East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

SFIFF '06~!: Feast or famine

So after waiting four years for Cafe Lumiere, I only have to wait another month for Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times. Browse the full programme if you wish; below are the titles playing at the PFA. The ones I'll probably see are asterisked.

Iberia (Saura)
*Al Franken: God Spoke (Hegedus/Doob)
A Perfect Couple (Suwa)

SAT 22
*Talking Father Home (Ying)
Workingman's Death (Glawogger)
Illumination (Breton)
*One Long Winter without Fire (Zglinski)

SAT 23
*Gubra (Ahmad)
The Silent Holy Stones (Wanma-caidan)
Turnabout (Roach)
*Play (Scherson)

MON 24
*October 17, 1961 (Tasma)
Perpetual Motion (Ning)

TUE 25
News from Afar (Benet)
Cock Byte: Masters of Machinima (Rooster Teeth Productions)

WED 26
*The Heart of Guy Maddin (Maddin)
The Lost Domain (Ruiz)

THU 27
*Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (Harris)
*Three Times (Hou)

FRI 28
*Gabrielle (Chereau)
*The Wayward Cloud (Tsai)

SAT 29
The Dignity of the Nobodies (Solanas)
The Giant Buddhas (Frei)
Wide Awake (Berliner)
*Regular Lovers (Garrel)

SUN 30
Into Great Silence (Groening)
*Belle de jour (Bunuel)
*Princess Raccoon (Suzuki)

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Nelson)
*Iron Island (Rasoulof)

Fugitive Prayers (shorts)
The Bridge (Steel)

*The Sun (Sokurov)
*The Betrayal (Faucon)

Bashing (Kobayashi)
*Iraq in Fragments (Longley)

Lost in Time: Obstacle course [DVD note]

Starring Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi, Lau Ching-Wan
Written by James Yuen Sai-Sang, Clarence Lee, Jessica Fong Ching
Directed by Derek Yee Tung-Sing

Cecilia Cheung's fiance is a minibus driver who runs a red light and gets creamed. Our grieving girl wants to keep her boyfriend's kid, so she needs cash. She comes to the logical and impractical answer: fix the minibus and drive it herself. But being a woman, she drives safely, which means her troubles pile up. She gets HARASSED BY GANGS. She receives a FAKE BANKNOTE. Someone THROWS UP IN HER BUS. She GETS A TICKET. So Lau Ching-Wan has to teach her how to drive as recklessly as her late man.

The plot bounces through sillier turns than this, but the writers have a decent idea of how love and family work, and the characters are likable enough for the inevitable sentimentality to mean something. Cheung is radiant in suffering (her sister claims she look pallid, which is nonsense), trying to look under control while cracking in not-so-subtle ways. The acting side of things of things is carried by Paul Chun and Bau Hei-Jing as Cheung's parents, and especially by Lau, playing the kind, slightly rough surrogate hubbie and daddy. He even defuses the kid's cloyingness (the fault of the script, not the young actor) by flatly refusing to be upstaged.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ten songs, with user-friendly links to audio/video!

Let's call these my ten favourite songs from the first quarter of 2006, even though nine of them are from last year and half of them I first heard months ago.

1. Neil Young, "This Old Guitar"
His best song since the Eighties? Sounds like it to me. Respectful of history while deserving a place in it.

2. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood"
The kids aren't alright -- too many of them are dying and all of them are empty.

3. The Hold Steady, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend"
Took me a while to notice anything about this track beyond the title. Turns out it's the most specific song on the album. Craig Finn's telling you he's never been with said hoodrat friend, OK they got high together once but that was years ago and these days she makes me sick, and why would you even think they got together? Listening to Finn declaim, there's no question he's being straight with you.

4. Arctic Monkeys, "I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor"
Sex without love. Doesn't sound so bad, even if the sex is at this stage is hypothetical and some way off.

5. Public Enemy, "Bring That Beat Back"
I thought the only first-rate beats on the instantly forgotten New Whirl Odor were on the Moby collaboration "MKLVFKWR". Further listening proved most of the album was worse than it initially sounded, but it revealed there was another major PE track. "Each generation thinks the next one is wack." Also the last one, Chuck.

6. Comet Gain, "Just One More Summer Before I Go"
The title seems like a minor request, but things are pretty bad for most who ask for this.

7. Kanye West, "Gold Digger"
OK OK, so I underestimated this. It's the fourth best song on the album.

8. M.I.A., "Bucky Done Gun"
I'm still deriving novel pleasures from my favourite album of last year. What are those drums?

9. Prince, "Black Sweat"
Token actual new track. Amazing that after 28 years he's still finding new ways to rip off James Brown.

10. Gorillaz, "Feel Good Inc."
I'm not as into the Gorillaz concept as many, but then I never got that deep into Blur either. There's no denying, though, that the 'Rillaz do terrific singles. Besides the big big bassline, the coolest sound here is Damon's wispy falsetto "feel good", a rebuttal to "Song 2"'s "woo-hoo".

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

SFIAAFF '06~! Bitter ends [festival note]

We conclude our SFIAAFF '06~! coverage with notes on two Seventies HK martial arts flicks. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS below.

Clans of Intrigue (Chu Yuan)

The Boxer from Shangtung (Zhang Che, Bao Xueli)
The material linking the fight scenes isn't of much interest, because Chen Guantai, as the eponymous pugilist, doesn't really care that he's losing his soul. The brawls, however, are crisply staged, as realistic as twenty-on-one battles can be. And it ends with the most violent sequence I've ever seen, during the entire duration of which our hero has an axe protruding from his midsection; it's more visceral than anything in Tarantino because it's deranged-ludicrous instead of comic-ludicrous. You may value this more than I did.


