Monday, October 30, 2006


Although I hardly ever have time to read it cover to cover before the next issue shows up, The New Yorker may very well be the grand dame of the literary world. Nevertheless, not every word of its extensive essays is automatically substantiated by the overall prestige of the publication. Anthony Lane's Borat review certainly shouldn't be taken as gospel. There are problems from the very first (very lengthy) opening paragraph, and they continue all the way through:

"[Sacha Baron Cohen's] first coup was the invention of Ali G, a would be rapper from the London suburbs...[n]ext up, and more addictive still was Borat Sagdiyev, the bony and wire-haired journalist from Kazakhstan. Unlike Ali G, who found only a televised niche, Borat is, as he would boast, becoming huge. Uncontainable on TV, he has swelled into cinemas, his wooing of America aided by the simple trick of filming him in America...So why send his character here? Because where the money is, but also because, to the connoisseur of hurt pride, it is where the sore spots are."

Well, here goes: First of all, if Lane every bothered to watch Da Ali G Show, he'd know that the title character wasn't invented before Borat-- or even Bruno, the third character on the show and the subject of Baron Cohen's next feature film, according to the trades. Ali G is the most memorable character because he's the most immediately likable, unlike Borat and Bruno, whose respective savagery and homosexuality obviously intimidate certain members of the audience. Second of all, a little biographical research on the fascinating career trajectory Baron Cohen has followed since the days of his thesis on the Black-Jewish Alliance tells you that, if anything, the Borat persona made its showbiz debut before all the other characters (one of his earliest audition tapes featured him performing as an invented Albanian reporter).

Second of all, while Ali G did indeed find a "televised niche," his movie, Ali G Indahouse, was a box office smash in the UK and at least got some air time on HBO, allowing for a cult following and decent DVD sales here in the States. The reason why Borat came to America doesn't have anything to do with whatever "hurt pride" nonesense Lane is trying to explicate; Baron Cohen brought all his characters here simply because he got way too popular in his native country, to the point where even the Queen was puportedly quoting his catchphrases. He was so recognizable that the gimmick of his show didn't work because everybody knew when they were being duped. And anyways, dude, the sore spots are all over the place. Borat could make a fool out of people in Paraguay, if he spoke bad Spanish.

Look, Lane, you're totally entitled to hate on movies if it gets you the badass reputation you seem to relish without fail. But at least do your homework.

Also, if you can bear to read the rest of the piece, you'll notice that Lane just doesn't seem to get the humor. Not one iota. He can't seem to describe what makes this type of performance art so fucking hilarious, and he ends up being condenscending towards Baron Cohen as a result. Which makes him another Borat victim.

And this, of couse, allows me to plug my upcoming review of the movie later this week in The Reeler, where I promise to at least try to sound like I sort of know what I'm rambling about. Dig it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

PARTING SHOTDeath of a President

The conceits of American satire can be traced back to Mark Twain and ultimately Ben Franklin, and it goes without saying these days that Michael Moore, Al Franken and even South Park have done their civic duty. Such demagogic forces may divide the country, but so do the real issues; comedy culls from life, and it would be much less intriguing without the punch lines.

Read the rest of the review at The Reeler...

Thursday, October 26, 2006



The obvious parallel to recent political imagery in the fake documentary Death of a President is its depiction of protestors. The fictional assassination is presented as a moment of intense relief for liberal activism; when news of the murder hits the streets, their instantly celebratory reaction feels exaggerated—but only slightly. Those familiar with the street theater surrounding Madison Square Garden during the last Republican National Convention will recall that the battleground was bloodthirsty on both sides. That infamous animosity sets the stage for Conventioneers, which imagines love between a red state delegate and a blue state demonstrator amid the tumultuous battleground of New York City between Aug. 30 and Sept. 2, 2004. It deserves inevitable comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy fits the new setting due to its weight as a quintessentially divisive moment in American history.

Continue reading about Conventioneers in the New York Press...

