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Category: Culture

Sports metaphors would be lazy

Summerland rules.

It absolutely, completely sings. I could sling around quotes all day, but suffice it to say that Chabon’s prose is elegantly clear, without unnecessary flourish or artifice. He’s got the knack of writing about the mythic without seeming pretentious or overwrought. People sound like people, even when they’re saying important things. “A baseball game is nothing but a great contraption to get you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer afternoon.” Yeah. I love the way he takes the sting out of the eloquence by deliberately dropping back into the vernacular with “get you to pay attention.” A lesser writer would have said “to force you to pay attention,” or used some other more grammatical construction.

On top of that, the structure of the book is beautiful. He’s said he was trying to do Susan Cooper for America, and I think he’s come pretty close. Baseball is the central metaphor, but it is not a book about baseball; I fell into the assumption that I was reading a book that would follow the usual sports tropes and was thus pleasantly flabbergasted at the climax.

I must also give Chabon credit for writing about the real American gods. Sorry, Neil. Gaiman’s characters claim that “This is a bad land for Gods,” but Chabon defuses such criticism and writes of The Tall Man with the Knife in His Boot and reminds us that yes. We do have our own myths. It is not necessary to paper the walls of America with faded gods of other lands.

Even his Coyote is pretty solid. He occupies the most malevolent corner of the Trickster continuum, but that’s OK. It’s good to be reminded that Coyote isn’t a benevolent god, just a god who mostly has good intentions.

I was probably fated to love this book from the moment Chabon casually mentioned a Hellboy T-shirt, catching the attention of my geek side, but everything else about Summerland was perfect too.

Arrogance with a side of guitar

I saw the most egotistical band in the world last night. It’s hard to top the arrogance of calling yourself The Band, but they did it; these guys call themselves The Music. Bold claim. I can’t say they entirely lived up to it.

Not that it was bad stuff, mind you. They’re unapologetic straight-ahead guitar-driven British hard rock, with a lead singer (Robert Harvey) who looks like Frodo and sounds like a youthful Robert Plant. The lead guitarist, Adam Nutter, derives his style from Hawkwind, and the rhythm section — Stuart Coleman on bass, and Phil Jordan on drums — seems antsy every time they have to slow below a hundred beats per minute. All very good and effective.

At their best moments, they have this interesting multilayered effect. Phil’s cranking out rock solid beats at a pace which threatens to overrun the rest of the band, Stuart’s hitting his notes with mechanically lovely precision, Adam’s journeying off in a completely different direction with waves of space-noise feedback, and Robert’s crooning shallow lyrics with utter conviction. The thing is, it’s like walls leaning against each other and happening to provide mutual support: they don’t seem to have any particular relation to each other, and it’s just luck that it forms a coherent whole. Maybe it’s as if the last four Led Zeppelin fans on Earth met in the ruins and decided to play a gig without rehearsing. Interesting stuff.

Unfortunately, sometimes our metaphorical walls don’t support each other and it all comes crashing down. Other times, the songs sound like they were written for no better reason than to support a cool combination of riffs and drum beats. The pieces are there, but the coherent whole can be lacking.

Then again, these guys are all under twenty, so it’s hard to fault ‘em too much. If they make it past the hype phase, they ought to be just fine. The official story is that they just randomly hooked up and formed a band out of boredom, but Robert’s voice is too good for that sort of coincidence; I suspect their metoric rise through the UK pop charts was planned. Like I said, there’s going to be a hype phase. Still, there’s also the potential for something else beyond that.

In other words, it was well worth the ten bucks.

Knock knock

Knockaround Guys is probably the last chance you’ll get to see Vin Diesel in a supporting role for a while, but that’s not why you want to see it. You want to see it because it’s a nifty little ensemble drama with a nasty sense of humor and a tight story structure. Sure, Vin is good and he gets to beat people up, but Barry Pepper and Seth Green and Andrew Davoli are pretty good too. Dennis Hopper’s kind of phoning it in, but John Malkovich is delightful. Solid stuff.

The guys who wrote and directed this also wrote Rounders, which I thought was really good if you cut away the obligatory romance bit. Knockaround Guys has no romance, and thus is free to be purely what it is. It’s a Mafia movie in the sense that the Mafia is the context within which the characters operate, but it’s not about the Mafia in the way that (say) Goodfellas was about the Mafia. It’s about friendship and manhood and other such manly matters… oh, hell, I’ll just say it. It’s a coming of age movie.

