Friday, May 14, 2010

"I'll say it again: Democracy simply doesn't work."

All in favor of the amended Springfield-slash-pervert bill?
Stop the presses again: Congressional Republicans are a-holes; Congressional Democrats are cowards.

So the House Democrats were on their way to passing a science jobs and education bill (a re-authorization of a 2007 law, apparently). Clearly an effort to stem the United States' slippage in math and science education was a political victory that the GOP couldn't allow. But without a filibuster, what's a minority party in a lower legislative body to do? Force the majority to vote for or against something that generates sexy soundbites in an election year.

In this case, the Republican ranking member of the science committee made a motion to recommit the bill. This would have sent the bill back into his committee, delaying it for another round. The specific motion added language to the bill requiring the federal government not to pay the salary of any employee officially reprimanded for looking at porn at work. Which is all well and good, but gave the Dems two options:
  • Vote for the motion, which would delay the measure in another round of committee work (note that the science committee passed the bill 29-8, including GOP "ayes")
  • Vote against the motion, which allows the bill to be voted upon, but lets GOP candidates cut ads about how "Representative Walz voted in support of people looking at porn at work."

It's generally bad policy to bet against Democrats buckling like a belt, so of course half the caucus caved in and voted for. I hope all those Representatives with struggling high schools and high-tech research or industry in their districts are proud. The roll-call is here. Kudos to retiring Rep. Vernon Ehlers, PhD (nuclear Physics, Berkeley) (R-MI) for bucking his party on this one.

Please note that 15 years ago, The Simpsons presented such a situation as satire (see Act Three).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Artcrimes of George Lucas: those prequels

Hey, stop the presses, I'm a white 30-year-old male and I'm about to complain about the Star Wars prequels on the internet.

There's a guy on Youtube, with the handle RedLetterMedia, who specializes in video reviews of sci-fi movies. He came to prominence with his reviews of the Star Trek series, and has recently gained more attention for his lengthy takedowns of the first two Star Wars prequels and Avatar. Lengthy. Like 70 minutes for each of the Star Wars prequels. That length of time could be easily spent on a laundry list of nit-picks and internal inconsistencies, and while there's plenty of nits being picked, he mostly gathers his commentary into thematic sections around larger-scale ideas. Each is an indictment of what George Lucas has become and what he has turned the Star Wars films into. The bottom line that in the intervening 22 years between trilogies, Lucas traded art for commerce, story for plot, and character for plot delivery device. He illustrates most accurately how Lucas' characters do not behave as real people, but like blank-faced zombies, which isn't surprising given how little they had to act with and react to in the films. None of this surprises, but all points are effectively made. They should be required viewing for all aspiring film makers or critics.
If you grew up loving Star Wars, both are worth watching in full, but if you must watch only selections, watch the first and last video of each. The reviewer, in the guise of his disturbing Harry Plinkett character, is incisive, funny, and devastating. It's safe to say that many Star Wars (and Indiana Jones!) fans lost a fair amount of respect for Lucas' sensibilities starting in about 1997. These reviews obliterated whatever was left of mine.

[The one complaint I have about the reviews is for elements of the Plinkett character. The joke is that he's a social maladjust who is definitely a kidnapper and is probably a serial killer. This got pretty tiresome in the Phantom Menace review especially, but was improved upon in the second, in which Plinkett and his hooker captive find a common bond in bitching about Attack of the Clones' awfulness.]

I really didn't like the prequels, but like many my age I convinced myself for a long time that they were maybe kind of sort of ok. I recently watched The Phantom Edit and its sequel, Attack of the Phantom, in which a professional editor makes very careful and thoughtful changes to both movies, improving both significantly. Watching those versions, I decided that there were indeed better films buried within Lucas' theatrical releases. But you can't really polish a turd, and the Phantom Editor, in his commentary, makes clear his own disdain for what George Lucas has created.

This was on my bedroom wall for 15 years.
For me, the worst thing about the new trilogy, besides everything, is that it shook my appreciation of the original trilogy. I grew up loving those movies, and long considered Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back among my favorite films of all time, even as I grew up and expanded my cinematic horizons. With how terrible Episodes I-III were, I started to doubt those earlier films, and wonder if maybe they were worse than I remembered. I avoided rewatching them. This is going to sound weird, but I found the RedLetterMedia reviews somehow helpful. They crystallized my thoughts and feelings about the Star Wars trilogies in a way that I hadn't quite been able to put into words. They affirmed the reasons I loved the originals, and the reasons why the prequels were different and worse. Thanks, Plinkett. I feel much better.

The upshot of all of this is that I've come to a decision: I'm going to get rid of my DVD copies of Episodes I-III. We've got limited real estate in our DVD cabinet, and I don't need that crap on hand for future viewing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jeopardy: Don't Dream It's Over

Today marks the beginning of the 2009-2010 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Though I qualified for the field of contestants, I will not be appearing, having been eliminated early this year. There were two major factors in my elimination: (1) there are three college tournament winners for this qualification period, since there have been two college tourneys since the last ToC and they have a leftover champion who couldn't do the last one because the Air Force said so; and (2) there was a quick pace of contestants, this season especially, who won 4 games and were done. Since the qualification ranks players by number of wins first and money second, even a powerhouse three-game winner like Kevin Joyce, who won a crazygonuts $111k in his three games, was eliminated. I should note that if they went by money first and then number of wins, Kevin would be in but I still wouldn't. Cue sad-sack "Christmastime is Here" music.

