Friday, August 31, 2012

It Is No Dream: The Theodor Herzl Story

"If you will it, it is no dream."
You're fucking twenty minutes late, man. What the fuck is that?"
"Thedor Herzl?"
"Huh?"
"State of Israel. If you will it, Dude, it is no dream."

Up until a few weeks ago, this bit of dialogue from The Big Lebowski was all I knew of Theodor Herzl, so when this documentary rolled around, I felt obliged, practically to go see it.

Well, as it turns out, Herzl is the architect of modern Zionism and the State of Israel. A playwright and journalist who sought artistic satisfaction, he ended up trying to solve "the Jewish problem". And, sort of like Andy Garcia's general in For Greater Glory, he ends up finding God trying to unite a people.

What turns him around is an episode where a Jewish French officer is railroaded and sent to Devil's Island. But if that hadn't done it, Lord knows there were a multitude of other anti-semitic events that could spur him on.

Watching this, I got all pissed off over Midnight in Paris again.

So, how is it?

Well, it's an interesting subject, and Herzl was a fascinating guy. He could easily kissed up to the wealthy Jewish establishment that was perfectly comfortable where it was. But he felt for some strange reason that the Jews were not safe without a homeland.

The Brits are there to screw things up, of course, and put the kibosh on things until Hitler comes around and—well, you know how that goes. So, yeah, the whole Holocaust thing could've been ameliorated.

The documentary itself is a little dry, though. A lot dry, really. Herzl died in 1904, and there's just not a lot of film footage to be found. The stock footage they used was suspect, to be charitable. And there's only so many times you can pan over photos of old buildings while still retaining that sense of being there that draws a viewer in.

Also, there aren't really many photos of Herzl himself, and he's got the exact same expression in every one, and usually is in the same pose.

I liked it, was glad I saw it, and glad I know who the guy was now. I'd recommend it for someone interested in the topic. It's not going to draw you in like, say, a great documentary on a veritably goofy topic.

The Bourne Legacy

A Bourne movie without Bourne? Sure, why not?

If we're being honest, Bourne is the weakest part of the Bourne movies. Not Matt Damon, but the "character" of Bourne. By design, he doesn't really have any character. He's just a dude that does stuff.

In this case, the Bourne-like assassin is played by Jeremy Renner, late of Avenger's Hawkeye, and his apparently mandatory female sidekick by Rachel Weisz. (I've never been a fan of Rachel Weisz's looks, but she looked really good in this. I know it's not supposed to be the case, but I think sometimes women get better looking as they good older.)

Renner's character isn't from Treadstone, like Bourne, he's from a wussier program that leaves the subjects their emotions. He's also "chemically enhanced" and the hook for this movie is that the CIA wants him dead (natch) and has cut him off from his meds (without which bad things will happen).

This movie takes place at more-or-less the same time as the previous ones, with Matt Damon's face making an appearance on a newscast. I'm surprised they didn't bill him like they did Joan Allen and Albert Finney, who have cameos in what looks like archival footage.

The baddie in this one is Edward Norton, with Donna Murphy and a very spud-like Stacy Keach in supporting roles.

Hell, I don't really know what to say about this movie. I liked it. The Boy liked it more than the last Bourne movie (which is the only one he's seen all the way through). We both liked the direction more, rather disliking the heavy use of the shaky-cam. We didn't think it was great, but it was certainly entertaining.

The serious Bourne fans disliked this for a lot of the same reasons we liked it more. There's a light sci-fi element here in the enhancement chemicals, which presumably detracts from the pure spy/training notion of Bourne, but that's really a silly complaint. The Boy dislikes the super-soldier genre as a whole because, regardless of how you explain it, the hero is never really in jeopardy.

Renner's emotional vulnerability and the personal-ness of his story actually makes him seem more real, in spite of the sci-fi aspect.

If you haven't seen the previous trilogy, it doesn't really matter. The formula is basically the same as the last three films.

This film (like the others) is similar to a horror movie, in that the monster is never really dead. In this series, the monster is the CIA, and after the requisite number of action scenes, the CIA cries "uncle". At least until the next film.

So, if you're not strongly inclined away from this genre, and not too strongly attached to the original series, it's worth checking out.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ted

It's a two hour "Family Guy" episode. That's all you need to know about Ted, Seth MacFarlane's tale of a little boy who gets his wish for a real-live talking Teddy Bear, who then grows up to be a man-child still palling around with a childhood toy.

OK, it's only an hour and forty-six minutes, but the last 20 minutes really drags.

But really, that's all you need to know: It's not much like, say, Mike Judge doing Office Space or Idiocracy, where you wouldn't necessarily realize this is the guy who does "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill".

Ted's voice is Peter Griffin. (Even referenced at one point.) There are "Star Wars" jokes and constant references to '80s cultural icons, including special guest star Sam J. Jones (who played in 1980's Flash Gordon) and fart jokes and sex jokes and penis jokes, as well as lack-of-penis jokes. And of course the extended comedy fight scene, and the Airplane! rip off.

I didn't expect much, so I had a kind of mixed reaction to the film. On the one hand, it started strong. Lots of fast jokes that are familiar, sure, but still funny. Mark Wahlberg is appealing as the man-child, and Mila Kunis seems to have cornered the niche of world's coolest girlfriend.

And since it's Wahlberg and not, say, Seth Rogan or Jason Segel, it's way more believable. Amirite, ladies? Even if he is 41, he plays a convincing 35 and doesn't look like an anthropomorphous Pilsbury dough-boy.

The plot is unfortunately more formulaic than you would think a plot about a walking-talking teddy bear could be. The movie pivots on a scene where Kunis brings Wahlberg to a business party only to have him skip out because Sam J. Jones has shown up at a booze-and-drug filled party Ted is throwing.

But we'd already established how cool Kunis is. She knows Sam Jones is Wahlberg's hero. There's no reason for us to believe she'd be upset if he left, and particularly no reason for him to sneak out without telling her.

