Friday, February 14, 2003

AMONG THE TWENTY COOLEST THINGS I'VE EVER SEEN: The WWE has signed a one-legged wrestler. Fo' shizzle. See footage of Zachary "Tenacious Z" Gowen giving a one-legged ass-kicking here and here.

Really, does InstaPundit give you anything like this on a Friday afternoon?
THE NEAR-GREAT MOVIES: Roger Ebert can cover The Great Movies -- I'd like to start spending some time each week to cover some of the near-greats, movies that were pretty damn good but never found the audience they deserved.

This series starts today with Mike Nichols' Primary Colors, a 1998 movie that dared to be about something -- the conflict between ends and means, and how one goes about being an ethical person in a world where others aren't going to bother.

And, yes, the movie's also about Bill Clinton. Or, at least, the underlying novel by Joe Klein would neither have been written nor much noticed without the obvious real-life parallels between the Clintons and their team and the fictionalized Stantons.

Indeed, it was those parallels which sunk the movie after its March 1998 release, limiting its total U.S. box office to under $40 million. After all, who needed to see a movie about the fake Clintons when the real ones were knee-deep in early Lewinsky?

Five years later, though, we can stop looking for parallels and evaluation John Travolta's Bill Clinton impersonation, and instead gaze with fresh eyes at the movie. And it's great.

For a detailed plot synopsis, go here -- no need to be redundant. All that you need to know is that we're dealing with a young political operative who gets sucked into to the Presidential primary campaign of a charismatic governor of a small southern state, and who becomes involved in various moral, ethical and strategic issues along the way.

And now here's what makes the movie work: there are no "bad guys" in the movie, no easy foils advancing obviously false propositions. Arguments are raised and debated passionately, and are resolved insofar as the plot necessitates moving forward -- but they aren't resolved as moral propositions. There are no answers here, and no One True Viewpoint artificially imposed by the filmmakers, only smart people raising good questions.

For example: one of the running debates in the movie is whether it's proper for a campaign to tar an opponent with sleazy episodes from his past -- not Keating Five-like episodes of fraudulent or unethical conduct, mind you, but very sad, very human behavior of people at their weakest. Well, if you assume that rivals from the other political party will find and use such information in the future, aren't you obligated to use it yourself during the primaries so that the party has a better chance of winning?

The movie posits a self-perpetuating downwards spiral of pessimism -- assume the worst of your foes' ethics, assume the worst of the media, assume that the public will respond to the lowest common denominator and only become engaged by scandal and muck -- and soon enough, even candidates dedicated to elevating public discourse feel compelled to engage in the same low tactics which provoke even more cynicism and pessimism.

Which is a shame. Because as the movie points out, the world of politics is still inhabited by a fair contigent of idealists and dreamers, people who desperately want to believe in their leaders and the possibility of real good to emerge from public office. But can you be an idealistic politician, an morally pure campaigner, and win? If you don't win, does it matter how ethically the campaign behaved? And can a man who sleeps with every woman he can (except his wife) in his private life neverthless be admirable in his public life?

Good questions, all, and unlike shallow political movies like The American President or Dave which pretend to raise lofty issues (the personal privacy of political figures and the need for "ordinary people" in Washington) yet resolve them in a facile, simplistic, "of course Richard Dreyfuss is a weenie!" manner, Primary Colors provides the viewer with no easy enemies to hate and all of the nuances and complexities of the real world.

The movie is well-cast and well-acted. Travolta's solid, Kathy Bates is incredible, Billy Bob Thornton is the only Jim Carville clone you'll ever need to see, and Maura Tierney is . . . well, at least it made it amusing last night to see her in a supporting role, because we were flipping back between Primary Colors and ER during the commercial breaks. Plus you've got Larry Hagman as Gov. Fred Picker, a pseudo-Perot, and it's a nice little performance from an underappreciated veteran actor.

Finally, Primary Colors is a movie about falling in love -- with a politician, that is. It's about the yearning so many of us have to want to believe in something larger than ourselves, and someone capable of putting those beliefs into action. And like love itself, sometimes we're disappointed in what we find when we peer too closely at the object of our affections, and it forces us to make hard choices: Do we just give up on the object of our affections? Do we become cynical about the prospects for ever achieving pure love, and give up on ever finding it? Or do we accept that we are dealing in the land of humans, not angels, and admit that something compromised might still be the best we are able to find?

