Friday, April 14, 2006

Florida? But It's America's Wang!

I'm flying out to Florida tomorrow morning with my family to visit my Uncle, who lives now in Daytona Beach, possibly due to some long-ago, never-diagnosed head trauma. Honestly, I can't understand why any person of means would move from Beautiful Southern California to Muggy Central Florida short of an impending Mafia hit.

I mean, yes, if Joey Bag o' Donuts knows you turned State's Evidence on Louie "The Fish" Vinatero and has tracked you down to your home in Laguna Niguel, you might have to get out of town for a while. But a man, of his own free will, selling a home in Orange County in favor of Daytona Beach, a place where the local economy depends entirely on flip-flops, oranges and Larry the Cable Guy CD's? Surely, there must be something I'm not getting...Maybe he's importing cocaine up from Central America for sale in the U.S. That makes a bit more sense...

Here's something odd...Every time I talk to a member of my family about the town where my Uncle lives, they say something complimentary paired with something derogatory. Every time. Like, "What are we doing to do while we're in Daytona?"

"Oh, there's tons of stuff to do! It's so beautiful there! The only store within 50 miles is a Wal-Mart!"

It gets really confusing.

"Does Uncle live in a city or a housing development or what?"

"It's an amazing place right on the water! You'll love it! The whole area is teeming with bikers and rednecks!"

Those concepts don't go together, goddamnit!

This will mark the first time I have traveled with my parents and brother in a really long time. We didn't stop going places together because of any particular animosity or anything like that...We just stopped ever wanting to go to the same place.

On vacation, my mother essentially develops the same habits as your average iguana - she needs a warm spot in which to lie out. Keep her watered and fed regular, and she'll basically take care of herself.

I've never understood the appeal of laying out in the sun for hours, particularly on a beach covered with gritty sand. You do it for a few minutes, you get really hot and dirty...that's enough for me. I get it. Outside, warmth of the sun, nice coppery tan, waves crashing and all that. But, really, you have to be out there all day? Flipping over and greasing yourself down and all that? On the ground? Or those hideous, uncomfortable chairs that still kind of hurt your back even after you put towels down on them?

Why is it that people don't mind sitting on the filthy ground all day just because there's sand instead of dirt. The ground outside is still gross and covered with crud. Normally, you wouldn't just plop yourself down in a fetid clump of earth, set up a chair and read "Left Behind" for 6 hours. So why do we assume that, because the earth has been finely diced into small granules, that this behavior is now somehow acceptable?

And it's really hard to read or something while I'm laying out there, because it's usually too bright and I never know quite how to balance a book while I'm spread out. It's awkward. I much prefer reading on a sofa or something, where you can keep the book open to the proper page and have something to do with your arms aside from letting them dangle in white-hot sand. Plus, if you need another beer or soda or something, the kitchen's right there, and everything doesn't have sand all over it.

Another thing my parents do on trips, they both enjoy looking at real estate they have absolutely no interest in purchasing. What's the point of looking inside a house where no one lives and where you would not potentially live, ever? I mean, touring stately British manors or something...That's one thing. I mean, I'd likely still find it boring, but at least then the houses are huge and decorated and occasionally historical. But touring through suburban homes where no one lives? Why not just go to the public library and study blueprints? Or go out to coffee with some architects? At that point, I suppose it's just some nascent, unexplored interest in structural engineering or whatever, because it can't be fulfilling otherwise.

As for me, I'm generally partial to wandering around cities to which I've never been. It's nice to check out museums and landmarks and that sort of thing, but I find that the most fun times I have while traveling are those occasions when I stumble on to something unexpected and get a little taste for what life must be like somewhere different. A few years ago, I went on a trip for a few days to Boston to visit an old friend, and wound up spending a large chunk of my time just taking the subway around and checking out the town. My favorite day included the Natural History Museum at Harvard, a trip to a popular comic book store, a quick slice of pizza from a random place near Boston Common, a walk around Cambridge with stops in a few pubs and a Lou Barlow concert at a bar called The Middle East, where you have to go down into the basement below this restaurant to see the band play.

