Saturday, November 11, 2006

Village of the Slammed

I'm not saying that I doubt the veracity of the Daily Mail's reporting in this article, but it's still hard to believe some of the accusations being made here against Sacha Baron Cohen and the crew of Borat.

When Sacha Baron Cohen wanted a village to represent the impoverished Kazakh home of his character Borat, he found the perfect place in Glod: a remote mountain outpost with no sewerage or running water and where locals eke out meagre livings peddling scrap iron or working patches of land.

But now the villagers of this tiny, close-knit community have angrily accused the comedian of exploiting them, after discovering his new blockbuster film portrays them as a backward group of rapists, abortionists and prostitutes, who happily engage in casual incest.

Unbelievably, it turns out that the Kazakhstan-set sequences that open Borat were actually filmed in the impoverished Romanian village of Glod. (Actual translation of the word "glod": Mud). If you read the entire article, it also claims that the town is mainly inhabited by Borat's hated gypsies, who thought a documentary was being made about their grinding poverty.

They claim film-makers lied to them about the true nature of the project, which they believed would be a documentary about their hardship, rather than a comedy mocking their poverty and isolation.

Villagers say they were paid just £3 each for this humiliation, for a film that took around £27million at the worldwide box office in its first week of release.

Now they are planning to scrape together whatever modest sums they can muster to sue Baron Cohen and fellow film-makers, claiming they never gave their consent to be so cruelly misrepresented.

Disabled Nicu Tudorache said: This is disgusting. They conned us into doing all these things and never told us anything about what was going on. They made us look like primitives, like uncivilised savages. Now they,re making millions but have only paid us 15 lei [around £3].

I just assumed that these scripted sequences were created on a Hollywood set. Seriously, I had no idea any of that stuff was real. I'm a big fan of Borat, and I understand that the whole concept is an elaborate prank, but playing a prank on isolated and desperate Romanian villagers and failing to even pay them fairly for their inconvenience and effort doesn't strike me as particularly funny.

I don't feel bad for those drunken frat boy assholes who are suing Borat because now we all know what racist, chauvanist, arrogant assholes they are. I think those USC students learned a valuable life lesson from Borat - being a sloppy drunk who says ignorant, racist shit all the time will eventually get you into trouble.

Those guys really have no excuse for their behavior and deserve our collective scorn. But systematically oppressed peasants hoping for a few scraps in exchange for some extra work on a film project? Are those really Cohen's intended targets?

The crew was led by a man villagers describe as 'nice and friendly, if a bit weird and ugly', who they later learned was Baron Cohen. It is thought the producers chose the region because locals more closely resembled his comic creation than genuine Kazakhs.

The comedian insisted on travelling everywhere with bulky bodyguards, because, as one local said: 'He seemed to think there were crooks among us.'

While the rest of the crew based themselves in the motel, Baron Cohen stayed in a hotel in Sinaia, a nearby ski resort a world away from Glod's grinding poverty. He would come to the village every morning to do 'weird things', such as bringing animals inside the run-down homes, or have the village children filmed holding weapons.

Mr Tudorache, a deeply religious grandfather who lost his arm in an accident, was one of those who feels most humiliated. For one scene, a rubber sex toy in the shape of a fist was attached to the stump of his missing arm - but he had no idea what it was.

Only when The Mail on Sunday visited him did he find out. He said he was ashamed, confessing that he only agreed to be filmed because he hoped to top up his £70-a-month salary - although in the end he was paid just £3.

That's pretty indefensible behavior, regardless of the hilarity of the finished product. I don't think the Borat skits from HBO's "Da Ali G Show" are offensive in any way. He's not mocking people from Kazakhstan, he's mocking ignorant Americans who have never even heard of that place and who so readily accept such a backwards, stereotypically "foreign" man.

The movie pushes that line a bit further - in many cases, we are simply laughing at Kazakhs. Borat washes his face in the toilet, for example, with no witnesses around save the camera. Cohen is no longer playing around with American attitudes towards people from far-flung parts of the world, he is simply playing a character for our amusement. I still found the movie acceptable. Borat is lovable and charming and part of his personality is being disgusting or violating taboos.

But to later find out that we may be laughing at the real villagers who in some ways inspired Borat so directly, as in bringing animals inside their house to defecate and then filming it to give others a chuckle, that crosses the line. Again, if these reports are accurate, and I have no way of knowing if they are.

I'd like to stress that this next excerpt is from a news article, not a Borat sketch.

Bogdan Moncea of Castel Film, the Bucharest-based production company that helped the filming in Romania, said the crew donated computers and TV sets to the local school and the villagers. But the locals have denied this.

Mr Staicu said: 'The school got some notebooks, but that was it. People are angry now, they feel cheated.'

