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Category: Culture


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.

Much to my surprise

I’m among the top ten Google results for google://aimee+mann+lost+in+space. I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear! But since it’s done, I suppose I ought to be providing the poor seekers some sort of a review.

It is moody, even for an Aimee Mann album. Where Bachelor No. 2 was infused with a rather Paul Thomas Andersonesque sense of wistful hope, or at least the willingness to take chances, Lost in Space is sung from the perspective of someone who’s taken the chances and fallen hard. In that sense, it’s a return to the bitter pessimism of I’m With Stupid.

Not, mind you, that it’s an uninterrupted sequence of angstful love songs. I find myself listening to “Guys Like Me” a lot, which is a paean to the kind of guy who gets told “We’re such great friends.”

The music itself, however, continues in the stripped down mode of Bachelor No. 2. It’s gentle, without the heavy production of I’m With Stupid. At times I miss that era, but it’s hard to begrudge Aimee Mann her shimmering rhythms, and she finds more than enough variance to keep my interest.

In short, it’s not the same as any of her other albums while still being very much an album by Aimee Mann. You’ll find what’s probably a better review here.

Full Frontal probably goes down

Full Frontal probably goes down as a daring failure, but I can’t fault Soderbergh for experimenting. The problem is mostly that the experiment doesn’t have a center. The cinematographic tricks work well, and the acting is solid. But when all’s said and done, the lines between strata of reality have been blurred to no visible end.