Encountereds. I came, I saw, I commented.

Monday, February 27, 2006

XGen Studios - Stick Arena (2)

I've spent so much time on this thing in recent weeks, I should at least pretend that there is something meaningful that can be said about this timekiller. The concept is ingeniously simple: have a multiplayer shoot'em'up with low level technology, Flash in this case, so you can just play it in your browser. As usually, less fancy technology means purer gameplay. In the fights in Stick Arena, there is a lot of strategic movement, feinting, anticipation of opponents' moves, and trying to be fresh and surprising on one's own, and it all moves so fast, that it makes for quite pleasurable fights. Maybe it can even teach you a thing or two about fighting, but I fear I'm stretching my credibility a bit. And besides, I need to go back now, and sledge a few stick men.

Debbie Stoller - Stitch 'n Bitch - The Knitters Handbook (2)

I'm not likely to read the whole of it, but I found the basic knitting instructions very satisfying - they got me from zero to 50 (rows) in just a few hours - and I'm very happy with the project I picked and modified from it. A striped scarf (of course), with a subtle pattern created by switching between left and right stitches. I guess that makes me a knitwit now. Yay!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Stanley Kubrick - Paths of Glory (2)

Just having talked about how Sunset Boulevard is still haunting after all these years, here is an example of the opposite effect. A great and important script, great acting, impeccable direction and photography, indeed the whole things reeks of masterpiece, yet the story and message seem pale to me. Maybe it's the fact that this was followed by so many movies after this one painfully driving home the message of war being hell inflicted by the powerful on the poor. That being said, the final scene, where Douglas' character listens to his soldiers first degrading a german woman, and then sentimentally singing along with her, is very touching, in spite of its kitschy message: War may be hell, but not everyone condemned to it is an unreconcilable sinner.

Billy Wilder - Sunset Boulevard (2)

It is always risky to watch the classics, because the time that has passed since they wowed the world has changed viewing and storytelling conventions in often profound ways, and what used to be a captivating thrillride can turn out to be boring or emotionally incomprehensible. With Sunset Boulevard, the problem exists on two levels, as the subject of the film itself is the sinking into oblivion of one medium - silent movies - and its stars. The haunting scene where the looming figures of the silent era - Buster Keaton among them -, are playing cards in Norma Desmonds house is doubly spooke, because they are Has-Beens within the movie as well as without. Wilder has applied this eery unity to many of his characters, with Gloria Swanson, who is playing Norman Desmond, herself being a former silent movie star, with Erich von Stroheim playing Max von Meyerling - essentially himself, and with the added twist of Strohheim's having shot the movie that ended Swansons career. This movie is an epitaph on a dead art. And, coming full circle, it works marvellously well today, adding one more layer, as though the person giving a gripping speech at a funeral themself was dead.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

John Muir - My First Summer in the Sierra (1)

A young man goes into the mountains to herd sheep and falls deeply in love, changing the rest of his life? Sound familiar? It took me until I was almost done with this exuberant diary to notice the funny parallels to this years Oscar winner. Since Proulx' story and Lee's movie are a commentary on the myth of rugged wilderness and the lone, heroic men populating it, it's interesting to compare the two on that level. Muir in this trip and the path it set him on for his life, shaped another pervasive myth - that of unspoiled nature being more than a resource waiting to be used, but of value in itself. While the overpowering enthusiasm of his prose (written long after the trip), and his referring to plants and animals alike as "people" sound very quirky, and certainly his habit to talk to the flower people does, they are also part and parcel to his view of nature as a vast society, of which man is but a small part. His awe in the face of everything nature throws his way is a great inspiration, and Dan Simmons' suggestion in the Hyperion novels, that with time Muir he might turn into the patron saint of his own religion seems very convincing. He certainly was crazy enough for the job.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Peter Medawar - The Threat and the Glory (2)

Some names have a positive aura for reasons we have forgotten since we first encountered them. Maybe it was something we read, someone talking about the person, or quoting them in an interesting context. So it was with me and Medawar, and I'm very happy I bought the book at the yard sale I found it at. Medawar treats his often complex subjects with amazing clarity and levity, yet never compromises in terms of accuracy, and the problems he writes about are as unsolved today as they were thirty years ago. How do we balance the benefits of science with its dangers, to fulfill the inherent promise of progress rather than invoking an army of brooms that will sweep us away? Medawar doesn't have answers, of course, but he does ask the right questions, and that is the bigger achievement anyway.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Box / Park - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (1)