It's a feeling Glod is used to. The village, like others in the Dambovita region of Romania, is populated mainly by gipsies who say they are discriminated against by the rest of the country.

Indeed, when local vice-mayor Petre Buzea was asked whether the people felt offended by Baron Cohen's film, he replied: 'They got paid so I am sure they are happy. These gipsies will even kill their own father for money.'

No one from the 20th Century Fox studio was available for comment on the villagers' claims.

You've got to love Dambovita vice-mayor Petre Buzea. Way to keep that Old World prejudice alive.

Anyway, it's unclear to me simply from this article what really happened. Perhaps Cohen's team came to the town and offered to give them lots of fabulous gifts and prizes and money in exhcange for help with the scenes, and now they just want more stuff or didn't get as much as they had wanted, so they're making a stink about it. I could definitely see that happening.

On the other hand, if these stories are true, and Cohen's team basically exploited this town and these people for the purposes of hilarity...well, nothing would happen. Americans don't care about that sort of crap, and they apparently love them some Borat, so who cares, right? Still, it would be a real shame.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth

Before tonight's AFI sneak preview of Pan's Labyrinth, writer/director Guillermo del Toro gave a brief introductory speech. He described the film as a fairy tale for adults, a parable designed to teach a moral lesson about following one's own heart and refusing to conform. It's a fairly accurate description, and one that captures the film's successes and flaws succinctly. Like a good fairy tale, Pan's Labyrinth is fanciful and imaginitive, told using unpredictable dream logic. But as you'd expect from a movie derived from these kinds of simple, old-fashioned and familiar stories, it's also broad and overly simplistic, relying on stock characters and convenient gimmicry to move ahead a plot that's largely perfunctory.

The tremendous worldwide success of Del Toro's previous two Spanish-language genre films, Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, has made Pan's Labyrinth one of the year's most hotly anticipated movies by film fans. It has already been chosen as Mexico's submission for Best Foreign Language Film and won raves at Cannes and the New York Film Festival. As a longtime fan of Del Toro's (particularly the aforementioned Spanish-language horror films), it gives me no pleasure to say that I found the film a significant disappointment. It feels more like the work of the ambitious and well-intentioned, but occasionally clumsy, Hollywood director behind Hellboy and Mimic than a genuine follow-up to The Devil's Backbone, one of the best horror films of the present decade.

As in Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, two parallel stories - one realistic and one supernatural - unfold in Pan's Labyrinth simultneously. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves to a country house in Northern Spain in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Her father died in the conflict, forcing her widowed and pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to remarry. Her vile new husband (Sergi Lopez, the terrific heavy from Dirty Pretty Things) leads a company of Spanish Fascist soldiers, stationed in the area to decimate a local underground resistance movement hiding in the local forest. Ofelia, terrified and alone in her new home, befriends a maid (Maribel Verdu, of Y Tu Mama Tambien) and a friendly doctor (Alex Angulo) who harbor a dangerous secret.

While this tragic story of bloody combat, torture and intrigue takes up the bulk of the film's midsection, most of the attention the film has received thus far focuses on Ofelia's possibly imaginary adventures with a magical faun (Doug Jones) who also lives in the apparently enchanted woods. The faun tells the storybook-obsessed and troubled little girl that she is actually descended from the King of the Underworld, who will happily allow her to return to her throne if she can complete three increasingly dangerous tasks.

All of this sounds complicated, and for a while Del Toro seems to be building a complex and extended historical metaphor as he did in Devil's Backbone, which was also set during the Spanish Civil War.

But there just isn't nearly as much going on under the surface here. Del Toro has a fairly straight-forward message to convey. An ode to nonconformity, Pan's Labyrinth uses the Spanish Fascist movement to represent the forces in everyone's lives that try to make them fit a pre-selected mold. It's not a very difficult fit, and it becomes obvious fairly soon what Del Toro clearly has it mind. (After an early scene in which Ofelia's mother urges her to put down her storybooks and adopt a more realistic worldview gives away pretty much the entire film's perspective in one two-minute exchange).

Beyond this rather vacuous central motif, the movie just kind of plods along on its two occasionally interesting narratives. The fantasy segments, in which Ofelia battles a ferocious toad, challenges a mutant at a fancy underground buffet and eventually faces a near-impossible choice, at least have an interesting look and rely on well-realized special effects. (That scene with the mutant, a grotesque humanoid being with no face and hands in its palms, is by far the film's most memorably surreal and visionary.)

There isn't a lot of internal logic to the fantasy universe of Pan's Labyrinth. Generic fairy tale tropes like intricate lockboxes, golden keys and, well, fairies add up into a story that approximates the familiar formula but fails to capture what makes these stories worthwhile or interesting. It's strange, as well, how the individual quests don't really link up all that well or have any individual reason for being. (Ofelia battles the toad to obtain a key to obtain a knife that winds up being used to teach her an elaborate lesson about self-sacrifice.) There's not a lot of sense to the proceedings. They're imaginative, sure, but kind of meaningless.

