Tuesday, October 25, 2005

My girlfriend's new blog...

My amazing, wonderful girlfriend has started a funny blog, here. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I'm having a lot of fun getting back into playing tabletop RPGs. I'm also having a lot of fun reading a bunch of cool blogs about RPGs, like this one--Deep in the Game. There's lots of good theoretical stuff there for anyone interested in playing (or designing) games.

I want to respond here to Bankuei's most recent post, where he complains about RPGs that don't have any rules about how to actually play them. He talks about playing in a game that had incomplete rules and how he--at first--felt guilty for not adding in his own rules to make the game better. And then he realized:

"It's NEVER my fault if I'm following the rules..."

This really struck a chord with me.

Over the last few years, I started playing a lot of boardgames, because playing RPGs just got too frustrating. But because I am a nerd and a recovering graduate student, I wasn't content to, you know, just play boardgames, I had to keep up with all the internet chatter and boardgame design/theory stuff.

One thing I noticed almost immediately was a big philosophical split when it came to judging how well a game worked. (I'm generalizing here, but just barely).

On one side were the people who primarily played "German Games" (like Settlers of Catan). Their position was that if you play the game by the rules and the experience is generally fun-good-interesting, then the game is probably good. If fun-good-interesting stuff isn't happening, then the game is most likely bad, and you might as well just not play it.

On the other side were the people who primarily played "American Hobby Games" (like Axis & Allies, Age of Mythology, the Steve Jackson card games). Their position was that the players of a game should take it on themselves to try to turn any game into a fun-good-interesting experience, even if this meant adding tons of house rules or only playing the game in a very specific way (for example, "voluntarily" avoiding kinds of tactics that were known to break the game's victory conditions).

A lot of debates went like this:

Eurogamer: Game X is bad because the starting positions aren't balanced, the randomness destroys any sense of overall strategy, the middle part of the game drags on forever (even after you know exactly who is going to win), and the victory conditions are broken.

American Hobby Gamer: No, Game X is great. You're just playing it wrong.

EGer: But I'm playing it by the rules!

AHGer: Well, to play it right, you have to add these house rules my group came up with: we change the starting positions, substitute a deck of cards for the dice, and we don't let anyone win through points alone. Plus, we joke a lot at the table and do funny voices.

EGer: Ummm, okay. Well, wouldn't it make more sense to play one of the many games where the designer has, you know, actually solved all those problems before they published the game?

At this point the AHGer usually gets pretty defensive and starts attacking the EGer for being a game snob.

At least since Settlers of Catan, there's a tradition of strong, coherent Eurogames that are 100% playable out of the box, so Eurogamers see no need to expect anything less than a fully functional game.

American Hobby Gamers, however, grew up playing games like Axis & Allies, which almost requires house rules, so they have been conditioned not to expect anything more than a cool idea and a bunch of cool pieces. Whether or not the game works out-of-the-box isn't as important as whether or not they can cobble together something fun for their group from what's inside.

The thing is, these jury-rigged games are never as satisfying as actual, fully formed games--even if there is some sentimental attachment to their DIY-ness. Or rather, the only two reasons to choose to play a cobbled together, house rule-filled game rather than one of the many games that works really well without the players having to put in a few dozen hours of extra design work are (a) habit--this is what we've always done--and/or (b) enjoyment of the DIY process itself.

I have no real beef with folks to jury-riggers-out-of-habit, although I do think it's sort of strange that a lot of them seem to feel that this should be the normal way to approach games. That is, I think it should be normal to expect that if you're paying for a game it should work the way it is supposed to, and if it doesn't then the fault lies with the game itself (or its designer and/or publisher) and not with the players because they didn't put the time and effort into figuring out ways to fix it.

As for the DIYers, if you like Game X but want it to have Effect Y, why spend your time trying to change it when you could just make a game that aims at Effect Y? And again, I've found a lot of DIYers who feel that the DIY process is central to the gaming hobby. But it isn't, and this is, I think, a bad way to think about games. For example, we don't think this way about computer games: if I go on a computer game website and complain about a computer game being bad I might find people who disagree with me, but they are not likely to tell me that I should become a programmer and fix the things I don't like about it until it fits my preferences. They're much more likely to suggest a game that does fit what I'm looking for.

Which gets me back to Deep in the Game, which argues that, as gamers, we shouldn't settle for less than what we're looking for.

Friday, July 29, 2005


Michael Blowhard points out that Duma--Carroll Ballard's new film--is getting a very limited theatrical release.

I saw Duma at the Tribeca film festival, and I thought it was pretty great--not quite as good as The Black Stallion, but close. It's a beautiful, old-fashioned kid-with-an-animal movie--the animal, in this case, being a cheetah. The "performances" from the cheetahs are amazing in their own right: they're a lot more expressive--not to mention funnier--than most non-dog animal acting. And it's refreshing to see an animal movie that has almost zero CGI.

However, I understand why Warner Bros. may not have wanted to give the movie a big release: the children in the audience had absolutely no capacity to watch it--they were bored and were talking up a storm within minutes. I think kids today are too used to movies like Finding Nemo which are bright and flashy and have something new to look at every single second. Compared to Finding Nemo and other animated kids' features, Duma is paced like a Wener Herzog movie.

A related, although slightly off-topic issue: when did parents stop teaching their kids how to behave at the movies? My parents started bringing me to the movies regularly when I was around 4 (when I saw E.T.). But they let me know that if I wanted to stay and watch the movie, I had to keep quiet. If I didn't, well, that meant no more movies for a long time. But the kids at the "Duma" screening just kept talking and talking, and the parents didn't even try to shush them. I can understand that kids who are used to watching DVDs at home might have trouble adjusting to watching movies in public, but I have a hard time believing that their parents don't know the difference.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

5 x 5 Favorites: "War Nerd" Edition

My 5 Favorite WWI Movies

1. Grand Illusion
2. The Big Parade
3. Gallipoli
4. The Lost Patrol
5. A Very Long Engagement

My 5 Favorite WWII Movies

1. The Night of the Shooting Stars
2. Fires on the Plain
3. Story of G.I. Joe
4. Hail the Conquering Hero
5. Saving Private Ryan

My 5 Favorite Vietnam Movies

1. Casualties of War
2. A Bullet in the Head
3. Hamburger Hill
4. We Were Soldiers
5. Platoon

My 5 Favorite "Other" 20th Century War Movies

1. Men in War
2. Three Kings
4. Black Hawk Down
5. Salvador

My 5 Favorite Non-20th Century War Movies

1. Ran
2. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
3. Master and Commander
4. Zulu
5. Glory

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

More on the Movies

Edward Jay Epstein's "Hollywood Economist" feature has become one of my favorite reads on Slate. Unlike a lot of other Hollywood-centric think pieces, Epstein's columns are well-researched and convincingly argued. And I'm not just saying that because his latest column backs up some of my recent musings about the movies.

In the David Thomson interview I linked to in my last post, Thomson suggests that the so-called "decline of Hollywood" could be a boon for independent and foreign movies:

I think [the decline] has certainly helped independent film. And I hope that sooner or later it will produce a revival of interest in foreign language films. Because there was a time in this country when there was a much bigger and more enthusiastic audience for subtitled films. So yeah--there are certainly compensating factors.

But here's Epstein on what the numbers really say about "the decline":

Consider how earlier this year entertainment journalists rattled on for months about a slump in the American box office—"Box Office Slump In Its 19th Week"—as if it were a sporting event in which the Hollywood studios couldn't get winning hits. The story would have been different if they had seen the data on Page 16 in the 2005 Three Month Revenue Report... Instead of a box-office decline, the studios actually took in more from the U.S. box office in the first quarter of 2005 ($870.2 million) than they did in the similar period of 2004 ($797.1 million). So even though the total audience at movie theaters declined during this period, this came mainly at the expense of independent, foreign, and documentary movies. For the Hollywood studios (and their subsidaries), in fact, there was no slump at all.

Again, this suggests that the idea that audiences are staying away from Hollywood movies because these movies are worse than ever is wrong. The movies from Hollywood may indeed be bad, but that hasn't stopped them from finding an audience.

Interestingly enough, Glenn Reynolds links to this same Epstein piece with the comment: "EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN says it's a Hollywood death spiral. Maybe if their movies were good..." I wonder if the InstaPundit took the time to actually read what Epstein wrote? The "Death Spiral" Epstein is writing about has to do with how the stay-at-home DVD-audience now vastly outnumbers the theater-going audience. As the home audience becomes the major source of income for the studios, there's increasing pressure to release the DVD closer and closer to a movie's theatrical debut. This makes it harder for theater owners to compete against the DVD-market.

My hunch is that this trend has less to do with the quality of the movies being made today and more to do with the fact that movies no longer have a special, privileged place in our pop-media-saturated culture.

Finally, commenting on my previous post, Steve Sailer writes:

Having been a film reviewer since 2001, my impression is that 2001 was pretty bad until the late fall, 2002 was a strong year overall, both in quality and box office. And then there's been a slow fall off in quality since 2002, and that decline in quality is starting to show up at the box office this year, as the public realizes that movies aren't as good as they used to be.

