Saturday, June 25, 2005

High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story

Goddammit, why do all poker movies have to suck? Seriously. It's an interesting game. It's inherently dramatic. Poker rooms around the country are genuinely filled with funny, interesting characters. I mean, what could be more intense than gambling? It's conflict in its most pure form - two players, only one winner.

And yet the movies about poker just don't ever get it right. They never seem to trust the game itself to maintain viewer interest. The movie is always over-directed, over-explained or distracting, because the filmmakers want to include everyone, even people who don't care about poker. But fuck that - you want to make a poker movie, make a movie about people who play poker, not the same old tired "fall from grace" bullshit but set in a casino.

High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story tells, yes, the true story of three-time World Series of Poker champion Stu Ungar, who died at 45 in a motel room following years of drug abuse, alcoholism and degenerate gambling. This is an interesting story. Ungar was something of a child prodigy at cards, and yet his success was undermined for his entire life by his outrageous gambling addiction. He would lose up to $100,000 in a single day on football. He would lose $1000 on a stupid double-or-nothing bet after a night of winning at gin rummy. He would repeatedly blow thousands on games he knew nothing about, when he was virtually guaranteed to win if only he stuck to cards.

So why doesn't writer-director A.W. Vidmer allow the story to unfold naturally? He needlessly complicates the film, mainly by adding a ridiculous, corny "bookend" featuring Stu (Michael Imperioli) narrating his life story to a disembodied Grim Reaper figure (for real). It's embarrassing. I'm thinking Vidmer decided to make a poker film more because it's, like, totally hot right now, rather than any appreciation for the game.

Stu was a real guy, but that doesn't stop Vidmer from retelling his story in a thoroughly formulaic, trite fashion. I mean, first of all, there's that "narration from beyond the grave" bullshit, which made me want to shut the movie off in the first 10 minutes.

But then, we get 20 minutes (!) of material featuring Stu as a kid, dealing with his overly-strict Jewish dad and a local gangster (Michael Nouri) who takes the boy under his wing. This stuff essentially riffs on the same ideas as in Goodfellas, and the casting later of Imperioli (himself a 'Fellas vet) and Steve Schrippa, Mike's "Sopranos" co-star, as his friend Anthony kind of cements the entire idea.

Basically, Stu is a total shit. He loves his wife Angela (Renee Faia) but he also likes to blow thousands at the track, fuck strippers and do lots of blow. He can win almost any time he sits down at the card table, but still loses it all on sports gambling, at the racetrack or on stupid side pots. And even on the rare occasions that he's sober, he's self-involved, whiny, manipulative and lacking in any sort of real personality.

But, a movie about a total shit, I could deal with. I like Owning Mahoney a good deal, and that's about a pathetic gambling addict who screws over everyone in his life (and embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank where he works). But Mahoney in that film is kind of fascinating. He seems to thrive on losing, and as he digs himself a deeper and deeper hole, it's terrific to watch the brilliant slow-burn performance of star Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

I don't know if Imperioli is capable of that sort of performance, because High Roller never even gives him the chance. It's much more straight-forward. Brilliant guy wins at cards. Receives admiration. Messes up repeatedly. Loses everything. Dies penniless and alone. Message: gambling's bad, wife and kids rule.

Sigh...I'm sure this guy's life had some left turns in it, took some unexpected twists. That's what the game of poker itself is all about - you think you have it figured out, but you don't until everyone turns over his/her cards. I had High Roller figured out in ten minutes flat.

Oh, and it looks cheap, a lot of the supporting actors suck (particularly the kid playing the Young Stu...sorry, little guy...).

And one more thing we've got to talk about. The constant, atrocious musical montages. There are no less than 10 musical montages in the film. Every change in Stu's life is set to some really loud, horribly obnoxious, cheesedick country song. For real. So, it's like, Stu making a big wager in a poker tournament with Big & Rich wailing about cowboys in the background. Then (for real!), Stu shopping for meat while some chick wails about how her man done left her. It's absolutely atrocious. How about you write a concise scene that expresses a goddamn idea, Vidmer, instead of hoping that country music radio will do your exposition for you, jackass.


Sallie Mae: One Messed Up Bitch

Okay, so on Thursday, I wrote this post about the harrassment I've received from the Sallie Mae Corporation this week about my ongoing non-payment of my student loans.

It's a fairly complicated fiduciary matter, but allow me to sum it up thusly for the laymen in the Inertia audience...Sallie Mae shelled out $40,000 for me to get a useless Master's degree from USC, and now they want that money back. Unfortunately, at this time, I can no more afford to pay off my student loans than Donald Trump's April Visa bill. So, in other words, they can call my cell phone at odd hours all they like, but unless Harvey Weinstein has just bought my screenplay without my knowledge, they ain't getting a dime out of my any time soon.

This morning, I received the latest in a string of annoying, early phone calls. Well, for me, they're early. Today's arrived at 10:30, which doesn't seem early, but when I tell you that it's one of my two days off, and that I went to a party and drank last night, and that the children outside are already very noisy, maybe you will understand why I'd rather not take calls.

But, stupidly, in a half-awake daze, I answered the phone. A chipper lady informed me that Sallie Mae wanted her fucking money or she was gonna take my thumbs.

No, no, not quite. What she said was that she represented some mysterious, yakuza-like organization known as the "Ed. Fund" (or, in some circles, the Dark Army of the Night). The "Ed. Fund" was "concerned" about my payment of my loans, and wanted to advise me on some future action.

The first thing they suggested? That I start paying my loans! Isn't that weird? That some helpful company, out of nowhere, would take it upon themselves to call me early on a Saturday and instruct me to pay my Sallie Mae loans? For no benefit to themselves, just out of concern for me? It's sweet, really.

I think it's now safe to say that Sallie Mae has taken a personal interest in leaning on me for this money. I don't know why. Perhaps when I signed up for the loan, I accidentally checked the "three points off the vig" box, and my interest has now accumulated to several hundred thousand dollars. Perhaps a sworn enemy of mine works the phone bank at Sallie Mae. I'm not quite sure. But whatever the reason, they're after me, and I'm not sure I'll live out the weekend.

Anyway, I explained to the helpful and not-at-all obnoxiously chirpy "Ed Fund" representative that I had already requested a three-month deferrment, and that I didn't really need any more of their super-terrific awesome helpful advice. BUT SHE WASN'T DONE YET! No, no!

"Well, can you fax us in your economic hardship form, so we can verify it's filled out properly?"

What, what? Oh, come on! It's not even 11 in the morning on a Saturday. I refuse to even hear the word "fax" on my day off. Someone calling me, waking me upon a Saturday and telling me to go fuck myself would, to my mind, be more civil than calling me and asking me to fax them stuff.

It's just an unpleasant word. FAX. It sounds like some sort of rendering process or something. "Then, the hog fat slucces down this chute and enters the FAX machine. Here it will be boiled and the impurities will be removed. Please try not to vomit from the smell."

So I refused this request, because I'd already stuffed the form into an envelope and I didn't want to have to get it out again, and because I hated this woman deeply and wanted to get off the phone with her while I still had a few days left in my 20's. She seemed crestfallen, as if the opportunity to look over my personal financial information was genuinely exciting to her. Or maybe they teach you to say that line in that voice.

Anyway, I finally finally got off the phone, and I even made her promise to have Ed. Fund (aka "The 7 Tribes of Kutaku-Olima") stop calling me. You know, seeing as I haven't done anything wrong and don't have any money. Hopefully, they'll take it under consideration. If not, I'll probably be shot and my family will be sent a bill for the bullet. Oh, and that back $40,000 I owe.

Friday, June 24, 2005


Had a discussion at Laser Blazer the other day about the nature of Los Angeles. Namely, why Los Angeles is filled with so many massive assholes. Ivan's theory is that this is itself a popular misconception, that Los Angeles has no more or less assholes than any other city. He postulates that people who are themselves obsessed with the entertainment industry think LA is filled with assholes, but that's only because they have chosen to obsess over a business that is filled with assholes.

In other words, one notable breed of Los Angelino tends towards the assholeish, whereas all other Angelinos are perfectly nice, normal Americans, as you'd find in any other American city.

This is bullshit.

Of course, there are some cool, normal, nice people in Los Angeles, as you'd find in any other American city. But there is also a massively disproportionate number of self-involved, boorish, ego-maniacal jerks who think they are somehow better, cooler, hipper or more important than everyone else. This is a fact. And here's why.

