Ass-Kickery On Tap

 A little taste of the awesome due in theaters during the next 12 months.

Say Goodnight, Gonzo

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Alberto Gonzalez preparing to testify, under oath, that his tie is blue

Anybody else feel like that party guest that just…wouldn’t…for Pete’s…sake…get…the…hell…OUT…finally left, and now you have one hell of a mess to clean up?  Whoever the next attorney general turns out to be, let’s make sure he doesn’t read 1984 as a how-to manual, shall we?

The Bush Administration: No Longer Even a Pretense of Giving a Damn

walter-2.jpg Civilizer

In 1969, we landed a manned spacecraft on the moon.  The frigging moon.  That’s about a quarter million miles away from the Earth (238,700 to be exact).  We had to build a spaceship that could achieve the proper thrust to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, hold up sufficiently to protect the humans inside as it went through a number of different atmospheric layers with differing levels of friction and therefore heat, respond with the necessary control in zero gravity to get to the moon in the first place, and then safely return after all those physics and engineering hurdles have been jumped.  The government was also able to successfully solve any and all problems related to life-support systems on board the space shuttle.  Do you realize how hard that had to be?  And that was 40 years ago.      

Since then, the leaps we have made in all technological areas have been astounding.  Did you know that Sony’s Playstation 3 has 8 Sony Cell cores each running at 3.2 GHz?  Don’t know what that means?  Neither do I, but all I know is that it makes it possible to create video games that look like this:  

solid-snake.jpg  Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for the Playstation 3

We’ve got computers IN OUR CARS that can find any point on any map and tell us how to get there.  And the computers TALK to us, we don’t even have to be in the least bit literate to use them!  Our phones can record video, send that video to a computer, and ruin a guy’s career!  And the Internet!  Thanks to the Internet, you can read the news, shop, correspond, and watch movie trailers, when before you would actually be getting work done.  And need I even mention the olfactory miracle that is Febreze?

This is why our ever-present energy problems never cease to blow my mind — and by “blow my mind” I mean “frustrate me to the point of shattering my sanity.”  When we need energy, we don’t flip on a compact mini-generator that plugs into our roof or use some kind of energy cell that harnesses the power of a clean-burning chemical reaction, or as I have long advocated, kidnap marathon runners and make them all run in huge hamster wheels somewhere out in the Great Plains.  No, for the past 150 years, when we need energy, we dig a bunch of huge holes in the ground and pump out the remains of dead dinosaurs and plants, then put that stuff in a big noisy contraption that burns it.  Seriously.   

It would be nice if our national leaders, recognizing that it’s not just foreign oil dependency that has us headed for a crisis but carbon dependency in general, would start drafting real strategies to quickly and economically encourage the development and use of clean, alternative energy sources.  If we could pull that off, we’d be both safer from a national security perspective and on our way to a more environmentally-conscious domestic agenda.  Plus, the next time mahmoud ahmadinejad writes another one of those weird-uncle Albert letters to the White House, Bush by way of reply can fax a xerox of his presidential ass to the Iranian embassy and tell that bearded little gnome to kiss it (and that he can splash around all he wants in the Strait of Hormuz, we’re fine without it, thankyouverymuch).

But as they have made unambiguously clear with their post-liberation Iraq plan, this administration really doesn’t see much point in, whaddayacallit, “planning ahead.”  I think if Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, and O’Beirne went to the grocery store with instructions to make a turkey dinner for that evening, they’d walk out of there with some Mountain Dew and a bag of pretzel sticks, and figure the bird would, I don’t know, show up somewhere along the way.  And so it is with the Department of the Interior.  We need more sources of energy, so instead of funding research for better bio-refineries or solar power, the Bush administration is knocking down some pesky regulatory roadblocks to mountaintop coal mining.    

Mountaintop removal mining or mountaintop coal mining is similar to the underwater “bottom-trawling” I discussed in a previous post.  The website for Mountain Justice Summer  (which includes a very clear and informative explanation of what the process involves) describes it as “strip-mining on steroids.”  Here’s the quick and very, very dirty on how it works, with a tip of the cap to Mountain Justice, the New York Times, and various other websites with similar content:

1.  Trees on the tops of mountains are clear-cut.  Then explosives blow the dirt and rock beneath loose.

2.  Huge shovels dig into the top soil, dump it into trucks, and the trucks start to haul it away. 

3.  A dragline digs into the rock to expose the coal seam, and the mining company starts to extract it. 

 Here’s what a mountain looks like when they’re done:

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The gray part used to look like the green part

So they have all this dirt, topsoil, and rock that was blasted off the top of the mountain, right?  Well, that gets called “overburden” and it gets dumped right into adjacent valleys, streams, and rivers, creating what’s called “valley fill.”  The Times reports that 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste, with that much more expected to be ruined by 2018 if the Bush administration’s proposal goes into effect.  And the coal companies are supposed to re-soil the mountaintops and plant trees in order to “reclaim” the environment, but who woulda thunk it, it’s tough for trees to grow in topsoil that was recently blasted clear out of the ground by heavy explosives.  What can you say, trees are wimps I guess.

