Saturday, September 23, 2006

Future Unrentables: Double Feature

I have watched two terrible movies, both of which come out on DVD this Thursday...If only there were some way I could express to you my displeasure with both experiences...Oh, wait, I can review them on my blog!

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Drifting, class, is when you jerk the while driving at high speeds in order to glide horizontally around curves. I guess it makes you go faster or something. Perhaps it just looks kind of cool. No matter. This practice forms the basis for the latest installment of the Fast and the Furious saga, an explosive trilogy of racing-themed action films that dare to ask the question: what would happen if really bland guys drove fast next to one another?

The answer is...not much. Cars are wrecked, attractive and scantily-clad girls are suitably impressed, evil in the form of overly-aggressive street toughs is vanquished and energy drinks are advertised. That's about it.

Though the legend that is Paul Walker doesn't appear in this new film, making it the first Fast and the Furious movie without his nimble presence, the addition of hillbilly hero Lucas Black and his gratutious chatty hip-hop sidekick Bow Wow more than makes up for the loss of His Royal Dullness.

Good ol' boy Sean Boswell (Black) gets into a street racing accident, his third and most serious driving offense yet. He's racing against a full-grown Zachary Ty Bryan, known to fans of godawful sitcoms as Brad Taylor, Tim Allen's oldest son on "Home Improvement." It only took you ten years to get another part in something, Zach! Way to go, buddy!

After crashing and burning in the race, thus losing the chance to have sex with Zachary's girlfriend, according to the terms of their initial wager, Sean is given a not very difficult choice: Go and live with your deadbeat father in Tokyo or stay in America and go to jail. Hmm...Wonder which option he'll go for...Perhaps I can get into an auto accident and then someone will give me a free trip to Tokyo, all expenses paid. Might be kind of fun.

Once in the home of Sumo wrestling, Pachinko and open-air eel markets, Sean immediately locates and joins the underground drift racing community. I'm not quite sure how exactly he finds his way there. Perhaps they have signs on the freeway ("Big Empty Garage for Drift Racing, 5 km. --->").

In said big empty garage, Sean meets up with Bow Wow, who plays...get ready for this...a chatty, shifty wholesaler of questionably-obtained merchandise. It's such a nice break from the generic roles Hollywood typically doles out to young black men. You know, boring parts like research scientists, novelists, med students and high-powered executives. Maybe Bow Wow can branch out even more next time and play a professional athlete! Or a coke fiend! Remember what Biggie said, LBW, the sky's the limit! (Bow Wow's character is named Twinkie, Twink for short...Did no one have the heart to tell screenwriter Chris Morgan or director Justin Lin what that word means?)

Anyway, Sean and Twink fall in with the crime lord Han (Sung King) who hires them to...well, I'm not quite sure exactly. To drive around in circles, maybe. Or just to look good. This is a problem with all three of the Fast and the Furious epics. They never quite figure out how to blend the generic crime story in with the generic racing story. It's always this awkward fit - he's got to go undercover with the racing gang because they're pulling elaborate robberies or he's working for some smuggler that needs drivers who go really fast and drive recklessly, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you think about it for a few seconds.

This entry pretty much gives up on the crime story until the very end, when some embezzled money sets off a chain reaction that ends in...wait for it...a race down the side of a mountain! That involves a lot of drifting!

I say, they should just give up on the mobster/yakuza stuff in these films and focus only on the car races. Instead of going undercover with a criminal syndicate, the heroes should have to race cars in order to save a recreation center or something. "Guys, some greedy developer is gonna pave over the community center unless we can beat him in the big race! Come on, let's get to work, gang!"

I will admit that the racing scenes here look cool. In purely aesthetic terms, this is probably the best film in the trilogy. Stephen Windon's glossy, colorful cinematography gets as much mileage as possible out of shooting in one of the world's largest cities. From the massive glass towers to the bustling coastline to huge intersections thick with pedestrians, Tokyo's presented as a limitless cityscape stretchign endlessly in each direction, full of hidden rooms, back alleys and dark secrets.

Morgan's idiotic script doesn't capitalize on any of this one bit, mind you. It's just that the film looks nice and the racing scenes are well shot. They're also overloaded with bad CGI, including a ludicrous shot of a car's bumper skidding dangerously close to a concrete wall. The effect is downright cartoonish. But overall, that stuff is fairly well done. Definitely better than Singleton's pathetic second outing, which ranks just below Shaft on the Grand List of John Singleton Atrocities.

My problem isn't really the action this time around. It's just that any time a character opens his or her mouth, something stupid emanates outward and we have to sit there and listen.

Here's a choice example: "You're not just playing with fire. You're dousing the matches in gasoline."

And that's Morgan getting fancy. Most of the time, he just writes dumb, stock movie dialogue.

"I learned a long time ago that it doesn't matter, insider or outsider, as long as you go after what you want."


The fact that Black's Suh-thern drawal makes him sound like the drive-thru guy at the Tuscaloosa Frostee Freeze doesn't help matters. Also, the ending of this film makes no sense at all. Why would the big scary gangster want to wager the money owed to him on a silly car race? If Lucas Black owed him money and couldn't pay, wouldn't he just cut off his pinky or break his leg or something? Or, if this were a Takashi Miike movie, douse him in boiling oil and stick a hook through his cheek?

Just remember, if you're ever caught stealing from the Mob, challenge the boss to a car race, double or nothing. If he's not into car racing, perhaps a game of chess? These guys aren't unreasonable.

Beowulf and Grendel

Speaking of things that are unreasonable, the Icelandic-British-Canadian co-production of Beowulf and Grendel, which though outlawed by the Geneva Conventions may be permissably shown to prisoners by special request of the Commander in Chief. A revisionist update of English 10A's cruelest surprise, this movie practically begs for the glorious return of Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. It's Clan of the Cave Bear for a new generation.

See, the thing is, though the epic poem Beowulf has historical importance - it's one of the earliest known narratives in the English canon - it's just not a complete story with any kind of contemporary resonance. It provides a lot of insight into the Scandanavian culture of its era, sure, but there's just not that much there from a cinematic perspective. Beowulf (Gerard Butler) repays an old debt to the Danish king Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgaard) by killing a troll, Grendel (Ingvar Eggert SigurĂ°sson), who has terrorized the latter's Great Hall.

You see, in this version, Hrothgar killed Grendel's father when the unfortunate troll was just a boy. Whereas the monster is simply a beast that needs to be slain in the poem, here he's just a misunderstood outsider who is hunted because he's different. Yeah, it's stupid. Really really stupid. Stupider still is the new character of Selma, a witch played by Sarah Polley with a thick Canadian accent, a goofy red wig and extraordinarily anachronistic make-up. Here we are, it's Dane Land, it's about 500 A.D. People are living in caves and wearing animal skins and she looks like she's about to shoot an ad for Estee Lauder. Well played.