This is the world of Primary Colors, and it is well worth your time to rent and enjoy.
"I AM VERY DISAPPOINTED IN THE SHOW": Today's Howard University Hilltop (registration required) features an exclusive interview with Howard senior Frenchelle "Frenchie" Davis, regarding her ouster from American Idol. Among the highlights:
It was a past the producers were told about back in November before she made finals, Davis claims.

"I was open with the information from the very beginning,'' Davis said. "There was no outside pressure for me to tell them, and my involvement with the website didn't even show up in the background check they did on all of the contestants."


"I am very disappointed in the show," Davis, a Los Angeles native, said. "It is my belief that any woman who could endure what I have endured, and still hold her head high and fight to make something of herself, is worthy of being called an idol."


"I was 18 years old at the time and 3,000 miles away from home," she said. "But I simply refused to go back home without a college degree and at the time it seemed like the best way to earn the money I needed to continue my education. Everyone knows why I did it."

Davis also said the site was under different ownership when she was working there, and the allegations that the site contained child pornography are untrue.

"I just want people to know the site was not a child pornography site when I worked there," Davis said. "And I have never been involved in anyway with the abuse of children, which is what child pornography is."


"All I know is I believe I could have won and I also believe someone else thought that too and that's why it happened,'' Davis said.

Of course, the controversy surrounding Davis has fueled many offers from labels, but she says she is still looking over all of them. In the meantime she only has two definite plans.

"I'm definitely planning on coming back to Howard in the fall to get my degree,'' she said. "But during my free time now I'm going to be studying for the LSAT which I'll take in June."


"I'm not going to discourage anyone from supporting me in any way," Davis said. "The fans of the show have all the power because they choose who the next 'American Idol' is, and they can make me a star anyway. Their anger helps me vent."

The full article is available here.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

NEW ADDITION: Unlike a lot of blogs, I'm trying to keep my level of blogrolling to a minimum, and only direct you to those sites which will actively, consistently merit your attention.

One such site, which I should've linked since day one, is Greg Beato's Soundbitten. The site focuses on pop-cultural issues as much as on the political scene in a smart and engaging way, and it is well worth your repeated visits. (Where are all the pop culture blogs, anyway?)

Check out his recent post on America's Beef Producers' efforts to market to teenage girls for a sample, and visit him often.
FRENCHIE UPDATE: The Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes has the definitive take this morning. As her article notes:
It's okay for a contestant on Fox's "American Idol" to have worked as a stripper, as had Nikki McKibbin, who made it to the final three on the reality series's first edition. And it's peachy if a contestant on the network's "Joe Millionaire" has dressed up as a high school cheerleader in bondage and fetish flicks -- like finalist Sarah Kozer.

But it is absolutely unacceptable for a contestant on the current edition of "American Idol" to have appeared on a porn site four years ago. Ask Frenchie Davis, who got booted off the show for just that. . . .

According to a source, the parties determined that it's one thing to perform in a strip club and another to pose on a Web site geared toward male fantasies about underage girls. So if you are thinking you might want to be a contestant on a Fox reality TV show in the future, confine your extracurricular activities to stripping or appearing on adult Web sites that cater to male fantasies about of-age women. (Apparently Kozer was portraying a very mature cheerleader in bondage.) This is good information to know.

Sign the petition.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

D'OH! Slate's Chris Suellentrop, on the decline of The Simpsons:
[W]atching The Simpsons chase Ozzie & Harriet's record for the longest-running sitcom has been like watching the late-career Pete Rose: There's still greatness there, and you get to see a home run now and then, but mostly it's a halo of reflected glory.

The entire article is available here.
"I WAS LIKE...": Like clockwork, just as pitchers and catchers set to report to spring training, the Village Voice has now published its 29th (or 30th) Annual Pazz & Jop Music Critics Poll, compiling the best of music in 2002.

Sure, the voting is interesting (top album: Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; top single: Missy Elliot's "Work It", in a landslide), but as with their movie critics' poll, it's the extensive comments section on the year in music that make it such compelling reading. Here's a sample:
"Work It"'s heroic weirdness leaves me awestruck. It's hard to know where to begin trying to unravel it, other than to observe that all the backwards looping and oh-yessa-massas ("NO!") and gadunka-dunk-dunks/toing-tanga-tang-tangs share with mid-'60s Dylan a supreme confidence that amounts to getting away with anything and everything you care to try.