But it does have some good fight scenes.

Dragon dragon burning bright

Red Dragon was just kind of there. Excellent cast, decent enough acting, and the story is strong; alas, the movie didn’t do much for me. Most reviewers have mentioned that Manhunter was a better movie, and it was. But Red Dragon is not so much laboring under the weight of Manhunter as it is crushed under the weight of Silence of the Lambs. Here and there, entire sequences are lifted from Demme’s masterpiece. Brett Ratner did his best to recreate Silence, and he produced something fairly creepy and somewhat enjoyable, but in the process he lost track of what made Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon different than his Silence of the Lambs. Will Graham is not Clarice Starling, and the cracks in their psyches are of a very different nature. The cinematic Red Dragon forgets that Graham’s personal fear is his similarities to the monsters he hunts, and attempts to treat him as though he merely shared Clarice Starling’s fear of failure. But it’s not failure he fears at all. It’s too much success that gives him nightmares.


In a spate of weakness and nostalgia, I picked up Callahan’s Key earlier this week. (I am riding the bus to work these days, which means I get to read all the good books I haven’t gotten around to yet. But also that I run out of books to read.)

Sum total of information imparted is this: Key West was a great place to live in 1989, and the current owners of the marina at which Travis McGee docked are ignorant idiots. Thanks, Spider!

Normally I’d review the plot, but when one of the characters has the power to be amazingly lucky, there’s not really much point in the narrative. Events occur, and by fortunate coincidence, they’re the right events at the right time. Quel surprise.

My brain hurts, Brian!

Spirited Away rocked my jammies all night long. The sheer visual imagination contained therein would have been enough on its own, but the plot was fairly interesting. I mean, sure, it was aimed at a younger audience but it was more of a plot than your average summer blockbuster. So good plot, amazing animation, insanely rich style — think of it as The Wall for kids, and you won’t go far wrong. See it today.

Side note: I caught the dubbed version; normally I’m not a big fan of the dub but in this case it worked very well. John Lasseter, director of Toy Story and all around Pixar genius, supervised the dubbing and did an excellent job.

Take me down

I saw Igby Goes Down last week, and came out in a morosely sad mood. Some reviewers were not entirely thrilled by the New York upper class milieu in which the story plays out, so fair warning: if you don’t particular care about rich kids with problems, it’s not the movie for you.

That said, Kieran Culkin is absolutely great as the lead character, and the rest of the cast is solid. The director, Burr Steers, got Ryan Phillippe to play the role he knows how to play; he’s the same spoiled brat we saw in Cruel Intentions. Amanda Peet gets a similar boost from good casting. Igby’s parents, played by Susan Sarandon and Bill Pullman, are just solid. And the best of all is Jeff Goldblum, playing an emotionless affable friend of the family, breaking beautifully away from the roles he’s been doing in summer blockbusters for the last few years.

The movie is set in a bit of a fantasy New York (see comments above). I don’t think I ever saw anyone wearing anything less than elegant; the one shot of a bus ride is cleverly handled from outside the bus so as to avoid boring us with the passengers. Steers comes from the same background as young Igby, and he really gets the glossy perfection of it down pat. I think this is intentional; it’s not that Steers doesn’t know poverty exists, but we’re seeing the world through Igby’s eyes, and Igby has no concept of real suffering.

In other words, the movie works on two levels. There’s the relatively straight-forward story of Igby’s coming of age — you may insert the obligatory Holden Caulfield reference here if you like — but there’s also the bitter satire of the world in which he lives. I think, in the end, it’s the latter that left me feeling moody and sad.

I caught Blood Work

I caught Blood Work last night at the Somerville Theatre. Much to my relief, the central theater is still there; I’d been worried because the listings showed five movies playing there at once, and in my previous Bostonian life, there was only a single large auditorium. But it seems they’ve simply added small screening rooms on the sides, and the main theater (with balcony) remains intact. Good.