I find the idea of a slow decline in quality since 2002 to be a lot more believable than the doom-and-gloom notion that the movies have been going straight downhill since Jaws. Even so, Epstein's numbers suggest that people are still showing up for Hollywood movies and they're also watching these Hollywood movies on DVD.

My own take was that there have been very few great movies over the last couple of years, but a whole bunch of pretty good ones. Perhaps more importantly, there were "pretty good" movies in a variety of genres. We had pretty good smart, grown-up comedies, like Sideways and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, pretty good dumb adolescent comedies like Anchorman and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, pretty good important Oscar-worthy biopics like Ray and The Aviator, pretty good serious issue movies like Hotel Rwanda, pretty good action/adventure movies like Spider-Man 2, pretty good horror movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake, etc.

For what it's worth, I think the 1990s were a better decade for movies than the 1980s and that the 2000s are shaping up to be more like the 90s than the 80s.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Movies Have Always Been Bad

I liked a lot of stuff in Rob Nelson's interview with uber-film guy David Thomson in City Pages (link via Arts & Letters Daily), especially Thomson's positive take on the old-fashioned studio system and how that relates to what TV networks (like HBO) are doing now.

I could have done without some parts, like the section near the end where Nelson trots out his favorite directors for Thomson's benediction. This kind of thing seems almost obligatory in any interview with a "famous" film critic, but it always strikes me as being pretty fanzine-ish.

However, what I want to bring up here is the certainty that both Thomson and Nelson have that the movies, specifically Hollywood movies, are simply getting worse.

There's been a lot of commentary about the declining movie audience and box office this summer and much of it has taken up the line that the audience is shrinking because this year's crop of summer movies are appreciably worse than last year's.

What I find really funny is that in the 1980s and 1990s film critics used to complain that only the big, bad, stupid movies became hits, while the challenging, good, smart movies had no luck. It was accepted by both film critics and film industry types that the best way to ensure a hit was to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Now, I'm not suggesting that there haven't been big changes in the way movies have been made over the last 25 years. I'm also pretty sure that because of all the competition movies face from video games, the internet, and all the other usual suspects, Hollywood's teenager-centric marketing strategy has reached the point of diminishing returns.

But I don't think that the movies have really gotten much worse.

When people look back at past decades, they tend to remember all the good movies, while conveniently forgetting all the crappy ones. Meanwhile, we can't escape the massive hype for all of today's crappy movies, which often makes it harder to find the good ones.

Here are some of the big hits of the 1980s: Any Which Way You Can, Smokey and the Bandit II, Little Darlings, Sharky's Machine, 2010, Rocky IV, Top Gun, The Golden Child, Three Men and a Baby, Dragnet, The Living Daylights, Cocktail, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.

What's immediately striking is that most of these stinkers are targeted at adults, while today's crappy movies are aimed at teens. Now, I can understand that film critics might prefer bad movies for grown-ups over bad movies for kids, but you just can't get around the fact that we've always been surrounded by bad movies.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

5x5 Favorites: Random Movie Edition

My 5 Favorite John Carpenter Movies

1. Assault on Precinct 13
2. Escape from New York
3. The Fog
4. Big Trouble in Little China
5. The Thing

My 5 Favorite Adam Sandler Movies

1. Punch-Drunk Love
2. The Wedding Singer
3. Happy Gilmore
4. 50 First Dates
5. Billy Madison

My 5 Favorite Joel Schumacher Movies

1. Falling Down
2. D.C. Cab
3. Phone Booth
4. The Client
5. Tigerland

My 5 Favorite W.C. Fields Movies (Feature Length Only)

1. The Big Broadcast of 1938
2. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
3. International House
4. The Bank Dick
5. It's a Gift

My 5 Favorite Sam Peckinpah Movies (Non-Western/Non-Rodeo Only)

1. The Osterman Weekend
2. Convoy
3. The Getaway
4. The Killer Elite
5. Straw Dogs

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Formula: Wedding Crashers and the Ralph Bellamy Character

A lot of the time, I'm perfectly willing to enjoy formulaic Hollywood movies, but while watching Wedding Crashers I may have reached my tipping point, because I found its paint-by-numbers romantic comedy formula depressingly lame.

To give the movie its due, I laughed a lot, mainly at Vince Vaughn, who has become one of my favorite comic actors. He's perfected his semi-sleazy insincere fast-talker shtick. And, as far as shtick goes, I find this a lot funnier than that of most of his contemporaries. He doesn't have much range--although he was an effective straight man in Dodgeball and he can at least do "laid back"--but comic actors like Vaughn don't really need all that much range. They're funny because they do the same thing, regardless of the situation.

But, aside from Vaughn's performance, nothing much in the movie was that enjoyable. As I watched it, I couldn't help thinking that even with all the time, effort, and thought that goes into making them, we're still left with movies that follow--almost exactly--the same formulas that filmmakers perfected over half a century ago.

Wedding Crashers is a screwball romantic comedy. Specifically, it's the kind of screwball romantic comedy where two characters fall in love, even though one character is lying to the other character throughout most of the movie. In real life, relationships founded on elaborate deceptions almost always end badly, but in the movies they often work out okay. The classic example is The Lady Eve.

Now, one of the reasons that this kind of plot works in The Lady Eve is that the movie is obviously taking place in a highly-stylized, semi-made-up world: the kind of place where beautiful street smart con-artists fall in love and live happily ever after with good-hearted but naive millionaires. And it helps that Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are both playing larger-than-life iconic types.

Wedding Crashers, on the other hand, has the standard sitcom-naturalistic style of most contemporary romantic comedies, and, while Owen Wilson is playing a kind of broad comic character, Rachel McAdams, as his love interest, is doing a serious, basically realistic, "cute nice girl" thing. This makes it a little harder to accept Wilson's character's outrageous behavior as just another convention of the genre. We're meant to find him charming and we're supposed to root for him to get together with McAdams's character, even though, by any objective standard, he's a near-sociopathic sexual predator.

Vaughn's character is also completely sleazy, but it's easier to root for him because Isla Fisher plays his love interest as a broad comic type: the deranged but innocent-seeming nymphomaniac. Even though the screenplay actually doesn't do a very good job of dramatizing it, it makes sense, in a screwball kind of way, that these characters would get together. It doesn't make sense that McAdams's sensible nice girl character would be willing to forgive someone who had behaved so abominably towards her. Trying to fit the movie's concept into the standard boy-gets-the-girl formula just doesn't work very well.

The movie's romantic comedy formula also turns sour in its handling of what I call "The Ralph Bellamy Character".

In movies from the early 1930s, like John Ford's Airmail, Ralph Bellamy played the kind of rough but suave leading man roles that were Harrison Ford's specialty in the 1980s. But Bellamy will go down in film history as the guy who kept losing his women to Cary Grant. Grant takes Irene Dunn away from him in The Awful Truth and steals Rosalind Russell from him in His Girl Friday.

"The Ralph Bellamy Character" (or RBC, for short) is the character in a romantic comedy who is the lead character's rival and who we know is not meant to end up with the girl (or guy, as the case may be). Sometimes there are even two RBCs, as in Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Now, in the past, the RBC may have been figures of fun, but they were hardly ever presented as bad people. The point isn't that Bruce Baldwin--Bellamy's character in His Girl Friday--is an awful person, but rather that he just isn't a very good match for Rosalind Russell's Hildy. George Kittredge--the RBC in The Philadelphia Story--is kind of a pompous ass, but he's not a terrible guy: his big flaw is that he doesn't really know how to appreciate Katherine Hepburn's real virtues.

Bradley Cooper plays the RBC in Wedding Crashers, which unfortunately follows the more recent trend of making the RBC an awful, hateful, mean-spirited person. I'm not sure exactly why or when this trend started, but my guess is that audiences today don't respond as well to the more subtle idea that the RBC shouldn't get the girl/guy because they just don't make a very good match. The audience needs to be hit over the head with the idea that the RBC shouldn't get the girl/guy because he/she is a completely horrible human being who doesn't deserve anything good at all.

When Cooper first shows up in Wedding Crashers, I thought he was going to play a WASP version of Ben Stiller's over-the-top neurotics, but the filmmakers don't waste much time before they reveal him as the now standard Evil RBC. They quickly make the points that (1) he's a womanizing creep, (2) he's a horrible snob, and (3) he doesn't really care about the woman he's supposed to be in love with. The writers and director couldn't have been less subtle if the had given him a Sidney Whiplash moustache to twirl as he plotted his next infidelity. Now, maybe it's just because I'm a fan of Cooper's work on television, but it was a real bummer for me to watch this appealing actor play a one-dimensional heel. (I also have to wonder if McAdams's character was really that desperate that her only choice was between two pretty despicable guys.)

Depicting the RBC as an unrepentant jerk has become one of my biggest pet peeves with contemporary romantic comedies. It's especially depressing because in the 1990s there were a few movies that bucked the trend. In My Best Friend's Wedding, for example, the RBC, played by Cameron Diaz, is more appealing than the heroine, played by Julia Roberts. Roberts tries to steal Dermot Mulroney away from Diaz, but she gives up in the end when she realizes that Diaz and Mulroney are truly meant for each other. Of course, ending a moving with the heroine not getting the guy was probably not very satisfying for audiences, but it was a nice change from the usual formula.