Los Angeles attracts assholes like cooling pies on windowsills attract hungry cartoon characters. If you're a self-involved, boorish asshole in Madison, Wisconsin, convinced that you are star material and deserve wealth and fame, where are you gonna move to? Des Moines? Tuscaloosa? Newport News? Walla Walla, Washington?

No! One of two places: New York or LA. And unless you want to be a model, which is a particular, niche sub-strata of asshole, it's probably LA.

So we have a lot of assholes here. A lot. You deal with them all the time. People who are certain they are bound for fame and fortune. But beyond these aspirations, aspirations which many reasonable people share, they carry with them an excessive sense of entitlement. Not only will they be rich and famous, but they deserve it. It has already been promised to them, somehow, and they are eagerly waiting to collect.

I can't think of a better poster child for this obnoxious attitude than pseudo-filmmaker Troy Duffy, the subject of the fantastic documentary Overnight, that hits DVD on Tuesday. (See how I brought that all back around? I'm a fucking genius. Someone hire me to do this for millions of dollars NOW!) The filmmakers are long-time associates of Duffy who served as co-managers for his failed rock group Brood at one point. So, clearly, they have an axe to grind. What they have produced is not so much a definitive dossier on Troy Duffy the man, but a portrait of almost obscene disappointment. Of dreams coming desperately close to realization, only to be cruelly taken away. And even worse, fo that disappointment coming as the result of one's own mistakes and personal flaws. It's sometimes funny, but always heart-breaking.

Troy Duffy made headlines in 1997 as one of those heartwarming rags-to-riches type local news stories. A Boston native, blue-collar all his life with dreams of stardom, he worked in West Hollywood as a bartender. By nights, he wrote the script that would start a bidding war in Hollywood, a post-Tarantino pulp riff called "The Boondock Saints."

Eventually, Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein would buy "Boondock Saints" for an exhorbitant sum in a deal that included a number of outrageous perks for Duffy. Not only could he direct his own script, despite never having directed anything before in his life, but his band, Brood, could produce the soundtrack. As well, Weinstein promised to invest with Duffy in the West Hollywood bar where he worked.

Well, things didn't quite work out. Overnight chronicles Duffy's split with Weinstein, and then the long and troubled process of getting the film made and distributed. See, Harvey Weinstein's kind of a powerful guy in Hollywood. (When a low-level film producer is asked in the film how much power Weinstein has in Hollywood, she answers "all of it.") When he decides he doesn't like you, and he doesn't want your film to be made, things get kind of tough for you.

Amazingly, Duffy does manage to secure the ability to make Boondock Saints, which debuted rather successfully in 2000 as a direct-to-video title. But his arrogance, greed and delusional self-aggrandizement undo any chance of personal success, career or otherwise. During the course of the film, Duffy will alienate not only some of Hollywood's powerful elite, but his agents, friends, fellow band members, and his own brother, Taylor.

Duffy exhibits all the notable attributes of the Hollywood asshole. He never speaks (on-camera, at least) about his desire to do anything but obtain massive wealth and exert massive influence. For a man striving to become both a musician and filmmaker at once, he's not driven by any sort of creative or artistic impulse. Only the base desire to accumulate.

Despite not yet having secured an album deal, Duffy already speaks as if he's Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one. Absurdly, he wears a hat emblazoned with a "Boondock Saints" logo before the film has even entered pre-production. He repeatedly declares himself the first man in history to secure a record contract while producing his first feature-film. More than once, he speaks of going toe-to-toe with Miramax, and defeating them within the industry they partially control.

Duffy is drunk through most of the film. Whether this is a function of the filmmakers bias or Duffy's real life behavior is unknown to me. What I do know is that you could follow me around with a camera for a decade, and not get this many shots of me falling on my ass after slugging too much Jack Daniels. Close, but not quite this many.

It's his paranoid aggression that eventually drives those closest to him from his side. When the band secures a record contract and garners a cash advance, the filmmakers are denied any compensation. Duffy explains that they only worked hard for the band hoping to get something in return, so they don't deserve anything. It's confused, twisted logic, obviously designed to cheat them out of money. Overnight, I suspect, is their revenge.

But despite the personal motives of Tony Montana (yes, that's how he's credited) and Mark Brian Smith, Overnight is a remarkably touching success. It's one-sided, in that the filmmakers obviously dislike Duffy and seek to portray him as a jackass (this doesn't seem very difficult), but they don't totally ignore some of the complexities at the edges of the story.

They grant that, as written, "Boondock Saints" was a pretty good script that deserved a shot. And they definitely lend credence to the theory that Harvey Weinstein buried the movie out of spite, having disliked Duffy's arrogance and resented his lack of appreciation for Miramax and Weinstein's generocity. And the filmmakers even include themselves in the very sad montage that ends the film, showing Duffy and all his friends, who had once been so sure of their success and financial security, working day jobs and living like schlubs. (Montana is seen tossing down shots in J. Sloan's, the same bar Duffy worked at the film's beginning).

This is a terrific movie, one of those documentaries that came together purely out of divine providence. The fact that Smith and Montana were right there the entire time with cameras, to document the rise and fall of this sad little man, is something of a miracle. Overnight might be hard to hunt down in mainstream video stores - who knows...maybe Blockbuster will carry it - but if you can find it, watch it. It will grant you at least some perspective on why LA is pretty much the worst city in the world. Except maybe Baghdad.


The entire time I was watching Bugsy, I kept remembering Martin Scorsese's The Aviator from last year. The films take place within 10 years of one another, with Aviator opening in the 30's and Bugsy in the 40's. They are both autobiographies of notorious dreamers; Scorsese's film takes on the remarkably ambitious yet mentally ill Howard Hughes, while Barry Levinson's Bugsy looks at ambitious yet neurotic gangland figure Benjamin Siegel (Bugsy to the press). They were both outsiders who fell in love with the style, glamour and women of Hollywood.

But beyond these surface details, the films share a fealty for the past, a desire to create not just a portrait of a memorable historical figure, but a panorama of this period in American history. Both succeed on some level, though I'd say Aviator is by far the greater film, more heartfelt, more nuanced, more imaginative, and far more cinematic. Bugsy doesn't so much envelop the viewer into the fully-realized world of period Hollywood the way Scorsese does, but the film does get a lot of the details right, and it does tell a fairly remarkable true story.

All the famous gangster names from the 40's kind of get jumbled together, and people don't really remember what each individual guy was known for. There's Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Bugsy Malone, Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano...and a whole shitload more. Lots of contemporary films have tried to reenact their struggles for power and the inner-workings of their relationship, but it tends to become overwhelming, complex and unsatisfying. Remember Mobsters? Or Hoodlum?

Bugsy screenwriter James Toback instead focuses on just the Benny Siegel story (though it involves Lansky, Cohen, Luciano and other notable figures from the criminal underground fo the time). This makes sense, both because star Warren Beatty had worked to get a film made about Bugsy for many years, but also because of Toback's career-long fascination with gamblers.

At its heart, that's what Bugsy is all about. A man so obsessed with gambling that he continually and pathologically put everything in his life at risk. Meyer Lansky (played in the film's best performance by Ben Kingsley) says about his childhood friend that "Benny never cared for money," and we come to see that this is true. Money is merely the means to an end; it is useful only in that it can be sacrificed in the realization of some grander vision.

For a businessman like Lansky, money is the end point, the final result of a lifetime of hard work. But for Siegel, it exists only to provide him with attractive women, respect, fame and power.

The film focuses on two significant events in Siegel's life. The first is his meeting Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) while hanging out on a movie set with his friend, actor George Raft (Joe Mantegna, who oddly doesn't look or sound anything like the real George Raft). Though Siegel's married with two children at the time, he will eventually leave his family for Hill, the love of his life. The second is his visit to a small bar/casino owned by Meyer Lansky in the Nevada desert.

Famously, Beatty and Bening actually fell in love during the filming of this movie, and their real story kind of echoes the one they're acting out. An older womanizer meets a striking younger beauty on a film set and falls in love with her. So it's strange that the romance never really comes alive on screen.

He's a terrific actor and I don't want to fade him because once he was very nice to me, but Warren Beatty is kind of the problem here. In the scenes focusing on Siegel's raw ambition, Beatty is great, adapting a kind of fast-talking, shifty demeanor that's kind of different from any other performance of his that comes to mind. But he seems kind of distracted during the scenes with Bening. The plot turns on Siegel's complete devotion to Hill, but when they're together in the film, he doesn't ever even seem that into her.

