A Strange Review: Inherent Vice

INherent vIceSo many of the complaints in regard to this film have been of the “I kept getting lost” and “I couldn’t figure out what was going on” variety.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get lost on the my way to the theater, and I could figure out what was going on.

For those of you who have no intention of seeing this film, and you shouldn’t, here’s the skinny: there’s a grand late-60s/early-70s conspiracy featuring President Richard Nixon, Governor Ronald Reagan, anti-communist organizations (here called Vigilant California), the FBI, the LA police, and the Aryan Brotherhood and other neo-Nazis to keep folk from getting free housing.

And you thought life had no meaning.

But that’s not all. This conspiracy is matched by that of an Indo-Chinese drug cartel called the Golden Fang that smuggles smack into the U.S. via a schooner only to then “rehab” the underaged offspring of upper-middle-class Republicans in private sanitoria/mental institutions, which are really nothing but Nazi-cum-New Age cults (which are proliferating after Reagan supposedly cut funds to public facilities, and we know that revolution is impossible without government-run booby hatches).

You see: all those drugged-out hippie freaks were really caught up in an America that was too horrible to take straight—and then, to make matters worse, they were sold drugs by the commies we were supposed to be killing in Vietnam but who were selling us our own rehabilitation right on the doorsteps of all that is good and clean and Christian about mom-and-apple-pie U.S. of A.! (There’s even a reference to “Jimmy Wong Howe”! James Wong Howe—the great cinematographer of King’s Row, the Reagan flick, described by IMDB.com as depicting the “dark side and hypocrisy of provincial American life.” In your face!)

As for the missing ex-girlfried of LA private dick Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), she’s just an easy-on-the-eyes MacGuffin, man, the mysterious suitcase in which the lefty-propaganda bumper stickers are packed. The real trip worth packing for is the one that shows you how awful America really is. Continue reading

The Death of Scott May

cannonballIt is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Scott May, who was only in his 20s. It is always startling to learn of the death of a young person, especially in this day and age when longevity seems almost to be a birthright.

The fact that Scott made his living as a HUMAN CANNONBALL may have played some small role in his premature demise.

A man who was taking part in a human cannonball show in Detling, England, was fatally injured Monday when the event failed to go off as planned, Kent police said.

The incident occurred in the afternoon during Scott May’s Daredevil Stunt Show at the Kent County Showground, southeast of London, police said.

The British Press Association, citing police, said a safety net failed to engage.

Think of all the possible vocations one might aspire to: doctor, lawyer, artist, musician, professional athlete, teacher, pastor … human cannonball.

The human part I can grasp, being human myself. I guess it’s the CANNONBALL aspect that leaves me scratching my head.

David Smith Jr., who holds the Guinness Book of World Records entry for distance shot from a cannon (59.05 meters), said he had not before heard the terminology about a safety net’s failure to engage, but said careful planning can make the shots less dangerous.

Smith, 33, whose father taught the stunt to his seven children, has been ejected from the barrel of a cannon some 5,000 times. It can be nerve-wracking, the record-holder said, but should not prove disastrous.

Should not prove disastrous, which is the true selling point of becoming a human CANNONBALL. (Although I do see that portentous phrase appearing more and more often in job postings for public school teachers.)

I sit here wondering what drives a man to become a human CANNONBALL. Is there something about being curled up in a fetal position in that narrow cavity that brings back deep-seated memories of life in the womb—moments before being shot out into a world where your best professional prospects involve circus folk?

Or do you simply have to be out of your freaking mind?

When all is said and done, who am I to judge? I flirted briefly with the prospect of becoming a certified public accountant.

What’s important is that if being a human CANNONBALL made Scott happy, well, that should be enough for anyone.

Not ruling out the freaking mind part, however.

Rest in peace, Scott May. I can see you skyrocketing over those Pearly Gates right now. May a soft landing on angels’ wings see you safely to — oh who am I kidding…

Pre-AD 90 Fragment of Markan Gospel Found — And You Won’t Believe Where!

