Friday, December 30, 2005

The Cinema Year That Was

Zaki's Flick Picks: 2005

This past year saw a perplexing phenomenon emerge at the box-office. Week after week we got to hear doom-saying proclamations from various pundits and prognosticators about how no one was going to the theater anymore, citing such box office flops as Stealth and The Island as proof positive that cinema was dead. Yet, in stark opposition to this, we also saw what was truly a banner year for thought-provoking, involving, and relevant cinematic experiences. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that 2005 was unprecedented for the number of truly great films that unspooled across multiplexes nationwide. With that preamble out of the way, here are my top five movies for the year that was:

1 - MUNICH

Going in I didn't quite know what to expect from director Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the infamous “Black September” massacre of 11 Isreali athletes during the Munich Olympics in 1972. As it turns out, the film is less about the actual hostage crisis than it is about the events that followed, with a Mossad hit squad directed to track down the 11 supposed planners of the Munich attack and wipe them out in a manner that will prove suitably dissuasive to any further attacks.

What follows is Spielberg’s treatise on the inherent irrationality of tit-for-tat escalation, all wrapped up in the shiny clothes of a political thriller. Spielberg’s considerable skills behind the camera are in full effect here, as he is able to craft a story that is utterly gripping. In many ways, both the director’s 2005 efforts serve as twin reactions to the events of September 11th, 2001. While War of the Worlds sought to encapsulate (in its own admittedly clubfooted fashion) our collective feelings of uncertainty and impending dread immediately following the attacks, Munich serves as a commentary on the War on Terror that has been fought in its wake.

Eric Bana stars as Avner, the lead agent of the Mossad hit team (which includes new 007 Daniel Craig), and we follow his increasing crisis of conscience as they traverse continents tracking down the supposed perpetrators, one after another. The film has been attacked in equal measure by those on both sides of the Isreal-Palestine political divide not only for historical inaccuracies but for its supposed partisan stance, and both arguments are spurious at best. While most of the events depicted are clearly conjectural, the duty of the filmmaker is not to the facts as they occurred but rather to the truth of the story – and Spielberg satisfies this goal admirably. Beyond that, the fact remains that this is simply not a partisan film. While it obviously follows Isreali protagonists, the questions it raises go far beyond ethnic, religious, or geographic delineations.

“Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong,” says one of Bana's team, “We're supposed to be righteous.” It’s statements like this that have resulted in Spielberg being attacked for implying a moral equivalence between the Mossad agents and the Munich terrorists, when in fact these very questions can also apply to Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or any other human beings of conscience. How does one reconcile righteousness with committing terrible deeds, even if they be for the hypothetical “greater good”? Once the cycle of escalation has begun, can it ever end? This final question is made explicit in the chillingly prophetic closing shot. It’s been thirty-plus years since Munich, and there is no end in sight.

Such commentaries are often uncomfortable, not only for the questions they ask, but for those they imply. It is for this reason more than any other that Munich is a film that not only needed to made, but one that could only be made by Steven Spielberg.

2 - KING KONG

Ultimately Peter Jackson’s twice-told tale of a giant ape and the beautiful blonde that he loves is a valentine to the art of filmmaking. Director Jackson took full advantage of the three-peat success from his Lord of the Rings trilogy -- and all the clout that implies -- and brought it to bear in this heartfelt and magical retelling of the seminal 1933 classic. Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, and one big computer-generated gorilla headline the three-hours-and-change epic, which revisits the Great Depression milieu of the original (unlike the unfairly-maligned 1970s remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange). There's just something about this archetypal story that allows it to be retold again and again, like the very best fairy tales.

While the extended run-time (which will no doubt follow in the best Jackson tradition and add even more footage for the eventual DVD release) can certainly be called indulgent, it’s hard to get too upset over what is in the end such an immersive cinematic experience. From dinosaur stampedes to tooth-and-claw fights with Tyrannosaurs to the titular ape’s inevitable, doomed climb up the Empire State Building, Kong Version 3.0 is the very definition of spectacle cinema.

What Jackson has done with King Kong is to use all the technical prowess that made the three Rings films so effective and put them to work for the sole purpose of giving his title star something he never had in all his previous incarnations: a soul. To look into the eyes of Kong -- created on a computer, a collection of zeroes and ones -- and to see an entire world of pain, loneliness, and yes, even love, is to understand just how far the art of digital effects has come in such a short time. Just as the original Kong, with its stop-motion armatures created by effects whiz Willis O’Brien revolutionized what was possible in the then-fledgling world of moviemaking, almost eighty years later, Peter Jackson has used the same story to accomplish the same thing all over again.

3 - BATMAN BEGINS

I remember when the cinematic abortion known as Batman & Robin hit screens in the Summer of 1997. More to the point, I remember being horrified, mortified, and supremely ticked. Director Joel Schumacher had taken what was until that point a hugely successful franchise and essentially driven nails in the tires and poured salt in the gas tank. Eight years after the fact, I’m able to see that Schumacher ended up doing the world a favor, because if Batman & Robin hadn’t landed with as loud a thud as it did, it’s very likely we wouldn’t be talking about Batman Begins now.

Like Kong, the Batman story is an archetypal one that, until Christopher Nolan’s dark, driven, serious telling, had never been given its due, even by Tim Burton’s much-ballyhooed (but soulless) 1989 film. Christian Bale inhabits the dual roles of Batman and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to a degree that, until now, has only existed in the DC Comics, and he is backed up by a superlative cast the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a “funnybook” picture since the first Superman film in 1978. Batman Begins marks a bold new beginning for the Dark Knight’s big screen adventures, this time finally, blessedly, headed in the right direction.

So, although I tossed a lot of vitriol Joel Schumacher’s way in the years since the Batman & Robin debacle, let me say to him now, thanks for everything. I mean that.

4 - KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

It’s interesting that both Munich and Kingdom of Heaven saw their releases during the same year, as in some ways they are really about the same thing. Although it was virtually ignored domestically upon its early May release, Ridley Scott’s definitive Crusades epic found a willing audience abroad, where its message of a peace that stretches beyond religious and ethnic divides seems to have struck a much more receptive chord. Orlando Bloom stars as Balian of Ibelin, the blacksmith-turned-knight whose duty it is to defend Jerusalem from the advancing army of Salahuddin Ayubbi during the second Crusade.

While Scott could very well have taken the easy route and painted the story in simple black-and-white terms (like his overly-praised 2000 Academy Award-winner Gladiator), he chooses instead to be honest with the complexities, both religious and political, that so informed the campaigns of the time (and still do, for that matter). What emerges from this even-handed approach is a window into what can occur when cooler heads prevails, when understanding outweighs emotion, and when mercy trumps vengeance.

In a world of seemingly unending unrest, the so-called "Kingdom of Heaven" of the title may indeed be a fantasy -- but it's surely one that’s worth dreaming of.

5 - The George Clooney One-Two Punch:
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK/SYRIANA

Yet another wonderful happenstance occurred in the wake of the Batman franchise’s implosion in the late ‘90s. It freed up the most recent bearer of the cape-and-cowl to make films such as these. I’m speaking of course about George Clooney, who, in 2005, brought out two projects under his imprimatur. The first, Syriana, I discussed in my review last week, the second, was Good Night, and Good Luck. Clooney directed, co-wrote, produced, and co-stars in this tour-de-force depiction of the war of words between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. So passionate was the former Dr. Ross about telling this particular tale that he put up his house as collateral to secure the necessary financing.

