Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Summer Blockbuster

May 18, 2008

It’s been quite some time since Indiana Jones last made it to the big screen. Partly it was because the age of the big-budget period blockbuster was fading, shunted aside in favor of overblown comic book adaptations and pussy independent dramas filled with angst and unsigned artists.

For years, a fourth Indiana Jones film has been in the works, with none of the principals involved reaching an agreement as to a serviceable and acceptable plot device. At one point, the plot was going to involve alien invaders, seeing the paranoid sci-fi B-movie theme a natural extension of the adventure pulp of the 30’s, but the idea was scrapped when they realized they had already done that when they produced Star Wars.

Of course, during this time several other plot lines and titles were proposed and ultimately discarded. Some of the examples are:

Indiana Jones and the Search For A Theologically Inspired Macguffin
Indiana Jones and the Search For Someone To Replace My Character That Isn’t Going To Die Of A Speedball Overdose This Time
Indiana Jones and the Not The Temple Of Doom.
Indiana Jones and the Search For Someone To Fill My Lipitor Prescription
Indiana Jones and the Quest To Determine Which Fast Food Outlet Best Exemplifies the Spirit of the Franchise And Award Them A Lucrative Scratch-Off Game Contract
Indiana Jones and the Search For A Plot George Lucas Isn’t Going To Completely Ball Up This Time
Indiana Jones And The Raiders of Calista Flockhart

They finally settled on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a menacing enough title that will be sure to provide ample opportunities for odd gadgets, period weaponry, and the dragging out and subsequent beating of the standardized action film formula.

To continue the franchise, the story had to advance a decade to the 1950’s, since even with all the advances in CGI in the past two and a half decades they can’t get Harrison Ford to look like he did in 1981. The new stand-in villains are the good old-fashioned Ruskies, trying to control the power of the crystal skulls to advance the People’s Republic above and beyond the capitalist menace. Or to be the big swingin’ dick at a Kiev discothèque. Either one, I suppose.

Sean Connery was approached to reprise his role in a cameo appearance as Henry Jones, Sr. However, Connery declined due to his decision to retire from acting, his commitment to the Scottish National Party, and the lack of opportunities in the provided script for his character to punch women in the yap for mouthing off too much.

There has been a lot of notoriously extreme secrecy in the production of the film, eclipsed only by Basic Instinct 2, the secrecy of which was so great no one went to see it. One of the extras from the film was sued by the executives after revealing details about the movie to a newspaper, and one person was sent to jail for stealing various documents related to the movie. However, the culprit who stole the plot from National Treasure to make the Crystal Skull is still at large.

I have a mixed record with the Indiana Jones movies. When I was a child of approximately ten, I happened to walk in on a network showing of the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The scene I was gloriously presented with was the one when the face of the evil Nazi henchman melted when the ark was opened, which my ten year old constitution reacted to by vomiting on the spot. To this day I can’t watch that scene without causing an unfortunate nauseas rush of repressed childhood memories; it also planted in me a deep-seated resentment of broadcast network censors, who were more than willing to deny me the rampant nudity in, say, Porky’s, but gleefully air the melting of a person’s face, the former being of much more interest to me at ten years old than the latter. (Still is, by the way.)

On the other hand, I was a big fan of the Last Crusade, believing that it had the right amount of humor and people defeating tanks on horseback that best represents the era.

I’ve never seen Temple of Doom because every time I put it in my VCR it spits it back out and does a dozen Hail Marys.

So the expectations of the fourth film in the franchise are pretty high. Most people are expecting an action-packed movie on par with the standard summer fare; some are expecting it to fulfill and advance the Indiana Jones character; and some are expecting it to be Sex and the City because their boyfriends tricked them into going. No one is going to be disappointed, though. Unless you’re that eventual government warehouse employee trying to get some overtime during an inventory control weekend who opens the Ark by accident. I suspect your health plan won’t cover face-melting.

I Am…Iron Man. I Plead No Contest.

May 4, 2008

This weekend, Iron Man opened up the box office with over $100 millions dollars in revenue, an indescribable amount of money for something I’ve never cared about more forcefully before in my life. The only thing positive to be said about this development is the fact that it prevented Made of Honor from opening up at number one, the mere existence of which is startling enough to me since I doubt very much it passed California’s strict emissions standards.

I’ve always been lukewarm towards comic books, and ever more so about movies based on comic books. My interest in comic books was pretty much limited into figuring out if paying $3.99 today for some confusingly-paced pseudo-philosophical half-baked storyline was going to be worth significantly more money in the near future as long as I shoved it in a non-acidic case and hid it in a crate in the attic to forget about for about three decades.

Comic book stories—at least the ones that sell—are primarily about superpowers, and each has to cook up either some absurdly original plot device to make it stand out or, if that seems a touch too hard, just make the superhero a scantily clad chick. I mean, seriously, the prevailing hero seems to be largely guys who got bit by lethargic roaches or are the reincarnated spirit of a moon jockey, or some scissor sister who is wearing as much spandex as she doesn’t have modesty. Add a healthy dose of childish hoogidy-boogidy and some scenes of incredibly graphic violence featuring green alien blood instead of the more standard red so it passes the strict Comic Book Code Of Making Sure The Comic Book Industry Never Seriously Competes With Any Other Form Of Modern Entertainment, and prepubescent teenagers and a rather alarming number of twenty and thirty years olds will lap it up.

Of course, I’m pretty much biased against anything that makes me work, and comic book stories make me work. If I am not already familiar with the background and concept of a superhero, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to have to go back and do homework about what kind of crime they fight or why they turned to superheroing as a career track just to enjoy it, even if that homework is digging out thirty year’s worth of overdramatic soap operas dressed up in macho costumes and laser beams so everybody seems a lot less gay than they otherwise would.

