Thursday, March 31, 2005

A Disgusting Display

I have mentioned the French predilection for Public Displays of Affection (or PDAs as we called them in Junior High) before. There is, of course, the bissous, or cheek kiss given to friends as a greeting. But, the French seem to great admirers of showing their affections for each other without the slightest thought given to who else may be within eyesight. Often, there are lovers holding each other close, or even locked in an embrace on the street, in restraints, bus stops, and even while riding on the tram. It has always bewildered me to see a couple locked in heavy embraces while riding the tram. The trams are generally crowded, are usually musty and cramped, and the stop and go motions create difficulties even maintaining your balance, must less a complicated lip lock. The other day I say the most gruesome PDA I have ever witnessed.

It was around 11 pm and Amy and I were returning from watching a movie at Pamela’s. We entered a relatively full tram for the return home. The tram was full enough that we were unable to find a seat, and had to stand against a wall. Standing near the sliding door was a couple still within their teen years. She was clad in the usual assortment of tight, acid washed, blue jeans and form fitting blouse. He was fitted in a white t-shirt, light jacket and blue basketball shorts so popular amongst his type in the US. They were a happy couple who felt it necessary to make the most obnoxious kissing noises. He had to bend downwards, because his height was a good foot above her own stature. Repeatedly he did so, making a game of it. Flamboyantly, he would grab the young girl by her shoulders, lean down and proceed with the loud SMACK! Then release, only to start all over again in a moment.

This game was interrupted by tram stops. They were very near the doorway and so had to unlock their embrace to allow other on and off. This was but a temporary lull in their love making. For as soon as the tram started again, he was leaning back down to make the noises. Soon, he was not the only one to blame for this sickening display. For, she started to grab ahold of the young man, and pull him downwards. It wasn’t long before the quick smack of the lips became a longer, more sensual open mouth embrace, but always punctuated by an ending SMACK! This went on for several more stops. The couple locked in a long, putrid embrace. Then would have to stop and sheepishly move out of the way of the entrance only to move back to the lip smacking as soon as the tram got underway.

It was difficult not to stare openly. Looking about me, I could see all the other passengers doing their best to nonchalantly NOT look at the couple. My poor wife, red faced, was staring out the window. A tram ride is a rather boring thing, and the sight of a peep show in front of me was too much not too look at.

Soon, even long, lingering kisses were not enough. The boy began stooping down to the girls level so that he could bring her body close to his. Pelvis’ began to girate and grind. Now they were making good use of the swaying of the tram as it sped up and slowed down to a stop. The stop before we were to get out, I caught the ladies hand being lowered to places a hand should never be while standing in a tram. Luckily a stop was made before that could go very far. Passengers left and the couple took a seat in another car. At the next stop Amy and I left the tram, as I glanced back into the car I saw the couple deeply locked into an embrace as the tram sped away.

I will never understand the enticements of a dirty, crowded tramway.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Omagh Review

On August 15, 1998, a car bomb exploded in Omagh, Northern Ireland killing 29 people and injuring some 220 others. It was the single worst incident in Northern Ireland in over 30 years. In 2004 director Pete Travis filmed a movie about the atrocity and the subsequent investigation. It is a relentless, brutal film that never allows the viewer an emotional sigh of fresh air. What strikes me most about the film, now, is not the quality of the film, which is quite good actually, but that I had never before heard of this event.

Admittedly, I am not the most knowledgeable lad when it comes to current events. When I had a television I would catch one of the morning news shows, and maybe a few minutes of CNN or Fox News just before bed. While in the car I tune into NPR, I receive e-mails from the Washington Post and generally spend a few moments checking the various news websites. I’m not obsessive about the news, I try to stay mildly informed, but I certainly don’t spend every waking moment turning my thoughts to the state of the world. Yet, here is huge terrorist attack, followed by a scandalous investigation with a potential cover up behind it, and I’ve never heard a word about it.

I am sure the news channels mentioned something about it shortly after the bombing. It was probably a short little blurb with a death count. It’s got all the elements they love: terrorists, explosions, murder, and scandal. But, it didn’t happen in America, and European drama doesn’t have the ratings pull as say something stateside, say Michael Jackson’s latest shenanigans. Especially when these events happened on some obscure country like Northern Ireland. Who knew the North of Ireland was a separate country anyway?

In the US we have cable networks that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. There is CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, not to mention specialty networks like CourtTV, and of course non news specific networks that still employ daily news shows. Yet with all of these outlets, American audiences are still inundated with the same stories over and over again. It is a big world, with a lot of important events happening, but instead of covering these events, they rehash the current scandal of the week, and trial of the century. How did Bill Clinton’s hummer overshadow the murder of 29 people? How did Mark McGuire’s record breaking homerun sprint become more important than terrorist activity? Certainly the network news shows give us what we want. Had we received a 3 hour special report on the Omagh bombing I’m sure many of us would have clicked over to Seinfeld reruns. In the end, I’m not scholar enough, nor have the time, to lay out why virtually no one I know has heard of Omagh before. This is a movie review after all. Yet, as I think about the film I can’t help but feel the sting of guilt. When I hear the chattering other others complaining that Americans are full of ego, and don’t have the slightest idea about the world, I must hold my head low, and sigh.

The film itself is shot like a documentary, Dogme95 style. It uses hand held cameras, utilizes only natural lighting and there is nary a digital effect to be seen. For 106 minutes it never lets go of its punishing, merciless hold on your emotions. There is no comic relief, no juncture in which to catch your breath and get away from it all. The film brings you in close, lets you feel the tension, suffocate in the terror. It doesn’t want you to enjoy what you see. This is not a film that allows the audience to distance themselves from the actions on the screen, nor their very lives. It is a film that cries out, carrying the voices of all humanity that suffers, that feel injustice.

Though it takes a few moments to adjust to its visual style, the hand held camera work becomes an effective means to bring the audience right into the emotional impact of the film. It looses a little steam in the second half when the main character, Michael Gallagher (Gerard McSorley), a father of one of the victims, begins to lose his way in bringing the terrorist to justice. However, though some headway is lost, the film continues to pack a hard emotional punch.

I am glad that films like Omagh are being made. Though it is a film that will never see a theatre screen in America, it may find its way onto a shelf in the local movie rental house. It is here, that countless Americans may go looking for something a little different, something that they haven’t seen. And it is here that they might learn a little about the world around them.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Three Lives and Only One Death Review

Chilean director Raul Ruiz created a weird, wild, fantastic world with Three Lives and Only One Death. Marcello Mastroianni plays four different characters in as many different stories that at first seem completely separate, but by the films end are wholly intertwined. It is beautifully, almost mystically shot, effectively using shadows, light, and computer imagery to create painted like imagery. It is a bit confusing, but wholly satisfying film.

In the first story Mastroianni plays a salesman who walked out on his wife (Marisa Paredes) twenty years ago. The wife has since found another husband (Feodor Atkine) and is living a seemingly happy life. For reasons left unexplained Mastroianni suddenly decides he wants his old life back. He catches the new husband, at a Tabac and offers to pay him 1,000 francs for a hour of his time. What proceeds is an imaginative, fantastic tale of why Mastroianni has been gone for twenty years. It is far to complicated to explain here, but lets say it involves a room with moving walls and tiny fairies who prefer to eat franc bills, but will settle for newspaper. The end of the story finds Mastroianni wanting to leave the second husband in the fantastic room, while he moves back in with his wife.

In the second story Mastroianni plays a successful professor who, for reasons that are all his own, become a beggar, and a rather successful one at that. He befriends a prostitute (Anna Galiena), who he later finds out isn’t all she pretends to be, and whose husband (Jacques Pieiller)is something of a psychopath.

In the third story a young couple (Chiara Mastroianni and Melvil Poupaud) find themselves being mysteriously supported by an unnamed friend. After months of finding 1,000 francs in their mail box each week, they learn this mysterious stranger has died and left them his mansion. The catch is they must keep on a peculiar butler (Mastroianni of course) or lose everything.

The fourth story is really a means to tie all three stories together, and yes, it is weird. There is a lot going on throughout the film. It is visually stunning, complex in story, and a delight throughout. It is the type of film that really deserves a second, and third viewing to allow thoughtful absorption of the many details. In what was his second to last film before his death, Mastroianni does a masterful job playing these varied, and interesting characters.

It is a film not meant for everyone. The story is a weird and complex as anything put out by David Lynch. But for the lover of cinema, there is much to appease the appetite. It is a beautiful, layered, surreal film that is a true pleasure to watch.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Austin Powers Review

It’s hard to believe it has been 8 years since Austin Powers was unleashed on the world. A couple of sequels and far too many “Yeah Babys” later, and seemingly we’ve all had enough. I sat down and watched International Man of Mystery for the first time in year, a few nights ago. What I found is a pretty solid comedy, which still manages to hold up, even after being parodied to death.

The jokes are no longer wet yourself funny. They are more oh-I-remember-when-this-was-hilarious cute. I did laugh out loud on a few occasions, but mostly I felt a kind sense of nostalgia, for jokes that were nostalgic in themselves. The scenes I remember most, still hold up rather well. The dancing credit sequence and the bits where we almost see nudity are beautifully done. Classics of cinema really.

