Saturday, December 23, 2006

Feminist Horror Double-Feature

The 2005 British monster movie The Descent and the 1971 ghost story Let's Scare Jessica to Death should swap titles. The 1971 film, a peculiar and unsettling riff on Polanski's Repulsion, deals with a young woman's tragic descent into madness. And the 2005 film features six girls - one of whom is, in fact, named Jessica - who are scared to death when they encounter some flesh-eating nasties while spelunking in Appalachia. I was going to add here, for comic effect, another example of this happening, two movies whose titles are 100% interchangable. But it turns out that it's not really all that special and could be done with all kinds of titles. Because movie titles are vague and generic: One Good Cop, One Fine Day, A Fine Mess. The Thing! There's a movie called The Thing! But just roll with me here, I needed an introduction.


Neil Marshall's film takes forever to get going and then stumbles towards the end, but it largely works as a tense examination of some universal human fears. To be lost, trapped underground, injured, untrusted by your fellows, surrounded by voracious monsters and low on supplies is to be well and truly fucked. Doomed, you might even say. Like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a film with which it shares not just a theme but a milieu, Marshall's film drops characters in the midst of a nearly-unsurvivable situation, illustrating their tenacity and will merely by their continued existence.

I've referred to the movie in the title as "feminist" not in any sort of strict, Film Theory way, though I do feel like both of this films could probably be subjected to an enlightening scholarly feminist critique. The Descent is just a movie solely focused on a group of female friends that deals, thematically, with a very feminine strength of will and core toughness. These women strike me as significantly well-rounded - they have attributes we'd consider "girly" (particularly in terms of competitiveness with one another), yet they're plainly badass uber-jocks. Plus, aside from a dead husband, they don't even talk about men very often. Any horror film with three-dimensional women heroes who exist on their own terms like that strikes me as "feminist" in some way.

Despite all the myriad external horrors faced down by its six heroines, The Descent largely focuses on the selfish irrationality of human behavior. "You never truly know someone," the film posits, "until you're trapped underground with them whilst being pursued by angry CHUD."

Each year, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) organizes an "extreme" vacation for her immediate circle of friends. After the last excursion, a white-water river rafting adventure, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) got into a car accident that took the life of her husband and son. So this year's event, a trek through some unexplored caves in the Appalachian Mountains, is a considerably more somber, emotional affair.

Juno's plan goes wrong immediately. The passageways are hazardously narrow. Rockslides and cave-ins block the only known entrance. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) slips through a crevasse and shatters her leg. Slowly, old resentments boil up, panic starts to set in and the girls begin to turn on one another. And that's when the voracious, blind, humanoid predators show up.

Marshall excels at building to unanticipated "scare" moments. If you watch enough horror movies, predicting the moment when the alien/creature/monster/slasher will pop into the frame becomes fairly elementary. The Descent rather consistantly manages to subvert these expectations. Marshall will build to an obvious "jump" moment, then hold back, then give it to you 45 seconds later. One scene, among the first clear shots of the monsters, took me completely off-guard and - with the 5.1 cranking and all the lights off - kind of made me lose my shit for a second.

The first half hour takes a bit too long and spends an inordinate amount of time setting Sarah up as a shattered, greiving widow and mother, but this unforced naturalism and character development obviously helps in the second half, when things get gory and chaotic. The Romero-esque insanity of the final 20 minutes, in which a few surviving spelunkers get medieval on some molemen, are worth the occasional slow patch during the set-up.

The dimly-lit cave setting lets Marshall get away with keeping much of the action off-screen, but there's plenty of brutal carnage on display for gorehounds. Plenty. (Close-ups of zombies chewing on living victim's intestines have suddenly become all the rage.) As I said, Marshall kind of loses it at the very end, seemingly unsure of whether or not his Final Girl (to steal a term from Carol Clover) deserves a happy ending. This just doesn't strike me as the kind of movie that needs a confusing, ambiguous conclusion. They all live or they all die. Simple, cold, efficient.


John Hancock's low-budget 1971 film, on the other hand, had no choice but to end ambiguously. The Big Question driving the film is the lead character's sanity. Is Jessica's house really haunted by the ghost of a 20 year old girl who drowned there 100 years ago? Or is Jessica just going insane again, concocting the film's scares in her fevered mind? By the conclusion, it's absolutely certain that Jessica has been scared - perhaps fatally? - but has she been doing it to herself the entire time? And if so, how are we complicit? (As in "Let us scare Jessica to death.")

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has just been released from a mental hospital following a 6 month stay. She doesn't tell her doting husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), but she's still hearing voices, voices reminding her that they will never go away. They've just dropped their life savings on an old isolated house near an orchard, which they promptly move into along with Duncan's hippie friend Woody (Kevin O'Conner). No sooner do they arrive than they encounter Emily (Mariclare Costello), a drifter who has been squatting in their new home.

The town around the apple farm is not exactly sprawling, and the local citizens (all men bearing hideous deformities and scars) are not exactly inviting, so Jessica and Duncan wind up spending most of their time home alone. Why Duncan thought this set of circumstances - utterly alone in a farmhouse with an infamously grim history - would benefit his already ailing wife is unclear. In point of fact, the house's former tenants and gruesome legacy weigh heavily on Jessica's head, along with the paranoid fear that her unnamed "illness" (probably schizophrenia) has returned.

Hancock's film captures a specific, creeping fear particularly well: the fear amongst those who have been sick that their illness will return. Jessica is driven crazy in some ways by the fear of going crazy. She gives herself freely over to delusional paranoia and depression because she believes these symptoms are her destiny.

Duncan and Jessica meet with a local antique dealer, trying to sell some of the old items from the house's attic, and thus hear the story of Abigail Bishop, a young woman who drowned in their very cove. One photo of Abigail remains in the house, slipped behind a valuable old silver frame, and she closely resembles Emily. Could this mysterious stranger actually be a spirit trapped in the house, and is she sending secret messages only Jessica can hear? Or does it simply seem that way because we view the film through Jessica's eyes, and she's crazy?

I brought up the Polanski film as an obvious predecessor to Let's Scare Jessica for a few reasons, all of them thematic. In truth, the Hancock's style and tone (not to mention his title) owe more of a debt to the Italian horror films of this time period, amny of them focused on innocent women trapped in haunted houses with violent pasts. Carole (played by Catherine Deneueve in Repulsion) and Jessica share a phobia of excessive male attention and disgust at the leers an attractive woman receives in public. The men in the town, who seem at first to be rude because of identity politics (expressing distaste at the new hippie neighbors), come to seem like a zombified mob of brutes in the grips of some kind of carnal frenzy. Both eventually act on their (somewhat) delusional phobias by brutalizing the men in their lives.

Hancock's larger point seems to relate to male possessiveness over women. Jessica is obviously sick, which Duncan attempts to remedy be re-establishing his ownership of her. He's in essence removing her from the hospital and any other familiar environs and stowing her away in an isolated country house. Emily, if she is really a ghost or reflection of the long-deceased Abigail, lives out the 1971 equivalent of a homemaker's nightmare - she's literally trapped inside a big house, dressed in a wedding dress, with no hope of escape EVER. Even the ghostly voice that calls to Jessica gives her instructions designed to incapacitate her free will. "Stay with me." "Come to me." "Never leave me, Jessica."

Sure, it's a bit reductive, but it's still pretty entertaining as far as haunted house movies go. Not to mention creepy. Hancock really uses the whispery ghost voices to chilling effect, placing them at random unexpected intervals and giving them an increasingly erratic, screechy, almost hostile timbre. Robert Baldwin's synthetic, tinny score adds to the atmosphere of woozy, disoriented anxiety.

