Outstreched arm

Thursday, June 30, 2005

How appropriate that I should be reading 'The Plague'

this is an audio post - click to play


You may have noticed that Mrgan.com has changed. It is now a portal to Neven, one page to rule them all. It contains lists of recent updates to several major services I've decided to go with instead of writing my own code. These are currently:

Articles from The Missing '"o", which is what you are reading right now. My blog will contain journal-like updates on my life, reviews, and whatever else I feel makes for interesting or important reading. This may overlap with other services.

This is a great picture storage and sharing service, with tons of features and a very neat user interface. It makes uploading incredibly easy (I use the iPhoto plugin.) It will contain new pictures I take - for old ones, ask!

You may want to know what I'm watching - check the blog for reviews and movies I see outside of Netflix.

I'm trying out this "social bookmarking service" if only because it publishes an RSS feed.

With a plugin (available for nearly every music app out there) this will publish and do stats on the digital music you play. The service can get sketchy at times, but it's promising.

So how does the page at mrgan.com get assembled, then? Well, all of these sites offer RSS feeds, which are formatted lists of recent updates. They're a breeze to parse, and in this way, the page pretty much runs itself - I never have to update anything but the design. I'm liking RSS, and though the news of its prominence in MS Longhorn is rather laughable, I'm glad it's gaining in popularity. I hope more online services offer it.

While we're on the subject, do any of you have RSS feeds you'd like to share? I have a bookmark folder called 'Friends' in Safari RSS into which I'll place them so I can stay up to date on what you're doing. Examples include blog feeds, picture feeds, etc.

Looney Tunes

Two days ago I got the idea of commemorating Coincidence Day, when we can all oooh and aaah over trivial similarities, corelations, and improbabilities - in short, ends of the normal curve. June 28th it is, then.

Appropriately enough, I have an example from that very day. Netflix had recommended that I see Tunes of Glory, and I was sure that I never would, since it looked kind of goofy. But then I came home and noticed my brother had picked it up at the library, and it looked a bit better in person. That's all I have to say for the coincidence (are you spooked out?)

The movie: Jock Sinclair, played by Alec Guinness, commands a kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, whiskey-swilling brigade in Scotland, and no one wears a kilt or dances or drinks like he does. He's a self-made man, loud and boisterous, but the men like him for his brutish approachability and folksiness. He announces that he will soon be replaced by Col. Basil Barrow (understated but powerful John Mills), a privileged, by-the-book army nerd from a well-known military family. The two men take an instant disliking to each other, as one formally controls the brigade (Barrow), while the other has their spirit on his side. Things get hairy when Sinclair's drunken episode puts him at Barrow's mercy: whatever Barrow's decision on how to discipline Sinclair, he'll lose, as he'll be seen as either cowardly or a vengeful.

The military setting is almost incidental; it's mainly a formal container for the rule-driven group. The conflict between the men is not anything you haven't seen or read before: one lets his men get away with minor informalities, while the other makes up a rule when there isn't one. It's easy to sympathize with Sinclair for most of the film (though not in the opening scene, at least not in my case), but the story isn't all that naive. Actually, by the end, the situation got so ethically and empathically complex that I wasn't really sure it could be resolved in a satisfying and believable manner. I won't give it away except to say that it does untangle neatly (I use that word with some reservation.)

Ronald Neame's direction is of the spotless sort common in the 1950s, and the script is compelling (though it does away with the romantic subplot rather hastily), but Guinness' performance is what stands out. He's a man quite certain of his own convictions and ideas who externalizes his inner conflicts immediately. The character of Sinclair goes through many situations of wildly varying emotional requirements, and Guinness is always spot-on. He's a theatrical actor, but with a feeling for subtle movements only the camera fully appreciates (watch when he quickly covers the discomfort at being asked if he's staying with the brigade after Clarrow takes over.) Mills' boiling-pot Barrow is shadowed by this wide performance, but he does a fabulous job himself, especially when he explodes so gradually you could draw the curve on the celluloid.

There are a few missteps here, some involving unneeded comic relief by private Wacky, but a more annoying one is the odd introduction of the supernatural (or at least the perception of it). If it's real and actual within the movie, it's silly. If it's only inside Sinclair's head, it's too literal a device - we can read Guinness' face just fine without it. Actually, there's almost no point in making the distinction, since this is a work of fiction, after all - what were ghosts doing inside writer James Kennaway's head? is the question.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Pearls of wisdom

Pearls Before Swine is an odd little Sunday comic, not quite sure of what demographic or interest group it wants to target; jokes range from simple sarcasm and insults to wordy cultural references. The characters are very well executed, but they're not terribly memorable; having read it daily for a few weeks now, I still only have a recollection of there being some mouse, a pig, and a goat of some sort, with occasional human characters (normally the target of insults).

But it's fun; not knowing where the humor will come from next can be a virtue, if only by comparison to the solid but predictable Dilbert. And even when the humor is of the very mild sort - normally a typical two-panel setup with a canned punchline - the writing is refreshingly verbose. And the art is really very cute.

The joke started in yesterday's comic was hilarious, though; shots at the Family Circus may be cheap, but god does it deserve them. And talk about risque - a political comic like Doonesbury is expected to do it, but with this, it's not even a commentary on anything; it's just flaming poo on Bill Keane's front porch.