Her character is the only one who can communicate with the troll, Grendel, who speaks in gibberish like Jodie Foster from Nell. In perhaps the film's most ludicrous scene, Grendel barks out nonsense from atop a cliff while Selma "translates" below.

"The troll says, he loves San Dimas!"

Selma, something of a proto-feminist, understands that for the Danes, Grendel represents the metaphorical Other, the frightening unknown that threatens their tenuous understanding of the world around them. I don't know how she figured all this out while squatting in a cave. Maybe somebody left a set of Funk and Wagnall's sitting around in there.

So, it's all a bit much, what with the tender consideration of the monster's point of view and the constant allusions to this new-fangled religion they call "Christianity." I'm sure there's some theoretical way that a director with a really nimble touch could pull off this kind of a rewrite. You know, with subtlety, so the audience would slowly discover Grendel's essentially decent nature gradually over time and draw their own conclusions about the nature of the conflict. Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins prefers to club you repeatedly over the head with this idea like the non-proverbial hairy troll. This movie is so preachy and shrill, Ralph Nader has threatened to sue for copyright infringement.

But, really, the thematic content is the least of Beowulf and Grendel's problems. Though the landscape suitably stands in for early Medieval Norway (at least I think it's supposed to be Norway), and a few scenes do manage to capitalize on the majestic scenery of the area. (A shot of a Viking-style long ship navigating through icebergs made me wish these guys would forget the whole boring Beowulf angle and just make a cool Viking movie).

First off, as I alluded to already, the make-up is awful. Skarsgaard is fitted with an atrocious fake-looking red mane. Grendel just looks like a tall and oddly-shaped man with a lot of hair and goofy fur boots. Grendel's Mother, a fish lady, looks like an anorexic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Only less realistic.

As if that weren't bad enough, they've made an attempt to modernize a bunch of the dialogue. Oh sweet lord no. So instead of a direct translation from Old English, we get Hrothgar going off on "all these fucking trolls!" A lot of the lines sound like they could have been lifted from Will Ferrell in Anchorman. "Great Odin's Beard! We've got to do something about this fucking troll!"

Finally, I'd say the biggest problem with Beowulf and Grendel is that there's just not enough story for a 2 hour epic film. You'd have to actually make up some new stuff that happens to keep it interesting in terms of adventure filmmaking. Worse yet, they don't even bother to adapt the whole second part of the poem, when Beowulf actually becomes King. Instead, they spend almost all the time on the hunt for Grendel, an endless series of sequences in which guys in armor trudge around on rocks and hillsides looking for a monster, and then hurry through the fight against Grendel's Mom in the last 15 minutes.

Aside from a pointless romance between Beowulf and Selma, there's almost nothing actually happening in the movie. Characters stand around and discuss the fact that there's a troll about. Sometimes, they make jokes about fucking sheep. Other times, they drink beer (which I think should be called mead, which would be another example of the stupid and constant anachronisms). Sometimes, they drink beer and then joke about fucking sheep. Ah, maybe you had to be there...

50 Ways to Leave Your Liberals

Are the Democrats trying to lose elections? I'm not being sarcastic, this is completely serious. I've been thinking that the Rethuglican Right intends to hang on to power by stealing elections, as in by tinkering with voting machines and pulling all manner of illegal suffrage-suppressing dirty tricks. But perhaps they've vertically integrated a bit more than I had anticipated. Maybe they already control both parties, and this inter-party squabbling is all just an act.

Seriously. I mean, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate could not have played these last few weeks any worse if they had been trying to fail. Mid-term election 2006 should be the gimme of all gimmes, the easiest election any professional politician would have to face.

The other party has been in control exclusively for 6 years and things are arguably as bad as they have even been for America in the modern era. (I'd say the Vietnam era is the only other one with an argument to make at all, and our present arguments are really just extensions of the same internal struggles that defined the late '60s: North vs. South, prejudiced vs. tolerant, hawkish vs. anti-war).

Poll after poll confirms the same thing: Americans don't feel safe, they don't feel financially secure, they're angry about government waste and inefficiency and they really really don't like the President.

Forget Democrats and Republicans. If you haven't been in control for the past six years, and you can point out any of the million stupid decisions that caused massive irreconcilable problems for America at home and abroad, BINGO! You ought to win that election. What can a Republican say?

"So, you've been running the show exclusively for six years and everything's shit."

"Well, I promise to try harder next time."

There's all kinds of talk about Democrats developing a platform, presenting a clear message to the country, all that kind of wonky "issue" political strategizing. This is utter nonsense. Republicans win elections all the time and they're not worried about presenting clear, concise and effective policies to the voters. Everything they do fails miserably, when they both to do anything at all! They just blast their opponents and make shit up.

Democrats should be hitting Republicans with the following issues non-stop until Election Day, without pausing to babble endlessly about shit no one really cares about at the moment like Medicare/Prescription Drug programs and midnight basketball games for inner-city kids.

(1) Republicans want us to break the Geneva Convention we swore to uphold and torture people, including many people who may not have even committed a crime.

Here you should also show some pictures of guy's getting tortured and tying these images to the Republicans who supported such measures.

Here's an article in which Democrats Harry Reid (the most powerful Democrat in Congress) and Carl Levin (the most powerful Democrat in the Senate's Armed Services Committee) effusively praise the BS McCain/Warner plan that would allow the President to torture people he dislikes. Prepare to be grossed out:

And Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Senators Warner, McCain and Graham as “standing up to the administration” and producing a bill that, “while it has a number of problems, is a substantial improvement over the language proposed by the administration.”

Carl, Carl...You've missed the point entirely. The Republicans just ratified a bill giving the President the right to torture someone, so long as the torture doesn't give them a heart attack or liver failure or something. Sure, they pretended to argue about it for a few days, but only so they could then come out and pretend that this proposal is the result of a serious, informed discussion, rather than caving in to a sociopathic leader who reserves the right to have the shit kicked out of Arabs at his personal discretion.

He can, say, keep them standing in a freezing cold room for days at a time, occasionally splashing cold water on their bodies in an attempt to induce hypothermia. Hey, it doesn't cause any lasting scars! He can have fake menstrual blood smeared on their faces and fake electrodes placed on their genitals. He can threaten women with rape and children with murder, he can keep people cahined up in small cells surrounded by their own feces, he can order that they be held underwater to imitate the feeling of drowning.

