28 February 2009

Beer Review, Cru D'Or

Cru D'Or Organic Belgian Style Ale
Fort Bragg, CA
8.0 % ABV

Appearance: Reddish-brown body, thick head that dissipates slowly. Head is creamy and bubbly. No significant effervescence. 4.0/5

Smell: Sweet cherries up front, slightly malty backbone. Slight Belgian funkiness. Aroma is mostly sweet and fruity, a bit monoaromatic, but decent. 3.5/5

Taste: Belgian yeasty tartness very strong up-front, with a strong flavor of chocolate-covered cherries immediately after and in the aftertaste. Very sweet, so sweet that it overwhelms the nuttiness that I'd expect from a dubbel. The alcohol is well-hidden, as there's no astringency here despite the 8% ABV. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate for a dubbel, which is still fairly thick by beer standards. No carbonation present. 3.5/5

Drinkability: It's a bit cloying over the long term. It's okay but hardly worthy of North Coast's best efforts. 3.5/5


27 February 2009

Movielog, Perfume

Perfume: The Story of A Murderer, 2006
Written by Andrew Birkin & Bernd Eichinger & Tom Tykwer
Based on the novel by Patrick Suskind
Directed by Tom Tykwer
147 minutes

This movie makes me really worried about the Watchmen adaptation due out in a couple of weeks. Why? Because right now the trailer for Watchmen make it look like the people in charge of the project have kept the vast majority of the story intact, focused on all the amazing details of the worldbuilding, and have in general loved the graphic novel as much as I have.

And watching Perfume, I realized that it keeps the vast majority of the story of Patrick Suskind's novel intact, focuses on the amazing details of the historical world in which the novel takes place, and the makers clearly loved the novel at least as much I did. And they made a portentious, dull movie that completely misses the aspect of the book that I thought was most important.

It's been a couple of years since I read the book, but the impression that I got most clearly from it was a sort of total, almost gleeful, misanthropy. Nearly every character in Perfume is evil, short-sighted, stupid, shallow, or some combination of the above. The handful of characters that cannot be described as such generally get completely undeserved unhappy endings, and everybody's life basically sucks. Life is short, painful, smelly, and every man and woman is out for his or her own ends. This feeds into one of the most important bits of metaphor in the novel, the connection of scent with base human desires, i.e. the inability of the characters in the novel to see rationally past the tips of their noses. When the climactic final set piece occurs in the book, it's ridiculous, absurd, and completely fits in with the idea that people are basically just rutting animals -- when the same scene takes place in the book (and I do give the filmmakers credit for having the huevos to include it!) it's a romantic and amazing sequence, with the focus being more on the beauty of what is happening rather than the insanity of it all.

(I realize that in the last paragraph I have committed the sin of equating "base instincts" with "immoral behavior," and have drawn at least a fuzzy line between animal behavior and human behavior. This is purely a bit of rhetorical shorthand, for I am fully aware of the fact that human beings are animals, and that many of our most moral impulses come directly from the biochemistry of evolved behavior rather than from rarefied intellectual response. My point is that Suskind is using scent as a shorthand for selfish base impulses, which connects with the behavior shown in the book.)

That said, director Tom Tykwer is incredibly talented, and at first the film looks like it's almost a sure thing. Aside from a short pre-credits sequence showing the main character Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) in chains awaiting his execution, the opening of the film is nearly identical to that of the novel. Suskind's novel was widely considered unfilmable due to the problems portraying scent on-screen, but that is not the problem of Tykwer's version: the opening sequence captures the horrible smells of eighteenth century France remarkably well, and when we learn of Grenouille's powers of scent later on, it is through visual inspection as much as through narration. Setting the stage of this remarkable young man is an amazingly difficult feat, and if we're taking "degree of difficulty" into consideration when talking about films, Perfume is at least worth your time on that level.

No, it's on more prosaic issues that the film proves itself less than worthy of the source material. A number of minor quibbles begin to add up in the mind and create a less-than-stellar movie experience. The first is an obtrusive voiceover narration that seems more fit for a fractured fairly tale like Pushing Daisies than this kind of strange horror story. A narrator is necessary to get across some of the details of the film, and John Hurt probably isn't a bad choice, but the writing tends more towards whimsy than it should, which gives the film a rather uneven tone.

Another issue with Perfume is the amount of star-fucking that's going on. I'm sure the producers were ecstatic to get two big-name stars to portray key supporting roles in the film, but Tykwer leans on his stars a bit too heavily. Dustin Hoffman is an Italian perfumer named Baldini, and spends much of his short role being the kind of bumbling fool that Hoffman plays so well. Hoffman isn't exactly badly-cast, for his performance is funny and affecting in the right ways, but his presence is a bit unbalancing for the film, drawing screentime and resources towards himself. Hoffman has the ability to play a bit dark and menacing, but here he unwisely plays his role completely buffoonish, even in his darkest moments a clown.

But this is a minor gripe compared with Alan Rickman's Richis, member of the French nobility whose daughter is one of Grenouille's targets. On the whole Rickman is closer to the tone required of his role than Hoffman, but his storyline is puffed up by Tykwer and the other screenwriters of Perfume until the second half of the film drags considerably. Rickman is probably the smartest character in the movie, a man who figures out in a general way what the then-unknown murderer is doing before anyone else, and his desire to keep his daughter safe from the monster is palpable, the efforts he goes to in order to secure her admirable. But the audience knows from the prologue of Perfume (actually, earlier than that, given the subtitle of the film) that Grenouille will be caught and tried for his crimes: pacing the second half of the film like a thriller is gratutious and gets in the way of the story. It's like the film begins to drag its feet just as it should be soaring. It's not that the screenwriters have added extraneous material (I believe that most of the events of the film are recounted also in the novel) so much as they have lingered on the details of Grenouille's attacks and the town's response when they could have been darting for the finish. The details of how Grenouille catches his victims are routine, while his reasons for doing so are fascinating, and the film focuses on the former when it could be examining the latter.

I've struggled a bit with the rating here. A B really doesn't summarize my feelings on the film. I'm unlikely to want to revisit it anytime soon, which would indicate a lower rating, but I realize that much of the film is really superbly done and that those who haven't read the book may be able to overlook some of the things that I could not. Tykwer and his writers have found a version of this story that is probably justified by the text, although I feel they've missed the forest for the trees a bit in terms of execution. There's a whole lot to like here, but as a fan of the novel I think it's largely a missed opportunity.

So... who's still eager for that midnight showing of Watchmen?


26 February 2009

Obligatory Oscar Post

I know I'm about a week behind, but Shana and I DVR'd the Oscars this year and we only got around to watching them last night. A few comments.

General Oscar Stuff

Every year we get the same talk about how the Oscars are hidebound, reactionary, never honor the right films, etc. etc. We also seem to continually get comments from the conservative wingnutosphere about how liberal the Oscars are, and how they should be honoring movies that people actually see rather than commie Oscar Bait movies. (Big Hollywood just gave them a place to sun themselves -- those of us who pay attention have been seeing the same whining for years.)