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Nightmare Before Christmas is playing in 3-D now on the occasion its 13th anniversary, retaining the same lyrical brilliance that left an immovable impression on me when I snuck in a viewing while my folks snoozed during a Jewish holiday. The technological gimmickry that makes the screen pop out doesn't drastically alter the vibe of the movie, but it's sort of like admiring a really great frame around a mind-blowing painting.

Something that I noticed during this screening that hadn't occured to me before is the story's strikingly conservative bend. Since the publicity has always touted it as children's literature, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the central themes embrace holiday tradition, rather than deconstruct it. But what I realize now is that Tim Burton more or less equates the respective towns centered on Christmas and Halloween as consequential outlets for maintaining a cogent society. Jack Skellington doesn't represent a celebration of goth, like all the spookiness of Corpse Bride did with a mixture of elegance and unbridled energy.

Instead, the character's desire to keep his own life worth living (or death worth dying...whatever) represents the trajectory of your standard coming-of-age saga, where settling down and embracing the ways of your own people is always the inevitable conclusion. I can't speak for Burton's intentions, but I bet Batman, Eddie Scissorhands and the rest of the gang would be dismayed about the sentimental edge of this interpretation
. If those outsiders could come home to a warm crowd, spookiness would run out of foot soldiers mighty fast. For Burton's sake, I hope it doesn't.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


My friend and former Washington Square News coworker Ryan Hagen is in the early stages of launching a nifty online magazine called Primarily, geared towards coverage of the developing primaries as the country transitions into a fresh political climate. The site's blog, The Landscape, certainly looks mighty pretty. It also has the potential to speak to a variety of issues under the broad umbrella of the country's affairs. Ryan asked me if I wanted to contribute my two cents on arts and culture, so I've helped kick things off with a few words on Death of a President. Check out my full review of the movie next week on The Reeler.

Those familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen's three alter-egos on Da Ali G Show know that his Borat character is an ingenious creation-- but after the movie comes out, it'll be a historic one. There are some questions worth asking about the immorality of portraying a lewd Kazakhstani with any number of cultural and ideological embellishments-- I see the ADL's point when they complain about Borat's anti-semitic remarks, and Kazakhstan itself is feeling reasonably annoyed about being used as a backdrop for sleazy idiosyncracies. I'll stay out of that debate for now, since I can't honestly disavow myself of the notion that Borat is impeccably hilarious. Ethical standards of any sort are irrelevant; if you don't crack up once during an Ali G episode, your funny bone is fractured. There lies the brilliance: Leni Riefenstahl may have deified Hitler, but I doubt she could've made anyone laugh at his jokes. Even the Germans.

As always, the media is struggling to place this virtually unprecedented performance art within an established form, and the most readily accessible comparison has been Andy Kaufman. This works because both men have uncannily upheld thier strange characters during extenuating circumstances that try to force them back to whoever they were to begin with, and their hypnotic effect on befuddled audiences is equally potent. But while Kaufman's bits tended toward the surreal, Baron Cohen rides along a smooth rail of social satire, exposing anachronistic racism that undubitably continues to thrive around the country.

Truly embodying the Other-- what this idealist Western civilization unconciously percieves as a savage, bigoted outsider-- Baron Cohen is an excellent practitioner of the method that New Wave documentarian Jean Rouch called "reverse anthropology." Borat is a reflection of all the irrational hate and fear that should've vanished from the country at least half a century ago, but probably never will (quoth Avenue Q: "Everyone's a little bit racist"). That makes him either a prophet of the apocalypse or an ideal catalyst for change-- and box office gold, however you skew it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Flags of Our Fathers

When AP photographer Joe Rosenthal captured six soldiers erecting a pole in mountainous terrain during the U.S. military’s successful battle to overtake an isolated Japanese stronghold in 1945, the Pulitzer Prize-winning image was a mythological goldmine. “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” became an essential ode to American patriotism, flaunting the country’s insignia as national agitprop with smug triumphalism bested only by George Washington’s emblematic crew crossing the Delaware. Rosenthal’s picture fielded more critical eyes early on, but accusations of theatricality were moot.

