Monday, February 28, 2005

Al Qaeda Giving up on Iraq?

Bin Laden tells Zarqawi to switch to Plan B and concentrate on attacking inside the United States. Sounds like Hitler's last days in his bunker, trying to call for airstrikes against London.

No Surprise

This may have been the most predictable Academy Awards in years. I don't recall a single surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, even for the smaller categories. The SAG, WGA and DGA awards perfectly predicted who'd win. The only major award with any suspense, actually, was Best Picture, where The Aviator, having won a bunch of technical awards, still had a shot at edging out Million Dollar Baby.

Perhaps tomorrow I will write on the worst and best choices. I admit I was pleased to see my favorites (scroll down a few days), Wasp and Ryan, win for short film.

Meanwhile, at the tiresome Razzies, where they award conventionally bad films (never anything brave or interesting--quite often Oscar nominees are worse than what the Razzies choose), they decided not to even be true to themselves.

Instead, they decided to play politics. They gave awards to George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, My Pet Goat, Donald Rumsfeld and Britney Spears for their performances in Fahrenheit 9/11. This is just silly. First, they weren't giving "performances" in any normal sense of the word. Second, since the point of the film was to mock them, and since (within the context of the film) they delivered, if anything, their "performances" were quite good. I'm sure even Michael Moore would agree. The Razzie people actually made bigger fools of themselves than usual.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Something stinks in this pew

Pajama Guy grew up in Mendham, New Jersey and attended a Roman Catholic church run by one of the America's worst pedophile priests. That was more than twenty-years ago, and St. Joseph's Church and the Diocese of Patterson are still paying the price. So are the victims.

Now another pastor -- on the job for just a year -- has resigned under troubling circumstances. Rev. Philip Briganti reportedly e-mailed a photo of himself to somone, who then sent it to someone else, who then allegedly tried to blackmail the pastor over the Internet. Briganti went to the police. They opened up an investigation. While they apparently don't suspect criminal wrongdoing by Briganti, he did the right thing and resigned.

Briganti is a former military chaplain who deserves the benefit of the doubt. Still, "priest," "Internet," "photos" and "extortion" are not the words you want to hear coming out of the rectory. The church better come clean, quickly. If there's a second scandal at one of the most notorious parishes in the United States (even if it doesn't involve boys -- which this one apparently doesn't) it's a pretty good sign that the church has problems with sex and priests that run so deep they can't be fixed.

Easy Choice

You might not have heard, but on March 8 we're having an election for Mayor. In fact, very few people in LA know.

To remedy this, the Mayor and his four main rivals are fighting to be heard. What this amounts to is I, a late sleeper, am being awoken most days by calls from the various campaigns.

I have a simple system. Whenever I get woken by a candidate, I cross him off my list. It looks like I won't even have to vote, the way things are going.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

If Only

Last December, Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, wrote a particularly foolish editorial in the LA Times. (He was president-elect back then and is still president-elect. Just how long between the election and the inauguration?) He was worried that letting people get information in books more easily through Google would hurt serious research. (Honest, that is his argument.) I blogged about it then.

In fact, Gorman received a lot of criticism from blogs. (There is, alas, no indication he ever read Pajama Guy's take.) So much that he retreated to the safety of the Library Journal to write about his cruel treatment.

He appears to have been unnerved by his confrontation with the blogosphere. Yet, somehow, I doubt any cheap shots he received were worse than Gorman's own clueless arrogance:
"Given the quality of the writing in the blogs I have seen, I doubt that many of the Blog People are in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts. It is entirely possible that their intellectual needs are met by an accumulation of random facts and paragraphs."
Is it too late to make this guy the president-unelect?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Oscar Picks

Guess I might as well put out my Oscar picks before they actually pick the Oscars. These are the ones I'd choose, not the ones I necessarily expect to win. There's so much published on who the favorites are these days that almost everyone knows what to expect. It's not like the old days when you could pick up a few bucks due to widespread ignorance (people actually chose films they liked!).

I'll skip over categories where I haven't seen enough to have an informed opinion. As often happens, my picks in some categories will be faute de mieux.

Best Picture: Sideways

Best Actor: Jamie Foxx in Ray (it's an impersonation, but what an impersonation)

Best Actress: Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full Of Grace

Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church in Sideways (though Jamie Foxx might have been better in Collateral than Ray)

Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen in Sideways

Best Animated Feature: The Incredibles (should be Best Picture)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Sideways

Best Original Screenplay: The Incredibles (Eternal Sunshine was brilliant but cold)

Best Director: Alexander Payne for Sideways (are you starting to see a trend?--the way I see it, at least I've got something to root for, even if it's not gonna win)

Best Art Direction: Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Best Cinematography: A Very Long Engagement

Best Costume Design: The Aviator

Best Film Editing: Finding Neverland (can't get fauter in the faute de mieux sweepstakes)

Best Makeup: Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Best Original Score: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Best Original Song: “Al Otro Lado Del Río” from The Motorcycle Diaries

Best Animated Short: Ryan

Best Live Short: Wasp

Best Sound Editing: The Polar Express

Best Sound Mixing: The Polar Express

Best Visual Effects: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Please Ignore

Sometimes you just don't have anything to say. There's nothing wrong with that on a blog--ChicagoGuy hasn't had anything to say for three months and we haven't docked him one day's pay.

But it makes me wonder. If I were a salaried columnist (a plum job, seems to me) who had to churn out pensees on a regular basis, would I have some warhorse subjects I could return to when I'm dry, or would I be running around like the McKenzie Brothers, looking for a new topic?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Nostalgia

Andrew Sullivan muses on iPods. Part of his piece is about how we view the world (you know the argument--even though more people avail themselves of more choice than ever, Sullivan joins those ignoring all evidence and pretending people's worlds are more closed off).

He complains that music is becoming a solitary experience:
"Music was once the preserve of the living room or the concert hall. It was sometimes solitary but it was primarily a shared experience, something that brought people together, gave them the comfort of knowing that others too understood the pleasure of a Brahms symphony or that Beatles album."
You see, in the good old days, "we didn’t walk around the world like hermit crabs with our isolation surgically attached."

I wonder if any blowhards in the 1920s, when radio and recordings made it possible to enjoy a symphony by yourself, made similar claims. I don't know. But I do know--and Sullivan is not so young that he can't remember--that old farts made Sullivan's exact argument, with just about the same wording, regarding the Walkman 25 years ago. Hey, Andrew, welcome to the world of old farts.

Great Scott

My favorite televangelist, Dr. Gene Scott--no one is in second place--died yesterday. Based in Los Angeles, known worldwide, his show was more entertaining than most other programming. I first heard him when I visited here in the 80s and have been a fan ever since.

He would sit there, wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigar and, if necessary, glowering at the audience until they paid attention. You never knew what the subject of the day's sermon would be. Sometimes it was the Bible, but Scott was just as likely to spend an hour ranting about the FCC or the NLRA or some other governmental body. If he sensed his live audience was drifting, he'd say "am I boring you?" and they'd shout back "No, sir!"

He had a band that played great songs, like "Kill Some Pissants For Jesus" and "Go To Hell Ugly." He'd unlocked the secrets of the Bible and mocked other religious leaders who thought they knew better with all their petty rules. His attitude was you could drink and swear and even fornicate, as long as you got the big things right. And the most important rule by far was tithing--nothing guaranteed you a spot in heaven faster than sending money to Dr. Scott.

Scott was a rich man who wasn't afraid to flaunt his wealth. When he got tired of talking, for instance, he'd show footage of his horses.

He preferred a smart atheist to a dumb Christian. He even said when he got to heaven, he might sneak a few non-believers in for company. Now's your chance, Dr. Scott. Good luck.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Right messenger, wrong message

I just watched Malcolm X: Make It Plain on PBS. There's no question he was both extremely intelligent and charismatic. If anything, that makes it sadder that for most of his public life he was preaching the wrong message.

One can certainly understand the despair of African-Americans, brought here in chains and, even when freed, still treated harshly. But the way out, it seems to me, is not to return hatred with hatred, and racism with racism. (Yes, in some situations, you've got to fight, but it's better to bring change through peaceful means, especially when many are already on your side; besides, starting a fight when you're outgunned is a poor strategy.)

