I’ve been keeping a very irregular blog for quite some time now. While I hope to post more regularly, I suspect that tradition might prove stronger than my desire to start anew, so I won’t make any promises about how often this will be updated. I’ve included some of my old posts - the ones that I feel haven’t aged too badly. Mostly movie reviews, now that I come to look them over. Oh well, enjoy current reviews from years ago!

12/23/17 Movie Review: Star Wars, The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is - and I choose my words with exactness - pretty terrible. I was hoping for more, but it was about what I expected from Rian Johnson, the director of Looper - a… [More]

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is - and I choose my words with exactness - pretty terrible. I was hoping for more, but it was about what I expected from Rian Johnson, the director of Looper - a shallow, weightless film masquerading as though it had depth and meaning, filled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and just plain poor storytelling.

First, let me inoculate myself against the the usual means by which detractors of TLJ are dismissed: I have no problem with women running the Rebellion, or the Resistance. There have always been women as part of the Rebellion, and the story has been better for them. That is and always has been an important difference between the Empire - zero women in positions of power anywhere in its structure - and the Republic/Rebellion. I remember Mon Mothma, and even long-ago General Dodonna from the Old Republic. (Not to mention Leia herself, an angry spitfire leading the rebellion by sheer determination.) I like that the main character of the new trilogy is a woman. I like that there is more diversity in the rebellion - that was what it was always about, wasn’t it? The Empire hated aliens and was pretty much human-exclusive, while the Rebel Alliance had members from all sorts of alien races - why not more types of humans as well?

I’m not an MRA or tiki-nazi, pissing myself because my white boys club is being rightfully dismantled at long last, is what I’m saying.

Nor - to address the other tack taken by the film’s supporters - am I a nerd grown old and set in my ways, unable to accept any change to his precious OT. I am an old nerd, as it happens - one of my best memories is my father taking me to see A New Hope when it first came out, then again when The Empire Strikes Back was released. However, I believe I am still flexible enough to accept new things - when they are done well.

I, like many, am not a fan of the prequels. The stilted acting, atrocious dialog, interminable plots, Jar-Jar, the midichlorians…there were so many reasons that those were bad films. The Force Awakens was a breath of fresh air. Too similar in too many ways to A New Hope to be truly fulfilling on subsequent viewings, it was still in its bones a Star Wars film. And there were things new: Rey was hands-down awesome - as determined as Leia, courageous as Luke, daring to do what needed to be done, perfectly portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Finn, a conflicted ex-stormtrooper, not willing to accept the First Order’s casual brutality, but searching for the courage to actively oppose it, adroitly captured by John Boyega. Kylo Ren, somehow not as evil as he wanted to be in an intriguing take on a Sith in training, played believably and well by Adam Driver. These are all excellent new additions to the Star Wars universe, and the actors bring them to life superbly.

I also realize that “It’s just a movie about space wizards.” However: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were also “just” movies about space wizards - but they were also damn good movies that were emotionally fulfilling, contained mythic elements and were still rollicking good adventures. I believe that you can in fact have all these elements and not have to settle for anything less.

There are spoilers ahead, though I hesitate to use the term - is it possible to spoil something already rotten? - so if you’ve not yet seen the movie, be warned.

The Last Jedi starts off with a tonal mismatch. The Resistance fleet is once again escaping the First Order, in a scene very similar to the escape from Hoth in Empire. This time, however, instead of simply fleeing immediately, the Resistance fleet just hangs there in space while the First Orders (First Orderians? Firsters?) close in. Poe Dameron, whom we are told is an amazing fighter pilot, leads an attack of snub fighters against a Dreadnought-class Star Destroyer. However, I think the “dreadnought” moniker wasn’t intended to embolden its own crew with its impregnability, but rather to tell anyone attacking it that they have nothing to fear. We see the commander of the vessel complaining because they didn’t have the right guns to fight small ships - seriously? Okay, fine, there is “not learning from history” and there is “closing your eyes and sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting LALALALA so that history will give up and go away.” After the first Death Star (Or the second, or even Starkiller Base) was destroyed by x-wings, there wasn’t a single Imperial designer who thought to themselves “Hmmm…these small fighters seem ubiquitous in every single space battle we’ve had. Maybe we should include something that can defend against them?” But they don’t, and Poe easily picks off all of the larger gun emplacements. (All six of them. There were more gun emplacements on a World War I battleship than this thing!) *Ed. note: upon a second viewing, it is clear there are many more than I first thought.

The rebels are hardly better tacticians. Rather than, again, just immediately jumping away, they send bombers - slow moving, poorly defended fish-in-space-barrels and tell them “stay in tight formation!” as they plod toward their target. No! You’ve got an enemy with supposedly all the guns in the galaxy and a ton of TIE fighters pointed directly at you, you don’t just keep moving toward them in a straight line! You scatter and come at them from all directions. If General Hux wasn’t so incompetent, that battle would have been over in seconds.

Of course, we shouldn’t treat Hux and the rebels as if they’re in the real world - this ludicrous battle was there just to show off Poe’s “skill”, and provide the film’s first attempt at humor - a troll-call from Poe to Hux that served no purpose whatsoever. It didn’t give the Resistance more time for anything. It wasn’t particularly funny. It reduced the feeling of threat from the First Order by making them look like buffoons. You know what? Maybe the Resistance doesn’t really need all those ships anyway. Get the Jerky Boys on retainer, and flummox the First Order into giving themselves space-wedgies.

That wasn’t Star Wars. It shouldn’t have been in there. Disney, Rian Johnson - you want Guardians of the Galaxy, go make Guardians of the Galaxy.

At any rate, the day is saved by the pilot of one of the bombers, who was maybe a Force user? Maybe not? We don’t know, and the movie doesn’t seem to care either as it careens on to the next bit of “humor”: Finn, pulling himself free from an untended medical bed and walking through the corridors spewing bacta everywhere. Ha. Ha. Again, not Star Wars. Didn’t need to be in there, as the next we see of Finn, he’s all cleaned up and it’s never mentioned again.

Yes, the old Star Wars had jokes in it. It was far from humorless - in fact, a lot of the time, it was laugh-out-loud funny - but the humor was in the sharp dialog between the characters. “You came here in that? You’re braver than I thought.” “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!” “I’d rather kiss a wookie!” “I can arrange that!” It was when the “humor” descended to moronic slapstick that the prequels were at their worst.

At last we turn back to Rey and Luke, caught in a literal cliffhanger for an interminable real-time year - what will he do? How will he greet this new potential padawan who has risked her life, crossed the galaxy to find him and return his lost-and-miraculously-recovered-lightsaber? He casually tosses it over the cliff.

That, right there, was not Star Wars. And it leads into one of the biggest travesties of the entire film. The Luke Skywalker we see depicted in this movie has nothing in common with the Luke Skywalker we’ve seen before. It was already stretching the boundaries of belief to accept - even if he had failed Ben Solo, and inadvertantly loosed another Sith on the galaxy - that Luke would run away with his tail between his legs for thirty years without trying to fix things. Later on, we find out that at one point, sensing the rising darkness in Ben, Luke stood over his bed and ignited his lightsaber with the thought to kill him in his sleep. This is the man who wouldn’t give up on Darth Vader - there is no way it would have entered his mind to kill a sleeping child. You want to present a morally complex universe? Sure, great, I’m all on board with that. But Luke wasn’t a morally complex person. Find or create someone else to dim the stars with your shades of grey.

Luke refuses to help Rey, because he is now a Grumpy Old Jedi. She pursues him across Force Island (not sure of its real name, don’t care) while he goes about his daily routine - did we really need to see him milk a sea cow and then drink it? Or fish with a three-story-tall spear? While Chewbacca - still giving no indication that Han’s death has affected him in any way - mooches about and picks up some new pets. Seriously Chewie, first the ewoks and now these porgs? Do you just need a goldfish or something?

We then return to the Resistance fleet, which has been pursued through hyperspace by the First Order. So that’s a thing that can be done now without a tracker placed on their ship. The fleet is now low on fuel - fuel is a thing now, too, try to keep up - so they just try to outdistance their pursuers in normal space. The First Order fleet - now joined by Snoke’s enormous ship - is apparently slower than the Resistance fleet, so all it can do is follow and wait until they run out of fuel.

This isn’t Star Wars. Fuel? When has that ever been a problem? And why couldn’t the First Order send out their undoubtedly numerous squadrons of TIE fighters? Or at the very least, hyperjump a couple of Star Destroyers ahead of the Resistance? Again, there is no reason given and the film doesn’t care. The situation is only there to provide Finn and new sidekick/love interest Rose the Resistance Tech an excuse to go on a side-quest while Poe engages in dramatic conflict with the new head of the fleet, Admiral Holdo.

Some people have complained because the admiral is another woman in charge, but that’s not my problem with her. My problem is that she isn’t given anything to do. She’s only there because Leia is unconscious in med bay. When Poe starts swaggering around and shouting, Holdo doesn’t bother telling him what her plan is, even though he is still a captain in the fleet. No, the top brass doesn’t have to explain the big strategy picture to their subordinates, but they do have to explain what tactics will be employed. If the plan all along was to sneak away under cloaked transports - yes, cloaking is a thing now, too, because apparently the Resistance ship designers had access to some Klingon schematics - then you need to tell your officers so they can prepare for it.

But no, logic is once again thrown out the window for ham-fisted dramatic conflict as Poe mutinies to buy time for Finn and Rose to complete their side-quest (an utterly pointless excursion to Monte Carlo - I mean, a gambling planet - where they find the code-breaker they need in their own jail cell after they were arrested for illegally parking their spaceship. No word of that is an exaggeration.). Finn and Rose are betrayed by the code breaker - an oddly stammering Benecio Del Toro - leading to another unsatisfying showdown with Captain Phasma. New trilogy, come on; either give her something to do, or just leave her dead, all right?

Meanwhile, Rey and Ren cosplay the Emperor-temptation scene from Return of the Jedi nearly word for word and Snoke is killed. Oh, sorry, were you expecting that to have more dramatic impact? Too bad, because nothing in this movie has any dramatic impact. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he become so strong in the Force? Why, if he was so powerful in the Force, did he allow himself to be called “Snoke” like some cockney slumlord? Who cares? Not the movie! On to the next explosion!

At last, the Resistance abandons their last remaining ship to flee to a nearby abandoned Rebel base. Their cloaks are immediately blown and the First Order fleet starts picking them off one by one. In order to buy them time (a recurring theme), Admiral Holdo stays on board the cruiser and rams Snoke’s ship by jumping to lightspeed. This was, indeed, an impressive moment in the film - visually. Once again, however, emotionally empty because it was stupid. If you can destroy ships in this manner, why are they fighting with ships at all? Get a small asteroid, slap an engine and a suicidal droid on it, and suddenly Star Destroyers (or Mon Calamari corvettes) are nothing but big floating targets. Why, in fact, wasn’t this the plan from the beginning? If the old rebel base hadn’t shown up, would they have just sat there and let themselves be blown up when the needle hit the big E? Why was it necessary for Holdo to pilot the ship herself? Couldn’t 3PO have done that? No offense to C-3PO, but once again, he had nothing to do in the movie. As long as they are going to kill Admiral Frigging Ackbar off-screen and without repercussion, why not use a character we actually care about?

I could go on - this is just scratching the surface of a deep deep well of plot holes, wasted characters, and pointless choices. Were there some good things? Yes. Visually, it was exciting. It’s always good to see the Star Wars universe again, even if we’re forced to look at it via a broken carnival mirror. The interplay between Rey and Kylo Ren was interesting, and provided some of the film’s only character growth. (Though since Ren flips immediately back to Bad Boy Sith mode, that was largely thrown away as well.) The battle between Rey, Ren, and the Red Guard (whom I’m head-canoning into being the last of the Knights of Ren, even though there is no indication that was so) was a great lightsaber battle. The Battle of It’s-Salt-Not-Snow-So-It’s-Not-Hoth-No-Really was pretty cool.

