Saturday, July 08, 2006

Hey, Snow, They Came Around Looking For You the Other Day...

It appears all night there has been something of an annoying 80's music video battle occupying the Greater Blogosphere. Here are some previous compelling entries. None of those guys read my site, so this can't really be considered a response, but I'm too lazy to otherwise complete a blog post tonight.

So below you may find my responses to the unspoken query: "What's the most horrifically annoying music video ever?" Most entries have been from the 80's, the era of the music video's birth, but this particular early 90's entry can not and will not be ignored.

Yes, it's the inscrutible white rapper Snow. Looking back on this song some 15 years later, it's actually even more ludicrous than I remembered. This guy was always a complete clown. How did he manage to get a record deal? (If you know the answer to this question, please don't actually feel compelled to let me know. It's a rhetorical question.)

I've discussed the best/worst hair metal band of all time, Grim Reaper, on the blog before, but here for the very first time is their Greatest Master Work, "See You in Hell." Note how much the singer resembles Jack Black. What I like most about this video is how enthusiastic the guy seems about seeing you in hell. I usually think of the phrase as having a negative connotation. It's like what you'd say before shivving a dude in prison in order to get in good with the skinheads.

"See you in hell, Martinez!" Then you plant him about 20 times in the kidney and walk back into the cafeteria line, all nonchalant-like.

But no, this guy's singing the lyric like he's making a dinner reservation with an old friend.

Okay, we'll meet in the Pit of Sulfur at 9!/
See you there, a-migo!

So excited is he about seeing you in Hell, it's pretty much the only words in the entire song. At about the 2 minute mark, he just starts chanting "See you...See you...See you..." like a mantra. Perhaps these guys were not just using implied devil worship as a hoary gimmick to attract fatalistic teenagers. Maybe they're genuinely trying to contact some kind of Dark Spirit by getting fans to chant "see you in hell." Or maybe they're just goofy old creatively bankrupt morons. Either way, their loss is your gain.

Our final entry tonight is definitely the most painful. I urge you not to actually watch the video for Phil Collins' "Sussudio." Surely there's something more positive and uplifting you could do with your time. Why not slit your wrists? Or hurt a small animal?

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Matador & The Libertine

Almost nothing came out this week on DVD, save these two entries from the newly-formed Weinstein Company. These films were both dumped into theaters with zero fanfare on off weekends, with Sundance pick-up The Matador barely making a peep alongside all the high-profile Christmas 2005 releases and The Libertine showing on a few screens earlier this year. What's interesting is that they're both pretty good, if offbeat and difficult to market. If anything, they're intelligent and unexpected to such a degree, I'm kind of surprised these concepts were made into films in the first place.

The Matador

I'm sure someone has already written a paper about filmdom's post-Pulp Fiction obsession with comedies about hitmen. It's probably the one underground, criminal enterprise that's constantly celebrated by the movies. You'll occasionally see a comedy about guys who sell weed or girls who embark on an ill-fated crime spree, but generally, anti-social or homicidal activities are frowned upon by mainstream filmmakers.

What is it about professional murderers that's so appealing? Perhaps it's because we are confronted by so much senseless killing each day - in foreign wars and on our own streets - that the idea of clean, efficient murder for hire seems almost comforting in comparison? Or is it just that, like lawyers who defend chronic polluters or telcom executives who turn over private information to the government and fight net neutrality, Americans have become blase about evils done as a required part of ones job? Sure, a guy might shoot people for a living, but only because he's got to earn a living! What should he do, starve to death?

A running joke in Grosse Point Blank finds John Cusack's hitman encountering nothing but nonchalant reactions to the news that he's become a hired assassin. "Do you have to go to school for that, or can you just jump right in?" asks a high school buddy played by Jeremy Piven.

Richard Shepard's The Matador is like that joke stretched out to feature length. That's not to say it's a one-note movie (although it is, in some ways), but it's made with this same kind of curious, bouncy enthusiasm, a wide-eyed fascination at the notion of a trained expert killer. A rare film that's content to take its time and tell a simple little story well, rather than try to pile on incidents and style into some kind of bloated extravananza, The Matador pauses occasionally to consider the general merits of a life spent on the road murdering strangers for money, but spends most of its time setting up some likable characters and letting them slowly impact one another's lives.

In the best performance he's given since taking over the Bond franchise, Pierce Brosnan plays Julian Noble, a crass, boorish hitman who realizes late in life that he's a loser who has no friends. Travelling all around the world working what he calls "corporate gigs," Julian's only real human contact is his shadowy handler (Philip Baker Hall) and the prostitutes on whom he spends much of his earnings.

In a hotel bar one night after working a job in Mexico, Julian meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), an entrepeneur desperate to kickstart his latest venture. Their conversation is awkward and stilted, culminating with Danny stomping out of the bar in a huff. But Julian remains undaunted. Now that he's actually spoken with someone about something other than fucking or killing, he's become addicted. He invites his new "friend" to go and see a bullfight.

These Mexico sequences take up a little less than half of the film, and what's surprising is that they don't seem to rush headlong into some kind of conflict. Shepard just lets Brosnan and Kinnear stretch out a bit, getting comfortable in their characters and building up a repoire, while showing off the colorful tapestry of David Tattersall's bright, airy cinematography. This is how old movies used to develop - the first half was just about getting your bearings before the real conflict the story even emerged.

Conflict, we're told in screenwriting classes, defines moviedom. If there isn't some kind of conflict going on between the characters, you don't have a film. Shepard's plot will eventually develop some genuine clashes and rivalries - particularly after Julian shows up on Danny's door in Denver six months after their initial meeting - but he arrives there liesurely, only after we've become invested in Julian and Danny as people. This makes a lot more sense to my mind than the current Hollywood philosophy, in which the line that will appear in the trailer summarizing the plot must be spoken in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

"If we don't recover that unit within one hour, everyone on this ship is going to die!"

Shepard's approach is refreshing and unexpected, and it's one such element in the film. Without giving too much away, there's an interesting homosexual undercurrent gliding just underneath the film's central relationship. Julian intimates early on in the movie that's he's potentially bisexual (referencing the possiblitiy that he sucks cock upon first meeting Danny), and then later seems to make something of a pass at his new friend.

Later on, much of the plot will revolve around a secretive late-night encounter between Julian and Danny. Shepard saves the information about that night until late in the film, so I won't reveal anything here, but it remains something of an unspoken issue throughout the entire film.

Regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, it's clear that Danny and Julian are changed by getting to know one another, and it's in these small observances that the film takes on a genuinely sweet kind of tone that's, again, something different from a genre that typically produces shrill, nihilistic fare of the Whole Nine Yards variety.

What really sets the film apart, however, are the comic stylings of Pierce Brosnan, a guy whose James Bond was suave but a bit of a stiff. Here, he's not just more relaxed, but he's something of a public menace. Flirting with adolescents, insulting overweight strangers and slamming margaritas while aiming high-powered rifles, Julian's a guy who has lived so long without fear that he's utterly unprepared for the feeling when it finally arrives. The scenes where he's literally crippled by anxiety may be stretching believability just a touch, but the character himself is kind of a delight to be around and, like almost everyone in the film, intelligent.

We see his calculating side at play in the film's best sequence, in whcih Julian demonstrates for a disbelieving Danny how he would improvise an assassination in a Mexican arena.