This movie is sheer genius, and an impressive feat of diligence and design to boot. The humorous plot devices are incredibly inventive, the rabitt armada is a force of cuteness that has no peer, and the combination of horror movie and vegetable gardening is just delicious. Even the special features on this DVD kick ass, with an awesome bonus short from Aardman studios, and the precious piece of information that Wensleydale, the watery cheese Wallace loves so much, was in deep financial trouble until the films came along and saved the company. Reminds me of the insane effect the movie Sideways and it' main character's criticism of Merlot and praise of Pinot Noir had on the sales of these wines. People are sheep, which is not only bad in itself, but also about ten years behind the vogue. It's rabbits, now, folks, so you better start thinking for yourself. About nice, juicy carrots.

Chadwick / White - Bleak House (2)

It is probably a bit unfair to review this while I've only seen less than half the episodes, but already it's very obvious that the strength of this series lies in the meticulous presentation of Victorian England. Costumes, sets, acting and direction are masterfully recreating the times of Dickens, and are a pure pleasure to watch. The plot itself, is typical for Dickens, a big, crude soap opera, full of drama and dark secrets, but if it is presented so lusciously - who cares?

Akutagawa Ryunosuke - Kappa (2)

The cover blurb calls this a satire on Japanese society and its customs, and when I randomly opened at some place, it indeed seemed a very funny and acerbic recasting of the Japanese into the Kappa. While this turned out to be quite misleading, it also turned me onto a book I probably wouldn't have read otherwise. A lucky turn. The story is of a human being suddenly cast into Kappa society, the Kappa being somewhat malevolent mythological creatures of Japanese rivers, scaly amphibians apt to drag children into the water and drown them. The tone and setting is more than a bit reminiscent of Abbott's Flatland, which Ryunosuke well might have read, and the absurdity of the goings on in the land of the Kappa reminded me of Daniil Kharms, but all in all, this is quite a solitary achievement. Born, as Ryunosuke himself said, out of his disgust with everything, especially himself, this story presents a caricature of humanity unlike anything I've read before.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Stephen Hopkins - The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2)

Peter Sellers was a very funny person, but he was also deeply disturbed and, this movie suggests, refused to become a responsible adult all through his life. This movie is often hilarious, incredibly well acted, especially on the part of Geoffrey Rush, who is as amazing and chameleonlike as Sellers himself used to be, but unfortunately lacks coherence. More a collection of individual snippets than a single story arc, the plot leaves out a lot, and the frequent breaks in the narrative, with Rush taking on the roles of people important in his life, walking literally off the stage of the scenes, while an ingenious device, add confusion to an already meandering tale. Still, very impressive and entertaining.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Paola Cavalieri - The Animal Question (2)

The caveat first: this is not exactly a book written for a general audience. It is a treatise of ethical philosophy, and the reasoning and phrasing is, I felt, even denses in some places than reverence to the esteemed traditions of academic discourse, let alone the subject matter, should have had it be (Though not having tried to set a thorough study of the intricacies of a system of moral acting in popular prose, I of course might be entirely mistaken and this book the closest anyone can get to simplicity in what is without a doubt an discomfortingly complex matter).

Cavalieri sets out to evaluate what entities are moral entities, in the sense that they figure into moral considerations of the actions of moral agents. A thorough review of opinions of the past reveals that none of them can be made consistent. Cavalieri then suggests that the best possible solution for our current state of knowledge of the cognitive life of other species is to extend the notion of human rights to all mammals and birds. Unfortunately, her case is solid, so this is the rare case of a book that has the potential to change my life. No more burgers. Poor me.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Eugene Jarecki - The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2)

Most of what this movie reveals about the criminal mastermind Kissinger was already known to me, and while the detached way the material was presented made the movie seem much more objective and unassailable as any movie ever could be, it also produced a feeling of heavy handed redundancy. I think if my choices are polemic hilarity, as in Moore's borderline scenes in Bowling for Columbine, and serene factuality, I'll take the raving fat man any time. The most interesting suggestion came at the very end, when either the author of the book this movie is based on, or the films director, suggested that the reason the US hadn't joined the international court yet was that they were very afraid of public scrutiny of Kissinger's files. It almost makes too much sense.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dario Argento - Suspiria (4)

