Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga writes bewildering but spirited jumbles, intricately plotted but heedlessly non-chronological narrative experiments. His two collaboratiosn with Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, are something of a mixed bag. They're stories full of energy told in a risky fashion that demands careful audience attention, but often the more experimental aspects of the filmmaking cause all the other elements to suffer. 21 Grams in particular feels like a solid, well-acted, thoughtful movie that's compromised by pointless and ultimately unneccessary time jumps. If only it were more organized, I suspect it would have a great deal more impact.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, an Arriaga script helmed by first-time director Tommy Lee Jones, again suffers from an overly-complex structure, but only for the first half. What eventually amounts to a relatively simple, sometimes disturbing genre Western about friendship, redemption and the unspoken cowboy code of honor begins life as an elaborate, labyrinthine morality tale. I'm not certain what Arriaga or Jones thought would be achieved by making the film's first half nearly impossible to follow; they suffuse the opening passages with a feeling of oppressiveness and ennui but little else. Once all the faux-artistry and tired archetyping is finished with, and the film's centerpiece journey begins in earnest, things finally start to get interesting.



Honestly, the two halves of this movie barely have any connection to one another. The film opens with two Texas hunters discovering the dead body of an illegal Mexican immigrant, Melquiades Estrada. He's been wroking in the borderlands as a cowboy alongside his only real friend, the soft-spoken Pete Perkins (Jones). Over the next 45 minutes, through scenes that don't follow any sort of logical progression, Jones depicts the circumstances surrounding Estrada's death.

We meet overzealous, generally unpleasant Border Patrol agent Mike Nelson (Barry Pepper), the man who accidentally shot Estrada, and his comely but bored wife (January Jones). Several side stories are developed and then dropped, including Pete's tense pseudo-friendship with the town's racist sheriff (Dwight Yoakum, who plays racists in just about every film in which he appears) and his awkward romance with a married waitress (Michelle Leo, who also appeared as Benicio del Toro's wife in 21 Grams).

Realizing that the so-called law enforcement types don't feel like investigating the killing of a Mexican by a white man, Pete takes it upon himself to dig up Melquiades' body and rebury the corpse in Mexico. (In a scene Jones returns to several times, Melquiades asks Pete to return his remains to the small village of Jimenez in the event of his untimely passing.) He kidnaps Pepper's Border agent to assist in the difficult journey.

Once this plot kicks into gear, Arriaga abandons the anarrative time skips and just about all the various threads he has going into the movie. Some whole plotlines are ignored and never resolved. (In one very amateurish and puzzling scene, a character essentially informs us in the audience that Yoakum's character has left the movie, never to return again. Did he have some sort of scheduling conflict?)

Fortunately, paring down the cumbersome story mechanics, focusing on the central performances and just generally trying to accomplish less philosophical heavy-lifting gives the film's second half a lyrical, moody stillness that the first half doesn't even approach. Long, nearly-wordless stretches find Norton briefly escaping Pete's clutches before being driven back to his captor out of neccessity. A sequence in which the duo stops to rest at the dilapadated shack of a crusty old blind man provides for one of the most stoic, quietly heartbreaking moments in any film last year.

Even so, I'm not sure the film ever gets around to saying exactly what's on Arriaga and Jones' mind. They kind of dance around a lot of different ideas - the collision of modernity and the Old Ways of the borderlands, the dehumanization of foreigners that allows racism to linger on stubbornly, the close fraternal bond between men that supercedes all other responsibilities and even the inherent value of keeping a promise and offering sincere atonement for ones sins.

But these are all ideas interjected into the film but never really capitalized upon, as opposed to genuine insights such as you might expect from a movie this ponderous and heavy-handed. In particular, the movie seems to offer a redemptive story for Pete but without showing us what faults he needs to redeem. Certainly, the character is rough around the edges and does some unpleasant things to his captive during the film. Also, as played by Jones, Pete grows increasingly delusional and strange as the film wears on, eventually chatting with Melquiades' dead body like Benny in Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. But, unlike Mike Nelson, he's not an ugly, calculating or dishonest man.

As long as we're discussing Jones performance, I must comment on his Spanish-language ability. Whenever he speaks Spanish, he raises his voice at the end of each word, giving him kind of a South of the Border Valley Girl inflection. "SenOR, por faVOR, ayudaME." I'd still say it's probably his best performance since The Fugitive, but that's not saying much, as he's been kind of lost in the woods recently in hideous flops like The Missing and Men in Black 2.

One could argue, perhaps, that the film offers the story of Nelson's redemption rather than Pete's, but aside from some last-minute Stockholm Syndrome, he doesn't seem to learn much compassion for others or tolerance or restraint. Attempting escape even when lost in the middle of the desert, refusing to apologize for his crimes against Melquiades until threatened at gunpoint, Nelson only gives up his disaffected cruelty and self-absorption superficially, when he needs to in order to live. Pepper's believable as a real shitheel, but he's never really called upon to show us the shitheel's softer side, so the performance becomes a bit grating and one-note.

And speaking of "grating" elements, let's talk about Marco Beltrami's awful, irritating score. Beltrami's been ruining movies left and right lately with sharp, unpleasant and intrusive scores that try to underline every single emotion expressed in the movie. His work on Red Eye feels plucked from a cheap 80's slasher film and doesn't mix at all with Wes Craven's actual movie. In his review of the upcoming Omen remake, Harry Knowles specifically points out the ineffectual obnoxiousness of another Beltrami score. This guy must be stopped!

Despite these issues with the content and the music, the film is still a fairly impressive debut for Tommy Lee Jones as a director. Chris Menges' able, unflinching cinematography captures the harshness but also the sun-soaked dreaminess of the Mexican landscape and the set design vividly contrasts the quotidian drabness of the trailer parks against the picturesque serenity of these vistas. Admirably, he's not afraid to make the movie visually ugly and doesn't shy away from potentially disturbing or violent imagery. Shots of Melquiades' body rotting in the hot sun are plentiful, and Jones has a lot of fun trying out different, visceral methods of suggesting the revolting smells following the characers around on their grotesque mission.

There's also a rather surprising undercurrent of pitch-black comedy that bobs up to the surface occasionally. Like in Peckinpah's Alfredo Garcia, the outlandish gruesomeness and bizarre desperation inherent in the drama - men literally digging up the graves of their friends and taking the bodies on one final, ghoulish "road trip" - allows for occasional moments of bleak, weary humor.

Pete makes Mike dig up Melquiades' decaying body and the corpse collapses on top of the man for a brief moment. Suddenly, a wry smile crosses Pete's face. Is it a smile of recognition, seeing someone else carry the burden of Melquiades' dreams for a moment? The fact that another man is now suffering indignities that Pete has long imagined resting on his own shoulders? Or is it just a touch of schadenfraude, a moment when Pete takes a vacation from his worries and trials to simply enjoy another man's misfortune? Either way, Jones plays the moment perfectly, and it succeeds somehow in getting a tight, almost bitter laugh.

The Jerk Store Called and They're Running Low on Christopher Doyle

I'm actually sickened by this interview with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Here's a guy whose work I have respected for years. His collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai in particular, including last year's 2046, are incredibly lush, sumptuous and beautifully colorful films. They are very modern, very unconventional films with a classic, even old-fashioned, sense of aesthetic beauty and style. If you had asked me yesterday to list my favorite working cinematographers, he'd likely have been among the first five or six I thought to mention.

After reading this nonsense he spouted off to Filmmaker Magazine in Fall of 2005, though, I almost never want to see another Doyle-lensed film again. His words reek of not only egregious self-aggrandizement and pomposity, but hypocracy and ignorance. Like I said...disgusting...

