Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue
Easy Virtue

Jenny and I saw Easy Virtue at the State theatre in Grand Traverse, Michigan this weekend.  An enjoyable movie in an incredible theatre — that’s what the cinema’s all about.

Easy Virtue adapts a Noel Coward play for the big screen, following the adventures of Larita Whitaker as she meets her new husband’s very English family.  As with many such plays (I’ve seen Blythe Spirit and Hay Fever), there’s quite a bit of nasty carping and funny zings to accompany the well-heeled people acting viciously toward one another.  Some thoughts:

  • Biel plays the jaunty, full-of-life and no-time-for-nonsense Larita convincingly.  Colin Firth does an enjoyable turn as the war-damaged Jim, and Kristin Scott Thomas plays icy cold better than anybody.
  • Firth’s gloomy, damaged-by-life guy was much more enjoyable here than in Then She Found Me, which was much less pleasant to watch, overall.
  • My favorite moment in the film, which typifies its Englishness, was when Larita pulls off her driving cap to reveal her trampy bleach-blonde hair.  The gasps among the ladies of John’s family capture the feelings of the family perfectly.
  • I drooled over the two story, wraparound library filled with delicious old tomes.  And I roared at the hilarious kill-the-dog sequence.   I don’t think I ever imagined that I might find myself typing the phrase hilarious kill-the-dog sequence.
  • This film excels at making you hate its villains.  I wondered, though, whether Mrs. Whitaker finds any sympathetic members in the audience. While I can certainly see where she comes from, I found myself really disliking her, siding wholly with Larita.  But I’ve also discovered that sometimes the open-and-shut obviousness of some villains reveals more about my own sympathies than the realities of the film.

If you have an opportunity to visit the State Theatre in Grand Traverse, Michigan, do so.  The gorgeous old theatre is community owned and run, a non-profit theatre that shows indie and documentary films and is staffed mostly by volunteers.  There’s a joiux de cinema about the place that I’ve rarely felt before; one can’t help but smile under the simulated stars on the ceiling or listening to the organ player was one waits for the film to start.

2009-06-28 Tweets

  • Downloaded a few JoCo songs this month. The banjo on “Brand New Sucker” rocks. #

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Frozen

Frozen
Frozen

by Jay Bonansinga

When I picked up this book at my local history and mystery bookstore (the lovely Centuries and Sleuths, in Forest Park, IL), I mentioned to the proprietor that the author’s name seemed familiar. Augie confirmed that it would be, as Jay Bonansinga also wrote The Sinking of the Eastland, a pretty dramatic historical account of a steamship that rolled over while full of passengers and sitting at the dock in Chicago. Hundreds drowned and drama ensued.

Now Bonansinga turns his flair for dramatic storytelling to crime fiction, and he does it pretty well. Frozen follows Ulysses Grove, a brilliant FBI profiler working on, of course, his most desperate case thus far. But he’s also on the edge of burnout, and when his boss sends him on a working vacation to examine a mummified Neolithic murder victim, he’s stunned to find the key to the whole mystery frozen in the ice.

I’m going to put a bit of extra commentary below the fold, but I would urge you not to read past the spoiler alert if you plan to read the book. A few initial thoughts:

  • The biggest problem with this book stems from its main character, Ulysses Grove. He’s everything to every one, brilliant (if a bit brusque), dashingly handsome, a rising star, and so on. Of course, the only other option is to make a tragically flawed detective, which is an equally annoying prospect.
  • The murders walk the fine line between grody and dainty, with good aplomb. No Dante-Club nausea here.
  • The secondary character of Zorn puzzles me — at the beginning of the book, he’s in opposition to Grove, and seems like he’ll be a stab-you-in-the-back kind of schemer, but it’s as though Bonansinga decided, halfway through, to shift the guy’s nature. At the same time, Bonansinga invests a couple other secondary characters with a lot of development, only to leave them with nothing to do.
  • The pacing and mystery work well, though this falls much more clearly under the umbrella of “thriller,” as the killer is revealed about halfway through the book, and we’ve been tracking him all along. Serial killer books are rarely mysteries in the classic sense, since the drawing-room aspect of the case is missing.
  • Bonansinga uses a classic Dickensian move of revealing the import of the things being revealed. Stuff like “Analysts would later debate the ethics of Grove’s next actions, but no one could deny how important his findings would be.” It’s a cool move that I hope he continues in his other Grove stories.

