Kicking the Tweets

Savages (2012)

The Cuddly Cartel Caper

What the hell happened to Oliver Stone? Set aside whatever feelings you have about his personal politics or the theories his films explore: the truth is, the man used to make daring, visually inventive, epic motion pictures. He turned his Viet Nam experience into the genre-redefining Platoon; in JFK, he cracked open conspiracies as explosively as "Lee Harvey Oswald's" bullets cracked open the late POTUS's skull; and he ushered in the dawn of hyperkinetic media with Natural Born Killers--a film that, like Idiocracy, looks more and more like a documentary with each passing year.

But his last great movie was nearly twenty years ago. The new century has not been kind to ol' Ollie. He took aim at a barrel full of fish during the second Bush administration, only to blew off his big toe. Next came the mixed-signals misfire Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps--which, at the height of the recession, gave America a "Banksters are People, too" message that no one needed or wanted.

Now we have Savages, a cartoon of a movie about the very real drug war ripping apart Mexico. Stone's first forray into the seduction and violence of the narcotics game, Scarface, became a classic in gangsta circles. Key images of Al Pacino's Tony Montana consuming a mountain of cocaine before cutting an army of hit men to ribbons with his "little friend" sell an ironic dream of wealth and invincibility; funny how few t-shirts feature Montana lying dead at the bottom of a fountain a few moments later. For all its gaudy, scene-chewing nuttiness, though, Stone's movie at least pretended to educate the audience about how drug operations work.

Savages, on the other hand, is a stupid, bloody fantasy made for and starring spoiled, impossible-to-root-for children. I realize that Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Johnson aren't actually kids, but their characters are so naive, developmentally arrested, and downright lucky that they're about as relatable to serious audiences as the characters in Gossip Girl (in which Lively also stars). Watching this movie, I couldn't believe Stone was behind such indulgent trash--until I remembered that this is July and not October: Savages isn't the director's typical Oscar-hunting think-piece; it's his first forray into brains-off popcorn territory.

The plot is simple: Ben (Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch) are a cannabis-growing mastermind and War-on-Terror veteran/badass, respectively. From a cozy Laguna Beach pad, they revolutionize America's pot industry through innovative harvesting methods and quiet, brutal enforcement of their own strict policies. Part of this coziness involves sharing the full figure and vacant head of Ophelia (Lively), a trust-fund kid who dropped out of community college in order to "drown in life".

A top Mexican cartel headed by the reluctant heiress Elena (Salma Hayek) wants to muscle in on the boys' operation, proposing a three-year contract at twenty percent. Neither Ben nor Chon want to go down that rabbit hole, but Elena's people make it clear that not negotiating is not an option. So they ask for twenty-four hours to think on it, and use that time to gather enough money to escape to Indonesia--where they'll ostensibly lay low for a year.

Savages runs off the rails pretty early on. Personally, I checked out during Lively's cloying, opening voice-over. But if you just care about the story and not the peripherals, I'd guess the boys' ill-conceived get-away is the point where your brain's "WTF" alarm will start ringing.

You see, Chon, being ex-military and insanely rich, has hired a contingent of old brothers in arms to serve as his operation's personal security detail. This means that every time he and Ben take a meeting with shady customers, snipers and explosives experts watch their every move. If two Cali stoners can figure this out, do they not think that an even wealthier army of Mexican drug dealers--brutal killers with a larger network, who've been in the game much longer than they have--wouldn't also have eyes on the ground? Maybe Ben and Chon's airheaded arrogance is Stone's commentary on American hubris, but I couldn't swallow the level of cluelessness on display in this allegedly real-world-set movie.

From the moment they leave the meeting to the moment THEY SEND OPHELIA TO THE SHOPPING MALL ALONE TO BUY CLOTHES FOR THE TRIP, our de facto heroes are followed by Elena's head goon, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and his army of assassins disguised as day-laborers and cops. In fairness, one of Chon's beefcake buddies tails Ophelia on her trip, but is quickly dispatched without her knowing it-- leading to the kidnapping that (unfortunately) sets Savages' real plot into high gear.

