Friday, February 28, 2003

THE NEAR-GREAT MOVIES, VOL III: Previous editions of this feature have reviewed My Best Friend's Wedding and Primary Colors.

This week: the films of Paul Verhoeven.

Verhoeven, 64, is the Dutch-born director of such films as Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers. None of them critics' darlings by any stretch, none of them seeming to be any more than popcorn flicks -- and in the case of the latter two, not even regarded by most as good popcorn flicks.

But they are. Verhoeven's genius, as I see it is to take b-movie genres and infuse them with a sense of humor and a point of view. There is subtle (and unsubtle) parody going on in each of his movies and a level of camp, investing each of them with smiles beyond the obvious ones. As Verhoeven once said:
There has always been a pleasure of me to work in the B-genre and elevate that, or use that as a vehicle for other thoughts. It’s like the paintings of Karel Appel, our Dutch guy, who was copying all these children’s paintings. That was a heavy influence – or you could even look at Dada. It’s a normal thing in art, to use the ‘mediocre’ and the ‘banal’ to make a statement. That kind of sophistication in art is rare in film-making.

Let's look at each of the five in turn (note: I haven't see Hollow Man):

Robocop: A dystopian future. A privatized police force takes the body of a dying officer and creates a cyborg cop, half-man, half-machine, to rid Detroit of crime. So it's a shoot-em-up, and a particularly violent one at that, but there's more: there is some heavy-duty philosophy going on here, as the Robocop faces the remnants of his humanity. And it's funny as hell: Robocop, as a law enforcer, is unfailingly polite. He says things like "Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening."

Verhoeven once said of the movie, his first American film: "Robocop is mostly about the idiocy of American television. These kind of people that flip-flop between extreme sadness, and fun, and a commercial. I always thought that Robocop was my reaction to being thrown into American society, and looking around with wide eyes, thinking ‘this is completely crazy’."

Total Recall is the best Schwarzenegger movie. Period. Terminator and T2 fanboys should get out of my way, because I will hear no argument on this point.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick ("We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Total Recall is a variation of the brains-in-a-vat Philosophy 101 question: how do we know if our memories are real? Or as Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) puts it in the movie, "If I am not me, den who da hell am I?"

Again, a violent, violent, shoot-em-up, but more. Arnold is an boring, earth-based construction worker, he thinks, in 2084, who dreams of visiting Mars. Real travel is too expensive, however, so he goes to Rekall, Inc., to have memories implanted to believe he went there and had a heroic adventure as a secret agent. Only something goes wrong during the implantation process, and now Arnold's in a real swashbuckling adventure to bring freedom to the Martian colony. Or is he?

The sets are great, asses are kicked in memorable style, and character actors Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox play the bad guys. What more could you need? Finally, it has Arnie's commandment to "Get your aaahhhhhhsss to Maaahhhhhhss." If you've heard it once, you've likely repeated it often.

Basic Instinct is the first of Verhoeven's three great comedies. Comedy? Yes. This movie is not the sexy film noir thriller it was advertised as being. It's too over-the-top for that, with its hypersexuality, gratuitious nudity, ridiculous plot twists and laughable overacting by stars Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone.

Instead, rent it again, but watch it as a comedy this time. Take Stone's performance as the ice queen kinky seductress as a parody of the noir femme fatales played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. Take Douglas's macho cop, "Shooter", as an over-the-top sendup of testosterone-driven detectives on screen. And take all the ludicrous plot twists and double crosses as an inside joke, because anything this contrived deserves our laughter.

Because if you assume Verhoeven knew exactly what he was doing, it's a much better film.

The same goes triple for Showgirls. Yes, it's an awful, awful movie when taken at face value. Verhoeven has said of it, "Now I look at the movie and say, 'How the fuck? Why did I do that?"

Viewed as camp, however, it's an almost-perfect parody of the star-on-her-way-up-makes-compromises-for-fame formula. It's almost perfect. Jen and saw it again recently with a largely gay audience as part of the monthly Chumley and Carlota Movie Nights downtown, and everyone was rolling. Why?

1. Elizabeth Berkeley's acting. She's got two emotions in the whole movie: angry and horny. That's it. And mostly angry. And her character, Nomi Malone (named after screenwriter Joe Eszterhaz's wife), is about the dumbest woman ever put on screen. Dumb enough to have to ask "What's an M.B.A.?" to her boyfriend, to pronounce Versace as "Ver-saise". You don't get that dumb without great writing.

2. Alan Rachins as the asshole Vegas show producer Tony Moss. The audition scene is classic, with him spouting lines like "I'm erect. Why aren't you?" with a straight face.

