Film School

johnwstiles.com


HISTORY

The Fall of Rome
The Civil War
The Great Depression


POLITICAL SCIENCE

Australia and Aborignes
Fascism and more
High Crimes
Us and Japan
Vietnam Redux
Non Involvement
Journalism
Journalism and Truth
Idyllic Fifties
Idyllic Fifties 2
Demonization
Secret Societies and the Lunatic Fringe
Global Warming
Rascism
Anti-Semitism
Exclusion
Immigrant Fears


SOCIAL SCIENCE

Shared Humanity
Jiminy Cricket Goes Quantum
Class Wars
We Must Be Idiots
New Englanders
Generation Whatever
Generation Me
Distraction
Murder
Meaning In Art
Off Broadway
Truth vs. Fiction
Hero Worship
Heroes With Holes
Tom Clancy and Machisma
Addiction and Digression
Loss of Hope
Psychiatric Care and the Homeless
Madness
Aging
Death and Dying
World's End
Fast Food
Acting
Hunkness
Cheap Trick
Vampires
Vampirella
Digital vs. Text
Digital vs. Black and White
Reading


ETHICS

Astrophysics
The Future
Murder as Revenge
The Face of Evil
Moral Vacum
Moral Relativism
Doing the Right Thing
The Tablets are Just Stone
Alternative Spirituality
Superficiality
Nickleodeon
Betrayal
Poverty
Women rock
Real Life
Choices
Duality
Knowing Right from Wrong
Does Evil Exist
Scarlett Lives
Existentialism
Fundamentalism


THE PERSONAL (like death and taxes)

Deafness
Am I Crazy
Sex
Death
Cell Phones and Car Repair
Studio Selections
The Movie Experience
Sci-Fi and Drunks
Friday Night Football
Steve and the Need for New Friends
Choice
Sacrifice


MUSIC

Bjork and DOGME
Hip-Hop?
Punk Rock
Heavy Metal




HISTORY

The Fall of Rome - Gladiator

Thomas Cahill's How The Irish Saved Civilization begins with a description of the barbarian hordes of the north walking across the frozen Rhine river to come face to face with the imperial legions of Rome. This was the beginning of the end for the Roman empire. The glorious Roman Republic had come and gone. Rule by the Senate had long since been replaced by imperial rule. Marcus Aurelius, emperor in the late second century, is busy fighting the barbarians with his great general Maximus. At Marcus Aurelius' death, his son, Commodus, made peace with the Germanic tribes of the northern frontier and hurried back to Rome to celebrate himself. The next one hundred years would see forty-six Roman emperors. The previous three centuries saw rulers with names like Pompey, Julius and Augustus Caesar, and Hadrian. The average length of time an emperor held office was more than ten years. For the next two hundred years, with rare exception, no ruler remained at the head of the Roman Empire more than three years. Within another two centuries the Dark Ages would begin its descent on the Western world. The fabric that held the west together would evolve from Roman Tunics to Catholic vestments. Gladiator is set in the time when it all began to fall apart.
Ridley Scott's trademark dark, gloomy, and grimy sets are perfectly adapted to this period. Everything is shrouded in mist or covered in dust or bathed in sweat and blood. "At my signal, unleash Hell" is the command Maximus gives his commanders before decimating the barbarians from the north. After the battle is won, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) congratulates his general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), and snubs his son, Commodus. Before morning, though, Commodus, played by the creepy Joaquin Phoenix, upon learning of his father's intent to name Maximus his successor, murders him. Maximus refuses to pledge loyalty to the new Emperor and seals his fate. Eventually, Maximus and Commodus meet again in the Coliseum with not so predictable results.
We see the weakness and failure of Rome with crystalline clarity in Commodus. Commodus is representative of a lower, more venal class of ruler. One without great passion or vision. In these lesser men's hands, Rome's fate is sealed. Full of spite and vainglory, he condemns Maximus and abandons the northern empire to the barbarians. Is the history of great civilizations a history of the tragic flaws of an individual? Can so much turn on the behavior of a single individual? Without the crushing reparations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, would Hitler have ascended to the Chancellor's seat? History is replete with events with a single individual at the center. Mohammed, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon, Charlemagne, were these men the product of their times or did they bend their times to their will? And what about the Commodus' of history? Are these weaker, flawed leaders just as responsible for events that did not occur as men like Charlemagne were for events that did? Is there always a Chamberlain to facilitate a Hitler, a Commodus that precedes the Fall of Rome?
These are questions unanswered and unaddressed in Scott's film. Gladiator is a nonetheless compelling look at the times that preceded the Dark Ages. And what about the Dark Ages? What director would be better suited for a look at the Dark Ages than Ridley Scott?... Tim Burton


The Civil War - Cold Mountain

I called my mom a few years back and asked what she was up to. Watching PBS, she said, a show about Abraham Lincoln and The Cause. The Cause, I asked? The Cause, she answered. Mom, are you talking about the Civil War? Uh-huh, she hummed. My God, I thought, The Cause? Mom wasn't some southern belle. She grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. Racial and ethnic slurs were forbidden. She was born when the roaring twenties were just beginning to roar so how she ended up with The Cause in her vocabulary is a mystery.
In high school the dean of the history teachers, a Mrs. Mixey, would lecture the assembled junior class every year on the truth of the Ante-Bellum south. A place of loving affection and generosity toward the gentle Negro. Slaves were rarely mistreated, she would expound, for who would mistreat their own property? The whole concept of slavery was omitted from her lectures as her point was that the Negro's didn't have it as bad as we might have heard. I failed her class, mainly because I didn't do the work but partially, I like to think, because I called her a racist in front of my classmates, most of whom thought I was rude beyond measure. Cold Mountain is the story of a southern soldier who walks away from The Cause to make his way home and his sweetheart. A sweetheart he kissed once, on his way out the door to battle. Jude Law is the soldier and Nicole Kidman his sweetheart. She is later helped along by a country girl played brilliantly and memorably by the surprising Renee Zellweger. Ms. Zellweger develops a walk for her character that immediately transforms her natural beauty and elegance into the earthy and physical Ruby Thewes. Jude Law is overwhelming as the shy but driven Inman. Nicole Kidman as the Charleston belle Ada Monroe holds her own against these two powerful screen personas. Giovanni Ribisi appears briefly as a scoundrel, Donald Sutherland exits early as the Reverend Monroe, Phillip Seymour Hoffman comes and goes as a challenged man of the cloth, Natalie Portman shows up for an evening, and Ray Winstone plays the sinister Home Front Marshall Teague. I would be hard pressed to find a stronger or deeper supporting cast in any film in recent memory.
Charles Frazier's book, upon which the movie is based, is one of the most captivating and moving novels of the past decade. The long distance walk, the vivid characters, the driven love all flow from Frazier's pen and into our consciousness, forming indelible images of loneliness, loyalty, treachery, sacrifice and longing. It is the longing that so imbues Frazier's main characters with their humanity and the longing that offers the greatest obstacle to filmmaker Anthony Minghella. Minghella's The English Patient offered a similar challenge, one to which he was also up. Ada's letters are heard in voice-over and go a long way to bridging the gap between novel and screen. It is her letter's that set the context for Inman's relentless trek home. It is an Odysseian scale journey punctuated by bizarre and tragic characters and haunted by the specter of the Home Guard The Home Guard was a rag tag bunch of miscreants charged with maintaining order and hunting down deserters in the dying South. In one powerful scene, as the two women come upon a gruesome reminder of the presence and proximity of evil, Ruby announces that God will not long let this world stand. It is a plea and a prayer. The losers in this war were losers twice over, at the hands of the soldiers of the north and their own at home. This was an evil they happily and arrogantly brought on themselves. All to preserve a way of life built on the enslavement of others. The Cause indeed.


The Great Depression - Cinderella Man

How sad that it takes a film to make the horror of The Great Depression real. Ron Howard, one of our best storytellers, does exactly that in Cinderella Man. Fifteen million unemployed sounds like a lot until you see Hooverville, the shack city erected in Central Park. Stock market collapse sounds bad until you see Renee Zellweger, as James J. Braddock's wife, run outside their basement hovel to cry over their youngest boys fever and cough. She can do nothing for him, they have no heat and no access to medical care. Back then, less than three generations ago, there was no health care for the poor, nothing between the power company and the impoverished family, nothing to protect families from being thrown into the street. The homeless were everywhere, the social fabric was coming apart from the strain of too great a number of disenfranchised.
Sounds familiar doesn't it? There isn't a controlled intersection in this city without a beggar with a sign. More than a third of the population use the Emergency room as their doctor's office. And it's only going to get worse. As oil prices continue to rise and the economy reacts with inflation or stagflation or recession or depression those on the edge will be pushed over into poverty and homelessness. And we have no system to deal with it. As long as Rupert Murdoch and the hacks at Fox continue to frame the discussion, we can expect the response from the government to be minimal to nonexistent. The gap between the rich and the rest of us grows daily, the chasm between the rich and the poor widens with each passing hour. The minimum wage allows a family of three to remain above the poverty level but God forbid they have a second child, it means poverty. While the average Congressman's salary has gone up from $135,000 to $162,000 (that is almost $78.00 per hour, a true gross times the minimum wage) since the last time the minimum wage was hiked, the chance of raising the minimum wage to poverty level is as likely as a family of four moving from homelessness to a cheap apartment. The minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour, that's about $900 a month. If you spend a third of that on shelter you are left with $600 a month to feed a family of four. That works out to about $1.67 per meal per person. And that leaves no money for clothing, school supplies, medicine or birthday cakes. Compare that $1.67 with the $73 dollars a person per meal the average Congressman can spend. But then Congressmen eat for free when they're working so it's not really a fair comparison. I use the Congress because that is the body that refuses to increase the minimum wage to the poverty level, an increase to nearly $8.50 an hour. And these are "good times!" Imagine what a depression would do to the living conditions of those living at the edge. It would make a lot of us look like the Braddock family, shivering in the dark. But I digress.
Ron Howard is a great storyteller. Whether the story is about astronauts (Apollo 13) or firemen (Backdraft) or genius (A Beautiful Mind) or boxers, his empathy for others is transferred to the screen and magically to us. Where Scorsese (another first-rate storyteller) distances us from his subjects - who could empathize with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) or Sam Rothstein (DeNiro in Casino) or Vallon or Cutting (Dicaprio and Day-Lewis from Gangs of New York) - Howard brings his characters to us and we welcome them. Scorsese is no less watchable than Howard but he is less moving. As awful a person as Russell Crowe appears to be, he is a profoundly gifted actor. Although Renee Zellweger, apart from the scene referenced above, does not appear terribly challenged by this role she is still great fun to watch. Paul Giamatti seems a little out of place but that may be due to the power of his role in Sideways. Jethro's dad (Max Baer) can't have been that bad, but it makes for good cinema. Maybe that's a flaw with Ron Howard's films, they make too good cinema. Or maybe I'm just a sap. Who knows, or cares? I enjoyed Cinderella Man and you should too.



Political Science
Australia and the Aborigines - Rabbit-Proof Fence

Transplanted Englishmen, intent on continuing the gentlemanly sport of hunting and killing small mammals, attempted unsuccessfully to import rabbits. When they did finally succeed, with twenty-four released into the wild in 1859, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Ten years later farmers were inviting hunters to their property to kill the little bunnies. Over two million were slaughtered in 1869 and the rabbit population was largely unaffected. One hundred years later, with population estimates exceeding half a billion rabbits, the Australian government introduced a deadly (99% mortality) virus to control, once and for all, the pesky rabbit. The 1% that survived, of course, passed their immunity on to future generations and within a few decades the rabbits were back in even greater numbers.
Before bugs, the Australian's efforts were markedly more low-tech. They built a fence from the top to the bottom of the continent, about 1,500 miles. Along the way, the work crews encountered Aborigine settlements. Once such encounter produced three "half-caste" daughters. With all the best intentions, the Australian government attempted to breed the Aborigine out of the "half-castes" by encouraging their intermarriage with the white population. The mechanism for this breeding program was to remove the potential breeders, or as we now refer to them, little girls, from their mothers and place them in encampments where they could learn a useful trade like housekeeping. A couple of generations later and - voila - no sign of the Aborigine! This is the background story told in Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The story in the foreground is of one little girl in particular, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) who tries leads her two sisters home, on foot, the length of the rabbit proof fence. Directed by Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, a couple of the Jack Ryan movies and The Bone Collector to his credit), Rabbit-Proof Fence handles the easy target of Australian Aborigine policy in a mature and sophisticated way. As is almost always the case, there are no red flaming devils in these horrific stories of cultural homicide, the players are doing the best they can to do the best they see. That their vision is skewed may not be widely known and the naysayers are thought to have too little appreciation for the magnitude of the problem or the underlying principles involved, or the historical record or any of a number of other ready made rhetorical tools for pushing them to the sidelines. To come back generations later and, armed with today's knowledge, wisdom, and data, slam those players does disservice to their humanity. Kudos to Doris Pilkington (the author of the book upon which Rabbit-Proof Fence is based) and Phillip Noyce for taking the high road. The result is a story overflowing with humanity - everyone's - and a genuinely uplifting experience in the cinema.


Fascism and more - Funny Games

On Mar 25, 2008, at 1:17 AM, He emails: Fritz Lang made "Testament of Dr Mabuse" criticizing the Hitler regime. The characters of the film are implicated in the terror of Hitler Germany as Lang places the slogans of the regime in their mouths. "Funny Games" implicates the audience. It really is quite good. A good deal of the actual torture takes place off camera; we only hear the screams of the tortured and view the pained faces of those who love them, or the faces of the perpetrators. It is the same with the torture performed by this government. We are guilty. All of us. Yet we never have to actually see it. We see the evidence of snapshots; we are removed from the act. Are there monsters in the world? Few but their functionaries are numerous.
On Tue, Mar 25, 2008 at 3:06 AM, I reply: I saw Funny Games today. The second time he turned to the camera I almost walked out. It was as if he were challenging me to do so. I didn't, of course, because I am complicit. In all of it. Lang was ahead of his time, Hitler wasn't even Chancellor when he made his film, just another radical party chief. Like Hagee...
He responds: The fascist ideas of his party already had currency in the population. The evidence I have found of this is from various artists writing in the mid to late twenties. A curious thing happens at the end of World War I, a question that does not escape the German artistic community, What was that all for? In the mid 20s while the city comes to live at night, artists depict visually the destruction of the city, the urban milieu because it is inherently flawed. This answer is to the question: What's the point? What are we doing here? Will we just periodically engage in massive slaughter? Everything was so new. Rapid expansion, sensory overload, even the comprehensive lighting of the city at night would be a bit hard to take - it's a disruption of all that came before. Night into day. This is insane. Some thought it should just be destroyed and we should all return to woods so to speak. That was their radical vision. But of course it is very close to its "opposite": that we must not destroy the city but make it highly organized, central and subservient to itself. That is, there is no meaning in life but to do one's duty. This return to nature, these questions about freedom are all foolish. Duty to the whole is key. If everything could be organized...if everything had its place, then all would be well. It seems as though today we have these same "competing" visions on the fringes of things. from the fringes.
On Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 9:48 AM, I write: I think you are absolutely right. Of course the society was rife with a variety of radical threads. I tend to think the economic one drove them into Fascism. The reparations imposed by the victors of WWI drove Germany into financial collapse. All of Europe, except maybe England, was in a state of hysterical recoil from the destruction of WWI. All the social mores were disintegrating. But Germany was driven into the economic gutter and I think the people reverted to their Maslow driven needs for food and shelter and were thus willing to accept anything that promised them bread and bed. Hitler wasn't magic, he was just the right demagogue at the right time. I think we are very close to that now. A nuke in NY or DC or even St. Louis would, I think push us over the edge. We were willing to devastate a country that had nothing to do with Sept 11, legitimize torture, and elect an idiot because he had Richelieu as his VP, over two buildings and a couple thousand folks. Imagine what we would be willing to do if a million were killed and a city made uninhabitable. If McCain is elected and it happens when he's president, he's likely to simultaneously nuke Syria, Iran, North Korea, and even China. And I don't say this to make en esoteric point. I believe it could actually happen. Where do we go when it starts?
On Mar 26, 2008, at 2:39 PM, he replies: Your last question is very important. It would be the height of humanity to resist in any way possible such a destructive, horrific act. So the question could be "where do we go?" and this will be the right question for most people. And that's ok; one should never make such enormous demands of people. Besides compulsory resistance leads to Bad Regime Part 2. Where to go? I have no idea. Resistance. The rich countries, industrial Europe, they're all on the same page. Sure, they will say no and belly ache but they will be looking for an angle. And they surely will not resist. I mean, all the dead bodies this country has piled up over the years and which of the powerful countries resisted? Not one. Germans may have believed Hitler for the reasons you have written. However, I think that something deeper and more insidious is involved. It was not just economic hardship that created the Third Reich. It was this sense of meaninglessness, this utter lack of any reason for existing. We produce everything, all the time, everywhere. We are slaves to our productive capacity. We have never been able to make any sense of it. Why so many kinds of toothpaste? Or soap? Is this how I am to individuate? Is this how I form a self? Of course it isn't and we know better. We want answers. We want to know why. Hitler provides this answer. Why are you here? To do your duty. You have pain in your life? It is the fault of the Other. I feel this nation slipping into that trap. If the show "24" is any indication, we have already fallen into it. So where do we go from here? How do we provide answers? Religion doesn't work. Consumption doesn't work. What does? I don't know but I'm working on it. It seems to me that one key is to be as unencumbered by possession as possible. For most of the world this is very easy. But there is more to it than refusing material. We have to stop trying to possess one another. And this is difficult. Who wants to be alone? Who wants to live with the fear of another's liberty? It is difficult. It is as if there are no words for it. I am rambling. I age.
On Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 10:08 PM, I answer I listened to some Iraq veterans talking about their criminal behavior and asking forgiveness of the Iraqis and Americans. One of the guys said to the audience, mainly vets but he was talking to you and me, you are just as guilty because we are doing this in your name and you're doing nothing about it. There will be no widespread resistance as long as the people are narcotized by religion and consumption. I do want to take issue with your last paragraph. I don't equate not possessing another with being alone. I don't think I possess my partner and I don't think she possesses me. The key, I think, is to make sure the power dynamic is equalized. Much more difficult than it seems but nonetheless possible. It took me a long time to get it right. And I'm still working on it.
He writes I misstated in my last paragraph the issue of equating not possessing another person with being alone. I think that many people do make this connection. I do not. It is obvious that you do not either. It does take a lot of work. We are constantly encouraged to possess others generally and as men we are encouraged to possess women. It is high time we took this notion seriously: we need to rid the world of domination in all its forms. Simply the act of working toward this goal would bring vast improvements. Would we ever get it right? Probably not. But at this point we, as a whole, do not try very hard. Personally, I put a lot of work into ridding my life of domination in all of its forms. I do not attempt to dominate animals or humans. I try to keep earth-dominating activity to a minimum as I do place my survival first. But these are all individual choices. Like the ones we make at the store; they take the same form as consumer choices. The tired mantra, I'll do what I can. It seems like most of the time that is all each one of us can do. Why do we so frequently fail to combine against this tide of insanity unleashed by the powerful? Historians do not like arguments that stem from some ideas about human nature - these ideas are products of particular places in particular times and have not the universal bearing they presuppose. It is so difficult to hear those soldiers tell us that we are complicit. I can hardly listen to them. It's because they are right.
On Thu, Mar 27, 2008 at 7:45 AM Do you think your mere existence indicates a movement toward the objective? I mean you came to this awareness, why can't others? Is it the Maslow thing? I don't want to seem like a devotee but mass upheavals, the Russian and French Revolution, the Vietnam era protest marches I'm afraid found their origin in bread in the first two and survival in the latter. I guess the larger question is will we ever, as a species, move on the basis of enlightened awareness or always the baser drives. The whole male/female possession thing I fear is about procreation. Do we treat others better now than 500 years ago? A hundred? A thousand? I think maybe so. The Magna Carta might have been the big leap forward. Despite its thrust toward the liberty of the privileged, it was nonetheless the first attempt to move away from despotism as the primary organizing principle of the social order. I wish we had a better understanding of pre-agriculture/pre-literate humanity. I have always thought that the surplus that came from agriculture originated our top-down social order and abrogated any possibility of communal living.
He concludes: Gerhard Lerner proposes in The Creation of the Patriarchy that male domination stems directly from male domination of animals. Herding animals provided men with a source of wealth that was not directly dependent upon women. Before herding women were the source of wealth in the form of children. If we examine the deities of nearly every culture on the planet there is a move from female deities to male ones. An example: the early Greeks had female goddesses as the head of the pantheon. Women were the source of life as they gave birth to children. Later we see male deities taking this role (Athena born from a male, Zeus). Female deities become evil as in the case of Medusa. Eventually, men dominate all intercession with the divine. They are priests, prophets, etc. Further, men wished to pass their wealth to their progeny. In order to ensure that the children to whom they pass the herd are actually their own there was a prohibition placed on women: they could only have sex with one man. Then follows what Levi-Strauss calls the "exchange of women."


High Crimes - Frost/Nixon

One of the great storytellers of his generation, Ron Howard can have you perched on the edge of your seat in anticipation or sinking in a cringe of dread even when he is retelling a story you thought you knew. His film of the Apollo 13 odyssey set the bar for dramatic recreation and so it was with near breathless anticipation that I bought a ticket for Frost/Nixon. Most of my fellow theatergoers were breathless as well, if the collection of oxygen tanks in the aisle was any indication. I felt real sympathy for the sweet couple in the row in front of me as they sat through the overloud, overlong, and overwrought infomercial that supplants what was formerly silence or soft classical music preceding the previews of coming attractions. These days, arriving early means sitting through three or four extended bits extolling the virtues of the soon to premier remake of Knight Ryder or next season's Closer or, in this case, multiple close-ups of an aging Patrick Swayze as he raved about the unprecedented nature of his new television series, The Beast. I, as is my wont, had the headphones at near maximum volume yet still had to skip the softer songs lest the inane patter from the screen seep in. Surely this sweet couple in front of me weren't enjoying either the pathetic attempt to generate "buzz" over a tired Dirty Dancer or the hip thirty second spots for the new Lexus (whoosh, screech, stop sideways) roadster. I once thought the pardon of Nixon was correct, put it behind us, healing and all that. Now I think his pardon was the step onto the slippery slope that brought us here. With the tacit acquiescence of the other two branches of government and quiet acceptance of the people, our Executive branch has attacked and destroyed a country that did not attack us, illegally wiretapped tens of thousands, trampled the most basic contract between a government and its people by imprisoning without charge or hearing, and most incredible of all, claimed the right to torture. No one is seriously discussing impeachment, much less a criminal trial, and yet the laws of our country, the Geneva Convention, and our Constitution have all been deliberately and repeatedly violated by men who have every expectation of retiring to comfort and luxury. So yes, I for one am fully prepared to watch Ron Howard plunge the depths of the corrupt and dangerous times presided over by Nixon and his diabolical collection of amoral attorneys. I didn't see that movie. Instead I saw a movie about a desperate British talk show host in over his head and a tired and sick old man trying to recapture a faded glory. I might of thought I missed the subtlety of Howard's condemnation of Nixon if it weren't for the character of James Reston played by Sam Rockwell. Here was the outrage that should have permeated this story and he was made to look hysterical and narrow. The rest of us were apparently supposed to feel satisfied that, for a brief moment near the end of the Frost/Nixon interviews, Nixon appeared deflated and resigned to his ignominy. I fear we will have to be satisfied with the hope that Bush will one day feel bad about what he's done. Don't hold your breath.


Us and Japan - Shutter

If you can tell me what makes this film different or better than any of the half dozen other films with slinky pale Japanese girls stop actioning their way from the land of the dead to the land of the living you're a better man than I. Yet two more Americans travel to Japan to encounter the restless spirit of yet another innocent Japanese girl unable to cross over to the land of her ancestors because someone did her wrong. Maybe we have a theme here.

Americans poison the well of Japanese innocence and pay the ultimate price. The ultimate price is to have some dead girl's ghost crawl up them in bed and scare us half to death. But the Americans as poisoners, now there is a theme worth exploring. Could it be that our decision to wrench Japan from its thousand year history and remake it as a competitive capitalist economic power doesn't sit well with some Japanese? Have they lined themselves up on the Axis of Evil? Do they hate not just freedom but profit as well? What did we ever do to the Japanese? After all, didn't they launch an unprovoked attack on us?

Ever since we began making the world "safe for democracy" back in the early part of the Twentieth Century, American foreign policy has held firm to the tenet that to be like us, or to at least do what we tell you, is the only safe bet. Open your markets to us or the World Bank won't answer when you call. America's superpower status has been used to bludgeon the rest of the world into American clones or puppets. We could have elected to feed the hungry or house the homeless. But there isn't that much money in those propositions.


Vietnam Redux - We Were Soldiers

If only the Generals and Politicians would leave war to the soldiers...
Mel Gibson leads 395 fresh faced American GIs into battle against 4,000 battle-hardened North Vietnamese and runs them back into the hills from whence they came. The story is based on the book written by Gibson's character, Lt. Col. Harold Moore. One can't help but wonder who wrote the line delivered by Sgt. Major Plumley (Sam Elliott) as he drags the fearless Colonel from the line of fire, "If you go down, we all go down." Twice Colonel Moore has to tell that dunderhead William Westmoreland he can't leave his men for a Saigon debriefing. I mean what moron would expect this man among men to abandon his boys at their time of need? I think we see the real Colonel Moore quietly sobbing with guilt and sadness over the death of so many of the men in his charge. Or maybe the real Colonel Moore was the one praying with one of his platoon leaders for God to ignore the heathen prayers of the enemy (tee-hee). Or maybe it was the loving father kissing his little girls goodbye as they slept (sniff). But I digress.
Suffice to say War is Hell. That is if Hell is that place where brave men distinguish themselves in battle with honor while dispatching the enemy with precision artillery fire. A devilish enemy surfacing from tunnels and sneaking inside your lines. An enemy led by a commander safe in his underground bunker away from the whizzing bullets. An enemy who abandons the battle when counter attacked. But I digress.
Had I stood and hollered "objection" every time I had a problem with this film, I would have been found in contempt of cinema by the time the first helicopter touched down. The story is based on a first person account of the first major engagement in the Vietnam War. An account penned by the same man portrayed as the courageous leader of the new Seventh Cavalry. One who is still angry with his fellow countrymen. In his words, "...(they) came to hate the war we fought. Those who hated it the most, the professionally sensitive, were not, in the end, sensitive enough to differentiate between the war and the soldiers who had been ordered to fight it. They hated us as well... In time our battles were forgotten, our sacrifices discounted and both our sanity and our suitability for life in polite progressive American society were publicly questioned." Colonel Moore certainly sets the record straight. We Were Soldiers is "...our tribute to 234 young Americans who died ...in the Valley of Death, (in) 1965. That is more Americans than were killed in any regiment, north or south, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War." And that means what, Hal? Gettysburg was a tea party? The tens of thousands of Iraqis buried in the sand by American bulldozers don't count? But I digress.
Randall Wallace (writer/producer/director), Madeleine Stowe as the Colonel's dutiful wife, and Mel help Hal tell the real story of Vietnam. A story of love, courage and sacrifice.
Hell, let's do it again boys, how about we go back to Iraq and do it right this time? But I digress.


Non Involvement - Tears of the Sun

The driver was going on and on about the dispatcher, "no one can understand him he talks too fast, he runs all the drivers away." He punctuates each sentence and some clauses with a laugh. Not the sort of obligatory laugh people will sometimes use instead of "knowwhatimean" or the less obvious lilting end of the sentence to compel your involvement and response, but a real laugh. This was one happy guy. When he got to the accent part I asked him about his. "African," he said, "Nigeria." "Ibo?" I asked? Another laugh and the question, "You know my people?" One of the disadvantages of the American melting pot is the circumscription of the phrase, "my people." My people means only blood kin here, in Africa it takes on broader and richer meaning. "Only a few," I answer, most if not all were taxi drivers. Most people my age remember Biafra and their 1967 war for independence.
Colonial Nigeria was ruled by the Ibo tribe. The British selected the Ibo's to serve as administrators in much the same was the Belgians ratified the Tutsi leadership of the Hutu's in Rwanda. The results in both nations not dissimilar. Six hundred thousand died ten years ago in Rwanda, over a million in Biafra. Whether you call it genocide (Rwanda) or war for independence (Biafra), it was slaughter the old-fashioned way, up close and very personal.
"I was two days from execution when the war ended," my happy driver explained. He was a regional commander and was captured at a checkpoint and wrapped in chains on the spot. "Not even handcuffs," he says, smiling, "big chains. Ha-ha-ha-ha. I came to America as soon as I could."
As we did in Rwanda, we stood on the sidelines during the Biafran war. American foreign policy doesn't change much over the decades - No oil, no American students, no pending election, no thank you. Tears of the Sun, Antoine Fuqua's (Training Day) latest real movie (he cut his teeth on "artist formerly known as" videos) foray puts America and Americans smack dab in the middle of the Biafran conflict. Bruce Willis and his fellow Navy Seals decide to expand their mission from saving the naturalized American doctor (a beautiful young widow, thank you very much) and elect to help another sixty or so refugees make it to the border and safety. That they tricked the sixty into following them through the jungle in order to get the doc to the rendezvous point is quickly forgiven as marauding rebels are hot on their trail. You can guess the rest.
Here we have an American commander electing to "do the right thing" regardless of the consequences, political or physical. The parallel to George W. and his righteous war on Iraq is too obvious not to be intentional. Coupled with Fuqua's history - Training Day, about a rogue LA narc cop was released at the same time the LA police department was being rocked by a rogue cop scandal - one can't help but wonder if we aren't in the presence of a Madonna-like marketing wizard. Art imitates life, right?


Journalism - Good Night and Good Luck

Between Walter Cronkite's 1968 assessment that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and Anderson Cooper's angry comment about politicians congratulating each other while 20,000 of their constituents struggled in squalor at the Convention Center in New Orleans, a great tub of hacks and sycophants lay claim to the mantle of journalist. Pandering to the lowest element of American society with stories of strippers and billionaires or attempting to grease their own slide into comfortable mediocrity with tales of Gate's boundless generosity or imbedding themselves in Baghdad hotels to report on Operation Carpet Bag, journalism of the past thirty years has done its best to shame the memory of the towering figure of integrity and courage that was Edward R. Murrow. George Clooney has done a first rate job or reminding us what journalism is supposed to look like. David Strathairn plays Murrow and Clooney Murrow's producer Fred Friendly. Filmed in black and white, Good Night looks and feels like a documentary, rarely leaving the newsroom and giving us zero insight into Murrow's private life. And maybe that's the way it should be, the cult of the personality and the worship of fame has brought us to the point where no boundaries exist and every aspect of the lives of the famous becomes grist for the mill of sensationalism. I harbor no illusions that this film will change anything. But it helps to be reminded that there was once a time when being a journalist meant something good and honest. Now it all depends on whether you work for Murdoch or GE. Good luck indeed.


