Encountereds. I came, I saw, I commented.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Battlestar Galactica (2)

While parts of the second season of the new Galactica drag just as badly as the first - in particular the plot elements concerned with the Cylon masterplan and the impending birth of the child of doom are stretched so thin as to be practically impreceptible. Also, the density of journalists and the political and social structure of the fleet still don't make much sense other than as commentary on the US today. On the plus side, the acting, set design and the general military mood are great, and the writing, which is generally quite good, of the last few episodes of the second season in particular was excellent. Partly because the main plotline, stalled by the arrival of the Pegasus and its semifascist admiral, finally started moving, but also because the usual seriousness was spiced up with some nice humorous elements. A welcome relief from the heavy handedness which some of the political and moral issues were presented with. The explanation for how the humans were detected (the atomic blast was picked up a year later and a light year away) is a nice nod to physics (though you have to wonder where this nebula clad planet is located for there to be something of interest just a lightyear away. Ah, well). I'm looking forward to the next season, which is slated for airing starting October.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

John Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes (1)

How refreshing, after reading a lot of idea driven, gimmicky SF, to discover this. I found it in the bookstore run by the Friends of the Berkeley public library, among pulp paperbacks, and though I'd never heard of Wyndham, was intrigued by the cover art and the fact it had come out on Penguin. The story is a crossover between Capeks wonderful War with the Newts and Well's War of the Worlds, with an extraterrestrial menace, quite possbily flying in from Jupiter, settling in the deeps of earths oceans, and proceeding to exterminate the bothersome land mammals. The story is gripping - though the solutions's alomost perfect parallel to Wells' is a bit disappointing - but the true strength of the book lies in the two main characters, a married couple of radio documentary writers, who witness most of the events from close up, but have hardly any active part in the matters at all. This viewpoint lends the story enormous credibility, based on the one hand in the strong execution of characterization and background, but also in the familiarity of events unfolding on a large scale that one is powerless to stop or alter, yet keeps reflecting upon and discussing as though one did. Finally, the acerbic depiction of cold war diplomacy at the height of madness is the crowning piece on a very nice cake.

Robert Altman - McCabe and Mrs Miller (1)

The meticulous recreation of buildings and social networks of the little digger town somewhere in the cold American Northwest is enough to make this gem worth watching, but the story of McCabe and Mrs Miller that Altman set against this backdrop is in itself touching and rewarding. A very unusual Western, if you want to call it that, with an uncompromising ending. Very interesting to watch the special features, too. Some documentary on the making of the movie, and a movie trailer, both not badly done, but horribly, horribly dated, to the point of being hilarious, while the movie itself is timeless. must be the difference between art and craft.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Sopranos - Season 6 (2)

My favorite family of criminals is back, but so far I'm none too sure about how happy I should be about it. The first episode caused mostly consfusion, for its lack of continuity - for instance how come Tony and Carmela are as harmonious again as we see them, was there any fallout from the horrible murder of Adriana that made last seasons second to last episode so intensely hard to watch - and for its lack of direction. Nothing is happening we haven't seen many times before, no plot is advanced, right up until the moment Tony gets shot by Junior, who seems to be truly demented by now, but also might be scheming again. The second episode then has us all watch Tony linger in limbo, while his spiritual and bodily fate are being decided. The metaphorical, dreamlike sequences are nice to watch, but once again the episode doesn't advance much. Except maybe for AJ's promise of a revenge killing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Myst IV: Revelation (2)

The Myst game series has an odd quality about it. Some of the puzzles are frustratingly complex, and hardly make any sense within the stories, which in addition tend to abound with psychological cliches. But of course the strength of Myst lies in the design of the worlds, called Ages, in which it is set, and Revelation is no exception to these rules. The cliched story is accompanied here by some pretty horrific acting efforts, and the difficulty of at least one of the puzzles verges on the ridiculous, with another one being bad enough for a character within the game to suggest that if you get too frustrated, you should go away and try again later. But, oh, the Ages. Tomahna is a cluster of buildings in a sheltered cove that I wouldn't hesitate to move into in an instant, Spire a marvellously desolate and forbidding hovering crystal tower, Haven a lush jungle full of strange creatures, and Serenia a cool looking mix of several stone masonry cultures. Just walking around in these environments would be a pleasure, and the occasional riddle adds to that a nice sense of involvement.