But there was so, so much waste. Leia, with nothing to do and unconscious for half the film. Holdo, given nothing to do. Phasma, nothing to do. The entire unnecessary code-breaker subplot. Luke’s complete uselessness until the very end. Rey herself, as interesting and fun to watch as she is, gets everything without earning it. And the deaths…Luke, Akbar, Han - none seem to have any purpose. I wanted to like this movie, I really did. But it’s no Empire. It’s not even Revenge of the Sith.

It’s not Star Wars.

It’s just a series of pretty mistakes, fading to inconsequence in the dark.


10/18/12 Movie Review: Looper

Looper, 2012. dir. by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt.

A word of warning: like most of the "reviews" on this … [More]

Looper, 2012. dir. by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt.

A word of warning: like most of the "reviews" on this blog, this is more of a "post-mortem analysis" - so if you're looking to avoid spoilers, better come back after you’ve seen it, when you’re likely more willing to help pick up the loose entrails. Slippery buggers, intestines.

So here's the situation. You've just received word that your parents, your hopefully-soon-to-be-girlfriend or the cops (with luck, these are not all the same people) are coming over to your place. Your dirty, dirty place, which you haven't cleaned in a couple of weeks because...well, just because, okay? Sometimes a major game developer (we'll call them "Winter Storm, Inc") releases an expansion to your favorite game (which features pandas in the fog that are somewhat crafty at the art of war - see where I'm going with this?*) and you've just got to accept the fact that for the next few weeks, lesser considerations such as sleep, proper nutrition and hygiene are going to take a distant and deserved second place to getting that furry fighting machine to max level and then pwning some *@$#!-damned face.

Because that happens.

So your last plausible "sick" day for this year has been used up in this digital debauch, and you happen to check the texts that have built up (if it's your parents, you check your voicemail) and you realize that due to the fact that you've vanished from the face of the earth for the past couple of weeks and despite everything whoever they are (parent, potential girlfriend, the police) still actually gives a damn about you so they've scheduled an intervention or a date or an arraignment or something and you have to clean your place up because they will be there in approximately fifteen minutes. Sooner, if the lights aren't against them or if they're using their siren.

Despite the pizza boxes everywhere (the ones that haven't evolved up and started moving about on their own), the empty (Insert name of topical energy drink - sponsors, here's your chance!) cans tracing a path between your Bat(man)cave and the fridge, the crumpled Hot Pocket wrappers and the healthily-named microwave meal remnants which precariously stand, suspiciously rustling, on your coffee table; despite a bed that hasn't been made and whose sheets have gone proceeded up the alphabet from "dirty" to "crunchy"; even despite the bathroom which exists in an uncertain Schrodinger's state between "gross" and "Whosever Eateth This Many Hot Pockets In A Row Will Regret It Anon"; despite all of this, you've got plenty of time. All of the incriminating evidence can be swept under the bed, into cupboards, into the tub, or onto your neighbor's porch. In a pinch you're in your boxers because it's laundry day.

Here's the absolutely vital part, though: take the last five minutes and make a careful and thorough visual inspection. Is everything hidden? Is there anything that could draw the eye? A frayed pair of underwear peeping out of the DVD shelf? That last Cheez-It lying puckishly in the drain basket? The farewell note from the cat, who sensibly went on holiday for the duration? If nothing grabs your attention - you're golden. People (you know, other people who don't know you as well) tend to assume the best about you, and will assume that the facade of basic cleanliness and civilization is the reality - unless they spot the tell-tale giveaway that unravels your whole dream-castle of deceit and leaves you burning under the pitiless glare of people who are all la-di-da with their noses in the air just because they had the tank emptied and cleaned after the fish died a fortnight ago.

Which brings me to Looper.

I wanted to like Looper. I'd heard that it was getting good reviews everywhere, and it was in fact so mind-blowingly awesome that to even hint what it was about would reveal secrets of universal importance that I alone, poor benighted mortal that had not received them in the holy and approved manner through my own eyes in the theater, would be cast into the outer darkness with much wailing and gnashing of teeth while the blessed ones who had seen it themselves ascended bodily to sit at the right hand of Jobs, watching over the righteous and unrighteous and those people that dress up their pets in ridiculous costumes.

And in the first ten seconds of the movie (barely after the glow of self-satisfaction that comes with knowing that I had already put my iPhone on "silent" before being nagged to do so had worn off), I spotted a plot hole that undermined everything that in the subsequent 118 minutes flickered across the IMAX. In the opening narration, mind you.

Which has to be some sort of record. Most of the time, even in a Schwarzenegger/Devito buddy flick, you can accept the initial premise ("Okay, this guy that with a body like he's been mainlining horse steroids since he was ten is in fact a mild-mannered scientist, that's fine, scientists work out, too, and sometimes take horse steroids, because, hey, who doesn't, right?"), and even not quibble with some of the wacky rising action that ensues ("All right, so this brick-^%$house of a scientist is now injecting himself with experimental drugs because, what, there's a drastic nationwide shortage of laboratory rats or something, fine, with you so far...") and even handle the main complication that drives the rest of the film with aplomb ("And now he's pregnant! Without a womb or any possible way that a mere drug cocktail could have re-jiggered his internal plumbing to give him one! Okay, movie, bring it on!") and it's only later that some fundamental absurdity trips you up and breaks you out of the illusion ("Wait wait wait...he wore that color maternity dress? Gimme a break, he can't wear that color, he's an autumn! What is this crap, anyway? Screw this, I'm going home to take some Seabiscuit Brand Happy Day Fun Pills.").

See, most movies know how to pace themselves. They don't reveal that they are thoughtless drivel penned by talentless hacks (which reminds me, you can read my spec scripts over at the "Works" section of this very site, coming soon!) until after the second reel has kicked in, when the concession-stand pretzel has settled into the pit of your stomach like a sack of aberrantly unbouyant kittens and leaves you unable to stir until the lousy contractual musical number they've left for the end credits drives you shrieking into the night.

But Looper goes for broke right out of the gate, which admittedly does earn it some grudging credit.

Okay, so here goes: It's the future, 2044. Thirty years down the road from then, time travel is invented. This scares the screaming DeLoreans out of those future folk, so it is immediately and universally banned. Also, there in the sunny 2070s, composting, incinerators, building construction sites, and Milwaukee Sawzalls are apparently all banned as well, because we are informed that it is impossible to dispose of an inconvenient body without detection. (Even in the middle of the Pacific, which I'm guessing was at last paved over for a Long John Silver's.) So what are the mafiosi of the future to do? Well, remember what Charlton Heston always said: if you make time travel a crime, only criminals will have time travel. Take that, you time-travel-control freaks!

So in the fine old tradition of Corporate America, the inventive future criminals outsource their killing - not, surprisingly, to China, but the past, where there is a cadre of killers hired to plug the unlucky traveller as soon as they arrive (no matter what color Starfleet uniform they are wearing) and dispose of the body somewhere convenient, overseen by another future criminal who was sent back to run the program. Payment is strapped to the victim, whose face is also hidden, so when it's themselves ("closing their loop", as it's called, because "severance package" would have been too amusing) they just whack themselves without knowing and then spend the next 30 years waiting for their own trip on the H.G. Wells Wagon.

Like I said, this is all explained before the latecomers have even finished stepping on your foot to get to their seats. And for the next hour and a half, give or take, I'm wondering if they'll bother to explain why they set up this elaborate ring of time-traveling killers when they could have just time-travelled the poor schmucks back to the middle of a volcano. Or maybe the center of the Pacific, before the developers get their easements. There's a couple of deserts around in 2044, I would imagine, still soldiering on under their cheery slogan: "Deserts! Bringing You Lethal Scorching Aridity Since the Pleistocene Extinction!". Caves, with bats and without, have been eagerly swallowing human lives into their Stygian depths for quite some time now - and without batteries, I might add, which bodes well for their future-proofing. Hell, they could drop them into the pre-Black Friday midnight line at a Walmart somewhere and let them be trampled to death, and who'd even notice?

The entire movie, I'm wondering how they will explain this away. We see that the Don Corleone Time Travel Express can drop people in precise locations at specific times - hell, the current-day killers even have tarps placed, weighted with rocks, ready for the future corpse-to-be to arrive. (Because they may be killers, but damn it all, they're not litterbugs.) We are shown that they show up in multiple places, indicating that Starface can send people back to just about wherever his cocaine-blown cybermind can calculate. And the closest that the movie actually gets to addressing this when the main character, "Joe", played by Joe, talks to his future self ("Joe") over a steaming cup (of joe), and Future Joe dismissively notes that if they were to get into the details of how time travel works, they'd be there all afternoon. Help me, spell-checker, is "cop-out" spelled with a dash, or is it just one word?

I mean, I'm not asking why they don't travel back in time to give Hitler a wedgie. I'm not wondering why they are still even bothering to go to all the effort to commit crimes, when they can simply travel back a day with the winning lottery numbers, over and over again. ("Vinnie, I know the boss wants me to go and rough dese guys up for not payin' their protection money, but you know what? I think I'm gonna just light my cigar wit dis t'ousand-dollar bill, play pattycake wit dese here hookers for a while, and bet on th' ponies again later, 'kay?" "You know somethin' Rocko? Me, too!") I'm not even wondering about the typical slipshod movie conventions used to smooth the way of the plot, like why 2070 China looks exactly like 1840 China, or why is there a functioning incinerator in an abandoned factory in the middle of farmland. (Or even why Tough Farm Chick, who has been on her own for years defending the family homestead, suddenly develops a crippling case of Movie Female Feet as soon as danger threatens, tripping while running away and requiring rescue by Current Joe.)

I'm just asking the first question any sensible person would, based on the rules the movie itself has presented.

Now, I've heard that there are websites that you can go to where the director answers some of these questions. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but that sticks in my craw, dadgummit. So, what, now movies come with appendices? Shouldn't they put this on the marquee somewhere: Now Playing: Looper (Beta*) (*movie watching experience may change in final version)? Of course, the Lord of the Rings DVDs did something similar, and everyone agrees that Blade Runner: The Caterer's Cut is ultimately definitive, but one of these had massive three-volume backstory behind it, and the other grew its own history over the time between its original release and this year's version. They're not just "Transformers 4 - See Our FaceBook Page For The Ending"! (Though, to be honest, if there were any movie franchises that could get away with such shenanigans, it'd be those franchises that nobody actually watches for the plot.)

In my researches, I even received an email regarding yet another unaddressed question which the director airily notes that they'd thought about putting a scene in that contained the answer to that, but just wound up not doing so. Huh? Maybe George Lucas thought of a scene for the Phantom Menace in which Jar-Jar was repeatedly kicked in the head every time he said "Meesa!" (god knows I envisioned that scene), but since that wasn't ultimately part of the film, then how is that even relevant? More to the point, how is that not an admission that perhaps, Mr. Rian Johnson, you should have put a little more effort in to this directing gig that you've got, instead of breaking in the early afternoon for lattes, Remedial Name-Spelling and Acapulco Gold?

The thing is, Looper clearly has a lot of thought put into it. There's little suggestions all over the place that indicate somebody was trying to flesh out the world, at least. The fact that the farm was a sugar-cane farm rather than corn, combined with every car and most of the houses sporting solar panels clumsily soldered on (aftermarket car accessory dealers in the future really need to tighten their hiring standards) suggests a future of global warming, or at least heavy use of biodiesel (Mad Max is The Road Harvester). The library that Future Joe sneaks into at one point has all the shelves saran-wrapped, indicating either that future library budgets are so abysmal that they have to shut down entirely, or that the texting epidemic has made it so books written in actual english are as unreadable to the citizens of 2044 as the Twilight books are to anyone over the age of 14 today. However, all this careful thought is undermined by the plot hole in the initial premise, and like the one mouse dropping in the pudding cup, begins a cascade of further inquiry.

