28 Dec 2008

Movies of the Year - 2008

Before we get to my favorite movies of the year, a quick word about this year's mission. My friend Cameron e-mailed me a couple of months ago to ask if I wanted to participate in a sort of joint Best Movies of the Year list with him and six (movie-loving) friends of his. Cam and I do a "Best Movies" blog posting every year and he thought that this year it would be a good idea to, when we post our Best-ofs, post links to the other Best-ofs from our small cabal of film experts.

I thought this would be a good idea for no other reason than to provide different perspectives on what we deem as the best films of the year and to see where several film buffs agreed and/or disagreed.

So, along with my top 10, I'll be linking (at the bottom of this post) to some other views on the movies of the year. Hopefully, my list (and the other top 10s) will make you want to seek out what we deem as quality cinema (especially those movies that appear on multiple lists).

On to the top 10. Unfortunately, this is an incomplete list...for now. There were movies released this year that I didn't get a chance to see, but would probably be on this list. For example, I'm almost positive Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road would be here somewhere. As with previous years' lists, this list is a work-in-progress that will only be truly "complete" when I've seen all of the above. After all, my list last year wasn't really complete until March.

Probably because of this, there aren't actually 10 movies on my list, only eight. Though I've seen plenty of movies this year, only eight (so far) warrant a mention on a 10-best list. For example, I liked Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Incredible Hulk (to name but two) but I don't think they're good enough to be on a 10-best-of-the-year list.

At the bottom of the list, I'll mention some movies I saw this year and liked, but that weren't good enough to be in a top 10 (like the above two).

1. The Fall

As I mentioned in my review here, this was one of the most original movies I've ever seen. A strange, weird and wonderful R-rated amalgam of The Wizard of Oz, Life of Pi and The Princess Bride, The Fall is the result of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell) being given complete creative control (and what looks like a substantial budget) to make whatever movie he wants.

It isn't often that we mention art direction as the main reason to watch a movie, but with this film (which also boasts stunning visual effects, fantastic acting and a truly original script) I really would recommend it to anyone based on the strength of the visuals alone. I don't think I've ever seen a movie so close to being a living, breathing painting/work of art.

I'll be including the trailer with every movie on my list this year. For this film in particular, the trailer is stunning. I can't remember being blown away this much by a trailer since Fellowship of the Ring. I hadn't heard about this film until I saw the preview, but I sought it out immediately after seeing it.

Truly imaginative, a labour of love and a genius (yes, I said it) piece of film-making.




2. Man on Wire

It seems that almost every year, a documentary comes along that completely blows people away. It's usually the best-reviewed movie of the year (as in this case - 100% fresh rating [out of 136 critics, no less] on Rotten Tomatoes) and usually loses out at the Oscars (no surprise there, then). I'm thinking movies like Hoop Dreams, Crumb, Grizzly Man, The King of Kong, Theremin, Microcosmos, etc.

This year was no exception. Man on Wire very nearly came top of my list thanks to it's subject matter (a man walking on a tightrope between the two towers of the World trade Center in 1974) and thanks to the man himself, Phillipe Petit.

What's genius about the movie is that director James Marsh intersperses interviews with all of the involved parties with dramatised footage of the preparation and execution of one of the greatest pieces of performance art the world's ever seen. This gives the effect of the film feeling like a heist movie, which adds to the feeling of secrecy, risk and drama of the act itself.

Petit, a funny, engaging, charismatic, charming, genial and truthful interviewee is perhaps (with the possible exception of Heath Ledger's Joker) the best cinematic character of the year, an honor given more weight by the fact that he's real and really is (by all accounts) that way.

Tellingly, the movie never mentions the 9/11 attacks, instead deliberately focussing on Petit's act and that fact it's viewed as a celebration of life. Indeed, at one point in the movie, we see reporters repeatedly asking Petit why he did what he did, to which he replies that there really is no why.




3. The Dark Knight

To be honest, this, Man on Wire and The Fall were all worthy of the number-one spot on my list. I actually liked them pretty much equally. In the end though, somebody had to be number one, two and three and this is how I rank them.

I think that TDK may have made it to number one if not for one minor (but important) flaw. Christian Bale as Batman. I'm not talking about Bale as Bruce Wayne. I'm talking about Bale as Batman and his completely fucking ridiculous accent. So bad was this "growl" that it distracted me every time he spoke. Combine this with a completely one-note performance as the caped crusader (I know it's not the easiest of roles to breathe "life" into, but come the fuck on. If you read the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, you'll see that there's more to him than a grimace) and you have a portrayal more silly than serious, more stupid than scary.

Now that that's out of the way, TDK was, in every single other aspect, a muthafuckin' masterpiece. I love the way that this "comic-book movie" was more similar to a great crime drama like Heat (its obvious inspiration) than to stuff like Superman Returns or Iron Man or Hulk (or the previous Batman films).

Performances: Ledger was absolutely legendary and gave what is possibly the best performance by ANY actor in ANY film this year, supporting or not. In any other film, Aaron Eckhart would be rightly lauded (and even possibly nominated) as Two-Face (in fact, in many ways he was scarier than The Joker). Maggie Gylenhall brought substance to an insubstantial role and Caine, Freeman and Oldman once again proved why they're among the best actors working today.

The script and direction were first-rate (in fact, this is, by some way, Nolan's best film [yes, even better than Memento]) and the action scenes were second-to-none among action movies this year, lacking complex FX and instead relying on good ol' fashioned direction and stunt work.

I honestly have not enjoyed a crime/action movie as much as this since Heat. Utterly brilliant.




4. Milk

Hey, you know what? Sean Penn is annoying. He's possibly the most pretentious, too-pleased-with-himself actor currently working in Hollywood. When he's not "arranging" photo ops of himself "helping Katrina's victims," he's spouting off about social issues that have no effect on millionaires like himself, or he's being humourless about good jokes at actors' expense (see his reaction to Chris Rock's jokes about Jude Law at the Oscars).

Unfortunately, though I want to hate him, I can't because he's one of the most gifted actors working today. If you put his tour-de-force performance in Milk alongside his Oscar-nominated (and criminally-robbed) work on Dead Man Walking or his turn as the jazz guitarist in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, you might be forgiven for thinking that they were three different actors, such is Penn's ability to lose himself in a role.

While I think his career role was in DMW, he is almost as good here as the real-life politician Harvey Milk. I actually forgot it was Sean Penn, so good and realstic he is here. For me it's going to be a straight battle between him and Mickey "the comeback" Rourke for Best Actor this year.

The first openly-gay man to be elected into public office in the U.S., Milk was a champion not only of gay rights, but of the rights of all the downtrodden minorities in California and the U.S. Regular readers of this blog will know how passionate I am in support of gay-marriage, so it's fair to say this movie hit home on a personal level. But while I think it was a worthy subject to make a movie about, I think I've tried to judge the film on its own merits.

Director Gus van Sant has done a remarkable job in making not only a movie set in the seventies, but a movie that feels like it was made in the seventies. Flawless period detail, judicious use of color filters (especially blue for exteriors and brown and green for interiors) to give it "that seventies look" and the seventies acting style of walking the fine line between melodrama (as done in the 40s, 50s and 60s) and realism all work together to make an unforgettable film about an unforgettable moment in American political history.

Of course, the recent passing of Proposition 8 in California only lends the film more poignancy as we see how little we've progressed in 30 years. Moving, inspiring and tragic in more ways than one.




5. Sex and the City

Calm down, calm down! It's position on this list is due to the fact that I'm an absolute SatC fanatic and this movie perfectly captures the essence of the show in a rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing, feature-length episode.

While I was looking forward to this movie, I was a bit apprehensive because if TV-to-film adaptations have proved anything, it's that they're very easy to fuck-up. So once I heard the (mostly) positive reviews starting to come in, I relaxed a little and started to get very excited to see it.

I wasn't disappointed. The movie perfectly carried (no pun intended) on where the series left off, not feeling trite or unbelievable. The four girls were in happy places in their lives and the scene was set for Carrie to (finally) marry Big. of course, complications, drama, tears, and much hilarity ensue before leading us to a crowd-pleasing and very satisfying conclusion.