Depicting the RBC as a decent and even appealing person makes for a more interesting story, because when the hero/heroine makes the choice to leave the RBC we know that it was a tough choice. And the tough ones are always more dramatic than the no-brainers.

Monday, July 18, 2005


In one of his updates from the San Diego Comic Book Convention, Tom Spurgeon expresses concern over the philosophy behind the Eisner Awards:

As for the awards themselves, Michael Chabon said, "Have you seen the McSweeney's?" when his Escapist anthology won, which pretty much sums up my feelings on a lot of awards. It's not that what I feel is the best book as a critic never wins Eisners, but it's more like it seems that the Eisners are always given to whatever comic brings the most pleasure in any way as opposed to the one that reaches excellence, which is a perfectly fine standard to have as a reader and kind of a sad one to project as an industry.

The Eisners are kind of weird, because they try to encompass a wider-range of material than most pop culture awards. For example, the Best Single Issue category included nominations for both Ex Machina--a high-concept super-hero entertainment--and the latest issue of Eightball--an artsy-literary comic. This is a kind of mix you'd never get with, say, the Oscars, where the equivalent situation would be the latest Spider-Man movie vying with the latest Jim Jarmusch movie for the Best Picture award.

This would never occur at the Oscars, because Spider-Man movies and Jim Jarmusch movies don't even get nominated. A Spider-Man movie might win a kind of Viewer's Choice-MTV-style award and Jim Jarmusch might clean up at Cannes, but, as far as the award scene goes, these two kinds of movies will never compete head-to-head.

This year, Eightball beat Ex Machina, so art trumped entertainment or excellence prevailed over pleasure, in this category, even if the Escapist vs. McSweeney's contest went the other way. And really is this so bad, or, as Tom puts it, so sad? I don't think so, especially if we consider the alternatives.

Take the Academy Awards, for example. By and large, the films that are nominated for and win Oscars are those that the Hollywood establishment deems "worthy", with worthiness being decided by a mixture of the movie's social relevance, its box office success, and the behind-the-scenes Hollywood politicking of its producers--a movie's "excellence" often has very little to do with it. The Academy Awards often seem to value a kind of fake piety more than they do excellence, which is a lot sadder, not to mention less honest, than when the Eisner Awards put pleasure over excellence.

Of course, you could always argue that the Esiner Awards should be modeled less on other pop culture award programs and more on something literary and prestigious, like the Booker Prize. But the problem is that the comics industry is still primarily a pop culture industry, and it isn't likely to change anytime soon. A literary prize-type situation just doesn't seem all that appropriate for an awards show that takes place at the San Diego Comic Con.

And, even though Will Eisner had great literary ambitions for comics, he's the guy who made his name with The Spirit, which is still considered by a lot of high-brow, excellence-loving comic book aficionados (like the folks who put together the Top 100 Comics Journal issue) to be his best work.

Personally, I think the Eisners are fine as is. They are far from perfect, but compared to Oscars or--even worse--the Tonys, they don't look all that bad.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Horror": Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses

I just caught up with House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie's loving tribute to 1970s splatter flicks. There's lots of scenes of graphic violence: mutilations, scalpings, head-bashings, and limb-severings, not to mention some amateur surgery and twisted-Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type taxidermy. But the movie is never really all that scary. It has a lot of weird and creepy moments, but its non-stop tongue-in-cheek tone and borderline campiness undermine any sense of genuine dread. There's no suspense, no terror, no chills and thrills. Just a few shocks and lots and lots of gore.

Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy the movie. I liked the gore and I liked the movie's excessive use of it. Zombie has, I guess, a gift for lurid, disturbing, over-the-top images, and, in this very narrow sense, he's very inventive. He's a master of low-rent Redneck grand guignol. But I couldn't help feeling that the movie doesn't live up to either the 1970s horror flicks that inspired it or other excess-is-best horror movies.

In fact, I'm not sure that Zombie really "gets" a lot of what made the 1970s horror movies so terrifying. For example, there's actually very little gore in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre: most of the horror in the movie comes from a building sense of dread and hopelessness. When the violence does happen though, it packs a real punch. There's a scene in the Massacre that contains probably the most cringe-worthy moment I've ever seen in a horror movie (i.e, the part with the meat hook), but its impact is heightened precisely because it is one of the few overtly gory and violent images in the film.

But it's also possible to pack your film full of gore and still use it effectively. Peter Jackson's zombie flick Dead Aive is gorier than House of 1000 Corpses, but Jackson doesn't just shove it all in your face willy-nilly: he paces his gross-outs. Some scenes, like the eyeballs in the soup, are drawn out and our revulsion builds to where it becomes hard to even look at the screen. Other scenes, like the one with the lawnmower, are more in-your-face. Jackson uses his gore the way a silent-film comedian like Buster Keaton used his gags: with pacing, variation, and even a certain kind of restraint when necessary. Zombie, on the other hand, has only one method: the quick cut to a shocking, grisly tableaux.

Another weakness of House of 1000 Corpses: in the Massacre, Leatherface and his family are truly freaky--the actors play these parts straight, as if they were in a "serious" thriller like Deliverance or Psycho. But Zombie has directed all the actors in House to camp it up pretty broadly. The bad guys--a family of creepy rednecks who live in the eponymous house--don't come across as real outsiders--real escapees from a freakshow--but as actors doing over-the-top parody: they would have fit right in with Adam Sandler and Kathy Bates's Cajuns in The Waterboy; Karen Black--who plays the mother--could have stepped out of one of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries.

Now, this is all obviously intentional. Zombie wants his movie to be campy and tongue-in-cheek. The problem is, though, that this ends up putting quotation marks around all the horror. It's hard to get scared at a Mad Magazine-style parody of a horror movie, even if all the gore is left in. But if we're not really meant to be scared by it, what then?

Well, maybe we're meant to sit back and just appreciate the gore and applaud Zombie for not toning it down to suit the multiplex crowd. And maybe we're meant to act like intellectuals and "read" the movie as a satire about class, pitting bourgeois culture against redneck culture, or something else along those lines. In any case, I keep coming back to the same problem: House of 1000 Corpses just isn't really all that satisfying as a horror movie.

I couldn't help thinking that Zombie had tried to make an American version of one of Takashi Miike's subversive-transgressive movies. He failed, I think, because he really only has one way of subverting and trangressing, whereas Miike has a whole bag of tricks to work with. Miike can do the in-your-face disturbing imagery stuff and the campy over-the-top stuff, but he can also play it straight. He knows when a little bit of restraint now will make things seem so much worse later. When it suits him, Miike can at least pretend he's making a normal movie. And that's an effective technique for a horror director to master.

Is Mexico part of NASCAR Nation? How about Manhattan?

The Diecast Dude had an interesting post about how during his vacation he couldn't find any evidence that anyone in Mexico is interested in NASCAR, despite the Busch Series race that was run there earlier in the year and despite NASCAR's desire to expand their fanbase outside the borders of the U.S. This got me thinking about something a little closer to home: the problems that NASCAR is facing trying to build a new track in Staten Island. Staten Island Live has a page full of pretty good coverage, here (thanks to Full Throttle for the link).

Now, Manhattan is definitely a NASCAR-free zone. But there's a few of us NASCAR fans in the outer-boroughs and more than a few as you leave the city in just about any direction, in Long Island (where there's still a NASCAR Modified race), upstate New York, Connecticut, and, especially, New Jersey.

Part of me thinks it would make more sense to try to build a NASCAR track in New Jersey rather than to plunk one down on a heavily populated island just off the Jersey coast. A NASCAR track down by the Jersey shore would be pretty cool. For one thing, it would probably be closer to more actual NASCAR fans. For another, if the races ran off-season, either in the very early spring or in fall, you'd be able to make use of the already existing tourism infrastructure. And traffic probably wouldn't be all that much worse than it is during a normal summer weekend.

But NASCAR is not interested in a track in New Jersey. For one thing, a track in New York City--even one in the least New York City-ish of all the boroughs--is simply a much bigger deal than a track in New Jersey. A NYC track would be prestigious--it would be sexy. It would also be in the media capital of the country, which would translate into publicity the likes of which no NASCAR track opening has ever seen. For another, NASCAR wants its fanbase to keep growing and growing, which means they have to build tracks in places that aren't already full of fans.

(I'm not sure that this is a great plan: at some point, the fanbase growth is going to level off. NASCAR could even--theoretically--start to lose fans as the novelty wears off or people discover the IRL or whatever.)

In general, I'm not opposed to this kind of expansion. I'm definitely in favor of the New York City track, if only for the selfish reason that I'll most likely still be living in NYC by the time it opens in 2010 and it would be nice to be able to take the subway to the races.

However, the problem with all this expansion is:

(1) There's already a lot of good tracks.

(2) There's already too many races.

And (3) there might not be enough good drivers.

These things are related, in the sense that Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin might be less willing to retire if the schedule were a little less grueling.

