The Underwood Ethos

Frank Underwood loves his life. We know Kevin Spacey is playing a man thrilled with each day by the way he sings out his window into the DC night at the end of a “House of Cards” episode. The killing and manipulation—especially the manipulation—are skills in a sport, and Underwood is an all star in his prime.

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Spacey gave an interview on “This Week,” the ABC Sunday-morning political show, where he said “our storylines aren’t that crazy” relative to real-life Washington DC. The most far-fetched parts, he said, depict Congress working hard to pass legislation.

“Some people feel that 99 percent of the show is accurate, and that the 1 percent that isn’t is that you could never get an education bill passed like that,” Spacey said.

That’s exactly right. “House of Cards” is a great show, but its deepest message portrays our government’s greatest failing: This conniving killer is better than what we actually have.

In October last year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got caught on a hot microphone talking politics with Rand Paul, his fellow Kentucky senator and a big star in politics.

“I just did CNN,” Paul said. “I just go over and over again: ‘We’re willing to compromise, we’re willing to negotiate.’ I don’t think they’ve poll tested ‘We won’t negotiate.’ I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.”

“Yeah, I do too,” McConnell answered.

They’re reading lines they aren’t smart enough to write for themselves. Frank Underwood is always acting—yet another layer to Spacey’s performance—but he’s at least a master of improv.

In the new season, Frank negotiates entitlement reform. Retirement ages are raised under a Democratic president. Sick deals are slung, and Frank’s motives for backing the radical legislation are utterly villainous.

But utter villainy is better than our real-life Congress. They are less than nothing. Lower than evil. They poll test stalling messages. They don’t pass shit, on purpose, because they’re preening hacks who like easy work. They get to be rich TV celebs despite how ugly they are, and they don’t have to do anything but attend parties with donors and lie the same tired lies into cameras.

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seriously

Immigration reform is dead. Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t working his connections to make it happen. He wasn’t making deals or threats or even, I’d bet, phone calls. He was drafting his statement for the press. And here’s what he came up with: “Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Right. Months (years!) go by without you getting anything done, and then you meekly blame the president. Frank Underwood would slap your face.

I’m not quite done with Season 2, but I love it. Frank is this embodiment of a particular aspect of society—soullessness in politics—who transcends what he represents. He doesn’t want children, yet he cares about his family’s past and his own legacy. He loves his wife. He loves his life.

Daniel Plainview, the oil baron anti-protagonist of “There Will Be Blood,” personified capitalism’s single-minded lust for profits. He also cared for his son and, for a while, longed to reconnect with a long-lost brother. Great characters can stand for something terrible and still be dynamic.

The president in “House of Cards” is a tool. This may not mirror our present Oval Office occupier, but we’ve seen tool presidents before in America. The most recent example exemplifies, again, how this TV character Frank Underwood is better than his real-life counterpart.

“Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Dick Cheney famously asked George W. Bush about Saddam Hussein over lunch one day. It was a dare, and it worked.

Cheney manipulated the president into giving what he wanted, but what he wanted was war. That’s not how you get the stone building that stands for centuries.

Oscars Combat: Dirty Wars vs. The Act of Killing

Obama is gonna get verbally fricasseed by Jeremy Scahill if “Dirty Wars” wins the Oscar for Best Documentary.

But it won’t win. “The Act of Killing” will. Because “The Act of Killing” is a portrait of humanity’s badness that crawls inside your mind like an alien spider, laying eggs there that take forever to hatch.

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This is the second battle in The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series. Previously, we hashed out who should win for Best Supporting Actress. Click here for that. It’s short. Next will be Leto vs. Fassbender. 

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There’s an old ex-reporter in “The Act of Killing,” whose blatant B.S. gets smacked down. As I watched it I wondered what life will be like when lazy, incurious hacks like Chuck Todd (NBC News White House correspondent) and his ubiquitous ilk are one day pretending they didn’t willfully ignore the most important story of Obama’s terms.

Quick background. “The Act of Killing” takes place in Indonesia, where the military overthrew the government in 1965 and began killing anyone it labeled “communist.” At least a million people died. The film’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer, asks some of the most prolific killers from that time—Anwar Congo murdered roughly 1,000 people, many by strangling with wire—to reenact the killings for their own movie. The result is surreal and disturbing. Anwar has a physical on-screen reckoning at the end of the film. I still can’t get it out of my head.

The part I want to talk about here, though, involves a man who was a reporter during the massacres. Between takes where they recreate an interrogation scene, he talks with one of the killers while Oppenheimer’s camera rolls.

“I declare I never saw anything,” the old ex-reporter says. “Now, seeing your reenactment, I realize you were so smooth that even me, a journalist with such sharp senses, I never knew!”

“I’m surprised,” the former mass killer says, his eyes almost rolling. “Because we didn’t hide what we were doing. If you didn’t know, I’d be shocked.”

“I didn’t.”

“We were in the same office and we didn’t hide it.”

“I never knew.” There are a few awkward beats and the old ex-reporter continues: “You were so smooth, and I rarely went up to your office.”

Then Oppenheimer speaks from behind the camera, which he doesn’t do more than a few times in this film, but even he can’t take it. “Your publisher directed the torture,” Oppenheimer says.

“No!” the ex-reporter says.

Oppenheimer: “He said so himself.”

“That’s not true!”

“He and the other leaders decided who was killed,” Oppenheimer says.

