Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Woody Allen: More Proof Americans Are Over Race

I’ve said several times of late that the era of identity politics is over. From its start around the 1970s with group rights like affirmative action entering the law to its heyday in the 1990s when a form of cultural Apartheid was enforced by an army of politically correct McCarthyites, identity politics has been a scourge, hiding behind the noble idea of equality to push a poisonous form of racial and gender spoils. But the American people are finished with that, and an incident with Woody Allen gives us more proof of that.

Before we discuss Allen, you need to know some background. Starting in the 1990s, black race groups began to howl about how blacks were portrayed on film. (Feminists did this too). They objected to blacks being presented in any criminal, poor or demeaning roles, such as servants, and they protested the lack of black characters in positions of authority in films. They also held the first (that I recall) nationwide protest about the failure of Hollywood to include any black characters in a film. The film was Grease II and it indeed featured not a single actor of color.

It soon became a cottage industry for race groups to demand that their own be placed into all films no matter how they had to be squeezed into the film. They also called it racist for whites to play non-white roles -- the breaking point on this seems to have been a Broadway play, Miss Saigon where Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Eurasian pimp.

By the heyday of this idiocy in the 1990s, race groups were issuing regular reports on the percentages of black roles in films and on television. Black characters could not be presented in a negative light. Ditto on women. If there was a judge, a lawyer, a boss or a commander, it would always be a minority. Criminals were white males, and all the jokes were aimed at hapless white males. And the idea of putting on a production without a token minority or two flashed prominently before the cameras was unthinkable.

Enter Woody Allen.

A few days ago, the New York Daily News discovered to its journalistic horror that Allen’s Broadway production about Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club (a black club famous in the 1920s and 1930s) features an all white cast. Gasp!

This is actually rather shocking. For one thing, everyone knows that you simply don’t do a production without token representation to keep the race baiters away. It doesn’t matter if your production involves only two characters, who are brothers and members of the KKK, there better be a black character and a woman somewhere in there. So what was Allen thinking? Even more shockingly really, this is a show about a black club and yet Allen cast only whites? WTF? Seriously, that actually does reek of racism.

Anyways, what was truly fascinating was the utter lack of outrage. The Daily News screamed RACIST! They even found an anonymous source who said that Allen “specifically requested there be no African-American stars in his show.” Allen supposedly even nixed the casting of a “big-name African-American actor” because he claimed “a black gangster wouldn’t be good,” despite the show involving a black club in black Harlem. Moreover, Allen was told that casting no blacks would seem strange to the audience, given the setting, and there is a competing production called After Midnight which does cast blacks. Yet, he refused to cast any.

What’s more, they noted that Allen has been under constant criticism for never casting gay characters in his movies.

Allen responded through a spokesman by denying any attempt to exclude blacks and saying, “It has always been Woody Allen’s priority to cast the exact appropriate person for a role regardless of race, which has never been a consideration.”


Wow. Had this been the 1990s, Woody Allen would have been roundly condemned, fired, boycotted and sent to re-education, i.e. therapy. The idea that Allen casts for talent rather than race would never have been accepted as a defense because it wasn’t considered a valid excuse... you had to obey the quota system. But today, no one seems to care.


Even more interestingly, this instance probably does reflect genuine racism. Unlike all those prior productions that were tarred just for not jamming black characters into stories where they didn’t fit, this is a story about a black club. Excluding blacks from this is... well, bizarre, and it makes his claim to cast only the best actors regardless of race into a farce.

And yet... crickets.

This strikes me as further strong proof that the race/gender industry is finished in America. The public simply doesn’t care unless they get proof of actual racism. Indeed, on that point, a few days after I wrote this, Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers and a registered Democrat, created a firestorm based on some racist comments he made. Unlike Allen, whose “crime” was claiming to be color-blind, Sterling was caught telling his girlfriend to stop associating with blacks. Sterling also has previously been accused of racism on several occasions. Like Paula Deen (who apparently has redeemed herself in only a few weeks), he used the n-word about his players, he told the managers of his properties not to rent to blacks because they are “unclean,” and he was even sued for discrimination by black tenants.

What all of this suggests is that the American public won’t tolerate genuine racism, but they aren’t interested in race baiting anymore either. That means the end of the era or identity politics.
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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Who's More American -- Bugs or Mickey?

Trying to define a “real” American is a fool’s errand. America is too large and too diverse for there to be such a thing. That said, we do have a common culture and from that culture we can pull certain things that tell us how most Americans like to see themselves. That got me wondering if either Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse could be considered more quintessential American. The answer is probably neither as they both represent different aspects of being American. In the process of reaching that decision, however, I came upon a common thread to both which very much defines how America sees itself.

My initial thought that brought this on was that while both Bugs and Mickey are revered as icons in American culture, Bugs seems to fit us better. Specifically, he’s got a mischievous sense, which Mickey lacks, which seems to be a prime character trait of most Americans. So he’s more representative of the American mindset, right? Well, not so fast.

Bugs fits our mindset extremely well because he’s a mischievous libertarian. He wants to be left alone to his own pursuits. This is his primary goal, and he doesn’t respond well to people who come to hurt him or to help him against his will. All of that is very American. You see this time and again in our politics and our films -- the good guys just want to go about their lives, but they will fight back hard if you try to interfere in their lives.

But Bugs is more too. He’s curious and doesn’t mind butting into the business of others when they cross his path. And when he finds that they are bullies of one sort another, he happily takes them down a notch – he never picks on anyone weaker than himself. This is very American too. Americans by and large avoid fights, but they will always stand up to bullies and they will always fight for justice. Indeed, this is the basis of our view of ourselves as the underdog.

On the surface, Mickey is different. Mickey is more stable. He’s constantly working to make his life better. He is the quintessential small businessman. That means he represents a different part of the American psyche than Bugs. Whereas Bugs is mischievous, Mickey is responsible. Whereas Bugs is about leisure, Mickey is about work. Nevertheless, he too is a bully killer.

Indeed, when pressed, Mickey will respond with violence. Like Bugs, he never picks the fight and he never picks on anyone weaker than himself, but he will defend himself, his friends, and those being unjustly treated. Again, this fits perfectly with our culture. In fact, there isn’t a hero on film who doesn’t need to check these boxes before he’s allowed to throw a punch or send a bullet flying.

What this suggests is that whether you come from the responsible side of the American tracks or the mischievous side, underneath all Americans have the same views when it comes to when and whom to fight.

And if you look at our history books and our politics, you will see these two characters play out over and over again. We claim we never started a war without being provoked. We've always been the underdog. Our leaders have always been idealists who didn't want to enter politics, but got pulled in when needed, and they all come from humble beginnings or they built businesses. None of this is really true, but we believe it.

Interestingly, the European and Asians I’ve met don’t think like this. They aren’t scrappy fighters. They aren’t underdogs. They don’t want to beat bullies. To the contrary, they tend to see themselves as members of a group and they leave all the big decisions to the group leader, i.e. they are Smurfs. That’s probably why both Bugs and Mickey have continue to represent America wherever they’ve gone rather than being co-opted by the local cultures.

Ultimately, I don't think either represents America better than the other because they each represent different sides of our national personality.
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Sunday, April 27, 2014

My Favorite Films: Science Fiction

Science fiction is an interesting genre because it has no specific boundaries. Thus, anything strange gets tossed into the genre. There is also a split between the more hardcore “science” science fiction and the more fun “fantasy” science fiction and horror science fiction. I don’t care about any of that though. I like it all. Here is my attempt to list only my top ten favorites... though I could list 100 easily, but where’s the challenge in that?

** I’ve excluded things like Star Wars, Star Trek and Aliens, which could easily dominate the list.

1. Fifth Element (1997): This is a unique science fiction film, being both a comedy, very clever, and a positive portrayal of the future. In fact, this stands out as one of the rare non-dystopian futures on film... and it’s got the best bad guys: fully emotive aliens!

2. Blade Runner (1982): This film became the standard for dystopian fiction. Add in some fascinating twists and turns and an amazing epiphany at the end and you have a great film.

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): This film really captures the rising tide of the UFO conspiracy theory that swept the nation in the 1970s. It’s also deliberate Spielberg at his best.

