Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Odd and Glorious Career of Patrick Swayze

When Patrick Swayze died a few months ago, the tributes were heartfelt but brief, unlike the endless attention that had been given earlier to Michael Jackson. That's wholly appropriate; Jackson's death was unexpected and shocking, and his career cast a longer shadow worldwide.

Still, I feel it would be rewarding for a closer look at Swayze, who had a truly interesting and unique career, a cobbled-together filmography of odd delights, cult hits and familiar favorites.

For someone who was a star at one point in his career, Swayze made very few films. What's amazing is how many of those films occupy unique corners in the history of film from the 1980s on. Who else would be able to claim that he starred in two huge romantic hits (Dirty Dancing, Ghost), two genuinely awesome cult action movies (Road House, Point Break), one of the most influential indies in recent years (Donnie Darko), one of the oddest curios of the 1980s (Red Dawn) and one of the strongest collections of future talent in modern film history (The Outsiders)?

I'd like to take a closer look at a few of those.

Red Dawn. There are movies that examine the Cold War with more insight and nuance, but no other film reveals the violent, half-crazy way that this country sometimes views itself than Red Dawn. It opens with the Russians invading a small town in Colorado for some reason. (It lacks a scene where a Russian commander, preferably wearing an enormous hat with a red star on the front, says "We must secure the gas-n-sip!") All the citizens are forced into internment camps except for the local high schoolers, who take off for the woods, acquire some guns and eventually fight to take the town back. As an action movie, Red Dawn is two hours of pure cheese, but as a guide to the paranoid leanings of American thought, it's priceless. Many arguments in American politics today can be traced back to the idea made explicit in the film: that we may have to move to the woods and re-fight the American revolution. To many Americans, that's not a fear; it's a fantasy.

Donnie Darko. Swayze has a small role in this puzzling, atmospheric flick by director Richard Kelly. I won't say too much about the part, but it was a smart and unexpected choice by Swayze, and an unnerving performance as well.

Point Break and Road House. Generally speaking, I enjoy action movies that are fun, rather than those that are grim, violent slogs from the opening titles to the end credits. I suspect Swayze did too, since he starred in these two films, both of which are a blast. In the former he's a shaggy-maned surfer-turned-bank robber; in the latter he is a bouncer with a degree in philosophy. The important thing to note is that while both films tried to thrill audiences, neither took itself too seriously. Point Break offers lots of oddball moments, such as the split-second moment during a foot chase when the man being chased picks up a dog and throws it at his pursuer. And I've watched Road House probably six or seven times, and I still can't figure out if it's a straight action movie or a subversive comedy in disguise. (The moment when Ben Gazzara's crime boss boasts, "JC Penney is coming here because of me!" may be a giveaway, though.)

Dirty Dancing. You may not believe this, but there was a time when two movie characters could fall in love without one of them being a vampire. One of the most memorable examples of this trend was Dirty Dancing. Virtually every woman who has seen Dirty Dancing loves it, and will giggle and blush if you inject the phrase "Nobody puts baby in the corner!" into your everyday conversation. In terms of its stature as a romance, it may be the Titanic of its day, the romantic template that women always have in their minds. As a guy, I'm tempted to make fun of Dirty Dancing, but I can't. Unlike many films today, it is uncluttered with contrivances and utterly free of irony. It's completely sincere.

Judging from his roles, that's what I suspect Patrick Swayze was like, too.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stop It. I'm Not Kidding.

Over the years, I've become rather fond of the English language.

Sure, I may be biased because we grew up together, but I like to think the relationship between me and the language is true love, or at least a pleasantly broken-in friendship. I've even fallen in love with its smaller virtues: Its pleasing rhythm, its limitless flexibility, its weirdly endless number of words you can choose from to refer to your butt.

So please understand the seriousness with which I write this: Please, please stop murdering it by using the phrase going forward.

I don't know how this phrase was invented, but it's spread rapidly, popping up in articles, journals, broadcasts and conversations.

I usually abide writing tics such as this; almost everyone falls into their traps from time to time. But what's especially galling about this one is that it's useless. If you say, We're going to make fewer mistakes going forward, what you mean is We're going to make fewer mistakes. The difference is that you spent two words wasting your readers' time.

