Friday, October 22, 2004

The end of the road can't end like this, can it?

Yes: it can.

The Astros' season limped to a finish last night, losing Game 7 5-2. I guess the magic was all used up. I guess Thom Brennaman is happy.

Well, this was one of the best seasons of baseball I've seen. Drama, miracle was all there. Thanks, guys. I wish I could have watched you for a few more games. You deserved the chance at the national stage.

But hey: now, when the Red Sox win, I can happy about it.

Die, you Cardinal scum.

Oh, and The Dark Tower is some weird shit. That is all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Red Sox 10.
Yankees 3.

I believe the appropriate phrase would be WHOO-HOO!!!

And for Game 7 of the NLCS...

Clemens. Don't fail us now.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Retraction (or: my blog can change the world)

Remember all that stuff I said last night about Thom Brennaman? The bias seemd very little in evidence today. Today it was all "Beltran is incredible" and "let's not forget about Berkman, who has had an awesome postseason." Hell, the Fox graphics people even praised Morgan Ensberg for his defense. And of course, the cheerleading for Beltran and Brad Lidge continued; it seemed a much more pro-Astros broadcast today. So either Thom started paying attention, or someone at Fox read what I wrote and told him about it. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

(Steve Lyons, by the way, was still stupid. Hey, I can only do so much.)

Ground Control to Major Thom

I'm here to talk about another example of that heinous Fox bias -- but not in the way you think. I'd like to speak about Thom Brennaman, Fox's B-level baseball announcer.

I first became familiar with Mssr. Brennaman about ten or twelve years ago. He worked for WGN, Chicago's answer to TBS. This was back when Harry Carray was still alive and still announcing the Cubs' games. He was getting older, though, so he would sit out the middle innings. During the 4th, 5th, and 6th, Thom took over. I didn't like him much, but I was a kid and preferred Harry Carray.

When I stopped watching WGN in the mid- or late-90s, Thom dropped out of sight. That is until last year, when I bought a used copy of Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2003. Lo and behold, I hear the voice of Thom Brennaman as the game's commentator. (Joining him at color is Steve Lyons, whom I'll also discuss in a moment.) The commentary for that game is suitable, at least as far as Thom goes -- Lyons comes across as a moron, and the repetitive nature of video game commentary doesn't help much.

But now I have to listen to him while watching the Astros' playoff run. And I've noticed something a little...odd about his commentary.

Let's do a little exercise. Here are two examples of what I'm talking about -- these examples are fictional in the sense that these exact words were not spoken by Thom (because I don't access to transcripts and was too emotionally involved in the games to remember these word-for-word) but you'll get the basic point. Here we go.

1. "Jeff Bagwell to the plate for the Astros now...he's hitless in his last 12 at-bats. Just a terrible string of plate appearances for the Houston first baseman. There are talks, with his bad right shoulder, his advancing age, that his remarkable career may be coming to an end."
2. "Scott Rolen will be next to bat for the Cardinals. He was 0-for-4 yesterday, and did not have a hit in the NLDS against Los Angeles. There are some who would call that a slump, and there are some who would say...he's due. He's like a powderkeg, waiting to explode right now."

Hmm. That seem right to you? Does that seem maybe...biased toward one side? A side that has a red bird on their uniforms?

Now, I know what you're saying. Those examples are fictional. Yes, they are. (The Bagwell one especially, since he didn't go on such a streak, but Scott Rolen did -- the bit about him being hitless in the Dodger series is a fact -- and Thom did say the thing about him being due.) So what about reality, J.?

All righty: today's game was more or less a pitching duel between Roger Clemens and Jeff Suppan. Even though the Astros were winning from the bottom of the first on, when Jeff Kent launched a two-run homer into the Crawford boxes, all of their commentary on Clemens was still somehow negative. He wasn't keeping the ball down, he wasn't fooling anyone with his splitter, his pitch count was too high, yadda yadda yadda. Suppan, on the other hand, was pitching a gem in the eyes of Thom and the Fox boys in the booth. Excellent stuff, keeping the pitch count down, all those good things.

Now, Suppan wasn't pitching poorly -- don't get me wrong. But boldly praising the work of one side while blindly ignoring the work (or blindly criticizing the work of) the other side sounds...well, an awful lot like Fox. My favorite part is when Thom and Steve rambled for five minutes about the differences in pitch counts, followed by a graphic which displayed them: Clemens 102, Suppan 93. For those of you who can't subtract -- Fox employees, this means you -- that would be a difference of nine pitches. Yeah. Clemens also had more strikeouts, less walks, fewer hits, and fewer runs. And he, ya know, won. But Suppan was "brilliant."

In the eyes of Thom Brennaman, every decision Phil Garner makes is not only bad, but inexplicable -- "I just don't understand this." He describes the Astros bullpen in the same terms one would use to describe convicted felons: "hideous," "awful," that kind of stuff. Carlos Beltran and Brad Lidge are the only good players on the team, the rest of them losers and fools, all.

