31 January 2009

Just Because I Can

One of my favorite bits from Louis CK. "Saddest Handjob."

I'm sorry to say that I've been there, not with the current girlfriend but in the past. There's more truth here exaggeration.

30 January 2009

Movielog, Body Heat

Body Heat, 1981
Written and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
113 minutes

In 1981, Lawrence Kasdan was the screenwriter of two of the highest-grossing films in cinema history, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. It is telling that aside from their commerical value, those two films would be the only ones in their respective series written by Kasdan and they are widely considered to be the greatest films in those series. In each case, Kasdan showed a knack for recycling old genres from the past (I hesitate to say "his youth" as Kasdan was born in 1949, long after the days of the movie serials the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series were based upon) and updating them with characters that felt real, that seemed as if they could step off the screen and into our world. The greatness of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that the film takes what could be a hoary old pulp story and injects its characters and situations with life and verve.

So for his directorial debut, Kasdan decided to do much the same thing for the noir films of the forties. Using Wilder's Double Indemnity as a template, Kasdan wrote a tight screenplay in which an everyman who thinks he's smarter than he is becomes infatuated with a femme fatale to disastrous results. And into this template Kasdan was able to use the more relaxed standards of the 1980s to make explicit in Body Heat what was buried beneath the surface in Double Indemnity. This is usually a path to failure for a film, as it ruins all the subtext in the original, but the film gods smiled on Kasdan and his cast and crew, and Body Heat became one of the great neo-noirs.

So successful is this film that a decade later Joe Eszterhas would use the same basic "neo-noir mixed with steamy sex" template to make Basic Instinct, which would then inspire a whole slew of even-worse imitators including basically every late-night Cinemax movie made between 1992 and 2000. And yet despite the slew of imitators and outright parodies, Body Heat retains its power to entertain, to shock, and yes, to arouse.

William Hurt is the everyman, a seedy and none-too-bright lawyer named Ned Racine. Ned eyes the beautiful and alluring Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) and immediately has to have her. The two spend the first twenty minutes or so of the movie in an elaborate dance of seduction, and when they finally are able to break through each other's shells, the fucking is amazing. And yeah, that's pretty much what they do -- rarely even today do we see films, especially mainstream box office hits bankrolled by major studios, that have this kind of frankness about sex and sexual desire. Turner was making her film debut here, and Hurt had appeared in only one other picture, but the chemistry between them is smoldering, and it is because of that easy sexual tension that you believe where the story goes from there.

Matty is married, you see, and after a time these two characters have gone from having a torrid affair to planning a murder. Unlike other films that try to justify this kind of action, Matty and Ned know how what they're doing is wrong. "We're going to kill him for no other reason than because we want him dead," Ned tells Matty as they begin to plan the murder, and that's exactly what they do. Matty's husband (Richard Crenna) is involved in some ill-defined criminal activity that involves him with some shady characters, and Racine gets one of his clients (a young Mickey Rourke in his breakout role) to make him a bomb -- he's going to burn the body and make it look like one of Mr. Walker's business associates did him in.

And so he does, but it wouldn't be noir if things went exactly as planned. Most of those reading this are probably already aware of some of the third-act twists of Body Heat even if they haven't already seen the film, but suffice to say that even with the knowledge of what awaits Racine at the end of the film, Kasdan's amazing script and assured direction maintain the audience's interest nonetheless. Ned is buddies with a county prosecutor played by Ted Danson, who has to resign himself to the fact that his friend is probably going down for murder. Racine tries to think his way around his problems, uses every tool at his disposal to avoid being caught, but there is a brief and nearly wordless scene towards the very end of the picture that shows us exactly how useless all those machinations really were.

The final shots leave the audience reeling, wondering how much of what was said was real and what it all meant. How much of what happened was planned? To what degree was Racine just a patsy? Did Matty really love Ned? It's interesting that throughout the film Matty tells Ned she loves him at least three times, but I don't recall an instance of him reciprocating to her. Matty's behavior is ambiguous even to those who know the end of Body Heat, and it is that element that makes her so real. Kasdan's script gives us just enough information to make guesses as to what she's actually done and how she did it without allowing us to come to any real conclusions. After the credits roll and as we consider the movie later, it's her character that keeps us interested, just as Barbara Stanwyck's character did in Double Indemnity. Body Heat isn't quite as accomplished as Wilder's 1944 classic, but to even think it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath is to give it enormous praise. One of the best of the modern noir pictures.