The realistic story about the fascists fighting the resistance doesn't fare much better. Lopez is always a great choice for a scene-stealing movie villain, but as with most of the other characters, his Captain Vidal is more a type than a character. Those black leather gloves say more about Vidal than anything Lopez says or does in the role. He's probably still the most dynamic character in the film, but aside from a nice little subplot about his father's old war watch, Vidal is the definition of one note - he's pure malice, embodied.

He's so cruel, in fact, that his story becomes repetitive quickly. One of his soldiers disobeys him and gets shot. Some innocent farmers are suspected of aiding the resistance so they are shot. He suspects someone working for him of being a spy for the other side and threatens to have them shot. He tells the doctor that, if presented with the choice between his baby's life and that of his wife, he should save the baby. He can always have it shot later, I suppose.

These sequences are extremely bloody, more gruesome and focused on violence than was really necessary. I'm not a person who's offended by violent movies, but Pan's Labyrinth gets to feel gratuitous after a while. (A late scene features a character sewing up his own wound for no reason other than the fetishization of pain.) Before the film, Del Toro referred to the movie as an adult fairy tale, but I assumed he meant that it dealt with complex issues in a mature and frank fashion, not that it was super-gory. The final 30 minutes of this film has more torture scenes than the dailies for Hostel 2.

It does give the movie an unsettling, dark feeling of atmosphere, aided by Guillermo Navarro's able cinematography. But for all their wrenching melodrama, these scenes don't add up to all that much because the characters are too thin and broadly sketched. The subtlety of The Devil's Backbone, in which the backstory gradually becomes illuminated over the course of an intriguing investigation carried out by plucky orphans, has been replaced by cartoonish exaggerations lifted from old WWII movies. Del Toro was aiming for Army of Shadows meets Wizard of Oz but ended up with The Keep meets Return to Oz.

(Actually, there are numerous parallels with Michael Mann's non-classic The Keep, in which Gabriel Byrne plays a sadistic fascist overseeing a camp being haunted by a Golem. The fact that I could draw comparisons between Del Toro's film and Michael Mann's cheesy cautionary tale pretty much demonstrates my point about this new movie without even saying anything further.)

I'm disappointed.

As with numerous other recent movies I've seen by talented, established directors (Babel, Tideland, The Prestige), Pan's Labyrinth did not live up to my lofty expectations. The fact that it took Guillermo del Toro 2.5 years to make is even more disheartening. But I suppose there's always Hellboy 2.

I'd Like To See You Make a Better Movie

I get that comment a lot on my movie review posts.

"Yeah, you make some valid points about Gunga Din, but I'd like to see you make a better movie!"

This argument is inherently juvenile. To me, it suggests a complete absence of genuine insight, a desire to argue without anything to actually argue about. You find that a lot on the Internet...angry people who want to pick fights, often about subjects they don't fully comprehend or even care about.

My gut instinct is that people walk around with a lot of suppressed anger and frustration at the world, and don't feel comfortable taking it out on other people in real-world, one-on-one settings. So you get phenomenon like road rage, in which people can act out their wrath on invisible, faceless strangers, and Internet flame wars, in which people can voice their distaste for everyone who isn't them by peppering blogs with bilious, anonymous commentaries.

These are generally just insecure assholes. You can tell by their writing style and taste for crude put-downs. (Any time someone I don't even know who isn't British calls me a "cunt" or some variation thereof, I know I can pretty much discount all of their other opinions.) Still, it's odd that film reviews seem to set off the angry folks much more than, say, political commentaries or personal anecdotes.

I don't want to sound like a whiner. I can take the abuse, really...I'm not so insecure that a few nasty comments on my blog are going to send me into fits of self-doubt and depression. In fact, I kind of wish there was a bit more spirited debate around here, film-related or otherwise. Anyone reading the blog is more than welcome to take issue with one of my points. But is it too much to ask that they actually, well, have a comment to make rather than just a strong desire to ridicule someone else for daring to express an opinion?

Take my review of Lucky Number Slevin. I did not like the film and the ensuing review was harsh. I figure, what's the point of reviewing movies for free on my blog if I'm not being totally honest? The filmmakers themselves don't read this blog, so I'm not in danger of hurting anyone's feelings (and a thick skin should be a requirement for people working in creative fields anyway). Wouldn't you, the readers, prefer to hear what I really think about movies, rather than softened reviews in which I hedge my bets? I'm seriously asking readers of this blog...which would you prefer:

(1) Lucky Number Slevin clearly took a lot of time and effort to produce and much of the production is carried off with an average to above average level of professionalism and ability. I have never personally made a film, and if I did, there is a strong chance that certain aspects of it would be more amateurish and less accomplished than Lucky Number Slevin. Having said that, the movie was not perfectly suited to my tastes, and I found some of its later developments disappointing and wrong-headed.

