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Month: December 2004

Parlous desires

Green Ronin’s new Black Company worldbook makes me want to run a five session game during which the PCs lose. Gritty fantasy, city under siege, that sort of thing. What can you do before you die?

Swimming in it

While it’s still fresh in my mind, and because I want to be an early adopter as far as observations on the Buckaroo Banzai homage go: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Wes Anderson comes from Houston. That makes Bottle Rocket a small jump, just a skip into the air and thump back down onto the pavement. Rushmore is more ambitious; it’s set in a world far away from Texas. But Wes Anderson did go to a Texan prep school. Not a huge leap. The Royal Tenenbaums? Now we’re talking; sure, it’s still in New York, but it’s further up, further separated from the world in which we live.

The Life Aquatic breaks the bonds of reality and soars.

Or separates; separation is certainly the theme. Steve Zissou and his wife, Steve Zissou and Ned Plimpton, Steve Zissou and the earth. (David Bowie songs and the English language.) People go to the sea, traditionally, to run away; I thought I saw some of that in this movie. It is on the surface an homage to Cousteau, but underneath that, I think Wes Anderson is using the undersea documentary genre as the largest signifier of Zissou’s isolation. Nothing’s more isolated than a submarine underwater.

Some feel that The Life Aquatic is too precious. I think it’s precious on purpose; I think that sense of separation we feel is intentional. It’s a way of getting us into Zissou’s head, aided and abetted by Bill Murray’s quietly ironic acting talent. Besides which, the 70s Merimekko aesthetic is beautiful. The only misstep is towards the end; there’s a scene in which Zissou learns something about forgiveness, as a result of which he learns something about the human touch. Sadly, it’s not quite enough to get us through the wall, perhaps because it’s set underwater.

On the other hand, the final homage to Buckaroo Banzai helps make the point. For a moment or two I was considering the entire movie as a remake of Buckaroo Banzai, but that’s wrong: the homage is a moment of contrast. The Hong Kong Cavaliers were a family in a way that Team Zissou was not through most of the movie. It’s not a key moment in the movie, but it’s a telling grace note.

Speaking of families, the movie is not the ensemble piece that The Royal Tenenbaums was. It’s a movie about Steve Zissou learning to — something. Not feel, not care about other people. Learning to express those things, perhaps. Learning to act on them? I think that last. So while all the supporting cast is great, it’s not their story. Jane Winslett-Richardson doesn’t get a resolution. I didn’t feel that was a flaw, mind you, I’d just hate for anyone to get their hopes up for the kind of complex interweave we’ve seen from Anderson elsewhere. It’s a different kind of movie, more an heir to Rushmore.

I had been feeling a little worried that the American magic realism directors were losing their touch, given that I thought Adaptation, I ♥ Huckabees, and Punch-Drunk Love were somewhat disappointing. (Not bad, but disappointing.) I am now reassured.

Merry Christmas

Some of the links are meaningful, some are tongue in cheek, and some are reaches. It’s my favorite Christmas song. Merry Christmas, y’all.

It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
And I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They’ve got cars
Big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the old

When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on the corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing
Out for Christmas day

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Living there almost dead on a drip
In that bed

You scum bag
You maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God
It’s our last

I could have been someone
So could anyone
You took my dreams
From me when I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

Ring a ding ding

If you happen to live in Boston and you’re that kind of obsessive, the Brattle Theater is showing the Lord of the Rings trilogy back to back to back on Sunday, January 2nd and Monday, January 3rd. Starting on the 7th, they’re reviewing some of the best movies of 2004, including Last Life In The Universe on the 7th, Takeshi’s Kitano’s Zatoichi on the 8th, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn on the 11th. Plus a lot of other good stuff. I’ve gotta make it to Before Sunset, myself.

Then on the 21st they’re showing Purple Butterfly, a new Zhang Ziyi movie. And at the end of the month it’s a David Lynch festival. Yeah, I do love Boston.

F for effort

There’s a montage in Blade: Trinity during which Jessica Biel and Wesley Snipes go out hunting for information. It’s really skillfully handled, with nimble wipes and split-screens and it conveys a lot of action in a very short amount of time. Truly, it’s one of the better montages I’ve seen in a while.

It is not the coolest thing Jessica Biel does in the movie. In her other fight scenes, she emotes in a way we don’t see often enough in action movies. She frowns in concentration, she grins to herself when she does something cool, she gets worried when her opponents are bigger than she is. It grounds her fights in reality, because she’s acting like they’re real efforts. I liked that a lot.