Overall a solid read. If you don’t think you’re going to check it out, follow me beyond this spoiler alert.

Continue reading Frozen

I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I.

I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I
I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I

Post opening 1:
Independent filmmaking in the HD, Uber-FX era parallels programming for the Wii. When Nintendo was working on the Wii, they focused nearly all their development money on implementing its innovative control scheme, eschewing the next round of processor and graphics upgrades that Microsoft and Sony pursued in creating their current-gen consoles. As a result, Nintendo’s current crop of games excel in play control but lag behind on graphics. Thus, game designers are forced to come up with innovative design choices to keep players from getting too caught up on this issue. For example, the designers of Mad World created a cartoony, Frank Miller knockoff world in which everything looks like inked black and white comics, reserving color only for blood. As a result, the style takes care of the need for all the graphics kickassery a modern fighting game usually requires. I Was a Zombie for the FBI pulls the same slight of hand, dodging the need for special effects or complex cinematography by hewing closely to the style of 1950s crime thrillers, which use a more direct, less flashy mise-en-scene.

Post opening 2:
Netflix has a column on the queue page titled “Expected Availability.” Most of the titles in the queue are labeled “Now.” For example, of the 480 movies in my queue, seventeen are labeled “Short Wait” and one is labeled “Long wait.” Contrary to my instinct, short and long waits are much more common for niche movies than for the big blockbusters. I have never had to wait for a big screen, big money movie. By memory, I’ve only had to wait for two movies: Spaced (disc 1) and I, Zombie. I’ve also occasionally had to wait a bit longer as my movie was sent from some far away shipping center; such was the case with I Was a Zombie for the FBI. In retrospect, the wait has much more to do with the coolness of the title or the rarity of the actual disc than with anything like quality of the film.

Originally made in 1982 and punched up for the DVD with some intertitles and establishing shots, the film works pretty well if you enjoy genre thrillers and SF from the 1950s and 1960s. The dialog is corny without being stupid, and the pacing holds together (though the film got a bit slow for me toward the end). The plot generally focuses on a conspiracy by two mysterious human-looking aliens to turn everyone into mind-controlled zombies through a change in the Uni-Cola “Healthcola” formula. Embroiled in the story are two criminals, two FBI agents, and one plucky reporter who never actually gets to be plucky. A few more thoughts:

  • I thought the film had a strange mix of cinematic touches (it feels like it was shot on film) and modern low-budget effects. I read up on the film and learned about the recent re-edit. I’m glad to hear that the movie was trimmed, as the current version gets a bit long for my taste. I bet the original would try my patience.
  • Anyone looking for conventional zombie mayhem will be sorely disappointed. The zombies in this film are much more like the ones from I Walked with a Zombie — mostly harmless. There’s a monster (the glorious stop-motion ZBeast) and an evil Phantasm ball that shoots swirly lines of zombification rather than sharp spikes, but no cannibalistic ghouls.
  • Best dialog exchange, from memory so sorry if it’s not exact:

    Doctor: Have you ever heard of Zombies? Webster’s dictionary defines them as people without internal motivation who mindlessly follow commands from their masters.
    Agent: And what, this magic ball zaps them and… zombies them?
    Doctor: The term is zombifies. Or clinically, we would say they are in a zomboid state.

  • I loved the clueless way the agents drove around a whole town full of zombies for most of a day before they figured out something was wrong.
  • The criminals are the best part of this movie, gleefully killing and robbing, smirking the whole way.
  • My biggest disappointment with the film was the lack of infiltration the title implies. The title, of course, refers to an infamous series of columns and a film from the 1950s in which a fictional narrator tells the story of his time spent with the morally corrupt Communists infiltrating our country. Using the parallel title makes sense within the genre conventions the film relies upon, but it ultimately disappoints as the movie does not actually use the plot point implied in the title.

