Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Capitulating Instead of Negotiating

Discussing the proposal by President Obama to freeze the pay of federal workers as sop to the deficit hawks, Paul Begala bullseyed the problem last night on CNN:

Irvin Kershner, RIP

Director Irvin Kershner also passed away this weekend.  While the name may not be familiar to you, if you love the Star Wars saga, it's likely because of him.  Following on the heels of the out-of-nowhere success of the first Star Wars film in 1977, George Lucas brought on Kershner, then a working director who'd amassed a steady, if unremarkable, list of credits up to that point, to shepherd the highly-anticipated sequel in England while he handled the administrative end stateside.  I'm not sure if Lucas thought he'd get a "shoot what I tell you to shoot" director, but it's to the franchise's eternal benefit that he didn't.  The resultant mix of Kershner's introspective, character-based vision atop Lucas' blockbuster edifice provides the beating heartbeat of the entire series.  The Empire Strikes Back is that rarest of beasts in Hollywood: the perfect movie.  It's a powerful, resonant film that provides the context to increase our love of its predecessor and tolerate its successors.

So successful was Kershner with what he set out to accomplish in Empire that it almost seems inevitable that nothing else in his catalogue could measure up to it.  Two years after Empire's 1980 release, he helmed the James Bond rival production Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball that was memorable for Sean Connery's (final) return to the role, but little else.  In 1990 he tackled the first sequel to RoboCop, and whatever humanistic touches he might have lent the proceedings were lost in an array of grotesque violence that lacked both the subtlety and dark humour that Paul Verhoeven lent the original.  His final directing credits were for a few episodes (including the pilot) of the mostly-forgotten NBC sci-fi series SeaQuest DSV, which starred Roy Scheider and was executive produced by Steven Spielberg.  That he never quite left the shadow of The Empire Strikes Back says less about the man's unquestionable talent then about how that talent, paired with just the right parts, allowed for the creation of something exceptional.

For more on the man and his work, click over here to read Drew McWeeny's terrific remembrance.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Leslie Nielsen, RIP

I think it's a testament to how thoroughly Leslie Nielsen came to embody the face of comedy for so many that most of of the memorials in the wake of his passing this weekend will likely forget that he started out as a dramatic actor.  Indeed, the deep-voiced, granite-chinned actor was the heroic space captain of the '50s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, and he embodied varying degrees of tough guy machismo on big screen and small for decades before his comedic turn in 1980's Airplane! showed us the smirk under the swagger.  That paved the way for Nielsen's signature role of Lt. Frank Drebin in the short-lived Police Squad TV series (cancelled by ABC in 1982 after a mere six eps), which in turn inspired a successful feature (and franchise) in The Naked Gun a mere six years later.

By the time Nielsen completed the third and final Naked Gun in 1993, he'd cemented his image to the spoof genre interminably.  Some of the movies that emerged in subsequent years were funny (Wrongfully Accused), and some weren't (Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but all benefited from his unerring ability to deliver the most riotous of laugh lines with deadpan precision.  I caught the cable premiere of one of Nielsen's final appearances, Superhero Movie, a few weeks back, in which he played the "Uncle Ben" role to Drake Bell's Peter Parker riff, and while the film itself is pretty mediocre -- better than most recent spoofers, nowhere near the heights of Airplane! -- there's no denying that Nielsen, like the Godfather, blessed the proceeding with his presence.  Like few others, he proved again and again that being funny is some serious business.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Buy Your Tickets!

If you're reading this in or around the SF Bay Area, be sure to clear your schedule this coming Saturday, November 27, to attend the 2nd Annual Young American Muslim Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Muslim Community Center in San Ramon, with the theme of "Mind, Body, and Soul."  In addition to event headliners Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir, two of the preeminent Muslim voices in America, other speakers include singer Baraka Blue, Javed Ali (founder of Illume magazine), Wajahat Ali (author of the play The Domestic Crusaders), and, yep, This Guy, talking about the role of Muslims in the media.  So stacked is this thing with luminaries that I don't think even my presence on the bill can prevent it from being an educational, enlightening, and engrossing program. Read more about it here, and purchase your tickets here.  If you make it, be sure to stop by and say hey!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dead Meet

I discovered the zombie genre in kind of a sideways manner a few years ago, after Friend of the Blog Glenn Greenberg (whose opinion I highly respect, and whose site I highly recommend) spoke its praises and thus piqued my curiosity.  Although I started somewhat inauspiciously with the '80s horror/comedy mashup Return of the Living Dead, by the time I worked my way over to the George A. Romero corner of the zombie movie-verse, starting with 1968's Night of the Living Dead and working forward from there, this resolute non-fan of blood-and-guts was utterly hooked (while simultaneously being frightened out of my wits).

That fandom quickly carried over to books (having made the mistake more than once of falling asleep while listening to the audiobook of Max Brooks' World War Z -- really bad idea!), and comic books, with the terrific Walking Dead series from Image and Robert Kirkman, and it continues with the equally-terrific AMC series it inspired.  So, after all this, the question is why?  What's the appeal of the zombie genre, not just to me, but to all the other people who've enjoyed it in all its many iterations?  I've had more than enough opportunity to ponder this (including as part of the Big Secret Project I've been working on -- announcement coming soon!), as apparently has writer Olivia Collette, who's reached some of the same conclusions I have.  Says she:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Recommended Reading(s)

Frank Rich on the perils of underestimating Sarah Palin.