Reflecting on the film and its subject matter, what I find remarkable is how much history tends to repeat itself. Once again we are living in a time wherein we are forced to affirm our “patriotism” for fear of being outted as agents of enemy powers. Clooney wisely chose to use archival footage of McCarthy himself rather than employed a lookalike, for the senator’s own words and conduct are damning enough (the protestations of lunatics like Ann Coulter notwithstanding).

In a revelatory turn, David Strathairn, who has played mostly character parts until now, embodies the quiet dignity and amazing eloquence of Murrow, and gives the film its unswerving moral center. What makes both these projects, Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, so effective is that, unlike the flamethrowing, divisive tactics employed by a Michael Moore, they eschew editorialization and allow the audience to make up their own minds. 2005 has shown George Clooney to be the one of the preeminent progressive voices in cinema, and I look forward with great interest to what he will tackle next.

And that's it for this year...check back in 365 for my 2006 picks!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From THE ONION...




(Click the pic to see it at higher resolution.)

"Inherent" Excesses

A few years ago, right around the time BushCo was riding high from their 9/11 approval bump, when they could do no wrong, the world was theirs for the asking, and heck, people didn't even despise Dick Cheney that much. Right around that time was when a nasty little trial balloon called Total Information Awareness was first floated.

Basically a blank check to snoop and pry into the activities of US citizens, this little number pretty much died on vine following hue-and-cry from civil libertarians, concerned citizens, and politicos alike, all of whom raised concerns about the program's legality, which was tenuous at best.

Well, as the recent flap of domestic spying has revealed (and as is the usual modus operandi with the Junta), when they're told something is illegal, they just don't tell anyone and do it anyway. Of course, since it all hit the fan, GW has been tossing out the "inherent power" of his office as an acceptable excuse to have-as-have-can. Ted Rall discusses this in his new column:

Officials of a democratic republic derive their power and authority from law. As servants of the people, they can't do anything unless it's specifically authorized by law or judicial interpretations thereof. Only in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes may a legal theory be created that imbues the leader, as the personal embodiment of the state, with "inherent" powers. For example, the Nazi "führer principle," in which the head of state was answerable to no one and the legislative and judicial branches of governments were reduced to rubber stamps, required Hitler to assign himself inherent powers.

Bush and Gonzales' interpretation of their roles is alien, un-American. Do they understand our system of government? Or are they trying to change it to something more "efficient" -- something closer to authoritarian state led by a strongman, or even outright fascism?

Seems like we're well on the way already, so I'm gonna go ahead and say....yeah.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tuesday DVD Roundup

Another Tuesday, another DVD-day. Actually, new releases came out one day early this week, on Monday the 26th, with distributors hoping no doubt to cash in on all the added traffic from post-Christm--er, holiday shopping.

While today saw the DVD debuts of some recent theatrical stinkers like the Paul Walker-Jessica Alba sun 'n' skin thriller INTO THE BLUE and Jennifer Connelly's Summer flop DARK WATER, the focus once again falls exclusively on the TV-on-DVD section of the market.

This is certainly an indication of just how pervasive this particular genre has become in the format's relatively short lifespan. In fact, you can read an article here about some of the problems distributors are having as they race to meet demand. Still, a couple of notable releases hit stores this week that are worth a look, so here we go...

NOWHERE MAN - The Complete Series

Back in 1995, riding high on the success (!) of STAR TREK: VOYAGER (!!), UPN premiered the hour-long drama NOWHERE MAN to little fanfare, but much acclaim. A strange, genre-bending blend of THE PRISONER and THE FUGITIVE, NOWHERE MAN was truly ahead of its time with its season-long storyline anticipating such popular serialized dramas as LOST and 24 (indeed, one of the showrunners, Joel Surnow, went on to produce the latter).

NOWHERE MAN, which followed the plight of a celebrated photographer forced on the run after his identity is erased by a shadowy organization, starred Bruce Greenwood, so memorable as JFK in the Kevin Costner film THIRTEEN DAYS, playing the titular character with the requisite mix of pathos and intensity.

This was one of those shows I remember waiting for with breathless anticipation during its initial network run (which is testament to both how involving the show was and how pathetic my social life was in 1995-96). I had given up all hope of ever seeing it again once that final episode went to black, so I'm especially ecstatic to see it hit our beloved digital discs. If anything, with omnipresent worries about identity theft and the ongoing news about our government spying on us, this show is more relevant now than when it first aired. Not to be missed!
SEAQUEST DSV - Season One

I remember when SEAQUEST DSV premiered, amidst much pomp, circumstance, and ballyhoo, in Fall of 1993. Rather, I remember being royally ticked that NBC had decided to face off their highly-anticipated undersea show, with its can't-miss mix of executive producer Steven Spielberg and JAWS-star Roy Scheider, against ABC's then-fresh take on the Superman legend, LOIS & CLARK. Both shows aired on Sunday nights, and both had their feature-length premieres on the same night. Needless to say, I cast my lot with the Man of Steel and didn't look back.

SEAQUEST didn't even cross my viewing pattern until its third season when, bruised and battered after two seasons of getting the ratings-snot kicked out of it by the Superman show, it was quietly moved to Wednesday nights. Thirteen low-rated episodes later it shuffled off to TV Heaven, but not before inspiring its own rabidly dedicated fanbase (is there any other kind?) that's been clamoring for DVDs for a long, long time.

Although I remember enjoying those third season episodes (by which time Michael Ironside had replaced original star Scheider) quite a bit, I don't have many memories of the first season of the show beyond Scheider, so perfect as submarine Captain Nathan Bridger, Jonathan Brandis (who recently committed suicide) as a computer genius teenager of the kind that was all the rage back then, an annoying talking dolphin, and CGI effects that, in attempting to appear "realistic," rendered much of the undersea milieu murky, dark, and virtually unwatchable.

I think at this point I'm interested more than anything in finally finding out if I was actually missing something when I was watching ABC on Sunday nights lo those many years ago...

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Season 5 - The Definitive Edition

One thing about the TV-on-DVD boom is that it's brought forth its fair share of "Wha--??" releases like PUNKY BREWSTER or BRITNEY & KEVIN: CHAOTIC (of which I had the extreme misfortune of catching a few misbegotten minutes when it aired on TV. Needless to say, if I could, I would have boiled my eyes...). Still, this very same boom has allowed for first-rate releases like this beautiful, archive-quality set of Rod Serling's seminal series, so I guess things kind of balance out in the end. THE TWILIGHT ZONE - The Definitive Edition has been released throughout 2005, finally wrapping with this fifth season box.

Though there have been many attempts to duplicate the ZONE brand, including one feature film and two televised revivals, there's simply no comparison with Serling's eerie original, still one of the greatest television series of all time. This season features several gems, including William Shatner's immortal, pre-Captain Kirk turn as a paranoiac haunted by an in-flight ghoul in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Interestingly, that episode was helmed by one of my favorite directors, Richard Donner, who of course went on to do the first SUPERMAN film as well as the four LETHAL WEAPON entries.