Dan Simmons - The Rise of Endymion (3)

While certainly better than it's two predecessors, this final installment in the Hyperion story still subtracts from the original book. Why do sequels always fall so badly short of truly adding to a work, and why do creators still have the urge too do them? The Shrike was a mythical force, the future a mysterious place, the present hardly comprehensible when Hyperion ended. Now all that is dissolved in an action feast full of explosions, a quaint patchwork of worlds the size of small villages and populated by caricatures of foreign cultures and a badly contrived plot. While it is challenging for an action driven plot to have a practically omniscient character, his solution of "I know but I won't tell you yet" is infuriating. The fall of the Pax at the end is a complete Deus-ex-machina, and the twist ending makes no sense whatsoever. But the biggest failure of all three sequels lies in the delivery of what Hyperion wisely withheld - answers to the philosophical and ethical questions. Simmons goes on at great length about how utterly and fantastically otherworldly the Ousters are, yet their behavior, thinking, language and mores are indistinguishable from today's middle class America. I also find the revelling in violence, torture and death on an enormous scale slightly disturbing. For someone proposing a culture of empathy and universal love, Simmons shows an odd fascination with intense cruelty and suffering.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Jim Jarmusch - Broken Flowers (3)

Amazingly, having a wrinkled and depressed Bill Murray in a jumpsuit drive around coloring tress does not a good movie make. Who would have thought? In fairness, I was probably having my expectations too high, since I'm an admirer of both Jarmusch's (Dead Man!) and Murray's previous work. But even after correcting for that, I did not feel a connection with either Murray (who played essentially the same character, only much better, in Lost in Translation) or any of his former girlfriends, and the neighbour gone detective, as a grotesque caricature, doesn't even qualify. Watch About Schmidt instead, it's a much better movie.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dan Simmons - Endymion (3)

When I reviewed Fall of Hyperion in this space, I said that I wanted to wait a substantial time before continuing on. Unfortunately I succumbed to the temptation. While I don't really regret having read Endymion, it is yet another step down from Hyperion's brilliance of vision and design. While Simmons world continues to amaze with its complex design and rich tapestry of culture and science - which, once again, becomes thinnest in the attempts of creating a cultural history of the future by combining ficticious future classics with actual ones - his characterization, plot and dialogue are bordering on the horrid. He often falls into the trap of having to tell us justifications and motivations instead of showing them, and the whole book has the wearisome feeling of being but a prequel to the final volume. The adventures of Aenea, Endymion and Bettik on their way to Old Earth seem arbitrary and unconnected, and while the multiple death ordeal of the Pax crew charged with tracking them down is chilling, their near success in the face of incredible odds is silly, and can in the end only be explained by the near omniscience of the dei-ex-machina in the TechnoCore. I'll hold off final judgment until I've read Ride of Endymion, but so far I strongly feel Simmons should have stopped after Hyperion.

Michelangelo Antonioni - L'Avventura (3)

This was praised and much discussed when it came out in the late sixties for its refreshingly novel cinematic way of storytelling - or so the Netflix cover blurb tells us. The story is that of a bunch of rich people, bored to glassy stares byu their eventless lives, vacationing among the Aeolic Islands. One of the women vanishes, and her best friend and her lover embark on a quest to solve the mystery and find her, and get close in the process. Or the equivalent of closeness in artsy cinema overcharged with undertones and cranked up to a maximum of meaning with a minimum of substance. That might seem unfair, but I find it unfair to have to watch beautiful women and great cinematography without plot or point, so I guess we're even, Mr. Antonioni.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sergio Leone - Once Upon a Time in America (2)

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the story of Noodles, the way it's woven together with prohibition history, and the final plot resolution. But this movie is just way too long. I don't really recall much from seeing the original version, but even that might have been a bit on the tedious side, but this reedit is excruciatingly slow. In addition, the way past and present are intercut doesn't really work all that way in several places. But the biggest problem is that this ultimately fairly simple tale of betrayed friendship doesn't justify taking up almost four hours of my time. I'd much rather watch Once Upon a Time in the West twice.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Andrew Horvat - Japanese Beyond Words (2)

It's always hard to get a feeling for a foreign culture without being immersed in it, and it's probably even more difficult when the gap is as large as it is sure to be between so called western countries and Japan. I find the insistence of most introductions to stress the quaintness and formality of Japanese customs a bit irritating, for the blind eye it turns on equivalent behaviours in the reader's home culture. Generally, a big deal is made for instance of the different distinct levels of politeness or about set phrases for different social situations, as though neither of these existed in other cultures. While this issue crops up in this book as well, much of the specific information in it is really helpful, and it is a nice read to boot.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sam Peckinpah - Ride the High Country (3)

There is a song by Tom Lehrer called Send the Marines with the lines "We'll send them all we've got//John Wayne and Randolph Scott", which I ever only understood half. I had heard of and seen movies with the Duke, but not even the name of Scott sounded familiar. I'm happy to report that this sad state of affairs has changed. Other than that, I liked this early Peckinpah for a nice peek into how life has been not too far from here in both time and space. I remember watching Western movies as fairy tales set in a mythical country with no connection to reality as I knew it - but now that I've seen the Central Valley and the Sierra, suddenly all the little plot details, the solitude of the religious nut and his daughter on their farm, the rough digger camp, make much more sense. Unfortunately, the story itself is none too interesting, a somewhat trite tale of friendship, betrayal and friendship again, complete with a heroic death at the end. Maybe it was novel then to have shades of grey, instead of good/bad guy ensembles, and I can certainly see how breaking with such a convention could have given enormous tension to this plot, but from todays point of view, the moral struggle of the straying friend and his rash yet good hearted sidekick is just not very captivating.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hongo Mitsuru - Outlaw Star (3)

