Saturday, August 26, 2006

Friends With Money

Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) left a teaching gig at a snooty Santa Monica private school, we're told, because she got tired of being the only poor person around. Now she cleans other people's houses for $50 at a go, smokes a lot of pot and stews about her wealthy friends who don't appreciate her suffering. Every time they mention an upcoming sale on cashmere sweaters or an expensive fundraiser for ALS, she rolls her eyes and rubs her shoulders and makes known her bitter disdain for their lazy, bourgeois insensitivity.

That's not to say that Olivia's friends are blameless. Uber-rich stay-at-home Mom Franny (Joan Cusack) offers to pay for her friend's psychotherapy bills, but not for Olivia to take classes to become a personal trainer. Chronic depressive Jane (Frances McDormand) barely hides the contempt and pity she feels for any peer forced to clean houses for a living, and constantly urges Olivia to go back to teaching. Finally, screenwriter friend Christine distracts herself from the crisis of a failed marriage to a mean-tempered bully (Jason Isaacs) by tearing down everyone she knows, whether they are there to defend themelves or not.

These pathetic, miserable creatures populate Nicole Holofcener's unfortunate Friends With Money, an 85 minute ode to projection in all of its forms. Holofcener, whose previous film Walking and Talking was similarly thin but at least more entertaining, starts off with what could otherwise be an interesting central conceit and then hammers at it crudely until her point becomes painfully, abundantly clear. Yes, everyone is willing to forgive their own flaws even as they ceaselessly dissect, judge and criticize the behavior of everyone else. Yes, we focus on the problems of our friends and family as a way of ignoring our own. Yes, we get so caught up in our own perspective sometimes that it's impossible to see simple, straightforward problems clearly.

So the fuck what?

Holofcener has a lot going for her as a writer/director. She writes funny dialogue, which is a huge huge plus right from the start. Most American movies have at least servicable plots, but very few manage to tell stories with any kind of flair for language or panache. Friends With Money is repetitive and ultimately shallow, but it does feature a bevy of actresses who know how to make the most from a well-turned phrase. Some of the film's best moments are little side jokes, wry comments made under the breath that don't really have anything to do with a given scene.

(Christine, for example, while browsing the auction items at the ALS fundraiser, notes that, for a price, Reese Witherspoon will knit you a sweater. "I wonder how long that would take?," Keener muses in her patented deadpan.)

Regrettably, this kind of low-key charm can only get Friends With Money so far. Holofcener so relentlessly hits her main overarching theme, that her characters are blind to the real issues that are ruining their lives, everything gets locked into place very early on in the film. Actresses like Frances McDormand and Catherine Keener are more than capable of moving beyond simple types and fleshing out fully-realized characters, but in Friends With Money, they are struggling against a strong undertow of bland, obvious predictability.

In the office where Christine and her husband David agonize over their own script, the walls are lined with bulletin boards on which colored index cards keep all the various plot threads organized. I can almost imagine Holofcener sitting in a similar room, sifting through 3x5 cards on which she has recorded the two-word phrase that summarizes each of her characters.

Franny: Bored elitist
Jane: Bitter depressive
Olivia: Frustrated dreamer
Christine: Cynical victim

Whenever in doubt, Nicole returns to her index card. This is probably why Frances McDormand inserts "I'm tired" reflexively into nearly every conversation. Because she's depressed, you see.

This unfortunate tendency isn't limited to the female characters. All the men in their lives are the same way. To wit:

Franny's husband Matt (Greg Germann): Well-meaning goober
Jane's husband Aaron (Simon McBurny): Repressed homosexual
Christine's husband David: Narcissistic bully
Olivia's boyfriend Mike (Scott Caan): Goofy shitheel
Olivia's boyfriend Marty (Bob Stephenson): Sensitive loner

I shouldn't be able to summarize a film's entire cast so succinctly and yet so accurately. Watching Friends With Money is like solving a 20 piece jigsaw puzzle - stress-free and maybe enjoyable for a few minutes but boring and easy and ultimately pointless. There's not a lot of intellectual or emotional heavy-lifting involved.

Everything's there in the title, albeit indirectly. Though the film centers largely on Olivia's perspective, it's not called Life Without Money or Relative Poverty. It's Friends With Money. It's not about living in modern Los Angeles on a maid's salary, but about how obsessing over how much her friends have and what they do and how they live has distracted Olivia from the real business of living her life. It takes her the entire length of the film to even realize that aimless pessimism might be making her unhappy because she has spent so much time resenting her wealthy friends and wondering if her friend Jane's husband might be gay.

Counterintuitively, Friends With Money isn't really about friendship, having money or not having money. The class divide in LA is the content of the film but not the subject. Because, let's face it, Olivia's is a low-grade form of poverty. She doesn't worry about paying the rent or buying groceries. She doesn't have a mortgage or children to care for or ailing parents. She stresses over having enough of her favorite kind of skin cream, over paying for dinners when she goes out with friends, over sharing her housekeeping earnings with her boyfriend even though all he does in the house is hang out and have sex with her. Anyone who thinks this represents actual poverty in America has a fairly sheltered perspective.

The resolution of Olivia's storyline, however, crosses the line between merely shallow and downright offensive. [NOTE: I will now discuss the ending of Friends With Money. If you don't want to know what happens in the last few scenes, stop reading now.]

After an entire film in which she tries to figure herself out - Does she want to be a personal trainer? Does money really matter to her so much? Why are all her friends married while she's still single? - Olivia just lucks out in meeting a rich and available man who then buys her stuff and takes care of her. I honestly can't believe a woman wrote and directed this story in 2006. It's exactly the way I'd imagine some chauvanistic former fratboy would conclude a story about a charming but conflicted girl bumbling her way through her 30's. "Well, she's screwed up for a while, but then she just stops being uptight and makes herself look nice and meets a rich guy who makes her all better." Yeesh.

This is the worst example, but really, every scene in Friends With Money had at least one moment I found cloying or obvious or overly simplistic. Christine and David are building a garish second story on to their already-large home, which understandably irks their neighbors. But it isn't until Christine actually goes next door and sees how the extension is blocking the view that she realizes the depth of her insensitivity. See? She never noticed that her house was such an eyesore because she's always inside her own house! As metaphors's not exactly the most subtle or intricately developed...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Special Guest Blogger: Pluto

Let me ask you something...How can I be declared "not" a planet? I'm a planet. Done and done. Maybe I want to declare that Earth is no longer a planet. How would you like that, smart guys?

I mean, I'm a huge spherical rock hurtling through our solar system in an orbit around the sun. Sounds like a planet, right? I'm not a star. I'm not a moon. I'm not an asteroid. I'm not a comet. I don't even know what the fuck a "nebula" is. What's even left?

The problem is these young hipster scientists. They have no sense of history. I've been a planet since the '30s, man. I have planet tenure. You can't just go around declaring celestial objects members of a solar system and then throw them away just because they're a little smaller than everyone else and their orbits are non-traditional.

You know, there was another guy who travelled in some radical, different orbits, and he didn't always behave the way he was expected to. And you stupid humans did the same thing to that legendary hero, comedian Gallagher, that you're doing to me. Embrace me for a few years, call me a part of your system, and then throw me away when you're through having your kicks.