Hope Davis enters the film about halfway through and does great work as Danny's earthy wife "Bean," whose anything-goes attitude towards Julian's line of work mirrors her husband's. When Julian shows up unannounced in the middle of the night, she gets one line off, about how she's unaccustomed to being up with guests at 2:30 in the morning, that's extremely natural and warm, the exact sort of thing you'd hear hanging out in someone's living room listening to old records in the middle of the night after a few bottles of wine.

Ultimately, the film isn't really as good as the sum of its parts. It's funny without ever being really hilarious, and likable without feeling essential. I'm sure it will find an audience on DVD that will appreciate its sharp attention to character and engaging performances, but it's not the sort of thing I'd expect to watch over and over again, noticing throwaway lines or missed but vital details. It's just nice to see that this kind of old-fashioned storytelling hasn't completely died out, that there are still films focused on transporting you to exotic locales to meet interesting people rather than just exploding pirate ships and reptilian airline passengers.

The Libertine

A few years ago, I wrote a surreal, Bunuel-inspired screenplay called "Evil Will Prevail," featuring the Earl of Rochester as one of the main characters. I first learned about 17th century poet and nobleman John Wilmot in English 10A back in my UCLA days, and found him a fascinating figure ripe with dramatic possiblities. It's not surprising to me, then, that playwright Stephen Jeffreys chose the Earl as a subject for his play "The Libertine," and not surprising that he and Laurence Dunsmore have translated the work into a film.

The result is a mainly-successful period drama about the final few years of Wilmot's (Johnny Depp) brief life, during which he falls in love with an up-and-coming actress (Samantha Morton) and dies painfully of syphillis. As you'd expect from a play, the dialogue is extremely heightened and theatrical, and struck my mainly-ignorant ears as authentic for the period. This may be off-putting for some, and it took me a few minutes to adjust, but after a slow beginning, the film does develop some rather interesting ideas about atheism, loyalty and what it means to be truly radical.

The central contradiction of Wilmot's life is his ability to write beautiful verse despite the fact that he's an evil bastard who only cares about his own pleasure. His wife Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike) agonizes over the poetry he writes about her beauty and their shared love - how can the same man who produces these writings continually spurn and humiliate her year after year?

Wilmot, of course, has no time to worry about his duties as a husband. As with all institutions of authority or responsibility, he has no time to worry about marital vows. Having freed himself early on in life from any kind of belief in God (he suggests late in the film that his atheism is an intrinsic part of his character), Wilmot believes that he can essentially behave in any manner he pleases. He argues early on with the actress, Elizabeth Barry, that regardless of what he does when faced with a particular decision, the universe as a whole will not be in any way affected. Therefore, he can do whatever he wants.

It's a philosophy that may not get him in trouble with any deity, but causes him considerable problems in his life as a landed aristocrat in the England of Charles II (John Malkovich). When asked to take his seat in the House of Lords and support the Catholic lineage of Charles, he immediately refuses to engage in government. His condescention towards commoners like his friend George Etheridge (Tom Hollander), who write out of neccessity rather than fancy, costs him friendships and respect. Of course, his freewheeling approach towards sexuality eventually costs him his good looks and his life, and his excessive drinking eventually turns him into something of an alcoholic wretch. Finally, when asked to write a grand production to celebrate the arrival of a new ambassador from France, Wilmot humiliates the king with a raunchily satirical production.

Depp's predictably terrific in these sequences, giving Wilmot an uncontrollable, manic streak that raises interesting questions about the nature of his rebelliousness. Is he still a radical if he's not in complete control of his outbursts? He admits at one point to being fundamentally unable to refrain from speaking his mind, even when he knows the consequences of such frank honesty may be dire. Could history be confusing a life philosophy with some form of low-grade mental illness, the same kind of madness that could have inspired his compositions?

If anything, I'd say the film kind of holds back on some of the Earl's more outrageous behavior. This was a man who stood for the ultimate in drunken, mysogynist debauchery. There are some references early on in the film to Wilmot actually kidnapping and ravishing his wife-to-be at the tender age of 18, but this is presented as a hazily-recalled erotic fantasy. In reality, we know that such behavior was rather commonplace for the Libertines, who as noblemen tended to consider themselves above the law.

Wilmot warns us in an early monologue that he will not be likable, but there has been some attempt to soften the Earl of Rochester for modern audiences who couldn't stomach the open celebration of a free-spirited rapist, no matter how wonderful his ensuing poetry. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but I do feel like the movie could have pushed the envelope a bit more in fulfilling this early promise to keep Wilmot despicable. For a movie entitled The Libertine, there's not a whole lot of actual on-screen hedonism. Sure, everybody's drunk, but the sex is tame and the violence is minimal. That's not how I would have done it in my Earl of Rochester movie. But alas, that train has sailed.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Where in the World is Kenny Boy Sandiego?

Okay, just so we're all on the same page...None of you swallowed that "former Enron CEO and all-around nogoodnik Ken Lay died of a massive coronary" story, right? You did? Come on, people. This one's easy.

Best friend of the President, with whom he kept in frequent written correspondance. One of the largest crooks in history. Recently convicted of crimes that could lead to life imprisonment. Rich white bastard.

Okay, folks, that's the precise the dossier of a man who's going to skip the country before he can be sent to jail...Down to the letter. This is not some common everyday white collar criminal we're talking about here. A middle manager who sneaks an extra $10,000 when the SEC isn't looking to fund a stripper-intensive Vegas weekend. We're talking about a man who ripped off the entire state of California here. Okay, when you're such a thief that you find yourself stealing from entire regions of the American West, that's when you know you've reached the pinnacle of your chosen profession. This guy's such a gleefully amoral scumbag, he makes The Joker look like Ruben "Hurricane" Carter.

So, we're supposed to swallow that this perfectly healthy man, a few short months before he was to be sentenced for one of the most elabroate accounding swindles in history, just up and died suddenly? Sure, millions of Americans drop dead from cardiac arrest each year. I'm not denying that such an event would be possible. The man was over 60, after all, and he lived in Texas, where chili not served in a bread bowl is considered health food.

I'm just saying that it's awfully convenient. And I wouldn't put anything past these corrupt assholes in charge right now. Let me repeat: I wouldn't put anything past these guys. They are comic book style villains. I half-expect, when I wake each morning, to read in the newspaper that Noam Chomsky and John Murtha have been devoured by specially-bred Presidential wolverines, or that the UC Berkeley campus has been liquified by an enormous killer robot bearing the Pentagon insignia.

According to my calculations, there are two possible scenarios:

(1) Kenny Boy was threatening to reveal some kind of sensitive information unless he was granted a Presidential pardon. Think for a second about some of the shit this guy might know. What if Bush knew something was fishy about Enron before the scandal broke? What if notes were kept about secret energy meetings with Dick Cheney? Any kind of collusion between Bush and Big Energy has fairly explosive potential in the media - accounting scandals may not sell papers, but people remember the name "Enron."

So, before any of this could come out in the New York Times or some other traitorous, anti-American organization, you simply execute Operation Houston We No Longer Have a Problem. Then it's just a matter of planting a bogus "heart attack" story and you're home free.

I'll grant this scenario isn't that likely. If Bush was going to have Ken Lay whacked, he probably would have done so before the trial as opposed to before the sentencing. Even if this isn't true, by the way, I personally guarantee Bush has authorized at least one targeted assassination since taking office. And clearly it wasn't Osama bin Laden, whose kidneys are apparently feeling much better.

