August 27, 2011

You spin my head right round

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:42 PM

Labyrinth is, of course, the 1986 fantasy film with David Bowie:

However, labyrinth also refers to the balance organ of the inner ear. The structure contains three orthogonal fluid-filled canals (hence "labyrinth") that sense rotations, along with additional organs that sense linear accelerations. This combines with visual inputs to give us our sense of balance.

So while the word labyrinthitis could refer to an uncontrollable nostalgia-driven desire to revisit the aforementioned David Bowie flick, it is actually the name for a viral infection of the balance organ. The symptoms of this infection bring to mind another movie entirely:

The experience of labyrinthitis can be easily simulated by a healthy individual. First, get your alcoholic drink of choice. Then, consume it until it feels like the room is spinning. Now imagine that this sensation persists continuously for a week. I've been describing it as "like being drunk without the fun part." Naturally it's tempting to grab some booze and add the fun back in, but I suspect that this approach is contraindicated.

At one point this week I thought the vertigo had become so severe that it felt like I was in an earthquake. Then I realized it was an actual earthquake. The various natural disasters striking the East Coast this week are not helping my condition any, but maybe if Hurricane Irene is spinning in the same direction as my head I won't even notice it.

Years ago, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, I contemplated in dinosaur comic form the possibility of being stuck with a constant spinning sensation. At the time I thought it merely a theological hypothesis, but now I know that labyrinthitis truly is... rotating hell.

July 31, 2011

13 Assassins: An anti-samurai movie

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:40 PM

Recently I watched the Takashi Miike film 13 Assassins. I definitely recommend it for those of you who are fans of samurai movies. It's structured something like a heist movie, where the first half consists of assembling a team (the eponymous assassins) for a big job, and the second half is one big action set piece. (It occurs to me that Seven Samurai had a similar structure. This is actually a remake of a much older film, and it makes me wonder if the original was actually a shameless knockoff of Seven Samurai that Miike decided to rescue from the dustbin of history. I can't find much information on the original though, maybe it was actually a great movie in its own right.)

There's a clear parallel between samurai movies in Japan and Western movies in the U.S. So clear, in fact, that some of the most famous Westerns are adaptations of jidaigeki films: e.g. The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond that, in both genres you have a romanticization of an earlier period in history. And in response there are films which push back against the romantic view, whether it's Unforgiven taking apart the myth of the heroic gunfighter, or Blazing Saddles foregrounding the racism of the period.

13 Assassins is clearly in the latter tradition, using the format of the samurai movie to reject nostalgia for the samurai era. The plot follows an attempt to assassinate a corrupt samurai lord, but metaphorically represents an attack on the corruption inherent in the feudal social order. (Alternate title: "Now you see the violence inherent in the system!") Although the main characters are (almost) all samurai themselves, it's clear that they represent different aspects:

The end of the movie emphasizes each of these aspects further. Spoilers below:

Continue reading "13 Assassins: An anti-samurai movie"
Permalink | Tags: Movies

August 13, 2009

Danke Schoen, John Hughes

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:41 PM

I'm a little late in commenting on the death of John Hughes, but I learned today that he suffered his fatal heart attack on my very street here in New York. (There's a shrine at the spot, with candles: sixteen of them, naturally.) Anyway, this gives me an excuse to bring it up a week after the fact.

Here is where I would launch into a discussion of the John Hughes oeuvre, but I have actually only seen three of the films he directed: Ferris Bueller's Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and Uncle Buck. I was too late for the Brat Pack age bracket: I started high school in 1993, nearly ten years after Sixteen Candles. If any of you are Hughes aficionados, you'll have to tell me which essentials I'm missing. The Breakfast Club? Weird Science?

For the moment, let's ignore Uncle Buck and talk about the other two I've seen: Bueller and Planes, Trains. Hughes directed the two consecutively, and they make an interesting pair. They're both basically road movies, but in Bueller the trip is an adventure taken purely for fun and escape, while in Planes it's a hellish experience and the only goal is to get home. And they're both buddy movies, with Alan Ruck and Steve Martin as the respective straight men opposite Matthew Broderick and John Candy. But the latter two are very different characters: Candy's Del Griffith is very irritating at first, but turns out to be well-intentioned and generally a nice guy. Ferris Bueller, on the other hand, is very charming but actually kind of a jerk. (The movie portrays him as a hero, but just look at how he treats his alleged best friend Cameron.) It's as if Hughes, in his attempt to move out of the teen movie genre, made the anti-Ferris with Planes, Trains.

In the end, Planes, Trains is the outlier, and while it's genuinely a classic, what he'll be remembered for are the high school comedies. Unfortunately, that's where my John Hughes knowledge ends, so those of you who have actually seen these movies will have to take over in the comments.

[Yes, two posts this month! Maybe I should have spread them out more.]

Permalink | Tags: Movies

September 14, 2008

Burn After Reading

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:56 PM

Saw the latest from Ethan and Joel Coen last night. While it's not at the level of their best films (No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski, and reportedly Raising Arizona which I still haven't seen), it's still entertaining and I recommend it. In comic tone it's similar to Intolerable Cruelty but funnier. It's also much less linear: it's one of those plots that starts out as several seemingly unconnected stories that all come together at the end. Usually it's better when this happens in a neat and clever way, but part of the comedy here is that the whole chain of events is pretty ridiculous. (This is one thing it does share with The Big Lebowski.)

I plan to sign up for Netflix in the near future, and one of my first actions will be to add a large fraction of the works of the Coen brothers to my queue. (I've seen just under half of them.)

Permalink | Tags: Movies

April 21, 2008

The flaw of Forbidden Kingdom

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:56 PM

(This post is spoiler-free.)

I saw Forbidden Kingdom yesterday: it's a decent movie, with entertaining fight scenes; if you go in hoping to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform some entertaining kung fu, you won't be disappointed.

However, it's actually a movie about hanging out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and consequently the main character isn't (despite the movie posters) either of the two Hong Kong stars, but a teenager played by Michael Angarano. I'm sure there's a strong constituency for the "going on adventures with Jackie Chan and Jet Li" story, but for those of us who just want to see people get kicked in the face, Angarano's character only gets in the way. On the other hand, there's plenty of good fighting so it's not a big disappointment, and having a broader audience helps movies like this get made, so I can't really complain.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is made infinitely worse through the egregious use of one of my least favorite plot devices: the ordinary teenager from the real world who gets transported to a fantasy kingdom (which he then must save before returning home). As far as I'm concerned, any narrative that employs this lame plot is digging itself a huge hole right at the start, and will have to be exceedingly brilliant to make up for it. There are lots of good reasons to avoid this plot, and especially the implementation in Forbidden Kingdom:

Now, I don't want to say that this plot can never be done well, but it takes some excellent writing to save it. The anime Fushigi Yuugi is one example where this trope succeeds, due mostly to strong plotting and characterization. The film of The NeverEnding Story does a good job but keeps the real-world protagonist at a distance from the fantasy world for most of the narrative. On the other hand, one of the several flaws of The Chronicles of Narnia is its repeated use of this device.

More generally, I think the approach of inserting ordinary, relatable characters into a story about legendary heroes is way overused. In the fantasy genre, I much prefer stories without an obvious audience stand-in but with heroes who may have extraordinary abilities but have complex and human personalities. My favorite Chinese fantasy films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated House of Flying Daggers—take the latter approach.

Going back to Forbidden Kingdom for a moment, I've just spent a lot of time trashing its plot, but of course in a movie like this the story is secondary to the spectacle. So this shouldn't be considered a pan of the movie as a whole; however, this glaring flaw in the story does detract a bit from the experience.

