Saturday, September 30, 2006

Two With William H. Macy

The masculine half of celebrity couple Filliam H. Muffman stars in two low-budget indies coming to DVD this Tuesday. Only one of them, the Stuart Gordon-David Mamet collaboration Edmond is worth your valuable time. The alternative, Thank You For Smoking, did in fact make me want to take up tar heroin. Anything to escape the wrenching pain of this insipid attempt at "satire."


Depressed businessman Edmond (Macy) leaves the office bound for home, but stops for a moment to visit a psychic. This is not normally the sort of thing Edmond would think to do, we gather, but he's feeling restless and out of sorts. The psychic does a tarot card reading, replete with ominous music and ambiguous symbology, and then tells Edmond:

"You are not where you belong."

Edmond seems to have already known that, yet the news leaves him deeply troubled. He goes home and breaks it off with his wife of seven years (Rebecca Pidgeon) , who seems more than a little taken aback by the news. He chats with a philosophical, charming racist (Joe Mantegna). Then he goes out looking to pay for sex.

David Mamet's screenplay adapts one of his earliest theatrical works for the screen and comes up with a lurid fantasy of a timid middle-class everyman's descent into madness. Think of it as a thinking man's Falling Down, with an existential crisis in place of that film's limp socio-economic critique.

Director and so-called "Master of Horror" Stuart Gordon trades in the schlocky gore theatrics of his most famous work (Re-Animator), save for one particularly brutal sequence, but nonetheless infuses this film with the best aspects of his previous films - gallows humor, lurid saturated color and actor Jeffrey Combs (who pops up in one scene as a clerk in a dirtbag motel.) Edmond is surprisingly cinematic for an adaptation from the stage, zipping around multiple locations and employing a large ensemble.

Many of these small, supporting turns go to celebrities, which can at times get distracting. George Wendt taking a few lines as a pawn shop owner of questionable morals works really well, as does Mena Suvari's very funny turn as a high-class prostitute with a quick temper. But I'm not as sure about Denise Richards, whose presence in the film serves no purpose other than getting her on to the DVD box.

Edmond encounters all these peculiar eccentrics on his late-night quest for female companionship but he can never seem to get the procedures down. He constantly argues over how much he will have to pay, offering a variety of opening prices and then growing frustrated with the ensuing negotiation. Other times, he rejects the very format of pornographic entertainment that he seeks, wondering aloud why strippers won't have sex with him or pimps need to charge for their services. In one scene, he has a temper tantrum when he realizes that a peep show dancer (Bai Ling) will remain behind a glass partition.

He grows increasingly alienated and paranoid by his failure to find a willing woman. He pawns his wedding ring and buys an old knife, and the film transitions from a drama about the emptiness that hides behind the mundane activity of daily life into a psychological horror film. As in some of his later works, when the pressures of modern life and work push rational men over the edge and into insanity, Mamet sketches Edmond as a person who has always had rage and resentment bubbling under a facade of calm, but who managed to somehow keep these emotions in check for years.

Unfortunately, when he tries to free himself from the rut that his life has become, when he opens himself up to new experiences, all of these suppressed urges are suddenly released into his ill-prepared mind. He can't grow as a person without regressing.

The bittersweet and unexpected conclusion also says a lot about fate. Just as the psychic predicted, Edmond was not where he really belonged, and maybe all of the terrible things that happened to him were neccessary for him to find some sense of security and well-being. I'm not sure David Mamet nor I actually believe in the implications of that interpretation of the film - that everything happens so that people can wind up in the place where they belong - but it's certainly a nice thought.

Thank You For Smoking

I'd call the pseudo-satirical Thank You For Smoking "toothless," but that would be an insult to professional hockey players and Mountain Dew fans everywhere. A woeful combination of flimsy libertarian blather and cynicism, Smoking clearly yearns for the incisive bite of Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth or Election, but also tries to work in a lazy Jerry Maguire story about a slick suit who discovers a void in his personal life. These two types of filmmaking don't go together. At all. But writer/director Jason Reitman's script also lacks the wit or the perspective on Big Tobacco to make any of his lame critiques actually count for anything. His films gives up on even taking a position on the Tobacco Industry, cigarette warning labels or any of the other issues raised, opting to make the story about one boring ficitonal character's journey from self-satisfied loudmouth asshole into even more self-satisfied loudmouth asshole.

It's not like there isn't ample material available for a satire on cigarettes in America. In one corner, you have massive, greedy corporations who not only produce a product that they know kills millions around the world but who purposefully make it more dangerous and addictive to increase their profits. In another, you've got weepy martyrs who secretly desire a Nanny State to tell them exactly who to live their lives, insisting that the private vices of others are somehow their own personal business. Finally, you have opportunistic politicians who pretend to care about public health issues but really just want to get on television as much as possible. All of these real circumstances could be exploited in a sharp, funny comedy.

That's just not this comedy. Instead, Reitman (working from a book by Christopher Buckley) bases his film around the rather odd conceit that tobacco lobbyists are ingenious dynamos who manipulate everyone around them for the benefit of greedy tobacco executives. The entire Tobacco Industry is really an extension of lobbyist Nick Naylor's (Aaron Eckhart) ego, and the movie treats it as such.

Thus, no aspect of the cigarette business and the way it is conducted gets anything but a cursory, superficial examination. We meet the head of the Tobacco lobbying association (J.K. Simmons) and his boss (Robert Duvall), who goes back to the old days when Big Tobacco first became Big, but combined they get maybe 10 minutes of screen time. Likewise, a Democratic Vermont Senator (Macy), the only politician featured in the film, is a mean-spirited doofus who doesn't know what he's talking about. Surprise, surprise. This is about as deep as the movie digs for laughs. A self-serving Senator who pretends to care about people but is actually really mean. Wow, what insight into the way business is conducted in our government!

Even more fatal than its willingness to trade in trite cliche, though, is that none of these characters are funny and yet the movie clearly thinks they are all incredibly funny. It's that combination of smarmy self-satisfaction and mock-bravery with an utter lack of actual humor that's the toxic cocktail bringing down Thank You For Smoking.

