31 March 2009

A Matter of Perspective

Quoth Timothy Sandefur:

Well, I just finished my income taxes. I was forced to give the government $23,456 this year to give to people who don't work. Isn't that just dandy?

Or, put a little differently, you could say that he paid $23,456 in order to secure the blessings of civilization in the United States. That money goes to pay for education, for scientific research, for common defense, for emergency management, for roads, for space exploration, for food safety, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And yes, a miniscule portion of that cash goes to help people who for one reason or another find themselves desperately unemployed, although to be fair a large number of persons who receive welfare checks do, in fact, work, but are only able to find part-time jobs for whatever reason and cannot make ends meet.

Yeah, it's easy for anyone to look at a handful of examples of things we don't like in the federal budget and say, "Well, geez, why am I paying for that?" But government funding has done a lot of good in this country and in the world, and it continues to do so every day.

Of course, Sandefur is a brilliant thinker and one of the leading lights of the modern-day libertarian movement and therefore knows this very well, which just makes the above bit of snark that much more objectionable. Coming from the ignorant this is the kind of claim that can be argued with facts, with evidence, but coming from a person who knows better it's just Internet Assholery at its finest.

Beer Review, Indiana Pale Ale

Indiana Pale Ale
Mishakawa, IN
6.2% ABV

Appearance: Orange/yellow body, very slightly hazy, with a half-finger white head. 4.0/5

Smell: Crisp dry hops up front, slightly citrusy grapefruit base. Pretty decent. 4.0/5

Taste: Dry hops on the tip of the tongue, a touch of citrus on the backend, and a cloying dryness to the finish. I've tried letting it warm a bit, but there's just not a lot of complexity here. It's pretty decent, but not great. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thin mouthfeel with a high hop content and large amount of carbonation. 3.5/5

Drinkability: I like it okay, but with so many other great IPAs out there, it just doesn't stand out much. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.7/5

30 March 2009

Movielog, House of Games

House of Games, 1987
Written by David Mamet
Based on a Story by Jonathan Katz & David Mamet
104 minutes

This was probably a much better movie twenty years ago.

That's not to say that David Mamet's debut feature as a director is bad per se, for it's very clearly not. But it's been imitated so often (and talked about so much) that it's easy to see through most of the plot, the ingenious nature of which is one of the primary reasons to see the movie. Watch this, I'm about to spoil the movie for you: it's a con game movie that contains cons within cons. A clever idea that's been done so many times since that when you see the relatively simple way it's done here that you'll probably see the twist coming a mile away. House of Games is in many ways a victim of its own success.

Lindsay Crouse (Mamet's real-life wife of the time) is a psychiatrist named Margaret Ford who works mostly with criminals and is also the writer of a best-selling self-help book. When a gambling-addict patient of hers pulls a gun in their session and threatens to kill himself, she talks him down by asking how she can help him. He replies that he owes some guy twenty-five grand, and if he doesn't pay by tomorrow he'll be killed. So how, exactly, can she help him?

She uncharacteristically goes to the House of Games, a seedy low-rent bar in the bad area of town, and confronts "Mike," who is the holder of her patient's debts. Mike (Joe Mantegna) is an intelligent, suave gambler who quickly informs Ford that her patient's total debts to him run to no more than $800, and if she'll help him to catch a "tell" in another poker player (Ricky Jay, with a lot more hair than we're used to seeing on him these days) he'll forgive the debt. She's charmed as well as fascinated, and agrees to the subterfuge.

This decision will lead to a series of cons as she falls deeper and deeper into Mike's world, and it's in the details of the con games that most of the pleasure of House of Games comes. The con men are charming and intelligent, and their dialogue oozes with the kind of rapid-fire wit that Mamet is famous for producing. The confidence game, you see, is about giving trust to others, knowing that they will reciprocate in kind. In the film's most famous sequence, Mike talks a Marine (a very young-looking William H. Macy) into giving him such cash in a Western Union station, explaining to Ford afterwards how the mechanics of the con actually work. Later, when the dollar amounts go up and the stakes are much higher, similar mechanics are none the less at work.

Mamet is known for being a highly functionalist director, but he also has a bit of an eye for composition, drawing from noir in his framing and editing style. Even the characters are somewhat noirish, although I think that the plotting comes more from Hitchcock than Hawks. The film's final sequences are more character-based and suffer from the somewhat thin characterizations, but I think that the actions are still interesting and (like many Mamet characters) very conductive to conversation.

House of Games is not as fresh as it would have been upon release, but it stands as one of the greatest of the con-man movies, and deserves to be seen for its ingenious construction as much as for anything else. Probably of more historical interest than current, but fans of the genre will consider this a must-see.

Rating: B

28 March 2009

Beer Review, Lagunitas Imperial Red Ale

Lagunitas Imperial Red Ale
Petaluma, CA
7.2% ABV

Appearance: Dark red color, mostly-clear body obscured by heavy effervescence with a thin off-white (almost brown) bubbly head. 4.5/5

Smell: Bitter hops and a touch of sourness are most prominent. Sourness? Just a hint, maybe, for upon subsequent sniffs it's just a sweet fruity maltiness. Very interesting. 4.5/5

Taste: Sweet fruity maltiness up front, with a nice kick of hops on the back-end. Slightly yeasty on the aftertaste, also dry. No alcohol astringency. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate-to-thick, with heavy carbonation and heavy hops. 4.0/5

Drinkability: The beer that most closely compares with this one is Arrogant Bastard, which is high praise indeed. It's a bit sweeter and less intense than AB, and I don't think it really stands out in the same way as Stone's signature brew, but this is quite a nice strong ale. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.25/5

27 March 2009

Movielog, Orlando

Orlando, 1992
Written and Directed by Sally Potter
Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf
93 minutes

It's hard to watch films like Orlando now without considering them the markers of the end of an era. A year or two after this film was released, the indie revolution would be in full swing, and many of the more interesting films of the next ten years or so would be about the lives of contemporary Americans trying to make sense of their lives, of the merging of high and low culture through accessible yet intelligent dialogue. Quirky directors would approach even high-minded material with a wit and panache that would invigorate long-dying genres and give energy to what might have been dull studio fare.

And, in the process, they would basically kill off the standard arthouse film. Sally Potter's Orlando is a film that bursts with an energy and vivacity but is still mired in the arthouse cliches of its time -- six years later, Shakespeare in Love would use many of the same basic techniques to bring home boffo box office and Oscar gold, but it also uses the sensibility and irreverence of the indie movement. Potter is a confident and stylish director, visionary enough to attempt to film the "unfilmable" novel by Virginia Woolf (which I admittedly have not read), courageous enough to step outside of narrative convention by allowing her protagonist to speak directly to camera, but without the willingness to provide a more straightforward throughline to her film, which instead devolves into a series of loosely-connected threads, some more interesting than others.

The title character is a young nobleman circa 1600 who is played by Tilda Swinton. Yes, that Tilda Swinton, so beautiful and feminine in a variety of roles, but a brilliant actress who is able to portray a male character who is embracing the feminine styles of young noblemen of the day. He is visited by Queen Elizabeth, who takes a shine to the young man and tells him that she will grant him the title to vast property, on the condition that he never withers and never grows old. And so he doesn't. Attentive viewers (or those with access to IMDB) will recognize that the queen is portrayed by the gay icon Quentin Crisp, so that a man playing a woman becomes physically attracted to a woman playing a man. This is a perfect and subtle setup for what will follow, as the role of gender will become the primary theme in the next four hundred years of Orlando's life.

We don't get a whole lot of detail about that life, as the film is only ninety minutes long and we follow about four centuries. No one seems to much notice that the man doesn't seem to age, and the day-to-day aspects of his life are left mysterious. Instead we are treated to a series of short film following different aspects of Orlando's life as he ages; first "Love," in which he falls in love with a visiting Russian princess who breaks his heart, then "Poetry," in which Orlando becomes patron to a promising poet in hopes that he too can learn to write great poetry. In the early stages, he comes across as a callow youth, protected by his wealth from the experiences that would hone his maturity, so much so that when he is eventually needed to take up arms in defense of an ally, he is unable to stomach it and flees the conflict.