Journalism and Truth - Shattered Glass

"I want to tell you something but you've got to promise me you won't tell a soul, people would think I'm crazy." This from the new sales manager, a guy the sales reps nicknamed pimp daddy. He wore shiny suits and socks that matched his shoe colors, colors like lime green and sky blue. He drove an old beat up Explorer, rusted and smoking. Carried a bag cinched up on a strap so that it fit under his arm like a holster. This was one strange guy. But nothing had prepared me for this story. He was sitting in first class waiting for the door to close when George Harrison runs in and plops down next to him. George's CD player was broken so my friend loaned his and they became good friends on the flight to Hawaii. So close, in fact, that George volunteered to play for my friends wedding, after giving the bride and groom-to-be a helicopter tour of his expansive Hawaiian property. Amazing, huh? A couple of years later this guy calls to see how I'm doing.
"Not bad," I volunteered, "and you?"
"Well, you won't believe this. You know how I've always wanted to make furniture, right? I bought a bunch of tools and set up shop in my garage and I've been making tables and chairs like crazy. Really great stuff too, I have a real talent for it," he says.
"That's great," I say.
"Yeah, the Smithsonian called the other day and asked for a piece. So, a table I made just last year is sitting at the Smithsonian. Cool huh?" "Wow bud, that's great. Hey I gotta go, Osama Bin Laden needs some cash for a cab. I'll call you later." I changed my number the next day.
I've had occasion a few times recently to confront people about truth and lies. I try to get them to understand that if I can't believe what they're saying, everything else just sort of stops. Journalists have a special responsibility with regard to the truth. In much the same way lawyers answer to a higher calling as keepers of the law - a sacred duty in a society based on the rule of law - journalists are keepers of the political truth. The truth about what happens outside our immediate experience. We certainly can't count on politicians for an accurate representation. We hear Iraq is safer than ever as more soldiers die than on any previous day. We hear the economy is sound and getting stronger as most of us work harder than ever just to stay even. And when they talk about each other lies have replaced discussion of issues as ad hominem attacks have moved discourse to the gutter.
Journalism became unhinged when money took over. USA Today heralded the descent though we didn't see it at the time. We scoffed at the pictures and graphs but didn't see the underlying cancer. As Rupert Murdoch began buying media outlets and US television networks went from independent ownership to subsidiaries of GE and DisneyWorld entertainment was replacing information as the driving force behind the fourth estate. Next came the explosion in vituperative radio talk shows and TV has now fallen in step. A few bastions hold out, National Public Radio and The Atlantic Monthly come to mind. But they are the clear exception. Ratings are the measure of success. Integrity is a distant second. The norm is sensational and if real life can't provide sufficient sensation, we'll create it. Reality television departed from reality almost the moment it was born. Watching a handful of women compete for an eligible bachelor is the hot ticket one week and by the next we're watching women compete for a pauper they've been tricked into believing is wealthy. The problem here is not that television is tasteless and tacky, it is that our information sources have become compromised in the hunt for ratings and profitability. The fourth estate was once regarded as a bastion against politician's propaganda and government-speak. As philosopher Edmund Burke explained at the turn of the last century, any force powerful enough to speak to the nation rivaled the government itself in its ability to influence public opinion. Journalists once took that power as a sacred responsibility and strove toward accuracy and bias-less reporting. Spend a few minutes watching Fox or CNN news these days and it's clear that what was once considered reporting has become pandering. The fourth estate has gone from a check in the check and balance to court jester.
Despite this sorry state of affairs, the film Shattered Glass surprises and disturbs. The story of young hotshot journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) and his wholly manufactured feature articles written for The New Republic magazine, Shattered Glass takes us into the back offices of today's journalistic elite. Glass was an enormously popular young star at a magazine peopled by young stars. Charming and solicitous, Glass created fascinating story after fascinating story and delivered them to his editors, and the reading public, as factual accounts of child computer hackers and jaded young Republicans. Even imaginary supporters of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program became fodder for a Glass fantasy as fact article. The film begins with Glass speaking to a high school journalism class about his meteoric rise to fame. We soon learn another version to the one being spun by Glass exists. The film alternates between Glass' version and the truth. We see Glass manufacture lies as quickly as his editors can ask questions. Then an on-line version of Forbes Magazine attempts a follow-up to his child hacker story. Not a single fact checks out and the manufactured story quickly dissolves. Chloe Sevigny plays an editor at The New Republic who can't bring herself to believe the magnitude of the lies. She suspends her natural skepticism in favor of the sweet and charming Glass. Peter Sarsgaard in a performance that must surely catapult him to the first rank of film actors, is the newly promoted New Republic editor confronted with the debacle. His normally understated style is perfectly suited to the character and the train wreck he inherits. Hayden Christensen is charming and sympathetic, as evil so often is. His collapse is painful to watch. His comeuppance should be a source of joy but because we too are charmed by Glass, we find ourselves pulling for him. The truth takes a back seat to our "humanity." It can be hard and it can be easily subverted.
This is a cautionary tale. In the scrolls discovered in the 1940's in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea, tales are told of the great battle between the Righteous One and The Liar. Some sources attach the name of James, Christ's brother, to the title The Righteous One and The Liar is said to be the apostle Paul. The documents were written by an obscure sect of Jewish extremists called The Essenes. Paul was in trouble with The Essenes for claiming a visitation by the Messiah in which secret knowledge was imparted to him. Paul's letters, along with the four "official" Gospels, formed the foundation of the New Testament. Had the Essenes (and James) prevailed, Christianity might not have made it beyond the shores of the Dead Sea. James taught that salvation was to be found in good works, Paul maintained faith alone was sufficient. One has to wonder where Christianity would be today if its rewards were only bestowed on those who earned it though acts? Truth does matter. It must be protected. At all costs. There's just too much to lose.


Idyllic Fifties - Far From Heaven

"We're looking for something like what we had in the Heights. Turn of the century wood frame Victorian." This in answer to a question asked at our going away party of where we planned to live in Southern California. On the way home I was challenged, "Why in the world did you tell them that?" "What?" I answered, no idea what this was about. "That we lived in a Victorian house." "It was Victorian, wasn't it," thinking I might have the style wrong. "We lived in a garage apartment!" No way. Really?!? Oh my God, you're right.
I was not trying to impress, not consciously, at least. I had recalled the house as a wood frame Victorian style. It existed all right, but our landlords, the Judy's lived in it. Judy I was intense and driven, Judy II the polar opposite. The interplay between the two was worth every minute. The house I recalled was theirs, not ours. These days, I often wonder how much of my past has been similarly altered. Did my second grade teacher Mrs. Montgomery really have us all holding hands to teach us about the conductivity of electricity? Did Sandy Lively ask me to go steady or did I ask her? Was there ever a Sandy Lively at all?
I haven't yet found any incidents that are entirely made up. Dressed up, sharpened, made more attractive, yes, but fabricated from whole cloth, no.
We often hear about the idyllic fifties. A simpler, happy time. Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It To Beaver. The new television brought these white, carefree, whole families to us as icons if not role models. Mom was always in a dress, often with petticoats, the kids squeaky clean, and dad brought home the bacon without ever having to work nights or weekends. Houses were huge and problems were small. Was it really that way? Or is that they way we would like to remember it? Both my parents worked, the kids shared bedrooms, problems seemed insurmountable.
So, what is the reality of that era? Happy and carefree or bubbling just below the surface, ready to boil over in the sixties as cultural and social revolution. Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes latest gift to cinema, would have us believe the latter. As the title suggests, this story of hidden and not so hidden lives and prejudices, is a lot closer to Hell than Heaven. We see the seamy underworld of homosexual hideaways and the snarling face of bigotry rise to the surface of what began as a picture perfect fifties period piece. With the flowing script of the opening credits and brassy over-orchestrated score, we are taken back to a time before our writer/director's birth. Mr. Haynes is drawing on something other than his memory to paint this Rockwellian landscape of smiles, parties, and fifties small-town life. Dad (Dennis Quaid) works late a little too often, though, and the replacement gardener is a little too buff to make us think this happy life will last.
Far From Heaven is beautifully rendered, brilliantly acted, and smartly told. Julianne Moore is magnificent as the suffering spouse and Dennis Quaid powerful and compelling as the sexually conflicted cause of her grief. The talented and under utilized Patricia Clarkson is Cathy's best friend "L."
Dennis Haysbert plays the gardener, and his character is as perfect as we would like the fifties to be remembered. He has a business degree, a profound appreciation of Modern Art, looks like a million bucks, and is raising his daughter alone, having been widowed a couple of years back. He has taken on his father's business and meets Mrs. Whitaker (Julianne Moore) as he assesses her back yard. Despite his profession, we see him only in the cleanest of freshly pressed attire and not once with a tool of his trade. Mrs. Whitaker is the idealized homemaker, always elegant, never a bad word for anyone, ready to forgive her oddly wayward husband, featured in the local society paper. Things are a little too perfect. Like the opening tracking shot of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the colors are a little too vibrant, the small-town scenes too perfect. The fifties of David Haynes, like the suburbia of Lynch's Blue Velvet, is drawn too sharply to pass for real. Where the contrasts in Lynch's masterpiece are drawn to delineate the false sense of security we too often too willingly accept, Haynes over-done fifties landscapes are more distracting than defining. The heavy Bernstein hand on the score is clearly about invoking the noir of the fifties but instead comes across as tinny and overly loud. This is memory embellished, the fifties as icon, unreal and distanced.
As a story of lives shaped and squashed by a judgmental and Puritanical society, Far From Heaven works. Its relevance is unfortunately neutered by Haynes' too stylized portrayal of an era beyond his experience.


Idyllic Fifties 2 - Married Life

Clothes were much cooler then. Skinny belts over pleated wool slacks. Polyester was still around the corner. People smoked without shame and drank whiskey like water. Drugstores sold all sorts of awful stuff over the counter and you could tell cars apart. It was that short frame after we conquered evil and before we recognized it in ourselves. Against this backdrop we meet husband Harry (Chris Cooper), wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson), best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) and love interest Kay (Rachel McAdams). Harry wants to leave his wife because her love is only manifest in the physical realm, she tells us herself she thinks love is sex and the rest is mere affect. She is devoted to him because he needs her so. Best friend Richard is a charming cad soon smitten by the drop dead gorgeous Kay a tragic widow getting over her war dead husband and only interested in making Harry happy. More than once we hear about the futility of building happiness on the misery of others. Kay can't be happy with Harry if it means breaking Pat's heart, same reason Harry can't be happy with Kay. Pat has her own subterfuge going but she can't make anything of it if it means making Harry miserable. Richard, though, can steal Kay and break Harry's heart because it turns out Harry is planning a mercy killing to break free of Pat. He practices on the family dog, a lovely Irish Setter. Whoa, wait a minute. Is this Blue Velvet? All bright and shiny until we look beneath? Turns out sad widow, dutiful wife, spiritual love seeker and charming cad are homewrecker, adulteress, murderer, betrayer. As those cool young men put down their black plastic combs to load live rounds at the National Guard barracks in Kent and Tupperware maven Monsanto was also busy working on the mother of all herbicides. Is this the parallel writer/director Ira Sachs was drawing in Married Life? If he were he couldn't have landed better instruments to tell the tale than Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson. Two of the most accomplished actors of their generation, they unfold our intertwined good and evil with invisible effort. Brilliant, painful, thoughtful work.


Demonization - The Spy game

I have previously questioned our collective reluctance to explore the origins of the vitriolic obsession some Islamic Fundamentalists have toward the United States and I fault our unwillingness to assume any responsibility for the slaughter of innocents on September 11. Our perceived "national interests" have often led us to support totalitarian and cruelly repressive governments. The Shah was restored to power in Iran in 1953 and was an American ally until he was again overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The Iranian Embassy hostage crisis was clearly connected to our support of the Shah. Closer to home, Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama, once served as a CIA operative. His drug trafficking and brutal repression aside, he was "anti-Communist," and that was sufficient reason for the US to support him. The thousands of Panamanian citizens unlawfully imprisoned and murdered during his reign as military dictator were insufficient to cause us to act. That is until a US Marine was murdered in the streets of Panama. Our support and assistance in the assassination of Chile's Salvadore Allende and the institution of the military regime of Augusto Pinochet has contributed to the fear and loathing many South Americans feel towards the US. The Shining Path of Peru, one of the world's most ruthless and brutal terrorist organizations, is undoubtedly bolstered by America's interventionist involvement in the political structures of Central and South America.
Our Gulf War, ostensibly fought to liberate the people of Kuwait from Sadaam Hussein, was, at the least, heavily influenced by our "national interests" as they are manifested in Mideast oil. We felt no similar compulsion to rescue the people of Cambodia from the murderous madness of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Similarly, we saw no reason to involve ourselves in the "internal strife" between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda that left nearly one million hacked to death in 1994.
What should our response be then, when some of these chickens come home to roost? The options are fairly simple and straightforward: one, do nothing; two, retaliate against those responsible; and three, begin a world-wide campaign against "terrorists" everywhere. Doing nothing, although true to the highest moral calling of figures like Ghandi, Bhudda, and Christ, would mean finding a way to tolerate additional attacks against innocent men, women, and children. Acquiescing to the additional slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, is not a tenable position. Waging a war against terrorism everywhere sounds good, even noble, but we won't do it. Some of the terrorists work for us. And we need Chinese markets too badly to engage the Chinese government in a discussion of their activities in Tibet.
So, we retaliate against those responsible. We have precision bombed the Taliban into collapse if not submission. Were the Taliban responsible? As atrocious a government as the Taliban were, they did not plan, train, or arm the terrorists that attacked us September 11. They allowed them to operate, certainly. The terrorists leader, Osama bin Laden, was a heavy financial contributor to their government. The swiftest path to Osama and Al Quaeda necessitated the destruction of the Taliban government. In the most simple terms, we needed that government out of the way so we could begin a cave to cave search for Osama bin Laden without the impediment of an organized military resistance. Do we have that right? Should the freedoms and liberties we enjoy and take for granted as American citizens stop at our borders? Should those liberties apply to non-citizens within our borders? Is our system of justice not up to the task of trying those responsible? Is the military tribunal a substitute for summary execution? Is there one code of ethics within our borders and another outside? Is international law only applicable when it suits our purpose? What obligates us to fight fairly when our opponent obeys no rules? Should our response be tempered by our past "mistakes?" These, the tough questions, are with me as I settle in to watch The Spy Game.
Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, The Fan, and Enemy of the State) and written by Michael Frost Beckner (new TV series, The Agency), The Spy Game gives us an "up-close and personal" look at terrorism, assassination, and the players responsible. Predictably, the government bureaucrats hide behind policy and protocol while the players act out the drama that is international politics. Brad Pitt plays the idealistic CIA recruit Tom Bishop and Robert Redford the retiring field operative Nathan Muir.
With the exception of Tony Scott's penchant for choppy and swooping zooms to segue scene or perspective changes and an over-the-top car ride through Beirut, The Spy Game is filmmaking at its best. It captivates, entertains and thrills while raising issues and consciousness. Beckner's script rarely sermonizes and is always believable. Scott's direction is accomplished and intuitive. The CIA bureaucrats thrusts and Muir's adroit parrying are deliciously delivered as subtext in an otherwise "friendly" discussion at Langley. The story is told in flashback. Scott's recreation of DaNang, Beirut, and a present-day maximum security Chinese prison are masterful.
The difficult questions aren't answered by this film, of course, but they are asked. The personalization of the issues, albeit by Hollywood, helps to frame the answers. The doctor whose parents are killed by terrorists, the international aid worker with an "accidental" murder on her record, the California kid who becomes a sniper for "the good guys," and the career agent compelled to choose between competing loyalties all help to make newspaper headlines and CNN scrolling text banners a little more real and a little more accessible. The answers Bishop and Muir present in The Spy Game arise from instinct and not intellectualism.
And for those of us in the real world -
There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys have bad in them and the bad guys have good in them. Some of the good people turn out to be bad and some of the bad, good. In all this confusion, how do we choose? As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said when asked to define pornography, "I can't, but I'll know it when I see it." Maybe there is no metric for determining the right course of action. Maybe there is no right course. Maybe there's just the course we choose. And if that choice is based on what we all saw on September 11, the course of action is clear, even if the broader questions of ethics and morality remain unanswered. Perhaps our policies are corrupted by economic self-interest, and maybe our sense of right and wrong has been eroded by our own failed morality. These are reasons for reflection and correction but not justifications for inaction.
The actions that we take must, however, be born from public discussion and debate. Justice must be done in daylight. The "wanted dead or alive" cowboy mentality has no place in a society founded on liberty and law. Our way of life and the system of justice upon which it rests must not be set aside in our headlong pursuit of this icon of evil.


Secret Societies and the Lunatic Fringe - The Skulls

This paranoid tale of Secret Societies and the lengths to which they will go to protect their secrets is a fast-paced and entertaining film. Based on Yale University's Skull and Bones club (their most famous member is former President Bush), the membership of the Skulls includes a Senator and prospective Supreme Court Justice. The Senator and potential Justice battle for leadership of the organization (good guy Senator vs. bad guy Justice) and guess who wins. Turns out the Secret Society is really OK but has gone wrong under bad leadership and can be righted by a good leader. "If it's secret and elite it can't be good," claims the reporter who is soon killed for prying into the Skulls secret chamber.
Two questions, first, why do such organizations exist? Second, is there any justification for the lunatic fringe's claims that these societies control the world?
First, why do they exist?
Historically, secret societies were religious, mercantile, or fraternal in nature. Christianity is an example of the secret religious order. Secrecy was required to prevent persecution or slaughter of the adherents. As far as most of us know, satanic cults are probably the only current secret societies that are religion based. Of course, if the society is really, really secret, we won't know anything about it! Mercantile or trade secret societies were formed to protect trade secrets. If everyone knows how to cast bronze, for example, the value of those who know the secret drops precipitously. By creating a secret or otherwise closed society, entry into the trade, and the value (or supply) of masters, can be controlled. The fraternal order exists more for social than financial or security reasons. The fraternal order is largely a group of people (usually men) who pledge to be each others friends. Although entry into and visibility of these fraternal orders vary widely, the common denominator is a pledge of loyalty or dedication to each other. These are groups of people bound together by compulsory friendship.
Second, is there any reason to believe the lunatic fringe?
To understand the fringe's penchant for blaming Secret Societies for the world's woes, one must understand something of group dynamics. The exclusivity of the group bears a direct relationship to the closeness of its members. As the group becomes larger, exclusivity is compromised. The creation of ever smaller groups with ever more restrictive guidelines to entry is necessitated to enhance the bonding of members. This progressive exclusivity furthers the isolation and rejection of those excluded. A natural reaction to exclusion is, of course, hostility toward the excluder. This hostility will often take the form of accusation and suspicion. That these elite clubs foster a predilection to privilege should not shock. Further, to the extent that we are surrounded with people like ourselves, those characteristics that make us who we are will be reinforced. Should those characteristics be negative, the negativity will be strengthened. In short, exclude me and I will resent it.
For those of you that don't often visit the lunatic fringe, hang on. What follows is an example of one lunatic fringe group's construct of how the universe is organized.
Imagine a pyramid-like structure. At the very top are unimaginably old aliens from a place called Lyrae. Humans are descendants of these aliens. Over 150 billion humans live in the eight galaxies closest to the Milky Way. Directly under these aliens in the universal pyramid power structure are the Global Elite comprised of such organizations as The Illuminati, the Black Nobility, and the Committee 300. The Global Elite rule over another sub-set of Secret Societies - the Masons, Skull and Bones (from Yale University), and the Knights Templar. This tier rules the Bilderberg group which, in turn, rules all nations and The United Nations, which in turn, rules the media, which rule you and me. The Tri-Lateral commission fits into all this somehow but just how isn't clear. At the root of this mania is the belief that we are not in the least responsible for what happens on our planet.
The truth is altogether more frightening and disheartening.
The world is at the mercy not of aliens from Lyrae but of you and me.


Global Warming - The Day After Tomorrow

One of Aeschylus' lost plays was discovered by a Greek shepherd boy in the late 1950's and sold to a visiting archaeologist for the price of a new staff. The archaeologist returned to his native southern California and, with the help of his Greek speaking uncle, translated the lost masterpiece.
Act one introduced us to all the characters in their native environments. Act Two showed us a wandering philosopher exchanging nasty notes via carrier pigeon with the wife he still loved despite the distance that had grown between them over the years. Toward the end of Act Two our hero is thrown to the ground by a mighty jolt. A vision from the Dionysian oracle traced the earth's sudden violence to an overabundant effluent stream from his beloved Athens. Arriving breathless in the city, he tried to tell the city fathers his vision. As Act Two closes we see him rending his tunic at the steps of Apollo's Temple as passers by laugh him to scorn. Act Three opens with the great Athenian quake of 237 B.C. as our hero's prognostications are tragically played out. He saves his estranged wife and child and as the dust settles in a brilliant flaming sunrise the following morning, he eyes the peninsula across the Aegean and makes ready to sail to the new frontier to start again, wiser and with greater respect for mother earth.
Our Californian archaeologist took his uncle Irwin to dinner to celebrate the translation. The valet parking attendant was the last person to see archaeologist Abraham Allen alive. Early the next year, the disaster film was born at 20th Century Fox studio.
Forty-four years later, the crowning glory of disaster films made its way to theaters everywhere. Dennis Quaid plays the climatologist estranged from his wife trying to convince a cynical government that 21st century effluent in the form of green house gases is about to bring a sea-change to the planet's climate. The oracle is played by the great English actor Ian Holm. The story is true to Aeschylus tried and true formula for disaster films and the special effects take Plato's dancing shadows on the cave wall into glorious CGX Technicolor. Multiple F5 tornados rake downtown LA as a two hundred foot wall of water swamps poor besieged New York City. Super storms converge and suck super cooled air from the troposphere to the earth's surface ushering in a new Ice Age. This is one very cool movie. Look at the story as the line you wait in for Star Tours and you won't be disappointed. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ian Holm were the only two characters we care about, but this isn't a story about people so don't go expecting much when they're on screen. Go for the cool disaster scenes. Well, what I really mean is go to help spread the word that SUV's are killing us. People actually guffawed when the speech came about burning fossil fuels. Abandon all hope, ye who enter the 21st century. Truth is as long as we're air conditioned and can see above the traffic, we just don't care, do we? But I digress.


Racism - Trouble the Water

Surely one of the great ironies of my lifetime will be the election of a black man to the presidency within three years of the time we allowed a major American city and its black population to drown. Countless millions of us watched in horror as our desperate fellow citizens waved banners from rooftops and highway overpasses begging to be saved. Ordinarily cool media anchors broke down on camera or lost control talking to the distant authorities as they listened too long to the insistence that everything that could be done was being done. Not too long after we were all outraged again when a military junta refused to allow humanitarian relief to their people devastated by another hurricane. Few made the connection but both "authorities" were being served by the devastation of elements of their population. Hungry, subsistence level men, women and children from a third world were suddenly on a par with hungry, subsistence level men, women and children from the ninth ward. Three years later and most of the white population has returned to New Orleans while the black population has been "resettled." Our President's mom said they never had it so good as they did sleeping on cots in the Astrodome, those responsible for rendering aid blamed the victims for not evacuating when they had the chance. We hear the truth from amateur filmmaker Kimberly Rivers Roberts as she and her husband remain behind as neighbors and relatives drive away. They have no car and no means. They can no more evacuate than could the fisherman and his family in the Irrawaddy delta in Burma. But Kimberly has a new digital camera and way too much personality to hunker down. She's in her attic, in the storm, at a shelter showing and telling us all, as it happens. In the shelter she runs into a professional documentary film crew and tells them, "no one's got what I got on this camera, this is it, baby." The pros, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin accompany Kimberly and her husband as they return to the ninth ward weeks later. Merging Kim's film with theirs, the result is a cinema verite of the highest order and a haunting commentary on our dysfunctional, schizophrenic society. None of us should be surprised if the signal comment on our time is the sad spectacle of our abandonment of our fellow citizens coupled with our proud celebration at transcending racism in electing a black man president. Really.


Anti-Semitism - The Passion

The longer I wait to write this review, the madder I get. Even assuming Mel Gibson created this demagogic work with the purest of motives, love of God or his faith or whatever, it is a shameless work of exploitation. He will make countless millions from The Passion and I suppose that's his right. But it's still wrong as can be. Even putting the religious demagoguery aside, The Passion caricatures the Romans and the Jews in a way that even Mark, Matthew and Luke wouldn't have dared. It is impossible to imagine these Romans as capable of defeating anybody, much less ruling over the known world for centuries. They are a loutish bunch of drunks and stumblebums. Pilate and Mrs. Pilate somehow escape Mel's broad brush and emerge as good people, victims of the evil Jews. The Jews are universally awful. How anyone could look at this film and say it isn't anti-Semitic is a mystery. These guys may have been a brood of vipers, but Mel makes them look like vipers dipped in vinegar. They are prominently featured at every point in the narrative overseeing the torture and death of Jesus of Nazareth. More importantly, we do not see anything resembling motive for their fierce attack on Jesus. Nothing about the moneychangers tables being overturned in the temple, only vague references to Jesus' threat to bring the Temple down, none of the Jesus baiting the Sanhedrin engaged in prior to his arrest in the garden of Gesthamene. These guys seem to want Jesus killed just for spite.
The Devil makes several appearances. Interestingly, Mel chose a woman to play the Devil so what we get is Satan as a vaguely effeminate creature. Herod makes an appearance and here Mel makes it clear that Herod is as gay as they come. I'm not sure how clear the Gospel's are about Herod and the Devil being homosexual but then who am I to question Biblical scholar Mel Gibson?
And the scourging. Gracious! We really are over the top here. We can only hope Mel doesn't decide to do Joan of Arc next, I'm not sure I could stand twenty minutes of cooking flesh. As for the argument that this is realism, no one, even Jesus, could have remained conscious, much less alive for this torture. Where in the Gospels is the part about the scourgers getting carried away and having to be stopped by Pilate's aide de camp? Must be the Australian translation.
And speaking of translations, I think it important to make the point here that a significant number of people who consider themselves Christians do not believe that the Bible contains the literal word of God. The thought that the Bible was written by God or at least edited by His surrogate, the Holy Ghost, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In reaction to the Age of Reason and the accompanying elevation of science to the level of Truth, threatened religious figures declared the Bible the inerrant Word of God. In response to the obvious problems presented by countless translations, exclusion of several Gospels (Thomas, Phillip, etc.), and the reality that no such thing as a Bible even existed in the first three centuries of Christianity, it was decided that the Holy Spirit (used to be Ghost but that put off some so the less controversial Spirit was substituted, one can only assume at the direction of the Holy Ghost/Spirit) must have controlled all translations and publications. The point here being that Gibson's "authentic" rendering of the Passion is no more or less accurate than the King James version in terms of a genuine rendering of the historical event (if such an event even took place - there is no external historical validation of the Passion).
Most surprising of all, we manage to get through the two hours without feeling much for Jesus. He is clearly a victim here, not the Jesus who boldly accepts his fate after the prayer in the garden. Gibson manages to make this Jesus a pitiful figure, victim of the monstrous Jews and cruel Romans. And, as anyone who knows anything about crucifixion will tell you, the nails in the hand thing doesn't play. The bones of the hand won't support the weight of the upper body, the nails were driven in at the wrist. And the blood, I don't remember anything in the Gospels about Jesus having more blood than anyone before or since. But then The Passion isn't about realism. It's about making a buck. Shame, shame, shame, Mel.


Exclusion - Milk

Anita Bryant extended the fifteen minutes she was awarded by the Miss America pageant by waging war on gays and lesbians. Supporting poisonous propositions to validate marginalization based on sexual preference, she was regularly featured on the nightly news extolling the virtue of male on female sex and warning of the dangers of any variation. The media, in their usually misguided effort to present "both sides" of a story, gave her pretty face plenty of time and alternated with the most outrageous drag queens available. The general public was presented a "balanced" view of a lopsided and morally bankrupt argument based on exclusion. From Jews to women to blacks to gays, those who align themselves with the excluders are always on the wrong side. Not just wrong but criminally wrong. Always fascinating is the tendency of those who profess a faith based on a man for whom inclusion was the greatest good (on that which hang all the law and prophets is the directive to love) take the lead in proclaiming the need to exclude a particular group from the circle of righteousness. How blind do you have to be to reject a subset of humanity on the basis of genetic makeup? Milk is the story of our first openly gay elected public official. Harvey Milk was elected to a city supervisor's position in San Francisco in the 1970's. He fought tirelessly to protect the civil liberties of his people and was eventually shot to death along with the mayor by a disturbed fellow city supervisor. For those with no sense of history or appreciation of what civil liberty warriors won on their behalf and at what price, Milk is required viewing. Sean Penn has affirmed his place among the greatest actors of his time and a supporting cast with the ever surprising Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and James Franco make the rich social milieu of seventies San Francisco all too real. As I write I am looking out over San Francisco Bay on Christmas morning, pre-dawn. The lights of the Bay Bridge fade into the fog and I can see a dimly lit ocean vessel creeping across the bay. I hear the city council recently attempted to ban another irresponsible corporation from doing business in the city. Of course the Haight was the mecca for the hippies, or course the Castro was the mecca for the gays. Of course Harvey Milk found a home here. What magical properties lurk beneath this city that invite and empower the best of us to call to the best in us?


Immigrant Fears - Under the Same Moon

For reasons I don't fully understand we have become a nation of immigrants fearful of immigrants. To think 911 was a contributing factor requires believing the terrorists arrived at Logan, Dulles, and Newark airports that morning not by airline from Germany but on foot from the banks of the Rio Grande. In much the same way the invasion of Iraq was obfuscated by the evildoers as related to 911, the anti-immigrationists would have us believe "sealing the borders" will somehow help prevent future terrorist attacks. Of course, the only border we are busy sealing is the one that separates us from Mexico. The Canadian border (5,000 miles long versus the 1,800 mile Mexican border) must be a less likely crossing point for those that would do us harm. The border that gets the fence is the one allowing Mexicans, Hondurans, Colombians, and El Salvadorians to enter. Remember the Alamo!?! Oh, that's right, that was us taking part of Mexico for ourselves.
Another fear is that illegal Hispanic immigration will bleed desperately needed resources from schools and welfare programs. Our concern over the quality of public education is so great that our nation has mobilized vast resources to somehow get the percentage of graduating seniors above fifty percent. Well, maybe we haven't mobilized vast resources. We have championed Charter schools, though, and aren't they doing well? Their graduating percentage is dramatically higher than the public school system. Of course, if you don't do well in a Charter school you get the boot. I bet our public schools would graduate one hundred percent of their students if they could kick out the struggling ones. Prepared to fail? Well, you have to leave. That way you don't count. Yes, that is exactly what these schools do. You have to apply to enter and if you don't measure up, you get kicked out. The public schools have no such luxury. So is the problem with our public schools that too many Hispanics are trying to get an education or that too many white people deserted the public schools for private, Parochial, or affluent suburban systems?
If it's not terror and it's not education, then what is the problem? Could it be racism? In America? Certainly not. Well, perhaps.
It is through this filter that I settle in to watch, Under the Same Moon. A young mother relocates, illegally, to Los Angeles leaving her son in the care of her mother and extended family. She is working two domestic jobs to save the few thousand dollars the lawyer says will get her a green card. Once "legal" she can bring her son over to a better life. So, guess where my sympathies lie. The boy takes it upon himself to cross into the US. It doesn't go smoothly.
What we often miss in our conversations about crossing our southern border is the enormous danger involved. From the desert, from predatory "coyotes," from the border patrol, from the quasi-border patrol, from US cops, from US employers. A more daunting gauntlet would be hard to imagine. These people risk everything to get to el Norte. Once here they are spat upon, discriminated against, used as political fodder by pundits eager for a wider audience, imprisoned, abused, and, if they are lucky, get a job paying minimum or less than minimum wage.
This is the enemy threatening our security, our very way of life. Thank goodness our media is alert to the threat and thank the lord our government is busy abrogating the Bill of Rights, suspending habeas corpus, imprisoning innocents along with the guilty, torturing both, and building big steel fences to protect us. Where would we be without such safeguards?