So, cars run on solar power? Then why do they still sound exactly like cars do now? And if they're running on biodiesel from all that sugarcane littering the landscape, what are the poorly-welded-on solar panels for? If the library is shut down and defunct, why does the computer panel that Future Joe accesses still work? Usually when a building is shut down, the first thing that's done is to unplug the computers, or at least shut down their internet access so that the security guards don't just surf porn on company time. (Though, admittedly, that suggests another reason for the saran-wrapped shelves...yuck.) What is the point of the hover-cycle? Aside from showing us that it's "future-y", I mean, because it does nothing that a regular motorcycle couldn't do better, and the guy riding it wouldn't looking like such a twerp. (Unless it's a Buell Blast.) What, in the name of all that is holy, is the point of the whole "telekinesis" subplot? So the kid that Current Joe (Well, Future Joe to us, but Double Future Joe sounds like a New York expresso) and his future self clash over killing (due to even more sloppy thinking on Future Joe's part, but we'll ignore that for now) has unbelievable telekinetic powers, while everyone else in 2044 only has the ability to hover quarters (and they can only do that because the government, continuing the trend of removing all the components that actually make the currency valuable, finally started issuing coins that contain no metal whatsoever). What was the deal with the time loop that resets when Current Joe shoots his future self? And why, why why spend so much screen time on the criminal mafioso (Jeff Daniels, desperately aping Jeff Bridges) sent back to 2044 to manage the looper program and his relationship with Current Joe, if, when Future Joe goes on a killing rampage of his entire criminal organization, he gets killed off-screen, with no sort of final interaction or resolution? Why...why...wha...

And so it goes, each question releasing a flood of others, and all because of the original oversight. It would be easy to just write Looper off as a bad movie - and Occam's Razor starts looking really good after three straight days of wrestling with this film. But that's too easy. Looper isn't a bad movie; ultimately, it's just a good movie done badly. Perhaps with more care and thought, this film could have been magnificent - but since it's about criminals killing people with time-travel, perhaps we should just content ourselves with the quality it actually attained. Among movies of this kind (Painstakingly Constructed Films that Shoot Themselves In the Foot With Mind-Bogglingly Stupid Plot Holes - a category that M. Night Shyamalan owned two years running with Signs) I'll give this a solid three and a half Morlocks out of five, and call it a day. I've got guests coming, and it sounds like they brought the warrant this time.

*For those of you that are not into computer video games, Blizzard Inc. just released an expansion to its moderately popular "World of Warcraft" franchise called "Mists of Pandaria" which features playable pandas, in the mist. But oddly, no Jane Goodall.


9/18/11 Taxes - Not a 4-Letter Word

Note: This one is political, so if that's not your bag, then you might want to skip it. This was written back in the halcyon days of 2011, and while the world we inhabit here in 2017 is un… [More]

Note: This one is political, so if that's not your bag, then you might want to skip it. This was written back in the halcyon days of 2011, and while the world we inhabit here in 2017 is unimaginably different, I think with a few exceptions I'm prepared to stand by most of this post. I'd probably go a lot easier on the "both-siderism" now, for example; I didn't realize then how good we actually had it and how bad things were going to get. So, here we go - my political views, presented in a not terribly politic fashion. Brace yourself. -M.D.

So, I’ve heard a lot of stupid crap coming from the right wing over the years, but the sheer amount of instant and unceasing hatred for anything Obama does, says, or (most importantly, but never to be admitted) is, has continually boggled my mind.

A little tip for you right-leaning guys - despite his skin color? He’s a centrist. He’s not a flaming socialist. Hell, I wish. We could use someone on the actual left, as opposed to the two parties of Right Wing and Right Wing Lite that we have. He’s half on your side! He was elected on one of the biggest tidal waves of populist sentiment in history, on the back of a mass amount of people that suddenly realized how betrayed they’d been by the capitalists, with the understanding that he would Do Something About Those Dicks.

Did he? Did he bollocks.

Oh, yeah, and he was supposed to shut down Guantanamo, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, restore civility to our political discourse, and personally visit everyone’s house and give them a pony. Have any of those things happened? I know I’m still waiting for my pony, and I had higher hopes for that than anything else on the list.

It’s been graphically shoved in our face, once again, that there really aren’t two parties here, there’s the party of the corporatists and capitalists, and they sometimes wear an elephant mask, and sometimes wear a donkey mask.

This isn’t to say they are exactly the same. Democrats tend to not tolerate the lunatic right social agenda (“Say, weren’t the 1950s great? Let’s go back there, everyone! Oh, did I say 1950s? I meant 1350s.”), and so when elections come around again, I dutifully pull for the democrats, with a growing sense of pointlessness. All right, fine, I’ll vote for the party that is conspiring with the rich folks to screw me - but only because I don’t want to vote for the party that is conspiring with the rich folks to screw me and then condemn me to hell for the screwing.

So...right wingers? Maybe you want to lighten up a little. He may be wearing a black sheep’s clothing, but he’s still a wolf brother underneath, okay? (That may win a prize for most mixed metaphor of the year. Vote it in, people!)

Which brings me to the latest nonsense: the budget wrangle. Okay, let me get this straight - we invade two countries (essentially by ourselves), we set up the biggest bureaucracy in the government’s history, we bail out the rich jerks who managed to tank the entire world economy (and let’s not prosecute them, okay? That might hurt their feelings). All this was on your guy’s watch. And now you’re deficit hawks? When what’s at stake is the health of the nation, the well-being of your parents and grandparents as they get older, and a social safety net that ensures that those dirty dirty poor people actually receive care instead of dying on the streets - which can really ruin your heels, to put it in possibly more relatable language.

It’s not that hard to understand - the agenda, as it has been since January of 2009, is Support Any Position That Might Hurt Obama, However Lunatic, Shortsighted, and Plain Assholish It Might Be.

All right, fine. For the moment, let’s enter Through the Looking Glass Land and pretend that the biggest problem facing the country at the moment is not the lack of jobs, the endless killing in pointless wars, the eroding of our infrastructure and our democratic rule of law - no, the biggest problem in Cloud-Cuckoo territory is that we don’t want to be slightly more in debt than we already are.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this isn’t a problem. I’m just saying that its not our most pressing problem right now.)

So, how to solve it? Well, let’s see...we can cut essential services to the most vulnerable among our society, earning our country the dubious distinction of carrying away the 2011 Award for Biggest Jerks in the Western World. Or, we can shut down the pointless wars we’re fighting, and stop pissing away a billion dollars a day - Bwahahaha, no, I was just kidding. I know we can’t possibly do anything that sensible. Well, there’s always...slightly higher taxes.

Cue screams of outrage. Exit the John Galters, stage right, pursued by a bear market.

Just to put things in perspective, taxwise, during the time our country experienced the greatest economic boom in any country in history, taxes for the uppermost of the upper crust were around, oh, 90%.

No, I’m not making that up. Think about that. 90%. And yet, somehow, yachts were still bought, mansions were still built, jobs and industries were created. At a top-tier tax rate of 90%. Now, taxes for the top tier have fallen to the lowest point since the income tax was created - 25%. That’s a 65% difference, all given to those job-creating rich folk. So - where are the jobs? (Don't worry, it's not a rhetorical question. You might, however, have to speak Chinese or Korean to understand the answer.)

Now, I’m no accountant, but it seems to me that there might be a bit of wiggle room there. Some might even say that, as the ones who engineered the economic collapse of 2008, as the ones that have continued the wholesale outsourcing of jobs to places outside the country for decades, as the ones who are now enjoying the highest disparity between normal worker income and CEO income in history...some might say that raising that tax percentage a bit would come under the heading of Paying Their Fair Damn Share.

Because you did this to us. Was there anyone in the trenches of under $100,000/year annual salary that was in favor of moving jobs and whole industries out of the country? And doing so continually for nearly 40 years, until the phrase “Made in the USA” is almost as humorous as it is vanishingly rare? Was there anyone outside of Wall Street that thought derivatives of collections of worthless bonds should be continued to be bought with borrowed money until the whole thing collapsed and it was time to go whining and crying to the previously despised government?

This was all you, dogs. And the reason you’re fighting so hard now is that you just don’t want to clean up the crap you’ve left behind.

Which brings me to the latest talking point, which finally got my dander up to the point that I had to inflict this rant upon the world. (A writer with upward-tending dander is nobody to mess with. Be told.) While the right wing has staked out their predictable position (“TAXES BAD! LALALALALALA”) and the left their predictable position ("Well, you may have a point. Let's compromise - and by compromise, we mean we'll give you everything you want and act shocked when you demand more."), this snarky comment has been floating around chat rooms and radio shows: “Have you ever been employed by a poor person?”

Ha ha ha. Ha. Truly, the wit of Swift lives again. Let’s leave aside the mind-bogglingly feudal mindset that thinks voluntary serfdom to our self-appointed “nobility” is the best that our democratic experiment can do. (In a country that was founded on the cry “No More Kings!” You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.) Take a look at the other implication, that we can’t possibly ask those beleaguered rich folk and capitalists to maybe forgo that seventh vacation house in favor of, I don’t know, helping pay off this debt that they’re so darned concerned about. They create the jobs, right? They’re the ones that employ everybody! If the rich didn’t exist, why, nobody would have any jobs! Right? Right?

So I started to go over over all the jobs I’ve had in my life. Now, I’ve never been in the yacht-building industry - that economic powerhouse that puts Detroit in its heydey to shame.</SARCASM> I’ve never been an au pair, I’ve never been the personal accountant for Mr. Gates, or the Bush family, or anyone else. I’ve worked for universities, government, a couple of corporations, some small start-up enterprises. And it dawned on me that everyone that bought a product or used a service from an organization for which I worked...was poor. Well, at least by comparison with the upper 2% of people that own 60% of everything in this country. We would call it a range from poor to upper middle class. You know, the rest of us that make up the country. Just your neighbors, in other words. The people you’d meet on the street, or in a park, or at a theater.

Conspicuously absent from this sample? The rich. Well, I’m sure there were some highly-paid professionals that stopped into my stores to pick up some toothpaste, or got a bite to eat at one of the restaurants I worked in. And back when I was doing freelance web design, those clients were unlikely to be on food stamps. But they sure weren’t what I would consider rich, they probably didn’t think of themselves as wealthy, and yet, there I was, making a living off them. Being employed by them.

So - you ever been employed by a poor person? Damn right I have. Nearly every single day of my working life. And I’m willing to bet that there are more people like me out there than there are multi-billionaire hedge fund managers. Go ahead, count. I’ll wait.

So let’s turn the question on its head. Have I ever been employed by a rich person? Well...no. Noticeably absent in my employment portfolio have been bosses of the top-hat, limousine-riding variety. Oh, sure, there may have been a few in the upper echelons of some corporations for which I worked. But I was hired and occasionally fired by more normal people far lower on the totem pole that they’d never met and never would meet - let alone proletarian me.

So this started me thinking some more. We give all these tax breaks to rich folks on the basis of the moronic, thoroughly discredited Tinkle-On Theory. (Most economists call it the “Trickle-Down” Theory, but we know what they mean.) I.E., we give these people - who already have most of the money and property - more and more tax breaks, so that they’ll create jobs, and suddenly we’ll be a flourishing country again with industries that aren’t outsourced to China and Korea, a great infrastructure (Paid for somehow), the best healthcare in the world (Paid for somehow), the best grade schools and high schools (Paid for somehow - no, I don’t know how, stop asking!), and so on.

