Saturday, January 21, 2006


Initially, I wanted to see Thumbsucker in theaters because I read an interview in LA Weekly wherein writer/director Mike Mills bashed the hell out of Zach Braff's Garden State. My theory was...if Mills hated Braff's film, and I hated Braff's film, maybe I'd love Mills' film! Kind of a cinematic syllogism.

And it kind of works. I wouldn't say I love Mills' film. It has some pretty clear flaws, most critically a lack of focus. The story of high school senior Justin (Lou Pucci) coming to terms with his family and himself kind of dances around a story instead of just telling one. Like it's attention-deficient, hyperactive main character, Thumbsucker zips around from tangent to tangent with admirable enthusiasm and deadpan charm, but has a hard time building up any narrative momentum. It starts off in a million different directions but doesn't ever actually arrive anywhere.

Mills, to his credit, has succeeded in making a film that's superficially like Garden State that nonetheless falls into none of the pitfalls that hopelessly marr Braff's preening, self-congratulatory ode to his and Natalie Portman's adoreableness. Where that film desperately strained for witty banter, Thumbsucker dashes busily between amusing, well-observed moments with hardly any time to stop and pander.

For reasons only half-glimpsed at the film's opening, Justin is a sullen adolescent. He has trouble focusing on anything in school other than the attractive girl on his debate team (Kelli Garner). His stern, world-weary father (Vincent D'Onofrio) rides him constantly for lacking motivation, and for compulsively sucking his thumb. And any time he needs to speak in front of people, he's paralyzed with fear.

Though he doesn't realize it, through the course of "curing" these ailments, Justin will come to terms with his place in the world. From experimental hypnosis applied by a wacky new age orthodontist (a bizarre, supporting role for Keanu Reeves) to Ritalin to copping a minor weed habit, each step taken by Justin in battling his personal demons reveals another buried truth lurking behind his everyday life. What works best about Mills' script is how it condenses a variety of small coming-of-age stories within this one simple framework.

So we see Justin discover his formidable abilities with language and persuasion as he begins winning debate tournaments, and even outsmarting his eager-to-please debate coach (Vince Vaughn, in another hilarious performance). We follow him as he discovers the truth about his parents, that these are weak and confused people who don't neccessarily know what's best for him all the time, even if they pretend to.

Mills' film doesn't lack for poignant moments, but there are some pretty major gaps in the storytelling along the way. The soundtrack is composed of original songs performed by Texas mega-group The Polyphonic Spree, and as with all their music, it is loud, bombastic, psychedelic, and pretty much completely unneccessary. These songs, popping up mainly at the film's beginning and end, don't really take you out of the action so much, though they are a bit overripe.

For most of the film, we hear Elliott Smith songs on the soundtrack, and this is a staggeringly poor choice. The songs often don't line up with the action on a purely aesthetic level (such as scenes where people walk fast to a droning, slow Smith song), but even worse, the emotions being expressed by Smith on the soundtrack just carry much more weight than what's going on in the film.

Not that Thumbsucker doesn't muster up any pathos. Great work from the talented ensemble and a subtle, deft touch by Mills ensure that many of the film's big scenes connect. (And the shimmering cinematography by JoaquĆ­n Baca-Asay lends the entire film the dim glow of a half-forgotten memory).

But sometimes, you're hearing these really heavy Elliott Smith songs during minor, inconsequential montages in the film. It just feels inappropriate, like Mills is trying to cheat his way to transcendence by including these beautiful songs by a beloved dead guy.

There are a few too many of these montages, and a lot of other shortcuts Mills employs to fit in so many relationships and set-ups in a 90 minute film. Thumbsucker is based on a novel by Walter Kirn which I have not read, and I'm wondering if the book manages to thread together all the various strands by the closing pages. Though the film benefits from a suitably wide-eyed, expressive performance from relative newcomer Lou Pucci, I suspect the book might have more coherence and insight.

Though it ostensibly wraps up all the storylines - we find out if Justin's mom is, in fact, having an affair with the drug-addicted cop show star (Benjamin Bratt in a funny cameo), and get a nice little monologue from Keanu's oddball dental professional about the path to happiness in life - Thumbsucker doesn't really unify Justin's experiences into a coherent thought about growing up. It's just kind of a slice-of-life, a brief but eventful period of growth in the life of an intelligent, eccentric and introverted kid. Like Rushmore with buried sexual panic, repressed guilt and social anxiety disorder.

Chris Matthews is Worse Than Osama Bin Laden

Of course, I would never write anything like that. At least, not without being ironic. Because it's stupid to compare any non-murderer with Osama bin Laden, a known mass murderer. Let alone a non-murderer whose worst offense is making a pointed and rhetoric-filled documentary film. I mean, I really hated Michael & Me, but I'm not suggesting Larry Elder is a modern-day Pol Pot or anything.

So, can anyone explain to me why Chris Matthews would say that Osama bin Laden reminds him of Michael Moore on his latest tape? Or, if we all accept that such a ridiculously stupid remark could have no logical explanation, can anyone explain to me why this assclown still works for MSNBC?

This is real. Crooks and Liars has the video right here. What a scumbag. I've reported before about how Chris Matthews talks incessant, meaningless shit all fucking day to anyone who will listen, pretending to be a journalist when he's more like a bad handicapper. But he's never stooped to the worst, most vile kinds of rhetoric, the kind generally reserved for the bottom of the Right Wing foodchain.

I mean, comparing a guy who makes films to Osama bin Laden? Que the hell? Even if you disagree with Michael Moore, and think he's a really bad guy for calling the president a liar and a crook or whatever...would you say he's reminiscent of Osama bin Laden? I mean, he's kind of down on big corporations, but I've never personally heard him call for a jihad on them.

(Moore's predictably amusing response to Matthews' "joke" can be found here.)

Shakespeare's Sister makes an excellent point about the media's Michael Moore obsession. He's become the #1 target of attacks on "liberals" and the American Left despite being an outsider filmmaker with no real political power. In fact, when he's not actively promoting a new film or book, Moore's not even on TV or in the papers that much. (The blog goes so far as to point out how much more frequently Ann Coulter appears on TV than Moore.)

Is it just that he's an easy target, so the pundits on the opposite side focus their energy on him? Or is it just a famous name that has managed to make its way into the zeitgeist, so they can't afford to change targets and lose some of their audience. (There's no way to be certain, for example, that a long-term "Cindy Sheehan is an ugly old shrew" message will stick in the American consciousness beyond 2005.)

All the blogs are talking about this, and I felt I had to chime in, I guess, but I'm kind of done being outraged by this kind of idiocy. I mean, okay, we get it...pundits will say ANYTHING, no matter how offensive and crude, to get attention and win over the simple-minded. When you're competing for the attention of the world's lowest common denominator - for surely the dumbest Americans rank high among the dumbest HUMAN BEINGS ON EARTH - all you need to do is make a straight-forward value judgements with confidence, and repeat yourself often. THAT'S IT.

So, bearing that in mind, I'd like to reiterate once again that Sean Hannity molests young goats. The evidence for this is quite clear to anyone willing to look logically-minded at the situation. All the arguments (which I won't mention here) offered by the Right against Sean Hannity feeling up youthful farm animals for sexual pleasure have, I think by now, been thoroughly refuted.

Still don't believe that Sean Hannity, co-anchor of Hannity and Colmes and author of books like "The Idiot's Guide to Assholery" shamelessly exploits the naivete of inexperienced lower mammals? Check out this quote from a notable news blog from November 28th of last year: the time I said that Sean Hannity molests kids. Obviously, that's not 100% accurate. He does molest kids, but I'm using that term to refer to young goats, not humans. I apologize for being misleading.

When will conservatives finally own up to the simple truth that Sean Hannity is a disgusting pervert? Until they do, I suspect Americans won't be taking them very seriously.

[UPDATE: Others are voicing their disdain for Chris Matthews here, if anyone is interested.]

The Aristocrats

Full disclosure: For a short while, a few years back, I tried my hand at open-mic stand-up comedy. I never really made a go of it, because of the amount of effort required. Stand-up kind of looks easy, particularly if, like me, you don't really have a problem getting up in front of a group of strangers.

That's usually the barrier. You say, "I used to do amateur stand-up" and people always ask, "How could you just get up in front of a room full of strangers like that?" But that's not the hard part. The hard part is making original, funny or outrageous observations in a quirky voice that's uniquely your own.

In order to do this, and do it well, you have to tell jokes CONSTANTLY. Let's say you want to get a solid 30 minutes of material you know to be funny together, so you can do talent showcases or try to get gigs on the road. Even if you can come up with a hilarious 5 minutes of original comedy each week (and this is pretty hard to do, even if you're writing 45-60 minutes of total comedy in a week), that's 6 weeks of hard, constant, grinding work that pays shit or not at all.

It takes a special kind of person to go through that sort of ordeal. Someone fucking crazy and desperate for attention, probably with a neurotic need for affirmation. You meet these kind of people all the time at open-mics or comedy clubs...Anxiety-fueled weirdos who won't laugh at other comic's jokes, ever, but who insist on constantly cracking wise (off-stage, mind you) in the hopes that people will laugh at them.

