Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hard Candy

Movies about pedophiles or potential pedophiles really need to stop using Little Red Riding Hood allusions. It's played, folks. Totally played. Yeah, we get it, she's a little girl being lured by a predator into a bed. Ooooohhhh, you're so clever to have thought up that incredibly blatant metaphor for sexual molestation!

The 2004 film The Woodsman starred Kevin Bacon as a pedophile attempting to reform his ways following a prison stint, and its title references the somewhat obscure conclusion to the Red Riding Hood Legend, in which a local lumberjack cuts open the Wolf's stomach to release Red and her grandmother, unharmed. The twisted morality tale Hard Candy inverts the legend, ending with an image of a girl in a red hooded sweatshirt skipping merrily away from the Big Bad Wolf's home.

It's a disappointing ending on several levels. Following up a film that, for all its faults, is ceaselessly inventive and sharp, it feels cloying and obvious. Cinematically, it doesn't really link up with the attitude of the rest of the film, which isn't so much about innocence betrayed as it is about karmic justice. But most importantly, it's just kind of sick and inappropriate. A movie without any acts of heroism falls back on comic book cliche - evil is punished, good wins the day, Little Red Riding Hood and Granny escape the haunted woods with the help of Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, the music swells and we fade out into the sunset.

Sick is definitely an adjective that applies to Hard Candy. At times, it's intentionally off-putting and difficult to stomach. This is basically an exploitation/shock film dressed up as an indie thriller, a harsh revenge film of the kind that once played on 42nd Street.

The extremes aren't so much about testing the limits of common decency, as they are in the films of Takashi Miike. Nor are the shock sequences about challenging an audience to tolerate the sort of brutal depravity that goes on in reality every day, as they are in the films of Gaspar Noe (like Irreversible). This is straight-up cult film stuff, the kind of movie that in one swift transition offers the audience an implicit dare - are you curious enough to tolerate the next hour of cruelty and horror?

Admittedly, the performances and production values are significantly higher on Hard Candy than, say, Hot Spur, Fight for Your Life or Mantis in Lace. Writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade have turned in a film that's so polished, so smooth and so clever that you almost want to forgive it for revelling in the most debased sort of material possible and arriving at a conclusion that's as wrong-headed as it is cynical. Almost.

The screen is entirely taken up by a computer screen as two people chat online. It's a 14 year old girl and a man, presumably a good deal older. They arrange a meeting at a nearby coffee shop. Hayley (Ellen Page) is so precocious and yet so incredibly naive, Jeff (Patrick Wilson) ought to sense trouble wright away. But he's captivated by her. She's clearly smarter than most girls her age, and somehow adult beyond her years. He pretends to defer, but soon enough allows Hayley to convince him to go back to his apartment.

Once there, everything changes. As so often happens with Internet hook-ups, neither Hayley nor Jeff are the people they pretended to be in chat, and reality is about to come crashing down on Jeff's technology-aided fantasy in the form of one sadistic, vengeful little girl.

The notion of indulging in one's forbidden fantasies comes up frequently in Hard Candy. Though he protests his innocence of the worst of the crimes Hayley mentions, Jeff's clearly in this predicament in the first place because he felt the need to seduce an underage girl. The fact that he has fantasized about children sexually in the first place, by Hayley's logic, pretty much opens him up for any punishment that she could possibly dish out. The movie tests this scenario out in a few ways, and alwasy returns to the same conclusion...That nothing Hayley could do to Jeff could possibly equal the evils that Jeff has committed in his own life.

This very well may be true The movie's never exactly clear, there are no flashbacks or any information about events that happened before the actual film takes place. But isn't Hayley just fulfilling some fantasy of her own? The fantasy of visiting crimes back on the criminals? Is vigilantism justifiable, even if it's in direct response to a grave misdeed?

Slade's direction makes it difficult to argue otherwise. He frequently pulls tricks out of the Hitchcock playbook, often with great success, but always in the aid of Hayley's mission. Long monologues and sequences shot in tight close-ups don't just introduce and repeat gruesome unpleasantness but begin to wallow in it to a distasteful degree. Hayley doesn't just describe her nefarious plans for Jeff. She lays them out in loving, exacting detail. She offers diagrams when needed. She picks music and photos appropriate to the occasion. She gets off on making Jeff suffer, just as Slade gets off on tormenting his audience.

(This isn't neccessarily always a bad thing. Hitchcock clearly got off in some ways on tormenting his audience with tension, although that was always in the service of entertainment. Hitch hated actual violence and realistic movie violence, preferring the fantasy of "a delightful little murder" in the classic British style.)

A lot of this material works, at least on a pure filmmaking level, because of the strength of these two performances. As Jeff, Patrick Wilson pulls off easy charm in the beginning and then continues ratching up the panic and anxiety as his dire fate comes into closer relief. It's a really physical performance (he's bound to a chair for the majority of the movie), at times something of a high-wire act, and he never once falters. Even more impressive is young Ellen Page, who clearly has a future ahead of her in this field. Wilson's transition is well-done, but he's got nothing on Page, who smoothy navigates from precocious teen into steely psycho without noticably altering her personality. The way she brings out Hayley's goofy side initially and then slowly reveals the dark, calculating menace beneath is masterful.

