Saturday, July 29, 2006


I met Mel Gibson once. Back in my Daily Bruin days, I only got to interview celebrities at "junkets," or round table sessions with as many as 12-15 journalists, typically held in a cramped room (not a suite...a room with a table in place of a bed...) at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. Mel was one of the only subjects EVER to agree to a one-on-one interview with a student journalist. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool.

Even more cool, from the writerly standpoint, was his directness. This is not a guy to mince words. The movie we discussed was Payback, which he had taken away from writer/director Brian Helgeland to finish up himself. Generally, in that sort of uncomfortable situation, subjects would recite pre-approved spin from the studio's PR department:

"We just didn't see eye to eye on some issues, Brian wanted to move on to another project, blah blah blah."

Gibson gave me pretty much the whole story without pulling any punches, at least from his perspective. Furthermore, he went into detail about why Helgeland's version wasn't particularly good and what he thought of the guy's attitude towards criticism and all that kind of interesting, personal information. He's an intense guy but also gave me the impression of being really sincere about his work, and also particularly friendly and approachable for a guy who has been internationally famous since the early 80's.

He did not ask me if I was a Jew or bring up Judaism once. I wonder now, looking back, if that was on his mind at the time...

Lt. Steve Smith, in charge of the detective bureau for the Malibu/Lost Hills station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, confirmed to me just now that "the contents seem to be similar" between the official reports and the four pages posted by on the Internet alleging Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic slurs -- "fucking Jews" and "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" and asking the arresting deputy "Are you a Jew?" -- during his DUI arrest early Friday morning. Smith denied's charge that the sheriff's department was involved in a "cover-up" of Gibson's alleged anti-Semitic tirade detailed in deputy Jim Mee's first arrest report.

Anyone paying attention during Passion of the Christ probably noticed that Mel has kind of a Jew hang-up. At the time, I found the mainstream denial that the film was anti-Semitic to be kind of cute in a way...Americans are so distanced from that particular strain of pernicious historical European anti-Semitism, they don't even recognize it when they see it. Hook noses and flowing golden robes and long beards and general bloodthirstiness don't communicate "Jew" to them...Just "evil guy." It's kind of refreshing.

But others caught on to when the guy was really saying. Not even so much that "Jews killed Jesus," which is pretty much what the original story has to say. But "Jews are responsible for evil," as if villainy just radiated from their religious leaders and community in the same way that goodness radiated from the Savior.

And let's not forget Hutton Gibson, Mel's deranged father. Here's my favorite HG moment came when he did a phone interview on a random radio show called "Speak Your Piece." Here's his theory on the Holocaust:

"They claimed that there were 6.2 million [Jews] in Poland before the war, and they claimed after the war there were 200,000 - therefore he must have killed 6 million of them," he said. "They simply got up and left! They were all over the Bronx and Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia, and Los Angeles."

Yes! This is totally reasonable! Also, some of them fell into a rabbit hole and found themselves in Wonderland or stumbled into Narnia via an oddly-placed piece of antique furniture! Which is really too bad for them, because I've heard they're not too keen on the Jews in Narnia. Only started admitting the Irish a few years back...

So, okay, his Dad's batshit insane. That's fine. He's allowed. Mel doesn't neccessarily agree with that stuff, right? Right?

Hutton Gibson in statements has decried the Holocaust as "fiction" and claimed there were more Jews in Europe after World War II than before. The younger Gibson, however, has repeatedly denied his movie was anti-Semitic. But the actor/director's views about his father's Holocaust denial have been under scrutiny. When asked by an interviewer in early 2004 whether the Holocaust happened, the actor / director / producer responded that some of his best friends ''have numbers on their arms,'' then added: ''Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps.'' But in the same interview, Gibson said his father, Hutton Gibson, had ''never lied to me in his life,'' and Holocaust scholars have cited those and other statements as evidence that he has failed to disassociate himself clearly from his father's views.
Two odd things...He says "some of them [died] in concentration camps." He doesn't say "were killed" or "death camps," indicating that it's possible he agrees with his father - that the Nazis had work camps, but didn't kill anyone, and that Worldwide Jewry has purposefully fudged the numbers to garner fraudulent sympathy. Also, the "my father never lied to me" thing. It could mean that he thinks his father's right about the Holocaust. Or it could me he thinks his father thinks he's right. In other words, it's not a lie if Hutton believes it, even if Mel knows it's kind of nutty.

