Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Best DVD's of 2005

Please note, this is NOT my Best Movies of 2005 List. I promise, that list is coming...There are only a handful of films left for me to see before I can declare a winner. In fact, I'll be producing two different lists this year - 1 list for all the foreign films, documentaries and other movies from the last few years (2001-2004) that I only caught up with in 2005, but which still deserve some kind of Year-End Wrap-Up mention, and another list for my actual favorite movies that came out in the year 2005 proper.

In addition to those two, I thought I'd go over some of the best DVD packages released this year. It's unofficial - I may very well forget stuff - and it's not ranked, because that would be a bit nebbishy even for me.

F for Fake Criterion Collection

If I were ranking DVD's released initially in 2005, this would probably win first prize. Not only because it's a gorgeous transfer of an amazing late Orson Welles masterpiece, but because the documentary on Disc Two - about all of Welles' never-completed films - is truly amazing. Orson Welles: One Man Band is an 88 minute, full-length film about the peculiarities of fate and personality that prevented Welles from completing many film projects and finding a mass audience. It includes a startling amount of rare footage of some of Welles incomplete film work, and is a must-see for fans.

The movie F for Fake itself is a wonderful "film essay" by Welles on forgery, and trickery in general. I think it's one of his best films, and really shows off his idiosyncratic personality, odd sense of humor and sublime talent for editing and directing cinema.

I Heart Huckabees 2-Disc Collector's Edition

First off, if you're late to the game on David O. Russell's terrific 2004 metaphysical farce, rent it immediately. Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Jason Schwartzman, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert and Lily Tomlin are all stellar, there's a great Jon Brion score, and Russell's just an incredibly sharp and funny writer. This is one of those films I like more and more each time I go through it.

And the extra features, particularly the lengthy and highly amusing behind-the-scenes documentary on Disc 2, directed by Spike Jonze, are really expansive and fun considering that this was basically an overlooked film. I also highly recommend the commentary on Disc 1 featuring a large portion of the film's cast.

Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 2-Disc Edition

Okay, by now, you all know where I stand. Sith is the reason the Star Wars prequels exist. It's a fantastic achievement for Lucas and Company, an adventure movie of the highest caliber that actually rises to the near-impossible chance of holding up agains the original Star Wars trilogy.

And this DVD is a bounty of riches. One feature in particular, that takes you through all the steps and proceeses needed to create one full minute of the feature Revenge of the Sith is startling in its level of detail and exploration. It's a fascinating feature, one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes I've seen. (To be honest, I tend to find technical explanations of special effects really boring.)

Criterion's Rebel Samurai Box Set

Four terrific, and very diverse, 60's Japanese samurai films in one fantastic box set. I still have yet to see Samurai Rebellion, which stars Toshiro Mifune, but have seen all 3 of the other titles in here. They're all great. Kill! stands out as my favorite, a play on spaghetti westerns by the director of Sword of Doom, it features a large cast of talented performers, including the always-engaging Tetsuyo Nakadai and a couple of terrific and surprisingly bloody fight sequences. Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast displays the director's standard mastery of setting and sound design, and is probably the most straight-forward, satisfying genre film of the bunch. And Samurai Spy is a really visionary historical adventure film with a unique look and lots of outstanding fight scenes and swordplay, but an intensely confusing plot if, like me, you're not particularly well-versed in the history of 17th Century Japan. Occasional lack of coherence aside, we're incredibly fortunate that the sudden surge of interest in samurai films is bringing a lot of these classic and heretofore unseen films to America with such great transfers.

Warner Bros. Controversial Classics Box Set

Not sure exactly what the theme is supposed to imply - some of these films aren't really so controversial, although I guess they are all social message pictures in some way. Anyway, the 5 of 7 I've seen are all terrific films, and as usual, Warners has done a great job with the transfers and the discs. They all have commentaries by historians and experts, and I like how they do the "Warner Night at the Movies" option, which lets you watch a cartoon and newsreel before the film, just like in the olden days.

To my mind, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is the stand-out film here. One of the best films I watched in any format at any time this year, hands down. But Bad Day at Black Rock, as solid an action-thriller as Hollywood is likely to turn out, featuring tremendous work from Spencer Tracy, is no slouch either. And A Face in the Crowd, featuring inspired work from Andy Griffith, is a nice addition to any collection.

Le Samourai Criterion Collection

Melville's masterful, intensely controlled French thriller might be one of the sharpest, most precise films ever made. Alain Delon's outstandingly subtle work and Melville's wonderfully intuitive sense of aesthetics and color combine to create a film that's as beautiful as it is aloof. Criterion's disc has some nice extras, but with a movie this good and a transfer this pristine, it wouldn't really matter if there was nothing else in the entire package.

King Kong (1933) Collector's Edition

The massive, in-depth feature that accompanies the original King Kong on DVD may be the single best special feature on any DVD all year. It's incredibly comprehensive, going so far as to include a recreation of special effects wizard Willis O'Brien's never-completed film Creation. Also included is Peter Jackson's now-infamous recreation of the Spider Pit sequence, which looks eerily close to the original film (except, for whatever reason, the Kong effects aren't quite as polished...go figure...)

And the original movie has retained its magic and wonder 70+ years on. Sure, some of the scenes include blatant racism, and a lot of the performers simply don't resonate. But Cooper's original is and always will be the definitive monster movie. Jackson's remake, while it has some nice effects and a decidedly kick-ass closing hour, never really stood a chance.

"The Simpsons" Season 6 and 7 Box Sets

"The Simpsons," as we all realize by now, is the greatest TV show in history. And Seasons 6 and 7 represent the show at its very very zenith. I've long been a proponent of the theory that Seaons 5-7 really constitutes the show's most brilliant, inspired period. Almost all of my favorite episodes come from these years.

And in addition to the uncut original episodes, you get tons of interesting, funny commentaries and other little hidden surprises. Even the menus on these sets rock. They really do a great job with these "Simpsons" collections (dumb, cartoon-head packaging decisions aside). I always resist the idea of spending $35-$40 on the new "Simpsons" box set, and then I wind up doing it anyway.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Special Edition

I'm including this mainly to highlight this late, great Peckinpah masterpiece which is often overlooked by action movie fans. It does include a fairly interest commentary from some Peckinpah scholars, but the main appeal here is the stunning, crisp transfer of this classic darkly comic tale of violent revenge and madness.

And finally, the single most incredible, awe-inspiring DVD I watched in 2005...

Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1-12

Maybe you saw R. Kelly act out his bizarre narrative song "Trapped int he Closet" live, by himself, on this year's Video Music Awards. Or maybe you watched the first few chapters on Kells' website earlier this year. You haven't seen anything until you've watched the first 12 chapters on the new DVD.

For the unitiated, "Trapped in the Closet" is a sing-songy R&B tune that has extended over the past several R. Kelly albums. The main character, Sylvester (played by R. Kelly in the movie) has just had a one-night stand with a beautiful woman named Cathy, cheating on his wife Gwen. When Cathy's husband comes home, Sylvester hides in the closet, but is soon discovered. This sets off an increasingly bizarre and improbably series of cliffhangers and reveals, in which, as Kelly is fond of saying, "anything can happen."

This "anything" comes to include recent parolees being shot, revelations of homosexuality, midgets crapping their pants and obese rednecks pulling shotguns on their husbands. Is Kelly serious with this thing, or is the entire enterprise a tongue-in-cheek joke at all of our expense? Who knows? It doesn't matter...anything that's this funny deserves our respect and admiration, regardless of the motives or intentions behind it.

But the fun doesn't stop with this 40 minute music video thing...R. Kelly has recorded a commentary track to go along with the movie. Oh, man, this thing is unspeakably fantastic. It's not an audio commentary track. You actually see a screen with Trapped in the Closet playing on it while R. Kelly reclines in an armchair superimposed in front of the screen. He smokes a stogie and watches the film with you, turning around in his chair occasionally to address the camera in a casual manner.

Kells doesn't so much explain the film or talk about hsi experiences in making it, as he does watch the movie excitedly and explain the action to you as if you were a retarded person. A woman will walk in to a room and say "What are you doing with my man?," and then R. Kelly will turn around and say, "See, she's mad that someone has been sleeping with her man." And it goes on like this for 45 minutes!

