Saturday, December 29, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

[SPOILER ALERT: I won't blow anything fictional that happens in this movie, but I may "spoil" some actual world history in the course of this review. If you don't know shit about Afghanistan in the '80s and plan to see this movie, better not read any further.]

It's easier, I suppose, to appreciate the simple pleasures of film-viewing if the films themselves are placed into a vacuum, one where nothing has any meaning in the real world. To pretend, in other words, that it's all just some crazy fictional shit some writer concocted that was then put to film, that none of these individuals involved in the process of putting this movie together had any agenda or bias aside from making the most entertaining crazy fictional shit possible and that films cease to have any influence on their viewers the moment the reel actually stops unspooling.

As you can probably guess, I don't see this as the case. To me, an individual film comes into being in the midst of a grand conversation - not only with other films, but with other arts, with politics, with culture. It's not just ignorant and superficial but ridiculous to view a collaborative artistic project that can take years to create purely on its own terms, removed from any and all context.

So how to write about the strange and idiosyncratic Charlie Wilson's War, a well-made but highly (to my mind) misleading political satire about important events in recent American history? I'm not sure I agree with its perspective. Like...AT ALL. It's hard to translate that kind of position into a traditional "thumbs up" or a star ranking...But I can say, as a piece of entertainment, it's pretty damn solid. As a history lesson/commentary, it could be a lot better.

Charlie Wilson's War tells the true story of the U.S. response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980's. The real Charlie Wilson, a skirt-chasing, alcoholic Texas Congressman, used his position on the House's Defense Appropriations subcommittee to initiate the largest-ever covert CIA operation, funneling billions of dollars in weaponry to Afghan rebels (Mujahideen) fighting the Soviets.

This is a pretty incredible story and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin succeeds in not only making complicated political machinations relatively straight-forward and even sporadically funny. He's done this largely by writing clever dialogue, full of television-style set-ups, punchlines and quips, but not to an irritating, "Studio 60" degree.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman nearly steals the entire film (for what must be the fifteenth time this year) as Gust Avrakotos, the hot-tempered CIA know-it-all who helps Wilson arrange and understand his elaborate project. Hoffman's really the audience's way into the film - he looks at the cocksure and utterly corrupted Wilson with the mix of appreciation and bewilderment I sense we're meant to feel.

Wilson's not just sleazy but defiantly sleazy, openly referring to his beautiful assistants as "jailbait" and explaining away his relationships to drug dealers by noting that they were introduced by a Playboy covergirl. Tom Hanks gets some laughs in the part, though he's a bit mistcast. And not only because he has some accent trouble and whenever I see him play drunk, I'm reminded of his Dean Martin impression.

The one defining Wilson trait seems to be a preternatural ability to cozy up to all manner of people and feign sincerity in order to win them over. Hanks' charm is a bit too genial and open - we believe other people would like him, but I'm not sure we ever see him use this charisma to his advantage. In fact, the few times during the film that Wilson is actually left to his own devices, such as a tense meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan and his advisers, he falters and ends up embarrassing himself.

Director Mike Nichols brings a veteran's touch to the film - it's very tight and professional, but doesn't really show off or call attention to its own style. Nothing about the film feels all that ambitious, really, and the entire production is disarmingly slight considering the massive award campaign behind it and the uber-stars on its poster. It's reminiscent of Wag the Dog in some ways, another small, unassuming political comedy that arrived with a big cast and epic hype.

As political satire, however, Charlie Wilson's War falls short. Very short. As in, I can't even tell who or what is actually being satirized. I think it's supposed to be Wilson himself, who could be taken as a representation of American foreign policy. He's self-involved and reckless, acting emotionally without really considering the consequences. Wilson's convinced we need to help the Afghan people because he's hot for a woman lobbying on their behalf. After visiting a refugee camp and seeing the brutality of the Soviet Army, he starts sending them weapons without considering what will happen if the Afghans actually use them.