And Steve Lyons is just a moron. He comes across as a giggling, fawning idiot who knows next to nothing about the game. Which would perhaps be excusable if he hadn't played major league baseball. (I contrast him, oh, every single other former-player-turned-announcer, but exemplary examples would be Steve Stone -- who worked those WGN games with Brennaman -- ESPN's Joe Morgan, and the Astros' own Alan Ashby.)

I'd think I was imagining this bias thing, but every single person I talk to agrees with me. Are we crazy, or is Fox at it again? In the most bizarre way possible?

I should also talk about the paperback edition of Al Franken's masterpiece, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, which I spotted in Barnes & Noble tonight. If you don't have this book, pick up the paperback -- it's all got all-new stuff on Ann Coulter and (especially) Bill O'Reilly, to whom the book has now been hastily re-dedicated. (Fox's laughable lawsuit against Franken -- filed at the behest of the touchy loudmouth O'Reilly -- gave Franken tons of free publicity, helped the book to #1 on the Amazon lists, and made everyone at Fox look like idiots.) It's funny, it's informative, and it disintegrates the myth of the liberal media. If you don't hate Sean Hannity -- or if you do, and are looking for even more reasons to see his head removed from his shoulders -- read this book. Go, now!

Friday, October 15, 2004

Team America: World Police

To say that I'm disappointed with Team America: World Police would make it sound like I didn't like the movie. I don't want to give that impression -- it's a very funny film. When dealing with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, you expect raunchy, sophomoric humor combined with razor-sharp satire, and you get that here, most definitely.


What starts out as a hilarious parody of Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer action films descends, in the second half, into cheap scatalogical humor, ludicrous social commentary, and the worst gay joke I've ever seen. And the most irritating part about the whole thing is that none of it seems to have a point -- Matt and Trey just want to piss everybody off, for no reason other than their own amusement. And trust me -- they are the only ones who are going to find some of this stuff funny.

But let's start with the good stuff. Team America are a group of violent, narcissistic yahoos, storming across the globe in their red-white-and-blue planes and helicopters, saving the world from terrorists by blowing up everything they see (their assault to save France does indeed take out the terrorists, but wipes out the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in the process). They are often accompanied by loud rock music, like the song "America -- Fuck Yeah!". In short: typical American action heroes. Their opening scene contains pretty much every single action movie cliche you've ever seen, and it really is hilarious. Not to mention some rather witty subtitles: every scene which takes place in a country other than the US features a subtitle declaring the place, it's continent, and (in a brilliant touch) its distance from America. A few lines of dialogue are thrown in to both pander to and mock the typical idiotic American audience member. ("They're planning to meet in Cairo." "Cairo: that's in Egypt.")

Team America keeps their headquarters inside a hollowed-out Mt. Rushmore. They get their intelligence from I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E., a not-so bright AI, and their orders from their benefactor, Spottswoode. And though Team America is the best in the world, they need help: terrorists have a WMD, but in a hidden location. They need to infiltrate the terrorists and find the weapons. "We need an actor!" Spottswoode says.

They find him on Broadway, performing a play called Lease which features the song "Everybody has AIDS." Yeah. His name is Gary, and he joins the team after the requisite "This isn't for me" scene and a hilarious montage to a song that declares "Freedom ain't free...freedom costs a buck-oh-five."

So we're good, so far. We keep moving right along, and everything's just fine.

But Parker and Stone clearly have other things in mind. Like blasting leftist Hollywood actors for no reason other than their being easy targets. The Film Actors Guild (that's Film Actors Guild, which provides an acronym I'm sure you can discern on your own), led by Alec Baldwin, denounces the actions of Team America. Other celebrities show up, too, and they eventually become entangled in a plot with Kim Jong Il that involves worldwide catastrophic destruction. Except for Michael Moore, who shows up for just long enough for Matt and Trey to make fun of him for being fat. Oh, aren't we clever.

Once the actors show up, the satire loses its bite and the film starts to fall apart. The activism of the Film Actors Guild is relentlessly mocked and put on equal footing with the terrorism itself. The message becomes "Arguing with America is just as bad as attacking America." And hey -- good for you if you believe that. But what about the first thirty minutes, when Team America are shown to be thoughtless, brainless, heartless bullies who care for no one but themselves? Are we supposed to support mindless, idiotic violence in the name of America?

Matt and Trey attempt to make their point with a big speech in the final scene, which equates everyone in the world to "dicks," "pussies," or "assholes." Yes, more cheap seventh-grade humor. And the speech doesn't make sense in the context of the film: if the dicks (Team America and the violent warmongers) need the pussies (the actors) to keep them from "fucking too much" (their targets being the assholes, the terrorists, "who just want to shit all over everything"), then why, two minutes earlier, were we expected to cheer when T.A. fed Sean Penn to "panthers" (housecats, actually, in the last truly amusing moment in the film) and set Tim Robbins on fire?

In reality, I don't think they agree with either side. Team America is their cheap jab at everyone involved in the war on terrorism (though it should be noted that the White House gets a free pass, with Team America representing American government and warmongering all by themselves). But it's a little too cheap. And for every moment that made me laugh, there was another that made me cringe and scoff at its immaturity.