4. Dune (1984): Dune is one of the most influential science fiction books of all time, but the attempts to make it into a movie have all failed. The public hated this one, but it has become a cult favorite. Dune stands out for presenting a truly unique universe unlike anything else on film – there should be hundreds of films like this, but there aren’t. I personally prefer the Alan Smithee version.

5. Outland (1981): Sean Connery kicking ass in space. Even more interestingly, this is one of the few films to show the “near” future in that mankind is still very much like we are today as we just start to reach out into the solar system rather than being all over the galaxy. The caustic relationship between Connery and Lazarus is worth the price of admission alone.

6. The Matrix (1999): This is probably the smartest movie ever made and it takes almost a course in philosophy and religion to understand it. Putting that aside, however, it has an amazing twist, incredibly innovative camera work, and a truly strong story.

7. Pitch Black (2000): This was Riddick at his best, as the anti-quasi-hero needing to save an interesting collection of castaways from blood thirsty creatures who only come out when it gets dark.

8. The Black Hole (1979): Love it. Used to have the action figures! This is just one of those films that stands out for being so unique in the genre and for being packed with the kinds of moments you take away from science fiction films. Again, there should be hundreds of films like this and there just aren’t.

9. Dark City (1998): This is the kind of film that blows your mind and it’s packed with things you just haven’t seen before in science fiction. Add in a really cool 1940’s film noir style, a strong cast and truly well-written dialog, and this is a definite winner.

10. Forbidden Planet (1956): This is one of the few older science films that feels grownup to me. And in that, this is one heck of a smart film, digging deep into the human psyche and in how it reveals information about the Krell in bits and by supposition, which paints a surprisingly realist picture of a people you never see or meet.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Film Friday: The Lone Ranger (2013)

I’m a fan of Johnny Depp. I’m a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which was helmed by Gore Verbinski, who also directs assembles The Lone Ranger. I like westerns. So far so good, right? Then why did I loath The Lone Ranger? Read on.
The Scheme
This one began with the idea of raping the crap out of another beloved property: The Lone Ranger. The idea was to assemble a film from modern liberal clichés and stolen ideas from other films, and wrap it in the halo of Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise so no one would notice what they were really buying. The public saw through this however, and avoided the film in droves. Disney lost between $160 million and $190 million on this film and it was well deserved.
As for the movie itself, it’s basically a large dump of all kinds of rotten clichés as an unlikable lawyer becomes an unlikable reluctant hero while combating all the racist whites from the Old West who gleefully killed more people than serial killers and now want to wipe out the Indians... all in the name of building a railroad so they could steal Indian silver and you and I can live in a polluted, corrupt country. Indian killing capitalists suck!
Where This Turd Went Wrong
Wow, where do I begin? How about this: nothing about this film works. It’s unpleasant on every level. But let’s go through some of the specifics.

Liberal Race Theory: Before we dig deeper, let me point out that this film is packed with racial identity politics and the “whites oppress minorities” garbage so popular in the 1990s in Hollywood. Not coincidentally, it’s also packed with typical liberal condescension racism. What do I mean? Observe.

Every white person in this film except the hero and the heroine are presented as enthusiastically genocidal. They want the Indians killed. The Army is stupid and bloodthirsty, and their commander chooses to wage a war of genocide rather than admit that he may have wrongly attacked the Indians. The railroad sees wiping out the Indians as the best way to go forward, as does the villain... and the pro forma "secret villain." Etc.
The Indians are presented as “noble savages,” which is a racist trope used to intellectually neuter another race. What Hollywood does is present that race as childlike, backwards, and helpless, i.e. harmless and needy. They exist for the sole purpose of awakening the white hero to his moral duties by tugging on his desire to protect these helpless, childlike beings. Spike Lee has dubbed these characters the “Magic Negro” when they are black, and he’s made it clear this is a racist portrayal.

The film then continues its racism by making the hero into the “white man’s burden” trope. This is done by making it clear that the Indians cannot protect themselves and must rely entirely on the white hero to save them. Adding a touch more insult to this, we are assured that the white hero and heroine are pure by having the minority characters sense their purity as animals sense ghosts or earthquakes. For example, you will see this in a particularly offensive scene when a Chinese woman, from out of the blue, decides to offer a gift to the heroine on the sole basis that her purity and her beauty is something that has struck the Chinese woman with awe.

Blech. Anyways...

Up Yours, Fans!: The first thing you will note is that the film craps all over the property. I love westerns, but I’m not a fan of the Lone Ranger. It always felt too campy to me, so this issue didn’t bother me. Still, I recognized throughout that the fans probably did not enjoy the complete perverting of the original property. Indeed, it is easier to see this as Jack Sparrow and His Retarded Sort-of-Outlaw Friend than it is to see it as The Lone Ranger.
Wrong Sensibilities: Despite not being a fan of The Lone Ranger, I am a fan of westerns, and I found myself turned off repeatedly by the film’s sensibilities. First, this is one of those film where the characters are just gross to look at. The villain is beyond ugly with vile teeth and has never bathed in his life. This is a condescending and false view of the past. It also makes the film unpleasant to look at. With that poor start, it then gets worse quickly. The villain is a modern sicko. He kills people with the glee of a television serial killer. He literally eats the hearts of his victims. He’s a rapist. In one scene, he licks his own blood from a knife. This is modern serial killer crap. NONE OF THIS BELONGS IN WESTERNS! It belongs in Saw.

And the villain is just the beginning. This film comes across like someone with a very sick mind wanting to assure themselves that everyone else is just like they are. Hence, all the whites except the hero think nothing of killing whoever gets in their way. Everyone is blood thirsty. They revel in hangings. They are cruel. And boy do they love killing Indians.

The hero is a real problem in this regard too. At one point, for example, he and Tonto find themselves buried up to their necks. Through a bit of impossible silliness, the hero’s horse gets him out of the jam. The hero then rides off and leaves Tonto buried. I can’t imagine a human being outside of a true psychopath who would do that to another person.

Anachronisms: Further, while there is nothing in the film you can point to and say, “That didn’t exist back then,” the film keeps giving off that vibe. It almost has a steam punk feel to it at times, like Wild Wild West, and even when it doesn’t, the action and dialog all feel too modern. Examples include Helen Bonham’s fake-leg gun, parallel and crossing train tracks through the mountains, and things like the death of the Rangers. They ride into a canyon where the villain’s gang wipes them out as if they were snipers with high powered scopes that let them stand off at 1,000 yards while taking out the Rangers with extreme precision without being seen and without missing a shot. It feels like a special forces attack, not something from a western.
The Unlikable Characters: All of the above could probably be overlooked if the characters were likable, but they aren’t. The film starts with a pointless narration device with a snotty kid and Johnny Depp way over-acting being old. He comes across right away as a liar, a fraud and a bore, and that sours you hearing his tale. Then we meet the hero and discover he’s an arrogant turd who is out of his league compared to everyone else around him. This is supposed to endear him to us somehow, but it doesn’t. Rather than being the fish out of water or the newbie with a lot to learn – generic characters films often use to give the audience someone to relate to – the hero comes across as an arrogant ass who looks down on the people around him even as he’s less competent than any of them. He’s also incredibly self-righteous, particularly about being anti-gun... something which doesn’t belong in a western. The result is that the hero moves from scene to scene without ever connecting with any of the other characters.

The love interest is bossy and conflicted. She loves the hero’s brother, but gets over that too easily. Even worse, we’re supposed to like her without ever really being given a reason. She is presumptuous cardboard with no chemistry with any other character.
Tonto is a waste. Johnny Depp plays on the stereotype of Indians being stoic, but he takes it to extremes; he acts like he’s on thorazine. There’s nothing particularly horrible about this choice except that it feels like Jack Sparrow all over again. Where this does become a problem is that we’re constantly told that he’s crazy and everyone seems to dislike him for no apparent reason. The hero in particular dislikes him. And while this works in cop buddy films, the problem here is that they never come to like each other and their angry interactions aren’t simultaneously funny.