Rating: B+

27 January 2009

Beer Review, Third Coast Old Ale

Bell's Third Coast Old Ale
Comstock, MI
10.2% ABV

My 300th beer review.

Appearance: Opaque brown body, thick khaki-colored head that dissipates quickly. 4.0/5

Smell: Very sweet, citrusy. Notes of grapefruit and pineapple. Strongly yeasty, astringent with alcohol. An interesting and deep aroma with plenty of unexpected notes that nonetheless are intriguing. 4.5/5

Taste: Very "hot" with alcohol, beneath which are intense hops and a malty backbone. Sweet, dry on the finish. Leaves a somewhat fruity and dry aftertaste. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, with moderate carbonation and a strong hoppiness. 4.0/5

Drinkability: I like this beer fresh, but I'd be fascinated to see how well it ages. I may cellar a few for a year or two to see if the alcohol becomes less prominent over time. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.1/5

26 January 2009

SF&F Novels You Must Read

There's this meme floating around in which you take the newest list of "books you must read" and bold the ones that you've actually read. I'm also going to do what the poster I got the link from did, and italicize the ones I own or plan to read soon.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) And have seen the BBC version and the USA (Martin Freeman) version of the film.
Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951) I've read all of the sequels as well, but have yet to read the prequels.
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
JG Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
JG Ballard: Crash (1973)
JG Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995) Interesting pick. This might be my favorite Stephen Baxter book, but it doesn't get a lot of love.
Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)
William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956) Personally I prefer The Demolished Man, but this one is also excellent.
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)
Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) I almost shouldn't count these, since I read them when I was about ten.
Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) Started it but got sidetracked. Been meaning to get back to it ever since reading (and loving) The Yiddish Policeman's Union.
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953) Is there a more perfect example of a great SF novel from the fifties?
GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000) Own it, haven't read it.
Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967) I bought several Delaney novels used in Chattanooga, but so far I've only read Nova.
Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962) No Flow My Tears...?
Thomas M Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984) Which reminds me, I really need to review Pattern Recognition.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915) From the Project Gutenberg etext.
William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974) But neither of the sequels.
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) If you're only going to read one Heinlein, this should be the one. And on a bad day I might just tell you to only read this one....
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965) Been wanting to re-read for awhile now.
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925) Own it, haven't read it.
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966) Read it when I was a kid and even saw the movie that was based on it a few years ago.
Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990)
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961) But haven't seen either of the movies.
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
MG Lewis: The Monk (1796)
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954) Bought it when the movie came out, haven't read it.
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006). Blech.
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970). It's on the list, I promise!
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996) Is this really SF?
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- ) The whole series? No, but I've read the first and have heard they get much better from there.
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000) Love 'em.
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000) Yes, recently, in fact.
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) All seven read in about six weeks after the seventh book was released.
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)
Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992) This has more historical importance, but I don't think Snow Crash is his best book.
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) Once.
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959) Not Slaughterhouse V?
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951) No, but I've seen the movie.
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Lots of interesting stuff. The whole point of these kinds of lists is to start discussions and arguments, so any comments?

25 January 2009

Beer Review, Stone Cat ESB

Mercury Brewing Company Stone Cat ESB
Ipswitch, MA
Unknown ABV

Appearance: Light brown, hazy, moderately carbonated, with a thick just-slightly-off-white head. Head is foamy and filled with large bubbles. Leaves some lacing. 4.0/5

Smell: Not a lot of aromatics at all. The temperature seems right, but there's little aroma here aside from a dry maltiness. Perhaps a hint of citrus. 2.5/5

Taste: A true English Bitter. A crisp dry hoppiness up front, with a nutty and malty sweetness on the back end. Very dry finish. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thinner than expected, but not by much. Higher carbonation than expected, but not by much. Goes down smooth and clean despite the dryness on the finish. 3.5/5

Drinkability: A good beer worth drinking, but not something I'll be seeking out in the future. 3.0/5

Overall: 3.55/5

23 January 2009

Beer Review, Leinenkugel Fireside Nut Brown Ale

Leinenkugel Fireside Nut Brown Ale
Chippewa Falls, WI
4.9% ABV

Okay, I call shenanigans. I'm usually on board with BeerAdvocate's style listings even when they don't quite match my experience, but there's no way this is a Winter Warmer. Reviewing as a Brown Ale.