The biggest flaws are exactly what you'd expect from a low-budget 1971 horror film. Several scenes ramble on without developing, including far too many musical montages of Jessica running around the woods near her home in a daze, and the performances are amateurish and disconnected. Still, this is a far better-than-average horror oddity worth a second look, and freshly available on a very nicely-remastered DVD with a nice, bright, anamorphic picture.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Earnest and Gigolo Gallo

Vincent Gallo totally rules. He and Crispin Glover are my two favorite insane maverick American filmmaking weirdos. They really should work together some day. Now, most likely in response to overwhelming demand, the creative force behind Buffallo '66 and The Brown Bunny is kindly making himself available sexually to female fans via his website. For the low low price of $50,000. (A tip of my hat to Hollywood-Elsewhere for the link).

Have you ever watched a movie and fallen in love with one of the actors? The way they looked or a character they played? Afterwards you thought of them over and over. Daydreaming, imagining things, sexy things. When I was very young I was madly in love with Tuesday Weld and Charlotte Rampling. On my 14th birthday I went to see the film Rolling Thunder and had my biggest crush of all on the actress Linda Haynes. I wished and wished and wished everyday that I could meet all these girls. I thought of a lot of sexy things with Susan Blakely after seeing her in Lords of Flatbush. In my mind I could do with her anything I wanted to do. So believe me, I know and understand what it's like to wish and dream about spending time with a movie star. Doing things that couples do. Couples in love. At least couples where the guy is hot and knows how to handle a chick.

Hopefully, Vincent's planning on pitching professional woo at fans slightly older than 14, but he does make an excellent point. Attractive celebrities are bound to inspire enormous crushes in frequent movie-goers, so it's almost surprising (almost) that none have come upw ith this idea before. (When I was 14, no amount of money would have been too much for a night with Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman or Cindy Crawford.)

I, Vincent Gallo, star of such classics as Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny have decided to make myself available to all women.

Clearly, he's joking. Or at least, he's designed this stunt to be funny. I don't know if that means he's not actually serious about going through with this, should any wealthy, horny women contact him. I mean, the guy wants to keep making idiosyncratic, personal films...He probably wouldn't be turning down $50,000 unless the woman was particularly beastly.

All women who can afford me, that is. For the modest fee of $50,000 plus expenses, I can fulfill the wish, dream, or fantasy of any naturally born female.

Well, women do like confidence...

The fee covers one evening with Vincent Gallo. For those who wish to enjoy my company for a weekend, the fee is increased to a mere $100,000. Heavy set, older, red heads and even black chicks can have me if they can pay the bill.

Even black chicks, huh? You know, Vince, you'll make less as a porn star once your fans see you having sex with a black co-star. I'm just saying, assuming that is the next career route once you've tired of being a High-Class Man-Whore.

No real female will be refused. However, I highly frown upon any male having even the slightest momentary thought or wish that they could ever become my client. No way Jose. However, female couples of the lesbian persuasion can enjoy a Vincent Gallo evening together for $100,000. $200,000 buys the lesbos a weekend. A weekend that will have them second-guessing.

Second guessing their decision to spend $200,000 with the wiry guy from Palookaville, perhaps?

I am willing to travel worldwide to accommodate clients. However, travel days are billed at $50,000 per plus all premium flight fees. Scanning for STD's is required as is bathing and grooming prior to our encounter. Detailed photos of potential clients also required prior. An extra fee for security to protect me is charged on top of the fantasy fee. Security fees will vary depending on the details of an encounter and how much security I will need.

Who is he, Jack Bauer? I guess this is just in case the Vincent Gallo Fan Association of Kabul decides to each chip in and buy their idol for a weekend. He's got to indemnify himself against all potential circumstances, after all. The guy's a celebrity.

Potential clients are advised to screen the controversial scene from The Brown Bunny to be sure for themselves that they can fully accommodate all of me. Clients who have doubt may want to test themselves with an unusually thick and large prosthetic prior to meeting me. You may be surprised just how much you can handle and how good it feels.

Seriously, I've been kind of making fun of the guy, but this whole thing is hilarious and awesome. If he actually ends up having any paid encounters, he should really start up a blog to provide updates.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Badge Patrol

Two different Nicolas Cage movies have hit DVD in the past few weeks, and he plays police officers in both. Oh, and they both have titles that begin with the letter "W." That's about all they have in common.


Mormon moralizer/writer/director Neil LaBute remakes Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy's 1973 cult classic, surgically removing all the screwy fun and replacing it with vapid horror cliches. Hirign Neil LaBute to rework this grim story of paganism run rampant on an isolated island makes a kind of perverse sense. Of all the major religions being practiced in America today, Mormonism is clearly the most cult-like. (I'm not saying it's a cult, necessarily. Just that it is somewhat cult-like.)

Additionally, LaBute has repeatedly turned to the idea of karmic retribution in his work. At the heart of romantic horrorshows like Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men is a burning question: How can we be expected to make righteous decisions in a world where evil deeds have no consequences? Can we even, under such circumstances, be certain about what it means to behave righteously?

Certainly, these ideas are at play in a story about a religious man who descends into a living nightmare while investigating a bizarre cult on a remote island.

But, no, rather than focus on anything interesting about the original Wicker Man, LaBute has made a stupid, mindless and boring Hollywood horror movie out of the raw materials of its plot. The only thing that remains consistant from his previous, more interesting work is his continued lack of regard for female characters. Typically, LaBute's women are either spineless doormats who crave male attention and dominance (like Amy Brenneman in Your Friends and Neighbors) or conniving, castrating hellsluts (like Rachel Weisz in The Shape of Things). I saw a production of LaBute's play Bash! in Washington DC a few years back, which includes a monologue based on Medea, who murdered her children to please her lover. (Calista Flockhart did the scene in the play's New York run). That myth sets the tone for all of the man's fictional women - cold, needy, possessive, capable of grim violence if pressed.

I know that Americans are extremely sensitive when it comes to the combination of sex and religion in fiction, but The Wicker Man doesn't really make sense without them. In the original film, the inhabitants of Summerisle (off the coast of Scotland) practice a form of paganism that's focused obsessively on human sexuality. At times, the film almost feels like softcore pornography, particularly in a goofy scene where Britt Ekland does a silly dance in the buff. The locals' free-spirited, earthy, orgy-esque rituals are then purposefully contrasted with the rigid, uptight Christianity of Edward Woodward's policeman character.

In LaBute's update, unsuspecting police officer Edward Malus (Cage) witnesses a car accident that causes him significant psychological trauma. (We know he's bothered by the memory because he keeps having flashbacks in black-and-white with dramatic music playing in the background.) He then receives a mysterious letter from an old girlfriend, Willow. (This is Britt Ekland in the original, here played sans naked dancing by Kate Beahan). Willow's daughter has gone missing somewhere on Summersisle and the community's elders aren't talking; she wants Edward to come there and find out the truth.

(Oddly, LaBute changes the island's name from Summerisle to Summersisle. What gives?)

Edward finds his way to the remote island (this time located near Washington State), only to find his investigation treated with hostility by the matriarchal society of beekeepers therein. This is doubly unfortunate for Edward - none of these women will tell him anything, because they loathe and mistrust men, and his allergy to bee stings puts him at great risk on an island devoted largely to hive maintenance. And eventually he learns the shocking secret as to why he's been called to Summersisle, which is not shocking in the 1973 original but is even less shocking here.