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers makes no apologies for its status as a dramatization. An innately compelling war saga, it celebrates World War II iconography and critiques its exploitation in the American government. The script, by Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr., draws from James Bradley’s book of the same title, which demystified the lives of the Iwo Jima flag raisers (one of which was his father). The central themes deal with small men and big politics: Following the publication of the photograph, the White House glorified its young conquerors, bringing the three surviving subjects home to instant fame. As a director, Eastwood loves to tug heartstrings, but he also plays along with the cynical nature of the material.

Read the rest of the review in the New York Press...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


When I spoke with Little Miss Sunshine producer David Friendly at the movie's premiere bash several months ago, he spoke excitedly about how his next project would utilize some really awful-sounding script that Eddie Murphy had expressed interest in. Murphy, Friendly said, had an eye towards playing the part of a talking spaceship. Looks like he was referring to Starship Dave. Friendly was as amiable as his last name implies (mirroring what I considered to be a harmlessly underwhelming feature that he was there to promote), and said something about how Murphy was one of those actors who manages to emerge with a gem right when people have written him off-- but I'm having a tough time imagining that this movie has the potential to usher in a Second Coming for the guy.

I have to admit that I missed out on catching Murphy's most recent top-billed appearances (
The Haunted Mansion, anyone? Hello?), but he still managed to latch onto Shrek, one of the strongest CG-driven franchises out there, with great comedic agility alongside another floundering SNL vet, Mike Myers. Still, I hate to rely on cheap puns to make a point, but if the best performance a brilliant comedian can muster is a braying ass...well, good for him. But whatever happened to kicking ass for 48 Hours straight? Donkey is a great creation-- I think he holds together the cheesy plotting of both the first and second entries in the Shrek series-- but I question whether this is truly the Murphy whose genius has become a part of comic history.

Murphy's famous skit on SNL as a black man in white disguise discovering the absurd luxuries of joining the more privileged portion of racial inequality is the antecedent for Dave Chappelle's blind white supremecist. But while Chappelle veered away from the spotlight when it began to eclipse on the singularity of his vision, Murphy apparently allowed the commercial industry to impede on his routine and homogenize the talent embodied by his initially unique niche. In short, he has yet to remove his social camouflage.

Monday, October 16, 2006


I've been a major admirer of Weeds pretty much since the premiere episode, but last night's installment clinched its spot as one of my favorite sources of narrative involvement on television. I say that with a regrettably pretentious tone, stuck relying on the dense linguistic contraptions of academic rhetoric, but it's hard to put it any other way. The show has lagged on occasion with certain over-the-top subplots, and I was quick to point them out at the start of the second season. But even if the incredulous theological institution Andy enrolls in as a pathetic means of dodging the draft was hard to take, his own behavior-- romancing the cartoonishly sexualized Israeli schoolmaster and then ditching her when he loses two toes and no longer has to worry about being shipped overseas-- was consistent with the grown-up slacker we've come to appreciate. All the other main personalities have grown in a similar fashion, from Nancy with her warped morality that drives her illegal profiteering as much as it derides her formerly consistent family values, all the way to Doug and Nancy, whose clandestine affair is the most reasonable corruption among these houses made of ticky-tack (by the way, Regina Spector's scratchy remix that opened tonight's episode suited the bittersweet content with a surprising level of complementary emotion).

I hope the show sticks around a while, because there's a wealth of fascinating material and it just keeps getting better. The suggestion at the end of the episode seems to be that Nancy isn't ready to settle back into the suburbia she lost so unexpectedly. In a simultaneously horrifying and exhilirating twist, it appears that she isn't in the business of drug peddling solely to support her kids. Getting a taste of individuality from her new life on the edge, the MILF-weed pioneers is hesitant to return indoors and stay mundane by the fire.

The writers hint, through Conrad's generally reliable voice of reason, that the overarching plot is headed towards a downhill slope
"You done dug yourself a pit a mile deep and a foot wide and you lookin' up in a pinhole. You out," sounds almost like a Biblical citation), but at the same time, Nancy's empowered stance on her chosen beaten path in life has you rooting for her no matter what the outcome. In short, Simone De Beauvoir would've loved this stuff (but that's just 'cuz I'm working my way through Second Sex).

