Friday, October 20, 2006

The Pen is Mightier Than the Butcher Knife

We already knew OJ Simpson was a great athlete, pitchman and, of course, a brilliant actor. But did you know he's also a soon-to-be-highly-esteemed novelist? From Keith Olbermann:

The “Enquirer” says has signed [The Juice] up to write a book called “If I Did it,” a hypothetical account of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend, Ron Goldman. If, you know, the murders happened to have been committed by, say, O.J. Simpson. Reportedly he would make a non-hypothetical $3.5 million for the book.

Why do I picture OJ pitching this idea using his best Jon Lovitz impression...

"I want to write a book about murdering my wife all those years ago. But it's, um, fictional. Yeah, that's right...A work of fiction. For I have always desired to be a renowned novelist. Yeah, a novelist, that's the ticket."

Seriously, though, I guess now that Johnny Cochran's dead, OJ's had to give up his day job...Murdering people and getting away with it...So he has to pursue some new avenues of income. Why not recount the crimes he famously got away with in grisly detail?

Among the highlights, gruesome, detailed, and say the “Enquirer” “realistic” description of the murders themselves. Simpson’s book, just another in a long literary tradition of books by people wrongly accused of killing someone they loved who’s speculating, in print, at length and graphic detail about how they would have brutally stabbed the person they loved, hypothetically.

The sad irony of the whole situation is that, even though OJ got away with murder, he's extremely famous for getting away with murder, which is still pretty unfortunate. Think about it this way...How many Americans, living amongst us in total anonymity right this moment, have gotten away with a murder in their lives? Considering the amount of unsolved murders going down in major Americna cities, it's probably a lot. Unless my theory is correct and they're all the work of one man...

So those people just kill someone and then get on with their lives. OJ, on the other hand, is the international poster boy for Wife Murdering.

It wouldn't necessarily have to be so bad, I guess, but I think OJ is playing it from the wrong angle. He's trying to do this coy have it both ways kind of thing, fuel the public's interest in his infamy and his murder case while keeping up this ridiculous "innocent" charade. He hsould go full-out, one way or the other. Either disappear from public view, spending the rest of your life in comfortable obscurity while pretending to search for your dead wife's "real killers" OR just embrace being the celebrity who killed his wife and her new boyfriend and then lied about it to everyone.

I mean, he knows he's guilty. We all know he's guilty. Why not just say so? Double jeopardy rules would prevent from being charged for the crime. I say, he should become America's first open advocate for wife murdering. He should head up the grassrootes Homicidal Ex-Spouse Movement. First, you write a book about how you murdered your wife and it changed your life in all manner of amazing and subtle ways. Second, you start appearing on talk shows to publicize said book, arguing that states should be allowed to repeal homicide laws as they apply to angry ex-spouses. Write a few op-eds. You never know...the idea might take off. I know an awful lot of angry ex-spouses, and I bet most people would figure they could take out their hated former wife or husband first should such a law ever actually pass.

See, in that scenario, OJ would just be able to write his book for real and not have to hide behind the "fiction" label like some Bizarro-World James Frey. What's funny about our bullshit culture is that people will act offended that OJ wrote a book about killing his wife, then they'll go out and buy copies by the pallet. These two things will happen within days of one another.

Slither & An American Haunting

With Halloween only a week away, the new horror releases are coming in fast. I'm doing my best to keep up, because I'm committed like that, but it's a constant struggle. What I'm saying is, I haven't bathed in 4 days...


The illustrious screenwriter of Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, James Gunn, got his start with Lloyd Kaufman's underground Troma company. The uninitiated aren't missing all that much; Troma specializes in the sort of schlocky Z-grade campfests that seemed shocking long ago, before mainstream studios regularly opened films like The Devil's Rejects and The Hills Have Eyes on 2,000 screens.

Gunn's major studio directorial debut, Slither sits halfway between these two worlds, marrying the perverse irony of Troma to an old standby Hollywood formula, the small-town-invaded-by-creepy-monsters-horror-comedy. All these years later, Gremlins remains the flagship of the genre, though admittedly it's weighted more to the comedy side of the equation.

Unlike Joe Dante's holiday classic, Slither is not entirely successful as either a horror film or a comedy. The make-up effects and monsters are more disgusting than scary and the jokes are rarely amusing.

Yet the movie kept my interest and proved significantly less predictable than most American horror films. On the small-town-horror-comedy-o-meter, I'd rank it a 6...Not as good as Tremors, but a lot better than Eight Legged Freaks. Around the same level as Arachnophobia, if that's any help to you.

Like I said...disgusting...The tiny unnamed hamlet at the center of Slither has been invaded by an alien species that reproduces like a disease. Thousands of tiny worms enter human hosts, bending them to the will of a single, conscious entity from outer space. Kind of like The Borg, but more gooey. Over the course of a few days, the alien wrecks total havoc on the town, replicating itself inside most of the cities' residents and chasing around the beautiful wife (Elizabeth Banks) of its initial victim (Michael Rooker).

Clearly inspired by David Cronenberg's bloody slug-based sex comedy Shivers and the Alien movies, Gunn's put a lot of thought into the monster's replication cycle. Local cop Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, of "Firefly" infamy) and his ragtag band of deputies and hangers-on stumble upon all manner of gruesome affronts to all that is holy. In the film's showcase sequence, they discover a woman stuffed to the size of a barn with baby alien worms, voraciously eating dead rodents in order to satisfy the millions of tiny lives within her massive gullet. It's just as gross as it sounds.

The make-up effects are really great, visceral and evocative. They give good ooze, is what I'm saying. Gunn adds in some nice little touches as well. It's clever how, after the initial scenes shwoing the spread of the infection, the movie transitions into a Romero-esque zombie film. And unlike the similar-in-appearance "shit weasels" from Dreamcatcher, these aliens mercifully prefer to enter hosts orally.

Just being creatively gross is enough to please the 15 year old demographic, the target audience for a killer worm from space movie. So, as far as Gunn's likely concerned, mission accomplished. Still, the movie has the right attitude and Gunn demonstrates the techinical acumen to turn in a better horror flick than this mediocre effort. It's just that the script isn't really funny and the characters suck.

The only person to make an impression at all is Gregg Henry as the town's boorish and cowardly mayor. Everyone else pretty much blends into the background. Plus, there's just not a single memorable line or big laugh in the entire film. It's frequently amusing but never inspired.

Now that Hollywood studios have completely given themselves over to producing this kind of cult cinema, there's a few principles they should keep in mind.

(1) People watching these movies don't even care about the illusion of a real story, so the 45 minutes or so of exposition that's standard in most horror movies can be trimmed considerably.

(2) If you're already releasing a gory, R-rated horror film, you might as well throw some tits in there. I mean, if Elizabeth Banks doesn't want to show off her body, that's fine, get some other actress in there in a smaller role who will. There are, like, three different "tease" scenes Gunn includes to toy with his male audience, threatening to show nudity (and even possibly getting a brief shot of a nipple in there somewhere) but never actually going through with it. Hey, genius, the movie's already R! Maybe they're just waiting for the DVD.

(3) The final after-the-credits shot that sets up your movie for a sequel is sooooo played.

An American Haunting

I've seen some ludicrous movies make use of the "based on true events" tag line before, but An American Haunting may be the most ludicrous. What begins as a 19th Century remake of Poltergeist takes a very strange turn in the Third Act, defying not just the film's internal logic but the entire Western mythology surrounding ghosts. I don't believe any movie in which the spirit world actively intervenes in human affairs could be considered based on reality, but the leap of faith required by An American Haunting would make Michael Landon hesitate.

I hate horror movies that open with bookends. In fact, scratch that, I hate movies with bookends. Scenes at the beginning and end in which secondary characters reflect on the film's main action are pretty much guaranteed to be drawn out and pointless. An American Haunting is no different. Some dumb broad walks in on her daughter having some kind of a mid-nightmare fit. She then finds some yellowed, old letter said daughter brought down from the attic. The entire movie is contained within this letter. This sequence stole five minutes of my life and I want them back.

Okay, so, the action described in this letter (which looks like it's only a page long but eats up 85 minutes of screen time) takes place in 1817 in Tennessee. (This must be the part that's sort of but not really at all based on a true story). John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is having a land dispute with an ornery old neighbor, rumored around town to be a witch. When she's displeased with the final court settlement, she places a curse on John and his willowy daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood).

Writer/director Courtney Solomon throws in just about every haunted house cliche ever invented. We get slamming doors and windows, nightly thunderstorms, little girl ghosts with hair covering their faces, eerie whispering, horrifying visions, possessed objects, shattered mirrors, extinguished candles, self-activating fireplaces. You name it, Solomon's attempted to make it scary once more.

This movie's a considerable improvement on Solomon's only previous film, the humiliating debacle that was Dungeons & Dragons. Thank God, at no time does Jeremy Irons appear and instruct the Bell children to fetch him the Rod of Power. Still, as a director, he's extremely klutzy and fairly amateurish.