How’s that working out for us?

It’s a simple question. But what’s your answer to it? Everything’s for the best, in this best of all possible worlds? Things are pretty hunky-dory? Hang on a second, I can’t answer now because there’s someone at the door who wants to repossess my house?

Yankee practicality used to be a proverb throughout the world. We had the reputation of shrewdness, and dealing sharply to make damn sure we were getting our money’s worth. I say, let’s recapture some of that spirit, and put the Tinkle-On Theory to the test. How, you say? Well, we love us some standardized testing, don’t we? The public education system is riddled with it. What’s good for the goose that used to lay the golden egg is good for the absentee gander, so here’s the plan: Tax Break Standardized Testing.

How many jobs have you created, Rich Person? Show us the W-2s. Show us the industries you created, with your 60% of the nation’s wealth. Show us the infrastructure you’ve preserved or enhanced with your unfettered earnings. CEO - how many jobs have you created in the United States? Hedge Fund Manager, you’re apparently good at creating wealth - how much have you created for people outside the upper third or fourth percentile? Show me the documents to prove it.

Come on, people, this is the United States, and here there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch! Time to put up or shut up. You want the tax breaks, then either you work for it (I’m looking at you, you trust fund kiddies, and all your crying about the estate tax), or you pay for it.

Or maybe - just maybe - we can finally bury this tired old horse we’ve been beating to death and beyond and finally admit that the rich folk are not the engines of job creation. Everyone else is: the working mom with two waitressing jobs who still buys products and keeps the economy going, even if it’s just a slurpee for her four-year-old. The cash-strapped entrepreneurs with their Next Great Thing(tm) that might spawn a new industry (or simply be a Pet Rock). The average joes that work every day of their life, serving other average joes, and earning enough to maintain some semblance of a lifestyle beyond simple drudgery. The millions of people buying things, that’s what keeps the economy going, that’s what pays the state and local taxes, that’s what covers the cost of road repair so people can get to the store and buy their things, and so on. That’s the economy.

So, right-wing debt freaks - I’m willing to consider giving you the tax breaks your patrons and sponsors are demanding. Just prove to me - and to the rest of the country that they’ve tinkled all over for decades as they’ve busily tried to undo everything that made the middle class possible and made being poor not an immediate death sentence - that they deserve it.

Put up - or, for the love of that selfless, charitable, giving god you claim to care so much about - by all means, take your marbles and go somewhere else. You’re fond of saying America, Love it or Leave it. Well - there’s the table. Either we can all sit down around it together or - there’s the door. 작별, and don't let the door smack your ass on your way out.


8/26/11 Movie Review: The Boys From Brazil

The Boys From Brazil, 1978, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Starring Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Oliver, James Mason, and Steve Guttenberg. Based on the novel by Ira Levin.… [More]

The Boys From Brazil, 1978, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Starring Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Oliver, James Mason, and Steve Guttenberg. Based on the novel by Ira Levin.

What a bizarre movie.

You might have guessed this just by looking at the cast list headliners up there. Gregory Peck, ah yes. Sir Laurence Olivier, very good. James Mason, yup, with you so far. Steve Guttenberg...huh? One of these things is not like the others.

To be fair, Steve Guttenberg does not get top billing alongside the Hollywood luminaries that precede him. He does, however, merit a mention on the description on the back of the box. Perhaps his future greatness in "Police Academy VIII: Dear God Why Won't This Series End?" was so compelling, so awesome that it echoed back in time to prescient video tape package description professionals (P.V.T.P.D.P, Local 301) who by their union charter are required to throw as many star-studded, immortal names into the summary as possible. Who could fail to be enticed by the presence of a Guttenberg in the film?

As it happens, the boys down at the PVTPDP were, uncannily, right on the money. After the whiplash had somewhat subsided, I decided I was intrigued enough to read further, and the further I read, the more my thoughts coalesced around a single conclusion: "Are you kidding me? I gotta watch this."

This is one of the those cinematic gems that would never be made today. Not a timeless gem, mind you, because it is very much of its time. It occupies a precarious, precious moment in our nation's history: when the nostalgia of the Greatest Movie Watching Generation had at last become satiated with WWII-theme war movies in its theaters, but prior to the rise of A&E and the History Channel, with their 24-hour WWII documentaries, movies, specials, updates, reconstructions, dramatizations, and puppet shows. Nor is it a scintillating tour-de-force of ground-breaking special effects, nor a solid, multi-faceted look at then-current social issues, or even a gleaming crown jewel of acting - though Peck, Olivier, and Mason do their best. (Guttenberg also does his best, sadly.)

What makes this movie rise above the common is its story. If it seems like I'm beating around the bush a little here, it's because I'm debating whether to introduce the plot slowly, like when you dip your toe gingerly into the public pool to find the single pee-free spot, or whether to just give it to you all at once, like when you plunge head-first into the sparkling mountain lake and die of hypothermia. Oh, well, you only die of hypothermia once, so here goes:

Josef Mengele (Peck) has escaped and has been living in Paraguay - where there is apparently a numerous and thriving former-nazi community, as evidenced by the parades of Wehrmacht-uniformed goose-stepping soldiers, the receptions in hotel ballrooms decorated with swastika flags, the casual cheery greetings on the street of "Heil!" with accompanying nazi salute, and hordes of young blonde girls in cute Junior Miss SS outfits. Seriously, though, with all the coordinated Bad Guy decorations all over the place, it's like the mad doctor's Evil Lair(tm), except it's a whole country. (A belated note to Paraguay's immigration and tourism departments: “Paraguay: Comfy Refuge of the World's Biggest Assholes" is probably not the sure-fire tourism-attracting slogan it appears at first blush.)

Josef has not been idly resting on his laurels of being one of the most despicable human beings who ever lived, he's got a new plan: He's going to clone Hitler, not once but 94 times, then seed the baby Adolfs all over the world in situations that as closely as possible mimic the real baby Adolf's family setup. This includes, as the movie opens, sending out his former nazi buddies to kill all the clones' adoptive fathers, because Hitler's father died when he was fourteen, and as we all know the single greatest contributing factor to Hitler's megalomania and mass-murdering psychosis was the fact that he was a latch-key kid in a single-parent household. (Hey, for 1978, that was topical, man.)

Guttenberg shines in his role as a poorly dressed plucky Jewish boy who befriends an even younger Brazilian boy (unnamed, and with no lines, but with a grin containing a disturbing amount of teeth), convincing him to bug Mengele's study while Guttenberg records the ensuing conversation from a safe distance. Yes, think about that - in order to entrap a pitiless mass-murderer, you get an eight-year-old to do the dirty work while you sit in safety. No wonder the kid ratted him out.

Guttenberg subsequently gets whacked - and here is one of the film's tragic missed opportunities. With hindsight, we could have told the director "Dude, that's it? No blood, and just a reaction shot? This is Steve Guttenberg, man, make it last. Linger a little over this. Hell, can we do that thing where we see him get offed from about ten different angles - and then he falls off a balcony into a street in front of a burro pulling a wagon of happy children? Now that's the death of a screen titan." But, alas, it was not to be.

Steve is dumped unceremoniously in a corner -but wait! Before his bitterly brief demise, he'd managed to play some of the recording to Jewish Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier). The rest of the film follows Lieberman as he tracks Mengele down and pieces together his nefarious plan. At which point we come to the next "what the...?" plot moment. When you think of Nazi hunters, you think of Simon Wiesenthal, right? Capturer of Eichmann, a lion of post-war justice, a serious, respected man with an extensive organization that performs good work to this day. In The Boys From Brazil, Lieberman is played as a neurotic old Jewish character - like Woody Allen, only without all the Soon-Yi baggage - in a leaky office with a staff consisting of only his sister, who is hassled by his landlord, and starts out only being able to investigate towns close to his office because he has no money.

You got that right - cloning 94 Hitlers is played straight, and the concentration-camp-surviving Nazi-hunter is played for laughs.

At any rate, Lieberman eventually starts closing in on Mengele, so the 94 assassinations are called off after only about 10, only two or three of which we see on-screen. Which is a bit of a disappointment. There's an old film rule - if you see 94 assassinations above the mantlepiece in Act 1, by Act 3, you damn well had better have wasted 94 dudes. (I might be paraphrasing a bit, there.) We don't even get to see each of the assassins do one guy each - so what the heck was the whole "Let's Introduce Each Assassin In Mengele's Study At Length" all about? As far as I can tell, the entire point of one of the younger, better-looking ones was to get him into bed with a busty british woman, so you could get a bit of titillation before her landlord is killed. (Which was a whole lotta set up for a quick off-screen hanging, by the way. If you're bound and determined to flash a couple of boobs in your serious 94-clones-of-Adolf-Hitler-drama, why not just have the camera linger on a topless old pudgy Brazilian woman as she sweeps Dr. Mengele's porch while Gregory Peck - Gregory frickin' Peck - hangs out somewhere in the background? Oh - you did that, too, huh? Well, it's your movie, Mr. Franklin J. Schaffner, so I guess it's your call. Speaking of which, Mr. Peck's agent is on line one, and he'd like a word...?)

Most of the rest of the assassins, we don't even see at work. I can understand this. We all start getting bored watching middle-aged men get killed after the first twenty or thirty, don't we? At least, for me that's about the time I start flipping channels to see if there is anyone else getting killed. There's vanishingly few of us that would want to stick it out for the whole 94. So here's a thought - stop me if you've lightbulbed this already - why not pare the number down just a bit, to something we, the audience, might actually care about? Say, five, tops? I mean, I can appreciate a good nerdy movie, and I loved the whole "This is 1978, so we actually have to explain to everyone what cloning is" scene (With a blackboard, even - how charming and quaint!), but having Gregory Peck wax wroth on not getting to kill all 94 guys because he needs a scientifically significant control group or whatever is not as gripping as you might expect.

Eventually, his plan in shambles, Mengele decides to take out one final guy himself. Which makes sense, he's invested a lot of time, energy and flashbacks into this let's-clone-Hitler thing, and if your super-secret nazi organization suddenly goes all Mom on you and tells you that you threw a temper-tantrum so you don't get to have all 94 guys killed like you wanted, you're inclined to say "No, Mother, I am a grown, nay even elderly former psychotic mass-murderer, I will at least kill one Pennsylvanian dog-breeder and to hell with your silly rules. I may even have ice-cream afterwards. Two scoops, Mother, two scoops!"

This leads to the final confrontation between Mengele, Lieberman, and The Kid. Now, a word about The Kid. It was painfully obvious that these Teen Adolfs that Lieberman kept spotting, and whose total identicalness eventually twigged him on to the cloning plan, were all the same kid actor. It was also painfully obvious that despite different ethnic costumes and, well, I guess you'd call them accents, these were all the same kid. Who had an acting range somewhat narrower than that little brat that played Anakin in The Phantom Menace. However, like Kenau Reeves, you put him in the right role, and he fits it like a hand in a proctologist's glove - painful, but effective. I could totally see this snothead growing up to be Adolf II. Hell, after his first few appearances, I was all for forgetting the plan and eliminating all 94 of the little bastards instead. I mean, sure, you want to resurrect your sociopathic leader so he can plunge the world into a vortex of blood and carnage, but jeez, you don't want him to be a dick.