The result of all of this is an offensive mess. From the opening frame until the ending, this film moves from scene to scene as unlikable characters engage in an orgy of brutality, self-righteousness, and anachronistic behavior. They never connect with each other and never connect with the audience. And by the time this film is over, you kind of wish they had all been killed. The plot is a slanderous cliché that feels more like it was assembled from expected scenes rather than a story someone wanted to tell. The director doesn’t care, though, because he’s busy inserting references to the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films throughout the film. The film is bloated. The writing is weak and uninspired. And the first 20 minutes just rush through a group of scenes that leave you wondering what else the film can do to annoy you... whining babies? cannibalistic, killer rabbits? a cross-dressing henchman in the old West? a hero who hates guns? All that's in there. Give me a break.

That’s why this one failed... and deservedly so.
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Guest Review: Mulholland Drive (2001)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

There are a handful of filmmakers who evoke true passion when discussed among film buffs, but perhaps none more so than David Lynch. Supporters have elevated him to the level of genius, while detractors claim his work is overly complex, inaccessible, and symbolic to a fault. Few are without opinion, and it is usually strong.


Somewhere between those extremes is probably where I fall, having not even seen his complete body of work. I couldn’t watch Eraserhead, but enjoyed both Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway. Of those I’ve seen, Mulholland Drive strikes me as easily the best. Lynch was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best director. Like much of his work, it’s left to the viewer to make sense of what has been seen, and to interpret any symbolism or deeper meaning. In fact, Lynch, (particularly with this film) has developed a large cult following. Like Dylan song lyrics, more analysis and interpretation exists for this than any other film that comes to mind. That may not necessarily be the mark of a great film, but it certainly indicates a level of interest bordering on the compulsive for a great many people. Let’s examine why, but if you have yet to see the film, I suggest you do so before reading further.
The Plot is difficult to summarize. Like Pulp Fiction, scenes develop seemingly disparate story lines that don’t necessarily appear in chronological order, while bizarre characters appear and re-appear in scenes that make little sense on the surface. For most, repeat viewings are necessary to sort everything out, and put it all in proper context.

As the film begins, a group of 50’s era teens frantically jitterbug to big band music while an over-exposed image of a young blonde and elderly couple is superimposed over them. There is a brief cut to a red comforter covering a sleeping body. This in turn cuts to a street sign of Mulholland Drive, and a beautiful brunette woman (Laura Harring) in the back of a limo which stops in the middle of the street. There are flashes of two cars full of youngsters racing downhill on a dangerous curving road. The woman asks why they stopped, and the driver turns, points a pistol at her, and tells her to get out. The two cars barrel around a curve and slam into the limo killing all except the woman. Bloodied and dazed, she staggers down the hill, crosses Sunset Boulevard, and hides in shrubs outside a gated apartment complex where she falls asleep. In the morning she sneaks into an apartment while the occupant is in the process of leaving.

The perky, wholesome young woman seen briefly at the beginning is Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) from Deep River, Ontario. She arrives in Hollywood to “apartment sit” for her actress aunt, and pursue her own dream to make it as an actress and movie star. The elderly couple originally shown with her turn out to be her traveling companions from the plane. Betty is startled to find the mysterious brunette in her aunt’s shower. When asked her name, the woman appears confused, but seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth as Gilda on the wall, answers “Rita”. Betty quickly learns Rita is not her aunt’s friend, and is suffering from amnesia, but still befriends her, and together they try to find out who Rita is, and what has happened to her. They also discover a wad of cash and mysterious blue key in her purse which they hide in a hat box in the closet.
In a parallel story, a young movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) attends a meeting with studio executives, to re-cast the lead role in his film. Also there are the Castiglione Brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti), mobsters with apparent studio control. They pull out a picture of a young actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) telling Adam “this is the girl” who must be cast as the lead. Adam refuses, but various characters, including a cowboy, subsequently threaten Adam, ultimately securing his acquiescence.

Betty is scheduled to read for a part at an audition arranged by her aunt. She practices reading the lines in a conventional boring manner with Rita. At the audition, Betty takes it to a whole new level. This earns her a different audition for Adam’s movie,The Sylvia North Story, but Adam, as we know, has already agreed to cast Camilla Rhodes. Betty leaves without auditioning. She and Rita follow a lead to the apartment of Diane Selwyn (also played by Naomi Watts) where they break in only to find Diane dead in the bedroom. Rita becomes hysterical, and when they get home, she cuts her hair and dons a blonde wig that looks exactly like Betty’s hair. Betty invites Rita to share her aunt’s big bed, and they engage in a lesbian encounter.

Rita has a dream in which she speaks Spanish. She asks Betty to go with her to a seedy club (Club Silencio). An extremely surreal scene ensues where performers explain things are not what they appear. Betty begins to shake violently. A female vocalist performs Roy Orbison’s Crying in Spanish causing both Betty and Rita to weep. They find a blue box in Betty’s purse. Upon returning, Rita turns to get the hatbox where she earlier hid her own purse with the cash and blue key, but when she turns back, Betty has disappeared. Rita uses the blue key from her purse to open the blue box, and the camera zooms down into the darkness of the box. This occurs nearly 80% of the way through the film, and from here on, ensuing scenes are designed to tie together the loose ends from the first two hours.
The camera cuts to Diane’s apartment. She is lying on her bed in exactly the same position she was earlier when found dead. A door knock sounds, and the same Cowboy (Monty Montgomery) who earlier convinced Adam to cast Camilla Rhodes as the lead in The Sylvia North Story says “Come on pretty girl, time to wake up”. We notice a red lamp shade by the bed, and a blue key on the coffee table. Diane turns around and fantasizes that her lover, who had apparently broken up with her, has come back. Surprise! It’s “Rita” whose real name is Camilla.

The final scenes tend to hop about in a series of flashbacks. Diane receives a call from Camilla telling her she is sending a limo for her. We see the same shot of Mulholland Drive and the limo stopping, but this time, it is Diane in the back seat. Camilla walks up to greet her, then takes her up a shortcut path to Adam’s house where a party is in progress. Many characters from earlier in the movie now appear in different persona. During cocktail chatter, we learn Diane was from Deep River, Ontario where she won a dance contest that inspired her to become an actress using some of the money she inherited from an aunt in the film business who passed away. She recounts how she met Camilla on the set of The Sylvia North Story when Camilla beat her out for the lead role. Subsequently they became friends (and apparently lovers). Adam and Camilla announce their engagement, and we see a tear trickle down Diane’s cheek followed by a look of hatred.

The scene jumps to Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd., a diner that has shown up repeatedly earlier in the film. Diane appears to take out a hit on Camilla with an unsavory character introduced previously. She pays with a roll of cash, possibly the inheritance from her aunt. He tells her he will leave a blue key “where they had discussed” when the job is done. Behind the diner is a grotesque, homeless man seen early in the film. At his feet is a paper bag with the blue box. Miniature versions of the elderly couple scurry out of the bag laughing hysterically. The scene shifts back to Diane’s where she sits on her sofa. There is a door knock, and the little people scurry under the door to attack her. She retreats to her bedroom, gets a gun from the night table, and shoots herself. Silencio!
So What Does It All Mean? - Well, there in lies the fun and mystery of the film. After seeing it a couple of times, it became pretty clear to me that most of the first two hours are essentially a dream fantasy of Diane Selwyn, a would be actress who has been ground down by Hollywood. Rejected both professionally and personally, she reacts in an unfortunate way, contracting to have the lover who jilted her murdered. The subsequent despair experienced at her circumstances drives her to take her own life, but not before dreaming of the events that transpired to bring her to this lowest point. Naturally, she retreats to an earlier, happier time, imagining a career and relationship more the way she hoped they would turn out. As often happens in dreams, many of the characters who inhabit them are drawn from actual people she has recently encountered, even if only in some small way.

In subsequent viewings, the story becomes clearer since Lynch left plenty of clues. The color red (similar to The Sixth Sense) is shown with comforters, lampshades, or an appliance “on” switch, and seemingly signals changes from dream to reality or at least a shift in time. In fact, Lynch lists this in the DVD package as one of 10 clues to help viewers “unlock the thriller.”
Then, Is This A Masterpiece? - Those words tend to get thrown around far too much, however I do think this is an exceptional film, and easily Lynch’s best. The first two hour segment (the dream sequence) was written as a t.v. pilot. When it was clear it wouldn’t be picked, Lynch cobbled together the last half hour to wrap things up and transform it into a feature film. The way he did is exceptionally skillful. It also became the breakout role for the actress Naomi Watts who displays an incredible range in portraying Betty Elms and Diane. Her scene with the actor Chad Everett during Betty’s audition is actually a stunning example of how superb acting can transform a set of lines into something extraordinary. It is clear his spoofing of Hollywood could only be told by someone who had actually experienced it.