Social Science
Shared Humanity - Lost In Translation

Found in Isolation might be a better title. What an encouraging movie. Two isolated people find each other in an isolating environment. They make contact; they don't make love or a million dollars or an energy efficient car. From above the bed in which they lay fully clothed, he (Bill Murray as over the hill movie star Bob Harris) puts his hand over her (Scarlett Johansson as philosophy major newlywed Charlotte) foot. He doesn't stroke it or squeeze it, he lightly touches it. The way these two otherwise lonely people touch each other - lightly. This is an exquisite study of the possible. No matter how lost or tired or lonely, compassion and salvation can be as close as the next person. We will almost always miss it. Even when we see it we usually muck it up with sex or greed or fear. But sometimes it can happen. Sometimes our humanity can be shared. With profound grace and beauty Sofia Coppola shows us this redemptive truth. Halleluiah!


Jiminy Cricket Goes Quantum - What the Bleep Do We Know?

If you're old enough you may remember Jiminy Cricket taking you on a tour of your body or the Sun or the local zoo. If you were real lucky you sat next to the 16mm and let the warm exhaust air blow across the side of your face while the sound of the film stock lightly clicking through the sprockets lulled you to sleep. Some of the nicest naps I ever had were in physical science. The animation was advanced for its time, real Disneyesque stuff. The other end of the spectrum from Disney back then was what Conan O'Brien sometimes employs on his late night program, live action mouth over animated figure. Clutch Cargo was the preeminent practitioner of this eerie quasi-animation. Even as a child I knew this was animation on the cheap. Imagine my excitement, then, when I heard about this new movie dealing with quantum mechanics. To be living in a time when physics approaches the supernatural and digital film making can render the most outrageous imaginings of the most far out physicist in a way even I could understand. No way I'm napping through this one!
What the Bleep makes about as much sense as serving quantum soup for breakfast. Leaping from pheromones to electron clouds to peptides as fast as Editor Jonathan Shaw can jump cut. Once, many years ago, I was in a car with a young fellow who had recently mastered language. He started at the beginning of his experience and talked his way through everything he knew. It was extraordinary and a delight to witness. About twenty minutes into What the Bleep, it dawned on me that Mr. Arntz and Ms. Chase (writer/directors) must have recently mastered the language of physics and metaphysics and were regurgitating it all on screen. Breakthrough concepts fly fast and furious off the screen and at the viewer. Marlee Matlin is the vehicle for Arntz/Chase's tour de fast. She is having a bad time of it with a recent breakup and ironic photo assignment and we get to work through this rough spot in her life with her as she applies the laws of quantum physics and meta-physics to her life situation and alters her perception entirely. Without Ms. Matlin this might have been a painful experience. With her it was mainly exasperating. We do learn that no objective truth exists, that most space is empty, that we are mainly water, that chemicals control our behavior, and that we can rise above it all once we know these things. Cool, but maybe What the Bleep should be shown in Dafur, they need it more than we do.
What is exasperating about What the Bleep is the lack of continuity and forward movement. Jumping from quantum revolution to spiritual epiphany and back again for two hours does not quite free me from my mundane existence. There is an attempt to tie all these reality shattering breakthrough concepts together, though, and if I hadn't stayed for the credits I would never have known that the two tying the ribbons were a chiropractor and a spirit channeler. Not that there is anything wrong with that! It does kind of put a big wink on everything, though. And maybe that's the point, God wasn't playing dice with the universe, he was developing a vaudeville routine! So lay back and have fun, or take a nap, that's where I'm headed.


Class Wars - Oliver Twist

I don't know where to draw the line between cinematographer and director. The stark and desperate beauty of nineteenth century London is as much a character as Fagin in this most recent and best yet retelling of the Dickens masterpiece. The muddy streets, dirty air and meandering mobs are nearly as threatening as the broken government in Dickens indictment of a corrupt and socially bankrupt empire midway through its long inward collapse. Nothing and no one is clean in Dickens' dark vision given new life by cinematographer Pawel Edelman and director Roman Polanski.
Precipitous divides between the classes give little hope for a shared and better future. We see the upper class in their decadence and insensitivity as back room board members all too eager to seal young Oliver's fate and we also see them as kind benefactor coming to Oliver's rescue. The former are many, the latter but one. Oliver's appeal for "more" upsets the delicate balance by which the subjugated abide their fate. Threatened with lynching and booted from the poor house, Oliver is taken in by Fagin and his troupe of petty criminals. Ben Kingsley imbues the archetypical Fagin with a complexity of character that elevates him beyond the trademark sneer and into a fully developed and nearly impenetrable mask of conflict and compassion. It is in Fagin that Dickens' story becomes other than a simple morality tale. Dickens' pedantic indictment of his culture becomes a more shaded and subtle exploration of good and evil through Fagin. He morphs from victimizer to victim and villain to hero, and back again. Twist as representative of our innocence is an easier character to track. Dickens' story is a rich and rewarding one for all its ugly truth of a decadent England. Polanski and Edelman bring it to thrilling and awesome life while clearly marking its themes of class struggle and injustice. The clothing and speech may have changed but the story is sadly timeless.


We Must Be Idiots - Time Machine

Funny isn't it, how a story can be retold generation after generation? The Time Machine has lived more than a century now, as novel (1895), television drama (1949), film (1960), and film again. H.G. Wells wrote this story as well as War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and is credited with the coinage of the expression, "the war to end all wars" in reference to World War I. His novel, The Time Machine, is one of the classic works of literature. It can be read on a variety of levels, action drama, science fiction, love story, study of class distinctions, exploration of the dichotomy of our conflicted internal nature, good versus evil.
The base and violent Morlocks live just below the surface with the apparently Utopian Eloi above. Initially, the time traveler sees these two species as the inevitable result of the split between worker and capitalist introduced by the onset of the Industrial Age. Foreshadowing his own conversion from Pacifist to supporter of the "Great War," our time traveler is soon confronted with a less simple explanation of this pacifist society living in fear and denial of the evil lurking below the surface.
This version is directed by the authors great-grandson, Simon Wells. The triumph of this latest version is in the truly horrific design and animation of the Morlocks. They are as scary as anything film has produced. Their tremendous power and speed of movement is nightmarish and only recently made possible with computer aided graphic post-production work. I twisted and recoiled as they chased the Eloi.
The failure in this version is the insertion of an evil mastermind controlling the Morlocks. As if we, like the Eloi, have become so enfeebled we cannot grasp the more complex and broader truth. We need a singular figure upon which to focus our attempt to understand. Jeremy Irons does lend some dignity to the role, despite his Edgar Winter look-alike appearance. Nonetheless, we are not sufficiently respected by the purveyors of the message and are treated to the children's version, big bad guy must be beaten before all is right again.
Sound familiar? Like the Ayatollah, Sadaam, and now Osama, we are insufficiently respected by the purveyors of the political message (or the media or both) and treated to the children's version, big bad guy must be beaten and all will be well again. Like the forces that gave rise to each of these demagogues, though, unless the underlying cause can be apprehended and addressed, the latest big bad guy will simple give way to the next big bad guy.
Guy Pearce reprises the Rod Taylor role and Yancey Arias, Yvette Mimieux's. Both are adequate but not particularly noteworthy. The star of this film is the Morlock.
Twenty years ago, my little sisters best friend squealed in mock horror at my unexpected arrival in the midst of their slumber party. Her scream was "scary monkey!" Only last year, when watching The Wizard of Oz for the seventeenth time, did I associate her expression with the flying scary monkeys of the Wicked Witch of the West's castle. A new, much scarier version arrived this week. Very scary monkey!


New Englanders - In the Bedroom

If you stack New Englanders odd, anti-social behavior up against the gracious hospitality typically demonstrated by Carolinians, it is a wonder that the Mason-Dixon line wasn't drawn at the Charles River. Actually, I'm surprised those guys ever agreed to the Articles of Confederation, much less the Constitution. "Live Free or Die," indeed! One summer, many years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in a cabin in New Hampshire. I ventured into Maine on a day trip and by the time I left again for the relative comfort of New Hampshire, I was checking to see if my likeness graced any drawings in the local Post Office. What a cold, surly lot.
I had nearly forgotten these curmudgeons were still a part of our country when I recognized their almost British accent emanating from the screen as In the Bedroom began. The opening credits were played against scenes from the local fish cannery. Maybe that's why they're so grouchy, all that salted fish. In the Bedroom is the story of the catastrophic end to the December-May romance between Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) and Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl). Sissy Spacek plays Frank's mother in her most powerful role since The River in 1984. In a virtuoso performance that will surely earn her an Academy nomination, she and Marisa Tomei overcome the profoundly slow pace and weird camera sense of the latest actor turned director, Todd Field. For the first half-hour I couldn't figure out what was wrong. It dawned on me when he held a five-second close-up of a license plate, and panned up to show us a man waiting in a car. Hmm, I thought, does this license plate have anything to do with anything? As it turns out, no. Another extreme close-up of old grizzled Maine lobstermen followed by, well, nothing. This fellow needs a strong editor. The clumsy direction aside, Marisa and Sissy make this worthwhile. The story is utterly sad, however, so don't go expecting to be infused with the glory of the human spirit.
Oh yes, in the bedroom refers to lobsters. The trap, apparently, is a bedroom, and if a female is closed in with two males, she'll bite their claws off. This is somehow related to the story line, I guess, but I couldn't see how. Frank's mom (Sissy Spacek) is certainly ferocious at times, but Frank's lover (Marisa Tomei) is the one with two male suitors. Unless we are to see Frank and his dad as the two males trapped with Ms. Spacek. Or maybe Natalie is the female lobster and Frank's dad and Frank are the lobsters in the trap with her. Or maybe that lady riding by on her bicycle is the female lobster or maybe she's a female impersonator - Dame Edna with her claw bitten off or...


Generation Whatever - Anti-Trust

She was a high school graduate. Imagined herself some powerful person's executive assistant someday. Or maybe she'd start her own business. Didn't know what business, she said, but she liked the idea of working for herself. For the time being, though, she had to settle for working for me. Her job was to key data into a spreadsheet. She had to avoid the cells with formulas and execute a stored series of commands at the right time.
When a new procedure is taught in medical school the protocol is to show, do, teach. Makes sense to me. I showed her how to do the job, had her do it, then had her teach a co-worker. Looked like she had it down. About three days in she brings me the report. It looked like someone took an egg beater to the data.
"What happened?" "I don't know, I did it just the way you showed me." "Then it should have worked, you must have done something different." This process repeated twice more with her insisting she did it exactly the way I showed her and me redoing it and handing it back to her. After the third time, I tried the analogy approach.
"OK, say you're a brain surgeon and I'm chief of surgery. A patient comes in and you operate. The patient dies. I ask what happened and you say you don't know you did everything right. OK, well, be real careful on the next one. Next patient comes in, you operate and the patient dies. The third patient comes in and you operate and they die. Now, I've got a decision to make, you say you're doing everything right but every time you operate the patient dies. I can't let you operate on any more patients. You're so confident that you're doing everything right that you aren't likely to change a thing. That means you'll probably kill every patient you touch."
By now the tears have welled up.
I'm wondering, is she so arrogant that she thinks she can't err or so naive she really doesn't get it?
One of the service reps takes an order from a customer and keys "chg cust at passback rate." "What does this mean," I ask. "I don't know but no one told me it was wrong," he says. "It's OK to pass the instruction along even if you don't understand it?" "Someone will tell me if it's wrong." Analogy time. "Imagine, you're a Lieutenant in the Army and the Captain says 'have the soldiers munchback the slurt stock.' You turn to your company and shout 'munchback the slurt stock.' The soldiers trot off over the hill and nobody comes back so everything must be OK, right?" "Yeah." "Maybe they were all killed and that's why nobody came back. So you keep sending your men off to munchback the slurt stock assuming everything is OK and you're actually sending them to their death. Had you asked what the words meant you might have prevented their death. Maybe the person that gets your order with 'chg cust at passback rate' on it doesn't know what it means and so they don't do something they should or do something they shouldn't, get it?"
Arrogance? Naiveté?
Both these generally well intentioned folks sincerely believe they are doing the right thing when they do it. Both are intelligent. As well intentioned and intelligent as the folks responsible for the feature film, Anti-Trust.
Anti-Trust is the story of Gary Winston (a thinly veiled caricature of Bill Gates) and his nemesis, young computer Turk/Geek Milo. Seems Gary Winston (played by the gifted Tim Robbins) has managed to place a camera in every programmer's garage (Gates once said Microsoft could be put out of business by any kid working out of his garage), positioned to surreptitiously read programming code off the computer screen. When his henchmen spy a clever bit of code that might advance his project, they kill the programmer and steal the code. Eventually, Milo brings Winston and his evil empire down. Evil Empire is the title of Rage Against The Machine's most popular CD. Rage Against The Machine is an enormously popular rock band bent on proclaiming the message that the world is full of bad people. Especially the corrupt power elite at the helm of corporate America. Now this is a message worth proclaiming to those who may be unaware. In fact, if the truth be known, sometimes the rich and powerful behave in ways that are wholly reprehensible. They often act with total disregard for the environment. They manipulate the political structure and politicians in order to satisfy their own selfish interests, often at the expense of others. Doh! The big and powerful exploit the small and weak. Are the purveyors of such messages so arrogant they think the rest of us unaware? Or are they so naive they think if only they tell it, it will change? Arrogance? Naivete?
The folks responsible for Anti-Trust are either a particularly aggregious example of the arrogance that comes from self-righteous indignation or they are simpletons a la Rage Against The Machine firmly ensconced in the belief that by screaming loudly enough about the world's injustices, justice will somehow spontaneously erupt. In either case, the movie is offensive to anyone with a modicum of perspective on the issue at hand. Information certainly does belong to the people of the world, as our hero Milo proclaims, but the people of the world are way too busy trying to fend off cold and hunger to expend much energy taking advantage of the programming skills the young computer generation has to offer. It is arrogance of the highest order to believe that the corporate bullying of which Microsoft is unquestionably guilty is a crime on a par with the great injustices of our time. Rest assured, the millions that will go blind this year for wont of a simple anti-biotic available only to "developed" countries are not particularly overwrought that Windows tends to crash more often than Apple. The real crime here is that we have witnessed a whole generation grow up consumed by consumerism. It is not information that Microsoft is monopolizing, it's a graphical user interface. The information is out there and free for all. Windows versus Linux indeed. Get out of your garages, lay down your keyboards, unplug your Playstation II and join the world community. Your preoccupation with more RAM and higher processing speeds smacks of Marie Antoinette and her suggestion that the starving be fed cake from Parisian bakeries. There are some REAL problems confronting us, young citizens. Awaken!


Generation Me - The Business of Strangers

One morning thirty-five years ago, as I dressed for school, I combed my not very long hair down over my forehead. This was my fourth hair style. The first was wispy baldness and went away quickly. The second was a flat top. It lasted from about five to ten. The third, and the one I wear to this day, involves a part on the left (my left, your right), combed straight across and swept slightly back over both ears. Most of the time, the swept-back thing is inconsequential as the hair on the sides is little more than a half-inch long and half inch hair just doesn't sweep. I know there is a name for it but I don't know it. Traditional or standard or ordinary or some such, I'm sure.
That morning, though, I was anything but traditional. It was 1966 and I was going to school with a Beatle do. Or so I thought. Dad fairly exploded when he saw it. "No son of mine is taking part in any protest!" Protest, I thought. Wow, Dad you are so out of touch. Mom weighed in on my side as she usually did. To no avail. I was sent back to the bathroom with instructions to apply the Butch-wax. That afternoon I was dragged down to the barber shop and the flat-top, which had become just long enough to allow a comb to pass through it, was restored to its prickly state. The barber shop was Mr. Hazlewood. There were six chairs, shiny red Naugahyde with tons of chrome. They faced a bank of mirrors which faced a bank of mirrors creating the infinite image replication that so interested me as a child.
As Tom the barber buzzed my hair, Dad railed on about protests and hippies. Once before, shopping for tennis shoes, he told the salesman he wanted "none of that Japanese crap." I asked him why. He patted his bad leg, "they were the ones that did this." When he heard machine gun fire up ahead, he stepped out from behind the tank to see what was what. A .50 caliber round hit him midsection and nicked his spinal column. Sounded to me more like a dumb move on his part but the Army didn't agree and promoted him to Captain before sending him stateside for the balance of the war. I swore then and again and again I would not be like him. I would embrace the next generation, I would hold a balanced and unbiased view of the world. I think I got it half right. I don't hate Asians or Africans or Muslims. I do have a hard time embracing the next generation, though. I'm therefore cautious about sharing my view that the following generation appears somewhat shiftless. Not without cause, I suppose. Theirs was the first generation born into the dual income household necessitated by the inflation of the 70's. They held front row seats through the excess of the eighties. They reaped the cynicism for our societal institutions sown by the sixties, Vietnam and Watergate. The alienation and hopelessness that ran through Kurt Cobain's lyrics and eventually took his life seem to be cutting a wide swath through the generation born in the 70's.
The Business of Strangers features Julia Stiles as Paula Murphy, one such disaffected child of the 70's and Stockard Channing as Julie Styron, an overachieving, driven product of the boomers. She blows a major presentation because the visuals entrusted to Paula arrive too late. "It wasn't my fault, my plane was late," she explains to the steely Styron who fires her on the clients sidewalk. Styron is already stressed out over what she believes to be her own imminent termination. Instead, she's promoted to CEO. She calls family and friends to share her good news but the only person she can connect with is her secretary, via cell phone. She heads down to the hotel bar and runs into Murphy. The two spend the evening together. Turns out Murphy is an Ivy League grad and published writer. The third character in this drama is Fred Willard as Styron's headhunter, summoned when she thought her job was on the line. Willard and Murphy share a dark secret and the evening takes a wicked turn when Murphy shares the secret with her new bud, the new CEO. Stockard Channing is a consummate actress, showing us more with facial expression than the young Stiles can muster in a whole monologue.
Ostensibly, this is a story about power, corporate and sexual. Power and sex are certainly at the heart of this drama, as they are at the heart of most everything else under the sun. The more intriguing story, though, is of the contrast between the worlds occupied by these two women. One, externally powerful, internally conflicted and insecure, the other, an internal fortress fitted with an external shell of subjugation and powerlessness. They are telling illustrations of America's two generations, one, apparently powerful and in command, the other apparently along for the ride to "wherever." Which occupies the moral high ground? The boomers idealism has turned to worry over Social Security and Lexus payments while the X'ers disenfranchisement hardens into a self-centered disregard for others. Dark movie for a dark society.


Distraction - Terminator Salvation

People good. Machines bad. Come with me if you want to live. I'll be back.
Another layer of the enduring Terminator franchise. Coupled with California's budget crisis and last year's Fox TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, ones life could be lived pretty much in the shadow of The Terminator, real and imagined. Last month's Atlantic Monthly magazine talked of the pending Singularity. Not the Black Hole Center of the galaxy singularity but the coming moment when a machine develops the capacity to improve itself. Sort of a Robbie meets I, Robot, they marry and give birth to IT.
I saw an old friend yesterday. She didn't appear to have a cell phone with her, has no Facebook presence and thought Twitter was a form of suppressed laughter. I couldn't help but be jealous. She lives on a ranch in Hawaii and came equipped with old analog photos of her favorite horse. A copy of her daughter's expired drivers license was her only child photo. A technological retard she spends her time counseling vets screwed up by Iraq. As if she popped out of a time warp straight from the 1950's.
I've come to look at technology mastery as a hedge against growing old. Pathetic illusion of course, I probably couldn't start a stolen car on Grand Theft Auto and would likely try to eat an avatar if one popped up next to me. This week's New Yorker magazine has a two page review of the latest Sonic Youth release. This from a magazine that once eschewed photography as a pointless distraction from text. Nearly all of us, it would seem, are in a desperate struggle to keep up, to remain current, to not be irrelevant. The markers of success or failure in this effort are thumb speed and an announced affinity for Obama. I text'd a terribly interesting friend while waiting for Drag Me To Hell to start (he's a cross between the 21st century man and a Luddite) and asked which thumb I should use for the center row of letters on my phone. "Right" was his single word unironic response. He doesn't own a car but carries a Macbook in his backpack and searched me out because none his friends expressed an interest in seeing the new Terminator movie. We share an affinity for science fiction and a willingness to reject the visible order.
We both, I think, believe the culture is in a constant state of distraction. Whether an intentional effort by the invisible hand of the oligarchy to keep us, as Marx correctly observed, sufficiently doped up that we won't mind the obscene imbalance of wealth and power that we've all come to accept as the natural order (the poor will always be with you!?!) or the result of our own ridiculous fantasy of eternal youth and vibrancy, we seek out and immerse ourselves in that which matters least as we give a baleful nod to the subjugation of billions in hunger and disease and rush headlong to the precipice that signals the irreversible destruction of our only environment.
We've already lost the battle against the machines, they've already taken over. The small portion of our species with the financial and intellectual capacity to make a difference to our collective future is busy weighing the relative advantages of the new Palm Pre against the iconic IPhone. There is no salvation, only termination, and we fiddled while it burned.

Murder - Monster

Many years ago I went on a weekend retreat with forty people. We all met Friday evening and did the introduce yourselves thing. All the while I was thinking of ways to get out of there. These people were losers, big time. I couldn't imagine a more dreadful group to spend a weekend with. By Sunday afternoon the group had somehow transformed into a delightful bunch of people. The lesson I learned that weekend was one that has stayed with me. I am one judgmental dismissive creep. The group hadn't changed at all, of course. I had simply gotten to know them. They turned out to be a lot like me. Not the creep me, but the me that struggles to do as little harm as possible while trying to figure out the next right thing.
When I read about this awful woman, Aileen Wuornos, my interest in her was short-lived. Prostitute turned serial killer. Nasty little world of truckers and cheap hookers. The mug shot confirmed it for me. Hideous and miserable creature. Nothing for me here. Or so I thought. Charlize Theron, in a performance that ranks with Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, accomplishes the unimaginable. She takes a character who, in every apparent way, shares a commonality of spirit with no one outside a small collection of twisted serial killers and opens her heart to us. In that opening we see a tortured and burned soul desperate for normalcy, aching for affection. Theron's Wuornos breaks our heart as she sees hope in a future we know holds nothing but tragedy and doom. Aileen finds love in Selby (Christina Ricci) and decides to make a fresh start. She will quit tricking and get a real career. Maybe a veterinarian, she mulls. Someone behind me laughed. That this tortured and pathetic woman's plight was found humorous by some faceless fellow in the theater helped me to understand how some can take pride in a society that marginalizes and wastes a significant percentage of its population. Where does a woman raped and abused as a child, compelled into prostitution to survive, and spurned by "legitimate" society go for help? The neighborhood faith based program?
This is a performance of a lifetime in a film of extraordinary power. A power that makes relegating the downtrodden and the failed to convenient isolation nearly impossible, for behind that hideous mug shot is a life that shares our dream of warmth and security. A dream unattainable for her. Wuornos' failure is our failure, her crimes our shame.


Meaning in Art - Mister Lonely

What is it about film that makes us demand clarity and narrative cohesion? We make no such demands of painting. Or poetry, or music. Goya's The Third of May stands as a masterpiece without the accompanying narrative detailing Marshall Murat's directive to round up and shoot all those guilty of protesting the French occupation of Spain. Or the awful irony of the slaughter of Spanish peasants at the hands of their French brothers in revolution. Eliot's The Wasteland is a powerful poem of desolation and isolation even if the reader doesn't grasp the myriad literary allusions. Whether Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is about LSD or John Lennon's daughter's drawing of Lucy in the sky has no effect on the surrealist images or crystalline beauty of the song. The opening scene of Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely presents a Michael Jackson character, red shirt, white gloves, white surgical mask, aviator shades and yellow helmet, towing a puppet monkey with tiny wings behind him while riding a micro motor bike, all in super slow motion. An entirely mesmerizing scene, seen again at film's end. All this to the tune of the Bobby Vinton doo-wop classic Mr. Lonely. Mr. Lonely is an achingly sad song. Spend the dollar and download it sometime, it will give you an entirely different perspective of the 50's. Perspective certainly plays a key role in Mr. Korine's altogether different film. I've struggled with it for two days now and have concluded it doesn't make sense, there isn't a connection between the island of impersonators (Diego Luna's Michael Jackson is joined by Samantha Morton's Marilyn Monroe and a host of others) and the Werner Herzog (as a burned out priest) gaggle of South American missionary flying nuns. This isn't a comedy. It is an exquisitely painful walk through the lives of seriously dysfunctional people, from a sadistic Charlie Chaplin to a cruel agent to a desperate drunken priest. The luminescent talent of Samantha Morton draws us in and makes us care so Harmony Korine's twisted world view can break our spirit. I still don't know what it means. I do know it hurt, it makes me sad, and I will remember it. Take a few minutes and look closely at Goya's Third of May, or read the first line of Eliot's The Wasteland, or listen to the awe and wonder of Lucy in the Sky and know it was taken from us for no reason at all, you'll feel the same and be better for it.


Off Broadway - The Boys In The Band

I was warned about this film. It was released almost forty years ago, 1970 to be exact. Hmm, 1970 - The Beatles released Let It be, Simon and Garfunkel gave us A Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Diana Ross claimed Ain't No Mountain High Enough, and The Kinks let us in on Lola's secret. Hollywood gave us Patton, Love Story, Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Women in Love, and Woodstock. Fellini released Satyricon just to remind us that movies were made outside California. In the world of print Dee Brown appraised us of our treatment of Native Americans in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Germaine Greer took us inside the besieged female psyche in The Female Eunuch, Julia Child used liberal doses of wine in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Charles Reich explained the counter-culture in The Greening of America and Alvin Toffler warned us things were moving way too fast in Future Shock. Isn't it odd that in the same year mainstream media strove to catch up with the cultural revolution of the 1960's, an obscure off-off Broadway play about six gay men struggled to be heard. We were ready to hear women hated men for making them hate themselves, ready to accept our genocidal treatment of our country's real ancestors, we were still coming to grips with the My-Lai and Kent State massacres, but first time playwright Mart Crowley was told he was crazy to think anyone would produce a play about gay men in New York City. Finally able to get Edward Albee to give a look (his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf had made it all the way to the big screen four years earlier), The Boys in the Band was "workshopped" off off-Broadway. Laurence Luckinbill (the bi-sexual Hank) knew they had a hit when only a week into production he saw several hundred gay men lined up for the less than one hundred seats in their tiny workshop theater. It played a year to sold out Broadway audiences. Author Crowley insisted the original Broadway cast reprise their roles in the film. Dominick Dunne agreed to co-produce and the ever ambitious William Friedkin, soon to be famous for the yet unrealized The French Connection and The Exorcist, signed on to direct. The works of Harold Pinter and David Mamet are immediately recognizable for their scintillating dialogue. It is fast and smart but has nothing on Mart Crowley's brilliant work, The Boys in the Band. The only thing dated about this movie is the vibrant colors of the costume and set. We're a bit more muted these days. A shame.


Truth vs. Fiction - The Brandon Teena Story

An audio tape is played for us about two thirds of the way through the documentary, The Brandon Teena Story. It is of the actual "interview" between a back woods country sheriff and Teena following her report of the beating and rape that preceded her murder at the hands of two bottom dwelling small time cons from Falls City, Nebraska on December 30, 1993. It is impossible to hear this recording without sharing the anguish of this poor tortured soul. In a barely audible voice she recounts the beating and rape, valiantly trying to protect what remains of her shattered self from the prurient prying of the monster that represented justice in this backwater community. I imagine reaching through the screen in a hopeless attempt to protect her from any more damage. Too late. Within seventy two hours she will be dead. Shot and stabbed to death by her rapists, along with a friend and a young man at the wrong place at the wrong time. For those who tell you the fictionalized account of Teena's story told in Boys Don't Cry, the film that introduced us to the unparalleled talent of Hillary Swank, packs a more powerful emotional punch, they must not know the difference between a punch and a knockout. Boys Don't Cry is a powerful punch, The Brandon Teena Story is a knockout. You awaken changed.


Hero Worship - Sky Captain

Take 1 - It seems the Coens aren't the only brothers in town these days. Writer/director Kerry and Production Designer Kevin Conran deliver a delightful distraction in the form of a cartoonish and intelligent action comedy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Gwyneth Paltrow as intrepid reporter and love interest Polly Perkins matches wits and an occasional right cross with brave, dashing and capable Joe (Sky Captain) Sullivan, Jude Law. Aided by super co-stars Giovanni Ribisi as boy genius Dex Dearborn and an eye-patch wearing Angelina Jolie as British flying ace, Captain Francesca Cook, this team of almost super heroes takes on the dreaded Dr. Totenkopf and his army of monstrously robotic evildoers. The result is as smart, funny and fast-paced as anything you're likely to see for a while.
The concept is novel, what would a thirties movie serial look like with the benefit of today's computer graphics? The answer is smashing. There is enough of a love story working in the background to keep adults interested and enough action and suspense to keep the children squealing with delight.
Take 2 - Does our predilection for heroes do us more harm than good? Take the screen's latest example, Joe (Sky Captain) Sullivan played by the talented Jude Law. Sky Captain is called on in the film's opening moments to stop an all-out invasion of super size robots that fly, stomp terribly hard (thanks to Sense-Surround Sound your seat actually vibrates with their footfalls), and have a deadly laser beam weapon. Single-handedly he dispatches these evil robots with a single World War II vintage fighter and a keen depth perception. We later learn he's a mercenary, fools around on his girlfriend and isn't above a good right to the jaw of an unsuspecting woman (for her own good, of course). This is the not too well hidden undercurrent in the Conran brothers debut piece. Certainly the Conran's aren't inventing a stereotype, just borrowing one for their different and well-made homage to the screen serials of the 1930's. The only real thing in this slick drama are the actors, the sets are all added post production. The whole thing has a cartoon feel and nothing is to be taken too seriously. Blessed with a PG rating, though, Sky Captain is likely to be seen and loved by a whole generation of children. Children who will learn that one brave fellow can save the whole world and get paid for it. Save the world, by the way, from a mad scientist who is himself trying to save humanity from its inevitable self-destruction. Maybe we should take another look at the film rating game with an eye less cocked and an ear more attuned to message than language?