220px-BookOfDurrowBeginMarkGospelIn a mummy mask. Don’t look at me like that, I just report what I read on the Web very quickly while watching the television and eating second lunch.

But what did you expect—a Spider-Man mask? But who knew from the Marvel universe back then? It was all DC stuff. So come Halloween you went trick-or-treating as a mummy, maybe a disgraced senator, a leper, occasionally Aquaman.

At present, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years 101 to 200).

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them. …

[Professor of New Testament Craig] Evans said that the only reason he can talk about the first-century gospel before it is published is because a member of the team leaked some of the information in 2012. Evans was careful to say that he is not telling Live Science anything about the first-century gospel that hasn’t already been leaked online.

Soon after the 2012 leak, speculation surrounded the methods that the scholars used to figure out the gospel’s age.

Evans says that the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel. These considerations led the researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before the year 90. With the nondisclosure agreement in place, Evans said that he can’t say much more about the text’s date until the papyrus is published.

Will this Mark have the controversial ending, chapter 16, verses 9–20, which compels idiots to manhandle snakes in the hopes of proving they’re really saved to people who wish they’d just get a real job? Or will it have other material not found in our Bibles, perhaps scenes of the Apostles at the Daytona 500? (Which I’d think would call the whole carbon-14 thing into question.)

I eagerly await the entire thing being misrepresented and blown completely out of proportion by the mainstream media.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: So Mark has traditionally been regarded by scholars as the oldest of the gospels, the only one composed before AD 70, that is, before the destruction of the Second Temple. So a fragment pre-90 is not earth-shattering unless there is a discrepancy between that text and the one we see reflected in our contemporary Bibles. Now a fragment of John that is pre-90—that would be something to see, given that John is now thought to have been written in the early to mid-90s. (It had once been believed to have been written in the second century, but that idea has been discredited.) Of course, J.A.T. Robinson, a liberal Anglican bishop, wrote an infamous book published in 1976 called Redating the New Testament in which he claimed that the entire New Testament was finished before AD 70. The question remains whether he was merely intending to be deliberately provocative; there is no question that virtually no NT scholar agrees with this conclusion.

So how precise is this dating? Can you refine the process such that you get to within a couple of years? Or only a couple of decades? When dealing with the New Testament, that’s all the difference in the world. Entire careers can be mad eor broken by such discrepancies. If that Markan fragment is definitely pre-90, how pre-90 is it? 85? 75? 65? Could it have been composed before Paul’s letters, which are regarded as the earliest NT documents we have?

This should be interesting…


In Which I Review a Movie That Hasn’t Been Made Yet

Giuseppe_Garibaldi_(1866)So it seems that TNR (that’s The New Republic for you nonhipsters) featured a review of Clint Eastwood’s latest war flick American Sniper based solely on the trailer. This has people riled up, which I hate, because riling people back down leaves a massive carbon footprint.

I don’t see what all the huggah-muggah is about. Any eejit can review a movie based on its trailer. Try and review a movie that hasn’t been made yet — for which there isn’t even a script!

That’s where I come in (having been ceremoniously kicked out only a week ago, flags waving).

Please enjoy my review of Garibaldi, written and directed by Umberto Pascoletti (A Bag Full of Communism).

It has often been said that nations aren’t so much born as bled. I don’t know who said that first, but I’m ashamed of repeating it, because it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. But the 19th century was rife with revolutionary movements and nation-builders, what with all the decent brick-laying jobs having been eaten up by guys named Aldo.

Italy was no different, except it was very different, and not in a way that gets a sandwich named after you. Divided among empires for centuries, that mercurial peninsula yearned for a nation-state like that of France and Spain and that other one shaped like a yew tree. Enter Giuseppe Garibaldi and his red-shirted band of soldier-types. Having fought for years in South America for reasons still unclear, the Garibaldini were heralded as the saviors of the fatherland who would throw off the yoke of the Spanish and the French and the Austrians and that guy, oh what’s his name, and unite a poor “geographical expression” into something that would one day make men’s suits cost more than a black-market kidney.