I don't really know what my brother likes to do on vacation, as he was probably 14 the last time we went anywhere in earnest together. Once, when he was in college, he and a few friends traveled in a Winnebago from Los Angeles to Alaska and then back, which leads me to believe that he and I have drastically divergent notions of what constitutes a fun, relaxing trip. I'd rather take a walking tour of Skull Island than spend a few weeks crossing the Yukon in an RV with five other smelly idiots.)

I hope to be able to continue posting semi-regularly during my week's stay in the Sunshine State. That is, if the Internet has come to Central Florida. Last I heard, they were still communicating via tin cans and long pieces of string, but I'm sure Jeb Bush has brought a few innovations down there by now. He's a Bush, after all, and they're nothing if not progressive.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Cartoon Wars

The "South Park" two-parter that concluded last night was particularly hilarious and rather brilliantly constructed. Episodes about the Danish cartoon protests throughout the Muslim world actually turned into a referendum on Comedy Central's self-censorship. Would the network refuse to let Trey Parker and Matt Stone animate an image of Muhammad into their cartoon, despite the fact that a cartoon depicting of Muhammad had previously caused rioting throughout the Middle East?

It turns out, no, Comedy Central would not. Following an impassioned, in-show plea by regular character Kyle, (accurately referring to Comedy Central President Doug Herzog by first name urging him to "do the right thing"), "South Park" ran an advisory noting that the network would not let them air an image of Muhammad. They finished up by crudely animating President Bush and Jesus defecating on an American flag.

As I said, as a scripted piece of comic television, it worked beautifully. The episode was really funny, particularly in its digs on that other crude cartoon show, "Family Guy." But I'm still not sure Trey and Matt really get it, either. I laughed at lot at "South Park," as I always do, but I cringed a few times also.

Once again, they seem much more upset and angry over this rather insignificant media issue rather than anything that is actually happening in the world. The Muslim cartoon protests can be simplified into a Free Speech issue, sure. They want to intimidate the West into not publishing offensive material to Muslims, and they are using the threat of violence. "Insult us in the newspaper and we will murder your civilians," in other words. It is detestable behavior. I will not defend any attempt to use terror for the purpose of censorship.

However, that is the most basic way to understand the situation. A more complete view, I think, would take into account that the largest Western nation has been bombing the Middle East for the past 4 years or so. We have murdered thousands of innocents, jailed and humiliated and tortured thousands more. We have repeatedly insulted and slandered these people for longer than that in our culture, in our media and in our daily conversations. They are very angry with us, and for very good reasons. Naturally, they will seize on any opportunity to demonstrate for us this uncomfortable truth.

Additionally, please bear in mind that the rioting crowds were shown images that never did appear in the Danish cartoons. The Arab man in the street, easily convinced to begin with that American thinks he's a fool and a buffoon and a lamb for the slaughter, simply believed what his religious leaders told him. Is this really so hard to comprehend?

So, I agree that Comedy Central should do the Free Speech thing and show Muhammad. Although, contrary to what Matt and Trey seem to insist in the episode, it's not a First Amendment issue. That's just about the government making laws about what you can and can't say. A flag-burning amendment, to my mind, violates the First Amendment because it involves Congress passing a law defining how an anti-American statement can be made and phrased. A network deciding that to air an inflammatory image might cost them down the road isn't a violation of the First Amendment. It just sucks. But there is no law stating that Comedy Central has to air anything Matt Stone and Trey Parker can come up with.

Beyond this point, I don't think it's as cut-and-dry as Trey and Matt. There are issues to consider in throwing gasoline on an international crisis such as this one. Again, I'm not saying they shouldn't air the cartoon. I doubt any ill would have come from a fleeting image of Muhammad on "South Park." (And lest we forget, Muhammad has been depicted on "South Park" before, as one of the Super Best Friends along with Moses, Joseph Smith, Jesus and Sea Man.

See? That's him on Jesus' right, with the beard and turban. Don't everyone start rioting at once!

Finally, last night's "South Park" included a scene on which I simply must comment. The President, George W. Shrub, holds a press conference in which he must explain to the censor-happy reporters why it's wrong to cave in to terrorist demands.

Umm...what? George Bush explaining the Constitution to reporters? What the hell was this supposed to even be about? Was this ironic?

