Happy 49th Birthday Nigeria! Yes – Hollywood Still Hates You!!

October 1, 2009

Ahh – if anything could draw me from my 9-month blogging hiatus it is the patriotic love of country that can only be inspired by her Independence Day and unmitigated xenophobia as only Hollywood could perpetrate.

49 years ago today, the proud nation of Nigeria threw off the shackles of British tyranny (I know my American friends know what I’m talking about, right? My Canadian and Scottish friends, you can dream) and all was right in the land. For 3 whole years. Then a coup, then a presidential assassination in the next one, and before we knew it we were at each others’ throats in civil war (once again – my American friends, right?). As great opportunity, resources and wealth were squandered by greed and uncurbed stupidity, the glory of October 1, 1960 was lost and steeped in irony.

You see, the Brits see ‘relinquishing control’ slightly differently from the rest of us. It’s like hijacking a plane and, after the pilot dost protest much for several hours, you relinquish control – but only after you’ve ripped out the instrumentation panels, set a collision course for a high-rise and jumped out, taking all the parachutes with you. Yes, the colonial masters were worse than terrorists. They were dicks.

Smug dicks

Smug dicks

‘Nigeria’ was never meant to exist in its current form (and certainly not with that name, which Lord Luggard’s no-doubt put-upon and hilariously fat, bored bride conjured from ‘Niger Area’). The Brits – and other self-serving globetrotting Western powers – had a fondness for drawing up borders for shits and giggles, regardless of history or tribal relations, and then fucking around with the power structure to keep the savages in line (which worked brilliantly in post-Belgium Rwanda). Nigeria was a powderkeg waiting to erupt. Heck, there should be accolades for still managing to function @ this time. It’s like the Empire State Building remaining aloft even though they built the foundations of bamboo standing in quicksand.

You’d think we’d at least not be horridly put upon after the West made us touch our toes before pantsing us and drilling us senseless for resources. Hollywood though would rather ignore this, as racial stereotypes are far more fun than actually being honest and empathetic.

I caught my first unflattering presentation of Nigeria on TV, the universal testing ground for acceptable standards. In an episode of The District, a police officer argued he wasn’t racially stereotyping when he pulled over a black man in an SUV, because Nigerian drug dealers in D.C. happen to be fond of such vehicles.

The Shield, the best cop show since Homicide (and the best drama on TV in a decade) saw Mackey and friends on the trail of some Nigerians in Season 4 who had been contracted to kill a couple of cops. ‘Contracted’ being a hypothetical term, since these guys didn’t quite strike me as being literate enough to sign a contract.

Then came Commander-In-Chief, a show that inspired so much support for having a tough female president that everyone gleefully overlooked insipid and nonsensical plotting and Donald Sutherland criminally wasted as an abrasive Speaker of the House who flaunts his sexism the way people do their Bentleys. In the pilot, Madam President forces the Nigerian Prime Minister (we have a President, people) to hand over a girl sentenced to death under Sharia law for adultery. But Wikipedia calls out the show on a host of glaring inaccuracies, never mind the fact that that has so far not happened under Sharia law, which is only adopted in a handful of ‘rogue’ states (I wasn’t kidding when I said this wasn’t supposed to be one nation). When Wikipedia is more accurate than you are, it’s time to move on to where your skills will be better appreciated. Like chartered accountancy.


There was a time when Bruce Willis was cool and excelled at badassery. Then he lost his mojo and his hair and did Tears Of The Sun.

This half-baked piece of Hollywood rewriting history had Nigeria in a modern-day civil war, and so Bruce Willis leads a fistful of Marines in to save Maria Bellucci from being raped by savages (can’t have a mixing of the species, no can we?) and in the process risks life and limb to save the last prince of the Igbo people from the pursuing militia (tireless automatons that make Orcs look personable). There are so many, many things wrong here. When 24 tried the whole ‘heroic white man saves helpless Africans from murdering Africans’ they were sensible enough to make up the generic country Sangala. It shows how ruthlessly idiotic that Tears (and Hollywood)  are if they are less culturally sensitive than a show that takes pride in proving the most reliable (if un-PC) way to curb terrorism is to eradicate Islam and Arabs.

Tears Of The Sun left me feeling as unclean and frustrated as if I’d just crawled through mankind’s rectum only to pop out of its asshole and find myself an extra in Two Girls One Cup (which was, admittedly, a far more compelling and honest tale than “Bruce Willis saves Africa – from herself!”). Like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I never thought it would be topped.
Now with caramel!
Now with caramel!

The otherwise entertaining – if heavy-handed and cartoonishly violent – District 9 gets it all wrong when it slips from allegorical to horrifyingly xenophobic. Tears really only wanted to shoot shit up real good, and didn’t care where – or who – it was. That’s narrow-minded insensitivity, ignorance and more than a dash of rampant stupidity. District 9 proves that’s child’s play by going out of its way – jeopardizing story, characterization and plot – to take a liberal (and libelous) shit on Nigeria.

It's like 'Two Girls One Cup', with less love and sharing. And more shit.
It’s like ‘Two Girls One Cup’, with less love and sharing. And more shit.
Now Nigerians are migrant ‘Area Boys’ who lord over District 9 with manic zeal and laughably generic accents. They resort to witch doctors and have an appetite for cannibalism that will – allegedly – infuse them with superpowers (more believable than half of Marvel’s stable, but that’s beside the point). They’re one-dimensional barbarians. This thing takes place in South Africa – WHY IN GOD’S GOOD NAME DO THEY HAVE TO BE NIGERIAN?? Maybe making them black South African would leave the film open to criticism; better pick a people that have nothing but detractors. Cue feeble-minded Nigerians.
District 9's Nigerians have developed a taste for white meat with a side of Prawn

District 9's Nigerians have developed a taste for white meat with a side of Prawn

It’s made a lot more disturbing by the fact that Blomkamp, the director, is a white South African, meaning he either is comically aloof of the racial tensions that exist within his country and the continent at large, particularly concerning a very injurious history that South Africa and Nigeria are on opposite, but equally damaged, ends of the spectrum of, or he’s a modern day D.W. Griffiths. Which is fine cos, as Hollywood will let you know, Griffiths was a genius. And, as George Clooney will let you know, Hollywood’s highly progressive (they gave an Oscar to a black woman! For playing a maid!). The fact that Birth Of A Nation is racist propaganda that argues the segregation of (and dangers from) black people should not cloud its epic scope and technical achievement. After all, that’s what art’s all about.