Here's my take. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an industry association, really no different in principle from any one of a million professional groups that will be renting out conference rooms in airport hotels across the country this year holding their annual suit-and-tie banquet dinners and award ceremonies. The Oscars are ruled by exactly the same kind of inside politicking and the same Old Guard that would be picking "Best Tire Salesman" in another context, and that's pretty much precisely as it should be. The Independent Spirit Awards are a much more reliable gauge of quality, and tend to pick the kinds of idiosyncratic flicks that people like you and I probably think deserve to be honored. If the Oscars are a bit old-fashioned, that's just the price we pay for the prestige and history of the award. Usually, certainly not always, but usually, Oscar oversights are corrected in the long run, anyway.

And as far as the populist argument goes, consider the top-grossing movies of the year. Admittedly, 2008 was a pretty good year as far as the top-earners were concerned, but do we really want to start giving Oscars to movies like Horton Hears a Who (10th highest grosser of 2008), Marley and Me (14th), or (shudder) Twilight, the seventh highest grosser of the year? 2007 was even worse -- you don't get to a really good movie until you get to number 15, and that was Juno. The Oscars tend to honor middlebrow artsy films made within the studio system that make middling amounts of money, and it's likely to stay that way for a long time to come.


The Show

I was actually really impressed with the show this year. Jackman doesn't have the comedy chops of previous hosts, but he played to his strengths in a pair of song-and-dance Broadway-style numbers, one of which was amazingly funny and the other of which was just great spectacle. I loved the opening bit with the no-budget dance number, and Anne Hathaway was a great sport and very funny in her own right. She'd make a great Nixon!

Speaking of funny, this was probably the highlight of the entire show for me.

I wouldn't be shocked if Janusz Kaminsky ends up in Apatow's next film. (Okay, I really would be, but I still think they'd make a fine comedy team.)

Ben Stiller's Joaquim Phoenix bit fell flat for me. Good concept, but I think a bit more suiter for the MTV movie awards than the Oscars. And Bill Maher's material really didn't work -- he seemed more like a man pissy at not being nominated than a man honoring documentary achievement.

The idea of bringing on past nominees to present the awards in the big acting categories was a good one. Some complain that it just makes the whole thing longer and more self-indulgently insufferable, but I thought it helped tie this year's Oscars to the past, putting the performances in better context, and generally were actually pretty funny. I only wish Anthony Hopkins had been the one to talk about Frank Langella's performance as Nixon, since, you know, Nixon.

The Awards

I said above that Oscars generally go to movies that are made within the Hollywood system, so honestly I figured this year would be Benjamin Button's year. Brad and Angelina looked like Hollywood royalty, and with both of them up for top-level acting honors, I was expecting it was their time to shine together. But I guess Slumdog really is an amazing film (I haven't seen it yet, or any of the big movies except for The Wrestler), for it beat all my expectations and won many of the big prizes. It's funny that this year's best director was making zombie flicks just a few years ago.

Does anyone really think that Milk really deserved its screenplay Oscar and that Sean Penn gave the best performance in his category? Admittedly, I haven't seen the film, but screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is better known for his work on Big Love than on feature screenplays, and if he's that good he could have been honored for another project down the line. And I don't even think Sean Penn believed that he deserved to beat Mickey Rourke this year -- he specifically honored Rourke at the end of his acceptance speech, almost like an apology. I hate Prop 8 as much as anyone, but giving out awards based on "sending a message" politically is just playing into the hands of those who believe that's all Hollywood ever does.

Was there any doubt that Heath Ledger would win? Was there any doubt that he deserved to win? His Joker is probably one of the all-time great movie villains, and watching the clips of his performance last night just made it hit home all the harder the amazing talent we lost. I don't think The Dark Knight is a great movie, but Ledger's performance elevated the whole project, and I don't think that movie would be anything close to what it was if it hadn't been Heath playing that role.

Anyway, I think that's all I've really got on the Oscars. Good show, entertaining, with a few missteps, but ultimately I think I like the new format. The movies themselves weren't really compelling this year, but overall I can't complain too much.

Beer Review, Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest-Marzen

Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest-Marzen
Munchen, Germany
5.8% ABV

Bottled in June of '08.

Appearance: Clear brown-black body, thick white head that dissipates pretty quickly and leaves no lacing. Hints of effervescence, but only hints. 4.0/5

Smell: Sweet caramel malt, a hint of alcohol astringency (but only a hint). Very bready. No notes of hops. 4.0/5

Taste: Clean malty flavor, sweet on the finish, with a bit of a bready aftertaste. Somewhat yeasty. Hints of apples and cherries. A bit cloying as the beer goes on, but good. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thin for an Oktoberfest, coats the tongue slightly. 3.5/5

Drinkability: A good Oktoberfest, but not my favorite (that would probably be Paulaner). 4.0/5

Overall: 3.75/5

25 February 2009

Booklog, Once Upon a Time in the North

Once Upon a Time in the North, 2008
Written by Philip Pullman
112 pages (hardcover)

This is going to be short and sweet, just like the book. (It won't cost you as much, though.)

If you're not a fan of the His Dark Materials series or if you haven't read them, then this isn't the book that will change your mind nor is it the place to start reading. If you haven't read them, start with The Golden Compass. If you've read them and didn't like them, well, this isn't the book for you.

If you have read the books and enjoyed them, then Once Upon a Time in the North is a nice little novella that expands a bit on the work in the novels. It takes place a few decades before the events of Compass, specifically to Lee Scoresby's early days as an aeronaut. He lands in Novy Odense, gets involved in the local political scene, meets Iorek Byrinson, gets in a couple of adventures, and sets off with his new bear-friend in tow. That's about it.

The pleasures of the book (besides getting to learn about how Iorek and Lee first met) are mostly to be found in Pullman's characterization of Lee as a young man: he's a sarcastic young adventurer on the make who's definitely interested in the ladies as much as you'd think a brash young pilot would be. Iorek has a smaller role, but a pivotal one, and an action sequence that takes up maybe a quarter of the book's total length gives us some great "look at that badass bear" moments.

Is it worth the cost? Eh. North comes with a board game (which I didn't play) and a couple of added bits that give hints about Lyra Silvertongue's future, but Amazon lists the price as ten bucks and change, which is a bit steep for a novella that most of us could finish in an hour or so. As ancillary products that go along with bestselling book series go, it's not bad, but the story seems a little lightweight. Hardcore fans will like this, especially fans of Lee Scoresby, but everyone else can skip it.

I will say, though, that the title just makes me wish Ennio Morricone had written the score for the film version of The Golden Compass.

Rating: B.

(Goes off to listen to Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time in the West.)

24 February 2009

Beer Review, Victory Storm King

Victory Storm King
Browningtown, PA
9.10% ABV

Appearance: Opaque body, black but slightly reddish towards the very bottom of the glass, with a thick brown head. Head dissipates slowly. 4.5/5

Smell: Very strong coffee aromas up-front, a nice malty backbone and a slight dose of hops buried beneath. Somewhat sweet. A bit uncomplex for a beer of this quality, but interesting for the lack of astringency. 4.0/5

Taste: Strong coffee bitterness up-front, sweet malty notes like caramel. Finishes dry and leaves a pleasant aftertaste. The alcohol is superbly hidden. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: About as expected, thick with a slight stinging of the palate due to hops. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Rich, complex, delicious. It's probably a bit too strong of coffee for some drinkers, but I enjoy it greatly. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.35/5

22 February 2009

Movielog, Point Blank

Point Blank
Written by Alexander Jacobs and David & Rafe Newhouse
Based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark)
Directed by John Boorman
92 minutes

Haven't I already seen this movie?

