Thursday, September 02, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Musings on a White-out Tape Dispenser, and Newsmap

There's a curved indentation molded into the plastic of the Bic Wite-Out tape dispenser, just to the southwest of the 'W' in 'Wite-Out', that you can put your fingernail into and, without much effort, get the whole thing to spin around really fast. Satisfying torque. Aside from the noise of the twirling, which is a kind of hollow, blunt scraping sound, you could really just spin that sucker forever and not really have to worry too much about it skittering across the desk.

Anyway. It's slow at work.

Unrelated and marginally more interesting, a co-worker pointed me to this site today: Newsmap.

Newsmap presents all the news items of the day in colored blocks of various sizes, color representing what sort of news it is (world, national, sports, etc.), and the size representing how many articles related to this story are extant on the web. I'm sure it's a bit more complicated than that, but the resulting display is simple, clean, and very user-friendly. If you bring your cursor over a news box, a pop-up window comes up with the a short summary of the story. When you click the box, you're taken to a new window/tab. Me likey. Doubt it'll streamline my surfing much, but it gives a nice overview if you're in a pinch and want to get caught up on the Right Now right now.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Franzen's New Book and New Look at Jack London

Book excitement. Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom", his first since 2001's brilliant "The Corrections", will be released on August 31st. And the reviews! The New York Times calls it "both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times" Others are similarly glowing. I cannot wait.

Also, a very interesting article on Jack London from When I was in school and my teachers talked about London, they mentioned briefly that he taught himself to write and then assigned us his short story about the wolf. Or whatever it was about. What we didn't learn was that London was a devoted socialist as well as an inveterate racist. Now I'm not one of those guys who think a writer's biography is just as important as their work, but some of that biographical information might have been useful to know while reading to, you know, place his work in some context.

School always seems to find a way to make fascinating people, places, and things much less so, doesn't it?

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Bit More on Inception

I went on so long writing this comment in response to Craig's comment on my "Inception" post, I thought it might be better to just post the whole thing up here.

First, do go to the comments section and read Craig's comments -- the details he noticed are awesome and seem to put the case beyond a doubt that Leo was trapped in a dream (and also show I was only paying some kind of half-attention). I particularly liked this observation: "There are no establishing shots or lead ins to scenes. Everything starts in the middle, causing you to maybe ask "How did I get here?", not unlike the test they mention in the movie." That is so true, and another great and subtle thing Nolan did to give the whole movie that dream-like quality that's only really apparent after you leave the theater.

Craig also asked: "Why would Dom's subconscious produce so much exposition? Have you ever explained how something works to yourself in a dream?"

I actually feel like I have woken from dreams where I've had what seemed like elaborate concepts explained to me, and during the dream, all that exposition seems so cogent and well-written but it's logic fades shortly after waking, if any stays at all. So the exposition aspect felt correct to me.

Which made me think of an alternate interpretation.

After the movie, the wife and I followed the 'it was all a dream' concept to one possible conclusion: that the concept of 'shared dreaming' that was so integral to the plot was itself an elaborate figment of the dream. We dismissed it because if that were true, all the film's action would be just so much dreamy irrelevance. If nothing of the film can be accepted at face value, then what was the point exactly?

But thinking about it now, it does seem plausible and even narratively legitimate that the concept of shared dreaming was part of a dream. The film, all a dream, could have been the story of a smart guy trapped in a coma or life-support or whatnot, experiencing his subconscious's last best attempt to wake him from his dream and into real life, ending with Leo's failure to rise to that challenge. Because the whole idea of shared dreaming -- with that nifty, never-explained old reel-to-reel-style equipment they were able to just dream up at every dream-level -- did seem sketched in, just present enough to plausibly get the plot and action flowing. Again, to me, very dream-like.

So if it is all a dream, even the shared-dreaming conceit, a lot of the film still works. If Leo were in a coma, the people he cares about most would make appearances, and when they did, strong emotions would accompany them, as they do in the movie. Extreme grief, guilt, and terror in the scenes with his wife, Marion Cotillard, warm regard and affection in the scene with Michael Caine -- maybe the people whose accompanying emotion is most intense are the people closest to Leo in real life. If this is so, one wonders then who Lucas Haas's character might have been to him, as his departure from the movie seemed to particularly wound Leo.

Leo's subconscious, knowing he is not awake, could very plausibly "build" this elaborate dream-plot so that Dream-Leo can confront questions of 'Am I awake or am I dreaming?' which may help him understand his plight so he might then wake from it. Which is why, perhaps, when it is safe within the dream's structure, the dream sets up multiple circumstances where Leo can "practice" waking up, from all those dreams within dreams, to give him the courage to do it the final, most important time. Maybe the end of the climactic sequence, where all of Leo's teammates are waking from one dream after another, is his subconscious's most direct assault on Leo's conscious mind to get Leo himself to wake.

Just a possibility. Some of this stuff I feel like I could argue with myself about ("...but if that's so then the whole Saito sub-plot which was so awesome isn't as awesome. And if that's so, the whole move becomes purely a technical exercise in precision without any real identifiable heart.", etc.) but I think the movie is left open to interpretations like that. I almost feel that the Nolan brothers might even have some page-long "secret script" that explains What-was-really-going-on, but then that may be overestimating Nolan, which I guess is possible.

But it's also just fun to talk about this movie.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Wherein this Blogger Reviews Two Novels, one being 'The Passage" by Justin Cronin, and the other being "The Secret Speech" by Tom Rob Smith

Been reading a bit this summer. Just finished a couple books I thought I'd let you know about.

1.) "The Passage" by Justin Cronin. This was billed by some as the event book of the summer, none more vehemently than by Stephen King. He gave the slobberiest blurb for the dust jacket, called into 'Good Morning America' while Cronin was on to gush about the book, and hell, during my moment with the King during a book signing in November of last year, this was the book he told me to read, (not, as I first thought, "The Bastard" by John Crowley, which doesn't exist). So, massive doorstop in hand ("The Passage" is 1,000+ pages long), I was primed for a sweeping, "Stand"-esque post-apocalyptic vampire story that would wash away some of the residue of awfulness the 'Twilight' stories had deposited all over the popular culture. And though the book hasn't had a 'Twilight'-like cultural impact its publishers (or King) hoped it would, it compensates by being a pretty good novel.

For the first and best section, we follow a young girl named Amy while she's in the care of a wide and harrowing assortment of people. First her mother, than a nun, then an FBI agent whose own daughter died some years ago, and finally a secret project in the Rocky Mountains that's attempting to weaponize something that really shouldn't be weaponized. In short order, that which was contained within the mountain escapes, mere horror is loosed upon the world, and the world's population is quickly divided into 3 camps: the dead (most), the infected (plenty), and the survivors (very very few). That's about all I can tell you without giving you more information than you need to enjoy the book, but I will say that a lot of readers, including myself, found the 2nd section of the book to be a bit jarring.