I mean, yes, there's a Disney character named after me, but it's the dog who doesn't even talk. And did you ever notice that Pluto and Goofy are both dogs, but Goofy walks around on his hind legs and wears clothes and even has a house and a wife and child, but the dog named after me was just some stupid dog? Clearly, in the Disney universe, dogs are conscious, sentient and self-aware beings, meaning that Pluto was Mickey's slave!

See? You guys are just prejudiced against small planets. Just look at the new name they're giving me. "Dwarf planet." I prefer the term "Little Planet," thank you very much. It's all so immature. Is this a schoolyard or a goddamn universe?

Pluto and objects like it will be known as "dwarf planets," which raised some thorny questions about semantics: If a raincoat is still a coat, and a cell phone is still a phone, why isn't a dwarf planet still a planet?

Yeah, see? Stop oppressing and deplanetizing me, International Astronomical Union!

Under the new rules, two of the three objects that came tantalizingly close to planethood will join Pluto as dwarfs: the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313, an icy object slightly larger than Pluto whose discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has nicknamed "Xena." The third object, Pluto's largest moon, Charon, isn't in line for any special designation.

Dude, I totally don't want to live in the ghetto with Ceres and Xena. That bitch crazy. And Charon doesn't get any distinction at all? How can it continue to be my moon if I'm not a planet? Let me ask you that? If I'm a dwarf planet, what is he? A mini-moon? A speck satellite? A lunar Lilliputian?

I can't believe your Earth scientists even have the time to worry about this stuff. Why not just let me keep being a planet and work on that cancer cure that continues to elude you guys? Or if the scientists want to keep their same disciplines, perhaps a device that will keep your planet from being decimated one day in the future by an enormous meteor? I'm just saying...It's something to think about before you willy-nilly start revoking Planet passes.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Rich Dad, Poor Schmuck

[UPDATE: Many thanks to Peter of Precious Cargo, who alerted me to this devastating critique of Kiyosaki by a fellow finance author. Among the revelations - Kiyosaki made his money not by cannily investing in real estate but through Amway, and the "Rich Dad" whose advice informs his most famous book was probably a fictional creation. Here's the best quote:

A reader recently suggested that Rich Dad Poor Dad is nothing but a collection of cliches about money. Old cliches. Cliches that have been around since way before Kiyosaki claims “rich dad” originated them. The reader further said that Kiyosaki then appears to have simply made up a bunch of accompanying phony stories to fill the cliche collection out to the length of a book. She may be right. For example, Kiyosaki’s fear-and-greed advice (see below) is an age-old Wall Street cliche about securities prices.

Read the whole thing, though. It's good.]

Those of you who don't work in bookstores probably don't recognize the name Robert Kiyosaki. He's one of these financial authors, of the Suze Orman variety, whose work you find in the Business Bestsellers section of Barnes and Noble. In this case, Kiyosaki broke into the maisntream with a book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad in which he provides parents with investment strategies for things like college tuition.

Largely, these books are harmless. They spout mainly obvious truisms about investment - buy real estate, don't extend yourself on credit cards with abnormally high or deceptive interest rates, that sort of thing - but fancy it up with motivational speaker schtick, anecdotes and humor to make the whole thing seem more palatable and engaging. I'm guessing that anyone who was a decent writer with a somewhat entertaining prose style who can balance his or her checkbook could author such a book.

Anyway, Kiyosaki, like any wise businessman would, has turned his one notable bestseller into a Cult of Personality. He constantly has new books coming out, a column on Yahoo Finance, all that crap. Even though he's got this self-made millionaire backstory going on, I guarantee he's making more now off of the author gig than he ever was as an entrepreneur.

All of this is lead-in to his head-explodingly stupid new column on Yahoo. The idiocy begins right with the title: Lazy People Don't Get Rich. Oh, brother...

Allow me to be politically incorrect: The No. 1 reason people aren't rich is because they're lazy. This is purely my opinion and no one else's, and I have no scientific proof to back it up.

No shit...

Robbie does 2 things in this first paragraph that drive me insane with rage. (1) He draws a stupid, illogical conclusion from casual, everyday observations. (2) He misuses the term "politically incorrect." Let's deal with the second issue first.

"Politically incorrect" does not mean rude or blunt. It does not indicate that you are about to make a crude generalization based on no evidence. Political correctness meant something specific - it was a way of speaking that was culturally neutral, that avoided heteronormative assumptions based on gender, race, etc. You wouldn't say "stewardess," assuming all who had that job were neccessarily women. You say "flight attendant." They are not "Congressmen," but "Congresspersons." Eventually, it got carried away. Calling someone "handicapped" indicated that they were at a disadvantage to everyone else, somehow "other" than "normal," so they became "differently abled."

But there's nothing "politically incorrect" about saying lazy people are poor and ambitious people are rich. That's just a stupid generalization. I've noticed that a lot of people are perverting these terms as an excuse to say things that are racist or sexist. Like, "Well, I don't believe in political correctness, so I feel free to say that all women are stupid and black people can't swim." That is just unacceptable language, not because it is not politically sensitive in its use of actual vocabulary, but because it is riddled with ignorant stereotypes.

Which brings me back to Robert's original point. He has clearly noticed that a lot of the wealthy people he knows are highly motivated. In fact, there may be a universal truth buried in there somewhere. If you make an exception, as Robert does not, for the wealthy people who simply inherited their money - the Paris Hiltons of the world - you might say that people of great wealth tend to be ambitious, highly motivated and aware of the value of hard work. In other words, there are no lazy self-made millionairs. That would be fair enough.

But that's not what Robert is saying. He's reversing the logical conclusion, stating not that becoming rich requires hard work, but that not becoming rich indicates a character flaw. Being poor = being lazy. What an idiot.

Rober then spends an entire page of his column talking about how people can't handle his brutal honesty because everyone in America but him is a total pussy. You see, he was in the Marine Corps, so he can spot a lazy person just like that!

When I returned from the war and entered the civilized world of business, I was shocked by the phoniness, the covert hostility (disguised as caring), and the fake smiles that are rampant to this day. It's been over 30 years since I was discharged from the Marines, and I still haven't adjusted.

Today, I'm still hesitant to let my employees know exactly what I'm not satisfied with for fear of being sued, or to compliment a pretty woman for fear of being accused of sexual harassment.

Does anyone else sense that Robert probably has a horrible, mean-spirited bullying personality, and that's why he feels repressed having to be nice to people at work all day? Ideally, he could stomp around, screaming at people and being generally rude while hitting on all the attractive women in sight. But instead, because of our bullshit politically correct society, which frowns on such behavior, he has to actually modify how he acts in front of other people. He can't just act like a 20 year old Marine on leave all the time!

How this relates to his outrageous poor=lazy formulation, I couldn't say. I think he's just spending several paragraphs congratulating himself on being brave enough to write a financial column for Yahoo.

Then, Robert slowly works his way back to his resume again.

Most of you who follow my books and this column know how I make my money. First of all, I'm an entrepreneur. I've been starting companies since I was a kid. I never wanted to be an employee -- I always wanted to be in control. I didn't want someone like me telling me what to do. Consequently, I now have companies, agencies, or strategic partners all over the world.

These financial writers spend so much time relating their personal stories, and these anecdotes are always the same. They did their research and learned all they could. They took a calculated risk. It paid off bigtime. Now they are rich. Repeat after me...I am Robert Kiyosaki, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.

