Saturday, September 02, 2006

United 93

Watching Paul Greengrass' 9/11 re-enactment United 93 is a lot like being punched in the gut. Actually, allow me to rephrase that. It's a lot like being punched in the gut repeatedly for about 2 hours while a guy films you, then having that guy show up at your house 5 years later to screen all the footage. What sickness so pervades the American character that we feel the need to lovingly recreate our national tragedies in this way?

Popular films have always chronicled the real events of our history. That's obvious. As the most immersive, immediate and compelling of all our popular arts, it's only natural that a lot of our shared history would find its way into our movies. But the idea was more about presenting historical information with a certain perspective, using a recreation of a iconic moment as part of building a larger case.

The propaganda films of WWII illustrate this concept perfectly. There weren't a lot of films that dryly re-enacted the attack on Pearl Harbor, or that gravely dissected the tactics and calculations behind the Doolittle Raid. These films were a recruitment tool, a declaration of war and a deliberate attempt to sway an uneasy public. Whether or not one agrees morally with the purpose and method of such propagandizing, there can be no debate about the ultimate goal of these sorts of pictures - getting young people to enlist and getting everyone else to conserve aluminum and buy war bonds.

So what, may I ask, is Paul Greengrass' and Universal Studios' purpose in bringing the world United 93, a minute-by-minute account of how, on September 11th as part of a coordinated attack on America, some very angry, very psychotic and very devout Muslims hijacked an airliner and then failed to hit their intended (and unknown) target?

It's not informative. Because none of the film's "characters," from air traffic controllers to military commanders to dazed passengers, have any idea what's going on, nothing concrete about the day's events can be gleaned. The sceanrio plays out just as you'd expect. Odd, unexpecting and violent things begin happening. Everyone gets upset and panicked. Then, fiery death.

It's not entertaining. No, I take that back. If you are Osama bin Laden or a member of Al-Qaida, I suppose there's a small chance you would find the film entertaining. The operation, after all, was a complete success, so it might be a pleasant, nostalgic memory to revisit, much in the way a filthy Jew devil might enjoy looking back over a Bar Mitzvah video. Everyone else will probably find it extremely unpleasant.

It's certainly not insightful. I don't feel like Greengrass really has a lot of say about 9/11. It appears for a brief time that the film will be critical of the government's response. No one can get through to Dick Cheney or George Bush. There's no planned course of action in this situation, so no one has any clue of what to actually do once they know the planes have been hijacked. The military reaction in particular seems lackadaisical. They can't get fighter jets into the air in time to intercept the planes, and no one is even around to answer urgent phone calls.

But these sorts of side observations are never developed. They hang around the margins. The focus remains squarely on retelling the story of United Flight 93 exactly as it might have happened, beat by painful beat. I'll ask again...What's the point of such a brutal exercize? To paraphrase the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword..."Paul Greengrass, why do you wish to make the first big studio 9/11 movie? Is it for Todd Beamer's glory...or for yours?"

There is something deeply neurotic about a society that needs to recreate tragic moments exactly as they occured in motion picture entertainments less than 5 years after the events themselves. I suppose it's an understandable impulse (more on this in a moment), but I would think it does us more psychic harm than good.

To be honest, we don't do a very good job of remembering September the 11th. We seem to keep making the same mistakes that led up to that horrible day. We continue to ignore the real threats against us while focusing our energies on boogeymen and infighting. We have yet to enact any realistic measures to keep our citizenry safe, spending this money instead of elaborate and failed foreign wars of conquest. The sense is that our government is less organized and less capable of responding to a crisis now than it was five years ago. (Certainly, the response to Hurricane Katrina did not bode well for anyone).

So, we pretty much ignore what's really important about September 11th, and spend our time memorializing, shedding crocodile tears and cynically exploiting the tragedy for personal gain.

To my mind, we shouldn't make a weepy movie about United Flight 93 and how it crashed because of mean old terrorists and how it's so sad because all the people on that plane were so nice and they just wanted to relax and enjoy their airline food without being explodeded. It is sad those people died. I'm sure most of them were good people. And they definitely did do a brave thing, bum-rushing the terrorists and possibly saving the lives of others by taking down that plane before it could be used as a projectile weapon.

But it doesn't serve their memories to make them into posthumous movie characters. (I'm sure their families and friends remembered them just fine without a Hollywood movie, and the rest of us didn't know them in the first place.) It doesn't somehow make their deaths more sensical or worthwhile to see them dramatized. Actually, it serves the purposes of...the terrorists.

For 2 hours, we go into a theater and we become terrorized, all over again. For some reason I'll never understand, we subject ourselves to al-Qaida's evil plot purposefully. We spend $12 on a ticket and then buy popcorn and a soda to compliment the experience. That's the experience of watching this movie...It is harrowing. It is sickeningly unpleasant. It is like being punched in the gut. It's a second victory for those who want to make Americans afraid and upset.

Of course, I have to be fair. United 93 has this effect because it's rather expertly put together. Greengrass' style is far more suited to this kind of realism than, say, the secret agent theatrics of The Bourne Supremacy. There, his jerky camera and his intrusive close-ups and his jumpy, stacatto editing just seemed like unneccessary window dressing, distractions from what might have been an otherwise highly watchable (if cookie cutter) spy thriller. Here, these same techniques, along with largely improvised performances, give the film a rare naturalism. Solid performances from a large ensemble of actors, playing nameless faces in a crowd rather than characters, on top of Greengrass' matter-of-fact documentarian pose, combine to make the hijacking sequence grueling, almost to the point of being unwatchable.

So, yes, it's well made. I find myself making the same argument about United 93 that I made about another extremely well-realized and unneccessary historical recreation, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. Interestingly, these are both films by British filmmakers in which recent, tragic events in American history, both involving failures on the part of the U.S. Military, are recreated in the most exact physical detail possible.

Okay, so here's the case as simply as I can make it, hopefully without getting too overtly Freudian, because I know that's out of fashion these days. These films allow us to recontextualize their respective events. The 9/11 attacks were intensely traumatic. It has justly been called one of the darkest days in all of American history. Of course, among the worst elements of 9/11 was the surprise and the mystery behind it. Anyone who was awake and watching TV that morning (as I was) remembers the baffling nature of these events.

