Encountereds. I came, I saw, I commented.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dan Simmons - Hyperion (1)

An excellent crossover between literary history, theological treatise and captivating worldbuilding science fiction, the only shortcoming of this book is that it ends just when things start to become interesting. Not until the last few pages did I realize that the confrontation with the frightening entity called the Shrike, the opening of the Time Tombs and the outcome of the big conflict between human and AI madness would be subject of the sequel. Still, this collection of the life stories of six people, bound together by a pilgrimage (Hello, Chaucer), weaves a picture of a future, where technology and metaphysics blend into a web of awe.

It's interesting to see Simmons trying to deal with a technical detail problem facing every attempt at Science Fiction with some cultural and historical background: either every reference has to be composed and explained in detail, or all the references come from 19th and 20th century culture, which becomes increasingly improbable the further in the future the plot is set. The fact that his plot contains people from many different epochs makes up for some of that asymmetry. That device almost justifies the pilgrims singing "We're off to see the Wizard" when they go to face the Shrike, and the difference is made up by the creepiness of that very image. But overall, it still doesn't quite come together, the lists of artists that are mentioned in a few places always separate nicely into the ones the reader knows and those unkonown names just plugged in to indicate the passing of time. But if the past is any indication for the future, hardly anybody from our time will still be known 600 years hence. Maybe Simmons is as close as one can get to solving that particular problem here.

Vincenzo Natali - Nothing (3)

What a strange movie. Reminiscent of the director's earlier "Cube", this has less of the grim deadliness, and more levity, but also a bit too much jumpy goofiness for the sake of its central metaphor. It's the story of two underdog friends living in a derelict house between two freeways in Toronto, who one fateful day wish the world away and find themselves stranded in a white, bouncy Nirvana - in a typical silly twist, the first thing one of the characters throws into the whiteness to see if it can be walked upon is a statue of Buddha. Subsequent fights between the friends lead them to them wish away more and more of what little they have, and it is a surprise that the movie doesn't end with pure whiteness, like Cube did, but with... ah, well, you'll just have to watch it, because I'm not going to tell you.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rome (2)

I don't know a whole lot about Roman history, nor about the small details of everyday life in the days when the republic turned empire, but this series does quite a good job of creating a believable backdrop for Caesar's conquests and the adventures of the two soldier goons who carry the show through wit and humor, an echo maybe of the concept behind Asterix and Obelix. The frequent focus on sex as the driving force behind the political upheavals looks suspiciously like an excuse for eyecandy, but the same could probably be said for the whole show. Nothing wrong with that, anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Everyone's Waiting (2/3)

I lost interest in this overblown, thickly layered soap opera somewhere in season two, but when I heard that the final episode was exceptionally well done, and the bothersome Nate would finally die, I thought it might be nice closure to watch it. Unfortunately, the, err, video supply store, accidentally delivered the final episode of season three, and not until the final minutes of that tedious, overdramatized convolution of plots did that fact dawn on me. What a waste of an hour.

The true final episode then wasn't quite as bad, but somewhat disappointing. Until the moment when Claire drives away from LA, Nate's ghost jogs down in her rear view mirror, and the future of all the characters is revealed, up to their deaths. That this touched me, even though I didn't care for any one of the characters, speaks to the quality of the sequence. But if you're like me, and want to see it, skip the first 40 minutes of the episode. They're just business as usual.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Neal Stephenson - Cryptonomicon (2)

This book has it all, geeky and cool facts about cryptology, military, social and technological history, a fairly believable conspiracy plot, insights into high-tech investment politics and an epic breadth and richness of materials that stunds. So why did reading it feel so tedious, and why was I glad when it finally was over? Maybe it's because of the odd feeling of detached interest that perfuses the work. Stephenson describes the human dimension of his adventure with the emotions of a boy watching ants through a magnifying glass on a sunny day, just before he decides to see what happens when he burns them. It's a terrific story, but it felt like someone else was reading it.

Richard Brooks - In Cold Blood (2)

This is an almost literal translation of Capotes book to the screen, and it compares very favorably both with his writing, and the recent movie "Capote", about his own role in the trial of Hickock and Smith and the role of the book in his life. Some odd choices aside (why did the script change Capote's name?), this is a gripping true murder story, intense, yet never sensational. The central ambiguity of the title, which refers both to the act and the punishment, is made too explicit for my taste in some of the lines toward the end, but the subject is just important enough, that a bit of preaching is forgivable.