I did laugh hard, though. In its best moments, Team America: World Police is the same type of brilliant, subversive humor we're used to from South Park. Coming out of the theater, a friend accused me of not liking it -- which I did, actually, at least half of it. He said I was pissed because it wasn't as leftist as I thought it would be. But really, that's not it. I'm disappointed because I know how talented Parker and Stone are and can be, and in this time ripe for satire, they can think of nothing better to do than play with puppets and call everybody "fags." It's a shame.

Rating: ***1/2

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I forgot... mention something during my off-the-cuff dissection of the debate.

I praised Bush on his answer on the question of faith. I think he gave (believe it or not) an honest answer. The reason I praised him was because it was only the two minutes of the entire hour and a half I didn't want to punch him for being so shamelessly misleading.

I also praised Kerry for his answer on a similar question. I actually agree with a good deal of Kerry's answer -- basically, he said, "I have my beliefs, and they're important to me and I live my life according to them, but neither I nor anyone else has the right to impose those beliefs on anybody else." Which made me want to stand up and applaud.

But I forgot to discuss the unfairness of the questions. Yes, they were similar. But here are the questions (direct quotations):

To Bush: "Mr. President, let's go to a new question. You were asked before the invasion, or after the invasion, of Iraq if you'd checked with your dad. And I believe, I don't remember the quote exactly, but I believe you said you had checked with a higher authority. I would like to ask you, what part does your faith play on your policy decisions?"

To Kerry: "Senator Kerry, a new question for you. The New York Times reports that some Catholic archbishops are telling their church members that it would be a sin to vote for a candidate like you because you support a woman's right to choose an abortion and unlimited stem-cell research. What is your reaction to that?"

What. The. Hell?

So Bush is basically offered an opportunity to tell America how faithful and religious he is, while Kerry is asked, "Is voting for you a sin?"

Yet another example of that hideous LIBERAL MEDIA BIAS.

...or not.

The Third Debate

I didn't get to watch the debate live, what with the baseball and stuff. So I'm going to watch the replay and comment AS IT HAPPENS. Well, as it's replayed. So watch out -- no spell check or proofreading or anything, this is straight from my head to the keyboard. The replay begins at approximately 11:40 pm.

11:43. I am sick of listening to people thank the moderator and the crowd and the state and the blah blah blah. Who cares? This is why they should allow opening statements: to prevent candidates from using up their answer time with cheap, empty sucking up.

11:46. Bush: "The first voter in Afghanistan was a 19-year-old WOMAN!" Yeah. And. So. What? The elections in Afghanistan are largely thought of as disasters, with influenced voters, people registering more than once, and many worried about the secrecy of the ballots. But hey -- nineteen-year-olds can vote. Go, girl. And ain't it grand that the first voter in that country would be someone so unique like that, in such a way that Bush can use it in his debate? Hmm. Conspiracy senses tingling...

11:48. Kerry nails Bush on admitting he wasn't "concerned" about bin Laden. Bush denies this, with the air of a late-night TV show host: "Sounds like another one those...exaggerations" -- *dumb smile*. Too bad that we've all seen the video clip of you saying exactly that, you dumb bastard.

11:54. Bush's horrible economic record is brought out, clearly and simply. How can Republicans hear all that and still support the Shrub? I don't get it. Everything's down: jobs, wages, exports. Bush responds with the "he voted to increase taxes 98 times" garbage. That's the first time. I bet he'll say it at least five times. And Bush looks pissed. Wild gestures, nearly shouting. He's not making any sense, but he believes it, goddammit. How very Bill O'Reilly.

11:58. The question to Bush: "What do you say to someone who has lost their job to someone overseas?" Bush's answer: "Here's some help to go get educated." So...the reason they've lost their job is because they're an uneducated peon? Oh yeah, that's real good. And the entire answer to that question, by the way, is about how great his education plan is. I will not even big to describe how much that makes me laugh. Remember: I live and went to school in Bush's education plans, m'kay? Where we raised test scores by lowering the score needed to pass. And Kerry makes me smile by pointing out what I just did, about Bush not answering the question.

12:03. The mics are way too loud. Popping and thumping noises abound. Someone fire the sound techs.

12:04. 98 tax increases -- #2. Bush: "We've increased Pell grants by a million students!" Kerry: "You have more Pell grants because more people qualify for them because they have less money." Bada-BING. And 98 tax increases -- #3. Twice in the same question. The figure, by the way, is bullshit.

12:07. Gay marriage comes up. A quick thought: Why the fuck do we need "protect" the "sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman"? Is this threatened by homosexuals? Bush pushes his Constitutional amendment horseshit. Don't get me started. And Kerry doesn't help much, because he essentially agrees with Bush, but at least he doesn't sound like a goddamn homophobic loon. And he also denounces the aforementioned amendment horseshit.

12:10. Kerry: "I believe I can't legislate to someone else my article of faith." THANK YOU, SENATOR. Amen, if you will. He gives a fucking great answer on the question on faith and abortion and stuff. I am, so help me, really starting to like this guy. And Kerry is Catholic? I didn't know that.

12:15. Bush's answer on the rising cost of health care is completely incoherent to me. Largely because he stumbles and trips through the whole two minutes. If you can find a transcript and explain it to me, I'd appreciate it.

