy who's never been caught," he announces early on, and he seemingly has no doubt the prophecy will come true. Dern sells the role like a true believer. It's one of his most entertaining performances.

The movie has some standard twists and turns, including The Detective's particularly devious plan to pull off a bank robbery as a sting operation. The final act actually gets a bit confusing, with The Detective, the robbers he's cajoled into setting up his fake robbery, The Driver and The Driver's new lady accomplice (Isabelle Adjani, billed as The Player) all vying for the same suitcase filled with $200,000.

But really, it's not the complicated, noirish story that's the focus but the exceptional, high-wire car chases through downtown Los Angeles. One sequence in particular, in which The Driver evades up to 4 cop cars at a time, reminded me of the inky night photography of Michael Mann's Collateral from last year. These are expertly-filmed and paced action scenes with a level of clarity to them that's not seen any more in this kind of filmmaking.

Take a film from a few years back, Dominic Sena's highly forgettable Swordfish. That movie included a similar-in-scope car chase and shootout through downtown Los Angeles. But its scene throws in so much in an attempt to keep our attention - from rapid-fire editing to massive machine gun fire to John Travolta's ridiculous in-car acrobatics - there's no visceral thrill to the chase. You're just watching a lot of expensive effects and pyrotechnics go off.

The Driver has nothing in the way of special effects. It's just a bunch of stunt drivers executing brilliant, death-defying moves in vintage automobiles. And yet the effortless, simple cinematography and brilliant stunt coordination produces a much more exciting, intense effect than Sena's bloated, multi-million dollar extravaganza. Even a scene of The Driver showing off in an empty parking lot beats anything in Swordfish in terms of thrills (or, for that matter, comedy).

This film was a tremendous amount of fun. Along with Southern Comfort, it's a shamefully overlooked gem from Walter Hill, one of America's great contemporary action filmmakers.

The Street With No Name & House of Bamboo

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was rather obsessed with propaganda, and he felt that Hollywood was a great place to extoll the virtues of the FBI to the American people, as a way of entrenching himself into the Washington establishment ever further and keeping his name in public eye. So in 1948, he allowed director William Keighley unfettered access to the FBI case files and gave him the agency's full cooperation for the production that followed, the 1948 procedural The Street With No Name.

It tells a highly fictionalized account of a real FBI case. A string of violent robberies leads police to a crime gang led by a ruthless underworld figure with an odd recruitment strategy. He finds men who might fit the profile for one of his henchmen, then he has them arrested, and then he uses his crooked cop friend to access their criminal record, to determine their level of experience and commitment.

The FBI sent in an undercover agent, complete with a fake arrest record, to infiltrate the gang and reveal their identities and upcoming plans. The Street With No Name retells this story in as straight-forward a manner as possible, with minimal flair but with solid lead performances from Mark Stevens as the undercover agent and Richard Widmark as the gang leader.

Widmark's the real standout here. Fresh off his chilling debut performance in Kiss of Death, he plays another real creep in this movie. His Alec Stiles is a violent, wife-beating lout concerned only with money and his reputation in the underworld. And yet, Widmark refuses to play Stiles as a kill-crazy lunatic, giving him a human side that warms to his recruits over time. There's likewise a sequence in which he plays piano for the boys, hugs his wife and generally seems to be an okay guy, inserted in the film for no other reason, really, than to give the antagonist a touch of personality.

The black and white cinematography is nice and crisp, and I particularly enjoyed the seedy decor of Skid Row. Stevens checks into a flophouse to establish his new identity to the neighborhood, and the mise-en-scene in the sequence really sells the moment - there's a cracked mirror, chipped and crumbling walls, and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Nice touch.

The only other truly memorable element to Street With No Name is the embarrassing fashion in which Hoover inserted himself into the film's action. The guy was an egomaniac, and the opening five minutes of the movie plays like an homage to his leadership and courage. We get a type-written message from Hoover, informing us that, astonishingly, three out of four Americans will be the victims of organized gangsterism! So, clearly, though he trades in it, Karl Rove did not invent the art of political fear-mongering.

We even get an entire sequence where a squad of FBI guys anxiously wait around for an urgent missive from Hoover telling them what to do next. As if all law enforcement in the country relied on J. Edgar's specific instructions before catching any bad guys. It's pretty fascinating stuff, evidence of just how powerful a figure this guy really was in 1948. How many Americans could even name the head of the FBI today? (NOTE: It's Robert Mueller, the 6th man to hold the office. He took office on September 4th, 2001...what timing).

So, anyway, considering that the original has a solid narrative and some great moments, it's only natural Sam Fuller decided to remake the thing in 1955. What's odd is that he relocated the story to Japan and called it House of Bamboo. In his version, the plot remains fairly similar for a while - an American agent (Robert Stack) goes to Japan to infiltrate the criminal gang headed up by surly American emigre Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), which has been hijacking shipments of ammunition.

Fuller dispenses with all the patriotic nonsense of the original, but also gives the hero cop a romantic interest in Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the wife of a gang member recently killed by Dawson who takes up with him while he's undercover. The love story complicates the main action somewhat unneccessarily, and the whole movie kind of gets bogged down with dialogue when it should be more fast-paced and exciting.

But there's no denying Fuller's immense talent for dynamic filmmaking. House of Bamboo looks tremendous, its Cinemascope photography taking in the lived-in details of its Japanese locations. As well, the movie is filled with complex high-angle shots that enhance the air of intrigue and, quite frequently, astound with their technical virtuosity. (One shot in particular, where Fuller's camera glides over the top of a pagoda before settling astride it for a close-up of two characters in dialogue, seemed almost physically impossible on first glance).

And the finale, a massive shootout set atop a whirling Japanese fairground attraction, is the best single scene in either movie. It's intense, exciting, features some great moments with Robert Ryan, and is reminiscent of the best Hitchcock finales (Strangers on a Train, in particular). That scene is Fuller at his best.

So, out of the two versions of this story, I think the original is probably the overall better movie, and the Widmark performance is the best in either film. But the Fuller film is definitely going to have more appeal for modern audiences, and has the far more sensible conclusion. Both movies kind of require a good deal of suspension of disbelief, particularly when you consider that this was supposed to be a true story.

In Street With No Name, for example, the cops find out that one of their own is leaking information to Widmark, and yet they continue with the undercover work unabated. Don't they realize their agent's cover will be blown, and his life endangered? Don't they care?

And Robert Ryan's robbery plans leave a bit to be desired. Again and again, his crew plans insanely daring mid-day robberies, clad in full suits and hats, in crowded public venues. That's madness! Why not steal things under cover of night? And why not plan escape routes better, or better yet, organize convenient transportation. That's why, in every single caper they plan, several members of Ryan's team winds up dead. Because they're running down the street at noon in a suit carrying a suitcase full of cash and brandishing a firearm! What kind of criminal mastermind is this guy?

It's the Biggest Travesty of the Summer!

He's an evil robot sent from the future with just one, sinister mission - to annoy you and make things generally irritating.

The Goobernator himself, Arnold Schwartzennegg...Schwartzerne...Schwollenpe...The Governor of California is almost as much of a ridiculous, preening phony as Bill Frist. But not quite!

Just had to comment on this, because I live in California and don't often enough take the time to ridicule this Austrian bodybuilder, who managed to rise to the top of our state's political system faster than a Harrier Jet swooping between the skyscraper's of Downtown Miami.

Arnie has personally raised $3 million to fund his stupid, pointless November ballot initiatives. I'm sorry, but shouldn't he be busy governing instead of flying around the country doing fundraising activities? And if he so desperately needs some money, why not take a month off and film some dumbass Hollywood comedy with Danny DeVito and raise some real money? I mean, oil baron T. Boone Pickens (a real guy) will part with $50,000 if you ask nicely, but Paramount will kick the big guy down $25 mil. for the right project. King Conan, anyone?

Among the big contributions were $1 million from Stockton developer Alex Spanos, $111,000 from Texas high tech mogul Jeff Rich, and $50,000 from oilman T. Boone Pickens.

All of the money went into Schwarzenegger's California Recovery Team, the governor's general purpose committee used to push his ballot measures.

And I could see arguing that raising money to advertise and fund important ballot initiatives is governance. But these three initiatives are stupid, pointless PR moves for Arnold, not genuine urgent legislative needs. Let's take a look at them.

Schwarzenegger is expected in the coming weeks to call a special election this fall. He has three ballot measures he wants to put before voters aimed at capping state spending, redrawing legislative districts and lengthening the time it takes public school teachers to gain tenure.

Okay, capping state spending. I'm all for that if you take it from the right places (Arnold won't...he'll take it from services and programs designed to help the less fortunate rather than the pork programs and bogus corporate loopholes, tax cheats and kickbacks that have come to define our state's financial organization).

Also, considering that this election will cost California somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million, I'm thinking there are wiser ways to save some cash. I mean, $80 million! That's only $10 million or so less than it cost to make Last Action Hero!

