Tuesday, September 19, 2006

High on Sorkin

We here at the Strawman love, love Aaron Sorkin. We love his wit, his assured charm, his facility with the spoken and written word, and, not least, his overall bravura. The guy’s got chops. If we didn’t love the entirety of A Few Good Men (adapted from his Broadway play) we certainly loved that testy verbal exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson near the end. You remember, “I want the Truth”; “You Can Handle the Truth”. (Actually, that’s rather topical with respect to the whole definition of torture debate going on. But anyway)

And let us not forget our love for West Wing, that White House Drama about the political machinations and fascinating personalities at the highest level of government. We remember downloading all of the episodes we missed, watching them more than twice, if only to follow the oftentimes hurried and inscrutable dialogue. We were sad to see it go off the air, but not surprised. We barely watched the last two seasons. And when Leo (John Spencer) died, well, what was left to say? President Bartlet was succeeded by President-Elect Santos -- both democrats, as fanciful as that was. But the show’s decline began when its writer and creator, Aaron Sorkin, was fired two seasons prior. And of course, he needed a Job, so he went to Hollywood.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is Sorkin’s new job, and he’s brought along Bradley Whitford from the West Wing. The show revolves around the behind-the-scene travails of a Saturday Night Live type production where Whitford and Mathew Perry (of Friends fame) are tasked to helm writing and directing responsibilities. Perry, the writer, has an addiction (or will likely develop one) to painkillers. Both Sorkin and Perry have had histories of drug addiction, so the casting is both self-referentially smirking at us, and so Meta as to be absurd. The charcters were already unbelieveable to begin with, and even more so now. Moreover, it’s self-flattery of the most cringe-inducing sort that Perry’s character is a brilliant award-wining writer, formerly of the NBS network, from where he was fired three years prior, only to be asked back to the network.

Everything about S60SS is self important and bloated, much like the West Wing. The only difference between two, however, is that the bloat and self-importance was necessary for the subject matter of the West Wing, whereas S60SS feels incredibly self-satisfied, not to mention self-masturbatory. When you write about politics at the highest level, seriousness, vapid moralizing, and false, if bien-pensantt, equivalencies are what one traffics in without regard to accuracy. The source material is the White House. But when its Hollywood, and it’s about a “comedy show” and the guys who run it—pah-leas. Which is to say I found nothing particularly compelling about S60SS, nor was any of Sorkin’s script for the pilot the least bit memorable. Needless to say, I didn’t like, and now await its inevitable cancellation.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Mea without the Culpa

After some infelicitous words about Mohammed's teachings and their broader implications on the essence of Islam, namely that they resulted in “evil” and “inhuman” things, the Pope is backtracking. Sort of:

“At this time I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims”

Right. Obviously the emphasis is mine. The Pope’s non-apology turns on rhetorically self-protecting phrases like being deeply sorry “for the reactions”, but not for the actual remarks which, of course, he had the right, and good sense, not to make. Also, that he thinks his remarks “were considered offensive” regardless of whether or not “he” considered them offensive (where he remains silent) elides responsibility again. Although, if he truly believed they were offensive it’s unlikely he would've made them in the first place.

But in the Pope’s defense, the remarks he made where quoted from a medieval text, from which he took the caution to explicitly attribute (“and I quote” etc.) And yet that seems to confound the Pope's conduct, since it must have been clearly obvious to him the incendiary nature of his remarks and the likely response.

Friday, August 25, 2006


I got my hands on a leaked version review copy of Idlewild about two weeks ago and after repeated listening have nothing exactly laudatory to say. What’s worse is that I don’t think it’s any better than Speakerboxxx/The Love Below , which is a shame because I didn’t find that any better than Stankonia. Needless to say, Aquemini was the tops for me, and, sadly, Qutkast has generally fallen off since then. Or is it simply a divergence of creative vision between Dre and Big Boi?

From what I’ve read, Idlewild the motion picture is no different from their working relationship of late. While Dre and Big Boi appear together at beginning of the film, they pretty much share no screen time for the rest of Idlewild. The same goes for the soundtrack.

Dre continues his falsetto treacle as a poor soloist on his end of the disc with cringe inducing tracks like “Chronomentrophobia”, a patently silly mess, and “Greatest Show On Earth”, which features the raspy wheeze of Macy Gray introducing herself and then saying, right after, “I don’t give a damn”. It’s actually kind of funny. “Life is Like a Musical”, a tropically cloying synth-organ-ed jaunt, could’ve been longer.

As for Big Boi, the first single, “Morris Brown”, is a particularly affecting cymbal/bass/drum banger. And that hook is killer. August horns and a wistful chorus elevate “The Train”, Big Boi weaving a typically candid narrative. And yet as a synthesis Idlewild works far better than the partitioned sb/tlb, as well as containing stronger stand alone songs – no “Hey Ya!” here, but solid nonetheless.

But of course the track no one should sleep on is “Hollywood Divorce”, featuring Lil’ Wayne, Snoop, Dre, and Big Boi. Someone turned out the lights. Creepy ass organs sound off. An electronic snare, or what sounds like one, chops up the track awkwardly. Lil’ Wayne’s sixteen is solid and sleepy, while Dre and Big Boi eat up the track entirely. Snoop’s seems like an afterthought.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Miami Vice

I went to see this a couple of weekends ago and was generally surprised at how well Michael Mann turned the Regan era decadence and gloss of the original into a darker, more filmic monster. To be sure, Mann is the maestro of cool when it comes to the drug/crime/underworld genre with films like Heat and more recently Collateral. The subjects of his films are always the most priapic, brooding men surrounded by all of the finest accouterments someone of their level of coolness would naturally have, or failing that, already integrated into the mythology machine of Cool. Ali and Heat are fine examples of this. To wit: Miami Vice is touched with the Mann imprimatur of coolness in a ways far more cinematic, if not experimentally challenging, than his earlier films. Visually, Miami Vice is jarringly dissonant while proving consistently engaging.