Heroes With Holes - Spiderman I and II

A superhero with human frailties, a love story of sacrifice and loyalty, and humor elevate this action/adventure story above the norm. We have Stan Lee to thank for the flawed superhero. Before Marvel Comics and Stan Lee, there was only DC Comics. DC is the home of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League of America, a sort of xenophobic amalgam of all DC's superheroes. Superman is so purely good, in fact, that an anti-Superman had to be created, Bizarro Superman, in order to imbue the character with some human element. And then came Marvel Comics. Along with the deconstruction of previously unassailable institutions (the Church, Fine Art, and Government), the comic book genre was exploded and reworked in the same humanistic vein that redirected artistic and political expression. Marvel Comics introduced superheroes with human shortcomings. The Fantastic Four had the Thing, a super-power superhero with an anger management issue and The Flame, an impetuous and sometimes dangerous teen-ager. The Silver Surfer was a sad wanderer with no place to lay his head, and Spiderman suffered from guilt and ego compensation issues.
The casting of Tobey Maguire as Spiderman ensured this superheroes feet of clay would be visible to all. Maguire's performances in the Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys made him the perfect choice for the Peter Parker/Spiderman created and sustained by Marvel. Maguire has perfected the "innocent but wary" pose. He does not disappoint. Kirsten Dunst as "girl-next-door" Mary Jane Watson and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin enhance an already winning casting job. J.K. Simmons is perfect as the curmudgeonly Jonah Jameson and Rosemary Harris is Aunt May. Macy Gray makes a surprise appearance and only disappoints because she is on screen so briefly. Her profound performance in Training Day makes us eager for her next dramatic role.
The love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane is marked by tenderness, compassion, loyalty, longing and, ultimately, sacrifice. The sort of sacrifice few of us are called to make and even fewer would ever choose.
The humor is light, sophisticated and self-deprecating. It is the gentle humor not often seen in film these days. Most satisfying is the filmmakers declination of the scatological, an interesting and admirable choice considering a big part of the target audience is the teen crowd.
Special effects are taken for granted in these digitally enhanced days but the web-slinger is brought to almost believable life by Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.
An altogether successful effort. Hooray for Hollywood!
Spiderman 2 07.02.04
A movie about doing the right thing. A new and refreshing concept. Especially when doing the right thing involves great personal sacrifice. Spike Lee did it many years ago, but his Do the Right Thing involved doing the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. If I can see the right thing, I'll do it. But if doing it involves giving up something important, the right thing can become less clear if not less compelling. Sixty Minutes this week told us of a young soldier driving his flaming truck further down the highway to keep from stopping the entire convoy. The right thing to do but at great personal cost as he was burned horribly in the doing. Spiderman 2 takes us a step further though as our hero acts not in heroic inspiration but after long hours of reflection. Spiderman 2 starts with a very bad day for Peter Parker. He's broke, failing school, failing at both his part time jobs, and estranged from his best friend. He's moving to the conclusion that his Spiderman alter ego may be responsible for all his woes. And to top it all off, his spider strength is on the fritz. One hilarious but slightly too long scene with the gifted Hal Sparks (Queer as Folk star who debuted in film in Chopper Chicks in Zombietown) has Spidey riding an elevator down from the roof.
Sam Raimi is surely be the action film director par excellence and Spiderman 2 is among the most thrilling action films yet made. Several times during the film I noticed myself relaxing after a particularly thrilling scene. Dr. Octopus (an inspired choice in Alfred Molina) and Spidey fight it out on a rushing elevated train. In one scene, we see the two at close range going at it hammer and tong. As is invariably the case with the close-up action shot, the effect is more disorienting than thrilling as bodies and angles flit across the screen almost too quickly to make sense. Raimi then pulls back from the shot and allows us to see the two atop the elevated train in perspective. It is an inspired sequence and ends with Spidey stretched across the front of the train trying to keep it from plunging into the river.
As with the first Spiderman, though, this is more story than thriller. And the story is one that, especially these days, we all need to spend more time with. How to determine what's right? How to know if we're wrong? Will we have the courage to change if we are?


Tom Clancy and Machisma - Sum of All Fears

I think it was about the time I noticed Tom Clancy's red sunglasses that I lost interest in the Jack Ryan, boy-hero series. Clearly, this handsome, winning and reluctant hero was Clancy's alter ego. There was something obscene about being drawn into that particular fantasy world. The dust jacket photo reminded me of Coach Kalina. A disgusting creature from my middle school years, he taught math and bombardment. He might have been able to run around the track in his youth, but those days were long gone when he entered my life. He looked like one of those wheezing geezers I swore I would never be. He taught math leaning back in his chair with his fingers interlaced behind his head, elbows wide, yellowed armpits displayed as if he were proud. He no more understood math than I understood Portuguese. He didn't really teach bombardment, either. Young boys instinctively know how to play such games. Divide up and throw kick-balls at each other until only one is left standing. I used to pretend to be hit early. Being the last guy on one side was the last place anyone wanted to be. The balls would all be collected and thrown at once. Coach Kalina wore red sunglasses. A shame, too. I loved the science Clancy throws into his books. The Hunt for Red October was thrilling and the movie even better. Then there was the one about Columbian drug lords and Irish Republican Army radicals or maybe that was two different ones. It has been a while.
The Sum of All Fears was, as is too often the case these days, summed up and presented in the trailers. South African Nazi tries to get Russia and the US to blow each other up by tricking the Americans into believing a nuclear blast in Baltimore was a Russian attack. Jack Ryan knows better and tries to stop World War III. Alan Bates plays the aging Nazi mastermind, the ever-engaging Morgan Freeman is the CIA Director, James Cromwell the President, and Liev Schreiber is John Clark, the only real spy. The movie belongs to Affleck, though, and he is at his best as the reluctant analyst, "breathing air way over his pay grade." When he becomes the bloodied hero running from blast crater to Baltimore city dock to the Pentagon, putting all the clues together while the President and his advisors contemplate Armageddon aboard Air Force One, the film slips into pattern and predictability. The shouting matches between the President, National Security Advisor, and the Secretaries of Defense and State were a little hard to believe. One would hope the most powerful men in the world would consider their options in a more controlled manner but after hearing Nixon and Johnson on the Executive Office tapes I guess almost anything is possible. Coach Kalina as Presidential advisor. Ghastly!
Those familiar with the Ryan character may be taken aback by his circumstances in The Sum of All Fears. The family he once had is gone and he is a novice CIA analyst on his fourth date with a doctor. His wife in past films/future life is also a doctor so I guess this is a prequel of sorts. It is set in present time, though, so it can't be. It is disconcerting to use a character in multiple stories without regard for any sort of time line or continuity but then Clancy is no Faulkner and Baltimore is a long way from Yoknapatawpha County and the Snopes family.
The Sum of All Fears works all the way up to the detonation. Way too much of Baltimore is left standing and what with everyone of the major characters getting tossed about by the shock wave but apparently unaffected and unconcerned about radiation, the sense of danger and disaster switches to Air Force One and the Kremlin, a place too many predecessors have been, from Fail Safe to Thirteen Days. Both those films managed that confrontation far better than All Fears. When Ryan tries to get into the Pentagon with a borrowed ID card the film falls into the ridiculous. Half an hour ago, Baltimore (a forty five minute ride from the Pentagon) was blown up. The Pentagon still has one unarmed guy on duty when a bleeding and disheveled Ryan shows up. The card won't scan and the guard on duty wants to see it. Ryan refuses and the guard demands the card while ordering Ryan to step back. Finally, the scanner beeps and the guard relaxes as Ryan goes running past. Within ten minutes, Ryan is on the hot line to the Kremlin while a dozen or so Pentagon staffers huddle around watching. Seems a little implausible, no?
Maybe those red sunglasses are really rose colored. That would explain a lot. Ryan on the bridge of the sub reminiscing over fishing in the Bay, Ryan receiving the thanks of a grateful Queen, Ryan on the White House lawn picnicking with his girl. Oh Tom, really.


Addiction and Digression - Things We Lost In the Fire

Addiction and loss. What better way to spend an evening? Halle Berry, in a welcome respite from her Gothika/Catwoman career threatening work, returns to the drama that last brought her an award for best actress. Benicio Del Toro couldn't make a bad movie if he wanted to. She plays Audrey Burke, bereft widow to Del Toro's slipping/recovering heroin addict. He was her dead husband's friend since childhood and surfaces when she remembers to invite him to the funeral. The rest is a ballet of exquisite pain, sadness, and hope as they navigate their way through their shared and individual grief. We meet Del Toro high and listening to the Velvet Underground's Sister Jane. He slips the headphones off when he hears the knock at the door. Sadly, the Velvet Underground slip to the background.
I'm reading Oliver Sack's latest, Musicophilia, and keep hoping he'll talk about music and the brain. Instead he recants an endless stream of cases of people with musical hallucinations. At least through Chapter Five. I can almost see him at his desk with a big stack of medical files, lifting the salient points from each, coupling them with some sweet anecdote and hammering away at his keyboard, stoked on coffee. But I digress. As always. Maybe I'll write him a letter and ask about physiological underpinnings of digression in thought. I can see it now, patient JohnS was unable to keep a stream of thought going for more than three minutes. His efforts would be sidelined the same way the bubbling brook where he played as a child of Bosnian gypsies is sidelined from the deep Neretua as it tumbles toward the Adriatic...


Loss of Hope - Sin City

And I thought graphic novel meant an expanded text-heavy comic book format. If Robert Rodriguez's latest ultra-vi viddy is any indication, it would seem graphic refers to the level of violence. Replete with slashings, punctures, decapitations, hacked off limbs, hacked off women, hatchet blows, blown-up people and cannibalism, Sin City takes sin and graphic to a whole new level. Sin City is simultaneously a work of great beauty and a source of great revulsion. Color is used sparingly and for emphasis and the result is when it does appear it shines with an otherworldly brilliance. Much of the gore is sufficiently stylized, blood is a ghostly white for example, that we can pretend some distance from the horror. Pretending distance is what we do, of course, when we drive by the beggar on the corner or ignore the grocery sacker or grieve more for the California mud slide victims than the 160,000 yellow people.
Here's what's missing - hope. The three intertwined story lines leave us without any hope. Maybe that's the point. I certainly have about given up hope for a better world. So why should I complain if a truly brilliant filmmaker chooses to portray a world virtually devoid of an expectation for a better tomorrow. I certainly don't think tomorrow will be any better than today. Maybe on a personal level, but for the world, for all of us, not much chance. And maybe that's the point, this is the world we're heading for, out of control politicians selling ever bigger lies, corrupt institutions, barbaric behaviors, selfishness taken to the level of faith. Certainly Rodriguez, perhaps more than any filmmaker today, can present that world in all its ugly, brutish glory. And that he has done, in this the most appallingly violent and visually stunningly movie I've ever seen.


Psychiatric Care and the Homeless - Girl, Interrupted

Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder, in addition to their interesting family histories and unusual names, are wonderful to watch. Both accomplished and powerful actors capable of carrying a weak movie. Girl Interrupted is a weak movie. Or maybe I'm not particularly interested in angst or the 60's. The 60's may have been a social and cultural phenomenon of the first magnitude but the historical verdict won't be in until we're all dead so why keep trying to re-live it? The 60's are over, disco is dead, Keith Richards looks like he ought to be and who really cares except people trying to make money off it?
The portrayal of the world of psychiatric medicine was relevant. Psychiatry has always been the dark science. How can we ever know to what extent Freud's sexual identity influenced his theories of infantile sexuality? Was Skinner a closet fascist, and so inclined to identify conditioning by external forces as pre-eminent in our psychic development? Were Piaget's children normal or extraordinary? Were his theories of child development unduly influenced by his perception of his own children? Try as we might, we cannot dispassionately or objectively examine our own behavior. That is why most psychiatrists are themselves in therapy, not because they're a mess but because they are inherently incapable of assessing their own mental health. By extension, the science itself is inherently incapable of performing its self-assigned task - determining the causes and cures of abnormal behavior. It is, more than any other form of medicine, a hit-or-miss proposition. Witness the new panacea of psychometric drugs. Try wellbutrin and see if it makes you feel better. If not, we'll switch the dosage. Or try you out on some other serotonin re-uptake inhibitor.
All that aside, the current state of the science, at least as practiced in the insurance company bottom-line dominated health care world, bears an uncanny resemblance to the psychiatric world portrayed in Girl Interrupted.
The psychiatrist is around for legitimacy but is rarely seen (Vanessa Redgrave), the therapist is who the patients actually see (and they are about as competent and motivated as the one in this movie), the street-wise nurse (Whoopi) serves the same role as psychometric drugs (try this and try that until something works), and the patients themselves are primarily responsible for their own care. Nobody in the system really knows what's going on and the only ones that genuinely care are the other patients and those that live with them.
In case you don't know, your health insurance plan, if you have one, and if it covers mental health, works like just like this. A psychiatrist can be seen once a month max and can therefore not participate in the patient's treatment other than to prescribe drugs. Insurance will pay for a "therapist" to see a patient regularly. A therapist whose annual salary (paid by the HMO) is less than half that of a licensed psychiatrist. Would you take your car to someone who is paid half what real mechanics are paid? If you did, would you expect it to be fixed properly? If you're lucky enough to have family members who can cope with the nightmare of mental illness and love you enough to go through it for you, you may stand a chance.
Otherwise, I'll see you on the corner holding a cardboard sign and talking to the air.


Madness - The Cell

From the bizarre ranting of the oracles of ancient Greece to the chillingly ordinary conversations of Ted Bundy, the world of the insane has fascinated those of us occupying a more mundane plane of existence.
Our interest in their world has not, however, given rise to a definition upon which many can agree. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' famous quip on pornography reveals, "I can't define it but I know it when I see it," insanity has eluded our best efforts at definition. The legal world draws ever-sharper lines around the insanity plea without ever attempting a description of the condition itself. "Inability to distinguish right from wrong" hardly serves to open the window on this most frightening of human conditions. Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and Ken Kesey, among others, have attempted to convey the vista purveyed from the windows of insanity.
Songwriter Bob Dylan spins a series of bizarre and apparently disconnected images in an effort at portraying the madness of a character in his song, Desolation Row.
Shaky and disjointed camera angles, flames and wind are the best the revolutionary director Quentin Tarentino can offer in his film Natural Born Killers.
Edvard Munch's 1893 painting, The Scream, conveys madness as well as any artistic effort, before or since.
The problem is, of course, we cannot relate. The sort of total disconnect that comprises madness is a state of being with which none but the initiated can relate. And the initiated aren't talking. At least, not in a language we can understand.
What, then, is madness?
Is it a nightmare world inhabited by weird, shifting figures? Does the world of the insane resemble ours in every detail? Do "faces look ugly?" Are colors the same?
And what of its origins - chemical, biological, behavioral? Will the next series of psychotropic drugs rebalance serotonin once and for all and make the mad mundane? Will we find the madness gene on our genome map? Is Mommy dearest really to blame after all?
The Cell looks at madness from both sides. Jennifer Lopez, actress, singer, dancer, portrays Catherine Deane, a child therapist with a particularly keen empathetic sense. Teamed with the latest synapse mapping technology of The Campbell Center (the usual massive empty ultra-modern edifice that personifies medical research to those of us unaware most research facilities are closet size office/labs), Catherine is asked to carefully creep around the mind of a crazed but now catatonic serial killer (suffering from Whalen's Infraction - a schizophrenia inducing virus contracted in-utero) in hopes of learning the whereabouts of his latest would-be victim. She agrees and we are off on Hollywood's latest attempt to portray madness. This one is different. The opening sequence of the film has Catherine, dressed in a blinding white outfit, walking along the ellipse of a huge burnt orange sand dune en route to a mind-meld with her comatose young patient. The surreally vivid colors of the desert sands and blue sky are a portent of "life in the mind," where this film spends more than half its two hours. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Carl Stargher the insane serial killer, all too convincingly (remember "the bug" from men In Black?). Carl's world is horrific and some scenes entirely too searing for normal minds. Some of those images I could just as well do without, thank you very much.

The Cell is directed by Tarsem Singh and this is his first feature film. His previous claim to fame is as director of REM's Losing My Religion. Feathers abound in both films. This is a visually arresting film of enormous complexity and richness. Tarsem occasionally crosses the line between story and set. Several scenes bring to mind the gilt edged darkness of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Unlike Kubrick's largely empty visual cornucopia, The Cell asks some difficult questions. What are we to do with the insane? Is terminating their apparently tortured lives, either through drugs or worse, right? Can anyone know for certain? We once thought the madness displayed by ancient Greek oracles to be a sign of communion with the Gods.
An interesting lapse in the story line involves FBI lackey Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber). Ramsey is a whining and befuddled counterpart to the clear-eyed dedication of Vince Vaughn's Special Agent Peter Novak. Twice, Ramsey takes a call on his cell phone from some mysterious other. Both calls are clearly bad news and we begin to suspects Ramsey may somehow be involved in the crimes. Nothing is explained and nothing comes of these mysterious calls. Some important elements must have ended on the edit room floor. Too much attention to flowing robes, too little focus on continuity.
Alas, for all its oddity and visual richness, The Cell brings us ultimately no closer to understanding this most altered of states.
The screenwriters attribute Stargher's madness either to the abuse of his father or Whalen's Infraction. Stargher's inner landscape is inhabited by both a stylized superhuman version of himself and Stargher at ten, a frightened child desperately seeking escape.
It's environment, it's biological, the insane are hopelessly out of reach, the insane are frightened children.
Go see, you pick. But leave the children at home.


Aging - The Savages

Standing outside the nursing home to which they have just committed their estranged father Lenny (Philip Bosco), Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) not kindly tells sister Wendy (Laura Linney) that yes, they all smell the same, and yes, this is where people go to die, and yes, it is horrible. It is horrible. We have become so disconnected from each other that we readily accept the proposition that the answer to aged parents is to consign them to a ward where strangers will care for them while they waste away and die. Unless you are very wealthy, though, you must first strip them of everything they own so they qualify for government assistance. The pathetic attempt to store away something for their old age, a piece of property, a savings account, some stock, must all be divested. It's quite legal, even encouraged. Once accomplished, reapply and they'll be taken in by the local home for the destitute and dying. There's a good chance that once there they'll lose their watch and any nice furnishings you might supply, but you'll be free to go to work every day or care for the kids that will one day turn you out.


Death and Dying - The Sea Inside

Distracted by a beautiful woman, Ramon Sampedro dives into a familiar cove just as the riptide is dropping the water's depth by half. He crashes into the sea floor and wakes up when a friend pulls him out. He spends the next three decades as a quadriplegic petitioning the state (Spain) to recognize his right to die. The Sea Inside isn't about Spain or quadriplegia, it is about whether we should have the right to end our lives at a time of our choosing. That this is a question for governments to answer is a testament to our inability to structure a relationship between the state and us that makes sense. Not unlike the inane law that prevents us from voting for the same person over and over, the laws against suicide are rooted in the belief that the state knows better what is good for us. As we need the state to keep us from electing the same person too many times, we need the state to remind us that we have insufficient judgment to decide to end our life. We do give the state the right to kill us, though, and that seems to make perfect sense. This life that is too precious to be ended willingly by us can be ended by the state if our behavior violates the social contract in a particularly heinous manner. So, we surrender the right to end our own life but allow the state to end it if it so chooses. And we haven't even considered war.
I'm getting ready to go run (walk) in the park in a few minutes. I will be joined by hundreds of my fellow citizens, some of whom want to be fit, some to be among friends, some to relax, but I fear, a large percentage are out there to do everything they can to avoid death. Struggling, panting, grimacing, aching, in what is surely a vain effort, for most at least, to stave off the deterioration of their heart muscle and the narrowing of their arteries. To prolong life, to eke out a few more months or years spent misunderstanding people, hurting those they love, watching too loud commercials on television, laughing at others misfortune, consuming and consuming and consuming, generating waste and spoiling the environment. Because we are afraid, afraid of death, afraid of what we don't know about life and afraid there may be nothing awaiting us on the other side.
Javier Bardem will have to win an Academy Award someday, he seems to get nominated every time he acts. He is a prodigious talent and mesmerizing to watch. Belen Rueda, Lola Duenas, Mabel Rivera, and Clara Segura are beacons as the women who love him and would be enough to make me want to stick around, but then I can walk to the window if I want. And that's the whole point, really. I'm not him or you and have absolutely no right to control whether you live or die and should not, and did not, surrender that right to a state.


World's End Food - The Road

A few years ago a tropical storm popped up in the Gulf and drifted slowly over Houston. Houston is as flat a piece of land as you're likely to see outside Bonne- or Jackson- ville. Houston sits about sixty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico at an elevation of sixty feet. For every fifteen hundred steps you take toward Houston from the Gulf you can take one step up. Really, really flat. The landscape is littered with what the drummer form the Atlanta Rhythm Section once described to me as ditches. We call them bayous, cut on the diagonal and pointed toward the coast. They help to drain the annual fifty odd inches of rain that aren't absorbed by the clay like ground of this part of the country. Designed to sluice two inches an hour into the Gulf of Mexico, anything beyond that and the water has nowhere to go but up the sidewalk and into your home.

The storm slowed just north of the city, intensified and drifted back to stall for ten hours. The meteorologists began talking about the atmosphere's capacity to hold rainfall. The bayous were already sluicing their capacity when this big red splotch parked in the center of the Houston/Galveston radar screen and dumped four inches an hour overnight.

I watched streets flood, then freeways and around three in the morning the water began creeping toward the front steps, all three of them. Halfway up the yard I pushed a railroad spike into the ground to mark the high water point. An hour later the water was lapping at the front and back doors. By now the street in front of our house was nearly three feet deep. It occurred to me only then that come dawn we would join the throng of idiots waving from rooftops, too dumb to leave before and too helpless to save ourselves we would be, like Stella, dependent on the kindness of strangers.

In the nightmare inhabited by the good guys in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, strangers fall into two categories, predator or prey. Father and Son are making their way to the coast where they hope to - survive? All the plants and animals are dead, victims of the nuclear winter. Canned goods have all but disappeared and the only remaining food source is bipedal. It's a ghastly story and meant to be so.

Another end of the world film in current release is 2012. The difference between the two visions calls to mind the chasm separating our last two vice-presidents. One, a churlish, scheming cynic comfortable with "the dark side," the other a cheery optimist. One gazes at the world with a sneer, the other a smile. The survivors in Roland Emmerich's 2012 make their way to a row of gleaming phallus and launch into the flood with bright hopes for a new tomorrow. The survivors in McCarthy's The Road make their way to a dirty beach only to push ahead through the grime, cold and hunger.

Faced with the choice, would I take the easy way out or struggle to survive? Impossible to know, and unlike the hundreds of millions in the world's darker corners daily confronting that choice, I can speculate, free from all but existential choices.


Fast Food - Super-Size Me

The cacophony of wrongs, injustices and horrors with which we are daily assaulted is sufficient to drown out what might appear to be the lesser evils. I neglected seeing Super Size Me for a few weeks as I know what's wrong with fast food and thought I didn't need to see Morgan Spurlock's film to underscore the evils of a high fat diet. First of all, Morgan is far more charming and funny than comes across in the trailers. More importantly, though, as is usually the case with fellow documentarian Michael Moore, we learn a little more than we thought we knew. In the closing credits of Spurlock's documentary of the effect of a 30 day diet of nothing but McDonald's fare we learn that Congress recently passed the "Cheeseburger bill" making it illegal to sue fast food restaurants for making you fat. I don't know if that means we can't sue them for hardening our arteries or giving us diabetes, but that's beside the point. The really awful thing about this industry is the manner in which they lure children into their world of fries and shakes. Especially in the inner city, a McDonald's is often one of the few places children can go to play. Spurlock interviews some first graders with picture flash cards. Every one of them knew Ronald McDonald, only two of the five recognized George Washington and none of them recognized a painting of Jesus. Happy Meals and toy giveaways dominate the landscape for children. We hear from several advocates, including the former Surgeon General, about the dangers of fast food and the power of the food industry and their lobby. One observation that I found telling was that children are presented with something close to ten thousand advertisements or images promoting fast food or soda pop in the course of one year. If mom and dad home cooked dinner every night and gave a little talk about wholesome diets (count these as two) the child would get a little over seven hundred "counters" to the fast food message machine. Seven hundred against ten thousand, hmmm. Most of our schools are outsourcing meals and we get to see a few school cafeterias serving up fries and sodas to their kids. The Surgeon General predicts obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death within the next several years. Health and Human Services head Tommy Thompson tells us that the direct costs of diabetes have more than doubled from 44 billion to 90 billion.
This is beginning to sound a bit like a cacophony so I'll stop. But go see this film. Get mad about what these people are doing to our children. Somebody please make them stop. Please.


Acting - Flawless

Tough guy learns humility and compassion when he takes singing lessons from a drag queen. The lessons are necessitated when he suffers a stroke while attempting to help out the drag queens' lover. DeNiro plays an ex-cop that can't help but get involved when he hears gunplay upstairs from his apartment. On his way up the stairs to stop the bad guys he suffers a stroke. When he doesn't come in for physical therapy his doctor arranges for a hip, black, physical therapist to come to him three times a week. The hip therapist recommends singing lessons. On his way to the singing coach he falls on the sidewalk outside his building. Unwilling to risk further embarrassment, he goes upstairs to the drag queen to ask if he'll teach. Toward the end of the film, we get the explanation (from the drag queen) that DeNiro was willing to take lessons from a drag queen because he could never be embarrassed in front of such a low life.
The appreciation or enjoyment of any work or art is influenced by an infinite variety of factors, some major, some minor. One of the critical factors in appreciation of film involves the viewers suspension of disbelief. When Luke Skywalker dons blinders and employees the force to guide him in blocking the practice beacons' laser beams on board the Millennium Falcon, my level of enjoyment of Star Wars dropped appreciably. Suddenly I was watching a movie again, aware of the plot and the scene's role in plot development. No way this kid can hear about the force one day and develop the ability to totally sublimate his sense of sight to it in 2 minutes of instruction. Unrealistic, don't buy it, can't believe it.
I did believe Obi Wan could wave his hand at a star trooper and the star trooper would move on. I did believe a beam weapon could obliterate a planet and Sir Alec would feel it across a galaxy. So why did the helmet thing give me such trouble? Because it involved something I know a little bit about. Enough, at least, to know what I was seeing could never happen.
From time to time I pretend I can't see. I feel my way around with my eyes closed. I don't know why, I just do it. The impact of losing your sense of sight, even in a pretend way, is enormous. It is overwhelming. That Luke could sublimate that loss in a matter of seconds and depend entirely on a new sense he never knew he had is patently absurd. When it happened, I checked out of the experience and became aware of the reality of the movie, the theater, those around me.
To surrender to the experience, in addition to the requirement that we suspend disbelief inherent in any imaginary event (like reading a book or watching a movie), requires a focus that excludes distractions. The effort to hold the book erect, the crunching popcorn behind you, the overloud sound system (increasingly common as we bathe in the new sound technologies - remember Technicolor and the overly colorful clothes in those first clumsy efforts) all must be shut out. Only then the experience can be fully appreciated. The artists must do their part and not try to carry us to a place we know can never go, while we do our part focusing on the event so entirely that the experience becomes all our consciousness registers. In this state, we "lose ourselves" in the book or film or experience at hand.
The reason we are so uncomfortable when an actor addresses us directly (besides its rarity) is it attacks our suspension of disbelief. Woody Allen explored the phenomenon in depth in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Mia Farrow begins a relationship with Jeff Daniels from the theater audience. Jeff Daniel's character literally steps out of the screen and into the theater. We become acutely aware of the experience and entirely disengaged from it.
Where did Flawless cross the line? No way DeNiro ever climbs those stairs to seek help from a man he despised the day before. The character, notwithstanding DeNiro's incomparable abilities, doesn't support this radical change of heart. Within a matter of days, DeNiro's character moves from total hostility to abject depression to tolerance and even love. The director as much as admits this failing when we are treated to a Yaseetimee scene (It's that moment when the stupid people have the moral explained to them, it's from Lassie, "you see Timmy, the rancher had to shoot those men because they didn't understand the importance of private property") explaining how DeNiro's character could bring himself to take lessons from a person he otherwise wouldn't save from drowning. It just doesn't work and its failure prevented me from buying the entire premise of the film.
Without that suspension of disbelief, I was left to enjoy a remarkable performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. No small consolation.


Hunkness - The Chronicles of Riddick

Alannis Morrisette had a hit not too long ago called "Ironic." She warbles through a litany of awful things that might happen to you or me and refrains them as ironic. When a fly lands in your Chardonnay, when it rains on your birthday, when you hate flying and your plane crashes, etc. etc." Now I'm certainly no accomplished songwriter but I can look up ironic in the dictionary and a fly in your wine isn't ironic. Irony is "...a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used." Now a fly in your wine is bad but not ironic. This was running through my head when the Necro's repeated their mantra - you keep what you kill. I saw an armadillo on the way home from the movie and thought about taking it home but then it really belonged to that guy in the Ford F150 than ran over it. I think what the Necros mean to say is, you inherit the things that belonged to those you kill. Not exactly British common law but then whoever said the Necros were law abiding? Actually, the Necros, short for Necromonger (Universan Latin for death advocate) are on their way to the fabled Underverse. Underverse, as Dame Judy Dench explains, is the place where the Lord Marshall, as the only one to go and come back, gained his superhuman powers. Those powers seem to consist of moving really fast and sometimes speaking in a really deep echoey voice. He has a really cool helmet but the actor, Colm Feore, doesn't seem up to the role. He seems more the embezzling type but then even Darth Vader wasn't so tough without his helmet.
As everyone surely knows by now, Riddick (Vin Diesel) originally appeared in Pitch Black as an evil prisoner type that helps a few fellow travelers escape some carnivorous crickets with night vision. Riddick has night vision too and we learn in Chronicles that his unusual nature is attributable to his origin species, Furian. Furians are the only folk the Necros are afraid of as they are this universe's version of the US Marines. One of the people Riddick helped escape from the cricket planet summons him to his home world to stave off the impending invasion of the Necromonger. The Necros arrive in a comet like apparition and their ships descend through the atmosphere like giant darts, stabbing the victim planet at five hundred mile intervals. In the opening credits we see the point of such an arrangement as they do a sterilization thing when they leave. They are visiting to draft recruits who are then Necromized by two tiny electrodes in the neck. You now know everything you need to know and can go see The Chronicles of Riddick for the only legitimate reason, the very cool special effects. Not that the dialogue is bad, it's not. It is utterly superfluous, though. This is an action film with a sufficient variety of action settings to relegate the story to the background. It didn't have to be that way. The filmmakers decided to mention some things in passing and then focus on the action sequence. Like the Furians, for example. We don't hear what happened to them or how Riddick came to be one of the last wondering Furians. Or what Underverse is about, or lady Dench's people, the Elementals, or even the Lord Marshall's history. But then if Universal is looking to make this the next Star Wars they want to generate more questions than answers. If this is the master plan, they better get busy making Riddick someone we care about. Hunkness is not enough to carry a franchise, we need to fall in love. With the character, the story, the cute little robots or their equivalent. In the words of a once great Secretary of the Treasury, "I knew Luke Skywalker, Luke Skywalker was a friend of mine, and you, Mr. Riddick are no Luke Skywalker." Heck, you're not even Han Solo.