Lynch is able to mix in the right amount of his unusual humor into several scenes. Two great examples are Badalamenti spitting the expresso into his napkin, and the mob enforcer encountering Adam’s ex-wife and Billy Ray Cyrus as the pool man who was bedding her.

One of my gripes with David Lynch has always been that he goes out of his way to place the weird or bizarre in everyday settings. I first noticed that during the Twin Peaks t.v. series, when he included a scene at the vet with a Llama in the waiting room. It seemed like he was trying just a little too hard to be David Lynch. In this film, though, while there is a little of that, it never rises to the level of a turn-off and the really great elements far outweigh any negatives. Many have found incredibly rich allegorical meaning in this film citing their belief that with Lynch, virtually no single frame is ever without symbolism. Others have expressed their hypothesis of a return to themes of sexual abuse prevalent in his earlier work, or prostitution. Lynch’s exact intention can’t be known since he won’t discuss them.

My preference is to not deconstruct every scene or hypothesize about implicit meanings, although doing so surely is a hell of a lot of fun. There are definite allusions to many classics such as Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, and The Wizard of Oz. Personally, my feeling is that this one is probably Lynch’s own updated version of or homage to the classic Sunset Boulevard, told in his own peculiar style. The similarities are just too striking. But then, that is only one opinion. How about yours?

There are many links to essays or reviews which are helpful to better understand Mulholland Drive. With the prior caveat about seeing the film first, some of the most helpful include:

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Superman A Liberal? Yeah, Probably

I got to thinking and the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that Superman is a liberal. Strange, but true. Batman, however, is anything but a liberal. Let’s examine the case for Superman being a liberal:

Leftist Job: Let’s start with the obvious. Superman is a journalist and most journalists are leftists. In fact, not only is journalism the bastion of leftist ideologues, but it’s also one of the few places where private sector unions still thrive.

Compare that to Batman, who is a businessman.

Leftist Villains: The most common villains in Superman are rich businessmen, evil corporations and rogue military generals. Basically, the leftist anti-capitalist pantheon. Batman’s villains are losers who were “misunderstood” and decided to make the rest of us suffer as punishment for their own miserable lives. Those are usually the heroes in leftist movies.

Impulse Driven: Superman is impulse driven. Superman has a superpower he could use to help the world in many ways. But rather than doing the conservative thing and plotting out how to make the world a better place, he uses his power to react to the moment. And his solutions are always short-term solutions without any thought to the long-term messages being sent.

Batman... Batman is all about long-term thinking. Everything he builds, everything he plans is based on needs he thinks he will have in the future. He is always preparing for projected problems.

Favoritism: When Superman acts on impulse, notice that he favors those closest to him. Indeed, he spends his days trying to stop any petty crime that afflicts his friends, but rarely worries about the larger world he doesn’t see. And the few times he’s actually tried to make the world better, he’s done the short-sighted liberal thing like push for nuclear disarmament... as if disarming good guys will make the world safer.

Dependence: Speaking of disarming the good guys, Superman breeds dependence. Nothing divides liberal and conservative thinking more clearly than the “give a man a fish v. teach a man to fish” dichotomy. Liberals think it helps people to take care of their needs, conservatives know you need to teach them to be self-reliant. Superman, like all liberals, believes in doing things for people. He’s never once encouraged self-help. He’s never once helped the police or military learn to protect the citizenship on their own.

Batman, on the other hand, is constantly working to help the police and the public be better able to stand up for themselves. In fact, think of how often Batman gives the police the final clue they need and then leaves them to round up the bad guys. Superman never does that.

Feminist: Superman and Lois Lane have a nearly perfect liberal feminist relationship. She’s the hard charging “bossy” working professional. He meekly takes orders from her and stands there like a eunuch as she heaps abuse upon him. He even pathetically waits on her hand as she openly displays a crush on another man (ironically his alter ego).

Shame?: Finally, think The Incredibles. There is an air in Superman that being special is a bad thing. Superman hides his super powers behind a pathetically meek alter ego. He hides from the press as much as possible and only appears when needed. And in Superman II, he even gives up his super powers just so he can get married... something no one asked him to do.

Batman is different. He hides his identity for his own safety, but he still uses both personas to fight evil. He doesn’t downplay his own skills or abilities.

In The Incredibles, society decided that it was wrong to demonstrate that you were better at something than others. That is the socialist worldview. Superman implicitly shares it. Batman rejects it. Total liberal.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Man versus Flu (Round 3)

There won't be a post tonight. As frustrating as it is, I'm on my third bout with this killer flu, which just keeps coming back as different members of my family catch it and hand it back to everyone else. I've never dealt with anything this hard to kill off. So sadly, I just don't have the energy to write anything. Sorry folks.
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Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Favorite Films: Comedies (non-1980's)

Last week, we were shocked to find how the 1980’s dominate comedy. This week we remind ourselves that others eras did comedy too. Here are my favorite non-1980’s comedies. Filling this list with comedies I enjoy was actually a lot harder.

1. Silver Streak (1976): Gene Wilder at his best, along with popular side kick Richard Pryor, this is a strong romantic comedy about a man who keeps getting thrown off a train that he needs to be on.

2. A Night At The Opera (1935): More than any other of their films, A Night At The Opera highlights the wide talent abilities of the brothers as well as their comedic genius. Combining both verbal humor with slapstick, this film works on so many levels.

3. Hot Shots (1991): The heir to the Airplane! franchise, this film ripped a huge hole in all the action tropes of the 1980s and it’s just hilarious.

4. The Muppet Movie (1979): The Muppets have a miserable history with films in that almost all of them suck pretty badly. This is the one time they really captured the essence of the Muppets and what we love about them.

5. Office Space (1999): Dude, this film speaks to my generation.

6. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Not only are this and the sequel the perfect parodies of the James Bond franchise, but they gave us unforgettable characters like Mini-Me and an amazing amount of quotable dialog.

7. Not Another Teen Movie (2001): Yet another parody film, this one actually rises head and shoulders above the rest. This film is not only hilarious, but it hits its targets perfectly.

8. Duck Soup (1933): Like Night At The Opera, this film lets the Marx Brothers roam free and do what they do best. Ultimately though, this is Groucho’s show as he drives an insane, but also insanely funny plot.

9. Blazing Saddles (1974): This film is hilarious on so many levels. Not only does it parody all the western tropes, but it does so while poking fun at Hollywood and delving heavily into the issue of race in a way others haven’t been willing. Those things raise this film just slightly above Young Frankenstein in my book.

10. Animal House (1978): Not only is this the film that started the entire college movie genre, but it actually does it better than all the copies to come. That’s pretty impressive. Also, it’s full of iconic moments.

11. Rat Race (2001): This is a fun movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that. Well written, well acted, funny and entertaining, I find this to be a good deal more enjoyable that the film it’s copying: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which I find to be too dry and too reliant on having a famous cast.

12. Scott Pilgrim v. The World (2010): This is definitely a niche film, but it’s really amazingly funny if you’re in that niche.

13. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): A dark comedy by Frank Capra, Cary Grant learns on his wedding day that his aunts are insane.

14. Those Magnificent Men And Their Flying Machines (1965): This is one of those comedies that relies on a large group of comedians to come play out various national stereotypes under the guise of engaging in an airplane race. Good fun and clever at times, this is a bit of a nostalgia trip.

15. Africa Screams (1949): I list this one because it’s the one I remember the most, but honestly, all of Abbott and Costello’s films kind of run together. That said, they had their moments!

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Down With Film!

No film tonight. The feds... er, the day job caught up to me and I had to leave my hideout office for a few days.
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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Guest Review: JFK (1991)

by ScottDS

[sigh] I won’t lie – I love this movie. As an accurate record of the facts, it doesn’t pass muster. But as an engrossing conspiracy thriller-slash-whodunit, it is superb. Brilliantly crafted, beautifully-shot, well-acted, miraculously-edited… Oliver Stone’s 205-minute magnum opus never lags, never bores, and continues to polarize – 51 years after the tragedy that precipitated the whole thing.

