Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Shield and a Battlestar: Two shows that shine a light on Bush's America

The Bush Era is now (gratefully) ending, and along with it the vibrant art that commented on its intellectual and cultural underpinnings and implications. Unfortunately, due to a media structure that is still incredibly hierarchical (though it seems to be decentralizing fairly rapidly these days), much of the most significant aesthetic accomplishments of the past decade or so have been unjustly kept secret. Such is life.

One of these accomplishments--perhaps the most popular--was the television show The Shield. As a television show it was exceptional: fast-paced, darkly humorous, packed with compelling and diverse characters, and consistently outstanding during its entire run. One could watch the whole thing just for the stories and not have to think about the moral and political implications of the show.

Those layers, however, are at the very heart of the show. The Shield centers on Vic Mackey, a bald-headed imposing cop played indelibly by Michael Chiklis. Mackey heads up the Strike Team, a semi-autonomous elite anti-gang task force charged with taking on gang violence in Los Angeles. At the heart of the show is an acknowledged moral paradox: Vic's team is effective at locking up the bad guys, no doubt about it. Even Vic's detractors on the show cannot help but admit it. There's just a little wrinkle, though: Mackey is totally, completely, epically corrupt. During the course of the show he commits murders, shakes down drug dealers for money, steals drugs, robs from gangs and cheats on his wife, for starters. Such behavior is typical for members of the Strike Team. Why is this? From what flashbacks we've seen, Vic and his crew were decent guys and good cops before they joined the team. What gives?

The show's answer to this is simple: power corrupts. It's a simple message that a lot of people tend to forget, and that other shows like 24 tend to obfuscate. I'm not going to go on a rant about 24--it is not one of my favorites, and I am prepared to leave it alone for the time being. But in addition to being a tool to desensitize the country into giving up our liberties and values in exchange for "freedom" (sorry, I couldn't resist), 24's largest failing--and why it should never be taken seriously--is that it doesn't believe that power corrupts. Jack Bauer & Co. do what they have to do every week, day in, day out. The show's argument is that we should let intelligence professionals do what they need to do in order to protect America and not ask questions, to just trust their love for America as a guiding light instead of hindrances like the Bill of Rights. And that's certainly a viewpoint, and a debatable one. But the show never really considers that giving a guy like Jack that kind of power is a bad thing. Jack isn't corrupt. He's not haunted by what he's done. Killing and torturing don't bother him, and his brain's rationalization center seems to be quite well developed that he can explain it all away as being in defense of America. Actual intelligence officers who did what Bauer did were not so lucky: as the book The Very Best Men by Evan Thomas tells us, many of them went literally mad after realizing what they had done. And people who inflict violence upon others--especially in the form of torture--find that it takes a toll on their egos. Many of them commit suicide. To me, the idea of power and corruption go so neatly together that it almost makes sense to speak of them as two sides of the same coin. Just take a guy like Ted Stevens, the outgoing Alaska Senator who was convicted of taking bribes a few months back. These days Stevens is known as a particularly clumsy crook or, failing that, a notorious porkmeister, but Stevens actually made his career as a tough prosecutor of political corruption. Or take the Bush Administration. Give someone vast quantities of power, and even upstanding people will turn into crooks. 24's primary philosophical assertion is that you can have both justice and absolute power concentrated in a small group of people. This is a pretty foolish and, dare I say, not a particularly American worldview, at least according to what our Founding Fathers might have said.

Consider the counterexample posed by The Shield. Vic and his team pretty much do whatever they want for the first few seasons, and spend the rest of the series paying for their sins. Their corruption is evident from the very first episode, in which they kill a Strike Team member who is snitching to the feds. What's more, the corruption feeds forward, requiring ever increasing acts of immorality--notably the murder of one team member by another--in order to survive. Importantly, though, the show posits that all that extra garbage really isn't necessary to doing the job: we see throughout the show that the Strike Team's more straight-laced counterparts are able to do their jobs perfectly well within the bounds of the law, and get criminals off the street just as effectively. All the moral compromises and corruption that are inevitable in the acquisition of power turn out not to be necessary to do the job, and they wind up to be disastrous to those who practice them. Vic's ultimate fate is actually rather poetic: he is consigned to live out his days in a bureaucratic McJob in order to remain out of jail, effectively shut out of power and consigned to work at a place where everyone knows he's a cop killer and then to be out of a job and unemployable in three years. My guess is that Vic eats his gun at some point shortly after the end of the show rather than go through life without having the sort of power he once wielded. It's fitting, though: Vic allowed himself to get turned into a monster, everything and everyone that mattered to him, and it all turned out to be for nought. One could not have asked for a better ending to the saga.

The other major political show of the Bush years, Battlestar Galactica, was acclaimed by both the left and right because of its material. On the surface, there is certainly enough there to allow differing ideological readings of the show, but it is pretty unambiguously a critique of the Bushian worldview. The central question of the Bush years has actually been pretty simple: what can a civilized people reasonably do to survive when surrounded by vicious and uncivilized killers? In other words, should we do anything in order to survive? The film answers the question in words that any viewer ought to remember: "It is not enough to survive," Commander Adama [Edward James Olmos] says, "one must be worthy of survival." The show has sought to portray the challenges of being civilized in an uncivilized world, of preserving liberal democracy in a universe that has suddenly become less hospitable to those ideals. And, despite some hiccups here and there, the humans in Battlestar generally stayed true to their ideals. It's an inspiration to us all.

The show has also shown us the alternative to staying true to liberal democratic values. This was done during the show's second season in a several-episode arc that centered around Admiral Cain, played with scary self-assurance by Michelle Forbes. Cain cuts a very Bushian figure in the show: she is definitely "the decider" and if you disagree with her, you are not likely to like the consequences. Cain's reaction to the Cylon war, as it turns out, was eerily similar to George W. Bush's response to 9/11: rather than thinking of the future like Adama, Cain responds with visceral anger. She promises payback for what the Cylons did, her own personal War On Cylons every bit as ill-conceived, dangerous, endless and ultimately nihilistic as the War On Terror has become. She doesn't plan for the future because she doesn't see one--her limitations as a leader prevent her from seeing the forest, and instead of having experience and wisdom like Adama, Cain has only ambition and self-assuredness to fall back upon. These qualities served her well in advancing up the ranks and getting her flag at such a young age, but they prove positively toxic in the post-human genocide world. Cain's payback mission, naturally enough, comes to include torture of a Cylon prisoner, which has the entirely predictable effect of turning the surviving Pegasus crew into a deeply nasty group. One can only debase other peoples' humanity for so long without realizing that you've lost your own. It doesn't seem to bother Cain too much that her crew seems to consist entirely of rotten apples and decent people who have been so thoroughly cowed to stand up to her (like her XO). Like Bush, Cain polarizes her people. And like Bush, rather than seeming tough, Cain comes off as a rather weak leader who can only act tough despite not having a clue about what the situation is and what to do next. The analogy isn't perfect, as BSG is wont to do: Cain is actually a technically proficient commander who knows her stuff and isn't a total incompetent like Bush. Still, watching the BSG episodes with Cain is a lot like watching the past eight years all over again: you can't help but ask yourself what was she thinking? before it becomes clear that she never thought about anything, aside from the mission at hand. It represents the frustrations of the Bush era in a particularly vivid format. One wishes that the show had kept up this level of political relevance in its past two seasons.

Between these two shows, a viewer decades from now ought to be able to piece together what was going on with the Bush Administration: it was an administration that opportunistically used circumstances to enhance its own power, and when it came time to flex that power, it has done so in ways that betray a lack of vision, a disconnect from civilized Western values and an inability to lead. To know the Bush Era is to know the most base of humanity: brutality disguised as concern, contempt for civilization disguised as caution, mere words disguised as a strategy. Never in my lifetime has the exit of a group of people from power been so eagerly awaited, and they will not be missed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bond and Star Trek

I enjoyed the most recent Bond film. Quantum of Solace was a thoroughly solid action flick, which is generally a genre I tend not to like because it comes second only to the romantic comedy in terms of its obsequiousness to the old formula. Still, QoS continued in the tradition of its immediate predecessor: it has retained its darker and grittier vision of James Bond, to its great credit, and it has constructed a second villain who is less a crazy strongman or world domineer, but rather a pathetically effete European jetsetter. During the Pierce Brosnan years, that description would have sufficed to describe Bond himself. How the times have turned...

