Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Best Films of 2005

There are still some well-reviewed 2005 films that I have not managed to see, like Brokeback Mountain and Syriana and The New World. I really would like to watch those before publishing any kind definitive take on the Year in Movies...but I've got to run with this list while it's still timely. In another few days, 2005 will settle into its permanent place in our collective rearview mirrors, and no one will really care what, specifically, the Best Films were.

I'll do an Oscar post once those nominations are announced, but here are some of my choices for Outstanding Achievements in Films this year that aren't usually recognized by the Academy.




BEST USE OF RACISM: Will Ferrell's constant Italian stereotyping in Kicking and Screaming

WORST USE OF RACISM: Paul Haggis desperately trying to make a BIG STATEMENT in Crash

MOST DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND CHARACTER IN A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE: Cavaldi the Torturer, played by Peter Stormare, in Brothers Grimm

BEST DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: Shane Black for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

WORST FOLLOW-UP TO A BRILLIANT DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: Fernando Meirelles for The Constant Gardener

BEST FOLLOW-UP TO A MEDIOCRE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: George Clooney for Good Night...and Good Luck

BEST OVERALL SPECIAL EFFECTS: Star Wars; Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

COOLEST SPECIAL EFFECTS SEQUENCE: Tom Cruise evades a Tripod on the streets of New York in War of the Worlds


WORST OVERALL SPECIAL EFFECTS SEQUENCE: Fraudulent computer-generated birds in March of the Penguins

BEST SCORE: Batman Begins



BEST SURPRISE: Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Peter Jackson's bloated King Kong

MOST POINTLESS FILM, FICTION CATEGORY: Be Cool, a ruthlessly unfunny follow-up to Get Shorty with none of that film's style or wit, almost no returning cast members, a different director, and a paunchy and world-weary John Travolta collecting a paycheck.

MOST EGOMANIACAL FILM, NON-FICTION CATEGORY: My Date With Drew, positing that dorky aspiring filmmaker Brian Herzlinger is so fascinating, audiences will be enthralled watching him hang out with friends and ramble into the camera for 90 minutes about his childhood crush. Apparently, with modern technology as it now stands, filming yourself goofing off now qualifies you as an auteur.






Presented to Jessica Alba in recognition of her not-nearly-slutty-enough turns in films such as Sin City, Fantastic Four and Into the Deep.

Okay, congrats to all the winners. Looking back on 2005, it was a peculiar year. It's true that, overall, I think there are less films this year that I have really enjoyed thna in years past. However, I think the big, event movies (obviously, with some exceptions) were much stronger than average. Usually, out of all the big summer films that come out, maybe one or two is worthwhile at all, while the rest are unwatchably terrible.

This year, some of the blockbuster films also happened to be spectacular entertainments, the kind of movies that encouraged audiences to line up and get hyped for summer films in the first place. It's just that, summer tentpoles and end-of-the-year award-grabbers aside, there just wasn't a ton of quality in Hollywood films this year.

Obviously, international cinema was quite a different story. The weird thing about doing these kinds of Top Ten lists is that I don't get to see most of the great foreign titles in the year they are first released. The foreign movies I saw this year were overwhelmingly released in 2004 in their native countries.

So, I can't really say what kind of year 2005 was internationally yet (I'll know more in a few months), but I can say that 2004 saw some pretty amazing achievements in world film. So, before we get on to the Actual Official List of the Best Films Released in 2005, Proper, here are my favorite films (foreign movies mainly, but also American films and documentaries from the last year or two that I didn't see until 2005) that didn't quite qualify for the list in terms of release date.

The Best Films of the Past Few Years that I Didn't See Until 2005

10. Memories of Murder (2003)

This taut, detailed and goregeously-shot Korean police procedural is based on the true case of Korea's first serial murderer.

9. Kings and Queen (2004)

French director Arnaud Desplechin throws a dizzying amount of ideas at you through the course of this 2.5 hour tragi-comedy, and not all of them stick around long enough to make perfect sense. But his ambition is admirable, the film is frequently funny and he coaxes terrific performances from Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric (who also appears in Spielberg's Munich as Louis, the French informant).

8. Survive Style 5+ (2004)

Bizarre Japanese farce that's equal parts social satire and loopy cartoonish fantasy film. It also features some more hilarious, engaging work from Ichi the Killer star Tadanobu Asano and a strange cameo from British tough guy Vinnie Jones.

7. The Man Who Copied (2003)

This Brazilian thriller-comedy reminds me of some of Polanski's more playful films. This film's been pretty much completely overlooked thus far in the States, which is a real shame.

6. Fear and Trembling (2003)

This French-Japanese co-production could be described as Lost in Translation meets Office Space. But even though I like both of those films a great deal, neither of them has the emotional intelligence or bravery of this outsider's look at the Japanese corporate world. Sylvie Testud's performance as the befuddled, alienated Amelie is one of my favorites from any film I saw this year.

5. Undertow (2004)

Apparently, David Gordon Green's follow-up to the brilliant All the Real Girls actually came out in theaters in 2004, but I don't remember ever seeing it playing anywhere around here. And I do live in the middle of Los Angeles. Is it just because there are no big movie stars? Because Undertow is hardly an art film. It's an adventure story, and a thriller, and it's just brutal and intense and immediate and beautifully shot and, even if the story isn't exactly distant and cool and intellectual and artsy, Green can't help but bring his natural eye and unique aesthetic sensibility to the film. Another forgotten, ignored gem.

4. Head-On (2004)

This German-Turkish co-production hasn't won a lot of fans at Laser Blazer, and I suppose its punk rock soundtrack, explicit repeated drug abuse and frequent nudity might be off-putting for some. But I found its depiction of misfits, married for convenience, who fall in love at precisely the wrong moment mesmerizing in its unpredictability and bold in its execution. I don't often like films this sentimental, and I'm fond of saying that most Hollywood tearjerkers don't earn their sentiment. Well, here is a film with a heart-breaking climax that is completely earned, and extraordinarily effective.

3. Overnight (2003)

This is one of those "right place-right time" documentaries. A camera crew just happened to be following around a guy who would have an unbelievable, fascinating adventure, and the entire ordeal would be caught on tape. In this instance, it's megalomaniacal wannabe filmmaker Troy Duffy, a bartender granted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make his debut feature for Miramax Films based on his own script. The film in question? Boondock Saints. Troy's bandmates (who also hope to win fame and fortune on Troy's coattails) film his fast rise to the top of the young Hollywood heap, and his even faster freefall from grace. This film is hilarious and also really sad.

2. I'm Not Scared (2003)

I saw this Italian wonder one year ago this week, and it has stuck with me ever since. A searing portrayal of innocence lost, featuring a tremendous performance from young actor Giuseppe Christiano, this family drama/thriller is not to be missed.

1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/Oldboy (2002/2003)

Is it cheating to split the #1 slot between the first two segments of Chan-Wook Park's Revenge Trilogy? Well, I don't give a shit. Both of these brilliant, unflinching and surprisingly divergent takes on the nature of revenge deserve a spot at the top of this list. Oldboy is probably the film I have recommended to people the most this year, the movie perhaps that I talked about more than any other this year. It is like a shot of adrenaline straight to your brain, a movie bursting with energy that comes right out and demands your attention. Sympahty for Mr. Vengeance, on the other hand, takes its time, slowly constructing a tragedy of epic, almost Shakespearean, proportions out of the lurid, questionble escapables of a brother and sister duo in modern Korea.

2006 will see the release of Park's third and final "revenge" film, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Definitely among my most eagerly anticipated films of the coming year.


At one time or another, these three films were on the Top Ten List. Other movies just knocked them down, but I thought they deserved a mention anyway.


Todd Solondz's typically frank and funny "sequel" to Welcome to the Dollhouse made excellent use of what appears at first to be a self-conscious gimmick. The lead character, a young girl determined to get pregnant by any means neccessary, is played by a different actress (including grown women, boys and Jennifer Jason Leigh) in every scene.

Sin City

Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's comic broke new ground in terms of digital technology (not to mention in terms of psychotically violent, cruel mayhem). But beyond its amazing, black-and-white look, it's just an extremely fun, free-wheeling and insanely brutal trip through outsized noir archetypes. The movie's not without its flaws or bad performances, but overall it's, you know, really really cool.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Miranda July's twee, sometimes silly debut comedy is SO not at all like Garden State, despite what that guy in the Comments said. Sure, she's quirky, but July's observations about life, like her artwork that fills the film, communicate so well because they are unafraid to be personal and intimate and a little bit strange. Whether or not it feels realistic to an individual is secondary, when the entire point is that we're all trapped in our own head, trying our best to communicate with anyone who doesn't share our exact perspective. I'm really sorry there wasn't room for this sleeper indie on my Top Ten list, but it deserves to be watched.

