Monday, June 27, 2016

Men in Black II (2002) - David Cross #17

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Runtime: 88 Minutes           

Everyone remembers the 1997 modern classic, Men in Black.  It ends with agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) asking agent J (Will Smith) to erase K's memory, so he can retire and lead a normal life.  The first act of MIB 2 is mostly about undoing the ending of the first film.  The movie opens with exposition via a public access quality conspiracy tv show, explaining that an evil Kylothian named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) wants to steal the light of Zartha.  It turns out the light is still on earth, and only K knows its location.  

There are a lot of problems with this movie, especially the over reliance on comedic relief characters.  Remember Frank the pug from the first movie, and how funny that one scene with him was?  One scene is really all that you can stand.  Likewise the worms, and the two-headed Johnny Knoxville.

Insert your own "pair of boobs" joke here
Also, the product placement is far from subtle.

All that said, Men in Black 2 isn't really that bad.  I mean, it's pretty bad, but it's not as much of a trainwreck as I remember it being.  I was worried that it would be unwatchable, but much of it is entertaining.  It's a big decline in quality from the first film, but not a completely irredeemable one.


The Cross Section:

David Cross plays Newton, the conspiracy minded nerd who runs a video rental store and lives with his mom.  

This is actually one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which unfortunately does not appear by itself on youtube.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

There are plenty of reasons why such a large portion of all discussion on the internet is nothing more than vacuous bullshit, rote recitation of talking points, and "witty" insults.  There's the fact that the people who feel the need to make every conversation about their pet interest tend to have the least nuanced understanding of that interest, and the least tact.  There's the fact that, because anyone can (and feels compelled to) chime in, any specific issue turns into an us vs. them referendum on a major socio-political issue, even if that issue was only tangential to the original point.  But those of us who are annoyed by this can't stop other people from spending more time complaining about something than actually learning about it.  (I've watched people spend hours arguing about intellectual property law, with arguments that entirely depend upon not having even a surface understanding of the difference between copyright and trademark.)  But there is a mindset we all too easily slip into, one that exacerbates the situation.  Basically, we treat any internet discussion not as a discussion, but as debate club.

Why is this a problem?  Well, how do you win a debate club debate?  The entire purpose of the debate is to convince a third party that your side is right, even if you don't believe your own arguments.  At best, it's organized sophistry. The goal is not to engage with the person you're debating, but to demonstrate to the spectators how wrong he is.   I see too many people I know repost or share things whose message I agree with, but which contain utter bull, who mistake clever one-liners for serious rebuttals of complex opinions, who, in short, focus more on convincing people they are right than arguing in good faith.  Not only is this exasperating, it's also counter-effective.

First we need to honestly appraise what our purpose is in any online argument.  Is the goal to put forth clearly our point of view? To convince the person we're arguing with?  To convince the spectators of the argument that we're right?  And then we must ask "Is this the best way to do this?"  The answer to the latter is usually "no."

One thing that we need to acknowledge is that every group sees itself as not only correct, but as being attacked by social and political forces.  Whether or not this is true is beside the point, but whether we're talking about atheists or fundamentalists, pro-choice or pro-life, conspiracy theorists, laissez-faire capitalists or socialists, civil rights activists or hate groups, all see themselves as fighting against a larger tide.  What I'm about to recommend should be understood to apply only to online interaction, and to have an exception for public figures.

  There's a quote I like from Browne's Religio Medici that is relevant here: "[W]here wee desire to be informed, 'tis good to contest with men above ourselves; but to confirme and establish our opinions, 'tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoyles and victories over their reasons may settle in our selves an esteeme, and confirmed opinion of our own."  It feels good to argue against people who are clearly half-wits.  But does it do any good?  Generally speaking, responses  that are hostile or condescending or contemptuous are going to have the opposite of the effect that you want.  If the point is to persuade people to your way of thinking, does tearing down people who have no interest in the truth accomplish anything?

I should clarify that last statement.  When I say "no interest in the truth," I don't mean anyone who disagrees with you.  Different positions on a lot of major issues boil down to a difference of priorities, or an honest disagreement over an ethical point.  It's entirely possible, and common, for people to look at the same set of data, consider it honestly and with an open-mind, and come to different conclusions.  People who have "no interest in the truth" are disingenuous and they make no attempt to  even understand the position of those they disagree with.  I'll give two common examples:

If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?  Checkmate, Atheists.

