Fri, Dec 31, 1999

: Back from Oregon Christmas 1999

I made it back from Oregon. Had a great time with family; watched movies, played International Monopoly, ate too much. Flight home was canceled due to lack of demand, so they put me on an earlier flight. Made it with two minutes to spare. Airports and planes were deserted. Crazy! Don’t know if it was Y2K related, but I did have a weird series of coincidences. My watch went dead (bad battery). Coming out of the coma of a vacation (where I found it hard to remember what day it was, let alone the time), this made it even worse. This is a data watch, which stores frequently needed phone numbers, so bye-bye data. I had a travel alarm I thought I’d use this morning, but its battery was also dead! So I resorted to my Palm III, only to discover that its batteries had also died and I’d lost all my Palm info! (Most of the data’s backed up, but not all.) Welcome to 2000, I guess.

Topic: [/travel]


: Reservoir Dogs

Author: Quentin Tarantino

Director: Quentin Tarantino

I saw this a few years ago when Quentin hit the mainstream; my impression then was it was interesting, but violent and strangely structured. Perhaps I’ve changed, or I paid more attention this time, but the movie struck me as quite simple, though the perspective was unusual. It’s basically a very interesting look at a gang of thieves just before and after a heist that goes bad. There really isn’t much violence (we see lots of blood, but much of it happens off-screen). Amazing the way a good director can make something complex out of something simple.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Dec 29, 1999

: Fitzcarraldo

Author: Werner Herzog

Director: Werner Herzog

An unusual movie about a man in the Amazon who tries to establish an opera house in the middle of the jungle. He goes through incredible feats to achieve this; you really have to see the film to understand. Lushly photographed; excellent acting. Fascinating look at a man’s pursuit of a dream and what it will take to achieve it.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Red Shoes

Author: Hans Christian Anderson (story) and Michael Powell

Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I’ll confess up front that I bought this movie knowing next to nothing about it. I’m glad I did; it’s a very cool film. It’s about ballet dancers. Sounds boring, right? Actually, it wasn’t. We follow the life of a ballerina and her composer boyfriend as they become world famous via their production of “The Red Shoes,” a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson story about a ballerina whose red shoes cause her to dance and dance until she dies. Ultimately this film is about the conflict between love of art and human love, as the lead is asked to choose between dancing and her boyfriend. Quite a complex and unusual movie. The pacing is very different; it seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. I need to watch it again to figure out why.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 28, 1999

: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Author: Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli

Director: Sergio Leone

The ultimate Western, classic all the way. The memorable music is at least 50% of the movie. I watched part of The Mask of Zoro the other day and noted at least one instance of music stolen directly from GBU. There must be thousands of imitations, but none quite match up.

Topic: [/movie]


: Brazil

Author: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stopard

Director: Terry Gilliam

Brazil is my pick for the best movie of all time. It gets that honor because it’s a fun movie, with action, humor, and drama, all packaged within an incredibly profound story. Brazil has many messages; you cannot watch it only once and expect to understand more a tenth of what it has to say. While there are more dramatic films, like Shindler’s List, who would want to watch Shindler’s List twice on the same day? Brazil is the kind of movie you can watch over and over, and each time you see more. Absolutely amazing. (I also watched a fascinating documentary included on the DVD on the battle over the release of Brazil. I’d heard of the controversy, where director Gilliam didn’t want to make the changes the studio wanted, but never realized the version of I’d previously seen was the one I was supposed to see because the studio lost the battle. The cut version with the different ending was apparently only used for American TV. Thank the Lord I never had to endure that one.)

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Dec 27, 1999

: The Man with Two Brains

Author: George Gipe and Steve Martin

Director: Carl Reiner

One of my favorite Steve Martin movies. I was surprised none of my cousins had seen it — I guess it’s an Eighties movie. We laughed throughout, so either it was funny, or it was just because it was one in the morning. (My other Martin favorites are Roxanne and L.A. Story.)

