Saturday, December 16, 2006


Hey, the brand new trailer for Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard is online and it's...adequate.

Actually, it's kind of bad. Very, and I hate to say this, Ratnerian. It has a distinctively Ratneriffic quality that I found distasteful. I know that the series is bound to update its look for the times. This is the third decade in which Bruce Willis will be starring as Detective John McClane, so you can't expect the movies to look or feel alike necessarily. (And in the case of Die Harder and several extended portions of Die Hard With a Vengeance, you can't expect them to be any good.)

But still, this doesn't look like the style has been updated to fit in the contemporary aesthetic. It just looks like any possible Die Hard-ness has been drained out in favor of Michael Bay's standard acrobatic cars routine. Why these directors have such an obsession with flinging CG cars around, I have no idea. John Landis flung real cars around in The Blues Brothers 25 years ago, and that wasn't even an action movie.

Okay, so those are my reservations. I still think there's a good chance this movie will kick ass, and that it's just a bad, misleading trailer. The director is Len Wiseman, the guy who did those Underworld movies and tagged their star, Kate Beckinsale. I still haven't seen the first film, but the second one looked really cool and atmospheric, and had a few solid, well-shot action scenes. Granted, it was a lot more effects-heavy than any Die Hard movie ought to be, but still, I think the guy probably has the chops to pull off a summer action comedy. That is, if the script's any good, Willis is still up to the task and all the million other things that could potentially go wrong don't. The premise, in which hackers hold the United States hostage by threatening to shut down our economy electronically, sounds a bit dicey for this series, but then again it has a solid cast (that includes Jeffrey Wright and Maggie Q.)

Talkbackers on Aint it Cool have expressed problems with the trailer's lone line of dialogue, Justin Long's character asking McClane if he's "ever done anything like this before?" I don't see how you can object to that joke, when every other Die Hard movie contains those same kind of cheesy allusions to the other movies. Remember Die Harder? "What are the chances of the same thing happening to one guy twice?"

There seems to be a bit of pushback against this new wave of '80s action-nostalgia. In addition to a Die Hard sequel and a Miami Vice adaptation, we've got a new Rocky movie set to open with plans for a Rambo update to follow, a live-action Transformers film, a "Terminator" TV series on the way, talk of reviving the Robocop franchise, the possibility of an additional Beverly Hills Cop film and Jean-Claude Van Damme's return in Rush Hour 3. (Obviously, there's always rumors flying about a new Indiana Jones film, but that has been going on forever and isn't really part of this new trend.) I guess this is all to be expected.

People my age grew up with these movies and they are now becoming increasingly influential in the motion picture industry. We like Transformers and Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone movies, goddammit. (So they're reviving Beverly Hills Cop...How about giving Cobra or Over the Top a shot at a sequel?)

I think the next few years will be fun, personally, if a bit bloated and over-the-hill and ridiculous, and even bittersweet. This is the last hurrah for my boyhood screen heroes, really the last generation of burly, lunky Hollywood action stars. After these guys, the action heroes started to look more like Keanu Reeves and Christian Bale, comic book adolescents who obtain power using their creativity, scientific know-how and sweet computer hacking skills rather than via protein shakes and squat thrusts. It's the end of an era, and it's only right that we send out the '80s action film in an orgiastic fireball of sophomoric blood-drenched testosterone.

Ernest Goes to Jail

Shocking news tonight as a former member of the jam rock supergroup Phish has been charged with possession of illegal substances. No word yet on whether the arresting officer was a makisupa policeman, looking merely to pinch a little something off of Trey's formidable stash. We'll keep you updated as more details come in.

Trey Anastasio was accused of driving under the influence of drugs in an upstate New York town near the Vermont border early Friday.

Oh, Trey, Trey...First you start writing all kinds of maudlin weepy ballads (what my friend would term "vagina music"), then you leave Phish to start doing lame Gordon Sumner-esque adult-contempo solo tours and now this...What happened to you, man? You used to be cool?

The biggest shock of all in this is that Trey's real first name is Ernest. Ernest Anastasio.

The former Phish frontman was pulled over by an officer who saw his car failing to keep to right side of the road at about 3:30 a.m., Whitehall village police said.

A search turned up quantities of the painkillers hydrocodone and Percocet, as well as the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, that had been prescribed for someone else, police said.

Percocet and Xanax? What, is Trey entangled in a loveless marriage in mid '70s Cleveland? That might be the lamest combination of drugs any rock star has been caught with, ever. Even Nicole Ritchie had a little weed in her system, and she's goddamn 70 pounds.

Anastasio, who was driving with a suspended New York license, was charged with third-degree aggravated unlicensed operation, seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and driving while intoxicated-drugs, police said.

Trey's got to have some money, right? He's 42 years old. He can't get his driver's license sorted out or, failing that, just hire a car service or something? Phish was, for several years, among the highest-grossing touring acts in America. Several hundred thousand people showed up to see them play on an Indian Reservation one year. Jay-Z took the stage with them in Brooklyn! And this guy's driving himself around the Vermont border with a suspended driver's license?

Anyway, here's the saddest photo I've seen all day.

Very True Hollywood Story. So that's the AFTER photo. For the BEFORE, here's Trey back in better days, covering The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with his old band.

I Deny the Holy Spirit

The Blasphemy Challenge wants people to upload 30 second videos of themselves denying the Holy Spirit. The first 1000 people to do so get a free copy of The God Who Wasn't There, the atheism documentary, on DVD. I'd do it, because the entire notion of a Holy Spirit that pays attention when we say shit like "I deny the Holy Spirit" is really, really dumb, roughly akin to believing in a chronically obese elf who lives on the ever-thinning ice of the North Pole, quietly performing worldwide NSA-style surveillance enabling him to gather usable, up-close intelligence on the habits of nice and children, along with their relative preference vis-a-vis choo-choo trains vs. kewpie dolls.

The big deal is this passage from The Gospel of Mark.

"Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." - Mark 3:29

Of all the horrible shit you could possibly do, this is the only thing Jesus can't forgive. Seriously. Even the Mel Gibson defense doesn't work for denying the Holy Spirit. If Nicole Ritchie, moments before driving in the wrong direction on an LA freeway, had denied the Holy Spirit, she'd be damned to eternal hellfire instead of 30 days in county.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit just finds your lack of faith deeply, deeply disturbing, and It won't stand for it. I mean, Jesus has pretty strong, visceral feelings about dead baby rape, but he'll still forgive you. "You shouldn't rape dead babies," Jesus was known to say on occasion among close friends and apostles. "I probably shouldn't even have to give you a little allegory for you to understand this rule. I mean, it's a dead baby. Why would you want to rape it? Now let's go magic up some fish for those lepers!" Rumor has it, he was going to put it into the Sermon on the Mount, but dropped it to spare the feelings of his good friend Lazarus, who had infamously once raped a baby and who showed up to The Mount at the last minute. That just goes to prove my point. Jesus drew a line: Dead baby rape = okay if you're really sorry, denying the Holy Spirit = fire + brimstone.

Anyway, it only takes a moment and you have the added bonus of damning your eternal soul. I wonder if this could automatically get you out of listening to missionaries and evangelicals for the rest of your life. "Sorry, I can't come to Bible Study with you...I denied the Holy Spirit just, like, two weeks ago. Yeah, oops. It was just kind of a spur of the moment, hair up my ass kind of thing."