At the center of the Suck is the Nick Naylor character himself, despite the talented Eckhart's best efforts. In the odious and unneccessary voice-over, Naylor constantly brags about his abilities as a professional liar. He's the best in the business, the ultimate talker. What Charles Manson is to killing, Nick is to bullshit. He says, "You know that guy who always gets all the chicks? I'm that guy...on crack."

So we naturally expect him to be really clever, to constantly outwit his opponents with flashy rhetorical tricks and logic traps. Instead, over and over, he makes lame arguments of the kind you'd expect from an amateur high school team debater. It's actually kind of embarrassing that the movie finds Naylor clever and sly, when nothing he says even makes sense.

In one scene at a theme park or something, Naylor explains to his son (Cameron Bright, who by my estimation played every male child in every film released this year) why it's more important to win an argument than to be right. He proceeds to give him a lesson in that patented talking-head tactic, the Strawman Argument. We get a long painful scene where Naylor and his argue chocolate vs. vanilla, before Naylor shifts the conversation to whether or not his son would want chocolate every day for the rest of his life with no further variety.

"But I'm not convinced," his son reasonably replies. "I'm not trying to convince you," Naylor smirks. "I'm trying to convince them." He then points out to all the people milling around the park who aren't listening to him. This scene makes no sense. The point originally was that Naylor is going to teach his son how to win an argument, but in the end, all he's doing is explaining a useful device for going on Bill "Gentle Warrior" O'Reilly's show. The real point is, in terms of argumentation, he didn't convince his son that vanilla was better than chocolate, and thus doesn't "win" or prove anything.

Even more ludicrous examples of Naylor's "talent" abound. At one point, he has a moment fo sheer inspiration, devising the argument that is going to save his life and career. So he goes in front of a Senate sub-committee and argues that cigarettes shouldn't have warning labels because we don't put warning labels on artrery-clogging cheese.

I mean, are you fucking kidding me? That's a Homer Simpson argument. "I saved your life, Lenny! That egg would have killed you by cholesterol!" This guy's supposed to be the greatest tobacco lobbyist of all time?

So, okay, the movie has no insight into its choice of topic and its not funny. Normally, that would be cause for a bad review but not a total smackdown. What made me really hate the film was its cocky, smarmy attitude, the fact that the movie seems to delight in ridicule, human misery and death, and how frequently Reitman gloats about how no one or nothing can ever make a dent in corporate corruption and greed. Coming from the rich white son of a famous director (Ivan Reitman), based on a book by the rich white son of a famous writer (William Buckley), both of whom got to make the film because of family connections and inherited wealth and status, this kind of apathetic, snide approach, which essentially argues for an easy but corrupt status quo for lack of any "better" options, is just plain unappealing.

Nick meets up every week with his friends from the alcohol and gun lobby. Together, they call themselves the Merchants of Death, or the MOD Squad. Maria Bello and David Koechner, as the respective alcohol and gun proponents, give the film's only two likable performances, because they are honest and self-effacing. Bello can play this kind of laid back, one of the guy's career gal in her sleep, and Koechner's made an entire career now out of playing awkwardly macho wannabe alpha males, but these scenes with the lobbyists are really the only times when the movie slows down, stops trying to prove how smart and insightful it is and focuses on a few semi-realistic human beings in a funny, real-world situation.

Katie Holmes has the complete opposite assignment, a shrill and highly unpleasant role as an ambitious young journalist. This entire subplot, in which Nick becomes romantically involved with a reporter and discloses some of his personal feelings on his job, is both offensive unrealistic to the point of farce. We're supposed to believe a successful female reporter gets her subjects to talk to her by fucking them. We're supposed to believe the most powerful tobacco lobbyist in Washington would tell a reporter his secrets in bed. We're supposed to believe said lobbyist would then have a chance of keeping his job. It's utter, utter nonsense.

(Not to mention the conclusion of this plotline. How come the "happy ending" means that Nick gets to keep his job and status after it's disclosed that he slept with a reporter while Holmes' Heather has her career ruined? Weren't they equally culpable in any irresponsible behavior?)

It all really comes back to this lazy, bullshit laissez-faire attitude. Everything's fucked up permanantly, and there's nothing you can do about it, so just shut up and let rich people continue making their money. The Holmes storyline is a perfect illustration - this uppity bitch reporter shouldn't be making problems for Nick by using her slutty feminine wiles, cause he'll just turn it around on her and destroy her in the process. So she should just shut up and take it like everyone else. Likewise Macy's Senator. Yes, Big Tobacco is knowingly killing people, but so what? That's how they make money and that's how the world works! Get out of their face! Ugly, nihilistic stuff...

I'm not even in favor of increased warnings on cigarettes or smoking bans or anything like that. I say, if it's legal then it's legal and people should be able to smoke freely in public. (I'd make exceptions for enclosed spaces like airplanes and movie theaters, but I think restaurants and bars should be able to choose if they want to allow indoor smoking.) So I'm open to a harsh critique of the anti-smoking lobby. Likewise, I'm anti-corporate enough to enjoy any satire of greedy executives. Thank You For Smoking needed to choose a side. Just hanging out with the cold, calculating and essentially unconcerned lobbyists and goofing (badly) on everyone doesn't make you seem cool. It makes you seem terrified to make a statement.

This is easily one of the least enjoyable and obnoxious films I've seen all year. (I'm not so sure about worst, though. That's already kind of a tight competition.)

Friday, September 29, 2006

General Morons

As part of its "You're a Great American" sweepstakes, GM will be enhancing its brand by associating with none other than radio talk icon Sean Hannity.

Wait, Sean Hannity? The guy who says that voting for Hillary Clinton is the same as voting for Hezbollah? George Bush's cabana boy? Why would an established brand like General goddamn Motors want to connect itself in people's minds to such a third-tier bloviating propagandist?

