Saturday, January 14, 2006

Trans-Fat Beatz

Not really that much to say about this, I just felt the need to put it out there for my readers to see. This Wendy's training video from 1989 is the EXACT reason the Internet was invented. Think about it...In some dark corner of some UCLA lab, when engineers and programmers were constructing the crude inter-computer infrastructure that we today think of as the Internet, they must have known one day their invention would allow people to watch amusing corporate training films from the comfort of their own bedrooms.

Anyway, this video...well, it has to be seen to be believed. I read a description of the thing on Sadly, No!, but that did not prepare me for the madness Wendy's had in store. The video features a traditional 80's rapper informing you, in rhyme, how to grill a burger. Then, some animated burgers, wearing lipstick, warn you that they'll start shrinking once the cooking process commences.

"We start a-shrinking
When we hit that grill, you know we will..."

This video is also notable in that it's the first corporate video I've ever seen to blatantly insult the company's new employees. Consider the trainee being tutored by Wannabe Young MC...he's an extremely confused, nerdy guy. He's clearly baffled by the concept of grilling meat. His expression almost seems to indicate that he didn't intend to start working at Wendy's. Like he's just been grabbed at random off a busy intersection and thrust into a studio, where a rapper started yelling at him about pressing down all four corners to cook the patty evenly.

What's also curious is how disgusting the video makes the burgers look. In promotional material for Wendy's, they're always careful to make everything look immaculately clean and to make the food products look larger-than-life and cooked-to-perfection. In this video, the burgers are oddly-colored, and become intensely greasy during the cooking process. Also, the rapper insists that the ideal color for the final product is "gray," surely the least appetizing of all food-related colors.

Can you imagine if Wendy's took this approach with their customer-aimed public relations? "Wendy's: The Graaaaaaaaaaaay Burger" "Wendy's: Where the Only Thing Fatter Than the Customers Are the Beatz"

Feel free to make up your own...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bush Has a Tell!

In poker, when you have a tell, it means you give away your position through body language, or some other unconscious gesture or mannerism. Essentially, it's the same method employed by a lie detector. When you "bluff," you're essentially lying to people about what cards you have, and an acute observer can pick up visual cues when you are lying.

I think George Bush has revealed a tell in his most recent press conference, from New Orleans. Upon his first trip to Louisiana in three months, Commandant Lassard Bush had this to say:

President Bush made his first trip here in three months on Thursday and declared that New Orleans was "a heck of a place to bring your family" and that it had "some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun."

Heck of? Where have we heard G. Dubs use that phrase before? Of course, it's when he told Michael Brown (Brownie!) that he was doing a "heckuv a job" heading up the FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina. Which wasn't at all true!

Could this "heck of" thing be an indication of when Bush is full of shit? Lacking access to Lexis-Nexis, there's no way I can be sure. It's just, you know, funny that this guy is so entirely oblivious. Perhaps none of his idiotic phrases were maligned and ridiculed more in 2005 than "Heck of a job, Brownie," and now, here he is, before we've even hit January 15th of the next year, using the heck of thing again in discussing the very same topic, the success of clean-up efforts in the Gulf Coast.

Mr. Bush spent his brief visit in a meeting with political and business leaders on the edge of the Garden District, the grand neighborhood largely untouched by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and saw little devastation. He did not go into the city's hardest-hit areas or to Jackson Square, where several hundred girls from the Academy of the Sacred Heart staged a protest demanding stronger levees.

Mr. Bush's motorcade did pass some abandoned neighborhoods as it traveled on Interstate 10 into the city.

Yikes. What an asshole. He visits the areas that received the least amount of devastation, speeds past the placed that were hardest hit, then does a speech about how everyone should stop bitching bceause everything looks fine to him. He's not even trying to disguise his contempt for the American people any more, now that there's no re-election to steal.

"It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit," the president told the local leaders at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, an independent group set up to attract business and tourism to the city.

"Of course," Bush continued, "I was in a total daze when I used to come to NOLA, if you know whut I mean...Probably couldn't tell the diff'rence between the French Quarter, the Red Square or Sunni Triangle, so I'm maybe not the most reliable witness..."

Mr. Bush added that "for folks around the country who are looking for a great place to have a convention, or a great place to visit, I'd suggest coming here to the great New Orleans."

Isn't it amazing how the solution to every single American problem is for us to run around and spend lots of money we don't have? Planes hit the World Trade Center? Go out, spend money, why not come see a Broadway show instead of, you know, paying your mortgage this month? Hurricane destroys much of New Orleans? Just start planning conventions there! Heavy-set, useless, overpaid middle management types gorging themselves on shrimp cocktails and mini-bar Toblerones are the future of this nation's economy, goddammit!

The president ignored questions about the city's new rebuilding plan, introduced Wednesday night to enormous community criticism, and White House officials traveling with Mr. Bush declined to offer opinions. The plan, which depends on nearly $17 billion more from the federal government, gives neighborhoods in low-lying parts of the city from four months to a year to attract sufficient numbers of residents or be bulldozed.
Yeah, well...the nice neighborhoods are looking great! Let's focus on the positive! New Orleans: A Heckuva Town!

Whither Wimmer?

You guys remember Equilibrium, that low-budget nightmare sci-fi from Kurt Wimmer, that introduced the world to a nonsensical martial-arts strategy called Gun-Kata? You don't? Come to think of it, I don't either. The only things I remember about that film are that I hated it, gun-kata doesn't make any sense because it relies on the notion that you can dodge bullets and Christian Bale kills a shitload of puppies.

Well, Equilibrium won some praise from some dim-witted, easy to please online nerd collectives, and Wimmer has moved up in the world. He drops has latest load, Ultraviolet, on the US this February. (Just in time for Valentine's Day! How sweet!)

Check out the trailer here at Underground Films Online. Then consider how oddly like the extremely recent Aeon Flux it all seems. Note the similarity to the voice-over from Domino ("my name is Domino Harvey, I am a bounty hunter" vs. "my name is Violet, I live in a world you may not understand."). Enjoy the extremely lame catch phrases ("Are you mental?). Note the presence of D-level Eastern European soap opera actors in a number of the major roles. Consider sending John Woo to Gitmo as punishment for unleashing the "slo-mo-diving-across-a-room-firing-two-guns" shot on the world. Wonder why every trailer for every film containing any action whatsoever must, by law, feature obnoxious nu-metal on the soundtrack. Reminisce fondly about the wit and subtlety of The Transporter 2.

And then, weep, because this will probably be a big hit, paving the way for a decade or more of vapid, mindless, sub-Uwe Boll wankery from this Kurt Wimmer guy.

Like Chutes and Ladders, but with More Killing

I hate hate hate hate hate Chris Matthews. This round-head, Charlie Brown-looking asshole goes on television every afternoon and tells Americans that politics are just a silly little game where nothing really matters except likability.

You all remember him during the election. "He's the President you want to have a beer with." "George Bush totally controlled this debate." "I just don't know if John Kerry has the leadership to run the War on Terror. He's a flip-flopper." He even went so far as to TITLE his news program "ELECTION 2004: THE HORSERACE."

A presidential election, Chris, is not a horse race. It's a serious undertaking designed to determine whether a given individual has the ability to serve as Chief Executive of this entire nation, and whether that individual has an appropriate amount of popular support. But Chris likes to talk about elections and politics like it's a game of Candyland being played by several of his close friends.

"Congratulations, David Frum, you get to take a ride on the Licorice Railroad! Move ahead three spaces! But, oh, sorry Senator Feinstein...You've been delayed in the Magical Gumdrop Forest. Looks like Republicans win again!"