By changing these central concepts around, LaBute robs the story of its guiding metaphors, themes and purpose. Anything to focus on, really. Now, it's just a silly story about a guy who finds himself in a mixed-up crazy world full of feminist witches who continually sic their mean-tempered insect friends on him. Even the additional element LaBute added himself, the opening with the car accident and Edward's continual use of mind-altering medication throughout the film, ends up being totally irrelevant.

What's odd is that LaBute has made dark comedy before, and that's undoubtedly the spirit of Hardy's original film. So why is the new version such a grim, pallid undertaking? It's perfectly obvious from the start what everyone's up to merely by their behavior. In the original film, the villagers behave mysteriously and keep their motives unknown. Here, they're clearly plotting against Malus from the first scene. The plot unfolds with no surprise or tension at all. "Trouble's coming...Oh, man, something unsettling's going to happen...Here it comes...Oh, that was it!"

Seriously, I've given this some thought, and nothing in this film works. Certainly, none of the changes feel worthwhile or well-considered. Recasting the Christopher Lee role in the original with Ellen Burstyn (Lord Summerisle becomes Sister Summersisle, because now it's a matriarchy) was an inspired touch, but the part has been severely reduced. Burstyn doesn't appear until the end of the film, and she's certainly not a threatening figure, in her flowing robes and blue war paint. The entire ritual that closes the film, with its focus this time around on the cruelty and barbarism of the act itself, feels tame and incomplete, like an afterthought. But if LaBute wasn't interested in the religious commentary of the original film, nor with exploring the Christopher Lee character, nor with the frank sexuality, nor with the dark comedy, nor with the iconic imagery of the conclusion...what the hell did he want to remake Wicker Man for in the first place?


Paul Greengrass' deeply inappropriate United 93 has won Critics' Association awards and end of the year accolades across the country. (Recently, it won the Dallas-Ft. Worth Critics poll as Best Picture, historically the most accurate indicator of who will win the Oscar.) It seems likely that my least favorite movie of the year will win Best Picture two years in a row!

I hated that movie and felt that Greengrass was attempting to crassly use the subject of 9/11 to confer some kind of "seriousness" to himself and his filmmaking. So I understand that, before I can praise Oliver Stone's 9/11 movie, some explanation is in order.

Stone's film, in which Cage and Michael Pena portray two real New York City Port Authority officers who were stuck under the rubble of Ground Zero when the Trade Center collapsed on top of them, follows a traditional dramatic narrative. It is a story of bravery and survival, about two guys who unquestioningly went to do their difficult job, and all of the other men and women who rose to the challenge when they needed rescue.

United 93 serves no purpose - it documents an unfolding tragedy with accuracy (as near as I can tell...), but without thought. The film has no perspective beyond its own self-importance. It knows it matters, and it knows the order in which things happened on September 11th, but that's about all it knows.

Now, one could certainly take issue with the ideas and assumptions behind Oliver Stone's film, but even that would concede it has some ideas and assumptions. It's not just terrorism porn. (In fact, there really isn't anything in the way of on-screen terrorism. One minute there are buildings, the next there's a lot of rubble.) It is, in many ways, a simple movie with a simple story. It's about heroes, how the truly bold individuals will do something dangerous without consideration for their own safety, if it's the right thing to do. It's about how being needed, desperately needed, is both a great blessing and a horrible curse.Like a lot of Stone's films, it gets a little hokey and lays on some symbolism a bit too thick. But as a testament to the horror of being buried alive and to the selfless bravery of the rescue workers of 9/11, it's extremely visceral and effective.

John McLoughlin (Cage) gets the call after the first plane hits the Trade Center. He prepared the contingency plans for an attack on the WTC after the first plot in 1993, so he's the natural choice to head up the Port Authority's task force on 9/11. Whiel McLoughlin heads downtown, the second plane hits and the city enters panic mode. He and his team are just unpacking and getting their bearings when the towers implode literally on top of their heads. McLoughlin and a rookie on his team, Jimeno (Pena), survive by diving into an open elevator shaft. Most aren't so lucky.

The rest of the film cuts between McLoughlin and Pena, pinned beneath 20 feet of rubble, their worried families and the motley assemblage of motivated citizens scanning Ground Zero for survivors. Though they are the most familiar (many feel ripped right out of Apollo 13), the scenes with the wives aren't as bland as you'd normally expect in a film like this, due mainly to the two actresses in the roles.

Maria Bello plays Donna McLoughlin as an expert at face-saving duplicity. Privately, she's a basket case once the word comes in that her husband is MIA, but she pulls it together for the sanity of her fellow cop wives and her kids. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn't have much to do as Allison Jimeno, but does get in one really great, very real moment towards the end of the film, cracking one of the film's lone warm smiles as a sense of relief washes over her face.

Intense and wrenching as the scenes underground are, the most interesting, compelling material follows the rescue workers above ground, risking their own necks combing the still-smoldering crash site in an increasingly-futile attempt to save lives. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie about rescuing individuals trapped under collapsed buildings, and World Trade Center does a great job of emphasizing the horror of being pinned by twisted steel and concrete and the laborious difficulty of extracting individuals stuck in this way.

As this is an Oliver Stone film, albeit a restrained one, there are still a few cornball excesses. Fantasy sequences in which Jesus shows up to bring the unfortunates water interrupt the flow of these scenes. It's a cheap device that reminds you you're watching a movie, and kind of an exaggerated, eager-to-please one at that. A few lines of dialogue here and there similarly break the reality of the film. (At one point, a Marine who has come to the rescue announces, "We are Marines and you are our mission!" and I rolled my eyes clear into the next apartment.)

But overall this is a surprisingly strong film about a subject I was not keen to see depicted on screen. I think the secret is that, though it's about a true story of 9/11, the subject is much more broad. Stone tells a simple narrative about people uniting to help one another. He and screenwriter Andrewa Berloff use sentimentality, but only for emphasis, not fatally so. Don't believe the hype - this is the significantly stronger 9/11 film in pretty much every way. Rather than fetishizing terrorism as a stylistic exercize, Stone has mined a recent tragedy to find a glint of hope and inspiration amidst the terror.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

A common tip for beginning screenwriters is to make your first script a road trip comedy. Because of the obvious, linear nature of the narrative - characters begin in one spot and must end in another by a given time - they are theoretically easier to construct. But I also think this is good advice because the road trip formula just works really well. So much of comedy is inventing disparate characters and then forcing them into confrontations. (Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" represents 20th Century America's most elegantly simple demonstration of this concept.) And what setting could lend itself to confrontation and hostility better than a hot van in the midst of a long road trip?

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (married commercial directors making their feature debut) perhaps take this advice too much to heart in Little Miss Sunshine. The script by Michael Arndt clings desperately to the established formula for these sorts of mainstream comedies, even when the perfunctory twists and turns set in stone epochs ago by the Comedy Gods don't really suit his story. Faris and Dayton, though they demonstrate tremendous promise in working with actors and get in some nice-looking shots of the American Southwest, fail to bring the subtle touch that guys like Hal Ashby, Todd Solondz or Wes Anderson routinely bring to this kind of dark, quirky, human comedy.

A sleeper hit this summer, Little Miss Sunshine appears poised to garner some Oscar nominations, if only because the all of the big studio's hotly-anticipated winter tentpoles have collapsed on themselves. (The K-Fed record release party was better-attended than Blood Diamond this past weekend.) Clearly, this is excessive praise for a movie that's entertaining but unoriginal. The only award I would seriously consider would be Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin, who does amazing work with a relatively small role as a horny, heroin-addicted grandfather.