Though "The Passage" is clearly intended for a wide readership with its horrific and energetically described violence, visual action sequences fit for a Tony Scott movie, and a big cast of identifiable likable characters, it is not without its own moments of prose-poem lyricism that seem more suited to a more staid "literary" novel, perhaps written by a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (which Cronin happens to be). "The Passage" is long, and I like that Cronin takes his time when needed, particularly in the second section. I was disappointed that more practical considerations seemed to take precedence over his artistic motives as the third section unfolded. I felt like Cronin realized he'd lingered too long over the plot previously and now had to get things moving if he wanted to have the book wind up where he'd envisioned. The effect makes the fast-moving third section feel like a summer action pic, and, worse, a summer action pic that was rushed into production without a strong script.

The acknowledgments at the end seem to confirm my suspicions somewhat, as quite a few words are dedicated to thanking Ridley and Tony Scott and the fine folks at Scott Free productions for ... well, it's not clear what Scott Free did for "The Passage" pre-publication other than buy the movie rights, but I wonder. I like my novelists to keep on one side of a bright white line between their work and the films Hollywood sometimes makes from them, and including a 'thanks' to a production company in one's novel would seem to blur that line. I want the filmmakers to have to figure out how to adapt a novel into a movie, I don't want the novelist trying to tailor their book to make it more multiplex-friendly. The suspicion this may have happened is, I think, a reasonable one.

Which is not to say that part 3 of "The Passage" is lousy, because it's not, but it wasn't as nearly as impressive as the first parts, which is a shame. Two more books are set to follow this, so I'm hopeful Cronin will turn off his inner screenwriter and concentrate on putting out two novels that work best as novels and let Scott Free worry about adapting the stuff into good movies.

2.) The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith. The follow-up to Smith's brilliant debut novel, "Child 44", "The Secret Speech" has a lot to live up to, and for the most part, sadly, falls short.

Set in the Soviet Union shortly after Stalin's death, we are once again joined with former MGB Chekist (MGB was the precursor to the KGB), Leo Demidov who, with his wife Raisa, is now raising two girls orphaned when Leo's MGB team murdered their parents during the events of "Child 44". The horror that brought this family into existence continues into the fraught Demidov household. Though Leo has resolved, naively, to be a loving father to his adopted daughters to counterbalance the evil of what he did to their parents, 14-year old Zoya, the elder of the two daughters, is consumed with thoughts of vengeance against Leo. She sneaks into his room each night and places the edge of a kitchen knife to his throat, daring herself night after night to kill her adoptive father and avenge her parents. Soon, other ghosts from Leo's brutal past emerge to make Leo's life hell and the novel gets going.

With "The Secret Speech" Smith continues the ghastly tour of Stalin's USSR he began in 'Child 44'. In that book Smith showed how Stalin's MGB terrorized an entire society into submission by turning all citizens into informants: even a close friend was capable of sending an innocent person to the gulags; often, if they did not inform, it was they who were shipped off to Siberia to be worked to death. And though Stalin's notorious gulags are referenced in "Child 44", it isn't until halfway through "The Secret Speech" that Smith manages to steer the action into one of them. But the exigencies of the plot give us not a dramatized depiction of the gulag's horrors, a kind of airport-y distillation of Solzhenitsyn, which is what I'd hoped to read, but rather a fast-moving prisoner revolt inspired by the secret speech of the title. The day-to-day of the gulag is not explored here, which I found disappointing.

If "Child 44" read like a talented writer's bid to pen the thriller everyone would talk about for years, 'Secret Speech" reads more like the second book the author had to write to fulfill a contract. It's a page-turner, no doubt -- the short, snappy sentences and short, snappy chapters make the pages seem to turn of their own volition -- but this fast pace may be "The Secret Speech's" fatal flaw. Smith's engineered this thing to move so quickly that "Child 44"'s moral fog and pungent atmosphere of dread -- novelistic effects achieved only when the plot is allowed to slow down -- are almost entirely missing from this second novel in this series. The result is a story that vanishes from the imagination the instant the last page is turned.

Though I was disappointed with "Secret Speech", the quality of "Child 44" gives me room to hope that the third and, I would assume, final book in the Leo Demidov trilogy will exceed this installment.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"They hide in plain sight."

I checked out the 2-hour premiere of AMC's new conspiracy-themed drama "Rubicon" last night (2 million people tuned in, a record for AMC original programming) and really enjoyed it. I was impressed by how entertaining the creators, Jason Horwich and Henry Bromell, managed to make two slowly paced hours so enthralling.

The premise, briefly: Will Travers (played by James Badge Dale), is a mild-mannered widow who works as an analyst for a small, unnamed intelligence agency in New York. They break codes and find out the names of guys who appear in long-lens photographs. When Will's boss is killed in a commuter train accident, the weird crossword puzzle clue Will discovered a few days prior, the one clue that appeared in 11 different newspapers' crossword puzzles on the same day, seems suddenly relevant. The first, subtle shadings that something is off about his boss's death begin to take shape in his mind.

"Rubicon" derives most of its narrative frisson from the dramatic irony of watching Will go about his normal life while we, the audience, know something shadowy and dangerous is playing just beneath the surface of things, contemplating a move that could end Will's life. Watching the show I was reminded at times of 'The Matrix'. One of my favorite sections of that movie are those scenes before Anderson understands the truth of his existence. Now imagine that section expanded to a 13-hour season of television and you've got 'Rubicon', more or less.

One of the reasons why 'Rubicon' is better than your average show is that the show-runners give the audience space to figure out what's going on without beating anyone over the head. One example: early on in episode one, we see Will Travers's boss, David (played by Peter Gerety who "Wire"-freaks will remember as Judge Daniel Phelan) through Will's office window, avoiding the number 13 in the staff parking lot like it's covered in Ebola. He's a superstitious guy, David. Later on, after David's died in the train crash, Will goes back to the train station and finds David's car parked in the parking spot numbered '13'.

There are a number of ways the show could have handled the revelation. What they didn't do was have Will go up to the number, look down at it in disbelief, then cut to a 2-second flash of the earlier scene where David had avoided the '13' in the parking lot. Nor does Will murmur: "But David hated the number thirteen!" The writers handle it subtly, and visually. That whole show don't tell thing. They let us figure it out with Will.

Another thing 'Rubicon' does well is capture the nuances of working in an office. It's actually the dynamic in Will's 4-man analyst unit that's been sticking in my head all day today. It's depiction of working in an office is not satirical or blown up to outlandish proportions, but a look at a real honest-to-God office. The show gives an impression of what it's like to work long days and long weeks with the same idiosyncratic people, how it feels to do mentally draining tasks all day, everyday, and how crushing the pressures from 'the bosses' can seem. Because Will gets promoted halfway through, and this was particularly well done, we see how those pressures seem amplified the higher the corporate ladder one climbs.