I was a great admirer of Casino Royale, and I'll admit that that film was better than Solace in several ways. Royale was, in my humble opinion, pretty much damn near a perfect film. Solace is more flawed, but not as flawed as one would imagine from reading the reviews. I think that much of the vituperation from reviewers is more of a reaction to the realization that the old Bond is dead for good, and that the Bond people are going with the "newer" Daniel Craig model of James Bond. I put newer in quotes because it's actually the older version of James Bond from Ian Fleming's books, though with more of a leftward twist, of which I definitely approve. Brosnan as Bond was an upper-class, uber-suave spy who seemed to generally enjoy life and had no palpable toughness. Daniel Craig is the complete opposite: he looks good in a tux but there wasn't the practiced poise, no whiff of eveningwear and elegant soirees. Craig's Bond is working class, all the way, and as a man he's damaged goods--lethal, dangerous, dark, able to seduce women easily, but at heart he's a disappointed romantic who shrugs off all the emotional entanglements. Sean Connery is, of course, the gold standard for movie portrayals of James Bond, but Craig is the only other actor--with the possible exception of Timothy Dalton--who makes any effort to portray Bond as an actual dude instead of an icon (or a caricature). People who were fond of the Brosnan Bond and the intermittently fun escapism of his time on the clock who liked the old formula--and who probably figured that Casino Royale would lead to a revival of the old Bond, with a return of John Cleese and all the gadgets--are realizing that that is not going to happen, and they're upset. On its merits, though, Quantum of Solace announces, for all those who chose not to see, a new era of Bond. And I'm pretty enthusiastic about it.

I'm rather less enthusiastic about the upcoming Star Trek movie, partly for the reason Peter Suderman identifies here--that J. J. Abrams tends to concoct shallow melodramas that go through the motions aptly enough but are pretty soulless (like, say, Mission: Impossible III). I don't expect action movies to be especially soulful--soft bigotry of low expectations and all that--but I would like Trek movies to tell a Trek story every once in a while. The last one that tried was Star Trek: Insurrection, which was middling but not bad, although the ideas were hoary. I expect Star Trek to be a big slab of red-blooded action-adventure that doesn't really bother to try to communicate optimism for the future or any vision of society, and certainly not any sort of political message. (BTW, it really dismays me to see Spock engaging in hand-to-hand combat in the trailer--has he ever thrown a punch? What about the Vulcan nerve pinch?). We wouldn't want to get Trek in the middle of a red-vs.-blue conundrum, despite the fact that it was sort of an arch-left show back in the 60s.

Trek became irrelevant as a result of many factors. Surely, the subpar storytelling that plagued later seasons of Voyager and the two most recent movies is important to this discussion. The sheer amount of product that those folks put out might have led to some fatigue, and the now plentiful sci-fi offerings on TV and elsewhere have made Trek a victim of its own success. Then again, the fact that the Star Trek curators decided to turn Voyager's worn-out ass into the flagship Trek while ignoring the superior Deep Space Nine gives you some hint as to why the franchise has gotten so dire.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Deep Space Nine Collective

Looking over some of the new "Fan Collective" Star Trek boxed sets--in which ST fans pick episodes to go in themed sets--I was struck by a few things about the Star Trek phenomenon that I had already known but hadn't really thought of for a while. I noticed that, between the Alternate Realities, Time Travel and Borg sets, you can get pretty much all of the episodes of Star Trek: Voyager that are worth watching. I'm particularly gratified to see "Before and After" included in the former set--it was the rare Voyager episode that managed to be both compelling storytelling and strong character-wise, and the reverse-chronology storytelling (but linear from the character's POV) was pretty mind-bending (and it was several years before Memento came out).

In any event, the Voyager selection in these sets is fairly strong. Voyager was generally a fairly weak show that spent too much time with uninteresting characters without making a legitimate attempt to develop them. Aside from Seven and The Doctor, none of the show's characters were engaging, and few were well-written. And this was always the case. Even the first two seasons--probably the show's best--were weak overall, but they showed quite a bit of promise. The promise of Voyager was having a Star Trek show that coupled the challenging and difficult moral and political quandries of the superior Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with the good ol' formula of tearing around space and exploring new worlds. The idea of the "two different crews working together" had juice, and that the characters were weak made little difference--they'd get better, presumably, as the show went on. Actually, they got much worse: the crews effectively merged by the end of Season 1, bad boy Tom Paris swiftly became a trusted senior officer, and Captain Janeway went from half-mommy, half-taskmaster into the worst sort of hypocrite, swaying from strict inhibitions at sharing technology to doing so with a shrug if it were called for. The show had its moments, and while there are a handful or so of them that aren't on these DVDs you get pretty much what you need from the show on these sets.

As pertains to Deep Space Nine, though, the situation is reversed. Virtually all the episodes contained on the three aforementioned sets hardly represent Nine's best. Quite the opposite, in fact: the "Alternate Realities" set contains all mirror universe episodes, and the "Time Travel" set contains "Little Green Men" and "Trials and Tribble-ations", all of which are good shows but that don't exactly tell the story of Deep Space Nine. It merely proves that DS9 fans are not typical Trekkers, and vice versa.

It is true that DS9 did not exactly OD on time travel stuff as much as, say, Voyager did. DS9 generally eschewed the usual Star Trek trappings in favor of human drama, and the crew did little time travel during its run, but it usually had the best time travel episodes of all the Star Trek shows because DS9, unlike the others, usually didn't bother with all the cerebral wrinkles of time travel and continuity and all the rest. DS9's shows focused more on the emotional effects of time travel. The best time travel show the series ever produced (and probably one of the finest DS9s ever) was "Children of Time", in which the crew meets their ancestors on a distant planet where the crew crashed 200 years earlier, due to a time travel mishap. The scientific implications would, in all the other Star Treks, take center stage: how do we continue the timeline? On this show, though, such things are a background subplot, and the stakes are quickly resolved: either the crew has to recreate the accident or their descendants die. Characteristically for Deep Space Nine, the fix that solves everything (that other ST shows would come up with) is quickly discarded as impossible. Instead, the show forces its characters to confront difficult questions and work through them. And what follows is not one for the annals of heroism, but a gut-wrenching choice that clearly bothers everyone. And there is, of course, the deepening of the love story between Odo and Kira, which is handled as sensitively and winningly (and melancholically) as possible.

And this is how DS9 differed from the rest of the Star Trek universe. I have great affection for the other ST shows, but Deep Space Nine is the only one that ascended above mere entertainment coupled with the occasional paean to liberal conscience. It seriously grappled with the difficulties of a progressive vision of the world, but in a far more incisive and hard-edged fashion before ultimately concluding that such a vision is possible, but you have to work like hell to achieve it, and then you have to work like hell to maintain it. A lot of people said that the show was a betrayal of Gene Roddenberry's optimistic view of humanity, but I disagree. It was a fulfillment of said vision, only with a bit of the details of how to achieve it fleshed out. DS9 presents the most compelling case for Roddenberry's ideas, since it tries to advance a more sophisticated argument on their behalf that seeks to give shape to form.

This might be why Deep Space Nine was ultimately so polarizing: it was the most forthrightly liberal of all the Star Trek shows, the original series included. But it also had a few "fun" episodes, from time to time, and those episodes have unsurprisingly become the favorites of the general ST fandom who weren't quite as interested in the sophistication of Deep Space Nine. I actually don't mind this too much--hey, they're good shows, after all!--but they do give a somewhat distorted view of one of the best TV shows of the 1990s.

(I am aware that the "Captain's Log" set does, in fact, include some of the more biting episodes of DS9's run. From what I understand, some of these episodes were chosen by the captains themselves, so my point still stands.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Just wondering...

Is American Idol adding a fourth judge because they want to dump one of the existing three? Like, perhaps, a certain lush who often sounds as though she's talking with the flower people? Perhaps the producers want to add someone a bit younger to the lineup?

Watch your back, Paula...

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sweet, sweet Oliver Stone hate

I didn't realize that Oliver Stone was doing a movie about George W. Bush. He's true to form, if nothing else. And that form largely consists of...the directorial equivalent of shouting at the audience for three hours (and three hours is a floor in terms of his movies' length). He doesn't respect his audiences at all to get his point (witness Nixon where Tricky Dick orders the Cambodia bombing while eating a rare steak, so that he has BLOOD ON HIS HANDS!). This is what passes for clever in Stoneland, and it doesn't look like the Dubya movie is going to be any different.

But Stone really has lost his mind looking at this cast list:
W stars Josh Brolin as George W. Bush, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, James Cromwell as George Herbert Walker Bush, Academy Award® winner Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Ioan Gruffud [sic] as Tony Blair.
Not one of those choices seems right. None of them look anything like the people they're portraying (Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell?! The Jeffrey Wright from Casino Royale who played Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter? The one who helped him stay in the game after he lost to Le Chiffre? Seriously?). Sure, I don't suppose they don't all have to look like the real people (though I think a 6'10 President George H. W. Bush is going to be interesting to see) but it's hard to see exactly why Ollie Stone thought, say, that Ellen Burstyn would make a good Babs. The personae of the Bush White House are ripe for fictionalization, but this is like a crazy, crazy joke, right? Like casting pretty boy Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great? Oh, wait...

I suppose I'm tired of Hollywood trying its hand at Bush agitprop. I'm tired of it largely because Hollywood sucks at it. Every time they try it, every time, they only succeed in reinforcing Bush's support among Bush lovers (although these days they would probably all fit into one theater) and they tell Bush critics nothing new. I sure hope that this movie does more than sneer at how dumb Bush is, because of all his crimes his infelicity with the English language is surely at the bottom.