Worse, though, is the sub-plot that is required to tie everything together, featuring Givoanni Ribisi as a creep who kidnaps Ted—this is not a spoiler, it's obvious from moment one that Ribisi is the villain and that's what he's going to do.

When that happens, of course Kunis and Wahlberg drop their relationship problems as if they'd never happened, and work together to save Ted.

Also, Ted beats the crap out of Wahlberg in one scene and in the next big sequence, Ribisi throws a bag over his head and he's powerless to stop him.

Am I nitpicking a movie that's about a talking teddy bear? Yeah. If you aren't going to do it right, don't do it all. As a series of funny random gags, it works pretty well. As a rom-com-thriller, the gags destroy any continuity and feel crudely manipulative. (Maybe that's the ultimate '80s homage.)

I actually rolled my eyes at one point when Ted is escaping and they played the Indiana Jones theme. There's a "Family Guy" episode where a character says to Stewie "You are the weakest link. Good bye." Stewie then proceeds to go on a five-minute rant about whether she has any other fresh material like stuff about the movie Titanic.

Using the Indiana Jones theme as a reference was tired within weeks of that movie coming out. And it's just been beaten to death ever since. It hasn't even had time to rest for a comeback, it's such a cliché.

But you don't go see this kind of thing because it's fresh. You go see it because you like it.

Much like a "Family Guy" episode, I liked a lot of the gags, but some of them are positively naive for such an "edgy" show.

There was one way that the movie differed from the show, and that's in trying to achieve a kind of emotional connection. ("Family Guy" always disrupts any kind of emotionalism with a really horrible joke.) So the very talented McFarlane may have a weakness after all.

Well, two weaknesses. One of his weaknesses is ripping off Airplane! exactly and in whole, I guess as an homage, but it always feels like "Dude, write your own jokes." In this case, it's the scene in Airplane! that parodies the scene in Saturday Night Fever.

I'm griping, and it really doesn't matter much: You know if you like this sort of thing. Prepare to be unsurprised.

Killer Joe

William Friedkin is back, reprising his work with Bug playwright Tracy Letts, in this malignant little tumor of a film called Killer Joe.

Story: Chris is thrown out of his mother's house (after she steals and sells his drugs), and he runs to his sister Dottie's trailer, but she's a little weird (momma may have caused some brain damage to her trying to smother her as a baby, or maybe that never happened) and sleeps heavy, so he goes next door to his dad Ansel's trailer, where the well-worn Sharla snipes at him while he explains to his (broke) Dad that if he doesn't come up with the money he'll be killed by the drug dealers he owes.

Chris has a plan, however. He's learned that his mother has an insurance policy and that Dottie is the beneficiary. And he knows of a guy named Killer Joe—a cop who has a sideline knocking people off for cash. Since they don't have the money up front, Killer Joe's gonna write 'em off, until he gets a load of the winsome Dottie, whom he takes as a retainer.

So, what we have is a tightly constructed, excellently shot and acted movie about people with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. It's actually pretty funny, particularly at first. It gets increasingly violent and darker and darker as the story progresses, till the third act is utterly submerged in gore and sexual humiliation.

I kinda liked it.

The Boy said he felt they were trying to hard to be shocking and he just got bored toward the end.

It's NC-17 and that's actually warranted. Don't believe people who say US censors are uptight.

Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple are great as the brother and sister, and I don't really know them from anything else. (Hirsch apparently was Speed Racer but, seriously, who saw that?) Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church are also very good. But it's Matthew McConnaughey drives the story forward as the psychotic, sexual deviant who passes for the movie's hero.

Or maybe it's Dottie who's supposed to be the hero. This isn't really a film about a character's journey and personal growth.

I've heard that Ethan Coen liked this, which doesn't surprise me, since it bears a striking resemblance to Blood Simple, the Coen brothers first film. And as a machine, it's a well-oiled one. Also, like some of the Coen brothers' flick, it's a story about some profoundly stupid people.

But if the Coen brothers are accused of being cynical or detached from their characters, there's positive revulsion in this movie. The only human characteristics these people have are parodic vestiges of familial obligation.

Also, the ending's kind of a cop-out.

To say it's not for everyone doesn't do it justice. Much like Bug, it's for hardly anyone. And Bug's main characters were extremely sympathetic. Not so here. The movie disabuses you of any affection you might have for the characters quickly and often.

For Greater Glory

So, one of our greatest predictors of movie quality these days is the critic/viewer split. Movies like Machine Gun Preacher, Blue Like Jazz and Act of Valor are just a few of the movies that viewers (like us) enjoyed which critics excoriated.

The latest entry in this category is the 16/83% split For Greater Glory, starring Andy Garcia, Peter O'Toole (in his last-ish role! Thank God!) and Tron, himself, Mr. Bruce Greenwood. No, wait, Tron was Bruce Boxleitner. Never mind.

This is the true story of the Cristiada, the three year struggle of Christians which began with El Presidente de Mexico Calles basically outlawing Catholicism. Calles, an atheist and a totalitarian (funny how often those go together) didn't care for the power of the Roman Catholic Church in his country, so he forbade its practice and rounded up and killed or deported its clergy.

If only people weren't so religious, atheists wouldn't have to keep killing them.

Well, that's what I kept thinking during this, what with atheists constantly telling us how religion is the source of so much evil in the world. And yet, every time an atheist comes to power, his first order of business seems to be to kill religious people.

Well, anyway, with the heroic religious warriors fighting the oppresive state, the first miracle is that it got made at all, and the second one is that it managed to get a whole 16% from critics.

How is it, really? The Boy and I both liked it, but we had some reservations. For lack of a better word, it's kind of square. Maybe it's intended to appeal to people who don't frequent movies often, but for the seasoned moviegoer, there's a lot of setup and character development that's sort of obvious.

It's not exactly slow in these parts, mind you, just maybe in need of some tighter editing. Maybe.