Also, you have to love his command for the jargon. He has "strategic partners" all over the world. Not friends or colleagues or associations or coworkers. "Strategic partners." I guess they're playing World of Warcraft online together at night or something.

Then comes the funniest single line I have read in any piece of writing in some time.

Finally, I've loved gold and silver for years.

"I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on a piece of silver. It was at the Comte d'Ascoyne's yearly Masquerade Ball. Silver was dressed up as the Tin Man. I was done up as Dorothy. We locked eyes across the crowded room and in that moment, I knew my life would be forever changed. I walked towards my destiny, but did not see Silver's fiancee, Gold, returning from the salon with a tray of Brandy Alexanders. My heart sank like a stone."

Wars have been fought over gold and silver, too. Why do you think the Incas lost their empire to the Spaniards, or the American Indians lost their land to the European settlers? The conquerors may have said that they were acting in the name of God, but remember -- there's only a single letter's difference between "God" and "gold."

What penetrating insights. Someone get this guy a Booker Prize.

The recent outbreak of honesty also inspires me to be more forthcoming in general, and less politically correct. This is the web, after all, where honesty is respected, not suppressed, censored, or forced to be "sensitive" like our old, more traditional forms of media.

Again, political correctness has nothing to do with honesty. It is perhaps less direct, and certainly more of an academic concept than an assimilated part of American language, but this is not the same as being dishonest. A person with a disability really is differently abled, even if you think it's silly to refer to them as such.

Robert's just trying to come up with a good excuse for making brash, senseless generalizations without any rationale. If you question his thinking, you're just being "politically correct" and you have no respect for his frank brand of "honesty."

It's in this spirit that I opened by saying that lazy people don't get rich. I also said that the difference between "God" and "gold" is a simple "L" -- as in "lazy," or "looting." The conquistadors who looted the Inca Empire in the name of God weren't lazy. They were thugs with guns, but they had ambition.

Another word that begins with "L" is "loser." Over the years, I've met many losers who pray to God to give them gold. They'll never get it that way because, as the Sunday school I went to taught me, God helps those who help themselves. Again, the conquistadors may have been killers and thieves, but at least they knew how to help themselves.

Wow...I mean...Wow...Is the theme of this column really "you should be more like the conquistadors?" The ones that raped, savaged and eventually destroyed entire civilizations in a futile search for nonexistent gold? Actually, he's going a step further than that. If you don't have the attitude of a conquistador, burning everything in your path to personal enrichment, you're a LOSER.

Robert's revealing a pretty unpleasant, sub-Nietzschean side to his overall worldview here. Investment for him is all about "strength of will." The man who steps forward to take the money, no matter what he has to do to get it, will be the Rich Man and all others will be the Losers who serve him. Yikes...

As some of you may be aware, I wasn't born rich. And I've written openly about my failures as an entrepreneur and my losses as an investor. I haven't hidden my horror stories. The reason I don't keep them secret is because my failures are the best learning experiences of my life. We learn by making mistakes -- except in school, where we're punished for making mistakes. This may be why most schoolteachers aren't rich.

No, Robbo. School teachers aren't rich becuase, even though they do one of the most important jobs in our society, they don't get paid squat. Because rich bastards like you constantly find ways to get out of paying your fair share in taxes and balk when any of that tax money then goes to fund public schools instead of corporate handouts and congressional pork.

I mean, going after teachers like this...Calling them "losers" an insinuating that they don't make more money because they never learned from their mistakes...It's just ridiculous. I mean, Robert's a self-help author. What makes him think he can lord his status over anyone else? Guess what, Bob? Actual genuinely super-rich Americans would think you're a loser because you have to write books and then go on the radio and the Internet hyping them to make a living. Brandon Davis lives on Paris Hilton's couch, professionally. That's his job.

I'm not recommending that you become an ambitious looter, as Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were convicted of being. I only want to point out that if you're not a lazy loser, you may find yourself with more gold in your life without having to resort to looting.

After all that blather, his final message is simply: If you want to get really rich, don't be lazy. That's solid advice. There are about 100,000,000 better ways to get to that message across than to call all poor people losers, to brag about your military service and success at business and to defend Cortez and Coronado. It's easy to see how he gets these 300 page books out so quickly. He just blathers on endlessly about nothing and then makes obvious conclusions like "Hard work is important!" What a turd.

The Unrentables: Rappin'

Due to the overwhelming e-mail response to the last Unrentables column, I'll try to make it a regular feature. To keep things interesting, I have asked my co-workers to pick out Unrentables for me, thus removing any personal prejudices I might have from the selection process. Remember, all reviewed films have been on the shelves at Laser Blazer for at least 2 and a half years, and have never rented. Even once. Not even by an employee for free.

Tonight's entry, the 1985 effort Rappin', was an early attempt by Hollywood to assimilate hip hop culture. Following the success of Beat Street and Breakin', another teen breakdancing/rapping drama must have seemed like a sure thing. Oh good sweet lord.

Director: Joel Silberg
IMDB Rating: 3.0

Suffering in extreme poverty following years of unemployment, Mario van Peebles is forced to devour his own hand for nourishment.

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that our store's rental copy of Rappin' is in full-frame. This means that the actual picture I'll be reviewing will have the sides cut off. I'm sure a film stocked with gorgeous widescreen compositions like Rappin' will suffer from the translation, but this is the only print available. Perhaps this is why the film hasn't rented?

The movie opens with incredibly awkward '80s rapping from star Mario van Peebles. He's just been released from prison. In his words "I like to boogie down the block/Coming back with shiny new socks." Man, that's awesome, the way he rhymed block with socks like that. Not at all forced.

No one really raps in the movie. They just mouth the words and then the director synched up the actual rapping in post-production. The ADR is actually pretty bad, so a lot of the rapping scenes kind of look like bad dubs of foreign films. Which is, you know, ideal for a movie largely about rappers.

So Mario comes back to the old neighborhood and reunites with his old crew, which includes Eriq la Salle and his younger brother, Allan. They go and visit their Grandma, with whom Mario will be living. Regrettably, they do a little impromptu rap for her. My God, the rapping in this movie is intolerable. These two idiots basically repeat the phrase "Two of a kind/We're here to stay" over and over again on top of one of those pre-set beats that came programmed on the old Casio synthesizers. This performance made me yearn for the wit and subtlety of the Rapping Granny.

Cut to Headband Night at the local club, which forces you to confront the reality that a lot of early hip hop style was merely an extension of disco. The beats, the breakdancing, the woeful hair styles. It's all there. The only difference is a lot of the guys are wearing those black Run DMC hats. (Except Dwayne Wayne from "A Different World," who for some reason is sporting a Union soldier hat from Civil War days.)

I don't understand why the breakdancing in this movie sucks so bad. It's a movie about breakdancing. I mean, Breakin' 2, say what you will about that piece of crap, at least some of the dance moves look pretty good. Most of the dance scenes here look like they were choreographed by Hunter Thompson in the grips of an ether binge.