As for Oliver Stone--why do studios still do business with this madman? He hasn't made a good movie since The Doors (JFK, if one wants to be extremely charitable). And Platoon, despite unquestionably being Stone's masterpiece and a Best Picture winner, really isn't that special overall. I mean, it's anchored by a Charlie Sheen performance. It seems authentic in its depiction of Vietnam, but it comes to no original or interesting conclusions about the conflict. Meanwhile, Stone's become a Hollywood fixture who still secures funding for big blockbusters that have uniformly been shitty money-losers for ages. He couldn't film a six year old's birthday party without turning it into a hamfisted political message, and a boring one to boot. Hollywood does seem to have basic reflexes to stop it from hurting itself--I haven't seen Jessica Simpson in a major motion picture for a while now, for example. And yet Oliver Stone, a man with no discernable talent who is, to put it charitably, a has-been that hasn't done anything worth seeing in two decades still makes a movie every other year? Words fail...

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects was a film released in 1995 to some acclaim and has since become a cult movie. I was obsessed with the movie in high school, but upon rewatching it, my opinion has, shall we say, been lowered. Here's my revisionist review.

The Usual Suspects is a movie that has exciting action sequences, dialogue that recalls David Mamet's hard-boiled staccato verbiage, acting that is almost uniformly excellent--heck, even Steven fucking Baldwin delivers a solid performance--and, of course, a famous twist that is, as a matter of fact, as surprising and jarring and just flat-out brilliant as has been advertised. It also has no soul. The movie is an exercise in cynicism of the highest order. None of the relationships between the characters are particularly compelling, none of the characters has too much in terms of subtlety or nuance, and while these decisions can be justified by the film's denouement, the rationalizations actually solidify the point that the movie is hollow. Kevin Spacey's character quotes Baudelaire during the course of the movie, to the effect that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. The greatest trick that Chris McQuarrie and Bryan Singer ever pulled, on the other hand, was convincing the audience that The Usual Suspects is a movie.

Perhaps that sounds harsh, but it is true. These, ladies and gentlemen, are the facts of life (as pertain to movies):
  1. Movies are fictitious accounts of events, usually from the point of view of one of the characters or from the "eye of God."
  2. Movies contain characters who typically undergo struggles and have complex interactions with one another.
Okay, so there are probably more, but these two are the one's that interest me. For the record, to people who have not seen Suspects (and, hey, it's worth seeing once), this post is going to have a number of spoilers. Consider this a blanket SPOILER ALERT. Now, to continue...

The finale of Suspects involves the audience learning that the entire events of the film, as narrated by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) are almost certainly invalidated. Kint is an unreliable narrator who dissembles enough to fool a Customs agent (Chazz Palmintieri) into letting him go, right before he realizes (along with the audience) that it's Kint who is the notorious Keyser Soze, a supercriminal whose identity had heretofore been unknown. It is a brilliant twist, largely thanks to the use of techniques like false foreshadowing and juxtaposition that makes the culprit seem to be another character, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). In fact, virtually the entire film builds up to what appears to be the unveiling of Keaton as Soze, when it's actually Kint, the supposedly trustworthy narrator. The film also provides the brilliant touch of making Kint a cripple, and thus naturally virtuous and trustworthy in the eyes of the audience, since disabled people are always slow and stupid, right? Everyone underestimates Kint, and that age-old assumption--that handicapped people must naturally be virtuous and good--is deployed to great effect. It's actually a fairly progressive message in terms of knocking down stereotypes, though the filmmakers RUIN EVERYTHING at the end when we learn that Kint was faking being a cripple the whole time. They couldn't commit to a crippled supercriminal because there was another commitment in play--the commitment to removing any doubt as to the identity of Keyser Soze, which is hammered home here with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone film.

This is why we are here. The filmmakers can't follow through on such a promising idea because making Kint turn out not to be a cripple is essential in unveiling him as Soze. But it's not the only problem associated with the twist. The central relationships of the film are those between Kint and Keaton, and between Keaton and his lover, Edie, who has supposedly reformed Keaton. Neither relationship is especially convincing on its face. Kint and Keaton were supposedly friends, but there's hardly a moment of warmth between them. Keaton and Edie appear together in about two scenes, and there is never a moment when that relationship becomes real to the viewers. And this is not by incompetence, but rather because of the twist ending that necessitates the poverty of these relationships. Keaton has to be a dick to Verbal so that people will better swallow the idea that he's Soze, a man without friends who just used people for his own purposes. And the Keaton/Edie relationship is weak because it must be--the notion that Edie had really reformed Keaton undermines the false twist before the real end, because people will be more reluctant to think that he's all bad.

So, the relationships Keaton experiences are deliberately stripped down and unconvincing so that people will more readily buy it when the final shoe drops, but what does this tell us about the movie? The characters and their relationships are deliberately shallow, and there's just nothing much to recommend if you're a fan of characters, plus there's the little thing about most of this stuff probably never having happened, and almost certainly never having happened the way Verbal is telling it. There's nothing to latch onto in this film--there's no anchor. Everything is a lie. Which might be fine if there was some emotional import of all this sturm und drang, but there really isn't. The movie provides little feeling and has no heart, and repeat viewings, while perhaps providing more clues to the finale that had earlier been missed, only serve to underline the emptiness at the core of the film. People don't really matter in Suspects, relationships don't matter, what really happened doesn't matter. All that matters is setting up that big twist, which is so uninvested in the characters' motives and feelings that the impact is entirely cerebral. It certainly blows the mind, so much so that people will probably watch it and think it's a good movie because they were so entirely fooled by the twist. They don't know how right they are.

I suppose that one could dissent from this logic to say that I'm not being charitable to the movie. After all, entertainment is entertainment, right? The movie provides a little bit of a mindfuck to people without making them feel stupid for not having guessed it in the first place. It's a watchable enough movie, no?

Buying into this sentiment, though, requires that one concede that a movie that is little but a glorified con job, a masturbatory picture that exists merely for that mindfuck and that eschews the messiness that comes from accurately and honestly depicting human beings--that a movie that so readily brushes aside those things that constitute art can still have value. And I'm not saying that it doesn't have some value, because it is a movie that contains a number of interesting ideas. Technically speaking, it's virtuosic at every level. But the larger problem is not that the movie doesn't care about telling a story about people. The problem isn't so much that it's not art, but rather that it claims to be artistic. It's full of literary references, it takes itself completely seriously, and it's simply too well thought-out and meticulously planned to be anything else than a cynical con on anyone who watches it. The joke is on us, the audience. It's a "serious" film that has no interest in artfully showing humanity at it's best (or worst). It's the worst kind of con, too: we thank the filmmakers at the end for pulling the wool over our eyes. The rush that the ending provides feels similar to the sort of emotional resonance that one might get from watching a heartfelt film like, I don't know, The Elephant Man. Only The Elephant Man isn't trying to fool us into thinking that the reaction that a film provides is anything other than at face value. There's something deeply insidious going on in Suspects, and the con is executed so perfectly that one doesn't even realize it until much later, if ever.

I generally consider myself a cynical person, but this movie is a few steps too far for me: the film is hollow and manipulative in the extreme, with nothing at the core. The twist is well-executed, although the necessary precursors to make it work weaken the film to such an extent that it barely works as a genre piece. If one were to take The Usual Suspects, cut out the last five minutes, and show it to an audience of people, it is hard to see more than a few people enjoying the film. Despite some intriguing ideas, I must condemn Suspects as perhaps the most cynical enterprise upon which Hollywood has ever embarked. And that is saying something.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


So, Battlestar Galactica is back, and it's actually been pretty good so far. Certainly, it's a vast improvement from the middling third season, whose failure I think I've figured out: there were no cylons. Well, that's not entirely true. There were cylons, but they weren't doing very cylon-y things, like, you know, trying to exterminate the human race, for example. (I exclude, of course, the totally awesome opening quartet of 3rd season episodes, as well as episodes in which the cylons did appear as antagonists). What were the cylons doing all season? Well, they were examining their theology, searching for the final five cylon models (four of which we know at this point), and generally engaging in the kinds of things that I didn't find that interesting about the cylon race, rather than the stuff that was interesting (like the aforementioned attempts to annhilate mankind). From day one, the series's premise was simple: humanity is destroyed. A small group is trying to find the rest of the humans on Earth. The cylons are never more than a step behind. Simple, as most good premises are, but with a lot of potential to explore different things. But the show (pre-season 3) was at its strongest when it kept to this formula, and it was at best mediocre when it departed from it. See Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down; Black Market; or that dopey hostage episode for verification of this rule.

Season 3, though, seemed to hint at several things, but one in particular: the crew behind the show forgot what made the show successful to begin with--i.e. the premise described before. That humanity was nearly extinct went unmentioned during the season; the quest for Earth was on the slow burner. And, most unforgivably, the cylons were hardly the fear-inducing toasters of yesteryear--after all that "kill the humans" stuff for two years it seemed that the cylons just couldn't be bothered to try to find Galactica during the past season, and the mystique surrounding the cylons vanished as the writers moved aggressively to explore every nuance of cylon society. The results were not entirely uninteresting but they had a side effect of taking all the tension out of the show. And I suppose that all the praise for the show's characters finally went to the writers' heads as they crafted so many episodes that turned interesting, tortured relationships that simmered under the surface to long, boring melodramas to which the only proper response was, "just frak already." Just remember this: with the exception of the mid-season cliffhanger and its resolution, from episode four until the final episode of the season (20) the crew was not in any danger from the cylons, and rarely were they in danger from anything else. Season three of BSG often felt like a first season, but then again, BSG had an awesome first season that managed to introduce the universe and its characters effectively and poignantly. Season one induced wonder. Season three induced weariness.