Martin Scorsese - Kundun (2)

This biopic of the Dalai Lama would impress me much more, and be a much more valuable contribution to understanding and solving the plight of Tibet, if it didn't look like Cirque de Soleil on dope. While I can't blame the traditional garments and designs of Tibet for having been appropriated to an updated version of the myth of the noble savage western progressives seem to love so much, I can blame Scorsese for presenting the struggle between what clearly is a feudal society where extreme poverty and lavish palaces stand side by side and the upheavals of the modern age, namely the invasion of technology and the Chinese cultural revolution, in a way so heavily slanted as to lose its trustworthyness. It's too bad, because I suspect even a fully realistic depiction of the Tibetan aristorcracy would make the communist Chinese look quite bad. But cinematography, scope and acting compensate handsomely for these ideological squabbles.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Xan Cassavetes - Z Channel (2)

This is a very entertaining and cinematically inspiring movie, but oddly that's not due so much to how it tells its tale - which, in fact, drags a bit toward the end, and could have lost a few of the lengthier asides - but to what that tale actually is. The history of LA based Z channel's amazing programming, and the simple fact that it did exist, bringing all of those offbeat und underrated movies to an intelligent audience, essentially counteracting the stupid culture suppressing forces of market and money, is both heartening and disturbing. For if it's possible to do TV without simultaneuously numbing the viewers mind and cranking up their aggression with marketing, why is it not happening anywhere? Give us more programming tailored to that "Uncommon Denominator" Z worked so magnificently toward, you bastards!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Doug Liman - Swingers (2)

The first part of this felkt like someone had invented a new cipher for social communication and forgot to tell me about it. Nothing anybody said seemed to make any sense not within the plot, not as commentary. But eventually the fog lifted (it might have just been the fog of history, anyway), and everything made sense and dissolved into sweet, sweet nothings. Which turned out to be the movie's point in the first place. Fun, and so, so money.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Robert Clouse - Enter the Dragon (2)

There is quite a few gaffes in this movie, the plot is nonexistent, the action drags on forever in places, and the acting oscillates between solid and silly. Still, this is one of the finest martial arts movies ever made. Lee's technique is amazing, and the surroundings and characters are just done well enough not to intrude.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Jean-Jacques Annaud - Seven Years in Tibet (3)

Expecting a filmed version of Harrer's memoir, lending visuals and speed to the somewhat sluggish pace and skeletal outlines of the book, I was annoyed to see many changes in plot and a focus on the superficial events rather than their meaning. I also didn't like the fact that in a movie about foreign places and experiences of strange cultures, everybody speaks english wich an accent to indicate the language used, except for a few places with correct language chunks thrown in. The latter double the problem, because now there's not only an annoying accent, it's also inconsisten. Harrer's trek across the alien planes and up the bureaucracy of an unknown and bewildering country here comes down to lack of food, injured feet and a little brush with robbers; the fascination with the double nature of the wise leader/child is overshadowed by a dubious plotline of paternal guilt, and the overdramatized development of Harrer from cliched asshole to understanding wise man is in itself a chliche that could have done with some development. The chinese invasion in the end adds nothing but an uneasy feeling of activism, and the closeing scene in Austria is confusing. The cinematography is great though, even if it was shot in the Andes, because the Chinese wouldn't allow filming in the Himalaya. I found myself oddly touched to find that Harrer died not a week ago, as though my having watched this movie so close to his death made it more meaningful. Mysteries of the human mind.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Allan Mindel - Milwaukee, Minnesota (3)

This was supposed to be the heartwarming, quirky and funny, yet profound story of a mentally handicapped prodigy icefisher, who has the fish themselves tell him from under the ice how to catch them, but somehow it didn't come together. Neither the characters nor the acting can convince, and the plot is so thoroughly overconstructed it doesn't interest me for one second. While the final scene of Albert walking off into the white, trailed by his disciple icefishermen, who rather than laugh about him - as his overbearing mother would have him believe - submit to his superior authority, is very poetic, the rest of what this movie wanted to be stays under the ice. Someone should have listened more closely to capture it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Yamamoto Tsunetomo - Hagakure (2)

The more I learn about Japanese history, the more I wonder how it is possible that the European captains found anybody alive there at all when they arrived. They should have disembarked, a fearful expression on their faces, and waded in blood, among the guts and remains of the honorable dead, who slashed themselves open to maybe make amends for an ill chosen colour of off-white for the master's new lampshade, or some such. This makes for very fascinating reading, but it is indeed hard to understand how a society, in which disrespect leads to fights to the death, which in turn means seppuku for those who started them, could have functioned, Maybe, then, Yamamoto exaggerates wildly. This is somewhat more plausible for modern readers when they realize that some of his short texts read like they are the direct inspirations for Monty Python's suicide squad lead by Otto in The Life of Brian, and the Black Knight in the Holy Grail - now of course available as a plush doll, which probably would have horrified old Tsunetomo right into killing himself.