NASCAR has never in its history been completely static: it's always been changing to keep up with the times. But the last decade has seen lots of changes without much in the way of downtime and periods of relative stability. NASCAR seems to think it can keep expanding forever, but that's just not how the real world works. Eventually, the NASCAR bubble will burst. It might be a good time to reign in on some of this expansion, at least for long enough to get a realistic picture of where it's heading.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Lynn at Reflections in d minor complains about the word "overrated":

I've seen a couple of overrated songs lists recently. I'm not going to link to them because I really hate that word, "overrated." Look, you've got every right to hate songs that a lot of other people love and to express your dislike publicly, but when you say something is "overrated" you are making a judgement about its quality and insulting everyone who likes it. You're just being an arrogant jerk. Just because you don't like poetic lyrics and your attention span is only three minutes long doesn't mean that Hotel California, Stairway to Heaven and American Pie are not good songs. If you don't like them, fine, but that's just you.

I think "overrated" can be a useful term, especially when dealing with hype-heavy pop culture. However, I think it is often misused to mean simply "bad" or "worthless" instead of "worth somewhat less than the hype would have you believe". I also think there's a tendency among pop-cult critics to overpraise stuff: talking about the pretty good as if it were the really great. This might partly have to do with diminished expectations and relief at finding something even halfway good among all the crap out there. (I'm very susceptible to this myself.)

It might also have to do with the widespread idea that the only legitimate art-type experience is the trancendent variety. This leads to a weird situation where critics praise a movie-book-record-comic as either a Transcendent Art Work of Importance and Gravity or an Escapist Peice of Entertaining Trash, with no sense that there's lots of room in between those two extremes. (Michael Blowhard writes about this phenomenon a lot--check out the comments on this post).

An example: I like Sgt. Pepper's a lot, but I do think it's an overrated album, mainly because so many people consider it the Best Album Ever and talk about how it makes many Profound and Important Statements. Personally, I think it's a lot more enjoyable if you listen to it as an album made by some very smart pop-rock musicians who were trying to push the limits of what they could get away with in the studio. It's bright, shiny, impressive, and, thanfully, often silly.

An aside: I actually think "Hotel California" is underrated, at least by most rock music critics, who seem to have it in for the Eagles.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sean Collins on War of the Worlds

Sean Collins has just posted an interesting and perceptive defense of War of the Worlds. He gets at the way the Tim Robbins/basement sequence works just about perfectly. I also thought it alternated between brilliant moments and, well, uninspired moments. The off-screen killing, I thought, was an especially amazing idea: in retrospect, it is the only possible way to film the confrontation without giving the audience the standard visceral rush that comes from watching any actual hand-to-hand combat.

But I think the post does Spielberg an injustice when Sean suggests that Spielberg means the ending of War of the Worlds to be anything but a genuine "at least it all worked out for us"-style happy ending. Spielberg really means it, as much as he means the tacked-on-feeling dopey-creepy-Freudian ending of A.I. The thing about the War ending (noted by The Derelict in the comments section of my first post on the movie) is that it takes a complicated moment--Cruise is happy to have survived, happy to see his ex-wife, but guilty/grieving for having failed to protect his son--and turns it into a simple moment: "Oh wait, and his son is okay too, so that horrible choice he made back on the hill really didn't matter."

It's a cheat, and I think it's a mistake because (a) most of the audience I saw the movie with either laughed or made some kind of "Oh, come on!" comment and (b) even the people I know who liked the movie thought that it undermined all the serious stuff that had already happened. (A friend asked, "How'd he get to Boston? On the Chinatown bus?")

Also, I don't think Spielberg panders to "Hollywood values": I think he uses standard Hollywood endings in order to pander to his audience, and I think he does this because he's actually said he does this. He's talked frankly about how he will put scenes in his movies in order to give the audience "what they need". I don't think this is a horrible thing to do--it's better than being a kind of misanthrope like Lars von Trier and putting unpleasant scenes in a movie because he thinks that's "what the audience needs to see"--but I do think that it sometimes undermines a lot of what he's already done. Fair or not, the ending is what most people take out of the movie with them and a bad, hokey ending is a lot less forgiveable than a bad, hokey beginning.

For example, I like Saving Private Ryan a lot (much better than Thin Red Line), but I walked out of the theater thinking, "Well, it's a good thing those guys saved Private Ryan, because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to spawn such a photgenic, blond family." To be fair, part of the point of the ending seems to be that because Tom Hanks and crew sacrificed their lives for Private Ryan, he decided he had to live an exemplary life in order to be worthy of their sacrifice, but I still couldn't help thinking, "Well, what if Ryan had gone back to the States and lived a really horrible life? Would that have made him not worth saving?" Again, these kind of questions might be a little bit unfair, but it's only because of Spielberg's tacked-on-feeling ending that they even come up. The movie raises complex issues but the ending's resolution of them is simplistic and unsatisfactory. Do I think this is a fatal flaw? No, but, for Spielberg, it is a recurring flaw that annoys me more and more over time, because it suggests to me that he doesn't trust that his audience could accept a complex, ambiguous ending. And he might just be 100% right, but it would be nice to see him risk it at least once. After all, it's not like he's in any danger of not being able to get a movie made.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Weekend Racing


I'm glad to see Juan Pablo Montoya finally win another race.

When Montoya first got to F1, it looked like it could be the beginning of a classic, archetypal rivalry: Montoya, the fiery, daredevil Colombian vs. Michael Schumacher, the cool, calculating German. But, even though the two had some exciting tussles, Schumacher was, for all intents and purposes, untouchable.

Before Sunday's Silverstone race, a commenter on Fast Machines wrote:

Montoya is another matter; he has the skill but lacks something I can’t put my finger on, that has kept him from achieving near the potential he is capable of. His attitude in general has sucked since his days in Indy cars, so maybe the team and engineers simple don’t support him as a top driver based off his poor attitude.

Maybe Montoya suffered from what I think of as the Robby Gordon Syndrome. Before trying to break into NASCAR, Gordon was used to winning races and, in general, being the top dog. Once he got to NASCAR, it seemed like he just couldn't adjust to being just another bozo on the track. He seemed to drive as if everyone should just pull over for him, because, hey, he's Robby Gordon. He had a hard time getting the message that the NASCAR guys wouldn't have cut him any slack even if he was Jeff Gordon.

Now, if Robby wasn't actually a great driver and hadn't proven he can win in NASCAR, it'd be easy to write him off as a hot-head who was out of his league. But he is a great driver and he can win in NASCAR, so, looking back, I think it's kind of a shame that he really blew his chance at Childress Racing because of his on-and-off-track attitude problem.

Other F1-related stuff: I enjoyed this interview with Bernie Ecclestone posted on Full Throttle. Also from that site, some more Bernie-related F1 speculation.

Champ Cars

I basically gave up watching CART/Champ Car racing after Helio, Dario, Gil, Michael, et al defected to the IRL. I just lost interested in watching a racing series where the major question was: Will anybody be able to challenge Paul Tracy this weekend? I have nothing against Paul Tracy, but, come on... If he's your marquee star, you're in some trouble.

On a whim, though, I watched yesterday's Champ Car race from Toronto, and was lucky enough to catch one of the best races--in any series--I've seen all year (here's the Fast Machines coverage). Lots of ups-and-downs, exciting passes, boneheaded moves, and lucky breaks. I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about the Power-to-Pass thing--it seemed like a video game-like gimmick--but, after seeing it in action, my considered verdict is that it's wicked awesome.

The race wasn't quite enough to bring me back into the Champ Car fold, but it was enough to convince me to check out next week's race in Edmonton.


I'm not exactly a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, but, as I've said before, it would be pretty exciting if he could claw his way into the Chase for the Cup and even more exciting if he did it by winning a bunch of races.

I am a Jimmie Johnson fan, and those crazy, three-wide passes he made on the final restarts are why.

Friday, July 8, 2005

The 25 Comics I Like Best

#19 Eightball

by Dan Clowes

When I'm in the mood to play "Devil's Advocate", I like to use Eightball as Exhibit A in the case against the Comics Are Art movement.

Don't get me wrong: I think Ghost World and David Boring and Ice Haven, which all first appeared in the pages of Eightball, are as serious, thoughtful, and analysis-worthy as any of the critically acclaimed lit-fic novels that have been published since Eightball began in 1989.

But Eightball isn't just the place where Dan Clowes published these important "comic strip novels": it's also the place where Clowes published his not-quite-so-important gag strips, like "A Message to the People of the Future" and "I Hate You Deeply". If Dan Clowes had simply been interested in making "art comics", I'm not sure that we would have been treated to his thoughts about sports or Christians. And it's these strips that earned Clowes a place in the satirical tradition of Harvey Kurtzman and Robert Crumb. By not trying to make every issue of Eightball a work of art, he was free to be as disreputable as he wanted.

I'd also argue that Clowes's "serious" lit-fic-like comic strip novels owe part of their sensibility and effectiveness to having come out of this satirical/underground gag tradition. The earlier, "funnier" Eightball provided a necessary foundation for the later, more "serious" Eightball.