Then the former killer chimes back in: “Look, I’m not calling you a liar, but logically. . .” He starts talking to Oppenheimer and the camera. “But this man, a journalist distancing himself from these things . . . that’s predictable. But logically, we didn’t hide. How could he not know? Even the neighbors knew! Hundreds were killed. It was an open secret.”

That is predictable.

Now let’s jump to “Dirty Wars.” Jeremy Scahill is the main character in the movie, an investigative reporter followed by cameras as he digs into the killing of innocent Middle Easterners by US bombs and paramilitary commandos.

Scahill goes first to Gardez, Afghanistan. An old man with dark, angry eyes tells him about a night raid. “My son, my other son, my daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter, all killed on a single day by American soldiers. In the attack, two women who were pregnant were killed.”

“I didn’t want to live anymore,” says another man — eyes, likewise, dark and colorless — who was taken prisoner by the US and whose wife, sister and niece were killed. “I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans, but my brother and my father wouldn’t let me.”

The Americans told the survivors they had intel that 50 Taliban were hiding out there. This was beyond untrue — the slain were pro-American, and some had even fought with the Americans against the Taliban.

The movie starts with that raid. Scahill wants to figure out why the people in Gardez were attacked. His investigation spirals into the stratosphere when he looks into other attacks on innocent villages. As he’s digging, there are shots fired within earshot. Back home in America, he is threatened by government officials who don’t like his stories.

The film flashes back to clips of Scahill when he was on the news-show circuit promoting his book “Blackwater,” about private contractors who got into shootouts in war zones. In one scene, Scahill goes on Bill Maher’s HBO show and faces down Chuck Todd, the aforementioned NBC White House correspondent.

“Journalists have done nothing to hold the White House accountable now, Chuck, or under Bush.”

Then Jay Leno, who was also a panelist that episode, interrupts to ask Scahill “Why are you still alive? Are you paranoid? I’m serious.”

Todd and almost everyone on TV and the internet who cover Obama are in Washington DC daily, and the stories they deem most important always involve what Democrats and Republicans say about each other.

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complicit and enabling

Are the latest complaints about Obamacare bigger than this: One of the poorest tribes in Southern Yemen was bombed by American forces who claimed there was an Al Qaeda training base there. There was no base. Forty-six people, many women and children, died. A local Yemeni reporter investigating the bombing was locked in prison. When he appeared in court, his teeth had been pulled and he had scars on his chest. (Also, his lawyer’s offices were attacked.) When public outcry mounted over the reporter’s imprisonment, the president of Yemen agreed to set him free. Then he got a phone call from Obama, directly. Obama convinced the president to keep the reporter imprisoned. White House records, available online, prove that Obama called Yemen to keep the reporter locked up.

Chuck Todd will one day deny he ever knew the president was bombing children and keeping innocent reporters locked in jail to be abused.

Or killing a 16-year-old American teenager who went to look for his father, the American anti-American Anwar Al-Awlaki. Obama drone-bombed Al-Awlaki, and was happy to brag about that one. He did not ever explain his decision to subsequently drone bomb Al-Awlaki’s son. Does the son have to die so he can’t avenge the father, like “Godfather II”?

If the president of the United States killed an innocent American teenager because he feared vendetta, that’s a big story. Except it isn’t. Debt ceilings and state dinners are, if you’re the NBC White House correspondent.

“Even me, a journalist with such sharp senses, I never knew!”

Scahill speaks with Al-Awlaki’s father before the drone bombings, when he was trying to get the US Justice Department to explain how it could legally justify killing Al-Awlaki. Then he speaks to the father again, after his son and grandson are dead. His eyes are completely different. They’ve gone dark, like the survivors in Gardez.

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“Dirty Wars” is more important than “The Act of Killing.” It’s a work of astonishing journalism, investigating one of the most important stories in the world—the killing and imprisonment of innocents, ordered by the president and covered up by Congress and mainstream American media.

“The Act of Killing,” though, is psychological superart. At the beginning of the film, Anwar Congo is literally dancing the cha cha on a site where he personally executed hundreds of people he knows did not deserve to die. Over the course of the movie we watch him try to recreate with costumes and makeup the ghost that haunts him when he attempts to sleep each night. He describes the one victim he can’t stop picturing (“All I could think about was why didn’t I close his eyes?”). We watch him put on zombie makeup and gangster clothes and act out the end of his victims’ lives, and almost totally break down. We watch him dry heave, in a futile attempt to expel demons.

I kept putting off writing this blog. Both these films really messed with me. In “Dirty Wars” you see a dead baby in the aftermath of the bombing in Yemen. Its little body gets held up for the camera by a furious family member. In “The Act of Killing,” confessed mass murderers brag about how gangster they are (“gangster” means “free man,” they explain over and over) and describe how they switched from beheadings to wire strangulations because they tired of smelling and cleaning so much blood. An elaborate dance number includes choreographed belly dancing, Anwar in a black robe, another gangster in skin-tight neon drag, and actors as massacre victims thanking their killers.

I saw the nutzo dance number at the beginning and end of “The Act of Killing” as a representation of just how insane it is to try and justify killing innocent people.

I wish Superman hadn’t killed Zod at the end of “Man of Steel.” The ending to the last (fantastic) episode of “Sherlock” really bothers me now.

I hope there’s a tie for Best Documentary. Can that happen? I hope there’s a tie, but Scahill gets to talk more than Oppenheimer at the podium.