The Acts are closing.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

SFIAAFF '06~! Amateur sociology [festival note]

Water (Deepa Mehta)

Filming was shut down by Hindu fundamentalists in 2001; Mehta finally finished it by shifting production to Columbo. It's about a 7-year old widow (Sarala) sent to a widows' village by the Ganges in 1938; things get worse still for her, but she's allowed a few precious moments of joy as the story progresses. It's made with warmth and some elegance, so why don't I like it more? Possibly because setting a social problem film in the past undermines its purpose, no matter how many widows there are in India today. Possibly because when the beautiful prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch) shows up, I asked myself: "What the hell is that white girl doing in the movie?" (It turns out she's half-Polish.) But if the film's too glossy to be first-rate neo-realism, the downhome acting carries it through its conventional moments: notable is Manorma as the leader of the widows, whose buffoonish deportment conceals her noxiousness.

Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

(Spoilers, not that they matter.) Hitoyo Yo is a writer researching the career of a Taiwanese composer; Asano Tadanobu, when he's not running a bookstore, records train sounds. Since this is a tribute to Ozu, neither of them ever talk about how they feel. For all his formal innovation, I still think Hou seems like a man out of time when dealing with the contemporary world, which is probably why the historically set Flowers of Shanghai is my favourite. But he knows the world has changed since Ozu's time: Hitoyo is pregnant and isn't getting back with the father no matter what her parents say.

Mark Lee Pin-Bing (again) doesn't give Café Lumière a scene as visually breathtaking as the opening of Millennium Mambo (the techno-set lights blipping out of frame), but the shot with Asano on one train unnoticed by Hitoyo on another comes close. Since this is a tribute to Ozu, there are a ton of low angles, though Hou is more generous in allowing camera movement. He lets us see how the world has changed: aping Ozu's setups, we see the spare, graceful interiors valued by previous generations of middle-class Japanese have been replaced by decor more messy and piecemeal. The movie becomes about light and sound: what is the sensory difference between one train and another? If such distinctions were an implicit part of Ozu's art, they were only a small part of it: unlike Jia Zhangke, Hou could never remake Tokyo Story, because he lacks Ozu's fascination for sociology; Hou doesn't get very deep into the relationships within and between generations. But he has captured the significance of the everyday as well as the master, which is no small achievement.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

We interrupt our whining about vague Asian movies to comment on our friend's taste in vague alt-country

We have listened to all but two of the songs on Dick's playlist (the exceptions being two of the Blue Rodeo songs; we assume, given the other two Blue Rodeo songs, that band must sound better to Canadian ears) and endorse the following selections:

Billy Bragg & Wilco, "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" and "Feed of Man"
Neko Case, "Deep Red Bells"
Krauss/Welch, "I'll Fly Away"
Wilco, "Say You Miss Me"
And we suppose "Runaway Train" even though we never need to hear that song again.

What we really want to endorse is Bragg & Wilco's Mermaid Avenue albums, the first of which is our third favourite album of 1998*, which is even more impressive when you realise how much we love 1998 (we mean in retrospect; we hated it at the time). The results of their collaboration sound like contemporary versions of age old songs, which in a sense they are, except instead of seeming to come from the era of Woody Guthrie, many of the best songs seem much more archaic. "Walt Whitman's Niece", about a guy's refusal to disclose exactly what he did last night, or was it the night before that, sounds Whitmanian. "Way Over Yonder" sounds centuries older than that, of the people, by the people, for the people.

*Behind Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and, controversially, Liz Phair's Whitechocolatespaceegg.

Monday, March 20, 2006

SFIAAFF '06~!: Slo-mo suffering [festival note]

Bridge to the Sun (Etienne Périer)

This time James Shigeta courts a Tennessee belle (Carroll Baker), then the Second World War happens. It's pretty bad, banalising history, but it's still blandly likable. Périer's direction is a little ponderous, which doesn't suit Shigeta, or anyone else in the cast, none of who can provide the energy the film lacks until shit starts blowing up. The movie asks where the loyalties of lovers from warring nations should lie. Its answer is it's OK to live with the baddies as long as you're a pacifist, because war sucks. This is all very admirable, but it sidesteps what's interesting about the issue.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Xu Jinglei)

Gusssshhh taken seriously. Never saw the Ophüls version; I expect it's even more florid, and given its reputation it better be better. The cinematography by Mark Lee Pin-Bing, filled with lots of his usual sedate camera movements, is dusky, languid and compforting. Though it's the main point of interest, it's not really appropriate. When your story's about a girl in love with her neighbour, who moves away, has her neighbour forget her, grows up, meets the neighbour again, has an affair with him and gets dumped and forgotten again (and that's just the first eight years of an eighteen year saga) you need either to go expressionist, or to be D.W. Griffith. Writer/director/star Xu is too mannered in the first two of her functions. But she gets Lee to shoot her like she's Joan Fontaine, so it's not a total loss.

Please do not start your short film with these words

"Sometimes I hate myself."

Also not good: "If I were a fish..."

I'm puzzled that filmmakers who seem personable and funny when appearing on stage after a screening make shorts that are so much mopey blubbering. I guess film schools aren't teaching enough about art -- or perhaps they're teaching them too much. Kai Ling Xue's "A Girl Named Kai" stood out because she parties in the street and gets a tattoo and stuff. (Plus it had a score with percussion.)