Let's pull over for a second. Why did her bodyguard drive a separate car? Was Chon worried that someone might follow her? If so, why let her out on the street in the first place? He should have at least insisted that someone drive with her. I guess that would've aroused suspicion, considering the fact that Ophelia's toxic personality likely keeps away everyone who's not protecting or fucking her--and would've been a dead giveaway to any pursuers.

Anyway, Savages very quickly stops being about the drug trade and turns into a hostage picture. When Ben and Chon figure out that Elena has a daughter in the states (who happens to walk right past Ophelia in Laguna's teeny-tiny Galleria shopping center), they kidnap her and arrange for one of those middle-of-nowhere swaps that haven't been cinematically effective since The Hangover parodied them three years ago.

In the interim, we get a lot of business about moles in Elena's organization and an every-muddying storyline involving Ben and Chon's clandestine partnership with a corrupt DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta). We're also treated to a sub-movie in a totally different genre, one in which Ophelia kind of becomes the daughter that Elena wishes she had--namely one who shows up for dinner. One of the film's coolest scenes doesn't involve torture, chainsaws, or gunplay; it sees Elena taking Ophelia to task for being a rich waste of flesh who has zero clue about hardship.*

Despite my numerous problems with Savages, I was at least happy to see the three leads die horrible deaths at the end. The hostage switch goes horribly wrong, as they always do in these movies. Ben gets shot in the neck and Chon busts out a trio of what look to be cyanide epipens so that Juliet and her two Romeos can drift into the afterlife together.

But wait! Turns out senility has turned Oliver Stone into a full-on prankster: As the camera pulls out from the dead bodies, Ophelia's narration busts in with, "At least, that's how I imagined it..."

We're then assaulted with a crazy rewind of the last ten minutes and a feel-good do-over of the hostage switch--one in which DEA helicopters swoop in to arrest the "bad guys", and Ben, Chon, and Ophelia's connection with Dennis lands them on an Indonesian beach instead of behind bars.

Believe me when I say that it took every ounce of self control to not jump out of my seat and scream "FUUUUUCK YOU!" at the screen. Not only is it the most dishonest movie ending I've seen in awhile, it completely muddles whatever message Stone was trying to squeeze out of the screenplay he wrote with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno.

I'm not a prude or anything, but there's a disturbing pro-pot theme at play here that rubs me the wrong way. Ben and Chon's weed was smuggled from Afghanistan and fully processed in safe, underground labs, which conveniently shields them of the part of the process that usually involves dealing directly with people and organizations whose cultivation of recreational drugs ruins lives. The effects of marijuana may be harmless, but the politics of it are absolutely not. By rewarding their naive characters with the happily-ever-after lives of carefree, frolicking millionaires, the filmmakers fail to deliver consequences to anyone in their movie except the dirty Mexican drug lords (who, of course, are frequently referred to as "savages").

The one shining light in this movie is Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta's triumvirate of cool. The three of them are top-notch. In fact, this may be the least showboating performance of Travolta's career. Had Savages been a real movie about and for adults, it could have easily contended for Best Picture. As it stands, it's a tired retread full of dipshit kids, helmed by someone who pretended not to know better while abandoning their creative ambitions.

*The audience figured this out several scenes earlier, when Ophelia asked her kidnappers if she could get a salad to eat in her grimy basement prison. But it was nice to see someone in the movie address her unacceptable behavior.


Spirit Stalkers (2012)

Crowded House

Spirit Stalkers is a great example of modern indie horror's promise and peril. Writer/director/star Steve Hudgins' spook story about a team of ghost-debunking TV personalities who encounter a real-life poltergeist is anchored by a few great performances; some crisp, interesting visuals; and a kernel of an idea that would make a great, non-fiction reality show. But the anchor is buried deep in this case, leaving a bunch of gaudy, not-ready-for-prime-time distractions bobbing on the surface.