Sometimes, he gets really engrossed in his own movie and forgets to talk for a while. Other times, he apparently forgets what happens in the film, despite the fact that he directed it and it's all based on a song that he wrote. Every once in a while, he smiles or grunts approval for the action on screen. Oh, and even though he's pretending to smoke a cigar while he watches, it's clearly CG smoke coming out, inserted in post-production.

I can't describe to you how much enjoyment friends and I received from watching this DVD the other night. THE MOST HILARIOUS DVD RELEASE OF 2005, I PROMISE YOU.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Run Along, Now...Jew Talk...

I'll be writing up a Top Ten Movies of 2005 list any day now. I don't want to kill the suspense, but let me just say that Munich will find its way on to the list, without a doubt. It's a brilliant film. I happen to agree 100% with Spielberg's point of view on this issue (more on this later), which apparently puts me in the minority in terms of worldwide Jewry. I can accept this...I'm also in the minority, worldwide Jewry-wise, when it comes to wearing silly hats and enjoying gefilte fish.

What I don't understand is the hostility Spielberg has been facing for expressing his particular viewpoint. Jews are talking about this issue right now, both in their daily lives, in newspapers and magazines, and on the Internet. And much of what they're saying is kind of creepy and foreign to me. I've never been a big fan of Judaism as a religion, but I have long been a fan of the Jewish people themselves. I respect their inquisitiveness and focus on education and intelligence, their pluck and ability to survive amidst all manner of racism, xenophobia and hardship and, of course, their endless good humor and ability to laugh at themselves.

So I don't understand how, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jews seem incapable of looking beyond their own, narrow viewpoint. The way I see it, we have tried to play the aggressive bully since Israel's inception, and even more so since 1968 - meeting all violence with violence, keeping Palestinians as disenfranchised second-class citizens roped off in slums - and this technique isn't working. In fact, it's only makign the situation more and more dire. Why is it so wrong to simply point out the need for a change in approach?

This post has been inspired by a rather reprehensible (to my mind, anyway) article from the Jerusalem Post by a reporter named Uri Dan. Dan attended Munich with some native New Yorkers, and enjoyed some delicious Chinese food apparently, and has written an article about the experience.

His thesis is as follows: Even though the sniveling Arab-loving traitor Spielberg wanted to make a film praising Palestinians and criticizing his own people, as it turns out, his movie will help Israel's ongoing campaign of violence and retribution anyway! So there!

It's just such angry, hostile stuff. Spielberg's film expresses many emotions, and anger is in there. But he reserves his anger mainly for those Palestinian terrorists who initially murdered the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. There is, yes, some questioning of the tactics of the Irsaeli government, but I would say this falls more under the "fear" category than "anger." Every single character in the film (yes, including some of the men ultimately responsible for planning Munich) are rendered as sympathetic, nuanced human characters. Anger is not the film's primary or even secondary emotion - it's about the chaos, guilt and existential dread that arise once all your anger has been spent up. Mr. Dan certainly doesn't need to agree with Spielberg's viewpoint, but why does expressing this view make The Beard a target for ridicule?

The Mossad could not have made a better film to recruit volunteer agents than Steven Spielberg's most recent film, Munich.


At a dinner in an excellent Chinese restaurant on Third Avenue, Shanghai Pavilion, seated at a round table, Spielberg's film was the topic of conversation, after many of the diners had already hurried to see it.

The tall and beautiful Amanda, who sat at my right, and her younger sister, the no less lovely Hilary, who sat at my left, who are not Jewish, took a completely different view: "You Israelis are not willing to let anyone play with your mind," said Amanda. "If there are Arabs that are murdering you, you get up and kill them. I admire your Mossad and I wish I could join it," continued Amanda, who is involved in fashion planning at a well-known fashion firm in Manhattan. She revealed to me that she prefers to read any novel based on the adventures of Mossad agents. Hilary eagerly concurred.

Personally, I don't know if Amanda really understood the movie, or was worth quoting in an article analyzing the film. If, that is, she even exists. What she describes covers, maybe, the film's first half hour. Once the Mossad agents begin their violent march across Europe, things start going horribly awry. It's not this easy "when someone kills you, you kill them...done!" That's kind of the entire point of the film.

Here's where the article gets kind of gross.

PERHAPS SPIELBERG'S conscience troubled him because the script represents the conceptual-emotional perversion so characteristic of Jewish filmmakers in Hollywood - they love to represent the Palestinians as being oppressed and bullied by the Jews. Perhaps that is what caused Spielberg to launch an early public-relations campaign in which his spokespeople placed an emphasis on the fact that the film would trigger a controversy because Munich tries to explain and perhaps justify the motives of the Palestinian murderers. And perhaps the entire dispute surrounding the film that began in the media months before the film was first screened this week was no more than spin, a PR ploy to attract worldwide attention.

Okay, perversion? Fuck this guy. Spielberg's film is in no way "perverse." I hate hate hate hate this "self-loathing Jew" thing, okay? Just because someone has a viewpoint that's outside of the mainstream of Jewish thought on a subject doesn't mean he hates himself, it doesn't mean he's a traitor, and it certainly doesn't mean he's a pervert. He just has an opinion. Discussion, debate and differences in philosophy are deeply important to practitioners of the Jewsih faith, remember?

Not to mention that Munich in no way shows Palestinians being "bullied by Jews." In fact, there is a lot of stuff Spielberg could have shown to highlight how modern Palestinians are daily bullied by Jews. But he doesn't deal with this content at all. His film opens with a group of Jews being murdered by Palestinians, then moves to scenes in which armed Jewish mercenaries methodically kill Palestinian terrorists, minimizing collateral damange and feeling intense guilt about their actions. Not to mention...It's all based on a true story!

And that last sentence is just confusing...He starts the paragraph by taking issue with the perspective in Munich, and then concludes by saying that Spielberg's announcement that the film would be controversial was overheated and a PR ploy. But isn't this article about a controvery surrounding Munich, at least, as far as Uri Dan is concerned?

But it is very possible that the makers of Munich did not take into account that the general mood and prevailing consensus in the United States and other democracies, since 9/11, is that terror should be fought everywhere it can be found. Or as Amanda put it, "Those bastards need to be killed and the Mossad does it very well."

First of all, to this idiotic twit Amanda, STFU GTFO OMFG SMD LMB1111111

Now, as for Uri, I hate to break it to you, man, but the majority of Americans now oppose the War in Iraq, part of their reconsideration of the entire War on Terror. Because they're starting to sense that the President has no plan, nor any idea what he is doing, nor a mind capable of holding more than 2 individual thoughts at the same time. You and Amanda represent a group of arrogant war fans who will see their numbers inevitably dwindle more and more in the coming months and years, as bodies continue to pile up but actual real-world progress continues to elude our us.

And that's in America, War on Terror Superfan #99. Other democracies, such as those of Europe, or Canada, were certainly no fan of the slash-and-burn shock-and-awe fight-'em-there-so-we-don't-fight-'em-here mentality.

I myself refrained from waiting in the long lines at the theaters that formed in the wake of the early advertising campaign for Munich and the many articles by critics. The reason I am in no rush to see it is that as a journalist I followed the tragedy of the Munich Olympics up close and in real time, as well the determination by the devoted Israelis, the decision makers, to eliminate the terrorists responsible. It was larger than life, larger than any film that even Spielberg could produce and direct.

This idiot reminds me of this guy we get in the video store, whose name I won't say. He always boasts about his long career in Hollywood that includes practically directing films for which he never got credit, as well as hobnobbing with all kinds of important people. He likes to brag and boast endlessly about his achievements, to anyone listening. When we all start to ignore him, sometimes he makes desperate attempts to impress his own 8-year old child.

Once, we had the Concert for Bangladesh DVD on in the back. He asked what music DVD's had come out recently, and I pointed to the DVD that was playing, and he said:

"What do I need to see the Concert for Bangladesh again for? I was there for the whole thing, back stage!"

He and Uri share this unfortunate trait in common. They can't get over some grand achievement of their past, and resist all efforts to depict this event for a larger audience. I guess they fear it will make their experience less special, or maybe they're just bitter about not being asked to take part. Mystery Customer probably would have loved to be interviewed on the "Bangaldesh" DVD (if he's telling the truth and was really there, which is open for debate). And Uri probably would have embraced Munich if Steve had sat down with him and other Israeli journalists and pretended to care what they think.

I mean, yes, Uri, of course a situation as eventful and tragic and overwhelming as the Munich hostage crisis would be "larger than life," and difficult to recreate in a film exactly as it was when you were there. But does that mean filmmakers should avoid retelling dramatic stories? I mean, the Bible is larger than life, but that hasn't stopped filmmakers since the beginning of the cinema from trying tofilm Bible stories.