Permalink | Tags: Culture, Movies

April 19, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:27 PM

I'd like to introduce a new metric for rating movies in which a comedy film is evaluated based on the number of Belle & Sebastian songs on the soundtrack. As applied to movies I've seen recently:

This metric gets the correct ordering for this selection, but quickly breaks down when one realizes that Storytelling should then be the best film of all time.

Anyway, I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall today, and found that it exceeded expectations in several categories, not just Belle & Sebastian songs but also general hilarity, Jason Bateman cameos, and (regrettably) full frontal male nudity. If you've ever seen a romantic comedy before you know the entire plot, but this isn't what drives the humor so much as the interplay between the four principal characters. I place this one in the second tier of Judd Apatow productions: on par with Superbad, not quite as good as 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up.

Reading the Wikipedia entry for Marshall writer and star Jason Segel, I see that he will be writing and directing the next Muppets movie. I'm looking forward to this as long as it doesn't involve him appearing naked again.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music

April 7, 2008

New York City in fiction

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:12 AM

federal hall

I'm off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I'd like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that's a bonus. In any case the city shouldn't just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven't seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.

Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Games, Movies, New York City, Television

January 20, 2008

Two movie reviews

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:32 AM

I saw two good movies recently and should blog about them while it's still timely:

Juno: About the unplanned pregnancy of the title character, the obvious point of comparison is to Knocked Up. Knocked Up is funnier, but Juno has better writing, (much) better characterization, more heart, less sexism, more Arrested Development alums, and more Belle & Sebastian songs on the soundtrack. So I have to say of the two films I prefer Juno.

Cloverfield: The marketing campaign is clever, but I had no reason to expect that the film would live up to it. Fortunately J.J. Abrams comes through here and makes a terrific monster movie. It does a good job of keeping the tension high throughout, and the camcorder conceit works well at bringing a sense of immediacy (also potentially nausea, although I personally didn't get motion-sick). Tyler Cowen's review is pretty accurate, although I'm not sure I buy that there's a deep message here about kids these days. However, the characters are definitely intended to be irritating; I think this is fairly common in movies of this type, so that the characters can either experience personal growth over the course of the disaster or get fed to the monster to the satisfaction of the audience. Anyway, if you like Godzilla-type movies, or even just disaster films, definitely see it.

Permalink | Tags: Movies

September 19, 2007

Avast! Ahoy! Yo ho! And so forth!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:29 AM

YARR! It be Talk Like A Pirate Day! Traditionally (ok, just last year), I announce the Pirate Song of the Year today, but I can't think of any sufficiently piratical songs that have come out this year. However, we are taking nominations in the comments.

Instead, we open a new category: The Pirate Film of the Year.

Gore Verbinski, present yerself at the foredeck!

For the achievement of Pirate Film So Reportedly Lame I Didn't Bother Seeing It (of the Year), ye are rewarded with a one-way voyage to Davy Jones' Locker. Feed him to the sharks!


And now, the Pirate Film of the Year: Stardust. An extra share of booty fer Neil Gaiman, Matthew Vaughn, and Robert De Niro! ARRR!

Elsewhere, Chris Bertram warns not to try talking like a pirate in Bristol, where they talk like this all the time.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Pirates, Randomness

August 13, 2007

Assorted entertainment

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:18 AM

Since I haven't posted in forever, here's some of the stuff I've been doing instead:

Permalink | Tags: Books, Comics, Movies

July 30, 2007

Dallas Kwik-E-Mart

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:34 PM

I saw The Simpsons Movie today and found it quite enjoyable. Meanwhile, you may have heard that 7-11 had converted 12 of their stores into Kwik-E-Marts to coincide with the movie's release. One of them is just down the street from my parents' house in Dallas, and we stopped by on the way to the airport. I've posted a few photos here.

who needs the kwik-e-mart?

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Photos

July 27, 2007

Simpsons reviews analyzed

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:13 PM

So, the Simpsons movie is out this weekend. Most critics are saying it's good, but some dissent. Who to believe? Luckily, some reviewers are naming their favorite episodes in their reviews, from which we can get a sense of where their tastes lie. I've seen a number of different episodes mentioned, but two in particular were named multiple times. I am going to claim (based on very little evidence) that we can use this to weed out the inaccurate reviews. Consider the two episodes in question:

"Lisa the Vegetarian"
Cited by: A.O. Scott (NYTimes), Jake Coyle (Associated Press)
Reviewers' opinions of the movie: Mixed. Scott is generally positive but says "'The Simpsons,' for all its mischief and iconoclasm, has become an institution, and that status has kept this film from taking too many chances," and declares it only as good as an average episode. Coyle is somewhat harsher, calling it "too much a caricature of itself" and giving it an overall score of 2.5 stars.
Analysis: Appearing in season 7, just after the show's golden age, this uneven and heavy-handed episode is a strange choice. The episode showcases Lisa at her most irritatingly preachy, and the jokes too often seem smug or self-righteous. There are some great moments in this episode, but its flaws keep it from reaching the top tier. Clearly, any critic who prefers "Lisa the Vegetarian" is not to be trusted.

"Marge vs. the Monorail"
Cited by: Kyle Smith (NY Post), Chris Vognar (Dallas Morning News) [this review now seems to have been edited for print, with the monorail reference trimmed out, but it was in the version originally posted online]
Reviewers' opinions of the movie: Positive. Smith awards it three stars and Vognar gives it a B+. Neither critic puts at it at the level of the best Simpsons episodes, but they seem to have enjoyed it.
Analysis: Any true fan of The Simpsons will immediately break into song at the very mention of the word "monorail". (I recall one Fark thread in which the news article had something to do with a monorail, and the first twenty comments consisted of various commenters reciting lines to the song, in order.) This Conan O'Brien-penned spoof of The Music Man is a classic episode from the peak of the series, with the right mix of absurdity, subtle commentary, and pop-culture synthesis. Plus, Leonard Nimoy! These critics have made a solid choice, indicating they can be relied upon to review the movie from an appropriate perspective.

Conclusion: The Simpsons Movie, as per the trustworthy reviews, will be highly entertaining but won't rise to the brilliance of the TV show at its height. (Wait, I think I knew that already.)

Weekend discussion thread: What is the best Simpsons episode ever? (Hint: it's "Treehouse of Horror IV".)

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Television

June 3, 2007

Yippie Ki Yay

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:12 PM

Last night we watched the first two Die Hard movies to prepare for Live Free or Die Hard. Now I want to trim my beard to look like Alan Rickman's in the first one:

I had actually never seen Die Hard 2 despite owning the DVD (in a set with the other two, which I had seen). I had heard that it was the worst of the three, and that was my assessment upon seeing it—it doesn't hang together as well and has some laughably silly moments. (Die Hard with a Vengeance, a.k.a. Die Hard: The Stack has its share of silliness but pulls it off better.) Part of the problem, I'm convinced, is that they spend too much time trying to pay homage to the first movie, bringing back most of the surviving characters for some relatively pointless roles. Meanwhile, the third installment made a connection to the first film in the plot while ditching the entire cast (except of course for Bruce Willis) and bringing on Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons, a formula which was considerably more successful.

One thing I didn't know was that likely Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson appears in Die Hard 2 in a standard Fred Thompson role. Likewise William Atherton appears in the first two movies in a standard William Atherton role.

Finally, I'm sure you've all seen this already but no Die Hard post would be complete without the music video:

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music Videos

May 28, 2007

Morality in Judd Apatow films

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:46 PM

I remember when The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out: it looked tremendously unappealing, but I went to see it on the strength of the reviews, and it was actually really good. Judd Apatow's new movie Knocked Up, which comes out on Friday, also looks tremendously unappealing but is getting great reviews. So I'll go see it. (This will also give me another opportunity to announce "I went to high school with her!")