But these carefully-crafted performances are in the service of a seriously twisted little film. Will Hayley be found out? Will she be unable to finish her nasty business? These scenes aren't based around the threat of Hayley being caught, mind you, of her being punished for punishing others. It's only based on the threat that she'll be stopped before she's done torturing some guy. Now, I'm sorry, but no matter how bad that guy's sin, I'm not certain it's wise for a film to actively side with a torturer in this way.

Really, for all its aesthetic trappings and excess of style, ins't the entire film Hard Candy kind of a juvenile fantasy itself? In reality, child molesters and rapists and killers get away with it every single day, and there are no Hayleys or superheroes to go around town and manufacture justice. Movies like Daredevil give us flights of fancy about supermen who bounce around imaginary cityscapes in nifty costumes battling evil and rescuing damsels in distress, but at least those kinds of movies openly flaunt their escapist phoniness. Hard Candy seems to desire relevance in the real world, when all it has to offer is a lot of flourishes on top of a bitter, angry and intensely ugly allegory in praise of torture.

Hey, I mean, it's not always the right choice, but if it gets the job done...

I'd talk more about the filmmaking, which is impressive across the board, but I don't want to risk giving away any more of the story than neccessary. If you're going to force yourself through Hard Candy, you may as well see it as intended with the surprises intact. You've been warned. It's tough to get through.


To make this last point, I'll have to discuss a major plot point of Hard Candy that you shouldn't know before you see the movie. Stop reading if you plan to see Hard Candy and haven't yet.

Okay, the movie lost me with the castration stuff. Not because I can't handle a movie about a guy getting his balls cut off. I've seen disgusting castration scenes in movies before, believe it or not, as well as disgusting scenes of men getting their penises sliced off or penetrated by fish hooks. I can handle it. But the castration plot in this movie is just perverse, with all that build-up and then the cop-out at the end. Goddammit, if you're going to have me sit through 30 minutes of your character lovingly describing how she's going to castrate a guy, shaving his privates and freezing them with ice and promising over and over again that this is going to happen, and then actually enacting the surgery, you've got to cut that guy's balls off for real. Let's stop fucking around, okay? It's for directors with no balls.

Also, I bet Nelson and Slade thought that was a feminist little twist to throw in the movie. "Hey, this guy likes to fuck little girls? Well a little girl is gonna castrate that guy! Bwa ha ha!" But really, this plays into the #1 classic feminist stereotype of all time. What do we say about prototypical angry feminists? That they are castrating little bitches! I mean, come on. Feminists don't really want to cut your balls off, guys. They just want to be treated as equal human beings even though they have different plumbing than you do. Get over yourselves.

The Black Dahlia

Though Chicago or New York probably provide the setting for the majority of American noir films, it's really Los Angeles that best embodies the genre's essence. The nation's most glamorous metropolis, and it's youngest, L.A. would intuitively have the most seedy underbelly.

Roman Polanski's Chinatown, in many ways the ultimate L.A. noir, imagines a city famous for its grandiose lies that's built on even larger lies. No matter how devious the imagination of a filmmaker, there's always some true crime in the city's past, some barely-whispered scandal, that plumbs even further depths of humman suffering and cruelty.

Novelist James Ellroy, whose mother was murdered here long ago, has spent the better part of his career fictionalizing the outrageous crimes and shady dealings dotting the history of Los Angeles. The previous major adaptation of his work, Curtis Hanson's modern classic LA Confidential, took Ellroy's at times obsessive cataloguing of the LAPD police blotter and reworked it into an epic indictment of the ugliness behind the shiny, sunny exterior of the motion picture industry and the stars who fueled its image.

Such movies are built on a rather straightforward contradiction. The world sees Los Angeles as the Movie Capital, and thus ascribes to it all kinds of attractive and exciting qualities, but the truth is that this beauty was created through pain, greed, rape, addiction, perversity and murder. (For another terrific development of this idea, see Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which posits that even cartoons were built on a foundation of treachery and graft.)

One could almost argue that the glamour and the sleaze feed off one another - the grisly murder scenes, buried corpses and stolen wealth wouldn't seem as fascinating if they didn't involve showbiz types, and likewise the fast living, fame and money of Hollywood wouldn't be so exciting without partially-obscured mystery, scandal and danger.

Think Paris Hilton. Without her money, she'd just be another whore. Without her whorishness, she'd just be another dreary, bug-eyed rich girl.

Brian De Palma's latest Ellroy adaptation, the stylish and crafty Black Dahlia, departs from Hanson's birds-eye-view of corruption in the City of Angels to tell the L.A. story from a more personal angle. Rather than take in the full scope of '40s L.A., juxtaposing the poor immigrants who built the city with the moguls who run the studios, the hopeful starlets rushing out for screen tests with their unlucky counterparts undressing for johns in fetid motel rooms, De Palma uses the infamous Black Dahlia murder case to convey the experience of being a very small fish in the world's largest, scummiest pond.

