30 June 2008

Movielog, Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968
Written by Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati
Based on a story by Dario Argento, Bernando Bertolucci, and Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone
165 minutes

I admit that I didn't know a whole lot about this one when I stuck it in my Netflix queue. I saw a reference to it somewhere and stuck it towards the bottom of my nearly 500 movie-long list, and forgot about it. Then I was glancing through the ones towards the bottom, thought it looked like a decent flick, and shoved it towards the top. When it showed up and the DVD sleeve said it was nearly three hours long, I thought there had to be some mistake -- I was expecting something like 3:10 to Yuma, which was about ninety minutes long.

So, I shrugged, I'll give it a reel or so and see if it catches my interest. Glancing over the cast list, I figured it was a tale of some put-upon farmer who takes matters of the law into his own hands, yadda yadda, with Henry Fonda as the heroic everyman who has the eventually kill the bad guy.

And holy fuck, was I ever wrong.

(Conissieurs of great films are now shaking their heads in disappointment at my naivete -- fuck you, hippie; I'm 28, it's not like the Western has been a commercial genre in my lifetime or anything....)

The first sign that this is going to be much more interesting than it seems comes during the credit sequence, when the familiar names Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci show up with a "story by" credit. You mean the master of horror and the kind of New Wave sensuality? Why, yes, but back in '68 they were just movie critics trying to earn a living according to Wikipedia -- they both became Big Names sometime after this movie was made.

Let's cut to the chase here: Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just a classic, but a minor miracle of cinema, seemingly a perfect blend of character and story, of theme and mood, of performance and direction. The IMDB Top 250 list calls this the eighteenth best film ever made, which is more than a bit of a stretch, but I absolutely believe it deserves a place on that list, and it's probably one of the half-dozen or so best films I've seen in the last year or so. It's a film that feels very modern in its staging, direction, and themes, while nonetheless being very much a part of its time in the way it plays with and subverts audience expectations, especially with regard to gender roles. And actions scenes so well-staged that they seem to exist as minor masterpieces in and of themselves.

I've just written several paragraphs of plot description, only to delete them -- suffice to say that the film has the kind of enormously convoluted story that is only sort of integrated into a coherent plot -- while the motivations of the various characters in the film only become clear over time, those characters are themselves so well-drawn that we find ourselves drawn in almost despite ourselves. It is truly in these characters that the film soars -- this is most apparent in the primary villain Frank, played by the do-gooder among do-gooders Henry Fonda, but Charles Bronson gives enormous emotional heft to his harmonica-playing avenger, and Jason Robards plays the part of an outlaw with a code to a T. Of particular note, though, are the luminous Claudia Cardinale as a seemingly-innocent proto-feminist widow with a past, and Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton, a crippled railroad man who has made a deal with the devil to fulfill his dreams.

Also of particular note is the score by Ennio Morricone, which I recognized as being (ahem) "sampled heavily" in the Kill Bill series, but which here achieves perfection in the way it seamlessly blends with the images on-screen to create emotional resonance. (I learn from IMDB that the score was composed first, and sequences shot to the music, the reverse of the usual order.) Most movie scores are said to be successful if they recede so far into the background as to be unnoticeable, but here it seems more like the score and the film exist for one another, and that evocation of the one will automatically produce the other.

Some have argued that this film is too slow-paced, that the nearly three-hour runtime could have been trimmed. In a sense, that's true, as certain sequences have more relation to mood than to plot, and probably could have been judiciously cut. But trying to generate a half-hour actioner from this material is to do a great disservice, as it is in the themes and the structure that greatness is achieved. I found myself engaged from beginning to end, transfixed by the imagery, willing it never to end but knowing that it inevitably must.

I realize I've said almost nothing about the actual content of Once Upon a Time in the West. Well, what can I say? This is a film that defies summary, that defies description, that deserves to be approached knowing as little as possible beforehand. Even by those who are not generally a fan of Westerns. Maybe even especially by those who are not generally fans of Westerns. When those final credits rolled and the bodies lay in the dust, when the score reached its crescendo and that railroad car came pushing into frame, I was astonished and amazed at the level of achievement. This is a great film worthy of any movie-lover's attention.

29 June 2008

Okay, So I'm Interested...

This might actually get me watching Law & Order: Criminal Intent again. I'm a big fan of the Goren and Eames characters, and I love the early seasons, but I always felt like Noth-as-Logan's more confrontational, less intellectual style was a bad fit for the series. Goldblum will most likely bring his inimitable weirdness to his half of the episodes and will be a much more consistent fit with D'Onofrio's Goren.

Now if they can just get rid of the horrible direction and musical score that have made the last season or two feel more like a horrible parody of a detective show than a respected part of the L&O pantheon, I'd be even happier.

