Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Valkyrie"

I saw "Valkyrie" last night at my local AMC multiplex in a relatively crowded theater (very crowded for a Tuesday night). My sister and I saw it. My wife wouldn't go because she hates Tom Cruise with a purple passion; once she found out his character isn't pulled apart "like warm bread" (as one character threatens) at the end of the film, and in excruciating "Braveheart"-style real-time treatment, all interest, however meager, vanished entirely for her.

(Note: Some mild spoilers below.)

This was a good movie with great pedigree (Bryan Singer directing, Christopher McQuarrie writing) but some not-so-great backstory. It never augers well when a a film's been pushed back from a summer release to a Christmas release, as this film was, but this time it appears the reason for the delay was not quality-related.

"Valkyrie" follows a group of German army officers, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), as they plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. As with "Titanic", the conclusion of the film is foregone -- they fail. Hitler kills himself in his bunker 9 months after the Valkyrie plot fails. But unlike "Titanic," which used the sinking of the cruise liner as a backdrop for a love story, "Valkyrie"'s destined-to-fail assassination plot is the focus. So while I got wrapped up in the 'how' of the plotters' plotting, the suspense Singer and McQuarrie are able to wring out of the subject matter (and it does manage to be extraordinarily suspenseful at times) is in spite of, not because of the subject matter.

So, in its way, "Valkyrie" is a big-budget studio spectacular about failure. In this case, epic failure. Considering what Stauffenberg's failure meant for the world, 9 more months of calamitous war at the very least, this film may depict the greatest failure in human history.

That it is a movie about failure, and more specifically, about a failure, makes it flawed in cinematic terms right off the bat. The build of a successful screenplay demands the hero meet the goal the screenwriter has set for him, even if that goal isn't exactly what the hero intends. The hero's victory has to be hard-fought, certainly, but he has to do it. If our hero's difficult goal is not met, if the assassination plot does not end in an assassination, the emotional release the audience expects the story to deliver is not delivered. When the hero ultimately fails, in some ways, the story fails as well.

But in this instance, the movie's primary defect is also a big part of why I liked it. Yes, Stauffenberg fails. But his defeat is rendered in such exacting, excruciating detail, it's kind of a sick thrill to watch. When it all starts to go bad, when the formerly pro-coup bureaucrats in the War Ministry begin to slink off, knowing everything will certainly come to a bad end, it is a rare pleasure to watch fine actors like Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, and even Tom Cruise, as the full impact of their failure registers on their faces. I also liked that the film never shied away from the hard details of the plot. Getting Adolf Hitler to sign a document, an important detail that might get less attention in a different film, is raised to the level of white knuckle suspense in "Valkyrie," and Singer makes it work.

There's plenty of quality filmmaking here to enjoy, moments and performances of real quality, but the tinge of failure emenating from the doomed plot casts a pall over the entire movie it's never quite able to overcome.

Daniel O'Brien Has a Message for the Executives at 20th Century Fox

This is kind of an odd way to come back and put up an actual post after the long drought, but, as it has to do with one of my pop culture obsessions, and is also pretty damn funny, I thought it needed to be shared.

As some of you may already know, 20th Century Fox is suing Warner Bros. over "Watchmen." Fox says they own the rights, Warner says eff off, and that's where we stand. Or stood. On Christmas Eve, a judge decided in favor of 20th Century Fox.

A follower of the suit and a fellow "Watchmen" fan named Daniel O'Brien wrote a letter to the executives at Fox in response to the decision that eloquently condensed my own on the matter. That letter is here and it made me laugh.

(WARNING: to all readers of the Inanities who find themselves getting offended on a regular basis, this letter might not be for you.)

The Aintitcool link to the letter where I originally found link this can be found here.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Eve


The election is tomorrow.

This long campaign is finally at an end.

I'm helpless not to think Obama doesn't already have it sewn up. McCain's position has moved not a whit in the polls, and Obama hasn't made a mistake in months. I believe Barack Obama will be our nation's 44th President, and I believe we'll know it before working stiffs on the East Coast trudge to bed tomorrow night. I believe he will win big, and he will enter his first term with a mandate.

So I'll get a jump on the pundits who will plow this fertile ground into dust on Wednesday, and say what I think an Obama presidency might look like.

I think some of us liberals will be disappointed in some of his decisions. He's never teetered too far over to the left in the general election, and he was cautious about doing so in the primaries. He's a pragmatist above all else. When gas prices were at historic highs and the public was clamoring for off-shore oil drilling, Obama put aside his long-held opposition to it and supported a bill that contained a provision lifting the federal ban on some off-shore oil drilling in exchange for some forward-looking legislation that went some way towards easing our dependence on foreign oil. Republicans killed it, of course, but Obama's realpolitik shifting is, for me, a clear sign that there are few liberal sacred cows that will truly be sacred in an Obama White House. To me, this just means there's no issue under the sun that Obama doesn't consider worthy of reconsideration, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Will he get us out of Iraq? I believe he will begin to draw down combat forces very soon, but I don't think Obama will have all US military personnel out of Iraq before the end of his first term, and probably not after the end of two. I think we're consigned to have a long-term, empire-expanding military base in Iraq, and that would have been so had Hillary won the nomination. But we will draw down. Under McCain, we would not. Clear delineation. I think Obama will have "won" the Iraq occupation if he can manage our drawdown without an explosion of internecine fighting, and get us to a point where Iraq is just another place where we happen to have soldiers stationed. Like Kosovo is now. I question the wisdom of having a far-reaching network of military bases all over the world, but that doesn't seem to be a conversation the people want to have right now, and Obama isn't the kind to force a discussion on any but the most pressing issues. Another reason I like him. But the only reason I think he has true credibility on Iraq, no matter what he decides to do there, is that he was against going in in the first place. We know he has no secret desire to re-shape the Middle East because he's one of the sane people who, back in 2002-03, thought it was an unbelievably stupid idea to go into Iraq, but, like the rest of us, finds himself trying to make the best of a bad situation.

I think Obama will have a steady hand in steering our way through the developing financial crisis. My main worry is that this crisis, which is likely immune to most Executive tinkering, will endure, and the stink of deep recession will attach itself to this new president, and consign him unfairly to a single term. My hope is that he can FDR his way out of this by attempting smart and inventive solutions that will impress voters. Even if none of the solutions are particularly successful, people will be grateful he tried as best he could.

One thing I believe may define this presidency more than any other single component, is its caution. When Clinton got in, he was like a gifted poly sci professor suddenly given the keys to the kingdom. He was idealistic and, to my mind, never more admirable than in those first few months in the White House. But on the flipside, he and his administration were messy, sacrificing political expediency for lofty ideals. If the 2-year Obama campaign has been any guide, there will be no messiness in an Obama administration. I imagine Axelrod and Plouffe and the other Obama gurus are keen to guide their candidate, soon President, through a first 100 days as flawless as the last 100 days of the campaign. But I think they might do well to remember, the last candidate to run a near-perfect campaign was George W. Bush. But then again, I think they know that too, and are eager to steer their guy around the shoals the Bush administration crashed into and broke apart on.

I'm excited about tomorrow. I think the results will show that the country has repudiated Rove-style politics, Bush-style foreign policy, and is ready to embrace the possibility that we deserve a politics that isn't defined by fear. But, more historically, it will show the world we've come a long way since the end of the Jim Crow South. I'm not so naive I think an Obama presidency will in any way end racism, or even seriously diminish it in this country, but I think it will change the discussion in a positive way and give people a new way of thinking about race. That's a big step.

The last eight years, a true dark night of the soul for this country, will finally, irrevocably be finished tomorrow. We're going to get something very new, and to some extent, I owe the White House's current occupant a debt of gratitude. Only by doing the job he was selected to do so badly, could an Obama presidency even be possible. Had he just been ordinarily bad at his job, we might have gotten more of the same, slightly improved, just with a different letter in front of his name. But because the current president was so extraordinarily bad at his job, Americans were willing to be a bit more imaginative when thinking about who might be the best successor. If we had spectacularly bad, we thought, maybe we should try for spectacularly good?

That may be overstating things a bit, but tonight, it doesn't feel like overstatement. Right now the future years of President Barack Obama are limitless potentiality. Though he might turn out to be a Carter, he might also turn out to be an FDR, or a Kennedy. I'm fine to let the hyperbole stand for now and enjoy the moment; it comes around seldom enough, I think I'm entitled.

I'm excited and hopeful, and looking forward to watching the returns tomorrow night. I think we're going to have a good night.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

More Live Blogging

Just to break this thing into a couple posts.