He returns to the same completely retarded shot over and over again during all the film's "haunting" scenes. The camera woozily swoops around the room in what appears to be the Ghost's POV, catching goofy reaction shots from each character present at the time. Worse yet, he frequently switches between color and black-and-white photography, back and forth, in the middle of scenes. I honestly have no idea what possible impact Solomon thinks this kind of jarring, obnoxious stunt will have on the viewer. It's somewhat disorienting, but not in the kind of way that enhances the intensity or meaning of the shot. Just in the way that makes you stop and think to yourself, "Did that just switch to black-and-white and then back? Why the hell would he do that?")

I will say that the period is fairly well-evoked, considering the obvious budget constraints. Dungeons & Dragons just looked cheap, whereas American Haunting looks spare but authetnic. And the performances from Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek as his tormented wife are pretty strong, off-setting the rest of the film's occasionally campy enthusiasm.

But even if the film were less generic and more interesting, my enjoyment would still have been marred by that weird, impractical ending, which I will give away in the next paragraph.


The bothersome ghost turns out to be a portion of young Betsy's soul that escaped her body when she was raped by her father, John. I could see this making sense if Betsy were unconscious for the entire film. Her body's still alive but her soul is loose in the house, running amok and making trouble for her naughty father. But she's very much awake and self-aware and possessed of a soul. In fact, for most of the film, she's the one being tormented by the ghost, not her father.

So she's haunting herself? Her soul actually was divided in two without her noticing? The paranormal manifestations are actually the result of unconscious psychokinetic powers? I'm sorry but I just don't get how a living person can be a ghost.

And then when we go back to the bookmark, Betsy's ghost turns up again to warn a mother in our time that her daughter's likewise being felt up. Huh? So now Betsy's actually dead, but her ghost still looks like a little girl and haunts the same house, just in case some new resident unfortunately encounters a sexual predator? Weak...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Great Success!

This story has to be a plant, some smart viral marketing for the upcoming Borat movie:

The Kazakhstan central bank has misspelled the word “bank” on its new notes, officials said Wednesday.

The bank plans to put the misprinted notes — worth 2,000 tenge ($15) and 5,000-tenge — into circulation in November and then gradually withdraw them to correct the spelling.

Clearly, this is a conspiracy orchestrated by The Jew to embarrass and humiliate the proud people of Kazakhstan. (It is, after all, a banking error.)

The Break-Up & The King

I think The King actually came out a couple of weeks ago on DVD. I've been falling behind lately. Trying to get some writing done of my own and occasional random rentals (tonight I watched a Polish film called Siberian Lady Macbeth) have really cut into my blogging time.

Both of these movies were surprisingly good. I didn't expect to like The Break-Up because I generally find mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies nauseating in the extreme. And I really didn't expect to like The King because it's a direct-to-DVD thriller and that's generally a death sentence. (There was some hope...It doesn't star Tara Reid...But only a faint glimmer.)

The Break-Up

I usually dislike Vince Vaughn in the straight-man role. When he's unconstrained, allowed to roam around free inside an outrageous character, the guy can be brilliant. Movies like Old School, Made and Wedding Crashers aren't exactly world-class films, but they are smart enough to sit back and quietly let Vaughn do all the comedic heavy lifting. But when he's forced to take care of exposition, or worse yet when he's the emotional center of a story, Vaughn seems to get bored. His performance in Dodgeball couldn't be less lively or compelling. Rip Torn and Stephen Root get the laughs, so Vaughn just checks out and goes through the motions.

The Break-Up indicates that he may be getting better at sharing the spotlight. An atypical romantic comedy that actually takes its central relationship seriously, the film allows Vaughn to examine and invert his usual persona in some interesting ways. The movie's not particularly funny, and most of its actual observations about men and women feel ripped from the pages of Seventeen, but it's still far more sophisticated and watchable than dreck like Failure to Launch.

Ten years after his iconic turn in Swingers made him a movie star, Vaughn essentially updates his old role. Chicago tour guide Gary Grobowski has Trent's same hyperactive, aggressive charm and the same goofy, childish attitude, only in an older (and, yes, fatter) body. (They're even both video game fans!) It's easy for Gary to pick up Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) at a ballgame and talk her into going out with him. What's difficult is hanging on to a woman when you're a slovenly, narcissistic man-child.

Gary and Brooke host a dinner party, where Brooke's possibly gay brother (John Michael Higgins) forces everyone to join him in a chorus of Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart," and get into a heated argument. The scene sets the tone for the film's comic style right up-front; it's awkward and confrontational, deriving the sort of half-squirms/half-laughs you get from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "The Office." (Only not as funny as those shows.)

Brooke's upset because Gary forgot to buy enough lemons to make a nice centerpiece. Gary's upset because he feels like Brooke's always annoyed with him. Their feuding at first drives out their guests and eventually brings about the end of the affair.

Unfortunately, that's about as deep into the relationship as the film bothers to probe. Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender's script doesn't waste a lot of time getting to the titular argument, so we really never see these two together as a functioning romantic unit. We see them meet at the ballpark, we see some still photos of them enjoying the good times, and then we're right into the dissolution of their union. All we're left with are some extremely simplistic, universal truisms about male-female relationships. You know, dudes are archetypally associated with the mythology of one planet, chicks are archetypally associated with the mythology of a different, but nearby, planet. That sort of horseshit.

Though their whole argument boils down to a few simple compromises that could be easily discussed, there's only a movie if things get more complicated. Garelick and Lavender fill the margins of the story with supporting characters played by talented veteran performers, so it's not up to the straight-forward main storyline to carry the entire film. It's a strategy that works pretty well, the idea being that all of Gary's and Brooke's friends give them ridiculously wrong-headed advice for the film's first half and then correct themselves once the stakes are raised.

Vaughn's old co-star Jon Favreau gets almost all of the film's best lines as Gary's best friend and bartender Johnny O. The two are clearly improvising some of their scenes, including a really funny dialogue in which Johnny suggests they murder one of Brooke's new suitors. Vincent D'Onofrio and Cole Hauser likewise are exceptionally well-cast as his brothers and business partners. These scenes provide an interesting, alternative take on the same kind of material as Swingers, only with Vaughn now in the opposite role. (One scene, in which Hauser urges his brother to be more like "an outdoor cat" directly recalls Vaughn's "big bear" monologue from that earlier film.)

Seriously, half of Reed's success with this movie was in the casting. In addition to teaming all these great actors with Vaughn, he's given Aniston a few scenes with a hilarious Judy Davis. As a preening, Gloria Swanson-esque art diva who owns the gallery where Brooke works, she's too good for the rest of this movie. Woody Allen should write her a movie based around this character. (Lamentably, a few of these scenes also feature a horrible, embarrassing turn from Justin Long as a gay receptionist. There is no need for this stupid, half-baked character in the movie.)

The central conflict of the film, a Money Pit-inspired bit of business in which Gary and Brooke fued over their shared condo, never really goes anywhere. For a while, it seems like the movie's actually planning to extend that "I Love Lucy" episode where they draw a line through the living room out into a 90 minute feature, which would be considerably ill-advised. Instead, it actually focuses more on the relationship - whether Brooke will ever just ask Gary to change, and whether he'll be willing to follow through with it.

That's a rare and appreciated change from how Hollywood typically approaches these kinds of stories, but it would have been nice if the scenario were more meaty and dramatic. Gary and Brooke's problems are just so generic and uninteresting. Yes, he should listen to her more. Yes, she shouldn't nag him right away when he gets home from work. It's not these kinds of self-help generalizations that make a relationship compelling and realistic. It's the details that make these stories work, and Gary and Brooke's story has no details. They really don't even talk about the time they've spent together, as if all their emotions and memories about the past several months (or years?) evaporated when they decided they were no longer in love.

Vaughn and Aniston do have pretty good on-screen chemistry, though (regardless of how it worked out off-screen), and I liked that Reed didn't try to force the saccharine happy ending. Still, the movie's only okay. It's nice to see a mainstream date movie more mature than Hitch, but that's not exactly setting the bar high.

The King

I'm not 100% sure I understand why this movie is called "The King." It does deal in Biblical themes, and it's narrative constitutes something of a classical tragedy, but I can't figure out which character is actually meant to be said monarch. (Towards the end of the film, one guy puts on a fast food restaurant's paper crown, but the reference has got to run deeper than just that visual.)

Anyway, it doesn't really matter. This is a terrific fiction debut for British director James Marsh, a harrowing thriller reminiscent of the Gothic Americana of David Gordon Green. Behind what opens as a relatively simple story about a troubled young man searching for a place to belong, The King morphs into a truly troubling examination of faith, personal responsibility and trust.

Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves the Navy bound for Corpus Christi, Texas, to confront the father (William Hurt) he's never known. His father, David Sendow, turns out to be a Pastor with a wife (Laura Harring) and two children. He clearly favors his son Paul (Paul Dano), an aspiring Christian rocker who's getting ready to leave for Bible College.

Predictably, David wants nothing to do with Elvis. He's ashamed of fathering a child out of wedlock and frightened that his family will find out about his past sins from the time before he found Jesus. Elvis seems at first to take the news well. He moves into a local motel and gets a job delivering pizzas. But then he starts showing up at David's house, chatting up his daughter Malerie (Pell James) and eventually asking her out on a date. Is this part of some master plan to get back at the father who doesn't want him? Or is he merely acting on instinct, trying to get close to the only people in the world with whom he has an actual connection?