Being in a room full of open-mic comics is like listening to Robin Williams perform the Book-on-Tape narration for Milton Berle's Private Joke File at three times the normal speed. Attempted humor keeps flying at you from every direction, but there's no way to process it all.

That's kind of the feeling you get watching The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's attempt to...well, I'm not sure what they are attempting. Provenza and Jillette, popular stand-ups in their own right, gather together dozens of famous comedians, writers and humorists and ask them to analyze one of the comedy world's most fascinating and long-standing running jokes. The result is really funny, with many of these comics giving the jokes their own spin, and also a little repetitive. Unfortunately, it's not terribly insightful about comedy or being a professional comedian, which is what you'd kind of hope for with a film made up entirely of interviews with comic legends.

And here's the joke itself, in its most basic form:

A man goes into a talent agent's office and says, "Oh, boy, do I have an act for you."

The talent agent says, "Alright, tell me...What is it that you do?"

The man says, "Well, it's a family act. First, my wife and I come out, and have sex on the stage. Then, our kids come out, and they have sex with each other. Then, Rex, the family dog, he comes out and takes a shit right there on the stage, and me and my wife and my kids, we all roll around in it."

The agent says, "That's the most revolting thing I've ever heard. What do you call this abomination."

And the man says..."The Aristocrats!"

Yeah, it's a dumb joke, and yet it has stood the test of time. To hear some of the interview subjects talk, this is kind of a universal comedian cliche, the one joke every professional comic knows and has told.

The bulk of the interviews in the film find professional comics wondering aloud as to why this joke has lasted when so many other dirty jokes have been forgotten. You would hope, ideally, that this topic would provide a starting point for a look at the comic process, or a discussion of how comedy and comic standards change over time, or that sort of thing, but the conversation in the film never really advances beyond the immediate premise. It always comes back to repeated versions of the joke, and then comedians discussing how they like to try to top one another when they're off-stage.

The main idea a lot of people - from George Carlin to Bob Saget to writer Dana Gould - all seem to come back to is that the joke is like jazz. It doesn't matter that the punchline is kind of lame. It's all about what disgusting perversions the comic has the family act out, and how he manages to shift from the debauchery of the set-up to the ridiculously optimistic "Aristocrats!" punchline.

Everyone points to Gilbert Gottfried's telling of the joke at Hugh Hefner's Friar's Club Roast, three weeks after the September 11th attack, as a turning point. Because he wouldn't feel right mocking the horrible tragedy that had unfolded in New York, Gottfried made up for it by detailing a particularly ribald, disgusting version of The Aristocrats. In this scene, we start to see the appeal of this concept for Provenza and Jillette - this is comedy that exists only to explode boundaries. It is pure shock value without any attempt to dress it up with worldplay or wit. (As George Carlin sagely points out, shock is just another word for surprise...and all jokes are really based around the element of surprise).

Okay, so I've complained a lot that the film gets repetitive, and it does, but some versions of the joke are still pretty hilariously funny. And in a few cases, the way a comic tells the joke does in fact reveal a lot about their take on comedy in a more general sense.

Sarah Silverman tells the joke not from the point of view of the father or the agent, as most of the male comedians do, but from the point of view of the young daughter. Bob Saget makes it as fecal and body fluid-centered as possible, and also includes a sarcastic "Full House" reference, just to let you know he's cooler than all that now. Lewis Black turns the joke into a twisted pitch for a reality TV show. And Stephen Wright doesn't even try to get a laugh out of the actual joke, but adds a non-sequiteur aside at the end that's absolutely hilarious. Also, Doug Stanhope, a comic at whom I have never laughed, gets some of the movie's biggest reactions by relating the joke to his infant son.

But for the most part, my favorite bits of the movie have nothing to do with the actual joke "The Aristocrats." Monty Python vet Eric Idle got a huge laugh from me by trying to tell a different joke about a British pub and fucking it up halfway through. Martin Mull flatly refuses to tell the Aristocrats joke, and tells a different dirty joke involving the word "aristocrats." And a running joke about Joe Franklin's filthy, paper-filled office was more amusing to me than any combination of shit-eating family members.

So, yeah, it's funny, and seeing it as I did at a Midnight show at the Nuart was a lot of fun. But there's definitely kind of a navel-gazing aspect to the whole film, and when the movie tries to "sum up" the importance of the joke, it becomes painfully clear that, as a film, it's kind of shallow and meaningless. I mean, at the end, people are commenting on Gilbert Gottfried's take on The Aristocrats like it's the fucking "I Have a Dream" speech...No one had even seen the uncensored version except those in attendence until this movie opened anyway.

You know...It's just a dumb joke that comics tell. Doing a whole movie about it is kind of weird and indulgent, like how every group of friends thinks that their antics are just hilarious and that they should totally make a movie about how funny they all are together. Did Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza just get really stoned together one night and stumble upon this idea?

"Hey, you know that joke our comic friends always tell?"
"About the family that cornholes their dog and eats each other's bowel movements?"
"Yeah! We should make a movie where we all tell it!"
"That's hilarious! No way we could ever do it, though."
"Sure we could...All our friends are famous, and I'm a rich magician and Las Vegas personality!"

For a fascinating, insider's look at how professional comedy works, I'd recommend Jerry Seinfeld's insightful Comedian documentary, which also features some of the comics in The Aristocrats (like Chris Rock). If you just want some behind-the-scenes footage of comics cracking each other up, though, you could do a lot worse.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hollywood Freaks: A Tragedy in Four Parts

FIRST, here is acclaimed novelist Nicole Ritchie joking about flashing the cameras on the red carpet...while her boob is showing. Ba-zing! Please note, I'm linking to it because of the hilarious juxtaposition of joking about showing off her boob while accidentally showing her boob. Not because you get to see Nicole Ritchie's boob, a prospect that's neither titilating nor rare.

SECOND, here is a still from the new Basic Instinct sequel, which will not feature Michael Douglas nor director Paul Verhoeven nor an exasperated, sweaty Wayne Knight. The only other reason to watch the original film was the Sharon Stone beaver shot.

So, it seems like they're hinting that the sequel has more of the same in store in the Sharon Stone Sexuality Department. This will either go really well or really poorly. Well if she still looks great in the movie. It could be a Demi Moore in Charlie's Angels 2 kind of thing, where everyone talks about her and how great she looks for long enough to land her a flavor-of-the-month young boytoy, before forgetting she exists again.

Or this could be a campy delight, the over-the-hill actress taking one last shot at her youthful glory. Cause the fact is, Sharon wasn't exactly a spring chicken when making the original Basic Instinct, and that was a looooooong time ago. So long ago that, when it came out, my parents forbade me from seeing it, and they actually still had that kind of authority. (I saw it anyway at a friend's house, and thought it was pretty awesome, particularly the icepick-through-the-eyeball shot and the fact that it featured visible female sex organs).

THIRD, apparently, Meg Ryan will adopt a Chinese baby.

[And now, a moment with Shecky Winnebago, The Hacky Comedian]

You know the problem with adopting Chinese just want to raise another foreign child an hour later. But seriously...did anyone tell Angelina Jolie there was another Third World baby up for grabs? She collects those things like Liberace with the faberge eggs, folks. Liberace...Faberge eggs...Try to keep up.

Not, but seirously, this is one lucky Chinababy. Not only does he get to live the sweet life with a famous, rich new mom in America, but he just missed out on having Russell Crowe as a step-dad. By only a few years. Can you imagine having to show a bad report card to that guy? When he's tied on a few and just finished making a boxing picture? You'd have to make sure there weren't any loose phones lying around.

I'm just saying, I hope the adoption turns out well. Let's just hope she doesn't immediately regret this little fling with the Chinese baby and go back to Tom Hanks, the only man she ever really loved in the first place. She can be like that sometimes...

[This has been a moment with Shecky Winnebago, The Hacky Comedian]

FOURTH, what the hell is happened to Pam Anderson? I was never her biggest fan, but check out these pictures from some sort of Vegetarian gathering the other night:

GAK! She looks positively monstrous in this shot. Like Divine from those old John Waters movies. I guess that's hepatitis for you...

Soul Revival

It's not often that you get to launch a brand-new Internet phenomenon. But I'm confident that the following link to the Soul Revival webpage will be in everyone's work Inbox come Monday morning. These guys are THE BAND TO WATCH IN 2006.

Yeah...There you go...I give you, Soul Revival.

Now, despite the obvious fact that 3/5 of Soul Revival is comprised of particularly greasy-looking white dudes, the band's mission is to honor the past 50 years of American black music.

Soul Revival is a speacialty band celebrating over fifty years of American Black Music. We pay tribute to legendary Soul, Funk, Hip Hop, Rhythm and Blues artists and their music, as well as honoring some of the greatest black musical talent flourishing the pop charts of today. An homage to The Black Music Experience in America from the 1950’s to current day.

But it's not just odd white guys playing Nelly covers that makes Soul Revival such a fulfilling experience. Really, the magic rests with frontman/band founder Marcus Dey.

Here's a bit from his bio:

Before starting ‘Soul Revival’ Marcus performed with various groups of musicians at parties, special events, and wedding receptions. He has performed a wide variety of music, ranging from jazz standards, rock, alternative, country, soul, hip-hop, top 40, and R&B. His vocals have been inspired by the likes of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye, to name a few, but with a vocal styling and a tonality that remain uniquely his own. As well as singing, Marcus plays keyboards, guitar, conga drums, and has a background in jazz, hip-hop, ballet, tap, and salsa dancing.