Topic: [/movie]


: Galaxy Quest

Author: David Howard VI

Director: Dean Parisot

Silly movie that pokes fun at the Star Trek phenomena. The story’s basically that the cast of Star Trek-like TV show are taken by aliens to help fight against their enemy, not realizing the people are just actors. Well-done, with a few choice gags, but not especially memorable. Better than most one-joke premises.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Dec 26, 1999

: Walkabout

Author: Edward Bond

Director: Nicolas Roeg

This is one of my favorite movies, for many reasons. I love the wildlife photography, and the story, which purports to be about survival in the wild but is really about survival within civilization (there’s a lot to make you think about what exactly is the definition of civilization). It’s a movie you need to see more than once, as it opens your eyes to life from a different perspective (but without preaching). It’s a beautiful movie.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Secret Agent

Author: W. Somerset Maugham (novel) and Campbell Dixon

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Interesting early Hitchcock film about secret agents trying to track down another secret agent. Great Peter Lore role. Quite sophisticated special effects for the train wreck at the end, considering the technology of the day. Hitchcock was famous for pushing movie-making technology; it’s scary to think what he could have done with today’s computer-generated stuff.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 23, 1999

: Too Busy

What a crazy time! Things have been very busy at work the last couple of weeks, and I’ve been spending every spare moment working on The Dilemma, my film short. This has been a major project for me — I’ve been working on it for months. Doing it with minimal equipment, zero budget, no staff, and myself as the lead actor (and camerman) was not a wise move. Still, it was tremendously educational, and I’m fully convinced that directing is somewhere in my future (though I obviously have gobs to learn). I finally got the movie completed this past weekend, but it was tight. Overall, it makes a fun Christmas present (ostensibly the purpose). On Monday, my car broke down, leaving me stranded in Santa Cruz. On Tuesday I discovered why: the car was out of gas. Turns out the “sending unit” was bad. Apparently this is the hardware that tells the fuel gauge how much gas is left. The dial was stuck at a quarter tank. Anyway, got the car fixed yesterday, and I drove to the airport and flew to Oregon this evening. (The plane flight was delayed by a similar situation: the altimeter went bad and they had to switch us to a different airplane. I didn’t arrive until early on Christmas Eve.)

Topic: [/personal]


Tue, Dec 21, 1999

: Raging Bull

Author: Jake La Motta (book) and Joseph Carter

Director: Martin Scorsese

I was prepared to not like this movie. It’s about boxing (ugh), Italian mobsters (double ugh), and a charming lead who beats women (triple ugh). About half-way through, however, I found myself really entertained. I hadn’t planned to watch the whole thing last night, but I couldn’t not finish it. It’s a very good film. I can’t vouch for the realism of the boxing or anything — the fights were often confusing to me, being the opposite of a boxing fan — but it was interesting. What I liked most was that this wasn’t about a single fight but about a man’s entire career, his whole life. Boxing, ultimately, is a small part of his life. It’s not a pretty life, but it is a life. Strangely sympathetic despite my revulsion. DeNiro’s performance is definitely one of the classics of film. Absolutely amazing. He transforms so well into the character that you forget this is only a movie. He is boxer Jake La Motta. Definitely worth seeing, at least once.

Topic: [/movie]


: Rushmore

Author: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilso

Director: Wes Anderson

I was expecting this to be more of a “laugh out loud” comedy. Instead it’s a humorous drama. Nicely done, though slow and puzzling in places. It’s a character piece about a bright, nerdy kid who’s an overachiever with an active fantasy life. On scholarship, he attends prestigious private school Rushmore, where he is president of all sorts of clubs. He falls for a teacher and tries to scheme to “get” her (even he doesn’t seem to know what that means), but then his rich adult friend (played straight by Bill Murray) begins dating the teacher, and the two go to war. It’s a funny look at a remarkable kid trying to figure out his life. Entertaining, a little on the odd side, but ultimately I’m not sure we exactly learn anything.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Dec 20, 1999

: Deliverance

Author: James Dickey (novel and screenplay)