In addition to the beautifully remastered 20-some episodes, this set, like the four preceding it, is packed with a very nice assortment of extras, including archival interviews with ZONE-alumni such as Bill Mumy, Martin Landau, (writer) Richard Matheson, and even Rod Serling himself. Whether you're an aficionado of THE TWILIGHT ZONE in particular, classic television in general, or a total newbie to the whole thing, this is one series that remains involving and relevant a half-century after its debut, and I'm confident will remain so for a very long time to come.

Also, check out the full list of new releases here.

Hmm...

So, is GW off the wagon again? TV's Craig Ferguson seems to think so, but watch this clip and decide for yourself...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Zaki's Review: Syriana

As I sit typing this, it’s been twelve hours since I watched Syriana, and I’m still trying to put into words why I found the film so affecting. I could no doubt spend a lot of time laying out the way director/writer Steven Gaghan has crafted a story to rival his Academy Award-winning Traffic, or I could enumerate the many nuanced performances from the all-star cast – yet there’s something more. This is a film of such enormous emotional depth that a rote recitation of its checks and minuses simply does not do it justice.

Recommended Reading

David Sirota with more on the still-unfolding domesting spying flap.

From THE ONION...

CIA Chief Admits To Torture After Six-Hour Beating, Electrocution

LANGLEY, VA—An internal CIA investigation into the possible use of illegal and inhumane interrogation techniques produced a confession from CIA director Porter Goss Monday, with the aid of waterboarding, food and light deprivation, and the application of wire hangers hooked to a car battery to the testicles. "I did it. We did it. We all did it. The president knew. The president did it. Please, God, please stop," said a voice identified as Goss' on recordings produced by CIA auditors. "Stop, please stop. I'm sorry. I won't do it again. The president won't do it again. Please let me die." Critics of the methods used to obtain the information continue to claim that torture is an ineffective means of obtaining intelligence, pointing out that Goss did not sound sorry.

Boo.

Here's our first look at Nicolas Cage in all his CGI glory as Ghost Rider in Sony's film adaptation of the Marvel comic. The Mark Steven Johnson-helmed superhero saga (which curiously has a PG-13 rating rather than the hard R you'd expect) was recently moved from its mid-Summer berth to a safer, though much further away, February 2007 launch. Probably not by coincidence, that same weekend also saw the premiere of director Johnson's DAREDEVIL in '03. That film, though much-maligned these days, still saw its way to an impressive $100 million take based largely on the promise of Ben Affleck in red leather.

Click on over to Sony's official GHOST RIDER site to check out a short ten second clip of the Spirit of Vengeance in action.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tuesday DVD Roundup

Haven't done one of these in awhile, but today saw a couple of notable releases that were worthy of the ol' Roundup, so here we go:

SERENITY

Hitting platters a scant three months after setting sail on the big screen, you could be forgiven for having missed the crew of the good ship SERENITY the first time out (the first two times out really). Well, don't let them pass you by again. The story of how Joss Whedon's short-lived 2002 series FIREFLY somehow overcame low ratings and sudden network death to find new life as a big budget feature is unprecedented, with the only wrench in the works being the less-than-expected box office effectively kiboshing what Universal no doubt hoped would turn into a STAR TREK-like franchise for them. It's a damn shame too.

Don't be fooled by the high concept cowboys 'n' spaceships setup (or that truly horrific cover art...what were they thinking?). Whedon's star-spanning epic is easily the best science fiction film of the year, packing more character development into its two-hours-and-change then two films worth of STAR WARS prequels could muster. All that, and it's and damn fine entertainment to boot.
(While you're at it, run, don't walk, and pick up the entire DVD collection of FIREFLY.)

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, SEASON 2.0

Yet another fine Universal sci-fi entry comes to discs today. For some inexplicable reason, Universal has chosen to split its release of season 2 into two ten-episode sets. I guess I'd be more upset except if the quality wasn't so solid, abbreviated season or no. I'm still consistently amazed at how showrunner Ron Moore was able to take a happy-to-be-cheesy disco era relic and turn it into one of the most consistently gripping, character driven hours on television.

While it would have been far too easy for the show's staff to rest on their laurels following the unprecedented creative and ratings success of their first year, things only ramp up in this second season, with some especially nice character bits for Edward James Olmos' beleagured Commander Adama, as well as Jamie Bamber as his son Lee. Also, look for a clever homage to the original series "The Living Legend," which featured Lloyd Bridges as Commander Cain.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Spying Game

Last week the story broke that for several years now BushCo has been running a secret program authorizing the NSA to conduct secret wiretaps on American citizens, monitoring phone calls and e-mails, without all the muss and fuss of getting those pesky warrants. Needless to say, I've been following the story with much interest, right through the Figurehead's impotent claims that he's doing it for us, to better protect the American people, etc.

All that shouldn't come as any great shock, though. He's never mea culpa'd before, no matter the situation, so why start now. I have to say, however, that just when you think they can't get any more ballsy, any more transparent, in their transgressions, something like this comes out for you to shake your head at anew. Senator Robert Byrd, always one of the more eloquent critics of the Junta, spoke on this matter on the senate floor this morning, and you can read a transcript here. Here's an excerpt:

I continue to be shocked and astounded by the breadth with which the Administration undermines the constitutional protections afforded to the people, and the arrogance with which it rebukes the powers held by the Legislative and Judicial Branches. The President has cast off federal law, enacted by Congress, often bearing his own signature, as mere formality. He has rebuffed the rule of law, and he has trivialized and trampled upon the prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizures guaranteed to Americans by the United States Constitution.
Here's a video of CNN's Jack Cafferty responding to the revelations. Also, be sure to check out this column by David Sirota over at The Huffington Post that pretty much bullseyes why precisely this offense is so egregious.

Friday, December 16, 2005

John Spencer, RIP

It just seems to be one of those weeks.

Through all the ups and downs that THE WEST WING has undergone, from the dizzying heights of the Sorkin era to the current election storyline, you could always count on John Spencer to turn in a rock solid performance as Leo McGarry, the Wise Old Man of the Bartlet Administration, serving at various times as Jed Bartlet's chief of staff, friend, and conscience.

In the current season, the character had been tapped as Democratic contender Matt Santos' (Jimmy Smits) pick for Veep. Though he'd been largely in the background since the season began, new possibilities emerged as recently this past Sunday's episode that promised to give both actor and character meaty new storylines to explore.

It is for this reason that John Spencer's sudden death, days shy of his 59th birthday, comes as such an absolute shock, and it throws into doubt exactly what the creatives behind WEST WING plan to do for the remainder of the season. Though I'm sure the show will recover from this sudden jolt as all shows in similar situations (John Ritter and Jerry Orbach's untimely passings come to mind) have done, the fact remains that Spencer's always-welcome presence will truly be missed.

Here's to John Spencer, and here's to Leo McGarry, two men who went before their time.

The End of the Beginning

And just like that it was over. Four months of backbreaking reading, studying, and unending preparation all came down to the last student handing in the last copy of the last test. I took a long hard look around the empty classroom, and one blissful, labored exhale later I snapped shut my bag and closed the book on my first semester as a teacher. Walking back to my car, I tried to summarize and encapsulate my thoughts, knowing full well that one of these reflection essays awaited me in the not-too-distant future.