Well, actually, no. While both the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback and Point Blank were both based on the same novel by Donald E. Westlake, they are substantially different films. Payback (which I saw upon its theatrical release and have seen numerous times on cable since then) had the tagline "Get Ready to Root For the Bad Guy," and that was basically the point of the film: look at what a naughty boy Mel Gibson can be, and watch him kick the ass of some even worse guys! (The fact that Mel Gibson later turned out to be a naughty boy of a much less cinematic type is a delicious irony but not really relevant here.) The version from three decades earlier, however, much less obviously a thrill ride (although it has some thrillerish aspects), focusing much more clearly on its characters and is indeed a philosophical work on some level.

So let's forget Mel Gibson for the moment, shall we? I enjoy Helgeland's film just fine and it's probably impossible for any viewer of Point Blank not to be haunted by echoes of the later film, but we'll just take in stride the fact that certain elements carry over between both films and move on.

Point Blank starts with a set piece that will set the tone for the rest of the film. Through a series of jump cuts, a professional thief named Walker (Lee Marvin) is recruited by a buddy (Lee Vernon) to make an elaborate heist of a money drop on Alcatraz island. But Walker is doublecrossed by his buddy (and Walker's wife, played by Sharon Acker) and is left for dead in one of the cells on the defunct prison island. Walker wakes up, wonders at the fact that he has no bullet wound, and vows revenge. Then the credits roll, for the entire setup has been established in about three minutes of screen time, mostly using time-crunching cutaways that were very likely inspiration for most of Tarantino's early work.

The fact that Walker awakes and finds himself without injury is an element of the film that lends itself to many questions. Is what we are seeing "real?" Is it all just the revenge fantasy of a man dying of blood loss in a cold prison cell? Is Walker's journey that of a vengeful spirit? Some of the things that Walker will do during the ninety minutes of Point Blank seem beyond the ability of a normal human, but the film doesn't really confront these questions head-on, preferring instead to just focus on the details of the revenge. Attentive viewers will find much to head-scratch over, but director John Boorman doesn't rely on such questions to move the narrative along. It's there for the interested, but the film is more interested in pyrotechnics than metaphysics.

Having escaped from Alcatraz island (the film shows this in a simple jump-cut), Walker is approached by a mysterious man who seems to be from some official agency, offering assistance in tracking down those who wronged him. Walker shrugs off the help, but later on will use the resources of his new partner in tracking down his money. In the process, Walker will go head-to-head with "The Organization," a criminal syndicate run more like a corporation than the gang of thugs it is, eventually killing his way up the food chain to get his money back. This takes him through a wide variety of locations in 1960s Southern California, including a hip jazz club, a heavily-guarded high-rise, and a mansion that might as well be owned by Hugh Hefner (but is actually owned by Caroll O'Connor, who would later go on to play Archie Bunker and is one of the delights of the last third of the film). Walker will also begin a romantic (er, yeah, that's it, romantic) entanglement with his now-deceased wife's sister Chris, played ably by Angie Dickinson.

I mentioned that Point Blank gets a little philosophical at times. It's subtle, but Walker here is haunted by his memories of what he has done during the process of his revenge. He seems to be trying to come to terms with who he is, with what kind of person he should be, and it's possible that his relationship with Chris is one thing that helps him to find his humanity. Unlike in the '99 remake, the protagonist here has doubts about the morality of his actions, and while his obsession in getting his money back leads him to do awful things, we get the sense that this doesn't define him in the way that Gibson's obsession defined his character.

In the end, this film is an intelligent thriller with some great sequences and good performances that has aged well, but there's not a lot of meat on the bones. Boorman has directed a stylish film that whisks by at 92 minutes, and while it is entertaining throughout, it doesn't stick around in my mind very well. It's a better film than the later remake, but in some ways it's a bit less entertaining. Both films are worthy (and if you're only going to see one I'd recommend this one) but neither is cinematic perfection. Of interest mostly to those who are fans of pre-blockbuster genre pictures.

Rating: B+

Beer Review, Whitsun Ale

Arcadia Whitsun Ale
Battle Creek, MI
6.2% ABV

Appearance: Hazy light-brown/orange body with a thin white head that dissipates quickly. No lacing. Some bubbles suspended in the body. 3.5/5

Smell: Lots of oranges and bits of citrus. Slightly yeasty, very sweet. 3.5/5

Taste: Very strong with oranges, slightly astringent. Some spices, almost has the kind of spicy bitterness that you'd get from a winter warmer, although this is obviously very different. Very slightly dry on the finish, not unpleasant. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thicker than expected, coats the tongue. 3.5/5

Drinkability: American Pale Wheat Ales tend to be pretty bad, but this one isn't. It's a drinkable, accessible wheat beer. It's probably meant to be competition for Bell's Oberon, and it's hitting in the same ball park. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.5/5 It was 3.5's all the way down.

21 February 2009

Funny People Trailer

I believe that The 40 Year Old Virgin is one of the finest comedies of the last couple of decades, and deliberately saved Knocked Up for when I needed a good laugh, but found myself sorely disappointed by that flick. While Virgin was all about giving a human face to a high-concept flick, Knocked Up was born more out of the personal neuroses and problems of Judd Apatow, and while there is humor to be mined there, to be sure, Apatow seemed somehow too close to the material, too personally invested to allow the film to really take off the way that Virgin did. I was so disappointed by Knocked Up that I still haven't even seen Superbad, although I know that Apatow produced that one and didn't direct.

Now here's the trailer for Funny People.

Okay, besides the pretty generic title that's a little too close to last year's Smart People for me (and the presence of Adam Sandler in another two-word movie brings to mind Bedtime Stories), the maudlin tone and general lack of energy make me think this is a lot more Knocked Up than Virgin. I love Seth Rogen and I think the idea of seeing him do standup is a good one, but this trailer just makes me think it's sort of like a Bucket List for people my age, a generic feel-good piece of emotional pap that avoids any real depth while also managing to not be very funny.

I'd love to be wrong, but I really wish that Apatow would team back up with Steve Carell.

(Just for the record, I liked Pineapple Express a lot and adore Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And Observe and Report looks like a lot better mix of comedy and dark character drama than Funny People.)

The Credit Crisis Visualized

This video gives the low-down on the credit crisis, in easy-to-understand terms. One of my issues with finance and macroeconomics is a general lack of understanding about the terms used in public discussions of the issues, and this video seems to be a no-bullshit explanation of what exactly went wrong in the credit crisis.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

One thing that becomes clear is that the credit crisis was not the result of any one actor, but a complex series of events that had no single cause. I have no idea how to solve the problem, but at least now I feel like I'm a bit more informed.

20 February 2009

Beer Review, Fort Collins Double Chocolate Stout

Fort Collins Double Chocolate Stout
Fort Collins, CO
8.10% ABV

Appearance: Black body with a slight brownish tinge, opaque, with a moderately-thick brown head. 4.0/5

Smell: Wow. Strong aromas of chocolate and bitter coffee, with a nice dry chocolate malt underneath. Slight hints of caramel. Very strong and unexpectedly aromatic. 4.5/5

Taste: A dry maltiness up front, bitter and dry with hops, with a coffee-tinged sweet aftertaste. It reminds me a lot of Rogue's Chocolate Stout, and coming from me that's high praise. The alcohol is well-hidden, and the flavors just pop right out. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Low carbonation, somewhat thick, proteins coat the tongue. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Dangerous considering the alcohol. Very enjoyable. Worth a try for anyone who's looking for a good impy stout. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.3/5

18 February 2009

Well, At Least It'll Add Jobs....