The end of the film finds Wilson successful, but it's a meaningless victory. (Hey, it's not a Spoiler if it actually happened decades ago.) The CIA helps the Afghans expel the Soviets and then leaves them totally to their own devices. The film ends with Avrakotos grimly warning Wilson about what's happening in the country they just "saved" from Communism. "The crazies," he intones, are amassing in Kandahar. (This foreshadows, of course, the rise of the Taliban, the group of crazies that we ended up removing from power in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. Will most Americans make this connection? Does it even count as satire if it's too vague for a significant portion of the potential audience to catch?)

It almost feels as if Sorkin and Nichols want to confront the harsh reality that Wilson and the CIA, in not thinking about the consequences of their actions, maybe have indirectly led to the growth of Al Qaeda, the use of Afghanistan as a training base for terrorists, and thus, the 9/11 attacks. My point is, if they are trying to say that - and it seems to me that, in fact, they are - this needs to be much more direct.

This version of Charlie Wilson is not really an apt metaphor for America, if we're being 100% honest. Because Tom Hanks' Charlie Wilson is a genuinely good, well-intentioned, heroic guy. The film opens and closes with him being awarded a medal. Granted, the scene is kind of ironic and even snarky. (The movie opens with the line, "Greetings, members of the Clandestine Community.") But I'm not sure that's really an excuse to advance the myth of American exceptionalism as this film does so repeatedly and fervently. "Hey, mistakes were made, it didn't all work out as we'd hoped, but America is still the greatest country in the world! Am I right or am I right or am I right?"

It's just kind of wrong to celebrate covert CIA wars in a lightly comical fashion, and I'm not sure the film is clear enough about where it stands to avoid confusion on this matter. It's far too close to a celebration of American intervention overseas, a restatement of the Big Lie, the lie that's actually repeated by a Congressman (played by Ned Beatty) during the film: that America is always on the side of good in whatever it does, all over the world.

If we are to see Wilson as the embodiment of American faults, he needs to seem more reckless and dangerous. The real Charlie Wilson got into lots of trouble that the film glosses over, including some drunk driving accidents, that might have actually made the film work better as a satire. But I guess you can't make your Tom Hanks protagonist too unlikable, even if he is based on a real guy and representative of the decadent, self-aggrandizing American spirit.

The Julia Roberts character - wealthy and powerful Republican whackjob Joanne Herring - perfectly exemplifies my issues with the film. This woman is probably evil, and definitely misguided in her approach to foreign affairs, and yet the film depicts her like Queen fucking Elizabeth. Beautiful, brilliant, glamorous, passionate and adored. Maybe I'm just prejudiced against warmongering Republican Texas millionaires, but the way this character is fawned over and considered above reproach, acting solely out of compassion for Afghan refugees, struck me as entirely ludicrous. Melissa Roddy in AlterNet compares it to "tell[ing] the story of World War II and pretend[ing] that, because the United States might have given a box of guns to the French Underground, there was no Holocaust." I might not go that far, but I get what she's talking about...This feels like a whimsical fantasy at times, not a comedy based on real events.

I'm not going to settle these questions in a blog review, but this is what I was thinking about while exiting Charlie Wilson's War. Do filmmakers take on a responsibility when making films about recent history? Or is it appropriate to just take significant events from a relatively short time ago and render them unrecognizable for the sake of comedy?

Friday, December 28, 2007

What Do You Do That Makes You Famous?

In your face, John Cusack.


Daryl Hill bought his 10-year-old daughter an mp3 player for Christmas (from Wal-Mart, naturally), and it came loaded up with a heaping holiday helping of pr0n. I know, I know, it's hard to believe that a friendly neighborhood company like Wal-Mart would do something duplicitous like charging people new merchandise prices for previously-used electronics. But it's Christmas; try to have a little faith.

Hill bought three of the players as Christmas presents for his children. He said one of the devices had apparently been returned to the store from a previous owner who loaded sex clips and songs with lyrics about using drugs.

"Within 10 minutes, my daughter was crying," Hill said Thursday. "I wish I could take the thoughts and images out of her head."

You gotta feel bad for the kids, but this should be easy enough to explain.