The opening club scene of Farrell and Foxx surveying a packed dance floor, a Jay-Z/Linkin Park mash-up punctuating the hard and tight shot changes, draws the viewer into the quieted of cacophony. It’s too easy to get lost in the jumble of situations such as these, but Farrell and Foxx cut through the crowd with an eerie stoicism to dispatch of some bad characters. Like the club scenes in Collateral an austere tone pervades the surface, nearly embedding itself into the content of the scene. The sound and disorder is the scene and everything else going on -- the breaking of hands, the knocking down of random people -- is simply the medium Mann pushes it through. It’s really difficult to follow, but somehow it all makes sense.

When Farrell and Foxx make their way to the rooftop of the club we get a panoramic cityscape of Miami, thunderbolts trembling and lighting flares igniting. Farrell and Foxx are placed at the bottom centre to bottom right of the shot, never truly its focal point. I want to say this was Mann being unintentional about ontology and simply being inured by the “great shot”, but I’d be hard pressed. I’d suggest that the shot’s ontology (and likely that of the film) is itself. It exist for itself and not the characters, hence the visual marginalization or de-emphasis of Farrell and Foxx. Another interesting aspect of the shot is the grainy patina of the high definition camera, which comes off as chintzy, so much so that it’s nearly boiled down to comic book storyboarding. Yet this is what also places the surrealism onto your lap, so to speak: one can’t help but feel either inside or outside this technical strategy’s conceit. My friend was not willing to commit this and so began rolling his eyes in anticipated exasperation. I, however, was following.

Farrell and Foxx are off to find a wayward friend now. An ingenious Viper camera slides overtop and beside other traffic while following their car. The high definition renders everything anxiously, evoking more a mood than a narrative. And this is the general problem people have with Miami Vice, that of the narrative being threadbare or virtually non-existent or, worse still, pointless. These, I take it, are backhanded compliments, in a way, since Mann is hardly working for a narrative, not in the least. To rehearse a police procedural of the likes of Miami Vice would be to revisit all of the torpid clichés and stock gimmicks we typically get from the police/crime procedurals. We saw Bad Boys 2, we know the deal. Mann, however, has supplied literally no back-story for either of his leads, Crocket and Tubbs, and portrayed their relationship, usually a jocular camaraderie, as distant but not cold.

What follows is an exercise in the inscrutable; we understand nothing deeper or more enlightening about the characters, their development or necessary trajectory leading us nowhere particularly interesting.

The mood is the subject. The mise en scene is the mood, and the characters and whatever paltry narrative is offered are not figures standing on top of the mise en scene but necessarily ground into it. I’m still attempting to unpack my thoughts on all of this, so excuse me if this sounds maddeningly obtuse. But my take is that Mann has created something very evocative and visceral here, something very akin to what Terrence Malick accomplished in The New World, a film that elicited a similarly appealing if not altogether perplexing set of emotional responses. I can say that I like both. And maybe like isn’t the right word. But I can say that both films were challenging, both intellectually and perceptually.

Not unrelatedly, I read a story of theaters in Japan spraying particular scents during particular scenes in a movie to heighten the realism, like grass when the scene is in a field. The olfactory sense allows the viewer to experience the film at another level. Something like this is going on in Miami Vice albeit at another, cognitively novel level. Sure it’s a movie you see – but it’s also one that you feel.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

China, Russia and the New World Order.

And therein lies the dilemma
. With all the hemming and hawing going on in American political circles (or perhaps it’s only the cable news outlets) there is nothing short of military intervention the United States can do to North Korea -- nothing they could have done during the first Bush Administration, nothing they could have done during Clinton’s eight years in office. The balance of power rests with China and Russia, and regardless of North Korea’s varied and often times paltry attempts at saber-rattling, the United States, even along with any support the EU can provide, isn’t in a position to do much. The UN is ineffectual in the sense that it’s always been the formal face of naked power politics.

During the cold war, the Security Council didn’t work, or was a joke. And while the Berlin Wall was being dissembled and the halcyon years of the 90’s were being ushered in, the unipolar world historian and political scientists anticipated already had a best before date. China and Russia have and will always be that counterweight to US hegemony; this is simply a fact of international relations.

That North Korea can act like they have, drawing worldwide rebuke, proving nothing but there military incompetence (the missiles failed during launch) and still draw no Security Council support for sanctions from neither Russia nor China speaks to the natural symmetry geopolitics necessarily assumes, or will eventually revert back to. All that talk about American Empire now seems woefully premature if not altogether silly.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Not Cool.

As quick as I am to disparage Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, as loath as I am to admit that he's doing some counterintuitvely interesting things (the play for the middle-class, enticing the immigrant vote, out-moderating the Liberals) I am clearly not in favor of beheading our Prime Minister -- not in an ironical sense, not in metaphorical sense, and likely not in a fictional sense (at least not now, since it'll likely be over-done).

And so the recent terror arrests still have me a little nonplussed; how exactly Canada is a credible target -- not that other nations are more deserving -- strikes me as absurd. But we are -- and if the allegations prove to be accurate, sensational as they are, it's an entirely different ballgame; and as much as we'd wish we weren't, Canadians are in the field of play.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


The newest issue of n+1, Reconstruction, arrived on Tuesday, and it’s a thick one. The Intellectual Scene column chronicling the piquant cultural ruminations of our hapless, misanthropic, and nameless narrator has been interrupted, apparently as a result of fact that "our culture and everyday life may not exist in their current form much longer." He will, if we are lucky, likely return for issue # five.