Is it funny only because it's inappropriate? I don't think so. Look at Osama's puzzled face; at dad's embarrassement. It's not that "fatwa" is a naughty word; what's inappropriate about it is the cultural and political complexity of the very concept. Humor in general relies heavily on such level-crossing, mode-switching juxtapositions, and in this case, the contextual distance Stephan Pastis travels is significant.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Home Of the Grave, Land of The Dead

First you're introduced to The Skeleton Key, a voodoo-based horror set in Louisiana's Terrebonne county, where monsters of epistemology lurk ("if you believe it, it's real.") Then, as if Romania wasn't scary enough in itself, you find out that there's a monster in The Cave before you can chuckle at the word "spelunking." At the end of this trailer there's a post-title "zinger" with the monster jumping out for a milisecond. The woman sitting next to me in the theater didn't see it coming - I don't really understand how - and literally started to sob from fright.

She should have saved it for when the Man gets the screen for himself - George "A." Romero (not to be confused with George Jebediah Romero.) Before even seeing Land of The Dead, before I even had to worry about whether it would be a Bruiser-style train wreck (hey, Truffaut had his Fahrenheit 451), I had no doubts about the outrage one should feel at the fact that no one would finance Romero's work today. A lousy $15 million he ended up with - for a post-apocalyptic action flick. Boo.

And yes, it's an action flick. While the premise is that the zombies have started either waking up to some of their pre-death abilities or perhaps the really dumb ones have been weeded out first, the humans are also much more prepared now. As in Day of The Dead, they've made a daily practice of taking care of the "stenches", as they call them. It doesn't hurt that this time, they have on their side a gargantuan "truck" called Dead Reckoning; it makes the pimped ride from the Dawn remake look like a Matchbox toy. It's piloted by Riley, a man with a conscience, and Cholo (John Leguizamo in, thankfully, anti-Spawn mode) who aspires to join the white fatcats living inside Fiddler's Green, which is something like the mall from Dawn if it had first been stumpled upon by Donald Trump. This mini-Manhattan is run by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper in, thankfully, anti-Waterworld mode.)

There are two main ideas here: the basic struggle between the surviving haves and havenots, a Lord of The Flies-like observation that no matter how you restart humanity, you end up with the same 1980s' USA. This is complicated by the growing danger of the outsiders, the zombies - as always with Romero, the conflicting human factions don't unite against the common enemy. The political allegory is not multi-faceted or insightful, but it doesn't need to be. This is an Undead flick: it's enough that Hopper gets to say, "we don't negotiate with terrorists." The more personal lines are also more original - when Cholo is bitten and offered to be shot before he zombifies, he replies, "No, I've always wanted to see how the other half lives."

The special effects are easily the best of any Dead film; there is some CGI, but it's very, very subtle. Romero can still think up the most messed-up wounds, bites, disfigurations, and zombie attacks. At one point, an arm is torn in half starting between the index and middle finger on the hand; absolutely goddamn awful. Yay. The scares are mostly visceral, but the overall situation in which the humans find themselves is also very unsettling if you can empathize. Simon Baker (Riley) helps with this. When he mentions that he's shot his undead brother, Asia Argento (hey, she's in this - what am I thinking??) remarks, "I thought you said nothing bad happened to you."

"No, that happened to my brother." Simple, but it works.

Several things will happen among the "fans" (i.e. alt.nerd.obsessive): they will bemoan the polished look, as if Romero should now do what people wanted of I. M. Pei: a pastiche that denies all technological and aesthetic development since the original work; they will also groan over the smarter zombies, as if this wasn't a crucial part of the original design.

The one major complaint I have is about the film length - at 93 minutes, it feels like a 3" sub. I'm sure this was a studio requirement, so I won't blame Romero. I like his writing; heck, even, Bruiser had great little elements - and I'd like to see him try another Martin. The showing of Land I went to see was sold out; maybe George can finally try a real production, or at least a comfortably financed one. He deserves it.

Added: Just watched Night again, and there's a particular type of criticism I'd like to direct at Day and Land: they end on odd, sequel-baiting notes. Night was absolutely shocking in its promise of global salvation and utter destruction of personal hope; Dawn was initially supposed to end with the hero's suicide, but even as currently given, it provides only a pathetic, desperate kind of rescue, as the helicopter glides over endless zombie-covered terrain. In Land, our protagonists may or may not find safe ground, but we've been here before. This is where another 15-20 minutes really could have helped. That said, it's still a fabulously enjoyable horror flick, and given the choice between a profitable but simple movie, and a ballsy but financially risky one, I'd opt for one that made Romero some dough - l'art pour l'argent for once.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

What casts these shadows?

Shadows is my first John Cassavetes movie, and I'm not proud of such a lame (for a trendster like myself!) viewing history. I thought I'd start chronologically since the alphabetical approach wasn't working out with Lumet.

This is a virtually scriptless slice of beat New York, loosely centered around mixed-race siblings trying to make something of their lives. The oldest, a clearly black dude, is a singer who gets no respect; maybe because of his race, maybe because of his style. The middle brother is at about 50% blackness, and he's struggling with his identity both when it comes to race, and the choice of counter-culture. The baby sister, Lelia, is nearly white, but her "reality bites" problems are only superficially racial in nature.

Cassavetes uses two vehicles to move the celluloid along: brief textural shots, and dialogue. The latter is consistently claustrophobic in its framing, which solves a common problem of low-budget films, namely, a complete lack of interesting facial acting. Just look at any cheesy 50s' sci-fi flick where the camera must fit at least two actors and a prop in every shot (unless we have the POV of the extra-eating monster.) Intimacy isn't always a strength in Shadows, however; the performances cover the whole spectrum between touching and embarrassing.