November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his team investigate some local connections but shortly thereafter close the investigation when assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Three years later, after an encounter with Senator (and Warren Report skeptic) Russell Long, Garrison re-opens the investigation. They interrogate disgraced pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), male prostitute Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), and many others, including local witnesses who claim there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll. O’Keefe claims he was at a party with Ferrie and some anti-Castro Cuban exiles where a conversation about killing Kennedy took place. Also at the party was a man O’Keefe was involved with named Clay Bertrand, who turns out to be New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones).
The trial of Clay Shaw finally takes place in 1969. Garrison, who at this point has managed to alienate many of those closest to him, attempts to debunk the “single bullet theory” and proposes that Kennedy was killed by elements within our government, including members of the FBI, the CIA, and the military-industrial complex. Why? Because Kennedy wanted to withdraw from Vietnam, which would’ve meant reduced profits for the military’s hardware manufacturers. Kennedy also wanted to transfer covert operations to the Defense Department, which would’ve diminished the CIA’s power. Shaw is found not guilty, though the jurors admit they believe there was a conspiracy – they just couldn’t find a way to link Shaw to that conspiracy. (These two paragraphs don’t do the sprawling narrative justice at all – I need to stay within my 3-page limit!)

If you’ve seen the film, I doubt anything I say will change your mind. We can debate history in the comments. (Most of this is above my pay grade!) If you haven't seen the film, it’s definitely worth watching once, though it might require two or more viewings to take it all in. The film is a kaleidoscope of new footage shot in 35mm, vintage news footage, amateur newsreel footage, new footage made to look like vintage footage, re-enactments, cutaways and inserts that last mere seconds, a dozen different film stocks – hell, the true heroes of this movie are Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing, the editors who won a well-deserved Oscar for their work! The film is well-shot by Robert Richardson who also won an Oscar for his work. I couldn’t even imagine some of the setups: the filmmakers re-created the assassination in the real Dealey Plaza, which had to be restored to its 1963 look. They were even able to spend a limited amount of time in the actual Book Depository. Today, this would all no doubt be shot in some European country with nice tax incentives… but Oliver Stone goes for broke.
Yes, Oliver Stone. Look, I’m no expert. I’ve only seen three of his films, including this one. The man has a reputation which pretty much started with this film (and it has affected critical views of his work, unfairly or not, ever since). He has his opinions and I guess the phrase I’m looking for is “true believer,” though I have to give him credit for being somewhat consistent: he’s one of those left-wingers who hates the “mainstream media” as much as right-wingers do, but for different reasons. (The corporate influence, no doubt.) His filmmaking career has been on the wane for a while, but JFK was made in his prime. Stone has total control, manipulating pieces like a master chess player. The film is infinitely detailed and never boring but, while it’s complicated, it’s not too deep – you don’t need a poli-sci degree to understand it. There's also a lot of world building – little details in the margins that add verisimilitude: non-sequiturs like the maître d with the weird mustache who sits Garrison and his team at a restaurant, and a lot of the homespun bon mots uttered by the characters (“I mean, how do you know who your daddy is? ’Cause your mama told you so.”)

At this point in his career, Kevin Costner had perfected the stoic Gary Cooper everyman thing and it serves him well here, though the real Jim Garrison wasn’t quite the Boy Scout we see in this movie. Coster’s Garrison comes across as the ultimate patriot/father figure, ubiquitous pipe and all. Sissy Spacek plays his wife Liz. I can’t complain, but reviewers seem to be split: they either enjoy her, saying she helps humanize the movie… or they say she’s drags the film down, a case of a talented actress saddled with the clichéd “housewife” role. Garrison’s team includes Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon, Michael Rooker as Bill Broussard, Laurie Metcalf as Susie Cox, Gary Grubbs as Al Oser, and Wayne Knight as Numa Bertel. (Knight would later parody this movie in a famous Seinfeld episode.) Sanders and the always-entertaining Rooker get most of the meat: the former resigns on account of Garrison’s obstinance; the latter apparently sells out to the Feds. The real Jim Garrison appears as Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Gary Oldman does his usual excellent job disappearing into the role of Oswald. Kevin Bacon plays Willie O’Keefe (a composite character). Bacon is clearly enjoying himself and he gets one of my favorite lines (NSFW!!!). Joe Pesci cranks it up to 11 as David Ferrie. Ferrie suffered from alopecia areata, so Pesci shuffles around with an obvious wig and ridiculous eyebrows. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for an Oscar for playing Clay Shaw. While Stone clearly portrays him as a villain, he’s just too… nice! He lies through his teeth to Garrison, but he comes across not as a criminal mastermind, but as a perfectly charming citizen. Liz even reminds Garrison that they once met Shaw at a local fundraiser. Jack Lemon shows up as Jack Martin, a paranoid drunk who helps implicate Ferrie and Shaw. He works for New Orleans PI Guy Bannister, played by Ed Asner. I have to say that the villains aren't as effective as they should be. Jones is too congenial, Pesci and Bacon are too over the top, and Asner is just a grump. You want a scary Oliver Stone villain? Watch Sam Waterston as CIA director Richard Helms in Nixon.

Walter Matthau plays Senator Russell Long, all bow-tied and dignified. We’re inclined to believe him when he talks about Oswald’s skills with a rifle, even though we really have no reason to. “Average man would be lucky to get two shots off…” Is this true? I have no idea, but Garrison just accepts it. (It’s far from the only blind assumption in this film!) John Candy plays lawyer Dean Andrews, who was allegedly called by Clay Shaw to represent Oswald. He’s only in a couple scenes, claiming that everything he told the Feds was a figment of his imagination. (Man, I miss John Candy.) Brian Doyle-Murray plays Jack Ruby and Beata Poźniak plays Marina Oswald. For research, Poźniak actually lived with the real Marina Oswald for a while.
And then there’s Donald Sutherland. He plays “X,” based on Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty. Garrison travels to Washington D.C. to meet with this mysterious figure, who reveals that he was sent to Antarctica by his superior officer shortly before the assassination. X later realized this was because one of his jobs back home would’ve been to arrange for additional security during Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. While on a layover in New Zealand, X reads about Oswald in the paper, hours before he’s charged with a crime. This leads him to believe that a cover-up is taking place. Garrison is skeptical but X reminds him that war is a historical constant. “Kings are killed, Mr. Garrison. Politics is power, nothing more.”

This sequence is a tour-de-force of editing, camerawork, and sound design… even if a lot of it is bullshit. It almost works as a short film in and of itself and it also features one of my favorite John Williams cues: “The Conspirators,” which makes great use of woodblock and metronome ticking. Williams was actually busy working on Steven Spielberg’s Hook so for this film he didn’t compose a score in the traditional sense. Instead, he saw some footage and went ahead and composed several different themes, which Stone and his team used when necessary, sometimes even editing the film to fit the music. To see (hear?) the power of music and sound design, watch the deleted scenes on the DVD/Blu-Ray, most of which are presented in rough form. No ambient music, no added sound design – just dialogue, and it’s all pretty lifeless.
Clay Shaw’s trial takes up the latter fifth of the film. Costner gives what might be his best performance as he implores the jury to do the right thing. It’s quite riveting, though there are a couple of false notes. Stone and Co. go overboard with the literary allusions, with Garrison referencing “an English poet,” Kafka, Tennyson, “an American naturalist,” and Shakespeare on more than one occasion. The deification of Kennedy is also evident – Garrison, continuing his Shakespeare analogy, refers to the slain president as a “father leader” and begs the jury to not forget their “dying king.” It’s… a bit much. Actually, it’s a lot much! But it happens in the right place. This stuff wouldn’t work in the first act – sometimes you need to “earn” dialogue like this.

Now take Kennedy and Oliver Stone out of it for a second. I must admit, to my amateur Independent ears, some of this material sounds downright Tea Party-friendly: the idea of a government that is reckless, that hides tax-funded information from the American people, government officials that treat regular citizens like children, incompetent bureaucrats, and overbearing security measures? Why does this all sound so familiar? (I’ve said this to Andrew before: the line between liberal film and conservative film is often just one or two degrees). On the other hand, it's worth asking: at what point does a movie become propaganda? How many facts are the filmmakers allowed to fudge before the point is lost?