So, one semester in, what have I learned? Well, as hackneyed and cliché as it very well may be, I’ve learned just how little I really know. I still remember the utter panic that gripped me the first time I was greeted with a question that. I. Just. Didn’t. Know. It was maybe three weeks into the semester, and student in the back of the room innocently raised his hand to toss a query my way, confident no doubt in the knowledge that Ol’ Professor Hasan would surely lob it out of the park, in the process clarifying things and making everything okay.

I doubt anyone else felt it, but I have distinct memories of the sonic boom as the question whizzed over my head at Mach 5. I stood there momentarily, my abject confusion turning into abject embarrassment, which in turn was well on its way to becoming abject panic. “This isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m the teacher!” I thought to myself, feeling not unlike Gene Hackman at the end of Unforgiven, moments before eating a bullet from Clint Eastwood’s shotgun. And yet, there I stood, and there hung that question, drying up under the sun like a dream deferred. Immediately I went into DefCon 1, mapping out a dozen different ways of doing my best Fred Astaire. But I stopped myself. I looked him in the eye and forced myself to choke out a penitent “I don’t know,” before tacking on a very firm, “but I’ll find out for you."

A funny thing happened after that. My class didn’t rise up en masse and storm out of the room never to return, all their illusions about their instructor shattered under the weight of one negative affirmation. They were still sitting there, waiting patiently for me to continue with my lecture. Needless to say, that one incident helped me to figure out what was so transparent from the start. Who knew that embracing one Socratic principle could leave me feeling so free? It was okay to say I didn’t know – just so long as I exercised due diligence in making sure I did know before too long.

There’s a remarkable authority that comes simply from one assuming the role of instructor. You step in front of that class, lecture notes in one hand and chalk in the other, and a natural level of respect just slips over your shoulders like a cape. Frankly it never stops being just a little jarring. I encountered this time and again throughout the semester. “Mr. Hasan”, “Mr. Hasan”, “Mr. Hasan.” I remember wondering at the outset if I’d ever get used to hearing that. The answer is no. I don’t think you ever do. But you do learn to become more comfortable in your skin, which in turn makes you more comfortable in front of the class, which in turn makes your class sessions go that much more smoothly, which in turn…well, you get the idea.

In addition to all of the things I was forced to learn about Public Speaking by virtue of that being the course I was assigned to teach, I learned a lot about myself this past semester as well. For one thing, I learned just how far I could push myself as I strove to fulfill adequately the dual roles of both teacher and student, striving to feed both mouths at once, so to speak. At times I felt like I was living with a secret identity, teacher by day, student by night. Still, I can say with confidence that I did my best to meet these challenges.

Further, for as comfortable as I may feel standing in front of a crowd, I still found myself working through my own issues with communication apprehension, repeatedly being forced to practice what I taught: adaptability, appropriate use of language, engagement techniques, means of persuasion, etc. The entire arsenal was brought to bear at various times during the term, and I feel like I emerged on the other end of the gauntlet not only more fully rounded as a teacher, but also as a person (unfortunately a few too many late nights and Pringles cans helped ensure that this was both figurative and literal).

Of course, this is just the end of the beginning, after all. Now that the training wheels are off, it’s time to really get down to business.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Richard Pryor, RIP

My first exposure to Richard Pryor was in a second-run movie theater sometime in 1984. The character was August "Gus" Gorman, and the movie was SUPERMAN III. At the time I remember thinking that this guy was pretty funny. In fact, I have very distinct memories of being left in stitches by the scene where he accidentally skiis down the side of a Metropolis highrise with a tablecloth tied around his neck. Sue me, I was four.

Anyway, it wasn't until I was older that I got to see BREWSTER'S MILLIONS or BUSTIN' LOOSE or any number of other Pryor vehicles that he had become famous for over the years (for my money there are few movies as rat-a-tat-tat funny as Pryor's 1989 collaboration with Gene Wilder SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL). It wasn't until I was even older still that I came to learn about Pryor's groundbreaking contributions to the field of comedy through his blistering, groundbreaking standup act (committed to film in 1979 with RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT).

For me, Pryor at his best was exemplified by his 1975 SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE hosting gig on a skit written by Paul "Negrodamus" Mooney, where he plays a job interviewee doing word association opposite Chevy Chase. While the exchange starts innocently enough ("Dog", "Tree") it soon escalates into a hilariously offensive back-and-forth of increasingly charged racial epiphets:

"Colored."
"Redneck."
"Jungle bunny."
"Peckerwood."
"Burrhead."
"Cracker."
"Spear-chucker."
"White trash."
"Jungle bunny."
"Honky."
"Spade."
"Honky-honky."
"Nigger."
"Dead honky."


That final line, delivered with a trademark glower, is probably the memory of Richard Pryor's comedy that sticks out most in my head as I reflect on his passing this past Saturday at the age of 65 after a lengthy battle with MS.

Call it offensive, call it uncomfortable, but it was absolute comic gold, and it remains so thirty years after the fact (check out a clip here). It's easy to see just from that small taste how influential Pryor was in paving the way for Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and any number of modern standups who use both race and language as powerful tools in their comedic arsenal.

While the past few days have seen all manner of memoriams and obituaries, I feel like Roger Ebert really touches all the bases in his.

Recommended Reading

Richard Reeves has a new column up on the implications of GW's recently-unveiled "Plan fo Victory," something that could more appropriately be called the "Plan for Saving Face." As you'll see, Reeves argues that victory in this particular situation is and always was an impossibility. I especially liked this bit:

The basic thrust of the reaction to emphasizing Bush's proud and stubborn ignorance of history was that people like me, who were against this thing from the start and laid out how it would inevitably end, are the reason it has gone badly. Actually the reason adventures like this go badly is that we attacked people who have occupied desert or jungle for thousands of years, and will still be there a thousand years from now -- and we won't.

"The neighborhood is inhospitable," Bush told our future Navy and Marine officers. He got that right. It would have been better if he understood that from the beginning rather than listening to the flag-waving pipe dreams of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.

Sure, hindsight being 20/20...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Does X still mark the spot?

Don't know how this one slipped past me, but Fox has begun the promotional barrage for next Summer's X-MEN 3 with the release of the first teaser trailer. Aside from all the usual mutant standbys look for appearances by Kelsey Grammer's surprisingly-cool looking Beast as well as Ben Foster as the winged Angel. Other than that, I have to say the trailer leaves me pretty cold. With new director Brett Ratner stepping into the big chair, I was kinda hoping they'd make more of an effort to really "wow" us, the way the first teasers for X2 did. Not to say this looks particularly bad, mind you, just kind of..."eh." Hopefully the full trailer will turn things around.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The World According to O'Reilly

Courtesy of the Studio Briefing:
O'Reilly Urges News Media To Avoid Criticizing U.S. War Moves

Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly suggested Tuesday that American TV news outlets refrain from airing reports that would depict the U.S. unfavorably as it carries out its war against terrorism. Referring to an ABC News report that the CIA had moved detainees out of secret prisons in Europe prior to the arrival there of Secretary of State Rice, O'Reilly remarked, "I would not have reported what ABC News reported. I would not have done it. I did not put Abu Ghraib pictures on this broadcast, the only television journalist not to do so. I do feel that the press has a responsibility to help the government in the war on terror."
And here I thought that the responsibilty of the press was first and foremost to the truth, irrespective of who it may reflect poorly on. Some journalist, huh? What an ass this guy is.

