Monday, December 21, 2009

Cat v Dog, Winner: Dog. Cat and Robot v Dog? Winner: Cat and Robot.

This is NOT a cat video blog. It is mostly a dead blog, but it is most assuredly NOT a cat video blog.

But here is a great cat video.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wherein This Blogger Meets Stephen King

To get a blue wristband, the wristband that guarantees your book gets signed, we had to send two emails at midnight on November 5th. Before the wife and I slept, she drafted two emails on two different Blackberries from two different email accounts. The alarm was set for 11:58 PM. Two minutes later, she pressed the 'Send' button on both, and we both went back to sleep. The next day we got confirmation: on Friday the 13th, we would see Stephen King. And he would sign our books.

The day arrives. I leave work an hour early and drive south to the Barnes & Noble in Buckhead.

The bookstore's in a strip mall, and when I get there the line has already wound its way from the double doors of the Barnes & Noble to the grocery store next door. I go inside, buy my copy of "Under the Dome", Mr. King's latest work, give my name to the man at the table, receive my blue wristband, and get in line outside. I don't have to wait but a couple minutes before the line moves inside.

We wait. The wife and I talk. Seven o'clock, the scheduled start for the signing comes and goes. I feel anxious. I still don't know what to say, if anything. How many hundreds of tall 32-year old dorks have gushed to King at book signings? Should I say something painfully earnest and instantly regretted, like "You're the reason I became a writer"? I wince at the thought. Why should he get the blame for that? I'm still considering when a cheer goes up in the children's section. The author has arrived. An excited murmur runs up the line; people who were sitting, now stand. The show is getting on the road.

The line is long but moves quickly, leading us through the sections of the bookstore few visit: True Crime, Sports, Car Maintenence. And with every bookshelf we pass, we see more of the set-up they've created for the author. A three-sided black curtain has been set at the top of a short set of stairs, with a big wooden table and padded chair placed inside the enclosure for the author working the pen. And then, as I make the turn around the Occult shelf, I see the man himself.

Gray and thin and bent over the book he's signing, Stephen King and I are officially in the same space. For the past 20+ years, I've watched him age and change with each new author photo, but here I am, seeing him with my own eyes. It is a strange experience. Seeing him there, the long face, the hair that will not thin or recede, the omnipresent eyeglasses, I feel I already know him, the way I'd feel if I saw someone I went to school with, and as I think this I am struck once again by the fundamental bizarreness of fame, the way it creates the illusion of a meaningful two-way relationship where no relationship exists at all. As evidence of this oddness: much of this post.

We get close. Getty Images is there to take some photos. Below is King posing with his novel (the 3rd longest of his career) for the Getty photographer. A short time after, I see him raise his arms to chest height and rotate his torso first right and then left in a stretch, settling in, limbering up.

The handlers of this event, some Barnes and Noble folks and some folks undoubtedly hired by the publisher, are the event's greasemen: they keep stuff moving. Requests for photos are knocked down pitilessly. Loquacious signees are subtly edged from the stage. This is a signing, they say with their stern faces and all-business body language, not a chance for you freaks to commune with your personal hero. Which is fine. We are, in this case, beggars, and thus cannot be choosers. King rarely does tours anymore, and never visits the Deep South, so we're all glad to take whatever's given.

We are next. I hand mine and my wife's books to the man in the suit and glasses and tell him, "This is my wife's book, and this is mine. He can sign both and she'll take a picture?" The man in the suit and glasses frowns and shakes his head. I can't quite hear what he says, but he's clearly not thrilled with my brazen and outrageous plan. All I know is I'm getting a picture of this, whether it stresses this guy out or not. The man in suit and glasses hands my books to the woman designated to open books and slide them over to King to be signed, but there's a fan still standing at the table, saying something to King or just watching him sign her books, I don't know, and then he's signing Peggy's book and the fan is still there.

The fan moves away finally and I step to the table. Stephen King is now signing my book.

Shit, say something, I think. He's almost done! I can't let this chance go by without saying a single thing, I'll be kicking myself for years. Literally kicking myself. I'll swing into black depressions whenever my mind chances upon the memory. He's done signing.

"So what should I read next?" I ask. "You got me into 'Edgar Sawtelle' and 'The Ruins', both of which were great, so what should I get into next?"

King closes my book, slides it over to the person designated to hand signed books to their owners, and sits back in his chair. "Ah," he says, mulling. King reads a lot, 80 books a year on average, many of them review copies of books yet to be published, sent to him by editors looking to get a blurb, so I imagine him trying to think of a book out now. He can't think of one. Instead, he says, "There's a book coming out next summer called 'The Bastard', by--" the author's name I didn't quite make out, but it sounded a bit like James Crowley, whose novel "Little,Big" I just finished and frickin loved.

"All right," I say. "I'll read that! Thanks!" He nods, puts pen to paper to sign the next book, I take the signed novels from the nice lady and head back down the stairs.

I've been to lots of book signings but this was the first and likely the only signing where I got to meet someone who's had a real appreciable influence on me. Meeting the writers of Sesame Street or Fred Rodgers himself (RIP) might be the few equivalents. I loved his books as a kid, and though my feelings about his work now are a bit more reserved than they once were, he's one of the few writers who made the transition with me from adolescence into adulthood. He's still good and worth reading and, I think for some books, re-reading. And more than just making scaring people with writing seem like the best possible job on earth to a kid who liked books and movies more than he liked being a kid in middle-school, his books helped shape my worldview. Anyone familiar with King books, or even the film adaptations of his books, knows that certain themes pop up again and again in his stories and, reading him as a kid, I soaked it all up without question: the military is untrustworthy, religious zealots are evil but wrap themselves up in 'good', life can end suddenly and violently and unfairly, etc. I still believe those things, so meeting the guy who had a hand in putting those ideas in my head so many years ago was a big deal for me. I'm glad he was a nice guy, didn't blow me off, and that he appears to be, more or less, exactly as he seems in his conversational notes to his readers and in his columns in Entertainment Weekly: friendly, human, engaged and serious about what he does, and always ready to recommend a book.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mini-Review of "Men Who Stare at Goats", "Kick-Ass" Trailer's Up, New Blog to Check Out

Three things, and three things real quick.

1.) "The Men Who Stare at Goats". Checked this out on Sunday night after an exhausting leaf blowing/raking session that afternoon. Not terribly impressed. I knew right off the bat it wasn't going to be as good as it appeared in the first trailer I saw for it (before the studio decided to start up with the ridiculous "No Goats, no Glory" ad campaign) because Ewan McGregor's voice-over is the first thing I heard. His voice-over comes on a lot, and Ewan struggling to keep an "American" accent consistent for an hour and a half is distracting and usually, not necessary to the film. The film starts strongly, but by the end, just runs out of juice. Also, I experienced one of the most temporally disorienting moments I've had coming out of a movie. I swore the movie had been at least 2 hours and some odd number of minutes, but a quick look at the clock on the drive home and I realized it had only been an hour and a half long. Ninety-four minutes to be exact, and I'm sure that's counting the credits. I'm going to chalk that up to the episodic and wandering quality of the movie. It felt like a literal adaptation of a good magazine piece. It just didn't work. I think I'd also put some of the blame on the director. According to Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke, Grant Heslov is one of Clooney's producing buddies. Producers shouldn't direct. When they do, you get this movie or one like the execrable "American Sweethearts."

2.) Kick-Ass trailer. This went up yesterday. Check it out here. Less good than I'd hoped, but I'm thinking I'll like the full trailer more. The comic (and what I'm hearing is the film is a pretty close adaptation of the comic) is real and dark and original. This teaser trailer only touches on some of the originality of Mark Millar's idea, but not much at all on the real or the dark. My guess is they'll show more of the arc of the film, including why this comic was so harrowing and a bit controversial.

3.) Finally, everybody needs to check out friend o' the blog Nathan Hines' new blog, located at hinesy.com. Nathan, as some of you may know, is an aspiring writer and business mogul who lives in Taiwan with his wife and two daughters. So, in addition to giving you the occasional taste of life in Taiwan (like the photo of a dude carrying his Schnauzer in a baby sling), he writes candidly about some of the conflicts one has to deal with when pursuing personal career goals while also being responsible to one's family. It's well-written and a good read, and worth checking in on.