9:59 -- McCain is not winning any hearts and minds with that his obsession with Obama's fines.

10:02 -- Obama's said exactly this stuff about McCain's judgement to go into Iraq in the previous debate. I'm not saying he isn't right, or that entertaining Brian should be the candidates' job #1, but can we get some new things to say?

10:06 -- Obama hedges a lot. He was going to say we should have gone into Rwanda, but thought it might come back on him, so he hedged a few times. He's already won this thing (meaning the election), now he's working hard not to lose it. I think that's why we're not seeing anything particularly interesting or compelling from Obama in this thing so far. I guess smarts and competence aren't too spectacular.

10:08 -- Ugh!! More questions about the Pakistani border. Does Obama support going in to get Osama even if Pakistan says no? Yes. Does McCain? Yes. What's the difference? McCain wouldn't tell anybody. This is some goofy shit.

10:11 -- Now McCain is going after him about the "announce his intention." Obama's smiling at McCain like the doddering idiot he is because he knows this line of attack isn't changing any minds. The question as to whether Obama's a serious guy when it comes to foreign policy, or Commander-in-Chief worthy has essentially been answered according to polling. Running back over the same tired territory isn't getting him new voters.

10:13 -- This Pakistan is going to go down as the most tired and completely unenlightening meme of the campaign. Ah good. Obama's going after McCain again. It's funny to watch McCain's face when Obama throws the "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Iran" in his face.

10:16 -- Obama, you said you'd be brief, you'd better be brief.

10:17 -- Okay, good. He was brief.

10:18 -- I totally agree with McCain that Putin's an asshole, but McCain's bombastic approach to US-Russian relations is probably not the way to go. A cool head seems to get us through crises better than a hot one. Obama beats McCain, aGAIN.

10:23 -- Petro-dollars sounds illicit.

10:25 -- Call me a simp, but I like how McCain shook that Navy Chief's hand and thanked him for his service.

10:26 -- "Without preconditions." The 2nd most tired meme of this campaign. It's like they've gone through the same back and forth on this so many times, they could do it just as well while asleep in their respective beds, each of them dreaming about debating.

10:27 -- What's sort of weird, is that not a one of these audience-member questions have been even slightly original, or intended to get the candidates to speak from a different frame than they've been accustomed to. Each one has allowed both candidates to fall pretty easily into their old stump speeches and debate spiels. NBC didn't do a great job on this one, and another wasted opportunity. We only get three -- I think, to be honest, this poor debate is a direct result of Tim Russert not being alive to moderate it. He would have mixed it up with his goofy gotcha questions. I miss that guy.

10:33 -- "Comrades"?! McCain is an old-style Communist, clearly.

10:34 -- Bob Schieffer's hosting the 3rd debate? It's going to look like a senior center that night. Schieffer's a real sweet guy, but he's so old he needs a younger 2nd host to help him moderate CBS's Sunday Morning show. I guess they were giving him one last moment in the sun before he's too old to ambulate.

10:36 -- Obama won, clearly, but did anyone think McCain made it a close call?

Well, thanks y'all. That was fun. I think McCain gets points for trying to entertain Brian, but in terms of who looks readiest to be Prez, Obama won big time. I'm hoping the 3rd and final one is less of a snoozer, but color me pessimistic.

Live Blogging the Debate

I'll try "live blogging" tonight's debate between Obama and McCain. What the hell. Why not?

9:02 -- I hate how long it takes for the moderators to realize they're live.

9:03 -- What is McCain writing already? "Obama hand shaking went well."

9:03 -- Obama's up right away. Not even waiting for the question. Nice.

9:06 -- Good first answer. AIG execs need to be fired and give money back. People like executives getting fired. Bear with me folks, this is happening live!!

9:07 -- McCain looks like he's trying to invade the questioner's personal space.

9:08 -- Tom Brokaw's a sport for laughing at that stupid joke. His question is meant to get McCain to say someone who's not Phil Gramm. McCain avoided it. Meg Whitman of eBay? eBay just laid off a truckload of employees today, maybe not Meg Whitman so much.

9:10 -- Obama hit McCain again with his "fundamentals of the economy are strong." I know McCain wishes he has a time machine so he could go back to that morning and slap himself before he uttered those words.

9:11 -- No, McCain!! Don't remind them about your campaign "suspension!" Better they forget it dude, seriously.

9:12 -- Uh oh. McCain's angling to pin the crisis on people who couldn't afford the loans the banks were giving them because the mean ole government was making 'em do it. Not the way to go.

9:14 -- How cool would it be to be one of the people in that town hall? And have Obama and McCain explain their positions to you directly. Good times. This town hall's kinda sparsely populated. More like an Apartment Complex Hall.

9:17 -- Sorry folks, I know I'm biased as hell, but Obama's a natural at this. McCain's not bad, but his whole thing with posing on the chair comes off a bit awkward.

9:18 -- It wasn't both parties, lady. It was one, and the Dems turned a blind eye, but this is a Republican-built crisis.

9:19 -- Jesus, look how McCain looks away when Obama looks at him! It's frickin weird. I read something from a guy who studies ape hierarchies and says it's totally basic ape-like behavior -- the submissive ape can't look the dominant ape in the eye. McCain's a guy's guy, so I wonder if it's some basic inferiority complex, if looking at someone who's talking to you is too intense for McCain, or if he just can't bear the site of Obama. Strange stuff.

9:22 -- Planetariums are awesome dude! Three million dollars is a deal!

9:23 -- The common wisdom in Washington seems to be that the people who are serious about energy policy think nuclear energy is a viable option. And it is. But why then is no one talking about the number one problem with nuclear energy is what to do with the waste. I need to know more about what they're going to do with that nasty stuff that, in real terms, never goes away.

9:25 -- Did he just say some of the 700 billion is going to terrorists?

9:26 -- An Apollo program for alternative fuels. Hillary had a similar idea, and it's a good one.

9:27 -- Obama wants to go through it "line by line"? It's called the Line Item Veto, and the president doesn't have it. With the majorities he's going to have in Congress, though, he might just be able to get it.

9:29 -- I'm not sure Obama's "overhead projector" McCain keeps mentioning is igniting the nationwide rage McCain is hoping for.

9:31 -- Obama's getting into Giuliani territory -- dangerous --- no it worked out all right. Turns out to be a shot at Bush. "Go out and shop," Bush said. Obama's right: what a wasted opportunity that was. Hell, politically, that would have been really good for Bush to get people out to make sacrifices with him as the revered leader. The administration was always myopic and completely without imagination.

9:33 -- Obama's looking more and more like the next President of the United States. I'm sorry to have to say that and risk jinxing it, but there's not much of a comparison between these guys. But if it is Obama and he goes in with the Dem majorities they're projecting, he's going to have a really bad situation to steer the country through.

9:36 -- McCain is trying to hang the Herbert Hoover label on Obama? Up is down folks. It's like Cindy McCain saying that Obama's running "the dirtiest campaign in American history." Up is down.

9:38 -- Brokaw's wrong to conflate Medicare and Social Security. Medicare's not in good shape going forward, but Social Security's is solvent for the next 50 years. Maybe the financial crisis has changed that up somewhat, not sure, but Medicare and Social Security are two very different things.

9:40 -- McCain seems to be relaxing a little bit. Good for him.

9:40 -- McCain's laughter is a bit creepy.

9:41 -- We have Congress vote up or down on a massive Social Security plan sounds pretty dangerous. If we'd had more Republicans in Congress in the '04 election, we might have shifted people's social security funds into the stock market. I wonder where all of that money would be now had they gotten the chance to make that change.

9:44 -- Nuclear power -- okay McCain is saying we can reprocess the waste as Japan does. I wonder if this is viable. I hope Obama says something to this.

9:47 -- Obama said we need to give China energy? Is he talking about giving them coal?

9:48 -- Brokaw's coming off kinda schoolmarmish about the lights.

9:49 -- I'd say that if McCain were capable of laying a glove on Obama, I'd say he got the better of Obama on the nuclear question, but I don't think it's what people are really concerned about right now.

9:52 -- His spiel on health care seems very effective to me. (and by "his" I, of course, mean Obama. This must be a laughably one-sided live blog to anyone who's not a Democrat.)

9:53 -- A $5,000 tax credit. It's just like money you save at tax time. Tax credits don't really seem to work the way McCain is thinking, which is as something that augments a family budget.