Marcus doesn't lie...He has a style that remains uniquely his own.

Okay, time for the good stuff. Clicky below for actual video clips of The Revival playing various cover songs. I PROMISE YOU, you will not be sorry you followed these links.

You may notice, for example, that Marcus seems to be singing over pre-recorded karaoke tracks of these famous songs, while the band behind him merely pretends to play instruments. You may notice that Marcus intercuts stills of the original artists as well as himself during the songs, and that these photographs are the most hilarious thing you have ever seen. Please note that Marcus only appears to be having involuntary muscle spasms and crippling bowel discomfort...he's a professional. And that's only in the Prince clip.

Nelly's Hot in Here

Outkast's Hey Ya

James Brown's Sex Machine

Prince's Let's Go Crazy (this receives my highest recommendation...)

There are several more video clips available here. And, no, there's no need to thank me. This is what I do.

City of Pricks

Anyone see today's Prickly City comic strip? Naturally, I wouldn't have, as I don't read nor have ever heard of Prickly City. But Atrios brought it to my attention, because today's item happens to be virulently anti-gay.

Without violating 100,000 copyrights and republishing the cartoon, I can link to it here and describe it to everyone...

So, these two poorly-rendered things - it looks like a little girl and a fox, but not reading the strip, I don't know if those are actually the characters - are standing in front of a theater showing Brokeback Mountain.

"Yeesh," says the little girl (for real!), "a kissin' cowboy movie."

Cartoonist Scott Stantis, by the way, who writes Prickly City, comes from California but writes out of Birmingham, Alabama...I'm just saying...

"Somewhere, John Wayne is crying," she continues.

Just remember that, gays. Every time boys kiss, it makes baby John Wayne cry.

"John Wayne cried?" asks the fox.

"Of course not," continues the little girl. "But if he did, he would."

Wooo-eeeee! That is some funny stuff! See, John Wayne doesn't cry! But if he ever did, it's because of fags! Stantis, you slay me.

Then, I thought...hang on...Maybe this little girl is evil, the Eric Cartman of Prickly City, and the comic strip's point of view actually counteracts her small-minded brand of intolerance.

Well, I was half-right. Looking through back comics, here's the set-up.

Imagine Calvin and Hobbes. But instead of Calvin being a free-spirited juvenile delinquent, he's a curmudgeonly little girl who sounds like Brit Hume. And instead of Hobbes being a gently pragmatic stuffed tiger come to life, he's a gently pragmatic stuffed fox come to life. Oh, and instead of being well-drawn, the art is crudely sketched.

And though the strip openly chides the main character, Carmen, for her curmudgeonly-ness, there aren't any other major viewpoints on display.

Check out this "gem," in which Carmen laments the lack of manners in society, and Winslow the Fox blames it on...get ready for this penetrating observation..."Beavis and Butthead" and Howard Stern. That strip was published last week, but it could have come out a decade ago and been identical. Way to go, Scott! You're an inspiration to hacks everywhere!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sam Rockwell IS Batman

Everyone, go check out this hilarious short film over at TransBuddha (graciously brought to you via Twitch Film). Justin Long Britney Spears movie and the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Herbie: Fully Loaded plays Robin, meeting up with a lady friend for drinks. Unfortunately, his friend Batman (Sam Rockwell) shows up and awkwardly intervenes.

A lot of this seems improvised, and Rockwell's just a really funny guy when he gets going. His scenes in the immensely underrated Jon Favreau-Vince Vaughn improv comedy Made are some of the best in that film.

I Can't Listen to Everything...

I can only give so many albums their proper due in a given calendar year. It takes at least 5 or 6 listens with most albums to determine how much I like them anyway, and I don't spend more than 2 or 3 hours a day MAX with music on. Hey, give me a break, there are movies to be watched.

So it's only natural that a whole lot of great stuff would slip between the cracks every year. Now that I've had a few weeks to go through all the Best Music of 2005 lists and what have you, I've heard a number of really solid albums that would have had a strong chance at making my Best of the Year list, had I heard them in time. Here are a few examples.

Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy

It's really stupid that I only started listening to this album last week. I heard Okkervil River near the beginning of 2005, when they opened for The Decemberists. I liked their set a lot, but I guess I just forgot to actually look into their recorded music. Duh. Anyway, I saw their name pop up on all these critics' lists, so I gave this album a try. Holy shit, it's awesome. Creepy murder ballads and hooky indie rock songs combine to form a twisted, searching, folky masterpiece.

Track #4, "Black," is one of the flat-out best rock songs of 2005. Download it, legally, from right here.

Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary

I know I'm way behind the curve in discovering these guys. Whatever. Dock me 3 Indie Snob points. Anyway, this album is really cool and infectious. I wasn't crazy about it the first time I heard it, but it has grown on me over the last week or two. Like a lot of current Canadian indie pop, Wolf Parade sounds kind of like the Talking Heads - bouncy and full of energy and just 80's enough without feeling faddishly retro. If that makes any sense. It's also a really consistant album - if you like the first track, available by right-clicking here, you'll probably like them all.

Iron & Wine/Calexico - In the Reins

I've listened to a bit of both of these guys' individual projects. Iron & Wine's "The Creek Drank the Cradle" was in my rotation for a little while, but I tired of it quickly. And I listened to Calexico's "Feast of Wire" a bunch, but the only song that has really stuck with me is the Morricone-inflected "Black Heart," one of my most-listened-to songs according to my mp3 player.

Their sounds compliment each other pretty perfectly, almost as if they were designed to go together. It's just really beautifully arranged, subtle and melodic music. "16, Maybe 17" is the highlight out of the 7 songs on the EP. Sorry, I couldn't find a free download for this one. (Honest! I actually bought this album, legit!)

Dirty Sundancing

The Sundance Film Festival is officially underway in Park City, Utah. Once again, looking at the line-up, most of the films playing the fest feature celebrities. What began as a tribute to low-budget, truly independant films made below the Hollywood radar and outside the system has become a showcase for less expensive studio productions and celebrity vanity vehicles.

I recently reviewed a real uunoriginal shitkicker called November that played Sundance last year. Why would this silly little movie be selected for a big, prestigious film festival? Because it stars Courtney Cox. I mean...come on...

I've never been, but each year the festival seems to create kind of a bubble among the attendees. Films come out of Sundance with amazing buzz - films that played to packed, delighted audience in Park City - a year later in the cold light of a direct-to-DVD release, tend to suck massive amounts of ass. (Pretty Persuasion, anyone? Or that hand-held stream-of-conscious shit about being lost in the woods from a few years back? Anyone still watching that movie? What about a certain Braffsterpiece with the initials G.S.? That do anything for ya?)

Of course, this isn't always the way. Napoleon Dynamite was a huge hit in Utah before becoming a huge hit everywhere due to its intense hilarity.

And, I have to say, looking over the line-up, there are a number of films playing that I would like to see this week, instead of months from now. Here are some of the highlights:

Art School Confidential

Holy shit, everyone gets to see the new film by Terry Zwigoff this week? And it's written by Daniel Clowes, the same guy who wrote the comic book and script for Ghost World? I need to see this movie immediately.

Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That

The Beastie Boys' own MCA (going under his directorial pseudonym, Nathaniel Hornblower) gave 50 fans DV cameras and had them record a massive, sold-out Beasties concert. The film is the edited-together result of this experiment. I have no idea whether or not it will be cool, but it's kind of a neat idea.

Don't Come Knocking

A new Wim Wenders movie written by Sam Shepard, starring Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange. This is the first time Wenders and Shepard have worked together since 1984's absolute stone-cold classic Paris, Texas. A must-see.

The Illusionist

A period piece about a turn-of-the-century Vienna magician, played by Ed Norton. Already, I'm intrigued (although, as Ain't It Cool News dutifully points out, Christopher Nolan's exceedingly cool-sounding film The Presitge will also cover turn-of-the-century magicians). When you consider that another main character will be played in this film by Paul Giamatti, my intrigue-um-edness only increases. I never saw director Neil Burger's acclaimed previous film, Interview with the Assassin, but it's a previous Sundance hit.

Lucky Number Slevin

This is an old-fashioned noir from the director of the undervalued Gangster #1, a far better, more stylish and classy British gangster movie than last year's cartoony Layer Cake. (He also made Wicker Park, which I didn't see but which apparently is no good). So, already, I'm hyped to see it, as I love old-fashioned film noir. But check out this cast: Morgan Freeman, Stanley Tucci, Bruce fucking Willis and Ben Kingsley! Oh, yeah, and some guy named Josh Hartnett. Oh, well...

One Last Dance

A revenge thriller from Singapore, that for some reason stars Harvey Keitel. I just think the premise is intriguing: An assassin is hired to hunt down and kill everyone involved with a high-profile kidnapping. The only catch is...he's personally involved in the kidnapping.

The Science of Sleep

The director of a bunch of cool music videos and my favorite film of 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, returns to his native homeland (France) to make another film about trippy bad dreams. A man is held prisoner by characters in his dreams, and must figure out a way to make himself wake up. Sounds...a lot like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I still have to see it, of course, because the guy is a total visionary.

