Thursday, March 24, 2005

Supreme Court Chickens Out...

Damn - and I was really looking forward to seeing Rehnquist squirm...

Sorry, that's not to knock the gravity of Terri Schiavo's current condition (or Rehnquist's either, for that matter). But I think the Court should have heard the case, if only to take a long, hard look at whether what Congress did was constitutional. I suppose the fact that it denied a stay tacitly suggests (1) it was; (2) however, the Eleventh Circuit did not abuse its discretion...ok, garbled legal-speak, and I'm not even sure that would be the correct standard, so translated...the Eleventh Circuit wasn't required to order the feeding tube be re-inserted. However, for all intents and purposes the Supreme Court has remained silent on this "extraordinary" piece of legislation, which is disturbing for the potentially dangerous precedent it sets. I hope, if broader Schiavo-inspired legislation does get passed, the Court will review it.

Incidentally, I'm not taking sides in the right-to-life/die debate. I think the question's made much harder in this instance by the fact that (1) Schiavo did NOT leave a living will, and (2) she's not on life support, and is, essentially, going to die of starvation/dehydration. (Though as to the latter point, I believe the Supreme Court has ruled that feeding tubes are not legally distinguishable from life support, or something to that effect.) In my heart, I can't really blame Schiavo's parents for doing everything they can to keep her alive - though I also can't think Terri Schiavo could possibly have wanted this whole drawn-out charade. But I do blame Congress for attempting to sweep aside the law established by the Florida courts - who have *exhaustively reviewed* Schiavo's case and all the arguments on both sides - in order to enforce a conservative view of whether Schiavo should live or die. I'm no federalist by a long stretch, but if that doesn't violate the principles of federalism and federal-state court comity (not to mention separation of powers), I don't know what does. (Of course, the last time federalism was argued in favor of Florida's courts, they lost, too - and y'all know what I'm talking about.)

And finally, while I'm trying to resist cheap shots at Bush, I have to note for the record that with all the care and political capital he's expending on the impending death of one woman in a persistent vegetative state, he apparently has nothing to say about the deaths of all those kids at Red Lake High School. What has that got to do with this, Bush supporters may protest, and insist there's nothing *to* be said about those kids except that it's a tragedy. Still, one could argue that trying to prevent tragedies like *this* is more within the province of the legislature than prolonging the tragedy of Terry Schiavo. Just my two cents.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"Idols" Rock the House

After a lackluster round last week, the “American Idol” finalists came out swinging tonight. The theme was #1 billboard hits, and the contestants knew just what to do with those: go retro. Almost all the songs were from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Apart from a couple of disappointing turns from two of my favorites (Nadia and Anwar) and some really awful hairdos (Nadia and Carrie Underwood, what were you *thinking*?!), tonight showed the competition at its best. This season’s finals are going to be a tough one to call. My recap of the night:

BEST PERFORMANCE: Vonzell. Everything just fell into place—song, vocals, stage presence. Hell, she *owned* that stage.

RUNNER-UP: Bo – goes soulful, much more successfully than when he tried Edwin McCain a few weeks ago. It’s like Simon says: watching Bo, you feel like you’re watching someone who’s already made it. He rocked. He always does.

BEST VOCALS: Carrie Underwood. That girl has got serious pipes. (So does the other blonde, Jessica Sierra—but Jessica definitely went flat on one of her big notes, in an otherwise strong performance.)

WILL SOMEONE PLEEEASE GET HER OFF STAGE?: Mikala. This girl has GOT to go. Every time she opens her mouth, singing or speaking, I have an overwhelming urge to put the TV on mute.

AND YOU’RE NEXT: Constantine. It’s not that he was bad tonight (though honestly—the Partridge Family?!); it’s just that he’s clearly out of his depth, and has been for some time. As Paula put it, oh so diplomatically, it’s his showmanship (read: sex appeal) and his female fan base (emphasis on *female*) that’s keeping him alive. Not his vocal talent, which is meager at best.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Nadia. For once, she was just plain bad. Wrong song, wrong look, wrong everything. But she’ll be back. Hopefully sans mohawk—though it was a nice tribute to Cyndi Lauper.

MOST CHARMING SMILE: Tie between Anwar and young Anthony Federov. It almost made one forget their mediocre performances.


BEST SIMON QUIP: Comparing Constantine to a poodle in a leather jacket.

