Stomp the Yard (2007)


Stomp the Yard
Dir. Sylvain White
Premiered January 12, 2007

This review was a mistake.

During the 2000s, there was this vogue for movies about competetive dancing. The first one I remember was Bring It On, but the real tipping point into ubiquity was called You Got Served. I had confused this movie with that one.

You Got Served came out in 2004, and pitted a black dance group against a white one (I’m not sure whether this was meant to evoke issues of racism or it just made it easier to tell the heroes and villains apart). I never saw it, and by all accounts it’s awful, but at the time it was a decent hit, and the marketing for it stuck in your head like a novelty song. Like this film, it also came out in January. So you may forgive my confusion.

In 2007, dancing simply wasn’t something most people did. Instead, the vogue at the time was to stand silently at attention like that one scene in The Madness of King George. Dancing was a specialized skill performed by competitive semi-professionals, and the main style of competitive dance was Krumping, a combination of flips, randomly flailing like an inflatable tube man, and re-enacting Mortal Kombat, all in fast motion. This is something the Stomp the Yard captures pretty well, in the frantic, jittery style associated with cheap DSLR cameras. Most of the film isn’t nearly that energetic, but for some reason it’s all shot that way.

Columbus Short plays DJ Williams, an underground krumper who ropes his goody-goody brother (Chris Brown, in his first film role. Yeah.) into a major competition, only to lose him in a shootout by their rivals. Even if DJ’s brother wasn’t played by the standard-bearer of raging, psychopathic narcissism masquerading as sweetness, I still wouldn’t care, because the movie doesn’t care. And that’s the main problem.

After unfairly serving time for defending himself in the brawl, DJ is sent to his aunt and uncle in Georgia and starts taking classes at Not-Morehouse University, where people apparently still register for classes in person, on paper, in 2007. There, he is entranced by April Palmer (Meagan Good), who gets a sexy intro so half-assed that it’d make a great parody. Unfortunately for DJ, she’s inexplicably in a relationship with irredeemable asshole Grant (Darrin Henson), the elitist, self-appointed leader of one of the college’s two rival fraternities best known for a type of competitive step known as stomping the yard. DJ’s skills at the club earn him an invitation to pledge for the rival fraternity, though they take issue with his excessively street style.

My issue with Stomp the Yard is not with the genre. I’m sure you can make a good dance movie. But this movie does not give a shit. DJ’s a good guy in a bad situation, so he has no arc. The plot is flimsy and relies on tired old clichés and a wildly outdated understanding of social class. The actors plaing DJ’s frat brothers aren’t given much to do, but they have fun with it, and the dancing is actually pretty cool. But there’s a lot more to the film than that, and that’s the problem.

Also in Theaters:

  • Justin Timberlake gives one of his first impressive performances in the otherwise mediocre crime drama Alpha Dog.
  • The trailers for the critically-panned Primeval try to pass off its crocodile antagonist as a human. Not kidding.

Additional Notes:

  • Sign this was made in 2007: The good guys are the ones dressed entirely in black. Butt-crack is still the new cleavage (though this is only implied, as Meagan Good’s wide shots are all tastefully in profile).
  • Before we go any further, I want to say that I don’t think bad movies don’t take away from good movies. If that were the case, 2007 would be just as mediocre as any other year, because boy, do we have some doozies coming up.
Next Time: Epic Movie

Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

Welcome to 2007, the best year for the American moviegoer possibly ever. While a lot of people might prefer 1939 or 1968 or even (Jesus) 1999, 2007 stands out to me personally, and to that end I’ve decided to review an indeterminate number of films from that year, in chronological order. Originally I wanted to showcase the highlights of that year, but in all honesty, curiosity got the better of me with some of these. For that reason, I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hillary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t actually seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard. I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, but you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is mostunorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired. C

Something Good about 2014


So, that was 2014. Almost all the news was bad, from the resurrection of the Soviet Union to ebola to the outing of hardcore radical misogynists and the rise of the Islamic State (with some crossover in between!). Like Florida all the time, this year possessed all the colors of the awful rainbow.