Redrawing legislative districts means Arnold wants to restructure the state to favor Republican candidates. Sweet.

And, let's fuck with teachers because it sounds good to "take on the teachers' union." I'm not saying that all California teachers are perfect and that bad teachers deserve tenure, but COME ON! $80 million! A whole freaking election? Over screwing over some bad teachers?

It's a travesty. Arnold wants a grander political future, so he's designing programs to make it look like he's a bold reformer, rather than a creepy Teutonic strongman. Look at this guy. He looks like he should be wrestling a bear somewhere, not running the world's 5th largest economy!

And that's just what's going on with the guy in the news TODAY. I feel like every time I get an update on the Governator, it's something else that's stupid, inane or self-serving. Did you hear about the photo-op he did the other day with the pothole? He wanted to have a little film clip of himself starting work with a construction crew filling up potholes. Message: The Governor Cares!

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to a quiet San Jose neighborhood Thursday, and -- dogged by protesters -- filled a pothole dug by city crews just a few hours before, as part of an attempt to dramatize his efforts to increase money for transportation projects.

I mean, duh. What would you have done...actually found a real construction crew and filled a real pothole? That's not very gubanator...gubenatoria...goobernatori...governor-like!

Schwarzenegger strode toward television cameras on Laguna Seca Way to the sounds of the Doobie Brothers' "Taking it to the Streets,'' while flanked by 10 San Jose city road workers wearing Day-Glo vests and work gear. After speeches by the governor and city officials, a dump truck backed up and unloaded a mound of black asphalt and, as television cameras recorded the moment, Schwarzenegger joined the work crew, taking up a broom and filling the 10-by-15-foot hole, later smoothed over by a massive roller truck.

Awesome. Arnold's hard at work for you, folks. Thanks for having that whole special, mid-term election to kick out the old self-serving jerkwad so we could elect this even larger, bulkier self-serving jerkwad.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am

According to excellent celebrity gossip blog The Superficial, Jessica Simpson, my second-favorite Simpson sister, has had sex with both Bam Margera and Johnny Knoxville while shooting the new Dukes of Hazzard film. Here's my question...what does Cooter have to say about all this?

And, yes, I said second favorite Simpson sister. Do you even have to ask why?

Yeah, the guys from "Jackass." Unbelievable. Those guys are friggin' geniuses. I used to respect them for getting tasered on television and turning it into fame, but now I worship them as gods.

Think about it. What is Bam Margera's marketable talent? Nothing. He's like a mediocre skateboarder with neck tats who's vaguely associated with shitty punk band CKY, okay? That's it. But he figured out that by getting into shopping carts and careening into shallow riverbeds, or playing mean pranks on his fat, bearded father and even fatter but unbearded uncle, he could become rich and famous enough to nail Jessica Simpson.

Does anyone remember, by the way, before Jess married Mr. 98 Degrees and got her own reality show, when she was all about Jesus? What would he have to say about some of these Dukes of Hazzard publiciy shots?

I guess God doesn't move DVD units quite like them Duke boys.

And can I just say, yowza. Young "Dukes"-era Catherine Bach may have some actual competition.

Beyond the Sea

It's not that Beyond the Sea is a horrible movie. It's not. It's fast, entertaining, features some nice supporting performances and a whole lot of reasonably enjoyable, old-fashioned lounge music. Plus it's funny, albeit unintentionally.

So, yeah, it's not that Beyond the Sea is a horrible movie. It's just that, based on his scripting, direction and lead performance as Bobby Darin, Kevin Spacey may be certifiably insane.

Bobby Darin has apparently been a massive influence to Spacey, who has dreamt of realizing a biopic about the actor and singer for many years. Now that he's finally gotten his project off the ground, it's similar to other massive star vanity vehicles, like John Travolta's Battlefield: Earth, in that it's immensely personal and even self-involved. So personal and self-involved, it winds up revealing a lot more about its creator than its subject.

But it's far more daring and ambitious than I expected from a biographical film, which tend to follow certain rigid guidelines (like last year's generic and overpraised Ray). I enjoyed this one a lot more than Ray, I'll say that.

Spacey has made a thoughtful, peculiar and music-filled movie that never tries to be anything but idiosyncratic and odd, and you kind of have to respect that on some level, even if his movie makes little sense from a narrative or thematic standpoint.

Beyond the Sea opens with Kevin Spacey as director (in his Bobby Darin make-up) deciding how to make a film about Bobby Darin. I think Spacey might have meant for this to actually be Bobby Darin, after death, making an imaginary, allegorical film about his life, but that's not what it looked like to me. So, the boy playing the young Bobby Darin (William Ullrich) suggests to Spacey-Darin that they start at the beginning, his childhood, and we're off.

The main idea that Darin's life seems to represent for Spacey is immortality through performance. At first, the young Darin is sickly and near death after contracting pneumatic fever, and he survives only because of his dreams of stardom and love of music, passed on from his affectionate vaudevillian mother (Brenda Blethyn). Later on in the film, Darin ignores and rejects his family for the sake of his career. And finally, at the end, the young Darin has to show up again to remind Spacey-Darin that he'll live forever through music, so he shouldn't worry about dying young during heart surgery in 1973.

See what I mean? That's peculiar, very peculiar. Especially considering that the movie was wholly conceived by...entertainer Kevin Spacey. What is he trying to say to us? That he's thankful we go see his movies, so he can now live forever? That he's like Darin, in that both of them aspire to nothing but the approval of the masses? That fame and popularity are inherently good, and confer goodness on those who win them? I can't really figure it out.

Here's but one example. In one scene, we see Darin giving his son Dodd a suitcase, and instructing him not to open it "until I'm gone." Okay, fair enough. Later, we see the boy open the suitcase and remove...a Grammy. Inside the suitcase are a number of odds and ends associated with Darin's career, and also a film reel labeled...Beyond the Sea.

Okay, wow, that's strange. What I'm gathering from this is two things: (1) Spacey thinks the ultimate way for a dad to show his love to his son is to give him a meaningless award statuette given out annually to popular musical acts who sell a bunch of albums and (2) Spacey includes his own film about the life of Bobby Darin in a collection of treasured items Darin himself would have left for his own son.


In another sequence, Darin loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Melvyn Douglas (for his work in Hud), and proceeds to get into an angry fight with his wife, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), taunting her about the low quality of her Gidget movies before threatening to leave her and smashing the windows of his car. And this guy's the hero of the movie, whose ambition and tirelessness we are supposed to admire.

It's also strange how limited Spacey's view of the full scope of a man's life can be. Darin isn't really shown to have much of a personality, outside of his aggressive, narcissistic need for attention and approval and his desire for ever-greater heights of fame and fortune. And no one around him, from Bosworth's Sandra Dee to his son to his manager (played anonymously by John Goodman) to the assorted cronies and well-wishers who make up his inner circle are allowed any personality whatsoever. Spacey has surrounded Darin with so much positive support, in fact, that the movie occasionally threatens to cease having any narrative whatsoever.

Among this posse is Darin's sister Nina and his brother-in-law (Bob Hoskins), who give the film's only two real performances (and, yes, I include Spacey...more on that in a bit...) Hoskins in particular does amazing work with an absolute zero of a character. His Charlie is so supportive, so loving, so kind, that a lesser actor would have churned out a simple, bland, forgettable performance. But Hoskins is the best thing in the movie. He fills in the blanks, makes Charlie seem like the only real person in this pumped-up, meta- affair.

And that's the problem with Spacey's performance and film - it's way too obviously a sham from the first. I don't know if he felt self-conscious about making a movie about someone famous, or weird to take on such a big project having only directed one other film, but Spacey has turned this movie inside on itself so many times, you can't tell when he's playing it straight and when he's taking a massive, post-modern leap.

It's a pastiche, not a movie, substituting film style and montage for development of a story or characters. When Sandra Dee becomes an alcoholic, we don't see a single scene play out of her drinking. Bosworth at some points gives a kind of half-assed slur to some of her words, but it's a case of too little too late. All we know of her troubles with alcohol is gleaned from a montage of (of course) Spacey performing Darin songs while Dee slugs martinis. See, kids, she's drinking too much!

This is particularly true through the film's chaotic opening half hour. We're shown the moment when Darin meets Sandra Dee twice. The first time, they run a scene together, Darin asks her on a date, she rebuffs him and they get into an argument. Then, Spacey-as-Darin is urged by his young counterpart to try the introduction over, and we get a musical number and boat ride.

Okay, so the first version was probably the more realistic one, and the second is a flight of fancy, but by that point, we've seen the scene twice and have no idea how Darin and Dee really met, or even how Dee feels about him. When they get married two scenes later, I still kind of thought she hated him...or was the boat trip/musical version true?

This is the central relationship driving the entire film (except possibly for Spacey-Darin and young Darin), and we don't even get to see it form, to get an idea for who these two people are and how they came to fall in love. Why did Spacey think the silly "do the scene twice" device was more important than developing the romance at the heart of the film?