FILMMAKER: I read some articles where you described yourself as an Asian filmmaker who happens to be pink.

DOYLE: Yeah, I just happen to have the wrong skin. The more I rub myself against the yellow, the yellower I get. [laughs] I’ve often said I’m an Asian with a skin disease, because I started making films in Asia, and obviously what I’ve done has certain repercussions and certain resonance, and I should be very proud of that. And it just happens that I’m one of the few non-Asian, non-yellow people in this world. But I think most of the people I work with think I’m as yellow as they are. [laughs] And that’s an honor in my mind.

So, already you could find fault with Doyle's perspective. Why does working with Asian filmmakers and artists make him "more yellow"? Is he trying to imply there is some sort of innately Asian quality to making good films? I mean, I love Japanese and Chinese and Korean and Thai cinema, but Asians don't have exclusive domain on cinematic ability. It over-simplifies and exoticizes the real quality work being done by Asian filmmakers to presuppose that working with them causes their "yellowness" to rub off on you, or makes you a more worthwhile filmmaker by association.

But I wouldn't normally take massive issue with the paragraph above. The meaning is clear enough - he works in Asia so much, he feels like an honorary Asian. I bring it up only because it will have greater resonance later.

The problems really start when the interviewer encourages him to discuss problems in the American film industry.

Because you don’t have the freedom, you don’t have the integrity, you have to remake everything we’ve done anyway.

This is an issue I've heard and ignored several times. Jean-Luc Godard has tried to make this case in a different way. In his film In Praise of Love, Godard claimed that Americans (in particular Steven Spielberg) had become so vacuous and empty-headed, they no longer had passionate stories of their own to tell and had to focus instead on European stories. Doyle here changes up the root cause - he argues that it's consumerist, anti-artistic and anti-intellectual forces in America that force filmmakers to remake European and Asian films.

I'm not saying American remakes of international hits are always a good idea, but to accuse American filmmakers specifically of ripping off outsiders is woefully ludicrous. If anything, I'd say that American filmmakers are the most inspirational, copied artists in the world. Godard himself spent the early part of his career revisiting themes from old American movies (particularly gangster films). Additionally, neither explanation really gets to the bottom of the American craze for re-interpreting foreign films.

But does this even matter? Who cares? Filmmakers have always borrowed ideas from other filmmakers. If the net result is more good movies, what reason other than spite could you possibly have to complain?

I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don’t you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you’re remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you’re going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you’d actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what’s really happening in the U.S. right now

Ah, yes, spite...Apparently, Martin Scorsese didn't care to take Christopher Doyle's advice on how to shoot his remake of Infernal Affairs. So Doyle now gives interviews where he insults Scorsese and implies that he's an artless hack. I mean, the guy didn't recognize and defer to his genius! What other explanation could their be?

(Can you imagine, by the way, a cinematographer instructing Martin Scorsese on how to properly light and film a scene? The fact that he wasn't laughed off the set is indication, to me, that Scorsese and his crew must be an open-minded, friendly and inclusive bunch.)

The problem is that 99 percent of the world is looking at this country this way. And it’s very strange that Americans don’t seem to realize it. Therefore we make our films and make our films, and you remake our films the way you want to remake them.

If Doyle were talking about the way foreigners view American foreign policy, I'd say he's right on. Hell, I live here and I look at the average American's attitude towards the rest of the world and it fills me with sadness and contempt. But he's not talking about that (I don't think). He's talking about the way the international community views our filmmaking.

So he's totally full of crap. The Da Vinci Code just broke Italy's opening-weekend box office record. (The previous record-holder was an Italian film, Life is Beautiful). Hits like Spider-Man 2, The Day After Tomorrow and Kill Bill are hits all over the world. Most of our event movies make more overseas than they do here, and a number of our celebrities remain more popular in other countries than they do in America. (Jean-Claude Van Damme movies all get theatrical runs in Europe and Asia but not here).

I'd hardly say Europeans and Asians make their own films and ignore what's happening in America. Did he happen to notice that Samuel L. Jackson was on the Cannes jury?

Bear in mind, I'm not saying American films are better than films from other countries, or even that Doyle doesn't have a point when he speaks about the commercializing of the film industry. But he comes at the problem with this really obnoxious, haughty attitude and lacks any real nuanced understanding of the issues at play. He just knows, goddammit, the movies he makes in Asia are totally the best!

FILMMAKER: Don’t you think these bloated Hollywood films are an easy target? Do you watch any American independent film?

DOYLE: Does anybody? Hello! Come on. Come on, you can’t be so na├»ve that you don’t know that the only thing they do in the U.S. is look at the box office. It’s not a film industry anymore, it’s an accounting department. [laughs] There’s only two departments in American cinema — the insurance department and the accounting department. There are no filmmakers anymore.

See what I mean? What he's saying is not factually incorrect. American cinema is run as a business and the businessmen in charge are concerned only with the bottom line. It's different in Britain, where the government funds a lot of independent film projects and therefore looks out for advancing the public welfare in addition to making money, but it's not like they're producing a lot of great films each year either.

The fact is, there are legitimate grips to take with how the arts are funded in America. But when you say dumbass generalizations like "there are no [American] filmmakers any more," you actually hurt your argument because you look like some generally angry guy with a score to settle.

I mean, no American filmmakers? At all? David Gordon Green doesn't count? Alexander Payne's shitty? Woody Allen's useless now? Ditto Altman? Now might be right around the time you start to ask yourself, "well, Christopher Doyle's a guy with a recognizable name who's established in the film industry...what great classic films has he directed?" I mean, no one in America can seem to get it right...

He's made one film, 1999's Away With Words, that I can't comment on. Because it has never been released in this country. Maybe he's afraid some stupid American will shamelessly rip off his brilliance again.

Why only one film after a nearly 20 year long career, Chris? Do you have nothing more to say? Or were you unable to get another film made, even in Asia where it's about the art and not anything as dirty as money? And could your inability to make it as a filmmaker on your own, without a name like Wong Kar-Wai on the movie be even a small part of your deep-seated anger and resentment towards all Western filmmakers?

FILMMAKER: There are no more filmmakers in America?

DOYLE: Uh-uh. If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don’t you think he’s lost the plot? Think it through. “I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!” Are you crazy? There’s not a single person in the Oscar voting department who’s under 65 years old. They don’t even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he’s a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let’s appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.

What vicious, hate-fueled bile. We had several theories today at Laser Blazer for whence Chris Doyle may have developed this level of venom towards Scorsese. Perhaps he expected a chance to shoot Scorsese's Departed film (the remake of Infernal Affairs) himself, and was hurt when he was passed over for the DP slot and then had his suggestions ignored? Perhaps he's afraid that, with Scorsese's high profile, his semi-famous original movie will now be buried and forgotten? Is he just a dick who hates to see other filmmakers praised? Or does he maybe just want to seek out an easy target, to look intellectually superior for rejecting a much-beloved filmmaker?

No matter the reason, I think it's safe to say that there's some actual reason for Doyle's hatred of Scorsese that has nothing to do with the actual film The Aviator. His case here makes no sense...If Marty directed Aviator as merely as Oscar-grubbing kiss-up to the Academy, he didn't do a very good job. The movie's strange and, in some ways, intentionally unsatisfying and ambiguous. Unlike most Oscar films, it lacks a feel-good ending, or any kind of real closure. It's occasionally very strange and even disgusting. And you can hardly expect employees of some of the largest media conglomerates in the world to think highly of a movie that's so blisteringly anti-corporate.