Still, there were signs of good: by all measures, America has left the Great Recession. It has done so with troublingly little in the way of economic reforms, and you’d think that now with the crisis averted, we’d continue business as usual. But it seems not, with more and more labor movements gaining traction and attention, and US states raising the minimum wage– even Wal-Mart workers had the courage to walk out. Actually quite a lot has happened that would be pretty unthinkable in 2008, when the Recession began: a French socialist manifesto was the #1 book in America, Weird Al had a #1 album, gay marriage became legal almost everywhere and the majority of Americans want pot to be legal (both to the ire of almost no-one, thanks to our political culture’s equally sudden abandonment of cultural wedge issues).

But if one crowning achievement can be salvaged from the ashes, it should be the 2014 World Cup.

Two years ago, I was traveling with a friend when we called in with a school acquaintance in North Carolina. The Euro Cup had just ended, and the subject of  American football and soccer came up. The acquaintance predicted that American football would be totally marginalized in a few years. I was dumbfounded; Football is still the most popular sport in America to watch. And yet, here we are: the NFL and NCAA, football’s governing bodies, are now widely loathed for their abusive labor practices and corruption, rampant violent crime among players has turned many away from their TVs, and the risk of brain damage is causing young talent to leave the game. Meanwhile, the World Cup was a massive sensation.

Part of the World Cup’s success in America was a reaction against the most recent Summer Olympics. The London Games may have saved Britain’s economy, but the American coverage was an unmitigated disaster. NBC, in its constant quest to prove you can go broke underestimating the American people, variously delayed, interrupted, and ignored the festivities while the commentators took valuable time to profess their own (patently affected) ignorance of British history and culture, to the point that people are still complaining about it more than two years later. Meanwhile, the World Cup was covered by ABC and ESPN, which are owned by Disney, a company that has rightfully regained the love of the American people after over a decade of brand-cheapening blunders.

In addition, America did well. Watching this summer, I remembered seeing the World Cup final in 1994, two miles from my own house in Pasadena, and realized that mine was the first generation of Americans to grow up with soccer. Now as adults, we’ve cultivated some serious talent. And, in spite of some previous statements, I now meet people who genuinely care about the LA Galaxy. That’s pretty incredible. Of course there are places where soccer is not seen as sufficiently hardcore, but Clint Dempsey’s a soccer hero, and he’s as Texan as they get.

I think it’s a testimony to soccer’s newfound relevance in our country that the World Cup brought some new terms to our vocabulary: Socceroos, the Orange Wedding, the Secretary of Defense.

Speaking of which, the next time I go to England, I’d like to go see and Everton game before Tim Howard retires. Imagine saying that a year ago?

So, if there’s one good thing to draw from 2014, and equally from the World Cup, it’s that after a long, confusing period of turmoil, we can look back and say that yes, even after decades of cultural entropy and posturing entrenchment, change can come to America.

Reading into Maccabees, Part 4

Chapter 13

By now, Simon is the last of the Maccabees. He’s lost his father and all of his brothers. He is pissed off, and delivers a rousing speech in Jerusalem:

You know what great battles I and my brethren, and the house of my father, have fought for the laws, and the sanctuary, and the distresses that we have seen; by reason whereof all my brethren have lost their lives for Israel’s sake, and I am left alone. And now far be it from me to spare my life in any time of trouble: for I am not better than my brethren. I will avenge then my nation and the sanctuary, and our children, and wives: for all the heathens are gathered together to destroy us out of mere malice.

Enraptured by the speech, the Jews declare him to be their new leader, and they prepare for war.

Tryphon claims to be holding Jonathan’s sons hostage. In an interesting bit of political maneuvering, Simon knows his nephews are already dead, but pays ransom anyway so he won’t be blamed when the boys’ fates are revealed. Tryphon’s armies are challenged everywhere they go; they’re even defeated by snow in Gilead.

Simon makes his son John Hyrcanus commander of the army, and declares yet another holiday that I’ve never heard of.

Chapter 14

Demetrius goes to Media to find soldiers to take back Seleucia, but he’s immediately defeated and arrested. Judea is peaceful and prosperous. The courts of Rome and Sparta offer their condolences for the lost Jonathan and congratulations for Simon. Simon is crowned as Prince of Judea. Uh-oh. Judaism has a strict separation of church and state. High priests like Simon are never supposed to be secular leaders.