Notice, by the way, how I'm ascribing all this stuff to George Bush, personified? That's whaat Democrats need to do, except instead of George Bush, they should fill in the name of their local Republican opponent who backed this legislation. (Only a few Republicans, like moderate Lincoln Chaffee, genuinely failed to support King George's despicable and un-American torture policy. Others, like McCain, only pretended to oppose the legislation in order to get it passed.

What I'm saying is, Harry Reid is many things but he's not dumb enough to fall for this ploy. This feels like an inside job. "Hey, guys, let's pretend like we don't want this torture thing passed, but not speak up so much, so it looks like we just fucked everything up again rather than helped the President deliberately."

The choice is already between gross incompetance and outright fraud, and I'm only on my first bullet point.

(2) Democrats should talk constantly about war profiteering.

The current Vice-President, a Republican (of course), used to run the most infamous, hated corporation in post-Enron America. (Okay, maybe next to Wal-Mart.) Yes, I know, this is one of those things Michael Moore brought up once, so no one is ever allowed to talk about it again because he's so goddamn fat. But come on.

And it's not just "Halliburton gets all the contracts because Dick Cheney used to run that shit." No, no. It's "Halliburton continues to screw over the American people, and Republicans know about it but don't do anything because they don't care." That's something simple, straight-forward, that anyone can understand even if they don't follow politics and have never heard of Halliburton before.

"Hey, did you know that the company that's supposed to feed our troops and provide fresh water hasn't been doing their job, plus they've been grossly overcharging the taxpayers for the work they're not doing?"


"I heard that they budget $100 for each load of laundry they do for our troops and $20 for every six pack of soda."

"No way."

"And you know the Republicans know about it, because they made the no-bid cost-plus deals with the company. And Dick Cheney used to run that shit!"

"No way."

"So you should really not vote for those guys any more."

"Okay, I won't. Thanks, helpful stranger!"

You know, it would go something like that...(See Robert Greenwald's documentary Iraq for Sale for more on this rage-inducing topic.)

(3) Republicans are terrible at running the country.

This one is so easy. Everything is going wrong. Just pick something and run with it. Katrina would be a good one. Anyone watching television could see that the government was just not doing its job down there, plain and simple. Sure, they could believe that it's all Louisana's fault, but that's an easy enough position to counter.

"If the National Guard troops hadn't been in Iraq, they could have been there helping out."


"It was supposed to be the Department of Homeland Security's job to provide oversight to just these kinds of federal projects. Disaster relief was in the charter as one of their key functions."


"If that had been a big city with a lot of wealthy white people, there's no way they'd have been left to die for almost a week."

But you don't just have to talk abouyt Katrina. What about not providing our troops with the equipment they need? What about the fact that the entire rest of the world now hates America, which isn't the best bargaining position? (I mean, Republicans want to bring up Hugo Chavez, as if he's a big embarrassing problem for The Left. Does anyone remember a time when foreign leaders brazenly and openly referred to our President as Satan in the halls of the U.N.? The fact that no one respects us is Bush's fault. Also, that idiot with the cop moustache!)

You'll notice I'm not recommending that politicians bring up the economy. Sure, the economy sucks and is about to get suckier. I just think that there's so much more visceral horror to discuss than the housing bubble. Why concentrate your campaign on boring old '90s "political issues" and not focus on all the glaringly obvious horrible things your opponents have just done?

It makes no sense...unless the whole point is to lose. Maybe Harry Reid feels safer as the leader of the small minority opposition party. Maybe he's like Will in "Big Brother." He doesn't want to win competitions and make himself a target. Better to glide along under the surface and hope those in power continue to screw up royal. Hey, he's an old man, maybe he figures he can ride out the Reign of Terror until retirement and never get blamed personally for anything.

I couldn't say. But I no longer have any real faith in Democrats to fix the country, because I doubt they're ever going to start winning elections in big numbers. And it's impossible to do anything if you don't have any power. (One of the key ways in which Congress does not resemble the "Big Brother" game). So I'm thinking the best way to start righting these wrongs is anarchist coup d'etat. Who's with me?

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page

Director Mary Harron refuses to judge the infamous '50s Pin-Up Queen in her biographical film, The Notorious Bettie Page. She and co-writer Guinevere Turner see Page's story, in some ways, as an attempt to escapeprying eyes and judgemental attitudes. Her parents think she should settle for the simple life of a teacher, even though the male students gawk at her and refuse her attempts at discipline. Her boyfriend thinks she should give up on modeling, the only thing she's really excelled out, because it makes him feel uncomfortable. She frets constantly about her religious values and whether or not they clash with her choice in occupation. And even the Senate eventually intercedes to put an end to sales of her salacious photographs.

So in response, Harron has filmed a movie utterly devoid of judgement. She presents Bettie as a child-like innocent, a hopeless small-town naif, who wandered into the Big City and immediately descended into a shadowy business she could not begin to understand. I don't know much about Page's personal life, so I can't be certain if this view is indeed accurate, but it's a bit hard to believe.

An even bigger problem with the approach is that it prevents the movie from actually focusing on Bettie. To probe or to analyze, to really delve into Bettie's feelings about bondage and nude photography and becoming the first American sex symbol of the modern age after a lifetime of subjugation and abuse by men, you'd have to offer some kind of judgement. Good or bad. You'd have to set her actions into some kind of personal context, to look at what might have made her the ideal pin-up model and what then might have caused her to turn her back on that life and embrace Jesus.

As Harron clearly feels hesitant to do that, to deconstruct or reduce Bettie's life story into a compelling cinematic form, the character becomes a cipher, all spunk and curves and can-do spirit. How can you have a central character with no inner life? It works sporadically, in fits and starts, but never coheres into anything that feels like an actual movie. More a dramatic recreation of some of the major events in the life of Bettie Page.

It's a shame that the movie doesn't do more with Page's story, both because it's interesting and because the casting of Gretchen Mol in the lead role is inspired. Despite only a vague physical resemblance to the real Page (Mol looks the part fine in middle-distance, but not so much in close-up), she nonetheless captures the contorted poses, the jarring smile and the campy enthusiasm of the actual photographs. An innovator in the field of bondage and fetish photography would have to have an open-minded, curious nature, and Harron really pushes the limit of believability with Bettie's cheery experimental streak, but Mol's unforced enthusiasm works for the most part.

Take the first scene in which Bettie agrees to pose nude for a photographer. Mol eagerly slips off her bikini, doing a little full frontal, before the photographer informs her that pubic hair mustn't make it into the shot. So she turns it into a game, turning around just enough to keep her privates out of frame, testing the limit to see how close she can come to revealing it all. It's a perfect compression of the randy charm of vintage erotic into a single moment, capturing the Big Lies at the center of all stripteases: that the model is showing off her body for the first time, that she's shy about it and that it's making her excited.