As far as I’m concerned, the alpha and omega of my comic book superhero world involves the following:

: Invincible, afraid of kryptonite, deflects suspicion by being the exact opposite of the definition of a superhero: a journalist.
Batman: Creepy guy that lives in a cave, drives a kickass car. Also: Mr. Mom.
Wonder Woman: Hasn’t had a period since 1967.
Green Lantern: I know absolutely nothing about the Green Lantern, but I know for certain he’s eventually going to be co-opted by the environmentalists and help fight villains such as the Merck Corporation.
Captain America: Closet commie
Spiderman: spins web, suspiciously agile, dates someone who is in reality the abstract personification of marijuana as long don’t tell your parents about it.
The X-Men: Nothing much more different than what I’ve seen on Bourbon street at two in the afternoon.
Power Girl: An awesome set of DDs.

(Just to save everyone the time, don’t bother writing and telling me how much of the above information I’ve got wrong. I can bet safe money that there are scores of fans out there wringing their hands and foaming at the mouth, stating loudly to no one in particular, “Spider-Man should be properly spelled with a hyphen!” While I respect the integral facets of decade’s worth of creative effort, I can’t in all honesty…care.)

So enters Iron Man, a superhero I knew next to nothing about prior to the release of the film. And what I did know what pretty much the fact that I am aware of the fact that the words “iron” and “man” are common words but are rarely used in conjunction with each other. Knowing that Robert Downey, Jr. portrays him in the film, it added a touch of preconceived notions about his character. This just won’t do, of course, so despite my better judgment I looked up the story behind Iron Man, and from what I can tell the following sums it up:

-Anthony Stark who, in reality, is a wealthy industrialist who rather than manage his immense personal fortune goes out to fight crime in a big iron suit.

-His iron suit is really an allegory of Cold War weapons and the immense amount of responsibility that comes with wielding so much destructive power. Or an allegory about the role of technology and how it affects an individual’s identity. Or an allegory about the manifestation of bourgeoisie culture in modern times or some complete horseshit like that.

-He spends most of his time protecting his copyright status by disabling other villains who use his iron man suit without express written permission and paying standard royalty rates.

-Despite popular conception, he has not lost his mind, he is not blind, he can walk, and he is alive. These were never really in question.

-Is bipolar, regularly drives around Sunset Boulevard naked, and ingests ten kilos of pure cocaine a day (movie version only)

I’ll probably eventually see it, if not for only the fact that this is the sort of thing everyone eventually watches anyway. For me, I’m waiting for the most sought-after super power of all: Original Idea Coming Out Of Hollywood Man. Hmm. Maybe I should just ask for an iron suit that shoots laser beams instead. That seems more likely.

The 80th Academy Awards: A Preview

February 17, 2008

Welcome to the 80th Annual Academy Awards! We hope.

This year’s Academy Awards were almost met with unmitigated disaster, even more so than the years that Whoopi Goldberg hosted. With the Writer’s Guild on strike, this meant that 1) there would be no jokes told; 2) most, if not all, of the actors, actresses, and Hollywood executives would boycott it; and 3) this would virtually assure that four fifths of the ceremony would be elaborately staged dance numbers, forcing everyone in America to get up and go to the bathroom for the duration and never come back. Granted, with all these problems, at least everyone could look forward to a show that wasn’t about nineteen hours long.

But, of course, a last-minute vote by the guild was taken and the strike has been lifted, meaning that the awards show will proceed as normal. Of course, this means that the show will be filled with a bunch of hurriedly written jokes and ideas that were hastily strewn together, but most analysts suspect there will be no noticeable decline in quality.

This year, the five best picture nominees seem to reflect an adequate cross-section of the motion picture industry, assuming that we’re not talking about action films, animated features, family movies, romantic comedies, science fiction, horror, anything religious, anything released before December 25th, or anything that isn’t warmed-over pretentious nonsense that goes out of its way to point out that America isn’t, the last anybody noticed, France.

This year’s Oscars are vastly different than last year’s because this year I have actually seem two of these movies, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. This is a drastic departure from years past, when the only way to see any of the movies nominated for best picture is to drive to an arthouse in Manhattan for one of the three showings available to the public before released in an overpriced “Collector’s Edition” DVD next September. So while I haven’t seen all the movies released this year, or in fact any movies at all except these two, I have a lot more insight than in the past about what movies may win. Though probably not.

Atonement: Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to say too terribly much about this movie, since I do not meet the strict requirements necessary to watch it, primarily because 1) I am not female. It is the story of a woman who falsely accuses some guy of rape, basically destroying about eighteen dozen people’s lives, who all sit around in period costumes lamenting about it for an eternity and a half. I think they actually watch the entire showing of The English Patient in its entirety in the middle of this movie. Supposedly there is some erotic activities involved in this movie, which I assume would be an incentive to go see it, but since this is set in England before the war I assume that the coupling takes place when both parties are fully clothed, approximately a hundred miles from each other, and in the presence of their valets who do all the actual work. Keira Knightly stars in this, a rising star that for some reason every guy in the world thinks is incredibly hot but I find her to resemble an anorexic emery board with about as much of the acting range.

No Country For Old Men: Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s comic book (or, sorry, “graphic novel”), No Country is a modern western in the sense that it takes place primarily in Texas and the southwest and pretty much everyone who appears onscreen, up to an including the key grip whose reflection shows up in the car window, (spoiler alert!) gets shot. To be sure this isn’t too terribly much different than most modern crime dramas or the Philadelphia evening news, but it has the added bonus of Woody Harrelson showing up and wasting about twenty minutes of screen time that doesn’t appear to advance the plot in any meaningful way. Still, it’s one of the few chances moviegoers will get to see Tommy Lee Jones, at the end of the movie, deliver (spoiler alert!) an incredibly boring and meandering monologue.