Exalting in victories and bewailing defeats, suffering exile to England (and enjoying a celebrity status that would be equaled only by the Beatles thirty years later only don’t quote me on that because math) but returning to the battlefield to finally hand over the keys of a new nation to a midget king, Garibaldi and his rag-tag army exemplify unmatched bravery, unyielding loyalty, and a Latin machismo that would choke a pride of lions. Plus, Pope Pius IX runs screaming from the Vatican, which is always fun.

Unfortunately, none of this is on display in the new film by director Umberto Pascoletti, whose previous work was celebrated as “a return to the glory days of neo-realism” by someone who thought Vittorio De Sica was a sports car. Pascoletti based his unwritten screenplay not on any of a half-dozen biographies of the Italian general, but on a haiku published in an Alitalia in-flight magazine. The entire three hours and fifty minutes (or so it seemed) is taken up with Garibaldi’s short sojourn to Staten Island, New York, in which he visits the home of Italian-American inventor Antonio Meucci, and discusses in mind-numbing depth the significance of opposite-side-of-the-street parking to Hegelian metaphysics.

Shot in black and white and later “textured” in Photoshop, with sound editing that makes Interstellar intelligible, Garibaldi fails to engage, uplift, thrill, or enlighten. Harvey Fishbein’s performance as the great soldier suffers from a total lack of talent on the part of the actor. Lackluster to the point of no damn luster at all, Fishbein seems completely disinterested in his character, and at times even begins making personal phone calls to his agent as his costars gesticulate wildly. Kevin O’Dooley as journalist and activist Giuseppe Mazzini offers the occasional moment of comic relief, as when he mistakes King Victor Emmanuel for a dry cleaner and upbraids him for “feeble” creases. And the cameo by Robert DeNiro as Giuseppe Verdi made me damn sick of how uninventive some cultures can be when it comes to Christian names.

Why the director thought it necessary to include English subtitles when the film was made in English remains a mystery, or why Staten Island looks so much like the Bahamas. I wish I could say there was some redeeming social or entertainment value in this ludicrous attempt at historical revisionism masquerading as epic but I would be lying, and I save all my lying for my freelance stuff.

Lacking in ideas, bereft of focus, lost in its own solipsistic worldview, Garibaldi is an academic’s dream but a damn waste of a Regal gift card. It almost makes one wish it won’t be made.

I give the film one and a half provolones.

The True Scandal of This Year’s Oscar Nominations…

…is that this guy was not nominated for Best Actor.

And, of yeah, that his director, Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), wasn’t also recognized.

Tom Hardy spends the entire 85 minutes of Locke driving a car, and his performance is unrelentingly riveting. It’s one thing to pull off the logistics (and gimmick) of long, long takes, negotiating all kinds of obstacles and spaces and moving actors in and out of frame, as the undoubtedly talented Alejandro González Iñárritu does in Birdman (a film I loved, by the way). It’s quite another to create action in a tightly enclosed space with one actor who can barely move.

Locke is also remarkable for its pro-life message. A man who has made a right mess of his life nevertheless decides to do the best thing by the most innocent parties to his reckless choices. And the consequences, in his life and that of family and colleagues, are the obstacles he has to negotiate.

Please rent this film or I will punch you.

As for Birdman, given the nominees, I do hope Keaton wins just so he can get up there and say, “For the record…I’m Batman.” Which is really what Birdman is about. There’s been something of a backlash against this film, with critics dismissing the clichéd tension between film and theater, “fake” acting for a camera, as if the technology does half the work, and “real” acting before a live audience and no net. And oh the shrill contempt for the last scene, a touch of magical realism.

What constitutes serious work for an actor trying to break free from Hollywood fame as a comic-book hero? Keaton plays Riggan, who, years ago, turned his back on another Birdman sequel (think Batman meets Superman meets Spider-man) only to find himself pretty much out of the loop professionally. Late in what’s left of his career he decides to make a kind of comeback with an adaptation of a Raymond Carver tale for Broadway. But it’s not until he channels his inner Guido Anselmi and embraces all of his life, all of his choices, and yes—even Birdman—not until he owns the power of something as silly as that cartoon character, truly owns it, that he can fly as an artist.