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When the Late, Great Philip Seymour Hoffman Played a Supervillain

It is such a pain in Owen Davian’s ass to deal with the stupid Impossible Missions Force. He’s a professional, and, just, ugh.

A good blockbuster movie villain usually enjoys being bad. Heath Ledger’s Joker was the ultimate example of this—cackling and skipping through bank robberies and bombings and murders.

Philip Seymour Hoffman turned that notion on its head in “Mission Impossible III.” He played Owen Davian—a maniac looking to deal the AntiGod to terrorists—as bored, like the whole game was beneath him

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“What the hell is your name?” Davian asks Ethan Hunt when he realizes he’s been taken into custody. He sounds wearied and annoyed. “Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and I’m gonna kill you right in front of her.” Words like that are scarier coming from someone who’s sober.

Hoffman died this week. He was an amazing, brilliant, wonderful, superlative, hyperbole-defying actor. It is always tragic when the world loses any Philip with one L. This one, though, really hurts.

Lots of remembrances have mentioned his work in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. He played Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who is old and suicidal. It’s a part for serious, powerful actors, and by all accounts Hoffman was amazing in the role. 16DEATH_SPAN-articleLarge

So he was a capital-A Actor — a serious student of the craft, and a man completely without vanity, willing to transform into any character.

He was one of the very best. When Paul Thomas Anderson made “The Master,” he needed to top Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in Anderson’s previous film, “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis is the actual best, but Anderson understood the following equation:

Joaquin Phoenix + Philip Seymour Hoffman > Daniel Day-Lewis

Just barely, but math is math. “The Master” is my favorite Hoffman performance, and one of my favorite movies. We’ve Flip Sided it here before, twice (click here or here). Hoffman played a cult leader pretending to be a genius, a megalomaniac who’s full of shit and does not care to admit it. He had to be sweet and smart in the presence of others, but this wasn’t his real nature. The internal duel—and his relationship with a throbbing caveman id personified by Phoenix’s nutso Freddy Quell—was fascinating.

But Hoffman could be fascinating in anything.

Late in “MI3,” the tables have turned. Davian’s interrogating Ethan Hunt. He’s asking Hunt, over and over, “Where is the Rabbit’s Foot?” He has a gun to Hunt’s wife’s head and he’s counting slowly to 10. Tom Cruise plays Hunt and he is freaking out. Davian is absolutely going to kill his wife in front of him. Why not? He doesn’t care about any of this bullshit. The scene is horrifying. It’s great.

Hoffman was so good he stole movies from small supporting roles. He stole “Charlie Wilson’s War.” He stole “Almost Famous.” He stole “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Along Came Polly.” And he stole the “Mission Impossible” franchise. The whole thing.

Last week came news that Jesse Eisenberg will play Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman/Superman movie. If you’re looking for the next Hoffman, I think it might be Eisenberg. He would hate to hear that, and I’m certain most movie fans disagree, but there was genuine brilliance in his soulless portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”

Eisenberg is egoless, like Hoffman. And this may sound a bit strange since one dude rode heavy and the other’s pretty scrawny, but they share a kind of subversive athleticism.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but I see it. I’m excited for Eisenberg to take on Superman like I was excited for Hoffman to battle Hunt and his IMF.

Maybe it’s a stretch. Maybe I just want Eisenberg to be as creative in his choices as Hoffman was. We need a new Hoffman and it’s hard to think rationally right now, distracted by a fresh gaping hole in the heart of moviedom.

Oscars Combat: Jennifer Lawrence vs. Lupita Nyong’o

Patsey makes death sound so sweet when she’s begging Solomon Northup to kill her. It’s the essential tragedy of the most tragic character in “12 Years a Slave”: Killing her, she says, through tears and a smile, would be “an act of kindness.” Solomon can’t run because he doesn’t want to die; here’s someone whose life is that much worse than his.

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“American Hustle” is nominated for an Oscar in every acting category. Deservedly. And the best performance was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” She has the fewest screen-time minutes of the top four actors, which helps because she can focus her power on fewer scenes and make them count that much more. nyongolove.getty

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Patsey picks over 500 pounds of cotton per day. The other men in the field can barely crack 200. For this she is singled out as extraordinary by Epps, the plantation’s insane owner. Epps is sadistic. He strokes Patsey’s neck and calls her Queen of the Field. At night he rapes her. His wife is jealous. She maims Patsey with a heavy glass bottle thrown point-blank to the face, and with a skin-tearing scratch through Patsey’s cheek.

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Lawrence outshines the other “American Hustle” actors because their characters all have to reckon with her. She’s socially on offense, always doing something. She befuddles Christian Bale’s character, her husband, to where he’s stuck staring with a pained and helpless expression. The couple has amazing fights in the movie, and she always wins, even though she’s the one who starts the house on fire, or almost gets him killed by mobsters.

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After the first scene of cotton weighing, when Patsey’s shown to be so much more industrious than the others, we get a short scene of her sitting outside, humming and braiding corn husks into dolls.

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The dolls are dark and light, together just fine. Patsey has such a sweet, gentle soul. She’s a beautiful person. This movie’s universe has absolutely no sympathy.

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If there’s a single character in “American Hustle” with the best claim to hate Rosalyn it’s Amy Adams’s Sydney. Sydney has more skin in the con than anyone else, because she took the check from the FBI agent’s hand. She’s caught red-handed. And Rosalyn is messing with everyone to not be bored. They’re also romantic rivals for the same man. Yet when they’re finally facing off in that bathroom, yelling, even Sydney gets ensnared by Lawrence’s sexiness. Lawrence plants a sudden sticky kiss on her lips, and then cackles maniacally.