Michael Clayton: See: Brockovich, Erin

Juno: While I haven’t seen Juno, I can gauge pretty well that this will be an awesome, awesome movie, since two of the nine hundred main characters in the television series Arrested Development, hands down the single greatest cultural achievement of mankind, star in it. Jason Bateman, of Valerie Hogan’s Mildly Extended Family or Some Nonsense Like That From The 80’s, and Michael Cera, recently of Superbad fame, both produce, I assume, excellent comic timing matched with equal parts wit, charm, and throwing the middle finger at America for not watching Arrested Development and forcing the greatest cultural achievement of mankind to be cancelled. Of course, it would be illegal for me not to mention that this movie, primarily about some girl that gets knocked up and her passive-aggressive attitude towards what to do with the situation, was written by a female named Diablo Cody who 1) started off as a journalist; 2) became a stripper; 3) wrote about being a stripper; and 4) then her movie got nominated for an Oscar. I’m pretty sure I’m missing some steps here, but for some inexplicable reason no one seems to really care, least of all her publicist.

There Will Be Blood: There Will Be Blood, based on Upton Sinclair or possibly Sinclair Lewis’s novel Oil!, is the tale of an aspiring oilman who, in the course of his business dealings, crosses a small-town preacher. The two of them form an intense dislike of each other so much so that the next two and a half hours of the movie are spent in a violent, no-holds-barred blood feud that eventually escalates to a massive, awe-inspiring, bloody massacre filled with cruelty, revenge, and excess brutality. That, of course, is a blatant lie. It’s mostly a drawn-out affair of psychological positioning and Daniel Day Lewis going batshit crazy on people by yelling odd things at them, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Alas, I was fooled into thinking that a movie named There Will Be Blood would actually have some blood in it earlier than the two hour, thirty-two minute mark. Silly me.

2007 Holiday Movie Previews

December 9, 2007

It’s almost Christmas time, which of course means that many of the big-scale movie releases are coming out in the next few weeks just in time for the holidays and, oh, I guess the deadline for Oscar contention is December 31st, as well. How peculiar! Anyway, here is some important information about many of these new and recent releases:

Alvin and the Chipmunks: One of the season’s many animated motion pictures, this is the latest incantation of Alvin and the Chipmunks, a massive financial undertaking in what is the long and winding evolution of a novelty recording gimmick come to its logical conclusion: Jason Lee swallowing his self-worth and poop jokes. Early reviews have not been kind, effectively placing it, humor-wise, between Hotel Rwanda and A Brief History of Time. But the Chipmunks have at least one thing going for them: at least it can’t possibly be as big a pile of horseshit as Lions for Lambs.

The Golden Compass: Add one part Chronicles of Narnia, one part Lord of the Rings, one part Harry Potter and one part selling the concept to children of destroying the idea of Jesus Christ as the savior which has guided the population of the world for over 2,000 years by having polar bears with machine guns muck about with dust and Nicole Kidman’s rack and James Bond and a whole mess of other junk some kindergartener made up whilst wiling away the day on the school bus. At least I have to assume that is what it’s about, because I’m not gong to either see the movie or read the book, because I am not in the target demographic for this movie. Which, apparently, are seven-year-old secular humanists with no imagination of their own.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets is the sequel to National Treasure, a hit movie that was released sometime back in the Truman administration. It stars Nicholas Cage and some Random Foreign Girl in a hunt for a massive treasure hidden away via a series of cryptic clues left by the Founding Fathers, as if they needed something to occupy their time between fighting the British and creating a nation. In this edition, Cage must locate the legendary “Book of Secrets.” This book is rumored to tell all of the nation’s most alarming secrets that no one has been able to figure out, such as “This is as original as anything Dan Brown has written in the past ten years or so” and “Nicholas Cage can act.”

I Am Legend: This post-apocalyptic sci-fi cannibalistic dystopian thriller is just the kind of thing to get everyone in the holiday mood. It stars Will Smith, an individual whose career path is one of those mysteries akin to the Oak Island Treasure no one will ever figure out. Rapper from Philly to sitcom star to sci fi lead. The story of I Am Legend has been adapted several times for both television and film, but this will be the first time that the movie is viewed in the backdrop of 1) an allegory of the War on Terror’s impact on the soulless drag on society and the role of the interaction of religion and science on our lives, or 2) some kickass zombie CGI.

Juno: This is the tale of a young teenage girl who gets knocked up. That, uh, appears to be it. She’s also kind of a bitch, but the sweet kind of bitch that only Hollywood could come up with. It has a lot of content about fate, personalities, taking responsibility, and finding true love, but mostly it’s about watching Michael Cera do that goofy-dork act which is incredibly funny but is gonna get old and Robin-Williams level absurd if he doesn’t find a new trick soon. It also has J.K. Simmons, otherwise known as Emil Skoda on Law & Order, which means he should be announcing his candidacy for president any day now. The movie was written by Diablo Cody, a journalist-turned-stripper-turned-author, a career path everyone can agree is a lateral move all around.

Sweeney Todd: Another adaptation of a classic story, Sweeney Todd details the life of a serial killer barber who cuts the throats of innocent victims with a straight razor, then (I assume) sings about his killings or his highlights or Helena Bonham Carter’s cleavage or something. Steven Sondheim’s musical was an improbable success, an almost completely song-driven plot about a peculiar murderer. The crimes in the movie are fairly sensational and the production values are thought to be excellent. The real crime in this movie, though, is that Johnny Depp is still getting work.