For the rest of my life I will never forget the look on Emma Stone’s face, in the final shot of the film, as she watches her father ascend on the wings of his liberated soul.

Keaton was a lot of fun to watch. But Hardy was great.

“Charlie Hebdo,” French Satirical Magazine, Attacked by Islamists

ob_6f31d3_jesus-revient-charlie-hebdoWho’s Charlie Hebdo, you ask?

Remember this?

Well, gunmen, reportedly jihadists or Islamists of some kind, have now killed at least 12 and injured five at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine. French President Francois Hollande has called the horror an act of “barbarism” and a “terrorist attack.”

From The Guardian:

  • Three gunmen entered the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this morning and opened fire.
  • So far, 12 people have been confirmed dead — 10 Charlie Hebdo staff and two police officers. Five others are seriously wounded.
  • The attackers fled the scene and later hijacked a car. They have not been caught.
  • The terror alert in Paris have been raised to its highest level.
  • French president François Hollande said the country was in shock following what he described as a terrorist attack.
  • Charlie Hebdo magazine had been the subject of violent attacks in the past, following its publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Its offices were firebombed in 2011, and recent threats had also been made against it and other media groups.

CNN has a roundup of Chuck‘s woes.

The magazine’s targets have been many, including Christians and Christianity. (Beware that link: not for the faint of heart.  This one‘s also a beaut.) The magazine may not be Punch and it’s certainly not Mad, but some would call it mad, and not in a good way. Its tone is hardly subtle. Some might say childishly crude and deliberately blasphemous. Nevertheless…

You remember when those Catholics fire-bombed their offices and escaped in the popemobile…

There is no right not to be offended, a lesson many in the United States have yet to learn. But there is a right to be offended, nevertheless, whether by ideas that do not reflect back to you a precious self-conception or by sloppy or creepy satire. But ideas you find wanting should be countered with better ideas, and sloppy or creepy satire, especially sloppy or creepy satire, should be met with better and more pointed satire. Not with violence, not with threats of violence, and not with threats to one’s livelihood.

Christians have had to come to terms with this over the past few decades. Others, not so much.



Orson WellesOh to be back in New York! This morning I just barely missed being in the salad toss of a multi-car pile-up on a narrow, winding country road I lovingly call Dead Man’s Pass. Even the worst of NYC subway rides was the comfy chair of nostalgic reflection as three men tried to maneuver my car into something resembling a lane so I could back my way out of mayhem. But as I started sliding into a guardrail, this as I spun my wheels to avoid crashing into an already crashed car, and this as I was trying to get to work on a morning reported to boast only “light snowfall,” I thought about how I used to sit sleepily on the F train every AM, book in hand, as someone else drove the rails, dropping me onto the lively, coffee-and-bacon-scented streets of Midtown Manhattan.

But back to the real point of this post: Film Forum is playing host to a wide selection of Orson Welles’s best (virtually everything he touched) and most ludicrous (The Muppet Movie? really?) film ventures.

I may try and make the Saturday, January 17, Wellesiana, assuming tickets hold out. But if not, won’t Criterion or some other enterprising distribution company wrap these babies up in a nice Blu-Ray package for next Christmas? (I was sorry to see no Don Quixote or The Other Side of the WindBut if you’ve never seen the stuff he shot down in Brazil (It’s All True) as RKO was mutilating The Magnificent Ambersons, you must make an effort. The simplest of static portraits of what in lesser hands would have been colorless and trite vacation snaps are transformed into startling monochrome masterstrokes.

And by the way: the Winter 2015 issue of Modern Age hits newsstands in early February, and the lead essay in this number is “Is Cinema Art?” by Thomas Hibbs. Cinephiles will love this persuasive and astute assessment of film’s place among the other high arts, by the author of Shows About Nothing and Arts of Darkness (now out of print, but reviewed by me for First Things here). You can subscribe to Modern Age now—or pick up a copy at your local Barnes & Noble.