But the gauntlet has been dropped, and this interruption prefaces a piece by Chad Harbach on the ever-contentious and now au courant debates concerning the threat of Global Warming. That we have crossed the point at which reversal is no longer an option; that our technological capabilities and our capitalist market economies disregard both social and environmental externalities; that having escaped, if only for the time being, the threat of mutual nuclear destruction has afforded us a comfort only borne of complacence is essentially what Harbach’s getting at. And now with climate patterns varying wildly - floods, hurricanes, tornados, sun nearly every day in February (in Ontario) - the thought that it is not each other we should fear but, instead, mother nature's impending wrath or revenge, what have you, is the comeuppance we'll deserve.

Meanwhile, I haven't looked through the entire issue yet, deferring to read and savor it in portions, but it's turning out to be one of the more interesting issues. The flame war between critic James Wood and novelist Jonathan Franzen continues with a Franzen letter to the editors. Franzen is incredulous to Woods imputation that he practices a “Thin Aestheticism.”

The first salvo, if it could be called that, was Wood's review of Franzen's The Corrections for the New Republic. In it, Wood invoked Franzen's infamous Harper's essay, a lamentation on the diminishing possibility of the Social Novel, which he called "intelligent" and "affecting" but also "long" and incoherent. Of Franzen's solution, now having relented on the idea of a Social Novel altogether, Wood detected a "Thin Aestheticism" in Franzen’s tone; Franzen's tacit intention was now, as he saw it, "To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them."

And it was back in issue # three, Reality Principle, in which Wood was replying to the editors’ churlish assessment of the negative tendency literary criticism had taken, that Wood re-invoked Franzen's "Thin Aestheticism". Although, to be fair, he believed that Franzen couldn't really adhere to something of the sort. Franzen has taken exception to this by responding that he'd like to admire Wood but can't really trust him. At one level Franzen has misread Wood and Wood has misunderstood Franzen. Yet on another, they disagree on the means, though the constituent parts of a novel turn out to say something social nonetheless.

Further on in issue # four we get a trenchant survey of American Writing Today, of which Keith Gessen's essay on Money and publishing is a must read. On balance, the issue seems a strong one.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A day without irony

What universe do we live in when Daryn Kagan of CNN can say "It looks like a victory for the former stripper Anna Nicole Smith at the US-Supreme court" without a hint of irony? But hat-tip to ANS who is owed something in the order of $200 million dollars. That aphorism about there not being enough money in the world to buy class and whatnot may, in this instance, not obtain. Certainly one could buy a modicum of class or, at the very least, something resembling class with $200 million dollars.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Gerard Kennedy, former Ontario education miniter, is running for the Liberal leadership. His intention: "To make Canada the first international country in the world." Really? And I actually like this guy. He seems (or seemed) compentent, was doing yeoman's work re-conceptualizing Ontario's pitful education system, particularly the Secondary Schools. In general, he didn't strike me as the kind of person who'd say this type of non-sense. Maybe I'm misunderstanding him, but it wouldn't have hurt to be a little more clear.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Guggenheim

Last week at around this time I was making my way through Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural lodestar, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Only after scrutinizing as many pieces of David Smith's contorted steel sculpture as was humanly possible in two hours, I realized that a Wassily Kandinsky exhibit was also showing and, fortuitously, stumbled into the right room.

And I can't say that I'm too much of a fan. There seems to be a saccharine quality to Kandinsky's work, an overwhelming surfeit of color that can induce nausea. His geometric work, which is generally considered his later work, strikes me as more interesting. And yet.

Blue Mountains, Kandinsky

Little did I know that the Museum's permanent collection, the Thannhauser collection, was available for viewing and not in the vault as I suspected -- whereas some Museums think it wise to place their Warhols and Hockneys, their only draws no doubt, in the vault. So I got to see some Cubists, Braque and Picasso, and some Impressionists, Manet, Passario, Monet (whose work I didn't get to see at the Louvre); and two unlikely corresponding contemporaries, Gauguin and Van Gogh; and a slew of contemporary art: de Kooning, Pollack, Stella, Kline, Gottlieb, Rothko, if they could be considered contemporary in any proper sense.

The Bowl of Grapes, Braque

Since I had to go back to Connecticut that night, I didn't get a chance to get to MoMA, spending most of my time either wandering around Central Park or trying to catch celebs on 5th or Central Park West.

Friday, April 14, 2006


I'm literally out the door on my way to Connecticut, so I'll dispense with all the formalities. I'll comment later on the CYHSY show at the Oprea House last weekend (Crazy!) and the Ralston Saul Lecture at Western (Yawn). But I can't seem to get this ridiculous (as in good) song out of my head,here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Betwixt and Between

The Great Game has begun again in an entirely different context. This time, instead of Central Asia it’s Eastern Europe, predominantly Orthodox Christian countries. And instead of Britain (essentially the EU countries) it’s the United States facing off against Russia in a stealth game of geopolitical proxy chicken. No military engagement seems necessary; rather, it’s the ineluctable march of democracy that appears to be driving these successive revolutions. First, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, technically in Central Asia, but a former Soviet republic nonetheless, and then the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, another former soviet republic, followed by what will be the Belarusian revolution, another breakaway Soviet republic.