Now excuse me while I go lobby for Mein Kampf to become required reading for ages 6 thru 12.

Nigeria: Land of the Free(loaders) and home of the brave (you have to be to live there); I still love you shaa

Nigeria: Land of the Free(loaders) and home of the brave (you have to be to live there); I still love you shaa



December 31, 2008
The Borg, whose place in popular culture is assured (despite the obsessive need to ‘assimilate’ people) thanks to the phrase “Resistance is futile,” got it only half-correct. As cracked.com famously – and brilliantly – pointed out, Man-At-Arms (he of He-Man fame) had to try to fight off the sodomites even though he was surrounded and outnumbered in jail, because “to give in passively to a prison-rape would be to die a little inside”.

My best friend’s little brother was in a serious car accident last night or early this morning. Now this is a kid I haven’t seen in years, so suffice it to say that he’s not such a kid anymore; still, it seems I shall always see him as such, regardless. I recall being intrigued by her family, and liking them very much – especially her mom and her two little brothers, despite their natural tendency to cause her trouble, as little brothers are often wont to.

So imagine my abject horror when, about two years ago, Valerie told me that her littlest brother – let’s call him Daniel, say – may have either cancer or Crone’s disease. Cancer to me was the biggest villain of the 20th Century (Mr. Hitler can go fuck his crazy-ass self), the deus ex machina of the real world (i.e. the borderline incurable disease with nary a root cause that life kills you with when you’ve dodged every other bullet known to man). The other was rare enough that neither my mother – a lifelong health professional – nor my many seasons of watching House M.D. could inform me about. Talk about a choice between a kick in the nuts and a punch in the throat.

I researched Crone’s, as I am wont to do, but to what end, really? Was I hoping to find an online concoction that would be the mysterious cure that doctors had all but overlooked, because they were glued to their soap operas instead of researching Wikipedia? No, I can’t save myself, let alone save someone else, and that’s an infuriating fact of life.

It turns out that Daniel didn’t have Crone’s, or cancer, which was a big relief, no doubt especially for Valerie, who was hundreds of miles away in Scotland; I don’t dare imagine how overwhelming the sense of powerlessness must have been. But since that happy resolution, I have heard snippets of things that are rather upsetting and disturbing – things I shall go into no further detail about for privacy’s sake (yes I can talk about my attempted suicide and my darkest fears and shortcomings because they’re mine). Suffice it to say that it proves that every cloud has a silver lining, and that silver lining is just indicative of a Katrina-style thunderstorm ready to shit-storm on your world.

Which makes me wonder as to the point of it all. Life is hollow without love, and love of course makes one incredibly vulnerable. How do you protect those nearest and dearest to you? How do you ensure they are happy? And how can you truly ever be happy if you can’t be 300% sure that they are truly happy, and vice versa? You can’t control everything they do and that happens to them to make sure that their lives – in this world and the next – meet their fullest potential. And even if you could, what makes you so right? I thought of Chris Reeve last night and I almost cried. Few will argue that he wasn’t a good, strong man, blessed and a blessing, but is that enough? Will his suffering in this life negate any in the next?

Heaven Can Wait is one of those resilient fantasy comedies, probably because it’s supposed to speak to us about how wonderful life truly is. It depicts a life so blissfully perfect that, when it is prematurely and unjustly ended (like any premature and most ‘mature’ deaths are just) he demands it be restored precisely as it was before. But really, what this proves to me is how arbitrary it all is, that one man’s life can be neatly slotted into another’s (or 2, or 3 or 4 or 5, if you count the countless remakes, which seems a contradiction in terms).

I may seem like the wrong person to espouse the pointlessness of existence, given that I – reputedly, there’s no proof – tried to off myself one time. But all I’m saying is how do you live when the propensity for grief and tragedy is so unbearably high – not to yourself but to those around you? (Which is why suicide, while allegedly painless, is irrefutably selfish, ‘cos you neglect the hurt you’d cause). Does anyone have a concrete, no-bullshit answer to that?

My best friend’s little brother has been in a serious car accident. I have no more info except for this. And I cannot comfort or assure her, despite her status on Facebook, despite the early-morning text message today, New Year’s Eve. Despite the fact that I love her more than life, more than myself. Because all I have are words – hollow, echoey, showboating even. I cannot save her (though I’ve tried) – I cannot even save myself. Words are only of significance when directed to the One Person who can help, who can do anything, and that I have done with as much limited ability as is vested in me these days.

But even when praying to God, words alone are simply not enough. And for someone who has had absolutely nothing but words for the longest time, that is a frightening notion.

From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years: Part II

December 31, 2008

The continuation of my Top 10 comic book movie adaptations (once again, the likes of Road To Perdition, American Splendor and A History Of Violence simply exist on such a different plane that I’d rather not consider them in these rankings, as excellent as they are).

5. Spider-Man 2 (**** ½; A-)
This film really surprised me. I saw the first one in theaters and found it a tedious, boring, unimaginative and poorly executed endeavor, and naturally expected more of the same from the second. But it soared majestically on a well-realized love story that became the crux of the film, never mind the rather ridiculous A-story with Doc Ock’s incredibly lame plot. It has gained staying power with its lovely insight into Parker’s real world problems. On top of that it managed the excellent monorail battle, which is one solid action sequence more than either the prequel or the sequel could muster (and the less said about the travesty that is Spider-Man 3, the better).