That is why it was so interesting to hear the wife of a former American filmmaker, a former Israeli herself, who came to share that meal with three members of her family immediately after seeing the film. "Extraordinary," she stated. "A film made on the highest level and which caused me, as an Israeli, to feel a special sense of pride - that one cannot kill us without Mossad agents eventually coming to avenge our blood. And then too, unlike Arab murderers, we make sure to harm only the murderers and no one else."

Is Uri making these anonymous people who all seem to agree with him up? Are they fictional? Why won't he name them? What's this sort of bogus anecdotal evidence supposed to prove anyway?

So here's another person who clearly missed the entire point of Munich. I'm thinking maybe Uri showed them only the first 45 minutes or so, when it appears that the film will be the story of Mossad agents taking sweet revenge on evil Palestinians. As a Jew, I have to say, one thing I never once felt during Munich was a sense of pride. Hopelessness? Check. Despair? Check. Pride? Not even close.

I think, what we're seeing in articles like these, and in the general Israeli response to Munich, are the long-term effects of living under terrorism. Israelis have lived with terrorists in their cities for so long, they have internalized the notion of living in fear. They have developed entire political philosophies for dealing with the constant threat of random death-by-explosion. Palestinians, too, have now spent more than a generation living as refugees. They are crowded into camps, ostracized by society at large, sometimes arrested without charge or harrassed by soldiers.

Both sides have decided that the offense was originated on the other side - Palestinians bomb buses and buildings as revenge for their mistreatment at the hands of Israel's Army, Jews attack Palestinian camps and kill their leaders as revenge for acts of terror - and that anything else they do is justified. Uri's article doesn't just argue that killing Palestinians is justified. He sees it as something to be celebrated, something that brings glory on to the Jews as a people. It proves they don't take shit from nobody. And how dare this American come in and question them?

And, if this were a schoolyard, and Palestine had just shoved Israel, that would be a sensible policy. Don't just take it...Push them back! But this isn't a schoolyard. It's real life, and it has been going on for decades now, and the pushing isn't working. I'm not saying that I or Steven Spielberg have an actual solution...but why don't we stop pushing for a few minutes and agree that one is needed? Can we even get that far? Consensus that we've lost our way?

The most eloquent counter-argument I've heard thus far to Munich comes from a woman of Israeli descent I spoke with at Laser Blazer. She felt that Spielberg eloquently expressed his disaffection for vengeance killings. But she also felt that his film was rather empty, and a bit shallow. An American Jew living in peaceful, sunny L.A. has the luxury of telling Israelis not to get angry and protect themselves and take revenge on those who try to kill them. He's not there to suffer the consequences of inaction. But what should the Israelis do? Agree to no longer exist? Leave the Middle East? Accept having their citizenry murdered daily by suicide bombers?

I can't really argue against this point. She's right, in that Munich has no solution to the problems facing Israel, and only suggests they should stop doing what they're doing. I don't think you neccessarily have to come from Israel to have a worthwhile perspective on the situation, but it's hard for someone who has never lived under threat of terrorism to pretend to know what it's really all about.

I just hate the arrogance of someone like Uri Dan, who basically wants everyone else other than him to shut up and stop arguing and never question Israel again, cause if you do you're a bad Jew. This is why a lot of these Israeli hardliners see eye-to-eye with our own tyrannical, "with us or against us" President. They can always tell a fellow traveler.

Match Point

I would call Match Point a return to form for director Woody Allen, but I've never seen him undertake a movie of this form ever before. So it can't logically be considered a return. Sure, the basic themes of the film have held over from a lot of his previous work - class conflicts in contemporary cities, the clash of romantic commitment and lustful passion, mounting guilt and paranoia - but this is Allen working in a different key than even his most serious films of the past.

When 2004's mediocre combination of frothy comedy and tragic melodrama, Melinda and Melinda, was released, Allen said in interviews that he had tired of comedy, and felt that only through drama could the deep realities of modern life be explored. At the time, I thought this was insane. Perhaps no American filmmaker has expressed more nuanced and perceptive ideas through film comedy than Woody Allen.

But it's impossible not to consider the transition of Match Point a major, albeit late, turning point in the director's career. Removing himself from New York and cutting free of all the trappings and details that make his films recognizable as "Woody Allen movies," from Dixieland jazz to neurotic, wise-cracking protagonists, has liberated the man. And he has used this newfound freedom and enthusiasm to write and direct the year's smartest and best thriller, a powerfully cold immorality play that's as twisted as it is nimble.

Match Point is the first film Allen has directed entirely in London, and the European setting is entirely appropriate for this sophisticated tale of love, betrayal and, above all, coincidental twists of fate. In 1999, the overrated Mr. Anthony Minghella botched a big-screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's wonderfully bleak novel "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Match Point feels like the film Minghella should have made, a rake's progress about a sociopathic social climber swiftly brushing aside all that blocks him from a life of comfort and privilege.

Over his roughly 10 years in film acting, I have seen Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in several films, and he has never previously made much of an impression. (In fact, going into the film tonight, the only movie on his resume I could distinctly recall was Julie Taymor's Titus, though now looking at IMDB, I realize I had seen him in Velvet Goldmine, Bend it like Beckham and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead as well). Anyway, this is the role of a lifetime, and Rhys-Meyers exceeds all expectation as the shifty, distant yet oddly sympathetic Chris Wilton.

A former tennis pro who lacks the talent and dedication to make it on the circuit, Wilton has taken a job in London as an instructor at a posh private club. There, he meets the friendly young heir Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). The two share an interest in opera (the music that fills the soundtrack in dramatic fashion) and become fast friends. Tom introduces Chris to his single sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), clearly in the hopes of making a love connection, and sure enough the two kids hit it off.

Like Tom Ripley in the Highsmith novel, Chris finds himself in a world of wealth the likes of which he, as a poor kid from Ireland, never dreamed. The Hewett's, including father Alec (a charming Brian Cox) and mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) are kindly people, and not set up as boastful or ostentatious, but nor are they shy about their sizable fortune. Allen expertly and subtley explores these distinctions of class, how Chris is slowly worn down by the money being tossed off around him, pulled in to a lifestyle beyond his means that he can only access by playing the role of the dutiful boyfriend (and later, husband).

The introduction of Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's gorgeous and intriguing fiancee, complicates the situation considerably. Chris is drawn to her immediately. Their first meeting, flirting over a game of ping-pong, features wonderfully honeyed cinematography by Remi Adefarasin and some of the most erotically charged dialogue of Allen's writing career.

Johansson has been good in films before, but no filmmaker has ever brought out the full range of her sexuality nor her unpredictable aggression better than Allen in this film. Every shot of Johansson in the film is stunning - no surprise considering Allen's lifelong taste for sexy, precocious young women - and she maneuvers the transition from playful object of lust to frightened naif on the verge of a breakdown expertly. "Best Supporting Actress"? I'm struggling to think of a more qualified candidate...

Once Chris and Chloe are married, and Tom dumps Nola for someone who meets his mother's approval, the affair gets more daring. Of course, further complications arise that will test Chris' willingness to compromise his morals in order to maintain his creature comforts. It all builds to a final half-hour that's somewhat expected - the film's a romantic thriller that rarely deviates from the genre's tried-and-true formula - yet remains massively exciting and suspenseful.

In some of the later passages, as Chris plays cat-and-mouse with the police and attempts to hold together the family whose wealth he requires, I was reminded of the thrillers of Hitchcock and Chabrol - how little details are set-up subtlely yet pay-off tremendously in the Third Act. (One scene in particular, in which a pocketed shotgun shell threatens to give the game away, represents an impeccably fluid example of film suspense).

Match Point represents Allen's best work in well over a decade. As I said, it's not a "return to form," as he's never tried for a sharp-edged romantic thriller like this one before, but it's definitely his most promising new film since the late 80's-early 90's run that gave us Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives.

Allen's script is near-perfect, not only in terms of structure, but artistry and finesse. He invites us dangerously close to the inside of Chris' perspective. Though he commits evil acts, and is clearly disgusted by his own behavior at times, what's more chilling is his ability to mask his emotions in front of others. Though Chloe will point out that he appears somewhat nervous or shaken at times when he's concealing a great deal from her, overall he's basically a dishonesty savant.