Yeah, it's odd how politics is all gamesmanship, according to Chris, but that the Republicans always seem to win the game no matter how poorly they play. I guess, as bad as the Abramoff Scandal and George Bush's disasterous first debate against Kerry and the NSA surveillance Scandal and the ongoing tumultuous Civil War in Iraq and the Valerie Plame leak and the poor response to Hurricane Katrina and the failure of Bush's Social Security form and the reaction to his failed nomination of Harriett Miers for the Supreme Court, that the Democrats are just plain worse at the game. Because it's not like Chris Matthews could be serving as an biased umpire, rigging the game for his friends!

Anyway, that's my bone to pick with Tweety, who tries his best each day to convince people that politics doesn't really matter, that the wise men at the top have everything under control, and that you really ought to leave all the important decision-making to crusty old white men anyway. (Like Chris!)

I bring CM up today because of this item in Media Matters. As usual, they do an expert job of using the worlds of these one-sided mouthpieces for the Right against them. Today, they find Chris explaining to former NSA employee Russell Tice that breaking the law is part of the President's job, from his January 12th program.

MATTHEWS: We're under attack on 9-11. A couple of days after that, if I were president of the United States and somebody said we had the ability to check on all the conversations going on between here and Hamburg, Germany, where all the Al Qaeda people are, or somewhere in Saudi [Arabia], where they came from and their parents are, and we could mine some of that information by just looking for some key words like "World Trade Center" or "Pentagon," I'd do it.

TICE: Well, you'd be breaking the law.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. Well, maybe that's part of the job. We'll talk about it.

"Maybe that's part of the job?" Maybe not, though?

I don't think breaking the law to spy on Americans is the President's job. I don't think the President's job ever should involve breaking the law. Because that violates any concept of what the law means. There is no concrete "law" if certain people are allowed, nay encouraged, to violate the rules as part of his or her job. (And, of course, if the President is breaking the law, he'd have to instruct others to break the law with him...It's not like he's sitting in the back of some anonymous van outside a suburban house wearing headphones, spying on Americans personally.)

If the Founders, or any other Congress over America's history, decided that the President should be allowed to do whatever he wants, regardless of what the laws say, they would have put that into the Constitution. "Amendment #28: If you're President, and there are villainous ragheads about...forget everything we just said. Do what you want."

But, alas, this has never happened, so the Prez is beholden to all the same annoying laws as the rest of us. He has to file his taxes and register his car at the DMV and cross intersections using designated crosswalks, just like a schnook. And he can't spy on people just because he feels like it. He needs a court order like anyone.

But this is obvious, right? I'd like to draw your attention to something a bit more subtle and telling in Matthews' comments.

We're under attack on 9-11.

This is how Matthews couches his entire argument. It's the first thing he says. And, certainly, it seems accurate - on September 11th, the United States was attacked by fanatical Muslim terrorists.

But the tenses are wrong. We aren't currently under attack on 9/11. 9/11 is a date, years ago, when we were attacked. Presently, I suppose you could say the United States is being verbally attacked, and that our troops stationed in the Middle East are under attack. But we ourselves are not under attack.

In fact, the opposite is true. Today, we're on the attack. We're dropping bombs, torturing prisoners and "clearing out" dangerous neighborhoods of insurgents. What Matthews says, and what the criminals running this war would have you believe, is that in the post-9/11 world, we're constantly under attack. At all times. Right this second, America is being invaded by terrorists who are plotting your grisly demise.

It's 9/11 right now, and has been for years. We're under attack. Today is no different from that horrible day over 4 years ago. So forget the laws...Let the President do anything he wants to keep you safe.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Does Jesus Even Like Head?

You guys all remember Brian "Head" Welch? He's the former Korn guitarist who left that massively-successful musical enterprise last year after finding his way to Jesus? It was a pretty hilarious turn of events, causing everyone who had been left behind to finally admit, begrudgingly, that Korn hadn't even been a cool band in the first place. (I guess no one bothered to inform Welch before he left his world-famous metal band that Jesus is fucking metal.)

Well, that old story just got a whole lot more hilarious.

Brian "Head" Welch has started his own website/blog to discuss life as a born-again Christian and to debut material from his new album coming in 2006! Hells yes!

Oh, and did I mention that Brian has chosen to name his new website HEADTOCHRIST.COM?

Okay, okay, remember to take a breath, Lons. Try to relax...Sorry, I just get a bit excited when a person, famous or otherwise, does anything this stupid.

As I see it, Bri-Bri probably thought he was giving his site a neat little double meaning. See, he's encouraging people to accept Jesus into their lives - to, in essence, "head" in the direction of Christ. But his guitarist nickname itself was Head, making the name a pun.

What Brian clearly forgot is that the #1 most common connotation of the phrase "head to BLANK" will be that the subject of the sentence is fellating the object. Regrettably, his URL is reminiscent of that classic Faith +1 song, "I want to get down on my knees and please Jesus..."

Brian's testimonial about his conversion, and the blog discussing the final preparations for his debut Christian rock CD, provide me with yet another perfect opportunity to discuss my massive problems with contemporary American religion. Check out this helpful excerpt:

Some scientists say that the number of stars in creation is equal to all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. yet this complex sea of spinning stars functions with remarkable order and efficiency. to say that the universe "just happened" or "evolved" requires more faith than to believe that god is behind it all. there's no doubt it my mind that god created the universe.

God did not need to create the universe; he chose to create it. why? god is love and love is best expressed towards something or someone else- so god created the world of an expression of his love. we should avoid reducing god's creation to just scientific terms that our minds can understand. god is a spirit. he is connected with us mainly by our hearts. it seems like our minds always have to understand everything but god asks us to lean not on our own understanding.

Brian, like a lot of other American religious nuts, apparently wants to completely do away with hundreds of years of scientific discovery. He's simply wishing it away. Now, I don't think that you have to believe everything scientists say, or even that I want everyone to believe what I believe about the world. But it would be nice if Brian even tried to pretend like he had given the issue some thought, instead of just automatically repeating the same old Medieval arguments for the existence of God.

Also, his atronomical knowledge is less than impressive. I'm no Ph.D. in physics or anything, but even I know that the universe is a place of order, but also a zone of intense, constant chaos. "Head" would have you believe that all objects orbit one another in perfect concentric circles, having been placed there by a perfect Supreme Being. But consider that asteroids collide with planets all the time, that matter is sucked into black holes never to reappear, that flaming collections of debris we call comets are flitting through the heavens at breakneck speeds, that even now, the stable-looking atmosphere in Venus is actually a whirling chemical collection of electrified, white-hot gases. What's the sense behind that, Head? Did God fart?

jesus is god. jesus is so real and anyone that doesn't believe that he is, should really find out on there own for sure before they just assume that he isn't. he will reveal himself to anyone that seeks him.

Seriously, you guys, this is totally for real...Go into your bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror for about 2 minutes, and then repeat Jesus' name three times. And he will totally fucking appear. Try it, it'll blow your mind.

To be honest, I feel kind of bad ripping Brian. He means well...He's just a poor addled junkie who found great financial success and reaffirming fame, only to discover that it didn't make him any happier. That must have been a very painful, shocking discovery, and I can sympathize with his attempt to provide his life with some kind of meaning, even if it's kind of a silly, intolerant one.

But then I read the following, rather long statement - the story of how Brian, a drugged-up wretch, found his way to a church that changed his life - and got seriously pissed off all over again.