You would think that brazenly dumping the top of a freaking mountain into a stream or river would be illegal, and until 2002, it was.  But when nobody (and by nobody I mean the press, of course, who really should create a Pulitzer category for Best Looking The Other Way) was paying attention, the Bush administration pulled some of its now-famous regulatory language ju-jitsu and changed the definition of the blasted rock and soil from “waste” to “fill.”  The 2002 “fill rule,” as the change has come to be called, made life a lot easier for coal companies.  And under these new regulations, all the mining companies have to do is demonstrate that they “intend” to prevent any undue environmental damage, and promise to clean things up later.  Quick environmental law rule of thumb: when you let an extraction company say “We’ll clean up later,” you’re screwed.  Those companies, by the way, have been major contributors to the Bush campaign, and have been heavily involved in elections in general, the GOP being the primary beneficiary of their largesse:

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from Opensecrets.org

Probably just a coincidence, just like the fact that a guy named Dirk Kempthorne, who has always had a friendly ear for the extraction industries, is Bush’s Secretary of the Interior.  Dirk (his name is Dirk!), in his 6 years in the U.S. Senate (1992-1998), scored a “0” on the League of Conservation Voters’ legislative scorecards every year except 1993, when he scored 6 percent on the basis of one vote against funding a rocket booster for the space program that environmentalists judged harmful to the environment.

It used to be that when the Bush administration tried to foul the air or the water, they at least attempted to do so under the pretext of what you might call “creative environmental management.”  Logging in protected old-growth forests = more spotted owls! and so forth.  But now, they’re not even bothering.  We’ve actually come to a point where, faced with a serious, generational energy management crisis, the best minds the White House can summon (check that, the best minds the White House will listen to) are turning mountain tops into parking lots.  I guess there’s a silver lining though:  with traditional Appalachian mining towns decimated by mountaintop removal mining, it’s the perfect time for Wal-Mart to come in, build some stores, and create a bunch of new jobs.  And wouldn’t you know it, some nice and flat mountaintop real estate keeps opening up.  Three cheers for the efficient economy.

No One Knows For Sure If He’s Kidding: Quote of the Day

Stephen Feinberg, CEO of $26 billion private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, on his company’s privacy philosophy:

“We try to hide religiously.  If anyone at Cerberus has his picture in the paper and a picture of his apartment, we will do more than fire that person.  We will kill him.  The jail sentence will be worth it.”

Chinese Toys: Deadly. Chinese Fortune Cookies? Still Dead-On, Jack.

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My fortune cookie at dinner tonight said “Your greatest wish will come true.”  So if the Chinese are to be believed, Michael Vick will be shanked in prison, and in a location well out of reach of any medical personnel.

On a related note, I’m happy to report that said fortune cookie contained no detectable traces of lead.

John Carpenter’s Vampires: Like Citizen Kane, Except Much Better

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Ever since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally enshrined Black Sabbath in 2006, the Kennedy Center Honors have taken its place as America’s greatest artistic charade.  In 2006, the honorees were Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, and Smokey Robinson.  The Honors purport to recognize Honorees “for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television—are selected by the Center’s Board of Trustees.”  KCH goes further to say that “the primary criterion in the selection process is excellence.”  

This is a farce.  A farce.  And will remain that way until the ivory-tower arbiters of performing excellence who annually deign to lower the drawbridge and allow an honored few passage across the fetid pop-culture moat into the splendid manor of artistry extend a long-overdue invitation to one John Howard Carpenter

Carpenter is best known for a group of movies he directed in the late 70’s/early-mid 80’s, beginning with the yet-to-be-topped original HalloweenHalloween introduced the world to the greatest slasher-movie boogeyman in cinematic history, Michael Myers.  Far superior to wisecracking pedophile Freddy Krueger or mama’s boy Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers is a silent, indestructible gore machine who stabs first and asks questions later.  Actually, he doesn’t even ask questions, he just stabs.  Carpenter followed Halloween with The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, the truly wonderful Big Trouble in Little China, and then ended the ’80s with They Live, starring the great Rowdy Roddy Piper, one of the legendary heel personalities in professional wrestling history.  While about very different things, each of Carpenter’s movies were characterized by a B-movie budget and overall sensibility (especially in the dialogue) combined with a politically allegorical undercurrent that recalls Romero’s “Dead” trilogy.  Uniting these elements was the gleeful touch of a guy who clearly loves making horror movies.