At Pharyngula, PZ has highlighted some funny responses from the believers to the video. Here are a few favorites:

So athiests think their immortal soul is worth a free DVD. Intersting; sad, VERY sad, but interesting none the less.

This person demonstrates a breathtaking ability to miss the point. Atheists don't think anything about their immortal soul because they typically don't believe in any such thing. Your sentence is a complete non-sequiteur, along the lines of saying "Americans think that a teleportation machine is worth 400,000 boxes of oatmeal raisin cookies."

I cannot convince people who have made up their mind already, but I will say that I am a witness of the working of the Holy One. You aren't required to believe me, though. It's your ball, and it's in your court now.

You hear these kinds of arguments all the time from 3 different kinds of people: goony film nerds, ghost hunters and God fearers. The "well, I've seen the evidence but I can't show it to you" argument.

Among film nerds, it's always some random cut of a movie that probably doesn't exist but that the person you're talking to has magically seen. "Seriously, man, there's a 7 hour version of Magnificent Ambersons where Joseph Cotton stalks, cooks and eats a live deer. I've seen it!"

For ghost hunters, it's always about this one experience - back when they were a skeptic just like you - that changed their lives forever. "And as I was walking up the hall, towards the music room of Benchley Manor, I could clearly see the undead form of Lady Benchley, pleasuring herself with Lord Pennington-Smythewood's antique clarinet! And she had on the same jewel-encrusted broach as she does in the locket we found in the secret panel of a hope chest in the attic!"

For fundies, it's always the Holy Moment when THE LORD GAWD interrupted their tedious little lives and showed them THE TRUTH ABOUT EVERYTHING. This commenter on YouTube has witnessed the presence of God. For seriously. It happened. So here's my question...Why doesn't God go and visit Muqtada al Sadr? "Hey, you...Stop sending out members of your militia to destabilize already-violent Baghdad neighborhoods! You have to listen to me, I'm God. I mean, Allah. Praise be my name, or something." God has way more important people to talk to than this schmuck.

Sorry to disappoint you all, but just because you are making your silly video's, that is NOT blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The only way to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to die in your sin, without repenting and putting your faith in Christ. You must first KNOW that Jesus Christ IS God, and that he IS the way, the truth and the life, and THEN deny him as God AND die in your sin without repenting and putting your trust in the saviour.

Hmmm...He/she may have us there. I'm pretty sure it doesn't count as blasphemy either, if you don't already believe in Jesus to begin with. But doesn't this contradict the Book of Mark? He doesn't say "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit that already agreedt o believe in the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven."

lmao..the fact you even comment on the holy spirit proves you believe! If you really believed there's no such thing, you wouldn't be talking about it.

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect...

Why? I doubt many people would care if you believe in a god or not, so a generic claim like 'I deny the holy spirit' doesn't mean shit. What's important is the reason behind your claims. When you grow up enough to stop antagonising Christians for the hell of it, come back and explain your 'logical thinking.' Atheism isn't a fashion accessory.

No, atheism is not a fashion accessory. Now, Christianity on the other hand, that is most definitely a fashion accessory.

The use of quotation marks around 'logical thinking' here strikes me as very telling.

Atheism, really any of the agnostic/naturalist/academic belief systems, relies on what to me feels like a fundamental humility. You recognize that the Great Questions are always going to be just that - questions - and you resign yourself to accepting the best and most current information that those who study our world professionally can provide.

For example, I can grasp only the most basic conceptualization of something like String Theory. I know enough to understand that multi-dimensional models of the universe explain some issues but also create more unanswerable questions and that's about it. But I can't possibly understand this information the way an astrophysicist would, so I would have no choice but to defer my opinion on the subject to the expert should the situation arise.

This is essentially a humble stance, and sensible, educated people take them all the time. I look up to authorities in pretty much all aspects of life - novelists, journalists, scholars, scientists, activists, artists, world leaders, engineers. The list goes on an don.

I see this as running against the devout religious worldview. Fundamentalists and their ilk have only one source of authority. The Big Man in the Sky. And the great thing about God is that he's absent. He never talks to anyone any more, and his Book is full of all kinds of weird anachronisms, counter-intuitive messages and contradictory advice. So religious people get to act pretty much however they want. They don't defer to experts, their own leaders or even one another. It's a free-for-all.

And that's how you get religious people who hold the very notion of 'logical thinking' in contempt. They have a Righteousness on their side that defeats even the powers of Logic, much in the way that a thin slip of paper can surreptitiously cover a sturdy rock in the popular game. It's like being the Bully's Little Pal. Sure, you have to follow this guy around and pretend to be his best friend, but the moment he's not around, you run the schoolyard. You don't take shit from nobody, despite being the same little weasel they all once picked on.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lady in the Water

[NOTE: This really isn't a twist movie like M. Night Shyamalan's others, but I still feel like I should put a spoiler warning up here at the top. If you haven't seen this awful piece of shit yet, don't. DON'T! But if you must see it, and don't want to know the immensely lame developments of the Third Act, read no furhter.]

Does M. Night Shyamalan ever doubt his storytelling prowess, even for a moment? Do you think he ever genuinely stops to consider his ideas impartially, or does he just take as a given that his ceaselessly imaginitive, Miltonian brain could not possibly create a thought lacking for greatness in any way?

Directing Hollywood films requires a healthy ego and an aggressive attitude. They don't just turn over $50 million to anybody and tell them to take 4 months and make some art. This is a high-pressure job that attracts some exceedingly loathsome, devious, self-obsessed individuals. The history of filmmaking is, in some ways, a series of anecdotes about sinister, intoxicated men pushing other people around in order to realize their personal, often perverse, visions. But even for a colleague of Warren Beatty and James Cameron, Night may be pushing the whole asshole-auteur thing a bit far.

If Lady in the Water is about anything, it's about M. Night Shyamalan's love for his own imagination, and his naked hostility at anyone who would dare question the magic and wonder of his inner world. So enamored has he become with his gift for invention, Night has seemingly forgotten all about the fundamentals of storytelling and filmmaking. His most smug, self-satisfied work, thus, becomes easily his least proficient.

There has already been a book published about the making of this film, because surely this is an ego trip of legendary proportions that should be prserved for posterity as a warning if nothing else. Night submitted the script for Lady in the Water to the suits at Disney, who offered to make the film with him while offering reservations about the story itself. (Watching the film, one can only sympathize with anyone, studio executive or no, having to provide constructive criticism and notes to its author..."Maybe you could rewrite this exchange so it isn't so overblown and terrible? Wouldn't it be interesting if, between pages 30 and 90, something happened?")

Hearing his masterpiece slighted so barbarically (they only offered him $40 million to make a movie!) caused Night to have what sounds like a mental breakdown, after which he severed ties with his old studio and skipped across Burbank to the WB. The result is, if not the worst film of 2006, certainly the silliest. I mean, really...This insipid bedtime story makes that dancing penguin cartoon look like Rules of the Game.

Night, listen to me carefully...We're going to have a little filmmaking intervention here, like Bobby D bringing Martin Scorsese the Jake LaMotta book that inspired Raging Bull when the director was in detox...You're in narcissistic personality disorder detox...

First, stop obsessively sniffing your own farts. Now then...Unbreakable 2: Breakable...Let's get it done.

Lady in the Water is complicated in the least interesting way possible. Essentially, Night has refashioned his mediocre science-fiction hit Signs into a fairy tale with significantly diminished results. That film focused on a preacher who had lost his faith (Mad Mel Gibson) and his family, who survive an alien attack only by discovering, at exactly the right moment, that "fate" has dealt them each a crucial role to play.