Chapter 15

In Seleucia, yet another Antiochus, seventh of that name, seizes power from Tryphon. Antiochus asks for the Jews’ help, and the Romans write to him to make sure he means it. The Romans have been steadily building alliances with every country on the Mediterranean, and makes it clear that they are all allies with Judea. But of course Antiochus doesn’t listen, and invades Judea as soon has he finishes with Tryphon.

Chapter 16

While the Jews are busy fighting Antiochus VII, Ptolemy, the Captain of Jericho, plots to usurp the Jewish throne. He kills Simon and two of his sons while they’re drunk, then tries to trick John into joining his brothers in Sheol. John gets word of the plot just in time, catches his would be killers, and has them executed.

And as concerning the rest of the acts of John, and his wars, and the worthy deeds, which he bravely achieved, and the building of the walls, which he made, and the things that he did: Behold these are written in the book of the days of his priesthood…

2 Maccabees is not that book.

Reading into Maccabees, Part 3

Chapter 9

Finally, some strategy! Bacchides returns to beseige Jerusalem, but Judah’s overconfidence does him no good this time: he’s killed, and Bacchides conquers Judea. Judah’s brothers form a government in exile in the Negev. The eldest, John, is killed by local tribesmen, who are slaughtered in revenge at a wedding. They clash with Bacchides, who fortifies the Jewish cities now under his control. Alcimus, meanwhile, decides to desecrate the Temple once more, but then dies, possibly of a stroke.

Bacchides decides this is the perfect time to destroy the Maccabees, now led by Simon and Jonathan. But once more, numbers and superior firepower are no match for local guerillas. Jonathan’s men destroy Bacchides’ war machines, then force him to release his prisoners of war and make him promise never to return to Judea.

Chapter 10

A random Greek named Alexander claims to be the son of Antiochus IV, and gets both Rome and Egypt to recognize his claim. Recognizing that civil war is iminent, both he and Demetrius reach out to Jonathan hoping for an alliance. Each side promises the Jews more and more: cash, territory, money, freedom. But Jonathan is no fool, and sides with Alexander (they’re both allied with the Romans anyway). Demetrius is killed, Alexander becomes King, and he marries Princess Cleopatra of Egypt (not that Cleopatra).

But the feud continues: Demetrius’ son (also named Demetrius), joins with General Apollonius to reconquer Seleucia. Jonathan hears of this and sends his armies to stop them. King Alexander is so impressed that he grants the Jews more territory. Hooray!

Chapter 11

Shit. Ptolemy of Egypt ignores his marital alliance with Alexander and decides to ally with Demetrius, promising that Demetrius can marry Cleopatra once she’s a widow. Ptolemy marches right into Antioch and seizes power. Alexander flees into Arabia, where he’s beheaded by tribesmen loyal to Egypt. Ptolemy dies shortly after, and Demetrius II becomes king.

In response, Jonathan besieges the Seleucid castle in Jerusalem. In the meantime, Demetrius invites Jonathan to negotiate. He praises Jonathan, recognizes him as high priest, and begs him to stop fighting. Jonathan agrees on the condition that Judea receive full independence with new, expanded borders.

Suddenly, the Seleucid army revolts against Demetrius. Demetrius calls the Jews for help, and they send an army to save him, but Demetrius is not the least bit grateful. His general Tryphon returns with Alexander’s young son, Antiochus. Demetrius flees, and Antiochus becomes King Antiochus VI. The book claims that the new King assures the Jews that their freedom will continue, but I’m not sure I buy it because he’s only three years old.

Chapter 12

Jonathan seeks to renew his alliances with Rome and Sparta. He should have made allies closer to home. After putting down another Demetrian rebellion, he goes to Egypt and is killed. General Tryphon kills King Antiochus, makes himself King, and marches on Judea.

They have no prince, nor any to help them: now therefore let us make war upon them, and take away the memory of them from amongst men.

In other words…

Reading into Maccabees, Part 2

So, I had to find out about this oil thing.

The Hanukkah story I learned as a child is that when the Maccabees restored the Temple, they only had enough kosher oil to light the menorah for one day. But, miracle of miracles, the oil burned for eight!

In the last reading, I mentioned that the Temple is actually lit by candles. I may have spoken too soon. Where the Coptic text I was reading said “candles,” the King James Version of 1 Maccabees clarifies that they’re actually “candlesticks” on which the oil lamps are stood.