Kid Rock is getting a new beer named after him. It's going to be made by Michigan Brewing Company, whose beers I've seen but not tried. My guess is that it'll be about as macro-lagerish a micro can produce, but I'd love to be pleasantly surprised. No details on when we'll see it, but I'll be sure to buy and try it as soon as I see it.

Beer Review, Miller High Life

Miller High Life
Milwaukee, WI
5.0% ABV

That's right, Miller Freakin' High Life. A friend left a few of these in my fridge, and I'm taking the opportunity to review one. It's not the first macro I've had, not even the first macro I've reviewed.

Poured ice cold, as is best for the style.

Appearance: Completely transparent light-yellow body, one-finger white head that dissipates quickly. Slight effervescence from the bottom of the glass. There's even a touch of lacing. I've got to say, for the style, it's not a bad appearance. 3.5/5

Smell: Corn, very sweet corn. Lots of adjunct malt. Almost citrusy. Is it a good aroma? Well, by craft beer standards, it's horrible, but it's reasonable for a macro. Nothing actively unpleasant, at least, which is more than I can say for a lot of beers, even a lot of craft. 2.5/5

Taste: Sweet up front, lots of fermented corn, dry on the finish and cloyingly sweet on the aftertaste. I always make sure I have something better to wash it down later and get the flavor out of my mouth. 2.0/5

Mouthfeel: It's basically water, with a very slight carbonation. It's clean, but it doesn't give you anything to hold onto. 1.5/5

Drinkability: Eh, I'll drink it if you set it in front of me or give it to me free. It's basically alcoholic water. You don't drink it for flavor, you drink it for the effects. Still, not actively unpleasant and there are worse macros out there. 2.0/5

Overall: 2.35/5

Movielog, The Searchers

The Searchers, 1956
Written by Frank S. Nugent
Based on the novel by Alan Le May
Directed by John Ford
119 minutes

The movies at their best can be a sort of time machine, giving us access to times and places that we could never visit, providing through moving image a immediacy that text and other forms of media cannot provide. That The Searchers provides this service is not in doubt -- the technical qualities of this film are above dispute, and the film is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time for its portrayal of racism. But to modern audiences it has new shades of meaning, for placed in a twenty-first century context we are not quite sure if we are looking at the racism of 1868 or that of 1956.

The image that everyone who writes about The Searchers is duty-bound to include

Let's take a step back. I was born in 1980, and the western has not been a commercially viable genre in my lifetime. Oh, we get westerns here and there today, but they tend to be small pictures made by individuals as passion projects. Whereas in the time that John Ford was putting the finishing touches on this film, the western was a thriving medium for expression whose popularity had barely waned during the entirety of film history to that point, and one that had exploded over the still-new medium of television. Good westerns, bad westerns, kid's westerns, silly westerns... I suppose it's something like the proliferation of cop/mystery shows on television now, in that the basic structure of the genre is used to hang character drama, social commentary, etc cetera, by a wide variety of creative artists under a wide spectrum of skill levels.

And if the Western was the king of movie genres in the fifties, John Ford was the undisputed master of the Western. He had made dozens of them dating back into the silent era, and his collaborations with John Wayne were legendary on both a critical and a box-office level. So when The Searchers premiered, many critics overlooked its quality, understanding it merely as just another Ford/Wayne collaboration.

They were wrong, for this film is one of the finest films of its era, not least because in a sense it marks the end of its era. A decade later Sergio Leone would be making his now-classic spaghetti westerns (not the least of which is Once Upon a Time in the West), using a more modern sensibility of camerawork and performance, and a generally revisionist attitude towards the genre. In contrast, The Searchers is very much a product of its time technically, with broad performances, a mostly-static camera, cinematography that looks like a watercolor painting, and a general feel that reminds one of the proscenium. Not that any of that is necessarily bad, but the dated look and feel helps to explain why my generation is more familiar with the Eastwood westerns than with Wayne's.

I realize that I've gone several paragraphs without really talking about the plot. Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a man with a disreputable past who comes back to his brother's home in Texas after the Civil War. Three years after the Civil War, actually. What's he been doing all that time? The film doesn't give us easy answers, but we gather vaguely criminal activities in Mexico. Edwards is a racist, especially towards the Comanche Indians, and when there is an Indian raid on the family home, he swears vengeance. Two daughters of the family have been kidnapped by the Comanche, and much of the run-time of the film is devoted to Ethan and "half-breed" Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) searching for the lost women.

Early on we learn that the older daughter has been killed, and it takes the two men years to track down the younger. Years in which life goes on in the homestead, and the woman that Martin loves betroths herself to another man. If this seems out of place in my summary, it's equally out of place in the film -- the sequences back on the farm are comedic, meant to lighten the mood for the darker themes of life on the trail. Ethan's hatred of the Indians knows no bounds, as in a scene in which he kills several buffalo needlessly, just so that there would be fewer buffalo to feed the Comanche.

The Searchers does not agree with this perspective, to be sure, but it is still problematic. The Comanche chief named Scar, who leads the tribe that kidnapped the girls, is portrayed by Henry Brandon, whom I learn from Wikipedia is actually German. Most if not all of the Indians in this film are white actors wearing crazy makeup, which is why I have taken to calling them "Indians" in this review -- why soften the film's attitudes towards Native Americans by using a politically correct term that the film predates? In the cinematic world of 1956, Indians were generally unambiguous villains; our more modern sensibilities fill in some of the blanks that Ford's film leaves out, and Scar is perhaps a more sympathetic character to us than he was to audiences upon the film's release.

Or does Ford intend him to be sympathetic? This is a difficult question, for while the film provides us with a happy ending for the missing girl, we're not quite sure how she feels about the whole situation. Was she happier as one of Scar's wives than she would be living with what remains of her family? (This ambiguity was famously used by Paul Schraeder in his script for Taxi Driver, only one of many films that have been inspired by The Searchers.) Ethan believes he is doing the right thing in bringing the girl home, and in fact is portrayed as having become more tolerant than we suspected (his original intention being to kill the girl, on the logic that living like a Comanche is a fate worse than death), but pieces are missing in the psychology of these characters, pieces that would bring the themes of the film to a clearer focus.

I realize that I've gone on and on about the problems of the movie without really talking about the great qualities. It's technically superb, filled with amazing performances, and as a genre piece there are few better. It's tough for modern audiences due to the differing cinematic language of the fifties and today, but that's not something that should be held against it. Most importantly, The Searchers is never boring, and some sequences are brilliant by any standards.

This is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of film, particularly in the history of the Western. And if you're only going to see one Western from the fifties, you should probably make it The Searchers.

Rating: A

16 February 2009

Beer Review, Scotty Karate

Dark Horse Scotty Karate Scottish Ale
Marshall, MI
9.75% ABV

(Nine point seven five percent ABV? Hell, I had no idea -- I had never heard of this one when it went on tap at the Strut, and ordered a couple just to see what it was like. I figured it for an Oatmeal Stout or a Brown Ale, never thinking it might be a Scotch Ale, but from my notes it fits as a Scotch Ale much better. What follows are my notes verbatim. I originally gave numerical ratings based on my understanding of the beer as a weaker style, but I'm altering them from my notes based on the Scotch Ale style.)