3. Gina Gershon. Like Stockard Channing in Grease, Gershon thinks she's acting in a much better movie than she is, flinging off her bitchy little lines (she's the lead in the show) like Chinese throwing stars. Darlin', it works. Plus she admits to eating dog food when she was poor.

4. The Elizabeth Berkeley-Kyle MacLachlan sex scene in the pool where Berkeley's wriggling around like a salmon fighting against the current. Brilliant.

Take out the violent rape scene (performed by the character who looks exactly like Joe Eszterhas, ironically), which was really gratuitous in a bad way, and you've got a film classic.

As Verhoeven said, "I think the essence of the [Starship Troopers] is really young kids fighting giant bugs."

And there's that. But the movie was criticized upon release for glorifying fascism and militarism, portraying its impossibly blond warriors (Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards) as heroes of the new millenium in this Heinlein-based film.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the movie satirizes those very militaristic values, and not subtly. It's a movie warning about the seductiveness of calls to patriotism, expressing dismay at the blind rush to war without consideration of the consequences. Let Verhoeven tell the story:
Take Starship Troopers, great example, probably the most political statement I've ever made. Five years ago, most of the critics totally trashed that movie. They called me a nazi, saying I was idolizing Leni Riefenstahl. Now, that image has totally changed. A lot of people see now that the film is about the United States. The whole situation in Afghanistan is almost an exact copy of Starship Troopers; the whole gung ho-mentality of bombing everything, blasting the Taliban-forces out of the caves. I put all that in Starship Troopers! The corrupted atmosphere of propaganda, once invented by Goebbels, has now taken over the United States as well. It's extremely interesting to see how the media can besiege an entire nation with propaganda.

Well, I wouldn't quite go that way re: our current situation, but the man has a point.

More importantly, you'll never see bugs as large as these, or see them splattered in quite as cool a fashion. Trust me on that one. It's a crunching good time.

At least, I'd like to think that Verhoeven knew what he was doing in these movies. The alternative? Hollywood keeps giving a guy money to do over-the-top B-movies that are capable of humorous readings only because they're so damn bad. Basically, Ed Wood with a budget. But who'd want to live in that world?
QUOTE OF THE DAY/WEEK/MONTH: Thank you, Shaquille O'Neal, as quoted in Book Magazine:
Nietzsche was so intelligent and advanced. And that's how I am. I'm the black, basketball-playing Nietzsche.

Tale of the Tape:

Nietzsche: Born in Röcken bei Lützen, Germany (Prussia)
O'Neal: Spent teen years on US Army base in Germany.

Nietzsche: University of Bonn (theology and philology)
O'Neal: Louisiana State University (general studies)

Nietzsche: Apointed to the chair in philosophy at the University of Basel at the age of 24.
O'Neal: NBA first overall draft pick at the age of 20.

Nietzsche: Famous for concept of the "superman".
O'Neal: Famous for tattoo of Superman logo on bicep.

Nietzsche: plagued by mental illness throughout his career
O'Neal: plagued by foot injuries throughout his career

Nietzsche: On his rival Voltaire: "Oh, Voltaire! Oh, humaneness! Oh, nonesense! Il ne cherche le vrai que pour faire le bien. I bet he finds nothing!"
O'Neal: On his rival Yao Ming: "Tell Yao Ming I said 'ching chong fong chang bing dong'."

Nietzsche: "No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."
O'Neal: "I'm tired of hearing about money money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok."

Nietzsche: "The abdomen is the reason why man does not easily take himself for a god." Beyond Good and Evil
O'Neal: "Grab my belly." Kazaam

Nietzsche: "Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity."
O'Neal: "My game is like the pythagorean theorem: There is no answer."

Nietzsche: "Only sick music makes money today."
O'Neal: "Some of my favorite songs--and I don't know if this is the right terminology--are white-boy classics."

Nietzsche: "I am the anti-ass par excellence and thus a world-historical monster -- I am, in Greek, and not only in Greek, the Antichrist. ... I come from heights that no bird has ever reached in its flight, I know abysses into which no foot ever strayed. I have been told that it is impossible to put down one of my books -- that I even disturb nightly rest."
O'Neal: "Yo. I ain't no joke. I'll slam it, jam it, and make sure it's broke."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson gave O'Neal Ecce Homo to read three years ago, and explained why in an interview: "Actually, when Nietzsche wrote that book, he was 27, maybe 28, had a very, very pompous opinion about himself and wanted to tell the world, you know, "here I am," you know? And so I thought that, you know, Nietzsche was definitely appropriate for him because here's a guy who's 28 and hasn't won a championship yet. You know, Shaq didn't get all of these connections, I'm sure. But he knew that something very... there was something very subtle that I was sending him a message about, you know.