Also, it does not have any Ryan Reynolds, who carries off the neat trick of being both a smart-ass and a bad-ass throughout. He’s not a smart bad-ass, nor is he a bad smart-ass. He’s a smart-ass who kicks ass, authentically. And he’s a sidekick, which means he has to be a bad-ass without overshadowing the hero. I was impressed by him, and there’s none of him in the montage.

However, the montage was the best part of the movie and it is not a sufficient reason to see the movie, which is all I want to say about Blade: Trinity.

Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me

You know, for about the first half an hour or so I didn’t think I was going to like Garden State. Natalie Portman was doing such a great job of playing Sam, who was being a terribly annoying character. No, thought I, please no, please do not try to make me cheer for a relationship between this person and the affable Zach Braff, whom I am becoming fond of both for his portrayal of this Andrew Largeman and for his deft touch with suburban absurdism. I was saddened, because she was grating on me something fierce. I have little room in my heart for anyone who believes being cute excuses being obnoxious.

On the other hand, Natalie Portman can act. And Zach Braff can act. And a little while further on, as Andrew slowly came out of his tranquilizer-induced haze, and as Sam slowly became comfortable with him and stopped poking at him, I wound up cheering. I think I blame the overhead shot of the swimming pool, if I had to pick an exact moment, because she didn’t have to come back to the shallow end but she did anyhow. The tap dancing was gravy.

OK: it’s a first film, and that shows. Three big emotive speeches at the end, two of them to the same person? That’s a screenwriter who didn’t know how to finish his movie. Howling in the rain as a transformative moment? Come on. But I forgive; of course I do. The rest of the movie is so eloquently deft. Braff uses quirky to his advantage, and never slips into quirk for quirk’s sake. Early on, he finds a gas pump nozzle sticking out of his car. He’s driven off without removing it, which is quirky. But it tells a story about his mental state, which propels the story onward. Good stuff.

Didn’t hurt that the supporting cast is strong. Peter Sarsgaard is a treasure. With this performance plus his turn in Kinsey, he’s a shoo-in for the Oscar for Best Body of Work as a Supporting Actor In A Single Year. Ian Holm is Ian Holm. I wouldn’t say that his father/son moment measures up to Liam Neeson and John Lithgow, speaking of Kinsey, but that’s an awfully tough standard. Holm does an awful lot in Garden State with a few lines and a quiet mastery of expression.

I wondered a bit about Natalie Portman’s costuming and some of the set design. She’s young-looking anyway, and to have someone who looks that young bringing a guy who’s in his mid-twenties home to the house where she’s still living with her family — I found it distracted a little, particularly since Andrew is returning in so many ways to his high school years by returning home. He’s seeing the same people, and none of them have moved on from what they were. They’re still hanging out with high school girls. It’s not until later that we know for more or less sure that Sam’s not in an inappropriate age bracket. Perhaps that was intentional, but it jarred me.

So a gem with a few flaws. It won’t make my top ten for the year, but it’ll stick with me for a while.

To the dogs

“Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power. Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot’s Rat’s Alley. Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world’s most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.”

Richard Norton of the Naval War College on feral cities, via Future Now. This was written last year; he mentions Iraq only with careful obliqueness in a footnote, but I would be somewhat surprised if the entire piece was not written with Iraq in mind. To follow along at home, apply his feral city taxonomy to Fallujah, Mosul, and Baghdad.

Secret history

“I used to be a contractor for Apple, working on a secret project. Unfortunately, the computer we were building never saw the light of day. The project was so plagued by politics and ego that when the engineers requested technical oversight, our manager hired a psychologist instead. In August 1993, the project was canceled. A year of my work evaporated, my contract ended, and I was unemployed.

“I was frustrated by all the wasted effort, so I decided to uncancel my small part of the project. I had been paid to do a job, and I wanted to finish it. My electronic badge still opened Apple’s doors, so I just kept showing up.”

Six months later, Graphing Calculator shipped with new Macs. This is how it happened.

It lives

A while back I urged San Franciscans to help save the 4 Star. Everything worked out; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance stating that you can’t demolish or change the use of a movie theater as long as that theater is economically viable. This is a horrendous intrusion into the economic sphere and I should abhor it. But, you know, the Four Star is gonna show Dark Water soon and I can’t find it in me to object to a law that makes sure that kind of thing will continue to happen.


For your periodic amusement, if you like weird movie posters, there is this page. Which can also be sucked down as an RSS feed if you like. The cool thing, and I can do this because I have a Mac, is that all I gotta do to upload a picture is drop it into a certain folder and BAM there it is on the Intraweb.