Who is attacking us? Why? Will there be more of these hijackings? Why is the President still reading that book about the goat?

Bin Laden's plan worked because it played on our worst fears, it used our own technology and complacency against us and it kept us guessing. But now, in this film, we get to recreate the events on our own terms. Sure, the Towers still blow up. But this time, we know it's coming, we in the audience. Hell, we even know it's coming before the air traffic controllers do this time. We watch them fumble around confusedly, struggling to come to grips with the knowledge we've already had for years. It's no longer surprising, and thus we feel comforted.

Because 9/11 can't happen twice. It already happened and now we control it and we can do whatever we want with it. It's ours and our definitive film version can now comfortably stand in for unknowable, frightening reality.

That's why, to my mind, Greengrass inserting some real footage of the World Trade Center blowing up is so odious. He confers on to his film that level of reality. He conflates a fictional (if precise) retelling with the real events of that day. He makes United 93 the new "official version," our nationally agreed-upon sense memory of that fateful plane ride.

It's all here in this press photo:

United 93 has now been hijacked for a second time. At first, it was Saudi nationals storming into the aisles with box cutters, slamming down stewardesses and sealing off the cockpit. Now, it's Paul Greengrass, rebuilding an exact replica of the plane in a soundstage and then stomping around, making himself its master. Notice how, in that photo, all the other passengers are obscured by seats. They are the faceless throng, those without identities. The Murdered. But the centerpiece of that image, the subject if you will, is director Paul Greengrass, towering over the heads of those he eulogizes, offering a stylish exercize is self-aggrandizement designed ot highlight his talents as a filmmaker. See how elegantly and cleanly I have reimagined this tragedy? Aren't these swooping, nauseating angles impressive? Don't you admire my subtlety and restraint? I Am The World Trade Center!

I mean, thank goodness we have the director of that Matt Damon sequel to tell us all how to feel about the most discussed and important moment of our young century. We certainly couldn't figure out how to mourn the dead of Flight 93 on our own.

The few actual observations he even bothers to make amidst all the flourishes, the insights about what's actually happening on 9/11 and on Flight 93, are contradictory and confused, particularly when he attempts to extend the scope beyond a straight-forward, interpersonal level. He cuts back and forth between the terrorists praying to Allah in the cockpit and the passengers praying to Jesus in coach. Is he really trying to make a connection between these two groups? "Well, you know, even though those guys are killers and these guys innocent passengers, everyone loves God."

It's not just the egotism of a man who wants to tell this story over again that disgusts me. It's his attitude towards the material. There's a lot of talk in our popular discourse right now about being a "defeatist," of cutting and running from terror or what have you. As you can probably guess, because it's coming out of the mouths of our President, Vice-President and Secretary of Defense, it's all horseshit. Wanting to leave Iraq is being a realist, not a defeatist.

But Greengrass' film does actually strike me as defeatist. It gives in to terrorism. It accepts that we all must live in fear and dismay, that this could happen to us and we should be extremely agitated and disturbed about it. I mean, why else depict it in fetishized and exacting detail, if not to freak everyone out all over again? It happened once to people just like you. Look, they have portable music players and laptops! There are families waiting for them at home! They like a good omelette!

That's not really the message a healthy society would take away from 9/11. Yes, there are evil terrorist bastards who want to kill us. I can fit that neatly into my handy mental spreadsheet entitled "Reasons I Might Die At Any Moment" and go on living my day like normal. I don't panic every time someone mentions colon cancer even though it's extraordinarily frightening and unfortunate. I would definitely lose in a fight against a ninja, but it probably won't ever come to that, so I can watch ninja movies with impunity. Granted, a terrorist attack on Los Angeles is more likely than a ninja attack on yours truly, but still, what happened on 9/11 doesn't need to dominate our daily lives in the way that it has for the past five years.

In a movie that genuinely explored the American experience of being attacked by al-Qaida, all this horrible shit would go down, and then after a while it would be 9/12. People would wake up, get dressed, watch TV, eat breakfast, have sex, drive around, go bowling, shoot up heroin and begin to go about their lives again. It was a weird week, but we got through it, right? And that's the real story. United 93 crashes into a field in Pennsylvania, then some guy takes out the trash and plays Grand Theft Auto for a few hours, then someone in Cleveland robs a convenience store, then an old guy in a nursing home has a heart attack and dies of natural causes. Life goes on.

In Greengrass' film, 9/11 took place in a vacuum. Before, everyone was happy and content. Afterwards...well, there is no afterwards. This awful thing happened. The End. It was a complete anomaly with no context. Some crazy men gathered together one morning and laid out a plan of attack on the United States. Many died, some with bravery and others in silence. These are their stories.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Todayborday is Labor Day

Yeah, I know, Labor Day's not until Monday. But, you see, I've been tagged. Tasked by PSoTD to discuss what Labor Day means to me as a holiday.

My first thought is...not much. I work retail and have for the bulk of my employed life. If you work in a store, you don't get Labor Day off. In fact, it's usually twice as crowded with doofuses in white shorts and loud Hawaiian shirts fumbling with your stock, hauling around their screaming, grab-happy children and asking questions so stupid, you'd think they were auditioning for the Teen Jeopardy Tournament. So I typically wind up doing more work on Labor Day than I would otherwise, making it not just an empty, meaningless holiday but actually kind of a cruel, federal governmentally-sanctioned joke at my expense.

The whole enterprise just reflects our bullshit society, how only one segment of the population is deemed worthy of attention and respect. If you work in some office as a cubicle jockey, if you're an executive or middle-management type, there's this whole day set aside to commemorate your efforts. "Oh my word, you've been filing? Extensive data entry as part of an ongoing reorganizational project? You had to take an extended lunch meeting at Dorcia and now you don't have time to work out before getting back to the office for your afternoon conference call with Leo in New York? OH MY GOD YOU'VE GOT CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME? You need a legal, annual holiday so you can watch more televised athletics!"

But a huge segment of the population - people who also work hard and frequently aren't paid as well for the work that they do - don't ever get Labor Day off. You think all the firemen get to hang out at home with their families and have barbecues? Of course not. Because what if one of those office drone schmucks or mail carriers lights herself on fire during her family barbecue? Someone's got to go put her out, right?