Phil Dellio
Toronto, Canada

Best opening gambit had to be "I was like" from "Hot in Herre"—turning everyday IM parlance into an invite to a sweaty, neverending party.

Maura Johnston
Astoria, New York

Dumbest controversy of the year: Avril Lavigne isn't really a punk. What? Next you're gonna tell me Tobey Maguire can't shoot webs out of his wrists.

Keith Harris
Chicago, Illinois

"Like I Love You" was, among other things, a triumph of syntactic ambiguity: Does Justin, like, love her? Does he feel something approximating love? Is he just being sarcastic? The song's a perfect textual depiction of the Neptunes' indecisive Sweet Tart shuffle: Is it pop? Is it r&b? Is it just being sarcastic?

Mikael Wood

Is Ja Rule still alive? Doesn't calling DMX a bitch on the radio precipitate some kind of ensanguined death by pit bull in the Streets of Harlem? I mean, who's going to back Ja up? Ashanti? Mary J. Blige? Charli Baltimore? Steven Segal?

Joseph Patel

The worst musical trend of the year had to be those innumerable permutations of Ashanti, Ja Rule, J Lo, Fat Joe, J Rule, Ja Joe, and Fat Lo. All these songs trade on the same gimmick—girly-girl singer paired with manly-man rapper. The result is an unintentional parody of gender panic, where Ja seems to fear if he ever rises above a monotone, it must mean he's a fag, while any girl who fails to outsource her rapping to a guy with big pecs has to be a closet dyke.

Ted Friedman
Decatur, Georgia

Eminem gets more mileage out of being poor than being white. Pink cleans her own closet with a "Family Portrait." Justin chats up his modest background. J.Lo is still Jenny from the block. And young white rock stars everywhere say they're just trying to get by. Growing up lower-middle class is the new suburban street cred.

Bret McCabe
Baltimore, Maryland

The most fascinating thing about Michael Jackson is his faculty for outsizing his own irony, on levels of disbelief Voltaire, Swift, or Thompson would be hard-pressed to suspend. The plot twists are too bizarre to be calculated and at the same time too peculiar to be mere happenstance. The tragic thing is the attention this draws from media cynics and a populace with a predilection for red meat. After all, it's not like Jackson is evil, a bin Laden or a Papa Doc or a Ferdinand Marcos or the cowards who shot Jam Master Jay or a Henry Kissinger or a Sotheby's/Tyco/ Enron/Adelphia/WorldCom/ImClone CEO or a Clear Channel or a Newt Gingrich or a Dick Cheney or a Strom Thurmond. This is Shakespearean tragedy cloaked as Twainian farce directed by Spike Jonze.

Darrell McNeil
Brooklyn, New York

As I said, there's good reading to be had, and this is just a small sample. Enjoy.
FRENCHIE KISSED OFF: According to today's USA Today, beloved American Idol semifinalist Frenchie Davis "has been eliminated from Fox's talent competition after she acknowledged she worked for an adult Web site four years ago."

Boo. Hiss. And triple boo.

Go to Jen's site for a full accounting of Fox's double standards here and her call to arms.

I'll just provide a quick link to the current petition to bring Frenchie back, and strongly encourage you to sign. Let's decide this one on talent and the present day, and not on what a college student might have had to do to get by.

After all, what's that Americal Idol slogan again? They perform, we decide. If Vanessa Williams can come back from Penthouse and still be a top r&b singer, I think there's plenty of room in America for Frenchie Davis to shine. Sign the petition.

P.S. If Ruben Studdard doesn't make the finals after last night's performance, there will be hell to pay.

edited to add: The Smoking Gun has added a brief item (no pics) on this story. Here's the details:
Davis posed topless (and appeared to be masturbating) on a web site that purported to feature naked underage girls (which, of course, would be illegal). However, at the time she posed for these photos, Davis was over 18. The Washington, D.C. native has claimed that she took the topless gig to earn money so that she could re-enroll in Howard University, where she is a theater major.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

JOE OR MILLIONAIRE? There has been much speculation as to what the "big twist" at the end of Joe Millionare is going to be. Many believe that after the truth is revealed, if the woman still chooses to stay with Evan then the producers will, in fact, give them a million dollars and a happy ending.

I've got a better idea.

Every week, we're informed by the butler that the show will be a test of whether love or money conquers all. But if Evan Marriot has no money, that's not really what the women are choosing between at all -- it's whether love can survive Evan's Big Lie.