You can't take any of the dramatics in the film seriously, because it's all so obviously faked and reconstructed for the purposes of a movie. This is really a major flaw in Spacey's performance as well. He's not really doing an impression of Darin, and though he can sing pretty well, he doesn't actually sound very much like Darin. His make-up is absolutely atrocious and distracting, so he doesn't look like Darin. And the movie keeps clearly pointing out its obvious fictionalization of Darin's life story.

You end up seeing Kevin Spacey acting out the life of Bobby Darin, and doing a pretty goofy job of it. He's not really much of a dancer, and a lot of the time looks like he's trying too hard, when the whole point of Darin's schtick was his comfort on stage and his casual demeanor. Oops.

In one really horrific exchange early on, a reporter accuses Spacey-Darin of being "too old to play this part," an obvious allusion to genuine criticisms that Spacey was too old to portray Darin in a bio pic.

"He was born to play this part," roars protective Bob Hoskins. But it's a line Spacey should have given himself. He clearly does feel that he was born to play this part, that the suffering, dying Darin who wanted only to entertain reflects some of his own essence or whatever. The movie he's made is not simply a catalog of Darin's egotism but a celebration of it, and I suppose in a way what Spacey's celebrating is himself. His own drive to entertain, his own need for accolades and appreciation. Maybe that's why he stopped making interesting movies after American Beauty made him an Oscar winner in 1999, and he started making trite Oscar-bait like The Shipping News and K-Pax and the immensely stupid The Life of David Gale.

It's too bad, because when he's less self-conscious, he's better.

I wouldn't actually mind seeing another film directed by Kevin Spacey. Unlike the mediocre Albino Alligator that marked his debut as a filmmaker, Beyond the Sea is a well-shot, nice-looking movie that's paced well and really flows. It's entertaining and brisk, as I said before, a two hour biopic that never bored me or grew tedious.

And even the musical numbers, of which there are about 2 or 3 too many, are well-staged and photographed so that you can actually see the people dancing. That's more than I can say for a lot of contemporary movie musicals by more seasoned directors than Spacey, like Joel Schumacher's inane Phantom of the Opera, where the gaudy sets and costumes overshadowed all the actual human movement.

It's just so shallow, so silly and so self-important. Will someone please slap Kevin Spacey upside his head and tell him to go back to playing scumbags, serial killers and Hungarian criminal masterminds please?

Party Poker: A Brief History

PartyGaming, the company that owns popular online gambling site Party Poker, will go on the London Stock Market. It's estimated worth will be $10 billion, the combined value of British Airways and EMI, according to the Guardian.

The article gives a brief overview of the site's background, and it's pretty fascinating. In 1998, a California woman named Ruth Parasol sold off all of her holdings in a variety of lucrative porno websites and wanted to reinvest the money. So she hooked up with an young Indian programmer, got him to write some online gambling software, and they started a new company.

Online gambling was the new buzz and she found a friend of a friend, Anurag Dikshit, a computer engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, to create a programme for casino games such as roulette.


Hey, I'm allowed to goof on the guy's name. He's just made more money than I can even conceptualize with my feeble primate brain.

At the top price, Mr Dikshit, who owns 42%, will be worth £2.1bn at the age of 33. Ms Parasol, in her late 30s, and her husband, Russ DeLeon, each own 20%, worth £1bn apiece. Billionaire status has rarely been achieved so young or so quickly.

If the valuation seems implausible, look at the numbers. In three years PartyGaming's pre-tax profits have jumped from $5.8m to $89.2m to $372m. In the first three months of this year it made $125m, or $1.4m a day. That works out at $58,000 an hour, or about £500 a minute.

2.1 billion POUNDS. I'm far too lazy to do the math on how that converts to dollars, but it's got to be a whole dikshit load.

This online poker thing is a genuine worldwide phenomenon. It seems like everyone I know watches poker on television or plays poker on the Internet. That Antonio Esfandiari article that got linked on Paul Phillips' blog still pulls in more hits than anything else I've ever written. (Hence the follow-up article here...)

Poker's a lot of fun, and playing online is incredibly convenient, and not terribly expensive. You can play with $20 or so for at least an entire evening if you stay in the low-stakes tables. But it is amazing they've been able to make so much money at it so quickly. I remember a few years ago, when all the print media was talking about consumer security concerns with spending money online, how poeple didn't like to give out their credit card numbers on the Internet for fear of fraud. Well, I think it's safe to say that only the elderly, the Luddites and the paranoid currently espouse this philosophy. Everyone else is perfectly content to put their savings into Party Poker and let it ride.

Chappelle Shows Up

Dave Chappelle has resurfaced in Hollywood. According to Entertainment Weekly, he appeared the other day at the Hollywood Improv and did an impromptu 25 minute comedy set. He also discussed his time spent in South Africa, and hinted that he may be returning to work at Comedy Central sooner rather than later.

Before Wednesday, Chappelle's only public statement since his disappearance had been his Time magazine interview, in which he cited the stress as the reason for his ''spiritual retreat'' in South Africa. Later in the month, he returned home to his farm in Ohio. So it surprised fans to see him in Hollywood, where he joked about his disappearance.

He thanked the fans for making the Season 2 DVD of Chappelle's Show, which went on sale last week, the fastest-selling TV series on DVD in history. ''Of course if I want to see any of that money I better get my ass back to work,'' he said.

Obviously, I, like all other Americans with a sense of humor, can't wait for D. Chaps to return to the airwaves. I've been watching some re-runs on Comedy Central, and checked out a bit of the Season 2 DVD's (which I'd purchase for myself if I had any money, or any remaining sellable organs), and I've concluded that it's basically the best comedy show on TV right now, and among the best sketch comedy shows I can think of.

And that's not easy to do. Watch "MAD TV" some time if you want to see what happens when sketch comedy goes horribly wrong. And do I have to even mention Norm MacDonald's new Comedy Central skit show "Back to Norm"? It's a disgrace. The first sketch on the first episode was a horribly unfunny riff about suicide bombers starring Norm MacDonald and Rob Schneider.

Ugh, even typing that description out is unpleasant. I'm afraid nothing else on the blog will be funny today because I've infected it with that tripe.

Norm, a brief tip...Suicide bombing is not inherently funny. I theoretically could be funny if you came up with an appropriate, amusing context. But a guy who doesn't get that being a suicide bomber will actually cause him to die, and who then barters with his mentor about how many virgins he'll receive in the afterlife as reward for his suicide bombing death, is far too obvious to be funny. I like you, and think you're a funny comic, but your show sucks.

Dude, Where's My Functional Illiteracy

Anyone see the "Daily Show" last night? The President totally misuses a word and then defines his misused word for the audience. It's awesome.

Check out this clip of the program, courtesy of Comedy Central. It's the clip entitled "The Sunshine Boys." You'll also get to see Dick Cheney claim that he's "offended" by Amnesty International's comparison of the Guantanamo Bay detention center to a Soviet gulag. He's not, however, offended by putting leashes around grown men, many of them innocent of any crime, leading them around a prison naked in front of other men, and then torturing them for hours.

But comparing one horrific torture center to a different, older, Communist one? HOW DARE YOU, SIR!

But anyway, here's Bush's actual statement:

"It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the wordof -- and the allegations -- by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble -- that means not tell the truth."

You would think George Bush would know every synonym and euphamism for lying, considering that it's an activity he engages in every single day. It would be like a guy who loves to row not knowing that the rowing team is referred to as "Crew." (NOTE: I didn't know this myself until my freshman year of college, when my friend Jenny told me she joined the "Crew Team" at UC Santa Barbara and I continued to ask her "which crew?" like an idiot).

What Bush meant, of course, was dissemble, which means to not tell the truth...sort of. It really means to spread mistruth, which isn't quite the same thing, but hey, subtle nuances of the English language aren't really Georgie's bag, baby.

(By the by, you can read the full White House transcript, where they took the liberty of correcting Bush's error for him, here. Or you could check out Blog Schmog, the only blog I've ever seen to actually promise never to write about Paris Hilton, discussing the same story here. He reports that the Chicago Tribune also went ahead and cleaned up after Shrub, lest everyone in Chi-Town find out the President is functionally illiterate).

And here's where the story gets truly delicious. Guess what the "word of the day" was on morning before Bush's big speech?

Word of the Day for Monday May 30, 2005

dissemble \dih-SEM-buhl\, transitive verb:1. To hide under a false appearance; to hide the truth or true nature of.2. To put on the appearance of; to feign.

The President obviously has realized that people make fun of the way he talks, so he's trying to build his vocabulary. Admirable. Though I think the leader of the free world could probably do more to build his brainpower than check out's "word of the day." Most of those aren't even very difficult words. If the President really wants to not be such a nothin', his head all full of stuffin', he might try reading actual books, or even lengthy magazine articles. Or, hell, I'd settle for a graphic novel.

