Thursday, July 20, 2006

Night Falls

Since "Lady in the Water" comes out this week, I thought a little reflection on director and reported egomaniac M. Night Shyamalan was in order.

First of all, early word on "Lady" is very bad. I think the early consensus is "Dead in the Water." Since Night broke with Disney on this film, if it opens weak, the Disney chiefs will be seen as freakin' genius svengalis between their success in shooting Superman out of the sky last week and their smarts in dropping this bomb.

If the $75 million "Lady" doesn't bring in audiences, the folks at Warner Brothers will feel about the same as the folks in Beirut on Monday; Warners' expensive "Poseidon" sank in May, and "Seoperman" couldn't get off the ground. "Lady" is the last summer tentpole they have.

But, as everybody writes the epitaph for Night, I am going to recommend that you go out this weekend and rent or buy the charming and vastly underrated "Unbreakable," a wonderful interpretation of the superhero origin story as a mythological thumbnail sketch and a study in humanity. And Philly has never looked more hauntingly beautiful.

As bad as Night is when his ego gets away with him (and "The Village" was offensively bad), when he's good, the man is possessed of a brilliance. He may be in a rough patch on his way to becoming his generation's Spielberg, but whether he ever recovers, the guy was good once.

And speaking of being good again, Kevin Smith returns to the Quick Stop with a sequel to Clerks. I remember the first time I saw this movie. It was before Chasing Amy came out, but after Mall Rats, and one of my friends rented it and made a bunch of us watch it.

I was maybe 14 at the time. After the pervert clown View Askew title card, and the realization that the film was going to be in black and white, I was ready to go upside my friend's head, but by the time Caitlin Bree had sex with the corpse in the third act, I was totally with the movie.

I was disappointed with the early demise of the short-lived television show a few years back, and I enjoyed the cameos in the otherwise weak "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back." So I'm looking forward to this and the early word sounds good. Apparently, a woman has sex with a donkey.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fore!

Our hero takes some time off from his multistate practice questions to discuss sports with some feminists. Enjoy.

Give 'em Hell!

Slate says Israelis are really pissed off. I think they're justified.

In spite of the perpetuation of the notion, dearly held by campus progressives and peace advocates, that Israel is a Western-Imperialist Junta built upon second class subjugation of the brownish locals, Israel has been a somewhat unwilling occupier, aspiring to benevolence and final status against fanatical enemies who kill civilians intentionally.

In spite of the vast-right-wing-conspiracy theorists who rank the "Jewish Lobby" ahead of the NRA, Pat Robertson and oil companies in influence, even Israel's right-wing parties haven't been that hawkish. Likud hero Menachem Begin did, after all, give up Sinai for peace with Egypt. And it's duly noted that, subsequent to that historic peace accord, one of those "activists" from Islamic Jihad shot Anwar Sadat over it.

Israel, far from the territorial expansionist imperial power, had attempted to demilitarize Gaza and Southern Lebanon by unilaterally withdrawing troops behind its borders. This has clearly only encouraged the terrorists. (And, yes, I will refer to Hamas and Hezbollah and members of both groups, including the purportedly political members, as terrorists. If you disagree, my comments are unmoderated.)

Israel's key dilemma in the territories and in Lebanon is the same problem the United States is having in Iraq, While the terrorists' war is absolute, Israel isn't at war with the civilians, doesn't consider them enemies, and would prefer not to make enemies of them. That means that Israel has to wage war on terrorists while minimizing civilian casualties, which is probably why it has rarely unleashed its fighter jets against the heavily populated areas in Gaza where Hamas terrorists congregate. Terrorists are not similarly principled. They blow up civilian restaurants and buses, and launch rockets carelessly at cities. They aspire to kill as many civilians as possible, and if Israel responded in kind, the results would be terrible to behold. Lebanon and Gaza would look like Chechnya. Russia has, incidentally, condemned Israel's actions.