Appearance: Black body, no head. Slightly brown bottom. Somewhat hazy. 4.5/5

Smell: Malty, dry, somewhat bready. Slight yeast. 4.0/5

Taste: Slightly astringent [edited to add -- no crap, that's what almost ten percent ABV will get you], heavy with malt [another edit -- this should have told me this was a Scotch Ale]. Somewhat malty and with notes of coffee and chocolate malt. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate. Coats the tongue and goes down clean. [A bit thin for a Scotch Ale in my opinion, but maybe I've been spoiled by too much Skullsplitter.] 3.0/5

Drinkability: Pretty drinkable, a bit dry and astringent for my taste. [Since these are the exact characteristics you're looking for in a Scotch Ale, consider that high praise.] 4.0/5

I'm a bit embarrassed that I couldn't ID this as a Scotch Ale, but the Strut is more a coffee place than a bar; they've got about four beers on tap. I never figured they'd go for anything with any kind of complexity or serious ABV; my opinion of the place has gone way up based on realizing what this beer really is.

Overall: 4.2/5

15 February 2009

Movielog, Outland

Outland, 1981
Written and Directed by Peter Hyams
112 minutes

Outland is a frustrating movie, because there are quite a few things about it that I really like. The problem is that those things are buried in a shitstorm of things that make me shove my face into my hands and shake my head in disgust. It's basically the story of a Marshall (Sean Connery) who is assigned to a mining town, finds greed and corruption destroying lives through the drug trade, and is forced the Clean Up the Town through grit and determined use of violence, aided only by a beautiful doctor. In Space!!!!

So let's dispense with anything like a formal review and just give a list of the good and the bad.

Good: Maybe I'm just jaded by this CGI age we live in, but I was really impressed by the model work and the set design. Outland is set in a mining colony on Io, Jupiter's first moon, and the sets mostly look like what a mining colony on Io might actually look like. Everything is a little bit dirty, all the actors look like people who might actually work for a living, and for the most part everything is scaled about right. People sleep in cots that would be right at home on a submarine, which is exactly right.

Bad: Well, except for the fact that there's way too much space in some areas. Several scenes take place on a racquetball court (hey, it was the early eighties; every movie had to have a racquetball court) that seems way too large for such a frivolous amenity. Also, there are just too many damned people -- an extended chase sequence through a dining area is packed with people, and there are only supposed to be a couple of thousand people on the entire base. In addition, some of the effects are really chintzy, most notably an optical effect in which people's heads explode due to explosive decompression. (Of course, that effect was used in the trailer for the film, and was likely considered a showstopper at the time, but now it's a showstopper for a very different reason.)

Good: Real weapons. Sawed-off shotguns seem to be standard issue for the police force, and the bad guys use realistic-looking sniper rifles. No laser beams or energy weapons to be seen anywhere, and while a shotgun seems a bit silly for a standard-issue weapon, you could probably justify it by saying that it's less likely to penetrate a hull than a rifle or handgun. Maybe.

Bad: Some of the action scenes towards the big finale are pretty laughable. Apparently gravity is Earth-normal, unless you put on a spacesuit or step outside of an airlock, and then you float all about as if you're in orbit. The idea of a realistic fistfight by two characters wearing spacesuits is a good one, the way it's executed here is ridiculous.

Good: Remember that "beautiful doctor?" Well, she's actually not that beautiful. She's a world-weary woman who knows her personal limitations (there's a reason you get send to the ass end of nowhere like Io) and is played by Frances Sternhagen, whom those of you who are Law & Order fanatics like me will recognize but probably not be able to place. Sternhagen is about the same age as Connery, and she fits the story a lot better than a more conventionally "beautiful" woman would have. Sternhagen is such a good actor and the character is so well-written (well, in comparison with the rest of the film) that she steals every scene she's in. At the end I wanted a sequel that followed this character instead of the Connery chump.

Bad: Yeah, but don't go thinking of this as a feminist anthem just yet. There's a boring and pretty much completely unnecessary subplot involving Connery's wife and child that is so backward it grates. Yeah, I understand it's supposed to give Connery's choice to remain on the station meaning by providing him with a choice, but every moment the family (especially that annoying kid) was on-screen I wanted to claw my eyes out.

Good: Peter Boyle. He's the villain of the piece, and he's a good one -- a middle-management kind of bad guy who feels justified in what he's doing. He's dirty, but not that dirty.

Bad: The climax of the film is basically Connery uppercutting Boyle and causing him to knock over a table and some chairs. And it's played seriously, not for laughs. Also played seriously: Connery sticks his bare hand directly into some hot oil to retrieve a crucial bit of evidence, and suffers no injury. Maybe that bit was a tryout for his role in Highlander?

Okay, I think you get the idea. It's tempting to think that what this movie really needs is a bunch of drunken SF nerds riffing on it, that it could be a sort of camp classic for nerdly hipsters, but there's too much good here to dismiss it quite so easily. It's a product of its time and probably not really very good even when it was first made, but there are aspects of Outland that could really be adapted into a much better film, and SF fans should give it a shot if they're so inclined. Just don't expect very much when you do.

Rating: C-

14 February 2009

Beer Review, David Bell is 21 Ale

Bell's David Bell is 21 Ale
Kalamazoo, MI
Unknown ABV

Appearance: Beautiful orange-red body, slightly translucent, with a very thick foamy white head. Yeast particles suspended in the body, frozen as if in amber. Significant lacing. I never thought I'd do this for an amber, but I'm giving it a 5. 5.0/5

Smell: Sweet, malty. Hints of cherries, strong aromas of apples. Strong yeastiness buried underneath. Very intriguing, can't wait to taste it. 4.5/5

Taste: Drier than expected, but with a sweet finish, lots of apples. Some yeast in the aftertaste. Not as good as the nose would lead me to believe, but still a very good amber. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thin, actually, with a fairly high dose of hops and carbonation. I expected it to be a bit chewier, but this is actually pretty well-done for an amber. 4.0/5

Drinkability: From the appearance and the aroma I expected this one to knock me on my ass, but ultimately this is a merely (merely?) a very good amber. If you can get it it's definitely worth a try, but these limited releases generally don't last very long. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.3/5

13 February 2009

Oh, hell....

I wrote up reviews for The Searchers and Outland a bit ago, and thought I set them to post in a few days, but since Blogger in Draft has changed the way that they deal with scheduled posts, everything got all screwy. So I changed the dates on the posts but they're still posted, just forward-dated. Whatever.

I'll get my own domain and start using Typepad or something one of these days, when I feel like devoting more of my writing time and energy to blogging.

On the plus side, I submitted a new story to Asimov's today. Here's hoping....

12 February 2009

Movielog, The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project, 1986
Written by Marshall Brickman and Thomas Baum
Directed by Marshall Brickman
117 minutes

Mom: Paul, did you build an atomic bomb?
Paul: Only a little one.