Though Marsh, working from a script he co-wrote with Milo Addica, builds to an suspenseful climax, The King focuses on the dramatic collision of these characters rather than ratcheting up the tension throughout. He adroitly keeps Elvis' motives and plans unspoken, providing the audience with information about his situation but not about his mindset. Generally, a director would withhold the revelation that two main characters are having an incestuous relationship until the final act.

Marsh, however, alerts us from the beginning that Elvis is related to David and also sexually attracted to David's daughter. He wants us to know that from the beginning, to disturb us even as we watch the sweetly romantic scenes of Elvis and Malerie's courtship, and to wonder what's going on in Elvis' head. The boy is clearly disturbed - obsessed with his rifle, aggressive, lonely - but he's not depicted as a hopeless case. Really, save for his occasional fits of rage and his diabolical, devious behavior towards the Sendows, he's a pleasant, friendly, easy-going guy. Once people get past his timid exterior, they tend to enjoy his company.

As Elvis' actions become more violent and erratic, the film gets tighter, uglier and more focused. Marsh takes his time during the initial hour, taking in the sparse, unpopulated areas around Corpus Christi, using the flat emptiness of the scenery to highlight Elvis' isolation. The grassy meadows and sunny swimming holes of the first half are replaced with an arid wasteland, where the evidence of Elvis' misdeeds begin to pile up. Marsh's collaborator from the culty avant-garde documentary Wisconsin Death Trip, Eigil Bryld, suffuses his cinematography with verdant green for a while before everything gets suddenly cold and muted. These guys clearly spent a lot of time considering the visual palatte of the film and it clearly shows.

Though it's occasionally unpleasant, what with all the violence and incest and eventual trauma, The King is pretty much one of the best movies I've seen all year. Hurt's great as Sendow, whose crisis of faith following Elvis' intrusion on his life may be the first time he has questioned himself since entering the Lord's Service. And Bernal gives another mysterious, subtle performance, balancing Elvis' earnest optimism and his extreme creepiness. It's too bad this is only coming out on DVD and didn't hit theaters. It probably would have looked good on a big screen

A Change in the Weather is Known to be Extreme...

In Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, a satire astute enough to wind up genuinely influencing our national political conversation, a Hollywood producer watches the President's latest campaign ad. The slogan "Why Change Horses in Mid-Stream" doesn't really work - it's folksy and isn't relatable to most people. Of course, it's also about the least inspiring, motivating message a politician could choose.

"Everything's going so well! Let's not alter our course in any way, shape or form!"

Even if that were true, it wouldn't really motivate potential supporters. "Come join me! We'll keep things just as they are!"

That's why it's so surprising to me that Republicans have essentially been running on precisely this message. Via Americablog comes this NYT article, which confirms what anyone paying attention would have already concluded - the Rethugs 2006 campaign has completely derailed. This "stay the course" strategy is retarded and, clueless though Americans may be, even the Red Staters can see through this one. I mean, "a secret plan to end the Iraq War"? Hey, Conrad Burns...I know Richard Nixon, I've seen him portrayed byDan Hedaya, Phillip Baker Hall and Sir Tony Hopkins...and you, sir, are no Dick Nixon.

With three weeks until Election Day, Republican candidates are barely mentioning Iraq on the campaign trail and in their television advertisements.

Even President Bush, continuing to attack Democrats for opposing the war, has largely dropped his call of “stay the course” and replaced it with a more nuanced promise of flexibility.

It is the Democrats who have seized on Iraq as a central issue. In debates and in speeches, candidates are pummeling Republicans with accusations of a failed war.

I'm still not as optimistic about our prospects in November than most of the writers on the lefty blogosphere. I'm old enough to remember 1994, with Newt's ridiculous "Contract With America" and all that garbage, when this Christo-Crypto-Fascist regime first tasted real power. 12 years of this Nationalist Nightmare has left him pretty jaded. I'd still wager on a fradulent elections enabled by a corporate media followed by 2 more years of violence, torture, constant surveillance, secret prisons, kangaroo courts, illegal invasions and massive corruption.

Still, I'm encouraged that Americans have not totally lost their ability to think clearly. For a while there, it seemed like the nefarious influence of mass media propaganda had succeeded in the Dumbing Down of our nation, had robbed us of our collective sanity. I still think this is coming, but if Americans are still capable of rejecting this "stay the course" message being rammed down their throats non-stop...well, maybe there's some hope yet.

The development also suggests that what has been a classic strategy of Mr. Bush’s senior adviser, Karl Rove — to turn a weakness into a strength — is not working as well as the White House had hoped.

“As the Iraq war gets more unpopular, the environment for Republican candidates erodes,” said Mark Campbell, a Republican strategist who represents several Congressional candidates, including Representative Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, who is fighting for re-election in one of the toughest races.

“Only in an election year this complicated can Republicans be happy that Mark Foley knocked the Iraq war off the front page,” Mr. Campbell said.

A senior strategist familiar with Republican polling who insisted on anonymity to share internal data said that as of midsummer it was clear that “stay the course” was a self-defeating argument.

I mean...yeah...obviously...If polls are telling you that the majority of Americans are eager to get out of this war, why would you spend millions of dollars telling them to "stay the course"? I mean, as stupid as I find Conrad Burns' suggestion that Bush and Republicans have a super-secret plan to end the war, at least I can understand why he'd say that. He knows Americans are sick of the war, so he's telling them that he'll end it and his plan will work better than the Democrats'.

Now, of course, it's dishonest - he has no plan and that's why the crowd laughed at him. He's probably one of those Representatives who doesn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. But it was at least a strategic lie. Karl Rove, The President and their minions telling people that the we'll eventually have victory if we "stay the course" isn't going to make anyone feel better about anything. To me, going against popular opinion in that way, in such a patronizing way, feels like political suicide.

Could it be that the President seems so unconcerned about this election, and the Republican strategy has been so lax, because they don't mind losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats? I know that seems counter-intuitive, because why would they want Democrats to have subpeona power? But they would then have a chance to try and blame all of the coming failures on the opposite team.

You know that's what will happen regardless if the Democrats take one or both houses of Congress. "When we were running things, everythign was still going fine. But now that we have to share power with these liberals, things are worse than ever!" If Republicans remain in charge, they'll continue to take all the blame for all the horrible things they have done.

Just a theory. (Not my theory...I've read several commentators suggesting this possibility over the last few days.) We'll see what happens in November.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

She's Leaving Home

It's too bad this post isn't about John Lennon hitting his wife. His songs tend to be more violent, so they lend themselves more easily to punny spousal abuse-themed headlines.

So I went with the more straight-ahead lyrical adaptation. Here's the Daily Mail:

Sir Paul McCartney has hit back at the claims made by his estranged wife Heather Mills that he repeatedly attacked her.

"Hit back at the claims." You've got the love the British press. So cruel and smarmy. They're like a blog with slightly better circulation. I also dig their nickname for Sir Paul: Macca. That actually makes him sound kind of cool, when we all know that PMC hasn't actually been cool since the late '60s. (And even then...only in a roundabout way.) The Brits are typically better at the nickname thing than us Yanks. We're repeatedly referring to one of our most famous and beloved couples as "Brangelina."

In a statement issued by his lawyers, the Beatles pop star said: "Since the breakdown of his marriage Sir Paul McCartney has maintained his silence in not commenting on the media stories believing that it was best for all concerned, particularly his children, for there to be some dignity in what is a private matter..."

The statement continues vaguely blathering in this manner, insisting on Sir Paul's innocence but not responding to any specific charges. Honestly, I remember hearing something about Paul hitting his ex-wife Heather Mills before, but the story kind of disappeared quickly from the public radar. Here's what she's claiming about their marriage:

In an extraordinary escalation of their dispute, Miss Mills claims in the documents that the ex-Beatle:

- Subjected her to four violent attacks, including one in which he stabbed her in the arm with a broken wine glass.

- Continued to use illegal drugs and drink excessively, despite promises made before they married.

In all fairness, lady, you married an ex-Beatle. Those guys pretty much invented drug abuse. (Interesting trivia: Though Paul was the last Beatle to actually try LSD, he was the first one of them to brag about it to the press.) This'd be like Kate Moss divorcing Pete Doherty because he turned out to be a junkie.

- Hurled abuse at his wife, calling her an 'ungrateful bitch'.

Well, she was hogging that remote...

- Tried to prevent her breastfeeding, saying: 'They are my breasts.'

Maybe I'm a bastard for laughing at this article. If all these things are true of Sir Paul, he's a horrible douchetard, don't get me wrong. But trying to stop his wife from nursing their child because he feels jealous of the infant's access to her hot cans? Those are Jonah Goldberg-ian levels of insecurity.

Hearing anecdotes like this cause me to despair for the future. I mean, if PAUL MCCARTNEY, one of the wealthiest and most iconic rock stars of all time, winds up a pathetic old man who smacks around and degrades his wife to feel big, who gets jealous of his baby's breastfeeding, what shot do the rest of us have for happiness in our later years? He'd be better off if he had secretly died circa "Strawberrry Fields Forever

." I mean, it's not enough that the guy's voice and songwriting ability have to degrade over time, leaving him to croak out that despicable "Freedom" abomination in a duet with Pink or whoever during that Superbowl Halftime Show. Now he's got to become some violent, petty drunk?