GENERAL COMMENTS: If you’d asked me a few weeks ago who I saw (or wanted to see) making the final four, I’d have said, without hesitation: Bo, Anwar, Nadia, and Carrie Underwood. After tonight, I’d probably still put my money on those four—but with much more hesitation. Anwar’s and Nadia’s stock fell sharply, while Vonzell’s shot up. The others remained static (i.e., unlikely either to win any new converts or to lose loyal fans), except possibly Nikko, who delivered an undeniably excellent performance. But somehow, Nikko, while he has the singing chops, just doesn’t do anything for me, and I suspect he has a similar effect on other viewers. After all, he got kicked off a while ago, before Mario Vasquez’s withdrawal reinstated him.
As for Vonzell, she’s been my underdog pick for some time now. Maybe it’s because I like the songs she chooses, though sometimes they work (like tonight) and sometimes they don’t (like when she took a valiant but shaky stab at Alicia Keys). As Randy told her once, she’s got a great instrument, and she could really be a contender if she learns to fully control it. As it is, she’s still a long shot: at the risk of sounding like a racial profiler, I think she fills the same niche as Nadia, but Nadia’s got tons more depth and control. It’s the difference between 28 and 21—give Vonzell about five more years. Tonight, though, was her night. It certainly was *not* Nadia’s.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The "Upside" of Acting: Allen, Costner show how it's done


directed by Mike Binder
starring Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood

The two reasons to see this movie are: Joan Allen and Kevin Costner.

They are reason enough.

Allen, as usual, plays the alienated wife. What’s not as usual is that for once, she’s the movie’s center rather than the supporting figure. What’s more, far from her typical M.O.—i.e., woman unable to articulate her repressed emotions—her character, Terry Wolfmeyer, has *no* difficulty giving voice to her rage. From the moment she discovers that her husband's gone AWOL on her and their four daughters, the anger erupts...and keeps on erupting.

Costner’s the supporting figure here, and enjoying every minute of it. He plays the Wolfmeyers’ shambling, sloppily amiable neighbor Denny Davies, a retired baseball star gone more than slightly to seed. Denny’s irresistibly drawn to Terry even as (or perhaps because) she drowns herself in a sea of Grey Goose and tells him and everyone else to bugger off. He's in sympathy, being a booze hound himself. He also wants to lay her, which he does in due course, though the movie's not just about that. He begins by drinking with her in the living room, and ends up becoming a permanent fixture in her household.

It’s an odd pairing, but it works beautifully. Allen radiates a taut, fine-drawn intensity that can turn on a moment’s notice into a hoot, a train wreck, or a gale force. Her fierceness is nicely complemented by Costner’s laid-back charm, which overlays a core of flint: Denny can be pushed only so far, and he, too, can get very angry. Both actors approach their roles as *adults*—adults playing adults who have seen real wear and tear, whose cracks and flaws run deep yet close to the surface. The sheer maturity of their performances is refreshing, especially coming from a Hollywood dominated more than ever by the relentless culture of youth.

Not that there’s any lack of young blood here, given that the four daughters (played by Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, and Evan Rachel Wood) range from college-age to early teens. Of the quartet, Wood registers the most strongly as the youngest, and not just because she’s also the film’s narrator. The other daughters are fair enough actors (and quite lovely to look at), but their characters appear pallid and underwritten next to the Terry-Denny axis. Only Wood really manages to hold her own, on her own, with a vivid yet unforced screen presence. Director Mike Binder bridges the generation gap, in a manner of speaking, playing Denny’s friend and radio show producer—a rather sleazy figure with an eye for the Barely Legal.

A lot of pieces of “Upside” don’t work: certain scenes, particularly (though not exclusively) those where neither Allen nor Costner are present, fall flat; the timing feels off, the tone and dialogue curiously stilted, like snippets of a play or TV pilot that never made it into the final cut. The movie frequently feels piecemeal altogether, as plot threads and character arcs are taken up and left off, explored and/or resolved—or not—rather desultorily. Yet in a weird way, the fragmentary, open-ended character of the movie works, notwithstanding Binder’s ill-conceived attempt at a framing device. The ending, which should come as a surprise to no one, strains credulity. But it doesn’t, ultimately, wrap up the narrative or linger very long in one’s memory. What one remembers are the relationships, the moments of connection and miscommunication, and the ebb and flow of emotions, which continue beyond the last frame of the film.