Unfortunately for both the actress and the film, the overall conceptualization of Page is the very definition of one-note. She opens the film as an optimistic simpleton, heading to New York after a failed marriage to an angry drunk (Norman Reedus). This sets the scene for most of the male characters in the film, and in Harron's entire filmography, really. From the outright seething male hatred of I Shot Andy Warhol to the craven, pornography-fueled sadism of American Psycho, and now the ceaseless degredation and patriarchal cruelty evident in Notorious Bettie Page, Harron has never met a man she couldn't depict as a perverse, angry, mean-spirited, chauvanistic lout.

Which is perfectly within her rights. I mean, I Shot Andy Warhol is about a real-life radical feminist agitator, and American Psycho is about a defiantly fucked-up man and based on a book written by a man, so it's not like I'm saying it's wrong for her to treat male characters this way. It's just that, for the purposes of Notorious Bettie Page, the portrait is overly simplistic.
There are interesting themes at play in this story, ideas about the male gaze and the notion of the fetish and how certain kinds of behavior can trigger peculiar and counterintuitive responses. In one scene, a creepy "fan" of Bettie's bondage pictures approaches her in a club and asks for her autograph. Being the innocent, wide-eyed simpleton, Bettie signs her name without thinking. The fan then acknowledges that Bettie must think he's a freak, following her around and asking her to sign half-nude photos of herself whipping another women, but Bettie brushes off this suggestion. To her, looking at such pictures is totally normal, a way for some men to let off steam. (As a kind of side joke, it becomes clear that the fan was hoping to be chastized for approaching Bettie in this way, that he would get off on being "disciplined" by her in real life, and is then disappointed that her actual personality doesn't match the dominance of her public persona.)

And then the scene ends, leading into a generic, expository confrontation with Bettie's generic, mook boyfriend. Yet this was an interesting encounter! Is Bettie really not bothered at all by being fantasized about and then approached by such men? She seems to be personally modest in her daily life (she doesn't drink regularly attends church and abhors swearing), and yet we don't get a single scene in which she thinks twice about posing for nude photographs or satisfying bizarre and smutty requests from cameramen or chatting up the weirdos who masturbate to her pictures.

Is Harron presenting her as a Christ figure, totally incapable of experiencing shame or passing judgement on others? (The final shot, in which she reads the Bible while framed in heavenly light, would seem to suggest this interpretation.) Or is she just too shallow to think of such things? For her, is a fan just a fan, someone who likes her and is therefore a good person?

Mott Hupful's cinematography expertly mimics the films of Page's era (particularly the mid-'50s), seamlessly blending black and white photography in with old grainy stock footage for the first half and then switching back and forth between black and white sequences set in New York and shimmering Technicolor when in Miami Beach.

(Interestingly, the only color photography in the film's first half is a brief montage of Page's famous magazine covers, recreated with Mol. The suggestion seems to be that the reserved Bettie came alive only when posing for the camera, hence her desire to act full-time).

The filmmaking itself, regrettably, does not adhere to the professional old-school Hollywood standards of the visuals. Eventually, Harron seems to tire of Bettie completely, turning her focus on the Claws, the brother and sister team responsible for taking and selling her photographs (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor, who sports an unfortunate New York Jew accent). The Claws get in trouble with the law for mailing risque photographs over state lines, and are eventually shut down after an inquiry by a Senate sub-commitee helmed by famed Midwestern statesman Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn).

These sequences are just dull. It's at this point familiar material, an easy condemnation of the BS morality witch hunts of American's past that unfortunately still come up every few years or so, when there's an election to be won. (Joe Lieberman used to pull this crap all the time, going so far as to declare "Friends," arguably the most mild sitcom of our time, unfit for family viewing.) Yes, we recognize that mainstream films often included scenes with tied-up women without fear of retribution. Yes, clearly these sorts of Senate hearings are designed more for political grandstanding than problem solving. Surely there's some more interesting facet of Bettie Page's life to focus on for the last third of the film than the civic action taken against the phtographers who used to shoot her.

Initially asked to testify on behalf of the Claws, only to be turned away, Bettie sits outside the courtroom for 12 hours straight, listening in on the panel. When she hears the estimony of a father whose son died (apparently through auto-erotic asphyxiation), she feels a sudden twinge of guilt. Could her pictures have turned him to a life of deviant sex and self-abuse?

It's an utterly ridiculous scene. After years of posing for dirty magazines, putting in ball gags and whipping other women while topless, surely Bettie must have considered that men might use those photos to pleasure themselves. And that furthermore, some people might look down on such behavior and blame her for all manner of incidents that aren't really her fault. Forget for a moment whether this moment would even be believable. If this is what the real Bettie Page was like, is she worth making a movie about?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Stay Alive

Well done, makers of Stay Alive. I've seen stupider slasher films...but not many.

Here are the things I liked about Stay Alive:

(1) Coked-up Adam Goldberg. 30% more movies released each year should include a coked-up Adam Goldberg.

(2) Frankie Muniz has not shortened his name to Frank Muniz in order to get more "adult" roles. This would seem to be a natural progression. Just as Bow Wow was forced to drop his "Li'l" and Ricky Schroeder transformed magically into "Rick" (even Debbie Gibson moved over to Deborah when the time was right), you'd figure Frankie would go to Frank now that he's hoping to no longer be saddled by the spazzy starring role he had in the most shrill and obnoxious sitcom ever.

(3) The fact that a major character is trampled to death by an out of control CG horse-drawn carriage. I wish there was an audio recording available of the pitch meeting for this stinkbomb.

-"Then, the guy gets run down by a runaway horse-drawn carriage."
-"What? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
-"Don't worry. We can do it with CGI."
-"Oh. Okay, then."

That's it. Everything else blows.

Stay Alive is one of those lame slasher movies that can't even get the grisly death part right. Several of the murders take place almost entirely off-screen. There's a shot of a character running in fear, a blurry shot of some unseen enemy advancing, then a POV shot racing right towards teh character's face, then you cut to the next scene and we see they've been bloodied and butchered.

Hey, we're not watching your BS movie for its riveting plot, that's TOTALLY not just taken part and parcel from The Ring. We're watching it because it's a horror movie that will hopefully include some semi-entertaining kill scenes. If you can't make that happen, don't bother. Just make Big Fat Liar 2 as long as you've got Frank Muniz on the set and call it a day.