We know that MLP, Justin Kirk, Liz Perkins, et al. are a talented gang, but the real show-stealers this time 'round are Nancy's kids, played with amazing agility by Hunter Parrish and Alexander Gould. Parrish's Silas is a perfect angsty teen, both brilliant and brash and altogether frusterated-- he could have a spin-off show of his own, but let's hope that his career has more ambitious prospects in store. Gould has miraculously managed to channel Freaks and Geeks' lovable Sam, on the brink of prepubescent glee and struggling to make sort out a very big adult world that seems far more childish than his own fragile existence. He might just be the most stable personality in this zig-zagging, freewheeling dystopia.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


I finally got around to watching Dexter, Showtime's bloody cheerful psychodrama (with emphasis on the bloody...and the psycho). Since I've never forgiven the network for pulling off the impossible by uniting some terrific directorial talent and somehow get them to create the disaster that was Masters of Horror (and, even more incredulously, resurrecting it for a second season), I wouldn't expect a program about a cold-hearted serial killer to break the mold of mediocrity. Miraculously, it joins Weeds as another Showtime anomaly actually worthy of quality discussion. The title protagonist (Michael C. Hall) is a morbid hunk with an eye for forensic analysis as though it were an art form. His night hobby, hacking up the people responsible for similar crimes, proves that he does view murder as a creative process-- and a fetish far more intriguing than sex.

The overarching story is playful and dark, taking cues from Dexter's apathetic, non-apologist narration. Even if the conventional subplots run dry faster than the premiere episode's mysterious vein-emptying villain, the tone is carried swiftly thanks to Hall's performance. He thinks about death lyrically, a product of some built-in proclivity revealed to him by his stepfather, but none of his philosophizing becomes overly gothic or (perhaps the scariest thing about it) completely unreasonable.

But that also leads into the show's one apparent flaw: It isn't adventuresome enough to make Dexter both utterly crazy and sympathetic. He's essentially a superhero, channeling his murderous tendencies both professionally and personally. My colleague at the
New York Press, Justin Ravitz, bemoaned this problem in his recent review:

"Red-headed, stubbly, loose-limbed and butch, Hall is barely recognizable, yet his predatory smirk is reminiscent of the carjacking crackhead who tortured David on Six Feet. Unlike Six Feet, however, the un-funny writing on Dexter (especially the Hallmark-inspired voiceovers) has little to do with the peculiarities of human psychology. Why doesn’t Dexter ever lose control and carve up a random hooker now and then?"

I think the answer is: Because he's a good guy, even if he doesn't quite realize it ("Use it for good," his stepfather tells him in a flashback when realizing his adopted son's obsession with death, as though he were raising a serial-killing Superman). Since the show doesn't take that crucial step towards deeper cynicism since it allows the character's ethical dimension to remain fairely pure, Dexter could ultimately spiral into crappy melodrama a la Huff (may it rest in peace-- the first season, anyhow). Until then, here's hoping for a gleefully gory run.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Truman Capote spent six years writing In Cold Blood, his haughtily self-professed "non-fiction novel." It took about half as long, 40 decades later, for the production of two feature films focused on its saga, suggesting the quintessentially flamboyant author's final work has a backstory with potential for multiple angles resembling his famously experimental narrative. The odd accident of a scheduling conflict reveals that might not be the case.

While writer-director Douglas McGrath's Infamous takes a slightly more probing (and critical) look at its curious protagonist's emotional conundrums, it's hardly more than a funhouse mirror alteration of a predecessor's droll routine. That would be Capote, of course, last year's obligatory Oscar-baiting biopic. The chatter back then mostly had to do with Philip Seymour Hoffman's utterly convincing transformation into the little man of yore, a magnificent temple so worthy of worship as to obscure a fairly mundane tempo and morose tone that played against the story's central personality. The new movie is an improvement, but only slightly; the inadvertent lesson being that the best part about In Cold Blood is In Cold Blood itself, regardless of its author's sparkling idiosyncrasies.