From THE ONION...

Voice Of God Revealed To Be Cheney On Intercom

Second to None

Richard Reeves tells us why George Bush Jr. may have cemented for himself the heady title of "Worst President of All Time."

UnPatriotic

Back from the City of Big Shoulders a little frosbitten but otherwise none the worse for wear, and right off the bat I'm greeted with the news that the two houses of Congress, after much wheeling and dealing, have reached a "compromise" that will allow the Patriot Act to become permanent. Apparently the terms being negotiated with the Bush White House were whether to give them most of what they want or everything they want.

Nice to know they're looking out for us over there in Congress...

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Soup Nutsy

Going to be in Chicago until next Wednesday, and while I'll try to hit up the blog in the interim, I'm not anticipating much free time. Therefore it's time once again to put up the universally acknowledged symbol for "Too Busy to Blog": A can of soup.

See you next week.

From THE ONION...

Recommended Reading

Seymour Hersh, the journo who wrote the blistering expose Chain of Command (and was famously referred to as a "terrorist" by Neocon Prince of Darkness Richard Perle) has an insightful new piece up for The New Yorker wherein he examines where the war has been and where it is headed. Especially noteworthy in light of the release of the newest "Strategy for Victory."

The War of Lowered Expectations

In the face of the increased criticism that has dogged their heels incessantly over the past month, Team Bush has unleashed their latest volley agains those critics who say he has no plan for victory: a freshly minted new plan for victory. Of course, the headline immediately underneath has the White House proclaiming that Iraq is likely to continue facing violence for years to come, so the question that immediately comes to mind is: Exactly which part of the "National Strategy for Victory" involves an actual, y'know, victory?

The McCain Conundrum

While the 2008 rumor mill seems to have Hillary Clinton pegged as the Dem candidate for '08 (something I'm not especially crazy about...), the GOP field seems to be pretty wide open, with everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Bill Frist being talked up for a potential run. I've long held that the candidate most likely to get the nod -- and most likely to get elected in a match-up with Hillary -- would be Senator John McCain, who remains popular even now with Democrats and Progressives.

Although I've usually been impressed with McCain's candor and I do find him to be a generally likable guy, I've always been somewhat put off by his willingness to be used by the Bush team whenever it suits their political expediency, dragged out as proof of Bush's wide-ranging suppor within his own party. Witness last year's presidential campaign for proofo f this. The fact that McCain puts up with this is something that has always defied logic for me, especially after he was soundly clobbered by Bush's dirty tricks squad during the Republican primaries in '00, where every smear tactic possible was dredged up by Turd Blossom Rove and lobbed at him.

I've often thought that McCain's a far better man than me to be able to let that pass. However, John Dickerson makes the argument that there's more political pipe-laying at work in McCain's "play nice" policy than any actual love.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

More Morita

Mark Evanier has some charming recollections over at his blog of various encounters he had over the years with Pat Morita.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Pat Morita, RIP


Another cinema icon has passed on.

Anyone who grew up in the '80s has an instinctive response to the phrase "Wax on, wax off," first uttered so indelibly by Noriyuki "Pat" Morita in that seminal coming-of-age movie THE KARATE KID, in 1984.

So effective was Morita in the role of wise handyman/karate instructor/life mentor Kesuke Miyagi that it came as an utter shock to my young mind when I learned many years later that the actor spoke with a crisp California accent, and that he was not, in fact, fresh off the boat from Okinawa.

In the end, Morita received an Oscar nomination for his trouble, and he would revisit his beloved character three more times in the next ten years, most recently in the best-forgotten THE NEXT KARATE KID, wherein he trained a young Hillary Swank (yes, that Hillary Swank).

They recently released new editions 0f the entire KARATE KID catalogue to DVD, and it was indeed a joy to once again take in the wisdom of the wise Mr. Miyagi, as he schooled the more-annoying-than-I-remember Ralph Macchio in the ways of life, love, and leg blocks.

Having viewed those films with fresh eyes and a new appreciation (except for the stunningly bad fourth film), it was indeed with heavy heart that I read the news that Morita passed away today at the age of 73.

Though he had assayed many roles in his storied career, including Arnold on HAPPY DAYS and the wisecracking detective OHARA in the late '80s TV series of the same name, it's safe to say that it is the one-of-a-kind Miyagi for which Morita will be forever remembered.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Zaki's Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

This past Tuesday I had occasion to finally watch Steven Spielberg's alien invasion extravaganza War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise. This one had slipped right past me during its initial summer run, and I'd heard good things in the intervening months, so there was a certain amount of anticipation as I popped the DVD into its waiting receptacle.

Like a Bolton Out of the Blue

It looks like renowned UN-hater and new UN Ambassador John Bolton has been living up to his hype, generally trying to strong-arm his fellow delegates by taking his two-bit Luca Brasi act on the road. Can't say this comes as a huge surprise, as Bush's appointment of Bolton of all people to that particular post had all the subtlety of letting a bull loose in a fine glassware storefront.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Recommended Reading

John Dickerson over at Slate.com makes a pretty good argument for why it might not have been such a bad thing for Dick Cheney to be seeking higher office in '08.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Returns!

Tonight's midnight release of HARRY POTTER & THE GOBLET OF FIRE sees with it the beginnings of Warner Bros.' full-court press hyping next summer's SUPERMAN RETURNS. Unlike BATMAN BEGINS, which did everything possible to distance itself from its four cinematic forebears, our first look at Bryan Singer's superhero epic unabashedly proclaims itself the progeny of the Christopher Reeve series, down to the John Williams music and narration from Marlon Brando ("Jor-El"), both cribbed from Richard Donner's 1978 original. I'm sure we'll be seeing a whole heck of a lot more as the June premiere date inches closer, but for now a tease is all we get. So far so good.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Moustapha Akkad, RIP

I'm way late posting this one, but I did want to make sure to acknowledge the sad passing of film director and producer Moustapha Akkad. A victim of the terrorist bombings in Jordan last week, the seventy-five year old Akkad's passing is especially poignant given the work he did.

While he is perhaps best known to American audiences as producer of the ongoing HALLOWEEN film series (a new entry of which he was in the midst of planning), he was also driven by a desire to build cultural bridges with the film medium. To this end, in the late '70s and early '80s, to worked produce and direct a pair of features specifically targeted at combating the prevalent perception of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood: THE MESSAGE, depicting the story of Islam's early years, and LION OF THE DESERT, about Libyan Freedom Fighter Omar Mukhtar.

Both films starred the late Anthony Quinn, and remain even today some of the very few attempts to create mainstream movies that portray Muslims and Islam in a sympthetic light. Ironically, Anchor Bay released anniversary editions of both THE MESSAGE and LION OF THE DESERT mere days before Akkad's death, complete with behind-the-scenes featurettes and commentary from the now-deceased director.

The man may be gone, but his legacy lives on. He will be missed.

The Right and The Wrong

The past few weeks have been good ones to see some really looney ranting from some of the usual Right Wing ideologues. We've had Pat Robertson telling the folks in Denver that God hates them, we've got Ann Coulter living in a world where Joseph McCarthy is a hero and George Clooney is un-American, and of course one of our favorite blowhards, Bill O'Reilly, recently told the residents of my current hometown, San Francisco, that it's open season if some terrorist wants to turn it into a bullseye.