I can't say for sure. But the evidence is starting to stack up against this guy. I just hope there's not some hook-nosed little weasely guy lending money to all the Mayans at a usurious rate in Apocalypto, or there's going to be some problems...

You have to wonder if this recent Israel-Lebanon tension is going to increase anti-Semitic sentiment in this country. I'm in kind of a hard spot...I vehemently disagree with Israeli policy and feel that they are trying to pull us into a disasterous larger war in the Middle East. (Yes, that's actually possible.) But I really hope Americans don't get too angry with Israel over this, because that tends to turn into more generalized anti-Jew sentiment after a little while. Look, I don't think Jews run the world or start all the wars or anything juvenile like that, but when Israel leads the way in fomenting a massive, horrifically bloody world conflict...well, it gives credence to these loopy, fringe ideas. Suddenly, the idea of angry Jews with an agenda doesn't seem so far paranoid and delusional.

And, of course, a beloved, popular celebrity who's seen as the mouthpiece for a large segment of the American religious population starts speaking these sorts of ideas, even drunk to a bunch of cops, it doesn't bode well for anyone.

Friday, July 28, 2006

V for Vendetta

Alan Moore, the eccentric genius behind the graphic novel V for Vendetta (along with illustrator David Lloyd) has had some bad experiences in Hollywood. Two of his previous works, Jack the Ripper chronicle From Hell and the literate fantasy League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, have been transferred into useless, dumbed-down turkeys gathering dust in bargain bins throughout the country. He's even been sued by screenwriter Larry Cohen, who claimed that the film League of Extraordinary Gentlemen borrowed heavily from his unproduced work and that the entire series of comic books was an elaborate smokescreen designed to hide the theft.

So it's understandable that Moore wouldn't take any interest in the film version of V for Vendetta, going so far as to demand his name be removed from the credits. Furthermore, I'd say it's pretty likely that Moore would dislike the finished product, not neccessarily because it takes liberties with his original book (no adaptation would be possible otherwise), but because it essentially steals his initial conceit to tell a completely different story.

Published in the late 80's and set in a totalitarian London of the near future, Vendetta functioned as a bitter takedown of the policies of Margaret Thatcher and the conservative English government of the time. This new film, written by the Wachowski Brothers and helmed by their Matrix assistant director James McTeigue, uses the structure, motifs and much of the dialogue of Moore and Lloyd's book but reconfigures everything to speak to contemporary America instead. It's at once strikingly similar to the novel (which I read and enjoyed immensely a few years back while working at Barnes & Noble) and also a complete and total departure. It's also one of the best and most important films of the year, a strident and unapologetic screed against the Bush Administration's media-enabled power grab and its devastating aftermath.

Though it takes place in a dystopian future, V for Vendetta doesn't make some rhetorical, slippery slope, worst-case-scenario kind of argument. The Wachowskis and McTeigue aren't so much saying "if we keep going down our present path, this might be where we end up." More like "wake up, people! This is happening right now!" There's a tremendous sense of urgency to the film (as there was in Moore's book), and it's worth noting that all of the transgressions committed by the regime at the film's center mirror the real, admitted activities of the American government. Everything from the black hooded terror suspects to the vehement distrust of Muslims to the frothing newsman who resembles Christopher Hitchens and sounds like Bill O'Reilly should feel familiar to American audiences.

The film's fantasy element serves mainly to keep things lively and entertaining, and to attract teenagers and dimwitted adults who wouldn't normally pay $10 to see a film that includes sociopolitical commentary. But make no mistake - this is a polemic, more angry and radical than anything Michael Moore has done to date.