Other than that, it's nicely shot and acted. Oh, the music was a little square, too. A little on-the-nose, if you will. Not quite "Star Wars" on-the-nose but then stromtroopers going around killing priests is a little order 66.

The main attraction of this film is Andy Garcia, as the atheist generale who is lured into uniting the Cristeros, who are separate groups of fighters with no central command, into a real army. The movie portrays him as a man interested in freedom, and sort of puzzled by the devotion to God, but who slowly moves toward God through his association with the Cristeros and a boy who has fled his home town to help the rebels after government thugs shoot his priest in front of him.

The action scenes pop, though The Boy pointed out that it seemed like a few of them felt rushed, with some of the less necessary exposition being favored in lieu of drawing out the otherwise very good action scenes.

It reminded me a bit of Garcia's non-pro-Castro Cuban Revolution flick The Lost City, though this actually is more enjoyable to watch. Overall, I'd recommend if you're interested in any of the elements: Mexican history (though obviously this should not be your only source of information about the Cristiada), Man's struggle with God, Man's struggle with Totalitarianism, Andy Garcia.

I'd say first-time director Dean Wright and screenwriter Michael Love have made a solid flick here, if not exactly a masterpiece.

The Green Wave

Up next in our series of revolutions-by-Twitter documentary is The Green Wave, the story of the Iranian revolution, as told through interviews, some recorded footage, and animated segments of blog posts and tweets.

Unlike Never Sorry, there's no plucky hero of this movie. You get a pretty good idea of the repression and just outright thuggery of the Iranian government. The Chinese government seems to have a certain smugness, a confidence that allows them to tolerate some dissent, while the Iranian government is either very insecure or just run by sadists.

But there's so much not explained here. Clearly the 2009 elections, which should've unseated Ahmadinejad were badly and baldly rigged—but why? Given that the ruling clerics obviously run the show, why go through all the trouble? The challenger wasn't really an outsider, either, so whose power was threatened?

On top of that, the whole "the challenger leads"—whoops, blackout!—"And Ahmadinejad wins by 70%!" is really pretty insulting. I mean, I know American politicians regard The People as stupid but this is just rubbing their noses in it.

And maybe that's part of what leads to the protests.

A few days of protesting and things get surreal. The clerics send out their mooks, which are literally motorcycles ridden by two guys, where the guy on the back has a baseball bat or something.

They bash in some heads, they round up and brutally torture a few hundred people—no real rhyme or reason, just thuggery and terrorism and a kind of "Oh, yeah?! We'll show you!" from the government.

In between the representations of the crackdown, they have various Iranians talking confidently how the regime can't last, and so on, but it's somewhat dispiriting to note that this stuff happened three years ago.

The Boy was in a dark mood after seeing this. Though the bureaucratic incompetence on display in both Iran and China is essentially the same beast, in Iran there appears to be no consideration for, say, world opinion. China wants to be respectable and a world leader, no matter how many people they have to crush to do it; Iran doesn't care about respect, only fear, inside and out.

There's no plucky artist dogging the mullahs in Iran, presumably because they'd just kill him and a whole bunch of random other people.

As a documentary it lacks the focus and backdrop of "Never Sorry" but it's still a compelling story. I just wish it gave more reason for optimism.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hope Springs

My dad hated Meryl Streep. He used to paraphrase Katharine Hepburn's criticism, "Wind her up and she acts." I mention this because he used to rant about her in the '80s—having ruined two of his favorite books (The French Lieutenant's Woman and Sophie's Choice)—long before I'd ever seen her in any movie, except Kramer vs. Kramer, which I really didn't pay much attention to.

When I finally did see her in Silkwood (or maybe it was Still of the Night) I was inclined to agree. She's acting. It's very obvious. But I don't know if this is one of those situations where the rest of the world is wrong (which happens so often) or I was prejudiced (which happens nearly as often). When she started doing comedy, I started enjoying her performances more. She-Devil, Postcards From The Edge, Death Becomes Her—they all seemed a lot more relaxed. (My favorite performance of hers remains her winningly playing herself in Stuck On You.)

I think she's a sweetheart in real life.

I mention all this because I was drifting aimlessly this weekend and stumbled in to see Hope Springs, the senior-sex-comedy-romp (a completely inapt description) with Streep and perpetually crusty Tommy Lee Jones.

She acts a lot in this movie. Every detail is perfect. Her character is defined not just through dialogue but through every little mannerism and movement.

I just couldn't stop noticing it.

So, that's my caveat for this benign if odd tale of a couple in their 60s who haven't touched each other for years and wind up at an "intensive couples therapy retreat" to try to save their marriage.

As long as I'm talking about acting, Jones is Jones and naturally great in this role. You can imagine it if you've ever seen him in anything post, say, The Eyes of Laura mars. Steve Carell is the therapist and manages to tread that fine line between sensitive and goofy. (Therapists seem to actually be goofy; it's a fine line, indeed.)

 Jones and Streep have a plausible chemistry and the screenplay avoids a lot of the most obvious landmines, such as blaming the husband for everything (which is how it would've played out a few years ago). Things move along fairly briskly, with some laughs along the way. It's not boring.

It is kinda weird, though.

It's weird because there's a lot of goofy humor mixed in with some severe pathos. It's weird because there's a constant reminder of the age of the participants, mixed with very explicit details. It's weird because there's a setup for a kind of dramatic reveal that—well, just never happens and doesn't seem to matter.

Even Carell's character is essentially superfluous (again, very much like a real therapist rim-shot).

So, reserved recommendation from me. (The kids weren't with me: I mean, old people making out! Eww! Not that I asked. I really was drifting aimlessly.)

Oh, also, if you've seen the full-length trailer? You've seen the whole movie. The trailer hits every beat in the movie except two, almost every funny line, and the entire shape of the film, too. There are literally no surprises here.