The problem is, his memory ain't so good, you see. Sometimes, he ups and tries to think and then ups and can't remember the thing he was uppin' to think about, and then he gets all turned around and confused and just winds up working on his Transformers coloring books. (I hear he made a really badass purple Shockwave, the transformer that actually turned into a massive gun, which even as a child seemed kind of extreme to me.)

Great big thank you's to my brother Jonathan for this one. I saw the clip in question last night, but didn't think to do any legwork to actually blog the thing. Then I woke up this morning and got an e-mail from Jon, and he'd done all the work for me. Nice jorb!

Bill Frist is a Ridiculous, Preening Phony

No, this isn't an official Braffy/Worst Person Alive nomination. Ricky Santorum is already the nominee from the political arena.

I have a genuine nomination coming up in the next day or two, and another one coming fast on the heels, and they're both doozies. I don't want to blow anything, this is getting exciting...and Mountain Dew Warm has generously agreed to fly one very lucky Crushed by Inertia reader to HOLLYWOOD for the big Braffy Award ceremony (Hosted by Cedric the Entertainer!!!! And you just know Velvet Revolver is gonna show up! Those guys rock! They don't at all make heroin addiction look sexy and glamorous!)

But I digress. This post is about how Bill Frist is a ridiculous, preening phony. Here's a photo of Frist demonstrating his favored technique for massaging Dick Cheney's scrotum:

Bill has messed up over and over again recently. First, he tried to keep that comatose Schiavo woman alive for no good reason, going so far as to diagnose her condition on the floor of the Senate based on some video footage of her.

From a medical standpoint, I wanted to know a little bit more about the case itself, so I've had the opportunity to review the initial tapes that were made, the examination, the physical examination on which the case was ultimately based, the fact that she was in a persistent vegatative state, a lot of neurologists, scores of neurologists have come forward and said that it doesn't look like that she is in a persistent vegatative state. That is - it's a strange word, this vegatative state that connotes all sorts of things to lay people. But it is a medical term, and it means that she is not in a coma.

Okay, so here Bill's saying that, because he was a heart surgeon, he can look at a video of a passed-out chick and determine the level of her vegatative state. And that we people wouldn't understand, because to us, she just looks like some weird passed-out chick.


So the question is: should we allow her to be starved to death. I mention that because it is a very important case. It has to do with the culture of life. And I believe this body is going to have to speak on this particular matter before we leave for recess.

Bill doesn't care if prisoners are executed, or if people in the inner city die of hunger or exposure or gun violence, or if Iraqis die from bombs or if American soldiers die from mines or explosions or friendly fire. Only women who have been passed out for 14 years and embryos that have attached themselves to a uterine wall. That's it. Everyone else, go fuck yourself.

Okay, so Bill Frist is ridiculous. But a preening phony? Isn't that a bit harsh?

Let's not forget his whole "nuclear option" stop the fillibuster disaster, that led members of his own party to defect and make a deal with moderate Democrats. Granted, it wasn't a terrifically lucrative deal. But Republicans hate making deals with Democrats under any circumstances. Remember, we hate America. And Michael Moore is very, very fat, let's not forget that.

So, basically, Republicans are taking major chances just for the opportunity to publicly humiliate Bill Frist. It's pretty sweet.

But now for my favorite part of all. See, Billy Bob's desperately trying to regain some popularity among his core supporters. Namely, rednecks. So he went last weekend to the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, North Carolina. You know, to really get in touch with the people.

He began by comparing the experience of attending a NASCAR event to his childhood, spent flying small planes. (NOTE: Frist grew up in a wealthy family that partially owned a massive chain of hospitals, and is one of the richest men in the Senate...Think about of the richest the Senate.)

"I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee," he said. "Nashville Speedway was about, probably, four miles from my house. My first recollections of stock car racing were being in my house on Bowling Avenue, and on warm summer nights, when I was 7, 8 years old, listening to the sounds of cars."

Frist also pointed out that he "has spent a lot of time around engines, and grew up flying small planes."

You know, it's like Lennon said. "A working class hero is something to be."

Frist proceeded to compare the experience of NASCAR to his own life experience as, gulp, a surgeon.

"You have a team of about eight to nine people, working on a car, preparing to race tonight -- everything from tires to suspension to engine to appropriate panel size to weight, all coming together almost like a symphony in preparation for a run of 600 miles tonight," he said. "So from a technical aspect, my years as a surgeon who has worked with artificial hearts and lasers and mechanical devices is sort of an innate identification."

Oh, man, this is truly the work of a ridiculous, preening phony. But the story gets even better. Frist, who had now spent all this time talking about what a big NASCAR fan he was and how much he liked and respected stock car racing, fucked up the names of one of the drivers!

On race day, Frist stumbled during an appearance in the massive media center, referring to Tennessean Sterling Marlin as "Sterling Martin," and failed to correct himself.

Way to go, Bing Bong!

Oh, and before I go, here's a picture of Bill doing his best Skeletor impression.

Oh, and my thanks to Salon for the tip-off on the NASCAR story.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

What's in a Card?

The other day, at the store, a guy gave me his business card. He owns a management company, and he just offered it to me without my asking or anything. So, I figured, what the hell, I'll hang on to it. You never know...I do have a couple of screenplays gathering dust in my closet.

There's one thing about this card that's just not quite right, though. I looked the guy up on the Internet, and it does seem like he's legit. I found a bunch of actors and writers who list him as their representation, so it would certainly appear that he's on the up-and-up. But, like I said, this business card is kind of fishy.

The front of the card is just his company's logo (which is, by the way, the guy's own last name). On the back is all of his personal information, with the management company's name in block letters at the top.

But that masthead on the back of the card? It's totally crooked. It doesn't line up with the actual edge of the card at all. So it's likely a card he printed out from some sort of desktop computer, and not a card that has been mass produced at Kinkos or some more fancypants business card supplies company.

What kind of big-time Hollywood manager prints out his own business cards? Can you imagine what Patrick Bateman would have to say if someone showed up with a homemade business card the next time he took a work lunch at Dorcia?

But maybe it's possible the guy is so busy and so important, he doesn't even care what his business cards look like. The top guys in entertainment might not even have business cards at all. If you don't know who they are just by looking at them, you're not important enough for them to care about. Maybe this is actually a sign that the guy is a major player, and I'd be a fool not to give him all due respect.

In fact, now that I think about it, the people who are always anxious to give you their business card are generally phonies, imposters and hangers-on. I'm reminded for some reason of a girl named Anastasia I knew vaguely, once upon a time, in my UCLA days.

Well, she wasn't really named Anastasia. She was named Stacy, I think, or something like that. But she went by Anastasia. Possibly because it sounded better. Or maybe because she was kind of messed up in the head.

Anyway, I saw her a few years back at a Westwood bar, and she gave me this business card. At the top was her name - Anastasia. No last name as I recall, but it has been a few years and I had drank a few beers, so it could have been Anastasia Smith or Anastasia Jones or something like that and I've just forgotten.

Below that, there was a little Clip Art image of a camera and a film strip and below that, simply the words "Film Maker."

I've always remembered this because it strikes me as hilariously sad. Was that business card designed to fool me, or to fool Anastasia? Certainly she can't have felt that too many people would actively buy into this myth, that she was a professional filmmaker in need of business cards. And yet, merely by making up the cards and handing them out, don't you confer upon yourself some hint of professionalism right there? I mean, what does separate the filmmakers from the non-filmmakers?

Oh, right! Getting paid to actually make a film! I almost forgot there for a second.

So, I'll probably send this guy a copy of my script anyway. Because what do I have to lose? He'll either throw it away or he'll read it, realize its sheer genius, and cut me a check for $47 million. And that wouldn't be too bad.

I Think I Smell a Ratner

Horrible, horrible, terrible news, folks. Now that Matthew "Layer Cake" Vaughn has left the production of X-Men 3, everyone's been buzzing about who will step in to take his place? Joss Whedon was the first name to be thrown around the Internet, and he does write X-Men comic books, and his new film Serenity is due in theaters soon and is rumored to be a great success.

But Whedon has said he wouldn't want to do X3, and he is a bit unseasoned for a studio to just turn over such a massive, expensive production to him with any sort of creative control.

So he's out. And original director Bryan Singer's hard at work on Superman Returns, so he's out. And I'm not yet an actual film director, but rather a know-it-all guy working at a video store, so I'm out.

And now AICN is reporting that they know the identity of Vaughn's replacement. It's possible, they say, that it will be John Moore, the hacktacular hack known best for the Owen Wilson vehicle Behind Enemy Lines and last year's Dennis Quaid debacle Flight of the Phoenix.

That guy can't direct for shit. His idea of an intense action scene is having Tyrese walk across the desert, dehydrated, while playing loud sound effects. The plane crash is the best part of the movie, and it lasts for about 2 minutes.

So hopefully Moore won't get this job and will continue right on making soulless, CG-intensive fodder for overexictable 13 year olds on a sugar rush, leaving the actual filmmaking duties to someone whose cinematic vocabulary has advanced past spinning the camera around, like, real fast.