I'm not sure what has brought out this more-insane-than-usual Royal Flush from the Lunatic Right (once again, as opposed to the Lunatic Left), but it's been amusing seeing the reactions. I especially liked this point made by Bay Area-writer Mark Morford, which is spot-on, as he responds to O'Reilly's hysterics:

Here's the takeaway, the only thing you need to know: Bill O'Reilly is a walking, snorting cautionary tale. For those of us who occasionally tread similar terrain of barbed political commentary (tempered, I hope, with satire and hope and sex and humor and fire hoses of divine juice), he is the Grand Pariah, the threshold, the Place You Do Not Want To Go as an intellectually curious human soul. He is the guy you can always look to, no matter how bad it gets, and say, Wow, at least I'm not him.

In a way, we should be grateful for O'Reilly and Robertson and Limbaugh and Coulter and their slime-slinging ilk. They live in those black and nasty psycho-emotional places, so we don't have to. They show us how ugly we can be, how poisonous and ill, so we may recoil and say, Whoa, you know what? I think I need to be more gentle and less judgmental and kinder to those I love. BOR works an inverse effect on anyone with a vibrant and active soul -- he makes us better by sucking all the grossness into himself and blowing it out via a TV channel no one of any spiritual acumen really respects anyway.

From THE ONION...

Long Awaited Beer With Bush Really Awkward, Voter Reports

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Recommended Reading

Here's a nice op-ed over at The Huffington Post by actor John Cusack of all people, wherein he opines on everything from Bush Jr. to Jon Stewart. Worth a read.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

WING Goes Live

I've been meaning to post this one for awhile, but life kept getting in the way. Anyone who happened to channel surf past NBC last Sunday at 8 could have been forgiven for mistakenly thinking a political debate had broken out in the middle of November sweeps. Actually it was "The Debate," the much-anticipated live episode depicting the first (and presumably only) verbal joust between WEST WING presidential hopefuls Matt Santos (the Democrat, played by Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (the Republican, played by Alan Alda).

In a gutsy move for a primetime series that's already down significantly from year-to-year in viewers, the episode eschewed the usual behind-the-scenes wranglings and talk-and-walks that characterize the show. Instead they decided to devote the entire 40-minutes-and-change running time to the two faux-politicos going at each other on everything from health care to national security.

While it's hard not to ponder the mouthwatering possibilities of what the show's departed creator, Aaron Sorkin, would have done with such a tableau, WING writer and sometime political consultant Lawrence O'Donnell was still able to craft a script impressive in both how deep and wide it cast its net, making for television both riveting and thought-provoking. With the two characters choosing to dispense with the negotiated rules, viewers were treated to some actual honest-to-goodness fireworks between the erstwhile contenders, with discussions on some very relevant issues today.

All this made for a debate that was far more real than anything we got last year in the three watered-down sessions between Bush and Kerry, a contrast made only more pronounced with the hour's absolute fidelity to verisimilitude, down to NBC anchor Forrest Sawyer moderating. Ultimately, while all indications seem to be that this is indeed the final year for THE WEST WING (something not altogether unwelcome), its still comforting to see that its not going to go limping off into the television sunset without putting up a fight. While there's no word on when the TV election will occur, the run-up has sure gotten a whole lot more interesting.

The New York Times has a nice post-debate analysis on the episode, which you can check out here, and if you missed it, you can view a clip here, courtesy of OneGoodMove.

Whither Arnold?

As anyone who lives in California and watched TV sometime during the past four months can tell you, this past Tuesday was D-Day for a special election engineered by our very own Governor Schwarzenegger, putting to the test eight new ballot initiatives, including four which the Governator himself spearheaded. In what can be called at best a setback and at worst a stinging rebuke by the electorate, the Ah-nold found himself completely shut out come election night, with all eight propositions soundly defeated.

In addition to putting to the lie the notion that California is a state that's tilting towards the red, these results also throw into serious doubt Schwarzenegger's recently-announced re-election plans. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who rode into office a mere two years ago powered solely by swagger and bravado. Now, far removed from those once-dizzying heights, Schwarzenegger's meteoric descent has been rivalled only by that of George Bush Jr. himself, making for a potent one-two punch of political seppuku. So where does the Governator go from here?

Here are some thoughts on the subject by Michael Hiltzik over at the LA Times.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Orwellian

So prescient was George Orwell's 1984, with its chilling depiction of a dystopic, fascistic future that his very name became synonymous with the concept. Orwellian. It's a term we've heard batted around quite a bit for the past few years, mainly in reference to the "I'm fine, you're fine" view of the world that's painted by the White House, regardless of how stark the contrast may be with actual facts.

Now, with Bush mired in scandal both at home and abroad, we're seeing the Orwellian tactics of his administration more clearly than ever before. Author David Benjamin recently cracked open Orwell's seminal tome and examined some of the more obvious parallels between BushCo and Big Brother. Here's an excerpt:

"History has stopped," explained Orwell. "Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."

Indeed, this White House, as a matter of ideology, loathes even the suggestion that it ever erred. George Bush is pathologically reluctant to admit even the tiniest goof because, as Orwell says, "... by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party. It is not merely that speeches, statistics and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change of doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one's mind, or even one's policy, is a confession of weakness."

Check out the rest here.

Friday, November 04, 2005

One Year Later

Well, hard as it may be to believe, today marks one year to the day that I first started this little slice of the Information Superhighway. One year ago Bush was making his victory lap and the Lunatic Right was crowing about how their man had struck a blow for all God-fearing Americans. Naturally I felt that the only way I could respond to this was in the time-honored tradition of all great American patriots -- anonymously, over the Internet. Whaddya want, it's convenient.

Now here we are one year later and it seems like everything Bush touches turns to crap, so I guess there really is such a thing as karma. Naturally a whole lot more has happened in the past year than just that, both personally and globally, but I thought it was worth it at this juncture to pause and take a look back at how this whole sorry enterprise got started. To paraphrase (badly) Walt Disney, no matter how many readers, how many subscribers this blog may expand to, in the end it was all because of one obscenely-privileged idiot son of a wealthy career politician/former president. Thanks GW!

For those of you who pop by semi-regularly, and those of you who've made this one of your bookmarks, you have my undying...congratulations. Let's face it, you have impeccable taste, and I applaud that. If you'd like, leave a comment on what types of stuff you like to see covered here, and what kinds of write-ups you'd prefer never to see again.

Now THAT'S how you do it...

With all the rigmarole of the past week, I neglected to post this little gem from the October 23rd episode of THE WEST WING. In a remarkable (and I'm assuming unintentional) parallel with real world events occurring concurrently in the real West Wing, the storyline on the television show involved the leak of classified information by a high-ranking administration official. The source of the leak was eventually revealed as Richard Schiff's Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director.

Now, we already know how the real world version played out, with Lewis Libby's indictment, followed immediately by his resignation, followed immediately by Bush and Cheney racing to see who could praise the erstwhile felon more effusively. Okay, now that we've recapped the reality, let's check in on the fictional Jed Bartlett administration to see how they'd handle it.

