Saturday, November 23, 2002

8 Mile. I saw the Eminem movie last night, and it's pretty damn good. I expected no less of it, of course, on the strength of its director, Curtis Hanson. I'm really looking forward to seeing where his career takes him. He's done three major films (that I know of, anyway), and they're all very good, and they have very little in common with one another. I can't wait to see what he comes out with next.

Anyway, take a look at this review from The American Prospect by Noy Thrupkaew. I've seen a lot of reviewers make this mistake, but this one makes it loudly: this film is not about music. Thrupkaew compares 8 Mile to Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, and Glitter. That's wrong. Forget the music, focus on the competition. This film is The Karate Kid with freestyle rap. That's the comparison you need to make in order to work through the themes. Of course, it's a much more mature movie than that old Ralph Macchio vehicle, but it has some themes in common. It's about finding acceptance by beating your enemies at their own game. It's about taking the pain around you and using it to your advantage, both offensively and defensively. Music is a beautiful subject for a movie (though I would suggest Shine rather than Glitter), but not this movie. Music is merely the arena, the particular sport through which the social and personal tensions of the antagonists will do battle.

And freestyle rap is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of movie, much better than karate. Karate comes down to brute, physical force. I don't care what kind of spirituality Mr. Miyagi brings to it, at the end of the day, you're trying to batter the living shit out of your opponent. Rap is no less brutal, but it's entirely non-physical. It allows for a direct battle not between people's bodies (fists and muscles struggling against one another), but between people themselves. Rabbit is totally exposed as he stands on stage in the beginning of the film, and utterly vulnerable, and he fails. By the end of the film, when he (obviously) vanquishes his foe, he is the acknowledged champion. What happened in the meantime? Did he practice? A little, but not much. Instead, he went on an emotional rollercoaster for two weeks, torn between his friends, his family, his job, his girl. He was emotionally battered day after day in a variety of ways froma variety of sources, and he stood on the edge between going for his dreams and giving up forever.

When he steps onto the stage again at the end of film to do battle once again, he is a different person. This film is almost like a condensed coming-of-age story. In two weeks Rabbit goes from young and fucked up to mature and in control of his own life. Will Rabbit go on to achieve rap super-stardom? I don't know. He may decide he doesn't even want to. Because this movie, and this character, are not about rap. Rap is just an entertaining and interesting framework for presenting a very ancient, human, personal story of challenge, failure, growth, and redemption.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

The Fiscal Crisis in the States. I've wanted to write about this for a while now, but instead of writing a huge long post of my own, I'll just point you to Bob Herbert's column in today's New York Times. My own state is facing a serious budget crisis, caused by an unfortunate confluence of events. The previous Republican Administration blew a whole in the budget, and was able to keep it in balance only through fiscal conjuring tricks, many of which were against the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. But she's gone to kick up her heels at the Environmental Protection Agency, and our new governor is a Democrat. He was elected in 2001, long after the economic decline had begun. Needless to say, the national economic crunch just made the budget situation that much worse.

This isn't limited to New Jersey. As Herbert's column explains, this is a national problem. Since the economy has gone south, states are getting less and less tax revenue. And, unlike the federal government, most states don't have the luxury of running "short-term" deficits. They MUST balance their budgets. This means that states facing huge deficits right now (i.e., most of them) will be forced to raise taxes and/or cut government services in order to make up the budget shortfall. We all know, thanks to the Economics-Professor-in-Chief George W. Bush, that raising taxes during a recession is "the worst thing you could do". What Bush didn't bother to tell us is that cutting government services is just as bad.

And keep in mind how dependent the national economy is on the various economies of the states. There isn't some entirely separate federal economy isolated from the fifty state economies. They are all interdependent. This is exactly why the Super Bush Tax Cut for the Rich of 2001 was such an insane folly. When you're in an economic downturn, or even a recession, and you want to cut taxes, the whole point should be to stimulate the economy. Bush's tax cut had a negligible stimulative value, but it did further depress state tax revenues (because many states have tax laws which directly piggy-back onto federal laws, so changing one changes the other), which makes it more likely that states will be forced to raise taxes and/or lower services, which will have an anti-stimulative effect. To appreciate the full insanity of Bush's economic plan, you must remember that, when it became clear that deficits were here again, the White House decided to save money by cutting payments made to the states. These payments are like big grants that the states use to run their welfare or medicare programs. Cutting those payouts has the same anti-stimulative effect.

Think about it. I know that no one has an economic magic wand. But does anyone think it's possible that the reason our economy is still languishing is that every step Bush has taken claiming to help has actually hurt?