The biggest problem, however, is that the overwhelming visual effect of Shadows is disjointedness. Most of this comes from the too-choppy-to-be-intentional editing. It's wise of Cassavetes to provide multiple angles for most shots, but they are duct-taped together in a way that produces visual confusion when there may need to be emotional confusion on the screen. One of the key scenes - Lelia's older brother meeting her oh-so-white boyfriend - is farcical in that it's basically a series of retina-challenging cuts. I understand that this is clearly a product of the laughable budget, but it still hurts the finished work. Imagine if all of Taxidriver was as clumsy as the film stock change in the closing scenes.

Still, a couple of great lines. When, in the above-mentioned encounter, Lelia's faux-racist boyfriend - an original character and behavior fully sketched out in just a few lines - sees he can use racism as a ticket out of an uncomfortable non-relationship and subtly insults her brother, he almost verbalizes his strategy: "Remember, you asked me to leave."

The film reminded me in many ways of Scorsese's Who's That Knocking At My Door, a similarly meandering, uneven improvisation that follows a plotline here and there. In a direct comparison, Scorsese easily wins on visuals, less obviously on performances, and overall lands half a star-point higher due to a better narrative focal point (the relationship between J.R. and his "imperfect" girlfriend). Shadows has a good thing going with Lelia's story; however, this peaks at the wrong moment, and fails to reflect in the rest of the movie, which is fine; it's just that it's somewhat less effective once you're done watching.

One area where Cassavetes scores far, far above most movies of any budget is the music: tribal and jam jazz, with occasional (and perfectly placed) sax and bass solos (some, apparently, by Mingus - Mingus Mingus Mingus!) They can cast that shadow over any setting as far as I'm concerned.

Thanks, universe

Presumably in response to the odd cube decoration I was welcomed with yesterday, something neat happened to me today. As I was parked in front of my mom's work, waiting to pick her up, an older but energetic woman with a great smile on her face circled around my new Scion xA, stopping for a second behind it. She then tapped on the window and said,

"I just wanted to say that's an absolutely adorable car. I've never seen one before. And you're the second person I've ever seen with a Darwin fish on their car - my daughter has two, one says "Science", the other one "Darwin."

My mom tells me the nice lady's name is Barbara, and she's in the market for a new car. That would make it the second xA I sell.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

They call them the breeze

I'm a six-foot-two guy with a beard and long hair, and this qualifies me for two things: a sympathy for the shirtless political revolutionism of the 60s, and a statistical unlikeliness to cry at the movies. The two were married today as I made another step on my path of familiarization with the work of Sidney Lumet, whose movies tend to fall into one of two categories: masterpieces, and very very good. Yes, I definitely felt some moisture on my cheek during at least two scenes of his 1988 film Running on Empty.

Before I start listing the characters, I will save some space by noting that absolutely everyone does a fantastic job. Really, pick anyone off the credits and they're great - from the obvious heartbreaks (Phoenix) to the surprising against-types (Hirsch). They're son and father, joined by a mother and another, younger son, doing what any American family does as the 70s turn into the 80s - running from the FBI because of their anti-Vietnam lab bombing that, unintentionally, left a man blind and paralyzed. They move whenever the "shoes" are on their trail, and this exercise they're pros at is questioned as the seventeen-year old Danny (Phoenix) sees some opportunities for a more normal life for himself.

Lumet - what to say of him? The man can do it all: a story an eight-year old could follow, texture, heart, and wonderful two-actor scenes. It's not just the dialogue; in scenes like Christine Lahti meeting her father for the first time after fourteen years, it's often the lack of it, or the way cliched-but-necessary lines seem to deliver themselves. In Danny's failed sexual encounter with a too-good-for-her-age Martha Plimpton (did I mention the acting was superb?) it's barely anything; but it's there nevertheless.

There is almost no talk of activism, politics, and right-vs-wrong in the film. Surprised? Sure, there's a moment or two where the father starts to eagerly recite pamphlets, but it's almost endearing; he might as well be lecturing Danny about how to keep a car running past 200,000 miles. The family unit here is a bit odd, sure, but allow me to quote David Cronenberg (said of his new movie A History of Violence): to make a story general, you have to make it very specific; it's happening here, to these people, now.

If I can be pardoned another personal note: my family lived through a war in the early 90s, and I can testify to the precision and subtleness of Lumet's portrayal of such a group under social stress. I wish I could also add that I identify with Phoenix's character; alas, Danny/Michael will forever be one of the cool kids (with the cool sort of a problem) I always aspired to be. If some day I'm told that I indeed had skills of a sort in high school, that won't change the fact that they never got me noticed or hit on. Music is so much hotter than my marginal artistic and technologic abilities.

Found in my office this morning

Found in my office this morning

This was put on the monitor of my work computer by an uknown person who must get a lot of comfort from their religious beliefs. They were presumably offended by my evolution-related merch. "Belivers" do the wackiest things.

P.S. I believe in John McLaughlin, and McLaughlin is GOD, man!

Originally uploaded by Neven Mrgan.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Good movies end in "-Up"

I used to spend a lot of time at the local library, but an unfortunate incident resulting in more fines than I was willing to pay ended that habit about two years ago; a shame, really. They usually have a small but interesting selection of movies, and today's hunt was excellent. I got Close-Up by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, a wonderfully original exploration of the documentary format, and of moviemaking in general (perhaps even the idea of art).