Okay, and that's it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Brief Dispatch from the World of Fantasy Literature

George R.R. Martin, arguably the best fantasy writer working today, has written four books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, the first of which, "A Game of Thrones", is already a classic of the genre. The thing that makes these books different from other similarly oriented fantasy novels, is that backroom politics and palace intrigue are the novels' focus. In the story, motivated players from all over the kingdom conspire and scheme, backstab allies and create unlikely alliances ("some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends") all to better their odds of toppling the current king and taking the throne for themselves. The good guys are complex but unapologetically good, and the bad guys are so goddamn evil you gnash your teeth when they appear in the story and you cheer when they get the sword in the ribs, or whatever death Martin's cooked up for them. Yeah, it's that kind of book. Which is not to say it's broad or simply written. The plotting Martin does here is as elaborate as you'll find anywhere, but he carries it off and doesn't make you see the difficulty in what he's done. This becomes less true as the books go on, but the first is a classic for a reason. And the end of the book, well -- it's memorable. I strongly recommend the book.

So, now that the glorious light that was the "Lord of the Rings" movies has begun to dim in the minds of geeks everywhere, and the next Guillermo Del Toro-directed Tolkein adaptations are still a couple years away, what fantasy awesomeness will arise to fill the gap?

Enter HBO's "Game of Thrones", filming in Ireland right now (very close to where DGG's "Your Highness" is filming, incidentally.) HBO's putting a lot of cash into the pilot, and word is they're likely to pick it up for a full first season. David Benioff is co-running the show, which is encouraging -- I liked the "25th Hour" and apparently his latest novel, "City of Thieves" was reviewed very favorably, so I think the likelihood of a faithful, well-adapted show is pretty good.

But the casting is where they've already gone so clearly right. The Daily Beast published an article about the growing geek interest in the project, and thrfeed.com put together an excellent page with all the characters accompanied by the photos of the actors portraying them. They nailed pretty much everyone. Sean Bean will play the patriarch, Eddard Stark, the reluctant noble from the northlands who's asked to travel to the capital city and serve as the king's consigliere. And then there's Peter Dinklage, who's been given the role of the crafty dwarf, Tyrion, the best character in the series. It's a pretty exciting cast and I can't wait for this to air.

Martin's been toiling away on the fifth book but, sadly, there's no light at the end of that tunnel -- he's been working on it for quite a long time, and now he's on-set in Ireland watching the filming, which probably means he's not working too hard on finishing the monstrosity he's created. I can hardly blame him. I'd rather watch great actors re-create scenes from my book than write new scenes too. Writing's hard.

Anyway, thought I'd give the uninitiated a glimpse of what geeks are going to be most excited about next.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Comic Book Artist's Process



So many stories to tell, so little time. Especially for the graphic novelist.

Comic book writer and artist Doug TenNapel is the focus of a short video about his process of making comics. In it he talks a bit about how the time allotted to us -- provided we're lucky enough to live all 75 years of the average US citizen's life span -- is far too short to make all the art we aspire to make, whether it's comics, movies, music, books or what have you. Which feels especially true to a serial procrastinator like myself. To speed himself up so he can put more of what's in his head on paper, he's made some adjustments, like inking 4 pages everyday, which is a hell of a lot, even for fast inkers. This does exact a toll on the quality of the inks, I would say, but he gets more done. He does also say he's more interested in telling a story than in making the image perfect, which results in a few examples of hurried-looking brushwork, at least in his 2005 Image comic, "Tommysaurus Rex", but certainly many more pages are done well than not.

There's also some interesting tidbits on brushwork, types of ink, and a few time lapses of TenNapel inking panels. I found it all pretty interesting.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Avatar" Trailer Hits

The new full "Avatar" trailer is up. I'm both more heartened by the fuller glimpse and a bit more disappointed. I'm heartened because I can see now that Cameron hasn't gone off the deep end and made "The Phantom Menace." The conventions of the sub-genre Cameron's staked out appear to have been followed closely, which should keep him out of abysmal failure territory. Which is also why I'm more disappointed than I was after just seeing the teaser. Not to be the cynic who's always looking for which movie the new movie most rips off, but, based on on this trailer, "Avatar" seems like a sci-fi remake of "Dances With Wolves."

The two movies aren't just similar because they both tell the story of a guy who sees how the natives he's supposed to fear/hate are not scary/evil, finds their simple way of life superior to his own and decides to protect it, it's similar because it appears to grab a lot more from Costner's movie than just the throughline. The loss or near-loss of a leg in service to the US Military (John Dunbar nearly loses his, but gets to keep his because of his heroic/suicidal diversion ride run - the paraplegic hero of this movie will have the use of his legs returned to him once he's proven himself in battle), the immersion into their primitive culture, the slow disillusionment with his own side, the fraught love story with the native girl, so on and so forth. That's a fine story, and Jim Cameron sure could have picked some worse plots to try out. But we've all seen it. "Dances" was kind of hokey in its way, but also really well done. So what about "Avatar" is going to improve on the original story? Cameron wrote it, so we know it's not going to be the snappy dialogue. The 3-D? The CG and motion-capture? Does anyone get excited about non-Pixar CG anymore?

Only the full movie will tell the tale. I hope Cameron makes me a believer.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The End of Disaster Movies or "California's going down!"



Sometimes a movie can single-handedly kill an entire sub-genre. It can tackle it and subvert the conventions so slyly that the genre either has to change significantly or die. Or, in an attempt to make the "be-all-end-all" of a given sub-genre, a film can destroy that sub-genre.

Some comic geeks used to wonder if 'Watchmen' might be one of the former, rendering all future superhero movies obsolete or irrelevant. That didn't happen, but with "Scream" and the slasher movie sub-genre, it did. Because that film held up so many slasher-movie conventions as objects of mockery, there now exists a clear line demarcating all slasher movies that came before "Scream", and all of those after. A horror fan coming out of that film was justified in asking how anyone would make a slasher movie after 'Scream'. (Hollywood muddled through and out of this creative morass, the so-called "torture-porn" sub-genre became dominant).

All of that was the very long way around to say I think Roland Emmerich's "2012" will be the end of disaster movies for a long time, if not ever. And not because it's so subversive or because Emmerich clearly has so brilliantly wrung all the emotion there is to be wrung from disaster movies, but because he's obviously filmed, unintentionally, a parody of the disaster movie. Watch this 5-minute clip and tell me I'm wrong. Pure silliness.

All of that said, I'll be seeing this. If the disaster movie's going down, I'll be in the front row. I'm going to miss you man.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

YouTube Compilation!

Sorry I've been more than slack updating this thing. In what I hope to be the start of a fresh spate of new blog entries, here is a compilation of YouTube awesomeness over the years. It's damn fun to watch. So enjoy.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Josh Olson Will Not Read Your Screenplay

Josh Olson, who adapted "A History of Violence" for the movies, got burned in one of those "Will you read my screenplay?" interactions that seem to happen a lot in Los Angeles. Mr. Olson has written a response to all other would-be Josh Olson-approachers, entitled, "No, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Screenplay." I like well-written and angry screeds, so if you like those too, go ahead and give a click and a read. I don't agree with everything he says in here, a lot of it's pretty darn harsh, but from the sound of it, he was asked for honesty, he was honest, and how he's the bad guy and he's rightfully pissed about it.

But here's the main paragraph for the time-challenged, where Olson describes how some non-writers, particularly film-industry aspirants, view writers and writing:
"Which brings us to an ugly truth about many aspiring screenwriters: They think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment. Everybody can write, right? And because they believe that, they don't regard working screenwriters with any kind of real respect. They will hand you a piece of inept writing without a second thought, because you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter."
And then this nugget:

"It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.

(By the way, here's a simple way to find out if you're a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you're not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)"

(Italics mine.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A 4-Minute Time Lapse Movie That Will Keep You Unproductive for At Least Another 4 Minutes



Saw this over on Andrew Sullivan's blog and he's right, it's hypnotic. The music, not so much. But it's fascinating to take in that trip in such a short amount of time.

It's amazing to think that a journey that was once a 50-50 life or death gamble that took month after arduous month (I know this because I used to play 'Oregon Trail'), can now be a.) done in a few days of driving (or 31 hours if you're nasty), or b.) depicted in its entirety in a 4-minute Web movie.

Lewis and Clarke's expedition ended 203 years ago. If they were able to see this video, they would obviously have ten varieties of puppies and then kill themselves as fast as their fingers could pull the triggers on their musket-guns. Two-hundred years in the future, which facet of our descendants' accepted workaday world would most deliciously blow their ancestors primitive early 21st century minds?