So, how does one make this a choice between love and money, as promised?

Step 1: Evan chooses between Zora and Sarah.

Step 2: Evan tells the "winner" the truth: he's a construction worker who does a little modeling work on the side. But that he really, really likes her.

Step 3: In comes mysterious host Alex McLeod, who offers our "winner" the choice: stay with Evan, or we'll give you a million dollars. Up to you.

Alternately, offer the money to Evan. Tell him he gets to keep the relationship, or Fox will make him as rich as he claimed to be for the past two months. Put the onus on him instead, and let America see what he decides matters most: love or money.

[insert devilish laugh]
DOCUMENT NO. 5: As expected, the blogosphere is in a tizzy over the Bowling for Columbine nomination, predicting Michael Moore will win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for his politically correct assault on America's gun culture.

Such predictions, however, miss the first, unalterable, ironclad rule of Oscar predictions: The Best Documentary Feature is always the Holocaust movie. Always. If there is no Holocaust movie nominated, then the winner will be some other movie that depicts Jews suffering. Only if there is no such movie, then the award will be presented to the most politically correct and uplifting movie remaining.

This rule accurately covers every Best Documentary Feature winner for at least the past twelve years, including such easily predictable winners as Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, One Day In September, The Last Days, The Long Way Home and Anne Frank Remembered.

Point of fact, the only popular documentary to win the Oscar in the past twelve years was the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" doc When We Were Kings for 1996, which was nominated against documentaries on Nelson Mandela, ballerina Suzanne Ferrell, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and journalist George Seldes . Not one Holocaust movie. Indeed, widely-seen works such as Buena Vista Social Club, Eyes on the Prize and The War Room consistently fail to win, and Hoop Dreams, best of them all, wasn't even nominated.

[The exception that proves the rule: I have located only one Holocaust-related documentary from the past twenty years which was nominated but did not win: Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-1945 (1991). But, of course, that wasn't completely about the Jews either. See?]

So, what does this portend for 2003? Well, we've got Michael Moore, a Vietnam reconciliation movie, spelling bee kids, a bird movie, and, finally, Prisoner of Paradise, described as follows on the Oscar website:
One of the leading theatrical figures in 1930s Berlin, actor, director and cabaret performer Kurt Gerron, a German Jew, was forced to write and direct a Nazi propaganda film while being held prisoner in a concentration camp.

Winner. Guaranteed.
LET THE SPECULATION BEGIN: Nominees for the 75th Academy Awards were announced this morning.

All in all, not too many surprises on the list, and only one thing that really upset me. Remembering that you can't suggest an addition without performing the appropriate subtraction, let's review:

1. What upsets me? Adaptation wasn't nominated for Best Picture. No, I didn't give it an unqualified rave, but its inventiveness and wit merited the nomination. It should have replaced Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which, okay, I'm glad to see fantasy or sci-fi nominated for Best Picture (next year: the Matrix films?), but a film getting no nominations for acting, screenplay or direction shouldn't get one for best picture.

2. Okay, I shouldn't be too surprised that John C. Reilly was nominated for Chicago, but I'm happy enough. Not that he was that good, or that I even liked the movie, but it was time for Reilly to be elevated in the public's eye, and if it wasn't going to be for the Reed Rothchild/Chest Rockwell dual role in Boogie Nights, I'm glad it's at least something.

3. That said, Chicago will win for Best Picture. No question. There's just not a strong competitor in the field -- Gangs was not universally loved; Polanski can't win for The Pianist because he's still Roman Polanski; the constituency isn't there for Lord of the Rings to actually win and The Hours, well, in a choice between depressing tales of suicide across generations of lesbians versus a Renée Zellweger-Catherine Zeta Jones prison movie, well, I'm guessing the Academy prefers the latter.

4. The potential My Big Fat Greek Wedding disaster has been averted -- only a screenplay nomination, no acting or best picture noms Phew.

5. Poor Dennis Quaid: dumped by Meg, then after a virtual ten-year acting hiatus comes back with a series of great performances, capped off by his lead role in The Rookie and much-heralded supporting work as a closeted gay husband in Far From Heaven. But still, no nomination. I just don't know who to eliminate here -- it's a strong category.

6. Antwone Fisher: zero nominations. Ouch. Oh, that's right -- they recognized African-American achievement in film last year, so I guess they don't have to again for a while.

7. Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine was nominated for best documentary feature. Cool. Just because it'll piss off 80% of the political blogosphere.

8. I'm just going to use this opportunity to renew my call for a Best First Film award to be handed out to the best feature film by a first-time director. It's about time Hollywood started recognizing new talent. This year, such people as Charles Stone III (Drumline) and Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) could have been recognized, but weren't.

9. Minority Report only gets a Sound Editing nomination? Not even for Art Direction or Visual Effects, let along Best Director? C'mon, dog, that's harsh.

10. And finally, kudos to Donald Kaufman for his Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Adaptation. This marks the first nomination for a non-existent being since 2000's nomination of "Richard Farnsworth" for best actor in David Lynch's The Straight Story. As we all know now, "Farnsworth" does not exist, and was merely Lynch's fiendishly inventive CGI creation. Have you ever seen another film -- either before or after The Straight Story, with such an actor? Me neither.

More comments as the day progresses.
EVERYTHING'S FAKE BUT THE DEATHS: Professional wrestler Curt Hennig, known as "Mr. Perfect" to his fans, was found dead in a hotel room yesterday. One of the more talented technical performers of the past two decades, Hennig had been scheduled to perform at an exhibition at the Florida State Fair last night. Hennig was 44 years old.

His former colleague Sean Waltman remembers Hennig here.

While the cause of death has not yet been established, this continuing run of wrestling deaths at early ages -- Rick Rude, Davey Boy Smith, Louie Spicoli, Owen Hart, Brian Pillman, Rick "the Renegade" Wilson, Bobby Duncum Jr. and Yokozuna all dead in the past few years by their mid-40s, and almost all related to steroids and/or painkillers -- is a severe indictment of an industry in need of reform.

Professional wrestling puts terrible pressure on these men's bodies -- to both be as big as possible and to absorb as much pain as possible, across a grueling travel schedule -- and these deaths are a sad, but now predictable outcome. I was a big wrestling fan growing up, but I can't imagine encouraging my children to watch wrestling when it's their turn.

Monday, February 10, 2003

MJ: Between the sex scandals, his relentless demand for hero worship and the repeated, dismal comeback efforts, it's hard to be an unabashed fan of MJ anymore. Sure, he revolutionized his industry in the 1980s -- defining the term "crossover" success -- and made the way for so many to follow in his footsteps, but past is past, weirdness is weirdness, and this is 2003.

Yes, it's time for Michael Jordan to leave us alone.

I felt pretty nauseous watching the NBA All-Star Game from our hotel room Sunday night. After all, this is Jordan's third alleged retirement, so the claim that this one is the real one feel about as reliable as a check from Evan Wallace Marriot. I hope it's true, because as this game demonstrated, he just doesn't have it anymore the way he used to.

What made it worse was the whole notion of Michael Jordan as a "hero", as Mariah Carey lip-synched. Jordan's no hero; he's a basketball player. Ain't nothing heroic about that, by itself. There's no heroism in doing underwear advertisements.

If you're looking for a hero in the NBA, look to Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo (or, as we like to call him, "Deke"), who has tirelessly dedicated his time and his money towards improving public health in his native Zaire.

But don't look to a guy who's spending his NBA earnings on his former mistresses and illegal gambling. That's just a guy who used to be a great basketball player, but not any longer.

As far as the other MJ is concerned, I'm as grossed out as you are. Jen and I watched the documentary Thursday night, and I'm not sure what was worse: what Jackson was saying, or the fact that he kept saying it, all against his best interests. Give interviewer Martin Bashir credit: he skillfully extended the rope, and Jackson knew exactly how to fasten it around his neck.

It's not just the deviance (sexual, perhaps, and otherwise), and it's not just the denial (about the deviance, about the plastic surgery), and it's not just that messed-up story about his daughter Paris's placenta that's the real bother here. I mean, it is, but that's not it. It's that there's no one who can say "no" to him -- his money, his fame and his self-imposed sense of isolation put him beyond any of the pressures we might feel to conform our behavior to some reasonable standard. He is, indeed, a law unto himself, and that's really uncomfortable to consider.

With both MJs, ultimately, the lesson is the same: admire the product, remember the past, but ignore the man today. Fame is like fire; it needs oxygen to survive. The less attention we give, the less they will receive in the future. It's true -- we can make a better day. Just you and me.