Overall, it’s a film worth seeing for fans of b-movies from the 1950s, but as a standalone movie, there are far better choices out there.

Mum’s the Word for Murder

Mum's the Word for Murder

Monster Nation and Monster Planet

Monster Nation
Monster Nation

by David Wellington

See also: my review of Monster Island

As with many final installments from trilogies, this book makes a lot more sense if you’ve read the first two. As an added caviat, reading it with the stories of the previous two books in mind makes it a lot better.

I discovered that I never posted a review of Monster Nation, so I’m going to craft one and post it based on my hazy memories.

Monster Nation

A prequel to his taut thriller Monster Island, Wellington goes back to the origin of the outbreak that plunged the world into a shambling, flesh-ripping nightmare. As with MI, Wellington tells the story through several different characters, linking it to the later novel through his mysterious magical zombies (the Scottish one being my favorite). The outbreak story has all the hallmarks of outbreak stories, with panicky civilians, bumbling bureaucrats trying to keep a lid on things, and lots of hungry zombies.

We also get a bit of an explanation, at the end of the book, for the zombie outbreak itself. Don’t plan on finding a resolution to the story here, though. For that you’ll have to wait for Monster Planet.

Monster Planet

In some ways, Monster Planet takes the most ambitious bite of Wellington’s three novels. It also veers furthest from the classic zombie archetypes that we saw at the beginning of the series. In this world, some 12 years after the outbreak began, there are a number of zombies who have kept their higher brain functions (usually through mechanical means like a crash cart) after crossing over, and these lichs usually have magical powers, such as the ability to control the other zombies, physical deformities, or even weirder stuff. As such, the process of becoming a zombie becomes a bit like being an X-Man.

Monster Planet
Monster Planet

We follow Sarah, the daughter of DeKalb (from Monster Island), and Ayaan, the soldier from the first novel, as they pursue the evil Tsarovich on his dastardly quest (whatever that is). Bits from the other novels weave together nicely as Wellington lets the threads of his fantastic horrorscape play out to the end. Because of the complicated mythos of this magical world, though, the horror of zombies qua zombies vanishes completely. While the first book might more aptly be called Zombie Island, this book definitely focuses on Monsters.

A few additional thoughts:

  • Once again, Wellington develops a couple solid storylines nicely, with good reveals and cliffhangers that drive the book forward.
  • More than some other books, I found it harder to remember the little threads of narrative that returned from the earlier books. Wellington provides fewer clues to remind the reader about what happened previously. Reviewing plot synopses of the previous books would be a wise move for readers who’ve gone months between books.
  • The cover has little or nothing to do with the book. Sigh.
  • Ayaan becomes an interesting character in the novel, as her allegiance slides back and forth from one pole to the other. The notion of a benevolent dictator gets some good traction here as a thought experiment.
  • Never has mold seemed scary in the way this book makes it seem. Mold and crab legs.


Night with the Angels at the Smithsonian: Demons and Sequels

Night with the Angels at the Smithsonian
Night with the Angels at the Smithsonian

People often complain that the summer moviescape sprouts unnecessary sequels, profit-centered epiphytes sprouting from the success of the original and relying on viewer nostalgia or starpower (or both) to bring people to the box office. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Angels and Demons are two such films.

The former extends a story that really needn’t have been extended (and, in true sequel fashion, returns the narrative to the point it started at by the end, with no major advancement or changes in the overall story) and the latter continues a franchise most everyone agrees needn’t be continued. At the same time, both films are moderately enjoyable (moreso if you have low expectations of them) without being all that special. They’re competently made by professionals, but without much heart to go along. This failure is especially sad considering that both films were written by pairs of writers I generally consider to be quite good.