As both the documentary and his autobiography suggest, Malcolm X's views were changing in his final years. If he hadn't been assassinated 40 years ago, but lived on, who knows where his thinking would have evolved.

His life--how he pulled himself up from troubled beginnings--still inspires. Unfortunately, I question if his message, as it's come down to us, has been a helpful one.

Monday, February 21, 2005

They Still Don't Get It

To me, the mark of a serious argument is not how well you state your case, but how fairly you characterize the other side. That's why I'm so often astounded when I read certain academics who, for whatever reasons, make anti-Bush arguments that amount to little more than taunting.

Exhibit A, the response in The New York Review Of Books to a Mark Danner piece entitled "How Bush Really Won." Since so many left-leaning intellectuals thought this election so important, and since Bush won by a clear (if not overwhelming) majority, one would think it's in their interest to truly understand why they lost. Thus, the unfair and essentially clueless way they characterize Bush voters is all the more puzzling.

Professor Andrew Hacker states average Americans voted Republican because it gave them "a chance to feel superior." He notes the "Bush candidacy was framed to make a majority by giving some 60 million people a chance to feel good about themselves." In not unexpected logrolling, Mark Danner agrees, stating this theory is correct, "for 51 percent of [the voters] at least."

Continuing the orgy of backslapping, Professor Paul Cohen agrees with Danner that Bush won because "the Republicans...constructed a narrative" of Bush's strength versus Kerry's vacillation. Cohen goes on to claim this is an old Republican conceit--they are strong while Democrats are weak. They pushed this "theme and subtext" so well as to "effectively override the plain facts [which Danner noted]—the nonexistence of WMDs in Iraq, for example, and the disconnect between Iraq and September 11."

In other words, people voted for Bush by the desire to be morally superior and to feel like "real men." This is not serious analysis, this is name-calling.

Apparently, it doesn't occur to these three academics that anyone could vote for Bush without being fooled. Let's look at their two arguments, moral superiority and masculinity.

While it doesn't factor much into my vote, I don't deny many vote for the side they consider morally superior (and thus feel morally superior themselves--I would be glad to show the Professors thousands of Democrat attacks on innate Republican immorality if they doubt it). To most of these voters, of course, the morally superior side is also the side that will run the country best. I'm confused as to why the professors claim only Republicans vote for this reason. I have little doubt that Hacker and Danner think the Democrats' agenda is morally superior to the Republicans'. Does this mean they've been fooled? No, it's an honest difference of opinion. How can academics, biased or not, be so blinkered as to not see this?

As to "toughness," I'll admit my vote did turn on it. I considered national security the overriding issue of the election, and listened closely to what Bush and Kerry had to say. (The "plain facts" of missing WMDs and the disconnect between Iraq and September 11 that matter so much to Cohen and Danner did figure into my analysis, but not, apparently, in the way the two thought they should--as if they discredit the Bush administration's war on terror and that's that; I've argued about this so much in the past that I'm not going into it here, except to note that the Professors seem to have such strong views on certain facets of the war on terror that they miss how others may see it.)

There are many different strategies one may take, and no one can be sure how any course will turn out, but based on my belief that the threat is real and serious, I preferred the candidate I thought would conduct the war on terror more aggressively (this doesn't just mean fighting wars, of course) and it seemed clear to me Bush was the one. The "narrative" that Bush put out was not about making me feel more like a man, it was simply a way of signifying how he would fight a serious war, just as Kerry put out his "narrative" as to how he would fight it (including his belief that the war on Iraq was mistaken). My vote, then, was a considered judgment call, not a test of my masculinity.

I suggest the Professors go back to the blackboard and start again. But first write "I will not assume my position is the only reasonable one and that those who disagree are dupes" a hundred times.

It pours, man it pours

I used to love when it rained in Los Angeles. It meant we'd have nice clean air the next day. However, it's been raining more days than not this year, and enough is enough. It's rained so much I've discovered new leaks in my roof, not to mention some old ones I thought were taken care of. Does anyone know a way to unseed the clouds and stop this?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Update Update

SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels tried a small experiment this year by having two women--Tina Fey and Amy Poehler--co-host Weekend Update.

Fey was fine on Update when teamed with Jimmy Fallon. Amy Poehler is one of the most talented members of the cast. But together, they don't have any chemistry. The best Update hosts made it the highlight of the show. Now it's just another bit.

I hope Michaels is brave enough to admit the experiment has failed.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Deep Throat's Identity?

Fox's Eric Burns says Woodward's and Bernstein's "source" was actually a composite character. Wasn't this what got their colleague Janet Cooke run out of the business?

LAGuy ripostes: What got Cooke in trouble, repeating scuttlebutt from a well-known plagiarist as if it's news?

The composite claim is an old one, and denied by Woodward and Bernstein. According to the linked Burns interview, all he's got is the alleged word of dead writer Stephen Ambrose who himself based his story on an alleged claim by editor Alice Mayhew. I think we've got to get Mayhew officially on record before this rises to the level of something worth looking into.

The Show About Everything

Now that the first few seasons of Seinfeld have been released on DVD, some fans may be wondering "is this the show I remember?"

Well, not exactly. For one thing, almost every sitcom takes a year or two to find its footing--discover who the characters really are and what works for them. Because of this phenomenon, the early seasons of a comedy often seem "soft"--though only in retrospect.

But Seinfeld is a special case. From the start, the critics loved it, and so did I. It was about the minutiae of everyday life, looked at with a distinctive take. The plots were about little things--going to parties, renting cars, doing laundry, visiting your parents, waiting in restaurants, meeting dates--that were amazingly close to life. This was the "show about nothing"--very realistic and honest, and quite funny.

Then, around season three, Seinfeld changed--almost did a 180. It still kept the discussion of small stuff, and still had the delightful characters, but once they realized they could throw in a bunch of plots and dovetail them, they never looked back. Suddenly all four leads had their own story pinging back and forth, interweaving with the other characters' stories. Plots that had been simple and recognizable were suddenly extravagant and outrageous. And rather than character determining the situation, the character could change on a dime to fit whatever the gag situation. This wasn't a show about nothing, it was a show that would do anything.

As an example, an early episode had Kramer unhappy with some fruit and thinking of returning it. Jerry makes a joke about how that's not how it works with fruit and that's that. In a later episode, Kramer actually returns his fruit, gets barred from the fruit store, has Jerry buy his fruit, so Jerry gets barred, and then George has to buy the fruit. Both approaches are funny, but the first is more realistic, the second willing to go further for the gag. It's the later Jerry we all remember and love, but the early Jerry is still pretty good.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sense Of Proportion

You really have to care about an issue to buy a whole page in a major newspaper. Any group that does it obviously believes they've got something important to say. So let's look at a few of the full-page ads out there this week and figure out what matters to people.

In the Los Angeles Times (it appeared earlier in the New York Times) was NION's ad. NION stands for Not In Our Name. They reject almost everything about the Bush administration, but particularly have a bee in their bonnet regarding the war on terror. Fine, when history is written, and we recall that America tried to liberate tens of millions from brutal dictatorship, and fought to bring democracy to a whole region, we'll note that all the intellectuals and celebrities of NION opposed it.

In USA Today, an umbrella of "values" groups, tired of trying to convince people pornography is wrong, simply want to take away the choice. (They'd probably love the old National Lampoon issue "Pornography: Threat or Menace?".) They campaign for "corporate responsibility," i.e., corporations deciding for us what we can read and see.

Their latest target is Movie Gallery, a chain trying to buy out Hollywood Video, thus "bringing hard-core pornography to your neighborhood." How? Well, their shops apparently feature backrooms with "titles that can't be printed in this space." Is that true? Will USA Today really prevent them from printing Sideways And Other Ways, The Pole Her Express, Hitchcock, Meet The Knockers--actually, that sounds cleaner than the original--and the like? (Incidentally, a Movie Gallery spokesperson says they're not planning to sell X-rated merchandise in Hollywood Video outlets.)