It's not as if Aviator isn't a personal film for Scorsese as well. He loves American history, filmmaking and film history. Like many Scorsese "heroes," Howard Hughes suffers from oversized ambitions and even delusions of grandeur while simultaneously loathing and fearing the outside world he must navigate. The romantic relationships are fueled by power struggles and fits of jealousy, as in Goodfellas or Casino or even Raging Bull. The filmmaking is bold, passionate, exciting and graceful. Doyle's got some nerve, not only in calling a perfectly respectable film "a piece of shit," but in implying it was made with less than approvable intentions. Who the fuck does he think he is?

FILMMAKER: For a lot of young filmmakers, or aspiring filmmakers, in this country, myself included, the films that you make and that a lot of other Asian films make, as well as a lot of other films from France and Iran and other countries, give us all hope that it is still possible to make good films.

DOYLE: Yeah, but then I go to New York Film School, and even the teachers are trying to tell the kids what I’m saying.

FILMMAKER: How do you mean?

DOYLE: I mean, I go to NYU, and all the teachers are there, and then they’re interpreting what I say. I say, “Just do it.” And the teachers say, “What he really means is if you really work hard within the system, then you’ll get somewhere.” [laughs]

Oh, what a naysaying mean-spirited prick. This must be how he makes himself feel better. "If you want to make movies, just go out and make them! Unless you're American, in which case they won't be any good anyway so you should just become an accountant. But I shot In the Mood for Love, so I know better than all your teachers!"

What are you going to do? Are you going to wait? I mean, look what happened to Kubrick. The more he waited — I mean, Eyes Wide Shut is a piece of shit, come on. It’s flustered; it’s someone frustrated by his own ideas. It’s like cheese; it molded, you know?

WT the fucking F? I'll say it again...Who the fuck does this guy think he is? You're gonna talk smack on Kubrick? Not only one of the greatest filmmakers of all time but a guy who's deceased and can't defend himself? You're going to call the labor of love that he toiled on for years, right upuntil his death, "a piece of shit" and compare it to moldy cheese? What an unbelievable asshole.

And how wrong can he be? Eyes Wide Shut is goddamn brilliant. I like a lot of the films Doyle has shot, but I don't think I like any of them as much as Eyes Wide Shut, and Kubrick made much better films during his life than Doyle will ever make in his career, ever.

But let's deal with Doyle's central conceit here for a moment, shall we? He seems to suggest that if you work on a film for a long time and consider it carefully, you're wasting your time. Additionally, he comes down harshly on anyone making remakes or pastiches based on other films. Films, apparently, should be inspired exclusively by emotional studies of real life and not by other films or financial concerns or anything else. He comes out and says as much:

I think our purpose as filmmakers or as storytellers or whatever you’re going to call us is to say that at this particular point with this relationship, with this social structure, in this political climate, this is the best film I could do. I think that’s all we can do. Then we’re not exploitative, we’re not the Spielbergs or the whatever. Then it becomes extremely personal, for better or worse. So don’t get confused by digital or non-digital or money or not — just do the best fucking film you can with your abilities at that time.

I disagree with this view somewhat, though I appreciate the spirit in which it's offered. Much of the greatest filmmaking of all time is direct and personal and an outgrowth of the real experiences of the filmmakers. But some movies are just great movies because they are expertly made. De Palma's films don't neccessarily speak to great truths about life in America in the 70's (though some of them do). It doesn't make a movie inherently exploitative if it seeks merely to entertain and inspire through creativity.

But does Doyle even agree with this touchy-feely sort of film theory? Or is he just using it as an excuse to hate on Spielberg and Scorsese and Tarantino because they are high-profile Americans whom he's decided are inferior? Let's take a brief look at the guy's resume for some clues...

Let's see...first collaboration with Kar-Wai on the great 1991 film Days of Being Wild...Chungking Express a few years later...Directs his own little-seen film in here...Oh, wait, what's this? Turns out, Doyle came to America to shoot a film in 1998. And it was with Gus van Sant, at that! A known American! But surely this must have been some really atypical, offbeat American film, a dangerous and transgressive experiment in form that inspired Doyle to leave behind his beloved, original Asian films and work deep within the belly of the beast.

No, wait, it was a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho.

YES, I'M 100% SERIOUS! Mr. Hollywood-remakes-are-soulless-Americans-have-no-originality lensed AN AMERICAN SHOT-FOR-SHOT REMAKE of a classic movie! WHAT A GODDAMN BUFFOON!

How, exactly, Chris, were you expressing something unique about the place and time in which you lived by reshootting an exact duplicate of a Hitchcock movie? Or did you just do it for the money like the American filmmakers you ridicule so freely?

Christopher Doyle may know how to shoot pretty pictures, but he's a preening phony. Still don't believe me? Check out the description of his next film as a director, from the mouth of the man himself:

One is about a Japanese country-music cover band on the road escaping from who they think is a mafia boss, while in fact they’re walking into country-music hell.

Country music? Violent Mafia action on the open road? Why don't you stop ripping off American ideas, man! Base your stories on the real emotional world in which you live and not on other genre films, you philistine!

While I'm ranting, Filmmaker Magazine's Matthew Ross ought to grow a spine and challenge his subjects when they make irrational or hypocritical screeds against other filmmakers. (Wouldn't it be interested if he had asked Chris Doyle about the blatant collision between his actual filmography and his stated philosophies? It's not as if the guy didn't have Doyle's complete filmography at his fingertips via IMDB.) He even makes a veiled accusation of alcoholism - noting in the introduction that Doyle likes to "drink while working" - without following this up. Could this angry, erratic interview be the product of the subject's intoxication? Really, it's the only explanation that makes total sense.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Sex in the Library

Playboy has published a list of the 25 sexiest novels. Usually, I feel dumber after reading lists of Great Novels, because I realize that out of the canon of worthwhile English-language literature, I've read exceptionally little. And if you're talking about works in other languages, fuhgeddaboutit. I think I read Hunchback of Notre Dame in high school, but the only things I remember clearly about the book is its exceptional length and the fact that it's nothing like the Disney version.

I don't feel quite as dumb after reading Playboy's list, because it's filled with books I wouldn't bother reading in the first place. Like Judy Blume's Forever. Hey, it might have been big with girls in the 70's, but that's not a book I feel any sort of real need to experience. It's not like never getting around to Slaughterhouse Five is what I'm saying.

Plus, I've read 4 of 25 sexy novels, which is pretty good considering that I don't really decide to read books based on overall level of sexiness.

One of my favorite books ever, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, places at #7, which is kind of surprising because the book is not at all sexy. Calling Portnoy's Complaint the sexiest book ever is like calling Annie Hall the sexiest movie ever. They're both great achievements, but they focus on the neuroses and tension surrounding sex as opposed to the sensuous, erotic act itself.

Nicholson Baker's Vox, which comes in (hey-o!) at #17, should be much much higher. A book made up entirely of phone sex, Vox is something of a smut tour-de-force. I read this book and another Baker novel, The Fermata while working at a Barnes and Noble in Orange County. I preferred the latter book, Fermata, the "autobiography" of a man with the ability to freeze time who uses his amazing power to admire, strip and molest women. But I agree that Vox is the sexier book, if only because the majority of the sex discussed is consensual.

Lolita ranks 11th on Playboy's list, which confirms they were going for "sexist" novel and not "best sexy" novel, because it's clearly one of the greater, most clever and artful novels ever written. Also, that someone at Playboy thinks young girls and the pedophiles who love them are sexy. Fair enough, I suppose...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

BRAFFY NOMINATION: WORST MUSICAL ARTIST ALIVE

It's June 1st, which means the 2006 Braffy Awards for the Worst People Alive are upon us. Last year, a brand-new shiny and not at all fictional Braffy Award was presented to Senator Rick Santorum, who has yet to respond to my e-mails and letters. (Yes...I actually mailed him an explanation letter and a hastily-printed award certificate, with the promise of an award statuette if he sent me a response to post on the blog. No return correspondence at all. What a jerk.)