There was a great preview for Frank Langella's upcoming film Robot and Frank, which looks great, but it also gives away the entire movie. What happened to the tease?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Use the phrase "conceptual artist" around me and you're likely to get an involuntary eye roll. It's not that I think that there is no such thing, though I'd be hard-pressed to think of some concept art that I found really moving, it's that "conceptual art" is most certainly a refuge for scoundrels.

You don't need any particular talent, just "ideas" and people to actually carry them out. And in this documentary about Chinese artist "Ai Weiwei", that's exactly what he does: He takes his ideas and has his many minions execute them under his guidance.

But a funny thing happens when you take an '80s avant-garde hipster from the streets of New York and transplant him to China: All the ridiculous crap he's spewing about "government oppression" and "freedom of expression" becomes not just true, but positively heroic.

Flipping off D.C.? Meh.

Flipping of Beijing? When you live in China? That's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

Ai Weiwei is the son of Chinese Poet Ai Qing, who joined the Communist party and then got re-educated during one of those purges the Left is so fond of. Ai Weiwei bummed around New York through the '80s and early '90s, until he returned to China at the end of his father's life.

Back in China, he started publishing underground art books. Now, in America, "underground" is kind of a quaint thing. It's all rebellious and edgy without actually being dangerous. In China, it's genuinely dangerous. You couldn't buy these books in stores. Instead, people sort of lurked on street corners with a sort of "Hey, buddy, wanna buy some art?" come-ons.

Weiwei gained enough notoriety internationally to secure a place of prominence in the design of the Beijing Olympics, which he quickly denounced and distanced himself from. (And possibly shamed Spielberg into distancing himself from, as well.)

The documentary, while about the artist, is largely focused on Weiwei's "citizen investigation" of the Sicuhuan earthquake, in which thousands of Chinese schoolchildren were killed, perhaps due to the shoddy "tofu" construction of the government schools. Beijing, of course, wanted to bury the story, literally and figuratively, and Weiwei sent people out to the villages to investigate and collect names of the dead.

It's also about the government's ham-fisted approach to silencing him.

Weiwei is a master of the blog and Twitter and he uses these media (especially Twitter @aiww) to communicate things the government would rather not have communicated. You can debate how dangerous the Chinese government is—the movie refers to other dissidents who simply vanish—but not really how dangerous the Chinese people think it is.

We see a meal eaten out in public, where fans sit down with Weiwei (knowing they're being watched), disrupted by cops.We see cops bust into a hotel room where Weiwei is staying and hear a scuffle that seems to result in Ai Weiwei being physically struck in the head, enough to where a CAT scan done in Munich a week later reveals serious trauma.

We see the kind of comical stupidity of Chinese bureaucracy (bureaucracy is the same all over) as Weiwei goes through the approved channels to demonstrate how the system is broken, and the less comical (but still sort of laughable) brutality of a system that is at best indifferent to the thuggery within its ranks. And we finally see as the Chinese government makes Weiwei vanish for three months, only to justify this with a "tax evasion" accusation.

Of course, one never knows the full story, but one also isn't inclined to give the Chinese government any benefit of the doubt (unless one is Tom Friedman). They are stupid to fight someone who is both very charming and also very self-effacing. (He's dismissive of his own talents and bravery, and it seems very genuine.)

An interesting part of this story is that Ai Weiwei has a son. A very young boy that he had with "a friend". The Brit interviewing him brings this up and says something to the effect of "Well, you're an artist, so it's okay." And Weiwei allows that it's not okay, that his wife isn't cool with it, and is generally embarrassed by the situation—while also very clearly adoring his son.

He's not looking for an excuse for his bad behavior. And now he has a son which, one speculates, gives the Chinese government leverage to use against him. He seems much cowed after his long stay with the officials.

But it doesn't stick. Although he talks about not being able to talk, he's still out there, tweeting and being a gadfly on the dragon's ass.

And that's an encouraging thing, as is the fact that when he's hauled off, his followers continue his work. And they seem to be growing in numbers and boldness.

So, yeah, while "conceptual artist" may conjure up images of effete New York pantywaists and genuinely strange weirdos like Yoko Ono, in Ai Weiwei you have a rare example of conceptual artist bad-assery.

The Boy was impressed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Age of Affluence, Part I

As bad as things are—and that's pretty bad, for sure—we still live an amazing age of affluence.

I mention this, specifically, in the context of diet and exercise. In 2010, when I was working away from home, I put on some weight. A lot of weight. Thirty or forty pounds. I have a reasonably large frame so I can put on some weight without it being too noticeable, but not that much. I was also far away from my treadmill desk.

My dad was deteriorating severely over this year, ultimately leading to a severe drop in my BTA (bullshit tolerance ability) and a permanent departure from this remote work location, but his impending demise dramatically underscored the options available to me: continue to take a lackadaisical (or no) approach to my physical fitness and be victim to an irreversible deterioration exacerbated by advancing age—or don't. That is, do. Something. About it.

Not to say my dad was ever fat. He got a little paunch from time-to-time, but in his last ten years he grew increasingly skinny. He was stubbornly sedentary, a fact that distressed my mom no end while they were together. He would walk, that was about it. And unfortunately, his physical state would've required considerable effort to sustain, and (even knowing that) he chose to do nothing.

So, there's a stark choice for you.

I decided to exploit my absence by bringing all my own food and counting calories. This was pretty easy with Trader Joe's prepared salads and snacks. Without putting any kind of hard limit, I ate about 1,200-1,400 calories a day, Monday through Thursday. I brought the Wii and did a little bit of exercise with that every day.

By the time I left 4-5 months later, I had lost about 25 pounds. The bulk of what I'd put on.

'course, I also no longer had the same kind of strict calorie control, and back at the old job, I ended up putting them right back on the first three months I was back. I stumbled across a recommendation for a book by Rob Faigin called Natural Hormonal Enhancement in some dark corner of the Internet and decided it sounded interesting.