Briski/Kauffman - Born into Brothels (2)

I guess I first have to say how touching this film is, nor how necessary it is to provide an, albeit small, window into a hidden world of hopelessness and despair, and the inspiring quality not only of the movie, but also of the photographers heartfelt need to do something to help save the futures, and indeed probably lives, of the children she taught in Calcutta's red light district. Now that's out of the way - I was actually wondering at several points during the movie, if the portrayal of these kids as very talented artists, while certainly true, does not mislead the audience into separating the victims of social injustice into those whose ruin will be a loss to us connoisseurs of the arts, and those who won't be so sorely missed. Surely, if we could save the precious ones, things would already be much better.
Nobody should have to live in those conditions, whatever the quality of their drawings or their grades at school, and there remains a bitter taste of defeat in the end, when out of the nine kids all but three seem to be falling back into their doom. But in another sense, a single saved child is already a triumph, so maybe I'm quite wrong. It's a great movie either way.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Arthur C. Clarke - The Fountains of Paradise (2)

This book has won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and while I don't fully agree with quite so much formalized praise, its central character, a geostationary tower 40.000 kilometers high, rising from the slightly shifted island of Sri Lanka, is a fascinating and awe inspiring invention. It's story, intertwined with that of it's engineer, Vannevar Morgan, is nicely contrasted to that of an ancient king, who reached for the stars of his time and found death in the process, just as Morgan does. I think it's this undercurrent of engineering and progress as substitutes for religion, which is painted as their opposite, and seems to include anything not logically deducible, that makes this tiring to read. Not accidentally, the humans in the story are shallow and lifeless, and the final chapter betrays the mix of engineering and Nietzsche that seems to fuel Clarke's world view: at the great noon, the superman will come in a chariot from the stars, to unite with the child and found the future. An engineer's dream of electric sheep.

Robert Lieberman - Legends of Earthsea (5)

When I realized three minutes into the movie, that the script had swapped Ged/Sparrowhawk's true and public names, I suspected impending doom. It's a minor detail, but it betrays all the reckless disrespect and cluelessness, as well as the love affair with superficial deepness (Sparrowhawk! Doesn't it just sound more magical!) that makes this one of the most horrid adaptations of written material to the screen I've ever seen. So much money and effort, so foolishly and pointlessly wasted, with some of the most subtle storytelling in fiction warped into a crude, martial mockery. The only good thing about this disgrace is that in contrast, Le Guin's books shine all the more. If you think you want to watch this, shoot yourself in the foot instead and moan for three hours. At least that way you'll have learned something.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Neil Diamond - 12 Songs (1)

Hell Yeah, he's done it again. Though that might refer to Neil Diamond himself, whose work I've always liked a lot, and who has outdone himself on this new collection, the person I'm referring to is Rick Rubin, whose list of productions reads like a good part of my most favorite list. Johnny Cash, Slayer, System of a Down, now Neil Diamond. It's humbling. What great piece of music did I produce recently? On the other hand, I'm wouldn't even know how, so maybe I'm doing all right.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bruce Lee - Tao of Jeet Kune Do (2)

This is Lee's posthumously published founding document for his own brand of kickass, Jeet Kune Do, that brought him both fame and severe criticism for boldly breaking with tradition and fusing different styles, taking what he would from each. The book, while roughly structured into chapters, reads more like a collection of small pieces than a unit. In part this reflects the limitations of editing somebody else's work his untimely death put on the editor, his wife Linda, but I suppose to a degree this is a reflection of the inherent notion he expresses multiple times. Go with the flow, do not become rigid in rules, be flexible within your limit. The motto of Jeet Kune Do, set around the unique logo with the Yin/Yang encircled by two chasing arrows, reads 'Using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation'. Which of course is all part of the ancient asian art of making sense through not making sense.

Jeffrey Blitz - Spellbound (2)

I will refrain from making any spelling jokes in this review, tempting though it may be. The spelling bee, to my still somewhat European eyes, seems a very alien tradition, though I'd be hard pressed to say just what exaclty it is about fidgety bespectacled eleven year old kids with overzealous parents spelling words much harder than "overzealous" or "bespectacled" that is so disturbing. But it is. It is also very funny and fascinating to get a look into a world of success and ambition that couldn't be stranger to me if it were made of cheese and looked like the moon, but I think I said that already.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Rough Guide to Okinawan Music (1)

Okinawa is located on an strategic spot of ocean real estate, and has been occupied by numerous foreig powers throughout its history. This stormy military past has forged the island's strong martial arts tradition, but a side effect of a multitude of traders and soldiers passing through is a multilayered cultural richness. This compilation collects a broad variety of styles, themes and artists, from the amazing traditional sanshin tune Koko Kuduchi to the joyous modern surf pop of The Surf Champlers. While the variety of material makes sure that there have to be a few songs for everyone they could have done without, overall this is a shining jewel and wonderful to explore.