Why, can anyone tell me, is "South Park" so hesitant to actually attack the government, and in particular this administration, on the show? It seems they always want to go after certain targetrs - celebrities, religion, so-called "political correctness" - but they never want to go after other, just as important if not more important, targets. Like anyone with any real power.

Sure, there's a place for a show that makes fun of Scientology and Mormonism and the trans-gendered. But to make fun of these groups exclusively, without reserving any venom for the actual decision-makers like G.W., indicates a general lack of perspective and a sophomoric viewpoint. I'm not even saying that the show should attack the President all the time. For all I know, Matt and Trey think he's right on and want to support him.

But if that's the case, they should make a show about why they support the guy. Don't just use him as a prop for exposition - a guy to explain to the reporters why the First Amendment matters. I mean, when you think of a sensible, sane guy who could clearly explain Constitutional principles to the American public, do you really think of G. Dubs? Here they've created an animated character based on the sitting Presdient, and he says nothing interesting or funny. What the hell?

I've been saying for a while that "South Park" leans to the right. That's still true, but I think it's as much a function of apathy as it is strongly-held political views. Matt and Trey just don't want to take on anything too nuanced, too complicated or too important. They're content to use their show to pick on egomaniacal celebrities, cults, Arabs and Jews. It's still entertaining, but it's not what it could be.

[UPDATE: Check out this article from the AP about last night's episode. In it, William Donohue of the Catholic League proves two things: (1) That he's incapable of following straight-forward satire and (2) That he watches "South Park" every week. Awesome.

A frequent "South Park" critic, William Donohue of the anti-defamation group Catholic League, called on Parker and Stone to resign out of principle for being censored.

"The ultimate hypocrite is not Comedy Central — that's their decision not to show the image of Muhammad or not — it's Parker and Stone," he said. "Like little whores, they'll sit there and grab the bucks. They'll sit there and they'll whine and they'll take their shot at Jesus. That's their stock in trade."

See, Bill, the thing is...It's not a shot at Jesus. It's a shot at America. They are saying that we're perfectly will to insult and degrade our own people - to show the preferred religious figure for the vast majority of our countrymen and our President shitting on one another - but we are afraid to insult and degrade anyone else.

You get it? Cause Comedy Central won't let them show Muhammad just standing around, but it will let them show Jesus covered in feces! Try and stay with me!

So, Bill, in conclusion, "South Park" is not saying that George Bush and Jesus like to shit all over one another atop American flags. It's just a joke. However, I would like to suggest, independantly of "South Park," that President Bush probably likes to shit on people for sexual gratification, because he's just sick and twisted like that. But that's just my theory.]

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

R.I.P. Raj Kumar

Raj Kumar was one of India's most beloved actors. I've never seen any of his films, because Indian movies largely don't make it over here to the States, unless you count stuff made by M. Night Shyamalan. (I can't even find an IMDB listing for a guy named Raj Kumar with this many movies to his credit.)

Holy shit, this guy was a total mack.

Normally, I wouldn't post an obit article for an international celebrity about whom I know less than nothing, but a few things jumped out at me while reading the Associated Press' account of his passing.

Hundreds of distraught fans rioted in Bangalore when police prevented them from forcing their way into the late actor's home, New Delhi Television reported.

Police used bamboo canes to drive away angry fans who shattered the windows of several buses and set a half-dozen cars and motorcycles on fire.

Is there any Hollywood star whose death today would cause a full-scale riot? Harrison Ford? Clint Eastwood? It kind of seems like celebrity is just more disposable here than in other parts of the world. If Bruce Willis died tomorrow from cardiac arrest, sure, a lot of people would be bummed. And I'm sure it would be discussed on TV for about a week straight. But people would essentially move on with their lives. I can't see the good people of Los Angeles turning over cars and lighting them on fire or throwing flaming refuse and stones at police officers and firemen just because the star of Blind Date died. They reserve that kind of enthusiasm for big Laker victories.

But in India, apparently, the passing of a beloved movie star will set shit off. Also, the police were using bamboo canes? Don't they have guns in India? They have the technology available to take all our networking and IT jobs away, but they can't give the police some 20th Century weapons in case things get out of hand?

Really, though, this article gives you a sense for the kind of hero worship celebrities get in other parts of the world. The only American who receives treatment like this, near as I can tell, is Paris Hilton.