Or this, from my actual review:

(2) Anyway, this one's pretty much a disaster from beginning to end. One of those movies that obviously just didn't click, but because everyone had already cashed those advance checks, the project just developed its own momentum. Better luck next time, McGuigan. Only, maybe forget about the Hartnett collaborations next time. He's just not up to it.

Now, it's not very nice. I'm kind of being a wiseass, and I certainly wouldn't speak like that to Paul McGuigan in person. (I'd like to ad here that I rather like his breakthrough film, Gangster #1.) But it's how I felt about the movie. Nowhere in the review do I imply that, if you feel differently, you are stupid. I guess I could run a disclaimer above every review, letting you know that it's just my opinion and that I'm not setting these posts forth as an objective arbiter of all cinematic taste. But of course it's my opinion...It's my fucking blog! Who's opinion on film would you expect to read here, Andre Breton's?

Here's an actual two-part comment left at the bottom of that review:

Bro, seriously, what movie's do you like if you didn't like this movie? I know everyone's entitled to their own opinions and all, but you have problems if you didn't like this one. I seriously had to stop reading your blog because of my emotions of hate for you drilling through me. You've done a huge injustice to the people of the world who haven't seen the movie yet and are not going to because of your shitty blog. It's an entertaining movie man! Sit back, grab a drink and enjoy it, dont analyze and critique every word spoken and every step taken. "Strange, yes. Hard to believe, sure." Do you listen to yourself? It's a movie... movies take you away from reality for a while. I suppose you didn't like "Minority Report" because since when do people get around retinal scans by having eye transplants?! Who ever heard of that garbage?! Get your face out of the books man, your broadcasting to the world with this blog that you were the kid in highschool that got his underwear pulled over his head, stuffed in a locker and dunked in a toilet on a regular basis. I hate you.

And another thing cuntbag, nobody cares about your movie opinions, who your favorite directors are and other uninteresting stuff that apparently gets you off. Your blog is boring and I hate the fact that one of your lame posts caused me to look around it just to see how much of a dick you really are. It's no wonder that Roman Polanski rates high on your list of favorite directors, because you both probably have child molestation in common. I know your type, you're either a lame film student that graduated, with no direction whatsoever that gets mad when other people put out good movies, or a college film professor, also, who went nowhere in life and had to turn to a life of blogging his uninteresting movie opinions to people hoping that he can find some followers of his own. If you could do better, do it then, dick.

First off, I hate being called "bro," both in real life and on the Internets. I have only one bro, and he never ever refers to me as such, and I prefer it that way.

I'd like to stress that this comment is atypical only in its length. Most of the comments left here consist one or two sentences. But because this guy (and I'm assuming thsis the work of a male, probably an adolescent one) goes on for a while, we can extrapolate a lot of Universal Mean-Spirited Blog Comment tropes from this one example.


Anonymous can't really get through two sentences without contradicting himself. My opinions are not interesting, yet he has clearly read several entries on my blog. (He knows, for example, that Roman Polanski was on my Top 10 Directors list.) It's lame to spout off about movies on the Internet, yet here he is, spouting off about movies on someone else's website without providing even a pseudonym. No one cares what I think, and yet I should be encouraged to make my own films as a response to Lucky Number Slevin!

Blatant contradiction is perhaps the most comment anonymous comment attribute. It happens so often in comments, I tend to think a lot of them are left as pranks by friends of mine. Check out this comment, left a few days ago on my review of Joss Whedon's Firefly.

mommy not give you enough hugs when you were growing up? So much anger and bitterness. It's a movie, get over yourself. I loved firefly, serenity was a let down but at the end of the day I am not bothered about it. I have a life and I love cinema, some of its fantastic Old Boy and million dollar baby, some of its just there serenity, sixth sense (oh the guy's DEAD, didn't see that coming) and some of it is used toilet paper. (fast and furious, starship troopers) BUT somebody somewhere loves it and it speaks to them or they wouldn't be able to sell all those tickets and DVDs now, would they? One mans meat..yada yada

Okay, so put aside the ludicrous idea that my disliking a movie this idiot liked translates to me "not having a life." Can you spot the blatant contradiction?

Giving my opinion about Serenity reflects my anger and bitterness. I don't understand that it's just a movie, and that writing down what I think about said movie makes me a loser who can't get over myself.

Yet two sentences later, this fool starts rattling off his own opinions about movies! (Including the woefully inaccurate assertion that Starship Troopers is akin to "used toilet paper.") That's got to be a parody of a troll, right? That can't be a real comment. No one's that stupid.