And yeah, he does. There was a mini-boom of "genius movies" after Wargames in 1983, movies in which teenage geniuses did really cool stuff in their bedrooms or garages or basements because they were really smart. The Manhattan Project isn't as good as Wargames or Real Genius, but it's comfortably in the same territory as a story about a brilliant kid who happens upon a secret weapons lab and decides to make an atomic bomb, partly as a political statement but mostly just because he can.

I have a bit of a head start on most viewers because I have read Mushroom: The Story of the A-bomb Kid by John Aristotle Phillips. Mushroom is the story of an undergraduate at Princeton who designed (note: designed, not built) what is said to be a working atomic bomb in 1977. The physics of an explosion trigger are fairly straightforward; the engineering of such a thing are a holy bitch and a half and require highly specialized materials that most of us couldn't get ahold of if we tried. That a kid could figure out how to make an atomic bomb from spare parts is pretty straightforward, that one could actually make one in secret with materials from a well-stocked high school physics lab is fanciful in the extreme.

But there's a difference, I think, between plausibility and realism. The screenplay for The Manhattan Project starts with the idea that a kid might build an atomic bomb, and then asks itself what kind of kid might be able to accomplish such a task. The answer: a brilliant seventeen-year-old who sleeps only a couple of hours a night in upstate New York. Despite his genius, he's a bit of a slacker who would rather use his brain to play pranks on his classmates and impress his girlfriend than do classwork. So yeah, he's an unrealistically bright character, but once you posit his existence there isn't much in The Manhattan Project that doesn't follow.

Consider the girlfriend Jenny. She's played by a fresh-faced Cynthia Nixon (Robert Sean Leonard, Dr. Wilson from House, M.D. is also present as a classmate) as a girl very nearly as smart as Our Hero Paul (Christopher Collet, who as near as I can determine went on to do nothing else of any significance with regard to film acting). Jenny's not a science buff but a budding journalist whose references to Anne Frank and Woodward and Bernstein are missed by the oblivious Paul. The two have an easy and fun relationship that is portrayed quickly and tightly -- this is not a teenage romance but a thriller-with-a-twist.

John Lithgow is an atomic scientist who as the film opens has just developed a revolutionary new method for purifying plutonium, producing ultra-pure yields. When he moves into a research lab in Ithaca (supposedly making radioactive materials for medical treatments) he falls for his real estate agent, Elizabeth Stephens, who is also the protagonist's mom. When Lithgow spies a Scientific American with a cover story on lasers in the young man's arms, he offers to take the boy to see "the sexiest laser in the world" in exchange for a date with the mother. But Lithgow underestimates Paul's intelligence, for when the young man sees the lab he very quickly figures out what is really being done there.

What follows is an extended sequence in which Paul and Jenny steal a large batch of plutonium from the lab. This is probably the least plausible sequence in the film, although among the most entertaining, as the heist mini-movie follows all-too-well the well-trod cliches of the eighties heist sequence, although some of the techniques that Paul uses to achieve his goal are clever and resourceful. It's a fun lighthearted sequence, but narratively it probably would have worked better to just have Paul get the professor to let him back in the lab and sneak a sample out than this kind of elaborate sequence.

Anyway. Once Paul has the nuclear material he does the research necessary to make the bomb. The film shows this work in some level of detail (although of course the specifics are obscured), trusting the audience to follow the general idea of how Paul manages to make a bomb even if they don't get every detail. In general the science and engineering in the movie is accurate, much more so than in many other SF and SF-tinged movies, enough so that even I didn't really mind the minor glitches that popped up here and there. (For an example of the latter, the resulting atomic bomb is described as a 50-kiloton bomb that would take out several states, while the reality is that 50 kilotons is only about two-and-a-half times the size of the bomb as the one that took out Hiroshima. Maybe they meant megatons.)

The Manhattan Project is actually generally smart about the details. When Lithgow discovers that his lab has been breeched, he pretty much immediately figures out how it happened, and his emotional response is a respect for the boy's intelligence rather than a more stereotypical anger response. When the crisis point comes towards the end of the movie, it is Lithgow who is on some level siding with the kid, trying to protect him and defend him, where in a lesser movie he would be a much more identifiable villain. Co-writer and director Marshall Brickman was a colleague of Woody Allen who co-wrote Annie Hall, and that grasp of character shines through this film even in its more pedestrian moments.

It isn't all roses, however. Some of the plot points of The Manhattan Project are implausible or simplistic, but that's somewhat forgivable given the potential audience for the film. The score, well, it isn't quite as bad as the Shawshank 80's-style montage, but it's pretty close, nearly ruining some sequences and in general keeping the movie from the kind of moral ambiguity that it wants to have. This was likely much less noticeable upon the time of original release when nearly every movie had a similar score, but for modern audiences this is going to be something of a sore point.

So, not perfect by any means, this film is nonetheless a fun movie that still manages to give a lesson or two on nuclear proliferation along the way. The performances are pretty good and generally fit the material well, and for me it was worth seeing just to see scientific knowledge respected so heavily in a movie. If I'd seen this when I was twelve instead of twenty-eight it would have been one of my all-time favorite movies, and I'd think of it today as a childhood favorite. Parents of nerdy children could do a lot worse than shoving a DVD of The Manhattan Project in their hands.

Rating: B

09 February 2009

Booklog, Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition, 2003
Written by William Gibson
384 pages (mass-market paperback)

Near-future SF is a tough game. Off the top of my head, Back to the Future II predicted rejuvenation treatments, flying cars, and to-the-second-accuracy weather reports by 2015. Freejack had electronic memory storage and body-swapping and time travel in 2009. Timecop predicted self-driving automobiles and government-regulated time travel by 2004. And that's just in movies made in the last couple of decades.

Written SF is considerably better, but it's still a tough field. While many authors in the Golden Age (1940s or so) wrote their stories with specific dates in mind, it's the choice of most modern SF writers to not specify a specific time period, so as to prevent the kind of poor aging that is so common to stories of old.

Even this can be problemmatic. In 1984's Neuromancer, William Gibson predicted a world in which the United States has fallen but the USSR is still strong, a world in which personalities can be recorded to computer hardware and the computer network is a "consensual hallucination" accessed by "jacking in" to a "deck." The novel is rightly considered one of the masterpieces of the genre, not least by coining the term "cyberspace" and by merging the fading New Wave SF style with gritty reality, but by inventing the cyberpunk movement and creating a whole subgenre. In the next decade, Gibson would write several books and short stories using the same basic templates, but over time he began to become frustrated with the general practice of near-future SF. The pace of the world that we live in today is so dynamic and fast-changing that doing detailed prediction of the future is basically a zero-sum game. Could anyone have predicted Youtube or the blogosphere in, say, 1990?

Disenchanted with the struggle, Gibson in 2003 turned his talents to writing present-day fiction that "felt like" SF, in that they dealt with the same general issues of the role of technology and science in our lives that Gibson had been dealing with since 1984. His first novel in this vein is Pattern Recognition, and the writing is pure Gibson -- tersely descriptive, with a clipped Dasheill Hammet-like style merged to free-flowing speculation about the nature of society and use of technology.