According to AICN, the real front-runner is this race probably guessed it from the headline...Brett Ratner.


Double ugh.

Triple ugh.

I fucking hate Brett Ratner. And you should too. Let's puruse his filmography together, shall we?

Money Talks (1997)

This idiotic, mildly racist Charlie Sheen-Chris Tucker comedy made Ratner's name in Hollywood. It's a complete mess, it's really stupid, and did I mention that it stars Charlie Sheen and Chris Tucker?

Rush Hour (1998)

Probably the BEST film Ratner's ever made, if you can believe it. Loudmouth, obnoxious cop Tucker teams with doddering, bemused foreigner Jackie Chan for some violent-but-not-too-violent adventures in crass xenophobia!

The Family Man (2000)

Oh, man, I forgot he did this shitkicker. Captain of industry Nicholas Cage wakes up suddenly to find that he's...a total loser living in the suburbs. Well, in this movie, being a "loser" means being married to Tea Leoni, having three healthy and well-adjusted children and working at a steady but unglamorous job. Oh, the horror. Has any movie ever been less in touch than this? It presents a life that most people would kill for as something so utterly beneath its main character that his contempt for his surroundings passes for broad comedy. And then, by the end, he learns that, hey, maybe a hot wife and loving family aren't so bad after all! sweet...An embarrassment.

Rush Hour 2 (2001)

Amazingly, this is even more racist than the first movie. It was, however, Chris Tucker's last starring role, so I guess that's something to praise.

Red Dragon (2002)

Most people would say that Ridley Scott's Hannibal is the worst Hannibal Lecter movie. But that one is so ridiculous as to be highly entertaining. If you watch it as a twisted, dark romantic comedy (with Lecter's tender care for Clarice underlying all the action), it actually kind of works. This dour, lifeless affair, however, turns Lecter completely into a cartoon, fails to come up with an interesting villain for Ralph Fiennes to inhabit, and manages to squander the abillities of an amazing cast - including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Ed Norton and Harvey Keitel.

After the Sunset (2004)

I haven't actually watched this whole movie, but we've had it on in the store. Here are my impressions of how it unfolds:

-Exceptionally loud pop music
-More explosions
-Salma Hayek cleavage
-Pierce Brosnan making a weird face in an attempt to look cool
-Lots more explosions
-Woody Harrelson tied up somewhere
-More teasing, half-obscured Salma flesh
-Some jewel
-Bad jokes
-End credits

Yeah, it's quite a ride.

So, please, for the love of god, Fox Executives, hire someone with some actual merit and ability. I beg of you. The kids go see Brett Ratner movies because he has famous people in them, and because you attach him to high-profile projects like Red Dragon. Not because this guy can direct. He totally can't.

I was at the Arclight recently for a screening of Palindromes by actual filmmaker Todd Solondz, and I noticed they were having a special screening of After the Sunset featuring a Q&A afterwards with Brett Ratner. It was part of their "Contemporary Directors" series.

In retrospect, that is about the nicest thing there is to say about Brett Ratner. He's a contemporary director. He's a guy making films right now. Beyond that, there isn't much about him of note.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Rebel Without a Cause

I generally avoid reviewing ultra-famous classic films here on the blog. I figure, if you're interested in movies at all, you've already seen stuff like Citizen Kane and Clockwork Orange, so you don't need me adding to the deafening chorus of Internet critics touting the Western cinematic canon at you.

But Warner Bros. has just released a gorgeous new 2 disc DVD of Rebel Without a Cause (along with East of Eden and Giant), so I felt on this occasion, I'd go ahead and give you my thoughts on one of the Great Ones, a film deservedly ranked with the best of American cinema.

Nicholas Ray's emotional epic is among the greatest coming-of-age movies ever made. I'd say the three best are The 400 Blows, The Graduate and this film. I leave the specific rankings to you. James Dean tends to be remembered for his disaffected, unshowy "cool," but his character Jim Stark is none of these things. Stark really is how every teenager secretly feels - too smart for the room, a righteous individual in a corrupt system, a hero waiting to be recognized.

And the world he sees around him is a constant disappointment. The girls prefer the meathead jocks, his commandeering, frigid mother and toady father ignore him while trying to buy his favor with money, and everywhere he goes, he's confronted with arcane rules and random, punishing authority.

So he acts out. As the film opens, Jim is drunk in public and being placed under arrest. During the course of the movie, he'll be involved in a knife fight, confront a gun-toting hostage-taker and participate in a ritualistic game of chicken with tragic consequences. But again and again, Ray reminds us that Jim's hand is forced. This is an admirable young man who learns that, while you can't run away from trouble, it's a fool's errand to run directly into it out of frustration, boredom or anger.

Jim's journey from impetuous and self-centered adolescent into caring and accepting adult is told in the context of the mid-1950's, obviously working in social issues of concern during the time (from white flight into the suburbs to the increasing gap between rich and poor to the upswing in joyriding and automobile-related fatalities). But it's really a timeless film about teenage angst, one of the earliest mainstream American movies to tackle complex domestic troubles in a frank and realistic manner.

We follow not one but three troubled youths. In addition to Jim and his search for a masculine identity, there is also his most recent crush, bad girl neighbor Judy (Natalie Wood). This is a legendary, classic performance from Natalie Wood, who like Dean would die tragically in a freak transportation-related accident. She would be a bit older, though (and in the midst of a comeback!)

As well, there's Sal Mineo as "Plato," perhaps the only protagonist in a major Hollywood film to stand accused of cold-blooded puppy murder. Seriously. When we first meet all three main characters, they've been detained in the police station at the same time. Jim, as I noted earlier, has been picked up for public drunkenness. Judy has run off from her home late at night, lashing out at her father. And Plato has shot several puppies with his mother's hidden gun.

You see what I'm saying? This movie isn't messing around. Though this does bring me to the one major flaw of Rebel Without a Cause. It's Freudian analysis of all three of these kids is too on the nose. Rather than allow their ennui to stem naturally from their domestic situations and as a natural part of the aging process, each character is given a specific psychological "trigger" for their later behavior.

Stark, as I said, sees his father as being demasculated by his mother. In one particularly obvious scene, Stark walks in to see his Dad on the floor cleaning up while wearing a frilly apron. Remember, this was pre-metrosexual. Grown men did not get down on their hands and knees and clean up floors while wearing anything frilly or lacey. It was simply not done.

And Judy has even more messed up issues with her pop. In one scene, she leans in to kiss him at the dinner table, and he slaps her, hard, saying that she's too old to be kissing. So, clearly, her desire to rebel and sleep with multiple guys stems from her desire for affection from a man, because she has a cold and distant father who's so sexually repressed, he's afraid to express tenderness even towards his family.

(Of course, you could take the other reading, and say that he refuses any physical intimacy with his daughter because secretly he is attracted to her, or has even crossed a boundary with her before, and therefore feels guilt and shame associated with her touch and over-reacts in the exact opposite direction. But I prefer the prior explanation.)

Finally, we find that Plato's dad has abandoned him, and sends checks every month for his care (labeled "For Son").

So, yeah, it's a bit too obvious. A well-made, thematically-similar film with a more contemporary mindset would probably shelve a few of these scenes and allow the drama to develop with a bit more ambiguity, giving the actors more freedom to explore their motivation and placing less importance on exposition and backstory.

But, hey, it was 1955. There weren't a lot of movies dealing with these issues at all, and Rebel Without a Cause is for the most part a very nuanced and mature movie.

But what makes the film such an eternal classic isn't really the content. There are plenty of well-told stories about angsty youngsters trying to find a system to fight. What makes Rebel Without a Cause special is the James Dean performance at its center and the breathtaking, perfect filmmaking.

Just look at that photo above. This is a movie of iconic imagery. Whether it's Dean in his trademark red jacket (that becomes heavily allegorical by the film's conclusion) or the game of "chickie" leading to the edge of a cliff, Ray crams his movie full of memorable moments, and the amazing color palatte (it's in WarnerColor!) is like nothing being made today. The movie pops right off the screen - it's so vibrant and alive.

And the James Dean performance is a marvel. It's interesting that his box set finds release on the same day as a 6 disc collection of Steve McQueen films. They are icons of cool from two connected decades, yet they play extremely different characters.

Here, Dean is a tough guy, but he has to be, it's forced upon him. When he's at the planetarium, he repeatedly tells the jocks that he doesn't want any trouble, but they mess with him anyway, just to prove a point. And you can see this dilemma in his face - he tries to remain calm as long as he can, but soon enough the threats become too much, and he begins to rage.

McQueen never once loses his cool, and a lot of the time, he's the cause and not the solution to the problems. Take The Great Escape. He's not some prisoner trying to waste time, whom the guards simply won't leave alone. He's a great agitator, the guy lobbing the baseball up against the cell wall, the guy constantly testing the barriers to find the best spot to make a run for it.

The modern era has kind of developed in the Dean-ish direction. Today's movie heroes are the sensitive guys who can kick ass, but who also cry when the time is right. Think Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor or any of the guys in Saving Private Ryan. McQueen made a bunch of WWII ever remember a scene of him sitting on a rock and weeping? Nuh-uh.