Likewise, writer/director William Brent Bell and his co-writer Matthew Peterman routinely break the cardinal rule of horror/fantasy filmmaking. They set up a supervillain totally unburdened by any rules of conduct or physical properties of the universe. The murderous Blood Countess - who liked to bathe in the blood of little girls before being tortured and killed by angry parents - can kill anyone at any time, and it's totally indiscriminate, which kind of kills any opportunity for actual tension. No rules means anything can happen, which in turn means that the story never makes any sense.

Hutch (John O'Neill) and his goony friends have gotten their hands on an underground bootleg video game called "Stay Alive." After playing for a while, then witnessing a couple of murders, Hutch comes to realize that the game is actually killing its players. If you die in the game, well, you die in the real world, and in the same gruesome fashion.

Obviously, this sets up a major scripting problem right away. If you only die in the real world once you've died in the game, wouldn't you just stop playing the game? "Hey, this shit might really kill me. Maybe I'll just forget about that one and pop in Donkey Kong Country." Bell never really devises a way out of this problem. Instead, he presents a lame shortcut - well, if you stop playing the game, it just keeps playing for you. Oh, okay, then.

It's just one of several silly devices that Bell relies upon to push his clunky, boring narrative forward. A long detour to the home of the game's creator, a creepy hillbilly who doesn't seem to know what kind of evil his programming has unleashed, leads absolutely nowhere and takes forever. We follow a pointless police investigation into the deaths (the detective obviously suspects Hutch, who knows all of the victims) that has absolutely no payoff in the end and seems designed only to eat up screen time.

What's most surprising is how rarely Bell even manages to work in gamer culture, the co-opting of which would appear to be the entire purpose for making this movie. At the outset, it's clear that Bell and Peterman's screenplay wants to reference video games and gamers, in the same way that a movie like Hackers wanted to appeal to the "in" geeky subculture of the moment. (There's an early reference to Unreal Tournament that I suppose is meant to show solidarity with the game nerds, but which only makes the characters seem like poseurs.)

Save for a brief scene at the end in which Muniz's character realizes he can "guide" his friends around the real world by playing the video game, there's really no on-screen action that invovles the titular entertainment. As I said, pretty soon the deaths don't even link up to the actual character's game play (the game starts playing for them), so the movie comes to mention the game with less and less frequency. As opposed to The Ring, which made the interaction of recording technology and reality a constant motif, Stay Alive just uses video games as a lame hook before descending into stale horror movie staples like the "chase through the cemetary," the "visit to the old decaying mansion" and the "face off with the pale white ghost lady."

The worst of these sequences features the gang visiting a wacky Cajun mystic who tells them all about the Countess and her sins against humanity. At least, I think she's supposed to be Cajun. The accent makes her sound more like Gilda Radner's impression of Barbra Walters. ("She must pwepare for the wesurrwection. The bwood of the innocent will be spiwwed tonight.") Nothing to do with the game, no antediluvian New Orleans color to speak of, just the most misplaced and tired horror cliche imaginable. It's just lazy filmmaking and it's unworthy of any further attention.

Oh, okay, one last thing...Why would the ghost of an old lady bury her soul in a video game? My grandmother can't even figure out how to work a stereo, let alone integrating her ethereal being along with the technology as a way to murder unsuspecting teens. Couldn't she think of any better way to get at the living than by having a guy create a video game starring her that would lead young people to her home so that they might be drained of their blood ritualistically? I mean, that's one convoluted way to prey upon innocent souls.


Nobuo Nakagawa's shocking, tremendous 1960 epic of the underworld, Jigoku (Hell) opens with a university lecture on the nature of Buddhist Hell. This is helpful, as I had assumed before watching this movie that Buddhists didn't believe in Hell. Don't they believe in reincarnation? Like, life is suffering, so we're doomed to endlessly repeat our painful lives on this realm unless we medidate and thereby discover the wisdom of the Buddha, thus releasing our souls to a higher plane of consciousness and understanding and Oneness with the universe.

I mean, that's what I'd always thought. I'll admit, I'm not terribly well-versed on the nuances of Eastern Religion. I know the basics. Jigoku definitely plays up the "life as a vicious cycle of suffering" angle, but does indeed involve a physical realm known as Hell (or in this case, The 8-Tombed Hell) in which the souls of sinners are tortured by being dunked in flaming pits of sulfur, their flesh slowly flayed from their bones by cackling imps. Or maybe that's just for the purposes of the film.

Released in 1960 by a B-grade Japanese studio known for trashy genre films, Jigoku stands as kind of the grandfather of modern Japanese horror cinema. (J-horror favorite Kiyoshi Kurosawa says as much on the terrific documentary included on the new Criterion release of the film). The abstract imagery, emphasis on brutality and gory violence, streak of pitch-black comedy recalls the contemporary films of guys like Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike. The specific focus on the divergent nature of humanity, shifting between good and evil impulses in a neverending and ultimately fruitless struggle that eventually renders both terms meaningless, seems to run through a lot of post-WWII Japanese cinema. Godzilla stomps Tokyo to the ground and still becomes a hero after the first few movies. Hey, he was punishing them for wrecking the Earth. They had it coming!

Shiro (Shigera Amachi), after attending that lecture on Hell along with his creepy friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), goes for a late night car ride. After crushing a guy's skull and fleeing the scene, Shiro starts to feel guilty. Did he kill that man? Should he have called for help? Should he turn himself in? Not Tamura, though. He doesn't seem to regret anything, ever. Oddly, he also seems to know an awful lot about everyone he meets, including deeply-buried secrets and unspoken fantasies.

Despite his best attempts to get away from Tamura, Shiro runs into him everywhere. Eventually, the two of them leave Tokyo and venture into the country, to visit Shiro's ailing mother in a rest home. It soon becomes clear that this Rest Home represents a kind of Hell on Earth. Shiro meets not one but two attractive, available women but finds himself unable to pursue either one of them. His mother lingers in a state somewhere between life and death. Tamura continually taunts Shiro, his main squeeze Yukiko (Akiko Yamashita) and the other guests at the rest home, bringing up embarrassments and sins of the past they'd prefer to forget.

The evil manager of the facility cuts every corner to save money, even serving poisoned fish snatched up from a nearby creek to his guests and patients. So everybody dies and descends into Hell.

These opening sequences, comprising about half of the movie, are peculiar and unsettling and visionary. The characters spend a lot of time conversing and arguing on the railroad tracks that run by the nursing home, straight lines running straight back into the horizon, dividing the landscape neatly in twain. On one side lies life, on the other death, but the two are indistinguishable. (One close-up of a sandaled foot balancing atop an individual track suggests the film's overall view of life on Earth - a precarious balancing act that ultimately cannot be maintained after a short time).