Monday, September 07, 2009

2009 Decatur Book Festival

The wife and I went to the 2009 Decatur Book Festival on Saturday (for my entry about the 2006 Decatur Book Festival, click here). The Great Recession is making pretty much everything a little bit less good, and Georgia's biggest annual Book Festival did not escape the economic carnage unscathed. More on that later.

Though the Decatur Book Festival is a big event, with talks and panels and hours upon hours of emerging writers reading their work, for me the Festival consists of 3 things:

1.) The Antiquarian Book Fair.
2.) The tents.
3.) The big names.

1.) The Antiquarian Book Fair section of the festival, held each year in one of the ballrooms at the Holiday Inn in downtown Decatur, is a collection of booksellers from around the southeast who deal in rare books, some of which are signed by the authors of said rare books. There were fewer participants this year than in years past, which meant fewer booksellers selling rare, first edition novels (which is my thing). Worse than the decrease in the variety of books was the increase in their price. On a lot of 1st editions, prices had jumped 25% or more over last year for no apparent reason. There may be some complicated supply and demand forces at work here, but since the only thing I'm worse at than blogging is economics, I'll leave that for others to ponder. But the practical result of these unreasonable mark-ups was that I left the Holiday Inn empty-handed.

2.) The tents, which are open to anyone who can lay out the cash for the space, are the heart of the Festival. Which probably means the Book Festival needs triple-bypass surgery. The self-published cranks who populate the majority of these tents are pretty good at putting me in a bad mood, so we didn't spend much time there. McSweeney's, whose tent was a bright spot in the tent-sea last year with stacks and stacks of colorful and creatively-produced books for sale, had a tent again this year, though with many fewer books for sale, none of which tempted me to give Dave Eggers any cash. (The book I bought from them last year, "Arkansas", is still sitting on my shelf, unread. Soon!)

3.) There were a couple big name authors at the Festival this year, Charlaine Harris, author of the "True Blood" mystery series, being arguably the biggest (she was on-loan from DragonCon). But for me, there was only one writer visiting the Festival this year: Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher. (He's the one in the photo who doesn't look like he's trying to creep his way into a photograph being taken of someone else.)

For a brief refresher on Reacher, click here for an old Inanities post.

In person, Child (his real name is Jim Grant) is tallish and looks in person exactly how he looks in photographs. His event was held in a church, so we all sat on cushioned pews while he spoke about how thrillers were the first genre, the best genre, and literary writers and readers shouldn't disrespect it. His talk was entertaining and low-key. He gave the impression of being not terribly overexercised about the difficulties of writing, and of viewing the process of writing a novel as being as much a commercial endeavor as a creative one. There are writers out there one suspects of being crassly market-minded, but would never cop to it in public, so it's vaguely unpleasant to hear this outlook admitted to so blithely. Guys like Clive Cussler and James Patterson, thriller writers who wrote very popular novels early in their careers, view their own books now as so much product. They subscribe to this view so completely that they're quite open about the inclusion of their name on a book's cover being more of a stamp of approval than a proclamation of authorship. Child has never done this, but gauging by his talk this weekend, it's conceivable he might one day decide to take this route. I went into the event thinking thrillers had, perhaps, been unjustly singled out as lesser than so-called "literary" books, but left thinking the thriller genre's bad reputation is likely deserved.

Outside, under the signing tent as he autographed my three Reacher books, I thanked him for writing about tall people. He laughed and said, "Yes, we're a much maligned minority. Not able to find clothes that fit, always having to bend down to look in mirrors." Seemed like a nice guy. And while some writers (often the "literary" ones) have stipulations at signing events that they will only sign multiple books if the new hardcover book is included among them (Ford), or will only sign one book and it has to be the new book (John Irving), Child told the crowd that he would sign everyone's books until there were no more books to sign.

All in all, not a bad year for the Decatur Book Festival. I hope the 2010 Decatur Book Festival occurs under far better economic circumstances.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Avatar" Teaser is Up


The trailer for "Avatar," Jim Cameron's long overdue follow-up to the blockbuster-against-which-all-others-are measured "Titanic", went up online not too long ago. The result is, um, unexpected. This first glimpse of footage isn't yawn-inducing, but for me it is kind of "Huh?"-inducing. Some of that is definitely on-purpose, but there are enough flying dragons ridden by blue archers to raise an eyebrow or two.

While it's nice to see some new non-documentary footage from the mind of Jim Cameron, it's a little dismaying to see that it appears to be cut from a film that's a weird hybrid of "Halo", "Phantom Menace", "Apocalypto" and "Ferngully" (the font for the film is definitely either from "Ferngully" or from the "Yanni: Live at Red Rocks" album). It is a teaser, so it's hard to take a whole lot from it other than the overall setting, the look of some of the alien environments, and a sense of the scope, but that's about it.

What is clear is that we've got Sam Worthington in what looks like a starring role. That's promising. He was the best thing about "T4" so I like the odds that he'll do an excellent job in this film, provided, that is, Cameron gives him some room to act as himself, and not in the form of one of the small-headed, spotted blue man-things that seem to be the focus of the movie.

From what I've heard, this film is one of those projects that directors sometimes pull from out of the back of a closet when they realize they can literally make any damn movie they want. "Fifth Element" was like that. I think the Star Wars prequels were basically like that. So that's cause for worry, but this is Little Jimmy Cameron we're talking about, the guy who made "Aliens" and "Terminator 2" and "The Abyss". It's difficult to imagine we'll see a bad movie from him.

But this teaser does make it slightly less difficult.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"District 9"


(A review with spoilers.)

I saw "District 9" on Saturday, August 15th, and was pleasantly surprised to find a smart, original science fiction film exploring actual ideas at my local multiplex. Particularly after a few weekends of truly mindless toy-based movies.

I feel a certain pressure, all in my own head I'm sure, to really sound off about how great this movie is in a post. I think part of that comes from having a film exceed my expectations, part comes from my being as susceptible as the next guy to geek enthusiasm, and part of it is I think this film may be remembered long after this summer. But I'm not totally convinced on that last one yet, so I think restraint should be the order of the day.

I'm actually writing this on Monday, August 17th, but posting it today (Aug 25th) because I wanted to be sure there were at least two weekends between its release and my post because a.) I'd deal in spoilers, and wanted as many people to have seen the movie before the post went up as possible, and b.) I think even a non-spoiler-y review would give too much of the movie away. This movie, perhaps more than some others, benefits from low plot-awareness going in. So if you haven't seen it yet, click onto another website from your Favorites drop-down, because spoilers are a'comin'.

Quick background on the movie: The film's director, Peter Jackson-protege Neill Blomkamp, was slated to do a big-budget multi-studio film based on the "Halo" video games. That fell through when the studios got skittish about dumping $200 million into a movie whose hero wears an opaque face-shield for two hours. When the project died, Jackson and Blomkamp regrouped and poured all of their "Halo" energy and momentum into a new film. "District 9" is that film.

Set in Johannesburg, South Africa in present day, the film is shot in a quasi-documentary style and purports to document an eviction action on a slum settlement in that city. The evictors are a shady corpo-military company called MNU whose team, comprised of some civilians but more Blackwater-like mercenaries, are led by Wikus Van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) an affable bureaucrat who's been thrust into the role of team leader on the big day. The evictees are 7-foot tall aliens, derogatorily called "prawns" by their human neighbors, who came to Earth 20 years ago and have been penned into a squalid shantytown called "District 9" since. Much of the fun of these early sequences comes from seeing the human actors interact with the digital aliens without being awed by them. Wary, yes, afraid, yes, but not in any way amazed. These aliens are a part of the landscape for these South Africans, and on this day, just a problem to be dealt with.

During the raid, Wikus is exposed to an alien compound that makes him sick. Pretty soon he realizes what's happened: he's becoming one of them. The film proceeds to follow hapless, terrified Wikus as he attempts to fix what's wrong with him and chronicles his transformation from human to alien. Where "District 9" and Cronenberg's "The Fly" differ primarily is in how focused the story is on the transformation. "The Fly" pays loving attention to Seth Brundle's disgusting metamorphosis, but Blomkamp seems content to get the gross-out willies out of the way sooner, and doesn't linger much on them. But as with "The Fly", "District 9" lives and dies on how well the character of Wikus is written, and how well that character is played. Lucky for Blomkamp, Copley turns in a brilliant performance.