It's your film, kids, so you might as well celebrate yourself.

P.S.: Big conceptual points to the woman who got her mother to fund a movie about how she hadn't come out to her mother yet. (She still hasn't.)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

SFIAAFF '06~!: Love breaks down [festival note]

The Crimson Kimono (Sam Fuller)

(SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) This 1959 feature is about a rough diamond detective who falls in love with a young painter who holds the key to the murder case he's working on -- only she's in love with his partner and war buddy. The distiguishing feature: the object of her affection is Japanese-American. Fuller directs with characteristic crispness. Each scene is clear and follows logically from what preceded. His interest in the murder isn't sustained; he's more intent on exploring Little Tokyo and environs, visiting a dojo and a dollmaker and memorably the war memorial for JA soldiers, creating an atmosphere of potential menace without tainting all of his settings with unnecessary seediness.

The scene-stealer is Anna Lee as the habitually sloshed older painter, but James Shigeta gets the most interesting role. He's not really a sex symbol, he's more of a matinee idol: he doesn't burn, he smoulders, almost like he's English. His line readings are a little deliberate, not uncommon in singers. But he moves with controlled fluidity, even when karate-chopping a man-mountain. He's supposed to express an inherited artistic temperament, but instead comes across as genteel, which some people dig, especially when it's packaged handsomely.

Dreaming Lhasa (Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam)

The storyline, involving the search of a Tibetian American and an exiled dissident for a long-lost anti-Chinese fighter in Dharamsala and elsewhere in India, is somewhat pro-forma. It's sharpened by snippets of interviews with (real) former political prisoners. A more straightforward pleasure is watching the characters do things you never see Tibetians do in movies: drink, play pool, listen to the Skatalites. (There is plenty of ritual and pomp if that's what you're after.) We get a sense of how the communities of exiles function: in one town they've set up a whole village of sweater stalls. The mostly non-pro performers are best when they're not called upon to do much. Instead it's enough to hear them talk and look at their faces, some weathered and craggy, others bright and taut, in all cases prepared to survive.

Parineeta (Pradeep Sarkar)

Like many good melodramas, this conservative anti-capitalist (which should mean aristocratic, but the movie avoids all class issues) picture gets literal: the villain erects an actual physical wall between the hero and heroine, which the hero actually physically breaks through. It's one of those movies that goes to ridiculous lengths to keep the lovers apart, and I give it major props for putting substantial effort into making the contrivances fit together. Sarkar doesn't just underline his points, he highlights and sprinkles glitter over them: even an evil thought is accompanied by an ominous chord or drum hit. And the songs are clever without being unnecessarily good.

Your hero is Saif Ali Khan, who is wicked hot, but whose job is mostly to look aggrieved, and he comes across as a bit dopey. His rival is the veteran Sanjay Dutt, who has no trouble outacting everyone else with his vaguely Gabinesque nobility. But the star is your heroine Lolita (the character predates her Western namesake), played by Vidya Balan, lovely in saris and likably klutzy in heels. Switching between the fragile, the fun-loving and the flirtatious, she's anybody's muse.

A thought on Korean movies

Many of them deal with dangerous subjects, like nasty sex and nasty violence. Very small gradations in tone can mean the difference between a very good movie (Oasis, Oldboy) and an atrocious one (Rules of Dating, Save the Green Planet).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

SFIAAFF '06~!: Getting girls is easy [festival note]

Just some rough ideas. Might come back and add grades at a later date.

Citizen Dog (Wisit Sasanatieng)

The audience loved it, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be an arthouse hit among the Techicolor kiddies, except it's a Thai film, which come to think of it is a pretty big reason. It's your typical boy-longs-for-girl flick, albeit with digital amputations, but dont worry, they're bloodless and everyone gets their original fingers back eventually. We're reassured Wisit has retained his marvelous sense of kitsch decor as soon as we see the comic-book-realist painted portraits covering the exterior walls of Pod's (Mahasamut Boonyaruk) house. Every splash of colour is placed meticulously, down to the spots of the litter of five parallel puppies sucking at their mother's teat. Wisit is less successful at giving a distinctive look to Bangkok, while there are only a few shots of the vast, bounded countryside that he used to such memorable effect in the structurally sounder Tears of the Black Tiger.

His combination of fangless Housemartiny pop songs with his visuals is more solidly whimsical, as bus riders and passers-by keep straight faces while they lipsynch, even when literally bending over backwards. His digital trickery grows tiresome except when it's admirably excessive, as is a mountain composed of used plastic bottles (which thankfully has minimal metaphorical significance). Other times the movie is far too cutesy -- the eight-year old dressed like a slut and the chain-smoking teddy bear are simple incogruities that the writers of Family Guy would have the sense to cut to six seconds. But these gags had the audience convulsing, so what do I know? And when Wisit wrings pathos out of said teddy's abandonment by said girl, the points he gets for attempting emotional impact put him ahead of said Family Guy writers.

Rules of Dating (Han Jae-Rim)

If you want a woman* to fall in love with you**, sexually harrass her. You don't have to rape her, but that may speed things along.

*May only work on timid Asian women, since they're probably repressing terrible traumas they need a man to resolve.
**I don't know if they ended up together, since I walked out before the end. But I bet they did.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"The reinstatement of the novelty of experience"? Jesus.

This is why I need an editor, to tell me I'm being stupidly pretentious before publication.

