Saturday, October 06, 2007

Blade Runners and Black Kids

I was going to write up a whole review of the new digital Blade Runner restoration, to which I rolled exceptionally deep last night with a contingent of Mahooligans. But it's a Saturday need to get all heady.

[[UPDATE: I eventually did write a full Blade Runner: Final Cut review. It's posted over at The Aspect Ratio.]

I'll make this as quick as possible:

The film remains visionary, provocative and fresh to this day. It's clearly one of the greatest American science-fiction films ever. Ridley Scott used to have a remarkable ability to combine conventional genre material - in this case, the trappings of detective noir and crime cinema - with thoughtful, even cerebral, contemplation. Somewhere along the line, he lost the ability, and now seems only intermittently capable of even providing moderate entertainment. (I mean, A Good Year? Matchstick Men? White fucking Squall? I mean, seriously, what the hell?

Also, this new digital restoration is unbelievably stellar. If you're not in one of the major American metropolises in which Blade Runner: Final Cut is playing...awful sorry...Check out the DVD when it hits in December. But if you are in one of those special, few, civilizated cities, you really owe it to yourself to check this out somewhere with digital projection. This is one of the best-looking film restorations I've ever seen. I've seen this movie on DVD on a plasma TV and it had nowhere near the clarity of this new version. You could make out details that have probably never before been visible - the architecture in Sebastian's '30s-era apartment building, the feathers on Tyrell's replicant owl, the gauzy reflection of neon signs in pools of rainwater. It rules.

I was just going to go on and on like that for a while...but who cares? Better to just throw together a Seeqpod playlist of the stuff I've been listening to lately and start drinking. It's the weekend.

I've really been getting into M.I.A.'s new album, Kala, which is interesting because I wasn't one of those people obsessing about her breakthrough record. But this one's a lot of fun. I'm listening to it right now, in fact. Even though it's loud and noisy and distracting, for some reason, I find it easy to write along to. Perhaps it's because I have no hope of actually understanding what she's saying half the time, even if I'm paying close attention, so I feel comfortable just leaving it on while focusing elsewhere.

Then, two songs by Black Kids, the mp3-net's obsession du jour. These two songs were on everyone else's blog about two weeks back, so I'm hardly blazing new ground when I say this, but both of them are really freaking awesome.

After that's another track plucked straight from today's hipster-geist, so I feel kind of like a poser just for including it, but I can't get it out of my head. (And why do I feel like there was already a band called Whalebones? I know there was a Preston School of Industry album with that name...maybe that's what I'm thinking of. Anyway, with that name, I thought they'd sound like The Decemberists, but they don't. They're probably more like Midlake, if Midlake can be said to have a "sound." It's really just Crosby Stills and Nash's sound. But now I'm rambling...

Then, there's a new Robert Pollard track that sounds exactly like a new Guided by Voices track would. So he really just retired the name Guided by Voices and is continuing to make the exact same kind of music. Which is fine by me. This is a great song.

Then, Calla's "Bronson," which I've been listening to for months now. I feel like I've posted this song before on here, but I checked the archives and didn't see it in there. So if you've already heard this one, feel free to skip it.

I have no idea how this particular David Bowie song made it into my iTunes, but I can't get enough of it lately. It's got that saxophone that David insisted on so frequently in the '80s and that I almost always dislike, but the effect almost sort of works here. [UPDATE: As I do so often when writing about rock history, I goofed here, implying that the song "Jump They Say" is from Bowie's '80s catalog, when in fact it appeared on 1993's Black Tie, White Noise. Oops.]

This is the only song by Misha I've heard, but it makes me want to check out more. Maybe I will some time this week. A great, laid-back kind of song that sneaks up on you; I really dig the oddly quavering vocals, like the singer's freaked out by the microphone or something.

The last three songs are female vocalists creatively reinventing old songs. M.I.A.'s "$20" isn't really a straight cover of The Pixies' "Where is My Mind," per se. It sort of slips in and out of The Pixies. My favorite song from Kala at the moment.