I mean, okay, if they hired Rush Limbaugh, I'd be disgusted, but it least it would make some sense. He's a divisive figure, but he's also hugely popular. I know Sean has a lot of listeners, but those who aren't listeners either haven't heard of the guy or think he's a fecund, hairy asshole. (The disgusting/colonically-inclined among you will note that an extended metaphor would make Alan Colmes one of the following: hemerrhoid, a fissure, a cyst or the taint.)

GM needs way more customers than Sean Hannity has listeners. So, to my rudimentary non-corporate, grad-school degree in management mind...that doesn't sound like double-plus good strategy for GM.

To stimulate consumer interest in its line of American-built cars, General Motors has turned to radio and Sean Hannity. … Hannity will serve as the spokesperson for GM’s You’re A Great American Car Give-Away, offering radio listeners the chance to pick and win one of five GM vehicles.

Then, Sean's listeners will vote on what form of minority will be run over with the new car. Will it bethe lazy, shiftless black victim of Hurricane Katrina? The dirty broder-jumping Mexican? The wild-eyed kill-crazy Arab? The limp-wristed lisping queer? GM's leaving that part up to you, Good Americans!

Perhaps you think I'm overstating my case. I mean, the guy's a nationally-syndicated radio personality and one of the faces of the once-dominant Fox News Channel. Why shouldn't he get an endorsement deal like anyone else?

Let's just take a quick look at Media Matters for the retort to this fictional challenge I have presented just now to myself...

- August 30th, 2006: Hannity says that keeping Democrat Nancy Pelosi from becoming Speaker of the House is "worth dying for."

- August 24th, 2006: Hannity claims that a Democratic victory in November would be a victory for "terrorists."

- March 26th, 2006 (this is when they start to get really good): Hannity argues that the media's not reporting on all the good news from Iraq!

- March 6th, 2006: Hannity argues that there are no innocent prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. Because, you know, he would know.

- November 21st, 2005: Hannity repeats false rumor about Democrats throwing Oreos at Maryland's black Republican lieutenant governor. (This story is so awesome. This guy, Michael Steele, and some Republican pundits claimed that young liberals threw a massive barrage of Oreos at him during a debate while he was still on the campaign. A little research, however, shows that no news reports of the debate included any information about Oreos. Which would be strange, you know, were he actually pelted with cookies. I don't remember where I read this, but a few months later, when he was asked about the incident, Steele actually claimed that it wasn't a lot of Oreos being actually thrown at him, and that in fact he didn't see any airborne Oreos at all, but that as he left the stage, he notices some Oreos lying at his feet. Hilarious.)

- October 12th, 2005: Hannity repeats ludicrous, impossible-to-prove Republican claim that 70% of al-Qaida have been captured as fact.

- September 27th, 2005: Sean and Ann Coulter dispute a claim that Pat Tillman was a Noam Chomsky fan made in print by the boy's own mother.

- June 21st, 2005: Sean invites to his program author Edward Klein, whose scathing and, of course, largely fictional book about Hillary Clinton was deemed unworthy of Bill O'Reilly's show. He likewise pledges that keeping Hillary from becoming President will heretofore be a major function of his show.

- June 8th, 2005: As part of an ongoing series of editorials and debates, Sean defends prisoner abuse and torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

- March 16th, 2005: Hannity says guns "are only dangerous in the hands of a criminal."

- February 15th, 2005: Hannity doesn't imply but boldly states that he doesn't believe John Kerry actually saw combat in Vietnam.

- February 2nd, 2005: Hannity admits to having close ties to the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, including his position on the board of Peterson's Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND).

Let's take a look at some of Peterson's thoughts...

Last week, I wrote in this space that it was the lack of moral character and dependence on government that cost blacks when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, not President Bush or racism. Since then, I've been deluged by e-mails – overwhelmingly positive – repeatedly making the same point: I said what white Americans know to be true, but are afraid to say.

This confirmed what I've known for a long time: Everyone knows most of black America is screwed up – immoral, dependent, weak – but so few are able to say so. Unfortunate as that is, it is reassuring that we all know the truth. With this in mind, I would like to make the case that all Americans – black and white – should tell the truth when it comes to race and morality.


It should come as no surprise that the homosexual lobby has launched a campaign to use black America for its pernicious purpose of promoting same-sex "marriage." Blacks have proven time and again to be a useful tool in promoting the sick desires of black leaders, the Democratic Party and the elite white feminist movement (yes, most feminists are upper-class angry white women) – why shouldn't radical homosexuals continue the trend?

If we fail at this time to expose the homosexual movement and its malicious goals, then its agenda will carry the day.

Here's the best thing I've read written by noted whackjob Peterson. It's an article for called, and this is really honestly true, "Kwanzaa: Racist Holiday from Hell."

He spends most of the article villifying the admittedly-bizarre creator of Kwanzaa, UCLA professor Ron Karenga, before launching into a list of reasons no one shoudl celebrate Kwanzaa. Here's an example of the guy's airtight logic.

First of all, as we’ve seen, the whole holiday is made up! You won’t find its roots in Africa or anywhere else. Second, Kwanzaa’s “principles” are straight from Hell. Third, and most importantly, Christians who celebrate or incorporate Kwanzaa are moving their attention away from Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the simple message of salvation: love for God through his Son. To add or subtract from that message is evil.

Yeah, people! Don't celebrate made-up holidays EVER! It's ungodly. From now on, only enjoy fanciful pretend celebrations of make-believe that are, you know, real. Like Labor Day and Memorial Day and President's Day and stuff.

And this guy is Sean Hannity's close friend and like-minded colleague. I never thought I'd say this, but GM should stick to the commercials they already have, with the trucks and the rocks and the bad CGI. It's not much, but it has got to be better than a ringing endorsement from this guy. You'd be better off signing just about anyone else in the world as a spokesman. What about Kevin Federline! He really should start pulling his own weight in that family anyway!

Seriously, though, if GM is going to go ahead and make Sean Hannity the face of their brand, they ought to go all out and get Peterson and Hannity together as some kind of package deal! I can see the ad now!