Though I don't need an editor as much as Annie Proulx does.

Unknown White Male: The spotless mind [movie note]

Starring Doug Bruce
Directed by Rupert Murray

The subject of this documentary stirs on a train near Coney Island, to discover he no longer remembers who he is. Terrified at first, the police and medical staff can't find any reason for his amnesia, but it's soon established that he's Doug Bruce, a 35-year old English ex-stockbroker turned photography student. Despite being unable to remember any of his past, or his friends and family, the blank-looking Doug adapts to his new situation with remarkable clarity, carrying his video camera on his shoulder when he meets his family for the first time. The nagging feeling that this can't possibly be true, that he's faking it, is a source of dissonance. But it seems probable Doug's affliction is genuine (psychosomatic? This possibility, the first that came to my mind, isn't raised by the film) and the dissonance strengthens the movie.

Director Rupert Murray, an old mate of Bruce's, takes us through the first two years after the memory loss. Murray's talent is expression, not explication: the lack of a probable cause doesn't concern him. And details of what Doug was like immediately preceding the incident are absent; Murray instead relies on mutual friends to sketch Doug's character during his London days. Some of his visual techniques, too, are coarse, like the use of distorting lenses as a metaphor for Doug's initial disorientation. Other times he gets it just right, as when editing Doug's footage of first encounters (with the ocean, with snow, with chocolate mousse) into a saturated Eden of rediscovery.

Murray opens by proposing to explore how much of us is the sum of our experiences and how much is the "real us". He doesn't really give us an answer: the consulted philosopher suggests he's the same man, but maybe not the same person, a statement that doesn't help much. Maybe it's just as well that he doesn't leap to conclusions, because while Doug has a clean slate, some things are still the same: he's an attractive, wealthy white man moving in circles that appreciate his sort. All the same, there is evidence that Doug has changed -- we see old footage of Doug larking about with his boys, and we see the new Doug is indifferent to it. His hijinks were undoubtedly fun at the time, but some men, when they hit thirty, want to move on, and if you don't have any memory of it, how can you relate? This is why the Eighties revival and other forms of premature nostalgia are worth resisting: they stop you from growing up. Maybe the leading fringe benefit of Doug's malady, more than the reinstatement of the novelty of experience, is that once he gets his bearings, he can get on with life.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Poll results!

Everyone knows that George Herriman is the greatest of Komic Kreators. Who's #2?

Walt Kelly 33%
Jack Kirby 33%
Alan Moore 33%

Total votes: 3 (2 of which were mine)

Some light research has convinced me it's Kelly, whose funny animals in Pogo were making fun of McCarthy and Nixon eight years before George Clooney was even born. Pogo's Presidential Campaign of 1952 set a then record number of votes for a fictional character (a record since broken by Ronald Reagan). The density impresses: most comics have one joke per strip; in Pogo the gags often outnumbered the panels, and they ranged from daring political satire to atrocious slapstick, all written in punned Twainese ("Deck us all with Boston Charlie/Walla Walla Wash., an' Kalamazoo!"). Find the 1959 anthology Ten Even-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo if you can, or else get the more recent Pogo Files for Pogophiles. Anyway, the lack of interest from the electorate has persuaded me to experiment with comments, which are enabled for a limited time.

In preparation for SFIAAFF'06~!, I need to get ahead of my work, so posting will be light until Friday. In the interim, you might like to entertain yourselves with a pair of outstanding pieces of conceptual art, Pac-Mondrian and MC Hammer's blog (which as far as I can tell is too legit). If you prefer works with a multitude of concepts, go and read my favourite essay, A.J. Liebling's "Ahab and Nemesis", several times.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Canonball #994: Z

Starring Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jacques Perrin
Written by Jorge Semprún with Costa-Gavras, from the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Proof that content does matter: if a right-wing filmmaker had relied so heavily on hyping the audience up with quick cuts and a buzzing score, s/he'd be absolute evil. As it stands, Costa-Gavras rails against corruption in the military that, by the time the movie was made, had taken over Greece, which makes him some kind of hero. His political thriller had rare American success for a foreign film (made in French in Algeria by a Greek expatriate), even getting a Best Picture nomination.

It's painted in bold strokes, in terms of both image and dramatic construction. The story is based on the real life assassination of senator and peace activist Gregorios Lambrakis in 1963. The subsequent investigation, led by magistrate Christos Sartzetakis, uncovered links between the right-wing People's Party and extremist organisations, leading to the downfall of the government (the military would stage a coup in 1967). In the movie, the death of the unnamed senator (Yves Montand) is at first claimed by the authorities to be an accident. The magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) arrives and, despite cutthroat interference, uncovers the military conspiracy behind the assassination. His triumph is that he achieves this without resorting to the violent methods of the enemy.

The one major flaw is the brevity with which what happened next is detailed at the end. For the gist I turned to Wikipedia, which says that the military junta lasted till 1974, when meddling in Cyprus brought Greece to the brink of a war with Turkey it couldn't win, and Constantine Karamanlis, the former Prime Minister who had resigned in the aftermath of the Lambrakis assassination, returned to become the democratically elected leader. At least one of the good guys got a happy ending: Sartzetakis became President (a largely ceremonial role) in 1985.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: Knowing him, knowing him [movie note]

Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Adapted by Martin Hardy (Frank Cottrell Boyce and Michael Winterbottom) from the novel by Laurence Sterne
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Hilarious, though it was disconcerting that a substantial amount of the time I was laughing alone. Partly this was because of my familiarily with the collected works of Alan Partridge, so that I knew why Steve Coogan, playing "Steve Coogan", tut-tutted every time some exclaimed "Aha!" at him. But maybe I'm just easy -- after Rob Brydon (playing "Rob Brydon") claimed he was a co-lead, I guffawed at the "in order of appearance" in the opening credits.