Frequent readers have already heard about my devotion to Bat for Lashes' debut, Fur and Gold. Here she is redoing Bruce Springsteen's classic "I'm on Fire," one of my favorites from The Boss. (I'm not really a huge Springsteen fan, but having grown up in Philadelphia, I'm required by law to like a few songs from his catalog. So I'll take this one, "Glory Days" and "Atlantic City.")

Years ago, my friend Nathan and I discussed The Beatles' overlooked masterpiece "Dig a Pony," and why it didn't seem to get the kind of recognition and respect as other Beatles tracks, even other "Let it Be" tracks. (Perhaps people don't care for the non sequitur lyrics?) That's why it was particularly gratifying to hear St. Vincent do an awesome cover of the song while opening for The National at the Wiltern last week. This medium-quality mp3 doesn't really do that performance justice, but I felt compelled to include it all the same.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

George W. Bush, Master Orator

George Bush gave an extemporaneous, 75 minute speech yesterday. I honestly can't imagine having to hear this man spew lies and butcher the English language for that long in any context...but doing so off-the-cuff? Brutal...

Bush gave an intriguing description about what happens when businesses expand, as was the case here at a company run by a woman.

"You know, when you give a man more money in his pocket - in this case, a woman - more money in her pocket to expand a business, they build new buildings. And when somebody builds a new building, somebody has got to come and build the building.

"And when the building expanded, it prevented (sic) additional opportunities for people to work. Tax cuts matter. I'm going to spend some time talking about it," the president said.

He's really trying to simply restate the standard supply-side line about giving tax cuts to rich people to stimulate the economy. I love how direct he's being about it here, though. You usually hear Republicans play this game using the example of small business owners, so it sounds like they give a shit about regular, everyday, non-millionaires. (They don't.) Bush just goes ahead and uses the example of an already-rich person.

"If you own eight buildings, and I give you some more money, then you could buy a ninth building. And hey, who among us doesn't love buildings?"

Of course, there's also the matter of the President of our goddamn country discussing fiscal policy as if he were addressing an elementary school class...but I'm sure this is how it was explained to him, so it's hard to fault the guy.

He offered a pointed description of his job.

"My job is a decision-making job. And as a result, I make a lot of decisions," the president said.

Oh, not this Decider crap again. The guy doesn't realize we're still making fun of him for the last time he boasted about decision-making? A LOT of people make decisions for a living. I MAKE DECISIONS FOR A LIVING! They're not as important as George W. Bush's of course. If I link to a website with inferior information, thousands of Iraqi children aren't violently killed. But still, the mere act of deciding stuff seems to get George W. Bush in a state of near-ecstatic euphoria. It's not really that exciting.

"I delegate to good people. I always tell Condi Rice, `I want to remind you, Madam Secretary, who has the Ph.D. and who was the C student. And I want to remind you who the adviser is and who the president is.'"

No matter how we want to, pal, no one can forget you're a President OR a C student.

"I got a lot of Ph.D.-types and smart people around me who come into the Oval Office and say, `Mr. President, here's what's on my mind.' And I listen carefully to their advice. But having gathered the device (sic), I decide, you know, I say, `This is what we're going to do.' And it's `Yes, sir, Mr. President.' And then we get after it, implement policy."

Who the fuck says "Ph.D.-types"? You either have a Ph.D. or you don't.

And let's take a look at some of those great minds with whom the President has associated lo these past six years...

I'm sorry, I don't have the paper in front of me, but I do not recall Albert Gonzales being very smart...You'll have to let me get back to you on that question.

She doesn't just look creepy and insane in this photo; Harriet actually kind of looks lobotomized. Or like her entire brain has been removed via the back of her skull and George is admiring the empty cavity. "Yeah, I bet I could store up all my loose change in there, then take 'er down to one o' them Ralph's machines and get me a 10 dollar bill. That'd be nice."

Snowjob may be the smartest guy on this list, just talking raw intelligence. Just look what he's wrote about President Bush!

"The English Language has become a minefield for the man, whose malaprops make him the political heir not of Ronald Reagan, but Norm Crosby.”


