Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dalai Lama Rant

OK, this might offend some people, but I promised my son I would write it, so here it is...

I've always found the fascination of Western liberals with the Dalai Lama to be somewhat tiresome and annoying, particularly coming as it does from people who claim to value democracy and religious freedom, since he represents neither of those things.  On the other hand, in the unlikely event you actually are a Tibetan Buddhist, please don't read this.

Don't get me wrong, he looks adorable and he says cool things that look great on posters.  Celebrities really like him, and we trust their judgment in all things - vaccinations, for example.  Plus, he's working to get those damn Chinese out of Tibet and return the legitimate government, and that's a really good cause, right? I really don't know. You probably don't know either.  Maybe even Bono doesn't know, in which case we're basically rudderless.

First of all, let's be honest about exactly what the Dalai Lama is: for all intents and purposes, he's deposed royalty, pure and simple. The world is full of deposed royalty. We don't normally celebrate them - except for the royalty we deposed ourselves (locally anyway) a couple of centuries ago, but that's a subject for another rant.

I have no idea what the term "legitimate government" means for a place that's never had anything even remotely resembling democracy.  Historically it means "the guys with the best army", so that would be the Chinese.  In some cases however, it means "Guys your government hates a bit less less than the other guys", which favors the Dalai Lama - or at least it did for awhile.  But what's best for the Tibetan people?

Whether Tibet is better or worse under Chinese rule is a matter of intense debate, even among scholars who actually know something about it.  For everyone else, it's a war of propaganda.  Chinese propaganda says that they "liberated" the country from a tyrannical system, and the Tibetans are better off now. What we have to realize is that what groups like "Free Tibet" say is also just propaganda with with a somewhat different agenda.  The Tibetan government-in-exile is the former elite ruling class, so of course they don't like the new bosses.  They've been very good about getting their version of propaganda out at least partially because they had a lot of help from the American CIA in doing so. Haven't you ever wondered why people seem to care so much more about Tibet than other troubled places on Earth?  That's not an accident. It goes without saying that the CIA never gave half a shit about the Tibetan people, but supporting the Dalai Lama pissed off Chairman Mao and that was enough for them.

What is indisputable is that the popular image of pre-1951 Tibet as some sort of peaceful Shangri-La is simply horse shit.  It was a primitive theocratic feudal system ruled by a monk class with the Dalai Lama (or his regent) at the top as the absolute ruler.  Most people were "serfs", who had no education, healthcare, electricity, or any human rights to speak of. There is endless debate about whether "serf" meant "slave" or just "someone too poor to do anything else", but that seems like kind of an academic distinction to me. The average life expectancy was 35 years and the infant mortality rate was a whopping 43%!  As for religion, it was their way or the highway - um, did I mention there were no highways? In any event, the notion that this is a society we should in any way revere or (God forbid!) emulate is just plain ludicrous.

Of course, the Dalai Lama has promised things would be very different if he returned to Tibet. He'd have democracy, freedom of religion, human rights, rainbows and ponies for everyone, but he can promise anything he wants because it's never going to happen.  I'd do a really kick-ass job of ruling Tibet, too, if they just gave me a chance.  The fact is, we have absolutely no idea how he would have ruled if he had remained in in charge.  He'd spent his whole life being told he was effectively a deity incarnate, and such people have rarely shown a pattern of empathy.

So how did little Lhamo Dondrub rise to be Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the subject of this rant, anyway? He was selected at the age of two, a few years after the 13th Dalai Lama had died (he is a reincarnation, after all).  Of course, at two, he wasn't elected or chosen based on qualifications or achievements.  He was picked using what can only be called "superstitious mumbo-jumbo".  That's the "legitimate government" people want to restore.  Say what  you want about the Pope, but at least he had to pay his dues and work his way up the corporate ladder.

While he was growing up, he chilled in relative luxury while Tibet was ruled by a regent (actually two regents who fought bitterly over the position).   He formally became the Dalai Lama at the age of 15 - just in time to hand Tibet over the Chinese.  For about nine years, he worked "with" the Chinese.  To what extent he was a willing collaborator is debated, but he certainly didn't actively oppose them.  He was also looking for a way out for himself.  When he visited India in 1956, he asked if he could, you know maybe not return to his beloved country, but Nehru said it was a bad idea.  In 1959, there was an uprising in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, fearing for his safety, fled - with some help from the CIA, who supported him until 1972, when Nixon thought it might cause problems for his efforts in China. He's been dining with royalty and rock stars ever since.