Sabzian, an unlucky young man with an amateur's love of cinema, befriends the wealthy family Ahankhah by pretending to be Makhmalbaf, a popular Iranian film director. The trick doesn't last long, and Sabzian is arrested and tried while Kiarostami's camera records. Two basic types of scenes are used: actual footage of the trial, and reenactments of events leading up to it. All the individuals involved play themselves, which is cute in more than one way: everyone does a great job, and Sabzian and the Ahankhahs' youngest son initially express a wish to be actors. It's not entirely clear how much of the movie is authentic footage, but Kiarostami likes it that way; he is not attempting to just document Sabzian's troubles. Much grander questions about identity, trust, and representation are on the table.

Sabzian is a particularly likeable character, and Kiarostami admits that this was a challenge; at the outset, it's not easy to sympathize with a man who tricks a family for days with no particular goal in mind. His story of unemployment, divorce, and unfulfilled dreams is hardly what made me feel for him; it was a more gut-level thing than that. He has a positively kind look on his face, and a zen-like (rather than child-like) sincerity.

This is a situation where a cynic might get even more mileage out of the premise; it's not impossible that Sabzian is also acting in the courtroom - after all, if he can do a good job of portraying a man from a different social class altogether, how much easier for him to play an honest loser. As for me, call me credulous if you wish.

Mucho recommended!

Swish! Swoosh! Woooom!

Normally I wouldn't make fun of somebody's business, but this simply can't be let go without some poking. I present to you Swish Shop, a collection of Swish components. What can they do? Boy, anything - and it will all make your company website sparkle and gleam.

Perhaps your corporate website needs a spiffy illustration? Something that says, "we will crush you"?

Oh, but wait - first you'll need a logo, right? Your business visuals need to be recognizable, confidence-inspiring, perhaps even stunning?

Ok, we have a logo, now let's set up the website. How's this? Not enough room for copy - ok, this? It's $50, you can't expect miracles. Ok, here's an affordable, clean one, and I promise that the photos aren't from a stock photo collection - they're 100% legal! I really like this one... See, the guy is sitting on a menu bar AND standing on a 486 case; it's realistic, people can relate to that.

Of course, if you're looking for something edgier to capture that Gen-X market, this is it. We'll throw in a clock for free.

Hey, some people like it - it's not our job as designers and illustrators to make things look good. That's for artists and such. We're just trying to make a buck.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Get the Bat in your hair

I really liked the new Batman movie.

I'm not going to summarize the plot for you, I won't tell you that Caine, Oldman, Murphy, and Wilkinson are great, or talk about the franchise being finally started properly. I'm sure you'll see the movie for yourself at some point in the near future.

"What, they don't like falafel?"

The Matador...

Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe tackles much the same issues as Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove - issues perhaps too similar at times - sans parody and humor (neither of which ever made me sincerely laugh.) Strangelove will forever be considered the better movie, but I had a much better cerebral time in Lumet's more realistic, claustrophobic universe. Let's see if the plot sounds familiar to you:

Due to a technical glitch, an American bomber is deployed on a mission to destroy Moscow. However, the SOP's dictate that the action cannot be reverted, and it's up to the President (an always compassionate Henry Fonda), his staff at the Pentagon - which features a too calculated academic (a creepy Walter Mathau) - bomber control, and everyone's equivalent in Moscow to prevent the situation from escalating into the end of civilization.

We are taken through the usual steps of introducing the chain of command, the military equipment, and some quick (but sharp) international politics. This is all necessary, but it doesn't distract Lumet from what I think he is trying to boil down the dilemma to: more basic human issues, such as, can people trust each other? how certain must one be in order to do X, and how to weigh the consequences of X? is an evil lesser by a quantitative degree really lesser at all? even if an answer is on the table, how does one decide to truly act on it?

It could be argued that at least one question is answered clearly here: technology is getting beyond human comprehension and ability to predict, and as such can't be relied on. However! as tension grows in the control room with the realization that the bombers can't be stopped and must now, through no fault of the people inside them, be considered enemy aircraft, one officer goes through a sudden breakdown and attempts feeble mutiny. Just what makes humans under pressure less prone to mistakes of all sorts than their mechanical counterparts? (I would be the first to argue that there are, as of now, simply no mechanical equivalents of fully-functioning humans, but the Pentagon is aware of this - that's why Strangelove/Fail-Safe scenarios aren't really possible as given.)

Speaking of Strangelove, for my money, Kubrick ultimately offers hysterical laughter as the only attempted commentary on the mess that are the Cold Wars. I'm not saying I dislike it, but it's not the great Cold War movie in terms of coverage of issues. Neither is Fail-Safe; for dealing with such a grand theme, it's a very stagey, compact production. This helps the performances but might bore the general audience (I am not trying to place myself above those; on the contrary, I think most movies should provide them with something.) For insight, it's still best to read a book.

I'd also like to point out that the bookend scenes are imagined and edited in way I found fascinating - here, the cheapness bleeds through the screen and becomes style. See the movie for this if nothing else.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Night of The Werewolves... In Love!

Hey, how did I miss this when it came out? Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers is an entertaining and not unscary horror/action flick, a kind of a Living Dead (Werewolves) set in England. There aren't many werewolf movies nowadays (Nick Park's next masterpiece probably doesn't count) and this one does it old skool; not too much time is spent trying to understand or outwit the hairy monsters - they're just very big, muscley, teethy targets.

The plot puts a platoon of English soldiers in a farmhouse and has them rough it through a full-moon-lit night, low on ammo and high on British humor. It's not Saun of The Dead exactly, but it's a fun ride.