Mike Myer’s created a very lovely character in Austin Powers. He is truly charming, funny and a great send up of all the classic spy characters. Jay Roach does a very nice job of bringing the manic energy of Myers creation to the screen, while maintaining the feel of all the 60’s spy films.

Elizabeth Hurley proves once again that she has pretty face, looks great in a short, tight, silver skirt, but whose acting skills are less than desirable. Her character’s straight (wo)man to Power’s swinger is the weakest aspect of the film. She is way too boring playing it as a 1990’s gal trying to make it as an Agent on her abilities alone. Yet, her transition into a groovy chic is unbelievable and rather insipid. Though again, she is obviously just meant to be eye candy and on that level she fits the bill.

While watching, I kept forgetting which bits were in this one, and which ones actually belong in the sequels. Here there is no Mini-Me, no Heather Graham, and no references to genitalia when referring to a rocket. Too bad, too, because those are great sources of humor and I don’t have the strength to watch any of the sequels just yet.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a great film to throw in while having a party. There is no need to see and hear everything clearly. There is nothing, really to analyze. It works well as background filler to supply some hearty laughs when there is a lull in the conversations.

Joyeuse Paques (Happy Easter)

Our Easter was a pleasant one. It was a little bit chilly and it did a good bit of raining, but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits. We went to church in the afternoon. On our walk there is when we got the bit of rain, so we entered rather soaked. Service was a little odd since Daniel, who normally preaches, was away in Switzerland. But Alex did a fine job, and even translated himself into English.

Around Tuesday, Amy bought a full chicken to fix for Easter supper. Unfortunately, when we brought it out to cook our nostrils were filled with a rather unpleasant odor. The chicken had gone bad. I reheated some birthday pizza and Amy went out for a kebap.

In the evening we were invited to go see Omagh by Flor. It is a relentless, brutal film about the Real IRA bombing a few years back. I’ll be posting a full review later, but would definitely recommend it to everyone.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Bon Anniversaire

Yesterday was a good day. The sun continued to shine, though it was a bit cooler than it has been the last few days. Amy and I took a walk to the park. The flowers are in full bloom now. Beautiful. We laid around and relaxed the remainder of the afternoon. In the evening a few friends came over and we had pizza and watched a movie. I turned 29.

It was also Good Friday and the French celebrate the death of Jesus by closing pretty much everything. Today the stores reopened and we went shopping at the Virgin Megastore. Amy got to buy a few things for herself since it is her half birthday. Normally we don't celebrate this occasion with gifts, but I figure since she really didn't get anything for her real birthday last year, we should celebrate with presents at this point. Her birthday last, we had just arrived in Strasbourg and didn't really know where anything was, nor did we know when we would be receiving any more money.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Variuos Ramblings about U2

In high school I drove a 1986 Plymouth Reliant. It was a hand-me-downs hand-me-down. From my mother to my brother to me, it had seen more than a few hard miles. But, it was my first car, and for what it was worth I loved it, except when the fan belt made that horrible squealing noise as I was pulling out of school. I had a new tape deck that literally hung in the dash. My father, never willing to spend more than he had to on car repair, decided to install the stereo himself. The new one was a bit smaller than the old one so it left a good half inch space around the new stereo. I wedged some card board underneath it to keep it from taking to many bangs and was good to go.

In those days I had a habit of listening to one cassette over and over again. One month I listened to Paul Westerburg’s 13 Songs non stop. I had the Doors soundtrack completely memorized, beat for beat, Morrison wail for Morrison wail. There was a several week period that I listened to U2’s 4 song EP Wide Awake in America and nothing else. Since it is so short it contained the same music on side B as side A. I didn’t care, I loved every moment of it. It was also just long enough to listen to the entire EP in one drive to school.

During this same period I began driving one of my sister’s friends, Amy, to school with us. She was a pleasant girl, and lived close enough by me that I didn’t mind picking her up. Two or three weeks went by like this: driving Amy to and from school, me listening to the same four songs over and over again. One afternoon we loaded into the car after school ready to head home. At that very moment I decided I was tired of listening to U2 and ejected the tape after half a verse of Bad.

“That was a tape?” Amy asked.

“Of course it’s a tape. We’ve been listening to it repeatedly for the last several weeks.” I replied.

“Well, I thought the radio was playing that song a lot.”

“Yeah, and playing it at the exact same moment in the afternoon that we left off in the morning. That’s nice of the radio station to do that for us,” I joked.

I think she was a little more than embarrassed.

------------

That particular song, Bad, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s got a cool, elevating jam in it on the live version. It sparkles like the stars in the sky. Truth be told, it is the main reason I listened to the EP over and over again. It’s got some great, mysterious lyrics. Anathematic is the word.

There’s a great story about the band playing some awards show way back when, and Bono spends their entire slotted time trying to get a fan on stage with him. The band keeps playing the riffs, security keeps trying to stop the fan from climbing the stairs. And there is Bono, world savior, persuading the fan to come up with him. Meanwhile everyone else is begging him to come back and sing the song. Minutes roll by, the band’s time slot is almost up, and they haven’t even finished this one song yet. Something like 8 minutes roll by, their entire time slot, and Bono is still trying to get this one fan on stage. Finally security let’s up and the girl runs onto the stage, into Bono’s arms. There he is, one of the biggest rock stars around and he’s hugging a fan. Bam! Superstardom forever.

The song doesn’t have a proper chorus. There is a repeated refrain, but it’s lyrics are obscure. I listened to that song a hundred times and I could never figure out what he was saying.

I’m Wide Awake
I’m Wide Awake


But after that, it was just a mumble. I was sure it was a powerful, amazing lyric, but I could never penetrate its meaning.

One day, months after keeping the tape in my deck for weeks on end, I threw the tape back in my player. Cruising the Oklahoma back roads I cranked it up.

If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would
Let it go


Bono sang. The Edge jangling his guitar, the music crescendo’s higher and higher.

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I'd lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day

To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so fade away


I’m loving it. It’s a perfect summer day. My windows are down, left arm soaring out the window. The road is untrafficked by other drivers, unwatched by the cops. There are a series of hills we used to call “the Rollercoaster” because they dipped and rose like the amusement park ride. I used to take them real fast and try to get some air between the road and my tires. Life was good.

I'm wide awake
I'm wide awake


And then it hit me. Out of the clear, blue sky I suddenly knew what he was singing. It made perfect sense, fit perfectly with the previous couplet. There it is again, this time I can’t help but understand. How could I have not heard those lyrics before? A smile crept to my lips as I sang along:

I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Life Aquatic Review

Wes Anderson pictures are always an event. His first three pictures (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and the Royal Tenenbaums) have all been brilliant bits of quirky genius. I have waited not so patiently for his fourth picture, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to make it to France. Though, I tried to read little in the way of reviews, I couldn’t help but notice quite a bit of negativity being garnered its way. After viewing the film, I too, couldn’t help but feel a little let down, but this has more to say about my expectations of a Wes Anderson picture, than the actual picture itself.

Bill Murray proves once again that he is a better actor post 50, than anyone could have imagined. He plays Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-esque oceanographer who has seen better days. He has spent the last decade scrounging harder and harder to find the funding for his voyages and the subsequent documentaries from them. It seems the critics have been harsher as his fans have become increasingly few. The film opens with Zissou showing his latest documentary to a bored audience. He is attempting to find funding for a second voyage, one that will allow him to exact revenge upon the jaguar shark that killed his friend. He finds the money through Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may be Zissou’s son, but no one is really quite sure.

Zissou and his might-be son, are accompanied by a rag tag crew and a reporter, Jane Winslet-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who forms some kind of love triangle with Zissou and Plimpton. Aboard the rusty, ancient Belefante all hands set out to find the mythical shark. Though before they find the beast they encounter many adventures such as found in any road trip film.

Anderson fills his film once again with plenty of quirky, odd ball characters. This time he seems to have filled the action as a means to play homage to various movies and television shows from the 70’s and 80’s. There is an action sequence towards the middle that is straight out of a Charlie’s Angels or A-Team episode. The much discussed animated fish seem to be copied from the Incredible Mr. Limpett. Many of the camera movements, including extensive use of close up zoom on a single character only to zoom out and zoom out again to find the character surrounded by others, seem to be out of some classic television directors guide book. Before I realized Anderson was mimicking that style I was annoyed with the whole thing. Once I caught on I found a few of these moments to be brilliant put-ons, but often I felt like I was watching the last 15 minutes of Adaptation. Where yes I get the joke, and yes I find it funny, but it got tiresome rather quickly.

One of the joys of The Royal Tenenbaums is that each character is fleshed out to some degree. It is a large ensemble picture, but even the smaller roles have moments in which to give them some dimension, to make them real. The Life Aquatic similarly has a large cast, but all but the major characters are never given a chance to become three dimensional. Why, for instance, does the navigator spend most of the film topless? If this is to present that she is a free spirit, why does she argue with Zissou over sailing over unprotected waters? Or why is she so upset with him for stealing the equipment? Her character is given no reasoning behind her behavior, and her actions only force the plot along without any purpose. She is not the only character like this. Either Anderson is again mimicking the plotless plot-lines of classic television, or he has done a poor job of filling in the details of his characters.