The titular Spirit Stalkers are a team of skeptics who travel the country refuting a new claim of paranormal activity each week. From faulty high school heating systems to amplified pet sounds, they have yet to encounter a "presence" that could not be explained away rationally--if unusually. All that changes when they meet Gloria Talman (PJ Woodside), a divorced mother whose new house is haunted by the ghosts of several murder/suicide victims. Crusty, middle-aged head Stalker, Reuben (Hudgins), sees Gloria's case as a challenge and an opportunity to improve his show's sinking ratings: turns out audiences really do want to believe--or at least watch attractive young people wave cool gadgets around in lieu of evidence.

The film's premise is terrific, and would have been much stronger if presented as either a found-footage movie or a faux-reality-TV-show. It's insane to propose such a thing, since both filmmaking styles are universally reviled. But Hudgins chooses a bizarre hybrid path, wherein half the movie is an Office-style mockumentary, while the other half is a poorly executed, by-the-numbers haunted house picture. The television angle works incredibly well--so much so that every time the focus switched back to Gloria seeing dead people in the hall or arguing with her hilarious, hysterical ex-husband, I wanted nothing more than a Phantom Edit-style version of Spirit Stalkers featuring only the Spirit Stalkers.

The problem with the non-TV material is two-fold. First, Hudgins packs too much "business" into his story. "Business"--an easily mistaken, cheap imitation of "plot"--is a series of unnecessary complications that pushes an already robust storyline into overkill territory. To wit:

Reuben has a secret past involving an ill sister--who seized up once during an illicit game of Ouija with some neighborhood kids. Fellow Stalker Angie (Jessica Dockrey) has frequent nosebleeds that she never tells anyone about; they're supposed to portend an unsettling, supernatural presence, but come off as a series of ersatz Kleenex commercials instead--regularly interrupting the cool storyline with a minute or so of zero consequence. Gloria hires a psychic who may or may not be a scam artist--or who may have gifts and be a scam artist. Gloria's daughter comes home early from dates or during visits with her father with such frequency that one wonders why she ever leaves the house. Spirit Stalkers suffers from too much "muchness" when, in fact, the main plot would have moved along just fine without any of these weird dead ends cluttering up the run-time.

The second problem lies in the actual filmmaking; specifically, the Foley work and Hudgins' staging of the non-TV portions of his story. Let's start with sound. Spirit Stalkers has one of the flattest sound tracks I've heard in a movie. The score is fine; I'm talking about the incidental creaks, door slams, and bits of rustling that typically make for great jump scares in these kinds of pictures--scares that are sold by a rich depth of sound.

If a character walks from the kitchen to the living room, as Gloria does in the beginning of this film, and something falls over in the cupboard she'd just closed, the audience's experience of that sound should mirror the character's--the object should sound just distant enough to cause alarm and prompt an investigation. This film's audio plays like a Foley artist jostling props in front of a microphone while standing next to the rolling camera. The effect is unsettling, alright, but not in the way it was intended.

Compared to the staging, though, the sound issue is a nitpick. Unless you're a master visual storyteller, it's very important to lead the audience into your film on an even footing. Chances are, the people watching your movie have been around the horror block a few times, and are bringing with them a set of expectations (i.e. "baggage"). Failing to set the table ahead of your cinematic feast can lead to a gigantic mess that detracts from the quality of the dinner itself.

That food metaphor was terrible and confusing, much like the way Spirit Stalkers establishes Gloria. When we meet her, she's getting spooked by weird sounds coming from the kitchen of her big, dark house. Hudgins paints her isolation so convincingly that when we learn she has a daughter, Kellie (Jessica Reynolds), a few scenes later, it's jarring.

Not as jarring, though, as what the daughter does in this scene. She bursts in, has words with her mom, and then dashes upstairs, vanishing into the darkness. Gloria follows her into an empty, quiet hallway, triggering the "Oh, I Get it: Her Daughter is Really a Ghost" Alarm. A minute or so later, though, Kellie runs out of a dark room after having grabbed something. This means two things:

1. Kellie is not a ghost.

2. She finds light switches too annoying to use.

Tricks like these are peppered throughout Spirit Stalkers and serve no purpose other than to clog up the main story (see "Business"). I'm not a fan of people turning off their brains at the movies, but an audience shouldn't have to work continuous over-time deciphering story choices from two scenes previous. I found myself playing catch-up for at least half the movie.