Homicide detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) spends most of the film peering out of windows, grabbing quick glances around corners or peeking out from behind the steering wheels of parked cars. He and his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), have been assigned the strange case of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a wannabe actress found not just killed but hideously mutilated and disfigured.

This is a real unsolved murder case, and a rather fascinating one, but De Palma mainly uses it for background. The real focus remains on Bleichert himself, who begins the film finding happiness and friendship with his new partner (and one-time boxing rival) and his partner's wife, the fetching Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). Several strange and unsettling events, some of them set in motion by the murder of the girl who comes to be known as The Black Dahlia (after a recent film, The Blue Dahlia), give Bleichert insight into the reality behind his friend's perfect marriage and his own cozy position within the police department.

Ellroy has constructed the story in much the same way as LA Confidential, using real crimes and investigations as a structure but keeping the emphasis on the personal experiences of LAPD detectives in the era. De Palma, accordingly, has gone to great lengths to get the period details correct. For the most part, he succeeds swimmingly. Dante Ferretti's sets evoke old Hollywood with remarkable luster. Everything's so manicured, so baroque, that it's unclear whether he means to recreate '40s Hollywood or a '40s Hollywood film. In the end, it hardly matters.

Mark Isham's score, though occasionally intrusive, ably mimics the overwrought, swelling anthems that highlighted old thrillers and melodramas. It's so on the nose, it caused some members of the audience to laugh at the obviousness of it all, but De Palma's clearly going for a traditional, old-fashioned Hollywood thing here, so such broad strokes can be forgiven.

Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is similarly a mixed bag. The camera work on display here rivals just about any De Palma effort, including one terrific traffic shot early on depicting a clash between Zoot Suits, police and sailors and an incredible crane shot that scales a building before twisting around behind it and eventually coming back down to Earth where it all began. Remarkable.

One scene, in which the detectives and Kay watch The Man Who Laughs in a theater, uses extreme lighting under Johansson's face as a portentious warning, which is a trick De Palma has lifted directly from movies of the '40s and '50s. It's a great little moment. Less successful is some of the lighting on individual scenes. An attempt has been made on some interior shots to give the movie a brown, muted look, possibly trying to get the color film to mimic the monochrome of a dark scene in black and white. Instead, the effect tends to make the film look flat and washed out. Again, some moments work great. Johansson, with her curled blonde locks, cigarette holder and beet-red nail polish, looks lifted off the poster for some old B picture with a name like Man Eater or Heat City.

De Palma returns frequently to first-person shots, giving the audience Bleichert's perspective. In one audacious scene, his superior at 1 Police Plaza, Ellis Loew (Patrick Fischler) towers over the camera, screeching directly into the lens. Often, De Palma switches to Bleichert's perspective when he's in trouble - during a shootout, when he's being lectured and, in a brilliant sequence, as he's forced to engage with the wealthy, snooty Linscott family at a dinner party.

Capturing Bleichert's perspective seems to be the sole aim of the film, which is odd for a police procedural about a real-life murder case. The only way to examine the meaning behind Los Angeles, the real TRUTH about this town, is to see it from the perspective of a lowly, meaningless individual. It's such a tangled mass of corruption, it can't be seen from above, only from within.

De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman spend so much time with Bleichert, Blanchard and Kay, establishing their relationships and the painful secrets that threaten their bonds, the film gets pretty distracted from the Dahlia murder itself. Coming largely in the film's final 30 minutes, the actual investigation could have provided enough rich material for an entirely different film. As it is, some of the connections come off as rushed and underdeveloped.

Hillary Swank gives the best performance in the film as heiress Madeline Linscott, who met Short at an underground lesbian club. (The speakeasy-style dyke bar provides De Palma with an excuse to provide Black Dahlia with a '40s style musical interlude, in this case a magnificently strange performance featuring K.D. Lang and a variety of androgynous dancers. This is the exact kind of touch that make De Palma movies so much damn fun.) Swank is actually sexy in this role, and I've never said that about her in a movie before, and there's just so much fertile material in the Linscott storyline and Madeline herself, it's really too bad De Palma waits so long to work them into the film.

Likewise, the figure of Short herself remains totally enigmatic. Seen in screen test footage and an erotic short made before her untimely demise, Short displays a tight, wounded pride as well a manic streak. Sure, she's a pathological liar. She claims to do a variety of accents and then clams up when pressed to actually display her talent. She emotes constantly except when delivering actual dialogue. But this is Hollywood! Such realities don't matter. Only your look, your spirit, your essence really matters. Everything else can be faked.

Short preens in front of the camera at her screen test, making faces and reciting dialogue from Gone With the Wind, but only becomes interesting when she's not performing, in the moments between the performance when she's speaking genuinely. When she stops talking about the possibly fictional lover whom she lost in the war, and turns on the charm for her script reading, it's both a funny transition and a little tragedy.

The implication is made that simply living with this understanding - that no one cares about the real when the lie sounds better - has driven all of these characters insane. It certainly drives Blanchard to the edge, the fact that he can't solve any crime in which he hasn't been implicated. No one can live with hiding the truth any more, but blurting it out would be too dangerous, so the entire city tip-toes around one another at all times.