In an opening voice-over, Chris discusses the nature of luck - how, as in a tennis game, life often depends entirely on which side of the net the ball chooses to fall. This represents, in essence, his moral perspective - the game is rigged against you, nothing much can be controlled or counted upon, so when the opportunity comes for you to effect your life's outcome in any way, you have no choice but to seize it immediately.

Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, the film ends as a consideration of the nature of guilt in an amoral universe. (Chris is even shown at one point reading Dostoyevsky). In both films, Allen's characters make a choice to approach their actions pragmatically, without concern for the moral questions involved. If their lives are going to work out in a way that will make them happy, certain unpleasantness must be undertaken.

For Chris, this means choosing foul misdeeds over making personal sacrifices, or rather, forcing others to sacrifice their lives so that his may continue in proper fashion. Allen dares to ask the question...If Chris has the freedom to make that decision, what's stopping the rest of us from doing the same?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An Excellent Day for Blogging

Today has been, like, the best day for Crushed by Inertia since its inception. Well, one of the best...Today is the day I finally have started to genuinely irritate conservatives. I feel like, after a full year of writing, that I have now arrived.

This morning, I found that Pajamas Media, where the overweight congregate to hate, had dismissively linked to my review of Munich. This didn't actually boost my traffic in any way, but hey, a little recognition is always appreciated.

But now, at the end of the day, I find that Greg Tinti of The Political Pit Bull himself has responded to my post of last night about the word "kerfuffle." He has awarded me the title of Most Paranoid Blogger of the Day. Of course, the fact that it only took him one day to start declaring me a paranoid delusional may actually reflect positively on my thinking. Surely, if the Tinti were to post a response to everyone online who finds his ideas crass, silly, vulgar or unacceptable, he'd be extraordinarily busy.

Of course, Greg also fails to mention that all three uses of the word "kerfuffle" relate to the same issue - recent White House scandals. (Two refer to the NSA-surveillance scandal, and the other to the Valerie Plame-leak scandal). Imagine if three well-known literary blogs all described a new book as "perspicacious" on the same day. Sure, it could be a coincidence, but it would be an awfully strange coincidence. You might even think that one of those bloggers just read the other's review and copied the good parts over, or that the word "perspicacious" was used in a press release or advertisement for the book...And that's really all I'm saying about the right-wing blogosphere. They just repeat one another endlessly, influenced directly by whatever they're hearing from the PR team back at Pennsylvania Ave.

It's Hard to Hate Mel Gibson

I mean, don't get me wrong...I somehow have managed to summon the strength to hate him, for his crazy politics, his desire to push his fringe religion deeper into the public sphere and his blatant anti-Semetism.

But he's been in some kickass movies. I just watched Gallipoli the other day again, and it's an incredible achievement. A beautiful, tragic film with a great, loose, extremely charismatic Gibson performance. And he's a pretty funny guy.

Consider the trailer for Mel's new film, Apocalypto. It's a story set in the dying days of the Mayan Empire. The film certainly does look unique and visionary, although it's hard to tell what's actually going on in the movie from this quick-cut trailer clip. One interesting thing about this trailer...Mel has inserted a subliminal shot of himself into the clip, too fast to see with the naked eye.

It's there...I swear it...You have to watch the thing frame-by-frame. Go about 3/4 of the way in...There's a shot of a guy being trapped in a net, then you see a close-up on his eyes, then everything goes black for a moment. After that cut, there's a very fast successful of brief clips from the film. This is the first of those clips.

When you actually see it for yourself in the trailer, it's pretty funny, and you have to admire the guy for throwing something goofy-looking like this into the advertising for what looks like a very serious movie. I can't see Terry Malick putting a photo of himself in a silly hat and suspenders into a rough cut of The New World just for a laugh, to see if anyone would notice.

Extra special thanks to Cinema Blend for the heads-up on this strange development, and for grabbing the photo. Mel just gets loopier every day.

I'm Gonna Be Late For Work...

But this is too awesome not to mention. Worldwide Internet laughingstock Pajamas Media has highlighted my Munich review, sarcastically, in their brief column on the movie. I think they are attacking my view of the film, but if so, I don't really understand the complaint.

Crushed by Inertia noted, without a trace of irony, that "Munich is Spielberg's second film of 2005 dealing with a clash of civilizations. The first was this summer's more effects-heavy but equally contemplative War of the Worlds", the difference being that Munich is "a war film in which war is unwinnable, a revenge film in which the vengeance sought by the heroes is grisly and horrific and unsatisfying and incomplete".

Well, personally, I think everything I write has at least a trace of irony. But more importantly, why should I be ironic about that statement. War of the Worlds is, in fact, about a clash of civilizations. The fact that one civilization is fictional doesn't really matter within the context of the film. To speak of it as a film, in terms of theme or genre, it's still a war film, even though its war never really happened. And that film, though it has its problems, is very thoughtful about the ramifications of living in a nation under attack.

I guess they're just upset that I view the murdering of Palestinians to be grisly, horrific and unsatisfying. (There can be no argument that the plan in Munich remains incomplete. 2 of the Palestinian targets remain alive to this day.)

There's a good new logline for the website:

Pajama's Media: Where The Pre-Meditated Murder of Palestinians Is Charming, Fun and Entirely Satisfying!


Okay, near as I can figure, the post at Pajamas Media linking to the blog here has been up since about 9 a.m. this morning, possibly earlier. That would make it 9 hours since they have been linking to CBI. So far, I have seen an extremely slight increase in traffic. For the entire day yesterday, I received 90 unique hits. Today, as of 6:30 p.m., I've received 96. Granted, that's arleady 6 more, and there's 5.5 hours yet to go, so the number4 will likely be 15-25 hits higher than yesterday.

But, I mean, I'm the seecond link from an article posted on the blog's front page. (It's the fourth article under TOP STORIES). How many hits are they getting a day over there, with their millions of dollars invested and famous names? When I was linked on Gorilla Mask, I received 10,000 hits in a single day, and probably still get 20 hits a day from their archives page. When even a single online Washington Post story links to my blog via Technorati, I get 30-50 extra hits.

Personally, I'm not terribly concerned. I don't really expect this page to ever attract more than few hundred people a day. But this just makes PM/OSM look really bad. They clearly aren't generating much traffic or readership or even remote interest in their material.

Crushed by Inertia Is Brought To You Today By the Number 5, the Letters S, M and D and by the word "Kerfuffle"

Kerfuffle. It's a strange word. Not exactly the sort of word you'd find yourself using every day, is it? I wouldn't. There's an archaic quality to "kerfuffle," and also something sophomoric. It's most commonly used to mean "commotion," but can also indicate "a state of disorder." A more everyday synonym would be, mainly, commotion, but also "to-do," "stir," "disruption" or "disturbance."

Why do I bring up "kerfuffle"? Because I ran across it more than once reading blogs today, and I noticed that both blogs on which I read the word "kerfuffle" happened to be conservative.

Odd coincidence? Perhaps. Consider, though, that both sources, supposedly independent of one another, used the term to casually dismiss serious ongoing investigations against Republicans for wrong-doing.

Still think it's a coincidence? Did I mention I found a third instance, also today, of "kerfuffle" being used in this way? Let's consider the evidence...


Oh, Lord, how I hate linking to this blog. It is unbearably loathsome. I mean, it's all right there in that blog name, isn't it?

Anyway, discussing the wiretapping fiasco, the (sigh) Confederate Yankee starts his column thusly (emphasis mine):

The kerfluffle around Bush's executive order to the NSA just keeps getting more and more interesting...On Christmas Eve, Stewart Powell of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer released a column showing that the secret FISA court that is supposed to approve government surveillance efforts was apparently exceeding its authority, forcing the Administration to go around a judicial roadblock to protect the American people.

He proceeds to provide a quote that does not, in fact, prove anything about the FISA court blocking neccessary wiretaps. Instead, the quote simply says that the FISA court modified more of Bush's wiretap requests (modified, not denied) than any other previous administration. But, if Bush presumably requested a lot more FISA wiretaps than any prior administration, couldn't this just be a meaningless statistic that doesn't reflect the actual percentage of approved wiretaps overall? Of course.

But no matter. My interest is the word "kerfuffle," here charmingly misspelled as "kerfluffle," as in "The guy from Confederate Yankee wants to be George Bush's kerfluffer." Oh, wait...