Yes, I know. I complained that Little Miss Sunshine doesn't take risks and then immediately mentioned that it features a heroin-snorting grandfather. This is the central conceit of the film - it's an extremely typical, predictable road trip comedy starring America's most disturbed, dysfunctional family. All the laughs, seriously all of them, come from the goofy but likable personalities on board this lemon-yellow VW van. The story rolls on limply from one obvious set-up to the next.

Motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear) plans to spend the weekend waiting for an important call from a publisher (Bryan Cranston) interested in his program, The 8 Steps. Instead, his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) gets a different phone call - their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) has been selected to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, being held on Sunday all the way in Redondo Beach, California.

Lacking both the funds and the resources for interstate travel, Richard and Sheryl have a hell of a time planning a spontaneous trip to the coast. They're forced to take the beat up old VW, and to pile their extended family in for fun and adventure on the open road. There's angsty teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has been inspired by Friedrich Nietschze's writing to take a vow of silence. Richard's father (Arkin), the aforementioned heroin snorter, has also served as Olive's coach, so he rightfully insists on coming along. Finally, Sheryl's suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carrell), forbidden by doctor's orders to remain behind by himself, has no other option but to make the trip.

Their adventures, spanning several states in the course of one full day, go from bleak to bleaker. Along with serious discussions of the depression and unrequited love that drove Frank to attempt suicide, the family will confront death, bitter disappointment, humiliation and complete financial ruin during the course of the 700 mile journey to Los Angeles. Each individual cast member does a fairly tremendous job of making these despondant sadsacks and self-described losers compelling and sympathetic. It's a film about a motivational speaker, a pompous and sarcastic Proust scholar, a sullen angry teenager and a dirty old man that gives you no other choice but to root for its subjects as you would action heroes.

Carrell and Kinnear, brothers-in-law with extremely little in common and a relative amount of disdainful hostility towards one another, share a lot of the film's best moments, including some mouthy, sarcastic banter that reminded me of some of Carrell's better work on "The Daily Show." (Collette has a really nice moment in this scene, pretending to chide her brother for mocking her husband while she laughs right along with him. Very natural give-and-take, like you'd get with real siblings.)

And unlike almost any other film comedies of 2006, Little Miss Sunshine gets in some big laughs. They're not cheap laughs either, silly little asides or non-sequiteurs that get a chuckle, but well-crafted dialogue that speaks to the character's intelligence. This family may be a bunch of losers, but they're losers who choose their words carefully and seem to actually read on occasion.

Likewise, Arndt's script smartly reinvents some of the more familiar, even hacky, aspects of the road trip comedy. The VW van eventually develops some unique problems with the clutch and the horn that pay off repeatedly as effective running gags. Even some of the more "wacky" forced sequences, like the beauty pageant that caps the film off, works in spite of itself because the cast has earned so much good will.

In fact, most of my problems with the film boil down to two scenes.

In the first, Frank has a chance encounter at a highway rest stop that I suppose was meant to raise the stakes and present an obstacle to his future happiness. Screenwriting 101 teaches us that you can't make it too easy for your main character to overcome his internal dilemma and transform his life for the better. Frank, in reconnecting with his family and actually cracking a smile during the early stages of the car ride, is in serious danger of healing himself mentally before the end of the movie. So he must re-encounter the pain that triggered his suicide, so that the second act can have some conflict. I bring this up because there is no other reason for this scene to exist than screenwriting formula, and it's also highly improbable. That's a fatal combination - pointless and unlikely.

The second scene to which I object similarly occurs only to advance the predictable machinations of the plot. Dwayne derails the entire trip at the zero hour when he discovers that he is...wait for it...colorblind, and thus unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a test pilot. This development could not feel less authentic to the story. It intrudes out of nowhere merely to introduce the notion that the family might be late in arriving to the pageant.

I'm not saying Arndt shouldn't include these scenes. The road trip formula works for a reason, and I suppose there's no reason to tinker with it unnecessarily. But the best screenwriters learn how to cover their tracks, to insert these kinds of developments artfully, carefully, so that audiences can't tell what's happening until it happens. Little Miss Sunshine hews to the outline so carefully, Faris and Dayton mights as well have included title cards announcing the individual Acts and Scenes. "And now, Scene 14, which is a smashing scene with some lovely acting in which Richard discovers a vital clue."

As it stands, I could see recommending Little Miss Sunshine as a diverting comedy with a terrific, in-your-face performance from Alan Arkin. But a serious consideration as the year's Best Film? Not by a country mile.

Monday, December 18, 2006

How Dare You Object to My Dominion Over You?

I'll admit it. I've been obsessing about religion in the public square ever since finishing Dawkins' "God Delusion" book last week. I can't help it. I'm not exactly won over to Dawkins' more extreme perspective, becoming more adamant about total and complete secularism. I strive to be as easy-going and permissive as possible, and I like cookies, which Christian celebrations seem to involve frequently.

But it's hard to read that book at this time of year in America and not take a step back for a moment to consider the madness swirling all around you.

As someone who really doesn't celebrate Christmas in any significant way, I can tell you that you all get very strange and intense by mid-December. Today at the DVD store, the vibe wasn't so much what I would deem "merry." More like "frantic."

"I need eight copies of the Judy Garland box set. What do you mean you only have four! Well, how soon can you get them? Can't you do it any faster? What if I throw in my blonde but learning-disabled middle daughter to sweeten the pot, that do anything for you? No questions asked..."

And everyone has lists. Long hand-written lists, scrawled hastily on legal pads, the backs of business cards, sometimes even the customer's hands. One lady came in the other day with a list that was at least 6 typed pages, all put together. This is your Christmas list? You really owe all of these people a personally selected, hand-wrapped gift at the ass end of every year, just for being themselves?

Then I thought, what if you had the entire population of a mid-sized European nation as your Secret Santa? It would be expensive, sure, but imagine the windfall coming your way every December 25th! If only tasteful collections of foil-encased See's Candies were accepted as a substitute for U.S. Currency, you'd be all set for the next year!

So, I don't mean to harp on the whole Christmas thing, but this Mark Steyn column just demands commentary. I didn't want to do it, you see. Steyn's fervent and outspoken cockknockery went and demanded it.

I passed through Shannon Airport in Ireland the other day. They've got a "holiday" display in the terminal, but guess what? It says "Merry Christmas." The Emerald Isle has a few Jews, and these days rather a lot of Muslims, and presumably even a militant atheist or two, but they don't seem inclined to sue the bejasus out of every event in the Yuletide season.

"The bejasus?" Is he purposefully spelling that wrong so as not to offend Jesus by taking his name in vain? (Is adding a "be-" to the front of a name taking that name in vain? That's one of those borderline blasphemies.)

This is the first paragraph of Steyn's column. He doesn't make a point in it, nor does he in any of the paragraphs that follow. He goes on to cite a few cases where random people have objected to overtly religious celebrations of Christmas in public, but never really gets around to connecting these incidents into anything I would call "an argument." He just gets upset whenever others fail to give his holy beliefs their proper deference, and thought he'd write a column about why Christians and their made-up bullshit are far far more important than all the mud peoples and their made-up bullshit.