NHE is a very wonky book. It's barely padded at all with the sort of philosophical advice that dominates most diet books. Basically, it's a series of recommendations, succinctly stated, and footnoted out the wazoo with the studies that are being used to come to those recommendations. (I think the book has a serious cult following, since it's out of print and costs at least $40-$50 on Amazon.com. You can get it for $30 from the author's website, extique.com.)

Anyway, I knew my friend, Darcy was distressed that she had put on a few pounds when she was suffering back problems, so I talked over Faigin's recommendations with her. Nothing tests your understanding of a subject like trying to explain it to someone else, and Darcy had a lot of good questions. (Not that I could find always find the answers, but the book does a very good job of prioritizing what you need to do.)

We both lost quite a bit of weight quickly, too, which was cool. I got down below my pre-2010 weight. Ultimately we modified our diets to fit our lifestyles, and Darcy has done amazingly well in losing the weight. (I plateaued in terms of numbers on the scale, but my body fat has gone down, meaning the extra weight is muscle. But more on that in Part II.)

But I can't help but marvel at the situation: One of the biggest (heh) problems we have in the developed world today is too much food. Now, it's true that it's really the kind of food we have been told we should eat that causes the problem, but it's still an astounding luxury.

We can pick over our food in ways that would make kings of yore blush with its profligacy. Low carb? No problem. Low fat? No problem. Lacto-ovo vegetarian? OK. Vegan? Fine. Gluten-free? Can do! Allergic to shellfish? Peanuts? Soy? It's there on the label! Lactose intolerant? Anti-dairy? Done and done!

Of course, a segment of society hates on the fast food industry, but I note that when low-fat was big, they offered low-fat food. When they were accused of not offering healthy alternatives, they put salads, baked potatoes, fruit on the menu. These days you can get low-carb and gluten-free stuff from Wendy's for cryin' out loud.

All they wanna do is sell us a dazzling variety of foods we like and get it into our faces in less time than it takes for our credit cards to process, while being in constant price wars with each other.

That's pretty amazing, I'd say.

Nobody's Innocent

Have you ever heard that phrase, like from a super-villain in a movie, "Nobody's innocent"? It's usually the sort of thing that the villain says right before doing something really horrible to a lot of people, and the distressed protagonist points out that he'll be harming a lot of people who have never done anything to him.

"Nobody's innocent."

As a digression, it's interesting to note that Christians believe, on a theological level, anyway, that that statement is true: Nobody is innocent. Man is born in sin. This is widely not seen as an excuse to treat people badly, of course.

There's another phrase, however, that's actually worse, and I've heard it expressed, not in so many words but veiled in angry tirades and teary pseudo-confessions and even coldly logical-sounding (but always wildly illogical) lectures:

"Nobody's innocent except me."

This is an inversion of, I think, an ordinary person. Most people are very harsh on themselves. They wouldn't stand for people talking about their friends the way they think about themselves. Sure, they sin, and in sinning, look for ways to justify it, but that itself only feeds into their own debased notions of themselves.

But the person who walks around thinking "Nobody's innocent except me" is a horror to be around. Literally without compunction, the only restraint on their actions are physical limitations, law enforcement and fear.

My sister is like this. I actually have a six-page (both sides) closely handwritten letter from her that contains the phrase, "I don't blame you for being born but...". It then goes on to detail how I am responsible for all the terrible things in her life.

My mother and father are also both 100% responsible for all the terrible things in her life, too. That's 300% responsibility altogether, that I know of, and none of it belonging to her.

Fortunately for me, she's very bad at this; It's so over-the-top, it's absurd. Generally, people who operate on this principle are much subtler. Confusion, provocation, repeated until someone strikes back usually mildly, and then it's "How could you!" My sister's version of this was—I'm not making this up—to provoke people into physically hitting her.

It's a weird dynamic.

You can spot it by the person who (almost happily) recounts all the sins committed against him while having a complete ignorance of having done any wrong doing. And much like our "virtual traitors" the dead giveaway is a complete inability to receive communication.

I've caught my sister in numerous fabrications, where I can demonstrate factually that what she says could not possibly be true. She "concedes" (because she's not quite insane) but it never sticks or deters her from fabricating future truths.

I've been able to find other people out the same way. It's not that they disagree. It's not that they're not listening, it's that they can't.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Virtual Treason

Almost every online community I've ever been a part of, or even examined in retrospect for historical purposes, has ultimately dissolved. Of those that are still around, most are spiraling the drain. As someone who's been online now for over 20 years(!), it's kind of interesting to me to examine why, and also why there are a few that persist.

The simplest answer to why could probably be reduced to: It's just too big a pain in the ass to maintain. There's not a lot of money in it most of the time. Most of the time, there's no money at all. But I've seen this happen on CompuServe in the pre-web days, too, where genuine income streams were given up rather than put up with the hassle.

But hassles—serious ones, anyway—don't just arise. They're created.

And it always unfolds the same way. There is always (at least) one person who is at cross-purposes with the community. You could call them "trolls" but that's not really comprehensive enough a word. "Traitor" would be a good word, even though they often wouldn't see themselves that way, like Benedict Arnold, or someone who's trying to save the community from itself.

I was in one community where a person like that came in with about five others and systematically and cruelly mocked the regulars. The owner decided "free speech" and those people managed to drive off almost everyone who had made that place their home for years. Most of the locusts, as I envisioned them, left pretty soon after that, including the main troll who managed to offend the owner. trounce the rules, etc., enough to be ejected.

That was a particularly dramatic example. Usually, the treasonous ones are subtler, because in most cases the person who owns the community will defend overt attacks, and people will naturally bind together and fight off interlopers. So, they're covert.

The most insidious ones can foment trouble without ever being fingered. Or even better, for a community's destruction, they can become a bone of contention around which people side. Best of all is if they can fracture a community along principled lines. "Free speech" is a popular one. "I don't want to hang out in a place where we aren't free to post pictures of dismembered babies!"

