26 September 2008

Cagematch: Tropical Thunder v Burn After Reading

Cagematch, Cinema: Burn After Reading vs Tropic Thunder

It has been a while since I have done the theatrical Cagematch, so please forgive the error I am about to make: referring to the same source for the reviews.

Tropic Thunder is destined to lose most of the Cagematches it which it finds itself. While Dustin Rowles has a nice review of the movie over Pajiba, Rowles is plagued by a single fault: courtesy. His review is scathing in places but then not in others that richly deserve it. His one bit of deserved praise is solely about Robert Downey, Jr’s performance:

Robert Downey, Jr. owns Tropic Thunder. A dude playing a dude disguised as another dude steals just about every second within every minute of every scene he is in. Even when he’s given mediocre material to work with, he transcends it while firmly maintaining a supporting role, so the shtick blessedly doesn’t get old and, assuming there’s not an unnecessary sequel, you can find comfort in the knowledge that Downey has created one of the great characters in comedic history (and there is no one, I’d argue, that could’ve come close to pulling it off as well as Downey — anybody else and it would’ve been laughable, over-the-top, and offensive, instead of silly, ridiculous and, in its implicit commentary on the hubris of white America and the egotism of actors, pretty insightful too).
Other than that section Rowles is undeservedly nice to the movie. Rowles is incorrect when he claims this movie is not about men in states of arrested development. While this is true of some parts of the movie, overall it is about a state of arrested development. What Rowles misses (how does he miss this?) is that it is about an industry run by adolescents, so no local criticism is made of the characters being adolescents. Rowles says the problem with the movie is that they “created a brilliant comedic premise, offered up all the raw materials for a great Hollywood satire, and then half-assed it.” Of course they did. The industry attracts half-assers firstly because of the (as Rowles notes) bottom-line directives but also because it is the half-assers which are more concerned with celebrity and “making art” than making serious criticism. I realize there are exceptions to the rule and you are welcome to name them but I would argue they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

A movie that is a better criticism of adolescents is Burn After Reading. When watching the other movies by the Coens I realize they are mocking morons, but I never actually feel as though they endorse those in power because they usually do a fine job of also lampooning those with money and/or power. However, this movie is different.

Malcovich’s monologue at the very end resonates. Normally I feel these speeches in their films are just another example of the character’s idiocy, but this time I felt it was sincere. Sadly, it was directed against the only likeable character in the movie, which brings to my theory about why this particular film will not make big bucks.

There are two things which will make it seem slow: the lack of likeable characters and the joke is not known to most people. The joke is the Ivy League good-old boys network of espionage films. There is a lot of Princeton bashing in this film, but I wonder if most people remember just how enfranchised the Cold Warriors were in this pedigree.

Daniel Carlson, also over at Pajiba, has a review of this film that is not nearly as good as the above referenced review. One of the main errors Carlson makes is by dismissing the setting of the movie. “The park” is really The National Mall, which is important. He also makes this explicit disavowal of it being a Washington, DC film:

It’s impossible to view Burn After Reading as anything other than another film in which the Coens create a small world of idiosyncratic characters and then watch them run into each other.

Wrong. It is precisely this seemingly nature of idiosyncratic characters that makes it an explicitly DC movie. These movies are driven by characters, usually named Mother or something odd, and this movie is an homage to the form: even if it may be in the form of some mockery. The genre is so pervasive, as the Coens hint, that even morons with no connection to espionage think they know enough to hang with the big boys. The plot does not begin because the characters are morons, it begins because the espionage genre and living in DC is so pervasive. The idiocy of the main characters only steps in where most people would bow out: when confronted by the professionals and their own in-over-their-headedness. Carlson wants to read this movie as a comedy instead of as a continuation, which seems to be a fairly devastating error given the Coens are all about remaking genre pieces.

24 September 2008

McCain suspends campaign for bailout legislation

Of course he is, it was his support of legislation that helped create this mess by deregulating the industry and allowing it to happen in the first place. Smartly he has called on the Obama campaign to do the same thing, as though being in DC is necessary for anything other than the roll call vote, which is not yet scheduled. The call is supposed to deflect blame and make it appear as though this is normal business for a senator. But it is not. It is business as usual for a senator that can share in the responsibility of the crisis. It his penance. Obama should stay on the road and point out that McCain’s debt to the country. If those days of campaigning cost McCain the election, good. He deserves that as part of his penance as well.

19 September 2008

Cagematch: An Evening with Kevin Smith vs. Emanuelle's Gift

This match is easy to call and predict: An Evening with Kevin Smith (KS). I do not know why I placed Emanuel’s Gift (EG) in my queue and after seeing the movie I am still not sure. EG was the good liberal movie whereas there are times in KS that an actual sophisticated argument against the sentimental-driven documentary is made. That level of nuance already makes a winner easy to determine. All of this is without backsliding into the Disney-is-evil debate that has, sadly, become too prominent.

The reason why KS is so engaging, it is almost 4 hours long and I did not even notice, is summed up by C.K. Ogi over at Amazon.com:

Smith is one of the best story tellers our society has. He really has a gift for just starting a story, leaving no stone unturned, and just engaging you into what he's relating. His story about writing the script for Superman will have you in tears. Another good one is his encounter with Prince. Smith has an easy-going, self-depricating style that's combined with a smart guy who LOVES the heck outta movies.

EG however is not good story telling. It is sentimentalism at its finest. The movie makes us sad and yet also happy that this young man was able to rise beyond the usual outcome for Ghana’s disabled bodies. The movie leaves some unanswered questions, especially those that would make us as privileged people in the developed world uncomfortable. If we ever needed proof of sentimentalism’s ability to move or prevent movement this was it. I discovered the following quotation on PopFeminist and it smacks of its appropriateness:

Sentimentality is the feather duster in the junkyard of the human condition. It is a fundamentally inadequate method of handling the plights of our country, but emotive and earnest enough to obfuscate the material circumstances of injustice with personal feelings and alleviate its weeping participants of the burden of real change.