The man in the Guy Fawkes mask known only as "V" (Hugo Weaving, giving a wonderful performance without ever showing his face) opens the film by saving intern Evey (Natalie Portman) from sleazy, violent cops. He then moves right into blowing up London's Old Bailey. "Violence can be a tool for good," V explains, and he really means it. In the cause of bringing down the invasive, power-mad and corrupt government of Chancellor Adam Setler (John Hurt) via mass revolution, V will be called on to kill several people eand blow up yet another beloved London landmark.

But what makes the film surprising, and what gives its attacks on structural systems of control real bite, isn't the lionization of a violent anarchist. It's the repeated and obvious parallels to American life, attitudes and policy in the year 2006, the frequently ingenius way in which the Wachowskis and McTeigue have managed to make a 16 year old book relevant to this moment in time. It can't have been an easy feat, despite the novel's pointedness, depth and broad historical perspective, yet it feels effortless.

The insights made aren't exactly groundbreaking. Violent tragedies are seized upon (or created) by leaders to create excuses for wars of conquest or domination. Repetition and media saturation can allow falsehoods to take root in the public consciousness. The threat of torture or imprisonment without trial are useful not for interrogation but intimidation of the populace at large. Authoritarian governments rely on exclusionary or eliminiationist rhetoric to unite the masses against common foes and distract from more pressing issues of the day. Anyone who has been paying attention to the news lo these past few years will find little that's brand new and surprising.

But seeing everything put together within the confines of an entertaining fictional story, having the whole case laid out before your eyes in the course of 2 fast-moving hours, makes it clear and identifiable in a way that years of reading Media Matters and listening to Democracy Now never could. Watching V for Vendetta was a simultaneously exhiliarating and disheartening experience - exciting to see filmmakers getting so much right, really taking an audience on a whirlwind tour of the shadowy truth behind CNN's version of reality, and yet depressing to see just how bad things have become in only a few short years.

Taken on purely the level of cinema, I must say that the film is clearly the work of a first-timer. The opening few minutes unfold awkwardly, as do some sequences during the occasionally-slack midsection. You sense that McTeigue can't quite figure out how to initially get the audience involved in this story, mainly because of V's generally inscrutible nature. He's the kind of hero that must be warmed up to slowly, with his oversized mask frozen in an eternal, creepy smile, his deformed hands covered over with tight black gloves and his penchant for alliterative, allusion-heavy monologues. Once the story gets going (and in particular, once Stephen Rea is introduced as Police Inspector Finch), the film finds its footing.

Budget constraints likewise appear to have been a factor. The action scenes, mainly involving V disarming cops (known as fingermen) with knives, look pretty good, but they are brief and infrequent. Likewise, there isn't really much to the film's concept of Future London. A few back alley sets, a boardroom that's nothing more than a long table and a massive monitor featuring a perma-close up on John Hurt's face and V's book-lined apartment are the locations for about 90% of the movie. For a movie with this many ideas on this kind of scale, things feel a touch claustrophobic.

Audiences hoping for Matrix-style spectacle must have been disappointed. This is not a film about knives whooshing through the air or huge CG-laden set pieces. V for Vendetta ignores Michae Bay-isms to focus on some highly unpleasant truths about the direction we're headed as a country. When it's not implying that the American government may have been behind the 9/11 attacks or suggesting that blowing up a building can serve a positive, rational purpose, the film eventually settles on a making a direct, straightforward argument:

When a government ceases to truly represent its people, when it turns on the masses as a way of sustaining itself, it's the duty of individual citizens to reclaim their country from their own leadership. In the movie's world, there's a born leader with 20 years to plot out a course of action and sweet martial arts skills. Reality hasn't provided the American people with this kind of head start, but a really strong, well-made and intelligent film on the subject will have to do for now.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Generally, the sequel to a massive box office hit gets approached in one of two ways. Either you remake the original film with a larger budget or you blow up and expand the universe of the first movie, filling in the backstory, adding a new villain and an entirely new dimension to the story. Ghostbusters 2 goes the first route while Gremlins 2 opts for the second. Jewel of the Nile goes for the former while Back to the Future 2 aims for the latter.

The follow-up to Disney's ride-based smash hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl incorporates both standard sequel elements, rejiggering the plot of the first film into a much larger, more epic-scale story with the pirates' immortal souls at stake.