The premise here in unchanged but expanded. Lady in the Water exists in a world governed solely by fate. Individuals have been mysteriously drawn to an apartment building where a fated meeting between a mystical creature and humanity's savior will occur. Unbeknownst to them, they will each play a part in saving the world.

When you get right down to it, the entire concept has a creepy undertone. Free Will no longer exists in the Shyamalan universe. Destiny runs all. In Signs, this notion of fate was rendered as explicitly religious: fate is just another word for God, who knows what we are going to do even before we do it and thus plans all of our lives out ahead of time. Lady in the Water replaces the theology with a bogus, New Age-y spirituality, but the message is otherwise the same.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a lonely, broken man who works as a Super for an apartment complex called The Cove. He's known and liked by everyone in the building, but doesn't say much, largely keeping his head down and staying out of the way. One night, he finds a strange, pale girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming in the pool. This is Story (ugh), a magical water nymph who has come to The Cove looking for a writer.

Night claims that he made Story (ugh) up on the spot as a bedtime story for his children. I completely believe this account. The mythology surrounding Story might be the most ludicrous ever set to film, at least since Labyrinth. Okay, here we go...

Once upon a time, humans and nymphs (also called narfs) lived together in the sea. But then, humans started wanting to own things, so they went on to land and started building little huts that look like the heads of penises. So humans now live on land and fight wars and feel unhappy, and the nymphs keep trying to send us messengers to let us know how to save ourselves. But mean wolf-like creatures named scrunt (triple ugh) try to stop them, for some reason.

I don't know why humans had to go on land in order to start acquiring things. If we lived in the sea, wouldn't we just get greedy and possessive about ocean merchandise? I could see us all trying to buy the flashiest periscope bling or the longest harpoons. Also, I have no idea why this opening sequence was gendered, but the nymph species is all female and the human species all male. (Consider the title as well, and the fact that, as I pointed out before, all the human huts look like cocks.) This seems kind of peculiar and patriarchal to me. Are women not also human beings, who make war and seek ownership? And are men incapable of being in touch with the natural world, and therefore wise and enlightened?

The mythology gets far, far more complicated. There are keys to find, Queen Nymphs to crown, monkey soldiers to conscript (seriously...), hidden keys to obtain, and of course the occupants of the building have to figure out how they figure into Story's perilous return voyage to her home, The Blue World.

Unfortunately, Night doesn't bother to actually show us anything of interest. All we get talky scenes set in and around this apartment building, populated entirely by stock characters and crudely drawn racial stereotypes. From the extended, bickering Mexican family to the burnout circle of stoners, Night clearly hasn't put in a lot of time on developing relatable, original characters this time around, and that's a shame because the film has no action or style to distract from their banter. His technique of keeping most of the really juicy action just off-screen and tantalizing us with the barely-viewed details worked well in suspenseful genre movies like The Sixth Sense and Signs; it's creepier not to know what's waiting around the corner.

A sentimental (not to mention juvenile) fantasy like Lady in the Water needs to give us a bit more than a blurry shot of a wolf and an animated sequence before the credits. It's unclear why Cleveland or his neighbors would even believe Story and her ridiculous assertions about scrunts and tartuteks and whatever the fuck else she's being chased by, because you really don't see much of anything except an empty apartment building. The entire film, beginning to end, takes place in a few apartments and by the pool.

Instead of any action, really any movement at all, Night gives us insufferable scenes in which Cleveland's Korean neighbor Young Soon-Choi (Cindy Cheung) translates for him the entire Narf legend, which her mother learned as a child. Night's written some other films, so he knows what a lazy screenwriting device these Korean neighbors are, and how uninteresting these thick blocks of bland exposition would be for an audience looking for thrills and escapism. He surely also knows that the story here (lower case) has no tension, because Young's mother could just relate the entire Korean legend all at once and reveal all the plot's riddles. When the only thing keeping your narrative afloat is the whim of an old Korean lady with nothing much to do, you know your script has some structural flaws.

Mainly, it's offensive. These are exoticized Orientals who know some obscure mythology that's not even real, that this guy just made up and has now assigned to their culture. Also, despite being described as "a college student," Young speaks in this Rosie O'Donnell-esque pidgin accent. This intelligent young woman has lived in America for years, and she doesn't say any plurals or properly conjugate her verbs? ("Cleveland, why you no tell me you coming over? I need go get grocery from store!")

Giamatti, a great, lively actor, here is forced to sit around while a sub-"Mad TV" Asian caricature rattles on and on about the nuances of this retarded Hans Christian Anderson knockoff. One truly hideous, insane scene finds Giamatti forced to beg an old lady to tell him what's going to happen to him next. Young explains that, if her mother starts to see Cleveland as a little boy, she will open up and tell him the story. So he splashes milk all over his face, talks in weird baby-talk and curls up in the fetal position on the couch. Not funny, just strange. Perhaps Night is a Narf, unable to get to close to human beings and therefore unable to carefully observe their behavior for duplication in writing.

Okay, so I've talked a lot about why the film's almost unbearable to sit through, but I haven't really supported my initial claim that the film is Night's awkward tribute to himself. This really lies in the contrast between two of the film's most thin, generic characters: cynical film critic Harry Farber (Bob Balaban) and optimistic dreamer Vick Ran (played by the writer/director himself).

Cleveland eventually discovers that Story has come to The Cove in order to inspire Vick Ran. In a plot development ripped off directly from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Story has learned that Vick Ran will one day write a book that will change the course of human history. His book, entitled "The Cookbook," will inspire a young boy who will one day grow into America's greatest President and a World Leader of grand significance. In perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious dialgoue exchange in 2006 cinema, Cleveland inquires as to the subject of Vick Ran's writing. Here is the response, spoken by M Night himself...

"I guess it's about all these cultural problems we've been having. Leaders and stuff..."

Well, that's just great writing. Bravo. Ben Hecht's got nothing on this guy. (Can I also ask what he means by "cultural problems"? Violent video games? Abortion? Blogofascism? It sounds like something a budding authoritarian would say. "I am writing a book about my final solution to The Cultural Problem!")

But before Cleveland figures out that M. Night Shyamalan is the greatest writer in the history of the world and the savior of all mankind, he first considers professional writer and critic Farber for the job.

Night has written Farber as a thin-skinned, elitist, bitter prig, a man who thinks he knows everything and who pre-judges everyone he meets and everything he sees. This can only be read as a direct response to the critics who savaged Night's previous film, thehalf-baked, overreaching allegory, The Village. That film was rightly ridiculed as a bloated, unconvincing waste of time, but apparently Night feels that it was a beautiful piece of art that deserved to sail through the world criticism-free. Apparently, those who found fault with his movie, and in writing no less, could only have done so out of a smug sense of superiority and personal vindictiveness.

Even if that were true, this depiction of critics as evil incarnate comes off as petty, and Night ruins the only scare scene in his whole fucking movie to get a cheap laugh off at the death of one such hated critic. Dude, have some fucking pride, okay? This whole film feels like Christopher Hitchens flipping off the audience on Bill Maher's show, like a self-styled Great Man unable to deal with the inevitable backlash his sneering bravado has wrought. Using your movies to haughtily snipe at your critics makes you look ridiculous, not bold. (Not being an authentic, paid film critic, I didn't really take the swipe personally, mind you. I'm perfectly open to mean-spirited, satirical depictions of film critics in theory. I mean, I love that show "The Critic," and it wasn't exactly a glowing portrait of the profession, what with all the fat bald loser jokes.)