There are many things that work in the Life Aquatic. Bill Murray proves again he is more than just a funny, funny man. The characters that are filled out, are aptly acted. Though just what is the deal with Cate Blanchett’s accent? She sounded like she was still hanging onto a bit of Katherine Hepburn. Anderson has again made a fun, funny, quirk of a movie. Yet, when compared to the rest of his output, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Here’s to his next film, and hoping his brilliance continues to shine for a little while longer.

Dashiell Hammett's Nightmare Town Review

In 1999 fans of hard boiled detective stories got a fresh treat, from writings at least 70 years old. That was the year a collection of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories were combined and released in Nightmare Town. Many of the stories had been unavailable in decades, and several had not been released since the date of their first publication in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. It is a mostly hodgepodge collection filled with some real classics and some failed duds. It’s more of a rarities boxed set than a greatest hits package. But for fans of Hammett it is a real gem.

The stories run the gamut of Hammett’s writing. There is a small collection of Continental Op stories, Hammett’s nameless tougher guy private detective seen in his first two novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. We get a couple of short sequels of the Maltese Falcon starring Sam Spade. There’s plenty of murders, bad guys, and even an early draft of The Thin Man, minus any appearance of Nick and Nora Charles.

Many of the stories suffer from what is a shorter length than his novels. It is a difficult feat to devise a tense, terse plot, find a crime, create interesting characters and solve the mystery within 20 odd pages. On several occasions Hammett misses. He takes short cuts with the plots, or explains away the mystery without giving sufficient evidence within the preceding pages.

My favorite Hammett character, the Continental Op, makes several appearances. He is a quiet, tough, private detective who works by his own set of morals. Some of his stories work like gold, while others seem rushed, or as if Hammett was still working out his craft. Too often the Op repeats the details of the case to himself (and the reader) and wonders who too trust, what to believe. It is an unbelievable detail, and one that thankfully Hammett gave up as a writer.

There are a few real gems in the collection Ruffians Wife, His Brothers Keeper, and the Thin Man among them. Ruffians Wife is the story of a tough guy’s wife who spends her days romanticizing her husbands work. When that work is brought home and the violence made real her, instincts change and she sees just how awful those things are. It is written in a sparse, bleak style, giving every gritty detail the right color to feel reality rushing in. His Brother’s Keeper is minus the murders and plus on wayward kids trying to get their one shot at being a contender. The Thin Man has nothing to do with the novel of the same name but may be the best story of the bunch. It is a breezy tale about an insurance man more in love with poetry than trying to find a swindler. There actually is a bit of Nick Charles in him in that he is light hearted and bent more on romanticism than fighting crime. The detectives seem to follow him around and kid him more than try to do their own jobs. The story unfolds in a light easy flow.

The real thrill of Nightmare Town is an unfinished early draft of The Thin Man. While some of the plot details are similar this is a completely different novel in terms of tone. Nowhere are the cocktail drinking, wise cracking Nick and Nora Charles. Instead we get the silent, tougher than nails detective John Guild. He is sent to investigate a bad check and winds up for a long twisted ride helping a young District Attorney on his first murder case. This is only the first ten chapters, but it leaves me wishing for more. A wish I’ll never get granted. Much the same can be said about all of Hammett’s writing.

Nightmare Town is probably not the best place for a Hammett newbie to begin. Any of his full length novels would serve a better starting place. But for those of us who have read ever other published word he has written, this is a great way to see some of his early work and unfinished texts. A welcome addition to your mystery bookshelf.

About the Weather

You guys asked for boring daily details, and that's what you are going to get.

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I was busy writing a Jane Eyre review, and couldn't get it quite right. So, I wrote a couple of movie reviews and put of Ms Eyre for a bit.

I'm afraid it has been rather boring around here. It has been absolutely gorgeous. I've been taking long walks almost everyday and getting some very nice photographs. Please check out my webshots page for those.

We've been planning my birthday party. It's Friday, don't ya know? We decided to have some university friends over, and celebrate with the AIMers at church on Sunday. Nothing too exciting, but you do what you can on a limited budget.

Filed my taxes today. Getting a very nice refund. Very excited about that. It will help us afford what looks like a very expensive ride home.

See, this is boring, boring stuff.

Finding Neverland Review

Peter Pan, is of course, the immensely popular story of a boy who wouldn’t grow up. The Internet Movie Data Base lists 8 movies with that title, and there are many more films that have been made using the same story. It actually began as an immensely popular play on the London stage. Finding Neverland is the film based on the plays author, JM Barrie and his relationship with the Davies family and how they inspired Barrie to write the play.

We begin the film finding Barrie (Johnny Depp) having just completed the staging of a very expensive, new play, which also turns out to be a bomb. His marriage is falling apart because while Barrie is himself a childlike man, his wife seems to be very much the adult who cannot participate in her husband’s whims and dreams. Enter Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow trying to support four children with very little money. Barrie immediately falls in love with her children. He takes them to the park, plays cowboys and Indians, dances with bears, and indulges every childlike fantasy they can dream up. He is every bit the child they are. They in turn are the muses for his next play. Throughout the film, we see the children acting out bits, we know of from Peter Pan. We see his inspiration on celluloid.

This is a good, well made film. It is aptly directed, and the actors all do fine jobs. My English friend notes that Depp does a decent job with a Scottish accent, and as always, the remainder of his performance is top notch.

My problem with the film lies within the characterization of Barrie, himself. He is made out to be a wonderful, beautiful dreamer. A man who has the heart of a child. He is someone who lives in his imagination. We see the world through his eyes. While dancing in the park with his dog, we see it transform into a circus and the dog into a bear. Anyone who dares to question his fancies, to expect him to act as an adult, is shown in a unfavorable light. Both Barries’ wife, Mary (Rahda Mitchell) and Davies’ mother, Emma Du Maurier (Julie Christie) do not care for Barrie’s behavior and both are made out to be villains. Yet his behavior is to be frowned upon. A married man gallivanting about town with a widow and her children is neither acceptable nor Right.

The film does its best to show us that the Barries’ marriage is not doing well besides the problems with the Davies household. They quibble about other issues and we can tell there has not been much love under that roof for quite some time. It is also quick to point out that the relationship between Barrie and Ms. Davies is anything but sexual. In fact Barrie seems to be quite asexual. There is never a hint of masculinity or sexuality portrayed at all. But these are all excuses for allowing a grown, married man to spend all of his time with a woman who is not his wife, and four children who are not his own.

The film wants us to believe. It wants us to believe that life is worth dreaming about. That the eyes of a child can see mysterious forgotten by the likes of grown ups. That they contain a secret joy we too, could experience if only we believed. It also wants us to see that if we do not behave as children, if our minds are lost in the responsibilities of adults, than we are missing out on life. It is hard to refute such beliefs. Life is hard. To be able to escape into a world of pirates and fairies is a miraculous thing. We should all be able to slip into the world of fantasy and make believe for just awhile and let the stress of being and adult slip away. But, there is the cusp of the matter, we can slip away and dream for a time, but life demands that we return. It is irresponsible and shameful to drop the responsibilities of our life, to live our fantasies. To leave the bonds of marriage for another woman, even if you never technically have an affair, is irredeemable. To accept and love a character for doing that very thing is irresponsible.

All of this is not to say that Finding Neverland is without merit. In fact it is an enjoyable, well made film. It is an interesting portrait of the author of one of the English languages most beloved stories. Barrie, as seen here, was a gifted, flawed man. It is a beautiful thing to see a man filled with such whimsy. But we must be careful not to believe that being whimsical gives us the freedom to give up on being grown up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sweet Smell of Success Review

This is the kind of film that could coin an expression like “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” except that people have been using that line for every piece of crap that was made more than two years ago. Go ahead and say it to yourself, and I’ll say that David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross comes close. Both feature snarling, biting dialog. Both have irredeemable characters that will do anything for success. Mamet’s characters are mostly down-and-outers who are scrapping at each other to find some sampling of their former successes. In Sweet Smell of Success there are successful characters and losers, both of which need each other to survive. It is a tale of a successful columnist and his need for a low life press agent. It is a bitter, bleak story of power, success and the desire to have more.

Burt Lancaster plays JJ Hunsecker, a powerful, successful columnist who is at the top of his game. He gets what he wants, when he wants it with no questions asked. He can make or break celebrities with a quick blurb in his column. He dines with politicians and gets any girl he wants. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a low rent press agent who needs Lancaster’s blurbs for his clients to keep in business. Problem is, Hunsecker has cut Falco out of his columns because Falco hasn’t delivered on a deal they made. Though Hunsecker can garner the love and admiration of anyone he chooses, the one woman he cannot win over is his own sister. As he repeatedly says throughout the film, she’s all he has. Problem is she is in love with a jazz singer, and they plan to marry. Hunsecker can’t bear the thought of losing his sister, so he forces Falco to get rid of the boy by any means necessary.