- Made her cancel a crucial operation because it interfered with his holiday plans.

Has Heather Mills considered that her husband was simply having a wonderful Christmastime?

- Objected 'vociferously' when she asked to buy an antique bedpan to save her crawling to the toilet at night.

Dude, she has one leg! What a bastard!

That last one kind of has to be true. Who could even think something randomly horrible like that up?

The papers allege that Sir Paul humiliated his wife, or ignored her needs. After the birth of their daughter Beatrice in 2003, he forced his exhausted wife to 'accompany him everywhere' still with no regard to her physical or disability needs, they claim.

In April 2006, it is claimed, Miss Mills - who lost a leg in a road accident in 1993 - was forced to crawl on her hands and knees up the steps of a plane because they were not wide enough for her wheelchair and Sir Paul had not made other arrangements.

Sir Paul allegedly told his wife during her pregnancy she should not breastfeed because 'they are my breasts'. He is alleged to have told her: 'I don't want a mouthful of breastmilk.'

She breastfed for six weeks, but gave up because Sir Paul would constantly interrupt her during feeds which left her 'miserable and demoralised', the papers say.

Gross. What a freak. If the allegations are true, of course. If they're not true, I think Heather Mills should definitely start writing for "Law and Order: SVU." She has a rare gift.

The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry's latest somnambulist dramedy, The Science of Sleep, focuses on a bored, frustrated manchild named Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) who prefers dreams to reality. It's not very hard to understand why.

By day, he's a lonely, awkward social pariah. Newly arrived in France to stay with his mother following the loss of his father in Mexico, Stéphane finds himself working a tedious job at a calendar company and living alone in a cramped loft. He's shy, particularly about speaking French, and also highly eccentric.

Prone to rants, fits of sudden irrationality and even anger, Stéphane finds it hard to relate to those around him. He meets his new neighbor, the adorable and withdrawn Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and likes her immediately, but can't even bring himself to admit that he lives next door. (For a while, he maintains a ridiculous charade of pretending to live 20 minutes away, leaving his apartment and then stomping back up the stairs to announce his impending arrival.) So forget about trying to get a date or telling her she's attractive.

Stéphane hasn't really made a go of life in the real world. He's just too timid, too unconventional and too terrified of rejection.

But he's an excellent dreamer. So excellent and imaginative, in fact, that he becomes unstuck in his own consciousness. The line between reality and dreams begins to blur, causing some measure of embarrassment but also a healthy dose of emotional anguish. Like a schizophrenic (or "schizometric," in Stéphane's parlance), he gets confused when his life doesn't conform to his fantasies and frustrated when he can't act on his desires.

Rather than making a case for the infinite powers of imagination, as have so many other filmmakers before him, Gondry argues that our dreams provide us with an escape from our mundane lives and an outlet for our suppressed urges. Unfortunately, no amount of sleeping can substitute for the hard work of actually living.

It's an interesting, challenging film and it's full of terrific effects sequences blending live footage with stop-motion animation. But Science of Sleep pales in comparison to Gondry's previous effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry seems adrift without screenwriter Charles Kaufman providing an intricate, dense and provocative structure on which to hang his designs, fantasies and set pieces.

Bernal is really terrific as Stéphane, commanding the audience's interest while remaining quiet and reserved. For any actor to maintain the viewer's attention among all the animation and effects on display here would be a significant achievement. Still, I never found the character sympathetic. Like a slightly more insane, male version of Amelié, Stéphane's a whimsical creation. He's literally the ultimate dreamer, distracted by his fantasies and inventions, desperate to remake the world to fit the contours of his brain. Yet his boyish naivete and even stupidity grow tiresome quickly. We understand why Stéphane would fall in love for his cute, spunky new neighbor, but we're not quite sure if she would actually want to be around him for more than a few minutes at a time.

Stéphane's problems begin in earnest during a routine bath. He has a strange dream in which he composes a confessional letter to Stéphanie using a spider-typewriter. When he wakes up, Stéphane's horrified to discover that he has actually written the letter and slipped it under Stéphanie's door while sleeping. It's the first time out of many that his dreamlife will intrude upon his budding romance.

These mix-ups between Stéphane's life and imagination provide the film with its few genuinely funny moments. In one terrifically-edited seqeunce, Stéphane's dancing around at an imaginary office party wearing a silly animal costume. He opens the door and suddenly, he's in the real world, face to face with his comely neighbor. It takes both the character and the audience a brief moment to adjust from the trippy Bjork video vibe of the dream sequence to the mundaneness of the following shot.

Gondry fills the dream sequences with baroque, surreal detail. Stéphane wanders through stop-motion animated cityscapes in which macrame birds swoop between fluttering cardboard buildings. He can jump out of a window and begin swimming through the sky. He can also get revenge on the boss (Pierre Vaneck) who doesn't respect his paintings, fuck the fetching nerd from his office (Aurélia Petit) and finally tell his mother (Miou-Miou) how he really feels about her. Such is the power and the freedom of the dream world.

To highlight the difference between Stéphane's mind and his environment, Gondry films the dreams in wide-angles and the real world in tight, claustrophobic close-up. We see Stéphane arriving at his new home in the back of a taxi, and as he makes his way to the front door, Gondry's camera remains behind in the car. Once he gets to the door, the camera moves inside the building, peering out at Stéphane through a hole in the lattice. Is he being constantly scrutinzed by people on the street or is that just how he feels?

Compare this to Stéphane's dreams, which always begin in the same mock TV studio. Two shutters fill in for his eyelids, and Stéphane's ego can look on to the real world and comment on the action from a safe distance. Asleep, he's transformed into the watcher, removing his fear and anxiety and allowing his true, uninhibited self to emerge. (Bernal appropriately becomes more talkative and bellicose in the dream scenes).

Of course, this is why he can only relate to the imaginary version of Stéphanie he meets in his dreams. In reality, she judges him. She gets scared when he lashes out or becomes forgetful. She dances seductively with other men and refuses his sexual advances. Only when he's asleep is he in control.

It's a bit creepy, really, and it's to Gondry's credit that he doesn't soften Stéphane's sharper edges to make him more heroic. But all the same, it's hard to relate to this guy, who could solve so many of his problems just by taking a few deep breaths and accepting life at face value. I think Gondry's a bit too easy on Stéphane when all is said and done. Stéphanie suggests that he should "toughen up," and not let girls see him cry, and his free-spirited, bohemian friend Guy (Alain Chabat) recommends that he focus his energy on getting laid, but it's clear that Gondry finds his hero perfect just the way he is, peculiarities and all.

To be honest, over the course of a 2 hour movie spent entirely in Stéphane's head, I got pretty sick of him. His incessant whining, his inability to accept the blatantly obvious, his "adorable" malapropisms - it's just all a bit precious. Whimsy's not easy, and Science of Sleep occasionally pushes the Twee Factor too forcefully.

In addition to painting, Stéphane's also fashioned some "remarkable" inventions. He's particularly proud of his time machine, that can propel the user backwards or forwards in time for one second, but also boasts about 3D glasses that can render the real world in 3D.

"Isn't the whole world already in 3D?," asks Stéphanie.

"Not really," replies Stéphane.

"Dude, yes, it totally fucking is, what the hell are you talking about?" I thought during this scene. I really wanted to believe, I really did, but real-world 3D glasses aren't creative or artsy or evidence of a childlike sense of wonder. They're just retarded.

White Hunter, Black Heart

Now that I have Sirius radio in my room, I will occasionally flip on one of the wingnut channels, just to hear what liberal homo agenda propaganda has them foaming at the mouth and screaming senseless invective today.

But I still can't bring myself to listen to Rush Limbaugh. His show's completely intolerable. If I wanted to hear several hours of angry racially-motivated invective, I could just tell the video store customers we weren't going to carry any more Asian porn. I don't need to hear that shit on the radio. Seriously, now that everyone knows he's a hypocritical drug addict, I would expect them to stop listening to his show every day. I mean, look at Don Imus!

Wait, what? Imus is still on the radio? No way. He's certifiably insane. Have you seen him in that dippy cowboy hat? You know, Don, even professional cowboys take their hats off when inside, you fucking crotchety old douchebag. There's no way he's still being broadcast. MSNBC must be setting him up in a fake studio for a few hours a day to humor him.

So, anyway, I didn't hear Rush's show this morning, which featured Vice President Richard Milhouse Cheney defending his excellent Middle Eastern adventure. (I'm dreading the inevitable sequel - George and Dick's bogus Iraq journey.) Here's a segment, dutifully transcribed at Think Progress. The italics are mine:

CHENEY: Well, I think there’s some natural level of concern out there because in fact, you know, it wasn’t over instantaneously. It’s been a little over three years now since we went into Iraq, so I don’t think it’s surprising that people are concerned.

On the other hand, this government has only been in office about five months, five or six months now. They’re off to a good start. It is difficult, no question about it, but we’ve now got over 300,000 Iraqis trained and equipped as part of their security forces. They’ve had three national elections with higher turnout than we have here in the United States. If you look at the general overall situation, they’re doing remarkably well.