The Best Films of 2005

10. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

This documentary, assembled by Martin Scorsese but produced by Bob Dylan's own management team, was accused of whitewashing some aspects of the singer's background. And while it's true that we don't get a really solid idea of the effect that, say, constant drug use had on Bob's psyche during the year's covered in the film, that information is available elsewhere for the curious. What the film does provide is the most complete, entertaining and thorough look at Bob Dylan's early, formative years to date, and some fascinating context for some of his most famous songs. Also, it features some great archival footage of the singer from 60's folk music festivals and early television apperances.

9. Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

I think no single topic has taken up more words in the first year of Crushed by Inertia than the Star Wars prequels. I have pontificated about their relative levels of quality at great don't need to hear it all again. Suffice it to say, this film has everything I demand from a Star Wars film - adventure, nostalgia, comedy, cool characters and great effects unfold with the stylish grace of an old-fashioned epic. It may, in fact, be better than Return of the Jedi. I initially imagined it would rank much higher on my Best of the Year list, but then...a lot of good films came out in the past two months...

8. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Shane Black, who made his directorial debut with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, has been writing great action-comedy scripts since the 1980's. But though I've always been a fan of the sharp, sarcastic dialogue of The Last Boy Scout and the repartee in Lethal Weapon, I had no idea Black had brilliance like this hidden within him all these years. Kiss Kiss is the best action film of 2005, the most outrageously funny comedy of 2005, the best "L.A. movie" of 2005 and also the best mystery of 2005, featuring the best on-screen comic duo of 2005 (in Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr.) along with one of the sexiest female appearances of 2005 (co-star and Mission: Impossible: 3 co-star Michelle Monaghan). A self-aware, twisty, violent and fall-down funny slice of noir nastiness that will, I predict, some day find a huge and appreciative audience on DVD.

7. Good Night, and Good Luck

George Clooney really impressed me with this tight, lean and insightful historical drama, ostensibly about Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, but more accurately about bravery in the face of high-level pressure and intimidation. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Robert Elswit (a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, I'd say), and crafted with not just intelligence but also subtlety and an eye for detail, Clooney makes an impassioned and pretty convincing argument about the need for a vigorous, active and even (to quote our beloved Vice-President) robust free press.

6. Broken Flowers

Jim Jarmusch's most warm, accessible and funny film features another strong, silent Bill Murray performance and great supporting work from Jeffrey Wright and a bevy of actresses (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Chloe Sevigny, Julie Delpy and Tilda Swinton). The first half-hour of this movie made me laugh as much as any movie this year, and the ambiguous ending stings the viewer in exactly the right way. Oh, and the Ethiopian music on the soundtrack compliments the film's offbeat journey perfectly. Though Jarmusch's BEST overall film is still debatable, I don't think I've ever enjoyed a Jarmusch movie this much.

5. A History of Violence

David Cronenberg is like some sort of freakish cinematic machine: Interesting premises go in, fascinating, dark, ceaselessly inventive movies come out. Here, Josh Olson's intriguing adapatation of the graphic novel A History of Violence becomes a nightmare-world morality tale, a story about the unknown depths we are capable of sinking to in the interest of self-preservation. Cronenberg captures the on-screen violence with shocking, but never gratuitous or extended, realism that gives the film a real impact beyond its more traditional noir-y mechanics. And the Third Act features some of the best acting (from Viggo Mortensen and William Hurt) and dialogue in any movie this year.

4. Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog, like Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, tends to insert himself into his documentaries. He's just a bit less obvious and more artful about his technique. These aren't non-fiction stories, told simply in a straight-forward manner, with the intent to inform. Herzog is looking for real-life stories that reflect the same themes he looks for in his fiction - ambitious men whose dreams exceed their capabilities, who suffer and rage in the face of the impossible. His film about the life and death of bear-lover and professional nutter Timothy Treadwell is simultaneously true to life and larger than life. True, because most of the film is composed of Treadwell's own nature footage. And bigger than reality, because Treadwell allows us inside his perspective, where he is a brave but lonely hero fearlessly risking his life on behalf of nature's noblest animals. We know this image clashes with reality (Treadwell, of course, was eaten by a bear along with his girlfriend on one of his expeditions), but Herzog invites us to see the world as Timothy did for a few hours, before reminding us in the end that Timothy was charming but also batshit insane. Easily the year's most provocative, fascinating, spellbinding and worthwhile documentary. Fuck them penguins.

3. Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan has directed the single best comic book movie ever made. The old logic, the logic that has ruled the Internet Dork Community since its inception in the mid-90's, held that the best comic book adapatations would capture the spirit and style of the comics. Would, essentially, be comic books come to life. This year's Sin City is the final end-point of that logic - a movie that looks exactly like a moving version of the comic book. And Ang Lee's experiments with editing in Hulk were chasing this same vision...Can we edit a movie to make it look just like a comic?

Nolan has reconfigured the entire equation. He has abandoned any attempt to make a Batman movie that resembles a Batman comic. Instead, he has taken the raw materials, the things that make Batman Batman, and has recreated them cinematically. You still have a tortured billionaire who drives around a special, armored car and hides out in a cave and uses technology to outwit criminals and solve crimes and fight freakish enemies.

But what you don't have are the silly costumes or stilted, expository dialogue or extended backstories or goofy weapons and contraptions that bog down other films in this genre. By insisting on realism, and removing the cartoonish elements of the story that only work when drawn, Nolan allowed himself to reimagine Batman as a classic, old-fashioned adventure story. His finished product not only successfully brings the Batman character to film for the first time, but blows away every single other action or adventure film that came out this year. Peter Jackson's Kong dreams of the outlandish scale and intensity of this film's First Act.

Also, as I stated above, this film has more great actors in fun turns than any other 2005 film, easy. Seriously, every actor in this fucker rules: Christian Bale, the first actor to ever inhabit both billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and ultimate badass Batman successfully; Michael Caine, whose Alfred gets a good deal of the film's best lines; Gary Oldman, who I'm looking forward to seeing more of in the sequels; Morgan Freeman, who I like more here than in Million Dollar Baby; Cillian Murphy, whose deviant Scarcrow ranks as maybe my favorite comic book movie villain ever; Tom Wilkinson, nailing the scummy old-time gangster role perfectly; Rutger Hauer, who it's nice just to see in a big movie; Liam Neeson, who really, when you think about it, is the key holding the whole film together.

2. Match Point

I thought Woody Allen was gone. Whether it was old age, or just a lack of enthusiasm, I assumed his incredible gifts for storytelling had evaporated, and what we were left with was a stale imitation of his former self. Duds like Curse of the Jade Scorpion seemed to indicate not only a lack of ability to produce the kind of one-liners that used to flow from every page of his writing, but a lack of concern about things like basic structure and entertainment value. Who, even, is the target audience for Anything Else? Certainly, young people don't care about old jazz records and Woody's sexual neurosis. But do Woody's older fans want to see Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci going through the old Annie Hall motions?

With Match Point, Woody's finally found his way back to greatness. And this isn't just some "return to form," "better than average" Woody movie. This is the best film he's made in a really long time. I'd say, since Crimes and Misdemeanors (the film in his catalogue it most closely resemembles), which means I'm saying it's better than Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown and Bullets Over Broadway, all of which I think are above-average Woody films.

It turns out, the way back was abandoning all his Woody-isms, telling a story that was still personal for him, but also reflected an entirely new literary tradtition - the cold-blooded aristocratic thriller. Patricia Highsmith and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" come most immediately to mind, but Match Point really fits in to the entire European tradition of movies about wealthy people doing dastardly things to one another behind closed doors.

The film is a textbook on building suspense, and its final half-hour in particular is mercilessly tense. With wonderful performances all around (particularly from lead Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, capable of exhuding great warmth as well as extreme, almost sociopathic, apathy within moments of each other) and a perfectly-timed soundtrack composed entirely of opera, Match Point both mirrors the strength's of Woody's older films while carving out an entirely new niche for him as a filmmaker. Apparently, his 2006 follow-up, Scoop, will be a return to comedy (and also a return to working with Scarlett Johansson, who does her best work to date in Match Point). I hope he can find the same enthusiasm for funny material that he did for this icy-cold bit of cruelty.

1. Munich

For the record, this is the first time I have chosen a Spielberg film as my favorite of the year since I began making Top Ten lists for my high-school paper. He's long been a favorite of mine, but I don't think he has made a tighter, better film than Munich since my early childhood. You have to go way, way back - we're talking early 80's - to find a Spielberg film that exudes this much clarity, confidence and natural filmmaking ability.

But unlike Steve's early 80's work, tremendous though films like Raiders and E.T. are, have this level of relevance, thought or philosophy behind them. Those are escapist entertainments designed by greatest escapist director of the modern age. But Munich is something much more. For the first time, Spielberg has managed to meld the raw ability that makes a Jaws or Close Encounters so thrilling and memorable with the ambition and social relevance of The Color Purple or Schindler's List.

For the first time. Schindler's List is a great movie, but it has Spielberg's usual flaws when working with grand-scale dramatic material. It's maudlin and sentimental, it goes on too long with endless bookends and epilogues designed to highlight the film's seriousness and importance. It's self-aware, Spielberg Commenting on the Holocuast, Forcing us to Confront the Horrors of Our Past.