"Hey! Are you sick and tired of being a useful tool in promoting the sick desires of the Democratic Party and the elite white feminist movement full of upper-class angry white women? Then come on down and try out our new '07 Saabs!"

[Think Progress likewise points out that the Sean Hannity promotion is playing out in tandem with a series of ads highlighting GM's "American-ness," which include images of Rosa Parks and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. You know, the same victims that Sean's buddy thinks deserved to drown for being immoral.]

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

LONS: Ludicrously Obvious News Service

Welcome back. Coming up later this hour, in our "News You Can Use" segment, Alisha Williams will let us all know how we can illuminate our home, thus making it far easier to see things, just by flipping switches that are already located on the wall. Then, entertainment reporter Sheldon Sheldrake will give us the inside scoop on the 5th anniversary of that big Dungeons and Dragons movie...Was this high profile adaptation ultimately a crowd-pleasing success or a disappointing waste of everyone's time and the nadir of Jeremy Irons' once-promising career? That's all coming up later on this hour, along with last week's weather.

But now, here's our latest headines...

Senator George Allen Somewhat Less Than Fond of the Blacks

Shocking news tonight as we discover that Senator George Allen, a man who while serving as a District Attorney displayed both a Confederate flag and a noose in his office, may in a racist.

Mr. Allen, a Virginia Republican whose re-election campaign has been knocked off balance by the accusations, said Monday that he did not remember ever using the term and that “it is absolutely false that that was ever part of my vocabulary.”

Mrs. Hawkins, who described herself as a rural Virginia housewife and an active Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday that she heard Mr. Allen use the slur repeatedly at a party on election night in 1976. She said Mr. Allen used the term while deprecating the intelligence of the black players on the Washington Redskins football team, which Mr. Allen’s father coached. Recalling remarks about its star running back, Larry Brown, Mrs. Hawkins said that Mr. Allen “started in effect bad-mouthing him, saying what a shiftless you-know-what” he was.

She said she remembered the conversation because she was a big fan of the team and was shocked. She said Mr. Allen’s statement on Monday was “just plain a lie.”

This update comes on the heels of a Salon expose that indicated George theoretically might have the potential possibiliy of holding some racist attitudes, based on his appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan, his frequent use of the crude racial epithet "nigger" throughout his life and the fact that he once left a severed deer's head in the mailbox of a black family.

Shelton played football with Allen in the 1972 and 1973 seasons, according to the team media guides from those years. Shelton remembers Allen's attitudes about race surfacing early in their relationship. At one point, Shelton says, Allen nicknamed him "Wizard," after United Klans imperial wizard Robert Shelton. "He asked me if I was related at all," Shelton remembers. "I knew of that name, and I said absolutely not." Several former teammates confirmed that Shelton's team nickname was "Wizard," though no one contacted by Salon could confirm firsthand knowledge of the handle's origin. "Everyone called me 'Wizard' that knows me from those days," said Shelton. "My nickname stuck."

Shelton said he also remembers a disturbing deer hunting trip with Allen on land that was owned by the family of Billy Lanahan, a wide receiver on the team. After they had killed a deer, Shelton said he remembers Allen asking Lanahan where the local black residents lived. Shelton said Allen then drove the three of them to that neighborhood with the severed head of the deer. "He proceeded to take the doe's head and stuff it into a mailbox," Shelton said.

And now, to provide a balanced perspective on the murky issue of whether or not George Allen has ever given any indicating of possibly disliking or pre-judging certain people on the basis of race, here's Tucker Carlson.

Thanks, Lons. Now, in the interest of fairness, I think you have to weigh the context of Allen's behavior and remarks.

Now, hanging a noose in one's office can simply serve as a demonstration of one's affinity for movies of the Western genre, in which predominantly white outlaws were often strung up with nooses, sometimes escaping if their crackshot partner-in-crime managed to free them with a precision bullet at the exact right moment.

As for the nickname "Wizard," this is not a reference to a noted KKK leader at all. In fact, Senator Allen is simply a big fan of the classic Fred Savage adventure film The Wizard, in which he must escort his creepy younger brother to a big Nintendo tournament. (On a personal note, Allen bases all his nicknames on classic '80s films. Just as his favorite and most trusted aide, Remo Williams, or his chief spokesman, Mouth.)

I should also mention that, because no one can prove that Robert Shelton has personally donated any money towards Allen's presidential run, then clearly no connection between the two men exists and the entire subject should be closed.

Finally, as for the so-called "prank," it has not been widely publicized by a biased media intent on destroying this fine man's career that Allen once worked in the employ of the Deer Head of the Month club, and accidentally delivered a fresh deer head to the wrong address. A mistake, to be sure, but hardly one that proves a person to be a racist.

Oh, and in the interest of fair even-handed and appropriate public discourse, I should note that, even though I am not a psychiatrist or a medically-trained expert, I can tell that Al Gore is certifiably insane.

Thanks, Tucker. Now, more of our top stories.

Some Don't Care for Rick Santorum

A new poll indicates that voters in Pennsylvania don't really like Rick Santorum, their representative to Congress who compared homosexual relationships to bestiality and argued on the Senate floor for legislation that outlaws touching one's self in an impure manner.

Democrat Bob Casey appears to have doubled his lead over Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, according to a poll released Tuesday.

Casey had a 14-point lead in the Quinnipiac University Poll, with 54 percent of likely voters saying they planned to vote for him compared to 40 percent for Santorum. One percent said they wouldn’t vote and 6 percent said they didn’t know. Casey had a seven point lead among likely voters in a match up between the two in the same poll on Aug. 15.

For the record, 87% of those polled would agree to make Rick Santorum "dogcatcher" were the election actually held to day. So some good news and some bad news for the Santorum campaign.