12:17. Bush: "He's only passed 5 bills in his 20 years in the Senate." Kerry: "I've actually passed 56 bills." Plus amendments and stuff. "The President is wrong." Well, duh.

12:21. Once again, Bush channels Jay Leno by smirking at the credibility of "major network news outlets."

12:22. Bush: "Our health care system is the envy of the world." HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! I mean, I...I...HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Oh, Bush is so much better than Jay Leno.

12:28. Kerry says that Bush's tax cut on the top 1%, if repealed, would have saved Social Security through 2075. That's the year two thousand seventy-five. Holy fuck! Is that true?

12:30. Bush: "Now the tax code is more fair." Puh-leeze. And Bush gets really pissed off, and starts banging the podium like Hitler. Easy, Shrub.

12:39. Here we go with Bush's education crap again. Shut up, Bush. Texas was (and is) one of the very worst states in education in the entire country.

12:43. They're starting to yell at each other now, over the No Child Left Behind stuff. At now that's getting interesting, the moderator switches to another topic.

12:45. We fulfill our promise to focus on domestic issues by stumping about Iraq for an entire question. Thanks, guys. But: Kerry finally stops with the "We've spent $200 billion on the war!" rhetoric that he and Edwards had been bleating for the last few weeks. This does, however, allow Bush to once again mischaracterize Kerry's "global test" quote. I mean, how can Bush keep doing that? Repeatedly misrepresent the same thing, over and over. Kerry blows it out of the water as bullshit, as he's done over and over now, but Bush keeps at it. I. Don't. Get. It.

12:49. Onto the assault weapons ban, which Bush claims he really, really wanted to extend, really, but those nasty Congressmen just wouldn't let him. Darn them. And hey, Bush: prosecutions on gun crimes are up because crime is up, you dumb motherfucker.

12:54. On affirmative action, Bush -- again -- answers by dragging up the same. fucking. education. garbage he's been peddling the entire debate. And now onto to small business loans. An answer is nowhere in sight. But BANG-BANG-BANG the podium, mein fuhrer. That'll fire up the voters.

12:58. I don't believe I'm saying this, but I must say it in the name of honesty. Bush gives a pretty good answer on a question about faith. I don't agree with him, when he says that "freedom is a gift from the Almighty." Kerry's answer: "Everything is a gift from the Almighty." I think you been one-upped, Dubya. How about that. (I disagree with that, too, but it's still a neat moment.)

1:03. Last question...and it's a cheap-ass, softball question: "What is the most important thing you have learned from your wife?" Fuck you, Bob. Both guys give pretty nice feel-good answers that are, admittedly, pretty funny. Bush says his wife speaks English better than he does; Kerry says, "We [Bush and I] married up. Some would say maybe me so more than others." That's pretty funny. And then Kerry says some sweet things about his mom.

1:06. Closing statements. Damn: I am starting to really like Kerry quite a bit. And Bush -- well, he's Bush. He starts with a nice bit about a painting in his office. But the rest -- same old Bush b.s.

After reading through all that, do you have to ask me who won?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

History, happening right before your eyes

So I guess I was right: I didn't have to say anything to the Astros. They summoned up their own intenstinal fortitude, grabbed their bats, and slaughtered the Braves 12-3. That's what I'm talking about.


And it's on to the second round of the playoffs for Houston for the first time since ever. Yes, it's against the best team in the league, the Cardinals. St. Louis did indeed beat the shit out of everyone in the majors this year. In fact, only one team in all of baseball had a winning record against them.

Now let's see, who was that...hmm...I should know was...I think....

Ah, yes: the Houston Astros.

"Bring," as they say, "it on."

On a much sadder note: former Astro Ken Caminiti is dead. They're saying "heart attack." He was 41 with a known history of heavy drug use. You do the math.

Even sadder: Christopher Reeve. What can I say?

I'm only a man in a silly red sheet
digging for kryptonite on this one way street

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

Are we really surprised at the results of Game 4? Are we really shocked, deep down, at what happened? Stunned to see the Astros blow a 3-run lead late and cough up the win?

The correct answer would be, "No."

We are similarly not surprised at the results of the New York-Minnesota series, though we are disappointed. And we get to either (1) celebrate like drunken morons when Boston finally beats the ghost and gets past the Stormtroopers; or (2) weep like drunken morons when the inevitable occurs and the Yankees end up in the World Series...again.

Help us, Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez. You are our only hope.

And Astros: I don't even need to say anything, do I?

every day I'm dumping the body

Friday, October 08, 2004


Written and directed by Lars von Trier.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Phillip Baker Hall, Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Zeljiko Ivanek, Patricia Clarkson, and the voice of John Hurt.

The film Dogville, as reviewed in four chapters and a prologue.