I for the most part think this is a good thing. Don't get me wrong - I love a good Steve McQueen movie. But movies like Rebel Without a Cause are so insightful, so special, and so rare. This is all of Hollywood's techincal abilities working at full steam to tell a simple story about some wayward kids who try to do the right thing. It takes the foibles of teenagers and turns them into the stuff of epic tragedy. What can I say? There's a reason it's a classic.


So, yeah, now we all know that Deep Throat was really some FBI guy named Mark Felt, who only spilled the beans about any illegal activity to Woodward and Bernstein in order to centralize power within the FBI (as opposed to the Justice Department). Every blog on Earth is covering this story TO DEATH, and it no longer matters anyway, so I was going to skip it.

But in thinking back on all this Watergate stuff again, one question still bothers me...

If you were Chuck Colson, and you were forming an organization designed to aid Richard Nixon in his 1972 re-election bid, would you really name your group CREEP? That's what they were - The Committee To Re-Elect the President...CREEP.

What's with that? It's a dead giveaway! What do you think Carl Bernstein did the first time he realizes he was investigating an organization called CREEP? That guy must have seen Pulitzers and dollar signs! Master conspirators, these dudes were not.

Who's Very Very Very Very Bad

Gorilla Mask has a brief video of Celine Dion performing hit song "Bad" dressed up as a "Bad"-era Michael Jackson. View it here.

Or, better yet, don't. I mean, pass the link along to friends and co-workers, but don't actually watch it yourself. I did, and now I'm suffering from severe internal bleeding. I think, like in Videodrome, this video contains some sort of powerful agent that the mere act of viewing it gives you an inoperable brain tumor. But, like the student film in The Ring, I'm hoping to divest my body of some symptoms by passing the images along to you.


Be Excellent To Each Other

I went to the fridge last night and was surprised to find an entire six-pack of beer missing. It was Samuel Adams that I had bought a few nights before, when my friend Dave was coming up to Los Angeles to hang out. We ended up going to a bar, where Dave's girlfriend Sandra and myself treated our friends and a few excitable Culver City dive bar regulars to a rousing rendition of The Monkees' classic "Daydream Believer." But that's a story for a different blog post.

The important thing to note is that, because of our bar excursion, the beers remained in the fridge, undrank. But not for long. It turns out, a friend of my roommate Chris, who we shall refer to herein as S., showed up late one night following an extended road trip and drank all of my beer. Without saying anything. And then he left.

Now, S. is a good guy. I like him. We've hung out a few times. Once, he totally ditched me when we were going to go see Built to Spill and I ended up selling the tickets, but other than that, I have nothing against the man. I'm not even upset about the beer, really. A six-pack of beer isn't so expensive a thing in the big picture, and were he to ask me if he could have a few beers, I surely would have said yes anyway.

So why bring it up at all? Because drinking six beers belonging to an acquaintance of mine, and not saying anything or paying back any restitution money, is something I would never ever in a million years do.

And I don't mean that I'm some great, saintly person who only behaves in a forthright and admirable manner. Because that shit ain't true at all. In fact, if I think I can get away with it, I've been known to pull some rather morally questionable schemes in my time. I've even...shoplifted before. Gasp!

So, it's not a morality issue. I'm just terrified of having people think that I'm a bad person. So if I were at someone's house and I saw that they had a few beers in the fridge, I might take one, on the theory that one missing beer makes such a slight difference, the aggreived party might not even notice it was gone. But I would never take them all. I'm far too timid, embarrassed.

This gives me pause. What makes S. confident enough to take my liquor without offering any expalantion? And should I start behaving in this way? Because I'm courteous and nice towards people all day, and that's getting me absolutely nowhere.

Let me give you another example of what I'm talking about:

An old woman came into the store today asking for a refund for a DVD, The Three Faces of Eve, that she had clearly opened. She has arthritis, she explained, making it difficult for her to open factory-sealed DVD packaging. This is understandable enough. I don't have arthritis and I find factory-sealed DVD packaging more difficult to open than a deeply meaningful philosophical conversation with Lindsay Lohan. (And those, as we all know, are fucking hard to open.)

So the woman got home with her freshly de-cellophaned DVD and discovered - GASP! - she already owned a pre-opened copy of The Three Faces of Eve. And, who are we kidding, she probably doesn't have a DVD player or eyes capable of focusing for long enough to watch a movie.

So of course she brings it back to the store today and demands a refund. Because why should she have to lose $11, just because she purchased and opened a movie from our video store and then took it home with her?

We didn't give her the money. I was going to, but she ended up getting so snooty and obnoxious about it that, let's say, the opportunity never presented itself. But I bring up the story not to harangue old ladies. Well, not just to harangue old ladies. It's yet another example of the sort of attitude I'm talking about, the one I'd really like to adopt.

What I'm saying is, I'm not sure there's a downside to being obnoxiously self-centered. I kind of used to think that behaving in a kind, friendly and generous manner, even if it seemed like an invitation for abuse, was inherently positive, an objective good. But now I'm not so sure.

What is the point of the golden rule? If nobody's treating you the way you want to be treated, why should you extend that same courtesy to them. Again, I'm not trying to complain. Fortunately, no one has done anything truly traumatic or painful to me this week, so I've got no specific axe to grind. I'm just starting to realize that maybe I've adopted a life philosophy that's backwards and inefficient, that maybe I've been behaving in a certain way because it's expected of me rather than because it's a valid way to live.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe everyone thinks of themselves as an inherently good person who treats everyone fairly because we're all blind to our own behavior. Maybe right now, on other blogs, there are cashiers and businesses I've visited today bitching about me, and wondering why more people aren't polite and thoughtful when dealing with others. Maybe everyone's mortified of coming off like an asshole at the same time as they are acting like an asshole.

I've got to say, this seems pretty likely. I doubt most of the people who are short with me while I'm on the job, or who slight me in some way socially, or anything like that don't self-identify as assholes. They just think they're good people who have been put in an inopportune or unpleasant situation. S. probably doesn't even remember that he drank those beers, and if he did, he wouldn't realyl feel bad but just slightly funny about it, the way you feel about everything mildly offensive you may have done while distracted by something else.

You know, the way I feel about all sorts of things that I've done, like that time I got really drunk at the office Christmas party and chewed out my responsible friend who drove me home. Or the time I accidentally sent an e-mail making fun of my friend to the friend, and then tried to pretend that it was all an intentional joke.

Wow, that was pretty bad. I am kind of an asshole.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Year of the Dragon

Year of the Dragon is a tough cop movie made in 1985. So, just from that one piece of information, you should be able to deduce a few things about it.

It stars a tough guy with a checkered past and a short temper, a sensitive and caring guy capable of bursting into a rage when challenged or confronted. It features a supporting performance from a head-strong, professional and beautiful young woman, who at first clashes with the hero before succombing to his wily sexual charisma. It includes an inappropriate, synth-heavy soundtrack, nudity, staggeringly graphic on-screen violence and a minimum of 100 racial slurs.

I mean all of these things as compliments. Most people recall the 80's as a poor time for popular cinema, and in many ways it was. The desperation for a "box office smash" and the increase in concern about the burgeoning home video market led to less idiosyncratic and personal films, and more hollow blockbusters and shallow star vehicles. Plus, Olivia Newton-John was actively involved in the making of films and music videos.

But there was an art to trashy action films in the 1980's, a real gritty, dark sense of fun to the proceedings. Before every film had to appeal to 13 year olds who buy 20 DVD's a week, studios would churn out appealingly adult, potentially controversial and, you know, fun and exciting action movies. And Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon is among the best of the bunch, a stylish and delightfully sleazy journey through the underground world of corruption and gang violence in New York City's Chinatown.

That's Mickey Rourke as the man in the fedora. He's Captain Stan White, a disgruntled Vietnam Vet and the Most Decorated Cop in All of New York City. His boss has reassigned him to head up the Chinatown Division following a string of very public, very unsettling violent crimes, culminating in the assassination of a notorious crime boss. The woman he's talking to is your gratuitous exotic 80's love interest, in this case pluicky girl reporter Tracy Tzu (played by the mysteriously one-named Ariane, in her one and only major film appearance).

And this is where the film begins to get a bit unbelievable. Tracy Tzu reports for the local NY network evening news show, yet seems to focus exclusively on corruption and violence in Chinatown. Is that really a "beat" in New York City? I would bet that violence in Chinatown comprises less than 5% of the yearly news coverage for a major NY network affiliate.

But believe me, folks, that ain't nothing compared to what this movie has in store. The film was co-scripted by director Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone. Two years prior, Stone wrote one of the greatest scripts of his career, the classic Scarface remake, helmed by Brian Da Palma. I bring that film up because it shares a tone and sensibility with Year of the Dragon.

They are larger-than-life crime epics, spectacles of degredation, villainy and turbulence, and nothing more. They are cartoonish, yes, and free-wheeling, yet still capable of taking the viewer off-guard.