Paul Krugman on the danger of overestimating Barack Obama.

Whichever way you want to slice it, 2012 starts looking pretty darn unpleasant.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The "Lamestream" Lament

Last week, Sarah Palin gave another in her long series of famously petulant interviews, this time to the New York Times, where she once again took to chastising the so-called "lamestream media" for various and sundry perceived crimes against her personage.  Apart from the obvious hilarity of a grown woman using the word "lamestream" and expecting to be taken seriously as a political force, there's the somewhat worrisome reality that she is taken seriously as a political force.

In fact, for all her "woe is me" grousing about the rough ride she's been given, the media on the whole have been downright kid gloved in their treatment of Ms. Palin. Whether "death panels" or "refudiate" or, yep, "lamestream media," she's been able to sit pretty on her twin Twitter-Facebook perches and lob all manner of easily-disproved canards with most of the media breathlessly reporting on her every update while standing idle when it comes to questioning her underlying facts and/or assumptions. All this for fear of tarnishing their supposed objectivity.  Here again we see how the desperate need be seen as "balanced" has effectively neutered the Fourth Estate by making it a third rail to call foul on blatant falsehoods.

While the ongoing MSNBC-Fox News sideshow has put the question of media objectivity back at the forefront of our discussion, as did last week's Keith Olbermann kerfuffle, what seems to have gone unacknowledged is that sometimes there is only one side -- the truth -- and far from demonstrating bias by pointing it out, our media appendages betray gross negligence by attempting to frame all sides of a given argument as equal players.  In examining Olbermann's role, Salon's Gene Lyons makes a very important point:
...for all his grandiosity, MSNBC's resident blowhard doesn't actually make things up -- the most fundamental distinction in journalism.
The same can't be said of the Hannity-Beck-Limbaugh axis though, in which Ms. Palin can now be included thanks to her Fox News talking head post.  They've shown plenty of times that they have a, shall we say, strained relationship with the truth.  And therein lies the rub.  You're entitled to spin facts whichever way you choose, but you're not allowed to invent them from whole cloth, and you should expect to be called on it when you do.  Objectivity and balance aren't the same thing, and the media's conflation of the two has resulted in the foregrounding of the latter at the expense of the former.  It's how we end up with this.

Or this.

Or, God help us, this.

"Lamestream," indeed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bringin' Crazy Back

You might remember way back in March when Jon Stewart tried to out-Beck Glenn Beck for a show-long piece of performance art that, while hilarious, still had to work pretty darn hard to match the Fox News host for beat-for-beat craziness.  Well, with Beck's special last week in which he blamed all of America's ills on millionaire George Soros (going so far as to call the octogenarian Holocaust survivor a Nazi sympathizer -- "Nazi Tourette's" anyone?), he may just have topped himself.  But not to be outdone, Stewart broke out the glasses and chalkboard(s) once again last night for another double-length extravaganza, and it's a doozy:

Part the First:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
George Soros Plans to Overthrow America
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Part the Second:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Manchurian Lunatic
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Cowboy Way

Yesterday I noted the general apathy I felt upon viewing the Green Lantern teaser trailer, which I thought was competent but otherwise unremarkable.  I don't know if it's that superhero burnout I've talked about before or what, but yesterday also gave us our first look at Cowboys & Aliens, another blockbuster gearing up for release next summer, and after seeing it I felt the exact sense of anticipation I didn't get with the Green Lantern one.

Starring Daniel Craig in what could be his breakout post-Bond part, and Harrison Ford reprising his current role of Grumpy Old Guy, the movie is based on the graphic novel of the same name and directed by Iron Man maestro Jon Favreau.  This teaser does exactly what it should do: give a rough sense of the story while leaving just enough in the dark (literally, in this case) to keep us wanting more.  Until now, despite the high-caliber of talent involved from top-to-bottom, this one had been mostly off my radar.  Not anymore.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

That Green, Green Glow

Here's the first trailer for next summer's Green Lantern feature, directed by Casino Royale's Martin Campbell and starring Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan.  As DC Comics and Warners' attempt to mine gold from a character whose name doesn't begin with "Super" or "Bat," this looks solid, and Reynolds seems like a good fit for the part, but I'll be honest and say there's nothing about the trailer that really blows my mind either.  The best I can say is, yep, it looks like a Green Lantern movie -- which is a good thing, I guess. Anyway, I'm sure we'll be seeing and hearing a lot more about this as its release inches closer, allowing us to gain a greater sense of what to expect.  Click here for the HD Quicktime version.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Slash 'n' Grab

Last month we got our first word that critically beloved director Darren Aronofsky, whose Black Swan is now in theaters, was weighing the latest installment of Fox's Wolverine series.  The question I asked then was why someone of Aronofsky's caliber would bother slumming on the fifth leg of a series that, despite the very best efforts of its lead actor, seemed to be circling the drain as of its last entry.  Well, the speculation is over.  The contracts are signed, and the director is aboard.