So who killed Kennedy? If you believe the Warren Report, it was Lee Harvey Oswald. If you believe Oliver Stone, it was a group of militant right-wing homosexuals, in collaboration with the FBI, the CIA, Cuban exiles, the Mafia, and… oh hell, maybe I was there, too! (20 years before I was born – why not?!) For many people, it’s easier to believe in a conspiracy. It’s almost reassuring. After all, the idea of one lone nut changing the course of history is much more disconcerting. Oliver Stone’s JFK is part of our pop culture and if you bring up the subject of the assassination, many people – for better or worse – immediately think of this movie. In any case, its message is clear: never stop questioning authority.

“Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left.”
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014


It’s funny to me how liberals like to think that they understand nuance. In my experience, you can hit a liberal over the head with a whale or a hammer and they couldn’t tell the difference. Conservatives (most at least) actually tend to be the ones who grasp nuance. And one area where this is clear is in older cartoon.

You probably realize this, but it bears pointing out: cartoons thrive on disabilities. Every single cartoon character of note from the birth of the toon age until the 1970s had a disability of some sort. Elmer Fudd has a speech impediment, plus he rode the short bus. Daffy, Donald and Porky also had speech impediments. Daffy had syphilis too, but that’s not widely known. Droopy Dog suffered from extreme depression and maniacal pessimism. Bluto and Grape Ape suffered from gigantism, also known as Andre the Giant’s Disease. The Tasmanian Devil was the first reported case of ADHD. Popeye was a meth addict, as was Speedy Gonzalez. Wimpy was addicted to hamburger. Olive Oil was anorexic. Yosemite Sam was a dwarf. Goofy was a functional retard. The Roadrunner is mute. And so on.

Of course, liberals took offense to these things and they whined about it for decades: how dare you insult retarded kids or midgets or anorexics!! Sadly, Hollywood tends to take the path of least resistance... and most obnoxiousness, so they responded by making modern cartoon characters rather bland and physically perfect.

But is this right?

Well, let’s start with the obvious. Did any kid ever see Daffy Duck and think, “I need to go make fun of some kid with a syphilis-induced speech impediment!” Hardly. Kids, who are generally smarter than liberals, saw the nuance. They weren’t laughing at kids with speech impediments, they were laughing at Daffy’s funny mannerisms... all of them. They were laughing at Daffy for being a fool, an arrogant duck who caused himself a world of hurt because he was a jerk. They may also have made fun of the kids who were different, but it wasn’t because they saw Daffy as giving them permission to do so.

In fact, it’s not even like only the villains had these flaws... all cartoon characters have flaws! Popeye mumbles, Mickey Mouse sounds like he’s been hitting the helium... or lost his testicles in ‘nam. Scooby never once spoke clearly, and Shaggy spoke hippy. Speed Buggy spoke with a stutter and smoker’s cough. Half the heroes were dumber than rocks too.

The point is this: the funny voices, the speech impediments, the crazy shapes and bizarre traits were never meant to be taken as insults to anyone. They were meant as a way to make these characters unique... something Hollywood no longer knows anything about.

This is what liberals don’t get. Just because you point something out does not mean you are making a point about it. If my villain is fat, it’s because a fat guy looks cool in the suit, not because I’m making some statement about people with Type 2 diabetes being evil. If my villain stutters or smokes or has only one hand, it’s just a way to make the villain stand out. It’s not an attempt to offend people, and if people are offended by the simple inclusion of such a thing, then they are fools. Would you rather live in a world where you fit into any film or a world where you become the dirty secret the human race pretends doesn’t exist?

What liberals need to learn (and a few conservatives at places like BH), is when that line gets crossed and something becomes a statement. Where does something go from incidental flavoring to political statement? Well, that all depends on the behavior. Behavior is what matters. Are these traits simply part of the character or do you mock them for those traits? Do you suggest those traits make them inferior? Do you suggest that those traits are things to be ridiculed? Do you treat them as second class citizen, by perhaps acting that they are so hypersensitive that they can’t see their traits portrayed on film?

People need to learn the difference between a statement for/against something and the simple inclusion of something to add depth and interest.

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Favorite Films: Comedy Films From The 1980’s

I was going to do comedies but as I thought through my list, I realized that the 1980’s dominate this list, so I’m breaking out the 1980’s. What an amazing period for comedy! This list could be triple its current length.

1. Ghostbusters (1984): This is probably the top comedy film of all time. It does everything right, from having a great story to great characters to great dialog to great jokes.

2. Clue (1985): Vastly underappreciated at the time, this cult classic is both hilarious and one of the most clever comedies out there.

3. Airplane! (1980): This is one of the few movies that will have you laughing out loud from the opening frame until the ending and somehow it never gets old. This film is a real tour de force of screwball and verbal comedy.

4. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): This is one of those rare films that just surprises you with how much you enjoy it as it twists and turns. It also combines the great Michael Caine with Steve Martin in the perfect role for him.

5. Trading Places (1983): This film feels like it captures everything you need to know about the 1980s and it’s just hilarious.

6. Police Academy (1984): I saw this last week again actually and I’m just amazed how well this film holds up. It’s characters are perfect, it’s situations are hilarious, and it’s jokes are hilarious.

7. Strange Brew (1983): What can I say except that this movie is all kinds of awesome. Seriously, a plan to take over the world from a brewery. Fantastic!

8. Naked Gun (1988): This film was like Airplane! with a plot and Leslie Nielson is perfect in this.

9. The Blues Brothers (1980): Great actors, iconic moments, amazingly quotable dialog and excellent music. What more can you ask for?

10. Coming to America (1988): Eddie Murphy was huge in the 1980s, but this was the one time he played a character with heart and it really pays off.

11. Fletch (1985): Chevy Chase at his best, as reporter Fletch, causing havoc as he solves an incredibly convoluted plot.

12. Spies Like Us (1985): This one kind of came out of the blue and it was just hilarious. Even today, with the Soviets no longer a threat, this film still feels somehow topical and funny. Chase and Akyroyd show real chemistry together.

13. Beverly Hills Cop (1984): Super well written story staring Eddie Murphy at his peak.

14. A Fish Called Wanda (1988): A sort of follow up to the Monty Python films, this was one of those films that won you over with some truly original characters and some hilarious twists.

15. Weekend At Bernie’s (1989): Movies like this never work, and yet this one works perfectly and it's got an amazing ironic-comedic feel.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Film Friday: Boiler Room (2000)

You’ve probably never heard of this film. Few people have, but it’s an excellent film. It’s got a strong (soon-to-be famous) cast, a topical story, a strong, sharp, colorful script and a driving pace. Also, we lament formula, but this one is anything but formula. Oh, and it has Vin Diesel before he was famous.


At its core, Boiler Room is the story of Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a 19-year-old failure who operates an unlicensed casino in his own apartment. He has a horrible relationship with his father (Ron Rifkin), a federal judge in New York City, bad judgment and bad choice in friends. One night, however, he gets an opportunity to turn his life around. Into his little casino stumbles a stock broker from the brokerage firm of J.T. Marlin, and this guy is flashing cash like you wouldn’t believe. He tells Seth to come work for J.T. Marlin. It begins.
The next hour or so involves Seth being immersed in this world of J.T. Marlin. Marlin is a “chop shop,” a brokerage firm which plays in the “over the counter” / bridge financing world (i.e. the penny stock market). These guys run a cold calling telemarketing brokerage operation in which they do their best to trick and manipulate people into buying the stock of companies you’ve never heard of on the basis that these companies just issued IPOs. And if that isn’t bad enough, this firm is even worse than the rest in a way I won’t reveal. Anyways, Seth is taught to lie, to break the law, and be utterly heartless. Of course, things eventually go wrong for Seth.
Why This Film Works

This is a surprisingly strong film. It suffers from the occasional amateur mistake, like an obnoxious soundtrack early in the film and some over-the-top characterizations here and there, but all told this film produces both a fascinating tale and an emotionally satisfying film. Here’s why this film works.
Let’s start with the characters. This is one of those rare films where the characters are real human beings. Not a single character is an archetype. For example, the main villain actually seems like a decent guy, even though he’s stealing from people on a massive scale. Ben Affleck is in this too. He’s a piece of sh*t. Man do you hate him. But then you see him at his house with the guys and he seems like a fun guy who cares about his friends. And so on.