Things are going to work a little different this year. More nominees, more categories. More of my precious youth spent in front of a keyboard, my aching wrist joints growing more contorted and stiff with Carpal Tunnel with each sunless, hunched-over, wasted day. Come along for the ride, won't you? It'll be fun!

Rather than have one single category - Worst Person Alive - and some randomly-chosen side trophies, this year we'll nominate individuals from a variety of categories. Then, having a list of "winners" from each category, we'll pit them against one another in a vicious Battle Royale to determine one single WORST PERSON ALIVE. Well, okay, worst person alive after the following ineligible individuals:

Senator Rick Santorum

Disqualified because he won last year. And because he may not actually in truth be a person.

George W. Bush

His rank form of evil would throw off the very nature of the contest, much the way a Black Hole warps an event horizon. I might have included him if I actually went with the Worst War Criminal Alive category (he's a shoo-in now that Slobodan's no longer with us!), but that seemed like kind of a downer. Better to pick on harmless celebrities and religious nuts.

Scott Stapp

Again, too obvious. We all know he's a useless turd. The guy got beat up by 311. How embarrassing is that?

Paris Hilton

I have already written about her way way too much this year. Plus, she's such a wreck, I have to believe her time in the spotlight is nearing an end, and if we keep talking about her, she won't go away. But just so the '06 Braffies aren't totally Hilton-less, here's a humiliating clip of Paris desperately trying to look hot by jerking around awkwardly and showing off her unmentionables whilst performing her reprehensible first single, a remake of Rod Stewart's already-lame "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" (For clarification, it's not genitals that are "unmentionable," just Paris Hilton's genitals.)

Zach Braff

I can't write more than two sentences about the guy without getting physically ill. Seriously. I don't kn...Oh God...Hang on a sec...

AND THE NOMINEES ARE...

U2



BONO: Mr. President, I'd like to sincerely thank you for not dropping bombs on Africa or Ireland for no good reason.
BUSH: Heh heh, give me six months, you stupid mick. Oh wait, did I say that out loud or just think it?
BONO: You said it out loud.
BUSH: Dang. Just promise me you won't put that in one of your hilarious plays.
BONO: Do you even know who I am?

I'm so sick of U2. There was a time, not that long ago, when I used to stick up for them. "Hey, come on, I know Bono's suffering from some sort of advanced dementia that causes him to think that being a rock star has some sort of deep significance, so that whenever he's not trying to get on TV by hanging out with whatever world leader will put up with his insufferable whining, he's trying to get on TV by writing vaguely feel-good songs full of lame metaphors or filming videos in which he drives through an urban neighborhood spreading joy amongst the plebes through only the power of his rocking...but Achtung Baby is a really solid album!"

But no more! I think it was that atrocious "Beautiful Day" song that clinched it. Are these guys auditioning for the Phil Collins job, writing songs for Disney animated musicals?

"Hey, guys, wouldn't this be a great song for the happy toad to sing to the dejected but still hopeful zebra at the start of the second act? Zip-a-dee-blah-blah/It's a Beautiful Day/Except in Africa/Cause those poor bastards are hungry! What do you guys think? I like it because it has a buried message abou the horrible starvation in Africa. Also AIDS. And something about bloody diamonds, I didn't quite catch it."

Bright Eyes

Conor Obsert performs irritating, shrill, repetitive indie pop songs under the name "Bright Eyes." That's really all you need to know. This guy's music sounds like Ashley Parker Angel covering Death Cab for Cutie while being prison raped. Richard Lewis' therapist doesn't have to listen to this much whining. It's atrocious.

And just get a look at this specimen.



Ask yourself this...Does Conor secretly want to be an Abercrombie model? I mean, yes, I know that his music seems designed to appeal to middle-aged lonely guys, does he want to narrow thi sdemographic even further to the ones who get off on waif-like boys posing seductively in the wilderness?

Conor's part of a collection of indie rock songwriters who seem to find cute songs about death appealing. Some of these bands appeal to me despite this odd predilection - The Unicorns and The Decemberists come to mind - but Conor's lyrics are just these adolescent pseudo-observations that sound ripped from the margins of a 15 year old's biology notes.

Take this penetrating insight from a song that actually had a video called "At the Bottom of Everything":

And it'll go like this:
While my mother waters plants, my father loads his gun
He says, "Death will give us back to God, just like the setting sun
is returned to the lonesome ocean"

Gross. It just goes on like that. A little cumbersome and twee, innit? He's like a bad Def Poet mixed with bad singer/songwriter mixed with a crazy guitar-playing wino.

Red Hot Chili Peppers

How about, instead of "What I got, you got to get and put it in you," you guys just say, "What I want is I want to hug and kiss you?" Actually, now that I think about it, how about you guys just put some clothes on and get the hell out of here because you suck and you have always sucked?

I like how RHCP pretend to be a funk band, as if any cool funk band could possibly write an adult-contempo wanksterpiece like "Californication" or contain a dude who looks like this:



Tony, your cock socks may smell funky, but that doesn't mean you guys are funky, you dig? Also, I would avoid the fingerless glove thing. It makes you look like a fey transient. Unless you guys want to be known as the Red Hot Hobo Chili Peppers, I'd try a different look. Just, please, with-shirt this time.

The Chili Peppers latest album is called Stadium Arcadium. Look for it two months from now in a bargain bin near you.

Fuel

How desperate does a band have to be to hire one of the losers from "American Idol" after he had already publicly rejected them once? Fuel-despreate.



That's miserable disgusting failure Chris Daughtry being kicked off "American Idol." Doesn't he look like the guy from Live? Imagine him wailing about placentas if it helps.

You may not remember Fuel, but they had a random 90's modern rock radio hit with "Hemorrhage" and apparently have stayed together ever since. Lead singer Brett Scallions recently quit, and all I can say is that I hope that's his real name, because Brett Scallions would probably be the worst rock and roll pseudonym of all time. And I'm including "Sting" and "Gary Glitter" in that estimation.

So Fuel went on TV's "Extra" only hours after the guy got kicked off "American Idol" and begged Chris to be their new singer because he had performed their lame song in the competition. They are a hard rock band who was not only happy to hear their song on "American Idol," but then pleaded with the contestant who performed the song to join their band. And then he didn't even say yes.

That may actually be even lower than forming a game show around finding a new lead singer. But, clearly, no band could be that lame.

The Black Eyed Peas

As far as the sheer number of wretched songs unleashed in to the public consciousness, these guys outweigh every other nominee. We are now all stupider for having heard Black Eyed Peas songs. If they are not already considered a terrorist organization by the federal government, I would recommend someone in a position to do so take this course of action immediately.

It's not just that their music consists of idiotic sloganeering like "Let's get retarded in here" and "My humps my humps." It's not just that they'll take part in any lame marketing scheme, trashy entertainment project or fundraising opportunity available. It's that, occasionally, one of their members wets herself on stage and then another puts his face in it.



Moving on...

Godsmack

Wow...Godsmack...They combine the consumer whorism of the Black Eyed Peas along with the artificial swagger of Fuel and the hack songwriting of the Red Hot Hobo Chili Peppers. A turd trifecta of sorts.