9:55 -- McCain does not think health care is a right. I don't think that's going to resonate with people-- on the plus side he doesn't seem like he's desperately pandering, but on the other hand, I think he's wrong on this issue.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bill O'Reilly: Still Effing Crazy After All These Years

For any of you folks who've seen "Outfoxed", or for those of you poor devils who've actually sat through an entire show, you already know Bill O'Reilly's a guy who believes his emotions tell him more about the world than his intellect. Stephen Colbert, his professional doppelganger/satirizer (who has happily long since outgrown his impression of "Papa Bear"), cuts to the core of O'Reilly when he tells America how his "gut" makes pretty much all of his judgment calls.

I'd kind of forgotten about Bill O'Reilly in recent years. When compared to Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and Donald Rumsfeld, Bill O'Reilly is really more of a 3rd-tier villain. I think guys like Keith Olbermann and Al Franken have done a good job defanging O'Reilly in recent years, repeatedly exposing his lies (as well as the more unappealing aspects of the personality disorder). I think his impact on the zeitgeist is softer than it once was. Most of his audience, which skews elderly and conservative, are already inclined towards the right-wing point of view. I like to think that, these days, the blustery vacuity of Bill O'Reilly is traveling in a closed circuit, and not having much interaction with the larger national discussion.

But just because we all know O'Reilly's a punchline doesn't mean he does. He still believes he's "fighting the good fight," "talking truth to power" and "keeping 'em honest" and all sorts of megalomaniacal delusions like that. In his defense, I assume it's difficult to see yourself how everyone else sees you when everyone from President Bush to Barack Obama is willing to appear on your comedy show unironically and keep a straight face.

But, as I recently saw from a YouTube clip, O'Reilly's still dishing out the crazy self-righteousness that made him enemy #1 to people who've entertained thoughts.

This video from an "O'Reilly Factor" show last week, shocked me. Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank went on the "Factor" last week to talk about the financial meltdown. To some extent, it's Frank's own fault for encouraging O'Reilly and going on his show. But I have never seen television like this. I have never seen a pundit scream at and so casually disrespect a government representative like this. Not ever. Click here to see the bizarrity.

Clearly I believe our media needs to hold our elected officials more accountable for the things they do in our name. But when I think of "hold them accountable," I'm thinking more along the lines of asking politicians and policy makers tough questions and then actually making them answer those tough questions. Not this kind of childish, chest-thumping tantrum that lowers the level of discourse and makes everyone look diminished for participating. Hasn't Bill O'Reilly just become Morton Downey Jr, at this point? Albeit with better-quality guests? What a complete embarrasment.

To me, this is more like what "holding them accountable" looks like.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brits with Ukuleles do the "Shaft" Theme; Moriarty Sees some "Watchmen" And Likes What he Sees

This made me grin foolishly for a few minutes. The lyrics don't start till a little ways through, so stay tuned for those.

Oh there's more space to fill. Hmm.

Click here to read what Aintitcool stalwart Moriarty thought of the three scenes from "Watchmen" Zach Snyder and Warner Bros. showed to selected press last week. If you haven't read the graphic novel or have read it but want to go into the movie relatively fresh, avoid the paragraphs of dense description. Everything else is pretty interesting. But his take on how confident and excited the Warner Bros execs are about this film is more than encouraging.

The buzz is building and it is all very good.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"Benjamin Button" Trailer


Instead of talking about important things, like the complete reorganization of our entire financial system, or the still viable possibility of having a dangerous rube one heartbeat away from the presidency, I thought I'd post a link to the latest trailer for likely Oscar contender, David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Take a look, here.

Looks promising. I'd go on about it, but I've got a cold and I'm sleepy. I'll make two points though: 1.) Brad Pitt looks to be doing some amazing work here; I predict a Best Actor nomination for this based on what I'm seeing. And 2.) As beautifully shot and interesting as this looks, it seems to have the potential to be a long, ponderous "Meet Joe Black" kind of disappointment, but that's just uninformed supposition based on a minute and a half of footage. What it has going for it though is Fincher. Guy hasn't made a bad movie yet.

Another award-winning blog post.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Economy in Meltdown

This morning on TV, this guy looked really nervous.

Since he's the Secretary of the Treasury, that's not a good thing.

I know a lot about like two things. And since I don't know what either of those things are, imagine my distress at trying to figure out what the hell's going on with the economic meltdown my country currently finds itself in.

Big brokerage houses are getting bailed out (Bear Stearns), others are dying outright (Lehmann Brothers), quasi-private/quasi-public mortgage-lending institutions (Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac) and insurance giants (AIG) are being taken over by the federal government. If that weren't frightening enough, most of this happened in one week.

On Thursday/Friday, a massive, federally-backed bailout package was introduced by Treasury Secretary Paulson that, if enacted, will make the US taxpayer responsible for all of that bad mortgage debt that's in the process of sinking the world economy. It will also, as we're learning, require $700 billion to implement. That's $700 billion in addition to the billions we already sunk into taking over AIG and the two Macs. And now they're talking about buying the bad mortgage debt from foreign banks. I guess the Treasury's going to hold off on printing any more singles for a while. Got to crank them hundreds out.

Leaving aside for a moment where all of this money is coming from, particularly as we're laying out $10 billion a month for the Iraq occupation, will this new plan (which sent the markets way up on Friday) actually work? Among others, prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is dubious:
The Treasury plan ... looks like an attempt to restore confidence in the financial system — that is, convince creditors of troubled institutions that everything’s OK — simply by buying assets off these institutions. This will only work if the prices Treasury pays are much higher than current market prices; that, in turn, can only be true either if this is mainly a liquidity problem — which seems doubtful — or if Treasury is going to be paying a huge premium, in effect throwing taxpayers’ money at the financial world.

And there’s no quid pro quo here — nothing that gives taxpayers a stake in the upside, nothing that ensures that the money is used to stabilize the system rather than reward the undeserving.

I hope I’m wrong about this. But let me say it again: Treasury needs to explain why this is supposed to work — not try to panic Congress into giving it a blank check. Otherwise, no deal.

So not everyone's sold on the new plan. But if it doesn't work, then what? Before the plan was announced, one government official in a position to know told a reporter the US financial system was days away from collapse. What if the rest of the plan's details, when announced, make the markets anxious again? In other words, what if they don't buy it? In this climate, anxious markets mean more massive bank failures. Would the world markets respond as positively to a 2nd massive bailout plan after the first failed? Doesn't it seem like this plan, hastily conceived as it is, is our only shot to stave off a decade(s)-long economic disaster?

There are some early and troubling signs this may be the case.

Senator Chris Dodd and Minority Leader John Boehner appeared together this morning on George Stephanoplous's "This Week", (along with the nervous-seeming Paulson) and appeared in total agreement on Paulson's $700 billion bailout plan. Stephanopolous pressed them on their uncharacteristic unanimity, asking what they'd each been told that could possible inspire two people so inclined to disagree to agree so completely. They wouldn't say, but they both strongly implied their motivation to make common cause was terror of the alternative.

So worst-case scenario is this plan doesn't work. It's probably too early to get too deeply invested in that scenario. If you want a reminder of what that looks like, read "Grapes of Wrath" or watch "Cinderella Man."

But what does it mean if this plan does work? Will it be a fair plan? A Wall Street type wrote this to the blog "Talking Points Memo" :

"As a Wall Street guy I am sort of glad that this bailout is being organized. However, what seems unfair to me is that there are absolutely no provisions for homeowners. Moreover, this morning on Stephanopulous I saw Hank Paulson talking about homeowners taking out mortgages that were higher than they could afford and about them needing to live up to their obligations.

I find it incredible that he would use language like that while asking taxpayers to send a trillion dollars to Wall Street because investment banks made irresponsible investments and aren't able to live up to their obligations."

No provisions for homeowners? That seems a bit myopic, doesn't it? After all, isn't the purchasing power of the American consumer (ie "homeowners") the fuel that runs the US economy? If our financial institutions come out okay, but homeowners are left high and dry, how's the engine going to run without that US consumer fuel? The ups and downs of the stock market usually don't break through the white noise of the typical news cycle for me, but the sense of panic in the air these days is hard to miss.

It seems like you need at least a B.A. in Economics to truly understand the forces at play here, so for uneducated laymen like myself, I'm forced to rely exclusively on the commentary and opinion of those who do understand what's happening to draw my own conclusions. The fact that all of those people seem kind of terrified, does not lessen my growing feeling of dread.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What's Going On?

My friend in Taiwan IMed me this morning and asked, "What the hell is going on in the United States right now?"

