Friday, December 02, 2005

Cinderella Man

It's easy to like Ron Howard. He was Opie on that old show, he was in American Graffiti and "Happy Days," and he's funny on "The Simpsons." But I've got a little secret to tell you about ol' Ron.

He thinks you're stupid.

I swear. He told me.

Well, he didn't tell me. I've never met Ron Howard. But his movies indicate his views about the common American clearly enough. For him, the average American filmmaker is a dim sort. He or she goes to see a movie, but needs to be constantly reminded of what the movie is actually about. He or she knows nothing about American history, and so, when making a period piece, you must include helpful subtitles, newspaper headlines and context-based dialogue to give him or her proper bearings. And, of course, the average filmgoer is incapable of understanding nuance or shading of any kind. Stories must always be based on dualities - rich vs. poor, good vs. corrupt, family man vs. bachelor, insane vs. sane. Anything else is too complex for a simpleton to follow, and thus invalid in terms of proper storytelling.

In A Beautiful Mind, his most offensive film to date, Howard attempted to portray mental illness as a simple duality - a man can choose to be sane and, with the help of a good woman and his own strength of resolve, can defeat even a theoretically "incurable" condition like schizophrenia. Though Apollo 13 is probably his best film, it's still a complicated story that's simplified and turned bombastic, a true-life miracle of scientific ingenuity rendered as yet another gooey melodrama about American heroes who never say die.

And now, with Cinderella Man, Howard sets his mediocre abilities on the Great Depression, churning out a predictable slice of pap in which Russell Crowe defeats the horrors of cyclical poverty through a force of sheer will.

How does he get away with it? How can someone whose films have never once been provocative, memorable, intriguing or thoughtful be constantly listed among America's best and most beloved directors. When the guy makes a film, it's immediately considered an Oscar contender, despite the fact that all of his films are stupid and boring and obvious in exactly the same way.

Nothing happens in Cinderella Man, nothing, that is not obviously foreshadowed 10 minutes ahead of time. How does Howard imagine he will maintain our interest if we are never once surprised?

Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) was a boxer, a contender in the late 20's who never quite made it to the upper echelon of the professional circuit. By 1933 ("4 years into The Great Depression," as we are informed by a handy-dandy title card) he's all washed up, begging for work at the docks along with all the other schlubs. (A strewn old newspaper helpfully informs us that "Unemployment Reaches Record Highs!" in case we missed that week in history class).

Things look pretty bleak for good ol' Jimmy, a man so forthright and honest that he forces his son to return a stolen salami even when the family's starving, who goes on public assistance but repays the money to a government office the moment he earns enough. But then, his fiesty manager (Paul Giamatti, the best part of the movie by far) gets him a one-time-only shot at a fight with a heavyweight contender.

And, of course, Jimmy wins, and becomes an inspiration to downtrodden unemployed folks everywhere, and eventually gets a title shot and blah blah blah blah blah.

I mean, Ron can't really help it if the story he's telling is kind of a generic feel-good sports story. It's a true story! He and Akiva Goldsman (the screenwriter, who also wrote A Beautiful Mind and, as long as I'm listing credits, Batman and Robin) can't alter the facts to make the story more original.

But what they could have done is given it nuance, detail and life. They could have tried to make Braddock an interesting character, but instead they've made him a typical Russell Crowe hard-ass martyr. He's proud, loves his family, and is incapable of doing any wrong, at all, at any time. But he's also friendly, kind, an excellent neighbor, capable of mustering up the power to complete any physical task, no matter how impossible-seeming, generous to a fault and he never ever ever ever breaks a promise.

They likewise could have given Mae a personality aside from fierce loyalty and pride in her husband. I mean, their scenes together are ceaselessly dreary because they are not people. They are placeholders. Loving Wife. Loving Husband. Cherubic Impoverished Children With Conveniently Non-Fatal Headcolds. There are family scenes there that remind me of the local theatrical productions of "A Christmas Carol" in which I performed as a young child in Philadelphia. Some amatuerish actress stroking the hair of some blonde moppet..."There there, my child...Father will be home with the coal soon...And this Christmas, there shall be a fat goose for our feast, the fattest goosein all of Londontown!"

And though the sets are large and impressive in their detail, the costumes period accurate and the cinematography appropriately honeyed and gauzy and bright, the world of Depression-Era Jersey and New York never really comes alive. Because it's a romanticized notion of poverty, and of the Depression. It's Ron Howard's Magical Poverty Simulator, capable of giving you a visual sense of being impoverished but without a clue as to evoking the true, gritty reality of being cold, hungry and hopeless.

Everything looks authentic, but that just makes you more keenly aware of how Ron Howard wants to manipulate you. There are scenes of children huddling together in corners for warmth, but rather than feel empathy for their plight, you keep waiting for them to leap out of their seats singing "Food Glorious Food." It's so blatantly theatrical, so fetishized, and so so very unreal.

I don't know if it's just that Renee Zellweger isn't much of an actress, so I can never see her as anything but a squinty celebrity trying desperately to make me think she's an Irish immigrant. It could also be Thomas Newman's flat score, or Goldsman's pedestrian dialogue, or just the fact that the movie's so unbelievably repetitive and drab, but I found myself incapable of suspending disbelief in the world of the film for one moment.

Could part of the problem be that Howard has been a celebrity since childhood, and is probably very removed from having to worry about money (if he's ever had to worry about money at all...I sincerely don't know...) I'm not saying that no wealthy person can make a movie about a poor person. Obviously, such a thing is commonplace, and has been done quite well. I'm just trying to come up with some reason for Howard's inability to communicate the unfortunate conditions in which the Braddocks live.

That being said, the boxing scenes fare much better. Howard wisely rips off much of Scorsese's technique from Raging Bull. He distorts the geometry of the ring, making it at times unthinkably massive or tightly claustrophobic. He uses a lot of quick cuts and jump cuts, and even inserts shots of flash bulbs going off (a direct lift from the Scorsese film). He even borrows the Bull technique of squirting water all over the actors, to give an exaggerated sense of sweaty, weary fatigue. For the most part, it works.

(Occasionally, he gets a bit carried away. During one flurry of edits, Ron jumps quickly to an X-ray shot showing one of Braddock's ribs cracking. It's like he switched from Classy Mainstream Period Piece to Guy Ritche Film for just a moment without switching back. I'm hesitant to criticize him for it, because at least he's trying to do something vaguely interesting, even if David O. Russell did it in 1999 for Three Kings and Ritchie did some pretty similar stuff in Snatch a few years later).

The entire film builds to an extended boxing sequence in which Braddock fights world champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko, an effectively looming presence). I read at the time of the film's release that some Jewish rights groups were upset at the depiction of Max Baer as such a cowardly, mean-spirited villain, but I don't think it's anti-Semetic. It's just retarded.

I mean, could the real Max Baer have been such an unbelievable asshole? It seems unlikely to me. He's a real monster in this film, which, as I said, is unsurprising considering Howard's innate fear of nuance. Of course he has to be a being of pure evil, to offset Braddock's being of pure good. It all builds to the most shamelessly maudlin, obvious, manipulative sequence of the year, in which the entire city of New York stands behind Jim Braddock as he beats the snot out of that uppity hook-nosed Baer bastard. Howard piles it on thick, even by his standards. I'm left unimpressed.

I don't know...Maybe Ron's right and Americans really are this stupid. Maybe they can't appreciate a movie whose themes aren't spoken aloud by random characters every ten minutes.

And that happens in this movie. In one scene, Mae goes to a church to pray for Jim, and finds that the entire neighborhood is already there, praying. The priest walks over and she says, "I'm here to pray for Jim." Then he says, "So are all of them. I guess they feel like...he's fighting for them, too."


Fantastic Four

There are countless minor problems with Fantastic Four that I could spend paragraphs discussing here. Characters lacking motivation, set-ups with no payoffs, awkward or clumsy segues into cheesy set pieces, long-winded and dull stretches of pointless exposition...Normally, I'd rip a film like this apart limb-from-limb, holding director Tim Story (of Barbershop and Taxi fame) and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France particularly responsible for the film's failure to entertain or satisfy.

But, let's face it...This mess isn't their fault. They all did exactly what was expected of them, and in some isolated cases, clearly have made the best of a bad situation. No, Fantastic Four is a failure of vision. Not an economic failure - the film was a hit at the box office, proving its investors wise from a budgetary standpoint. And not even a failure as a children's film...I suspect the under-12 set will enjoy The Thing and The Human Torch as characters and will like the colorful sets and outer space sequences.

But a failure of vision. A clear, cynical attempt to take a beloved, iconic, classic story from the realm of comic books and recycle its most famous catchphrases and visual images into a cheap, disposable summer entertainment. NO effort has been made here to preserve anything that might be unique, special or interesting about the characters and universe of Fantastic Four. This is not Spider-Man 2 or Batman Begins, where a filmmaker has taken comic book material and re-imagined it cinematically, focusing on remaining true to the central idea of the character and his surroundings while shifting between two completely different art forms. This is a mediocre summer kiddie flick that happens to start an orange rock guy, a woman who can disappear and an evil guy in a metal mask.