RATING: ** 1/2




directed by Mira Nair
starring Reese Witherspoon, Gabriel Byrne, Eileen Atkins, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, others

I saw this movie on an airplane, and found myself enjoying it quite a bit more than I expected. I know I’m in a minority, for obvious reasons. No period piece about a woman trying to maneuver her way up the social ladder of Regency England is ever going to make a splash at the box office, and no film adaptation of “Vanity Fair” that softens Thackeray’s edge is likely to win much favor with critics. Without deviating much from the actual plot, Mira Nair somehow manages to transform the novel’s blend of razor-sharp satire and Victorian sentiment into a breathless English version of “Gone With the Wind,” colored with a vaguely postcolonial, (post?)feminist sensibility. No doubt old man Makepeace is flipping in his grave. And even on its own terms, the movie doesn’t entirely work—in large part because it’s trying to squeeze into a two-hour span a (literal) army of characters and their lives over the course of a quarter-century, while keeping its focus squarely on the central character, the inimitable Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon).

Still, I liked Nair’s retelling of the Becky Sharp myth (apart from the ending, which felt silly and forced). Perhaps it’s because I’ve always found VF the book amusing but rather heartless. I liked that Witherspoon gave her character a touch of vulnerability without losing a certain wicked spark; she’s still a green-eyed schemer and conqueror, but no longer a monster. I liked the way Nair made her stand out visually by dressing her in rich Indian colors—a vivid reminder of the backdrop of empire that pervades the book almost imperceptibly. But above all, I liked James Purefoy as Becky’s dashing husband Rawdon Crawley. So what if he plays Rhett to her Scarlett, rather than the good-natured tool of the book? He does it well, and makes Becky’s one moment of remorse more convincing than it would have been otherwise. Besides, most importantly—he’s a dish.

RATING: ** 1/2

Monday, March 21, 2005

A Personality Test to End All Personality Tests...

So if, like me, you do not care for the Myer-Briggs Personality Test, then this might be the alternative for you:

According to my results, I am a a WEDF--Wacky Emotional Destructive Follower:

"This makes you a Menace to Society.

Well, whether you're actually a menace depends on how you choose to channel your energies. You chew your fingers and have an addictive personality. Properly guided, you can be enormously productive--otherwise you run amok, stir up trouble, and generally have a hell of a good time.

To your friends, you are a source of relentless entertainment. You often get into trouble, but you almost always find a way out. You are strangely popular and feed off others' energy. You live hard, seize the day, and although your more sober friends would like to see you settled down, you generally have fewer regrets and better memories than they do. Your tenet is that, at the end of the day, one regrets only what one didn't try. You are right.

You could benefit from outside help in balancing your highs and lows. Or perhaps cutting back on the caffeine.

Of the 105108 people who have taken this quiz since tracking began (8/17/2004), 4.9% are this type."

I leave it to those who know me best to determine whether the above is an accurate assessment or not. FYI, the breakdown of the four traits is:
1. S (Sober) or W (Wacky)
2. R (Rational) or E (Emotional)
3. C (Constructive) or D (Destructive)
4. F (Follower) or L (Leader)
(The possible permutation of personality types is listed on the web site.)

What I want to know is, why are Wacky types such a minority and why am I one of them? Though I have to admit Wacky probably fits me better than Sober...since I'm never sober if I can help it.


Today exemplified everything I love and hate about southern California. Gorgeous first day of spring - mid to high 60's, sunshine, clear blue skies - and I was debating how best to spend it when I spotted someone walking around my neighborhood who looked a lot like my most recent ex. Highly unlikely that it was he (though he does have a friend in my apt. complex), but the sight was sufficiently jarring to send me scurrying as far away as possible. So, quelling my environmentalist and economic sensibilities (gas > $2.50/gallon around here), I took a drive up the coast to Malibu, where I stopped long enough to watch some intrepid kite surfers take advantage of the strong winds off Zuma Beach. Then, coming back, it took me FORTY-FIVE MINUTES of stop-and-go to get from Zuma to Topanga Canyon; those who know L.A. know how ridiculous that is. The reason for the traffic crawl? Because of construction (which wasn't even occurring at the time, it being Sunday), one lane had been blocked off for that stretch of the 1. Once past that bottleneck, the flow was unobstructed. Still, in all, I calculate that of the three hours I spent away from my home this afternoon, about two and a half were spent in my car. I don't know whether to be ashamed of the fact that this was entirely voluntary...and *not* entirely unanticipated.

All I can say is, living here, it's a good thing I like driving. What scares me is I'm actually starting to notice cars: I suppose it's inevitable, when you spend so much of your life staring at them during your commute...or your pleasure trips. Which reminds me: today, at various points of my drive, I saw a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, and a Porsche on the road. I kept expecting to see a Corvette after that - I've certainly seen them around here - but not today. In all other respects, however, it was truly a Made-in-L.A. Day.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The O.C. Report

So could Seth *be* any more annoyingly juvenile?