Enchanted: The Disney Corporation takes on the most sacred of holiday traditions: The Disney Corporation. In a simultaneously self-referencing and self-mocking tale of love, redemption, and a dearth of competition from rival studios afraid of going up against the Golden Compass, Enchanted scored big at the box office. It essentially tells a tale of a princess banished to the real world, where there are no happy endings to nonexistent fairy tale lives, where animals do not sing but rather like to jump out in front of your car and irritate the Nationwide Insurance Company, and problems aren’t solved by a grandiose power ballad or a deus ex machina in the form of a wand or random magical article of clothing. However, the real world does province the next best thing, which is a $34 million opening weekend.

Hungry Like the ‘Wulf

November 18, 2007

Rising from the deep murkiness of the dark, soulless lake in Denmark or possibly Norway, I think, Beowulf returns. Just in time, I suspect, for the Christmas movie season.

When the classic poem Beowulf was written lies suspended in the swirling mists of historical inaccuracy, the target area of composition being in that questionable range of “between the eighth and tenth centuries,” a level of exactness I am used to hearing from weather forecasters and potential girlfriends when asked when our next date may be. Though to be fair at least the historians don’t leave one of the ends as a standing infinity.

It also has a rather unfortunate distinction of being, like Jessica Alba and Derek Jeter, of indeterminate origin. While apparently a strictly Anglo-Saxon composition, it’s clearly of Scandinavian influence, with extraneous slashes and a lot of talk about fishing boats and cell phones.

As a story, Beowulf is equal parts fascinating and rather unremarkable. A kingdom is ravaged by the monster Grendel, ironically one of the few characters of the poem that does not sound like it was composed out of the reject Scrabble letters. The monster, it seems, is unhappy with all of the singing and the celebration of the king’s warriors and subjects, Grendel apparently being a likely candidate as next year’s Resident Assistant. He patiently waits for the men to sleep, then sneaks in and eats a majority of the army.

Now at this point I have to stop and ponder. It seems rather odd that a monster would be able to sneak into a castle and eat a majority of the warriors. Even the drunkest of soldiers would probably elbow up perpendicular to the ground wondering what the fuss is about. I have to assume that either the king’s men were recruited during a shift change at the local Denny’s or someone was dropping Aqua Dots in the mead.

Beowulf, a warrior from a neighboring people, hears of the king’s plight. He offers his services, which the decimated king quickly accepts, and overcomes the beast by tricking the monster and ultimately killing him. Grendel’s mother, filled with an estrogen-fueled rage, assuming medieval Scandinavian monsters produce estrogen, comes to avenge his death, using pretty much the exact same game plan—waiting for the king’s men to sleep, then eats one of them. At this point one begins to suspect that the king’s men weren’t exactly resting up for the SATs. Beowulf quickly dispatches the matron by beheading her after being pulled down into the bottom of the lake and fussing about with +10 swords and immunity spells and a bunch of other weird crap like that.

Beowulf is named king of his own people in recognition of his bravery, and lives a long, boring life that is stretched out for what seems like two thousand couplets. Late in the stages of his life, though, one of Beowulf’s subjects and potential Mensa president sneaks into a dragon’s lair and steals a goblet of indeterminate worth. The dragon, awakening from his slumber, finds the object missing and reacts by burning half the world while tracking down the thief. Beowulf and a red-shirted accomplice with the extraordinarily non-masculine name of Wiglaf go after the dragon, since the remaining population is too frightened to join in the fun, and ultimately are victorious. Alas, Beowulf is mortally wounded and demands that he be buried with all of the dragon’s sizable treasure, ostensibly since the treasure is cursed but you and I both know it’s a not-so-subtle way of an elderly king being forced to fight a dragon saying to his subjects, “piss off, you ungrateful cowards.” And everything ends peacefully, except for Wiglaf, who somehow gets nothing but the shaft out of the whole deal.

Like most ancient literature, Beowulf is scarily one-dimensional. He is a warrior first and foremost, and, to be honest, second, third, and fourth. There aren’t any extended scenes where he describes his feelings to his therapist or higher being, no long talks with a sensitive brother or submissive female. It’s all about hacking, slashing, and the oft-alluded to hedonistic pleasures he will be granted to him upon his successful return, assuming that occurs.

Beowulf’s roster is full of oddly-named characters, as if someone spilled orange juice in the keyboard of the anonymously creative Saxon who wrote it centuries ago, and all the consonants stuck together every time he tried to type something. There’s Hroogar, Wealhpeow, Hygelac, Ecgtheow, Hrunting, and Yrs, none of which I am 100% positive aren’t actually swords or amulets instead of monsters or people.

Of course, there is a lot of interest in this poem recently, which is generally disregarded unless you are attempting to pass, or teach, 10th grade English. The reason, of course, is that a big-budget 3-D version of an ancient, extremely boring poem was released this weekend. Granted, this is an epic poem tailor-made for Hollywood—monsters and fighting and sci-fi-franchise-style money-making potential and a slot for a strong female lead that gets to both 1) seduce and 2) kill someone. The latter is filled by the box-office draw Angelina Jolie, who recently made headlines at the premier when she noted that she was “startled” about how naked she looked all big on the big screen, the actress apparently not having access to the Internet.

Anyway, hopefully the effect of the movie will at least have some positive effect on literacy, much like what Lord of the Rings did for getting students interested in the fantasy genre and High School Musical did for staying home from the theater and reading something. When you have a gripping story, a classic and rich cultural heritage, and an actress with a fantastic rack, it’s amazing what literature can do.