This sounds like someone who wishes to silence me. In fact, more than once, he instructs me to be quiet. "Sit back, grab a drink and enjoy it, dont analyze and critique every word spoken and every step taken." "You've done a huge injustice to the people of the world who haven't seen the movie yet and are not going to because of your shitty blog."


The commentator insists that I must be a frustrated film professor based on my review. I think he means that as a put-down, but I wouldn't really mind a tenured position teaching film at a quality university. You get paid to watch lots of movies and write about them. It's what I do now, pretty much, but with benefits and a nicer apartment. Isn't it complementary to read someone's writing about film and conclude that they must be a Ph.D. in the subject?

So that's actually kind of a nice one, but usually peopel conclude that I must be some kind of basement-dwelling mouthbreather because I have a film-centered blog. I won't lie to you...In many, many ways, I fit the film nerd stereotype to a T.

I work in a video store. I am overweight. I am kind of a slob. I don't go on a ton of dates. Sometimes, late at night, when no one's around, I will watch cartoons in my underwear while drinking Mountain Dew. I can quote entire Monty Python routines and whole scenes from This is Spinal Tap and I know the theme song from "Duck Tales" by heart, still, to this day. I have paid to see Tenacious D and The Kids in the Hall in concert.

But even if a well-placed anonymous zinger confirmed to the entire universe my dork credentials, how does this discount my opinions about a movie, exactly? Being somewhat easily categorized someone makes my observations about the world less salient? It's not that it's mean, necessarily. It's dehumanizing. I have no life, meaning I am worthless, meaning my opinion matters less than those of other people.

I swear, I'm building to a point here. It's not supposed to be a pity thing. What I'm saying is that I think all these angry anonymous comments seem so similar because they all come from the same place. It's oversimplifying to say that individual, unrelated frustrations cause so many people to come here and rant at me without even trying to make an actual point or raise a counterargument.

These people want me to be quiet because any contrary opinion causes them to question their own position, and thus cannot be tolerated. On one level, people just don't like to have their conclusions dismissed, both out of pride and fear of humiliation. If I've told 10 people that Lucky Number Slevin is great, and then I read online some guy ripping it apart, it raises the possibility that others will think it's terrible as well, thus causing them to question my judgement and taste.

But on another level, reading an thorough takedown of a movie he or she enjoyed makes some individuals (generally the weak-minded) feel inherently threatened. I am not questioning Paul McGuigan's filmmaking but the judgement of my readers. And how have Americans been trained to deal with threats? Violence, or if this option is not available, intimidation.

Hence, the contradictory and nonsensical arguments, always delivered with maximum dehumanizing language intended to humiliate and ostracize. These Anonymous Commenters wish to bully me, wish to prove their superiorty over me because I raised doubts about their cognitive abilities.

I'd like to stress that I think all of this works independantly of my reviews. I word my opinions strongly, which obviously triggers a defensive response in some people, but I'm not trying to say that I'm always right and my angry readers always wrong. I mean, lots of people seem to like Lucky Number Slevin. Perhaps you would as well. I think of my reviews as conversations about film, bringing up points of interest, more than I do as some kind of "guide" to what people should watch. Watch what you want.

I think any strongly-phrased reviews that differed from these folks' opinions would be challenged in this way. And of course, I think the phenomenon extends well beyond film reviews or blogging in general.

Conservatives treat politics and social issues this way. A difference in opinion represents a challenge to their very existence and way of life. GAY MARRIAGE RENDERS STRAIGHT MARRIAGE OBSOLETE! In fact, try reading any of those comments in a Bill O'Reilly voice. It works perfectly. "Shut up, sir. Shut up. The fact is, Lucky Number Slevin is one of the best movies of the year. I'll give you the last word."

The super-religious treat faith in this manner. "If you are a nonbeliever, you are AN ABOMINATION!"

In fact, I'd say this kind of eliminiationist gainsaying provides the backbone for much of our public discourse. It's really unfortunate that we can't start out with the notion that it's okay, nay encouraged, to disagree. Everything's more interesting once people stop trying to convince one another and simply attempt to converse.

Notice I didn't say it's okay to lie and distort known information, which is why George W. Bush and other Republican politicians don't get around this loophole. It's not okay to disagree that they are traitorous scumbags. That is no longer a manner of opinion but proven fact. We're talking about subjective issues here. And for the record, my mother has always been affectionate towards me.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

He's Got a Plan to Stick it to The Man

This New York Daily News article is a blessing. It eases my pain:

Harlem's newly powerful Rep. Charles Rangel wants to stick it to his White House nemesis Vice President Cheney - by taking over his spacious House office.