The truth is, I have no idea. I'm pretty mystified at what's been happening in the '08 general election, particularly since John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

What seemed at first like an obviously campaign-ending decision by John McCain has in recent days become almost universally touted as a political masterstroke. My first hint that the US had slipped into Bizarro World was when I tuned into "This Week with George Stephanopolous" the Sunday morning following her selection. Of the 4 gathered panelists in George's round table, only the ineffectual Sam Donaldson seemed to think choosing a politician with next to no foreign policy experience after hitting Obama for the exact same resume gap was too reckless and nakedly hypocritical for his campaign to recover from. Everyone else? Loved her. Thought it was a great move politically. I thought they'd all had strokes. Turns out, joke's on me.

Naked hypocrisy, apparently, means nothing when you're dealing with the people who have, to date, been sitting this election out because John McCain isn't conservative enough to arouse their interest. They're waiting to hear their politicians say a few things. Like "opposed to abortion even in the case of rape, incest and life of the mother." Like "believes in the literal truth of the Bible." Like "believes Creationism should be taught in public schools." They've heard it from the McCain camp, and now they can get excited. From all appearances, Sarah Palin is as hostile to education, intellect and science as a lot of Evangelical voters are, and so McCain has quite cynically bought himself a lot of votes by choosing her to be his Vice President.

I feel like I'm staring down the barrel of another goddamn 4 years of Republican dominance of two branches of the federal government. A loss this year would be a shock to the system I can hardly contemplate.

Before I go too far down that path of fear and loathing, I will briefly relate some of what maddening-but-independent-seeming Camille Paglia wrote on Salon.com today. She said that a.) she doesn't believe as the gospel truth everything they're writing about Sarah Palin's alleged far-right religious views, which seems like a sensible viewpoint. Paglia likens all the stuff they're writing about her crazy Christian views to the stuff they were saying about Obama's Muslim-ness and unpatriotic-ness, and Lawd knows that stuff was bullshit. So whenever McCain thinks Palin's got a good evasive line down for each of the scandals percolating back in her home state (and learns the names of all the important world leaders), and lets her have a serious sit-down interview, maybe she'll let us know where she stands on all those wedge issues (abstinence, abortion, evolution, guns) that have gotten Evangelicals excited, and have us progressives terrified/angry. If she's as bad as I'm hearing she is (and suspect she is), on these issues, then a McCain win in November might be the only thing worse than a 3rd Bush term.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bill Clinton Needs to Get Over It

Bill Clinton said this today in Denver:

"Suppose for example you're a voter. And you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver. For whom would you vote?"

He went on to say he wasn't talking about the current election but that's probably a lie.

I don't know that Hillary would agree with this idea--she didn't say it after all--but let's take Bill's hypothetical on face value for a minute.

First, the most egregious aspect of what Bill said: According to her husband, Hillary agrees with the majority of Democrats on just half of traditional Democratic issues. Could that be true, or does Bill believe Hillary's even more centrist (read: more right-of-center) than she led us to believe during the primary season? If Bill's right about what his wife thinks, then that essentially confirms what a lot of Obama voters suspected about Hillary. It's nice for me to be validated like that, so thanks Bill. (I personally suspect Hillary's not quite so Republican as her husband does, but we'll move on.)

But I also just want to question the logic behind Bill's "rhetorical" question. In his question, he makes the assumption that the hypothetical voter "knows" that Candidate Y, (Hillary), will be "able to deliver" on the half of the issues she agrees with her party on, and Candidate X (Obama), won't be able to "deliver on anything." The fact is, no voter knows how any candidate will do once in office. All we can do as voters is draw conclusions based on evidence. That's what campaigns are about. We don't know, as Bill does, how well Hillary would be able to deliver on the half of Democratic core issues Hillary actually believes in. Neither do we know how well Obama will do. But when you compare two essentially unknown quantities (and don't possess the ability to see into the future as Bill does), do you pick the candidate who agrees with you on everything, or the one who agrees with the other side on half of the issues?

Well, that's a no-brainer.

So even though Bill meant to undercut his party's nominee for president, he may have inadvertently laid out the case why Obama was always the stronger candidate.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fun Quiz You Will Be Helpless Not to Take

an you recognize a movie poster based on a single letter from the film's title? How about the movie title this 'C' came from?

Here's a quiz from Empire magazine that puts your movie poster memory to the test.

Not only does it test how well you remember fonts, but it tests how indelibly a given movie has imprinted itself on your brain. And sometimes, it's just a testament to how good the studio marketing departments are, choosing exactly the right font style to go with the film. Anyway, it's virtually impossible to open this quiz and not jump right in. See how many you get.

My score was 28, and then my wife got an additional (and very challenging) two.

On a wild guess, my sister got the very last one (which is punctuation), so I am now deeply impressed by my sister.

Post up your results when you're through.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Brock Sam-- (ahem) Jack Reacher has Some Novels He'd Like You to Read

As I've complained about before, working has seriously cut into my reading time. Recent high-minded self-improving reading projects, like re-reading "Moby Dick" for instance, are now a thing of the past. All I want to read these days is mindless trash, but it has to be good trash, written by skilled practitioners of the mindless, formula page-turner.

Like Lee Child.

Janet Maslin of The New York Times told me (in a review) that Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel was fantastic, as were all of Child's 10 previous Jack Reacher novels. Like a good little NYTimes reader, I raced out to the Barnes&Noble and picked up the 10th Jack Reacher novel, "Bad Luck and Trouble," in mass-market paperback, and plowed through it. Good stuff. I had a blast reading about Reacher and his pals running around Los Angeles and Las Vegas, driving up Sunset and Hollywood, killing guys in places I knew. One bad guy meets his end on the Las Vegas strip on that dark, pre-construction no-man's land section of sidewalk that stretches between the low-end Stratosphere side of the strip, and the glitzier Bellagio and MGM Grand side. It's fun knowing exactly where a scene in a book is taking place. And there's just so much killin', and Child makes it so entertaining. After I finished "Bad Luck and Trouble," I read the first novel, then the 2nd, and now I'm into the 3rd. Child writes the pulp, I eat it up. So I think my reading for the foreseeable future is set. Nearly 4 down. Seven to go.

A bit about Jack Reacher. His distinguishing characteristic is that he's "huge" apparently. 6'5" and 22o lbs is "huge" in Lee Child's view. I'm 6'6" and 220 lbs myself, but I'm not sure I really qualify for "huge" the way Lee Child wrote the sentence. In context, "huge" might as well have been "so enormous he could arm-wrestle Hagrid and win." So he's big, and it's kind of fun for me when Child makes some reference to how daily life is slightly different for people who are somewhat taller than the average. Anyway, he's big, but he's also a brilliant detective, and when he finds out who did things he don't like, he likes to deal with the bad guys with his hands, and he's not shy about administering the ultimate sanction. In "Bad Luck and Trouble," for instance, Reacher knocks out two guards and then, while they're lying unconscious, suffocates them to death with his hand over their nose and mouth. Makes good practical sense in the story, the stakes are life and death after all, but there's just something weird about rooting for the hero when he's such a cold-blooded executioner. Maybe I'm just grooving on that frisson between knowing what's intellectually right, and wanting Jack to do what feels right. And in these books, killin' always feels right.

The Jack Reacher novels may be so popular because they pose the eternal question: What would Sherlock Holmes be like if he lived in modern day America, was tall and muscular, looked a bit like Brock Samson from "The Venture Bros.," and liked to commit more murders than he solved?

Well, he would be a bit like Jack Reacher.

I've read a few of the books now so I'm wise to Child's formula but I don't mind it yet. I don't know if I'll get through all 11, but right now they're fun as hell and they're good for those snippets of the day that lend themselves to a quick read -- like the 19 minutes at the fast-food joint of my choice at lunch, for instance, or sitting in line at the 8-minute left turn light on my way home. I was surprised to find how quickly I can knock out a book that way. Anyway, they're definitely worth checking out if you have the time or inclination.

Okay. End of book-related blog post.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Moments from my fast-food eatin' life

A couple recent moments I witnessed standing inside fast food restaurants:

1.) I was in a McDonald's near Hartsfield waiting for my sweet sweet McGriddle order, when a large black man in a button down shirt and slacks came in. He strolled right up to another line. The manager, a no-nonsense black lady with intense eyes and a voice that could clearly get scary when she needed it to, was giving the usual orders to her crew to keep things running. She sees the guy and a small, appreciative smile appears on her face. He smiles back. They talk for a second and then he asks, "Where you from?" but he asks gently, like he knows the answer and it's a sad one. She smiles proudly, resolutely, and says, "New Orleans." He tells her he thought he recognized the accent. "Why you out here?" he asks. He knows the answer to this one too. "Katrina," she says, like she's saying the name of the bitch that evicted everyone out of her neighborhood. They nod and look at each other, murmuring Mm-hmmms, and then he opens his arms to her and they embrace. He was back out the door shortly after that, and she was still smiling to herself until I left.