They're also bothered that Movie Gallery's regular shelves include R and NC-17 rated videos, otherwise known as "movies." "It's not uncommon to find these videos in full view of children" (italics theirs). You know, like the way titles and posters are in full view of the same children at movie theatres.

Also in the Los Angeles Times was an ad by a group trying to save Star Trek. With its latest incarnation, Enterprise, canceled, there won't be any fresh Trek on TV for the first time in quite a while.

When I saw this ad I thought finally, some people with a sense of proportion.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Rather not out of woods

TKS on NRO is on to something. The Rathergate Three -- Josh Howard, Betsey West and Mary Murphy -- are refusing to take the bullet for Dan and Andy. That may force Les Moonves to re-open the matter. Certainly Howard, West and Murphy should take a big hit because the fake documents aired on their show. But they're being blamed for the entire scandal, including CBS' cynical 12-day defense of the story. That defense was a far worse journalistic sin than the original report -- and Rather and Heyward committed it. If Howard, West and Murphy -- by threat of defamation, wrongful termination or breach of contract lawsuits -- can force CBS to clarify their roles, Rather and Heyward will have to re-work all the nostalgic "Dan says Goodbye" specials they have planned for March.

Hockey Hokum

Prediction: the NHL will still hold the Stanley Cup playoffs. The regular season in that sport hasn't mattered for years anyway.

LAGuy notes: I've already spoken on this issue. As I predicted on Jan. 1, "People will realize they don't need hockey. So will the NHL."

Iran and Syria forge a "united front"

Now we don't have to choose between them when we contemplate the next target in the War on Terror.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Technology sucks

We had a huge scare at our home the other night. Our 1-year-old went into a hysterical crying fit, couldn't catch his breath and passed out. Just turned blue and went limp in Mom's arms. This never happened before, and we thought he'd choked on something, and needed medical attention. So I went to call 911.

The problem was that all the phones in our house are cordless, and I couldn't find one of the %*#$^ handsets. It took me at least two minutes of running around the house to find one. (Between sofa cushions). All the while my baby boy (appeared) not to be breathing.

THEN... more trouble when I called 911. A couple months ago we switched over to an internet phone service that doesn't have true 911 service. By that I mean our name and address doesn't automatically pop up on the dispatcher's screen when we call 911. I had to give my address, and the dispatcher didn't write it down right. It was awful. It took forever for the ambulance to get to the house. I was panicked. My wife was panicked. My 5 and 3-year-olds were bawling.

Most heartbreaking was the 5-year-old. He lost his grandfather and great grandfather in the past year, and he's just beginning to understand the concept of death and going to heaven. He was screaming at us not to take his little brother away.

"I want him to stay here! I want to snuggle with him!"

The good news is the little guy came to on his own -- he hadn't really stopped breathing after all. (Or rather, he'd resumed breathing after he blacked out.) But if he had needed that ambulance, it would have never come in time.

Pajamas and Yellowcake

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that New York Times and Time reporters can be jailed for contempt for not naming their sources to a grand jury investigating the Yellowcake scandal. Judge David B. Sentelle pulled a Jonathan Klein in rejecting arguments that a First Amendment privilege applies:

Does the privilege also protect the proprietor of a Web log: the stereotypical 'blogger' sitting his pajamas at his personal computer posting on the World Wide Web his best product to inform whoever happens to browse his way?

Here at Pajama Guy we're unoffended by the stereotype. We'd never blog in the raw. If we did, we'd stick to the La-Z-Boy.

"I prefer not to."

CBS's Rathergate execs refuse to leave. It's a modern-day Bartleby the Scrivener

Unbearabull

TCM has been playing Oscar-winning films all month. A few days ago I watched Raging Bull for the first time in years. Many critics call it Scorsese's best (high praise indeed) and the greatest film of the 80s. The readers at IMDB have voted it the 60th greatest film of all.

I'm afraid I can't agree. I admire De Niro's commitment to the role of Jake La Motta, but then, as now, the film strikes me as little more than two hours plus of unrelieved loutishness. I don't demand protagonists be all sweetness of light, but what's the point, and where's the pleasure, in watching this film?

Amazingly, I discovered in the IMDB trivia section that after their producer vetoed the original script, De Niro and Scorsese spent a few weeks reworking it to make La Motta more sympathetic. Which scenes are those?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

That didn't take very long

In the LA Times, page three (not today, sorry), a banner headline:

POSTELECTION OPTIMISM EBBING IN IRAQ

Let's see what evidence of this theory is actually found in the story.

Well, apparently, they did "random interviews" with "more than 20 Iraqis." More than 20?! Cancel the recount, the numbers are in!

One of the pessimistic Iraqis was Huda Hadi. So I guess she's an example of optimism ebbing, until the Times notes SHE BOYCOTTED THE ELECTION TO BEGIN WITH.

Overall, what did all these Iraqis believe? It turns out some were disappointed, some were hopeful, and some weren't sure. Wow, who knew it was that bad.

The Lost World

A recent feature in the LA Times Calendar section notes the "diversity" of the cast on ABC's Lost. This is the kind of bean-counting I find annoying. What matters is whether or not a show is good, regardless of the ethnicity of the actors.

No matter how diverse anyone thinks the casting is, let's not forget it's still Hollywood diversity. In other words, the four lead females range from very cute to stunning. (Half the men could be models as well.)

More on Miller

The encomia were ubiquitous. Arthur Miller was celebrated as a great playwright all around the world. A few days ago I gave an example of the reaction from the American knee-jerk Left. Harold Pinter's reaction shows us the European version.

Pinter--the man that gives one pauses--is a playwright almost as celebrated as Miller. (I don't quite see why, but that's a different post.) In his tribute, he's tries to explain why Miller in his final decades was more popular overseas:
"In the United States, they didn't like him very much because he was too outspoken and too critical of the way of life in the United States and certain assumptions that were made over there."
Pinter, who has opposed most of America's foreign policy since he's been alive, predictably assumes we're no good at self-criticism (because if we were good at it, after all, we'd stop doing everything we're doing). In assuming the worst, Pinter makes a mistake that any leftist who lives here, even David Edelstein, wouldn't.

Arthur Miller was, in fact, one of the few great Americans playwrights the average person here could name. His work, particularly Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible, are high school staples.

No, it's our intelligentsia who have been beating up on him for years. Why don't they like him? They claim he's got clunky plots, stilted dialogue, pat psychology, overt didacticism, unearned revelations, limited viewpoint. His plays are old-fashioned, mostly humorless, and made up of stick figures. He's a third-rate Ibsen at best. However, they have no trouble with his criticism of America except perhaps it's not incisive enough.

If anyone reading this knows Harold, please inform him of his mistake.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Doonesburied

In Sunday's Doonesbury, Mark tells Donald Rumsfeld, re Iraq, "...there seems to be growing agreement that this war has become ruinous--militarily, fiscally, politically and morally--and that, as in Vietnam, it's no longer a question of if we withdraw in disgrace, but when." The ultimate joke here is that a chastened Rumsfeld doesn't argue. (I admit I'm not fully presenting the famous Doonesbury anticlimax that's supposed to elicit the laugh--please check it out yourself for the full comic feeling.)

For the gag to work, what Mark is saying should feel obviously true. It must be interesting to live in the world of Garry Trudeau, where he's confident any reasonable reader will find Mark's claims self-evident.

I'm saying this even without reference to the fairly successful Iraqi election not long ago, which, if nothing else, should have slowed down some of that "growing agreement" even among Trudeau's friends. I'd go so far as to say that, in general, the war has been pretty clearly successful (certainly not "ruinous") on a number of levels; nevertheless, I wouldn't assume others agree with me, either in making an argument or a joke.

(I realize the strip is written weeks in advance, so maybe the news cycle caught up and passed Doonesbury, but you'd at least think, then, that Trudeau would have some replacement to avoid embarrassment.)

I admit I don't feel good arguing against Doonesbury. I mean, who cares? The strip's best years were in the 70s, and ever since Trudeau came back from a two-year hiatus 1984, it's never been the same. (During that time he created a flop Broadway musical, which I liked.)

Perhaps that's the reason for the desperate comparison to Vietnam. To others, it was a disastrous quagmire, but to Trudeau, it's his glory days.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Woo-hoo! I'm hip!