Coogan, who also plays Tristram and Walter Shandy, has a quality which for good reason is rare in comedians: subtlety. His stock gag sees him trying to be clever and feeling satisfied in his cleverness, and then there comes a moment of anagnorisis when he realises he's dig a hole for himself. Coogan sometimes signals his miniature tragedies with a twitch or an eye movement; more often he simply does nothing and we (I) laugh in anticipation of what he may do when he does react. Brydon's point-scoring is enabled by Coogan's refusal to suffer fools -- which makes his own foolishness more poignant. (The other eyecatching performance is a tiny one by Gillian Anderson, part-time queen of costume drama. That reminds me, I need to find the Bleak House DVD.)

Coogan and Brydon wouldn't be nearly as funny talking to the camera: Winterbottom's structure is a persuasive argument against mockumentary. He gives up on the holistic adaptation of the novel early on, preferring to integrate odd snippets of Sterne into Coogan's interaction with his cast, crew, family and other hangers-on. As far as I've seen, the prolific Winterbottom has yet to make a great movie (though In This World came pretty close), and this isn't it: it's funny, nothing more. But as the director in Tristram Shandy (Jeremy Northam) knows, it's enough.

Further research: lots of stuff at the BBC's Life of Alan Partridge page, like this audio clip from his sportscaster days about Linford Christie's groin.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What I learned on International Women's Day

The best way to prevent the spread of AIDS? Circumcision reduces the infection rate of men by (at least) 60%.

60% is huge, millions of lives a year. It's more than the pharmos testing vaccines dream of, let alone the undetected effects of abstinence education, or even condoms.

It seems so simple.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Recommended fiction

(Real reviews are linked in the titles.)

Mary Gaitskill, Veronica: Gaitskill has the most challenging similes in the business -- "He moves like he's being yelled at by invisible people whom he hates but whom he basically agrees with." This time they're evoked by Alison, used to be a model, now fortysomething with Hep C and embittered; she has a gift for rendering faces in figurative language (she describes her own visage as "broken, with age and pain coming through the cracks"). She remembers her late, coarse, unlikeable pseudofriend Veronica with less cynicism than she does her past Parisian and New York glamour tours. Many of those who pass through her life are beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside; what she sees in Veronica is a continued failure to be beautiful, which in herself becomes a refusal. Ugly world, beautiful prose, old trick.

Rachel Ingalls, Times Like These
: Ingalls's war stories (try the short-short "Fertility") begin in generic settings, which may or may not crystallise into a particular time and place. But her characters aren't everymen: what they have in common is that the actions they take, and those they should take, depend on the slowly revealed specifics of their situations. Sometimes the one you hurt the most isn't the one you're trying to help. Sometimes a knuckle rubbing against a hand doesn't mean it's all over. Sometimes it's OK to call your mother-in-law a bitch, especially if your son calls you a whore. Sometimes you can forget the past and future and just enjoy days like today.

Frédéric Beigbeder,
Windows on the World (tr. Frank Lynne): At 9:30 in New York on a day when the the Twin Towers didn't fall: "It's not the same anymore; we no longer worship hard cash, people are sick and tired of it but they don't know any other way of living, so they get a neck rub, stretch out on couches, cheat on their wives with their mistresses and their mistresses with guys; they search for love, buy vitamin tablets, step on the gas, honk their horns--yeah, that's the universal sign of despair--they honk their horns so people will know they exist." It's apparent this sentence has some terrible parts and some terrific ones, though it may take a while to sort out which are which. Beigbeder isn't a first-rate thinker: even those of his ideas about 9/11 you haven't seen before, you feel you should have. But he can write some, and the quantity of ideas he presents counts for something.

Skimmed: In Guo Xiaolu's Village of Stone, the heroine is raised in the country, where she suffer ostentatiously; she moves to the city, where she suffers frugally. Seems pretty good if you like that sort of thing.


Tze Ming quotes some smart-assed "actual Chinese reader".


Excellent excellent Hoberman piece on The New World's cult. Thanks, Village Voice Media!


Oh, there's an Art Brut show on the Monday as well. Unfortunately B&S/Nu Pornos is sold out. Well, at least now I'm free to see Rithy Panh's latest semidoc.


I guess I should read Drew Gardner's book.


If you like counterfactual computation, here's a potential application.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

78th Annual Oscars: Montages kill twenty

Welcome to our coverage of the 78th Annual Whatsits... Way to make Jon Stewart look like a last choice... Every time they cut to Jack Nicholson for no reason, take a shot... "First time many of you have ever voted for a winner". Crowd isn't getting into the shouty bits at all. Clooney's double take gets more laughs than anyone else. Bjork/Cheney joke was really broad, but that's what you need... Gay cowboy montage was lame. "Twenty Commandments" gag was really clever but no one laughed.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Not really enthused about the nominees except Hurt, who has no chance in hell. It'll be Clooney or Giamatti. Your winner: CLOONEY~!. Not a great performance, but there's no way you can be upset at that man; god, he's hotter than Nicole. Good joke, decent moral statement. It can only go down from here.