So, yeah, just like his real-world counterpart, it's up to Night's character in the movie to ignore those stupid, blind critics and save the world using only the power of his writing. And , if we recall that, in the Shyamalan Universe of Signs, "fate" is actually divine ordination, then God himself is calling upon Vick Ran to educate the people. Really. The movie tries to make this point. Without getting too deconstructionist on you, consider the connections to Islamo-Judeo-Christian mythology:

The Universe's spiritual awareness sends a creature named Story to communicate a great Truth to a writer (called "a vessel" in the film itself!) Kind of like how Abraham, Moses and Mohammad were handed down God's Word. Expand this formulation just a bit and you get what I think is Night's real point - he is God's prophet on Earth. Not just his character in the film, but director M. Night Shyamalan. His movies express The Great Truth of the Universe to the people. And here I thought they were just genre flicks.

This movie offended every one of my senses. Even cinematographer Chris Doyle, who usually can be counted on to liven up even the most dreary of films, only gets the opportunity to craft a few distinctive shots. (I mean, most of the action takes place around a community swimming pool!) Even the special effects suck. This wolf, made of sticks and twigs and covered in moss, looks like a blurry, CG-enhanced dog. Worse yet, they lack any kind of genuine, tactile physical presence, they don't feel like they're really occupying space next to the tenants. In one scene, Giamatti faces one down in the countyard, and the scene isn't remotely scary in part because it just looks too fake.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

R.I.P. Peter Boyle

Legendary character actor Peter Boyle, who used to hang out with John Lennon, starred in one of my all-time favorite films (Paul Schrader's Hardcore) and hosted one of the first episodes of "Saturday Night Live," died yesterday at the age of 71. The Associated Press' eulogy leads off, naturally, with his long-term stint on popular sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" as obnoxious loudmouth Frank Barone. He capped of his career with most beloved, popular character, which would be rewarding for any artist, but particularly one so prolific.

Barone in many ways was the pure embodiment of Boyle's persona, a character who was either written specifically with him in mind or tailored for him once he was cast. Like the sneering bundle of rage in Boyle's breakthrough 1970 film Joe, Barone covers up his insecurities through mean-spirited, cutting remarks. (Joe conflates hippies, communists, Jews and homosexuals into one faceless Army of Others to be opposed at all costs.)

Like his lawyer, Carl Lazlo, from the underseen Hunter Thompson adaptation Where the Buffalo Roam, many Boyle characters have a Wild Man side to their personalities, an irrepressible id that causes problems when unleashed. His cagey unpredictability is one of the things that made Boyle so much fun to watch on screen, both in the comedies for which he became best-known and the dramatic work in films like Taxi Driver, and particularly his turn as a bitter elderly racist in Mark Forster's otherwise-forgettable Monster's Ball.

I first recognized Boyle's considerable gifts as a young person in two separate comedies, though I didn't realize until years later that they were the work of one man. Obviously, like everyone else, I love Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, easily the crown jewel on the guy's filmography.

Boyle's turn as The Monster not only earns some of the biggest laughs, but also ranks as one of the most heartbreakingly humane versions of Shelly's unholy creation. Like Boris Karloff, Boyle sees the monster as an emotional person frustrated by his physical, sensory and communicative limitations. Unlike De Niro's sinister mutant or Christopher Lee's braindead fiend, Boyle's monster has a real heart and a soul, not to mention graceful dancing skills and perfect pitch.

My other early favorite among the guy's films was the 1989 comedy The Dream Team, which I saw repeatedly owing largely to a childhood obsession with the films of Michael Keaton. I have not seen The Dream Team in many years, so I can't guarantee that it would hold up to my current sensibilities, but I used to think it, and Boyle's performance as an escaped mental patient, was fall-down, laugh-out-loud funny.

Considering some of the guy's early work, I'm taken with not only how many great films the guy made but how many different shades he managed to bring out of essentially the same persona. His work in Joe, teamed with his memorable turn as fast-talking street philosopher Wizard in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, typecast him for much of the '70s and '80s as a caustic, savvy scumbag.

In Schrader's Hardcore, a deliriously sleazy descent into the underbelly of the late '70s LA porn scene, Boyle plays Andy Mast, a detective of questionable morals hired by an uptight Calivinist from Pennsylvania (George C. Scott) to track down a wayward daughter. Mast, as written, plays pretty similar to a lot of other private eyes in '70s films. Lou Harper by way of Elliott Gould's Phillip Marlowe, only with a more keen and passionate interest in smut. But Boyle additionally gives the guy a boyish innocence - despite his bullying, almost cruel sense of humor, he's genuinely committed to solving the case and protecting his client.

(One scene finds Scott and Boyle arguing. The client has showed up as his detective's home to find the man seducing an underage girl rather than working on his case. As they exchange insults, Scott roars at Boyle to "get out of here!" Boyle begins to leave, then stops dead in his tracks. "Wait a minute, you can't tell me to leave. This is my own apartment!" I'm not sure Schrader knew that scene was funny when he wrote it, but Boyle certainly figured it out.)

Okay, I'm a big fan, but I can see that I'm starting to ramble. So I will ujust real quickly go through other Boyle performances I have greatly enjoyed.

Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Boyle's fantastic as a stoolie in this terrific Boston noir starring Robert Mitchum. I saw it a year or so ago on TCM, but it's frustratingly unavailable on DVD. (It's clearly a precursor to Scorsese's The Departed, so perhaps the success of that film will inspire interest in a new print of this one?)

"Dueling Brandos" (1975): I've always loved this sketch from when Boyle hosted an early episode of "Saturday Night Live." He and John Belushi trade off doing solid Brando imitations in between bursts of that creepy Deliverance "dueling banjo" music. I think they redid it years later when Ray Romano hosted...Of course, not as funny...

Outland (1981): Boyle had actually started his career playing tough guys, and he got one more shot in Peter Hyams' so-bad-it's-pretty-good sci-fi action film.

Johnny Dangerously (1984): See aforementioned obsession with Michael Keaton comedies. Boyle palys a character named Jocko Dundee. I mean...need I say more?

Two by Steven Zaillian

Screenwriter and sometime-director Steve Zaillian is perhaps best-known for penning Steven Spielberg's award-amassing Holocaust travelogue Schindler's List, for which he won and Academy Award and a lifetime of dirty sidelong glances from Jean-Luc Godard. Though he mainly scripts middling mainstream fare along the lines of Clear and Present Danger, Awakenings (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Hannibal, Zaillian's resume is not without highlights. Among them are the sturdy if austere chess drama Searching for Bobby Fischer (which Zaillian also directed), Martin Scorsese's charmingly untidy Gangs of New York and his feature-length screenwriting debut, 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman, directed by John Schlesinger. This year, Zaillian reteamed with that film's "Snowman," Sean Penn, to adapt Robert Penn Warren's classic novel All the King's Men, previously filmed by Robert Rossen in 1949.


The first five minutes of Falcon and the Snowman are a study in storytelling efficiency. Without saying a word, disillusioned post-adolescent Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) leaves seminary with pet falcon Fawkes in tow, never to return. Meanwhile, in a fleabag Mexican motel, his childhood friend Daulton (Sean Penn) wakes up, looks out the window at a passing funeral, and leaves a tip on the bed stand for the previous night's prostitute. Both young men have reached a dead-end - one turning his back on his faith and his planned career, the other reeling from multiple convictions for drug dealing back home.