The film is relentless. From beginning to end it never stops its pounding. There is never a breath of kindness. The two characters with some redeeming characteristics Hunsecker’s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison) and her boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), are so overshadowed by the continual foul play by Hunsecker and Falco that they come away with a foul stench.

Tony Curtis pulls a performance that reminded me of his turn as the Boston Strangler. It is not difficult to see his Falco turning to murder if it helped him succeed. Though as the strangler, he seems to have found some remorse for his actions, where Falco is irredeemable to the very end.

There is a seen in the middle of the picture where Falco pulls a trick to convince a mid level performer to make Falco his press agent. At this point Falco needs all the clients he can get. Later the performer comes to Falco, ready to sign him as his agent. Falco, now feeling some signs of success brushes the performer off without a second thought. It is a telling scene of just how heartless and uncaring Falco has become.

Where has Burt Lancaster been all my life? Sadly enough, the only film I can remember watching him in is the 1986 toss-off comedy Tough Guys. His performance here is nothing short of astonishing. He is the king of his castle, never stepping off his high throne, treating everyone as servants. Even his shows of affection for Susan are grotesque and menacing.

This is a story that his hard to watch. It is brutal, and menacing with nary a redeeming aspect. But it is a film that must be watched. The craftsmanship of the filmmakers and the performances of the actors elevate it above so many others. It is nearly a morality tale of the horrors that befall humanities greed.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Answer

The people have spoken. I will begin adding more daily life information into the blog. I think I ommited it for awhile because I was thinking too far ahead. I am really enjoying writing the blog posts each day and have begun to think about what happens when I leave France. No one is going to be interested in my daily life in Indiana. That leaves humorous stories and reviews. Well, I've only got so many stories to tell, but I can keep reviewing for a long time. Eventually, I'd like to have a site with loads of reviews on it. But, that's way in the future, and for now, I'm still in France. So, I will continue to post the bits and pieces of my day.

Speaking of which here's how my day has gone so far. Once again we received notice that our water was going to be turned off from 8:30 until 12:30 this morning. I was unable to rouse myself out of bed until about 8:25, pure laziness I know. I jumped into the shower to find a tiny amount of pressure and no heat. Somehow I managed to wash my hair and body, but didn't try a shave. Though clean, I didn't feel shower fresh, and felt this was a bad omen for the day.

Our friend, Pamela, has gone the way of the Brewster and spilled some kind of sauce on her keyboard, rendering it useless. She does not have a regular keyboard port and asked us if she could switch out the USB keyboard she gave us with a regular one. We did that yesterday only to come home and find out the port I thought was for a keyboard, is in reality, a port for another monitor. So, I ventured out to FNAC this morning to purchase a keyboard. The cheap ones only had the PS/2 connections and would not work with our computer. I managed to find a nice looking cordless USB keyboard for 40 Euros. Double checking to ensure that I had the right keyboard with the right price I moved to the cashier thinking I had a real bargain. Apparently I needed a triple check because she announced that it was 150 Euros! At first I wanted to argue that the tag said it was much, much cheaper, but my language skills kept me from it. Then I stammered like an idiot. I can never remember the verbs: to need, to want, and must. Finding know way to say "I don't want this," I kept saying I was sorry and to please excuse me in French, and "I don't want this" in English. She got the picture and reminded me of my verb (vouloir). Felling that I had let down my entire country by being another stupid American who can't speak a lick of French, I went back to the keyboards scratching my head. After confirming that the keyboard appeared to be only 40 Euros I decided to take the tram to another store.

A tram ride found me at Auchan. There I investigated the keyboards very carefully and decided on a very nice 40 Euro model. I wandered the store for several minutes hoping to find one of those price checkers they have on the walls periodically. The only one I found was broken. So I held my breath and stood in line. While in line a man with a shopping card full of water pulled in behind me. The cashier began saying something to him very rapidly the only part of which I understood was "caisse vert." This also happened to be printed on a sign above the cashier. "Oh no," I thought, "Why is it every time I stand in line at Auchan there is some strange business with the color green?" The man proceeded to take the water out of the cart and push the cart aside. "Perhaps this is a no cart aisle" I said to myself. Inside I was afraid the “vert” had something to do with greeneries meaning groceries. The aisle I was standing in was on the grocery store section of Auchan, and I began to think there may be some separation of purchasing stations. But no, the cashier got up to talk to the cart man. In this moment she was replaced by another cashier thus free to do as she pleased. After a bit of conversation with the man, both of them retrieved the cart and pushed it to where they are kept. Cart man returned to line and everything was fine.

Oh, and my 40 Euro keyboard, was actually 40 Euros this time.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Perfect Day



It has been absolutely gorgeous here the last four days. The sun has shined brightly, the few clouds have been white and puffy, and the temperature has hovered around the upper 60's. Yesterday was just about perfect. I slept until around 9:30 (lazy I know, but what perfect day would have me waking up early?) We finally got out of bed, had breakfast, lounged about basking in the sun coming in through the window, and prepared for the day. After a shower, dressing and a light lunch we focused our thoughts on what we would like to do for the day. We decided it was too pretty to do anything productive and went for a leisurely walk.



Nearby one of the universities has a botanical garden. Our feet took us there. There was a little disappointment because though many flowers have been planted almost none have actually sprouted. Still there was a pond and lots of greenery. We relaxed in the sun and contemplated whether we should spend our afternoon sitting by the water or travel on and find the Orangerie.

We decided to travel and walked through the city towards the European Parliament. Next to this governmental building there is a large park. Unbeknownst to me, until arrival, there is also a small zoo. We gazed at a wide variety of birds including peacocks and ostrich, and some monkeys and emus.

On the opposite side of the zoo is a lovely stretch of green grass which surround a little pond. We sauntered around the water and bought some ice cream on the far end. Sauntering back we found a bench to sit on and sat out the remainder of the afternoon. There is nothing better than sitting in the sun on a beautiful stretch of land with the girl you love.


In the evening I went to the boys and played the French version of Monopoly. It's an old game so everything is in Franks. That was a bit disconcerting because the highest denomination was a 50,000 frank versus the piddling 500 US dollar in the American version. I never knew how much money I really had. Not that this disturbed my game playing any, for I mopped the floor with the other players. Yes, my friends I won, and I won big.

After, I picked up Amy from Pamela's and we walked home in the gentle, still night. There have been better days, I am sure, but I would have to think hard to remember one.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Ooops!

Ok, some of you may have noticed your comments from my Question post have disappeared. This is entirely my fault. Recently, I added track back coding to my blog. This coding is supposed to help bring more people to my blog. How, exactly, it does this I am not yet sure. Something to do with linking to other, similar, posts, but I haven't read the details yet. Anyways, adding the coding to do the trackback apparently disabled the feature of e-mailing me whenever someone comments on my blog.

Yesterday, I wrote the question post, and today I wrote a new review for Hound of the Baskervilles. The way Blogger works is that every new post, pushes the previous one farther down the web page. Having not received any e-mails that anyone had commented on my Question, I wanted that post to remain on the top of the page. To manage this, I copied my comments and posted them in an entirely new post. Then I deleted the old post. Unknowingly, I had several comments on this post and they were deleted as well.

I have also just now read the comments posted to the blog over the last week or so. I thought no one was commenting at all, and suddenly I see you guys have been busy.

The webpage that I got the coding for the trackbacking from has also retained all of the comments I deleted. I will do my best to repost them to the blog, but I would appreciate it if you guys would repost your comments yourself.

My deepest apologies for the inconvenience.

Question

I recently searched my site for an old post. While doing this I noticed the huge number of reviews I have posted recently, and the small number of non review posts. I had intentionally phased out my day to day activities, but I was hoping to have well written story posts more often. It seems I am failing in this regard. So, this brings a question to my mind. What do you guys want to see? I haven't ever solicited a response from my readers before, but I would like your opinion now. There's a pretty minimal amount of readers anyway, and I'd hate to be running them off with a bunch of reviews, when everybody would prefer to hear about my day.

Do you like my reviews? Would you like to continue to see them on my blog? I will continue to write them, because I enjoy doing it. But, I can post them to blogcritics without any problem, and merely supply a link to those post in my reviews page.

Would you like me to post the day to day actions of my life? I will continue to post well written stories from time to time. But I realize that there isn't that much happening to me these days, and so these stories will be spaced out quite a bit. If requested I could fill in the blanks with rather tame tidbits about what I do in my daily activities.

So let's hear it. What would my few, faithful readers like to see?

The Elephant Man Review

David Lynch’s second full length film contains the odd assortment of freakish characters we’ve become accustomed to in his film. Yet, despite one of the more outlandish characters he has ever put on celluloid, it remains his most sentimental.

The Elephant Man is based upon the true story of John Merrick, a 19th century Englishman with massive deformities throughout his body. He performed in freakshows for many years until he was found by Dr. Treves who cared for him and placed him in Whitechapel hospital. It is his time in this hospital that the film concerns itself with. For here, Merrick is able to life, more or less, as a gentleman. He is well fed, well kept, and educated. He can read, write, speak eloquently and even begins to entertain well-to-dos of society.