Let's say that you want to tell a friend that you are going to take piano lessons. Seems simple enough, right?

You: I am going to take piano lessons.
Friend: Hey, that's great!

Now, let's add two more words to that first bit.

You: I am going to take piano lessons going forward.
Friend: Thank you for clarifying that you will not take piano lessons in the past. For a minute I thought you had invented a time machine and were going to travel backwards in time and take piano lessons.

See? The phrase going forward can ruin friendships as well as sentences.

Please, please avoid it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Belated Recommendations: An Ongoing Series

Mission: Impossible 3

In the years since it was released, M:I3 has gotten a bad rap among some movie-biz insiders and fans. It was released when star Tom Cruise was suffering through a patch of bad publicity, made less money domestically than its predecessors and frequently had the adjective 'disappointing' added to its title by film pundits.

That's a shame, because it's not only clearly the best of the Mission: Impossible movies, it's also one of the sharpest action movies to come out of Hollywood this decade.

The plot has Cruise's super-secret agent, Ethan Hunt, traveling the world to take on a nasty arms dealer played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The plot isn't especially important, a fact which director J.J. Abrams cheerfully acknowledges before lavishing his attention on the things that really matter: wit, thrills and a fast-moving momentum that carries the audience along.

First of all, the wit. In most action movies, witty usually means that there's a hilarious computer nerd sidekick who lives in his mom's basement and eats Hot Pockets. Either that, or the hero says something like, "Mind if I play through?" when beating the villain to death with a golf club. But M:I3 has a more playful sense of wit and is willing to goose the conventions of the genre. One scene promises to be a knock-down, drag-out action sequence, but instead you see it from the point of view of the sidekicks waiting outside; in another, a villain is dispatched in a surprisingly creative and abrupt fashion. There's also the nature of the object both the hero and villain are pursuing at the costs of many lives; nobody seems to be sure what it does, but they do seem sure that it might just bring along the end of the world.

Second of all: Hoffman, who has a limited amount of screen time, manages to craft an unnerving villain in international arms dealer Owen Davian. There aren't any gimmicks to his character, and no back story to speak of. He's just a sadistic, confident and relentless bad guy who dominates every scene he's in. And his one-on-one confrontation with Cruise, which opens the villain, gives later scenes a weight they wouldn't otherwise deserve.

That's not all - the supporting cast (which includes Billy Crudup, Lawrence Fishburne and Simon Pegg) is fun; the action scenes are done with brio; and the gadgets are neat, adding an enjoyable wrinkle to a genre that has tilted toward stone-faced seriousness in recent years.

Check it out if you get the chance.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Wait a minute ... maybe Palin's right

Sarah Palin has reportedly speculated that, under the health plan currently being debated in Congress, Americans would have to justify their health care in front of 'Obama's death panel.'

Many people immediately pointed out that this claim was utterly unfounded. However, further digging reveals more disturbing aspects of the health-care proposal.

Here are just a few.

1) Instead of recess, elementary-school students will spend 30 minutes a day smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

2) Major medical associations to recommend drinking eight glasses of Hollandaise sauce a day.

3) Old national pastime: baseball. New national pastime: shovel fights.

4) Americans will be covered by a nonsensical, patchwork health-insurance system that rewards greedy decisions by huge corporations and leaves large swaths of the population uninsured. Huh ... that one doesn't seem funny for some reason.

5) New food pyramid will recommend 3-5 servings of Lunchables per day.

6) Old NIH goal: finding new treatments for incurable diseases. New NIH funding goal: Buying every VHS movie in case the format makes a comeback.

7) Catchy ad campaign starring the cast of High School Musical about how only losers use headlights.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How to be an Idiot in Five Easy Steps

These days, if you're not posting comments online, you're nobody. Whether it's an article on health-care reform in your local newspaper or a photo of a friend hitting a beer bong on Facebook, you can't go anywhere on the net without being given the opportunity to share your wisdom.

This raises a question: How do you get heard? How do you make sure that your comment - so witty! so caustic! - is more convincing than that of hated rivals such as beer_rules1235?

Well friends, I have ventured into the jungle of internet message boards and returned with a few tips for you to make your point, burn your rival and get showered with the praise your comments undoubtedly deserve. Read on!