Zaillian's screenplay, based on a true story about two Americans who passed documents to the Soviets, sets up all the dominoes in near-record time. Christopher's father (Pat Hingle, the Commissioner Gordon from Burton and Schumacher's Batman films) gets him a low-level job at a company working largely on behalf of the CIA. (It's based on the real company TRW). His employers like his clean background, his ability to learn quickly and his father's many years of service as an FBI agent. So they give him some high-level clearance and bounce him into a ludicrously easy job transmitting coded documents before shredding them.

John Schlesinger's film looks on from Chris' perspective, which can kindly be called naive, even by the standards of 1974 (when the action is set). He's shocked (shocked!) when some of the documents passing through his office indicate shady CIA dealings in Australia, possibly undermining the democratically-elected government and infiltrating the air traffic controller's union. Chris and Daulton share a particularly timely conversation about the rise of Pinochet in Chile and how the CIA may have been behind that operation as well.

Interestingly, the film depicts Christopher as enthusiastic about selling out his nation from the very beginning. A toxic combination of displaced personal angst and anger about covert CIA wheelings and dealings creates within him a strong desire for vengeance, a wish to do wrong to our nation. Daulton's simply in it for the money, but Christopher clearly poses the greater threat; he's a true believer. (Naming his pet bird after Guy Fawkes, the notorious attempted Parliament bomber, provides early insight into his strongly-held attitudes towards authority.)

Once Christopher sends Daulton to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City, armed with secret documents and licensed to negotiate a price, the movie shifts from an odd, disjointed buddy comedy into a more conventional spy thriller. An intense Soviet agent (David Suchet) doles out thousand dollar payments for unimportant information, but really desires something Christopher can't access - the coordinates of US spy satellites. Daulton wants to string them along, Christopher gets cold feet and the two novices' brief flirtation with international espionage starts to turn exceptionally sour. Fast.

Daulton presumably earns the titular nickname "Snowman" (never spoken during the actual film) because of his constant cocaine and heroin use, which gives Penn an all-too-familiar arc to traverse. (With a few non-crucial changes, Daulton morphs cleanly into his sleazy coked-out lawyer character from Carlito's Way.) Hutton plays Christopher as a bewildered, somewhat lackadaisical proto-slacker, half Benjamin Braddock and half Wayne Campbell. It's a likable enough character for the most part, but the fiery political outbursts he's asked to deliver every 30 minutes or so feel out of place, like the screenwriter subbing in his own voice briefly for that of his character.

A vaguely-sketched, inconclusive romantic subplot between Christopher and a blonde he meets in a pet shop (Lori Singer) feels equally gratuitous. I guess a movie about a conflicted spy needs a girl impatiently waiting for him at home. It's a rule or something.

Still, the sequences set in Mexico City have a certain breezy panache, the '80s music and '70s fashion gives everything a throwback, nostalgic sheen. And it's always fun to watch Penn self-destruct. Falcon and the Snowman remains a solid if largely unremarkable film, enhanced by the provocative knowledge that both of its subjects have since been released from prison and returned to society.


Zaillian both adapted Warren's novel and also directed this wan, turgid treatise on corruption. The story of Louisiana Governor Willie Stark (based on Louisiana's Governor and Senator Huey Long) could be rendered as a complex, insightful and vital film about the present state of politics in America, a nation still suffering from the kind of systemic rot today that plagued government in Long's time. Instead, Zaillian has turned in a confused and disconnected mess, a movie that's not just inscrutable but downright impossible to follow in any sort of logical fashion.

Much of Falcon and the Snowman benefits from Zaillian's ability to write in a way that's both vague and compelling. In that film, he keeps Christopher's motives obscured for a good, long while and he sets up Daulton for a crime he may or may not have actually committed. In other words, he's deliberately confusing in order to enhance the audience's understanding of the daze in which the protagonists operate. They don't know quite what's going on, so neither do we. (Alan Daviau's angular cinematography adds to the effect; we never see the protagonists from eye level, and always get an obscured, interrupted view of the important on-screen action.)

In All the King's Men, a bit of context and perspective would really help. I have not read the book, but I have seen the previous film, and I'm somewhat familiar with the actual '20s and '30s political career of Huey Long. Yet taken on its own terms, Zaillian's movie fails to tell any kind of complete story. It grasps around amongst 4 or 5 different plots but never settles on one for long enough to fill in any blanks.

It's difficult to even speak about any of the performances because Zaillian gives all the actors so little to go on. We don't know if people are honest or corrupt, if they are noble or devious, if they have good or malicious intentions. There is never an explanation, nor is there any background. Willie Stark exists in a vacuum of his own power and ego. Does he care about the people he represents or doesn't he? Neither Zaillian and Penn seem sure, and if they don't know, how the hell are we supposed to figure it out? Throughout the film, for example, we're told that the voters have elected Stark in response to crippling poverty, but we never get to really see or experience their plight. It exists somewhere out there, because we are told it exists, but it never becomes tactile or palpable. (It doesn't help that Zaillian has senselessly moved the film forward in time from the '30s to the '50s, making some of the details borrowed from Long's actual biography incongruous.)

Willie Stark begins as a small man fighting a corrupt system. As a building inspector, he knew that shoddy work was being done on a schoolhouse, but his decision was overruled by bureaucrats. When the building collapses, he suddenly finds himself a bit of a local celebrity and a respected "voice of the people." So he's flattered but not entirely surprised when an operative for the State, Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), shows up and asks him to run for Governor.

It turns out, Duffy intends to set Stark up. He's hoping Stark will peel away some of the populist vote from his own candidate's opposition, and serve as a spoiler for the establishment candidate to retain power. Gandolfini, who along with Louisiana native Patricia Clarkson boasts one of the film's lone realistic accents, does some typically great work in his few scenes here, as a large, imposing man with an unexpectedly meek, servile demeanor. Stark, a brilliant orator who discovers his true voice on the stump at precisely the right moment, turns the tables on Duffy and storms into office on the crest of a whirlwind campaign.

All these events are reported dutifully by the cynical journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who's not exactly impressed with Stark's man-of-the-people schtick yet nevertheless agrees to join his administration. Okay, so, in addition to building the relationship between Burden and Stark, Zaillian tries to squeeze in several extraneous, distracting subplots. I realize all this stuff might have been in the novel, but there wouldn't be time for all this story in a 2 hour film even if the director wasn't so fond of long close-up takes and shots of cars driving up to and then away from houses.

Stark's tense relationship with his wife (Talia Balsam), mistress/campaign manager (Clarkson) and assorted girlfriends each get a scene or two. Plus there's Burden's relationship to his wealthy and esteemed godfather, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins). Not to mention his restrained, decades-long infatuation with Irwin's daughter (Kate Winslet) and his longstanding friendship with Irwin's son (Mark Ruffallo). Zaillian attempts to dart between the personal and the political, the historically accurate and the obviously fictional, without giving the audience any kind of central idea, focal point or emotional investment. With so many characters wandering around so many thinly-connected plotlines, it's no wonder nothing gets developed beyond reductive, pitchable sentences.