This is an unwelcome development for Russia, who, even after the end of the Cold war, has always maintained a de facto regional sway over these republics, favoring and propping up Moscow friendly strongmen like Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, Viktor Yanukovych in the Ukraine, and now Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. It is almost certain that Lukashenko will share the same fate of both Shevardnadze and Yanukovych, considering the circumstances are exactly the same. In the Georgian and Ukrainian contretemps, election results that were widely regarded as fraudulent resulted in civil unrest, which lead to international opprobrium and calls for either new elections, with credible international monitors of course, the path the Ukraine took, or the dissolution of government entirely, the way that Georgia went. And it’s obvious who benefited.

Mikhail Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School in the U.S and now president of Georgia, and Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine, are pro-western, or more clearly, leaders of a neo-liberal bent. They are seen as integral pieces in wresting the reins of regional power from Russia. And although the United States and to a lesser extent the EU have no direct involvement in these developments (it may be patently obvious though) they have myriad indirect associations – because, in the end, it’s beneficial for them.

For instance, George Soros’ Open Society and the Liberty Institute, among numerous others, are private foundations that aim to shape international public and social policy, putatively, but are instead proxies that help foment civil protest against authoritarian governments, or primarily Eastern European governments, the type of concerted and behind-the-scenes actions that spelt the end of the Cold War. But is this a necessarily bad thing?

I’m always skeptical of arguments that discount the intentions of Georgians and Ukrainians' desire to have more transparent, less authoritarian government. Does a little push along hurt matters? Granted, the type of government that takes form after said ‘push along’ is where the issue turns. Would they be encouraged (forced) to remove all import tariffs, open up financial markets, sell off national resources at fire-sale prices, Privatize! Privatize! Privatize! and generally prostrate themselves to be a (subordinate) friend of the West?

This is a legitimate concern, one that can be countered by citing the experience of the Ukraine presently. It’s seems that just two years after the Orange revolution Viktor Yushchenko is having some trouble implementing his neo-liberal agenda, add that to the economic slow down in the region, and Mr. Yushchenko may lose the upcoming parliamentary elections. The answer, then, to neo-liberal hegemony, particularly in this case, seems to be the electorate’s desire for representative democracy and accountable government, a novel and historically well-tested concept the apathetic West should consider revisiting

And the two seemingly unrelated stories I came across today begin to cohere: The first, the US joining the EU in sanctions against Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko following, you guessed it, questionable election results; The second, more ominous, the Pentagon releasing a report that claims the Russian Foreign Ambassador in Iraq (sounds redundant) provided military intelligence to Saddam during the weeks preceding the US lead invasion, or war. That’s a twofer: one a slap on the wrist against Belarus, and by extension Russia, the other a direct shot square in the nose. But how will Russia counter? The Great Game continues.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Special Ops

Hat tip to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for visiting our Canadian troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Yes it looks like a cynical photo-op, and yes all those “mission accomplished” analogies can be raised; but because of the recent spat of intense attacks our soldiers have been under, this visit was both a morale booster and a politically astute move, considering the icy relationship between Mr. Harper and the media.

And yet on another level it begs for an actual public dialogue on Canada’s role in Afghanistan, something the Conservatives have thus far been unwilling to allow in Parliament. If Mr. Harper believes it was important to visit the troops, then it should follow that a public debate on their mission, if only to affirm its significance, should be convened in the house. Mr. Harper's trip only make this more likely, and attempts to rule out one only makes his jaunt to Afganistan that much more superficial.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Moving on

My apologizes to Mr. Haggis for my earlier vitriol against his, still undeserved, Best Picture win. Although it may appear to be the case, my protestations toward Crash having nothing to do with closeted homosexual sentiments and/or proclivities. And this is not to say that Brokeback Mountain isn’t at the political vanguard in normalizing the depiction of gay romance, which it is, but that it’s more than that: It’s really beautiful filmmaking; probably the best in some years, in my opinion. (OK, I’ll watch Junebug and Cache and then contextualize my praise for Brokeback.)

But the issue I have with Crash, along with many other dissenters, is how patently absurd it is. It’s flat out bad filmmaking, which makes all of this dissent revolve around aesthetics or form, even if the content is similarly hackneyed. Altmanesque ensemble cast: check. Conveniently interconnected narratives: check. Self-importance cudgel: check. Subtly: not check. I’d be rehearsing a number of points I’ve read in other places if I continue, points that were better elaborated and far sharper, so suffice it to say that Crash is a bad, bad, bad film. I can’t fight it, so I’ll just move on.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Against Crash, or why the Oscars are irrelevant

I’m calling bullshit on the Academy giving Crash the Oscar for Best Picture. Crash is an incredible film in the sense that real people don’t have conservations the way Crash has depicted them. Real people have psychological motives and a modicum of manners and better things to do with their time than blurt-out silly and unprovoked racial epithets. Despite its stirring second act, in which deus ex machinas abound to conveniently resolve all of the implausible if otherwise charming narratives, Crash is still a garbage film penned by a sentimentally manipulative hack (see Million Dollar Baby) It was obvious as the err occurred, Jack Nicholson opening the envelope, calling the wrong name: “Crash?”

There was a collective gasp which I’m sure Ang Lee, after receiving the Oscar for Best Director and being quickly shuttled off stage, registered. They didn’t cut to a shot of Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal or any one else in building but the cast of Crash and their hack of a director Paul Haggis. Yes, they wanted to capture the winners. But guess what – nobody else was smiling.

And if you think that Crash was some type of commentary on contemporary race relations, and that it somehow addressed our messy polarities – what we say to ourselves and how we act with others – then you are exactly the type of useful idiot who’d bite.

isn’t any of these things and is far less ambitious in its reach than the charlatan down the street or that clown at your office claims. It neither answers questions nor raises them. It’s an awful film. I hate it more now that it has won an Oscar. And this is tokenism of the highest order: to prop up a film as a lode star for a dialogue on race – a film that is criminally inane, a film that is thus charged with negligence for the harm that it will no doubt inflict.

