Saturday, December 08, 2007

Compassionate Conservatism at Work

Politicians have personae, just like stand-up comedians. And though these personae sometimes resemble their true personalities (for example, George W. Bush is really a doofus who thinks he's a cowboy and Lewis Black most likely has some real-life anger issues), the two are still quite different. It's an extremely simple concept to grasp. Giving a political speech is a lot like acting or doing comedy; you're using words, gestures and body language to make people feel a certain way. You're manipulating them. If you didn't want to sway people to your line of thinking, you wouldn't be giving that speech.

Duh. Yet I feel like Americans continue to discuss political performances as if they were 100% truthful, the best and only indication of how a politician really feels.

Like, for example, Fred Thompson, who pretends to be a folksy, grandfatherly type from down South, but who is actually a wealthy corporate lobbyist and Hollywood actor.

But the one that's really irking me these days is Mike Huckabee. Sure, he's attempting to project a simple, straight-forward, compassionate persona. That's his tactic, and I'd say that he's calculated well. Coming out of four years of George "Deciderer" Bush and Dick "Fuck Yourself" Cheney, Americans are desperate for a little bit of warmth. Someone who's going to talk to us, not talk down to us.

But that doesn't mean he's actually a nice person or that he gives a shit about anyone or anything. You know what's a really reliable indication of whether or not someone is nice? Looking at the things they have already done in their lives. Past behavior's far more telling than rhetoric, even if that rhetoric is being delivered by Chuck Norris is a slightly-amusing viral video form.

So how did Mike Huckabee respond in 1992 when asked about how to deal with the AIDS crisis?

In 1992, Huckabee wrote, ''If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague.''

"It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents."
"In light of the extraordinary funds already being given for AIDS research, it does not seem that additional federal spending can be justified," Huckabee wrote. "An alternative would be to request that multimillionaire celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and others who are pushing for more AIDS funding be encouraged to give out of their own personal treasuries increased amounts for AIDS research."


The AIDS answer is always a telling one, because it was VERY politically convenient for shitbags to play on the ignorance and intolerance of homophobes before anyone knew that much about the disease.

Of course, this was already 1992, not 1982. Magic had told everyone he had HIV at this point.

Actually, this story gets even worse. Here's Huckabee, this week, responding to questions about his ludicrous 1992 statements:

At a news conference in Asheville, N.C., on Saturday, Huckabee said he wanted at the time to follow traditional medical practices used for dealing with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

''Medical protocol typically says that if you have a disease for which there is no cure, and you are uncertain about the transmission of it, then the first thing you do is that you quarantine or isolate carriers,'' Huckabee said.

And there you have it. It was well understood by non-rubes at this point that you could not get AIDS just by standing near an infected individual, so the tuberculosis comparison makes zero practical sense. And he made that comparison on Saturday. That's fucking today!

This New York Times article is pretty great, in that it goes beyond recording what Huckabee said and actually reports the veracity of this information. By which I mean, call him out on his bullshit. Still, I doubt something like this will dramatically impact Huckabee's narrative, which is that he's the charming, funny, warm underdog who just wants what's best for America and loves Jesus just a bit more than you do. Say, 4%.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Not many people are already bitter and disillusioned with the world at 15, but Juno MacDuff has somehow managed it, focusing her attention exclusively on the negative and working against her own happiness. The film bearing her name, Juno, opens with a sharp, caustic description of her family life in voice-over - abandoned by her mother, living with her father and his new wife, having what she will pretend is meaningless sex with a previously platonic friend on a chair in a basement. One disappointment after another.

Ironically, it's the resulting teen pregnancy, long thought to be some sort of handicap or even curse, that will turn Juno's life around. She morphs convincingly from hardened cynic who expects perfection and comes away unfulfilled to wide-eyed romantic who eagerly takes whatever path is set before her over the course of just two hours. The fact that her journey is so entertaining, and that the carefully-detailed world of Jason Reitman's film drew me in, makes it very difficult for me to rip into the movie as I otherwise might have. There were aspects of it that I found exceptionally irritating, complaints of the sort that tend overshadow the complimentary passages of my reviews.

But in the spirit of Juno, one of the few genuinely worthwhile comedies to come out of 2007 and a far far more accomplished effort than the sort of "indie" fodder with which it is being compared (read: Little Miss Sunshine), I'm going to avoid most of the bad (most of it) and just focus on the stuff that works really well.

We start with the script by Diablo Cody, a newcomer who has attracted a lot of attention because "former exotic dancer" appears on her resume. This has nothing to do with the film, mind you, but I'm legally mandated to bring it up as part of my Juno review. Now we can move on.

No matter Cody's skills at any of her prior vocations, the lady has a tremendous gift for dialogue. Juno is fiercely intelligent and more than a little mean. So much so, that in outline form, several of the film's key sequences would likely come off unrealistic. Is any 16 year old, scared pregnant girl really going to wisecrack through so many traumatic, new situations? But Cody and Page really pull it off - rather than doubt whether or not Juno would really say such things, we laugh along with her at the absurdity of her situation.