Christians Generally Confused About Own Religion

As part of a lrager recent trend, large numbers of self-identified Christians support policies, ideas and legislation that directly conflict with their own stated beliefs. With more on this developing story, here's Chief Sarcastic Correspondant Bill Mayhew:

Yeah, thanks a lot. Okay, so, here's the thing...Jesus was totally all about torture. I mean, sure, he was tortured himself, and one possible interpretation of his life story might be that because God has taken the form of a man and insisted that man has been created in His own image, anything you do to another man is a crime against God. So, therefore, torturing a man would be like torturing God, which would be wrong regardless of the circumstances leading up to the torture.

But, hey, that's stupid. No, these Christians who loudly and vocally support the torture of people who are guilty of the crime of living far away and being generally swarthy and unsettling know what they're doing. They've managed to read between the New Testament's lines, around all those parts where Jesus tells you to turn the other cheek and embrace your enemies. They have seen through all that crap to the real deal, the actual message:

Kill 'em all and let me and my Dad sort 'em out.

Oh, also, fuck all them fags.

Thanks, Bill.

A recent Time Magazine cover story asked, "Does God Want You To Be Rich?" The obvious answer (and we love those here at LONS) for a Christian would be, "No, of course not. Christ said that rich people most often don't get into heaven, and demanded that those who serve him cast away their Earthy possessions. Plus, he had some kind of problem with the entire idea of lending people money as opposed to just giving it away. So he'd probably rather you just give all your money to the needy and live a simple life without excessive material comforts."

Some American Christians, however, aren't so sure...

But for a growing number of Christians like George Adams, the question is better restated, "Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?" For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million--strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels' passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn't want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names--Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology--its emphasis is on God's promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke.

Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly." In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%--a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America--agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

Yes. A Christian organization called Name It and Claim It. We'd discuss this further, but our Chief Unintentionally Appropriate Organizational Namimg Correspondant, Ned Pseudonym, has just shot himself in the face.

If he were here, he'd probably point out that the idea that God loves you and does not want you to be broke inevitably leads to the conclusion that those who are, in fact, broke, are unloved by God. Which seems to reflect pretty accurately the apparent mindset of the average American.

And they see in it a happy corrective for Christians who are more used to being chastened for their sins than celebrated as God's children. "Who would want to get in on something where you're miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?" asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. "I believe God wants to give us nice things."

There you have it. God wants to give us nice things. He's a lot like Santa Claus in that way. So, just an update for all your Christians living in crushing cyclical poverty here in America, and the other Christians in all the other slums all around the world, your nice things have been lost in the mail, but God totally promises to get them to you, like, really really soon. If he really loves you. If you don't get your nice things, I'd probably take that as a sign that God's not too happy with your broke ass, so perhaps a guy like Allah or Buddha will feel a bit more generous. Let's just move on.

New Theory: Bill Clinton Not Solely at Fault for 9/11

Contrary to conventional wisdom, an odd new theory suggests that Former President Bill Clinton may not shoulder 100% of the blame for the attack of 9/11, and that in fact the administration in charge of the nation at that time may also be partly responsible.

"We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda," Rice told a reporter for the New York Post on Monday. "Big pieces were missing," Rice added, "like an approach to Pakistan that might work, because without Pakistan you weren't going to get Afghanistan."

Rice made the comments in response to claims made Sunday by former President Bill Clinton, who argued that his administration had done more than the current one to address the al Qaeda problem before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. She stopped short of calling the former president a liar.

However, RAW STORY has found that just five days after President George W. Bush was sworn into office, a memo from counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke to Rice included the 2000 document, "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al-Qida: Status and Prospects." This document devotes over 2 of its 13 pages of material to specifically addressing strategies for securing Pakistan's cooperation in airstrikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

That article, of course, refers to the Former President's slanderous suggestion Sunday that he and other presidents may share responsibility for an attack on America, rather than Clinton and Clinton alone. This conclusion, of course, was made in the absence of any evidence...aside from the 9/11 Commission Report, the account of recognized terrorism expert Richard Clarke, numerous corroborating reports from the time and everyone's memory of these actual events only a few years ago.

Chris Wallace exhibits here that popular old journalistic trick of which we're so fond here at LONS, the "blame it on the viewers" technique. "Mr. Clinton, I would never ever want to ask you this offensive and loaded question, but darn it, my viewers insisted and I'm just not man enough to stand up to them. So, I have to ask, does it make you sad to know that you directly caused 9/11?

But does this allegation, that someone aside from Bill Clinton, even possibly the current president who was president when 9/11 happened, bears some of the blame for 9/11, hold any water? Here to comment is our Chief White House Responsibility Correspondant, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Tony, welcome to the show.

"Hey, folks, it's me, Fair and Balanced Tony Snow. Before I begin my actual remarks, I'd just like to invite everyone to my big Bonfire Beach Party to celebrate the end of all racism. It's gonna be this Saturday, um, at the beach. And it will be BYOB cause I don't know how many of you former racist party animals are gonna show up, and I don't make as much as you might think being a press secretary. At least, I don't make as much as I thought I would. Maybe I should write a book about the End of Racism. Or the War on Lent. That'd be a good one.

"Anyway, about this whole Clinton not wanting to take all the blame thing. The fact is, he never caught Bin Laden, and he had many many years in which to do so. By 1996, Bin Laden's first (and best, in my opinion) taped message made him a major player in the World Terrorism Scene. Itwas a major breakthrough moment. From then on, he was like the 50 Cent of the terrorism world.

"And sure, Clinton was called 'obsessed' with bringing down Bin Laden, and was accused of 'wagging the dog' by Republicans when he considered going after the guy militarily, but the fact remains that he failed to ever catch the guy after 4 years of trying.

"George W. Bush, on the other hand, started a failed war in Iraq. And that's all I'm really at liberty to say at this point in time. Go Bush."

Thanks, Tony. More on this story hopefully never because it's stupid and pointless.

And now here's Sheldon Sheldrake with the Movie Minute.

Here's all the obvious movie news you need in just a minute...

Jackass 2 contains scenes and stunts that some might find distasteful.

All the King's Men features a variety of silly accents, which is good, but it should not be attended anyway because Sean Penn thinks George Bush is worse than Osama bin Laden.