In confirming his attachment, Aronofsky has addressed some of my initial concerns. The project, which tracks the Japanese adventures of Hugh Jackman's hirsute anti-hero (can you believe he's been playing the role for more than ten years now?), won't be Wolverine 2 or X-Men 5 or anything else with a number or roman numeral at the end. Instead, they've tacked the definite article onto the front: The Wolverine. Oh, and don't call it a sequel.  Remember those four previous movies in which Jackman played the same character?  Ignore them, because they don't exist.  Said Aronofsky to HitFix, this is a "one-off."

So, I guess that answers the question of what kind of incentive the director was given to sign on beyond just his relationship with Jackman -- the freedom to reinvent the wheel as he sees fit.  Wolverine 2, er, The Wolverine is due to hit theaters in 2012 in the midst of a very jam packed summer, duking it out with Sony's Spider-Man reboot, the last leg of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy, JJ Abrams' Star Trek sequel, and, of course, the Marvel superhero jam The Avengers.  Given the competition, Aronofsky and Jackman will really need to up the ante to make sure their Wolverine stays a cut above.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Trial Tribulations

On Friday, I linked to an article chronicling Eric Holder's struggles as Attorney General, particularly as it relates to the planned trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, which was intended for civil jurisprudence before political and security concerns shunted it back to a potential military tribunal.  Now it looks like even that won't be happening anytime soon, as folks within the administration have -- yet again -- demonstrated their lack of political courage by privately conceding the most likely outcome for the so-called "9/11 mastermind" is continued indefinite detention without trial.  As The Washington Post states:
Obama came into office with a strong preference to prosecute Mohammed and other detainees in federal court as part of a larger plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Almost from the start, however, he ran into fierce political opposition.
And, in the face of that opposition, he folded like a lawn chair. Are you surprised? That's been the story of this administration, after all.  Whether the KSM trial, closing Guantanamo (remember when that was at the top of the Obama agenda?), the aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco from last summer, the sterling defense of the Park51 Islamic Center followed immediately by a hasty walk-back, or the current tax cut brouhaha that I'm reasonably certain will end with the president buckling just like he always has, the narrative is remarkably consistent: the minute a tough political fight looks like it's in the offing, run in the opposite direction.

Now, that's not to imply that there hasn't been a substantial amount of positive change made under the Obama Administration (as this site shows), however, there's also just as much that's been business as usual (as this site shows).  What becomes apparent when examining his presidency thus far is that the Obama position seems to hinge on the misbegotten notion that, by avoiding polarizing political fights, he'll preserve political capital for a rainy day.  Someone should really explain to him that political capital is sort of like milk: it'll go bad whether you keep it in the fridge or not, so you'd best drink it quickly.

And two years in, with the House's Republican takeover in January all but assuring that the current frustrating stasis in Washington will become a longed-for memory, new political capital is something he's going to find harder and harder to come by, especially if he keeps dancing through some of the most important fights of this or any other presidency by playing to the mythical middle instead of scoring a knockdown blow.  I've said it before, but it seems like it needs repeating: the people who hate Obama will hate him whether he meets them partway, halfway or all the way.  And while there's definite wisdom in picking your battles, that still implies that you'll eventually, y'know, pick a battle.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hankies on Stun!

The folks at Topless Robot have posted another of their trademark lists, this time rattling off the top eleven moments from the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy that are virtually guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of the sensitive geek.  I mean who didn't get a little verklemmt when Optimus Prime died in the 1986 Transformers animated flick? And Spock in Star Trek II?  That's some traumatic stuff right there.  There are a couple of the entries I haven't seen, but I'll be darned if they're not pretty much spot-on with the vast majority of them. Number 3, especially, manages to choke me up. Every. Single. Time.

Recommended Reading

Wil Hylton at GQ has a fascinating article examining the struggle of Attorney General Eric Holder, as head of the Obama Justice Department, in attempting to balance principle and politics in the face of a president and administration increasingly embracing the latter at the expense of the former.  The President's decision to yank the Khalid Sheikh Muhammad prosecution from a civilan court in favor of a military tribunal, in defiance of Obama's stated opposition to them during the campaign, is just one example of this phenomenon, but anyone who's paid attention during the last two years is already aware of the legacy that Obama the Pragmatist is in danger of leaving behind.  Reading this piece probably won't leave you feeling much better.

Civil Discourse

Though Jon Stewart rarely ventures outside of his Daily Show forum, whenever he does, whether appearing with Bill Moyers or Bill O'Reilly, I'm consistently impressed at how he approaches complex issues with a seriousness and sincerity that belies the "I'm just a comedian" line he deploys as a shield.  Case in point is his lengthy sit-down last night with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that saw him discussing the goals of and reaction to his ballyhooed "Rally to Restore Sanity" a few weeks back, the aftermath of which saw him taking some hits from seemingly all sides.