Workers of the World, Unwrite!

November 11, 2007

There’s something particularly odd about the Writers Guild of America strike. I mean, I understand the mechanics and the reasons behind the strike, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to work up a proletariat lather about Harvard graduates making $200,000 and up a year in a dream job because they’re not making a few cents every time someone in Madrid decides to watch streaming video of the Jimmy Kimmel show making fun of the mentally handicapped.

I actually do remember the previous writers’ strike, a little over twenty years ago, when I was in my formative years and pretty much the entire reason for my existence was very close to being destroyed. Television had effectively halted, and every frame of reference I had to American culture and life in general was about to be stopped cold, replaced with a so-called decathlon of comedy that threatened to replace my own core of being with the Billy-Connely era Head of the Class episodes. It took almost six months for the strike to end, a time I can only equate with the Bataan Death March in terms of horror and impact.

The most disappointing part of the strike is that if there is one thing that solidarity amongst comrades universally creates, it is a vaguely defined chant with which to slightly embarrass their bourgeoisie oppressors. Alas, even though these individuals are writers, their chants so far have been pretty lackluster. It’s been a week of such gems as “Hey, hey, ho, ho, royalties for internet streaming video and DVD compilations of sketches we have written have got to grow.” Apparently, being on strike means not writing, even if that means writing slogans directed at your corporate bosses, and the union bosses won’t allow the quality of writing to exceed anything above the level of USA Original Comedy Series.

The actual details of the strike are, like pretty much all sets of negotiations since the first shot was fired in Homestead, a series of increasingly mundane details that become astronomical in the aggregate. And, of course, it’s also a large part of corporations and union workers trying to swing their junk around like lightsabers to see what connects first and with the most impressive display of fireworks. In this case, it’s mostly a matter of royalties. The biggest issues are DVD sales and internet episodes, which writers get a small and zero amount, respectively. Writers are generally ranked well below the actors, directors, show runners, advertisers, costume designers, set designers, and random audience members in terms of respect, pay, and recognition.

The DVD issue is simply a renegotiation of an existing price. Currently, the rate set for residuals for the home video market was agreed to when VHS tapes were pretty much the province of pornography and what I can assume four billion versions of Gallagher stage shows, neither of which tend to rely on the expertise of writers. As time as gone by, of course, VHS and then DVD sales have exploded to the point where it is many times higher than the actual box office and first-run network television. The writers are contending that the rate should be doubled…from four cents to eight cents, approximately, a figure that is almost comical in its minutia until one realizes the sheer number of copies of Lost that have been sold this season, at least in terms of how many used sets I see for sale in college fire sale pamphlets.

The other main issue, internet episodes, is probably of more concern. Currently, writers get a big goose egg in terms of royalties. The studios are concerned that these episodes are mostly an unknown commodity; the internet itself has just now set up a shaky alliance of funding in the form of unstable Google Sense ads, tiered paid access, and elaborate pyramid schemes that apparently hinge on sending email greeting cards en masse.

Many actors, producers, and other Hollywood elites have joined in support of the strike. One of the stranger alliances is that of Jesse Jackson. This does seem to be a bit odd since Jackson’s presence seem to fit too diametrically opposing entities, his role as a defender of African-American interests, and the interests of network television, the collective lot of whom could easily be mistaken for the audience at a Fallout Boy concert.

While the strike continues, one individual is trying to work behind the scenes to see if an agreement can be reached: Arnold Schwarzenegger. He seems oddly appropriate for the role; since he is an actor, he has a somewhat legitimate reason for being involved (though, certainly, not as a writer, unless you count that article for the Nietzsche Review he wrote decades ago) and, as a politician, would like to broker (and, not coincidentally, take credit for) an issue that has effectively been grinding a rather major industry in his state to an embarrassing halt. Whether he will be successful or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, a rather informative documentary about unfunny lesbians called Caroline in the City is about to start. I hope it’s good, because 22 weeks is a long, long time.

Just D’oh It

July 26, 2007

The Simpsons has been on for a long time. I mean, irritatingly long, as in kids who are graduating high school this year have never lived in a world where Fox wasn’t producing new episodes. And that just makes me feel very, very old, the same reason I dislike telling people what magazines I subscribe to and going to the mall on Saturday nights.

Anyone from my generation can tell you when they first watched The Simpsons. It’s just like the Kennedy assassination or the time Sally Wiggin went on the air without her makeup; everyone knows the time and the place of their first viewing of this remarkable animation.

Well, okay, I don’t. I remember watching the first episode about Santa’s Little Helper, but I also watched the shorts on the Tracy Ullman Show, and I have no conceivable reason to remember when I first watched this. All I remember is that it wasn’t Scooby Doo and it wasn’t the Snorks, thank goodness, but I certainly didn’t know what the hell it actually was and I knew I wouldn’t get half the jokes until I was in my early adulthood, which at that time was approximately 2,000 years away.

It was revolutionary in more ways than one. It was a cartoon aimed at adults. Sure, there was the Flintstones, and on a bad day you could spend an afternoon reading the cultural subtext of Inspector Gadget. But c’mon, cartoons were produced foremost for kids, what with their bright colors, nonsensical situations, and devotion to supporting an industry that pays Malaysians about ten cents an hour to color in cells. This wasn’t Bugs Bunny dressing like a cocktail waitress or Mickey Mouse chasing jogging dandelions or whatever the hell that fruit was doing in Fantasia; this was jokes told by badly drawn yellowish folks about the perils of middle age, the gifted program, the boredom of the suburban housewife, and electroshock therapy.