At the same time, the veteran congressman offered a limp olive branch to the vice president yesterday, saying he regretted publicly calling him an SOB last week.

"I take back saying that publicly. I should have reserved that for him when we were together privately," said Rangel. "Believe me, he would have understood."


Rangel (D-Harlem), poised to become the next chairman of the important House Ways and Means Committee, spoke of the need for bipartisanship with the Republicans, even as he continued his feud with Cheney.

"Mr. Cheney enjoys an office on the second floor on the House of Representatives that historically has been designated as the Ways and Means chairman," Rangel mused. "And, I've talked with [future Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi ... and I'm trying to find some way to be gentle as I restore the dignity of that office to the chair."

The White House declined to comment.


Rep. Rangel demonstrates here a principle I've been discussing for literally years on this blog - the use of ridicule and humiliation in illuminating the den of villainy that is the modern Republican party. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert demonstrate this principle every night: a well-observed and cutting remark can shut down right-wing propaganda with greater clarity and vitality than angry rhetoric or cataloging facts. Compare the number of people e-mailing one another shrill (if well-written) rants from partisan blogs vs. the number of people e-mailing one another You Tubed deleted scenes from Borat.

Rangel here mocks the entire ridiculous Cheney mystique - the carefully-guarded, mysterious "shadow President" - by depicting him as just a sad old man who has to give up his office. (Notice that he and Nancy Pelosi have to go about the task of kicking Cheney's ass out gently, so as not to hurt the poor guy's feelings. You can't make sudden moves around DC. He's sickly! The guy could drop at any minute!) It's great stuff.

[Jane at Firedoglake draws the obvious cinematic parallel.]

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Congratulations, Americans!

You're not as stupid as you look! Though it would admittedly be pretty difficult for you to be as stupid as you look!

See what I mean?

(By the way, what's Rumsfeld doing in that photo above? It looks like he's recreating the process by which he broke through his egg's hard protective shell and first entered the world as a brash, young baby lizard.)

It was a night of big surprises. Well, okay, one big surprise: the Republicans didn't cheat effectively. Everything else was pretty much expected.

Joe Liarman beat Ned Lamont despite the handicap of being born the world's most useless, boring and sanctimonious prick. (Those traits play well to the hardcore Republicans base.)

A variety of Republican incumbents in the House, sycophants and toadies all, lost to a promising collection of Democrats pledging to return some measure of sanity to government and public discourse, and to get us the hell out of Iraq.

The support of Michael J. Fox and buffoonery of Rush Limbaugh helped pave the way for a possible Democratic takeover of the Senate.

And Little Ricky "Iraq's Just Like Mordor" Santorum, the man so nice they named co-opted his last name to describe used feces-stained lube, was evicted from his cushy job and forced to look for alternate employment.

Which brings us to tonight's celebratory caption contest...

Hello, room service? Can you recommend a quality, discreet drug-dealing gay masseur and/or prostitute? I've had a really long day.

Okay, that's my humble entry. Feel free to provide your own in the comments below.

All around the Web, I've been reading exultant, celebratory posts about the Democratic victories tonight. And any sort of change in our country's woeful direction over the past six years is cause for celebration. I haven't really felt joy so much as relief. Until the W. years, I hadn't been a hardcore political partisan. I've never voted for a major Republican candidate in my entire life, but because they're always sick evil fucks, not because of fealty to the Democratic Party. In theory, I'm willing to vote for anybody who actually makes sense when they speak and with whom I agree on Big Picture/personal philosophy type issues.

So this isn't really a "we won!" kind of night for me in those kinds of terms. I only feel loyalty to the Dems these days because of my intense loathing for the other guys. But this election has given me something I haven't felt about our country in a long time...Hope. Real hope that things might turn around. Maybe things will improve and maybe they won't. Recent history gives us little cause for sunny optimism. But at least now there's a CHANCE, whereas before the Congress was just going to rubber stamp any fool idea that entered George Bush's head. And that guy's a ludicrous assclown.

I also feel (and I almost can't believe I'm writing this...) kind of proud of Americans tonight. We have our first-ever female Speaker of the House. The first Muslim has been elected to our Congress. (Granted, he's a homegrown black Muslim and not the dangerously swarthy Arab variety.) 1/3 of evangelical Christian voters went blue. Voters in South Dakota rejected a near-total ban on abortions. Arizona became the first state in the union to purposefully reject enshrining anti-gay bigotry in its constitution. I can't remember the last time there was that much good news in an entire month, let alone one day.

So tonight's a real victory for America. We've been through a lot. We deserve it. So, to celebrate, I will now make fun of this clip from "Oprah," with Kirstie Alley showing off her new thin slightly less fat body for the first time.