Through the looking glass, people. Through the looking glass.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Return of the KING

We've seen the teaser, we've gotten glimpses like the one above, and now as we head into the final six week stretch, we get the full trailer for Peter Jackson's highly-anticipated KING KONG remake. For those who came in late, this is the third cinematic go-round for this epic tale, following the 1933 original and the updated Jeff Bridges-Jessica Lange vehicle from 1976.

As you can tell from trailer, this one takes the story back to its 1930s roots, sweetening the pot with some 2005-style CGI effects and the now-trademark Peter Jackson 3 hour runtime. The big question I have is whether there's really 180 minutes worth of meat in what is ultimately a glorified version of BEAUTY & THE BEAST.

I guess we'll all find out together on December 14th when KONG hits theaters.

AARGH!!

Click here if you've got an hour or five to kill and you want to play the most addictive game you're likely to see in quite awhile. Be forewarned that it will creep into the darkest corners of your soul and take up permanent residence. That said, enjoy!

(Thanks to Mark Evanier for initially posting the link.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Bird Flu: It's The New Terrorism!

As you can probably tell, I've been avoiding hitting the political beat since last week. Between Libby-gate, Miers-gate, and now Alito-gate, I'm just about gated out. Add to all this the Figurehead's continued freefalling poll numbers, and is it any wonder why the new Booga-Booga of choice, the Asian bird flu, is being used to whip everyone up into a frenzy?

Let's just say the timing of Bush's much ballyhooed "Flu Plan," which we have no reason to expect will go any better than his "Hurricane Plan" (especially considering he's farmed it out to the same gang of incompetents) is...interesting.

The one ray of light I saw this past week was the Democratic-orchestrated move to to take the Senate into a closed session, in a bid to uncover the deceptions that were instrumental in leading this country to the Iraq war. Of course such ballsy tactics could have been better applied, y'know, before most of the Dems voted to give Bush the authority to go into Iraq, but I guess we just have to take what we can get.

Anyway, while the move was perfectly in keeping with the Constitution, that didn't stop the lockstep GOPers, specifically Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from acting positively apoplectic. Good stuff.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Michael Piller, RIP

Some sad news for fans of sci-fi in general and STAR TREK in particular with the passing of writer/producer Michael Piller at the young age of 57 after an extended battle with cancer.

Piller joined the writing staff of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION during its second season in 1988, and is largely responsible for lifting that series to both critical and popular acclaim. During its final season in 1994, Piller helped guide NEXT GENERATION to an unprecedented Emmy nomination for Best Dramatic Series, something never before or since accomplished by a syndicated series.

Piller also co-created DEEP SPACE NINE, the first of the modern day TREK spin-offs, regarded by many as the best series the franchise has produced. He also was a key figure in the creation of VOYAGER, which premiered in 1995 and ushered in the UPN network.

Though Piller left the STAR TREK office after VOYAGER's second season for greener pastures, he did make one last visit to the TREK universe when he wrote the screenplay to 1999's STAR TREK: INSURRECTION. In recent years, Piller and his son Shawn executive produced THE DEAD ZONE, which continues on USA, based on the Stephen King novel and starring Anthony Michael Hall.

Piller was a true giant in the field, and he will surely be missed.

Tuesday DVD Roundup

Today was pretty much dominated by the STAR WARS monolith. Though it did see a handful of other notable DVDs hitting the stands, there was only one other release that I was interested in...

STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH

I was positively bowled over when I first saw this, the final entry in George Lucas' decades-spanning sci-fi epic in its initial run in theaters (you can check out that review here). Has my opinion changed in the months since the film's initial release? Not much at all. While the awkward, awful-at-times dialogue is only more stultifying upon repeat viewings, there's also no question that the emotional core at the center of the saga really becomes only more involving when viewed in context with the other films. Watch them in chronological or numerical order, either way REVENGE OF THE SITH helped to bring the STAR WARS series to a powerful, satisfying close.

This 2-discer doesn't present anything unexpected to those who've already invested in the previous two prequel DVDs. Another Lucas & Co. yak-track, and more behind-the-scenes featurettes, along with the usual top-of-the-line video & audio presentations. Truly a treat for the THX-enhanced.

STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE - THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON

It seems somehow appropriate that the day one sci-fi franchise's final entry hits the digital medium, so too does another. The main difference here is that while REVENGE OF THE SITH was widely regarded positively by both fans and critics alike, and generally viewed as bringing the glory back to the STAR WARS brand, ENTERPRISE's conclusion had the near-opposite reaction.

By the time it limped to its fourth season, with viewership less than a quarter of its premiere, ENTERPRISE was generally perceived as the last desperate gasp of a franchise that was at least half a decade past its prime. While not without merit given the franchise's rapid descent following the conclusion of DEEP SPACE NINE in '99, this is also a view that's terribly unfair given the phenomenal television we were able to get during what turned out to ENTERPRISE's last hurrah.

The first two years of the show, while not altogether uninvolving, remained largely mired in the same technobabble jungle that made the STAR TREK franchise such a drag in recent years, and while season three's yearlong "Xindi" storyline was captivating, it was also curiously disconnected from the rest of the TREK firmament. But for those faithful who stuck through it all, season four was when the show finally dove full bore into the STAR TREK territory.

Between ridgeless Klingons, logical Vulcans, the return of TNG-vet Brent Spiner, and the Mirror Universe, there's more than enough excitement in the 24 hours of this last STAR TREK season for the forseeable future to capture and keep the attention of both Trekkie and newbie alike. While the season (series) finale is an absolute embarrassment (as I mentioned in my initial review here), it shouldn't take away from what ended up being one of the most consistently entertaining years of STAR TREK in far too long.

So long ENTERPRISE, we hardly knew ya.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Recommended Viewing

Here's SNL's take on the much-lampooned conversation Bush had with the soldiers in Iraq, previous coverage of which I've discussed here and here.

Unimpeachable

No, it's not the new M. Night Shyamalan flick, it's the reality about GW. As the Fitzgerald investigation links to more and more higher-ups, most recently Dark Lord Cheney himself, there's an almost-palpable giddiness among some on the left who are absolutely certain that the next step must surely be the "exit, stage left" of the Figurehead himself. Not so, says Ted Rall, who makes a pretty strong argument that we're in it for the duration. I gotta agree with him, m'self, and for all the same reasons he outlines.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Recommended Reading

Here's the best summation I've yet read of the entire CIA leak scandal drama, giving a pretty decent rundown of all the relevant information and key players up 'till now. Probably as close as we're going to get to a scorecard for this whole sordid affair.

After you're done with that, click on over to Frank Rich's column from yesterday's New York Times, which goes even deeper in examining the motives and series of events that ultimately led to "Plamegate":

For Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by fictional, more salable ones. We wouldn't be invading Iraq to further Rovian domestic politics or neocon ideology; we'd be doing so instead because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons. The facts and intelligence had to be fixed to create these whys; any contradictory evidence had to be dismissed or suppressed.
Even with all the talk of editorial bias and outright incompetence at the Times in the wake of the Judith Miller fiasco (which itself came in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco), none of which I'd be hard-pressed to disagere with, Rich has been and continues to be one of the best op-ed writers out there.