Nevertheless, 1 Maccabees is a stubbornly unmiraculous book, and the story of the “Miracle of Hanukkah” infuriated me because it wasn’t in the text: it was an unfounded myth, like the Tooth Fairy. So I looked further into it, and discovered through an article from Professor Shawna Dolansky that the story of the oil is in a Jewish sacred text:

…Hanukkah, not being a holiday mentioned in the Jewish Bible…was at best a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar for many centuries. About 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees, the Talmud relays the story of the miracle of the oil.

In the eyes of medieval rabbis, the Maccabees were not heroes, but zealots– a viewpoint we’ll encounter again in due time. The miracle of the oil, then, takes the story out of the hands of religious fundamentalists and into the hands of God. Besides, if you’re going to have an eight-day holiday, it might as well have a miracle.

Anyway, the first Hanukkah was always the end of the story as we knew it. But here, we’re only 1/4 of the way through 1 Maccabees. What’s next?

Chapter 5

All of the idealism of the first chapter is gone. The author of 1 Maccabees now has nothing but contempt for Judah’s neighbours. Hey, scholars: was 1 Maccabees written during the events it describes? It certainly reads like it: the lack of detail with regard to the battles is exactly what I’d leave out if I’d just finished fighting them, and the creeping cynicism of the author wonderfully conveys the passage of time.

The Maccabees take out all of their neighbours, including the Edomites (so much for Esau’s “great nation”), Ammonites, Philistines, Nabateans, and Galilee. This, of course, mightily pisses off those who survive. Timothy, king of Ammon, hires an army of Arabs, and says that if Judah doesn’t cross the Jordan, they will be safe to attack. But Judah does cross, Timothy is defeated, and those Jews residing in the area are invited to come back to Judea. This is followed by more fighting. It is boring.

Chapter 6

With his empire on the verge of total collapse, Antiochus tries to sack Elymais (a city made great by Alexander, the author boasts) and fails miserably. Only now, on the way back from another failed conquest, does he learn of everything that’s happened in Judea. Antiochus panics, takes responsibility for the fact that his genocide brought this defeat upon him, and dies.

So passes Antiochus IV, and so arrives Antiochus V.

After some very confusing prose– there’s a battle, but it’s impossible to tell who’s fighting whom or where– the new Antiochus re-invades Judea, and initially wins, but because it’s a Jubilee year, there’s not enough food and the Seleucids begin to starve. In light of this, they decide to sign an armistice with the Jews. As they leave, they tear down the walls of Jerusalem, but they leave nonetheless.

Chapter 7

Demetrius is a Seleucid prince, and thinks he has a stronger claim to the throne than his 11 year-old cousin, Antiochus V. The only problem is that he’s a hostage in Rome. So he escapes (sadly without further detail), returns to Antioch, and has both Antiochus and Lysias killed. The assimilated Jews come to Demetrius demanding that the Maccabees be overthrown, and that they themselves should be put in charge of Judea.

Demetrius appoints the priest Alcimus and the Greek general Bacchides to lead this new Jewish front (The People’s Judean Front? The People’s Front of Judea?). They send diplomats to flatter the Maccabees, but secretly plot to incite revolt. Judah is furious, considering the traitorous Jews to be worse than the Seleucids, and goes around killing anyone suspected of betraying him. Alcimus flees, and Demetrius sends Prince Nicanor to take down the Jews. Nicanor is defeated, but promises to destroy the Temple if he ever returns while Judah still lives. In the next battle, Nicanor is killed. Judah declares that this day, Adar 13, will also be a holiday forevermore. Unfortunately, that’s already a holiday: the Fast of Esther.

Chapter 8

All About the Romans.

This chapter is mostly concerned with the exploits of the burgeoning Roman Republic, how wealthy it is, how the Senate is great, and how they’re horrible enemies but faithful allies. Judah proposes an alliance with the Romans, and the Romans agree, on the condition that they can modify the new treaty whenever they want. Uh-oh.

Reading into Maccabees, Part 1

Happy Hanukkah, everyone!