This time, though, it's too far, because these attacks have taken place in the wake of Israel's affirmative steps toward withdrawal on all fronts. Hamas and Hezbollah have now manifested unambiguously that their war will not end, despite any withdrawal, the end of any occupation, the withdrawal behind the green line or any line. It's time for Hamas and Hezbollah to be removed from existence, as political movements or militant groups. It's time for their leaders to be killed or imprisoned and their acolytes killed or dispersed. These groups and their backers in Tehran and Damascus, have made their play, and the time for restraint is over.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Israel Attacks Lebanon

In response to attacks by Hezbollah guerillas, Israel is scorching the earth in Lebanon as well as the Gaza Strip.

Personally, I think that Olmert is taking the necessary steps. These raids and abductions of soldiers at border crossings cannot be condoned, especially not by Hamas, which is ostensibly a political organization now.

I don't believe Israel will take up any long term reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, though the current campaign may sufficiently decimate Hamas to the point where it can no longer put itself forth as a viable entity in Palestinian politics, let alone a governing party. Israel's governing coalition doesn't want Gaza and doesn't want to occupy the Palestinian people. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon departed the Likud party over its steadfast insistence on hanging onto the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Their Kadima party was formed around the objective of unilaterally ending the occupation of the Palestinian people by withdrawing troops and settlements, and unilaterally drawing a final-status border that involves annexation by Israel of some highly contested territories, including the whole of Jerusalem. The Palestinians get a state, but it will be on much less favorable terms than Ehud Barak offerred to Yasser Arafat prior to the breakouts of the current intifada.

It's a shame that the suffering of the Palestinian people will continue for probably decades to come, but at the same time, it is good for the security of Americans, Europeans and Israelis that the tactics of the Palestinian intifada ultimately worsened rather than improved their bargaining position. I don't think it would set a good precedent to respond to suicide bombings with concessions.

That's certainly the rationale behind the scorched-earth response to this morning's Hezbollah raid; you can't let terrorism be seen as a way to obtain concessions, or else you give terrorists an incentive to kill and kidnap your people.

The Hezbollah raid also suggests some collaboration between the two organizations, which will damage the ability of Hamas to gaine acceptance as a negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians.

What the current conflict will probably do is end the hopes of the Palestinians for a future viable state, and end the hopes of the Israelis for a two-state solution that comes with a lasting and meaningful peace.

The Racist Sheriff

Via Feministe:

The Sheriff of St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana (a parish is like a county) caused a bit of an uproar when he said that men with dreadlocks could expect to be getting a visit from sheriff's deputies.

This has been

widely blogged about.

But
an LA Times article mentions that the reason the deputies will be visiting men with dreadlocks is because a murder suspect who is at large in the parish fits that description. This is a key bit of information that other bloggers seemed to have missed, because the legitimate pursuit of a murder suspect is a reason to go asking questions to a small group of possible suspects.

I pulled up the 2000 U.S. Census data for St. Tammany Parish The Census also provides data broken down by race. I can't seem to make the link work, but you can click the link to "fact sheet for a race, ethnic or ancestry group" at the top right of the general fact sheet to navigate to this.

This says there are 12786 black people in the parish, minus 1408 who are 65 and over, and if you divide that by half, because the number includes women, you see that there are fewer than 6000 black men in the Parish between the ages of 18 and 65. Although I don't know the local tastes of St. Tammany, I know that dreadlocks aren't generally a particularly common hairstyle, and some men with dreadlocks could possibly be eliminated from suspicion on other factors like height, weight or age.

It's very possible that the number of black men with dreadlocks in St. Tammany Parish is probably not more than a few dozen, rather than the hundreds or thousands, and if that's the case, it might not be unreasonable to ask them some questions in the course of a murder investigation. Dreadlocks are a fairly distinctive characteristic, and while they are racially indicative, the number of men with dreadlocks is going to be a very small portion of the number of black men generally, and that descriptive factor might be enough to make the pool of suspects very narrow.