But this kid, when he comes home to find Mengele and Lieberman facing each other, his father shot, and about twenty dobermans ready to leap on Mengele and tear him to pieces - does he act in any way, oh, I don't know, surprised to find two bloody strangers in his living room and his father dead in the cellar? Does he call the cops? Ask them their name, offer them coffee, anything? No. He says the 1978 equivalent of Kenau's emblematic "Whoa!" and starts snapping pictures. To be fair, once he figures out Mengele shot his dad, he breaks out the Best Line Ever: "Die, you freaked-out maniac!" and sets the dogs on him. Villains, please note - especially if you are (A) a doctor, and therefore not usually a front-line sort of person and (B) somewhat past your prime - choose your victims a bit more carefully. You had 84 or so to choose from - and you chose the one that surrounds himself with killer dobermans that you are told are perfectly harmless unless you threaten their owner? The last scene was nearly half-an-hour long, and as soon as I saw the cages, I said to myself "torn apart by dogs." (I also said, "My god I could go for a Nutter-Butter right now" but it was the former that turned out to have more relevance.) Why not choose the guy whose passion is collecting Hummel figurines? Much much safer, there's a vanishingly small chance they will come alive in the fray and rip your arm off, and hey, bonus, some of them might even get smashed in the process - a net win for everyone.

At any rate, by the end of this film, Mengele is Alpo, Lieberman is recovering, and the world is saved from Hitler Two: Electric Boogaloo. (Oh, come on, you knew I'd been saving that joke this whole time, didn't you? Well, you should have.) Or is it? We close on The Kid in his darkroom staring at the lovely snaps he got of his dad's dogs at work on Mengele - a visual "Duh duh duuuuhhhhh", then fade to black on one of the weirdest movies ever made. I mean, the more I think about it, the more weird it is that it did get made. How would you pitch something like this?

"Okay, Jerry, get this - we clone Hitler. Like, 94 times, baby!"
"I love it! Big summer comedy, we'll get Dom DeLuise and Farrah Fawcett - she can do Jewish, can't she? - and, yeah this is great, I'm seeing a big climactic fight on the Statue of Liberty -"
"Jerry, Jerry, baby, hold it a minute - no comedy. It's a drama. I'm seeing Peck, I'm seeing Olivier, I'm seeing Mason -"
"Are you kidding me? A drama? Come on, there's gotta be some comedy, you're cloning Hitler for god's sake, you're telling me this is going to play in Peoria as a drama?"
"All right, we'll throw in Steve Guttenberg."
"I said comedy, damn it!"

...and so on and so forth.

Final rating: Among movies of its type (“Hauntingly Nonsensical Movies That Nobody Would Have The Balls To Make Today") I'll definitely give this one a recommendation. Pop your popcorn, tune up your disbelief's suspension, and have at it. You won't regret it.


7/15/11 House of Marco - Sir Kendrick Vaughn

Note: This was written to flesh out a character I was playing in the Human Combat Chess at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. -M.D.

It was going to be another hot day in… [More]

Note: This was written to flesh out a character I was playing in the Human Combat Chess at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. -M.D.

It was going to be another hot day in Venice, and Sir Kendrick Vaughn was somewhat peeved. He stood in his dressing gown, gazing out at the city, already alive and grumbling with the fading hope of getting its business done before the real heat of the day began. The air was still, with the sullen feel that spoke of rain later - but spoke falsely, he knew. What little puffs of air made their steamy way into the room did nothing with regards to cooling him. This failure seemed, to his heated brain, to encapsulate all of the generalized unwillingness to put forth real effort that one found everywhere in these southern latitudes. Fancy ever getting weather this sultry even in southern Dorsetshire - and for simply weeks on end, too! Rank indulgence. Why, the weather in England was never allowed such liberties. A proper rain every day or so, thank you, and you can take your stifling heat away to the Canaries.

He was holding up well, however, despite the heat. This wasn’t something he needed to dwell on, as a frantic dowager duchess might spend desperate days constructing a facade suitable for a younger man’s entrapment. Not for him such extravagent wastes of energy. He simply arose in the morning with the unstated assumption that the epicycle of the world centered upon him. The world, impressed with such firm conviction, therefore went out of its way to prove him correct.

So it was that his servant Lorenzo found him - standing framed in the window’s arch, the rising sun stealing through the gauzy curtains to playfully dance about on his night-dress’ subtle tracery of gold thread. The brief gusts of air attempted to make up for their failure in the cooling arena by gently running through his hair, smoothing every follicle into place. The profile was straight off one of old imperial coins, and the pale blue eyes gazed keenly into the middle distance. The stern look upon the brow spoke of storms ahead, for Lorenzo if not for Venice, and he congratulated himself on being shrewd enough to bring a mandolin as well as the breakfast. His master would require cheering up, and a day without being shouted at, while rare, was always a cheerful day for Lorenzo.

The rumblings began immediately. “Not before time,” snapped Sir Kendrick. “Where have you been? No doubt up to no good with the scullery maid, you licentious little devil? I have been standing here for fully four minutes, I’ll have you know. Where I am from, I am accustomed for the servants to wait upon the pleasure of the master, not the other way around.”

“Sì, signore.” That was usually a safe answer, and it appeared to do the trick this time as well, for Sir Kendrick merely sniffed. Lorenzo bowed and was moving to the bed with the tray, but was interrupted.

“No, not in bed this morning. The air in this ghastly city comes straight from the flames of hell, and if I wrap myself up in more swaddling clothes, I’ll be better cooked than the venison at the Antonini’s ball last night - and that, my Lorenzo-who-is-always-late, was as black as Satan’s backside. Lady Antonini’s cook must be blind, or without his tongue, or both. No, I’ll eat at the table.”

Lorenzo smoothly changed directions and set the tray on the elaborately decorated desk that had been the writing desk of Lord Marco’s grandfather. Only recently deceased, Guiseppe della Bianco had been one of the most respected and feared Doge in the city’s history - and whether you respected him or feared him depended entirely on if you were doing what he wished or not. He had been the unquestioned Patrician in the della Bianco family, and Lorenzo - who overheard much and kept his opinions quietly to himself - suspected that the current head of the family was somewhat relieved to be rid of the domineering old man. Lord Marco, in a late-arriving act of rebellion, had consigned the writing desk to the guest bedroom, where its somewhat florid style suited Sir Kendrick perfectly.

Sir Kendrick sat and began to eat delicately, but almost immediately stopped and glared at Lorenzo. “May I inquire what that screeching racket is in aid of?”

Lorenzo, who had settled down on the divan to accompany Sir Kendrick’s breakfast with a lively air, stopped immediately and began to stammer. “Signore-”

“Did I ask,” continued Sir Kendrick, “To have my breakfast spoilt by the sound of two felines apparently being tortured to death?”

“No, signore.”

“If I had desired that, I could no doubt easily find the dirty back alley that houses the rest of your family and watch them at their uncouth sport. Now, silence, if you please!”

“Sì, signore.”

“That’s better.” Sir Kendrick returned to his breakfast, but it was clear after a short interval that his something other than hunger was weighing on his mind. Twice he stopped eating altogether and stared off into space. After the second time, he darted a glance at Lorenzo, then sighed.

“All right, you needn’t look so miserable, boy. I don’t intend to bite your head off any further today. Sit. And you can have the rest of my breakfast. This infernal heat steals my appetite quite away.”

Lorenzo needed no second asking. Though well treated by the della Biancos (His father, may his soul sit with God, had always said “Stick with the della Biancos, my son, and serve them well. They are a fine, fine family, and they treat us with the generosity of saints.”), a servant quickly learned never to turn down a free meal. Sir Kendrick rose from the table, watched him with an eyebrow raised as he tore through the remainder of the breakfast, then moved over to the armoire. Opening it, he perused it with a thoughtful eye, then removed one of the doublets and laid it carefully on the bed.

Lorenzo jumped to his feet. “Signore, per favore, that is my duty -”

“Quiet,” Sir Kendrick interrupted. “I will dress myself today. You will sit there and answer a few questions that are troubling my idle brain.”

“Sì, signore, but -”

“No buts. Now then,” said Sir Kendrick, pausing over the choice of hose, “You have worked for the della Bianco family for...how long now?”

“All my life, signore.”

“Yes, quite - you needn’t say it so portentiously, boy, as the count of your years hardly totals much of a sum yet. Not compared to some, at any rate.” He sighed. “Alas, the years of my youth have been outnumbered and ambushed long since by the vindictive years of my maturity. How old are you - fifteen? Sixteen?”

“Sixteen, signore. Seventeen in two months.”

“There will come a time when you no longer count off the time until your next birthday so eagerly, Lorenzo.”

“No, signore.”

“Did you know Lord Marco’s father, Lorenzo?”

“No, signore. He was hardly at home. He was often sent on important embassies by the old Lord Guiseppe, signore.”

“Constantly kept out from underfoot, eh? No, you needen’t answer that. Now, then, the eternal question - which boots today?” He tapped his upper lip, then glanced at Lorenzo again. “You needn’t answer that, either - but remember this: what often looks like mere foppery can often be a vital political tool - or a subtly deadly insult. The wrong boots, a cravat knotted improperly - these things have been the causes of wars before now. The wise man is he who sees the depth in the superficialities, Lorenzo.”

“Sì, signore.”

“Now then - yes, the black ones with the silver trim will do nicely, I think. Did the old Doge - Lord Guiseppe della Bianco - ever send Lord Marco on any embassies, Lorenzo?”

“No, signore. Never.”

“Interesting. And why not, do you think?”

“I don’t know, signore. Lord Marco was away at school much of the time - he only returned when Lord Guiseppe passed away.”

“And that was? Oh, hats, hats hats, damn all hats. Why do the milliners in this country insist on making them so very unflattering to the men?”

“I..I don’t know, signore...”

“Lorenzo, if you are going to serve in a great house, you are going to need to learn which questions are asked to be answered, and which are merely the master or mistress cruelly inflicting rhetoric upon you. When did the withered wretch release life from his arthritic claws and finally die?”

“Signore! I-”

“It is all right, Lorenzo. In my experience, the dead stay dead - if adequately killed - and unless I miss my guess the current Lord Marco shares more of my opinion of his grandfather than he is willing to let on. You have no rmore need to stick up for the old boy.”

“Eh...four years, signore. I remember, because that was the year that I climbed the church steeple on my birthday, and Padre Timothius found me, and-”

“How fascinating. You must remember not to tell me all about it sometime. There.” Sir Kendrick finished dressing, and held out his monocle and walking stick to either side, as if waiting for applause. Almost on cue, the doves roosting under the eaves burst into a hubbub of throaty burbling. Sir Kendrick glanced over his shoulder at them, and when he turned to face Lorenzo again, there was a faintly mocking smile on his face. “You see? My appearance, it seems, has the approval of the entire aviary. As the French say, et voila! I am dressed to kill.”

“...Sì, signore...”

“Don’t worry, boy, it’s only an expression. Well, I’m done with you for this morning. You can escape to the kitchens and regale the other domestics with stories about the horrible old Englishman. There, there’s a soldi for your trouble. Now, off with you.”

“Sì, signore! Grazie, signore!”

“Yes, yes. Boo! Scat! Flee, you imp!”

When Lorenzo’s echoing footsteps had died away, Sir Kendrick turned to his bed and slipped a hand under the pillow. When he removed it, the hand was holding a dagger. He looked at it thoughtfully, then slipped it quickly into a hidden sheath. Picking up his walking stick, he strode to the door, then stopped, taking a deep breath. When he moved again it was with the mincing step of the dyed-in-the-wool courtier and fop. He delicately closed the door behind him, and moved at a trot down the corridor in the opposite direction from which Lorenzo had taken. The interior corridors of the house were far cooler than his room, the solid stone walls doing sterling service in keeping the heat at bay. He toyed with the idea of asking the servants to move his bed into the hallway, that he might get a better rest, but the thought was driven from his head when he suddenly happened upon Marco’s sister - the Lady Marcella.