2.) A couple of days ago, I was at our Kennesaw Wendy's on my half-hour lunch break. I was standing in line, this time waiting to order a sweet sweet Big Bacon Classic meal, when I heard some people entering the little glassed-in airlock-room all fast food restaurants have. As soon as I looked, I saw two men. One wore sunglasses and was talking on his cell phone. The other was wearing a baseball hat. An instant after I first saw him, the guy in the hat slammed face-first into the first plexi-glass panel. The actual door was two panels downs. I saw his nose mash up against the glass and his hat lift up high on his head. I looked away, smiling. And when I looked back, they were both laughing. He'd seen me see him. When he comes in I assure him I didn't see anything. Later, while I'm waiting for the counter crew to populate my tray with Wendy's goodness, he's in line and tells me about another time he walked full-steam into an immovable object, this time a sliding glass door. Apparently it hurt. His nose and forehead were sore, he said, for days after. I listened and smiled good-naturedly, but all the while I was thinking, "I'm not sure I'd be repeating this stuff to people if I were him. People might think I was stupid." Seemed like a nice guy though.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Who Will be the Villain in the 3rd Batman Film? A Question... And an Answer

A post on one of my favorite blogs, WWTDD, reminded me of something I wanted to bring up at the end of my "Dark Knight" post.

British newspaper and shining purveyor of unvarnished truth, the Telegraph UK, recently published a rumor that Christopher Nolan's next film in the Batman saga is called "Gotham," Catwoman plays a large part in the film, and Angelina Jolie is apparently hot to do the part.

This all seems like complete BS to me for a lot of obvious reasons, but it did make me wonder who Nolan's going to use as the villain in the third film. If not Catwoman (and he still could, of course), than who? How would Batman's other comic book nemesi appear in the Christopher Nolan's Batverse? I run down the list in my head, and most of them seem too outlandish to fit into Nolan's Gotham, but he's got to pick somebody, right?

Catwoman's not a bad bet, but she's been done to death, and I'm sure the stink of the Halle Berry disaster is still cloud-thick in the halls of Warner Bros. So probably not her. Riddler? Too much like the Joker. Killer Croc? Probably too sci-fi. Experiments gone wrong is more Marvel's thing anyway. Ra's Al Ghul's been done, though, since he is immortal, he could make a fun return in the 3rd film. But it would have to be a classic Batman villain, right? Someone people have heard of.

At this point, my money's on the Penguin. I feel like an idiot for writing that, but there it is. Where's the one part of Bruce Wayne's life where he hasn't yet been attacked? As Bruce Wayne. (Sure there was the thing in his apartment, but that wasn't about him, that was about Dent.) He's a savvy corporate operator, and a talented executive. And his control of Wayne Enterprises helps keep Batman in business. So what if someone more able and more cunning than Bruce came in and took that all away? A corporate takeover like that would imperil not only Bruce Wayne but Batman as well. Who could even do that, powerful as Bruce is? Only another powerful and savvy tycoon. Like ... the Penguin.

I think he could very easily be adapted into the Gotham of these new Batman films. He wouldn't wear a top hat or have a monocle. And he wouldn't have that weird squawk thing some other actors have done with the Penguin. I imagine him as a kind of Dick Cheney/Kingpin/Lex Luthor amalgam, attacking Batman from all angles, providing Bruce Wayne with his toughest test. Maybe Penguin comes in and thinks there's more money to be made on a crime-ridden Gotham than on a safe and clean Gotham. Or maybe it's the opposite -- he helps make Gotham into a cleaner and safer city a la New York city in the 90s, but uses illegal worse-than-Giuliani-style tactics to make it happen. This, of course, draws a conflicted response from our hero. And since Nolan and Co. like making social and political commentaries, I think it's not too big a stretch to think they'd like to turn their attention to the excesses of corporatism.

I don't know, obviously. I'm just spitballing here. Anyone else got an idea?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

"The Dark Knight"


I don't know if I can really be objective about "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins."

The original "Batman," released in the summer of 1989, back when I was an impressionable 12 years old, cemented my lifelong movie habit. Everything about that movie combined to create a cinematic punch to my overlarge adolescent head. I'd always considered becoming Batman a legitimate career choice, but after seeing Michael Keaton stand on the top of that building at the end of the movie with the bat signal blazing in the clouds behind him, I kind of just wanted to be the guy who made others feel the way I was feeling at that moment. So I've got a soft spot for Batman. Two hours of Batman reading "The Great Gatsby" would probably get a thumbs up from me.

That said, if the original "Batman" was a punch to the head, "The Dark Knight" was a hard, teeth-shattering kick to the teeth. This movie kicked my ass and hard. I loved every second of this thing.

And this one's been a long time coming. After 2 highly disappointing misfires and one godawful bomb so bad that it sunk an otherwise talented director's career, 2005's "Batman Begins" was kind of miraculous. It was the Batman movie we'd all imagined but hadn't thought possible: a summer action spectacle that doubled as a studio prestige picture. The budget, the director, the actors -- everything about the project bespoke its seriousness of purpose, (which included making a seriously entertaining movie). But after it was over, I was almost more excited about the possibility of the next film as I was about the movie I'd just seen. If all went well, then a true Batman movie was in the offing. The sequel would involve no obligatory rehashing of the tired Batman origin story. In this potential sequel, the filmmakers could devote all of their energies to create a straight-forward Batman film that could explore all the dark themes and moral complexity hinted at in the first film. It was a lot to hope for, and so I waited to see what Nolan would do with the next installment.

Nolan delivered. "The Dark Knight" is dark, epic, exciting, mesmerizing, and smart.

So I loved the movie, but I admit there were a few things working in my favor. 1.) I saw it in IMAX. 2.) I actually had fairly low expectations for Heath Ledger's performance.

As to 1.) sections of "The Dark Knight" were filmed in IMAX. To my knowledge, this is a first for a theatrical 35MM/IMAX co-release. The bank heist sequence that opens the film, for instance, is shot entirely using IMAX equipment.

[Commence IMAX monologue.] After seeing this film, I now firmly believe that each and every multiplex should begin construction of at least one IMAX theater, with the eventual goal of converting all theaters currently showing films in 35mm to the IMAX format. I know I'm parroting IMAX's CEO here, but IMAX truly is how films should be seen. When a movie that's already brilliant is playing on an 8-story screen, and when that 8-story screen is filled with, variously, sexy Chicago architecture, sweeping helicopter shots of almost completely vertical Hong Kong, or a head to toe view of a man we'll come to know as the Joker waiting on the street corner, a clown mask dangling from one hand, it's like a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. So, in all honesty, I don't know if this movie would have kicked me in the head so hard if it hadn't been on IMAX (even though I suspect the answer is probably yes). [End of IMAX monologue.]

So that was one thing going in my favor. The other, as I said, was that I didn't think I was going to get blown away by Heath Ledger as the Joker. I thought his performance in "Brokeback Mountain" was overrated--the gravelly, constricted-throat voice he used was so strange that instead of selling me on the character's reality it just made me wonder again and again what Ledger was going for with it. I thought the rapturous response to Ledger's Joker was probably another overreaction, likely heightened by his tragic and untimely death.

Not so. Heath Ledger's performance is everything you've heard. Just like I didn't forget that Heath was playing a part in "Brokeback," I completely forgot Heath was playing a part while I watched him be the Joker. And it is Ledger's Joker, more than any other component of the film, that makes "The Dark Knight" as good as it is, and in my view, it is very very good.

I think "The Dark Knight" is easily the best Batman film made to date, and I also think that, if Nolan signs on for the third (and why wouldn't he with the cash Warner Bros. is going to throw his way?), he could potentially finish this thing off as the brains behind one of the greatest trilogies ever filmed. For the first time in some time, the filmmakers have used the 2nd film of a trilogy as the 2nd act of a larger overarching story, just as "Empire Strikes Back" did so well about 25 years ago. The film ends in a dark place, with Batman locked into this character he's created for longer than he'd hoped, and worse, vulnerable now to both cop and criminal as he works to clean up Gotham.

Here are a few of the specific moments from the movie that I loved:

1.) Batman doing his no-neck swagger to the edge of the parking deck in the Scarecrow sequence, and then later asking Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to make him a costume that will let him turn his head. This has been a "thing" in all the Batman movies to date, and here Nolan addresses it right out in the open, and then incorporates it into the story.

