Sunday, June 27, 2004

Recent Film Viewing

Strayed (Andre Techine 2003) - As Greg pointed out, it's a good thing we didn't see the one-sheet until after the movie because it promises erotically charged tension or something following those lines. Strayed is in fact a sombre, slowly moving story about isolation and trust; it's not Last Tango. There's not a whole lot to say--well, it could be analyzed but not now--because it's a movie that I can admire but still wonder if there's really much point.

Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa 2003) - When I saw Cure a few years ago I thought it was one of the dozen best films of the 90s. Now that it's on DVD I need to verify that I wasn't hallucinating. Bright Future is an even more cryptic outing, as fits a film whose characters include a ghost and a jellyfish. The focus shifts so that the protagonist at the start isn't the same as the ending (indeed, the long final shot is of formerly minor characters), motivations are clouded or obvious, and elements of various genres pop in and out. Lynch is a common comparison (and his work has a Japanese analog in Miike's Gozu) but while he cultivates an air of decadence Bright Future is, if not brighter, then at least a little less seedy. So far, possibly my favorite film of the year.

Haute Tension (Alexandre Aja 2003) - This has received raves from horror fans, indicating either that they're desperate for product or that they really are quite mindless. Haute Tension is a routine, completely predictable slasher film with tick-tock film-school editing. No surprises, no tension, nothing at all of any interest until a ridiculous twist ending that's possibly the first use of that form of unreliable narrator I've seen in a movie. The problem is that it's so unreliable that there are shots and elements that the twist not only can't explain, but doesn't even try to. So let's see: dishonest, unimaginative, not scary and possibly homophobic. Deserves oblivion.

Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura 2003) - The descriptions made this sound like a hoot but from the tedious, slackly paced opening it's clear that it wouldn't be any such thing. And it only got worse. Afterwards, I made the connection that Kitamura also directed Versus so I think he's now officially a candidate for Worst Living Director. Azumi is so pointless, so vague and undeveloped (and so darn long) that I can't imagine not only why it was made but why it was even picked up for international release. There are certainly better Japanese action films around, if that's the gap that anybody wants to plug.

Eurotrip (Jeff Schaffer 2004) - This seemed like a film I could easily live without seeing until some friends convinced me otherwise. Turns out that I was right the first time. Here the tip-off also came immediately, before film actually starts in fact when the Dreamworks logo appears. Spielberg & Geffen bankrolling what should be a somewhat sleazy comedy? Yep, there's really not much sleaze or comedy on view. The most amusing thing is how so much of the European locations appear to be faked: I'm almost certain "London" is merely a backdrop/greenscreen and a British-looking sidestreet somewhere. Admittedly there are a couple of funny bits but you can get the same amount for free from many also-dimwitted sitcoms. Road Trip actually delivered what Eurotrip should have though after the bits with the writers on the DVD reveal how clueless they are it's no surprise that there's nothing of value here. Oh and by the way, "Ca Plane Pour Moi" might be in French but it's actually a Belgian song.

Freaky Friday (Mark S. Waters 2003) - Now here's something I thought skippable--I didn't even like the first one when I was a kid--until my brother and others convinced me otherwise. Turns out that they were right. Nice mix of verbal humor and slapstick (which for once slaps the sticks very well) with top-notch acting from both leads. I was about to say it's a kids movie so it has a tidy moral but then most Hollywood films do. Hardly matters. I laughed more than probably anything else I've seen this year.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Do the style guides cover this?

Journalism In Action:

VP Cheney says a naughty word on the Senate floor. Reported by possibly the country's two top newspapers. One quotes. The other just says he used "an obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr. Leahy should do." Which is which?

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Great Joss Whedon interview

Discovered this right after sending the last post. Also interesting that the best line in the X-Men movie is Whedon's and I could only expect that he would have diluted much of the two films' authoritarian angle (Professor X at times seems scarier than Magneto).