27 June 2008

A Useful Comparison

Professional asshole Vox Day considers it "no loss" that George Carlin is dead:

I never thought George Carlin was funny. Not even a little bit. It wasn't due to his language or anything, whether it was Carlin's lame routine about seven words or his cameos in movies like Dogma, I just thought he was lame, boring, and obvious from the start and never saw any reason to change my opinion. His uttered wisdom, such as it was, seemed design to impress those with average IQs; they were chock full of the illusion of intelligence rather than anything approaching the real thing.
Oh, you rascally varmint Vox! Tell it like it is, man!

Then again, Vox is just begging for a comparison between his own putrid rumblings and Carlin's work, so I think it bears a moment of reflection. On the one hand, we have an entertainer with a five-decade resume, more than a dozen hourlong HBO specials dating back to the earliest days of HBO, three bestselling books, a legendary reputation among the most brilliant comedy minds currently working, and oh yeah, a Supreme Court win. On the other, you've got a guy who's done work on a few videogames, a free blog, and a handful of self-published science fiction books available for free download.

Now, I'm aware that history sometimes can be a bitch, but if we're looking to see which one of these men will have the most lasting effect on history, I'm betting on the rotting corpse.

I do, however, disagree with the commenter whom Vox responds to asking Vox to lay off the insults to Carlin. Vox describes Carlin thusly:
An individual who devoted his entire career to tearing down tradition and encouraging disrespect and believed that humans are nothing more than meaningless collections of atoms
His central misunderstanding of reality is to believe that this is in any way an insult. We are all meaningless collections of atoms; it is those who believe in magical fairies granting eternal paradise who deserve our scorn, not those who accept the world the way it is like an adult should.

23 June 2008

The Meaning Becomes Clear

A lot of writers whose blogs I read have been fiddling around with Wordle lately. I pasted in a few ebooks I had lying around and didn't really get anything interesting, but then I happened upon an interesting idea:

(Click to embiggen.)

It's the Project Gutenberg Etext of the King James Bible. Notice how tiny "Jesus" is there in the middle, and notice which words are most prominent in the text. But yeah, religion's not a tool for social control at all, right?

22 June 2008

Too Awesome Not to Share

I hate to post two videos in one day, but I just ran across this:

Big Ideas (don't get any) from James Houston on Vimeo.

It's my favorite song from the latest Radiohead album, played on various pieces of computer hardware. The good stuff starts about a minute into the video.

And strangely enough, the vocals are only slightly less coherent than in the original!

Myspace vs. Facebook

I swear, I still log in to my Myspace occasionally....

Beer Review, Castle Brewery Eggenberg Samichlaus Bier

Beer Review, Castle Brewery Eggenberg Samichlaus Bier

Bottled 2005.

Appearance: Pours dark orange-red, slight tinges of straight orange at the bottom, with an initially-thick head that things quickly, expected for-style. Transparent, with some bubbles clinging to the sides and bottom of the glass. Very nice presentation. 4.5/5

Smell: Rich, strongly alcoholic. Very malty, nutty. Hints of maple, perhaps? Very strong, very nuanced, deep aroma. 4.5/5

Taste: This one starts with a strong sweet flavor, which is then balanced by the strongly astringent alcohol. This is much stronger than a normal dopplebock, and at times it's a bit too strong, but overall this is a very nice flavor. As the beer warms the nuttiness and, yes, that maple-like taste, come to predominate. Some beer geeks will find either the sweetness or the alcohol too much, but I think it meshes together well, and overall I find it enjoyable. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, luscious, very strongly alcoholic. It burns the tongue and the palate at times, but an experience this nice justifies that intensity. 4.5/5

Drinkability: I wouldn't drink this every night, but it's amazingly smooth for a beer of its strength, more like a good Old Ale than a dopplebock, and I recommend it highly. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.3/5

21 June 2008

Beer Review, Avery India Pale Ale

Avery India Pale Ale

Appearance: Pours into my pint glass with a dark orange body and a thin soapscum head that stick around for awhile. Moderate effervescence from the bottom of the glass. Very transparent, no yeast apparent. 4.0/5

Smell: Heavy floral hops, bitter and refreshing. Hints of pine needles. The scent is complex and inviting but not overpowering. Nothing spectacular here, but pretty much note-perfect for the nose of an IPA. 4.0/5

Taste: Strong hops at the front, slightly dry on the back of the tongue. Sweetness follows, notes of citrus (oranges) and a touch of odd maltiness way in the back... caramel? Strange, but something in the flavor is twigging that sense impression. The complexity is interesting but again subtle, and it gets mostly buried by the heavy hop presence in the front. Dryness also becomes more pronounced as the beer warms -- that's the overall impression I'm left with as the beer gets towards the bottom. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, heavy carbonation, goes down clean. A bit thicker than your average IPA, good but nothing special. 3.5/5

Drinkability: This is a good IPA but not necessarily a great one. I'd take it above a lot of other beers of the style, but it's not a scratch on Sweetwater or Bridgeport, my two faves of that type. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.7/5

18 June 2008

The Happening Pro-ID?