The New York Times ran a profile of Apatow in their Sunday magazine entitled "Judd Apatow's Family Values" which suggests that the films are driven by a certain conservative sensibility:

Both of the films Apatow has directed offer up the kind of conservative morals the Family Research Council might embrace — if the humor weren’t so filthy. In “Virgin,” the title character is saving himself for true love. “Knocked Up,” which opens on June 1, revolves around a good-hearted doofus who copes with an unplanned pregnancy by getting a job and eliminating the bong hits. In each of the films, the hero is nearly led astray by buddies who tempt with things like boxes of porn, transvestite hookers and an ideology about the ladies possibly learned from scanning Maxim while scarfing down Pop-Tarts. By the end, Apatow exposes the friends as well meaning but comically pathetic and steers his men toward doing the right thing.

Apatow more-or-less confirms this take in a quote further down the first page, but nevertheless it struck me as a very strange reading of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I don't know what movie Apatow thought he was making, but in the one I saw there was no suggestion at any point that the Steve Carell character was "saving himself", or taking any principled stand whatsoever. Rather, the obstacle for him was his shyness, which prevented him from having any meaningful human interactions at all, much less a sexual relationship. Consequently the whole narrative arc of the movie is about him gradually overcoming his shyness and expanding the scope of his relationships with other people. There's no suggestion that the protagonist is ever opposed to casual sex. On the other hand, I always wondered at the non-sequitur marriage in the film's resolution: it seemed so unnecessary that it could have been tacked on just to make some kind of statement against premarital sex. But one could equally well read the marriage as a metaphor for the kind of ceremonial significance that the act had taken on, so I'm not totally convinced.

Knocked Up is a harder case to assess, not least because I haven't seen it yet. (Maybe I'll get another post out of this topic next week.) The ads I've seen show Seth Rogan's highly punchable face with the tagline, "What if this guy got you pregnant?" The movie's answer seems to be "consider starting a family with him even though your prior history consists of a one-night stand." Far from "doing the right thing" as the Times piece says, this in real life would be considered a terrible idea. Unless this movie is set a few years into the future, after the Roberts Court has had its way with reproductive rights in America, it will have to provide some pretty strong motivation for pursuing this particular option, and I am curious to see how it does so. Fortunately, if 40-Year-Old Virgin is any guide, Apatow will completely fail to make a social-conservative morality play while succeeding in making a very funny comedy, so I'm looking forward to it.

However, I'm not really looking forward to this scene:

When Alison is in the delivery room, the stage direction simply read, “You see everything.” There would be three shots of the baby crowning. It promised to be the most graphic birth ever shown in a suburban multiplex.

I would really rather not have the impression that I am watching Katherine Heigl give birth. That would creep me out—after all, I went to high school with her.

Permalink | Tags: Movies

December 29, 2006

Year-end Miscellany 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:56 PM

I usually name a favorite book, movie, and game of the year. This year none of the books I read were recent enough to qualify, so I'll just do the other two:

2006 Movie of the Year: Brick
There wasn't a standout film in this category, but I think Brick was my favorite of what I saw this year. (There are many reportedly excellent movies that I haven't seen yet as well, such as The Departed.) Brick puts a classic detective noir in a high school setting, and does an excellent job of blending the two genres, much as Buffy did with horror. (The movie is definitely influenced by Buffy and works in a subtle but unmistakeable reference.) All the elements of the classic noir movies are present, from the convoluted plot to the familiar character archetypes to the eerie soundtrack. The juxtaposition with high school students is sometimes funny, sometimes striking, but never cheesy or over-the-top.

2006 Game of the Year: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria
I didn't play a large number of video games this year, but there was a clear winner, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games. The original Valkryrie Profile was a great dungeon crawler with beautiful visuals and complex and interesting characters. It only suffered from somewhat repetitive combat, which was completely reworked in the sequel to one of the most interesting and engaging systems I've ever seen in an RPG. The signature side-scrolling dungeons (hence "Profile") were preserved with a couple new twists—the ability to switch places with monsters, and sealstones that alter the mechanics—that gave the puzzles more depth. Overall I found the gameplay addictive in a way that I hadn't seen in years, and the only flaws I found are by comparison to the original Valkyrie Profile (mainly in the aesthetics and the character development).

Later this weekend, I'll post my favorite albums of the year.
Permalink | Tags: Games, Lists, Movies

December 11, 2006

Chasing Butterflies [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:29 PM

The 2006 CD is ready! Distribution will begin this week in the Bay Area and continue through my holiday travels. I'll post the list of songs sometime this week. Meanwhile, we continue with our regularly scheduled reviews:

Deja Vu: This is a thriller with a touch of sci-fi, as Denzel Washington plays a detective investigating a terrorist attack with the help of a secret government time machine. It's not terribly profound, and one should not think too hard about the consistency of the time-travel logic, but it's a reasonably fun ride with plenty of explosions and shootouts and car chases. Rating: 3/5

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas: Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle & Sebastian, is not the person I'd look to for a great Americana record, seeing as she's Scottish. Nevertheless, that is what she's produced here in collaboration with grunge veteran Mark Lanegan. Campbell provides a soft and ghostly voice which is nicely complemented by Lanegan's deep growl. But both are nearly upstaged by the acoustic instrumentation, which is beautiful. Most of the tracks were written by Campbell; highlights are "Black Mountain", "Deus Ibi Est" (despite the bad pronunciation of the Latin lyrics), and "Honey Child What Can I Do?" which was my runner-up for the Best Romantic Song of 2006. My favorite song, however, is the dark "Revolver" which was written by Lanegan. There's also a cover of "Ramblin' Man" which is a bit cheesy, and is only saved by Campbell's whispered vocals. Several of these tracks are available on MySpace, and two of them are downloadable. (The version of "Revolver" here is different from the one on the album, however.) Rating: 4/5

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

December 6, 2006

Gazebo. Arcane Gazebo. [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:10 PM

I meant to post this, like, a week ago. This may be the first December where my posting frequency goes up when I go on vacation. Anyway, I'm going to overuse the 4 rating again in this set of reviews.

Happy Feet: There is no truth whatsoever to the vicious rumor that I saw Happy Feet.

Casino Royale: By now, unless you've been living under a rock, you will have heard reports that this new start for the Bond franchise is really good. And I agree—not just a great Bond movie, but a great spy movie in general. It's gritty and a big step away from the excesses of the Pierce Brosnan films. Casino Royale is a sort of Bond origin-story, which begins with his earning the 007 rank, and shows how he developed into the character we're familiar with. Daniel Craig does a great job playing this unpolished Bond—later we were debating in lab the merits of the various Bond actors, and were only arguing over the #3 slot after an easy consensus on Connery and Craig as the two best. (The sentence "I like Timothy Dalton" was uttered without being intended as a Buffy reference.) Anyway, this is the best Bond film in years. My only complaint is that it is a bit too long, at nearly two and a half hours, but for most of this time it's pretty gripping. Rating: 4/5

Arrested Development - Season Three: On the other hand, my only complaint about this is that it's too short, because Fox canceled the show halfway through the season. This prompts the writers to step up the self-referential humor another notch, with embedded pleas to viewers and other networks to save the series, as well as digs at their competition (Desperate Housewives). Once again there are a few revelations that are foreshadowed in ways that make a second viewing rewarding. Although the second season is the show's peak, it ends on a very strong note. Rating: 4/5

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife: This could be the Decemberists' best album, at least the equal of Picaresque and maybe a little better. Although it doesn't have standout tracks on the level of "The Mariner's Revenge Song", it's much more coherent and has a more professional sound (maybe the result of their move to a major label). There are a couple of epic tracks: "The Island", which has some really excellent sections during its 12 minute extent, and "The Crane Wife 1 & 2", which is fairly good all the way through. I find that I prefer some of the shorter tracks, though: "O Valencia!" is especially good, as well as the final track "Sons and Daughters" which is a little brighter than the others. A stream of the former track, along with "Summersong", is available on their website. Rating: 4/5

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread, Television

November 21, 2006

Pass the Hatchet [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:46 PM

My brain seems to have gone on vacation already, but I want to move the purity balls down the page. So here's another open thread. Tomorrow I'll be flying to Dallas for the holiday weekend, although historically that's an inauspicious day for visiting that particular city.