The use of a silly word like "kerfuffle" indicates CY's derision towards this outcry. Indeed, he's openly condemning efforts to stop Bush from spying on everyone in the post. On to the next example:


I like how these guys just make things up to suit their arguments, but pretend as if they are established facts. Like you'd be stupid not to know them. Take a look at this kerfuffle-laden sentence from this piece of shit's rant-filled site:

The Valerie Plame kerfuffle was an attempted political assassination by left wingers at the CIA, like-minded journalists, and the Democratic party. It has tormented the administration for years. The disclosure that Valerie Plame worked at the CIA did nothing to harm national security, unlike the recent leak of the NSA intercept program, and the earlier leak of the secret CIA prisons for al Qaida bigwigs.

Again, on the same day, we see a conservative blog dismiss a major Republican scandal as a mere kerfuffle, a case of antagonistic Democrats making something out of nothing. Rather than the fact that the president is spying on his own citizens illegally, now they're dismissing his administration's outing of an undercover CIA official.

And how does "jkelly" of Irish Pennants know that Plame's outing didn't affect national security? As far as I know, no formal investigation has gone on to determine what sort of compromising effects that information may have had. (Although it would be nice if, like a reasonable individual, jkelly should concede that our leaders shouldn't break the law, even if their violation doesn't directly harm their nation's security.)


The most vile site I will link to today. Here's the charming phrase honored as PPB's "Quote of the Day!"

"Anybody who doesn't appreciate what America has done, and President Bush, let them go to hell!" -Betty Dawisha

Oh, you guys are neat!

There's also a certain-to-be-hilarious post called "God Damn Hippies, I Hate 'Em." Ooooohhh, PPB you done gone too far now. A smackdown on a youth movement that's been dead for over 30 years...Oh no you di-int!

Anyway, Greg Tinti is concurring with a long, stupid post arguing unconvincingly that stupid libruls in the librul media are out of touch with America, which loves George Bush and doesn't care about wiretaps and is still really really scared of the bearded browns.

I couldn't agree more. Yet some Democrats are betting on this NSA kerfuffle as their ticket to '06 success and, possibly, the ultimate liberal wet dream: the impeachment of W. And by "some Democrats," I mean the ones that are borderline delusional.

It's SUCH TYPICAL right-wing venom, it could have come from the Cheese Doodle Powder-stained keyboard of Karl Rove himself. All the usual beats are there...Predicting doom for your opponents as if you're an impartial observer, dismissing a major scandal lightly without evidence, declaring anyone on the other side "delusional."


I know that the White House basically controls the communication of the entire right-wing blogosphere. What they say, the blogs repeat endlessly until it is accepted as fact. But it's becoming clear that there are actual scripts written up by some central authority and disseminated to these pretend journalists and commentators.

3 people in one day will not, I repeat, WILL NOT INDEPENDENTLY OF ONE ANOTHER USE THE WORD "KERFUFFLE." IT'S A RIDICULOUSLY STUPID WORD. They must have heard it from somewhere.

There are two options.

(1) They heard it from each other, proving that the right-wing blogosphere is nothing more than a circle-jerk, repeating the same shallow ideas back and forth to one another in an endless loop.

(2) They all heard it from someone and dutifully repeated it to their respective audiences.

I'm betting on #2, but will allow that #1 is pretty much equally likely.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Today's GOP: Greedy Old Pricks

You all know my boy Bill Frist, right? He's the ultra-religious Senate Majority Leader so devout in his beliefs that he felt compelled to prevent a comatose woman's husband from disconnecting her from the apparati that were keeping her alive several states over. You know, the intensely spiritual man who may or may not have used inside information to make money on the stock market, by selling shares in the vast family fortune passed on to him by his parents. Shares he denied knowing about, even though he did, in fact, know about them.

So, anyway, this man, for whom Jesus Christ Almighty is a beacon, leader, father and inspiration, was about to leave the Senate to celebrate the most sacred Christian holiday of the year - Christmas. He was desperately trying to get through some budget cuts before the holiday, to show Americans that his party, the GOP, understands America's fiscal crisis and is working toward a more secure economic future.

But Bill was, regrettably, one vote short. Even with the Vice President serving as the tie-breaker in the Senate, Bill needed one more GOP senator to support his budget cuts. There were two possibilities:

Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who would sign the bill only if Frist eliminated a section that would cut $30 million in sugar beet subsidies. See, a lot of sugar beet farmers live in Minnesota, and they really feel the government should keep paying them the same exhorbitant amount to not grow sugar beets. Which is, you know, reasonable...


Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, who would sign the bill only if budget cuts to Medicaid programs - providing health care to the poorest citizens in his home state - were taken away from drug companies and health care providers, rather than Medicaid recipients.

So Frist could choose either to continue giving away free money to beet farmers, or to help the least fortunate Americans obtain access to basic health services. A few days before Christmas. Is it any surprise there are some excited beet farmers with a few extra packages under the tree this year?

There were 568,000 Medicaid recipients in Minnesota last year, and 40,000 people whose livelihood depended on sugar beets. know...I'm sure it was a fair trade-off. I mean, so what if little Timmy needs an antibiotic to take care of that wet, hacking cough? Will somebody please think of the Beet Growers of America for once?

(Thanks to the American Prospect for the link...)


Of course, the holiest book of all for Jews is the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament that lay out the basics of the faith - its history, rituals, practice and so forth. Second on the list is a book called the Talmud, which includes centuries of rabbinical scholarship and commentary relating to The Torah. Great Jewish thinkers consider the questions and issues raised by their Bible, and they write about what they have learned, and eventually, if it's deemed important enough by their peers and descendants, it actually becomes Scripture.

Now, I'm not one to be overly impressed by organized religion, but this is a pretty fantastic system. It allows for opinions to change over time, for future generations to live by the Bible not as slaves or puppets, but thoughtfully. It indicates a more general quest for knowledge, rather than authority or control.

Jews sometimes forget that this is what the religion is all about; taking stock, learning, reading, searching within ones' self. They get all caught up in the "rules," like which plates you're supposed to use at which meals. Or they get caught up in the politics, confusing blind, jingoistic devotion to the State of Israel with moral clarity and purity of mind. Steven Spielberg's latest film, Munich, is a not-so-gentle reminder of this reality, that part of being not just a good Jew but a good human being is learning from your mistakes and always leaving yourself open to new experience and new perspectives.

Munich is Spielberg's second film of 2005 dealing with a clash of civilizations. The first was this summer's more effects-heavy but equally contemplative War of the Worlds, a sometimes-successful depiction of a realistic battle between alien beings and humankind. As Morgan Freeman announced in that film's opening narration, it showed a war fought between the simple, unaware humans of this world and an intelligent alien civilization both cold and indifferent to the fate of its enemies.

This second film depicts a war between two groups - Israelis and Palestinians - who are equally human, and driven by emotion rather than sagacity or technology or indifference. It is a war film in which war is unwinnable, a revenge film in which the vengeance sought by the heroes is grisly and horrific and unsatisfying and incomplete and a "guys on a mission" movie without a clear mission. It is the most direct challenge to the forces in America and abroad that would see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as black and white. It is also Steven Spielberg's most provocative, most insightful and bravest film in decades. Maybe ever. This is a movie every American over 15 should see.

Many have referred to Spielberg's masterpiece as a Prayer for Peace. Often, in reviews, I see Gandhi's famous quote that "an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind." These ideas are absolutely contained within the film. Spielberg clearly has a prejudice against revenge that borders on revulsion. Violent acts, even violent acts that can be rationalized, eat away at those who commit them from the inside. Palestinian and Israeli, all agree that when they carry out grim acts of terror, no matter how justified by rage or betrayal, they become monsters.

As I said, these ideas are all contained in Munich, but they don't define the film. More than a prayer for peace, Munich is a plea for intelligence, rationality and consideration. Spielberg comments on the duty of everyone to make up their own mind and not to accept extreme ideologies peddled by governments or politicians or religious leaders.

The film opens in 1972, in the Olympic Village of Munich, Germany. A group of Palestinian gunmen, belonging to a terrorist group calling itself Black September, have taken hostage 11 Jewish athletes competing for Israel. A trip to the airport with the hostages goes horribly awry. Most of the terrorists are killed by the German army, but all 11 Jewish hostages perish in the rescue attempt.

In a brilliant, whirlwind opening 15 minutes, Spielberg gives us a general idea of the horrors of that day in September, as well as the numbed pain of Jews all around the world as they watch their countrymen suffer and die on television. Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) expresses a familiar mixture of self-pity, gritty determination and gallows humor in a meeting with high-ranking Israeli generals: "While the rest of the world plays games, with torches and brass bands, 11 Jews die in Germany. And no one cares."