But even if the movie had sucked, I'd still be in love afterwards; love, my friends! Somewhere along this entrail-paved road an angel lands her delicate feet in a puddle of blood, first dressed in a big, huggable winter jacket and hat, then in a revealing - but oh, never revealing enough! - tank top. Emma Cleasby is her name, and I hope that in the future she stars in anything - anything! - so I could feast my eyes on her figure some more. I loved her from the first time her curly hair took up the screen, but when she grabbed that gun and took down that lycanthrope... Oh baby. Sure, she looks like an old heartbreak, Jane Daly from Deathdream, but so what - I've fallen for a type, sue me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Three characters in a boat (to say nothing of the knife)

Polanski is a weird fellow, even if you focus only on his cinematic life. He doesn't seem to pick a fixed degree of weirdness for his movies. His new project, for instance, an adaptation of Oliver Twist, looks rather bland - but who knows.

His classic 1962 film Knife in The Water is often considered his best. Having seen it a few days ago, I still reserve that honor for Chinatown, though that's arguably the least Polanski-like movie as well. The script there is extremely fine-tuned, and this may be Polanski's problem elsewhere.

Knife in The Water doesn't have a bad story; it's just that there isn't very much of it. An unhappy couple - him, old, rich, and cocky; her, young, simple, and quiet - picks up a hitchhiker on their way to an overnight boat sail. There's some tension between the two men, obviosly, and this culminates in a confrontation over the titular knife. We don't find out much about the characters, other than that the hitchhiker is poor and jealous of the husband, while the is husband something of a stuck-up manchild; not very revelatory, really.

This is not too problematic, though, as the film is filled with masterfully composed shots of the three against the backdrop of the sea and the never-too-distant land. Jazz kicks in at all the right times and it all works really well, with little details anchoring the story in its time and place, lessening the metaphorical burden of such a lean dramatic setup. I hope I won't be giving away too much by pointing out that I like how Chekhov's rule about weapons in the first act having to go off in the third gets an ironic treatment here.

However, I am slightly irked by the descriptions of the movie as a "nail-biting suspense thriller." Poppycock. Just as the boat is never too far from dry land, so do the characters mostly stay within the confines of civility. The final confrontation isn't exactly explosive; if anything, it makes all three seem like believable human beings we can relate to. This is not a letdown, in my opinion. A more drastic resolution would have been perhaps too dark for the rather smooth sailing in the first two thirds of the movie.

A word of warning; make that a four-letter word of warning. The Criterion Collection DVD looks beautiful, but one aspect of the release is infuriating: the bad, sloppy, uninformative translation. I don't mean that it's just uninspired, though it certainly is that when it's actually present on the screen. The problem is that virtually half the lines don't get translated at all. This is not an Altman movie with dozens of characters talking over each other - it features all of the three characters, with only one (infrequently, two) speaking in the same scene.

Lines are dropped with no method or logic; sometimes they're easily interpreted calls and motions, but other times they're what seems like crucial dialogue. It's positively exasperating when lines are uncomprehensive in a movie as tight and talk-sparse as this. From what little Polish my Slavic roots enable me to understand, I think the translated lines were rather mangled as well. A big thumbs down for Criterion.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ex Machinist

Brad Anderson's The Machinist is a very pleasant surprise, in that I never got to see it in the theater nor did any of my friends (suck it, AMC), so the hype I was exposed to was marginal. Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn't use the word "pleasant" in connection with this movie; in case you missed it, Christian Bale went down to 120 skeletal lb to play Trevor Reznik, an insomniac whose troubles never seem to end. On a side note, Bale then had only 3 months to get up to Batman weight - I eagerly await this week the results of this under Nolan's direction.

Reznik is a machinist (duh), as in, one who operates heavy and extremely dangerous machinery. I could relate to the shop scenes in the movie as I've worked in a company just like that, running saws and mills - it's dirty, scary, and pays crap. After a few months, despite sticking to OSHA's safety rules (which came in a Tolstoy-sized book), I had acquired enough bruises, cuts, scrapes, and other skin damage to dislike the environment severely.

Anyway, back to the movie. Anderson had Bale lose the weight for a reason, so you'll get to see lots of his skin-over-bone figure, and it doesn't get much better when he's wearing clothing either. As his girlfriend points out, "I don't have any size 26 pants" - he looks like a wire hanger. Ah, the girlfriend - she's played by a lovable Jennifer Jason Leigh, and I would nominate the scene of her and Bale in bed together - bare nipples on both and all - for David Edelstein's Unreconcilable Actors in The Same Scene contest if the disturbing juxtaposition here wasn't inentional.

Overall, I thought the movie was disturbing in the right places, and not entirely predictable, though I actually could have done without the somewhat literal ending. Remember, great art invites you to come in and play; it doesn't just serve you its point on a plate, cooked and predigested. This may be where art and entertainment part, though it's hard to see anything in this generally bleak movie as entertainment. So how about it, non-Hollywood: make it more difficult. We've been primed enough by injections of headiness into popular entertainment; we can take it.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Way-in Crowd in Orlando

The Way In Crowd
Originally uploaded by clunkygirl.