First, the actor. Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus Van der Merwe, does excellent work. I loved that I'd never seen him before and the effect that lack of familiarity had on the way I experienced the movie. When he appeared on-screen in that first medium shot, I truly had no idea he was going to be the lead. I thought he would probably talk about the person we would come to know as the lead, but no way was this nebbish our guy. And I think it's awesome that it turned out he was. I wish more movies could pull this off, that studios would take a chance on more great first-time actors, but for now I'll just be grateful for the few times it does happen. I'm looking forward to seeing him in more films.

Second, and more importantly, the character. Wikus Van der Merwe is a classic Hollywood nice guy. Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter from "The Apartment" could have stood in for Wikus during these first scenes; he's chipper and charming, people at his work like him, he's even a bit incompetent, but incompetent in a nice way. But where other screenwriters might push away from the desk on issues of character with just that sketch, Blomkamp goes a bit further. Wikus is also a racist. The film does spend some time interviewing people who aren't racists (or maybe a terrestrialist is a better word), so tolerant people do exist in this world, but Wikus sure ain't one of them. He calls the aliens "prawns" as his default; his feelings of superiority are so built-in, he calls them prawns even when he needs their help. More than that, he doesn't care about their well-being. Sure, he doesn't like to see them slaughtered (like certain others at MNU), but watching them suffer a bit of abuse from some MNU shock troops doesn't bother him much. Nor does threatening to take away their kids if they don't submit to the eviction weigh much on his conscience. In Wikus's book, all of that's acceptable behavior.

But what happens to him over the course of the story changes him. Wikus has got an honest-to-God, old-time-screenwriting-101 character arc. I didn't realize how much I missed this stuff until I realized I'd been deprived of it for so long. Wikus changes. Physically, yes, but the physical change he endures forces him to see things in a new way. His outlook changes. And because Wikus resists that change so strenuously, it feels all the more authentic. Sometimes in movies, it feels like the character changes his stripes because the screenwriter's gotten to a certain page number in his script. But here it's well-done, gripping, and earned. I'd say that thematically, "District 9" shares as much in common with "Glory" as "The Fly" -- Colonel Shaw's journey from intolerance to respect for an unfairly maligned group follows a similar path, and both films reap some stirring moments as a result.

The effects were very good, but not breakthrough good. At least not visually. (They may have been so cheaply produced as to be landmark, but all I can go by is what's on-screen, and they looked as good as most CGI I've seen, and a bit better in a number of cases). But the aliens were well-done, particularly when the camera went into a close shot on their faces. Their eyes were alien enough so we wouldn't notice where the CG fell short, but human enough to let the CG render emotion, which they did surprisingly well. It's easy to see in the aliens of "District 9" how Blomkamp might have rendered the aliens of "Halo". I'd be happy to see Blomkamp get his turn at the plate for that project after all, though I'm not optimistic it will be him at the helm.

[Quick Geek Note: The 3rd act of this movie kicks the door open wide for a live-action, big-budget MechWarrior-type film. Much like all studios are scared witless about the idea of a superhero team-up movie, I think they've been similarly dismissive of a giant robot-suit movie, even though there's massive geek demand for it, both from anime fans and from nostalgiasts who remember stuff like "Voltron" fondly. These studio executives can only imagine these projects done wrong, and the careers that would end as a result. But with the climactic sequence that ends this film, Blomkamp has taken the stress out of green-lighting a mech warrior-type film. He balances the strength and gee-whiz dynamism of the robotic exoskeleton with Wikus's key emotional moments (which happen while inside the suit) so well, I think the studios will be turning something like "Johnny Appleseed" or any of the other countless giant-robot-suit Anime stories into a summer tentpole in the next 5 years. Prognostication over.]

Finally, I thought the social commentary of "District 9" was well-done and gave us a vision of an alternate-near-future that was as dystopian and disturbing as anything in "Blade Runner". I think the simple read of the social dynamics in "District 9" is that the film is a simple parable of how the whites in South Africa treated the blacks under the Apartheid regime, with the "prawns" standing in for the oppressed blacks, and humanity for the South African whites. Though it is that at it's core, "District 9" also levels its social critiques at other targets.

For instance, the true villain of the film is not a man but a corporation, MNU. MNU takes the worst aspects of massive, faceless, fingers-in-all-pots-type corporations like General Electric or Monsanto, and then gives them the quasi-military power of a BlackWater or a Halliburton. That the whole enterprise is run by the hero's father-in-law who just happens to have the moral code of Dr. Mengele, makes it clear what Blomkamp's opinion is of multinational corporations acting on the world stage. "District 9" also takes a fairly dim view of humanity, beyond the confines of racism. Rather than adhere to the high-minded theory that the presence of extra-terrestrials on Earth would cause a peace-explosion on this planet, Blomkamp presents, instead, a vision of that scenario where humankind's innate propensity towards violence and intolerance, particularly against those we believe to be different, wins out over those high-minded ideals. The result is we treat our alien visitors abominably. In the end, fear rules our behavior.

Anyway a good and impressive movie, and well worth a visit to the theater if you can swing it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Julie and Julia"

Saw "Julie and Julia" at our new new theater here in Kennesaw, part of a chain called NCG, on Tuesday night last week, in a room crowded with moms and daughters.

Nora Ephron has made some excellent movies in an undervalued genre (comedy), and this is one of her better efforts. The film bounces back and forth between Julia Child's life as a developing cook in Paris, and the life of stymied writer Julie Powell who decides to start a blog in which she chronicles her efforts to make all 524 recipes in Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", in 365 days. And though this film is ostensibly about two women finding their place in the world (I think I may have actually turned myself off from seeing this movie with that line), it's also about marriage, though highly idealized visions of marriage.

Paul Child (played by Stanley Tucci) is the sainted husband of Julia Child and, in the film, always knows the right thing to say, the most perfect gift to give, and never once loses his temper. Eric Powell (played by Chris Messina) is the sainted husband of Julie Powell, and he, too, always knows the right thing to say, the perfect gift to give, and though he does lose his temper once, it's because he doesn't like that she calls him a saint every now and again. So, in essence, he gets mad because he's too nice a guy. Oh, if only these were the problems married people had. But it's all fine, and it works because there's a specific light, comedic tone Ephron's patented over the years, and she's got it going here too.

But, thankfully, it's not ALL about wedded bliss. There's also a lot of food. Hopelessly outdated food, yes -- unfashionably hearty and reliant on thick cuts of beef and such -- but it's all so beautifully photographed, even the meat jellos look like they might be worth trying. "Julie and Julia" never makes food seem as marvelous or as important as it does in, say, "Big Night," or even "Ratatouille", it does its best and puts the aspics and the boeuf bourguignons at center stage enough to feel like you're watching a serious food movie.

Though I preferred the Julia Child scenes, I was never disappointed to return to Julie Powell's, which was a feat in and of itself considering how much fun it was to watch Meryl be Julia, and how much less fun, comparatively, it was to watch Amy Adams soldier through being Ephron's Meg Ryan 2.0, complete with the short haircut and the pouting and charming crying jags. Amy's a good actress, so she manages to make something interesting out of a fairly blandly written character. And as with any good film, you're left wanting a bit more, so I was disappointed I wouldn't get to see the scene where Meryl's Julia sees Dan Ackroyd's famous SNL sketch for the first time, (in real life, she loved the gory sketch so much she kept a VHS of it on her TV stand), or the scenes where she and Paul come in to a small public television studio in Boston, prepared as army generals, to make one of the first cooking shows ever put on the air. That would have been fun to watch, especially with Meryl and Stanley standing in for the Childs.

But, then again, as many biopics do tend to go on and on, maybe Ephron & Co. have struck upon the best telling of her life with this movie, grabbing up most, if not all, of the important moments of her life for half a movie.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Just a Taste of Crazy, Georgia-Style



Take just a moment, won't you, to watch my elected Representative, none other than Phil Gingrey (R), take the assault rifle-carrying health care town hall opponents head-on on "Hardball."

Actually, watch Gingrey tell Chris Matthews he thinks it's A-OK to bring assault weapons to public political events the President is holding.

Yes, these people exist, and yes, I live among them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Michael Vick: Totally Reformed

If you happened to watch Michael Vick's interview on "60 Minutes" this past Sunday, then you may have been witness to the first stop in the most half-hearted redemption tour ever staged.

