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?