This Film is Not Yet Rated

A behind-the-scenes look at the Motion Picture Association of America and the bass-ackwards way they determine movie ratings. Sounds really interesting...Along with An Unreasonable Man, an in-depth (2.5 hours!) look at Ralph Nader, the most intriguing documentary playing at this year's fest. (Although, now that I think of it, The World According to Sesame Street, about Sesame Street producers adapting the show for South Africa and Bangladesh, sounds pretty cool too).

Man Push Cart

Again, I know nothing about this film but the premise...but WHAT A PREMISE:

A night in the life of a former Pakistani rock star who now sells coffee from his push cart on the streets of Manhattan.

Sounds awesome.

Brokeback Mountain

It's unfortunate that the name of Ang Lee's new film, Brokeback Mountain, so easily invites parody. I myself have made some plays on the name here on the blog. And here's noted, award-winning broadcasters Chris Matthews and Don Imus discussing the film on Imus' radio show:

MATTHEWS (1/18/06): Have you gone to see it yet? I’ve seen everything else but that. I just—

IMUS: No, I haven’t seen it. Why would I want to see that?

MATTHEWS: I don’t know. No opinion on that. I haven’t seen it either, so—

IMUS: So they were—it was out when I was in New Mexico and—it doesn’t resonate with real cowboys who I know.


IMUS: But then, maybe there’s stuff going on on the ranch that I don’t know about. Not on my ranch, but you know—

MATTHEWS: Well, the wonderful Michael Savage, who’s on 570 in DC, who shares a station with you at least, he calls it [laughter]—what’s he call it?—he calls it Bare-back Mount-ing. That’s his name for the movie.

IMUS: Of course, Bernard calls it Fudgepack Mountain...

Way to class up the discourse, guys.

Anyway, it's a shame that the name "Brokeback Mountain" has already become a humorous euphamism for straight guys to chuckle at, because within the movie itself, the title has a great deal of significance and, despite what Don Imus might say, resonance.

The romance that sparks in 1963 between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) during a summer spent herding sheep at the namesake location, hampers their ability to live happily over the course of the next 20 years. It metaphorically breaks their backs - not only showing them a contented life that will be denied them, but providing them information about themselves that they can't live with.

Though it's the impossible love Ennis and Jack share that forms the emotional core of the movie, Brokeback Mountain deals with far more universal themes than repressed homosexual longing. It's about the choices life forces us to make, about the expectations others have for us, and how difficult it can be to fulfill your obligations without giving up on everything else. And it's also about the difficulty of living a double life, how little lies add up over time and form invisible walls between people. know what...What do I know? Don Imus says that being gay is gross and that real cowboys don't think the movie is good, and he's been on the radio for 40 years now.

The time Ennis and Jack spend on Brokeback Mountain takes up about the film's first third, but it comes to dominate all of the action for the rest of the film. During the long, cold nights spent drinking by the fire, Ennis opens up to Jack about his tragic background. It's probably the first time he's ever talked to anyone, male or female, this personally and honestly. Ennis admits he just said more than he's spoken in a year.

Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both as good as they've ever been in these sequences. This sort of material - two straight guys doing manly activities and slowly discovering a mutual attraction - could have been really campy or silly if overplayed, but both actors have the confidence to just play the scenes as naturally as they can, to just let the action unfold rather than force obvious "moments" of attraction or sensuality between the two guys.

There's one scene early on, before the two have shared more than a handshake and a conversation, where we see Jack in the foreground cooking beans while Ennis changes clothes in the background. You keep expecting Jack to peek a look at his buddy naked, a bit of foreshadowing of what's to come coupled with a hint about Jake's possible homosexual leanings. But it never comes...Jake just stares straight down. It's left to us to infer what we want...Does he see Ennis out of the corner of his eye, and stare down so his attraction won't be suspected? Or is he not even thinking in this context at the film's opening? Lee and the actors leave it to the audience to decide.

Once the ill-tempered ranch owner (Randy Quaid, appearing in a good movie for a rare change) starts to question Jack and Ennis' close friendship, he calls them in a month early and sends them on their way. For four years, they don't speak, and start their own tentative families. Ennis marries his sweetheart from before his experience on Brokeback Mountain (Michelle Williams), who gives him two girls. Jack goes to Texas and gets into rodeo-riding, before settling down with the beautiful scion to a Farm Tool fortune (Anne Hathaway). Together, they have a son.

Eventually, Jack reaches out and gets Ennis to agree to meet up. They go immediately to a motel (but not before Ennis' wife discovers their secret), and agree to meet up whenever possible from that point on.

In between their once-or-twice-yearly "fishing trips" together, both men are unfulfilled in their daily lives. Ennis, who once spoke of buying his own ranch, watches as all his dreams fade into the background while he labors endlessly to care for his family. Jack lives well with his wealthy new wife, and gets a good job selling tractors, but knows he will never be happy without Ennis.

And both men come to feel shame about their love, but for different reasons. Ennis feels shamed by a society that doesn't accept the love between two men. His wife asks often about his freqeunt trips into the wilderness with his friend who won't ever come inside for coffee, and his children genuinely seem to miss him when he's gone. Jack, on the other hand, seems less concerned by what others think, and more concerned with why Ennis pushes him away. He searches for love from other men, to feel the void Ennis leaves every time he returns to his family, but it doesn't take away his longing or his depression. Jack is shamed not by a cruel society, but by a lover who doesn't want him around.

It's pretty bleak stuff, and screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, and Ang Lee, give the film an almost unbearable sense of melancholy. Rather than an angry movie, castigating a culture that wouldn't allow Ennis and Jack to live together in peace, they have made a movie that's all about sadness - how it starts with disappointment and frustration and over the years morphs into a inner void that mutes any future happiness or satisfaction.

Generally, films like Brokeback Mountain, that follow a relationship or plot over a span of decades, have a rushed sort of feeling. You breeze through the years seeing little moments taken out of context, never getting an immediate feeling for any of the characters or specific situations. The films are in a constant state of flux - children grow up instantly, hairstyles and appearances change, settings are different, and you lose a sense of the daily reality in the character's lives.

Though Lee's film still incorporates some of this mateiral - we measure the length between scenes at times by Anne Hathaway's various hair colors and styles - he nevertheless manages to give Jack and Ennis believable, lived-in realities. Ennis' daughter, Alma Jr. grows up from a baby into a 19 year old woman during the film, so she's played by a variety of young actresses, yet she nevertheless feels like a consistant premise in the film. She's the only one in her family who can accept the shell of a man her father has become.

I usually reject tearjerkers and melodramas because they are overly ambitious. Some directors seem to take their license to manipulate for granted. Because they're making a film, and some films are sad, they can be a shameless in their attempts to make people feel bad as the screenplay will allow. (Mark Forster, director of Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland comes immeidately to mind. He never met a tragic early death he didn't like.)

Lee has made a film that is profoundly sad, but never once manipulative. It is sad because its characters are sad, because the only situation that would provide for any chance at happiness is untenable and there's nothing that can be done. It is profound because of the insightfulness of McMurtry and Ossana's sharp, subtle writing (and, presumably, the E. Annie Proulx short story that inspired the film), the terrific Ledger and Gyllenhaal performances, the muted dried-out cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto and some of Ang Lee's most adroit, relaxed work as a director. Brokeback Mountain ranks among his very best films.

The Politics of Intimdation

[My thanks go out to Pandagon for pointing out this website to me.]

The other day, I posted about the ridiculous Ben Shapiro and his column "boycotting" the Oscars for having the temerity to praise Brokeback Mountain. Granted, the Oscar nominations have not even been announced yet, but Ben knows what he's doing. I'm sure the Oscars, one of the world's most popular telecasts, will dearly miss this lone viewer, who has to stop watching at 8:30 anyway because it's past his bedtime.

I mentioned back then that Ben had been a member of the Daily Bruin (for which I served as an assistant Arts & Entertainment editor back in the late 90's), and that he had began writing his hate-filled right-wing diatribes back in his UCLA days.

We all know that one of the main tenets of the Righty Blogs and their ilk is the "liberalization" of education. They fear that young people are indoctrinated with radical left-wing values when they matriculate at institution's of higher learning. Personally, I see their thinking as backwards. Rather than attempt to place faculty who have staunchly conservative viewpoints in universities and make shrill attacks on campus liberals, yabbos like Ben ought to consider why almost all of the nation's smartest and best-educated people hate their guts.

I mean, Ben's no great thinker himself. Here's a quote from his column of November 30th, 2005:

The pro-choice crowd has never wanted abortion to be rare. Were abortion rare, women considering abortions would feel subtle societal pressure to preserve the life growing within them. Such societal pressure would create a "coercive" environment for women, inhibiting their ability to choose. For abortion to thrive, it must be common.

Huh? Don't most vocal pro-choice advocates represent women's rights and health organizations? Why would they want more women to undergo an invasive and potentially traumatizing surgical procedure? To prevent women from feeling subtle (read: invisible) societal pressure towards not having abortions?