Borat: I went into this movie having read various reviews that all called it a brilliant satire on the dark side of American culture. Funny, yes; brilliant satire: not so much. He managed to get some frat boys to say some obnoxious things, and some Deep South types to make some homophobic remarks, but this does not seem like a difficult task. Even his interviews with political figures weren't really that political, just Borat acting bizarre. The movie consists of some disposable plot-related scenes interspersed with footage of Borat walking up to unsuspecting bystanders and generally being a jackass until he wears out their tolerance. Often this is pretty funny, but sometimes he's just being an asshole and you feel bad for his victims. Rating: 3/5

Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid Of You, And I Will Beat Your Ass: Despite the belligerent title, this is a pretty calm and peaceful album. I've been catching up on Yo La Tengo's earlier work through my '90s music project this year—they're now my fifth most-played band, partly because I really like them and partly because there's so much to listen to. This one is a good addition to the catalog, a long, meandering record with a variety of styles and a warm and comfortable feel. It opens with "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" which runs for about ten minutes with few lyrics and mostly variations on a single theme, but is still interesting all the way through. This is followed by the upbeat, sunny, three-minute pop song "Beanbag Chair", which is one of my favorite tracks. (Both of those can be freely downloaded at the band's website.) My favorite song here is the beautifully assembled "Black Flowers". Rating: 3.5/5

...and if you're new to Yo La Tengo, the compilation Prisoners of Love is a good place to start. I picked it up for some tracks that were previously only on singles, and found the selection to be very good.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

November 12, 2006

Belated Reviews [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:57 PM

Here's an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I've been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.

Lots of high ratings here, partly because I'm prioritizing items I've really liked recently.

The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh's head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn't a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5

Arrested Development - Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it's even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don't know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I've played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It's a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I've played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5

Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it's quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5

The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it's no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It's excellent, just a notch below last year's Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with "Stuck Between Stations"; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with "You Can Make Him Like You" and a surprise acoustic turn on "Citrus". ("Chips Ahoy!", which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad "First Night" fell a bit flat, however, and I'm not wild about "Chillout Tent". Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread, Television

August 31, 2006

Uniformly good [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:43 PM

In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu's Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife's Silent Shout (in this post) for example.

The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that's what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we've all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it's not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn't just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5

Arrested Development - Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn't really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season's worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It's the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria's mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS's touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5

The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday's post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from "Heartbeats", it's a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars' Drum's Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to "Like A Pen" and "Silent Shout" at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5

Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica's suggestion that I post an entry titled "I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls", but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez's opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn't be played; "In the Waiting Line", which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can't complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7's catalog. It would have been nice to hear "Speed Dial No. 2", though. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Concerts, Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread, Television

August 28, 2006

Pacific Film Yarrrchive

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:41 PM

This was on BoingBoing about a week ago, but I didn't see it then—the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is having a pirate film festival through September and October. Not pirated films, but films about piracy, mostly the arrr, matey! kind (the last installment is an exception). Inconveniently for me, the movies are being shown on Wednesday nights.

Permalink | Tags: Culture, Movies, UC Berkeley

August 23, 2006

Reptiles on an Aircraft [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:18 PM

It has come to my attention that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Ladytron, and the Hold Steady are all playing San Francisco within days of each other in October. I will go to at least two of the three shows, and maybe all of them... (Architecture in Helsinki, opening for CYHSY, is actually the main draw for that show as far as I'm concerned.)

Snakes on a Plane: This movie delivers everything it promises: the reptiles, the aircraft, Samuel L. Jackson in glorious campy form. I saw it in Berkeley on opening night (not at midnight, however) with a pretty enthusiastic audience. As has been pointed out in comments, this is the proper way to see the movie. The film is well aware of its own ridiculousness and delights in providing implausible but gruesome snake attacks, overblown dialogue, and nods to the standard cliches of horror movies. All good for an evening of fun, but with little lasting value. As Samuel L. Jackson famously said, "It's not Gone with the Wind. It's not On the Waterfront. It's Snakes on a Plane!" Rating: 3.5/5

Asobi Seksu: Citrus: As I indicated last week, I've been enjoying this album of sweet-sounding noise pop. It's a bit of My Bloody Valentine, a bit of Yo La Tengo, and a bit of J-pop (the lead singer is a Japanese woman and the lyrics shift between Japanese and English). The whole album is solid and pleasant to listen to, but three tracks in particular stand out: "New Years" [download here], "Goodbye", and "Mizu Asobi". That last one is very catchy and always gets stuck in my head when I'm done listening to the CD. Now I just need to send the lyrics to Josh so he can tell me what she's saying. In addition to the link above they are on MySpace here. Rating: 4/5

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

August 7, 2006

Climate Control [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:24 PM

Since I tagged archived posts for the past year, I've put the category listing in the sidebar under the monthly archives. I may tweak the formatting some. I'd also like to tag posts further back in the archive—at least as far as the beginning of 2005—but it may not happen immediately.

I guess it's been a while since I posted an open thread, partly due to not having much to review lately and partly due to pure negligence. I need to listen to some new CDs so that I can get back to my usual schedule of posting reviews. (The new Sunset Rubdown album is good on first listen; I'll probably review it next week.)

An Inconvenient Truth: I finally got around to seeing Berkeley's most popular date movie, in which Al Gore delivers a Powerpoint talk on global warming. I'm not someone who needs convincing at this point, but I was curious to see what he had to say. Maybe it's just that I've seen too many scientific Powerpoint talks, but I thought it was rather disorganized—it seemed to jump around between different topics without a clear direction. The film is interspersed with vignettes from Gore's life, to explain why he's taken up this particular issue; I thought these were mostly just distracting, but for a popular audience maybe it helps humanize the issue. Visually the film is sometimes very compelling (especially the section showing various major cities flooding as the sea level rises—there's a GMaps app where you can try this yourself) but sometimes a little too twee (the polar bear, the frog). Gore is optimistic that global warming can be solved through what seemed like relatively minor improvements in energy efficiency and emissions reduction. Maybe this kind of ending is necessary to convince people the problem can be solved at all, but I'm much more pessimistic. Rating: 2.5/5

Metroid Prime: Hunters: I'm catching up on all those DS games now that I can play them. Unlike the Gamecube predecessors in the Metroid Prime series, this installment is focused much more on deathmatch than exploration. In the single-player mode the various maps are often clearly just the deathmatch levels stitched together, and the layout is more straightforward than is typical for a Metroid game. Combat is faster and more dynamic than in earlier Prime games as well. There's a steep learning curve for the stylus/d-pad control scheme, but once I got used to it I was suprised at how well I could move and aim. The game's biggest flaw is the bosses: a game this combat-oriented should have appropriately interesting boss fights, but instead of coming up with eight different enemies it keeps repeating the same two with slightly different capabilities. Apart from this, the single-player game is pretty solid. Now I just need to round up some opponents for the multiplayer. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Games, Movies, Open Thread, Science, Website

July 16, 2006

The SoaP backlash begins

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:59 PM

In this otherwise misguided article about Snakes on a Plane, there's a familiar-sounding anecdote:

True story: My friend Jenny is in law school, and one of her classmates went to a movie in April. When the coming attractions started, the first image was of dozens of unsuspecting plane passengers sitting in the cabin of an airborne 757. The moment he saw this, the mischievous law student yelled, "Snakes on a plane!" presumably to amuse and unify the other patrons. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a trailer for United 93, which significantly reduced the hilarity of his outburst.