Appearance: Dark brown/orange, clear but opaque due to coloration, with a thick khaki-colored head that sticks around and leaves some lacing. 4.0/5

Smell: Rich with sweet roasted malts, syrupy. Very nutty, of course, with hints of dark hops and yeast. It's within the guidelines for a nut brown, but it's almost more like a dopplebock in aroma than a brown. 4.5/5

Taste: Strong sweet hazelnut flavors, slightly astringent, dry but cloying on the finish. A bit more complexity than you usually get from a brown, but not exactly the most pleasant complexity, if you get my drift. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thicker than expected, goes down smooth. 3.5/5

Drinkability: This is a bit sweet and syrupy for my taste, but it's a decent brown ale and the price is usually right. 4.0/5

Overall: 3.85/5

22 January 2009

Booklog, Liberation

Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, 2008
Tor Books
299 pages

What a wonder is Brian Francis Slattery. His first novel, Spaceman Blues is one of the most assured debuts I've ever read, a comic-book plot wrung through a humanistic lens and written in the kind of prose that would make Harlan Ellison and William Gibson weep. His second novel is even more astonishing -- with a half measure of Philip K. Dick another half of Kurt Vonnegut, and a full overheaping measure of none other than Thomas Pynchon on his more communicative days, Liberation is beautifully written with impeccable prose styling, contains characters that make you cringe and weep in equal measure, and is astonishing throughout its length. The fact that it doesn't wear out its welcome and reaches a conclusion in less than three hundred pages is nothing short of astonishing.

Take a gander at that title, clause by clause, in reverse:

After the Collapse of the United States of America. This is a post-apocalyptic story, to be sure, but it's not the ecological disaster of The Road or the zombie infestation of World War Z, or even the nuclear winter of too-many-to-count. Instead, Slattery's novel takes place at some unspecified time in the near future, approximately four years after an economic collapse of the United States. And when I say the United States, I mean it -- the glimpses we see of the rest of the world seem to indicate that things have basically gone on as usual, with a bit of a slowdown given that the world's largest consumer of cheap crap has gone down the tubes. Slattery is a writer on international economic issues, and his expertise gives this element of the book the intellectual heft it needs to be plausible, despite never really going into detail about the precise mechanisms of the economic collapse.

As has been noted in many other reviews of the novel, Slattery's vision of this post-collapse America is similar in many ways to nineteenth-century America. Cities maintain their own defensive networks and sovereignty, protection of individual rights tends to lie with the individual working alone with whatever means are at his or her disposal, and certain, well, institutions have made a resurgence. The destruction of the US government has created a power vacuum into which the master criminal the Aardvark has stepped -- he is called the Emperor of America and rules New York with something of an iron fist... although we later learn that perhaps being in charge isn't quite the boon you'd think.

Being the Adventures of the Slick Six. If the setting seems scarily real, the characters populating this landscape are straight out of the pulpiest of pulp fiction. The abovementioned Aardvark is the antagonist to the titular "Six," a group of master criminals who owe more to Ocean's 11 than anything in the real world. They are "the ones who pulled off impossible crimes, who stole houses from those who lived in them, drew millions upon millions out of the margins of error in the currency market, spirited jewels and paintings out of vaults and museums and into the black market, where money flew huge and invisible through the ether." First among equals in the group is Marco, a refugee from Latin America with the kind of violent past that makes those in City of God seem bucolic by comparison.

Marco is a killer among killers, death for anyone who gets in his way, and it is largely through his journey across the hulking remains of the US as he puts his team back together that we see many of the amazing sights that Slattery has planned out for us. The past bleeds into the present and the future lends its eye back to the past as Slattery tells us the story of Cyclone Cal, who builds a maniacal magical circus that destroys all it touches. The humble but proud residents who chose not to flee Los Angeles for the shores of East Asia and instead let stories of their own cannibalism spread to the few rich people who helicopter from tower to tower so as not to let anyone know how good they have it now. The endless Burning-Man like cycle of parties that is the new Las Vegas. And the drug-fueled mystical journey across the new continent engaged in by the Americoids, a group of hippies who give voice to the magical Vibe that gives knowledge and wisdom to those that deserve it... sometimes. And Marco's going to need it, because his final goal is nothing less than:

Liberation. For in this future America slavery has resurfaced, and as penance for the corpses that he has left across continents in the pre-collapse world, Marco feels driven to free the slaves. Which means rebuilding something of the old America out of the new. Which further means taking down the unbeatable Aardvark, who has a few aces up his sleeves as well.