The films each tell the story of an expert (Larry Daley, former guard of museums with a night life; Robert Langdon, expert in symbolism and pedagogery, sans mullet) called in to use his special skills to stop a pending catastrophe (world domination by a resurrected Egyptian; destruction of the Vatican by a resurrected secret society). Adventure, running, life and death perils ensue. Some additional thoughts:

  • Both films turn on historical knowledge. Knowing relevant history becomes the key to understanding the mystery being solved.
  • Watch for arcane objects with puzzles that need solving. Langdon has to solve an elaborate puzzle written across Rome; Daley solves a puzzle written on an ancient Egyptian tablet. Geniuses of old play a crucial role in both (Galileo and Einstein).
  • Sculptures play crucial roles in both plots. Daley talks to living versions of The Thinker (who turns out to be a Stallone-like bruiser) and Honest Abe (at the Lincoln Memorial), while Langdon talks with Galileo, Bernini and others through their statuary hidden around the city.
  • Both films eschew potential romance plots, though Angels and Demons completely disallows any love between Langdon and his Girl Friday while Museum toys with some Acker/Stiller smooching.
  • Aside from the leads, we encounter a bunch of folks you’ve seen before — A&D has supporting players Ewan MacGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, and a bunch of Old Dudes You’ll Recognize™ in the College of Cardinals (including Ron Howard’s dad, Vance). Night at the Museum bristles with under-used talent. Most neglected: Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible. Really, he gets about two lines.
  • Why does the coolest stuff always happen in the archives? Archivists will go crazy for these movies. It turns out the Vatican has a much more high tech archive than the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian, for its part, has a giant squid.
  • The biggest surprise was the Clint Howard cameo. Whereas one would expect CH to show up in Angels and Demons, as he does in, well, every Ron Howard film, he’s absent. (Perhaps RH gets only one nepotistic casting choice per film.) But Clint does reprise his role as the “Go, No Go” guy from Apollo 13 during the Air and Space Museum sequence in Battle of the Smithsonian.
  • Both films also have a crucial early sequence involving tricking security systems. One film involves murder, a dangerous explosive, and a de-skulled eyeball. The other involves some slight of hand and a card scanner. I’ll let you figure out which film is which. Both films also place crucial sequences aboard aircraft at the end of the film.
  • Finally, both films ask the leads to don uniforms as they proceed. Daley wears the Smithsonian guard uniform to sneak through the lower levels of that building. Langdon, on the other hand, dons a priest’s black shirt and jacket after he’s soaked in blood trying to save a terrorism victim.

As I wrote above, neither film amazes, but both are enjoyable. If you can see them in the $3 theatre, like we did, bully for you. If not, you’re probably okay renting them. I will say this: Angels and Demons was much better than The Da Vinci Code. But it could hardly avoid being so, as Robert Langdon’s last outing was really boring. Night at the Museum, on the other hand, felt like a pointless exercise in revenue gathering and didn’t come close to the magic or pleasure of the first film, failing mostly in that it aimed solely at replicating the adventure part of the film. And it had 100% less Dick Van Dyke dancing.

The King of California

King of California
King of California

Jenny got this amusing little indie film from Netflix and it was pretty delightful. The film tells the story of Charlie, a bipolar dreamer whose daughter has had to fend for herself since he went away to the mental hospital. Now he’s out and he’s on a quest to find a missionary’s lost cache of gold, with his daughter reluctantly in tow. A few thoughts:

  • Character development movies are particularly trying to understand when one of the characters is crazy. How much is intentional, and how much is about is craziness? And Michael Douglas plays this crazy to the hilt, with a full Don Quixote beard and some crazy eyes.
  • The Netflix description was pretty close, as opposed to other films that it has called wild or comedies that were neither. In this case, their only error was in describing his daughter as “delinquent,” when really she was amazingly responsible.
  • Hollywood has an amusing set of expectations when we meet the mad who are on quests — do we placate them or try to talk them out of it? And why are treasure hunts so satisfying?
  • The film weaves itself into the environment of Southern California brilliantly, with Charlie and Miranda following the trail of 17th century missionaries past Applebees and condo associations, all the way to a CostCo. The film’s clearly cricital of the consumer suburbiscape, but it’s also not dismissive of it. Change is change, not an awful decay.