As you may remember, in 2007, Michael Vick's Virginia farm was raided. The Feds believed Vick, then the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons as well as the farm's owner, was the proprietor of a dog-fighting ring. Dog fighting paraphernalia was seized, pit bulls were confiscated, and at least 6 dogs were exhumed from various shallow graves on the property. Vick was arrested. He lied to everyone about it. The NFL Commisioner, the owner of the Falcons, anyone watching TV who cared to listen. But it turned out dog-fighting was only the backdrop for the really sick stuff Vick did on that farm.

The indictment the Feds read out painted Vick to be the Papa Doc Duvalier of dog killers. Any way you can think of to kill a dog, Vick did it. Shot. Electrocuted. Drowned. Vick did it. Dog fighting is one thing -- well it's lots of things, but the kind of cold-blooded, personal and sadistic way Vick ended dogs' lives went well-beyond an illicit gambling operation. Goes well beyond questions of a "culture" that accepted dog fighting as a way of life. Hearing that indictment, people I knew who had rooted for the guy wondered what sort of person could do that. I was one of them. He went away for 18 months for a misdemeanor. He got out, and seemingly within minutes, he got a football contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. I wondered how an NFL team would explain their decision to hire Vick. Not that they couldn't or shouldn't, but I was curious to see how the battle to make it all okay was going to be fought.

His appearance on "60 Minutes" was to be the centerpiece of his "I'm sorry" tour, wherein he could persuade people that, like William Munny in "Unforgiven", he really "wasn't like that anymore." I came away deeply unconvinced. He seemed overly reliant on pre-written phrases ("put it all in perspective", "all because of the so-called culture"), cheap contrition ("I feel bad inside") and it all just seemed forced. In a clip they had of him speaking to a group on the evils of dog-fighting, he seemed to be struggling to remember the lines he was supposed to say.

In flashes though, I think his actual feelings made it through the stage-managed act. For instance, after James Brown details the ways Vick killed dogs, the aforementioned shooting, drowning, electrocuting, Vick sighs and says, "I don't know how many times I have to say it..." How about once? When asked why he cried at night, Vick didn't once mention dogs, or what he'd done to them. The overriding impression I get is that he's sorry he got caught. The interview showed not that he was sorry or changed, just that he could repeat the talking points his image management team told him to say.

Whether it's correct that, after serving his time, he should or should not be allowed to resume his football career is another issue. I'm of two minds on it myself. But what's at issue here is this: has Vick changed? Does he think that what he did to those animals was "disgusting," as he worded it in the interview? He says he has. But when he says he didn't feel disgust for what he'd done until the bars clanged shut his first night in jail, or when he continues to say he deeply regrets "the things I let go on," my inclination is to believe that he hasn't changed. He didn't let electrocuting a dog "go on", he actually did it himself. Same with the one he drowned, same with the ones he shot.

Here's the clip of the interview. Take a look and decide for yourself whether you think he's being sincere. Some of it I might put down to his not being a super bright guy, which is certainly not a crime, but my first read is that he isn't sorry yet. He still doesn't get it. He probably won't stage dog fights again, just because that would be beyond reckless, even for him, but I'm not at all persuaded he understands the reason for the public anger.

The whole sordid business has soured me on professional football. In the end, no matter how much the NFL Commissioner talks about how much he himself really loves dogs, no matter how often the Eagles owner says he expected a certain amount of "self hate" from Vick before he signed him, and no matter how awesome a mentoring job Tony Dungee does to make Vick a stellar human being, the fact that the whole charade is being perpetrated at all is because there are dollars yet to be made off of Vick playing football. Because this is true, people who want money will line up to make it off him, dog killer or no. It's something you know in your bones anyway: none of these guys is playing for the love of the game (who knows how many years its been since that was true), but to have the skin of civility ripped off the enterprise so brazenly is dispiriting.

One gets the feeling watching this play out, that it almost doesn't matter what Vick had done. If he was in playing shape when he got out of jail, someone who liked money would put a football in his hand and a fat check in his pocket, and Vick would go on "60 Minutes" and say how drunk driving is wrong, or domestic violence is wrong, or bar fighting that ends in death is wrong, and he'd play some football.

And you can be certain, no matter what he did, his image management team would make sure it was hard-hitting investigative reporter James Brown asking the questions.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

HOUSE!

And we're in! We are home-
owners. And, pictured to the left, the home we now own.

We closed on Thursday, painted two rooms Thursday and Friday night (among other things), and the move day was Saturday.

The movers arrived at 8am on the dot, loaded the contents of our apartment into their truck and dropped it all off at the new place by 2pm. Nice turnaround. Some scuffs and dings here and there, but that's moving.

We've made a nice dent in the unpacking, the faucet for the washing machine has been replaced, the cracked window panes replaced, the garage lights fixed, the phone and cable and internet all connected. There's still plenty to do, not least of which is to flush-mount these ceiling fans so I quit braining myself against them, but I think we've set a good pace.

Some things I like: Unlocking the door of my house and walking in. The quiet. The space.

Some things I don't like: I now have to mow a lawn. The low sinks, fans, and clearance on the garage doors, all of which demand I stoop, bow and duck. Also, the guy across the street who flies the Confederate flag off his porch on the weekends. Not sure we're going to hang out.
Those aspects aside, the wife and I are both pretty happy with it. Yay, house.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Charlie Brown: Monster

A friend and former roommate of mine posted a link to this image from artist Tim O'Brien this past week on Ye Olde Facebook and I thought it was awesome and I wanted to post it up on the Inanities. This painting was done for a friend of the artist's who was having a show entitled "Monsters." This painting was O'Brien's entry. A counter-intuitive but perfectly appropriate selection, and beautifully executed. I love the wisp of hair and the ink-black eyes -- it's so faithful to the original but completely freakish.

if you're interested, this is a link to his blog, where O'Brien posts a lot of his magazine illustrations as well as a lot of cool inside dope on the ins and outs of being a fairly big-shot freelance illustrator. For instance, Time magazine called him up because they wanted a Sotomayor painting for the cover. He had 24 hours. He ended up doing three different paintings as options. Guy works fast.

In Big Move news, the apartment's getting empty of stuff and full of boxes. Closing's on Thursday, move day is 2 days later.

Anyway, I have a 75th and a 30th birthday party to attend this evening, and still a bit of packing to do, so I'll have to leave this blog entry with that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Public Enemies" Review Fail, Impending Home Ownership News

I tried not long ago to write a post about Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," but I couldn't stay awake long enough to write more than a few cogent sentences about that movie. It was well-done but slow. And if you thought Depp's Wonka was a tough nut to crack, Depp's Dillinger is even more impenetrable. He loves his girlfriend (Marion Coutillard) at first sight and, well, that's, kinda it. That's his character. So I guess I'm not going to write about that movie. Sorry Michael Mann. I know you were checking the blog everyday to find out what I thought of your movie, but I can't give you more than what I wrote.

Two interesting things I discovered about Michael Mann while gathering some info for my failed "Public Enemies" post:

1.) Public Enemies is only Michael Mann's 10th feature film. Feels like he's done more, doesn't it?
2.) Early in his career, Mann directed "The Keep," a very cool horror movie from 1983. I had no idea. Now Mann and I are buds forever.

* * * *

In other news, the wife and I are very close to purchasing our first home. The inspection happened on Friday and only very minor issues were discovered. Some electrical outlets don't work, stuff like that. We sent our request for fixes this morning and the seller's already agreed to repair those few things, so we're on our way.

If all goes well, we'll close on the 23rd of this month, and, with luck, move right out of our apartment and into the house. Which would be quite something as we only put an offer on it 6 days ago.

The house is a green, sturdy beast sitting on a corner lot way back in an established neighborhood. Twenty-two years old, it has a good-sized front porch, a high-ish deck out back, and a pleasing copse of shade trees clustered near the front steps. If (knock wood) all goes to plan, we'll be the proud owners of a house in Kennesaw, Georgia. It's a good house and we're pretty excited about it.

So if there's a drought of posts in the next few weeks, it won't be because I'm super lazy, which is usually why there's a drought of posts, but because we'll be getting up out of our apartment and into a house. The Inanities will limp on!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Drood"

You know it's been a while since I wrote a post that pretty much no one who frequents this thing would have any interest in. I think it's about time I put up one of those.

In other words, time for a book post. This time I'll be blathering about Dan Simmons' latest horror novel, "Drood", the follow-up to his popular horror novel "The Terror."