And if he will not act as a man? Well, apparently nature has a few tricks up its sleeve, for Orlando wakes up a woman. He seems undisturbed by the prospect, turning to camera and shrugging, "Same person. Different sex," which is the kind of statement that might as well blare a bullhorn for the kind of material that follows. As a woman Orlando will be required to wear the outrageously impractical dresses of the day (a funny bit of physical comedy shows the new woman attempting to maneuver through her estate with her extremely wide hoop skirt) and will eventually be thrown off her own property, for women cannot own property.

Reading back through this review, I realize that I've made the film seem fascinating and nuanced. And so it is, but realize that I have described very nearly every event that occurs in the first hour of Orlando. Scenes drag out longer than necessary and philosophical points are elaborated again and again -- the film seems to be working more as a primer on Feminism 101 than as a feature. And to the degree that this is the intention of the filmmakers (which I believe it was), I find it hard to fault them, for Orlando works on that level, and is a film I'd show to anyone ignorant to the basic reasoning behind feminist thought. When a controlling man attempts to woo the female Orlando using the exact same language that the controlling youth used to woo the Russian princess, it's a moment of self-awareness that resonates strongly and illustrates perfectly the hollowness of those sentiments. So much of our vocabulary of love and desire essentially relegates women as the property of the desirer, and the message that Women Are People Too is one that should be shouted from the rooftop.

In the final half hour of Orlando Billy Zane shows up as an American adventurer, a character seemingly straight out of a romance novel who sweeps Orlando off her feet and shows her the joys of sex. They then have a long conversation that implies that Zane himself is a person who has changed sex, and gets into some muddy waters about the nature of masculinity and femininity. Zane's character seems to be a stand-in for progress and the modern world, and when he goes off in search of further adventures Orlando basically moves into the modern age, now towing a small child. The implication is that the child is Zane's, which would mean that Orlando was pregnant for a century or more.

It's in these kinds of details (another of these: Orlando runs through a hedge maze for five decades or so) that the essential "parable-ness" of the film becomes clear, and it seems that we are not meant to judge the film based on logical narrative cohesion. But what is the parable about? What message are we supposed to take from the film? There are some very clear (almost obtuse) messages on the surface, but is there something deeper, something that ties all of these stories together? This opacity is the greatest weakness of Orlando, in that it plays to the arthouse crowd with delusions of highmindedness rather than making itself more straightforward in execution, even if its message is complex. Perhaps Potter is relying on her audience having read the novel? Or perhaps the deficiencies are mine and mine alone, requiring spoonfeeding of the message of Potter's film.

Either way, my response to the film is my response to the film. I enjoyed Orlando for what it did right, but disliked some of the deliberate vagueness found therein. It's worth seeing, well-made and brilliantly acted by Swinton, but falls short of the greatness I wanted it to have.

Rating: B

26 March 2009

Beer Review, Dark Horse Tres Blueberry Stout

Dark Horse Tres Blueberry Stout
Marshall, MI
4.5% ABV

Not generally a fan of fruit-laced stouts... let's see how this one stacks up.

Appearance: Completely opaque, black, with a thin dark brown head. Looks velvety. 4.5/5

Smell: Hmm, interesting. Strong grainy malt presence that mixes perfectly with the sweet fruity blueberries. Usually in these types of beers one dominates the other, but it's a perfect mix here. Very nice aroma, sweet malts and fruits. 4.5/5

Taste: Again, a nice mix. The blueberry fruitiness is most prominent on the tip of the tongue in the beginning of the beer, and the dry roasted maltiness becomes more prominent as the beer finishes. Dry aftertaste, grainy texture. Very nice. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, heavy carbonation. Coats the tongue nicely. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Chalk this one up as a happy surprise. I can definitely see myself buying this again. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.2/5

25 March 2009

Those Crazy Nineties

I heard this over the radio at work the other day, and remembered how cool the video was.

You know you're getting old when you feel nostalgia for songs on muzak, right?

Update: Here's another vid I found in the "related videos" tab there on the Youtube.

Who knew Moby could do such an awesome job on a Radiohead song?

Booklog, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades, 2006
Written by John Scalzi
384 pages (mass-market paperback)

Kurt Vonnegut once said that he figured since his books cost about as much as a six-pack of beer, and he figured they should provide about as much entertainment. To my mind, there aren't a whole lot of authors out there working today who seem to adhere to that kind of mentality better than John Scalzi -- he's certainly not where I go for mind-bending SF concepts or beautiful prose, but damn is he entertaining. Which I think is pretty much exactly where Scalzi wants to be.

The Ghost Brigades is the sequel to Old Man's War, which was a nice rollicking military SF story with a nice hefty dose of humor. OMW's pace was a bit uneven, though, and the story lacked a clear throughline and seemed more like just a series of events that happened to the main character. That was fine, of course, but the sequel is a lot more focused on a specific storyline with a beginning and end. Scalzi seems to have been helped by the decision to make TGB a third-person narrative with shifting perspectives instead of the first-person narrative of OMW, for it allows him to give a lot of the background information important to the plot more clearly than in the first novel.

The plot involves a neuroscientist whose body is discovered with a shotgun blast through its skull. Investigation reveals that the body is a clone that likely never even achieved consciousness -- the scientist, Charles Boutin, has faked his own death and is now a traitor to the human race. Boutin managed the technically-daunting task of recording his own consciousness before leaving, however, and another clone body is grown so that the consciousness can be placed inside. For complicated reasons the clone is designed to be a part of the Ghost Brigades, a group of supersoldiers built out of the genetic material of dead enlistees of the normal space forces. Much of Old Man's War was devoted to the recruitment and training of its protagonist, and the sequel spends some of its length similarly, showing how the newly-grown clone Jared Dirac (which is the name given to the soldier built on Boutin's body) is trained to be a soldier.

The plot allows the novel to do a bit of philosophical speculation on the nature of identity and of consciousness, which seems to fit this narrative a lot better than similar material in OMW. In many ways I see The Ghost Brigades as a kind of "re-do" of stuff that almost, but didn't quite, work in the first book, and so I got a sense of deja vu reading the second novel. This isn't to say that this is a retread, but rather than Scalzi was using his improved skills as a novelist to explore similar issues.

I began this by saying that Scalzi is a great entertainer, and that's ultimately what comes through in this novel. He keeps the pace brisk and the philosophy never overwhelms the story, even while being interesting on its own. There's plenty of humor to be found, although the story has wide-reaching consequences for the characters, and it's above all never boring. I read through TGB in about four hours before work one day, and for the price of a sixer of beer I think I got a really good value. A short story set in the same universe as Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades can be found here -- if you like that story you'll probably like the novels to about the same degree. It's a tightly-written, fun book that even has a couple of nice emotional moments, but I find that I just don't have a lot to say about it. I'll definitely read the other two books in the series when I'm looking for a good read, but I think I'll stop this review here.

Rating: B+

23 March 2009

Movielog, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970
Written by I.A.L Diamond and Billy Wilder
Based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Biller Wilder
125 minutes

It's probably the most damning thing I can say about this movie that I saw it about two weeks ago and yet haven't yet summoned the energy to write up the review. I can't even remember a lot of the details of the construction of the film, to be quite honest. Not exactly what I'd like to be saying about a film about one of the most enduring creations of the written word ever translated to cinema, made by one of the all-time greatest film directors.

But yes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, directed by none other than Billy Wilder, just isn't a very good movie. Oh, it's a nice little piece to sit down and watch, entertaining at times and giving hints of something much better, but it doesn't stick in the memory very well and it's quite frankly a bit dull. Partly this is studio interference -- Wilder wrote and shot a three-hour film composed of four vignettes, but in search of a greater audience the suits cut the film nearly in half, dropping two of the vignettes and cutting the running time to about two hours.

The first vignette shows the home life of Holmes and Watson. It runs for about thirty minutes, and details the way that Holmes falls into a depressive funk whenever he's not involved with a case, abusing cocaine to get him through the hours of boredom. Watson discovers that he and Holmes have been invited to the opera to see a famous Russian production, and cajoles Holmes until he agrees to go. Holmes is invited backstage after the performance to receive a very personalized and intimate request, which he declines by telling the lovely young woman that he and Watson are homosexual lovers, a turn of events that enrages the womanizing Watson.

And yeah, it's pretty much all as sitcomy and silly as it seems from that description. It's an attempt to show the shades of Holmes' misogyny, but the character study falls flat because of the silly jokes, and the silly jokes just aren't that funny. Wilder was the king of genre-bending comedies like The Apartment, but this material shows that he was way off his game here.