It is filmed beautifully in black and white. It is a very well made piece of cinema. Lynch, for the most part, stays away from his trade mark imagery and symbolism, and sticks to more traditional story telling, although the elephant involving opening sequence is straight Lynch nightmare. That the characters come from real life and not Lynch’s twisted imagination only serve to add to the surrealism of the film.

It has been said that Lynch is too sentimental in this movie. That he manipulates the audience too much. Ebert even goes as far as saying Lynch tricks the audience into believing that Merrick is a noble and courageous man. He suggests, that rather than being noble, Merrick is merely doing the best that he can, under poor circumstances. It is true that the film is sentimental. There is hardly a scene that does not prick the audiences emotions. Yet how can an audience not feel emotion when they see a kind, intelligent man live with such deformities. How many of us would dare to get out of bed each day with similar atrocities. And here, this man, though physically plagued, manages to keep up his spirits and even write and build card sculptures. It would be a poor director at that who could not produce a tear at such a sight. If we pretend it is not a noble feat for such a creature to retain his humanity and good cheer, while being constantly bombarded with inhumane indecencies are we any better than those who stand outside the carnival and jeer?

Yet there is something in these critiques of sentimentalism. Lynch continues to use his tricks as a director to keep our eyes wet. There is a scene in which Merrick meets Dr. Treve’s wife and breaks down with tears at her simple kind acts. His tears state that no one has been so kind to him as to treat him like a gentleman. Though effective, this is using the craft of filmmaking to do nothing but manipulate emotions. In other films I would lambaste this type of sentimentalism and chastise the audience for falling for it. Yet the overall sadness throughout the story makes me fall for it here. I cannot commend such use of it in film anywhere, and yet it works for me in this particular instance.

Overall, the Elephant Man is a fine achievement for a young director. Lynch would go on to make more articulate, less sentimental films. But here we find him assured in his imagery and storytelling. He effectively sweeps the viewer into the emotional turmoil of such a sad, hopeless story.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Hound of the Baskervilles Book Review

In my determination to read all of the classic detective fiction I recently picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. I have a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, but those are a little too simplified for my tastes. They consist of a setup for the mystery and then a detailed description of Holmes using his near supernatural ability of observation to determine the culprit. Most of these never develop any real sense of mystery because Holmes is too brilliant for the readers good. We are briefly marveled by his powers of observation and deduction, to the point that we begin trying to concentrate our own powers to the mundane tasks of our lives. Upon some contemplation, though, it is easy to realize that paying attention to details will not bring us the answers the super detective seems to collect from the air at will. There are too many possibilities as to why our neighbor has a bit of mud on his pants cuffs to be able to surmise the reason out of sheer reasoning.

This being said, I was looking forward to reading a longer length novel about this super sleuth. With more pages, surely Doyle would prepare a better mystery for his hero to unravel. Still with a mere 174 pages, Doyle managed to create a more well rounded story and develop enough mystery to satisfy my tastes.

The story revolves around Henry Baskerville and his inherited homestead amongst the moors of England. It seems his family has been haunted by a demon hound for generations. The patriarchs of the family have befallen many a beastly end in this home. Not one for superstition, Henry moves to the homestead from America after he inherited the land when the previous owner, Sir Charles Baskerville, fell dead of fright. After a series of threats and strange circumstances, Dr. Watson travels to the Baskerville home to investigate. Holmes has announced himself to busy in London to be able to make the trip himself.

This point was a brilliant maneuver by Doyle. Allowing the more human Dr. Watson to do much of the investigation himself allows the mystery time to develop rather than be solved immediately by Holmes. Dr. Watson investigates the few residence around Baskerville Hall and finds them all to be rather suspicious in their own way. Suspense is built by the appearance of an escaped convict loose in the area, and the appearance of a mysterious stranger roaming the moors.

When Holmes does appear back on the scene, Doyle allows action to take the place of Holmes usual verbal pomposity. Though, we are told numerous times that this is a most interesting and difficult case by the detective. As if the reader is too dumb to appreciate the difficulties of the case, we need to be reminded by Holmes over and over again. Once the case is solved, the novel is concluded with a meeting between Holmes and Dr. Watson months after the case had occurred. Here Holmes once again must amaze us with his brilliant deductive powers. Once again, a mystery novel must tie up loose ends with a lot of verbiage.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a light, enjoyable read. It is easy to see why Sherlock Holmes mysteries were so popular. The are easy to read, quickly paced, and pack enough muscle to keep the page turned. Holmes penetrating powers of observation and deduction are fascinating. Like a magic trick, they entrance the reader and make us feel that with a little help and a lot of practice, we could also perform such feats. As serious literature, the book fails to be scrutinized. I will read more of the Holmes mysteries, and these books will hold a place on my book case, but they will have to hold a secondary shelf to the true masters of the genre.

Two Stories

I've been meaning to post these for a bit, but haven't had the time to write them down.

Story #1

A few days back I had to walk home from my French lesson due to the tram workers being on strike. As I walked, I pondered the peculiarity of the way in which French workers strike. In the US the mere talk of a strike can get action. Whenever union workers actually do strike it is often a long, brutal affair. Days, weeks, even months roll by while workers and managers bicker over the terms of an agreement. In France, a group of workers will often strike for one day only. Since I have been here, the Post Office, the university clerks, and now the tram workers have gone on strike for a day. Sometimes there are longer strikes, but it seems it is a normal practice for workers to have these short strikes periodically. It is like a way to show the managers what they are capable of doing. The workers tend to congregate downtown airing their grievances to whomever will listen. I digress. As I was walking home, these were the thoughts I was having.

On a long stretch of road, two college aged girls crossed my path. One of them stopped and spoke directly to me. Being lost in thought I didn't catch a single word. Something on my face must have registered this fact and the girl repeated what she said. Having spent the last 5 months not understanding a word any stranger spoke to me, I prepared my sentences explaining that I was a foreigner and didn't understand French. Yet to my astoundment, I actually understood what she was asking. She needed to know where Place de Etoile was located. It was as a light from Heaven broke through the clouds and shone a ray on my head. I could almost hear the angels sing "Hallelujah." I understood!

I managed to say a couple of words in my excitement and point towards the city square they were looking for a couple of blocks over. They understood my words as well and thanked me for my time.

My elation was held short though. That very evening we received a telephone call. I managed to understand who was calling (the mother of the girl we are sub-letting the apartment from) and why she was calling (to thank us for sending some money we owed her), but she continued to speak with a fast tongue, and I quickly got lost in the shuffle. I tried to ask her to hold on one moment and let me catch my mental breath. But she didn't understand and kept speaking. Finally, deflated, I gave up and handed the phone to Amy.

Story 2

A different day I was performing the same action as in the previous story: walking home from my French lesson. This time no person stopped to chat, but a car did stop in the middle of the road. He was parking himself a few feet from a rather busy intersection. He was on the busy end of the street, and though it was passed the rush hour, traffic was still quite heavy. I could see the passenger door open and a woman was partially outside the door. At first I thought that there must have been a breakdown of sorts, and they were in the process of looking for its source. As I walked closer I realized this was not the case. The driver was simply dropping off the passenger, and she was reluctant to leave. Instead she was engaging him in conversation, In the middle of a highway, with loads of traffic surrounding them, they were having a chat. I walked slowly in order to see how long they were going to do this. After about 5 minutes of me watching this situation, the car drove away.

To add to this obnoxiousness, there was a pull off but a few feet in front of the car. Instead of parking his car a few feet forward, and remain out of the way of oncoming traffic, this joker decided to stop there, in the middle of the street.

I suppose they chalk this up to libertè. The French fought very hard for their right to ignore laws that don't suit their taste for the moment. This guy was just using his God given right to thumb his nose at everything and enjoy one last moment with his girl.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Around the World in 80 Days (2004) Review

There are some films that I make no plans, nor have any desire to see. Yet, sometimes, through circumstance, see them is exactly what I do. Recently, I was invited to dinner at a friends house. Another invitee decided to rent this Jackie Chan vehicle. Never to be one to turn down a free movie, I watched.

I am not one of Jackie Chan's fanboys. The action sequences in his films are generally spectacular, and often hilarious. But his film's lack of a cohesive narrative, god-awful dialogue, and horrid acting turn me off, more than any stunt can save. From time to time, I do manage to catch one of his films, even enough to notice their general degeneration of late. His earlier, non English films, though containing worse overall production value, had more bang for you buck. His American made films seem to be bent on adding plot and characterization at the detriment of the action. This might be commendable if the additional plotting was any good. But more often than not, it's just a glossy version of the same old schlock. Around the World in 80 Days follows this formula.

Waiting thirty minutes into a Jackie Chan film for the first action sequence is an atrocity. When that action sequence is lame, you might as well take up the pooper scooper and walk the dog. The movie followed this pattern. Thirty minutes of mind numbing story development followed by tame, lame action sequences. At a 120 minute run time and any way you divide it that's way to little hockey socky.

The plot is old and rehashed. Loosely based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, Chan plays Lau Xing masquerading as Passpartout, servant of snooty inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). Through a bet they impart on a journey around the world in...oh, who cares? Who watches a Jackie Chan film for the plot? And if you don't know this story by now, stick around and I'm sure they'll make another TV movie of it shortly.