2.) The very awesome William Fichtner shotgunning clowns as a mob-bank manager.

3.) The Joker's off-hand use of a machine pistol to kill the school-bus driver.

4.) The mayor's eyeliner.

5.) The thump of the dead Batman-imposter as he hits the window outside the Mayor's office. Scared the hell out of me.

6.) One of the coolest movie moments in recent memory: Joker's use of a pencil as a murder weapon. Not in recent memory has 5 seconds of film managed to accomplish so much. In one shocking moment, we learn that the Joker a.) likes a good magic trick, b.) really just wants to entertain, and c.) even when surrounded by cold-blooded killers, the Joker is always the most dangerous guy in the room.

7.) The Joker's glare as he backward-kicks his way out of the crime-boss meet.

8.) Christian Bale's one-hand-in-the-pocket GQ-stroll as he walks coolly away from Maggie Gyllenhaal in his penthouse apartment.

9.) Christian Bale's total douchebag entrance into Harvey Dent's fundraiser. This guy's a pro-- there's no limit to how callous and vapid he'll pretend to be just so no one ever thinks he could possibly be Batman. Major dedication.

10.) When the first henchman tries to take off the mask of the unconscious Batman and gets electrocuted, the Joker laughs, kicks his own downed man, does an impersonation of what the guy had looked like getting electrocuted, and then spits on the guy. Freaking brilliant.

11.) Bruce Wayne's quick, no-look disassembly of a bad guy's shotgun.

12.) The way the sound cuts out and the music gets low as the police convoy carrying Harvey Dent to county heads out of police headquarters.

13.) When the lights cut on in the interrogation room and Batman is standing behind the Joker. Also: that entire scene. Also: the fact that I got to see Batman beating the hell out of the Joker in an interrogation room in a movie. How awesome is that?

Obviously, I could go on and on (I know -- I already have), and I'm not even hitting a lot of the obvious stuff (like the entire Singapore sequence, or Joker in a red wig and a goddamn nurse's outfit.) But I know there are some "Dark Knight" doubters out there, and after having read some of their critiques of the film, I have to say that they do have, in a few instances, valid points.

Some of the stuff I wasn't too hot for:
1.) The rooftop ending with the Joker. Seemed to kind of end with a writerly bit of dialogue from the Joker on the nature of their relationship. It was kinda cool, what he said, but maybe a little professorial for a guy who'd just rather get on with it than talk about getting on with it.

2.) Since when are dogs Batman's nemesis? They seemed to be in this movie. On second thought, maybe that's cool because, if there really WAS a crime-fighting Batman-type guy out in the world, sans gun, wearing bulletproof armor and enough moves to put down a knife-wielder in seconds, maybe a hungry rottweiler is the thing most likely to worry you. But then again, attack dogs don't seem to play so great in movies. Too many edits.

3.) Harvey Dent's tortured Two-Face logic. By the end of his scene with Gordon and the wife and kids, I didn't know what the hell Two-Face was after; I doubt he did. Maybe I just didn't believe that a guy that looks like Aaron Eckhart would get that worked up over Maggie Gyllenhaal. Yeah, I guess that's it.

But even these little imperfections didn't much phase me while I was watching the movie. Even when certain moments weren't quite working perfectly, I think Nolan crafted the movie to build in such a way that the forward momentum carried him through those moments.

Bottom line, "The Dark Knight" was a blast, and I walked out of that giant IMAX theater with a Joker-brand smile on my face. I loved "Iron Man," and I liked "Wall-E," but "Dark Knight" has my vote hands down for movie of the summer, and will no doubt be most fun movie of the year. I think it may be too geeky to say this could be the movie of the year -- hopefully something that fits that bill will come out before year's end (I'm hoping "The Road" ends up in the running for that)-- but I doubt I'll have a better time at the movies this year or next, or for quite a while. Probably not until the next Nolan-directed Batman movie comes out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Times they Are A'Changin'

Just another sign that the era of incuriosity and thoughtlessness in the White House is nearly over.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama is wrapping up his international tour in London this weekend. After talking to P.M. Gordon Brown, he spoke with the conservative party leader and likely next P.M. of Great Britain David Cameron. Some of their private conversation was caught on tape. Mental midgets, these men are not:

"Do you have a break at all?" asked Cameron.

"I have not," said Obama. "I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who -- not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process -- said that, should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you're doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be -- "

"These guys just chalk your diary up," said Cameron, referring to a packed schedule.

"Right," Obama said. "In 15 minute increments …"

"We call it the dentist's waiting room," Cameron said. "You have to scrap that because you've got to have time."

"And, well, and you start making mistakes," Obama said, "or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel-- "

"Your feeling," interrupted Cameron. "And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions."

"That's exactly right," Obama said. "And the truth is that we've got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know ten times more than we do about the specifics of the topics. And so if what you're trying to do is micromanage and solve everything then you end up being a dilettante but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you."

A bit different from the private conversations caught on tape of our current President during the general election campaign of 2000. Like, "That's the reporter from the New York Times. A real ass-hole."

Monday, July 28, 2008

"W." Teaser Unveiled

Here's the new teaser trailer for Oliver Stone's "W."

Pretty basic. It introduces each of the major players in the Bush White House as they're played by all the various actors. The make-up is all convincing enough to take us along for the ride, I think, but hearing mostly from James Cromwell in this teaser, I get the impression that none of the actors are going to be doing an "impression" of the people they're portraying. My hunch is that if "W." plays like other excellent presidential biopics have played, the actor's portrayal of the actual historical figure will burn brighter than one's memories of, or imaginings of said people. Happened to me when I saw Hopkins play Nixon; also happened when I saw Paul Giamatti in "John Adams." If Brolin does as well as he's capable playing George W. Bush, the very same could be possible here.

Which is one tall order, because W. is one larger than life ass-hole. At the very least I'm expecting a fun movie.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Harwell Begins (a Blog). Also: A Feat of Filmed Entertainment

It's funny how fast a blog gets stale. When I leave the same post up for, let's say a week, returning to the blog to find the same old post still there elicits two different emotions simultaneously. One: embarrassment. "That's what everyone's been looking at for a week? That old post?! Terrible!" And Two: Surprise. "It's been a whole week since I put that up? I just wrote that!"

Anyway. I'll move on.

Exciting news. Friend of the Blog, Shawn Harwell has gone and got himself a blog. You can visit it here. It's called Holepuncher, which, as titles go, is just about perfect for a blog. At first hearing, it sounds kinda dirty, but when you think about it a bit, it's only a little dirty, but also not dirty. What, after all, could be more wholesome than a 3-hole punch? It's a tricksy title. The blog itself is all about music you'll probably like.

In other news, something momentous happened in the world of film last week. A bit of filmed entertainment about superheroes and super villains held those who saw it enthralled in theaters nationwide. And, as an example of the artistic medium in which it was produced, it's unlikely to be surpassed this year.

Of course I'm referring to the trailer for Zach Snyder's upcoming "Watchmen."

The last time a trailer this brilliant showed up, it was for another Zach Snyder movie, "300." The guy's cornering the market on one of my favorite art forms: the movie trailer. I still think the "Thin Red Line" teaser is probably the best trailer ever filmed (with the teaser for the original "Alien" a respectable second), but this new "Watchmen" trailer is instantly worthy of their company. Damn if Snyder (or the trailer-producing company he employs) doesn't pick the coolest out-of-left-field songs to accompany their pulse-quickening visuals. Last time it was the un-famous Trent Reznor joint, "Just as You Imagined" that served as the soundtrack for ripped Spartans baring their teeth and flexing their pecs. This time it's a latter-day Smashing Pumpkins track entitled "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" that pounds in the background while certain costumed superheroes are created and others are thrown out of windows. I've listened to the song a few times -- not enough to have memorized the lyrics, but enough times to see how certain lines reflect the story with an uncanny feeling for the tone of the book. Bleak kind of pulses off of the song, but there's an underlying sense of wonder informing some beats in the song that Snyder must have picked up on because he exploits it perfectly, particularly in the scenes featuring the all-powerful (and all-blue) Dr. Manhattan. One thing that's so impressive about the melding of the visuals and music is how Snyder doesn't chop up the song to get what he needs emotionally from the trailer. He uses the best parts of the entire song and doesn't rush through to the "good part" for the big build. He lets the lyrics play, and he cuts the trailer to the song's structure, and it works like gangbusters.