The first time that I went to church I was up for 3 days but I didn't care because I was desperate. I felt like I was going insane but when I got to church and saw all the people with their eyes shut and their hands in the air shouting at nothing, i was like "these people are the crazy ones". But then I started to wonder.....was god real? It tripped me out that all the people were acting like fools and didn't care what anyone thought. It was so backwards to me because I made my living worrying about what people thought of me so much and I always tried to impress the crowd at any cost. There were so many people worshiping god that i started to realize they must have some kind of proof that he is alive. Why else would they all be here? Then the pastor came out and he was talking as if god was alive and involved in his everyday life. he said that god wanted to be involved in everyones life. I thought to myself "how can that be? he says there's only one god and there are billions of people on earth. If there is a god, how can that one god have time to care about and be involved with billions of people's lives? Either these guys are totally insane or i've been blind my hole life to what's really going on." Anyway, I decided to accept christ as my lord and savior that day and I went home to learn for myself if god was real. When I got home I went into my closet and got high and started talking to god.

What a fucking sheep. What a moron. He just goes to a church and figures, since these people don't seem to mind dancing around like idiots, that must mean there's a God!

I hate to say it, but this guy was better off in Korn. God help us all.

Funny Ha Ha

To make sense of this movie's cryptic title, I think you have to invert the saying. What's the opposite of something that's "funny ha ha"? Something that's "funny weird," or "funny awkward." And that right there is an extremely apt description of this low-tech 2003 oddity, a 16mm romantic comedy shot on location in Boston in 16mm by a guy named Andrew Bujalski, and starring himself, his roommate and some other graduate film student friends.

Bujalski has a mind for comedy like Larry David, creator of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," or Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, creators of "The Office" and "Extras." Okay, so he's not exactly as brilliant as those guys. He's just a young guy, though, and he's got a terrific ear for naturalistic dialogue (earning his film comparisons to Richard Linklater's 90's landmark Slacker.)

I mean by the comparison that his film mines the uncomfortable, unguarded social moments for comedy and insight. Composed entirely of conversations between a lethargic 24 year old girl named Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) and her circle of friends, Funny Ha Ha asks you to look for the brief, fleeting moments of honesty that pop up during the middle of bullshit conversations. It's hard to tell if the film was largely improvised (it seems that way because of the realism of the delivery, with people talking over one another or flubbing words) or just made with extreme attention to natural dialogue readings. Either way, Bujalski's take on the way 20-somethings communicate and don't communicate always ring true, sometimes remarkably so.

Though not a whole lot actually happens in Funny Ha Ha, and the film has no action or set pieces to speak of, it's not like there's nothing going on. Apparently, Bujalski has earned comparisons to John Cassavettes, but I don't really see his desire to make works of transcendental awareness or moments of intense emotional catharsis. He's just making a human comedy that's particularly human, keenly aware of how detached young people, afraid of over-extending themselves, slowly get to know one another and themselves with extreme trepidation.

Marnie likes Alex (Christian Rudder), who until recently was involved with Nina (Vanessa Bertozzi). Now that he's free, Alex's sister (Lissa Patton Rudder) urges Marnie to make a move on him. But she's rejected. Ouch. Then, he goes ahead and elopes with Nina anyway. Marnie finds limited solace in a series of bland temp jobs and a newfound friendship with a nerd named Mitchell (Bujalski himself).

The focus isn't on what happens, as highlighted in particular by the ending, which doesn't make any attempt to resolve any of the conflicts encountered during the film. Instead, it's on Marnie, and how she's desperate for change and yet unwilling to alter her carefully set routine. At one point, she makes a checklist of things she'd like to start doing. The list includes going without alcohol for 1 month, making friends with the girl at her work and trying to occasionally go outdoors. As goals go, they're not exactly lofty.

But Funny Ha Ha isn't only a character study about a comely sunkeneyed slacker. It's also about the nature of honesty in relationships - how we always give lip service to the idea that it's always best to say what's on your mind, when everyone knows genuinely telling people how you feel usually makes things uncomfortable.

There's a sad inevitability, for example, to the scene where Mitchell asks Marnie out on their last day working together. It's painfully obvious he's smitten with her, and equally clear that she has no interest in him despite not having any other male companionship going. And yet...there's no chance he's not going to ask her. All his life, he and every other American male has has the notion pounded into their head - you can't get a date if you never ask a girl. You have a take a chance.

She tries to let him down easy, he asks for her number anyway, and just when it seems the exchange can't get any more horrible, it's suddenly over. What develops from there is a surprising, if strange, little friendship that I won't spoil by discussing any further.

I've talked before about enjoying the experience of relating personally to a film, as in the scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know where the Dad stops the kid from jiggling his leg. Funny Ha Ha has several of these universal kinds of moments that movies are usually too busy to catch. The way self-conscious people turn to self-effacing humor when they're put in an awkward situation (like when an uncoordinated guy is handed a basketball). The way drunk people turn belligerant moments before they turn completely helpless. That awkward moment when you unexpectedly see a friend at the grocery store, and they invite you to come and have dinner with them since you obviously haven't yet eaten, and you don't feel like going but you don't have a good excuse, so there's that second when it becomes clear to them that you're thinking of an excuse, and you both apologize and then there's this weird thing between the two of you the next time you see one another. All that kind of stuff is in this movie.

Funny Ha Ha receieved a C on Yahoo Movies and low marks on IMDB (where one commentor refers to the film as "an abomination.") I can see how it's not for everyone. The dialogue is funny, and there are a number of jokes, but it's not really a laugh-out-loud comedy, and the wit is extremely dry. (Bujalski does get extra credit for paying attention to how inside jokes work among friends. In an early scene, Marnie and friends joke around about hummas, and Marnie brings up the condiment again later for a cheap joke. That's great stuff.)

What's surprising, though, is that one of the comments on IMDB makes kind of a quasi-Marxist critique of the film.

The characters in this film are white college graduates who are happy or unhappy with their lives after graduation. It's hard to root for any of them, they basically come across as a whiny elite who live in nice apartments and complain about their shallow lives... it's pretty forgetable.

First off, nowhere is it implied that all the characters are college grads. Marnie and Alex met in college, we know, but that's it for college references. Also, I'd have to argue that these people are "elite," and they certainly don't live in "nice apartments." Most of these places are complete shitholes, in keeping with the extremely low-budget, grainy look of the film.

But the part of this comment I'd take the most issue with is calling the film "shallow." This is probably the kind of guy who thinks Cinderella Man is deep. Funny Ha Ha is shallow in the way that spending a lazy afternoon with friends is "shallow." Sure, it's not productive, you're not learning anything about how Russell Crowe is a better person than you or that The Great Depression was a difficult and challenging time frought with challenges, but you might gain a little bit of insight into the way other people see the world, or the ways in which you encounter relationships. Is there no room in a film diet for a different kind of movie with those kinds of simple observations?

Less Than Zero Period

I am a freaking genius. Years ago, back when I was in high school, I used to complain about school starting so early in the morning. I had zero period as well, because I was on the school newspaper, so classes began before 7 a.m. This is completely insane. Farmers and doughnut bakers need to be at work pre-7...The rest of the human world surely can wait a few hours.

To give you an idea about the free exchange of ideas in my home during my high school years, I will present to you the following scene, copied verbatim from my hazy memory of arguing with my father.

ME: School should start later.

DAD: Why?

ME: I'm always tired.

DAD: Go to bed earlier.

ME: No, it's not that...

DAD: If you're tired, you're not getting enough sleep.

ME: No, I get my best sleep in the morning, from like 5 to 9 am. I can go to sleep at 8 at night, but if I have to wake up at dawn, I'll still be tired.

DAD: Then go to bed at 7, and you won't be tired. End of story.