It’s still very, very difficult, very tough. Nobody should underestimate the extent to which we’re engaged there with this sort of, at present, the “major front” of the war on terror. That’s what Osama bin Laden says, and he’s right.



Yes, yes, nothing more to see here, folks. Move along. Everything in Iraq is quite ripping, actually. Jolly good fun. Nudge nudge snap snap grin grin wink wink say no more.

Nothing at all about the Iraq situation is going remarkably well, Dick. Nothing.

Okay, maybe that's not true. The situation in Iraq is going remarkably well IF:

- you're speaking exclusively in terms of KBR/Halliburton profits
- you're the owner and proprieter of Baghdad's premiere mortuary supplies retailer, Krazy Khalid's World of Coffins
- you are a horny virgin in Paradise eagerly waiting for the arrival of some handsome Iraqi martyr
- you are an Executive VP in Osama bin Laden's crack Marketing Department
- you've just hired screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh to pen your new 4 hour ABC-TV mini-series, The Path to Iraq, implying that President Clinton's penis detached itself from his body by night, helicoptered over to Iraq and started passing nuclear secrets and dirty bombs to Saddam Hussein
- you are a sick, evil fuck

Interestingly, all of these scenarios apply to Vice President Cheney. (Bet you didn't know he was a virgin...Turns out, he's always had a weak heart, rendering him incapable of physically pleasing a woman. Hence the 5 Vietnam deferments. It's not just because he's a withered, old man who will hopefully die soon. Plus, he's married to Lynne Cheney. I mean, what would you do?)

I mean, just listen to this asshole!

"I think there’s some natural level of concern out there because in fact, you know, it wasn’t over instantaneously."

Instantaneously?!??!? INSTANTANEOUSLY! We entered Iraq in mid-2003! That's over three years ago! Think Progress points out that this is about as long as our involvement in WWII. But I don't think you need to go to a reference that far in the past to recognize the enormous length and unthinkable cost of America's invasion of Iraq. 2006's high school graduates were 15 when the Iraq War began. The youngest soldiers who went over there in that first wave are now 21.

It's been a long time. For Iraqis, it has been 3 years of unceasing tragedy, death, sorrow and trauma. Recent estimates peg the Iraqi casualties at a grotesque 655,000, a mini-Holocaust. even if it's 1/6 of that number, it's to the eternal shame of our nation. It will be centuries before their nation can have a chance of overcoming such a period of destruction.

And this fucking disgusting pig of a world leader goes on another disgusting pig's radio program and squeals about how everything's peaches and blowjobs and golden fucking unicorns made of cotton candy in Iraq. About how some of the more timid Americans are balking because we didn't have complete victory right away, but it's only because they're cut and run defeatists who totally want to raise your taxes and let the brown people stay. Dick Cheney has got to be one of the most vile human beings on the planet. He's like Himmler, only doughier.

There's significance to Dick's showing his face in public today of all days. As you may be aware, today George Bush officially relieved himself on our Constitution by signing into law the Smoke Abdul's Ass Act of 2006. (It's also known as the Military Commissions Act.)

Civil libertarians and leading Democrats decried the law as a violation of American values. The
American Civil Liberties Union said it was "one of the worst civil liberties measures ever enacted in American history." Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said, "We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation's history."

"It allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court," Feingold said. "And the new law would permit an individual to be convicted on the basis of coerced testimony and even allow someone convicted under these rules to be put to death."

Hey, if the Founding Fathers didn't want George Bush to torture people, they would have written that explicity in the Constitution in the first place.

"Article XXXV: Should some obtuse fart-catcher named George W. Bush ever rise to the office of the Presidency, his tormenting of the Exotic Arabique with extremeties of temperature, threatening palaver or gross acts of sexual deviancy shall be grounds for removal from office, regardless of vocal, sycophantic support provided by the Congress."

And cause I don't see that anywhere in there, the ACLU should just shut up.

The swift implementation of the law is a rare bit of good news for Bush as casualties mount in Iraq in daily violence. Lawmakers are increasingly calling for a change of strategy, and political anxieties are jeopardizing Republican chances of hanging onto control of Congress.

Bush has been criticizing Democrats who voted against the law, called the Military Commissions Act of 2006, during campaign appearances around the country. He has suggested that votes against the law show that Democrats would not protect the country from another terrorist attack.

Republican House leaders, in a tough battle to maintain their majority, echoed those criticisms Tuesday in an attempt to get some political points out of the legislation they supported. "The Democratic plan would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans' lives," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.

Yeah, Democrats want to pamper the terrorists. Right. That's a fair way to characterize our opposition to interrogations like this:

His tiny cell -- nine feet by seven feet -- had no view to the outside world. The door to his cell had a window, however, it was covered by a magnetic sticker, depriving Mr. Padilla of even a view into the hallway and adjacent common areas of his unit. He was not given a clock or a watch and for most of the time of his captivity, he was unaware whether it was day or night, or what time of year or day it was.

In addition to his extreme isolation, Mr. Padilla was also viciously deprived of sleep. This sleep deprivation was achieved in a variety of ways. For a substantial period of his captivity, Mr. Padilla's cell contained only a steel bunk with no mattress. The pain and discomfort of sleeping on a cold, steel bunk made it impossible for him to sleep. Mr. Padilla was not given a mattress until the tail end of his captivity. Mr. Padilla's captors did not solely rely on the inhumane conditions of his living arrangements to deprive him of regular sleep. A number of ruses were employed to keep Mr. Padilla from getting necessary sleep and rest. One of the tactics his captors employed was the creation of loud noises near and around his cell to interrupt any rest Mr. Padilla could manage on his steel bunk. As Mr. Padilla was attempting to sleep, the cell doors adjacent to his cell would be electronically opened, resulting in a loud clank, only to be immediately slammed shut. Other times, his captors would bang the walls and cell bars creating loud startling noises. These disruptions would occur throughout the night and cease only in the morning, when Mr. Padilla's interrogations would begin.

Not that it matters much when discussing the morality of torture, but we're talking about the treatment of a U.S. citizen here. Jose Padilla, from Puerto Rico. Regardless of his guilt or innocence of any crime, Padilla's case proves that coming from America is no guard against being subjected to this sort of cruel depravity.

Mr. Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest, and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long durations of time. He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios, and documents to further disorient him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake, and otherwise assault Mr. Padilla. Additionally, Mr. Padilla was given drugs against his will, believed to be some form of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or phencyclidine (PCP), to act as a sort of truth serum during his interrogations.

Sick. This is our country now, I guess. Still kind of hard for me to believe.

At least we still have National Character Counts Week! From...sigh...The White House web site.

America's strength is found in the spirit and character of our people. During National Character Counts Week, we renew our commitment to instilling values in our young people and to encouraging all Americans to remember the importance of good character.

And what better way to celebrate the importance of building good character in our young people than signing legislation allowing me to spirit them or their loved ones away in the night, totally on a personal whim, subjecting them to several years of torture and interrogation with absolutely no oversight from our justice system or another branch of our government?

Countless individuals throughout our country demonstrate character by volunteering their time and energy to help neighbors in need. The men and women of our Armed Forces set an example of character by bravely putting the security of our Nation before their own lives. We also see character in the family members, teachers, coaches, and other dedicated individuals whose hearts are invested in the future of our children.

Yeah, just like "Coach" Denny Hastert, who sets an example for all Americans when he covers up his friend's pernicious and ongoing attempts to lure teenagers into bed and then blames it all on his staff and political enemies.

I mean, a week dedicated to celebrating the importance of "character"? These guys aren't even trying any more. This is some of the most weak-ass, pathetic propaganda I have ever seen. It might as well have been National Balloons are Fun Week. Or National Apathy Week, when we all remember the importance of shutting up, maintaining the status quo, keeping our head down, not making waves and allowing sleeping dogs to lie.

"You know, millions of Americans look the other way while all manners of atrocities are committed in their name, and I wanted to set aside a special week out of the year to honor their spirit of laziness and their lack of concern for every living being on this planet that is not them. That's why I, George W. Bush, Preznodent of these 54 United States, hereby declare this week to be National Apathy Week.

"I encourage communities and teachers to honor Apathy Week with special ceremonies and remembrances. Why not take your class to a Natural History Museum and caution them to ignore any learning that might interfere with their rigid, pre-determined worldviews? Or write your Congressman encouraging him not to vote unless it's to send pork back to his home state? Or stage a pro-Rumsfeld March in front of your town's Veterans of Obscure Wars social club?

"No matter how we choose to celebrate National Apathy Week, I hope it provides all Americans with a chance to reflect on how they've done nothing and ignored their government's malfeasance before, and ways they can remain even more ignorant in the months and years ahead."

Monday, October 16, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

UPDATE: I saw Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan at the beginning of this year at a focus group screening. The film, then simply titled Borat, seemed finished at the time and it was truly hilarious. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I had no idea then the kind of marketing push Borat was going to receive throughout the year. Cohen has been everywhere promoting it, and the character is far more visible to the general public now than when I first saw the movie. I'm anxious to see what mass audiences will think of Cohen's outrageous antics.