VISUAL EFFECTS: Annual Ben Stiller being a putz moment. Narnia's non-Tilda Swinton effects weren't that great. Your winner: KONG~! Five for Richard Taylor. He doesn't even look excited anymore. Stewart drops another Jew joke.

ANIMATED FILM: Reese is sparkly. Aardman are due in this category. Your winner: Wallace and/or Gromit. Awesome bowties.

Naomi Watts's dress is missing a shoulder... Is Dolly wearing a wig? She's a greater artist than just about anyone else who's turned up tonight, but this is 1975 all over again. Oh scratch that, the Wilson brothers are coming! Wait, aren't Carl and Dennis dead? Oh, Owen and Luke. What a letdown. What a shitty Mercedes ad -- they had the fastest car in 1894, up-to-date! Oooh, cheap, cheap shot at the Baldwins.

LIVE SHORT: Your winner: Six Shooter. If Brendan Gleeson's in it it's probably good. Chicken Little! God help us.

ANIMATED SHORT: The Moon and the Sun. It's a very good short -- unceasingly inventive. You know all those shitty comics about painful relationships with parents? Well this is like a good one of those.

COSTUMES: Even Jennifer Aniston's pre-taped spiels are wooden. Time's up, girl. Your winner: Geisha. World moves on. The background music during the acceptance speeches is annoying as hell... Russell~! introduces... a biopic montage. Two minutes of a hundred million people's time are wasted. That's like killing five babies.

MAKEUP: Your winner: Chronic-what?cles, deservedly... Designated ingenue Rachel McAdams gets to kiss techies. Weird, weird dress.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: MORGAN~!!!111 He has more gravitas than anyone else even when he fucks up. I'm not sold that Weisz is a lock. Your winner: Weisz. No real objection, she's does a lot of good work over the years, if never anything great. Energy drink ad: "Women need a different kind of energy." Well, maybe the bulimic ones.

Lauren Bacall~! Unlike Morgan, her gravitas can't withstand fucking up. Oh well. Film Noir montage. Jesus, now they're just using clips from the trailers. For those of you who are counting, that's ten dead babies. Campaign ads: actually genuinely funny! Pimp: "sort of like an agent with a better hat".

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Terry Howard looks dapper in those glasses. Your winner: A Note of Triumph, about Norman Corwin. (No seriously, who?) Clooney's facials are just great.

DOCUMENTARY: Yara thinks Charlize's shoulder-bow is horrible, . Nice clip of the Murderball haka. Your winner: Der Penguins. The Francophones make their lame gags and slip in something about the Antarctic treaty expiring in 2041. Well, that's thinking ahead.

J-Lo~! She looks cut. Song: Crash's "In the Deep" b/w burning car. It'd be funny if an Iranian guy came out of the audience and shot her. There doesn't seem to be much actual song there. Promo for "Miracle Workers": I'm dumbfounded. Sandra et Keanu. Who ever thought his post-1994 career would kill hers?

ART DIRECTION: Please not Geisha. Your winner: Geisha. Samuel L. Jackson~!? presents the liberal self-congratulation montage. Fifteen dead babies. "And none of those issues was ever a problem again." President's speech: starts with more self-congratulation. I love how when he starts talking about all the cultures around the world, and the camera cuts to Ang Lee, one of maybe four Asian people in the room. More self-congrats. Terrible speech. Had to be made, so I won't add it to the dead baby count.

SCORE: Oscar nominated actress Salma Hayek (still can't get over saying that) introduces some famously violinist to cornball up the score. Have I mentioned how much I hate film scores? The Constant Gardener is the only one that isn't insulting. Your winner: Brokeback Mountain. Well, at least that one didn't put me to sleep. Montage of epics. Wait, Mary Poppins? Maybe it's a montage of 'Scope movies. Except not all of them are in 'Scope. Maybe it's a montage of movies that could've been in 'Scope. Well at least this wasn't longer than the other montage. Twenty dead babies.

SOUND MIXING: Go Walk the Line, it's the only that isn't just people screaming. Your winner: KONG. New Zealanders march on.

Lily 'n' Meryl have Altmania, talking over each other. Takes a while for people to get the joke, but it sinks in. Big, big round of applause, and he's genuinely thankful. Plugs "Prairie Home Companion". "To me I just made one long film" -- oh, that irrepressible auteur. Still sharp, got a few sandcastles left in him yet... "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp". The foreground dancers are lame. Ms Henson gets to hold a high note.

SONG: Queen Latifah is presenting, so I presume the pimps are winning. Your winners: Three 6 Mafia. I still like "Whoop That Trick" better. "You know what? I think it just got a little easier out there for a pimp."

SOUND EDIITNG: The Wylie Stateman skit rules, even if it should've been for sound mxing. J-Gar doesn't fall over. I forgot she was pregnant. Your winner: KONG. If you want an Oscar, move to Wellington. His Clooneyness tells us to sit down, then introduces the obits. Every year there's always someone I didn't know was dead, this time it's John Mills. When did that happen?

FOREIGN FILM: How do you follow Clooney? Will Smith~! That's about as good as you can do. It'll be Tsotsi. Your winner: Tsotsi. Guy seems happy. "For those of you keeping score at home, that's Martin Scorsese zero Oscars, Three 6 Mafia one."

EDITING: Wow, Ziyi Zhang, I mean Zhang Ziyi, looks really skinny. Nice dress though. Your winner: Crash. Hackwork.