(2) More likely, Kenny Boy had planned all along to get the hell out of Dodge before the heat could finally come down. I'm thinking he took it on the lam along with a few large sacks full of money a few days ago and had some high-ranking friends arrange a nice little cover-up. Head off to some isolated paradise where no one will recognize him...I hear Aruba's nice unless you're a white girl, in which case it's apparently harrowing.

The guy was fantastically rich and extremely well networked. Why would he hang around in America long enough to spend the rest of his life in jail? Of course he took the first private jet out of here. In retrospect, it's not even that surprising. And it's in everyone's interest to keep this "cardiac arrest" rumor alive. If the actual taxpayers and investors Lay's criminal behavior ripped off were to discover he was simply allowed to skip town, you'd have an outrage on your hands. This way, the whole fracas will slowly fade into a distant memory.

I just hope, if Kenny Boy decides to spend any time in the Dominican Republic and brings his stash of boner pills along, the prescription bottles have his own name on it. Being convicted of multiple felonies and then taking a powder is one thing, but getting caught with Viagra can be genuinely embarrassing.

Finally, don't be surprised if, next month, Jeff Skilling is horribly disfigured in a boating accident or something. It's coming...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In Order to Film a More Perfect Union...

Over at Ain't It Cool News, a group of film writers that doesn't include me but does include a few people I know has put together a list of the 10 Best Films About America. And just because I wasn't included in their little Internet movie-related site list-making soiree doesn't mean it's not a good idea. (One contributor, Ari/Cbabbitt, by the way, will be starting his own site called The Aspect Ratio, next week...Look for more announcements here and over there once the site gets going next week.)

So, due to what I'm sure would be an overwhelming response if anyone other than people Googling "albino porn" read my blog, I've decided to make a 4th of July film list of movies about America. Mine, however, will be a little different.

We have recently entered a full-blown Constitutional crisis in this country. A challenge to the stability of the Republic greater than any since the Civil War. Our President has called for a censure of the press for doing their job while his underlings argue on television in favor of executing journalists. Our Attorney General has repeatedly argued that members of the Executive Branch of the government are above the law. Recently, in the verdict for Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, absolutely the most important Court decision since the woeful Bush v. Gore incident, the Supreme Court determined that insurgents held at Guatanamo Bay have basic rights under U.S. law.

Should the Bush administration continue to violate this decision...What happens then? There isn't much precedent in our history for this sort of thing.

Our slave-owning elitist bigot Founders may not have truly understood what freedom for all people really means, but that didn't stop them from writing up a pretty stellar document designed to provide basic freedoms but also to age and mature along with the country, to gain clarity and nuance as it progressed. Say what you will about those guys, they were pretty sharp. It would be an awful shame to toss their proud legacy aside because some creepy cult members killed a few thousand people in New York a few years ago.

You know how, after 9/11, there was all that "keep shopping or the terrorists win!" stuff? Well, if we let George Bush and his cronies shred the Constitution, the terrorists will truly have won. Literally. The history of the nation has been one of progression towards a goal, a goal that was set out in some of the original writings of our original statesmen. We've never actually achieved this goal - every American doesn't have access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - but we're slowly getting there over the centuries. This last 6 years has been a huge step backwards, huge, possibly one that will throw off our footing and balance forever.

I've chosen one movie to coincide with each article of our Bill of Rights, the cornerstone of our American understanding of freedom, and then all the other amendments to our Constitution over the years. Mainly, these films will highlight the dire importance of these rights and restrictions, but sometimes they will simply relate to the discussion in a tangential way, because a lot of these amendments are kind of odd and obscure.

The headline, of course, refers to the first full sentence of the Constitution. "In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility." Does that sound like what BushCo. has been up to? Ensuring domestic tranquility? Doesn't the entire Rovian concept of winning elections via "wedge issues" and character assassination run contrary to the iea of living in peace and tranquility? Something to think about...

Anyway, on to the list. Enjoy.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It would be tempting to pick All the President's Men for this one, a title that came up often on the AICNers list. But with Bob Woodward's behavior of the last few years, I can't in good conscience pick that title and hold Robert Redford's version of him up as a 1st Amendment hero. This is, in truth, one of the hardest choices on the whole list. So many films have examined our First amendment freedoms, from Network to The People vs. Larry Flynt to Brazil.

But I'm picking George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck, a recent film that succinctly and powerfully gets at one of the central ideas behind our Founding Fathers' entire philosophy of governance.

In a free society, a source of powerful must always be counterbalanced. Checks, balances, that whole thing. It works not only in terms of elected officials. So if you're going to have a wealthy and dominant federal governments and state governments ruling over citizens, if you're going to have corporations exerting their influence on these governments, you must have a free press exposing all the secretive and corrupt stuff that they do.

Think these are liberal ideas? They're not. That's straight-up Hobbes, people. Individual humans are easily corruptable, and it's in the public interest for someone to always have an eye on the powerful.

In Clooney's film, Senator Joseph McCarthy starts out with undue influence over the American discourse. One of the only roadblocks (and there were more than a few) to his continued dominance was Edward R. Murrow and the microphone provided to him by CBS News. (The film likewise explores the difficulty of Murrow fighting the powerful while employed by a powerful media conglomerate himself.)

Amendment II

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Ah, yes, the good old Second Amendment, still among our most controversial. I tend to straddle the fence on this argument. Yes, the amendment clearly states that the people should ahve the right to keep and bear arms. The whole "militia" thing is in there as clarification, stating why this right was important to the authors, but not a neccessary condition. (It doesn't seem, to me, that you would have to be in the state militia - probably best understood now as something like the National Guard - to have a gun. It's just that gun ownership is important because we need some of our citizenry to be armed for mutual protection.

On the other hand, the NRA is full of gun-toting nutjobs and weirdos who insist on all kinds of bizarre, far out interpretations that usually result in them legally owning a bazooka. That's just stupid.

I'm choosing Commando as the film that represents probably the best case scenario for the Second Amendment. It was that or Red Dawn, and I gotta be honest, I prefer Commando.

Weapons expert and all-around badass John Matrix must save his kidnapped daughter from corrupt ex-Green Berets. To do so, he must use just about every single firearm known to man. Imagine a world in which Matrix couldn't legally gun down 20,000 or so badmen determined to rough up his little girl! Alyssa Milano would have been brutally killed and we'd never have gotten a chance to see her topless in Embrace of the Vampire. I'm amazed Wayne LaPierre hasn't made this point before in any NRA literature...

Amendment III

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

This one is a little tricky...if only because our modern military generally works out of hastily-constructed bases rather than quartering in the homes of civilians. Although, the government does take our money in the form of taxes and then uses it to build homes for soldiers without asking us, the "owners," what we think, violating the spirit of the law if not the actual letter.

Anyway, I'll broaden this a little and make the issue one of government intervention into the sanctity of a person's home. And I can't think of a better film on that topic than Richard Linklater's upcoming A Scanner Darkly, which I review here. An erratic vision of a harrowing future in which the government forces citizens to spy on one another as part of a nebulous never-ending drug and terror war, Linklater shows us how advanced surveillance technology enables the powerful to intrude upon our homes and violate our privacy unnoticed from afar.