Dean, Larry, and myself drove up to Orlando today to attend our friend Bill's lecture titled Cognitive Illusions at the Central Florida Freethinkers monthly meeting. We then hung out at the hyper-cool coffee shop/video store Stardust, and at Michele's, who took the above photos, and others.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Ringrudge

Just watched A Tale of Two Sisters, and wow, it was certainly a horror movie - that plot was scary as hell. I just can't get enough of these jerkily moving, lanky female demons, things crawling out of closets, and canvas body bags tossing about. Not to mention the creeeepy house with a kitchen and a closet and a medicine cabinet. And we get a character who, unbeknowst to them, is actually dead - how do they come up with this stuff? To Ji-Woon's credit, unlike Sixth Sense, this one doesn't bother with any consistency, rhythm, or any of those pesky things*.

But seriously, folks, the scariest things in this movie - not in my opinion, literally - are 1. leftover fish in the fridge, 2. a dream of menstruation, 3. a zombie hand coming from under the sink, and 4. a laughably artificial trail of blood on the floor.

Speaking of dreams, what will it take for directors to stop showing people waking up from nightmares with a scream, covered in sweat, sitting up nicely for the camera? Can we for once see the dreamer recollecting the dream later in the day with deep, ripened unease - that's how my worst nightmares are, and they never feature blood or corpses - instead of this drive-thru, rollercoaster shock?

What else you got, Korea? And how about you, America? Scare me, guys!

* (look, I'm comparing this to Shyamalan, ferchrissake, and it's still worse.)

Dude. What. The. F.

Spread My Stapler and Fly Away. Look, you'll just have to click it - sorry.

And me without my camera

I noticed this this inspirational(?) church sign today:

"God reads kneemail."

Pick whatever level to analyze it on, and it's still awful. As long as I'm sharing foundables, this next one I saw on Slashdot and I'm told it's from Calvin & Hobbes, though I've been unable to confirm that:

"It's not the verbing that weirds language so much, but rather, the renounification."

One I came up with a while ago was that in English, any noun can verb.

The likelihood of it being in his kiss has been grossly misrepresented

You know what popular song's lyrics I object to? 'It's In His Kiss', written by Rudy Clark and famously performed by Aretha Franklin, and most recently by Cher. It's also known as "The Shoop Shoop song" for its catchy shoop shoops. Cute tune, memetically viral.

Let's look at the lyrics. This question is posed by the supporting vocals:

Does he love me, I wanna know
How can I tell if he loves me so?

Various possibilities are then suggested, and shot down by the lead:

Is it in his eyes? Oh no, you'll be deceived
Is it in his size*? Oh no, you make believe
Is it in his face? Oh no, that's just his charm
In his warm embrace? Oh no, that's just his arm

*"sighs" if you're of a tame mind

Fair enough. A little skepticism and caution would certainly not be unwelcome advice to the girls being sung to here. In the lead's experience, these are all easily-faked appearances, and one is not to mistake them for true love. But then the answer is given:

If you wanna know if he loves you so
It's in his kiss, that's where it is

Even more troubling is this vehement denial:

How 'bout the way he acts - Oh no, that's not the way
And you're not listenin' to all I say

What a shockingly lame rebuttal!

This is a song about the different signs a girl might want to interpret to figure out if her lover really loves her. I feel that they're given in a ridiculously unlikely and unhelpful order. This is how I'd rank them:

6. Size/sighs (least telling)
5. Kiss
4. Warm embrace
3. Eyes
2. Face
1. The way he acts (most telling)

This shouldn't be too controversial - "the way one acts" is almost by definition a measure of the trueness of their love. Faces are very complex media for displays of emotion - they tell a lot. Kisses, on the other hand, aren't very rich vehicles of expression. I'm not trying to belittle smooching, honestly; I'm trying to elevate love. I've been kissed by very inexperienced girls (sometimes clumsy to the point of discomfort) but this never gave me any reason to doubt their love and sincerity.

Girls, it's most likely not in his kiss, ok?

I have to point out, though, that this is not quite as bad as Gerry Goffin and Carole King's 'He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)':

He hit and I knew he loved me
'Cause if he didn't care for me
I could have never made him mad
And he hit me and I was glad

The only thing that helps me stomach this is Spiritualized's 'She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)'.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

How do you like them Apples?

OMFG! Apple switches to Intel!

Ok then. I have to say I was puzzled and unsure of how to react when I first heard, but my computer guru, Ivan Voras, told me to do my breathing exercises and "be the change I wish to see in the world"... Well ok, that may have been someone else, but I did learn much in the end.

If you are a Mac user, my message to you is: relax. PowerPC hardware is going to be supported for a long time to come, and by the time you're ready to upgrade, you'll be buying a comparatively faster machine. But don't believe me; believe The Register and John Dvorak.

From an article by the former:

So, sitting here, in front of a PowerBook G4, what is Apple's move, if it's announced later today, likely to mean for me? Assuming the PowerBooks Apple is offering when I next upgrade are based on a future Pentium M processor - almost certainly a dual-core - and Centrino chipset, then I'll almost certainly be able to buy a much faster system, well beyond what Freescale has in mind for its G4-class processors, with faster memory, a faster system bus and faster interconnects. I'll still have a good display, Nvidia or ATI graphics, a capacious hard drive, slot-loading optical drive (Blu-ray?), USB 2.0 and Firewire ports, Ethernet, modem, and 802.11g wireless networking. The machine will wake from sleep just as well as mine does now and probably still way better than Windows notebooks do.

And a great point by Dvorak:

The key here is that Apple and its BSD-UNIX kernel running on the Intel platform should outperform Windows by an extreme and I'd guess outperform the PowerPC running the same software too. So Jobs can change his comparison advertising from PowerPC versus Intel to OS-X versus Windows on the exact same chip. The publicity potential here is chart-topping. What Mac user won't enjoy this show once it gets going?