My one worry for the show is that it may have the same dramatic longevity of "Prison Break". Once that tattooed freak broke his bro out out of the pen, the wind seemed to go out of the show's sails. Before long they were breaking back into another prison just to break out again. Once 'Rubicon' reveals the conspiracy, where does the show go from there? Does it just go deeper and deeper? Or does it shift from discovering the conspiracy to trying to expose it? And will viewers stay interested if it takes 3 seasons to reveal it?

Bottom-line is this show's got a great tone, great characters, and some nicely played moments of real creepiness. If there existed a world where a powerful, moneyed cabal could plot something of the magnitude of 9/11 without anyone learning the truth, then that is the world 'Rubicon' inhabits. For me, exploring that world has a lot of dramatic potential. I'm looking forward to episode 3.

(The show airs on Sundays at 9PM on AMC for those who're considering setting their DVRs.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Look!

Because some of the YouTube videos I was linking to were getting cut almost in half by the Blogger template I was using, I wanted to change it up with one of the new templates they offer. I like it, hope it's not too offensive to anyone, what with those papery Luddite-loved relics shown in the background. What are they called again? Buh-yewks? Something like that?

Next I need to update my profile picture and change the drawing of the dolt next to the title.

Chris and Hans want to blow your mind one more time

To add a bit more to my previous 'Inception' post, click on this link.

Some of you may have already seen this on Facebook, but for those who haven't, definitely worth a look.

I didn't think I could be more impressed with the movie, and then Hans goes and does something like this.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inception (Spoiler-Heavy Review)

There’s a moment early on in ‘Inception’, in a scene where Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) is speaking to his grandfather, Miles (played by Michael Caine) about what Cobb must do to get back Home. Cobb’s got to get around some official Charges that are keeping him Away. It was during this scene that I thought I’d outsmarted Christopher Nolan and figured out the hidden truth of the film.

But, of course, Nolan’s a smart guy and knows everyone going to see his movie about dreams and dreaming is primed to question the reality of the story’s supposedly non-dream reality, and so it wasn’t long after this scene that I realized I was missing the point a little bit. ‘Inception’’s not about twist endings a la ‘Sixth Sense’ or ‘Shutter Island’, (though the ending is the part of the movie that's most fun to talk about). It’s really a whip-smart exploration of dreams and what it feels like to dream told in a multiplex-friendly crime-action framework. The whole thing works brilliantly.

"Inception" tells the story of Cobb, a man with a rare talent for 'shared dreaming', a cutting edge science in this world that allows a group of people to have the same dream and act consciously and powerfully within that dream. The particular skill-set Cobb and a very few dependable practitioners have is the art of Extraction: going into a person's subconscious, via their dreams, and taking out of it something (usually a lucrative secret) the mark wants to keep hidden. After Cobb and his team audition as Extractors for a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe), Saito offers Cobb a different job that will help him beat those Charges and get back Home to see his two children. Cobb must delve into the subconscious of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cilian Murphy), an heir to Saito's rival, and implant into Mr Fischer's subconscious the idea to break up the empire he is heir to as soon as it comes into his possession. To make it more difficult, they have to make Fischer believe it's his own idea. What they're attempting is called Inception.

Reading that synopsis it would seem that nearly everything is standing in Nolan's way of making this movie work, most significantly, 20 or so years of uninspired studio group-think. 'Inception' is not a sequel. It's not based on a popular novel or known character. It is original. The concept is the highest of the high. The requirements of the plot do not allow for any oversimplification or "dumbing down". To make 'Inception' into a success, Nolan had to make a cinematic treatise about the nature of dreaming, memory, consciousness, and unconsciousness fun, and he had to make it entertaining enough for an audience large enough to justify the budget he needed to film something this ambitious. The success of 'Inception' seems to me the film industry story of the year, and, with luck, will usher in a new slate of original movies that haven't had their ideas scaled back by timid executives because it might not play for the folks who got a brain-ache watching "2012". (A really dumb movie I loved, by the way).

The film is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it brings together many of the top film artists working at the height of their powers. Christopher Nolan, obviously, credited as director and screenwriter of the film, tops his previous efforts with this film, which is in itself a major accomplishment. Leonardo DiCaprio does great work here, firmly established now as one of the few legitimate movie stars with unimpeachable acting chops. The ensemble acting is fantastic all-around, Cilian Murphy and Ken Watanabe turning in particularly compelling performances here. Hans Zimmer's music and Wally Pfister's cinematography complement the film perfectly, the moments where Zimmer uses bass like an aural shiv are always welcome. And, much as I hate to say it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty good in this. He doesn't have much to do acting-wise, but he's the Inception team's stoic Go-To Guy, and I couldn't help but like him in this.

That a movie about the chaotic and usually nonsensical world of dreams is written and shot with such mathematical precision gives the film a nice underlying dissonance that puts the viewer off-balance, and keeps them from asking the story's most pertinent question: is the world from which Cobb is trying to escape through dreaming itself a dream?

I believe the answer is yes: Cobb is stuck in a dream. (And in 50 years, off the subject for a minute, I believe film students will marvel at the coincidence of one actor, Di Caprio, appearing in two thematically identical films (Shutter Island and Inception) and then marvel again that both movies were released in the same year.)

On the film's rules alone, I think they establish the very real possibility that it's a dream, even beyond that final shot, don't they? Do we ever actually see Cobb's totem, his little metal top, ever have an uninterrupted spin so we can see it fall over as it's supposed to? There's a scene in the bathroom I remember where Cobb attempts to let it spin out, but the top falls to the floor before it can finish or not finish its spin.

What was more persuasive for me that Cobb's "real" world was in fact a dream, was the way Nolan shot the "real" world of 'Inception'. To me, it all had the qualities of a dream; a lucid dream, maybe, but still a dream. Nolan never gives any place a feeling of specificity (to use a word from the film). So no landmarks (except the Eiffel Tower, seen in a startlingly weird long shot of Paris), no branded products, no billboards, no bit of grit or earthiness or mise en scene designed to give any particular setting a feeling of authenticity. Nolan seems to tend towards this dreamy style of filmmaking in his movies anyway, but he never goes all the way like he does in 'Inception'.

Compare, for instance, the scene in "Dark Knight" where the Joker enters the restaurant kitchen for the underworld summit and the scene where Cobb is talking to his grandfather Miles (Caine) in the university classroom. In the kitchen scene, not only is the Joker grungy and grimy and REAL, the finger-streaks where he's applied the grease paint plainly visible, but so are the mundane stainless steel kitchen appliances pushed up against the walls, the dirty floor, the cheap TV that makes the table it's on bow slightly, the chairs that scrape and squeak as people settle into them.