And these aren't just the big lies - the bundles of $100 bills buried beneath the sink or the rotting, shoddy wood slipped into the gleaming new housing project beneath the Hollywoodland sign - but the interpersonal, everyday kind as well. Bucky Bleichert isn't taking down Mickey Cohen, he's not blowing the lid off of some marquee idol who killed her father when he got a little grabby with her.

He's just looking into a murder, a slaying of an unknown girl who never meant anything to anybody. It's clear that he and Blanchard relate to Elizabeth Short, who came to Los Angeles dreaming of stardom and discovered a monstrous city that swallows people whole and doesn't even leave a pretty corpse so they can have an open casket funeral. That's not just this one pathetic girl or these few detectives whose lives have lost meaning. It's everybody in LA, both then and now. (Well, okay, everybody except ten guys in big offices somewhere).

In one of the movie's most dryly funny scenes, Rose McGowan plays a background extra, one of the lucky ones, who vaguely knew the late Ms. Short. She gives her interview dressed in her most recent costume, a ridiculous Egyptian girl number, and has to take off before Bleichert's through with her because her ride arrives. It's a dusty pick-up truck with 10 girls, all dressed identically, piled into the back. "The truck doesn't wait," the girl explains. And that's the Los Angeles of Black Dahlia. It's a horrible place, when all is said and done, but when it calls for you...well, you really have no choice but to answer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Bro's Before Ho's Theorum

I always write "bros before hoes" when I write about this concept (frequently, as it turns out), and I realize this is incorrect. Hoes would imply garden hoes, not "pimps n' hos." But I don't know...Something about the word "ho's" as written just looks wrong to me, even with the apostrophe.

Anyway, Big Brother All-Stars ended last night with Mike Malin (a.k.a. Mike Boogie, a.k. Lance Showmance) winning the half-million dollar grand prize. Mike was half of the Chill Town alliance, essentially controlling the entire game from a little bit before the halfway point and onward. So it was only fair that one of the two would win.

I was more intrigued by the reaction after Mike's win than with the win itself. The other finalist, Erika, didn't really stand much of a chance in the final vote because she had not been a visible presence for most of the game. She was what's been called "a floater," someone who doesn't choose one particular alliance and play the game in a forthright fashion, but who floats behind the scenes and tries to align with whomever is in power.

As the game progressed, Mike and Erika began sleeping together (embarking on a "showmance"), and each then used his or her influence with the other to position or gain advantage in the game. This happens pretty much every season and is not, in and of itself, surprising.

What surprised me was the attitudes towards Erika, first from the vanquished male contestants on the jury (who vote to determine the game's winner) and then from my own male friends afterwards. It was fairly obvious for the entire season that Mike and Erika intended to use their showmance as a power play. Mike frequently bragged to the camera that Erika was going to be tremendously hurt by his actions, that she trusted him too much and that he was not growing emotionally attached to her in any way. Erika as well boasted about being "an honorary member of Chill Town," before turning on them right at the end of the game and getting Will kicked out of the Big Brother House.

So you have two people with similar strategies in the finals. One is clearly the winner, as he was overall a more successful and clever player, and is more popular among the former housemates. But the jury's reaction to Erika was astoundingly negative. She was a bitch, a liar and a floater. She was just looking to hook up with someone and rid his coattails to the end. She was, in every way, undeserving of the prize.

Danielle, one of the jury members and a contestant who had been screwed over by Erika during the game, pointed out that there was a double standard going on. Boogie lied to everyone and manipulated everyone, he hooked up with Erika to gain advantage, and yet he was lionized as a terrific player who made all the right moves. Erika lied to some housemates and manipulated eothers, she hooked up with Boogie to gain advantage, but she was a two-faced undeserving harpy.

Obviously, there were other factors going in to the jury's decision-making process. Will, the consummate manipulator, planted the idea that Erika threw the final competition in order to get rid of Janelle, hopefully throwing some votes behind his friend Mike.

Additionally, it is hard to overstate the iron-fisted grip in which Chill Town held on to power for this entire season. Without winning any actual competitions until near the end of the game, Mike and Will controlled just about every major decision in the house. Anyone voting based strictly on ability at playing Big Brother would have to award one of those two guys the prize.

But still...these men on the jury clearly were employing a double standard in making their decisions. James admitted to disliking the "floater" argument against Erika, because Big Brother as he said "is not a team sport" and everyone's in it for themselves, but he then implied that it was somehow shameful for Erika to win because of her relationship with Boogie.

Chicken George, who had no real stake in this decision one way or the other, said he suspected Erika's gameplay because he always saw her whispering in people's ears. But Mike's entire strategy was based on lies and distortions. Howie, however, the house's resident mook, proved the most interesting.

Howie had disliked Boogie for the entire game. Upon being kicked out of the house, he got into a loud argument with Mike. Yet he voted for him to win at the end. Why? Unfrotunately, he was not asked specifically to explain his vote.

Here's my theory...Howie had been upset with Mike for kicking him out of the house. He had hoped that the men of Chill Town would keep him and get rid of Erika that week because of the "bro's before ho's" concept. It did not work out this way. Hence his anger. He felt betrayed by the sacred brotherhood of Maleness.

