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Category: Reviews

Mmm mmm urk

Sound Bites was a very good breakfast, but the memory is somewhat tainted by the tainted pizza I had for dinner. I liked their mashed potatoes, and I liked the corned beef hash very much, but I will probably not go for the poached eggs again just in case they were at fault.

I have a mini-essay about the necessity to rethink the way governments interact with relevant non-governmental organizations, which I will write when I am feeling somewhat better.

Not so much the action movie

I picked up the Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys DVD last week, and watched it over the weekend. I’d managed to miss it in the theaters, since although Jodie Foster is a strong selling point for me, Todd McFarlane is not. However, after watching Igby Goes Down I was pretty pleased at the thought of watching Kieran Culkin again.

Not a bad little movie. Not great — it probably overreaches at the end, in terms of plot — but pretty good. The core of the movie is the nature of teenage desire and ennui, and if you forgive the twist at the end you won’t have much to complain about. I think the actors did a great job of nailing the complexity of first love, teenage sexuality, and the sheer boredom that leads one to be a complete idiot.

Despite the title, it’s not really terribly important that the kids go to Catholic school. I gather it’s a semi-autobiographical story, which explains that choice. The animated sequences, on the other hand, are pretty important. It’s not that they reveal anything very surprising about the way the kids think of themselves, and they certainly don’t reshape any of the plot. They do, however, provide the movie with a propulsive sense of action which I think distinguishes it from a lot of indie coming of age flicks. The animation ruthlessly strips away sentimentalism, because it’s so cheesy and in places tawdry.

Definitely worth owning, for me.

Darkness, I hardly knew thee

I was expecting to write a snide little comparative review of the new Matthew Scudder mystery, Hope to Die, and the new Jessie Stone mystery, Death in Paradise. I was probably going to throw in some comparisons between Spenser and Scudder, since they’re both aging detectives, as well. Woulda been a beauty. I’d have contrasted Lawrence Block’s gritty realistic approach to alcoholism and his honest approach to the aging of his main character with Robert Parker’s increasingly self-indulgent treatment of the same issues. I am blogger, hear me roar.

Unfortunately, while Death in Paradise wasn’t all that great, Hope to Die was kind of unimpressive as well. I believe I’ve discovered one of the signs of a mystery series on decline. When an author starts indulging in chapter intros told from the point of view of the criminal, things are getting bad. If those intros happen to be in italics, it’s worse. If they cleverly don’t ever give away the criminal’s name — well.

That was a problem with Hope to Die. The basic trappings are still pretty much there: Scudder is an alcoholic, but it isn’t the focus of the book; Elaine is a dear; T.J. continues to be an important presence. I liked the thread of family obligations that wove through the story. Scudder’s obligations to his sons were a good counter-part to the criminal’s attitudes towards certain characters.

However, the ending is deeply unsatisfying and requires us to believe that Scudder has suddenly discarded his keen intelligence. The darkness that’s integral to the Scudder mysteries comes by way of plot contrivance rather than through Block’s writing. It’s a pity. I wouldn’t say the series is dead, but I really hope the next book isn’t what I think it’ll be.

Oh — Death in Paradise is about what you’d expect from a mystery series whose author is willing to name a town Paradise for the sake of catchy titles. There is not actually a town named Paradise in Massachusetts. Just so you know.

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.