So go forth and talk amongst your friends and family about how Crash changed your life. Tell your children about how Crash dealt with real people talking about race frankly. And it’s surely fitting that Haggis quoted Brecht, saying that “Art isn’t a Mirror, it’s a Hammer” which I guess is supposed to shape society.

Listen to Haggis’s admission: he’s not interested in reflecting society, since he couldn’t care less how real people talk to each other about race. And I’m not understating how he’s shaping it. Bertolt Brecht was overtly political in his drama; Paul Haggis is a hack. For a film purportedly interested in society and race, Crash isn’t political in any regard.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


A ridiculously absurd but altogether fascinating excerpt from Rolling Stone’s stunning look inside Scientology,
Both of Natalie’s parents are Clear (ridding one’s self of the reactive mind), she says. Her Grandmother is what’s called an “Operating Thetan,” “OT.” So is Tom Crusie, who is near the top of Scientology’s Bridge, at a level known as OT VII. OT’s are Scientology’s elite -- enlightened beings who are said to have total “control” over themselves and their environment. OT’s can allegedly move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behavior of, both animals and human beings. At the highest level, they are allegedly liberated from the physical universe, to the point where they can psychically control what Scientologists call MEST: Matter, Energy, Space and Time.
I guess this explains that missing clip from Thank You for Smoking at this year’s Sundance. But it doesn’t explain why Tom Crusie hasn’t won an Oscar yet, or managed to control the behavior of Paparazzi.

An aside
: Saw Brokeback. Verged on tears. Will win Oscar. Ledger, I think, was much better than Hoffman, though I did enjoy Capote. Without Gyllenhaal Brokeback is a different film, so I’m going with another upset. I don’t think either Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck necessarily warrant the type of attention they’ve received – I see them working on a political level, as commendable agitprop, but as strong cinema they don’t cut it for me. (This notwithstanding David Strathairn's superb performance in Goodnight) Aberrations like Munich and, let us not forget the highly manipulative, Crash strike me as wrongheaded in light of Cronenberg’s outstanding A History of Violence. Even considering all its hype, which should work more as detriment to a film of its quality, Brokeback is one of the best films of the last 6 years.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Harrison Ford as Harrison Ford

Ever since he abandoned us for his waif of a girlfriend, the delusional, GGI-baby-dancing Calista Flockhart, Harrison Ford has managed to stay off the Hollywood grid, most likely brooding, or whatever else he does in between brooding. And why shouldn’t he have? He, like no other Movie Star of his Boomer generation, has been the gold standard at the box office. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were so seminal as to create their own genre. Not only that, Harrison Ford seemed to have inaugurated a modern turn on a familiar archetype: the acerbic, anti-authority world-weary Man with a capital 'M'. The center of gravity for any movie, then, became the extent to which Harrison Ford could exude the gravitas synonymous with this archetype. So it was only logical that Han Solo and Indiana Jones become founts of masculinity, never truly Organization men, perpetually eschewing norms, unabashedly churlish and maybe even sexist at times, but always there to help us out of a pinch.

Alternatively, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, and Blade Runner were just the type of art-house fare that conferred on him the knowing nods and begrudging respect of aficionados, even if he was still Harrison Ford the Movie Star. And who can forget his competent if short stint as CIA operative Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger? While the passable yet patently absurd Fugitive turnouts out to be, well, passable, Air Force One, even in those halcyon days that precede the Terror Wars of today, augured some kind finality. Harrison Ford the Movie Star, our cultural archetype for the Everyman, was quickly becoming a cliché of himself.

But all this shouldn’t matter. Six Days Seven Nights shouldn’t Matter. Hollywood Homicide, especially, shouldn’t matter. Anything from 1998 going forward shouldn’t matter for reasons less articulate but more quantifiable. $5.65 billion dollars: a great number in the abstract, yes, but all the more persuasive to the calculations of studio execs. This is the kind of monopoly money that entrenches a Movie Star and, perhaps, allows him to transcend type and self -- and just be. Having been an integral part of movies that grossed over or around $5.65 billion dollars internationally, the highest of any other actor (Samuel L. Jackson’s demurrals notwithstanding), Harrison Ford just is. And while none of this should matter, it is the problem that greets us in his latest offering, the claustrophobic thriller Firewall.

Jack Stanfield is the head of network security at a bank in Seattle. The conceit we are to believe is that Harrison Ford isn’t Harrison Ford but instead Jack Stanfield. Harrison Ford is 62 and his only familiarity with computer technology is as Han Solo. There were no such things as personal computers in 1977. But why quibble? That urbane and relentlessly charming Paul Bettany gets all campy as the film’s villain -- sneering, flaring his lips, looking as menacing as a hot-tempered Jimmy Carter. This is the type of method acting where one recites ‘paycheck’ over and over to suspended one’s own disbelief. Virginia Madsen as Harrison Ford’s wife similarly ratchets up the dolor:
“Who’s picking their scripts?” is one question.

But because the movie’s name is Firewall and Mr. Stanfield works at a bank: expect the villain to use the family as leverage, declaring to kill them if $100 million dollars isn’t transferred from the bank into his offshore account. And of course the $100 million dollars sounds derivative; the movie isn’t shy about its banality. In a way, though, it is novel that they wire Mr. Stanfield with modern accouterments, so we and they are able to follow his every move. One slip-up and that’s it for his family. Although when said slip-up comes about, Paul Bettany is unserious. A villain must be serious in his convictions otherwise he’s not a villain -- he’s just simulacrum. When a villain says he’s going to break your son’s knee -- he should. And when a villain starts killing his own henchmen -- who’d have a hard time convincing SAG that they were actors -- it’s not only a logistical mess, it hurts morale and is flat out silly. I say break the boy’s knee.