It’s conventional wisdom in scary movie circles that Carpenter doesn’t make ’em like he used to.  During the 90’s and early part of the 21st century, Carpenter offered up Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, and Escape from L.A., a sequel to Escape from New York that’s highly enjoyable but admitedly not as good as the first Snake Plissken adventure.  In 2001, he rolled out Ghosts of Mars starring the inimitable thespian Ice Cube.  All of these, I feel, are quite a lot of fun to watch (with the exception of Memoirs)…they’re not the highbrow “psychological horror drama” that you’d find in the ouvre of M. Night Shyamalan, but are instead bloody, gritty, violent, and often suspenseful movies that do a satisfying job of blending action and horror.  Girls don’t like them.  Ghosts of Mars, for example, is about a police force in the 22nd century who are charged with transporting a highly dangerous prisoner named Desolation Williams (seriously) across the planet Mars, by now a terraformed mining outpost.  Upon arriving at the mining town where Williams is being held, they discover the town is apparently deserted.  It’s not; instead, it’s full of ghouls who used to be the miners but are now possessed by the spirts of an ancient Martian civilization that they released in a mining accident.  The possession turns them into bloodthirsty and mindlessly violent creatures who are really into body-mod.  From there, of course, the heroes have to safely blast and maim their way out of there.

Movies like this earned Carpenter the criticism that his movies were becoming goofy and unfocused.  You can watch his body of work and judge for yourself, but he did make one movie before the 20th century expired that is far and away the best of his 1990’s lot:  John Carpenter’s Vampires.  JCV is a single film that embodies everything I love about Carpenter:  a pulp comic plot, blood-drenched visuals, monsters, and an unlikable anti-hero whose every bit of dialogue is marked by a sardonic nihilism.

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In Vampires, that hero is Jack Crow, played by the also unlikable James Woods.  Crow leads a boozy team of vampire slayers who roam the isolated and decrepit parts of America looking for bloodsucker “nests,” which they storm, SWAT-style, in daylight.  Once they’ve breached, they kill every vampire (“goon,” in the movie’s parlance) in the place.  The movie opens with such a raid and really sets the tone as far as blood and gore (wooden stake through the forehead, anyone?).  Probably my favorite slayer weapon in the film is the crossbow with a bolt that’s attached to a tow-cable.  Once fired into a vampire’s center mass and lodged in the flesh, the slayer outside with the truck turns on a winch and reels the vampire out of the house into the sunlight, where the creature promptly bursts into flames.

Here’s the best part about the slayer team:  they are bankrolled by the Catholic Church!  I’ll say that again:  John Carpenter’s Vampires is about a special forces-style team of hard-drinking vampire slayers financed by the Vatican.  If that isn’t a solid-gold idea for a movie, I don’t know what is.  In any case, the team eventually stumbles upon a plan concocted by the alpha vampire, a “master” named Valek, to take control of the Cross of Berziers, or “Black Cross.”

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He seriously wore these clothes the entire film.  Whole thing, never changed once.

The plan is, obviously, to perform a kind of “reverse exorcism” ceremony that will allow Valek and his ilk to walk in the sunlight.  At which point, I presume every population center on Earth becomes a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet.  Aiding Crow’s team is a prostitute played by Sheryl Lee who has been bitten by Valek and therefore has a telepathic link to him; she acts as a kind of closed-circuit surveillance camera as they try and prevent him from getting the Cross.  Along the way there’s all kinds of carnage, double-crossing, and human vs. vampire combat, plus a few instances of Crow brazenly questioning Valek’s sexual prowess. 

Aside from a disappointing decision to costume Valek in the tired euro-trash vampire fashion (all black, pants from Express Men, long hair), this movie hits all the rights notes.  Other than the clothes, Valek is a really vicious antagonist, biting people and slicing throats with abandon.  Crow is equally brutal when given the chance, and his band of merry lowlifes are altogether agreeable and funny. 

With such an outrageous plot and over-the-top characters, the only way to make this film right is to have an all-in, full-speed ahead and damn the consequences attitude, and thankfully, Carpenter does.  At no point does the director commit the sin of treating his subject matter too seriously, or try and invest his gory vampire romp with a “message.”  JCV is pure story, and a hell of story it is; I’ve watched this movie dozens of times and have never tired of it…it’s like a favorite toy.  Check it out, just don’t follow it with The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  After you’ve had prime rib, a Wendy’s hamburger just isn’t as good, you know?