David Poland has already suggested that he should be nominated for Best Actor, and it's certainly an immersive performance. The problem is, Borat's not realistic. He's very funny, but more a collection of silly, small-minded cliches about Eastern European barbarism than a three-dimensional character. What makes the film kind of disturbing as well as funny is that the Americans he meets on his travels are so willing to believe in such an egregious "foreign guy" stereotype, and tend to agree with his ludicrous, comical ideas about the world. Radar Online this week called it "a tragic comedy," which feels appropriate.

Anyway, here's the review, originally published on February 2nd of this year.

When you get right down to it, there's nothing all that original about Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick. He gets into an outlandish character, goes out on the street and films improvised "bits" in which he messes with ordinary people. Everyone from Tom Green to the Upright Citizens Brigade to the dudes from "Jackass" have done this routine before, with a variety of results. What's innovative is not the man's concept but his intuitive sense for the Mind of the Simpleton.

Cohen understands stupid people. He knows how to relate to idiots on their level, how to keep morons talking long enough to tease out the misguided core beliefs they usually keep to themselves. And he seems to know exactly how far he can push the gullible before they'll finally catch on to the joke. It's this mastery of interpersonal communication and brilliant improvisational skill that elevates Cohen's material from the level of funny, if sophomoric, pranks and into what can only be considered a kind of performance art.

Cohen's new film, Borat, in which he portrays a clueless Kazakh making a documentary to send home about America, finds the comedian at the top of his game. His cross-country trek from New York to Los Angeles, inspired by the vision of Pamela Anderson starring as C.J. on "Baywatch," contains as much insight into the American character as anything Ken Burns has yet produced. And it's a lot more funny than listening to Keith David tell you about the origins of the Designated Hitter Rule.

I was among the first to see Borat, at an advanced screening tonight in Marina del Rey, and the reaction was highly positive. It might be early to start declaring Best Films of 2006, but Borat will absolutely rank with the most amusing. (UPDATE #2: It's absolutely still the best film I have seen all year.)

Borat mixes a few scenes of scripted material, telling the story of Borat's trip to America to make a documentary, with actual footage of Cohen screwing with Americans. The plot is unimportant...Borat and his producer Azamat (there is no IMDB listing yet, so I don't know the actor's name, but he's great Kenneth Davitian) initially mean to film for a few weeks in New York. But after Borat sees an episode of "Baywatch" in his hotel room, he decides he must travel across the coutnry to Los Angeles to make the series' beautiful star, Pamela Anderson, his wife.

The result is a lot like a 90 minute Borat segment from HBO's "Da Ali G Show." Some of the highlights include an exclusive dinner party in which Borat learns proper bathroom etiquette, a road trip in an RV with some drunken frat boy assholes, Borat nearly starting a riot after singing a mutilated version of the National Anthem at a rodeo and a lovely stay at a Bed & Breakfast run by an elderly Jewish couple.

As on the show, Cohen uses Borat mainly to demonstrate the condescending attitudes and the intolerance that have come to define America for so many people from other nations. The comedy is often based around making his victims feel awkward and uncomfortable, but the joke is not so much the pure shock value of Borat's outrageous behavior as it is the hypocracy, xenophobia, paranoia and blind ignorance that his behavior sparks in others.

That's not to say the film is not occasionally shocking, outrageous and over-the-top. Thus far, it's unrated, but the cut I saw tonight could only receive an R rating, if not a full-blown NC-17.

UPDATE #3: The film will be R-rated. One bit that I saw within the film, Borat starring in a pornographic film, has appeared on the Internet as a "deleted scene," so I assume some of the more offensive material and explicit nudity has most likely been removed. It will probably all be back on the DVD).

Borat's worldview is highly sexualized. He's not above, for example, suggesting that a young man lure a small mammal into his penis hole using a piece of cheese or inviting a news anchor on the air to come to Kazahkstan and make love to his prostitute sister.

Director Larry Charles (who was brought in at the production's halfway point to replace Todd Phillips, who cowardly walked off the project) has done a pretty decent job of tying together all the various real-world bits into the semblance of a story. The film feels organized and well-paced even though it's really just a collection of independent pranks and set pieces that hang together only by the common presence of Borat. (Most of the actual tying-together is done in simple voice-over that's rarely funny but mercifully brief).

Borat:CLAMBGNK is a major improvement from Cohen's last attempt to bring a character to the big screen, the slack Ali G Indahouse. That film tried to turn Cohen's dopey interviewer Ali G into a fictional leading man, and the result was disasterous. This film understands that Borat works as a vehicle for getting hilarious interviews and applies his abilities accordingly. Some of the brief fictional sequences are funny, because of the hapless likability of the Borat character and Cohen's skills as a comedian, but they pale in comparison to the confrontational documentary-style footage. I'll be seeing it again, probably more than once, after it finally comes to theaters on November 3rd.

Two of the Most Irritating Films Ever Made

By sheer coincidence, this week I have watched two of the worst films ever made. And they're similarly themed! I'd go so far as to say that The Magus and Revolver are bad in precisely the same way. They are imitation puzzle movies: hollow, meaningless exercizes pretending to slowly reveal secrets and deep, resonant truths.

Watching them moves beyond mere boredom and frustration and into an entirely new realm of cinematic ennui. You feel the simultaneous urge to shut the film off and to watch it 20 more times, absorbing every last turgid allusion and awkward visual metaphor. It's how I'd imagine fundamentalist evangelical Christian males feel about hardcore gay pornography. Repulsed at first, then darkly compelled, then horrified by their own curiosity.

The Magus

When asked what he'd change about his life if he could go back in time, Woody Allen replied that he'd do everything exactly the same "except for watching The Magus." That was a few years ago. I'm sure he could come up with a few additional regrets at this point. Curse of the Jade Scorpion comes immediately to mind.

But still, his point is well-taken. I can't speak for John Fowles' novel, which I have not read, but Guy Green's 1968 movie adaptation is clearly one of the most bafflingly terrible movies I have ever seen.

Michael Caine, a great actor who has appeared in a startling amount of Shit Cinema, stars as ladykiller Nicholas Urfe. He flees England to get out of a stale relationship with a world-weary flight attendant named Anna (Anna Karina), taking a job teaching English on a small Greek island. Wandering away from the schoolyard one afternoon, he finds his way to an isolated villa. There he meets the mysterious Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn), who speaks entirely in riddles and hypothetical questions. He's like a mincing, overweight Mediterranean Batman villain. (Zorba the Sneak! Count Olympus!)

His name is pronounced "conscious," by the way, in case you didn't realize that BIG IMPORTANT THEMES were being discussed.

Conchis makes up a ridiculous story about leaving England in shame during WWI, losing the heart of Lili (Candice Bergen), the only girl he would ever love. Though Conchis insists that Lili died in the Great War, Urfe starts seeing her wandering around the villa. How is this possible?

Urfe continues teaching and spends a long, romantic weekend repairing his relationship with the moody and unpredictable Anna, but he keeps returning to Conchis' villa. The film suggests that he's fallen in love with Lili (strange, considering she's either a mental patient or a ghost), but also that he's simply intrigued by the mystery surrounding his gregarious but shifty host.

It's not very convincing. I mean, would this guy really want to spend all his free time playing mind games with a bunch of fucking lunatics? Seriously, Anthony Quinn doesn't have a single sensical line of dialogue in the entire film. He never provides a single straight answer, until it becomes unclear why Nicholas would bother talking to him at all. Just ignore the doddering old man who thinks he's the bastard son of Socrates and Alex Trebek!

Nicholas could ask him his favorite flavor of ice cream and get a 10 minute monologue about the episotomology of identity in response. It would be like conversing with a Stephen Hawking book-on-tape. Yet the idealistic young teacher continually returns, even sacrificing some of his personal commitments and priorities just to go hang out in Wonderland. We must accept that he enjoys taking part in this nonsensical pageant for the movie to keep going. (In this way, it's not unlike Sleuth, another film in which an easygoing Caine character essentially humors a wacky older nutjob).

Most annoyingly, Conchis continually suggests alternative explanations for the strange goings-on at the villa, none of which seem remotely logical. Urfe always accepts these bizarre, stupid explanations without question, which makes his entire quest of discovery seem kind of pointless and haphazard. If he's willing to believe that Conchis is a therpist who's treating the schizophrenic Lili, or that Conchis is actually a shaman performing an ancient, mystic ritual on this island, then that means any explanation could be provided and confirmed.

As if being ponderous and self-satisfied weren't enough to satisfy Green's sadism, he's also made a film that's exceptionally cheesy and artificial, even by late '60s standards. Urfe has frequent visions (or are they?) of ancient gods, most of which look like burly Greek guys in store-bought costumes. Generally the outfits resemble Greek gods, but there's some random Egyptian-looking ones as well. Nice touch!

The frequent flashbacks serve no purpose other than to delay a film that's already excessively long and dull. The tastefully erotic sequences with Nicholas and Anna leaping through the Greek countryside, making love in the tall grass down by the river, reminded me of George Lucas' harlequin romance digressions from Episode II. I don't mean that in a good way.

Plus, I think Caine was wearing eyeshadow in some of these scenes. I'm sure that it's a whole brilliant metaphorical comment on some bullshit or another like everything else in this film that's laugh-out-loud ridiculous or jarring. Just thought I'd mention it because it makes the romantic scenes even more ludicrous and funny than they might be otherwise.