Zaillian can't even decide who his story's really about. He focuses on Stark and his sudden and surprising rise to prominence within a bonafide populist movement. Then, at about the halfway point, Zaillian's attention shifts to Burden and his relationship with the Irwin family. (It feels like at least a half hour goes by in the middle of the film in which Penn, the ostensible subject of the film, doesn't even appear.) By the conclusion, we're suddenly expected to care deeply about the fate of Ruffallo's character, who has said maybe 10 words and done nothing of import. He's in so little of the film and has such a minor connection to the story of Willie Stark, Zaillian's forced to give other characters expository dialogue merely to explain his presence. We're told that he's an exceedingly moral, upright man, but don't ever get a single example of something he has done to earn this reputation. His story ends with an overblown, kitschy shot of the Louisiana State Logo (you'll know it if you see it) coupled with some poorly-chosen music and an utterly nonsensical bit of dialogue, signaling that Zaillian has lost the emotional thread of his film entirely.

Consider this...A large portion of All the King's Men concerns the impeachment trial of Stark on corruption charges. Bizarrely, Zaillian not only refuses to say whether Stark is guilty or innocent of the charges, but even skips over the specific charges levelled against him. Is he corrupt? This matters! It is the crux of the entire story. If Stark is guilty of corruption, what we are watching is a bleak, angry warning about slimy, monied interests turning otherwise respectable, concerned citizens into hopeless, enabling fraud. If Stark is innocent, we're seeing a melancholy elegy for the "Last Honest Man," a Charlie Kane-like figure who dreamed of doing good only to be destroyed by the very system he hoped to change. Unfortunately, Penn doesn't seem to have a better handle on Stark than in the audience do, making his entire performance muddled and uncertain.

How are we supposed to find any meaning in Willie Stark's story if we don't know the basic facts of his case? Refusing to give any insight into the nature of Stark's leadership, his motives, his perspective or anything else about his administration aside from his rhetoric leaves us totally in the dark, disconnected completely from the story and, essentially, uninterested. There are things happening on screen, but there's no there there.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

Any attempt to discuss this film in a standard review would be pointless. This is not a movie about characters or comic situations or special effects or even entertainment, according to the standard use of the term. David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada belongs in that venerable Hollywood sub-genre - the 90-minute commercial.

Anyone circling 30 like me will surely remember The Wizard, that charming Fred Savage vehicle which promised early and exclusive footage of other kids playing "Super Mario Bros. 3"? And of course, who could forget the Garbage Pail Kids feature-length advertisement that actually opened in a few theaters before everyone realized it was a terrible idea and promptly replaced it with the latest Friday the 13th installment? (The GPK movie, you'll recall, made the odd decision to kill off all the most famous characters. Not a lot of franchises would risk that sort of gruesome brand carnage these days. Can you imagine if all the main characters died at the end of the forthcoming Simpsons Movie?)

So, okay, most films of this sort are like those "free" vacations that scam travel companies are always offering. You think you're getting a ski weekend in Vail, but it turns out you have to sit through 10 presentations about time shares in Hickspittle, Montana first. The Devil Wears Prada promises you a dark, edgy comedy about life in the world's most high-pressure office. Sort of a female counterpoint to Swimming With Sharks. But instead, you get about 5 minutes of actual movie along with 85 minutes of ads for Jimmy Choos.

This may not sour everyone on the movie. After all, I am not the target demographic for couture ads. I don't even mean that in a gender-stereotypical "only girls care about clothes" way. Plenty of guys care about clothes and pay close attention to how they dress. Just not me. I'm totally incapable of dressing with any sort of style. I just throw on stuff if it vaguely appears to match, or at least gets close enough. My mother, upon seeing how I leave my apartment, will occasionally give me fashion "tips": Don't wear blue with black, don't wear jeans out to formal dinners, stop wearing those sweatpants with the oversized hole in the crotchal region. This is roughly like trying to teach a deaf Inuit to speak English by reading him passages from Strunk and White. The boldest fashion statement my regular attire makes is: "This guy eats a lot of foods containing barbecue sauce with a relaxed attitude towards drippage."

My point is, a lot of people who aren't me probably enjoyed this movie because it was all about clothes. If Anne Hathaway modeling a variety of designer outfits sounds appealing to you, I can almost guarantee you will enjoy The Devil Wears Prada. As for me, I was bored by the complete lack of momentum and disappointed that an appealing cast and a promising set-up never once connects.

Aline Brosh McKenna's screenplay comes from the best-selling novel by Lauren Weisberger, based on the author's real experiences working for Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Meryl Streep plays Wintour's stand-in, Runway magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, making this the second recent film in which she has portrayed a harsh, fictionalized caricature of a notable real-life woman. (In Spike Jonze's Adaptation, of course, she portrayed "The Orchid Thief" author Susan Orlean as a reckless, somewhat disturbed, drug-addicted adulterer.)

Priestly is, as the film's title implies, highly unpleasant. She's pretty much the inverse of Kevin Spacey's Boss from Hell in the aforementioned Sharks. He was loud, crude, aggressive and manic, intentionally pushing everyone's buttons, dominating them through intimidation and fear. Preistly prefers to make outrageous and impossible demands, to sew dischord among her various employees and to give everyone the silent treatment. (Her ridiculously long lists of instructions to assistants are always followed with a withering, "That's all.")

The first of many logical inconsistancies occurs right away, when plucky wannabe journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) accepts a job working for Priestly despite a total lack of interest in fashion. The film lamely explains this discrepancy away by having Andy note that all the other good New York City journalism internships were taken, but it's still hard to see why anyone would put up with Priestly's crap unless they simply had to be on the inside of her particular industry. Wouldn't Andy's career aspirations be better served by actually doing some writing for a smaller magainze or a newspaper? (She declares her intention to write for The New Yorker, not Marie Claire.)

But the film spends very little time developing a plot, so it's in desperate need of a little conflict. If Miranda and Andy could bond about clothes from the get-go, the whole movie would be over after the first reel, and we wouldn't have any opportunity to check out Dolce & Gabbana's exciting new Fall line.

Andy doesn't only clash with Miranda during the year she must spend at Runway before moving on to an exciting position elsewhere. She locks horns repeatedly with Miranda's catty senior assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) and trades occasionally hostile banter with assistant editor Nigel (Stanley Tucci, working overtime to squeeze something salvagable from a nothing character). Andy's slavish devotion to her assistant duties and newfound friendship with a suave fellow journalist (Simon Baker) likewise cause friction with her chef boyfriend (Vinnie Chase). Not one of these stories has a beginning, a middle or an end. They're just situations to which we're introduced, not plots that actually do any unfolding. Andy hates Miranda, then grudgingly grows to respect her, then decides that she really did just hate her all along. The scenes that would normally make up a comedy of this sort, such as Andy's tussles with Emily or relationships woes, are here just filler, segues between the long sequence about handbags and the even longer sequence about scarves.

Take Baker's "journalist" character, Christian Thompson. I put quotes around it because the guy never does a single journalistic thing for the entire movie. He shows up, randomly, wherever the plot demands that he be at any given time and spouts unrealistic expositional dialogue. When Andy nervously accompanies Miranda to a big fashion show, Christian magically pops up just as our hero is making for the exit. When a massive backdoor deal threatens the future of Runway Magazine, Christian turns out to be the whole scheme...somehow. This is not a character, but a device. This makes sense, though, because all characters in commercials are devices - they're never meant to represent a real person with real thoughts and feelings. They're supposed to represent us, the faceless consumer preparing to enjoy this wonderful new product.