As usual with obscure stuff on our Netflix list, I forget where I came across this or why I ordered it. A quick IMDB and google search reveals that Argento, and this movie in particular, have a devoted fanbase who consider him a visual genius and Suspiria the paragon of horror movies. I beg to differ. While the design is original, and it's always a delight to see Escher's art, even if it's misplaced, the plot, acting, effects and direction suck just too badly to be bearable. The attack of the rubber bat is a comic highlight, in an otherwise overly long C movie, and the tagline "the only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92" is awkwardly fitting.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Michael Gazzaniga - The Social Brain (2)

I was unable to find any image of the cover of this book online - which tells you something about it's age. The Social Brain came out in the 80s, and it proposed, based in Gazzaniga's own groundbreaking research on split brain patients, that the brain was a combined structure of separate and somewhat independent modules, and that the unfied mental life we seem to have is a constructed illusion rather than a controlling entity. The descriptions of the experiments are as amazing today as they must have been when they were first done, the speculative general part seems to vague to be either true or false, and the final chapter, in which Gazzaniga reverently interviews himself, instead of just saying what he wants to say, for no good reason, is slightly embarrasing.

Joseph Sargent - Something the Lord Made (2)

I have wanted to see this ever since I saw the trailers on HBO when it first came out, firstly because the subject seemed interesting (the invention of heart surgery combined with the story of racial discrimination in the medical establishment), and because Alan Rickman plays one of the main characters. Those were good enough reasons, but as it turns out, Mos Def almost steals the show playing the other lead. The whole way of story delivery is a smidge on the sentimental side, but not enough to spoil a touching historical tale.

David Ovason - The Secret Symbols of the Dollar Bill (3)

This is a profoundly silly book, about magic symbols and masonic references on the US 1$ bill. Some of them are surprising and interesting (like the etymology of Dollar, the significance of the pyramid, or the source for the $ symbol), but most of the letter and word counting and geometric analysis of what appears where seems more like an unhealthy obsession than an informative analysis. I know Gematria is very honorable quackery, but it obviously is possible to overdo it. Who would have thunk?

Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain (2)

I have to admit to being reluctant to go see this, mainly because I thought it would, beyond the taboo breaking gimmick which seemed to have catapulted the two cowboys into the center of the cultural universe, be an inconsequential and boring love story. Now I feel reluctant to point out how wrong I was, because I'm sure you must've heard by now that this is a touchingly real story about failed lifes, magnificently filmed in a beautiful setting.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Dan Simmons - The Fall of Hyperion (2)

In this sequel to Hyperion, we learn a lot more about what the Shrike is, who built the Time Tombs and why, and what the enigmatic events in the first book meant. In a way, these revelations destroy the sense of mystery that surrounded the time tombs and the Shrike. The necessity to keep a plotline that goes back and forth in time from folding unto itself and creating a know makes this book hard to follow in places, and gives a feeling of contrivance to what seemed a monumentally powerful force. The explanations, on the other hand, work well enough, and the overarching theme of death, suffering and how organic life can keep its dignity in the face of them and strive to be free of them without destroying everything in the process is fascinating to follow. The combination with Keats' romantic poetry, while adding a very unusual touch to this space opera, doesn't work all that well for me, but that might mainly be because I'm not too smitten with romantic literature and find the hyperbole and godlyness of subject matter and language tiring.

I am sufficiently interested in Simmons vision to someday go on to read Endymion and Rise of Endymion, the next two installments in the Hyperion saga, but not very soon. I'm too afraid to find religious mayhem similar to what happened in Herbert's progressively less accessible Dune series.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Takeshi Kitano - Zatoichi (3)

This could have been a marvelous homage to martial arts movies in general and the Zatoichi series in particular, full of references to details of Japanese culture, and funny little scenes. But unfortunately the plot, which should have been a simple story of evil oppression and the lone swordsman who breaks it, is told in such a fragmented and oblique style, that it gets into the way, rather than providing the frame upon which all the fine details are hung. It's too bad, there is so much to love in here, but it all just doesn't come together.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Tony Scott - True Romance (2)

With a script by Tarantino, and being directed by the guy responsible for blockbuster mainstream crap like Top Gun, this could have turned out an self referential exercise in explosion and meanness. Instead, this is a gritty and funny roller coaster ride of a movie, with an awesome cast and a wonderfully reckless storyline. Funny how this one went entirely by me when it came out.

Interestingly, this script already raises the issues Tarantino's Kill Bill got criticized for: if violence is an aesthetic component of storytelling, am abstract dance with blood as a costume, rather than a realistic deptiction of its physical and psychological consequences, does that make the movie itself an act of violence? I don't personally think so, but it might be a hard case to make.