When you consider recent revelations about Bush's snooping into our phone and bank records (keeping in mind that whatever information you hear about government surveillance, the truth is far far far worse), this is science-fiction that cuts dangerously close at times to present reality. It's not paranoia if they're really watching you.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In L.A. Confidential, director Curtis Hanson takes us inside the Los Angeles Police Department, where officers are urged to do anything possible to secure a conviction for those identified as "guilty." In the fight against organized crime, personified by real-life mob kingpin Mickey Cohen, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) asks Lieutenant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) to sidestep every single rule and code of conduct in order to win the day.

Like Chinatown, another film about behind-the-scenes corruption in 1940's Los Angeles, the city's sunny tourist-friendly facade hides an ugly reality. Such a paradise doesn't simply spring up from the ground. It is forged by crooked, devious men clawing at one another to secure for themselves a larger cut of the proceeds. Everything may look glamorous and shiny and new, but down the street from every movie premiere is a phony marijuana bust, behind every celebrated LAPD victory is a confession given under duress and inside every corner office is a nervous little man who knows his cheap lies will eventually come back to haunt him.

A brilliant film that shows the Los Angeles police for what they are - a collection of thugs and bullies eager to trample all over your rights as a citizen with an occasional noble, well-meaning soul thrown in for good measure.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Hmm...Individuals being deprived due process of law. Thank goodness we never violate this statute! Oh, wait, I forgot, the prisoners being held without trial or charge all over the world by our military are enemy combatants. Or insurgents. Or Allah-loving terror junkies. Or whatever we're calling them this week. And therefore they don't count as people! Brilliant!

Errol Morris' mesmerizing 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, eventually led to the release of prisoner Randall Adams, wrongfully accused of the murder of a police officer. What becomes painfully clear during the film is not only Adams' innocence (and the guilt of supposed witness Dan Harris for the crime), but that the Dallas authorities railroaded the aimless drifter because of either general animosity towards his lifestyle or a desire to secure a death sentence. (Harris, only 16 at the time, would have been ineligible for capital punishment).

The ideas contained within the 5th and 6th Amendments are supposed to act against this kind of malfeasance. It doesn't always work. Which brings us back to the case for freedom of speech and the press, to bring to light violations of the law by the government, as in the case of Randall Adams. If Morris hadn't made this film and brought this evidence to light, Adams may very well have remained in prison for the rest of his life.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

In Orson Welles' The Trial, the great director uses his bold, impressionistic style to transform Franz Kafka's novel into a frenzied totalitarian nightmare. For Josef K. (a brilliant Anthony Perkins), worse than the actual captivity is the mystery behind it.

The lack of explanation for why he's being held takes on an existential nature: Who could possibly hate him this much, to punish him in this way? Would it be better to simply be killed or locked away forever with no hope of escape, rather than continuing to wonder about his fate indefinitely?

Chan Wook-Park's inventive Oldboy of a few years back asks similar questions. This unique kind of spirit-crushing punishment tends to pop up in totalitarian and overly-dominant states. How unsurprising that it would be one of the hallmarks of Bush's foreign policy.

Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

It would feel wrong to not choose 12 Angry Men as the film that best encapsulates the ideal of the trial-by-jury system. Henry Fonda uses reasoned argument and logic to fight for justice. What's more American in spirit than that? The notion that anything can be worked out through rationally and in the spirit of compromise.

It doesn't always work out that way in real life, of course, and Sidney Lumet's film can seem a bit sunny and overly-optimistic in how easily some of the prejudiced jury members are swayed. But we're talking about American ideals here, people. What these documents really seem to stand for behind all the rhetoric and the parsing and the divergent scholarly interpretations. The notion that citizens can only be judged fairly by other citizens, that people will put their differences aside to make an even-handed and honest judgement of guilt of innocence, and that Truth will win the day.

As Superman might say, "Truth, Justice...all that stuff." Ha ha! Suck it, Malkin! Even Kal-El thinks you're crapping up America!

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

I'll break this one up, because there's two different issues to discuss in this one amendment. First, that "excessive fines imposed" thing. I know, technically, the FCC doesn't neccessarily count as a wing of the federal government, but they still impose these ridiculous fines for obscenity or whatever, essentially controlling media content by extortion.

Howard Stern's Private Parts perfectly exemplifies this kind of bizarre behavior. The zany, haphazard rules make no sense. ("I can't say 'big cock,' but you can say 'big cock coming out of my mouth?'") What can be done on the air thus becomes a simple matter of economics. You can't say "boner" on the air just in case the government decides to fine you for it. If the penalties are so great that a single agency can determine what is and is not appropriate for television and radio, those fines are "excessive."

Second, "cruel and unusual punishment." In the tremendous, intense I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, based on a true story, we witness first-hand the horrors to which wrongfully accused James Allen (Paul Muni) is subjected by a harsh penal system. Forced to labor in the field for endless hours every day, fed nothing but tasteless gruel, Allen's brutal chain gang experience robs him of his humanity. Even after his escape, hiding out under an assumed name in Chicago, he's haunted by memories of the gang and constantly terrified he will be found out and sent back for more punishment.

A decorated WWI veteran, we come to see Allen's predicament as one essentially forced upon him by an uncaring society. With no job opportunities, he unintentionally finds himself on the street in a community of criminals. After being promised his freedom, he's cruelly tricked into additional years of undue suffering. Eventually, the United States government will push this previously honorable, proud man deep into the life of crime they always accused him of leading. Once you are in this chaotic system of authoritarian beurocracy, director Melvyn LeRoy seems to insist, there is no hope of escape.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

By design, the 9th Amendment is really vague. I mean, how do I choose a movie that deals with all the rights which may be preserved by the Constitution but are not actually spelled out? I guess you could say the idea is to allow for maximum freedom as long as no one is directly harmed by this free enterprise and open exchange of ideas.

So I'm choosing Ghostbusters, the story of a bold and profitable small business constantly harrassed and scrutinzed by corrupt EPA beurocrats. All Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) and company want to do is save people from ghosts and make a little money in the process, but no, Agent Walter Peck (William Atherton) had to breach the containment system and set all the psychomagnatheric energy loose to wreck havoc on Manhattan.

The loose cause of "public health," Ivan Reitman's film seems to argue, can allow for all manner of overreach and unchecked aggression by local authorities. In this case, only an appeal to the Mayor (who is brought over to the Ghostbusters side selfishly through the promise of an election-year turnaround) can override Peck's attempts to dismantle the Ghostbusting organization and destroy New York City.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Congress gets around this one all the time for stuff like the Drug War. Using a loophole involving interstate commerce, they can make drug possession illegal, when it really should be a matter for states to take up. In that spirit, I think the only reasonable film to choose to represent the Tenth Amendment is Cheech and Chong's 1981 effort Nice Dreams.

In the film, the stony duo rip off a crop of marijuana and travel around selling it out of an ice cream truck while pursued by bumbling cops. If that doesn't accurately reflect the day-to-day reality of the Drug War in America, I don't know what would. Also, this film contains a classic performance from Pee Wee Herman, whose combination of child-like innocence and lusty, secretly-indulged perversions summarizes the American character better than any post I could ever compose.

Amendment XI

The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.

Okay, now this is going to start getting more challenging. Let's see...a bunch of us can sue a state if we're from a different state. Not many movies about that. Foreigners can sue one of our states as well...Okay, right, got it.

Hey, what about Lethal Weapon 2? No, I guess that's Americans wanting to take foreigners to court and not being able to, as opposed to the other way around.