So, let's just say I wasn't terribly excited as season four arrived. I was worried that nothing would have been learned, that we'd keep seeing the same melodramatic bullshit, the same focus on the mystical aspects (which are acceptable and interesting until a point), and more cylon emoting. To some extent my worries were well-founded: cylon-human conflicts have not been plentiful so far this season, and the religious stuff is as prevalent as ever. I suppose the genie isn't going back in the bottle on those two, and I've accepted it. I can only hope that Ron Moore is going to find some way to wrap up these threads into a neat package. But when one tries to take the show on its own turns--well, actually, it's been really good so far. I have not been bored even once with the stories this season, which is an improvement. And rather than just having heated theological and eschatological arguments en vacuo, in this season the cylons have moved straight into a full-scale civil war, and the most recent episode has floated the possibility of the humans perhaps forming an alliance with one of the sides in the cylon war. Could Adama eventually wind up becoming like a cylon-equivalent Nixon? I still think the decision to show us the innards of cylon society (starting with "Downloaded") was a huge mistake, and was responsible for making the show significantly less exciting--fear is often the result of a lack of knowledge, after all, and Dean Stockwell's character has become, well, not scary. Learning about cylon society second hand, from Athena (for example) was more compelling, in my opinion. But what's done is done. At the very least the creative team is trying to make it work, and so far I can't really complain.

Still, the show still suffers in comparison to what it was. In my opinion, Season 2.0 (I hate the name, as does everyone else) is by far the best run the show ever had. Every single episode is brilliant, addictive, and emotionally fierce television. The first four episodes of the season in particular represent a sort of zenith for this generally high-achieving series--an apex that the show never again quite reached. Helo and Kara on Caprica. Baltar, Tyrol, and the rest on Kobol. Adama shot, Tigh in command, Roslin in jail. That season managed to juggle so many different characters and plot threads with a virtuosity almost equivalent to The Wire, while simultaneously building up and paying off long-standing story arcs. Now, those episodes aren't necessarily the best of the series (the three Pegasus episodes, and perhaps the Free New Caprica storyline at the beginning of season 3 are superior), but they transcended the show and provided for a more consistent, fluid and well-paced chunk of storytelling than has ever graced the show, and they didn't skimp on the action. Season 2.0 represented the high watermark for Galactica's run, a daunting television achievement that no doubt helped get those "Best Show on Television" endorsements rolling. And then the show indescribably fell down, and only now is it starting to show some signs of life. I can only hope that it ends strongly, as did another late-season slumper, The Sopranos. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, though we won't have the final chapter of the saga for six months while BSG perilously pushes the envelope of what constitutes a "season" of TV.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Insufficiently Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

So, it would appear that Jimmy Fallon has Conan O'Brien's old (current?) job when Conan moves to be Jay Leno's replacement in 2009. I suppose there is a conservation of low-wattage comedians law in effect over at NBC's Late Night division.

I'm waiting for Dick Cavett to weigh in on this on his blog, which is excellent, by the way. The logic here doesn't really make much sense to me. My guess was that J-Fal (you know his asshole buddies call him that) got this based largely on his tenure on Weekend Update, as opposed to his film career or his famous poker face. To be fair, Jon Stewart had a pretty terrible film career and he's doing alright in his current job. Then again, Jon Stewart is, well, funny. And professional. For all his virtues, Stewart really isn't much of an actor--I recall watching a NewsRadio episode in which he was a guest star and his performance there contained so much discomfort that it might have been better suited to playing a teenager losing his virginity. I did like his self-portrayal on The Larry Sanders Show, and that's about it. But--and here's the difference--Stewart can talk to people. The Daily Show isn't really a chat show, but the chat segments are usually solid, if light. Now, if Fallon were being considered for Stewart's job, I'd say that makes sense, although I always thought his version of Weekend Update was a bit overrated--to think that someone's fake news could actually make me miss Craig Kilborn!--but he was alright.

Fallon, though, got Conan O'Brien's job. I've long believed that Conan was at his best during interviews and at his worst during the monologues, and his sketches have always been entertaining. I'm not exactly sure what Fallon would do for a whole hour--I'm guessing a lot of sub-Sandler singing and giggly, passable impersonations, perhaps with Horatio Sanz as a sidekick (as if!)--but I've never thought him interesting enough to look at for more than a few minutes, and this whole thing reeks of bean counters trying to tap the "youth" demographic. Hey, guys, newsflash: we young people don't really like Jimmy Fallon too much. If we did, we would have seen his movies. He was occasionally amusing on Saturday Night Live. That's it.

Who knows, maybe Fallon will prove quite adept at the host's chair, but the chatting part of the equation is unknown at this point, unless you count The Barry Gibb Talk Show, and I doubt Timberlake is going to want to co-host. And isn't that, like, the most important part of the show?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The New Atheism

This excerpt from John Haight's book (via Andrew Sullivan) made sense to me:
And yet, aside from several barbed references, there is no sign of any real contact between the new atheists and theology at all, let alone studious investigation. This circumvention is comparable to creationists rejecting evolution without ever having taken a course in biology. They just know there’s something wrong with those crazy Darwinian fantasies. So the new atheists just know there is something sick and delusional about theology. There is no need to look at it up close.
I find this mentality to be true on both sides of the faith divide. There were plenty of Christians I knew when I was growing up that might perfectly fit this description with the words altered: they felt no real need to learn about the Bible, or to ponder the great mysteries, or to really put any work into their faith at all: they just believed in Jesus's awesomeness, and that was enough for them. I also ran across a number of atheists just like the ones Haight described, and I always found it hilarious when the ignorant atheists got into arguments with the ignorant Christians: the ignorant atheists would make claims about Christianity that weren't true, and the ignorant Christians would be unable to rebut them. And vice versa.

To call this atheist mentality fundamentalist is an insult to the intelligence of actual fundamentalists. They do know what they believe, in general. Let's just call it what it is: unseriousness. And there are plenty of people of different faiths who are fundamentally (pardon the pun) unserious, to be sure. I have observed that many of what Haight calls the new atheists seem to disregard the big questions altogether, since they have no answer since there is no god. But while this mentality might very well be par for the course for the new atheists, it wasn't for the old atheists. Rarely will you find a mind as curious, as spiritual, as relentless in confronting the questions of mankind's existence as that of Albert Camus, my favorite philosopher, and he was a confirmed atheist. I have somewhat less affection for Sartre, but his work is well-known, to be sure. So many of the philosophers associated with the enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking were quite secular, and putting aside the whole decline and fall of religion element it is a point worth making that these philosophers thought the big questions worth pondering, even if their belief system didn't include a deity.

So, what has changed? My impression is that a lot of these atheists are attracted to this system of beliefs because it provides them with absolute, comfortable answers. So it's not unlike the draw of fundamentalism, deep down, and it's not unlike the draw of the shall we say unrigorous Christianity. Usually, the pull of this sort of atheism is based liberally on points of dorm room philosophy, along the lines of "how many wars have been started by religion?" A compelling point unless one lacks even a fundamental knowledge of history--sure, there were lots of bloody chapters in Christian history, but more often than not, talk about conquering lands "for Christ" was just a rationalization for colonization. It certainly was in the case of the "White man's burden" that the English made infamous. It takes a certain kind of willful ignorance to see a sincere Christian heart at the bottom of these escapades, but it seems to me that if you're going to allow manifestly dishonest exponents of Christianity to represent the whole then atheism itself would have to qualify as far more bloody as Christianity: just look at the 20th century atheist states of the Soviet Union, Cambodia, and China, all of which have been responsible for incomparable murder and chaos. I'm not saying that these states are representative of where atheism is these days, but neither are the Crusades. My opinion is that the seeds of violence, conquest, etc., are something intrinsic to humanity since they crop up in every culture everywhere, rather than just an emergent quality that crops up when religion rears its ugly head. The latter view, which I do believe is what belies the religion=wars argument, is just too pat, and it doesn't explain all the pertinent phenomena, like those three states I mentioned. Those of us in science know that a theory that doesn't explain all the outliers is really not a theory at all, and is just waiting to be supplanted by a better one. I don't really have one, but it is typically easier to disprove a theory than to prove one.

Of course, many of these atheists really aren't interested in what Christianity really is. They've decided what it is. But for the collective bristle that occurs among atheists when atheism is noted as being another religion--well, it seems merited in many cases. To be certain, not all atheists are "new atheists," but I suspect the attraction occurs on at least two levels. I suspect that nihilism is becoming a more attractive philosophy for many people in this country, and it's not incomprehensible--after all, if you can't easily figure out the answers, there must not be any--and the idea that there's no meaning to life does answer that question succinctly. We humans like certainty, of course, and atheism does offer that. So does fundamentalism. Those of us who reject those extremes and try to understand the world and the infinite as it really is are in for a perhaps less satisfying but, in my opinion, a far more rewarding spiritual journey. I suppose just don't understand the appeal of nihilism. I will say that arguments along the lines of "which world would you rather live in, one with a God who loves you or one that doesn't?" never held much water for me (what, is human existence multiple choice?) but to say to one's self, to honestly believe that one's life has no meaning seems bleak. One could, perhaps, be an atheist and believe that life still has meaning, even if we make it ourselves? Believing one's self to be a worthless tool cannot be very healthy, one thinks.