Success of the documentary Jesus Camp has already spawned a number of imitators:

  • Ernest Goes to Jesus Camp, with Jim Varney's scenes made possible through animated motion capture technology
  • Jesus Camp of Montreal, in which a group of enthusiastic youngsters put on a controversial Passion Play
  • Sleepaway Jesus Camp, featuring a hermaphroditic child camper ruthlessly slaughtering a camp full of nubile Christian soldiers in training
  • Jesus' Son's Camp, starring Billy Crudup as an unconventional drug addict who starts a religious-themed camp along with a deranged orderly, played by Jack Black
  • Jesus' Fat Camp, in which the personified God descends from Heaven in order to help a group of mean-spirited, unmotivated fat children lose weight and develop some self-esteem, culminating in a Battle Royale against the kids from the Eating Disorder Camp run by Satan's son Damien just across the pond. (This one sounds good!)

I'm Sheldon Sheldrake with the Movie Minute.

This has been the Ludicrously Obvious News, repeating every 10 minutes on the 10 minutes here on the Ludicrously Obvious News Service. Now, get the hell out of my face.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lady Vengeance

Park Chan-wook completes his trilogy of revenge-themed films in idiosyncratic fashion with Lady Vengeance, a darkly comic exploration of the idea that sometimes, revenge can double as redemption.

This is a strange way to conclude a triptych of films about the nature of vengeance. The first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, sees all acts of violence as part of one large cycle of revenge. Most people only wrong one another and commit evil acts, Park's film suggests, because someone has in some way wronged them. Characters who desire payback against one another for all kinds of labrynthine reasons eventually deal out retribution yet feel no satisfaction, and instead only perpetuate a series of increasingly brutal, violent conflicts.

The second and best film in Park's trilogy (and career thus far), the epic Oldboy, presents an act of vengeance so elaborate, so surreal and so thoroughly unwarranted, it explodes any notion of morality. The lead character, a mainly-innocent man jailed in a hotel room for 15 years before being released into a hostile world with even more horrors in store, is senselessly brutalized, punished for a relatively minor indiscretion because of the delusional whims of a wealthy and tortured rival.

The film's gory, visceral and grandiose conclusion in the villain's modern glass-encased loft suggests the essential nature of the revenge act - it is a demonstration of power, an encapsulation of the endless, unspoken struggle between the weak and the strong. A man who was once weak, who suffered a bruised ego and a deep-seated feeling of humiliation, seeks to flaunt his newfound power and its attending control over others. What better way to demonstrate your superiority than elaborately seeking remuneration for old, forgotten debts?

And now here's the sleek, flashy Lady Vengeance, an exercize in style about a good-natured, religious ex-convict who plots the demise of her old lover while making peace with the daughter she's never known. The film's gripping, occasionally quite funny, crisp, clever, densely-plotted and impeccably shot, but it's just not quite up to the level of Mr. Vengeance, and it's certainly not as entertaining, clever or intense as Oldboy, still among my favorite films of this current decade.

Can an act of cold-blooded revenge ever be justified? Park sets out in Lady Vengeance to make this case. Right off the bat, you kind of have to take issue with his thought process. Why is it that, in the two films in which male characters take revenge, the act is seen as heartless and morally questionable, whereas a woman taking revenge is seen as righteous, prudent and even matronly? It sounds for a moment like reverse sexism - holding men to an unfair double standard - but it's actually just good old fashioned regular sexism. Women are inherently weaker, so a man who takes advantage of one of them lowers himself to a sub-human level, thus making him a fair target for torture and homicide.

Also, revenge is seen as somehow intertwined with basic female nature. This is nowhere clearer than in a late scene in Lady Vengeace, when a couple is invited to torture a man who has killed their child. The man wants no part in it, thinking that causing this man pain will only make his own pain worse, but his wife insists on taking part. Her motherly instinct drives her to commit depraved acts, and Park seems to find this acceptable in some way. Well, she's a woman and a mother so she's not in control of what she's doing.

This critique, though I think it's fair, doesn't really represent the full scope of Park's film. Like Kill Bill, it's also in some ways about creating the ultimate Female Pop Culture Icon of Tough Yet Sexy Cool. Everything from Geum-ja Lee's (Yeong-ae Lee) red eyeliner, which she wears because she's tired of looking friendly and good natured, to her leather jacket to her tastefully bandaged finger to her antique dual-barrel revolver has been designed to catch the eye and look slick on camera. It works sometimes, in a self-conscious way, but also dates the film and gives it a generic quality that's highly disappointing for a filmmaker as thoughtful and distinctive as Park.

Honestly, there have probably been 20 films so far this year with cool, sexy leather-clad tough grrrls kicking ass in a heavily-stylized manner filmed with breakneck editing and oversatured color. Did we really need one more?

As in Oldboy, Park makes the initial half-hour of the film purposefully disorienting, putting the audience in a victimized state of mind. Startling acts of violence occur without any coherent sequence. Jump cuts present a skewed or incomplete version of past and present events. Explanations are provided through voice-over narration but don't seem to synch up into a single unifying narrative. The technique works brilliantly in the former film, providing nothing but a lone point of view, without any context, before instigating a complex plot filled with double-crosses and sudden revelations.

In Lady Vengeance, the entire opening hour serves as little more than a sporadically amusing diversion, linking up to the far-superior second half exclusively through a cheap, tacked-on narrative device. At 19, Geum-ja Lee is arrested for the kidnapping and brutal murder of a 5 year old boy she did not even know. She confesses to the heinous crime and is sent to prison for 14 years. Once inside, she meets a variety of other convicts, whose back stories all play out in fanciful set pieces eerily reminiscent of (I swear) Wes Anderson films.

For real. You get bouncy classical music, elegant tracking shots, split screen effects, inserts of handwritten letters on cutesy personal stationary, even freeze-frame shots with characters looking directly into the camera with captions underneath them giving you their name and the length of their prison sentence. Wes can't ever make a Women in Prison movie because Park's stolen his thunder here.