Meir and her generals have decided to have 11 Palestinians, the architects behind Black September, assassinated. They turn not to professional killers, who would be known to the international intelligence community, but instead recruit an oddball team of experts in various fields. There's a British hardliner who professes to care only about "Jewish blood" and nothing else (future Bond Daniel Craig), a Belgian toymaker who's also an explosives expert (French actor and director Mattheiu Kassovitz), an excitable German Jew (Hanns Zischler) and a mysterious figure who works as a cleaner, ensuring that Israel can't be connected with the killings (Ciaran Hinds).

Leading the team is Mossad soldier and Meir's former bodyguard Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), who shows no reluctance to the near-impossible task of tracking down and killing 11 terrorists, despite having a young wife and a baby on the way. Though all the members of his team will face the harsh reality of their assignment during the film, it is Avner who will make the largest transformation. He starts as a willing but reluctant soldier, morphs into a cold-blooded, unremorseful killing machine, and ends up a man haunted and shattered by his experiences. Much of the film's success relies on Bana's ability to communicate these changes, and he's more than up to the challenge. This is some of the strongest work I've seen from any actor this year.

After their government handler (Geoffrey Rush in a brilliant supporting performance) explains the usual espoinage film deal - that the government has no knowledge of their existence, that they will live off money left in a secret Swiss bank account and so on - the film contents itself to chronicle the mission with a minimum of sentiment or flamboyance. This is Spielberg's most restrained work ever.

Generally, he tends to overplay his hand, to make the emotional arcs of the films larger than they need to be to express his ideas. How much more potent would Oskar Schindler's sacrifices had seemed if we didn't see him break down over his failure to save one more Jew from the gas chamber? How much more resonance could Captain Miller's death in Saving Private Ryan have had if it had ended the film, rather than that ridiculous morph-effect and bookend? How much more insightful would Minority Report have felt if Steve didn't cheat and give us a happy ending?

In Munich, he totally side-steps this urge. The movie is not grim, but it is somber and sober and aware of its real-world, modern implications. Spielberg doesn't give us an easy way out, and never considers tying up all the film's emotions for the sake of closure. Instead, he dares us to consider the depressing reality of a futile political struggle that continues to this day. He hasn't made a film about brave Jews who won't let anyone fuck with them, although that may be what some of his characters profess. And he hasn't made some ridiculous depiction of noble, heroic Palestinians fighting bravely for what they think is right. He's made a film about how both Israel and Palestine are filled with intelligent, driven people locked in a never-ending struggle from which they can't escape.

And it's clear they all want to. But to give up anything to the other side, or particularly to recognize the righteousness of another's cause, is to admit weakness. Worse yet, it means to sacrifice a dream for which your ancestors gave their lives. For proud cultures with a strong sense of history like the Palestinians or the Jews, this is simply too much to ask.

In one of the film's most perceptive and heart-breaking sequences, the Israeli assassins find themselves sharing a safehouse with a group of young Palestinian revolutionaries. (The Israelis lie and say they are German Communists). Avner and a Palestinian named Ali (Omar Metwally) share a cigarette and discuss the situation in the Middle East. Both make salient points. Avner asks Ali how he imagines terrorists will win back a country (Palestine) that never existed in the first place. Ali argues that, in time, anything is possible, that the Jews fought for centuries before they had a country of their own. Avner asks if the "chalky soil and dirt huts" of Palestine are worth losing generations of young men to violence. Ali points out that this land is his family's home, and that no one who has no home of their own could understand his pain. Back and forth. Back and forth.

A customer today called Munich repetitive, and of course some element of repetition is inevitable given the nature of the film's events. But this is still a shallow critique. It's not as repetitive as it is cyclical. Everything the Israelis do to others is visited back upon them. All violence committed by Palestinians is returned to their own people ten-fold. As Avner as his team begin cutting down Palestinian leaders (in sequences of remarkable swiftness and intensity), assassins begin targeting them for extermination. The French agent (Mathieu Amalric) who sells them information may also be selling information to the enemy. By the time Avner has killed 6 terrorists, he has become so paranoid about being a target that he sleeps on the floor of the closet with a gun by his head.

The idea, clearly, is that this sort of organized vengeance doesn't work, no matter how much we wish it would. Spielberg seems to insist that we need new thinking, that counter-intuitive though it may be, killing the men responsible for violence only creates an overall increase in violent men. Avner notes to his handler that all the Black September leaders they take out are immediately replaced, usually by more extreme agitators. It's just extremely sadistic arithmatic. Even if many are scared out of terrorism because of the threat of assassination, this same threat fills some with an awful determination. And those will be the next generation of fearmongers and terrorists, who will learn from their enemies' actions.

Again, I have to come back to the amazing Bana performance. So often in film, particularly American film, we're presented with the archetypal "reluctant hero." This is the character Jean-Claude Van Damme always plays - the killer who doesn't want to kill, who wishes he could change his essential nature even though he can't. It's usually not very believable - the characters make much more sense kicking ass than they do feeling bad about having just kicked ass. Bana's Avner is an excellent leader and certainly lethal when he means to me, but he never strikes us as particularly adept at killing. Rather than the cool assassins of Hollywood imagination, the Mr. and Mrs. Smith's who gleefully pump bodies full of lead just for the shit of it, Bana's performance shows the full psychological and physical toll of killing. This is guilt as cancer, eating away at the body and mind.

Other performances of note include Rush as the Israeli official who has convinced himself over years of service as to the impeachable rightness of his cause, Kassovitz as the enthusiastic and child-like toymaker Robert and Hinds as Carl, one of the coolest, most well-spoken and vividly-realized characters in any film this year.

Spielberg's direction is, really, near-flawless. I can't think of a scene he plays wrong. When the movie requires thrills and intensity, here's right there bringing it. A scene in which the assassins try to blow up a PLO diplomat and Black September leader without killing his daughter who's in the same apartment is as exciting and tense as anything in an Indiana Jones movie. But everyone knows the guy can direct a kickass set piece. What's more amazing, and singular about Munich among his recent work, is how poignant and realistic he gets the human interaction (aided, naturally, by a wonderful screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth that's both complex and emotionally direct). The interplay between the team members is funny and well-observed, the exposition (of which there's a lot) really flows, the often-complicated political maneuvers are always clearly explained and even the scenes between Bana's Avner and his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zorer) really ring true.

Munich is by no means a happy film, nor one that is easy to watch. But it lacks the suffocating self-importance of some of Steve's other "serious" work. Gone is Saving Private Ryan's hokey traditionalism and award-chasing. Gone is Amistad's sweeping score and preening monologues. Gone, even, is the gloss and taste of Schindler's List. Spielberg has stripped away many of his well-tested techniques and fall-back cinematic tricks, and really opened up his tone and style with this new entry.

Janusz Kaminski's film is bold and bright, and wonderfully captures a variety of European and Asian cities. His compositions, such as an information exchange at an open-air market in front of the Eiffel Tower, really drive home the notion of a conflict between East and West. His use of various filters, and particularly his attention to color saturation, really enhances the film's sense of 70's style.

I think, ultimately, the period is an important factor in considering Munich. Spielberg constantly reminds us that this film occurs in the past - 30+ years in the past - and that these exact same debates currently rage on all around us. Is it right for America to do whatever it takes to defeat "terror"? Can terror ever be defeated, or simply by challenging terrorists to a fight, do we validate their cause? Is it worth killing to protect our people if it costs us our pride, sense of right and wrong and our souls? Does being a strong leader mean staying the course even when everything goes wrong, or does being a strong leader mean having the sense to change your mind when new situations arise?

If it becomes clear that organized murder doesn't improve security or diplomacy, can it ever be morally justified? Does moral justification even matter when you're at war? And what if that war never ends?

Three New Releases

Into the Blue

This pointless little undersea adventure film actually did pretty well financially this year, despite being awkwardly written, poorly executed, repetitive, silly and boring. Remind me again why people wanted to see this lame rip-off of The Deep?

Oh yeah. Jessica Alba in revealing swimwear...Right.