While some folks on the Right fell over themselves to write it all off as an insubstantial clown show, which maybe it was, some folks on the Left quickly took issue with what they felt was an unfair equivalence between the the tactics employed by both sides, which, in fairness, maybe it was.  However, what may have gotten lost in all of the talking head round-robins was the simple point behind the rally: The media has an investment in propagating a binary "us vs. them" narrative, regardless of who you paint as "us" and who you paint as "them."

Now, that doesn't mean, as Bill Maher seemed to infer last Friday, that there aren't times when one side is more right than the other.  However, it does mean that we have to figure out ways to get past those differences to actually get things done.  This was the sentiment articulated in Stewart's speech at the event, as well as every non-Daily interview he's ever done, going back to his famous Crossfire appearance in '04.  The Maddow chat -- all fifty minutes -- is worth watching in its entirety, as posted above. If time is at a premium, click past the jump for some clips...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TRON Traffic

The upcoming sequel Tron Legacy, which I previously discussed here and here, is just one month shy of its highly-anticipated launch, with the full marketing muscle of the Disney company at its back.  The various toys and merchandise are already out there, and in addition to the just-announced CG animated series Tron Uprising, set between the first and second films, there's also the newly-released final trailer that not only gives us a sense of the new movie's scope, but also some of the story terrain they're mining.

Also of note, the last time the original Tron hit home video was for a bells-and-whistles DVD back in '02.  Of course, eight years is an eternity in movie time, and in this age of double-and-triple-dipping discs, I did find it strange that the Mouse House allowed the film to remain out of print with no updated edition while awareness and interest are at a high.  In case you've been left high-and-dry looking for a Tron fix, The Vulture asked original director Steven Lisberger about a potential new release, and here's what he said about when to expect it.


Ah, God love the "experts."
Local Man Foremost Expert On What The Terrorists Should Do If They Really Want To Hurt Us
BIRMINGHAM, AL—Area feed store manager and local terrorist expert Wendell Butler offered up another one of his brilliant theories Friday outlining exactly what the terrorists should do if they really want to hurt the United States. "I'll tell you what would absolutely demoralize us is if they hit Disneyland," said the 48-year-old high school graduate, whose vast knowledge of how terrorists operate and what the consequences of their potential actions would be is truly unmatched. "With all the families there it would just be devastating. And it's Disneyland, so symbolically that would be like the ultimate desecration of everything American." The razor-sharp Butler then spent the next two hours applying his insightful analysis of global terrorism and its effects to hypothetical attacks on water treatment facilities, hospitals, and the Academy Awards.

Recommended Reading

On this Veteran's Day, The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin recalls the experience of a veteran in his life, and ponders the true meaning of patriotism.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Olbermann on Olbermann

Just back from his suspension, Keith Olbermann reacted to the reaction on last night's Countdown:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Olbermann to Fans: "Thanks"; Olbermann to MSNBC: "Bite me"

Keith Olbermann returns to his Countdown perch this evening, so it looks like the long national nightmare of his suspension will finally come to a close.  But before we put a pin on the story, there's one more bit of business worthy of mention.  Yesterday, the host issued a statement of gratitude to the folks who've expressed solidarity during his long spell of uncertainty for the past four days, and he also took the chance to lob a few spitballs at his bosses.  For the record, I think he's correct in his criticisms of MSNBC's handling of this, but I also find it hard to get too exorcised over someone who makes $7 million a year missing two days of pay.  The original statement is here, and I've gone ahead and posted it below:
I want to sincerely thank you for the honor of your extraordinary and ground-rattling support. Your efforts have been integral to the remedying of these recent events, and the results should remind us of the power of individuals spontaneously acting together to correct injustices great or small. I would also like to acknowledge with respect the many commentators and reporters, including those with whom my politics do not overlap, for their support. 
I also wish to apologize to you viewers for having precipitated such anxiety and unnecessary drama. You should know that I mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule – which I previously knew nothing about – that pertains to the process by which such political contributions are approved by NBC. Certainly this mistake merited a form of public acknowledgment and/or internal warning, and an on-air discussion about the merits of limitations on such campaign contributions by all employees of news organizations. Instead, after my representative was assured that no suspension was contemplated, I was suspended without a hearing, and learned of that suspension through the media. 
You should also know that I did not attempt to keep any of these political contributions secret; I knew they would be known to you and the rest of the public. I did not make them through a relative, friend, corporation, PAC, or any other intermediary, and I did not blame them on some kind of convenient 'mistake' by their recipients. When a website contacted NBC about one of the donations, I immediately volunteered that there were in fact three of them; and contrary to much of the subsequent reporting, I immediately volunteered to explain all this, on-air and off, in the fashion MSNBC desired. 
I genuinely look forward to rejoining you on Countdown on Tuesday, to begin the repayment of your latest display of support and loyalty - support and loyalty that is truly mutual.
Think this'll warrant a "Special Comment" tonight?

Conan Returns!