Though I've spent a lot of time bagging on this film, I still recommend that you seek it out. The four Spirit Stalkers are performed to the quirky, neurotic hilt by actors whose naturalism sheds quite a harsh light on some of the supporting players. Even in the last act, when the screenplay turns some of our heroes into unnecessary villains, I wanted to spend time with them. He also deserves a lot of credit for making his low-budget production look much more lavish than it is; the house interiors, especially, reminded me of Ti West's eerie The House of the Devil. Had Hudgins trimmed seventy percent of the fat from his script and approached the haunted house stuff from an original angle (the dead twin girls are a, um, Shining example of what I mean), he might have delivered an interesting movie--not just half of one.


Ted (2012)

Plush for Life

My love of humor is limitless and absolute. You could tell me the world's most offensive, expletive-laden joke about a gay mulatto cancer survivor reading child pornography in the back seat of his mentally challenged Asian friend's Jaguar as the duo runs over a priest, a rabbi, and an imam who were about to walk into a bar--and I'd probably laugh hysterically. As long as a bit is clever, original, and comes from a place of exploration rather than discrimination, the cobweb-wrapped PC alarm buried in the back of my brain will stay silent.

For the record, I cringe whenever I hear someone use the words "gay" or "retarded" in casual conversation as an emasculating put-down or to describe something that's particularly stupid. I don't blame pop culture for this. I blame parents and bad wiring. A limp-wristed caricature can make millions of people laugh for generations, as it did in Airplane! It can also lead to the beating death of Matthew Shepard. As sad as that is, as strange as that is, I'm unwilling to sacrifice the mind-freeing wonders of art to the futile cause of stomping out intolerance.

For someone who doesn't care about others' opinions of his opinions, I've spent a lot of time this week covering my ass before getting to the review portion of my reviews. Let's just get this out of the way: I absolutely loved Ted.

Writer/director Seth MacFarlane has done so much more than bring his Family Guy shtick to the big screen--he's created a movie that is at once offensive beyond forgiveness and more touching than an Oscar-season weepie. Add effects company Iloura's spectacular, seamless integration of a CGI teddy bear into a human world in ways that will likely make the WETA crew sweat bullets, and you get an utterly unique comedy experience: a fantasy film aimed at adults with really off senses of humor (unlike Adam Sandler's arrested-development clunkers or the stoner-alien snooze fest, Paul).

It's clear from watching Ted that MacFarlane is an unapologetic pop culture junky. That's nothing new; Kevin Smith and others have built wildly successful careers on mining minutiae from 70s and 80s television and movies. What sets MacFarlane's film apart, besides the jokes, is his ability to present the lame conventions of the talking animal picture, buddy picture, and buddy animal picture--and every other weird comedy trend from those decades--as springboards for cool narrative left-turns.

For example, you might expect that when the titular teddy bear magically springs to life following a little boy's Christmas wish, the movie will take a pseudo-E.T. route--where the boy must keep his unusual friend a secret from a world that would hate and fear him. Instead, we're treated to Ted's world-stage debut within the first ten minutes. He's hailed as a miracle, a freak, and, soon enough, a washed-up celebrity that no one cares about; no one except his best friend, John, of course, who grows up to be Mark Wahlberg.

No one would blame you for also assuming that Mila Kunis's presence in the film marks the screenplay's slide into a predictable formula wherein John's teddy bear prevents him from landing the girl of his dreams (or helps him, via some Cyrano De Bergerac hijinks). But you'd be wrong. Kunis plays Lori, John's long-time girlfriend and ball-busting pal of Ted's. There are romantic complications aplenty, stemming from John's refusal to dream past his rental-car-agency-clerk position. But MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesly Wild choose their obstacles carefully, blowing up the requisite misunderstandings and screw-ups to epic, left-field proportions.

I won't spoil these for you, except to say that the filmmakers' out-of-the-box thinking will forever change the way you think of Norah Jones, Tom Skerritt, and Sam J. Jones. Skerritt's arc--which is all brilliantly implied--is one of the movie's biggest, darkest laughs.