Ditto the cops, the people who work in stores or entertainment venues, bus drivers, flight attendants, soldiers, Hewlitt-Packard's Bangalore Customer Service and Relations call center staff...They don't get shit. When's our holiday? We could call it "WE'RE CLOSED Day." Or, int he case of city employees, "SAVE YOUR OWN STUPID LIFE Day."

I mean, here's the reality: For most Americans, there's only one real holiday, and it comes twice a month...It's called fucking payday, and if they really wanted to "honor the workers," they'd give us another one of those once a year come September. Yeah, but you're right, better to give executives who already get three weeks a year paid vacation on top of company-sponsored conferences and retreats and extra day to hang out with the fam...They've earned it!

I'm all about the spirit in which Labor Day was founded. It's hard to even believe at this point in our history that organized labor and unions were ever respected organizations, considering the smear job corporatists have been running against them for my entire lifetime.

Seriously, since I was a child, the concepts of labor and organized crime have been entirely conflated in my head. Unions are, by definition, corrupt sub-Mafia organizations, so obviously they should be done away with completely. That's the attitude now. Ask someone under the age of...hell, probably 40, about unions and all they'll come up with is "Jimmy Hoffa" and "lazy Teamsters." Rich Americans have convinced everybody else that they deserve to be poor and they deserve to be downtrodden and that to unify and fight back is a pointless, futile pursuit. The only hope is to lie and cheat your way to the upper eschalon so you can begin shitting on the little guy. And the message has stuck cause rich white guys have a kickass PR Department.

And that's why Labor Day itself has become a cruel charade. It no longer exists to "honor the workers" or to commemorate any great gains made by the working class. It's just another hollow yearly summer ritual - the last insufferable pool party before the insufferable kids return to their prisons reformatories conformism factories schools for another round of consumerist brainwashing.

Perhaps This is Why Keith Cannot Be Killed By Conventional Weapons

From Keith Olbermann's show tonight comes this amazing commentary. I swear, this is the best takedown of Donald Rumsfeld I've seen on television. Ever. Bra-fucking-vo, K-Greasy. Way to be.

You should really watch the whole thing, but here's a highlight from the complete transcript at Keith's Blog:

That, about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely.

And, as such, all voices count -- not just his.

Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience — about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago — we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their “omniscience” as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris.
Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies have — inadvertently or intentionally — profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.

And yet he can stand up, in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emporer’s New Clothes?

In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

Read the whole speech. It's thoughtful and it actually includes real historical information and facts. Can you believe this thing aired on MSNBC?

[My thanks to TRex at the essential Firedoglake for the link.]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Unrentables: Jake Speed

With the surname Speed, you kind of have to give your kid a cool name like Jake. Francis Speed? Not so much. Todd Speed? Umm..not quite. But Jake Speed, yeah...Now you've got something. Two years after Robert Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone, some B-movie and direct-to-cable filmmakers thought..."Why not me?" And now, 20 years later, I have to suffer the consequences.

Jake Speed
Director: Andrew Lane
IMDB Rating: 4.6

The name's Jake...Speed Jake. No, wait, I messed that up.

We open in France, where a couple of thugs rush into a slumber party and start beating the hell out of random women. Two girls escape through the streets of Paris to the strains of absolutely abysmal '80s New Wave rock, but one, a blonde in a UCLA sweatshirt, is captured soon after.

It turns out that this last girl, Maureen (Becca Ashley), has a wily old senile grandfather (Leon Ames) with a plan...He wants to phone up pulp novel hero Jake Speed to save his beloved granddaughter. The cantankerous old guy's full of helpful advice like that. "Call a fictional character for help! Nuke the bastards! The trail's gettin' colder 'an a witch's tit!" He's not unlike Donald Rumsfeld, really.

Maureen's siter Margaret (Karen Kopins) bails on a neighbor's party filled with Furries - everyone's dressed as their favorite animal - to sit in her room and cry about her lost sibling. Wah...someone kidnapped by sister in France...Wah...I'm a featured player in a movie called Jake Speed earning second billing after some dude named Wayne Crawford! (This whole subplot feels ripped off from Ghostbusters. Margaret's nerdy neighbor and his lame party is very reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's nerdy neighbor Rick Moranis and his lame party.)

Margaret is contacted by an assistant to Mr. Speed (Dennis Chrstopher), who turns out to be a real guy. Co-writer/star Crawford kind of looks like the love child of Bob Dylan and Dustin Hoffman. So, you know, the ideal action star. Unfortunately, he's apparently inherited the acting talent from Bob's side of the family. Speed tells Margaret that her sister's been kidnapped by white slave traders in Africa.

"Are you ready for an adventure?" Speed's assistant asks. That's the kind of question you only ask if you're already sure to get a yes. How embarrassing to contact a mysterious woman in a bar, as her if she's ready for an adventure and then hear back that she really just stopped by to meet up with some friends and have a Cosmopolitan, and she's ready to head home now.

Margaret's friend at this point brings up an excellent point. If you were randomly contacted by a stranger who claimed to be a character in a series of popular novels...would you just believe him or her right off the bat?

"Hi, nice to meet you, I'm Jack Ryan. I believe you may have read something about me? I.D.? No, I don't have any I.D. I'm a secret agent. Just call Tom Clancy! He'll tell you..."

But Margaret doesn't want to listen to "reason." She's not interested in whether the man she met is "really Jake Speed" or "some insane sex offender who is flying her to Africa so that he can enslave her nude in a bamboo cage to be jabbed and prodded repeatedly with crudely-sharpened spears until such time as she is fed to an oversized ape in order to appease the Monkey God." Come on! It's time for an adventure!

Suddenly, we're in Africa, which in the world of the movie consists entirely of small dusty villages in which small children try to sell you watermelons. And of course, the whole place is poised on the brink of revolution!