By contrast, the Associated Press reports the following from Riverside, Calif.:

"A high school choir was asked to stop singing Christmas carols during an ice skating show featuring Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen out of concern the skater would be offended . . . "

Steyn blathers on for a while about this news story, an isolated incident (based around a misunderstanding) that doesn't really warrant national attention nor provide insight into a larger problem. Sasha Cohen is a figure skater who is Jewish. She is touring the country, skating for crowds during Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. At this one stop in Riverside, members of the "city staff" (presumably employees from the mayor's office or city hall?) felt that the Jewish Ms. Cohen may be offended if the local high school choir sang explicitly Christian Christmas songs. So they asked the choir not to sing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

Of course, it turns out Ms. Cohen, like most reasonable people, doesn't care and wasn't offended. In fact, it turns out that she's doing this whole Christmas tree tour thing, so she probably likes Christmas, or at least thinks it's tolerable. So, like I said, the story is just a big misunderstanding. Of course, Steyn goes on and on about it. I guess it briefly gives him a chance to feel good about himself, because he's part of an American Christian majority.

First, he has an extended, painful bit of theoretically "comic" business in which he conflates the figure-skating Sasha Cohen with the Borat-inhabing Sascha Baron Cohen. Teh Hilarious ensues...NOT!

I hasten to add this Sasha Cohen is not the Sacha Baron Cohen of the hit movie ''Borat.'' The Olympic S. Cohen is a young lady; the Borat S. Cohen is a man, though his singlet would not be out of place in a louche Slav entry to the ice-dancing pairs. Likewise, the skater-puts-carols-on-ice incident seems as sharply satirical of contemporary America as anything in ''Borat,'' at least in its distillation of the coerciveness of "tolerance."

This paragraph is great, in part because it alerts us that Steyn isn't remotely funny. ("His singlet would not be out of place in a louche Slav entry to the ice-dancing pairs"?) It's also great because he claims that a choir being asked not to sing Christmas Carols to a Jew is as inappropriate as the right-wing intolerance on display in Borat. Which even a mendacious windbag like Steyn must realize is a total lie. (Perhaps he's counting on his target demographic having skipped the Borat movie?)

Borat reveals the underlying feelings of superiority, self-satisfaction and intolerance that dwell deep within Steyn and his fellow warmongering right-wing fucktards. This AP story from Riverside is about a zealous city employee who went overboard in an attempt to care for a visiting celebrity. Not equivalent in any way to a gentleman suggesting we execute gays. Sorry, Mark.

Nonetheless, the Special Events Commissar and her Carol Cop swung into action and decided to act in loco Cohenis and go loco.

Hilarious! Who writes his material? I mean, comparing liberals to Communists, referring to excitable types as "loco." It's so fresh. Gonna play real well in Cheboygan. I hear Marky's got a dynamite 10 minutes on feminazis, too.

Many of my fellow pundits find themselves fighting vainly the old ennui when it comes to the whole John Gibson "War On Christmas" shtick, but I think they're missing something: The idea of calling a cop to break up the singing of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" would strike most of the planet as insane.

Except for, you know, that sizable portion of the planet where no one has heard of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." But those people are mostly brown, so fuck 'em.

The Rubidoux High School Madrigals should have riposted by serenading the officer with the beloved Neal Sedaka classic, "Oh, Fool, I Am But A Carol" (I quote from memory).

Another zinger! This guy is good!

Yes, I think we can all agree that it's unnecessary to have a high school choir stop singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" because there's a Jewess in the building. In fact, I've always kind of liked that song, at least more than most Christmas carols. It's very British and old-fashioned and for some reason, I've always found the vocals a little creepy. Like, the words are really upbeat and happy, but the singers sound kind of wary of the whole thing. Maybe these aren't necessarily good tidings of comfort and joy... fucking what? You got a point for me in here anywhere, Marky Mark?

Now it's true there are Jews who don't dig Christmas.

What? It has nothing to do with digging Christmas. Observant Jews don't celebrate Christmas. It has nothing to do with them, and sometimes some of them get perturbed if you act like it does, just as Mark might get perturbed if, everywhere he went for a month, strangers tried to get him fired up in anticipation of the big Puerto Rican Day Parade.

But to say that Jews don't dig Christmas is to be deliberately obtuse. That would be like saying that Steyn doesn't dig the Eight Pillars of Islam. His opinion about their value is insignificant because it's not his fucking religion.

There was some story out of Seattle the other day about a rabbi who objected to the "holiday trees" at the airport and threatened a lawsuit unless they also put up an eight-foot menorah. So the airport goes, "Oh, dear, you're threatening a lawsuit? OK, we'll take down the trees." And in an instant the trees were history. Not "history" in the sense of a time-honored tradition legitimized by its very antiquity. But "history" in the sense of the contemporary American formulation of something you toss in the landfill in the interests of "diversity."

Notice how we've just dashed on to the next random anecdote, without Steyn ever providing any sort of real conclusion to the previous anecdote? Kinda weird, right? (Also, how does he know what all these individuals at the Seattle airport said the other day? Was he there? Did he interview them all asking for verbatim quotes? It feels like this whole story is just kind of made up.)

Oh, also, check out that bolded sentence. Do any of us really believe that a tradition can be legitimized by its very antiquity? Isn't that actually a ludicrous assertion if you break it down? I mean, the traditions that have been going on the longest aren't necessarily the ones that we keep doing. (Like, say, slavery.) If something is a tradition that is being upheld, it must be because it has some other legitimacy besides antiquity. Who keeps doing things just because they've always been done? Am I wrong about this?

Think about the Constitution. All Americans, with the exception of George W. Bush and Richard Milhous Cheney, see the value in upholding the legal tradition set forth in that document. But not because it is old and yellowed. I mean, obviously there is some kind of meaning in the fact that these laws and principles have stayed with us for so long. But we continue to use it as a guide for our society because it makes sense to us, because it's consistant with the way we live our lives today. I mean, duh. If Steyn, a professional columnist, can't do better in arguing for public displays of Christianity than "well, it has always been that way," he's proper fucked.

This isn't about religion.

Um, yeah, Mark, it is. What's it about, then, if not religion? Horticulture?

Jesus is doing just fine in the United States.

Wait, you forgot to tell us what this is about. It's religion, isn't it?

(I don't want to get too philosophical here, but wouldn't Jesus always be doing about the same, in the United States and everywhere else? If you're a Christian, do you believe there are really periods in history where Jesus is "doing just fine" and other times when he's in trouble? I mean, he's already died and come back to life. What more can happen to him?)

Forty years of ACLU efforts to eliminate God from the public square have led to a resurgent, evangelical and politicized American Christianity unique in the Western world.

I'll say. Our homegrown fundie whackjobs are certainly unique, I'll give them that.

What the rabbi in Seattle and the cops in Riverside are doing is colluding in an assault on something more basic: They're denying the possibility of any common culture.

Common culture...What a fucking joke. Mark wants us all to share in a common culture, provided it's modeled entirely on his own favored personal culture. Why can't everybody agree to get along and see things from another perspective, by uniting to embrace my view of the world to the exclusion of all others?

America is not a stamp collection with one of each. It's an overwhelmingly Christian country with freedom of religion for those who aren't. But it's quite an expansion of "freedom of religion" to argue that "those who aren't" are entitled to forbid any public expression of America's Christian inheritance except as part of an all-U-can-eat interfaith salad bar. In their initial reaction, Seattle Airport got it right: To be forced to have one of everything is, ultimately, the same as having nothing. So you might as well cut to the chase.

Mark's a big fan of the tyranny of the majority. Apparently, freedom of religion means he won't, personally, come to your house and break your menorah into 100 little waxy pieces, but that's about it. Again, whenever people go on and on about American's Christian heritage, I wince, secure in the knowledge that the writer is either ignorant of American history or deliberately misleading his or her audience.