An addendum:  a sequel was made, not directed by John Carpenter, but still called John Carpenter’s Vampires: Los Muertos.  Jon Bon Jovi is the vampire hunter.  Don’t see it.

Chávez Forever. God That’s Depressing.

walter-2.jpg by Civilizer

This watery orb we humans inhabit is a funny place.  Natural wonder abounds.  Monuments to human ingenuity dot every continent, and are somehow all the more majestic the farther they descend into ruin.  There exists, among our own species, exemplars of great leadership, kindness, intellectual brilliance, and courage.  And sharing the orb with all of it also exist degraded environments, derelict cities, and the very worst that the human brain is capable of producing – rapists, thieves, charlatans, and murderers.

Humanity being what it is, those who possess the former qualities are usually the ones who ascend to positions in society where they can use their ability to make it better.  Those who possess the latter qualities, though they sometimes end up in high office, usually end up marginalized, jailed, or executed.  Global society is far from perfect of course, but on the whole, the world is made up of decent, hard-working, family-oriented people who want to raise their standard of living, and they want to be led by good people.  And sometimes, the whole thing goes to shit, and Hugo Chávez gets to be in charge of a whole goddamned country. 

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A panoply of words springs to mind when one thinks of Hugo Chávez, the current and perhaps eternal president of Venezuela.  Megalomaniacal.  Faux-populist.  Asshat.  Hypocrite.  Chubby.  But though he is a loathsome figure, the possibility always existed, was in fact likely, that he would be one day removed from power.  After all, he is a democratically elected politician (well, not quite, and only because the international community is staffed, almost without exception, by cowardly oil whores), and they all get shown the door sooner or later.   Apparently Hew-go just realized that himself, and has decided it just won’t do.

So he’s done what any enemy of democracy would do: he’s announced a plan to alter Venezuela’s constitution that would allow him to be re-elected indefinitely (looks like Chávez gets not only guns but ideas from Vladimir Putin).  And given that Hew-go has proven that he has no compunction about committing outright fraud to get his electoral way, he probably will be.  And what a sight an election 10 years from now will be – millions of Venezuelans marching on the presidential palace, exasperated by the failure of Chávez’s backward nationalization strategies and impoverished by an economy largely dependent on oil prices, which will have dropped due to the continuing emergence of alternative fuels and more energy-efficient technologies, while Hew-go raises his fat fist for the cameras in a totally manufactured and artificial “victory.”

It cannot be repeated loudly or often enough what a truly despicable hog is Chávez.  Taking craven advantage of a populace buffeted by generations of corrupt and negligent leadership, he has piggybacked on some sure-winner populist ideas in order to consolidate power.  In the meantime, he is making a fundamental economic mistake – mortgaging his country’s financial future on the strength of a single commodity, oil.  Record oil prices are bankrolling his social programs now, but like any commodity, those prices will one day drop.  And when they do, Chávez will have a country full of nationalized industries which will be plagued by the same problems all nationalized industries are – inefficiency and corruption.  Take this quote from a paper by George R.G. Clarke and Lixin Colin Xu in the Journal of Public Economics: “Bribe takers (utility employees) are more likely to take bribes in countries with greater constraints on utility capacity, lower levels of competition in the utility sector, and where utilities are state-owned.”  Sounds like nationalization to me.  And economies rotted with corruption cause chaos and heartbreaking destitution for the people trying to make a living in them.     

This is to say nothing of Hew-go’s unsettling international behavior, specifically this adorable little budding romance:

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Venezuela and Iran have already signed a number of energy deals, and Hew-go jointly announced with his lil’ buddy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the creation of a multi-billion dollar “anti-U.S. fund” in January of this year, though they didn’t really go into what the hell that means (likely because they have no idea themselves, other than the chance to hold a press conference just like real heads of state and pander to their citizens with some anti-American rhetoric).  Also of concern is his connection to Colombian terrorist organization FARC; he may be running Russian guns to them and providing safe training havens. 

And let’s not forget, despite Hew-go’s touted “Misión Arbol,” Venezuela has South America’s 3rd-highest deforestation rate and is beset by problems associated with illegal mining, sewage pollution, soil degredation, and toxic lakes.

All this, and Venezuelan communications minister Willian Lara describes Chávez’s term-limits ploy as an attempt to “guarantee the people the largest amount of happiness possible.”   God help them.