We are hopeful when Virginia Madsen says to her daughter “This is going to be over very soon”, but she is lying, there is still another interminable hour. What follows is Harrison Ford with implacable brow; Harrison Ford and inaudible grunts; Harrison Ford running toward the camera, smoldering with intensity or consternation or hunger; Harrison Ford scaling buildings; Harrison Ford bludgeoning a man to death with a coffee urn; Harrison Ford skulking in the corner, somehow being setup for another murder; Harrison Ford standing over his friend’s dead body, unthinkingly grabbing the gun that killed him and leaving his prints; Harrison Ford tracking blood all over the walls. Let us all remember that Harrison Ford is a mature 62. He just may be getting too old for this.

The badness of this movie almost seems purposeful. At the mercy of convention, the director seems to have decided to cleave so single-mindedly to genre that the movie is left without stylistic variation. And the technology meme is just too ephemeral for a movie purportedly called Firewall. But the movie ultimately announces its own badness by recycling a cliché: Harrison Ford. Excuse me for being under-whelmed, but Mr. Ford has moved from Archetype to Cliché, his former identity buried under heaps and heap of re-presentation. Harrison Ford is indistinguishable from any roles he portrays because Harrison Ford is always Harrison Ford. Why isn’t this a problem for, say, Anthony Hopkins? Simple. Movie Stars get old; Actors get better parts.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bush Determined To Change Message

Certainly one of the funniest headlines of 2006: Bush: Bin Laden Should Be Taken Seriously; via Yahoo news, courtesy of the AP wire service. I guess now is probably a better time than not to take Osama bin Laden seriously, seeing as how he’s kind of responsible for that whole 9/11 thingy, and, somehow, over the last four years since the attack has released more mix tapes than Tony Touch.

Now everything Bush is saying shouldn’t be glossed over so quickly; hey, don’t roll those eyes ceiling-ward, please no audible sighs. Pay attention. Said Bush: “When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it”. And Bush should know. Everyone is now already familiar with that cryptic August 6th, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing entitled Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US. In it, among other things, was this indecipherable nonsense:
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

I’m no intelligence analyst sifting through recondite classified data, but I’m fairly certain that upon seeing this briefing, I would have done something other than stay at the Ranch. But this briefing, apparently, wasn’t evidence enough to take Bin Laden serious, it would seem.

So today Bush needed to reiterate the gravity of this craven man’s intention, if only to respond to Bin Laden’s recent release already climbing the charts. Bush made his 'little' speech, as irony would have it, inside the National Security Agency, wherein the putatively 'legal' wiretappings of American citizens are being conducted. (Clearing throat sonorously). Yes, that NSA!

It turns out that Mr. Bush is doing that cynical sleight of hand routine again. “See, Bin Laden is serious about attacking us. Therefore, my possibly illegal surveillance program is justified. Isn’t it?” Not likely.

When it was easy enough to get a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrant, even 72 hours after said act of surveillance, Bush didn’t. Bush attempted to justify his administration’s actions first by referencing the Iraq resolution, which nobody was buying, and then reaching for historical precedent, asserting that Lincoln and Roosevelt had availed themselves of the inherent right of the President in protecting the country. This inherent right is to be found somewhere in the Constitution, but the trouble is that it’s not there.

Enter Bin Laden, Mr. al-Qaida, Mr. Terror par excellence, and ‘justification number three for thus far illegal surveillance program’. And I’m not entirely adverse to the genuine need for some type of surveillance program because, pace Bush, if someone from al-Qaida is calling you, I want to know. Though, let’s not be naïve and pretend like something of this nature never existed before; it did, albeit on a far limited scale. After 9/11 national security couldn’t be treated as complacently as it had before. Yet, at the same time, there are limits. And Mr. Bush needs to be reminded of them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Syriana is, to my mind, an elaborated, over-long doppelgänger of Crash; except this time set in the Middle East and dealing with another nettlesome issue -- Oil. Like Paul Haggis’s Crash, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is interested in argument over story or narrative. Notwithstanding his function as a screenwriter, Gaghan appears to have used the film as a vehicle to dramatize a number of debates that have been circulating throughout our post-9\11 environment.

First, American dependency on foreign oil has long been the hobbyhorse of well-meaning liberals, and since Syriana was executive produced by EBay founder Jeff Skoll, Hollywood Auteur Steven Soderbergh and his collaborator qua renaissance man George Clooney, the argument is one that has great purchase in the film. The second, more general argument deals with means, or more to the point, the lengths to which American dependency on foreign oil is sustained. These issues and the arguments that surround them can range from the remarkable, to the compelling, to the exhaustingly tedious, to the downright delusive. So where does Gaghan’s offering register on the gamut?

To be fair, the answer would be as long and as convoluted as Syriana, so it would be simpler to describe the mise en scène first. Set in the breath-taking environs of Beirut, George Clooney portrays Bob Barnes, a grizzled CIA case officer who is not unlike Robert Baer, the grizzled CIA case officer and author of See No evil, a book which Syriana, evidently, borrows from. Clooney’s character engages in stealth deals whose transactions involve the sale of United States weaponry to Middle Eastern intermediaries. All of this, unsurprisingly, is entirely under the auspices of the United States government. That is one thread.

Interspersed with this are disparate threads that eventually, hopefully, form some type of semblance. Chris Cooper is the churlish Texan Oil executive, replete with all those impolite southern bon mots. As the Managing Partner of an ethically disinterested law firm, Christopher Plummer renders the single-minded and boundless venality of his ilk brilliantly. Matt Damon the actor plays Matt Damon as an energy trader.