Cheap Trick - Moulin Rouge

We were seated at a long table, about thirty of us, inside what used to be a bank vault. Bob was on my left. Everyone else worked for the company in some capacity, supervisor, dispatcher, receiver. Receiver was what we called the people who answered the phone. My favorites were a married couple, Lee and Abie. Lee was full blooded Cherokee, or so she said. Abie was full blooded Mexican. Between them they weighed over six hundred pounds. Nobody messed with Abie because he'd been there since Noah and knew everything, and was on the high side of three hundred pounds. Nobody messed with Lee because she was a crazy Indian, or so she had us believe. She dispatched only once and summoned several drivers to the lot to settle things. She went back to receiving.
At the end of the dinner everyone received an envelope. Each envelope contained one half of a hundred dollar bill. When Bob opened his he said loud enough for all to hear, "cheap trick!" The moment was ruined. Any hopes the owner had for revving us all up to capture the other half of the hundred vanished in Bob's cynicism. He was right, of course, it was a cheap trick. The owner hoped to motivate us to achieve his goals over the next six months with a hundred dollar carrot. It worked for many. It never worked for Bob. He would never be manipulated.
I thought of Bob as I heard the sounds of recognition and approval when the next eighties hit emanated from the screen. This retrospective of American pop music was roundly appreciated by all. Only problem I had with it was it was supposed to be a Paris nightclub at 1900. Maybe we are to believe pop music of the last turn of the century elicited the same feeling as pop music of today. Maybe we are to see how easily manipulated we are.
But then I remember what I thought when I got the Moulin Rouge press kit.
It comes with a warning that the recipient must not attempt to resell or auction the material contained within. What does this mean? Is Nicole Kidman so hot that we will auction her photos on EBay? I guess she must be, right? How dumb are we supposed to be?
From page three of the Press Kit: "It is this constant referencing and re-referencing that we hope allows a modern audience to decode the historical setting. The ease with which the audience understands the story is crucial. In this musical we are not revealing the characters or plot slowly and invisibly, but quickly and overtly." This is director speak for, today's audiences are too dull to understand what we are doing so we must hammer them early and often so they can follow the story. How close does the close-up need to be show us the blood in the kerchief? Does she have TB? OMG! What will happen?!?
Director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet) is attempting to make the musical fresh again, as his co-writer Craig Pearce explains, "...we deal in big, strong gestures. The scenes have to build to such an extent, with the characters getting so high on the energy, that they can't do anything else but SING!" If Baz and Craig think they are reinventing the musical they need to watch Gene Kelly do Singing In The Rain. What they have created is closer to Malcom McDowell's version from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
I just have to find a way to see Toulouse-Lautrec in a new light. The impish fun lover, staging a musical a la Mickey and Judy. Oh please.


Vampires - Underworld

Here's the main thing. You gotta love the vampires. First, they've got the coolest name. Lychen is what you call that slick green stuff that grows between bricks and what they call werewolves in Underworld, the first movie I've seen in the theater in almost two months. Two months cause of back surgery. But that's a story for another time. I have seen a few movies on cable, like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days (terrible), Phone Booth (OK), Die Another Day (awful), Equilibrium (dumb), Just Married (OK) and Winged Migration (beautiful). But I digress.
The next cool thing about vampires is they live in a mansion, something like what Thug Mansion must look like, dark, big overstuffed chairs and couches, lots of babes in short skirts and leather, big heavy doors that only vampires could fling open. Werewolves live underground in nasty, wet old abandoned subway tunnels. Even their labs are grimy. And, of course, the transmutation thing. I mean vampires eyes get kind of blue and their teeth stretch a bit but lichen turn into wolf/dog things. Yuch, no way man. Not me. But the real reason vampires win is - werewolves used to be vampires servants! Who knew? Vampires used werewolves to keep them safe during the day. If you have to be an immortal and eat people and stuff I think I'd want to be the guy with servants.
Anyway, all this becomes moot as soon as we learn that Kate Beckinsale (Selene) works for the vampires. She's a Death Dealer. That means she slinks about killing lychen. And she wears this fine form fitting leather suit and long leather cape. But she shoots everybody. And so do the werewolves. They both seem to disrespect people a lot but they sure love our guns. They have modified bullets that contain liquid light and silver nitrate and stuff. And they love cars, they all drive. Now these guys can fly, run sixty miles an hour, jump from six flights up, but they drive everywhere. Must be the stereo. There is some stuff about the elders and the reason for the war between lychen and vampires to make the story work but really it isn't necessary. Kate Beckinsale is on screen for all but a couple of scenes and that's what makes this work. Nelly Furtado shows up as a European elder vampire but the rest of the cast is unremarkable. They all seem like soap opera folks, not that there is anything wrong with that.
Anyway, Underworld is all about the visuals. It's raining constantly, always night, and there are some cool bullet time shots. Only one overly gruesome shot in the whole film which mars but doesn't ruin. Kudos to Kate Beckinsale for taking a chance on a film whose target audience either plays Dungeons & Dragons or is a fourteen year old boy or both. I'm still rooting for the vampires to win in the end. Sequel for sure, the voice over is Selene telling us how she'll be hunted now. Oh, almost forgot, the story is about the search for... oh, nevermind, it doesn't matter.


Vampirella - Queen of the Damned

A few years back I was given a copy of Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice. I read it in an afternoon and was particularly taken with her description of The Garden District in New Orleans. The foot thick walls sunk deep into the Louisiana marsh fascinated and intrigued me. Like the sweet, juicy peach from twenty years ago that, to this day, I pursue in market after market, I read her Interview With a Vampire in hope of more of that superior writing she used to describe those ancient New Orleans neighborhoods. Her story put me in mind of H.P. Lovecraft, my favorite horror story author. Lovecraft and Poe both used the first person narrative to great effect in some of their best stories. The "you will of course think me mad but let me tell you this story" has always been a personal favorite. I finished Interview and then The Vampire Lestat, The Witching Hour, and Queen of the Damned. I even branched off into her book about the castrated children choirs of the old Roman Catholic Church. I stopper short of her pornography (she writes hard core porn under a pseudonym) but found her a generally entertaining author. I'm not sure she has anything of lasting value to impart to us beyond entertainment but then entertainment seems to be harder and harder to come by. So much trash is thrown at us in the guise of entertainment - monster truck pulls, reality television, The Man Show or whatever that paean to chauvinism is called - that when a halfway decent novel like Interview With a Vampire comes along, I fall for the rest of the series.
This is the frame of reference when I plunk down my seven dollars for Queen of the Damned.
The music that awakens The Vampire Lestat is heavy metal. It is loud enough in the theater that I have no doubt it would awaken a vampire from a hundred year nap. Lestat was once an eighteenth century French nobleman with what seemed to be a Nebraska accent. He becomes a rock star (Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor look out - The Vampire Lestat has stolen your personas) and schedules a big concert in Death Valley. Meanwhile, the mother of all vampires, Akasha, played by the deceased hip-hop star Aaliyah, awakens from her thousand year nap (prompted not by heavy metal but by Lestat's violin playing, which, for no apparent reason, is executed at super-speed) and decides to wreak havoc on all humanity, just like she did in ancient Egypt. And we thought bricks with no straw was bad! Several of the good vampires, under the spiritual guidance of a vampire with a continuing human lineage, decide to fight Akasha. It seems vampires, the good ones, at least, have a soft spot for humans. Akasha looks a lot more like a hip-hop star than the Queen of the Damned but then what should the Queen of the Damned look like, Nancy Reagan?
One of the more interesting aspects of Rice's Vampire Chronicles is the Talamasca, the group of regular humans tasked with watching and keeping track of the Vampire community. In her novel the Talamasca (featured in The Witching Hour) occupy a place of some seriousness. In the film they appear to be Vampire groupies. The cutest one has a thing for Lestat.
Allrighty then, there you have it. Six producers, two screenwriters, a dozen actors from the Vampire guild, and a dead hip-hop star later, you get the blockbuster of the weekend.
I think I'll go lay down for a hundred years, nighty-night all.


Digital versus Text - Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

When I grimaced in response to a friends question about the new Star Wars installment he asked, "no story line, huh?" Good guys against bad guys, I said. Good guys get beat up but then prevail, sort of. Next chapter, you know. This is, I think, at the heart (or lack) of the problem with LucasFilm's latest piece. It's the same story, again. Young, talented fellow ready for adventure is being held back by his elders. He falls for the beautiful and seemingly unattainable princess/Senator. His rash behavior gets everyone else in trouble but his raw talent saves the day. The original Star Wars played all this out with Luke Skywalker and Princess Lea. The latest Star Wars plays all this out through Anakin Skywalker and Senator Amidala. The background in both films is the cosmic struggle of good versus evil and in the foreground, the comic struggle of immaturity versus maturity. What separates the two films (besides a couple of decades) is the digital age and Harrison Ford. Of course, Luke grows up to be the good guy and Anakin grows up to be the bad guy, yes, yes. Of much greater significance, though, is the digital revolution.
To get an idea of the impact digital is having, go rent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Meet Me In St. Louis. Not likely to be on the average Star Wars fan's top ten list but both films perfectly illustrate the effect of new technology. Both films were made in the first blush of the advent of Technicolor. Clothes were blood red or lime green or canary yellow, better to show off the new science of color. Like the Tiger Joe Tank I got for Christmas when I was eleven, it took over my life for a while. I watched two unaccompanied minors on a recent flight play their Game Boys from take off to landing. They would occasionally wipe their sweaty palms on the armrests and shake their pre-carpal thumbs in the air to restore blood flow but they could no more stop playing than George Cukor could choose an earth tone or George Lucas show us fifty clones. No, it's got to be two hundred thousand clones, and sixty thousand flying cars, and a gazillion mean dragonflies. I fear the current batch of films (from Pearl Harbor to Attack of the Clones) will gain giggles in twenty years as the overuse of the new toy will be more painfully obvious then than now.
Attack of the Clones has no Hans Solo or Chewbacca and they are sorely missed. Beside Harrison Ford's charisma, Chewbacca's charm, and Carrie Fisher's wit and presence, the current gaggle of co-stars doesn't compare well. Samuel L. Jackson reprises one of his two characters (the other being outraged victim and this one the resigned wizened one), Natalie Portman looks pretty, and the silly Jar Jar Binks returns (KILL THIS CHARACTER MR. LUCAS).
Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan) is as good as Hayden Christensen (Anakin-Darth) is bad. But the weight of trying to show us why Anakin goes over to the dark side is too much for any actor to bear, especially with lines like "why did my mother have to die?" I mean has anyone ever actually asked that question? Tender mentor leans in and whispers, "because she isn't immortal, stupid."
As I was complaining about the shallow nature of this latest chapter in the over-long Star Wars saga a little girl looked kind of disappointed and asked, "it's no good?" Feeling guilty I said she would probably really like it because she didn't have the original to compare. The truth is she'll probably be disappointed too. I encouraged her mother to take her to see Spider Man. A real story, I added.


Digital versus Black and White - Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

The Star Wars saga is complete with a visually powerfully and overtly political final (nee third) installment, The Revenge of the Sith. As the full power of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM - Lucas' personal wish fulfillment corporation) is brought to bear on an opening sequence featuring Obi-Wan and Anakin rescuing the Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from the metallic clutches of the clone separatist General Grievous. Clever banter between Obi-Wan and Anakin are juxtaposed with majestic shots of battle cruisers and fighters engaged in the mother of all dogfights. This is Lucas' triumph, comprised of miniatures and testosterone. I could spend hours watching and rewatching this great battle in the sky. Knowing that Lucas brought in reels of World War II dogfights to kick-start his creative crew in the first Star Wars production detracts not from this thrilling twenty minutes. The witty banter does diminish, though, as we are hawked back to Han and Luke in the original. The words can't match the pictures and like a splinter in the palm, the next wince is coming and we know it. "This is how liberty dies..." is followed by "...you are with me or you are my enemy..." and "...you were like a brother..." until the trite script consumes the titanic storyboard and we are left biting the inside of our cheek, wishing for better or less or something else.
I recently attended a screening of Sergie Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevskiy at the local symphony. The orchestra was accompanied by a hundred voice choir and we were treated to the music of Sergei Prokofiev live in concert with the film. Aleksandr Nevskiy is a 1938 film by the great Russian director Eisenstein. His tale of Nevskiy is a thinly disguised allegory for the coming war with Germany. By placing the story in the 13th century, he avoids the obvious correlation between Fascist Germany and the Russia of Stalin. Nonetheless, the film was banned in Russia until Germany voided the non-aggression pact he signed with Russia. Cameras were in short supply in pre-war Russia and most of this film epic is filmed from a single stationary camera in black and white. That same year Hollywood would produce The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind at budgets that dwarfed Eisensteins. In spite of the near primitive conditions, Aleksandr Nevskiy ranks with if not above Hollywood's contemporary classics. Eisenstein's tale of honor and courage moves and inspires. Lucas' tale of loyalty and tyranny thrills and entertains. Big difference. Today I can see the title character of Nevskiy's film standing before his people exhorting them to defend their homeland. The lasting image from Lucas' is the great battle cruiser crash landing onto the planet. Whether this is a fair comparison or not is a legitimate question. If Lucas set out to tell an entertaining story of a galaxy far away he certainly succeeded. If his sub-plots of tyranny, democracy, and the corrupting influence of power are considered then Star Wars is something less than brilliant. Not that I don't share Lucas' apparent revulsion for the jingoistic diatribe that passes for political thought these days, but The Revenge of the Sith is too clunky a vehicle to make that point. The dialogue is as forced and tinny as the action sequences are breathtaking.
Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevskiy stands up today through the power of the words that drive and deliver its message. Lucas' Star Wars will sadly slip from its current high water mark as its medium is visual. The audience is rendered passive in the face of the power of ILM's visual onslaught. The imaginative and adaptive power of the mind is more fully engaged in Nevskiy as it is in a novel with the result that Nevskiy can be viewed seventy years later and still stir. The Revenge of the Sith will certainly be appreciated in seventy years but it isn't likely to move its future audience either.


Reading - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

We're almost done, thank goodness. It will be a decade when Part Two of the final book is finally in theaters. The sequels and spinoffs will likely begin then as the last few dollars are wrung from Rowling's books. Books. Soon to go the way of Dumbledore.
A friend asked me to pick up some books for her at one of the mega-chains recently. I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to pick up one for myself. "Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places" was featured in the NY Times Book Review and looked interesting. I've learned it's almost impossible to find a book on your own in one of these stores and the computer terminals the employees use for searching are off limits to customers so I'm compelled to ask an employee. He looks it up on the nearest terminal and says it's in earth science. I follow him up the stairs and stop in earth science as he rounds the corner to geography. After a minute he comes back to earth science and we look together. Not here, he says, maybe it's on display. No there either. Now the computer said they had several copies but they seemed to have disappeared. Well, I say, I need to pick up five books that are being held for my friend. Oh, they'll be at the front desk he says. I'm looking for five books being held for my friend, I say to the young person behind the counter. You'll need to go to the pillar with the computer, she says, and points to a pillar about twenty feet away. I don't see any computer so I keep looking. Right there, she says, like I'm a blind fool. I see a pillar but no computer. The computer she references isn't visible from where we stand. I can only guess her instruction to go to the pillar with the computer makes sense to her because she works there and knows that the computer is attached below our sight line. Why she is unable to wrap her brain around the fact that she is telling me to go to a place that doesn't exist will be made clear the next day when she is flummoxed by the concept of a discount AND tax exempt status. She possesses a purely linear thought process, like a serial printer. No matter how many times you ask your computer to print a document, if the first print job went awry the following print jobs will stack up in the cue awaiting their turn. Like the wind-up toy that runs into the wall and keeps running into the wall until you pick it up and redirect it. Like the student taught to pass a test, she has never learned to think, only recall. One of the underlying causes behind the dissolution of political discourse, people can only repeat talking points and buzz words. But I digress.
Arriving at the pillar I can now see the computer suspended at waist level that was invisible from the front desk. An older fellow ambles up carrying a stack of books under one arm. He's destroying the binding by carrying them one armed but only those with work experience in a library would know this. Like only those with experience in a professional kitchen would know not to carry a saucepan of hot oil anywhere (sloshing 450 degree oil can permanently disfigure). I tell the older fellow I'm looking for five books being held for my friend. He tries looking them up on the computer and announces the books are not on site. Less than ten minutes ago another fellow told me Cold was on site when it wasn't so applying my ability to reason (I started school before Sputnik so most of my teachers grew up reading instead of taking tests) I infer if this fellow says the books are not on site they probably are. I ask as kindly as I can for a manager. He squeezes his little microphone and a few minutes later a manager appears. As soon as the manager shows up the older fellow wonders off. Now you'd think he'd want to stick around and learn something but what do I know. The manager listens to my story and, like they all do these days, apologizes for any inconvenience, and says the books were supposed to be delivered by FedEx but they haven't arrived yet. Maybe they'll be here later this evening. All the FedEx trucks in the city are heading for their terminals at this point in the day with the shipments they started picking up a few hours ago. It's after five and deliveries were finished by three, like every day in every city in the world, but it isn't fair to expect this guy to know that so I just smile and say thank you.
Returning the next day I repeat the process but this time am armed with the email from the bookstore employee which I hand to the girl behind the counter. She enlists the aid of her co-worker and within five minutes they've located the books (they were in the same spot where they were yesterday when FedEx was blamed for not delivering them). She rings up the sale and I ask her why it is that the amount on the register is higher by twenty dollars than the amount indicated in the email. She again enlists the aid of a co-worker who enlists the aid of a manager who resolves the problem presented by more than one deviation from the standard transaction (tax exempt plus a discount). He doesn't show the two employees behind the counter how to do this and they aren't particularly interested. I take my books and leave.
Rowling's books don't appear to have started any trend toward reading. An isolated phenomenon, their magic probably in their magic. Who wouldn't rather wave a wand and clean up a mess? Who wouldn't want to look into a pool of water to assay the intent of others? I won't have to re-watch all these Potter movies to confirm what I suspect is true - no one in the Potter series picks up a book outside the classroom, no Wizard or Muggle home has bookshelves, and no adult in the films is observed reading anything other than a newspaper with imbedded video. Oh well.



Ethics
Astrophysics - The Pursuit of Happyness

I woke during the night with the image of a massive ball of dust circling a birthing star billions and billions of years ago. As this agglomeration of dust circles the new star it collects ever more and larger particles until the mass begins to concentrate and a core is formed. This core begins to heat from its concentration, dust that formed the planet begins to melt and bubble up from the interior, interacting with the virgin atmosphere and forming water. Billions of years hence, this ball of dust will incinerate as its star depletes its store of hydrogen and begins to expand.
I reach out my foot and touch hers and try to stop thinking.
I dream of traversing hell in a metal rail car with anonymous fellow travelers as we are subjected to hacking and burning by the demons that surround us.
Last night I saw The Pursuit of Happyness. I was relieved to see the misspelling was a cause of consternation to the main character and not some cutesy new coinage. Even still the film's title is incorrect. It should be Surviving Mizzery. This true and ultimately inspirational story is of a single father and his son in 1980's San Francisco. Starring the charismatic and gifted Will Smith (I just rewatched Enemy of the State with Smith and Gene Hackman ? a smart, funny, delightful thriller) along with his real life son and a talented Thandie Newton, The Pursuit of Happyness take us from struggling to desperate and back to struggling again before releasing us with (as one of my favorite lines from the Book of John New Testament puts it) the sure and certain hope of a better future. The ending, as jubilant as it was, was apparently not enough to hold the nighttime terrors at bay. Look for a walk through by the man the film is based on, Chris Gardner, in the film's final scene.


The Future - Wall-E

Of the two stories told in Pixar's latest, one is interesting and one is silly. Wall-E opens with a long shot from outer space tracking to the surface of Earth. On the way in we see a haze surrounding the planet that turns out to be reams of space junk, discarded satellites, little bits of metal. On the surface all that moves is a small roller-track robot gathering up trash, compressing and stacking it high, real high. The stacks of compressed waste are more numerous and taller than the abandoned skyscrapers. This is Wall-E and he's been at this task for seven hundred years. That's when the last of the humans left leaving Wall-E and his types to clean up. His types have all long since given up their ghosts but Wall-E crushes on. He also collects - lighters, hubcaps, whatever strikes his robot fancy. Part two begins when Wall-E meets up with the humans who left centuries ago. Seems they've been on an extended cruise and have morphed into lounging slugs with their heads buried in video screens. Humans have become rolly polly blobs unable to walk, unwilling to work. Where the post human Earth and Wall-E are rendered in muted tones and appear real, the humans are all technicolor pastels and rendered as cartoon characters. All semblance of complexity and depth disappear the moment the humans come on screen. Is this Pixar's attempt to make this moral tale more palatable by making it more cartoonish? Or did the imagination that delivered Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Nemo suddenly die? In either event, a truly magnificent film switches off like a light and we're left with the dull glow of a Clutch Cargo cartoon.


Murder as Revenge - Munich

There is a rumor that Spielberg was approached by several "serious" directors shortly after he acquired the rights to Schindler's List and asked not to direct the film. Seems Spielberg was perceived as a lightweight with insufficient gravitas to make such a meaningful film. Empire of the Sun notwithstanding, Spielberg's work at the time consisted of friendly space aliens and dashing archeologists. Since that time Spielberg has given us the definitive holocaust film, revived interest in The Good War and made us afraid of space aliens again. Now comes the little heard story of Israeli revenge for the death of their Olympic athletes. Eric Bana, in a role finally worthy of his extraordinary acting gifts, accompanied by veteran emperor Ciaran Hinds, the new James Bond Daniel Craig, the incandescent chameleon Geoffrey Rush and Israel's preeminent earth mother Ayelet Zorer, takes us into the mind of a man assigned the murder of a dozen people. Bana plays Avner, a low level Mosad agent suddenly promoted to assassin. In the enlightening scene of Avner's first kill we see him nervously asking his intended victim his name - twice. His victim, a Palestinian intellectual and author gently tries to get Avner to lower his pistol. He succeeds only temporarily and jarringly dies in a barrage of pistol shots. Crashing to the floor his blood mixes with the milk he was carrying as Avner and his compatriot run from the scene. Ciaran Hinds as cool, conflicted clean-up specialist Carl calmly retrieves a discharged shell casing. The casing makes a second appearance at the celebration the team enjoys later that evening. Toasting their first kill, Spielberg introduces us to the conflicts, internal and external, that will drive the balance of the film. These are men drinking to their successful murder of another. Bana stands apart struggling with the reality of what he has done. Daniel Craig is wholly unconflicted and can't wait to get on to their next kill. Robert, France's Mathieu Kassovitz, the team's bomb maker, is nervous, Carl thoughtful, and Hans (Hanns Zischler) philosophical. They are now all painted by their act, changed and moving in directions they no longer control.
This, then, is the story Spielberg would tell, not of justice or even revenge but of damage and destruction. Nothing is made right, balance is not restored, safety not attained. Although we do see one scene with a thoughtful Palestinian trying to explain their violent struggle as a search for home not unlike the Jews thousands year sojourn, the humanity we see is the humanity of the Israelis. This is their story and Spielberg, our master myth weaver, tells it well and soundly, the Palestinians are secondary actors in this drama. We do meet a very interesting group of French information peddlers. They reject governments and operate in their own carefully constructed moral sphere of righteousness. Selling names to the Mosad hit team for $200,000 each, they turn a deaf ear to the murders that follow their leads until one hit turns into a military operation. A violation of their contract with Avner, a meeting is held at the family retreat to which Avner is delivered in a blindfold. After a heart to heart with "Papa" (a perfectly weighty Michael Lonsdale), Avner leaves with Papa's blessings.
What sort of intricate machinations must one develop to make murder possible while condemning dishonesty? The same sort of thinking I suppose that allows us to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers under a bulldozed sand bank while accusing those who disagree of treason. The fundamentalist icon Pat Robertson suggested Venezuela's Chavez be shot while good Christian folk explain the New Orleans debacle as nothing more than what sinners deserve and AIDS as God's judgment against homosexuals. If I thought it would do any good I'd grab these idiots by the throat and give them a good shake. But I digress.
Munich is a profound film presenting a dark chapter in our history in a dim light. Spielberg allows the story to talk to us and it speaks in the tortured face of a man who does what he knows is wrong for a cause he knows is right. More than his victims die in the process.


The Face of Evil - The Fog of War

Robert McNamara comes across in Errol Morris' Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara the way he must have when he was the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, smart and charming. Morris' documentary consists of three parts McNamara interview and one part archival footage. McNamara was 85 years old when Morris made the film and he wants to share the lessons of his life. The film is built around eleven lessons; lessons like empathize with your enemy, you must do some evil in order to do good, and get the data. What is most compelling about this film is the obvious truth that McNamara was doing what he thought was right. Arguably responsible for the deaths of millions in Vietnam and World War II, he would probably have been put to death as a war criminal had we lost either war. McNamara was the product of a middle class Irish family and a Berkeley/Harvard education. During World War II he was selected to help guide the Air Force's fledgling statistical analysis department. In it he reviewed the effect of the Air Force's bombing runs over Germany and then Japan. He did the work that led his superior officer, the archetypal military madman General Curtis Lemay to threaten court martial for any pilot returning from daylight bombing runs over Germany without having flown over the target. Until then, one in five planes returned to base without dropping a bomb. When McNamara studied the reasons for the aborted missions he found them spurious. Lemay threatened court martial and the aborted missions dropped to near zero. More ominously, later in the war, McNamara concluded that the B-29 Stratofortress, by flying high enough over Japan to avoid anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters, was grossly inefficient in hitting targets. Lemay's solution was to load them up with incendiary bombs and go in at five thousand feet. The results were dramatic. McNamara tells us about burning half of Tokyo and 100,000 of its citizens to death on one night. He goes through a list of the Japanese cities and the percentage destroyed in Lemay's firebombing raids. American city names replace the Japanese on screen and we get to relate to what such destruction might mean to us, half of New York City, ninety percent of San Diego, forty percent of LA.
Morris plays the Oval Office tapes from both Kennedy and Johnson's discussions with McNamara over Vietnam and it looks like Kennedy would have gotten us out while Johnson got us in deeper. They both relied on McNamara, though, and he served them with pride and loyalty. This is a man with a job to do. Whether as president of Ford Motor (which he left after five weeks to join the Kennedy cabinet as one of the "best and brightest"), head of the new statistical service in World War II, or Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam disaster, McNamara is efficient, dedicated and loyal. He recalls the selection process that led him to the Statistics office in the Air Force. In the early days of computing, IBM was asked to find the best and brightest for this new Air Force department. Intelligence, accomplishments, aptitude, judgment, test scores were all reduced to chads on a punch card and the cards fed through the "computer." McNamara's card made it through, along with a handful of others. This was the selection process. We don't hear of any person involved in his selection, only a computer and punch cards. McNamara's on the job performance was driven by statistics and graphs. The decisions to fire bomb Japanese population centers, install seat belts and padded dashes in Ford Motor cars, commit 15,000, then 200,000, then 500,000 young men to the Vietnamese jungle, were based on the statistical analysis of Robert S. McNamara. The S does, in fact, stand for Strange. We learn this when McNamara tells us of his courting and marriage. He loved his wife dearly and yet tells us his job may have indirectly caused her death. "But, everyone in my family benefited from my job as Secretary of Defense." Odd.
As an old man, McNamara now assesses his life by another tool. He tells us of perception, judgment and morality, concepts that seemed to play little part in his previous life. We can't help but be charmed by this aged, articulate man with the smug smile and arrogant demeanor. Was this man a monstrous war criminal responsible for the deaths of millions and the architect of the beginning of the end of American moral superiority or was he a really smart guy who merely mastered the new science of statistical analysis and used it to further the interests of his employers? He seemed like such a nice man.


Moral Vacum - Stop Loss

Only about one in five American soldiers would fire their weapons directly at Axis soldiers during World War II. That percentage improved during Korea and Vietnam but it has been vastly improved in recent years. The military came to grips with our profound reluctance to take life. The only commandment everyone can recite is deeply imbedded in our psyche. The military has gone to great training pains to overcome it. Something close to ninety percent of our soldiers will now pull the trigger. And they find themselves in a battlefield without lines of demarcation, fighting soldiers without uniforms, battling a population we thought would welcome us as liberators. It is an impossible situation in which to place anyone. Eighty thousand of the six hundred and fifty thousand soldiers that have fought this war were kept in the military when their term of service was completed by a fine print clause called stop loss. The President (I can't write President anymore without shame - we don't deserve this criminally stupid fundamentalist even if you did elect him) can keep members of the volunteer armed forces beyond their contract in a time of war or national emergency. The only national emergency we suffer is being led by soulless, heartless, greedy men. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned our civilian leadership (all of whom managed to avoid any active service when their number was called) of nearly a quarter of returning soldiers are victims of post traumatic stress disorder. And we're sending them back. Like pushing the drowning man away from the lifeboat. To try to fix the unconscionable mess we created by invading a country that posed no threat to us.

This is the back story for Kimberly Pierce's second feature film. The first was 1999's Boys Don't Cry. She may have no Hilary Swank in this one but the story is at least as compelling and she once again refuses to take the easy way out. Ryan Phillipe, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Victor Rasuk, Channing Tatum, and Timothy Olyphant each contribute but Phillipe and Cornish are stand outs as they carry the second half of the film. Short on preaching and long on feeling, Stop-Loss joins In the Valley of Elah and The Ground Truth in showing us the tragedy of this government's moral vacousness - the damage inflicted on the minds and bodies of the young. I continue to see Dick Cheney's response to a reporters question about the seventy percent of Americans who think this was should end, "So?"
Who are these men?