Alright, Dad...You win this round...

No one believed me. I think maybe because my folks wake up so early, they have lost their ability to discern a reasonable hour from an unreasonable one. Years of awaking before Conan has finished his monologue has permanently fried their internal alarm clocks. (It's true, kind of...My mom starts to officially get tired earlier in the day than I typically have removed all the crud from my eyelids.)

They just imagined that, as a shifty teenager, I was trying to get away with something by wanting to sleep in until a perfectly reasonable hour. As if my constant exhaustion were somehow due to late-night hits from the gravity bong instead of a desire to occasionally see how "The Commish" ends. (NOTE: I'm not saying that all teenagers are honest, nor fans of "The Commish"...Some high school students, I'm sure, would prefer school start later so they could fit in more 2 a.m. rips from the ol' gravity bong. Just not me. At least, not until college. And my parents, of course, would have known that.)

Anyway, now, years later, when this problem is no longer a major issue, I read this news item (4th article down):

Brain scientists want high schools to start later so teens can sleep

Research shows that body clocks run later in teens than in adults and younger kids: In teens, a sleep-inducing hormone doesn't start rising till 10 or 11 p.m. and doesn't let up till 8 a.m. Some high schools are starting later; others are considering it. Skeptical parents say adjusting the school day would 1) interfere with after-school jobs and 2) give in to teens who stay up late playing video games or chatting on the phone. But some scientists say 1) we should respect kids' sleep needs the way we respect their nutritional needs, and 2) sending them to school at 7 a.m. just teaches them to dope themselves with coffee.

Fucking exactly! Do I have to draw you people a picture?

And check out those evil "skeptical parents." Their children are exhausted, actual neurologists are suggesting this may be because of previously misunderstood quirks of the adolescent sleep cycle, and all they can offer is "play less video games!" Was my father perhaps consulted for this article?

"Tell them to stop talking on the phone until all hours, and they won't be so tired. Done!"

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Red Eye

The genius of American horror master Wes Craven, if you want to call it that, boils down to his remarkable ability to remake the same movie continuously for almost 30 years. Sure, there have been some departures along the way...Music of the Heart, the inner-city-kids-learning-violin movie was hardly typical Craven, and The Serpent and the Rainbow diverges markedly from the other films on his resume.

But, basically, Craven only bothers to actually create 1/3 to 1/2 of an original movie, a set-up, and then relaxes and lets the formula play itself out. There's always some kind of killer menace on the loose, a setting or two in which the characters have the illusion of safety, and then a chase to the death.

Red Eye, his second feature of 2005 after the odious and largely reshot Cursed, follows this same tired trend, but does so in a devious, unpredictable kind of way. It's probably the smartest dumb movie of 2005.

I will say this for Red Eye...It's more focused on dialogue and mood than typical Craven schlock-fests. It belongs in the small sub-genre of the suspense thriller, the Assassin Ropes An Innocent Bystander Into An Elaborate Scheme. This is a long and storied genre, including such recent films as Michael Mann's Collateral and the forgettable mid-90's Johnny Depp vehicle Nick of Time.

Like Collateral, the film catches the audience off-guard by opening more like an observant human comedy than a tense nailbiter. Hotel manager Lisa Reisart (Rachel McAdams), on her way home from her grandmother's funeral, meets the friendly Jackson Rippner (Cillian "Scarecrow" Murphy) in the airport. They share a drink and a brief chat, and find themselves seated next to one another on their flight.

Craven wisely doesn't rush the film's opening, but instead gives the actors time to breathe and establish themselves. The effect of lulling the audience into a false sense of security with Jackson and Lisa is hampered only by Marco Beltrami's obnoxious, intrusive score. Didn't anyone tell him this was supposed to be a taut thriller and not a slasher movie? Does he think he's scoring House of Wax 2 or something?

Once Craven springs the twist - without giving too much away, Jackson aims to do harm to a man staying in Lisa's hotel and needs her for his plan to come off - the movie shifts into some pretty tightly-coiled suspense. Jackson has a man at the home of Lisa's father (Brian Cox, in this movie for absolutely no good reason), putting her in a seemingly-hopeless position, but she has a deep well of resentment and anger that may end up overpowering his grand schemes.

Craven emphasizes not just the innate claustrophobia of the Coach section on an airplane (particularly a turbulent night flight in the midst of a storm), but the paranoid tenor on planes overall post 9/11. Lisa's under considerable strain, but even worse than the threats coming from Jackson is the need to keep a silent, pleasant demeanor for everyone else on the plane who is looking for a reason to get nervous.

The usual cat-and-mouse sort of material goes well for a while, and then we arrive at the moment of truth. The plane lands, Lisa makes a revelation that she will no longer be a victim, and the movie goes into (please pardon the pun...) auto-pilot.

Remember Passenger 57, with Wesley Snipes? The trailer promised an action film set entirely on an airplane, with Wesley fighting some kind of terrorist or something. Then you saw the movie, and they kept landing the plane to get out and have a fight scene. It was ridiculous. They'd come up with any lame excuse to get the characters out of the plane, when the whole point of the movie was supposed to be that it was an action movie set on a plane!

That's kind of how the final third of Red Eye feels. (And that's a substantial part of the movie, because the whole this is less than 80 minutes.) All this well-plotted, clever material winds up serving a really dumb extended chase/fight sequence that's boring because it's so familiar. Craven gets his characters into a house that's undergoing renovations and gives Jackson a butcher knife and an ability to apparently die but then come back to life and continue fighting. He chases Lisa around and around, she screams, he falls down stairs...It goes on and on like this, and starts to feel like a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon.

There are a lot of great touches throughout Red Eye. I liked the way Jackson's team of assassins hides their weapons - it's kind of a Sam Fuller, Pickup on South Street touch. And McAdams and Murphy do great work, not only as the steely heroine and her antagonist, but even in the first 10 minutes, as two people who meet up randomly and hit it off together. Murphy had an amazing year, between this and Batman Begins and the apparently-terrific but unseen by me Breakfast on Pluto. He's really great at cold, disaffected menace.

But why oh why didn't they finish what they'd started? Why not at least try to develop a third act that's as smart and twisty as the first two? How about, next year, instead of making one really awful movie and one that starts off well but runs out of steam after 45 minutes...why not make one movie that's good the whole way through? Can we try that please?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dirty Hippies and Ugly Feminist Dykes

It's been a good 35 years since the American youth counter-culture resisted the Vietnam War and loudly demanded action on the issue of civil rights, and in all that time, these two lame stereotypes are best conservatives can do. Anti-war types don't bathe, enjoy Phish and Burning Man and smoke lots of weed. (Okay, so that last one is pretty much true...)

And, of course, any woman concerned about her own civil and personal rights, her ability to earn a fair wage and her station in society is a man-hating, uptight, sex-averse, ugly shrew. I mean, there's nothing new to this...It's the same lazy caricature that's always been around...

And it's exactly this lazy crap that provides the focus for National Review editor Kate O'Beirne's latest book. Get ready for this title. Women Who Make the World Worse.

It may be even more stupid than that Bernie Goldberg tome of last year about the people who make the world worse. What is it with conservatives and making Enemies Lists? Why can't they just keep this shit to themselves like a normal goddamn human being? I mean, we all have people we can't stand with whom we must occasionally interact. There are people who come into the video store all the time who I want to punch directly in the face every time I see them, but I don't. And I'm not out writing a book about how much I hate them, either.

Just a blog post. But I don't name names.

So who are these women who make the world worse through their uppity-ness? Let's take a look at the book's cover and see.