2/8/11 Movie Night - Part 3
Movie Review: Lust, Caution, dir. Ang Lee. I'm pretty disappointed with this, the second of Ang Lee's movies about The Incredible Hulk. First of all, it's all about some war in China. A World War, or… [More]


Movie Review: Lust, Caution, dir. Ang Lee. I'm pretty disappointed with this, the second of Ang Lee's movies about The Incredible Hulk. First of all, it's all about some war in China. A World War, or something. Second, I couldn't tell who was supposed to be Dr. David Banner - maybe it was one of the sextet of actors that were plotting to kill a chinese collaborator? Thirdly, the Hulk isn't in here anywhere, just a lot of stuff about the demands of nationalism, the loss of self while infiltrating the enemy, and the impact on people of murder to prevent murder - what? Oh. Lemme start over. This movie made me really annoyed. This isn't because it was a bad film - quite the contrary. Love Ang Lee, hate him, feel a vague indifference, or not know who he is at all (that covers all the possibilities, I think), you have to admit that he is capable of putting movies out there that are visually impressive, well-shot, and are, all-in-all, films worth watching. Not the least because, unlike so many movies these days, they are provoking. I opened with a joke about his Hulk movie because it is definitely the Hulk movie that people remember, whether they like it or not. It hardly dealt with universal human themes (Well, except for the universal theme of the lone man who is exposed to a weird kind of radiation and therefore turns huge, angry, and green - haven't we all been there at one point or another?), but it provoked strong reactions in the audience. So does Lust, Caution. Set in occupied China during World War II, it tells the story of a group of college actors who decide to kill the traitors collaborating with the Japanese. Their focus is a Mr. Yee, simply because one of kids knows a guy who might be able to get them close - he's a target of opportunity, nothing more. They infiltrate Yee's household, but fail - murdering instead one of the lower-level collaborators. Then the movie shifts to three years later - part of the actual resistence now, they try again, now that Yee has become head of the collaboration government's murderous secret police. The film is mainly about the way Wang Chia Chi moves past Yee's mental defences, getting to a place where he trusts her, though he trusts no-one else. It is a long movie, and appropriately paced for its 2 1/2 hours, but there isn't a moment wasted - everything is part and parcel of the person Wang has to become in order to get where she needs to be - close enough to Yee to make him vulnerable. Also appropriate to the title, there are extensive sex scenes. Rather explicit, too - this isn't a movie to watch with the kids, unless you're okay with having a lot of explaining to do. These, I think, are the film's one weakness, as they are overly explicit and last a bit too long. Rather than simply showing - well, lots of things: how people connect on a human level in wartime, how a spy seduces her target, how a police chief is controlling and also vulnerable, how an act becomes true feelings - as I say, rather than just showing those, the sheer length and explicitness of the sex scenes moves them from plot-furthering to eroticism in its own right. Not a bad thing, but a separate endeavor, that distracts from the film's main themes. No, what made me annoyed about this movie was that I was so caught up in the natural evolution of the characters that the inevitable ending was too real to just treat as a separate story. Inevitable ending is right - not because it is so predictable, but rather that the characters are so fully fleshed-out and well-acted that no other ending is possible. This is not a bad thing, but a reflection of true mastery of craftsmanship. I can heartily recommend this film - although depending on your tolerance, you might want to go make a sandwich during the lengthier sex scenes. It is moving and provoking in ways that most films today are not, and for that alone it is worth seeing. The excellent acting, cinematography, and presentation of real human feelings in a terrible situation are just simply bonuses.


2/7/11 Movie Night - Part 2
Movie Review: Jar City, dir. Baltasar Kormakur.

You ever just get into a mood where you just have to watch Nordic movies? Me neither. Even so, lately I've been watching quite a few m… [More]

Movie Review: Jar City, dir. Baltasar Kormakur.

You ever just get into a mood where you just have to watch Nordic movies? Me neither. Even so, lately I've been watching quite a few movies filmed above the 60th latitude. This one, set in Iceland, tops them all - in the category of Unrelieved Visual and Moral Bleakness, that is. Beginning with the death of a little girl and murder of a nasty old man in a smelly basement, the movie (unbelievably) goes downhill from there, with murders, rapes, pregnant junkies, exhumations and a whole lot of organs in jars.

Nope, this movie isn't going to make top billing in Iceland's tourist marketing anytime soon.

Don't get me wrong - when I say downhill, I don't mean that it's a bad film at all. Well-filmed and -acted, it's a mystery rather than a gross-out slasher flick - and the worst killer is never actually seen at all, despite being the thread that ties the other tragedies together. Perhaps fittingly, the location adds a certain curious feel to the relationships - we find out the most intimate detail of people's lives, yet there is always an inhuman distance: between the restrained characters, the starkly beautiful but unwelcoming land, even between the characters and their frequently monochromatic homes. Reinforced by the visuals - a sweeping view of a lonely road by the ocean, an endless white corridor, the eponymous jars themselves, and the gritty film grain, often jerkily hand-held shots adding to our dislocation - we are immersed to a near-screaming depth in a story in which a so-called happy ending is not just unlikely, but structurally impossible, for what happiness is there to be found anywhere?

A good movie - a better cure for unnecessary cheerfulness and optimism.


2/5/11 Movie Night - Part 1

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, dir. Daniel Alfredson, written by Stieg Larsson.

The latest in "The Girl Who Creates Unwarrentedly Long Mo… [More]

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, dir. Daniel Alfredson, written by Stieg Larsson.

The latest in "The Girl Who Creates Unwarrentedly Long Movie Titles" trilogy, I wanted to like this movie. I quite liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and to a lesser extent The Girl who Played with Fire. In all three, the films were well, if conventionally shot, the main character of Lisbeth was compelling and well-acted. However, I feel the second and the third movies (especially the latter) suffered from "Success Syndrome." (You like that? Like "Stockholm Syndrome" - alliteration and recursive allusion - gosh, I'm clever.)

The template for the Syndrome is unquestionably the Matrix trilogy, but its precursors can be seen as far back as the Star Wars trilogy. Put simply, it is when a book or movie is so (usually unexpectedly) successful that sequels are demanded by an enraptured and insatiable viewing public. Well, writers gotta eat, and they are usually pleased and flattered that their creative baby met with so much favor, so sequels are duly provided - often despite the fact that most plotlines were neatly wrapped up in the first work.

In movies suffering from the Syndrome, the writer hadn't thought ahead to "what next?" and with the pressure of deadlines hastening a process that might have taken far longer for the first work, two things frequently happen: the writer rests on the laurels of the first we wind up watching the same movie over again. (TRON 2, you pretty disappointment, I'm looking at you.) Alternately, the new plots are less well-thought-out than before, and we see characters doing uncharacteristic things (Leia, Luke & Han's infamous and endless "We Must TALK" moment in Return of the Jedi), or going through a lot of action sequence padding (Matrix 2, your 20-minute rave scene, among others).

In Dragon Tattoo, we're presented with a tight thriller, with Nazis, a serial killer, an abused orphan, and so on. Lisbeth is shown to be smart, tough, self-reliant, and upon occasion ruthless. Engaging, and promising. In Fire and Hornet's Nest, we're suddenly dealing with a secret government cabal that has no connection whatsoever with the Nazi serial killers in the first film, yet is intimately connected with Lisbet's amoral criminal father and unfeeling half-brother. We can (sort've) overlook the fact that it just happens to involve her immediate family - that's pretty common plot shorthand, though still a bit of a reach. But with a plot stretched over two movies, Hornet's Nest is more of a resolution to things that took place in Fire, rather than a film in its own right. Lisbeth just doesn't have enough to do in this movie - her bold, clever actions are reprised, (The DVD made of her rape being central), but she performs no new ones. Her hacker friend Plague gets more to do, and he's off-screen most of the time! What's left for her is convalescence and some prison-training scenes reminiscent of Terminator 2.

The movie finally falls back on that staple resolution of tv dramas: a drawn-out courtroom scene. Lisbeth's main contribution to this is to sit there dressed for no readily apparent reason in full-punk costume. No apparent reason, that is, other than to telegraph to the audience that she's still edgy and unpredictable, without actually giving her anything to do that would truly showcase it.

In the meantime her half-brother lurches silently through the movie on an apparently unstoppable country-wide killing spree that does nothing to install confidence in Sweden's police force, and with no other discernible purpose than to provide a bit of extra threat to Lisbeth. When she finally discovers and confronts him, it is in an Abandoned Warehouse(TM) that has "Action Playset" painted all over it. Not that I'm expecting Lisbeth Salander Action Figures (Or dolls, either, despite her exciting wardrobes) to come out from Hasbro anytime soon, but come on! It's got a pool, elevator, collapsable boxes, a real working winch (batteries not included), and an inexplicably loaded nailgun accessory!

All in all, "The Girl Who Creates Unwarrentedly Long Movie Titles" (TGWCULMT) is better thought of as not a trilogy, but two episodes of a mini-series, spread over three movies, and leaving you with less a sense of successful dramatic resolution and more of a "huh." Given the promise of the first one, somewhat of a disappointment. Not bad, overall, but definitely edging over into "How Much Better This Could Have Been" (HMBTCHB) territory.

Sadly, there is as yet no cure for "Success Syndrome", but please give generously to the Storyline Support Fund. Remember, with research, there is hope.


6/7/10 "Lost" Power Dynamic

A summary of the unequal dynamic between Jacob and the Smoke-Monster from "Lost":

"Okay, your opponent: Can turn into smoke, travel anywhere on the island at rapid speed, is very pe… [More]

A summary of the unequal dynamic between Jacob and the Smoke-Monster from "Lost":

"Okay, your opponent: Can turn into smoke, travel anywhere on the island at rapid speed, is very persuasive, is ruthless, is, frankly, smarter than you, and is immortal. You...are also immortal. Until he figures out a way to kill you, which, if you ask my opinion, means don't go getting any term life insurance."


"And what?"

"Can I turn into smoke?"


"Can I travel rapidly around the island?"

"Depends. How fast can you run?"

"Well...can I shoot lasers from my eyes?"

"What? No! Who do you think you are, Superman?"

"Well, jeez, throw me a friggin' bone here!

"All right, all right! You can leave the island."

"That I have to keep this immortal smoke-guy on. Why can't he leave-"

"DON'T INTERRUPT! And you can bring other people here by manipulating their lives in obscure ways so that they think they got here by accident. And then let the immortal smoke-guy kill them."

"...you know, if it's all the same to you, I think I'll go with the laser eyes...?"


4/6/10 Movie Review: 2012
2012, directed by Roland Emmerlich, starring John Cusack and some other people.

Veering jerkily between mawkish, cloying sentimentality and utterly unbelievable (main character) escape… [More]


2012, directed by Roland Emmerlich, starring John Cusack and some other people.

Veering jerkily between mawkish, cloying sentimentality and utterly unbelievable (main character) escapes from cataclysmic danger, 2012 is a modern, suburban American take on the Apocalypse predicted by the Mayans centuries ago, when the sun would line up with a couple of the other planets in our solar system and wreak havoc on our planet (and possibly the others, but who cares about them?) through boosted gravitational effects.

No, sorry, that would have been a mildly plausible starting point; what apparently happens is that the Mayans, who couldn’t predict the fall of their own civilization through war, disease and famine, somehow knew with a certainty that in the beginning of the 21st century, in India, there would be born a physicist or astronomer who would bravely turn his back on his own vague discipline to note that “The neutrinos have mutated.” There you go, buddy, bored with all that accurate terminology you’ve been using since you got your doctorate? Try inappropriate biological metaphors for massless (Not to mention cell-and-dna-and-anything-else-that-might-conceivably-“mutate”-less) physical particles that “suddenly” start interacting with matter.