Some autobiography:

I first discovered Eightball when I was 13. My family had just moved to Montreal after living (for most of my life) in a very small border town in upstate New York. I had always gotten most of my comics through the mail. The closest comic book store was an hour away, and it was always a special occasion whenever I got a chance to go to it. (I also used to look forward to our summer vacations at the New Jersey shore, because I knew I could talk my parents into stopping at a comic store on the way home from the beach). The most "sophisticated" comics that I read--or was even really aware of--were Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I had tried out some black & white independent comics, but hadn't been very impressed.

When I got to Montreal, things changed. All of a sudden I lived in walking distance of a major, urban downtown area. It wasn't long before I discovered Nebula, a sci-fi bookstore that had a low quantity, high quality comic book section. They didn't stock any comics by Marvel or DC, but they must have had just about everything from Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink.

I really had no idea what most of these comics were, but something about Eightball grabbed me. Thinking back on it, I'm not sure what exactly made me go for Eightball before, say, Cerebus--which was probably more in line with the type of genre stuff I was used to--or Hate--which actually turned out to be more in line with my sense of humour. My guess would be that Dan Clowes's confident, polished retro cartooning looked a lot more stylish--slicker even--than anything else on the Nebula racks.

I've read a lot about the mind-opening experience kids had when they first read the Harvey Kurtzman issues of Mad: all I can say is that, at 13, Eightball was my Mad. It was one of the first examples of "transgressive" art that I ever came into contact with: I found it offensive, entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, and, often, confusing.

Nowadays, though I've grown away from Eightball's somewhat alienated sensibility, I still look forward to each new issue, primarily because Clowes is such an inventive, constantly advancing cartoonist. (Ice Haven is one of the most technically brilliant and innovative comics I've ever read.) He's also able to populate his books with varied and interesting characters, which is, unfortunately, becoming a lost art in the art comics scene.

Ealier entries in this series:

#25 on
RAW. I started this out with the intention of doing one entry a week... Oh well... This one is short and sweet. I'd only add that RAW has really spoiled me when it comes to art comics anthologies.

#24 on
Hate!, which features one of my earliest attempts to write about the backlash phenomenon. Also, I seem to have been reading too much Donald Phelps at the time.

#23 on
Dick Tracy. Still too much Phelps and too much Manny Farber, but this one reads pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.

#22 on Ditko and Lee's Dr. Strange stories. This is the first entry where my own "voice" really comes through. I also bring up a lot of issues that I continue to deal with on the blog.

#21 on
Calvin & Hobbes. This piece might be the most interesting for casual comics fans, since most people are pretty familiar with this strip.

#20 on
The Dark Knight Returns. Sums up a lot of my feelings on "revisionist" super-hero books.

Thursday, July 7, 2005


The Diecast Dude has a thoughtful and moving post up to mark the fifth anniversary of Kenny Irwin Jr.'s death. Anyone interested in racing should definitely read it.

More on NASCAR Stars

Last week, I raised and tried to answer the question, "Why hasn't NASCAR had more success in turning its 'Young Guns'--like Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson--into big stars?" My supremely media-savvy buddy Nick Braccia read my post and came up with a much sharper answer than I could.

Nick suggested that in any given storyline, there's only room for one each of the archetypal characters--one "Good Guy", one "Rebel", etc. Now, there's also only a limited number of stars NASCAR can have at any given time. Putting this all together, we have a situation where the kind of people who are likely to be Kurt Busch fans are already Rusty Wallace fans and the kind of people who are likely to be Jimmie Johnson fans are already Jeff Gordon fans.

The next question, then, is: Which of the "Young Guns" will gain the most fans after big stars like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin retire?

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Roush-Hendrick Dominance

I'm getting a little tired of all the whining about the current Roush-Hendrick dominance of NASCAR. Some fans seem to be worried that NASCAR will turn into an F-1 type situation, where Ferrari has dominated for the past few years. Of course, that overlooks the fact that it took a while for Ferrari to build its teams up to the point where they were winning consistently AND it also overlooks the fact that Ferrari isn't winning this year.

In racing, dominance comes and goes.

Here are some fun facts that all the folks complaining about Roush and Hendrick's success should think about:

-In 1975, one driver--Richard Petty--won over 1/3 of the races.

-In 1976, two drivers--David Pearson and Cale Yarborough--won just about 2/3 of the races.

-In 1978, three drivers--Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison--won over 2/3 of the races.

-From 1976 to 1978 only one driver--Cale Yarborough--won the Cup Championship.

-In 1981, two drivers--Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison--won over 1/2 of the races.

-In 1982, two drivers--Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison--won 2/3 of the races.

-In 1985, two drivers--Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip--won 1/2 of the races.

-In 1987, two drivers--Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott--won over 1/2 of the races.

-In 1993, three drivers--Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, and Mark Martin--combined to win over 2/3 of the races. And one of those drivers--Rusty Wallace--won 1/3 of them all by himself.

-In 1996, two drivers--Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace--combined to win just under 1/2 of the races. Hendrick drivers--Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte--won over 1/3 of the races.

-In 1997, two drivers--Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett--combined to win over 1/2 of the races.

-In 1998, two drivers--Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin--combined to win almost 2/3 of the races. The Roush and Hendrick teams combined to win over 2/3 of the races.

-In 1999, three teams--Hendrick, Roush, and Gibbs--combined to win over 2/3 of the races.

What to make of all this?

Well, there have been dominant drivers and teams in the past, but those periods of dominance--Waltrip and Allison from 1978 to 1982, for example--are surrounded by periods of greater competition--the 1988 to 1992 seasons, for example. Chances are other teams will rise to challenge and in a few years people will be complaining about Roush-Childress dominance or Hendrick-Gibbs dominance. These things happen in cycles.

I also think the griping about Roush-Hendrick is really just covering some people's disappointment about the poor performance of the drivers that they are fans of. I mean, it's easy to look back at the early 1980s and talk nostalgiacally about the amazing rivalry between Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison, but it seems to be a little harder for some people to get enthusiastic about the exciting rivalry that's shaping up between Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson.

If anything, the multi-car teams of Roush and Hendrick make it less likely that a single driver will become as dominant as Darrell Waltrip was in the 1980s or Jeff Gordon was in 1990s. Roush is likely to have three championships in three years with three different drivers. On a driver vs. driver basis, things are just about as competitive as they've ever been.

My question for the teams gunning for Hendrick and Roush:

A while back, the media made a big deal out of how DEI's restrictor-plate dominance was partly due to the special arrangement between DEI, Childress, and Andy Petree Racing. If there was any truth to this, why don't some of the struggling, smaller teams enter into similar information-sharing arrangements? Wouldn't it make sense for Evernham's Dodges to get together with Ganassi's Dodges and figure out a way to make the Charger work a little better? These wouldn't have to be permanent situations, but it could help some teams get back on track.

Spielberg's New War

The new War of the Worlds shows Steven Spielberg at his best. It's the only one of the summer's blockbuster's so far that has teeth and guts: underlying its impressive fx-driven set-pieces is a genuine emotional core.

I thought that Spielberg's middle-class, crowd-pleasing sensibility was particularly unsuited for the "dark" sci-fi material of A.I. and Minority Report, but in War of the Worlds he successfully combines the apocalyptic, doom-laden tone of those films with the comic-horror approach of Jaws. As in Jaws, Spielberg has woven a hard-boiled sense of humor into what is otherwise a truly terrifying movie.

Another problem I've had with a lot of Spielberg's recent movies is that they have weird subplots or rather sub-themes about (absent) fathers and sons. Spielberg has a kind of obsessive fixation with bringing up father-son issues in all his movies, whether or not the movie really needs them. It makes sense to deal with bring this up in a movie like A.I., which riffs on the Pinocchio story, but the father-son stuff in Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, and The Terminal seems out-of-place and forced. Spielberg is a master of a wide range of filmmaking tricks and techniques, but it sometimes seems like the only way he knows how to add emotional and psychological complexity to his characters is to give them a father-son issue to deal with.

The father-son stuff is back War of the Worlds (although it has become father-son & daughter), but here it works perfectly, probably because it's now the focus of the movie and not just a sub-theme. I figure if you're going to deal with an issue, it's probably better to tackle it head on than to leave it sitting uncomfortably off to side.

Playing the father character, Tom Cruise is pretty darn good. I'm not sure why, but Cruise is a lot better when he's playing opposite children than he is playing opposite adults.

One problem with casting Cruise, though, is that it's almost impossible for the audience to react to him as an "everyguy". It doesn't ruin the movie by any means, but it sometimes gets in the way of what Spielberg is trying to do and ends up undermining some of the intensity and suspense.

A bunch of quibbles and spoilers follow...

I thought War was really good up until the third act, when things don't go wrong exactly, but they do stop working at the high level of the first 2/3rds of the movie. Spielberg tips his hand too early when he introduces the Tim Robbins character. And Robbins's over-the-top style is completely different from that of every other actor in the movie.

And Spielberg seems to have run out of ideas for big set-pieces at this point, so he starts ripping himself off: there's a sequence that's right out of Jurassic Park and other scenes and images that are taken from A.I. and Minority Report. All this stuff works okay--better, in fact, than it does in the earlier movies--but I wasn't exactly thrilled to see it again and I wish he had come up with something new.