Munich is a statement, a defiant statement even, against retaliatory thinking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is not self-important or self-aware. It is not some award-hungry Great Film contender, looking to earn popularity by delving into the reliable old bag of Melodramatic Movie Tricks. It's a film that challenges the audience, not only to draw conclusions, but to consider the ways in which others might draw different conclusions. It's a movie that doesn't offer any answers, easy or otherwise, but that's about finally starting to ask the right questions.

But it's not just Spielberg's most emotionally mature film. It's one of his most technically fluid and, really, perfectly realized visions. Europe in the 1970's is breathtakingly realized on screen, right down to every last detail of the decor, clothing and language. (Even Janusz Kaminski's stellar cinematography occasionally takes on a reddish, sun-worn 70's glow.) Achingly suspenseful sequences abound, and the violence is raw and realistic and horrifying. As in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg refuses to pull away from the gore and horror; it's about shocking the audience, re-sensitizing viewers used to seeing blood and body parts in horror movies to the grotesque nature of real violence.

And the characters are wonderfully realized and sympathetic, which as it turns out, becomes extremely important during the film's harrowing, paranoia-fueled final act. Cieran Hinds stands out as a Mossad agent who cleans up after bloody acts of retribution with a wry smile, and Eric Bana gives the year's best performance as Avner Kaufman, the team's conflicted leader. But the smaller roles are likewise filled with great actors - future Bond Daniel Craig as the only Israeli mercenary who never feels guilty over killing Palestinians, French actor and director Mattheiu Kassovitz as a toymaker moonlighting as a bomb maker, Kings and Queen veterna Mathieu Amalric as a Frenchman who supplies surveillance to the team and Michael Lonsdale as his anti-establishment father.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Wow, Wal-Mart employs some serious, hard-core racists. These aren't just the Paul Haggis-Crash style racists, who only hate minorities when they're having a bad day. These are some good ol' boy, dyed-in-the-wool, deep cover, Sean Hannity-loving white power-type people behind the scenes at the world's largest retailer.

Did you guys hear about this today? It might be the single most racist incident I've heard of since that Texas yearbook identified an African-American student in a photo as BLACK GIRL.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is shutting down the system that creates movie recommendations on its shopping Web site after it linked a "Planet of the Apes" DVD to films about famous black Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Wal-Mart said Thursday it had removed what it called the "offensive combinations" from a page advertising a boxed DVD set, "Planet of the Apes: The Complete TV Series."

Under a "similar items" section, the DVD set's page linked shoppers to four films about the lives of King, actress Dorothy Dandridge, boxer Jack Johnson and singer Tina Turner. Wal-Mart later altered the page to link with television show DVDs.

Oh my Lord, that is just wrong. Unfortunately, it's also kind of creative to game the system in that way, which of course only makes the intolerance that much more pernicious.

I also can't help but wonder what comes up when you type in "Mr. Bean." If it's Stand and Deliver or the "Mind of Mencia: Season 1" box set, I'm going to be very upset...

The Constant Gardener

I know it's based on a novel by John Le Carre, so the story "Constant Gardener" technically pre-dates the mid-90's Harrison Ford vehicle The Fugitive. So I can't actually be accurate in saying that the new film by City of God director Fernando Meirelles rips off that beloved Andy Davis action classic. But the two films are disarmingly similar...

A widower discovers that the ghastly, vicious murder of his wife may be the result of a conspiracy involving a greedy pharmaceutical company, a conspiracy to cover-up the negative side-effects of a new drug currently being tested.

I bring up Constant Gardener's odd similarity with The Fugitive not to harp on the new film. It's a fast-paced, nice-looking thriller anchored by solid performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. It's just strange to me that an Important Film like The Constant Gardener, a film noted in its time for its bold statements about corporate greed and international human rights, shares much of its content and perspective with a decade-old chase movie.

In reality, The Constant Gardener isn't terribly insightful or provocative. If you're the kind of person who would be surprised to learn that corporate executives value profits over human lives, then yeah, this movie might very well blow your mind. But near as I can tell, the most "shocking" revelation in the movie is that sometimes, government diplomats serve their nation's own gredy interests rather than looking out for the welfare of poor Africans.

You don't say...

The gardener of the title is Justin Quayle (Fiennes), a gentlemanly pencil-pusher for Her Majesty's Government working out of Kenya. When his outspoken activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is found brutally raped and murdered in an overturned car, Justin is driven to uncover the secrets that may have led to her death. In the process, he will make the personal transformation from tweedy yes-man to outraged soldier for Justice.

Meirelles film is at its best when exploring Justin's internal journey. Fiennes does nice work as a tormented man who becomes obsessed with uncovering an ugly truth. Early on in the film, he discovers that a trusted colleague (American Danny Huston, employing the most spotty British accent I can recall from a recent film) may have been carrying on an affair with Tessa, and his sublimated rage is pretty convincing.

But as an expose of corporate malfeasance, Constant Gardener is pretty damn limp. The "conspiracy" at the heart of the film is pretty obvious right from the start, and even the movie seems to acknowledge at times that Justin's quest is more to discover the dry specifics of an illicit agreement than blow the lid off some shadowy Crime of the Century. The actual "secrets" Tessa may be on the verge of revealing aren't even all that secret or well-hidden, and though Justin may eventually produce a letter serving as "proof" of wrongdoing, his entire ordeal kind of comes off as overblown. Granted, the point of the film is that systems exist in Africa to repress progressive change for the better, but would be nice to feel that Justin's crusade wasn't entirely pointless, if the movie plans to build up any real suspense.

Also overblown are Meirelles directorial choices. His Brazilian debut City of God was a breathless, rapid-fire journey through the slums of Rio, and part of the fun of getting sucked into its world of thugs and street kids was falling into groove with its relentless pace. Certain scenes exuded the playfulness and mastery of technique that mark the films of De Palma and Scorsese. That film announced this guy to the world.

He employs a similar style in Constant Gardener, but the effect is lost. This sort of espionage story just feels inappropriate to Meirelles impressionistic, hand-held, quick-cut style. His direction constantly calls attention to itself, particularly the frequent and jarring insertion of flashbacks in jump cuts. You'll see, for example, Justin gazing out the window longingly intercut with quick images of Tessa professing her love for him. Then back to Justin. Then cut to a letter with some threatening words scrawled on it. Then an African kid jumping. Then back to Tessa. Then Justin again.

It gets old quick, and it doesn't succeed in making the film more gripping or intense or surprising.

Also, as long as I'm complaining, Jeffrey Caine's script includes some pretty wretched, unrealistic dialogue. As long as he's dealing with conspiracy talk or wonky technical language, he's fine, but a few of the main couple's scenes together feature some real groaners. Take one of the film's opening scenes, where Justin initially meets Tessa after he gives a lecture. She challenges him on the Iraq War (the only time it's mentioned in the movie) and they have a pretty heated argument, and then suddenly, the whole conversation spins around completely and they start flirting. It's totally awkward and unconvincing, a clear case of someone writing themselves into a corner and simply forcing their characters into behavior that artificially moves along the plot.

"Hey, if you're done having this totally different perspective from me that drives our entire relationship thus far, let's go have a drink and then sex!"

I'm not saying Constant Gardener is a bad film, or that its essential message isn't an important one. Pharmaceutical companies, I have no doubt, are full of twisted assholes who would be willing to sacrifice the lives of Africans or British diplomats and their wives if it meant millions more dollars in profits. Western aid packages sent to Central and West Africa often don't find their way to the individuals who most need the help. Governments look the other way while innocents needly suffer every day. I'm not denying this stuff is true, or even that these are important subjects to be covered in a film.

But that's just not this film. This is a movie about a gardener, a man who is content to quietly tend to his garden until his pleasant little life is disrupted, causing him to become a crusader for the downtrodden. That's all well and good (if a bit expected). But Meirelles clearly has larger aspirations, and these overblown ambitions for his pleasant little spy film get him into trouble.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Special Guest Blogger: Pat Robertson

[Hey, all...Lons here...So, a few people have wondered aloud why I haven't commented on Pat Robertson's reaction to Ariel Sharon's stroke of yesterday. Robertson basically said that God was angry Sharon had attempted to make peace with the Palestinians by sharing with them some sections of the Holy Land, and so God came down from Heaven and gave Sharon a stroke.

I would comment...but you all know what I'm going to say...Pat Robertson is a massive idiot, God doesn't give people strokes, God doesn't care who owns a specific mountain in some godforsaken part of the Middle East...blah blah blah...Even I get tired of my endless anti-religion shrillocity.

But the situation is important, and should not go without comment. So I thought I'd open the blog up, as I so often do, and give Robertson a chance to explain himself a bit more fully...Because I'm all about having a fair, unbiased viewpoint here.]