Likewise, the shot of the dead, rotten fish being scooped out of the river provides a stark demonstration of Nakagawa's overriding concept - to live is to drift along being pulled by various unseen currents towards a mysterious and possibly unreachable destination. When these fish were alive, they were free to struggle against the current, and now they are limply pushed along without so much as a jerk, but the end result is the same.

Yeah, it's a little bleak, but the film is called Hell. You were expecting, perhaps, the latest installment of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour?

Once the characters actually descend into Hell, things get significantly more hallucinatory, surreal and horrifying. Tamura, as it turns out, is more of a demon than an actual person, which makes Shiro's fate seem a bit unfair. After all, he wanted to do the right thing on several occasions, and was forcibly stopped by Tamura. In Western terms, we'd think of that as unfair intervention, violating the "free will" part of God's contract with Man.

Shir doesn't actually have much time to focus on Tamura's demonic revelation. He's too busy searching fruitlessly for Yukiko throughout the various levels of the Underworld. That is, when he's not being tortured by the monstrous God of Hell or Tamura. The punishments meted out to the various characters are unflinching and gruesome. The skin is burned clean off their bones, revealing bleached white skeletons beneath. Teeth are smashed out of skulls, only to regrow in an instant so they may be smashed again. Heads are separated from bodies, and one unfortunate man is sawed slowly into tiny individual pieces.

But not all of the torments of hell are strictly physical in nature. Shiro seems destined to be punished psychologically for failing to protect Yukiko and his unborn child that, unbeknownst to him, she was carrying. He's made to chase after his infant son on a spinning wheel, to follow him as he drifts endlessly down a river of blood, to search for him within a spiraling mass of wandering zombies.

As an extraordinarily intense horror film, it's great, but the conception of Hell itself is equally fascinating. Visually, it's not so different from the standard, familiar look of Hell in pop culture. There's flames everywhere, horned devils, boiling lakes of fire, it's vaguely cave-like, fire-enging red, etc. But it's also immensely overcrowded, thick with suffering souls. One amazing shot features hundreds of twisting, reaching arms rising from a black hole in the ground. George Romero taught us that, when there was no more room in Hell, the dead on Earth would start to come back to life. Nakagawa clearly has a difference of opinion.

The major compontent of Nakagawa's Hell, aside from a serious real estate crisis, is repetition. This is a Sisyphean nightmare world. Those teeth will keep regrowing no matter how many times they are smashed out. Shiro can chase his unborn child forever and not actually catch him. More than once, he seems on the verge of figuring out this grim truth and giving up the chase, but then he immediately forgets this revelation and takes up running around in circles once again.

And I suppose it's here that you come back to the Buddhism. Both life and death consist of running around in circles, chasing an unattainable goal. In the film, Hell is more miserable, but only becuase of the pain and physical punishment, the inability to escape the Devil's torments. But, really, both sphreres involve a lot of panicky activity that doesn't get the characters anywhere or improve their situation.

So the secret, I suppose, would be to free one's self from the chase altogether, to realize that it's pointless, and to just live in the moment. I still don't see how this fits in with the whole reincarnation thing, but then again, I don't understand a lot of stuff about a lot of World Religions, so I'll just shut my mouth now.

A Band Named Mew

I've been listening to a lot of Mew's latest album, And the Glass-Handed Kites, this week. It's strange to hear at first, both because the lyrics make no sense and because the band's major reference points seems to be '80s proggy pseudo-metal of the Blue Oyster Cult and Queensryche variety. (NOTE: The 8.4 Pitchfork review here also makes the Queensryche comparison, just in case you don't believe me.)

The first song I heard was "The Zookeeper's Boy," which I enjoyed at first as a curiosity. ("Huh, that's odd, there's a band out there trying to sound like Yes. How bizarre.") But the song just grew on me. It's peculiar refrain (I think they're saying "Are lady, are you..." but don't quote me on that) kept rattling around in my head. I felt kind of silly bumping it in my car on the way to work, but continued doing so anyway.

It's not a fluke. The whole album's in this vain, save a few songs that feel a bit more imitative of shoegazer pop like My Bloody Valentine. I'd like to stress that all this isn't an ironic pose. These guys don't seem to be pretending to assume to demeanor of a cheesy '80s hair band. They genuinely are trying to ape the sound of those old bands, albeit with contemporary production.

Moreover, they're really good at it. The entire album's filled with good, catchy songs, and it's really cohesive. Singer Jonas Bjerre's voice, hovering somewhere between the unearthly wail of Thom Yorke and the meta-whine of Ben Gibbard, was designed to sing soaring, nonsensical, anthemic rock songs like "Zookeeper's Boy" and "Special."

I'll admit, at times the sheer '80s-ness of it becomes overwhelming. Some of the synth effects in "Apocalypso" are just too ridiculous to work, no matter how hard Mew tries to sell it. But for the most part, it's a great listen, another great album in what's been a pretty strong year overall for new music.

[Check out "Zookeeper's Boy" and "Apocalypso" in mp3 form over at Both Sides of the Mouth.]

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Vote Mork

I saw a trailer for this Man of the Year abomination in front of The Black Dahlia the other night. It looks detestable, not only as just a tremendously obvious, unfunny retread of Dave and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but as thinly-veiled jingoist, establishment propaganda...

Anyway, I sometimes get invited to screenings and early previews around town. Having gone to so many free screenings in my day, I'm on just about every e-mail list for every focus group/sneak preview company operating in Los Angeles.. Sometimes, it works out great, and I get to see amazing stuff like Borat early. (It's coming in November and is still the best and the most hilarious film I've seen all year.) Most of the time, I get invited to stuff like Robin Williams political satires and it joins all the penis enlargement advertisements and shady Nigerian banking scheme invitations in my Trash bin.

Let's just take a look at this e-mail invite together, shall we?

What would happen if one of the nation’s funniest men became its leading one?

Is this English? The SAT tutor in me wants to say that "one" in this case is not a good substitute for the subject "men" because of the pluralization problem. That is, "What would happen if one of the nation's funniest men became one of its leading ones?" But that's awkward. So maybe it would be better to say "What would happen if a man who was among the nation's funniest became its leader?" Also, funniest should really be "most funny" and we don't really refer to the President as our "leading man." That's how we refer to the guy who stars in a movie.

So it should probably read "What would happen if a man who was among the most funny in his nation subsequently became leader of his nation?" And you all know the answer to that question - Russia under Boris Yeltsin!

Oscar® winner Robin Williams reunites with the director of Good Morning, Vietnam to answer just that question in the comic tale of an entertainer’s accidental rise to power, Man of the Year.