I tweeted last night while watching Conan O'Brien's triumphant return to late night that I'd forgotten just how much I'd missed him.  And I really had.  Insofar as my late night viewing options after the Tonight Show shenanigans early this year, Leno was never an option, and I've found David Letterman increasingly grumpy and hard to watch with any regularity, so Conan's new talker was like welcoming back an old friend (for, as he called it, his "2nd Annual first show").  Even my three-year old was excited, joining me on the couch after first confirming, "Is that Conan O'Brien?" (and I'm sure Conan will be very happy to know that he's got the just-out-of-diapers demo all sewn up).  For those who may have missed it, here's the opening monologue from last night's series premiere of Conan on TBS:

Mankiewicz on Bond, Superman

Back in August I noted the untimely passing of writer Tom Mankiewicz, whose considerable creative contributions helped elevate Superman: The Movie (which I previously discussed here) and who also helped shape some of the most definitive entries in the James Bond series (the latest news of which I discussed here).  Well, Empire had conducted a lengthy and wide-ranging interview with the late wordsmith very shortly before his death in which he offered up more priceless recollections of the immortal franchises, and they offer one more chance to hear the celebrated writer discuss the beloved franchises.

Mankiewicz recalls his first Bond entry, 1970's Diamonds are Forever, and working with star Sean Connery:
Sean wanted to have a meeting when he arrived in Vegas to do Diamonds Are Forever. I was so pleasantly surprised that about half of his notes were for other characters. He would say, “Are you sure she should say this here? Wouldn’t it be stronger if she did something?” I thought, “Good for him. He’s really read the script and he’s thinking about everybody in it.” I’m sure he thought, “Don’t worry about me, I’ve played this part before.” He would say, “Can I get something funnier here?”

When Lana Wood appears at the crap table and says, “Hi, I’m Plenty.” Bond says, “Why, of course you are.” She says, “Plenty O’Toole.” He asked me if he could respond, “‘Named after your father perhaps?’” I said, “It’s a great line.” But the very fact that he asked me – I was (only) 27 years old – shows you the kind of way he goes about his work. He’s totally professional. Any other actor would just have tried it right in the take. I was amazed. It’s a good line, and it’s his line.
He also offers this amusing anecdote when asked about Chris Reeve's early concerns about being typecast as the Man of Steel (concerns that, sadly, were borne out):

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Zemeckis Metamorphosis

I've spent enough time watching (and discussing) the Back to the Future trilogy of late to know that a recurrent question among many fellow fans is why series director and co-scenarist Robert Zemeckis seems to have exiled himself from "traditional" filmmaking to concentrate instead on CGI, motion capture spectacles like The Polar Express and Beowulf.  On top of that, his last live-action output was the '00 double-pump of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away, both of which are a far cry from the timeless, old school whimsy that the Future films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump all exemplify, and at which Zemeckis is second perhaps only to Steven Spielberg at pulling off so effortlessly.

While I have no desire to see a new Back to the Future flick (nor does another one appear to be in the offing, thank goodness), I do wonder what happened to the Robert Zemeckis who used to make those kinds of movies, and whether he'll ever come back (he even turned down the Chris Nolan-produced Superman project that Zack Snyder is now helming -- I'll let you ponder the possibilities there for just a second).  Well, Matt Zoller Seintz has asked this very question, and in his view, the roots of the metamorphosis from that Zemeckis to the current model can be traced directly to the second leg of the Back to the Future trilogy.  And, I gotta say, he makes a pretty compelling case!

The Two-Day "Indefinite Suspension"

Putting a pin on all the Keith Olbermann drama from this past weekend, MSNBC prexy Phil Griffin announced late yesterday that the host will be back in his chair come Tuesday evening's broadcast.  Did I say "slap on the wrist"?  I actually meant "four-day weekend."  Anyway, now that it's over and done with, here's Washington Post blogger (and frequent Olbermann guest) Ezra Klein with an after the fact reflection on the whole episode that I think sums it up pretty well.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Post-Midterms Playbook

As anyone who's followed the gridlock in DC for the past few years knows, the Republican platform has hinged on lockstep opposition to the President in hopes of painting him as ineffectual, helped along by the President's own inability to create a narrative of his legislative accomplishments.  These factors created the perfect storm that saw the GOP taking the House last Tuesday, and in analyzing the changed political playing field in the wake of the midterms, Frank Rich explains how Obama (at least partially) has himself to blame:
You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either. This explains the seemingly irrational calculus of Tuesday’s exit polls. Voters gave Democrats and Republicans virtually identical favorability ratings while voting for the G.O.P. They gave Obama a slightly higher approval rating than either political party even as they punished him. This is a snapshot of a whiplashed country that (understandably) doesn’t know whose butt to kick first.
Rich goes on to make the case that the Republicans' plan for governing is that they have no plan:
Even in victory, most Republicans can’t explain exactly what they want to do besides cut taxes and repeal health care (a quixotic goal, given the president’s veto pen and the law’s more popular provisions). A riotous dissection of this empty agenda could be found on election night on MSNBC, where a Republican stalwart, Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, called for “across the board” spending cuts. Under relentless questioning from Chris Matthews, she exempted defense and entitlements from the ax, thereby eliminating some 85 percent of the federal budget from her fiscal diligence.
One might think that by exploiting these inherent contradictions, Team Obama can find the key to their messaging strategy going forward, but based on some of the Democrats' truly baffling political moves of late (kicking that middle class tax cut down the curb to after the election being just one idiotic example), I wonder if they're even up to the task.  More from Rich here.