Why, look, it's Ruth Bader Ginsberg...A powerful woman rising to a position of great legal authority through the use of her intellect, savvy and perseverence? FUCK THAT BITCH!

And next to her, good old Hillary, drawn to look rabidly demented with teeth like Matt Dillon in Something About Mary. Next to her, is that Jane Fonda? Holy shit, Kate, that was fucking decades ago! She hung out with the VC for like one afternoon! Can we please, for the love of God, and all thing's holy, just get the fuck over this thing? I mean, she was in Klute, right? That's a pretty cool movie. Can't we just let bygones be bygones?

Finally, Carrie from "Sex and the City." Because a young woman who not only enjoys sex, but manages to profit from it somehow, makes the world worse.

Actually, this really surprises me. Carrie, proudly single though she might be, represents the classic conservative archetype for the contemporary urban female. Sure, she's capable of looking strong, attractive and independant, but she's really just looking to settle down with a nice guy who will take care of her. It's not real freedom of destiny Carrie was after, but the freedom to date around until she met just the right wealthy hunk.

Plus, she loves shopping. What's more conservative than that?

And, people, that's just what's odd and offensive about the cover. Check out some of these excerpts, compliments of Daily Kos:

I have long thought that if high-school boys had invited homely girls to the prom we might have been spared the feminist movement. We live with the destructive feminist agenda because the fathers or husbands of so many of them, including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and Jane Fonda, never failed to fail them. The views of these angry, abandoned women inform the modern women's movement.

I don't know...It's not really fair to use someone's personal, family background against them in an argument in this way. Like, "you're only saying that because your daddy ran out on your family. If you had a nicer dad, you wouldn't care about equal treatment."

I mean, Kate O'Beirne only wrote this book because she's a fucking moron who has no idea what she's talking about, but I try not to use that against her.

The persistent fable that women are denied equal pay for equal work has been a never-empty tank of gas that fuels feminism. A sympathetic public is largely unaware that the claim that women face widespread wage discrimination is a myth aggressively advanced by feminists. Disparities in wages exist between women with children and men and single women. This is not sex discrimination, but if that were better understood feminists would have to get real jobs.

Wait...what? This argument doesn't make any senee at all. Yes, a disparity does exist between women with children and men, and women with children and women without children. That's the whole problem, you fool. She claims the idea that women don't get equal pay is a myth, and then claims that, well, it's true, but they don't get equal pay for very good reasons. You can't have it both ways...can you?

Oh boy. Hillary Clinton is a committed feminist. She's a true believer in the grievance agenda and promotes the myth of stunted progress for women's equality. She would reliably be one of the women who make the world worse by endorsing all of feminism's pet causes -- strict sex quotas for college sports, "girl power" in our schools, the "epidemic" of domestic violence, abortion on demand (despite her phony rhetoric), universal, federally funded day care, enforced "equal pay for equal work" and women in combat.

Holy crap...This woman is making my ears bleed with the sheer power of her cluelessness.

"Grievance agenda"? Is this the new euphamism. Feminists don't have legitimate concerns about protecting their civil rights, they simply have a "grievance agenda"? What's so wrong with that? Everyone have has a grievance has an agenda - to eradicate whatever is causing them grief.

Also, how does "girl power" make the world worse? I'll admit, it's kind of annoying, a term that was always kind of meaningless but is now extremely meaningless because it was so overused for a while there. But did it really make the world worse? I mean, sure, The Spice Girls sucked, but "The Powerpuff Girls" was pretty cool, so doesn't that kind of even things out?

Also, this term..."Abortion on demand." This term is really really stupid. You're either going to have legal abortion or you're not. Regardless, every medically-induced abortion is "on demand". What, you want doctors to show up at your house to abort your unborn fetus randomly? Like in some bizarre Monty Python sketch...

"Evening, mum, we're just here to abort your baby."

"But I don't want an abortion. I want to have my child!"

"Sorry, but your number came up, and we don't have abortion on demand in Britain, so I'm afraid we'll just need to remove that baby post-haste, unless you've completed Form 12-B."

"Form 12-B?"

"Yes, the Abortion Off Demand Don't Abort List."

I could go on like this, but you get the idea...

Also, the quote-unquote epidemic of dmoestic violence...Does The National Review really dispute the notion that there are a lot of battered women in America? Really? Don't most Americans personally know at least one woman who has been involved in an abusive relationship? I know more than one, myself. Is this really the sort of lie you can get away with? Won't everyone who reads this woman on domestic abuse know immediately that she's full of shit?

Anyway, it seems like a lot of liberal bloggers in the past few days have been taking Katie to task for her book, and the National Review Online has hilariously struck back.

They seem to take offense to the idea that Rena over at Daily Kos referred to NRO as a "den of rats." I think that overlooks the clear fact that a number of their contributors - particularly John Derbyshire - are extremely rat-like.

This post itself was really in response to a request from the great political blog firedoglake, which asked for bloggers to provide their own insights into Kate's particular psychosis.

I'll leave you with this thought...As much as conservative nutjobs like Ann Coulter want to screech that feminists are ugly chicks in need of a date to get over their need for equality, which side of the political spectrum is hotter?

Conservatives have the Deep South and some parts of the Midwest. They have farmers and factory workers, NASCAR fans and Wal-Mart shoppers. Liberals have the coasts, and nearly all of the big American cities.

They have Texas, but we have Austin! They (barely) have drunk FSU skanks, but we have UCLA wannabe models and bookish-but-deeply-sensual NYU co-eds.

I mean, you think Angelina Jolie's going to any Heritage Foundation lectures soon? You think Jessica Alba's logging on to Billy O's website for some Factor Gear? Okay, maybe that's not fair...Jessica Alba probably doesn't know how to use a computer. Or, you

Someone is Messier Than Me

I know, I know, this article is tragic. A woman is dead. But still, it makes me feel a bit better about myself. Because this woman suffocated while searching for the phone in a home cluttered floor-to-ceiling with trash and debris. I mean, I may be messy, but you couldn't actually suffocate to death under the clothes and scattered whatnot in my room. At worst, you would maybe go a bit light-headed and woozy from the musky aroma.

Officers found the body of Marie Rose, 62, buried under clothes Thursday, reported KIRO-TV in Seattle.

Her husband reported her missing after he couldn't find her early Thursday morning.

Officers found clothing, dishes and boxes crammed from floor to ceiling in every room of the couple's house.

Do you think it took him a while to realize she may be dead, and just buried under all the crap in the house? Like, he was just going about his business, wandering around, wondering where his wife was, and then it horribly dawned on him in a moment of gruesome understanding that...Marie might be dead in this very room right now! Almost like some kind of slob horror movie.

More likely, he lived daily with the knowledge that his house was so messy, it might kill him. He came home, his old lady was nowhere to be seen, and his first thought was, "Well, it finally happened. She's fallen beneath the garbage. Better call the coroner."

"In some areas, clothes and debris were piled 6 feet high," said Police Chief Terry Davenport of the Shelton Police Department. "Officers were having to climb over the top on their hands and knees. In some areas, their heads were touching the ceiling while they were standing on top of piles of debris."

After 10 hours of searching, officers discovered the woman's body. Investigators Friday said she was smothered under the clutter.

How can your house possibly get this dirty? I mean, not even in a "how could someone let themselves go like this" kind of way. Although, that too. But in a "how, physically, could you allow the trash to pile up in your home such that it almost reached the ceiling."

Like, what if you needed to plug something in. To get to an outlet, you'd have to dig a tunnel through your living room? Were these people actually at the point where they were willing to jettison whole areas of the house in order to avoid throwing stuff away? Like, "Oh, I need the cookbook from that shelf over there...Oh, the hell with it, all those bags of old bras are blocking the way, I'll just guess at the ingredients."