Prissy Margaret wants to get started looking for her sister, but of course that silly rapscallion Jake just wants to play poker with the natives and dick around. If he didn't want to be bothered finding her sister, why fly her to Africa in the first place? She was all set to believe he was fictional. Speaking of fictional characters, the movie does this really annoying thing where it keeps referencing other mythical pulp adventure heroes. There's throwaway allusions to Remo Williams, Doc Savage, Allan Quartermain...Who does Lane think he is? Alan Moore? It's like he wants desperately to be clever but just can't manage to actually get there.

From here on out, the thing starts playing like a dinner theater production of Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, they're going with the Kate Capshaw-inspired love interest character and the part of the hero is being played by some hapless, squinty bozo. Oh, and the kitchen just ran out of Salisbury Steak.

"Guess I better shower first, huh?" she pouts, arguing that Jake wants to sleep with her more than he wants to find her sister. "Good idea," he responds. "Let's shower together!" This is what passes for banter in Jake Speed's world. The novels about him must have been written by Bill O'Reilly.

During a firefight in the street, Jake smashes his jeep into a shop window. The resulting stunt man shot is perhaps the most hilarious thing I have seen in an Unrentable yet. The guy looks nothing like Wayne Crawford. He kind of looks like Ed Asner. I'm not sure an infant would be fooled by this effect. The other characters in the film seem confused when it happens.

Leaving the car accident, Jake and his love interest head over the hottest club in town. As if that opening New Wave song weren't bad enough, at about the halfway point, musicians at the club are recreating that song "Maniac" with authetnic native African instruments. Getting into a brawl shortly thereafter, Jake becomes quite possibly the first hero in a PG film ever to say the line "I'll tear off your head and shit in the hole." He then threatens to sell Margaret into sexual slavery, until she gets out of it by claiming to have a variety of STD's. Hilarious.

Barely escaping with their lives following a near-fatal breakaway glass incident, Jake and Margaret take off running through a variety of cheap sets. People keep running up to them and trying to shoot or explode them, but I couldn't figure out why. They haven't done anything. They're not any closer to finding Maureen siter. It still hasn't even been explained how Jake knows Maureen was taken by white slave traders from Africa in the first place. All we saw was that she was kidnapped in Paris. Wouldn't this occur to Margaret to ask at some point? When they weren't being randomly shot at, perhaps?

At about the hour mark, I've begun to realize why Jake Speed feels so boring and pointless. It has no story or logical progression. We just follow around Jake, who always seems like he knows what he's doing, as he zips around Africa having random side adventures. There are no clues, there is no bad guy, nothing of note happens. Jake just wanders into a barn or a hotel or a village somewhere, Margaret starts to have a panic attack, then black guys with guns show up and a lot of squibs go off. Then the whole thing repeats itself.

Jake and his associate keep implying that their present adventure will soon after become its own book. Sort of a Jake Speed novelization-within-the-movie meta kind of thing. I can't imagine what reading a book with this story would be like.

"Hey, let's wander around this inexpensive set for a little while, Margaret."

"Okay, Jake. I hope no squibs go off while we're down there."

Margaret and Jake walked slowly down the alley. Then a fat guy ran after them with a shotgun. He seemed to aim and fire the gun properly, but Margaret and Jake were magically unharmed. Then they kept running, then it was poorly shot and dark for a second so it was unclear what was happening, then there were some explosions. Jake seemed vaguely uninterested.

So, Margaret ditches Jake and his life partner in the desert and hauls ass to the British Consulate, hoping to get the hell out of Dodge before the peculiar sporadic revolution really gets going in earnest. There, she finds out that "Jake" and "Desmond" are really notorious con artists. I know...It's shocking that they didn't turn out to be those made up guys. Shocking.

"I can't believe it," Margaret says. "They were really nice." Yeah, all they did was bring you to Africa under false pretenses and then continually place you in the immediate path of exploding tanks. She's a pretty easy sell on what constitutes "being nice." I bet she voted for Bush both times.

For God knows what reason, Margaret decides to go back to Jake and the Not Terribly Fat Man, somehow finding their secret hideout in the desert despite only having been there once before and afterwards getting lost in the desert. (Peculiar, as well, that their hideout is made entirely from lumber, despite the fact that it's in the middle of the goddamn desert and there's no trees around. Did they ship in all the materials from Canada or something?

Unfortunately, the evil British consulate guys tail Margaret and thus find their way to the ever-elusive Jake Speed. Curses! His brilliant plan to wander around aimlessly and not find anoyne's sister has been foiled! Once again! He's so upset, he even calls one of the goons "ass ears!" Oooh, take that, evildoer! You'll rue the day you tangled with the maniacal wit of one Mr. Jacob Speedowitz! (I'm just assuming that's the real name. It could also be Speedberg or Spederman.)

Finally, FINALLY, with 15 minutes in the film remaining, John Hurt shows up as the actual bad guy, the slave trading bastard Sid. He's selling off the lovely and angelic Maureen to two creepy Arab guys in fezes. (How else would you know they're dirty Arabs?)

Hurt's trying his best, but most of the lines he's been given don't make any sense at all.

"What have you done with my sister," Margaret sneers.
"Relax, toots," Sid replies. "We should be feeling so good!"
"You scum-sucking pig!" Margaret responds.
"How old are you pussycat," Sid retorts (?)

What a comeback. Sid, you are the king.

I will say this...Hurt's got one sinister-looking creepy grin going. It makes several featured appearances during his brief scenes.

So he ties up Jake and Margaret, knotting the rope conveniently in the crotch so we can get a cheap blowjob joke. Whooo-eee. With that bit of business on top of some bad Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions and shenanigans concerning Sid's wacky gay assistant (Maurice!)who's always trying to clean the rug...Let me just say, the last 10 minutes of this bad boy is a regular cavalcade of comic pranksterism. Like Porky's 2, just not quite as arty.

Hurt closes things out with the film's best monologue. Okay, the film's only monologue. "I'm a bad guy, Jake. I do anything I want. I lie. I cheat. I steal. I kill." So, I guess there are two characters in the film based on Rumsfeld. Maybe the original ending was that John Hurt and the Grandfather are the same person, and they just reshot the scene because it was too confusing.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bob Dylan's "Modern Times"

A new Bob Dylan album is an event. Maybe not every Bob Dylan album ever. There's some good '80s discs, but I wouldn't say that any time Bob released an album during my youth, it was a cause for excitement. (Not that I would have been aware back then either way, the bulk of my musical tastes being defined by my mother's tape collection...A lot of Sting, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Whitney Houston, Elton John and Terrence Trent D'Arby...)