Taibbi on Olbermann Flap: "Absurd"

Yesterday I took the position that Keith Olbermann's indefinite suspension from Countdown, while it does indeed suck for him his viewers, is a necessary function of the job he does and the oversight structure he operates under.  Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, has a slightly different take:
We had a whole generation of journalists who sat by and did nothing while, for instance, George Bush led us into an idiotic war on a lie, plus thousands more who spent day after day collecting checks by covering Britney's hair and Tiger's text messages and other stupidities while the economy blew up and two bloody wars went on mostly unexamined... and it's Keith Olbermann who should "pay the price" for being unethical? Because, and let me get this straight, he donated money, privately, to politicians?
This is absurd even by GE's standards.
As is usually the case, I can't say I disagree with the substance of what Taibbi is saying.  It is sad that we have such lopsided notions of media accountability.  Still, for me it all comes back to Olbermann knowing the rules and choosing not to work within them.  Ultimately, we all know that the suspension will probably amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, but it nonetheless allows MSNBC to satisfy those who make noise about their bias by making an example of their most visible face.

Bringin' Back Bond (Maybe)

As you know, I've spent quite a bit of time over the past year tracking the various travails that have afflicted the James Bond franchise of late, from the suspension of development on the legendary series' next installment to the potential light at the end of the tunnel with MGM's reorganization plan -- which was finally approved by shareholders this past week.  Naturally that news led the web to light up with stories late last week that Bond 23 is set for a November 2012 release, and after that it'll be back to business as usual every two years hence for Her Majesty's finest.  Of course, things are rarely as simple as all that in Hollywood, and this is no different.

For one, that November release hinges on the schedule of star Daniel Craig, who's about to get very busy with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.  Then there's the issue of whether Sam Mendes, presumed to be helming the new film, will be able to fit it in (indications are yes, but the longer this goes on, the more uncertain that gets). If he can't, does that mean they toss all the development that he's already done?  Still a whole lot of questions, and Drew McWeeny explains why, while MGM's reorganization is definitely a good thing, there's still a lot of daylight between that and the endgame of big screen Bond getting back on track.  Drew goes into more detail at the link, but here's the takeaway:
You'll see a lot of headlines today saying that we're getting a James Bond film in 2012, like everything's been magically solved for MGM. At this point, there's no word from EON Productions about their feelings on this filing, and since they're just as important to the development and release of Bond films, that seems like a pretty significant gap in terms of information. For now, the most positive thing you can say about this is that MGM knows how important Bond is to their overall success, and they are obviously desperate to renew the superspy's license to kill.
So, as I've said before, things are headed in the right direction, but we're not quite there yet.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Olbermann Thing

Well, the blogosphere on both sides of the ring went into near-meltdown yesterday, with the pundit class swiftly following suit, over Keith Olbermann's indefinite suspension (without pay) after the "revelation" that the MSNBC host had donated to several Democratic candidates without clearing it with the news net's honchos (I put "revelation" in quotes, by the way, because the real revelation would have been if he'd donated to Republicans).  Anyway, it seems like everyone and their cousin has already chimed in with an opinion, so I'm not sure one more -- especially from me -- really means much, but I've devoted enough posts to various Olbermann commentaries over the years that I thought it was at least worth a mention.

Do I agree with the decision?  Frankly, yes.  In the end, this really isn't about the fact that he made the contributions, per se.  MSNBC's policy isn't that their anchors can't donate, but that they have to notify their higher-ups first.  I'm assuming this is at least partially for oversight purposes so that management can be aware of when one of their hosts might potentially stray into "conflict of interest" territory with their stories (which, with Olbermann's donation to Raul Grijalva's campaign following the congressman's Countdown interview, there's at least potential for the appearance of).  Thus, it was his failure to clear the donations rather than the donations themselves that Olbermann got penalized for.  He knew the rules going in, or at least he should have.

Beyond that, the issue is also whether MSNBC wants to be considered a news organization or not.  I've heard lots of folks defending Keith by saying that the entirety of Fox News essentially amounts to an in-kind contribution to the GOP (remember when Christine O'Donnell said she had Sean Hannity in her "back pocket"?), but that doesn't change the calculus for MSNBC one iota.  If you're going to protest (as Olbermann did, following Jon Stewart's equivalence between Fox and MSNBC) that those guys are shills but you're not, then you have to hold yourself to a higher standard.  Will the suspension last?  Nah.  I give it a week, tops, and I look forward to his return.  But by not following the rules in place for his own protection, Olbermann forced MSNBC's hand. They had to do it.  And they were right.

Friday, November 05, 2010


As I'm sure anyone who follows this blog knows quite well, I have a particular soft spot for the superhero movie genre, having stuck with it from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.  When you get right to it, that lifelong affinity all comes down to the singular impact of one movie -- 1978's Superman. Few films have had a more profound effect on my life, whether professionally or personally, and the passage of years (and countless subsequent viewing) hasn't dented its appeal for me in the slightest.