His fans called him "Annavaru" meaning "respected elder brother" in the Kannada language.

Movie reviews often told of audiences in cinema halls booing villains who tried to pick fights with him on the big screen. Fans were known to worship his image and pray that his films would be successful at the box office.

Worship his image? A movie star? Wow. Imagine trying that with Josh Hartnett. It's just not the same, somehow.

He was in the news again in 2000 when he was kidnapped by Veerappan, a famed bandit who had spent decades eluding police in the forests of south India. Kumar was freed by Veerappan after 109 days living in the forests with his gang. Local reports said a large ransom was paid, although Kumar denied that.

Are you reading this shit? This story would itself make an excellent movie. A big action film star is kidnapped by an infamous bandit and secreted to the forests of South India, where they live together for 109 days. It's like The Way of the Gun meets Brokeback Mountain! I see Bruce Willis as the film star (if he doesn't die soon) and Billy Bob Thornton as the bandit! Cause they even did that movie Bandits together, which will help with the branding!

Anyway, I don't mean to make light of this guy's death. I'm truly sorry he's dead, and that despite his massive Indian fame, that none of his films ever even made it over to America. He clearly was an extremely popular and well-liked celebrity, and the last thing I need is thousands of pissed-off Indian readers. (Actaully, I could use thousands of readers in any context, even if they are all pissed-off Indians, so never mind.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Are You Saying Boo or Boo-Urns?

Check out this hilarious video of Dick Cheney being loudly booed by the crowd at the Washington Nationals' season opener. Present to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (and who knows, maybe even shoot at some old guys, if the mood grabs him), Dick comes out and waves to the crowd only to be greeted with the same kind of hooting and jeers that Carrot Top must get whenever he shows his face publicly. (Imagining the video with the Benny Hill music cued behind it only makes the thing more hilarious, by the way).

Then, ol' 5 Deferments throws out a limp first pitch that doesn't cross the strike zone and the booing gets louder for a moment. Then he holds up the failed pitch triumphantly into the air, like James Cameron foisting an Oscar over his head and declaring himself Global Monarch, completely oblivious to the fact that the fans sound merely moments away from leaping over the barricades and rushing the pitcher's mound to rend the man limb-from-limb, Dead Ayatollah-style.

Could it be that Bush anad Cheney are both legally blind and deaf, and just felt this information was too embarrassing to release to the public? (After all, being deaf kind of makes you a wussy...Who ever heard of a deaf cowboy?) How else to explain sheltered confusion about the state of the world of this magnitude?

Anyway, as an interesting side note, and with a tip of the hat to the fine bloggers of Firedoglake, here are some of the press reports covering Dick's Grand Day Out.


The first pitch of the Washington Nationals’ second season at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium was low and away, bouncing in the dirt before being scooped up by catcher Brian Schneider. For that, Vice President Cheney received a round of boos from the home crowd this afternoon.

"For that"? This clipping implies that the crowd booed because Dick failed to throw the ball across the plate. It's true that the booing gets louder after the weak pitch, but it really begins the moment the crowd sees Dick Cheney's ugly face. Sure, Dick failed at throwing out the initial pitch, but I think the crowd was more upset at how he's failed as Vice President for going on six years now. Baseball etiquette, while important, can kind of be overshadowed by two bungled wars.


The vice president, whose popularity is slumping along with that of President George W. Bush, walked out on the field to cheering and booing from the near-sellout crowd. The boos appeared to be little louder than the cheers at RFK Memorial Stadium.

"A little louder"? Go watch the clip. The entire crowd is booing, except for a few people who are cheering. It might just be Lynne Cheney cheering, really, with everyone else sounding like they are on pre-riot watch. One appropriately timed and amplified call of "Let's tear this place apart!" and the Washington Nationals season opener might have been a whole lot more interesting.

Isn't it pathetic that these news sources still feel the need to brown nose Dick Cheney? We're talking about a man who is despised by very nearly the entire world, including a vast majority of his own countrymen. His relative level of infamy makes OJ Simpson seem like Jessica Simpson. Why keep pretending that he's beloved, and taking credibility hits to stand up for his pathetic weasely ass? It would be like the LA Times running favorable profiles on Count Dracula.