Coming as it does from uber-Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, it's not surprising that Dead Man's Chest crams just about every well-known pirate trope into a 2.5 hour smorgasboard of spectacle. J Brucks is a guy who doesn't know when to say when. He seems to view a film's quality as proportional to its length and cost to produce.

What is surprising about Dead Man's Chest is how well it all comes together despite the cumbersome running time, largely uninteresting supporting cast and the somewhat senseless, chaotic set pieces. The rare sequel that improves on the original film, Dead Man's Chest reminded me at times of the classics of the swashbuckle and adventure genres, in particular Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It's not quite as good as that, granted, but this is about as close as modern Hollywood gets. (It's the only even passable entertainment offered thus far in Summer 06).

Star Johnny Depp won all the praise the first time around, garnering an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the fey and self-obsessed Captain Jack Sparrow, and he's once again fun to watch in the role. Director Gore Verbinski smartly gives him some room, lets him stretch out in the character and take some peculiar chances. He sashays and daintily skips his way through the movie, providing for some measure of entertainment value from even the most dry of expositional sequences.

Having said that, I think Verbinski deserves the lion's share of the recognition this time around. Like the original entry, this film is about a 20 minutes too long, but the pacing is better. Though the climax is arguably larger than the ghost ship seige and subsequent battle that closed out the first film, it's more tightly coiled and intense.

Additionally, the Industrial Light and Magic special effects have improved from the already-impressive first movie. The villainous Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, unrecognizable behind heavy-duty make-up) commands a crew of mutant sea creatures, pirates who have traded in their souls in exchange for 100 years of immortality. Actually, not to get sidetracked, but an interesting case could be made for this entire franchise being an extended guilt metaphor. This is the second film in a row in which characters are forced to make up for the sins of Jack Sparrow's past. In the first film, they help him weasel out of a curse he should be under for stealing gold. This time around, they're helping him weasel out of a deal he made with a Devil-like sea captain. Likewise, all the villainous pirates suffer for some horrendous evil in their background. The endless searches for these artificats, the hardships endured at sea in order to undo the crimes of the past, it's all part of a larger redemptive quest for all involved. There's even the further implication that Will fights to make up for his father's poor judgements and Elizabeth fights to atone for her father's prissy cowardice.

But anyway, back to the effects. Each individual monster has different deformities - Jones peers from pale human eyes but has a squid face, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) has barnacles growing out of his body, others resemble mussels or clams. The amount of work that must have gone into designing this group of phantoms boggles the mind, but was totally worth the effort. (Again, their hideous physical features mirror their fatal misjudgement - choosing the lonely life of the sea instead of a life spent in a community with other humans. Magic forces them to own up to their errors.)

Verbinski and his screenwriters, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, stumble occasionally as they move along this rather unlikely trilogy. I honestly can not figure out why they felt the need to bring back so many characters from the first film. It would seem like an ongoing franchise focused on the many adventures of Captain Jack, the only truly popular character from the first film, would be the wisest strategy.

Keira Knightley, beautiful though she may be, adds nothing to the movie as the headstrong Elizabeth. Am I the only one who notices that she plays every scene in every one of her movies in exactly the same way? Stare off into space hazily 90% of the time. Every once in a while, suddenly snap to attention, curl up her lip into a snarl and say something headstrong to the nearest male. Then stomp off. Orlando Bloom likewise brings very little to an adventure franchise. They're both dull actors and their scenes together are lifeless. (Wisely, I don't think there's a single sequence in the entire film featuring just these two, leading me to believe that Verbinski knows how boring they are on screen and just needs a requisite amount of attractive young people in his movie to bring in the teenagers.)

If they had stopped with bringing these three back, that would have been fine with me. Maybe not advisable, but fine. But why bring back Jack Davenport as the snobbish Commander Norrington? I watched the first film not all that long ago and had still forgotten this character even existed? Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook return in their underwritten, stupid comic relief characters from the first movie and continue to flail around in the hopeless pursuit of cheap laughs. Tom Hollander as well returns as the scheming Cutler Beckett, who has pretty much nothing at all to do in the story and whose presence is totally unneeded considering the menace already presented by Davy Jones and his ghostly ship The Flying Dutchman.