Really, we're just talking about the idea that a state is not some sovereign entity operating above the law, that individuals have inalienable rights even if their elected leadership decides otherwise. It's a point perfectly illustrated by Jim Henson and George Lucas' collaboration, Labyrinth.

The Goblin King (David Bowie) who lives at the center of the magical labyrinth thinks that his political domain allows him to invade our world and simply kidnap Jennifer Connolly's baby brother. She's then perfectly within her rights to enter the labyrinth, find her way to the castle with the help of some kindly if odd-looking Muppets and demand restitution. Though the King attempts to repel her with extraordinarily cheesy singing and dancing, the girl presses on, undaunted, and eventually wins her brother's freedom. And there was much rejoicing.

Amendment XII

The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;--The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;--the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Interesitng that this amendment places so many qualifiers between the people and their president. I mean, unless there's a clear majority, just letting the House of Representatives decide? Probably a good idea we changed that one.

In Nixon, Oliver Stone suggests that many more barriers keep our system from reflecting the actual opinion of the American people. In particular, business interests dominate the decision, determining who will have a shot at the nation's highest office by setting the nation's agenda and funding one side over the other.

"The American people put me where I am," insists President Nixon (Anthony Hopkins).

"That can be changed," he's told by his strongest corporate backers. "In a heartbeat."

Among other things, Stone sees Nixon as ultimately conflicted between his lust for power and his strong sense of duty. He must do what his money men tell him, or else he might not hold on to his much-loved office, even when it violates what he knows to be legally and ethically acceptable. Also he was an insane delusionally paranoid drunk. It's a complicated mixture of elements. But you see what I'm saying...Any more, it's important only to have the right connections and please the right people than anything else if one wants to attain a high political office.

Sure, in theory you still have to get the most votes, but these votes can be purchased if you know the right people and have the resources.

Amendment XIII

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Available in the Mondo Cane DVD box set, Addio Zio Tom (Farewell Uncle Tom) is one of the most horrifying films I have ever seen. A fake documentary in which an Italian camera crew goes back in time to dominate the slave trade in the American South, the movie is stomach-turning in a way few other films, even gore-laden horror films, can equal.

Large-scale re-enactments of the horrors of slavery are intercut with smaller sequences giving you a sense of the brutal details of life as a black man or woman in pre Civil War America. It's controversial in the extreme, particularly during a final sequence that connects the viciousness of slavery with the rage felt by black Americans when the film was made in the early 70's. For this reason, it's never seen a real release here in the States. Fortunatley, now you can rent the DVD. Or, you know what, don't if you have a weak stomach, because it's extraordinarily disturbing stuff. Vital to see and understand, but disturbing.

Amendment XIV

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

What to say about the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection clause? Next to the 1st Amendment, it's probably the most dramatized legal concept in film history - the right of everyone to appear equal in the eyes of the law. Absolutely central to what America is all about is the idea that the laws are identical for everyone, which makes a lot of the Rapture Right's ludicrous hysteria that much more of a farce.

Rather than choose some stuffy, legally-minded movie about how we should equally and evenly apply laws to all situations, let's consider John Sturges' brilliant 1955 pseudo-Western morality tale Bad Day at Black Rock, a movie about the pursuit of genuine and lasting justice. Years ago, something happened in Black Rock, something between the white residents (including Robert Ryan, barely able to maks his rage at "outsiders" on his turf) and a Japanese farmer living nearby.

Strident, one-armed veteran John Macreedy (in my favorite of his many great performances) spends one day in Black Rock uncovering the truth and locating those responsible. Bceause he understands that the law is only really upheld if it is universally applied. When some victims are avenged and others ignored, mob-like anarchy reigns. I really feel that this film is one of the most direct, heartfelt and enduring statements about TRUE American patriotism ever made.

Amendment XV

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

In Martin Scorsese's brilliant, undervalued Gangs of New York, we see how the ballot box provides some measure of power to even the lowliest of citizens. In order to cement his economic and social stronghold over New York, political boss Tweed (an ingenious Jim Broadbent) needs the support of the lowly immigrants daily pouring off the ships and into the city's Five Points slum.

The the power of immigrants to elect their own representtatives presents a threat to the xenophobic cause of the nativists is without question. So threatened is native-born American Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in one of the best performances of this decade) by Irish voters, he murderers their newly-elected sheriff in front of an entire neighborhood.

The gang wars over control in the Five Points, like the Draft Riots into which they will become entangled, are completely political in nature. Whose influence will mainly inform the local authorities? The old power of native New Yorkers, represented by the savage Bill, or the newly-formed unions of Irish immigrants, embodied by the Dead Rabbits? And is mob violence the only solution to a government that ignores the will of its citizenry?

Amendment XVI

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
You can find a movie to put a positive spin on any topic. Even paying your taxes. Consider this...

Without helping the warden to cheat on his taxes, Andy (Tim Robbins) would never have managed to escape from prison in The Shawshank Redemption.

Without the use of tax laws, Treasury Department agents would have no hope of bringing down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in The Untouchables.

Without the convenient pose of an accountant in town for a seminar, brilliant detective Daryl Zero could never get close to his blackmailing suspect in The Zero Effect.

Without German investors putting money into his films for tax purposes, Uwe Boll might never be able to bring quality cinema like Bloodrayne to DVD bargain bins everywhere.

Tax laws eventually brought down obnoxious "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch, ultimately resulting in a prison sentence. I know that has nothing to do with a movie, but I just hate Richard Hatch and wanted to bring it up is all.

Amendment XVII

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

George Lucas included a lot of random semi-political intrigue throughout all his Star Wars prequels, but it wasn't until Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith that the critique really began to bear fruit. Metaphorically speaking.

There's undeniable power to a scene, for example, when the Galactic Senate loudly cheers the coronation of Senator Palpatine as their new Emperor. Perhaps because it all seems so familiar. Our own Senate, as beholden to the leader of their party as a Stormtrooper is to Darth Vader, continues to ratify any fool nonsense Bush wants to get our nation involved with. He could probably suggest we start constructing a space station capable of destroying a planet and the Republican Senators would begin work the next day asking why their colleagues across the aisle are "soft on Alderaan."

Sith presents a political system where it's more important to form alliances and choose the winning side than it is to be correct. With leadership more concerned with sucking up to the powerful, advancing their own cause over the interests of their constituents, it's only natural that the power will become centralized and innately corrupt. So let this be a lesson to all of you - friendship with Dick Cheney is a pathway to many powers, some of them considered to be unnatural.

[I'd like to award runner-up status in this category to the Eddie Murphy comedy The Distinguished Gentleman, which isn't by any means a great film but which does reflect the mainstream American opinion about all elected representatives being career criminals.]

Amendment XVIII

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.

Prohibition provided the clearest evidence in our history that outlawing vice does not equal eliminating vice. What it does is send the vice underground, where it winds up funding large multi-national criminal enterprises. When the states began to legalize gambling in the form of a lottery, the Mob had to suddenly find other sources of revenue. (A fascinating film on this subject is the terrific, overlooked noir Force of Evil with John Garfield.)

Anyway, as everyone knows, Prohibiton allowed the mob to flourish, supplying large amounts of illegally-imported or distilled liquor to speakeasys throughout the country. Perpahs the definitive American film about Prohibition, Raoul Walsh's The Roarting Twenties features Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney as old friends who go into the bootlegging business together. The era is expertly recreated, but more than just surface detail, what Walsh's film captures is the tremendous power of greed over the human soul. Eddie (Cagney) and George (Bogart) seem to want to go legit. (Eddie only gets involved in the criminal venture in the first place because he owns a fleet of cabs useful for transporting hooch).