An argument breaks out at the club between Mario, who stands up for a girl's honor, and a whiteboy mook in a leather jacket. At one point, the white guy uses the retort "Hay is for horses!" It just goes downhill from there. He sneers at Eriq la Salle "Don't make me thaw you out, Ice!" Oooh, scary. It's the least convincing standoff since Wesley Snipes and MJ faced off in the "Bad" video. I'm not saying the villain is a little over the top with the evil, but he makes Snidley Whiplash look nuanced and conflicted in comparison.

The gang, who call themselves The Rappin' Hoods (Mario's name in the film is John Hood, so it's totally clever), goes to visit a friend who works at a warehouse. Then they do a choreographed rap number about how their fat friend likes food.

The art of eating takes aptitude/
You better develop some fortitude/
Before your body has a horizontal attitude!

Okay, that makes no sense at all. I mean, yes, rhyming is important, but the rhymes have to fit together to tell a story or relate an idea. This was lame even by significantly lowered 1985 standards.

I should mention as well that Eriq la Salle in this scene keeps making these weird, prissy hand gestures as a substitute for dancing. It's probably this, more than the rampant destruction that goes along with their spontaneous musical number, that gets poor unfortunate Richie fired. The friends add insult to injury by stealing a bunch of food from the warehouse and deliver it to all the poor people in their neighborhood. (You should see one old woman's face light up when she gets an actual box of pasta. That's a $2 value! In 1985 dollars? Are you kidding me? Cha-ching!)
We're now 25 minutes into this movie, and nothing at all has happened. Lets review: Mario gets out of jail, he raps, he gets into a pseudo-fight in a club, he raps about fat people enjoying food. Then he brings food to a run-down tenement building full of doe-eyed orphans, but runs away before anyone sees him.

Then there's like four pointless musical numbers in a row. A horrible duo of soul crooners - we'll call them Seals and Croft Jr. - do a cheesy AM duet in the Power Plus Records studio. Then the Apollo Kids do a routine called "Golly Gee, Honey" that made me want to bash my skull with a ballpeen hammer until I lost consciousness. Then Mario shows up and freestyles about colors for the kids. Really. They shout out a color, like "pink," then he raps about it. "Pink, pink is the color I think/Of little girls at the skating rink." I knew I should have purchased a cyanide capsule before embarking on this project. That's preparation, innit?

By the way, blue is the color he wears when he's rapping and walking down the street. In case you were curious.

After the charming color sequence, the girl whose honor he defended in the club, Dixie, asks him, and I quote, "have you ever thought about going pro into rap?" YES! Awesome! Pro into rap! I think Mario ought to turn pro. I mean, Jay-Z might have the world's greatest flow and Nas may be the voice of his generation, but can either of them come up with a freestyle rap on the spot about any color a kid might think of? Mario can do 3 minutes on mauve that will really make you think.

So impressed is Dixie by Mario's mad skillz, she invites him an audition the recording studio (where Seals and Croft Jr. performed) is having for rap groups.

"I'm not an entertainer," Mario protests in a rare moment of self-awareness, but she begs.

Around this time, the late, great Harry Goz, who would years later voice Captain Murphy on Adult Swim's "Sealab 2021" appears as a developer intent on tearing down the tenement building. I guess he hates painfully earnest rapping about everyday situations as much as I do.

"Hey, what kind of yang is this?" yells Eriq la Salle as the aforementioned Ice upon reading the eviction notice. The whole sequence is startlingly similar to the first scene in Jonathan Larson's rock opera Rent. Now, I'm not neccessarily saying that Larson ripped off his show from Rappin', but it's pretty obvious that he did.

As one of Goz's cruel underlings takes off in his car after posting the notices, we get Mario's first omniscient voice-over rap, where he comments on the action in the movie in which he doesn't even take part.

With your polyester suit and your phony briefcase/
Don't you know you're a total disgrace/
Sold out your brother man for the promise of cash/
And that's why you're about to crash

Kind of hurts the realism of the rest of the movie. Perhaps the whole film is really just one of Mario's raps - a 90 minute concept rap about the community center in his old neighborhood - illustrated for our entertainment. You know, kind of like a mood piece.

So Harry Goz's goon and the mook from the club hook up to get rid of John Hood. I'm not quite sure why. What threat does Mr. Hood pose to them? He's just some idiot who hangs around the neighborhood rapping poorly. Their conspiracy against him seems a bit overblown. The mook is just upset that his constant threats of violence against Dixie haven't yet won her heart. He's a follower of the Biff Tannen school of seduction, wherein you flex your muscles and punch the wall nearest to the girl you like in order to attract her attention.

At the battle of the rap groups, Ice-T performs in a ludicrous red pleather outfit, jumping about the stage yelling about "killers" and waving around a fake plastic gun. (Possibly he and Richard Belzer were there undercover to scope out potential sexual offenders, I can't be sure.) The music executive says they're alright, but he's looking for something else, something more...ear-meltingly obnoxious. A bunch of whackjobs in blue sweaters and purple pants do a little acrobatic dance to a song called "Itchin' for a Scratch."

Up in my ears/
Down to my feet/
I can't stop scratchin' this funky beat

These guys are John Hood's sole major competition, and he still doesn't come off looking that great. He launches into a freestyle rap about "lady alcohol" for the benefit of some drunk guys, and the radio executive is very impressed. He's been looking for a douchebag who irritatingly tells others how to behave in the form of horrible rapping. He offers him $200 - $200 - to come and record at the studio the next day! Of course, Mario demands the payment in cash, hoping maybe they'll think he plans to spend it on drugs and is therefore cool. No, no, I'm kidding. He needs it to save the poor hildren.

Dixie's understandably overjoyed, and not just because the thrift store had a sale on fingerless gloves and leg warmers. But, you know, that was part of it.

Everything works out in perfunctory, predictable fashion. Goz and his partners team up to implicate John's younger brother for stealing a car radio. John has to earn money via rap in order to free his younger sibling and save the town. You get where I'm going with this...

You know what's most strange about the whole film, though? It's the story of a guy who just wants to rap, who doesn't want to do it for a living but just lives to tell stories in half-formed, barely-enunciated verse. So, essentially, it's the polar opposite of the modern inspirational rap story, like Hustle and Flow or 8 Mile, where the whole point is to use rapping as a springboard to making a lot of money and being a celebrity businessman. That probably doesn't mean anything, because Rappin' wasn't so much about actual hip hop culture in 1985, but Hollywood's ill-informed imitation of hip hop culture. But it's still kind of interesting. Which is more than I can say for the film itself.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The More You Pretend to Know!

George Bush takes his lying very seriously. He doesn't just make shit up in order to trick people. That's for beginners. No, he concocts entire fantasy worlds of bullshit, populated by all manner of magical, mysterious wonders of fabulism. He's like the J.R.R. Tolkein of crap.

We're way beyond the point of no return here. He and all his cronies and hangers-on have long since bid goodbye to the World of Reality and bought into their own propaganda. They truly seem to think that, so long as they continue saying things, those things will continue to be true. Of course, this includes the Big Lies of our time - we're fighting a War on Terror, we're seeing through an important mission in Iraq, individual liberties must be compromised during wartime - but it also extends to the everyday fiction that drives the President's Cult of Personality forward.

Last week, I discussed Bush's announcement that he had read The Stranger, a novel by Albert Camus that most people read in high school but that I don't believe for one second was read by George W. Bush. Now, as if that small embarrassment - the leader of the free world bragging about reading a slim volume typically assigned to 16 year olds - weren't enough, we have an intensely dubious "reading contest" between George Bush and Karl Rove. Uh huh. Sure.