I wonder if another big factor here isn't just an antipathy for organized religion, to which I am not entirely unsympathetic. I hate the megachurches probably more than most atheists do. Between the 30-plus minutes of terrible music played with medium competence to the earnest solicitations of money for the building fund (and believe me, there's always a building fund) to the infomercials about how much good the church is doing to the usually fluff-packed message that tends to owe more to self-help books than to the Bible, it's usually the worst hour and a half of my week when I choose to go, and it's usually full of the same kind of duckspeaking Christians that couldn't talk about Christianity for any length of time without it eventually descending into a catalog of bromides. Perhaps they're not all like this, but my experience is that the experience does not vary between one megachurch and another. And Lord knows that contemporary Christianity is palsied by any number of bigotries masquerading as good old-fashioned moral values. I do not blame people from being put off by what they see coming from Christianity these days--I am as well. But that isn't the entire story. Jihad isn't the only form of Islam, for that matter. There is a psychological concept at play here called the availability heuristic which tells us that we tend to believe that the things we see a lot are the truth. It's the theory behind propaganda, and it's why so many parents spend so much time obsessed with keeping their children from being abducted, even to the point of developing "safe words" so that kids don't leave with strangers. After all, there's one of those kiddie abductions on the news all the time! Never mind that there's about 100 of them a year, and that most of them are abducted by people they know. We see stories in the news, we remember them. It seems like a terrible scenario, so we get freaked out about it. In reality, though, the phenomenon is less common than one thinks, and there is little to fear in the end.

I have, of course, met many atheists who do not conform to these stereotypes. I have met many more who do. I do not think less of people who disagree with me, but I do think less of people who do not take life seriously. I do not profess to be a biblical scholar or a wise man, but it is my belief that we are not meant to get complacent about these issues, and too many people of so many persuasions are.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


"Time to go home."
"Lucky man."
These are the final two lines of the film Spartan, a little-seen film from 2004 that happens to be one of the most underrated films of the past decade. Val Kilmer plays the film's protagonist, a government agent who prides himself on following orders, protecting his country, and fighting the bad guys. He trusts the chain of command, and they trust him. The events of the film, though, propel him to give it all up, and that final line has a double meaning that becomes more apparent if one watches the film. Not only does Kilmer's character (any name he goes by in the movie appears to be suspect) wind up exiled, but he comes to realize the country he served simply doesn't exist anymore. He ends the movie in an unnamed European city, bearded, walking down a street. Why did he give it all up? The film doesn't really give any pat answers, though Kilmer's initially amoral-seeming character turns out to have a few more scruples than one might have suspected of a cold-blooded G-man. Spartan is replete with surprises and pleasures for people who invest themselves in the movie, and it has several things going for it. For one, the lead performance by Kilmer is amazing: he is a force of nature, he commands attention the whole time he's on the screen and one senses in the performance (and the script) a desire to create a truly new character. I certainly can't think of another portrayal of a government agent that is remotely similar to what Kilmer does here. And Mamet's directorial hand is sure: much of the movie has more visual and atmospheric flair than many of Mamet's other films, and instead of trying to engage us on multiple levels of mindfuckery Mamet chooses to tell a simple, easy-to-follow story where the characters seem real, the dialogue is impressive without being too showy, and the central con of the film (there's always a con in Mamet films) just barely stays on this side of plausible. Rarely have Mamet films come together in so many ways, and rarely have "war on terror" movies been this engaging, gritty, and exciting. Spartan is an imperfect film, to be certain, and it has a number of third act problems. It is, however, a masterpiece because of what it gets right. I place it second among Mamet's films, right behind the amazing House of Games, not counting Glengarry Glen Ross which he did not direct. It is a movie with which it is worthwhile to acquaint one's self.

There's little denying that David Mamet's stock has been on the decline in the past decade: the post-Spanish Prisoner period has been replete with lesser films like State and Main, Heist, as well as his television show The Unit that might as well have been entitled JAG II. He did have a genuine (if flawed) masterpiece in Wag The Dog, whose central thesis about modern-day politics is pretty much right on the money and whose humor was generally pretty great, although it also had third-act problems. Perhaps Mamet ought to stick with two-acts, like Glengarry. It is probably not coincidental that Mamet's decline has coincided with his embrace of conservative politics, though not for the obvious reasons--Mamet is simply not a political director, and his films are more interested in empirical observation of the human soul than in making political points. He's much better at the former than the latter, and just catch an episode of The Unit if you doubt me. I liked Mamet much better as an unthinking liberal than as a dogmatic conservative who preaches his opinions with a convert's zeal. (Full disclosure: I'm a liberal myself, though I consider myself a thoughtful one. I'm not wild about being preached at by liberals or conservatives.)

Nevertheless, Spartan is not a right-leaning movie. Well, sorta. It's suspicious and cynical about the government and power structure, which has (until recently) been a conservative trait, but the central thesis of the movie is that the war on terror inevitably erodes the character of the people fighting it. The movie concerns an abduction of the president's daughter, played by Kristen Bell. Kilmer has to try to get her back. That covers most of the movie. There's a bit more to it than that, especially in the denouement, when we learn that the abduction might not have just been an accidental kidnapping by White slavers. The end impression that one gets of the government types in the film are people who have become so focused on fighting "the enemy" that their respect for the law, for the lives of Americans and even their own basic humanity has long since atrophied, leaving behind only a monomaniacal focus on "protecting the man" and getting the job done. This is mainly shown by William H. Macy's character, who becomes the personification of the Newest World Order. Machiavellian does not do this philosophy justice. In sum, it's a film whose implications civil libertarian-type liberals could wholeheartedly endorse, and that unlike other "war on terror"-type films actually has something important to say about the conflict and, critically, actually does a good job of saying it, vividly. It is a shame that the movie wasn't a hit, because it might have kickstarted the sort of conversation we need to be having right now. Then again, it might just have been dismissed as anti-American.

Is the movie unAmerican? I do not think so. In fact, I believe it comes from a place of true patriotism. The "grunts" in the film are generally not contaminated by the bug that the government elites are, and Kilmer's performance sort of splits the balance between the two. He starts off as cold and efficient as Macy's character, nonchalantly instructing subordinates to cut out a suspect's eye in one scene. But the contagion proves reversible in Kilmer's case--despite initially heavy resistance, Kilmer does the right thing in the end: he goes after the girl in Dubai, thanks largely to the intervention of a greenhorn Army Ranger (Derek Luke) who is relentless in getting Kilmer on board. What is most interesting about the scene where Luke persuades Kilmer is that Kilmer only half-heartedly tries to convince Luke that his evidence is wrong. His arguments against trying to find the girl (and she is always referred to as "the girl" in the movie) generally fall along the lines that he's a soldier, he does what he's told but nothing more. Kilmer's character, like so many other actors in the War on Terror, is more than willing to subordinate his moral judgment to a higher power. He doesn't have to take responsibility, he is just a tool, so to speak, in the hands of the elites, and he's confident that his superiors are doing what is necessary to protect America. It is when he starts to believe that those elites might not be doing that--that there might be a cover-up--that he acts. And his character arc is really not all that expansive--he does change, but not much. At the end of the movie, he's still a cold-blooded killing machine. It's just that we learn more about him, and he learns more about the nature of things, and it all leads to a series of events that can't help but shatter Kilmer's worldview and sense of purpose. He can't go home again in the obvious way: he'll be killed. But the home doesn't exist anymore because its values have been eroded by power-hungry elites. So what does he do?

So much for the positive aspects. Most of the movie's criticism comes from the finale, which has some problematic elements to it, but is generally not that bad. Many reviews complain that the idea of the president's daughter becoming a semi-willing sex slave is ridiculous. Such reviews are based on a fundamentally inaccurate reading of the film. Just listen to Macy's final speech, and it becomes clear that Bell's kidnapping took place in order to spare her father from political embarrassment. She was not a sex slave of any sort, this was only a cover. This only goes toward the film's central thesis, which has already been discussed in detail. Now, one can debate whether such a turn of events is plausible, but it is what it is. The shootout in the hangar is also a bit anticlimactic as a finale, and one wonders whether the movie could have been tied up more artfully. It's certainly expected, and it's how a typical genre film would wrap things up, but Spartan tries to be a bit more than that and so the expectations are higher. Ultimately, though, one's appreciation for the film depends on one's willingness to just go with it, to just follow the twists and turns to see where it goes. As it turns out, it's one hell of a trip.