Contrast that with the university room in which Cobb and Miles speak. It is less a realistic classroom than it is the quintessential ideal of a university classroom. The wood-panel walls that glow warmly, the chalkboard wiped clean except for what Miles has written on it, the neatly cluttered desk upon which he is taking neat little notes in a tidy little notebook. It's all so made to order, so very collegiate and professorial, each thing such a distillation of itself, that after the scene ends you forget everything about it except the fact that it was set in a university classroom. Which lends the scene a dream-like quality because after we wake from a dream, all the details not directly tied with what was urgently happening seem to melt away first, don't they? In my memory of the film, all the places in the "real" world adhere far more to what Cobb's Platonic ideal of these settings would be than they do to any identifiable reality of that place. The private plane on which they begin their Inception mission, for example, so perfectly embodies the knee-jerk idea of a "private plane" without offering any concessions to the reality of an actual private plane, that one can't help but guess that this place, too, is a dream-place.

The moment I mentioned in the first part of this post, during the scene between DiCaprio and Miles, was for me one of the clearest bits of evidence towards the "it's all a dream" theory of "Inception". The moment happens when Caine asks, in effect, if DiCaprio wants to go Home. Caine's eyes are hopeful, intent; he's hanging on DiCaprio's reply. DiCaprio thinks about it for a moment, conflicted, and when DiCaprio starts in about the Charges against him that prevent him from going Home, we cut back to Caine and watch his expression drop with disappointment. Not disappointment at the sad fact of DiCaprio's legal difficulties, but a disappointment more like that of Mark Ruffalo's character at the end of 'Shutter Island' when DiCaprio, far from cured, reassumes his former identity.

Could it be that Miles is there in a shared dream with Cobb, trying to persuade him to wake up? Or maybe he's just an aspect of Cobb's subconscious, the part of DiCaprio that knows he's dreaming, trying to gently pull him out of this endless dream?

There may be more moments like this one that point in the same direction, or even different directions, but this was stood out to me.

I did have a few quibbles with the movie, as ever. Nolan's fight scenes are still largely rendered into a kinetic blur. I want to see the fight, I don't want to sense the energy of a fight. The James Bond-esque interlude at the snowy mountain fortress was the least interesting and least dream-like of the dream levels, all that endless skiing and snowmobiling, and it seemed the action stayed there the longest. Another issue I had was with the way Nolan had his characters give valuable exposition at the same time he presents arresting visuals to the audience. Kind of like getting the audience to "watch" the credits by also running additional scenes or a gag reel: no one's actually reading the credits when there's a gag reel, and no one can actually absorb exposition when the world is breaking in half and stacking on top of itself. I felt this pull in two directions more than a couple times watching this movie. Maybe it was a cheap way to guarantee repeat business.

But given the number of bravura moments in this movie, the quibbles fade to insignificance. At the culmination of the film's climactic sequence, when the van hits the water and the elevator drops in the gravity-less hotel and Cilian Murphy reaches into the safe and pulls out the pinwheel -- I'm sure there were a lot of talented filmmakers who watched Nolan pull off that sequence and cursed his name for pulling off something that high-wire that beautifully. I haven't seen a sequence of that kind done that well for a long time, maybe not since Lecter's escape sequence in "Silence" I'm sure there must be other great examples in the intervening 20 years, but that's the one that comes to mind.

A lot of fanboys are already, of course, putting Nolan in the same league as the Great Stanley Kubrick. Obviously that's premature, but I will say that with 'Inception', which comes after 'Dark Knight' which itself came after the overlooked but genius 'Prestige', it's looking promising. Nolan's batting a thousand at the moment, and his consistently calm, assured handling of films with complex ideas, particularly so with 'Inception', makes the wait for the third installment in his Batman series seem even longer, and his next original movie an even bigger event.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Deadly Bear from a Galaxy Far Far Away

The only thing more frightening than running into a bear in the wilderness? Running into a bear armed with a light saber. I know this goes without saying, but two hours of this would have been so much better than 'Phantom Menace'.

Anyway, this got me laughing, thought I'd share the joy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"A-Team" and "The Fountain"

A couple reviews of some movies I watched over the weekend.

1.) The A-Team. Not bad. Some of the reviews I’d glanced at prior to seeing the movie seemed to suggest the ridiculousness in the film’s trailers was the kind that induces eye-rolling, not happy grins. So going in I wasn’t sure if even a turned-off brain could enjoy what was to come. But to my surprise, 'The A-Team' is actually a tightly-written, smart-sounding action movie (not actually smart, unfortunately), more “Mission: Impossible” than “Smokin’ Aces”, with controlled direction from Joe Carnahan that never loses track of the plot during all the chasing around in search of the McGuffin. Couple small things I liked: 1.) Major Dad’s Gerald McRaney’s appears in the film; a pleasant blast from the past. 2.) Jessica Biel is better in the film than she is in the trailers. 3.) Newcomer Brian Bloom turns in a funny and legitimately menacing performance. The role is a by-the-numbers crazy mercenary bad guy, but Bloom pulls it off pretty well. I expect to see more of this guy. (Fun factoid: he also co-wrote the script.) 4.) Stay through to the end of the credits.

Quality movies have been hard to come by at the multiplex this summer (all year if you want to be technical), so if you've been avoiding the movies lately due to crap selection and just want to go and see something fun, this is your ride.

2.) The Fountain. Possibly the exact opposite of ‘The A-Team’. I DVRed this off HBO and watched it over a couple days. I’m of two minds about "The Fountain". On one hand it’s not the kind of movie I usually like. It’s plodding, self-serious, and depressing as all hell. It’s a wonder it was ever made; even more wondrous Brad Pitt was for so long attached and ready to star. But on the other hand, the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), manages some moments of profundity in ‘The Fountain’ that are almost never seen in films outside of the art-house, and even then only rarely. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz star as Tommy and Izzi, a married couple trying to deal with Izzy’s worsening disease while Tommy, a researcher/surgeon, works tirelessly to find a treatment that could cure her.

Pretty much everything else about the movie seems open to interpretation. Tommy’s overweening desire to keep Izzy alive may be an eternal struggle his soul has grappled with for centuries, life after reincarnated life. The first of these lives is Tomas's (also played by Jackman), a Ponce de Leon-like Conquistador, looking to find the fountain of youth. But is what we see of Tomas's life in Spain and later in the New World truly memories of a past life, or are they just scenes from Izzy’s unfinished novel, or both? Is Tom Creo, the future reincarnation of Tommy who floats in a bubble with the tree that grew from Izzy’s grave, actually an immortal Tommy still trying to save his wife? Or is this some elaborate vision Tommy's having on his own death-bed? Or is all of it a vision the Conquistador Tomas has on top of the Mayan temple? Are we even meant to take this all literally? I’d have to see it a few more times to attempt any kind of interpretation and I doubt I'm up to sitting through all those monkey-skull-cutting and Rachel-Weisz-on-her-deathbed scenes to get there, but I do concede it is gratifying to see a movie that rewards thought. Kind of like Transformers 2. Anyway, like I said, I'm of two minds on this movie. Couple things I liked in particular: 1.) The music is incredible. Elegiac and moving. Clint Mansell's done a great job here. 2.) Hugh Jackman. I was never quite sure Jackman could act until I saw this movie. He does good work in everything he does, of course, but I didn't know he could really play any moment required of him until this. He is amazing in 'The Fountain' and deserves better than the likes of that abyssmal Wolverine movie, or the final X-Men sequel. 3.) Aronofsky's ambition. Even though I don't think this movie totally works, I admire Aronofsky for going there and committing so many years of his career to seeing this go in front of cameras. I wish Hollywood had more directors out there willing to go as hard as they can to realize their vision. You know, like Brett Ratner. For students of film, definitely worth seeing. For a fun way to pass a couple hours, this one isn't it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"The Special Relationship"

I watched a new movie on HBO last weekend called ‘The Special Relationship’. Starring Michael Sheen as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Dennis Quaid as President Bill Clinton, the movie depicts the relationship between the two men through some of the most important moments of their political careers.