So is the sheriff a racist asshole? Maybe. I have no idea whether he's harassing blacks in his Parish. But it looks like his statement about what might be a legitimate investigation was mischaracterized to make it look like he's harassing black men because he doesn't like their hair.

So, like, don't believe everything you read on Blogs. Especially this one.

EDIT: The suspect they are pursuing has killed four people.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

What's the deal with "Deadwood"?

I love this show, but nobody ever seems to know what is happening. I think it's one of the most demanding shows on television. The puzzle/mystery stuff on "Lost" is more in-depth, but viewers can just ignore all that stuff and still follow the show.

After they worked their way through the killing of Wild Bill Hickock in season 1, the show turned decidedly political, not in an ideological, metaphor-for-modern-society way, but in a Machiavellian, wheeling-dealing sort of way, and that tendency grew from the orchestration of the trial of Jack McCall by Al Swearengen to preserve the camp's perilous status as an illegally operating entity, into the primary plot arc of season two, which was Swearengen's manipulation and bluffing of the officials from the Dakota territories to arrange for the camp's annexation under favorable terms.

The other primary season two plot arc was the amalgamation of most of the Deadwood gold claims by George Hearst's geologist, Francis Wolcott. Wolcott spun rumors in the camp that gold claims would not be honored after the annexation. encouraging most of the prospectors to sell their claims to him, and, in this way, he obtained every substantial claim in Deadwood except for Alma Garrett-Ellsworth's. Wolcott also had a proclivity toward slashing women's throats with razor blades, and, after news of this got out, Hearst arrived to terminate Wolcott's services and Wolcott subsequently killed himself.

That brings us to this season, where Hearst is doing inexplicable things and has poised himself in a rivalry with Swearengen. Nobody can really figure out what Hearst's play is. Swearengen, in the most recent episode, paced his office grunting with frustration at his absolute inability to understand what Hearst is doing.

The audience has a little bit more information, and the only conclusion I draw from it is that Hearst is a complete megalomaniacal, sociopathic nutjob. Early in the season, we see Hearst expanding his rooms in the newly acquired Grand Central Hotel and converting building's the covered porch into a balcony, by smashing through walls with a sledgehammer. This is not a mere accident; it illustrates a theme and is a metaphor for how Hearst chooses to operate in the camp.

In the first episode of the season, Hearst staged the execution of one of his Cornish workers who was organizing a union in Swearengen's saloon, and in the most recent episode, another organizer was killed in the middle of the town's thoroughfare. Hearst could easily deal with his union problems more discreetly, but he chooses to do so in a way that steps on the toes of the camp's most powerful citizens.

In the fourth episode of the season, Hearst had meetings with Bullock and Alma, and later told his henchman, Captain Turner, that it was only with great restraint that he prevented himself from killing Bullock and raping Alma, despite the fact that neither act was in his interest. Hearst seems to be driven by an almost uncontrollable instinct to respond violently to any opposition to his will, despite the fact that he knows this violence will cause him more problems than a more measured solution. Even though he claims his only interest is in pulling the color out of the ground, he seems driven by an irrational compulsion to break everyone to his will, even when a lighter touch would be a better option all around.

In the second episode, Hearst apparently decided to try to play by Al's rules, apparently responding to Al's suggestion that, with the insult of the killing in the saloon remedied, Al would not be opposed to Hearst's pursuit of his interests. Hearst responded by setting up an intentionally botched assasination attempt on Al, forewarning Al, and withdrawing the backup from the two killers who had shot the Cornishman. However, when Al returned to Hearst, placated and willing to play ball, but still intent on expressing his own unwillingness to be enslaved to another's interest, Hearst lost his temper and smashed Al's hand with a hammer, despite the considerable investment he'd made that very day in currying Al's favor. The guy's acts simply aren't rational.