But there's tons of sucky nu-metal acts. Godsmack have made the cut here because of this interview from Arthur Magazine with lead singer Sully Erna. Reporter Jay Babcock challenges Sully about the use fo their music in advertisements for the military. Here are some of Erna's musings for your edification and enjoyment:

It’s the same reason why wrestlers work out to the music, and extreme motorcross riders listen to the music and do what they do. It’s ENERGETIC music. It’s very ATHLETIC. People feel that they get an adrenaline rush out of it or whatever, so, it goes with whatever’s an extreme situation. But I doubt very seriously that a kid is going to join the Marines or the US Navy because he heard Godsmack as the underlying bed music in the commercial. They’re gonna go and join the Navy because they want to jump out of helicopters and fuckin’ shoot people!

JAY: So you’re using military imagery with your music at your concerts?
SULLY: First of all, it was a COMPUTER image, a computer-animated helicopter that didn’t… There was no scene of a desert in there. It was a helicopter that rose up from the screen and scanned the audience. It was an EFFECT. And then it shot out missiles that hit the stage.
JAY: Uh huh…
SULLY: Because the intro to ‘Straight Out of Line” has the sounds of like, a war thing going on.

JAY: Would you let your music be used for anti-military recruiting advertisements?
SULLY: I don’t know, I ‘d have to see what that was about.
JAY: But you’d be open to it?
SULLY: We’re open to whatever, as long as it’s not a Maybelline commercial.


SULLY: [yelling] Would you rather not have us be protected so they can come and overrun our country?!?

SULLY: I’m not saying that we were right on every war that we’ve created. I know that we’ve been damn wrong at times about stuff—
JAY [interrupting]: When have we been wrong?
SULLY: [yelling] but they have also been wrong too!


This guy is an idiot to an offensive degree. There's a lot more where this came from, too. You should probably go read that interview before voting, if you have the time.



So, there you have it. Vote in the comments section below. In all these categories, I'll leave voting open until the last week in June. Then I'll take some time to tally the votes and we'll have final nomination for the Worst of the Worst. Exciting, no?

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Maximum Van Dammage

I love Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. Seriously. Well, okay, not all of them. I don't love The Quest. Although it is pretty cool that the man directed it himself, and Lord knows he tries his best. But I love the old school Van Damme movies. The Bloodsports, the Kickboxers, even Cyborg. I think that last one was the first Van Damme movie I saw on video, but I can't be perfectly sure. It was a while ago.

There was even a long period in which I saw every film the man released in theaters. Double Impact. Universal Soldier. Nowhere To Run. This era. These are not great films. In fact, in many cases, they are terrible. I can't really explain why they're so great. Perhaps it's because JCVD's persona can't help but invade the films. He's such a cocky, gleeful little spaz that it just comes through, even when he's making an otherwise uninteresting slog like Lionheart.

Now, the guy's wandering around in a No Man's Land of low-budget European productions that only come out on DVD here. Titles like Second in Command, Legionnaire and Wake of Death. Hopefully, the upcoming sequel to Bloodsport, Kumite, directed by Jean-Claude himself, will turn this thing around.

I've been predicting a return to semi-popularity for JC for a while now. He's still young enough to make action films, but he also has built-in 80's and 90's nostalgia value.

It now appears that Brett Ratner may be the first man to seize upon the marketing value of bringing back Jean-Claude Van Damme. According to IMDB (which is regrettably prone to spreading outright falsehoods), Jean-Claude is being considered for the villain role in Rush Hour 3. And, of course, this can only lead to one place...

Van Damme as Gambit in X-Men 4.

Come on, you knew this was coming eventually. Don't lie.

For anyone interested in more information about Jean-Claude Van Damme, consult your local library. I particularly recommend this special feature on the Universal Soldier DVD, "A Tale of Two Titans," that contrasts the careers of Jean-Claude Van Damme and that film's co-star, Dolph Lundgren. I could watch a 2 hour film composed solely of these interviews, easily.

Internment

It's the summer, which means it's time for poor students to find jobs and rich students to work unpaid internships.

Interesting conversation going on at the American Prospect about unpaid internships. I've always seen this as an abusive system. Large companies use their famous brand names and the promise of future occupation to lure in young people to do work for free.

I understand that internship, like apprenticeships of the past, can serve a grand purpose. And of course the experiences of interns vary widely. I'm sure several people reading this right now worked internships back in college that provided invaluable insight into their chosen career path and were happy to do the job for nothing. But if you were doing valuable work for that company, shouldn't you be repaid for that work on some way? And if the work you were doing wasn't valuable enough to warrant a salary, was it valuable enough to serve some purpose later in life provided the company doesn't actually hire you?

I worked a few journalism-themed internships back in my day, but almost all were paid save one...PREMIERE Magazine hired me as an intern two years running, for a grand total of about 20 months of unpaid service.

Now, during that time, I was asked to write one (1) actual PREMIERE article, for which I was paid around $200. Also, I managed to work, on the side, a couple of research jobs. One guy, author Peter Biskind of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls fame, hired me to do research for a book that has since come out and never actually paid me a dime or credited me in any way. He's swell!

PREMIERE had this charming policy during that time in which they pretended to let me pitch ideas for articles. The only problem was that this particular magazine is prepared several months in advance, and I was never invited to screenings of upcoming films. So, essentially, material success at the internship would have required me to find my own sources in the entertainment business, interview them under the guise of an actual PREMIERE reporter, arrange personal screenings of upcoming films, pitch the article unsolicited to the editor and then write the thing on my own time.

Now, at 27 I can look back and say, "yeah, that's what I should have done. Be more proactive." But I was 18 years old, people. I was kind of hoping for a little guidance or direction. I was, after all, working for around 20 hours a week for these people for no money.

In truth, this is a one-sided view of the internship because I'm leading up to a point here. In fact, I did get to know a few entertainment writers and learn about magazine production during those years. Plus, there are some funny stories. And I got to see The Blair Witch Project early before it got really popular and, therefore, lame.

But I wouldn't say I was up on that particular deal. I answered their phones, sealed their envelopes, transcribed their tapes and in general helped out around their office for almost 2 years, and in return I got one published article to add to my clippings. For a real job at a newspaper, they tend to request 5-7 work samples, so I'd need to complete at least 4 more internships at actual publications to fulfill this requirement.

Which finally leads me to my point. An unpaid internship such as the one I enjoyed at PREMIERE is useful only if you eventually get hired by the company or make connections that get you hired elsewhere. (For the record, even though they said they would still listen to my story pitches, I had no delusions about being hired at PREMIERE once the internship was over. After a month or so, they stopped even returning my calls. Interestingly, many of the people I worked with then have gone on to big, impressive careers, including John Horn who ended up breaking that fake-Sony-film-reviewer story for Newsweek, Anne Thompson who writes for the Hollywood Reporter and appeared this year on the Oscar pre-show and Rachel Abramowitz, who has since had a book published and writes for the LA Times.)

For everyone else, you learn a few things about work in one specific office and maybe pad your resume, but you hardly earn back a summer or a year's salary. Most internships are concerned with fetching coffee, running errands and generally doing the work no one else wants to do. (During the brief period I worked in PR, the interns in our office cut and pasted articles out of magazines into binders.) They are useful in terms of the ugly business of "networking" and nothing else, and if the people who are hiring you don't intend to help you make connections or to hire you themselves, they are essentially ripping you off.

The other major issue here is that unpaid internships perpetuate a strong class divide. Who can afford to spend months at a time working for a company for free? People who don't have to pay rent. You know, rich kids. Granted, paying a low wage for a high-profile internship might have a similar effect, but so long as someone could reasonably support themselves meagerly in the city in question, I wouldn't have a problem with it.

I've told this particular anecdote on the blog before, but it bears repeating. A few months ago, I called the editor of City Beat Magazine here in LA to ask about possible employment. It's a small, free paper, and struck me as a good place to attempt to re-enter the exciting field of getting paid to write stuff. She told me that City Beat was not hiring, and that based on my resume, they probably wouldn't hire me anyway. (Bear in mind, she hadn't looked at a thing that I had actually written.)

