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Archive for January, 2010

The Gitmo Homicides.

“As news of the deaths emerged the following day, the camp quickly went into lockdown. The authorities ordered nearly all the reporters at Guantanamo to leave and those en route to turn back. The commander at Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, then declared the deaths ‘suicides.’ In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men. “I believe this was not an act of desperation,” he said, ‘but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.'”

In Gitmo, no one can here you scream. After chatting with four members of a military intelligence unit on the premises, Harper’s writer Scott Horton makes a compelling case that three Gitmo suicides in 2006 were in fact covered-up murders, occurring as a result of the Dubya-era torture regime. “All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths.

Update: Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick calls out the press for its deafening silence. “The fact that three Guantanamo prisoners–none of whom had any links to terrorism and two of whom had already been cleared for release–may have been killed there and the deaths covered up, should be front-page news. That brand-new evidence of this possible atrocity from military guards was given only the most cursory investigation by the Obama administration should warrant some kind of blowback. But changing what we allow ourselves to believe about torture would change the way we have reconciled ourselves to torture. Nobody in this country is prepared to do that. So we have opted to ignore it.

(500) Days of Gwen.

“Webb said, ‘This is a dream come true and I couldn’t be more aware of the challenge, responsibility, or opportunity. Sam Raimi’s virtuoso rendering of Spider-Man is a humbling precedent to follow and build upon. The first three films are beloved for good reason.'” Well, actually, not many care much for Spidey 3. In any event, the post-Raimi reboot of Spiderman at Sony has found its director in Marc Webb, previously of (500) Days of Summer.

A solid choice, although two things give me pause: 1) It’s hard to escape the sense that Webb was picked mainly because the studio suits think that, unlike Raimi, he’ll be more malleable than a lot of the A-list names floating around (Fincher, Cameron). 2) The ramifications of the following sentence might just end up being terrible: “The touchstone for the new movie will not be the 1960s comics…but rather this past decade’s ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ comics by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley where the villain-fighting took a back seat to the high school angst.”

MLK 2010.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
* * * * * *

Tender Mercies 2: Sing Tenderer.

Ok, so maybe Texas is a Country for Old Men. A kissing cousin to 2008’s The Wrestler and a close nephew to 1983’s Tender Mercies, Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, which I caught last night while fighting off a nasty cold, is, well, thoroughly ok. If you see it, you won’t feel cheated. If you don’t, well, you haven’t missed all that much.

Like its main character Bad Blake, a former country-and-western star now way past his sell date, the movie sorta grows on you in its middle hour with its sly, drawling wit. But, taken as a whole, we’ve heard this particular song — Old Guy in a Rut slouches toward a New Leaf — quite a few times recently, in The Wrestler, Gran Torino, The Visitor, About Schmidt. And, as such, there’s not really enough new here to recommend the experience, not even the admirable (and likely Oscar-procuring) performance by the consistently excellent Jeff Bridges.

Here, Bridges is a washed-up country singer and (barely-)functioning alcoholic, not unlike Robert Duvall (who also appears here as Bad’s bartender pop) in Tender Mercies. Left behind, financially speaking, by his ex-sidekick and protege Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, playing it nu-country), Bad now ekes out a living as a King of the Road: In his long-suffering ’78 Suburban, Bad drives hundreds of miles a week to play run-down bars and out-of-the-way bowling alleys with pick-up bands for petty cash. (In fact, Bad’s first line is something along the lines of “Ugh, another g*dd**n bowling alley.” — So, yes, the Dude is rolling again, although now he’s been pretty-well fused with Sam Elliot’s Cowboy.)

Anyway, it’s a godforsaken living and no mistake, and it’s either made slightly better or considerably worse by Bad’s trademark penchant for McClures (re: cheap) whiskey, not to mention his tendency to smoke like a chimney. And so he rambles on through Texas and the Southwest, nursing his grudges and his booze as best he can. Until one day, he makes the acquaintance of a bright-eyed new ladyfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her young son Buddy (Jack Nation) — (More shades of Tender Mercies here, which, by the way, is a movie I saw in English class in high school and didn’t much care for. But, given my age, it could’ve been a pearls-before-swine type of thing.) Will Bad take this opportunity to change his ways, maybe mend some fences with both his former apprentice and the son he left behind years ago? Well, old habits die hard, and at least so far, the bottle’s never let him down.

For most of its run, Crazy Heart is decently entertaining from moment to moment, although I suppose folks who don’t dig bar-band-type country may well get sick of some of the extended musical scenes. And, until the last half-hour or so, when the movie bogs down in both child-in-peril cliches and rehab platitudes — it ain’t much fun once he quits drinking — I felt like this flick was slow-paced but pretty engaging. It mostly follows a tried-and-true chord progression, sure, but the film still plays it lively and switches up the melody enough to make it seem like you were experiencing something new.

But by the end, when everything falls into order just a little too tidily, Crazy Heart loses its rhythm and starts to feel more than ever like just a country-style cover version of The Wrestler — or worse, like The Wrestler for folks who wanted a little more sugar to ameliorate that film’s downer ending. (And weirdly enough and compounding the Wrestler similarities, it looks like Bridges will be the Mickey Rourke to Colin Firth’s Sean Penn in this year’s Oscar race. That is, of course, Clooney notwithstanding, and despite the fact that I’d probably still go with Sam Rockwell in Moon.)