One thing "The Terror" and "Drood" have in common is that they both had the good fortune to be published by Little, Brown and Company, who have in their employ one of the best inside dust-jacket-flap copy writers I've encountered. For those of you who've read and enjoyed a scary book, I defy you to read this copy, and not instantly want to read page one of "Drood". I'd almost rather read a book by this guy/gal than the book her/her flap-writing goaded me into reading.

Well I picked "Drood" off the circular bestseller table at B&N, read the inside flap, promptly laid that 780 pg mother down on the counter, plunked down my Chase card and took it home. It was a while before I finished it as I was at the time deeply in the throes of torturing myself with a modern classic, and knew if I started something fun I'd never pick up the classic again. But as soon as I got done with that, I got right into "Drood" and finished it middle of last month. I'm sad to say I was left baffled and disappointed by the book.

The story is set in the mid-late 1800's, when Charles Dickens has already published his most famous works and is at the peak of his fame and creative powers. His friend, novelist Wilkie Collins, is the narrator of this tale, and it starts with Wilkie relating to the reader the details, as told to him by Dickens, of the train crash (referred to throughout the novel as "the Staplehurst disaster") that very nearly killed Dickens. It is in the gruesome aftermath of this accident that Dickens first meets the mysterious Drood, a pale, scarred, eyelid-less ghoul in a top hat who seems to glide rather than walk. Dickens relates how Drood seemed to attend to those still dying from their injuries, but all who were visited by him, died minutes later. Once home in London and ostensibly safe, Dickens enlists friend Wilkie to track down Drood and get a better sense of the creature.

This first section of the novel is gripping. Here Simmons is able to conjure a pervasive feeling of dread while grossly magnifying the excesses of the Victorian era into a hellscape worthy of Bosch. We visit London slums so dangerous only an armed policeman can lead a person safely through. Once through, however, we discover an even more dangerous slum beyond where even armed policemen won't dare go. This is good stuff. Opium dens, wild children, Egyptian fiends all abound in a place called Undertown, and so long as Drood remains the focus of the book, Simmons can't miss.

Unfortunately, Simmons isn't so interested in Drood as that darn flap copy might lead you to believe. Once the hunt for Drood (at least the hunt as we understand it) ends with the narrator alone in the lightless sewers, no wiser than he was when he'd first descended, stumbling blind looking for the surface, the novel enters a more psychological phase. Here Simmons asks the reader to kindly forget about that mysterious and frightening Drood fellow, whose name doubles as the title of the doorstop you're holding, and let us take a few hundred pages to see what makes this laudanum-addicted narrator/novelist Wilkie Collins tick.

This new mystery isn't quite so compelling.

Though Wilkie Collins is interesting enough as a character, he is an addict, and if anyone reading's ever seen an episode of "Intervention," you know how strong the urge can be to reach through the screen and slap an addict. The character of Wilkie Collins often provokes a similar reaction. Self-interested, self-involved, rarely bothered by his conscience (which, while weak, does exist) and worn down to not much at all by his jealousy of Dicken's professional success, Wilkie's an unpleasant person. As the novel progresses there are Drood interludes which are effective and bring the book back on track, but none can be entirely believed, experienced as they are by a man perpetually high on opium. As time passes, Wilkie's bad traits seem to get worse, which may or may not be a sign of an infernal interference in Wilkie's mind, though Simmons does not answer this question with any certainty. And even more than putting the reader in the hands of an increasingly loathesome (and unreliable) narrator, it is this unresolved quality of the book that may be its primary flaw.

Throughout "Drood", Simmons devises a series of hair-raising mysteries. What exactly IS the thing in the servants' stairwell in Wilkie's estate? Who is this creepy doppelganger Wilkie dubs "the Other Wilkie" that haunts him and sometimes writes whole pages of his novels for him? And though the answers may reside somewhere in the novel's 750 pages, the meandering writing and almost compulsively repetitive prose stylings (certain phrases, like "the Staplehurst disaster" for example, occur again and again and again -- referring to it often, he never calls that key incident anything else), don't indicate a literary depth best plumbed by multiple readings. And worst of all, the key mysteries of this novel are, if this reader's accurately comprehended the text, essentially dashed aside in a shocking, unsatisfactory confession that serves as the story's climax without firmly tying up the biggest loose end of the whole story. The denouement only serves to leave other, lesser mysteries similarly unresolved.

A book critic wrote of "Drood" that an excellent thriller lived somewhere inside of it; 3 or 400 pages cut out and reworked could result in something more worthy. Though I know that by this he means that if Simmons had focused on Drood and Dickens and Wilkie's hunt for him through the "Great Oven" of London, "Drood" would have been much improved. But given the tone-deaf third act of this book, I'm not at all confident that even if Little, Brown had handed the two-shoebox manuscript back to Simmons with the direction to whittle mercilessly, he wouldn't have found a different way to underwhelm with the ending. First half = good times. Second half = not worth the time. Which is too bad, as the premise for this book is killer and should have produced a much sharper thriller.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Leviathan Computer, and a New Passel of Movie Reviews


I finally got a new computer over the weekend, and this is what I picked up. That's right. I've finally come over to the other side.

So far so good. The screen is frickin' giant, for one which is good. But at 24" I kind of have to strain my neck to look up at it (and that's not really an exaggeration), but it's bright and crisp and lovely. All day at work, I wanted to be home with it.

But anyway, so I've got a blog-enabler again, and so here I am again.

I've seen three movies since my last entry, so I thought I'd give each a brief run down and call it a post.

1.) Year One. The thing that excited me most about this one was the fact that Harold Ramis directed it. As you know, he did Groundhog Day, a modern classic and one of those rare comedies that hasn't aged over the years. But I forgot that for every Groundhog Day, there are a few not-so-great movies, like, say, Multiplicity. No one's really thinking too much about Multiplicity these days, and I'm thinking in a couple weeks, no one's going to be thinking too much about Year One. Wasn't really bad. But it didn't try for very much. Mucho Libre, I thought, was a very bad comedy, but I think it only attained 'really bad' because it was really trying for something grander, which is darn admirable. Year One isn't aiming for anything higher than the comic stupidity of Caveman, that Ringo Starr starrer. I actually saw Caveman as a double feature at a Texas drive-in in 1981. They'd paired it with Clash of the Titans , so it was oddly fitting I'd see another goofball comedy about prehistoric hijinx at another drive-in theater 28 years later.

Year One stars Jack Black and Michael Cera as a hunter and gatherer respectively, who embark for some reason (not sure why because I was visiting the facilities when this was explained) onto a search for some dumb thing or another. Not worth recounting. But Oliver Platt is a genius in this movie. Who knew that guy was so damn funny? Not sure it's worth sitting through the rest to see how funny Platt is, but if you'd rather, you can take my word for it.

2.) Land of the Lost. This was the 2nd bill in our double feature. For me, much funnier than Year One. Will Farrell's got some hilarious moments in it (like when he mouths the words "F**k you" to their ape friend Chaka, for whom he has a weird, pathological hatred for), and Danny's given some room in this movie to be really funny, but if anything was holding this movie back, it was that it was based on a TV show that no one actually had a whole lot of nostalgia for in the first place. Probably because it wasn't a very good show. So, kudos to Brad Sieberling and the writers and Will and Danny and the British chick who seemed very nice for making a decent movie out of some sub-par source material. (Special note: Be sure to keep an eye out for a Ben Best cameo.)

3.) Away We Go. Was really not looking forward to this one, but wifey wanted to go and Lord knows I deserve to get dragged to some movies for all the movies I drag her to, so away we went to Away We Go! (And there you have my Gene Shalit moment. No more of those, I promise.) Actually, very good. Written by McSweeney's kingpin and (sigh) pretty good writer Dave Eggers and his wife, also-novelist Vendela Vida, and directed by Sam Mendes, Away We Go is either a.) a movie that is trying very hard to be a generation-defining movie, or b.) a movie that actually kind of defines a generation. Or at least part of it. Still not sure on that point, but I'm having some trouble kicking it out of my head.