Thank you, Jew-boy. I genuinely appreciate this chance to speak with your audience about this situation in the Middle East. When the Rapture comes, and Jesus is flying me up to Heaven on a chariot guided by 10,000 snow-white, snow-white unicorns, I'll be sure to put in a good word for you. Maybe they can send you to the more lax sub-division of Hell, where nothing scorching hot is actually inserted into your anal cavity...Won't that be nice?

Anyway, a lot of people are upset because I said that God gave Ariel Sharon a stroke. Here's my actual quote, from the Associated Press:

"God considers this land to be his," Robertson said on his TV program "The 700 Club." "You read the Bible and he says `This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, `No, this is mine.'"

Sharon, who ordered Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year, suffered a severe stroke on Wednesday.

In Robertson's broadcast from his Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, the evangelist said he had personally prayed about a year ago with Sharon, whom he called "a very tender-hearted man and a good friend." He said he was sad to see Sharon in this condition.

He also said, however, that in the Bible, the prophet Joel "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who 'divide my land.'"

Sharon "was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, United Nations or the United States of America," Robertson said.

I don't get what's so controversial about that! I mean, everything the Bible says is totally true, right? I think God is everywhere at all times, and is all-powerful, and has a plan for each of us. So, obviously, I think that God is actually behind everything that happens on Earth.

Clearly, Ariel Sharon had a stroke because God wanted it to happen. And, based on what God told me the last time we spoke (we talk all the time!), I have deduced that God wanted Sharon to have a stroke because God wants the Jews to control all of the HOly Land.

Now, you may think, "Hey, Pat, if God wants the Jews to have the Holy Land so bad, and is willing to kill innocent men to realize his vision, why doesn't God just strike down all the Palestinians dead right now? Why not just come down to Earth, declare that it is His Will that Israel maintain control of Jersualem, and compel us to comply?"

An excellent question. Next time we're rappin', I'll bring it up to the Exalted One. Although, just to warn you, he may take the idea and claim it was his all along. He's kind of like that.

I don't know why everyone's getting so hung up on my comments about Sharon anyway. I think God's behind literally every story that's on the news. Let's just take a look at the day's events...

Lindsay Lohan out of hospital after asthma attack

Well, who do you think gave Lindsay Lohan asthma in the first place. I think God gave her this attack because he's pissed off she's making that Mark David Chapman movie. But it could also be because she's such an enormous whore.

Is wedding off for Cruise and Holmes?

The union of this brutally insane, idol-worshipping midget and this beautiful young Christian girl was not Godly. Did you really think he'd allow such a thing to happen?

U.S. says bomb hit wrong house in Iraq

Here's an article about an air strike near Baiji, Iraq that accidentally killed 6 family members and wounded 3 others.

The bomb, which was dropped by a U.S. fighter plane, was aimed at a building that three men entered after planting a roadside bomb as an unmanned surveillance plane watched from overhead, the officials said.


The strike flattened a family's home, killing six of the family members and wounding three others, said a spokesman for the Salaheddin provincial governor's office. A father and daughter survived with only minor injuries, he said.

Well, the Air Force may think they made a mistake...but God doesn't miss, folks. I'm sure those 6 civilians must have done something. I mean, they were Muslims, so they were already off to a bad start. Hey, I'm not saying I know exactly why God had to kill that family through the instrument of His Divine Pleasure, the United States Military, but it happened and I'm glad that it happened, because God is infallible. He's just, you know, mysterious or something.

Trapped miners left notes

[Oh, Pat...That's too far! Now I'm getting upset! You're outta here!]

What, too soon?

Little Moron Annie

I guess it's pick-on-conservative-dumbass night here on Crushed by Inertia. This item, helpfully highlighted by Alicublog, demonstrates why political pundits, particularly conservative ones, should never ever ever try their hands at film criticism.

Take law misinterpreter and general shrill weirdo Ann Althouse. She writes occasionally about movies, which she often professes not to "get." It's an interesting phenomenon. So many of these right-wing bloggers dismiss Hollywood product and ceaselessly mock entertainers for their supposedly naive, sheltered brand of liberalism. And yet they are all obsessed with movies and pop culture - dissecting it, looking for buried meanings, obsessing over its effect on the ultra-religious and the impressionable.

I mean, it's always "Hollywood doesn't understand Americans" this and "movies aren't appropriate for the whole family" that and "everything has a shameless left-wing bias." You'd think, if the movies were so out-of-touch, people would stop watching them and discussing them, but it never happens.

(And don't give me that "people aren't going to movies as much any more" crap, because it's just not true. Roger Ebert helpfully pointed out last week that 2004's receipts were higher than 2005's in part due to the independently produced, unexpected smash hit Passion of the Christ. 2005 had some successful films, but no grassroots phenomenon like Gibson's blockbuster.)

Anyway, in this first post, Ann rants about Oscar movies and how they all suck for some reason.

I haven't been reading many of the ten bests lists this year. Here's one, rounding up the usual suspects, the Oscar-y crap with landscapes/history/biography and those heavy-handed sexuality and violence themes.

It's a link to CNN's Best Movies of 2005 list, which is fucking dreadful. They have some winners on there - Capote, Match Point, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck. But Cinder-fucking-ella Man? Are you goddamn kidding me? Crash? (Unthinkably, both of these films are also up for WGA Awards).

Also, Ann, you can accuse Hollywood of a lot of things, but "heavy-handed sexuality"? What does that even mean? And Hollywood movies are so neutered. They're not nearly sexual enough. Check out some European films some time.

Out of CNN's entire list, the only movies that are even vaguely sexual are Transamerica, a serious drama about a transsexual where the sexuality is frank but not titilating, Match Point, a drama about lust and desire that's surprisingly demure about actual on-screen sexuality, and Brokeback Mountain, which features largely unconsummated homosexual love. Other films deal with sexuality only in terms of theme, not content - Capote is about a gay man who never does anything gay on-screen, and King Kong does grapple subtextually with issues of inter-species love. How is any of that "heavy-handed"?

Also, "violence themes"? Does she mean violence? Because I can see objecting to on-screen violence in films, but without any kind of conflict, there can be no movie. In most stories, somewhere lurking beneath the surface is at least the threat of violence.

What a big drag! I especially loathe the biopic. This year, we're supposed to care about Truman Capote and Johnny Cash -- I mean a pretentious actor impersonating Truman Capote or Johnny Cash. Last year, we were supposed to be excited about Liam Neeson pretending to be Alfred Kinsey and Jamie Foxx pretending to be Ray Charles. Both of those '04 movies played on cable TV yesterday evening and I was switching back and forth trying to get a bit of a sense of what was thought to be so good there.

Ugh. She was switching back and forth ebtween two movies trying to see what, if anything, was supposed to be good about them? What a terrific environment in which to perform film analysis. Ann, you fucking twit. Would you say, "You know, I ran at top speed past that Rembrandt painting, and it didn't look so great." We're talking about art, here...You actually have to allow yourself the chance to appreciate it in some way, shape or form.

Although, I agree with her that Jamie Foxx isn't as good in Ray as people said. I have always found him kind of hammy, and that film was no different. Some movies (like Any Given Sunday) use this aspect of his performances well, but Taylor Hackford's film plays it too straight.

Why can't we just see actual footage of Ray Charles? It's disconcerting to imitate his mannerisms. Since there's plenty of film of the man, why not make a documentary?

Uh, cause it's a movie, and the two are totally different. I'm no fan of Ray, but this is just retarded. What's she even trying to say?

Is it because the actor can show us the actual consumption of drugs and alcohol, and we can drag in an actress for him to have big, loud fights with? Those awful domestic disputes! I'm never interested in seeing a man and a woman just yelling at each other about their relationship! I think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are interesting in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," but, after that, I really don't need any more.

She is such an idiot! What is she talking about? Because once Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played a warring couple in a film, there can never again be a movie about arguments between spouses? So, okay, Ann the Critic officially requests the following:

- No more biographical films or historical films
- No more movies about sex or sexuality
- No more movies with violence or dealing with "violent themes"
- No more fictional movies about subjects for which actual footage exists
- No more movies about husbands and wives and their relationships

Anything else, Ann, as long as we're declaring whole genres of films unneccessary with no further discussion?

[Lindsay] Lohan is scheduled to begin shooting her latest film, "Chapter 27," about the man who murdered former Beatle John Lennon, later this month in New York City. Lohan will play a fictional character who befriends Lennon's killer (portrayed by Jared Leto) days before the rock star was gunned down in 1980.

That man should never be mentioned, never given any attention, and no film should ever be made about him. I don't care how much the filmmakers think they are expressing disapproval, when a movie is made about a person, he becomes, in some sense, a hero. No one should ever see that man realize any part of his dream of linking his name to Lennon's. The news was reported when it happened. You can look it up if you want to know who did it. Now, the media should black out his name, forever.

Okay, one more rule...No movie about anyone who ever did anything bad.

Basically, March of the Penguins. That's what Ann wants to see. Any other filmmakers, shut the fuck up.