Maybe it was the influence of his wife, Laura, a former librarian, or his mother, Barbara, a longtime promoter of literacy. Or perhaps he was just eager to dispel his image as an intellectual lightweight. But President Bush now wants it known that he is a man of letters.

In fact, Bush has entered a book-reading competition with Karl Rove, his political adviser. White House aides say the president has read 60 books so far this year (while the brainy Rove, to Bush's competitive delight, has racked up only 50).

Now, I'm no huge fan of Karl Rove's. But a reading contest between him and George W? That's like Superman taking on Olive Oyl in a street fight. It's a rap battle between Chuck D. and Kevin Federline! No fair!

So, clearly, the whole thing is just made up. 60 books? No fucking way. Only a few years ago, this guy was bragging about how he never reads newspapers. And they want us to believe that he's now finding 2, 3 hours a day to spend engrossed in the great works of the Western canon? I know they want to make him seem a little smarter, what with the constant public idiocy and all that, but this kind of overcompensation is just ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the White House hasn't released a full list of the 60 books Bush is pretending to have read. C-SPAN however did score a scoop - his "summer" reading list. These are the books Bush read this summer.

Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald
The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald
After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader by Brian Latell
Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan
Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser
Finding Fish: A Memoir by Antwone Quenton Fisher
Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon S. Wood
The Bridge at Andau by James Michener
Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser
Mayflower : A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
Through a Glass, Darkly : A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson
Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History by Craig L. Symonds
The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth by Leigh Montville
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin
The Messenger by Daniel Silva
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
Beach Road by James Patterson & Peter de Jonge
Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power by Richard Carwardine
Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White, Jr.
Promised Land, Crusader State by Walter McDougall
Cinnamon Skin: Travis McGee Mysteries by John D. MacDonald
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Macbeth and Hamlet, Mr. President? Come, come now. That's like changing your report card from C's to straight A+'s. You might have gotten away with it if you just went for the B.

I mean, that would be an ambitious summer reading list if all you were doing all day was reading. Not impossible, I suppose. With a few hours of daily committed reading, it's entirely possible to read 27 books in few months. But Chimpy McDumbfuck? We're supposed to believe he's doing this stuff in between the times when he's Presidenting. I doubt the guy can talk and chew gum at the same time.

They should totally be less ambitious with their bogus "Bush is Real Smart!" propaganda. Here's an idea...An article on MSNBC about how Bush solved a Rubix Cube!

"This morning, George Bush solved the Rubix Cube that had frustrated Karl Rove for months, a top aide said. Rove had managed to get two entire sides correct, but could not get any further without messing up the work he had already done. After throwing the toy away in disgust, a wily and clever George Bush picked it up and, setting aside the surgical manual he had been leafing through, solved the puzzle in under 3 minues."

That story might be believable. Or "Plucky President and his dog warn mayor about leaky dam, earn medals." But not 27 books, some of them long, involved and specialized in nature.

I will say this...The list was put together in a clever, calculated way. (His wife is, after all, a librarian). A couple of baseball titles in there...Some mysteries. You know, just to make it a little more believable. Plus, they remembered this his primary field of study was beer blow cheerleading history. And they kept it contemporary, books of significance largely from the past few years, including a lot of 2006 titles. (That book about Lincoln's killers, Manhunt, is being made into a movie.)

That is, until they gave in to temptation and put Shakespeare there at the end. Oh, please. You might as well claim Bush is reading the Dead Sea Scrolls in the original Aramaic. (He can watch Passion of the Christ without subtitles!)

You'll notice, as well, they don't give us any of the books on Karl Rove's reading list. I guess no one in the White House Press Office could figure out how to spell "Necronomicon."

Really, this whole thing is just another distraction, designed to get us talking about something - anything - other than what's really happening in America and the world right now. With Spike Lee's Katrina documentary airing on HBO this week and the world's attention still squarely on his desperate, homicidal bungling in Iraq (not to mention his good friends in Israel's desperate, homicidal bungling in Lebanon), Bush needs us talking about his reading list and not his ongoing failure as a President. I mean, come on, let's focus on the important issues going on today, not Bush's made-up summer reading. Did you know that pollution is shrinking polar bears' penises?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What Needs to be Said

I have watched our efforts to establish freedom and liberty in the Middle East through an Iraqi government, and it seems to me that these efforts have failed. Liberty, okay, sure. That's clearly been installed in Iraq. Freedom, too, I suspect. It's just that, the people can't enjoy the freedom and the liberty that we imported to them, because things keep exploding in their homes killing them and their entire families. It's a problem.

I mean, like Senator James Inhofe said, Iraq is a miracle. Don't get me wrong. It's clearly a miracle. Our God, who is much more powerful than the brown people's Make-Believe God, has given us a chance to go over to these poor, primitive countries and show them how great we are. That is significant, and let us never forget these blessings.

Of course, things are not going exactly as planned. I'm not sure anyone could have prepared for this eventuality, but rather than our initial plan of "being greeted with flowers and candy," things have degenerated into something of a savage hellscape, more like a scene from a back issue of Spawn than an American Revolutionary-style burgeoning democracy.

Obviosuly, the Democrats have nothing to offer on this issue but "cut and run." Get this...They want us to leave Iraq just because our presence there isn't doing any good and the vast majority of our citizenry want us to leave. Can you believe those wimps?

As for the serious commentators and pundits, the ones who know the only way to win a war is to start kicking exponentially greater amounts of ass, there have been several suggestions. Clearly, as Alan Dershowitz here implies, we should stop concerning ourselves with civilian casualties. Kill 'em all, let their Make-Believe God sort 'em out, that's Dershowitz's motto. Andrew Sullivan prefers to focus in on an intensive study of the diseased Muslim mind. Why did God see fit to punish an entire race of people with the flaming bug-eyed crazies? What is it that's wrong in the brains that doesn't allow them to see the great gift that America is bringing them? The one that came right behind the bombs?

Anyway, I think the answer is clear. We don't need to rethink our approach to the region. We don't need to get our troops out of harm's way and assure Iraqis that we don't mean to permanently occupy their country. We simply need to prove our resolve. The truth is, we're losing in Iraq because we're not killing enough Iraqis! Oh, also, we need to make our case more effectively to the Iraqi people.

In short, we need to start torturing babies.

Okay, now, I know that there's a natural resistance out there to the idea of electrocuting, drowning or just stomping the hell out of little, defenseless babies. Our enemies are counting on our mercifulness. Don't you see? This will take them totally by surprise. Who would ever imagine we'd start torturing babies? Genius!

I'm sure some elitist America-hating godless liberals will start whining about how you can't get actionable intelligence from an infant. Because they can't speak or whatever. This argument makes no sense at all. I mean, you can't get actionable intelligence by torturing a full-grown Iraqi either, but that hasn't stopped us before. Also, the babies may not be able to actually speak (and even if they could, they probably couldn't speak English and we already fired all the queermo Arabic translators), but they can still communicate vital information. Such as whether or not they have to go #2 and whether they prefer Dora the Explorer to the Backyardigans. Hey, you never know what's going to be useful intel for our agents in the field.