I knwo about these sorts of decisions. I have been in predicaments like this myself. Like, say, if I need a CD with some old program on it that's in a box at the bottom of my closet. Now, if there's some old sheets, blankets or towels down there, not to mention clothes that fell down, or old belts, or shoes, or robes and slippers or whatever, you're talking 5-10 minutes to burrow down there to retrieve the needed item.

So, there's always a moment where I consider..."Do I just forget about playing Civilization III, or do I run a little mission deep into the bowels of my closet?" Usually, I go for it, because slob though I may be, I refuse to allow lazy sloppiness to negatively impact my daily life. Sometimes, though, it's tempting to just let it go and not face the tangled nightmare-mess that is my bedroom's lower closet.

These people must have faced these sorts of grueling decisions every day. "I'd really like to shave today, but my bathroom kit is under 30 pounds of old newspaper...Hmm..."

[Thanks to FARK for the awesomely tragic, or tragically awesome, link.]

Sendak Me On My Way

Excellent news today from Warner Bros. According to Aint It Cool News, by way of Variety, the Dubba-Dubba-WB will be picking up director Spike Jonze's planned adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book Where the Wild Things Are.

I have no idea how Jonze will attempt to make this weirdo kids book into a movie. Usually, attempts to turn brief, beloved illustrated children's books into movies crash and burn with horrific results. Ron Howard's adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas added a bizarre, awful, awkward Grinch romance with Christine Baranski, and remains the only feature-length mainstream studio children's film I can think of in which all the major characters save one closely resemble human-sized insects. And Jumanji wasn't exactly the kind of classic thrill ride kids and parents can return to again and again, now was it? All I remember about that movie was cheesy CG rhinos and Robin Williams' typically incessant mugging. And let's not even get into Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express, that turns Chris Van Allsberg's classic Christmas story into a nightmarish collection of sleekly-rendered Nazi-esque freakouts starring a cast of undead, glazed-eyed kidnappers obsessed with hot chocolate. It's certain to mortally terrify the impressionable child in your family, a film most likely responsible for more youthful horrified, sleepless nights than Freddie Krueger.

And the book Where the Wild Things Are is similarly idiosyncratic, personal and brief. How will it work without the memorable illustrations? Even though the script will be composed (at least in part) by the rather brilliant writer/editor David Eggers, won't he have to add a lot of unneccessary incident to beef Max's oddessy up into a 90 minute movie? Isn't part of the joy of children's books that they exist in their own unique worlds with their own rules? Doesn't translating them visually, through live-action photography, essentially spoil the magic?

I have no idea. There isn't even concept art available from the film yet, which will just be beginning production now that the papers have been signed. I'm just interested to see what Jonze and particularly Eggers will develop, because I'm considerable fans of not only both of them, but also fo the book they're adapting.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Did You Get Your Confirmation Notice...Mine Came in the Mail Today

It's a seriously boring day online. I got home from work, watched the end of Goldfinger with my roommate, and then poked around for something to blog about and came up with nothing. In desperation, I wrote about Syriana, which I was going to hold off discussing because there's been, like, 20 movie posts in a row and I hate to get repetitive like that.

Anyway, the only thing everyone's talking about is Judge Alito and his confirmation hearings. I find this stuff extremely boring, really. I mean, yes, Alito is a wacko ideologue who will pull the SCOTUS rightward, so I'd rather not see him confirmed. (That case okaying the strip-search on the young girl was all I needed to hear, but all the stuff at that Think Progress link is pretty damning...)

But, like Matthew Yglesias, I kind of think it's pointless for Democrats to make a big show of opposing Alito. I mean, he'll be confirmed...There's not enough there for Democrats to shut down the nomination, and we all know it.

I mean, yes, Alito may very well turn out to be a biased, shitbird judge who will vote in the most vile way possible on a lot of key issues. But we don't want to turn the confirmation process into some kind of elaborate theater, designed to churn out the prospective judge who can best lie around his record and smooth-talk his way through the process. It's far more important to consider what's happening at the end of this year, and focus on how best to get way more Democrats elected, so something awful like Strip Search Sammy's move to the Supreme Court doesn't ever happen again.

So, that's really my take on the whole Alito thing. Not much more to say about that, is there? Oh, yes, wait, except this, which is totally the best thing I've read about the entire process thus far:

Ministers Say They BlessedSeats Ahead of Alito Hearing

I love mass delusion. Nothing makes better blog fodder.

Insisting that God "certainly needs to be involved" in the Supreme Court confirmation process, three Christian ministers today blessed the doors of the hearing room where Senate Judiciary Committee members will begin considering the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito on Monday.

Someone please explain...If God is all powerful, and can manipulate anything he wants at will, why would he need 3 ministers to dip oil on some seats in a hearing room in order to alter the outcome of a legal proceeding?

Doesn't that kind of limit my power.

"Oh, Lord, I beseech thee, please let Samuel Alito be confirmed by the Senate, and thus move to the Supreme Court, where he might exercize your Divine Will."

"Well, yeah, guys, I'd love to help you with that...but I can't change the outcome of the Senate."

"But, you're God...Surely you can influence politicians, right?"

"Yeah, but only if you put a little of this sacred oil on their seats."

"Wow, really?"

"Yes...I can change the thought processes within men's minds, using my special magic skills, but only if you put some of my secret sauce on their ass beforehand."

Capitol Hill police barred them from entering the room to continue what they called a consecration service. But in a bit of one-upsmanship, the three announced that they had let themselves in a day earlier, touching holy oil to the seats where Judge Alito, the senators, witnesses, Senate staffers and the press will sit, and praying for each of the 13 committee members by name.

"We did adequately apply oil to all the seats," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, who identified himself as an evangelical Christian and as president of the National Clergy Council in Washington.

I'm reassured that they applied oil adequately to the seats. Can you imagine if they didn't use enough? Alito's confirmation might then rely on the Democratic principles that govern our nation, rather than being magically pre-determined by an invisible Sky Deity using enchanted oils. Oh, the horror.

I also like how they were not permitted to go into the room, and then bragged about going in anyway! Way to go, 3 ministers! Way to set a great example for your respective congregations. "See, breaking the law is wrong, unless God wants you to oil up some seats to indirectly influence an important Senate proceeding. In that case, you know, open season. Go for it. We killed three security guards getting in, also, they just haven't found the bodies yet. And you know what...God doesn't give a shit! We got to get this motherfucker on to the Supreme Court, like now."

The three ministers insisted they weren't taking sides in the Alito debate. "This is not a pro-Alito prayer," insisted the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. With abortion, public prayer, gay marriage and right-to-life issues among those topping public debate, however, "God…is interested in what goes on" in the nomination hearing, Rev. Schenck said.

Wait, so the seat-goo isn't actually supposed to alter the course of the debate. It's just so God, apparently, can listen in to the proceedings. Apparently, The Lord doesn't have C-SPAN and can't get his hands on any press credentials. Which is surprising, considering how popular his monthy Details column has become.

And since when was anointing things in oil a surveillance technique? I thought it was just to render something more holy or whatever. Is this what the NSA was doing all this time?

"Agent Franklin, we want you to go into Christiane Amanpour's office and dab some of this oil on to her chair...Don't ask questions, just do it, and remember, if you're captured, we'll deny any knowledge of your existence, and pretend to think the use of holy oil is completely retarded."