I said Bush's policy was insane. But maybe not. From Herbert's column: "There are those who have long dreamed of the day when governments would be so drained of revenues they would have no choice but to call a halt to many of their functions. The realization of that dream is getting closer, in part because its tragic implications remain obscure to vast segments of the public served by those governments."
The Bond Project: Live and Let Die. Don't freak out on me now, but I honestly think that this movie has the single worst Bond theme of all time. Not that it's a bad song... it isn't. It's a much better song than "Thunderball", for instance. But it just doesn't work as a Bond theme. Even worse is when the musical themes crop up in the film's incidental music. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong. Honestly, I rarely notice music in a movie one way or the other, but the music in this one is so out of place it draws attention to itself, and I just can't ignore it.

Unfortunately, that is the smallest of the film's problems. Basically, this movie is a mess from start to finish. As a debut for the brand new Bond, Roger Moore (who was, incidentally, Iam Fleming's first choice for the role back when the franchise started), it's bad, bad, bad. This has to be one of the flattest, least interesting portrayals of the character in the entire series, and as an antidote to Connery's "phone-it-in" performance (he seems to have lost his zeal for the part between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice), it is a complete failure. But again, it doesn't stop there.

The story is hideously overcomplicated, and also dull. First of all, we've got two villains, Mr. Big and Kananga, who turn out to be the same person. Ok, fine. But this could have been handled a lot better. We've barely met Mr. Big by the time the revelation hits us, so it doesn't have much shock value. It's actually a relief, because it simplifies the story considerably. But we've also got no fewer than three henchmen: Tee-Hee, Baron Zamedi, and Whisper. None of them are terribly interesting. The Baron gets a lot of screen time, due to his particular eccentricity, and I must confess to a certain fondness for Tee-Hee, but none of them really catch hold. As for the supporting cast, the acting is uniformly atrocious, even from actors who would turn out to be fairly talented later in their careers.

But let's back up a bit. Bond is sent to investigate the mysterious death of a fellow agent. He uncovers a fiendish plot by Kananga to dump loads of heroin into the United States, and distribute it without charge in order to get people addicted. It's not exactly a brilliant plan, but then, Kananga is not a very sharp dude. Obviously, he falls in to that age old trap of all Bond villains (wonderfully spoofed by the Austin Powers franchise) where, for inexplicable reasons, he decides not to kill Bond when he has the chance. But more than that, he seems to put total faith in a psychic named Solitaire. Ok, the Bond films had certainly become a bit fanciful by this point, but voodoo? Tarot cards? A villain who can't be killed? It's all a bit silly really.

The best thing about this film is Felix Leiter, although he doesn't get much to do. The role is played, this time, by David Hedison, and on the strength of his performance in License to Kill, he became for many people, including myself, the best Leiter of all. He's also the only actor to play the role more than once.

Honestly, this film is wretched, and I haven't even commented on the manner of Kananga's death yet. I don't think I can even bear to recall it. But I don't want to wrap-up without talking about "fan-favorite" Sheriff J. W. Pepper. Apparently, this moronic caricature was very popular with the fans, which is why he was brought back in the next film. This popularity is the single most damning indictment of Bond fans imaginable. That anyone could find that hideously cliched, utterly superfluous, and tediously unfunny character to be an asset to this, or any, film is quite beyond me.

The bottom line: Right down there with Diamonds Are Forever as one of the worst of all time. Don't worry, they do get better.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Two Years of Economic Stewardship The economy really started slipping just over two years ago now, in October 2000. As you all remember (and as Republicans reflexive mention at every opportunity) the President of the United States in October 2000 was Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton had three full months to correct the economic downturn, and it must be said, he didn't do a very good job.

Thank goodness (or should I say, thank SCOTUS) that George W. Bush weaseled his way into the White House. Bush has had about twenty-two months to deal with the downturn, so, no doubt it's all smooth sailing now, right? Hmm, no, according to these numbers from the Economic Policy Institute (with thanks to The Hamster), we've actually lost 1.8 million jobs in the last two years. Surprisingly enough, the job market has gotten worse and worse since Bush took over.

So my question is: when does this stop being the "Clinton" recession? How long does Bush have to try to fix it before he starts getting blamed for failing to fix it? Another two years, at least, I'll wager.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Proof, As If Any Were Needed. Roger Ailes, "respected" "journalist" and head of the Fox News Channel, apparently sent a personal memo to Bush offering advice after 9/11. Well, doesn't that just say it all. Fox News Channel. We Report. You Believe Us. Suckers.
I Should Have Seen It Coming. In Woody Allen's upcoming film Anything Else, Woody's romantic interest will be played by Christina Ricci. Somehow, that just seems right. For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, at the time of the film's release, Allen will be 68 and Ricci will be 23.