There's a couple different methods we could employ on the babies. I'm still kind of undecided on which would be the most painful, and therefore effective. Remember, the rules say that we can do anything that doesn't cause organ failure, so things could get pretty sloppy. We'll probably need to get on the phone to Halliburton for some new devices and supplies...

Tiny little electrodes to stick on the babies torso. (Hey, I just realized that the testicles on the boy babies won't have descended yet, robbing us of a perfectly good place to stick on an electrode...Too bad.) Cutting board-sized planks to hold the baby against during waterboarding. Small black hoods that will crade their soft skulls yet provide for the adequate amount of humiliation and fear.

I know that now this sounds pretty unpleasant, but give it a few months to sink in, and it won't even bother you any more. Remember those photos of American soldiers giving the thumbs up next to piles of naked bandaged Iraqi men, and how upsetting those were at the time? No one cares at all any more, and that wasn't even that long ago!

Trust me, this will work. Once word gets out in Baghdad that the crazy Americans have started tortuing babies, even Hezbollah won't want to fuck with us any more. It's like going to prison. That first day, you either need to kick someone's ass or make everyone think you're crazy. Well, we're clearly not capable of kicking anyone's ass any more, so we better go with Plan B. And, like it or not, that means baby torture.

Hunger (Sult)

Why does Pontus, the starving writer who narrates the Norwegian novel Hunger and appears in every scene of Henning Carlson's 1966 film adaptation, want to starve himself? There can be no doubt that his hunger is self-imposed. A friend invites him to lunch, and probably would treat him to a bowl of stew if pressed. Concerned neighbors suggest he return to his family's home in the country, where presumably he could at least have a place to sleep and three squares a day. Several times, he's openly offered money, by a publisher who expresses interest in one of his articles, a pawn shop owner who purchases his waistcoat and a grocery clerk who mistakenly hands him change. Each time, Pontus devises some excuse to dispose of the money without eating. He'd rather make himself ill chewing on a salvaged cow bone or pass out in the streets of Oslo from exposure and malnourishment than accept charity or compromise his principles.

As if reflecting the inner monologue of its hero, Carlson's film fetishizes suffering and want. Pontus stares longingly through windows into restaurants and apartments where families sit down for succulent meals in shots reminiscent of Chaplin or Lloyd's silent comedies about hapless tramps. Long, funereal shots of Pontus stumbling down streets in a daze, curling up in alleyways to sob quietly out of public view, elevate his purposeful hunger strike to the level of an existential crisis. He is a man desperate to feed his appetites, yet also a committed ascetic, seeking solace in his own deprivation.

As Pontus, Swedish actor Per Oscarsson maintains an odd, aloof and maniacal tone. Call it arrogant schizophrenia. When in command of his faculties, he dreams of being a writer, though he's easily distracted, prone to senseless fits of anger and even dementia. He spends most of his time wandering Oslo (called Kristiania in 1890, when the film is set) alone, sputtering, shouting nonsense at strangers and attempting unsuccessfully to edit his latest piece on park benches.

Carlson seems fascinated by the gulf between Pontus' perception of himself and the reality around him. Boastful and ceaselessly proud, he's both unable to accept generosity from friends or well-wishers and unwilling to face the truth about his living situation. When his most recent landlady kicks him out of the hovel in which he's been squatting for a few days, he gets indignant, as if he had some God-given right to this small studio apartment. He tells himself that writing will be his salvation, yet offers to pawn his only pair of eyeglasses for 25 cents, money he'd probably just give away.

In the film's most dramatic demonstration of this distance between Pontus' imaginary, romantic lifestyle and the grim fact of his destitution, he chases after a beautiful young girl (Ingmar Bergman regular Gunnel Lindblom) and her severe, humorless sister (Birgitte Federspiel) through an empty expanse of public park. In the harsh light of midday, exerting himself in the pursuit, Pontus comes across at his most pathetic. The prototypical insane transient. He looks homeless, desperate and unhinged.

Yet the idyllic sunlit serenity of the setting and cinematographer Henning Christiansen's wide, expansive shots, stranding Pontus at one end of the frame and the object of his desire at the other, suggest an openness to the surprises and possibilites of life beyond the margins of Oslo's uncaring, ceaselessly bleak downtown boulevards.

When the young girl actually looks back and smiles at Pontus, confirming his deeply-rooted suspicions that this life has been concocted purely for his use and pleasure, it stretches the limits of believability. Perhaps the entire encounter, and subsequent meetings with the strange creature he will come to know as Ylajali, occur only in Pontus' head? Perhaps Carlson (and Hamsun before him) realized that Pontus' story needed a bit more humanity or emotional resonance. Regardless, these scenes are thematically satisfying even if they come across as inherently false. (And who could believe, after all, that a beautiful young woman would strike up a forbidden love affair with a misanthropic homeless derelict who doesn't bathe and can barely issue forth a coherent thought?)

His good fortune with Ylajali and subsequent luck with one of the city's large publishing houses seems to indicate a brighter future for Pontus, and it's at this point (about an hour into the film) that Hunger gets more interesting and more ambiguous. He certainly seems pleased to have his work recognized, and eagerly awaits the moment he can go to the office and get paid, but then appears to forget all about his success. He continues to rail against police and others whom he sees as oppressors, and takes no joy in an opportunity to realize his greatest ambitions. After receiving a desperately needed fee for his article, he throws it at his landlady out of spite. He keeps right on refusing food, a foolish decision Carlson highlights using overexposed first-person POV shots that mimic the woozy light-headedness that frequently accompanies prolonged hunger.

Eventually, Pontus will turn his back on Oslo and any opportunities he may have had there, embracing the extended isolation and deprivation of a long sea voyage to parts unknown. (In the novel, he takes off on a Russian ship bound for England. In the film, Pontus just wanders bleary-eyed on to a ship and gets hired on the spot, without ever inquiring about a desintation.)

Perhaps Carlson meant this story as an allegory for modern life, in which people become so intensely focused on their inner worlds of petty conflicts and material wants, they lose sight of the reality swirling at all times around them. Pontus spends so much time keeping up appearances and lying to himself - getting his soiled blanket wrapped up like a store-bought package, chivalrously removing his hat to greet ladies on the street - these meaningless, silly chores become the focal point of his daily life.

Hunger could, likewise, be taken as an examination of the ego of the artist, obsessively firing odd thoughts into an unconcerned world out of some heightened sense of self-importance, never bothering to take in any ideas for fear that they would pollute the genius already hiding within them. Or perhaps it's just nihilism incarnate - the guy refuses to eat, just as he refuses to live in police society with its various rules, restrictions and requirements. He chooses a different path, or the lack of a path, and thus has no choice but to leave the city.

Regardless, the film is fascinating and a visual marvel, breathtakingly shot and ceaselessly intriguing. It's a terrific and demanding performance from Oscarsson, who appears in every scene. Hunger was the first united Scandanavian co-production in history - financed equally by Sweden, Norway and Denmark with an even mix of artists from each country. It was an odd choice, presenting as it does a rather bleak and unflattering portrait of urban Scandanavian society, but also a film of significant artistic merit that reflected well on all three burgeoning film industries. These three countries continue to support their own homegrown artists, which is a way of guaranteeing that challenging but worthwhile work like Hunger will be created. The United States, apparently, is satisfied with being the world's supplier of soul-crushing garbage like Poseidon and Little Man. Oh well, to each his own...