Having cute and ferocious female tigers with big boobs might not be generally considered the peak of sophisitication among science fiction afficionados, but the level of plot and design in general is higher than the screaming tiger lady would have you expect. The Japanese on is simple enough to give this apprentice at Japanese occasional thrills of recognition (He said Ikemashoo! He said Ikemashoo!), and that almost seals the deal. But I think I'll still stop watching this after episode three. So much to see, so little time.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bent Hamer - Salmer fra kj√łkkenet (1)

I can't praise this movie enough. It's premise is utterly absurd, it's characters subtle and lovable, the ending uncompromising, yet uplifting, and the undertones of the political and cultural history of Sweden and Norway masterfully woven in. The movie is about an old Norwegian farmer with a sick horse, who is sick himself. With promises of a new horse a Swedish research team lures him as a subject into a study of kitchen efficiency. The horse he receives is a little wooden one, and the study involves a Swedish researcher sitting in high chair in the subject's kitchen, observing everything he does and taking notes, but forbidden to interfere. After initial hostilities the two become friends, to the chagrin of the study's director, who insists on a positivist approach. A simple message - involvement begets understanding - in a marvellously absurd and laconically poetic setting. Go see it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Andrei Markovits - Amerika, Dich hasst sichs besser (2)

To anyone following European public discourse and politics, the anti-American bias should be obvious. It is a curious fact of human psychology that an argument based on correct facts can still be wrong, and this complication afflicts this book as well. There is no way to defend the current American administration against the criticisms leveled against it, nor is there a way to dispel the other prominent myths about American held in Europe, namely that its capitalist forces are out of control and that it's wealth is based on exploitation. But when these criticism are voiced by powers that have no inherent interest in solving the underlying problems, but rather are the competition. As much as I would have liked to think of the European protest against the Iraq war as an outpouring of compassion, and to view the piles of Michael Moore's books in german bookstores as the proof of genuine interest in opposing ruling power they would have been in the US, I know both are at least to a good degree expressions of less pure motives. Reading this book made me question my own approach in my parallel blog, where I collect little stories that seem to me to reflect tendencies of isolation and aggressive competition, somehow equating that with my experience here - as though I weren't appalled by the cold and unfriendly behaviour of many Germans, too, every time I visit.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The 78th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony (2)

Come Oscar time, I usually display a reasonable level of excitement, and like to watch the ceremony if possible. This year, however, like all his other urban slacker fans - to paraphrase O'Reilly - I absolutely had to, because Jon Stewart hosted, promising more than the usual detached entertainment narrative for a show that is, after all, the biggest self-reflective event for today's dominant art form. And Stewart, while maybe not as hilariously funny as his fans are used to seeing him, did a terrific job of bringing relevance to the self-congratulation. Edgy comments abounded, yet he never got sharp enough to allow easy dismissal. The awards themselves were less exciting, with the winning of Best Picture by Crash and, of course, the Oscar for Best Original Song going to Three 6 Mafia - which you can view either as the victory of black underground culture, or the completion of its sellout, depending - and the endless stream of masturbatory montages being outright painful to watch.

The most interesting thing I learned, however, wasn't directly related to the Oscars at all. We do not have cable, and to see the ceremony I had to cycle through the rain and buy some rabbit ears at RadioShack. And after a full night of ABC, with its utterly stupid society journalists and a barrage of advertising cutting everything into debilitating chunks of fast paced cutting, I fully recall why it is I don't watch TV any more. It's because that shit makes me agressive, bitch. I guess it's finally all right to write stuff like that on a family oriented blog. Big thanks to Three 6 Mafia for that.