Late in the film, LA gang leader Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) warns Benny that Virginia may be stealing from him. Benny reacts angrily, violently, denying that it could ever be possible. It's the first time we've seen him express his love for Virginia emotionally. Unfortunately, by that point, the relationship has been established and the plot's final movements have already been set into place.

That scene, though, brings up the other real shortcoming in the Beatty performance. Bugsy Siegel had a massive temper, and there are several points in the film in which he's called upon to explode in rage or even violently attack someone. Beatty never convinces us of this man's internal struggle with anger or that he would ever be an imposing threat to those around him. Maybe it's that Warren's a few years older than anyone else in the principal cast, or maybe it's that he tends to play reserved, thoughtful guys rather than mad dogs. But whatever the reason, his attempts to portray Siegel's sociopathic criminal tendencies aren't believable, and even get a bit silly at times.

Considering his emotional attachment to this material, it's surprising Beatty didn't simply direct the film himself, rather than turning over the reigns to Barry Levinson. I like Levinson, he's made some good films (Tin Men being a particular favorite of mine) and he does a nice job. The film has a really old-fashioned kind of visual style that's obviously appropriate to the material, and the realization of 40's Union Station in LA or of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas upon its initial opening is handled really well.

But the whole thing's a touch obvious, a bit clear from the beginning. I mean, obviously, the film is based on true historical events, so you can't fudge the truth to make it more surprising at the end. But there's this feeling of inevitability over the proceedings that I didn't really care for.

An example: there's a whole sequence, set in Cuba, in which Lansky, Luciano and other gang leaders from America discuss the Bugsy situation and how to handle it. We're tipped off at this point that they all basically want Bugsy dead, and that his friendship with Meyer is the only thing keeping him alive.

It's a nice scene, and of course it's fun to see all of these notorious, iconic figures in such a setting, but it also kills the momentum of the film's final act. Most regrettably, Toback then provides Kingsley with a silly monologue that essentially explains the theme of the movie to the audience. "Benny's a dreamer. He didn't care about money. He wanted to build something that would last." And on and on.

But even before that, the movie insists on foreshadowing Benny's fate constantly, and nothing makes a film feel flat more than constant telescoping, setting up exactly what's to come. It makes the entire experience of film-viewing feel rote. Films, particularly crime films, should never feel this obvious, whether or not you already know the story going in.

Like its subject, the film Bugsy is kind of a dreamer. It hopes to be a searing American epic, a romantic biography of an iconic figure told in big, bold strokes. It never quite gets there. But it's nice to see a movie with oversized ideas anyway, I suppose, even if it's not The Aviator every time.

A Play in Five Acts

Lons' masterwork, entitled "Five Stupid Conversations I've Had While Working Retail," premiered at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse in April of 2005.


Lons - Jude Law
Customer #1 - Jason Schwartzman
Customer #2 - Bea Arthur
Customer #3 - Vin Diesel
Customer #4 - Molly Shannon
Customer #5 - Jim Broadbent
Sig - Luis Guzman
Ivan - Patton Oswalt
Mark Hamill - Himself
Robert Carradine - Himself

We present here the full text of the play.

A Play in Five Acts
[A reasonably crowded suburban Barnes & Noble store. CUSTOMER #1, a young man wearing a band T-shirt and oversized, baggy shorts, enters clutching a loose leaf piece of paper. He's walking with purpose towards the information desk. Behind the desk, picking grime from beneath his fingernails, is LONS.]
Hi. I'm doing a report and I need a few books.
I need to find some stuff on the Spanish Inquisition.
Back there in history.
Okay, so is that in fiction or what?
Wait...Is fiction the stuff that's true or the stuff that's fake?
[The same Barnes and Noble store, slightly less crowded than before. CUSTOMER #2, an older lady, comes in carrying a massive, overstuffed purse. She walks to the Information Desk after wandering around aimlessly for a moment.]
Do you work here?
[Lons looks around in amazement...He is, after all, behind the Information Desk.]
Um, yeah.
I need a book for my son.
He needs it for his English class.
It's a play. It's called "Hamlet." I don't know the author.
[Laser Blazer, a large, bright, well-stocked DVD store, hums with activity on a weekday afternoon. LONS and IVAN stand behind the counter, busying themselves, when CUSTOMER #3, a real mook wearing a wifebeater and sweaty from a workout, enters. He hands LONS a DVD.]
Yeah, I just want to return this.
[He enters some information into the computer.]
Actually, there's a $1 late fee, because it's a day late.
When was it due?
[Laser Blazer, much the same as before, except now a batty old lady, CUSTOMER #4, is browsing around. LONS and SIG stand behind the counter, cleaning discs and labeling. CUSTOMER #4 walks up to the counter carrying a stack of movies.]
I'm looking for a specific movie...Maybe you guys can help me.
We'll try.
It's a remake of this old Cary Grant movie...
It stars Matt Damon.
I think it was out a few years ago.
I can't actually think of a Grant remake with Damon...
Me either.
I think it was a remake of Charade.
Oh, that was The Truth About Charlie.
Oh, great!
Except, it stars Mark Wahlberg, not Matt Damon.
What? Oh, that's not it, then.
No, it is.
No, no, this had Matt Damon.
I don't think he ever remade Charade.
He didn't. You're think of Truth About Charlie. And it sucks anyway.
Yeah, that's what you mean.
It was Matt Damon. Oh, well, I guess you guys just don't have it.
[Laser Blazer is packed and buzzing with activity. There's currently some sort of autographing event going on in the background. Star Wars star MARK HAMILL can clearly be seen on the panel, as can Revenge of the Nerds star ROBERT CARRADINE.]
[A large man, CUSTOMER #5, speaking in a bizarrely-forced English accent and looking by all accounts like a homeless person, waits patiently in line. After a brief period, he reaches the front register, where LONS is waiting to assist him.]
Yes, I'd like to purchase these movies.
You may recognize my voice, I do a terrific amount of voice-over work.
I just finished working on the new PIXAR film, it's called Razzamatazz. It won't be out until 2007 though, I'm afraid.
It was lovely to see Bobby Carradine and Mark again. We simply must work together some time soon, you know. I've worked with so many of the great ones.
You're insane.
[Here, the CUSTOMER notices a DVD box set next to the counter. He looks at it with affection.]
Oh, you have that new Christopher Lee set of Hammer films. He's a dear old friend of mine. We first worked together almost 30 years ago, can you believe that?
Move along, sir, or I'll be forced to kill you with my bare hands.
I spent a good deal of time at his estate in New Hampfordshire. Massive place, you know.
[LONS leaps over the counter and begins to strangle CUSTOMER #5 to death.]
[Curtain falls.]

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Loans and Groans

I don't use the Master's Degree I earned a few years back from USC. In fact, I've never really even considered a job where the Master's Degree in Communication Management would prove useful. Once, I went for an interview at a production company that owned a lot of comic book properties, and I think maybe the degree would have been useful had I got the job, but I'm pretty sure they hired someone more adorable than me to run their office.

And I can't blame them. I'd rather come in to work every day and look at some beautiful, statuesque Los Angeles co-ed than a paunchy, sweaty bearded guy, regardless of his educational background. (Well, unless he went to Bartending School - then he might be worth keeping around).

In fact, the Master's Degree as a concept seems like half a scam at this point. My program only lasted about 2 years, which I wouldn't say it quite enough time to "master" any given subject, particularly one as massive in scope as "Communication" and the management thereof. But "vague familiarity" doesn't sound as good as "Master," and USC has to get students to enroll, after all. So, VFD (Vague Familiarity Degree) gives way to MA or MS.

And even once you have a Master's, and we all assume you've mastered whatever subject you studied, there aren't a lot of opportunities out there open to you in the work force. Most jobs don't require an MA or MS, and quite often, the time a student spent studying was time other people spent actually working their way up in a given profession.

My own life is a perfect case study of this syndrome. I worked my way through the MA program at a post-production company, although several other students simply attended classes without working. When I graduated, I was surprised to discover that most potential employers didn't want to hire me - they were put off by the fact that I hadn't been actively interning at other companies over the past few months, and they were afraid that I was over-educated for entry-level positions.

So you see, the MA really worked against me. I have about $40,000 in student loans...What if I had spent that money to live for a year while working some high-level but non-paying internship? (Now, bear in mind, I personally don't want some high-level internship...Laser Blazer is just fine for me for now...I'm using my situation only as a case study in why Master's Degrees are a total rip). Instead of that useless degree at the end of two years, I might have spent some time climbing the ladder. At the very least, maybe I'd have some kind of paid position waiting for me on the other side.