Moral Relativism - Sideways

We've got to draw the line somewhere and, if it's all the same to you, I'll draw it at Sideways. Character One, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) takes Character Two, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week long trip to Napa Valley for a more sophisticated bachelor party. Jack is marrying Christine next Saturday and Miles wants to show Jack a good time sampling some of the finer varietals Northern California has to offer. Jacks plan involves sampling of a different type and Jack prefers the newly met Stephanie (Sandra Oh) over even the finest Pinot. The gregarious Jack and the depressive Miles hook up with Stephanie and her bud Maya (Virginia Madsen) and we can hardly wait for the inevitable reckoning to come. With the exception of one uncomfortable scene with Jack switching personalities the acting is good. Giamatti is charismatic, Oh and Madsen accomplished and the odd scene with Church is more the writing than the acting. With the exception of some odd split-screen mechanics early on, the direction is invisible and the story moves along quickly.
The line I want to draw demarks the Characters. About the only bad press the seminal comedy Seinfeld ever suffered was directed at the awful nature of the characters. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer can't hold a candle to the ugly people featured in Sideways. Miles drops by his mother's house to say happy birthday and sneaks upstairs to steal a few hundred dollars mom has stashed in an Ajax can. Jack is intent on having sex with anyone unlikely to file charges. My problem is not that the lead characters in this story have faults but that the faults are presented without comment. Stealing cash from your mom is pretty bad and serial sex within days of your wedding isn't much better but the writer/director chooses to present these guys dark side without a hint of condemnation. In fact, right after Miles steals the money his mother asks him if he needs any cash and Jack's infidelities are covered up with a faked car crash that earns him sympathy and attention from his bride to be.
Maybe my disdain for this morally bankrupt story is mixed up with my shock and awe over the tremendous faith the majority of the population puts in a President who can't seem to do anything right. The pollsters tell us Bush's strong morality earned him four more years as our leader. The lies about connections between Sadaam and Al Quaeda and WMD aside, this President has personal responsibility for the deaths of over a thousand and the maiming of several thousands more innocent American young men and women in an unnecessary war. He condemns the genocide in Darfur but does nothing, gives tax breaks to the rich, cuts social service programs for the poor and commands the respect and admiration of good Christians everywhere.
In a world where we can no longer tell good from bad and right from wrong a film featuring two morally deficient men should be an enormous success. After all, they're just like you and me, right? Hope not.


Doing the Right Thing - Remember the Titans

A Palestinian cameraman working for French television captured the following scene on videotape this weekend. A man and boy are seen crouching behind a three-foot box along a wall pock marked with bullet holes. The man has the boy pressed against his side with one arm draped over him and the other furiously waving from behind the box. Small arms fire is heard in the background. Bullets can be seen striking the wall and the small shelter behind which the man and boy attempt to hide. The boy can be seen crying furiously as the man waves and shouts. Soon the boy slumps down and rests his head in the man's lap. Seconds later the man's head begins to wobble and he appears dazed.
We learn from the photographer's voice over that the man and boy are father and son. The waving was accompanied by repeated pleas of "the child, the child!" as the father tried to get the shooters to stop. The boy died in his father's lap. A medic trying to reach them was shot and killed.
It all started when Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli military chief, toured a holy site in Jerusalem. Although he said his visit was about peace and reconciliation, the Palestinians didn't see it that way. Demonstrations began and the shooting started. Of course, it all started much earlier than Friday. It started, like all the other intractable conflicts around the globe, thousands of years ago.
Kathy Freeman lights the Olympic flame. An aborigine, her prominence in the Australian Olympics was meant to signal a new era for the aborigine people in Australia. That they were once hunted as sport and that their children were forcibly removed and placed with white families may be hard for some to forget. The Australian government refuses to apologize, citing their unwillingness to take responsibility for what their ancestors might have done.
Hutu tribesman in Rwanda hack to death tens of thousands of their Tutsi countrymen to avenge wrongs committed by the Tutsi under German and Belgian colonialism.
Irish terrorists shoot their countrymen in the knee because of suspicions of collaboration with the hated English.
Serbian efforts to ethnically cleanse their country are met with NATO bombing raids. The ethnic cleansing is stopped but not before the country is virtually emptied of "undesirables."
Racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts abound. Solutions are in short supply. Horror and tragedy prevail.
What can be done? Are these peoples doomed to forever hate and kill? In nearly every example of long-term intractable conflicts between peoples, an extended period of relative peace can be found. The Palestinians and Jews lived in relative harmony under the rule of the ancient Romans, the Hutus and Tutsis lived together for many decades under the colonial presence of the German and Belgian peoples, the Catholics and Protestants were kept from widespread slaughter by the British Army, and the Serbians and Bosnians were held at bay by the rule of Marshall Tito from the end of World War II until the end of the twentieth century. The lesson is repeated in a tale of integration in a souther US city.
Remember the Titans tells the story of a white Virginia high school suddenly combined with a nearby black high school. In an empty gesture at conciliation, the coach from the black high school is made head coach of the football team. The previews from this film tell you what kind of coach is Coach Boone (Denzel Washington). He is commanding, dictatorial, and utterly committed to the task at hand. That task is to win the state championship. This is an Erin Brokavich, Chariots of Fire, Breaking Away film. You know going in you are going to find hope restored, champions crowned, and bad guys vanquished. The joy, though, is in the telling, not the surprise. The script is powerful without an excess of melodrama, the acting is good (Denzel is great but then he always plays the hero well) but not brilliant, the direction well paced. I had trouble following some of the football action sequences but then I'm not much of a fan. I do know enough, though, to scoff at the notion that the head coach of a football team playing for the state championship (a coach who "won 250 games in thirty years") would, with his opponent down by four points, seventy five yards away, with eight seconds on the clock, probably not suddenly come to the realization that a deep pass was in the offing. Remember the Titans is based on a true story, though, and that helps it over these little lapses. The precocious ten-year-old daughter/coach was nonetheless a little hard to take. The theme doesn't support cutesy. The theme is the struggle to harmony between black and white players and coaches. The surrounding community remains polarized; this is the story of the players and coaches of the Titans. The battle for Coach Boone is uphill. The fight to get the players to tolerate each other is won by discipline and punishment. A meaningful speech or two is thrown in, along with one or two peacemaker types, but the battle is clearly won because Coach Boone physically wears down the players. Without his dictatorial style, this team will never gel. He tells an assistant coach that kindness and sensitivity will cripple the players, not strengthen them. In the context of this film, he is right.
Is there a larger context?
Marshall Tito ruled the former Yugoslavia for decades. Yugoslavia, during his reign, seen through the filter of the Eastern block nations of Cold War Europe, was a model of stability and progress. The former Yugoslavia contained Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Eighty-five years ago it served as the tinderbox that ignited World War I.
Atrocities on the scale of the Rwanda slaughter were unknown when the Belgian and German colonial powers ruled. Perhaps they fed the flames that later erupted in their absence, but while they ruled over these peoples, atrocities were isolated and irregular.
Racial integration in Alabama was accomplished only when the Federal government nationalized the state militia.
The aborigine of Australia were accorded respect when the bright light of the Olympics shown. The status quo is quickly returning.
No Rodney, it seems we can not "just get along." Getting along occurs when it is compelled. Left to our own devices, we'd rather squabble, fight, and slaughter than share a table with those we've learned, for whatever spurious reasons, to despise.
Which brings us back to the Palestinians. Should we stand by or, when the situation becomes critical, invite everyone to camp for a talk, or should we take a more direct approach? Do we have the moral obligation to put a stop to this slaughter? If, as an adult, you come upon two children fighting, do you walk by or grab them by their shirt collars and separate them? The parents of either of those children might decide to lay into you for manhandling their child. They might even sue. The risk in our stepping into Rwanda or the Middle East is greater than a lawsuit. We risk the lives of the soldiers we send to battle. Is the proper question what we risk in taking the action? Or, is the question what is it the right thing to do?
As a child my father told me he would not help a child struck by a car out of fear that the parents might sue him. Even as a child, I recognized the immorality of his stand. I was ashamed. I still am.



It isn't often we're there at the moment an actor's career careens into the ditch. I hope to one day learn that Hayden Christensen is a bad person. Otherwise this is just too sad. The moment came when Hayden agreed to appear in yet another unimaginably bad film with Samuel L. Jackson. If one could somehow combine the emotional range of these two actors we might have a Lassie. Bad enough that the film makes heros out of sociopaths, Hayden's character scores points by being reluctant to murder Samuel L's.Jamie Bell (we last saw him in <a href="moviesb.html#billyelliot">Billy Elliot</a>) and Diane Lane kept me from walking out. The digital effects are thicker than flies in this pseudo sci-fi film and almost as annoying. What with Hayden jumping to the frig, jumping across the couch to grab the remote and jumping to the umbrella stand we weren't as impressed as we should have been by the London double-decker bus or the Coliseum altercation. Director Doug Liman also appears to be on a downward spiral, from 1999's Go to Mr. & Mrs. Smith to WB's O.C. this fellow is right in tune with Hayden and Samuel L. Since a sequel is clearly in the offing maybe they can all jump</i> right to the last ditch of the Eighth Circle of Hell where they can impersonate real actors for all eternity.


The Tablets are Just Stone - Then She Found Me

Our myths are our attempt to understand the world around us and our place in it. The Iliad and The Odyssey, among Western civilization's oldest epics (Gilgamesh predates and may have influenced The Odyssey as some passages bear an almost Ambrosian similarity) were committed to paper almost three thousand years ago and had existed for some centuries prior as oral recitations. Homer, an itinerant blind Greek poet, is credited as their author but he likely dictated what had been handed down to him by his forbearers. The Gods play a dominating role in everyone's life and immortality (whether actual or achieved through never ending fame) is a featured thematic element. Humanity has forever been preoccupied with the limitations imposed by death. One of the more recent versions of our wish to transcend death is found in the Scientologist's belief that many of carry the ten thousand year old life force of alien beings (Thetans) long ago trapped in our mortal frames. I'm a little fuzzy on the details (hard not to be) but it seems through multiple sessions on a lie detector one can "clear" oneself of the negating forces surrounding our ancient life force and, I guess, attain immortality. One of the more common versions of our quest for immortality involves a mediator/hero who "conquers" death on our behalf and who will, if allegiance is sworn, usher us into an eternal life of light, lyre, and harp. Another guarantees an eternity with two score perpetually refreshing virgins accessed (by males only it seems) by dying while killing others. The other side of the world subsists on a more subtle reincarnation process repeated ad infinitum.For those of us still enamored of the dictates of science, these ancient myths are less and less relevant to our daily lives. Science, though, does little to help us understand how we should approach our sentient existence. In the absence of a set of instructions (golden plates [Mormon], stone tablets [Judeo/Christian], book length dictation [Islam], sitting under a tree epiphany [Bhuddism]) we find ourselves alone with our conscience, struggling to know how we should act and why. If these ancient myths no longer guide our moral compass, where are we to look for help?Like every field of endeavor with which I am familiar, whether music, politics, athletics, painting, architecture, fiction or film, only the tiniest percentage of output rises to the level of greatness and transcendence. In transcending the limitations of their particular mode of expression they can illuminate a path for us. Never the path as zealots would have it, but a path. And not to some imaginary Nirvana but merely a path from relative darkness to relative light. Beethoven and The Beatles, Socrates and Lincoln, Owens and Jordan, DaVinci and Goya, Wright and Pei, James and Updike, Truffaut and Kazan can teach us about ourselves, illuminate an ideal, even bridge the chasm between what we experience and what we hope.Into this chasm leaps Helen Hunt in her directorial debut, Then She Found Me, and furiously works to build a bridge between what is her life and that for which she desperately hopes. From an Alice Arlen screenplay (she also penned the electric Silkwood and the underseen but brilliant The Weight of Water) Then She Found Me pushes star-crossed grade school teacher April Epner (Hunt) from one catastrophe to another. A glimmer of light appears from time to time and is quickly extinguished. Sometimes quite dark, often painful and occasionally hilarious, Then She Found Me addresses loss, love, and dysfunction directly and intelligently. As all genuine forms of expression should, it informs and enlightens without pretense to an objective truth. Nothing gets blown up, there are no car chases, and the bad guys are within us, living alongside the longing to know, the struggle to overcome our baser selves even as the awareness dawns that no help comes forth from those hills to which we lift our eyes.


Alternative Spirituality - Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter

"No, I know I should but I just don't want to see another sensitive and beautiful Asian film," I told my friend. I knew I had to go; this friend is the same one that cried out loud during the penultimate scene from Titanic. I don't mean cry like boo-hoo, I mean cried like, "If she jumps off the stern I'm going to throw up!" People all around us paused in their sniffling to shush her and I sunk into my seat hoping no one I knew was in the theater. Pretty nervy woman but impeccable taste. So I went.
The first half hour was just like what I remembered from the last fourteen Asian films I've seen. Incredibly beautiful and like all the colors in the Counting Crows Mr. Jones, "very very meaningful." The monk tapping away on his prayer drum while the mists envelop the lush woods around the pristine lake, the lake that is home to his one room temple constructed on a floating dock in the center of the deep blue lake surrounded by the deep green forest under the deep blue - well, you get the picture by now, right? I'm constructing my explanation for her as I will spare her feelings but can't lie when Spring turns to Summer and a story suddenly appears where there was only deep beauty. The beauty stays, though, and the story moves us through the remaining seasons. The monk has a charge, a small boy busy tying rocks to a fish, frog, and snake. Giggling as he watches the creatures struggle with their rocks he awakes the next morning to find his Master has tied a rock to his little back. To get the rock off he must find the creatures he tormented yesterday and free them. When the child monk finds the snake dead he wails and his Master tells him the rock will live in his heart forever. I'm sure I was at least as wise as the Monk raising my child but then I had the benefit of a Western education and perspective so I knew all about Ego and Superego and co-dependence and transference and all those other helpful lessons so handy and useful in child-rearing. It is, of course, that perspective that made me initially wave off this movie as too beautiful and meaningful.
Spring Summer is about Buddism and karma and lust and love and all those things for which I have no time. Probably the most attractive thing about Buddism is its reverence for life. Buddism teaches all life is sacred. In the first book of the Torah we learn God gave all life to us. We get to name it, tame it, eat it as long as we don't eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Buddism would have us believe we can progress toward enlightenment through a concerted and life long effort. It will take us several lives and so we'll need to come back over and over until we can reach that state of perfect enlightenment and harmony. We know all this from Siddhartha, a young Prince who walked away from his privileged life to seek enlightenment, reaching it became the Budda. Our Western faith, at least the Pauline version upon which Christianity rests, would have us believe all our efforts will come to naught but for the grace of God. I don't believe that was what Jesus the Christ was telling us but that is an argument for another time, more time. Suffice to say Buddism is about a hope that depends on the hoper where Christianity is about a hope that depends on the Other. Karma, the belief that your actions for good or evil comprise your gross spirit, is at the heart of Spring Summer and it is a lesson taught skillfully and elegantly, if not always gently. The child Monk will carry that snake's stone in his heart and we watch him struggle through the seasons of his life. The entire film takes place on the lake and surrounding woods. The outside world intrudes twice, once with uplifting and then catastrophic results, and again in almost comic relief as two gun-toting, cell-phone wielding police make a call. The title gives much away as the film ends when the child Monk, now grown is brought an infant to teach the ways of the Holy One. But Westerner, it's not about how it ends, it's the way it gets there that matters. Get it? I'm working on it.


Superficiality - Shrek

What's wrong with Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Wayne's World) is what's wrong with Shrek. No soul. A mass of amusing slapstick along with some totally topical banter. Humor that works if you're "in the know." No pathos only punchlines, ridicule, and scatology.
The title character is a large green ogre with a heart 'o gold. The ears are no doubt about merchandising and copyrights. The first link on the Shrek website is a product guide.
Shrek goes on a mission to rescue the Princess. Will Shrek defeat the dragon? Will the Princess and Shrek fall in love? Will the evil Lord of the Realm be vanquished? Will Charlton Heston be reelected to the NRA presidency?
The "message" Shrek delivers is all about beauty not being skin deep and not judging a book by its cover. Interestingly, though, the evil Prince is ridiculed because he's short. References are made to his need to compensate. Everything works out in the end because the beautiful princess turns out to be a green ogre as well. Hmm, does this mean a beautiful princess and an ugly ogre couldn't make it? That would be because beauty is, in fact skin deep?This works, you see, because... it's OK, don't you know because ultimately, we, uh... Oh well, guess the writers missed the theme meeting.
Who said this was a clever movie? Oh, right, special effects animation - PDI/Dreamworks to give Disney a run for their money. Which studio will hire the most gifted geeks? Another soul-less effort directed by studio impresarios cast in the Gordon Gecco model.


Nickleodeon - Jimmy Nuetron

First, a confession. I walked out after twenty minutes. The bad guys had yet to perpetrate their evil and Jimmy had yet to save the day. I met Jimmy, his overweight dufus but sweet friend, the female lead, the way cool character, Jimmy's parents and Jimmy's teacher. I'm not altogether clear why I left but I think it had something to do with the pitch - shrill, loud, and frenetic. The animation was hard to take as well. It began with something like claymation as the local military traffic control center spotted something that was too fast for a commercial liner and not on the scheduled list of military flights. Four fighters were scrambled as the General, a massive headed, sweaty, block-jawed character exclaimed with a grin, "we got ourselves a bogey." Of course, it was Jimmy and his overweight friend launching the family toaster, modified to serve as a communication satellite to better receive the alien life form transmissions. Following their mission, Jimmy's friend is ejected and floats upside down tangled in his parachute to hang in a tree until freed later by Jimmy. He bounces on the sidewalk when Jimmy cuts him down from the tree. One of Jimmy's classmates' head is drawn as a rombus, resting on one of the obtuse angles. His ears appear at the acute angle ends and a cap divides his hair. It's an altogether frightening image and not uncommon in children's cartoons these days. Where we once saw animals as characters, humans are used, but as caricatures, surreal and occasionally ghastly.
Back to the characters, though. The cool guy comes late to class, all the girls adore him, he appears to be smoking but it's actually a sucker he sticks into some girls face as he passes, he spouts advice on disobeying parents, and says, when asked by the teacher, "I don't do show and tell." The teacher responds with, "Oh yes, that's right." The teacher is a crone, ancient, wears her gray hair in a bun, is oblivious to what happens in her class, and lapses into a crow-like shriek at the beginning or end of her words. The female lead is hostile and denigrates Jimmy at every turn. Jimmy's fat friend suffers endless abuse and accepts it all with resignation if not forced cheer. Jimmy is, obviously, a genius. He lives with his parents and a variety of inventions to remove his t-shirt (an overhead vacuum), comb his hair (descending scissorhand robot), and a pet robot dog that poops nuts and bolts. His father is a Jimmy fan and is constantly scolded by safety conscious Mom. Mom is on Jimmy's case relentlessly.
This is all a Nickelodeon creation, as are most of the cartoons and films children see these days. Nickelodeon is an MTV offshoot and, as such, is populated with teens and young adults. Thirty is old in the Nickelodeon universe and no creative talent is on staff that was born before the Beatles broke up.
Excerpts from the New York American Marketing Association write-up of the 1997 induction of Nickelodeon into their Hall of Fame: -

On April 1, 1979, Nickelodeon was born. Parents quickly came to appreciate Nick's cheerful, wholesome attitude and programs. The kids, rated it somewhere between orthodontic headgear and green vegetables. This forced the network to reexamine its whole approach.

In a series of focus groups held in 1983 and 1984, the cable network learned that kids weren't happy about being kids, but they were even less happy-frightened, in fact-about growing up and facing the complexities of being teenagers. Nickelodeon was reborn. Nick's philosophy came to rowdy, funny, irreverent life. Nick expressed its playfulness and spontaneity. Kids described Nick as pretty much in the "pizza topped with chocolate chips" category.

Nickelodeon, now having a different parent Viacom, is in 70 million homes in the U.S., and its original programming is seen in more than 70 countries. Kids watch Nick more than all other kids' programming on TV combined.
What happened in those focus groups?
The early eighties were also the time of the rash of child-care horror stories. The McMartin pre-school scandal set the mold. Police interviewers determined that children's stories about animal sacrifices and satanic rituals in the basement were based in fact and prosecuted the McMartin school staff. After almost three years of testimony, including tapes of interviews with the children, the McMartin staff was acquitted. Police interviewers, including psychiatrists and psychiatric social workers, apparently led the children to conclusions the interviewers themselves suspected might be true. Children were viewed as unwilling to communicate their feelings and hence were led to tell their story. A whole body of work followed as police and the psychiatric community studied and revised their methods for eliciting information from children.
One can't help but wonder what the "focus group" coordinators had in mind when commissioned by a fledgling network of MTV by-products. "These kids don't like the happy, wholesome stuff we're throwing at them so find out what they do want." Armed with the information that the children don't like what's on the menu (compare a supposition that "something" happened at McMartin - a "where there's smoke there's fire" mentality) and met with a natural reluctance to verbalize to strange adults, what would the focus group interviewers do? Suggest some things they think the kids would like and look for confirmation? Sound unlikely? That is exactly what happened in a dozen cases of "ritual and satanic child abuse" in the eighties. If answers meet the interviewer suppositions, non-verbal signals of affirmation are sent. Similar answers are then given followed by more non-verbal affirmations and the cycle continues until the story elicited is the interviewers story, not the child's.
Now take another look at the Nickelodeon cast of characters. They are bizarre caricatures, wise-cracking, super children. Not children at all, really, but miniaturized versions of adult characters. Not adult, actually, but people in their late teens. Cool rules, anyone over thirty is superfluous at best, sarcasm is humor. Is this a world that exists in the minds of children or the often-cynical minds of teenagers? Focus groups gave us negative campaign advertising, New Coke, and polyester pants.
Are we ready for Beavis as President? We're getting closer...


Betrayal - Unfaithful

All you need to know about this movie is in a list of director Adrian Lyne's prior works: Foxes, Flashdance, Nine 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Lolita. Well, nearly all. I omit Jacob's Ladder, a Tim Robbins vehicle about secret government experiments and conspiracies. Not commercially successful, Lyne returned to the bankable director's fold with Indecent Proposal, starring Demi Moore, Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson about what an otherwise decent woman would do for a million dollars.
Six months into my first marriage, I called my wife's hotel in New Orleans to awaken her, as I had done every morning for the past two weeks. She was there training some new waitstaff for a restaurant opening. This time a guy answered the phone. "Uhh, hello," he said. "Oh I'm sorry, is this Lori Stiles' room?" My mind quickly supplied an explanation, she was already up and on her way out the door and this guy was the ride. "Uhh, she's in the shower dude, want me to take a message?" He was the ride alright. His day job was as a bass player in the band at the Holiday Inn. I should have known, of course. I had met her bailing her boyfriend, an old friend of mine, out of jail. We were married thirty days later. Met married and divorced without ever having to remember to write the new year on checks. Last time I heard from her, she called to borrow some money for an abortion. The nerve.
Something much worse must have happened to Adrian Lyne to make him hate women so. Foxes, about some nasty little teenagers, Flashdance, the height of objectification of women as male entertainment, Nine 1/2 Weeks had Kim Basinger crawling around on all fours picking up dollar bills, Fatal Attraction made John Hinkley's obsession of Jodie Foster and shooting of Ronald Reagan look nearly normal by comparison, and Lolita, well, poor Jeremy Irons as Humbert was just a sad victim of the sickening web spun by the evil Lolita. Misogynisim never had it so good.
Diane Lane steals the show, she is magnificently torn and tortured by "what she does and doesn't do." Oliver Martinez as Paul Martel, the object of Connie Sumner's (Lane's) attention, is excellent, especially when confronted by the cuckolded husband, Gere. Erik Per Sullivan plays the Sumner's child, Charlie, and is too cute for words. This is a slick and sophisticated drama made all the better by Diane Lane's profound performance. The translation from Claude Chabrol's original French suffers at times, but the miasma enshrouding the Sumner's is translated perfectly by Lyne's experienced, if jaded, hand. A dark and damning film about the naive choices we make.


Poverty - The Secret of Joe Gould

Thirty five million people in the United States live in poverty. Poverty as defined by the US government is a family of three with an income of less than $13,000. That's $375 a month for housing, $100 for utilities, $50 for clothes for the three of you, $75 for such miscellaneous expenses as doctors, school supplies, and bus fare (you didn't think you could afford a car, did you), and almost $500 a month for food. That's a little less than $2 per meal per person. And that's at the poverty line. Below it, way below it, in the category called extreme poverty, live fourteen million men, women, and children. Not your version of living, or mine. The money plays out like this - $162.50 a month for housing, with a dollar a meal per person for food. And there are fourteen million of them. The number is almost unimaginable. Standing shoulder to shoulder they would form a line from New York to Los Angeles and nearly back again. To bury fourteen million people you'd need a graveyard the size of Massachusetts. Or a society that denies their existence.
A sub-set of the people in poverty are the homeless. Estimates of the homeless in America range from 700,000 to two million. Define homelessness as permanently without shelter and the 700,000 figure may be reasonable. Define it as being without shelter for some portion of the year and two million becomes a conservative estimate. Define it in terms of you or your family living in your car for three weeks or on the floor of your sister's one room sixth floor walk up and it becomes a whole other picture.
How can homelessness be possible? After all, even a minimum wage job pays enough to keep a family of three above the poverty line. And with food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and a host of social service agencies, how could anyone be without a home? The only answer that we can live with is that these people choose this lifestyle. The choice is made to drink or abuse drugs or refuse mental help or just to be lazy. That has to be it. Otherwise, we will have to assume some of the responsibility ourselves. And we're good people. We wouldn't live in a society that allows fourteen million of its citizens to sustain themselves on three dollars a day, would we?
Estimates of the number of homeless people with serious and persistent mental illness range from 15 to 30%. If two million are periodically homeless, and 25% of them have serious and persistent mental illnesses, that means half a million people are homeless and probably incapable of doing anything about it. Of the one and a half million or so remaining, they choose the lifestyle. Maybe the one million children in that group didn't choose to be homeless. But the half million remaining chose that lifestyle, right? That man and woman on the corner begging for money chose that life, didn't they? They could get a job and save up enough for a cheap apartment, right? Twenty percent of the homeless population hold down full time jobs. The pay isn't enough to get them into a home, or an apartment, or even a shack. Maybe they'll make it in a few months. But they'll be holding on by their fingernails. And they'll slip. And they'll be homeless again. Their choice. Right?
A choice is being made allright, but the choice is the one we make. We vote for the people who say they'll trim the welfare roles. We walk past the cardboard lean-to. We drive by the man with the sign. We choose to believe the millions and millions of our fellow human beings living in poverty or without shelter somehow want it that way.
A writer for The New Yorker Magazine sat in a coffee shop one day in the 1950's and overheard the interchange between the cook and a homeless man, Joe Gould. Joe had come in during the daytime and was being told once again to come in at night for his bowl of soup. Joe Gould, as it turned out, was a writer as well and working on the Oral History of New York. A collection of overheard conversations. The common man or woman in ordinary conversation. And Joe Gould was recording it. Countless volumes of the Oral History were stored in and around New York and would be assembled posthumously for publication. The New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, publishes a Profile in his magazine on Joe Gould. The balance of the film follows Joe and Joseph together and apart through the next few years of their lives. Mitchell is eventually successful in "dumping" Joe Gould (he has become an enormous drain on Mitchell's time and energy) when he accuses Gould of making up everything about the Oral History. He accuses Gould of laziness and they part. Some time later a psychiatrist from the state hospital encounters Mitchell at a party and tells him Gould is at the state facility. Mitchell goes to see him and finds Gould calm and apparently resigned. The spark appears to be gone. At their final parting, Gould says, "tell them it was never about laziness." Mitchell finally finds several volumes of the Oral History and they turn out to be the same single story, written over and over again. The story is of Joe's recognition of his mother's lament. "My son, my son," she cries. Joe knows and has known all along, he is mentally ill. Not so sick that he is unaware, just sick enough to not quite make ends meet. He dies alone and miserable.
We learn, in a cocktail party conversation, Joseph Mitchell, like Joe Gould, is working on a book. And, like Joe Gould, he hasn't written a word.
The line between that man on the corner with his "homeless, please help" sign and me in my clean shirt is finer than any of us want to believe.
The only meaningful choice in any of this is the choice to help.
The film is based on a true story. Ian Holm, as Joe Gould, should and most assuredly will receive a Best Actor nomination. Stanley Tucci, as real life New Yorker editor and writer, Joseph Mitchell, directs this important film.


Women rock - Blindness

I think I've always thought we would be better off with women in charge. Women have so much more sense, so much less blind bravado. But patriarchal we are and patriarchal we will likely remain. Not because the latest two samples of women as leaders are so problematic, Hillary with her stubborn unwillingness to recognize a loss when staring vertically at it (staring vertically - a loverly turn of phrase used by some nameless British financial analyst referring to the glob of twisted derivatives we once called our financial system), or Palin, the result of a bar so lowered her calculated ignorance is called folksy, but because t has always been so. The most interesting part of The DaVinci Code I thought was the polarization visited on the two key female figures of the Bible, Mary Mother of God, saint, virgin and Mary Magdalene, whore. No place here for complex figures, no noble King David with his dark side, no Moses with his stammering, just saint or trash.

Jose Saramago would appear to agree. His novel, Blindness, serves as the basis for the film starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Sonia Braga's niece Alice Braga. Julianne Moore once bristled at questions about her role as an incestuous mother in Savage Grace because the questioner opened with, "As a mother’" Big mistake. Since she hadn't heard too many "as a father" queries of her co-stars she told the reporter, "I resent your question’" and explained why.

The film leaves her as the only sighted person in a world gone blind. The second female lead is a very strong Alice Braga as a prostitute who opts to wear dark glasses even before she is struck blind. The men are either ineffectual, evil, or old and pathetic. The society quickly dissolves into a Lord of the Flies culture where food and sex are the only currency.

Disturbing but not surprising assessment of our barely functioning world.


Real Life - The Secret Life of Bees

I wonder what it means that I remember so few books. I watched a scene from Atonement the other day and was particularly taken by the blocking in the scene where Robbie confronts Briony and Cecilia acts to keep Robbie from striking her sister. I was watching because I had come upon it near the end and couldn't remember the vehicle employed to reveal the awful truth of Robbie and Cecilia's fate. I couldn't remember reading the book at all but I'm told I did. Interesting how much of one's consciousness can be transferred to another, isn't it? I never know where the car is parked when I'm with someone else. Alone I find myself scribbling notes or maps so I can find it later. The worst thing is I fear this is a function of advancing age and I'm all too keenly aware of it. But I digress. I recalled a scene or two from The Secret Life of Bees but had no recollection of any of the characters. Alicia Keys as June Boatwright was captivating but then she must be if Bob Dylan is searching for her clear through Tennessee (what IS that line from Thunder on the Mountain about).

I had certainly forgotten that so many horrible things happen to so many broken people in this story. I reminder for us all that real life is filled with misery and pain. And few of us can wander off down the road and find three strong women to take the place of our too fragile mother - broken again and again by too young parents, a too shallow husband and two too sensitive children.