So here's his quandary in the finals. He'd love to vote for someone else, to punish Mike for the act of betrayal. But the only other person to vote a female! The only way he can punish those who violate the concept of putting bro's before ho's is to place a ho before a bro!

I'm being facetious, but only somewhat. I really do believe that this vote has revealed a subtle but persistant patriarchial assumption among the male population at large. A man who manipulates women is a player. A winner. A guy who knows how to get what he wants. But a woman who manipulates a man is a slutty whore.

Erika made it to the final two without ever really entering into a strong alliance. She had been nominated for eviction three times and managed to keep herself in the house until the very end. She won more competitions than anyone except the winner of the game and the nearly-unbeatable Janelle. And at the end, she got dissed and dismissed immediately as if her gameplay had been sub-par. She played better than almost anyone else there this season.

My other friends who watched the show didn't come away with this same reaction. Some felt that everyone voted for Mike and ganged up on Erika because Chill Town had clearly won the day and everyone wants to be aligned with the winners. To be one of the Kewl Kids. Others thought that it was Erika's unpleasant appearance and flat personality that turned everyone against her. I'm sure these factors played into it on some level.

But I can't shake the feeling that it's harder for a woman to seriously compete in Big Brother and survive with her reputation intact. And this, in turn, has a chilling effect on women contestants from the start of the game...They know that stuff like showmances and betrayals can come back and effect them in the finals in ways it would not matter for a man, so they are more hesitant to take certain risks. So considering that "Big Brother" is an interesting show as a sociological experiment, because so many of its observations can be applied to everyday life, what does this say about the role of women in modern America?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Maybe It's None of My Business, But You've Been Acting Psychotic Lately...What Gives?

Watch this video of the President lying to Matt Lauer.

Now I've always hated George W. Bush. From the very beginning. A useless heir to a vast fortune and a famous name, he squandered 40 years of his life before committing himself to ruining the lives of others. Particularly the less fortunate, the irreligious and the non-American.

But he used to be able to conduct himself in a somewhat rational, sensible manner. He used to be able to get through whole sentences while speaking. He used to have a kind of affable, snarky demeanor that Americans found appealing. (Not me, so much, but I could at least discern the source of his appeal.) Rememeber, during his first election, Americans pretty much agreed that, even if he didn't seem to bright, he was an everyday, relatable kind of guy. The sort of laid-back Texan you might want to go and get a beer with, if you liked beer, Texas and doofuses. And they all do kind of go together.

The guy in this video doesn't even seem like the same man. Our President has lost his mind.

It can't be easy to lie every day for over 5 years. Maybe he's just started to lose his grip on reality. Whatever the reason, he genuinely strikes me as an insane person in this video clip with Matt Lauer.

What's going on with NBC News these days? All of the sudden, it seems like a few of them are actually developing a spine. Keith Olbermann's been on fire lately on his MSNBC show, calling out Rumsfeld and Bush. Did you guys see this on 9/11?

Holy shit, a TV anchor just kicked the shit out of the President on the very first Patriot Day! That's nice to see.

And in that first clip, notice how Lauer actually challenges an assertion made by the President. Rather than just posing a difficult question and accepting any fool answer the President can think up, he then poses a follow-up question and refuses to allow Bush to change the subject or divert attention.

This is the best encounter I have seen with George Bush that doesn't involve Helen Thomas or Stephen Colbert. Not only can't our leader handle any kind of criticism or dissent (kind of an important quality in a President), he descends into a babbling, sneering maniac when challenged.

First, Lauer asks a reasonable question - "don't secret CIA prisons violate international law?" So the President does his usual tactic, deflecting the question by repeating one of his favorite meaningless axioms. "I'm keeping you safe, Matt," as if Matt Lauer's personal security and the human rights of Arabs are mutually exclusive. As Lauer continues to press him, Bush ceases to behave rationally. He's fundamentally incapable of going off of his script and just speaking.

He stutters. He repeats himself. ("We do not torture. I'm keeping you safe. The American people want me to keep you safe. But not to torture. We don't break the law. It's my job to keep everyone safe.") I was reminded of William H. Macy's scumbag in Fargo when he's being interviewed by Frances McDormand's detective. He knows that he needs to play it cool, so puts on a big fake smile and a false affability. But as soon as his facade is challenged, as soon as the questions get to difficult, he flips out and turns angry. He and Bush even resort to the same weak evasive maneuver. "Matt, I've already answered your question!"

When people say that in an argument, that they don't want to answer because they have already answered, 99% of the time they're full of shit.

Like Jerry Lundegaard, Bush seems to get personally offended, and even turns aggressive. For some reason, he and Lauer are standing in this clip while they converse, and the entire thing starts to seem more than a little bit confrontational.

Bush in this way is like any other bully. His only defense when his authority is challenged is to puff out his chest and try to intimidate his opponent. Finally, when all else fails, he dons his signature smirk, clearly forgetting that the issue of torture isn't supposed to be amusing.