Which would be useful, because the company that provided my loans, Sallie Mae, apparently thinks it's the Cosa Nostra. Every few months, I start getting harrassing phone calls. At first, there is no answer from the calls (which arrive from an Unknown I always think it's my parents...) Then, a message comes on telling me to call Sallie Mae. Then, when I do, it's more computers I have to talk to, and more language I don't understand.

What is a "forebearance" as opposed to a "deferrment." What is "economic strain," really? When you accept that I am under "economic strain," what's the point of continuing to call and harrass me for money? Isn't that like telling someone he has third-stage syphillis and then asking in the same breath how he'd like to plan for retirement?

So all I had to do was fill out a form and send it back to continue delaying payment. I'm sure this will stop working eventually, but it's still working now. I'm not too worried, though...I bet I can still blog from debtor's prison. Might make things more interesting around here, trading in my whiny movie reviews and Worst Person Alive nominations for tales of soap bar beatings.

Do they have soap bar beatings in debtor's prison? To debtor's go to the normal pentientiary with all the rapists and murderers and recreational drug users? Or do they get their own special prison where it's just tax cheats and guys who defaulted on $40,000 in student loans because they were working in video stores? Cause, if things continue the way they are now, I'll be spending some time there.

And can I just ask...what's the deal with calling your vile, money-grubbing loan agency "Sallie Mae"? It makes it sound like you're borrowing money from some sweet old Southern lady who's not going to pressure you to give it back.

"My stars, I sure would like to help y'all out with y'alls education...Here, take this. It may not be much, but it's all that I have."

"Aw, shucks, thank you kindly, Sallie Mae."

"Don't mention it, dearie. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

But it's not like that at all. These guys are like fucking Vito Corleone over here. I call up to renew my forebearance, and they tell me that, one day, a Sallie Mae Representative will call me and ask me for a favor and will give me further instructions. They don't have a helpful website, but they do have a bagman.

Life Beyond Google

I want to try an experiment. But before we get into the specifics, let me give you the background.

Today, I found myself discussing albino porn. Now, after doing a brief Google search, I was unable to verify the actual existance of such a thing. That is, I could not access any genuine albino porn through the use of a few basic search engines.

Now, this is disappointing, both because I'd genuinely like to see what an albino porn looks like and because it kind of shakes my faith in the Internet. They say you can find any fetish at all online, any sexual activity imaginable has its own devoted fanbase somewhere online, right? So the fact that I can't find any albino porn would seem to indicate that there's a vast untapped market out there. Someone really needs to get on this.

As for albino porn itself, it would probably be just like regular porn, except everyone's really pale. I guess it's possible the actors could get into it, and start doing albino-exclusive dirty talk, but I'm not sure they're all that clever. I've almost run out of funny albino jokes, and we're only a few paragraphs in. Imagine if I had to riff on this for 20 minutes and maintain an erection. It'd be tricky...

But here's the weird part...Even though I couldn't find any actual albino porn links, a Google search for the subject "albino porn" brings up over 3,300 results. It's something people are talking about.

Which brings us to the experiment. Can you think of a phrase that's obscure but still sensible, that doesn't bring up any results on Google? It can be the combination of two things that are incongruous - like "monkey lamp" - but not completely nonsensical, like "toadstool protestantism."

Oh, and don't actually use "monkey lamp," because it brings up almost 9,500 results.

I'm tempted to say no one will actually be able to stump Google with a genuinely sensical phrase. Remember, we're looking for concepts that are physically possible but just haven't been discussed at all on the Internet, not phrases that make so little sense, no one has ever thought to put tme together before.

Good luck!

Giving an Arm and a Leg

It's important to read obscure Australian science news websites. Or at least, it's important to read the FARK links associated with obscure Australian science news websites. Where else would I have found out this information?

People should be able to have healthy limbs removed by choice, say two Australian philosophers who are exploring the phenomenon of "amputee wannabes".

Amputee wannabes become obsessed with cutting off a particular part of their body, even though it may be healthy.Past research has suggested this rare condition may be because they believe their body part is diseased or ugly, because the notion of becoming an amputee sexually excites them, or because of a mismatch between their body and their image of it.

Cutting off your arm for sexual excitement? I've heard of rough sex, but this is ridiculous...I once slept with a woman who was missing an arm - she liked to do it three-legged doggy style. When I met my wife, she called me disarming - she'd rather chew off her own arm than date me. I tell you, I get no respect, no respect at all.

Sorry, slipped into Dangerfield mode for a second there. I feel better now.

I'm just wondering how any sort of professional can approve of sanctioning people to remove their own limbs for sexual excitement. I mean, even if that's the greatest orgasm ever, once it's over, you've got one less leg. Now how are you supposed to go to the kitchen for a snack? You can't - you've only got one leg. And forget if you want to go at it again a few minutes later.

Dr Tim Bayne of Macquarie University and Dr Neil Levy from the University of Melbourne argue that people who want a healthy body part amputated are suffering from a condition known as body integrity identity disorder (BIID), or amputee identity disorder.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy they say "such amputations should be morally permissible" on the grounds that people with BIID are not "globally irrational" and that they are experiencing suffering that can be alleviated through amputation.

What are they basing this stuff on? Someone who appeals to the government to allow the voluntary removal of your healthy limb isn't irrational? That's like the dictionary definition of irrational. Look, this is not like having your tonsils removed. Imagine only having one leg; you can't get around. I know lots of people in LA who can't live a few days without their cars, and they have fully functioning undercarriages.

And missing an arm? Voluntarily? I hope you don't want to play on the company softball team, jackass.

That's the sort of decision you don't make lightly. "Do I really want to ditch this whole left arm thing and just go with the right one? I mean, the left one doesn't quite feel right. I know it's attached to my shoulder and all, which would seem to mean it belongs on my body, but I don't somehow lacks integrity..."

The authors also say that people who don't have access to a surgeon may attempt to cut off a limb themselves or may damage it to the point that amputation is necessary.

"Surgery might be the least of all evils," they write. "Where a wannabe has a long standing and informed request for amputation, it therefore seems permissible for a surgeon to act on this request."

An informed request for amputation? An informed request?

And, by the way, where are the links to the stories about people cutting off their own limbs in their home workshops? That's the stuff I want to read! Not more of these Social Security, Iraq, missing Aruba chick articles! Come through for me, Fox News!

The first person to use the term BIID was US psychiatrist Associate Professor Michael First from Columbia University, who interviewed 52 wannabes as part of a recent study which has been submitted for publication.

He found that 15% of wannabes identified sexual arousal as a reason for amputation, 63% wanted to be restored to their "true identity" and 37% said the limb "felt different".

Thirteen percent said the limb didn't feel like their own and six people had tried to perform their own amputation, including using a chainsaw.

See, the guy doing the chainsaw amputation had a demon in his hand, okay, that came out of the Necronomicon. So he had no choice but to cut it off.

I have to say, that is some creepy shit. Can you imagine going through life with the feeling that one of your limbs was "not [your] own"? Like, everything else feels normal, but you've just got a phantom shin? Weird...What neurological wackiness could possibly cause a reaction like that? Some neurons just misfire and you develop Frankenstein Shoulder Syndrome.

Levy says it's unclear exactly what causes BIID, although it may be the result of a cortical misalignment between how the brain "sees" the limb and what's really there.

He says in the case of so-called "phantom limbs", people who lose a limb may experience the sensation that it's still there. This is because the way the limb is represented in the brain hasn't caught up with the physical change.

But amputee wannabes may have the limb but not the cortical representation.

Oh...Cool...See, you really learn something by reading the whole article, and not just skimming the first few paragraphs for funny crap.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Stupid is as Stupid Does

I hate Forrest Gump. Sure, I liked it when it first came out. But I was 14 years old.

What's your excuse?

Cause that movie is insane fascist propaganda. Seriously. I've made this case many times in my private life, and now I will frame the argument in brief for you, faithful Inertia reader.

At its heart, Forrest Gump is the story of a relationship, the love of a simple but kind man, Forrest, and his troubled neighbor and one-time sexual partner Jenny. Any simple comparison of these two characters and their story arcs will reveal the film's secret, and sinister, message.

Okay, so Forrest is a good boy. He does what he's told. He doesn't ask questions. He dutifully goes to war when asked, performs as a hero, and is celebrated by his president as a hero afterwards. He plays professional sports. He invests his money in big corporations like Apple. He designs funny, silly little T-shirts that make great gifts. And, of course, he starts up a small business that becomes a massive conglomerate, turning him overnight from a simpleton into a powerful millionaire.