Email to a friend who teaches film

Hey I know you skipped teaching Westerns this time but I just watched the first disc of Joss Whedon's series Firefly which is basically a SF Western. Obviously not a new idea--Rodenberry explicitly sold Star Trek to NBC by saying it was "Wagon Train in space"--but done in a clever way. The main character is basically a bitter, disillusioned Confederate veteran while much of the rest of the cast could almost come from Stagecoach: a doctor, a prostitute, a preacher, a driver. Not entirely, though, since I don't remember any Ford film with a teenaged girl mentally unbalanced due to government psychological experiments. Maybe that was the director's cut of Donovan's Reef or possibly just Jane Russell after dealing with Hughes on The Outlaw. There's also some adapted iconography, most notably pistols and actual horses in certain scenes which actually do make sense in context. The pilot episode might even work in a Western class. Anyway, in the DVD commentary Whedon said he "studied with" Jeanine Basinger and took a lot of his ideas about space and civilization from her. And there's one bit that seems inspired by the end of Forty Guns.

Just from these first episodes, the show is quite good. It doesn't have the same kind of snappy patter as Buffy (though there are still some laugh-out-loud moments) but then these aren't the same kind of people. You always hear about how TV networks are looking for character-driven shows but here was one in the best sense and it didn't last a full season. I guess that even though the characters are more or less "good" they aren't explicitly so and at times are calculating and fighting among each other. Kinda the difference between the B-Western John Wayne and The Searchers John Wayne (or for that matter early Batman and modern Batman).

Monday, June 14, 2004

Every now and then I make a trip to a mainstream video store, usually Hollywood because I refuse to go to Blockbuster and there really aren't any mom-n-pop stores around my area. (Most of my rentals are through Netflix and two local funky arthouse/weirdo stores.) Anyway, as always I'm surprised by the number of DTV titles that I knew nothing about and this previous weekend by the number of crime films starring rappers. Wonder if there are any undiscovered gems there? Fifty years ago who paid attention to, say, Detour or Kiss Me Deadly?

Anyway the first batch of rentals:

Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher 2002) - Despite my love of Larry Cohen's work, the dread Schumacher kept me away when it was in theatres. As it turns out this could practically have been a stage play and is so tight that it's pretty hard for Schumacher to mess up. By "tight" I don't mean sensible since there are enough plot holes and logical leaps that it's anti-thriller amusing at times (deliberately perhaps?). After all, this is a film where two people die to teach another one that lying is bad; it seems a bit out of proportion but I guess they needed a protagonist that viewers could somewhat identify with. There's enough b-movie energy that this might be worth watching again.

The Cooler (Wayne Kramer 2003) - Promising for the first ten or so minutes and then it becomes one of those "why was this ever filmed" films. It's the kind of thing where the characters stand and unload themselves of monologues explaining exactly who they are and what they want. There's no mystery, no fuzziness, no self-conflict. All the themes are heavily underlined--I laughed out loud at the tipping salt shaker when bad luck is mentioned--and everybody acts just the way they're told to. When the ending appears to be downbeat you might think the filmmakers are taking the cowardly way out but then there's a "twist" so, well, stupid that you think these people (except the cinematographer) should be consigned to a few years on reality TV if not just sent to staff a new Home Depot.

Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen 2003) - You can see why this was filmed--money mainly--but can't help but wondering at what point in the production did they realize there was nothing worthwhile in it? Very nearly unwatchable. And by the way, didn't anybody realize that a lawyer would have copies of a legal document like a pre-nuptial so destroying one copy doesn't invalidate it? Actually destroying all of them doesn't necessarily do so.

So when I returned those the store offered a cheap rental deal so I unwisely got three more:

The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman 2002) - I actually intended to see this in theatres though now I can't imagine why. I've never read anything by Ludlum but have always heard they're extremely bad, which must be true if this is any indication. There's an interesting moral issue about whether a person is responsible for actions they have no memory of committing but, well, it's hard to imagine what interested anybody connected with this other than showing Matt Damon for the maximum screen time. Alternately tedious and dumb, the film keeps promising to slide into goofy hijinks (such as the assassin who jumps Python-like out of a window) but mainly it just makes your eyes glaze and your teeth gnash.