Read the rest of the review at The Reeler...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


To set the mood for North Korea's atomic hangover, some screening suggestions:

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

The most obvious choice. Not only does Kubrick manage to lampoon the idea of an apocalypse, he presents a credible scenario for its inevitability. Legend has it that Ronald Reagan asked to see the movie's fabricated "war room" after he was elected president; I'd imagine Bush asked if he could ride the bomb.

Fail Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964)

The second most obvious choice, building on the same premise as Strangelove, minus Peter Sellar's iconic quirky Nazi or really any kind of humor in any capacity, but still compelling drama as only Lumet can direct it.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

Resnais' classic New Wave drama is either a love story or a deconstruction of nuke-inspired trauma, depending on how you skew it. Or is it both? Either way, an emotional affair for all parties involved, especially the vaporized ones.

Frantic (Roman Polanski, 1988)

Not Polanski's greatest thriller (I'm a Repulsion man, myself), but the best example of a nuclear device as the ultimate Macguffin. Because that's what it frequently is, as far as political discourse is concerned. Except on the occasions when it's not.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)

If a suitcase contained the end of the world, I bet it would hide out in Tora Bora.

Sunday, October 08, 2006



Following several months of anticipatory cult TV drool, the third season of Lost premiered this past week in fine form. I'm not among the marginal contingent of former fans who think the show took a nosedive somewhere near the end of season two; despite the annoying intermittent interruption of reruns and an occasionally lagging pace, the scripting follows a structure that I think makes it near impossible to lose footing completely.

The storyline is fascinating because it leaves open so much room for speculation at every step of the way, while revealing enough details bit-by-bit to suggest that there is, indeed, something really going on behind the curtain. I never find this frusterating to the point where I'd like to shut off the tube and turn to South Park (although it also debuted a new season on Wednesday, maintaining its typically admirable wit).

Granted, the creators may have shot themselves in the foot by allowing so many passengers on the downed plane to survive and then introducing a wealth of natives with personalities of their own requiring careful development. It seems virtually impossible for everyone to recieve their due attention, and often this results in the marginalization of certain characters over others (or Others, in some cases). In this week's episode, for example, we spent the whole time in Othersville (when we weren't crawling around in Jack's woeful memories of his divorce), where our three pretty faces from the planewreck meet their captors within the confines of an enigmatic labryinth more befuddling than your garden-variety magnetized hatch. That leaves a ton of favorite faces (Sayid, Hurley, Kim) lingering in the mysterious threads unspooled in the seaon two finale. Personally, I couldn't care less; practically every installment of Lost has at least one utterly entrancing moment, and I can't think of a single episode that didn't end with the one-two punch of a mini-resolution and a toe-tingling cliffhanger to keep the dedicated viewer contingent on edge.

I'm not going to bother with recapping every fabulous moment of season three's debut, since so many others have already done a fine job. The brilliant, virtually unprecedented phenomenon of the Lost Experience is more than just a clever marketing tool. The show is smart and invariably complex, inspiring some serious dialogue that requires analytic insight on par with any literary interpretation. Each week a new episode generates a heavy historiography, which I appreciate even though I'm not one to peruse every fansite out there-- I'd prefer not to mar my appreciation for the plot twists by attempting to make them fit in with this or that conspiracy theory. The best writing about Lost focuses on aesthetic appreciation for everything that makes it great: The multi-faceted performances, money shots, music cues, random nuggets of pop culture. Speculation about the larger scheme is ultimately irrelevant, since the drama on the show is involving no matter what the big picture may be. Still, culling together clues can be fun from time to time. Lost chroniclers who find the right balance between enjoyment and investigation (rather than gushing approval or pure business-like inquiry into the supposed facts) are nailing the appeal exactly where it lies: subjective perspectives on truth. This is a story about confusion surrounding a puzzle where a solution seems practically impossible, but not altogether illogical, and it requires an inquisitive open mind. I'd like to single out two from this week:

Christine Fenno at EW, taking over the trenchant reigns from Scott Brown, does a fine job deconstructing some of episode's better moments, including Michael Emerson's increasingly eerie role as the apparent head baddie (although his minions might not be as bad as he) and the introduction of Juliet as a troubled mind divided between her island duties and...something that gets her all chocked up when she listens to Petula Clark's "Downtown." There's nothing like a attractive woman with sympathetic eyes and a hidden tough side to spice things up for world-weary, dad-deprived Jack.