This week, Hearst tried to break Al to his will and demonstrate his dominance in the camp by pitting his thug, Captain Turner, against Al's loyal henchman Dan Dority. However, one of Al's gifts has always been to surround himself with the best talent, and Dority had alluded in season 2 to his debt to Al for plucking him from among the gangs of highwaymen and taking him into his tutelage. This week, Dority affirmed Al's eye for talent when he ripped Turner's eye out of his skull with his bare hands, and finished him off with a heavy chunk of wood.

Hearst has again paid heavily for his insistence on trying to break Al when there is no evident reason why it is necessary for him to do this to achieve his objectives in the camp, losing his most potent coercive asset as well as, it seems, his closest friend (if he is, in fact capable of empathy or compassion).

Some might interpret his altercation with Bullock, who ended the episode by dragging Hearst to jail by his ear, as a ploy by Hearst to protect himself from an assassination attempt by Swearengen and Dority. I think Hearst just shot off his mouth because he's incapable of restraint or discretion. I think Hearst is accustomed to being able to either buy or take by force the ability to do whatever he wants, and in Deadwood, he's met Al, who's as mean as he is, and Bullock who isn't for sale.

There's an irony; in the second episode, Swearengen responded to Hearst's asking if he was a danger to his interests that "As capable of inconvenience and of some damage and debt to those that would act against my interests, I cannot fucking argue with dangerous. Different from powerful though, which speaks to potency longer term. I’d not have myself called powerful in your company or the Captain’s."

Now it's becoming evident that Swearengen, who sees every angle and pulls all the political strings in the camp, is, indeed the powerful one, and Hearst, whose only concept of power is the direct subjugation of others through force, is just dangerous.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I love NY: A new way to be offended

In college, I spent a year as the cartoonist for my university newspaper, drawing a strip called "Rugged Rabbit" about a wisecracking rabbit and his sociopathic dinosaur friend.

I've been in law school for three years, and I haven't done much drawing, but I came up with a new character about a year ago, a very large cowboy, who I initially called Clint, but who later, somehow became Mitch Crawford, named after George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The idea was that Mitch traveled around like a sort of alcoholic Lone Ranger, with an evil talking horse and a very patient Native American guide who got him out of his drunken scrapes and made sarcastic asides to the reader at the expense of the other characters. But I gave up when I realized that it would never be as funny as "Drip-along Daffy."

Anyway, a brainstorm brought Mitch a new context. A mad scientist brings the cowboy, a pirate and a ninja through time, but he can't send them back. So they get an apartment together. Hilarity, ostensibly, will ensue.

I sort of thought that the time-travelling ninja might become a bodyguard embroiled in a celebrity marital meltdown, like the Britney/Kevin thing with the man-nanny. I spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to draw a character I've currently dubbed Kevin Freeloader, or perhaps Kevin Babydaddy. I'm trying to figure out how to give a character both a receding jawline and a protruding Adam's apple. I may scan a drawing of him tomorrow. I think he's funny.

Today, some sketches I did of the protagonists when I should have been cramming for the bar.



Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Bring me that horizon!"

I'm not sure why the critics lashed back so hard at the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel. I suspect it's a kind of aversion to $200 million dollar summer blockbusters, or to blockbuster sequels, or to having to see Johnny Depp play the same character twice.

I can certainly see why the first Pirates movie was a surprise. By all indications, it should have been abysmal, and the consensus seems to be that Depp snuck in and stole or saved the film as everyone else tried diligently to make a terrible movie. I never really agreed that this is what happened. I think the film was always about Jack Sparrow, and that Will Turner and his conventional romantic motivation was always there as a familiar foil for Jack's madness and so that audiences could identify with something if Jack came off unsympathetically.

I think the performance was just a surprise, and it was a surprise that a movie based on a theme park ride could turn out so strong, especially when Disney had been so dismal otherwise.

I think it's a fair criticism that the rhythm of plot twists and double-crosses probably isn't as fresh this time, and a plot involving another supernatural pirate ship seems kind of redundant, though the Davy Jones crew is exceptionally well-designed.