Despite its weird relationship drama and bong-brained slacker vulgarity, Ted has some very adult ideas about the tragicomic pull of arrested development. Ted agrees to move out on his own so that John and Lori might have a go at real-world commitment. John is willing to give up his last tether to juvenile irresponsibility, but his heart still wants to eat cereal on the couch and make fun of bad TV all day. Lori sees her boyfriend's potential going up in smoke, and does her best to be supportive of his friendship with Ted--while also asserting her right to live as an adult. At no point does she turn into a cartoon shrew who demands that John give up his childish ways. Instead, she patiently plays the supportive girlfriend role until John screws up so badly that she has no choice but to leave.

This sets the climax into gear, and for about fifteen minutes, Ted becomes a bizarre action/comedy/kidnapping picture starring Giovanni Ribisi. With chilling references to child abuse, a callback to the eerie Tiffany-fandom documentary, I Think We're Alone Now, and a tense, Fenway Park climbing chase straight out of Annie, the movie skillfully switches genres while never losing its deliciously twisted humor. In short, it's a bug-nuts way to wind down a stupid talking-bear movie. All praise to MacFarlane for pulling it off and again shredding expectations (I'm referring specifically to the climbing scene, which I guarantee plays out differently than you'd expect it to once characters start ascending the light towers).

Like Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa, Ted uses a grimy, disillusioned American setting to test the durability of our most cherished myths and ideals. It's fitting that both movies begin at Christmastime, the cultural touchstone (or at least, the pop-cultural one) of generosity and hope, and that they both soak their characters in chemicals, existential despair, and anti-story-book relationships before ultimately arriving at the same conclusion: no matter how messed up the world gets, there's always a chance for goodness to shine through--even if that goodness takes the form of a drug-crazed teddy bear with a penchant for 9/11 jokes and sodomy.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)


Yesterday, I was e-mailed a link from a Marvel Films executive, who wishes to remain anonymous. And for good reason: below is my SPOILER-FILLED transcript of a deleted scene from the upcoming blu-ray of The Amazing Spider-Man. It's a weird scene, set at a major character's funeral, and features what appears to be a blitzed-out-of-her-mind Emma Stone delivering the eulogy while popping in and out of her Gwen Stacy character.

I haven't seen the film yet. If half of what's mentioned here is true, I doubt I'll bother.


[EXT. CEMETARY DAY. A LARGE CROWD gathers around an open funeral plot. GWEN STACY stands at the head of it, PROJECTING her voice. Next to her is a NERVOUS-looking, gray-haired PRIEST]


My father died saving a douchebag in a Halloween costume.

Wait, that's not right.

Halloween costumes usually exhibit some design sense. This thing looks like one of those variant action figures that Hasbro churns out to promote comic book movies. You know, the ones that have nothing to do with the actual movie? Like, "Hey, it's Jungle-fish Batman with Nite-Glo SCUBA Action!" Some shit like that.

I mean, it's just awful. Do you guys remember that kid from a few years ago who also thought he was a man-spider? He had a similar outfit. I mean, why couldn't this new guy just use that suit? Why'd he have to Ed Hardy it up with all the douche-y swirls and those stupid silver striped shoes or whatever the fuck?

[PRIEST leans in and WHISPERS something to GWEN, who QUICKLY regains composure]


Right, sorry. My dad died helping to foil the mad plot of a one-armed scientist who wanted to grow his limb back by injecting himself with lizard DNA or something. The scientist went nuts and decided everyone should be lizards. So he dusted off this machine that would disperse a green toxin over New York City and turn everyone into mutants.

Seriously, did he completely forget that the same plan failed twelve years ago when Magneto tried those shenanigans on top of the Statue of Liberty? Why spend untold millions of dollars on something so completely unoriginal, especially if it was lame the first time around?

[PRIEST leans in again and WHISPERS to GWEN, who NODS and WIPES away some tears]


Daddy was a great man, especially compared to my new loser boyfriend, Peter. Daddy never liked Peter's crappy attitude, sullen disposition, and penchant for whiny snark. Seriously, until I actually met him, I didn't understand why all the kids in school picked on this kid. But he's my boyfriend now, so I guess I gotta stand by him.