It's clear he's trying to take the series in a more fanciful, imaginitive direction with a more elaborate visual palette, but some of these flourishes just don't make a lot of sense or fit in with the rest of the movie. In addition to Anderson, some moments are clearly influenced by French fantasist Jean-Pierre Jeunet, particularly a scene in which one of Lee's fellow inmates sees her face lit up with an irridescent glow. (Another shot, where we see the outside of an office building before swooping in through the window to spot an executive behind a desk, serves no purpose other than showmanship. "Hey, look! We got CGI over here! Check me out!") Oldboy was accused of being overly Western and MTV-influenced, but at least all of its stylish diversions nominally attempted to enhance the storytelling in some way rather than simply impress the viewer through expensive trickery.

Once all the prison material has been dispensed with and Park actually goes about telling the revenge story, things improve significantly. Just as Dae-Su Oh's (Min-Sik Choi) mysterious imprisonment left him a monster with little connection to his previous self in Oldboy, an initial act of violent retribution on behalf of her fellow inmates proves damaging to Lee's psyche and her conscience. She no longer feels secure in her salvation as a good Christian, even though her "crime" was well-intentioned, in the service of her friends. This provides the moral conflict at the center of her story - suffering from guilt for her sins even as she must plan an even more outsized and gruesome act of bloody violence.

Within Lee's dilemma, we find the thread that runs through all three films. These characters believe that acting out their revenge fantasies will magically right the wrongs of the past. If not to actually turn back the clock, bringing loved ones back to life and such, they want to correct mistakes for posterity, to reset the universe's memory of how things played out. Unlike the heroes of Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy, who knowingly seek revenge for their own personal edification, Lee comes to see her quest as redemptive in the strictly religious sense. Getting satisfaction for herself and her enemies' other victims, even at the risk of her own suffering, will prove her devotion to God and Goodness and purity, will wipe her soul clean and allow her to start anew. (The frequently-invoked symbol of smooth, white tofu continually reiterates this point, too plainly in the film's largely unneccessary final scene.)

14 years before, Lee had not acted alone, and now that she is freed, the decision to get back at the old teacher whom she holds responsible (Choi from Oldboy) seems intractible. She speaks frequently about the intricate "plan" she's been working on for all her time in prison, but actually there's not that much strategy involved. Certainly nothing on the scale of the villain's meticulous work in Oldboy. Surprisingly from Park, the conclusion's violence is muted, possibly in deference to the entire film's overall lighter tone. (Well, most of the film. It gets heavy towards the very end.) In fact, the most disturbing scene doesn't include a single act of violence. A group must clean up a warehouse after coating the floors and themselves with blood, an ideal visual metaphor for the grisly and ultimately unsatisfying aftermath to the revenge act.

These final few scenes are so good, it almost makes the mediocre stuff that came before feel permissable. Park casts a nearly-silent cameo role of great importance with actor Ji-tae Yu who played the demented and anguished villain in Oldboy. The connection is clear - the perpetrator who saw himself as a victim in that film has become the despondant victim of this film, wishing for an opportunity at revenge that can never come. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Unfortunately, you have to wade through an hour that's only so-so to get there. I'd say it's worth the wait, but it's the only film in this collection where that's even debatable. All in all, this is definitely a step down from Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. Too bad.

More Adventures with the Clenis

I kind of feel like the previous post makes my feelings about America right now pretty clearly. I agree with Chuck...It's probably one of the more tight, concise and amusing things I've written recently.

But even on my best day, even on the best minute of my best day, I couldn't dream of topping Keith Olbermann. This guy has been on fire lately. He's the bravest, most outspoken man on television right now. (What have you done for me lately, Stephen Colbert?)

Here's Keith summing up this Bill Clinton nonsense from "Fox News Sunday." Although, can I just ask, why would Bill Clinton submit to an interview with a muppet like Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday"? That's like the Queen Mother showing up on a very special episode of "Sesame Street" to have a serious hour-long discussion with Elmo on the nature of the recent allegations that the figurative head of the British nation "loves hugs." To borrow a favorite wingnut phrase, Chris Wallace and "Fox News Sunday" are fundamentally unserious news organizations, and therefore are beneath the level of a real discussion with a former president.

Here's Keith...

Keith zeroes in on my favorite fallacy of this entire Path to 9/11 argument...Suddenly, the Republicans want us to think that Clinton was too distracted by the Lewinsky scandal to focus on catching Osama bin Laden. But it was their fault that nothing happened in the country for two years, not Bill Clinton's. He would have been perfectly willing to forget the whole thing about go after terrorists.

In fact, in the months before the Lewinsky scandal consumed Clinton's second term, he was actively pursuing an anti-terrorist agenda. I remember because I thought it was stupid and pointless at the time, yet another lame attempt to fight terrorists with massive bombing campaigns. Which is like dealing with your kitchen's cockroach problem using surface-to-air missiles.

And you know what? A lot of Republicans agreed with me, as Keith points out. It was a strange feeling, one that I have yet to feel for a second time. Now they want to pretend not only that they have always wanted to fight terror, not only that 9/11 is all Clinton's fault instead of the guy who was actually President for the previous 8 months, but that the Lewinsky scandal/distraction is the fault of someone other than themselves. It boggles the mind.

[Thanks, as always, to the extremely utile Crooks and Liars for the video.]

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Mr. October

Wrap your mind around this noodle-scratcher...If we all know it's coming, can it really be called an "October surprise"?

Karl Rove will pull out something crazy this October in order to mess with the Mid-Term Congressional election. Guaranteed. He does it every single election. This is the October surprise, of course, a big news story that sways voters right before an election. Not to be confused with the November surprise, which is when we're all surprised to find out that the vote-counting is fucked and we're stuck with the same group of useless babboons for another four long years.

That's becoming less surprising all the time. In fact, "November Surprise" is kind of an unfortunate misnomer.

Anyway, I've been thinking that the October Surprise this year (hey, I'm a Jew, I don't have Christmas to look forward to) would have something to do with Osama bin Laden. You notice how Bush wouldn't mentioned him at all for months at a time? Who could blame him? It would be like constantly mentioning to people that you owe them $20.