But America's greatest living songwriter has been on a role lately. His well-received autobiography Chronicles and Martin Scorsese's extensive PBS documentary No Direction Home have cemented his position among the great American icons of the 20th Century. With the universally lauded Time Out of Mind and the breezy, old-fashioned Love and Theft, as well as a near-constant touring schedule, he's making music more relevant and compelling now than any time since the 1970's.

So while Modern Times, Dylan's 31st or 44th album depending on how you count, doesn't break any new ground or indicate any sea change in his sound, it's nonetheless a terrific, stirring and accomplished collection of 10 new songs. Absolutely 100% worth the wait, and almost assured a spot on my eventual Favorites of 2006 list.

Amanda Petrusich at Pitchfork calls the album a "companion piece" to Love and Theft, and in terms of the album's production and style, that's absolutely accuarate. Like that 2001 effort, Modern Times is an incredibly tight, well-played collection of throwback 1950's rock-and-roll songs. None of the guy's old folk-rock trappings are evident in the new material, none of the spazzy surrealism that marked his classic '70s efforts. He's turned back the dial to the era of his own youth, experimenting in the sounds that first inspired his own generation to explore this music.

Many trakcs are straight-up rockabilly, at times eerily reminiscent of Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins. But other early branches of rock music make brief appearances - lilting ballad "Spirit on the Water" reminded me of that old George Jones country-rock tune "She Thinks I Still Care" and "Workingman's Blues 2" sounds exactly as you'd think a song named "Workingman's Blues" would sound.

Two of the tracks are new arrangements of traditional songs. In "Rollin' and Tumblin'," a driving adaptation of a song previously recorded by Muddy Waters, Dyaln contemporizes some of the lyrics. ("Some lazy slut has charmed away my brains.") The stomping drum running behind Dylan's wheezy vocals on the 19th century ballad "Nettie Moore" seems to signal some impending apocalyptic doom. When it finally lets up during the sweeping chorus, it's the most beautiful moment on the album.

There's a interesting, anachronistic level running through Modern Theft that differentiates it somewhat from its predecessor. Opening crowd pleaser "Thunder on the Mountain" references Alicia Keys, indicating there's at least one modern artist who has caught old Bob's attention. I'm fairly certain the tremendous "The Levee's Gonna Break" conflates Dylan's life story with a hurricane-ravaged New Orelans. (Seriously!)

If it keep on rainin'
The levee gonna break
Some of these people gonna
Strip you of all you can take

I can't stop here
I ain't ready to unload
Riches and salvation might be
Around the next bend in the road

Audacious? Yes. A bit self-obsessed? I suppose...But that's why he's Bob Dylan and you're some schmo reading my blog. No offense.

The best track might be the epic closer, "Ain't Talkin," kind of an dystopian Ennio Morricone spaghetti western riff in which Bob is "walking through the cities of the plague." It's nearly 9 minutes long and completely awesome.

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
My mule is sick, my horse is blind
Hot burning, still yearning
Thinking 'bout that gal I left behind


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Nutter

Angry, bloated, alcoholic loser Christopher Hitchens appeared on Bill Maher's show this week. It was a considerably humiliating display. They really shouldn't put this guy on TV any more. Not because he's persuasive in any way, but just because it's sad and pathetic. Like those old Judy Garland TV shows where she's singing duets with Mel Torme and doing mime routines set to "Send in the Clowns" on a fifth of gin and a mason jar full of barbiturates.

When he wasn't just busy pretending to be a Middle East expert or flipping off the audience, Hitchens was lying about Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Check out the gruesome spectacle here, if you must.

So, okay, before I go any further, I'd like to take out a little Troll Insurance...I'm sure some snarky neocon will show up here before long to accuse me of having a man-crush on Mr. Ahmadinejad, so let me just say that, for the record, I don't think he's a great guy or a hero or anything like that. (Now, Hugo Chavez...) Maddy strikes me as an authoritarian scumbag. You would think he and Bush would be able to work out a compromise as they have so much in common.

Everyone clear? I don't want to have to explain this easy-to-understand point in the comments. (1) Ahmadinejad is probably a bad guy and (2) we should under no circumstances go to war with his country.

Okay, on to Christopher Hitchens and his booze-fueled half-truths...He said on Maher's show, as part of a general case against Islamofascimomuslamonazis, that Ahmadinejad wanted to "wipe Israel off the map." He repeated this claim forcefully. Iran intends to destory Israel. Fact!

Unfortuantely, as Juan Cole pointed out months ago when Hitchens first started making this claim, it's totally bogus. Here's what the guy actually said:

The phrase he then used as I read it is "The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."

Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope-- that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah's government.

Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.

So, he never said anything like "wipe off the map." He used an idiomatic phrase that roughly translates as "vanish from the page of time." That's a little different, no? It doesn't so much indicate a threat of physical violence so much as a recalibration of power in the Middle East. Every leader rallies his country by promising a recalibration of power in their favor. What's he going to say? "I intend to be weak and ineffectual! Iran will never again be a player on the world stage!"

In fact, since early this year when this meme started popping up in the media frequently, I've been trying my best to follow the situtaion with Iran. (I don't always succeed cause, let's face it, I'm kind of lazy). I'm pretty sure that's where these desperate warmongers are turning next. (Although Max Boot here pines openly for a war with Syria...These guys are like kids in a candy store. They can't decide which sovereign nation they'd like to decimate next!)

Now, I might have missed this speech, but I have never heard Maddy directly threaten violence against Israel or the United States. Ever. If I'm wrong, someone direct me to the article. That's always the media's analysis - well, here, he's openly declaring war on the West. But in my experience, it's never what he actually says.

The guy talks tough, no doubt about it. But didn't we start it up with him? Not the other way around? We were the ones declaring his country part of an "Axis of Evil," right?

I bring this up today because the guy gave a press conference yesterday that's reported on here by Reuters.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced defiance on Tuesday as a deadline neared for Iran to halt work the West fears is a step toward building nuclear bombs, and challenged US President George W. Bush to televized debate.