I asked what she thought I could do practically to make myself more enticing for a newspaper like City Beat. She suggested I intern somewhere for free. Seriously.

I'm 27 years old and I have nothing. Working for a while without compensation is about as feasible a life plan as working in Willy Wonka's Factory and retiring to Fantasy Island. What was this idiot talking about? Intern?!

Now, I'm not saying she had to hire me. Maybe she would have read my clips and thought they sucked. Or maybe the clips that I have are too old and she would have said that I should try to write for a smaller paper than City Beat, maybe in a smaller market than Los Angeles, to build up a body of work. Those would have been reasonable enough suggestions. (I've thought about moving out of LA to find work at a smaller paper many times, but just need to stick around for the screenwriting at this point.)

But to suggest that I should be someone's slave for a year in order to earn her grudging respect? Without even having seen my work? Is this what the unpaid internship has come to? Because that, to me, doesnt' sound like being an intern. It sounds like indentured servitude.

To be honest, though, my problems with internships relate to the larger and unsolvable problem I have with networking in general. Every job I have ever had is all about getting along with the people you work with and not at all about doing good work. Ever. Down to a job. Which sucks, particularly because it means people get hired for jobs because they are likable and not qualified. So you have to spend your whole life making sure everyone who knows you, even remotely, thinks you are likable in case one of them can ever get you a good job. And then once you get hired, you just have to create the illusion of hard work and you're home free.

Of all my efforts to find work in the past, just meeting and talking to a variety of people have been by far the most successful. And I've gotten a fair number of good jobs in the past. I'm employed at a video store now not for lack of employability but hatred of work. But journalism and the entertainment industry involve such complex and nimble structures of networking, it's almost impossible to navigate without the OnStar system.

Which, I suppose, is where the internships come in. You want these people to know you before they hire you, so I guess the theory is that you just hang out for long enough. The problem is that it doesn't always work, and then you've spent 2 years getting coffee for no good reason like a schnook.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start

Exciting news about the new Left Behind video game, from Raw Story via Pam at Pandagon:

This game immerses children in present-day New York City -- 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).

Didn't Christians hate violent video games just a few weeks ago? Do these people even know what they like and dislike any more? What's next, a hardcore Christian pornographic magazine?

"We feel that Fundie Fuckers will be an invaluable resource for reaching out to and converting the perverted, a process we call ConPerving. Likewise, the XXX gay counterpart The Power and the Glory Holes will grant us access to literally hundreds of thousands of Lost Souls who otherwise would never be exposed to the Good News about Our Lord."

But seriously, I know what you're all thinking..."How could any video game be as great as those Left Behind books?"

No, I'm still kidding. But it's just because this is so completely sick and wrong and I don't know how else to react.

The designers intend this game to become the first dominionist warrior game to break through in the popular culture due to its violent scenarios and realistic graphics, lighting, and sound effects. Its creators expect it to earn a rating of T for Teen. How violent is that? That's the rating shared by Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell - Chaos Theory, a top selling game in which high-tech gadgets and high-powered weapons - frag grenades, shotguns, assault rifles, and submachine guns -- are used to terminate enemies with extreme prejudice.

Well, I guess that makes sense. If there's one thing American fundamentalist Christians like, it's extreme prejudice. They take their prejudice to Mountain Dew levels of extremity. "Dude, that guy's homophobia is totally intense. Almost as intense as slamming this urine-like caffeinated beverage!"

"Dominionist," by the way, is what people have decided to call the crazy radical theocratic weirdos who seem to be controlling our discourse right now. Andrew Sullivan argued for Christianist, which frankly makes more sense to me because it's more direct, but I think everyone was afraid that might be conflated with garden-variety Christianity. You know, the Old Time Religion kind that says you should love your neighbor rather than fantasize about gutting them with a rusty pizza cutter should the Apocalypse arrive during your lifetime.

Could such a violent, dominionist Christian video game really break through to the popular culture? Well, it is based on a series of books that have already set sales records - the blockbuster Left Behind series of 14 novels by writer Jerry B. Jenkins and his visionary collaborator, retired Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye. "We hope teenagers like the game," Mr. LaHaye told the Los Angeles Times. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."

These books are part of a really sick End Times obsessed culture we have percolating under the surface in America right now. This is not just some bizarre little phenomenon a bunch of cult members squatting in a compound in Arizona are discussing, but a legitimately popular series of novels. When I worked at Barnes and Noble, I would have otherwise respectable-looking people look right into my eyes and swear to me that Left Behind was the best book they had ever read, and that I should read it purely for enjoyment.

"No, really, even if you're not Christian, they're just good stories," one woman told me. "I don't really believe this stuff, but it's just interesting to hear about that perspective."

Sheesh. Of course, it's utter nonsense, sub-romance novel writing that continually insisted on flattering the reader. The whole concept of the books is that the Rapture comes, all the good believer Christians are taken immediately up to Heaven, and the rest of us poor schmucks are left behind here on Earth to figure shit out for ourselves. Some convert to Christianity and go around trying to save others while some follow an obvious Devil stand-in. Stephen King wrote this same story, essentially, and his had a bullshit ending as well.

Anyway, the whole thing is meant to celebrate that you, the Reader, know better than all the characters and get to watch them suffer. I mean, you'll already be in Heaven when all this happens. Don't they understand that? Why don't they just accept Christ already? It's been 200 pages and I can't really go more than 300 or so without trading in the novel I'm reading for the latest US Weekly.

And this same attitude seems to pop up in the video game, except rather than dominating the non-believers with a smug sense of superiorty, you get to use a freakin' 12-gauge.

Left Behind Games CEO Troy Lyndon, whose company went public in February, says the game's Christian themes will grab the audience that didn't mind gore in "The Passion of the Christ." "We've thought through how the Christian right and the liberal left will slam us," says Lyndon. "But megachurches are very likely to embrace this game." Though it will be marketed directly to congregations, Forces will also have a secular ad campaign in gaming magazines.

One thing that has been demonstrated, to me at least, over the past few years is that these people hold some sort of cultural sway over a wide swath of Americans. If pastors and churches ar encouraging worshippers to read a book or see a movie, those entertainment products will do extremely well. It's interesting, as well, how much of this kind of stuff can fly under the radar. How many non-religious Americans have even heard of the Left Behind books?

For game enthusiasts, there is also a multi-player mode, in which you can go online and battle to take territory from other players. If you happen to blow away a neutral party - and collateral damage is inevitable in the End of Days - then you will lose "Spirit Points". But you can power back up with merely a brief timeout for prayer, or by converting one of New York's terror-stricken citizens.

Now that's just strange. I have no explanation for this. You're going online to compete against friends in a contest to kill the most people. I'm fairly certain Jesus would have frowned on such behavior. Let's all remember Paul's advice in Dominicans Chapter 12. "Serial murdering contests are to be frowned upon. Also, fuck gay people."

Odd how he's so on the nose about that. Kind of out of character for old Saul. But that's why he's a Saint and I'm just some heretic!

In this way, the game resembles a send-up of Christian-themed video games by "The Simpsons." "Billy Graham's Bible Blaster," is a first-person shooter game in which you fire Bibles at club-carrying heathens to convert them into card-carrying Republicans. (Hint: after you finish reading this blog piece - and eating all your vegetables -- visit the Simpson's official web site and open file drawer F-H, then click on the character of Evangelical Christian kid Rod Flanders to play the game.)

Blogger jhutson's good. I was totally going to bring this up as soon as I heard about a violent Christian video game.