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Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant because she’s perfect as this character experiencing specific horrors at the hands of a monster. Patsey. Patsey, man. Jesus. She has to beg to be clean, please, just once, can’t she use soap because she’s earned it? She has to be stripped and whipped for trying, one time, to be a normal person. She has to beg for her own death, and be told no. How would someone in that situation act? Exactly like this. It’s beyond heartbreaking.

Lawrence brings her unique personal energy to Rosalyn. Sheer awesomeness is why Rosalyn is so memorable. IMDB.com says “American Hustle” director David O. Russell told Bale “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” Much of the dialogue is improvised. That cranks the pressure on the actors. They have to inhabit their parts to where what they do comes naturally. Lawrence’s character scares everyone on multiple levels. And she’s funny.

That’s why I’d vote for Lawrence. Impossible choice though.

Oscars Combat Prelude: Marty and Leo Take Bronze

Some major tussles are coming to The Flip Side in the coming weeks. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s bipolar(ish) big-con wild card in “American Hustle” better than Lupita Nyong’o’s gentle, tragic, beyond-abused “queen” of the cotton field in “12 Years a Slave”? Should a documentary about death be more journalistic or artistic? Is anything better than Evil Meryl Streep? Which emotion is more powerful when stirred—sympathy (Jared Leto), or fear (Michael Fassbender)? And how the unholy f*ck does “The Lone Ranger” have better special effects than “Pacific Rim”?

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Not even nominated.

The Oscars are never really about a corporate-glossy award show. They are about comparing great movies. (Incidentally, did you know if you walk out of a movie before it’s over, at Regal theaters at least, you can get your money back? The wife and I found that out at “Pain and Gain.” Apt title.)

Before answering the unanswerable, we must delve for a moment back into “The Wolf of Wall Street,” because it will rightly be second or third runner-up in Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

There are occasions when the critical response to a movie makes that movie even more fascinating. (On TV, the ultimate example of this is “Mad Men,” which reviewers almost exclusively criticize, even though they all think it’s the best show on television.) “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a long and stunning Martin Scorsese movie, with the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. It is also insane.

(Click here for The Flip Side’s full, slobbering review of “Wolf.”)

Scorsese does very cinematic stuff in “Wolf of Wall Street.” His camera swoops around huge rooms full of greedy traders either lying to clients en masse to take their money (while miming sex acts), or partying like Romans the night before the fall (while committing sex acts). When Jordan is busted, and told he needs to rat on his friends to avoid prison, Scorsese’s camera tracks forward through a crowd of young traders. There’s a bright light behind them, but we don’t see what’s causing it. They all have to get out of the way first. For Jordan to see the light, he has to sell out his army of clones.

Other Scorsese tricks include telepathy between Jordan and the Swiss banker who can hide money from American authorities, and a huge special-effects scene when Jordan’s ridiculous yacht is destroyed in a storm.

And then there’s the comedy. This is where the criticism comes in. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” from its opening scene, is funny. Our first glimpse of Jordan comes when he’s throwing a midget at a dart board. Then the camera freezes on him, and in voice-over he says something like, “Oh, lemme introduce myself.” Then we get our second glimpse of him . . . snorting coke out of a hooker’s ass.

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Critics who don’t like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” (they’re all over Slate and NPR, at least), say it’s too much, and that the sex and drugs and ridiculousness are repetitive and relentless.

You sad, silly feebs. Why do you even go to the movies? Just because they pay you? (The Flip Side is jealous.) This is like complaining about “The Godfather” because it’s just so full of mobsters. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is about maniacs misbehaving—that’s why they’re misbehaving.

Everyone who dislikes “The Wolf of Wall Street” seems to agree about the scene where Belfort is so high on super quaaluds that he can’t talk or walk. There’s this broad physically comedic scene where he rolls down some brick steps, barely manages to get behind the wheel of his Ferrari, and drives home, where his sidekick (also too high to function) starts choking on a slice of meat. He’s going to die unless Belfort can come to and save him. Inspired by the Popeye cartoon his daughter is watching in the living room, Belfort finds a stash of cocaine in his kitchen, inhales a bunch of it, and saves the day.

Cocaine is to Belfort as spinach is to Popeye. He’s a cartoon character personifying the corruption at the heart of our country’s biggest problem. And DiCaprio has a blast in the role. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is brilliant.

But it’s not as good as “12 Years a Slave.”

To Be Continued. . . .

Internet Sports Lord Biffs on Big-Eyes: See Here, Oscar

The funeral. Do not listen to Bill Simmons. (Here’s his link.)

In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor plays someone who’s kidnapped and imprisoned in a nightmare world. He is considered a subhuman and tortured. Multiple critics describe in their reviews his “deep, soulful eyes.” They’re big eyes, and when he’s scared they beam desperation.

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He doesn’t want to die, but there’s a madman with a gun in his face, screaming into his ear to whip Patsey until the skin on her whole back is shredded. You believe it, and want badly for this poor guy to survive such raw horror.

Ejiofor played the villain in a modern-classic science fiction flick: “Serenity,” written and directed by pre-“Avengers” Joss Whedon. Ejiofor’s character, The Operative, is a charming, interesting snake, hunting the heroes across space with a samurai sword and an army.