This teaser/trailer promises an extraordinary movie. It looks like Zach Snyder cut a big seam in the soul of the book, crawled inside and directed a film from inside of it for a few months. I've heard that the climax of the book may have suffered some alteration in the transition from page to screen, and if they veer too far from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's vision here, then I think they'll be undermining their otherwise heroic efforts to turn an "unfilmable" graphic novel into a movie, but as to some of the other dicier aspects of the book, cinematically-speaking, it seems clear that Snyder's shying away from nothing. There's even a shot of Dr. Manhattan floating above the floor of what looks to be a cafeteria with his own Dr. Manhattan plain for all to see (though slightly obscured by after-effects). Ballsy. (No pun intended.)

And for me, the last image in this trailer promises a Mars sequence in the finished film that should be as transporting and awe-inspiring as it's always been in the "Watchmen" movie that's been playing in my head ever since I finished the book. Everything seems to be turning up roses at the multiplex for fans of comics these days. Hope it keeps up through March of next year.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Visit the Set of "The Shining"

For anyone who loves Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" as much as I do, this is a must-see video.

Here's the lede from the Guardian story:
"Channel 4 has painstakingly recreated the set of Stanley Kubrick horror film The Shining, complete with look-a-likes of the crew and cast members including Shelley Duvall, for a TV ad to promote a More 4 season of the director's films."
The shot, a single tracking shot we used to call "fluid masters" back in film school, is meant to suggest a purposefully-striding Stanley Kubrick visiting all corners of his vast "Shining" set. The shot isn't visually stunning (fluid masters rarely are), but what is astonishing is how much attention to detail the creators of this short film paid to every aspect of the recreation. Even the crew members shown in the famed behind-the-scenes documentary of "The Shining" (filmed by Kubrick's daughter), are represented here with look-alikes. An appearance by a convincing double of Diane Johnson, Kubrick's co-screenwriter on the film, ends the film, right down to the big glasses and loud, wide-collared shirt she wore. After watching it and the good geek-vibes wore off, I wondered what had happened to the painstakingly-created set they'd built. Was it really intended solely for this 30-second shot? Would other stuff shot on that set turn up when Channel 4 aired the movie during the "Stanley Kubrick Season?"

I guess it's goofy to fret about the destruction of movie sets -- they tore down the set for the original "Shining," after all. But in the back of my mind I just marvel at the uses for such a set that are soooo much better than a dumpster.

Interested parties could ship parts of it to the hotel in Oregon where they shot the exteriors of the Overlook, making the hotel into a "Shining" museum, which would of course become a mecca for movie nerds all over the world. Or some enterprising Grogg-types could ship it to a fledgling film school. How much more hyped would we would be-matriculators have been if, in addition to a really loud screening of the T-Rec scene from "Jurassic Park," we'd also gotten to tour a recreated "Shining" set. And then they'd said, "Your first projects will all be filmed here." Old NCSA SoF would have had to bat film wannabes away with sticks.

Anyway, check it out. It's good stuff.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hints of Impending Hilarity

The Smoking Gun has a report up from the "set" of the new Sasha Baron Cohen movie starring his "gay, Austrian journalist" character, Bruno.

It already sounds hilarious:
"Cohen and his confederates organized cage fighting programs on consecutive days in Texarkana and Fort Smith. Both cards ended with two male grapplers (one was identified as "Straight Dave" and wore camouflage) tearing each other's clothes off and, while in underwear, kissing down their opponent's chest. This man-on-man action triggered Fort Smith fans to throw chairs and beer at the ring, according to one cop present at the city's Convention Center."
I'm not a huge fan of Cohen's methods, and sometime I think they undercut his humor, but when it works, it works brilliantly. This sounds promising.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" Teaser

The teaser for the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is up. What do you think?

I like the almost over-the-top nerdiness of the guy administering the lie-detector test, I like seeing Kathy Bates acting in stuff that's not totally beneath her ("Waterboy" is a good example), and I like the guy telling Jennifer Connelly, "Don't be afraid," as though he's talking as much to himself as to her. But I'm not sold on Keanu Reeves playing an alien. Isn't he too much identified with his other iconic and not terribly-demanding film roles to believably play a scary alien? Particularly one as relatively well-known as Klaatu? (So well-known, so embedded in the zeitgeist that I lifted the name for my own book when I needed an other-worldly-sounding name! And I haven't even seen the original movie! Something else to change.) Something seems off about this thing. As it is a teaser, it's meant to give only enough information to raise questions in the viewer's head they'll want to learn the answers to on opening weekend. But does it do even that? I'm kind of thinking not so much.

Does the teaser do anything for those who've seen the original movie? Are the big, sweeping CG shots of what look like highly-corrosive dust-storms of particular interest because they're alluded to in the original, but never shown? I'll withhold judgment until I see the full trailer, but color me unenthused by this.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Back from Charleston and a Question Regarding "Hancock"

Hello all. Hope everyone had a great 4th of July weekend.

The wife and I are back from our weekend stay in Charleston, South Carolina. We watched fireworks (shot off the deck of the USS Yorktown), ate shrimp (at the touristy and so-so Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.), bought books (at Charleston's sole used bookstore, the very charming Blue Bicycle Books), and ate amazing seafood (courtesy of Hyman's Seafood). Yeah, mostly we ate. What of it? We walked, drove, read and ate, but it was fun and felt like just what I needed to face another month at work.

I read in the short time I've been back that the new Will Smith movie, "Hancock" did crazy business over the holiday weekend, earning $107 million over the 5 and 1/2 days since it opened. According to Nikke Finke's article, the reviews were only 33% positive and the "buzz" only "so-so" -- so why the massive total? I heard the studio was shooting some very last minute reshoots after some worrisome test screenings and there was some serious fretting amongst executives that this was just not a very good movie, but I guess none of that trickled down to audiences.

Is it just Will Smith that packs him in? Is Will Smith the last movie star? Meaning is he the only guy or gal left who can pack them in and make serious cash for a studio no matter what movie he's opening? It sure seems like it. So was it the premise that brought everyone out? Was it the generally good weather and nothing much else to do on a hot holiday weekend? Or was it just Will Smith? I have to ask these critical questions because I like to blog about movies, and I haven't actually seen one in the theater for a record 2 weeks. I still haven't checked out "Wall-E," "Wanted," or even "Iron Man" for a second time, which I'd kind of wanted to do. Damn you job that demands the not-explicitly-asked-for-but-just-kind-of-understood-that-everyone-works-overtime overtime! I'm hoping to get to the theater sometime this week -- if I do, I'll say something about it right here. Stay ... signed on?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day! If all goes according to plan, I'll be watching fireworks up in lovely Charleston, South Carolina tonight after having eaten a bunch of seafood and buying a ridiculous number of books I'll never have time to read. Should be fun. I hope everyone has a great weekend.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Frozen Moment Post-Clinching, Pre-Shifting

I meant to post up about this, but forgot about it till now.

This is a really cool shot from the Detroit Free Press of the Obama rally where Al Gore officially endorsed Barack Obama for president. I'm actually as impressed by the coolness of the 360 degree aspect as by the hugeness of the crowd. I was a little disappointed that Al Gore waited until his endorsement would have no actual impact to endorse Barack, but better late than never.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Brolin's Bush Looks Scary













Um, is this one of the scariest photos ever taken, or is it just me? Why exactly does Josh Brolin's head look so enormous in this shot? It's almost like the thing Mike Myers did in the trailers I saw for "The Love Guru" where Myers put his own massive head on a kid's body for a flashback. Just weird.

In the article Brolin and Stone talk about how fairly their film treats our duly selected president. Brolin says that had the screenplay been what he expected it to be, a "far-left hammering of the president," as he puts it, then he wouldn't have done it. I think it's good that the movie won't be that. If done well, a fair and generally honest treatment of W. won't spend 2 hours showing what a despicable person George W. Bush is, but rather how his life's experiences drove him to seek the highest office in the land, but also shaped him into a person almost entirely unsuited to it. This is another one I'm looking forward to.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Questions

Obama's the nominee. Hillary wrapped up her campaign, made nice, gave a totally adequate concession speech, and then threw her full weight behind Obama's candidacy at a rally.

In the last couple of weeks, though, Obama's started to make some moves to the center that have been somewhat worrisome to his more progressive supporters.

1.) While he's always seemed somewhat ambivalent about NAFTA, he always skewed his rhetoric towards opposing it. Now his rhetoric has shifted so that he doesn't really see what the big deal about NAFTA is.

2.) In years past he appeared to support the right of cities to ban handgun ownership, but after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of the citizen to bear arms last week, Obama's come out in support of the decision.