According to Mr. Warren, the establishment of this earthly kingdom requires "foot soldiers." As part of his plan, Mr. Warren said he would encourage laypeople to "adopt" needy villages overseas in order to plant churches, expand business opportunities, educate children, influence governments, and overthrow corrupt political leaders, whom he described as "little Saddams." Mr. Warren said his purpose is to enlist "one billion foot soldiers for the Kingdom of God" in the developing world. And the stadium crowd roared its approval.

Um, help. Seriously, if any of you are overseas and you're reading this, please mail me a couple of plane tickets out of here. I'll totally hit you back one day. But these people are crazy and they outnumber us sane people by a lot.

Let me get this straight...This guy's master plan is to get kids hooked on a violent apocalypse-influenced video game and then use that game to seek out and train the next generation of warrior. Who will then go overseas and tell brown people how to live properly. It's like some warped hybrid of Ender's Game and The Last Starfighter.

Honestly, after reading this article, I've developed my own concept for a game. It's called "Hit Yourself Repeatedly Over the Head With a Ballpeen Hammer." What you do is, you read an article about religious nutjobs who are hijacking your nation in an attempt to hurry up God's cosmic plan and get to the Rapture already because brown people are making them nervous. Then, you hit yourself repeatedly over the head with a ballpeen hammer until you forget all about the bad people and their silly plans and simply pass out from the strain.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to go play a couple of rounds.

R.I.P. Shohei Imamura

Legendary Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura, who started as an assistant for Yasujiro Ozu before going on to a 40 year career as a director, has died today at 79. He had liver cancer.

Imamura's most famous film is probably 1989's Black Rain, a much-lauded film about the bombing of Hiroshima that I'm ashamed to say I have not seen. (Mainly because I have negative associations with the title Black Rain, stemming from an unrelated American film with Michael Douglas.)

In fact, I'm not actually familiar with much of Imamura's work at all. I've seen 1966's classic The Pornographers, which is available on a terrific Criterion DVD. It's a very dark, troubling comedy about a middle-aged impotent porno director. These kinds of sour portraits of self-centered nihilists were Imamura's stock-in-trade apparently. It's a rare filmmaker who can combine bleak and funny.

The only other Imamura film I've seen is his relatively recent The Eel, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1999. This one starts out a sparse and patient character study about a recently-released convict, and then shifts into screwball comedy in the final half-hour. I didn't find the technique wholly successful, but that might have been due to some disorientation. My review for the film represents Classic Crushed by Inertia, when I would still blather endlessly about my day and the circumstances behind my watching the film for no good reason at the top of the review. Why would anyone care about that crap? What was I thinking?

Anyway, just wanted to acknowledge the passing of a great director. Nothing much else to say here.

X-Men: The Last Stand

Here's a sentence I never expected to write when I nominated him for a Braffy last year:

I have begrudgingly gained some respect for director Brett Ratner.

Not because his new movie X-Men: The Last Stand is any good. It isn't. An obvious rush job that flagrantly violates the reality of the other films in its franchise, Last Stand provides reasonable, superficial summer entertainment and nothing more.

But I can't help but admire the ambition of Ratner's latest and best movie. He didn't just step in to another director's series and try to replicate what had already been done. This isn't X2 regurgitated. Attempting to explode the series' scope and impact while simultaneously bringing all the loose threads to a close, Ratner throws in literally every element of X-Men comic books that any fan might want to see filmed.

There's a throwaway post-apocalyptic simulation fight sequence in the Danger Room, introductions of more new mutants than three movies could adequately establish, dramatic deaths for major characters and huge mutant battles featuring hundreds of extras and heavy casualties. Ratner's film is outrageous and silly and surprisingly big, which is a new and welcome direction for a series that has tended towards the plain and dour in the past.

Bryan Singer's previous two X-Men films ignored soap opera melodramatics and brutal fight scenes, the comic book's primary concerns, placing the mutant characters in an otherwise realistic and relatable world. Ratner throws all of this caution and care out the window almost immediately which is pretty much fine with me as I don't feel any kind of long-standing emotional attachment to the characters. The problem is that the mertis of his film don't match his outsized conceptual ideas. He's made a big movie that's energetic but lacking for wit, style, flash and, frequently, common sense.



This image highlights perhaps the biggest single drawback to The Last Stand. It looks cheesy. Some of this can surely be blamed on Brett Ratner. He's basically a TV director working in film. There's no indication that he pays attention to things like composition - the shots all look the same and each scene follows the same pattern. Establishing shot-medium shot-close up-medium shot-close up-reaction close up-medium shot and we're out. Even if viewers aren't paying close attention to the editing, this kind of rote repetition of shots and cuts just drags a movie down and makes it visually uninteresting. Small things like camera placement make a huge difference sometimes.

But Ratner's not the only one to blame for X-Men: The Last Stand barely making the cut as an effects film. As I said, the fact that Fox rushed the film for a Summer '06 release is blatantly, glaringly obvious from the start. The first scene goes back in time 20 years from the end of X2 and finds X-Men leader Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his then-cohort Magneto (Ian McKellan) visiting the home of powerful young mutant Jean Grey (Haley Ramm, Famke Janssen as an adult). Ratner employs computer effects to de-age the two stately old actors with minimal success. My roommates didn't notice any CGI had been employed, but simply thought it was bad make-up. I thought they looked like somebody rubbed a bunch of vaseline on their faces and then dyed their hair.

Jumping ahead 20 years, the film opens proper with the introduction of Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), a pharmaceutical executive whose firm has discovered a an injection to permanently rob a mutant of his or her powers, touted as a "mutant cure."

Xavier and the rest of his X-Men are insulted by the suggestion that they need to be cured, bringing to mind, briefly, the contemporary argument about "curing" homosexuality, but agree that mutants should be permitted to get the cure if they want. Magneto and his newfound Brotherhood of Mutants consider the move a declaration of war by humanity against mutant-kind. Sides are drawn, requiring many characters to make the titular stand.

Unbalancing this dyanmic, unchanged through all three films in the trilogy, is the reintroduciton of Jean Grey, who died at the end of Part 2. She's back, though far more powerful and prone to fits of uncontrollable rage. In her first scene in the film, a moment that typifies the movie's approach to this material, she kills herself an X-Man.

Many other mutants will die during the film, some of them central characters, and others will be "cured" of all their mutant powers and thus sidelined. Jean has become extremely powerful, so powerful in fact that her presence starts to distort the entire movie. If one character is so heavily favored in a fight, and so unpredictable by nature, the entire narrative becomes precarious. As she's a godlike figure, the entire movie could cease to exist in an instant if Jean decided she wanted it that way. To get around this, the movie shows off what she can do early on and then pacifies her for most of the running time, hauling her out when things need to get really intesne so she can kill another character off with her mind.



Obviously, many fans are upset about these dramatic changes, but I can't deny the franchise is invigorated by Ratner's risk-taking, adventurous, free-wheeling enthusiasm. I've always wanted to see an X-Men movie like this since Fox first announced they were going to make X-Men movies. Singer's entries held back. There weren't any huge showdowns between mutants. Usually, you'd get individual scenes with mutants showing off their powers instead of large-scale battle royales such as you'd see in a comic book or cartoon. There weren't any stakes because almost all the main characters had to survive for the next film. There also wasn't any real tension, as Singer would brew up conflicts (like the Cyclops-Wolverine-Jean love triangle) and then let them fizzle out without going anywhere. The movies looked great, had nice action scenes and a lot of the actors got their characters right, but they weren't really exciting in the way they should be. Certainly, neither X-Men or its sequel felt like the "event movies" the marketing would lead you to expect.

Ratner's film does all it can to set this right, giving the fans not just an X-Men movie but four or five X-Men stories wrapped into one 100 minute frontal assault. Unfortunately, the more expansive the action gets, the more the film's strained budget and minimized schedule becomes evident.