Arthur Miller just died. Perhaps I'll have a proper post on him later, but I just want to comment now on David Edelstein's immediate reaction in Slate.

Edelstein does the conventional critic's insult in claiming Miller is more urgent today than he was previously. (So I guess in another decade Miller won't matter again.) You see, back in the 60s and 70s, people cared about each other, but now that we don't, Miller's socialist bent is needed. As Edelstein puts it: "In an era in which it's hip to be libertarian, Miller's sermons on behalf of social responsibility, of the effect of our actions on others, are unexpectedly bracing." Woo-hoo! I'm hip!

Yes, that's why libertarians are the way they are--because they don't care about anyone else. I thank Edelstein for clearing that up. As he notes: "Now that we live in an era in which our leaders labor (overtly and by stealth) to dismantle what's left of the New Deal and the Great Society, the fear beneath many of Miller's Depression-forged motifs hits home once more." To which a libertarian says: if only. (Most of these dismantled programs are operating at 100%+ of their original budgets, even taking inflation into account.)

It's helpful to see such a clear example of brain-dead liberal politics. Apparently, if you want to change any social program (short of doubling its budget) you want to destroy it, not reform it, and are doing something so obviously bad for society it doesn't matter what your plans are, or your intentions (though they're obviously selfish).

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Bewitched Redux

Responding to LA Guy's recent post that mentioned Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman starring in the movie version of "Bewitched"...

Bill McCuddy of Fox News told me they should cast someone else as Darren for the first 45 minutes, than stick Ferrell in the role for the second half of the movie without explaining the switch to audience.

LA Guy's wrong on Easongate

Pajama guy objects! LA guy may be right that most bloggers practice the noble art of commentary, but he's picked the worst example (and, I dare say, the worst time in journalistic history) to make that mildly disparaging point. In Easongate, it was in fact World Economic Forum blogger Rony Abovitz who did the original newsgathering. And even his journalistic accomplishment wasn't nearly as impressive as the Rathergate bloggers' -- they not only first reported the fake memos, they actually did investigative work that proved the documents were frauds.

As for LA Guy's statement that most news is generated by official (and paid) news sources [channelled by MSM beat reporters] I have several points:

(1) There are many bloggers generating original reporting from places like Iran and outside the Green Zone in Iraq, where the MSN is not present. (2) More and more bloggers are taking part of official news events like the national political conventions and White House press briefings -- and getting the same handouts as the MSM. (3) More and more bloggers are also actually picking up the phone, and collecting their own quotes instead of cutting and pasting from the MSM's web sites. (4) Most of MSM reporters are rehashing AP or Reuters anyway. (5) Much of what passes as enterprise reporting in the major newspapers and TV networks really just involves the national reporter finding an intriguing local story, and throwing more resources at it or broadening its scope it by finding similar examples in other places. (6) Finally, I challenge LA Guy to cite examples of paid sources filling any appreciable amount of the aggregate news hole.

[LAGuy notes: Perhaps there's a misunderstanding here. The "paid sources" I referred to were employees of newspapers, wire services and other newsgathering businesses. They fill in just about all of the "news hole." If we had only bloggers and none of these people, we would have no idea what's going on anywhere.]

Easongate seems to me a real milestone for the pajamahadeen in terms of impact and reach. In Rathergate they forced CBS to capitulate by forcing the MSM colleagues of Rather, Mapes & Co to take notice and turn up the pressure. In Easongate, they've forced a top resignation at CNN before the MSM even reported the scandal.

Don't get cocky, kid

Looks like the blogosphere has added another scalp (Trent Lott, Dan Rather) to its collection, now that Eason Jordan has called it quits. (Conveniently on a late Friday afternoon, so it'll get less play in the press.)

Just a few thoughts. Yes, it's true, a few years ago, Jordan would have gotten away with his outrageous comments without the blogs to keep the story alive. But let's not get too full of ourselves. (Not possible for Pajama Guy.) As useful and exciting as blogs are, the actual news still comes almost solely from official (and paid) news sources. Blogs are great at commenting--they've rightly broken the editorial monopoly of the regular media--and they're also good at checking out the veracity of various claims, but they're rarely the ones on the ground collecting the info to begin with, which is the main purpose of the media.

Blogs are like copy boys who notice something is amiss, and, after checking things (on their own time), tug at the real reporters to get them to stick to a story since there's more (or less) than has been noticed.

In his statement, Jordan denies he said anything like it's claimed he said, and that he wasn't "as clear" as he should have been. If this is true, I suggest he stick to his guns, and not be forced out by those who mischaracterize him; but if he's actually quitting because he knows when the truth comes out it won't be good, then I understand.

My favorite part is right at the beginning--he's leaving because he doesn't want CNN to be "unfairly tarnished" by the controversy. This reminds me of Norm McDonald's gag about how Paula Barbieri didn't want to marry OJ because she was afraid if she did she would be murdered and he would be falsely blamed for it.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Postman always zings twice

Sorry for, even by the standards of this blog, such a strained title.

In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (the character, not the actual film's writer) asks Robert McKee (the character, not the actual screenplay guru) what to do about a script. McKee confides you can get away with a lot as long as you've got a socko finish.

How true. As my friend Tom says, when it comes to selling a script, the first ten pages are the most important, but when it comes to loving a film, the last ten minutes are the most important.

Let's set the Wayback machine to late 1997. James L. Brooks has a hit with As Good As It Gets. Pierce Brosnan scores in Tomorrow Never Dies. Oddly-named dark horse Good Will Hunting is breaking out.

But the two films attracting the most attention are the reliable (yes, reliable, even Waterworld ended up making money) Kevin Costner's The Postman and James Cameron's out-of-control Titanic. Both films are three-hour epics, both hope to cash in big and both hope to win Oscars.

I saw them within a week of each other. Titanic had a tiresome framing device, bad dialogue, and a dopey love story at its center. The Postman had stunning scenery, a certain amount of wit, and a touching story.

But Titanic ended up being as huge as huge can be, and winning a carload of Oscars. The Postman became synonymous with flop. There are a number of reasons, but, if nothing else, these films demonstrate the importance of the big ending. The first two hours of Titanic doesn't do much for me, but I'll admit the shipwreck sequence is spectacular. Meanwhile, The Postman, which is moving along well, has serious, clunky plot problems in its final act.

I recently watched The Postman for the first time since it came out, and my feelings were the same, but I was able to pinpoint its problems more clearly.

We start in a post-apocalyptic world (a favorite setting of filmmakers). Kevin Costner is an itinerant, scraping along from one small community to the next. He's forcibly conscripted into General Bethlehem's "army," and after some brutal boot camp scenes, escapes. He finds an old post office truck, steals a uniform and bag and, when he gets to next community, convinces them the United States is being restored and he's its representative.

He brings happiness wherever he goes, but is a threat to Bethlehem. So he's hunted and has to hide (along with beautiful Olivia Williams, best-known today as Bruce Willis's wife in The Sixth Sense--a film truly made by its last ten minutes). When he reemerges, others have set up a working, if primitive, postal system.

Up to this point, the film works pretty well. There's some question about the logistics--where everyone is and how much ground they cover. Things start to falter a bit when Bethlehem decides to attack and Costner fights back. Neither's plan is clear, and the plot stalls a bit. When a number of carriers get killed, Costner decides to shut it all down and give up. (This is classic screenwriting--have the protagonist at the lowest point before the main reversal.)

As Costner retreats, he stops at Bridge City (run by Tom Petty). This is where the film falls apart. It's unclear when he decides to go back and fight, and, I assume because Costner loved the visual, his character takes a long ride in a cable car for no good reason. The film rallies a bit when Costner ends the war by fighting Bethlehem mano a mano--a bit simple, perhaps, but at least we understand why he's doing it.

It's too bad the film falls apart in the final act, since I bet with a little reediting (they must have the footage) they could have at least pasted over the problems and made it more satisfying.