It's a shame, really, because the Fantastic Four story could have been adapted into a really large-scale, epic action-adventure film with arguably the best villain in any comic book movie. I think I've mentioned before on the blog how Victor Von Doom strikes me as perhaps the most fascinating arch-nemesis in all of comic books. The cruel leader of his own nation, a brilliant scientist whose own experiences left him scarred and disfigured, who further enhanced his misery by permanently covering his face in a metal mask, now obsessed with insidious plots of world conquest. I mean...that's good shit...

But like everything else here, the Good Doctor has been reduced in this film to a sneering, preening caricature. In a cast filled with TV actors and relative unknowns, Julian McMahon of "Nip/Tuck" gives easily the film's weakest, most soap opera-inspired performance. Doom is about as far from menacing as any villain in comic book movie history (including Ned Beatty's Otis from Superman).

The story does, to be fair, let McMahon down, abandoning his character completely in the Second Act before reintroducing him suddenly and setting him up in a lame, pointless showdown with the heroes. In many ways, the narrative in Fantastic Four mirrors Bryan Singer's failed first X-Men movie. There's a sense that the film is intended solely as an introduction to the world of the film - as an extended prologue - rather than as a complete story. Here, as well, we spend most of the film's running time meeting characters, watching experiments go horribly awry, and then getting a glimpse at what the sequels have in store.

Brilliant scientist Reed Richards is played by Ioan Gruffold, best known to TV fans as Horatio Hornblower, but also seen by me in films like Titanic, Black Hawk Down, Wilde and King Arthur. Yet I never recognize him from film to film. And not because he disappears into his characters, but because he is a bland anonymous presence. It's like Orlando Bloom in all his non-Lord of the Rings roles. You know you've seen him in other stuff, and he's supposed to be kind of famous and a movie star, but his total lack of charimsa makes him blend right into the background again and again.

Anyway, Reed is apparently on the outs in the scientific community for unknown reasons and with his former girlfriend Sue (Jessica Alba), also for unstated reasons. He pitches an elaborate research project to his old classmate, Captain of Industry Victor Von Doom (McMahon)...Richards' team will go into Von Doom's private space station to gather data about a mysterious energy cloud set to pass by the Earth.

And this is how Von Doom, Reed, his friend and assistant Ben Grimm (Michael "The Commish" Chiklis), Sue and her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) become mutated and fantastical. After the experiment goes awry, they all return to Earth and discover that they have wacky powers. Reed gets really bendy, Ben morphs into the monstrous rock-based Thing, Johnny can control fire, Sue can disappear and throw energy around...

And Victor kind of starts to turn metal and can conduct electricity and also move metal things around with his mind, kind of. And he seems to get really insane all of the sudden. And he develops an odd gash on his face. There's really no attempt to make Dr. Doom into a character here, honestly. I'm not even sure why they bothered. They could have come up with some other random villain for the first movie and brought Doom in for Fantastic Four 2.

Anyway, that stuff basically takes you through the entire first hour. The "we have powers!" discovery stuff is really overlong and jokey. There's even a comedy montage showing the characters using their powers in unconventional ways (like Reed - a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic - using his super-stretchy arms to get toilet paper from the closet while he's on the can! Hilarious!)

And did I mention the out-of-left-field snowboarding sequence, in which Johnny flees his hospital bed to magically hit the slopes via helicopter with his attractive young nurse? It's highly implausible! And features some of the worst pop-punk ever to grace a mainstream motion picture soundtrack! Johnny is clearly the character the ad wizards figured young males will like, so they've focused a lot of the worst product placement and dumb one liners around him. I believe his first three lines of dialogue in the film quote recent commercials (including a Mastercard commercial and a Burger King commercial), which does tend to date a film unneccesarily).

With more economy, I suspect this stuff could have been done in the first half-hour, leaving more time to develop the characters or introduce an action element to the story, but you'll recall my above thesis about this whole film...No one cared to make it a satsifying and complete story. It's a piece of marketing, shallow and broad by design, intended only to push the brand Fantastic Four on people, gear everyone up for a bigger-budgeted sequel and sell some DVD's and Thing dolls this, I mean, blessed sacrimental manger-riddled Christmas season.

So what we're left with is a rushed 30 minute free-for-all in which Dr. Doom puts on his metal mask and decides to kill the Fantastic Four for no good reason. No. Good. Reason. He indicates that he might want to do something evil later, now that he can conduct electricity, and that he'll need Reed & Co. out of the way to do so, but this is extremely thin. Why not just do something really evil and see what happens?

But instead, he de-Things The Thing using Seth Brundle's teleportation pods from The Fly and then sets on the other three members individually to kill them, failing each time. It doesn't bode well for Dr. Doom. A the end of the film, there's one of those teasers that shows the villain escaping and preparing for another round of villainy, but it's not really scary because the guy has been so ineffectual thus far. All he set out to do in the world with his billions of dollars, his lust for power and his magical powers was to kill four people, and he couldn't even kill a single one! And one of them is Jessica freaking Alba (who between this and Sin City has proven quite a wily target for all manner of serial murderers this year).

Honestly, I feel kind of bad ripping the movie. As I said, Story and his writers clearly do the best with what they had. A quick scene in which New York "meets" the Fantastic Four when they save some firemen on the Brooklyn Bridge is well-executed and fun, and has that neat shot of The Thing stopping a big rig truck using his body that was in all of the commercials. (Never mind that the accident only happens in the first place because of The Thing...) And the final scene, in which a complete Fantastic Four battle Dr. Doom, is much more impressive and comic-like than, say, the speedy and muddy denouement of Singer's first X-Men movie.

What the X-Men sequel managed to do was take a dull opening film and really expand on its themes and ideas, to take the universe that was barely introduced in the first movie and make it more whole, fleshed-out and complete. It would be nice if Fantastic Four 2 could do the same, though I'm not sure if there's even any interest, considering how well this film performed.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Like a Radio Jew

I'm listening to the new Pernice Brothers album right now. Discover a Lovelier You. It's a great album. Very laid back, very dreamy indie pop. Right up my alley. They remind me of The Shins, kind of, not so much in the vocal department, but in the consistantly solid songwriting and overall, I don't know...tone.

Again, you see why I don't write about music all the time.

Anyhoo, there's a song on the album called "Dumb It Down" I really like, but listening to it just now, I could swear he sang..."Dumb it down for the Average Jew."

I was like, "really"? The average Jew needs things to be dumbed down? Then, I played it back and realized, of course, that he's saying "Dumb it down for the Average Joe." Which makes a lot more sense, in kind of a satirical way. So, okay then.

It reminded me of another time I made that mistake. Back when I was in high school, in the early mid 90's, Duran Duran had a brief return to popularity with the release of a new album. One of the singles, "Come Undone," featured a line in which Simon LeBon actually said, "Like a radio tune/I swear I've heard before." But my friends and I all were positive he was saying "Like a radio Jew/I swear I've heard before." Which doesn't seem like it would make a lot of sense, but when you consider that Howard Stern, a noted half-Jew, is the most popular radio personality in America...

Okay, it doesn't make any sense. And he's clearly saying "radio tune." But I was 15, what the hell did I know?

Anyway, thinking about that reminded me of this whole conversation I had at a speech tournament in high school about The Beatles. A bunch of us, somehow, got on the notion of..."What if the Beatles were all anti-Semites? How would their songs differ?"

We wound up with a whole lot of funny song titles. I don't remember most of them. In fact, the only ones I do remember are my own. (Why, I don't know...Maybe I only listen when I'm speaking, and when others are speaking I zone out and think about what I'm going to say next. I should probably work on that.)

- For the Benefit of Mr. Kike
- Magical Mystery Tour of Dachau
- While My Guitar Gently Heebs

Others had funny ones, I'm certain. But, then, they don't have their own they...

[By the way, if you can think of hilarious anti-Jew Beatles songs, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I have no idea why I find the idea funny. Perhaps it's the fact that I'm a self-hating Jew, which wouldn't really bother me if it wasn't such a hideous, lame cliche.]

Mangum P.I.

One of the unquestionable rock masterpieces of the 1990's is Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," the strange, creepy, trippy and ingenious product of singer/guitarist/songwriter Jeff Mangum. He only produced two albums - "Aeroplane" and the also-terrific "On Avery Island" - before disappearing, not just from the music scene but from the known world entirely.

So, here's what happened...This woman, Shannon, who shared a living space with Jeff and some other musicians back in her college days, has just realized that she has a tape featuring early Neutral Milk Hotel demos. This is stuff that not even the die-hard crazed NMH fans have heard before. And they're not some fuzzy, unintelligable home recordings of interest only to audiophiles. These are just great songs.

Rather than attempt to horde this material for herself, to hopefully profit from on Ebay or something like that, Shannon is very coolly just making the material available for free online download. Why not go download them for yourself?

Other songs from the demos are available on music blogs My Old Kentucky Blog and You Ain't No Picasso. I love discovering new music blogs, because you can go back for the past few months and get a ton of interesting new unknown music really quickly. Right now I'm listening to a band called The Attorneys from Brooklyn who are actually pretty good. Who knew?

It's Gotta Be the Shoes!