"Santa was bringing you an mp3 player filled with Hannah Montana songs and a different mp3 player filled with porn to some horny, perverted little kid who's been particularly good this year. And one of the elves must have made a mix-up! The point is, even Santa makes mistakes. Oh, yeah, and always look directly into the camera when giving head."

There, done and done. Maybe I should have a few kids...I'm good at this...

Anyway, if you really want to laugh...I mean, more than you just did at the little girl who got porn for Christmas...check out this MSNBC news report on the incident, sent by faithful reader and Mahooligan, Brian. I wish I could embed it on here, but MSNBC continues to not provide embeddable videos...Losers...

In the segment, there's a shot of the reporter watching the screen of the mp3 player as she says, "The porn on here is so graphic...there's not even a part of it we can show you." This has to be one of the most unintentionally hilarious bits of TV journalamism EVER. The direct implication is that this journalist is watching porn on camera and judging it too disturbing for a mass audience, like Herzog listening to the Timothy Treadwell death tapes. Awesome. I'm just imagining the meeting in the NBC Newsroom where they made the decision not to show any of the tapes.

"Can we show this?"

"It's just a Cincinnati Bowtie. They show 'em on Bloomberg all the time."

"I don't know...What's that?"

"I think it's just a nostril."

"We can show just nostrils, right?"

"It depends on what's around them."

"What about felching?"

"What's felching?"

"Mr. Brokaw, you're retired now. Why don't you go home and have a nice lie-down?"

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Favorite Songs of 2007, Part 5

[Read Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4]

This concludes the Favorite Songs list for this year. In a few days, I'll post the Favorite Albums list.

Radiohead, "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"

Yeah, that's right, I chose two songs from the Radiohead album.

Sea Wolf, "You're a Wolf"

Love the haunting cello line that runs throughout this song.

Spoon, "Finer Feelings"

It was hard not to pick multiple songs from this year's Spoon album as well. I like every track and I haven't gotten tired of any of them yet...Amazing.

St. Vincent, "Paris is Burning"

Seeing Annie Clark play this live at the Wiltern, followed by an awesome rendition of "Dig a Pony," not to mention a killer set from The National, was quite possibly 2007's concert highlight.

Vampire Weekend, "Oxford Comma"

These guys actually have kind of a Spoon thing going, now that I think about it. Very simple but intensely listenable and above all precise pop songwriting. This is just a really fun song.

Voxtrot, "Kid Gloves"

The background vocals on this song are absolutely brilliant. So '80s. Voxtrot is one of these great unknown bands that I'm almost 100% positive could be massively popular if only people had heard of them.

Ween, "Your Party"

The best ironic/not-ironic song since Beck's "Debra." As expected from musical chameleons Dean and Gene, this song pulls off yacht rock better than most yacht rock songs. The saxophone, the middle-aged-white-suburban-dork lyrics...Perfection.

White Rabbits, "The Plot"

This song was bouncing around in my head for probably 1/3 of 2007's total days.

Windmill, "Tokyo Moon"

Totally epic. This song is like Soft Bulletin-era "Flaming Lips."

Whalebones, "Don't You Know"

I love a nice low-key alt-country song. This song kind of reminds me of Songs:Ohia...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Brad Pitt of Despair

I'm a bit puzzled by this article from Variety about the failure of The Assassination of Jesse James at the box office. Specifically, how the writer appears surprised that the movie wasn't a big success.

It seemed entirely clear to me that Jesse James, despite being one of 2007's best films in terms of quality, was never going to rank among the year's most popular films. It's a difficult, deliberately-paced 3-hour Western with minimal action and one major star. Has a film like that scored with audiences since 1990's Dances With Wolves? Its backers were most likely gambling on the film garnering awards recognition or critical praise and parlaying that into a moderately-successful theatrical run and long shelf-life on DVD. That still might happen. Though it's hard to figure a $3.8 million domestic haul is anything less than a major disappointment, this is a film movie fans will discover over the course of a few years. (Here's my original review)

The interesting story here is how a foreign director with one notable American release to his credit (Andrew Dominik) was able to convince a studio to invest any money at all in this film. Instead, writer Pamela McClintock tries to use the failure of Jesse James to make some kind of point about the very concept of movie stardom:

One studio exec says people are in the mood to be entertained -- regardless of the name on the marquee, at least to some extent.