And today’s kids, processing South Park at a normal rate of shock and awe, have absolutely no idea the impact The Simpsons had on the parents of the day. Bart’s deviance was nothing new to television; youngish scamps getting in trouble was a tired plot device back in the tube’s glory days before TV was even invented. The difference was that back then, youngish scamps who got in trouble repented after an appropriate punishment was metered out, like being grounded or ratting out commies. But in Bart Simpson’s world, he wasn’t only an underachiever, but he was, as a T-shirt so eloquently put it, proud of it, man.

Simpsons apologists cranked up their noise level, pointing out that Edgar Allen Poe was an opium addict and Lewis Caroll enjoyed the company of youngish girls, apparently hoping to point out that while Bart may sass his elders, at least he’s not high and hitting on Girl Scouts. Still, promoting charging $12 for a plastic key chain that says “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” in a muffled Nancy-Cartwrightish voice that cost about a quarter to make isn’t exactly a dismissible crime, either.

What makes The Simpsons so peculiar is how they’ve managed to keep it fresh and topical for so long. Here, I am assuming that you stopped watching The Simpsons around 1996 or so. The Simpsons, like many other television programs, tend to rely on formula to crank out season after season of programming. As a general rule, episodes were structured as thus:

1. Some completely arbitrary series of events concludes with the introduction of some current hot social topic, like gay marriage or influenza;
2. Homer screws it up;
3. A secondary character utters some random line every ultrafan on the intraweb will have as their signature for the next month;
4. Lisa has a solution she presents as pretentiously as possible;
5. Several self-referencing jokes are made;
6. A celebrity voice unrelated to the plot is crammed into the show’s sequence;
7. Some random deus ex machina wraps everything up;
8. Joseph Barbera dies just a little inside.

The culmination of all 400 episodes so far produced the holy grail of Simpsons fans: the Simpsons Movie. Even thought the plot is largely an expanded version of a regular episode, and the animation is a touch crisper, it permits the writers to expand their creativity to fit the big screen, a format known to encourage creativity, as evidenced by this summer’s blockbusters Live Free and Die Hard, Evan Almighty and Air Bud 8: Dog Plays Lacrosse Or Some Other Shit Like That. Actually, I strongly suspect it’s going to have the humor quotient of a regular episode, expanded out to about an hour and a half, and you gotta pay eight bucks to see it. Still, it will be nice to see what happens when writers and animators are no longer restricted by the medium of televsion and are given a chance to be creative that they would not find anywhere else, except perhaps HBO. Or books. Or the comics. Or straight-to-DVD collections. Or basic cable. Hmm. Perhaps the motion picture industry will be presented with a very cromulent opportunity, after all.

How the Duke Conquered The World

June 11, 2007

Not very long ago, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most singularly iconic members of American society, the individual who did a significant amount to define patriotic masculinity in our social consciousness, and who fought a long, patriotic campaign to make sure that no one ever used the phrase “social consciousness” to describe himself.

John Wayne helped define postwar America by representing our virtues and glorifying our vices. Wayne was born in 1907 as Marion Morrison, a comically un-Duke like birthname that most people are convinced is a lie; his name might as well be Percival Higginbotham III the Thoughtlessly Homosexual. Thankfully, he changed his name to the more dashingly appropriate John Wayne, and forever cast that name into the annals of our cultural history.

His early years were often noted with modest success tainted with failure. He tried college, but it didn’t take; he suffered an injury and lost his football scholarship. He soon found himself working at the prop department at Fox Studios. He soon took bit parts, eventually working himself up to a leading man. This was back in the day when one could become a leading man through hard work and determination, and not by being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola.

Wayne’s forte was largely westerns and war films, and this was well-suited to his masculine personality. He soon came to represent this onscreen personality in an almost universal level, bringing the weight of an entire gender upon his shoulders as he rooted out evil men, wooed the ladies, drank like a fish, shot German infantrymen and Mexican bandits, wasn’t too keen on the Indians, smoked like a sublimating chimney, and did pretty much everything that could conceivably be considered grade-A class-1 American Man to the highest degree possible.

Of course, this hypermachoism is likely an overcompensation factor for the fact that John Wayne, regardless of the number of Huns he mowed down onscreen, never served in the military. At the time of World War II, he was 34, was injured, and had a young family, which under normal circumstances would have easily qualified for a deferment. Wayne did so with no hesitations, jumping on his exit ticket with both feet. However, many other Hollywood stars in similar situations, such as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Stewart, enlisted with little fuss. He felt incredibly guilty about not only passing up service but also exploiting the leading man gap to increase his stature in Tinseltown. Because of this, he tried as hard as possible to convey blatant jingoism and marketed testosterone as a recommended daily allowance as penance for him taking a powder on Europe.

One of the most bizarre aspects of Wayne’s life was one that never happened. Stalin—that’s right, the leader of our perpetual Cold War opponent, Russia—at one point decided that John Wayne represented a direct threat to the spread of establishing the People’s Paradise (or, at the very least, impede the pro-Communist insurgency of Hungary, one can safely presume) and issued an order that the Duke be assassinated. That’s right, the Party Chairman, representing 50% of the total number of people in the world at the time with their finger on the button, bypassed John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon and went straight for the co-lead in The Flying Leathernecks.

Action stars rarely get respect from the critics, and Wayne was no exception. A lot of his movies, especially his early ones but by no means excepted in his later years, were largely formulaic throwaway films. As time marched on, however, Wayne differentiated himself as movies in general became more dramatic, stories became more complicated, audiences demanded intellectual stimulation, and the industry in general become more…well, more incredibly pussyish. Leading men were no longer Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott but Rock Hudson and Woody Allen. In the new Hollywood, Wayne could have easily been brushed off as a discarded relic of the past, a purveyor of a violent genre long past its prime. Instead, John Wayne embraced it, expanding its influence on cinema, and keeping it alive as a valid form of entertainment. The movies were top quality, the writing excellent, and Wayne was duly recognized with a Best Actor award for True Grit. And not because he threatened each and every member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with blackjacking their four-year-old daughters in the dead of night if they didn’t vote for him. Well, not only because.