There is an emir, maybe in Beirut, not likely in Tehran -- who knows? -- on the precipice of deciding which one of his sons will become the next emir. One son is a reformer buoyed by a strong sense of obligation and commitment to his country; he hopes to reinvest the country's oil wealth back into the countries pitiable infrastructure. The other son wants to sell his country's oil to the Americans at below market-value; he also isn’t troubled with the idea of American military bases on his soil. Guess who the American favor? Guess who’s going to be the next emir? And still there are other threads, one turning out to be periphery, the other even still more periphery. So much for the narrative. But wither Gaghan’s arguments?

To recapitulate a point, Crash and Syriana are the same movie. Both grab at contrived almost opportunistic scenarios to manipulate, as A.O Scott of the Times says of Crash, dialogue and mood. When Matt Damon trails off into one of those prolix geopolitical diatribes reminiscent of Good Will Hunting, his studied earnestness betrays a false intention. The dialogue feels too much like arguments Gaghan may have had with close friends. Standing in the picturesque deserts of Lebanon turns out to be just an excuse to have these arguments.

On another occasion we look in on a Madrassa, the imam is lecturing to the students about the failure of liberal states, noting that “deregulation”, “privatization”, or “lower taxes” are not cures to the ailments of modernity, saying quiet ominously that Christian theology has utter failed. Do imams really talk like this? To me, this sounds like Gaghan as an imam pontificating to a western audience. But who knows?

We must keep in mind that Gaghan penned Traffic, a better film than Syriana, which also involved intersecting and convoluted narrative threads, except that time dealing with the drug trade. And if oil is the drug which Americans are dependent on, then, like Traffic, Syriana talks of systems beyond the comprehension and control of individual agents. What Syriana does best, then, is to explicate the essences of systems. That the only inertia is self-interest, that the system will always remain static, and that beneath and above the myriad layers of obfuscation there is no logic, only self-interest replacing self-interest.

The crux of Gaghan's argument is that Big Oil and American national interests are synonymous, and that in the pursuit of these interests Middle Eastern governments, perforce, must necessarily reflect United States dicta. The deck is always stacked against contrary outcomes. It's an argument that is difficult to disagree with. All of this begins to sound very glib.


The aesthetic of Syriana is very much like that of Traffic’s. The pacing is languorous, the shots, many on hand-held cameras, capture stunting landscapes and lush vistas, yet the cinematography in general chooses an austere sensibility. For a film of this genre it feels too antiseptic, too insular, too prosaic, and too indistinguishable from Traffic at points. Syriana isn’t a bad film, for the conclusions it attempts to reach are novel, but it’s not necessarily a good one either, since the arguments it disguises as drama are about as credible as they were in Crash.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

New Slang

And the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada: After all the axes are grinded, the knives sharpened, cudgels gathered, and tridents hoisted -- after that final hatchet is dug into Paul Martin’s back by an erstwhile ally, Mr. Martin inevitably relenting and stepping down as the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff will be chosen as the new Liberal leader.

Mr. Ignatieff, that Harvard intellectual and humanitarian hawk whose support for the Iraq war was convincing enough for this humble writer to bite, prevailed in the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore to win a seat in the House of Commons and a chance at the Liberal leadership. By earlier accounts, Mr. Ignatieff was in tough. The Etobicoke-Lakeshore constituents were generally skeptical of a Liberal parachute candidate who hadn’t lived in Canada in over 40 years. Despite his impeccable and no doubt enviable credentials -- Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard, broadcaster, journalist, professor, author of numerous books, novelist, Booker prize nominee, etc. -- people weren’t buying his run for a likely backbench position in a Liberal opposition. Something smacked of opportunism.

It didn’t help that the Liberal machine all but secured his nomination, locking out a local Croatian candidate who had his own designs of succeeding Jean Augustine, a former Liberal stalwart in that riding. And so, predictably, Michael Ignatieff rallies were stormed by jilted Croatians excoriating him for his support of the Iraq war and his alleged Croatian racism. In rebutting these criticisms Ignatieff, a commentator on the Balkan wars and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia, drew the distinction between his misgivings with an aggressive Croatian nationalism and Croatian racism. Mr. Ignatieff wrote thoughtfully on the former while never evincing any evidence of the latter. Many of the attacks on him were both defamatory and without merit.

The Conservative candidate in the race, John Capobianco, couldn’t shake the baggage of working in the backrooms of the disreputable Mike Harris government. The NDP candidate, Liam McHugh-Russell, was an unserious University of Toronto Law student who didn’t even make the effort to prepare for a debate against Michael Ignatieff because, as he says, he didn’t think anyone was showing up. Sure. But in the end Ignatieff out classed them all.

And as I finish up writing this, my man, Paul Martin, has stepped down with dignity and grace – deciding to not run again and therefore leaving the door open for hopeful leadership candidates.

Monday, January 23, 2006


I just finished watching a ridiculous Toronto Raptors’ game on the T.V. Down in La La Land, the Raps looked to grab a second win on their west coast road trip. Initially the Lakers came out flat and altogether uninspired. They were essentially dead in the water by half time down 13 points. “Kobe’s going to get his points” went the refrain; and sure, why not, let him have his 40 points -- just as long as the Raps walk away with the W. And so at one point in the third quarter when the Raps were up by 18, it was easy enough to say “so what if he hits a few jumpers”. But when the 17-foot jumpers turned into 25-foot three pointers, the Raps exchanging twos for Kobe threes, we had entered dangerous territory. At the end of the third Kobe collected 53 points as if the Raptor defenders were lowly J.V.