She has clearly lost a lot of weight. I don't think anyone's really denying that. (I mean, she was impossibly enormous not too long ago. Just the exercize of walking on to Oprah's stage would have triggered her body to drop at least 5 pounds.) But I'm not sure she's really in bikini-on-national-television kind of shape just yet.

You don't want to rush out on the "I Lost a Lot of Weight" publicity tour. Wait until you've dropped the maximum amount of weight you're ever going to drop. Kirstie looks better than she did, but she's still got four or five additional Nicole Ritchie's to lose if she's going to get back to actual attractivity. (She's already kind of old for that also, but let's overlook that unfortunate reality for the purposes of argument.)

And what's with Oprah's condescending bullshit? "Beautiful! You look beautiful!" If she said it once, I'd think, "okay, maybe Oprah genuinely thinks Kirstie Alley in her present form looks attractive. We must just differ on this point." But she says it about 10 times in the course of 2 minutes, which of course means that it's bullshit.

Think about when you give someone a present. If they open it and say, "Hey, a collection of religious-themed snow globes! I love it!" once, you might think you've done a good job of picking out a gift. But if they say it over and over again, it means they're covering just how much they hated your present, and by extension, you.

"Oh, wow, great. Snow globes. This is great. I love them! I'll use them all the time! Any time I want to see Jesus and some children frolicking in the artificial plastic snow! That's great! I know a million places I can use these! Hey, great gift, man! I really like them."

That's Oprah when Kirstie Alley drops her robe and shows off her new line of chunky girls' summerwear. "Oh, wow, you're not morbidly obese any more! Terrific! That's really beautiful, I guess, in a totally non-sexual way. Good for you!"

(And before anyone who knows me personally feels the need to show up and point it out...I'm aware of the conflict of making fun of the overweight when I, myself, am overweight. No one wants to see me parade around television in skintight, revealing swimwear either. The difference is, I have the good sense not to do so.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Vote for Change

Polls open on the East Coast about 5 hours from now. I feel hope and excitement for the first time in a while. It actually seems theoretically possible that Americans are going to fire some of these Republican assclowns. Of course, I'm restraining my optimism, keeping my expectations in check. Not that I don't think Democrats will win tomorrow. Everything I've seen seems to paint a Democratic takeover of at least the House as practically inevitable. And history seems to indicate that Americans prefer a divided government. It sometimes takes a while to get there, but eventually our citizenry realizes that checks and balances work a lot better than collecting all the influence in just one cabal or another.

6 years of near-constant, grinding Republican rule has perfectly illustrated the dangers of allowing just one group of rich white men to amass all the power, rather than spreading the power around among several groups of different rich white men. Maybe one day, they'll even let a few non-white women share in the pie! I wouldn't hold my breath, though!

So I'm almost positive Democrats will get a lot of votes tomorrow, probably enough to take control of one or more bodies of Congress. Will they actually be elected, though? This one, I'm not so sure about. It's horribly distressing, but I'm at the point of having no confidence whatsoever in the legitimacy of American elections.

I'm thinking, if it's close tomorrow, Republicans will just steal the victory. Democrats no longer simply have to get the most votes. They have to blow Republicans out of the water to such a degree that fudging the numbers is untenable. They have to win in a rout.

Republicans have either stolen or flagrantly attempted to steal the previous two presidential elections. I'm pretty sure 2000 was rigged, that Al Gore won Florida but was mau-maued into conceding defeat, then the Supreme Court came in to make it all nice and legal. (This election was the first time since the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, ending Reconstruction, that a government body actually declared a president rather than relying strictly on the electoral results.)

And 2004 was rife with stories about questionable tactics and outright fraud. (I don't feel like swarming you with a bunch of links no one's going to click anyway. Everything from robocalling and push polling to good old fashioned minority voter suppression.)

So if they're willing to steal elections, and capable of at least making a strong attempt, what's to stop them from just doing it again?

I don't mean for this post to be a downer or an "it's futile so don't vote" message. I strongly urge all of you to vote. And if voting a straight Democratic ticket feels too partisan for you, why not just vote out every single incumbent? That would work for me. Most of the elected officials towards whom I feel any loyalty at all aren't up for re-election this year, and I'd be happy seeing Washington stocked exclusively by new blood this time around.

Even if you live in California. Because, frankly, as much as I want a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, I don't think Dianne Feinstein deserves a win. She's been absolutely atrocious for the past few years.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Cars isn't just a step down from previous Pixar animated films. It's a full-on stumble. A failure on a basic, conceptual level. If the animation itself weren't so impressive (the backgrounds in get more realistic and detailed with each passing Pixar film), it would be unidentifiable as the work of CG animation's premiere studio.