Of all the great American filmmakers who have a bad image with the public - from homewrecking, underage-fancying Woody Allen to "sex offender...with a record" Victor Salva to half-crazed paranoid drugged up Oliver Stone - perhaps no one is more frequently maligned then Spike Lee. The guy has become a cartoon of the "Angry Black Man," to the point where no one takes anything he does or says seriously any more, and people are embarrassed to talk about how many of his new films continue to be really good.

I wrote about this phenomenon a while back...about bad comedians running a punchline so completely into the ground that the public just begins to accept a caricature as the truth, and nuance takes a backseat to cliche. Spike Lee provides a particularly egregious example, a smart man, an artist, with many provocative or interesting points to make, who is constantly presented to people as a silly little angry black man in glasses, to be ridiculed and/or ignored.

Maybe you don't believe me. Maybe you think playing Mars Blackmon in a couple funny TV spots, or getting riled up at Knicks games, removes Spike's significance from the public discourse. Or maybe you don't think Do the Right Thing, Clockers, The 25th Hour, Malcolm X, Bamboozled and She's Gotta Have It are great movies. We'll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

(Okay, he's made a few bad movies. But he works all the time. Very few directors have made as many films as Spike without making as many bad ones. But, yeah, okay, fine, Summer of Sam is pretty awful. And somewhat prejudiced against Italians.)

But if you disagree that Spike gets an unfair shake in the press, look no further than this offensive interview with Slate Magazine. Slate's art critic, Lee Siegel, asks him a series of leading questions clearly designed to get him into an angry rant. She barely talks about his films or anything he's working on (except for one silly question..."what are you working on right now?" Lee, you're interviewing the man, shouldn't you already know that?) She just keeps asking him about contemporary, provocative subjects, or even about his opinion on whole races of people, to get him to say something that could potentially be viewed as racist or outrageous.

Not only does he not take the bait, but Spike comes off like an entirely level-headed, reasonable and thoughtful guy. In fact, after reading the interview, I disagree with a few things he says, and feel like he speaks sometimes without considering the long-term ramifications of what he's saying. But he still comes off a lot better than the interviewer.

The interview is ostensibly about Spike's new autobiography, That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It. It's a pretty stupid name for an autobiography. (I'd have gone with the above headline, myself). But after one quesiton about the book - and it's about the title - Lee immediately gets into her real questions. This is the second question she asks in the entire Q&A:

Of course, I was particularly interested in what you have to say about the situation of blacks in Hollywood. But also in your statements about the Holocaust. You pretty much said that any movie about the Holocaust is going to carry all the prizes.

Spike is about to correct her, because that's not even what he really said. But what kind of question is that? It's a semi-controversial statement he made almost a decade ago that was blown way out of proportion even at the time! Here's his reply:

Whoa, whoa! What I was speaking of specifically was the feature-length documentary branch of the academy. I mean, there was a time—you could do the research, I don't have the chart in front of me—but for a period of over 10 years, almost every film that won best feature-length documentary was about the Holocaust.

Of course, he's right. And he's not making an anti-Semetic statement at all, as he was accused of when this was first in the news. He's pointing out that the Academy blatantly plays favorites in determining winners, giving the prize for subject matter and content rather than quality of filmmaking. And he's right. Anyone who can read the Arts & Liesure Section can see that non-fiction films about the Holocaust win Oscars with some amount of frequency. This isn't even surprising, because there are, demographically, a lot of Jews voting on the Oscars, and Jews are going to be more interested in Holocaust films than other people.

Like I said, it's a provocative statement, but not a racist one. And to ask about it up front is (1) hostile, (2) of questionable merit and (3) indicative of the interviewer's lack of knowledge about Spike Lee aside from the barbs of Master of Wit Jay Leno.

Slate: That is an issue, right? It's followed you throughout your career, the relationship between blacks and Jews.

Lee: It's not an issue for me.

Slate: No, it's an issue for everyone else.

Lee: I have nothing to do with that. But I remember thinking when we were nominated for 4 Little Girls and then finding out that a rabbi was a producer for the other one: We're not gonna win.

Okay, he comes dangerously close to making an anti-Semetic remark here. In fact, he's right...That other film with the Rabbi Producer did win. And it's not so insane to think that a movie about Jewish themes will do better, Oscar-wise, than a movie with Southern black themes. As a Jew, I can make that separation - that he's dealing in stereotypes that are often repeated by anti-Semites, but that he also at the same time may be correct in his assessment. At the same time, I personally would never make that statement in public.

My larger point, though, is that there's no reason for him to still be discussing this issue in this much depth. And Siegel's leading him to say something offensive. "Why don't blacks and Jews get along?" "Why is this is an issue for everyone?" "Why won't you say something mean about Jews."

Slate: You know, I go to a Clint Eastwood movie, and I see that time after time, Morgan Freeman is playing Clint Eastwood's sidekick. Everyone loves these movies; they always win awards. But nobody complains about that. There's no black group that complains and asks, "Why can't Clint Eastwood be Morgan Freeman's sidekick?" Would you like to see a black uproar over that?

Are you goddamn kidding me? "Would you like to see a black uproar about that?" You think they'd ever ask Steven Spielberg that question?

"So, Steve, I've noticed that Dustin Hoffman, a Jew, is never cast as the lead in any big budget action films. Would you like to see a big crazed Jewboy uproar about that? Think all the Jews should start wilding in the streets, stealing TV's and clubbing police officers over the head with their oversized penises? Hmmm?"

I mean, is anyone on Earth offended by the fact that Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood are friends and make movies together? In Million Dollar Baby, okay, sure, Freeman's character works for Clint's in the gym. But he is the narrator, and the emotional heart of the film. But in Unforgiven, they're pretty much equals. If Clint's the main character, it's only because he's the director and people focused on him more. Plus, Morgan kind of plays the second-fiddle onlooker in a lot of non-Eastwood movies, like Shawshank Redemption and Sum of All Fears.

Now there's a question for Spike Lee. "Morgan Freeman was a supporting character in a Ben Affleck film. Are they trying to say Ben Affleck is inherently better than all black people?"

Once again, here's Spike's fairly reasonable, measured response:

Lee: Oh, man. We have more things to have an uproar about than Morgan Freeman.

Spike then has to lead the conversation over to an acutally interesting topic, the lack of black creative power at the major studios. He gets in a few good points:

Look, you get into that position and you know that first of all your films have to make money no matter who you are. But I can confidently say that if there had been a gatekeeper at MGM, I don't think Soul Plane could have gotten made. I'm confident in saying that.

So things go along a little better for a while. They talk about Bamboozled, a film of Spike's I really enjoy. And they make a point about Damon Wayans, how he was able to move from that movie, a strong rebuke of black entertainment based around archaic stereotypes and minstel-level comedy, and right into Marci X, as offensive and racist a mainstream film as has been released in this decade.

But Lee's not done yet. She's got a few more zingers just waiting in reserve:

Slate: Do you think there's a difference between a black acting style and a white acting style?

If I were Spike Lee, and someone asked me that question, I'd have been out the door. Are you kidding me? How do you answer something like that? "Blacks are gooder!" What an idiot.

Lee: No, I'm not gonna—no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not. Nope.

Slate: Because I look at a great actor like Jeffrey Wright—do you like his stuff?

Lee: Yeah, I love Jeffrey.

I like Jeffrey Wright also, by the way. Looking forward to seeing him in Syriana.

Slate: And I see that he's not an actor in the mold of, say, Brando, or Sean Penn. Wright disappears into his characters like a British actor, and I see a lot of African-American actors doing that—Cuba Gooding, I think, does that also.

Lee: You're putting Cuba Gooding in the same league with Jeffrey Wright?

Do we need to go on? Are we done here? Is Lee Siegel saying that Cuba Gooding disappears into his characters in a way Marlon Brando never has? Isn't that immediate grounds for being terminated by Slate Magazine? It should be.

Slate: What are you working on now?

Lee: We're doing the score for my new film. The film is called Inside Man. It's about a bank robbery that becomes a hostage situation. Denzel Washington is a New York City detective; he runs a hostage-negotiation team. He has to match wits with the mastermind behind the bank robbery, who is played by Clive Owen.

Intrigued? Me too. This sounds like a terrific film. And it's the first I've heard about it. Lee Siegel asks him not one more question about the new film. Who wrote it? Is it all shot on location in New York? Are you fazed by the expectations going into a new film from you and Denzel Washington? Doesn't this sound a lot like Die Hard? Who's doing the score? Who's shooting the movie? When is it coming out? Did you write the book while working on the film, or has the book been done for a while?

Nothing. He/she segues immediately to this:

Slate: I remember you got very angry when you were talking to Will Smith about directing Ali, and Smith said to you, "Well, I want someone with a broader vision." You said you knew right away it wasn't going to be you.

Spike, talk shit on Will Smith. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.

I'll be honest with you guys. There's more offensive stuff here, but I started losing interest at this point. This interview is ridiculous. Slate should apologize to Spike Lee and interview him over again.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

That headline's a reference to an old Sesame Street song. Remember that one? I think the whole song is that line repeated over and over again with the stress on different syllables. Like:

These are the peeeee-ple in your neighborhood
In your neighborhoooooood
In your neeeeeeeighborhood, yeah
These are the peeeee-ple in your neighborhood

Sounds grating now, but I must have liked it at age 5, so it stuck. I also remember the whole Pixie and Dixie theme song from the old "Huckleberry Hound" show. It's a curse, really.