Choices - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I have a friend with a problem. A big one. He sold all his stuff and dropped out of school. He spends his days sleeping and his nights getting high. He says he has no problem, that he is just fine.
The guy that runs the warehouse used to tell me how important his job was to him and how he would do whatever it took to keep it. He lost it last week. He told everyone he found a better one.
I interviewed a guy last week who said he wanted to be a journalist. He has a degree in journalism but no one will hire him without experience. He wants to hire on as our warehouse supervisor and do volunteer journalism on the weekends. I have another friend who works part time at a coffee shop and lives with friends so he can devote more time to doing journalism.
In The Breeders almost never heard tune from their rarely heard CD Last Splash, the singer tells the story of Driving On 9. She is riding shotgun with her shotgun-carrying father in search of her soon to be husband. She gazes out the window, "wondering if I want you still, wondering what's right."
I know a lady who quit her job to take up teaching. She said she wanted to do something that mattered.
Sinead O'Connor's career never recovered from her cry of "fight the real enemy" as she tore a photo of Pope John Paul in two on Saturday Night Live.
Texas' school books are being rewritten to satisfy a small group of fundamentalists bent on shaping the minds of children their way.
Choices all. Some good, some horrible, some hidden.
Dumbledore tells Harry "it's not our abilities that make the difference, it's our choices." In the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we learn that Potter's wand is one of a matched set. The other belongs to the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. In this, the second installment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we learn that some of Voldemort's powers were passed to Harry when he survived the evil wizards attack. It would seem Harry and Voldemort are cut from the same cloth. We see the same theme in the Star War series. Luke Skywalker's father is the dreaded Darth Vader. This theme speaks to the heart about what it means to be human. It is the same story told in The Garden of Eden. It is all about choices.
The Chamber of Secrets is a masterfully told tale of wizardry, wisdom, and choices made. As much as I decry the digitalization of cinema, without it, this delightful book would never make the transition to cinema. From the house-elf Darby to the flying car to the rogue bludger, the utterly fantastical becomes, for nearly three hours, utterly real. This is fantasy at its very best, simultaneously soaring, fascinating, and grounded. There is a moral here, unlike the muddled message of films like Batman Returns, where everyone is a victim and the bad guys can't help but be bad. In the Potter stories, the bad guys are bad and the good guys good because they choose to be.
It is all about choices.


Duality - Let the Right One In

We likely have Ann Rice to thank for the current revival of the vampire genre with her paen to New Orleans' Garden District and the vampires who therein reside. Two of her vampire novels, Interview With a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, made it the big screen. The more ambitious The Witching Hour, is still best and fortunately only enjoyed in text mode. Her tribute to the Garden District architecture is unparalelled in its descritive power (from Inteview With a Vampire I recall) and she can, on occassion, pen a profoundly frightening passage - a nightime bedroom moment made me stop reading out of sheer terror. Sadly, Ms. Rice seems to have lost her way more than once, a daliance with pornography and a recent embrace of her childhood Catholicism make her vampire novels seem all the rarer. More current is HBO's 2008 entry for outstanding drama starring Anna Paquin as the charismatic human vampire companion, Suzy Stackhouse. Trueblood, the latest inspiration of HBO whiz kid Alan Ball (his prior odd vehicle was based on a family of undertakers) just completed season one. Set in a near future, Trueblood's vampires have come out of the coffin and mix openly, if gingerly, with the rest of us.

The feature film Let the Right One in is set in an atmosphere less welcoming than the Garden District and more forbidding than the Louisiana swamp, the grimy industrial wasteland of a not so idyllic Sweden. The vampire in the story is a twelve year old girl (Eli), cared for by a bumbling but loyal father. Eli meets a sensitive, friendless boy her own age (Oscar) and against her better judgement allows a friendship to develop. Although we see some dreadful adult characters and a handful peers in the film, Let the Right One In is Oscar and Eli's story.

The vampire story is nearly always told in the context of the relationship with a human companion. The enamored lover, the loyal servant, the fascinated person of science, the relentless pursuer, vampires hold little interest for us without the tension of an apparently powerless human foil. Their powerlessness is usually overstated as they hold a fascination and allure for their more deadly counterpart that can, often unbeknownst to the human, reverse the power dynamic. Children only rarely assume the vampire role but, as is the case with Rice's Interview, are aberrations even in the aberrant world of the undead. Not so with Eli. We are immediately drawn to her as she appears in the new snow of a playground where we first meet Oscar at practice challenging the school bully. She is vulnerable and charming.

Vampire characters usually either relish their condition (Lugosi's masterwork or Rice's Lestat come to mind) or have come to grim terms with their fate (Trueblood's rakish southern gent and Eli represent the more complex conflicted type). The current crop of conflicted vampires are surely a product of the times. The ever greater chasm between the rich and the rest of us, the corrupt and the rest of us, the powerful and the rest of us, the amoral and the rest of us, the unchecked poisoning of the air and water, the current great extinction of which we have only recently become aware, the separation of the world's faithful into infidel and blessed (follower versus fundmentalist in Christianity, Islam, even Judaism), the collapse of our rotted financial system, the hollow nature of the institutions that once underpinned the social contract all challenge our historical understanding of right and wrong, even good and evil. The traditional categorical imperative has been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of that which is broken. If it can all fall apart at once, was it ever once really whole or did we hold it so for our own peace of mind? Was our perception of the duality of life an illusion? Is our present morass merely the expression of our true nature? Was there ever good?

The vampire who glories in their condition is normally center stage in the simplistic Manichian morality play where pure good wrestles with pure evil. A weakness in Rice's Lestat was the one dimensional ancient one, revived and unleashed on a helpless humanity. Her character was, because she was entirely and simply evil, not particularly interesting. The reluctant or weary vampire presents a far more complex and compelling subject and can occupy, in spite of what we are misguidedly taught by the simple purveyor of conventional wisdom who all too often passes for teacher, a place with the great characters of literature.

We too often relegate artistic expression which broaches the boundary of the <i>real</i> and explores the supernatural or surreal to an inferior rank, not worthy of serious attention and analysis and certainly not of a piece with the great works of our literary corpus. Shelly's Frankenstein, Poe's The Telltale Heart, Tolkein's Trilogy of the Ring, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Asimov's Foundation may be seen by many as classics but classics of a lesser rank to The Iliad or Hamlet or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Despite Achilles' skin made impenetrable by a dip in the River Styx, or Hamlet's running conversation with a ghost, or Marquez's magical realism, these are the tales that purport to light our way and the works worthy of our effort to apprehend and appreciate in all their complexity while the stories of Poe, Tolkein and the rest may entertain and scare but illuminate naught.

The character who despite the recognition of their dark and destructive nature reaches for an unattainable purity and denied innocence represents the nobility that survives at the heart of our darkness in which we while away our lives and is the ultimate expression of what it means to be alive in a dying world, reaching for an ever receding light in the deepening gloom. Our struggle for meaning is anchored to these polar opposites and any exploration of that struggle is worthy of attention and can, in the right hands, approach the sublime.

The vampire, as many of the sentient among us are compelled to do, spend most of their time wrapped around the pole of grim acceptance. Always on a guarded search for anything or anyone toward which we can pull ourselves and gain some distance from the sad, brutal, and often horrific reality of life, we are, as the multi-faceted demons of Trueblood and Let the Right One In are, enamored of and drawn to the apparently innocent. Never as innocent or pure as we hope or imagine, the objects of our desire are often drawn to our dark selves in a perverse mirror of our attraction to their purity but are nonetheless the stanchions to which we attach our better selves. Are we the demons struggling against our nature or are we the innocent, fascinated by and drawn to the darkness? Both, of course, and perhaps in this duality lies the current fascination with the vampire and the companion. In a world as dark as the one we have made for ourselves, perhaps it is only through the sharply drawn outline of what has historically passed for the embodiment of evil, the undead feasting on the blood of the living, that we can feel past our nightmare to the dim but persistent pull of a purity we have all but forgotten, to an innocence we all once knew and all wish to know again.


Knowing Right from Wrong - The Dark Knight

A few years back a friend asked me to install some sort of ranking system for films. I'm not sure if that was because she didn't want to waste time reading about bad films or if when she read some reviews she couldn't tell if I liked the film or not. As I am often conflicted about film, both in the general and specific, I minimized the choices I had to make when inserting those little tickets adjacent to the film title. One means do not see this film, three means you must see this film, and two is everything else. As I start this review I have three tickets next to the title. For only one reason, Heath Ledger. Because it is so sad and creepy to watch his performance knowing he died before the film's release, I may end up striking one. His is an iconic performance. Like Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lecter (Ledger said he used it in his realization of the character), Brando's Godfather, Streep's Sophie, or DeNiro's Bickle, the character enters your consciousness in the film and will likely remain there forever.Christopher Nolan last worked his predilection with the occasional difficulty discerning the line between good and evil into his brilliantly constructed film Memento. In The Dark Knight he has nearly all the characters representing the correct side of that line often step over it and a few don't come back. Only one or two of the bad guys step over but probably because he doesn't think we're ready for the truth. Much of the horror of our history was visited upon us by people convinced they were acting righteously. If someone believes they are doing what is right, how are they any different from someone else doing what they believe to be right? As difficult as it might be at the moment, try comparing Osama Bin Laden and Dick Cheney. Both are directly responsible for the deaths of innocent people. Bin Laden with the Towers attack, of course, and Cheney for engineering a war against a country that did not attack us. To those dead innocents, do the justifications and explanations of either man make any difference whatsoever? Those who remain get to parse intent and historical justifications, and ultimately each of us is left to make our own subjective judgement about who was right and who is wrong. Hand carved stone tablets, golden plates and implanted dreams aside, is it that simple? Is one right and the other wrong? Can they both not be right and both wrong?The character of The Joker lays claim to a position outside the duality of our traditional scale of judgement. He purports to represent chaos. He represents it well, disrupting the plans of police, criminals and ordinary Gothamites. But it isn't the character that is the focus, it is the actor. Nolan's treatment of the long running philosophical issues underpinning ethics and morality breaks no new ground, nor does it deepen our understanding of our own choices. What does elevate The Dark Knight from the genre of comic book and graphic novel film is the performance of Heath Ledger. The saddest part is the loss of Ledger's ability to conjure a character so clearly and believably that we can see the world the way The Joker or Ennis sees it. Left to my own imagination I am the poorer for it.


Does Evil Exist - The Reader

The two women in front of me in line were each buying tickets to two films, The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire. I was bracketed by ticket buyers for the seniors only showing of Slumdog Millionaire two weeks ago when I went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still. Now I was behind two ladies discussing the qualifications for senior status with the college student behind the window. The third member of their group ran up and breathlessly explained why she wasn't taking a cut in line to me and the guy behind me. I said, no problem we just don't want you stroking out on us.

It seems the seniors are liberating some funds from their deflated retirement accounts in much the same way we used to splurge on some expensive champagne when our ends failed to meet. The movies enjoyed a resurgence during the Depression as millions escaped an ugly reality for the silver screen. Silver was once embedded in film screens to enhance reflectivity but silver's inability to fully diffuse the light it reflects doomed it as audience angles became more obtuse with the larger movie-houses. I think I'm stalling while I decide whether The Reader was a serious exploration of the nature of evil or a romance novel wrapped around the Nazis instead of the pirates of the Barbary Coast.

The breathless third lady laughed but one of her buds said she gets way too much exercise for that. I felt slightly scolded. The exercise lady was still fumbling with her purse when I bought my ticket for The Reader. Did you read the book, she asked, it's great. I didn't want to admit I hadn't heard of it and was only there to see Kate Winslett so I said, not yet.

The conceit of The Reader is not revealed until halfway through the film so don't read any further if you too haven't read the book and want to see it as Raimi intended. A sixteen year old boy in post war Berlin meets a forty something woman and they have a passionate affair. The woman disappears one day and the boy is wrecked. Years later, with his law professor and classmates he attends one of the many trials of former Nazis. His former lover is on trial as a Nazi prison guard.

The genius of The Reader may be in the book (I wouldn't know) but is certainly obvious in Winslett's portrayal of a German woman (Hannah Schmidtz) caught up in the Nazi killing machine. She heard they were hiring so she went looking for work. Before long she was choosing who would be sent to their deaths to make room for the next load of workers. Once she took the job it seems, her work ethic took over and everything she did made sense in the context of that which preceded or would follow. There wasn't room for more people at the camp so some had to go. She would pick the sick and already dying. What would you have done, she asks her interrogator, he does not answer. We would like to believe we would stand up to such orders, refuse and face the consequences, but would we? Aren't we citizens of a country responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents in an unprovoked war? Written a letter to your Congressman have you? Do we not live near prisons filled with young black men guilty of trying to escape their hopelessness with drugs? Gone to visit, have you? Would we have refused to "soften up" the terrorists under our control at Abu Ghraib? Are we so different from Lynndie England? Would we have walked into Leavenworth prison rather than do our part in the war on terror?

Are we ever faced with a clear choice between good and evil? Or is the picture always hazy, the choices relative and our judgement confused by circumstance? Didn't Sadaam use poison gas on the Kurds? Aren't we better off without him? Didn't those drug users know they were breaking the law? Didn't some of them turn around and sell their drugs? Haven't we asked those young people to fight our wars for us? Weren't those prisoners trying to kill American soldiers?

What would you have done?


Scarlett Lives - I Dreamed of Africa

Woman is almost killed in a car crash. Decides her life lacks meaning. Moves to Africa with wandering spirit soul mate. Takes son with her. Soul mate killed in crash. Son dies from snakebite. She lives happily ever after. Get Maurice Jarre to write the score, Basinger to play the woman and away we go to Africa. Jarre's swelling strings reminded me of another epic he did, Dr. Zhivago (how old IS this guy). Whenever we panned across the rift valley I half expected to see Lara coming out from behind a bush. If only everyone who wanted an infusion of meaning in their lives could afford to buy 50,000 acres of African savanna, and feed a small itinerant band of African warriors in exchange for their serving as her private police force. Wouldn't life be grand? Oh, the occasional storm would blow and the occasional loved one would die a horrible and meaningless death, but by God, I'll never be bored again!
Scarlett lives!


Existentialism - Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

One of the fuzzy things about existentialism is tied up in its basic premise. We are alone in the universe, or we might as well be. See what I mean? Existentialism teaches us that life is inherently without meaning. Not because we KNOW it is without meaning because that, in itself, would indicate some basis for knowledge. And with a basis for knowledge we could expect to discern meaning. Life is without meaning because we are incapable of discerning it. If meaning is found beyond the temporal, as temporal beings, we are, by definition, incapable of apprehending that meaning. Hence the leap of faith required for immersion in the world of the religious. Leap or not it's up to you. Existentialists could care less. Well, no, to not care at all you'd have to be a nihilist. Existentialists, at least of the Sartre school, are free to imbue life with meaning, as long as they do it with a wink and a nod to the abyss of meaninglessness that yawns ever before them. If the meaning of life is forever beyond our reach then why not attach meaning where we will? A philosophically risky proposition but one Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard were willing to take on. Camus took the darker road, one that led him to believe the only ultimately meaningful act of which we are capable is suicide. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" stood on its head. I die, therefore I must have lived.
My problem with all of this is its implied license to wander all over the philosophical landscape without regard for any intellectual honesty. If life is utterly without meaning then anything I say or do is as legitimate as anything anyone might say or do. No independent verification, no objective reality against which to measure behaviors and all is permissible. Well, this we can't have. The result will be films like Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Jill and Karen Sprecher wrote this film and Jill directed. An ensemble cast takes us through several chapters in the lives of apparently disconnected New Yorkers. As it turns out, their lives intersect with surprising effect. Most of the intersections leave one of both parties bloodied or bowed. A professor lectures his class on chaos theory, a therapy session ends with utterly no resolution or even progress, a series of random occurrences throw lives off track, careening, more often than not, into other lives wreaking havoc at every turn. But then, rainbows. The chance encounter has a positive impact. Relatively positive, of course, because the characters were so deep in the hole created by other seemingly random acts that any elevation will likely save them from drowning. The director suggests even the movie itself was a product of good fortune and fate. Whoa Nellie! Is the selection of contestants for The Price Is Right guided by eternal providence?
Philosophical poppycock aside, Thirteen Conversations is distinguished by a powerful ensemble cast. Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Clea DuVall, Amy Irving, and Tia Texada are each remarkable in their turn. Just don't try making any sense of it.


Fundamentalism - The Fantastic Four

Much has been made recently over the slump Hollywood seems to be in. Ticket sales are down, attendance is down, DVD's are up, the era of the theater is threatened. Hollywood breathed a sigh of relief this Monday as the revenue from The Fantastic Four exceeded all expectations and brought in just under $55 million in its opening weekend. Some fellow whose job it is to track such things commented, "Comic-book movies, if properly marketed, are exactly what mainstream audiences want to see..."
A friend of mine said she saw War of the Worlds and didn't like it. "All those alien laser beams barely missing Tom Cruise, too hard to believe," she complained. Unlike some, who believe Tom Cruise should be lasered for disparaging the psychiatric profession, my friend simply lost her suspension of disbelief early on and so the whole film was wasted on her. I rarely have that problem. Even when I know the slow creep up the stairs is only there to heighten what passes for suspense these days, I still jump when the monster appears from behind the bedroom door. I get hypnotized along with the subject in films where hypnotists appear. Maybe that's why I'm such a big fan of movies, I'm ready to believe anything. But I digress.
What bothers me is the money counter's comment about comic book movies being what people want to see. I think he's right. More distressing, though, is what that tells us about the general population. When Westerns were king we could believe audiences longed for a simpler time when right and wrong were more clearly defined. When musical comedies were guaranteed box office smashes we could choose to believe audiences needed an escape from the terrifying reality of the Cold War and nuclear holocaust. What do we tell ourselves when comic books top the public's wish list? That we need super heroes in this time of ubiquitous terror and world leaders who take their cues from a literalists interpretation of the Bible? A couple of guys came up my driveway this weekend as I was in the garage doing laundry.

"Good day to you," they beamed through the sweat from a heat index approaching 110.

"You aren't Mormons because you aren't wearing white shirts," I posited.

"No," the black guy in a dark blue shirt responded without a hint of irony, "we're bringing some color into your life."

I saw the Awake under his clipboard and accused, "Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Yes", they continued to beam.

"I'm an Episcopalian and think you're doing good work but I'm not interested."

"An Episcopalian, then you believe in the Bible," the other guy said, seeing an opening.

"I'm not going to engage you guys, I don't want to be rude but we aren't having this conversation."

"No conversation," he said. "God Bless you, sir," and they turned to leave.
I think the same mental failings are at work in the fundamentalist who buys into a God that writes books on how to live and the moviegoer who prefers a comic book hero to a real life character. My guess is the person bowled over by The Hulk or The Fantastic Four has more in common with the fellow who believes the Bible or the Koran to be the work of God than the person who thinks the Koran and the Bible were penned by confused mortals struggling to understand their place in the world. Like the Witnesses in my driveway and the rest of the literalists who believe Jonah spent three days swimming in the digestive fluids of a whale, a too large percentage of our population would rather see a super hero vanquishing evil than an ordinary person struggling to understand what makes people so angry that they're willing to die to send a message.
I find the internal conflicts Sam Bicke wrestles with in The Assassination of Richard Nixon to be infinitely more interesting than the two-dimensional struggle Dr. Reed Richards has over his inability to express his feelings for Sue Storm, aka The Invisible Girl. Sam Bicke was the fellow Sean Penn portrayed in the recent non-blockbuster movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon. We see Sam Bicke descending to a place where he is willing to die in the process of murdering Richard Nixon, just to send a message that even the little people can be powerful. Now here is a film worth thinking about.
I do remember looking forward to the next issue of The Fantastic Four as a child. The Human Torch was always making me mad and The Thing both scared me and elicited my sympathy. I never cared for The Invisible Girl much and, like the Torch, found Mr. Fantastic's stretching abilities more gross than exciting. My interest in the Fantastic Four was short-lived as about the same time I began to learn about the real world and found characters like Charlemagne and Machiavelli more entertaining than the Silver Surfer and Spider Man.
Cool special effects, of course, but unlike Sam Raimi (Spiderman's director) Tim Story fails to plumb the depths of Stan Lee's always conflicted super heroes for the more universal conflict between doing the hard/right thing and the easy/wrong thing. The result is a simple and entertaining film. Now I like entertaining as much as the next guy but I think it's a shame that Hollywood gets bailed out of a weak season by a film as simple and two dimensional as The Fantastic Four. I only have to look as far as the national news to understand why. GOOD vs. EVIL, film at eleven.


The Personal


Deafness - Read My Lips

Waiting in a doctor's office the other day I picked up a copy of The National Review. The cover was a caricature of Yassir Arafat looking like a scary bird of prey. I turned to the masthead first looking for William F. Buckley's name. Not there. I turned to the letters. The first one was from a fellow taking issue with a deaf lesbian couple seeking a deaf sperm donor. Deaf is a handicap, he argued, and attempts to encourage the birth of a handicapped child should be discouraged, if not prevented.
The deaf maintain a vibrant and healthy culture apart from the hearing. Their method of communication, American Sign Language, is unique. It exists in three dimensions. All other language is two dimensional, and abstract. Based on an arbitrary collection of symbols (the alphabet), it is dependent for its meaning on an agreement in the abstract between speaker and listener. Anyone trying to make out what is being said in a foreign language is helpless. Verbs precede subjects in one language, gender identified through suffixes in another. Languages must be learned; there is nothing intuitive about it. Despite Chomsky's theories of a "deep structure" to syntax shared by all cultures, speak Portuguese to me and I will smile and nod in utter ignorance. Not so with ASL. ASL transcends national and cultural boundaries to be understood by the deaf everywhere. Where traditional sign language is dependent on the same arbitrary assignment of meaning to abstract symbols as non-sign language, ASL "acts out" the communication in three dimensions.
This may make the language of the deaf richer and more profound than two-dimensional language. If the deaf share a language that communicates in ways more profound than the language the rest of us share, it is not beyond the realm of reason to suggest they share a cultural or social bond that may not only compensate for the loss of a faculty but transcend and expand it beyond that known to the hearing world. In that context, is an effort to birth a deaf child so easily condemned? But I digress.
The previews for Read My Lips (Sur mes levres) tantalize us with silence. A silence not total, though, as we hear a low hum in the background. It is the sound of blood moving through veins. Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) lives in this world. She is not totally deaf, though, and reenters the world of the hearing when she needs to, leaves it when she wants to. She is a secretary in a busy real estate firm and we meet her on a particularly bad day. Her boss suggests she hire an assistant. At the employment service she asks for a tall male between 25 and 30, no, 25 she corrects herself, with strong hands and nice clothes. A recently paroled Paul (Vincent Cassel) arrives at her desk the next day. When Carla asks him what spreadsheet programs he knows, Paul answers, "I don't know, the usual ones, German, I think." A lonely and disconnected Carla hires him. His past catches up with him and he and Carla are swept up in a world she does not know but soon masters. Reminiscent of Rear Window, Carla perches on a rooftop and watches some bad guys through binoculars. She reads their lips and translates for Paul. What began as a fascinating and brilliantly acted character study suddenly becomes a suspense thriller.
Emmanuelle Devos paints a powerful and convincing portrait. French director Jacques Audiard brilliantly captures the isolation of Carla's deaf world through sound and the lack thereof. His close-ups of Carla's eyes as she watches the hearing world around her are haunting and memorable. Vincent Cassel is dangerous and scary. The collision of his world of violence with Carla's world of silence is masterfully engineered. The result is an exciting, powerful and refreshingly different film.


Am I Crazy - The Safety of Objects

Maybe everyone's not OK. Maybe everyone is as crazy as I am. Maybe that person walking their dog is imagining what it would be like to leap into the air, crash through a nearby upstairs window and spin around so fast that everything in the room turns to butter. Maybe they imbue inanimate objects with soul and voice. Maybe they don't want to throw away their old socks for fear of hurting their feelings. If The Ice Storm, American Beauty, and The Safety of Objects are any indication, all is not well in the American psyche. These films tell the story of otherwise unremarkable suburban American lives that, just below the surface, border on the bizarre. The Safety of Objects is he most recent in this growing genre of well made explorations of madness in the mainstream. As each successive generation of writers and filmmakers matures, we are afforded a glimpse into the darker recesses of their apprehension of the culture that formed them. Are we seeing beneath a mask that has always hidden this lurking madness or is the madness growing? While none of these films attempt to answer that question, they certainly make us wonder whether we are spiraling downward into the abyss or simply have more lights with which to see what has ever been before us.
The Safety of Objects is primarily distinguished by the overwhelming presence Glenn Close brings to her tragic character, Esther Gold, the mother of a brain dead son (Joshua Jackson seen in flashback). She masks the horror of her son's presence in the home with chit-chat and routine. The father (Robert Klein in a near cameo but strong role) and sister (Jessica Campbell growing into a significant screen presence) are less adept at the charade and provide powerful counter tension to Esther's pretense. The balance of the cast is playfully introduced in the opening credits as porcelain-like dolls emerging from their homes stiff and immutable. Dermot Mulroney is Jim Train, a shallow and work obsessed lawyer, Mary Kay Place (always a delight) as a health nut one notch above desperate, Patricia Clarkson as Annette Jennings, the suffering single mom, and Timothy Olyphant in a subtle and rewarding role as Randy.
Each of these characters are joined by the car crash that killed one, left another brain dead, and a third, Randy, uninjured. They also share a common obsession with objects, the lifeless body of a son, a doll, a car, a job. Objects are imbued with meaning, purpose, imagined life, in the quest for safety. But safety from what? Is it guilt from which these folks seek safety? Leaving this central issue unresolved is the only flaw in this otherwise wonderfully realized character study.
My question remains. Am I as crazy as these folk?


Sex - Sex and Lucia

Sex. Whoo boy, this'll be a tough one. I think of myself as liberated from the tentacles of our Puritanical background. Hurting people is bad, sex with minors is bad, sex between people in unbalanced power relationships is bad, pretty much anything between consenting adults is Ok by me, the problem being determining whether the consent is freely given. In a class I took recently the question was posed, "what are some examples of methods for encountering God?" Prayer, pain, meditation, all the usual suspects. I volunteered sex as another method for encountering God. Titters abounded, the otherwise erudite professor cough/laughed and said he didn't know how to respond to that. "Anyone else," he asked? I was surprised. I suppose I shouldn't have been.
Kinsey the movie, starring Liam Neeson as Kinsey, Laura Linney as his wife, and Peter Sarsgaard as one of Kinsey's research assistants, Clyde Martin. Kinsey is a biopic, telling Alfred Kinsey's story from childhood under the brilliant John Lithgow as a backward small town minister to his old age as a semi-disgraced professor desperately trying to finish his work on sexual behavior in America. Despite some uneven editing toward the end, Kinsey is a gripping account of the obstacles encountered in publishing the first comprehensive study of sexual behavior.
The giggling in the theater took a while to subside and we eventually stopped laughing at the mores of generations thrice removed from today. The truly frightening thought is that we're moving backwards. All these ballot initiatives banning gay marriage and even civil unions are, I fear, just a warning shot. Sex needs to go back under cover, especially homosexual sex. Homosexual sex is bad all right, I mean look at what happened to Sodom. All that offering up of virgin daughters and multiple wives and rape and human sacrifice was only the icing on the cake of gay sex. God might have overlooked the rest of it but for the gay sex. That's what spelled their doom. And the Greeks, and the Romans, and the Nazis, and the Russians. If only those great civilizations had been able to hold onto their heterosexual sex, or at least heterosexual sex with concubines and multiple wives, then maybe we'd still be laying about the town square in white robes discussing philosophy. We can only dream, I suppose, but then those damn Soddomites took over and it all fell apart. Well, maybe George W and Wolfowitz and Cheney can take us back to that golden age of America when the only real problem was lynching black people and starving farmers. Ah, the golden age. Come back, we beseech you, make sex normal again, make life pure, rid us of the perverts who see sex as something other than a means of procreation. Problem is, if all we could get out of sex was children I think we'd be in real danger of extinction.


Death - Million Dollar Baby

The last time I went to this theater on the weekend I tripped in the middle of the street, fell to the concrete, smashed my nose and cracked a tooth. I had my hand in my pockets when I started down and didn't get them out in time to break my fall. But I got a taste of what it'll be like in another 20 years. I'm not looking forward to being feeble. My mom fell and broke her hip a year ago now. We had just moved her down from her childhood home where she'd gone to take care of her parents as they aged and died. She was only here a month when she fell. She never made it out of the hospital. My dad died of ALS. The nerves die and the muscles atrophy over the course of several months or years. In my dad's case it was months. I was 16 when he asked me to disconnect the lung machine that was keeping him alive. I couldn't do it. They moved him to a wing of the VA where he could see a little strip of grass between his wing and the next. He died about three months later. These are the thoughts I wake up with this morning after seeing Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. As I write this I'm listening to Neil Young's The Needle and the Damage Done. Two Sundays ago a tidal wave killed 150,000 people on the other side of the planet. What sadness, what overwhelming sadness. Not Eastwood's intent I'm sure. Million Dollar baby is also a story of triumph. Maggie Fitzgerald, a thirty-one year old waitress/boxer from trailer park Missouri shows up at Frankie Dunn's gym looking for a trainer. Frankie and Maggie shadow box for weeks until Frankie agrees to take her on. The film cranks into high gear for the next hour as we see Maggie training and finally fighting her way into a title bout. The fight ends disastrously and if you want to avoid waking up like I did this morning, walk out of the theater when she hits the canvas. If you don't, call me and I'll remind you that you did see an actress that comes along once in a generation, maybe, in a role of extraordinary strength and beauty. Hilary Swank is a phenomenon, from the charming shrug she gives Frankie because she can't help knocking her opponents out in the first round to her shattering request of Frankie. Eastwood, the master of the understated performance, gets better and better. The two of them deliver a masterpiece of film that will insinuate itself into your heart and eat away at whatever joy it finds there, leaving you with this awful sadness.


Cell Phones and Car Repair - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The artist in Julian Schnabel is clearly apparent in this brilliantly painful film. Beautiful cinematography perfectly framed competed with the incredible story of Elle editor Jean-Do Bauby. Bauby suffered a stroke leaving him completely paralyzed. By winking his eye at the letter he wants to select from the alphabet read to him by an assistant he composed the book upon which the film is based. Max von Sydow is devastating as Bauby's father, Marie-Josee Croze the speech therapist presents one of those rare perfect moments in film as she reacts to Bauby's initial spelling effort, and Emmanuelle Seigner is perfect as the mother of Bauby's children. The real story here is the real story, though, this vital playboy of a journalist persevering to tell us his story from inside his Diving Bell of a body. Can this please make me less whiny?