4. Batman Begins (**** ½; A)
Now this is where the gloves come off. Batman Begins marked the first true live action incarnation of the Caped Crusader on the silver screen – all prior were just flashy impostors dressing the part. Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan gave us a fully realized Bruce Wayne, brimming with palpable and gripping angst that carried over fantastically into the psyche of the Dark Knight himself, finally giving audiences an inkling of what it was for him to do what he does. There have been endless complaints about the cutting and shooting of the action sequences, but I’m having none of it: that’s the way I’ve imagined Batman handing out his beatings (it just sucks when you see it in IMAX). On top of that, it’s perhaps the best plotted film on this list, and the pyramid scheme of multiple villains (knock off one to find another bigger and badder underneath) is very richly orchestrated. Definitely took its cues from the best origin story of all (see #2).

3. Superman II (*****; A)
This is the near-perfect blueprint of what a sequel should be: more of the same, but bigger. It fleshes out the Lois-and-Clark love story, introduces us to a troika of villains as powerful as our esteemed hero, and raises the stakes from saving California to saving the Earth. This is the Godfather Pt II of superhero movies – on par with the original on so many levels, but just missing that very negligible X-Factor that will always make it a second generation. But what really stops this film from being the A+ that it should have been, is knowing what this film could have become. Director Richard Donner had shot the bulk of this but was fired to be replaced by Richard Lester (a shared first name was about as close as these two came to matching talents), he who wrought upon us Superman III. Do yourself a favor and pick up Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut; there are one or two inferior elements there, but everything else is on a grander, more incredible scale. And even in its rough cut, the climactic interaction between Jor-El and Superman (sans his superpowers) is absolutely heartbreaking.

2. Superman (*****; A+)
The film that started it all, and that for 30 years held the top spot uncontested; I naturally expected that would never change. It took its subject matter seriously, creating a fully-fleshed out universe where you could honestly believe a man can fly. It’s almost three movies in one: the opening on Krypton, the second phase in Kansas (I remember being so fascinated and so moved by this part, especially around Father Kent’s death), and the bulk of the story in Metropolis. And these boast three different tones, with three different looks, that blend into a delicious, mind-boggling whole. Whether it’s simple but spectacular set pieces (the helicopter rescue, the pursuit of the nukes, spinning the world on its axis) or the well-plotted narrative that focused on character above all else (Clark in Kansas, or Superman’s midnight flight with Lois), it worked on level few blockbusters could. And the music – who could forget the music? Easily John Williams’s greatest ever score, from the Krypton theme to the main title to the incredibly moving Love Theme (‘Can You Read My Mind’?); all this showed that this was the kind of superhero movie that would (and perhaps could) never be undertaken again. And there’s no justice without mentioning Christopher Reeve’s bravura performance as Kent/Superman – you’ve got to watch carefully to realize the slight of hand and amazing ability he brings into the role. Watching his physical transformation (that encompasses emotional and psychological) when he contemplates spilling the beans to Lois? Priceless. It’s the best bit of casting since they got Brando as the Godfather, and the best acting ever in a movie like this (until the next, equally tragic case, 30 years on).

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

1. The Dark Knight (*****; A+)
There’s not possibly enough I can say about this movie. It’s epic; it’s personal; it’s brooding; it’s thrilling; it’s violent; it’s hopeful. What it is not, however, is just another blockbuster. From its phenomenal score (of course no threat of comparison to Maestro Williams’s Superman symphony) to its phenomenal cast’s phenomenal performances to its ridiculously epic (in a great way) set pieces to its well-oiled plotting, deep-seeded themes and impactful emotional resonance, there’s little this cinematic achievement is lacking. Nolan has done the unthinkable among beloved indie directors: top even his most cherished low-budg masterclasses with a gigantic spectacle of a summer blockbuster. It represents genuine hope for the future – that big-budget blockbusters can be crafted with indie flick thoughtfulness and sensibilities: caring for characters, justifying their every controversial move, fleshing out the world they inhabit and drawing strong parallels to ours. It is the most intense blockbuster I’ve ever seen in theaters; probably one of the most intense and relentless ever. Once it gets its screws into you, it doesn’t let up or let go, and returns haunting you, with resonance and sometimes heartbreaking clarity, long after the lights have flickered off the screen. Here’s to 30 years (at least) at the top of the food chain; Superman has (barely) lost to a very worthy adversary, and it might take just as long if not longer for such a realistic and sustained challenge to rear its head. Yes, I said it: these two films represent quality that’s almost once-in-a-lifetime, so enjoy them as you’re privileged to. Chris Reeve and Heath Ledger (among a worldful of others) never got to.

From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years

December 24, 2008
It took 30 years, but Superman, director Richard Donner’s seminal 1978 superhero saga – and my favorite film of that year – has been toppled from the top of the standings of the genre it founded. By Christopher Nolan’s sweeping morality play/action-adventure masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly) The Dark Knight.

Coming up with my favorite comic book adaptations is a bit tricky, given the presence of films like American Splendor and Road To Perdition which are, let’s face it, real movies (most of the others, with the exception of my Top 4, can’t comfortably claim that). So I’ll leave the non-fantastical out and label them honorable mentions (alongside the surprisingly endearing combo of Hellboy/Hellboy 2).

10. Batman Returns (*** ½; B+)
A huge favorite of mine when I was a kid, my taste in it waned a bit as I fell more and more in love with the comic book incarnation and recognized layers of depth Tim Burton couldn’t be bothered unearthing (with his focus on garish sets and fetishistic nipple-bearing costumes, Joel Schumacher couldn’t be bothered with anything at all).