I'm still not sure why The Postman failed so miserably. A friend back then offered an explanation that might make sense. See, even before emails and blogs, I'd always written a lot of letters, and appreciated the postal service. My friend said to most people, postal workers were either disgruntled mass murderers or Newmanesque, three-hour-lunch-break-taking layabouts. Having one be the lead of an epic is ridiculous. I tried to explain that in a world where no one knows what's happening (anymore--adults can remember how things used to be) and there's no contact between communities, a postman would, in fact, represent hope and even excitement. My friend said it'd be easier to make a savior out of a CPA.

Over the years, Titanic hasn't worn well. Perhaps it was too big a hit, and too celebrated, and now that we're used to the stunning sets and effects, the dopiness is coming to the fore. But no one, so far as I know, is trying to rehabilitate The Postman. Maybe it's time.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Ron Reagan's MSNBC show

Another great idea for MSNBC. Hiring Ron Reagan to talk politics makes about as much sense as hiring Babe Ruth's daughter as a Major League baseball analyst.

Michael Moore Can't Lose

There's a big piece on Michael Moore in the latest "Hollywood issue" of Vanity Fair. Apparently, Moore believes "[w]hat I did, what MoveOn did, what Bruce Springsteen did--we prevented a Bush landslide."

If I were a Democrat (for the record, I'm an independent) and I believed this, boy would I be depressed. This would mean my party has to count on an extremist spinning bizarre conspiracies (while a website compares Bush to Hitler) just to get 48% of the public; that otherwise, in a fair fight, we'd be demolished.

I'd like to think most sensible Dems recognize Moore, as much as he may appeal to the fringe (and, alas, much of the base), is a drag on their party.

A PS about Springsteen. He has leftist handlers, and has always tended toward leftist populism, so when he did the predictable and spoke out against the war, I shouldn't have been surprised. Even so I was a bit disappointed that he couldn't reach above himself. But I also hope he learned something. Bruce, rock and roll means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to you, and the one lesson it's taught me, above all, is not to follow any party line--yours or anyone else's--but to think for myself.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

No thanks

We have a 5-year-old, so we're going to birthday parties every weekend. At the last two, the Mom handed out pre-written thank you notes in the goodie bags. Though the kids did not open their presents at the party, our note said, "The gift was perfect."

If this happens a third time, I think we have a Washington Post Style section trend piece here.

Who's The Fan?

In Blazing Saddles, overseer Slim Pickens commands the blacks working on the railroad to sing one of their spirituals, and they break into a lively chorus of "I Get A Kick Out Of You."

I thought about this gag when I heard a radio ad for the Malcolm X deluxe two-disc DVD. It had the most famous line in the movie, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us!"

Any Cole Porter fan recognizes this as a variation on the line from "Anything Goes": "[Re: the Puritans] ’stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them."

So I must ask a question, and maybe someone out there can answer it. Who's the Cole Porter fan, Malcolm X or Spike Lee?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Cracking It

Most Hollywood movie projects never get off the ground. There are a lot of properties--stories, novels, concepts, TV shows, comics--that could get made, but only after some screenwriter cracks it. A script is needed that attracts a top director or star, thus money can be raised. (Ironically, once some stars or directors get attached, the first thing they do is fire the writer and bring in their own people.)

I remember once pitching a Green Acres movie. I think at the time Bette Midler was interested in playing Lisa Douglas. I'd always been a fan of the show so I was excited by the project. In any case, I gave them (with a partner) my take. However, like so many before me, I didn't crack it. To this day no one has.

I might add when you pitch something that's old, the first decision you have to make is whether or not to update it. My partner and I prefer to keep it when and where it's set. In Green Acres' case, this was a mix of the 60s and, because of the surreal style of the show, Neverland. Hollywood, on the other hand, usually prefers to contemporize it. It saves money (sets, costumes, cars, etc.) and, while still attracting an older crowd, is also user-friendly to the younger audience (that sees more movies than any other group).

Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman are on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. They're starring in a major summer release, a big-screen version of Bewitched. Hollywood had been talking about a Bewitched movie for quite a while, so I was intrigued to see who cracked it.

Turns out Nora Ephron's script got people excited. Of course, her track record, including When Harry Met Sally (script) and Sleepless In Seattle (script and direction) didn't hurt. And what is her take?: "a comic actor...gets cast as Darrin Stephens in a remake of Bewitched opposite a Samantha...who, unbeknownst to everyone, is a real witch."

I gotta be honest, this sounds pretty silly. (It could be why Jim Carrey decided not to do it.) A straightforward remake of the Bewitched origin story (a guy falls in love, gets married, and discovers his wife is a witch), no matter when it's set, sounds better. But what do I know, I didn't crack it. Guess we'll find out this summer. I'll be in line with everyone else.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Coincidence?

In today's LA Times, on the front page of the Calendar section, there's a feature on the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth. It's continued inside and printed right next to it is an advice column, "Tell Me About It." And what's today's "Tell Me About It" headline?: "C'mon, just who is being selfish here?"

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Film Year In Review--2004

As promised, here's my discussion of the films of 2004. It's pretty long, but I probably won't be posting anything for a few days, so you'll have plenty of time to mull it over.

Just a few ground rules. I'll be listing my top ten at the end (no peeking). I don't include shorts (though they're often the best stuff I see any year) or made-for-TV movies or mini-series. While this is for films released in 2004, I will include films released earlier overseas, or knocking around for a while at festivals, if they were only widely available theatrically to me in 2004. (It's a fine line.)

While I saw a fair amount of movies last year, I'm sure there are quite a few I'd like that I haven't seen yet. (You can check out my friend Jesse Walker's top ten lists from previous decades to see a way of getting around this problem, at http://jessewalker.blogspot.com/.) Here's a short list of films I missed: Before Sunset, Dogville, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Notre Musique, Crimson Gold, Vera Drake, Moolaade, Blissfully Yours, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Distant, Cowards Bend The Knee (just missed it yesterday), Primer, The Brown Bunny, The Return, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, Since Otar Left..., Time Of The Wolf, Maria Full Of Grace, The Big Red One Reconstruction (not sure if this one would count and probably wouldn't make my top ten anyway), Birth, Star Spangled To Death, Last Life in The Universe, Bright Leaves, Blind Shaft, The Passion Of The Christ, The Motorcycle Diaries, Son Frere, Internal Affairs, Zatoichi, Twentynine Palms, Oasis, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, The Sea Inside, Bright Future, Greendale, The Story Of The Weeping Camel, Touching The Void, Dolls, Father And Son, Red Lights, A Talking Picture, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, The Dreamers, Enduring Love, Ghost In The Shell 2, A Thousand Clouds Of Peace, Undertow, The Clay Bird, The Twilight Samurai, Mean Creak, Strayed, We Don't Live Here Anymore, Anatomy Of Hell, Gozu, Osama, In The Realm Of The Unreal, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Zero Day, Days Of Being Wild, Facing Windows, Young Adam, When Will I Be Loved, Beyond The Sea, Dig!, The Door In The Floor, Goodbye Lenin, An Amazing Couple, Rosenstrasse, A Tale Of Two Sisters, A Home At The End Of The World, Secret Things, The Agronomist, Bon Voyage, The Manson Family, Prisoner Of Paradise, The Outskirts, Free Radicals, The Mother, Open Water, Persons Of Interest,Trilogy, Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst, Raja, Sex Is Comedy, Jesus You Know, The Keys To The House, The Tracker, Brother To Brother, It's All About Love, Super Size Me, This So-Called Disaster, Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Born Into Brothels, Blind Shaft, Incident At Loch Ness, Zero Day, Princess Diaries 2, Scooby Doo 2, The Notebook, Alien vs. Predator, Garfield: The Movie, White Chicks, Ladder 49, Hidalgo, Barbershop 2, Miracle, Friday Night Lights, What the Bleep To We Know?, King Arthur, Alexander, Bridget Jones, Shall We Dance, Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Catwoman and many others.

Breathe in.

Now for a discussion of the year, followed by awards and categories, followed by the top ten.

Overall, not much of a year. I know I say that every year, but I swear there have been good ones. I seem to recall 1979 wasn't bad, for instance.

It was the year of biopics, documentaries and Ben Stiller. But let's talk about money first.