Again, check out that amazing bolded sentence. "To be forced to have everything is, ultimately, the same as having nothing." Consider that for a second...

Mark thinks that a holiday you can't lord over non-celebrants is a holiday not worth having. Christmas has no meaning for him if it isn't flaunted. Hasn't he seen "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"? When the Grinch steals all the trees and toys and decorations from Whoville, what is the Whos' response? Do they say, "Oh, without the ability to broadcast our faith to everyone who doesn't give a rat's ass, we might as well just return to our everyday, drab routines and forget this whole Christmas thing."

Of course not. They go right on celebrating like always, because one or two Grinches can't possibly destroy the holiday spirit flowing within them. Mark Steyn, on the other hand, would plot to attack the Grinch using biological weaponry, hoping that the monster's weak heart, estimated to be three sizes too small, might give out completely after a fatal dose of antrhax.

What, after all, is the rabbi objecting to? There were no bauble-dripping conifers in the stable in Bethlehem. They didn't sing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," either. That's, in effect, an ancient pop song that alludes to the birth of the Savior as a call to communal merry-making: No wonder it falls afoul of an overpoliced overlitigated "diversity" regime. Speaking of communal songs, they didn't sing "White Christmas" round the manger. A Jew wrote that. It's part of the vast Jewish contribution to America's common culture.

First off, why wouldn't they sing a song written by a Jew in the manger? They were all Jews, jackass! If they sang any songs at all, it would be ones written by Jews. They didn't sing "White Christmas" in the manger because it would be historically anachronistic. How could Bing remember the white Christmases he used to know at the First Christmas?

I actaully agree with what Steyn's saying in this paragraph, but he's being disingenuous all the same. He doesn't really like Christmas because it's a shared, common, American holiday. He likes it because it's Christian and he's Christian, and he wants to reinforce the dominance over this nation of individuals who think like him. That's what this is about. Letting the lesser mortals (non-white non-Christians) know their place, repeatedly and often. If he wanted to forge a common culture, he wouldn't employ divisive rhetoric about Christianity being the "majority religion," with others bedgrudingly permitted to differ.

(If it's such a fucking common culture Steyn appreciates, where is the influence of the millions of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, non-believers and Wiccans living in America? Are we going to give their holidays some airtime as well, or does "common culture" mean solely that those belonging to non-Christian faiths are encouraged to contribute their own original Christmas songs?)

Seattle Airport could certainly put up a menorah.

It could be a fire hazard, actually, so that's not necessary. But I'm sure they appreciate your permission, Mark.

And maybe a commemoration of Eid, and Kwanzaa, and something for solstice worshippers, and perhaps something for litigious atheists.

Hey, why not, man? Didn't you just say you wanted us to share a common culture? Or did you mean "culture where we all share Jesus in common"? How does he not notice that he contradicts himself like that? Your bullshit appreciation for other cultures is undermined when you immediately turn around and make a joke out of their beliefs.

But to do that is to turn society into a kind of greater airport departure lounge -- to say it's no more than an assemblage of whoever happens to be in it at any particular time.

Right...Because that's not what a society is...I got ya...

Successful societies (unlike plastic trees) have deep roots: Nobody should be obliged to believe Jesus is the son of God, but likewise nobody should take such umbrage at trees and tinsel and instrumental versions of "Silent Night" that he would deny the reality of the land he lives in to the vast majority of his fellow citizens.

Bear in mind, none of Mark's examples actually found individuals objecting to trees, tinsel or instrumental versions of "Silent Night" (the protest of which has become a fictionalized right-wing meme.) Based on a possibly-Christian city employee telling a high school choir to stop singing and a rabbi trying to get a menorah set up in an airport, Mark has extrapolated this massive anti-Christmas insurgency full of Scrogges rendered physically ill by the very notion of Noel.

Because the logic of that leads not to a diverse secular society but to an atomized ersatz non-society. And, as those other touchy types the Islamists well understand, once you put reality up for grabs, all kinds of pathologies suddenly become viable.

Oh, Christ...Just...Just...Oh, Christ...

Hell is for Heroes

I suppose we train high school teachers to indoctrinate students, so it's not surprising that a few of them don't know where to draw the line...

Before David Paszkiewicz got to teach his accelerated 11th-grade history class about the United States Constitution this fall, he was accused of violating it.

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

History class! History! I'm assuming this is an AP class, because they mention that it's "accelerated." Davey, you guys don't have time to talk about the Big Bang. That's time you could be spending on the concept of mercantilism, the Embargo Act of 1807 or even The Ostend Manifesto. I'm not sure you appreciate the difficulty of this test, dude...

Honestly, though, I really really wish someone would try to teach me about how the Big Bang is not a scientific theory. If it's not scientific...where did it come from? Does David think that some scientist just made it up one day, and that all the other scientists have been going along with the ruse for several decades now, concocting an entire fraudulent branch of the sciences around this one fictional precept in a nefarious attempt to invalidate and eventually replace sincerely-held religious belief everywhere? Really?

“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

Boo-ya! That's certainly what you want to hear from your AP US History teacher!

"The Supreme Court's decision in Munn v. Illinois upheld the principle that state governments could regulate railroad and grain elevator companies. Oh, and I condemn you to Hell."

I mean, I know I'm kind of sensitive to the whole outspoken religiocity thing, but that's definitely crossing a big line. You don't force impressionable young people to sit in a history class for an hour every day with a wannabe Benny Hinn ranting about damnation and whipping them with his jacket. It's just not right.

I had a loopy evangelical teacher for AP Spanish back in high school. We'll call him Fred S. Fred never used to like me because he was the faculty advisor to the Christian Club, and I used to write angry editorials for the student newspaper objecting to the Christian Club's activities. It's not that I hate Christians or the idea of them wanting to form a club. Our school had lots of clubs, most of which I did not belong to or concern myself with, and that was that. But Irvine High's Christian Club was, for some reason, possibly owing to Fred S.'s own intense faith, extremely aggressive.

Their big issue was that they wanted to pray around the flagpole each morning during Zero Period. To me, this seemed a clear violation of my rights as a secular student. I had to get to school during zero period every day (ironically, because I worked on the school newspaper), so I'd have to walk right past this creepy prayer circle. Not that the law must intercede to spare me an inconvenience, but the fact is that the only reason they wanted to pray in that exact spot was because they wanted to push my nose in it. The whole point was to attract attention - both declaring "the right" to pray right there on school property, like a dog foolishly urinating on all the nearby ground available in a futile attempt to claim dominance, and in a blatant attempt to proselytize. "Hey, you, kid walking to class. Want to join our cool club? Come pray with us!"

That stuff was annoying, and I hated having Fred S. for Spanish because he would bring this kind of petty shit into the classroom. Once, we had to write an in-class essay (in Spanish, of course). I don't even remember the prompt. Anyway, working my way to whatever actual point I was attempting to make, I wrote a stray sentence about the Earth being several million years old. (Looking back, I'm amazed my mastery of Spanish was such that I was capable of forming such a sentence, but there you go...) So I get the paper back, and it's full of comments in red ink. My first thought is, "Oh God, my Spanish is every bit as bad as I assumed! Que lastima!"