I don't think anyone involved in the making of the film expected it to be such a huge hit, but I'm glad it was and I'll defend it's (and, more importantly the TV show's) place in the cultural zeitgeist to anyone (depsite their charges of it being degrading to women - yeah, only to those cardigan-wearing, angry women who think love of make-up, style and the desire to be in a loving relationship as opposed to forever single are negative character traits).

Possibly the most "fun" I had watching a movie all year. Bring on the sequel!!




6. Iron Man

From the moment I heard that Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Tony Stark, I knew this movie would be a better-than-average comic-book adaptation. What I didn't know, though, was just how much "better-than-average" it would be.

Unlike TDK (which I consider to be a serious crime thriller more than a superhero movie), Iron Man is possibly the perfect cinematic realisation of a comic-book movie. Smarter than X-Men 1 and 2 (the less mentioned about X3 the better), more believable than the Spider-Man trilogy and more accessible than the likes of Sin City or Ghost World, director Jon Favreau got everything just about right with his take on the Man of Iron. A quality cast giving quality performances (Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow were all great), kick-ass action (for there's no better way to describe it), cool FX (and non-fake-looking) and an absolute barn-storming performance as Tony Stark (take note, Bale) from the great RDJ resulted in the second-most amount of fun (after SatC) I had at the movies this year.

Bad. Ass.




7. Religulous

I'm an atheist and proud of it, as some of you may already be aware. I won't go into the arguments for atheism in this forum as its a movie list and also because people who believe in a "magical book" can't win the argument anyway. Just saying "because the bible says so" isn't an argument, my friends.

Another thing to get out of the way is that I am a big Bill Maher fan. I agree with about 60% of what he believes/says, but I admire 100% his balls and unwillingness to cowtow to or toe the line when it comes to not offending religious people. It's all too rare in the U.S. that someone can stand up to religious fanatics (and by fanatics I mean most religious people) and not give a shit.

To the movie. I think the trailer (below) gives a pretty good idea of how the movie will be - that is, a funny and humorous argument against religion. This is not a serious documentary (though are certainly some serious parts to it, especially Maher's closing monologue), rather a chance for a stand-up comedian to explain what only 18% of the U.S. population already know - religion is more a force for bad than for good.

Some critics (atheists and Christians alike) have deemed Maher and his film as too smart-ass and snarky. Well, duh! The guy's a comedian, for chrissakes! It's not for nothing that the movie was directed by the great Larry Charles (director of Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm). Those criticising the movie for it's lack of seriousness probably decry Iron Man for being too kick-ass!

Anyway, an extremely funny (and scary) way to sepnd 90 minutes.




8. Gran Torino

Let's get this straight. I'm a Clint fan first and foremost. I think he's one of the best American filmakers of all time, creating such diverse masterpieces as Unforgiven, Bird and The Bridges of Madison County (horrible book, fantastic movie).

Anything with a Clint label on it (be it as actor or director) and I'm there. Now, in the twilight of his career, he seems to be doing the best work of his life. The odd misstep aside (I'm thinking Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) he seems to be batting a thousand lately (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Changeling, this, etc.).

His film The Changeling seemed to garner most of the press attention leading up to the end of this year (just as Flags of Our Fathers did in 2006), but it is with this film that serious Oscar talk and critical praise have occured (just as with 2006's "lesser" Eastwood project, Letters From Iwo Jima).

For the first time in his career, there's serious talk of Clint winning Best Actor (though I'm sure the award will go to either Sean Penn for Milk or Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler). As a Clint aficionado, I can tell you that this film, while not being even in the top five of best Clint films, sees Clint give perhaps the best performance of his illustrious career. He is magnificent as an old, crusty, racist Korean War veteran. The story (old man is at first at odds with and then begins to accept his Korean neighbors while learning and giving life lessons) is pure movie-of-the-week territory; so much so, in fact, that the film didn't quite live up to my lofty expectations. What sets it apart from your average TV movie, though, is purely and simply Clint. His direction - measured, never showy - and his acting lift this so high as to earn its rightful place on my list.

Clint's never been a great actor - more a great movie star and an incredibly gifted and indisbutably great director. As I said he'll probably lose to Penn or Rourke and deservedly so (probably in Rourke's case, definitely in Penn's case). But what a way to cap an amazing career - directing yourself (at age 78, no less) to the best performance of your career. Great, great stuff.





Other movies I saw this year and enjoyed:

Cloverfield - Scary and original

Rambo - The best Rambo since First Blood and brilliantly violent!

The Spiderwick Chronicles - Probably the best kids' movie I saw all year

The Bank Job - Statham. Period.

Funny Games - Twisted and chilling thriller from the director of one of my favorite films of last year, Cache

Forgetting Sarah Marshall - Intermittently funny movie from the Apatow gang

Baby Mama - Almost good enough for my top 10 list. Almost. Amy Poehler rules

The Strangers - Good old-fashioned slasher flick

The Incredible Hulk - Very good and waaay better than the first one

The Love Guru - Yes, I actually found this occassionally funny

Wall-E - Good, but what the hell is all the fuss about??!!

Wanted - Good time-waster, nothing more, though McAvoy was good

Mamma Mia! - Cheesy and predictable but fun and loooove those songs (I fully expected this to be in my top 10 of the year, but it was just too corny)

Step Brothers - The funniest comedy of the year, for me

Pineapple Express - Good, but not as funny as Step Brothers

Tropic Thunder - See above (though Tom Cruise and RDJ were fan-fucking-tastic)

Ghost Town - A crap rom-com made much better thanks solely to Gervais


...and finally, movies I haven't seen this year but want to:

Quantum of Solace

Twilight

JCVD

Prince Caspian

Doubt

Revolutionary Road

Good

Defiance

The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

The Wrestler

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bedtime Stories (no, really)

The Spirit (I know it's going to be shit)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

The Visitor



As promised, the other Top 10 lists:

Cam's

Joel Mayward's

Jason LaFavorite's

Charlie Basta's

Brian Humphreys'

19 Dec 2008

Leaving the Air Force/Going back to England

Today was a very good day. The family and I were due to fly out of Mississippi this Tuesday on a plane bound for London. However, Courtney and Finlay's Visas had not arrived by yesterday. It was looking bleak to say the least and we'd resigned ourselves to leaving in January and missing Xmas at home. Then, due to luck all of my own making (a phone call to a contact at the UK Embassy in D.C. on Monday), we received a phone call from the Visa issuing office in Chicago yesterday saying that the Visas had been approved and would be arriving today!! At 2:40 pm today, a UPS guy finally bought me a package containing $3100-worth of Visas for Courtney and Finn! So we are now assured of making our flight on Tuesday and being home for Xmas!!

At the same time, today was my last day in the Air Force (I have to go in to outprocess on Monday for one hour, but that's it). It was an emotional day/week/month/year.

Leaving the AF is bittersweet. I'm glad I will be returning home to England, I'm glad to be leaving Mississippi - the worst place I've ever lived, I'm glad to be leaving the U.S. - I'm just not cut-out for this country, but I'm REALLY glad that I'll no longer have to be away from Courtney, Cate and Finn anymore because of deployments, TDYs, etc. I missed many important events in Cate's life, thanks to the AF - her first steps, her first real talking, two out of her first three Xmases, etc, etc. I was determined not to let that happen again with Finn. Leaving the AF was really the best decision for me and for my family.

At the same time, there are many things about it I'll miss. The sense of being in a fraternity (and though I say fraternity, I include the female AF members, of course)with many others, working toward a common goal. Of being a part of something greater than myself. I'll miss the positive attitude toward fitness, manners, work ethic, pride in yourself and your work, thinking of others before yourself and many other positive influences and traits I've taken on since signing up.

I'll always be glad I joined the AF (in fact, I wish I had joined earlier in my life) and I'll always be proud of the many things I accomplished. At the same time, I'm glad I'm leaving the AF and returning to the place where me and my family belong.

I'm sure as the reality of my new reality sets in, I'll have more to say/post on this. For now, a mere 45 minutes since I left the office for the last time, I'm done.

8 Dec 2008

My Favorite Xmas Movies

My friend Cam recently posted his top 10 favorite Xmas movies on his blog here. A good list it was, too. I know he'll forgive me for saying, though, that there were some glaring omissions and a few unworthy inclusions.