In short, he's the ideal American if you're a CEO or a government official. He's represents mindless consumerism better than any fictional character I can think of - merely by doing what others tell him, he makes money, avoids trouble and leads a happy life free of care or worry.

Now, let's look at Forrest's counterpart, Jenny. She's a rebel. She's constantly questioning both herself and the world around her. She experiments with drugs, she explores her sexuality and she dabbles in political radicalism. She likes folk music and attends anti-war rallies. Oh, and she contemplates suicide, raises a child as a single mom and eventually dies of AIDS.

Do I have to draw you guys a picture? The producers of Forrest Gump are trying to tell you to turn off your brain, to stop thinking for yourself and just accept the corrupt world for what it is. Only then will you achieve any happiness. Those people intent on actually using their mind, well, they're doomed. They're all going to die of AIDS, didn't you know that?

And that's without even getting into the film's political and historical context. It wants to turn Nixon into a joke, Watergate into something light and cute from the past that we can all share a laugh about. And then the depiction of great liberal figures of the civil rights and anti-war movements...offensive caricatures every one of them. How did a film that represents the Black Panthers as a bunch of juvenile buffoons get the reputation as something clever or charming? How did a movie that reduces the entire youth revolt against Vietnam into a skit about screechy obnoxious self-involved hippies become so popular in a town full of ex-hippies?

I have no idea.

Anyway, I find the movie pretty deeply offensive, the kind of movie that I disagree with not just on an aesthetic level but on an emotional level. There's something about the whole idea of revisiting American history through the eyes of an uber-patriotic moron we're meant to admire that just strikes me as creepy and questionable to begin wtih.

I bring up The Gump because of AFI, those rotten bastards. They've just published the latest in their thoroughly useless and dull 100 Years lists, this one celebrating the Best Movie Quotes of the past 100 years. Check out Part 1 of Cinegeeks coverage of the list here. Most of them are pretty obvious, although some of them are oddly out of context.

For example, the line "Nobody's perfect" from Some Like It Hot is on the list, even though it's not funny without Jack Lemmon's line setting it up - "I'm a man!" Even with Lemmon's line, I don't think it's all that funny. To hear film critics talk about Some Like It Hot, "nobody's perfect" is the single most ingenious piece of movie dialogue ever constructred, a sublime gerund the likes of which Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy all working in tandem for 1000 years could not equal. I've always thought that movie was mildly amusing and nothing more.

To have that so high, out of context, and then not include a single quote from This is Spinal Tap, (which, though it features a fake English band, is clearly an American film) strikes me as ignorant in the extreme. Also, if I were writing this list, there would be a line more lines like this one from Scanners:

"We're gonna do this the Scanner way. I'm gonna suck your brain dry."

Not once on AFI's list does anyone threaten to suck anyone else's brain dry. Too bad.

Also, no quotes from Ghostbusters? Here are a few to choose from: "Someone blows their nose and you want to keep it?" "That's a big Twinkie." "Nobody steps on a church in my town!" "Ray, the next time someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!" "I feel like the floor of a taxicab." "Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!"

And those are just off the top of my head, people!

But the one that pisses me off the absolute mostest?

Coming in at #40:

"Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." -

Ugh. 40? The 40th best movie quote ever? Let's look at some other quotes on the list that are below this line:

"Stella! Hey, Stella!" - A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

"You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?" - DIRTY HARRY

"A boy's best friend is his mother." - PSYCHO

"Say 'hello' to my little friend!" - SCARFACE

"Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape." - PLANET OF THE APES

Let me pause here to say that Retard Tom Hanks blubbering about candy on a park bench beating Heston yelling abouty damned dirty apes on any movie list is total 100% bullshit in every way. You need photographic evidence of this point? Say no more!


How about that? That do anything for ya?

And, might I also just add, life is nothing fucking like a box of chocolates. Yes, sure, you bite into a chocolate from a box of candy, you don't know whether it will be a butter cream or a cherry cordial or whether it will have nuts or nouget or whatever. But you can rest assured it will be something at least somewhat delicious, unless you are appearing on Monty Python's famous "Crunchy Frog" sketch. I mean, even if you don't like raspberries and the confection you have tasted is filled with that raspberry liquer stuff, it's not exactly a tragic circumstance. You just spit that into a napkin, dump the napkin in the nearest potted plant and go get another piece of candy.

So how, exactly, is that like life? If you make a mistake in life, bite into what you thought was a metaphorical prailine turtle and instead find it's one of those metaphorical gross-out Russell Stover marshmallow monstrocities, you can't just spit it up and dump it. Your'e stuck with your decisions. That's not caramel you're tasting, it's a scorching case of herpes! Or homelessness! Or any one of the millions of horrible things that can happen to a person in the course of living a life.

So, might I suggest a replacement line, something not quite as cute or coffee-mug appropriate, but far more accurate:

"Life is like a box of chocolates. It's really good for a while, and then you kind of get sick of it, and before you know it, it's empty, and you throw it away and never think about it again, until eventually the paper itself is recycled into one-ply bathroom tissue for use in prisons and dorminatories."

Bunker Busters

I watched a documentary on The History Channel last night called "Saddam's Secret Tunnels." The title is deceptive - the show is far less about the tunnels than about the massive bunkers connected via tunnels. It's almost as if they purposefully changed the title to make the show seem more boring.

They could have called it "Saddam's Hidden Bunkers" or something, which is a bit sexier than actually including the phrase "tunnel" in the title of your TV show. If I were designing an hour-long documetnary for TV, I wouldn't think to include the word "tunnel" unless I absolutely had to. If the documentary is about the Holland Tunnel, though, you're kind of screwed.

Anyway, the documentary was okay, even though it did contain a lot of the same file footage repeated over and over again. Soldier Opening Heavy Metal Door, you've now officially had your 15 minutes of fame, plus an extra 45, not counting commercial breaks. What took me by surprise is how completely the film bought into the American government's view of the war in Iraq.

The entire film comes from an American mindset - Saddam was a great criminal, we went in to find him and set the Iraqi people free, we did so swiftly and efficiently, now he's in jail where he can't hurt anyone and Iraq lived happily ever after.

I mean, during a discussion of the spider hole in which Saddam was actually found, the film cuts from an image of Saddam being arrested to Iraqi kids dancing in the streets and waving American flags. Now, I mean, sure, there is some file footage in existance of happy Arabs praising the US. But would you say that's a fair representation of the aftermath of this war? Or of the aftermath of even Saddam's capture?

Granted, it's not terribly hard to make Hussein look like a bad guy. He is a bad guy. A spectacularly bad guy. An accept-his-brother-in-law-into-the-family-only-to-turn-on-him-and-have-him-tortured kind of bad guy.

But the documentary was so focused on revelling in his malevolence, elevating him and his nitwit small-time Iraqi goon squad to the SS at the height of the Third Reich.

I'm not saying History Channel is despicable or unAmerican or anything. Just that it's amazing to me how quickly this stuff becomes set in our minds, becomes "history" instead of just "factual information." Will this be the official narrative of this war? Will future textbooks read like this:

9/11 - The Aftermath

In the months that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center, American president George W. Bush made a concerted effort to track down terrorists abroad, using what he and his Vice-President Dick Cheney termed shock and awe tactics. In one instance, American troops liberated the nation of Afghanistan from its cruel, totalitarian regime The Taliban. In another, the military briefly occupied the city of Baghdad, deposing thuggish dictator Saddam Hussein and replacing him with a government of the Iraqi people, under the authority of the Halliburton Corporation and RJ Reynolds.

Discussion Questions

1. Doesn't George W. Bush kind of resemble an ape? Explain.

2. After his arrest in Tikrit, many things were removed from Saddam Hussein's beard. Identify and briefly discuss three of these things.

3. Did you know that members of the Taliban had been in Washington only a few years before the invasion of Afghanistan, to discuss the American War on Drugs? Who gives a shit?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Hostage is based on a popular novel by Robert Crais, so it has one of those twisty, complicated, high-concept kind of plots that sounds appealing to guys about to get on a trans-continental flight. See if you can stay with me here...

Bruce Willis plays a hostage negotiator in LA. Something goes wrong, he feels guilty, and he moves with his daughter and wife to Ventura County to become a local police chief.

In the small town where he lives, some hooligans break into a lovely home owned by single dad Kevin Pollack and his two kids, a young son and teenage daughter. When a cop shows up doing a random check, the hooligans freak out and start shooting, taking the family hostage.