BEST ACTOR: Already? Recently boob-jobbed two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank~? correctly pronounces "Joaquin". Don't kid yourself, PSH is a lock. Your winner: Hoffman. Deserves it both for this and for his career. Loves his Mom a lot... Favourite ad so far: M&M's "Always be seen with an entourage".

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The three I've seen all have strong claims. I'm guessing Brokeback. Your winner: Geisha. So I was wrong. The Southern Hemisphere is again overrepresented tonight.

BEST ACTRESS: I was half-hoping Jamie would go into his call-and-response. I wouldn't bet against Reese, but Huffman is probably the best chance of an upset tonight. Your winner: Reese. And the world rejoices. She goes into her jes' a gal from Tennessee spiel: thanks, Grammah! Ryan P. doesn't seem overwhelmed.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Dustin is still the greater Hoffman. (What, no Jew jokes, Jon?) Is he sober this year? Hard to tell. Gardener, Violence and Brokeback are all very good, hard to pick between them on merit though we all know who's going to win. Your winner: You know. Larry finally gets his Oscar after 35 years. Doesn't have much to say, but he likes books.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Uma looks fine indeed. "The Squid and the Whale" has really grown on me since I saw it, doesn't have a chance though. Your winner: Crash. Art isn't a mirror, it's a hammer. Says you, Paul. He thanks people who work for peace, or firefighters, or something. They shut out his co-writer.

BEST DIRECTOR: Former king of Hollywood Tom Hanks presents. Ang is lock of the night. Your winner: Angly. He use the "quit you" line, which is now totally passe. He first thanks Ennis and Jack. Huh.

BEST PICTURE: Oh, so that's where Jack's been all night. Alright, I'd say it's three-to-one Brokeback over Crash. Your winner: Crash. Fuck it. I don't hate this like so many others do, but Brokeback was so much more subtle, elegant, beautiful... Cutting off the Best Picture winners mid-speech: bad, bad form.

Verdict: Stewart's monologue wasn't schticky enough but he was fine after that. Best dressed: Witherspoon. Coolest man alive: Clooney.

Final Oscar pix

Who should win, not who will. "x." indicates I haven't seen it.

1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Good Night, and Good Luck
3. Crash
4. Capote
5. Munich

1. Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
2. Steven Spielberg, Munich
3. George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
4. Bennett Miller, Capote
5. Paul Haggis, Crash

1. Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
2. Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
x. Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
x. Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
x. Charlize Theron, North Country

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
2. Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
3. David Strathain, Good Night, and Good Luck
4. Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
5. Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow

1. Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
2. Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
3. Catherine Keener, Capote
x. Amy Adams, Junebug
x. Frances McDormand, North Country

1. William Hurt, A History of Violence
2. Matt Dillon, Crash
3. Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
4. George Clooney, Syriana
5. Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man

1. Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale
2. Clooney/Heslov, Good Night and Good Luck
3. Haggis/Moresco, Crash
4. Stephen Gaghan, Syriana
x. Woody Allen, Match Point

1. Jeffrey Caine, The Constant Gardener
2. Josh Olson, A History of Violence
3. McMurtry/Ossana, Brokeback Mountain
4. Dan Futterman, Capote
5. Kushner/Roth, Munich

1. The New World
2. Brokeback Mountain
3. Good Night, and Good Luck
x. Batman Begins
x. Memoirs of a Geisha

1. Corpse Bride
2. Wallace and Gromit
3. Howl's Moving Castle

SONG: "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp"
SCORE: The Constant Gardener
SOUND MIXING: Walk the Line
COSTUMES: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
MAKEUP: The Chronicles of Narnia
ART DIRECTION: Pride & Prejudice
ANIMATED SHORT: The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello


Capote in Munich: A screenplay

Rated R. Contains dismemberment and extreme flippancy.

SCENE ONE: The Black Forest, the mid-Seventies. We see TRUMAN CAPOTE walking along slowly.

Truman: Wow, I can't believe my plane crashed on the way to Munich. Hopefully I'll get out of this forest soon.

(An anguished cry rings out. Cut to AVNER, sitting under a tree, grenade in hand, sulking.)

Truman: Hey, what's wrong?

Avner: I'm an assassin for the Israeli government. I believe in my country, but lately I've been feeling guilty --

(Avner suddenly stands up and throws the grenade into a tree. There's a huge explosion, followed by limbs falling from the sky.)

Avner: I've been feeling guilty about my job. It's so hard on my family.

Truman: Hey, I understand, some of my best friends were murderers.

Avner: I'm an assassin.

Truman: Whatever. Anyway, I know more about guilt than most people, and do you know what the solution is?

(Truman pulls out a bottle of scotch from inside his jacket, then hands it to Avner. Avner stares at it for a moment, then opens the bottle and skulls a third of it.)

Truman: I see you've done this before.

Avner: Of course. I'm really an Australian.

(Avner hands the bottle back to Truman, who skulls the rest.)

Avner: Wow, you're even better at this.

Truman: Of course. I'm a journalist.

Avner: I hope realise that if you write anything about me, I'll have to kill you.

Truman: I can't let you censor me. It goes against everything Edward R. Murrow taught me about journalistic integrity.

Avner: Well, I warned you, so I won't feel guilty about this one. Good night, and good luck.

(Avner pulls out a pistol and fires. CUT.)

Friday, March 03, 2006

Best confessional criticism in many a moon

Ella Taylor on family life in contemporary cinema. Yes, more melodrama! More downsized breadwinners turning to lives of crime! Please.