John Krazinski and Maya Rudolph play Burt Farlander and Verona de Tessant, a young couple with a baby on the way. They live in a ramshackle house out near Burt's parents (in what looks like Wyoming or somesuch) and both work from home. He sells insurance over the phone, and she's a medical illustrator. When Burt's parents (a very funny Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) decide to forego the whole grandparent thing and move to Antwerp for 2 years, Burt and Verona find themselves unmoored to any particular geographical location. They decide to shop around for a new city to put down roots and this search provides the basic structure of the film. They visit friends and relatives all over the country and so the film gets chopped into little vignettes about where other young- thirty-somethings find themselves 9 years into the 21st century. The film becomes a kind of examination of different types and intensities of unhappiness, and what feel like basic truths are uncovered but without seeming corny, self-righteous or preachy. Not an easy trick. The secondary roles are done uniformly well by actors like Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan and Paul Schneider (who's just plain good in this), and the tone, which is so important a part of this movie, hits that quirky, real, bittersweet funny/sad sweet spot that a lot of movies are looking to hit but often don't.

So, in other words, pretty darn good. Mark that one a recommend.

Since I'm not so good with photos yet on this thing, I'll just stick with the one computer image at the top and call it a night.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Photo From the Beach

To make up for my photo-free reference to my beach vacation in yesterday's post, I'm including a photo my brother took of me (and my dad in the bg) that captures some of the feel of the week. Sitting and reading was the order of the day, which suited me fine.

If you look, you can see on my right arm the weird streak of paleness shooting through sunburn. I had a few of those. I've never tanned great, but I never used to tan in splotches and streaks. Weird.

The book my dad's reading is "Gone Tomorrow" by Lee Child (the latest Jack Reacher novel, I'd finished it the day before), and I'm reading "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler. I was hoping I'd find directions on how to get rid of the also-pictured gut without exerting a single foot-pound of effort or eating so much as a calorie less. Alas, no luck.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Back from Vacation! Movie Reviews! No Accompanying Photos!

Hey y'all. Sorry for the totally weak blog action of late. I feel like I just put that "Road" post up and it's actually been about a month. I should just put dead blog on this thing and save my dignity, but I'll keep on keepin' on.

From May 30th to June 7th I was in Florida with my family for a big ole vacation. No email or cell phone or Facebook or internet at all for a week. Just sitting in a camp chair under an umbrella that sometimes launch out of the sand and fly, reading new Jack Reacher, looking up periodically to confirm the Gulf was still there, and taking ladylike sips from canned Corona Lights (because they won't let you take bottles to the beach, understandably). I've never really been on a proper, take-time-off-work vacation before, and it was pleasant and relaxing and all of that, but I had to concentrate to keep from turning it into a sad countdown to a return to the workaday. But I think I did all right on that score.

I've seen a shitload of movies since last I posted. Here's a rundown:

1.) Star Trek. I think JJ Abrams is trying very hard to be the next Steven Spielberg. I wouldn't say he's got the chops to do it, I don't see that yet, but he's sure got Stevie's ambition. This movie was almost disturbingly tailored for the broadest possible audience. Fuzzy sidekicks, slapstick humor at every turn, even Tyler Perry was thrown into this thing to give it the best possible chance to succeed at the box office. And even with all of that calculated mainstream profit-driven thought pushing its way into this movie, it works. They made a fun movie that, to my mind, is as fun and mindless as Star Trek IV was, and Star Trek IV was pretty good. I'm not sure I'm into the whole alternate Trek universe thing Abrams started here, but the actors are all appealing and I'm interested to see sequels, so I guess everyone's happy. Except the haters.

2.) Terminator 4: Salvation. For the first 2/3rd of this movie, Terminator 4 rocks it as hard as T2 ever did. It even brought JD Salinger out of seclusion! The shots! Camera locked on John Connor from ground, to helicopter, to airborne helicopter, to downed helicopter, no cuts. The sequence! You know the one I mean. The one that begins with the giant terminator attack on the gas station hideout and ends with Marcus scudding across the surface of the canyon river. That was good enough to make me forgive McG a.) his name, and b.) Charlie's Angels 2. Unfortunately, after John Connor and his black friend successfully field test the signal on the big hunter-killer, the screenwriters apparently suffered massive head-trauma but kept writing through the pain. McG, clearly not knowing his writers had been close to blacking out with life-threatening concussions when they wrote the 3rd act, just shot what had been written. He's a director, not a writer! How was he supposed to know the ending was so bad? And so, in the dumb 3rd act, John Connor walks into SkyNet city without a.) a single problem, or b.) a moment's suspicion about how he's walking into SkyNet city without a single problem. Worse than all of that, it just gets boring and lets the audience out of the story too much. But even with the weak ending, T4 is still a worthy addition to what I thought was a dead saga, and makes me interested to see more.

3.) Up. What a downer! An uplifting animated film about an old man coming to grips with the death of his wife? And his own impending death? What? Kudos to Pixar for keeping it different, and not letting any received wisdom about what an animated movie can or should be dictate which films they make, but this movie was sad, y'all! But besides that, Up is more of the same Pixar genius. Brilliant animation, brilliant shot selection, brilliantly drawn characters. There were some moments where whimsy crossed the line into sheer ludicrousness (dogs flying biplanes?), but I'm just not especially enthusiastic about lump-in-the-throat movies made by people who've set out to get people to cry, and I kind of think they did with this movie, more than any other Pixar movie to date. But even with all that said, I'm not sure I'd want them to have changed any of that stuff. It was all very well done, but just not what I'm down for these days. Or should I say... up for?

4.) Drag Me to Hell. Stephen King used to run-down a spiral of diminishing returns when writing horror novels. First, if you can get it, go for terror. If you can't get that, try for horror. If not that, go for a cheap shock. And if you can't get any of that, "go for the gross out." I think Sam Raimi knew right off the bat he wasn't going to get any of the first three, probably had no intention of attempting to get them, and focused his energy on the gross out. He doesn't do too badly on that score, but it's kind of a low bar he set for himself. Drag me to Hell was more of a diverting exercise -- a chance for Raimi to show himself and his fans that 3 Spider Man movies hadn't killed the Evil Dead in him -- than a real honest-to-God horror film. Things I liked: 1.) Allison Lohman. Easy on the eyes. 2.) The cinematography. The colors were really popping and it managed to capture some of that LA-sunlight quality that seems to elude other filmmakers. 3.) the last 10 seconds. Not in a gut-level way -- it's not emotionally satisfying -- but intellectually it makes sense. I wish the set up for the ending hadn't been so obvious though.

5.) The Hangover. Funny stuff. I never felt I was travelling on the same current of humor as this movie was, but it had a good number of laughs. I liked the Rain Man shot a lot, I liked the shot in the taser class where the kid gets up to tase Zach and it goes into slow-mo, and I liked the easy comraderie. The tone was good too, which is an easy thing to discount but always hard to get right. And the photo montage at the end is, of course, genius. But I'm not thinking right now that this is an amazing comedy, just a really competent one.

I'd add some photos to pretty this beast up, but it's late, and the Man demands I return to work tomorrow.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"The Road" Trailer Hits



Not a great trailer, but gets the job done. For one, I don't really like the "Day After Tomorrow" vibe at the start of this thing. McCarthy spent about a sentence dealing with the whys and wherefores of the end of civilization, but the trailer makes those concerns seem paramount. Comes off looking cheap and over-CG'd. The delay in getting this into theaters also worries me a bit. But there are enough hints that the dread and terror and hope McCarthy conjured so effortlessly in the novel made it into the movie that I'm excited about this one.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"The IMAX Experience" is Not IMAX

I GOT INTO A CONVERSATION with one of my 3 bosses at work back in March and told him I was going to see "Watchmen" in IMAX. I was driving about an hour from where I live to see it on the big screen.

He said, "I think there's an IMAX right up here." He told me about the local AMC theater that now, apparently, had IMAX and it was, in fact, much closer than the one I'd been driving to. I had my doubts about my boss's claims. When they installed the IMAX projector into the Mall of Georgia Regal theater up in Buford, GA, many years ago, it made the front page of the Atlanta Journal & Constitution because they'd had to lower it into place with the aid of a helicopter because it's e-goddamn-normous. (And also not a lot of interesting things happen in Atlanta, despite what you may have heard.) I hadn't heard of anything like a big-time installation of and IMAX projector happening out near where I work.

This morning, my boss comes up to my cube and says: "You know that theater over by the mall? It does have IMAX. My wife went into the Joann's that's right next to the theater, (I don't know what they do [at Joann's] -- I guess they make things?) Anyway, I went in and asked if they had IMAX there and they said, yes they did."

I was still dubious, but if an employee said they had IMAX, maybe they did. But the IMAX theater was just ... hidden somehow. When there's an IMAX theater in a multiplex you damn well know it because the screen is, like the projector, e-goddamn-normous.