3.) In Illinois, he was part of the commission that halted Illinois's capital punishment regime. Last week when the Supreme Court decided that any crime that does not result in death does not warrant the death penalty (the crime at issue being child rape), Obama came out in opposition to the decision, saying the State should have the right to execute child rapists.

4.) Before, he said he'd filibuster any bill that contained a provision for immunity from prosecution for the telecommunications companies complicit in the government's illegal wiretapping program. Now, he has come out in support of a compromise bill that contains exactly that immunity.

5.) Before he didn't wear that goddamn flag lapel pin because he knew it was cheap, meaningless, and stupid. When someone's running for office, particularly for the highest office in the land, isn't that person's "patriotism" beyond reproach? Has anyone who's ever been accused of not being patriotic enough during an election season actually not loved their country? And who gets to define patriotism? Republicans? Obama showed all of that political silly season stupidity the door. Except ... As you can see in his photo from the cover of Rolling Stone, he's started to wear the flag pin regularly.

My question is this: how much of these shifts are necessary to win the general election, and how much do these shifts to the center dilute his powerful brand?

For myself, the places Obama has shifted to don't bother me much. NAFTA's never been much of an issue for me. I'd have to read about 5 dry economics books to understand half of what people are arguing about, and I'm not interested enough in the issue to do that. I also supported the Supreme Court's decision to decriminalize posession of firearms in one's own home, so Obama's new position is pretty much in line with my own. As for the capital punishment decision the Supreme Court handed down last week, I agreed with it, but I understand that as political theater, it's probably better for a candidate to come down on the side of killing child rapists than to oppose it, no matter their governmental philosophy. But the telecom immunity shift does bother me -- I think we need to know as much as we can about this illegal breach of citizen privacy and now Obama's said, in effect, that no, we don't. And the flag pin, well, that's just disappointing.

The cumulative effect of all this shifting is that I don't feel confident I know where Obama stands on any given issue anymore. On the flip side, I no longer doubt that he has the steely resolve required to win and to govern a divided nation. He's no Jimmy Carter, no McGovern. He's more like JFK. Thoughtful, liberal, but ruthless.

Though I still think Obama's a fantastic politician and one of the best candidates I've had the chance to vote for, I am a little worried that his recent shifts to the center and to the center-right aren't over, and that in his zeal to win over independents he's going to alienate his base and end up being the president we all knew Hillary would have been: just another poll-driven centrist. I hope I look back on this post in a few months and laugh at how alarmist and knee-jerk I was. All I can do is continue to watch and hope.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Blog Update and My Current Art-Crush: "Sweeney Todd"

Man was that book post getting old. You'd think I shut this blog down it was up there so long.

As you all know I've been working at a 9-5 job for the first time in 3 years. It's actually an 8:30 to 6:30-7 job, but who's counting hours? When I wasn't working I really had no excuse not to post up a little something every day or every other day. But now it's gotten to be a legitimately difficult thing to find time to do. With my former oceans of spare time, I was able to read a shitload of books, blog, and even write a little. Now that those oceans of spare time have drained to puddles, I have to be more discriminating as to how I spend my time.

But I am quite hesitant to shut this thing down. I've gotten twice as much out of it as I've put into it, and I'm loathe to abandon a venue where I can have discussions about movies, politics and whatever else with my friends and random websurfers who've stumbled over it. So, it may seem shut down from time to time, and a time may be coming when I'll just have to level with myself that blogging is one of those things that has to go by the wayside for a while, but today's not that day. It's Sunday, it's prime writing time and I feel like procrastinating. So it's blogging time.

So here's one thing that's been going on:

1.) Me and the wife went to Atlanta's famed Fox theater some weeks back to see the latest staging of Stephen Sondheim's musical, "Sweeney Todd." I'd seen the movie late last year and thought it was a mixed bag. I thought the visuals were stunning, but overall it kind of bored me. I was excited to see the musical live, but, as with the movie, I was left unmoved and a little bored with the show itself. But then those goddamn songs wouldn't get out of my head. Tired of hearing annoying snippets sound again and again in my head while at work, I bought the original cast recording from the Broadway production.

Now I kind of love it. I've been listening to it a lot. The story, the interpretation, the songs, the whole deal. All the excesses of musical theater that have always bothered me, the homely melodies, the undemanding singing, the overcooked acting, all seem to work in "Sweeney Todd"'s favor. Maybe because the musical's plot is more operatic than most, having everything be a bit overdone kind of makes sense. Or maybe because a story about a barber who slits throats and puts the corpses into meat pies for hungry Londoners makes up for a lot of the usual musical goofiness. Now I want to know the entire story of Sweeney Todd. How and where it originated, how it developed from a novel to a play to musical, how the idea to reinterpret the story occurred to Stephen Sondheim, what were its influences, what did he see going on in the world when he was writing it that pushed him to make it so dark and pessimistic?

I scanned a bit of the "book" that started it all at Borders the other day, and found that it originated in the 19th century and was originally published as a serial in 4 parts. Most of the hallmarks of the story were present in its original incarnation (the 2nd story barbershop, the pie shop below, the trick barber's chair, the cannibalism) but there must be some mystery as to its author because the cover made no mention of the writer, only a compiling editor. I could have bought the book and answered some of these questions for myself, but the edition looked like a novelization of the screenplay (even though it wasn't), complete with movie poster cover, and I couldn't bear to mar my shelves with such an ugly book. Maybe I'll look for a more respectable edition on eBay.

One last thing: While looking for a good "Sweeney Todd" image to use, I stumbled on this, a full list of all productions of Sondheim's musical complete with full casts over the years. In the first production on the list, Angela Lansbury played Ms. Lovett. Weird, huh?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Mmm, books.












This guy likes him some books. I'm not as compulsive as he is (I don't have 5 copies of anything, for instance), but I can't help but admire his collection, as pictured here. I like how unfussy it is. No clear, library-style book covers on anything. Just books. But a lot to read. That's actually one of the least cool things about working again: my reading time has been mercilessly reduced. Now that "Lost" is over, maybe I can catch up a little. (BTW, wasn't that an excellent season finale?) Well, I've got to get some reading in before I hit the hay. I'm into a new thriller called "Child 44." So far, very good, and one of the most frightening books set in an oppressive, totalitarian-governed country since "1984." If you've got some extra bucks and some time, pick it up, check it out.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Some Early "Hobbit" Movie News


Back when it was news, I was disappointed to learn Peter Jackson would forego the chance to direct both "The Hobbbit" (and a second, as-of-yet untitled film that will connect "The Hobbit" and LOTR), and opt instead to produce a Guillermo Del Toro-directed version of Tolkein's children's story. Sigh.

Now Guillermo's not bad. He directed the more-than-decent "Hellboy," as well as the critically-lauded (but way overrated) "Pan's Labyrinth," so odds are he's not going to mess this thing up. But as a film geek and "LOTR" fanboy, you can't help but wish Jackson would return to the director's chair to give all five movies a kind of directorial consistency. If it ain't broke and all that. Anyway. It is what it is, and though Jackson's sitting this one out, I'm definitely interested to see the Guillermo and WETA come up with.

To that end, Guillermo and Peter Jackson recently did a webchat where they answered 20 questions from readers about the upcoming production. Some of the questions are from fans who aren't well-versed in the ins and outs of filmmaking (like the fan who asked Guillermo and Jackson, before a word of script has been written, if there would be an extended version of the movies a la LOTR), but there are some interesting tidbits about who's returning, how the creative team's going to work, and when we might expect these movies to hit theaters. But in light of the high phony-quotient in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," I thought this exchange was interesting:


WetaHost 20 - Will you be doing less location shooting this time because your set builders, digital effects teams etc have become so proficient?
Peter Jackson Middle-earth is location, with very few structures really. It's a natural countryside and that's where a lot of shooting will take place.
Guillermo del Toro Location will be favored and real set construction.
Guillermo del Toro I love REAL set construction and think that sets are very important part of the storytelling and scope of a film...

Real people doing actual things in real places. How novel. So that's heartening. But this is not a near-term thing by any stretch. Here's what they said about their schedule for production:
Dear Jesslyn - at this point in time the plan is to write for the rest of this year and start early conceptual designs. 2009 will be dedicated to pre-production on both movies and 2010 will be the year we shoot both films back to back. Post productin follows one film at a time with The Hobbit being released Dec 2011, and F2 release Dec 2012. That is the schedule in about as much detail as we have ourselves at the moment.
So about 3 years before we can buy a ticket to the first one, and 4 before the second. Jackson and New Line took their time with LOTR, so the fact they're taking it slow with these two new movies is encouraging.