An animated feature about self-aware, talking cars that race one another for sport is just a bad idea for a movie. I felt this way when I first heard that it would be the subject of John Lassiter's next Pixar film (the studio's final collaboration with Disney). Talking cars violate the Pixar formula, which tends to focus on invisible worlds that parallel our own human reality. In Toy Story, inanimate playthings share their own adventures when the children are away. In A Bug's Life, tiny insects struggle and fall in love silently under our feet. In Monster's Inc, the imaginary creatures of children's dreams work out of a factory filled with closet doors.

Brad Bird's debut with the studio, the phenomenal Incredibles, departed from the standard formula admirably, mainly due to its director's wit, creativity and unerring sense for story. Cars, on the other hand, just doesn't make a lot of sense.

We're asked to accept talking cars with humanoid faces driving around a world that exactly replicates our own, save for the total absence of any actual carbon-based lifeforms. I don't want to overthink this, but wouldn't a world built for and by cars look significantly different from a world built for and by humans? Why are roads so narrow if everyone's a car? Who is building all these cars? How come the cars have shelves and gas pumps and other tools requiring opposable thumbs?

I know this movie is for kids and not discerning, cynical adults, but I'm thinking that even children would question some aspects of this premise. It's one thing to have a plot device that doesn't stand up for post-movie scrutiny, but there's just cognitive dissonance going on in a film where cars own multi-story hotels. How are they getting up to the second floor?

Beyond the fact that it's nonsensical to have a world solely populated by manmade machines, the concept of Cars limits Lassiter and co-director Joe Ranft's ability to craft memorable characters. They throw in just about every recognizable 20th century automotive design, from Model T's to tow trucks to fire engines, but there's not as much variation in car models as, say, underwater life or monsters. It's as if Pixar generally chooses subjects with a lot of diversity, to allow for maximum colorful and interesting designs, but this time went with cars because Americans like 'em.

The plot is lifted directly from Michael J. Fox's '80s comedy Doc Hollywood. Race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), en route to the finals of the Piston Cup in California, accidentally rips up the main road through the near-deserted town of Radiator Springs. A stern local judge (voiced by Paul Newman) sentences him to painstakingly repave the road before leaving town, putting him in danger of missing the race entirely and losing his shot at eternal racing glory.

Of course, while in Radiator Springs, Lightning will learn that winning isn't everything and there's more to life than big contracts and endorsement deals and a whole lot of other messages that are entirely hypocritical coming from Walt Disney Studios. That kind of "message" stuff is par for the course in contemporary kiddie flicks, which don't so much suggest high-minded ideals to children as repeatedly hammer away at familiar bromides. That's not the problem.

Cars is just such a slack affair. None of the main characters really click this time out, despite the efforts of a large ensemble of mainly-talented voice actors. Only Jeremy Piven, riffing on his "entourage" role in a bit part as Lightning's agent, got any real laughs from me. George Carlin appears as a VW bug (which, of course, sounds like a hippie), Cheech Marin plays a lowrider (cause he's a Mexican!) and Tony Shalhoub plays a cheap Italian stereotype tire salesman, but none of them really has anything funny to work with. How can this be the same group that made the effortlessly hilarious and even insightful Toy Story 2?

Worst of all, some numbskull agreed to give a sizable role to the noxious Larry the Cable Guy, as the half-retarded tow truck Mater. The animators did a remarkable job in this case, because the character totally captures the shrill, obnoxious, semi-offensive and desperate schtick of the real Larry the Cable Guy. It takes ability to perfectly translate redneck-style ignorance into the realm of digital animation and I want to give credit where it's due.

I don't want to sound repetitive, but the writers were clearly hampered by the weak concept. How many fuel and exhaust jokes can you make within the confines of one film? Even so, Cars smacks of a lack of effort in terms of the material. (For example, Radiator Springs contains several businesses, but almost all of them sell fuel. There's a restaurant that serves oil and fuel, a hippie VW bus that sells "organic fuel," which I guess is supposed to be a play on organic food but which isn't even remotely funny, and so on. Couldn't they think of some more "car stores"? These kinds of punny alternate-reality jokes are Pixar's bread and butter.

It's a real shame the material doesn't work better because the animation, in typical Pixar style, is absolutely stellar. Despite the unfortunate focus on linear, car race-style action as opposed to the more broad and inventive set pieces in Monsters Inc or Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, many of the shots are still breathtaking in their attention to the small details of scenery, color and shading. Some of the desert shots look photorealistic, like actual footage taken from a car window of the arid world passing by.

But though it's uniformly terrific, my instinct tells me that Pixar's the biggest brand name in American film today because of its personality, not its technical acumen. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think it's the programs allowing for the random movement of individual hairs on Sully the Monster that made Monsters Inc such a hit. It was the charm and likability of the scenario, the genial attitude and the impressive scope. And the jokes were funny! I really can't stress the importance of funny jokes enough in a comedy...