GROSS OUT: The most amazing numbers came not from The Passion Of The Christ, even though that independent film made an astounding 370 million (all numbers domestic unless otherwise indicated), or Fahrenheit 9/11's equally astounding 119 million (Bowling For Columbine smashed all documentary records when it made 21 million). No, I give the award to Shrek 2. Here was a relatively unspectacular sequel to a film that made 267 million. Sequels rarely make more that the original (well-reviewed Spider-Man 2 didn't), but this one, somehow, made 441 million, making it #3 of all time. Almost as good, a small, no-name comedy about a group of eccentrics, Napoleon Dynamite, that you'd expect to top out, with great promotion, at 10 million, made 45 million.

BENBENBEN: As bad as 2003 was for Ben Affleck, that's how good 2004 was for Ben Stiller. Four hits (and one flop, with a successful cameo in Anchorman). I have discovered the law of conservation regarding Ben Stiller grosses. Sure, when he's in a clear dud (Envy), nothing, and in a franchise (Meet The Fockers, 260 million and counting), the sky's the limit. But a normal BS comedy, such as Along Came Polly, Starsky & Hutch and Dodgeball, makes around 165 million worldwide. So now you know how to set your budget. (Dodgeball did best domestically, but was so peculiarly American it didn't perform well overseas.)

NEWMARKET: The Passion won a huge audience because it was seen as an event, and a religious one at that. We'll see if this affects the content of future films, but it's already changed marketing. When the regular critics don't like something, some producers now try to sell their wares on the 700 Club and at other Christian outlets. It's already helped critically damned but family-friendly films like National Treasure and Christmas With The Kranks.

Enough of this. Let's talk about quality, not filthy lucre.

WHAT'S UP DOC?: Due to the success of Bowling For Columbine, suddenly we were deluged with documentaries. I enjoyed BFC, even though I realized it was thorougly deceitful and its "argument" incoherent--I still enjoyed the gags. I can't say the same for Fahrenheit 9/11. Plenty of gags, sure, but essentially a string of lies, and the kind of lies that help get Americans killed, so pardon me if I don't laugh. (By lies I mean presenting information in such a way as to give a false impression--this includes lies of omission. Actually, what I don't understand is Moore lies even when he doesn't need to. Like claiming the 2000 recount showed Gore would have won, or saying the Bush administration was in trouble before 9/11. This sort of deceit, though, only gets worse as he starts spinning his conspiracy theories.)

I go to documentaries to be entertained and enlightened. I don't go to be lectured at, and certainly not lied to. What's really weird, though, is when I understand the subject better than the filmmaker, such as in Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, Outfoxed, and even Control Room. (I didn't see Super Size Me, which actually sounds like fun, though I doubt it had anything to teach me.)

But not every documentary is political. I'd like to present the Comedian award, which means a doc on a subject of such intrinsic interest to me that I can't help but like it, even if it isn't done as well as I'd hoped. 2004 was full of these. I give it to Charlie: The Life And Art Of Charles Chaplin, Mayor Of The Sunset Strip, Broadway: The Golden Age, Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music, End Of The Century: The Ramones, Word Wars, Festival Express and Overnight..

There were also some decent docs out there that I wasn't so sure I'd like: Rivers And Tides, Riding Giants and Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster.

BIOPIC BIOPSY: Some genres have a lot to overcome. The spectacle runs the risk of losing sight of the human level. Romances run the risk of getting sappy. Comedies run the risk of being produced by Lorne Michaels. (I'll be taking back the last statement before I'm done.)

Biopics are one of the worst genres. Lives don't fall into three-act Syd Field arcs, they don't generally have moments of turnabout and recognition that Robert McKee insists on. So either the filmmaker can just make up stuff to turn a life into a story (that's what they always used to do) or have the movie be just one damn thing after another. Last year, most biopics settled for the latter.

For instance, Kinsey had many interesting episodes, but it just kept going on and on and ran out of plot before it ran out of incident. (Kinsey, the man and film, did a lot to make sex less exciting.) The much-lauded Aviator seemed to me another "this happened then this happened then this happened" (is that one of Hughes' lines?) without really going anywhere. Other biopics, though relying on some pretty cliched writing, still managed to bring some enjoyment with their music--particularly Ray, and to a lesser extent, De-Lovely.

The real solution to the biopic is to concentrate on one chapter in someone's life--something that can be shaped into a story. I didn't think Finding Neverland was great, but I preferred it over the other biopics. Worse was Baadasssss--an intriguing concept (Mario Van Peebles salutes his filmmaker dad Melvin Van Peebles) that didn't have the chops.

SEQUELS--CAN'T LIVE WITH 'EM, HOLLYWOOD SHOOTS 'EM: Less sequels (and less painful sequels) than last year. I'm not a big fan of the Spider-Man films, and in any case preferred the first. The critics were rapturous over Spidey 2, but to me the first one did it best by capturing the origin story, and got Peter Parker right. The sense of discovery is missing in the second one, and I found the romance dreary.

Kill Bill Vol. 2 is more the completion of a large film than a sequel. And while I enjoyed both, this is Quentin Tarantino doing what he does worst. His specialty is not huge fights, but clever dialogue with a sense of menace. He thrills an audience with the threat of someone getting shot, or getting caught, not with hundreds of limbs flying about and blood spraying everywhere. Up till now, he's always written on the human level, whereas here he's dealing with the superpowerful. Someone who can fly through the air and balance on the tip of a sword may be a fun way to salute the chop-socky stuff he grew up with, but it's nothing compared to what Tarantino can do with a guy being robbed in a coffee shop.

Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban both made good money (especially the former, see above), but really added nothing. Potter in particular, even with a new director, just keeps rehashing the same plot (as do the books). People know what to expect, but are hardly excited. (And I think the audience is starting to figure Daniel Radcliffe, though he looks just like Harry should, is a bit of a stiff.)

TIME FOR TOM: Was this a bad year for Tom Hanks? Yeah, I guess. Though the grosses weren't that bad. The Ladykillers made good money for a Coen Bros. film. The Terminal will probably end up in the black. And The Polar Express, after opening like a stiff turned into the little train that could, chugging to over 160 million. But what about the performances? I liked Ladykillers best. The overall story doesn't work (didn't work for me in the original), but, with the exception of Irma P. Hall (who naturally won an award at Cannes), the support had funny moments. It was Hanks himself, though, who turned in a real gem. One of his best comic turns, I thought. He worked mightily, and with a different accent, to make The Terminal work. The problem here is why didn't he just leave the terminal to begin with? He could get into town, get his autograph, come back, be picked up by the authorities, and be sent home--everything works out. Spielberg never really worked out the problem (even though it's true, due to passport trouble, a man was stuck in a French terminal for years). It's hard to judge a performance done by motion-capture, but there was little beyond the technology that was impressive about Polar Express. It had bigger plot problems than The Terminal. The kid doesn't really move the plot--he's being taken to meet Santa and, as we knew he would, he does. That's pretty much it.

EVERYONE WHO'S A STAR TAKE ONE STEP FORWARD--NOT SO FAST, JUDE: Since Copernicus, everything has revolved around stars. Hollywood sure can't get enough, throwing all the money, scripts, directors, etc, that they have on hand at them. But sometimes Hollywood jumps the gun, treating someone like a star before he really deserves the appellation. Case in point, Jude Law. He starred in four films last year (and did cameos in two others), none of which were hits. We're talking Closer, Alfie (most pointless remake of the year), Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow and I [Heart] Huckabees. I'm not saying he was necessarily bad in them, but we can be pretty sure his name alone won't open a film.

Same goes for Colin Farrell, who's often treated as a star. A reasonably talented and handsome guy, he got the lead in an Oliver Stone spectacle, Alexander, and had the biggest flop of the year. I didn't see the film, but I bet if it starred Brad Pitt or Leo it would have done a lot better.

Then there's Will Ferrell. On the edge, but not quite there yet. His films have done well and Elf went through the roof. But the LA Times was all ready to coronate him, with a big piece on how he'd broken through that came out the Monday after Anchorman opened. Too bad the article was planned before the release, since Anchorman made decent but not great money. It didn't break 100 million, which is what you gotta do if you want to be the next Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey.

AUTEURS GONE WILD: Three of Hollywood's favorite youngish auteurs had films come out this year. Only one can be considered an unqualified success, but they all were of interest.