9. X-Men II: X-Men United (*** ½; B+)
Much better than its solid predecessor (and much better in hindsight after seeing Brett Ratner’s atrocious third entry), this exciting and intelligent film was still missing a spark, a secret ingredient of some sort…oh to hell with it – it was missing its X-factor. There, I said it.

8. Batman (****; B+)
I suddenly feel conflicted naming this one ahead of Returns. Maybe my memory’s a bit fuzzy and I’m mixing up my love for both (the more I think about it, the more likely it becomes). I would’ve gone back to watch them to make sure, but Christopher Nolan’s kinda burned those bridges now. After his Batman movies, “there’s no going back”; he’s “changed things forever…” Ok, I’ll stop now.

7. Sin City (****; A-)
Rodriguez’s stylish noir jaunt is the auteur’s best film since his debut: hard-boiled, hard-fisted, and wonderfully shot and cast. Its three-story structure is a bit of a flaw, but at least it opens with a bang with the audaciously over-the-top and awesomely cool Marv, proving that Tarantino isn’t the only one gifted at single-handedly resurrecting film careers from the grave. Act II is its weakest by far, before Bruce Willis taps into one of his more affecting performances in a lifetime (plus Jessica Alba doesn’t suck! How shocking is that!)

6. Blade II (**** ½; A-)
Is that shock I register on your face? Well pick up your jaw and revisit this bloody vampiric action tale and you’ll realize it does more than pass muster. Wesley Snipes is perfectly cast (as he was in the first one), but the introduction of Guillermo Del Toro at the helm raises the style and furious pace to borderline unbearable highs. Add a wickedly cool yet tragically sympathetic villain, a decidedly badass (and pre-Hellboy) Ron Perlman, some excellent plotting and slick fisticuffs, plus a near-heartbreaking finale, and you’ve got the perfect template for the legendary vampire hunter. Before David Goyer emasculated him and handed the third film over to two pretty white people. The horror.

I’ll finish with my Top 5 after Christmas, but will leave you with some excerpts from Roger Ebert’s review of Blade II – not to bolster my case, but merely because this man’s a writing genius, and for him to exert those energies on a film like this pleases and tickles me senseless:

Blade II” is a really rather brilliant vomitorium of viscera, a comic book with dreams of becoming a textbook for mad surgeons. – Roger Ebert

"Pure action, bloody well done" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Pure action, bloody well done" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – Would *You*?!

December 20, 2008
There comes a moment when watching Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the surreal comedy-fantasy from writer Charlie Kaufman (ok, fine, and director Michel Gondry) when the wonderment ends (or at least pauses) and the wondering begins. Wondering, if such a controversial procedure was available (and safe, and legal, and affordable, and didn’t void one’s health insurance policies, etc), would you sign up for it?

The procedure in question involves erasing certain painful memories, in this case, a subdued Jim Carrey’s memories of his tumultuous relationship with a feisty Kate Winslet. Not just the bad parts – everything. Forgetting the good parts, the quiet parts, the sexy parts (who’d want to forget sex with Kate Winslet?), or that she even existed. It’s a big ask.

We’ve all had that one relationship that seared its way into the very fabric of our being, so that when it ended (badly, as it must) you can’t wash the feel or smell or memory of your person, no matter how many bars of Lux you go through. (Or, if you’re one of the hypothetical lucky bastards out there not reading my blog, you married her. And I hate you for it.)

Well I’ve been there (sorta, just without the feel or smell part), and while it seemed an interesting idea at the time, I was just too ridiculously fond of this person to want to erase her entire existence. But that was 3 years ago, and I still feel as strongly or more so, and the desperation’s making me see the merit in such a solution – for everyone. My cloying neediness has made me a liability, and I worry about my ability to function when around her as what she sees me as: one of her best friends. This closeness – yet so distant from where we were, where I think we could have and maybe even should have been – makes it all the more difficult (it doesn’t help that she fleeting reminds me of Mrs. Winslet).

So after years of hoping and seeing signs and developments that simply weren’t there (hey, I’m not exactly a seasoned pro) driving myself batshit crazy in vain, the straw that broke the camel’s back arrived on July 8th 2008 and culminated with my much-maligned and talked about End-Of-Life-Decision (as cracked.com would put it). After which I did my darnedest to sever all ties with her – for all of 1month. And it was a good month – I cared about nothing, was crass and carefree, the stress and depression lifted somewhat.

But my resolve broke, and we reconnected, albeit now on separate coasts, and I’m back at square one. I awoke late yesterday morning persisted by dreams convincing me that there actually could be a future for us, which buoyed me considerably.

Until I got a surprise phone call from her in the early hours of this morning telling me she’d shelved her long-held dreams to run off to Scotland because she’s found love here, and it seems he could (finally finally finally) be the real thing. Which is superb – as my best friend, I’m beyond delighted for her. But there’s where the schizophrenia comes in, as a part of me is dying a wickedly gruesome and embarrassing death, complete with petulant mewls and involuntary bowel movements. When is enough enough? Has fate not shown me enough times the writing on the wall to turn me into a well-versed scholar? And how can this whiny pining shit coexist with the pillar that’s supposed to be her best friend?

It would be tough – she’s been a critical component of my life for the last 7years, and if nothing else I value her friendship extremely. But, barring a precise lobotomy that would rid me of my pestersome ‘feelings’ for her, would I take the Eternal Sunshine treatment to be rid of it all – and her of me – once and for all? I’m leaning heavily towards a ‘yes’, more so than ever before, because it would be a welcome release (but then who’ll be my muse??) and she won’t have to worry about me going batshit and hurting or embarrassing her again with my ‘feelings’. It’s almost certainly a ‘yes’, but to be responsible, I’d really have to get back to you on it.

Or not, since it’s just a fucking movie. Fuck you very much Messrs. Kaufman and Gondry.