Heckuva job, Brownie

This is Douglas Feith, whom Tommy Franks once memorably called "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth."

I think you all see where I'm going with this...Let's move on.

"I'll be glad to answer some questions from you if you got any," he said. "If not, I can keep on blowing hot air until the time runs out."

Admitting that you're wasting time and peddling a lot of bullshit doesn't really make it any better. It just means that you're aware you have nothing to say and are wasting everyone's valuable time, but you're too arrogant to just shut the hell up and let them go home.

Asked about global warming, he gave a lengthy account of alternative fuels.

"I'm not quite through," he said near the end. "And it's a long answer, I'm sorry. It's called filibustering."

I think he thought that this was kind of a funny, affable thing to say. A little self-deprecating humor. That's because Bush is too stupid to realize, EVEN IN 2007, the importance of global warming as an issue to Americans. They don't want to be filibustered. They actually want him to do something about it.

It's kind of like Jon Stewart was trying to tell Chris Matthews the other day. Guys like Bush and Matthews think that, when you get right down to it, all Americans want is a nice speech and a good story, and if you give them that, they'll stay with you forever. (I had a grad school class at USC, and the professor clearly believed the same thing. He talked for hours about piddling little crap like presidential haircuts and make-up and stump speeches and rhetoric as if it mattered.)

Bush keeps doing the down-home compassionate cowboy schtick that almost won the 2000 Election for him, but pathetically doesn't realize it hasn't worked for years, that the only reason he's even still in office is that most individual citizens lack the time or resources to force their elected officials to begin impeachment proceedings.

He had some fun with a woman who seemed slow on the draw when Bush called on her.

"You want a little chance to collect the thoughts, you know? I mean we're talking national TV here, you know?" he said.

"I actually wrote it down so I wouldn't get flustered," the woman said.

"It didn't work," Bush said.

You just know that was said with that crooked smirk/snarl, to denote maximum bullying aggression. What a dick.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Kingdom

As an action-adventure movie, director Peter Berg's The Kingdom is competent but not spectacular. Much of the time, it reminded me of a television show, something like "CSI: Riyadh." Flashy editing, glossy cinematography, attractive stars with a reasonable amount of charisma reciting rapid-fire, clever-enough dialogue, solving a rather straight-forward mystery with a twist. It's the same thing you'd get every Monday-Friday on the major TV networks with a few big action scenes and some more cussing.

If this were all the film had it mind, I wouldn't knock it too badly. Sure, it's maybe a bit inappropriate, considering America's role in a horrific Middle-Eastern war, to make a film in which a bunch of super-terrific American FBI agents kick some Saudi Arabian ass. But an action film is an action film, and Berg manages to direct with enough confidence and style to make the film reasonably entertaining.

Unfortunately, the film strains for credibility on the major foreign policy issues facing our nation today. I don't really care what Aspen Extreme star Peter Berg and first-time screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of Smoking Aces and Narc director Joe Carnahan) think about the oil industry or American intervention into Middle Eastern conflicts, and nothing in The Kingdom gives me any reason to think they might have some insight into these matters.

Berg opens with one of those quick montages giving you the complete history of the film's subject in five minutes using helpful animated diagrams.. In this case, it's the history of Saudi Arabia. When we come to the 9/11 attacks, we see a big black cartoon plane collide with a cartoon building...classy...

What is the purpose of this sequence? You don't need to know any of this information to understand the film, because its politics are utterly without depth, complexity or nuance. There are Arabs, and all of them are shady (except the one Good Arab), and then on the other side, there are the Americans who are good and pure of heart and noble and brave and awesome at fighting and only want to do the right thing and go home to their proud families. They clash, the forces of good prevail, roll credits. This is the illusion of information. All the physical manifestations of being taught something - names, dates, stock footage - but nothing actually informative, and nothing that will inform the actual action of the film. Weird...