Ooohhh...Defiance. When I was a kid, during the Cold War, we expected world leaders to respond to us with defiance. Now it's a call to arms.

In a press conference, Ahmadinejad condemned the US and British role in the world since World War II but made no direct mention of the international nuclear confrontation.

“I suggest holding a live TV debate with Mr. George W. Bush to talk about world affairs and the ways to solve those issues,” he said.

That monster! He wants our president to go on television and defend his own actions! Forget everything I said...Bomb that Motherfucker! That's the most un-American shit I've heard since the latest Dixie Chicks single.

The Iranian president said the creation of the State of Israel was based on a “myth,” alluding to past statements he made on the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, I don't have a translated copy of the speech, so I can't tell what the context was here. But just because he's saying that some aspect of the creation of State of Israel is based around a myth doesn't mean he's denying the Holocaust. (Yes, I know, he's said that the Holocaust was exaggerated in the past...That's one of the reasons I called him a bad guy earlier...But being a Holocaust denier doesn't make someone an immediately viable target for US military action. Hell, it doesn't even prevent someone from becoming an award-winning filmmaker.)

I'm just saying that reporter Dudi Cohen is conflating what could easily be seen as two separate, independant claims. Perhaps Ahmadinejad means that the concept of Israeli historical claims on the city of Jerusalem are based on a myth. I wouldn't really put it that way, myself, but I pretty much believe the same thing. I mean, Jews have no more concrete, historical claim on Israel than White Europeans have on the United States. I mean, yeah, we're here now...But there were other folks around when we got here. And the Bible is not exactly a realistic way to go about divvying up the planet. You're better of using Sid Meier's Civilization to determine borders and international boundries.

There are two separate issues here...The Holocuast provided the inspiration for a Jewish homeland, but has nothing to do with locating that state in a place previously occupied by Arab Muslims. Jews needed an international safe haven as a bulwark against future genocide attempts. Fine. But why does it need to be in Jerusalem? I hear Amsterdam is a lot of fun...Why not settle there? Dude, legal weed!

This isn't really the biggest issue I have with this article, but it does strike me as a little deceptive. I have no way of knowing if Ahmadinejad was talking about the Holocaust at all. An actual quote would have been nice, instead of quotations around the word "myth" and Cohen's conjecture.

A few days ago Ahmadinejad inaugurated a plant for the production of heavy water located in Arak, some 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran. The president made it clear that Iran would not ‘give up its right to develop its nuclear program,’ adding that the program does not pose a threat, not even against Israel.

“We do not threaten anyone, even the Zionist regime, which is the enemy,” he said.

This statement is far more mild than what comes out of our own White House. We threaten countries all the time. In fact, we've already threatened Iran openly. (The U.S. has expressed a possible desire to go around the U.N. Security Council militarily should the body refuse to place restrictive economic sanctions on Iran.)

Washington, which already imposes unilateral sanctions on Iran, has suggested it could consider action outside the Security Council with other like-minded countries.

This is the classic Bush-Rove war instigation tactic. It's the exact same strategy they used to push the Iraq War on an unsuspecting nation. Spend months gearing everyone up for war, then pretend that the person you keep threatening to attack is on the offensive. "All we did was repeatedly call out Ahmadinejad, promising to bomb his country just like we did the country right next door, and now he's getting all angry! Can you believe this guy?"

Look, I'm not saying I have the solution to this entire problem. I'm just saying that we shouldn't let the guys who created the problem make it worse because we're afraid. I don't love the idea of a nuclear Iran. But I know for a fact that us going over there and starting another war won't make things any better. Look at what the last war did!

The Iranian democratic movement had been making gains in the years leading up to our failed Middle East adventure. They still seemed poised to make some kind of impact in that country's political landscape. (Rallies for progressive candidate Mostafa Moin drew as many as 10,000 people in 2005).

In fact, Bush has few bigger fans than the radical Iranian "Death to America" clerics. He might just salvage repressive authoritarianism with all his threats and bluster. So, again, I'm not saying the situation with Iran gives me no pause. I'm saying that it would be better to foster a progressive, democratic grass-roots movement in the country rather than blowing everyone up and then fighting an insurgency for several years. Becuase we're clearly not very good at actually exporting this democracy thing. It's much easier for us if it's arleady there to begin with.

Future Unrentables: The Sentinel

The Sentinel is exactly like those overblown action movies made for the USA Network or TNT. Add in a few breaks for Axe Body Spray commercials and a tiny, half-visible station identification logo in the lower right hand corner and Clark Johnson's film would perfectly replicate the experience of watching late-late-late night television due to insomnia/depression/cocaine addiction.

This is straight-up television-style storytelling, by which I mean it looks cheap and tends toward uninspired melodramatics in place of anything interesting or cinematic. Johnson has worked mainly in television (he currently directs episodes of "Sleeper Cell," "The Shield" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit"). His only previous feature film was the woeful 2003 adaptation of the S.W.A.T. TV show, memorable only for Oliver Martinez's bellicose offer from the trailer - "100 million dorrars!"

As in that film, Johnson directs completely bland, anonymous sequences and then, ever 20 minutes or so, throws in something visually jarring and elaborate, to remind you that you're watching a movie and not a "24" rerun. After a dull opening montage of Secret Service agent Michael Douglas arriving for work, Johnson swings upward for a long CGI tracking shot across the roof of the White House. Not only is the entire set-up totally pointless, but he does a poor job of covering the cuts in what is clearly intended to look like a single shot. Maybe the "La Femme Nikita" TV spin-off (which aired on...wait for it...the USA Network!) was a more appropriate fit for this guy's talents...

It's not only Johnson's fault that The Sentinel veers wildly between boring, stupid and stutifyingly boring. George Nolfi's clumsy script, literally teeming with bad political thriller dialogue and Secret Service jargon, isn't doing anyone any favors. The writing frequently reminded me of those really awful military techno-thrillers that creepy old white guys write for other, even creepier old white guys to flip through while on the can.