(which introduces us to the film, its director, and its reviewer)

I've only seen one previous film by Lars von Trier. His Dancer in the Dark got my attention because of how weird it sounded: a musical, shot on digital video, starring Bjork? All dark and serious and depressing? What? I also knew von Trier through Dogme95, the filmmaking technique he pioneered that strives to remove the "artifice" from films. No unnatural lights are allowed, no importing of props, no set dressing, no violence. Yes, he was one of those kinds of filmmakers. An "artiste." He sounded unbearably pretentious, and Dancer in the Dark fit those expectations. Yes, Bjork was brilliant, but the film itself was an endless dirge that dragged until you just wanted to shut it off and forget it existed. Of course, I read numerous positive reviews, which made me feel like I'd missed something underneath the tuneless songs and relentlessly depressing storyline. Was there really more to von Trier that I hadn't seen? Or was he just a pretentious bastard?

Which brings us to Dogville. I read about it, and, again, I'm struck by the weirdness, and how all that Dogme stuff about shedding artifice is thrown totally out the window: the whole film is set on a blank stage, suspended in blackness. Labels on the floor, like ELM ST. and GOOSEBERRY BUSHES, telling you where everything is supposed to be. Characters miming opening doors, and pretending to pet the dog. It's Our Town: The Motion Picture! So I had to see it, if only to snicker and laugh at the ridiculousness. I mean, invisible dogs? Come on!

Chapter ONE
in which we meet the cast

It doesn't start out with much promise. Sure enough, the whole town of Dogville is sketched out on the floor, like unfinished architectural plans. There's a narrator, John Hurt, who describes everything in explicit detail. And I mean everything: when Tom looks around, angry, the narrator will say, "Tom looked around, angry." There are chapter stops and title cards, Kill Bill-style; the one that opens the film announces we are about to watch "the film Dogville, as told in nine chapters and a prologue." The pretention is smeared on pretty thick. As I said: not very promising.

The town of Dogville is barely a town at all: it's merely the end of a street, sitting at the mouth of an abandoned silver mine, way up in "the Rocky Mountains of the US of A," the narrator tells us, only accessable by a single road. It's the middle of the Great Depression, and the town's residents are doing their best to get by in tough times. Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard: Exorcist: The Beginning) picks apples in the orchard in the valley, coming home to growl at his seven children and intellectual wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson). Ben (Zeljiko Ivanek), a truck driver, lives in his garage and puffs up his own importance by constantly referring to "the freight industry." Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) runs the town store and tends to her gooseberry bushes. Liz (Chloe Sevigny) works with her parents grinding glasses (to make them look more expensive than they are) and reluctantly watches after her brother, Bill (Jeremy Davies), who is "dumb, and he [knows] it." Martha (Siobhan Hogan) lives in the mission keeping up the place and practicing the organ until a new preacher arrives, which probably won't happen.

And there are the Edisons: Tom Sr. (Phillip Baker Hall), an elderly doctor who lives off his pension; and his son, Tom Jr. (Paul Bettany), a "writer," in the sense that he wants to write, not in the sense that he's actually written anything. Tom spends his days wandering the streets...well, street of Dogville, dreaming of how his bold, striking philosophies will one day earn him the praises of the world. He wants to educate the town on how the world should be, to criticize their self-centered behavior, to tell them they should all help people out to this country a better place. He calls regular town meetings to lecture the citizens on that very subject, only to find his audience less than receptive. Tom thinks words aren't enough -- he needs to illustrate.

You can see where this is all going, can't you? It seems Dogville is just begging for a New and Mysterious Visitor to arrive and show them what Tom's been trying to tell them all along. One night, Tom hears gunshots down in the valley, and soon thereafter, a beautiful woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman: The Hours) strolls into town, hiding from men in long black cars offering big rewards for her capture. Tom decides to hide her in Dogville, and to use her as his illustration: can the citizens of the town, who claim to "love human beings," protect and embrace Grace, despite the risk to themselves? They agree to give Grace two weeks to prove herself.

Chapter TWO
in which I love Nicole Kidman, but wonder how this movie can last three hours

If Lars von Trier is good at anything -- other than coming off as pretentious and using quality digital cameras to maximum effect -- it's getting great performances out of his actresses. Bjork was magnificent in Dancer in the Dark, and Nicole Kidman is equally good here. She gives Grace a generous humility, a spark of humanity, courage and optimism underneath her constant fear of discovery. Tom's idea is for Grace to sell herself to the town by offering "physical labor," doing the things the residents of Dogville can't -- or won't -- do for themselves. Though all of them claim there's nothing she can do for them, they each eventually find a task for her to manage -- something they think "should be done, but isn't necessary."

Again: you can almost see where this is going, can't you? The girl with the sweet smile and generous nature is at first rejected, but grows on the town day by day. She even bonds with the old blind hermit and warms up the icy Chuck. And she and Tom, yes, begin to fall in love. Don't get me wrong: it's very good, this part of the movie. Well-acted, each of the characters endearing in their own way. The non-existent set becomes like those black bars at the edges of the screen when you watch a movie in letterbox -- after a while, you don't even notice them.

But I'd read that this movie was three hours long. And the plot seemed to be winding to a close roughly halfway through. So I began to wonder: where could von Trier be going?

And then he takes his carefully constructed, intimate little movie, and blows it all to hell.