The Unrentables: Aspen Extreme

It's hard to believe, but we have a good number of DVD's at the video store that have never rented. Not even once. Many of these discs have been out and on the shelves for years. Think about that...Years. And not one person has ever thought to pick them up. Not even an employee! And we get to rent stuff for free.

I got to thinking...What if some of these unwanted films, these Unrentables, were actually worthwhile? Could it be that some great movies have been unfairly relegated to the dustbin of video rental history? There's only one way to find out...

So over the next few weeks, I'll be renting some of these films. For the first time ever. And actually watching them. Let's kick off the feature with 1993's ski extravaganza Aspen Extreme.

Director: Patrick Hasburgh
IMDB Rating: 5.2

This shot of a slow-moving bulldozer represents the most action-packed and extreme sequence in Aspen Extreme. It was that or the scene where Peter Berg makes coffee.

We start the film in a Ford truck factory, where hero Paul Gross works the line. He kind of looks like Jared Leto, but instead of hopelessly dreaming of rock stardom like that wannabe nerd, he dreams of being a writer. Unfortunately, he tends to speak entirely in non-sequiteur, which can kind of hurt one's chances of becoming a writer, unless one is William Burroughs. (For example, during a courtship scene, Paul turns to his lady friend and whispers..."Smell that? Winter's coming." This guy's smooth...)

Regrettably, Esquire has just rejected his article, so he gives up on writing and decides to skip town for parts unknown. I guess no one told him to start small and work his way up to the big publications. Now, if Hatchett Fillipachi doesn't want his stuff, he might as well just throw it the fuck away.

Then he goes to hang out with friend Peter Berg, who's busy welding. Um, something. They decide to leave town immediately for no good reason, and select Aspen, Colorado as their final destination. Because of the tremendous amount of welding work there, I'd imagine.

This is perhaps the most dull opening 10 minutes in cinema history. And poorly written! At one point, Berg describes an old hook-up as "so ugly, she could make an onion cry." Now, I know that onions make people cry, but I still don't think this analogy works. It should be a word associated with happiness to make sense, not a pungent vegetable.

Paul and Pete get accepted as ski instructors at a fancy-pants Aspen resort, where their job is not only to teach skiing but apparently "to fulfill a fantasy." The film doesn't explore this black market ski lodge gigolo operation in any greater detail, unfortunately, even though it would clearly be more interesting than this claptrap about romance on the slopes. It also doesn't answer what happens when men sign up for ski lessons, as all the instructors appear to be other men. Perhaps they only get the gay novices, and the straight dudes go to a different resort.

Said romance largely revolves around cute Aspen DJ Teri Polo, who's fairly reminiscent of Minnie Driver's cute Grosse Point DJ in Grosse Point Blank. She has a rule about not dating ski instructors, which strikes me as a pretty specific rule, even by Aspen standards. It's like having a rule against dating tree doctors. (Well, to be fair, they do tend to smell of sap.) Other than her overly-complex dating restrictions, her major identifying characteristic is ownership of a variety of hideously ugly sweaters. Her wardrobe looks like it was designed by Bill Cosby after ingesting a grocery bag full of magic mushrooms.

Also there's Finola Hughes as a sexy but frustrated rich wife who wants to fuck the young, hot ski instructors. This character is pretty much standard issue for these sorts of movies, showing up to vamp for a little bit, who a man character a crazy good time and then leave with as little fanfare as possible.

I should add at this point that we're about 30 minutes into the movie and, though we're definitely in Aspen, nothing even remotely extreme has happened. I mean, nothing. No one has even cracked open a Mountain Dew or belted out the chorus to "More Than Words" yet and the movie's 1/3 over! You call that extreme? This is a blatant case of fraudulent advertising.

The guy's compete in a Figure 8 contest (whoever makes the most perfect track wins), and are told that to win this competition, they must be able to "ski anywhere, any time, any conditions." Anywhere? At any time? In any conditions? What about the top of Mount Doom at midnight during a volcanic eruption and there's a hail storm in progress. Ski that, motherfuckers, and the maybe you can win at The Eights!

Paul hangs out with Finola and, after a night of PG-13 boobless skinny dipping, he tells her of his dream of writing for magazines. So, logically, she takes him to the library and checks out a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. Because if there's only one thing you need to know in order to succeed in the freelance journalism biz, it's the inner life of Marcel Proust. Peter gets pissed at him for spending a night out of the apartment, indicating that these two may share a closer, more intimate relationship than they let on.

Finally, we get some skiing scenes, which are largely unremarkable but mercifully provide a few minutes respite from the craptastic dialogue. At one point, Paul falls into a crevass that looks exactly like the Wampa cave set from Empire Strikes Back. I was sort of hoping he'd be forced to slice open Peter Berg and curl up in his bowels for warmth. But, alas, it was not to be. They just magically escape, off screen, and show up at Teri Polo's house no worse for wear. (She used to be really hot. By the time she did Meet the Parents, she had developed kind of a pinched-up face that's not all that attractive.)

At this point, I'm halfway through the first film of this new feature and I'm starting to think this was all a big mistake. I mean, this movie has the word extreme right in the title, and it's about two guys who spend all their time drinking beer in front of the TV and skinny dipping with women twice their age. Oh, and Paul gets into a pissing match with a competitive Teutonic ski instructor. "Zees ees my job, azz-hull. Some rookie ees not going to move in on it by skeepeeng a semester auf college!"

All in all, Aspen Mundane might have been a more appropriate title.

Eventually, Paul starts writing his next opus, a short story about...a cute female disc jockey. It appears to take him all of one day. I guess he was in a hurry to finish up so he could move on to that great screenplay idea he had about the snakes that somehow wind up on a plane. Now, if only Esquire magazine published mash notes written to ski bunny girlfriends, he'd really be in business!

So Finola finds out that Paul's been seeing Teri Gross on the sly and tries to win him back. Meanwhile, Peter gets sucked in to the nefarious Aspen underworld, delivering a shadowy package to an even shadowier figure known only as "Steve." (Bootlegged tanning oil, perhaps?) Generally, this is the sort of development that would appear earlier than 70 minutes into a 90 minute movie. But, you know, they had to make all that time for the exciting "typing up a short story about the female lead" action and that spine-tingling "getting suspended by the head of the ski school" story arc.

It all leads to fisticuffs between lifelong friends Peter and Paul, culminating in Berg slamming his buddy's head right into a glass medicine cabinet. Which, I have to admit, is kind of extreme in a way. Unfortunately, right after that, some of the cheesiest adult contempo '80s white-guy soul pipes up on the soundtrack, killing any possible extreme-ness the sequence might have had dead.

TV writer Patrick Hasburgh made his directorial debut with Aspen Extreme. Unsurprisingly, would never again helm a feature film. Didn't any producers see this film and realize that the guy was capable of greatness? There are at least 5 training montages set to radio-friendly pop songs! Paul Gross provides some gratuitous butt nudity! Plot points tossed off in the first 15 minutes go undiscussed for the bulk of the film only to become important again right at the very end! That's fucking storytelling.