The capitalist system, Roaring Twenties suggests, is not itself evil, but it does bring out the most harsh and self-centered side of mankind. (Bogart makes this transformation particularly well). Prohibition, by transforming a hugely profitable yet visible industry into an underground black market, only exacerbated this syndrome.

Amendment XIX

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Unfortunately for the patriarchy, it's a lot harder to boss around a large section of the population if they are given a public voice. Fortunately for the patriarchy, a lot of American women don't seem to understand this simple fact, and therefore don't vote. Polling suggests, for example, that if a few percentage points more young women had voted in the last two elections, we'd already be rid of President Chimpy McFuckup.

The original 1975 Stepford Wives is based on a book by Ira Levin, the same guy who wrote Rosemary's Baby. They both involve oppressive and dominant males who see women as servants and vessels as opposed to flesh-and-blood human beings. Stepford Wives, with its notion of the "ideal" wife being little more than a sex slave, cuts pretty deeply to the truth about historical American attitudes towards women. Even though we now theoretically recognize the rights of women to vote and hold office and ascend the corporate ladder, a lot of these ideas about silent, servile females whose sole purpose is to carry men's seed within themselves remains surprisingly prevalent.

This notion becomes even more explicit in Rosemary's Baby, in which Mia Farrow's protagonist is tasked with carrying Satan's child to term. She literally ceases to matter as an individual and becomes a walking, talking incubator. (Cult members are nice to her not because they see her as a person but because of the fetus she is carrying.)

How do these ideas link up with the 19th Amendment? Um, loosely. You know, it's all a rich tapestry and all that. Really, it's that patriarchal, oppressive ideas still exist to this day even though we've given women the right to vote explicity in the Constitution. A first step towards a solution (but only a first step) would be to get a lot more women voting. Yes, even if they vote based on who's, like, totally more dreamy.

Amendment XX

Section 1. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2. The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3. If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

Section 4. The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Section 5. Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

Section 6. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission.

Oh crap...the Lame Duck amendment. The least interesting amendment to the entire Constitution. I don't know if a film has ever been made exploring the nuances of presidential succession in great or fascinated detail. (Okay, Dave and Head of State, but let's not get ridiculous here.)

Let's instead just explore the notion of the Presidency as an office bound by limitations. Term limits, for one. But also limited powers, checked by the other branches of government. In John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May, a Red-hating General (Burt Lancaster) attempts to overthrow the United States government with the backing of the military. What exact kind of government he will install in its place is unclear, but it will certainly involve direct military engagement against the Communist menace.

The connection to our present situation is tenuous at best. Though one could argue that the Bush administration illegitimately rose to power in 2000, it was due to a judicial decision and not a military takeover. If anything, long-term members of the military seem to desire an end to the Reign of Rummy at the Pentagon. No, as it turned out, a greater threat to our democracy than a creeping military dictatorship was a corporate takeover of the media aligned with a political party fueled by religious mania. Whodathunk it?

Amendment XXI

Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.

The repeal of Prohibition. This is what's great about our Constitution. It gives us the ability to go back and correct our mistakes. It would be nice if this same spirit were still alive in American politics, the notion of analyzing our patterns of behavior and their ultimate effects to determine if, perhaps, some change in course might be needed.

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report presents a future society presented with this same kind of choice. A new technology allows police to see murders before they occur, enabling the arrest and prosecution of criminals for crimes they have not yet committed but would have committed if unfettered by law enforcement.

The action of the film constitutes a challenge to the notion of "Pre-Crime," with cop Tom Cruise on the run from authorities after he's psychically seen murdering an unknown man called "Leo Crow" (played by Mike Binder, of "The Mind of the Married Man," one of the worst TV shows I have ever seen).

During the (admittedly flawed) conclusion, the people are faced with one of these moments of realization, a time of stepping back and seeing the larger picture and making a choice between two priorities. (In the case of the film, is it worth violating the notion of free will to prevent murders?)

Amendment XXII

Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the states by the Congress.

Term limits are, of course, a really good idea. I just have the unsettling feeling that, any more, a slight change in leadership at the top won't really purge the elites who run the country of nefarious intentions or woefully wrong-headed policymakers. If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, there will probably be some big changes, but it won't neccessarily mean the kind of shift most of us would like to see in the way America works. Hell, we might not even get out of Iraq if it's certain Democrats. And of course, if a Republican wins, you can expect more of the same.

Sometimes I think they had it right in '68, man.

In Wild in the Streets, the world's most popular entertainer, Max Frost (Christopher Jones) wins the presidency and reclaims America on behalf of the youth movement! It's based on a novel called, I swear, The Day it All Happened, Baby. I'm of the opinion that any title can be improved by throwing a "baby" there on the end. It's the Da Vinci Code, Baby. Tell me that's not snappier. Or Schindler's List, Baby...Now that sounds like some quality entertainment that anyone could enjoy!

It's hard to tell, actually, if Wild in the Streets is just an ironic put-on or a super-special double-reverse ironic put-on. Like, is it coming from the perspective of the Establishment, depicting hippies and protesters against the war and young radicals as mindless sheep bent on getting rid of all the unpleasant old people? Or is it coming from the perspective of the youth, making fun of how they're depicted by older Establishment types?

I'm not sure. But either way, it's awesome.

Amendment XXIII

Oh, come on, this one's not even fair!

Section 1. The District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, but in no event more than the least populous state; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the states, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a state; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Who represents Washington D.C. in government...Wow...Totally forgot about this one. If you were in some kind of class where a test was given on Constitutional Amendments, this would be the question you'd fuck up.

There is no movie that directly relates to the issue of voting rights for people in Washington D.C., save possibly some documentary or something about which I am unaware. So I'll just list some movies I enjoy that take place in this city:

True Lies
The Day the Earth Stood Still
In the Line of Fire
The Werewolf of Washington (a bizarre 1973 "comedy" with Dean Stockwell as an aide to a Nixonian president who gets bitten by a werewolf while in Hungary)

Amendment XXIV

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This and other amendments make clear that voting is a right extended to all Americans above a certain age unilaterally and without question. It is an essential component to our democracy.

Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers presents a grim, fascist future in which only those who serve in the military are permitted to vote. (Any echoes of contemporary Israel is purely coincidental.) A colonial civilization (the film takes place in Buenos Aires even though the entire cast is white), humanity takes on a planet full of alien bugs in a war of all-out conquest.

That's all well and good, but Verhoeven calls attention to Robert Heinlein's notion of "citizenship through service" for a reason. Control in this world has been achieved by limiting the ranks of voters, ensuring that all those who wish to participate in their government must first serve their government, even at the risk of their own life.

It's the exact opposite of how America has been designed. You're born here, BLAMMO, you have the following inalienable rights. The government first places trust in you, then asks for your cooperation in return. Buenos Aires in Starship Troopers first asks for your undying loyalty, then possibly lets you join the ranks of the citizenry.

(I should note, however, that this amendment speaks specifically to the disenfranchisement of the poor, a criminal act that the Republicans freely and openly engage in each and every election cycle.)

Amendment XXV

Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

Rod Lurie's The Contender looks at the way a death in Washington quickly becomes politicized, another opportunity to rejigger the power structure to one's benefit. When the Vice-President dies, the President (Jeff Bridges) names a female Senator (Joan Allen) to the office. She comes under the heated scrutiny of a weaselly fellow Senator (a nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman), who uses the confirmation hearing as an excuse to humiliate and slander his political opponents.