"Stock Smithson entered the coordinates into his jiggerator and waited. Once more, he realized he should have trusted his gut. The launch codes and the microlaser were in the possession of Torvald Hammsher, former Danish Resistance Front defector, ex-assassin for the Church of the Zoroaster and all-around son of a bitch. His only hope would be to hijack the XRP-98, rip apart the particle-thermalized security interface and haul ass to Turkmenistan. Provided it wasn't already too late."

So, okay, fine, it's not entertaining. But it is based on a novel (by Gerald Petievich), so it should at least have a decent twist ending. Right? Right?

As it turns out...hell no. Using the process of elimination, it's pretty simple to figure out the bad guy within the first ten minutes. I won't blow it here, in case any of you have any desire to see this shitkicker and are not terribly clever. But I will say this...Only one character doesn't ahve to face suspicion and scrutiny for the film's central crimes. This person is your villain.

I say "central crimes" because, unlike the clearly inspirational In the Line of Fire, an attempted assassination on the President is only one of the movie's many subplots and tangents.

Secret Service agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), like Clint Eastwood's agent before him, became a legend after saving the life of a sitting President. (He's the one who dove in front of Reagan, thereby ruining John Hinckley Jr's chances with Jodie Foster.) Now, he spends his days teaching the next generation how to protect the President. That is, when he's not schtupping the First Lady (Kim Basinger, trying to channel HilRod) on the side.

This novel must have been written with Michael Douglas in mind for the inevitable film version. Who else would be believable as a retirement-age Secret Service agent giving it to the President's wife? He's the ideal combination of capable elder and perv. Unfortunately, this means that the driving romantic relationship in the film is between Michael Douglas and Kim Basinger. Someone might want to do something about that...I just don't think there should ever be a love scene involving actors whose combined ages equal more than 100. Really, I think 80 ought to be the rule, with a few notable exceptions. I know Kate Bosworth wouldn't be realistic as the First Lady, but cut us a break here. You've got Eva Longoria in the movie. Let's put her to some actual use!

Anyway, after about 45 minutes of general mucking-about and pseudo-intrigue, the plot kicks into motion. Someone's planning to kill the president, there's a mole inside the Secret Service and Garrison's being set up to take the fall. Heading up the case is the extremely Jack Bauer-esque David Breceknridge, coincidentally played by TV's Jack Baeur, Kiefer Sutherland. I really hope Kiefer enjoys playing this elite hardass character, because I predict he'll be doing a lot of it over the next few decades.

Along with his sexy new trainee Jill (desperate housewife Eva Longoria), David becomes quickly convinced of Garrison's innocence. The movie kind of shifts at the halfway point from a rip-off of In the Line of Fire to a rip-off of The Fugitive, but it lacks that film's kinetic action, funny supporting characters or...well, anything good or entertaining. The trio of stars - Douglas, Sutherland and Longoria - not only lack chemistry together, but seemingly lack any sort of interest in this material. Douglas is on total autopilot, surprising when you consider that he also produced the film. Sutherland, as I said, falls back on the same steely terrorist-loathing Bauerisms America has come to know and love. And Longoria looks great, but that's all she gets to do. The character's so unneccessary, she might as well be a deaf-mute.

A couple of interesting (not entertaining, but at least interesting) choices Johnson makes...

- Garrison, nominally the film's hero, earns the most downbeat conclusion for any American film character this year. He's methodically stripped of everything during the movie, despite clearly not being guilty of any criminal intention against the President. No fair!

- Longoria and Sutherland are clearly set up for a romantic subplot but it never happens. Possibly because they'd need to pay her more if she actually had any lines.

- The film's set in Washington but doesn't even pretend to have actually been shot there. Eventually, as if admitting his poorly-orchestrated fraud, Johnson officially moves the action to the cheaper Toronto.

- President Ballantine is portrayed by David Rasche, TV's Sledgehammer. (You see what I mean about this being a 2 hour TV show and not a movie?) It is incredibly difficult to look at Rasche and not think about his greatest role. So, when they had to decide what his Secret Service nickname was going to be...why not make it "Sledgehammer"? Instead, Nolfi and Johnson go with "Classic." Waste of a perfectly good comic set-up right there, if you asked me. And, let's face it, if you've read this far into this review, you pretty much have.

- The "villains" behind this attempt on the President's life strike me as neither reasonable nor menacing. We're told that some kind of drug cartel wants Ballantine dead, but surely there would be a better way of going about their criminal business than killing the President of the United States, right? I can't imagine a scenario by which a drug kingpin would be forced to order a hit directly on the Commander-in-Chief. It just seems really difficult and expensive and risky. More trouble than it could possibly be worth.

Which is also a pretty good summation of the experience of watching The Sentinal. 108 minutes of considerably difficult work for no payoff. Look for it in a previosuly viewed bin at your local video store this time next month...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

I know, I know...I'm about three weeks late. Everyone with even a remote interest in Will Ferrell or NASCAR racing or Hollywood summer comedies has already seen Talladega and made their opinions known. But I'd just end up reviewing the thing when it came out on DVD anyway, so let's just do this thing and get it out of the way now...

I'm not sure I've ever seen a more testicle-obsessed movie than Talladega Nights. Nearly every scene begins and ends with references to Ricky Bobby's balls. When will he grow a pair? Will he get them back after a humiliating defeat? Do his peaches, in fact, have any hair? In the twisted mind of NASCAR champion Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), balls equal manliness which equals success which equals greatness. Happiness is a warm crotch.

Bobby's the latest version of Ferrell's "insane idiot" persona. In fact, he's almost the exact same character as Ron Burgundy, the news man that Ferrell played in his last team-up with co-writer/director Adam McKay. These are two pompous and egomaniacal man-children whose brash (and juvenile) machismo hides vulnerable, sensitive little boys. News anchor Ron Burgundy obsessed over his hair and, of course, stock car racer Ricky Bobby obsesses over get where I'm going with this...

In fact, Talladega is pretty much just a do-over of Ferrell and McKay's prior film. They've even given them parallel sub-titles to tip off audiences to the game:

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Both titles imply that these stories center exclusively around the Will Ferrell characters. It's his legend and his ballad. This is blatantly fraudulent advertising. Talented and energetic though Ferrell may be, without all the other enthusiastic and funny people filling out the casts of these movies, they'd be unwatchable. They're predictable and repetitive and they rely on non-sequiteur and cheap irony in place of actual jokes. They're two hour collections of jokes about balls, obvious pop culture references, lame screenwriting conventions from the '30s and endless, endless product placement.