If god knows everything that's going to happen, then there can't be free will.  Checkmate, Christians.

Both of these are disingenuous, because spending five minutes looking for an answer would show that the other side has actually thought about this. (Says the atheist who quoted Thomas Browne a couple paragraphs ago.)  All this is to get to the point that arguing with people who are disingenuous does more harm than good.  It's not going to convince the person you're arguing with.  If they actually cared about understanding opposing opinions, they wouldn't be disingenuous.  But who watching this is going to be convinced?  There's an adage I like, "Never argue with an idiot.  He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience."  People who agree with the idiot won't change their minds, because they've either heard what you have to say or don't care to find out.  At best, you'll bat .500 with people who are on the fence.  These, after all, are the people we're trying to convince, right?  If you're hostile, or condescending, etc., you'll lose a lot of them right away, especially if you're on a site that primarily caters to the position you're against.  This goes back to the sense of victimization that every group has, deserved or not.  People on the fence, especially in fringe communities like conspiracy theorists or MRAs, tend to join these groups in large part for the sense of community.  They feel like outcasts, and they may not agree with everything these communities claim, but anything that they regard as an attack will lead them to close ranks.  Attacking makes people defensive, including people on the fence.

Those who are disingenuous, or delusional, will have a response for any claim you make, regardless of how well-phrased and well-researched it is.  Research and clarity hold no sway, so you either have to disengage (e.g., they think they won because they got the last word) or allow yourself to be dragged down to their level, where they will beat you with experience.  So what, then, is the proper response?  Silence.  The approach of making other groups look foolish, to bring them down with ridicule, only serves to push people away from the center, to increase an us vs. them mentality.  Responding to a disingenuous and intentionally provocative comment, post, tweet, etc. doesn't help.  Spending hundreds or thousands of words explaining why the second law of thermodynamics doesn't disprove evolution won't do anything, because the only people who believe that are the ones who don't have a desire to actually understand it, and further, it gives credence to the disingenuous person because it seems like there's actually an argument to be had.

If a person makes a facebook status and no one comments, if no one retweets or shares, if a reddit comment is downvoted with no responses, this is more damning than any amount of criticism and argument.  What we must do, to improve the state of public discourse, is condemn dishonest argument, condemn disingenuousness, and refuse to be dragged down to the level of idiots. This includes people on our own side.  While none of us want to be "that guy," there are people on Facebook that I can go to and say, "I agree with the sentiment of that infographic you shared, but the facts are wrong."  Posting stuff like this, as funny and satisfying as it may be, only serves to misinform the people we agree with, and diminish our credibility with people who aren't on our side. The only people that this will convince are people who don't bother with fact checking or critical thought, and who will be drawn back to the other side by something equally dishonest.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson

cover design: Susan Mitchell

Tree of Smoke is Johnson's seventh novel, focused mainly on the CIA in Vietnam from 1963-1970.  One of the protagonists, Bill Houston, was the main character of Johnon's first novel, Angels.  The focus shifts between a cast of characters, Bill Houston, a disgraced sailor, his brother, James, a recon soldier and later tunnel rat, Nguyen Hao, a south Vietnamese citizen trying to make his way to the US, and others ranging from a missionary's widow to a West German assassin.  But mostly we get the story of William "Skip" Sands, nephew of the larger than life Colonel Francis Xavier Sands, who's more affected by Agency infighting than the viet cong.

The only other books of Johnson's I've read are Train Dreams (2012) and Jesus' Son (1992), the longer of which is about a quarter of the length of Tree of Smoke, which honestly didn't work very well to the book's advantage, as there were points where it dragged.  The language is often wonderful, although the dialogue varies from Hemingway-an to bad Tarantino impression.  If I had to say what the point of the book is, or rather what holds the whole thing together, the answer would be myth.  As Colonel Sands explains how Psy Ops is going to win the war: "This land is their myth.  We penetrate the land, we penetrate their heart, their myth, their soul.  That's real infiltration.  And that's our mission: penetrating the myth of the land." But of course one cannot infiltrate another land and remain unchanged, and the characters' own mythologies, noble wars and christian evangelism and American exceptionalism, are all eroded as the characters become part of the land they've infiltrated.