What's with the smirking? Is it an unconscious habit, the only remaining evidence of his prior existance as a professional boozy journeyman fratboy? Or does he think it helps him deflect criticism. "Bush can't be too worried about this attack on his character. Look, he's smiling! He thinks it's funny!" I don't know, but smiling while a guy presses you about the potentially innocent detainees whose torture you authorized indicates a shocking, shocking lack of human feeling. We've got to get some Democrats elected in November, and then they have to collectively grow a pair and go after these people. I despair for the future of our nation.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Oh Thank Heaven, It's 9/11

Five years ago today, crazy cult members killed a few thousand people and, ever since that fateful morn, Americans have made exponentially less sense with each passing month. It's hard to write a 9/11 Commemoration post because my fellow citizens (and in some ways, myself) have dealt with the crisis so poorly. I'm always tempted to talk about the horrifically destructive aftermath of Osama bin Laden's attack, rather than the actual attack. The horrors visited around the globe because of 9/11 are still going on. 9/11 itself has already happened. It only lasted a few hours total.

I think we all need to suck it up and get over it. Accept that we're not 100% safe like we naively once thought, accept that they "got us," kick all these Republican cretins, weirdos, scumbags, criminals, embezzlers, perverts and totalitarians out of office (and King of the Cretins, Joe Lieberman) and get on with the business of exploiting half the world while selling our country slowly to China and Saudi Arabia.

9/11 was a horrible day. I recall it clearly. So clearly, in fact, that it's kind of amazing five years have already passed. I tutor kids who are 16 and 17 years old. For them, 9/11 is ancient history. Some stuff that happened when they were little that they vaguely recall, but that triggered all the events they have grown up with, particularly the Iraq War. Their Bush presidency was my Clinton presidency, the dominant event of their young adult lives. At three years and running, the Iraq War has been going on solidly throughout these kid's adolescences.

I, on the other hand, was doing very much what I am still doing on 9/11 - working some random job, living in some crummy apartment (Hollywood instead of Palms), watching a lot of movies and trying desperately to kickstart a writing career. My friend Aaron called me at around 6 am to inform me that New York was under attack. I ended up going to work that morning regardless, not knowing what else to do.

I think that's really the crux of why 9/11 was so terrifying to those of us who didn't lose someone. If your friend or family member died that day, okay, obviously it's horrible because of that tragedy. But for the rest of us, it was simply a shock to realize that we were this vulnerable. Modern Americans tend to prefer fighting our wars way the hell away from where we actually live. We're an intensely warlike people, but only if the actual war zone is, bare minimum, a 12 hour flight from America proper.

There simply wasn't a protocol in America for a terrorist action. None of us had any idea what to do or what to expect. It was, in every sense of the word, an unprecedented event. I immediately began to question how our dimwit President would play this event out, how he'd turn it cynically to his advantage. It's been far worse than I dared imagine that day. My friend and co-worker Steve suggested we should "drop a nuclear bomb on Saudi Arabia." He's got his finger on the pulse, I'll tell you that much.

In this way, it was a shared experience among Americans, which is what gives that imagery power to this very day. But far too often, Americans who were not directly impacted by 9/11 attempt to co-opt the tragedy, to make it their own in order to use it for cynical, agenda-pushing purposes.

The fact is, this is a tragic thing that happened to some of us. New Yorkers, people related to those killed in the Towers or the people on Flight 93, people in or around the Pentagon. That's about it. Everyone else, we were shocked, it was horrible, we felt badly, but that's about it. Life went on and continues to go on.

That's not being insensitive. That's being realistic. It's also the kind of attitude that's morally defeating to terrorists. They want to make Americans scared. That's the whole point. When we run around for years and years and years afterwards sobbing, building cheesy memorials, writing obnoxious country songs, burning Osama in effigy and staging candlelight vigils, making woefully ill-informed docudramas and obscene Hollywood recreations, and worst of all, starting ineffectual endless wars, we let guys like Osama bin Laden and other wacky cult members (white and Muslim) know that they can get to us. That we're open and willing to be terrified and to freak out when they attack us.

A better attitude is to let those who continue to grieve grieve, and for the rest of get the fuck over it. Seriously. It's enough already. This thing happened. It was a-no good. Let's move on with our lives.

I like George Bush's holiday idea. Except let's not call it Patriot Day. Let's call it 9/11. And let's hold it on 9/11. Yeah, I know, 9/11 is already Moby's Birthday, but it can be two things at once. Every year, on this day, we'll remember to think for a few minutes about the tragedy and those who lost their lives that day. Maybe a moment of silence (at some hour when we're all awake). I'm not really sentimental in this way, but if it helps some people feel better, I'm all for it.

And then, the rest of the year, let's stop running around like frightened little children (what the Governator would charmingly call "girlie men") and problem solve. On his blog today, Andrew Sullivan seems to have the right idea. He's featuring all content intended to prove to terrorists that they don't frighten us. It's a big middle finger to al-Qaida, which is exactly the right attitude.

Not "let's go smoke 'em out of their holes." Not "Axis of Evil" and "evildoers" and "they hate us for our freedom." That's fearmongering. That makes people anticipate the worse and approach international relations with a sense of dread.