Everyone is puzzled by what could have caused this, but it’s fortunate that they don’t really spend too much time worrying about it and simply blame it on the Mayans (those doggone 10th century quantum physical experts), or the planets coming into alignment (which is probably a bad day for Libras, all told), or the occurrence of a massive solar flare during the current time of severely reduced solar activity that we’re actually experiencing in this, the purportedly “real world”. However, the true explanation for all of the bogus science and ridiculous plot permutations is the not-so-invisible hand of the writers and director. Enough with accuracy, they cry, let’s get on with the explosions and mass death!

Once everybody understands this, it’s a full-speed ahead, no-holds barred race for Jackson (John Cusack) to...pick up his kids for a camping trip in Yellowstone. Wait, what? This is the writers & director’s slightly transparent way of “putting a human face” on the unthinkable tragedy to come. (Well, John Cusack’s face, anyway - I suppose it’s more human than the Elephant Man’s. Or Steve Buscemi’s.) The whole thing will be viewed through the eyes of a moderately dysfunctional suburban family - Jackson and his ex-wife (Some puffy-lipped princess whose main contribution to the film seems to be showing that yes, ladies, you can have it all: You can contribute nothing whatsoever to the survival of your ex-husband or your boyfriend or your children or even humanity as a whole, and also have great looking hair and earrings that never come out, no matter what ridiculous disaster you have just survived by the tips of your excellently-manicured fingers) have split, and now she’s shacked up with a breast implant specialist named Gordon whom Jackson’s surly son Noah seemingly worships. (Finally the kid has a role model in his life - sure, Gordon may be kind’ve a weed, but he handles women’s boobs every single day, of course a ten-year-old boy is going to find that fascinating.) Jackson and his wife have another child, a daughter whose name, I believe, was Adorable Little Girl #1. Seriously, if she actually had a name, I can’t remember it already, and I just watched the movie last night. But don't worry - the little girl does have a characterization aside from wearing various hats throughout the film and being placed in dangerous situations that she needs rescuing from - she wets the bed. Believe it or not, that is a plot point the filmmakers will be returning to.

At any rate, Jackson, Adorable Little Girl #1 and Noah the Surly Son head off to Yellowstone, where Jackson teaches them to ignore clearly posted signs and fences anytime they like, which results in a potentially scary but turns-out-fine encounter with the United States Military. (Hey, thank god they’re white, eh? Handshakes all around and no detention or fine for trespassing or child endangerment.) But after that, Jackson listens to Charlie (Woody Harrelson, in a role as a crazy whacked out fringe radio personality and Adobe Flash animator), and realizes that the world is about to end but his employer (An enormously deep-voiced Russian gangster - I know that’s a redundant description these days) has a ticket out for him and his two globular sons. At the same time, Puffy-Lipped Princess and Boob Gordon exchange heavy-handed banter and set-up lines in a grocery store (Note the Pull-Ups shot - that bedwetting plot is still going!) and are nearly killed by an opening faultline. Naturally, this means that the distraught mother wants her children to immediately return to what is an increasingly active earthquake zone.

Okay, after that the movie's pace picks up a bit as things start falling apart, the center fails to hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. (I'm pretty sure those were stage directions, actually.) Jackson reveals that although he is the author of a tremendously under-selling science fiction book, his real talent is stunt driving, as he leaps gaping chasms and outruns falling rocks, freeways, and even entire buildings in a limo, a Winnebago, and a Bentley. Gordon turns out to be a beginning pilot, which allows them to easily fly away in a plane he's totally unqualified to fly, while taking a tour of the vast damage and death happening below below them. (Very Rapture of them.) Just a tip to you would-be nick-of-time-pilots out there: If you're flying over erupting Los Angeles, with buildings collapsing, fires spurting into the air, cars being flung every-which-way, vast canyons opening up where the shopping district used to be...you don't have to fly only 100 feet over it. You're in a plane, a flying machine which can be used - in addition to dramatically diving between collapsing buildings that you easily could have flown around - to gain what is technically called "altitude" and get out of danger. Just in case that hadn't occurred to you.

At any rate, they fly back to Yellowstone, which helps underscore the sheer number of things they will be losing as the world burns - I mean, who knew that Beechcraft was capable of making such fuel-efficient planes these days? Jackson gets a map showing where the "Arks" are from Woody, who got it from a NASA scientist who was silenced by the government for being in a position of governmental responsibility while listening to some insane radio conspiracy theorist. Oh, no, wait - don't worry, fans of Glenn Beck, your government isn't killing people because they listen to huckstering moronic demagogues, it's killing people to keep them from revealing that there's a massively funded project in a foreign country to protect rich people and governmental leaders from whatever happens to the rest of the world. It's called Dubai, and - no, dang, wrong again, it's a secret mountain in Chinese-run Tibet under which enormous ships are being built to preserve some segments of humanity. (IE, the ones that can afford the 1 billion Euro tab. Points to the filmmakers for taking the time to emphasize that the currency was Euros, not dollars. Roland Emmerlich sticks it to The Man!)

I'd just like to pause here and thank the Chinese nation for being apparently willing to host such a tremendous project on what is debatably their soil: relocating whole villages to clear the area, providing facilities, workers, and construction material, etc. - while nobly not actually availing themselves of the result, based on the number of Asians of any nationality visible when the ships finally launch. Very generous of them, and a lesson to us all. Of something.

At any rate, back to the "plot." Jackson and company catch up with Russian Gangster, who spirits them away on an enormous Russian cargo plane which is filled with product placement - I mean, luxury cars originally headed for an auto show. This gives the women (Puffy-lipped Princess and Russian Gangster's Bimbo Girlfriend) time to bond over what pigs men are, and for Jackson to bond with Russian Gangster and Noah the Surly Son, etc. Adorable Little Girl #1 even finds a new hat. (I know you're wondering, but don't worry, the Bed-Wetting plotline is still there! Just wait for it!)

Quick note to disaster movie filmmakers: Once the mass carnage starts, super-volcanos erupt, California plunges into the sea, the death toll begins to mount to overwhelmingly horrifying totals...I officially don't care about Surly Son's daddy issues or any of your other suburban white angst, okay? There are more important things going on, and there's no time for indulgence of what are suddenly obsolete middle-class "issues" any longer. It's a brave new world (Although the world is, admittedly, slightly beat up and no longer in what a serious collector would call "mint" condition, what with all the destruction and wreckage of human civilization and all) and the kid is just going to have to deal with some rather more serious shit than "You weren't there for me when I was slightly younger than I am now." So let's do like the director should have done, and not waste any more time on it. They need to fly to China, but cleverly don't dump useless weight (IE the cars, the Bimbo Girlfriend or her dog, the rotund and massive Russian kids) so they are saved by the miracle of Plot Contrivance: while they've been flying, the Earth's crust has come loose and shifted the continents just enough to make sure they crash close to the Arks. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of using the Plot Contrivance device is the uncontrolled bumping off of minor characters, so good-bye to the brave Russian pilot who got them there, see-ya to Gordon, who realizes that mass death and destruction has brought the biological Jackson family back together (Sorry, responsible and good providers - didn't shoot the seed, you're wormfood), sayanara to the Indian astronomer/physicist/biologist and the rest of his non-white family and village, so long to a couple of old guys on a cruise ship somewhere, auf wiedersehen to the President of the United States (But not his hot daughter, naturally; the world must be peopled!) - and so on.

They make it to the Arks, but have to sneak aboard, while the Russian Gangster who left them in the snow is stuck because his ark isn't functional any longer. (Ha! Heavy-handed irony, how well you mete out satisfying justice!) Thanks to their fooling around in a gearshaft somewhere, when the waters finally crest the Himalayas (I know, I know, just go with them on this one) and inundate the Arks, the rear door is jammed slightly open and therefore the ship can't start its engines. Okay, I'm no engineer, but this is, to my untrained mind, something of a design flaw. I dunno, maybe somebody left the Plot Contrivance machine running, because this gives Jackson a chance to go on a suicide mission. We know this because over the open intercom, in front of his wife and children, it is subtly pointed out by someone shouting loudly "But it's a suicide mission!" rather than something more helpful, like "What idiot designed the engines to not start if a door doesn't work?" or "Surely we have trained crewmen whose job it is to take care of things like this!"

Somewhat predictably, Jackson saves the day (Along with Surly Son, in a last-ditch attempt to make himself look useful in the new survival-oriented world), and even more predictably survives the "suicide mission", while the ark full of rich people and politicians sails triumphantly away into the sunset. I guess we're not worried about the neutrinos suddenly "mutating" again into, say, 500-foot tall Elvis Impersonators who stalk the planet by night, wreaking havoc and death while crooning "Blue Suede Shoes" or anything remotely plausible like that, because the last shot is the happily reunited and bonded nuclear white family standing outside, looking at the clear blue sky overhead (Nuclear winter? Why? Just because massive super-volcanos all over the earth have been exploding, throwing millions of tons of dust and ash into the atmosphere world-wide doesn't mean we can't have a nice day) while Adorable Little Girl #1 confides that, apparently thanks to the death of billions of people, she no longer wets the bed. Boom! And you thought Emmerlich had forgotten that all-important detail, hadn't you? You fool! You were in sure hands the entire time, guided through the end of the world by people who knew that the most important thing in a post-apocalyptic world is a healthy family dynamic and dry sheets.

Whew. Something of a long review, but this movie seemed to go on forever, staggering from melodrama to silly action sequence like a professional made-for-tv movie actor. And I didn't even get into the entirely predictable cheap shots, like the Sistine Chapel cracking open directly between God and Adam's outstretched fingers, or the White House being wiped out by a tsunami bearing the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. (Would have been funnier if they'd used the Ronald Reagan, but that's just my opinion.) I have to say, this movie was still entertaining and fun - helped in great part by the relatively decent cgi used to create the disasters, and John Cusack's trademark bemused sincerity. I'm sure viewing this on the big screen would have been breathtaking enough to make you forget that it was apparently plotted by cliche-ridden dimwitted hacks (Surely among Hollywood's finest), but as I watched this on the somewhat smaller monitor, I'm afraid its flaws were rather more apparent. However, it made me laugh (At the way in which the charmed lives of the main characters were preserved against all odds, over and over and over again), it made me cry (at the silly "science", the deadening predictability of certain plot "twists" and the uninspired dialogue), it made me kiss 3.99 (Dollars, not Euros) goodbye. So, on my personal scale of movies of this type (Ludicrously Plotted Apocalyptic Disaster Movies), ranging from "Unbelievably Ghastly Waste of Time and Money" (bad) to "Eh" (my highest rating) I'll rank it as "Sucked Only Moderately", and recommend it to ADD explosion freaks with big-screen home theaters everywhere.


1/1/99 California Dispatches No. 1: New Years Day

(Excerpts from letters written during my stay in San Francisco. -MD)

[...] New Years day I decided to take it easy, do some errands, catch up on things. But I was … [More]

(Excerpts from letters written during my stay in San Francisco. -MD)

[...] New Years day I decided to take it easy, do some errands, catch up on things. But I was feeling restless, somewhere around 3:30-4ish. It was a brilliantly warm and sunny day, and I was itching to go outside. Then it occurred to me that I hadn't been down to the ocean for a while. I dithered, then suddenly decided if there was anything I wanted to do, it was to see the sun go down over the Pacific on New Year's Day. With that thought, I was out the door and walking quickly to catch a 5, which goes all the way through the Sunset District to the beach. I made it (just) by sprinting up a steep hill and jayrunning across the intersection just as the bus was pulling away. Good thing, too, because when I got there, the sun was only about ten degrees above the horizon, a fiery ball plunging to a watery ending.