Bush's Last Day



Among its various observations about the inner workings and organization of the oil industry, Syriana makes an argument I sense most Americans would find surprising, if not dubious - that American business, and accordingly the American government, despite all its favorable talk about Mid-East freedom and democracy, actively works against forward-thinking, socially-liberal Muslim leaders.

Using the merger of two large oil conglomerates as a loose structure, Syriana critiques the standard operating procedure of Big Oil on a number of fronts. Though the film is extremely dry and muddled, sacrificing any sort of power or resonance it might have for a cavalcade of information, analysis and context, one segment that does connect concerns Prince Nasir Al-Subaii (Alexander Siddig, in the film's best performance).

A forward-thinking heir to a rich oil empire, Al-Subaii seeks to reap as much profit from selling oil as possible, and to use this money to install in his country the very same principles of liberal democracy the U.S. purports to seek. Unfortunately, as the American commodities trader he hires as an advisor (Matt Damon) soon comes to understand, powerful American interests that demand reliable and cheap access to their source of revenue will not allow this sort of unpredictable development.

This is powerful, timely stuff, and Gaghan navigates the complicated waters successfully. I was struck, in particular, by how well Siddig and Damon make these characters realistic and compelling despite having such little screen time, and having to deal with so much complicated, wonky material and exposition.

Regrettably, not all of the film's various strands deliver with such potency. It's a hit-and-miss kind of affair.

Writer/director Stephen Gaghan, who penned the similarly well-researched the thorough Traffic, can definitely be admired for his ambition. Syriana spans the globe, takes on the government and American business, challenges stereotypes about Muslims and the Middle East and brings together an immense ensemble of terrific actors, including a bulky George Clooney, Damon, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Jeffrey Wright and Chris Cooper. Having said that, the thing barely qualifies as a movie.

I guess it's almost a mockumentary. If I were to set out to make a non-fiction film about the Oil Industry, I'd (ideally) try to capture the kind of footage Gaghan has scripted and then filmed - a lawyer representing a big oil firm (Wright), some oil executivse (Cooper, Plummer) a Wall Street oil trader (Damon), some oil-rich sheiks and Mid-East politicos (Siddig, Amr Waked and others). Maybe I'd go off on a small tangent and deal with the issue of terrorists-in-training, and how their disillusionment with the promise of Western freedoms caused their descent into violence and suicidal thoughts. Maybe I'd even try to get an interview with a CIA spook going out on intelligence operations (Clooney).

You see what I'm saying...It's an interesting idea, and Syriana is certainly illuminating. I'm not sure if it contained a lot of information or content that was completely new to me, but it certainly organizes a lot of aspects of the topic into a more complete, contextual whole.

But when I say it's not a "movie," I mean that it's not very entertaining, that it's intentionally confusing and unfocused, and that I, personally, would never ever want to watch it again. The thing vascillates between three modes: DULL->INTRIGUING->OVERBLOWN

Imagine it as a mobius strip...When it's done being overblown, it goes back to being dull, and then intriguing and over and over again.

Sometimes, all within the same vignette or sequence.

Take the Clooney character's story. He's Bob Barnes, some sort of former agent working out of the Middle East. He's given a new assignment (possibly as a way of getting rid of him after he pesters his superiors with memos about his previous assignment) in Beirut, Lebanon, where things go...let's say poorly. As his story opens, it's dull. He blathers on with William Hurt about U.S. intervention in Middle Eastern nations, gets his new assignment, whatever. Gaghan doesn't let us inside his perspective at all (and his secrecy makes sense, being a secret agent and all...), but it doesn't exactly make watching Barnes interact with others, speaking complicated jargon, exciting to watch.

Soon enough, his story becomes compelling. He goes to Beirut. He must clear his presence there with the terrorist group Hezbollah first. Then, he must attempt to hunt down a missile that might be used against a U.S. target. This is entertaining, fleet stuff that Gaghan handles well.

But by the end of Clooney's story, he's gone way too far. What starts as an intriguing story has become something of a shrill polemic, a screed as opposed to a story that earns its transitions and makes sense.

Ditto the Jeffrey Wright scenario, which culminates in a loopy monologue on the streets of Washington D.C. by Tim Blake Nelson. You may have seen a bit of it in the trailer. Thanks to IMDB, here is Nelson's speech, as transcribed by Some Bozo With Too Much Time on His Hands:

Some trust fund prosecutor, got off-message at Brown, thinks he's gonna run this up the flagpole, make a name for himself, maybe get elected some two-bit, no-name congressman from nowhere, with the result that Russia or China can suddenly start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here. No, I tell you. No, sir. "But, Danny, these are sovereign nations." Sovereign nations! What is a sovereign nation, but a collective of greed run by one individual? "But, Danny, they're codified by the U.N. charter!" Legitimized gangsterism on a global basis that has no more validity than an agreement between the Crips and the Bloods! Corruption charges. Corruption? Corruption ain't nothing more than government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around here instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win.


As I argued in my review of Serenity, people who do evil things don't really think of themselves most of the time as evil. They think they are just, or maybe they haven't even given it any thought because they consider such thoughts of "right" and "wrong" as inefficient or whatever. But this sort of "I Love Corruption!" "I am a being of ultimate and spectacular eeeeeevil" crap is just ridiculous movie fantasy.

And the fact that he yells this monologue at someone in broad daylight on a city street is patently ludicrous. He's a recognizable guy - he's on TV every day! Tell me next time you hear about Jack Abramoff cackling in his Borsalino about how he loves corruption.

Gaghan's scripts are extremely detailed, smart and, as I said, thorough. You get a sense that he really immerses himself in a topic, and strives to bring in as many facets to his argument as possible. (Notice I said "facets to his argument," and not viewpoints. Both Traffic and this film, and Havoc, which he also wrote, contain very specific, biased points of view. These films are persuasive in nature...Lots of people seem to get that mixed up in reviews I read, claiming that the films represent a broad cross-section of opinions about these topics. They don't).

But he's not really A-#1 with character or dialogue. Traffic had its lurid, goofy "white kids doing crack in the ghetto" story. Not a single scene of Havoc rang true about teenage life. And Syriana features a lot of underwritten mush in between all the op-ed fodder. Not just the Nelson character, but also Amanda Peet as Damon's greiving wife and surprisingly flat performances from the always-reliable Chrises, Cooper and Plummer. These people just sit there on screen, place-holders. They're important to Gaghan, and therefore us, because of what they represent, but not at all because of who they are.

I'm surprised to see Syriana on so many Best of the Year lists, frankly. The BEST political films work their outlook into a film, expressing opinions artistically and cinematically. If you want to express a piece of political philosophy, write an essay. Or a book. Or a letter to the editor. I think we have three political films from the second half of 2005 that form kind of a continuum of Political Filmmaking in General.

At one end, you have Constant Gardener, a movie that strives for a strong political message but really just winds up with a predictable thriller movie with some unseen executives as the bad guys. It gets the movie elements right (basically), but has little-to-nothing to say.

In the middle, representing the pinnacle of this time of filmmaking, is Steven Spielberg's Munich, my pick for the best overall film of 2005. Spielberg combines a strong, clearly stated and easily-expressed point of view with an extremely compelling, tight narrative. The results speak for themselves...A film of intense power and resonant meaning. That's the kind of movie that will alter perpsectives in a real and lasting way.

Then, on the other end, you have Syriana, a movie that's like attending an interesting lecture that bores the shit out of you. You're taking notes, yes, and you want to be able to sound like you understood everything when you have coffee with your classmates later, but you're secretly checking the clock on your cell phone every 5 minutes because SERIOUSLY will this thing ever freaking end?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hustle & Flow

Hustle & Flow is not the film I expected it to be when I heard it described early last year. The inspiring story of a street pimp who schemes his way into the rap industry? Featuring DJ Qualls and Anthony Anderson? Um...thanks but no thanks.