At the heart of the film, though, are the questions I ask in the first bullet. What does one do with someone like Charlie, who’s clearly got mental issues, but also seems to have a semblance of rationality?

Don’t eat that bird

Death in the Pot
Death in the Pot

Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History
by Martin Satin

Satin’s book was moderately interesting, but written in a pretty dry way. I liked Poisons From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar better for its evocative storytelling style. That said, it was interesting to learn that the Roman lead poisoning epidemic was not due to lead water pipes, but possibly because of sapa, a sweetener used to make sour wine palatable. Vitners prepared sapa by boiling wine in lead-lined pots, causing the wine to create “lead acetate.” In other words, the wine got a whole bunch of lead in it. He also suggests that Typhoid Mary may not have been as malicious as the popular press made her out to be.

There’s also a strange tale about a Biblical story involving poisonous pigeons. Did you know that pigeons (or maybe pheasants?) can eat poisonous berries with impunity? But then when we eat them, WHAMMO.

True Blood, season 1

True Blood
True Blood

We got the first disc of True Blood via Netflix and my sister-in-law and her husband liked it so much they bought the series, so we all watched it together over the last few weeks. A few thoughts:

  • Alan Ball and his mise-en-scene folks craft the perfect atmosphere. It’s gritty, sweaty Louisiana. It’s not Anne Rice foppish. The show’s spaces do much of the work, but the brilliant opening sequence sets the tone every time. It says a lot for this montage that I gleefully watched it in every episode, despite my distaste for “time wasting” in my media viewing.
  • The show takes place in a world where a synthetic blood has been invented, so vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are fighting for equal rights. The background plays well, taking some of the exposition pressure of Sookie in this first-season fish-out-of-water plot. The parallels between the vampires and contemporary real-world gay rights struggles are intentional and amusing, but without getting too heavy handed.
  • Bill, Sookie, and Eric fit their roles perfectly. I’m just saying.
  • We’d read Dead Until Dark, and thus knew the general plot outline; we were pleased that they kept the spirit of the books without cleaving too closely to every detail. That said, knowing the plot actually reduced the drama of the series for me as some of the twists could have been really amazing had I not known about them ahead of time.
  • At the same time, the show wallows in sex. I wondered, at one point, whether Sookie’s brother Jason was contractually obligated to show his six pack and or butt in every episode. The show isn’t squeamish about blood either.
  • Jenny and I had a long discussion about the vampire death effect. In Buffy, vampires puff into dust when they’re staked. Joss Whedon conceded that this was both a practical matter and a content one — he didn’t want the show to feature a teenager inflicting regular bloody stabbings. By contrast, True Blood seems to want the death of a vampire to be significant and unpleasant. I won’t describe it too carefully, except to say that it’s darn messy (Really don’t watch that if you don’t want to see yucky yucky stuff. Also, it’s a *wee* spoiler).
  • I was pleased to see Stephen Root pop up in a small but excellent role as a schlubby vampire. He’s really a pretty remarkable actor, able to bring pathos to ludicrous sequences.
  • The other supporting players are all enjoyable as well. In particular, Lafeyette, the male-prostitute, drug-dealing, flamboyantly gay short order cook brings life to a few scenes that would be too dark to handle otherwise.

Definitely worth watching if you’re a vampire fan or horror fan, or even a fan of good television. Probably not so much if you’re squeamish.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z64wSWfoDQ8]

Coolest logo ever

In looking for an amusing example of a purchase students might “research” before making, I thought about using Helper Monkeys. It turns out, though, that these are for disabled folks, so the humor wasn’t as humorous as I’d hoped. I ended up writing about pool cleaning robots. But I did find the logo for Helping Hands, a nonprofit that trains and places helper monkeys with disabled folks. Check this out:

Blood on Biscayne Bay

Blood on Biscayne Bay 2

The Chuzz

Martin Chuzzlewit
Martin Chuzzlewit

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
by Charles Dickens; narrated by Debra Lynn for Librivox

I haven’t read a ton of Dickens in my day, but the humorous title and description of this book made it a good one to dive into. It was a long one, though. The audiobook was divided into 75 chapters of roughly 30 minutes each. With stopping to listen to my other podcasts occasionally, it took me something like 3 months to get through this book.