While I prefer Jesus' Son and Train Dreams, Tree of Smoke is worth a read.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Martin & Orloff (2002) - David Cross #16

Director: Lawrence Blume
Runtime: 87 minutes          

Martin Flam (Ian Roberts), a man who designs food costumes for corporate promotional events, tried to kill himself.  He's required to start seeing Dr. Eric Orloff (Matt Walsh, Veep), who drags Martin into his own dysfunctional world.  Their first session begins with Orloff dragging Martin to his amateur softball league, where everyone gets arrested after a fight breaks out.  Now Martin not only has to deal with the crushing guilt of designing costumes that are dangerous to wear (it turns out eyeholes are important in a costume), but Martin's best friend (a volatile Gulf War vet played by H. Jon Benjamin), Martin's stripper/psych grad student girlfriend (Kim Raver, 24), a new love interest (Amy Poehler) and her jealous and violent ex-NFL ex-boyfriend.

As the poster indicates, the cast is predominately members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, with a brief cameo by Tina Fey and Janeane Garofalo.  Beside Martin's straight-man, I don't know if there's any character that couldn't be described as wacky.  Fortunately, the cast is talented enough to pull it off.

On a side note, the movie's promotional website is still up, and it absolutely looks like a website made in 2002.  The weird thing, though, is that the cast and filmmaker bios have been updated, some as recently as 2012, which makes me wonder who, ten years after the movie was released, went back into the website to make sure the info was up to date.


The Cross Section:


David Cross plays Dan Wasserman, a flamboyant, terrible playwright, who wants Orloff's praise for his play that premiered at a dinner-and-a-show restaurant.  While pretty funny, the character's only trait is his flamboyance, which is only good for so many jokes.


There's a brief scene in the middle of the movie, and Cross joins the ensemble of supporting characters who team up at the end to save the day.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Run, Ronnie, Run (2002) - David Cross #15

Director: Troy Miller
Runtime: 86 minutes 

This is it people, David Cross's time to shine as a leading man.  This actually isn't the first time Cross has played the titular Ronnie Dobbs, as he was a recurring character on Cross and Odenkirk's HBO sketch series, Mr. Show (1995-1998). The sketch show origin of the character makes itself felt, as numerous brief sketches are interlaced throughout the film.  In fact, the film starts with two sketches, the first a cartoon parodying the famous "Let's All Go the Lobby" bit, where everything, including the toilets, are smiling and anthropomorphic. 

The film is then introduced by the "film valedictorian of Hollywood," who later interrupts the film.

We meet Ronnie, a southern redneck who wants to get back together with Tammy (Jill Talley), his ex-wife and the mother of his children (named Little Ronnie, Middle Ronnie, and Little Middle Ronnie).  But he ends up getting arrested on an episode of FUZZ (basically COPS), leading Tammy to reject him.  Meanwhile, struggling Hollywood producer Terry Twillstein (Bob Odenkirk) discovers that Ronnie has been arrested on FUZZ numerous times, in fact, Ronnie has a unique talent for getting arrested wherever he goes.  So Twillstein goes to Ronnie's hometown, and makes a deal with the Sheriff and soon-to-be Governor (M. C. Gainey), to release Ronnie into his custody in exchange for promising that Ronnie will never return to the state.  From here we have the rise and fall of a celebrity narrative, frequently interlaced with sketches, ranging from a scene from a Survivor parody to a music video by Cross and Odenkirk's Mr. Show R&B group, Three Times One Minus One:

As much as I enjoyed this movie, it's become a bit dated.  When this came out, reality TV as we know it was in its infancy, with only a couple competition shows (most notably Survivor, which gets parodied more than once in Run Ronnie Run) having large audiences.  The idea of an entire tv series based around one person doing stupid things was just a funny concept, as opposed to an accurate description of numerous popular programs.  A lot of content that was original in 2002 has become so overdone in the last decade and a half that it loses some of its humor.

That said, the movie is a lot of fun, especially if you're a fan of Mr. Show.  There are cameos by Jack Black and Jeff Goldblum, and appearances by all the Mr. Show regulars.  In addition to a number of actual sketches, much of the movie is structured like a sketch show, with a lot of scenes being somewhat self-contained like the new age therapy session:

So if you like good 90s sketch comedy, give Run Ronnie Run a watch.


The Cross Section:

This doesn't really apply, as this is probably the only film where Cross is the lead actor.  He plays Ronnie Dobbs for the most part, as well as brief stints as other characters (like the R & B singer in the above picture).  