The second vignette is a much more standard Holmes adventure, following the case of a young woman with amnesia dropped at the door of 221 Baker Street. What at first seems to be a straightforward bit of missing-persons research turns out to involve the destinies of nations when Holmes' brother Mycroft (a Christopher Lee so young as to be unrecognizable to me, in a performance that is probably one of the only reasons non-Holmes-obsessives should care about seeing this film) warns them to stay out of the affair. Holmes doesn't stay away, of course, and the trail eventually uncovers the Loch Ness monster, a troupe of midget acrobats, and and order of Trappist monks who aren't exactly what they seem. The mystery is twisty enough to be interesting, but today's viewers will probably be dissatisfied by the ending and the fairly predictable way many of the clues are uncovered.

So. Certainly not a great movie, but not really a bad one. I know that many Wilder fans consider this one of his best works, but I'm not one of them.

Rating: C+

22 March 2009

Oh, Penn....

In which I completely lose every ounce of respect I once had for Penn Gillette:

Bullshit has been going downhill ever since Penn and Teller decided to spend more time bitching about non-libertarian politics than going after anti-rationalist thought, and Penn's been spending way more time with Glenn Beck than is healthy, but this is pretty much the last straw. To sit and listen to this horseshit giggling is to officially become part of the problem.

Dave Neiwert does the intellectual heavy lifting here. (And if you don't read him, you should, because he's one of the best political thinkers working right now.)

21 March 2009

Beer Review, Berghoff Sundown Dark

Berghoff Sundown Dark
Monroe, WI
Unknown ABV

Appearance: Translucent brown body, thin tan head that dissipates quickly and leaves no lacing. Some bubbles from bottom of glass. 3.5/5

Smell: Malty and nutty, slightly astringent. Some hints of barley and wheat. 3.0/5

Taste: Not a lot, actually. A bit of malt up front and a dry finish and vaguely unpleasant aftertaste. Just not a lot here. 2.0/5

Mouthfeel: Fairly thin, but not badly so. 3.5/5

Drinkability: Not a great beer, or even a very good beer, but certainly drinkable. 2.5/5

Overall: 2.65/5

20 March 2009

Movielog, Cabaret

Cabaret, 1972
Written by Jay Allen
Based on the book of the musical play "Cabaret" by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play "I am a Camera" by John Van Druten
Based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood
Directed by Bob Fosse
124 minutes

(Would you look at that list of writing credits? Looking at the history of this property is like looking at the history of Hitchhiker's Guide -- it's been adapted and re-adapted so many times that no single version is really "definitive" and all seems really plastic. Just an aside.)

I can't claim to be a huge fan of musicals. Part of it is that I'm just not usually a fan of music in general. Oh, sure, everybody likes to listen to music, but the kinds of music I like are not the kinds of music that tend to make it into movie musicals. Show me a version of Across the Universe based on Nirvana songs and maybe we'll talk. (Oh, and of course I love South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and other musical parodies -- the biting satire helps a lot there.) But I try to at least understand all genres, and I know that Cabaret stands high up on the scale of the great movie musicals. Plus it has Nazis, so you know it has to be good, right?

And actually, it is. Liza Minnelli is the headlining star of Cabaret, and this marks her first film appearance after a highly profitable term on Broadway. She won Best Actress for the role, and it's a performance that deserves notice: Minnelli is a full-fledged superstar in this film, coming fully-formed in her first film appearance. She's the flighty and narcissistic Sally Bowles, a character that may be the first recorded instance of the Magic Pixie Dream Girl. If the MPDG is a cliche now, it was still fresh in 1972, just as the now-aged and publicly-crazy Minnelli was at the time a bright young star burning up the stage and screen. If Cabaret is nothing else, it's worth seeing for this performance.

Fortunately for the audience, it is more than just a performance. The film was originally based on a series of short stories, which gives the whole thing a kind of fractured feel -- Cabaret is constantly shifting tones as three or four subplots grind against one another, and some of them are more effective than others. The narrative of the film is shot and directed normally, and counterpointed by stage renditions of cabaret theater by Minnelli and others, most notably veteran Broadway performer Joel Grey (who also won an Oscar for his work here). Some of the songs are better than others, and some of them are more directly related to the plot than others, but the impression I get is that the old cabaret shows were the kind of lowbrow entertainment that was meant more to keep the troubles away than to be quote-unquote high art. The humor is salacious and the songs (generally) catchy, and even this old grump about musicals found himself smiling through most of the numbers. It's a good time.

The narratives range a bit more in quality and in overall tone. While living in Germany Minnelli meets a young English PhD student named Brian (Michael York) and the two quickly become good friends despite the differences in temperament and background, and eventually become more than that. Minnelli and York have an easy unforced chemistry, and one of the great pleasures of the film is just watching them interact together and trade quips. In another sequence, though, they meet a rich German aristocrat who seduces them both, mostly against Brian's better judgment. This sequence takes up a good quarter of Cabaret, and it's unclear exactly what we're supposed to get from it. My guess is that it's a kind of facile symbolism, in which Brian and Sally represent English and American libertines who turned a blind eye to the Nazis because of the gifts of the German aristocracy. Or something. This subplot ends as abruptly as it begins, and although the aftermath is one of the film's best lines, ultimately it seems that during this section the characters are behaving more like cardboard chess pieces than actual people.

Oh, wait, did I mention Nazis? Because the film takes place in 1931, just as the Nazi Party was beginning to take hold, and one of the themes of the film is the way that the decadence of the cabaret club and Brian and Sally's private lives contrast with the brutality of the Nazis. Of course, it's not exactly daring to have a message film that says "Nazis are evil," but I give director Fosse a lot of credit for giving his film a kind of mordant undertone that underlines the growth of the Nazi Party. An amazing sequence at a biergarden during the aforementioned sequence involving the German aristocrat shows a Nazi youth singing an ode to the Fatherland and the persons in the garden gradually becoming more and more united behind the Party.

Let's see, what else? There's a running subplot involving a rich Jewish woman and a would-be suitor that is charming but perfunctory, and probably deserves either a greater running-time or to simply be dropped from the film. As it is the subplot seems shoehorned into Cabaret, which again just makes me wonder if there's a symbolic meaning I'm supposed to be getting. No, more likely it's just included because it was a good short story in the original collection, and for sure it helps to open up the film a bit. I shrug -- your mileage may vary.

I saw this with Shana, who loves musical theater but didn't seem that much more enthused about it than I was. For sure it's a decent flick with a great performance or two, but I can't really recommend the movie as a whole. I found myself watching the clock a lot more than I'd like during the two-plus-hour running time. Maybe it's me, maybe it just hasn't aged well. Worth it for the songs and some of the plot, but probably better on stage than on celluloid. I'd be interested in glancing through the original book of short stories, though.

Rating: B

19 March 2009

Beer Review, Bell's Bourbon Barrel Aged Expedition/Double Chocolate Stout Blend

Bell's Bourbon Barrel Aged Expedition/Double Chocolate Stout Blend
Kalamazoo, MI
10.0% ABV

Tasted on-tap at Bell's, 03/09/2009

Appearance: Black body, slight reddish tinge on bottom. No head, as usual for beers on-tap. 4.5/5

Smell: Strong bourbon aroma, very malty, nice roasted barley. Slightly raisin-sweet. 4.5/5

Taste: Intense with whiskey-like alcohol, strong with sour mash but malty and dry with a clean aftertaste. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thick. Yeah, that's about it. No particular hops or carbonation. 4.0/5

Drinkability: For such a high-ABV beer, this is amazingly drinkable. If I hadn't had to drive I'd have had another. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.4/5

18 March 2009

Booklog, Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment, 1866
Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
592 pages

Let's start by saying that this is not a full review of Crime and Punishment. The book is nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and I'm not remotely qualified enough to add to the scholarly discussion of the book. I don't really know anything about Russian history or literature, for instance, and while I'm a bit more educated in philosophy, I'm certainly not going to be able to give any kind of deep analysis of Dostoevsky based on that knowledge. No, I approach this book as I would any other book, really, in that I read it because it seemed interesting. Of course all of us in the industrialized world are aware of its significance -- I just wanted to read it for myself and see what I got out of it.

Crime and Punishment started life as two projects of Dostoevsky's. The first was a novella-length psychological portrait of a man who committed a heinous murder, and the other was a novel that would have been called The Drunkards, which would have been a kind of family-based melodrama circling around a handful of protagonists. As the projects developed, however, Dostoevsky realized that they could be merged and that the melodrama of The Drunkards would work as subtext in the other work. (I learn all of this from C&P's Wikipedia page, which was a great aid to me in reading the book, particularly in keeping some of the characters straight.)