So, you see what I'm saying...A guy with as shaky a grasp on reality and logic like Ben probably shouldn't be angrily calling out Ph.D's about their political leanings. In this column, he has just called out the entire U.S. population holding pro-choice beliefs (a majority last I checked) as unrepentant baby-killers.

Anyway, with Ben being hired away by Townhall, it seems like the issue of liberal UCLA professors has become kind of a big deal in the righty blogsophere. Which brings me to this thoroughly disgusting smear website, UCLA

UCLA Profts dot com highlights outspokenly anti-war, anti-Bush or simply left-wing UCLA professors and attacks their beliefs, methods and in many cases, personalities. It is cruel and pointless, an attempt to intimidate educators into...Well, I don't know what. Into not thinking the way they want to think? Into making undergraduate classes into Fox News broadcasts, presenting two sides of every issue without making any sort of judgements or analysis?

To my mind, it doesn't even matter if there's a specific goal for the founders of this website. They just want to silence those who oppose them, particularly when the opposition is really smart and holds a position of respect in the community. That just makes them crazy.

As our motto attests, is a long-term project dedicated to exposing UCLA’s most radical professors. The extensively researched profiles you will find here are proof of an increasingly radical faculty. As a large number of the profiles also demonstrate, these professors are actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic.

I warn you, just because they say it...doesn't mean they do any of this stuff. The profiles are long, and they do include information like the syllabi of the professor's classes and Daily Bruin articles they may have written or for which they provided quotes. But they don't "prove" anything. They demonstrate that students are exposed to radical ideas in the classroom, but presenting young minds with a wide range of ideas in a classroom is not proselytizing. It's educating, you fucking idiots!

This site is run by scumbags with no interest in the truth or in the philosophy of education. They just want to make a name by smearing good professors and spreading lie-filled rhetoric about librul indoctrination.

Don't believe me?

If you can help collect information about abusive, one-sided, or off-topic classroom behavior, we’ll pay you for your work.

To see if we need information on the professors you've already taken, or will be taking this winter quarter, call 310-210-6735, or email bruinalumni (AT) today, and you could be paid tomorrow.

Yikes. It's bribery. Tell us stuff about your professors, poor college students, and we'll pay you. So what kind of back-end am I looking at for spying on my professors?

Full, detailed lecture notes, all professor-distributed materials, and full tape recordings of every class session, for one class: $100

(Note: lecture notes must make particular note of audience reactions, comments, and other details that will properly contextualize the professor's non-pertinent ideological comments. If the class in question is ongoing or upcoming, will provide (if needed) all necessary taping equipment and materials.)

Even if you didn’t take detailed notes or attend class regularly, you can still help by alerting us to a problem professor not already in our database or target list (below). This is a particularly attractive option for students wanting to report past classes in which their notes and attendance did not match's high record-keeping standards. Simply provide us the name, your notes from the class (or substitute your current recollections), and any other materials you still retain, and we’ll pay you $10 for the tip.

Disgusting and disgraceful. They want to change getting an education into a kind of perverted John Ashcroft TIPS program, where rather than listening to what their professors say and considering how they feel about this information, students are encouraged to monitor their professors. To make sure they don't say anything mean about Our Beloved Leader, George Bush.

What really set me off is that they're going after a professor whose classes I loved back in school.

I studied for an English minor back in UCLA, so I had to take a bunch of upper-division Shakespeare classes. I had two Shakespeare professors - one was an obnoxious, boring lecturer whose classes I would dread, and the other was Dr. Robert Watson. Watson was an engaging lecturer and just a plain old interesting guy, and his classes were my favorites during the two semesters I studied under him.

What I liked about Waston's class was that he didn't try to contemporize Shakespeare for a modern crowd...He didn't bother to explain, a lot of the time, why Shakespeare is relevant now or what impact he had on whatever literary movements. It was more focused on making sense of the language and writing in context, focusing on how an Elizabethan audience would have understood the guy's poetry. Great stuff.

I didn't even know, during my association with Watson, about his background or his politics. We just discussed A Winter's Tale. But he has been picked out by UCLA Profs for lies and abuse. Not cool.

Professor Robert Watson has been, for the majority of his academic career, a fairly indistinguishable part of the English department faculty. In fact, a bare-bones review of his academic record shows nothing questionable. In fact, Watson’s role as a long-term Shakespeare scholar makes him as an unfashionable retrograde in a field that increasingly disregards the Bard’s centrality.

Okay, this opening paragraph is totally inaccurate. I just told you why, previous to 2000, when this article begins its analysis, that Watson was a very distinguishable part of the English Department Faculty. I remember him clearly 7 years after taking his class. Maybe his past is indistinguishable because they aren't paying off any students from before 2000 to remember him?

Also, no reasonably-sized undergraduate English department in America doesn't have a professor who knows Shakespeare. If the field disregards the Bard's centrality, who does it now focus on? Joyce? Keats? The Great Works of Sean Hannity?

The article spends most of its time talking about Watson's father, Goodwin Watson, another academic. Goodwin Watson apparently was hounded in his day by the House of Un American Activities Committee (commonly abbreviated as HUAC, but called HCUA in the article because they're fucking idiots) for being a Communist sympathizer. In fact, he was under investigaton and scrutiny because he was suspected of teaching classes and introducing students to radical lefty ideas.

Having aired anti-capitalist, anti-war, pro-indoctrination, pro-activism ideas, not simply to friends and neighbors, but also in print and in public forums, Watson was, at the time of the HCUA’s scrutiny, a Communist in thought and deed, if (presumably) not on any official party roster. Moreover, Watson’s political commitments could not be cast as collegiate excesses or the wild words of youth, given that the first cited examples of his political radicalism began at the not-so-tender age of 37.

Is it wrong to air anti-capitalist, anti-war or pro-activism ideals in the media? (As for indoctrination, it seems to me that UCLA Profs' mission to eliminiate college faculty who disagree with them is a far more pernicious attempt at indoctrination than teaching a class).

UCLA Profs actually doesn't get the irony. That their ancestors on the Right hounded Goodwin Watson, altering his son's perspective, and now they have come forward as a new generation ready to threaten and intimidate an educator for trying to inform the next generation.

At any rate, the very American democracy that Robert Watson scorns today eventually saved his father. As it happened, after the Kerr Committee’s decision, a rider was attached to a $134 million deficiency appropriation bill passed in the House. The rider stated, in short, that no part of any Congressional funding could be used to pay the salary of one Goodwin Watson. While the bill was passed quickly, it was rejected unanimously by the Senate on substantive procedural grounds. This back-and-forth in which the House passed the bill, only to see it rejected by the Senate, then occurred four more times, until the Senate, dismayed at the prospect of financially punishing thousands of federal employees to protect one, acquiesced and passed the bill. President Roosevelt, while denouncing the bill as “unconstitutional,” took the same pragmatic approach and signed it into law. But on June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court, in United States vs. Lovett, unanimously vindicated both Roosevelt’s view and Watson’s personal fight, finding that the firing constituted an unconstitutional bill of attainder and awarded Watson back pay.

See? Eventually, years after the Right had tried to ruin his life because of baseless accusations and outright lies, he was cleared! So what is his son so upset about? What a baby!

So, they bash Watson's Dad, make him look like a Communist even after he was cleared by the Supreme Court, and then they attack some Watson editorials from The Daily Bruin.

Whether it was the anger over Bush’s election, the thrill of seeing his name in newsprint, or even the “emotional involvement” of the anti-Inauguration event, it seemed as though the January 2001 articles opened floodgates that had previously been holding back Watson’s politically-oriented output. Over the fifteen months (including three quiet months of summer), Watson would spew forth no less than eleven Viewpoint submissions or letters to the editor.

The horror! You mean, this man, this English Professor and member of the UCLA Community, wrote letters to the editor of the school newspaper! Okay, that's it! I've read enough! String this guy up by his pinky toes!

On February 21, 2001, Watson fired the first salvo with a letter against Ben Shapiro’s Daily Bruin column, “Tolerance Makes for False Gods.” This marked the start of what would eventually be a long and (on Shapiro’s part, at least) cogent battle of political views.

Yeah, I'm sure Ben comes off as exceptionally cogent. Let's just take a look at that column, shall we?

American liberalism has replaced a system of morals and values with a new god. His name is Tolerance. Tolerance is an easy-going guy. He'll accept just about anything you choose to do. You want to commit adultery? OK by Tolerance. Pedophilia? A little sicker, but it's all right too. Murder? Well, you must have had a tough childhood.

Yeah, screw tolerance! I'm sick of tolerating all these pedophiles feeling up my kids that these liberals refuse to do anything about!

The overwhelmingly liberal American media portrays anyone who believes in God as foolish at best, and usually goes as far as to call them closed-minded and extremist. Why? Because intolerance of anything, even of corrupt morals, is a clear violation of the law of Tolerance, which states that you cannot judge anyone.

Yeah, I mean, what tolerant asshole said "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Some dumb liberal, I'm sure. Probably one of those long-haired hippie types. Or "As you do unto the least of my bretheren, so you do unto me." What an asshole. Everyone knows intolerance and moral judgement is What Jesus Would Do.

Ben then goes down a list...People in the Congregation of Tolerance vs. People in the Congregation of God. Bear in mind, he's a freshman in college at this point. 17, 18 years old. Then think to yourself - what must this poor boy's parents have done to him?

