Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Dirty Nineties

Here's a short essay I posted to The Next Level, a gaming and pop culture discussion board, about an interesting point in film history:

The early '90s was kind of a depressing time. Crime was skyrocketing, the economy was slow, an unpopular Bush was president and the Japanese were eating our lunch. The prosperity of the mid-to-late '90s, the rapid eclipse of the Japanese economy, and the sharp reduction in crime that followed soon made us forget this gloomy era. But the movies made during this period bring those memories back.

Some of them are comedies, some are typical big-budget action flicks, and some of them defy easy genre categorization. But they all share a particular aesthetic I like to call "dirty '90s": dark, neon-lit streets, steamy back alleys, morally conflicted protagonists, and an overarching pessimistic world view.

Here's a preliminary list of movies I came up with. Feel free to supplement this list.

The Last Boy Scout: One of the great, overlooked action flicks of the nineties. This movie has an unforgettable opening scene: a pair of football teams square off in a miserable, muddy arena, rain pouring down in sheets. The quarterback hands the ball to a crazed-looking running back. The running back heads for the end zone and then, just before the opposing linemen bring him down, he pulls out a pistol and shoots three of them dead. Then he turns the pistol on himself and pulls the trigger. Wow! The film itself is a darkly humorous noir thriller about corrupt football teams, politicians, and a down-and-out former Secret Service agent (Bruce Willis, the eponymous hero) and co-stars Damon Wayans and Halle Barry's naked breasts. Tony Scott's direction really shows the influence of his brother Ridley's Blade Runner, a film that profoundly influences the other films on this list.

The Fisher King: I could write for pages and pages about this movie (in fact, I already have, way back in my undergraduate thesis), but this Terry Gilliam film takes the Dirty Nineties elements and fashions them into a peculiar comedic drama. Jeff Bridges plays a New York shock jock/asshole whose outrageous radio act urges a listener to go on a murderous rampage. One year later, wracked with guilt, he bumps into a former medieval history professor -- now living as a bum -- whose wife was murdered by the aforementioned psycho. Together the two embark on a search for the Holy Grail.

Black Rain: Mostly a by-the-numbers action/noir picture notable for its oustanding visual style, again the product of Ridley Scott. Michael Douglas is the hard-boiled, fish out of water American detective in Tokyo who resolves to avenge his partner's murder.

Predator 2: Not as good as the original, but takes the concept in an entirely new direction. P2 imagines a near-future totally dominated by criminal street gangs. Police roll around town in armored minivans. A Jamaican drug overlord is the unofficial king of Los Angeles. What better place for the Predator to test his hunting skills? Danny Glover and a not-quite-batshit-insane Gary Busey co-star.

Demolition Man: Shares the urban dystopia backstory of Predator 2 but then runs a play-action fake: it's a 1984-style action-comedy picture! After mass murderer Wesley Snipes is released from his cryoprison into the Los Angeles of the future, rogue cop Sly Stallone is thawed out and ordered to catch him. Great idea marred by some horrific product placement and the casting of Stallone in the lead role. Snipes is the best thing in this movie. Oh and Dennis Leary is good too.

Ron Paul and the Greg Stillson Factor

I've always been skeptical of third parties because of what I like to call the "Greg Stillson factor." Named for the batshit insane presidential candidate in Stephen King's The Dead Zone, it's essentially an argument in favor of the American two party political system. Even though both parties have been corrupted by money and patronage, they can each be relied upon to produce reasonably sane candidates. Or at least candidates that will not initiate global thermonuclear war on a whim a la Greg Stillson. (Yes, I know there is no small irony here in light of Bush/Cheney warmongering toward Iran, but let's persist with the analogy for a moment).

So I've never really understood the love for Ron Paul. Sure, he's anti-war, and he's amusing to watch on the stump. But his obsession with returning to the gold standard, not to mention his latent racism, should keep him on the fringes where he belongs. He's just another Greg Stillson nutball.

Your World Frightens and Confuses Me

My inspiration:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Hang 'Em High -- in Texas

Actual executions are in sharp decline across the country. Most capital cases take years, if not decades, to resolve, through retrials, collateral appeals, and lower court remands. Not surprisingly, Texas now accounts for 60% of all executions in the United States, according to the New York Times. Few of the powers that be in Texas are inclined to slow this trend. Quite the opposite:

The last execution before the Supreme Court imposed a de facto moratorium happened in Texas, and in emblematic fashion. The presiding judge on the state’s highest court for criminal matters, Judge Sharon Keller, closed the courthouse at its regular time of 5 p.m. and turned back an attempt to file appeal papers a few minutes later, according to a complaint in a wrongful-death suit filed in federal court last month.

The inmate, Michael Richard, was executed that evening.

(Credit: How Appealing)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nice Driving! Have a Starbucks Card!

AP reports that police in Rancho Cordova, California are handing out $5 Starbucks cards to law-abiding motorists as a reward for good driving.

Needless to say, this is completely unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment prohibits a police officer from stopping a vehicle unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe the driver has committed a crime of some kind, including a civil traffic violation. Just as it's unacceptable for an officer to pull you over to check your welfare, it's illegal for a cop to stop your vehicle just to hand out stocking stuffers.

Which is it: a goodwill scheme, or secret plot to rein in drunken driving? You make the call.

(credit: Volokh for the link)