The murderer is Raskolnikov, and the book begins as he is doing something of a trial-run to prepare for the murder. His target is a vile old money-lender, and his reasons for committing this crime are intentionally ambiguous, but seem to revolve around his Napoleon complex. Raskolnikov believes that "great men" can act outside the strictures of normal morality, indeed, that they must do so in order to become great, and that society should allow them to do so. The character is an example of the kinds of intellectual radicals then present in Russia, and Dostoevsky considered the novel to be a rejection of the kinds of rationalism espoused by those radicals. C&P is, in fact, first and foremost a story of Raskolnikov's conversion to Christianity, to the point at which his final action in the book is that of picking up and reading the Gospels.

Of course, as an atheist and a rational materialist I'm not exactly the best target for such a conversion narrative, and certainly I have a differing view of the holes in Raskolnikov's logic than Dostoevsky did. But the novel delves deeply into the psychology of the murderer, and on that level it works beautifully, showing how Raskolnikov's original moral superiority fades into guilt over time, until he finds himself at the police station confessing to the murder. A modern-day evangelical author might use the same basic structure to tell a simplistic story of a simple faith, but Dostoevsky is such an artist that even though we may disagree on his theology, we can accept his tale as the story of an individual person coming to grips with his faith.

Interspersed with the story of Raskolnikov's criminal act and the consequences thereof are vignettes focusing on the people around him. There is a large "supporting cast" that was common in Russian literature of the time, but modern tastes for this kind of material will probably find it to be a bit more melodramatic than strictly necessary. While all of the supporting material helps to enlighten the reader about the main character's motivations and background, some of it I found interesting and compelling while other sequences just seemed long and extraneous. One of the best scenes in the novel comes towards the end between Raskolnikov's sister and one of her suitors, a mysterious benefactor, but Dostoevsky certainly takes his sweet time getting there. Et cetera. (One of the reasons I suspect that the novel is assigned so often to ninth graders is because of the ease of testing basic "reading comprehension" with these sections -- it's easy to write up tests that basically ask students to summarize the familial relationships between the cast of characters.)

I'm not going to pretend that every person reading this absolutely must read Crime and Punishment. It's a long novel with lots of dull bits, although this translation has a nice section of notes detailing references that Dostoevsky makes and generally keeps the material fresh by being quite readable. It's certainly not a beach read, but neither is it quite as dense as its reputation would lead you to believe. As great literature goes, it's pretty accessible, and I think anyone interested in detailed psychological portraits who hasn't read C&P should give it a shot.

(The novel's Wikipedia page is here, and has a lot of great information about the book, including talk about its themes that I didn't include.)

17 March 2009

Beer Review, Abita Bock

Abita Bock
Abita Springs, LA
Unknown ABV

Appearance: Light brownish-orange body, very thick off-white head that dissipates quickly. Very transparent, with some effervescence from the bottom of the glass. 4.0/5

Smell: Sweet, very malty, slightly bready. Slight hints of cherries. Overall just a dry maltiness, not bad for style. 4.0/5

Taste: Very... bock-like. Malty and sweet up-front, with a dry finish and aftertaste. Slightly nutty. Decent, but not a lot of complexity. 3.0/5

Mouthfeel: Fairly thin, low carbonation, no real hops. 2.5/5

Drinkability: A nice beer for relaxing, but nothing that sets the world on fire. 3.0/5

Overall: 3.35/5

16 March 2009

Movielog, The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter, 1955
Written by James Agee and Charles Laughton
Based on the novel by Davis Grubb
Directed by Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum
91 minutes

Sometimes I just don't get it. In Roger Ebert's Great Movies review of The Night of the Hunter (in which he calls this "one of the greatest of all American films") he says

It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up as well after four decades as I expect ``The Silence of the Lambs'' to do many years from now.

Except that Hannibal Lecter was a terrifying presence because he used his intelligence and merciless ferocity to outwit and defeat armies of trained professionals whose reputations and even lives depended on keeping him in chains. To use a very recent example of a great movie villain, Heath Ledger's Joker is menacing because he conceals his genius for preparedness in his menace with outward beliefs in chaos and meaninglessness. (Although the Joker gets a nice boost from his screenwriters, who give him capabilities that are implausible even within the comic-book universe.) But Robert Mitchum's demented preacher Harry Powell? He waltzes his way through the con game of his life because he's charming idiot rubes who can't see through the centimeter-thick preacher act to the killer underneath -- the moment he tries the performance on a person with even a modicum of intelligence, he ends up with a bullet in his shoulder. Earlier in the film, he can't outrun a pair of children dragging a doll, and falls for the most blatant of ruses even when he knows he shouldn't. He's more ridiculous than menacing.

No, I think The Night of the Hunter is a mediocre film that comes wrapped in the trappings of greatness. A husband and father steals ten grand from a bank and kills two people in the process -- he hides the money in his little girl's doll and swears the children to secrecy so they can have the money when they grow up. He is sentenced to death row, where he runs into Powell, serving thirty days on some minor charge. Powell seeks to convince the bank robber to tell him where he keeps the money, but he takes the secret to the grave. So Powell decides to pay the sleepy little town a visit. The idea of a murderer and con-man using the trappings of religion to hoodwink his victims is a good one, and the way he gets under the defenses of the townpeople is something of a subversive attack on the conservative religious values of those people. Soon Powell has married the bank robber's widow Willa (Shelley Winters), and what happens between the two on the night of their honeymoon is perhaps the highlight of the film, an incredibly creepy sequence that belongs in a better movie.

Once Powell has ingratiated himself into the family and serves as the head of the household, it seems that he has the power to find the money for himself, right? Certainly he should now be able to search with impunity, but instead he finds himself stymied by the twelve-year-old son of the bank robber, for the impudent little kid won't tell him where the money is. When he finds that his new wife has overheared him roughly questioning the children, he slices her with a switchblade and makes it look like she's run off in an old Model T. The shots of Willa in the Model T at the bottom of the river are surreal and haunting, and again belong in a better movie than this.

The body is discovered by an old alcoholic who fishes nearby and is a friend to the boy, but he can't go to the cops because he believes that the police will believe that he committed the crime. In his despair he becomes soused just when he's needed most, as the children come screaming to him for help when he is passed out on the floor. No matter, for the old man has built a skiff for the boy, and the children take off down the river in a sequence that belongs more in a boy's adventure novel than a thriller. At the end of the river they are taken in as orphans by Rachel (aging silent film star Lillian Gish, who is perfect in the role despite the drastic tonal shift). It is with Rachel that they find protection from Powell, and it is by her hands that he finds himself in the arms of the law. The last minutes of this film serve as a kind of denouement that would fit more in line with a sitcom of the fifties than a serious motion picture -- Gish even finds herself speaking directly to the camera and espousing such words of wisdom as "children endure."

I don't know. I read over what I've written above and it seems better than I found it. There are sequences of amazing beauty and sequences of astonishing evil, but they are linked together in a plot that seems set on the dumbest possible level. Ebert calls the film "expressionist," which I guess means that it doesn't have to follow any kind of logic, but that feels like a bit of a cop-out here. Maybe I just can't buy into the reality of the picture enough, or can't suspend disbelief in just the right way. It just doesn't work for me.

Oh, well. If we all agreed on the quality of movies what would the point of having more than one critical eye? You'll probably like this one more than I did.

Rating: C

15 March 2009

Beer Review, Angler's Ale

Arcadia Angler's Ale
Battle Creek, MI
5.4% ABV

Appearance: Orange body, slightly yellowish, with plenty of bubbles and a thick white head. Hazy. Very nice presentation. 4.5/5

Smell: Sweet citrus at first, with a nice crisp hoppy backbone. Very strong orange aroma, almost like orange juice, but tangier. 4.0/5

Taste: Crisp hops up front, tangy and slightly tarty orange flavor. A bit sour on the finish. Dry aftertaste. 3.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thin body but high amounts of carbonation and moderate hops. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Decent beer, worth a shot. Not my favorite APA by a long shot. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.65/5

13 March 2009

Movielog, M

M, 1931
Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Directed by Fritz Lang
110 minutes

The very first serial killer movie. Ever. Made only a few years after the introduction of sound itself, by a master of German Expressionism. What else do you need to know?