At least, according to io9:

We get tipped off to the fact that this allegedly science fictional movie is really an ID tent revival in the opening scenes where Elliot teaches his science students about evolution. He explains to them that honeybees are disappearing all over the country, and asks what some possible explanations might be. Students who say things like "climate change" and "evolution" are dismissed as being "partly right." But then when a generally quiet student finally says, "It's an act of nature that we can't understand," Elliot lights up and says that's the best answer. That phrase "act of nature," which sounds suspiciously like "act of God," crops up in the movie again and again to explain why plants have suddenly decided to kill humans.

Not only that, but there's also some bullshit "pro-family" misogyny going on.

In the film's other major Christian-influenced subplot, we discover that Alma and Elliot have "been fighting" — not only does Alma have the gal to insist that they "wait to have children," but she also went out to dessert with a male colleague without telling Elliot. What? Dessert and lack of babies makes her evil? Apparently so. Julian hisses to Elliot that Alma basically isn't good wife material and that he doesn't trust her. One of the major plot points in the film is whether Alma can somehow be redeemed through her tribulations. And by redeemed, of course, I mean: Will she learn her proper place in her relationship with Elliot?


[At the end of the movie] Alma is ready to help repopulate: She dances out the door to meet Elliot coming home from work, bubbling over with the good news that she's pregnant. Praise Jesus! At last, Alma is doing what "nature" and "evolution" want her to do.

I haven't seen a Shyamalan movie since Unbreakable, and I have had no interest in seeing this one, but if it really is as bad as all that I guess I really should see it just for the culture wars aspect. I wasn't even a great fan of The Sixth Sense (see my original review here from that movie's original theatrical run), but plenty of people enjoyed it, so whatever. His films since then, however, have all been critically savaged to one degree or another -- is Shyamalan really just a one-trick pony whose religious and spiritual beliefs get in the way of telling a good story?

17 June 2008

Old People Fucking

This is about a week old, but I just ran across this post about a romance between two elderly patients with dementia in a nursing home.

Bob's family was horrified at the idea that his relationship with Dorothy might have become sexual. At his age, they wouldn't have thought it possible. But when Bob's son walked in and saw his dad's 82-year-old girlfriend performing oral sex on his 95-year-old father last December, incredulity turned into full-blown panic. "I didn't know where this was going to end," said the manager of the assisted-living facility where Bob and Dorothy lived. "It was pretty volatile."

Because both Bob and Dorothy suffer from dementia, the son assumed that his father didn't fully understand what was going on. And his sputtering cell phone call reporting the scene he'd happened upon would have been funny, the manager said, if the consequences hadn't been so serious. "He was going, 'She had her mouth on my dad's penis! And it's not even clean!' " Bob's son became determined to keep the two apart and asked the facility's staff to ensure that they were never left alone together.

Hmm, sounds like this is more a problem for the son than for the father....

After that, Dorothy stopped eating. She lost 21 pounds, was treated for depression, and was hospitalized for dehydration. When Bob was finally moved out of the facility in January, she sat in the window for weeks waiting for him. She doesn't do that anymore, though: "Her Alzheimer's is protecting her at this point," says her doctor, who thinks the loss might have killed her if its memory hadn't faded so...

We have lots of strange ideas about sex in our culture, but one of the most pernicious is this idea that old people don't want to "do it" anymore. It's one of our most basic and natural biological urges, and to expect elderly persons living in close contact not to have any kind of sexual response to one another is simply ridiculous.

My feeling: the two patients were making the best of the final years (months? weeks?) of their lives, and if that means violating their kids' sense of propriety or inconveniencing a nursing home worker or two, so be it. The solaces and comforts of advanced dementia are few and far enough between as it is; for some moral busybody to remove a very real (if ultimately temporary and fleeting) source of loving embraces (and, yes, sexual release) is to visit an evil on the world.

Yeah, dude, an old woman put your dad's cock in her mouth. Just hope that you're so lucky if and when you get to be that age.

16 June 2008

Beer Review, Black Wattle Superior Wattle Seed Ale

Barons Brewing Company Black Wattle Superior Wattle Seed Ale

Appearance: Dark brown body, clear, small bubbly head that dissipates almost immediately. 2.0/5

Smell: Clean, malty aroma, slightly sweet. Nutty, almost like a nice brown ale. Hints of chocolate and... cloves? Highly inviting aroma. 4.0/5

Taste: The subtleties apparent in the nose are lost on the tongue. Slightly sweet opener, somewhat malty, but overall a bit of a mush. Finishes a bit tarty, but without the sweetness that that would imply. It's clean but disappointing. 2.0/5

Mouthfeel: Very thin, with hints of chewiness occasionally with what I assume are wattle seeds. 2.0/5

Drinkability: Overall, this is a forgettable beer. The best part of this is the nose.2.0/5

Overall: 2.4/5