Ok, so his character’s supposed to be only, what, 15? 16? so maybe it’s excusable for him to regress occasionally. It’s part of his charm. But his fixation with “last year” and turning the clock back isn’t so much nostalgic, or wistful, or childish, as vaguely creepy...There’s something Neverlandish about it, and I mean that as much in the sense of Michael Jackson’s domain as Peter Pan’s...The only good thing about his obsession is the reaction it triggered in Summer: “Oh, I am going to kick his ass back to last year.” I love that girl.

Anyway, thanks in large part to Seth’s inept but unwittingly successful plotting, we bid an indifferent goodbye to yet another of this season’s new characters. They’re dropping like flies! And I have to say, of the three exits so far (Lindsay, Zach, now Alex), this one was by far the most clumsily engineered. Not for a minute did I buy Alex’s abrupt transformation from too-cool-for-school hipster to jealous psycho (even if she does share the same first name as the woman scorned in “Fatal Attraction”). But I found it even *more* ridiculous that after a two-minute conversation with teary-eyed Marissa, all her rage would magically disappear and she graciously opt to withdraw—no strings attached, no hard feelings, not even a real knockdown fight with Ryan. That’s called *bad* writing, folks. Character coherency is the first requirement for anything worth watching, and it was sadly lacking here. Bye bye, Alex, we hardly knew ye...

The latest departure apparently leaves the road free and clear for Ryan and Marissa, though I'm sure we can expect a few more roadblocks before (and/or after) those two fall into bed together...One of my friends posits that Teresa and her baby will resurface. It’s possible, and in my opinion there needs to be some explanation for how Ryan could just walk out of Teresa’s life and never look back. Again, it’s not so much plot as character coherency that’s at issue here.

The “adult” storylines in this episode weren’t much more compelling, though I’m finding the ghost of Julie Cooper’s pornographic past mildly diverting—and totally in character. (No coherency problems here! And oddly, I *do* buy Julie as the concerned mother, even if her motives are 90% selfish.) Once again, Sandy’s expression was the perfect punchline in response to “The Porn Identity.” Next week’s previews suggest that either Julie or Sandy is going to sic Caleb on the skeevy blackmailer dude: bring it on, say I. Meanwhile, trouble clearly lies ahead for Kirsten and Magazine Dude, but I still place my bets against anything R-rated actually happening. All I can say is if it does, I fully expect Newport Beach to be swallowed up in an earthquake. (Although I suppose that isn’t so far out of the realm of possibility, either...)

Line of the week:
“It was the ‘80s.”
–Julie Cooper
(But then why the pun on “The Bourne Identity”? Isn’t that a bit anachronistic?)

Happy St. Patty’s Day, all. Peace out.

Monday, March 07, 2005

There and Back Again: "Constantine"'s Bogus Journey

directed by Francis Lawrence
starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia Laboeuf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton

“Constantine” is that saddest of all things, a bad movie that *could* have been good. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a really dumb movie that aspires—in vain—to be smarter.

There’s a scene about mid-way through in which the eponymous John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), poised to embark on a quick jaunt to hell, is seated on a chair with his feet submerged in a basin of water, a gray cat in his hands, and a rather blank look on his face. (Spare me the jokes on Keanu’s blankness, which I’ll get to later.) I suppose one could say this image, which mingles New Testament iconography (the washing of Christ’s feet) with a touch of the satanic (yellow-eyed cat, devil’s familiar), depicts the eternal fate of man, balanced precariously on the cusp of heaven and hell.

To me, though, and I’m sure to others, it merely depicts Keanu with his feet in water and a cat in his hands, looking pretty damn ridiculous.

Therein lies the problem of “Constantine”—chiefly a problem of tone, though the movie’s also plagued by serious pacing and plotting issues. Based on the “Hellblazer” comics/graphic novels, it starts with an intriguingly manichean premise: Although Earth is a battleground between good and evil, it’s also a kind of DMZ between heaven and hell. By mutual agreement, neither God nor Satan is permitted to intervene directly in the lives of humans; they may, however, apply influence through the counsel of angels, devils, and “half-breeds” that haunt this world and whisper in our ears. (Never did get exactly what the “half-breeds” were or how they came to exist, but then there are a lot of things I didn’t get about this movie that I frankly ceased to care about getting.)