Unable to keep shtum for any longer, I bring you my (and therefore the ultimate!) list of festive favorites:

1. Scrooge (1951)
As Cam said, the definitive telling of Dickens' timeless classic. Alistair Sim fully embodies the character and spirit of Dickens' most famous miser, rendering all other portrayals moot. Brian Desmond Hurst captures all the magic (and even the darkness) in the classic tale while the uniformly excellent cast (most of whom had just previously worked together in the classic Tom Brown's Schooldays) help make this the most perfect and famous telling of the most perfect and famous Xmas tale of them all. Un. Beatable.

2. It's a Wonderful Life
What more can be said about this movie? It's not even a Xmas movie, really, until the last half hour and yet it has become the most-loved yuletide story of them all. Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, the best director/actor team of the 1940s/50s (with respect to Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder), reached the apotheosis of their collaborations with this stunningly well-told story. A perfect, perfect gem of a movie that never gets old and improves (as we get older and more mature) with each year.

3. The Wizard of Oz
I know, I know, this isn't really a Xmas movie but, growing up in England in the early eighties, before VCRs (let alone DVD players) were common household items, TWOO was shown by the BBC every single Xmas without fail and it was a big event in our house. My older sister and I would get our sleeping bags on the floor and watch Dorothy and friends' journey to Oz while Mom brought us hot chocolate and popcorn. Quite apart from being one of the best movies of Hollywood's "Golden Age," it has been and always will be a true holiday classic for me.

4. Blackadder's Christmas Carol
While not strictly a movie, this 50-minute 1988 Xmas special deviates from the regular, half-hour episodes of one of the greatest comedy shows ever made and is thus included on my list. Like Scrooge and IAWL, this is watched in my house EVERY Xmas. For the uninformed, Blackadder is a UK comedy series that ran for four seasons from 1984-1989 and, like all brilliant, successful and critically-acclaimed British comedy shows, the makers decided not to make anymore at the height of its popularity (think Fawlty Towers, The Office, Gavin and Stacey, etc.). Each season of Blackadder follows the mythical chracter Edmund Blackadder through four different periods in British history. Season one was set in the middle ages, two in Elizabethan England, three during the 18th century and four in the trenches of WWI. This special, set, just like the original Christmas Carol in Victorian England, is a sort of Scrooge-in-reverse tale, with the kindly samaritan Edmund shown his past by a spirit (Robbie Coltrane). Except this time, the kindly Edmund sees how rotten his ancestors were (we get new footage of the Blackadders from the other seasons) and realizes that there's something to be said for being bad. He therefore resolves to change his ways and become a bad guy. The cast includes alumni from all of the other seasons, including Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent. Like every episode of Blackadder, there are too many classic quotes to count, including the immortal

Blackadder: Ha! Got him with my subtle plan
Baldrick (the dummy): I didn't notice any subtle plan.
Blackadder: Baldrick, you wouldn't notice a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord singing "Subtle plans are here again!"

5. A Charlie Brown Christmas
And seeing as we're going with one-off Xmas TV specials, no list would be complete without A Charlie Brown Xmas. Every single thing about it reminds me of Yuletide; the fantastic soundtrack (which, apart from containing some of the most memorable Xmas music ever to come from America, is also a perfect example of the Cool Jazz trio [piano, double bass and drums], in this case immortalised by Vince Guaraldi and crew), the crude animation, the jokes, Snoopy's happy dance, the "true meaning of Xmas" as told by Linus, the Xmas Queen, that rubbish tree, and on and on and on. I don't think anything on this list makes me feel more Christmassy.

6. The Nightmare Before Xmas
This could be a Halloween or a Xmas favorite but for me has always been one for the holidays. I've said in the past that this is my favorite Disney movie of all time and it still holds true today. While Tim Burton's endless (and samey) gothic weirdness can become quite tiresome, this movie is a perfect realisation of his macabre mind. Jack Skellington is one of the greatest characters in all kids' or Christmas movies, combining wonder at the magic of Christmas with kindness, innocence and the desire to do good. The music and songs are, I believe, Danny Elfman's best work and the stop-motion animation is still awe-inspring even today. I hope to see it in IMAX 3D one of these days, but until then, it remains one of the most popular titles in Cate and Dad's Movie Club.

7. Love Actually
While ostensibly being about love in all its permutations, Love Actually is one of the Christmasiest (is that a word?) movies ever. Director Richard Curtis, having written some of the best rom-coms of all time (Four Weddings..., Notting Hill, The Tall Guy, etc.) finally gets his turn in the director's chair, creating, arguably, the best UK rom-com of all time. Several intertwining stories about love and relationships, set against the backdrop of an impossibly snowy English Xmas, Love Actually is one of those films that truly gives you the seasonal warm fuzzies. Great comedy, great acting, great cast (special mention to Bill Nighy's has-been rock star and Emma Thompson's cheated-on wife) and a Xmas setting make Love Actually way better than it had any right to be.

8. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Chevy Chase is hit and miss for me and for many other people. He comes off as a little too pleased with himself most of the time and, if you've ever listened to Howard Stern, you know he's a bit of an arrogant ass. Having said this, on those rare occasions when he's good, he's very good. The first three vacation movies (I'd prefer to forget about Vegas Vacation) and both Fletch movies show how great he can be. This is, without doubt, his best performance in his best film. A Xmas staple for the majority of Americans (and a fair few Brits, too) NLCV is hilarious literally no matter how many times you watch it. I literally cry with laughter on each viewing. For best results, watch Dec. 23rd in the presence of father-in-law, whose constant guffawing throughout is entertainment enough in itself. Oh, and please don't watch NLCV 2 - Cousin Eddie's Island Vacation or something, which is as horrible as it sounds.

9. Elf
When I first saw this movie, I laughed so much I think I peed a little. In my eyes, Will Ferrell is quite simply inherently funny. Even in his shit movies (I'm looking at you, Blades of Glory) all he has to do is walk onto the screen and I'm laughing. Jon Favreau has created a modern classic with this film. Sentimental without ever being sickly, hilarious, wonderfully acted (especially by Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel and, in a cameo, the always-excellent Peter Dinklage) and with a truly funny, heart-warming script, Elf became an instant classic. The acid test came the following year after I first saw it. Would it still be as great and funny? You bet your ass it was (and continues to be).

10. The Snowman
A Xmas special from the mid-80s more famous for the song it spawned than for the actual special itself, The Snowman, based on Raymond Briggs' beloved children's book, is a typically British Xmas tale, full of wonder, magic and melancholy. It has an ending which would never be allowed in America and a conceit (no dialogue whatsoever) which would similarly ensure it never would be aired alongside such faves as Shrek the Halls, etc. The song, Walking in the Air, sung by a then-cherubic Aled Jones, is a Xmas classic which is always in heavy rotation in my house from mid-November through to Boxing Day. The Snowman is known to still make grown men cry and therefore earns its position on my list.

11. A Christmas Story
This may surprise some of you, but I never actually saw A Christmas Story until about six years ago (at the tender age of 28, no less). Growing up in England, where this movie just isn't a Xmas staple, I simply never got around to seeing it. My wife, though, has always loved it and introduced me to the delights of Ralphie and his BB gun. It's so very 80s, so very badly shot (did the celluloid get dunked in dirt and coffee during filming??!! WTF?!), but so very funny and it just FEELS like Xmas when it's on in the background.

12. The Polar Express
Like A Christmas Story, I'm one of the few people who were unfamiliar with this story as a kid. Again, I'll put it down to this book not being particularly popular in the UK, but nearly all of my American friends seem to have read this story as a child. Maybe that was a good thing, though, in that I went into the movie with no preconceived notions or expectations. Let me say that, quite apart from the jaw-dropping special effects, I was really surprised at how good the essential story was. I can see, now, why this has been a classic tale for more than 20 years. Perfectly capturing a child's magical view of Xmas and Santa himself, TPE automatically became a Xmas classic for me when I first saw it only last year.

13. White Christmas
Bing! Danny! Rosemary! Vera! This movie is, at the same time, wonderful and terrible. Corny, cheesy, hokey, badly edited, plot holes the size of Montana, badly colored (using the then-relatively-new Technicolor), poorly written and, last but not least, utterly fabulous! The immortal song "White Christmas," Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen duetting on "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen doing "Sisters." Pure Hollywood magic and a staple!

14. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Controversy alert! I actually prefer the 1994 remake over the original. Don't get me wrong, I like the 1947 original and think that Natalie Wood gave a much better, more natural performance than her '94 counterpart, Mara Wilson. I have a problem, though, with the pacing of the original (too many boring stretches) and with Edmund Gwenn as an annoying, over-acting Santa. I much prefer the elegantly art directed remake with a delightful Richard Attenborough really playing the part seriously, great chemistry between Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott and nasty, boo-hiss villains in the form of the late, great J.T. Walsh and Joss Ackland.

15. Santa Claus: The Movie
Released when I was 10, a few years after I stopped "believing," I remember that the first half of this movie was so good that I wanted to start believing again. I don't think there's ever been a better telling of Santa's story and in David Huddlestone, Alexander and Ilya Salkind (uber-producers and the men behind the Chris Reeve Superman films) found the puh-herrfect St. Nick. The other two great things about the movie are the sets (it's obvious that no expense was spared, resulting in an over-blown budget that never had a chance of making the Salkinds a profit) and John Lithgow (is he ever bad in anything? I mean, really?) as a great pantomime villain in the somewhat-hokey second half of the movie.

Honorable mention:

Die Hard - While not a Xmas movie in the traditional sense, it was set during Xmas, at a Xmas party, with Xmas jokes ("Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho!"), Xmas sets and it just happens to be, arguably, the greatest action movie ever made. I can watch this every Xmas and throughout the year. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!

Scrooged - Great twist on A Christmas Carol. Still funny, but nowhere near as funny as it used to be.

Trading Places - I have an even harder time calling this a Xmas movie than I do with Die Hard, but the best thing Dan Ayckroyd or Eddie Murphy ever did and a classic I can watch any time of year.

Joyeaux Noel - Saw this last year for the first time and was blown away by how good it was. The true story of some French, Scottish and German soldiers in the trenches in WWI who called a ceasefire just on Xmas Eve. Moving, harrowing and rewarding. If it's still as good after a few more years/viewings, I'm sure it'll shoot up my list.

And some crappy christmas movies:

The Grinch - Unbearably boring with Jim Carrey over-acting more than he ever has.

Home Alone 2 - The laziest movie ever made. Almost a complete remake of the first one (which I do like very much, even though it doesn't hold up to repeated viewings).

Jingle All the Way - Do I really need to explain this one?

8 Nov 2008

One step forward, two steps back

UPDATE: I've added a video clip to the bottom of this post. Please see MSNBC's Keith Olbermann weigh-in on the debate with last night's Special Comment. Olbermann's usual fire-breathing histrionics are absent here...in favor of a heartfelt, sober opinion piece. Good stuff...

On Tuesday, the country took a huge leap forward. An African-American was elected to the highest office in the country and instantly became the most powerful leader in the free world.

While I think this was a great moment in the history of the US (tempered somewhat, though, by the fact that the current administration has been such a disaster that anyone would've looked positively gold-plated in comparison), it wasn't long (less than 24 hrs, to be exact) until we were reminded how backward many Americans (the majority, as it turns out) still are.

A majority of voters in Florida, Arizona and, somewhat unbelievably California, voted Yes to Proposition 8, banning gay marriage in those states and rendering invalid those who had recently gotten married there.

What. The. Fuck.

In a country that goes on and on and nauseatingly on about its "love of freedoms", basic human rights are still denied to a recognised, large minority group. If this isn't irony at its best, I don't know what is. The pursuit of happiness is still being denied to certain people. The right to benefits - monetary, cultural, compensatory, etc., is still being denied to certain people. The right to equal tax rights is still being denied to certain people.

I could go on and on, but I came across two articles this week from prominent figures in the gay community: Melissa Etheridge and Harvey Fierstein. They say it better than I ever could. And before anyone starts banging on about that shit-stirring, war-starting work of fiction known as the bible, remember that state-sanctioned MARRIAGE is a CIVIL contract. It has nothing to do with religion. So the "argument" that gay marriage goes against god or religion or christianity or the bible is, frankly, at worst bullshit and at best, moot.



First, Fierstein's short article. The bold sections were highlighted by me:

Historic for Some, Same Old Shit for the Rest of Us



While we dance in the streets and pat ourselves on the back for being a nation great enough to reach beyond racial divides to elect our first African-American president let us not forget that we remain a nation still proudly practicing prejudice.


I have heard this day described as one of transcendence where Americans came together to prove that we are, above all, a nation of fairness. World witnesses wrote that we rose above ideology, politics and bigotry to achieve a great moment for America. Meanwhile, on this same Election Day, we great Americans passed laws as heinous as any Jim Crow legislation. We great Americans reached out and willfully put our name to language that denies an entire minority group their equal rights.


Of course I am referring to the states of Florida, Arizona and California passing legislation to specifically deny gay people from entering into the contract of marriage. Actually, that's not true. We can still get married, just not to each other. Yes my friends, Florida and California have now made it legal for gay men and lesbians to marry as long as we don't marry our partners. How much sense does that make?


Now, before you rise up on your high horse to holler, "We're not against Civil Unions, just Gay Marriage", let me once again explain that THE SUPREME COURT HAS STATED THAT SEPARATE BUT EQUAL IS NOT EQUAL. And even if it were, civil unions are simply not equal to marriage.


Let me give you a simple example that anyone can follow. John and Jim are registered as domestic partners and so, just like a married couple; Jim is covered by John's employee health care. That's really nice. BUT... since the IRS does not recognize civil unions or domestic partnership Jim has to pay income tax on the value of this coverage. So, unlike a married couple, John and Jim are penalized hundreds of dollars for not being married. That's not fair. That's not in the spirit of the civil union legislation. And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the inequality being offered.


Listen, my fellow Americans, I am only asking that we get sensible about this controversy. Gays are not asking for religious blessings. We are not asking for everyone to come to our weddings. We are not asking the government to force churches and synagogues to perform marriage rituals or even to allow us into their tax-exempt edifices. We are simply and forcefully demanding equal protection under the laws of this nation as tax paying, voting, property owning citizens. I want no more or less protection than granted any heterosexual to control and distribute my holdings.


State sanctioned marriage is a civil contract period. A contract is not a judgment of moral value. It is a legal agreement between two parties that testifies to a meeting of minds between those consenting entities. It is not a religious act or rite and so has nothing to do with Adam and Eve or Steve or even Harvey. I often say that if you want to really want to understand the contract of marriage just ask anyone who has been divorced. The marriage contract is one of property rights. Or maybe you can look in the bible to see what Adam had to say about divorce since Eve was his second wife.


So, while we rightfully celebrate the election of our first African American president, let us take a moment to mourn the passage of three new laws legalizing prejudice. Of course there will be those who claim that voters were only protecting the institution of marriage to whom I would suggest it is just as likely that Obama's supporters were only voting against W. Breaking the lock on my door doesn't make your home any more secure.


And now for Etheridge's article. Again, the bold parts were highlighted by me:

You Can Forget My Taxes

Okay. So Prop 8 passed. Alright, I get it. 51% of you think that I am a second class citizen. Alright then. So my wife, uh I mean, roommate? Girlfriend? Special lady friend? You are gonna have to help me here because I am not sure what to call her now. Anyways, she and I are not allowed the same right under the state constitution as any other citizen. Okay, so I am taking that to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen. I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books.

Okay, cool I don't mean to get too personal here but there is a lot I can do with the extra half a million dollars that I will be keeping instead of handing it over to the state of California. Oh, and I am sure Ellen will be a little excited to keep her bazillion bucks that she pays in taxes too. Wow, come to think of it, there are quite a few of us fortunate gay folks that will be having some extra cash this year. What recession? We're gay! I am sure there will be a little box on the tax forms now single, married, divorced, gay, check here if you are gay, yeah, that's not so bad. Of course all of the waiters and hairdressers and UPS workers and gym teachers and such, they won't have to pay their taxes either.

Gay people are born everyday. You will never legislate that away.

Oh and too bad California, I know you were looking forward to the revenue from all of those extra marriages. I guess you will have to find some other way to get out of the budget trouble you are in.

…Really?

When did it become okay to legislate morality? I try to envision someone reading that legislation "eliminates the right" and then clicking yes. What goes through their mind? Was it the frightening commercial where the little girl comes home and says, "Hi mom, we learned about gays in class today" and then the mother gets that awful worried look and the scary music plays? Do they not know anyone who is gay? If they do, can they look them in the face and say "I believe you do not deserve the same rights as me"? Do they think that their children will never encounter a gay person? Do they think they will never have to explain the 20% of us who are gay and living and working side by side with all the citizens of California?