Well, now I know what the disconnect is.

IMAX is now putting their brand on NOT-IMAX screenings. Here's a helpful comparison. The big rectangle is the size of an actual IMAX screen, the kind I drive an hour to watch movies on. The smaller one is the size of the screen AMC and Regal and IMAX are saying provide "The IMAX Experience":



As you can see, it's total bullshit. A scam.

Aziz Ansari, the guy who plays the smarmy middle eastern dude on the new NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation" (alongside NCSA SOF alum Paul Schneider), got tricked into seeing a faux-IMAX movie ("Star Trek") and paying regular-IMAX prices. He blogged about it.

I'm a big supporter of IMAX, I think the actual IMAX experience could establish a new foundation for moviegoing that could keep theaters in business and profitable for another 50 years -- but this diluting of the brand by going after unsophisticated moviegoers is low, completely needless, and will ultimately backfire.

Anyway, something to look out for and tell others about.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Latest SNL Digital Short



This was kind of gross, but also kind of funny. Not so funny that I'm banging down people's doors trying to get them to watch it, but funny enough to try out Hulu's embed functionality for shits and gigs.

(Also: From this clip, it is now indisputable: Susan Sarandon has de-aged 4 years since her last movie. Brilliant plastic surgeon or pact with the devil?)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

In the Tank


Man do I like our President.

When I'm feeling more ambitious than I do right now, I'll write up a really insight-free report card for our President in his first 100+ days, with plenty o' bloviation on the policy choices of this very young administration. But having worked like crazy during many of those 100 days and, thusly unable to devote as much attention to politics as I did during my unemployed days (or even my non-comic-drawing days), I'm just enjoying sitting back and watching this guy work: dazzling during press conferences, reversing dumbshit policies enacted over the last 8 years with a stroke of the pen, and, every now and again, really seeming to enjoy being President.

A story like this is a good example: Obama and Biden heading down to a local burger joint. In this case, it's a place called Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia.

I'm not so naive as to think Obama doesn't know how appealingly down-to-Earth this photo-op makes him look (which, from an image-management point of view, probably helps tamp down on feelings in some quarters that he's too aloof or "arrogant"), or that it wasn't a response to last weekend's Republicans-Strategize-at-a-Pizzaria photo op. But I'm also not so cynical as to think the man a.) doesn't like a good burger as much as the next guy, or b.) doesn't think that going to a neighborhood burger joint in a presidential motorcade makes the experience that much cooler.

Anyway, I enjoyed this "news" story and thought I'd share.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Briefly

Quentin Tarantino loves Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns". From the New York Times Magazine article: "I am a big fan of ‘‘Returns.’’ I’m working on what is now a 20-page review of that movie, and I’m not done yet. "

Who doesn't love a really really long movie review?

Also: this makes me want to rewatch that movie.

Stephen King News, in Brief

Three tidbits of Stephen King news, listed in descending order of likely interest from this blog's readers. All of my news comes from this site.

1.) When "Lost" wraps up, (which I think happens at the end of next season), J.J. Abrams (director of Cloverfield, Star Trek) and Damon Lindelof aim to begin work on bringing Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series to the big screen. Seven books... seven movies?

2.) This Sunday's "Family Guy" is devoted to Stephen King. This from the network's description:
Sunday, May 10
FAMILY GUY (9:00-9:30 PM ET/PT) – “Three Kings” – Season Finale

"After Peter discovers the writing of Stephen King, he imagines his family and friends in three of King’s most famous works. First, Peter, Quagmire, Cleveland and Joe – as 12-year-olds – travel along a railroad track on a journey of self-discovery narrated by Richard Dreyfuss (guest-voicing as himself). Second, Brian is injured in a bad car crash only to be “rescued” by his “number one fan,” Stewie. Finally, Cleveland and Peter become fast friends in prison."
"Family Guy"'s gotten better (and weirder) each season (culminating in the episode where Peter discovers the joys of the song "The Bird's the Word" -- this episode very nearly killed me), so I'm really looking forward to this one. The show's not afraid to make an obscure cultural reference, so it'll be interesting to see how "inside" McFarlane gets with his King jokes.

3.) November sees the release of King's newest novel entitled "Under the Dome," the description of which sounds as if it were inspired by 2008's "The Simpson's Movie":
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester’s Mills, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener’s hand is severed as “the dome” comes down on it, people running errands in the neighboring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when—or if—it will go away.

Dale Barbara, Iraq vet and now a short-order cook, finds himself teamed with a few intrepid citizens—town newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician’s assistant at the hospital, a select-woman, and three brave kids. Against them stands Big Jim Rennie, a politician who will stop at nothing—even murder—to hold the reins of power, and his son, who is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry. But their main adversary is the Dome itself. Because time isn’t just short. It’s running out.
This thing's 1,120 pages and comes out November 20th.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

I saw "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" on Friday night, and though it wasn't the worst summer movie I've seen, it was the worst comic-book movie I've seen. I've been a big Wolverine fan since I started reading comics, but this movie made me forget what I liked so much about his character.

He's a guy with claws that can cut through anything, he's older than dirt but still looks like a ripped 40-year old, and he can never die. Somehow this movie managed to make all of that seem really boring. Part of that might have been because in the first part of the movie, when he's teamed up with his brother, Victor (aka Sabretooth, played by a genuinely menacing Liev Schrieber) and a bunch of other mutants, Wolverine is easily the most useless member of the team. He's got frickin' BONE claws. What's a guy going to do with those? Stab a guy? Isn't a guy with two big knives instantly as qualified as Logan to be a death-dealer?

Wolverine never gets too much cooler than a fairly ineffectual guy with 6 jagged compound fractures. Hugh Jackman does what he can to keep the character he originated interesting (and by the way Wolverine was 10 times cooler in his first scene in "X-Men" then he is in this whole movie), but isn't helped by a muddled, goofy script by David Benioff and Skip Woods. But if you're a motivated director, you can make a shite script look really cool if you know how to shoot action scenes and understand how special effects work. Unfortunately, Director Gavin Woods is so-so to not-very-good on action, but absolutely clueless with special effects. I think there's a whole reel in this movie that could serve as a clinic in how NOT to do green screen work.

"Wolverine" suffers from the same guiding philosophy as last year's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull": CG makes everything better. The result was lots of fakey effects and glaringly bad green screen work. But bad as "Crystal Skull" was on this score, "Wolverine" makes "Crystal Skull" seem like "Aguierre: The Wrath of God." People want to see real people doing real things in real places, but there's precious little of that in "Wolverine." Even Logan's CLAWS are digital -- worse, they look like digital claws. And because the special effects are so bad, a $140 million dollar movie looks like it cost half that much.

I think Gavin Hood, like a lot of non-comic-reading folks, doesn't "get" Wolverine, and, I suspect, never cared about doing a "Wolverine" movie right. The results, sadly, speak for themselves.

But since it made $87 million over the weekend, Fox will wrongly view Hood's film as a success, (just as they will wrongly view Snyder's "Watchmen" a failure), Hood will get to direct/ruin another big-budget studio film, and Fox will likely foist more sub-par "X-Men Origins" movies on filmgoers. If many more of these disappointing comic-book films are released, I suspect the current trend of comic-book-to-film adaptations will fizzle out before some of the great properties have been translated to the silver screen.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Saturn Images; Also: Shapes and Their Crushing Recurrence

Some new images of Saturn and its surrounding moons taken by Cassini were released recently and they're pretty stunning. The Boston Globe's got a crisp, nicely captioned set of photos that kind of make astronomy cool again. Well, for a few seconds and then it gets nerdy again.

The image to the right is from Saturn's "high north" and it was taken from a distance of 336,000 miles. Each pixel represents 18 miles (let that blow your mind for a second).

A lot of the images are powerful but this one really struck me. Looking closely at it, all the roiling storms on the surface of the planet, I thought it looked a bit like this photo:


I'm just continually struck by how the same patterns and shapes show up again and again and again on a sliding scale, all the way from the tiniest speck of atomic matter, to a nautilus shell, to the most macro view of the entire universe. And here the same spiral shapes showing up here on the surface of gas giant Saturn. Something about that brutal consistency absolutely everywhere is both reassuring and kind of deflating.















In our deepest explorations of space, will we ever find the legendary schlazz'shlorg shape? Or just more of these spirals?

Yeah. More spirals.