For those of you who aren’t in the know, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday celebrating the Jews’ independence from the Seleucid Empire. In America, it’s celebrated as a gift-giving holiday so Jewish kids don’t feel bad about not having Christmas. A lot of purists resent the gift-giving because it’s not part of the original holiday, but as I’ve gotten older, I like it. Jewish kids should have a gift-giving holiday– though I might be biased because I’m really good at picking out gifts for people. We also eat potato pancakes and donuts. My grandma’s recipe is wonderful.

If you’ve been exposed to the Hanukkah story before, you’ll likely have heard some things about magic oil. Well, not exactly: the story of Hanukkah can be found in the Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, historical texts that was left out of the Bible (for reasons to be discussed), but important enough to be kept in the Jewish temple before its destruction. In light of the season, I’m going to plow through Maccabees, highlighting what I find most interesting. On each of Hanukkah’s eight days, I’ll post my impression of four chapters. Let’s see how this goes…

Chapter 1

The Jews of this period loved Alexander the Great. Not only did they start naming their children Alexander and Alexandra; they spent the first eight verses detailing his exploits:

And he went through even to the ends of the Earth…and the Earth was quiet before him…his heart was exalted and lifted up.”

Of all the gentile historical figures of this time, only Alexander is talked about this way. Unlike Cyrus of Persia, who was seen as a kind, fair-minded Gentile, the author of 1 Maccabees truly sees Alexander as his leader.

Anyway, as Alexander is dying, he divides his empire among an assortment of Greek nobles. This turns out to be a terrible idea: these new rulers are universally awful, especially Antiochus the Illustrious. Meanwhile, many of the Jews are assimilating into Greek culture, going so far as to build a gym in Jerusalem. Since you had to be naked in a gym, everyone can see your penis, so increasingly Jewish men making themselves fake foreskins.

Antiochus conquers Egypt (though it doesn’t take), then turns back to Jerusalem and ransacks the Temple, taking its precious ornaments and killing Jews indiscriminately. Two years later, he sends one of his tax collectors to do it again, but this time it’s worse– Antiochus’ emissaries burn down Jerusalem and expel its population, then rebuild it for themselves, going so far as to kill people in the Temple. The Seleucids make it illegal to perform Jewish rites or celebrate Jewish holidays, not just in Jerusalem but everywhere. Holy books are burned when found, people are forced to eat non-kosher food, small boys are hanged for being circumcised. Scripture before this point has described many attempts to wipe out the Jews before, but never in this much detail.

Many Jews choose to die rather than abandon their religion, but the book is curiously ambiguous about whether that’s good or not. Other books have made a case for “passing,” but Maccabees merely finishes the first chapter with “And there was very great wrath among the people.”

Maccabees is clearly written in a biblical style, but this is one way in which it’s different: the world in which it’s set is recognizably our own. The first chapter notes that Antiochus had been a hostage in Rome. The author makes sure to point out that the other vassals only persecuted the Jews because they feared the same would happen to them if they disobeyed. And consider the phrasing from 1 Maccabees 1:26:

And there was a great mourning in Israel, and in every place they were.

Compare to the Old Testament, which doesn’t mention the goings on of other tribes unless they directly involve the Israelites/Jews, or God Himself. Maccabees is a much more worldly book than the Bible, written from the perspective of a people who had expanded and explored. It’s still addressed to the Jewish people, but acknowledges that there are bigger things going on.

Chapter 2

Here come the Maccabees! Actually, only Judah is called Maccabee; it’s not a family name at all, but a nickname, “the Hammer.”

Matthew, Judah’s father, is pissed: he’s seen his people and his temple desecrated. The occupying Seleucids visit the Maccabees in Modi’in, trying to convince him to worship idols. They’re a lot more cautious with Matthew, and they’re right to be so. When a Jew comes into town to worship idols, Matthew kills him and the Seleucid agents.

The Maccabees and their followers flee into the mountains. The Seleucids find a cell of followers, who refuse to fight on the Sabbath and are thus slaughtered. The Maccabees henceforth declare that it’s okay to fight on the Sabbath if you have to (Shades of the Yom Kippur War). They begin recapturing Jewish towns and restoring the old laws. Before Matthew dies, he commands his sons never to give up those laws, and to be prepared to die for them. Wait, didn’t they just agree that they can violate the Sabbath in self-defense?

This gets at the heart of many social justice movements: of course you can keep your head down and be safe today, and no one can blame you, but eventually people will have to stand tall and take action, even if it means putting themselves in danger.