JCVD: An introspective satire of uncommon intelligence and grace (***** out of 5; Grade: A)

December 18, 2008
When the listing came out for the Toronto Film Festival, I was shocked to hear a Van Damme movie would be screening.

JCVD was best described by a Toronto critic as being the sort of film you’d expect if Charlie Kaufman was an avid fan of Bloodsport. A surrealist romp of blazing wit, insight and heartrending honesty, it features the one-time action star Jean Claude Van Damme playing himself (or a version of himself): mocked in the industry and labelled a bad father in court during a custody battle. He returns to Belgium to unwind after the disastrous (but blackly funny) trial before he takes on yet another mundane action film (the scene in which he negotiates with his agent, is an insightful if heartbreaking moment when he reveals his desire to sacrifice financially in order to improve the film in question; it shows how something that must have started off as a quest for fame and fortune has become one for respect).

He is a local hero Belgium, accosted by taxi drivers and store owners for photographs and autographs. But the trip devolves into a fascinating comedy of errors as a bank heist breaks out, complete with a sticky hostage situation, with all signs pointing to JCVD as the perpetrator. As the police, media, and a battalion of adoring fans descend upon the scene, the question arises: could the cash-strapped Van Damme (who just lost a film role to Steven Seagal because Seagal offered to cut off his famed ponytail) be so desperate to raise the money to fight for his daughter’s custody?

The first act unfolds from several perspectives, reminding me a bit of another clever heist film, Sidney Lumet’s under-appreciated Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It may seem a bit like a gimmick at first, but on reflection one realizes the significance in getting the audience to appreciate the varying perspectives surrounding the man (in order to separate him from the myth), and the value in seeing cause and effect reversed. This is probably the strongest portion – emotionally – of the movie, when we get to peer behind the superstardom veil of Van Damme (the 3rd act, by comparison, feels a bit flat – even if the final frame is gold).

The heist puts things into overdrive without ever once becoming an action flick. The effect of this brush with celebrity on everyone – from the cops, to the spectators, to those inside the bank – is fascinating and brimming with comic genius at nearly every turn. The scene when Van Damme is very politely asked to flick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth with a kick is gold; it gets several shades more brilliant when someone else tries to replicate the feat. My personal feat was not falling to the floor from my seat in hysterical laughter.

The revelation here isn’t that the French can make a genre-defying, razor-sharp film, but that a) one could be fashioned around Van Damme, and b) he would live up to his end of the bargain. It is a brave, intelligent, honest, charming performance, from the exasperation during the custody hearing and his disarming desire to placate fans, to his naked regret and worry about the meaning of his life, should it end badly during the standoff.

This brings me to the most daring and divise scene in the movie: JCVD’s floating, piercing and brutally introspective monologue. It is a riveting moment, whether you agree with its use or not, and indisputably the high-point of Van Damme’s career. I’ve always liked the man, in an off-hand kinda way (Universal Soldiers, Timecop and Lionheart are pretty sweet flicks), but this pushed the love-and-respect meter through the roof. It has to go hand-in-hand with the comebacks of 2008: Robert Downey, Jr and Mickey Rourke, neither of which were as surprising as JCVD.

The film opens with a furious, stylish (if mechanical) action sequence done in one seamless shot. JCVD, winded and out of breath, complains that he’s 47 and can’t do these things in a single shot. The aloof director deadpans “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane.” By the time the end credits rolled, writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri had come as close to anyone will probably ever in making a Sidney Lumet film written by Charlie Kaufman.

The Dark Knight comes home

December 18, 2008
It’s been a hectic while away since I posted anything – I moved out west (far, far out west) to start school (again), torn between my freelance script development stint back in Toronto, and then doing all sorts of heinous things to raise money for winter tuition. But it is very fitting to return with another piece on the thing that most changed my life in 2008, and prompted the creation of this blog in the first place: The Dark Knight.

This marked only the second time I’ve purchased a DVD on its release day (the other being The Last Samurai…shhhh!!!) since I was in England when Million Dollar Baby was released (and who needs those DVD region issues?). I picked up a limited edition 2-Disc Steelbook case copy at Future Shop for $27.99 (Cdn), and stepped right next door and saw it on Blue-Ray for $24.99. Now, I’m no fool (oh wait, I am) but I do know a good deal when I see one. Even if I don’t own a Blue-Ray player. So I picked up a copy, and probably won’t open the regular DVD till Christmas (I know, I’m so blasé about the whole thing). I might still end up giving it out, b’cos if reviews of the special features are to be believed, there could be a special special edition coming in the none-too-distant future to stores near you.

The Meaning Of Life (from ‘The Dark Knight’, not ‘Monty Python’)

August 12, 2008

The Dark Knight is the gift that keeps on giving, as I continue to draw inspiration and ideas and concepts from it for my writing, my political and ideological sensibilities, and my personal life. That it would spur my renewed probe into the Meaning of Life is no surprise given the not negligible role it played in averting my attempted suicide some 35 days ago; that, in doing so, it would edge me over the precipice into a full-blown existential crisis is an expected side effect.

The Joker, the film’s magnificent central villain, espouses Chaos as the only fair way to live in the world. Harvey Dent, its impeccable hero fallen from grace, prefers Blind Chance. Neither truly exists in an unadulterated version in our world due to manipulation from the powerful elite in our society, who “make their own luck”. (Chaos negates a powerful elite, but remember that power vacuums are only temporary, and must eventually be filled).

That said Chaos, pure or contained, is the order of our existence, and Chaos is here to stay. In light of this, can life truly have any meaning? Because Chaos negates any true Meaning, the highest worldly calling is to reign in Chaos, which is where peace officers, aid workers and (allegedly) governments come in. Bruce Wayne is all of this in one, answering to a higher calling – the meting out of ‘Justice’ and ‘Order’ and serving the Public Good – than few of us will ever realize. This gives him Purpose, the only true Purpose in life with any concrete meaning: Self-Sacrifice. But what makes his special is scale; he truly lives for it, and if his methods are questionable, his impact is not.