Earlier today I had joked with my brother at the absurdity and ease with which Kobe put up points. In this calendar he is averaging close to 45 points-a-game; over the last 15 games, I believe, he’s had only one twenty point game, the rest have been 30, 40, and even 50 point outings. And then we wondered whether or not Jordan had ever scored over 70. We checked the records and were surprised to know that he hadn’t (69), and then joked again that Kobe would do it sooner or later considering the season he was having. The irony could not go unnoticed especially and because five minutes into the fourth quarter Kobe had 60 and the game was effectively done -- the Raptors looking passive and impotent. I’m a big Bosh fan, so it was a bit problematic to see him struggle yet at the same time cheer Kobe on. But I did nonetheless. The Raptors, like everyone else enjoying the game, sat back and watched history.

Bryant finished the game with 81 points, the second highest single game point total, behind only Chamberlain’s historic 100. To put things into perspective, something that should embarrass the Raptors, Kobe out scored them 55 to 41 in the second half. Asked about the unenviable task of guarding Kobe Bryant earlier that night, Morris Peterson (Mo-Pete!) reflected thusly: “A player like that is going to get his points.” Clearly Mo-Pete hadn’t imagined anywhere near that many.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I’m already partial to that adorable, jowl-cheeked of a Prime Minister Paul Martin, so this may not be saying much, but have you seen the latest Liberal ad? No it’s not a scurrilous hit-piece about how Mr. Harper is indistinguishable from the far-right neoconservative hawks responsible for the Iraq debacle. And it’s markedly less anti-American than the latest spate of artless Liberal ads. The ad begins innocuously enough with Paul Martin side straddling an oak dresser. He’s looking pensive and unhurried, which is a change.

Doubtless a recent ad sprung together in response to criticisms over their glib anti-Americanism, this ad places the Prime Minister front and center admitting a) that Canada’s relationship with the US is valued; b) that the US is our neighbour and not our nation (ed. – I’m looking at you Stephen); and c) that the Liberal government has not been ‘perfect’ – really?. After listing off our country’s peerless values he asks for Canadians to join him on Monday to choose ‘that Canada’: the one that values socially progressive principles like….. Obligatory platitudes here. It looked like he was in a hotel room, between campaign stops, or perhaps just woken from sleep, but altogether he looked ascendant.

Yet it still seems questionable that the Conservative will form a majority government -- baring some unfortunate vote splitting in Quebec and British Columbia in their favor. A third way has become progressively more palatable, and the NDP will likely see the fruits of years and years of labor pains. Mr. Layton should unqualifiedly be commended for this turn around, as well as Mr. Chrétien, incidentally.

And yet it’s still tight in Ontario, the electoral plinth any sitting government rests on. Expect plenty of final week histrionics from all parties; and expect one of the closest federal elections in modern history -- or since the last one

Thursday, January 12, 2006

End Game

It's not like I predicted an impending Conservative swell in my December 13 post -- not in the slightest. I simply noted on how well they had been campaigning up until that point. Trends were fairly suggestive of this Crest, as they should've been. Flat out: the Liberals were being out hustled on every score. It's been a bit pathetic.

As the campaign heads into its final week there appears to be no give in the Conservative's momentum. Paul Martian and the Liberals are, at this point, suffering from a peculiar problem. It's not so much that people are dismayed by allegations of corruption, or that they have simply fatigued at the thought of another Liberal government, it's that the Liberals no longer register. After twelve years in government the Liberals have become government.

The distinction is a fine one. Whereas the Conservatives and NDP can run on the outsider platform that rebukes the sitting government, the Liberals are hamstrung by their inability to offer anything in the ways of a critique, because to do so would invalidate what the Liberals have done for the last twelve years. The Liberals are running on a record that has played too long. (Even if that'’s been a good thing for Canada on the whole)

Monday'’s debate, one could say, was an aberration, conforming nothing substantial save for the biases we already brought. Naturally, Paul Martin was flailing his arms affectedly, like the sailor watching the sea swallow his ship. But true to form Martin didn't miss his opportunity to miss an opportunity. When Stephen Harper was being grilled by Duceppe and Layton about the mysterious individuals donating to his campaign, and looking considerably flustered, to the extent that Stephen Harper can look flustered, the moderator offered Martin a piece of HarperÂ’s flesh, an opportunity to strike. Martin brushed aside the offer with an effete gesture to say, inexplicably,"I would like to talk about the Notwithstanding clause"”.

The 'Brian-trust' at the Liberal war room sure has its finger on the pulse of the common Canadian. When was the last time you and your friend got into a contentious argument about the Supremacy of the Parliament and the jurisdictional impositions an independent and unelected body places on Provinces through the Charter? Doubtless the chatter around the water cooler the following morning was all about that ignoble clause.

Other highlights in the Debate were Stephen Harper'’s tightly controlled coif, his incrementally better attempt at conveying humanoid characteristics; Jack Layton'’s piercing snake charmer's gaze, the effect of which was to project that silent and desperate intensity commonly associated with used Car salesmen --– but he sold it; Giles Duceppe's wildly fluctuating inflections, later settling into that grizzly curmudgeon we grown to disdain and love all at the same time.

And then came the Liberal attack ads, which were baseless, deplorable, and pretty much correct. Spliced with quotes from an erstwhile, politically inept, Stephen Harper, the ads materialize into a direct focus of Harper'’s suspect and tragically deformed eyes, implicitly asking us whether or not we could trust eyes like this. The short answer is no. But change is a tough thing to stop. I'’m crossing my fingers blue for only a Conservative minority, given that the NDP, and ironically the Liberals, will have the balance of power. All bets may be off, though, since it appears that the Conservative's could be heading for a majority. Gulp.