As Steve Sailer pointed out, the ending, while faithful to H.G. Wells, is a little anti-climactic. But, more than that, it's kind of lackluster sci-fi. The aliens in the movie are selectively dumb--not as dumb as the aliens in Signs, but they're close. They can travel through space and build super-weapons and plan a huge world-destroying invasion, but they haven't figured out how to analyze water samples for harmful microbes. (I suppose this makes sense if you see the movie as an allegory that invading armies will be undermined by the pre-existing conditions in the places they invade, but, again, as sci-fi, it's pretty weak).

Finally, Spielberg can't resist having as unambiguously a happy ending as possible. Cruise's son, who we assume is dead, turns up alive and safe at the end of the movie. Spielberg's issue with endings deserves its own post. For now though, I'll just say that he really makes it hard to respect and remember all the genuine, wrenching emotional stuff that happens during his movies when he's so willing to provide cheap, not to mention unbelievable, Hollywood endings.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

3 Movies at the Asian Film Festival

The New York Asian Film Festival is probably my favorite film festival. The folks at Subway Cinema do a pretty good job at running a hassle-free festival, that is, it's hassle-free for the audience, at least. The movies on the program tend to include a nice mix of art house fare, fanboy-geeky stuff, and genuinely popular, crowd-pleasing flicks. The downside is that not all the movies are going to appeal to everyone and it helps to do a little research before buying your tickets. For example, this movie about the friendship between two teenage girls is a lot different from this movie about the friendship between two teenage girls.

I skipped all of last week's screenings, which were held down at the Anthology Film Archives on East 2nd Street, but so far this week I've seen three movies at the ImaginAsian theater on E 59th Street (which is a little easier for me to get to) and I'll probably see a few more before the festival ends.

As usual, I liked only one out of the three movies I saw, but .333 is a pretty good average for a film festival. What's not so usual is that the film I did like, I liked a hell of a lot: in fact, it's probably my second favorite movie of the year, after Carrol Ballard's Duma which I saw at the Tribeca film festival earlier in the year, and should really get around to blogging about. Other than Duma, it's the only movie that's on my tentative "year end favorite list" so far in 2005.

Anyway, here's the films I saw, starting with the ones I didn't like so much:

R-Point is a Korean horror/war picture. It's set during the Vietnam War and has a message about how it's a bad idea to go to war in foreign countries. (I didn't know that the South Koreans had troops fighting in Vietnam with the US until I read the movie's description on the Film Festival website). Actually, this is a pretty good concept, but the execution left me severely underwhelmed. I probably would have walked out, but I was sitting in the middle of a row, and I didn't want to disturb my neighbors. Instead, I spent the time brainstorming the NASCAR/IRL essay I posted this morning.

The movie's main problem is that it was never really scary. And because it basically flat out states its theme and premise, there's no excitement or discovery for the audience as we work out the symbolism. Almost any "straight" Vietnam movie has more genuine horror.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is very well made, but it really wasn't my cup of tea. It is one of those movies that tells a true story by dramatizing a journalist's efforts to tell the story. In this case, the movie follows a reporter from Beijing who has gone up into the Tibetan wilderness to report on a Tibetan militia group that has formed in order to stop poachers from driving the Tibetan antelope to extinction. Most of the militia members end up dying (of various causes) during their anti-poacher expedition.

I had a major problem with the movie:

The movie is really too intense to be boring--the scenes in the second half of the movie make up a fairly gripping catalog of the different ways you can die in the Tibetan highlands--but it is monotonous, in the strictest sense. Each scene is pitched at exactly the same level, each shot is composed in almost exactly the same way, the tone never really budges for an instant.

But because the filmmakers use a kind of distanced, objective style, most of the human dimensions of the story are incomprehensible. For example, we never find out why the reporter--the movie's central character--is drawn to tell this story. Nor do we find out what has motivated the militia members to take up arms against the poachers. In fact, the poachers--who are in it for the money--have the only understandable motivations of anyone in the movie, even though they're kind of the bad guys.

The filmmakers are also weirdly ambivalent about some of the actions the militia takes. For example, the militia members shoot one poacher outright and send another group on foot through the wilderness--presumably to their death. Also, the militia raises some of its money by selling the antelope pelts that they confiscated from the poachers. I think we're meant to see these scenes as examples of the lengths the militia will go to in order to stop the poachers, but it makes it seem like we're watching one group of criminals going after another. Actually, that might be a pretty good way to sum up a lot of "law enforcement" in the "developing" world.

This movie won China's version of the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I can kind of see why--it deals with a serious subject and is filmed in a serious style--but it never really starts to work on a human/moral level. I left the film wondering if it was really worth all those human lives in order to save the antelope, but the filmmakers never really address this issue, which seems to be staring them in the face.

Hana and Alice is not a great movie. But I think it's a very, very good one. As I already hinted, this is my second favorite movie of the year. It's one of the kinds of movie I like best but don't get enough of anymore: a meandering, episodic movie with a really soft touch. It's kind of like a light comic version of The Makioka Sisters.

Hana and Alice is about the ups and downs of a friendship between two high-school girls in present-day Japan. The two main characters don't really have any big, dramatic moments of self-discovery like the characters in Ghost World or Sideways and the movie never really adds up to being more than the sum of its parts--the scenes don't build on each other as much as they bounce off each other--but those parts are pretty damn good. Just about ever sequence in the movie is exquisitely made. More impressively, each sequence is slightly different in tone and mood (although the style generally stays the same) which keeps things pretty lively and almost makes up for the lack of a strong, dramatic throughline. Ideally the movie should have been about 15 minutes shorter: the lack of any build-up or pay-off wouldn't have mattered as much.

In my favorite scene in the movie, Alice spends the afternoon with an older man, who we quickly figure out must be her father--her parents are divorced and, up until this point, we've only seen her somewhat shallow mother. Her father keeps trying to say what he must think are the kinds of things fathers should say to their children, but he's too self-conscious--too unfamiliar with the role--to really bring it off. What makes the scene kind of magical is the way Alice seems to get this and she keeps trying to make it easier for her father, even though she doesn't really seem to know what to do either. It's a touching, sad scene whose tone reminded me of that of Edward Yang's Yi-Yi.

Hana and Alice is playing again at 6:00pm on Saturday, July 2 at the ImaginAsian theater. Check it out if you're in the New York area.

Star Problems: Danica Patrick and Dale Jr.

Some fans of open-wheel racing are getting annoyed at the amount of attention given to Indy Racing League rookie Danica Patrick for merely average achievements, like finishing in 10th place and a few laps down at Richmond last Saturday.

I sympathize with these fans, but I can understand why the IRL and its friends in the media are pushing Danica's story with such gusto.

The reality for the IRL is that, right now, the only driver anyone but the more hardcore fans care about is Danica. The folks who run the IRL probably feel they have a small window of opportunity to turn Danica into a big-time, pop icon-style sports star, and that if she becomes this kind of star, she’ll somehow pull the IRL up with her.

I don’t think its a very sound plan (for a number of reasons), but I can understand why the IRL thinks it might work. When it comes down to it, Danica is probably better raw material for the star-making process than anyone else in motorsports today: she's attractive, she's media savvy, and she beats (some of) the guys on the racetrack. And another thing the IRL loves about her is that she's American.

However, there are a couple of big problems here:

(1) I've written this before but I get a little queasy at the thought of Danica--playing the lovely, spunky young heroine-of -a-feel-good-sports-movie role--getting a concussion, chipping her spine, or worse. It's one thing for the Indy Racing League to use Danica's sex appeal to sell a product, but it's another when the product that they're trying to sell could maim her (considerably hurting said sex appeal).

And if Danica ever did crash and suffer a severe injury, not only would all the new fans she brought in disappear, but the IRL would suffer a major, and perhaps irreversible, PR catastrophe.

(2) I'm not sure that Danica's fans-of-the-moment will turn into regular IRL fans. Sure, some people will tune it to watch Danica but will end up falling in love with the borderline insanity of the best IRL races. But somehow, I doubt this will happen, especially when guys like Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves--two great drivers that no one in America actually cares about--keep winning races.

(I'll have to check on the exact numbers, but I'm pretty sure that not very many of the people who started watching golf because they were Tiger Woods fans ended up becoming long-term, dedicated PGA fans. And Woods is a genuine, winning sports superstar, whose greatness showed from the very beginning of his career. Danica Patrick, on the other hand, is, at best, a promising rookie.)

The people running the IRL are trying to make up for a decade's worth of bad PR decisions by turning Danica into a star, but this is really just a stop gap solution and doesn't really address the real problem: namely, the best American drivers continue to follow the money to NASCAR. Instead of putting all their effort into turning Danica into a big-time sports star, the IRL would probably be better off paying an obscene amount of money to lure guys like Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards away from NASCAR. (It would have to be an obscene amount, because IRL racing is so much more dangerous than NASCAR). Or they could start my paying a slightly less obscene amount to bring a bunch of decent, second tier NASCAR drivers (like Brendan Gaughan, say) over to the IRL. Finally, they could try to make sure no more of the best American open-wheel drivers end up in NASCAR.