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Scary Movie 2 (2001) - David Cross #14

Director: Keenen Wayans
Runtime: 83 minutes        

As a teenager I watched the first four Scary Movie installments, and I remember thinking that Scary Movie 2 was the worst of the lot.  Rottentomatoes suggests I'm not alone in this judgment. (The first four films are rated 53%, 15%, 36%, and 37%, respectively.)  The first Scary Movie (2000) brought the genre spoof back into the limelight.  While of course genre spoofs existed before (and perhaps hit their zenith with Airplane! (1980)) the modern terrible genre spoofs, from Not Another Date Movie (2001) to Meet the Spartans (2008) owe their existence to the massive financial success of the first installment of the Scary Movie franchise.  

The sequel has some of the characters reprising their roles from the first film, which mostly parodied I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Scream (1996).  Anna Faris plays Cindy, Regina Hall plays Brenda, Marlon Wayans is Shorty and Shawn Wayans is Ray.  This film is largely based on 1999's The Haunting, which was a remake of the 1963 film, which was itself based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House.  Anyway, the aforementioned characters, along with a few newcomers (Kathleen Robertson, Tori Spelling, and Malcolm in the Middle's Christopher Masterson), are college students tricked into helping summon the spirits at a haunted house by the pervy Professor (Tim Curry) and his assistant Dwight (David Cross).  Obviously, shit gets out of hand.  

What makes this installment so much worse than the others?  Well, most of the jokes aren't jokes.  There are a couple scenes with an obscene parrot that don't work at all, because what the parrot is saying isn't funny.  Jokes about weed can be funny, but instead we're expected to laugh because weed is being mentioned.  The creepy butler's gross deformed hand is good for a joke or two, but not for gags that last several minutes.  

I have no problem with dumb humor, but there needs to actually be humor in it.

If you want a fun movie that you don't have to take seriously, some of the movies in this franchise are good for that.  But not this one.


The Cross Section:


David Cross plays Dwight, the Professor's assistant.  While the professor is concerned about making sure there are enough cameras in the sexy co-eds' bedrooms, Dwight is pretty serious about proving the existence of the supernatural.  He's wheelchair bound, but determined not to let that slow him down. Whether it's passing out papers or being fellated, he always refuses offers of help by declaring "I can do it myself!"  The character is surprisingly fun, and Cross delivers a good character performance.


Cross gets a good amount of screentime as part of the ensemble cast.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Pootie Tang (2001) - David Cross #13

Director: Louis C. K.
Runtime: 81 minutes

Pootie Tang is based on a sketch from the Chris Rock show, a parody of blaxploitation films, starring the eponymous Pootie (Lance Crouther), an actor, musician, and role model for all children, who fights crime with the power of his daddy's belt which can "whoop anyone's ass." Pootie, who was born too cool for words and speaks in a bizarre slang of his own making, has made an enemy of corporate America, especially LecterCorp CEO Dick Lecter (Richard Vaughn) who plots to steal Pootie's belt and turn Pootie into a shill for LecterCorp's products.  With the help of his friends (including characters played by Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes) Pootie must fight off Lecter and his henchmen, (including future The Wire star J.D. Williams).

Pootie Tang's reputation precedes it, and rightly so.  The pacing was all over the place, the plot jumped around haphazardly, characters appear and disappear without warning.  Which would seem odd, considering that the movie was written and directed by none other than Louis "Louie" C. K.  But as Louie has explained in interviews, he was removed from the project in the editing stage and had no say over the final product.  Yet the final product is still bizarrely fascinating.  The film has a cult following and much of it seems like something that could be made for Adult Swim.  The film isn't so bad it's good, because there were too many talented people working on it at some point or other.  Rather, it's so dumb that it completely removes itself from comparison to other films.  I can completely understand someone hating this movie, but it's strangely engrossing. That said, I still give it one star, because it is a very stupid movie, whose particular brand of stupidity happens to resonate with me.


The Cross Section:

David Cross plays Dennis:

Dennis is one of the actors hired by Dick Lecter as part of his plan to co-opt Pootie's fame and influence by producing his own legion of Pootie Tangs.  He shows up twice in the film, once as part of a training video for prospective Pooties, and again at the opening of the flagship Pootie Burger.  This is a great character for Cross, a nerdy white wannabe actor trying to play a guy who's too cool for words.  I can't help but imagine the blackface scene from Silver Streak as his origin story.


Cross has one brief appearance and one solid scene.  People have won Oscars with less screentime.