I mean, with all the big action beats Verbinski has designed here - including a few fights with Jones' dreaded sea beast The Kraken - and all the creative new characters, there wasn't any need at all for this much continuity. The supernatural mythology of this universe has been deepened to such an extent that continuing to focus on the governmental authority in Port Royal feels superfluous, is what I'm saying.

I've heard two different complaints from friends and customers about the movie in the past week. Some, including Ari of The Apsect Ratio, argue that the first hour lacks punch and takes forever to get going. Others feel that the ending, which strongly hints at the direction of the third film, At World's End, is unsatisfying and leave the audience hanging. I disagree on both counts.

I felt like the movie kicks into high gear right away. In fact, the opening passages moved more swiftly than the first time around. Instead of a long sequence in which Will (Bloom) and Elizabeth (Knightley) are arrested, we get a brief montage ending with them behind bars. When Will sets out to find Captain Jack, rather than the expected "search sequence," Verbinski cuts to the chase and delves right into one of the film's most inspired action scenes, a frenzied pursuit by kill-crazy cannibalistic islanders.

Likewise, the ending felt like fair game to me. The story of Dead Man's Chest, in which Jack, Will and Elizabeth team up to steal away the secret of Davy Jones' magical powers, comes to a downbeat conclusion, but it's a conclusion nonetheless. Really, it's as if this movie ends and then we get a two-scene preview of the next movie at the end, a little pre-teaser teaser. If that next movie's as good as this one, I'll be sorry to see this series come to an end.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Zion! Hear Me!

At one point, this was going to be a Braffy Nomination post for "World's Worst War Criminal." Since devising that category and beginning work on the post, an actual war has broken out, making the entire concept significantly less amusing. Okay, an additional war has broken out on top of the many previous wars that continued to rage. For reference, here's Billmon's attempt to list all the conflicts currently going on in the Hellscape Formerly Known as the Sovereign Nation of Iraq and the Greater Middle East.

We've got: Israeli Jews fighting Lebanese Shi'a and Palestinian Sunnis; Palestinian Fatah militants who've stopped fighting Hamas militants, but only because they're both fighting the Israelis; Saudi Sunni fundamentalists issuing fatwas against Hezbollah Shi'a fundamentalists; Egyptian Sunni fundamentalists backing those same Hezbollah Shi'a fundamentalists; Iraqi Sunnis killing Iraqi Shi'a and vice versa; Iraqi Shi'a (the Mahdi Army) jousting with Iraqi Shi'a (the Badr Brigade); Iraqi Kurds trying to push Sunni Arabs and both Sunni and Shi'a Turkomen out of Kirkuk; Turks threatening to invade Kurdistan; Iranians allegedly shelling Kurdistan, Syrian Kurds rebelling against Syrian Allawites who are despised by Syria's Sunni majority but allied with the Lebanese Shi'a who are hated and feared by the House of Saud and its Sunni fundamentalist minions. Oh, and American and Israeli neocons threatening to bomb both Syria and Iran.

So, yeah...Even though I had a great amusing summary all set to go for the Dick Cheney nomination...I'm going to have to give that idea a pass, and delay this year's Braffies even further while I come up with some fresh category ideas. Hardly the greatest tragedy of the week, but disappointing to me personally nonetheless.

Honestly, it's hard for me to even write about the horrors going on in Iraq and Lebanon any more. I feel limited in a number of ways. Mainly, I try to keep things somewhat light and funny around here. I figure no one comes to check out my blog for hard-hitting socio-political commentary but instead seek a platter of snide commentary featuring only a small side dish of actual current events.

Also, I can't help but feel like, in these war posts, I've begun to repeat myself. Crushed by Inertia began in November of 2004, already a year-and-a-half after the armies of freedom marched into Baghdad. (You can tell they're the armies of freedom because they're the ones bumping Limp Bizkit albums while they blow up your house.) I was already experiencing what some more clever bloggers than I have deemed "outrage fatigue." 4 years of President Curious George had put my shrillometer into a kind of permanent overdrive. There aren't many crimes I haven't (rightfully) accused the GOP and its sycophantic followers of committing (I'm looking at you, Sean Hannity), and I'm afraid the time when I will run out of synonyms for "asshole" is drawing nigh.