But all that would take money that the IRL and its teams just don't have.

Of course, this year NASCAR is facing its own "star problem". Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular figure, will very likely not make it into the Chase for the Championship, a system that was set up, in part, to stop the most popular drivers from falling out of competition towards the end of the season, thus taking their fans with them. The idea being that all those Junior fans are less likely to tune into the final races of the season if Junior really has no chance of winning the title.

Already there are rumors that the folks at NASCAR are going to change the rules in order to get Junior into the Chase if he's unable to get in by performing well on the track.

All this worrying over Junior points to one of NASCAR's weaknesses: for all the talk of the "Young Guns", NASCAR has done a pretty poor job at turning any of the new crop of drivers into stars. Even though Kurt Busch won the Championship last year, I met a bunch of casual but longtime fans at this Spring's NASCAR race in Atlanta who didn't know his name.

Who are the genuine NASCAR stars? (I mean the guys that even casual fans know about).

-Older drivers who've built up a fan base over the years, like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Dale Jarrett. These guys have not only been around for a while, but they've often been with the same team for a while, which makes it much easier to follow their careers.

-Junior, who inherited many (if not most) of his fans from his father.

-Jeff Gordon, who earned his fans throughout the 1990s by winning lots of races, filling the role of the "Anti-Earnhardt", and by being one of the all-time great NASCAR drivers.

-Tony Stewart, who has filled the role of the "Anti-Gordon". (Stewart's main problem, though, is that I always get the sense he'd rather be open-wheel racing. He semmed more excited after winning Turkey Night in 2000 than he did after winning the Winston Cup in 2002).

But that's about it. Guys like Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman have really failed to make an impression. There are more casual fans who know who Jeremy Mayfield is because of a funny commercial that he appeared in than there are casual fans who know who Bush and Newman are.

The Fox and NBC broadcast teams have spent far too much time yammering on and on about all the great "Young Guns", but they haven't managed to turn these talented drivers into stars.

Now, NASCAR is facing a Chase for the Cup that will leave out its two most popular drivers. Right now, the biggest star eligible to compete for the Championship is Rusty Wallace, who's racing his final season.

Some of the reasons for this "star vacuum" are the same as those of the "talent vacuum" discussed in this article. (Hat tip: Full Throttle).

But paradoxically, the lack of stars might have to do with the sport becoming too competitive. Jimmie Johnson has come the closest of any driver in being consistently dominant over the last few years. Most other young drivers though have had good streaks or even good years, but have been unable to string together truly impressive seasons, back-to-back.

Another way to put it is that NASCAR, though media manipulation alone, cannot create new stars. This means they're probably going to do whatever they can to make sure the stars that they do have will make it into the Chase. (If they don't change the rules for this year, they will almost certainly do so for next year).

My advice for making new stars:

(1) Have drivers stay at one team, with one sponsor, in basically the same car for as long as possible.

(2) Make sure that when you give a young driver a ride you are making a long term commitment.

(3) Choose drivers who might actually be able to win a lot of races.

(4) If the drivers aren't Jeff Gordon (i.e., winning tons of races), allow them to express their personality and don't try to turn them into cookie-cutter corporate spokesmen.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The more things change: George Romero's Land of the Dead

I like George Romero's original Dead trilogy quite a bit. I have an especially fond place in the part of my heart reserved for post-apocalyptic zombie movies for Day of the Dead, the third film in the series, which is generally considered the least of them. It certainly has its problems: although it was made over fifteen years after the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, well into Romero's professional filmmaking career, much of it looks like the work of a bunch of amateurs:

Most of the actors give the kinds of performances you see in those cheesey 1980s sci-fi/fantasy movies ridiculed on MST3K, like Space Mutiny. After the opening sequence, the intensity level stays flat for most of the picture, which works against creating the kind of bunker-mentality-type atmosphere Romero seems to be going for. The middle section of the film stumbles from one badly-acted scene to another: it never really drags, but it never quite focuses either. Partly because of the bad acting and partly because of the lack of focus, the tone of the movie is way off: it seems hokier than it should, certainly hokier than the first two Dead movies.

But then there's that ending.

Day of the Dead's zombie apocalypse ending is lurid and gorey and over-the-top, but it has the same kind of transcendent effect on me that great religious art does. The kind of religious art that deals with hell and suffering and man's frailty, of course.

I was kind of hoping that we'd get more of this in Romero's latest zombie picture, Land of the Dead. I suppose I was looking for the zombie movie equivalent of Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain--something like Kinji Fukasaku's oddly spiritual sci-fi disaster movie Virus (also known as Day of Resurrection). Alas, instead of transcendent horror, Land of the Dead gives us ham-fisted social commentary.

Overall, I had a decent time at Land of the Dead. Mainly, I was glad to see a genuine B-Movie, with a B-Movie plot and B-Movie values, rather than what I normally see at the multiplex, which are B-Movies dressed up to look like A-Movies. I liked the way Romero substituted inventiveness for a budget while designing the movie. I liked the dead-pan, flat performances, especially Dennis Hopper's. And, most of all, I liked all the zombie effects and all the funny splatter-stick moments.

What I didn't like so much was the movie's conventional, boring, and safe Anti-Rich White Guy message. But it isn't just a case of having heard it all before, in the context of the movie, Romero's political and social points don't make any sense.

Some mild spoilers follow...

In the conventional zombie movie, the arrival of the zombies heralds the end of the pre-zombie social structure. In a zombie-filled world your status doesn't depend on what you did in the old world, but rather how well you can deal with the zombie threat. Usually this means that characters in a zombie movie have to throw away their prejudices and preconceptions if they want to survive.

Land of the Dead is about what happens next: it attempts to show what the communities built by the remaining living humans might look like. But what Romero comes up with isn't very interesting: his post-zombie society looks an awful lot like the paranoid fringe left-wing view of America. Dennis Hopper plays a rich white man who is in control of the entire city. He's responsible for all the crime and vice among the lower-class, and he has his enemies secretly assassinated.

Hopper rules the city from atop Fiddler's Green, a completely self-contained condominium/shopping mall complex that only the rich white people are allowed entrance into.

The rest of the population lives in a slum surrounding Fiddler's Green.

But the community in Land of the Dead isn't at all believable, at least by the conventions of the zombie movie genre and by the rules of basic economics.

Romero wants us to believe that a post-zombie world would still have a cash economy. While it might be possible to get one up and running, it would (a) probably take a long time and (b) probably be pretty small scale. But when John Leguizamo's character blackmails Dennis Hopper he asks for cash money, even though he intends to leave the city, never to return. Wouldn't it make more sense to ask for a bunch of useful stuff, like gasoline and bullets?

Likewise, people have to supposedly pay their way into Fiddler's Green, but how exactly would cash money be useful to Hopper? He's in charge of the only human settlement any knows for sure exists. Again, it would make more sense if he wanted useful stuff or useful specialized knowledge in return for residency.

But the people living in Fiddler's Green look like they don't do anything but have lunch. Romero's idea seems to be that they don't actually do any work and live off the lower-classes, but it's never made clear why this is a good idea on Hopper's part.

I could go on with the nitpicking, but the gist is that Romero engages in some pretty lazy-ass world-building. Instead of starting with the conventions of the genre and building a believable post-zombie community, Romero starts with the political points he wants to make and his top-down structure has no foundation.

When Romero's not trying to be political, his direction is spot-on. There a quite a few really nicely done set-pieces. Unfortunately, the incoherence the plot and theme end up undermining the movie and making it feel like a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Friday, June 24, 2005

More Movie Trailer Fun

During the trailer for Stealth, the new Rob Cohen opus, Sam Shepard says something like: "You wanted to be on the cutting edge? Well, this is the cutting edge." I couldn't help thinking: "Huh, the cutting edge is a cross between Short Circuit and Top Gun?"

Through the good old IMDB, though, I find that Stealth was penned by W.D. Richter, who wrote the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, the underrated, screwball comedy All Night Long, AND one of the all-time great tongue-in-cheek action pics, Big Trouble in Little China. He also directed one of my favorite "cult" movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

Somehow, though, I doubt that Richter's sense of humor will be all that noticeable in Stealth.

More NASCAR: On Sonoma

I'm not sure what's particularly "old school" about dissing road courses in NASCAR, unless it's that in the olden days the road races were pretty boring. But ever since Steve Park's upset victory at Watkins Glen in 2000, the road course races have been among the most exciting Cup events NASCAR has put on. In general, the NASCAR regulars have gotten a lot better at running these tracks, so there's at least some chance someone named Gordon won't win.

Why I like the road races:

(1) They don't last as long as the oval track races. This means that even a boring road race is, minute by minute, more exciting than a boring oval race.

(2) I like having a bunch of road course "experts" show up--and then get smacked down by Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

(3) There are a lot more opportunities for drivers--usually someone like Robby Gordon or Boris Said--to attempt truly insane moves. Generally, the highlight from a road race is something like an amazing three-at-a-time pass, whereas the highlight from an oval race is almost always a wreck.