Who else can have such significant or lasting impact on society at large? World leaders are quickly relegated to history books or celebrity fodder when their tenure expires, except when they serve in times of unmitigated Chaos, or – worse – when they cause unmitigated Chaos. It’s hard to swallow – but impossible to dismiss – that leaders or regimes like Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, or the Khmer Rouge have stronger Purpose, greater impact (and by extension more Meaning) than well-meaning ones like Clinton or Carter or even Kennedy (himself magnified by tragedy).

Bruce Wayne’s tortured quest as Batman may give him Purpose, but it doesn’t really give him Meaning, which is why Harvey Dent surmises that Batman can’t want his job forever. Wayne’s hope for Meaning lies in a much more attainable (or not, depending on your outlook) source: Love.

A pivotal moment: he agrees to turn himself in to stop the Joker, and there’s a sense of relief as he asks Rachel if they can now be together. Her response is a telling one:

“Bruce, don’t let me be your last chance at a normal life.”

She is his Love, but she’s also his oldest friend, and understands his heart the way Alfred understands his logical and philosophical machinations.

So it is that I propose the only way to can glean any sense of personal Meaning in this haphazard, chaotic existence is the fulfillment we can only gain from those we love, and those that love us back.

Mind you, I do believe in a Greater Plan, but also accept that on ground level it can only look like Chaos to our untrained eyes. And only in God can we find true peace and fulfillment. My point is that, as a Christian, it’s necessary to care for the overall betterment of people – a quest the Realist in me knows is fundamentally impossible. No matter what we do or believe, bad things will happen to good people, and at times like that, when Meaning and Purpose seem hollow, do we need the fortitude of those we love.

I believe this is why I fell in love, and as my outlook on the Human Condition grows bleaker and bleaker, I become more entrenched in my feelings, desperate for a crutch to lend me stability and guidance. The fact that it hasn’t been requited in a while hasn’t stopped the slide, or the growing ache that has accompanied it. It only makes sense, I suppose – if anything can provide an existence with Meaning, it shouldn’t be easily attainable if at all; that would cheapen the Meaning. I mean, can you seriously see Bruce Wayne quitting cape and cowl to live Happily Ever After with Rachel?

Christians know true Meaning can only be attained through true communion with God, something I’ve found myself woefully short on for years now. Valerie, the appointed LOML, is a devoted, inspiring but humanly flawed Catholic herself, which was perfect: through a Meaningful relationship with her, I’d find a Meaningful relationship with God – a rather reckless notion: Now I was burdening Valerie with the task to literally Save me – my sanity, my spirituality, my sense of being. It’s naïve and unfair – how do you tell someone that? There’s no way she can let you down easy.

Bruce doesn’t voice it, but Rachel senses it, and lets him down – easy. As hard as her loss was on him, it is the impetus to throw himself more blindly into his calling, so Purpose will consume a lack of true Meaning. For me, I’ll admit that my goal of writing and filmmaking are nowhere near as noble or high a calling, but I hope it can be every bit as consuming, to keep me functioning in this existence I am shackled to.

When I opted to kill myself on July 8th, 2008, thinking instead of the impending Dark Knight made me realize something: as Meaningless as life often felt, death was even more so by a landslide. And nothing drove home that point like Heath Ledger.

A promising career, a father and thoughtful soul, cut down in literal prime. Sure, he’s immortalized on screen like few others – his Joker is a vibrant, affecting portrait of sheer genius. There will be accolades, maybe even an Oscar, but so what? It doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone, forever separated from the adulation that he would’ve surely, despite himself, gladly – and deservedly – basked in.

‘Achievements’ are no measure of Meaning. Maybe Love is an oversimplification, but oversimplification could be what’s needed to attack such a large concept. I personally have never felt anything so strong, as to be unbearable – insomnia, anorexia, depression – and because I’ve so mangled it, never want to feel it again. Yes – even if I’ve got Purpose with no Meaning. Better than me have resigned themselves to such a fate.

The last lesson lies in Ledger: for all his very intelligent use of a God-given talent, from where I sit all I see is tragic waste. And from my personal vantage point, Life on Earth as we know it is one frenzied, frenetic activity devoid of Meaning, and then you die.

Realism vs. Idealism: The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight’

August 11, 2008

There is nary a medium like film, that possess the uncanny ability to entertain and enthrall, to move, engage, provoke (thought, feelings, ideas, debate, passions), stimulate, question, answer, provide wake-up calls or flights of escapism, all in the same breath.

The Dark Knight belongs in such a heady pantheon. ‘Message movies’ can often be too preachy/pedantic and heavy-handed; blockbusters are typically stillborn and brain-dead. TDK manages to avoid both, espousing heavy logic and weighty themes while remaining fleet-footed and breathtaking. It’s already inspired me to much thought and contemplation (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve posted can attest to, i.e. no one). But I never thought it would lead me to question the nature – and meaning therein – of life.

It’s quite the weighty concept, so I shall try to explain what I mean. The core is in the dynamic of Batman vs. The Joker, two beings so alike yet so disparate, as well as in the crime-fighting triumvirate of Batman-Jim Gordon-Harvey Dent. In The Joker you have a rare character that is an absolute: no half-measures, no self-doubt or second-guessing; he believes in unbridled, unrestrained chaos. He has no real sense of personal gain, except to mete out his philosophy (which sadly has a degree of merit to it) to the unsuspecting, “civilized” masses.