Chapter THREE
in which Dogville bares its teeth

Many, many reviewers -- luckily none of the ones I read beforehand -- went out of their way to spoil the events of the second half of Dogville, but I will do no such thing. If you haven't seen the movie yet, don't worry -- I'm not giving any plot points away.

But Dogville -- and Dogville -- turns a little colder as it passes the 90-minute mark. The sweet, down-home, good-old-small-town stuff from earlier begins to erode. Kidman's performance reaches another level here, as does Paul Bettany, who achieves near-brilliance during the film's final third. Von Trier finally reveals his intentions: not some lukewarm Our Town: The Motion Picture, but a brutal, vicious, unforgiving look at human cruelty. Not in a grand, epic, Holocaust way, but in a personal and individual way. How ugly and mean human beings can be to one another. John Hurt's narration, which sounded kind of cheesy and sentimental at the beginning, now sounds sharply sarcastic. And everything changes.

That this very mean film takes place very much in America -- one scene features the townsfolk celebrating the Fourth of July and singing "America the Beautiful" -- has left von Trier (a Dane) open to all sorts of accusations regarding his "America-bashing." (The stunningly audacious closing credit sequence is an even broader shot at the stars 'n' stripes.) I don't think he is bashing America, really -- though we're a pretty easy target at the moment, his main focus is humanity in general. Are we truly capable of selflessness? When the powerless are given a taste of power, are they able to resist it? Or can they use it wisely, or will they abuse it for their own gains? And who has the responsibility to punish those who do abuse their positions? Does one good turn deserve another -- an eye for an eye? Dogville asks those questions, and more, and the answers on display are not heartwarming.

Chapter FOUR
in which my mind is blown, von Trier wins, and the review ends

In fact, the film's final thirty minutes are nothing short of blood-chilling. Again, I refuse to give anything away, but von Trier manages to, again, make us reconsider all that came before. The final shreds of humanity and deceny are sheared and ripped away in a harrowing finale that is truly unlike anything I've seen. And as the set is cleared and the credits begin to roll, Dogville is shown to be not some shallow, pretentious artsy hackjob (like Steven Soderberg's Full Frontal), but a triumph of the artform. Even the height of the pretention, the invisible set, is used, finally, to make a stunning point about the hollowness of the small town and its residents.

2004 has been filled with excellent films, but Dogville achieves a power and resonance that none have matched so far.

Rating: *****

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Firefly: The Complete Series DVD

If the best thing about DVD is the opportunity to watch whole seasons of television shows in great big chunks -- and I think it is -- then the very best thing is the opportunity to catch up on older shows you never got a chance to see, little-seen shows that never found a mainstream audience. The perfect example is Firefly, a little gem of a program that never truly got a chance during its abbreviated run in 2002. Fox wanted another show from Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy and Angel), and greenlighted the very odd Firefly without truly thinking through what it was they were approving. When they got it, they weren't happy, and ended up sabotaging the show by rearranging episodes (including the bizarre decision to not the air the pilot episode) and poorly promoting those they did air. But now, through the magic of DVD, Firefly lives again.

It's five hundred years into the future. With Earth no longer inhabitable, humanity has taken to exploring the depths of space. The "central planets," where the humans have concentrated, are governed by the Alliance, a bureaucratic union of the US and China (Earth's final two superpowers). They rule from huge, towering city-like ships, all flat and gray in their dominance, the sterile ambiance of the interiors suggesting more a corporation than a military. But out on the fringes of civilization, those without the benefits of the latest state-of-the-art technology make do on briskly terraformed planets, eeking out humble livings not unlike those of the pioneers of the old west. They herd cattle, they use rifles and six-shooters (while the Alliance shows them up with laser weapons), and do what they must to survive. Even if it means ducking the law.

For Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), captain of the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity, ducking the law is a way of life. He smuggles contraband, salvages wrecked spaceships, and avoids the Alliance at all costs. Mal has no love for the Alliance -- he was a soldier in the civil war that pitted the independent planets against the Alliance, and named his ship after the Battle of Serenity Valley, the final decisive battle than gained victory for the Alliance. The crew that follows him on his life of crime: Zoe (Gina Torres), his second-in-command, who fought with him in the war; Zoe's husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the gruff hired muscle; and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the bright-eyed engineer. Along for the ride are a rather odd trio of passengers: Book (Ron Glass), a preacher -- "shepherds," they're called -- with a lot more beneath the surface than initially apparent; and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a doctor on the run from the Alliance for rescuing his sister, River (Summer Glau), from sinister medical experiments that have left her a schizophrenic mess of her former self. Mal also rents one of his shuttles to Inarra, a "companion" -- in this future, prostitution has become a revered occupation (sex being the one product that can truly be sold everywhere and anywhere), heavily regulated and supervised, and allowing Inarra aboard not only allows her to earn her living but gives Mal and Serenity access to places that would not have them otherwise.

Phew -- that is a complicated universe and a whole lotta characters goin' on there, and the two-hour pilot episode, "Serenity," should be commended for pulling off the remarkable task of introducing everything and everyone in a coherent, intelligible manner (and it's also entertaining, too). Firefly is a show of impressive depth, and the scripts show a great deal of faith in the intelligence of the viewer -- the link between the US and China, for example, is never completely spelled out, just hinted: all signs are printed in both English and Chinese, the architecture and interior design of the various planets and ships often display both Western and Oriental influences, and the dialogue will occasionally lapse into mid-sentence Chinese epithets (for which no translation is provided).