So really, his big achievement was to leave his country when things got rough.  He's been campaigning for Tibet and supporting guerrilla actions against the Chinese since then, but this has accomplished precisely dick.

Look, I'm sure he's a very nice guy, and in his place I'm pretty sure that in his place I would have done my best to save my own ass, too.  He was, after all, just a kid at the time.  On the other hand, what's the reason to celebrate this?  What would we think of Gandhi if instead of risking his life to stand up to the British, he traveled the globe telling everyone what assholes they were?  What about Martin Luther King?  He could have had a pretty good life safely giving lectures about the South at liberal universities in the North, but he didn't choose to do that.

So that's about it.  Flame on if you will.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Troll 2 (1990)/Best Worst Movie (2009)

This is an unusual case.  I'm reviewing these two movies together, because they really have to be seen as a pair to be fully understood and appreciated.  "Troll 2" is unquestionably a top contender in the "so bad it's good" category, while "Best Worst Movie" - the documentary made about "Troll 2" - is genuinely interesting and entertaining.

Troll 2 (1990)

IMDB entry: here
My rating (as a bad movie): 5/5

There's so much bad in this movie that it's hard to know where to begin, so let's start with the title. Based on the title, you'd guess it was the sequel to "Troll", the 1986 movie starting Michael Moriarty, Shelly Hack, and Sony Bono, but you'd be wrong.  Not only does it have absolutely nothing to do with the former movie, but there aren't even any trolls in it!   The title was just a shameless attempt to leverage the moderate success of the earlier movie.

The plot, such as it is, involves the Waits family moving to the town of Nilbog (spell it backwards, get it?).  The young boy is visited by the ghost of his dead grandfather, who warns him to beware of the goblins (not trolls!!) in the town.  The ghost grandfather also has some magic powers that are enough to help the boy out a bit and get him into embarrassing situations, but never quite enough to actually solve a problem.  It's sort of like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie in that regard.

The goblins' game is to trick people into eating some sort of goop that turns them into plants.  Why? Because the goblins are vegetarians!  Turning people into plants allows the goblins to eat them.  This was apparently a way for the the director's wife, who co-wrote the movie, to vent her annoyance at her vegetarian friends.

The dialog is terrible, because it was largely written by the director, an Italian whose English is so bad that he has to be interviewed through an interpreter.  Add some horrific acting and low budget special effects, and you have a truly memorable bad movie.

I could go on, but you really have to see it to believe it.

The movie vanished into obscurity for some time, until someone stumbled upon it a few years ago, and it has since become something of a cult phenomenon in the fine tradition of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Best Worst Movie (2009)

IMDB entry: here
My rating (as a good documentary): 5/5

For the first few minutes, you may think you have the wrong movie. It seems to be some sort of documentary about a small town and one of its prominent citizens, George Hardy. After a few residents sing the George's praises, the director asks innocently, "Did you know George once made a movie?". No one did.  It seems George doesn't talk about it much.

It turns out that 19 years earlier, George Hardy played Michael Waits, the father in Troll 2. As for the child who talked to his dead grandfather, he was played by a young Michael Stephenson, who grew up to make this documentary.  You can see an example of their acting ability as well as the movie's most memorable line here.

George had been an aspiring actor when he made Troll 2, but that experience convinced him to give up acting and become a dentist.  If you've seen the former movie (or even just watched the clip above), I'm sure you'll agree that this was a wise decision.

The documentary focuses primarily on George's experiences as he revisits his involvement in that film and discovers the cult phenomenon it has become.  We also meet some of the other actors and catch up on what they've been up to since.

This movie works on a couple of levels.  On the one hand, it's great fun to rewatch the worst parts of the first movie and to explore the entertaining world of bad B-movie fandom, but on the other hand it's actually a very effective documentary with some surprising depth.  It follows George's journey as he initially embraces the new found notoriety of Troll 2, but eventually becomes disillusioned when he realized that for many people, a bit part in a B-movie was the height of their achievement, and they've spent the rest of their life going to "cons" of one sort or another.  On assumes he returned to his "normal" life with a new found appreciation for it.