"I think it's the movie, not the movie star," one studio exec says. "Movies like 'Juno' have the accumulation of great contemporary resonance, and you have a dazzling breakthrough performance in Ellen Page."

Though it kind of unfortunately comes off as a knock on the film - implying that Jesse James isn't entertaining, when nothing could be further from the truth - the point she's making is actually quite obvious: famous names don't guarantee box office success, and attention from the tabloids doesn't mean attention from paying film audiences. (One need look no further than Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Simpson's dismal returns at this year's box office to confirm this fact).

I mean, dozens of films open each year featuring major stars that fail to connect with audiences. The idea is that it's very difficult to guarantee an audience for a movie that doesn't have celebrities, so a film like that will have a harder time finding investors. That doesn't necessarily mean that the inverse is true, that a film that does feature celebrities will have guaranteed success. It just makes this significantly more likely to occur. I mean, duh.

It just strikes me as incredibly superficial to view this disappointment as a mark on Brad Pitt's celebrity status. It's not like the guy's had a foolproof, stellar record of hits up until now. Babel did $34 million last year despite months of publicity and Oscar nominations. From 1997 to 2000, the guy made nothing but flops - The Devil's Own, Seven Years in Tibet, Meet Joe Black, Fight Club, Snatch. He's done alright with the Ocean's movies and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but let's not forget those also starred George Clooney, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and half the celebrities in Hollywood.

Why are we suddenly expecting him to have Will Smith-style opening weekends?

The article also fails to mention anything about the marketing or advertising of the film, and any analysis of box office performance without bringing this into account can't possibly be complete or thorough. I mean, McClintock writes that Warners had essentially written off the film years before it was ever released:

The studio says "Jesse James" cost $30 million to produce. Shooting was actually completed in the latter part of 2005; the release was delayed by more than a year until September 2007 due to editing.

By the time "Jesse James" opened in five locations Sept. 21, Warners had tempered its expectations; usually, when a film underperforms at the box office, there's all sorts of hand-wringing back on the studio lot.

So, they didn't expect it to do well and therefore, it's likely they didn't put their full resources behind promoting it. (Also, if I'm not mistaken, Pitt distanced himself from the production over time and didn't participate in a lot of publicity when it finally opened.) You think this may have had something to do with its poor showing?

Christmas with Lee Majors

He's been a very good $6 million man this year...

Is It Too Late to Change My "Best Songs" List?

I picked this up from Stereogum after I noticed that the band has been mentioned a bunch in Pitchfork's roundup of musician Top 10 lists.


The band is High Places, and they don't have a proper album out yet, but that Stereogum post has a four songs, all very good-to-excellent. This band will likely have an amazing 2008.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmastime for the Jews

Another classic SNL Christmas moment that I saw posted on Valleywag, of all places. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Favorite Songs of 2007, Part 4

[Read Parts 1, 2 and 3]

Neil Young, "Dirty Old Man"

I only liked about half of Neil's 2007 entry, Chrome Dreams II. This track sounds a lot like something he would have written 30 years ago. Lyrically, it's a lot like "Sedan Delivery" and "Welfare Mothers."

I could not find a single embeddable or direct link for this song. I guess Neil wants your 99 cents.

The New Pornographers, "Failsafe"

It was a toss-up between this track and "Myriad Harbor" from the New Pornos' "Challengers" record, but I went with this one because I love Neko Case's Kathryn Calder's vocals on it.

Of Montreal, "Gronlandic Edit"

I'll admit, some of the songs of this album were too far-out for me to get into. I admire what Kevin Barnes & Co. are going for...but it's not the sort of thing I'll listen to frequently. I listened to this song a shitload this year. It's like a Beck in full-on Prince mode, backed up by Hot Chip - weird, hypnotic and funky. Plus, you've got to love the line "physics makes us all its bitches."