But what can I say? I laughed at Anchorman and I laughed even harder at Talladega. Ferrell and McKay may not have any new tricks up their sleeve this time around, but they know how to give funny performers enough room to bring the funny. It's not much, but it's good enough for August.

For a guy who always plays self-aggrandizing assholes who compulsively hog the spotlight, Ferrell's a generous, giving actor. This is undeniably his (forgive me) vehicle, a Will Ferrell comedy featuring the guy in nearly every scene, but Ricky Bobby is hardly the film's lone insane idiot. Here's an incomplete list of the veteran comedians and character actors appeaing in the film:

- Jane Lynch, of Christopher Guest's improv comedies and 40 Year Old Virgin, makes the most from a small role as Ricky's mom
- Gary Cole, the hideous pig of a boss from Office Space, has the best role in the entire film as Ricky's loutish, drug-addled, alcoholic and neglectful father
- John C. Reilly plays Cal Naughton Jr., Ricky's partner and then rival, as a more good-natured and less perverted version of his character from Boogie Nights
- David Koechner, a veteran of "Saturday Night Live" and Anchorman, has a few lines as a pit crew member
- Ian Roberts of Upright Citizens Brigade plays another pit crew member in a glorified cameo
- Ferrell's SNL cohort Molly Shannon does her patented loud, obnoxious oaf routine
- Ali G/Borat/Bruno personifier Sacha Baron Cohen portrays Ricky's gay French antagonist
- Andy Richter appears as the villain's saucy boyfriend

Other actors with less notable resumes do funny work as well. Amy Adams proves her nominated role from Junebug wasn't a fluke, Michael Clarke Duncan is actually funny on occasion as Ricky's pit crew boss and the brilliant duo of Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell give two of the most hilarious child performances I have ever seen as Ricky's spoiled, aggressive sons. (They're named Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. for short.)

These performances make the movie watchable. Cohen creates another wholly original and endearing character using nothing but exaggerated body language and a silly accent. His calculating and smug Jean Girrard bears little similarity with any of his other well-known characters. This movie's nowhere near as brilliant as his feature-length showcase, Borat, which opens this November, but it's still a delightful, chameleon-like turn garnering several of the film's biggest laughs.

With a less imaginative or more disinterested group of collaborators, I have no doubt Talladega Nights would suck the balls it can't stop referencing. Most of the actual jokes fail to connect. Some are even kind of embarrassing. (Scenes featuring Greg Germann as a brown-nosing NASCAR executive and Shannon as his drunk wife go absolutely nowhere and are painful).

I'd say there's, in general, far less funny material here from the outset than McKay and Ferrell devised for Anchorman. Working with the exact same format - a very bad winner starts to lose at life and then realizes what an asshole he has been - they don't seem to really have the feel for the world of stock car racing that they exhibited with the world of local '70s news shows. (Though there are some fall-down funny scenes, nothing approaches the inter-network news battle royale from Anchorman for sheer manic audacity.)

Aside from a terrific sequence in which Ricky's Dad Reese devises challenges to reinvigorate his son's racing career, by far the tightest and most inspired comedy in the film, McKay and Ferrell's script has a rambling, aimless feel. It's nice that they don't rush to some inevitable, happy conclusion, keeping things loose enough to allow the actors room for improvisation and funny little character bits, but the final ratio of scenes that work vs. scenes that aren't funny and make no sense only works out to about 60-40.

All too often, McKay falls back on tearing down the fourth wall and ironically comment on the fact that "it's all a movie." Occasionally, it works and gets a laugh, particularly when mocking the rampant product placement that has become a NASCAR trademark and accordingly permeates this film. The climactic chase scene may be the first in cinema history to actually make time for a commercial interruption. Once or twice in a whole film is fine for self-referential humor, but these kinds of jokes come to feel obvious and gratuitous really fast. Go for more than 5 or 6 and it's like you're trading in the integrity of the film as a story in exchange for a cheap laugh at the expense of sports movie conventions.

I'm not sure why Ferrell and McKay opt constantly for this sort of easy, audience-flattering irony. There's enough going on in Ricky Bobby's story to propel a 90 minute summer comedy. (If there wasn't, I'd say they should have come up with a richer premise with more comic potential. But, come on, there's totally enough jokes to make about NASCAR to fill 90 minutes. It's NASCAR!)

Specifically, Ricky learns that his overzealous, boastful, results-focused and very American pride caused him to lose everything. Eventually, he learns that the world might be a better place if we could all be just a little bit more...French. That is, reserved, open-minded and sophisticated. How does Ricky demonstrate how much he has learned? By deeply kissing another man before a stadium crowd for the benefit of a national audience. Surely this turnaround could have inspired some more examination.

(Also, I would not mind seeing more with Ricky interacting with his foul-mouthed sons. I'm telling you, these two kids are comic dynamos, little monsters who suddenly must confront head-on the horrors of Granny Justice.)

My point is, the best moments in the film are all about the characters, several of whom are creative enough to support an entire movie. Cole's defiant beer-swilling loser should get a spin-off movie in which he joins forces with Billy Bob Thornton's bitter alcoholic clown from Bad Santa.

As in Anchorman, the movie favors the element of surprise over believability. Situations are allowed to play out in terms of what will be the most funny and revealing, as opposed to what makes the story move forward or what makes the most sense. This kind of willfully ridiculous surreality gives the writers and actors the freedom of fill in the world of Talladega with some memorably bizarre little details.

In perhaps the movie's absolute best moment, Cal unburdens hismelf, reavealing a closely-kept secret from his past to a comatose friend. Bloopers running over the closing credits imply the actual scene is only one possible take out of many that Reilly filmed. Were these pre-written scenarios on which he would riff? Was he making this stuff up as he went along? Did Ferrell and McKay actually script out this whole monologue verbatim? I'm not quite sure, but regardless, it's one of the single most hilarious scenes of 2006, hands down, end of story.