For the congregation of God – Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Before you cringe, remember what she represents – a system of God-given morals. Remember when she called the homosexual lifestyle "deviant"? She was berated with a media hailstorm. Every major newspaper carried ads proclaiming Dr. Laura intolerant. Radio and television stations throughout the country discussed her "bigoted" views. She was eventually forced to recant on pain of the loss of her livelihood. Never mind that Schlessinger watered down the Biblical view of homosexuality: "It is an abomination."(Leviticus 18:22) Never mind that many major religions condemn homosexuality. How could Schlessinger be so horrible? How could the religious right judge?

Oh, Benny, did you back the wrong horse...

It goes on and on like this. You get the idea...This article is about as "cogent" as a post-game interview with Shaq.

I won't even get into Watson's response. Really, I don't even feel like it's worth responding to a guy like Ben in the student newspaper. If he's in one of your classes and you want to try and show him a more reasonable way of seeing the world, that's fine, but just responding to him in the newspaper grants his idiocy a form of legitimacy.

I'm thinking that perhaps these silly twits at UCLA (featuring on its advisory board...why, it's Ben Shapiro!) don't even understand the significance of their actions. They just think it's a hoot to call out professors they don't like online. They don't realize they are marching in lockstep with a long, ongoing effort to silence educators and, accordingly, to stifle free speech.

Or maybe they know just what they're doing. They're perfectly aware of what big assholes they sound like spewing all this nonsense, and they know the only way to make it seem like they're intelligent is to intimidate anyone smarter into shutting up.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Actual Cool News

It's become increasingly rare to find actual, real "cool news" on Ain't It Cool News these days. Between all the Crash-heavy Best of 2005 lists, personal Harry Knowles anecdotes designed to let you know that he has totally met Quentin Tarantino and bizarre, Uwe Boll-themed rants, they so rarely get around to anything actually cool. Let alone news!

But here, tonight, we have not one but two stories that are interesting, if true.

The first is fairly certain to be factual, as it comes directly from The Hollywood Reporter. You know, as opposed to directly from some dude's basement in Austin.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is in advanced talks to produce and direct "There Will Be Blood," starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a turn-of-the-century Texas oil prospector in the early days of the oil business. The sprawling period piece, which Anderson has spent several years writing, is loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!"

Oh my god, that is hot shit.

PT Anderson? Daniel Day-Lewis? 20's period piece? Based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!"? Can I buy my ticket now?

As I have probably discussed here on the blog previously, I take issue with one item on PT's filmography, and that one item may be his most-loved film. I found Magnolia to be silly, overblown, trite, nonsensical and egomaniacal to the extreme. Though it's of course not a complete failure - Tom Cruise and John C. Reilly in particular give terrific performances - but the movie is just nowhere near as, I don't know, complete as Boogie Nights or the sublime Punch-Drunk Love.

I really don't see how this one could fail, though, with the strength of this material and Bill the goddamn Butcher in the lead role.

This next story is nowhere near as interesting. In fact, you can probably stop reading right now.

One of Ain't It Cool's "spies" has reported that a Marvel suit revealed plans for Hulk 2 on AOL.

Vice Chairman of Marvel, Peter Cuneo was being interviewed by AOL's Motley Fool Radio Team (yikes... who exactly signed off on that name?) and said that Bana has pulled out of the sequel.

Strange... I was fairly sure that Bana was contracted for at least one more SMASH. Maybe he was only contracted for a theatrical sequel. According to Mr Cuneo, the Artist Forever Known As Poider pulled out of the film when he discovered it was going to be direct-to-DVD.

My first reaction was, "who gives a shit," because Hulk suuuuuuuuuuuucked.

But then I thought, if Ang Lee and Bana are both out, and it's going direct-to-DVD, maybe they can totally reinvent the Incredible Hulk movie franchise. Make it more of what I wanted to see in the first place - a kind of comic book-style Fugitive movie, with Bruce Banner on the run from the government, trying to avoid Hulking out and revealing his location.

And then I read further down and saw that they are considering David Duchovney for the Banner role, which I think is a pretty solid choice. He's convincing as a science nerd, and he can do emotionally repressed (remember Kalifornia?) I'm inclined to say there's a good chance Hulk 2 will be better than the first film.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Phonally, A New Fine

I've had my old cell phone for a few years now. Since the end of 2003. Before that, I had a Cingular phone, and then I went on this cross-country trip. Upon my return, I discovered that my bill was...let's just say, a bit larger than expected. And in trying to work out the details of what went wrong with the good people at Cingular, I found the company's Customer Service Department less than helpful. Okay, that's a bit of an understatement. It was the worst experience I've ever had in dealing with a company.

The worst. The Cingular Customer Service Department puts to shame all other Customer Service Departments in terms of time spent on hold, surliness and lack of English-language fluency among operators. It would have been easier to get a clear, fair deal out of a bunch of Enron traders. The guys from Glengarry Glen Ross have more scruples and pride in their work.

Anyway, I left Cingular and signed up with AT&T Wireless, a fine company with whom I had no problems until they were bought out by...wait for it...Cingular!


So when my phone's charger broke last week (the part leading into my phone's outlet snapped off, exposing the wires and preventing me from powering up my phone), I decided to just junk it and my Cingular service, and sign up with Verizon.

So I did, 10 days ago. I just got my new phone today. There were several problems.

The first issue was what they call a PORT. It's when they take your phone number and service from one company and just electronically transfer everything to the new company, only interrupting service for a day or two and allowing you to keep your phone number. For some reason, my PORT didn't take. Cingular, it seems, shut down my service before Verizon could get too deep into their steez, and the transfer didn't go through.

The solution to this problem was fairly straightforward. I had to (this is true!) wait on hold for a Verizon representative, and then while on hold while the Verizon representative waited on hold for a Cingular representative. Then, once both of these mysterious and elusive representatives could be reached - a process requiring roughly the same amount of time as the invention and development of the cellular phone itself - I had to wait on hold while they actually initiated the PORT. It was a really long phone call...probably more time than I've spent on the phone with a woman in several years.

Foolishly, I thought that Hades' Conference Call would be enough to satisfy my new Telecommunications Masters. What a sap! Of course, Verizon was all sold out of the phone I had ordered online. Fortunately, I would get a minor upgrade - the slightly more expensive option for the same price. Unfortunately, the new phone would be sent out a few days later, and it would be sent 60 miles away, to my parents' house in Orange County.

All this has equaled about 10 days without a phone. And I mean completely without a phone, because we don't even have a land line in our apartment any more. (We did, but the guy who used to pay the phone bill moved to North Carolina without paying it, or letting us know where the bills are, or how much it costs, or why we never get any new bills...So, as we all have cell phones, we just let it go...)

In some ways, the experience has been liberating. I'm so used to being in reach to everyone in my life at all times, the notion that I could go out, not tell anyone where I was, and be totally incommunicado felt pretty good. Not that I'd want to keep this as a permanent situation. It's a real pain in the ass to not have a phone around ever. What if you want to order a pizza?

The #1 worst thing about not having a phone this week was that I missed Werner Herzog signing DVD's and books at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove. My friend Ray was randomly there, and called me to come meet him, but of course I didn't have a phone, thank you very much Verizon. He got a copy of Fitzcarraldo signed, and I sat around here like a lump reading anti-Alito blog rants. Isn't that always the way...

Today, at long last, my phone arrived. Well, technically, it arrived yesterday, but at my parent's house. This morning, I drove to Koreatown before work to pick it up from my father at his office.

And I now have a phone! And it actually works! And, better yet, it has a camera inside, so I can take photos for the blog!

Or so I imagined. It does, in fact, take photos, and I can in fact e-mail them to myself for posting on the blog. But they are pretty small and dark and pixelly. It's no substitute for having a real camera. For example, I tried to take a photo of myself, just to give you all a frame of reference about who exactly have been hurling thoughts at you for the past year.

What came out is the single scariest-looking picture of me that could ever even theoretically be taken. I never photograph well, but this picture just makes me look creepy as hell. It's very terrorist-esque. I'm not sure I feel comfortable sharing a room with the dude in this picture.

Above my head, you can see that the smoke detector has fallen out of the wall and is dangling in place. Please know that it is still plugged in, so I won't die of smoke inhalation. Just shame.

Shame, because of this final story I'm about to tell you...See, at some point today, I was fiddling around with my new phone and a customer came up to the counter at the store. So I put the phone on "lock" mode (so I wouldn't accidentally hit a button and take a picture of my groin through my pocket) and rang the needy obsessive mouth-breather up, and then returned to my new toy.

Bear in mind, I had charged the phone just moments before. I had not entered any sort of information in there yet. I tried to "unlock" the controls but nothing happened. The phone was demanding some sort of "unlock" password. But I had none. I'd owned the thing less than 5 minutes, and already I had managed to render it unusable. I left Ari in the store and ran out to my car...Surely in the instructions, they would tell you how to figure out the phone's default password.

Nothing. Here's the book's only mention of lock mode:

To unlock the phone, press SEND or "-" [UNLOCK], then input your password, then press okay.

Um...what if you haven't yet set a password? Should you just guess? Is it "bacon"?