The people who are like this can be hard to spot, especially if you're guileless. They present a picture of trammeled innocence. They were just minding their own business when baseless attacks were suddenly leveled.

It's never a regular dispute, where people blow up, and then they either get over it (or they leave): A slight is never forgotten, and is always repaid, and repaid, and repaid. Slowly but surely the troll drains the fun out of the community while increasing the burden on the community owner. It's not a wonder that online communities eventually dissolve, but they stay together for any length of time.

Probably the key characteristic of community traitor is a complete inability to communicate. Nothing ever, ever gets in. And they're good at faking it—pretending to respond, like a super-advanced Eliza program—but there's never any real indication that anything ever permeates to their being. (The essence of receiving communication is to be changed by it, after all.)

This isn't true just for online communities of course.

Which brings me to the ones that I've seen thrive: They're all united around a real world purpose. Technical matters, religion, a genuine craft, something that both requires an effort to be a part of and has a put-up-or-shut-up aspect.

In the purely virtual, we hang to imagined threads. No exactly imagined, but really co-created. The community exists because we say it does. We have shared values in some fashion. But our understanding of those values is imperfect, and all it takes to shred a virtual community is someone to come in and push the boundaries of that understanding, to point out the weaknesses, and to drive people to those corners.

It's a shame but I've seen it happen so many times over the years I'm practically inured to it. I think if I were going to start an online community now, I'd do it around an activity. Like, I don't know, bowling.

Fuck It, Dude. Let's Go Bowling.

Pardon the profanity, but sometimes you want to just grab your online buds and say that.

I'll discuss the wit and wisdom of Walter Sobchak in a later review, when I talk about the late night showing of "The Big Lebowski" I saw last Friday.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

The theater had to put "DOC" next to The Queen of Versailles because a lot of people are apparently showing up thinking it's the French historical drama Farewell, My Queen, about the last days of—well, from what I can tell, a woman who's in love with Marie Antionette, while Antionette only has eyes for some other chick.

It's not really on my list, but the kids were intrigued by the story of this ultra-wealthy family that is trying to finish their American inspired-by-Versailles 90,000 square foot mansion. Even after I told them this probably wouldn't be as hilarious as they were imagining it.

The Boy had this whole Marx Brothers-style scenario imagined where Groucho's taking a bath in a bathroom on one of the upper floors, where the bathroom was open to the wall, and doors that opened into nowhere or had no walls around them. And so on.

That'd be hilarious.

This movie is also hilarious, though unintentionally so, if not by design of the filmmaker then by accident of the Siegels, David and Jackie, whose marvelous excess deteriorates rapidly after the market meltdown of 2008.

My concern was that this documentary was going to be a denouncement of American excess, and perhaps it was planned that way. Perhaps, even, the filmmakers felt that way. But, in fact, there's very little apparent judgment going on from what I can tell. (Of course they can, indeed must, edit in such a way as to craft some kind of narrative but if it was done here to grind an axe I couldn't tell.) It's not so much a denouncement, I think, as a cautionary tale—a subtle distinction, perhaps, but an important one.

I've seen the word "schadenfreude" used a lot in others' reviews of this film and I frankly didn't feel it. I didn't feel like the filmmakers' were gloating; I didn't feel like gloating while watching it.

Siegel made his fortune from just a small parcel of orange grove land (admirable!) by selling timeshares (questionable!), and he latched on to his third wife, Jackie (a former Miss Florida), 30 years his junior, 20 years ago. When the story starts, maybe a year before the 2008 crash, we're treated to visions of a life of astonishing excess.

The Siegels and their seven kids and adopted niece live in a 27,000 square foot mansion with their 12 dogs, and so much crap that they can't really contain it in those meager confines. There's a marvelous mishmash of high and low culture, with the Siegel's massive Rolls limo parked outside the local McDonald's, for example.

Neither of the Siegels came from money, but the unlimited tonnage of it they have has rendered them very nearly helpless and nigh incompetent at basic living skills. The extent to which you do not have to care—about anything!—is demonstrably debilitating, as their young niece (who went from living in a dirt-floor basement to moving into a mansion) fumbles with expressing on several occasions.

It's all fun-and-games until the market dries up and Siegel's business, which has been powered by loans, and which depends on people being able to get loans, has the rug pulled out from under it by the market crash.

There's a kind of touching scene where Jackie talks about how she thought the point of the bail out was so that the money would come to...regular people, like her and David. I mean, it's a laugh out loud moment because they're not regular people—but it's also true. The money given to the banks seems to have been used entirely to keep themselves solvent and done not a damn thing for the rest of us.

In a lot of ways, their massive wealth allowed the banks to screw them extra hard. In fact, it kind of looks like that was the plan: The bank sees a big pile of free money in Siegel's Vegas timeshare, that he's sunk $390 million into. He has the option of giving it up and maintaining his lifestyle or fighting for control and being ruined.

Poor David is just sure things are going to turn around any time now.

In the meantime, the family's carefully nurtured incompetence shows up in the most awful ways. Apparently, none of these dogs they own are housebroken. The floors literally end up covered in dog excrement. The lizard dies because nobody feeds or waters it. The niece is supposed to, but she blames not being taken to the pet store (the lizard had no water, either). One of the sons wasn't even aware they had a lizard.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden says "The things you own end up owning you." There's a lot of truth to that, but in this case, there is so much stuff, they can't even timeshare the owners. (See what I did there?)

For the most part, I didn't feel like they were bad people—or, quite frankly, very different from most people. Most people who are worth a billion dollars are prone to some sort of excess. There are worse things than building ridiculously large mansions. People were employed to build it and to furnish it, and on and on and on.

I think a lot of the schadenfreude I've seen is rooted in envy and moral posturing, in other words, than any real superiority. "I wouldn't do that if I had a billion dollars. I'd solve world hunger and stuff." Yeah, right. (Though I should say, my dad made millions in his life and gave it all away while living in a 1,500 square foot house in a lower middle-class suburb. So there are people like that. He also never talked about it.)