“12 Years a Slave” is a step above great villain. Three steps. Despite all the killing, Solomon Northup does fight back, and he hangs for it. He runs, and the universe sends a message with one of the saddest, most coldly violent things you could imagine seeing. We watch him face hell on earth with huge, sharp, sad, scared eyes.

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Bill Simmons is ESPN’s best brand. His fan’s-take writing style was so fun to read he gained a massive following and now runs a website (Grantland.com:

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God bless it) where many younger versions of himself cover every interesting topic in all sports and pop culture (movies, TV, music, novels sometimes). It’s made him an authority, with a TV show and a blockbuster podcast.

On that podcast, he said “It’s a slightly controversial opinion, but if I was gonna rank the best performances in that movie, I don’t know if, uh, if, if the. Say his name; I can’t say it.”

Responded Wesley Morris, Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic on Grantland (sagely): “Chiwetel Ejiofor?”

“I don’t think he’s in the Top 3 for me, in that movie.”

Then Simmons started asking if younger versions of Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle would have been better as Solomon Northup. That’s what he walked out of the movie theater wondering.

The answer is no. They don’t have the eyes.

“I didn’t love the performance,” Simmons said. “I thought it was good. I didn’t think it was amazing, you know?”

No. Bullshit. That is no argument, and Ejiofor must be a contender for Best Actor.

#==#

There’s a funeral in “12 Years a Slave” for a man who dropped dead in the cotton field from heatstroke. The slaves are all singing and clapping.

Solomon Northup was kidnapped into that world. He doesn’t want to be a slave. He doesn’t want to sing with them. But they keep singing, and he’s looking at that grave, and he fights it and fights it but they keep singing. You see the entire struggle on his face, in his eyes, until he gives in and sings. Accepts he’s a slave. This is his family now.

That scene was amazing. He’d better be a Best Actor contender.

“Goodfellas” is Still Scorsese’s Best Movie, But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is Awesome

“Lemme understand this. Maybe it’s me. I’m a little f*cked up, maybe. I’m funny how? I’m funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to f*ckin’ amuse you?”

Joe Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas” is my favorite character in any Martin Scorsese movie, even over Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.” His famous “funny like a clown” bit is the first time we really hear him talking, but not the first time we meet him—he appears in the film’s first scene, stabbing a pleading man 10 times with a kitchen knife. Later, he’ll shoot and kill a teenager (Spider) for basically nothing. In between shocking eruptions of psychotic brutality, he’s absolutely hilarious, an ultimate comedic sidekick.

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Jack Nicholson was pretty classic as Frank Costello in “The Departed.” He also played a maniac having fun. Bill the Butcher was a maniac having fun.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is another maniac having fun. And his fun is more fun that any of these other guys’ fun.

The setting is Wall Street, obviously, where Belfort runs his own incredibly successful brokerage firm. He is an animal of unconscionable greed, but that’s an abstract analogy; at the real, basic level he’s merely a dude who loves to get wasted. Drugs are “awesome,” he says at the beginning. At the end, cleaned-up and miserable, he says of sobriety “It sucks. I wanna f*ckin’ kill myself.” He does not talk or act like a mature adult. He’s a frat boy. He even argues with his dad about expenses.

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Great movie poster

Matthew McConaughey is outstanding as an incredibly skinny cowboy with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.” But I prefer Cocky Badass McConaughey, like in the short flashback scenes that launch “Wolf of Wall Street.” Belfort’s first day on a trading floor, curses are flying over phone calls all around him. (“I couldn’t believe how these guys talked to each other.”) McConaughey, a top dog there, makes a big sale and writes it on a piece of paper. He puts the paper into a tube, and hands the tube to Belfort to insert into an opening while the men around him cheer.

Then they have lunch. McConaughey is getting drunk and snorting cocaine as he lectures on the money game. This lunch is Genesis. “F*ck the client,” McConaughey says. He goes on a brilliant enlightened stoner’s rant, describing investing as “fairy dust.” “We don’t create sh*t and we don’t build anything.” He says “the name of the game” is to move dollars from your client’s pocket into your pocket. Keep the suckers investing, he says, so they’re getting rich “on paper” while the broker pays himself real cash in commissions.

Why? Inserting the tube. McConaughey tells Belfort he needs to jerk off twice a day. Do it often enough and you’ll get good at it, he says, and you’ll start to think about money while you do it.

He begins pounding his chest and growling a song, right there at the table. Belfort will eventually be leading an entire small horny army of trained traders. They will celebrate million-dollar days by pounding their chests and hooting and humping hookers, strippers and each other like crazed apes.

These people are truly crazy. In the first big party at the beginning of the film, they pay a woman $10,000 to let them shave her head. The clippers cut out her long hair as the traders cheer “Scalp! Scalp! Scalp! Scalp!”

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is about apish bad guys. Anyone who thinks this movie glamorizes or endorses its characters has somehow completely missed the point.

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The American Flag. It’s there for a reason. Bill the Butcher draped himself in an American flag for the scene in “Gangs of New York” when he quietly explained his method for maintaining power: “You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.”