Some of the film's new major characters have quite plainly been poorly realized. Vinnie Jones looks ridiculous and embarrassing as Juggernaut, wearing what appears to be a tin foil ball on his head and an odd plastic shoulder pad device that resembles a child's Masters of the Universe Halloween costume. Likewise, Kelsey Grammar's furry blue Beast clashes with all the other characters and environments in the movie. It's not a matter of looking kind of crummy, which the costume does, but of looking like he's stepped into frame out of a completely different movie. Possibly something in which he travels the countryside with a talking donkey.

I'm fairly certain an animated film in which Kelsey Grammar and a donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy wandered around saving princesses would at least have better, snappier dialogue. In a move I've never seen, there's no screenwriters listed on IMDB, but I know Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn at least did a draft. None of the X-Men films thus far have evidenced any sort of flair for the spoken word. Anyone remember that Halle Berry "toad struck by lightning" line from the first movie? Yeah, there's a whole bunch of those. At one point, the President turns to the camera and says "May God have mercy on us." A few scenes later, Beast looks at a bank of monitors and exclaims "Oh my stars and garters." Yikes.

(Whenever I hear that stars and garters expression, which is rarely, I think of that Mr. Show sketch where Bob Odenkirk was in a Christian rock band..."I've invented a praying machine! Oh my stars and garters!")

Not only is the script light on memorable or well-spoken lines, but it also screwed up the logic and continuity from the previous movies. As a random example, we're introduced suddenly to this intense, heated (har!) rivalry between Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford). If that's a hatred that was set up in the previous entry, I must have missed it.



Good lord, I've gone on a while about X-Men: The Last Stand. What a huge dork you must take me for. Sergeant-at-Arms of the Weiner Patrol, reporting for duty. It could be worse. I know a guy who claims that his friends cried actual tears upon reading a comic book in which Wolverine pulls off a move called the "fastball special." Now that's dorky. I just blovaite endlessly about event movies most people forget 10 minutes after they leave the theater, but there are limits to even my lameness.

Here's the short, short version: I kind of liked where Brett Ratner was taking me, I just didn't much like the view once I arrived there. I could have just written that in the first paragraph and saved you all some time.

Monday, May 29, 2006

1, 2, 3, 4, I Declare a Rummy War

At the video store, we have several veterans from a variety of foreign wars as regulars. Very often, they're extremely interested in war movies. (In fact, conversations about war films are generally how I discover their veteran status, except for a few that frequently wear caps or shirts explaining the specifics of their service). At first, this was unexpected. I would have hypothesized that veterans might not want to view re-enacted war as entertainment. It would remind them of the horrors they personally witnessed.

Instead, I think maybe it's cathartic in a way. There's a conflict, it all feels kind of oddly familiar and maybe even nostalgic, but then the movie ends and you get to turn it off. After spending years in country, that must be a kind of reassuring feeling. The movie's called The Longest Day, and it is long and involved, but even at 3 hours it's no match for the actual Normandy invasion.

We had such a customer in the store today, a guy I've seen in there maybe one or two other times but never really noticed specifically. He was wearing a T-shirt festooned with American flags and bald eagles, proclaiming that "Freedom Isn't Free," and was buying, of course, several war movies and asking about others. I found a few things for him, answered a few questions, and when all was said and done he introduced himself and his wife to me by name.

As I always do when customers make this friendly gesture, I reached out my hand to shake. Dear readers, let me assure you that I had no idea the man had a, for lack of a better term, gimpy right hand. Clearly damaged in some sort of battle-related horror, the guy's entire right hand and wrist dangle flaccidly from the end of his forearm, apparently useless. But like a lot of canny wounded vets of the Bob Dole School, this guy obviously was good at downplaying his disability in public. As I said, I'd seen him and helped him out before in the store and honestly never noticed his hand before that moment.

There were two ways to go in this situation: pull back my hand and extend the other one or awkwardly shake his left hand with my right hand. I went for the second option and kind of regretted it because it was so strange, so obvious that I hadn't noticed his other hand. Although, now that I think about it, it would have been odd to shake hands with my left hand as well.

Anyway, the guy was really good about it and didn't seem to take offense and in general had a really pleasant, upbeat attitude. But still, the entire incident made me think about our present war, from which thousands of young Americans will return home with unsightly injuries. That is, if they manage to return at all.

I don't have the patience this Memoral Day's evening to catalog once more all the reasons we should never have started this war and should make all due haste in exiting the battle zone we have regrettably created. Besides, I'm starting to notice my fellow citizens coming around to the idea that our leaders are corrupt, incompetant criminals with questionable motives and no sense of patriotism or respect for the Constitution.

Blogger Pacacutec makes a fine case against the entire theoretical "Global War on Terror," can be found here at Firedoglake if anyone's interested.

Two weeks ago, in a kind of rambling, long-winded post about pop culture, propaganda and the military, I discussed those who continue to support the Iraq War on ideological rather than rational grounds. I'm fascinated by the notion that supporters of BushCo. and the Iraq War exist in a malleable pseudo-reality that can be altered through language and perspective. The idea that American pessimism about the war is actually having a measurable effect on the success of the military's effort demonstrates something of a flight of fancy. Likewise the notion that we can somehow "stop terrorism" through some sort of demonstration of power or strength of will.

We're over here trying to discuss the future of the nation reasonably, soldiers are over there being shot at and the two circumstances only co-exist rhetorically. To believe that an idea in my head, a wish perhaps that Americans would stop killing Iraqis, translates into troops being unable to stop an insurgency requires something of an active imagination.

It's as if, based around a few actual events but not supported by any kind of facts or rational analysis, Americans have begun to devise their own reality. And we all know what happens when a schizophrenic is confronted with actual reality - they react out of fear and paranoia, often with violence. And I think this is what we're seeing in the culture right now.

You have a wide spectrum of delusion, from those who never bought into the ridiculous lies about Saddam Hussein wanting to rule the Earth with his massive arsenal of WMD's to those like my friend Steve, who on September 12th announced to met hat we should drop a nuclear bomb on every country in the Middle East. (He was hopefully kidding but you never know with that guy). I feel like it's going to be very hard to win back those at the far end of that spectrum, who seem to crave endless war and get offended when you try to delicately remind them that casualties mean actual dead people and not just numbers that can be fudged or dismissed or argued ad infinitum.

Everyone likes to wax philosophical on Memorial Day. You hear a lot of talk about sacrifice and patriotism and freedom. Our loose turd of a President had this to say:

Last week, the family of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Fenty, Junior, gathered here at Arlington to pay their last respects to the husband, son, and father they loved. Colonel Fenty was killed with nine of his fellow soldiers in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan earlier this month. Hours before that crash, he had spoken to his wife Kristen about their newborn daughter he was waiting to meet. Some day she will learn about her dad from the men with whom she served -- he served. And one of them said this about her father: "We all wanted to be more like Joe Fenty. We were all in awe of him." I am in awe of the men and women who sacrifice for the freedom of the United States of America.

That's a real family that this war has destroyed. He's using them as a rhetorical device - you add in anecdotes to a presentation such as this one as a template, a useful example to others. We should all be like Colonel Fenty's newborn daughter, quietly remembering the dead, in awe of their sacrifice in a distant, hazy, far-off kind of way, but constitutionally unable to speak out of turn.

Bush wants to rule over a nation of newborns, I suspect, cute little critters he can discuss fondly but not have to actually engage in any way. Helpless beings who will bob their heads in agreement automatically when asked any question, from "should we invade Iran" to "do you hate Stephen Colbert as much as me"? As an added bonus, he'd finally be communicating with others on his level.