I understand this is not an uncommon occurrence. Anyway, the rest of the article accuses us internet hipsters of claiming an ironic affection for a deliberately bad movie, but this could not be more wrong. I, for one, would like to see some snakes on a plane, and I feel fairly confident that Snakes on a Plane will deliver. I've been hoping to see a Snakes on a Plane trailer at the last few movies I've been to, but no such luck so far.

Permalink | Tags: Movies

July 12, 2006

Avast, scurvy dogs! [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:02 AM

I guess some comments are being posted anonymously even when the name is filled in? I've tweaked the template but I'm not sure if this solved the problem; I'm keeping an eye on it. Meanwhile, this blog now has a LiveJournal feed here.

It seems like it's been a slow period for new music lately (hence no music review this week), but the new TV on the Radio album is coming out soon. There's been a ridiculous amount of buzz about this album, but they were awesome enough at Coachella that the hype might be accurate.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: I put on my eyepatch and bandana Friday night and headed out for some good piratey escapism. Unfortunately about the first hour and a half of this movie were insufficiently interesting and I found my mind wandering back to the real world. Doubly unfortunately, as a result of the unfreezing process the guy directly behind me had no inner monologue and was having trouble controlling the volume of his voice, so we were regaled with an endless series of "UH-OH!" and "OH NO!" and laughter at inappropriate moments. What I really wanted to do was turn around and say "Arr, matey, still yer tongue or I'll cut it out and feed it to th' sharks" but somehow I restrained myself. Um, anyway, the extended action sequence at the end of the movie acheived an acceptable level of swashbucklery, so I wasn't entirely dissatisfied. And of course Johnny Depp is awesome. But the first movie was better. Rating: 3/5

Jonathan Lethem: Gun, With Occasional Music: (Thanks to Jolene for recommending this.) After seeing Brick I was ready for more noir in unusual settings, and this book delivered with a detective story in a near-future dystopian Oakland. The fun thing about a book set in the East Bay is that many of the locations are familiar, so when the protagonist visits the El Cerrito hills or 59th and Telegraph I can visualize it exactly. Except with Uplifted "evolved" animals walking around. Also, it is illegal to ask questions without a license, hence P.I. is "private inquisitor", and the government encourages the use of designer drugs to keep the population docile. The setting is obviously not intended to be a realistic possible future, but rather to instill a sense of confusion and alienation in the reader while fitting in with noir conventions. A very nice touch was that late in the narrative, a twist occurs which puts the detective in the same position as the reader with respect to the oddities of the future society. Any good noir story should have the narrator employ colorful and witty language, and Lethem is very good at this; I kept turning the pages looking for the next clever line as much as for the next plot twist. Rating: 4/5

Permalink | Tags: Books, Movies, Open Thread, Website

July 4, 2006

Highlights [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:48 PM

I saw the last two minutes of the Italy-Germany game, which turned out to be a very efficient use of my time.

In other news, the network outages plaguing this site may be easily fixable, but the database crashes are probably due to hardware limitations, and so I'm finally preparing to move the site to an external host. I'm aiming to have the new site up by Saturday, but these things always take longer than one expects. In the meantime, I'll still be posting at the usual address (assuming the server stays up).

Superman Returns: Bryan Singer continues his streak of solid superhero movies; while this one was not as good as Singer's excellent X-men installments, it's nevertheless a worthy successor to the Richard Donner Superman (which is heavily referenced). The film wisely ignores the third and fourth Superman movies (even if Superman III was underrated), and picks up after Superman II. Kal-El returns to Earth after a five-year interstellar hiatus, and tries to get back into the superhero business, while Lex Luthor pursues another large-scale real estate scheme. Kevin Spacey has fun as Luthor, who seems to be a bit of a crackpot. The movie does run a bit long at the end, spending too much time on the denouement, but until then the pacing is pretty good. I recommend watching the Donner version first and then trying to catch all the references. Also, look for product placement by Virgin Galactic. Rating: 3.5/5

The Futureheads: News and Tributes: I was a little disappointed by the new Futureheads record. While it's not a bad album, I didn't feel that there were any standout tracks like "Decent Days and Nights" or their cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" on the debut. The band also seems to have slowed down a bit, and (except for the aptly titled "Return of the Berserker") the record doesn't have the manic energy of its predecessor. It's not all bad News, though: I liked the tension underlying "Burnt"; "Back to the Sea" has an appealing chorus; and "Favours for Favours" is especially well-done. Rating: 3/5

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

May 31, 2006

Media Links Roundup: Rotten Edition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:56 PM

I skipped the open thread this week, but you can consider this a general media thread. Some links, none of which are complimentary of the subject material:

I haven't seen The Da Vinci Code or X3; I may end up seeing the latter.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Lists, Movies, Music

May 21, 2006


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:53 AM

I brought this up at lunch yesterday and it turned out no one else had seen it. So clearly I should have blogged it earlier: The Lord of the Rings, as told using quotes from The Princess Bride.

Permalink | Tags: Movies

May 14, 2006

More Noir [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:12 PM

Keep the book recommendations coming! I'm tempted to follow Kevin Drum (and several other bloggers) and read all the Hugo nominees. (I've already got two down.) Even better would be to get ahead of the curve and read one of next year's Hugo nominees, but that's a little harder to figure out. Meanwhile, all of the noir recommendations are especially timely given the movie I ended up seeing Friday night:

Brick: A detective noir film, complete with complicated plots, beautiful and mysterious women, and an investigator with a troubled past who gets beaten up a lot. The characters all talk and act like they're in a 1950's noir flick. There's a gimmick here, however, which is that the film is set at a high school with students as the principal characters. This could have come off as ridiculous, but the film does an excellent job with this juxtaposition, sometimes making it completely believable and seamless, and other times playing the contrast for laughs. Much like the best episodes of Buffy, the high school is used as a rich source of archetypes, and the noir setting works as a metaphor for the usual struggles of adolescence. All that aside, I love a good detective story, and the movie delivers in that department as well. Rating: 4/5

Calexico: Garden Ruin: I first encountered Calexico through their collaboration with Iron & Wine last year. In fact, their sound is something like Iron & Wine transplanted to the southwestern states. (I'm guessing the name of the band is a blend of "California" and "Mexico".) Calexico's latest album is a solid addition to their catalog, moving between a variety of styles—some songs sound more country, some have a more Mexican sound, and the last track "All Systems Red" has more of a straight rock sound. The album doesn't quite reach the heights of In the Reins, but it's a good listen. "Roka" wouldn't be out of place on a Robert Rodriguez soundtrack. Rating: 3.5/5

Permalink | Tags: Books, Movies, Music, Open Thread

May 5, 2006

Grad students in popular culture

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:10 PM

The above was the title of a slide in Jorge Cham's talk yesterday (discussed below). The slide cited four films: The Seniors (1978), Real Genius (1985) [this one prompted cheering from the audience], A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Hulk (2003). This is a pretty good list already, but I suspect there are more, and it seems like a good topic for a Friday thread. Make suggestions in the comments. No need to stick to film, either: it was at least implied that Fred was previously a physics grad student in Angel, and there are probably plenty of novels with grad student characters (some of them not written by Neal Stephenson).

For that matter, there are lots of mad scientists but rarely do you see their grad students. It's hard to imagine they're doing all that mad science themselves. Sure, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, but Igor seems like more of a postdoc. And Frankenstein operates the apparatus himself—what kind of PI does that? A more realistic portrayal would be something like:

[Dr. Frankenstein's group meeting. Igor, exhausted from taking data all night, presents a graph.]
Igor: So the data clearly indicate increased mobility of the subject.
Frankenstein: IT'S ALIVE! [pause] Start writing it up, I want to submit this to Physical Reanimation Letters by next week.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Comics, Culture, Movies, Television

April 20, 2006

Life imitates Mel Brooks

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:33 PM

So far today I've seen:

One more for the trifecta...