The media, concerned exclusively on those stories that will garner the most public interest, focus obsessively on the Senators sex life rather than her qualifications, and the entire thing becomes an intricate Public Relations chess match instead of a genuine inquiry into her worthiness for such a high office. Clearly, the film is a reaction to the Clinton era, when Republicans took advantage of the media's insatiable appetite for sleaze to paint their opponents as perverts and bring the government to a standstill.

But, if anything, the problems addressed in the movie have only gotten worse. No longer content to merely gossip about a president they consider poorly-bred and unworthy, now the media chooses to prop up an illegal monarchy while simultaneously silencing any opposition. It's not working out too well, if you were wondering.

Amendment XXVI

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Crap, I wish I hadn't already used Wild in the Streets. That would be perfect right here.

The basis for setting the voting age at 18, I suppose, is military in nature. If you're old enough to go fight in a war, the thinking probably goes, you should be able to have a say in things back home.

And Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is a movie suggesting that you don't have a say in things.

For the first hour, we watch as young recruits are berated and demeaned by a vicious drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey). Then, we see them in the field of battle. A Marine journalist, Joker (Matthew Modine), reports on the war, but only the official version of events. Nothing that happens is "official." All is chaotic. There is no opportunity to make sense of the situation or interact thoughtfully with ones superiors. Our military is a churning machine taking in young men and expelling dead bodies of all shapes, size sand colors.

After all, what use is a vote if you don't have any perspective? When you do what you're told for a living, it becomes more than a mindset. More like a credo. Even a belief system. That's indoctrination, holmes.

And finally...

Amendment XXVII

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

Allowing potentially crooked people to vote on giving themselves a pay raise? What else could I think of but Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a primer on how a complete lack of ethical standards seasoned with the friendship of George W. Bush and marinated for several years in an industry freed of oversight by massive kickbacks and political contributions allowed a couple of rich guys to steal massive amounts of money from Californians while simultaneously defrauding their employees and investors. I know, I know, that Andy Fastow seems like a swell guy. But beneath that charming, attractive, not at all rat-like exterior, he's actually kind of a jerk. Hard to believe...but true.

As I said before, if there's anything, anything, the Founding Fathers attempted to impart with this document, it's that everyone needs someone keeping an eye on them, making sure they don't steal from the till. This amendment just backs up this notion once again, in case we'd missed it all those other times.

Okay, that's all she wrote. Phew. I'm not sure that turned out quite as I'd expected. A lot more nebbishly little fix-its in that Constitution than grand, sweeping reforms. Oh well. At least you got a few rental recommendations out of it. (Although maybe skip Werewolf in Washington. I'm just throwing that in there to impress you with my depth of knowledge...)

We're Through the Looking Glass Here, People

This brief blog post by Andrew Sullivan may be the most gobsmackingly stupid thing I have read in 2006.

It occurs to me that the global warming debate is not unlike the WMD-terrorist debate, except the sides are reversed. Accrding to Ron Suskind, Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine" means that if there's a one percent chance that a terrorist could have access to a WMD, we must act as if it were a certainty - because the outcome, however unlikely, would be too disastrous to risk. On global warming, Gore expresses a not-too-dissimilar equation: if there's a small chance that human behavior could lead to environmental catastrophe, we should act as if it were a certainty - because waiting too long is too big a risk to take. Cheney wins because 9/11 provided stark evidence of the real risk we now face. Gore needs images of catastrophe to ramp up public demands for action. Hence the movie and Vanity Fair pictorials.

Um, what? Al Gore is attempting to warn people about a potentially devastating environmental disaster, one that is agreed upon in general terms by scientists studying these sorts of natural phenomenon. Dick Cheney made up some lies about weapons of mass destruction in order to fool Americans into prosecuting a war he'd been planning in secret since the 90's. These two things have very, very little to do with one another, aside from being campaigns instigated by politicians in order to influence public opinion in some way.

Let's take away the fact that Gore's case is most likely accurate whereas we all know Dick Cheney was completely 100% full of shit. Even if we assume they are both liars, all Gore is trying to do is encourage conservation, alternative sources of energy and serious discussion about the potential for severe, cataclysmic fallout from global warming. If he's wrong, we'd have made some sacrificies unneccessarily. Oh well.

Dick Cheney's error led directly to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

So we're not talking about an equitable scenario in any way, here. THEN, after you've considered that point, consider again that we already know Dick Cheney's full of shit whereas Gore's claim could be described, at worst, as still open for debate.

Yet Andrew claims "Dick Cheney wins." Wins? Wins what? A fucking goldfish in a plastic bag? He wins because "9/11 provided stark evidence of the real risk we now face." Um, 9/11 did not prove anything relating to Dick Cheney's claims about WMD in Iraq. It proved that a Saudi Arabian death cult was capable of hijacking some of our planes. That's it.

I mean, where does he even come up with this stuff? He implies that Gore's case rests on the fact that there's a 1% chance global warming may occur. ("If there's even a small chance...") That's not remotely accurate. He doesn't cite a single source for this assumption. I don't mind if Andrew Sullivan personally wants to reject the idea of global warming, but to imply in print that there's only a small chance it will occur with no evidence to support this claim is beyond irresponsible. It's simply dishonest.

Regrettably, the post continues...

In both cases, however, the evidence is complicated and hard to pin down with absolute certainty.

Well, almost nothing in life can be pinnned down with absolute certainty. But I've read very little reliable information implying that global warming is an out-and-out myth. There's clearly some truth to the notion that we're rapidly heating up the planet, implying that some kind of inevtiable ecological consequences.

Notice that Andrew doesn't even refute the notion of global warming here. He just says that it's complicated. Yes, environmental science would be kind of complicated if you get down to details. That's why lay persons, such as journalists, often rely on information provided by Ph.D.'s and experts in the subject before making declarative statements in print about the merits of a particular theory. Andrew's only provided evidence is an Op-Ed from the Wall Street Journal. A Wall Street Journal editorial about global warming. Hardly a fair and impartial source. That's like asking the Big Bad Wolf for safety tips when travelling through the woods at night.

We know we are at much greater risk now from Islamist terror than we were a decade ago - but measuring how much, and where from specifically, is very hard.

Without a doubt, our soldiers are at greater risk of being shot at by Muslims now than they were a decade ago. (If only because our previous 90's Gulf War was so much quicker.) But are we here in the homeland definitely at greater risk from terrorism now? Why? Didn't another group of Middle Eastern cult members try to attack the World Trade Center way back in the early 90's? Does the simple fact that they initially failed and then later succeeded really imply that the threat is so much greater now? That's a pretty simplistic, unconvincing line of reasoning...

Equally, we know that global warming is real, but whether it has reached or will soon reach a dangerous tipping point is not a given.

No, of course it's not a given. But that's not the same as saying there's only a small chance Gore's scenario will come true. He keeps shifting around, as if he's afraid of actually having to specifically lay out his thoughts on the global warming issue. Maybe if he parses it down enough, making it into a semantic argument, he can get away with muddying up the waters sufficiently to pass this ridiculous WMD comparison off. I doubt it, though.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Superman Returns

One of the trailers before tonight's screening of Superman Returns advertised an upcoming release called A Nativity Story. On the heels of Mel Gibson's smash hit The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre The Last Cross on the Left Death Blow The Passion of the Christ, I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of a certain Messiah in theaters for the next few years. Call this first entry Jesus Begins.