Andrew Dignan at The House Next Door engages with the show from several fascinating angles, although he's a tad too critical, if you ask me. I enjoyed Jack's background story, since it shows his vulnerability and inhibits his determination. It's sometimes hard to tell where the conflict lies on the island, since so much has yet to be understood, but these sort of flashbacks underline the pervading gloom that hinders everyone for their own reason-- and, chillingly, how the island often seems to provide respite from a crueler world. But Dignan makes a fair point, even if I disagree with the resolute pessimism in his tone, about the way the show sometimes awkwardly oscillates between simplistic characterizations and dense storytelling strategies to please the core contingent in addition to all its brethren.

And now, a little speculation: The book club at the beginning. What was up with that? Are we dealing with some sort of cultish gang of ex-Hanso members, banding together behind dictatorial Ben's back to generate open-minded discourse? Juliet's sarcastic disavowal of free will right before the island shook was, in a word, awesome. And I though I was being clever when I paused my DVR-preserving tube to find out which Stephen King book was being far as I could figure, it was either Firestarter or Carrie. Turns out Gary Susman's eyes are stronger than my own, although at least I was sort of right. But Firestarter would've worked too, I think, since both books deal with telekinesis, which seems to come into play in the larger plot thanks to Walt's valued abilities (he may be gone, but the idea that his capabilities were of some value to the Others certainly holds potential for speculation).

Is it possible that this is a Bermuda Triangle-inspired alternate dimension? As Fenno points out, the spectacular aerial view of the island at the beginning of the episode shows that it's way too large for anything in the South Pacific that wouldn't already be discovered and monitored by the rest of civilization. Ben's immediate, methodological reaction to the plane crash suggests that there's a specific protocol for dealing with people who arrive on the island; maybe the invisible locale has been turned into a selective Shangri-La that doesn't like visitation from anyone devoid of merit in the eyes of the Others. I'm sure there's more to it than that, and that there's more to the island than just the Others (remember that statue with the four toes?). But I can't help taking a shot in the dark, because it would be a lot less fun with the lights on.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


The Departed
Before his flair for filmmaking staked a spot in history, Martin Scorsese nearly became a priest. That tidbit of trivia -- a seemingly random nugget kept in circulation by way of abundant auteur mythologizing -- offers a reasonable entry point for understanding the dominant themes in many of the director's finer works. Figures of corruption surge through his foreboding cityscapes, but cruel intentions are disarmed by the presence of a wholesome individual -- a savior leading a righteous path. Jesus may be the literal star in The Last Temptation of Christ, but the Christ-like qualities of a gun-wielding, pimp-killing Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver are hardly subtle.

No such spiritual heart beats in The Departed, which sports Scorsese's flair for technical tomfoolery while betraying his previously stalwart sense of justice. Substance loses footing to style in a big way, creating a gleefully morbid crime story that navigates nearly every turn in the Sopranos playbook. Scorsese predates that recent glorified genre looping, although it isn't apparent from the plotting. Nobody in this crowd-pleasing romp is resolutely good, but pretty much all principals involved earn their pathos through run-of-the-mill backstories borrowed from its more secular precedents in gangster fiction.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Neorealism meets New York urban life in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito Montiel's adaptation of his 2003 autobiography. Stylistically, it's a mostly happy marriage that translates the sweetness of The 400 Blows into a Mean Streets dialect, where childhood innocence slams into the pavement of an ugly world.

Montiel has three layers of presence in the film: In addition to serving as writer-director, his character is the story's hero, both as an adventuresome juvenile (Shia LaBeouf) growing up in Astoria, Queens during the 1980s, and in a present-day scenario (Robert Downey Jr.) struggling to confront his past. The last two are apparently embellishments on Montiel's real life, but the care with which he develops the solemn, irate protagonist leaves no question to where the story's sympathies lie: From the first scene, Montiel begins building up to a tale of redemption.

Read the rest of the review at The Reeler...