Seth himself is very complex. He seems like a good guy and you’re sure he’ll do the right thing. But then he’s also not that smart and it takes him awhile to realize that the things going on around him are wrong. But by the time he realizes this and he wants out, he also finds that the respectability he’s gained from his father for having become a successful broker makes quitting impossible for him. But then he loses that and he needs to find a solution to his problems. But his innate stupidity and poor judgment arise again and he flails about as he simply can’t figure out a good way out.
Vin Diesel plays another fascinating character. Does he know what they are really doing? The film doesn’t say that he does or he doesn’t. He kind of knows some things, but does he know the full truth? We don’t know. But in the meantime, we are presented with one of the most likable guys in the film even as he’s doing things we know are really questionable. But he does have a heart of gold ultimately, right? Are you sure? I love the fact that even when the film is over, you still can’t really explain his character definitively, yet you know you would have liked him if you met him.

Speaking of Diesel, he first got spotted in Saving Private Ryan in 1998. He first became famous in 2001 when both Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious hit theaters. He made this film at the same time he made Pitch Black in 2000 before he hit it big, and he already shows a tremendous amount of acting skill and charisma in the film. Seeing his early performance here alone is worth catching the film.
The film is also full of little lines that crystallize so much of what is going on, the characters, the nature of the firm, etc. For example, when the film opens, Seth tells us that people like him get rich with a jump shot or “slinging crack rock,” only he doesn’t have a good jump shot and he’s not black so he can’t sell crack, so he decides to do the white boy version of selling crack... white collar crime. When we see Affleck’s house, Seth tells us, “These guys had all the money in the world, but no idea what to do with it,” and it’s hilarious to see a huge mansion with only one couch and a big screen TV inside... but it feels real. It makes you feel like you really know these guys inside and out. This isn’t just some silly cliché like giving your hero a classic car or talking about what kind of drinks he likes. You see these guys talk about money when they obviously have no idea what it really means, they quote the whole movie Wall Street and hero worship Gekko, they compare themselves to real brokers, and they lose a verbal beat down with a gay guy they thought would be an easy target. All of this tells you exactly who these guy want to see themselves as and how far away from that they really are.
The second thing that works is that like Glengarry Glenn Ross or Wall Street, this film pulls back the curtain and lets you see how the scam works from the inside. When you are done with this film, you feel like you actually learned what it’s like to have worked in one of these environments. As an aside, Boiler Room is inspired by the true story of Jordan Belfort and the firm of Stratton Oakmont, which has now been made into the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, so there is a good deal of truth here. Indeed, the director interviewed many of those brokers before he wrote the script.
Third, the other thing which works is the subplot of the relationship between Seth and his father. Usually, this feels like filler to me, but here it really weaves so well with Seth’s character that it’s indispensible. His father is a turd. You see fathers like this all the time, fathers who think that anger and disdain will toughen up their sons. And you see the consequence in Seth. Seth is trying desperately to please his father but has no idea how. So he does stupid things, which only makes everything worse. His bad decisions then spiral out of control, and the ones he’s making in this film are huge. But in the process of it all swirling down the drain, there is a sort of reconciliation which is actually pretty powerful. More importantly though, it gives this film its heart, which it would not have gotten from the stock story alone. It is in the father-son story that you get to see the real Seth and where you can see Seth doing his best to do the right thing despite never really knowing how. It also helps you understand why it’s not so easy for many people to say, “Hey, I should just call the cops.”

I highly recommend this film. It’s not the slickest film nor does it have the highest production values. This won’t be confused with either Glengarry Glenn Ross or Wall Street, but it compares favorably in my opinion. It’s a strong film that immerses you in a very real world you will not see anywhere else and it takes you on a wild ride that is worth taking. It has complex characters, each packed with tragic flaws, and a storyline that will more than hold your attention.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Screw The Cat, Save The Film

Have you noticed that most films are starting to feel eerily similar? There’s a reason for that. Some years back, a man named Blake Snyder wrote a book about screenwriting called “Save the Cat”, and many people blame that book. This has resulted in a specific problem that drives me nuts. Let’s discuss.

From the things I’ve read, “Save the Cat” proved to be an incredibly successful screenwriting book because it took a novel approach. Whereas most screenwriting books talk about things like how to develop characters, how to weave themes into your story, and the importance of crafting a climax, “Save the Cat” was different. “Save the Cat” laid out the specific formula the writer could follow to make a competent movie, everything from what elements each film must include to the order of the events and the number of pages each element should take in the screenplay.

Many people say this book caught fire in Hollywood and most films since 2006 have been written using the formulas and models include in the book... everything from romances to action films to science fiction films. Hence, many people blame this book for the increasing formularization of films.

Anyway, one of the ideas buried in this formularization is that the writer should always increase the challenge to the hero at every possible step. Unfortunately, while this sounds like good advice, it rarely is. In fact, what you end up with are films filled with scenes like this:
Step One: Villain escapes hero, runs into street, carjacks a car, and drives away.
Step Two: Hero chases villain. Hero also carjacks a car to catch villain.
Step Three: Hero discovers that the person he threw from the car took the key. Hero must stop and hotwire car.
Step Four: Hero starts driving. Now hero discovers that he has a flat tire. Hero must fix tire or steal another car.
Step Five: Luckily, the villain is held up in traffic.
Step Six: Hero fixes tire issue and starts moving. Engine starts smoking. Hero opens hood and see engine is dead. Must now get another car.
Step Seven: Villain now delayed by some new event.
Step Eight: Hero races after villain, but drawbridge goes up. Hero cannot jump bridge and must steal a boat.
Step Nine: Hero races boat out into water, but boat is out of gas. Hero must now swim. Hero reaches other side of river.
Step Ten: Villain sees hero and drives on sidewalk to get away from hero.
Step Eleven: Hero chases villain on sidewalk. Two guys with pain of glass walk in front of him, as does woman with baby carriage, and three nuns on a mercy mission, and falling meteorite.
Step Twelve: Villain barely escapes.
Exciting, right? Ha. Hardly. This is crap. Observe the audience’s thought process. They are excited by the chase to come. They love the idea that both have carjacked cars and will now race through the streets of Paris. They expect an exciting chase. Now the hero runs into “the key issue.” This actually adds to the suspense because it causes the audience to worry that the hero can’t make it.

Then it starts to go wrong. The hero has the flat tire. Suddenly, a hint of unbelievability enters the audience’s mind. Rather than seeing this as a tension raiser, they realize that it is highly unlikely that the key and the flat tire will occur at once. Now comes a real sin: the villain is held up in traffic. We know this was a fake decision by the filmmaker to keep the hero competitive in this race.

And that’s not the end. Nope. It keeps coming. Now we have the engine trouble. The odds of adding engine trouble to a missing key and flat tire are unbelievable low. And having the villain now delayed by some new event is simply not credible. Then the hero runs into the drawbridge issue and you suddenly realize, “This is nonsense. This is just the writing throwing up any challenge they can think of for the hero, whether it makes sense or not.” And it doesn’t stop there, it just keeps coming and coming.

By the time this sequence is over, you feel like the writer thinks you’re an idiot. You are bored to tears by the banality of the obstacles and you’ve completely lost your suspension of disbelief because the odds of this sequence of events happening is close to 0%. It feels like an unfunny comedy routine.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a theoretical issue either. I’m seeing more and more movies that feel this way. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a huge offender in this regard, as was A Good Day To Die Hard. In both movies, you had these never-ending chase scenes where the writer simply threw up one obstacle after another at every single step. I’m sure they thought they were making it more dramatic, but after the first couple obstacles, it just became torture.

Let me reach into a different “genre” to complete the point. The greatest audience tease in the history of the world was Hulk Hogan. Hogan did the exact same routine in show after show, yet you fell for it every... single... time. And having seen him live, I can tell you that I’ve never seen another human being having more control over an audience than Hogan. What he understood, i.e. why this worked, was exactly how much abuse the audience could watch him take to get the maximum anguish from the audience without losing them to boredom. THAT is what filmmakers need to grasp. They need to understand that there is a point with an audience where all the frustration reaches its peak and you must let the hero prevail. If you don’t, then you go from an asskicking moment to a moment where the hero feels bumbling.