I got news for them, someday your child is going to come home and ask you what a gay person is. Gay people are born everyday. You will never legislate that away.

I know when I grew up gay was a bad word. Homo, lezzie, faggot, dyke. Ignorance and fear ruled the day. There were so many "thems" back then. The blacks, the poor ... you know, "them". Then there was the immigrants. "Them.” Now the them is me.

I tell myself to take a breath, okay take another one, one of the thems made it to the top. Obama has been elected president. This crazy fearful insanity will end soon. This great state and this great country of ours will finally come to the understanding that there is no "them". We are one. We are united. What you do to someone else you do to yourself. That "judge not, lest ye yourself be judged" are truthful words and not Christian rhetoric.

Today the gay citizenry of this state will pick themselves up and dust themselves off and do what we have been doing for years. We will get back into it. We love this state, we love this country and we are not going to leave it. Even though we could be married in Mass. or Conn, Canada, Holland, Spain and a handful of other countries, this is our home. This is where we work and play and raise our families. We will not rest until we have the full rights of any other citizen. It is that simple, no fearful vote will ever stop us, that is not the American way.

Come to think of it, I should get a federal tax break too...


7 Nov 2008

New World Order

It's amazing how many people I run into who actually believe stuff like this will happen now. I mean, I know I'm in Mississippi, but still...

Anyway, I think this is hilarious...

2 Nov 2008

The latest Russell Brand furore: India Knight is again right on the money

OK, snapshot of what happened. BBC Radio 2 (and TV) personalities Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross got into a lot of trouble (Brand had to resign from the BBC, Ross suspended for 3 months) over some prank phone calls they made to the 78-year-old actor and former co-star of classic comedy series Fawlty Towers, Andrew Sachs.

The calls, left on Sachs' answering machine after he'd failed to turn-up for an interview on Brand's show, detailed how (and this is true) Brand had slept with the actor's granddaughter (with Ross yelling, "He fucked your daughter!" down the line) and how Sachs would be so upset at the prospect that he might kill himself. The "jokes" were in bad taste and out of order, certainly (you can listen to them here), but the whole thing was blown completely out of proportion by the notoriously-always-blowing-things-out-of-proportion-and/or-calling-for-someon's-head right-wing UK newspaper The Daily Mail.

Tellingly, the BBC had received only 19 complaints from the millions who listen to the radio show in the first couple of days after broadcast. However, when the Mail got their righteous-indignation train running, the BBC had recieved up to 30,000 complaints as of today (a full week after broadcast).

Once you know some of the finer details of the case (who Andrew Sachs granddaughter is and how she makes a living, how someone from the BBC decided to broadcast the tape knowing the contents, how no-one was really offended until the Mail suggested they SHOULD be offended), you may have a different opinion of the entire brouhaha.

India Knight, the author of the article featured in my previous Russell Brand post, wrote the following article for this week's Sunday Times and again hits the nail on squarely on its head...


From The Sunday Times (original article here)

November 2, 2008

Pity the women who come within range of Brand and Ross
India Knight

I am utterly nonplussed by the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross fallout. What’s with the insanely disproportionate reaction? Grovel a much-needed apology, by all means, then grovel some more, but why the need for ritual disembowelling?

Brand “resigns”; Ross is suspended without pay for three months; the controller Lesley Douglas, who is revered by her creative stable, falls on her sword; and Radio 2 self-harms in order to assuage 30,000 members of the public - a few streets’ worth - because two clever, talented men made a grotesquely tasteless joke, for which they apologised profusely - if late in the day.

The corporation’s desire to show moral backbone has left it looking spineless. The millions of viewers and listeners who didn’t complain are left deprived of the entertainment that they, too, pay their licence fee for. What on earth is going on?

Let’s just rewind. Two broadcasters with huge fan bases, hired because they are edgy, motormouthed and volatile, make a series of revolting but impromptu (that is, not cruelly premeditated) jokes. The jokes are directed at a 78-year-old man. It’s not nice. But, first: when did the public start equating the elderly with helpless babies?

Andrew Sachs has been completely infantilised throughout this saga, as though he were a simple-minded toddler rather than a man who has spent his life working in show business and is perhaps not unfamiliar with its more robust excesses. But no: here he is, presented as a doddery old gramps who must be protected from the big mean boys on his answering machine, as though 78 years of experience - not all of it spent doing crosswords by the fire, presumably - count for nothing. I find this weird and not terribly realistic.

Also, if my granddaughter was a self-styled Satanic Slut who earned her living by staging peculiar bloodletting scenarios for pervs (Cheerleader Massacre, anyone?) and defined herself on her MySpace page as a “groupie” who loved “partying”, then being told, no matter how coarsely, that she had slept with some celeb would be the least of my worries, frankly.

The granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, has signed up with Max Clifford and obligingly posed en déshabillé to emphasise the terrible ordeal that Sachs has suffered. She has called Brand and Ross “sickos” and says “justice has been served”. Really? For the millions who downloaded Brand’s podcast every week? For the millions whose weekends were made joyous by Ross? Or for one G Baillie (Ms) who was maybe a bit peeved when Brand, having had his way, failed to bombard her with marriage proposals? Besides, unless Brand is psychic, he wouldn’t have known she was Sachs’s granddaughter unless she told him herself, presumably as some sort of chat-up line.

Second thing: Ross and Brand were behaving like a pair of hysterical teenagers, egging each other on, extemporising wildly, riffing with the joke until it got completely out of control, as though they were round a kitchen table rather than in a studio. This was extremely stupid of them.

However: their brand of humour, which no one is forced to listen to, is what audiences tune in for in vast numbers. Editing the programme so that it doesn’t provoke outrage is what the producers are supposed to do. The failure here was an executive one: someone from the show, which was prerecorded, contacted Sachs, played him the segment and asked if it was okay to broadcast it. Sachs said he rather thought it wasn't. “It’s a bit crude, isn’t it?” he said.

For reasons best known to themselves, the show’s producers decided to ignore his views. This is not Ross’s or Brand’s fault: their “joke” was vile but the buck rolls on.

Third, and most crucial, thing: what lies at the centre of this sorry saga is misogyny. None of it would have happened if Ross and Brand displayed - or were asked to display - even an iota of respect for women. Instead, both men have made part of their living out of treating women - wives and mothers excluded - as though they were pieces of meat. This can be very funny but it sticks in the craw.

Ross has an Achilles’ heel: he is a marvellous interviewer of men, but reduces every single female interviewee to meat status. Basically, his whole shtick boils down to “I’d do you”. Unless the woman in question is ancient or deformed, Ross crushes any spark of opinion until said woman can be squashed back into the box labelled “totty”.

Brand, whose issues with sex addiction are well documented, has a similar problem. I interviewed him last summer. He was, shall we say, attentive, rather distractingly so as I sat trying to take notes and keep the conversation on track. My interview appeared in due course.

Three weeks ago I got an e-mail from a friend suggesting that I listen to that week’s radio show podcast. Now, I didn’t go to Brand’s house batting my eyelashes or bandying killer chat-up lines (“My grandpa was Coco the Clown”, maybe); I went to do my job. I was therefore taken aback to find myself named on air as a prelude to Brand discussing my bosoms with, surreally, Noel Gallagher from Oasis, who insistently asked: “Did you sleep with her?”, a question that caused Brand to speculate in some detail about what sleeping with me might have been like. None of this was mean or cruel, but it was out of order and reductive: woman, ergo piece of meat, fair game, punchline, nonperson.

In Ross’s and Brand’s world, it is assumed that all women are gagging for a bit of the old trouser goodness. I don’t necessarily blame them for this: many male celebrities do indeed find it to be so and this assumption happens to be shared by most men - it's just that most men are more discreet about airing their misogyny, because they have normal lives and engage with normal women in normal places, such as offices. Ross, Brand and others operate from ivory towers, no matter how populist their appeal.

The BBC’s failure was in not identifying the alarming propensity of its two presenters for galloping, off-the-scale sexism and in making no attempt to rein it in.