His protagonist Cayce (named after psychic Edgar Cayce but pronounced "Case," also the name of the protagonist of Neuromancer) Pollard is a 32-year old woman who has allergic reactions to logos and branding. She uses her allergies as a barometer of coolness, and is able to tell at a glance if proposed logos and branding are resonant enough to enter public consciousness have a memetic spread like, say, the Nike logo. In her private life, she is a "footagehead" who spends inordinate amounts of time online downloading and discussing mysterious film snippets made by an unknown person or persons. When one of her high-powered clients hires her to search down the maker or makers of the footage, she travels around the globe encountering a wide series of strange persons and has a great deal of deserved paranoia.

And yeah, that's pretty much the whole plot. Pattern Recognition is like Gibson's other novels in that the story is really just a clothesline for the style and for the characters. You read a Gibson novel not for the story but for the beauty and the ideas. What Cayce finds at the end of her search for the maker of the footage is less important the the persons she meets and situations she gets into along the way. And if some of it seems a bit improbable at times, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Gibson was writing the novel around the time of the September 11 attacks, and a recurring element on the novel is the state of Cayce's consciousness when considering that event. Her father, an intelligence expert, disappeared on the day of the attacks and one of the meanings of the title is in her mother's avid fascination with electronic voice phenomena in her search for her now-deceased husband. There is a quiet philosophy at work here, in which Gibson suggests that all of our human activities are really just searching for meaningless patterns in the world, or rather, finding meaning where there is none.

In the end, this novel is a worthy addition to Gibson's body of work, and the new direction for his career is fascinating. Worth it for the style and for the ideas, Pattern Recognition is an entertaining read but nothing really sticks around long-term. (I had to use Wikipedia to look up plot details that I'd forgotten.) It's a decent read, but it's hard to see new readers giving Gibson the kind of devotion for this as he (rightfully) received after Neuromancer.

Rating: B

08 February 2009

Movielog, Repo: The Genetic Opera

Repo: The Genetic Opera, 2008
Written by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich
Based on their stage play of the same name
98 minutes

It's the near future. A plague of organ failures has made organ replacement therapy a new miracle cure. These organ replacements are paid for on credit, and if you miss your payments, a repo man shows up and harvests your organs as payment on your delinquent account. I hear that, read that Paris Hilton plays a not-insubstantial part, and that the flick is produced by the same guys who brought us the Saw series, and I say to myself, "Boy, is that going to suck."

So it's probably for the best that at the end of the movie I wasn't so much happy that the movie wasn't as bad as it could have been as I am disappointed that it could have been better. I mean, sure, it's a completely ridiculous plot by SF standards, and there's no defending the lack of worldbuilding and real understanding of the genre at play here. I could write you a dozen stories coming off of this same general plot device that are better than that found in Repo in just a few minutes. The point here isn't to explore the consequences of the premise as much as it is to build a rock-opera epic with gory scenery.

And as far as it goes, it almost works. It's important to note that this is (as it says on the label), an opera, not a musical, and so every emotional moment is pitched to the cheap seats and all the plot points are slammed home with the force of a rusty chisel on an eyeball. But that's the genre, and I forgave that quickly. In truth, the story of a dying patriarch (Paul Sorvino, yes, Paul Fucking Sorvino, yes, the guy from Goodfellas and Nixon) trying to find an appropriate heir to his empire is actually quite compelling. Sorvino brings his A game to a decidedly C picture and elevates the material far above what it deserves.

His choice to succeed him (instead of his vainglorious psychopathic children, among whom are the aforementioned Ms. Hilton) is the beautiful young woman Shilo (Alexa Vega, best known as the girl from the Spy Kids movies) who has a rare blood disease that forces her to remain indoors. She is protected by her father (Anthony Stewart Head) who acts as a doctor by day and a sort of King of the Repo Men by night. The connections between these characters involve a detailed history of subterfuge and deceit, and are played out on screen by comic-book-style narrative panels. As the movie goes on we get some of the details of the history of these characters, and while several subplots battle for supremacy, in the end this is the girl Shilo's story -- she must decide for herself what it means to be the daughter of the monster Repo Man.

I'm treading lightly on the plot because I thought that was the most interesting aspect of Repo: The Genetic Opera. The music is forgettable, mostly composed of rip-offs of other, better songs (despite a cameo appearance around the halfway mark of the film that is almost worth the price of a rental by itself), which is a disappointment considering that the music is really what we should be watching for. Repo began life as a stage play, and I'll bet this material played a lot better live -- movie audiences are more immune to the spectacle and are more contemplative in general, and holes in the storyline and in the characterization are a lot more apparent in the confines of a home than with real live actors performing before you.

There is a tiny segment of the population that will fall in love with Repo. It's the kind of movie that is pitched at such a specific tone that it will reach certain persons as if it has been encoded in their very DNA. It's probably the goal of the film that those of us outside that narrow group will be heavily turned off by it; no one should be merely indifferent to a film about organ repossessions that is this gory. (Although not nearly as gory as I expected, for the gore is played for laughs more than it's played straight, and I never really felt like I was looking at anything other than food coloring and latex.) But that's exactly what I felt: indifference. I'm writing this a few days after viewing the film, and I find it difficult to really care very much one way or the other about the film at all. It's worth a viewing if you're interested in the material, but a modern-day Rocky Horror this ain't.

Rating: B-

05 February 2009

Movielog, The Wrestler

The Wrestler, 2008
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Directed by Darren Aronofksky
115 minutes

Darren Aronofsky is generally recognized more for his technical brilliance and hypercompetent visuals more than for his ability to work with actors, but anyone who has seen Ellen Burstyn's performance in Requiem for a Dream should realize that Aronofsky is no stranger to the needs of actors, and is able to coax career-best performances even out of the best actors in the business today. So it's no surprise that Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler is a revelation, the kind of performance that actors will be studying for decades to come, and that will restore Rourke to his rightful place among the first class of actors after a decades-long slump.

Rourke is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who in the mid-eighties was a world-famous WWF wrestler on par with Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage. Two decades later he is still wrestling, but for tiny crowds on the slushy New Jersey circuit and making barely enough money to scrape by even in a good month. His body has been crushed and put back together so many times that we can almost hear his bones creak and his sinew snap as he moves on-screen; this is where performer and character run almost neck-and-neck, as Rourke himself shows the signs of his years of physical abuse on his physique.

Rourke is to be commended for his lack of ego in this movie. When he's not in the ring he wears thick glasses and a hearing aid; these along with long bleached hair occasionally give him the look of somebody's grandmother. He's an old broken down man barely scraping by on his wrestling income and a supplemental job working in the back of a grocery store. He lives in a crappy single-wide trailer when he has money and in the back of his rusting van when he doesn't.

It's a solitary life except for the stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) whom he sees professionally and would like to see more personally. Like him she works in a profession where her appearance of physical perfection is key, and like him, she is getting to the point where maintaining that fantasy is becoming impossible. Okay, sure, she still looks like this:

...but the kids with the money to blow on a private dance with a stripper tend to work on the assumption that anyone over twenty-five is old and anyone over thirty might as well be a grandmother. Tomei looks fantastic in The Wrestler (and spends about sixty percent of her time on-screen in a state of some undress, which is always okay in my book), but for Cassidy, it won't be long before she's too over the hill to bring in the cash the way she used to.

It is a strength of The Wrestler that the film doesn't give the audience the pat solutions to Cassidy and Randy's problems. Clearly the two have chemistry together and care about each other, but is that enough? Randy has a long history of emotional abuse and broken promises (as well as substance issues), as demonstrated by his attempts at reconciliation with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Randy approaches his daughter without even beginning to understand her, and her response is a defiant "Fuck you." It's Randy's tragedy that even after he begins to break down her barriers and to reconnect with her, his faults come back to rear their ugly head and he destroys all the good work he's done to make it up to her.