I've done a poor job of summarizing this novel. For the most part, it's unsummarizable. As crazy as the above sounds, I've probably made Liberation seem much more conventional than it actually is. Slattery proves with this book that he isn't a one-trick pony, and indeed is shaping up to be one of the most vital new writers of the not-so-new-anymore century. Liberation, I am sure, will be a novel I will be revisiting from time to time for the rest of my life. If there is a second coming of Thomas Pynchon (who, of course, is still alive), it's going to come in the form of Brian Francis Slattery.

Rating: A

21 January 2009

Movielog, Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading, 2008
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
96 minutes

Always zigging just when you think they're going to zag, the Coen brothers follow up their brilliant minimalist crime drama No Country For Old Men with a zany spy comedy that doesn't add up to much... but then, it's not really trying to.

Summarizing the plot is pretty much impossible. There's an intelligence analyst (John Malkovich) who is fired in the opening scene of the movie for problems with alcohol and who may or may not have mislaid a CD with what may or may not have been "secret spy shit." The CD is discovered at a cookie-cutter gym called Hardbodies by some of the employees, two of whom attempt to get a "reward" for returning it back to its rightful owner. It probably tells you enough about these characters that they are played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, the latter of whom is at his most insanely moronic. And there's a philandering Federal Marshall played by George Clooney who seems to have dreams of a very different career and who sublimates that into a series of meaningless affairs with women on the internet.

I could lie to you and pretend that the whole thing makes some sort of cohesive sense in the end, but that would be foolish -- the Coens have gone to a lot of time and effort to keep this stuff firmly in the "shaggy dog" territority, and who am I to argue? These characters (and many more) rotate through a series of set pieces that for the most part feel like random bits and pieces that the Coens couldn't quite fit into a larger screenplay, but mostly work anyway. The plot's not the point, here, instead we're supposed to appreciate the madcap hilarity of the individual pieces and the willingness to "go there" exhibited by these performers.

Some of the moments in the film are indisputably hilarious (my favorite being an exchange between Clooney and McDormand in a basement) and some of the performances are inspired (Pitt does what may be the best work of his career here and nearly convinces me that he's not one of the most attractive men in the Western world), but just as often the film seems to think it's a lot funnier and more clever than it really is. It may seem churlish to complain that some of the subplots go basically nowhere (that is, after all, the point) but 90 minutes with these characters was more than enough for me, and I found myself struggling to remember the beginning of the film at the end. Personally, I'd love to see a whole movie about the Malkovich character, probably the only one of the main cast with intelligence to burn, and a couple of cutaways to J. K. Simmons' intelligence man are classic comedy that seem somehow better than the movie they're in.

Burn After Reading is somewhat polarizing. I don't think it's a bad film necessarily, but it's a bit of an unsatisfying one. It's an amusing ride while it lasts and it's hard not to admire the artistry with which it was constructed, but a day later I find myself wishing the film had had a bit more meat on the bones. The high points are really, really good, but they're a bit too few and far between for this to really make the top ranks of Coen Brothers films, even Coen Brothers comedies.