Or, to use another anecdotal metaphor, it's like when you brag about getting a cool new job and then you quit right away because it actually sucks but you've already told everybody about it, so you clam up and get awkward whenever anyone brings it up, which is all the time because people like to talk about when their friends get new jobs. Or is that just me?

So occasionally reporters would ask Bush about Osama bin Laden. Typically, the topic would come up on VH1 comedian-based nostalgia shows with names like "I Heart Five Years Ago!" Michael Ian Black and Ant for "Celebrity Fit Club" are hanging out on a futon:

"Hey, that guy who actually is the one who attacked us and stuff? Osama bin Latke or whatever?"

"Hey, yeah! What ever happened to that guy?"

And whenever it came up, Bush would get pissy and say that Osama bin Laden didn't matter because this was a War on Terror and he was only the world's most infamous and successful terrorist. I mean, who cares, right? We liberated Kuwait! No, hang on a sec...

It went on like that for a while, but of course with the fifth anniversary of 9/11 this year, the guy's name started popping up again. Even Bush re-affirmed his determination to actually catch the guy. You know this has to make him, personally, feel like a fuck-up. You're the Leader of the "Free" world, Commander-in-Chief of the world's largest army, the rootinest, tootinest, shootinest, most executingest governor in the history of Texas...You've had five years to catch one gangly Middle-Aged Saudi Arabian guy with severe kidney problems and you can't manage it.

I mean, this is downright Clouseau-esque. We even know the general world area in which the guy's hiding! We've got it down to not just one specific country, but a mountain range! That's more info than the give you at the beginning of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego" and that's a game for 10 year olds!

But I digress. My point is, Bush has absolutely no reason to bring up Osama bin Laden. I would think that topic is radioactive for him, just generally putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why he's such an idiot who's so horrible at everything he tries to do. (He's not even a good drunk.)

Yet here he is, bringing OBL up in speeches and interviews like he's just appointed the guy Iraqi Minister of Making Us All Look Like Assholes 24-7. And it's not just Bush. The media at large has developed Osa-mania, what with the outcry over Path to 9/11 and now these Fox interviews where Klinton goes Krazy*&@#^*! What gives?

My theory was that Osama was already caught (or proved dead) and that the White House has known about it for a little while, but is saving it up as a big October reveal. "We got him, here's his photo as proof, he's safely being tortured at one of our exemplary, state of the art and soon-to-be Congressionally-approved torture facilities. (Each one is personally inspected by Senators John McCain and Harry Reid to ensure a constant level of luxury, feng shui, cleanliness and lemon-scented freshness that is above reproach). Okay, everyone vote Republican, remember to tip your wait staff and have a good evening!"

I still might be right. These rumors being circulated by a French newspaper aren't really doing that much for me. A friend suggested that it might be French intelligence attempting to steal Bush's thunder, to spread a rumor that Osama was already dead of natural causes to ensure Bush couldn't use the death as propaganda.

I'm a bit skeptical. I just don't see how Osama being dead, no matter how it happened, hurts Bush. He can always say that the real reason Osama is dead is because of the pressure placed on him by an American-led manhunt. These guys are weasels, and they will say anything, and it's not all that absurd to say that Osama died painfully and hopelessly while hiding in a cave, a rich man who spent the last several years of his life hiding from the stern hand of Bush's justice. Okay, it's absurd, but the yokels will buy it! At least, enough of them to win some tight elections in Gaptooth County, U.S.A.

And, as Sol Rosenberg might say, I can't have that!

Another possibility occurs to me of late. War with Iran. Americans always back the President when there's a fresh war on. That's really the problem with Iraq. We keep having to chew the gum but it's lost all of the zesty flavor we once enjoyed.

The thing was kind of exotic back in 2003. "Hey, today we're in Basra! Now it's Tikrit! They're toppling statues! We found Saddam in a hole! With a huge spider, apparently! Just like in Lord of the Rings!" Now, it's like, the troops are coming back all crazy and we're finding out that all these greedy companies had been scamming us and we're totally losing the actual war and it's like a big wad of flavorless mush that you just want to spit out in your little sister's hair.

Now, Iran! That's like Mega-Eclipse Triple-Spearmintberry with Effervescent Action Crystals. A tingly taste sensation that it will take several weeks to get tired of and/or grossed out by. But, hey, that's long enough to pick up some seats up there in Gaptooth County (home of the Outlet Mall Outlet Mall, where the extra clothes that they don't want at the regular Outlet Mall are sold at considerable discounts!)

It would be completely disgusting to actually start a war for no better reason than to cling to power for 2 measly stinking more years. Which is exactly why I think the Bushcovites will go for it. These guys have a tendency to sniff out the least efficient, most dastardly course of action and plow into it at full steam, calling everyone who isn't rushing to keep up with the insanity a cowardly traitorous pig-dog. Hey, all I'm saying is that I heard their new Transportation Secretary is Snidley Whiplash. That's all I'm saying.

What can you say about the gentlemen who re-introduced America to torture? Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with torture. Sure, the "witches" in Salem might have been treated shabbily, but George Washington had insisted that British and Hessian POW's were not to be tortured. Indians may have been mowed down and butchered by the thousands, but when white guys shot at one another, they tried to just shoot the gun out of their opponents hand to avoid any excess blood spray. And, yes, okay, fine, maybe the entire economy initially depended on capturing, enslaving, torturing, raping, beating and eventually murdering black people. If you want to split hairs.

But we'd been working on a nice little run of not intentionally going out of our way to torture people. I mean, it still happened all the time in America (unless you think racist cops who arrested civil rights protestors were taking them back to the jailhouse for Dr. Pepper and Carvel ice cream cakes). But not as, you know, open official policy. Until now.

So, yeah, George Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of the Little Rascals will try anything. If it will take a War with Iran for George to get his groove back, then goddammit, let's bomb the shit out of those Persian bastards! They're throwing off the Boy-King's chi!