After cramming 70 years of "history" in the time it takes to list a few executive assistants and gaffers, the action begins inside a Riyadh compound for Western oil company executives. It's a beautiful day in which some beautiful white families and enjoying wholesome, extremely good-natured and decidedly pasty pastimes. (They're even listening to Dave Matthews Band!)

Then, some swarthly types in Saudi National Guard uniforms start shooting up the place, machine gunning random civilians, and all hell breaks loose. This is not some random attack, but a coordinated jihad, apparently the work of a local radical (and "Bin Laden wannabe") named Abu Hamza. A series of timed explosions combine, over the course of the day, to take the life of a few dozen oil company employees and two FBI agents.

FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his team, well, shucks, they were all really good friends with one of the agents who died in Riyadh, so they insist on heading over there to do a proper investigation. Berg and Carnahan start with some pretty wacky assumptions in this opening sequence with the FBI, and these assumptions cloud everything else that happens in the movie.

Basically, this is the story of good-natured Americans who want to go to Saudi Arabia to do a good thing and all the obstacles they face along the way. Because we in the audience know that Jamie Foxx and his team (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, ably giving their flat, cardboard "agent" characters flashes of personality) are do-gooders trying to do good, we never doubt their motives, and this turns everyone who second-guesses them into antagonists.

But most of the people who collide with Foxx & Co. during the course of the film (terrorists aside) make a lot of sense. Attorney General Gideon Young (Danny Huston, slimy as usual) hesitates to authorize an FBI trip into the heart of Saudi Arabia because it might threaten the position of the Saudi Royal Family, which needs to maintain the appearance of opposition to American hegemony in the region. Ambassador Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven) is concerned for the agents' personal safety and the fallout should one of them come to harm in The Kingdom. (Just think of how strange this portrayal is, an American administration that doesn't want to go impress our will on Middle Eastern nations while the intelligence community insists that we go ahead and intervene. It's the exact opposite from how this story played out in 2003.)

These guys are presented as scumbags, cowards who want to keep Our Heroes from doing Their Job. But they may very well be right, particularly in view of how the story plays out. Why should Americans go to foreign countries and solve their crimes for them? I'm not saying that there's no case to be made that, if Americans died in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, we should go over there and investigate, but it's at least a conversation worth having. Berg's film just operates from the position that American can do no wrong - that wrongdoing is antithetical to what America's all about - so of course we should always be allowed to go traipsing through other countries, solving mysteries and helping out strangers. We're's what we do...

In one scene, a very kind, patient Saudi general (Ashraf Barhom) explains to Fleury that his team will not be allowed to actually handle evidence, but will simply be there to observe the work of the Saudi police. Foxx plays the scene with maximum macho aggression. He gets in the Saudi's face and announces that he will not follow orders, that this is not how his team works. Again, I'm not justifying the Saudis behavior, but no wonder the rest of the world views Americans as testosterone-soaked, insecure bullies. That's how we're now proudly depicting ourselves.

I just find this position, lauding American Exceptionalism, objectionable, and Berg's film only compounds the problem as it goes along. It has no choice, really - once the decision has been made to present America as a beacon for light and justice in the dark, shadowy world of Saudi Arabia, there's no way to proceed but to make the Saudis themselves shifty and untrustworthy, to paint all those who oppose American intervention into foreign affairs as either terrorists or cowards. (The Republican Party has been operating from essentially this position for years.)

It's a very slippering slope that eventually leads to Berg filming Muslims at prayer while suspense music plays in the background. We're good, they're antagonizing us, and in movie-ese, this means they're bad. Very unfortunate; this is the sort of thing that will play in the Middle East and convince people who rightfully should be our allies that we hate them intensely.

Of course, I'm thinking about these issues more than the film seems to. Like I said, it tries its best to have something to say about Saudi Arabia and the oil industry and Middle-Eastern wars, but it's just too vapid. It can't get there. Honestly, save the opening Four Minute History Class, the thing could have been made in the 1990's and been no different. All you have to know is that Muslims are really angry and they have all kinds of weird rules for their wimminfolk and they don't take kindly to our freedoms (again, except for the one nice Arab who loves Americans and speaks perfect English and wants to help however he can.)