Takeshi Kitano - Kikujiro (2)

Not before I looked the movie up on IMDB did I realize that the reason the main character looked familiar was that I had just seen him in Zatoichi, playing the title blind swordsman. As with Zatoichi, Kitano wrote the script, directed and played the lead in Kikujiro, the odd tale of a summer vacation a young kid spends with Kikujiro, a smalltime crook and loudmouth with a good heart. The movie felt a bit too long, but that might in part have been due to the strangeness of it all. Most of what the main character did didn't make much sense to me emotionally, but not in the sense of it being written badly. Rather, all the relationships and communications here were partially opaque to me - in other words, adhering to strange conventions. Not knowing whether these are Kitano's conventions, or those of Japanese culture in general, I can but try and unravel the mysteries of a character who is very abusive and mean, yet respected and humoured by everybody except the tough criminals he runs into at a fair. Cultural mysteries aside, there are wonderful images and ideas here, and lots of little surprises.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Various Authors - Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (2)

An interesting anecdote which maybe doesn't sum up this volume of writing advice, but certainly illuminates it, has Mozart being asked for hints on symphony composition by a young, aspiring composer. He advises to start with small pieces and work up, and when the composer is confused by this and points out that Mozart himself wrote symphonies at quite an early age, Mozart replies "Yes, but I never asked for hints". That doesn't necessarily mean that the advice in this volume only applies to writers of mediocre talent, or that it isn't useful for experts. While the individual essays in this volume vary greatly in quality, with Asimov providing the largest number of essays, and has the least substance to his superficial und uncultered boasts, there are a few pieces that delve deeply into the problems of building entire worlds from scratch. This problem is arguably one of the most important reasons for the gap in literary quality between science fiction and the rest of it - where ordinary narrative can rely on the reader's ability to fill in gaps in background, characterization and psychology, science fiction must often close them, using original material for it. The seams of implausibility that result whenever this goes wrong wreak havoc with characters, plot and world plausibility, requiring the aspiring writer to pay much more attention to minute details and work it all out. Incidentally and as an aside, the other big reason for the quality gap would be the fact that writers genuinely interested in general themes of human existence rather than scientific what-if-narrative will naturally shy away from setting their plots against an artificial background, leaving a large faction of people like Asimov, who openly admit that they care not one bit about subtelties of storytelling and characterization, and that ideas are all that matters. It's too bad, really.

The high points of this collection are the essays by Poul Anderson on world building, Norman Spinrad's somewhat dated sounding advice on how to project current trends using simple cyclical models - it's a funny moment when he reports in awe that the spreadsheet he uses is a file of gargantuan 600 kilobytes. Good old days -, Hal Clements advice on how to create believable psychologies in an unknown world, and Connie Willis treatise on humourour writing - though technically that last one doesn't belong here, since she herself points out that there is nothing peculiar to writing funny SF opposed to funny anything else. Also entertaining is Stanley Schmids list of cliches editors will not ever want the read, though I have to say that if you indeed want to write an Adam and Eve story because you think the idea is highly original, another line of work might be better suited.

Stephen Chow - Kung-Fu Hustle (1)

The best martial arts movies combine poetry and action into something unique, and boy, does this one ever succeed at it. At once a parody of the genre, and a masterful example of it, humor and inventiveness make this an exhilarating masterpiece. The feeling of sheer delight was heightened considerably by the fact that for some reason I expected a Jackie Chan type comedy, with conventional humorous dialogue and moderately original fighting. I was completely unprepared for the cigarette smoking landlady, the dancing axe gang, the lion's roar megaphone or the toad fighting technique or the numerous other elements of mayhem, and so was entirely without defences. Which is just as well.

John Junkerman - Power and Terror (4)

Chomsky doesn't deserve the movies made about him. Manufacturing Consent was an adequate representation in both content and style of the man who often appears to be the only sane person in a large room full of fanatics, but Distorted Morality and Power and Terror, both done by Jon Junkerman, are little more than badly edited recordings of public lectures, with no thread or narrative at all. What quality there is, is in Chomsky's arguments, with the few ideas of moviemaking that went into it actually detracting from that. Junkerman opens chapters with a blank screen and a sentence or phrase taken from the lecture or interview segment that is to follow. The the original segment follows without a noticeable gap, making for a logical jump between the two things we hear Chomsky say, and the confusion is intensified when seconds later he repeats word for word what we just heard him say. It's meant to structure the movie, but it's entirely superficial and doesn't work anyway. In the final scene, we see Chomsky on a stage far away, asking us whether we can hear him, clumsily alluding to the fact that he's not very widely listened to and a lone caller in the darkness. It's too bad that bad movies like this one contribute to that.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Robert Altman - The Player (2)

I knew I had seen and loved it, but as with Shortcuts, I couldn't remember a thing. Now, memory is an odd fellow, and often you'll immediately recognize what you couldn't actively remember - but not me, in this case. Every part of it was just as fresh and new as it was when I first saw it, and that is just as well, for it is a terrific and clever script, and surprises in general work much better when you don't know they're coming. Tom Hanks is wonderful as the lead character, an asshole producer in trouble, there are numerous celebrity cameos, and the opening scene rivals the one in Bertolucci's 1900. In fact, just seeing this long continuous setup made me want to rewatch 1900, and to my dismay I found that it is available neither at Netflix nor Amazon, and the studio doesn't currently offer DVDs of it for sale. A remark oddly fitting for the end a minireview of a satire about the movie business.