Speaking of which, while I can hardly dispute the top two picks of TSPDT's list of the 21st Century's most acclaimed films, I'm gutted that Time Out only comes in at #56 (c.f. fucking In the Bedroom at #26: I absolutely cannot comprehend anyone finding this reasonable little movie richer than Time Out, and it's hardly the worst offender). Don't believe them, believe my Millennium Movie List, cuz my picks are slightly less pretentious, and much funnier (deeper too, if that matters). Anyway, I've seen 170-something of their top 250, hitting at over 90% near the top of the list, falling to 50% near the bottom. Some of the ones I haven't seen I've skipped for good reason (you don't really expect me to see Match Point, do you?) Others I'll get around to sooner rather than later -- like #94, Werckmeister Harmonies, after six years finally out on DVD!


Guy Maddin on Blue Velvet. Pity about the Voice space crush.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Canonball #995: The Right Stuff

Starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward
Adapted by Philip Kaufman from the book by Tom Wolfe
Directed by Philip Kaufman

The funniest epic ever, as well as one of the great movies about heroism. In Pauline Kael's famously hedged review, she wrote that "This epic has no coherence, no theme to hold it together, except the tacky idea that Americans can't be true modest heroes anymore--that they're plasticized by the media". In the era of Private Lynch, that idea doesn't seem so tacky, and besides, the movie makes the point that heroism can be much more subtle than the old ideal. Kaufman's trick is to set up the test pilots, explempified by Chuck Yeager (Shepard), as real heroes, then claim that the astronauts are synthetic heroes, then show us that the astronauts are real heroes after all. Yeager is of course an archetype straight out of any old Western, elevated here to superhuman status. Does the movie excoriate the astronauts for not being Yeager? Maybe, but I think Kaufman, if not Wolfe, understands that cursory bravura isn't what the times call for. The pilots and astromauts are heroes for venturing into the unknown, but they're also heroes for sticking up for one another. And their wives are no less heroic: they share the trials and don't even get the exhilaration of the adventure in return.

Kaufman's frequent shifts of tone range from uncomfortable to amazing, with the balance slanting towards the latter. When the time comes for gags, Kaufman somewhat nonchalantly them by one after another. Sometimes it works up to satire of the Cold War mentality ("our Germans are better than their Germans") but it's generally more basic than that. The funniest section is the testing of the potential astronauts, as the pilots are put through a series of bizarre, sometimes irrelevant trial; we see Gordo Cooper's (Quaid) hot-dogging gamesmanship contrast with John Glenn's (Harris) unobtrusive superiority. The jokes also relax the tone, so that DP Caleb Deschanel's easy, elegant in-flight images (aided greatly by sparing use of Jordan Belson's avant effects) are free to lightly elate us.

The performaces are uniformly vibrant down to the tiniest roles, like Anthony Munoz key-blocking on behalf of Hispanic nurses everywhere. Shepard plays Yeager with true grit, instinctive and reckless when riding a horse or in a cockpit, undemonstrative otherwise. Scott Glenn, all rangy sinew as Alan Shepard, is the astronaut closest to the Yeager ideal -- but he's willing to go along with the bluff for fun and profit. Quaid's fine acting is trumped by his smile: it's slyer and more roguish than seems possible. Ward, as Gus Grissom, becomes the dark spirit of the film, bedevilled by asserted cowardice and future tragedy. Harris portrays golden boy John Glenn as magnanimous, but unmistakably ambitious as well. He gets that great, great scene where he tells his wife (Caleb's wife Mary Jo -- they have a couple of daughters you may have heard of) that she doesn't have to let Lyndon Johnson into her house, and then he lashes out as his handlers without using a single obscenity. When he's threatened with losing his place on the next flight, his colleagues immediately close ranks around, refusing to take his place. That, boys and girls, is heroic.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Crash: Scott Foundas replies

(Foundas is replying to this.)

"When I say that the characters in CRASH end up reinforcing the very stereotypes they've been put forth to debunk, what I mean is this: The erudite carjackers are still carjackers at the end of the day--in other words, the Sandra Bullock character is proven right by getting scared by the sight of two black men in a predominately white neighborhood, because they do mean her harm, regardless of what their motivations are. Likewise, although Matt Dillon's character has his heroic moment at the end of the movie, he's still a racist white cop who pulls over otherwise innocent motorists for "driving while black"--and the movie's suggestion that we should somehow be surprised that a racist white cop would rescue a black person from a burning vehicle is among its more risible notions. I could go on, but I think you see my point: This isn't a movie that criticizes its characters' prejudices so much as it pats them on the back and says that, when the going gets tough, we're all capable of rising to the occasion. In short, it's a movie that racist cops and housewives can go to see and feel better about themselves afterwards.

"As for Don Cheadle and Terence Howard, they're both undeniably brilliant actors, but I don't know that I found there to be anything particularly complex, morally or otherwise, about their roles in CRASH (and certainly not about Howard's role in HUSTLE & FLOW--a movie I have just about equally fond feelings for). You want moral complexity: Take a look at Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the recently released DIRTY--a movie that in many ways plays like a nifty inversion of CRASH, and includes one scene in which Gooding's character harasses a couple of motorists for what might be called "driving while white." I'd say that scene, and a number of others in DIRTY (or in Ron Shelton's excellent DARK BLUE) come much closer to capturing the true pulse of race relations in Los Angeles (and perhaps any major American city) than Paul Haggis even begins to wrap his hopelessly contrived screenwriter's mind around."

Yet more Crash-bashing: Matt Zoller Seitz.