Okay, so far, seems like a solid set-up for a movie. Willis' negotiator is shattered, can't focus, can't concentrate, needs to do the job but doubts his own abilities. So far, I was totally with the movie. It's intense, it's well-made (a bit flashy for my tastes, but solidly constructed and it looked nice), Willis is always fun to watch in this kind of role. You know, reasonable entertainment.

But Crais' ever-malleable narrative is just getting going. It turns out, Pollack has something really valuable in his house that some shady underworld figures are trying to get their hands on. They, in turn, kidnap Willis' family and hold them for ransom - if he'll use his authority to get their compact disc out of the house, they'll let his family live.

And as if that weren't enough, the film keeps piling the complications on. The house is outfitted with a Panic Room-style security system, giving the young thugs the upper hand in much of the early negotiating. Then there's the inevitable power struggle among the hostage-takers, Willis' clash with the other authorities trying to wrest control of the investigation and even one of those "take the shot"/"don't take that shot" arguments that, by law, appears in every movie featuring snipers.

Things really get out of control by the overblown action conclusion, which I guess the filmmakers felt they owed Willis' core audience but which really wasn't neccessary in this sort of film. One of the hostage-takers suddenly turns into the elite badass mercenary from hell, assaulting the SWAT team with gasoline bombs, kidnapping girls at will, and seemingly unharmed by conventional weapons.

By the time the entire house has gone ablaze and Willis is plunging through flaming thesholds with several family members attached to his back, I was basically all done with Hostage. It starts off with some amount of B-movie promise - an intriguing set-up, the willingness to explore intense scenarios involving gory violence and the threat of even more gory violence against women and children, the cooperation of Bruce Willis, who rode these sort of roles to stardom.

But it loses its nerve, or at least its belief in its own abilities as a suspense movie. Believability kind of breaks down, the structure sags and gets sloppy, and the movie just starts to fray at the edges. Also, as I said before, the direction is way over doen. Director Florent Siri, along with the well-received French film Nid de Guepes directs the Splinter Cell series of video games, so he's got the timing of the action sequences fairly down pat (and also shots of a guy sneaking around a corner to disarm another guy...all that looks fine). But as you'd expect from a video game guy, the storytelling isn't quite where it should be.

Dark Water

These Japanese horror films are all starting to run together in my head. There was Ringu, which became The Ring here in America, wherein a little sopping wet girl haunted a mother and child through the magic of VCR technology. Then there was Ju-On, remade here as The Grudge, in which a little sopping wet child and mother haunt a whole bunch of people via the somewhat unoriginal medium of the Haunted House. Then there were about five thousand more movies like this, and then Dark Water, in which a little sopping wet girl huants a mother and child by hosing them down repeatedly with the namesake murky liquid.

Hollywood has dutifully agreed to remake Dark Water, and the New Hotness Jennifer Connelly version will hit theaters soon. I wonder if the American filmmakers will attempt to add something to this material to keep it a bit more fresh, because mainstream American audiences have seen The Grudge and The Ring, and may possibly resent having to shell out $10 to see the same concepts played out three times.

Apparently the similarities between all these movies don't bother Japanese audiences, because they keep churning these suckers out, along with sequels, tie-in TV shows and comic books, and on and on and on. Personally, I admire the attention to detail and then attempt to generate genuine suspense rather than cheap "scares" that's evident in these movies. I just wish someone would turn this genre on its head and open up some more possibilties. How many rain-soaked dead children can there be, before we all recognize that this image has become not so much other-worldy but mundane?

Even the minor notes of Dark Water feel similar. (As well they should...director Hideo Nakata also directed Ringu as well as the American sequel to The Ring from earlier this year).

Newly-divorced single mom Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) and her daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno) move into a crummy apartment in a building full of weirdos. Soon, they start to see weird shit, including an oddly out of place young girl with long stringy black hair in a raincoat. And Ikuko starts sleepwalking and talking to herself and drawing creepy pictures in school.

Okay, see, I'm gonna stop here. I don't want to see one single more movie where a parent is shocked to discover a creepy, horrifying or otherwise mysterious drawing done by their child. This idea is trite and overused, and it's a cheap device in the first place. I'm tired of the entire idea that kids are somehow more "in tune" with the universe than everyone else. Only kids can go to Neverland, only kids can see ghosts and fairies and only kids can appreciate magic.

Let's get real for a second. Kids don't know crap. You're telling me the same little bastard who can't tie his shoes or put on underwear by himself can penetrate space-time and congress with the undead?

Granted, these themes are recycled elegantly. The cinematography by Junichiro Hiyashi is smooth and artful, and includes some very nice tracking shots (including one where we pan up a large water tower before bounding over it in a high-angle shot to observe the roiling waters inside). The flashback scenes to the tragedy that incites the story, as well, is gracefully pulled off. The perimeter of the shot is blurred, allowing clarity only within a small window in the center, reflecting both low visibility in a rainstorm and the indistinct nature of this half-remembered, blurry event.

But that's not enough to make up for the rote nature of the plotting. The final explanation for the haunting in particular is silly and overblown, and the climax is both staggeringly depressing and unsatisfying (and requires a drawn-out, extended epilogue). I think what might have been needed is some more context. The film only has two main characters, Yoshimi and Ikuko, and the apparation's motivation is only explored during the final 20 minutes or so. If Nakata wanted to build some additional atmosphere (and differentiate his newer film from his older film), he might have sketched in some more of Yoshimi's world.

Are there neighbors in this apartment building? Why does Yoshimi fight so much with her ex-husband? Nakata takes great pains to establish childhood abandonment as a major theme in the film - Yoshimi remembers her mother failing to pick her up after school even as she is late in picking up her own daughter, and we see in flashback that the ghost girl was left at school by her own mother as well.

But he's clearly not interested in the psychology of abandonment. The water motif in the movie really links up only to the physical circumstances of the dead girl's passing, but never relates back to the concept of being left behind by a cold, uncaring parent.

There are a lot of ideas in Dark Water, but they are all underdeveloped. Perhaps the American remake can salvage the promise and give the movie some definition and heft. It worked for Ringu, which I also felt was kind of distant and ineffective as a horror film.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Blogger, Blogger Everywhere But Not a Stop to Link

Is it possible to become bored with the Internet?

I know I didn't post much yesterday, and I've been working all day today, so I wanted to come home and blog for a bit, just to keep things interesting around here. And I'll tell you, folks, it's kind of bleak out there right now.

In the news, there's all this crap about John Bolton's nomination, but it won't really matter anyway, because GWB will just wait for the Senate to recess and provisionally confirm Bolton himself. It's only temporary (after 18 months, Bolton will require Senate confirmation or lose his post), but it won't really change anything. He'll still be the representative of our nation to the world, holding a post once reserved for a guy like Adlai Stevenson.

And doesn't he think we can tell he's gone gray? I mean, he's let his moustache go. Why not let it all hang out, John? Everyone already hates you anyway and makes fun of the way you look.

And that's only on when they're not talking about confused teens who spell the name Natalie wrong going missing in Aruba. I'm sorry...but don't people go missing every day? Whenever you hear statistics on disappearances, it's always something outrageous, like "one person goes missing in America every four seconds." And now they're acting like if we don't find one white girl in the Carribean, our entire way of life will slowly unravel.

I mean, I feel bad for Natttaalleeeeeeee's parents and all, but this is hardly 24 hour, round the clock, update me every minute kind of breaking news. More like human interest "honey, did you see some teenage co-ed's gone AWOL in the tropics?" kind of news. I'm mainly interested in the story because I'm fascinated by the concept of 124 teenagers organizing a high school trip to Aruba. I nearly shit myself with glee when the honors students at my high school got to spend a day at Magic Mountain, and that's less than two hours from where I lived!

Aruba for a high school trip? There's no drinks with 8 kinds of rum at Magic Mountain! The worst thing that can happen to you is nausea caused by following up five funnel cakes with eight consecutive go-arounds on Viper.

And as if that stuff wasn't dull enough, all the serious bloggers and online journalists are going crazy now about the Downing Street Memo, a British record of an American meeting in which it appears that...get ready...George Bush and Co. may have intentionally exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in an effort to convince Americans to go to war! OH MY GOD! The very idea of it! Can you imagine! Our President, a man sworn to protect our citizenry and uphold our laws, coldly manipulating the public in an effort to start a war against a sovereign nation without just cause! Why, you'd almost think he was a millionaire doofus, a spoiled and craven pawn in the thrall of monied interests, acting with complete disregard for the health and well-being of both troops in the field and hard-working constituents at home.

And that doesn't sound like the Chimpy I know! Just look at that face!