"He's a superman, man of steel, that sort of thing. But the books basically say, you know, is this something that corresponds to where you're at in your life, and can I connect with you at this intellectual level. And what I tell them is it's nice to have a companion besides the TV when you're on the road, something that you can, you know, turn that TV off, and you know, open a book and read it before you go to bed at night and understand that there is another world that can open up to you in your intellectual imagination."

Good news for teachers everywhere: when the choice for on-the-road entertainment was between partying with the ladies and studying philosophy's immortals, the Big Aristotle choice Nietzsche.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

GOODBYE, NEIGHBOR: It is a sad, sad day. Fred McFeely Rogers, known to all of us as "Mr. Rogers", died this morning at the age of 74.

I am so sad that he has passed away, but so grateful that he lived. It is hard to think of anyone else with such decency and grace, someone whose gifts to our world (and to my own growth) have been so wonderful, so unselfish, so positive. Mr. Rogers taught us that each of us is special, not for what we have but for who we are, that kindness is paramount virtue, that each of us is worthy of love, and that we have nothing to fear when we are surrounded by that love. So long as you believe in yourself, he taught, you can never go down the drain.

Mr. Rogers gave the commencement address at Dartmouth last year. In it, he told this story:
Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not. Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying; they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, "This'll make it better." And the little boy got up and he the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long, time. People who were there are still telling the story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.

You can read the whole speech via this link.

Mr. Rogers' lessons live on in the Internet, and the magic of videotape. Go here to read his thoughts on discussing potty training, dental visits, divorce, death, and other matters with your children. And if you'd like advice on discussing his death with them, click here.

Mr. Rogers is probably the one person about whom no member of my cynical generation has ever expressed sarcasm, mockery or doubt. He has been a constant, a true blessing, creating a neighborhood in which each of us feel like we belong, where everything's going to be just fine.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

I'VE REALLY GOT NOTHING TODAY: So, until I do, let's sit back and wonder if our contestant is going to win today's pricing game:

Via The Complete Pricing Game Directory.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

WE GIVE YOU 231%. EVERYDAY: Thanks to the good people at Swansons, you can now try the "Hungry Man All Day Breakfast" -- otherwise known as The Unhealthiest Breakfast Ever. The article notes:
I know, I'm exaggerating things a little. People eat junk all the time, it's all about knowing how to moderate. I'm just a little thrown off here - I've never seen a company who uses the 'percentages based on a 2,000 calorie diet' chart actually admit that one serving of their stuff tallies in with 231% of your daily cholesterol allotment. If there exists a saving grace, the Hungry Man meal absolutely must be the best-tasting, magnificent food on the planet. I wasn't willing to find out the hard way, but let's explore the meal's appearance so we can try to gage [sic] how well it tastes....

How bad is it? You'll have to read the article.

By the way, that's 690 mg cholesterol. By way of comparison, four pieces of Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken -- breast, thigh, wing and drumstick -- add up to "only" 445 mg cholesterol. To equal that amount of cholesterol in the morning, you'd have to eat three Egg McMuffins.

Via Pathetic Earthlings.
YES, IT DOES GET WORSE: It was only last Friday that I noted that "television is only going to get worse from here, unless we demand that it get a little better."

I just didn't realize how much worse.

I present to you Patent Application 20020091564, by Uri Geller:
Method and system for enabling viewer polling and election of prospective parents in broadcast child adoption proceedings


A child adoption proceeding is conducted in the form of a television game show and online media event, wherein couples compete against each other to win legal custody of the child. Adoptive parents are selected using a vote-by-phone and/or Internet voting scheme, together with 24-hour surveillance of the prospective parents, which enables television viewers and Internet users to inspect prospective parent-contestants in detail before voting for the winning parents. The present invention overcomes inequities of state-run or private adoption agencies, permitting a fairer selection process while providing greater time and access to observe a pool of prospective parents.

Thanks to Marsha Nagorsky for alerting me to this item, which she learned of via Gregory Aharonian's Internet Patent News Service.
ALL GOOD THINGS: Yes, it's official. Joe Millionaire really is over. They can't possibly squeeze another hour out of this, no matter how hard Fox could try.

And we know nothing more than we did before the end of last week: of course Evan and Zora aren't going to work out as a couple. That's pretty clear. Indeed, we know less about one thing: what did happen to original host Alex McLeod, replaced in this episode in her entirety by Temptation Island provocateur The Other Mark Walberg. Where's the love, Fox?