Rating: B-

Beer Review, Weihenstephaner Festbier

Weihenstephaner Festbier
Freising, Germany
5.8% ABV

Appearance: Very light yellow body (so light as to be almost white), almost completely transparent with only a slight haziness. Some bubbles in glass, very thick white foamy head that sticks around. I normally like my oktoberfests a bit darker, but otherwise this is a very nice presentation. 4.0/5

Smell: Rich, malty, very yeasty. Somewhat earthy, hints of... cherries? Just that slight note of sweetness at the bottom to give it a bit of interest. 4.0/5

Taste: Heavy on the roasted malts up front, with a nice sweet yeasty backbone and a clean but dry finish. Goes down smooth, leaves a dry malty aftertaste. Very enjoyable. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, hardly any carbonation at all. Slightly chewy, especially towards the bottom of the bottle. 4.0/5

Drinkability: This was a bit of a find for me, as my local has a sixer for $7.99. At that price it's a steal. The Weihenstephaner bottles claim that they are "the world's oldest brewery" and with this level of quality it's totally understandable why they'd still be around. Pretty much a perfect beer with which to relax inside when there's a foot of snow outside. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.25/5

19 January 2009

Noted for Posterity

Blake Stacey apparently reads the same blogs I do.

I know from reading him that he, like me, is a big fan of Asimov, so I'm not exactly surprised to see our brains moving in similar circles, but still... I posted first, Blake.


The Unshelved Book Club has rarely been more up my alley than with this entry:

I don't actually think that George Lucas specifically ripped off The Foundation Trilogy when he wrote Star Wars, but clearly Lucas's most famous works rely greatly on science fiction tropes and ideas that were utilized so well in Asimov's work. (For that matter, Asimov could hardly claim to have invented a lot of those same tropes, since E. E. Smith's Lensman series did it decades before Asimov.) While I don't consider any of the Foundation books to be Asimov's masterworks, they're among the most famous works of the early days of science fiction, and it's always nice to see them getting their props.

It's ironic that this was posted just as this news came out:

Columbia won an auction late Thursday for screen rights to "Foundation," Isaac Asimov's ground breaking science fiction trilogy. The film will be developed as a directing vehicle for Roland Emmerich.

Emmerich and his Centropolis partner Michael Wimer will produce the film. The deal was mid six-figures against low seven figures.

Roland Emmerich? Directing Foundation? Okay, so this isn't the absolutely worst news that we could hear -- it could be Paul W.S. Anderson at the helm. But with such a classic piece of SF that's been in and out of development for at least a decade, I wish that we could get someone with a little bit more vision for the themes of the story rather than relying on spectacle -- we need a Peter Jackson to tackle this project, and instead we're getting the guy whose best movie so far is Independence Day.

Who do I think could tackle this and give it the respect it deserves? Personally I'd vote for Darren Aronofsky, but that's just a pipe dream...

Beer Review, Agave Wheat

Breckenridge Agave Wheat
Denver, CO
Unknown ABV

Appearance: Yellow body, hazy, with a thin but persistent foamy white head. Some effervescence. Not bad. 4.0/5

Smell: Strong aromas of citrus, slightly dry. Has a very yeasty nose. Has approximately the same aromatics as every other American Pale Wheat Ale I've tried. 3.0/5

Taste: Strongly citrus, somewhat "gritty" -- earthy, perhaps? Finishes sweet, leaves a slightly cloying aftertaste. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thicker than average for the style, slightly chewy. 4.0/5

Drinkability: For an APWA, this is actually not bad at all. The style usually leaves a lot to be desired, but this one is a nice quaffer. I probably wouldn't buy it again, but that's more a personal preference thing for the style than anything else. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.55/5

16 January 2009

Beer Review, St. Bernardus Prior 8

St. Bernadus Prior 8
Watou, Belgium
8.0% ABV

Appearance: Dark brown body that edges into black. Completely opaque, no light shines through. Has a very thick foamy head that leaves significant lacing. Head is foamy with heterogenously-sized bubbles. Excellent. 5.0/5

Smell: Tart alcohol up front, with dark roasty nuttiness underneath. Sweet, hints of nutmeg. Inviting, very much to-style for a dubbel. Slightly astringent. 4.5/5

Taste: As per-style, a strongly alcohol-tinged nuttiness is primary. There's a hint of Belgian funk, with a sweet and yeasty aftertaste. The alcohol is a touch overdone and overall the beer lacks complexity, but it's good and I'll definitely finish the bottle. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, somewhat chewy. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Not quite as good as this brewery's other offerings, but a nice dubbel. I have friends who would probably like this a lot better than I do. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.3/5

14 January 2009

Beer Review, Arcadia IPA

Arcadia IPA
Battle Creek, MI
5.9% ABV

Appearance: Orangish-yellow, very hazy, with a thin white head that sticks around. Pretty much perfect for the English IPA style. 4.5/5