Jason vs. Freddy (Ronny Yu 2003) - Talk about shoulda-been goofy hijinks. Surely some half-decent writer could have come up with something clever but apparently these people never tried. Admittedly that's tough to do for two unkillable characters that long ago became self-parodies but hey Wes Craven's New Nightmare managed to be smart and involving. Yu actually brings off a few decent images but he's got so little to work with that you can only wish it was a bigger surprise that Hollywood has destroyed so many Hong Kong talents.

Scorched (Gavin Grazer 2002) - Had never heard of this but since I'm a sucker for comic crime (yes I love Donald Westlake; well not him but his books) and the Python-completest in me noted the appearance of John Cleese. Well, there's a reason I'd never heard of it: This seems to be some kind of tax-shelter film that nobody ever expected would be released. It's just so far beyond implausible and unfunny and anti-life that you almost want to cry at the wasted humanity on view. Even Cleese can't make some of his lines funny (though he otherwise gets the only laughs with the remainder) and everybody else is just wasted. Just for what it's worth: Key plot points would never work because alarm systems record whenever they're used.

Monday, June 7, 2004

Man, first Elvin Jones then Steve Lacy and now news just arrived that Robert Quine was found dead, an apparent suicide. I was just talking with somebody over the weekend about how great it would be for a CD reissue of Quine's top-notch collaboration with Jody Harris Escape. Quine was one of the greats and I just wish he had recorded more.

Sunday, June 6, 2004

Sometimes you wonder:

The May 30th issue of TV Guide had a feature on cult shows and at number 13 is Babylon 5 described as "This space opera has it all: sinister aliens, space chicks and funny-named villains like the Narn and Vorlons." Did anybody at TV Guide actually watch the show? This is one of the great works of art about forgiveness and sacrifice, about tragedy, about moral decisions, and they boil it down to the status of a SNL sketch. There are some sinister aliens but also some kind aliens and sinister humans and no "space chicks" by usual TV SF standards (ie a noticable lack of metal bikinis and chokingly tight uniforms). Besides, the Narn and Vorlons aren't villains, not even particularly in a conventional sense but more specifically because B5 lives up to Renoir's dictum that everybody has their reasons. That's one reason the show will probably never get its full due: big chunks of it look like standard Good vs. Evil showdowns but turn out to be, well, not quite that and an even tougher sell is that you can't come in during the middle because the actual process, the changes, are mostly the point of the show.

Saturday, June 5, 2004

I spent a good bit of the morning checking out Internet radio stations. It was only a few years ago that I was visiting Jeremy and heard my first streaming radio using a new program called RealPlayer. Now we know that RealPlayer is evil and streaming MP3 is the way to go. Even more surprising is how vital Internet radio has become; I listen to it more than over-the-air radio. (Radio of course being purely a conceptual word in relation to the Internet.) I didn’t get a chance to explore any of these in depth and the dozen or so Chinese stations all sounded extremely bad.

Here are today’s recommended findings:

Digitally Imported Modern Jazz

I’m not entirely sure that’s the correct name since the website’s clumsy design makes it a bit unclear. But it’s sure got a great playlist. When I first checked this is what it showed:

Now playing: Charles Mingus - So Long Eric

Last 8 tracks played:

1 Albert Ayler - Universal Thoughts

2 Sun Ra & His Arkestra - A House Of Beauty

3 The Art Ensemble Of Chicago - A Brain For The Seine

4 Archie Shepp - Basheer

5 Evan Parker & Eddie Prevost - Let Us Attend To Present Business

6 Miles Davis - Miles Runs The Voodoo Down

7 Max Roach - Tender Warriors

8 Sun Ra - Discipline

Iranian Radio

Technicolor Web of Sound - 60s psych

Russian station - had some cool Russian hip-hop

Radio Mazaj - Arabic

Sunusound - assorted African and Caribbean styles

RadiOK - the rock en espanol part sounds decent

Radio Helsinki - Turned it on and the first thing I heard was Sonic Youth. We already knew that the Finns may be the coolest people on the planet but still I’m hoping some non-English music shows up.