But I still thought the movie was dazzling. The success of the first film freed the sequels, not just in regards to the production budget, but to celebrate Jack in all of his greedy, selfish, cowardly splendor. The film's whole storyline is about Jack trying to welsh on a debt and throwing everyone else into horrible peril, and getting plenty of peripheral characters horribly killed.

I'm not too sure why everyone is so up in arms about the ending. Obviously, it leaves you wanting more, but it's no more contrived than the ends of the first two "Lord of the Rings" movies or "The Empire Strikes Back."

I think the cannibal island scene was overly prolonged because it didn't advance the plot very much, and the film would have done better to flesh out the relationship between Jack and Davy Jones, and to generally better establish Jones. The reasoning behind the contents and the significance of the Dead Man's Chest is really sketchily drawn, and it should have been given more time. This is a major new character's primary motivation, not just a MacGuffin to justify the action like the Rabbit's Foot in "M:I3." We need to know more about this character, other than that his girlfriend messed him over a few hundred years ago. For example, why does he have a squid for a head?

Compared to the Geoffrey Rush's virtuoso scene establishing Barbossa and his crew in Pirates 1 ("You better start believin' in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You're in one."), Davy gets the short shrift. This makes it hard for Nighy, who is a fine actor working behind lots of CGI calamari, to ever really establish the character. It seems like there should be a LOTR-style extended version of the movie to balance this out, so I guess I disagree with those who say that the film is overlong. I did not think that the set pieces were excessive, but a bit more thematic and plot development would have been appreciated. There are points where it almost seems like they cut whole scenes and replaced then with expository monologues.

That said, Stellan Skaarsgard had his work cut out for him trying to play pathos opposite Orlando Bloom, who kind of reads blank. Bloom was well-cast as Legolas, because his blankness came across as the otherworldliness of the elves in "Rings," and he worked in "Elizabethtown," because his demeanor seemed appropriate for someone who had been shocked by sudden and tremendous loss. As a romantic lead, though, he is leaden, and he's not a great foil for these father-son themes. Paired with Liam Neeson, in "Kingdom of Heaven," and Skaarsgard in this, Orlando just falls flat, and the heroic efforts of his estimable co-stars can't revive the scenes. But his stiffness does work opposite Depp as Sparrow, so he's the right guy for this part though the Bootstrap Bill story thread seems wrong for this movie.

I didn't feel that the movie was terribly overlong or excessive on the set pieces. In fact, compared to the emptiness of Superman and the mess that was X-Men 3, I thought this was superlative.

And, in fact there seems to even be a rather interesting theme about the fluidity of morality, or, emphasized with a joke where one character guesses that man's primary preoccupation is the "dichotomy of good and evil." The bad men in these movies always turn out to be a bit more honorable, and the good guys turn out to be a bit more treacherous than anyone expects. The villains have that scenery chewing snarl, but at the same time, they have tragic qualities that makes them identifiable.

Verbinski and his writers have the courage not to make the heroes totally identifiable and the villains not totally reprehensible, even though the conventional wisdom seems to be that such ambiguity would disasterously confuse a mainstream audience. By allowing that extra complexity, they permit the characters to provide ballast for the set pieces. This keeps the set pieces from looking like something out of a video game. "Pirates" does right what "King Kong" did right, and what the "Star Wars" and "Matrix" sequels did wrong.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

First Post

This blog is called "Continental Operative" after one of my favorite literary characters, the nameless private detective who was the antihero protagonist of several of Dashiell Hammett's bleakest noir fictions.

My favorite is "Red Harvest," in which the Op brings down all the rival and corrupt factions that poison the town of Personville. "Red Harvest" was arguably the basis for the films "Yojimbo" and "Fistful of Dollars," which also featured nameless heroes cleaning up a town by fomenting the mutual destruction of the ruling gangs.

The book is complex and brilliant, and you should all read that and all of Hammett, who filled his detective stories with complex characters, but for bloggish purposes, he symbolizes a political point my deep admiration for anyone to stand alone in the middle between two packs of seething assholes.