If you can imagine, her anti-Chapter 27 rant gets even loopier. Bear in mind, she has not read the script or seen the film or talked with the filmmakers or anything. All she knows about the film is that it deals in some way with the life of Mark David Chapman, and that he's a murderer. And with this information, she's decided this is a "disgusting film."

Some commenters asked Ann why she would call for the censorship of films based on content. She denies wanting to censor films (she's just saying people should stop making them on their own), and then drops more bombs.

Only a very rare, unusual person takes things the wrong way and does something bad. But I'm not recommending censoring or boycotting every film about a violent person. Frankly, if I was going to choose one thing to censor with the hope of stopping acts of violence, it would be "A Catcher in the Rye."

Holy shit, is this the mid 70's? Have I entered a time warp? Is she really stating that she believes if kids didn't read J.D. Salinger, they would be less violent? Wow, I do you respond to that kind of lunacy?

But I'm not saying that. I'm not talking about acts of violence generally. I'm talking about the idea that lodges in the brain of some mentally ill persons that killing a famous person would be the road to glory. This is not an important idea for debate by the general public. It's a stupid, ugly fantasy. We should take care that we not participate in making it true.

Again, bear in mind, Ann has not seen this movie. How does she know it's a stupid, ugly fantasy? What if it's about the impact that MDC's mistake had on the lives of those around him? What if it's about him realizing the weight of his crimes, and living out a tortured life of guilt and sorrow? What if it's a beautiful movie?

I realize it stars Lindsay Lohan, which makes this unlikely, and that it may very well be an ugly, senseless film about a maniac. Such movies exist. There's one that just came to DVD called Green River Killer, recounting the actual crimes of the real Green River Killer. I don't really understand the need for a film like that.

But sometimes, as any thinking person who has seen films could tell you, a movie can take a true story and turn it into a timeless piece of art. Alicublog dutifully points out that Taxi Driver was inspired by the man who assassinated George Wallace. Last year's The Assassination of Richard Nixon told the story of a real man who died while plotting the titular crime. And what about In Cold Blood? That's a classic, based on the story of two real-life killers.

If there were any chance that this "Chapter 27" thing is a great screenplay along the lines of "Taxi Driver," I might make an exception. But you know damned well it's not. The moviemakers are just trading on Lennon's fame and trying to grab what they think is a built-in market of people who are interested in him. We should shun them.

We should shun them? For making a movie? Wait, how is that not censorship?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

So Sorry, I Didn't Mean to Offen...Jew

Hilarious. You guys know professional blowhard Dennis Prager? He's the conservative windbag who's always on the radio yammering on about America's beloved "Judeo-Christian values" or writing columns about how to have a happy marriage immediately before divorcing his wife. Anyway, now he's decided to take it on himself to write a series of columns throughout 2006 explaining Jews to his readers at

At this point, a few questions may have occured to you. Who the hell is this guy Dennis Prager to think he can explain a massive, diverse group of people? Explain them to who, anyway?

Well, those aren't the questions Prager has set out to answer. Here's his only mention of "qualifications" to explain Jews.

So, after a lifetime immersed in Jewish life -- an involvement that includes nearly every aspect of Jewish life from the religious (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox) to the secular (Jewish federations, Israel and Soviet Jewry activism) -- and after 25 years of speaking to people of all backgrounds on the radio and in lectures, I feel ready to attempt the daunting but significant task of explaining Jews.

Why do I feel qualified to write about Jews as a group? Well, I've been one all my life!

Really, it's not anything about Prager specifically. I just think it's a nonsensical topic. Maybe if you planned to devote your entire life to compiling a massive 30-volume tome entitled "The History and Explanation of the Jews," and died just as you scrawled the final words to the appendix, I could bring myself to admire the attempt. But a columnist on a 4th tier conservative website writing less than 1000 words at a go? This is not really a possible undertaking.

Anyway, rather than address whether his task is even possible, Prager lays out the questions he will grapple with in this upcoming year.

Why are Jews overwhelmingly to the left of center?

Are Jews a nation, a religion, a race, an ethnicity?

Why have Jews been so hated?

What is Zionism? Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?

Are any stereotypes about Jews true?

Why are most Jews irreligious? And how can there be a secular Jew when there is no such thing as a secular Christian?

Why do Jews oppose intermarriage?

Does Judaism believe in an afterlife?

Why don't Jews seek converts?

Is the doctrine of "Chosen People" racist?

How do Jews view Christians?

Do Jews control Hollywood?

Why do Jews shun "Jews for Jesus"?

Oh, I see...You see, I thought the task was to Explain Jews. I mean, that's the name of the column - Explaining Jews. I think they left off the last part there - "Explaining Jews to Glue-Sniffing GED Students".

I mean, I figured people reading wouldn't be too bright. I mean, they advertise that one of their columnists is disgraced Whitewater asshole Chuck Colson. CHUCK COLSON! You may remember him from his brief role in All the President's Men, where he played the bad guy.

But they don't know why Jews don't seek converts? And they can't imagine why Jews might be concerned about intermarriage, considering that they are a minority in every nation where they live save Israel? I can't wait to read that column where he tackles whether any Jewish stereotypes are true. Finally, the world will know whether we all really do have big noses and love money? (Can you keep a secret...We do...)

The opening asks that burning High-School-History-Class essay topic, "Are Jews a Nation or a Religion or a People or a Tribe or a Race or What?" Prager's answer - all of the above! Oh, you...

If that's all it takes to Explain Judiasim, I think I'll take a crack at these softball Townhall questions. Even though I've been a Jew for a lot less time than Dennis Prager. I bet we can do this real quick, save Townhall readers from having to slog through a year's worth of his dreary, self-satisfied writing.

Why are Jews overwhelmingly to the left of center?

Is this really that hard to figure out with Bush in the White House? I don't know, because all that Jesus talk doesn't work on us, maybe? And that's about all these crooked slimeballs calling themselves Republicans have got to offer these days?

Are Jews a nation, a religion, a race, an ethnicity?

Well, they're not a nation, because the nation is called Israel, and I'm a Jew but not an Israeli. And it's not a religion, because I'm a Jew and I dislike religion intensely. And it's not a race, because I don't bubble in JEW on forms, I bubble in CAUCASIAN. So, my answer is...ethnicity, maybe, but only because that's kind of a meaningless, vague term.

My definition: Non-Christians or Muslims of Semetic descent who watch movies and eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.

Why have Jews been so hated?

A couple potential answers. Prager will possibly go with the long and storied Jewish tradition of serving as money-lenders and bankers, because Christianity in its more traditional form shunned loaning money for interest. (Jesus was actually against loaning money for interest, but Christians have kind of tabled this Bible lesson because it's impractical. Not any of that Old Testament stuff about hating fags...That stuff is key, can't disregard those sporadic sentences. But, come on, no charging interest? I can't get any juice off the vig over here? That's just unreasonable.)

He may also go with the whole Christ-killer Catholic thing. Or even the fact that Jews, spread out all over the world as they are, have the opportunity to inspire hatred among a wide swath of humanity. (More so than, say, Inuits or the Dutch, who can only irritate small, isolated populations).

My theory? Many Jews, particularly those from the Eastern Coast of the United States, are loud and obnoxious and cheap. Granted, that's true of a number of non-Jews from the Eastern Coast of the United States (and, let's face it, people everywhere). But I can't shake the fact that it is true of some Jews. What can you do? They're my people, I love 'em, but hey...I'm trying to be honest.

What is Zionism? Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?

What is Zionism? Dennis, Dennis, they teach you this shit in, like, the eighth grade. If your readers don't know the definitions of basic English words, isn't it time to re-evaluate your position as a professional journalist?

Are any stereotypes about Jews true?

Tons. I've mentioned many true Jewish stereotypes already in this column. One more I would add...Older Jewish men make loud grunts whenever they stand up or sit down. You get used to it, living in a household with older Jews, and imagine that this is what everyone does. I recall on several occasions going to gentile friend's homes and seeing parents (and even grandparents!) standing up and sitting down without making a peep! And yet, when several Jewish men are seated all at the same time, it sounds like someone upstairs is passing a kidney stone.

The scary part? I catch myself doing this at times. Every day, I get closer and closer to being a grunting old Jew who wears his pants up under his armpits.

Why are most Jews irreligious? And how can there be a secular Jew when there is no such thing as a secular Christian?

Didn't we do this question already? You can be a secular Jew because you're born into Judaism. Christianity is, by definition, a religion, so if you opt out of it, you're no longer a Christian. What are you people, fucking stupid?

And most Jews are irreligious because our religion is really fucking complicated and hard to maintain. Christianity is totally easy in comparison. All you have to do is try to resist sin, apologize when you can't, go to church every once in a while, and you're goddamn home free. That's it. And if you truly accept Christ in your heart, even moments before you die, that's considered good enough!

Conversely, Judaism has more rules than Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Don't eat this with this, and don't eat at all on these random days. Don't sit there or go there or talk to them when they're having their period, and DON'T TURN ON THE LIGHTS ON SATURDAY. It's really hard, no fun at all. Yahweh, just shut the hell up already, I'm trying to watch Adult Swim!