But then I start reading some of the comments (all in English), and I realize he's just pissed off because I implied that the world is millions of years old. And the Bible disagrees! How infuriating. Judge me on my Spanish, asshole, because that's the only opinion of yours I care about in the slightest. And I only cared about that because I didn't want to have to take Spanish in college. (I ended up taking two years of Spanish at UCLA anyway. Still can't put more than 3 sensible words together, however.)

Okay, so I got kind of distracted. My point is, I saw the experience with Fred S. as an inappropriate incursion of religion into the classroom. But it was extremely mild compared to this Paszkiewicz moron's behavior. Fred never told me I was going to Hell. Just that I was wrong about everything.

Predictably, the school board and the entire town seems to be taking the side of the Jesus freak teacher over that of the high school junior. Because, as we all know, Christians hate meek, oppressed underdogs and always prefer to side with the established power. That's how JC would have wanted it.

“I think he’s an excellent teacher,” said the school principal, Al Somma. “As far as I know, there have never been any problems in the past.”

So, the school's principal doesn't think that a teacher telling his students they will go to Hell if they don't accept Jesus is a problem. Okay...But I suppose it is possible that, evangelical fervor aside, the guy's a decent history teacher.

In this tale of the teacher who preached in class and the pupil he offended, students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.

Greice Coelho, who took Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class and is a member of his youth group, said in a letter to The Observer, the local weekly newspaper, that Matthew was “ignoring the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives every citizen the freedom of religion.” Some anonymous posters on the town’s electronic bulletin board,, called for Matthew’s suspension.

Oops, never mind. He clearly didn't explain to Greice that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee a teacher the right to preach to his students. Granted, it would be wrong to jail Mr. Paszkiewicz for beliving in Jesus, or for speaking or publishing information about his religious beliefs. But does the First Amendment grant you the right to a daily audience of listeners to whom you are paid to preach? Afraid not. Does it protect you from direct criticism for inappropriate things you might say in class? Um...not exactly. I'd say anyone who could conflate the 1st Amendment's "Freedom of Religion" with an inherent right to insult the dignity of high school juniors and keep one's job doesn't deserve a passing grade in a class on the US Constitution.

And calling for the kid's suspension just for complaining about a teacher? What kind of educational environment does that foster? What is this, Joseph Stalin Memorial High School? (The best part about going to Stalin High? Once you've matriculated, you're a Stalin Grad. No, hey, come back...come back...I'm sorry...Forget I said anything...)

On the sidewalks outside the high school, which has 1,750 students, many agreed with 15-year-old Kyle Durkin, who said, “I’m on the teacher’s side all the way.”

All the way! How dare this kid object to being told publicly by an authority figure that he's going to burn in Hell! Buck up, heathen!

While science teachers, particularly in the Bible Belt, have been known to refuse to teach evolution, the controversy here, 10 miles west of Manhattan, hinges on assertions Mr. Paszkiewicz made in class, including how a specific Muslim girl would go to hell.

Oh, yeah, Principle-brah...I can tell that this guy must be one hell of a teacher. He certainly seems to connect to his students. He really knows how to reach them. As an SAT tutor, I've found that there are few more useful educational tools than cheap taunts and idle threats.

The class started on Sept. 11, and Matthew quickly grew concerned. “The first couple of days I had him, he had already begun discussing his religious point of view,” Matthew, a thin, articulate 16-year-old with braces and a passion for politics and the theater, recalled in an interview. “It wasn’t even just his point of view, it went beyond that to say this is the right way, this is the only way. The way he said it, I wasn’t sure how far he was going to go.”

On the second day of taping, after the discussion veered from Moses’s education to free will, Matthew asked why a loving God would consign humans to hell, according to the recording.

I guess this is probably AP Government, as opposed to US History. In either case, I don't see how all this God talk fits into the subject at hand. I mean, you'll wind up discussing the notion of God all the time in such a class, if only because it comes up so often in all the documents you'll be reading, but not in an evangelical "God is love" kind of way. In a "these philosophers were religious while these were not" kind of way.

Anyway, people tape lectures all the time, so I can't see how anyone could think this kid had done anything wrong, anything deserving of suspension or punishment. Is it really so wrong to question the tactics and motives of a person who yammers away at you non-stop for 5 hours each week?

Some of Matthew’s detractors say he set up his teacher by baiting him with religious questions. But Matthew, who was raised in the Ethical Culture Society, a humanist religious and educational group, said all of his comments were in response to something the teacher said.

“I didn’t start any of the topics that were discussed,” he said.

Baiting him with religious questions...Of all the ridiculous...Implying that Matthew, out of nowhere, interrupted class to ask religious questions, and that the kindly (and purely by coincidence, evangelical) teacher had no choice but to stop discussing the planned lesson for the day and entertain this or that theoretical construct. I mean, how well does it reflect on the teacher in the first place, if he could be so easily duped by one of his 16 year old charges?

Frank Viscuso, a Kearny resident, wrote in a letter to The Observer that “when a student is advised by his ‘attorney’ father to bait a teacher with questions about religion, and then records his answers and takes the story to 300 newspapers, that family isn’t ‘offended’ by what was said in the classroom — they’re simply looking for a payout and to make a name for themselves.” He called the teacher one of the town’s best.

You would think people would feel embarrassed trotting out these lame, scripted arguments every time a secular person tries to make a point about personal freedom. How on Earth does Mr. Viscuso imagine that Matthew's family is going to earn some kind of crazy windfall off of this case? They're going to get $10 million from the school board, tax free, or something?

I mean, perhaps Mr. Viscuso genuinely disagrees with the family on principle. He thinks a public school's advanced government class is the perfect place to discuss deeply-felt opinions on the afterlife. Fine. Let him write a letter to the editor arguing that point. But people just cavalierly throw these kinds of charges out all the time with no evidence, or even any reason for suspicion of greed on the part of the plaintiff.

Mr. Viscuso would be wise to recall that the purpose of these kinds of civil lawsuits is not to spread around cash settlements. It's a preventative measure. If school boards have to worry about being sued by angry parents, they then have an extra incentive to make sure students are not aggreived and given cause for complaint. This is also why it's stupid for people to get all fired up about massive settlements in tobacco and fast food industry lawsuits. The purpose isn't that fat people and the cancer-striken deserve millions of dollars. It's that the threat of millions of dollars in losses motivates big companies to be extremely careful about product safety and honesty in advertising. (I'm not saying it always works, but this is at least the principle on which the system operates).

It just pisses me off, because it seems like every other Christian in this town is just knee-jerk siding with the teacher because he's on their team. The atheists are the Other and we all have to join together to ensure their defeat. But really, I have a feeling that most of the Christians in this town would probably recoil if directly confronted with Paszkiewicz's actual behavior. Sure, some moralizing pompous fucks think it's okay to insult someone and threaten them if it means you convert another member to the flock, but most Christians can sense when it's just not an appropriate time for evangelizing, and particularly when that evangelizing humiliates or makes a spectacle out of a young person. I mean, come on, that's obvious.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Despite the massive worldwide popularity of the comic book genre, audiences tend to only see superhero films based around established characters. Sure, there are exceptions. Pixar's The Incredibles concocted not just a single original hero but an entire universe of costumed vigilantes. The Wachowski Brothers' Matrix films translate manga-style storytelling and a sci-fi comic book aesthetic into cinematic forms. But for every success, there are probably 10 failures, from Meteor Man to Mystery Men to this year's Tim Allen belly flop Zoom!

So even though it has a premise that's more clever than most high-concept summer comedies, and even though it has a solid cast and a few genuinely inspired touches, Ivan Reitman's My Super Ex-Girlfriend was essentially doomed from the start. It should be about 50-60% more funny than it is, granted, but I didn't actively dislike the film. I actually found it kind of charming in spots, and at the very least consistantly diverting. However, even I, a Hollywood outsider, could have predicted that this thing wasn't going to make any money.