1) Use that caps lock key. Scientists have established that any argument seems more forceful, logical and eloquent when shouted. It seems as if it would be difficult to replicate this cunning advantage online, it's not. Just type some of your most important words, phrases, or even paragraphs in all caps. I can assure you it makes you seem like a modern Lincoln, Darrow or Disraeli and not some moron in a bar who keeps yelling that this is the year the Patriots will go undefeated, right before showing everybody the multi-colored tattoo of Tom Brady you have on your upper back.

2) While you're at it, pour on the exclamation points. If I write, The stimulus package is a joke and Obama should be removed from office, you may recognize that I just made a wild statement without backing it up with facts. But observe what happens when I write, The stimulus package is a joke and Obama should be removed from office!!!!!! Suddenly, you find yourself drawn to my argument and you wish to subscribe to my mail-order pamphlets about how Jews control NASA. That's the power of exclamation points.

3) Engage in name-calling. One of the earliest masters of rhetoric, Aristotle, was quoted as saying, "Name-calling and punning is the highest forms of rhetoric. Also, STUPID LIBS can totally suck it!!!!" Or maybe he didn't; my copy of Aristotle is holding up one leg of my card table and it would take forever to move all my stuff off of it. Anyway, the point is that calling opponents and political figures names is a perfectly reasonable form of discourse. Lumping them into broad categories is good (libs, wingnuts, tree-huggers, etc.), but making a super-clever pun is better and shows your superiority. For example, if your opponent drones on and on about unemployment figures or the Constitution, you just write, "Yeah? Well you're just a DEMOCRAP!!" What's he going to say to that, huh?

4) Blame everything on illegal immigrants. Hey, did you know that illegal immigrants - many of whom were not even born in this country - are responsible for ballooning the deficit, stealing health benefits, taking jobs away from real Americans, raising crime rates, getting us into war with Iraq, creating an unsustainable credit bubble, torturing children in secret prisons, shredding the Constitution, aiding terrorists, producing shopping carts that have one bad wheel, making it so the Bills never win the Super Bowl, breaking up the Beatles, breaking up Wings, fueling the mystifying success of the Moody Blues, running out on the check, farting at face level while walking past your cubicle, starting World War I, starting World War II, starting the Crimean War, starting the Tekwars, writing and producing the film Crash starring Sandra Bullock and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, posting embarrassing photos of you on Facebook, raising oil prices and tangling up the string on your yo-yo then just handing it back to you? Be sure to point this out on message boards.

5) Offer lots of anecdotal evidence. One key to winning the message-board battle is to remember that people like facts as long as they're from real life and not from reports or books or newspapers or anything like that. For example, if some stupid democrap posts a bunch of boring numbers about how many losers are unemployed, be sure to mention that your cousin Larry is also unemployed, and all he does is fish for Wild Turkey bottles under his bed and wait for his check from the government. That'll show 'em. That'll show 'em real good.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Don't Quit Your Day Job ... Whatever That Is

There's an opinion piece on cnn.com right now by Republican Congressman Eric Cantor. The piece points out some of the risks that come with the stimulus bill being pushed by President-Elect Obama.

If you think I'm going to do a nuanced breakdown of the economic misconceptions behind that piece, you, sir or madam, have vastly underestimated my laziness, because I'm going to do no such thing.

I am, however, going to mock Representative Cantor for the most confused simile I have had the misfortune of reading. Check it out:

Like bears sniffing out food at a campfire pit, those looking for a piece of the multi-billion dollar pie have flooded Washington with a cascade of requests

A few points on this stitched-together Frankenstein of a sentence:

1) Now, I'm no expert on bears. However, I'm certain that bears are incapable of flooding Washington with requests. First of all, they're bears; they can't speak. Secondly, even if they could speak, how would they dial a phone? The buttons are much too tiny for their massive paws. See? It's just ludicrous.

2) Please note the confusing swerve that takes place when the bears, which were established as the actors in the first clause of the sentence, suddenly begin flooding in the second. Representative Cantor, I cannot keep up with your literary pyrotechnics, sir! Bills, pies, bears, cascades ... I've forgotten what you were writing about, but for some reason I am hungry and want to go camping in the mountains.

Other than that, nice sentence.