Alas, the movie didn’t benefit from my resulting good mood. I hadn’t truthfully been expecting all so much, since I wasn’t overly fond of . The bones of the plot worked better on the screen than on the page for me, perhaps because Michael Conneley’s prose isn’t very fluid, but the acting in general wasn’t terribly strong. Jeff Daniels as the guy next door was good, and Eastwood himself was passable, but everyone else — even Angelica Huston — was strident and strained. Big drama with big declarations and horrendously arrhythmic patterns of speech. Not so good.

Again, the story is certainly solid and it’s a very clever idea for a mystery. The screenplay was by Brian Hegeland, who wrote L.A. Confidential, so I’m not surprised that the adaptation went well. The tension was there in theory. The actors simply let the script down.

So: skip. Maybe rent if you’re a real Eastwood fan.

Now that I've met you

I watched Magnolia again last night. Well. Part of it; I had forgotten, unsurprisingly, how harrowing it can be and it was rather late, so the whole three hours was not in the cards.

I actually hadn’t seen it since the first time I saw it, in the theater. After that three hours, I said to myself, “It’s going to be a while before I can watch this again.” I still agree with myself. On the other hand, I’m also even more certain that I need to, and that I want to, and that I want to think about Magnolia much much more.

I hadn’t appreciated the pure dry irony of opening with a monologue about coincidental connections; I got the coincidence, of course, but on rewatching I realized that it was the connections between people that were important. Ricky Jay’s not saying that he doesn’t believe in coincidence; he’s saying that he can’t bear to believe that people aren’t connected.

And then Aimee Mann sings “One,” and isolation comes crashing back down like a weighted shroud, settling over our mouths and hiding others from our sight.

“What Do Kids Know”: stylized interaction without real humanity. “Respect the Cock”: yearning for intimacy, but only achieving the semblance of same. “Oh — do you have Playboy? How about Penthouse? Do you have that magazine?”

When Phil Parma gives Earl Partridge the liquid morphine, he’s cutting him off from all contact. It’s the final blow, from which nobody can return. You can see it in Jason Robards’ eyes; he knows he’s leaving the world of humanity behind. He also thinks he deserves it. See his preceding monologue.

So in the following sequence, the “Wise Up” sequence, they’re singing to him. They’re telling him he can have absolution, if only he asks for it. It’s too late, yes, and he’s gone forever (mere moments before his son arrives to see him for the first time in years). But perhaps it’s not too late for them, and perhaps they are singing to themselves as well.

I’ll have to watch the whole thing before I can say anything sensible about the frogs.

Dreaming in pixels

Simone is a pretty good science fiction comedy, and I’d recommend seeing it before it leaves the theaters. I’d been looking forward to it for a while; Andrew Niccol directed Gattaca, which was one of the better SF movies of the 1990s. Since then, he wrote The Truman Show, confirming my belief that he has an understanding of deep SF themes.

One big difference between Simone and Gattaca is that Simone’s a comedy. Niccol had trouble getting into the rhythm of comedy early on, but fortunately he had Al Pacino (as Viktor Taransky) and Catherine Keener (as Elaine Christian) to smooth over those rough bits. The pair of them carry the movie over the early awkwardness, and the core themes of the movie take us the rest of the way.

Evan Rachel Wood, as Taransky’s daughter Lainey Christian, was not so good. I could have sworn she was in her twenties after seeing the movie, although she turns out to be just fifteen — but she plays the role very collected, very calm, and not really very much like a teenager. Come to think of it, several of the performances could be best described as “detached.”

That might perhaps be Niccol’s direction. Gattaca was very stylized and detached, and of course in some ways The Truman Show was a movie about detachment, so I’m willing to suspect that he brought that tendency to Simone. Again, though, Pacino and Keener humanize the movie, giving it the connection to the audience that a good comedy needs.

The ideas at the core of the movie are sound. Don’t expect accuracy of technology — even if we had the ability to do what’s depicted in Simone, the technology wouldn’t propagate in the same way. It’s a metaphor of a movie, not to be taken totally literally. (Which doesn’t make it not SF. See also The Space Merchants, for example.)

What’s the metaphor about? Identity, of course. The question at hand is not “will people be fooled by Simone,” but “what is Simone in relationship to Viktor Taransky?” It’s probably no surprise that I was fascinated.

I hope Andrew Niccol decides to make more comedies, and I hope he learned from watching his actors — his themes are always fascinating, and working in the comic genre gentles the sharp angles which his scripts all seem to have. But either way, I’m going to continue looking forward to everything he does.