Okay, look at that date again, then at the country of origin. Germany, 1931. A time in which the Nazi Party was only beginning its stranglehold on Germany, and the knives were drawing near for "undesirables." A film with a Jewish star (Peter Lorre) who would escape to the US soon after the film's release. A film directed by a man (Fritz Lang) of half-Jewish ancestry, who would emigrate to the US two years later, after divorcing his wife, the co-writer of this film. The woman who would then join the National Socialist Party, and would eventually go on to make propaganda films for the Nazis. If ever there was film that achieved greatness purely on the basis of the time, place, and circumstances under which it was made, it is M.

Of course, none of this is stated explicitly in the film. The word "Nazi" is never used, and the film follows a plot that has little to do with politics in the traditional sense. No, the themes of M are buried, the meaning and ideas hidden within the technical brilliance and the thrilling plot. And a central performance by Lorre that merges the best acting of the silent era with the new psychological depth enabled by sound.

As the film opens, a rash of murders has gone unsolved for eight months -- the murders (and rapes, although that is not even implied in the movie) of several young girls, snatched away from their homes and bodies mutilated. We quickly learn that Lorre is the perpetrator of the murders, but the city remains unaware, parents in a blind panic over the disappearing children. Early on, a crowd gathers around a small man whose kindness towards a small child is misinterpreted, and he is nearly murdered before he can escape. Talk of the killings spreads all around the city, and the cops seem powerless to do anything about it. In the militaristic attitude of the day, the police have incredible powers of arrest and few rules placed upon them, but seem to twiddle their fingers barking up false leads and interrogating random drunks in raids of underground bars. They are meticulous but useless.

A gang of thugs, trying to figure out how to keep the cops from hassling them any longer, decides that they have to find the murderer themselves. They recruit beggars to patrol the streets looking for the right man, and offer a reward to the person who can deliver the killer. Their dragnet works, and eventually they capture Lorre and bring him for trial under their own particular breed of justice.

Lang was one of the great directors of the silent era, and with M he embraces sound in a masterful, almost playful way. While several sequences are silent or nearly so, Lang uses sound effects to build a world outside the screen, intercutting sequences with overlapping dialogue, and in general having the same kind of fun with the new technology that Darren Aronofsky would have with low-cost computer graphics seven decades later in Requiem for a Dream. His camerawork is dazzling, in particular his expressionistic framing in static shots and a handful of virtuoso camera moves, most particularly a long tracking shot in a poorhouse that rivals anything in the Scorsese canon.

Parts of this film are dated to modern eyes. Lorre's performance is full of the kind of silent-movie mugging that hasn't been en vogue for twice my lifetime, and Lang uses sped-up motion and other silent movie tricks to add action to certain sequences. The pacing is also a bit slower than we would expect today, particularly given the overall simplicity of the plot. But these are elements that can be forgiven even if they cannot be forgotten, and M deserved a look by anyone with an interest in the history of cinema.

Rating: A-

Beer Review, Penn Gold

Penn Gold
Pittsburgh, PA
5.00% ABV

Appearance: Very clear yellow-white body, lots of effervescence, with a thin white head. Would be transparent except for the bubbles in the glass. Very nice presentation for-style. 4.5/5

Smell: Sweet malty corn aroma, not much else. Hints of wheat perhaps? 3.0/5

Taste: Ooh, nice malt crispness. Sweeter than expected, flavors of corn and malt. Finishes sweet but clean. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, thicker than expected for the style. Low carbonation, no hops to speak of. 4.0/5

Drinkability: What is it with Pennsylvania Brewing and their note-perfect German-style beers? I loved Penn Weizen and I like this quite a bit. Wonder if they brew a dopplebock.... 4.0/5

Overall: 3.9/5

11 March 2009


Tomorrow is my 29th birthday. One more year and I will officially be an old fart.

Today I blew off everything I wanted to do and played XBox 360 all day. And not even a good game -- doing free play mode on Lego Star Wars.

In some cases it seems that maturity still eludes me.

Beer Review, Stone Cat Blonde Ale

Stone Cat Blonde Ale
Mercury Brewing, Ipswitch, MA
Unknown ABV

Appearance: Hazy yellow/brown body, thick white bubbly head. Quite a bit of effervescence. Head dissipates quickly. 3.5/5

Smell: Tarty sweet citrusy hops, with a bit of banana and a hint of grapefruit. A bit cloying. 3.0/5

Taste: Very yeasty, lots of banana flavors with a cloying orange finish and aftertaste. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thin but somehow chewy. Lots of yeast. Lots of carbonation. 3.5/5

Drinkability: It's an okay quaffer, nothing more. A bit heavy for a blonde for my taste. Those who like lots of citrus will probably find a lot to like here. 3.0/5

Overall: 3.35/5

10 March 2009

Movielog, Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai, 1954
Written by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
207 minutes

Sometimes this classic-movies-up-for-review thing just seems a little pointless. What exactly am I going to be able to say about Seven Samurai that hasn't been said better by about a thousand people in the last half-century? What insight can I offer? Oh, well, I saw it, and it's magnificent, and I soldier on regardless of my own limitations.

The plot is simplicity itself. It's 16th century Japan. A group of bandits spies a tiny village but decides not to attack until after their current crop is picked. A villager hears the plans and runs back to his home to warn his neighbors. But what can a group of starving villagers due against the bandits? Should they beg for mercy, or fight? When the question is posed to the village elder, he has an ingenious idea: hire one of the clanless samurai wandering around the cities. How can they pay him, when all they have is rice? "Find hungry samurai," responds the old man reasonably.

And so they do. I've described maybe the first five minutes of Seven Samurai, and the rest of the run time is divided up into a very logical series of events: the hiring of the titular defenders, the training of the villagers and preparations for the attack, and the final action sequence in which all that training comes to use. It's not hard to imagine a ninety minute version of this film that has a very similar plot -- Kurosawa's film is generally considered to be the progenitor of all modern action pictures, and the modern familiarity with the genre makes the particular beats and rhythms of Seven Samurai as familiar as mom and apple pie. Some old movies need a bit of translation into modern terms so that we can understand what they meant to their original audience, while this one seems familiar because of how widely and pervasively influential it was. It's a challenge to remember just how original all this was in 1954, but the movie works even if we just take it as a simple action picture.

A simple action picture, though, this is not. I mentioned that this film could be trimmed to half its length and still have virtually the same plot, but the resulting ninety-minute film would be forgettable despite the amazing performances and stellar camerawork that would still be present. Kurosawa has done far more than simply invent the action picture here; he has taken a simple plot and used it to create a masterpiece of tone and character, to examine society and the roles that individuals play in it, and to meditate on the meaning of war and violence.

At the heart of Seven Samurai is the aging samurai Shimada, played to perfection by Takashi Shimura. Shimura is an imposing physical presence, a warrior in thought and in deed, but also a man with a heart, a personable giant of a human being, equal parts wise and fierce. He can be harsh when need be but also warm and inviting -- when he smiles with his friends we find ourselves smiling along with him. Shimura's performance alone would make this a great film; his performance grounds this epic picture in the human, even the mundane, and allows us the emotional center to what is at times a heartbreaking sequence of events.

At the other end of the seven there is Kikuchiyo, played perfectly by Toshiro Mifune. Mifune and Shimura were regulars of Kurosawa's works, and had appeared together also in his Stray Dog, which I reviewed last year. Here Mifune is a young man who comes from peasant stock, but considers himself a samurai. The other samurai know better, but Mifune has courage to back up his posturing, and so ingratiates himself among them that he becomes one of their group whether they want him to or not. Mifune's character is the source of much of the comic relief of Seven Samurai, but his background also allows him to work as a bridge between the villagers and the samurai -- as the one character whose feet are planted in both worlds, he has the ability to communicate with both and to heal the divisions between them.

Which is important, for perhaps the most important theme of the film is the caste-ridden society of feudal Japan. The villagers have need of the samurai but do not trust them, and the samurai are perhaps a bit condescending to the poverty-ridden villagers. The villagers live lives of backbreaking labor and near-starvation, but give the samurai their best rice so that they can be defended from attackers. Still there is tension, as there is a general fear among the villagers that the samurai will take advantage of the women of the village, a fear that is perhaps not too far off the mark considering the deprivation that the samurai suffer through. A crucial subplot follows the love story between a young samurai in training and a peasant girl, when their love is consummated the night before the last stand of the villagers and the samurai against the bandits, the resulting eruption threatens to destroy the very social fabric that they are all trying to save.