There are American flags everywhere in the “Wolf of Wall Street” scene where Belfort confronts the FBI agents investigating him. They’re on Belfort’s yacht, fit for a “Bond villain.” (His words.) He tries to bribe the lead agent. When it doesn’t work—because the agent is Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights” and thus a man of character impeccable—he gets mad and kicks them out. “Good luck on the subway back to your ugly f*cking wives,” Belfort calls as he throws lobsters at them, “I’ll be having Nicole lick caviar off my balls.” Then he pulls a wad of cash from his pocket—”Look what I found! A year’s salary!”—and starts flipping hundreds at the agents as they walk off.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

In real America the government is absolutely bought off by Wall Street. Check out the reporting of Matt Taibbi, an angry genius who might be the best reporter in journalism right now. (I have argued this point with actual reporters. It is an argument I always win. Taibbi is fearlessly covering corruption at the highest levels.)

Taibbi, in fact, wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign, in which he compared Romney’s professional deal making at Bain Capital to a classic scene in “Goodfellas”:

Fans of mob movies will recognize what’s known as the “bust-out,” in which a gangster takes over a restaurant or sporting goods store and then monetizes his investment by running up giant debts on the company’s credit line. (Think Paulie buying all those cases of Cutty Sark in Goodfellas.) When the note comes due, the mobster simply torches the restaurant and collects the insurance money. Reduced to their most basic level, the leveraged buyouts engineered by Romney followed exactly the same business model. “It’s the bust-out,” one Wall Street trader says with a laugh. “That’s all it is.”

Here’s a picture of young Mitt Romney:

bain-romney-money

Did Romney ever bang his blonde wife on a heap of cash like Leo’s Belfort? I bet yes.

There’s a part where Belfort starts explaining what an IPO is into the camera, then he stops. You don’t care about this, he tells us. And it doesn’t matter anyway. His life is about the spoils. He’s destroying people’s lives to satisfy an insatiable need to be wasted at all times. He says the N-word, flies a helicopter hammered, and picks up gorgeous women while his wife watches. The first time he shows his underlings how to convince a potential investor to sign, he keeps lying to the targeted middle-class sap over speaker phone while he simulates raunchy sex moves in the air and flips off the phone. The silly minions cover their mouths to keep from cracking up.

This phone scene is what they should show for DiCaprio’s clip right before the Best Actor Oscar is announced. It is so mean, and so funny. The timing is flawless, where he’s finally putting his dick up inside an imaginary sex partner exactly as the sap agrees to invest. Belfort hates the guy on the other end of the phone, and he gets a raw, sexual rush from taking his money.

Belfort and his lackeys aren’t gangsters. Blood sprays once in this movie, and it makes Belfort’s partner (Jonah Hill, who’s perfect) puke. They aren’t killers; they’re douche bags. Because of what they did, though, and how they lived, they are definitely villains, and this makes them absolutely worthy of Scorsese’s cinematic magic. (Huge set pieces are full of moving parts—see the poster—and his camera goes everywhere.)

In Scorsese’s great modern classics, zany villains have been side characters. Tommy was funny like a clown, and “Goodfellas” wasn’t about him. “Gangs of New York” wasn’t about the Butcher, and “Departed” wasn’t about Costello.

Finally, the craziest bad guy is out front. He’s a wolf, and a clown.

Belfort drives even though he’s so wasted he can’t talk or walk. Cocaine-fueled cartoons like him have owned America’s economy. That’s legitimately funny, but it’s also terrifying. Like Tommy.

Terminator Everything: Movie Franchise Ultimate

This cyborg saga so symbolic of pop culture’s decay begins with a perfect ’80s sci-fi action movie and ends with a soulless blockbuster so terrible the movie-star lead viciously cussed out the cinematographer on-set. In between is a perfect sequel and a winking Part 3 so self-aware of its cash-grab status it goes ahead and ends with the nuclear destruction of the whole world.

“Terminator 3” is at least willing to be a good movie as it’s cash grabbing. It has a pulpy, fun title: “Rise of the Machines.” As opposed to “Salvation’s” single buzzy word. “Salvation.” The other titles options were “Redemption,” “Description,” “Placenta,”and “Ellipse.”

“Terminator: Ibex.”

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We’ll come back to Part 4, in which killer robots are too lazy to kill.

First, James Cameron. He is, said Ari Gold, “the biggest director in the game,” the mad captain who helmed the top two money makers ever: “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

Back in 1984, however, he was 30 and unknown. He had a vision (says IMDB.com): “James Cameron got the idea for Terminator (1984) while shooting another film in Europe. His vision was of a metal endoskeleton emerging from flames and most of the script was written backwards from there.”

Can you image a purer motive for making a movie?

Haunted by an amazing visual, Cameron brought it to life. This is typical of Cameron’s ambition. Ever since “Terminator,” he has been a director who thinks of something huge and insane and then executes it. Think about the end of “Aliens,” when, after commandos have been guerrilla battling monsters for several scenes, the alien queen fights Ripley, in a robot suit, one-on-one. This go-for-broke ethos would ultimately evolve into dinosaurs fighting robots for the last hour of “Avatar.”

The big misconception of modern blockbuster is they’re all action, but so many are really just tons of talking, with lots of special effects and a few brief obligatory action scenes. “Star Wars Episodes I–III,” anyone? “Spider-Man”?

“Terminator” launched this awesome line of Cameron movies, and it’s a classic for so many reasons including an economy of storytelling. That’s another secret to his success: He keeps it simple. A robot assassin is trying to kill Sarah Connor; a man is trying to save her. That’s the conflict. The movie’s over when the robot is finally dead.