Anyway, I have a few minutes before I have to leave for this party thing I'm going to (more later, unless something really upsetting or humiliating happens, which is always possible when I show my face in public). And this is a post I've wanted to write for a while...There are a bunch of other interesting places on the same block as Laser Blazer, the stretch of Pico Boulevard between Parnell St. and Prosser St. Prosser might be an Avenue. But Pico is a Boulevard. People have insisted to me before that roads are given these various names for an actual, sensible reason, but it seems random to me.


There's a newsstand on the corner, run by an older guy who sometimes comes into the store to get change. I wonder if people want to stop by and chat with him endlessly like they do at the video store? Does a newsstand guy have the expectation to make small talk with the customer like the retail employee in a repeat business like video rental? I stay up nights thinking about this stuff.


Next, there's a Subway sandwich shop. Sometimes, I'll go in there in the afternoon and get a Large soda, and then go back for the rest of my shift and refill the cup. The employees let me get away with shit like that, because I think they take pity on me. I'm pretty sure the Subway people are making more than I am, and there's a distinct chance that fewer insane people want to tell them all the minute details of their sad little lives, so I accept their pity in the form of multiple Dr. Pepper refills.

Buttercake Bakery

Right next to our store, there's this little boutique bakery place that is, quite frankly, incredibly awesome. I'll go in there for coffee, and on more than one occasion, I've actually avoided buying some sort of delicious baked good. But it doesn't always happen that way. The other day I had a lemon bar that was really great, and when it was all finished, I was left with that thin bakery tissue thing they wrap the lemon bars in, and it had lemon bar goo (the best part!) still stuck to it.

Now, if I were by myself, I'd have licked that fucking goo off of there in a heartbeat. But being in public, in front of an entire video store, having already stood there eating a bit lemon bar all by myself, I figured licking the paper would make me look like a goofy fatass with no willpower. Never mind that I had just had an entire lemon bar. No, no, it was licking the paper that would seal the deal. That was the difference between "working guy with a sleight weight problem treating himself to a snack with his coffee" and "obese moron adding to his unsightly layers of fat with another indulgent, sickeningly sweet confectionary with regard to neither proper retail decorum or his personal appearance." The paper.

So, I threw it away. And then felt very satisfied with myself. So I bought a package of Junior Mints. (Ha ha! Just kidding...maybe...)

Laser Blazer

The single greatest DVD store in the city of Los Angeles. And I'm not just saying that because I work there. I work there because I'm saying that. You see what I mean?

Right now we have this big promotion going on for the holidays, and...

Oh, sorry, Bill. For the Beloved Blessed Virgin Birth High Holy 12 Days of Christian Chrystmastyme Joyfullness.

Anyway, at Laser Blazer, we've got the brand new 1001 Must-Have Movie Section. It's pretty helpful, because once people step inside the store, they tend to completely forget whatever it was they were looking for. I see it all the time. That's seriously how good the selection is in our store - it immediately causes brain disease.

"Oh, I know I was going to ask you about a movie...Let's see...I have it written down somewhere, in the car...I think it was with Matt Damon...Why can't I remember what the hell...OH, is that Cool Hand Luke right there? I love that one...What the hell were we talking about?"

So now, all the really good movies are in one spot, and I can just lead customers over there and let them wander around for hours. It's great, like day care for overbearing DVD shoppers.

Some Karate Studio

The plot where the video store now stands was once a karate studio, which has since relocated down the street. So we still have beams around from which to hang punching bags, and lockers in the back in case one needed to change out of street clothes and into one of those white karate suits with the multicolored belts. (Are those called something? Robes? That's not very badass sounding...)

Sometimes, they'll take the classes out in the back of the store and do exercizes around the parking lot, and I'll have to veer my car carefully around a mob of 8 year olds punching invisible foes. Why do this with a class of kids learning karate? To teach them to remember their attack sequences even amidst distraction?

The head instructor sometimes comes and rents videos from the store. One time, he complained that he didn't like The Big Lebowski because it was filled with, and I quote, "mediocre jokes." This is why it's a good idea I don't own Laser Blazer...cause that sort of shenanigans would cause a lifetime banishment if I were in charge, and the place would go under within a month.


At the dentist's office today, I saw that the clothing boutique Intuition, right down the street from The Blazer, has been cited as a location where elite celebs shop. Hey, it was in Los Angeles Magazine. Not Vogue or anything. What was I supposed to do? Someone else was reading the Newsweek, and I can't exactly start up a conversation with the elderly Korean ladies with me in the waiting room. I'd try, but I hate kimchee and most of them probably haven't seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance yet.

I'm not surprised it's a hot spot. I know Jessica Alba and the Hilton Sisters have been seen there by my co-workers. Ivan even had coffee in the bakery next door right next to Nikki Hilton the other day. She was apparently discussing her sister Paris' illegal city-bound pet monkey with a friend over some baked goods.

UPS Store

I have no funny stories about the UPS Store. I went there once to ship a care package to a friend in Texas, and that has been my only experience with them. It went well.

Hamdi Market

I think it's the Hamdi Market. It's Hamdi or Hambi or Hamadi or something like that. Anyway, I think it's run by some Ethiopians. It was when I first moved there, but now it's under new management, but I think they're still Ethiopian.

Under the old management, there were no set prices on anything. The guy would kind of make up the cost of whatever you brought up to him on the spot. Usually, you got screwed. I mean, if there are set prices, I can figure out..."Okay, the 20 ounce Cokes cost $2. I should stick to a can for only 75 cents...It's only 8 ounces less!" But you always want to bring up the 20 oz. just in case this is the time it's going for only $1.

Also, they used to serve awful Mexican food behind the counter, but they have since stopped.

Pharmacy/Post Office

The pharmacy on the corner is the most overpriced store I have ever been to in my life. The other day, I had a headache so I walked over there for some Advil. A little bottle cost $8. $8! There's no smack in there, just ibuprofin. I could hire an R&D team to invent for me a new pain reliever and take that for $8. I also once went over there to buy a can of Lysol (we use a lot of Lysol at the video store because a good number of our customers are smelly old fat guys) and it was $6. Lysol! It's just compressed, scented air.

The place does helpfully have a little postal annex in the back, which is useful for me to ship out Laserdiscs to weirdos all around the world. Any time a nerdy Norwegian guy orders an old collection of Fleischer cartoons, I'm there to wrap it up in a cardboard box, tightly seal it with a tape gun and walk it down the block to the post office. And you'd be surprised how many nerdy Northern European cartoon enthusiasts there are. Or maybe you wouldn't...Maybe you know all about that stuff.

Bill O'Reilly Hates Christmas

And, by extension, Jesus. And, therefore, you.

I mean, what else can we surmise from this delightful item, compliments of Sadly, No!, a great blog that became even greater today by posting this.

Folks, this is the most wonderful thing I have seen all day. It has been kind of a crummy day so far, what with the emergency root canal surgery this afternoon. But the day is saved by the stupidity of America's Favorite Assclown, Bill O'Reilly.

As you probably know by now, if you have been paying attention, O'Reilly is very very upset with all of us for not celebrating Christmas enough. Media Matters posted today some clips from his show on November 28th that demonstrate his growing insanity. Check this shit out:

[Y]ou use your left-wing smear websites to go after anybody who stands up for Christmas. If you stand up for Christmas, they come after you. So the tandem intimidates. The tandem intimidates. Suing on one hand; smearing on the other hand.

What in God's holy name is he blathering about? Tell me, who isn't standing up for Christmas? Everyone Christian person I see, all day, is fucking aglow with Christmas wonder right about now. You know how often Christmas With the Kranks rents at the video store? Do you want to know how often fucking Christmas With the Kranks is renting? Way way way more than any Tim Allen comedy should be, I'll tell you that much!

But it just keeps going on:

In every secular progressive country, they've wiped out religion ... Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, all of them. That's the first step. Get the religion out of there, so that we can impose our big-government, progressive agenda.

I don't know what's more confusing...That he's comparing Americans who say "Happy Holidays" with Nazis or that he's calling Hitler a "secular progressive." I mean, whether or not all those famous evil Commies were progressives is, I would say, certainly still up for debate...At least they all share a general political outlook. But Hitler? He's about as non-progressive as you can get without actually inventing a time machine to return your entire nation to an earlier historical era.

I mean, come on, Bill...You at least got a G.E.D., right?

Anyway, that bullshit isn't why I asked you all to meet me here. I promised you something highly amusing. So, bearing in mind O'Reilly's gung-ho love of all things Noel-oriented, isn't it interesting that this is the catalog item for his O'Reilly Factor tree ornaments?

Holiday Ideas

Put your holiday tree in "The No Spin Zone" with this silver glass "O'Reilly Factor" ornament.

Holiday tree? What the hell is a holiday tree? He means, Christmas Tree, everybody! The secular progressives have finally "gotten to" Billy O! What will the Tiny Tim-esque Christmas-loving children do now? To whom will they turn? Surely not John Gibson, that guy looks like an insect.