Now, look at that punim and tell me that's the face of a man who was planning the Iraq War before confirming any intelligence about Saddam's weapon systems and terrorist capabilities? Does that look like someone who'd spread dangerous and inaccurate propaganda, leading a nation into a bloody war without end?

So, yeah, the news is fuck-all in terms of blog fodder today. So I checked in with some other sites and blogs...

There's a new Teen Girl Squad cartoon up at Homestar Runner. It's funny, and I like those cartoons, but I'd always prefer a new Strong Bad e-mail myself.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, because you're not going to that site all the time, I've lost a little bit of respect for you. I mean, I'm not going to actually go ahead and use the word burnout, but you're clearly not keeping up the slack in terms of late-night bleary-eyed Flash animation viewing.

I mean, come on, you're missing out on the greatest single Internet cartoon of all time. The first time you watch it, it's just kind of odd and not really all that funny, but give it a little bit of time. It's surreal, it's deadpan, it has an amazingly large catalog of funny original characters, and most amazingly, it's hilarious without ever resorting to foul language or bathroom humor. And you know me...I LOVE bathroom humor.

The Brothers Chap, who do the entire thing in Flash and do most of the voices, are bonafide GENIUSES, and I can't think of any other person I'm willing to grant that title to based on website content alone. I mean, I read Aint It Cool News all the time, but Harry Knowles ain't no genius. He just knows what mutants will be featured in X3 and I got to keep up on that kind of shit. (Looks like Angel, Beast and Gambit are in, while Nightcrawler, Magneto and Pyro are out.)

Over at one of my favorite blogs, the hilarious Immoderation, blogger Lindsey has come up with this really cool innovation of animating her IM conversations with little avatar pictures. It's a neat effect that I would copy, but it would require way way way more effort that I'm willing to exert on the physical appearance of this blog. I've had the exact same layout and color scheme for all 7 months of Inertia history, and I probably won't change it unless Google goes out of business and Blogger shuts down, or if I get really drunk one night and decide that changing my blog's physical appearance is the only way to patch my life back together.

One of those scenarios, by the way, is far more likely than the other. I'll leave it to you to decide which is which.

Another of my favorite blogs, Random Acts of Violence, hasn't been updated in a few days at all, because blogger Cory got a new job that starts today. I'm sure he's stressed out about it and really busy, and who knows? He may abandon blogging altogether now that he has an active life that includes steady employment. Somehow, the blogosphere will have to get along without links to animations of Darth Vader yelling "Noooooooooooooo!"

Even FARK was kind of boring today. I mean, there WAS this one story about a monkey escaping the San Diego Zoo, but the monkey just came back on its own one hour later. How lame is that? The San Diego Zoo monkeys have become institutionalized; they crave the routine established by their zookeeper masters. It's almost like the monkey version of working in a video store.

Oh, and one more story that kind of bugged me...They're starting a game show featuring celebrities playing charades on American Movie Classics. Okay, that's just dumb, but not really bothersome. The thing's being produced by Hilary Swank and her husband Chad Lowe, and here's where it gets really annoying. In this article, they're talking about the concept of a celebrity charades show like it's the most fucking brilliant, original idea in the world, like this is going to revolutionize the game show industry.

"Out of playing, we realized we had this great group of people who were really eclectic and everybody had such a good time, it was kind of a bonding experience," Lowe said during a recent visit to the show's set, a 5,000-square-foot Manhattan loft. "And we thought, there's so much great drama and comedy and conflict that's happening here, this would make a great show."

Check out this "eclectic" group of people featured in the first run of episodes...

Stanley Tucci, Isaac Mizrahi, Julianna Marguiles, Steve Guttenberg, Rosie Perez, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bebe Neuwirth...

They're all actors! How eclectic! Oh, yeah, and Isaac Mizrahi is just a fashion designer who appears in movies, including having his own documentary. Now that's what I call an oddball pairing! What ever did they all have to even talk about?

"It's not that we're doing a show about charades necessarily -- it's that were doing a show for charity and it seemed like the most fun for everyone," said Swank, who was on the set during a break from shooting her upcoming film "The Black Dahlia." "It's active, there's movement. It's a bunch of people who perform so they get to perform, acting things out."


How self-involved do you have to be to think the world wants to watch you and your friends play charades every week? What's next?

"Well, I mean, everyone has bowel movements, so it's really relatable, and Chad and I just thought that our famous friends having bowel movements live on television would really make a great TV show! I mean, there's so much inherent drama: Will it be loose or hard or of a perfect consistancy? Does Ricki Lake leaf through a magazine, or does she focus only on doing her business? Does Gary Busey prefer Wet Ones or just plain old toilet paper, and does he take a look at the toilet paper when he's done or just immediately flush it down without sneaking a peek? The fun's in making the discovery, taking the journey," said Swank.

I think I'll end it there. Once you have made-up quotes about celebrities pooping, it's time to call it a night.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

A Tisket, A Tasket, An Affleck Fruit Basket

About a week ago, I published this article, about an unsettling account of Ben Affleck giving Kevin Smith a so-called "fruit basket" on the set of "Jersey Girl." (Sorry I can't boldface the title as I usually do, but this is the first-ever post done from inside the confines of Laser Blazer, where the laserdiscs are old but the computers are older!)

Here's what I said in that article:

Okay, so, to give someone a "fruit basket" apparently means to place your scrotum on their neck. My only concern with this is that Kevin Smith comes into our video store all the time, and so I'll probably have to speak with him (albeit briefly) within the next couple of weeks.

And so today, when Kevin Smith did come into the Laser Blazer store to do his Sunday DVD shopping, I found myself, against my better judgement, asking him about his friend Ben Affleck's balls. Here's our conversation as best I can recall:

ME: "How could you let Ben Affleck put his balls on your neck?"

KS: "It wasn't really an issue of 'let.' It's more like...[he turns around quickly, as if surprised] and you're kind of stunned for a moment."

ME: "More like, how did you not stomp on him immediately afterwards, and then refuse to ever speak with him again?"

KS: "It happened once and one time only."

I think made reference to another tabloid story from this past week, in which Christina Applegate complains that Ben Affleck recently revealed his scrotum to her, against her stated will. As Smith explained, "He likes his balls."

So there you have it folks, straight from the man himself...Ben Affleck likes to rest his testicles on the shoulders of friends for his own amusement. So, if you should ever see him in public, I recommend running in the opposite direction.

And if he asks you if you want to have a ball, you're legally entitled to murder him in self-defense.

Communication Breakdown

Here's Condi Rice today, this morning, on Fox News Sunday:

[T]he administration, I think, has said to the American people that it is a generational commitment to Iraq.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa...Say what? "Generational commitment"? When did they say that? It must have been between them telling us it will be a brief operation, executed in a blitzkreig-style "shock and awe" campaign, and them appearing on carriers under a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

You probably just weren't paying attention.

I could go and do the research to prove this is a lie, but Think Progress has already done the hard work for me and I have to go to work in a half hour anyway, so I'm just going to post the quotes he found:

Vice President Dick Cheney, 3/16/03:
[M]y belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly. . . (in) weeks rather than months

Donald Rumsfeld, 2/7/03:
It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.

Former Budget Director Mitch Daniels, 3/28/03:
The United States is committed to helping Iraq recover from the conflict, but Iraq will not require sustained aid…

Thanks, Think Progress! You're a responsible, hard-working blogger that probably never posts articles about nuns being crucified.

I'd just like to point out that, near as I can tell, the Bush Administration is trying out an entirely new line of rhetoric, a method of argumentation that has never been used before by a sitting president.

He said: I want to take the country to war, but it will be a fast and easy war, and the country will be rich enough to rebuild itself.

Then, time proved him horribly wrong, and the American people began to turn on his administration. So how does he reply? Not by saying that circumstances beyond his control foiled his plans, not by denying that the plan was his idea, and not by coming up with a new plan to salvage some part of the situation.

He says that he already told us his idea wouldn't work, and that we just weren't listening, so it's not his fault that we didn't know. I mean...really? He thinks the public's going to go for this? It would be the equivalent of having plans with your friend, and then your friend not showing up, and when you call him later, him saying "I called you and told you I couldn't must have forgotten."

I mean, sure, you probably couldn't prove beyond a doubt he hadn't called you - but you'd still know that friend was flaky, unreliable, and possibly a liar. Well, that's how I feel about this President, except without the "possibly" part. And add in "batshit insane."