Covering the period of US-UK politics from 1996 to 2001, “The Special Relationship’ opens with Blair and Clinton meeting for the first time at the White House months before Blair’s election to 10 Downing, and closes during their farewell meeting at Blair’s country estate, the end of Bush v Gore playing out as a backdrop. In between these events, filmmakers depict the highs of their partnership (working towards peace in Northern Ireland), as well as the lows (their pitched disagreements over the use of force against Serbia). The result is not a bad way to spend a couple hours if the politics of that time interest you, but even for political junkies the difficulty of trying to shoehorn their generally unremarkable reigns into a movie does show from time to time.

It begins promisingly enough. Blair is ushered into the Oval Office for his first meeting with Clinton and finds Bill nowhere to be seen. Turns out he's in the side office talking to some foreign head of state. Political nerds (and readers of Ken Starr's entry into the canon of high pornography) will recognize the small office as the site of many an encounter with a certain intern, but for the first meeting of these two heavyweights in a movie that's about their working relationship, it's pretty tepid. Then Clinton and Blair have a chat about the eponymous "special relationship" between their two countries, a concept Clinton casually dismisses, reciting a short list of countries who can actually claim to have any such relationship with the US. In this scene, though, you do get a sense of how these two men perceived themselves as world leaders helping to usher in a leftward and perhaps permanent shifting in the Western political landscape. Heady stuff. Of course the scene is set before the scandals of Clinton's impeachment and Blair's illegal war-making, but even still, their optimism doesn't seem naive. In a better movie, this scene might have had the feel of tragedy.

The only really interesting theme the movie explores, and even this is done in an undramatic, too-subtle-by-half fashion, is the idea that the character of Tony Blair rather than George W Bush's powers of persuasion brought Britain so completely into the Iraq War. They show this through Blair's almost messianic belief in the power of strong nations to help the victimized around the world, specifically those being ethnically cleansed in the former Yugoslavia. It was this world-view that put Blair at loggerheads with Clinton over the deployment of ground forces in Bosnia: Blair wanted them, Clinton didn't. So when Bush came around looking for allies to help him oust "the guy who tried to kill [his] dad," Tony Blair was hardly just along for the ride. The movie suggests Bush was just the kind of American president Tony Blair had been looking for.

Michael Sheehan, who seems to have been given an unspoken but unbreakable lifetime contract to play Tony Blair in all films, does competent work here, but one wonders at times if Blair was really quite so innocent and bright-eyed as the movie suggests. Dennis Quaid, who admirably gained some weight to play Clinton, goes halfway towards an impression of the former president, but then steps back to create a scowling, self-serious Clinton-character who never really rings true.

Hope Davis, however, who plays Hillary Clinton, needs to talk to Sheehan's agents about securing one of his lifetime contracts on playing a living human being, because she nails Hillary so well I wouldn't like to see anyone else give an attempt. From her barking laugh, to the prim honor-student persona she cultivated in those early days who could be both steely and feminine, Davis gets it scary-right. It's helpful of course that Davis and Hillary resemble each other, and that Davis, who seems to specialize in sour, waspy characters, is playing the Queen Bee of sour disaffection. But even if it seems easy, it's not; the mind-image of Hillary Clinton we all have fades into the background as we watch Davis channel Hillary, and that's no easy trick.

Overall 'The Special Relationship" has the feel of a weak prologue to some eventual Tony Blair bio-pic, and prologues generally don't make for good feature films. I'd mark this as for political junkies only.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Nude Tayne

Now I need to see everything Tim and Eric have done because this is hilarious. I especially love the moment when Paul Rudd gets the version of Tayne he asks for.

And yeah, I just got this off of Facebook.

Note: It doesn't show on the blog very well, so to see it in its full glory, please just click on the video to go to the YouTube page. Or just click here.

Hardly Worth Posting

Well. Work is dead and I’ve got an hour before I can leave. So here's some random stuff.

1.) Peter Travers of Rolling Stone has weighed in on ‘Iron Man 2’. For a new TV spot, the studio's excerpted his review into this blurb: “It’s a blast from start to finish!” I know people could scour his reviews to find some ecstatic reviews of awful movies, but I think he’s right more often than not. So I now have a reasonable hope ‘Iron Man 2’ will be fun. In related news, I’m also pretty hyped about the teaser-trailer the studio’s running with ‘Iron Man 2” for the new JJ Abrams/Spielberg collaboration “Super 8”.You can read more here. Or just wait till tomorrow and see it at the theater. If it comes out anything as good as "Cloverfield" I'll be happy.

2.) I’m close to finishing Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’, which I’ve been reading since… time began? Yeah, since about then. 850 pages down, 200 more to go! She's pretty good at the whole writing thing. She’s got me, a diehard Progressive, looking forward to the inevitable moment when the "looters" (basically New Deal Democrats) beg the striking industrialists and self-starters (True Men and Women) to come back to work and, with their genius and pure hearts, save the looters' worthless asses from the ruined world they’ve created through taxes and welfare.

That's it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kick Ass

Saw "Kick Ass" on Friday night. I haven't been this disappointed by a movie I expected to be good since "Jurassic Park." The film is getting 75% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which actually matches, roughly, how much of the movie I liked. But I think the 25% I disliked just did this movie in for me.

I'm going to put the blame for this disappointment squarely on my shoulders as I made the mistake of reading the source material a few weeks prior to the film's opening weekend. The source material, the first 8 issues of a comic series written by the current hotshit comic-book writer Mark Millar and penciled by John Romita Jr., is fantastic. It amped up my expectations for the film pretty high because it was already a pretty great screenplay and expertly "shot". The comic is exactly what the film's marketers said the movie would be: violent as hell, laugh out-loud hilarious and original. Well, as it turns out, the film's marketers were overstating their case a bit. "Kick Ass", directed by Matthew Vaughn and co-written by the comic's originator, Millar, is violent and there are some funny moments, but in the end this movie doesn't have the courage of its convictions.