I'll See You on the Dark Side of the Loon

Despite my unabiding love for reality television (or, as it's called in my apartment, "television"), I have never watched a full episode of "Trading Spouses." It's on a major network, for starters, and I generally pretend to get my reality TV from upstart, desperate networks like UPN, home of "America's Next Top Model" and basic cable stations like MTV, the Grandfather of Shows in Which Camera Crews Follow Around Mean-Spirited Yet Attractive Young Drunks.

I do make exceptions to this rule. "The Apprentice," for example, even the Martha Stewart version. And the occasional episode of "Hell's Kitchen" or "Brat Camp." But, I don't know..."Trading Spouses"? The one where the two moms switch families for a week and then pretend to understand something about how other people live? It just seems so repetitive, so facile. And it involves young children, for whom I have a natural, built-in disaffection. But this online clip has made me reconsider my stance.

It's a woman from "Trading Spouses" returning home after spending a week with another family. You see, her family is made up of God-fearing Christians. More than 10 times in this 5 minute clip, she refers to herself as "a spiritual warrior." The family with whom she swapped...Well, I don't know actually. She just keeps ranting and raving about how they're from the Dark Side, and how they practiced black magic and rejected God. She interrogates her own children about whether, while the other mom was in the house, were presented with tarot cards or introduced to astrology.

This is clearly a case in which a woman uses her religion to mask severe mental problems. Maybe schizophrenia. The kids and her husband look more bummed out about the situation in the clip than terrified...If my mother came into the house screaming and carrying on and throwing a tantrum like this, we'd call the men in white suits with the big butterfly nets. But for this family, it seems more like business as usual..."Oh, no, Mom's got a touch of the crazies again...Come help me get the hose, we'll use it to force her back into the tool shed."

Check out the clip here. Oh, and my thanks to Andy Sullivan's blog for the link, and for his unending quest to excuse George Bush's Delightful Mid-East Adventure.

As I was viewing the clip for the second time, I made a rather simple observation, but one I had never made before. It's interesting how, for the hyper-religious, the main conflict on Earth boils down to God vs. Satan. This woman, because of her mental illness and years of conditioning, sees herself as aligned with a holy power, with the Christian God (and, therefore, Jesus). So, whenever she's in opposition to anyone - like, presumably, this other woman and her family from "Trading Spouses" - they by definition must represent the Devil.

And so she begins asking her family if they saw any tarot cards or discussed astrology or talked about witchcraft. Because, to her simple mind, those are the manifestations of the Devil.

In reality, the hyper-religious are in conflict with the irreligious, like myself, or the hyper-religious of other faiths. This other family, that doesn't go to church or recognize Jesus as the Lord or whatever pissed this woman off, they're not Satanic. They're probably just not very religious.

Very very few people, aside from confused 13 year old suburban white kids, are Satanists. It just doesn't make a lot of sense, Satanism...If you believe in Satan, you probably believe in God as well, and if you believe in God and his all-powerful glory, it's an awful silly thing to purposefully oppose him.

Although, to be fair, Satan overall strikes me as the cooler, more fun guy to worship for all eternity. Or, failing Satan, Sauron. You know, if I had to choose one ficitonal character over another.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Dream Tenderer

The Sophia Foundation, a San Francisco-area charitable organization, will auction off home appliances owned by Jerry Garcia this holiday season. (Oh, sorry Bill O'Reilly, I know I'm not supposed to use the secular term "holiday season"...This joyous anniversary of the divine birth of our savoir, the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, praise be to his name.)

The group's chariman, a massive Deadhead named Henry Kotlys, bought Garcia's home in Nicasio, CA two years after Jerry died of a heart attack. It's all explained in this handy Yahoo! article.

Included in the auction will be the Nicasio home's original furniture, electrical appliances, the dishwasher and even toilets! Just could one day keep a cold pint of Cherry Garcia in the same freezer where Jerry Garcia used to keep his massive oversized bottles of vodka and back-up reserve liquid cocaine stash.

Oh, but I kid...Like Kotlys, I'm a big fan of the Dead myself, inspired mainly by my father, whose love for the group has extended even to his Jerry Garcia Blogger avatar. As silly as it sounds for people to bid thousands of dollars on items that belonged to Jerry Garcia for 3 years at the end of his life, I still think this auction will be a big success. The guy just meant a whole lot, emotionally, to a whole lot of people. They grew up feeling a kinship with this man, and would appreciate greatly a chance to feel a little bit closer to him.

Kotlys had the items appraised for a grand total of $75,000, but I agree with him that it will bring in more than that. If I had the money, I would love to get my dad Jerry Garcia's powder room shitter for Hannukah. Nothing says "thanks for giving me your ceaseless unconditional love and support" like the gift of a dead rock singer's commode.

Having said all that, the actual charity The Sophia Foundation sounds a bit questionable. This AP article says that it's "a San Francisco Bay area nonprofit that aids children and families during marital separations and divorce." Meh? Supports children during marital separations? I mean, if it were helping children being raised in foster homes, then I would think it's a completely 100% worthy cause. But that doesn't even say it aids disadvantaged children during divorce. Just children. I mean, yeah, parents splitting up is psychologically hard for a kid to deal with. But a whole charity just to give them "aid"? What is that, like counselling? If a rich kid's parents are breaking up and he needs counseling, shouldn't the breaking-up parents deal with that expense? Do we really need a Foundation?

It gets weirder. The Sophia Foundation's Mission statement can be found on its website. It's dedicated to "helping families in transition" and "promoting the arts and consciousness of the arts." Huh? Are those two connected at all? And isn't that a pretty huge mission for one little Bay Area charitable foundation? Who's behind this thing, anyway?

[NOTE: After writing these two paragraphs, I got frightened for a moment that The Sophia Foundation was set up by some guy to mourn the death of his wife or baby girl Sophia, and that I'd feel like a real asshole making fun of his effort to turn a horrible personal tragedy into something meaningful through good works. But that's not the case, so I get to keep making fun. Sweet.]

Here's what you find when you click on HISTORY:

The Sophia Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was founded by Cassandra Light in 1994. Cassandra is a world-renowned healer, sculptor, and therapist, specializing in depth psychology, mythology, and dreamtending.

Dreamtending? Doesn't everyone tend to dream at night? (True science answer: Yes) What the hell is dreamtending? Is it like dreamcatching? If it means tending to needs...while you're sleeping, then I think most guys do it, at least through their adolescent years.

For answers, I turn your attention to, the home site for the world's foremost tender of dreams, Dr. Stephen Aizenstat.

I read a whole bunch of stuff on Aizenstat's Dreamtending website, but he staunchly refuses to come clean on what exactly the word means. All I was able to discover was that it's a way of experiencing your dreams that will apparently help you feel better about your everyday life.

The website has a lot of multimedia presentations that explain the basic principles of dreamtending, but not if and how it's different from interpreting dreams in old-school Freudian style. I'm of the opinion that dreams are just mash-ups of everything we experienced in real life recently, in which some concepts we only think about vaguely in the back of our minds can take greater sway over our psyches. So, for example, if you went clothes shopping one day with a friend you've always kind of disliked, you might dream that night you're choking them to death with the tie your dad wore to work every day when you were 9.

I think dreamtending is supposed to be done when you're awake, but again, I couldn't figre that out from the website because it's so crammed full of New Age dumbass wankery. Look at this horseshit:

Perhaps now, more than ever, we are asked to remember the eternal wound ofthe mythic Centaur Chiron, the divine physician, or Asklepios, hisstudent, the Wounded Healer and practitioner who is conveyer between thetwo worlds. Both are patrons to those who follow the healing ways of thedream. It is from their pathos, their suffering, that they recover thatwhich is required for healing. Deep in the wound comes the knowledge thatthe medicines of the soul are found in the complexity of the eternalmoment, not in the salvation or redemption of the one-sided and virtuous.

Wait...I thought this post was about Jerry Garcia's toilets! I have gotten way off track here. But I just can't believe what I'm reading! This is actually kind of upsetting. Jerry's worldly possessions are being sold off by some nutbag in charge of a charitable organization set up by some other nutbag to do something unclear like tending to the dreams of kids from broken homes.

Seriously, this dreamtending thing sounds like a lot of cultish nonsense to my ears. And it's a moneymaking scheme for this guy Aizenstat as well. He sells a six-tape series of instructional tapes on how to tend your dreams through wacko New Age online catalogues with names like "Tools for Wellness." Because that has a better sound than their original, more honest title: "Wellness for Tools."

Seriously, on the front page of the Wellness for Tools catalogue, they have something called a Zen Alarm Clock. Having an alarm clock isn't "zen," you idiot! The whole concept of being "zen" is removing yourself from the ludicrous artificiality of the physical world and attempting to commune with the infinite. Setting a machine to beep to alert you of the time, so you can get up, shower and drive across town to serve your faceless corporate masters for a weekly paycheck is the exact opposite of being Zen.

And what's with that last name? Aizenstat. Sounds like the location of a concentration camp or something. "6,000 Polish Jews were shipped to Aizenstat in the winter of 1943, before the Nazis realized it was not, in fact, a concentration camp, but instead a popular beer garden. All the prisoners survived, but most gained at least 40 pounds, developed slurred speech and were unable to remove the smell of malted hopps from their clothes or personal possessions."