So it's the Ronald Reagan story?

This is a very bad premise for a comedy for several reasons. Mainly, you're treading on ground that has been covered over and over and over again. But also, this keeps happening in real life, and thus isn't really as outrageous as director Barry Levinson obviously thinks. I mean, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an entertainer who has risen to a position of prominance in my state. Reagan was President. Sonny Bono was in Congress. There was that porno star in the Italian parliament. Plus, I'm pretty sure Netanyahu got his start in musical theater.

It's got to be somehow bigger than reality. Maybe, in the near future, an internationally successful entertainer gets elected as the first Global President. Now that's a comedy you could actually do some stuff with, sort of a mix between Dave and Bruce Almighty. Come to think of it...let me make a few calls...

Okay, we'll just start prepping that now for a 2009 tentpole release...

Acerbic performer Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) has made his career out of skewering politicians and speaking the mind of the exasperated nation on his talk show. He cracked scathing jokes at a fractured system night after night…until he came up with a really funny idea: why not run for president himself?

Clearly, the Williams character is based on John Stewart. (I'd say Stephen Colbert, but knowing studio timelines, this was probably in pre-production before "Colbert Report" was even on the air.) I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. Williams repetitive schtick is much more like a Jay Leno (or even a David Letterman) than John Stewart. I could believe a late night talk show host as randomly getting elected president, but not an outspoken, snarky guy like Stewart. Incredibly stupid people tend to resent those who exude intelligence and wit, which would ruin Stewart's chances with a large cross-section of the American electorate.

After a flip comment, Dobbs ignites a grassroots movement that puts him on the ballot. Hot on the campaign trail, he debates elected drones and says exactly what frustrated voters have often thought.

It's as this point that Barry becomes a sell-out. How much do you want to bet that these outrageous statements reflecting exactly how frustrated American voters think is going to be lame conservative garbage. These movies always pretend that sweeping rhetoric about their "community" and about "everyday people working hard" is what the voters really want to hear.

Even Bulworth, a movie billed as a strong political satire from the outspoken Warren Beatty, didn't really say anything more outrageous than "racism is stupid" and "big corporations are evil." If Man of the Year REALLY WANTED to show a genuine populist upsetting the political balance of this country through radical rhetoric, he'd be talking about the abolition of Corporate welfare, about ending the drug war, about reparations for slavery and publicly-funded elections. Somehow, I don't think this is what Hollywood has in mind for a Fall family release.

It's like, people know they hate canned political fluff, but they don't really want to hear any ideas too far out of the mainstream or have their expectations upset. These movies pretend to present an alternative viewpoint - hey, here's how politics really ought to work - but always end up reconfirming the status quo. You know, maybe they ought to work that way, but the system we've got is still pretty good. I mean, everything worked out alright at the end of this movie!

Nov. 2nd later, the muckraker wins—only to learn that a computer voting error gave him the victory. With time ticking on the inaugural clock, Dobbs has a big decision to make: should he go back behind the mike or stay in the Oval Office?

See, they use that word "muckraker." This means the movie will invent a villainous fictional corporation to stand in for Enron or Halliburton that the Williams character will have to "take down," thus resetting the balance of the universe. Because, you see, it's never that the idea of corporations are bad, or that the system of corporate power inherently leads to corruption. It's always one or two bad apples that ruin the game for everyone else.

Also, how ridiculously lame and inappropriate is this as a twist for a mainstream Robin Williams comedy? "Hey, our democracy is dying! The people in power have now twice stolen elections! Isn't that hilarious?"

To make it funny is the first step in making in acceptable. Sure, they're stealing power, but who else are you gonna elect? Democrats? We're better off with the people who know better running things...

Again, if I thought for a second that this was going to be an incisive, angry or satirical comedy about the state of America today, I wouldn't be so quick to condemn. But Barry Levinson? Robin Williams? I mean, I saw this trailer, and it looks like typical big-budget comedy pap. I seriously doubt it's actually going to take on these vitally important issues. Politics in this film is just going to be another prop for bad sitcom jokes and cheesy Robin Williams bits that have been stale since the mid '80s.

This election season, comic actors including Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Lewis Black join Williams in a pulled-from-the-headlines comedy.

Pulled from the headlines? Oh, yeah, "Robin Williams enters rehab." I remember that headline from a few months back...I mean, the guy has an alcohol problem. He's the perfect candidate to play the president!

Poor Little Rick Man

Check out this hilarious clip of Little Ricky Santorum, the one and only Braffy winner, getting into an argument with a constituent and then going off on an angry anti-media rant. That guy's a class act.

Why do these guys get into politics in the first place? They can't handle a personal confrontation for shit! This woman busts him on a relatively straight-forward issue that has been reported publicly for months. Rick pretends to live in Pennsylvania for political purposes, but actually resides with his family in Virginia. So this Pennsylvania schoolteacher asks him why his state taxes go to paying for his children's schooling in Virginia and not his "home state"?

Rick's prepared with a lame stock answer/dodge - he pays taxes and is therefore deserving of public services - but it's pretty limp and the teacher's not going for it. (It also, unfortunately for Rick, sets the stage for a clear follow-up question: why isn't every tax payer than entitled to the benefits that your children enjoy?)

But less than his glaring incompetence being put on display, what I like about this clip is how pissed off Ricky seems. These incumbent senators, like Ricky and the moribund Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, just can't stand to be challenged at all. I may have said this before, but they all remind me of Ted Knight in Caddyshack. So insulated from everything for so long in their mansions and country clubs that they're totally incapable of seeing things from another perspective or handling criticism. "You want to challenge me in a primary election? You? Not in Bushwood, sir!"

(Yes, the country club in Caddyshack is named "Bushwood." How prescient...)

Now that I thikn about it, that might not be a bad strategy for the Dems in 2008. Put up Al Franken and Michael Moore for President and VP and make it "the Slobs vs. the Snobs!" Americans may be easily fooled by Rovian chicanery, but they'll predictably root for a good underdog. I say we get Ivan Reitman, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis working on some campaign speeches and literature right now...

Faith Plus One

The new documentary Jesus Camp profiles a bizarre evangelical indoctrination seminar hosted by a criminally insane woman named Pastor Becky Fisher. This ABC News segment is one of the most frightening things I have seen in months.

Speaking in tongues, weeping for salvation, praying for an end to abortion and worshipping a picture of President Bush — these are some of the activities at Pastor Becky Fischer's Bible camp in North Dakota, "Kids on Fire," subject of the provocative new documentary, "Jesus Camp."