Superman is one of those rare examples of everything just working -- even the stuff that shouldn't.  From concept to completion, that alchemical mix of fun, fantasy, and verisimilitude -- envisioned by director Richard Donner, envisaged by star Christopher Reeve -- set the template for every superhero to parade across the big screen in the decades since, ensuring that its influence will continue unabated as long as the genre has life.  In inducting the film into his "Great Movies" series, Roger Ebert reminds us again why the Donner classic endures:
The wisdom of the comic books and the movie is that no attempt is made to explain too much. The device of the deadly Kryptonite is necessary because a superhero must have at least one weakness to give him interest. Other astonishments are simply designed to be accepted, as children do when told a story. He is Superman, he fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way, and that's that.
That it is.  And it's something that I certainly hope director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan will keep in mind as they get all their tights together for the planned Superman reboot in 2012.  The very simplicity that typifies Superman as a character is deceptively difficult to "get," as borne out by the many movie misfires that followed Donner's entry (from the creatively-questionable theatrical cut of Superman II in 1980 right down through 2006's ambitious-but-ponderous Superman Returns).  More from Ebert at the link, and after you finish reading it, I defy you not to want to pop the original flick into your player and take to the skies all over again.

Maher's "Mohammed" Moronicism

I like Bill Maher, I really do.  His humor usually gives me a chuckle, and he tends to make some very cogent and incisive political observations.  That said, he's also one of those guys who when I agree with him, I completely agree with him, and when I disagree with him, I really disagree with him.  Last Friday's episode of his HBO skein Real Time saw a whole lot of the former, and one big example of the latter when he and his guests discussed this story out of the UK that "Mohammed" has supposedly become the number one boys' name in England.

While I simply chalked it up to the changing demographics of the region and left it at that, Maher chose to see it as proof positive of Islam's takeover of the West -- one name at a time!  It might have been jarring to see the one-time Politically Incorrect host trotting out a talking point straight out of the Fox News playbook, but he's shown numerous times in the past that when it comes to religion in general and Islam in particular, he's got a pretty wide blind spot.  And that's fine.  But as writer Jim Emerson explains, that blind spot isn't an excuse to abandon reason, and he lays waste to Maher's alarmism with point-by-point precision.  Here's just one:
Maher has not seen fit to express concern over the alarming popularity of Judeo-Christian names in England: "Joshua, straight from the Hebrew Bible, is the 5th most popular. No. 6 is Thomas, after the apostle. The most popular after Mohammed is Jack, from John -- again, one of the apostles. No. 9 is James, from Jacob. No. 10 is Daniel."
Also, a name itself is hardly predictive of future behavior -- or even religious belief. I think we all know plenty of non-practicing Johns and Daniels and Jacobs whose parents were religious. My mom, on the other hand, is a Mary Frances and there were no Catholics to be found anywhere in her family.
Seriously, Bill, sometimes a name really is just a name.  Anyway, more at the link.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Future is Back! (Again!)

Just over a month ago, I posted about the special silver anniversary re-release of Back to the Future to theaters, and I was lucky enough to attend the screening two weeks ago with my Mr. Boy cohorts.  I may have seen the movie(s) innumerable times over the years via broadcast, cable, VHS, DVD, and other venues, but watching it up on the big screen with a full house of fans was like seeing it for the very first time.  Without hyperbole, one of the single best moviegoing experiences of my life.  I think that's saying something.

While the initial run of two screenings was primarily a mechanism to promote the then-impending Blu-ray release of the trilogy, clearly there was some demand as yet unmet, and Universal and AMC Theaters are bringing the '80s evergreen back to the big screen one more time for a 12:30 PM show this Saturday, November 6, (for the nerdier among you, that's one day removed from when Marty McFly arrives in 1955).  Find a full list of participating theaters here, and if you missed out last time, do take advantage of this unique opportunity to re-watch a classic the way it was meant to be seen.

(And no, I'm not being paid by Universal.)

"Earthquake Tsunami of Nothing"

And while we're on the topic of Tuesday's elections, here's Jon Stewart's coverage of the coverage:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2010 - Republican Earthquake Tsunami of Nothing
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Following the Money

The press analyses and extrapolations based on Tuesday's election results have continued almost unabated in the 48 hours since, mostly presenting it only in terms of the eternal Right vs. Left/Republican vs. Democrat/Conservative vs. Liberal divide.  In a way it makes sense for the media of either partisan stripe to frame the discussion in those terms, because it not only allows the narrative of an unending ideological struggle to continue, but also keeps notions of digging deeper at bay.  In my view, reading any kind of an ideological mandate -- left, right, or center -- into this election is to overlook the elephant in the room: the moneyed interests who've insured that their voice will be heard irrespective of which party holds the reins of power.