And this is a massive instruction manual that comes with the phone. Hundreds of pages. It's not like they couldn't have found a place for it somewhere in this massive instructional tome. It's like Lord of the Ringtones or something, an epic masterwork of cellular technological explication.

Attempting to put myself in the position of a cellular phone designer, I tried to devise what would make the best default password. It should be fairly obvious, so someone could theoretically figure it out in this very circumstance, but not too obvious, in case someone never bothered to change it before it was stolen or something...

I tried 0-0-0-0, 1-1-1-1, 1-2-3-4, 6-7-8-9, even 1-3-5-7. I tried 0-1-0-6, in case it went by the date the phone was purchased. I tried the password from my voicemail on my own phone. I even tried a few random numbers, figuring it wouldn't hurt. Nothing.

I was about to give up, call back Verizon Customer Service and wait on hold for a few geologic ages. But then, I had a brainstorm. Of course! The last four digits of my phone number! It worked like a charm.

So, I am phoned. Feel free to call me if you have my number. And if you don't have my number, feel just a bit badly about yourself for the rest of the day...

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Yesterday, I reviewed the new Nicholas Cage movie about gunrunning, Lord of War, and I complained that the movie followed an all-too-predictable path, laid out in films like Scarface, Blow, Goodfellas and Layer Cake. After seeing this documentary film, based on the true story of the collapse of the massively-fraudulent Enron Corporation, I'm starting to think this criticism is unfair.

I mean, Lord of War is still a bad movie. But it's predictable and formulaic because these stories tend to unfold in the same way. Capitalism drives particularly shrewd and calculating individuals to devise new ways to cheat the system. These individuals invariably develop a sense of superiority, of ominpotence, and push the scheme just a bit too far, bringing about a swift and humiliating downfall.

So, you might say that Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is old-fashioned, Rags-to-Riches-to-Rags filmmaking. It might be really entertaining if it weren't so horrifying, sad and true.

Those two handsome devils are Enron Chairman Kenny Boy Lay and his First Mate, Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. Kenny Boy, who lobbied Washington for years in favor of energy deregulation, finally got his way with the aid of a certain influential family...What is their name...Hmm...Powerful American family deeply ingrained in not only the political establishment, but also the intelligence community and the Energy Industry...Texans...Partial to giving people stupid nicknames...Can't seem to place it right now. Anyway, it'll come to me.

With energy deregulated, Kenny Boy searched around for the best possible way to make a dollar and a cent off of the newly-free energy market. And that's when he met Uber-Nerd Jeff Skilling, a man with a plan.

The great thing about watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is that it fills in all the gaps in common understanding about the scandal. I knew the Big Picture concept - Enron had falsified earnings to boost stock performance and manipulated the California energy market, bilking yours truly and other California taxpayers and energy consumers to the tune of $36 billion and causing obnoxious rolling blackouts. Then, when the company's demise was imminent, the crooked upper management types sold off their shares, leaving the regular employees relying on the stock for their retirement twisting in the wind.

I thought that the details of exactly how Enron managed to pull this off would be highly complicated, and require a nuanced understanding of accounting procedure and the inner workings of the energy market.

As director Alex Gibney's compelling, fascinating documentary (based on a book by reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind) makes clear, this really isn't the case. Skilling's idea was actually pretty simple. Rather than actually worrying about the transport and storage of energy, Enron would just buy energy resources and then resell them to whoever was buying, acting as a sort of way-station or middle-man. And to sweeten the deal, Enron managed to convince the government to let them record and report their own earnings, in some cases based on deals they had made to provide energy 10 years down the road.

This would be like me saying, "I'm going to buy a new car tomorrow, and I'll sell it to you in 5 years for $2,000," and you agreeing. Then, tonight, I'm ordering a pizza with a friend and they ask if I have any money. "Sure," I reply. "I have $2,000. You just can't see it. But go ahead and order the pizza." Then he does, and when it arrives, I punch the pizza man in the face, grab a slice and take the fuck off at top speed.

Once that was in place, the scam was exceedingly simple. You just steal whatever you can whenever you can, and if someone comes around asking about what you're doing, you bribe them. This is where the remarkable similarities to fictional films like Lord of War come in. Just as in the arms trade, or the drug trade, or any other kind of illegal activity, spreading your earnings around is the surest way to guarantee you won't get caught. In this case, investment banks, traders and analysts, those involved in government oversight and power station employees went along with the illegitimate deals and got their palms greased.

The film is designed in some ways to piss you off, and it succeeds at this magnificently. Much attention is paid to the in-house recordings of employees gleefully discussing the extent to which they are screwing over consumers. In addition to the now-infamous tape in which a trader laughs hysterically about shutting off a grandmother's heat during the cold winter months, there is disgusting video footage of Skilling entreating employees to invest more heavily in Enron stock after he knew the end was near, and had started feverishly selling off his own shares.

In some of the film's most revealing and insightful moments, Gibney attempts to explore the psychology of Skilling, the man who really served as the "architect of Enron." A variety of theories are offered into how, exactly, a seemingly normal man could allow himself to sink so low in the name of greed and power. Was it the hubris that seems to always go along with great genius? Was he simply a man who had been bullied all his life, who desperately wanted to enjoy the chance to bully others? (This theory is backed up by tales of Enron executives taking manly adventure vacations together, which to me sounds a bit more repressed-gay than repressed-nerd.) Or was he just a sick guy, born without the ability to discern right from wrong?

Skilling comes off far more human, at least, than his cohort Ken Lay. At least, at the end, after his pal Cliff has committed suicide in shame and the company he took so much pride in has declared bankruptcy, Jeffy looks upset. Kenny Boy seems incapable of mustering up any emotion at all, aside from enthusiasm about his stock portfolio.

Long after it's become obvious even to the low-level employees that Enron is going under, Ken continues to meet with stockholders and give speeches about how the future looks bright. At one point, he takes written questions from his audience.

"Are you on crack?" one of the questions reads. "If so, this would all make more sense."

And he kind of chuckles at the joke. He doesn't really seem upset at all, even when they're walking him away in handcuffs. Is it because he knows he has his Golden Parachute, enough money to last 3 lifetimes? Or is it that he knows his best buddy in Washington (whose name is still eluding me...) is watching his back?

The problems that led to the Enron crisis are, it seems to me, the same that persist in American government today. Certain individuals have found a way to monopolize all the power, and are using it to dismantle the system of checks and balances that allows America to run properly. In this case, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow were able to get all the important players - from the federal agency in charge of regulating them on down - to play along, keep their mouth shut and reap the profits.

So, in the end, this was hardly the Crime of the Century. (Maybe in terms of actual dollars stolen, but not in terms of ingenuity or creativity, is my point). It wasn't some elaborate long-con orchestrated by the most brilliant minds of their generation. I think the title might be intended as ironic. Skilling and Lay considered themselves to be "the smartest guys in the room," as if willing such a thing could be true, but they are standard garden-variety thieves and nothing more.

They embezzle, cheat, swindle and lie until someone shows up asking questions. Then they pay that person off, and repeat. And this goes on for a few years until finally, there are too many people asking questions to pay off, and the people you're defrauding have started to catch on, and there's nothing left to do but grab all the last-minute cash you can and pretend like you had no idea what was happening all around you.

These guys aren't exactly the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Just greedy bastards.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Re-Elect Al Gore

Al Gore needs a sports pyschologist. He's got that weird mental disorder going on, where he can't handle pressure. When he's running a campaign, he's this wooden, jerky beurocrat without a clue how to connect with people. When he's not actually doing anything requiring the public's support - his career now consists of growing a beard - he delivers stirring addresses. Today, in Washington, he gave a rather fiery speech calling for the Attorney General and the Congress to thoroughly investigate the White House's wiretapping of Americans without a court order.

I'd suggest you go and read the entire thing...but half of my audience is apparently half-literate racists, judging from the Google searches leading here today, so I wouldn't quite expect too much.

But I'll just pick out a few key sections, in case you've got other plans for the afternoon.

He opens by drawing a direct line from the illegal FBI wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. to Bush's illegal wiretapping of an unknown number of Americans.

On this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially important to recall that for the last several years of his life, Dr. King was illegally wiretapped-one of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by the U.S. government during this period.

The FBI privately called King the "most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country" and vowed to "take him off his pedestal." The government even attempted to destroy his marriage and blackmail him into committing suicide.

Gore then does something fairly amazing for a media figure in 2005 - he references the Founding Fathers in a way that is both responsible and, most importantly, accurate. I am so tired of idiots like Bill O'Reilly making up all sorts of fanciful lies about the origins of our Country (particularly that its odd blend of Enlightenment thinkers and Puritans was somehow a unified, traditional Judeo-Christian culture, whatever that means in the first place.)

A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men. Indeed, they recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined in our Constitution - our system of checks and balances - was designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern through the rule of law. As John Adams said: "The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men."

Did he just actually quote an actual piece of writing composed by a real Founding Father? Can you imagine GWB even trying to class up his act like that?

"The President should be able to break all sorts of laws during wartime. I believe it was Samuel Adams Light who said, 'Thine Executive shalt be able to break all sorts of laws...umm...During the waging of wars, thou shalt, um, grant to the President...' Um, wait, hang on...Let me start over.