So we see Andy struggle at first, but then slowly get the hang of her environment, while at the same time discovering the amazing powers of expensive clothes to improve her outlook and sense of well-being. A scene in which Nigel takes Andy to the secret Runway dressing room where all the free samples are stored (a mythologized, utopian locale also referenced in a "Sex and the City" episode) really lays out the film's worldview: Clothes are very important because they tell the world what kind of person you are and reflect everything about you, from your personality to your worth as an individual.

At the start of the film, when Andy dresses like a schlub, we know she is clueless and unfulfilled. Then she masters her job and, accordingly, dresses nicely, which is a huge improvement. Unfortunately, it turns her into a bitch. Eventually, she finds the proper balance - dressing really well without being a bitch! See, you too can find happiness by only spending all of your after-tax income on fancy shoes and pretty outfits!

The centerpiece of the film is a musical montage in which Andy wakes up, dresses and walks to work. Over the course of what looks like a single day's commute, Frankel cuts between Hathaway wearing, I'd guess, at least 6 or 7 very different outfits. They really should have just made this scene the entire film - Anne Hathaway modeling new clothes and shoes while stalking the streets of New York. And every 15 minutes or so, Meryl Streep could run up and throw a purse at her. Done. Movie. I think audiences would get it. They're clearly not watching this thing for the jokes, because there aren't any.

Stop Entering Brad's Man Cave!

In June of 2000, I received my Bachelor's Degree in History (with a minor in English!) from UCLA and had no idea what to do with myself. None. I thought, for a short time, that I might be able to make a living as a freelance journalist, but the website I had been writing for went out of business and the editors of PREMIERE Magazine stopped taking my phone calls.

So I moved back home with my parents and took a job working the information desk at my local Barnes & Noble. After a few weeks, my father asked me to go out for coffee with him. In addition to a strong need for an afternoon caffeine fix, there was a buried agenda for this little excursion to the closest of Irvine's approximately 250,000 Starbucks franchises. He wanted to ask me what I planned to do with my life, now that I was a legal adult with a college degree who, by all accounts, should no longer be living in his house and mooching off all of his cool stuff.

I promise, I'm going somewhere with this. Bear with me a few more sentences.

Anyway, we discussed my options and wound up settling on a few basic principles: Mainly, I would work and save up money and apply to graduate school programs (in what subject, I'd decide later).

The idea wasn't so much what I was going to do. My dad (quite rightly) felt that I should be doing something. Planning ahead provides some added convenience, but also the illusion of certainty. By working out the details of what I'm going to do in the next week or month or year, I can slowly delude myself into thinking that I have some measure of control over what will actually occur during that timespan. This, of course, is nonsense. Those two years at grad school seemed like a logical answer to a pressing question ("what now?"), but of course they only made my future more uncertain and harrowing. Now I'm two years older and strapped with egregious debt for a degree I don't use.

But I don't want to just talk about missteps in my recent background. I think there's something universal about this phenomenon. I think, most of the time, when we think operationally, and attempt to plot out actions far in advance, we err by making false assumptions. In essence, we try to fit difficult, complex situations into neat, tidy formulations.

This is only natural. It's a defense mechanism. Everyone does it all the time. Here's a good example: We think of "mistakes" as lessons, instructions on how to avoid problems in our future behavior. You know, "learn from history or you're doomed to repeat it," all that crap. Of course, this is total bullshit. Of course it is! In point of fact, people tend to make the same stupid mistakes over and over again, both in their everyday lives and in international diplomacy. We're continually attracted to that same incompatible types of people and same toxic environments. We keep arming military leaders only to have to disarm them a decade later. People still fall victim to fucking pyramid schemes and Nigerian e-mail scams. Let's face it...If humans really learned from mistakes, after the past few thousand years, we'd all be a lot fucking smarter. But we have to think this way. Otherwise, life is a hopeless series of harsh toils and cyclical relationships from which we learn very little.

The self-help industry provides another, more dramatic example of what I'm talking about here. These phony guru assholes (of the sort I've discussed previously here and here) never design programs to treat specific maladies. There's no "depression" guru who teaches you how to pull yourself out of a deep funk vs. a humility guru who teaches you how to be less aggressive and forceful in your approach to relationships. There's just a bunch of guys who peddle general programs designed to help everybody equally. As if every different person's individual struggles could be compressed into one or two basic life lessons that would improve all personalities.

What if I have exactly the opposite problem as another person? Could the same few techniques really provide for mutual happiness? And if so, wouldn't these techniques have to be, by definition, extraordinarily general (in essence, biologically-based, along the lines of deep breathing)?

Which brings me to GodMen, conservative author and "comedian" Brad Stine's movement to inject a testosterine-fueled, date-rapist-sympathizing, "Man Show" strain into contemporary American Christianity. Many fine blogs have already discussed the GodMen movement with frequently hilarious results. And with good cause. It's basically a combination of an afternoon high school Bible Study group and that '90s male bonding movement that found grown men camping in the woods together talking about their fathers, crying and baying at the moon.

(It's odd for me to consider, but there may very well be people reading this blog right now who are too young to remember this Male Pride idiocy. For a while there, it was a hot topic in pop culture, absolutely pervading sitcoms and late night monologues. Some of Tyler Durden's ideas in Fight Club about consumer society neutering the natural male essence descends directly from this movement.)

Here's a typically brain-deadening post from Stine's "blog." Please don't read the following if you'll need to do any heavy, strenuous thinking for the rest of the day. Reading some Dean Koontz later might be okay, Michael Chabon would be pushing it, but Thomas Pynchon will be right out:

I was performing at a church in Pennsylvania for what was supposed to be a"Men's" event. I said supposed to be because on the way to the event the coordinator told me that some of the women at the church wondered if they could slip in to see the show. Apparently they were fans of mine and felt left out.

"Apparently" they were fans? Maybe they were just curious as to why a guy would come to their church just to speak to the men? This isn't too difficult to imagine. "What are they going to talk about at church that necessarily couldn't involve women? Jesus' tips for proper penis hygeine? The youth pastor's secret homosexual fantasies? God's preferred brand of radial arm saw?" No, no, if any chicks want to sneak in, it could only because they're way way into the hilarious comedy of one Mr. Stine.

Now folks, the last thing I am is anti-woman. I love women, need women, and respect women. Heck, my mom's one!

Man, chauvanists are easy to spot. They always use the same bogus lines! Every time! "I don't hate women! I love my Mom!" is to misogyny what "I have lots of good black friends!" is to racism.

But it really ticked me off that they would think it ok to enter our man cave.

Tee-hee. Brad hates it when women try to enter his man cave. That's for dudes only, dammit!

Men have very few events that they are allowed to have just for themselves w/o women feeling we are being insensitive. Women want to get into everything that used to be exclusively male including our sports. From little league, to fireMEN , women want in.

Yeah! Just because we want to cruelly bar girls from playing in Little League and persist in using outdated, female-exclusionary language, people insist we must be insensitive to women! Hey, I love women! I just think I'm much, much better than them.

Women want to get into Augusta which is a private golf course where the Masters is held. ( I know you guys know this but this is for any women who have sneaked onto our site and are reading this.)

In case any women "have sneaked" on to your site? Dude, Brad...You're gay, man. It's time to take a deep breath and come on out. You'll feel better. Seriously, I've never met a single straight guy that's this keen on keeping women away from himself. "Don't come on my website, harpies! You'll hear my super-secret insights on why you're incapable of understanding the extremely complex, nuanced sport of golf!"