Permalink | Tags: Culture, Movies

April 18, 2006

Quantification [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:58 PM

I've added the movies I've seen since January 1 to my Listal page. This didn't take long, since there are only four. (They've all been reviewed here, the latest one in this post.) I've also been keeping the music list updated. I'll fill in the other three categories at some point, but it's not a high priority item. I see that the ratings are now visible, but inexplicably scaled by a factor of two. I'm reserving the five-star rating for items that are extremely close to perfect; a few items in a given year should attain a 4.5 rating. 2.5 indicates neutrality. Hmm, maybe I should post these with the reviews on the blog. I'll try that this week.

Thank You For Smoking: An amusing movie that looks into the mind of a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, who seems to undertake the defense of cigarette manufacturers as much for the challenge as for the paycheck. As the movie progresses he puts his talents for debate and persuasion to myriad uses, and trains his son in the arts of oratory. Meanwhile, William H. Macy does a terrific job (as usual) playing a Vermont senator pushing anti-tobacco legislation. Sam Elliott has a small role as the original Marlboro Man. Also, Katie Holmes is hot. The movie is pretty funny throughout and, refreshingly, doesn't moralize. There are a couple strikes against it: the use of voice-over was excessive, and the eloquence of the younger Naylor was extremely hard to believe. But overall it was a fun movie. Rating: 3.5/5

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Show Your Bones: Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, seems a lot calmer on this record. That's unfortunate, because the best part of Fever To Tell was the intensity and versatility of her vocals, and that's not nearly as prevalent on the latest release. As consolation, Nick Zinner's guitar takes a larger role, and it's pretty good. However, the album doesn't have nearly the punch that Fever To Tell did. I like "Gold Lion" and "Cheated Hearts", but "Dudley" is sort of annoying. It's my opinion that the band should wait until Karen O has more angst in her life before recording the next album. Rating: 3/5.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

April 12, 2006

Life imitates art: superhero tryouts

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:11 PM

Via Pharyngula, these tryouts for Stan Lee's new superhero reality show remind me of nothing so much as the hero recruitment drive in Mystery Men. Perhaps I could use my quantum coherence research to develop a superhero persona, but my powers would only work if no one observes them. (Maybe this is just a secret identity requirement.) However, the field is probably rife with potential supervillainy.

Permalink | Tags: Comics, Culture, Movies, Quantum Information, Television

March 27, 2006

Scary vs. gross [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:20 AM

It's spring break, but I don't have any vacation plans. I do have some travel lined up later on this spring: I bought my tickets for Coachella so I'll be seeing some of you there next month.

The Hills Have Eyes: This movie was so bad I'm just going to leave V for Vendetta on the sidebar. Normally I like horror flicks, but this one seemed unclear on the concept. Specifically, the film confuses "scary" with "gross", and so we get a lot of gore and ugly mutants but not a lot of suspense. Instead of being frightening the experience was merely unpleasant, and it wasn't even the most disgusting thing I'd seen all week (David Bowie's eyeball hanging out of its socket being the clear winner there). The protagonists are dumb even by horror movie standards—Roger Ebert writes pretty much his entire review on how dumb they are—and some of them are sufficiently annoying that I was rooting for the mutants within ten minutes or so. Some critics have suggested that the movie is an allegory for the Iraq war. Such a film would have been much more interesting; in reality the movie drags out a few political stereotypes but doesn't sign on to an agenda or pursue anything as sophisticated as an allegory.

Charles Stross:Iron Sunrise: Here's the problem with "hard sci-fi": sometimes the author knows just enough physics to get it wrong. For example: this novel's faster-than-light communication scheme involving EPR-style entangled qubits. Now, I'm one of the few readers of this book who actually has a pair of entangled1 qubits in his2 basement. But any competent physicist should know that information can't be transferred this way—you just get correlated random numbers. (You can make a one-time pad this way for quantum cryptography, and indeed this has been done.)

All this shows is that I'm a big nerd. Once I stopping thinking very hard about the physics in the book, it turned into a fun pulp novel, with spies, assassins, conspiracies, and Nazi villains (or near enough). Once the plot really got going I was hooked, and it was an excellent way to pass the time while I was stuck in the airport last weekend. One non-science complaint I had was that the plot twists were all telegraphed in advance, so there weren't any big surprises. However, the characters were well-written and just reading about their interactions was fun.

1It's actually debatable whether they are entangled (I suspect they are) but they are definitely coupled. More on this in an upcoming post.
2Actually, UC Berkeley's basement.

Arab Strap: The Last Romance: I felt like I am not nearly bitter enough to appreciate this album properly. And this is supposed to be one of Arab Strap's more uplifting records! Well, the tone does get happier as the CD plays, culminating in the nearly-triumphant "There Is No Ending". (The US version of the album has two bonus tracks, but that one is clearly the end of the album.) Overall this is a decent album with a few excellent tracks: the first song and the aforementioned last song; another one I like is "Don't Ask Me To Dance". For the most part I like the darker music, which probably means I should check out their other records which are supposed to be along the same lines. (This purchase finally prompted me to find out that the Belle & Sebastian album The Boy With The Arab Strap was named after this band, and not the other way around.)

Permalink | Tags: Books, Movies, Music, Open Thread, Physics, Quantum Information

March 20, 2006

Long Form [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:24 PM

My trip back from Baltimore took about 12 hours longer than it should have, but I eventually made it back. Despite attempts to catch up on sleep I still feel like I'm recovering—it was a busy week.

V for Vendetta: This is a powerful movie that mostly does a good job blending action/suspense with a political message. The setting is a near-future Britain which has slid into fascism after the deterioration of Iraq and some high-casualty terrorist attacks. (Meanwhile the United States has fallen into anarchy and civil war.) The plot centers around the masked-and-caped V, who pursues a personal vendetta against certain government officials, while working on a larger plot to overthrow the entire government in the spirit of Guy Fawkes. It wouldn't be correct to say that V is the hero of the movie—he's morally ambiguous at best and commits at least one act I found horrifying. However, the government he's fighting against is so much worse that he sometimes seems good by comparison.

The movie can be didactic at times, and the message is delivered in a heavy-handed way. However, I think the time for subtlety is past: the government we have right now is detaining citizens without trial, torturing innocent people, and asserting unlimited executive power. It's refreshing to see a movie that stands up and says straight out that we, as a citizenry, should not tolerate these things. I certainly don't think we need to blow up any buildings, and Guy Fawkes is the wrong model for this sort of thing, but the basic notion that the people have a right to replace an unacceptable government translates well to the ballot box.

As for the film qua action movie, it's generally well done. There is a thread of paranoid tension running throughout that works well to keep up the suspense—this is one of the ways that the politics reinforce the action. A sequence early-on in which V takes over the state-run television studio is especially good, and the climactic fight scene at the end is the sort of thing the Wachowskis excel at. There are a couple of points where the exposition/recapping becomes excessive and the suspense wanes, but it picks up again afterwards.

Anyway, I liked it. (Remember when I wrote short capsule reviews in the open threads?)

David Goodstein: Out of Gas: This book is Goodstein's effort to explain the interrelated problems of peak oil and climate change to a non-technical audience, and in doing so he explains the physics of energy and the historical development thereof. He sets forth a mostly pessimistic picture, anticipating oil supply problems in the very near future and associated social turmoil. Unfortunately I think he too quickly brushes off the economic arguments about alternative energies becoming more cost-effective as the costs of fossil fuels increase. I don't think this solves the problem but it should make the situation better than he expects. (One of the frustrating things about reading peak oil commentary is that physicists are frequently naive about economics, and economists naive about physics.) His treatment of the basic physics issues surrounding energy production is very good, however, and I would recommend it to a non-technical audience for that reason.