On the way to see this film my cell phone buzzed at me. I never have it set to ring. I am so jarred by others phones, to have my pocket explode in atonal bells would, I'm sure, cause my heart to arrest. I could select one of several million ring tones now available but the thought of some five second clip of a favorite tune playing over whatever they use for sound on cell phones would be too much to bear. Bear is a funny word. The placard outside a church I pass on my way to work this week (it changes every Wednesday) reads, "Mary shall bear a son and Emmanuelle is his name." I couldn't help but think bear wasn't spelled right. The word connotes a big hairy monster with huge teeth, not the intended effect I'm sure. Two other signs refer to Wednesday but spell it Wensday. Spelling challenges everywhere. I knew the fellow who presides at the Bear church a few years back. He was an odd sort with milky skin and fuzzy thoughts about religion. His wife once told me he had a little Buddhist shrine set up in their bedroom. He was an Episcopalian back then. I hadn't seen him in a couple of years when I ran into him wearing a purple blouse like bishops wear and a collar like priests wear. He had himself declared a bishop in the New Revised Presbyterian Protest Church of the Risen Lamb or something. Now he spends his Tuesdays thinking up what inspiring message to put on the placard outside his church. Wonder if he has the Halleluiah Chorus as his ring tone or maybe some quote from PT Barnum about the sucker birth rate frequency?

We were at the symphony a few months back and Isaac Stern was guest conducting. He came on stage with a cane on each arm dragging paralyzed legs. I had no idea. As he raises his baton to begin the piece, someone's cell goes off. The boob must have been in the first row or two as Stern froze, turned and glared down at the poor sap. He then turned to the audience and said, "this may be the first time Mozart introduced a work by Beethoven." I'm thinking the offender changed his ring tone the moment he got out of there. My buzz was from a service checking on my recent experience with the body shop. I was sitting outside an office the other day when I felt something and looked to the source to see a fine shower of glass and paint trailing from the car that had just smashed into mine. The body shop wanted my rating on the quality of the service I received. Four, I said. Oh, he says, what happened? Two of the three people in their office refused the receptionists request to handle the claim. The third said something like whatever. Two weeks later I call to check on the repair. Hold on, they say. A woman comes on and asks how she can help. I repeat the story and she says, hold on. A man comes on to tell me the woman handling the claim is off today but he will try to help. Two days later I call back and learn that guy "decided he didn't want to work here I guess." Another woman comes on the phone and says she's handling the claim and asks how she can help. Two more days go by and I get a call from yet another guy who wants to know if I have the alarm remote as they can't shut off the alarm. Well, it is the key fob I left with the car, are you familiar with this model, I ask. Yes, he says, we'll get back to you. It takes them two more days to shut off the alarm and I pick up the car. The door trim is missing, the alarm light on the dash no longer works, and the paint is unfinished on the driver door. Other than that, things were great. Feeling sorry for this poor guy who called me I explain about how the movie I wanted to see wasn't playing and I'm not normally such a jerk about service as my standards have been effectively lowered by experience. I realize I am sounding like a crazy person so I stop myself. So how does one become less whiny about things?


Studio Selections - The Tailor of Panama

Who's running the studios these days? How do movies like this get made? How do books like this get written? Who publishes them? Who reads them? I walked out of the theater seeing the ridiculous Tom Clancy in his ridiculous dark glasses on the cover of yet another novel about the good guy that saves the world from the bad guy(s). The Tailor of Panama is different only in that there are no good guys. In order to make the inadequate character constructs (Pierce Brosnan as Burnt out British spy Andy Osnard and the phenomenal Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, The Tailor of Panama) look believable, the author/filmmaker (LeCarre/Boorman) places them in relief against snarling, surly samples of Panamanian evil. Andy Osnard, in case we sleep to this point in the film, is, as - Francesca (Catherine McCormack), one of three British attaches in Panama says, the most evil person we've ever met. When Harry is asked by his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) why he mucked up his life, his best friend's life, the British Secret Service and the nation of Panama, his response is, "I don't know, I guess because I learned to lie in prison to make things seem better than what they are." Oh man, if this is LeCarre's version of motivation I think I'll drown myself in Louis Lamour western novels.
The 'plot' - Osnard convinces the British and American governments that the Panamanian President is selling the Panama Canal to a consortium headed by the combined governments of nationalist and mainland China. He does it with purloined documents detailing the pension plans of Canal workers. Wow.
The 'action' - flashbacks to the evil Panamanian monsters beating up Marta (Leonor Varela) and lots of scenes of Osnard and Francesca having sex. The kind of sex real men are supposed to have with women who pretend disdain for the raffish rake Osnard represents yet have no choice but to surrender to the animal passions stirred in them by real men. Wow and wow again.
My father subscribed to Argosy and True magazines back in the fifties and sixties. Soldier of fortune magazines with scantily clad damsels in distress being rescued by handsome, muscular heroes. The same magazines that Tom Clancy and John LeCarre must have read as children. As grown-ups, they write stories of macho men and sexy spys. Nothing wrong with any of this, I suppose. When the story and the characters are entirely unbelievable, though, the little pretend world becomes harder to imagine. At least it should. The scary thing is maybe, for many, it doesn't. Believable, unbelievable, no matter. Show me some skin. I'll buy anything.


The Movie Experience - The Day the Earth Stood Still

I probably shouldn't have seen The Day the Earth Stood Still so soon after seeing the latest Indiana Jones installment. Some seemed enamored of the film makers recognition of the age of the lead character. The Lost Ark of the Temple of Crystal Skulls reminded me of all the other Indiana Jones films. Maybe because it was all the other Indiana Jones films. Old dusty caves, jungle chases, big dumb jack-booted bad guys, wise cracking Indy, ancient relic imbued with unearthly powers. Sure there's nothing new under the sun but do we have to revel in the sameness of it all? Well yes, if there is a buck to be made. This is how I'm thinking when I buy a ticket to the remake of a film from my childhood.

Buying the ticket I am sandwiched between an old woman wanting to make sure she gets her senior discount and an old man hitting on her. I know you, he says to her, I know you because we are both human beings and we have much in common. He asks me if I'm seeing Slumdog Millionaire. Not today but I'm sure I will though. He and the old woman are both attending the seniors only showing of Slumdog Millionaire.

The crowd attending the third showing of the day of The Day is commenting loudly on the previews. This is not a good sign. These are the people who think of the theater as an extension of their living room. I occasionally read of the experience of seeing a film in the theater as if it were something to be desired, the shared experience in the dark. For me the appeal is in the size of the screen and the absence of commercials. Sharing an experience in the dark with my fellow humans is pretty low on my bucket list. Especially when my fellow humans are regularly checking their glowing cell phones, shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into their gobs, unwrapping thousand calorie taste treats, and twitching about in their seats like children in need of a bathroom. But then I'm not a big fan of my fellow humans.

Neither are Klaatu and Gort. Klaatu has come as a representative of the other life supporting planets in the galaxy (or universe, we aren't told) to warn us to quit messing around with the planet or face extinction. Just like the original, except the original was about nukes and the remake has been updated to be about the Clean Water Act. And the original Klaatu was played by Michael Rennie while the remake's Klaatu is Keanu Reeves. Michael Rennie had the gravitas for a galactic emissary but Keanu, well, God love him, is Keanu.

Michael Crichton died recently and one has to wonder if The Day shouldn't have credited him for the Andromeda Strain-like assemblage of top scientists to deal with which The Day opens. Or the Swarm-like cloud of metal locusts out to cleanse the planet into which Gort morphs. But Crichton surely wouldn't have allowed the dreadful scenes of medical malpractice or the embarrassingly bad math to make it into the final product. Here we have our first alien life form and we send in a sole surgeon to save him, no team of doctors, just an old sawbones. And post surgery, we have some intern watching the monitors. I get better care at the local clinic. And the math, my God the math. The object is first picked up just outside the orbit of Jupiter traveling at four times ten to the thirty-seventh power meters per second and headed for Earth. I'm no astrophysicist but anything to the thirty seventh power is a pretty big number. I'll be right back, I've got to open Excel and do some calculating. Whoa, even if they were saying miles per hour and not meters per second, ten time four to the thirty-seventh power would put the object at the Earth in something like a nano-second or a billionth of a nano-second or whatever. But no matter. Imagine you really do have an hour, like they said in the movie. Would you helicopter your brain trust of scientists to the collision point? In the same film where the Secretary of Defense is calling all the shots because the President and Vice-President have been whisked away to a secure location. A location so secure they can't communicate with anyone outside and have turned everything over to the female equivalent of Curtis Lemay? Who then assigns a Colonel to take over security measures. The Colonel send a couple of drones in to blast Gort and, when that doesn't work, says to the assembled enlisted folks, "anyone got a better idea?" I do. Have someone with the equivalent of a high school education proof the script. Bad medicine, worse math, and typical government decision making aside, The Day the Earth Stood Still does have some really cool special effects. Download the trailer and you can watch them over and over again while you wait for the day you qualify for the senior discount to Slumdog Millionaire.


Sci-Fi and Drunks - The Forgotten

On my way home for lunch one summer fifteen years ago, I stopped at the light with a Mercedes ahead of me and two cars in the lane to my left. A glance into the rear view mirror and I went stiff and instantly queasy. A pickup truck was headed for me and there was no way it could stop in time. Like most things, it reminded me of a movie scene. In order to visualize the vertigo Jimmy Stewart was supposed to feel in the film of the same name, Hitchcock had the camera quickly zoom in on Jimmy while the camera itself rapidly retreated on the track. The result is very disorienting and makes one a bit queasy. I knew it would be a hard crash. She knocked me and my little VW convertible into the Mercedes. The DA later said he had never seen a blood alcohol level that high outside of the morgue. She had apparently swilled most of a fifth of Vodka and jumped into her truck headed for God knows where. She was already on probation for DWI and I think she got some jail time out of it. I got a sore back and some new friends at her insurance company out of it. As I watched a car zooming into the passenger side of the car driven by Ash (Dominic West) my body went stiff the same way it did before I was clobbered by the drunk. Ash was driving Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) to a hotel outside the city. It must have been a good twenty seconds before I made my body relax again. This is going to be one scary movie, I thought. Boy was I right. Ash and Telly are trying to find out why they are the only ones that remember they used to have children. Gary Sinise plays Telly's psychiatrist and Anthony Edwards plays her husband. Alfre Woodard is a deightfully wise cracking Detective Anne Pope. Later on, even though you know something scary is about to happen to her, nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for what does happen. The ratings should be changed on this film to prevent anyone with heart trouble from getting in.
I have always been a little ashamed of my affinity for science fiction. My father read sci-fi paperbacks by the grocery bag full and I don't think I ever told anyone until now. Science fiction has forever been viewed as a junior league fiction genre, like romance novels or westerns. Funny, too, because I easily dismiss westerns and romance novels as beneath me but enjoy science fiction as much as anything I read. Why is this, I wonder? Is it because there is just so much trashy sci-fi that the whole genre gets a bad name? Did H.L. Mencken or Lionel Trilling once pronounce it so, or is it actually, objectively inferior? Is it that the whole concept of life outside earth is just too "out there?" I don't guess any of this matters, of course, and I do digress, but be warned, The Forgotten has an unmistakable science fiction theme to it and it is introduced early on.
Director Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy) certainly can't be accused of saturating the market (eight films in twenty years) and none of his prior work even hints at this level of nail biting suspense. Whether the technology finally caught up with his vision or the cast of Sinise/Woodard/Moore pushed a good film to superior status or the story is that intriguing (least likely), Ruben's The Forgotten achieves first rank status in the world of suspense thriller. If you buy a soda, drink it from the armchair holder, don't risk holding it or you're liable to end up with a chill to go with your thrill.


Friday Night Football - Friday Night Lights

I went to a 4A (big) Texas high school. I even attended the University of Texas at the same time Earl Campbell (famous football player) played. Football was huge. I never went to a game. The only football game I've ever seen in person was between the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders at the Houston Astrodome. I sat really high up and the players looked like little bugs on the field, lining up in rows and then scampering all about. I was a big fan of the Houston Oilers up until the time they lost the chance to play in the Super Bowl in the greatest collapse in the history of professional sports. Since then I haven't even watched a football game on TV. As I grow older, I seem to have less interest in professional sports every year. Last night I went to bed during the fifth game of the Astros playoff series with the Atlanta Braves. The Astros won and I was really happy for them but it would'nt have mattered much had they lost.
I think sports are great for what they do for the body and mind but the industry of sport is fatally corrupted by money on the professional level and the weak egos of parents (mainly dads) on the amateur level. I did coach a Little League team one year and it was delightful. Kids that had never played much got to play on our team and everyone learned about baseball and the importance of a positive and committed attitude. We lost more than we won and a few of the parents came by to say how much they appreciated the experience but most hated what I did and I even got a few late night calls from threatening parents with ideas about their child's playing time.
All this is by way of disclaimer. I didn't think much of Friday Night Lights and my dislike for football, I'm certain, played a big part. Thornton is one of our great actors and he acquitted himself well. The kids on the team were good, especially the quarterback, and the balance of the cast was more than up to the task. The frequent use of hand helds was, I suppose, intended to lend an air of immediacy or reality to the scenes in which it was used but it was mainly just distracting. The football shots were unremarkable and the sub-plot around Boobie Miles and his knee injury felt inserted and not integral. There were no surprises in Friday Night Lights, no unique perspectives, no serious character study, no drama. I'm not sure what we were supposed to get from this film but if anyone is surprised to learn that high school football is inordinately important in small town Texas then they would probably learn a lot about a movie that exposed our culture's materialistic tendencies or fashion's unrealistic portrayal of women's figures. I'm just not sure these are stories that I'm particularly interested in seeing on screen, but that's just me.


Steve and the Need for New Friends - Garden State

Steve was the kind of friend everyone should have - funny, smart, well connected, always up for fun. One day he came back to his trailer with the dope and couldn't wait to tell me how completely wasted the dealers were. "Man, they are totally out of it, cash and drugs are everywhere and these guys can barely talk." "Wow," I said, thinking they were probably not wise to consume more of their product than they could safely handle. "We could go over there and kill them and take all the money and drugs and no one would ever know," Steve says. I laugh nervously. "No really man, we could do it." "Yeah, lets think about that for awhile," I say hoping Steve would soon forget his plan. He did but I didn't. I think that was the beginning of the end of my Bohemian lifestyle. If Steve was representative of the Bohemians I figured I needed to move out.
The supremely talented Peter Sarsgard put me in mind of Steve, really cool guy with a missing morality gene. Sarsgard plays Mark, Largeman's (Zach Braff) friend from the old days. Largeman has come home for his mother's funeral. He runs into Mark at the funeral. Mark's smoking a cigarette waiting for the funeral party to leave. Once gone. he'll check the body for jewelry before burying it. Mark is the gravedigger.
Largeman's mom was a quadraplegic as a result of shove her nine year old son, Largeman, gave her. Largeman's father, a psychiatrist, has been treating his son for depression ever since. Largeman is not so sure he's depressed but then he's been so medicated he has no way of knowing. Mom drowned in the tub and Largeman comes home for the first time in nine years. To call this a dark comedy would be a bit of an understatement. An existential The Graduate, Garden State is entirely the product of an apparently highly gifted Zach Braff. Braff wrote and directed. He was so convincing as the medicated and unmedicated Largeman that I may have to give his TV sitcom, Scrubs, a look. And that is saying a lot.
Ian Holm as dad and Natalie Portman as new girlfriend are only two of the several actors and characters that give this already inspired comedy heft and hilarity beyond anything I've seen in a long time.


Choice - Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
During the summer of my sixth year I awoke half a dozen times in the middle of the night with a fever of 104 or so. The doctor, also awakened in the middle of the night, had my parents pull out all the stops to get the fever down. Pneumonia would be preferable, they were told, so I was dipped into an ice bath. Twenty years later I read a Time Magazine article associating earlier than actuarial death from natural causes with high fevers in childhood. The first time it happened I remember waking nauseous from a very frightening nightmare. I was walking around inside my brain among huge and terrifying gears, all spinning wildly. They were an awful shade of yellow. I leapt from bed and made a mad dash down the hall to my parents bedroom. My mom says if dad hadn't stuck his arm out I would have crashed the wall at full speed. I hadn't thought about it in decades, until yesterday. It all came back in skin crawling horror as I sat in for Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II. The Golden Army of the title comes to life via a huge swirling mass of dizzying gear crunching. This guy must have had the same dream I had.Near the mid point of Hellboy II our heroes descend under the Brooklyn Bridge to a cleverly hidden Troll Market. A Diagon Alley gone evilly wrong, the Troll Market scenes from Hellboy II are some of the richest, most twisted, frightening and imaginative depictions ever rendered in cinema. It is simply not possible to take in all that del Toro presents in these scenes. The result is an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe, something I thought had been lost in the rush to digitally render scenes only previously attempted in animation. We were introduced to del Toro's fevered (now I get this expression) imagination in <a href="moviesf.html#devilsbackbone">The Devil's Backbone</a>, saw it mature in <a href="moviesp.html#pans">Pan's Labyrinth</a>, and now it bursts forth in all its terrifying glory in Hellboy II.There are some unfortunate aspects to the story. The blatant borrowing of Tolkein's ring saga is not so cleverly rendered as a golden crown divided among elves and men in an age long past. John Hurt all but Gandalf's the young Hellboy in the films opening scene. The ancillary love story between Sapien and Princess Nuala was thin at best. Selma Blair lends much as Hellboy's girl, Liz Sherman while Jeffrey Tambor merely bores again.Not being a fan of the original comic book, my comic book life began with Green Lantern (when I started reading) and ended with the Fantastic Four (when I discovered the library), I was intrigued by the offhand comment about Hellboy's destiny involving the destruction of the human race. When Liz is presented with the choice between Hellboy's continued life (and the inevitable destruction of humanity) or his death (and the alternative extension of humanity) she hesitates for all of a half a second and chooses her beau. Not twenty minutes later, Princess Nuala faces a similar choice with more personal consequences and makes the sacrificial choice. What are Mignola and del Toro telling us here? That elves are our better selves? That we are easily hobbled by Hobbesian choice? The truth is I don't particularly care. Today I saw the future of fantastic film and it isn't in tired reworkings of past classics but in the imagination and execution of the most creative director working in film, Guillermo del Toro.


Sacrifice - The Children of Huang Shi

The Children of Huang Shi
What the Japanese did at Nanking in 1939 defies belief. I read an account of the ordeal a few months back and was depressed for weeks. Using it as a backdrop for a story of heroism and sacrifice reminded me of Vonnegut's use of Dresden as the backdrop for Slaughterhouse Five. Certainly we all somehow benefit from knowing the depth of depravity to which we are capable of descending. But as backdrop? Some things are too horrible to use in this way. Dresden as the poster child for the mindlessness of total war and Nanking as the end result of demonizing the enemy deserve better than footnote treatment in feature films.

This is the story of a journalist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) leading a group of orphaned Chinese children seven hundred miles along the Silk Road (Huang Shi) to safety. Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh and Radha Mitchell help the story and journey along but the children elevate the film above pedestrian status. Filmed largely in China along the Silk Road (the market route between the East and Europe used by traders, bubonic rats, and the Khan clan) scenes of overwhelming majesty fill the screen. Painting the Japanese as inhuman monsters (they earned those adjectives in Nanking) and the Nationalists as bumblers (they were), and Mao's fledgling Communist revolution as nearly invisible (oh, really) must have been the price extracted for allowing the Australian film crew access. Little matter.

The real story here is what can come from sacrifice. Not a lesson we teach anywhere I've been. Even a religion based on a single act of sacrifice has become a faith of wealth and self satisfaction. I was surprised recently to see my church busy giving the bum's rush to the homeless in the neighborhood. And feeling good about it. So much defies belief these days...


Music


Bjork and DOGME - Dancer In the Dark

Rod Serling used to come on-screen after the opening scene of each Twilight Zone episode and tell us how the character had just stepped/flown/fallen/driven into the Twilight Zone. Five minutes into Dancer In The Dark I was looking around for Rod. A most unusual movie, starring a most unusual person, Bjork, an Icelandic folk/pop singer.
She plays Selma, a single mother saving every penny she makes at the factory (and odd jobs like inserting bobby pins into cardboard displays) for an operation for her son. She is losing her sight, from the same congenital defect which her son suffers, and has to fool the factory's eye doctor (Stellan Skarsgard) so she can continue to work the dangerous drill press. From this tragic beginning, things quickly move downhill. Selma is saved from the crushing sadness of her existence by music. Music she hears on the factory floor, the passing train, echoed footfalls, the air shaft in the wall. Any rhythmic sound source is likely to elevate her to the world of musicals. Dancer In The Dark is, on top of everything else, a musical. Music by Bjork, lyrics by Lars von Trier and Bjork.
Lars von Trier is the writer and director. The same Lars von Trier that co-authored the Dogme 95 manifesto, the ultimate extension of the Independent Film movement. Witness the Oath of Chastity:
"I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work", as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY."
Copenhagen, Monday 13 March 1995
On behalf of DOGME 95
Lars von Trier
Ostensibly founded as a corrective action to the "cosmeticisation" of cinema, the Dogme School (I hope calling it a school won't make me the target of Dogme terrorists) seeks to return cinema to a more "genuine" base. One is put in mind of John Waters' latest, Cecil B. Demented. A group of anti-mainstream cinema terrorists seek out and attack anyone guilty of producing mainline cinema. This isn't real, folks, it's a movie! Lighten up, please.
The signatories to the Vow of Chastity are not precluded from making mainline cinema, but they must obey the ten rules of the Vow to qualify for the Dogme label. Certainly much of the Vow is at play in Dancer In The Dark. Hand held, on location, precious little editing, no optical filters in evidence all contribute to the immediacy and harshness of the film and story.
Bjork is believable and compelling as Selma. Catherine Deneuve as Kathy, Selma's friend and protector is equally compelling. Deneuve's polish and presence serves to underscore Bjork's rawness and distance. We can relate to Kathy, Selma is a world removed.
Dancer In The Dark is a world removed. We certainly haven't heard the last from Bjork. An overwhelming talent, she challenges and confounds.


Hip-Hop? - Back Stage

Midway through the Hip Hop documentary film, Back Stage, the CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash, mercilessly berates his partner for helping Def Jam Records, a competing label, to appropriate the credit for their tour by distributing leather jackets to the tour musicians. Damon Dash leaves no wiggle room for his partner, cutting off every possible angle of escape from the tirade. Dash is getting a haircut and a young (under ten) family member is present for the spectacle. The language is unrestrained and the anger and frustration is fierce and unrelenting.
Dash's company had positioned itself as the outsider in the Hip-Hop music world, boycotting the Grammy's and taking a risk no other company was willing to take in sponsoring a tour of several competing Hip-Hop acts from competing labels. Gangster rap continued to cast a pall over the industry, the image of Suge Knight still haunted the rap music world, and the future of Roc-A-Fella Records, Dash's creation, was in the balance.
Hip Hop describes both a musical genre and lifestyle. The music is spare, using percussion and bass as meter for the rhymes that dominate the music. The vocalizations are rap in nature, sampling (the replaying of bits of music or lyric from another song and genre) plays a large role but is used for emphasis. The music is merely vehicle for the message.
As a culture, Hip Hop is, for anyone looking in from the outside, difficult to describe.
Lawrence Krsna Parker, a 35 year old New Yorker known as KRS-One, one of many Hip Hop pioneers, describes the three tenets of Hip Hop as follows:
Number 1: "Eliminate the distance between yourself and the thing you are thinking about. Meaning, if you are a part of the Hip Hop culture, don't say 'I'm doing Hip Hop, or I'm a part of the Hip Hop culture.' You say, 'I am Hip Hop. I am Hip Hop culture.'"
Number 2: "Hip Hop created itself. It stands on the shoulders of past traditions of all kinds, but it created itself"..."Don't ask nobody for no help."
Number 3: "...none of us are gonna move forward until we clip the umbilical cord of these mother cultures and exist today as the society we know we supposed to exist as. Hip Hop is the only American-born culture."
As elaborated by KRS-One, Hip Hop is about being genuine, constructive, creative, and forward looking.
Epitomized by Suge Knight and Death Row Records, the misogynistic, violent, and nihilistic world of the darker side of rap stands in stark contrast to the social and political independence and constructivism as elucidated in KRS-One's philosophy of Hip Hop. Suge Knight, the founder and CEO of Death Row Records remains in prison on assault charges. Intimidation of artists and regular bouts of gun play mark his rule of Death Row. His is a world of money, power, and domination. The murder of Tupac Shakur, a once vibrant rap music figure, has been attributed to Suge Knight's reluctance to allow him out of his contract. The white rap artist, Vanilla Ice, describes being hung upside down out his hotel window until he agreed to sign his earnings over to Suge Knight and Death Row. Current rap superstar Sean (Puffy) Combs, was recently arrested outside a Los Angeles night club following a shootout between rival "crews." Guns, drugs, and violence shadow the rap music industry.
In the struggle to maintain financial and artistic control, many new rap and Hip Hop artists avoid the mainstream record labels for the likes of Death Row, Def Jam, and Rock-A-Fella labels. The move to "do it all" has further splintered the industry as individuals create their own labels, produce their own music, and effect their own distribution. The MP3 wave has accelerated this movement.
The artists in the 1999 Ruff Ryders/Hard Knock Life tour, DMX, Jay-Z, Redman, Method Man, and Amil serve as a microcosm of the conflicts within an anarchistic and conflicted industry. The life "on tour" these artists lead, as seen in the documentary, Back Stage, is closer to the "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" anthem of the musical artists of the 70's than the Hip Hop philosophy of KRS-One. Drugs are ubiquitous (mainly marijuana), women are referred to and treated as disposable sex objects, and money and power are dominant themes of the music and conversations.
Social conscience and political positions are for the stage. Earl Simmons, the X in DMX, raised in abject poverty in Yonkers, describes his hour on stage as the only hour worth living. Back Stage, life is about getting high, having sex, and macho posturing.
The image of Damon Bush berating one of his lieutenants while having his hair cut calls to mind another powerful figure from a not so different culture of power and macho posturing. Lyndon Johnson, from the bathroom, lecturing a young Robert McNamara. The more things change...


Punk Rock - The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

Documentary film on the LA punk rock scene in 1979-80. Disturbing on more levels than I care to consider.
The film opens with a series of shots from different clubs and different bands. They each read a notice to the club's patrons that warns them their presence is consent to be filmed for the documentary. The lead singer of The Germs is clearly a challenged reader. We learn later that he consumes large quantities of any drug/alcohol available before taking the stage. The band's manager complains that she can't get him to sing into the microphone. She claims to have tried everything except gluing the mike to his face.
The manager of one of the clubs explains the punk sound as rock & roll on speed (most rock carries a beat in the 100 per minute range while punk reaches 150) with folk music protest lyrics.
Dancing to any music at 150 beats per minute is virtually impossible. Movement in the audience is either non-existent (these folk are masters of the dispassionate stare)or consists of violent crashing about - the moshpit.
The film then progresses through concert footage and interviews with several of the periods better known punk bands. Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, X, Circle Jerks, and Fear are featured. Most of Black Flag lives in an abandoned church. The filmmaker asks one of the band members what he thinks of another band members haircut (what used to pass for a Mohawk). The questioned member pauses for several seconds as he considers his answer. Finally, he responds with, it's OK. I had the impression he was crafting the answer. We are told Black Flag means anarchy.
A skinhead who looks to be maybe 15 explains the need for an outlet for his aggression.
He's asked where the aggression comes from.
Anger, he says. The ugly old people, the buses, the dirt, you know, it just really makes me angry.
Catholic Discipline's lead singer, kickface boy, doubles as a critic for the punk rock magazine, Slash. He spends several minutes explaining to us that New Wave never existed but was made up by people who couldn't deal with punk. One of their songs, Barbie Doll Lust, tells us of a boy who carries a Barbie doll in his pants pocket.
Fear closes the movie. This group insults and curses the audience until they begin to charge the stage. The band and the audience conduct a spitting war with each other. At one point a particularly angry young woman climbs onto the stage and is beaten down by security guards.
The disenfranchised come in many guises, the homeless, the impoverished elders, immigrants, and youth. Too often we mistake life condition for chosen lifestyle. These people are victims. They have no place in the society. The society has no use for them and they know it.
One of these kids is asked by the filmmaker, "where's your father?"
He responds with, "I don't know who my father is, I hate society."
He laughs.
Chilling.


Heavy Metal - Rock Star

Rock Star is loosely based on the real story of a "heavy metal" band called Judas Priest. Heavy metal, for those born before 1945 and after 1990, is a sub-genre of rock and roll best described in much the same was as chemistry books define heavy metal - a metallic element of a relatively high density, toxic at low doses, fatal at high. Also described as head-banger music, as its fans and some of its propagators tend to throw their heads back and forth in time to the music. The heavy metal beat, therefore, is restricted to a range of between 2 and 5 beats per second lest the listener appear to be dozing off on the one hand or suffer minor concussions on the other. The music is loud and dominated by electric guitar. Chords are few in number, melody is avoided at all cost, and vocals are often screamed at the top of ones lungs. The subjects of heavy metal songs can be varied but generally fall into either the sex or meaninglessness/cruelty of life category. These categories can sometimes be confused. A certain defensiveness may be detected on the part of heavy metal aficionados, as the sub-genre is often perceived as little more than a backdrop to the beer-swigging-blue-collar-Friday-night-fight scene. Some genuinely gifted musicians can be found in the heavy metal world. The subject band of Rock Star, Judas Priest, does not lay claim to the gifted musician title. Before the release of Rock Star, Judas Priest's claim to fame, or infamy, was in a much darker realm. The family of a young suicide victim attempted to gain recompense in court from them, claiming the bands lyrics drove their son to suicide. This chapter of the bands history is not covered. Instead, their plucking of an obscure US musician as the replacement for their lead singer is the subject of this, the latest Marky Mark vehicle of the summer of 2001.
Like John "Cougar" Mellancamp before him, Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg has reverted to his given name now that fame has found him. I will always prefer Marky Mark and do not believe a catchy name should detract from the seriousness with which a talent is taken. (Just as I do not believe twisted syntax should necessarily detract from a writer's message.) I don't think J Lo or Puff Daddy or Artist Former Known As Prince, or Prince, or Cher or even Ringo should feel shame over their marketing monikers.
Jennifer Anniston plays the citizen lead singer's love interest/manager and the two of them find themselves precipitously plunged into the hedonistic lifestyle of rock and roll stars. Jealousies, groupies, drugs, and motorbikes take their toll on the once happy couple. Jennifer Anniston acquits herself well but may take some time to lose the cutesy image associated with her eight years as a prime time sitcom comedian. Mark Wahlberg's abundant charm comes through as loud and clear as a Verdi soprano solo. He may not possess the acting skill of a DeNiro or even Phillip Seymour Hoffman (he played the rock music critic in Almost Famous, another "classic" rock vehicle). He does possess more than his share of charisma, though, and as long as his roles remain as varied as they have to date, we can expect to be watching Marky Mark for some time to come. I look forward to it.


 

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