All in all, I think it's safe to say that Spartan is a movie that warrants a reappraisal.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

It's good to know I'm far from alone in my unadulterated hatred of the Epic Movie ilk. The Hater over at The A.V. Club has this idea for those dudes' next film (which looks to parody Superbad):
Fake McLovin and his date (maybe Fake Jessica Simpson) would be looking for a room in the house to have sex in, and the entirety of the movie (all 70 terrible minutes of it) would be the pair opening door after door to reveal pop culture reference coupling, after pop culture reference coupling. And, of course, for the big finale, Fake McLovin and Fake Jessica Simpson would open the attic door to reveal Fake Juno giving birth on the back of Fake Christian Siriano (while he shouts, "So not fierce!") to Fake Flava Flav, who would then be promptly adopted by Fake Angelina Jolie. The End.
So, it's like a highly abstract version of their earlier oeuvre? It's sorta like my idea for fast food psychotherapy: the shrink just gives you a list of things to say with the assumption that just being able to say some specific phrase will suddenly make a person "fixed." The laziness that one finds in such things is enormous: more than anything else, these movies resemble conversations between longtime friends that are filled with inside jokes, only the jokes are "outside" jokes, and they're not even jokes. I suppose I'm a snob for mocking what the Great And Good American PeopleTM enjoy watching (as though there were any doubt of my snobbishness anyway) but this is what I think of when those right-wing politicians talk about how hordes of Mexican immigrants are destroying our culture, or whatever they say. I think of Epic Movie. And I shudder. This is the mainstream culture, folks. Now, theres still great stuff going on around the margins, but that's all they are: margins. I don't mind being marginal. How about you?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Worst movie ever

I know that this is kind of an old post, but I just came across this little bit on Dan Drezner's blog about the criteria for being the worst movie of all time. It's not much of a question for me to ponder, as I have seen the monstrosity known as Glitter. I have little to say about the experience, other than that I'm surprised it wasn't much more popular: don't people want longer lives? This movie will make your life seem quite longer. And it's a lot cheaper than a face lift that doesn't fool anyone. Just kidding, the movie's awfulness defies description, and I don't recommend watching it without the aid of RiffTrax, a sample of which is below. It's actually pretty entertaining with the RiffTrax. But with regard to the movie: once you get past the cliches, the terrible acting (by Mariah front and center, but everyone here gets a turn), the plodding, boring plot, there's, well, nothing there. This Mariah Carey vanity project wants us to know what Mariah Carey is like, deep down, and in a funny way it succeeds: we learn that there is, literally, no there there. The film is a testament to the shallowness of Mariah Carey, and it's more or less the definitive word on the subject.

I have seen movies that have been objectively worse than Glitter, and I suppose I'm a bit of a connoisseur at this. The objectively worst movie I have ever seen was a little-seen Hulk Hogan "heartwarmer" (you should be seriously afraid at this point) called Santa With Muscles. The plot, as I remember it, involved Hogan's ultra-rich WT character losing his memory and coming to believe he is really Santa. With Muscles. And a coat that makes The Village People look straight. He winds up living in an orphanage and "cheering up" the orphans by combating the evil Ed Begley (yes, that Ed Begley) who is cast as a cutthroat land developer in one of the most egregious instances of miscasting in history whose character's last name is, I kid you not, Frost. No, his first name isn't John, because that would be just a bit too much like wit. Begley's presence here is bizarre in a way not unlike professional partier Tara Reid's turn as a college professor in Alone in the Dark. I haven't seen that movie, but the absurdity of that sentence is enough to make Albert Camus cry uncle.

Anyway, Begley wants to close down the orphanage, or something, but he knows who Hogan really is and tries to steal his money. There is a lengthy subplot in which one of Jack Frost's underlings tries to nab Hogan's fingerprint so that he can get access to all of Hogan's money. This is eventually done, but it doesn't work because the dude gets Hogan's wrong thumbprint. Like he needed the right thumbprint, but he got the left, or something. It's all in accordance with how corporate business is done in the seventeenth dimension!

Oh, but there's more. So much more. But I'll spare you the discussions of swordfights with volatile crystals. It's the denouement that's so compelling, because, as it turns out, the orphanage is located atop some sort of subterranean lair filled with demons that kill Jack "Ed Begley" Frost. Then Hulk remembers who he is, and adopts all the kids, or something. I know, it's practically right out of the screenwriting books. I know it might seem like I'm joking--who writes a supernatural twist into a movie like that, right?--and yet that's exactly what happens. It is the worst movie that can be imagined. And I've seen Batman & Robin.

Here's the film's imdb page. It's so much worse than I described it. And a propos of the mention of Jack Frost, I recall the two films named Jack Frost that were released within a year of one another. One was a slasher film, and one was a "heartwarming" family flick. Look at the pictures of the two movies, and try to tell me, honestly, which one of these two abominable abominations is scarier:

Okay, so it's the one one on the left, obviously, but the contest is too close.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Network: The Most Overrated Movie, Ever

Network is a film with a sterling reputation. It is on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films, it is generally deemed a culturally significant film that foretold the rise of ratings-driven, sensationalistic cable news, and it won a number of Academy Awards in 1976, including three of the acting awards. Upon my initial viewing I disliked the film, then came to like it, and now I find it to be rather grating. Here's my take on this "classic" movie.

is a movie of nearly incomparable prestige and esteem in the current day and age--a film that is still referenced in popular culture, that is often cited as having been extraordinarily predictive of how the news media developed in America, and so on. Blah. The movie, truth be told, is terrible. Terrible. If only there was some English word that could fully encompass the awfulness--it would be necessary to employ some twenty-syllable German word to do the trick. Suffice it to say, it's bad. The much-vaunted acting is overamped and atrocious, the characters are thinly-written and fall into the Randian ideal of sentient position papers as characters rather than real people, the satire is self-righteous and hamfisted, and the story is so ludicrous and unbelievable that it doesn't even really work as allegory. It doesn't work on its own merits, either, and the result is a turgid piece of crap that has been exalted largely because eminences grises like to namecheck the film as shorthand for its vision of a corporate-owned, profit-driven media that was, truth be told, not all that hard to see coming to pass. In short, Network is a waste of space whose cleverness is appreciated only by people whose own cleverness is, like the film's, entirely superficial.

For one thing, the characters are a profoundly uninteresting lot, and can each be summarized with one sentence: there's the mad news anchor, there's the young network executive who has no problem destroying lives (including her own) for ratings and is "television incarnate", there's the old newsman who finds himself muscled out in the new order and has a midlife crisis, and so on. None of them have any subtext or nuance: it's all right there on the screen, and what you see is what you get. They all come off as less than human: they're all chess pieces, allegorical personages meant to make a point about what is going on in the media, and they're supposed to be extreme. Or so we might think. The film otherwise tries to cultivate an intense sense of "you are there" realism which is undercut by the broadness of the caricatures that anchor this film. They're not real people, and as allegories they're not particularly artful. It's not quite as much of a sledgehammer production as your typical Oliver Stone film, but it's in that ballpark. I suppose it is possible that the characters are so intentionally shallow in the film to make a point about how the media creates hollow people (in other words, to go meta), but one never senses an indictment of any sort of the film industry (of course) and even if the point is not meta--that is to say, if the movie is trying to show that exposure to the television industry has the same hollowing effects as television itself--it doesn't make sense to make the hero of the film (the old-school newsman) as hollow and uninteresting as the villain (the new-school executive). There just isn't enough of a contrast between the characterizations here--they're both pretty cliched and uninteresting, and although their worldviews diverge the lack of nuance in these characters seems less like an artistic decision and more like the work of a limited imagination.

And as for the plot: it can be neatly summarized as follows. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a depressed, suicidal anchorman who, after promising to kill himself on the air, instead becomes a "mad prophet" of the airwaves and tries to channel the frustration and anger of the public into a ratings booster for a network exec (played by Faye Dunaway). Bill Holden plays another exec who is ambivalent about the stunt, gets fired, then starts having an affair with Dunaway. In the end, Beale turns against his masters, starts losing ratings, and is assassinated by network fiat at the end of the movie. Aside from one or two minor subplots, this is the film. It's rather high-concept, as one can see. One can easily extract the main ideas of the film from this outline: that Dunaway's executive is a cynical, stop-at-nothing-for-ratings executive that typifies the new generation of the media, that Holden is the old-school newsman who actually cares about other people, and that Finch is just caught in the middle. And if you didn't get the point from this summary, you would get them from the endless speeches that the movie contains to try to reinforce these points. It's a film that is constantly shaking you and yelling, "GET IT?!" There is a tension between the idea of satirically undercutting the very foundation of new media by showing the most extreme case of how this model of media stewardship plays out on the one hand, and on the other trying to be good old-fashioned agitprop to try to rouse the people into action. The first necessarily needs to be tongue in cheek, observational, witty, subtle, and funny in a biting way. The second needs to be bombastic, loud, angry, and totally unambiguous. Network does not seem to get that there is a tension between these approaches, and instead tries to have it both ways. The tone of the movie, unsurprisingly, is rather schizophrenic. On balance, the movie leans more toward the first approach and tries to satirize new media, but the bits in which it tries to summon righteous outrage are by far more effective. After all, agitprop needn't be artful or clever, it just needs to arouse the people. Had the movie been straight-up agitprop many of its faults would have been forgivable. Then again, it probably would not be held in nearly the esteem it currently holds.