The problem with the formula is that it ignores this vital point. It just wrongly assumes that the more obstacles you can create, the higher the tension. That’s just not true, just like it’s not true that all stories can be told using the same formula. Hollywood needs to stop relying on theory and start relying on feel. No more stupid chase scenes where random things keep happening. No more final fights that last so lost most people are praying for it to end. No more wedging every round and oval and star-shaped peg into the same square hole.
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Toon-arama: The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)

by Jason

Harold Ramis’ recent passing prompted me to go back to my introduction to the Ghostbusters franchise. I was born in 1981, so I was too young to see the 1984 live-action Ghostbusters movie. I had to wait two more years until the debut of the animated show, The Real Ghostbusters. This show definitely belongs in the pantheon of great television cartoons…at least the first season does.

The cartoon picked up largely where the first movie left off. Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore have resumed their ghostbusting gig after taking down Gozer, with their dry-and-wry secretary Janine Melnitz answering the phone “Ghostbusters” in her Brooklyn accent. Each episode saw the Ghostbusters encounter different spooks, specters and phantoms, like the ghost of Casey Jones, gremlins, trolls, Greek goddesses, the Bogeyman, Babylonian gods, a sandman, pirate ghosts, the ghosts of Doc Holliday and the Earps, Lovecraftian magic and gods, and various demons.
Starting out, the show managed to preserve much of the spirit of the first movie and the personality of the characters. Maurice LaMarche, the voice of Egon, basically does a Harold Ramis impression. Frank Welker makes Ray sound a bit more childlike but preserves the enthusiasm of the character very well. Arsenio Hall still keeps Winston as the everyman of the group, but he’s acclimated to the others and doesn’t sound as confused by the technical jargon. Lorenzo Music, however, made Peter more laidback and dry, a change from Bill Murray’s portrayal. It still works well, and many fans liked Music’s portrayal. Other supporting characters made sporadic or no appearances at all: Walter Peck just showed up for one episode, Louis Tully came on board around the time Ghostbusters II premiered, and Dana Barrett never appeared at all.

But no discussion of the characters would be complete without mentioning Slimer. The producers thought the show needed a mascot that kids would like, and the green ghost that slimed Peter in the first movie seemed like a good choice. The movie’s producers dubbed him “Onionhead” for the movie, but he was rechristened “Slimer” for the show. He was also lightened up from a mean ravenous glutton (the f/x puppets gave him a cross look) to a happy overeager puppy…and also a ravenous glutton. Egon decides that having a ghost to experiment on would be pretty neat, so the guys decide to keep Slimer around the firehouse, although Peter has problems warming up to the floating spud.

The Ghostbusters film is often cited as a great comedy, and it is, but it’s largely due to the banter between the main characters and the occasional irreverence toward the supernatural happenings around them. The ghosts themselves are typically done seriously and scary, and even with the laughs, the movie manages to maintain gravity. The first seventy-eight episodes - 13 episodes for ABC Saturday morning and 65 for first-run syndication - are done in a similar style. A pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczynski served as story editor and kept the show funny and serious in all the right places.
It’s hard to pick just one great episode from the first season. One of my favorites, “The Devil to Pay,” featured a devil (“a minor demon” Ray corrects) placing the Ghostbusters in a demonic game show. In “Take Two,” the guys head to California to consult on a movie made about their lives. Peter thinks he’ll get Robert Redford to play him, but Winston takes a look at the cast list: “Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis? What's that, a law firm?” In “Night Game,” Winston participates in a baseball game played by specters who regularly duel between good and evil sides. “Who're You Calling Two-Dimensional?” puts the Ghostbusters in a world populated by Looney Tunes-esque cartoon characters. When paranormal activity hits a dry spell, the Ghostbusters turn to busting crime in pre-Giuliani New York in “Ghost Busted.” Another one of my favorites, “Doctor Doctor,” sees the Ghostbusters stuck in the hospital with brownish slime that clings to them and starts to manifest big body parts like an eye, an ear, a nose, etc. Finally, in the dramatic and pretty dark “Ragnarok and Roll,” a man saddened by his recent breakup finds a flute that when played will bring about the end of the world. At one point, the Ghostbusters consider igniting their proton packs to destroy the demon that’s about to end the world – and themselves along with it.

The first season was just a blast. I could probably count on one hand the episodes that didn’t work. Unfortunately, the first season would also be the series’ high point. As the first season came to an end, ABC hired consultants to examine the show and come up with ways to “fix” the series. And they did. Oh they did.

First, kid characters called the junior Ghostbusters were to be brought in, because supposedly, kids want to watch kids on cartoon shows. Slimer was brought more to the foreground, given more intelligible speech, and went from being like a pet to like the Ghostbusters’ adopted son. The four Ghostbusters were given clearly defined roles: Egon the “brain,” Ray the “hands,” Peter the “mouth,” and Winston was…the driver. If the stupidity could not get worse, they demanded Janine be changed to a more demure lady, remove her sarcastic wit, drop her Brooklyn accent, dress her up in longer skirts, and make her glasses round because they claimed “sharp objects frighten children.” And how many cartoons at the time featured characters with long pointy swords?

They took a series that played brilliantly to both adults and kids and lobotomized it with the same cartoon formula you could find on many other shows. Since the show was such a huge hit, the property had to be protected, and by protected, I mean have all the edges sanded off and turned into something as inoffensive as possible so the gravy train doesn’t stop. Straczynski refused to be a party to it and quit.
The second season opener, “Baby Spookums” showed the problems right off the bat. A “baby” ghost wanders into the living world and the Ghostbusters decide to keep it around for a while. Then the parents show up from the same alternate dimension, but will the Ghostbusters recognize they’re just looking for their baby and not bust them? Will Slimer get along with baby Spookums? Will they find baby Spookums when he runs away from the firehouse? Having seen this plot so many times before, do I even care?

The second season was also marked by Lorenzo Music’s departure from the role of Peter. Apparently, Bill Murray was puzzled why they didn’t just use someone that sounded like him and not like Garfield, so Dave Coulier came on board and did basically a jocular Bill Murray impersonation for the rest of the series. Unfortunately, it also took away the cynical edge Music gave the character. The antagonism between Peter and Slimer also evaporated, as Peter began calling Slimer “spud” and acted just like an older pal to him.

This is where the show mostly died for many fans. It became more of a typical Saturday morning cartoon, for good or ill. That means kid characters get to help save the day, as the Junior Ghostbusters did in “Halloween II 1/2” and “The Bogeyman is Back.” We even get stories featuring babies, as in the aforementioned “Baby Spookums” and “Three Men and an Egon.” (Cartoons sometimes do “baby” shows, don’t ask me why) The show’s producers also tried introducing a big bad overlord for the guys to fight called the Ghostmaster, but he was written out after two showings. “Jailbusters” has the guys put on trial by ghosts, but a great premise is undone by too much silliness. Even bringing back our favorite environmental bureaucrat Walter Peck was a flop, as the episode “Big Trouble With Little Slimer” ended up focusing on his efforts to capture Slimer, with an ending that had the Ghostbusters mourning over a possibly destroyed Slimer (He gets better). A sentimental ending over Slimer is definitely not what I look for when I want to watch Ghostbusters.

Still, the later episodes weren’t all bad. One of my favorites was the third season “Flip Side,” where Peter, Ray and Egon get sucked into an alternate dimension inhabited by ghosts, and it’s the living who get busted! In “Standing Room Only,” the gang has to confront a giant ghost-eating entity named Mee-Krah that is headed for New York City. There were also funny spoofs of the Simpsons in “Guess What's Coming to Dinner” and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in “Mean Green Teen Machine.” “The Halloween Door” has Peter get some humorous revenge on Slimer for all the slimings he’s endured. The shows’ producers also convinced Straczynski to contribute a few scripts, which he did provided he could write the show again on his own terms. He even explained Janine’s abrupt change in character as the doings of a ghost disguising itself as a fairy godmother who altered Janine’s appearance in “Janine, You’ve Changed.”

The Real Ghostbusters was one of my earliest regular appointment viewings on weekday afternoons. It was funny, adventurous, scary, and sometimes even touching. I could not recommend the first season more wholeheartedly. It’s ironic that the series got crippled by bureaucracy, the same nemesis that plagued the Ghostbusters in the first movie.
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