Maybe it's those dreamy eyes, or that Edward Cullen hair. Maybe it's the way he told me to "shut up" while forcing his tongue down my throat right after he revealed to me that he's Spider-Ma--

Oh, fuck.

[GWEN SLYLY PULLS what look to be a couple of PILLS from her black raincoat and SWALLOWS them. Her eyes FLUTTER for a moment]


Um, he told me he's Spider-Man's personal photographer. Yeah...

Basically, if you were to make a movie about Peter's life, it would be like the longest, most boring episode of Intervention, ever. His lovely Aunt May and Uncle Ben try to reach out to him after his parents' mysterious death. But Peter's selfishness and near-clinical forgetfulness not only lead to Uncle Ben's horrific shooting death, they also prevent him from spending, like, any time with his aunt in the following days.

Peter freaked out after Ben died and was determined to get revenge on the Lars Ulrich-looking motherfucker who shot him. So he spent weeks flying around the city--I mean, he got Spider-Man to spend weeks flying around the city--nabbing purse-snatchers and drug dealers; all of whom happened to have the same ridiculous dirty-blonde hair and asshole sunglasses. Seriously, what are the odds that every petty thief in Manhattan looks like a surf shop stock boy?

My dad tried to explain to him how Spider-Man's busting of petty thieves was screwing up a number of sting operations by the cops--to which Peter gave kind of a "whatever" shrug. Daddy all but kicked him out of dinner, which, I guess, flipped the Snivelling Asshole Apology Switch. That totally turned me on, though, and we ended up making out on my roof. Which is where he told me to shut up and dropped the Spider-Man...'s photographer bomb.

But, yeah, aside from being an awesome kisser with great hair, there's absolutely nothing to like about this kid. He has a pretty strong sense of justice, or whatever, but mostly he just seems like a jerk out for revenge. And you've gotta ask yourself: does saving the world and foiling robberies still qualify you for hero-dom if you're horrible to everyone you meet? Jesus wouldn't stand for this shit. Probably would've head-butted my boyfriend with that bitchin' thorn-crown.


[PRIEST leans in again and WHISPERS to GWEN, who NODS and TUGS at her MINI-SKIRT, which has begun to RIDE uncomfortably high for the MOURNERS in the front row]


Too much? This outfit's crazy, right? I don't know who's idea it was to have me dress like a 1960s comic book character for the last three weeks. But, come on! Thigh-high-boots, mini-skirts, and bangs? What am I, a goddamned Fem-Bot?

Okay, maybe at school. Maybe. But not at my job as a scientist/tour guide at a major biochemical research lab, or whatever the hell Oscorp's supposed to be. That shit's just unprofessional. Like, "This is our genetics research division, and if you'll each place twenty dollars here...

[GWEN SNAPS elastic of tall purple stockings against her thigh]


...I'll show you where babies come from!" Please. I'm a Sexual Harassment training video waiting to happen. But I'm, like, smart, or whatever--you can tell by the lab coat--so it's okay.

Speaking of labs, can I just get this off my awesome chest? Say you're a scientist who's gradually transforming into Godzilla and you have an office full of secrets that you don't want your Charles Foster Kane-like boss to uncover. Say you've just walked into your office and found a nosy photographer kid examining the mutagen tubes you've left out on your desk for some reason. If you two have a fight in which you all but come out to each other as being super-powered god-men, would you then leave your own office with your nemesis still standing amongst important papers, canisters, and hidden lizard/rat experiments? Or would you kick Spider-Man out on his scrawny British ass and change all the digital locks in the building?

And why pussyfoot around with this kid, anyway? He's a proven public menace, and has demonstrated a level of over-the-top clumsiness that can best be described as "Super-strength Borat". Why not just kill him on the spot? Is it because he's the son of your former partner? The one you may or may not have sold out years ago, who may or may not have been murdered in an "accidental" plane crash? I never got the answer to any of these big questions, even though Peter started out telling me how important all this was to making his story interesting.

I mean, um, Spider-Man's story interesting.