Oh my God, Kevin Williamson, you totally suck ass! It's unbelievable! What the hell is wrong with you, man! You had, like, one good idea, for Scream, back in the early fucking 90's, and you've managed to turn it into an entire decade-plus career of shittacular hacktackery like The Faculty, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and...shudder...Halloween H20.

You see, Kev, we've all figured out you're little game by now...You write horror movies about characters who are smart enough to have seen a few horror movies. They're all cutesy, "self-aware," post-modern horror movies, and every time you set up some obvious similarity between your movie and the horror movies of past eras, we in the audience are expected to just shit ourselves with gleeful nostalgia, congratulating one another for being "smart enough" to catch that crafty reference to Nightmare on Elm Street.

Scream was a slasher movie that toyed with the conventions of the genre by foretelling them and making them super-obvious. I Know What You Did Last Summer took on the revenge film in exactly the same way. Then, The Faculty did the same exact thing with alien/pod people movies. And now Cursed plays out exactly the same story yet again, except with really bad CGI werewolves.

And you dragged Wes Craven's whole career down with you. Man, what the hell is with you? If you're not careful, I may just put you up for a Braffy, jerkwad.

Wait a minute...I just realized I don't know Kevin Williamson, and that he, nor anyone else who matters in Hollywood, cares at all what I think. Boy, is my face red.

Anyway, Cursed blows. But I guess you already knew that. Everyone knew that. Which is why no one saw it in theaters. But now you can rent it, and if you work in a video store, you can do so for free. And then, if the mood hits you, you can even review it in your blog. If, that is, you're cool enough to have your own blog.

But maybe you don't know how much it blows. Maybe you don't know that it's a werewolf movie in which you hardly get to see a werewolf, and when you do, it looks a lot like either a guy in a rented wolf suit thrashing about aimlessly or a CGI-enhanced wolfish blur. Maybe you don't know that it features a supporting performance by Scott Baio as himself. Maybe you don't know that it makes the exact same mistake as the Scream sequels by obviously casting an actor too famous to play a small supporting role, indicating that they will, in fact, be the killer at the end.

As a matter of fact, maybe you didn't know that Williamson's thoroughly tone deaf script needlessly transforms the werewolf genre into the slasher genre, turning the movie into another empty whodunnit exercize with an ensemble of characters desperately trying to figure out who is the "head werewolf."

The movie is so so so so very lazy. Williamson, desperate to play around some more with his tired old "self-aware" horror movie schtcik, has set almost all the action in a newly-opened LA club that's themed after...old horror movies! So a scene with a werewolf unfolds right in front of...a statue of Lon Cheney as The Werewolf! Ha ha! Man, that is so fucking deliciously clever!

The movie's so lazy, in fact, that I'm going to be lazy and not bother giving it a real review. So here goes the short version:

Siblings (Christina Ricci and some dude who's probably on a WB show or something but whom I'm too lazy to look up) are attacked by a werewolf who then eats half of Shannon Elizabeth. And probably not the tasty half, if you catch my meaning.

Then Ellen DeGeneres' girlfriend, who's a psychic, tells them they're werewolves and that they have to find and kill the head werewolf. Then, the nerdy brother does the same stuff Michael J. Fox did in Teen Wolf, clearly having seen that movie. Then, the siblings for some reason go to Joshua Jackson's new club and hang out and never really demonstrate any werewolf powers or turn into werewolves or kill anyone or before killing the head werewolf and moving on with their dull, meaningless, generic lives.

Being a werewolf (or at least a person who never turns into a wolf but self-identifies as a werewolf) is used as two separate, equally lame metaphors. First, it's implied that being a werewolf teen is like being a gay teen - you have something inside of you that you must keep secret. When that metaphor begins to break down, Williamson resorts to Metaphor Plan B, werewolfism as Sexually Transmitted Disease. Seriously.

This movie is awful.

The end.

The Jacket

To borrow a joke from David Spade, I liked The Jacket the first time I saw it...when it was called 12 Monkeys.

Okay, the two movies are not exactly identical, and there is something to admire in The Jacket's overreaching intentionally confusing proto-sci fi trippiness. But this is about as obvious as rip-offs get.

Here is a vague plot description of Terry Gilliam's 1995 masterpiece 12 Monkeys:

A mental patient claiming to come from the future slowly convinces his therapist as to the validity of his story, with the help of a fellow patient and increasingly compelling evidence of his travels through time. Eventually, his confused investigation leads him to confront the circumstances of his own death.

Now, here is a vague plot description of The Jacket, John Maybury's 2005 psychological thriller:

A mental patient claiming to frequently visit the future during isolation treatments slowly convinces his therapist as to the validity of his story, with the help of a fellow patient and increasingly compelling evidence of his travels through time. Eventually, hsi confused investigation leads him to confront the circumstances of his own death.

I mean, COME ON.

If the two movies merely shared a plot, I might be willing to forgive the transgression. But Maybury continually returns to an exploration of the exact same themes Gilliam chose to riff on a full decade ago. Take the scene where delusional Gulf War vet John Starks (Adrien Brody) first tells his compassionate therapist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about his time travel abilities. She doubts him both because time travel is impossible and because he's already been deemed insane. The fact that he's delusional can be used to rebut any claim he could theoretically make, plunging him into an existential despair.

This very same scene plays out in 12 Monkeys to similar effect - the entire notion of time travel only serving to record and satsify the inevitable movements of life. So, no matter how hard The Jacket tries to blow your mind, it never once escapes the sad reality that, as filmgoers, we've been down this very same road before.

It's too bad, because the first 15 minutes or so are pretty smashing. It's rare that the most hallucinatory passage in an entire movie will come right up front, but that's how it is here. Maybury kicks off with a brief, shockingly violent segment featuring Starks in the Gulf War, culminating in a shot to the head that appears fatal.

We're told very quickly that he survives, and cut to a year later, wiht Starks wandering a desolate Vermont highway, hitchhiking. He meets a burnout single mom and her adorable daughter, and shows them a brief kindness. Then, in a flash, we find him in a mental asylum, having been tried for the murder of a police officer and found not guilty by reason of insanity.

All this stuff works great. It's all pieced together in a woozy, disjointed, stacatto way that's truly disorienting and bizarre, simulating a kind of hyperactive, druggy amnesia. But once the film gets into the inner workings of the institution, and particularly the strange experiments of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), everything gets bogged down by psychobabble and, yes, inevitable comparisons to a certain 1995 film by a certain ex-member of Monty Python.

As for the time travel stuff, it's fairly straightforward, and unlikely to satisfy hardcore sci-fi fans who'd probably prefer the mind-bending theoretical take of something like Primer. Starks is drugged by Becker, tied up in a strait jacket (the "jacket" of the title) and placed inside one of those drawers at the morgue for several hours. While in there, he's rocketed forward in time to 2007 (remember, the film is set immediately post Gulf War, in 1992), where he romances the young girl he met by the side of the road (played as an adult by Keira Knightley in an obnoxious performance done with a bad American accent).

So, of course, he's eventually confronted by the distinctly 12 Monkeys-esque dilmenna of whether to dwell in the world of his mind or the realm of the real, and how to distinguish between the two when they seem complimentary rather than contradictory. It's pretty interesting, and the way Brody underplays the character makes the films somewhat cornball ending more palatable, but it never really rises above the level of a riff on a previous, better film.

Every once in a while, you see a movie like this - a low-budget film hoping to win fans by clearly aping a previous popular film with a devoted, culty audience. Last year's The Machinist reminded me more than a bit of Fight Club, The Assassination of Richard Nixon obviously borrows heavily from Taxi Driver, and let's not even get into the woefully poor Matrix clone Equilibrium.

On one level, I understand this as a reality of the film business. It's far easier to get a film greenlit if it reminds everyone of a super-popular film that has been previously marketed with great success. If you're an executive who can get fired for making unwise development decisions, you want to back the project with the best chance of satisfying the biggest audience.

But on the personal level, many of these are the films of young filmmakers, of guys who haven't really made a name for themselves yet and want to establish a larger audience. (Okay, so Brad Anderson, who made The Machinist has made several other films, some of them not even obviously ripped off from other movies...he's still hardly a household name and a guy trying to build his audience.) Wouldn't they want to at least try to innovate a little, to separate themselves from everyone else by injecting some kind of originality into their movies?

The guy who made The Jacket, John Maybury, has according to IMDB made mostly short films, and a few features unseen by me. Though his direction works well enough, in large part due to the fine editing of Emma Hickox, this doesn't bode well for his abilities as a storyteller. The Jacket is by turns overly obvious and needlessly obtuse. But above all else, it's familiar, which is never a good thing for a psychological thriller.