Sidney Lumet - Serpico (2)

A gripping real life story of an honest cop in the late 60s in New York, and the breakthrough for Al Pacino as a big movie star (though I was a bit surprised to hear both the producer and director Lumet talk about how the Godfather was truly Brando's movie. While old tissuecheek certainly is a very strong presence in that flick, I've always felt Pacino and Brando as equally strong. But je digresse). The story, and Pacino's character based playing, are very intense, and the fascinating fact from today's point of view is that the movie moves at a quiet pace, yet doesn't seem slow - a bit too long, maybe, but that's probably due to an original script that was double the length and needed to be heavily cut. Other cool piece of trivia: the real Serpico came to rehearsals, and was studied by Al Pacino, then shown the door by Lumet once shooting started, and was - or so Lumet reminisces - crushed, because he felt he become friends with them, while to them he was a object of professional interest. He also once told the producer Martin Bregman, in a movie theater empty except for the two of them, that he couldn't smoke, because it was against the law. Go, Serpico!

Monday, January 02, 2006

Erich Später - Kein Frieden mit Tschechien (2)

Bei manchen dokumentarischen Büchern fragt man sich unweigerlich, warum man sich die deprimierende Abfolge unheilvoller Tatsachen ins Denkgebäude schraubt. Nun ist es andererseits natürlich Unsinn auf dem Niveau der Erstmal-besser-machen Kritikverneiner, Unschönes nur deshalb abzulehnen, weil es keine konstruktiven Schlüsse anzubieten hat, aber erbaulich hätte ich es doch gefunden, nach der Durchsicht all der Naziwiderlichkeiten rund um Vertriebene und ihre Zentren, Kriegsgeschichte und Schuldausgleich ein paar Vorschläge zu finden, wie man das Pack zum Schweigen und die Geschichte auf einen guten Weg brächte. So ganz ohne das ist das Buch jedenfalls nicht der Diskussionsbeitrag, der es sein möchte, sondern eher die Grundlage für einen. Muss dann eben jemand anders schreiben.

Die für mich interessanteste Detailinformation betrifft das Verbot der Todesstrafe im Deutschen Grundgesetz, das mir angesichts der sonstigen Kontinuitäten von Mordbubenwirtschaft und Gewaltapparat immer ein wenig inkonsistent vorkam. Später schildert, wie ein Vertriebenenfunktionär sich für die Abschaffung verwendet, um seine alten Nazikumpane vor den Galgen der Alliierten zu retten. Das ging schief, weil die Alliierten sich bei den Hinrichtungen ums Grundgesetz der Besiegten nicht recht scheren mochten, und der Plan, die Todesstrafe für gemeine Mörder flugs wieder einzuführen, scheiterte dann ebenfalls. Sie kennen doch unser heiteres Suchspiel? In der Geschichte hat der Weltgeist Sepp Arnemann eine konstruktive Lehre über den Umgang mit repressiven gesellschaftlichen Kräften versteckt. Suchen Sie sie selbst, mir gefällt sie nicht.

Nachtrag: konkret dokumentiert in der aktuellen Ausgabe die Reaktionen Vertriebener auf Späters Buch, und ich nehme einen Teil des oben gesagten zurück. Wer derart die Hunde zum Bellen bringt, hat allerhand richtig gemacht.

Noah Baumbach - The Squid and the Whale (3)

This is a nice enough movie, I suppose, but it left me with a feeling of emptyness where meaning should have been. It can't possibly want to tell me something about human relations, or the male character's faults wouldn't be so blatant and unsubtle, and it can't be entertainment either, for though there is quite a few funny bits, the overall mood is that of oppression. It must have been liberating for Baumbach, who's personal history this is rumored to reflect, but doesn't do much for me.

Peter Jackson - Lord of the Rings (1)

Ever since the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, Middle Earth has been a holiday* staple for me. I liked the original theatrical versions well enough, but it's only in the extended cuts that the story's pacing works and the rich undertones of Tolkiens mythology get a chance to resonate through the plot. Aragorn's singing of the Lay of Luthien is one specific example among many, and not by accident is it in the Fellowship of the Ring, which after this year's repeat watching of the whole trilogy (split over quite a few days - I'm a geek, not a nerd) is still my favorite. It's also the one part that doesn't have cringe inducing dialog in it ("A red sun rises. Blood has been spilled this night" - Yeah, that would be my brain hemorrhaging, you Elf twat), but they're all precious, of course. Go, looks at them.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Kerry Conran - Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2)

Though the lack of meaning and its pulpy plot development are part of the concept of this highly stylish science fiction comic come alive, it drags a bit toward the end, when even the vestiges of development devolve into a series of ever fancier military gadgetry being deployed. The design is quite nice, but with a bit more reflection on the history and significance of the original artwork it could have also had significance. Ah, well.