Wednesday, February 18, 2009

International Incident

Friday the 13th (2009)dominated the weekend box office but the scariest movie of the weekend featuring a monster that will not die is The International. As directed by German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), The International revolves around several frightening and very topical notions: international banks aren't interested in our money - they are primarily interested in creating and manipulating our debt; our politicians and law enforcement agencies have been co-opted by them; they will stop at nothing to survive and thrive; and if you get in their way they will smash you like a bug.

It is an ugly world, full of money laundering, arms dealing and regime destabilization, and Louis Salinger as essayed by Clive Owen, has seen most of it and looks the worse for wear. Agent Salinger's obsession with the nefarious bank in the title has cost him his family, his partners and his reputation. Drummed out of Scotland Yard for trumped up malfeasance after getting too close to the inner workings of the bank, Salinger is on a mission of redemption and reclamation.

Like many movie monsters, The International is a little slow-footed and ponderous at first but, like many stylish and thoughtful thrillers from the seventies - Steve McQueen's Bullit and Gene Hackman's The French Connection, to name two, it is saved by a long kick-ass action sequence that takes place in, of all places, the Guggenheim Museum.

This brutal, bloody orgy of ratcheting mayhem, full of the rising crescendos supplied by the museum's supple, spiraling curves, is - like the movie as a whole - breathtakingly gorgeous and awful. You believe this architectural marvel is being riddled with bullet holes and smashed to smithereens. Moreover, you believe Agent Salinger is actually in danger of being killed. The movie is that real and nasty.

All's well that ends well - well, except The International is a little too "true" for its own good. As the great Armin Mueller-Stahl, in a variation of the pragmatic monsters he has played in countless movies, intones: "Fiction is better than Truth because it has better endings."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Three Hankies for Seven Pounds

I just saw Seven Pounds at the Budget Theater (movie, large popcorn - with REAL butter! - large soda for under ten bucks). In short, I loved it! It was an old-fashioned, three-hankie weepie. The kind of movie Hollywood used to make during its heyday. In fact, Seven Pounds reminds me most of George Cukor's Camille starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Like the consumptive Marguerite Gautier played by Garbo, Rosario Dawson's doomed Emily Posa is incandescent on the big screen. Everyone who knows me knows I have a huge Rosario Dawson jones and Seven Pounds has leaped to the top of my "movies starring Rosario Dawson" list. Never has Miss Dawson been more appealing on the big screen.

Will Smith is also amazing in this movie. He is like a chocolate Michael Anthony: stoic, ingratiating, and professional in his ever-present business suit - except he is literally dispensing new life and not a million dollars from his briefcase. He wears his grief like a shroud, the full deadening weight of his loss apparent in his eyes even as he smiles and charms his way toward his chosen goal. What Smith does with this role is much more difficult and noteworthy than his Oscar nominated role in The Pursuit of Happyness.

There is not one thing I would change about this movie. While it becomes apparent early on what Smith's "Ben Thomas" is up to, the movie still manages to surprise the viewer in small ways both delightful and terrible. The slow, halting dance Smith and Dawson do toward each other is sweet and longing: a many-splendored thing.

I salute Mr. Smith and his producing partner James Lassiter and all the good folks at Overbrook Entertainment for adding this movie to the black film canon.

~rave!

Venture, Brother!

I think I fried my brain yesterday engaging in a Venture Bros marathon, yesterday. (Truth is, my brain was already fried from a hellacious week at work - I am still employed but I am currently expected to do the work three people used to do in half the time while my two direct supervisors are engaged in a locked cage match to see who will keep their job and thereby win the right to continue micro-managing me (!) - so I was in the proper mood to vegetate). I had all 39 episodes of the Cartoon Network's The Venture Bros on my DVR (a fact I didn't realize until AFTER I had deleted more than half of them after viewing) and I powered through 27 of them.

I stated in another venue that watching The Venture Bros was like watching Jonny Quest on acid and that is no understatement! Watching the episodes in the order they were recorded, I realized I had watched Season Three first and then began watching the totally excellent episodes from Season One (with Season Two still to go).

My two new favorite episodes are Season One, episode 7, "Ice Station - Impossible," a wicked deconstruction of both "The Incredibles" and the "Fantastic Four" ouvre and Season One, episode 10, "Tag Sale - You're It!" wherein Dr. Venture holds a yard sale to raise money and all his super powered friends and enemies come to pick up high tech bargains (and chaos and hilarity ensue when Dr. Venture's arch enemy, The Monarch, creates a diversion so he can use the bathroom inside the Venture compound).

Choice bits in "Impossible" included the fact that the Invisible Girl disappearing act is limited to her skin (revealing all the meat and muscle underneath), the Human Torch bursts into flames AND excruciating pain every time he is exposed to oxygen - not to mention the hilariously cruel death of Race Bannon - said program frequently cuts back to little children riding a dead Bannon down the street (every time the wind catches and inflates his parachute) while rifling his pockets for cool super secret gadgets.

Let me give a special shout out to episode 4, "The Incredible Mr. Brisby," a devilish take on Roy Disney and the whole (evil) Disney Empire and his struggle with the dilettante "Orange County Liberation Front."