As the dust settles, Brand is in America, doing stand-up shows and making a movie. Ross is at home in north London, down but not remotely out. Sachs has accepted everyone’s apologies and considers the matter closed. The real casualty is Douglas, Radio 2’s former controller - and a woman. Funny, that.

18 Oct 2008

Peter Kay - (Is this the way to) Amarillo

Peter Kay is one of the most famous comedians in Britain. His multi-award winning shows include Phoenix Nights, Max & Paddy's Road to Nowhere and the new Britain's Got the Pop Factor and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice, a parody of the current crop of reality competition talent shows.

Of course, I think he's fantastic. His shows are hilarious and his stand up is even better.

Every two years, the BBC gather together all of the UK's top funny people to put on a Comic Relief telethon to raise money for Africa and for homegrown issues such as homelessness. And every two years a Comic Relief "song" is released as a way of raising extra money. In 2005, Peter Kay came up with the following single which not only got to #1 on the UK charts and raised huge amounts of money for Comic Relief, but also has been admired, honored and parodied ever since. If you're not from the UK you won't know who most of the people are, but I think it's funny anyway.

I include it here today becuase I was watching Peter Kay's new show the other night and it made me remember how great this is...

16 Oct 2008

A sneak preview of tonight's debate

Here's a sneak preview of tonight's debate, courtesy of TheAtlantic.com (original link here). On the bright side, at least John McCain can play the part of Mickey in any subsequent Rocky sequels...



Isn't it amazing how closely he resembles an old, awkward-moving, villanous, short, super-criminal? The Penguin, I mean...(har, har)

12 Oct 2008

Classic scenes from the movies part 4

This is a special Spike Lee race edition of classic scenes. Spike has been in the news recently due to the release of his new film Miracle at St Anna, which is based on a true story of an incident involving some African American soldiers in WWII. He's also been in the news, more infamously, for a spat he had with Clint Eastwood regarding the lack of black soldiers present in Clint's two WWII films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.

I've been a huge Spike Lee fan since I first saw Do the Right Thing back in 1989. While he's more famous for the racially-charged nature of most (not all) of his movies, he is an extremely underrated filmmaker who counts Scorsese (the all-time master) as his major influence and it shows through in his work.

A NY director in the classic sense (along with such Big Apple luminaries like Woody Allen and the aforementioned Scorsese), Spike's movies are often just as much about the city itself (and, in some ways, America as a whole) as they are about race.

Having said that, the two clips I've included here are from his most famous (and incendiary) work, Do the Right Thing, and from probably his second-most critically-lauded movie, The 25th Hour, and are both racially-tinged.

In the first, we see a hilariously uncomfortable scene from Do the Right Thing. Set on one extremely hot summer's day in the Bedford-Stuyvesent borough of Brooklyn, DTRT tells the story of the denizens of the street including Mookie (played by Lee himself), a young African-American male who works as a delivery boy for the local pizzeria, and Sal (Danny Aiello) the Italian-American owner of said pizzeria.

DTRT is a bonafide masterpiece, telling the story of race in late-eighties America from the perspective of all NYC's citizens - black, white, hispanic and asian alike. As the day draws on and the temperatures get higher, so does the racial tension and anger of the people. Lee masterfully uses the camera (photographed by longtime Lee cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) to emphasize the growing tensions, his shots getting closer and closer to the faces of the characters as the day wears on.

A serious treatise on race with a controversial and deliberately ambiguous ending, this scene allows for one of the film's comic moments as a member of each of Bed-Stuy's races has a chance to say what's really on their minds...




The next scene is from Spike's post-9/11 work, The 25th Hour. It's ostensibly the story of a drug dealer (Edward Norton) who was one last day of freedom before he's incarcerated for seven years for his crimes. Based on a novel by David Benioff written some years before 9/11, Spike changed the crux of the film to represent NYC's post 9/11 attitudes.

In this scene, Norton talks to himself in the mirror, letting out his anger at every possible permutation of New York citizen. This scene isn't strictly from the book, as it was written mainly by Lee. It's classic Spike, delivered with a conviction that only Edward Norton among this generation's actors, could muster. Of course, it's a treatise on the fears and anger many New Yorkers felt after the attacks and is probably Spike's best-written scene from any of his movies (which is no small boast). In the background, trumpeter Terence Blanchard's (a frequent composer of the scores of Lee's films) music accurately conveys the pain Norton's character is feeling as he comes to the realization of his own waste of his life. Classic.

11 Oct 2008

The best picture of Finn ever!

We went to get Finn's passport photo the other day at my place of work (we do multimedia functions as well as public affairs). Our staff photographer, Adam, managed to capture Finn perfectly...

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Anchorman - The Legend of Rod Sergeant

Here's me in my first anchor position as I present the Keesler Air Force Base 3rd Quarter review...(original link found here)





21 Sep 2008

Some great signs at a "Women Against Palin" rally in Alaska

(I received the following in an e-mail from my wife, who received it from her aunt. I don't know who the original author is/was, but I love what she's written and I love some of the homemade signs at the rally...)


[The] Alaska Women Reject Palin rally was to be held outside on the lawn in front of the Loussac Library in midtown Anchorage. Home made signs were encouraged, and the idea was to make a statement that Sarah Palin does not speak for all Alaska women, or men. I had no idea what to expect.

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The rally was organized by a small group of women, talking over coffee. It made me wonder what other things have started with small groups of women talking over coffee. It's probably an impressive list. These women hatched the plan, printed up flyers, posted them around town, and sent notices to local media outlets. One of those media outlets was KBYR radio, home of Eddie Burke, a long-time uber-conservative Anchorage talk show host. Turns out that Eddie Burke not only announced the rally, but called the people who planned to attend the rally "a bunch of socialist baby-killing maggots," and read the home phone numbers of the organizers aloud over the air, urging listeners to call and tell them what they thought. The women, of course, received some nasty, harassing and threatening messages.

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I felt a bit apprehensive. I'd been disappointed before by the turnout at other rallies. Basically, in Anchorage, if you can get 25 people to show up at an event, it's a success. So, I thought to myself, if we can actually get 100 people there that aren't sent by Eddie Burke, we'll be doing good. A real statement will have been made. I confess, I still had a mental image of 15 demonstrators surrounded by hundreds of menacing "socialist baby-killing maggot" haters.

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It's a good thing I wasn't tailgating when I saw the crowd in front of the library or I would have ended up in somebody's trunk. When I got there, about 20 minutes early, the line of sign wavers stretched the full length of the library grounds, along the edge of the road, 6 or 7 people deep! I could hardly find a place to park. I nabbed one of the last spots in the library lot, and as I got out of the car and started walking, people seemed to join in from every direction, carrying signs.

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Never, have I seen anything like it in my 17 and a half years living in Anchorage. The organizers had someone walk the rally with a counter, and they clicked off well over 1400 people (not including the 90 counter-demonstrators). This was the biggest political rally ever, in the history of the state. I was absolutely stunned. The second most amazing thing is how many people honked and gave the thumbs up as they drove by. And even those that didn't honk looked wide-eyed and awe-struck at the huge crowd that was growing by the minute. This just doesn't happen here.

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Then, the infamous Eddie Burke showed up. He tried to talk to the media, and was instantly surrounded by a group of 20 people who started shouting O-BA-MA so loud he couldn't be heard. Then passing cars started honking in a rhythmic pattern of 3, like the Obama chant, while the crowd cheered, hooted and waved their signs high.

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So, if you've been doing the math… Yes. The Alaska Women Reject Palin rally was significantly bigger than Palin's rally that got all the national media coverage! So take heart, sit back, and enjoy the photo gallery. Feel free to spread the pictures around to anyone who needs to know that Sarah Palin most definitely does not speak for all Alaskans. The citizens of Alaska, who know her best, have things to say.

14 Sep 2008

This is exactly what I was saying on a few forums/blogs the day after the MTV awards...

India Knight, a columnist for the London Times, wrote the following about English comedian Russell Brand's hosting of the recent MTV Music awards and the ensuing broohaha...

(Reprinted in full from The Sunday Times. original article
here)


From The Sunday Times

September 14, 2008

The funny thing is Brand let America off lightly

India Knight

The comedian Russell Brand, who is candid about the fact that his ambition is even bigger than his enormous nesty hair, presented the MTV video music awards last week. The show goes out live and is a very big deal in America, where Brand is, or was, largely unknown; it was watched this year by 8.4m people.