Smell: Crisp white hops with a slight citrus underneath. Strong notes of grapefruit and hints of lemon. 4.5/5

Taste: Strong lemon flavor up front, followed by a crisp hoppiness. Finishes dry but also sweet. As with a lot of English IPAs, it's very slightly cloying. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate carbonation, high hops. Thickness moderate. 4.0/5

Drinkability: A very nice English IPA. Love to try it on-tap at some point. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.2/5

12 January 2009

Beer Review, Scarlet Lady Ale

Stoudt's Scarlet Lady Ale (ESB)
Adamstown, PA
5.0% ABV

Appearance: Orange-brown body, thin off-white head that dissipates quickly. No effervescence, slightly hazy but mostly clear. 4.0/5

Smell: Sweet malty aroma, slightly dry. Notes of caramel -- slightly yeasty. Inviting. 4.0/5

Taste: Sweet caramel maltiness up front, slightly hoppy in the middle, with a very dry finish. Sweet and pleasant aftertaste. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, smooth, little carbonation. Slight bite from the hops. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Yep, this one's four-point-oh's all the way down. A very enjoyable ESB, perhaps a bit weak on the bitters for the style, but overall very nice. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.0/5

Why I'm Not Planning on Seeing Bride Wars anytime soon.

From Massawyrm over at AICN:

Imagine if Nora Ephron awoke from a dream to pencil down a half baked idea based upon having watched Rushmore just hours before and then that notepad was stolen by someone with no imagination whatsoever that wanted nothing more than to set feminism back 20 years or so. That’s Bride Wars. Lacking a single enjoyable, or hell, even palatable moment, this film meanders from lame girly revenge moment to lame girly revenge moment as two women who were at one time lifelong friends, seek to completely humiliate the other by dying their hair blue, giving them a super orange tan or tricking them into overeating so they won’t fit into their wedding dress. For 90 cringe inducing minutes.

Yeah. It’s Mean Girls for the ladies that found that film a little too cerebral.

So, yeah. If just seeing the trailer wasn't enough to make you want to avoid Bride Wars like a drunken WWII-era sailor avoids the hooker with the mouth sores, this should certainly help.

(Yes, I'm writing this while under the influence of alcohol. Why do you ask?)

07 January 2009

Beer Review, Penn Weizen

Pennsylvania Brewing Company Penn Weizen
Pittsburgh, PA
5% ABV

Well, shiver me timbers, it's a real-life American-made hefeweizen.

Appearance: Very cloudy yellow, slightly orange. Opaque even to direct light sources. Has a thick foamy head that sticks around and leaves significant lacing. 4.5/5

Smell: Yeah, it's a real hefe. Strong German yeastiness on the nose, hints of cloves and thick aromas of banana. Some citrus way down deep. 4.0/5

Taste: Sweet with a slight hint of orange rind up front, very dry and yeasty in the middle, with a bit of a tart finish. The citrus is complex and intriguing, and overall leaves me wanting more. Very good flavor. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, slightly chewy. The way a German hefe should be. 4.5/5

Drinkability: It's not the equal of my favorite hefeweizen, but it's definitely in the same ball park. I opened this expecting a dumbed-down American Wheat, and simply on that basis I must say I'm really impressed. This is a truly effective technically-accomplished German hefeweizen, and any fan of the style should at least give it a try. 4.5/5

Overall 4.2/5

06 January 2009

Movielog, Zodiac

Zodiac, 2007
Written by James Vanderbilt
Based on the book by Robert Graysmith
Directed by David Fincher
162 minutes

I think one of the most annoying film tropes of the last couple of decades is the prevalence of what I like to call the "grandmaster criminal" -- you know the type, it's the serial killer/bank robber/whatever who is so on-the-ball, so ahead-of-the-game, that he (or she, although I can't think of a female example off the top of my head) can see several moves ahead of those pursuing him, know things he can't possibly know, and in general just be omnisciently threatening. (This is probably my single biggest gripe with The Dark Knight.) Done occasionally and done well, this is the kind of thing that can be creepy, even downright terrifying -- the killer knows everything about you and you have to be even smarter to survive. It's such an effective technique, though, that it's been used in countless movies and TV shows (there was even an episode of Law & Order: SVU in which the detectives chased a rapist/murderer who "left clues" for them to find) and, to my mind, has lost much of its power. Oh, of course the killer can see through brick walls and know exactly where you keep your weapon and can figure out the name of your daughter etc etc etc.