Chan's English has improved greatly over the last time I watched him, which really isn't saying a whole lot. Why is Hollywood bent on making this man who barely speaks the language, and can't act to save himself, spend most of his movies talking and acting? And all to keep him from doing the one thing he does very well: beating the crap out of people in creative and hilarious ways?

The film is scattered with high profile cameos. Most interesting of which is the now California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger's turn as a Turkish prince. The others are mostly pointless and unfunny cameos designed to make the audience go "oh that's Rob Schneider" and miss the fact that he's amazingly unfunny and his character serves no particular point. The casting of Kathy Bates as the Queen seems most spectacularly ill placed. Her British accent is appalling. Was it to hard to find a real Brit to play this role? Some of my French friends have better British accents than that.

With the exception of but a few moments, the fight scenes, few that we get, are unspectacular. They joy of Jackie Chan is in his ability to stage acrobatic action sequences while using a odd array of props. Chairs, stools, flags, culinary devices have all served as weapons in previous pictures, yet here he is mostly intent on using his hands fighting against regular swords and blades. It's not that the action is terrible per say, but that they pale in comparison with so many of the others he has performed.

There is really nothing to recommend this movie. It is appropriate enough. There is little to offend the younger sensibilities (besides the acting, plot, and production values)If you have children, I suppose, they might find it silly enough to enjoy. But, with so many other quality films out there appropriate for children, I can't make myself recommend this one to them either.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

American History X Review

There are spoilers. Read at your own risk.

It has been many years since I have seen this film. My memory attested it to be an excellent picture that meaningfully discussed issues as heavy as race relations, prejudice, and hatred. Unfortunately my memory is a little at fault, and upon viewing it this time I found it a bit disappointing. The film sets its sights to the heavens, and while succeeding in many ways, it could not attain such a lofty height. In trying to cover all the basis in such a thorny issue as race relations it cheats a bit in its storytelling. But we'll cover more of that in a bit.

The plot involves a young, white Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and the tumultuous 24 hours after his release from prison for killing two black men, while they were trying to steal his car. Much of the story is told in a flash backed black and white. Here we learn that Derek was a Neo-Nazi skinhead leader who has had a change of heart after his stint in prison. Post prison time is being spent trying to keep his brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) from following in his footsteps. A path he is already walking down.

This is a powerful, moving film. Reading the boards on IMDB will attest to lives being changed through watching it. It works best when it shoots for an emotional response, rather than an intellectual one. Scenes such as when Edward Nortan's skin head leader rallies the troops to loot a local grocer, or the opening scene where we see Norton kill the two aforementioned black men, or a traumatic rape scene in prison, emit a guttural response from its viewers. It is in such scenes that we are rallied into discourse on the issues presented. Yet when the film gets talky it falls short of its ideals. It presents nothing beyond the general rhetoric you can find just about anywhere. In fact most of the rhetoric is spewed from the Neo-Nazi skinheads, and this type of discussion can be found every other day on day time talk shows. There is little in way of discussion from the rational, unprejudiced mind.

There are two powerful performances from Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. At this point Norton was already beginning to take his role as the new Robert DeNiro, who had previously taken his turn as the new Marlon Brando. Let's hope he escapes the fate of mediocrity that they fell into. Furlong who once made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Laurence Olivier with such a wooden performance, here has finally made himself worthy of attention. He gives a fine performance here, as a young man struggling with the passionate feelings of youth.

Tackling an issue as heady as racism in America is a worthy, yet difficult cause. It proves to be too much for first time screenwriter David McKenna and director Tony Kaye. Trying to condense their story into regulation movie time they either skipped over completely or barely touched on some important issues. To give reasons for Derek's turn as a skinhead we are only allowed one small dinner table conversation with his father who spews some hateful race sentiments. This and his fathers murder at the hands of black addicts in a crackhouse, whom he was trying to save from a fire must suffice for an intelligent, middle class youths turn into a Nazi. Likewise his subsequent salvation in prison is not dwelt on enough to give us sufficient reasons for this turn of heart. Yes, the skinheads in prison are hypocrites, and yes the rape scene is brutal enough to turn away from their midst. But, his relationship with the black coworker, Lamont (Guy Torry) is not enough to change the heart of such hatred. Torry gives a fine performance, and does enough to show Derek that all blacks aren't as vile as the rhetoric made him believe, but are jokes about sex really going to make a skinhead believe in the goodness of the black race?

In searching for a cause behind the Neo-Nazi scene in America the filmmakers seem to point directly towards the intense feelings of anger found in adolescence and the need to fit in with some social group. And rightly, these two issues play powerfully on the minds of many in the skinhead culture. But the issue goes deeper than this, and it is here, again, that this film misses the mark. Just as Derek dismisses issues of poverty, and social position in the plight of the black man this film seems to skim over some of the deeper motivation behind racism.

Don't get me wrong. This is a powerful, well made film. There is plenty to chew upon and discuss. It is, in fact, a good film to watch with others and bring into light an important debate. Yet when I watch it I can't help but think of how it could have been better, how it could have reached the heights it was reaching for.

Shadows and Fog Review

Woody Allen's tribute to German Expressionism is better than most critics would have you believe. Sure there is very little plot to speak of, it's more a series of vignettes and gags than a cohesive narrative. Sure, it ends rather abruptly, never solving the mystery, but none of this stopped my thorough enjoyment of this film.

As the title suggests the entire movie is designed in shadows and fog. Shot with beautiful black and white photography, Allen and cinemetographer Carlo Di Palma create the look and feel of an unnamed East European city as seen in such films as M and Nosferatu. The lighting is set up so that in nearly every shot underlying shadows engulf the scene. In the exteriors a vicious fog rolls across the night sky obscuring most details. Through the fog bumbles Kleinman (Allen is his typical neurotic schmuck role) trying to find his role in a vigilante mob's plan to stop a serial killer roaming the streets. From dark night until dawn, Kleinman wanders from place to place meeting a wide variety of curious characters (played by an even more curious group of celebrities), the most endearing of which is a desperate sword swallower (Mia Farrow)who is has wandered into a brothel after fleeing her cheating boyfriend/clown (John Malkovich).

It is a little unsettling to watch Allen do his normal schtick while the characters around him are murdered, subjected to racial prejudice, beaten by the police and discuss such subjects as love, sex, and meaning. There is a subtext involving the plight of the Jews between the World Wars, foreshadowing the Nazis. Yet the gags remain as solid as any Woody Allen film. Amongst the seriousness of his subtext and the films he is paying homage to, Allen finds away to bring full bellied laughter. Though his quirky neurosis isn't as resolutely hilarious as it is in such films as Annie Hall, it is still enough to fill the film with mirth.

The film ends rather abruptly with Kleinman having never learned his role in the plan, nor the killer having been caught. Yet as the credits role we realize the mystery was not so much the reason behind the story as method in creating it.

Monday, March 07, 2005

A Slight Mishap With Chocolate Final Copy

I have decided my foibles with chocolate milk and the laptop should be combined into one post for posterity. Thus three posts are now one.

Last night I was working diligently on the computer (ok, I was playing games as usual) and drinking a very large glass of chocolate milk. I took one swig too many and the milk went the wrong way and had to eject. My reflexes were not good enough to stop the exploding milk from landing across the keyboard. As quickly as I could I dried the milk. Then I tried my best to clean the keyboard. Everything works properly, thank goodness. However, several of the keys stick, and I have to use great force to get them to type. We are going to a shop Wednesday to have it fixed. Until then I shall be brief in writing since it is a great pain to type. I am unsure how quickly I shall receive the computer back after Wednesday, so I may be completely down for a few days.

Day 2

Besides having the annoyance of sticky keys we now also have a phantom typist. The letter "l" periodically begins typing itself across the screen repeatedly though no one is near it to actually press on the cursed letter. If I am lucky enough to be on a Word document, I quickly receive a page full of "l"s. More likely than not I am elsewhere and thus given more grievance than that. If I am on the internet the mysterious typer causes all other internet functions to shut down so that the "find" function can begin searching the page for "llllllllllllllll...." On other software the "l" will bring up some unwanted function, or if not function is available, the computer produces an obnoxious repeating error sound.

Kindly enough my French tutor's husband has offered to take a look at the machine and take it to a local shop to have it fixed.

Day 3

Arriving at my French tutor's house for my lesson, her husband began promptly looking the sick machine over. After a few minutes he rushed out of the house and down to the local PC doctor. Back with a frown, he said that not only would he not work on a Dell computer, but that no one in the entire city of Strasbourg would. Not wanting to believe that, we ventured across town to a larger computer shop. Again they said they would not work on Dell computers, because that company does not want to work with them. The kind man behind the counter did relay that Dell had a store in Paris and that they would send someone here for a fee of 78 Euros. Realizing that this was only the fee to get the tech here, and that there would be an additional fee for parts and the tech's time spend working, my heart sunk.