In the end, I am still not sure just how worried I should be about peak oil, but the answer is clearly non-zero.

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not: This is the hot band over in Britain right now, and musical Anglophiles will find their sound pleasing. Imagine the drunken swagger of the Libertines with the guitar sound of Franz Ferdinand, and you have a good approximation. This CD hasn't quite achieved the heavy rotation of certain other recent British additions to my collection, but it's still pretty good. The major single seems to be "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" but several others are equally good, like "Fake Tales of San Francisco".

Permalink | Tags: Books, Caltech, Energy, Movies, Music, Open Thread, Physics, Science

March 17, 2006

By Popular Demand: The '90s Movies Thread

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:33 AM

A few weeks ago there was a request for a thread on the subject of essential '90s movies, along the lines of the music thread that ran in January. These threads are nicely self-sustaining so I decided to save it for the next time I was away from the blog for a few days. That time was five days ago, but I had assumed I would be able to turn my computer on. So instead I'm posting it now, since it's a good Friday thread and I'll be on a plane for much of the day.

Rules: Suggest movies from 1990-1999 that are essential in the sense of classic, influential, or just generally awesome. Obscure and idiosyncratic choices are encouraged. Also, pick the best overall movie from that decade, and we'll see if there's a concensus.

Here are some of my favorites to get you started (with my top pick in bold):

I'm probably forgetting a few since I don't have my DVD collection in front of me (should have entered it into listal),

Here are the 10 "Best Picture" Oscar winners from the 90's:

Permalink | Tags: Culture, Lists, Movies

February 4, 2006

Swallows might be more efficient

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:03 AM

"Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?"

"Not at all. They could be carried."

Via Boing Boing.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Randomness, Religion, World

January 10, 2006

Cliffhangers [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:36 PM

I must have been on vacation, because I have a bunch of media to review:

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Despite my initial skepticism, my curiosity got the better of me and I went to see this. Outcome: the Christian allegory stuff is pretty mild and not nearly as off-putting as, say, talking animals. The movie is a pretty good adaptation of the source material, but it's no Lord of the Rings. Most of the characters were lacking in depth and the plot felt barely-connected at times. (I think these were also features of the book? But it's been a while.) Also, the pacing was a bit off—the movie takes too much time to get the characters into Narnia and then has to make up a lot of ground. Finally, it was appropriate that Peter obviously had no idea how to use his sword (and did anyone else hear the Zelda "you got the item" music in their heads when Peter gets his sword and shield, or was that just me?), but it made the climactic duel between him and the White Witch reminiscent of nothing so much as Xander vs. Harmony in The Initiative.

Guitar Hero: I'm sure I look ridiculous wailing away on that guitar controller, but the game is fun. It didn't really feel much like playing an actual guitar until I tried it on Hard difficulty, but at that point it was quite enjoyable (but, indeed difficult). The game wins bonus points for having volume settings that default to the maximum value of 11.

George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows: If you've started the series, you've no doubt read this latest installment already. If you haven't started it, then, DON'T. At least, not yet—wait until the final book comes out. A Feast for Crows is very good, but it seems to have been written on the principle that A Storm of Swords contained too few cliffhangers. If you do read it, remember that there's an appendix in the back with all the family trees, followed by a preview chapter of the next volume, so the book will actually end when it looks like there are still seventy pages left. This is maddening, because at that point you will be very eager to know what happens next.

And that's when you find the author's note explaining that the next book will be about the characters that didn't appear in this volume, which means... the cliffhangers in A Feast for Crows won't be resolved until two books later.

So spare yourself the pain and don't read this until you can pick up (at least) the next two volumes immediately afterward.

(Also: this put the child monarchs of Narnia in a whole different context...)

The Constantines: Tournament of Hearts: These guys did a decent job opening for the Hold Steady, so I went looking for their latest album. It proved difficult to find, but I happened upon a advance review copy in the used CD section of a Berkeley record store that will remain unnamed, since I probably shouldn't be announcing that they are selling CDs marked "not for resale". So, the album: it's a good listen, solid distortion-y indie rock (as was the live performance) but there are no real standout tracks. "Lizaveta" is a good example.

Also, don't miss the ongoing "Essential 90's Albums" thread below, which has broken the comment record. (I feel like there should be bells ringing and a shower of confetti when this happens.)

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread

December 31, 2005

The Rest of the 2005 Favorites

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:23 AM

I listened to a lot of music (by my standards) this year, but mostly neglected other media categories. So the rest of the end-of-year list is drawing from a smaller set of works. I'm sure I overlooked lots of worthy books, movies, and games this year, so please point them out in the comments.

Favorite movie: Sin City
This was definitely the most visually interesting film of the year, a film that really looked like its graphic novel source material. This was coupled with a series of storylines running at top speed, each depicting some act of heroism rising up from the dark heart of the city. The movie was grotesquely violent, but I think this was an important part of the experience (I addressed this point in more detail in my longer-than-usual review back in April).

Honorable mention: The 40-Year Old Virgin surpassed expectations by being completely hilarious while being sympathetic to the shyness afflicting the title character. The dialogue and characters were very authentic, even when the situations got a bit ridiculous.

Favorite book: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Murakami manages to find pockets of magic and portals to alternate worlds hidden around Japan, and then teases us with short glimpses of the wonder he's found. This was my favorite of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was more accessible as well. The basic story sounds pretty straightforward: a 15-year-old runaway goes on a journey, falls in love, faces his inner demons. However, as with everything Murakami, there's a lot more beneath the surface.

Favorite video game: Well, Xenosaga II was probably the best game I played this year, but that list is very short. I can't really close this category until I've played Dragon Quest VIII, for one thing... What else should I be playing, as long as this category is open?

Permalink | Tags: Books, Games, Lists, Movies

December 5, 2005

Musings on Narnia

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:53 PM

Like PZ Myers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia at an age (I think I was eight) where I was too young to notice the Christian allegory. My ability to understand metaphor actually turned on fairly late; even in my senior year in high school I was unable to handle questions in English class that required sophisticated textual interpretation. Nonetheless, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious, once I am reminded of the details. I mean, the lion dies and gets resurrected? (Well, Lord of the Rings did that too, but supposedly Tolkein himself was unimpressed by Narnia's heavy-handedness.)

Anyway, at the time I read them I liked the books well enough, and they were probably the first fantasy novels I read, but I soon moved on to other authors and didn't really return to Narnia (and I remember basically nothing of the plot of any of the books). I think I made it through the entire series once, where by comparison I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series about 8,000 times. As children's fantasy goes, the latter series is far superior, with more interesting characters, wittier dialogue, and more emotional impact—scenes from that series are seared into my brain in ways that C.S. Lewis never accomplished. Wonder if that one had Christian subtext too, or if it was all Welsh folklore. But I digress.

Back to Narnia, my excitement about the movie has thus far been limited, but not due to the allegorical aspects. After all, Lord of the Rings had that, and I was still excited about the movies, because they were good stories. And one of the reasons a lot of people find Christianity appealing is that it draws from universal narratives about sacrifice and redemption, which are certainly appropriate for epic fantasy. No, what turns me off about Narnia is that I tend to be uninterested in stories in which the protagonists are children. Of course, that wasn't the case when I originally read the books, but maybe that's why I never returned to them as I became more interested in mature perspectives. Likewise, the Harry Potter series has become more interesting to me as the characters age (although I am still one book and two movies behind on that one). Speaking of which, another thing that worries me is that filming the Chronicles of Narnia right now is a transparent attempt to jump on the LotR/Harry Potter fantasy bandwagon, and while this doesn't mean the movie won't be good, it means the filmmakers have less motivation to do a good job if they think it's a sure thing commercially. (Remember that Fellowship of the Ring was a huge risk for New Line and Peter Jackson!)