Not helping things during this cycle was the impact that the Supreme Court's "Citizens United v. FEC" ruling (which I previously discussed here) had on the race, but it's no secret how even the Obama admin's most progressive initiatives paid undue and, given the circumstances, improper attention to preserving the very status quo that's gotten us into trouble, whether insurance companies or big banks.  It all leaves you feeling like something far more systemic is being ignored in favor of temporary fixes that amount to Scotch tape and baling wire.  A few weeks back, the great Bill Moyers (whose late, lamented PBS show is still deeply missed) gave a talk on the subject of how our system of democracy has already given ground in some very fundamental ways to a plutocracy, regardless of which box you mark on the ballot.  Says Moyers:
Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption – a deep, systemic corruption. I urge you to seek out the recent edition of Harper’s Magazine. The former editor Roger D. Hodge brilliantly dissects how democracy has gone on sale in America. Ideally, he writes, our ballots purport to be expressions of political will, which we hope and pray will be translated into legislative and executive action by our pretended representatives. But voting is the beginning of civil virtue, not its end, and the focus of real power is elsewhere. Voters still “matter” of course, but only as raw material to be shaped by the actual form of political influence – money.
So, so much more from Moyers at the link, and all of it is worth a read.  And be forewarned that you're in for a very depressing morning.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Later Shift

A little late on the draw with this one, but hey, it's been a busy week.  When the late night war broke out earlier this year between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno, there were a lot of question marks about who would go where and end up with what.  However, the one thing we did know for certain was that it would lead to a book from Times columnist Bill Carter, who built his rep on 1995's The Late Shift, the authoritative account of the First Great War after Johnny Carson's retirement from The Tonight Show and the subsequent struggle between the princes of late night -- Leno and David Letterman -- for his crown.  Well, Conan's new TBS talker starts on Monday, and Carter's new book -- The War For Late Night -- hits shelves tomorrow, promising a warts-and-all look at the behind-the-scenes politicking that saw Leno retake his Tonight Show throne, and O'Brien pack his bags for basic cable.  Vanity Fair has provided a fascinating, quite-lengthy excerpt that you can check out here, and after that, you can buy the book here.


Come January, California's own Governator will be termed out of office, no doubt looking to the horizon for what new opportunities await.  While the Ah-nuld's box office prospects may have dimmed long before he turned to politics (*koff*Batman&Robin*koff*), he might well have a future in dinner theater, as this new video demonstrates, brought to you by the guys who made the hysterically funny Conan the Barbarian musical earlier this year (and who also made a pretty great T2 riff). This time they tackle one of the most iconic of Schwarzenegger's '80s confections: Commando.  Now, given that it's culled from one of the most violent movies of all time (which I inexplicably was allowed to watch at age five), you probably want to hold off on playing this at work (at least while your boss is around), and as with the others, be warned that it's pretty catchy.  Enjoy!

The Electoral Aftermath

I've gotten a couple of messages since last night asking my thoughts on yesterday's election, and honestly I'm not sure I really have any thoughts.  The Republicans took the House, as they were predicted to, and the Dems held the Senate, as they were predicted to.  As far as the many Democratic losses in the House, I'm not losing much sleep over the Blue Dog Dems basically being put down.  I'm also very curious to hear what the Republicans who are cheering their victory intend to do with their power beyond not raising taxes and issuing subpoena after subpoena (which new Oversight chair Darrell Issa has already implied is an inevitability).

Vote! (Again!)

So, this is exciting.  Today the kind folks behind the annual Brass Crescent Awards, which recognize the Muslim blogosphere (of which I'm a very, very small part), announced their nominations for 2010's best and brightest, and Zaki's Corner inexplicably made it into the Top 5 finalists for Best Blog and also Best Writer.  Of course, I would get nominated for these very prestigious honors on the day that my top post is me congratulating myself for a meaningless accomplishment while sniggering at a guy getting racked by his kid.  Ah, irony.  Anyway, this is where I go all PBS on you:  If you're a fan of the site (and I certainly hope you are), please jump over to the Brass Crescent voting page and make your voice heard.  As always, thanks to everyone for the continued support.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

New Record!

Yes, that's right, it's time once again to celebrate another meaningless milestone for Zaki's Corner.  As of my previous entry, I've exceeded my previous record for blog posts in a single year, set in 2005 (my second year of blogging) with 345 posts. When I got the new domain at the beginning of the year and did the big redesign here, one of the goals I'd set for myself was to post a lot more frequently and a lot more consistently, so I feel pretty good about having met both of those benchmarks.  Now, I just need to work on posting a lot more, y'know, intelligently.  I'll get there one of these days!  In the meantime, let's celebrate by watching this video of a kid hitting his dad in the groin:


Well, I've been away for a few days getting some other work done, but to quote my favorite fictional president, "Break's over." And while I'm bustin' out the Bartlet, today is election day, which gives me cause to again deploy one of my favorite quotations from the Book of Jed, and encourage everyone to do their civic duty:
"My great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was Dr. Josiah Bartlet, who was the New Hampshire delegate to the second Continental Congress, the one that sat in session in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, and announced to the world that we were no longer subjects of King George III, but rather a self-governing people. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident,' they said, 'that all men are created equal.' Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up. Class dismissed."
- President Bartlet (by way of Aaron Sorkin) in the West Wing episode, "What Kind of Day Has it Been"