"Though his critics constantly refer to his penchant for blood-sucking and turning young virgins into Satan's Whores, those close to Vlad insist that these very public activities are the exception rather than the rule for the elusive undead Transylvanian.

'In person, he's a very warm, gracious man, and a great wit,' said Devil's Concubine Mary Matalin. 'Inside the Beltway, we all know him as a great dinner companion who happens to feed on the bodily fluids of the living. It's just too bad the Mainstream Media won't tell that side of the story.'"

Worshipping the Rude Pundit as a God

I mean, if this isn't the best quote you've read anywhere all day...I want to check out your bookmarks.

In any sane nation, Rush Limbaugh would be a homeless junkie, shouting on street corners before he pissed himself again. If Rush Limbaugh was in a crack house, havin' those jittery rock comedowns, the shakes before the pipe, the other crackheads would be screaming at him to shut the fuck up or someone's gonna shove a cock in his mouth.

Yeah...What he said...

Monday, April 10, 2006

More With the Chimp-in-Chief

Check out this video, of a first-year Asian Studies major totally stumping the President and making him look like an idiot. Granted, that's not hard. All the President needs to make himself look like an idiot is a podium and a television camera. But the fact that this issue, an issue being debated by pundits way back in 2004 on television, completely boggles his mind and forces him to turn to pathetic pseudo-stand up comedy as a way out is very telling.

The man is stupid. Very very very stupid. Stupider than even I had thought when he ran for election in 2000, and I already thought he was really stupid.

Ellie Parker & Pray

Two smaller new releases likely to get overlooked this week, in favor of more high-profile schlock like Fun With Dick and Jane. I can't say either of these two movies is an unmitigated success, but hey, it's a slow Tuesday for new releases so I won't let that stop me. And what else am I going to do with my time...Isometric exercize?

Ellie Parker

Just about every hopeful screenwriter I know started with a really self-indulgent, low-budget autobiographical indie as their first script. It's just the sort of thing you have to get out of your system. First, you write that story you've been burning to tell, about how the cruel, uncaring world of corporate power and a string of unsatisfying romances has stifled your precious creative genius.

I wrote a script like this. Everyone does. It's almost a rite of passage. And then, once you've told that story and decie that you'd like to write something that can actually be sold to studios for real money, you move on to thinking up wacky ideas for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. (What if they operate competing taco stands? Or train seeing-eye dogs? Or magically transform into old black women?)

To his credit, actor/writer/director Scott Coffey just went ahead and filmed his navel-gazing, autobiographical first script. Well, okay, to be technical, in 2001, while working as a bit performer in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, he filmed a short about a struggling actress called Ellie Parker, featuring his co-star Naomi Watts.

And now, five years later, he has turned that short into a feature-length film. The good-natured but frustrated Ellie (Watts) has reached a crossroads. She's fed up with vying for stupid parts as hookers in badly-written low-budget features that will likely never be made. Her boyfriend Justin (Mulholland Drive vet (Mark Pelligrino) has been cheating on her with a low-level casting agent. And she's starting to feel that living in Los Angeles might be killing off her will to live. (If this sounds strange to you, I'd suggest that you've most likely never lived here, or seen photos.)

It has all the flaws you'd expect from a digitally-shot, extremely low-budget movie made by actors about the awful pain of being a professional actor. It is self-important in the extreme. (At one point, Ellie wonders aloud to her best friend, "What happens when you turn into the person you're pretending to be?" Ugh and double ugh.) It is whiny, in that Ellie doesn't seem to have any actual employment, is incredibly beautiful, has a lot of friends and seems poised on the brink of possible stardom, and yet she's constantly bawling to her friends and therapist about how she hates her life.

Not to mention that it features some of the most remarkably shallow "industry satire" you're likely to see. Among the film's startling observations about the film industry: many of its members are on drugs, how you look is far more important than how talented you are to Hollywood types and lots of people in Los Angeles are perverts. You don't say, Scott!