And yes, Bryan Singer's new Superman film makes the obvious Jesus comparisons, particularly in one over-the-top shot towards the end that quite frankly oversells the connection. He was sent by his learned father down to Earth to teach all us mortal some valuable life lessons. He's forthright and honest and kind and unselfish. Not to mention all that suffering in order to save human lives. We get it even without him Assuming the Crucified Position, thanks all the same, Bri-Bri.

That word, "suffering," pretty much sums up the experience of Singer's movie. Perhaps understanding that a nearly invincible alien doesn't neccessarily win over an audience right off the bat, he goes to great lengths to make the sometime Mr. Kent relatable. He can't be harmed by bullets, of course, but he does get sad and lonely and jealous, just like everyone else. In Superman Returns, an angry spat cuts our hero far deeper than any number of natural disasters, runaway airplanes or blazing infernos.

Unfortunately, Supes isn't the only one to suffer in this 2 and a half hour archetype marathon. The overly-referential, plodding script by Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris, lean on big set pieces and heavy on repetition, pretty much guaranteed a dull finished product right from the outset. And Singer's seriousness of mission and near-desperate desire to tie his new film in with the Donner/Lester classics prevents him from putting any kind of unique stamp on the proceedings.

Little more than a jazzed-up combination of Superman I and Superman II, Singer's new film teases the viewer with what could have been while serving up heavy doses of familiarity, nostalgia, camp and schmaltz.

I found the film more disappointing than most because these glimpses of greatness are there. As pure spectacle, Superman Returns has a few sequences that will easily rank among the year's most impressive. In particular, the plane crash/shuttle launch set piece (shown in 3D at some IMAX theaters, but not where I saw it) stuns with its scale and level of detail. Having said that, it doesn't make a lot of practical sense. Why would you possibly want to strap a rocket on to the back of an occupied 747? Isn't this just asking for trouble? You should probably put in a call in to Superman before even going ahead with a stupid concept like that, just to make sure he's free for the next hour or so.

Singer's the kind of director who pays attention not just to these kind of major centerpiece moments but smaller visual details throughout the film, all of which helps to sell an audience on this kind of far-out fantasy universe. When Superman lands on a rocky surface, he leaves a small impact crater under his feet. When Superman fights his nemesis Lex Luthor on an island made of kryptonite, crystals continue to branch out and grow at the edges of the frame.

Also to his credit, Singer has found an almost ideal Superman in Brandon Routh. The guy's no Christopher Reeve. In particular, he lacks Reeve's gangly, awkward effectiveness as Clark Kent. Reeve played Kent not as a clumsy man but as a graceful man who pretended to be clumsy. Rewatch Superman II some time. He'll walk into rooms with ease only to remember he's supposed to be a klutz just in time to knock his elbow into the filing cabinet. Routh just flashes a toothy grin and pushes his glasses further up his nose, but he looks the part and remains effective throughout.

So you have a solidly cast new Superman and an ace effects team ready to put a massive budget to use in creating an awe-inspiring new Superman movie for a new generation. Why go backwards? Why rehash most of the plot points from the first two films in the series, the ones from the 70's, instead of designing something new?

Singer includes a lot of post 9/11 ideas and references in the script, which obsessively contrasts Superman's godlike powers with human frailty. Humans are brittle and occupy a hazardous world liable to collapse upon them at any time. A late seqeuence features oddly familiar images of Metropolis skyscrapers and buildings being violently shaken by shock waves.

Superman can thus relate to humans emotionally, he feels pain when rejected or ignored, but he can never truly be one of them because of his preternatural ability to survive. (Towards the end of the film, he will develop a strong emotional connection to another character specifically because they share this ability.)

It's an interesting perspective to take towards the material, and could definitely have worked as a reintroduction to this venerable franchise. Singer, for whatever reason, uses it as an excuse to reminisce about great Superman moments of the past. The film opens with the Man of Steel crash-landing on the Kent's Midwestern farm. He has been traveling the universe for five years searching for remnants of his home world of Krypton. Finding none, he has returned to Earth so that he might resume his previous life as Clark Kent/Superman.

So we get a return to Metropolis, with Clark showing up at the bustling Daily Planet office seeking work. We see him reunited with his old flame Lois Lane (deadeyed Kate Bosworth), who's now a mommy and engaged to fellow reporter Richard White (Cyclops James Marsden). They become embroiled in the same kind of Dreary Love Triangle that occupied Singer's valuable time in the first two X-Men movies. He just keeps returning to this well and it never pays off for him. Remember the painful, uninteresting and ultimately pointless showdown between Cyclops and Wolverine for Jean Grey's affection? It's repeated here, this time with Cyclops playing the guy who comes between the established couple, with equally pointless results.

Much of the blame falls on Bosworth, who just couldn't be less interesting or vital as Lois Lane. Gone is the rapid-fire, syncopated dialogue. Gone is the pluck and good humor. She's still an ambitious reporter, but even this trait - clearly her single most definitive - is blunted by the inclusion of the "single mother" sub-plot. If people didn't keep calling her Lois, you'd think she was just some attractive girl reporter with a nice family. She and Routh have very little chemistry, but then that's okay because they share very little screen time. Believe it or not, Lois spends much of the film's second act locked in a pantry.

It's interesting to me how veteran character actors, like Frank Langella, can step comfortably right into this sort of a world while other, less talented performers like Bosworth immediately seem out of place. As Daily Planet editor Perry White, Langella's not given a lot of great lines, or even much to do, yet he still manages to blend in seamlessly with the reality of the story. He feels at home in Metropolis while Bosworth seems like she'd be more comfortable stripping down to a bikini and heading over to the beach from Blue Crush.

While we focus mainly on the Romantic, Supes' old enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been paroled, in part because Superman was not present to testify at his trial, and is right back up to his old tricks. And I mean that literally. Luthor's evil plot borrows heavily from his schemes in Superman II (in which he first discovered the Fortress of Solitude to which he returns here) and Superman I (his first attempt to artificially create Beach front property, which he will revisit). In place of Otis and Mrs. Teschmacher, he's now accompanied by the silent Stanford (my old college RA Kal Penn) and Kitty Kowalski (a horrible, screechy Parker Posey).

As much as I disliked Bosworth as Lois, Spacey gives by far the film's most humiliating performance. Opting to impersonate Gene Hackman's portrayal of Luthor rather than create his own, Spacey's such a preening, hammy and cornball presence that he threatens to totally derail the movie every time he's on screen. I always thought Gene Hackman was too broad in the role initially, but his take on the material is like Olivier's Henry V in comparison to Spacey's. Will he ever do anything worthwhile again? The guy hasn't been good in a movie since the 90's. Again, Singer chooses to reference the old movies rather than give us something, anything, different. So disappointing.

I mean, it's not like there aren't any more Superman stories to tell aside from the old Lex Luthor gets Kryptonite rigamaroll. The comic's been around for, what, 70 years? I don't ever want to see the rows of corn at the Kent homestead lighting on fire as a rocket from the stars smashes down to Earth again. Ever. I've seen that. Ditto Luthor holding a crystal up to the light and explaining to someone its deep significance. Old news. Show me Brainiac or Darkseid or what's inside the Phantom Zone or something.