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

Oil Wells That End Well


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.

In story terms, Syriana is about oil. From CIA agents to businessmen to foreign royalty to impoverished teenagers, every plot and subplot of the film inevitably comes back to the pervasive influence of the oil trade on seemingly every aspect of our lives. That said, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the Byzantine complexities of Syriana. With all the back-and-forth wrangling and finagling between various faceless, nameless characters on issues of policy and economics, one can be forgiven for losing the point of what we’re witnessing. But then, about an hour or so into the proceedings, the truth at the heart of this film becomes crystal clear in an exchange between an oil company lobbyist (played by Tim Blake Nelson) and a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright).

“Corruption?” intones the oilman, utter contempt dripping from his every syllable, “Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around here instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption ... is how we win.” Therein is the film’s true message. Syriana dares to cast a lens inward at how this very same corruption has seeped into politics, finance, religion, and even family, not just in America but throughout our global society, and often serves as the true engine driving policy.

The one commonality that emerges through the various unfolding storylines is in how this corruption can make a teenager go from playing soccer in the desert to becoming a suicide bomber, or intertwine a successful family man with Arabian royalty, or leave a CIA operative sold out by his own agency for espousing the “wrong” views. Here is a story told with such clinical precision that it only serves to make the tale that much more chilling. This is a story of the real world, and that commitment to reality informs every frame.

Gaghan never takes the easy way out with his characters, instead portraying them all as realistically as possible. Are some more heroic than others? Are some more villainous than others? Yes to both. And yet, every character has motivations that are both human and believable. This in turn makes their eventual actions for good or ill that much more involving. While I could spend much time and energy laying out in precise detail the numerous plot threads and how they coalesce, the pleasure of Syriana comes from the viewing. It’s less about tracking the story as it is about simply experiencing it. Further, the experience itself is oftentimes akin to piecing together a very elaborate, constantly-shifting, puzzle.

I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to mention the revelatory performances Gaghan was able to coax from his all-star cast. First and foremost among these is George Clooney, clearly angling for an Oscar nod. The Clooney we see here is light years removed from the slick panache of Danny Ocean. Here we have a George Clooney sporting a rough, patchy beard, a gut, and a general feeling of malaise. Here we have George Clooney portraying a character who is clearly in over his head – and who knows it. In eschewing the same movie star tics that so define his screen persona, Clooney delivers a performance that is positively electric.

Another fine performance is given by Matt Damon as an idealistic young businessman, and the always-reliable Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer turn in appropriately oilly turns as the black hats of the piece. Of special note is Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir, the reformer whose political fate drives much of Syriana’s narrative. Siddig is able to portray with remarkable effectiveness and with few words a man torn between the needs of his people and the exigencies of political expedience.

All of this is not to say the film is perfect. There are certain plotlines that seem to be all build-up and no resolution. Also, while the subplot involving the seduction of the suicide bomber is involving, there isn’t enough effort made on the filmmakers’ parts to distinguish the violent ideology he is being brought into from that of traditional Islam –which rejects such violence. Still, given the amount of ground to cover, the film can be forgiven for giving certain storylines short shrift. As Syriana nears its conclusion, after nearly two hours of slow-burn buildup, things take off like a shot, with every single thread we’ve followed until that point coming together in an amazing rat-a-tat-tat sequence that is absolutely worth the wait.

It is somewhat of a tragedy that a film this honest – this important – would come out in our current, highly-charged political climate. For most people who watch Syriana, it will simply be a political screed about oil, and that’s it. However, whether by accident or by intent, it is something much more than that. Make no mistake, Syriana is a great film. One of the year’s best. Like all great art, it raises innumerable questions, many of which can only be answered with more questions – but it’s those very questions that can lead to a greater understanding not only of the world we inhabit, but also ourselves. A

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...