[PRIEST leans in again and WHISPERS to GWEN, while also TAPPING his watch]


The point is, my dad was the only person in this drawn-out, convoluted, wholly un-engaging love story masquerading as a summer blockbuster that actually displayed a combination of heroism, logic, and decency. I think he helped out Spider-Man because he knew he wasn't capable of taking down the lizard on his own--not out of any love for the head-case in the long underwear. I really wish it was Spider-Man who'd been run-through with the giant lizard claws instead of Daddy. The streets would be safer, and I wouldn't be trapped in a weird love triangle between Peter and a promise he made to my old man to stay away from me.

Not that it matters. Knowing Pete, he'll break his word in about two days, tops. Next thing I know, I'll be hanging from a bridge somewhere, at the mercy of another costumed freak. But it's love, you know? What can you do?

So, yes, let's remember my dad, Captain Stacy. Cop. Father. Part-time, chain-smoking comedian. Hater of sniveling emo kids whose idea of justice involves beating people that've wronged him to within an inch of their lives. 

And here's to my boyfriend, Peter Parker, a petty, bullied bully who'd probably be in jail right now if not for his amazing tongue and my father's connections on the force. Thank you for coming, everybody. And remember to rent Crazy Stupid Love.

[GWEN TURNS woozily, FALLING into the open plot. She CRACKS her skull on the casket. FADE TO BLACK]


Left of the Dial (2005)

Prism Planet

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.

--Will Rogers

It's impolite to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table. If the same goes for film reviews, I'm probably a rude son of a bitch. Here, there, and everywhere, I've peppered my critiques with personal biases--sometimes, I'm sure, where they didn't belong.

People bring the sum of their entire human experience with them every time they go to the movies, whether they're conscious of it or not. Contrary to popular opinion, there's no way to experience art without at least subconsciously judging someone or something that has nothing to do with the piece at hand. Were that the case, most critiques would read like this:

"The movie began and ended. Taylor Kitsch and Daphne Zuniga foiled a robbery plot in ninety minutes. The lighting was sufficiently luminescent. The score was slightly intrusive. Two stars."

The key to relative objectivity is being conscious of bias and understanding how one's baggage relates to the thing being observed. It's not a perfect science, of course. Will Adam Sandler's new movie not make me laugh because I'm sure to have seen variations on the same jokes in his last five films? Or will the jokes be new and simply unfunny? Or will they fall flat by offending me? Why would they offend me? Is it my Catholic upbringing? Or my split from organized religion at an early age? And on and on and on.*

You may not understand what rejecting Catholicism has to do with my inability to appreciate certain kinds of fart jokes, just as I might not get why you'll forgive Prometheus' poorly drawn characters, plot holes and lack of coherence--while calling Transformers: Dark of the Moon a stupid waste of time. It all goes back to the unique mental bouillabaisse that comprises perception. 

The point of this preamble (or pre-ramble, as it were) is to give you my perspective on a nigh-unreviewable documentary about Air America Radio, called Left of the Dial. Debuting a year after the first liberal talk radio network took to the air in the hopes of unseating President George W. Bush, Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan's film serves as both a time capsule and a Rorschach test of the viewer's political leanings.

When I first saw the movie, I was a staunch liberal. I'd listened to Air America from day one and was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes antics, crises, and triumphs of progressive firebrand entertainers like Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, Marc Maron, and Rachel Maddow. The film begins with an American heartland montage that plays under incendiary clips of conservative talk show hosts. The message, of course, is that every inch of land between the coasts is full of gun-toting Jesus lovers who need to be rescued from an evil propaganda machine that keeps them voting against their own best interests.

Air America is painted as a hastily thrown together attempt at changing the prevailing Republican message. Principal investor Evan Cohen and his college roommate/attorney, David Goodfriend, assemble name liberal talent to spearhead the launch, many of whom have no previous radio experience. Franken, a legendary Saturday Night Live veteran and wildly successful author of humorous polemics, kicks things off with a two-person chat-fest, called The O'Franken Factor (a very public dig at rival Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor). Following behind are shows that feel very much like human spaghetti tests: the whiny, insecure Maron is teamed with reserved, big-picture thinker, Mark Riley and cold Brit Sue Ellicott; Actress/activist Janeane Garofalo is paired with filmmaker/comedian Sam Seder; Maddow, Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead, and rapper Chuck D also bounce ideas off each other for a few hours on air each day.