I've gone this far without even really talking about Aronofsky's work itself, and that's largely because this is a very different kind of story than Aronofksy's earlier films. Other than a few hints here and there, there's hardly anything here to make this feel like "an Aronofksy picture," partly because for the first time the director is working not from his own script but from the work of a new screenwriter named Robert D. Siegel. Gone are the visual pyrotechnics and in their place are long shots on the back of Randy's head -- we spend a fair chunk of the movie just following him around and experiencing the world as he does.

Even in the more visually dynamic moments in the ring, Aronfsky wisely takes a very restrained visual tack, allowing the images and the performances to speak for themselves. A very violent set-piece near the middle of the movie is in its own way as painful and punishing as the final twenty minutes of Requiem for a Dream, although of course it is about a very different kind of self-abuse. The violence here is much less gory than in something like Repo: The Genetic Opera but by grounding the gore in realism it becomes ten times as horrifying and a thousand times as potent. These are real people hurting themselves for entertainment, and Aronofsky's camera observes without passing judgment.

In the end, The Wrestler is a performance piece first and foremost. Without the astonishing performance by Mickey Rourke, the film would feel contrived at best and a bit cheesy at worst. Rourke's performance (not to slight Tomei, who is also very good) and Aronofsky's direction elevate the material to high drama, and make this story of a washed-out wrestler struggling to make a future for himself one of the best films of the year.

Rating: A-

03 February 2009

Beer Review, Arcadia Starboard Stout

Arcadia Starboard Stout
Battle Creek, MI
5.8 % ABV

Appearance: Black all the way through, with a thick khaki-colored head that dissipates slowly. Significant lacing. 4.0/5

Smell: Very sweet, strong notes of raisins and oats. Almost porter-like. Slightly astringent. Intriguing and attractive. 4.0/5

Taste: Again, very sweet and slightly astringent. This beer has a malty backbone and a slightly dry finish. Slight hints of cloves and hints of grapes. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate-to-thick, drying on the finish, with a moderate carbonation. Pretty much on-the-nose for an Oatmeal Stout. 4.0/5

Drinkability: This is a pretty good oatmeal stout, a bit sweet and astringent for my taste, but definitely drinkable and worth the cost. It gets a bit cloying towards the end, but otherwise quite good. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.95/5

02 February 2009

The Office Porn Parody

Cute. Obviously NSFW. I'd have embedded it if there was an easy way to do so. I'm a big fan of The Office and this looks like a sexy funny take on it.

Movielog, Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera, 2007
Written by Ronald Harwood
Based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Directed by Mike Newell
122 minutes

Sometimes when I watch a movie based on a novel, I find myself wanting to read the novel so that I can experience the richer world of the book or to simply learn more about the world of the wonderous cinematic experience. Other times, I find myself having a similar "read the book" response simply because I wonder just how fucked up the book must have been in the re-telling. I have not read Marquez's classic Love in the Time of Cholera, but the movie sucks.

Well, maybe that's a bit strong. I should say that the first half of the movie sucks. It recounts a very time-worn story of love at first sight between a young telegraph operator Florentino (Unax Ugalde as a youth and Javier Bardem as an adult)...

(An aside. This is a movie that covers over half a century and the old-age makeup varies in quality over the course of the film. That's forgivable from my perspective, as I honestly don't expect makeup artists to be able to make a thirty-year-old actress look eighty-five. But the filmmakers made the extremely odd decision to cast two actors as the young and old Florentino, while not doing the same for any other character. So for the first thirty minutes or so of the film, Florentino is portrayed by Unax Ugalde while for the next ninety he's portrayed by Javier Bardem. Even aside from the fact that Bardem is a vastly superior actor to Ugalde, the age difference is so striking that at first I wasn't even sure he was supposed to be playing the same character. The switch is made after some unspecified number of years has passed in the story, but it seems that it would have been easier to either recast some of the other parts, or to simply have Bardem "act young" towards the beginning of the film. It's a small detail, but it's the kind of thing that betrays a seeming lack of understanding of the filmmaking process that goes on throughout a viewing of Love in the Time of Cholera.)

...love at first sight between a young telegraph operator Florentino (Unax Ugalde as a youth and Javier Bardem as an adult) and a beautiful young woman Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno -- who is Italian, not Hispanic, and never seems quite beautiful enough to justify the obsession of the film's characters, but never mind). Fermina's father, played by John Leguizamo at his hammiest, believes that his beautiful daughter deserves a better station in life than as the wife of a poor telegraph operator, and moves his family out of the town in which they live in order to keep her away from her young suitor. Years later, she moves back into town and is approached by Florentino, who has remained obsessed with her all these years. He re-confesses his love for her, and she responds that she is sorry, but that she believes that their passionate but unconsummated affair of their youth was simply a mirage, an illusion.

Why? Well, the movie doesn't really tell us. Perhaps the book is better, but one of the major flaws of the film is that we never really get inside Fermina's head to any significant degree. She will go on to marry a wealthy doctor and philanthropist who is curing the region of cholera (Benjamin Bratt), and towards the end of the film describes him as "everything a woman could want in a husband" but her motives still remain unclear. Does she really love him? Why does she marry him? Why does she stay? How does she really feel about her long-lost love?

If Cholera is unclear as to the motives of Fermina it is obsessed with the feelings of Florentino. At first he promises fidelity to Fermina despite her disinterest in him, but after a bizarre (and, it must be said, entertaining) encounter on a riverboat with a mysterious young woman, he sublimates his desire for his unattainable love into a decades-long series of sexual encounters with random women in the streets. The film makes human comedy out of his love affairs, and it is here that it begins to work. The exploits of Florentino are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and genereally arousing, and one begins to wonder why he even cares about some passionate feelings he has for a woman he has barely seen in decades, when he seemingly has his pick of intelligent and passionate spitfires all around him.

Anyway. The movie goes on and there are plenty of mildly amusing subplots, and Florentino decides that he would like to become a man of means rather than a poor telegraph operator, and cameos by seemingly every bankable star with a name ending in "-o" are in evidence, but it all sort of ends up a mushy nothingness. There are isolated moments of quality that made me see what people saw in the material, but there's a curious lack of real passion to the film. Maybe magical realism just doesn't translate well to film.

The acting ranges from passable to quite good. Javier Bardem in particular is amazingly good, managing to give his role a kind of gravity that is lacking in the script, and comes out of the film basically unscathed. Mezzogiorno is okay but mostly lacks in intensity -- her best friend in the film is played by the alluring Catalina Sandino Moreno, who would probably have been a better choice to play the female lead. Hector Elizondo is amusing as Florentino's rich benefactor who gives him a job, and Bratt plays "rich handsome doctor-dude" about as well as anyone.

Overall, "eh." I really want to read the novel now, which is probably a success in itself no matter what the reason, but this really isn't a very compelling film experience. It's got some good scenes, a couple of good performances, and quite a few tit shots, but I really don't think this is anything like essential viewing. I have no particular desire to see it again. Completists for Bardem's work will probably be most entertained by this picture, the rest of us can give it a pass.

Rating: C-