While this trope really got its start with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps its greatest usage was to be found a few years later, in Seven, David Fincher's brilliant serial killer thriller. Seven's killer, played by Kevin Spacey, leaves a sequence of bread crumbs for the cops to follow, taunts the police in 911 calls, and generally plays the whole chessmaster serial killer game like a fiddle. Its finale is the climax of the killer's game, and despite the gaps in logic works like a sucker-punch to the unsuspecting viewer. (The viewer is not very likely to be sucker-punched, however, as the ending was so amazing as the be endlessly parodied and is simply a part of pop culture today.)

All of this is a prelude to the subject at hand, for I feel that David Fincher's newest serial killer film is a sort of reversal of what he did with Seven; if not a repudiation of the trope, it's certainly a counterexample. Zodiac is based on the details of a very famous real-life serial killer who has never been captured, and so instead of being about meticulous planning and brilliant planning on the part of the killer, is really about the frustration and weight that set in when desire becomes obsession becomes failed multi-year obsession. The zodiac killer captivates the San Fransisco Bay area for years and is never caught, partly due to the fact that he is good at covering his tracks, but mostly through simple police miscommunication and missed evidence.

After an opening showing the Zodiac's first killing (actually his second, but that's a detail that will come out later), the film introduces us to Robert Graysmith, played admirably by Jake Gyllenhall. Graysmith is a cartoonist with the San Francisco Chronicle, and would eventually go on to write two best-selling books about the Zodiac case (which I have not read), upon which this film is based. In writer James Vanderbilt and Fincher's hands, Graysmith is portrayed as a clean-living but naive kid who gets involved in the mystery primarily through his love of puzzles. The Zodiac sends the Chronicle a cypher, you see, and Graysmith eventually figures out that the knowledge needed to come up with the code could be found using only a handful of books from the public library.

He gives this information to Robert Downey Jr., electrifyingly portraying Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. Avery is a hard-partying kind of guy with a bottle of booze in his desk and numerous implied sexual liaisons -- his first reaction to Graysmith's information is to wonder aloud what the kid's angle is in trying to solve the mystery. Over time the two will share information and interpretations on the case without ever really becoming friends.

While the first killings were outside SF proper, eventually the Zodiac strikes a cab driver in the city, bringing in a pair of homicide detectives led by David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Toschi is the real-life detective on whom Steve McQueen based his Bullitt character, and Ruffalo captures a kind of rumpled charm and keen intellect that is generally the goal for movie detectives, but rarely achieved as well as here. In contrast with Seven's fictional detectives who use brilliant psychological insight to catch their man, Ruffalo has precious little information with which to guide him, and over the years shown in the film becomes more and more weary of the world in general and the case specifically. Late in the film Toschi will see Dirty Harry, loosely based on the Zodiac killings, and will walk out of the theater in disgust.

If my descriptions of Zodiac seem meandering and pointless, it's largely because the whole film is largely just a sort of big shaggy dog story. Characters show up and seem important only to be discarded minutes later, erstwhile protagonists disappear for much of the film's running length, and while the film finds a sort of resolution towards the end, it's far from certain what has actually transpired in the murders themselves. I'm stepping lightly over the details of the investigation, because so much of the pleasure of the film comes from the slow accumulation of evidence over the nearly three-hour running time. Graysmith the real-life author obviously believes that he has figured out the solution to the Zodiac killings, and the movie shows his version, but a quick perusal of websites devoted to the Zodiac case show that Graysmith's version is, at best, far from the only interpretation of the events.

This, really, becomes a weakness of the film. Fincher is smart enough to leave plenty of room for doubt that Graysmith's version of events is the real one, but in the need for some sort of "resolution" the film ignores other points of view. Of course Robert Graysmith is the hero of the movie based on his own book, but other long-term enthusiasts of the case find his book self-aggrandizing and that he overlooks contradictory evidence in his attempt to put forward his own theory of the crime.