Speaking of which, Bridges is a consistently great actor who by now deserves an Oscar for something. But I’m not necessarily sure that the collection of boozehound, Leaving Las Vegas-y tics on display here is really what I’d honor him for. It’s not a bad performance by any means — To the contrary, Bridges rings true throughout. (And in fact, the Dude isn’t even all that bad a country singer. Just don’t ask him to play the f**king Eagles.) But, however much Bridges wisely underplays his character, Bad’s story here feels so thrice-told and Oscar-baitish at times that I found it hard to feel too much for the guy. There’s a Devil in the Bottle? There’s a Tear in My Beer? If that ain’t country, I don’t know what is.

A Matter of Minutes.

According to the board, the looming dangers included: the perils of 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2,000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.” Paging Dr. Manhattan: Tomorrow at 3pm, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists will move the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock, currently set (since 2007) at five minutes to midnight. (The official site is here.)

No word yet on which way we’re headed, but I presume they wouldn’t be going to all this media-event trouble if the news is good. Update: I stand corrected. We’re at six minutes to midnight now. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Horror in Haiti.

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed.” Haiti reels after a devastating 7.3 earthquake that may well have claimed thousands of lives. What a horrible nightmare…and it kinda puts the past week of idiotic Beltway yammering about Harry Reid’s vernacular and the Edwards’ bad behavior in perspective, doesn’t it? Real news please. [How to help.][How not to help.]

Advise and Dissent.

When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware…Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry. No one would propose such a system in a constitution written today, but without a revolution, it’s unchangeable.

Similarly, since it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. States that together hold about 12 percent of the U.S. population can provide that many Senate votes. This converts the Senate from the ‘saucer’ George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might ‘cool,’ into a deep freeze and a dead weight.

In a worthwhile cover story for The Atlantic on the long history of American declension and jeremiads, James Fallows — recently returned from China — make his case for the biggest problem facing our nation right now.”That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is ‘I wish we had a Senate like yours.’

We are still in the desert.

“‘As a David Lynch movie, I loved it,’ he said of the 1984 “Dune” adaptation by the famously trippy ‘Twin Peaks’ filmmaker. ‘As a “Dune” fan, I was not such a big fan.‘” Taken and From Paris with Love director Pierre Morel talks about his next project, Dune, and so far he’s saying all the right things: “I’ve been reading it over and over again – well, I’m 45 now, so for 30 years…[B]y the time I bought the sixth book I had already read the first one six times! So, I’m a hardcore fan.

Evil Twin Theory.

And now to the third and final film of last Friday’s quality triple-feature, Miguel Arteta’s solidly entertaining Youth in Revolt, based on the novel by C.D. Payne. (I haven’t read this book, but judging from its Wikipedia entry and a la A Single Man last week, it sounds quite different.)

As I said back over in the Daybreakers review, my view of all three of these back-to-back-to-back movies is pretty similar — Each accomplishes what it aspires to do pretty well. If you like clever, gory, unabashed B-movies, you’ll enjoy Daybreakers. If you warm to the tics (and foibles) of Terry Gilliam unleashed, you’ll probably like The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. And if you find Michael Cera and his awkward attempts to score inherently amusing, you’ll probably dig Youth in Revolt.

So, yes, this is another film in a long line of them where Cera, deeply uncomfortable in his own skin as usual, is trying to figure out What Women Want. (And, by that, I mean that, as in Superbad, he’s frantically trying to lose his virginity once more, and, as in Juno, he may or may not succeed.) The wrinkle this time is that Cera has willfully concocted his own Tyler Durden to help him out — a lascivious, mustachioed, (creepily) blue-eyed Frenchman named Francois Dillinger. In other words, imagine Cera playing both his and the Jonah Hill role in Superbad. Or, to go back to the source, just pretend George Michael had another cousin other than Maeby, and he was Gob’s kid.

So that’s the basic gist. Cera’s Nick Twisp has a few other hurdles to navigate — his mom (Jean Smart)’s worthless trucker boyfriend (Zach Galifanakis), his dad (Steve Buscemi)’s refusal to fund him, his neighbor (Fred Willard)’s general strangeness, his increasing problems with the law (as represented by cop-for-life Ray Liotta). But, mainly, he’s just trying to get to know his new girlfriend Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) a bit better. And, to do that, he’ll have to get past her uber-Christian parents (M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place), the considerable shroom collection of her older brother (Justin Long), the many impressive qualities of her other squeeze, Trent (Jonathan B. Wright), and all the long-distance problems involved. At least Nick has Francois aiding and abetting him in his shenanigans and providing that alpha-male tang when needed. But, as Nick fast discovers, there’s a reason the real Dillinger died in a hail of lead.

I know Michael Cera is verging on over-exposed right now, and I’ve also heard from several corners that people are tiring of him. Ok, fair enough. I kinda felt the same way going in, and I even skipped Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist and Year One. But it didn’t take long before Cera won me over again. The guy’s got impeccable comic timing, and nobody — not even Anthony Michael Hall in his prime — does awkward teen quite as well. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World aside, I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be able to milk this character — he’s getting a bit long in the tooth at this point — but he’s darn good at it. And, at least with Francois, he gets to play outside his usual sandbox for awhile.

In the end, the occasionally bawdy, mostly good-natured Youth in Revolt reminded me less of Superbad or Juno than it did the John Cusack/Savage Steve Holland teen-classics of the ’80s, Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer. (This may be partly because, like the former, Youth in Revolt goes for the hand-drawn animated credit sequence.) And, you know what, Cusack pretty much always played the same guy back then too — you could argue he’s still doing it now. So let’s cut Cera a break already. After all, if we keep pushing him, he may up and pull a Francois and burn down the banana stand again later this year

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