MC tells the story of two title characters, the cranky old man who comes to see the error of his cranky old ways, and the eponymous grandson who comes to see the error of his ways too. Throw in a conniving genteel architect, some scheming relatives, and a knave named Jonas, and you’ve got everything you need for a decent Dickensian saga. A few thoughts:

  • Dickens and his names. Some of the names in this book: Misters Pecksniff, Slime, and Pinch stand out. The characters speak in an overwrought way that must have made conversation achingly slow sometimes.
  • The book has numerous side plots that all weave into the main story by the end. No long-lost missing wealthy relatives show up in Tom Pinch’s life, though. (Pinch is the Cratchett of the story.)
  • At one point, young Martin and his friend Mark (who thinks there’s honor to be found in being cheerful under dire circumstances) take a trip to the United States, where nearly everyone they meet acts the boor and brags about the value of being American. I wonder if old Charlie took a grim trip to the U.S., or if his impressions were mostly created by tourists in England. Either way, not too flattering.
  • Dickens constructs a masterful heaping of schadenfreude on the villains of the book, and after all their skulduggery, we lap it up. The biggest burst balloon is, of course, the self-righteous and conniving Mr. Pecksniff, who brings all manner of trouble down on his house through his pious self-aggrandisement and cruelty to the characters we like. But he saves plenty for the other villains as well.
  • Debra Lynn does a solid job reading the book for Librivox. While not as evocative as some other readers (she doesn’t do voices, for example), her steady tone and clear pronunciation works just fine.

My favorite moment comes near the end of the novel, when honest, upright Tom Pinch has been cruelly abandoned to his fate and life looks grim. He laments to his sister that things don’t always work out like they do in books:

‘You think of me, Ruth,’ said Tom, ‘and it is very natural that you should, as if I were a character in a book; and you make it a sort of poetical justice that I should, by some impossible means or other, come, at last, to marry the person I love. But there is a much higher justice than poetical justice, my dear, and it does not order events upon the same principle. Accordingly, people who read about heroes in books, and choose to make heroes of themselves out of books, consider it a very fine thing to be discontented and gloomy, and misanthropical, and perhaps a little blasphemous, because they cannot have everything ordered for their individual accommodation. Would you like me to become one of that sort of people?’

Of course, things work out mostly in Tom’s favor. But he doesn’t get the girl.

Fanboys

Fanboys
Fanboys

Jenny and I watched this movie last week, but with all the undead excitement, I’m just now getting around to posting about it. Fanboys amuses. Some thoughts:

  • This film excels at the little jokes. The van that has to be punched (and makes a rhythmic winding up sound) to make it start. The nerd who finds his force commands working only to learn that he’s with a hooker. The Trekkies. There are a number of small touches that succeed very well.
  • The film’s cast is surprisingly wide. The main characters are mostly people you’ve seen elsewhere (at least in trailers). Then there are the cameos and guest stars. Shooter McGavin, Lando Calrisian, Captain Kirk, Princess Leia, Darth Maul, and Jay & Silent Bob each have small roles, and Seth Rogan plays two different funny villains, Danny Trejo appears as a tripped out van repairman, and even Harry Knowles stops by. We also see Roy and Darryl from The Office. No Beasley sighting, though.
  • The plot takes your standard road movie template and maps it onto the nerd universe. It’s a forumla that works just fine.

I feel like I should have more to say, but there really isn’t much more to say. It’s a cute movie, but it won’t make any top-ten lists.

2009-06-14 Tweets

  • damn you, scienceblogs and your amazing panoply of writers! #

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