All that said, I do have a certain curiosity about how the Narnia movie will handle the source material, so I'm likely to end up seeing it anyway.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Movies, Religion

November 3, 2005

Rampage [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:46 PM

I held off posting the open thread because the Halloween thread seemed to be filling that role. (Not because I was distracted playing Katamari Damacy. No.) My media selections this week are strongly correlated with Mason's.

Mirrormask: This movie has already generated some contentious discussion in comments, so I feel like I'm a bit late to the party. I basically agree with Mason's take, that Gaiman is aiming for a fantasy in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, in which plot is secondary to exploring a different world that follows its own logic. The visual execution of this was quite good, but I felt that Gaiman wasn't really at the top of his game in terms of finding clever twists on one's usual assumptions. Nevertheless it was mostly successful, and there are some great moments (like the encounter with the Sphinx).

We Love Katamari: After hearing about Katamari Damacy and its successor for months, I finally got a chance to play. Now I'm hooked. The game mechanics are pretty simple: the player rolls around a small ball (the katamari) that's sticky so everything smaller than the ball gets picked up. You start out picking up small items like thumbtacks and pencils, and as these things get stuck to the ball it gets larger and you can graduate to books and fruit and small animals, until the ball gets a little bigger, and so on until you're rolling around an enormous wad of stuff picking up houses and trees and giant squid. There's a real turning point once the ball gets big enough to pick up people, and the citizens who were previously walking around obliviously suddenly start running away when the ball approaches. At that point there's a feeling of rampaging through the city like a proper Japanese monster.

Vitalic: OK Cowboy: Wow, this is some brilliant and strange electronica. The album opens with some sort of electro-polka and closes with two and a half minutes of fanfares played only on drums; the tracks in between are slightly more conventional but definitely awesome. Recently I bought new speakers and a substantial subwoofer; this was one of the first albums I played on the new system and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time: the bass is really supposed to be penetrating, so adjust your set appropriately. It's a bit tough to choose a representative track from this disc, but try "Repair Machines".

Permalink | Tags: Games, Movies, Music, Open Thread

October 3, 2005

Everyone's talking about it [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:08 PM

Apparently the new Richard K. Morgan novel came out when I wasn't looking, and Franz Ferdinand's new album comes out tomorrow. So I've got some shopping to do. Maybe I'll be able to find that Wolf Parade album this time.

Serenity: The blogosphere is swamped with commentary on this movie, so I'll just say that it's really good. My brother came up to Berkeley to see it with me (I introduced him to the works of Joss Whedon, so it seemed appropriate), and we spent the rest of the weekend quoting it to each other. I think Jayne may now be my favorite character.

While on the subject of film: anyone seen Mirrormask yet?

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Not an instruction but the name of the band, and of their debut album. There's been a ridiculous amount of buzz about this band from indie rock critics, even when this album was only available from shady internet filesharing services. I always worry that my computer will contract some awful spyware infection from such services, so I waited until the CD was released. On first listen my reaction was a resounding "Huh?" It's not bad, but I haven't yet figured out what all the hype was about. (My first reactions don't correlate well with my eventual opinion of a given band—I had a similar reaction to the Arcade Fire, but after a few more listens Funeral became one of my favorite albums.) Anyway, there are some songs I really like on here, like "Details of the War", but I feel a bit like I'm missing something.

I still have a long backlog of music to review, so there's probably a big music post in the future. I considered doing this as an audio post where I could play songs interspersed with my commentary, or as a series of podcasts, but I'm not sure I have the time to do that properly.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

September 8, 2005

You go squish now!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:44 PM
Critical consensus is that the new A Sound of Thunder movie really, really sucks. That's disappointing, because I remember liking the original Ray Bradbury story. On the other hand, I read that story when I was about ten years old.

This means that the best adaptation of the story remains the segment "Time and Punishment" from the "Treehouse of Horror V" episode of The Simpsons.

HOMER: OK, don't panic -- remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.
[remembers Abe with hair and a tuxedo]
ABE: If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.
Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Movies, Television

August 31, 2005

Backgrounds [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:20 PM

Another late open thread, it seems I've been spending my blogging energy on other topics. Generally I was pretty wiped out on Monday and early Tuesday following a busy weekend, but I seem to have recovered. It looks like I'm about to have another busy weekend, but at least this one will be spread out over three days.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Surprisingly, this movie was really very funny. It initially sounded like this would be another formula comedy in which the characters find themselves in increasingly wacky situations, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. This is indeed the structure of the movie, but most of the humor actually derives from the interactions between the characters, who are very well written and acted. The movie is surprisingly sympathetic and realistic in its depictions of shyness, which is only one of several factors contributing to the main character's romantic difficulties. One of the central jokes is that the male supporting characters are just as dysfunctional in their relationships, even if they have more sexual success, and the mockery is hence pretty egalitarian. The major flaw in this movie comes from the sappier elements, which become more and more prominent towards the end, leading to a finale that played according to genre conventions—but the genre was romantic comedy, when I thought I was watching a sex farce. Maybe that was to attract a broader audience, I don't know.

The Life and Times: Suburban Hymns: I get kind of a late 90's alt-rock feel from this album. Lots of distortion and incomprehensible vocals. This is the kind of album that works well in the background, the tracks blend together and individual songs don't call much attention to themselves. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but makes it a bit frustrating to review when I've owned the CD for two weeks and still can't tell the songs apart. Selecting somewhat randomly, I'm uploading "Coat of Arms".

I need to get my hands on this track-by-track remix of Bloc Party's debut album Silent Alarm. Check out that list of contributors...

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

August 16, 2005

On the March [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:38 PM

I have a lot of energy lately! Fortunately I've been able to keep myself busy.

The Aristocrats: This is a very funny and relentlessly obscene documentary on the infamous dirty joke. I laughed until it hurt. It's not for the squeamish, as the various comedians will violate (and I do mean violate) every taboo subject they can think of. If you can stand it, though it's well worth it. Highlights: George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Cartman.

Pelican: The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw: Long crashing epic songs that sound like they should be the soundtrack for an army of orcs on the march, driven by hard-rock electric guitar riffs (but acoustic guitar is used as well to great effect). Well, there aren't actually vocals (despite the album's title!), so I guess "songs" isn't the right term. Terrific instrumental rock, though. I'm uploading one of the shorter tracks to save bandwidth: "Sirius"

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Music, Open Thread

August 11, 2005

Boring Movies for Jesus

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:23 PM

Oh, this is so lame. The producers of the Da Vinci Code movie don't want to upset anybody:

Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the central premise - that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene - more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei.

"The question I was asked was, 'Can you give them some things they can do to change it, to make it not offensive to the Christian audience?' " said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood. She said she was approached by Jonathan Bock, a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities, and included in the discussions Amy Welborn, who has published a refutation of "The Da Vinci Code" titled "De-Coding Da Vinci."

"We came up with three things," Nicolosi said: the more ambiguous approach to the central premise, the removal of Opus Dei and amending errors in the book's description of religious elements in art.

What, exactly, do the studio officials think is the source of the book's popularity? It certainly wasn't the writing; it was the controversy and the twist on church doctrine. The people who were going to be offended aren't going to see it anyway, and the people who might actually be interested will be turned off by the "ambiguous" version. And who are these Christians who are so sensitive as to get worked up over this? It's a bad sign if you think that the plausibility of your dogma can be undermined by a Tom Hanks film.

Fortunately, most the of the Christians I know personally are unperturbed by such things, but sadly there's a long tradition of this kind of overreaction in Christianity. This goes back through the church's list of banned books and persecution of heretics, all the way to the founder himself:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. (Mt. 12:31)

So Jesus is only encouraging this sort of thing. Why couldn't he instead have said "Lighten up, it's only a movie"?

Permalink | Tags: Books, Catholicism, Christianity, Movies, Religion, The Bible