You've got to actually go to the ABC website and watch the segment. A little boy cries hysterically, presumably on Jesus' behalf, although I must have missed the part of the Bible where he commands cute little kids to get hysterical over him. And, yes, these kids are actually praying to a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush. I personally can't think of anything more pathetic than to send your kids to a camp where they will learn to kneel and grovel before a cardboard cut-out of anybody (and doesn't that violate one o' them there Commandments the Christians are always going on and on about...) But George W. Bush? Was Wal-Mart all out of cool Darth Vader and Han Solo standees?

I should note, it's still better than praying at the feet of the real George Bush because of the significantly decreased chance he will break wind in your face and then have a good chuckle.

"I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the gospel as they are in Palestine, Pakistan and all those different places," Fisher said. "Because, excuse me, we have the truth."

She wants to see them as radically laying down their lives for the gospel. Is that the right word? Wants? Is Fisher training these young children to martyr themselves? Yes, actually. She is.

"A lot of people die for God," one camper said, "and they're not afraid."

"We're kinda being trained to be warriors," said another, "only in a funner way."


As shocking as this stuff is, I can understand it from Pastor Fisher's perspective. You see, folks, she's completely insane. She doesn't know any better. Blaming her for this "camp" and its so-called "activities" is like blaming the local schizophrenic for wandering up and down the block shouting about microphones hidden in department store mannequins that transmit secret encoded signals indicating the whereabouts of the Loch Ness Monster into a microchip lodged safely in his cerebral cortex. That shit's not his fault. Batshit insane is how he came into this world.

Same with Fisher. She's crazy! Anyone who tells you that they have The Truth about the universe and the meaning of life is crazy. Write that down on a scrap of paper and keep it in your pocket and refer to it often.

The film has caused a split among evangelicals. Some say it's designed to demonize. Others have embraced it, including Fischer, who's helping promote the film.

"I never felt at any point that I was exploited," Fischer said.

Of course she's helping to promote it. As far as she's concerned, it's accurate and widespread marketing of her product. She's far too loopy to realize how most people will react to footage of children weeping openly about legal abortion, dressing in camoflauge fatigues and declaring themselves soldiers of God in preparation for the Rapture.

No, this shit isn't her fault. It's the parents of these kids, who either dumped their children off on Bible camp not realizing how psychotic Pastor Fischer's program really is (in which case the film is a public service) or they've made a conscious decision to have their little ones forcibly brainwashed.

That's not legally considered child abuse, but it probably should be. These kids will have very little chance of leading normal, well-adjusted adult lives. They are going to lack several important, nay crucial, skills for getting along in the world.

Mainly, the ability to apply reason and logic in decision-making

As author Lauren Sandler astutely points out in the ABC segment, a hardcore fundamentalist mindset doesn't allow for nuance or compromise.

"It's an absolute, straight-up us-against-them," Sandler said. "It's, you're either with us or you're against us. … Not only are you a sinner, but you are working for the enemy — the enemy being Satan."

That's why religion is such a wonderful system of control for governments and authoritarian rulers. Convince people that your path represents The Good and that all other paths represent The Bad and they will have no choice but to follow. We're seeing this right now in Bush's framing of the torture issue, surely among the most humiliating and barbaric "debates" in the history of our Congress.

He begins from a premise that's entirely fraudulent. You're either on the terrorist's side or America's. Therefore, you either oppose torture, and thus favor surrendering to the terrorists, or you support Bush's right to kidnap people and slowly and excruciatingly torture them over the course of several years regardless of their guilt or innocence of any crime.

The only way an argument like that will fly with anyone is if you get them to abandon rationality, to genuinely believe that you equal goodness and all other ways lie damnation.

And these parents are sending their children off to a place that will inundate their impressionable, sponge-like young minds with this kind of thought-obliterating, slave-mentality garbage. Depriving one's own children of the opportunity to think for themselves and discover their own way through life is nothing short of monstrous.

Of course, there's bound to be thousands of disadvantages to raising children as "Christian soldiers" and Future Bush Sycophants (FBS's, or Fobs, as I like to call them). What must it do to their fragile young psyches? I mean, to teach a 5 year old about the impending Apocalypse? "Finish your supper, Timmy. You don't want to face God's Divine Judgement on an empty stomach!"

This kind of fervent religiousity is just too much for a pre-teen to accept. You see, actual religion is all about faith, and a kid can't understand what faith really means. Because a kid will believe anything. Kids believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, okay? They don't know from doubt. They're a bunch of suckers.

Your faith as a child is anything your parents tell you. It's fine to introduce a kid to your religion as a youngster (if you must...), but indoctrination is just not appropriate. What I'm saying is, please don't start brainwashing the next generation of your stupid church until they turn at least 13 or 14 and can recognize your stupid religion for the stupid collection of ancient lies that it is, okay? Thanks.

This whole Jesus Camp thing reminds me of another documentary I saw at the Egyptian Theater a few years back, called Hell House. That was about a youth ministry that put on a "haunted house" every Halloween, except instead of the usual witch and ghost-themed Halloween attractions, their haunted house depicted sinners being punished in Hell.

And not your typical greedy or slothful sinners. No, more like girls who get abortions and gay guys and young people of both genders who experiment with drugs and alcohol. Two things were the most disturbing to me out of that entire documentary:

(1) The youth pastors and assorted counselors who repeatedly insisted that their charges not speak or think freely. One teacher started his class by stating that he disagreed with the old motto, "there are no stupid questions." There, indeed, are stupid questions, he insisted, and you should avoid asking them. That basically sums up the mindset of all the authority figures in this youth program. Don't rock the boat, and if you are thinking about something that conflicts with the proaganda you are receiving, bury it deep down inside and never speak it aloud to anyone.

(2) The entire program's obsession with drugs, alcohol, anarchy, Satanism and gay sex. I have known some goth people in my time, and some drug addicts, and some alcoholics and some gay people, and I have never known anyone as fixated on these topics as the counselors and students in Hell House. It's clear that these people have personal issues to work through - largely issues of abandonment, loneliness or alienation - and they unhealthily focus their aggression and frustration outward at perceived sinners rather than at themselves and the facets of their own lives that need attention.

Now I'm not perfect and I'm not one to harangue people on their personal choices. But the sort of projection on display in Hell House - anger directed at outsiders that actually stems from a deep inner pain - strikes me as the key to understanding the current mood in America. It's clear, I think, to most Americans by now that something is deeply, deeply wrong in our country. Many seem to think that the answer is to continue fighting aggressively, against Muslims in the Middle East and the "traitors" among us here at home, just as these fundamentalist Christians see their own salvation as resting on the complete and total defeat of their perceived "enemies" in the abortion clinics, universities and coffee houses.