We were able to reattach the keys (for they had been pulled off earlier to try to de-stickify them) and keep the phantom typist from typing again. Though the letter "m" no longer works at all. The control keys do not work either so, in order to type "m" I have to copy and paste it using the mouse. Shortly I will go insane of this.

Day 5

After insanely typing using the copy/past method we have found salvation. Our dear friend, Pamela has let us borrow an extra keyboard that she had. It is a French keyboard so all of the keys are in the wrong place. I was able to configure it to type like an American keyboard, however all the keys are still labeled like the French version. I am a good typist so I do not need to look at many keys, but a few such as parenthesis, have become a bit of trial and error as I try to remember where they are located. At least we have a "m".

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Midnight Hamburgers

Story # 2 as told to my French tutor, Ann.

The first couple of years at college, I lived in the dormitory, known officially as Burton, but dubbed "the ghetto" by the student body. I lived on the "backside" of the dorm which opened out into a small field on which many an adventure was had.

Once every few months me and the "backside boys" would plan a cookout of magnificent proportions. By the time of this story we had developed a plan of cooking out that enabled us the greatest amount of grub, with the smallest amount of work and moochers. For after cookout #1 we realized that grilled food brings the masses quickly to our lair, with a hand out. So we worked out a plan to have each interested person bring at least one item, and scrounged to find enough grills to cook it all.

Being college boys we typically prowled the evening for other services before our minds were set on food. This particular night the proceedings didn't start until 9 pm or so. By the time the grills were good and hot and the meat was cooking it was after 10. We had burgers, hot dogs and shrimp cooking. Lawnchairs were set about and good times were being had by all. Being a private, Christian university, beverages of an alcoholic variety were not in presence. Though a security guard did stop by to ensure our followance of this policy.

Things really got going around 11. Hamburgers were being passed around, the shrimp was cooked, the pasta nice and tender. The moochers were present, but we had plenty to go around. James Taylor was rolling through a hot rendition of "Steamroller." Life was good. There is nothing like spending a warm September night outdoors with plenty of food, drink and good company.

The party toiled on until late in the evening. Around 2 AM or so a guy from one of the dorm rooms nearby, Jason, came stumbling out. He was in his boxer shorts and tee shirt.

"Guys, guys, can you keep it down?" he said. "I've got to get up in the morning and go to work."

"Oh sorry, man." We all said in unison. "Didn't mean to bug ya."

"Wanna burger?"

At this question, Jason leaned his face towards the earth, rubbed his hand across the stubble of his head, and said "yeah."

A couple of burgers and nearly an hour later he clamored back to his room, mumbling something about keeping it down.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Khartoum Review

One of the fun things about going to the library is that you never know what you are going to get. They have a wide selection of DVDs, but very few are available at any given time. I was surprised this last time when I actually had a choice to pick from. Albeit it was a choice between 2 films (the few others available were either foreign films translated into French, or straight French films). The choice was between the Gary Cooper version of A Farewell to Arms and an unheard of by me Charlton Heston/Laurence Olivier adventure called Khartoum. Not in the mood for Hemingway, I decided a Heston/Olivier picture might be a treat.

To say this is a Laurence Olivier picture is to say too much. Though he gets top billing, and his character plays an important part in the picture, his actual screen time is minimal. He plays a part known only as The Mahdi, who is a Muslim that rose out of the dessert to claim his place as the chosen one. I believe Olivier is a African Muslim like I believe Heston is a Mexican cop. But we suspend our disbelief and all that for the sake of the story.

As it is the story is a grand one. Based on historical events, of which, sadly, I've never heard a lick of until this film, where the Mahdi attempts to take control of British ran Sudan. The mysterious General Gordan (Charlton Heston) is sent down to help things along. A standoff evolves and it is wit against wit.

It is not a bad film, but neither is it a great one. There are some truly beautiful shots of the scenery. Heston plays Gordan without as much conflict as the character requires, but with enough gusto to make it believable. Olivier is, as always, near perfect. With simple facial expressions he carries the convictions of a man who believes himself a prophet. The scenes between Olivier and Heston, though historically inaccurate, add a much needed emotional punch. The direction is a bit plodding, nothing particularly bad, but nothing exceptional either.

When watching a historical films such as Khartoum, having some connection with the actual events helps bring meaning to the picture. Films based on the holocaust are often forgiven some of their cinematic sins due to the weight of the history behind the story. Yet, historical films that are not as well known can also entrance the viewer through the weight of its story. Knowing that the events actually happened often stir the viewer to greater emotional depths than a depiction of completely fictional events. It is here that Khartoum failed for me. As I said there was nothing particularly wrong with the production, but it never really captured my emotions. Admittedly I know very little about British history, or the struggles of the Mid East beyond the years of my own life. This is a fault of my own, yet a film should be universal in its undertaking. If it fails to move an audience unfamiliar with its history then it must resign in relative obscurity. For those familiar with this particular history, the film may bring more to you than it did me. As for me, it was a mostly entertaining, and interesting couple of hours in my life, it will be one that will largely be forgotten in time.

Story Number 1

The following is the first story I told to Ann after the lecture and our agreement that storytelling would be the best way for me to improve my language skills. It is first not so much because it is the best, but because is easy to tell with my limited vocabulary.

--

Several years ago I was driving from Montgomery to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was driving my old '92 Volkswagen Fox (the one with a dent in the fender and an odd colored driver's side door.) I was accompanied by my friend, who lay asleep for most of the trip. We had miserable driving weather. It was dark, overcast, and raining. It wasn't the kind of rain that makes you pull over to the side and wait it out. It was the kind that slows traffic, stiffens your neck and keeps your windshield wipers in turmoil. I simply hate to have the wipers going faster than they need to be. Too slow and you cannot see, too fast and you get that awful skwelk sound of rubber on dry glass.

The normally quick drive took us an additional hours driving. We entered Tuscaloosa and my heart was glad that the drive was nearly over. We were on a heavily trafficked six lane highway. I was cruising along nicely in the middle lane. I almost always choose the middle lane when driving in cities. You have none of the break riding action you get in the right lane from people entering and leaving the highway. There is also less tailgating from locals who feel they were meant for the race track. As I said there was a good deal of traffic out that day and we were traveling somewhere near the 40 MPH mark. Suddenly the car in front of me began to fishtail slightly. I pumped my breaks and checked my mirrors to see if I would be able to pass into another lane. No such luck. The fishtailing worsened and the car before me did a 180 degree turn! I was literally looking the driver and passenger square in the eyes. Those eyes were like saucers, all white. Panic transferred each car like water over a burst dam. Again I darted my eyes to see if I could get out of the way, and again I was met with traffic on each side. I pumped my breaks some more hoping the wet road would not cause me to slide. After a few terrified moments of staring at the people I might die with, the car turned another 180 degrees to face the correct way. Control was still not with them. A moment later they skidded into the right lane, barely missing another car before they came to an abrupt stop on the embankment. Traffic had slowed during this and I was able to see that the other car's passengers were ok.

My friend slept through the entire ordeal.

Phantom of the Opera (book) Review

Rating *** 1/2

I've never seen a movie version of Phantom (not the classic, silent Lon Chaney version, and certainly not the new Joel "I should repent of my cinematic sins" Schumacker version). Nor have I seen any stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, or listened to music from that particular show. What I knew about the material is what everyone knows, what pop culture understands from the spoofs and the chattering fans in the back. I've never really been that interested either. What made me pick up the book then? I'm not really sure. Maybe it was the heavy amount of publicity it was getting from the new movie. Maybe it was my wife's love of the musical, and a faint remembrance of her sending me a homemade card with a lyric from it. Or maybe it was the only half-way interesting book in English the library had.

Either way, I'm glad I picked it up. In a peculiar way it is a continuation of my fascination with detective fiction. No, this is not Phillip Marlowe or Hercule Poirot chasing down some notorious killer. Gaston Leroux has created mystery involving a ghost and murderer without the help of private detectives or Scottland Yard. Much of the words included in the book are determined to unmask this phantom, through a series of clues and hints. It is here we find kinship with the likes of Agatha Christie.

I'll not explain much of the plot, for everyone knows it for the most part (and if you don't just who are you?) It is a story set in the Paris Opera, a gigantic, intricate building with layer upon layer of subterranean levels masked in noirish, dark shadows. It involves a ghost, or phantom if you will, that lives in the bowels of the opera and makes frequent, and peculiar requests (such as a monthly salary and nightly tickets to the Opera in one of the best seats)to the new management. The old management, it seems, was all too happy to give into the requests, but the new management is not so sure. Thus begins a series of punishments. There is also a love triangle involving the ghost, an accomplished singer of the opera, Christine Daae, and her childhood friend, Raoul.

Though, I am learning the French language, my skill level is nowhere near the point where I have tried to tackle reading a novel in that language. So it is an English translation that I read. What I am learning in my French courses, though, is that translation is often a very difficult thing to do. Though many words literally translate well, often subtler meanings behind the words do not come through in a translation. Also, often words have no exact translation so approximations must be made. The story may come out the same, but the poetry is left behind. Maybe someday I'll be able to read The Phantom of the Opera in its original language, but for now I must be satisfied with this translation.