Ms. Alba is one of the bigger prick teases in Hollywood today, and I'm not afraid to say it. She takes sexy roles in sexy films, and then essentially refuses to be very sexy for more than 1 minute or 2 at a time. And if she's afraid she might actually start to look really hot, the whole thing's off! She'll show up in a bikini, and then show you a fleeting shot of her ass, before disappearing from the movie entirely for 20 minutes and then reappearing in, like, a burkha. It's like Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. you ladies think you're getting cast in these movies because of your crackerjack comic timing or something?

Into the Blue is a nothing movie. Nothing. King Bland of Drabsylvania, Paul Walker, stars as a dude with a boat in the Bahamas and a hot girlfriend (but not too hot!) They, along with a goony friend (Scott Caan) and his somewhat hot but not too hot girlfriend (Who Cares), find a sunken plane on the sea floor filled with drugs and money. Then they find a sunken ship called The Zephyr they've been searching for. Also, I think, some buried pirate treasure.

Sebastian the Crab told you about the treasures awaiting you under the sea, but you didn't believe him, did you...Now there's just more for Paul Walker.

After about an hour of dithering around and not showing Jessica Alba's breasts, even from the side, director John Stockwell graciously decides to actually form a plot, something about Josh Brolin and model Tyson Beckford (notice I didn't say "actor Tyson Beckford") wanting the drugs and someone being shot with a harpoon. I stopped paying attention.

Don't even consider wasting your time with this. If you must see a scantily clad Jessica Alba in motion, go get a copy of Maxim and flip through the pages real real fast.

American Pie: Band Camp

Why did I watch this? I didn't really like the original American Pie. Everyone seems to feel it's this landmark gross-out comedy, when really it doesn't go any further than your average 80's teen comedy. Also, I hate its bloodless "don't have sex until you're, like, totally in love" message, a neutered theme for a movie that's essentially about four horny guys trying to get laid. And I totally hated both of the previous sequels. (I swear, I only watched American Wedding because I had to at my old job. And it was pure pain). I rented this one because it stars actual Playmates and was, thus, sure to feature at least some nudity. I had forgotten that the previous entry also starred Playmates, and that all of the American Pie films have featured nudity. And that none of this ever makes them more enjoyable as movies, even as dumb gross-out comedies.
So, I have no idea why I rented this. Nor why I watched it, off and on, for about 45 minutes before turning it off in disgust. Consider it a public service. I have suffered through American Pie: Band Camp, the fourth entry in a flagging franchise, so you don't have to.

American Pie: Band Camp stars a young actor named Tad Hilgenbrink as Matt Stiffler, the younger brother of beloved American Pie poonhound Steve Stiffler (played by Seann William Scott in the other films, who has since moved on to the similarly classless but better-paying Dukes of Hazzard). Matt Stiffler has the distinct honor of being, by far, the most obnoxious character in any film I saw in 2005.

Maybe this whole decade. Maybe ever. Hilgenbrink makes the odd acting decision to say every single line of dialogue in exactly the same way. See, he says something sarcastic, followed up by an off-color insult (involving the words "shit," "dildo," "fart" or "cum" more often than not). He says the entire thing with an oversized, goofy smirk. This guy mugs more than a crackhead with an Uzi.

Today at work, we were discussing Jim Carrey's obnoxious performances in the Ace Ventura movies, and how the entire character was a contradiction in terms. He was a shrill, annoying, delusional idiot who nonetheless was a brilliant detective and a ladies' man. Matt Stiffler, as a character, faces an even deeper and more problematic disconnect - he's this defiantly unfunny, mean-spirited, offensive, sophomoric little runt who's constantly spouting badly-worded sarcasm and lame cliches, and yet there's this entire movie about him and he's the hero.

See, what happens is, Matt gets in trouble at school and, as punishment, must spend a few weeks at Band Camp. Matt doesn't play an instrument, mind you, but, well, I guess the experience will teach him...Something, right? Who cares, right?

At Band Camp, all the counselors are really hot Playmates, which I'm sure is 100% totally realistic. Matt's grand scheme that fuels most of the movie includes secretly videotaping all the hot band camp girls in the buff and then selling the tapes online. Considering this lewd plotline, the movie's surprisingly tame. A few small, sidelong and obscured shots of some of the Playboy girls topless is all there is here.

The jokes are really obvious, as well, and mainly rip off set-ups from the previous films. A scene in which Matt ejaculates into a bottle of suntan lotion and then convinces his nemesis to coat it all over himself recalls the urine-drinking shenanigans of the first movie. And a scene in which Matt experiments by inserting his penis into a musical instrument clearly recalls the pie scene in the first movie as well. Yawn. Okay, I'm done with this piece of shit. On to a good movie.

Cafe Lumiere

Originally planned as one third of an anthology tribute to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou's 2003 Cafe Lumiere nonetheless captures that classic director's refined, minimalist style. Ozu's films are notoriously difficult for Western audiences - they are slowly paced, oddly-distant and vague. They come from a Buddhist tradition and thought system that's very foreign to most American and European audiences, myself included.

And Ozu essentially refuses to move the camera around, or really to inject a sense of movement into his films at all. Stillness is a character in movies like Floating Weeds and Tokyo Story, and Ozu uses it to focus your attention, to create a sense of realism or to explore themes of love, loss and family with more depth and complexity than most "cinematic" sequences would allow. Like cinema's grandfathers, the Lumiere Brothers (for whom Hou's film is named), Ozu was concerned more with recording truthful or beautiful moments in time through film than in compelling audiences with a gripping narrative.

Hou borrows these techniques to tell a story of (mainly) unrequited love. Japanese writer Yoko (Yo Hitoto) takes the train home to inform her father and stepmother (Nenji Kobayashi and Kimiko Yo) that she's pregnant by her non-committal Taiwanese boyfriend. They take the news rather well. When back in the city, she works with a helpful bookstore employee, Hajime, on an article about an overlooked local musician. Hajime, who clearly harbors a secret crush on Yoko, is played by Tadanobu Asano, probably my favorite contemporary Japanese actor. He's best known to American audiences for his work in Ichi the Killer, but he appears in a number of Japanese films and always brings tremendous good humor and grace to his roles.

Cafe Lumiere is no different. It's a good thing that both leads are charming and easy to watch, as Hou's film has little else other than natural performances and exceptional, bright cinematography to maintain the viewer's interest. Much of the film concerns trains (Hajime records train sounds as a hobby, and creates graphics featuring himself enclosed in a womb of trains, even the Lumiere's of the title created a memorable 1895 short about trains), and the film's presentation of the shifting lights and primsatic colors of trains moving through a station is haunting and beautiful.

I don't want to sound haughty, but I suspect most Americans would hate Cafe Lumiere. It's not even that the film has so much depth that it can't be understood. In fact, most of the emotions are very simple - Yoko feels scared and lonely, Hajime feels frustrated but also eager, Yoko's parents feel adrift in the modern world and alienated from their daughter. But the storytelling is ambiguous by nature, and Hou refuses to provide salient details or follow-through on all the concepts he introduces. This is par for the course for Japanese films, but the stillness and quiet, meditative tone of Cafe Lumiere enhances the effect. I found the film to be occasionally beautiful and always interesting, and if you're a big fan of Asian cinema, there's a good chance you would as well.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Russian News Rules!

I found the link to MosNews, a Russian news website, through FARK. They had a story featured on the front page about a man who killed his neighbor accidentally during an argument, and then proceeded to butcher and cook the man's remains. Seriously. He made a delicious Siberian dish known as palmeni, resembling ravioli.

A man from the Russian internal republic Buryatia in eastern Siberia has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for cooking the flesh of his his friend after killing him during a quarrel, reported. He will serve his sentence at a maximum security prison camp.

A long sentence in a Maximum Security Prison Camp in Siberia...Yikes. Even for cooking and eating a man, that's still kind of harsh.

Actually, that's not the whole story. The guy actually sold some of the meat to other neighbors.

According to the online newspaper, Bubeev could not consume all the meat and sold some to his neighbors saying it was horse meat.

I've had upset customers come into the store returning merchandise before, but this has got to be one really awkward conversation.

"Hey, you know that horse meat you sold me."


"Yeah...So I just read in the paper that it was actually the ground-up remains of our neighbor who you killed."

"Oh, right...Didn't I mention that when I sold it to you?"

"No, no. You said it was horse meat."

"I'm pretty sure I said human meat."

"You said horse meat."

"Are you sure it was me you talked to?"

"Now that you killed our neighbor, there isn't anyone else around for miles. It's fucking Siberia."

"Oh, well, I had just slaughtered a horse that week, so I may have gotten mixed up."