But, of course, I was wrong. Craig Brewer's indie hit brings a lot more to the table than just the novelty of a pimp protagonist and some B-level film comedians in supporting roles. It's a gritty, realistic and observant story about a scumbag loser who reevaluates his life and decides he wants something more.

My friend and fellow blogger Ray compares it to Rocky, the archetypal underdog story. That's true of Hustle & Flow, but it's only part of the story. This is also a character study about an unrepentantly violent criminal, an exploiter of women, a drug dealer, who wants to give up the street life but can only do so by using and manipulating those around him. To stop being a criminal, in other words, he has to do crime.

To his credit, Brewer does not try to sugarcoat his pimp hero, 30-something Memphis thug DJay (Terence Howard). We see all the sides of his personality, from his boyish exuberance to his dry sense of humor to his seething rage. But it does beg the question...Does DJay deserve redemption? Is he even seeking redemption, or simply increased financial security? And, finally, what does it say about America when stories this ugly are considered inspiring?

I'm serious. Now, I don't consider this point a knock on the film at all. It takes an interesting movie to provide any social insights, and I think Brewer's film invites us to consider DJay's conversion from all sides.

Typically, these sorts of Horatio Alger/inspirational/rags-to-riches stories would follow one of two paths - the Little Caeser/Scarface path or the Rocky/Cinderella Man path. In the first case, you'd get the stories of ignominious losers, rejects from society, who through acts of extreme savvy, craft, determination or strength of will rise to the very top of the criminal world. Unfortunately, the very same traits that allowed their fast success brings about their ignoble downfall. Rico in Little Caeser is gunned down in the street; Tony Montana in Scarface plummets off a balcony to his death in his mansion, coked out of his gourd.

In a film like Rocky, the down-and-out underdog with a heart of gold, rises to the occasion and topples (or, in the case of Rocky, nearly topples) a challenger with the odds stacked against him. At the end, his virtue is rewarded.

Hustle & Flow combines these two stories in an interesting way. At the film's opening, DJay barely ekes out a living selling questionable herb around his neighborhood and pimping out the dim-witted Nola (Taryn Manning). The two of them live with DJay's pregnant former ho Shug (Taraji Henson) and another former ho with a baby, Lexus (Paula Jai Parker). He's fed up with living this way, and when he hears that local rap legend Skinny Black (Ludacris, perfectly cast considering his skinny blackdom), he becomes determined to put together a demo to give the superstar.

In order to bring this dream together, DJay will rely on the help of all of those around him, from a former school friend now working as a sound engineer (Anthony Anderson, who's pretty solid now that he's trying out actually acting for once rather than mugging) to a young white wannabe hitmaker (DJ Qualls) to even his various hoes.

And here's where the film gets more interesting. DJay essentially digs himself deeper into his criminal enterprises in order to finance and realize his rap demo. When he needs a better microphone to improve the vocals on the track, he encourages Nola, against her wishes, to have sex wtih the skeezy old man at the pawn shop. When her screaming baby and sass talk interrupts his creative process, he tosses Lexus out into the street with nowhere to go. Later, when encounting someone who dismisses his hard work, he will beat them within an inch of their life.

Additionally, though he admirably yearns to give up a life of crime, we sense that this is more because his criminal career is unprofitable rather than troubling to DJay's conscience. Sure, by the end of the film, he seems to have come to terms with giving up life as a cruel taskmaster dominating his hoes, but he never actually seems to regret any of his cruelty or violence from the past. And even a brief consideration of the songs he has composed - with titles like "Whoop That Trick," "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" and "Keep Hustling" - show where his mind is at. Hustling his music around is just like husting one of his bitches to a john, except the rap music pays better.

I can see the appeal of a film like this. It's like watching the first half of Scarface- the fun half where Tony rises to power by using his wits and murdering a lot of people and doing lots of blow before it all catches up to him - without having to get through the wrenching, downbeat conclusion. But Scarface kind of only makes sense as a morality play - Tony succeeds because he breaks all the rules, but the rules exist so you don't burn yourself out right away and get killed doing stupid crap. He doesn't just break societys code, but the Code of the Street, and for that he must be punished.

The same can't really be said for Hustle & Flow. DJay ends the film in kind of a tight spot, and his various misdeeds do have real-world consequences, but it's clear that his "hustling" has, in the end, paid off for him. So, what are we to take from this story? That everyone has a dream, even lifelong criminals? Sure. That dreams don't come true on their own, you have to fight and scrape every day to make them happen? Okay. That stuff's all great, and the movie expresses these ideas in a heartfelt, sincere manner.

But also, it seems to say that the only thing that matters in the end is getting what you want, no matter who you have to hurt or what about yourself you have to sacrifice along the way.

That this message appeals to Americans, indeed that they find this an inspiring message of hope, is extremely depressing to me. But it's also obvious from even a surface consideration of pop culture. The idea that sins of the past are forgiven by future prosperity, that wrongdoing in the name of upward mobility is something to be proud of, permeates our popular music, our television shows and certainly our magazines and media. I think it kind of means America has failed its own people, that this social-ladder-climbing notion we have about succeeding through having a strong work ethic is really just a fantasy.

100 years ago, when Horatio Alger was writing rags to riches stories, the American Dream was not just attainable, but was self-evident. If you went to the city, if you worked really hard and believed in yourself, you could achieve anything. Of course, that was always bullshit, but so is Hustle & Flow, a world where prostitutes love their pimps and where no one is hooked on smack or crack. The point isn't that the story has to reflect reality, but that the ideas it reflects about "making it" in America have changed in some very telling ways.

I think this concerned me as much as it did because Hustle & Flow is such a well-told bit of storytelling. Of course, credit must go to Brewer's tight script, that really pays attention to how the characters talk and how the music they create together reflects their individual perspectives. He fills the film with cool 70's touches, from the blaxploitation-style opening credits to the grainy film stock to the color palatte, which is a nice touch that helps bring the world of inner-city Memphis to life. And equal credit goes to Terence Howard, an actor who received more attention, I think, for his work in Crash, but who is 100% better here.

He navigates DJay's contradictions so well, that the effect is somewhat bewildering. In some sequences, he evokes genuine menace - his performance is some scenes where he metes out discipline to his hoes reminds me (and Ray, I should mention) of Benicio del Toro in films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He's a large brute who can fly off the handle without warning.

But he can transition, sometimes within a single scene, into a pretty charming, self-effacing guy. At times, his turnabouts can seem oddly cold, almost sociopathic. When Skinny Black offends him, despite being visibly intoxicated and barely cognizant, DJay flies off the handle. He'll sweetly show Nola kindness and talk to her like an equal, before snapping at her or yelling at her to go suck off some stranger. These kinds of emotional shifts become second-nature to a pimp, I suppose, and Howard handles them well.

There's naturally a bit of salesman to DJay (who comments in one scene that, if he can sell Nola's ass on the street every day, he can sell anything), and Howard remembers that being a pimp is really like being a really scummy carnival barker. It's a pretty great performance that highlights my divergent reaction overall to the movie.

I found the film well-made and entertaining, I enjoyed the actual music-making sequences enormously, and liked the songs and the performances and the style of Brewer's direction. And some scenes are genuinely funny as well, particularly Ludacris' satirical take on self-involved Southern rappers. I just worry what Hustle & Flow means about this country, and about our larger sense of community. Are we really ready to accept that any transgression is acceptable provided it is a means for a likable character to obtain a righteous end?