So, okay, back to the history of the Sophia Foundation:

From 1994 until 2003, Attorney Richard Glantz lead Sophia as its chairman and legal counsel. In 2005, Attorney Henry Koltys assumed leadership of Sophia, as chairman and legal counsel, expanding its purpose to include children and families in transition.

So now the group is managed by this guy, Koltys, who wants to help children of divorce. Fair enough, I guess. But what are their plans for the money they will make from this auction? How specifically will they help these kids in need (or even be connected to families that might need their help, although that's hard because they don't seem to have any idea how to actually help) The whole thing seems kind of poorly-conceived and peculiar, and I'm not sure I'd be totally comfortable donating vast amounts of money to these people based on this AP article or their website.

I would, however, very much like to own Jerry Garcia's kitchen table, where he ate his Frosted Mini-Wheats soaked overnight in a jug of homemade alcohol/pure LSD each morning, so I'll have to go post a bid. That's gonna be a kickass conversation starter.

Die Hard: With a Blood Vendetta

What the fuck is up with 80's action movie stars? Has every single 80's action movie star totally lost his or her mind? Consider this evidence:

- Mel Gibson, star of such memorable 80's action films as Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 and, um, Bird on a Wire, directs twisted, creepy psychological thriller Passion of the Christ.'s not supposed to be a twisted psychological thriller? Religious movie? Yikes...

- Brigitte Nielsen, star of Red Sonya, loses her mind on national TV, in between flirting awkwardly with Flava Flav.

- Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly becomes Governor of California, before being removed from office in disgrace a few months from now. I bet.

And now, Bruce Willis, star of my personal favorite 80's action film, Die Hard, has announced his own plans for a bizarre, alternate-reality vanity project.

From my favoritist collection of bullshit hate-fueled right wing screeds (and David Corn), Sleepy Time Jammies Media:

Die Hard star Bruce Willis is taking on two Hollywood traditions in his attempt, reported by the Timesonline Sunday, to make a pro-war feature film about United States involvement in Iraq. Willis is bucking a nearly unbroken skein of Tinseltown anti-war films that goes back to such Vietnam era favorites as Coming Home and Platoon. And the actor is doing it not with mainstream media source material, but basing his movie on the reporting of a blogger - former Green Beret Michael Yon. Chosen by Willis for his story is Yon's on the scene reporting of the heroics of the Deuce Four unit in Mosul, Iraq.

Francois Truffaut memorably said that it's impossible to make a truly anti-war film, becuase cinema inherently makes war appear intriguing, fascinating and exciting. But in another way, it's highly inaccurate to imply that Hollywood only has a tradition of making anti-war films. What about Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers... from a few years ago? Or Saving Private Ryan? Even if those films are honest and mournful about the horrible cost of war, they still see the fighting itself as a neccessary, even vital, evil. I'd counter that other contemporary films and TV shows like Forrest Gump, Band of Brothers and Windtalkers present varying views of war that could be considered positive.

Still, this is a horrible idea. I understand that Bruce finds the War in Iraq to be of dramatic importance to long-term American foreign policy. I disagree, but hey, that's what it's all about. But making a stridently pro-war piece of propaganda based on the experiences of a blogger while the war is still going on? Inappropriate, man...Inappropriate.

The reason the glory days of propaganda films during wartime have ended is because people got savvy to that sort of direct marketing. Now, it seems quaint and dated to us, the obvious, bang-you-over-the-head techniques of films like Destination: Tokyo to drive up patriotism and sell war bonds during WWII. I'm hoping Bruce has learned that lesson as well, or he's going to be mighty embarrassed should this "project" ever get out of development.

March of the Penguins

I'm told that, in the original French version of this nature documentary, voice actors recorded penguin dialogue, that was then lined up with the photography to create a "narrative" that tied the story together. That sounds absolutely unbearably horrible. Who wants to watch real footage of an amazing natural phenomenon with some dumb screenwriter's idea of witty avian banter in the background?

Thank goodness, sense prevailed, and the American release includes absolutely no penguin blather. Instead, America's Favorite Narrator Morgan Freeman provides the voice-over, explaining the life cycle of the Emperor Penguin of Antarctica in detail, pausing frequently to anthropomorphize the animal and draw funny little comparisons to human behavior.

March of the Penguins is undoubtedly enjoyable to watch, and the instinctual process these birds take each year in order to procreate is intensely fascinating. Conservative "family values" groups hailed the movie earlier this year as a celebration of heterosexual, child-oriented monogamy found in nature, but I don't exactly think you should start taking behavioral cues from the Animal Kingdom. Praying Mantis mothers occasionally devour their newborns whole, which is a practice I'd say belongs in the Insect World exclusively.

I've heard that the filmmakers disagree with the conservative stance, and resent Americans assigning a political value to their celebration of survival in the harsh climate of the South Pole. That's all well and good, but I must say that the Freeman narrative invites such overreaching polemics. The film frustratingly insists on constantly assigning spiritual meaning to every movement of the penguin mating cycle.

Now, as I said before, the arduous nine-month journey these noble creatures undertake annually in order to mate is awe-inspiring, and beautifully captured by Luc Jacquet. The penguins leave the sea and march 70 miles over freezing ice, with no food, to get to their breeding grounds. There, they pair up over the course of several weeks, sometimes violently as the females far outnumber the males. Once the females lay the eggs, they shift them over to the males, then venture back to the sea to find food for their newborn.

The males then huddle together for warmth over the course of two harrowing winter months. The eggs hatch, and the mothers return from the sea to feed their young. Over the next several months, the parents trade off watching the chick and venturing to the sea for sustinance, until they both leave the chicks to their own devices, and the cycle begins anew.

If the film simply chronicled the lives of these birds, any number of wonderful insights into the peculiarities of the natural world could be made. I'd just rather not have all these specious conclusions stated to me in no uncertain terms by a certain beloved character actor.

In one sequence, a mother returns from the sea to discover her chick has frozen to death. Morgan explains to us that "the loss is unbearable." But it doesn't appear to be "unbearable." In fact, Mama Penguin bears the loss with classic penguin-like stoicism. She squaks for a moment over her dead young, and then toddles off, presumably back to the sea until next year when she will try again. So where does that "unbearable" part come in? Just because it's unbearable for a human female to lose a child?

In another sequence, two females are shown fighting over the right to mate with a single male, who stands idly by until the argument is over. Freeman notes, with bemusement, that in this way, penguin males are a lot like humans. Well har-de-goddamn-har.

The sad thing is, in place of all this sentimental, "oh they're just like humans" wannabe inspirational hooey, March of the Penguins could have provided valuable scientific information. I found myself thinking of several questions during the movie that no one ever bothers to answer. For example, what percentage of penguins successfully produce a live chick each year? Based on the movie, it appears that many, if not most, of the young die after a few months, if they even make it that far. I'd like to know if that's accurate.

Also, how many Emperor Penguins are there in the world today? Are they endangered? Is their lifecycle affected by man-made environmental conditions or pollution? How did they interact with the human film crews, or did they not even seem to notice the film crews? Just how long can a penguin go without food? (Some of the males have to go several months without eating while the eggs hatch).

One final issue...During an underwater sequence, when we see penguins hunting for food and being hunted by a leopard seal, there were a few shots that didn't look quite real to me. In that, I thought there might be some animated penguins mixed in with the real footage. But I shrugged this notion off immediately...This was, after all, a nature documentary, so they wouldn't fudge footage like that without some sort of disclaimer. Well, then I get to the end credits and see several credits for computer effects specialists. Now, I can't think of what other sequence might require computer effects. There's no inserted material or designed pieces during the movie - it's all nature footage.

Does the movie include CG penguins? I'm not sure (and a quick Internet search revealed nothing definitive). If that's true, and it's unacknowledged within the film, I'd consider it a pretty serious breach of trust. If I wanted to watch fake penguins walking around, I'd just pop in Batman Returns.

I can see why so many Americans fell in love with this movie this year. It's a stirring visual experience, and a vivid portrait of the strange lives of these weird little flightless birds. Plus, despite my complaints, I did learn a lot about penguins that I didn't know before. But I could have done without all that "this is a story about love" stuff. And not because I hate romantic movies. I just hate romantic movies about budget, oblong Antarctic fowl with brains the size of an Advil.

Monday, November 28, 2005


I respect Stephen Gaghan for his ambition. He's not a writer churning out dumb stories with broad appeal in order to cash a paycheck. One look at his resume confirms that he's a writer interested in grappling with the issues of the day, that he wants to write scripts with ideas, scripts for big, ambitious films that actually have something to say. This is a rare thing among writers, and particularly rare among successful Hollywood types.

Having said that, I'm actually not a big fan of Gaghan's work. His greatly lauded script for Traffic, probably his best work to date, was bloated and occasionally ridiculous. Rules of Engagement opened with an interesting premise for an engaging political thriller, but quickly turned into a generic, by-the-numbers courtroom drama. Abandon, the film that marked Gaghan's directorial debut, is a stupid, highly implausible thriller with a bad twist ending. And then there's Havoc, Gaghan's attempt to grapple with the issues of white teenagers enthralled with "ghetto" culture.