Guy Ritchie must want to get out of the entertainment business. Maybe he's pulling some Max Bialystock-inspired scam requiring that his films make no money and insult the intelligence of all audience members. I'm grasping for some rationale, any rationale, for the one-two punch of Swept Away and now Revolver short of syphillitic dementia. (Hey, he is sleeping with Madonna every night.)

I don't think Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch are towering cinematic achievements or anything, but they are clever, fun entertainments that I enjoy wholeheartedly. I've watched Lock Stock at least 5 or 6 times the whole way through, and have found new little things to enjoy each time.

How could he go from those smart little crime comedies to this reductive, bloated disaster in a few short years? I've read some reviews suggesting that his better half has been seducing him into that Kabballah BS and that's why the movie's so chock full of New Age-isms and bogus symbology. I don't have the answer to that question, but regardless of the cause, Revolver is really something to behold. A runaway cinematic trainwreck like this comes along maybe once a decade. I've heard rumors that Kim Jong-Il has in his possession all the necessary materials to create three pirated DVD copies of Revolver, and we in the Free World must do everything we can to keep such a powerful weapon out of the hands of that madman.

Why isn't this movie funny? Did Guy think we enjoyed him for his fabulous good looks? Snatch is funny, Lock Stock is downright hilarious. Very few movies are as quotable.

Ray Liotta is the only actor in Revolver who appears to have a pulse. Everyone else walks through the frame like a narcoleptic, dazed except for the few fleeting lucid moments during which they vomit out their next incomprehensible line of dialogue.

Nothing anyone does or says fits together into something resembling an actual story, but nonetheless a few plot strands eventually come into relief. Scruffy expert gambler Jake Green (Ritchie vet Jason Statham) is released from prison after serving 7 years. For complicated reasons, Green sees sleazy casino owner Macha (Liotta) as personally responsible for his sad fate, so he starts going to Macha's casinos and winning big. So Macha has a hit put out on him.

This all happens with dizzying speed in the film's first 10 minutes. Ritchie showcases some of the energy and flair of his previous crime films here, but also an gaudy, glossy artificiality that's new to this film on top of an excess of CGI backgrounds and effects. The movie's just ugly - too bright, busy and garish, like a P. Diddy video set in Willy Wonka's factory. Another big problem is Statham's incessant nattering on the soundtrack, largely made up of a few phrases repeated ad infinitum. Green's mile-a-minute inner monologue becomes important later on in the film, but that doesn't make it less obnoxious in these opening segments.

After the 10 minute mark, the film starts to drift away from reality. Green meets a peculiar pair of loan sharks, Zach (Vincent Pastore, better known as Big Pussy from "The Sopranos") and Avi (Andre 3000 from Outkast), who make him a confusing offer. They promise to protect him from Macha if he will turn over all his money to them and join their loansharking business.

Huh? Why wouldn't he just take all the money and skip town? And how does his presence tangibly benefit Zach and Avi? Why wouldn't they just take the money and kill him or leave him for Macha's goons?

Apparently, it's not supposed to make sense. That's just what happened to Green that set him on this voyage of discovery. Still, a clever writer might find a more reasonable way to involve Green with the two loan sharks, at least starting the film off in a way that's sensical and involving. The scene where Avi and Zach must convince Green to accept this ridiculous offer doesn't work at all.

I spent the whole time wondering why he'd possibly agree to such exaggerated terms, and then Statham plainly states that he knows it's a bad idea in the voice-over. There's breaking with reality to make a movie hallucinatory and dream-like, and then there's just making things happen because it is convenient for the moment and losing your film's narrative thread and sense of purpose.

David Lynch can get away with dream logic and non-sequiteur tangents because he's a great writer and a visionary. His movies are fascianting on a purely aesthetic level and they include characters who say interesting things or mundane things in an interesting way. Even if they are not 100% comprehensible at any moment, they are never boring or dreary.

After about an hour of establishing an underworld full of boring gangsters and criminals who don't crack wise or do anything entertaining, Ritchie starts dropping hints that some sort of mindfuck reality twist is coming that will upend all the prior action in the film. He abandons all that has come before in favor of an unbearably extended, surreal conclusion.

At this point, the movie shifts from a dull slog about gangsters to a dull and confusing slog about gangsters. Intentionally, the scenes start to get repetitive. (Hence the title.) The same three quotes keep flashing on the screen between sequences. The voice-over intrudes mid-scene to replay seemingly unrelated dialogue from the first 10 minutes of the film. Characters begin to talk in circles. Endless deals and double-crosses are established and carried out, but without any explanation or chronology. It's exceptionally hard to watch a film that has no point and continually repeats itself. How could Ritchie not realize that audiences would get bored by this kind of cyclical structure unless the filmmaking itself was lively and vital?

It doesn't take more than 10 minutes or so of the repetition to realize Ritchie's film isn't actually leading anywhere meaningful. Conflicts will just keep recycling until a random point in the pattern, and then the film will just end. It's pretty much inevitable, telescoped early on by both the title and by the characters' nihilistic outlook. Actions have no consequences, nothing they do matters, it's all a game, so how could these random events possibly build to a satisfying climax?

Green recalls how, while in prison, he got to know two peculiar men in the cells bordering his own. They communicated only by scribbling in shared library books, couldn't see one another's faces, but nevertheless devised a fool-proof escape plan and a number of fascinating logical theorems. Could Avi and Zach be these two men?

And what about their jailhouse plans for the World's Greatest Con? Green tells Avi and Zach of a formula he helped devise while in jail, a formula that would allow limitless powers of manipulation over other people? Could the action of Revolver be the actual workings of this scheme? Or is Green still in jail, slowly going insane and imagining what he'll do when he gets out?

Naturally, there's no actual twist, no switcheroo, no Shyamalan style reversals or Mamet-esque turnabouts. It's not for lack of trying. I think Ritchie actually throws every single tired, overused "psychological thriller" ending into the last 20 minutes of Revolver.

From Usual Suspects, he steals the concept of a shadowy, rumored super-criminal. Keyser Soze, meet Sam Gold. ($10 of green money if you can guess which character turns out to actually be Sam Gold. Think hard now.) He even lifts one of that film's most memorable lines, morphing "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist" into "The greatest trick you ever pulled was making him believe he is you." It doesn't make any more sense after you've seen the movie. From Identity, he steals the "many different people are manifestations of the same unified whole" garbage. Everything else is pretty much Fight Club.

All these pseudo-endings and explanations are dangled in front of the audience, but none of them accurately reflect what's happening on screen in the last half hour of the film. Ritchie will show you a character's identity breaking down (at some points, it seems like Green and Macha are the same person), but then will go back to showing them as two separate people involved in business transactions and phone calls. Imagine if, after Ed Norton figured out that he was also Brad Pitt, they both still kept all their separate business meetings and dental appointments.

The Kabballah explanation has its compelling arguments. Ritchie definitely demonstrates an obsession with formulas, hidden symbols and numerical codes, so he's either been reading a lot of Jewish mysticism or Dan Brown novels.

Much of Avi and Zach's dialogue has a religious bent, urging Jake to re-examine the meaning of his life and to let go of his earthly desires. Just take a look at one of these voice-overs Statham's forced to suffer through:

There is something about yourself that you don't know. Something that you will deny even exists, until it's too late to do anything about it. It's the only reason you get up in the morning. The only reason you suffer the shitty puss, the blood, the sweat and the tears. This is because you want people to know how good, attractive, generous, funny, wild and clever you really are. Fear or revere me, but please, think I'm special. We share an addiction. We're approval junkies. We're all in it for the slap on the back and the gold watch. The hip-hip-hoo-fuckin' rah. Look at the clever boy with the badge, polishing his trophy. Shine on you crazy diamond, because we're just monkeys wrapped in suits, begging for the approval of others.

Once you get past the fact that Ritchie's clearly imitating Chuck Palahniuk's writing style (and not very well), what's left sounds like typical cult jargon. There's secret meaning behind your life that you don't understand. Stop seeking the approval of others, stop denying what you know to be true and realize that answers do exist to all of your super-secret questions. Forget about your stupid life and come join us! It's bliss!

Creepy. I don't really know enough about Kabballah to say for certain if this is accurate. Maybe Ritchie's just gone totally fucking sideways and his movies will be comprised entirely of nonsensical mutterings from now on. He'll be the cinematic equivalent to that scary hobo who lives in the alley behind your office building and occasionally throws Snapple bottles at you and yells about aliens disguised as department store mannequins.

[For some unimaginable reason, Fox will actually release The Magus on DVD this Tuesday. Revolver, on the other hand, is so pathetic, no American distributor will even put it out on DVD, despite the involvement of notable director Guy Ritchie and famous actors Jason Statham, Ray Liotta and Andre Benjamin. It came out in 2005 in Britain and may never see the light of day in The States. This is one of those rare occasions when I can praise our corporate masters for their sound judgement, keeping this film off of our shores and out of the hands of our impressionable young people.]