The unthinkable happened, then, to the invincible. He contracted lung cancer, no doubt due to decades of chronic tobacco intake, or—if you are a regular listener to Coast to Coast, and if you aren’t, you should be—as a result of nearby nuclear testing by the government during the filming of The Conqueror in Utah. While he had a successful operation to remove the cancer, the removal of a lung made highly complicated stunts such as walking highly difficult, a fact most studio executives tried to minimize. It’s hard to represent American machismo when you have to stop to breathe every ten feet.

A different form of the C finally took John Wayne off the screen altogether in 1979—today, in fact: June 11th. This time it was the stomach, and there weren’t any cigarettes or government H-bombs to blame this time. And while Wayne is long off the scene, the ideals and values he represented are still prevalent in Hollywood, though they are slowly degenerating. In The Shootist, his last film, he refused to have his character shoot an enemy in the back, despite the script being written that way, stating that he didn’t want his real persona to transcend any negative portrayals on screen. By comparison, Dakota Fanning’s 12-year-old character is raped in 2006’s Hounddog without much objection by anyone involved in its production. John Wayne, alas, is dead.

May The Vague Religious Allegory Be With You

May 27, 2007

The 30th anniversary of the most overrated franchise in movie history, Star Wars, is soon upon us. Millions of fans will take the day off of working at the comic book store or temporarily halting their two cents a word career writing for the Robot and Dragon Digest to pay good hard-earned money to watch a movie they have watched every single day of their known lives.

I’ve never quite fallen in love with Star Wars, and I have never really grasped it immense appeal. No particular reason, I guess; I was into sci fi when I was a child, and I still enjoy a good ole fashioned space opera just as much as the next mouthbreather. Probably because I was born just a touch too late; Star Wars was released on the year of my birth, and I was nary old enough to understand what would have been happening during the last of the original trifecta, The Return of the Jedi. Though I suppose this isn’t a valid excuse, since most of my friends were into Star Wars and they were just as old as me. I must be repressing some Wookie-related memory or something.

I would blame this on the old Star Wars/Star Trek debate, but, truth be told, I wasn’t really into Star Trek, either. At least the original series. I mean, yeah, it was kind of cool when I was a kid, but even back then I was unimpressed with William Shatner’s acting, and this was from someone who honestly believed that Inspector Gadget deserved some sort of Emmy. (Not the voice actor or the series, mind you, but Inspector Gadget himself.) And even I could tell that most episodes were derivative of each other, their ham-fisted plots about vaguely-veiled racism or the Vietnam War, and always ended up with Shatner throwing pink Styrofoam rocks around or getting it on with his own bad self with some green-skinned honey with big 60’s knockers and a skirt short enough all the way up to the Y. It wasn’t bad, mind you, and I kind of got a kick out of realizing that it was at least different, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was better than Indiana Jones and the Millennium Falcon.

(Though I will admit that that episode with those scary looking flat transparent-skin-diseased things flew around the place and sucked on your epidermis really, really, really creeped me out. I mean, seriously. I can’t eat pancakes or date Goth girls to this day thanks to those nasty-looking things. Ick.)

But the overwhelming success of Star Wars eludes me. I don’t get the action-figure characters, the stale plot points, or the artificially induced dialogue. Aliens are fun and all, but when one of them is just a rug with googly eyes on it and whose range of emotion goes from “EEEOOORGH” to “EEEOOORGH” and another one is just a fat, punch-drunk, dyslexic Kermit the Frog, one has to wonder at what kindergarten they held the focus groups in. Not that that’s a bad idea, since kindergarteners are the ones most likely to have clueless relatives to buy all kinds of plastic Kenner dolls for their nieces and nephews (well, nephews, anyway) to lose without realizing that they would be worth something around three million dollars on the eBay just if they hadn’t spilled mango Capri-Sun all through the bendable joints and left it in the yard for your father to hit it with his weed eater.

And, seriously, Star Wars was nothing more than The Thorn Birds only with big white ships, cranky-looking machines that shoot CGI out of their eyes, and background shots made with black construction paper with pinholes poked in it held up against a 60 watt. Fans can dress it up and pretend that it’s all a rich tapestry of David vs. Goliath patriotism, good versus evil, and the innate righteousness of fighting for a just cause, but everyone just kind of wanted to know if Han and Leia were gonna knock boots once Luke got his skinny ass out of the way. (“Hey, Luke, boy, can’t you go away for like forty five minutes or so and Force up some pita bread or something?”)

I think I may have some ideas, though, as to why I’m just not impressed. First off, I didn’t really see any of the movies until I was nearly in college, not so much due to a lack of opportunity but more to not really caring all that much about it. I was too busy forging my apparent future career as a snare drum player in high school marching bands. But I sat down and watched them all at once one rainy Saturday, being mildly entertained but hardly blown away. At this point in my life, of course, I was already wowed by the special effects of Universal Soldier and the intricate plot development of Second Sight, so Star Wars was old hat.