At the end of the film, after all the dying that is going to be done has been done, one of the surviving samurai stares off into the distance at the joyous villagers harvesting their crops. This is just one more battle they, the samurai, lost -- it is the villagers that have won. World War II was less than a decade past at the time this film was made, and Kurosawa is arguing that the time for imperialist notions, the time for warriors instead of farmers, is over. Kurosawa is pointing his society towards the gentle humanism espoused by the samurai played by Shimura, toward the desire for peace and joy felt by the villagers who have survived to strive another day. Very different is the perspective on war and violence espoused by Kurosawa here and that expressed by Ford's The Searchers, which was made only two years later but here in a victoriously postwar America. There are striking parallels between these two masterpieces, but they are separated by a perspective shaped by culture and by the expectations of their audiences.

I haven't even really scratched the surface of the brilliance of Seven Samurai. How could I? It is long but never boring, old but fresh, with a simple plot but with implications that echo down the ages. This is a film that will be loved for as long as the medium exists.

Rating: A+

08 March 2009

Beer Review, Hopslam Ale

Bell's Hopslam Ale
Comstock, MI
10.00% ABV

Appearance: Transparent reddish-orange body, thick white head that leaves some lacing. Impressive quantity of head considering the ABV. Some carbonation in the glass. 5.0/5

Smell: Crisp hops up front, with a malty syrupy sweetness underneath. Strong honey backbone, lots of interesting sugar combinations. Hints of grapefruit and oranges. 4.5/5

Taste: Very sweet with honey on the first sit, with a heavy dose of hops on the back-end. Very dry on the finish. Very sugary, strongly flavored with grapefruit. High astringency due to alcohol. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick but smooth, goes down clean. Moderate carbonation. 4.0/5

Drinkability: Not my all-time favorite DIPA, but I'm really curious to see how these age over time. I may stick them in a closet and try one again in six months or so. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.3/5

07 March 2009

More Watchmen Funnies

This has a shelf-life of about ten minutes, but it's still pretty funny.

Wolverine looks decent, but no way is it going to match the genius of Watchmen.

There's also this, for those interested in the Watchmen video game. I'm interested in the game, I'm afraid it's just really just going to be a way to sully Moore's intellectual property again.... (Was there a V for Vendetta game?)

Movielog, Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of [P]

Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of [P], 2001
Written and Directed by Donatello Dubini and Fosco Dubini
96 minutes

Who exactly is this movie intended for? I'm a huge Pynchon fan who has read each of his books at least once and who has spent some amount of time learning as much as can be known about the man and his works, so I can watch Journey and fill in some of the gaps in the film that the casual viewer cannot. But the film spends so much time trying (ineptly) to convince me of its own insight and "strangeness" that it doesn't give me what I'd most like to have: information about the subject of the film.

Thomas Pynchon is the author of six novels, from V. in 1963 to Against the Day in 2006. He is incredibly reclusive, has never given an interview or commented on his dense, mazelike novels, and indeed hasn't been photographed in decades. A handful of photos of the author exist, all of them from before he was an author, mostly from his days in college or in the Navy. It is natural for those of us who love the writings to attempt to puzzle out the author's life, and a film that attempted to use what little we know of Pynchon's biography to flesh out some of the stranger passages in his novels would be a fascinating one. But that is not this film.

We know, for instance, that Pynchon based much of the family history of the protagonist of his greatest work, Gravity's Rainbow, on his own blue-blood heritage. We know that Pynchon spent some of his time living on a commune in the Pacific Northwest, an experience that seems to inform a good chunk of 1990's Vineland. We know that he spent time in the Navy, and his experiences must have had some influence on the characters in V.. A Journey Into the Mind of [P] mentions none of this, not even brushing by these kinds of elements, and instead focuses on making wild conspiratorial rantings about connections between Thomas Pynchon and the military-industrial complex.

Early in the film, we are told that Pynchon lived in Mexico City at the same time that Lee Harvey Oswald visited the city. Did they meet? Did they ride the same train? intones an interviewee, a Pynchon researcher who seems from the evidence in the film to have taken a few too many drugs back in the day. This is followed by a series of propaganda-like images showing Oswald's life, arrest. and eventual murder at the hands of Jack Ruby. Certainly paranoia is an aspect of Pynchon's writing, but connecting him with Oswald? Really?

The film suggests that perhaps Pynchon had a history that he was afraid would get out if he became a public figure, a suggestion bolstered by an interview with a man who knew Pynchon in the late sixties and early seventies. This gentleman (sorry to be vague about the names, but I can't find references to the interviewees on the web and I already sent the disc back to Netflix) also intones deeply that Pynchon may have been involved in the military testing of LSD, "just like Timothy Leary." So, you know, consider the source. The recollections of those who once knew Pynchon are interesting and useful insofar as they illuminate the man, but less so once they become more fodder for the grist mill.

A real lost opportunity is the interview with an ex-lover of Pynchon, a woman who was the inspiration for "Bianca," from GR. What was he like as a man? As a lover? Where did they go for fun? What kinds of books, movies did he like? Was he introspective? Depressed? Joyful? Aside from a brief discussion of Pynchon's desire to protest the Vietnam War in Chicago, we get none of this; instead we are bored by the woman's attempts to enter the apartment where Pynchon lived decades ago, hectoring the current occupant to let her (and the film crew) in for "just a minute." Sure, it's interesting to see where Pynchon lived while he created his greatest work, but by focusing on that instead of more substantive issues the filmmakers due their audience a disservice.

Another researcher talks about Pynchon's personal correspondence. We get a long intro in which he discusses his first reading of Gravity's Rainbow, and how he first got involved in Pynchomania, but when it comes to the real meat of the issue, he closes his files and pushes the camera away. Some of the documents were private correspondence, sure, and there are ethical issues, but to expose the audience to the kinds of wealth of material about Pynchon without even hinting to their content? Ridiculous. We're talking about literally boxes of papers, full of detail and insight, but as a viewer we are completely shut out. There's the real info, that's what might have been an interesting movie. The rest? Eh.

And that's the feeling I got at the end. Eh. Journey has some interesting bits that prevent it from being a total waste of time, but even within the confines of trying to understand such a reclusive artist, there are much better ways to go about it. I wonder what kind of film Werner Herzog would make about good ol' Ruggles....

Rating: D+

06 March 2009

Saturday Morning Watchmen

Just ran across this while reading blogs. I can't get it out of my head. It's insidious.

I think this may be even better than "Watchmen Babies."

I know there's a videogame in development based on Watchmen, and I just hope it doesn't suck ass.

Movielog, Watchmen

Watchmen, 2009
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Directed by Zack Snyder
163 minutes

Soon after the teaser for this film was revealed to the world with The Dark Knight, I saw a post over at io9 clucking about the fact that Captain Metropolis was not a listed cast member on Watchmen's IMDB page -- how could this film have the heft it needed without the Crimebusters meeting called by Captain Metropolis? Well, easily, since it just gives all the necessary dialogue to Veidt and therefore doesn't have to spend ten minutes introducing a character who's really only in that one scene. The screenwriters of Watchmen deserve high praise for their work here -- they've managed to take a graphic novel that has been considered basically unfilmable for the last two decades and have found a narrative throughline in the material that allows them to keep the structure intact, even while discarding beloved but time-consuming elements of the original material. As an adaptation this film rivals The Lord of the Rings in terms of scope and difficulty, and also in terms of the overall success of the finished product. And just as with LOTR, you'll have hardcore fans of the material missing the forest for the trees and whining about random missing details when what is in front of them is a magnificent re-telling of the original tale. And I believe that like LOTR, Watchmen will be largely embraced by fans of the original work.

Holy fucking shit, what a film this is! The nitpickers and nay-sayers focus on their petty favorite details, but seem to neglect just how much of the original has been kept, more than I think any of us had a right to expect. Virtually every word of Rorschach's notebooks is here, done in creepy and psychotic voiceover. The Comedian is every bit the vile bastard he was in the book, and two key scenes, one in Vietnam and one in an old foe's crummy apartment, are every bit as moving as they could ever have been. The fire rescue? Here. The apocalyptic dreams? Right here. Dr. Manhattan's lonely sojourn on Mars? It's all here, haunting, moving, and quite simply astonishing.