So, in my experience, most Jews get sick and tired of the BS really quickly and give up. Also, lots of us are intelligent and the actual tenets of the religion are really dumb, so if you do the math...

Why do Jews oppose intermarriage?

Because they tend to assimilate into cultures, and if this happens on a large-enough scale, The Jews as a people will disappear. NEXT!

Does Judaism believe in an afterlife?

Scripture's unclear, so it's basically like Christians. Smart ones don't, gullible ones who believe in magic do.

Why don't Jews seek converts?

Because we don't like you.

Is the doctrine of "Chosen People" racist?


I mean, not in a totally evil racist "Fuck them niggers" sort of way. In a "We the Enlightened Jews shall Watch Over these Foolish Heathens" Heart of Darkness sort of way.

But, you know, yes.

How do Jews view Christians?

With our eyeballs.

No, but really, this is a dumb question. Jews view Christians differently, depending on their experience with Christians. A-Duh! If he means, instead, "How do Jews view Christianity," then the answer is: they think it's wrong about everything.

Do Jews control Hollywood?

I'm a Jew, and no one in Hollywood seems to want to hire me. So, if we run the entire show out here, I'm just not in touch with the right Jews.

Why do Jews shun "Jews for Jesus"?

Because they're retarded.

Here's a better question...Why don't Christians shun "Jews for Jesus"? Shoot me an answer to that one next time you're feeling all blustery, D.P.

It Has Finally Happened...

Someone has actually found a way to make Bill O'Reilly shut up.

I know, I didn't think it was possible either.

Yet, watch this video, and clearly, you will see David Letterman stick it to Bill O'Reilly so pointedly, the man is actually rendered speechless for a moment. It can be done!

Seriously, this clip of Letterman telling O'Reilly, point-blank, that he's full of crap is a glorious thing. Glorious. It has been years since I have been a faithful Dave viewer, but this clip makes me want to go back.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Drei Deutsche Filme

It's purely coincidental that I have watched 3 German films this week. I certainly didn't set out to watch 3 specific movies in a row, like a special TEUTONIC THEME WEEK here at the blog, where I'd write about my fondness for certain types of sausages and my experiences at last year's Oktoberfest. But, as long as I've been watching them, might as well give you all a brief rundown, am I right? So, Konrad, this one's for you.

The Edukators

There's a really cool genre film going on deep within this 2004 political crime drama, but writer/director Hans Weingartner won't let it out. His script (co-written with Katharina Held) admirably has a lot to say, and it's certainly passionate, if not quite original. But the movie keeps getting crushed under the weight of the ideas.

The story in brief: Jan and Peter (Daniel Bruhl and Stipe Erceg), normal 20-something slackers by day, spend their nights breaking into well-appointed middle-class homes and rearranging all the furniture. They steal nothing - the goal is not material profit but spreading dread - and leave only a brief message: "Your Days of Plenty Are Numbered."


I'm sorry. I know, politically, I'm basically aligned with these guys (and presumably, the writer/director who created them). But Jan and Peter (and Peter's girlfriend, Jule, played by Julia Jentsch) ascribe to such an old-fashioned, generalized "radical Marxist left," it's a bit difficult ot take Weingarten's film seriously as a political statement. I mean, seriously, this film could have been made in the early 70's and been identical. It's a 2004 film about European youth activists, and there's no mention of globalization or European Unification or the Iraq War. Is sticking it to the bourgeoisie by tresspassing even against the law in Western Europe these days?

Like I said, hidden beneath the lengthy, self-important, semi-tedious scenes of political dialogue, there's kind of a cool thriller. In an effort to impress Jule, Jan takes her along one night on a break-in. Unfortunately, they are interrupted by the homeowner, who recognizes Jule immediately. They are left with no choice but to improvise a kidnapping, eventually roping Peter in with them.

The characters are pretty well-developed throughout, and it really pays off in these sequences, watching Jule react to and internalize the discovery of her boyfriend's secret life. Jentsch has a significantly charismatic presence as Jule, and she gets most of the film's best comic moments. (Though billed as a comedy, The Edukators is only sporadically funny).

This is the best stuff in the entire film by far. The film finally just shuts up for a little while with all the class warfare talk and just tells an engaging story. Unfortunately, Weingarten shoots himself in the foot by giving the hostage (Burghart Klaubner) an outspoken political viewpoint of his own. Ugh.

At 2 hours and 10 minutes, the film wears out its welcome. I would have preferred a lean, 90 minute comic thriller without all the socialism. And of course, it's not that I disagree, or that I think thrillers shouldn't involve world politics. It's just that its naive characters aren't really having the insights neccessary to sustain a 2 hour film about radicalism in today's Europe. They're more interesting dodging the authorities and sleeping with one another than pontificating about unionization.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

As evidence that I don't mind a political thriller that's heavy on the political, I offer you 1975's paranoia classic The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. This is a movie made in Germany just over 30 years ago, and it is so relevant to modern America, I'm seriously a little bit frightened right now...

Based on a book by revered German novelist Heinrich Boll (on whom my best friend Ariel wrote a lengthy report in our junior year of college), Katharina Blum chronicles the various ways in which an overzealous government aligned with a corrupt, propagandizing press can destroy an individual's life.

In Democratic West Germany, Katharina (Angela Winkler), a girl so demure her friends refer to her as "the nun," takes a chance by inviting a handsome stranger (Jurgen Prochnow) home to her apartment late one night. The police burst into her apartment in the morning - Ludwig, who has just left Katharina's side, is a wanted anarchist and bank robber.

For most of the film, it's unclear whether or not Katharina knows where Ludwig is hiding. Without any real proof of wrongdoing, Kommissar Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) decides that Katharina herself must be an anarchist, and interrogates her endlessly for information on her subversive activities. A slimy journalist in the employ of the aptly-titled The Paper, Werner Totges (Dieter Laser) cococts all manner of lies about Katharina, even forging or embellishing interviews with her neighbors, friends and her dying mother.

In one chilling scene that hits all too close to home in contemporary America, Totges invents fake information about Katharina which he then tells to Beizmenne, who repeats it back to him so he will have a quote for his article. This kind of back-room "creation" of the news, invented talking points used to slime a dissident, can't help but remind me of, say, the White House's campaign to smear Joe Wilson by outing his wife as a CIA operative.

That's basically it for the narrative of the film. Events continue to spiral increasingly out of control, with Katharina losing any semblance of privacy or dignity as a rabid media and a federally-sanctioned task force root through all the intimate details of her life. Most galling of all, the entire process rests on an obvious lie.

"If you are not guilty," Beizmenne tells Katharina, "then you have nothing to worry about."

But, really, Katharina has not even been charged with a crime. Certainly, she is guilty of sleeping with a man who is a wanted criminal (though whether his bank robberies can be justified by his political goals remains outside of the film's realm of discussion). But without a formal charge, how is Katharina even to know of what she might be guilty? And, of course, with someone prying into everything that you say and do, how can you not be at least a bit worried?

The filmmaking here is absolutely stellar, extremely expressive cinematography that's increasingly tight and claustrophobic as the film goes on. Like a lot of great 70's filmmaking, Volker Schlondorff's film has a natural, world-worn grittiness that really enhances the realism, particularly during the strange, unexpected climax. This is daring, provocative, substantial filmmaking.


So is this.

My friend Ivan watched this Turkish-German co-production the other night and said it was really terrific, and I had seen it on a few Best of the Year lists, so I picked it up on a whim. I knew nothing going in.

What an amazing film. It's the kind of movie that takes you on a real journey. In every film, the main characters change over the course of the major events. But Head-On is one of those rare films where you actually watch characters grow as people and then feel that you, perhaps, have also grown as a person. I'm not saying that watching Head-On will make you a better person. It won't. But you will feel like a better person, at least for a little while, like someone who has had a fantastic dream that they only half-remember, but that was really inspiring at the time.

Cahit (Birol Unel) is a violent, arrogant, slovenly, alcoholic and suicidal late 30's punk rock burnout. Kind of life Klaus Kinski mixed with The Dude. One night, after drinking heavily, he plows his car directly into a concrete wall. While in recovery and counseling afterwards, he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a beautiful young party girl living under the oppressive thumb of her old fashioned Muslim father (Demir Gokgol) and brother (Cem Akin).

These two have three things in common: they hate their lives, they love drinking and doing drugs, and they are Turks living in Germany. Sibel suggests a marriage of convenience. Cahit will have someone to clean up his apartment and cook for him, Sibel will have an excuse to live outside of her family's house, so she can do whatever she wants.

I won't speak of anything else that happens in Head-On, because following these two delightful, lively characters through the unpredictable twists and turns of Fatih Akin's plot is most of the fun. Though Head-On starts as simply a bittersweet comedy about offbeat love, it defiantly refuses any attempt at categorization. As I said, when the ride is over, you feel like you've been some place with Sibel and Cahit, as if their travels - from Hamburg to Istanbul, in and out of one another's arms - have had some significance.