But this isn't the whole story about Ellie Parker. Yes, it's annoying and facile. But it's also pretty charming and occasionally quite funny. Naomi Watts has proven herself, between this the vaudeville bits in King Kong and her screwball turn in I Heart Huckabees adept at physical comedy, and she manages to take a fairly generic role like 'struggling actress' and turn out a nuanced, three-dimensional character. Ellie can get whiny at times, but her neuroses are always balanced out by an open playfulness that keeps the film light and nimble.

So, sure, a lot of the movie features Ellie darting around Los Angeles on a string of humiliating auditions, and then returning to her apartment for a good cry. But in between those scenes, you get idiosyncratic, well-observed little moments, like Ellie eating and then regurgitating blue-colored Baskin Robbins sherbert or watching apes cavort at the zoo for no explicable reason. And a sequence in which Ellie talks on the phone and changes costumes and does her make-up while speeding down the LA freeway is remarkable, and almost shocking, in its realism. Everyone in Los Angeles really behaves in this reprehensible fashion, adjusting their persons and conducting business while rocketing their vehicles through crowdded space at speeds upwards of 80 mph. I've just never seen anyone call us on it so blatantly.

Not just the lifestyle but also the appearance of LA is satisfactorily rendered. The DV cinematography, as expected, looks grainy a lot of the time, and many shots become unclear from overexposure. But Coffey does figure out how to make the format work for him at times. In particular, scenes shot inside a car or through a windshield work well for him. These scenes feel more natural than most movie-car scenes, which always feel like they were shot in front of a blue screen even when they weren't. There may be one or two too many random LA street montages with lilting indie rock playing on the soundtrack. Shots with random streets going by while we hear music playing always feels like filler to me, except in Lost in Translation, where it feels fairly vital to the story.

At a quick 90 minutes, Ellie Parker was over just before I really got tired of it. Some scenes really turned me off; A cameo appearance by Keanu Reeves' band Dogstar seems awkwardly inserted into the film and seriously affects the overall Hipness Quotient, a late cameo by Chevy Chase goes nowhere and isn't remotely funny, the scenes making fun of acting classes are cliche and ridiculous. But I watched it all the way through. And there's no denying that Naomi Watts in her underwear knocking herself half-unconscious with a garbage can lid is something you ought to see at least once before you die.


As MC Hammer once said, "We've got to pray just to make it today." That has absolutely nothing to do with this movie. In fact, I don't even know why this movie is called Pray. (The original Japanese title apparently translates as Prayer, but this title makes no more sense than Pray, so I'll just ignore that little tidbit). I just bring up the Hammer song because it's incredibly bad, and therefore amusing, whereas this film is just bad but not amusing at all. An important distinction.

It's a shame, too, because Pray starts with a terrific premise. A young couple (Tetsuji Tamayama and Asami Mizukawa) kidnap a young girl and hold her for 50 million yen ransom, hoping to buy drugs. Holed up in an abandoned school attended by the guy, Mitsuru, they call the girl's parents, who claim their daughter died exactly one year before.

So is the girl they kidnapped someone else's daughter? A ghost? Maybe even a spirit from Mitsuru or his girlfriend Maki's past?

The premise is intriguing, but damned if writer Tomoko Ogawa or director Yuichi Sato know what to do with it. The vast majority of the film finds Mitsuru, Maki and their miscreant friends wandering around the darkened corridors of the school, shouting one another's names and then getting spooked by doors slamming or ghostly apparitions. Once again, the Japanese fall back on a spooky little girl with long hair as a villain, a device so overused and trite that it has now officially turned into self-parody.

As if sensing that there isn't enough going on in Pray to sustain even a short movie, Sato throws in some obligatory double-crosses and jerky, color-saturated flashback sequences, filling in the details of a largely-inconsequential backstory. As well, there's an extra sub-plot about a missing teenager whose ghost may also be holed up in the school. The reveal of this story is kind of cool - we initially think the parents are talking about the young kidnapped girl being dead, before we find out they are talking about a completely unrelated case - but once that little bit of business is over, this whole story becomes pointless.

There's just nothing to Pray at all. It just sits there on screen, taking up your time without giving you anything in return. It's not scary. There's very little on-screen action, and even the gore feels muted and inconsequential. Everything after the first 10 minutes kind of feels like an afterthought. Once we get inside the school and the little girl runs off, it's time to go through the J-horror motions for 75 or so minutes.

Stop. Hammertime.