The result is an interesting study in the difference between the celebrity liberal, the bookworm liberal, and the rare creature that manages to be both. What's troubling is that Farrelly and O'Callaghan appear to be more in love with their subjects than their subjects' causes. Watching Rhodes throw (justifiable) tantrums because she's been sidelined in the station's promotion is cute the first time; by the third, I just wished the filmmakers had focused less on her penchant for screaming "bitch" at her callers, and more on her struggle to convince listeners that her ideology is correct. Had I not been familiar with Rhodes' show beforehand, I might have wondered how in the world she'd managed to eke out the top spot in Tampa for several years running.

In truth, my statement about the "bookworm" liberal, as it pertains to Left of the Dial, is unfair; I didn't actually gain that knowledge from watching the documentary. That's insight I brought with me from having seen Maddow and listened to Ellicott outside the context of the film. If you have this information going in, you can kind of see a case for their learned positions amidst the chaotic showboating of big personalities. Some of the puffed-chest, tidbit-spewing altercations involving name hosts are downright uncomfortable to watch.

Fear not! Celebrity political culture is only half of the film's focus. The rest is on Cohen's swindling of investors and sly managing of information, which eventually led him to sell the company to a bunch of suckers and former friends who'd just inherited several million dollars of debt. The extent of his dishonesty isn't explained very well; in fairness, this may be due to a lack of available information at the time. But we do see him sweating over a measly $600,000 pledge one moment, and then cheerfully telling someone else that he'd just secured a million-dollar deal.

After weeks of the whole staff not getting paid and affiliates in major cities getting yanked due to bounced checks, acting manager Carl Ginsburg meets with Cohen and some lawyers to sign over the company. I can only attribute the lack of baseball bats and expletives to either some weird form of collusion or a method of super-human restraint that's taught in business school.

Today's lesson: stay out of business school.

Anyway, the kicked puppy that is Air America bounces back and readies for the big 2004 Presidential election. The network's hopes are pinned on getting John Kerry elected, if not for the fate of the nation, then certainly to prove its own relevance. We all know how that turned out, and the film limps along to a melancholy "at least we're still on the air" conclusion. In 2005, this qualified as a happy ending.

Today, however, with a political outlook that's as cynical and anti-partisan as one can imagine, the final moments of Left of the Dial play like a cruel joke to me. Air America lasted another five years, shedding its core hosts and putting on a veritable who's-that of left-leaning talk show personalities before finally giving up the ghost in 2010. Left of the Dial's story stopped before the Bush administration really got going in the scandal department; I wonder how the film's narrative would've been different had the cameras kept rolling through the political ascendancy of Barack Obama?

I can't fault the filmmakers' lack of a crystal ball, of course, but I can cite their inability to make whatever case they thought they were making with this movie. Left of the Dial is kind of about celebrities getting involved with politics; it's kind of about greedy businessmen rushing into supposed big opportunities without checking the credentials of the other people on board; it's kind of about the political climate in 2004.

The problem is, it's not about any one of those things all the time. And the cute manipulations and Michael Moore-style generalizations don't help, either. For example, in the opening montage I described earlier--where we fly through the conservative heartland--how do I know that there aren't progressives living in some of those houses? The trouble with commercial left/right media is the broad strokes with which either side must paint in order to satisfy a listenership/viewership who thinks they want to hear all sides of an issue--but who get impatient when those gray tones seep through. If given enough time, Air America might have become the left's Fox News. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a positive or a negative.

If Air America has a legacy, it's that many of its hosts forged new and exciting careers from its ashes; Maron, Seder, and late comer Lionel took on podcasting. Maddow, of course, became an MSNBC darling; Franken was elected senator in Minnesota. None of that is covered in the movie, of course, which plays like half of the first act of a kind of interesting look at launching a radio network. I recommend it only as a fascination and, if you're a recovering partisan like me, a reminder of the embarrassing things we loved in our youth.

*Even now, I'm expressing bias by assuming Adam Sandler's new movie won't be funny. Though some might call that "psychic ability".