Matthew is buried in Modi’in. He’s still there!

Chapter 3

Judah Maccabee takes over as leader of the rebels and makes huge gains. He makes such a big name for himself (“he was renowned even to the utmost part of the Earth”) that Seleucid armies in neighbouring provinces make plans to invade Judea. Judah assures his followers that God will enable them to win even though they are outnumbered, and they do, but the text doesn’t explain how. Judah just assures his army that numbers aren’t everything. His father was Michael Collins; he’s Ho Chi Minh.

Antiochus is furious. He shakes down his vassals to fund an all-out war, and hires a distant relative named Lysias to lead the army:

And [Antiochus] delivered to [Lysias] half the army, and the elephants, and he gave him charge concerning all that he would have done, and concerning the inhabitants of Judea, and Jerusalem, and that he should send an army against them, to destroy and root out the strength of Israel, and the remnant of Jerusalem, and to take away the memory of them from that place, and that he should settle strangers to dwell in all their coasts, and divide their land by lot.

I’m surprised Lysias didn’t sell the Jews smallpox-infested blankets.

By the way, until now I imagined Antiochus’ capital being in Iran or Iraq; in fact, it’s just up the coast from Israel. Antioch (of course that’s it’s name) is also right by the city of Alexandretta/Iskenderun, which we all remember from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Chapter 4

Anticipating a sneak attack, Judah comes up with his very own version of Operation Quicksilver, diverting the enemy armies into empty hiding places. When the Maccabees reach an enemy camp, they see that the Seleucid army is much better-armed. Judah, channeling his inner Rasta, assures his men that Jah will provide, and he’s right once more.

Again, how are they doing this? The Maccabees don’t even have swords. The author never claims that God actually brought the Jews to victory, only that Judah promised He would.

After that battle, they apparently scare the rest of the soldiers into running away:

A year later, Lysias returns with an army of 65,000 men. Judah has only 10,000, but again they defeat the invaders, and again I’m left wondering how. The author mentions that Lysias sees “how bold the Jews were, and that they were ready either to live, or to die manfully,” but that can’t be the full answer, and in any case it only entices Lysias to return with more troops.

With Lysias gone, Judah commands the Jews to restore the Temple in Jerusalem. First, they fortify the Temple Mount with higher walls (including the Western Wall), then they build a new altar and make new furnishings for the sanctuary. Now the high priest, Judah calls for a period of absoultion and consecration that lasts eight days.

And Judah and his brethren, and all of Israel decreed that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the 25th day of Kislev, with joy and gladness.

Hanukkah, ladies and gentlemen. There was no oil to miraculously light the lamps of the Temple for longer than expected. In fact, this chapter mentions that the lamps used candles!

The Joy of Jeopardy!

Last summer, I had to take a class on the Biology and Psychology of gender and sexuality. Most times at my university, it is rare to venture outside one’s own department, either academically or socially, but this was a required course, and I was the only film student in the group. This last fact was vividly demonstrated, as we were required to give presentations on subjects of our choosing related to gender and sexuality. Not only were the vast majority of presentations awkward and unprofessional (a genuine shock to someone who spends most of his day with fellow performers), but, as most of the students in the class majored in either Nursing or Criminal Justice, almost every presentation was either about sexual assault or venereal disease.

This was fascinating. Not only had the professor allowed students to cover the same subjects over and over, but the students unselfconsciously ran with it, inflicting upon their captive audience a constant loop of graphic descriptions of violence and physical degradation. Not to say that these issues aren’t important; they certainly are, and Lord knows there are a lot of people out there who need to be educated about them; but when these are the only things you hear about, over and over, day after day, you start to go batty. Towards the end of the term, a woman sitting next to me and I watched in awe as two more students loaded up their PowerPoint presentations: one was on sexual assault, one was on venereal diseases. My classmate and I instantly broke into uncontrollable laughter. We’ve been friends ever since.

Even within the film department, you’re liable to run into people whose interests and fields of knowledge are wildly at variance with your own. Just this week, one of my professors asked the class what the first animated feature film was; one student guessed Toy Story.