Wes Anderson's, whose films are getting more and more precious, struck out this year with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. His films are stylized, always a few steps removed from real life. He's also fascinated with losers. I was a big fan of his first, Bottle Rocket, but I've found each film since (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and now The Life Aquatic) less interesting. I suggest he try something new.

David O. Russell, who made the great Flirting With Disaster, and the monumentally overpraised Three Kings, somewhat returns to form with I [Heart] Huckabees. This existential comedy was too weird to get much of an audience, and does tend to lose its way. (It also features a rotten character that doesn't fit in, played by Mark Wahlberg--I think Russell sees him as a holy fool, while he just felt like a fool to me. Needless to say, many critics thought he was the best thing in the film.) I say keep doing what you're doing, if you can manage to get the backing.

Alexander Payne's characters are usually from Nebraska, so Sideways, set in California, is a bit of a departure, but it's still about America outside the big cities. I liked his Citizen Ruth and Election, though I found About Schmidt a bit slow. I think he's better than ever in Sideways, which, furthermore, will outgross his previous work, even though it has no stars.

ALL APOLOGIES: Near the end of The Day After Tomorrow (the day after, I guess), the Vice President, clearly based on Dick Cheney, goes on TV and apologizes for not listening to climatologist Dennis Quaid's warnings. (The well-meaning but stupid President died in a blizzard). Slate Magazine had a contest to write how the real Dick Cheney would have apologized. I didn't enter, but I think the speech would have gone like this:



"In the 1960s, there were many significant spokespeople for the environmental movement who claimed the game was already lost and by the mid-70s, we'd have mass starvation in the United States. After being proved comically wrong, they kept predicting apocalypse in very short order, and yet, though disproved time after time, never gave up making terrible predictions, and never apologized for being so frighteningly wrong. By 2004, after more than four decades of being absurdly mistaken, and with the average human on earth better fed, clothed and housed than ever before, you can understand my skepticism when one lone expert predicted outrageous scenarios of disaster, one following upon another, in a matter of weeks. I was not willing at the time to jeopardize the world economy to avoid what sounded like the plot of one of those empty, big-budget hollywood summer movies, full of spectacle at the expense of character. It now turns out after forty years of experts being wrong and not apologizing, one of the experts finally got it right--for not recognizing this, I apologize."

EASTWOOD INSURANCE: When I wrote a friend how much I disliked Million Dollar Baby, he said I don't like anything Clint does. Here's what I wrote back. (At the request of an angry reader, I will note that I do give away important plot points in the next few paragraphs. If, for some reason, you haven't seen the film, and are not aware of the swirling controversy around it, and wish the pleasure of being sucker-punched by an absurd plot twist, please avoid the next five paragraphs and proceed directly to the AWARDS section):

If I have it in for Clint, it comes honestly. I mean, compare me to a critic like Dave Kehr, who'll give any Eastwood crap four stars. I have liked some of his films, after all, such as Space Cowboys, In The Line Of Fire (sort of) and Escape From Alcatraz. But I find his acting generally charmless (this is especially harmful in his "comedies") and his spare directing style dull. (At least it's cheap--if I were a producer I'd love him.)

I admit that Million Dollar Baby is not the complete disaster Mystic River was. Mystic River was pumped up with all sorts of mythical meaning, which made the tiresome story unbearable. Million Dollar Baby is much more modest, so it sits a lot better. Furthermore, the first two acts follow boxing movie cliches so much (the only new thing is the boxer's sex) that you can enjoy it on that level, even though Eastwood's bare bones approach sucks most of the juice out of it. (My complaint here, by the way, is what allows auteur critics to worship Eastwood). If you can ignore the gnomic narration by Morgan Freeman, the story moves along well enough, if a little too deliberately. Though you're right that I find Pat Morita a better fighting teacher to Hilary Swank than Clint Eastwood ever could be.

But even then, the writing is way too lazy. Here's a guy who runs a decrepit gym that attracts only losers, who, by the way, also manages the best heavyweight fighter in the world. (Clint couldn't just be the top cut guy around, he's a star, after all.) Later a scrawny white chick in her thirties wants him to manage her and she turns out the be the best female fighter in the world. Then there's the caricature of Swank's relatives, which is unfair even to trailer trash.

Worst of all, in the final act, Clint decides to kill Swank, so he devises a plan--he's going to walk into the hospital, kill her, then walk out. Brilliant. The only reason he gets away with it (and then disappears) is he's a star, and stars don't get caught.

But it's the third act that really makes the film a disaster. Not just that it's a sucker punch--it's bad on any level. I'm not referring to the fact they play the ending as safe as possible while patting themselves on the back for bravery. I mean it's just silly and pointless, and stops the movie dead. There are a lot of ways the film could have gone, even out of the boxing world and into serious injury, without the cheapness they settled for. Expect major Oscars.

AWARDS:

SEXIEST NEWCOMER: Lisa the marionette in Team America: World Police. I have to admit, there were times I almost forgot...

BEST FINAL SHOT: A slow pullback in Napoleon Dynamite where Napoleon and his girl play tetherball. It's a complete cliche, but suddenly he decides to show off his "skills" and starts whaling on her. (Ruined by a rerelease with a new ending that added nothing.)

WORST FRAMING DEVICE: In Spanglish, the whole movie is apparently an essay the teenage Latina daughter writes to get into Princeton. It's one of those "most memorable people" essays that she writes about her mother--silly enough, though how she knows all the things that happens when neither she nor her mother were around, I have no idea.

BEST DEDICATION: At the end of Man On Fire, which has just shown Mexico City to be a complete hellhole where no one is safe, they thank the beautiful city for allowing them to film there.

MOST OVERRATED PERFORMANCE: This is an almost impossible category, since it regularly happens that I don't like a performance and the next thing you know it wins an Oscar. But I guess I'll pick Peter O'Toole in Troy. The film got slammed pretty bad, but a number of critics said O'Toole manages to stay above the fray, and particularly noted the moving scene near the end where he steals into Achilles tent at night to beg for his son's corpse. O'Toole, overall, is quite bad, and as for the scene, yes, it is a bit touching, but it's helped by the fact that IT'S BASED ON THE MOST MOVING SCENE IN ALL OF WESTERN LITERATURE. (By the way, I liked O'Toole's cameo in Bright Young Things. I also thought Brad Pitt did a decent job in Troy as Achilles, though he was often singled out as the worst thing in it. He certainly didn't hurt with the overseas grosses, which turned the film into a huge hit. You really can no longer figure if something's a hit based on domestic these days.)

SMOKINGEST MOVIE: A Love Song For Bobby Long. This film, set in New Orleans, has everyone smoking in almost every scene. I half suspect the actors took their roles so they could indulge in their habit and claim it's for art.

BEST SONG: Not even close. "America, F**K Yeah!" from Team America. Why is this song not nominated for an Oscar?

MOST TOUCHING SCENE: For all the slams The Village took, I liked it better than Signs. And while I have some trouble with M. Night Shyamalan as a writer, I like his directing style. I think this film would have worked better if he let us in on the secret halfway through, and we could decide if the village elders had a good idea, or were psychotic. Regardless, the scene where the brave blind girl (this already sounds hopelessly hokey, but it played great), portrayed with great feeling by Bryce Howard, finds her way out of the village and meets a moderner (though she doesn't know quite what he is) and begs for help, counting on his goodness, was more touching than anything else I remember seeing last year.

BEST BIT OF DIALOGUE: This exchange from I [Heart] Huckabees sticks in the mind: Lily Tomlin: "Have you ever transcended space and time?" Jason Schwartzman: "Yes...no....time, not space...I have no idea what you're talking about."

WORST LINE: Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate: "The assassin always dies, baby, it's necessary for the national healing." This is supposed to sound smart (several critics quoted it) but is incredibly stupid. Sirhan Sirhan is still alive. Squeaky Fromme is still alive. Arthur Bremer is still alive. Mark David Chapman is still alive. John Hinckley is still alive. Charles Manson is still alive. James Earl Ray died of natural causes. The only major assassin in our lifetimes who died was Lee Harvey Oswald, and that's the best case I can think of where national healing was denied.