Another intriguing detail is that while Apple Senior VP Phil Schiller emhpasized not letting OS X run on non-Apple hardware, there is a very likely possibility that running Windows apps on OS X will now be a breeze, perhaps even via some Classic-like Apple environment. How cool is that?

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Ira Levin's Deathtrap is a two-act whodunit, but there's no point in you seeing it, since I'll tell you who dun it. Ira Levin dun it. Well, I shouldn't be so hard on him, for at least two reasons: one, I have not seen the play, but Sidney Lumet's movie of the same, and two, it's not exactly a bad piece of writing; it's a bad piece of plot design, really, plus the costumes are ugly.

The movie opens with an obviously horrible play by once-lauded playwright Sidney Bruhl, rendered with delightful gusto by Michael Caine. The plot and the costumes are poor, and a TV critic notes that there's no point in your seeing it, since he'll tell you who dun it. Sidney Bruhl dun it. Get it? It's quite cute of Levin to intercept criticism with this little device - namely, self-reflexivity - but the work must still be solid. But, back to the plot.

Bruhl goes home to his ditzy wife Myra, played by a bewilderingly cartoonish Dyan Cannon, and tells her about the addition of insult to his injury - a young would-be author who'd been to a seminar held by Bruhl has sent him his first crack at playwriting, and in Bruhl's assessment, it's dynamite - "a gifted director couldn't ruin it." Myra suggests that Sidney collaborate with Cliff, the author - Christopher Reeve playing against type, mostly enjoyably - but Sidney has a more sinister plan: execute Cliff and make the play, Deathtrap, his own...

The first act is wonderful, if we forgive the oddly screwball Myra - heck, maybe she's just comic relief. Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you. Levin has a different character in mind to fill that role: Helga Ten Dorp, an uninvited frequent visitor to the Bruhl home, an eccentric psychic with a ridiculous accent and a personality straight out of a Marx Brothers flick. The character may be serving some higher-level conceptual purpose, or perhaps she is just a presumably welcome change of pace from the highbrow exchanges between Sidney and Cliff, or maybe she's an absolutely hilarious offbeat creation - perhaps, but the truth of the matter is, she's screen poison, an orifice-bleedingly crappy offspring of Levin's mind. She's Jar Jar with psychic powers - she's the night manager from Touch of Evil's annoying aunt.

The second act makes up for a lot of this by being much more somber and composed. The plot now becomes genuinely entertaining and original in its self-reflexivity, and awesome lines abound. But, once again, perhaps by wanting too badly to marry the message to the medium, Levin writes in some completely ridiculous scenes that pull the emergency brake on the plot until it finally derails in the last few seconds - we are taken completely out of the movie, and I applaud the writer for making this crystal-clear. But. But, but, but.

Self-reflexivity does not good art make. It's really a device, like psychoanalysis, that can add quickly some unexpected turns and provide a-ha! moments, but as stated previously, the work simply has to be good in that intuitive, holistic way regardless of what gimmick it features. This was my principal complaint against another movie that was very entertaining "locally", but ultimately flawed "globally": Adaptation. It, too, made itself what it said it would be - lame. But how is that an excuse for, uh, being lame?

Not that it can't be done. South Park's Towely is, as Cartman puts it, "the worst character ever", and it really neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket. He is not essential to the plot in any way, and his antics are just enough notches below "awful" to be mildly funny. And bewildering endings don't ruin movies - John Sayles' Limbo probably angered 90% of viewers, yet I have nothing but respect for it; it's balls, son. A good ridiculous ending can actually salvage a movie seasoned with odd, jerky scenes (I'm looking at you, Cronenberg's eXistenZ, you temptress, you). Deathtrap, however, combines the worst of both worlds... Contrasted with such great dialogue between Caine and Reeve - it's maddening!

There are basically three reactions I've had on repeated viewing of this and of Adaptation:

1. Perhaps it's really meant to be bad, and I just have to accept it. But I can't, not without twisting "bad" to mean "good", which is a bit much for a movie like either one to ask of me.

2. Maybe in Levin's and Kauffman's heads, the deliberately obnoxious bits seemed funny; maybe they thought they could get away with it. But in my opinion, they simply didn't, and they obviously didn't, and it's depressing that they wouldn't see it as well.

3. Maybe I just need to get the right angle on this, see it in the right light... but I doubt it. What light could make me accept Charlie's baloney reaction to his brother's death in Adaptation, or render the horror that is Helga bearable? I just can't help thinking, "you know, this really could've been awesome if only he'd gotten rid of Helga and made the wife less of a joke."

In one of the best scenes in Deathtrap, during Cliff's pompous monologue, stage thunder (real thunder in the reality of the fiction) can be heard. "Ah, special effects by the Almighty himself," he comments. "It's corny, but it works."

It is from such a general perspective of the movie that I must judge it, and from up here, it just doesn't work.

P.S. My tone here has been rather uncongenial, out of disappointment. I do think that you should see the movie/play, but be warned...

For my take on very mild self-reflexivity, read my several-years-old story The Gullible (PDF).

Saturday, June 04, 2005

My 2005 Scion xA

My 2005 Scion xA
Originally uploaded by Neven Mrgan.