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Omen & Feast

The Omen

I'm not one of these people who automatically objects to remakes. Most remakes don't have the capacity to tarnish their films of origin, and often different directors will have radically divergent takes on similar material. Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Andy Lau's Infernal Affairs are perfect examples of exactly this phenomenon - the same story filtered through two strikingly different perspectives, set halfway around the world from one another.

Though he admirably avoids Gus Van Sant's silly and insulting shot-for-shot remake style from Psycho, director John Moore nevertheless fails to give Richard Donner 1970's horror classic The Omen any kind of new spin or twist in his updated version. Aside from new actors and superficial, minor and unnecessary alterations, he's produced a carbon copy of the original film. Apparently, the only purpose behind the project for all involved was the strategic marketing opportunities of opening an Omen movie on 6/6/06.

Though it's a good film, Donner's original Omen isn't all that great. Certainly, it's not so perfect and tightly coiled an entertainment as to warrant this level of reverence. Having watche dthe film recently, I felt it paled in comparison to the other, similarly-themed great Domestic Horror films of its era - Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.

David Seltzer's script, probably by studio mandate, keeps pretty much every plot element intact from the original version, good and bad. Ambassador Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber, deadpanning his way through Gregory Peck's old role) arrives at the hospital late one night to find that his baby has been stillborn and his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles, filling in for Lee Remick) has not yet been told. A creepy preist comes to him with a strange request: without telling Mrs. Thron, he wants Robert replace his dead child with another newborn infant whose mother died in childbirth.

Eventually, it becomes clear to Robert that something is wrong with this mysterious child, Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). The boy doesn't smile or speak much, doesn't play with other children, and seems to cause his nanny to commit suicide at a birthday party in some bizarre way. Those of us familiar with pop culture in any wayl, shape or form already know what's coming - Damien is the child of THE DEVIL! - which kind of hurts the film's chances of building suspense.

I've always had kind of a problem with the treatment of the Katherine character. In the dark about the film's central mystery for the entire running time, sidelined at about the halfway point so Robert can go have the actual adventure with a clever British photographer (David Thewlis), Katherine doesn't really have anything to do in the film. She has no compelling reason to exist, save the fact that someone needs to be Damien's mother for the story to work.

Why keep this silliness intact from one movie to the next? Why not eliminate the Thewlis character (played with a bit more spark and personality by David Warner in the '70s version) completely and send both Robert and Katherine on the voyage of discovery to find Damien's true origins? Wouldn't the entire purpose of doing a remake be to improve on some ill-conceived or dated aspects of the first film?

Moore tries to update the film's style, but none of his additions really enhance the storytelling in any significant way. He's added a few typical, desperate horror movie "scares," blaring loud music as something leaps out at the camera. Possibly in an attempt to give Stiles something to do during the first hour, he inserts a few "dream sequences" in which she gets brief glimpses of Damien's true nature. Unfortunately, none of these are scary because Moore identifies them as illusory too quickly, without letting any suspense build up. As soon as the viewer realizes that the scene isn't really hapepning - say, because everything's silent and bathed in soft white light save for Katherine's blood-red bathrobe - he or she can predict that some loud, shrill intrusion is going to interrupt the silence and give everyone who's not paying attention a jump.

By far, Moore's best decision was casting Mia Farrow as Damien's Satanic nanny, who guides the young Prince of Darkness on his ascension to world domination. She's the only one having fun in her role, not taking this ridiculous story about evil incarnate quite so seriously, remembering that people already know the story and are coming to the movie for goofy theatrics and spectacle. This isn't some earnest exploration of the nature of good and evil, Farrow's half-smirk and beady stares seems to indicate. It's a dark fairy tale, a morbid but ultimately fanciful vision of the end of the world filled with candles, whispered incantations, devil dogs and adorable but sinister little children.

That's why the best shot in both versions of the movie is also the most violent, when Donner and Moore let the pretension slip away for a few moments and actually make grisly, religious-themed horror films. A new remake was a chance to linger in that world for 90 minutes rather than just rehashing something mediocre from the past simply because it has a good hook and a famous title.


This is disappointing. As a big fan of the third season of "Project Greenlight," I was pulling for winning director John Gulager. You could tell from the TV episodes, aired several years ago already on Bravo, that the script by dorks Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton wasn't any good. Based solely on excerpts and dailies, it was clearly another jokey hodge-podge of horror cliches culled from older, better schlockfests.

But as obnoxious as I found Dunstan and Melton, and as much as their personalities indicated to me that I would dislike their writing, I had no idea just how desperate and misguided Feast really was conceptually until I watched the film this week. How could this have won a writing contest? It's enough material for maybe 1/4 of a real horror film.

Let's start with the premise: a group of strangers in a dive roadhouse are beseiged by an angry family of bloodthirsty monsters. Yawn. Dunstan and Melton have concocted no backstory or mythology for their monsters, who look for the vast majority of the film like walking deer corpses. (After about an hour of fast blurry shots of monsters, we're informed that they've been wearing animal carcasses this entire time, and actually look like toothy fish men.)

Even more problematically, they have not bothered to craft a single memorable character or a clever line of dialogue. Horror-comedy implies that there will be gory mayhem and humor in relatively equal doses. Feast has a lot of blood splatter, viscera and gross-out sequences, but very very little in the way of actual jokes or comedy. It's as if Dunstan and Melton find their premise so hilarious - MONSTERS! IN A DIVE BAR! AND THEY THROW UP ON GUYS! - they didn't feel like the script required anything other than action scenes and pointless arguments.

It's clearly not only a problem with ambition. The sense of humor exhibited in this film would be too juvenile for an Ace Ventura sequel. Compared to these guys, the Wayans Brothers are sophisticated cinematic auteurs. There's also a matter of authenticity. These guys are fanboy nerds. Why would they choose to set their script in a world of junkies, dropouts, alcoholics, bikers, ex-cons, actor Jason Mewes and other roadhouse types? Didn't anyone ever tell them "write what you know"? These guys have an affinity for composing dirtbag dialogue like I have an affinity for composing string concertos. They resort constantly to senseless strings of profanity, crudity or just plain old non-sequiteur.

A dizzying array of these stereotypical, uninteresting characters are introduced in the first few minutes. Gulager, channeling Guy Ritchie, pulls a freeze-frame on everyone's face and we get a lame comic dossier about that person flashed on the screen. It's fairly unnecessary, as we don't need to know anything about these people to enjoy watching them get disemboweled anyway, and none of the comments are particularly well-phrased or funny.

They do provide "life expectancy" estimates for each character, which I thought would be a clever, Vonnegut-inspired touch. It could have been a play on the very idea of building suspense in this kind of a slasher film, telling the audience the order in which the pawns will be killed. Alas, Gulager and his writers don't follow through on the joke by actually keeping true to these life expectancy predictions. Killing the characters in random order makes it just another pointless, unfunny digression among many.

Dunstan and Melton have clearly seen Deep Blue Sea, or at least that one infamous scene in which Samuel L. Jackson is eaten by a shark halfway through an inspirational monologue. So inspired are these two by that sequence, they have ripped it off half a dozen times in their own script. It sort of works the first time out. A character identified as "Hero" runs into the bar, tells everyone that a family of alien killers is en route and then, with Schwarzeneggerian flair, lets them know he intends to save their lives. Then he's brutally decapitated and devoured.

Ha ha!

Sure, it's ripped off from a Renny Harlin movie, but after the first five minutes of this shitkicker, I was prepared to enjoy any potential diversion or comic possibility I encountered to the maximum. Unfortunately, these guys make several return trips to this well. Repeatedly, characters stand up, take the mantle of new Group Leader only to be quickly killed. In fact, I'd say any time a character begins to speechify in Feast for any reason, causing everyone else in the bar to be quiet, it's a surefire sign of impending doom.

Repetition becomes an increasingly large problem as the film goes on. The basic scenario that drives the first 15 minutes just reiterates itself 5 or 6 times, until the film is over. Characters hear noises outside, someone gets attacked and eaten, then everyone panics and argues before one person steps forward to calm everyone down. Then everyone hears noises outside, that new leader character gets attacked and eaten, and everyone panics. And so on.

Though the film is embarrassingly bad, it's not really Gulager's fault. He does what he can with this atrocious script (which, if I remember the show correctly, was not thought too highly of by the director in the first place). Because he had such a brief production window and such limited resources, Gulager's final product does look cheaper and more amateurish than most horror features, even most direct-to-DVD horror features.

The aliens look cheap and fake, and Gulager intentionally quick-cuts around them, shoots them in motion or from a distance. Sometimes, he gets away with it, as when we watch from above as a girl falls to her gruesome death from the bar's second story. Other times, his movie looks like a student film. One scene finds the cast members narrating to the audience what the monsters are doing outside, off-camera.

"I think they're having sex now!"
"What's that?"
"It's a monster baby! Oh my God!"
"Oh, geez, if only you guys could all see this! It looks so cool!"

With luck, Dunstan and Melton won't work any more and can get back to writing their online "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" slash fiction or whatever, but I could see Gulager doing something else that wasn't so retarded and sophomoric. Apparently, he'd been directing for decades before being given a shot at the big time on reality TV, and it'd be a shame if all those years of preparation were derailed just because Matt Damon and Ben Affleck picked a ridiculously awful script for him to lens.