But: it's OK, because my Jeopardy! experience was one hell of a ride, and the achievement of a lifetime goal! Seriously, a little over two years ago I took the online test for fun, thinking it would be great to be on the show but with no expectations. And I was invited to audition, in my home city no less, and was invited on to the show on my first try. I went on, again with no expectations, and hoping only to not humiliate myself and maybe win a game. And I won three games and got to be in the contestant Hall of Fame, earning a hefty chunk of change in the middle of a tough recession. So, despite the opportunities (and there are plenty) for counter-factual games of "what if I'd remembered What's In My Wallet and won one more game?", I have very little to complain about, and far more for which to be thankful. Hooray!

The matchups for this week's Tournament quarterfinal games have been posted, and I'm excited to root for my fellow Season 25 players Liz Murphy, Justin Bernbach, and Stefan Goodreau.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"And after all, we're only ordinary men"

The street vendor who first alerted the police to the Times Square Bomb is a Muslim immigrant from Senegal.

From Wikipedia: "In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess."

Contra the likes of Erick "I called a sitting Supreme Court justice a 'goat-f___ing child molester' and all I got was this lousy job on CNN" Erickson* and Rush Limbaugh, a desire to commit acts of terror upon the United States is not an essential characteristic of Muslims. Nor is Islamic faith an essential characteristic of terrorists.

I say this not to suggest that there is not a dangerous form of violent Muslim extremism that should be opposed and stopped. Rather, when you conflate that goal with a clash of civilizations, you're drawing the Us vs Them line in a way that excludes a lot of people on your team.

* underscores not original to the quote

Monday, May 3, 2010

Inlouriouser and Inglouriouser


Been meaning to write this one up for a while. There's a feature on the DVD of Inglourious Basterds, my favorite film of last year, about Geraldine Brezca, who operated the clapboard for Tarantino during its making. She apparently enjoys introducing the takes with non-sequitur words and phrases, often with the effect of making actors laugh as the scene starts. Names of arthouse directors from around the world seem to be one of her primary idioms. So if you would find it amusing to hear a woman say things like "Emeric Pressburger" and "Wong Kar-Wai" in a disaffected tone and Italian accent, now's your chance. Thanks, YouTube!

[NOTE ADDED 5/4/10 12:17PM! Reader "Nels" writes to note that every single phrase or word she uses starts with the letter or letters in the SLATE number cell on the slate itself. Dumbly, I wasn't even looking at the numbers. So there is a method to her madness.]

Incidentally, there's another tradition on Tarantino's recent shoots, and that is for the actors to send greetings to Sally Menke, who has edited all of his films. I seem to recall that the Kill Bill DVD may also have had a "Hi Sally" reel on it:

Here's the thing: in the top montage there are at least a couple of shots being clapped that didn't actually make the cut into the movie. There are two in particular that I'm thinking of. The first is of Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, as SS Colonel Hans Landa and August Diehl as Gestapo Major Hellstrom sitting next to one another watching a movie. I suspect that this scene was cut from the "German Night in Paris" chapter, and that they are watching "Lucky Kids" with Goebbels to evaluate Shosanna's theater.

The other is a shot of Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, sitting in a genteel living room in a stupid-looking suit and tie, smiling pleasantly and holding a cup of tea. Now, granted, I thought Eli Roth was the weak link among the cast, and would love to have seen the original casting choice, Adam Sandler, in the part.* But I'd also be interested in seeing this scene that was cut. The rough draft of the screenplay, which is available online, has it: before shipping off to Europe, Donny buys his baseball bat in his Boston neighborhood, then takes it to his Jewish neighbors to have them sign the bat in the names of their relatives still stuck in Europe under the Third Reich. The scene we see here is his sit-down with a Mrs. Himmelstein, played by Cloris Leachman, who also writes, and misspells "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS" on the bat, giving the guerrilla unit and the movie their title.

There is another entire performance that was apparently filmed and cut, that of Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung as Madame Mimeux, the previous owner of the cinema, ownership of which Shosanna inherits along with an assumed last name. The screenplay draft also includes the scene of their meeting, when Shosanna is homeless in Paris having fled the scene of her family's murder by Landa's death squad.

I do wish Tarantino was in the habit of putting more deleted scenes on his DVDs. He's given us a handful here & there in the past, but he's been weaning us: whereas Pulp Fiction's DVD included a handful of scenes removed from the movie, Kill Bill Vol. 2 included a single additional scene of Bill on an assignment, and now the Basterds DVD includes only extended versions of scenes that were in the final cut of the film. Considering that the cut that screened at Cannes early last year was several minutes longer than the theatrical release, I'd be fascinated to see the other bits, if only to see how shortening a movie can strengthen it. Certainly, reading the screenplay, you get the impression that even the over-the-top final product was an exercise in restraint for the writer/director and his overflowing brain full of movies.

*Incidentally, I'm very glad for the other casting changes that became necessary. Though I like Simon Pegg an awful lot, I'm very glad that his role ended up going to Michael Fassbender, who is terrific. And I cannot imagine Leonardo DiCaprio (!) as Hans Landa. Nor, I suspect, can Christoph Waltz.