I guess most of you know about my new car, but I haven't yet posted any pictures of the two of us. Here she is...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

'Shrivings' by Peter Shaffer

Probably inspired by my recent rental of Lumet's Equus, my brother came home with two copies of Peter Shaffer's book, both on sale for 50c at the public library. A word more about Equus: I enjoyed it - well, no - I liked it - well, I thought it was a great movie. While Burton is not as deliciously lovable/hateable as he was in Virginia Woolf (Equus the play doesn't have Albee's endlessly quotable lines - what does?) the scenes themselves are unforgettable. The night ride and the stable encounter are brilliant miniatures. I'm still pondering the totality of the movie/play - mostly because it wants so much to have a point - but the individual parts are among the most overlooked in memorable cinema.

Back to those two books. One of them also included Shrivings, at the time a never-performed play written after another one, the production of which Shaffer wasn't thrilled with. The story is of a Peace Organization commune run by Gideon, an old academic in 1970s England. He shares the house with a driven young American idealist secretary named Lois, and David, the son of a famous-poet former student, Mark, who is joining them for a weekend of political protest and ideological debate. Gideon is a clean old neo-hippie with high credentials - think aging Bertrand Russell. Lois is all activist fervor and emotional lukewarmth, much to the displeasure of David, who's a pot-smoking dude more in touch with his testosterone than with socialism. And Mark is a cynical mad genius, above the aforementioned three and with good reason, but (obviously) bitter and lost inside.

Upon arrival, Mark zanily crushes the naive idealism of the House of Shrivings - that's where we and the title are - and distances the youngsters. Gideon offers him some wise-old-man advice but Mark proposes instead a challenge: he will show that through his disrupting behavior he can get himself kicked out of the forgiving, accepting, loving House of Peace, thereby mocking its raison d'etre. This takes place whether Gideon (and Mark) like it or not...

I was at first a bit frightened by all the shallow pronouncements of love, peace & unity early in the play, and even more disappointed by Mark's quick dismissal of the same (as powerfully written as it was), but this just goes to show that Shaffer had me where he wanted me. It's not a brilliant play, but it's solid. I felt like my sympathies and alliances got pulled to different sides only once or twice, and I'm a sucker for that kind of emotional manipulation. Still, Mark and Lois are memorable characters; David and Gideon less so. The lines that stayed with me were:

MARK: (...) A boy, sitting on the kerb, wearing a sort of eider-down. Lumps of hair had been torn from his head. Can you imagine the force that needed? - and he was moaning in unspeakable pain. But with some kind of instinct for city tidiness, he was carefully dropping what blood he could into a drain. I stood in the window watching him, a dry martini in my hand. It was a day of April. Clouds of pollen were streaming down the street between us. Golden dust tumbling through the air. It seemed to be settling over him, like dandruff ... And then he raised his head and looked at me.
LOIS: What did you do?
MARK: I raised my glass.
LOIS: But ... but couldn't you have?--
MARK: What?
LOIS: Well, gotten him an ambulance?
MARK: I could. But I wanted another drink.

I was reminded of Camus' The Just Assassins, but I probably only say it because that play was also about a group of revolutionaries questioning their worldviews and the pitfalls of compromise and middle-of-the-road thinking. There are really very few similarities between the plays otherwise - but I have to attempt to sound like I'm qualified to review a play, no?

'The Hot Kid' by Elmore Leonard

My friend Tom originally introduced me to Elmore Leonard - well, I should say that my first sight of his hyper-real pulp was back in Croatia, in what I still believe was a horrible (possibly pointless?) translation of the uber-cool Leonard dialogue in some artsy magazine. This week, Tom sent me an article about Leonard's new book, The Hot Kid, and the author called it Leonard's best yet.

Well now, Dutch's writing has been rather bland lately, so I was looking forward to a comeback as much as anyone else, but I was also skeptical. And rightly so, it seems. The Hot Kid is a fun novel, and most of the blurby cliches about Leonard hold true about it: you won't be able to put it down! He's a crime writer like no other! That's all fine and dandy, but the two most awesome things about Leonard are lacking in this book; and by lacking I mean, they're nowhere to be found, and if you're a fan, you'll look. The two things in question are bullet-hard dialogue and fascinating, fully fleshed-out characters.

The former is a fault of the design; the book takes place in the roaring Twenties. Cute and cool, but even if Leonard could somehow tune into the spirit of the time (did the expression "quickie" exist back then?), I'm having a hard time making the transition myself, especially when the historic figures of the time - Amelia Earhart, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde - are really described as the same faceless, abstract celebrities - no, ideas - we imagine them as today. I understand that this might be exactly how they were seen back then, but it just doesn't help me not see all the relevant characters are relics as well. But that's not the only problem with both the hero and the villains; simply put, neither side is very memorable. Carlos, the titular Hot Kid shows promise at first, but quickly becomes perhaps too multidimensional for the reader to care anymore. And the villains - whatever, daddy-o.

The bits of trivia peppered about the pages show that the writer did his research, and didn't quite know how to blend it smoothly with the plot. Example:

Well, in any action you had to expect taking casualties. At the Somme in 1916, during the Great War, the British expeditionary Force lost 58,000 men in one day. Second battle of the Marne, 12,000 American boys were killed during the assault. Hell, from July to November the British counted 310,000 casualties trying to take Passchendaele during the Ypres offensive, and the town wasn't even that important.

All this inside a minor character's head - c'mon, give me a break.

If you're looking to see what Leonard can really do, get Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, Out of Sight, or Gold Coast. And FYI, Jackie Brown was the best adaptation of his style - Get Shorty got it all wrong.

Buy The Hot Kid via Froogle if you really really like Elmore...

Note: The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word "quickie" dates back to the 1940s.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Sick puppies

Mucus chat