Batman represents Order, but is by no means unconflicted. Seeking ‘Order’ as a vigilante? That’s a contradiction in itself. But in this character you find one of the great contradictions in modern popular entertainment, an embodiment of the uneasy marriage of Idealism and Realism. He believes in weighty concepts like Justice, Freedom, Honor, and personal codes; these make him an Idealist, because these concepts are really fabrications of a society that knows it has to aspire to be more than mere wild animals and cannot come to the realization that, on a societal scale, they are Subjective and humanly Unachievable. Only a Realist will dare admit how pathetically unmanageable humans as a species are, how basic traits can never be washed out, and how drastic measures must be taken to maintain some measure of Discipline, Harmony, and ‘Order’.

Batman’s voice of Idealism is the beautiful (in either incarnation) Rachel Dawes, the perpetual Assistant DA and his lifelong friend. Lucius Fox (aka head of ‘Q’ Branch) chimes in when Batman unveils a secret surveillance system so comprehensive it would give the entire Bush cabinet woodies for months. But this is Batman the Realist, as spurred on by uber-butler Alfred, his voice of Realism and the person that “knows him [best].”

When The Joker subjects Gotham to a crime wave designed to force Batman’s hand, Alfred advises him to “endure.” Endure, even as people die? Bruce Wayne baulks at this, not because of codes but conscience. Even Rachel can spot this. But ultimately Harvey Dent, an even more layered and complex character – who yells at Batman, “You can’t give in!!” – makes Wayne realize that there is more to Batman than “giving in to the whims of a madman.” Batman does what any person in a position of great power and responsibility must – he keeps his Ideals in check and faces Real World problems with Real World solutions. Debates and codes and ‘honor’ never solved anything by themselves.

Then there is of course Harvey Dent. Lt. Gordon goes as far as labeling himself a Realist (implying Dent is an Idealist), which is interesting because while they both start out that way, neither ends as is. Going above and beyond the call of duty (e.g. faking his death without his family’s knowledge for their protection) displays Gordon’s Realist tendencies. But he loses the plot after the disfigurement of Dent.

Gordon ditches a raid on the whereabouts of The Joker in order to evacuate every threatened hospital in the city and protect Coleman Reese, letting the Idealistic notion of the sacredness of every solitary life overhaul the very Real World answer to the city’s woes: capture (and kill) The Joker. When Batman wants time to precede a later raid on the Joker’s hideout, Gordon disagrees, wailing heartbreakingly, “We need to save Dent! I, need to save Dent…”

Back to Dent. He’s an Idealist par excellence. Nicknamed ‘Two-Face’ for the appetite he nailed dirty cops with, he believes in speechifying and Justice and Hope and Peace; in Nolan’s incarnation, the only character in the DC universe more Idealistic than Dent is the flying boy scout himself, Superman. He believes in Batman’s vigilantism, calling Gotham “proud” and admitting he would be honored to continue the crusade if he’s “worthy.” But he shows Realist tendencies worthy of mention. He alludes to Rome’s system of suspending democracy and handing control to one person in times of crisis, essentially supporting ideas like Martial Law and suspensions of freedoms in the face of grave threats. And later, when he defends Batman to a press conference (Idealistically, I might add), he gives a speech that sounds Idealistic but, at its heart is Realist (things get worse b4 they get better: “The (k)night is always darkest before the dawn.” I could so see G.W. saying that).

Which brings us to the real world. I’ve been reading the most fascinating book: The Coming Anarchy, by Robert D. Kaplan; who knew doomsday prophecies could be so page-turning? It espouses such controversial ideas (most of which I’ve supported since time immemorial) as the pointlessness – nay, the flat-out dangers – of exporting ‘Democracy’ to the developing world, the dangers of peace (and wanting it above all things; just look at Prime Minister Chamberlain’s shameless appeasement of Nazi Germany), and how Idealists debate and teach but Realists must rule. He largely defends uber-Realists Kissinger and Nixon while chiding them for often going too far. And of course, he wins true hero status with me by rightly placing the burden of guilt on the West for majority of the mess in the so-called Third World – from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and Latin America. It’s a harrowing, intelligent, fascinating read.

A Realist's Guide to Doomsday Prophesy

A Realist's Guide to Doomsday Prophesy

From what I can tell, Disaster brings about Realism, Debacle Idealism. WWI was a debacle that “delegitimized” war according to Kaplan (Kaplan points out that, before the 20th century, war wasn’t seen as a bad thing; think of all the things achieved through revolution and battle). This ushered in a phase of Idealism never before seen, which allowed such things as Nazism and Imperialist Japan and, eventually, the USSR to gain an oppressive grip on civilization. WWII was a disaster, a wake-up call, after the most old-school of Realists Winston Churchill had to step in and clean up Chamberlain’s mess (notice that this didn’t stop Churchill from later being ousted, though). The Cold War kept us on our toes, and for the first time in a while the world realized that sometimes, to keep Order and Sanity, you had to do the unthinkable, if it was necessary (that said, I still think The Cold War was blown hideously out of proportion by paranoia and idiocy).

The end of the Cold War made everyone realize just how stupid we were to exist for decades just a hair away from nuclear annihilation; this Debacle led to renewed Idealism, which in turn led to disasters such as the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. But these were still sufficiently far away to induce a lull, leading us to poo-poo such ‘drastic’ anti-terrorism attempts as those weighted against Osama bin-Laden and friends. Of course until the disaster of September 11th.

Harvey Dent, the ‘White Knight’ of Gotham and unflinching crusader, is “brought down to our level” with stunning ruthlessness by The Joker. Does he go off the hinge as in the old incarnations, becoming an outright evil criminal? Not at all – he remains a crusader, logically; what changes is his 180-degree swing from ardent Idealism to murderous Realism. He goes after the dirty cops and the mob – people responsible for his disfigurement and the death of his beloved. Then he goes after Gordon.