"The President should be able to break the law when you're at war. As that great Founding Father, Paul Bunyan, once said, 'The President should be able to break the law when, um, thine nation is at war.' Yeah, there you go."

Gore continues...

In the words of James Madison, "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, "On Common Sense" ignited the American Revolution, succinctly described America's alternative. Here, he said, we intended to make certain that "the law is king."

Vigilant adherence to the rule of law strengthens our democracy and strengthens America.

So, okay, it's rhetoric. But it's well-written rhetoric. Gore actually does have some real things to say, of course, but you have to wait until further along in the speech.

The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.

Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.

YES! This is the sort of argument a lot more Democrats should have been making for years now. These guys are so incompetant that, even if you buy into the War on Terror (I don't), you'd have to agree that they can't be trusted to run the damn thing. All this crap, particularly the wiretapping that will lead to convicted terrorists being released and the torturing of prisoners that provides no beneficial information, hampers our ability to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Gore takes Bush to task on a lot of specifics of the surveillance scandal, pointing out that the President's explanations make little to no sense.

This shameful exercise of power overturns a set of principles that our nation has observed since General Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War and has been observed by every president since then - until now. These practices violate the Geneva Conventions and the International Convention Against Torture, not to mention our own laws against torture.

The President has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap individuals in foreign countries and deliver them for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes in nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.


Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is "yes" then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?

Despite what those lying weirdos on the right-wing blogs no one reads will tell you, torture and despotism aren't what America is all about, and they are not things for which George Bush and Sean Hannity will manage to drum up support. The problem we who oppose Bush Co. face is alerting as many Americans as possible that this is going on, and then of course to get them to vote Democrat this Fall.

Gore goes on to discuss the suspension of civil liberties during wars throughout US History. He notes that, no matter what kind of vacation from traditional freedoms the government took, they always halted these activities immediately once the conflict had ended.

Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Some of the worst abuses prior to those of the current administration were committed by President Wilson during and after WWI with the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII marked a low point for the respect of individual rights at the hands of the executive. And, during the Vietnam War, the notorious COINTELPRO program was part and parcel of the abuses experienced by Dr. King and thousands of others.

But in each of these cases, when the conflict and turmoil subsided, the country recovered its equilibrium and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.

He, and many others, worry that this cycle may stop with George Bush, who has managed to amass a rather unprecedented level of power. Mainly, the notion of an endless, ongoing "War on Terror" that neccessitates the adoption of liberty-limiting, invasive laws on a permanent level, troubles Gore (and me).

These are all excellent points to make, and I sincerely hope that some of this perspective seeps, however gradually, into the nation's discussions on this topic. The worst thing that could happen would be for teh NSA scandal to blend in with all the other illegal, immoral shit that Bush does, and become just another reason libruls hate the president. This is the sort of criminal outrage that ought to extend across any sort of flimsy "party line."

You know, like the president getting fellated.

As I said, it's a long speech, and I'm not going to paraphrase the whole thing. Gore touches on the Supreme Court, provides personal insight and more insights from the Founding Fathers (including that bane of the AP US History student, the Federalist Papers), and totally calls out Congress.

The Congress we have today is unrecognizable compared to the one in which my father served. There are many distinguished Senators and Congressmen serving today. I am honored that some of them are here in this hall. But the legislative branch of government under its current leadership now operates as if it is entirely subservient to the Executive Branch.

Moreover, too many Members of the House and Senate now feel compelled to spend a majority of their time not in thoughtful debate of the issues, but raising money to purchase 30 second TV commercials.

Oh, snap! No he di-int.

I call upon Democratic and Republican members of Congress today to uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of government you're supposed to be.

But there is yet another Constitutional player whose pulse must be taken and whose role must be examined in order to understand the dangerous imbalance that has emerged with the efforts by the Executive Branch to dominate our constitutional system.

We the people are-collectively-still the key to the survival of America's democracy. We-as Lincoln put it, "[e]ven we here"-must examine our own role as citizens in allowing and not preventing the shocking decay and degradation of our democracy.

Hell yeah. That's good stuff. Now I remember why we elected this guy back in 2000.

Lord of War

One type of shot composes about 80% of the entire film Lord of War. We zoom in on star Nicholas Cage standing in the sunlight, in a familiar black cloak, wearing sunglasses and holding a briefcase. On the soundtrack, Cage, as Ukranian immigrant and international arms dealer Yuri Orlov, informs us about some random aspect of the gunrunning trade.

This includes the film's opening, in which we pan across a bullet-covered battlefield to discover Cage, briefcase in hand, who wants to tell us all about his adventures selling weapons in Africa. I have no idea why writer/director Andrew Niccol is so enamored of this shot. It's dull, really, and the film's endless voice-over gets tiresome immediately. I'm generally against voice-over in the first place, except in film noir, because just hearing someone talk off-camera isn't very compelling on its own. Sure, if the writing is really great, and a character has a terrific voice and idiosyncratic manner of speakign (like, say, Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), then exceptions can be made.

But Lord of War goes way overboard. There's barely any dialogue at all for the film's first hour. Just shots of Cage in various locales around the world, smoking and trying to look cool while explaining stuff in dry monotone on the soundtrack. Wake me when it's through.

You may pick up some stray bits of information from all that narration - maybe some insight into how an arms dealer might go about bribing a foreign official - but it's not enough to elevate this well-worn material. Though I can't think of another film specifically about the inside of the international arms trade, Lord of War contents itself to follow the tired old "rise-and-fall-of-a-crime-lord" storyline.

Like Blow and last year's DVD smash Layer Cake, Niccol's film wants to give us the ultimate insider's view on a very illegal black-market industry. Unfortunately, like those films, it falls back on convention, it stretches believability and it yearns for a kind of cynical hipness when it should be vying for relevance. I have to say, out of all three movies, Lord of War fails in the grandest way - it's the film that strains the most for credibility, and comes up the shortest.

At the outset, Yuri is just some punk kid living with his parents in Little Odessa. (Though he explains, again in voice-over, that he immigrated to America from the Ukraine as a little boy, Cage doesn't ever even try to convince us he's Russian...He's just playing Nicholas Cage.) He and his unpredictable, naive brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) go into the arms business, seemingly for a lack of anything better to do.

In a ludicrously dumb sub-plot, Yuri's dad faked being a Jew to escape the Soviet Union, but has now embraced the religion. In yet another voice-over, Yuri explains that he buys his first wholesale weapon - an Uzi from Israel - through a connection he meets at his dad's temple.

I'll stop here for a moment...Wouldn't that be an interesting scene to actually watch in the movie? A guy goes to temple with his dad and tries to make a connection with the Israeli guy to buy illegal weapons! Why just narrate that scene..."I made a connection and bought an Uzi." Who gives a shit? Show me something interesting, goddammit!

All the usual, expected "rise-and-fall" material comes in due time. Vitaly develops a coke problem, and Yuri has to drop him from the business, causing bad blood between the brothers. Yuri, who at first distances himself from any actual violence, merely selling the guns and leaving, descends deeper and deeper into a web of total, unabashed villainy. An overzealous ATF agent who can't be bribed (Ethan Hawke, who gets in very little actual dialogue amidst all the voice-over) tails him wherever he goes (including via helicopter, in a scene shamelessly lifted from Goodfellas). Yuri's wife, a model about whom he has obsessed since his youth (Bridget Moynahan), initially swoons for his wealth and priviledge, but comes to resent his secrecy and frequent absence.


A more promising plotline concerns the cruel, psychopathic dictator of Liberia (Eamonn Walker, in the film's only interesting performance), who seems to me to be based on General Idi Amin Dada, as presented in Barbet Schroeder's documentary of the same name. He's an interesting character, a man of contradictions in a movie filled with one-note types, but we spend far too little time with him, and the film as a whole seems less concerned with actually telling a story about Africa than listening to the dulcet tone's of Nic Cage's speaking voice.

Like a lot of other "serious" 2005 issue movies - and I include Syriana, The Constant Gardener and Crash here - Lord of War overshoots its target by a good stretch. By the end of his film, Niccol tries to make a case against the U.S., stating that the President is the world's largest arms dealer, and that he's dependant on guys like Yuri Orlov plying their trade around the world. Well, that may be true, but it's a random, cheap shot at the end of a movie that has nothing to do with the United States selling arms around the world. This is a simple story about one man, like The Constant Gardener, that pretends in its final 15 minutes to have some kind of larger significance and application.

What finally holds Lord of War back, along with the constant voice-overs and a general air of tongue-in-cheek jokiness that really mars the film's more serious sections, is its cartoonish lack of believability. A gritty insider's view at how arms trading works should at least try to get its protagonist out of scrapes with the law in a somewhat plausible manner. Yuri's constant outsmarting of the ATF takes on a Roadrunner-esque quality after a while.

When the agents have him with a boat full of weapons, he quickly has a sailor repaint the ship's name while the ATF boats approach the vessel. Later, when the ATF has Yuri stuck with an abandoned plane loaded with illegal firearms in the middle of the African desert, he gives them away to passing travelers, whose numbers increase exponentially during the 10 minutes before the caravan arrives to arrest him. Is this supposed to be a taut thriller granting you access behind-the-scenes to how arms deals work, or the latest issue of Spy vs. Spy?