I'm thinking more like Al Pacino in Carlito's Way: "Who the fuck are you, al-Qaida? I should remember you? What, you think you like me? You ain't like me motherfucker, you a punk. I've been with made people, connected people. Who've you been with? Chain snatching, jive-ass, maricon motherfuckers. Why don't you get out of here and go snatch a purse?"

Unfortunately, as he tends to do, Sully goes and messes it all up by conflating the wacky cult members of al-Qaida with the Muslim community at large. Yes, many Muslims were upset by the Mohammad cartoons published in those European newspapers, and yes, many of them rioted in the streets. But that doesn't mean they are terrorists or our enemies. They're just dumb religious people.

Americans should totally understand what it's like to live in and amongst crazy religious idiots. We have hundreds of millions of them! I don't want to be judged by the actions of Jerry Falwell, David Koresh, Pat Robertson and all those Left Behind idiots, so let's not say that Teh Muslim is an enemy to goodness and freedom, okay?

I just...I want us to stop doing this all the time. I want us to stop focusing on this thing that happened five years ago and focus on the world of today, on the damage we've done to the planet in the time since al-Qaida did this one bad thing to us.

The number of American casualties in Iraq is 2,666 according to We usually think of the casualty rate for 9/11 as being 3,000, but it's actually a few hundred people fewer than that. Our "mission" overseas can be called, in strictly numerical terms, a tragedy on the same scale if you are feeling jingoistic and consider only American deaths. Obviously, if you're talking total human deaths, Iraq has been far more severe.

It wasn't all at once, in a shocking display of violent carnage, so it doesn't really have the same psychic impact. But there you have it. Al-Qaida is a villainous terrorist organization. It's their goal to slaughter, for the publicity and to influence world affairs. What's our excuse?

Oh, yeah, 9/11. So we have to invoke it constantly. Frankly, I think we've gone beyond cheapening anything that day might have stood for or meant. All the bravery and heroism of Americans that day (and it was considerable) has been forgotten amidst the gruesome campaigning of our President, who stood on the rubble a full three days later and repositioned 9/11 as a coronation moment for himself. The day he went from Boy to Boy-King. Arthur pulled a sword out of a stone, Doofus McPretzelgag grabbed a bullhorn and promised everyone in shouting distance that he'd catch the men responsible. One of many bullshit, unkept promises.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Great New Wonderful

Post-Crash, we'll probably be seeing a lot more ensemble anthology-style dramas, in which unrelated characters conduct multiple, thematically-linked plots. Personally, I'm not a fan of the genre. For every Nashville, in which Robert Altman simultaneously tells dozens of humorous and intriguing stories, there's three or four movies like The Great New Wonderful, aimless mood pieces that impatiently flit between uninteresting half-thoughts in a desperate search for some kind of Universal Truth.

That's really the Big Lie about this kind of storytelling. Relating a string of unrelated, and unfortunately mundane, mini-stories over the course of a single film neccessarily implies that there is some kind of buried revelation to be gleaned. Watching these individuals work through their problems will lead us to an epiphany that can be applied not only to all the film's characters, but to everyday life as well.

It's the Raymond Carver school of storytelling. There's no time to delve into a lot of backstory or exposition. With five different characters to keep up with in 87 minutes, everyone's only given one basic conflict or scenario to work out. So small slices-of-life, moments taken out of context, have to stand in for the whole range of human experience. In the hands of an Altman, Michael Powell or, say, Max Ophuls, this kind of experiment can work out quite well, taking the viewer on an emotional journey of discovery in which seemingly disparate narratives congeal into one singular, and original, perspective. (Ophuls' La Ronde, regrettably not available on DVD, is one such masterpiece.)

Danny Leiner has already made one great film - Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle - so I suppose he has every reason to feel ambitious. But his direct-to-DVD disappointment The Great New Wonderful represents almost everything unpleasant and misguided about these kinds of treacly anthology dramas (TAD's). It's maudlin, undercooked, scattered and boring. That would all be bad enough, but Sam Catlin's woeful script makes the added mistake of tying his generic plot machinations to the September 11th attacks. Just as Catlin's characters must reassess their lives and find ways to evolve, so too must the city of New York heal itself from the wounds inflicted by those al-Qaida bastards.

Um, no, Danny. No. That's not gonna work for me.

Some of you may have noticed that I like Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, which does in fact do this veryt same thing (and much closer to the actual 9/11 tragedy than The Great New Wonderful), and may be thinking that I am a hypocrite. Please allow me to explain. 9/11 does not serve as a focal point for The 25th Hour. The film is set in New York, and Lee uses the remnants and evidence of 9/11 as yet another way of presenting life in his favorite city. The environment, the background, has changed slightly - now the Irish bars have tributes to dead firemen and the lavish penthouses overlook Ground Zero - but the lives of New Yorkers presses on.

The Great New Wonderful uses 9/11 to advance its rather simplistic theme. The World Trade Center is like a fucked up, confused person. Badly damaged and ready to topple over. But just like we went in and cleaned up the WTC site and are building a memorial, so too must a person pick themselves up and blah blah blah cut me a fucking break. Spike Lee's made some reductive, overly-simplistic films before (He Got Game?), but I don't think he's ever made anything that vapid.