And the ending? It'll probably be the most debated aspect of the movie, but it's still here in essence even if the details have changed. The details have changed because it takes precious screentime to establish the details of the original ending, screentime that is better devoted to other things. (I'm being vague here to avoid spoilers.) In some ways the movie's ending is better than the graphic novel -- it's more directly related to the themes of the story, and it doesn't require the kind of meandering that draws out the end of the graphic novel a bit more than necessary.

Yes, I loved Watchmen. Snyder and his crew found a way to film the unfilmable by focusing on the details of the investigation into the murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian. Psychopathic Hero Rorschach believes that there's a "mask-killer" on the loose, and his investigation takes him through a cross-section of this funhouse alternate history America and exposes some painful secrets along the way, and a conspiracy that affects the life of every single person on Earth. Anything that was in the graphic novel that isn't on this spine is generally not in the movie -- most particularly, the history of costumed adventurers in general is only hinted at in a short scene involving Hollis Mason at the beginning of the film, and the childhood motivations of the main cast is not shown here. Threads from the novel that involve ancillary characters also don't make it on-screen; my favorite of these involves the home life of a psychiatrist, and while I was sorry to see it go, I understand that including it would have bogged down the narrative just when it needed to pick up some steam. Do we really need ten minutes of Watchmen dealing with such a minor character? Of course not, even though it was one of my favorite portions of the novel.

The performances are good all around. Whether the decision to use mainly up-and-coming actors or otherwise unfamiliar faces came from an artistic or budgetary source is probably meaningless, for the lack of big-name stars helps the film to succeed on its own merits. It's not that Tom Cruise would have made a bad Ozymandias or that Hillary Swank wouldn't have been able to pull off Laurie, but known faces would have distracted from the overall story and kept us at a bit of a distance. Everyone brings their A game here, respecting the material first and foremost, and disappear into their roles like they were written especially for them.

Let's go in IMDB order. I'm not familiar with Malin Ackerman's other work, but her Laurie is feminine but tough in all the right ways. She has a thankless role in a lot of ways, never really getting a show-off moment the way some of the other characters do, but she is at the heart of the film, and carries off her big emotional moments with the aplomb of much more experienced actors. There's a scene ending with her in tears towards the finale of the movie, and if her performance didn't work, the movie probably would just grind to a halt, but she succeeds in portraying a woman driven almost to madness by her own past, and it's one of the most touching moments in the film. (And yes, she looks amazing in that costume.)

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. He seemed like a bit of an odd choice for the role, and I had some doubts when watching the trailers about his voice in particular, but my fears were for naught. Manhattan is a god walking among men, immortal, able to see the future and the past, and Crudup gives this impossible character a solid grounding in humanity even while he becomes more and more distanced from ordinary human concerns. His voice is that of a college professor, the quiet physicist he once was, and even in his most powerful moments he gives off a gentleness and a decency that was perhaps missing in the comic. It's a tough line to walk, but Crudup does it masterfully, and it's a shame that this film is unlikely to get the kind of major awards buzz that would give him the recognition he deserves.

Matthew Goode is another actor with whom I'm unfamiliar, but boy is his work as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias creepy. Veidt is "the smartest man on Earth" who has built his image as a superhero into a worldwide financial empire, and Goode manages to find the right balance between Donald Trump and David Bowie that is somehow deeply affecting rather than being ridiculous. He is a cypher through most of the film, and even when all his motives are revealed at the end he maintains the right air of mystery.

Jackie Earle Haley. Holy. Fuck. He spends most of the movie under a completely face-covering mask but gives such an amazing performance with just the timbre of his voice and remarkable body language that he officially becomes an Actor to Watch in the future. Rorschach is another of those impossible roles, a fan favorite (with good reason!), and Haley captures all the right notes perfectly. He's a character who would be a psychopathic murderer except that he has turned his sociopathy towards the doers of evil in the world, and his mind has been warped by all these years in the gutter. He does the same kind of rough gravel with his voice that Bale did when playing Batman, but Haley's lack of star power allows him to disappear into the role much more than Bale ever could, and I totally bought that this character could be the terror of the underworld even when only armed with a cafeteria tray. His may be the single best performance in a film filled with great performances.

If there's a better example of amoral glee in literature than the Comedian, I'm not aware of it, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is up to the task. While Rorschach is a sociopath who enforces a strict code of right and wrong, the Comedian is just a bastard who does pretty much whatever he wants and has fun doing it. It's his death that instigates the film, and in flashbacks we see him torching fleeing Vietnamese, raping a woman, and gunning down protesters in the street. But we also get his humanity -- Morgan gives us a portrait of a man whose response to the evils of the world was to hit back just as hard and turn off his feelings, but who has not forgotten his humanity. It's a brief role but an important one, and Morgan gives a performance here that reminds me of Mickey Rourke's in Sin City, a bastard who just might want to be a gentle giant underneath.

Dan Dreiberg is probably my least favorite of the characters in the comic, but Patrick Wilson helps me see the humanity in this chubby ex-adventurer. Dreiberg is in many ways the moral center of the story, the character who has been least damaged by the world around him and who is least beset by emotional trauma, which makes him I suppose less interesting than those surrounding him. But in many ways he (like Ackerman) grounds the film, providing a human counterpoint to the Earth-shattering events surrounding him. His role in the finale is stepped up a bit from that in the novel, which helps to give an audience surrogate to this rogue's gallery of emotionally twisted people. I know Wilson best from Hard Candy, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how funny he could be here; Dreiberg gets to be a bit of comic relief at certain moments in the film, and Wilson manages to find the humor in the character without ever losing the more mordant tone of the rest of the film.

I know it's fashionable to think The Dark Knight is one of the Greatest Films Ever Made, but while I liked that film a whole lot I didn't think it was quite as heady as people made it out to be. No matter what kinds of themes you find buried in Batman, TDK was ultimately about a guy who put on a funny costume to fight the Pure Evil (tm) of another guy who really just robbed banks for a living. Ledger's Joker is menacing because he is completely unhinged, an utterly vile man who wants to make the world into chaos. Watchmen is a vastly superior film because it knows that the real world rarely gives us the kinds of Evil-with-a-capital-E opponents, and that when you're playing for the grandest of stakes, sometimes all you have is moral ambiguity. The meaning of the last chapter of Watchmen has been debated for two decades and more, and the film version is sure to create a whole new generation of people arguing about it. What a magnificent experience.

Rating: A

05 March 2009

Beer Review, 1888 Bock

Leinenkugel's 1888 Bock
Chippewa Falls, WI
5.10% ABV

Appearance: Dark red opaque body with lots of brown. Thin brown head that dissipates quickly. 3.5/5

Smell: Slightly astringent, malty, very nutty. Sweetness underneath with a bit of a bready undertone. Hints of cherries. 4.0/5

Taste: Again with the astringency up-front, moreso than you'd expect with just a five percent ABV. A nice nutty malt underneath, with a dry but somehow still cloying finish. 3.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, slightly chewy. 3.5/5

Drinkability: I like this beer pretty well as a daily drinking beer, but it doesn't hold up as well under review-style examination. I'll be buying these again. 4.0/5

Overall: 3.45/5

04 March 2009

Movielog, The Crazies

The Crazies, 1973
Written by Paul McCullough and George Romero
Directed by George Romero
103 minutes

A few years after inventing the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (and making a shitload and a half of moolah for his film distributors on the process) George Romero gave us his commentary on the Vietnam War with The Crazies. In 1973 the war was beginning to wind down and ex-soldiers were coming home completely changed by their experiences. Two of the leads of this film are Vietnam veterans, and much of the film deals with military culture in general and the problems of Vietnam in particular, just in that skewed metaphorical-but-not-really way that's such a Romero trademark.

One morning a small town in Pennsylvania is quarantined by the US military. Martial law is declared, and the population of the town is herded into the high school for "processing." We quickly learn that a bioweapon was onboard a plane that crashed near the town, and that the substance has leaked into the water. The bioweapon (codenamed "Trixie") causes permanent insanity in persons who ingest it, which means that the entire town is filled with, well, "The Crazies."

Romero gets a lot of out this premise, not really from the activities of the crazies themselves (although the violent behavior of a small number is terrifying and amazing) but through the actions that the military takes in containing the threat. In a clear parallel to Vietnam, solider dressed in isolation suits that make them look like alien invaders swoop into every house in the city, forcing everyone out of their homes at the point of machine guns. What information is shared with the people being herded is sporadic and fragmentary. Even assuming pure motives, who can blame those with the ability to avoid the dragnet for doing so?