Not to get too geeky-screenwriter on you, but I really appreciated the way that characters speak differently depending on who else is present in the scene. In so many films, particularly comedies, characters develop one idiosyncratic or particular way of speaking and then adopt this style in every scene. Call it "Stiffler Syndrome." In any situation...he's still Stiffler. (Okay, except for in the American Wedding one where he purposefully changes his personality around to win over the hot-but-innocent girl, but you know what I mean.) Juno uses colorful slang with her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), a wounded whine with her stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) and a chummy goofiness when hanging out with her new friend (and possible baby-adopter) Mark Loring (Jason Bateman). It's almost as if Cody to know this character while writing the film, and gave some thought to how she'd behave in a variety of different situations, rather than just trying to cram in the maximum number of sarcastic asides and dick jokes. (Though the film has many great examples of both, including a ridiculously funny exchange about boysenberry-flavored condoms.)

There's a kind of trust between Cody and her audience. She doesn't hit you over the head with much of anything. There's no grasping for meaning in the film's final half hour - it's steadily entertaining and funny throughout, proceeding logically from one event in Juno's life to the next. The themes are serious, even weighty, but presented realistically, without a lot of mawkish sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, it's sad when the situation is sad, or when Juno is sad, but not because certain types of movies need to get sad at around the 60 minute mark. This was a smart script written for a smart audience, armed with not just an intelligent, well-spoken protagonist but a whole bevy of charming, memorable characters.

Michael Cera, already beloved for his work on "Arrested Development" and in this summer's Superbad, plays yet another variation on his same shy geek, but does so with panache, like some kind of nerd savant. There's a wisdom to Paulie Bleeker, a deeper understanding of what it means to be a teenage dork, that's absent from any of the characters in Superbad. (Yes, even McLovin.) Cera finds just enough ways to tweak the persona - say, a regrettably revealing pair of running shorts - to suit whatever movie or show he's making at that time.

J.K. Simmons also plays an amalgamation of his IMDb page; Juno's Dad is no less than 70% pure J. Jonah Jameson. But when an actor does one kind of character this well, it's pretty much always a pleasure to just let them have at it. (NOTE: This rule does not apply to Al Pacino, who used to play one kind of character well but now plays greater and greater exaggerations of this character, the spark that made it fun in the first place thoroughly disappearing until you're just left with an obnoxious jackass who insists on yelling all his dialogue and flailing his arms around like Wayne and Garth during a Flashback sequence.)

Allison Janney, Jennifer Garner, Bateman, I could keep praising this cast for several thousand more words, but it's almost time to wrap this up as-is, so I'll just clump everyone else together and note that this is one of the year's best ensemble casts. I don't think I've ever really liked Jennifer Garner in anything before, but she's terrific here. Her high-strung, obsessive wannabe mother Vanessa starts out as a sitcom exaggeration but becomes the film's emotional center, around which the entire third act of the movie pivots.

What didn't I like? Well...Two things.

(1) Jason Reitman's Lack of Courage

He previously made Thank You For Smoking, which I loathed, but I now realize that this was more a function of an atrocious script/source material than Reitman's somewhat anonymous direction. He does make one mistake here that he also made in that film, and that's to not allow his characters to be unlikable, even for a little while. Both Juno and Smoking deal with protagonists who make questionable choices, but Reitman's way too demanding of our sympathy right off the bat. Early on in Juno, Reitman gives us a shot of Juno walking with the camera looking right over her head. We're getting, essentially, her perspective as she roams the school hallways, being ignored.

He repeats this shot near the end of the film, and there it's appropriate, but it arrives too early in the film. We're not ready to see the world through Juno's eyes. At first, we should think she's kind of callous and aggressive (because she is!), and then, after coming around to her perspective, learning who she is along with her, we would finally get to a place where we could see that school the way she does. Reitman doesn't let that happen, I'm guessing because he's afraid we're not going to like Juno and he won't be able to win us back.

(This may also explain the odd and out-of-place cameo by Rainn Wilson of "The Office" fame. He plays a convenience store clerk who's genuinely cruel towards a vulnerable Juno, probably as a tactic to win our sympathies for the plucky heroine right from the start. The scene feels borrowed from Ghost World, a bleak vision of a disconnected world with none of the optimism or warmth on display for the rest of this movie.)

(2) The painful soundtrack

Now, I like twee pop as much as the next guy, but this movie has way way way too many pop songs of the exact same style. It's like listening to the same excessively adorable song over and over again for 2 hours. I like the Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You," which appears in the film, but ALL THE SONGS in the movie sound exactly like that and it's just way too much.

Not only did the movie's music get monotonous after a while, but it's frequently out of place. Juno and Mark share an interest in rock history. She's a huge fan of '70s punk and he makes an extremely unlikely case for 1993 as the year when rock reached perfection, but none of this music is actually heard during the movie. We get a brief snippet of Sonic Youth's cover of "Superstar," but otherwise it's Belle and Sebastian and The Moldy Peaches and some other bands that sound like Belle and Sebastian and The Moldy Peaches, strung in a somewhat haphazard fashion end-to-end.

Apparently, the idea to use Moldy Peaches songs came from Ellen Page, and she and Cera duet on “Anyone Else But You” in the film. I now never need to hear this song again, but just in case you're curious:

Those two complaints inside, I enjoyed the hell out of Juno and look forward to seeing what else Diablo Cody has in store. Though, I gotta say, I feel stupid even typing that name. Diablo Cody. Sounds like a daredevil. When she jumps Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered skateboard while juggling flaming swords, then "Diablo Cody" might be appropriate. Mahalo tells me her real name is Brook Busey-Hunt, which I'll grant you isn't much better...