Why, you ask? It’s the battle between newfound Realism and newfound Idealism. But the irony is that Realist Dent is punishing Idealist Gordon for mistakes that Realist Gordon made (i.e. trusting a crooked police squad). Dent seeks to shatter Gordon’s belief system(s), and teach him a very cruel lesson that he learned at the hands of The Joker: life is cruel, hard and unfair, and it’s pointless trying to be “decent men in an indecent time.” When Batman points out he doesn’t want to hurt a child to get his point across, Dent answers that it’s “not what [he] want[s], it’s what’s FAIR!!” And that’s true. Because the world is an unfair place, where bad things happen to good people – regardless of what you believe. It’s the true “Chaos Theory,” because ‘true’ ‘justice’ or fairness can only come from chance: “unbiased; unprejudiced…fair.” In this sense Dent – like the Joker – tempers his ruthless Realism with a touch of Idealism.

Dent ends up taking a swan dive, and Batman takes the fall. This is the most crucial part of this thesis. Why does this happen? Merely to give us a deep, dark Empire Strikes Back-esque ending and set up a sequel? You vastly ‘misunderestimate’ this film. Batman has finally – after 2 movies – learned the only way to make grounds in a world that’s as broken, corrupt, and misguided as ours. You’ve got to be a Realist decision-maker, while marketing Idealist tendencies to a lost public.

Kaplan points out how most politicians thrive on selling an Idealistic image to voters, who love someone who stands for their belief systems. But who can actually – effectively – govern that way? Leaders are those able to make tough decisions everyday that we wouldn’t even dare contemplating in a game of ‘Would You Rather?’. It means often doing the unpalatable, for the greater good.

Churchill knew that, and Batman does now, too. Give the people something to believe in (in this case, Harvey Dent) but do what needs to be done if you’re in a position to take the punishment and repercussions. The perfect marriage of Idealism and Realism. Because too much of the former can in itself morph into an unsightly dose of the latter. Just ask Hitler, or if he’s out of reach, try The Joker.

A Tribute To Bernie Mac (and a Tip of the Hat to Isaac Hayes)

August 11, 2008
On Saturday, August 09, 2008, I had just finished feeding my newfound addiction to Toronto’s public libraries and was waiting for my subway train when one of the TV screens on the platform flashed – coldly and briefly, soon interrupted by a callous ad for something or the other – an “entertainment” news story announcing, “actor Bernie Mac, aged 50, dies from complications due to pneumonia.”

I was stunned, the air sucked out of me as I felt the sudden need to take a seat. I realize the irony in being bowled over for the death of a celebrity when a shooting at a mall or something inspires, at worst, a sinking heart and shaking head (to be fair, I’m usually a lot more shaken than that, but that’s beside the point). All I could do was stare in disbelief that someone so vibrant, energetic and hilarious could be taken – with all the advancements in medical sciences – by an age-old killer like pneumonia.

It was the second time in a matter of months that I had misjudged the dangers of such a disease. Frank Lampard’s mother – he of Chelsea FC fame, the biggest hometown rival of my “hometown” football club, Arsenal FC – had taken ill from the disease in the spring, and I thought he should buck up because I was confident she’d survive it. Well, he did but she didn’t, much to my shock. When I read on Thursday or Friday that Bernie Mac was hospitalized for pneumonia, I didn’t even take the time to read past the headline, assuming the media was going into its typical frenzy and he’d surely buck the disease. Maybe it’s because I caught pneumonia when I was a teenager, a pretty bad bout too if the docs are to be believed, but I bucked it without even the specter of hospitalization. I guess what it means is I was really lucky, which, since I don’t believe in ‘luck,’ translates to my being very blessed. For reasons unbeknownst to us – as always – God decided otherwise with Pat Lampard and Bernie Mac, and countless (and faceless) others.

We’d been big fans of the Mac, my brother and I, since way before we knew his name. When we saw him in scene-stealing bits in films like Friday, Booty Call and The Players’ Club (“white men…takin’ all our sistas!”) we’d always gush over him and wonder what his name was (this was pre- our introduction to IMDb). It probably wasn’t until The Bernie Mac Show when his name was forced upon us, and countless Americans as its viewership soared, propelled by an affable nature, a biting wit and penchant for awesome self-deprecation, coupled with great presence and charm.

I had become a big enough fan by the time Mr. 3000 came out that I risked seeing it, despite my dread against films like that. But it surprised me – knocked me out of the park, as it were – with the Mac stronger and better than I’d ever seen him. As I gushed in my review for my university newspaper (****; B+), Mr. 3000 was the platform Mac needed to show off his chops as a leading man, and would hopefully be the career watershed his talent demanded.

Unfortunately that never really seemed to happen. Sure he kept busy, most notably with bit parts in the Ocean’s trilogy – fronted by the A-List triumvirate of Clooney-Pitt-Damon, the whitest leading men in America (don’t get me wrong – I love Clooney and Damon). But one couldn’t help but wonder when he’d get a platform as wide and deserving as Mr. 3000 to strut his abundant stuff.

Alas, it never happened, did it? (As fate would have it, I stumbled upon Mr. 3000 on the library DVD shelves as I scoured for something to borrow, and grinned to myself as I thought how pleasantly surprised I had been when I first saw it. I didn’t know a surprise of a much different nature was waiting 10mins later when I stepped out for the subway).

Is it a matter of unfulfilled talent or dreams? I hope to God not. I, of course, was never privileged to meet the Mac, let alone know him, but I hope, that as God saw fit to recall him at this time, that there was that all-too elusive measure of happiness and fulfillment in his life before his final curtain call. It’s the most we – celebrity or not, rich or poor, all as people, human beings – can really ask for. And so I offer that prayer not just for Mac, but for all that have fallen and continue to fall, religiously, in the throes of life.

God bless and God rest, Bernie Mac.

ADDENDUM: I’ve also learned of the passing of legend Isaac Hayes, an immortal presence from Shaft to South Park. That would merit another post, but I’m honestly too damn depressed.