This is all a very roundabout way of pointing out that in America, and I would guess California in particular, most people, even college-educated professionals, tend to be very knowledgeable about one thing (typically their chosen field of work) and startlingly ignorant about everything else. In Britain, everyone from cabinet ministers to taxi drivers can tell you the latin names of their houseplants, or give detailed descriptions of the Battle of Trafalgar, but when I volunteer any historical fact about Los Angeles (after all, why would I be expected to know about the place where I work and go to school?), everyone says the same thing: “you should be on Jeopardy!

Jeopardy, for those of you abroad, is a syndicated American game show in which three contestants compete against each other, answering trivia clues in the form of a question (this is really just a formality, though; all one must do to gain points in the form of dollar values is answer a clue with “What/who is X?”) and wager carefully to end up with the most money. The current version of Jeopardy is hosted by Alex Trebek, mainstream celebrity in his own right and a god among game show hosts, and has made a few stars out of its contestants. In 2004, the show’s rules changed to allow champions to keep playing as long as they kept winning. Almost immediately, Ken Jennings came onto the scene, won 74 straight games and over $3 million, and is now widely respected as a public intellectual. This season has produced two star players of its own in Julia Collins and Arthur Chu.

The game has varying levels of difficulty. There’s the Tournament of Champions, where returning stars play against each other, and the questions are accordingly much harder than regular play. Then there are college and high school versions that are a little easier, and of course Celebrity Jeopardy! which is absurdly easy; even by those accommodating standards, a few supposedly smart people have shown themselves to be complete morons, to the delight of dedicated viewers.

Jeopardy! is an exception in this country. It’s taken seriously. It has none of the cheese of Wheel of Fortune, nor the silly dramatics of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The premise is almost preposterously straightforward, and the tone of the show is equally understated. The contestants dress up. Most interestingly, Jeopardy! not only celebrates knowledge, but well-roundedness, in a country that adores crippling overspecialization. And it’s a hit. Game shows come and go in waves, but Jeopardy’s been going strong for thirty straight years.

It survives because it’s easy to play along. And that’s the thing. Anytime I feel bad about the country I call home, I watch Jeopardy! I think about how many people have played, that it’s gone on so long that most people in America know someone who’s been on. I think about the millions of people playing along, earnestly watching to see if the contestants share some of their own knowledge. And I realize that there are a lot more Americans like me than anyone would suspect.

So why aren’t they in film school!?

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Hocus Pocus

Dir. Kenny Ortega, 1993

In the pantheon of pop culture, there are few words as cringe-inducing to me as “Disneyfication.” Like “selling out,” it is an outdated term that needlessly vilifies success; a perpetuation of the very 20th century concept of the artist as a dangerous rebel. And for all we like to bash Disney, nobody can accuse them of making all their stories squeaky clean. Hocus Pocus is a perfect example.

Hocus Pocus starts with the story of Thackeray Binx, a teenaged boy in 17th Century Salem, MA whose sister was killed by three sister witches, played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. When Binx catches them, they turn him into a (immortal) cat, and before being executed proclaim that they will return for a single night when a virgin lights the black-flamed candle in their house.

Flash-forward to 1993. 15-year-old Max is a recent arrival from California, and an instant outcast. Also, he’s a virgin, which shouldn’t be a big deal at his, but everybody gives him a hard time over it. So he lights the black-flame candle to impress a girl he likes, summoning the witches, and causing all hell to break loose.

This movie didn’t do that well initially, but it did establish certain Halloween aesthetic for kids movies in the mid-90s, and it got a lot of play on television. Needless to say, if you read my writing on a regular basis, you’ve probably already seen it. Although it already had a decent following in the gay community, it exploded in popularity on its 20th anniversary. The kids who originally watched it were now adults, and this is a movie adults can enjoy. In fact, this movie seems like it was actually made for adults. Family entertainment was much darker in the 1980s and early 1990s than today; and this movie isn’t just dark, it deals with such heavy-duty topics as tits, sexual frustration, and dead children.

Yes, Hocus Pocus is campy fun, but it isn’t lazy or condescending. That’s what we liked about it as kids, and that’s why we remember it now. A-

A Short Way Back


In the two years I lived in San Francisco, I never drove. But even I knew driving there would be hell.