Of course, trusting the intelligence of the audience is a dangerous thing in TV land, and it's really not surprising that Firefly didn't last long on the airwaves. Not to mention the sheer weirdness of the "space western" style on display here -- gunfights in the desert are followed by frantic races through the atmosphere in giant spaceships. It's an odd mix, and definitely not one that would appeal to everyone. The show also abruptly shifts tone from episode to episode -- we go from tense suspense thriller ("Ariel") to screwball comedy ("Our Mrs. Reynolds") to psychological horror ("Bushwhacked") to Old Western train robbery ("The Train Job"). The smart, witty scripts and marvelous ensemble cast keep Firefly on its feet, and the finest episodes are nothing short of miraculous. I also love the sly visual style of the show: the handheld, unsteady camera movement -- even on the CGI shots of the ship -- match the rough-and-tumble lives of the protagonists. But when dealing with the Alliance, everything is bolted down, smooth, no disturbances. Again, subtlety you rarely see on television.

You may have missed it on TV -- I know I did -- but now's your chance to catch up on what truly is a great show that should been given a full run. And you need to catch up fast: the movie, Serenity, hits theaters next April. I can't wait.

Rating: ****1/2

Special thanks to Rene, for loaning me the DVDs. And since he asked, here's my ranking of the episodes:

  1. Our Mrs. Reynolds
  2. Out of Gas
  3. Objects in Space
  4. The Message
  5. Serenity
  6. Bushwhacked
  7. War Stories
  8. Jaynestown
  9. Trash
  10. Ariel
  11. Safe
  12. Shindig
  13. The Train Job
  14. Heart of Gold

Reviews up

So, finally, Shaun of the Dead and Resident Evil: Apocalypse have been reviewed. You know here the link is.

I'm going to attempt a new thing with future reviews. I reformatted the blog you're reading at the moment, so that each entry creates its own individual file. So I can write reviews into the blog and link from my review archive to the blog file. No need to mess directly with all that HTML and stuff, and it will also put my comments links right there at the bottom of the review. So hey. I'll test it later when I review Firefly.

The Vice-Presidential debate? Didn't see enough of it to judge, to be honest. But Cheney sure did leave a lot of questions unanswered -- and not in that Bush "watch as I answer your question by talking about a hundred different other things, especially Saddam" way, but by saying simply, "I'm not going to answer that." Weird.

I can see for miles and miles

Monday, October 04, 2004

"Best of the year! Fantastic! You'll laugh, you'll cry!"

(screening log updated)

So last year, out of the whole twelve months, I handed give four films ***** ratings: The Return of the King, Kill Bill: Vol 1, Lost in Translation, and Mystic River. That's it. Out of the whole year. Which I thought was a pretty good number -- not too high, but not too low.

2004: It's the beginning of October, and with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I just watched on DVD), I've now given my top score five times.

What's goin' on here? Are the movies really that great? Or am I losing cohesion? Am I turning into a pathetic quote-whore wannabe? Your call.


hey there mister blue

Saturday, October 02, 2004


Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Shaun of the Dead

(Worst of 2004: #2)
(Best of 2004: #8)

Where did all these zombies come from? 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and a few more I can't recall at the moment. For the last year we've been blitzed with zombie movies -- and as much I don't care for the general subject matter, sometimes a gem shines out of the blood and gore and decay to show you that all the walking undead might just be worth your time. And then, unfortunately, another film comes along that shows just how boring zombies can be.

It's the end of the world as we know it

I didn't like the first Resident Evil film, and I didn't really enjoy the games upon which it was based, so showing up for the sequel was perhaps not the smartest idea. But Resident Evil: Apocalypse is the very worst kind of bad movie: unlike something like Darkness Falls, you can't even have fun with the badness. There are no truly atrocious performances, no hilariously poor special effects, no ridiculous dialogue to speak of. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to get any emotional reaction out of it at all -- it's the most blandly boring and yawn-inducing film I've seen all year.

So Raccoon City is run by the hideously evil Umbrella Corporation (::sigh:: how I'd love to blame that painfully obvious symbolism on the filmmakers, but it was in the game, too), which operates like a Bill Gates daydream, running everything from schools to police squads to biological weapons of mass destruction. Their special weapon, the T-Virus, kills everyone and turns them into undead zombies. Why this gives you an advantage in a combat situation, I don't know (I would think it would be more intelligent to simply kill your enemies and not worry about bringing them back), but there it is. So the city is infected with the T-virus, everyone turns into shambling hordes, and our main characters must fight their way out to survive.

Along the way, director Alexander Witt (in his directorial debut) and screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson (who directed the first film, and whose best picture to date seems to be Event Horizon, which sums up his career quite nicely) do nothing to make you give a damn about any of these characters. They're not interesting, they're not sympathetic, they're just there. And then the never-ending action sequences, with poorly-lit explosions and gunfights and other things that, again, are just there -- never once do you get that, "wow, cool" feeling that an action movie can give you, even the bad ones. In the end, Apocalypse's greatest sin is how it's just...there.