Balanced precariously between superhero spoof and romantic comedy, My Super Ex-Girlfriend appears scientifically designed to appeal to no one. The pre-teens and professional nerds who would get excited about Uma Thurman playing a sexy superhero don't want to go see a comedy with Luke Wilson about relationships. (Really, the very notion of combining a geek movie with a movie about relationships is kind of cruel. You trying to make these dateless wonders feel inadequate?) Conversely, the couples looking for a good date movie aren't going to want to see juvenile, sketch-comedy-style shenanigans riffing on the comic books they most likely have not read. Coming out in the midst of a crowded summer movie season, Reitman's modest little genre mash-up didn't have a chance of finding an audience, even though it's the director's best film since 1993's Dave. (Not to damn the guy with faint praise or anything...)

Screenwriter Don Payne started off with a killer concept. Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson), an unlucky-in-love Manhattanite, asks out a mysterious brunette, Jenny Johnson (Thurman), on the subway, not realizing that she's the city's famed superhero, G-Girl.

For the first hour, the film is essentially a comic remake of Superman II. Matt and Jenny get to know one another even as she must keep her nightly hero work a secret. Jenny flirts with the idea of revealing her secret identity to the man in her life while her arch-nemesis, Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard), plots to steal her powers by using a magnetic space rock. Once Matt breaks up with the controlling and neurotic Jenny, she loses her mind and begins using her powers to torment him, providing him with no alternative but to collaborate with Bedlam on his latest diabolical scheme, to steal away G-Girl's powers forever.

Reitman's been making these kinds of mainstream effects comedies for a long time now (at least since Ghostbusters in '84), and though this movie's rarely inspired, it's largely professional. Possibly owing of budget concerns, Reitman doesn't overplay the fantasy element of the story, getting lost in elaborate set design or intricate backstory. Like Raimi's Spider-Man movies, My Super Ex-Girlfriend takes place in a relatable, real world New York City that happens to have its own superhero. Even the effects work, most significantly a skyscraper blaze that G-Girl extinguishes using tornado power, is soft and underplayed, as opposed to the typically garish, in-your-face style of these kinds of movies.

To his credit, Reitman has assembled a funny cast, one worthy of better material than Payne's leaden dialogue and predictable turnabouts. The Amazonian Thurman inhabits the dual role of Jenny and G-Girl perfectly, as mousy and retreating in one persona as she is forceful and imposing in the other. It's unfortunate that Payne, tasked with inventing a superhero and her secret identity from scratch, didn't have more fun with it or get more creative. The "G" in G-Girl may as well stand for generic. (In fact, we never really find out what it actually stands for.) She got her powers from a meteor, she has powerful wind-breath and laser eyes and she can fly...Whoop de doo. When I called this a thinly-veiled remake of Superman II, I wasn't kidding. G-Girl's personality, powers and weaknesses are nearly identical to the Man of Steel's.

Izzard's Professor Bedlam has a few funny moments, and a surprisingly proficient American accent, but never actually gets to do anything villainous. It's therefore difficult to see him as a threat, or even a villain, and his presence becomes almost completely extraneous by the end of the film. Rainn Wilson (no relation to Luke) deftly plays the polar opposite of his Dwight Shrute character from the American version of "The Office" - here he's a cold, narcissistic womanizing lout. Unfortately, like Bedlam, he's all talk. We see him make a couple of cheap passes at some women, but that's about all there is to an essentially thankless "best friend" role. The delicious Anna Faris, as Matt's rebound girlfriend Hannah, and Wanda Sykes, in a cameo as an uptight office manager, are similarly underutilized.

The film just never builds up any steam. The inspiration was there some of the time. A few scenes unfold with comic potential, including a clever bit of business at a crowded restaurant wherein Jenny essentially refuses to turn into G-Girl and save the day as a way of punishing Matt. But these sequences just sort of peter out, after which we're treated to five or ten minutes of predictable, uninteresting plot developments. A funny premise, good casting and a couple of amusing throwaway lines just aren't enough to sustain an audience's interest for 90 minutes, no matter how breezily likable the rest of the film might be. Does Ivan Reitman not realize that, or does he simply not care any more? It doesn't take a whole lot of effort, after all, to top Evolution.

Digging on Swine

Very interesting post and discussion over at Pandagon that starts out discussing vegetarianism but winds up exploring all kinds of dietary laws, rules, taboos and prohibitions. It's all pretty fascinating stuff, aided by the fact that the site has a lot of well-spoken, informed commentators discussing the topic at hand.

I was particularly intrigued by the speculation about Jewish dietary laws. My mother always used to explain the Jewish ban on pork (observed by no one in my family) in strictly utilitarian terms: "Pig meat was easily contaminated in the time before refrigeration, so the elders just taught everyone to avoid it by saying that it was God's will." My father tried to instill a sense of spirituality in my brother and I, but my mother was secular humanist from Day One. (It's odd. She was perfectly willing to indulge her children in delusions like the Tooth Fairy, but never bothered to entertain the whole God notion for us, even briefly. That's not a complaint, just an observation.)

Anyway, her explanation always made sense to me. In fact, it's the theory suggested by Jewish philosopher Maimonides. But it's certainly not the only suggestion. My old rabbi (yes, there was a time when I actually had a rabbi) said that Jewish laws were in place to remind Jews to think about God all the time. Each time you purposefully have to avoid eating certain foods or wearing certain clothing or whatever, you are reminded of the commitment you have made to God.

I'm tempted to say, based on my experience in studying world religion, that it's all based in a human psychological need to distinguish a group identity, an Us separate from The Other. We are the ones who don't eat the dirty animals and don't get intimate with our wives during their special time of the month, while the goyim are the filthy savages who don't observe God's law.

The Pandagon commenters offer up all sorts of other theories, many of which I had not previously considered. Amanda suggests that Jews did not eat pigs because their bodies and behaviors are very much like our own. Nearly-hairless, sensitive pink skin, remarkably similar organ systems and so forth. (Pig anatomy shares much in common with human anatomy, we frequently use pig parts in procedures on human patients.)

My favorite theory came from commentor Apikoros, who quotes from an old, unnamed rabbi:

“What do we get from cows”
We get milk. (and meat)

What do we get from goats?
We get milk. We get wool. (and meat)

What do we get from sheep?
We get milk. We get wool. (and meat)

What do we get from chickens?
We get eggs. (and meat)

What would we get from pigs?
Meat. Just meat.

It is immoral to herd an animal strictly for slaugher.

Now, I'm not saying this article makes any sense. How could your plans for their carcass possibly concern an animal being raised for the slaughter? They're being killed one way or another, whether or not you'd prefer to borrow eggs or wool from them in the years leading up to the Big Day. I mean, why is it kinder to hold a chicken captive for a few years, systematically steal and devour its unborn young and then whack its head off, rather than just whacking its head off right away?

This would be like a condemned man on Death Row taking solace in the fact that, once he's removed from the gas chamber, his liver will be removed and used to teach jittery, inept first-year medical students how to properly hold and manipulate a scalpel.

So, no, it's not a substantial argument. I'm just saying that this sounds like ass-backwards, primitive thinking of the Ancient Hebrew variety. They were always coming up with this kind of weird, convoluted shit, which gives you some insight into how they ended up wandering aimlessly around the desert for a few generations.