You know, Bradley, most heterosexual men...they kind of like having women around. Sometimes, they'll go places and complain that there aren't enough women. Hence the term, which I'm sure you've heard bandied about at some of your ManChurch events..."sausage fest[ival]."

Ladies, why can't we have a tournament or PRIVATE club just for men?

Brad, you do. The Ultimate Fighting Champsionship and the Hair Club for Men. Both are men-only, so I'm sure you'll be very comfortable there. (Also, Hollywood is absolutely littered with day spas and other assorted themed recreational haunts that will most likely be filled with lean, hairless men who may be happy to spend some alone time with you, if you'd only stop by for a quick meet and greet and leave your inhibitions and hang-ups at the door.)

Men are better golfers and need to compete with each other for the shear sportmanship of watching another man crumble at the sight of our superior drive.

Ha ha..."Shear sportmanship"...0 for 2, buddy.

Brad commits a common error in logic here. Because the best male golfers would most likely defeat the best female golfers in a game (I say most likely, but I don't know enough about golf to be certain about any of this), Brad assumes this means "men" are better golfers than "women." This, of course, is stupid. I'm a man, but there are literally millions of women alive today who could defeat me in a game of golf. And that's if I took a few lessons first. Without any practice, I'm certain most female infants could blow me away over the course of 9 holes. A solid female golfer could, I'm certain, kick Brad's ass all over Augusta.

When you get to the upper, upper eschelons in the sport, where subtle differences in ability make the difference between winning or losing, then brute physical strength becomes more crucial. Fine. Granted. This still doesn't mean that all men are stronger than all women, but very fit men are capable of becoming stronger than their very fit female counterparts. But to say that "men" are better than "women" at golf, and that this is an excuse to exclude women from golf clubs, is patently ludicrous. So ludicrous, I can't believe I spent a paragraph in response.

Saying men are superior than women in certain areas isn't's true. Just like women are better at some things then men. You would have to be a tenured professor of sociology at Berkley to be too stupid to grasp that.

Okay, here we arrive at the part that connects to my earlier point. Brad's making cheap generalizations here that are totally, brutally meaningless, but he has a larger purpose. He's attempting to sell an audience a lifestyle, a plan he's devised for living a fulfilled life. It includes the fervent worship of his choice of deity teamed with constant expressions of his personal conception of "manhood," which winds up looking an awful lot like insensitive chauvanistic domination of subjugated women teamed with an arrogant, hostile personal demeanor, obsessive sports fandom and far-right, socially conservative politics.

It has nothing to do with how "men" should behave in general, any more than his silly assertions about Sociology courses at "Berkley," about which it's clear, by spelling alone, he's entirely ignorant. Naturally, this is an exaggerated case, a real grade-A moron with a delusional self-image and no shame who's masquerading as a philosopher. But the principle can be extended to pretty much any case where one individual doles out advice to a vast group of people, or attempts to objectively plot the course of important future events.

This is why I always mistrust books with names like "The Six Principles of..." or "The 10 Things You Need to Know..." How the fuck do you know the ten things I need to know? We've never met, assface! Also, "think tanks" and panels like this ludicrous "Iraq Study Group." The time to study Iraq has passed, gentlemen. You slept through that class. Now it's time to get the hell out of there. When they form the "Iraq Emergency Exit Group," I'll start paying attention. These self-help shysters, these partisan beaurocrats, these professional "thinkers" guided by nothing but party and pre-set ideology all begin by making huge, silly assumptions and then forcing the facts to fit the frame that's already in place.

So now let's consider the case of Silvestre Reyes, the new Democratic chariman of the House Intelligence Committee. He seems like an alright guy to me, certainly better equipped for the job than Jane Harman or that possibly-corrupt ex-judge. Unfortunately, he still can't name the religious affiliation of Al Qaeda. (Can you, faithful reader?) From Digby comes this interview between Reyes and Kevin Drum:

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

I think I'm even more unnerved by this than Drum. Not only that the guy who's going to be heading up the House Democrats' leadership on issues relating to Bush's War of Terror doesn't know that Osama bin Laden's a Sunni. But that he would imagine any Muslim political organization with a stake in Iraq's future would be composed of both Sunni and Shiite. They're engaged in a Civil War right now. How could Al Qaeda contain both Sunni and Shia sympathizers? It couldn't! He really ought to know that, even if he can't pull up the name of the specific group from which Al Qaeda derives its members. (Although, let's face it, he should know both. We've been declaring war on these guys for five years now.)

Why bring up Reyes' outrageous ignorance? Because he doesn't feel like he needs to understand the specifics, clearly. If he did, he would by now. He certainly has the resources to find out about Al Qaeda, and he must be a reasonably intelligent individual. Drum previously asked these questions of hawkish Republican Representatives, and they couldn't even describe basic differences between Sunni and Shia. (And he's not asking for doctrinal differences or historical minutae. This was big stuff, like "which one controls Iran?" and "which one includes al-Sadr?")

And Digby reminds us of this gem from Presidential hopeful John McCain:

“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.

McCain, in his astounding ignorance of the politics and history of the Middle East, thus tries to squeeze a difficult and unique situation into a familiar formula. He's imagining, I suppose, some kind of Old World treaty-signing, wherein everyone gets together for tea and biscuits, compliments one another on a splendid bit of soldiering in this or that smashing little battle, exchanges swords or revolvers and parts on good terms in mutual comfort to their various chateaus and ancestral manors. Like we could invite Osama, Sadr, Maliki and the Saudi Royal Family (cause they get invited to all Bush family events) to Appomattox and just talk some sense into 'em. Using, presumably, pie charts.

Reyes may have a different conception of how to deal with these troublesome Iraqis than McCain, but judging from his ignorance of the situation, I can't imagine it's any more accurate.

So, okay, this is a combination of problems. In addition to the very human propensity to plan without knowing what one is fucking talking about, this also evidences America's ongoing hatred of expertise, academia and intellectualism. Conservative pundits are now quite brazen in their declarations that universities make you stupid. (Doesn't Brad Stine imply that very thing above about "Berkley"?) Because knowledge can't help but inspire change, and guys like Brad Stine fear change. So they fear knowledge and try to keep people willfully ignorant, just like them. What he and many other Americans teach is, in fact, a proposed "alternate" system of education, founded on the policy of letting you believe whatever you want and actively encouraging you to filter out any material that might conflict with your worldview before it has a chance to make you feel doubtful or uncomfortable.

Feel demasculated by women who want to pursue their own goals outside of your petty emotional needs? You should just reclaim your manhood by claiming to be better at everything! Upset that evolutionary theory leaves you feeling empty inside, as if you and everyone you know are just brief blips on a cosmic screen of unimaginable size? Comfort yourself by ignoring all available evidence and baselessly insisting it's wrong! Inconvenienced by the need to conserve energy, in order to divert environment catastrophe? Just claim that we don't have enough facts yet! Homosexuals cause you to personally feel discomfort, embarrassment or a personal sense of shame? Just discriminate against 'em! It's your right as an American.

All of that and more plays into it. It's just frustrating to see important things like war and economic policy run in such an abysmal, thick-skulled way. Our press, our government and our citizenry has become a lot of morons who have no clue, bloviating endlessly, misapplying any lame, discredited evolutionary psych theory or sports metaphor or management cliche available to get a handle on problems already far out of their control. I know it's only a few weeks until Democrats actually take control, but my fatigue of this insipid war set in years ago already. It feels at times like we will never see the end of this conflict we regrettably started.