— —C   0:

James Cameron remade “Terminator” with better terminators. And this time they save the world. “T2” had a fun acting gig for super-partner Arnold Schwarzenegger: Do the same great cyborg stuff from the original, with even more weapons, but be a hero this time. Arnold’s terminator rightly made the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list of both heroes and villains. He’s the only character on both lists, which makes him better than Atticus Finch.terminator-exoskeleton

Linda Hamilton gets in on the fun, and it’s no wonder she married Cameron. Sarah Connor was a happy, bright-eyed American babe in “Terminator,” but in “T2” she’s a ripped amazon weapons master whose sadness over losing Kyle Reese in the fight to kill original Terminator has hardened into joyless determination. She knows the world is gonna end, and she knows she can stop it. “Terminator” was about getting out alive. “Terminator 2” is about preventing nuclear war. She’s become a warrior.

The chases and fights in “T2” are glorious. Arnold rides an enormous Harley after 10-year-old, Public-Enemy-T-shirt-clad John Connor on a moped. Liquid metal T-1000 is racing after them in a giant semi truck. Arnold and T-1000 shoot each other countless times with shotguns and grenades. At one point Terminator unloads what has to be more than 100 rounds from a machine gun into T-1000 at point-blank range.

— —C 0:

Cameron said he was done with “Terminator” movies after “T2,” that he’d told the story he wanted to tell, but the studio wasn’t done. “Terminator 3” is a joke, but a good one. It’s Cameron’s same terminator story over again, with Arnold fighting a powerful evil robot (this time, she can shape shift like T-1000, but also make her hands into laser guns) (oh, and she’s a she).

Consider the first Arnold scene in each flick. In the first “Terminator,” he threatens and kills street thugs like Jason in “Friday the 13th,” horror-style. In “T2,” he busts into a biker bar, kicks a bunch of Harley riders’ asses, and vrooms away on a chopper wearing leather and cool sunglasses while the soundtrack plays “Bad to the Bone.” In “T3,” he busts into a strip club on ladies’ night and takes the dancer’s clothes. This is how he looks before he rides off:

arnold-schwarzenegger-terminator-3-sunglasses

“Rise of the Machines” also has Clare Danes, who’s great. It’s always nice to see Claire Danes.

And while “T2’s” most serious moment is an ultra-realistic nuclear explosion wiping out all of Los Angeles including a park full of kids, “Machines” has a powerfully important scene that totally echoes 21st-Century U.S. foreign policy. There is much talk about the danger of handing war power over to machines, and I wonder whether Obama had the same qualms when he ordered his first drone strike as General Robert Brewster exhibits when he gives the order to turn Skynet on-line. Bet not.

— –C0:

James Cameron did not direct “Terminator: Salvation,” either. He had nothing to do with it. McG, veteran of N’Sync videos, was the director. McG.

Cameron’s terminators were such deadly villains you simply couldn’t get near one. The chases were intense because terminators arm up and know their weapons. Or, like T-1000, can instantly create deadly (Ahnold voice:) “knives, and stabbing weapons.” “Terminator” ends with Sarah Connor just out of terminator’s reach, because if he gets his hand on her she’s dead. If T-1000 got within five feet of John Connor, Connor would be slashed through in a second.

“Salvation” is full of Terminators who are not especially interested in terminating. Arnold didn’t act in “Salvation,” but they digitally added his face over a terminator body. He must have been pissed, because the terminator with his face was pathetic. It repeatedly grabs Connor and throws him into a wall. It never kills him. There’s even a moment during the ridiculous “Climactic Battle” where a terminator is holding Connor up off the ground by the neck. They just stay that way until Connor gets saved. A Cameron terminator would crush his throat the instant it got a grip.

There are motorcycle terminators. Why—the—f*ck would Skynet create terminators which can be overridden and then literally ridden by their enemies the humans?

We’ve not even begun to dig into what makes “Salvation” so lousy. No sense of humor. The machines’ plan to kill Connor is ridiculously convoluted, the opposite of the simple spirit of Cameron’s classics. Kate Brewster went from Claire Dane’s brave heroine to Bryce Dallas Howard’s dead-eyed dullard. A major role is played (dullard-like) by Moon Bloodgood, which I believe is a euphemism for when a woman’s on her period.

Let’s put “Salvation” out of our minds and focus on “Terminator,” “Judgement Day” and “Rise of the Machines.” The first two are classics for all time, and together they constitute a legendary franchise.

There is a new “Terminator” movie in the works, with Arnold coming back. The ingredients are there to make something amazing. Just don’t overthink it. And don’t hire McG.

— –C:*

A Very Flip Side Christmas, with special guests Mailman and Romo

My grandma gave me this sweatshirt. She sends me these on Christmas, and I love them.

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That picture is from Monday night. I wore it while watching the Lions play the Ravens. The Ravens used to be the Browns, you might know. Until they left Cleveland, changed their name, and won Super Bowls.

Goodbye forever, football. You’re too fucking mean.

!&<

The negativity toward Karl Malone and Tony Romo is stupid because winning is fun.

Malone started more than 1,500 games in his career. He won all the time, and averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds. He made it to the NBA finals twice.

Romo’s different. He’s The Dallas Cowboys Quarterback. He throws interceptions at the end of close games sometimes, but half the time he wins, with a gunslinger’s bravado that indicates he appreciates the raw fun of football.

Have you ever been playing a game and gotten caught up in the competition? Started trying like hell to win? That’s Mailman and Romo. They want to win so badly. They just screw up sometimes.

