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Valkyrie [Mar. 4th, 2015|12:35 pm]
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Valkyrie (2008), directed by Bryan Singer, written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander

I figured I might like this better than its indifferent reviews suggested, given my unbroken record of liking movies in which Tom Cruise gets maimed, and indeed I did— more or less. It's very well crafted, and does a good job of telling a story that, while it is a hell of a story (details here), requires a fair amount of exposition all the way through. The cast is great, though most of them don't have a whole lot to do, as the characters are sketched in just enough that you understand they all have somewhat different reasons for doing what they're doing and are all pretty much up to the task. Cruise is the center of the movie, and we still don't know all that much about his character, but that worked OK for me because his performance is so focused and so anchored in his injuries; he plays von Stauffenberg as basically a walking dead man, so his few moments of emotion are startling. He's convinced himself that willpower is everything; the movie shows that it's not, as he's undone by dumb luck (and, possibly, by the physical limitations that he avoids acknowledging: the staging of one scene suggests that Hitler would've been killed as planned if von Stauffenberg hadn't wasted time trying to deal with his bomb materials one-handed).

Although you know from the start that the plot against Hitler will fail, Singer's directing makes it feel immediate and plausible— it's a really good plan, and with the large supporting cast it feels like half of everyone in the government is in on it— and it's exhilarating when things seem to be going as intended in Berlin even though you're seeing omens of failure elsewhere at the same time; losing has rarely seemed so involving. Singer keeps finding ways to make scenes of waiting and communication visually compelling (as in a striking moment where a room full of women at teletypes, whose only job is to raise a hand if they see something important on the printout, begin to all raise their hands one at a time and freeze into expressions of fear and grief). And yet, as all of those indifferent reviews said, it all feels incomplete somehow. It's two hours long, but I think even a little more time could've made it a better movie— more breathing room for the characters, more indication that there is a world outside of all these military buildings. Also, although I generally don't care about inconsistent accents, in this case I think Cruise being virtually the only one who didn't sound British was indeed a little distracting... though I might've liked it if the only other American-sounding character had been Hitler, who is a minor but physically interesting presence in this, but sadly sounds like a generic movie-German when he opens his mouth.

ps. I was interested to learn that Germany had very mixed feelings about the movie: the government was all in favor of telling this story (since it depicts patriotic anti-Hitler action by Germans, even though most of the conspirators were still basically Nazis), and gave the filmmakers special access to historic sites for it, but Tom Cruise's presence was nearly a deal-breaker because they regard Scientology as only slightly better than Al Qaeda.
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Vanishing on 7th Street [Oct. 17th, 2014|12:17 am]
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Vanishing on 7th Street (2010), directed by Brad Anderson, written by Anthony Jaswinski

Vanishing on 7th Street was not a successful horror movie by most people's standards, and it's easy to see why: there's very little plot and virtually no humor, the dialogue is often pretty bad, the characters are unmemorable to an unusual degree, and the force they're fighting against is barely visible and has no identity. I don't think those are entirely weaknesses, but they also don't have much to do with why this movie scares me.
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20,000 Days on Earth [Oct. 7th, 2014|09:35 am]
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20,000 Days on Earth (2014), directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

This is a documentary about Nick Cave (and some of the Bad Seeds) which I liked a whole lot, and I recommend it even if you have no interest in his music.

I like Cave but I'm not exactly a fan— I probably would've gone crazy for him in high school, except that my sister got there first and played his records so much that I got sick of them, so then I ignored him for a long time and, even when enjoying some of his stuff later, always kind of felt like he reminded me too much of my own extravagantly depressive youth. So I appreciated that the movie is partly about the tension between "mature artist with lots of interesting history" and "absurdly Byronic overgrown adolescent," and not only shows Cave being both, but takes both fairly seriously, making a good case that it's totally appropriate to take the power of a teenage mood swing (aged for decades in a cask of heroin) and translate it into a carefully crafted piece of music made by a bunch of middle-aged guys calmly sitting on chairs 20 feet apart in a studio.
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Brazil [Sep. 23rd, 2014|10:41 am]
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This rambly appreciation was written for an odd kind of blog-within-a-blog project, where frequent commenters on The Dissolve started doing a series of Criterion Collection reviews within the comments of unrelated news items. I'm reposting it here because it's almost impossible to link to posts in that format, but it was originally somewhere here.

BRAZIL (1985)

As you may have heard, there are a few parallels between Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 1984: people get arrested and tortured, living conditions are generally lousy, and (despite Gilliam’s stated intention to set the film in a mash-up of the entire 20th century) the cultural trappings are largely based on the 1940s. And they’re both horror stories, but the similarity ends there. Whereas Orwell’s horror comes from taking totalitarianism seriously and imagining that fascists really could control every aspect of life forever, Brazil proposes that this is impossible because fascists are people and people are hopelessly confused— a comic approach that doesn’t make the horror any less. Now you’re being brutalized not for the sake of an all-consuming ideology, but just because there are thousands of other souls all trying to cover their asses in conflicting ways and they don’t care about you. Say what you will about a boot stamping on a human face forever, at least it’s an ethos!
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shuffling over to the other room [Nov. 4th, 2012|11:10 am]
I haven't posted on here in forever... I'm vaguely considering writing stuff again, but I got kind of disenchanted with LJ so I'm starting an account on Dreamwidth, mostly because some people I know are there. So that's where to find me now if you want.
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book: The Dune Encyclopedia [Oct. 6th, 2010|04:48 pm]
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The Dune Encyclopedia
ed. Hani Benotto [Willis E. McNelly et al.], ca. 26616 [1984]
illustrated by Matt Howarth et al.