"Kick Ass" follows teenager Dave Lizewski, a normal dorky kid who, like a lot of folks, defines himself by which movies, TV shows and comics he likes. And he, like his other dorky friends, is enduring the savage Darwinian landscape that is his high-crime outer-borough New York high-school. After the last in a series of routine muggings, Lizewski decides to answer the question he puts to his friends one day at their local hang-out -- "Why hasn't anyone tried to be a superhero?" -- by becoming one himself. His first run-in with criminals ends disastrously, but gives him powers of a sort -- the inability to feel pain, a skull outfitted with metal plates, and bones reinforced with steel rods. When a beating he gives a group of thugs (only slightly less vicious than the one he takes) is captured on a cell phone video and posted to YouTube, he becomes an overnight sensation -- kind of a hybrid of Tay Zonday and Capt. Sully: Kick-Ass is both absurd and heroic. But Kick-Ass's exploits also capture the attention of some seriously bad guys, who find ways to make his life hell, and trust me, it gets hellish.

"Kick Ass," the way Mark Millar orginally conceived the idea in the comic, is all about the idea of matching up the fantasy of superheroing against the reality of modern life. To do this, he mashes-up the Spider-Man and Batman mythologies and creates Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass is like Spider-Man because Lizewski is a teenage dork like Peter Parker, and Kick-Ass is like Batman because Lizewski is fighting crime armed with nothing more than his fists and non-lethal gadgetry.

In the comic, Millar has Lizewski beaten to a pulp and nearly killed in his very first crime-fighting attempt. The only way Lizewski has success in his later crime-stopping forays (and it is minimal) is because of the medical Weapon-X-ization he undergoes. In the end, Lizewski finds out that once the surface glamor of celebrity wears off, crime-fighting is a grisly, soul-killing, nightmarish enterprise, and not at all what the comics suggest it is. The comics are what they've always been: fantasy. Lizewski doesn't even get the girl (is, in fact, publicly humiliated by his version of MJ). Crime-fighting, in a word, sucks.

The makers of the film, however, only half-bought into the premise. The celebrity of being a superhero must be cool, but the reality of being a super-hero is ... also really cool? To me, that's a different story than the one that got me enthused, and not a very interesting one.

I won't exhaustively list the ways the comic improves on the movie (I'm already being annoyingly geeky as it is), but I think, overall, the things Vaughn and the writers excised from the comic all had the effect of cutting the heart out of what made the comic so refreshing. From the way they altered the relationship between Lizewski and his dream girl Katie, to the way they changed Big Daddy's back story (played by Nicholas Cage, making some interesting choices, as usual), the decisions seem to have been made with a mind to make "Kick Ass" a more standard superhero movie, to its detriment.

But then again, I'm not sure I can really fault the filmmakers for this impulse. "Watchmen," the last superhero-deconstructionist film released, was made with an overarching reverence for the source comic (with one glaring squidly exception), and its failure made all future comic-book adaptations vulnerable to being second-guessed by thoughtless studio execs for perpetuity. As soon as the 2nd weekend grosses for "Watchmen" came in, the fate of movies like "Kick Ass" was sealed. The almost-was-ness of "Kick Ass" was that earlier failure's first casualty.

A few other notes.

Aaron Johnson, who played Kick-Ass/ Dave Lizewski, was perfectly cast in this and does a great job. Conversely, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, (better known as McLovin') seemed miscast, and was never really believable as the son of a mafia don. His reading of the last line of the film was actually cringe-worthy.

The CG was, at times, very bad. One character who was set on fire looked as if he'd actually just conjured a ghost-fire in a seance. The moment this movie lost me completely can be described in one word, a piece of equipment I won't write here as it's a spoiler. But you'll know what I mean when you see it. And besides what the appearance of that bit of equipment told me about where the movie had decided to go thematically, it was also just badly done from an FX standpoint.

Given everything I've blabbed about above, the idea that I liked 75% of this movie doesn't seem to ring true, but I really was into this movie for a good while. Honest. I'm not even against alterations from quality source material for the good of a film, but when the scene between Kick-Ass and Katie Deauxma in her bedroom did a 180 from the comic and became, in essence, a dream sequence (I really thought the next cut would be to Dave in his own room, waking from a dream), the movie lost me and we never got together again. There was no reason to make that change other than fiscal reasons, and those rarely inform good creative decisions. (And given the sub-20 million box office in its opening weekend, maybe the studio guys should have let Vaughn and Millar hew closer to the original story which was, as I said before, camera ready from the get-go.)

Also: Why no "tunk" joke?! That would have frickin' killed!

Anyway, wish it had been a better film. Maybe I'm being too hard on it - it did a lot of stuff right. Maybe I just need to lay off the source material for film adaptations until after I see a movie. Or maybe I need to see fewer movies with a sister who says things in the middle of a movie like "It kinda got boring, didn't it?". I don't know.

(Just kiddin' S, you're great.)

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Unilluminating Inanities Facts

After an unusually long period of effectiveness the Google/Blogger spam-filters stopped working some months ago. Or maybe the spammers finally figured out whatever trick Google had employed to keep them at bay. Whatever the case, I've been getting a lot of junk spam comments on a lot of my old blog posts of late, but none more than this one, my "Men Who Stare at Goats" review post. Right now it's got 83 comments, all of which appear to be in Japanese. Most have a helpful link to some Japanese adult sites. The spammers are also enjoying commenting on my Asheville post. 23 so far on that one.

Thought I'd share.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Winter is Coming

HBO has officially picked up George RR Martin's "Game of Thrones" for a full 10-episode season

From the Hollywood Reporter:

Winter is, indeed, coming.

HBO has greenlighted highly anticipated fantasy series "Game of Thrones."

The premium network has picked up the project for a first season debut next spring (below is the first released photo from the series). Nine episodes plus the pilot have been ordered. Production will begin in Belfast this June.

From the moment the project was first announced in development, the series based on the George R.R. Martin novels has generated enormous, perhaps unprecedented, online interest for a series at such an early stage.

The sprawling tale set in the mythical land of Westeros tells the story of the noble Stark family who become caught up in high court intrigue when patriarch Eddard (played by Sean Bean) becomes the king's new right-hand man. The four-and-counting books in the series would each be used as one season of the series.

Unlike many fantasy novels, the "Thrones" series largely avoids relying on magical elements and instead goes for brutal realism -- think "Sopranos" with swords. Martin, a former TV writer ("Beauty and the Beast"), writes each chapter as a cliffhanger, which should lend itself well to series translation. David Benioff and Dan Weiss are the series creators.

That image above is the first one released to the public. Bad things have clearly happened there in the snow. Sadly, more bad things will happen soon.

The first episode will air next Spring, which is damn far away, but plenty of time for me to save my pennies and sign up for some pay cable for 10 weeks. I'm telling you folks, if this series is half as good as the first book in this series, people are going to go nuts for this. Can't wait.

In fact, do yourself a favor: click it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

New Car!

The wife and I bought an '07 Prius from a CarMax on Saturday.