Like the other recent films in the "Won't Somebody Think of the Children?!?" genre, films like Bully, Kids and Thirteen, Havoc is condescending, awkward in its attempts to provoke, and has a tin ear for the way young people actually speak and relate to one another. And that's only the beginning of its problems.

Again, Gaghan starts with an ambitious concept, an attempt to deal with a conflict that unites two disparate but related worlds. In this case, our clashing communities are prosperous white teens of Pacific Palisades and thuggish "vatos" from East L.A. The film is well-structured, and Gaghan clearly takes great pains to fairly present both sides of the situation, but that doesn't excuse his many lapses in judgement and clarity.

I think his largest problem is his inability to write believable characters or plausible dialogue. Gaghan's films are well-conceived in the Big Picture - they link several subplots seamlessly, they deal with big issues on an epic scope, they are long and involved but never muddled or unclear. But they are rarely memorable because the writing itself is overblown and awkward.

Havoc suffers more from this problem than any other Gaghan-scripted film I have seen. Quite frankly, you don't believe in these characters, any of them, for one minute. The white teens in particular have far too much perspective on themselves, and tend to speak their inner thoughts and motivations out loud. Gaghan even stoops to the tired old technique of giving one of the teens a camera, which he points at the other teens while encouraging them to explain themselves and their behavior directly to the audience.

So you get a lot of shots of pretty young white girls looking into the camera and saying, "I just act out because I'm bored. No one pays attention to me, so I rebel by getting into black culture." It's a bit trite, but it might be interesting if Gaghan actually explored these ideas, but he apparently thinks just having his protagonist speak them allowed is enough to get his point across.

Honestly, casting is a pretty big problem as well. The white girl at the center of the film is played by Princess Diaries veteran and American Sweetheart Anne Hathaway, in one of those desperate "I'm grown up now, give me real work!" moves that never really turns out that well. Remember Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls? Or Christina Ricci getting totally nude in the direct-to-DVD Prozac Nation? Now you can add Anne Hathaway, getting topless and blowing guys in a low-budget unreleased film few will ever see.

The problem with this is that it's stunt casting (and that the movie becomes infamous way before release as "that movie where Anne Hathaway gets naked," making it hard to take seriously on any other level). Hathaway's not exactly a remarkable actress, but it's almost like Gaghan and director Barbara Kopple (previously known as the director of documentaries like Wild Man Blues and Harlan County, U.S.A.) cast her for the shock value rather than because she had any connection to the role.

Her cohort and best friend is played by the reigning queen of "Won't Somebody Think of the Children?!?" movies, Bijou Phillips. Honestly, how many of these movies does one girl need to star in before it shifts from typecasting and into a cry for help. Bijou's played troubled teens who become fascinated with street culture as part of an overall emotional downfall in Bully and James Toback's woeful Black and White, which also featured supporting work from boxer Mike Tyson. Bijou, willowy and oddly beautiful as she might be, has become predictable in this role.

Finally, Freddie Rodriguez as street tough Hector is horribly miscast. Rodriguez is a pretty great actor (whom you might know as Federico from the recently deceased HBO classic "Six Feet Under"), but he's no more believable as a thug wannabe rapist than Steve Guttenberg. He's just not an imposing, looming figure. If the part called for a young guy who wanted to be a thug, but just didn't have it in him, Rodriguez would pretty much be perfect, but we're supposed to be threatened by Hector's temper and displays of power. Even his accent sounds kind of fakey.

Yeah, I said attempted rapist. You see, Bijou and Anne, bored by the monotonous luxury of their isoalted Pacific Palisades lifestyle and their doofus frat-like boyfriends, cruise to East LA for a little excitement. When they flirt with a couple of hardcore gangstas, and get invited to a house party, things go awry quickly. The girls, after leading on Hector and his friends, decide they'd rather not go too far, and the situation gets ugly, although it's unclear whether a technical rape has occured. When they return to The Palisades, of course, their story grows more unpleasant and violent, and the dumb white fratboys decide to go to the barrio to settle the score.

Like I said, Gaghan goes to great pains to make it clear that both sides are to blame for this unpleasantness. The girls were condescending to these guys, treating their neighborhood and lifestyle like a theme park to be visited and then abandoned. They put themselves in a risky situation knowingly, for a thrill, and then suffered the consequences. And, of course, at the same time, these thugs should have known better than to try and take advantage of stupid drunk white girls.

And on and on and on. I'm not quite sure what ultimate notion Gaghan would have wanted us to take away from this ugly, convoluted story. Something about how we're all emotional creatures, and unable to be completely fair and unbiased when dealing with one another. Something about how white kids embrace hip hop culture and slang out of ignorance, admiring the rebellious spirit without understanding the hard reality of daily life in th einner city. Something about how the privileged live in intentionally sealed communities, cutting them off from their less wealthy, minority neighbors.

But really, Havoc isn't any of those things. At best, it's an erotic thriller, a semi-titilating chance to catch a bit of lithe female nudity while pretending to actually be following a story. If that's all you're after, Havoc is minimally exceptional. For an unrated direct-to-DVD erotic thriller that's already infamous online for featuring Anne Hathaway's first-ever nude scene, the whole production is pretty tame. There's a bit of thrusting, a few nipple slips, and an extended nude suicide scene with Bijou Phillips that manages to be not-in-the-least-bit hot, but that's about it.

Want me to save you the cost of a rental?

Bam. There you go. Don't say I never did nothing for you.

All About the New Cruelty

Congrats, America. You've finally done it. You've become a fascist police state. I was pretty sure it would happen at some point during my lifetime, but 2005? You've exceeded my every expectation.

Okay, first things first...The fascist part. Fascism is a word that's tossed around a lot on the ol' Internet. Usually, people use it to mean "something bad." Like, "Oh, I hate AP Bio with Mr. Thompson. He's such a fucking fascist." This is wrong, unless of course Mr. Thompson is centralizing power within the Teacher's Lounge and quelling any dissent via propaganda and oppression.

Accordingly, everyone kind of tunes out a political blogger or commentator online if they start throwing around F-bombs. "Bush is a fascist," "Cheney is a fascist" and so on. It's a good way to get pegged quickly as a wacky hippie with nothing sensible to say, like the time I said that Sean Hannity molests kids. Obviously, that's not 100% accurate. He does molest kids, but I'm using that term to refer to young goats, not humans. I apologize for being misleading.

This is a shame, because the Bush Administration really is a fascist organization, and the country is slowly but surely transforming from a representative democracy and into a corporate-run beurocracy where the monied elite retains power through coersion, corruption, media control, propaganda and an underground network of prisons where dissidents are arrested without being charged, held for indeterminate periods of time, tortured and even killed.

Here's the definition of "fascism":

A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.

Tell me how that's different from circa 2005 America.

Now, some may say that Bush isn't a dictator. It's true, he calls himself a "president" and operates under an assumption of having won an election, but there are a few problems with this veneer of legitimacy.

(1) Neither of the two elections in which Bush assumed power were fair, and both were tainted with corruption both in terms of actual electoral practices and post-election legal wrangling. I frankly still doubt that Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, and believe if the Supreme Court had not intervened, he may have lost the election outright. And I don't even have a guess as to the actual outcome in 2004, because the voting practices in Ohio, Florida and other states seem to me at this point hopelessly flawed. (Here's an enlightening article by Christopher Hitchens, hardly a cheerleader for the Democrats, discussing Ohio's inconsistant and questionable election results).

(2) With a Republican controlled Court, Senate, House and Executive Branch, the American people get exactly 1 chance every two years to change any aspect of the way their nation is governed. Other than the mid-term elections of '06, these criminals have years of total domination to look forward to, without any chance for Americans to get the hell rid of them.

(3) Because the corporations that control the government also control the American media, they have the exclusive opportunity to shift attitudes among the electorate. Representative democracy is fueled by an informed, aware populace, not a group of zombies held helplessly in the sway of a slick, expertly-tuned marketing machine that works down their resolve 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

(4) Bush and Cheney's entire ruling philosophy is based around enhancing their own power while removing it from every other governing body. They are exactly fascist in their thinking...Any opposition is treasonous, any dissent is anti-America, any attempt by any group of influence any specific policy is an infringement on the jurisdiction of the White House. Think about it...Cheney was infuriated that the Senate passed a law asking him politely to stop torturing people. He was infuriated.

Okay, so Bush/Cheney is a dictatorship, albeit one with a terrific PR wing to convince people that they're just mild-mannered public servants.

You want socio-economic controls? How about enriching their corporate partners while keeping the vast majority of Americans in crippling, cyclical poverty? Moreso, how about removing vital funds set aside for the protection of Americans and using it instead for opportunistic wars of pleasure and kickbacks for the rich and powerful?

Suppression of opposition through terror and censorship? Karl Rove has that slogan at the top of all his personal stationary. "From the Desk of Karl Rove...Supression of opposition through terror and censorship." Often, Bill O'Reilly will combine both of these concepts into the same sentence. We're talking about a country in which Billy O can call for the destruction of San Francisco by terrorists live on the radio, in which Ann Coulter can insist that we murder foreign heads of state and forcibly convert his or her citizens to Christianity, but Howard Stern has to flee to privately-owned pay radio to make doody jokes.