The film fares better as straight-up action, although the good stuff only appears in the sproadically-intense final half-hour. The case solved in an unsatisfying manner, the American team is on their way to the airport and back home when they are ambushed by Abu Hamza's extremists. There's a thoroughly ludicrous but expertly-shot alley shootout that reminded me of the similarly-silly minivan attack in Clear and Present Danger. And Jennifer Garner does an awesome job with her lone fight scene (really, the film's only scene of hand-to-hand combat). She's not much as an actress, but extremely convincing at kicking ass.

But that makes sense...She is, after all, an American. That's what we do.

The In Rainbows Connection

Radiohead will release their latest full-length album, "In Rainbows," in 10 days. And as if that wasn't cool enough, they're going to let you pay whatever you want to download it from their website. Which basically means they're just going to give it away for free, because most people would probably prefer to just pay nothing.

So cool. You've gotta love the Greenwood-York Experience. And not just because of their unique online marketing experiments that let me obtain their newest stuff with maximum inexpensive convenience. Also because they're the best band on Earth right now.

I've seen a lot of amazing live shows recently - Dinosaur Jr. and The National, both at the Wiltern (though not on the same night) both pop immediately to mind - but I've still never quite seen anything to match the intensity of a Radiohead show.

They played several of the new songs from "In Rainbows" at the Greek Theater in Berkeley when I saw them last here. Here are two of them - "Bodysnatchers" and "Bangers and Mash." Enjoy.

McCain Wants a Theocracy

I can't even believe this story. Seriously. John McCain, as far as I'm concerned, has officially taken himself out of the presidential race. He has absolutely no idea about what it means to be an American and demonstrates an atrocious lack of comprehension concerning our Constitution and the principles upon which our government is based. Particularly for a, you know, United States goddamn Senator.

Sen. John McCain said in an interview published Saturday that he would prefer a Christian president over someone of a different faith, calling it "an important part of our qualifications to lead."

No, that is precisely wrong. Your religion does not make you any more or less qualified to run the country. They teach you stuff like this in junior high school.

In an interview with Beliefnet, a multi-denominational Web site that covers religion and spirituality, the Republican presidential hopeful was asked if a Muslim candidate could be a good president.

"I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles ... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith," McCain said. "But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president."

Later, McCain said, "I would vote for a Muslim if he or she was the candidate best able to lead the country and defend our political values."

Even worse than his ignorance is his pandering. After making a bold and, quite frankly, disgusting statement about his desire for a Christian president, he hems and haws and backtracks in an attempt to keep people like me from pointing out his bullshit. It didn't work. Now he's both full of shit and afraid to stand up for what he really believes.

Asked about Republican rivals Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, McCain said, "I think that Governor Romney's religion should not, absolutely not, be a disqualifying factor when people consider his candidacy for president of the United States."

Oh, how gracious of you, John. Of course, he's still got the whole belief in Christ thing. That's really the deciding factor, as far as John's concerned. Clearly, with his support for Premier Bush's War of Terror, he's not worried about the whole pledging to uphold the Constitution thing the President's supposed to say. Why not just replace it with a reverend asking our future Commander in Chief if he/she accepts Jesus Christ as his/her personal savior? Or, better yet, get an old priest to simply lay his hands on the incoming President and shout a few rounds of "The Power of Christ Compels You!"

The Arizona senator was also asked about the confusion over which Christian denomination he belongs to. "I was raised Episcopalian, I have attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years and I am a Christian," McCain said. He added that he has considered being baptized in the Baptist church, but he does not want to do it during the presidential race because "it might appear as if I was doing something that I otherwise wouldn't do."

So, he has attended the Baptist Church for many years, but didn't ever get baptized during all of that time because he thought he might one day run for President and, in that case, wouldn't want people to think he was getting a phony photo-op baptismal, so instead he ignored the most direct, basic commandments of his seriously-held religious faith. Nice. That's almost as good as Rudy Giuliani's "I had to answer my cell phone because of 9/11" line.