05 September 2008

I am tired

All of this cathecting about the RNC and my friends and has worn my ass out.

Time for the truth. I might secretly want McCain/Palin to win. We are done for and I lack the confidence that Obama can overcome the problems that run so deep. So, maybe we ought to just go out with a bang (pun intended) by filling our daily inboxes with crap about McCain in the Hannoi Hilton and the Bristol Palin saga.

The Bristol palin saga alone might just make me vote here in Minnesota, a supposed swing state. Please, someone convice me to care. I want to. I really do.

04 September 2008

Reichel 2008

“The late, great Kurt Vonnegut once wrote in the Nation that world leaders were addicted to war preparations in the same way that alcoholics are addicted to alcohol. He recommended: ‘From now on, when a national leader, or even just a neighbor, starts talking about some new weapons system which is going to cost us a mere $29 billion, we should speak up. We should say something on the order of, ‘Honest to God, I couldn’t be sorrier for you if I’d seen you wash down a fistful of black, beauties with a pint of Southern Comfort.’” Reichel, Matt. (2008, August 22). Cold War 2008: The madness continues. Dissident Voice, www.dissidentvoice.org.

Two things in the Twin Cities these days make me think of the appropriateness of this quotation. First and obviously, the presidential campaign. The hubbub over Obama’s supposed lack of experience, as though the great legislator McCain actually has some, demonstrates the addictive nature of this discourse. Palin has none and yet the debate has turned to her as the guardian of Alaskan territory from Russia. There was never a threat. If there had been a threat then that would only prove the inadequacy of a militaristic approach to world affairs. It has become an addiction to speak of military experience in a time of hostility which is completely self-fabricated.

The second thing that is happening is the militarization of our streets. Meeting kids after a concert with full riot gear is sure to provoke a response. And yet it is that very response that is used to justify the deployment of riot geared cops. People no longer see the fallacy because of the addictive nature of military engagements. We want so badly to speak of ass-kicking Americans that we are willing to create the very tensions that cause such ass-kicking. For proof we can see the pictures of police after these engagements. They beat up young kids that have no training, no discipline and no weapons of any comparable worth to the arms carried by the police. Even if these kids were hooligans why is there so much happiness at the inevitable police triumphs?

02 September 2008

Defending RNC protests

The following was written for a different publication previous to Monday's events at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Stay tuned for discussions about what happened Monday, what I saw and what it all means.

When discussing the upcoming RNC protests many ask why I am involved when protest will be ineffective. This essay will answer their question without either disputing their measure of effectiveness or of disputing the conditions on the street that may or may not result in a larger anti-capitalist constituency. This essay will elaborate two reasons why the very ‘efficacy question’ is a question of the conservative establishment.

The first argument is about our engagement with the world. Instead of futility as a reason for acquiescence I think futility is precisely why one should act. This ethic is seen elsewhere: the inability to stop murder does not mean a murderer should go unpunished; the inability to stop hunger does not mean bread should be hoarded by the rich; the inability to solve AIDS does not mean the cocktail should not be prescribed. There are successes to be achieved in the face of futility, one just needs to change the benchmark of success. To acquiesce is to slide into an atomistic world of darkness that I do not want to inhabit. My engagement is simple, I want to en-courage others to act against what they see as injustice.

The second reason why the ‘efficacy question’ is the wrong question is because it is shortsighted about the complexities of the world. The question is akin to the debates about who was most valuable to the civil rights gains: Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. While there are nuanced counterfactual claims to be made this debate overlooks the necessity of one to the other. MLK needed Malcolm X to make his calls seem reasonable to those at risk of losing power. Malcolm X needed MLK to recruit constituents to the cause, allowing a debate over method to then occur.

The current social justice movements are involved in a similar plight. Radical action at the RNC may be the very public action needed to give Obama support not only for his election but also for a more progressive administration. Radical visibility can recruit people to Obama’s reformist camp by making his position seem more reasonable to those otherwise frightened of liberal causes. While Obama may not be the preferred option of the radicals planning to take to the streets, he represents to most a superior option to McCain. Radicals find Obama’s critical stance towards the current war and military engagement preferable to McCain’s rose-colored optimism about US military and moral superiority. A more progressive approach to health care also makes Obama a more preferable option for most of those considering protesting the RNC. Where MLK may have been a less scary option for white onlookers it was the radical appearance of Malcolm X that made MLK’s demands more palatable. Radicals taking to the street in St. Paul may also make an Obama administration more palatable to those that are scared by his politics and skin color.

RNC radical action may help build Obama’s base, but there is another function, similar to how unions train bosses of a shop, of how our action may help train future leaders. When a shop becomes unionized bosses are more likely to be reflexive about their actions. The presence of a structure to act may deter some actions and make the boss think twice before making some acts. This deterrence need not be limited to policy issues either. A recent issue faced by a shop in the Twin Cities is a boss that responds to employee comments with sarcasm and dismissal. If this shop is successful in unionizing one of the demands will be for the boss to not be flippant when a worker has an issue. Politics works the same way: our action may keep Obama from moving in a more rightward direction once he is inaugurated. Obama will face new challenges in his new job and the presence of a radicalized organized population will help shape his decisions and keep him more honest to a progressive agenda.

Questioning the ability of protests to create immediate measurable change is actually a move to keep people from protesting. This question places the goal so far away that the task seems daunting and too tiring, after all people have lives to live. The approach radicals need to take is to abandon that very landscape and recognize that there are other goals to be gained, goals that may actually be more important than the ones we are told (by those we oppose) to aim for.