Year of the Dragon is not quite up to the level of Scarface, if only because it lacks that film's sense of scale and grandeur. Da Palma takes the life story of a pathetic, psychotic coke dealer and turns it into a classic American rags-to-riches fable. Cimino takes a more straight-forward approach, turning in a remarkably slick, melancholy police procedural with some terrific action sequences and a cutting lead performance from Mickey Rourke.

Until the end, that is, when his film kind of spirals out of control, straining for the feeling of an epic without ever quite getting there. It's a strong movie that I had a great deal of fun watching, but it's not exactly Scarface. There is, after all, only one Brian Da Palma.

But back to the story. White, following some hard-boiled investigation, discovers that the mastermind behind all the recent violence is the young and ambitious Joey Tai (John Lone), who wants to start a gang war in an attempt to seize power over the Chinese Triads. Lone's an actor I can kind of go either way on. He tends to play the same type of character - a quiet and reserved villain capable of explosive anger and horrific brutality. Sometimes, as in this film, it totally works. Other tiems, like in Alan Rudolph's unimpressive The Moderns or Rush Hour 2...not so much.

The story of these two strong, steely men facing off on the streets of Chinatown eventually does get away from Cimino. His ambition is admirable; rather than simply relate a typical cop story about a guy fighting gangsters in Chinatown, he makes the movie a psychological exploration of Rourke's character and eventually an emotionally-charged tale of violent retribution. And his technical filmmaking abilities are above reproach, particularly some of the impressive, elongated tracking shots that immerse the viewer in the underground world of Chinatown gambling parlors and nightclubs.

But the film does become unhinged by the end, piling on perhaps one too many gory clashes and tragic killings. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, it's desperately in need of some trimming, particularly during the final minutes. Still, there's a great film to be found in here. Rourke is charming and effective in a part that no studio would ever allow a movie star to play today. His character's still bitter about his experiences in the war, he's unstable, he's racist and uncouth, he's an unadulterer. At one point he nearly rapes the female lead, and then later when she really is raped, he doesn't even seem all that concerned about her.

That's great, complex, nuanced stuff, and Rourke pulls it off swimmingly. Even though you recognize that White's a scumbag, you remain involved and committed to seeing him take down the Triads all the same. That sort of empathy for sociopaths and murderers is kind of a hallmark of Stone's career at this point.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Joel Osteen, Come On Down!

You're the next nominee on The Person Is Horrible!

Um, I mean, you're the next nominee for the Braffy Award, Crushed by Inertia's very first major award ceremony/soft drink launch cross-promotional tie-in. During the opening moments of the ceremony, I will personally a 1-gallon bottle of tepid Mountain Dew in under 2 minutes, in celebration of Pepsi Co.'s latest and greatest soft drink flavor, Mountain Dew: Warm. It's the world's first room temperature soda! So, you know, be sure to set the TiVO to record the pre-show gala on E!, or you'll miss that, and of course the Black Eyed Peas warming up the crowd outside. I hear that white girl might show her abs, so you don't want to miss out on that.

But on to the nomination. This is the first public, open nomination for a Braffy, so I'm very excited. I wasn't sure anyone would take the initiative nominate candidates. But just this week, I've had three actual real suggestions, two from people who aren't even related to me.

Those first two, Dennis Miller and Christopher Hitchens, are both truly wretched, intellectual irresponsible and hypocritical people, making them ideal for this list. Stay tuned to see if either of them makes the final cut. (Extraordinarily likely...I'm gathering research even as we speak).

But the latest nominee, suggested by my very own brother (and noted Barnes & Noble customer assistance specialist) Jonathan, is Minister Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church of Houston, Texas. And no, Joel's not just nominated because he's a religious leader (although that does get him a nice running start).

When I first started the Braffy nominations, many weeks ago, I noted that the title of Worst Person Alive would be based on the evils that this individual represents. And I can't think of a worse evil in contemporary society than the commercialization of what used to be the very personal matter of spirituality. And this unfortunate trend just happens to be Pastor Joel's raison d'etre (French for "profitable line of bullshit").

Let's begin at the beginning, with a goofy photo. Here's Mr. and Mrs. Stepford...I mean, Osteen, from Joel's personal website:

Aren't they a lovely couple? Don't you just want to meet them at a dinner party and awkwardly discuss the local real estate market for a half-hour and then studiously avoid ever having to see them socially again for the rest of your life?

Anyway, Pastor Joel's not just the head of a massive conglomeration of 28,000 worshippers (for real!) posing as a church. He's also a best-selling author, televangelist and motivational speaker. His most recent tome is entitled Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps To Living At Your Full Potential.

Okay, so right away, before we even get into the book in any detail (and we will), this guy is completely 100% full of shit. How do I know? Two ways:

(1) No one can live at their full potential. That's the meaning of the word potential. It's all the things you could possibly achieve, not all the things you will achieve. Mr. Osteen means his system will let you achieve the maximum you can possibly achieve without over-achieving and exhuasting yourself. But the phrase "full potential" looks better on a book jacket.

(2) Joel Osteen claiming to know how to attain the greatest success possible is an inherent fallacy, because the greatest thing he's been able to achieve is the publication and sale of a bullshit flash-in-the-pan self-help book that no one will take seriously in six months.

I mean, if John Glenn were to write a book on achieving great success, or I don't know...Trishelle from "The Real World"...maybe that would mean something. I mean, those are genuine success stories, people who will pass from this Earth having made a shattering difference on the world. But Joel Osteen? All he knows how to do is con hillbillies out of $24.98. The Home Shopping Network's been doing that for years!

Okay, enough with making fun of the title. Let's make fun of the book. Here's the Barnes & Noble website blurb:

Televangelist Joel Osteen's message of hope and encouragement has won him praise from actor Chuck Norris and author Joyce Meyer. In Your Best Life Now, he encourages believers to discover their innate, God-given strengths and abilities to overcome obstacles and achieve authentic success.

Well, forget I said anything. Joel has won praise from actor Chuck Norris. I mean, that guy's endorsement is hard to come by. He only did those 800 billion infomercials because of his sincere and honest devotion to all that cheap, shoddy workout equipment. And he only recommends Joel Osteen's system publicly because the mentoring and advice of Mr. Osteen has helped him to navigate his extended 30 year slide from semi-noteriety to almost-noteriety to non-noteriety.

And this blurb also brings us to why Joel Osteen and his ilk are messing up America. Because their vision of religion is entirely selfish, inward and personal. It isn't about understanding the complex mysteries of the universe. It's about how God can help you in your meaningless daily life.

Think about it...God and Jesus have gone from being holy, unknowable figures shrouded in mystery to being our personal cheerleaders and friends.

"Jesus is your pal."
"What would Jesus do?"
"Jesus loves the little children."
"I have a personal relationship with God."
"God is my co-pilot."
"I want to thank Jesus for allowing me to win this Vibe Award. The multi-platinum success of my debut album Nutz 'N Yo Eye was part of God's initial Divine Plan when he was constructing the Earth from moonbeams and space dust."

And that's what Joel Osteen writes. God wants to help you with your problems, you see. All you need to do is turn yourself over to him completely, and buy some crap from Joel Osteen, and he's on the case. God is like Dr. Phil, Oprah and Xzibit all rolled into one.

Stevie Wonder suggested that if you feel your life's too hard, you should go have a talk with God, but I don't think he meant that God would answer you back or anything. Just that the talking and believing part might help. Joel Osteen seems to think God won't just respond, but he'll kick in for the rent and get you that new plasma screen you've been wanting on top of it. Plus, cool rims.

What's been holding you back from the life you want? What's the problem? Can God help? This is a "live now" program that makes you look at decisions in front of you instead of worries about the past or future. It teaches Christian principles like selflessness, charity, hope, and personal initiative by inviting you into the process. Bible stories and vignettes from the preacher's rags-to-riches life are inspiring.

Did you ever think that God might want you to figure it out for yourself, asshole? That the figuring it out part might be the whole point? I love the idea that Christian principles of selflessness, charity, hope and personal initiative are at the core of Osteen's theory, as if those are things you can teach easily in a 200 page book or a 60 minute lecture.

"Be less selfish!"

"Okay, Joel! Thanks for the advice! Man, this is the best $24.98 I ever spent."

"Oh, and also, have more hope!"

"Got it. Less selfish, more hope. I'm learning so much."

Maybe you're thinking that this all sounds harmless. Sure, Joel's advice might sound like easy answers. I mean, he suggests that if you're life's too rough, you need to help other people out, take some initiative, and love Jesus. Um...great. But still, he's not hurting anyone, right? He's just selling some books.

Let's take a look at his bio:

Joel Osteen has quickly become a leading voice for a new generation of ministers. After becoming Senior Pastor in October of 1999, Lakewood Church has more than quadrupled its weekly attendance and is one of America's most diverse churches. According to and Outreach magazine Lakewood is the largest and fastest growing congregation in America with over 28,000 in attendance each weekend.