The acting of the film is often (unjustly) praised--Peter Finch's Oscar-winning performance is an exercise in excess--his version of a raving madman is pretty much everyone's idea of a raving madman. He doesn't really show us anything new. Faye Dunaway's performance is better, but still pretty bad. It doesn't help that her character is so abstract, so high-concept that it seems that all she does is hit her marks. She doesn't really delve deep into the character's consciousness because the character really isn't that deep, and the performance, like Finch's, eventually becomes an exercise in trying to make the character as ostentatiously insane (albeit in a slightly different fashion) as possible. The standards for acting have fallen, although it is common knowledge that Dunaway's Oscar was merely past due for her great performance in Chinatown. The third Oscar winner, Beatrice Straight, appears in the film for about three minutes. Literally. This is obviously an aberration, and the less said about it the better. Robert Duvall's character, which has gone heretofore unmentioned, can be summarized as "ladder-climbing yuppie scum" and is similar in tone to the rest of the performances mentioned here. About the only saving grace here is the performance of Bill Holden, whose unaffected and naturalistic performance does show us a little something about the man he portrays that the rest of the operatic pretensions of the rest of the cast. It is surprising that so many talented actors all managed to produce such dreadful performances, especially since the director, Sidney Lumet, has a reasonably good track record with directing actors. It makes more sense to blame the source material: just how much substance can you bring to a character whose only purpose is to represent TELEVISION INCARNATE? And this is the problem: by setting up the film's central allegory, writer Paddy Chayevsky created characters that didn't really work as people, but since he was unable to commit to setting the action in a tweaked universe the movie really isn't an allegory. It doesn't work as drama intrinsically or as allegory. In the end, the film is kneecapped by its anything-but-protean cast of characters, as well as the rest of the things that have been discussed.

Still, few people praise the movie for any of this stuff: it's always about how the movie is so prophetic, man! It totally got all that stuff about the media down, man! Ultimately, though, it is hard to see how a media that focuses more on profits (and uses sensationalism to generate them) than on correctly reporting the news counts as a profound notion in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The scandal was very lucrative for the Washington Post, and corporations tend to like to make money. Woodward and Bernstein managed to make the news into a profitable industry. In any event, the idea of large news corporations dominating the news market is not a new one--William Randolph Hearst had his empire, after all. What the film posits that hadn't really been posited before isn't that big corporations would take control of the media--indeed, the TV station within the movie is owned by a large conglomerate. The film basically asserts that news will become more sensationalistic since the corporations that own the news media will see a new cash cow in their midst. Considering the nature of the corporation and the lessons learned from Watergate, this is not much different from predicting that adding two apples to an existing two apples will produce four apples. That the film turned out to be generally correct is incidental--a small child might select the correct answer on a multiple-choice test of quantum mechanics without understanding a word. It's called a lucky guess, and considering the lack of knowledge of the real world that characterizes the rest of the film I'm not inclined to give the production team the benefit of the doubt.

All in all, Network is a movie that we need to stop exalting. We need to stop recommending it, we need to stop buying it, and we need to stop talking about it. It is a didactic turd that exists for no other reason than to be alluded to every time a writer wants to evoke explosive anger about the state of the nation with respect to the media. We all know the problems we face with today's media, and this movie does not do a damn thing to illuminate them. I didn't like the movie, and I didn't like it when they remade it to be about race relations and called it Crash.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nature's newest, most astounding discovery: a great romantic comedy!

Years ago, in the golden age of Hollywood, romantic comedies were frequently the apex of cleverness, sophistication, and humor. Just rent The Philadelphia Story, or any of the Hepburn/Tracy films to see what I mean. In recent years, though, romantic comedy has become the bane of the film industry: it is a genre based entirely on stoking the unrealistic expectations of women viz. relationships and marriage, and such films are almost entirely devoid of wit or warmth. "Originality" in these films seemingly only results from slight rearrangements of the established cliches: make the woman the repressed, mechanical one instead of the man who has to be taught some important life lessons about loosening up and just having fun, for example. And every once in a while, one sees some hope for the genre (Eternal Sunshine, or perhaps Knocked Up) right before the inertia of this genre reverts back into the same pre-fab plot and storytelling conventions we've seen a million times. Boy meets girl, loses girl, blah blah blah. We get it. It's not so much that the popularity of such films bespeaks poorly of women in general, but rather to the utter banality of the desires of some nontrivial segment of the female contingent in this country. And why is Matthew McConaghey, like, a sex god for so much of the female population of this country? Sure, I guess he's good looking, but he looks like he'd take about thirty minutes to figure five percent of the check for a tip before heading back to the trailer park to catch the newest episode of Gladiators. Well, whatever floats one's boat. Men also tend to find plenty of stupid women appealing, it's true. But men do not, in general, construct elaborate fantasies about meeting "Miss Right" before settling for someone who is perfectly acceptable and despising said man for his imperfections. Men fall in love. It's all on a case by case basis--there's no list of written attributes that a spouse has to have for them to be happy. This might be why every survey I've ever seen shows that men are happier in their marriages than women are. My opinion is that women are taught, from day one, to have unrealistic expectations of what is possible, whether through the media or society--and that settling is the worst possible fate that could befall a woman. I disagree completely, but that's me. I think that all the fairytale wedding stuff (that includes many rom-coms in general) tends to breed a mindset that keeps lots of good relationships from happening and that also ends lots of good ones: women, to a far greater degree than men, are judged by how good a match they make. I feel enormous sympathy for women in this country, although I think that feminism in general needs to get on this shit if they want to regain their former relevance.

So this is where I'm coming from: I'm not opposed to the idea of the romantic comedy, but the execution in recent years has been abysmal. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to recently see a romantic comedy that I felt was excellent: it's called I Could Never Be Your Woman, and it was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, whose previous credits include Clueless and Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The movie is a near-masterpiece: it provides a realistic portrait of a relationship between two people that never induces queasiness, it provides some significant insight into the mind of the middle-aged woman in America, and it features a talented cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd, Jon Lovitz, and Fred Willard, for starters). It's also one of those "inside Hollywood" movies that actually has a few things to say about showbusiness and that takes a fresh approach to the topic. Plus, it's pretty funny. So, naturally, this would not be a movie that Hollywood would be interested in releasing. In fact, it is the kind of movie that Hollywood would be interested in releasing direct to DVD with no fanfare. Such behavior is more than just disheartening--it cannot help but make a person believe that Hollywood is actively opposed to releasing any film with even a modicum of intelligence for fear of alienating the all-important dumbass demographic. So it goes.

The movie, though, is great. Pfeiffer plays a fortysomething television producer who falls for one of her much-younger show-inside-the-movie stars. Heckerling's Hollywood for middle-aged women seems to consist of lots of bored contempt--at the end of the movie, Pfeiffer's own secretary asks why she doesn't just go away and make opportunities for people like her. It's a movie where Pfeiffer is all too aware of the double standards and closed doors that a woman of her age has to deal with: her not-much-of-a-catch ex-husband (a hilarious Jon Lovitz) nevertheless has an unseen hot young wife, while Pfeiffer finds dating Rudd almost inconceivable, even while it's going on, and she tries to sabotage the relationship early because the idea of her dating a younger man simply doesn't seem right. It's reminiscent of Scorsese's little-seen classic The Age of Innocence, which also starred Pfeiffer, and also explores just how deep societal mores really penetrate, even if they're not mores we like.

All this is true despite Pfeiffer's character being enormously appealing. She's grounded and good at what she does. The film doesn't go too far into the area explored by The T.V. Set or that episode of The Larry Sanders Show where Phil's show about a band in Seattle turns into a show about a Baltimore DJ who solves a murder every week (starring Dave Chappelle)--which is to say that it doesn't feel the need to make a statement about how Ideas Are Dumbed Down, and that's to its credit (though the episode of Larry Sanders was pretty hilarious). We've heard that story before, and the story behind the film speaks far more to that idea anyway. However, this is a movie about showbusiness that shows us what the business is like for a woman like Pfeiffer (and, by extension, Heckerling) and it's not exactly Entourage. Talking heads often discuss how hard it is for women to succeed and advance once the bloom comes off the rose, but it's one thing to hear that and another thing to see the dismissive looks of younger women when Pfeiffer enters a nightclub. Sure, it a little Ally McBeal-ish at times, but the film is undeniably effective at getting inside it's protagonist's head. Pfeiffer isn't exactly a crusader for the "there's nothing wrong with old" camp--her character in the film is flawed, to be sure, and she still tries to chase the youth angle--but her struggles are immensely endearing, and that she ends up with Rudd (as per rom-com canon) is not really that bothersome since it's earned at every step. Plus, the movie is pretty darn funny--witness Paul Rudd's spit-take after he is told that his acting is too broad, or his parting line of, "I don't need to be a real man. I'm an actor!" to Fred Willard's television executive.