More importantly, though, I think it’s just that I don’t appreciate what Star Wars did for the epic movie because I saw it after its impact was felt in the movie industry. Star Wars basically told audiences: There are no more pink Styrofoam rocks. There are no more aliens with pasty makeup or played by washout cameos from To Tell The Truth. The plots aren’t lifted from some boilerplate morality tome dictated from the suits from Standards and Practices or Mr. Ed only with aliens instead of that other horse down the road. But we can still get a good story and set it in a science fiction setting without it just being a kid’s show. Star Wars lifted science fiction out of the pulp and camp genres and make them into philosophical allegories about the I SAID HAN SHOT FIRST. NO, JACKASS, I SAID HAN SHOT FIRST. NOT GREEDO, YOU MORON. DID YOU NOT WATCH THE MOVIE? I SAID DID YOU NOT WATCH THE MOVIE? You HAVE? If you HAVEN’T, which I think is the CASE since only an IDIOT would say that GREEDO SHOT FIRST, then you just need to SHUT UP since you DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. Seriously.

Anyway, Star Wars made a lot more money than I ever will, so I guess I am wrong about it. Star Wars rocks, not just because of its cultural importance, but mostly because I don’t want to get a thousand emails about how rotten Deep Space Nine is and how George Lucas needs one of those Jewish holidays named after him. Or something, I don’t know. Right now, I’m going to go look for that Jabba the Hutt action figure in my attic to see how much of my college debt I can pay off.

The Bottom Redline

April 4, 2007

Recently, comedian Eddie Griffin wrecked a Ferrari during a charity event. He didn’t wreck it in the politely-exchange-insurance, call-you-at-the-office manner; rather, it was in a full-fledged, grade A class 1 totaling beyond repair manner. He walked away without a scratch, thank goodness. This rather unfortunate even would perhaps only merit a vague mention in two months’ time in the Celebrity Poop inside jacket column in the Sunday supplement, except that this particular make of Ferrari was worth $1.5 million dollars. Perhaps I should have bolded that. $1.5 million dollars. Three things should be apparent at this point:

1) A rich person’s idea of charity is to race cars worth over a million dollars, despite the overwhelming evidence that the only point in racing cars is hoping that at some point someone is going to wreck.
2) The charity was in the form of a car race, since car races are a traditional form of fundraising, oh, and, by the way, Redline, a movie about rich men who race expensive cars for kicks and wagers, starring Eddie Griffin, comes out April 13th.
3) The car was being driven by someone whose sole experience in racing is limited to driving Undercover Brother to the cheap bin at the Wal Mart.

The entire episode is strangely ingratiating. The movie they were promoting was about bored rich billionaires who race their expensive cars around, and there was a wreck because…a bunch of bored billionaires were racing their cars around. It’s life imitating art, though in this case it’s more like staged Hollywood produced media event imitating a staged Hollywood produced media event. Though in real life, I’m assuming Nadia Bjorlin went home alone that night.

Charity or no, there is something fetchingly alarming about rich people pissing their money away. Now, I fancy myself a pretty hardcore off-the-chart free marketeer, one who equates the celestial paradise somewhere along the lines of a rather sadomasochistic Ayn Randian eBaying of commerce and government services. What people do with the money they earn is of no business of mine. But some days, surveying what rich people do with their money makes me want to rally the masses, grab a Spanish double-loaded rifle, and march the proletariat straight to Tiananmen Square, with me in the tank sitting on a crate full of little red books and bread vouchers.

Stories of the nouveau riche’s pecuniary excesses are hardly a new phenomenon. Tales of ancient Rome are rife with decadent Senators, libertines, and future members of Harvard School of Business. And the media absolutely loves to report on these stories because people love to listen to them, and think, “Yeah, I might not make the mortgage payment this month, and I may be doing a criminally negligent job saving for my daughter’s college education, but at least I didn’t spend eight thousand dollars on a Hungarian swan display for my nephew’s bar mitzvah.”

Recent displays of conspicuous consumption aren’t all that hard to find. Probably the most recent tale of excess was that of convicted Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowki. He was convicted, in part, due to his wife’s week-long birthday party, cleverly disguised as a “shareholder meeting.” Among an embarrassingly long list of crimes, one of them was somehow hornswaggling the company into paying for half of what can charitably be called the single greatest depraved orgy even organized by mankind in the last ten centuries. The party itself was an almost picture perfect demonstration of decadence at its best, rife with hired oily gladiators, ice sculptures peeing vodka, cakes formed into the shape of a set of breasts (along with a festive set of strategically placed sparklers!), and a rather cavalier attitude towards the Greek jurisdictional interpretation of adultery. (I got a $20 gift certificate to the Eat ‘N’ Park on my birthday, by the way.)

There doesn’t seem to be a considerable difference in the behavior of businessmen versus celebrities in this particular regard. One might plausibly expect celebrities to acquire money, then find new and creative ways to blow it out their honeyhole. Businessmen, on the other hand, tend to at least pick up some of the financial lessons necessary to get rich in the first place, such as “buying pastries in the shape of barnyard animals may be a fun diversion, but if the markup is 60,000%, perhaps there is a better allocation of funds to be found.” But apparently not necessarily. For every Michael Jackson who buys giraffes like most people buy DVDs, there’s a package on the doorstep of Tyco International with a $6,000 shower curtain in it.

Sometimes, the amount of wealth wasted is subtler. Or, rather, they waste it with “good intentions,” which is code words for “they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” Donald Trump routinely throws money away every few years in an established money trap known as “marriage.” And George Soros’s own extravagance should not go passed unnoticed, since he contributed around $23 million in the political equivalent of a fantasy sports league.

Griffin’s limited foray into expensive waste seems doubly distressing. His wealth is closer to the Andy Richter There-By-the-Grace-of-God-Go-I end of the scale as opposed to the Warren Buffet end. But one has to think about the super rich in this world. If someone of Griffin’s modest wealth is out wrecking million dollar cars…what exactly are they going to destroy?