During his opening speech, he urged viewers to vote for Barack Obama, adding that though Americans were clearly open-minded people, since they’d let “that retarded cowboy fella” do his thing for eight years (“in Britain, we wouldn’t trust him with a pair of scissors”), it might be time to “let someone else have a go”. He went on to make jokes about Sarah Palin and about the “purity rings” worn by the Jonas Brothers, a wholesome teenage band who like to advertise their virginity through the wearing of jewellery – jewel-assisted virginity being, presumably, superior to the ordinary kind. (It’s only a matter of time before some American pop star broadcasts her sexual innocence by means of a huge, clanking chastity belt.)

Brand is a stand-up comedian, so he stood up and made jokes. Since he is a comedian rather than a children’s entertainer, the jokes had some edge, though his humour is observational and absurd rather than vicious: he doesn’t do great bitchy tirades. The jokes were funny, and were made funnier still by the nonplussed reaction of parts of the audience. He’s making jokes about our president! He’s making jokes about sex! He’s teasing the little Christian singers! He’s a Brit!

Never mind that this material was Brand Lite, sanitised for America: swathes of the viewing public were instantly outraged and keen to express their revulsion by flooding internet forums and news sites. Their comments were startling in their toxicity, taking in everything from Brand’s appearance – he’s a plain-looking fellow, apparently – to his heroin habit (he’s been free of drugs since 2003) to how he isn’t funny to Christian people, ergo needs to be hunted and shot. There was also lots of chippiness about how the UK is a “Third World country” and nobody in the US cares about it or anybody it has ever produced (um . . . Mayflower? Plymouth Rock? Oh, never mind). Television news and entertainment channels talked of nothing else for days, editorials were written, the blogosphere went mad: you get the picture.

America is so odd. They’re not weird in New York, or in California, and I know vast swathes of the country are packed to the gills with charming, lovely, clever people. They produce brilliant stand-up comedians themselves, and make some of the world’s best television and cinema. They have writers and actors and musicians of genius; the cliché about America being culturally barren is untrue. But you do worry about the rest of the populace when they threaten to do physical harm to a comedian for daring to suggest that Dubya, the least popular president in modern American history, doesn’t perhaps come across as being quite the full shilling. The vociferous commentators on MTV’s website can’t all have been fiftysomething Republicans whose sensibilities had been offended; they must have included a proportion of MTV’s viewers, broadly aged 16-24. How is it possible for young people to be so reactionary?

The issue seemed to be a) that non-Americans have no right to express any kind of opinion about the world’s only remaining superpower; b) that it’s not nice to say “retarded” (which it isn’t, especially, but– and I say this as the mother of a child with special needs – it is surely a matter of context. Besides, Americans like nothing better than the word “spaz”, so frankly we’re splitting hairs); c) that there’s nothing funny or odd about chastity rings (except there is: they’re completely absurd). This third point is especially peculiar given America’s vast, bottomless appetite for pornography, to say nothing of its fondness for sexualising female children: see the country’s tradition of toddler beauty queens in 3in heels and pancake. Britney Spears, the other star of this year’s VMAs, became America’s sweetheart at 17 by grinding and pouting while wearing a micro school uniform and her hair in bunches. Then she went a bit mad – gee, I wonder why – and America hated her for being fallible and human. The bile directed at Brand is nothing compared with the venom poor Spears endured for years. Then she looked hot again, so everything was fine.

I interviewed Brand last month; he was about to go back to LA for these awards. He was charming and bright, cerebral as well as motor-mouthed. He felt a certain trepidation about the VMAs, being fully aware that presenting them would catapult him into the American consciousness overnight. The awards haven’t done his US profile any harm: viewing figures were up 19% this year and MTV has asked him to host again next year. But his friend David Baddiel told me on Friday: “I think he was maybe a little surprised by the level of rage. He said he could imagine feeling that angry only if someone said something about his mum. What’s bizarre is that his remarks would be considered tepid in this country – it’s a massively disproportionate response to someone saying something very mildly out of turn.” Baddiel added that the script would have been checked by MTV, “which means you got maybe 10% of what he’d have liked to have said – he was operating at a fraction of his taboo-busting capabilities”.

The whole episode is like a parable about the differences between the US and the UK: so much common ground and yet such oceans between us. It isn’t about whether you find Brand funny or not: there’s always the “off” switch. It’s about the peculiar contradictions that seem to define modern America: the love of free speech and pride in democracy, coupled with bottomless abuse for anyone who has the temerity to voice dissent. The devotion to the flag, in people who strike some of us as trying their hardest to make the world dislike America. The sanctification of sexual purity versus the insatiable appetite for porn. And, above all, the sanctimony.

The only way of dealing with that kind of mindset is to joke about it, which is what Brand did. I’m glad of it: his performance was a useful reminder that sometimes jokes aren’t only funny, but necessary.

12 Sep 2008

Classic scenes from the movies part 3

The first clip is from Glengarry Glen Ross. For those of you who've seen it, you know that I could've chosen many, many scenes from this movie, but you also know that if I had to pick one, it would be this one. A little background. GGR was orginally a David Mamet play that opened on Broadway in the 80s. It's about real estate salesmen looking for that big deal to "close." I remember Empire magazine describing this movie as "a film about a bunch of guys sitting around, talking shite. But what wonderful guys. What wonderful shite." This really does sum the movie up.

Director James Foley decided to adapt it for the big screen and, because the dialogue was so actor-friendly, had no problem lining up a heavyweight cast for the film - Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon (who, IMO, should've shared the Best Actor Oscar that year for this, with Denzel for Malcolm X [on a side note, it went that year to, coincidentally, Pacino for what is surely his worst performance - Scent of a Woman - ham acting indeed]), Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce and Alec Baldwin.

This scene features Baldwin in his only scene of the movie and, interestingly enough, this scene wasn't even featured in the original play. Foley had Mamet write this scene especially for Baldwin once he'd climbed on board. In 5 short minutes, Alec Baldwin sets the gold standard for foul-mouthed monologues - a performance he has yet to better...




The next scene is from the French film Amelie. It is, in fact, the opening of the film and, like Magnolia, is one of the best openings to a movie I've ever seen.

A delightful, whimsical fable in which we see the world through eyes of matchmaker-turned-matchmakee (is that a word?) Amelie (played with appropriate doe-eyed innocence by the then-unknown Audrey Tatou).

The opening scene sets the tone for the entire film and, if you're familiar with the work of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ( the wholly-original Delicatessen and the equally strange City of Lost Children), you know you're in for a treat...




...and, as a bonus clip, here's clip featuree Kevin Spacey on Inside the Actor's Studio giving dead-on impersonations of some famous actors - including Lemmon and Pacino. Genius.

9 Sep 2008

The Fall - the best movie I've seen this year

On Sunday Courtney and I watched what can only be described as one of the most original movies I've ever seen.

The movie is The Fall, directed by Tarsem Singh. It's set in LA in 1915 in a hospital. A young girl with a broken arm befriends an actor in one of the hospital beds. He enchants her with a magical story with a cast of characters based on people she's seen in the hospital...before I go any further, take a look at the trailer, for it synopsizes the film better than I can...



The movie is an amazing amalgam of The Wizard of Oz , Life of Pi (best fiction book ever written, IMO), The Princess Bride (but bear in mind that this movie is, in parts, quite violent and deserving of its R rating) and, and, and well, I can't describe what else, except to say that it's so much more than the sum of its influences.

Five-year-old Romanian first-time actress Catinca Untaru is mesmerising as the young girl, while Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) gives a wonderfully-rounded performance as the storyteller/red bandit/blue bandit/actor/drug addict/etc.

The cinematography, art direction, costume design and all-around-visuals in the movie are among the best I've EVER seen.

The movie was shot over four years (!) in 28 countries (double !) and was truly a labor of love for Singh, who also co-writes and co-produces.

Arresting, funny, scary, wonderful. The Fall has it all. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

8 Sep 2008

Guitar Hero Baby!

Here's me, multi-tasking as usual, while Finn (in his sling...the greatest invention, ever!) tries to learn the words to Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes...

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...and now, after trying numerous times (and failing) to master Freebird on expert, we take a well-deserved nap.