Interesting combined review of three avant-garde organ CDs.
Some links:

Water balloons bursting in low-gravity (our tax dollars at work courtesy NASA)

Difference between US and British arts journalism
(sounds like the Brits do it better)

Amusing (& fairly accurate) dis of the LOTR movies

Info on all of The Fall's cover versions

One-minute audio snapshots

Pronounciation guide for classical music announcers

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Finally made it through the first season of 24:

spoilers ahead, if you care

1. I had originally watched the first couple of episodes but when it became obvious that they were lying about it being in real-time (in the first five minutes of the first episode) I sort of lost interest.

2. This would have been much better as 12 or even just 4.

3. Though the bad guys are in fact generally guys, they’re also the most straight-forward thugs and revenge seekers. It’s the women that are consistently traitors (two of ‘em), liars and sneaks, that is when they’re not damsels in distress. And while Jack and other men are pretty much just shot and assaulted, the women are raped (two again), kidnapped (one even by Jack the supposed good guy), hit by cars, forcibly injected with heroin, commit suicide, smothered to death, traumatized into amnesia (no lie), send flunkies to sleep with their husbands so they can be Lady Macbeth and whatever else. I wouldn't go so far as to call 24 misogynist but it certainly headed in that direction.

4. The ending wasn't inappropriate but it definitely was handled poorly, some last-minute (literally) taunt: "Hah, dead wife in your face, dude! How's that for rough realism?" It wasn't remotely organic as shown by the DVD's inclusion of an alternate ending where she lived that was just as plausible and I almost would have said emotionally coherent if that wasn't almost ridiculous with a show like this.

5. The split between Bauer and Palmer as Action and Thought was an acceptable structural device but too bad that's all it was. There were a couple of moments when it looked like Jack's might-makes-right action heroics might become their own barriers but no he's shown to be doing just fine all along, even when he murders one of the bad guys (the Dennis Hopper character and it is in fact unambiguous murder).

6. You'd think that with something like 16 pure hours of narrative story (often even double screened) there might be room for characterization beyond plot demands but somehow that never happens, even though we're treated to riviting scenes of digging, driving and wandering around the L.A. landscape. Nobody expects Henry James but a bit of John Woo or Peckinpah would have been nice.

7. Since the identity of the main traitor wasn't a secret this far from the original airings, it's a bit odd watching and seeing the lapses and ellisions where she works. Pretty much everybody who reads The Murder of Roger Ackroyd knows who the killer is and the novel is constructed cleverly enough that it's still an absorbing game. Here, there's a bit of this, things like her identity being underlined in the opening recap to every episode or seeing how she got out of the safe house in time (did she push Jack's wife into uncovering her relationship with Jack so she would have an excuse) not to mention how the rest of the bad guys even knew where the safe house was or when Jack's daughter was leaving the police office. And so on.

8. Guess the makers were already thinking about the second season which is why they didn't bother to offer the slightest explanation about Nina's actions or who she's actually working for.

9. I haven't read any interviews or background material but I'm curious whether the writers/creators were deliberately trying for top-this B-movie serial excess or whether they actually thought they were making good televisual entertainment. Amnesia? Hidden identities? Impossibly convoluted conspiracies? Shadow governments? Moral senators? The first season of Alias has some of the same attitude but is frequently merely clumsy and poorly conceived while even the frequent dumb stuff in 24 at least feels dumb in an unassuming way.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Below are some restrictions on creating a password from a website that I have to use at work. The odd thing is that, apart from just being silly and unnecessary, these restrictions actually make it easier to hack the password.

The code must be a six- to 10-digit, unique number.

The code must be numeric, it cannot contain letters or special characters.

The code must not have more than two repeating numbers

(acceptable: 113355, not acceptable: 111333).

The code must not have more than two increments

(acceptable: 124578, not acceptable: 123567).

The code must not have more than two decrements

(acceptable: 986532, not acceptable: 987543).

The code must not contain a string of four or more numbers that match your

Social Security Number.

The code cannot begin with a zero.

The code should not be your birthdate.