How does Akin get us to care so deeply for such self-involved (and self-destructive) characters?Cahit is so buried in the angry nihilism of his punk music and his bitter resentment over his failed life, it takes a while for Sibel to get through to him at all. And she's a coke-fueled slut whose prone to slitting her wrists (in improper, across-the-wrist fashion) whenever she doesn't get her way. The fact that these two manage not only to convincingly fall in love, but to engender real passionate concern from an audience of strangers, is a tribute to Akin's abilities as a writer and storyteller.

He even gets away with some flourishes I would normally not forgive. Inserted scenes of Turkish musicians playing traditional folksongs against the backdrop of Istanbul are pretty self-consciously arty and indulgent, but they are brief and do help to establish the passage of time. The Muslim hardliner brother character initially seems kind of over-the-top and simplistic, but a late scene in which he bonds with Cahit after years apart feels genuine, and represents one of the emotional climaxes of the entire film.

Head-On is a terrific film, one of the best romances I have seen in several years. It reminds me at times of a Kieslowski kind of movie, an astute, sharp human drama that's equally wrenching and comic. Available now on DVD and highly, highly recommended.

Monday, January 02, 2006

People of Iraq, We Have Failed You guys all knew that...

At the very least, and I mean the absolute worst case scenario, I thought we would probably make the nation of Iraq itself look nicer. I mean, really...We are the world's strongest and most powerful nation. We walk into Baghdad after only a few weeks of fighting with a huge army and a grim determination to make the nation a fully-functioning democratic ally.

Okay, I knew that was bullshit. Everyone knew that wasn't going to work, despite Judy Miller's insistance that the whole world thought George W. Bush was a complete genius and that al-Qaeda was in bed with Saddam Hussein. But you still figured...Iraq might get a little bit improved. Maybe some new schools and hospitals...better-paved roads...more efficient water and power supply systems...Possibly a swimming pool here or there, with some inflatable palm trees and neon, like in Showgirls.

Nothing. We came in, bombed the shit out of everything, continually promised to clean it all up...And now we're starting our pull-out without improving shit.

The Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress in February, officials say. The decision signals the winding down of an $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort in which roughly half of the money was eaten away by the insurgency, a buildup of Iraq's criminal justice system and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein.

Just under 20 percent of the reconstruction package remains unallocated. When the last of the $18.4 billion is spent, U.S. officials in Baghdad have made clear, other foreign donors and the fledgling Iraqi government will have to take up what authorities say is tens of billions of dollars of work yet to be done merely to bring reliable electricity, water and other services to Iraq's 26 million people.

Yeah...Iraq...About that money we promised you...How we said we'd totally all be getting rich on your vast oil supply, and would spend the money making your country really clean and modern? Right...Well, some things came up.

I mean, Hurricane Katrina, am I right? Who saw that coming? People floating on their rooves and shit, did you see that on the news? So they're saying our guy doesn't like black people, which is totally ridiculous, because he absolutely adores old re-runs of "Benson." The thing is...We don't actually have the money. Yeah, so, instead of that whole massive-rebuilding new-infrastructure stuff we promised before we blew up your whole country, how about, instead, a nice tall glass of Get Bent? How's that sound?

"The U.S. never intended to completely rebuild Iraq," Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing the work, told reporters at a recent news conference. In an interview this past week, McCoy said: "This was just supposed to be a jump-start."

Oh, we all must have simply misunderstood. See, I thought when our military went overseas and destroyed the entirety of a sovereign nation, they were implicitly taking on the responsibility of setting things right again once they wer edone gettin' they war on. But it's just supposed to be a jump-start! See, we've set up all the ingredients for a Civil War, resign the country to a cruel fate of endless cyclical poverty and general hopelessness, and just let them all loose on each other. Should be pretty entertaining stuff!

Since the reconstruction effort began in 2003, midcourse changes by U.S. officials have shifted at least $2.5 billion from the rebuilding of Iraq's decrepit electrical, education, water, sewage, sanitation and oil networks to build new security forces for Iraq and to construct a nationwide system of medium- and maximum-security prisons and detention centers that meet international standards, according to reconstruction officials and documents.

This isn't really surprising. We're setting up a democracy in Iraq just like the one we already have Stateside. No money for the desperate citizens who have nothing, but tons of money for new prisons! Get 'em off the streets and into jail, that's what I say! And it's nice to see that all these detention centers meet international standards. I only want torture methods employed what have been approved by Romanians and North Koreans, thank you very much!

In two of the most crucial areas, electricity and oil production, relentless sabotage has kept output at or below prewar levels despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of American dollars and countless man-hours. Oil production stands at roughly 2 million barrels a day, compared with 2.6 million before U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003, according to U.S. government statistics.

The national electrical grid has an average daily output of 4,000 megawatts, about 400 megawatts less than its prewar level.

Iraqis nationwide receive on average less than 12 hours of power a day. For residents of Baghdad, it was six hours a day last month, according to a U.S. count, though many residents say that figure is high.

The Americans, said Zaid Saleem, 26, who works at a market in Baghdad, "are the best in destroying things but they are the worst in rebuilding."

I'm sorry if I've been even more sarcastic than usual thus far, but I don't even know how else to deal with this Washington Post article. It's a reminder that, though the Iraq mission has been an obvious failure on many fronts, that it has failed in even its most straight-forward, immediate task - we have not made this country more inhabitable. We have made it far, far less livable in Iraq than it was before, under a cruel dictator. I'm not trying to praise the villainous thug Saddam Hussein - I'm saying that, counter-intuitively, we're even worse at governing Iraq than he was!

Every time we build things, we have to tack on an additional 25% price hike just to keep the thing we've built safe from attack! And think about the manpower diverted to protect all of these construction crews. The nation is under seige constantly, to the point that we can't manage to make it cleaner or safer.

Even if you don't have, from a humanitarian standpoint, about the Iraqi people and their living conditions, think about the effect this will have on them as a nation. The cultural effect. Young people in Iraq now will grow up thinking of America in the worst possible way. We killed their friends and family, we destroyed their country, we arrested and then tortured innocent people, and then we left without even fixing up any of the buildings we leveled or property we razed.

Thankfully, all is not neccessarily lost.

At the same time, the hundreds of Americans and Iraqis who have devoted themselves to the reconstruction effort point to 3,600 projects that the United States has completed or intends to finish before the $18.4 billion runs out around the end of 2006. These include work on 900 schools, construction of hospitals and nearly 160 health care centers and clinics, and repairs on or construction of nearly 800 miles of highways, city streets and village roads.

900 schools...That ain't bad...Iraq's a big country, but still...At least something got done.

I can just hear my conservative commentators (or, well, this site's lone conservative voice) poitning out that a quick pull-out from Iraq was exactly what I have been hoping for. This is totally true. I was just sort of hoping that we'd have been doing a better job all along of making Iraq even mildly safer and more inhabitable. It's just another example of the incompetence of this administration - we can't even really argue about the rightness of their policies (I think they're wrong, of course), because their execution is always so horrible. We're always dealing in worst-case scenarios.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Bush Calls Domestic Spy Program 'Limited'...

Yeah, it's limited. Limited to anyone and everyone he wants to spy on.

"Only people who I feel like spying on will be spyed upon. That's what I call a limited program. Alberto, John Yoo, you guys are doing one heck uv a job! Now I gots to go clear some brush..."

President Bush strongly defended his domestic spying program on Sunday, calling it legal as well as vital to thwarting terrorist attacks, and contended the leak making it public had caused "great harm to the nation."

"See, it's totally legal. I am the President, so anything I do is legal. I could kill everyone in this goddamn room right now, and John Yoo assures me, that would be totally 100% legal. Now, I'm not going to, because I had a big lunch and I don't feel like it right now. But I just want you to know...It's on the table. I could bomb Iran and Syria, kill every motherfucker in here, go clear some brush and then rape an entire elementary school class while teaching them Intelligent Design, and because I am President and we are at war, that would be totally legal. Or so my counsel have assured me. Now, seriously, this brush needs some attention. It's getting all up in my bizness, and I can't have that."

"This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America and, I repeat, limited," Bush told reporters after visiting wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center. "I think most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy's thinking."

He repeated it, folks. Okay? Are you satisfied? I mean, come on, what's it going to take. He said it was limited, and then he repeated it. I, for one, am mullified. The lesson we've learned from all this - sometimes you have to repeat yourself in order to better catapult the propaganda.

So, basically, Bush has been caught doing something clearly illegal, and is now trying to downplay it and make it seem less illegal. "Well, yeah, technically, I was wiretapping domestic communication without a court order. Which is illegal. But it was only incoming calls! And it was only from people we think might have maybe once been sort of affiliated possibly with al-Qaeda or some other group that sounds like al-Qaeda, like the Kiwanis Club or rock group The Alkaline Trio!"

(Actually, now that I think about it it, I've long suspected emo scenesters The Alkaline Trio to be secretly anti-American.)