Anyway, if I ever finished these damned Bond films, I'm going to launch a similar ongoing project of Woody Allen's films. I'll start with Annie Hall, because I don't think any of his previous films bear watching again. Also, I'll reserve the right to skip some of his films, because there's so damn many of them. Still, it's a neat idea. I mean, Annie Hall was released in 1977, which is when I was born. Since then, there's been (give or take) one Allen film for every year I've been alive. Not that that means anything. So why did I bring it up?

Good question. Damn.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Who Says Dems Have No Ideas? Gene Sperling (no, not the Hair Club for Men guy) has a pretty good compromise plan for how to scale back the estate tax and help protect Social Security. I call it a compromise because the estate tax shouldn't be scaled back... not one whit. In these times of economic struggle and a budget that looks redder than Chairman Mao, this country is being asked to provide a tax cut to the wealthiest 2% of Americans, when we can't find enough money to provide unemployment insurance to the more than 5% who don't have jobs. That's like getting down to your last ten bucks, skipping dinner, and buying a $300 DVD Player. Trust me, I'm irresponsible with money. I know what it looks like. It looks exactly like the Bush economic plan.

Anyway, Sperling used to be Clinton's economic advisor from 1997 to 2001. Check out his idea here. As with any good Democratic compromise, it's good enough policy to be an improvement over the White House plan, but not so good that Republicans couldn't vote for it. Nevertheless, I don't expect it ever to see the light of day. Why should Republicans want to help Social Security? Republicans hate Social Security! [Except during elections, as shown here.]
Woodward's New Book. Famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, who is still trading on his career-making work with Carl Bernstein from thirty years ago, is coming out with a new book called "Bush at War". The Washington Post is promoting the book with excerpts. Not all of it is very flattering to Bush, and get ready for the Republicans to start talking about Woodward like he's a dyed-in-the-wool inside-the-Beltway liberal. Get ready for it, but don't believe it. First of all, Woodward gave Bush a journalistic blow job a while back with his reporting on the White House response to September 11. Going back even earlier, Woodward is no stranger to these contemporary political histories, and the Clinton Administration was pretty pissed off with the way he protrayed them in The Agenda, a brilliant book about Clinton's first year in office (which shows, incidentally, just how much credit Clinton and (especially) Gore are owed for the economy).

When reading this piece from yesterday's WashPo about the internal struggle between Colin Powell and Cheney/Rumsfled to determine Bush's Iraq policy, I was reminded of the struggle in the Clinton White House to determine Clinton's economic policy. There are a lot of differences, though. The squabbles in Clinton's White House were played out in the press, and it resulted in a huge loss of credibility that contributed to the Republican midterm sweep of 1994. The battles in the Bush White House have been kept, mostly, out of the press, probably due to ruthless message control and fierce internal loyalty (two priceless assets for any administration to have, and rare). Of course, the fact that the press is reluctant to ever criticize Bush for anything helps a lot.

But what really struck me by the comparison between the Clinton battles and the Bush battles is how little Bush seems to be involved in the battle for his own policy. I must admit, I am impressed that Bush ad-libbed a pro-UN line into his Sept. 12 speech (after an old copy of the speech was fed into the teleprompter which didn't include the line.... hmm, how could such a disciplined and well-managed White House operation make such a bone-headed blunder?... I wonder...). I mean, first he realized that the line should have been there, but wasn't. Then, he decided, with no one there to hold his hand, to put the line back in. He flubbed it, obviously, but it's still pretty impressive for a man who, otherwise, wasn't big on small but vitally important policy details.

Despite this small point of real leadership (i.e., correctly remembering, at the spur of the moment, which advisor to agree with), Bush seems incredibly out of the loop of the tough, daily,hard-work business of government. Cheney is clearly up to speed (so much the worse), but I can't tell the difference between "working" Bush, "vacationing" Bush, and "working-vacationing" Bush. Whereas Clinton was never very far from a crucial policy debate in his adminstration, Bush is never very near to them. And that, my friends, is why "having smart people around him" isn't good enough to compensate for a president who isn't very smart. Clinton also had smart people around him, but he had the intelligence to make his own decisions based on their conflicting advice. Oh God, I miss him.

Anyway, keep reading the Woodward piece. It's worth it.