Sam Ettinger and I were up again before dawn. Hell, we were enjoying breakfast before dawn, at a place called Salducci’s in Lakeport. And nothing could have pleased me more that morning than eating toast while bundled up in winter clothing with a couple of my fellow morning people.

We left Lake County by driving west and then south on the 101, next to the stately tracks of the old Northwestern Pacific Railway. Three counties later, we were hurled off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.


“Were we supposed to pay a toll?” I asked. We never figured it out. Anyway, I was busy giving Sam directions in a city he’d never been to. Eventually we got to a remote corner of town and I treated Sam to a tour of SF State. He agreed that the location was miserable. Then I took the wheel, navigating a maze of double-decker freeways toward Mythbusters HQ and, eventually, lunch at Tommy’s Joynt in Cathedral Hill. There are three things I miss about San Francisco, and all of them are restaurants.


Sam crashed at the hotel, in the same room I’d stayed in a year earlier, while I made preparations. My plan for the day was ambitious; to give Sam the full non-touristy San Francisco experience, check out an assortment of bars and restaurants, the whole thing. We were walking around a random stretch of 16th Street when I stopped and pointed out a cafe on the corner of a dead end street.

“What?” asked Sam.

“This is the flower shop,” I replied excitedly. The flower shop was possibly the only real location in Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room.

“You know, James Franco is making a movie out of The Disaster Artist.”

“Good,” said Sam, “He’ll do a good Tommy.”

From there, we messed about on J Church. Dolores Park, the streetcar switchbacks, 22nd street. We retreated Downtown so we could attempt to ride a cable car, and more importantly see the spiral escalator at the Westfield center. From there, we began a long night in the Mission District.

Zeitgeist, a mostly outdoor tavern, was always crowded, but in the rain it was even worse. Resigned to sitting on a wet bench, I laid out the next phase of the day. “Here’s what I’m thinking. After this, we have dinner at El Farolito, and I know I always say ‘stay north of 24th,’ but we’re going to go down to a place called the Knockout.”

DSCN1415On Mission and 24th, El Farolito is generally regarded to have some of the best Mexican food in America, and it couldn’t have been better that night, but the trek to the Knockout filled me with apprehension. The first time I found that particular bar was in 2012. I’ve made a point of visiting San Francisco once a year; but the first time was just weirdly off. I was bored and lonely and had ridden the bus too far, so I got out and went into a random bar. Robocop played on a wall of old TV sets while a Fiery Furnaces song blasted over the speakers, so I liked it quite a lot. The second time I visited, I had hoped to have a drink with an SF State friend named Ambiguously Jewish Ashley, but it didn’t pan out. Add to this the fact that it was south of 24th street (where economics, crime, and even the accent changes for the worse), and that none of my San Francisco friends were available. This time, they were showing Robocop 2. The cycle was complete. Sam was thrilled.

Somewhere between 24th and the Knockout, Sam spied a pie shop where we finished the night. We were headed back to the hotel when I was struck by something. “Let’s go to the French Quarter.”

The French Quarter was a tiny neighbourhood Downtown, one that had been there since the Gold Rush. Allegedly, this place was wedged between huge skyscrapers, an oasis of bright neon and savoury meals in a desert of cold, dark, shuttered steel. I’d never seen it myself. We were too full to eat there, but wanted to go see if it was really there and not just some Wikipedia hoax. And then we found it, shining out in the rainy black of the financial district. Satisfied, we left it there.


The last restaurant I hoped to take Sam to was Red’s Java House. Red’s was the last regular eating spot I found while living in SF, and it gets major points for atmosphere. The restaurant is on a huge, empty pier just south of the Bay Bridge. Most people sit outside, but the walls inside are filled with vintage pin-ups, pictures of old naval ships, and newspaper clippings documenting the City’s violent past. I’m not totally sure I didn’t make it up, and the following morning didn’t prove otherwise because it was closed.

Nevertheless, we had to go home. I knew a falafel place in San Jose, the best falafel place I’d ever eaten at outside Israel. Alas, that was also closed until 10:00 AM. Dejected, we ate donuts at an indpendent movie theater Downtown. I looked around, reminded that I liked San Jose. It does something for me. It’s a nice little city. And at that, we continued our way down the Royal Road, out of Northern Calfiornia, and out of the rain.

“Well,” I said to Sam, “that was the best trip we could have hoped for!”