(To his credit, Hasburgh did direct an episode of The A-Team entitled "Black Day at Bad Rock," which is so ridiculously sweet that it almost makes up for Aspen Extreme. Almost.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Motherfuckin' Snakes on a Motherfuckin' Plane in a Motherfuckin' Review on a Motherfuckin' Blog

First there are good movies. Then there's entertaining trash, movies so bad they're good. But it doesn't end there. Some movies are so bad, they seem like they will be good, but then just turn out to be really boring and thus remain bod. Now, David Ellis' insta-cult classic Snakes on a Plane has pushed this formulation further, upping the Hegelian ante one additional level. It starts with a premise so ludicrous that it's really funny and memorable, quickly becomes lame and tiresome, and then develops into the most outrageously silly good time at the movies this summer. It's so bad that it's good that it's bad that it's really awesome.

Here's how to tell the difference between a run-of-the-mill stupid movie about a jumbo jet filled with angry, venemous reptiles and a truly great stupid movie about a jumbo jet filled with angry, venemous reptiles. Your regular old generic "bad movie" would have a snake crawl up through a toilet and bite a man's penis. But a truly great bad movie, one that understands what it means to be a Bad Movie (capital B), has the same snake crawl up through a toilet and bite a man's penis while the man yells, "Oh my God, a snake bit my penis!"

Snakes on a Plane doesn't even stop there. It has the man flail about for a few seconds, with a snake hanging from his genitals, before dying gruesomely on camera. It's just that kind of film.

Despite all the hype and attention it has received this year, Snakes on a Plane isn't anything new. Little more than a recycled R-rated 80's creature feature, it gets by on a combination of pluck, creative gore and the charisma of Samuel L. Jackson. If Anaconda had a more immediately compelling premise, a higher body count and Sam Jackson, the two films would be practically identical.

Ellis' smartest decision was to play the goofy concept straight, to make a mainstream Hollywood thriller that's tongue-in-cheek but never campy or self-consciously ironic. Just like the cheesy 80's action films and thrillers that inspired Snakes on a Plane - low-budget oddities of the sort with introductions by Joe Bob Briggs and titles like Hard Ticket to Hawaii - Ellis allows the audience to have a good time making fun of his film by refusing to make fun of it himself.

Unfortunately, this makes for an exceedingly dull initial half hour. I have noticed a phenomenon watching these sorts of "fun" summer popcorn films on their opening weekends. Audiences get real fired up and loud during the pre-show commercials and trailers. They are typically very enthusiastic for the first 10 minutes or so of the movie...and then there's the process of "settling in." Everyone remembers that it's just a movie and it's not really all that great, that the social celebration and shared excitement was in many ways more enjoyable than the act of sitting and watching a movie, no matter how good it may be.

This happens BIG TIME in Snakes on a Plane. The credits roll (over an odd montage of surfing that seemingly has nothing to do with planes or snakes) and everyone's cheering and bracing themselves...and then it's time for about a half hour of boring exposition. I suspect all this material was needed as filler, to pad the movie out to 100 minutes.

Ellis and his screenwriters, John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez, admirably stretch a thin central conceit into a number of clever scenarios, but they only really have 45 minutes or so of "snakes on a plane" action. Spending the extra time up front getting into the story is probably the worst decision they could have made. This is a cult film, designed to be enjoyed by unruly, enthusiastic and above-all impatient crowds. It feels counter-intuitive to drown out all the exuberance and energy right at the front with crappy dialogue and needless backstory. Better to just make a consistantly-enjoyable 55 minute feature.

Hawaiian surfer dude Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) sees a mob kingpin murder a prosecutor and it's up to federal agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) to escort the witness safely to Los Angeles for trial. Once on board, they encounter several colorful passengers and crew members - snotty rich girl Mercedes (Rachel Blanchard, revising her role from the "Clueless" TV show), germophobic rapper Three G's (Flex Alexander) and his entourage, harried flight attendants (including Julianna Marguiles), a randy co-pilot (David Koechner, of Naked Trucker and Anchorman fame) and other stock characters. So perfunctory are some of these introductions, I was reminded of the early scenes in Airplane! They're all there, save a pair of Hari Krishnas.

After an interminable and largely uninteresting set-up, the plane takes flight. As part of the lamest assassination attempt since Rasputin, master criminal Eddie Kim (Byron Lawsom) has a large variety of exotic and poisonous snakes placed in the cargo compartment of the plane and released halfway through the trip from Hawaii to LA. Once the slithering death arrives, everything clicks and Snakes on a Plane suddenly jerks to life.

Ellis, a stunt coordinator who previously directed Final Destination 2 and Cellular, obviously has talent even though the movie he made this time around is dumb. The opening highway accident in FD2 demonstrated his assured skill with grand-scale action. Though the effects work here isn't on that level (many of the snake effects look blurry and rushed), his skill absolutely pays off in a few spots, particularly the final plane crash sequence.

I'd wager he could probably put together a decent horror film as well. No, Snakes on a Plane is never scary, but its "fright" sequences are well paced and cut. The gore, though always imaginitive, doesn't cross the line between surprisng and gross, keeping things relatively light. Above all, the film is about having mindless fun and really revolting carnage might dampen the atmosphere. The deaths elicit laughter, not shreiks, but changing that around would probably require only minor stylistic alterations.

Also, I should mention that Ellis may go down in history as the creator of Snake-o-Vision, for which we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Despite his gifts as a director, Ellis also gets lucky. Turning an outlandish, goofy little movie like this into a cultural phenomenon depended on not just the Internet community's insatiable desire for new and bizarre hilarity, but the iconic stature of Samuel L. Jackson. He's pretty much the only actor who could have played this role and made it work this well. People love that guy, but he very rarely gets the kind of role that's perfectly suited to his particular gifts.

Early on, before he was well-known, he popped up in lots of solid films, like Goodfellas and Jungle Fever and even Coming to America. But since he broke out in Pulp Fiction, how many good movies has the guy even been in? His few other great moments and performances - in Jackie Brown or even Deep Blue Sea - can be counted on one hand. Usually, it's garbage like The Negotiator and Rules of Engagement. The opportunity not simply to see some dumbass bit of nonsense about snakes on a plane, but to see these same snakes facing off against Samuel L. pushed this thing up, I suspect, from "interesting curiosity" into "late-summer must-see" for a lot of people, myself included.

He seems to be having a great time making the movie, and his enthusiasm is contagious, but this still might be a "jump the shark" moment for the guy. Like Lil' Jon and Rick James before him, Sam Jackson is basically becoming the Dave Chappelle version of himself. He shouts pretty much every line of dialogue in the film. (Admittedly, some of these lines are real winners and deserve to be shouted. I want a T-shirt that reads "We need to put a barrier between us and these snakes!") This is his Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents role. Once you have made fun of your persona in this way, can you really step back into it for the purposes of some more serious project?

I'd have a hard time actually recommending you go see Snakes on a Plane. First off, you missed the crowded Friday and Saturday shows. If the box office tracking is accurate, the movie's about to die off, so there won't be another chance to see it with a big crowd. Secondly, it's not entertaining all the way through. During that first 30 minutes, it feels like a lot of anticipation over nothing - just another predictable, dry, unthrilling thriller about cops and robbers.

I don't care so much any more for the standard cops vs. robbers stuff. Now, cops vs. robbers vs. exotic and venemous snakes...