The first half of the novel acts exclusively like a mystery. There are rumors floating around the Opera of a ghost that haunts the lower levels of the building. Random notes appear to the new managers, threatening horror if the ghosts demands are not met. There are ones who claim to have seen the ghost, other who claim to know him well, or as well as one can know a ghost. It is written from an outsiders perspective. Our point of view is that of an investigator, someone interesting in finding the truth of the ghost and events that happened during this time period. Leroux does a marvelous job making this piece of fiction look like history. After reading I even spent some time researching the events described to see if there was any truth to the story.

It is in the second half of the story that things change. We are introduced properly to the ghost and his madness. From this point the story shifts from a mystery to thriller. We know who the phantom is, but we are unsure of what he is going to do. Raoul and Christine are mad to leave the opera and be wed, but the ghost intercedes to create a great deal of suspense. As separate halves I found them both to be exhilarating, and a great read. But considered as a whole they leave a lot of questions. As with any good mystery, Phantom begins with a lot of questions. The narrative spends a great deal of time trying to determine what the ghost is, whether it is flesh and blood or a spirit. Whether the events happening are caused by the supernatural, or are just tricks and games. As mentioned, the ghost makes many requests for service, it acts in peculiar ways to add to the mystery. Yet, when the nature of the ghost is revealed, these things go unanswered. The great mystery is revealed, but much of what was mysterious is never explained. This is a small quibble because the story moves along with such gusto it leaves little time to be perplexed.

Overall, Phantom of the Opera is a fast, entertaining read. There is much to enjoy, and think over. It is well written, well plotted and well done piece of fiction. It is not a great piece of literature, but this should not keep any fan of the written word from picking up and enjoying this novel.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

My French Tutor

It seems I have been a little harsh on my tutor, Ann. So I am posting this to set the record straight. Ann is actually a very nice lady, and a dear friend. Her and her husband have been incredibly kind to us since we've been in Strasbourg. Though she is a qualified, and well trained teacher, she asks me to pay a very small fee for my lessons. Even with that she never fails to fill my belly with drinks and cookies during my lesson (which are at her home). In fact if added up my hungry mouth has probably eaten any profit she might make from me. She is a wonderful teacher. She is kind and patient with me. She never yells at me when I don't finnish my homework, she never agrees with me when I say I am stupid. I am, in fact, a rather rotten student. Mostly I manage to do my homework, but I rarely do anything beyond that, and certainly don't speak French outside of the classroom. On occasion she has lectured me, but only because she is concerned with my progress and attitude, which is generally poor. I enjoy her teaching immensely, but often hate the learning process. Her lectures come out of me being moody and grumpy during a lesson. Learning this language is painful. There is much I would like to say, but am unable which frustrates me beyond belief.

So my tutor is in reality a very kind person, and a good teacher. Sorry if this is schmaltzy, but several people have made comments about my grumbles toward Ann. I wanted to make sure that it is understood that it is learning French that frustrates me, not my tutor.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby Review

How to Be Good is the third book by Nick Hornby that I have read. The other two, High Fidelity and 31 Songs were insightful, well written, and hilarious. Both, happen to also be about music. 31 Songs is a collection of essays about, well, 31 songs. High Fidelity uses the protagonist obsession with pop music to discuss his relationships with women. I have not read the book, but the movie version of About a Boy also contains a similar musical theme. Music, is obviously, something very dear to the heart of the writer. With How to Be Good, Hornby seems to be making a real attempt to steer clear from this area. In fact, the narrator/main character, Katie Carr, mentions that her life is completely devoid of music, books, and movies. Unfortunately her life and this book is almost completely devoid of what makes Nick Hornby novels so good.

In choosing to leave his normal type of fiction, Hornby chose to write this novel in the first person from the perspective of a middle aged, middle class, female doctor. Where as he can write articulately, with great perspective, about a middle aged male obsessed with music, Hornby has no true understanding of how woman doctor might feel. This character comes of sounding whiny, self-important, rattlebrained, and false. The plot comes off so implausible I spent most of the novel groaning for help.

Katie Carr tries to live a good life. She became a doctor to help people, tries to love her husband and raise her two children right. Yet by the books beginning her life is thoroughly messed up. Problems with her husband David, the self-professed "Angriest man in Holloway" have been going on for years, and her she is no longer sure of how she feels about her own children. In fact she is ready for a divorce and a new life. However, before she is granted this, her husband , healed by some mystical healer changes things around. Instead of the sarcastic, angry man he has always been, suddenly he is a kind, generous, make the world better kind of guy. The crux of the story is Katie trying to come to terms with this change. Having a hateful husband was horrible, but she is not sure having a super husband is much better. What follows is a series of mildly amusing, if highly suspect, adventures, and a great deal of preaching.

There are few scatterings of great writing. My favorite moments are, actually, when we get small snippets of the old David. His anger is in the form of sarcasm and we get summaries of articles he wrote for a paper, which are quite hilarious. When Hornby is on, he is able to bring out humor and poignancy in any scene. Here, we gleam a few moments of this brilliance before he bogs us back down into his sermon.

Knowing a little biography of the author, and his own tumultuous marriage, I can't help but think this is his way of sorting things out. Perhaps he is even trying to see things from his wife's perspective. There is a lot of cut throat bickering between spouses here, and one wonders if some of it isn't autobiographical.

Elsewhere, Hornby has been able to give us a glimpse of how to be good, without overtly showing us. In other novels he gives us characters who have flaws, but are able to sort something out for themselves while remaining true to their character. Here the story seems sacrificed in order to tell the audience how to live. Let's hope he returns to his earlier form by showing us, and not preaching.

Out of Sight Review

Like when I first began buying VHS movies, when I purchased my DVD player, I wanted to only own the old classics and excellent new, indie films. The first DVD I purchased was Steven Soderburg's Out of Sight. It had the indie cred I desired, plus it was by a director I admired. And I am the type of person to admire directors over actors, genres, and type. Plus it didn't do well at the box office so I could feel justified in my ability to overlook the big blockbusters and snuggle into something small and arty. I have since realized that trying to impress some film buff that will never show himself at my house is both immature and not very practical. After a few additional classics (2001, Taxi Driver, and Evil Dead II) I came to realize that there are some extremely popular DVDs that are must haves. It's hard to claim indy cred when you're picking up Jaws and Animal House. Plus my DVD player came with free copies of crap like Michael and Basic Instinct. Add that to the odd assortment of movies I keep picking up as gifts and swiping from my brother via Mom and you have a whole heap of DVDs not worth bragging about.

All of this is simply to say I like Out of Sight a great deal. I have watched it every six months or so since I bought it 5 years ago and have never been disappointed. It is a crime story more interested in characters than crime. Though some of the plot points are on the implausible side, the film is so overwhelmingly enjoyable it is easy to forgive such faults.

Soderburg is a talented artist, though as a director he is a bit of a mixed bag. He has created some truly brilliant films (Traffic, the Limey) but also a few bombs, artistically speaking (Full Frontal, Oceans 11). After starting the indie revolution with Sex, Lies, and Videotape he created the first of several experimental films, Kafka. Thus developing a theme for his films: smart, original films followed by artistic experiments that mostly fail. With Out of Sight he began what I would call his attempt at being main stream. It is based on a Elmore Leonard novel, produced by Danny DeVito and Barry Sonnefeld, and stars a couple of up and commers looking for a hit. For those of you that scoffed at my labeling this movie "indie" do understand that this movie was pre Erin Brokovich, Traffic, or the Oceans series for Soderburg. George Clooney was a television star from ER, but had yet to have a successful movie. And Jennifer Lopez was still Jennifer Lopez rather than J.Lo, Jenny from the Block, or Bennifer. In 1992 it was, well, not exactly an indie movie, but it definitely was not a sure fired block buster. Point of fact, it rather bombed at the box office.

Soderburg tends to be his own director of photography on his pictures. By his own admission, this is more because of his method of producing pictures quickly, than at his own expertise at this skill. Though he does do a good job at it. In fact, one of the first things I noticed about the picture, was its use of light. There are two prisons seen in the picture, and both are given a different enough look that you can easily tell them apart. During the scenes in Miami, the lighting is very bright and sunny. Soderburg intentionally over lighted the windows for interior shots to give the outside a particularly sunny look. Detroit is shot in a lot of blues that give an added feel of cold and separation.

Each character is given a chance to shine. There are no flat characters designed to move the plot along. Rather they are fleshed out and appear real. Clooney and Lopez show real chemistry on screen and you begin to believe that a US Marshall could actually fall for an escaped bank robber. I have never seen an episode of ER and my buddies and I used to make fun of Clooney for his charming good looks and general star quality. This is the film that began to change my mind and understand him for the fine actor he has become. This film also made me believe that Jennifer Lopez was a fine actress and someone to look out for. But, of course, she quickly became a caricature of herself and has not done anything since then to make me a believer.

I love this film. It is a crime drama that pays more attention to character than crime. It is romantic, without being schmaltzy. It is funny, without shooting for gags. It is a well made, competent movie that holds up on repeated viewings. I can still brag that it holds a place on my DVD shelf.