!&<

With eight minutes to go in the second quarter Monday night, Lions receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson caught a quick slant for eight yards. As he was falling backwards with the ball he took a diving shoulder from Ravens inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who weighs 250 pounds. The shoulder went through the back of Megatron’s helmeted head, hard enough to snap it forward unnaturally, with awkward violence. Megatron got up and leaned left and bounced on just his left foot. It would be so Megatron to take a hit like that, that truly hurt him, and pretend like it was nothing. He knows everyone knows he’s the biggest and strongest.

!&<

Seven years ago my fantasy team Pee Hole Fisters went winless. A defeated 0-13. That had never happened before in Burque League, and hasn’t happened since. I think I started Mark Bulger and Donald Driver and Jeremy Shockey. Hines stupid Ward. Jesus.

I was writing a weekly fantasy football advice column that season, for the late, great Albuquerque Tribune daily newspaper. I’ve been pretty mediocre since. Undone by injuries, usually. Jamaal Charles scored five touchdowns yesterday for the Chiefs, but when I had him he missed the last 14 games of a season.

This year, my guys kept winning. My late-round running backs were amazing, a rotating foursome of 100-yard, one-touchdown games: Lacy, Knowshon, Bernard and Jackson.

And I was on the insane RG3 train. I was at work one day last week refreshing ESPN.com every 15 minutes because there was supposed to be an RG3 press conference, where the Redskins’ psychotic coach would announce whether his young franchise quarterback was gonna play the last three games or not. The decision was he would not.

What a ride it’s been.

11-2.

Just great.

!&<

A huge hit again, for the first play of the second half. This time Ravens safety James Ihedigbo nails Megatron flush in the air, shoulder into shoulder. Megatron hangs on for the 20-yard gain. He stays down, lifts his head, and shakes it back and forth. “And he is shaken up right there,” says the TV color commentator, Jon Gruden.

I was wearing my Browns sweatshirt while I watched Megatron drop the next two passes, which would have been for big gains. The ball hit him in his huge gloved hands, but he didn’t close his grip in time.

!&<

I lost by two points. A little less than two points, actually. I had Megatron, and my friend Ian I was up against had Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker. With less than one minute left in the game I was wearing my Browns sweatshirt, and my fantasy team was winning by three points, and Tucker was lining up for a 61-yard field goal to win the game for the Ravens. And Ian. It seemed like that ball hung in the air forever. Then it seemed a bit too far right, and a bit short. Then it dropped inside the goal posts by inches. Inches.

Inches. Al Pacino was right.

The Baltimore Ravens kicker scored 22 fantasy points, and even talked about his fantasy value in the post-game interview. Megatron scored 9.8 points in the fog.

And I lost by by 1.6. I will remember this night forever. I’d been winning and winning and winning, week after week. It was so much fun. Then this one nail-biter and I’m done. If only Jimmy Graham had caught a touchdown. If only Megatron hadn’t gotten concussed. If only. If only. If only. OHGOOOODDDDDWHYYYYY!!!!?!?!?!?!

I was wearing my Browns sweatshirt I got from grandma for Christmas.

Goodbye, football. Goodbye forever. You’re too fucking violent. You’re too mean.

!&<

I have to go to bed. I started late, but I’m drunk now on Scotch.

Goddammit I hate the Ravens.

Dreading Mailman’s Ghost . . . in Fantasy Football

I fear the ghost of Karl Malone. I have two Malone jerseys; there is an action-figure shrine to him above my refrigerator*. When Malone was playing power forward on the Utah Jazz in the ’90s, my mood rose and fell with his play. When he was great, I felt great. And the Mailman was extremely great in regular seasons.

But he always, always lost in the playoffs. It hurt worse every time.

Here’s how I snowboard when feeling especially saucy:

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My fantasy football team this NFL season, Mingo F*ck Yerself, has the No. 1 seed in the ‘Burque league playoffs. I finished 11-2, the only team with double-digit wins. I won a fantasy matchup in Week 9 by this score: 161.45–153.35. Receiver T.Y. Hilton, Colts. Megatron was on a bye that weekend, and I still won huge. My only loss (since the first game) was Week 11, despite 60 combined from Megatron and Washington Football Team QB RG3. Jimmy Graham and Knowshon Moreno had low games. Fluke. I had the third highest score of all the teams that week.

The dude who beat me then is Daniel. Team name: Eye of Yaweh. We were roommates after college. He’s got Peterson. And Gronk. Daniel’s the No. 2 seed. Because we’re the top two, we both get a bye, automatically advancing to round two. If we play again it’ll be in the championship on December 23. I’ll be with my in-laws for Christmas.

Of the five other guys who made the playoffs (in a 12-team league), three were once roommates. The top three teams all lived together once. A fourth, Marlman, lived in a room I moved into immediately after he moved out, so we just barely missed being roommates.

There’s money, too.

I want to win.

Ming F*ck Yourself just had a season to remember. Now begin the playoffs. The No. 3 seed is my friend and former roommate Nebs. We stayed up late one night, weeks ago, negotiating a trade over G-chat that would have got me Peyton Manning. He backed out the next morning.

Nebs says my only hope to escape Karl Malone’s ghost is to burn my Malone stuff.

I won’t do it. My players have gotten me this far. They’ll come through. Come on, RG3—be amazing.

A shrine. Jesus. I never thought it might actually matter.

Sports is ridiculous.

*

John Stockton running shit. The painting is of Baby Stockton giving a ball to Baby Malone

John Stockton running shit. The painting is Baby Stockton giving a ball to Baby Malone

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