There's just not enough time to tell five effective stories in an 87 minute movie. That's what all this boils down to. Crash, among its myriad failings, also suffered from a lack of development. 90 minutes is the average time for movies (or was before Peter Jackson lost his damn mind) for a really good reason. You need around that much time to establish characters, set an intricate plot in motion, devise a few interconnected subplots and develop a theme.

Why would anyone think that it's reasonable to try and do this five separate times all in one movie? It's a herculean task. For some reason, TAD's tend to attract first-time screenwriters. (Full disclosure: one of the first scripts I wrote, which I have never showed anyone, was a dreadful TAD set at UCLA in which one character was stuck in an elevator for the entire film). I don't know why someone who has never written a movie in which only one set of events occur would want to tackle six or more simultaneous events.

Perhaps because skipping around between stories sounds easier. You don't have to give any of the stories real depth or nuance, you don't have to come up with a full three-act strucutre for the narrative, and your characters don't have to be interesting enough to keep an audience's attention for 90 minutes. You can have mildly interesting stuff go on, but just keep everything in constant motion.

I have no idea. Anyway, it usually doesn't work, and The Great New Wonderful doesn't stand out in this regard.

The best of the stories stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as the rising star of New York's Designer Cake scene, who both resents and idolizes the Martha Stewart-esque Grand Dame of Cakery (Edie Falco). These two actresses get one scene together - a gossipy, catty run-in at a posh eatery - and it's by far the best moment in the movie. It has personality because the characters have an actual dynamic. They have so much in common and clearly enjoy one another, but they're also fiercely competitive and increasingly bitter as the excitement begins to fade from their high-stress profession. This is Falco's only scene in the film, and she brings more contradictions and intrigue to Safarah than the rest of the actors do with triple her screen time.

Just about every other scene falls flat on its ass. Catlin's dialogue fills the movie wall-to-wall. Characters are always talking about something, often little snippets of chatty small talk such as you would engage in with co-workers or fellow Moms watching their toddlers at the playground. These conversations are either dull or irritating.

Judy Greer plays Emme, the mother of a troubled, angry, mean-spirited fat boy named Charlie. She spends the entire film in her underwear arguing with her husband about their wayward son, but the conversations never go anywhere. Charlie's behavior remains enigmatic throughout the film, and when a peculiar school principal (Stephen Colbert, apparently instructed to turn off his generally spot-on comic timing for a dull supporting role) suggests that they simply send their child "away," it's not really all that surprising. The boy is never anything more than a pest. Why not remove him?

Other stories work themselves out in similarly neat, uninspired fashion. Judie (Olympia Dukakis) hates her husband's nightly routine of eating sandwiches, watching TV and then having a cigarette outside. So she considers cheating on him with another old fart. The talkative Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) bickers with his uptight friend Satish (Sharat Saxena) while they provide security for a visiting Indian diplomat, leading to an ambiguous and quite frankly baffling conclusion.

But the film's oddest tangent concerns Tony Shalhoub as an insane psychologist and Jim Gaffigan as his perplexed new patient. The dialogue here, as well as the moody score by Brett Boyett and John Swihart, has clearly been inspired by Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich. Shalhoub confronts Gaffigan about his out-of-control anger, despite the patient's apparent ease, calm and rationality. Scenes between these two pop up throughout the film and follow the same pattern - Shalhoub throws out some nonsensical idea about Gaffigan's behavior, Gaffigan responds with surprise - and it's eventually quite irritating. These scenes, above all, could have used some actual comedy to keep things moving. Catlin and Leiner rely largely on their cast to spontaneously generate big laughs out of unfunny material, forgetting that Louis Pasteur debunked the concept of spontaneous generation back in 1859.

To his credit, Leiner doesn't forcibly connect the dots, spelling out precisely what his movie is "all about." In that way, it's a considerable improvement on Haggis' Crash, which so explicitly laid out his every last platform and deeply held political belief, you almost thought the guy was running for City Councilman. That movie's more sanctimonious than Hugh Hewitt liveblogging an interview of Billy Graham by Rush Limbaugh in the auditorium of Bob Jones University on the subject of "Girls Gone Wild" DVD's.

So, anyway, Leiner just feel the need to spell eveything out so blatantly, which does allow for a few well-played little moments here and there. Shalhoub makes an early prediction that comes true by the end of the movie, which Leiner confirms with a single, static shot that's perfectly timed. Shah and Saxena have a very natural give-and-take relationship, and theirs is a far more realistic depiction of male friendship than generally appears in films. Too bad their story doesnt' go anywhere at all.

And as I said before, that scene with Gyllenhaal and Falco is pretty terrific. I would watch an entire film about Falco's character.

But the movie's all sum, no parts. There are some essential grounding themes and some interesting enough ideas, but most of the movie consists of uninteresting, flat conversations. There's carefully realized dialogue and then there's just dithering around, waiting for a story to develop. The Great New Wonderful has its moments, but doesn't give you any good reason to stay tuned until they arrive.