Siegel himself comes off the worst in this movie. He talks about his contributions to society and how much he values his kids, but he's kind of a hollow man. When he says he doesn't  care about the stuff, you believe him because he exclusively demonstrates an interest in work (and status).

He doesn't want to sell Versailles, not so much because he wants to live there, but because he wants to see it finished. He doesn't want to give in to the bank on his Vegas timeshare because that's his, he built it and he realizes he's been played.

So at the film's nadir, which is, sadly, toward the end of the film (and, one suspects, story), he has nothing. Jackie is highly flawed, but she tries to be a good wife to him, and he'll have none of it. He'll take no solace in her or his children—nothing matters but his business. He has no God, his connections with his community are tenuous: No one comes to bail him out, to save his work from the banks.

Jackie on the other hand, while she comes across spacey and disconnected, is actually a character of some depth. She was a small town girl who became an "engineer" (I'm guessing software) so she could go to work for IBM, which was the only shop in her town.

But one of her co-workers (or her boss, I forget which) showed her this program he'd written to countdown to the second when he was going to retire because that was when he was going to start living his life.

That sort of freaked her out and she left for Florida, became a model, became Miss Florida, married an abusive guy who she called the cops on and divorced, and hooked up with David. When she realized fecundity didn't have to destroy her figure and also that she could have a bunch of other people taking care of her children, she had seven of them.

One gets the sense that being constantly spurned by her husband is a big factor in her compulsive shopping. She scales back as they get poorer, buying excessive amounts of cheap crap (at one point, she walks out of a Wal-Mart with three operation board games, e.g.) instead of scads of ginormous Faberge eggs.

The two are humiliated at the prospect their children might have to fend for themselves in the world, but it's hard to see how that wouldn't be the best thing for all of them.

None of this excess, this disconnection, this unreality made me hate these people or take joy in their suffering. None of it made me hate America (where the rich can't be counted on to get richer, only the connected), though it made a good (and I'm sure deliberate) metaphor for America.

They just seemed human to me.


And to this day Versailles sits, stranded in limbo, not exactly being snapped up as a $75M "fixer".

Wagner's Dream

Mark Twain is famously (and somewhat apocryphally) quoted as saying "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." But, truth be told, Twain was an asshole. And he was quoting Edgar Wilson Nye anyway. Even for a lover of opera, though, the sixteen hour "ring cycle" is an endurance trial.

So what could be better than a documentary about trying to stage Wagner's tetralogy the way he imagined it? With, like, mermaids and rainbow bridges and crap?

Not much, as it turns out.

No, seriously. This is a fun, harrowing, wonderful tale of ambition in a world that is quite frankly hostile to innovation.

The conceit behind this production is The Machine, a 90,000 pound monstrosity of 24 giant planks that move and roll and even spin in order to create the effects Wagner (who was sort of an operatic Spielberg, or perhaps Michael Bay) dreamt of. Allegedly.

Truth be told, I couldn't say about the musical qualities of this production, and I suspect that the documentary has a somewhat triumphal spin perhaps to encourage sales of the DVD of the opera (which are scheduled to release in the next month or so for a whopping $150-$160). It's an amazing technical effort that we're permitted to see many of the struggles, which are ultimately resolved.

We don't see all the glitches, of course. Apparently, at one point during Gotterdamerung, the motion and sound sensitive program crashed and the Windows logo was shown during reboot. (Guys, you can get rid of that, and should have.)

And a lot of the glitches we do see (conductor getting sick, Siegfried having to drop out four days before show time) are probably pretty common to any four-part mega-opera that unfolds over the course of a year, even without the whizbang gewgaws in this performance. And we don't even see all of these, as several cast changes aren't mentioned at all. But the films weighs in at just under 2 hours and I don't suppose it could've covered a year's worth of operatic drama without being as long as the Ring Cycle itself.

There are some weaknesses, at least for non-opera fans. (I actually like opera, but my tastes run toward the early baroque ones and some of the 20th century ones. I'm  not into it enough to know or care about the meta-drama.) We're constantly told how big a deal it is for the soprano (Deborah Voigt) to be singing her first Brunhilde at the Met and with this (frankly, weird) production.

There isn't quite enough there to understand what the dynamics of the whole thing are. They have to appease the hard-core fans but that base is shrinking so they also have to expand that base to include new, younger people. And the movie seems to suggest that they alienated some and attracted a few but there's no mention of the economics.

I've read elsewhere—it's not mentioned in the documentary—that it cost fifteen or sixteen million to put the show(s) on. Where'd the money come from? How many tickets do they sell? What are the expectations for the DVD sales? The personal and technical details are wonderful but the drama derives from that and from a kind of insular concern about the "community".

And let's face it, wherever they exist, "communities" are populated by douchebags.

Anyway, both The Flower and The Boy actually enjoyed it quite a bit. They weren't bored and they agreed it was a little long but not in a complain-y way.

It did make me curious to see the whole thing—though maybe not $150 curious. Of course, if they really wanted to make opera accessible, they'd sing them in English. But they can't do that without offending the hard-core. And so it goes.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

It was a fair bet that the last movie in Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy was not going to live up to the ridiculous hype of the second movie. But I think it's fair to say that, while we don't have a trilogy that measures up to only great trilogy in cinema history (Toy Story) we have a very solid finish to a very watchable trilogy.

Personally, this was probably my favorite of the three. If Nolan has a weakness—at least as far as I'm concerned—it's that his movie can be clever intellectually while not really engaging the emotion. In some ways, Insomnia is one of my favorite films of his because you really get a sense of Pacino's deterioration as the film goes on. (Plus I can relate to not having slept for long periods.)