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5 Sep 2008

Jon Stewart Hits Karl Rove, Bill O'Reilly, Dick Morris On Sarah Palin Hypocrisy

(Reprinted from The Huffington Post)Wednesday night on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart hit Karl Rove and Bill O'Reilly with damning evidence of their hypocrisy regarding Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

While Rove recently praised Palin's experience as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Stewart showed video of Rove trashing Virginia Governor — and former Richmond Mayor — Tim Kaine's executive experience, listing all the cities that are bigger than Richmond and calling such a pick "political."

Then, after recent video of O'Reilly describing Bristol Palin's pregnancy as a family issue, Stewart showed a clip of the Fox News host blaming Jamie Lynn Spears' parents for her teenage pregnancy.

Finally, after showing video of Dick Morris complaining about the rampant sexism in the media coverage of Sarah Palin, Stewart unveiled a clip of Morris saying that Hillary hides behind the sexism defense, and that anytime "the big boys" pick on Hillary, "she retreats behind the apron strings."

"In Dick Morris' defense," Stewart said, "he is a lying sack of sh*t."


30 Aug 2008

Kucinich is STILL the man!

Here's Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) speech from the Democratic National Convention. He was my first choice for President and his was the only campaign I've ever given money to. I'm with him on every issue.

It's a hell of a speech!

24 Aug 2008

Two new, upcoming TV shows that I'm, like, totally freakin' psyched about. Man.

If you've never seen Little Britain, then I'm afraid, my friend, you've never lived. Get thee to Amazon and order it. Presently. In the meantime, the creators and stars, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, have created Little Britain USA for HBO. It's a sketch comedy show and this new series mixes some of the characters from Little Britain with new, American creations. It starts Sept 28th, so order HBO (if you don't already have it) or drop your ethics and down-load it on the down-low.




Also coming out this Fall, also on HBO is True Blood, a vampire drama. Why watch, you ask? Because it was created by Alan Ball, who created one of the best shows of the last 20 years - Six Feet Under, it's an allegory for the treatment of homosexuals in today's society and it's on HBO, so there'll be plenty of sex, violence, blood and gore.

Cate "singing" Japanese

So Cate found some Japanese Princess website as she was browsing the internet the other day. As with a lot of Japanese sites, the page has cheesy, kitschy pop music sung by a no doubt prepubescent girl in the background.

Because Cate is 5 and would happily go to the same website to play the same game over and over again, she has now "learned the words" to a Japanese pop song. Observe...





And as a special pop bonus, here's Cate dorking around again as Leona Lewis, singing "Bleeding Love"

22 Aug 2008

Classic scenes from the movies - Part 2

Here are a couple of scenes that compliment each other, and are similar, in many ways. First, both films are in black and white. Next, each film stars (in the case of the former unarguably and in the case of the latter arguably) the best actors of their respective generations. Both films feature boxers. Both movies feature protagonists who are way past their prime. Both films won the Best Actor Oscars for their respective leads. Both scenes have largely the same exact dialogue (you'll see). Both films feature short, chubby and respected character actors as the boxers' brothers. Both films feature blondes as the love interests. Both films are widely regarded as essential tough-guy classics. And both films contain the following undeniably classic scenes. Have you guessed what they are yet?

The first scene is from On the Waterfront (1954) and features Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger and yes, it's the famous back-of-the-cab-I-coulda-been-a-contender scene. The next scene is from Raging Bull (1980) and features Robert DeNiro as real-life washed-up pugilist Jake LaMotta in the prologue/epilogue scene, reciting the I-coulda-been-a-contender speech from On the Waterfront in front of a mirror.

I love these scenes because they show both actors at the very top of their game, giving incredibly naturalistic performances in two of the best films ever made. Enjoy.



My latest story for the paper

Here's a story I just did for the paper on Keesler's military working dogs. Though I've always been a big fan of all things canine, I didn't really know much about working dogs until I started researching and interviewing for this story...they're uh...pretty fierce, to say the least, but EXTREMELY well looked after. Anyway, here's the story (original link here):

Man's best friends train as canine warriors

by Staff Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez
Keesler Public Affairs

8/19/2008 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, MISS. -- The dog was big, fluffy, shaggy and golden-brown ... perfect if you want a big hug from a furry friend.

Or not. This dog wasn't trained for hugs. This dog was trained to attack!

The 81st Security Forces Squadron's military working dogs aren't your average hounds. They're specifically raised from birth and trained to be the canine equivalent of those who protect and serve.

"They're not pets, and they're not bred to be pets," said Tech. Sgt. Damian Phillips, kennel master. "They're trained attack dogs. If they're tolerant of people, (they won't be able to) apprehend a potential threat."

Because of the temperament required to be a working dog, these canines can't just "sleep at the foot of the bed." They live in a specially-designed kennel and each dog has his or her own specific enclosed area.

"The dogs are maintained in (the kennel) 24/7 and only myself, military working dog trainers or the on-duty handler are allowed inside the kennels," said Sergeant Phillips. "Even regular patrolmen aren't allowed to pet, touch or feed the dogs, but they can give them water (through a caged door) and spray out their area."

Working dogs receive complete and precise care every day.

"We go into the kennels every two to three hours and have a checklist that must be signed annotating all checks," explained Sergeant Phillips. "We ensure that they always have enough water and that their area is clean."

Weight maintenance and nutrition for the working dogs are closely monitored by the dog handlers. Per Department of Defense regulations, all military working dogs must be fed a particular brand of high-qualilty dog food, said Sergeant Phillips. In order to maintain the correct weight, the amount of food is constantly adjusted.

"(The type and amount of) food they get is exact, their training is exact and their duty is exact," said Sergeant Phillips. "They are required to have daily exercise, like physical training runs with their handlers, and they're also required to run our obstacle course at least once daily."

While the dogs are closely looked after by all of the trained security forces personnel that work in the working dog shop, each dog has a specific handler.

"I like working with the dogs -- it's a step up and new challenge from being a normal cop," said Staff Sgt. Benjamin McQuagge, a working dog handler. "(My dog and I) have a good relationship; we work out and play a lot."

The close relationship between a working dog and his handler extends beyond normal duty hours.

"Our job involves long hours and coming in on our days off," said Sergeant Phillips. "Even when we deploy, our dogs go with us -- be it the Middle East, the U.S.-Mexico border or even in support of the Secret Service. We do it, though, because we care about the dogs, and we love our job."

The technical training school for security forces personnel is about 10 weeks. The technical school to be a dog handler, referred to as "K9 school," at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is even longer -- 12 weeks.

"The training style is based on repetition -- the training gets drilled into us," said Sergeant McQuagge. "They teach us that each dog is different, how to read a dog and how to work with a dog. You're very comfortable with being a dog handler by the time you leave."

Not just any cop can become a military dog handler. Specific steps must be taken in order to qualify.

"You need to be a 5-level with a good record to be a dog handler," explained Sergeant Phillips. "You have to then put in a package with the virtual military personnel flight and, of course, successfully make it through the K9 school at Lackland."

With all of the care and training it takes to work with military working dogs, when it comes to where to house the operation, Keesler's new working dog facility more than meets the requirements, said Sergeant Phillips.

"This building is a $2 million facility with its own veterinary examination room, trainer office and food preparation room," said Sergeant Phillips. "Having every room (that you need) on site is nice."

17 Aug 2008

Classic scenes from the movies - Part 1

This is the first in what I hope will be (if I have the discipline to stick with it) a continuing series of my favorite scenes in certain movies. There will be no order, rhyme, nor reason behind the series...sometimes I'll post a few clips, sometimes only one...


The first is one of the best movie prologues I've ever seen...the opening of PT Anderson's Magnolia...




Next, a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time (in my top five). It's from All That Jazz, a semi-autobiographical film from the great dancer/choregographer/director Bob Fosse (Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Lenny). This scene is one of the musical numbers from direcor Joe Gideon's (Roy Scheider playing a thinly-veiled Fosse) new, as yet unreleased, musical. It features a great song and some of the best choreography ever committed to film...

15 Aug 2008

Finlay William Rodriguez - the cutest li'l guy in this, or any other, world

Here are some great new pics of Finn...



"I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille"


"Leanin' to the side with the OG gangsta glide"


"This chair and I were made for each other, don't you know"


"Viva la raza, holmes"