Tell Me You Love Me

If you take a glance over at the right side of the page underneath all the various links and archives and whatnots, you'll see I've added a way for you to rate this blog, courtesy of BlogHop. I'd be much obliged if those of you who enjoy coming here every so often would be so kind as to send some love my way by clicking on the green button on the far left. Thanks in advance!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Viggo Strikes Back

I've had the good fortune to interview actor Viggo Mortensen twice now (check out the video here and read the article here), and both times I found him to be that rarest of Hollywood creatures -- thoughtful, articulate, and thankful for those opportunities when he could just speak his mind and not worry about having to flog some film release or other.

A new interview for The Progressive magazine, in connection with his film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, is no exception, and finds the actor reflecting on Hurricane Katrina, Cindy Sheehan (including his visit to Camp Casey in Crawford), and much more. Here are his thoughts when queried on hopes for eventual change in the current political paradigm:
I think most Americans will look back on this period since 1980 as a morally bleak, intellectually fraudulent period of history. There will be a certain amount of shame, a feeling we were part of something wrong. People standing outside of this country can see this because it’s very obvious. It’s like looking at a spoiled brat, a kid who’s totally out of control, but because the parents are really rich and because they own the school, you have to put up with it. America is an empire in decay. But we don’t have to lash out and do damage on the way down. We can reverse some of the damage we’ve done. It’s possible.
Read the rest of the interview here.

From Trickle to Torrent

It's amazing how thoroughly the Valerie Plame affair (or "Plamegate," if you prefer) has left its mark on seemingly every aspect of the Figurehead's Administration, serving as a rallying cry to many of just how its seemingly unapologetic corruption runs from stem to stern.

The faint promise (well, faint hope, anyway) hangs in the air of forthcoming indictments from the independent prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, currently in the midst of investigating what could turn out to be The Most Important Criminal Case in American History and presumably aimed seeker-like at Turd Blossom Karl Rove & Company.

Given all this, it's amazing how much information is finally starting to emerge. What was initially the slowest of trickles from this, the most secretive White House in recent memory, has now built up to a veritable typhoon of new information. When taken taken together, we are shown a frightening portrait of the results of unchecked power in the hands of a malevolent menagerie of arrested development adolescents.

It seems more and more disgruntled current and former staffers are working to distance themselves from the mass of morasses the junta has managed to accumulate in so short a span. To wit, there are these charges from Colin Powell's former chief-of-staff which are backed up by Newsweek, which features an in-depth look at the mechanics of Cheney chase for the Iraq invasion, with some insight into the Cosa Nostra-like regime the veep presides over.

All this comes right on top of the very embarrassing and very public flogging administered to Judith Miller over her connection to Plame Leak. The New York Times reporter, who served 90 days in prison before finally outing her source as Cheney advisor Lewis Libby, was at first heralded as a First Amendment Martyr but has since shown her true stripes as just another administration crony.

Now add to that pile new charges that former Christian Coalition head and occasional Bush advisor Ralph Reed had a part to play in the ongoing corruption probe that has already forced Tom DeLay (seen here smug as ever in his mugshot) to vacate the House Majority Leader's post. But wait, there's more. There's also the continuing investigation into allegations that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist engaged in insider trading. Starting to see a pattern here? What we're looking at is an absolutely unprecedented number of legal squabbles threatening to engulf the entire crony-infested facade in a web of graft and corruption.

And let's not forget Iraq, where even after the ostensible "success" of last week's constitutional referendum, beating a hasty retreat has taken precedence over Bush's goals of establishing in Iraq a shining beacon of democracy in the MidEast.

Taken together, one emerges with a picture of a president so mired in self-deception that he has effectively taken a daisy cutter to his own legacy -- pre-emptively, at that. All of this has in turn buried America's image as The Last Superpower -- internationally, if not domestically (there's plenty of delusion to go around, after all).

I'm sure we'll all be watching with much interest over the coming days and weeks what (if anything) will finally come of the Fitzgerald investigation.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

For the independently wealthy Trekkie in all of us...

Now that Paramount has cycled through all the iterations of the STAR TREK franchise, I would've thought they'd found every possible way to fleece the fanbase. But I guess it was only a matter of time 'till they brought out this space-devouring package. I'm just wondering who could possibly be insane enough to drop two-and-a-half grand on this monster 212 DVD collection.

(Remembering that there are people who actually speak fluent Klingon...)

Oh. Right.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tuesday DVD Roundup

Back again for another of my sporadic glances at new DVD releases on what has turned out to be one of the biggest release dates for new product in recent memory. A veritable plethora of new platters has been unleashed on an unsuspecting public today, with just as much trash (Who exactly demanded a director's cut of ELEKTRA?) as treasure (see below...):


Today's biggie is of course BATMAN BEGINS, being unleashed in both a no-frills "cheapo" version and a deluxe "extra spiffy" version for the connoisseurs. Don't really have too much more to say about this reboot of the Batman film franchise, having pretty much stated all my thoughts and then some here when the movie first came out. As far as the DVD goes, while I'm looking forward to the seeing the various behind-the-scenes goings-on, I'm a little disappointed in the lack of (director) Christopher Nolan and/or (writer) David Goyer commentary. Still, that's a small complaint for what appears to be a truly jam-packed package.


In case that isn't enough of the Dark Knight for you, today also marks the release of Warner Bros' long-promised, long-delayed BATMAN ANTHOLOGY, collecting the four films that make up WB's previous go at the Bat-franchise, begun with much ballyhoo in '89 with Tim Burton's BATMAN, and crashing to Earth so infamously in 1997 with Joel Schumacher's BATMAN & ROBIN (which Burton once referred to as "The Gay Icecapades"). This eight-disc set is popping at the seams with all manner of features new and archival, including commentaries on all four flicks by their respective helmers. Despite my utter abhorrence for the franchise-busting Schumacher entries, I'm still sort of looking forward to hearing his full-length audio apology for the latter two flicks. It might end up being more entertaining then the movies themselves...


But wait, the Bat-party doesn't end there. We also get the 1943 movie serial BATMAN, which is memorable not for its solid acting or intricate plot (neither of which exists), but rather for its eschewing of traditional comic book villains like The Joker or The Penguin in favor of the evil scientist Dr. Daka (a blatantly offensive Japanese stereotype played by the very non-Japanese J. Carroll Naish). If you like hearing your superheroes refer to "those Jap devils," or you're still nursing a grudge from Pearl Harbor, it seems your ship has finally come in...


It's not all Bat guano today, mind you. Playing catch-up with his DC Comics cohort, The Last Son of Krypton also makes an appearance. With Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and even Tom Welling already having gotten the digital treatment, it was only a matter of time 'till the very first TV Superman, George Reeves, made his DVDebut. The first season release of the 1950s television series ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN hit today, featuring 26 black & white half-hour episodes. Not having seen more than a few minutes of this show to date, I'm both looking forward to and skeptical about giving these plates a spin. While I'm cognizant of how well-regarded it is by both historians and those who grew up during the era, I curious to see if it'll hold up well or just be an embarrassing curio from a more innocent time.


In other release news, there's also the first season (well, half-season anyway) of HE-MAN & THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, following the ten episode "best of" release that I previously mentioned here. Now you can look forward to even more poorly-animated cartoon violence (but with a lesson at the end of every half hour) for your DVD-buying buck. Cant' wait.

And that's the roundup until next time...whenever that is.