That's the whole first paragraph of his bio from Joel's own website. Notice anything weird about it? Doesn't it kind of read like the bio of an executive rather than a religious leader? It's not about his message of peace and hope and love, it's not about his calling to the service of God, it's not about the good works he's accomplished or the good life he's led. It's like reading a resume or an executive's portfolio. It's even written in business jargon.

He's a "leading voice for a new generation." He "quadrupled weekly attendance" (as if the worth of a church can be described based on the number of asses in seats). He even quotes fucking FORBES.COM!!!!!!!!!!!! Come the fuck on, people! What the fuck ever happened to getting the money lenders out of the temple, and not confusing your faith with the bullshit money-grubbing world of commerce and business? What about money being the root of all evil? THIS GUY IS A PASTOR WHO'S TELLING YOU IN THE BEGINNING OF HIS PERSONAL BIOGRAPHY ABOUT HOW FORBES.COM HAS PRAISED HIS FUCKING RECRUITMENT STRATEGY.

Whew. Sorry. I kind of lost it for a second there. I feel better now.

You see what I'm saying. This is religion as commerce. He's not converting new souls, he's moving units. Joel Osteen sees faith and God like Delta sees baggage claims and little vacuum-sealed bags of peanuts. It's just a business. That's it.

Joel Osteen can be seen via his weekly television broadcast on numerous national cable networks, including Discovery, USA Network, ABC Family, Black Entertainment Television (BET), Trinity Broadcasting and the Daystar Television Network. The Program can also be seen internationally in over 100 nations including CNBC Europe, Vision Canada, CNBC Australia and Middle East Television. Joel's program is also carried on prominent local network affiliates in the Top 30 markets in America. Recent Nielsen Media Research rated Joel Osteen's broadcast as the #1 inspirational program nationally, based on average television viewers per market.

This guy's barely a religious leader. He's building a cult of personality, using religion to make himself famous. This guy is doing exactly what the Bible (the Old Testament) warns about...he's making himself a false prophet, convincing people that he's got all of the answers to life's really hard questions, building up his own glory rather than God's.

And what's he doing on BET? I know for a fact there are a shitload of black preachers in this very same industry. All of them area already booked on other shows? Black minister can't even get on BET? They have some dorky white man from Houston? What kind of sellout crap is that?

Now I don't believe in God in the first place, but it just bothers me that the people who do don't go about believing in him in any consistant, sensible way. I mean, if you dig the whole God thing, great, go for it. Just read what the man (oh, excuse me, fictional deity) has to say. Go to the source. He's pretty clear about the whole giving-money-to-guys-who-claim-they've-figured-out-God's-message thing from Page 1. Here's the condensed version: don't.

And that brings us to the last bit I want to talk about concerning the loathsome Joel Osteen. He encourages you to write him an e-mail asking him to pray for you.

Although we are unable to respond to each request personally, please know that Pastor Joel and Victoria will receive a copy of your request and pray corporately for your specific need. In addition, our Prayer Partners pray individually for each request received.

Isn't that sweet? They will pray corporately for your specific need! Wait a minute...doesn't that mean they'll do one prayer asking for everyone's requests all at the same time? But what if I write and tell them to pray for Joel Osteen to win the Braffy, but Cory writes to tell them to pray for Antonio Esfandiari instead? The two prayers would cancel each other out! It wouldn't work!

Also, I dig the notion of Prayer Partners. They've brought in prayer interns to cover all the overload prayers, and the interns have to pray for your petty, selfish requests personally, one-by-one. There is, of course, a catch.

From time to time our prayer partners may write or call in order to encourage you in your daily walk with the Lord.

That's code, folks. What they mean is that the "prayer partners" will call and ask you for money. You know, they did go to the trouble of pretending to pray for you over the Internet. The least you can do is accept their frequent telemarketing calls.

So, yeah, Joel Osteen wants to prey (ba-zing!) on the weakest, dumbest, neediest Americans for fun and profit. He convinces people he's got a direct line to the Big Man (though why God would want to hang out and share insight with some bland dork from The Lone Star State is beyond me), and then people send him money and tune in to his revivial meetings on TBN. It's totally repugnant and ridiculous, and it has earned Joel a lofty nomination for the Worst Person Alive awards.

But can it unseat phony Midwestern Mary Kay lady Tana Goertz? Or disgusting poker-playing trainwreck Antonio Esfandiari? Or repellant, scumbag Senator from Pennsylvania, the Right Honourable Ricky "Man-On-Dog" Santorum? Who knows?

Oh, and do try a bottle of Mountain Dew Warm. Now Significantly Less Urine-Like!

The Cincinnati Kid

The game of poker has changed considerably in the 40 years since the release of The Cincinnati Kid, but the fundamental aspects of the game remain thoroughly unchanged. Beyond the rule and style changes, beyond the alterations in lingo and manner of play and advanced strategizing, the game essentially comes down to a couple of people trying to fake one another out.

In Norman Jewison's 1965 poker flick, we get a glimpse of several different types of poker players. There's the impetuous, emotional player who occasionally wins big, the conservative old man who has learned over time to accumulate little scores rather than risk it all for a big payday, and there's even the mathematics nerd who calculates the odds for every turn of the cards.

But by the end of the big game, there's only two guys left, and those are the guys that know how to read people, that know how to work one another's nerves and get inside one another's heads. And though Cincinnati Kid doesn't really delve into the details of poker-playing, it spends its time developing the psychological aspect of the game, the toll of pressure and heated competition over a span of hours and even days. As such, it's one of the greatest card shark movies of all time.

As I said, Jewison doesn't bother to explore the nuances of poker in any detail. The first hour of the film contains next to no actual card playing, with hero Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) spending his time agonizing over his love affair with the quirky Christian (Tuesday Weld) rather than his play at the card table.

That all changes when The Man comes to town. The Man is Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), the greatest poker player in the world. See, in Cincinnati Kid, the poker-playing world organizes itself into a strict Confuscian hierarchy, with a single player agreed upon by all involved as the objective Greatest Player (or, The Man). As portrayed by Edward G., in a terrific supporting performance, he's a relic of a bygone era, a gentleman of poker who views himself as a gambling professional rather than a card shark or hustler.

So, of course, we're asked to compare the preening and courteous Lancey with the laconic, detached cool of Stoner (The Cincinnati Kid of the title), in much the same way that Paul Newman's Eddie Felson clashed with Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats in The Hustler. The influence of that 1961 classic is all over Cincinnati Kid, which is obviously trying to do for poker what that film did for the underground world of pool.

As in The Hustler, the dynamic isn't as simple as it initially appears. Lancey Howard isn't much of an antagonist to The Kid. They share a bond of mutual respect and even admiration, like two warriors admiring one another's skill and control. The villains take the form of Melba Nile (Ann-Margaret), the slinky gold-digger who's married to The Kid's mentor (Karl Malden), and Slade (Rip Torn), the wealthy heir desperate for revenge against Lancey following a bad beat.

Torn is a marvel in the film, just absolutely conniving and evil. It's one of his best performances (along with, of course, Freddy Got Fingered). In fact, it's really the three leads - McQueen, Torn and Robinson - who keep the film moving through its slow patches. Too much time is spent on the silly love triangle between The Kid, his girlfriend and his mentor's wife, a plot complication that's lazily sketched but never filled in. It doesn't really link up thematically or otherwise with the main storyline, about The Kid's face-off with the best in the world, or enhance our understanding of his character.

Jewison has a great eye, particularly in one sequence with McQueen playfully running across railroad tracks, but he fails to really open the movie up. There are a lot of fixed, interior shots and though the film is set in New Orleans, there are very few notable exterior shots after the first 15 minutes. I understand that the climax occurs in the poker room, but the entire film feels scaled-down and claustrophobic.

As well, it's disappointing that Jewison doesn't trust the game of poker itself to maintain viewer interest. He's constantly trying to "jazz up" the poker scenes, either with lame comedy (such as Jack Weston's over-the-top performance as a whiny, fat loser named, what else, Pig) or, worse, with ludicrous camera work. At one point, when a crucial card is turned over, Jewison zooms in on the card, and then on the eyeballs of everyone sitting around the poker table. LAME!

At another point, when a crucial card is about to be turned up, we go around the room and hear the thoughts of everyone witnessing the action in voice-over. DOUBLE LAME!

It's true, the style of poker on display in the film is five-card stud, which is inherently not terribly interesting to watch (especially when compared to, say, Texas Hold 'Em). But it's the characters struggling against one another that matters, not the specifics of who has what card. These silly flights of fancy do the opposite of Jewison's intent, detracting from the drama of the scene.

That being said, the leads make The Cincinnati Kid highly entertaining. And it has a wonderfully bittersweet conclusion, the kind of ending that scares movie executives and sometimes even puts off audiences, but which makes me want to rewatch the movie. I love a film with enough confidence in its storytelling and characters to end honestly and not pander to audience expectation.