The part where it gets typically Bushian - by which I mean retardedly stupid and annoyingly deceptive in an obvious fashion - is here:

The Justice Department on Friday opened an investigation into the leak that resulted in news stories about the secret order to eavesdrop on Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.

"The fact that somebody leaked this program causes great harm to the United States," Bush said before returning to Washington from a holiday break at his Texas ranch. "There's an enemy out there."

Okay, class, let's have a brief little mini-civics lesson here. An enemy is someone who finds out secret government information and then blabs about it to some foreign organization or nation that means us harm. A whistle-blower is someone who finds out about an illegal operation going on in secret wtihin the government and tells the media.

I will provide you with another example. Scooter Libby, or possibly Dick Cheney or Karl Rove or someone else, committed an enemy action when they revealed the identity of an undercover CIA agent in an attempt to smear her husband. No corruption was going on that needed to be aired publicly - they were just trying to get revenge on someone making them look bad. Ian Fishback, on the other hand, is a whistle-blower who refused to blindly accept policy, and told the world about Americans torturing suspected terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. Easy, right?

So, what Bush means is, there's an enemy of his out there. I see nothing wrong at all with a newspaper running a story about the President of the United States violating the Constitution and current U.S. law by secretly wiretapping his own citizens. It's almost...whaddya call it...oh, yeah, the patriotic duty of the free press.

Ther est of the article is Bush's usual duplicitous blather, and I'm not going to waste your time pointing out how obviously dumb it is. You're smart, you can do that on your own. It's particularly amusing seeing him try to dodge the fact that, just last year, he lied to everyone about government wiretaps, assuring everyone that he would always get a court order before tapping someone's phone:

The president denied misleading the public during a 2004 appearance in support of the Patriot Act when he said, "Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, a wiretap requires a court order."

Asked about that Sunday, Bush said: "I was talking about roving wire taps, I believe, involved in the Patriot Act. This is different from the NSA program. The NSA program is a necessary program."

Oh, he was talking about roving wiretaps. I see. Or maybe he wasn't. He believes he was speaking about roving wire taps. This is totally different. Now, seriously, really, no more delays, this brush is getting severely out of hand...


Junebug is kind of like some alternate-universe version of Meet the Parents. Imagine if that movie had been directed by Ingmar Bergman, only not in Swedish. And set in a suburb in North Carolina. Oh, and there's a demented racist artist guy who paints murals of black guys with white faces who murder white people with their massive, exploding cocks.

But, you know...Otherwise, it's totally like Meet the Parents.

Okay, yeah, I don't really get the outsider art guy either. It's a whole sub-plot of the film, and I understand the function of that sub-plot within the larger film, but not why the sub-plot is so bizarre and out of nowhere. I think maybe it's supposed to be funny. The box describes Junebug as a comedy, and I didn't really find it funny.

That's not to say it wasn't good. As a drama about a passive-aggressive family with a lot of repressed anger, it's pretty astute and well-conceived. It's just, you know, not very funny. Unless you think painful, emotionally strained family get-togethers are hilarious.

The film takes a while to get going. Director Phil Morrison opens with a sequence of North Carolina locals (presumably) doing a weird kind of yodeling, then we cut to a long shot of some trees and see the title Junebug. Then we see the film's main couple, art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidz) and her future husband George (Alessandro Nivola) meet at a benefit and quickly fall in love. Madeleine finds out about a weirdo in North Carolina who does these amazing paintings, and she wants to go meet him, which will give her a perfect chance to finally go out and meet George's family.

The few days spent with George's strange family will fill the rest of the movie, but before we get there, we have to go visit the crackpot artist (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who babbles about the Civil War and the Confederate Army and how God tells him what to paint and how he doesn't know any black peopel, so he has to paint all of them with the white faces of his friends and relatives.

There's even a whole scene with snarky "cameos" from musician Will Oldham, Upright Citizens Brigade member Matt Besser and Mr. Show veteran Jerry Minor, which I guess is in the film to give it "indie cred." All this stuff is total crap - meaningless, unfunny, silly, pretentious. And it all comes before you even meet most of the film's major characters. What the hell?

Thankfully, about 20 minutes in, Angus MacLachlan's otherwise adroit script gets to the point, and Madeleine and George arrive at the Johnston home. We meet his distant, nearly-silent father Eugene (legendary character actor Scott Wilson), who spends nearly the entire film desperately searching the house for a lost Phillips-Head screwdriver. Then there's George's Mom, Peg (Celia Watson), whom Madeleine continually refers to as Pam. Finally, there's George's brooding, hostile younger brother Johnny ("The O.C." star Ben McKenzie, proving he's better than the material he's routinely provided for television).

Johnny will provide the enigma at the center of the film. He's extremely angry with George for unspoken reasons, he's aloof and mean-tempered to everyone around him. He completely and shamelessly ignores his doting, relentlessly cheerful and very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams). And he's awkwardly coming on to Madeleine during the only scene in the film when he acknowledges her existence.

We sense that Johnny's odd change of heart, which Ashley refers to as a phase dating from two years back, has fundamentally altered the dynamic in this household. Ashley clings to her makeshift family tighter than ever in the face of his indifference. Eugene has learned to tune out completely, to emotionally divorce himself from the tumult around him. And Peg has turned domineering and controlling in an attempt to force everyone to love one another again. Madeleine and George drop into the middle of this rocky situation, and try to make sense of it the best they can.

This material works well because it's so subtle and observant to the small details of life. Rather than force the Johnston's into some manufactured plot designed to jerk everyone around and build to a weepy climax, MacLachlan and Morrison allow them to simply exist as who they are, and to work out their issues in the way a normal family might when faced with a series of crises. In one scene, during Ashley's baby shower, she opens an antique baby spoon from Madeleine. The other guests get enthusiastic, and Ashley bubbles with excitement in her traditional style, but Peg gets in a small dig under her breath - "it won't go in the dishwasher." That kind of catty aside gives you such insight into Peg's buried hostility, her deep-seated need for supremacy and control over the small zone of her's these kinds of moments that hold Junebug together.

MacLachlan and Morrison do kind of betray this during the film's Third Act, which does kind of attempt to insert a false "climax" to give the film closure. Ashley goes into labor at the same time that Madeleine's wacky artist needs her attention, and the need to decide between the two situations forces her to confront the real meaning of family. Though this entire weekend, she has feigned great interest in the Johnstons and casually asked permission to join their clan, is she really ready to make them her family, to sacrifice her own life for their comfort and well-being?

Morrison doesn't play the scenes too over-the-top, but it's a bit forced and it rings a little false (particularly George, who has been absent most of the film, suddenly turning self-righteous when Madeleine wants to pursue her career amidst his sister-in-law's hospital stay). And, as I said before, I just didn't care about the kooky artist or that entire sub-plot. It doesn't work nearly as well as the family material.

Amy Adams won the audience award at Sundance for her performance here, and it's easy to see why those audiences fell in love with the character. Ashley is by far the most engaging, funny and lively personality in Junebug, and her chatty goodness resonates particularly strong because it's otherwise such a quiet, subtle film. Actually, her character is probably the closest Junebug gets to condescending, About Schmidt, redneck-joke territory. Early on, she's so wide-eyed and full of questions for the sophisticated, worldly Madeleine ("Did y'all have a lot of boyfriends? Have y'all been married before? Is y'all too old to have kids?", the whole film is in danger of slipping into caricature.

Don't get me wrong, Adams is great, and handles the transitions of the considerably depressing third act well. I'm just saying that she's more noted because hers is the BIG character, and the smaller work of some of the rest of the cast warrants mention as well.

Scott Wilson, best known as Dick Hickock from Richard Brooks' classic In Cold Blood, does exceptional work as Eugene, a man of few words but a deep and abiding love of his wife and children. He has a brief scene with Madeleine, in which he kind of half-apologizes for his wife's aggression without actually apologizing, that's particularly simple and impressive.

What's elevates Junebug above most family dramas of its type is its evasiveness, a kind of half-seen quality. Morrison interestingly refuses us any real interaction with the characters individually, on their own. We only see them around one another, when they have their game faces on. For the duration of the film, and in particular its initial stages, people are trying to feel one another out, and of course to impress one another. (Particularly Madeleine, who spends the entire film both getting to know and trying to butter up the Johnstons, and also desperately trying to convince a maniacal artist to sign with her gallery).

So you've got these twin dynamics going on at once - we the audience are watching these strangers work out their long-standing personal conflicts, and these characters are working out these conflicts in front of strangers. Davidtz is great at walking this line during the film - we're never quite sure if she's just irrepressibly cheerful and charming, or if she's just a really good phony. (Her cell phone chats with her preppy secretary back in Chicago hint at the latter). Right at the film's conclsuion, once they have left the Johnston home, George breathes a sigh of relief to be away from all the chaos, and it's the first and only time in the whole film either character indicates a lack of enthusiasm for Meeting the Parents. Whether they have secretly felt this way the entire time, like so many other questions about the family's inner lives, is thankfully left to the viewer's imagination.