"Romantic comedy" has almost come to be a pejorative in today's society, and not for nothing. If more of these movies were like I Could Never Be Your Woman, though, maybe the idea of a "chick flick" wouldn't be something that elicits an eye roll. I greatly enjoyed the film and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ten Reasons Why I Love Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer is more than just an intensely watchable actor. He is one of the greatest actors of his generation. No, more than that--he is a god. Well, his awesomeness status has dipped a bit since agreeing to appear on the remake of the original Hasselhoff vehicle (get it! GET IT!!!!) Knight Rider. So, it is worth remembering just what the guy did that was so memorable that the guy did in the first place. Here's ten of my favorite Kilmer performances.

  1. Spartan

    It's a shame that this David Mamet movie was so little seen that many people seem to think that Spartan was a direct-to-video affair. It's far more than that for a few reasons, the first among them being the intense lead performance by Val Kilmer as a U.S. government agent known simply as "Scott". The movie involves a kidnapping--of the President's daughter, played by Kristen Bell(!)--and since it's a Mamet movie there's just got to be a con in there somewhere. What's most interesting about the movie is that the character development is kept to a minimum. Instead, we just learn more about the characters as the movie goes on, and our impressions of the characters are continually challenged by Mamet's script. I've only seen that done effectively in the first season of The Wire, but Mamet gives us a series of people who aren't what they appear, and slowly lets us discover who they are along with him. Sure, the movie's third act is a little weak (though not as weak as some would have us believe), but this is one of Mamet's better films: it's accessible and even moving, and with Kilmer's character we see a character that's not like the many other federal agents portrayed on screen. His motives for much of the film are opaque, and his struggles are internal, but he comes up exceeding expectations, and this is just a fun performance to watch Kilmer beat up, stab, and shoot lots of bad guys. He certainly seems to be having fun, and so are we.

  2. The Salton Sea

    Another intense Kilmer film. This one places Kilmer squarely in the world of speed freaks. He plays a man who seeks revenge on a pair of dirty cops that killed his wife by insinuating himself into their beat as a speed freak. Not only does the movie feature the always-enjoyable Adam Goldberg and Peter Sarsgaard as fellow tweakers, but it allows Kilmer to play a character who has lost himself in his quest for revenge that, even if successful, will not bring back the old days. It's nihilistic, but then so is the movie itself. Still, it's pretty creative in its approach to the standard old revenge plot, and Kilmer really nails the drugged-up thing, too. Once again, one senses an attempt to actually create some new characters and a new kind of look and feel. The ending could have been stronger, but the film stays with you in a way movies usually do not, like Sin City, for example: it's almost as though they impact different centers of the brain that movies usually do not hit.

  3. Top Secret

    Kilmer stars as a young rock god (who is so popular that he headlines concerts at Radio City that will, time permitting, feature Frank Sinatra) who agrees to perform a concert in Nazi East Germany (yes, a contradiction, but it's part of the joke), quickly finds himself in the middle of a plot to overthrow the government. It's a comedy film (my favorite part is when he fires a machine gun into a group of resistance and Nazi fighters alike and only the Nazis fall down), but Kilmer shows that he can be funny and that he can pull off the role of a vapid but savant-like rocker like nobody's business. Supposedly he sang all the lightly-modified Elvis and Beach Boys numbers in the film, but we all knew that he could sing, right?

  4. The Island of Doctor Moreau

    This is where things get tricky. "Island" was a pretty bad film: the acting, by Brando in particular, was silly and out of control. The "humanimals" are more silly than frightening, especially Brando's mini-me (which was the inspiration for Dr. Evil's mini-me in Austin Powers), and the message about, like, not messing with nature and shit (as Kilmer's character might put it) is hopelessly muddled. Still, Kilmer almost saves the movie with a performance that is so odd it has to be seen to be believed. Kilmer acts as though stoned in almost every scene, until Brando's character departs the film, when he effectively takes the place of Brando and the movie really kicks into overdrive. He dons Brando's pancake makeup, delivers an uncanny Brando impersonation, and generally acts even more batshit crazy than Brando did until he (spoiler alert) too gets killed by the humanimals, but only after saying "I wanna go to dog heaven," which is not a bad final line, only it's not his final line. Still, he steals the movie, and the stories of Kilmer making veteran director John Frankenheimer cry are simply too amusing.

  5. The Doors

    Okay, so let's get a few things straight. I loathe Oliver Stone. His best film, Platoon, was competent and personal but not really original--there's half a dozen war films that do similar things to Platoon just as well as Stone's film does. And once you move into the 1990s, you get stuff like Nixon--prestige-y and unwatchable--and stuff like Natural Born Killers that are just hamfisted, didactic crap. Supposedly, Stone was originally on tap to direct American Psycho, which would have been another terrible, hamfisted statement about the greed of the 1980s rather than the modern classic we all know that it is. Let's just put it this way: Ollie Stone just doesn't do "subtle." Or, more recently, he doesn't seem to do "good" either, as one of the literally dozens of people who saw Alexander can no doubt attest (I never saw it, though I shall some day). However, The Doors remains interesting in many ways. Stone tackles 60's counterculture in his own special way (i.e. showing it to almost comic levels of excess) and it surely integrates slickly with his politics, but it works as a showcase for Val Kilmer's legendary channeling of frontman Jim Morrison. Morrison's a singularly interesting character, and Kilmer's performance goes beyond the mimetic performances that have been all the rage in recent years by actually trying to get at why Morrison was the way he was. Was he a shaman in modern times? Stone and Kilmer, to their credit, aren't content to just make a movie of Kilmer covering Doors songs, and even if the film doesn't really get into Morrison's head, it does contribute something to the conversation.

  6. Tombstone

    It's a genre exercise from a decade ago, but Tombstone reaches a bit higher than just that, thanks to Val Kilmer's scene-stealing performance. It's a career milestone for Kilmer--the performance is pitch-perfect throughout--there's no false moment to be found--and his Doc Holliday knows exactly when to lay on the charm and when to reach for the gun. He received no Oscar nomination for his role, which really is the definitive treatment of the character on film, and perhaps the finest performance Kilmer has delivered to date. Oh well.

  7. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

    It's a postmodern experiment on film, but it's less a mindfuck as a movie that delights in pulling everthing together into a cohesive plot that features a bunch of exciting twists and turns, with a little bit of fourth-wall breaking along the way. Kiss Kiss also happens to feature three of the most appealing actors out there: Kilmer, who is funny, manic, and short-tempered as a gay private detective; Robert Downey, Jr., who is funny and neurotic as a thief-turned-actor who helps Kilmer crack a murder mystery; and Michelle Monaghan, who plays Downey Jr.'s lost love and is also funny. The chemistry is really exceptional, and the action is more played for laughs than in earnest, which is fine since the comedy generally hits its targets. At times it feels a little too much like showbiz inside baseball, but it's still a pretty effective genre exercise. I'm just not that sure what the genre is, or if that's a question that matters. At the very least it's an entertainingly original movie.

  8. Heat

    Kilmer's supporting role in Heat is often overlooked next to career turns for both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, but his role is critical. Both Pacino and De Niro play professionals on opposite sides of the law who have similar temperaments and personalities. They're not both "different sides of the same coin," or any other cliche like that, but they're driven by similar things and they're hell-bent on getting what they want, and they are destroyed by their respective natures to varying degrees. Kilmer, however, is the counterpoint to this battle of wills. He plays De Niro's sidekick, and unlike De Niro, he is able to change when the situation requires it, and his mutability saves him at the end of the movie.

  9. Top Gun

    Yeah, I never much liked Top Gun. Still, Kilmer's hammy but still amusing performance as Tom "The Iceman" Kanzansky is worth the price of admission (i.e. it's worth watching on TNT if you're bored). It's kind of a braindead, testosterone-charged movie, so I really don't have much to say, except that Kilmer steals every scene he's in away from Tom Cruise, and that he and Cruise evidently developed an intense rivalry and hate each other to this day. Considering how nutty Tom Cruise has become, one can only suspect that Kilmer was just ahead of the curve.

  10. Batman Forever

    It is with some trepidation that I put this movie on the list, because it is a pretty terrible movie altogether. Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey redefine "over the top" by giving two of the most grating, one-note, over-exuberant performances ever committed to film, and Nicole Kidman and Chris O'Donnell fare little better. It's not Batman and Robin-level bad, but Joel Schumaker's first foray into the Batman franchise certainly laid the seeds for that cluster-you know what that its predecessor was. However, Kilmer's performance is pretty good, and it stands out for its refresing lack of theatrics. Some have commented that Kilmer's performance in the movie is too restrained and wooden (how could it not compared to Tommy Lee Jones's hysterical Two-Face?), but it fits in well with the idea that Wayne/Batman is having an identity crisis and doesn't know which world he belongs in, and that he might be faking it in both worlds. Kilmer's performance is, at least, recognizable as a human being--Jones and Carrey act as though they were taught to act by a wizard from the sixth dimension. Val Kilmer had previously found himself as a headlining lead actor, as an elevator of otherwise iffy material (as in Tombstone) and with Batman Forever he showed that he can redeem terrible movies so as to almost make them watchable. He's a man for all seasons--way more so than that pervert St. Sir Thomas More.