It's only a flesh wound

Now this is a zombie movie I can enjoy: Shaun of the Dead isn't about bullets and explosions. It's about its characters, all brilliantly realized in both writing (by director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg, who plays Shaun) and in the pitch-perfect perfomances. It's sweet, touching and smart. And it's really, really funny.

When the undead take over London, it takes Shaun a good long while to notice -- he steps over dead bodies and fails to notice streaks and splatters of blood everywhere -- because he's far too wrapped up in his own problems: his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield) has dumped him for, among other things, his lack of drive and ambition. His plans for the two of them involve nothing more than hopping down to the Winchester, his favorite pub, every night for drinking with his roommate/best friend, the human ape Ed (Nick Frost). He works as an assistant manager at the British version of Radio Shack, lording over his much younger subordinates who don't respect him -- and why should they, when his "management" boils down to half-remembered cliches: "There is no 'I' in 'team'...but there is one in 'pie.' So there's an 'I' in 'meatpie'...." He tells one coworker that he does have plans for his life, things he wants to do; the withering, disdainful answer is "When?"

So it's understandable that Shaun isn't the first to notice when the whole of London is consumed by the undead. Especially since the zombies look just like everyone else anyway -- a hilarious opening credit sequence shows the world a bored, emotionally numb place. Everyone is already shuffling around lifeless, so when they start collecting body parts and eating people, it's barely worth mentioning (and for the first thirty or so minutes, Wright turns this into a pretty funny joke, with zombies taking victims in the background and hushed news reports about downed satellites on ignored televisions).

But Shaun does eventually notice the zombies (once they invade his home), and he and Ed make a mad race across town and back to save Liz from the same fate that has befallen so many others. Along the way, Shaun is forced to confront his mother (Penelope Wilton) and his dour, disapproving stepfather Philip (the marvelously deadpan Bill Nighy), who may or may not turn into zombies along the way.

It does all build up to a predictable conclusion, complete with rather cheesy deus ex machina. But it's turned into yet another joke, so I'm okay with it. And on the way there we get more hilarious scenes, like the moment when Shaun and Ed selectively choose which of their precious LPs to sacrifice as weapons against the undead, or when the group takes on the zombies en masse to a rocking Queen tune on the jukebox. And the best part: it takes a fart joke, the nadir of modern film and a crutch of weak-minded screenwriters everywhere, and not only makes it funny, but touching and moving. No, really. A fart joke. Shaun of the Dead is that good.


Resident Evil:Apocalypse -- DUD

Shaun of the Dead -- *****

Friday, October 01, 2004

Debate #1: Kerry 1, Bush 0

That's my take on it, anyway. And, of course, I'm biased. But from my angle, it looked like Kerry destroyed Bush. Kerry was eloquent, knowledgable, and well-prepared. Bush was hesitant, repetitive, and stumbled and mumbled through perfunctory responses. And Kerry was finally able to shake off that idiotic "flip-flop" label the Bush camp had slapped on him, by simply and clearly stating his simple and clear position on Iraq. Bush, meanwhile, looked lost. His repeated attempts to bash Kerry for his "mixed messages" (Kerry says the war in Iraq is bad, which sends "mixed messages" to our troops, our allies, and the citizens, in that order, according to the Shrub) sounded stupid the first time...let alone the eight-sixth time. And it actually reminded me of an old Dilbert comic. Here's the jist of it, which I'm recalling from memory:

(The Pointy-Haired Boss approches Alice.)
Pointy-Haired Boss: "Alice, I understand you've been speaking to our Vice President without my consent. I can't have you do that. I don't want him getting mixed messages."
Alice: "I just gave him an honest assessment of what goes on in our department."
Pointy-Haired Boss: "MIXED MESSAGES!!!"

See, Bush, Kerry speaks the truth: the situation in Iraq is bad. And it's getting worse. As Kerry himself said tonight: "There were casualties in June than before. More casualites in July than in June. More in August than in July. More in September than in August." You sent us in without a plan, and -- surprise! -- everything's fallen apart right in your face. Now you're trying to paint pretty pictures on what's happening over there because admitting your mistakes might cost you points in the polls. Once again, you've put your own political gain ahead of the American people.

So, yes, Kerry is sending mixed messages. He's telling the truth. You're blowing sunshine up our ass. Personally, I'll take the truth.

Of course, that's just me. And I'm biased.

If you didn't see/hear the debate and are curious to know exactly what was said (not taking my word for it, since I'm so biased and everything), you can read the MSNBC transcript right here.

Now, we can get to the later debates, where -- hopefully -- Kerry will finally crush Bush like the intellectual cockroach that he is. My fingers are crossed.

And I would also like to point you toward the greatest site ever, It's the "Official Re-Selection Site for George Bush and Dick Cheney." Think The Onion, only entirely devoted to Bush. I love it.

sit down. stand up.
walk into the jaws of hell.
we can wipe you out anytime.