Few humans can see the otherworldly influence-peddlers—one of them being, of course, our boy Constantine, who uses his visionary powers to hunt down the “half-breed” demons that break the rules by inhabiting human souls. His self-appointed task is to evict any such offenders, give them a good ass-whooping, and send them straight to hell. But he’s not doing this work out of faith or charity. As a teenager, young Constantine committed suicide—the guaranteed one-way ticket to eternal damnation—and was only brought back by the doctors after being clinically dead for two minutes, long enough to see the fate that awaited him. Since then, he’s been laboring doggedly to pave his way to heaven, one exorcism at a time, even though he’s consistently informed that the entire enterprise is an exercise in futility. On top of it all, his time is running out: having been a chain-smoker his entire life, he has a black tar popsicle where a lung should be (which doesn’t stop him from lighting up about once every ten minutes in the movie), and devils gleefully monitoring his deterioration from all sides, licking their chops as they count the days to when they can claim him for their own.

So far so good (or grim). However, the actual driving plot of “Constantine” is far more muddle-headed—something about some deep-laid conspiracy to upset the Balance and unleash hell on earth, that turns on the so-called Spear of Destiny, a devils’ Bible, and an improbably beautiful cop named Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), as well as her dead twin sister Isabel (also played by Weisz). Isabel’s apparent suicide, inexplicable conduct for a devout Catholic, prompts Angela to seek Constantine’s demonological expertise. After initially rebuffing her, Constantine assists Angela in investigating how these elements fit together, fends off a slew of demons (and one angel) along the way, and takes not one but *two* trips to Satan’s domain—which for some reason assumes the form of a flaming junkyard. (Perhaps the things that look like scrapped cars are the damned souls of automobiles that never got above 20 mpg.)

Although “Hellblazer” was originally set in London, the movie transplants the action to Los Angeles, which works better than the fans might give it credit for: after all, this is the city that produced the long shadows of classic noir from its sun-drenched streets. Director Francis Lawrence predictably draws on some of that aesthetic, plus a touch of goth-supernatural vaguely reminiscent of Alex Proyas (“The Crow”). Not surprisingly, there’s also a fairly heavy infusion of Catholic imagery into this mix, some of it subtle, some of it less so—among the latter, a species of heavy-duty anti-antichrist artillery, wielded by Constantine and his sidekick, Chas (an irritatingly whiny Shia Laboeuf), that resemble nothing so much as giant crucifixes.

To Lawrence’s credit, there are some striking images that linger long after the film’s finer narrative points (or lack thereof) have faded: the turn of a woman’s back to reveal the graceful, faintly terrifying spread of angel’s wings; a nightmarish sequence in which a maddened priest (Pruitt Taylor Vince) drinks a liquor shop dry but can’t quench his tormenting thirst; another in which all the lights of a street are extinguished, save the glow of a humble Madonna in a cluttered shop window. But for every sequence that conveys a genuinely apocalyptic chill, there’s another that comes across (unintentionally, I’m sure) as pure camp. The bearer of the Spear of Destiny crosses a field of cows, all of whom promptly flop over and die as he approaches. The devil’s spawn finds its way into the body of a woman and threatens to burst forth into the world, perhaps as a kind of diabolical parody of the birth of Christ, but really most reminiscent of the pop-up parasite in “Alien.” And Constantine’s showdown with the Old Nick himself (Peter Stormare in a white suit—ooh, how ironic) reaches its climax with an obscene gesture, which would be amusing if it weren’t so absurd in context.

The larger failure of “Constantine” is its failure to draw the uninitiated viewer into the heart of its cosmic battle. The movie gets lost in its own plot, but it’s hard to care—because there’s nothing to compel us to care about any of the players involved, never mind that the fate of humanity supposedly depends on their actions. Weisz’s double role is little more than a tentpole for the plot, and a pretty weak one at that. Casting Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel was brilliant, but saddling her with motivations that make no sense was not.

As for Keanu, he’s done the messianic thing before, and, I would argue, done it well: what many (wrongly, in my opinion) perceive as woodenness or vacuity is, in fact, simply an undisturbed repose, a stillness that gives his face the pure beauty of sculpture—perfect for a spiritual icon. But Constantine, notwithstanding his initials, is meant to be as much antihero as savior—grim, moody, and a bit of a churl. Keanu tries, but he doesn’t do surly very convincingly. (And I say this as one of probably fewer than three people on this planet who think he wasn’t that bad a Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”) When he snarls, “I’m John Constantine, asshole,” to a wayward demon, the declaration only has the effect of underscoring how ill-suited that surfer voice is to a growl. He’d better have stuck to the "whoas."

RATING: 1 3/4 *