I decided to head to one of my favorite spots, the ruins of the Sutro Baths. In case you don't know, these are the remains of a health spa set up directly in the hollow formed by the cliffs next to the ocean. There was swimming (Some in heated pools, some not - yes, right next to the biggest body of water on the planet, someone built a swimming pool) and I believe ice skating in winter. It burned down, I forget exactly when (later note - 1966), and now all that is left are some crumbling walls and some deep pools.

It turned out that I wasn't the only one with this idea, and the place was quite crowded. There is a path down from the roadway which leads to a scenic overlook, and a passage through the cliffs in which you can hear the sea booming and echoing through hidden passageways in the rock. This time, I took the high road, and climbed up the cliffs to the topside - no real feat, and I was not alone up there, although it was comfortably uncrowded.

I read a book once, in which the author said that during college he had spent an entire year watching the sun go down, every day. Lucky man, he, if they were anything as wondrous as this one. But I think not, even though every sunset is something to behold. There is a little something extra about the light here at the end of the land, a richness and timbre not seen elsewhere. It's like a single low note, thrumming deeply from a Aeolian cello, and at sunset it's almost something you can hear. You can feel it, anyway, even though most of the noise comes from the wrack and thrashing as the sea beats against the cliffs.

I go to my perch just in time, for the minute I touched the earth, so to did the sun, brushing gently against the horizon. The sky immediately turned the heated red-gold of a smelter's furnace, and the flat clouds became gold leaf, beaten unimaginably thin and stretching for miles. With a little imagination, the clouds became the seas of a far-off land, sharing for a moment the same sunset as the earth. Avalon lay beyond those oceans, whose borders were really only the borders of a cloud, and beyond which lay only the Farallons, sanctum for birds if not kings out of legend.

The sun sank lower, and to my amazement, people were leaving. I wanted to call out to them, ask them how they could leave when the real show hadn't even started. Cumulus attendants began to gather about the weary sun, as if solicitously lending aid in the final stages of its life. From out the gaps came golden beams, stabbing out across the sky to the opposite horizon, already darkening with oncoming night. I could fed the cold beginning to come on, but strangely it felt like a great hand cupped around me, holding me in place until the last act played.

I turned back, and saw the sun, surrounded by the semi-circle of clouds, still lighting the sky with its rays, and realized that what I was really seeing was the crown of all the world, briefly visible for us mortals. It was then, staring in wonder at the ephemeral circlet, that I had a glimpse of what eternity really meant: this was wondrous, yes, but it went on every day, and had been for thousands, millions of years before us, and would for thousands and millions of years after us, accompanied by the sea's ceaseless crash. This didn't make me feel small, as looking at the countless stars does at times; instead, I felt exalted. I was looking at the eternal, and (even if only for the briefest moment) I could share in it.

The rest of the sun's plunge into the ocean was hardly anti-climactic, but there aren't enough variations this impoverished language of the fire-engine-reds, pale roses, flower yellows and royal vermillion do it justice. The forge faded, became merely a fire, then a dream of fire, pastel colors fleeing before the onrushing dark. At the last like a signal that it was over, the only thing in the gray sky was a thin line of ghostly gold on the horizon, surmounted by the flickering diamond of the evening star.

I got up, and at a loss for words then as I am now, bowed, and began clambering my way down.

But it wasn't all darkness. As I gained the top of the cliffs and looked homeward, the full moon rose before me, paying homage to the departed sun by a reflection that even as I watched, was brightening from dull amber to shining silver.

I've looked back over all this, and found that even all this over lengthy drivel captures barely a tenth of what it was really like. But that makes sense, too, as I realized when I watched people taking pictures of themselves in front of the sunset. (Another thought - you have one of the most glorious beauties of the world and what do you do? You park a relative's ugly mug right in front of it. Now that's arrogance, if you like.) But here's the thing what makes this precious is that it is fleeting. The beauty of it is the change itself, which can't be captured with photographs, paintings - or words.


8/30/98 California Dispatches - Up the Coast Part 1

Sausalito and Points North

This is excerpted from letters I sent to family while living in California. Unimportant and personal details have been elided. Typos and sca… [More]

Sausalito and Points North

This is excerpted from letters I sent to family while living in California. Unimportant and personal details have been elided. Typos and scanning errors have been corrected, but I’ve left most of the awkward phrases and poorly constructed metaphors intact. I’ve also broken it into several parts, in order to accommodate today’s shorter attention spans.

Looking back, I feel I was unnecessarily harsh on Sausalito, which in memory is far more benign than predatory. Certainly, it hasn’t a patch on central Florida!

Dad has come to town to visit [..], and one of the things he said he wanted to do
[..] was to rent a car and drive out of the city for a weekend. I agreed enthusiastically. I love this city, don't get me wrong, but I love Northern California as a whole, and I've been seeing only a relatively small part of it. [..] We tried to decide where we wanted to go, and had settled on a drive to Yosemite, when my brother-in-law [..] popped his head in and told us that he'd just been up that way last week, and the drifts & snow were higher than the cars. This sounded less scenic than we'd hoped, so we switched our plans and headed north up the coast.

We set off at a rather leisurely pace on Friday morning (as in, it was barely still morning
when we set off). We made it across the Golden Gate and into the Marin Headlands as far as
Sausalito, where we had lunch. Sausalito wears a nearly visible banner across the town name which says in big letters "Proudly Trapping Tourists since 1939". Though not as bad as Chinatown (And let's face it, what is?) and considerably more upscale, the town has a single purpose, and that is to separate visiting saps, bewildered by an overabundance of scenery and jetlag, from their cash. They haven't got quite to the point of putting drop boxes on the edge of town with "suggested" donations, but I’m sure it's an idea which gets bandied about at City Council meetings. How else can you explain the business-suit-and-skiwear shops? The immense pastel porcelain monstrosity depicting Cinderalla in her flight from the prince, canine and all? The cut-outs of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are bouncing animatedly in a shop window? (And, let's admit it the Where the Wild Things Are monsters sounded interesting to me. I was tempted, and I'm a hard-bitten city dweller now, not some bloody tourist. ;) But something there is to appeal to everyone, and they don't miss a trick - they’re professionals.)

But it is a beautiful town, nestled (There's no other word for it, save perhaps crammed) into
the headlands rising from the bay, looking over the water to San Francisco. The hills are wooded, so after the developers have shoved as many crazy stilt-supported mansions, homes and huts on the side of the hills as they can, the overwhelming impression is not of crowded humanity but soft green. I've been told that in addition to the steady industry of fleecing tourists, Sausalito is also an artist's colony, and I can well believe it. Despite my ribbing, it's a nice little town, and surprisingly quiet. Everything outside of the city is surprisingly quiet, once you get used to the constant sounds around you. (Not a hum, as has been said, because that implies that some of the producers of the noise can carry a tune, which is not often the case in the city. That said, even some spots inside of it - Golden Gate Park, for instance - are remarkably quiet for their location.) Anyway, so we bought lunch in a tiny little hamburger joint which had an exploded diagram
of a hamburger on the wall. (All I can assume was that some drafter was really bored, or out of
money, or both), and we ate in the sun on a park bench off the main street.

You can tell that Sausalito is a sleepy town, because we had burgers and fries, and all we acquired upon sitting down to eat were two pigeons and a seagull. Two! In Golden Gate Park, as my friend R- can attest, there are veritable mobs of pigeons, swarming down like locusts at the first sign of a hot dog or a carelessly held ice-cream cone. The seagulls are worse - they hang around the park, boosting cars and smoking, until some unhappy tourist wanders out of the Museum of Science with a sandwich. Then they swing into action with the cunning of thieves the world over and a precision that would have brought tears to Patton's eyes. Their favorite technique is brass intimidation. When R- and I were confronted by some of these punks wearing colors (Grey and white), they only way we got out of it with our clothes still on our backs was some fast talking on my part ("Say, isn't that guy over there holding an entire sandwich?") and R- flashing them her Audubon Society Membership card. Then they went on to hassle some German tourist several benches behind us, and we watched their tactics. The frontal approach failed, as did the flanking maneuver (The German, after all, is of the nationality that produced Rommel and he's not going to be taken in by mere textbook exercises.) However, they resorted to trickery - one held the German's attention by strutting up and down in front of him. When his attention was firmly held by the decoy, there was a quick flash, and his sandwich was snatched out of his hand by another bird that swooped from behind. The whole gang rose to the top of the building, shouting insulting things in bird speech as the German shouted nasty things back at them, shaking his fist. At this point, Rachel and I fled their 'hood, as we knew they'd be back.

In comparison, the seagull that watched my Dad and I with its beady little eyes (Perched
behind us on a thick hedge) was so well behaved as to arouse suspicion. I kept looking around for its accomplices, but it seemed to be alone, just standing there and watching. A mother went by, and pointed it out to her two boys ("Look! Look at the big bird behind those two guys!" Yes, from the Birdman of Alcatraz to the Two Guys and a Seagull of Sausalito, there's never a dull moment, birdwise, in this town. They'll probably be talking about us yet, so if you ever happen to go through Sausalito and hear about the Two Guys and A Seagull, that's me and my Dad. Our place in history is assured.

We left Sausalito and headed north on Highway 1. [..] It was a beautiful day, with hardly a cloud in the sky, and from the tops of the Marin Headlands we could see the Farallons quite clearly. Highway 1 is not designed for fast transit - rather it is constructed on the edges of cliffs at the outermost extremes of the hills, just above the ocean. Sometimes you can look straight ahead and see the breakers hitting the land for miles further on, seemingly right in front of you. And sometimes the highway (Nicknamed the Big Dipper for the way it roller coasters up down and around the hills - okay, it's not, I just made that up, but it could have done) shoots inland, up a half-thousand feet to the top of the hills, and just as suddenly corkscrews down to sleepy little ocean towns. The farther out from San Francisco, the sleepier they get, until you reach Colinas, which is unconscious. After that, the residents of the towns become mostly fisher types and oysterers, and wake a little.

Actually, once you follow the highway as it dips in a little, you start seeing ranches and farms begin to multiply rapidly. These are not the vast farms of the Midwest, where a single SuperCombine can mow down 40,000 rows of corn in one cut, but are rather more reminiscent of the farms I remember from New England - twisty and malleably shaped, fitting into whichever nook or cranny the surrounding hillsides have left them. Them are more ranches than farms, and one sees quite a few horses. And one peacock - I swear! There it was, nibbling something by the fence at the side of the road, quite unconcerned with the traffic going by. It was male, but not displaying any plumage. Why was it there? Who knows. A rancher with a taste for exotic fauna? He probably raises alpacas and crosses them with platypus’, trying to breed the animal with the silliest name in the entire world. Why, the Duck-biped Playtypaca, of course.

The scenery going north is achingly lovely. Rolling hills (Can't rightly call them mountains,
but they are fairly tall) covered with tufts of trees within their folds, and elsewhere swathed with green grass (that later when the season dries out will turn the most beautiful golden color -Northern California is literally then covered in gold). I love the city, mind you, but after many months spent wholly in its confines (I don't count trips down the peninsula - that's not wilderness, just extended suburbs and cities in their own right) I could feel myself literally drinking everything in. It felt like I was mentally taking a deeper and deeper breath, never stopping, just continually drawing it all inside me. As the saying goes, I never knew how empty and so on. Suffice to say, it felt good.


1/20/18 New review at Twincitiesgeek.com
My review of William & Mary - The Way Out Experiment has gone up at <a href="http://twincitiesgee… [More]


My review of William & Mary - The Way Out Experiment has gone up at <a href="http://twincitiesgeek.com/2018/01/the-way-out-experiment-lives-up-to-its-name/" target-rev win>Twin Cities Geek.com<a>.


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