Incidentally, I think they should add another road race to the NASCAR schedule, but not before they scrap this ridiculous "Chase for the Cup" format. And that might happen sooner than I thought it would...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sometimes a Little Autocracy is a Good Thing

The big news in motorsports from last weekend was the debacle at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Fourteen cars refused to race on Sunday, because their tires--provided by Michelin--were unreliable on the high speed section of the course. Of the six Bridgestone-shod cars that did race, only two--the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello--were serious, 1st-rate contenders.

There were a number of possible solutions to the tire problem brought up before and after the race:

(1) The FIA (F1 governing body) could have allowed Michelin to break the rules and fly in new and presumably more reliable tires for its teams. But the FIA didn't want to do this.

(2) After the FIA refused to allow the new tires, the Michelin teams asked the FIA to install a chicane on the track which would reduce speeds and, thus, reduce the likelihood of dangerous tire failures. The FIA balked at making a decision and turned it over to the teams. All of the teams agreed to the chicane except for Ferrari, who saw their momentary tire advantage as their best hope of winning this season. So no chicane.

(3) And though I didn't hear about this too much as the controversy (and race) was going on, another "solution" has been floating around: the Michelin teams should have raced, but just kept their speeds down. Personally, I think this is an unsatisfactory suggestion. Would it really have been that much better to have 14 cars on the track if they weren't able to run competitively? And if they all were still in danger of having a dangerous tire failure? I suppose it would have looked a little better and it wouldn't have been such a PR nightmare, but part of the fun of Formula 1 is watching the greatest cars in the world go really, really fast. It just doesn't seem to be as much fun if you know that the drivers aren't pushing their cars to the limit.

I've noticed that most of the press and internet commentary is focused on assigning blame. Tony George, who runs the Indianapolis Speedway, issued a press release minutes after the race ended which basically said, blame FIA and Michelin, not Indy. Some people have attacked Ferrari for not compromising about the chicane and a lot of people have suggested that Michelin is to blame because they brought bad equipment to begin with.

I have a hard time seeing how any of this is Ferrari's fault. True, they didn't compromise, but why should they? It makes sense to me that they would take advantage of any opportunity they can to get an edge on the competition. After all, they have yet to win a race this year, and they need all the help they can get.

I suppose you could make a case that Ferrari should have thought more about the long term health of Formula 1 racing and less about its own short term success, but I just don't think its Ferrari's job to worry about Formula 1 as a whole. That of course begs the question: "Whose job is it to worry about Formula 1 as a whole?" But before I answer that, let me deal with the Michelin bashers.

Michelin did drop the ball. The Michelin teams did not show up prepared to race competitively. However, once you make that point, there's nowhere left to go. The same thing could still happen again because Michelin (or Bridgestone) could be caught off guard again.

I think the real focus should be less on who's to blame in this particular instance and more on the underlying factors that let the debacle happen.

For me, it all has to do with the FIA and its relatively weak position within the sport it is supposed to govern.

Let's compare the FIA to NASCAR:

The NASCAR governing body has complete control over the sport. The various teams and manufacturers have some politically power, but, at the end of the day, NASCAR is going to do what it wants to do. For example, I'm not sure that big teams like Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports were all that excited about the change to a play-off-like, Chase for the Championship format, but NASCAR wanted the change, so it happened.

NASCAR's complete control over the sport has led to some boneheaded (and borderline unfair) decisions, but, all in all, it means that it has tight control over its product and can more easily ensure quality racing. Sometimes, NASCAR has changed the rules the morning before a race. This drives the teams crazy and probably means that some teams get shafted, but NASCAR doesn't care if it feels its decisions are in the sport's overall best interest. And because the buck stops with NASCAR, there's really can't no situation where NASCAR would blame the individual teams for the embarrassing outcome of any given race.

Now, it should be the FIA's job to make sure that it has a quality product. However, in Formula 1, the FIA has to play power politics whenever they want to get something done. And, in Formula 1, there are more power players: the teams, the manufacturers, even the tire suppliers are all able to push the FIA around.

It is embarrassing and pathetic that the FIA left the chicane question up to the teams. If this were NASCAR, the governing body would have made an executive decision that would have ensured the race went on with as full a field as possible. And if big, important teams like Hendrick Motorsports complained, NASCAR would basically tell them, "Tough titty."

Another (somewhat related) question raised by the tire debacle: "Is it really a good idea to have competing tire manufacturers?" NASCAR decided on having only one tire supplier for all its teams, because it didn't want tire manufacturers to push the envelop and end with tires that were dangerous to race on. Let's say that Michelin had been the only tire supplier and they had brought lousy tires to a race. In that case, bringing in different tires or adding a chicane or two wouldn't be controversial, because all teams would be equally affected. I realise that this undermines some of the competitive engineering aspects of Formula 1, but putting on competitive races is a lot more important when you're trying to expand your fanbase.

This whole thing reminded me of when CART was unable to put on a race at the Texas Motor Speedway (back in 2001), because the speeds the cars were running turned out to be way too fast for safety. That foul-up was one of the major factors that changed me from a CART fan into an ex-CART fan. CART should have put more time and money into testing whether or not its cars would have any problems running on a track they had never run on before.

It's one thing when a half-assed organization like CART drops the ball like that and another when the FIA makes a similar mistake. Formula 1 is supposed to be the premiere racing series in the world. These are supposed to be the best drivers in the best cars. Unfortunately, the FIA seems unable or unwilling to put on the best races.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Dale Junior's Attitude Problem

During FOX's broadcast of last Sunday's NASCAR race at Michigan two Dale Earnhardt Jr.-related moments caught my attention.

The first has been widely commented on: Darrell Waltrip, who usually sticks to the company line and tries not to be controversial, suggested that Dale Jr. needed to take responsibility for his team's lousy performance this year. Waltrip was really quite polite about the whole thing, even though many Dale Jr. fans got bent out of shape over this mild criticism of their idol.

The second came during Chris Myer's silly (but generally entertaining) pre-race "5 Questions" segment. In the "word association" part of his interview, Kurt Busch instantly answered "Dale Jr." when Myers served up the word "Partying".

Putting this all together, it seems there's a growing concern that Junior needs to get his act together.

There are a couple of big problems though, and they all touch on issues that NASCAR, many NASCAR fans, and most NASCAR pundits prefer to ignore. But Junior's really awful performance this year is making it difficult to look the other way.

Dale Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver. Conventional wisdom holds that if he doesn't make the cut for the 10 race Chase for the Championship (by either being in the top ten or within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race of the season, for those of you who aren't big NASCAR fans) it will be bad for NASCAR. Cynical NASCAR fans, like me, have even been known to insinuate that NASCAR adopted the Chase for the Cup format--creating a "play off" type situation among the top ten drivers during the final 10 races of the season--in order to help Dale Jr. stay within striking distance of 1st place all season long.

(Supposedly the Chase for the Cup format came about because watching Matt Kenseth run away with the title in 2003 was so boring. But I'm pretty darn sure that NASCAR would have been perfectly happy to watch Dale Jr. run away with the title. Instead of all the talk about the "boring" 2003 season, the story would've been about how inspirational and exciting it was to see Junior live up to his true potential. He would have been praised for his "consistency", a word that was used to damn Kenseth with faint praise.)

And Conventional Wisdom is probably right: NASCAR went through all this trouble to set up a points system that favored inconsistent, but popular, teams like Junior's and the guy can't even get it together enough to stay in the top 15. Michael Waltrip--Junior's teammate--is, at best, an average Cup driver, but he's 14th in points and heading in the right direction. At this point in the season, with 11 races to go before the Chase, Mikey is far more likely to make the cut than Junior is. If the Chase starts up and Junior isn't in it, no doubt his fans will be pissed off and that might translate to fewer viewers and less money for NASCAR.

And here's where we get to the stuff that NASCAR folks don't like to talk about:

Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's second most popular driver, earned his popularity by winning lots of races.

But Junior inherited his popularity (and most of his fans) after his father died.

And Junior simply isn't as talented a driver as his father was. Not only that, there's at least a half-dozen current Cup drivers who are more talented than Junior.

But talent isn't everything in NASCAR. I don't think Greg Biffle is half the driver Jeff Gordon is, but Biffle more than makes up for his talent deficit with drive, determination, teamwork, good sense, maturity, and, most of all, hard work.

Junior is at least as talented as Biffle, but he's not nearly as disciplined. He doesn't have the right attitude to be a consistent contender. He responds to a challenge by doing worse, while Biffle has responded to a challenge by digging deep and figuring out a way to beat it.

In this case, I think it helps that Biffle knows that his continued employment by Roush Racing depends on his performance. When there was talk at the end of the 2004 season that he was just a journeyman driver, warming a seat for the next Rousch wunderkind, he responded to his critics by winning a bunch of races.

But Junior is in no danger of losing his job. If he performs badly he doesn't face unemployment (although his crew might), but merely embarrassment.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think Junior is a pretty good driver. And there are certainly other pretty good drivers that are having a bad season--like former champs Kenseth and Bobby Labonte. But Kenseth and Labonte combined aren't close to being as popular as Junior is. There's a built-in instability in having so much of NASCAR's popularity tied up in a driver like Junior, who's good, but not that good.