BEST END CREDITS: Lemony Snicket ended with some nice Goreyesque animation. Stick around.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: It took James L. Brooks seven years to come up with Spanglish, and I have no idea what it's about. As far as I can tell, it's about two rotten mothers and an ineffectual husband, and nothing really happens.

BEST UNINTENTIONAL LAUGH: In Festival Express, hoping to quell a riot, the concert organizer comes out and announces "Calm down everyone, Jerry Garcia's gonna come out and explain everything."

BIGGEST BLOWN OPPORTUNITY: Stephen Sommers, who made The Mummy and its sequel, got the chance to run wild with three of the greatest monsters in the history of movies, and came up with the most ridiculous film of the year. I'm going to try to recount, as best I can, the plot of Van Helsing, but it may just have been a bad dream. Count Dracula has three wives (?), who lay thousands of eggs (??). These baby draculas hatch but don't live very long so the Count needs to capture Frankenstein so he can learn the secret of life and use it on the dracula babies (???). While the wives can be killed by normal dracula means (holy water, stakes), the Count is invulnerable to everything except a werewolf (????). Though one might think this would mean the Count would keep away from werewolves, in fact, he keeps one around, and isn't worried because he has a serum nearby that will turn the werewolf back into a man if there's any trouble (?????). Now this is mostly backstory, I haven't even gotten to Van Helsing, who's hired by a multi-religious consortium to kill supernatural monsters around the world. In addition, Kate Beckinsale puts on such a bad accent it manages to make her look ugly.

GOOD PLAYWRIGHT EQUALS BAD FILMMAKER AWARD: Won once again by David Mamet, this year for Spartan.


CATEGORIES:

LOVELY TO LOOK AT: Hero, House Of Flying Daggers, Springtime In A Small Town, A Very Long Engagement.

BETTER THAN EXPECTED: Torque, Starsky & Hutch,The Day After Tomorrow, The Stepford Wives, The Forgotten, National Treasure, Meet The Fockers, 50 First Dates, Confessions Of A Teenage Drama Queen, Bright Young Things, Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events (why critics slammed this I don't know--thought it was fun)

NOT AS GOOD AS I EXPECTED: Kitchen Stories, Saved!, Anchorman, Code 46, Collateral (though it shows a lot of promise early on), A Love Song For Bobby Long, In Good Company, The Woodsman, Million Dollar Baby, Flight Of The Phoenix, The Last Shot, The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (if only I'd felt any chemistry between the leads it would make my top ten), Dawn Of The Dead, The Life Aquatic, Spanglish, Ocean's Twelve.

PRETTY MUCH WHAT I EXPECTED: Japanese Story, Hellboy, Cheaper By The Dozen, Along Came Polly, 13 Going On 30, Christmas with the Kranks, The Grudge.

FUN IF YOU DON'T THINK TOO HARD: Napoleon Dynamite, Dodge Ball: A True Underdog Story, Team America: World Police, Hotel Rwanda. (Actually, the last one doesn't fit into this category, I'm just not sure where to put it. Liked Don Cheadle, though.)

GOOD IDEA, BAD EXECUTION: Troy, Van Helsing, The Village, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, The Butterfly Effect. Let me particularly note I didn't think it was possible to make a bad movie called Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, but they managed it.

PASSABLE ACTION: I, Robot (even if it turned Asimov on his head).

DIDN'T PASS: The Chronicles Of Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy, The Manchurian Candidate, Anacondas.

GIVE HER A REAL PART AND SHE CAN ACT: Natalie Portman was in a pretty good movie, Garden State, and a quite bad one, Closer. (Guess which one she got an Oscar nomination for?)

SMART COMEDY: Mean Girls (good writing, just misses my top ten--produced by Lorne Michaels, by the way), I [Heart] Huckabees (smart, but could use a stronger plot).

DISQUALIFIED FOR TOP TEN ON A TECHNICALITY: Cidade De Deus. This would easily have made my top ten, but I decided, even though I didn't see it till last year, that since it was released in 2002 and I probably could have caught it in 2003, it's too old.

FINALLY, THE TOP TEN, IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER (SORRY):

BAD EDUCATION. I don't know if I'd call Almodovar a genius, but he almost always delivers.

BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS/ MY ARCHITECT. A tie for two documentaries. Bukowski is an old-style no-nonsense piece that takes a while to get into but is worth it. And great archival footage of the man himself. Bukowski comes across as a rundown West Coast version of the glamorous Beats, but, perhaps, a better writer. My Architect has a very different subject (though both men cared more about themselves and their work than anything or anyone else), a son's search for his missing dad, architect Louis Kahn. A good story but an even better look at his best-known buildings.

THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. A bit dry and therefore hard to recommend, but worth it for the introduction (for me and most Americans) to Jorgen Leth. He's a true gentleman and talented filmmaker, who easily deals with the obstructions Lars von Trier throws at him. He manages to make several interesting short films within this film.

THE INCREDIBLES. This was the only film I paid twice to see last year. I can't say enough about it so I'll just note it's a delightful story--funny, exciting--with great animation and characters. While it has a few minor imperfections, I think it manages to be the best Pixar's done since Toy Story.

OLDBOY. A great revenge thriller with a twisty plot. Exciting, and some bravura scenes. I mostly did not see what was coming. Don't know if I'm looking forward to the Hollywood remake.

ONG-BAK. Tony Jaa is the closest thing we have to a young Jackie Chan, and there's nothing wrong with that.

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD. Up until now, I've always liked the idea of Guy Maddin better than his films. His stuff has generally been too precious and obscure, but this one was fun. It's still hardly conventional, but perhaps starting with someone else's script gave him the structure he needed. (Some critics says his films are reminiscent of stuff from the silent and early sound era. Yeah, if you left those films lying in a field for 70 years. I find his mixed-media style much more reminiscent of avant-garde films of the late 50s and 60s.) And what a great choice to use "The Song Is You," since he needed a protean pop song that didn't sound too American, and Jerome Kern is the most European of great American songwriters.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Against all odds, yet another zombie film from England makes my top ten. But whereas 28 Days Later was spooky, this was funny.

SIDEWAYS. There's already backlash setting in. Many top critics find the film too conventional. Well, it is. Conventionally well-written and well-performed, with interesting characters involved in an amusing plot. Hollywood should be churning out films like this, but since they don't, we should savor this one.

TARNATION. What intrigued me about this odd full-length, low budget true story about a child growing up in a strange family, is not how weird the people in it are, but how recognizable they are.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Dog That Doesn't Bark

Tim Cavanaugh, over at Reason, literally repeats the same mistake Brian Doherty made a couple years ago. (Both are regulars at Reason, and acquaintances of mine.) Cavanaugh, against the Iraq war, believes the hawks have a built-in advantage because (here he quotes Doherty) time is on their side; the justification for a war gets easier as time passes.

This is nonsense. (If it were true, incidentally, it'd be a pretty good argument for wars, since it suggests they pass the test of time.) The side that has the easier argument is the one whose plan is not followed, the one whose advice is not taken.

Before the Iraq war (and well before Pajama Guy), I told my friends that when we go in, those opposed will have an easy time of it. Why? Because no matter how well it goes, I can guarantee with 100% certainty that many very bad things will happen, both during and after. So those against can simply say "look at all these bad things you caused." Meanwhile, many (perhaps most) of the positive effects of the war won't be provable--those who favor it can't show what horrible things might have happened if we hadn't fought.

(This is not meant as an analogy, but an illustration of the principle. Imagine if the USA and Britain recognized the true threat of Hitler and took him on in 1937. There might have been a bloody war where millions died, and plenty of trouble thereafter. Nevertheless, this action would probably have saved tens of millions of lives. Still, those opposed to the war would to this day be calling the hawks of the time the worst criminals in world history.)

Politically speaking, this rule doesn't merely apply to war. It applies to almost anything. No matter what you do, there will always be serious problems around, so, if you do something--anything--you may be the one blamed. This is why when politicians do something, it's often some small measure that flies below the radar, or perfectly safe pandering to their base, or something in response to a crisis where the people are demanding action, so the cost of doing nothing rises.

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