Just consider how the U.S. has now openly adopted torture as a foreign policy. The White House and the Wall Street Journal are basically telling the American people that torture is okay, because it one day might possibly help us try to stop another potential terrorist attack that could hypothetically strike at an unknown future date. I'd link a great New York Times article on this very issue, but it's behind that bogus Times Select firewall, and I'm not paying $4 for each of you to read it.

Finally, belligerant nationalism and racism. Um...please look around you. Okay, you've looked around? Do I still need to talk about how rah-rah Americanism has reached new and absurd heights of absurd absurdity? Here's a mp3 of a horrible pop-punk song called "Bush Was Right." Case closed. And racism? Man, GWB is all about racism. You need look no further than the defense he and his apologists use against charges of racism...He can't be racist, because he hangs out with Condoleeza Rice! They're buddies! Forget his racist policies and the fact that his mother has made openly racist comments in public or that his administration allowed thousands of black Louisiana residents to die while he praised his friend Brownie and made jokes about his wild days on the bayou. He's a friend to the Negro!

Also, his narrow-minded fundamentalist religious views, in which Christianity supercedes American values, can be considered a form of extreme prejudice, or at least unfair religious favoratism.

So, there you go. Bush/Cheney is a fascist organization. But I also referred to modern America as a police state. Surely I can't be serious...Americans still have relative freedom from inappropriate, strong-arm gestapo tactics, right? WRONG.

Miami police announced Monday they will stage random shows of force at hotels, banks and other public places to keep terrorists guessing and remind people to be vigilant.

Deputy Police Chief Frank Fernandez said officers might, for example, surround a bank building, check the IDs of everyone going in and out and hand out leaflets about terror threats.

Haven't any of you people read 1984? Or, if you hate reading as much as most American hillbilly shitheads, haven't any of you seen Brazil? Or...sigh...Star Wars: Episode III: The Good One? Notice how the bad guys always use the threat of terrorist violence as an excuse to seize ever-greater power for themselves? You think George Lucas just made that shit up? He's clever, but he's not that goddamn clever. Orwell included it in his book because it's totally fucking true.

The Miami Police aren't really thinking they're going to stop terrorism by harassing people at banks and hotels. They just want to harass people, and this gives them a great excuse. Why do they want to harass people? Because that's their fucking job. We pay them to catch people doing shit they shouldn't be doing. So I don't really blame the police for making a stupid, crazy power grab as much as I blame everyone else for not stopping them. Of course the police want to abuse their power as much as possible. That's why they become policemen! Guys who aren't bullies and don't want to push people around for no good reason don't become cops.

I mean, holy shit, go read this whole article. It's extraordinarily frightening.

The operations will keep terrorists off guard, Fernandez said. He said al-Qaida and other terrorist groups plot attacks by putting places under surveillance and watching for flaws and patterns in security.


Police Chief John Timoney said there was no specific, credible threat of an imminent terror attack in Miami. But he said the city has repeatedly been mentioned in intelligence reports as a potential target.

Timoney also noted that 14 of the 19 hijackers who took part in the Sept. 11 attacks lived in South Florida at various times and that other alleged terror cells have operated in the area.

Things to notice about Fernandez and Timoney's statements:

(1) No specific information. Only a vague threat of terror activity.

(2) What percentage of the world's total terrorist population are actual members of al-Qaida? I'm guessing less than 2%. Yet in every single article where terrorism is mentioned, members of al-Qaida are cited. This organization has become a symbol used to scare people. it's an archetype, nothing more.

(3) Connecting 9/11 to something with which it has no connection. In this case, gestapo tactics in South Florida)

According to the article, the ACLU has approved the Miami Police's suggested tactics, which does kind of surprise me. They can usually be counted on to uphold civil rights laws as strenuously as possible. But I still think this is way, way over the line, and the soothing, "we don't want to take your rights away" talk of the officials in charge only convinces me further that something is rotten in the state of Florida. (Well, okay, an additional thing is rotten.) I mean, look at this quote:

"People are definitely going to notice it," Fernandez said. "We want that shock. We want that awe. But at the same time, we don't want people to feel their rights are being threatened. We need them to be our eyes and ears."

We plan to shock and surprise you in public, make you present your documentation to us while we invade your personal space and privacy. We want to put you in awe of our power over you, and we want you to be aware that you are always being watched, spied upon and are a suspect in an ongoing, secretive investigation, the details of which are specious, vague and unclear. But we don't want you to feel threatened. Just go about your business like it's not even happening...

Ignorance is Knowledge. War is Peace. Bush isn't a Fascist.

The Frighteners: Director's Cut

Peter Jackson's The Frighteners was released in the summer of 1996 to an uncaring, overcrowded American box office and tanked miserably. I'd chalk much of the film's failure up to poor marketing, that made it look too much like a dopey comedy, which is sure to turn off the genre fans (read: horror and cult movie fans) to whom a film like The Frighteners normally appeals. But, bear in mind, as well, that the film contains no large, marketable stars, comes from a man who was, at that time, a thoroughly unknown commodity in The States, and boasts an R rating despite having a somewhat bawdy, juvenile sense of humor.

So, to be fair, it's a tough sell.

Over the years, Jackson has developed somewhat more brand awareness, mainly due to a small series of personal independant films you may have heard of called Lord of the Rings. So people have gone back and discovered what I knew back in the summer of 1996, when I saw this film in the movie theaters. The Frighteners is a great, silly, frenetic, dazzling, unabashedly twisted horror-comedy with terrific early CG effects, several endearing comic performances and just the right amount of bloody gore and violence.

Unlike Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, I can't say it benefits tremendously from the extended cut featured on the new DVD. While the Extended Edition Lord of the Rings films add much-needed nuance, depth, texture and detail, all the Director's Cut of The Frighteners gives you are a few throwaway gags and a couple extra effects shots. Don't get me wrong...As a longtime fan of the film, it's fun for me to see some of the stuff that didn't make the final cut.. And one shot that was cut out, featuring a ghost walking in front of a light bulb, is as trippy and interesting an image as anything in the finished film.

But this is more a treat for the fans than a truly neccessary or crucial addition of material.

That being said, the movie is every bit as technically impressive as it was upon its debut. When the film was made, in 1995, CG was still relatively new on the scene. Jackson's New Zealand effects house, WETA, hadn't even used computer effects in their previous films - cult and indie classics Dead Alive, Bad Taste, Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles and others. In the introduction to the film on the new DVD, Jackson implies that his initial work with CG effects on The Frighteners inspired him to take on the even more ambitious Lord of the Rings films.

There are a few shots that date the film, effects-wise. A sequence in which a ghost pops up through a persian rug to strangle a woman looks a bit pixellated and cartoonish, and some of the movement is still too smooth to achieve anything approaching photorealism. But the overall look and texture of the film are completely solid, and many of the sequences rank among the most creative and stylish CG artist have yet completed.

And for a mid-90's film, The Frighteners sure does rely on a lot of computer effects. The story of fradulent psychic detective Frank Bannister (Fox) who teams up with a young widow (Trini Alvarado) and a trio of bumbling spirits (Jim Fyfe, Chi McBride, John Astin) to defeat an undead serial murderer (Jake Busey) and his psycho girlfriend (Dee Wallace Stone), The Frighteners only has a few characters that aren't created through CG. Spectral, iridescent ghosts populate the entire film, moving easily through objects and interacting with their live-action surroundings.

The movie really is a marvel of design. The sets are moody and atmospheric, the cinematography is playful and expressive, the violence is quick and shocking and Danny Elfman's score bounces joyfully along from kill to kill, and gag to gag.

The film's humor really worked for me back in '96, and I still think Jackson's earlier films are hilarious, but The Frighteners has a decidedly teenage boy-themed sense of humor. To be honest, I started to find it a bit grating. The ghost characters in particular are awful schticky, which not only drags down the film's first half but also makes it harder to accept them as real characters later on down the road.

The fact is, the film's goofball antics clash with the severity and intensity of its horror storyline. This is a story about a man who is haunted, both literally and figuratively, after the brutal death of his wife. It's about a serial killer on a violent rampage through a small town. I can see why Jackson would want to inject some dark humor into the movie, and Michael J. Fox does a good job of making Frank Bannister a charming, memorable character, but a lot of the comedy beats simply aren't that funny.

The only performer to really connect with the film's loopy sensibility is Jeffrey Combs, best remembered as the mad scientist from Re-Animator. Combs' character, a deeply troubled FBI agent obsessed with pinning murders on Frank, is the only one to successfully combine The Frighteners taste for the creepy and bizarre with its mordant sense of humor. He's not brought in until late in the movie, but Combs' rather brilliant turn holds the entire third act together. (R. Lee Ermey, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, also has a fun little cameo as, well, um, as a ghost drill sergeant).

I haven't had a chance to look at the 4+ hours of bonus material on the DVD, but I'm sure I'll dig into that stuff eventually. Much of it is taken from the infamous Frighteners Laserdisc, one of the rarest and most sought-after of all Laserdiscs, so it already has a good reputation as far as behind-the-scenes footage goes. As for the film, it demands to be seen by any fan of Jackson's style or the horror-comedy genre, and doesn't disappoint even a decade after its initial release.