I have twelve of season two to complete but, as I said at the onset, my brain is currently deep fried.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mama Madea

Ghetto auteur Tyler Perry is about to unleash his latest man-in-
drag epic, Madea Goes To Jail, on what will probably be a very
receptive world.

The most charitable thing you can say about the best of Tyler's
oeuvre (Why Did We Get Married? for instance) is that is was
better than his worse (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Daddy's
Girls). Typically, he violates every rule of well constructed
narrative or accomplished film making. His best work (Married?)
is merely competent. Yet, Perry has legions of devoted fans and
is steadily approaching Oprahville in lifetime earnings.

I do salute Perry for giving work to worthy and woefully under-
employed black actresses - Alfre Woodard, Sanaa Lathan, Academy
Award nominee Taraji P. Henson and Robin Givens to just name
those in his last movie (The Family that Preys).

Lastly, I have come to the conclusion that the audience is never
wrong. It is always the artists' fault when they fail to connect with
an audience. So I watch all of Tyler Perry's movies (I own The
Family That Preys but haven't watched it yet) trying to discern what
his audience is connecting with - and, attempting to learn something,
seeing if I can apply those lessons effectively without debasing my
own work.

There are simple verities in this world and sometimes we, as artists,
willfully ignore them.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hanlon's Razor or the case for stupidity over malice

I have a maxim that has never failed me: "People are stupid."

I meet much opposition when I propose this notion but I gradually wear down all naysayers by asking a simple question after they regale me with one tale after another of rampant incompetence. I ask, "And do you know why that happened?"

(All together now:) "Because people are stupid!"

While rummaging through old papers today, I came across this quote(attributed to Samuel R. Delany): "Someone said, 'Never assign to conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity.' It reassures people to be able to think that all the bizarre things that go on in the world are the products of intelligence, rather than just random idiot acts interacting with each other.'" To confirm the authorship of the grand white-haired sage, I googled "Never assign to conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity" and discovered something called "Hanlon's Razor": Hanlon's razor is an eponymous adage which reads: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." Also worded as: Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. Further reading reveals: A similar quotation appears in Robert A. Heinlein's 1941 short story "Logic of Empire" ("You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity"); this was noticed in 1996 (five years before Bigler identified the Robert J. Hanlon citation) and first referenced in version 4.0.0 of the Jargon File,[3] with speculation that Hanlon's Razor might be a corruption of "Heinlein's Razor". "Heinlein's Razor" has since been defined as variations on Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice. or ... but keep your eyes open. A variant, Grey's Law (influenced, no doubt, by Clarke's third law), posits "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice." Observations on the sway of human error over malice occur in various works. Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) mentions "...misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent." A probably apocryphal quote from Albert Einstein deals with the power of stupidity: "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe." Compare Schiller's "Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain." Asimov's novel "The Gods Themselves" was named after Schiller's quote. Similarly, Elbert Hubbard said, "Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped." A similar epigram has been widely attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte ("Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."). It is also attributed to William James among others. A practical observation on the risks of stupidity was made by the German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord in Truppenf├╝hrung, 1933: "I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!" To which I can only say, "Amen!"

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Leverage and the paradigm of the black technology geek

I just saw my first episode of Timothy Hutton's new TNT series Leverage. Leverage is what you would get if you artificially inseminated Mission:Impossible! with Oceans Eleven. I like it and have scheduled my DVR to record future episodes but I feel compelled to mention that the lone black regular character, Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), like IM's Barney Collier (Gregg Morris)and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames)- heck, like Hogan Heroe Sgt. James 'Kinch' Kinchloe (the late great Ivan Dixon), both completes and depletes me.

On one hand, all are self-contained, obviously well educated, articulate electronics experts. On the other hand, all are given precious little to do. While the other, primarily white cast mates get to cavort about wearing masks and assuming other identities, the lone black technology geek is tethered to his computers and his listening devices. More often than not their electronic wizardry saves the day but they rarely get any of the glory.

In short, our hero gets to witness the pageantry but rarely gets to participate in it. While there is plenty of interaction between most of the white characters, our hero is literally a "black hole" into which camera light goes but nothing - no personality, no back story, no nothing - escapes.

And, as such, he is the ultimate Invisible Man.

It's hard out here for a Black Superhero

This article:
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,483544,00.html
illustrates everything that works against black superheroes. First of
all, the very notion of comic book heroes - homoerotic characters
who run around with their underwear outside their clothes - works
against everything but an ironic (see Jerry Craft's Obamanation
character in above article) or "post" ironic black superhero characters
(Static Shock with his black Malcolm X baseball cap).

This may explain why the most successful black superhero characters
(Spawn, the Black Panther) cover their faces with masks - if you were
parading around in skin tight tights, a cape AND your underwear on
the outside of your uniform you would wear a mask, too!

It's hard out there for a black superhero.

I direct you Damon Wayans' Blank Man or Robert Townsend's
Meteor Man to see the notion of a black superheroes taken to
its ridiculous conclusion.

Finally, as whenever a big deal is made about black firsts, seconds or
lasts, this is much ado about nothing. If FOX or anybody else is
serious about black superheroes or believes seriously that there is a
market for black superheroes, all they have to do is ring up Dwayne
McDuffie. I am sure Mr. McDuffie is more than willing to dust off a
few "Icons."