This is the greatest fan project ever. Until recently you would've had to scrounge it from a pile of old paperbacks, but someone has kindly put the whole thing online(*). If you like Frank Herbert more than a little bit, read it. It's not the kind of thing to read straight through; just start somewhere and wander around.

I can't imagine a better fit of form and subject. Dune was a not-actually-all-that-complicated fantasy-adventure story made unique by tons of atmosphere and a million little sketch lines of allusive background, giving the illusion that Herbert had actually written 20,000 years of future history. The Dune Encyclopedia turns this around and fills so much of the backstory that the plot of Dune almost disappears (or, in some cases, is contradicted: the encyclopedia is supposed to have been written thousands of years later, and they can't agree on what happened), and adds even more tons of atmosphere with a perfect imitation of Herbert's faux-scholarly epigrams. Some of it is just geeky world-polishing, and some of it is really narrative fiction in a different form (and some of it is both: the story of I.V. Holtzmann is a pretty good story, and the article on the Holtzmann Effect is such good fake science that I'm desperate for those things to be invented in just that way). There are several dozen contributors, and the fictional authors of the encyclopedia articles have unique voices too.

Besides being pretty faithful in its prose style, the encyclopedia also preserves a good sense of the feeling of Herbert's universe, which I would describe as textured, dry, savory, and kind of unpleasant. Nothing's shiny, not even in the so-grungy-it's-shiny mode. You wouldn't want to live there, but you'd really love to visit.

There's much too much of everything, and that's as it should be. Something I love about Dune is that as much as it plays up the Muad'Dib story as the biggest thing that's ever happened, it still (especially in the second and third books, which I like a lot more than most people do) acknowledges that none of these people really have any ultimate perspective, even if they live 3500 years; and that even though the people matter a lot to each other, eventually all their dreams and schemes will be misremembered, embellished or buried in trivia.

(* It looks like the online version was scanned and then run through OCR with no editing, so it has some amusing typos of the kind you get with OCR. My favorites are in the entry on "House of Harkonnen": one guy was "murdered by his wife... when be left her for one of his male stoves", and another was "kilted by gladiators".)


eta: The link above also led me to a good monograph about Herbert from 1981, by Tim O'Reilly (yes, the same one who does the programming books). It's a little hagiographic, but the biographical & literary background is really cool. My favorite bits: 1. the names of people & things in The Santaroga Barrier (an underrated & truly scary novel about northern California, in which the vehicle for expanded consciousness is cheese) are references to German philosophy; 2. Herbert based the Mentats on his grandma, who was a mathematical savant.
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book: The Paper Grail [Sep. 10th, 2010|11:43 am]
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The Paper Grail
James Blaylock, 1991

This book has a lot in common with Blaylock's All the Bells on Earth, which is to say that they're both basically things Charles Williams might have written if he'd lived 50 years later in California and if he'd been a bit more cheerful. There's the same sense that cosmic magical systems are just ambling along like a friendly game of cards that people keep taking breaks from; that everyone's flawed, but that the bad guys' flaws are pettier and ickier; and that everyone, including most of the bad guys, will probably be okay.

Unlike All the Bells, this one is set on the coast of northern California, and there's a great sense of the landscape and the combined hippie/redneck culture (art cars play a major role). There's not much to most of the characters (especially the hero) and Blaylock tends to pile on chaos in the denouement, but there's always some great piece of dialogue or physical detail to keep it grounded.
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SF Zine Fest & reading this weekend! [Aug. 31st, 2010|01:38 pm]
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Reminder: this Friday evening is this very cool (I hope) reading/slideshow featuring eight cartoonists (including me), and then Saturday & Sunday is SF Zine Fest where I can be found at the Global Hobo table. Excelsior.
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Oakland: Vanessa Davis/Avi Spivak art show this Thursday [Aug. 24th, 2010|03:24 pm]
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I probably can't make it to this but YOU SHOULD.



Down At Lulu's
6603 Telegraph Ave, Oakland
Thursday, August 26
7 - 9 pm

Avi Spivak's website
Vanessa Davis's website
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the barking dog [Aug. 23rd, 2010|11:30 pm]
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I get myself ready to bark at this other dog, and then with my biggest breath I start really giving it my all. ROWF!!! ARF!!! My ears point toward my mouth, so when I bark, it's the loudest thing I've ever heard and it's the loudest thing there ever could be. RROOWF AARF RROOWF!!!! The barking explodes forward through me like it's coming from my whole body. It drives away every other sound. It wipes out the creepy little noise that the other dog is always making with his tags that drives me crazy. RRROOOWF!!!!! If and when he barks, I'll barely be able to hear him at all. He can't win.
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