The film's other major flaw is the subplot about Graysmith's home life with his wife, played by Chloe Sevigny. Sevigny is a good actress and does what she can with the part, and it is she who provides a sort of counterpoint to Gyllenhall's obsessions towards the end of the film, but she doesn't have a lot of material with which to work, and ends up seeming like the kind of nagging wife that always seems to be in the background of the hero's home life in an action movie. It would have been best to just drop the personal stuff altogether, I think, as these sequences weigh down the narrative just when it needs to be sprinting to the finish.

Overall, Zodiac is an amazingly-acted and well-written film about a real-life incident that somehow leaves the viewer feeling empty. It's absorbing through its length and of course (this being a David Fincher film) technically superb, but in the week since I watched it I find that very little sticks in my mind. It is to be appreciated for telling the story of a real serial killer without the flashiness and other thriller-like elements so overused in Grandmaster Killer movies and is a very entertaining way of spending its running time, but Graysmith's self-aggrandizing and a slew of logical holes in the thillerish finish tend to make this more of a simple entertainment than a Film For the Ages.

For my money, the best David Fincher film I've seen is still Panic Room. Heresy, I know.

Rating: B

01 January 2009

Movielog, Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure, 2008
Directed by Errol Morris
116 minutes

A click of a shutter and maybe a flash of light, and a tiny piece of the universe is captured for a tiny fraction of a second. That's a photograph. Into that tiny little segment of recorded spacetime we the viewer project ourselves, our culture, our own biases and preconceptions. What happened before and after this moment? What was going on right outside the frame? By definition no photo can possibly tell us, which is part of the power and the limitation of photography as a medium.

The most famous photographs of the last few years were the photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison during the early days of the Iraq War. One's opinions of what exactly these photos depict seems to depend largely on factors that are outside the frame -- is what is happening simply a sort of "fraternity hazing?" Is it criminal activity? Crimes of war? All or none of the above? To see these photos now is to delve into a morass of political, legal, and moral gray area; these photos are now documents of recent history, and yet the photos themselves are so devoid of context that it is nearly impossible to gain any sort of factual foothold on what is depicted therein.

It is a mark of the genius of the great documentarian Errol Morris that he avoids many of the political pitfalls that arise from viewing these photos. Standard Operating Procedure is not a political film and does not take sides in the debate over these photos in general, the treatment of Iraqi detainees in general, or the Iraq War in its larger context. (That documentary would be the amazing Taxi to the Dark Side, which deals for most of its length about the details of who, exactly, is responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and at other prison systems used in the War on Terror.) Instead, Morris focuses almost entirely on providing the simple context for the photos -- what was happening outside of the frame? How do the persons depicted in the photos feel about them? What were they thinking, doing? What was going on outside the walls?

Along the way, Morris interviews quite a few of the individuals who participated in or witnessed the photos being taken, including Lynndie England, who claimed that what she did, she did for the love of Specialist Charles Graner. Graner was 34 at the time of the incidents and sleeping with the 20-year-old England, and is the alleged father of England's child. (Graner is currently serving sentence for his crimes and was not allowed to be interviewed by the Army.) Also interviewed is Sabrina Harman, she of the "thumbs-up" gesture, whose moving letters to her girlfriend Kelly figure prominently in the film. In these letters she discusses the abuses that she and those around her perpetrate, and seems to have an injured conscience. Another interviewee for the film, one of the investigators of the abuse, believes that her smiling face and thumbs-up gestures are real, and not faked. It is another of the strengths of Morris's film (like most of his films) that Morris never tips his hand, never tells us which interpretation of these photos that he himself supports. His dispassionate camera merely records -- the judgments are left to the viewer.

This is not the definitive film about Abu Ghraib, or even of the photos themselves. Morris does miraculous things with what he has, but the nearness of the history will doubtless prove that many events portrayed in the film will have more accurate interpretations in the future. In particular, I'd be interested in listening to Graner's interpretation of these events -- in most photos, he seems to be instigating the action. But Standard Operating Procedure is a masterpiece of tone, and in allowing us to understand the larger context of these photos, in succeeds admirably. No one with an interest in this scandal or in the nature of photography in general should miss this film for the "big picture" it helps to provide. In the end, a picture may tell a thousand words, but in most cases its the million words around that that provide the real story.

Rating: A-