"Right. I'm gonna want my money back. And you're probably going to have to go to prison."

"Look, man, I mean, all sales were final. I may have said 'horse meat' or 'human meat,' whatever, but you know, the fact is, you ate the meat."

"This is unacceptable."

"I mean, what can I do? It's our policy. I don't do meat refunds."

"But it was human meat! You're a murdering cannibal!"

"If it were up to me, I'd love to help you. But tti's our policy."

"What policy? We're in your home!"

You get the idea.

Anyway, I was just going to post the humorous comment above and be done with it, when I noticed that there are tons of hilarious headlines on this one Russian news page. Are they all bogus, like the stuff on Or does Russian News just rule all other national news in terms of hilarious bizarreness?

Check out some of these other headlines:

Latvian Man Killed in Accident With Twice Lethal Alcohol Level in Blood

This is about a guy in Riga, Latvia who was run over by a car, and doctors at the hospital discovered he had double the lethal amount of alcohol in his system. They say he must have been drinking some kind of homemade alcohol for days on end to attain that level of drunkitude.

Opponents Tattoo Obscene Words on Russian Communist’s Face

I think we should definitely implement this technique immediately in American politics. Four guys grabbed a young Communist politician and activist in the street, pinned him down in a car and tattooed obscene words on to his face. With a homemade electric needle!

Really, I'd just like Rick Santorum to have to walk around with "I eat chode" scrawled on his face. (Although I'd like to state for the record that I personally wish no harm to come to any public official, and would not encourage any violence be committed against Mr. Santorum or his colleagues in Washington. So, you know, there's no need to monitor all of my domestic and international communications. Thanks anyways.)

Stray Elephant Reported Wandering St. Petersburg Streets

You know, I'm starting to think that all this hilarious "news" is actually made-up. My first clue? The obviously photoshopped picture that goes along with this story.

Odd thing about that elephant...He has only three legs, and he's balancing on one of them whilst the other two hang in mid-air. Okay, so, maybe there really was an elephant wandering around St. Petersburg like the article says, and they just couldn't get a good picture. Or maybe the Russian news site MosNews is as full of shit as the Russian characters in James Bond films.

Two Professors Found Dead in Makeshift Porn Studio With Students’ Index

Man, I really hope this one is true.

Two professors have been found dead in an apartment that had been turned into a porn studio. Homemade porn films and photos were found in the apartment along with an index with pictures and telephones of the professors’ students.

That's the greatest, most sleazy thing I have ever heard in my life. I would like to make this story into a movie just so, at the end, I could put on the tagline "Based on a True Story."

Upon searching the victims’ apartment, policemen discovered a large number of video cassettes with homemade porn as well as hardware and instructions for making films at home.

Instructions! The professors required instructions on making a pornographic film. "Rule #1: Try not to be brutally murdered with a blunt instrument while actually inside your illegal home porn studio."

Here's the best single sentence in the article:

Police say that the professors’ apartment was possibly used as a home porn studio.

It was possibly used as a home porn studio. It may have also simply been a breakfast nook. We can't be sure, because there's all this porn and porn-making equipment everywhere.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

Just returned from Christmas Day at my family's ancestral home in Irvine, California. After venturing to my former house late-night Christmas Eve after a night spent with friends in Long Beach, I had the odd experience this morning of arising in my room from high school. The whole room looks different now, even the bed has changed, so it's not actually my room any more. It's a room in which I happened to once sleep.

My parents always request that I spend the maximum possible holiday-centered time around the house, even though I only live 45 minutes away and this particular holiday isn't actually included in our official religion. I mean, in my family, we don't even celebrate the holidays that form the backbone of our religion...I haven't been inside a synagogue since Grunge was happening. So it just seems a little silly that my presence is required on the holidays we all basically admit to disliking.

I'm also not a big fan of Christmas because I have no money, so though occasionally people give me gifts, I can't actually afford to gift them anything back, unless they consider my company itself to be a gift. (Thankfully, my grandparents seem to actually feel this way). By the way, if you just read that paragraph, and thought to yourself, "He should just make them something himself, from the heart, to show them how much he cares about them," congratulations on being a total cheesy poof.

Christmas in America isn't about Jesus or family or friends or the Spirit of Giving or Goodwill Toward Men. It's about shopping. That much should be very clear at this point. And I don't even mean that in a "oh, it should be about your love of The Lord" or anything...Because who needs that shit?...I just mean, we should stop pretending it's about anything other than shopping, reflect on how much we all like shopping, invite non-Christians (well, maybe not Muslims) to join the mad end-of-year Festival of Shopping and stop trying to move it back to all this Jesus-manger-nativity crap.

When Bill O'Reilly kept going on and on about how "they" were trying to kill Christmas...what did he talk about? People stealing the Baby Jesus from manger scenes? People defacing churches on Dec. 24th or defecating in the middle of Christmas Tree lots? No, it was how sales people greet you at the mall. That's what he referenced, because that's what Christmas means to most Americans - a few extra trips to the mall! So we can buy stuff! Stuff for which we, nor anyone else we know, could possibly ever find any use, like little ceramic ornaments featuring Santa Claus in a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and board shorts or angels giving one another high fives!

But I got off on a tangent. The point was, I have to go celebrate Christmas with my family, a family intent on buying me things, despite the fact that we are all Jews and that, short of the gift of a few spare Tic Tacs, I won't be able to give anyone anything. (Okay, this isn't totally true. I got my brother and his actual Christian Christmas-celebrating girlfriend some DVD's.)

I was getting to a description of the evening itself. First, my father and I watched Get Shorty on DVD, a movie that has aged spectacularly well, I must say. I still found it funny, despite having already seen it a few times before. My dad is just getting over a wicked case of conjunctivitis, a disease that makes your eyes extremely disgusting. I thought that was the disease you get from raw chicken, but apparently I'm thinking of another -ivitis, because my dad doesn't really handle raw chicken all that much to my knowledge. Although now that I think about it, he does work in Koreatown, a place that strikes me as having a far higher-than-average ratio of raw-chickens-to-humans, so you never know...

Later on, my parents, my mother's parents, my brother, his girlfriend and a family friend (who has just joined the Coast Guard!) all gathered to eat some homemade Italian food and exchange presents. Considering I showed up with only the DVD's for my brother and his lady friend, I made out pretty well. A box with some new clothes included much-needed socks and underwear. All of my socks are, like, jet black on the bottom because the carpet in our apartment is dirtier than Tom Sizemore's DVD collection.

I also came away with Kurt Vonnegut's new collection of essays, "A Man Without a Country," some gift certificates to Pacific Theaters, a case of Heineken, some actual U.S. currency and enough leftover food to stock the Lunch Buffet at the Bellaggio. Not a bad haul.

After dinner, my grandmother was prompted to tell some of her infamous stories. I've heard most of these stories before, at family get-togethers. Most of them have passed beyond humorous anecdotes and into family legend, and some of the highlights were hauled out of the archives for this particular event.

It struck me tonight, more than before, that my grandmother's narratives are less like stories and more like stand-up comedy. She's told them to so many audiences at this point (and there's always someone new around) that, like Chris Rock or George Carlin, she has the timing down cold. My brother and I have heard the one about her wig being caught in an opening umbrella about 100 times, and it's still funny.

Tonight, we heard a brand-new, hilarious story. Once, my grandparents were enjoying coffee and dessert in a restaurant. My grandfather started to eat his slice of watermelon with a spoon. This very much upset my grandmother for some reason, as she feels the proper way to enjoy a slice of watermelon is with a knife and fork.

"Bill," she said, "if you take one more bite of that watermelon with a spoon, I'll throw my coffee cream right in your face."

"You wouldn't dare," responded my grandfather.

Now, this is not the right thing to say to my grandmother. "You wouldn't dare." I would never say that to her. I know better. My grandfather, unfortunately, was apparently feeling saucy.

"What did you say," my grandmother responded?

"I said you wouldn't dare..." he replied.

So, of course, she threw the cream in his face, splatting all of him and his glasses. And, naturally, he threw his coffee cream right back in her face.

And everyone in the restaurant turned around to see what the insane couple covered in cream would do next.

You have to understand, when she tells this story, my grandmother acts it out, gets really into it. The performance tonight was fall-down funny. We were hysterical. And I just reflected on how similar it was to professional stand-up comedy, and how much of an impact it made on me having these kind of shenanigans going on all around me from a young, formative age.