And it's one of the other brilliant aspects of The Crazies that we can't really ascertain the real motives of those doing the cordoning-off. What we see of the top echelon persons making the decisions seems to imply that they are acting in good faith, but with their own reputations first in mind: they make some good decisions, but also some shortsighted ones, and Romero is honest enough to present them as they would have seemed at the time, without the benefit of later hindsight. The military men who are working on the ground are generally good people, but are hampered by security and by the bureaucracy of the military machine and cannot easily solve their problems. The individual solders? Mostly just want to get the hell out of there, and are told nothing about their mission.

A scientist who helped develop Trixie works tirelessly to find a cure, but cannot do his best work with only the equipment he can find in the high school science lab. He wants to escape the town and work from his lab, but until he can be "cleared" of exposure to the weapon he cannot be allowed to leave the quarantine. His story is one of the most tragic, for the ending of his story is probably the most unnecessarily wasteful of all.

A group of loosely-affiliated members of the town attempt to escape the military's dominion, and it's this group that we follow through most of the film. One by one, they begin to succumb to the power of the drug, some violently and some not, and the actions that they take as they descend into madness is some of the most horrifying stuff in The Crazies. In particular, a sequence towards the end of the film involving a young woman and her father is disturbing even without the ultimate denouement.

I realize that I've gone this whole time without mentioning any of the actors. Well, what do you expect? Romero was indie before indie was indie, and most of the performers will be unfamiliar to even the most dedicated fans of the movies. No one really stands out performance-wise, but the acting is decent enough all around, which is about par for the course for a Romero film -- he's a lot more interested in concept and story than performance and character. Love it or hate it, that's the way of his films, and this one is no exception.

Should you see The Crazies? It's not the best of Romero's work (that would be Dawn of the Dead) but those who are fans of insightful social commentary masked as genre will probably get something out of this film. It's a fascinating film while it lasts, and if nothing really sticks out in the mind later on, it's at least worth the ride.

Rating: B+

02 March 2009

Beer Review, Bell's Pale Ale

Bell's Pale Ale
Comstock, MI
5.00% ABV

Appearance: Yellow/orange body, thick bubbly foamy white head that dissipates a bit, but leaves some lacing. 4.5/5

Smell: Sweet with citrus up front, crisp hops underneath. Very fresh, clean, aromatic. 4.0/5

Taste: Orange and citrus on the tip of the tongue, with a crisp finish and a dry aftertaste. Somewhat grassy. Very fresh, quite good. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thin but not watery, with a nice carbonation that is pleasant, not painful. 4.0/5

Drinkability: A very nice pale ale, one of the better examples of the style. A very good day-to-day beer if you can get it. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.1/5

01 March 2009

Movielog, Zombie Strippers

Zombie Strippers, 2008
Written and Directed by Jay Lee
94 minutes

So... yeah. Who would have thought that a movie called Zombie Strippers could be so fucking boring? Especially with all the nudity on display? Sheesh.

I first became exposed (no comments from the peanut gallery here) to Jenna Jameson when she did a series of segments on various E! programs back in the mid-nineties, the first one being a report from the Cannes Film Festival. This was back before E! was basically a repository of reality shows starring washed-up celebrities (or, even worse, hot chick who wish they could be celebrities), instead actually being something of a source for entertainment news. Sure, there was a hefty chunk of soft-core salaciousness to a lot of that old programming, but for a fledgling basic-cable channel to hire a fresh-faced porn star, a real-life gets-fucked-for-money porn star, to cover the biggest film festival in the world was a ballsy move.

And you know what, maybe it's just my addled memories of a decade or so ago, but I remember Jenna Jameson (before she became the Biggest Porn Star in History) to be a cute, fresh-faced, engaging personality -- it may have been an odd choice to put her in front of a camera with her clothes on to cover a film festival, but her reports were entertaining and engaging if not exactly enlightening. So much so that she has spent much of the last decade attempting some level of mainstream success, i.e. to be known for more than just her ability to suck cock.

So after more than a decade of being a huge starlet, recently even being covered by entertainment media alongside more quote-unquote "reputable" actresses like Lindsey Lohan, it's perhaps unfortunate to report that from the evidence shown in Zombie Strippers, Ms. Jameson simply cannot act. Here she plays a big-name performer at an illegal strip club, perhaps a bit older than her compatriots but still pulling in the crowds, but even with a part that seems tailored for her she cannot give a decent line reading to save her life, and even the broadest comedy bits fall flat. This is a film filled to the brim with bad performances, and hers is arguably the worst of the lot, even by the standards of D-grade titty flicks.

But who watches this kind of movie for the acting? Jameson admittedly looks better than she has in paparazzi flicks of the last few years, more human and less "oh-my-god-what-did-they-do-to-her-face," and her figure is about as pneumatic as you'd expect from a veteran of point-and-shoot porn, which is either a plus if you're into that sort of thing of a minus if you aren't. More interesting is Roxy Saint as Lillith, a gothy stripper who actually has a decent line of dialogue or two, and whose body seems a bit less ravaged by the plastic surgery. Saint is a DJ in real life, and actually performed a couple of the songs on the soundtrack, which helps to solidify her talent, at least in my mind. Jennifer Holland is Jessy, a fresh-from-the-farm blonde stereotype who never actually gets any nudity in the film, but does a bit of a sexy dance before she runs from the stage. Throw in Penny Drake as Sox and ex-Playboy CyberGirl Shamron Moore and there's plenty of generic random nudity in the 90 minute runtime of Zombie Strippers -- at least the film plays it straight with the nudity and isn't the kind of tease that gives five minutes of boobies for the whole film. (Hey, I take what pleasures I can here!)

But the nudity's only half the story. There's a secret military base blah blah blah zombies escaping blah blah etcetera etcetera. After a zombie bites Jameson's character and she becomes one of the undead her stripping becomes superhumanly athletic and erotic, and the strip club's manager (Robert Englund) decides to screw his ethics in lieu of the cash that's suddenly pouring in. The device of the ethically challenged businessman is one that dates back in schlock-horror terms at least to Corman's Bucket of Blood, and it says something about Zombie Strippers that Corman's 1959 film is much more nuanced about the whole thing than this more recent version. Jameson (and other strippers in the club, once they have also been turned into zombies) begins to devour her clients after the show, and it must be said that some of the effects are actually pretty decent, and a couple of the kills are reasonably creative. The film works as a cheap horror film about as well as it works as a cheap titty flick, which is to say not very well, but at least it's trying.

Looking at the credits for the film, much of the credit (or blame) for Zombie Strippers rests on the shoulders of one man: Jay Lee. Lee is credited as writer, director, editor, and cinematographer, and it's clear that he's attempting to make something just a bit more sophisticated than meets the eye here. The film is set in the year 2012, during Bush's third term, and numerous jokes at Bush/Cheney's expense permeate the first few minutes of the picture. It's all pretty ham-handed parody that would have felt a tad out of date even five years ago, but at least it gives a bit of life to the early portions of the film. Also, the strippers in the club all seem to have been philosophy majors, Jameson's character in particularly being seen reading the complete works of Nietzsche on several occasions, and even quoting him in dialogue. Lee claims that this film is based on an absurdist play that I have not seen, and it's possible that he's being honest here. Lee's execution is way, way off, but his heart seems to be in the right place.

The film also tries to work as a comedy. A Hispanic janitor (Joey Medina) gets a couple of decently funny bits, although a sequence late in the film in which he gears up for war against the zombies is way overbroad (even for this material) and relies too much on Mexican stereotypes. It's also a bit humbling for the makers of Zombie Strippers to realize that one of their "best" gags (a relative term if I ever heard one) is based on a movie that's sixty years old. (It's such a great gag they use it twice!)

Ultimately, Zombie Strippers is all title and no content, a film that doesn't even meet the bottom-barrel expectations of the genre it's aping. I've seen D-grade Skinemax features with better production values than this, and more interesting scripts, too. There are literally hundreds of places you can see Jameson naked other than this, so why not pick one of those, instead? I know this is trying to be a parody of the genre, but the jokes fall flat and the story is completely uninvolving. It's not worth the ninety minutes I spent watching it, and it's certainly not worth the time I've spent writing this review. So much so that I think I'll stop there.

Rating: D