But there's one fairy tale that will continue: butler Paul Hogan's. It seems that Hogan's next task will be to assist bachelorette Anna Nicole Smith -- who really is worth tens of millions of dollars-- in her search for a man this Sunday night. In order to find someone who loves her for who she really is, will she dress up as a eighty-year-old and only reveal her true age to the winner? Read here for more.

Wheel in the sky keeps on turning....

Monday, February 24, 2003

FROM NORAH TO ZORA: Is the well dry yet? No. One more story on Joe Millionaire's Saint Zora of Lambertville and her prior film career.
"PRESERVING YOUR HONOUR SINCE 2002": How does an Ivy League school protect its students from dastardly motor oil attacks?

By forming the Princeton Dueling Society, of course:
The mission of the Princeton Dueling Society is to preserve the thin fabric of civility that unites and defines the well-bred young men and women of Princeton. Too often, conflicts are settled in the most uncouth manner: fisticuffs, poison, and other dastardly methods are not uncommon. The Princeton Dueling Society offers a forum for settling disputes in a civilized manner, with terms agreed upon by both parties. Participants are expected to conduct themselves in an honourable manner and to accept the outcome of the duel as conclusive. Once a person has demanded satisfaction and been met on the field of honour, his honour and the honour of his opponent is beyond contestation.

Read more about the Society here.

credit to Jen for alerting me to this item.
THE TRIUMPH OF STARBUCKS MUSIC: Congratulations to Norah Jones for winning all them Grammys last night, but such an event comes with certain consequences, like my Eleven Points of Snark:

1. Jones' Come Away With Me is Perfectly Acceptable Music, but there's nothing special about it. It sets a nice mood and all, but it's basically the kind of music you can (and probably do) hear as background music at a Starbucks. Jones' award represents the continuing dominance of Adult Alternative Music at the Grammys -- the XPNification, for Philadelphians -- as Jones' wins follow the O Brother soundtrack, Steely Dan, Santana, Lauryn Hill, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Celine Dion and The Bodyguard soundtrack as recent Best Album winners -- all fitting within the genre of Music That Middle Aged White People Don't Find Threatening (Or Too Loud).

Indeed, Alanis Morrissette's Jagged Little Pill (remember her?) win in 1996 for Best Album is really the only contemporary rockin' album to win since The Joshua Tree in 1988, a span of 15 years of latte music that also, while I'm high on the horse, included that Natalie/Nat King Cole album and Quincy Jones' Back on the Block, an album about as memorable and important as Snow's followup to Informer.

2. And let's not forget the Best New Artist curse. Jones now joins a select club including Lauryn Hill, Paula Cole, Hootie and the Blowfish, Arrested Development, Marc Cohn and Jody Watley -- enduring artists, all.

3. Or, as Entertainment Weekly puts it, "Terribly sincere and terribly overrewarded, Jones became the Grammys' Christopher Cross for the new millennium -- a talented artist over-Grammied too early in her career."

4. Note to Dustin Hoffman: "Springstreet"?

5. I actually liked the heavy-on-the-performances, light-on-the-awards structure of the show. And it was great seeing Paul and Artie again, and the Clash tribute was appropriately stompin' (but no Jam Master Jay tribute?), plus we got to see the most excellent Roots band backing Emimen on "Lose Yourself" -- even if the song wasn't on the album for which Mr. Mathers was nominated.

6. In case you were wondering about the "Free Yayo" t-shirt Eminem was wearing, read on.

7. They couldn't have set up the awards so that BRUUUUUUCE! could've won one on-air, so that he could've testified for a minute? C'mon.

8. At least West Philly's Solomon Burke, The King of Rock and Soul, won his first Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the age of 62. No word on how many of his 21 children or 63 grandchildren attended.

9. So India.Arie won for "Best Urban/Alternative Performance". What is that, exactly? I asked Jen, and she said "isn't that just another way of saying 'the suburbs'?".

10. Did you know that Sheryl Crow has now won Best Rock Vocal Performance Female three of the last four years. Can you remember anything about "Steve McQueen", "There Goes The Neighborhood" or her cover of "Sweet Child O'Mine"? That before Springsteen winning for "The Rising", Lenny Kravitz had won four straight Best Rock Male Grammys for, well, you know, Lenny Kravitz music.

11. A reminder -- nominations for accused child molester R. Kelly: one. Thankfully, he lost. Combined nominations for Wilco, Thicke, the White Stripes, Strokes, Hives, Vines and the Roots: zero.
LET IT SNOW: This snow sculpture can't be real, can it?

[Warning: for adult eyes only. Credit to DarkMatterThink.]