We'd been circling and circling the new Honda Insight, test driving it a couple times at different dealerships, but at the end of the day, we just didn't want to eat the depreciation costs that come with a new car. But we weren't exactly thrilling to the idea of a used car. Obvious financial benefits to going used, sure, but not as fun as being the very first owner of a car. So if we did go used, it'd have to be something that would keep us away from the wallet-rapists that dwell in auto-repair garages nationwide for a very long time. The memories of what was done to us to keep the Crown Vic running the last couple years are still fresh in our minds. So with the loan approval set to expire soon, the wife did a little looking on-line and found some newish Priuses with low mileage at a CarMax across town. We went, test drove, and said yes to becoming a two-car household again. Yay!

[And yes, it is a Toyota but no, it is not under recall. Yet. We're not really worried about the acceleration problem: folks who've run the numbers say Toyota drivers have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than experiencing uncontrolled acceleration. Of course it was my good buddy Akio Toyoda who told me that, but he's always been so open and candid with me and really everyone since I've known him, I feel like I can trust it.]

Some fun facts about the new car:
1.) When I drove out to my folks' house to show them the car, we drove 62 miles. Our average mpg on the way over: 57 mpg. A little more than a gallon. Of course the Prius gets amazing mileage when you're essentially coasting downhill, and since my folks appear to be much closer to sea level than I am, I basically just steered over there. It usually averages in the high 40s. So much better than the 15 mpg I got with the Crown Vic.

2.) To put the Prius in park, you press the 'park' button. Those thousands of minutes wasted and untold millions of calories expended to shove a metal stick jutting out of the steering column from one groove to another is now, finally, a thing of the past.

3.) And just when you thought I couldn't get lazier, to turn this thing on and off? Another button. Push-button start folks. Prius understands me. Prius gets how much I hate putting a key in the ignition and turning it.

4.) Reverse camera. When I back up, I see what the back of my car sees. No more backing up over bikes, cats, and toddlers. Also next time I go to the drive-in, I can back up to the screen, put it in reverse, and watch the magic of movies unfold on my dash display! Nevermind the bright white reverse lights or the unceasing beep beep sounds my car will make.

Now these features are by no means new to the automotive world, but they are quite new to me, so I feel like I've stepped into the future of cars. And the gas mileage! Who knew I hated to buy gas this much? But I do. And who needs smug liberal bumper stickers when you drive a Prius? Smug liberal is basically implied. But then again, cost-conscious conservatives also love them some fuel economy. People of all political stripes can get into this thing. Anyway, we're both enjoying the new car.

Also, total digression:

Everytime I go the NYTimes website, in the lower right-hand corner I see this photo and it's really messing with me. Thought I'd share with the group.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Internet Age's Airbrush Virtuosos Bring You a Megan Fox Time-Lapse

This is pretty amazing. Starting with a blank PhotoShop canvas, this guy, Nico DiMatttia, re-creates a very nearly photo-realistic still of Megan Fox from one of the Transformers movies. It's a time-lapse of the process and it lasts 5 minutes.

One thing I've learned from artists like this is that when you get to a certain level of mastery, skilled artists, especially those who work in paint (real and virtual), are not horrified or discouraged when the image they're creating looks like hell in the early stages. Whenever I work in color and I get my image into the looks-like-hell stage, I'm never really able to bring it out of it. I just need to practice like this guy! Anyway, worth a look (or let it load and just watch the last little bits to see how he finishes it off.)

One question to consider: did Nico choose Megan Fox as his subject for the 7-8 hours it took him to do this because he's a savvy artist and knew Megan would get his YouTube more total views, or did he choose her because he's kind of a cheeseball and the absolute best thing he could think of to spend 7-8 hours drawing in excruciating detail on PhotoShop was Megan Fox? I don't know. We report. You decide.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Shutter Island" and "A Gate at the Stairs"

I saw "Shutter Island" on Friday.

Sorry. I've told you too much already.

Anyway! I also finished a novel by Lorrie Moore called "A Gate at the Stairs." I don't know much about Ms. Moore beyond what the NY Times Book Review has told me, which is that she's an amazing writer and her last book was published more than ten years ago and ever since critics and literary types have been wringing their hands and drooling over the prospect of the next Lorrie Moore book. So in 2009, "The Gate at the Stairs" appeared and, based on the critical response, it exceeded already high expectations. So I had to pick it up.

The day after I started this book I was having a MSN chat with the owner and operator of the blog and told him I was reading this book. I gave a brief (and fairly lame) description of the premise -- "A college girl takes a babysitting job" -- and he came back with some quotes from the book (taken from the internet I assume) which, admittedly, made it sound like a pretty bad book. It was pretty funny. But, despite it's young adult genre premise, "Gate" is actually a brilliant, complex and adult novel. And the writing itself, Hinesy's choice quotes aside, is actually one of the best things about it. Warm, legitimately funny, and really really smart.

The plot, roughly, concerns a college freshman in Wisconsin named Tassie. Looking for a job to keep her finances afloat while "studying" (her class-load amounts to a damning comment on the state of higher education -- in addition to wine-tasting and an intro to sufism, there's a class on war movie scores), she takes a job with a restaurant-owner/chef named Sarah Brink who doesn't have children, but is in the final stages of adopting a child. Sure enough, Sarah adopts a mixed-race toddler girl and Tassie comes on as a full-time nanny.

Assuredly bad and tragic things happen, but one of the things I liked best about the book, the thing I'll probably remember most clearly happens late in the novel, when Sarah Brink tells Tassie a story about her past. In as straight-forward a book as this, where there's no grand historical setting to rely on for mood or atmospherics, and there are no otherworldly entities to contend with when the action slows down, Moore's creation of suspense building up to the telling of this story is masterful. And she does it by putting everything into creating real characters who you come to care about and she does it all without the reader feeling the strain of her effort. As much as I'd like to lay out the secret Brink shares with Tassie, (it is devastating and beautifully told), I won't, but I will say it was nice to set the book aside afterward, get some fresh air, and reassure myself that what she'd described hadn't actually happened.

I also liked Moore's quietly scathing depiction of the adoption industry, showing that in many instances it's simply a form of legalized child-buying. After years and years of seeing adoption held up as the regret-free option for women who find themselves pregnant, it was interesting to have an adoption presented that was as emotionally damaging to the mother as the anti-choice people say abortions always are. That is not to say Moore paints the adoption process as inherently traumatic or bad, but I think she takes pains to show it as it is: an imperfect system that often seems to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Anyway, I'm on a good-book roll with this and "2666" just before it.

Here's the one I'm into now:

It's hardcore fantasy. Not normally what I'd pick up on my own without some strong word of mouth, but the New Yorker told me that it's one of the best fantasy books written so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm 50 pages into this one, and I'm not sure my good book readin' roll's going to continue. Time will tell and I'll let you know.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I finished reading "2666" this morning. The wife went to the Capitol Building this morning to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood and because we are a one-car household now (we sold the Crown Victoria a couple of weeks ago) and she had to be in downtown Atlanta early, I got dropped off at Panera at 7AM this morning. Two solid hours of reading time. So I lasered in, strapped on some headphones, pressed play on my "Prestige" soundtrack playlist and got to scraping paper with corneas.