So make it a double feature night and watch both!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Impossible Movie Cliché Rant

It would be impossible to catalog all of the physically and logically absurd things that occur in movies and on television.  On the other hand, there are some things which have become more or less standard plot devices over the years in spite of being totally ludicrous, and this post is my attempt to collect them into a list. It will be augmented as new entries are suggested.  In no particular order...
  • You don't need to "keep someone on the line" to trace where the call is coming from.  You can find that information well after the fact.  Just look at your phone bill.  If you've lost your phone bill, just ask the NSA. And don't talk about *67. Yes, that blocks an ordinary person from seeing the number, but it doesn't block the police from getting the information.
  • If you cut the brake lines on a car, the brakes will stop working immediately, not after you "run out of brake fluid".  You will notice this backing out of the driveway, well before that really steep and dangerous hill everyone seems to have on the way to work.
  • You can't cut a circular hole in glass with a glass cutter and a suction cup.  In fact, it's damn near impossible to cut a circular hole in glass with any tool.  Even with specialized power tools, you'll almost certainly just shatter the glass.
  • Virtually no buildings have air ducts big enough to crawl through.  In the unlikely event you find one that does, grills are always screwed on from the outside. Those handy "EZ popout grills" only exist in movies.  
  • The design flaw that once allowed door latches to be opened with credit cards was fixed many decades ago. 
  • There's a limit to the resolution of any photograph.  Saying "zoom and enhance" doesn't change this.
  • No alarm system on Earth is based on criss-crossing laser beams. 
  • It's actually very difficult to knock someone out by hitting them on the head, and if you do, there's a good chance you'll cause permanent brain damage - or kill them outright.
  • The shock wave from an explosion travels at the speed of sound.  You can't outrun it with a car, motorcycle, or on foot.
  • If a large group of well trained professionals are all firing fully automatic weapons at a single man crossing an open space armed with a single pistol, that man will die - period.
  • A lit cigarette won't ignite gasoline (strange, but true).  
  • There is no rule that you have to wait 24 hours to file a missing person report.  You can file a report immediately if you have reasonable cause for concern.  
  • There's no logical reason why someone with a time machine would ever be in a hurry.
(to be continued...)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Ben and Arthur (2002)

IMDB Link: here
My rating: 5/5

You may think you've seen bad movies before, but unless you've seen this, you're wrong.  It's been referred to as "'The Room' with gay people", but that's not really fair, because (a) the plots are very different, and (b) "The Room" is much better.  Yes, you read that correctly: this movie makes "The Room" look good!

You know you're in for a real treat right from the beginning, as the EZ-Piano version of The Entertainer plays very slowly over the opening credits, who are mostly Sam Mraovich and other people named Mraovich. The direct-to-videotape quality is that of a very mediocre high school film project - made by people who have been held back so many times they're in their mid 20's.

If you enjoy spotting plot holes, glaring inconsistencies and downright goofs, then this is a movie for you. They start right at the beginning and don't let up for an hour and a half.


The movie opens as our protagonists, Ben and Arthur, are overjoyed to learn that gay marriage has been legalized in Hawaii. They immediately buy plane tickets, but their hopes are dashed a few hours later when the judge issues a stay against his own ruling (huh?), so they decide instead to go to Vermont (couldn't they have done that before?).

At this point, Ben confesses that he still needs to divorce his wife. I gather they believe polygamy is legal in Hawaii, because this didn't become a worry until the change of venue. Ben's wife must not have noticed that he moved out and has been living with another man for some time, because she is caught completely off guard both by his revelation that he is gay and by the divorce papers, which she refuses to sign. Ben assures Arthur that he will contact his lawyer to handle it.

This must be one hell of a lawyer, because they are able to marry just a few days later - among the gently swaying palm trees of Vermont! The ex-wife makes one brief appearance much later in the movie when she shows up and demands - at gunpoint! - that Ben remarry her, but he wrestles the gun away from her and we never see her again.

The side story involves their rather meager existence. We are told Ben is a licensed nurse, but chooses to work as a dish washer because he "has his music" (nurses can't be musicians?). Arthur works as a waiter in the same restaurant, but quits after a run-in with a mildly rude customer. At this point, he realizes he has no skills and no education, and decides to hit up his estranged brother Victor for money to go back to school. His brother doesn't recognize him, because he hasn't seen him in "like seven years", but when he finds out who he is, immediately establishes himself as a "crazy Christian", by asking Arthur if he has found God yet. Arthur, in an attempt to charm his brother out of the money, tells him to stop with the "religious s&%#". Nevertheless, his brother insists that before he gives them any money both he and Ben must come to see him.

This is when the movie starts to get really weird. There would be no problem building very sinister villains out of things mainstream churches have actually said and done regarding homosexuality, but this wasn't enough for the writer. He instead opts to introduce "christian" characters (they appear to be Catholic) whose actions are so bizarre and hateful they would make the Westboro Baptist Church blush.

After not seeing his brother for seven years, Victor becomes completely obsessed with saving his soul. He kills (!!) the lawyer who has been helping them get their marriage recognized in California, but then goes really crazy after he's kicked out of his church for having a gay brother (again,huh?). In desperation, he offers to kill Ben and Arthur. The priest thinks this is a good idea, and hooks him up with a hit man, who only manages to wound Ben. This drives Arthur crazy and he kills the priest by dowsing him with distilled water and setting him on fire (note, at this point he has no evidence the priest was even involved).

Yada yada, Victor shoots and kills Ben, then forces Arthur to get baptized (which the writer seems to believe Catholics do naked). In the end Victor and Ben shoot each other after doing a gay reenactment of the scene between Tony and his sister in Scarface.

Oh, did I mention that there's a completely non-sequitur scene where Ben suddenly becomes abusive and punches Arthur (knocking him out) for being a whiny little bitch? No matter, it's just one of the many unintentionally funny parts.

So congratulations, Tommy Wisceau! Now there's a movie even you can look down on.

Movie Review: Noah's Ark (1999 TV Miniseries)

IMDB link: here
My rating (as a bad movie): 4/5

If you're looking for either a serious Biblical epic or a movie that's intentionally funny, then you should keep looking, but this obscure gem is an absolute must for any bad movie connoisseur.

I totally missed this movie when it came out, but Encore was showing this around the time that the Russell Crowe version of "Noah" came out.  Based on the previews, it really looked like a parody  (think "Monty Python's Life of Noah"). Then I googled it, and realized it was actually meant to be taken seriously. With that in mind, it's kind of like a horrible car wreck you can't look away from.

Where to start...

First of all, they combine the story of Noah with the story of Sodom and Gomorra. Since I don't actually believe either one, this didn't bother me so much. God warns Noah that He's going to destroy Sodom, and Lot gets saved because he's Noah's friend, rather than the whole "Please rape my daughters" thing that's in the Bible. In fact, Lot's daughters are left out entirely, which also gets them out of the awkward part where he gets drunk and has sex with them after they leave the city (what, you never learned that part in Sunday school?). The Ark stuff comes later.

In order to make appeal to a wider audience, the "punched it up" a bit, with action, cheesy special effects, and attempts at humor, some which are funny - although the funniest bits are unintentional. There's also an incredible amount talent wasted on this film. Oscar winners (!) Jon Voight and F. Murray Abraham play Noah and Lot, with Mary Steenburgen and Carol Kane playing their wives. Even James Coburn makes a couple cameos. Their salaries didn't leave them a lot left over for minor things like decent sets. The battle scenes really do look like Monty Python. In addition to playing Noah, Voight also provides the voice of God, presumably because they couldn't afford James Earl Jones. Also, what is it about made for TV movies and accents? Noah and his wife clearly have American accents, while most other people - including their kids - have strong British accents.

The tone is a roller coaster, ranging from sincerely reverent, to bawdy humor (Lot: "Not staying for the orgy, Noah?") to actual slapstick (Lot's wife fall head first into a vat of dye at one point). At one point, the father of Japhet's wife refers to him as - I swear I'm not making this up - "Jay-fart". The music faithfully tracks the tone, transitioning from Cecile B. DeMille to Three Stooges.

You may wonder why the flood happens only halfway through the movie. Without giving any spoilers, I'll just say that there's plenty to come. Grab your beer and popcorn, because that's when things get *really* weird.  Also, Steenburgen, who had somehow managed to retain some acting dignity up until this point, completely runs off the rails.

So if you like to watch bad movies and give them the Mystery Science 3000 treatment, keep this one in mind.

I dinged it one point because as a two part miniseries, it's a bit too long, and when it's not really bad, it's merely boring. I'm seriously considering buying the DVD so I can edit down to a 90 minute party cut.