Posts about Israel enhance my discomfort. I am a Jew and I frequently differ from other Jews, even close family members, about the attitude and behavior of the state of Zion. For example, I feel that underground raves take up vital time and resources that should be focused on keeping out robotic squid monsters, whereas others prefer to live for the moment, de-emphasizing the mechanized tentacled threat by dancing the night away.

NO, I'm kidding. I feel that, despite Israel's right to exist, neighbors and enemies have genuine and legitimate greivances that are routinely ignored not only by Israel but also the United States. We're talking about an apartheid state. Americans couldn't tolerate the notion of apartheid when it was happening in South Africa. Yet not only does the second-class citizenry of Palestinians not seem to upset anyone unduly, to voice any opposition to the practice earns one the proud label of "anti-Semite."

Now we have Israel responding to a terrorist action by Hezbollah with a full-on assault on the people of Lebanon. I have seen some images from Beirut over the last few days and they are absolutely some of the most vomit-inducing, reprehensible glimpses of inhuman cruelty imaginable. I will not post them here because then I wouldn't be able to load up my own blog for fear of seeing them again. You can look at them here, if you so desire. Be warned: war is icky and gross.

Law perfesser Alan Dershowitz doesn't seem to think so. He's too busy defending everything Israel does than considering the consequences of lobbing missiles into residential neighborhoods for several weeks at a time. In the LA Times, he has argued that anyone not elderly or crippled currently living in South Lebanon in in league with terrorists and therefore fair game for Israeli Death from Above. What's fascinating is that Dershowitz employs exactly the same excuse for killing Lebanese civilians that Ben Stein offered for the government ignoring Katrina victims.

"Hey, they could have left! But they didn't! So who cares if they die?" I think it's helpfully dehumanizing for these guys to think of those remaining in disaster/war zones as ignorant clods, helpless Victims of Choice flailing about in the wildnerness waiting for some kindly Good Samaritan to come along and give them a handout. It plays into that old "welfare queen" fiction perfectly, as if anyone would opt to remain in a war zone or a disaster area or to live on public assistance.

Normally, when these sorts of things happen in the Middle East, you can count on the Americans to step in and try to negotiate an immediate cease-fire. Just to help stop the killing, even if it's only temporarily. Our War President, loving war as he does, has decided to sit back, enjoy a delicious buttered roll and wait for Jesus to come and whisk him away up to Heaven.

"I wonder," George thinks as he slathers some more imitation margerine on his bread and takes a moment to admire the German Chancellor's ass as she passes by, "When the Rapture comes, will I just suddenly find myself standing in Heaven? Or will I actually feel my soul rush up through the clouds and into God's Kingdom? Because I do get kind of motion sick, and it would be awfully embarrassing to have my first meeting with Jesus and then have to leave to go throw up."

After all, why would Bush intercede if there's even a chance our guys are going to kick a lot of brown-people ass? Let the Israelis take our American weapons and use them on Hezbollah for us! Brilliant!

We’re looking at incredible increases in U.S. military aid and weapons sales to Israel. Military aid stands at about $3 billion a year. That’s about $500 for every Israeli citizen that the United States provides on an annual basis. And then, weapons sales, most recently, since the Bush administration came into power, we’re looking at $6.3 billion worth of weaponry sold to Israel.

Israel's relationship with the United States is unique in a number of ways. And one of those ways is that essentially the United States provides 20% of the Israeli military budget on an annual basis, and then about 70% of that money that is given from the United States, from U.S. taxpayers, to Israel is then spent on weapons from Lockheed Martin and Boeing and Raytheon. Most other countries don't have that sort of cash relationship, where they go straight to U.S. corporations with U.S. money to buy weapons that are then used in the Occupied Territories and against Lebanon.

That's from an interview on Democracy Now.

So there you have it...For perhaps the first time in CBI history, I'm left speechless. This war in Lebanon is our war. Israel's fighting it, but we've given them the weapons and the go-ahead. It's on us.

Damn, we're smooth.