"2666" is the last novel written by a man named Roberto Bolano. When he finished it, he was not well-known in the English-speaking world, but after he died and his translations started percolating through the literary world, his fame grew and he's now considered one of the best writers of the last 50 years. If I feel a vague sadness Bolano's not alive to enjoy this justly earned attention or, more selfishly, to talk more about this and his other books, then I can't imagine what his loss must be like for the critics and fellow artists who recognize without question how important Bolano is. Reading "2666" gives one the sense that a writer of Dosteovsky's stature managed to come in and go out of this world without anyone being the wiser. At least that is the sense I have less than 24 hours out after finishing it.

I don't know what I want to say about it. Much of the action is set in a Mexican border town called Santa Theresa, a stand-in for La Cuidad de Juarez, one of the most dangerous places on earth. Juarez is primarily dangerous because of the warring drug cartels. The murder rate in the city is unimaginably high. But the sense of menace in Bolano's Juarez stand-in, Santa Theresa, is of a completely different nature, and the dread he infuses his fictional city with makes it unlike anything I've encountered in my limited reading. He makes it a legitimately scary place. Maybe to some small degree the Venice of McEwan's "In the Company of Strangers" is comparable, but that book is small and its effects limited, an hors d'Ĺ“uvre to "2666"'s 9-course meal.

Much of that menace comes from what's going on in Santa Theresa. Women are being murdered. More than a hundred at least and all by the same killer or killers. In one of the five books that comprise the novel, the murders are the focus. So much so that they almost become... not a character but a fixture -- a certainty of that world so woven into the background that the constancy of the killings becomes almost darkly soothing, and when the murders temporarily stop the reader is unsettled. Each crime scene is explicated with the cold finality of police reports. The sadistic, savage brutality done to their bodies before and after the women expired is listed with that cruel phrasing common to documents of that kind. And because Bolano details the crime scene of every single murder so exhaustively -- and I didn't count but there must have been a hundred -- you can almost feel the threat of violence, particularly violence against women, hanging in the air. And if your faith in the goodness of man feels significantly degraded after finishing this book, I think Bolano's intention's been achieved. But you don't begrudge him because he's done it so masterfully. And also because you can't argue the point.

I just wrote yesterday that I was getting myself into trouble by writing long entries, thinking they all have to be long, and make some kind of point, and here I go writing and writing and eating up all of this evening time, and so far none of it's coming to anything, but I need to see if I can say a little of what I want to say about this book.

The first of the five books is about a group of literary scholars who've all become expert in the critical studies of one author: a reclusive German named Benno von Archimboldi. The second book follows a journalist in Santa Theresa who's covering a boxing match in the city, the third a professor n the city who meets with the scholars (maybe switch the last two), the fourth the murders, and the fifth is a short biography of the author Archimboldi, the writer the four scholars never locate though they search their whole lives.

There are moments during the fourth book (or "Parts" as they're called) where the thought crosses the mind that the author almost no one's seen might be the one killing these women. This idle wondering loses some of its potency as the numbers of dead women increase and then increase some more and we come to see that no one man, particularly a tall old white man who speaks only German, could do all of this killing in Mexico and not be caught after the second body's discovered. But as the fifth part unwinds, the biography of Archimboldi, the thought sneaks back in at certain points before drifting out of feasibility again, and then he shocks you by producing a legitimate connection between the old German writer and the killings in Santa Theresa and you realize that he's pulled it all off somehow. It's been a highwire act for hundreds of pages and he's made it work without our even realizing.

But really the whole book is like this. He's got this thing going where he gets the reader established into narrative patterns -- whether its the murders or the patterns of behavior the literary scholars fall into -- and the patterns lull the reader into a kind of boredom that's not really boredom. And with the reader safely lulled, Bolano's able to subtly suggest and hint at things that may or may not be relevant to the plot so that some of the same absent, purposeless thought patterns that characterize our way of thinking in everyday life are almost forcibly replicated by Bolano and confined inside the world of the story. So that while reading the reader is thinking in the same way about the events of the story as one of the characters in the novel might be. (Or maybe this is just something all great literature does or can do. Not sure.) This lulling also allows the author to drop allusions and clues to events detailed more fully later in the novel so subtly that as the reader presses forward, the story resonates without it being fully clear why it's resonating. It's almost as though Bolano is throughout this novel implanting a feeling of deja vu designed to blossom with visceral force 200 pages later.

There's more to write but I've gone on and on as it is. A fascinating, brilliant book and one I think will get better with time and re-reading.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Back from the Dead and, Apropo of Nothing, eBook Pricing!

I had a whole post going about what's been going on for most of the month of January (and the last week of December), but then I started to take too long to make some obscure point and that one's just not getting published.

So the long absence has been down to a few things. Primarily some surgeries in the family, one planned and one not so much. Everyone's fine now, but as neither went off cleanly, it was harrowing for a few weeks there.

I've also attempted to revive some good habits, and start some new ones. Writing regularly being the former, and regular physical activity the latter. Mixed results for both, but the time required for both eats into blog time.

So as I don't like this thing to be a red frog, I've decided I should blog more often, but I've also decided that I shouldn't have to think each post, or even every third post has to be well-written or thought out or even very interesting to put up on here. (I can hear some of you asking how that's different in any way than what's come before and, man, that stings.) If 'good enough' is the new 'great', 'not that good' is the new 'good enough'. Right?

Anyway, onto the aforementioned 'not that good'.

So for Christmas my mom got one of the new e-book readers. The Sony Reader. It's pretty good. She had Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" loaded up on there, which helps, and reading through the first pages of that went fine. The device is intuitive and simple. The surface technology, the way the user interfaces with the machine, doesn't appear to have changed that much since they first came out but I think it has wider-ranging capabilities now than it used to. The sorts of files it can display for example. But it's lighter than a heavy book and, like my mom said, it's easier to find a comfortable position to read in when all you have to worry about is this little screen. So definite advantages.

Leaving aside for a moment whether these things will kill paper-based books, or even whether it's okay if they do, what about the price per ebook? The consumer-friendly price that Amazon set back when they introduced the Kindle was $9.99 for most new bestsellers, much less for classics (which are often free).

That appears to be changing. From the NYTimes:
"In the battle over the pricing of electronic books, publishers appear to have won the first round. The price of many new releases and best sellers is about to go up, to as much as $14.99 from $9.99."
Is a digital file of, say, Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" really worth $14.99? That price is essentially just $10 bucks off the price of an actual, holdable, lendable, throwable hardcover, and usually that discount comes out to a bit less when you consider how deeply some chain bookstores discount the stuff that really sells. To anyone reading who's got an e-reader, is the $14.99 per e-book a show-stopper or is it still fairly reasonable? Does anyone think this could be a feint, a trial balloon from the publisher and e-tailers to see how far buyers will go to load up their e-readers?

So how's the 'not that good' posting strategy going so far?