But this was engaging on a lot of levels. There was tremendous layering and depth by a really top-notch crew of actors. The story begins several years after the last one ended with Batman having vanished, the scapegoat of the bad events of the previous film. Life is great now, with crime down and criminals being put away right-and-left thanks to the Dent act.

Gary Oldman does a fantastic job as Police Chief Gordon, who struggles every day with the lie he created for the greater good. New to this film is Nolan regular Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the beat cop who believes in the Batman and knows what is afoot. Michael Caine's Alfred has the depth of a adoptive father, worried for the safety of his ward, far from the comic relief his character is typically associated with.

It's fair to say that, if these aren't the definitive interpretations of these characters, they are interpretations which future reboots will be measured against.

Anne Hathaway's Catwoman is particularly worthy of mention. In keeping with Nolan's hyper-realistic approach, she never really suits up and dons the mantle of "Catwoman". She's just a jewel thief. She only wears a mask at a costume party. They do this very clever trick of giving her special glasses that, when she flips up, look like ears.

She looks amazing in the jump suit—kinda have to get that out of the way up front. But she's shockingly convincing as a badass, delivering the occasional high kick and judo throw without ever getting camp.

She talks like an OWSer. I don't think Nolan was trying to make any specific political points: He's less about the OWS and more about the French Revolution, which is sort of what unfolds in Gotham during the course of the story. You can make your own parallels and draw your own conclusions; there's no reason for him to do so.

At the same time, if she's an OWSer, she's an early one, one who is horrified by the eventual climax and denouement of the revolution, like many of the people who got behind OWS at first only to later be appalled by the most noxious elements. Again, it's not necessarily an OWS commentary at all; these things happen all the time, and the OWS is just the most obvious recent similar example.

But travelling through the rubble of a once beautiful apartment, she picks up a photo and says "This was someone's home once." To which her female companion (Catwoman is totally bi, yo) replies "Now it's everyone's home." Catwoman's struggle is personal and profound, capturing the character's struggle between her sense of justice and the nagging remains of her morality.

There's an amazing sense of teamwork here, too. From Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox and Marion Cotillard's Miranda down to Gordon and Blake (Levitt's character), I haven't mentioned the Batman his own self yet because he's just one character in this ensemble. Well, he's two: Batman and Bruce Wayne, and he's the hub around which the action takes place, though this isn't reflected all that much in screen time. (He's absent in the beginning of the film and also at the start of the third act.)

What's clear is that, unlike (especially) Burton, Nolan understands heroism. His Catwoman isn't a victim (whatever she's suffered), and each character gets a chance to be a hero, even the establishment-political-type-cop played by Matthew Modine.

Anyway, I should say Bale is beyond merely good as The Dark Knight. He seems comfortable—comfortable with the discomfort, you could say. He has less screen time in this than earlier films but he fills it well. I guess in part this is because in the earlier films, he was trading more on the past mythology of the Batman, whereas here we're looking at what he's done in the previous films, and the effect it's had both on the city and his own personal state.

Actor-wise, there are some nice touches in the form of the reappearance of Liam Neeson (as Ra's al Ghul) and Cillian Murphy (the Scarecrow). Heath Ledger's Joker is missed, but the movie is pretty well crammed—close to three hours in length, so his absence is more of a nostalgic ache than a conspicuous plot hole.

This is just the acting and characterization, and there are many other excellent points this movie: Like, getting away a little bit from the stark realistic feel of the last movie, this one really captures the imagery of the best comic book art. The initial battle between Bane and Batman is tremendous, a thrilling and horrifying spectacle with one shot directly lifted from the comic book cover. There's an excellent twist which would also be tipped if you knew your Batman—I only realized it after it happened.

Then there's music, set design—the sound mix was a little off in places, I thought, and I wasn't sure if it was deliberate, like, "It doesn't matter what they're saying."

But the biggest flaws were in this struggle that Nolan has between the comic book and the reality. I had this problem in spades with the last flick: The Batman's "no kill" code starts to look stupid in the face of the Joker's wanton destruction. There was a little less of that in this one but there were many other similar problems.

Bruce Wayne has some serious health problems, but they don't seem to stick. Like, he's been limping for years, but when he gets back into the suit he's fine. Now, they explain that with a little bit of mechanical assistance but it really just goes away, Bruce Wayne or Batman. And that's just the most obvious instance of a physical malady seeming nigh unconquerable only to vanish later on.

Then there's a little bit of comic-book-logic, which regular readers know that I love, but which is bizarrely out of place in Nolan's Gotham. The central plot device hinges on Wayne having put half his fortune into this unlimited energy source which he then abandons upon completion because it can be used as a weapon. Upon seeing it, Cotillard's Miranda exhales breathily, "Free energy for the entire city." And Wayne responds "but it can be turned into a bomb".

This is really beneath the Nolans (brother Jonathan co-wrote with Chris). First of all, we've already established it cost at least half the Wayne fortune variously figured at between $6 and $11 billion. And it completely renders the Wayne Corporation unprofitable. And Wayne's not the only shareholder.

So... free energy?

And the weapon it can be turned into? Well, a 4 megaton bomb. So...yeah, what's the point? It serves a certain dramatic purpose, to have the mistrustful Wayne turn over the keys to the bomb/fusion reactor to Miranda, but the setup struck me as kinda dopey. (Current nuclear plants are actually pretty safe from precisely this sort of thing.)

There's a prison in a remote region of—I think it's Tibet, recalling the first movie—but people seem to be able to get there and back pretty easily. Also, to be able to get a satellite cable hookup with big screen TV. Heh. How about that service call?

The Boy was particularly bothered by the street fight where everyone seems to forget they have guns. It's a thing with him.

I'm scratching the surface here. Point is, in some ways, it's not tight.

On the other hand, I could see going to see it again. There's a lot there. The drama is above par. The broad strokes are so right I can overlook the little stuff. A lot of satisfying wrapping up here, too. It's a good way to go out.

Anyway, nicely done, Nolans.

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