Okkervil River, "Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe"

This one kicks off The Stage Names with a bang. Not every band could pull off such a BIG, emotional gesture right up front and make it work, but as they did a few years back with Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River has constructed a rock album that builds in dramatic intensity more like a rock opera. The Arcade Fire goes for the same kind of sweeping, epic scale in their music, and succeeded beautifully in Funeral a few years back, but Stage Names clearly outdid this year's A.F. entry, Neon Bible.

Panda Bear, "Good Girl/Carrots"

Holy shit. This song is a masterpiece. Almost 13 minutes long and every second is entrancing and vital. It may take a few listens to "get it," but once you're there...bliss.

Patrick Wolf, "Bluebells"

I love the use of fireworks sound effects in this song. Gives everything kind of a oddly nostalgic quality.

Photo Atlas, "Handshake Heart Attack"

The Ponys, "Poser Psychotic"

There's a lot less straight-up guitar rock on my Favorite Lists this year than in years past. Even an old fart like myself, who came of age when Grunge was King, has to admit that electronic music and hip-hop are changing the landscape of what's worth listening to. The Ponys, however, are keeping the old ways alive.

Professor Murder, "Flex-It Formula"

Radiohead, "Reckoner"

I love Radiohead. I love "In Rainbows." I love this song. That is all.

[The Favorite Song list concludes with Part 5 here!]

Do I Know It's Christmas?

Typically, this is about the time I would post some angry, curmudgeonly take on the Christmas season and piss off all the True Believers who stumble into my blog-space. In 2005, I wrote this post, "The 6 Types of Annoying Christmas Songs," a goofy little bit of business making fun of the severity or anachronism of most popular Christmas carols. I thought it was pretty lighthearted, but still received some strongly-worded rebukes in comments from Yuletide fans.

The best was from Webmastergo Dallas:

It's really too bad you're so sad. Calling you names (like a pit-dwelling grinch who's soul seems near dead) would serve no purpose and might almost surely fuel your WAY-MORE-than-cynical and hateful fire against things decent, peaceful and good, albeit agreed that in some cases antiquated (yet not irrelevant to many with joyful souls). Or you may actually enjoy such name-calling as vaildating a selected humanity-rebellion. The biggest wrong such name-calling will commit is to push you further away from the soul-saving subject-person of (and reason for) Christmas, the creator of the entire universe who unselfishly came to sacrifice himself for the likes of me and you.

Who knows if you're uncommonly financially wealthy and silver-spoon-life lived without compassion or any personal lack or struggle has utterly impoverished and jaded your spirit, with a "let em eat cake in hell" resultant attitude... or if you're just a raging semi-sociopath who from personal choice or lack of familial nurturing has grown into killjoy-jerkishness toward everyone else's happiness except your own. On top of it all you probably don't give a rat's tail WHAT anybody thinks. But just a parting tip as we ease into the joy of a season mostly celebrating Jesus Christ who LOVED YOU AND STILL LOVES YOU SO MUCH (and hopes you'll soon chill out and discover that truth ... before it's too late) -- GOD LOVES YOUUU DUDE!!! No matter who you are..what you've done.. who you've hurt..who's hurt you...GOD LOVES YOU.

I have no idea where he got the "uncommonly financially wealthy" "silver-spoon-life" thing...All I did was goof on some Christmas songs. I mean, my folks did alright, but I don't see what that has to do with anything.

Also, I object to being called a "pit-dwelling Grinch." I believe he lived on a high mountaintop overlooking Whoville, did he not? Insulting me is one thing, but I'll not have you misstate details from the beloved classics of Dr. Seuss.

Anyway, I'm not sure I really have it in my this year to do a caustic, anti-Christmas post. I feel like things have been more subdued this year (or maybe I've just been busier), and I've been less overwhelmed by holiday-themed nonsense than in years past. Is it because people are nervous about the economy and spending less on pointless crap they don't need? Or have I personally just been more preoccupied with my own shit and not paying attention to the usual full-on Shopping Orgy Experience?

So instead of ranting, enjoy Mark Jensen's Family Christmas: