Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Art in Villainy

However much the fact may offend some people’s more puritanical sensibilities, nobody enjoys a wimpy villain. I learned as a small boy that “conflict is the heart of a good story,” and if that proverb is true it must follow that: No hero can visibly elevate himself much beyond his supplied villain.

This is why it is such a terrible sin for Hollywood to continually equip its heroes with cut-and-paste bad-guys. So here, in honor of great evildoers everywhere, is a list of ten of the most delightful from the cinematic world.

1. Feathers McGraw (The Wrong Trousers - 1993) | The true master of disguise, this silently brilliant criminal mastermind goes almost the entire (short) film identified only with the alias “Penguin” (no relation to the noisy Danny DeVito). And he’s only righting an ancient religious wrong done to his people by the imperialistic Capt. Cook. To date, Feathers remains the great Gromit’s only worthy criminal counterpart.

2. Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under - 1990) | This western is almost universally horrid, bearable only for Rickman’s singular masterful performance. Marston, the evil ranch owner intended to personify the word “empire,” brings a chilling and laidback calm alongside paired Colt Model 1860 revolvers to his private battlefield. Oh, and he enjoys using straggling troopers for target practice. I still say that had Rickman’s icy Marston and Tom Selleck’s wussy Quigley met without the interference of massively dumb writing, the Q wouldn’t have managed to walk away.

3. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity - 2005) | Deeply religious in his dedication to State, downright cheerful in the unruffled peace he brings to killing, the Alliance’s recordless Operative is one of the scariest people you’ll hope never to see. That says it all.

4. Primer - 2004 | Sorry, the name doesn’t appear here so as not to spoil this excellent film. Suffice it to say that the bad-guy in writer/director Shane Carruth’s independent drama paints a convincing portrait of humanity itself and proves along the way to be the most deeply chilling character I’ve ever seen anywhere. Haunting might be the word. In truth, this one should be at the head of the list.

5. Tom Dunson (John Wayne in Red River - 1948) | I debated losing the name here as well. Basically, Wayne starts out at his truest blue but evolves into a vengeful psychopath bent on ending his son‘s life. Convincing and poignant, this will prove to any skeptic that John Wayne could act (something he never did half so well as here, even in a Ford cavalry epic).

6. Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 1939) | Rains’ varied work is almost universally brilliant, and here (in perhaps both Frank Capra’s and James Stewart’s best film) he doesn’t miss a beat. Just try remaining detached as his aging, corrupt senator, still convinced his heart is made of gold, rends Stewart as his idealist young follower to shreds through hypocritical prosecutions.

7. Judge Roy W. Bean (Walter Brennan in The Westerner - 1940) | While this Judge Bean has nothing to do with the historical character (virtually nothing available today does), it manages to be the best acting job Brennan was ever allowed to do. Nuanced, psychopathically brilliant, and even vulnerable, Brennan’s Bean will “steal your heart” even as you… Well, you’ll see.

8. Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman in Raiders of the Lost Ark - 1981) | Surely Indiana Jones’ paramount adversary, Belloq even calls himself Indy’s “reflection.” A scholar and a skilled manipulator, few crooks can be so much ruled by their passions yet remain so cool-headed in their antagonistic pursuits. Only a Frenchman... Or, better yet, a Frenchman collaborating with Nazi Germany.

9. Calvera (Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven - 1960) | The great Eli Wallach will always be best remembered to western aficionados as Tuco, Sergio Leone’s “Il Brutto (Ugly),” but Tuco is a mere ant beside the great Mexican bandit Calvera. Stylistically “magnificent,” pettily controlling, compassionately patriarchal to his own, Calvera revels in his hypocrisy and tsks at others’ up-swellings. No one must miss this fine Broadway thespian at his gold-toothed best.

10. Matchstick Men - 2003 | This one also had to be heavily trimmed due to spoilage issues. Let’s just call it required viewing and leave it at that.

And I suppose that Honorable Mention of some sort should go to James Earl Jones’ vocal talent in the role of Darth Vader. No other villain has become quite so synonymous with the term, or so fully captured the imagination of a nation’s young people.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Force-ful Case

On Thursday the 3rd, in the middle of a discussion of Nikola Tesla, a coworker asked rather suddenly, “What do you think about Ch’i?”
My reply was succinct: “Um…”

He proceeded to tell me that one who has mastered the art of the Ch’i can move and levitate objects by power of thought alone; that is, without making physical contact. Telekinesis. And he kept asking me how I thought it could be done as “a real thing. No wires or any kind of trick like that.”

He was joking. Probably he thought my story about Tesla inadvertently creating a Manhattan earthquake with a small electrically-driven mechanical oscillator spurious (it is not) and decided to see how well I could differentiate fact from fantasy in even more incredible reports. I never once wondered if Ch’i might be authentic, but he was so deadpan in in his delivery that I began trying to find away of saying this that wouldn’t completely estrange him if he did indeed take the concept seriously.

(As an aside, our resident mystical agnostic interjected drolly that he didn’t know if someone could actually levitate an object by mental exertion but “maybe reduce it by a gram or two.”)

Finally, our Ch’i authority broke out laughing. To the room, “He’s never seen ‘Tai Chi Master.” To me, “You need to go rent that movie!”

As I understand it, the “Ch’i” in Tai Ch’i comes from a word also transliterated as “Ji” and means “unsurpassed,” while the “Ch’i” that means our Lucas-like life force is often transliterated “Qi.” For all I know (mysticism is for the most part not my area), Ji and Qi are completely unrelated words, but it still happens that Qi is a central concept of Tai-Ji.

As I said, on Thursday I was completely unconvinced of a Qi’s ability to either lower an object’s mass or to block the earth’s gravitational influence upon an object of constant mass. Actually, I wasn’t about to accept the existence of a Qi or anything like it at all (despite a working knowledge of Tesla’s own enthusiasm over photographic evidence of a “Kirlian field” generated by living matter).

That was Thursday. Today, however, I stood on the medical-grade scale that our club of health nuts uses in the company lunchroom to document weight loss. As I stood on said scale, I was able to make the weight reading rise or fall at will by at least twenty pounds. This was without stepping off or shifting my weight, which I can prove by doing the same thing with an inanimate object rather than myself. (The twenty-pound difference between weights functions as a percentage of the object’s overall mass, and as such I am still unable to actually cause said object to become weightless.)

I’m not being sarcastic when I say that this gag may be on par with those of the great physicist/prankster Dick Feynman. This is going to be classic!

Tomorrow I am scheduled to give a demonstration of my Qi power to various coworkers. The Fitness Squad should be on hand to explore this new method of weight loss.

Monday, August 07, 2006

‘Lost’ in the Shuffle

I am going to ask you to do something. You may take it as recommendation, but if so you have missed the point. While I would not hesitate o recommend this film, I am asking.

It is this: Tomorrow, grab your checkbook and stuff it in your pocket. Pull your credit card and carry it with you. Or make sure you have a twenty in the billfold and head out. Then, go to a Target or a Barnes & Noble or your local DVD rental front. But find and bring home Andy Garcia’s Lost City.

The Lost City’s story is the story of late 50’s Havana, a place of dissension, violence, and celebration in the same heartbeat. A despotic rule is finally crumbling as its works come back to haunt it and as the American mob scene decides to cut its losses. But along with the government, the city, the island, there is a family that will never rest in itself the same way again.

When I first heard about this film, back when it was on the festival circuit, I decided I had to see it. I didn’t know what historio-political world-view it would take, what its emphasis was. I just knew it had to be seen. As it turned out, once given theatrical release, only Cuban-Americans had any interest in it (possibly due to a non-existent advertising campaign), and only one city could be counted upon to be playing it any particular week. Finally, I decided to try using my frequent-flyer miles for a trip to one of Miami’s many cooperative movie houses.

As mentioned, the film is directed by the estimable Andy Garcia. It features fine acting talent, including Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray as American expatriates. The first is Batista’s mafia influence, the second the Greek chorus. Garcia himself is not only behind the camera but also in front of it, as what I view as a sober Ricky Riccardo.

I will not say that it is one of the greatest films ever made, a phrase far too frequently used. I will say that you should almost certainly see it. Little seen so far, yet much criticized, it should be emphasized that the flak it has been thrown for “historical inaccuracy” has come from individuals with a greater sense of pop culture than of history itself. The only condemnation I could give this film in honesty would be that it is paced more like a slow, epic novel than a Hollywood film. And that is no condemnation at all. (Please, someone try telling me that Schindler’s List is “too slow” and not “vivacious enough.”)

Largely stylized, probably “artsy,” this is a story of history and culture lost and found created every step of the way by children of that culture and eyewitnesses to that history, a moving portrayal of authentic family discord and kinship, a film worth seeing.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

“Must like… lots of $$”

No, I did not make this up.

Please tell me that “Company vehicle” means VW van.

[This newspaper] makes every effort to publish only bona fide job listings. Please be sure to read ads carefully. If you encounter a problem, send e-mail to [employee]@[paper].com.
Must like loud music, lots of $$ and rockin’ attitude.
Company vehicle.
Call [name] at [number]