Director: John Boorman

I didn’t know anything about this movie other it has a reputation as a classic. I thought it was a war movie, actually. For some reason I thought Marlon Brando was in it. It kept bugging me throughout the movie how much Brando looked like Burt Reynolds! (It is Burt in the movie, for the clueless like me.) This is not a war film, it’s a survival story. Four guys go canoeing down a river and struggle for their lives. While I’ve seen more recent films that were similar (and less well done) and that took away some of the originality of this movie, it is excellent. The cinematography is awesome, the performances flawless. My favorite scene? The “dueling banjos” at the beginning. A classic. I also liked that the movie didn’t just end when the guys made it home — it kept going, showing us a bit of the aftermath. That’s unusual for Hollywood movies.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 18, 1999

: In Dreams

Author: Bari Wood (novel) and Bruce Robinson

Director: Neil Jordan

This movie was better than I expected as the critics had panned it badly when it came out. It actually is an interesting psychological thriller about a woman (Annette Bening) who’s haunted by an insane killer. Unfortunately, the killer, played by Robert Downey Jr., is weak and ineffectual in the role. Bening, on the other hand, is awesome. The direction is a bit heavy-handed, the editing so sharp it occasionally confuses things. Certain aspects of the plot didn’t make any sense, and, of course, the reason for the dream-link between the two main characters is never explained. This is one of those scripts with a lot of potential, but several flaws weaken it so badly it ends up being a so-so movie. Don’t pay more than a couple dollars to rent it, or better yet, watch it on a premium channel for free.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Dec 17, 1999

: Thief

Author: Frank Hohimer (novel) and Michael Mann

Director: Michael Mann

This movie is similar to Heat, but I actually liked it better in some ways. It’s a simpler story, about a diamond thief who wants to have a normal life. James Caan was really good in the title role: he plays a smart but rather dumb guy. That’s realistic (most crooks are intelligent), but it’s a tricky task to pull off. In two or three scenes Tuesday Weld shines as his girlfriend. The movie is slow-paced at times, but it keeps building and grows more and more interesting as it goes along. It’s well-directed by Michael Mann (of “Miami Vice” fame). What I liked best was how realistic all the characters were: there’s good and bad within them all.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Dec 15, 1999

: Mannheim Steamroller: The Christmas Angel (Music Special)

Author: Noah Zachary

Director: Andy Picheta

What a neat DVD! In Dolby surround sound, the music is incredible. I love Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music, and what’s better than their classic tunes set to motion on ice? Here we’ve got a simple children’s story, narrated by Olivia Newton-John, and the story acted by world-famous ice skaters like Dorothy Hamill, Elvis Stojko, and others. It’s great. Children and adults will both love it. (I got mine at Costco, but Amazon doesn’t appear to sell it yet.)

Topic: [/music]


Tue, Dec 14, 1999

: Dick

Author: Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin

Director: Andrew Fleming

This spoof on the Watergate scandal has two dizzy teenage girls as “Deep Throat,” the source of the leaks that brought down a President. Nice, light movie. Fun, but more like an extended Saturday Nigh Live sketch than a comedy. Most of the “humor” is so mild and subtle you’ll never catch it. For one, you have to know a lot about Watergate to understand most of the in jokes. To give you an example of the type of humor: on the director’s commentary on the DVD, he points out how in one scene Woodward has a pad but no pen and Bernstein has a pen and no pad. The director seems to think this is hilarious, and yes, it does bring a smile to the face, but it’s not laugh out loud (which a comedy of this kind needs to be). On the other hand, a film like this could be profound by making powerful statements about society and politics… but this movie doesn’t. So you get mild smiles and no Deep Thought (sorry about that ;-) — basically you won’t miss much either way on this one. The most profound and interesting thing for me was something on the director’s commentary: he pointed out that a number of viewers expressed far more horror and outrage that the movie would dare make fun of Woodward and Bernstein than that it makes fun of Richard Nixon. “In a sense,” said Fleming, “that’s because the journalists are more revered figures than the President.” A bit scary, that.

Topic: [/movie]


: DVD Player

Hey, my DVD player arrived today! I’ve been watching DVDs on my Powerbook. It’s great to have that feature, and the portability’s unmatched, but it’s awkward for connecting to the TV and the software’s sometimes glitchy and slow. So I bit the bullet and bought myself an early Christmas present: a home theatre system. If you haven’t tried DVD yet, do so. There’s no going back. The picture is unbelievably clear, even an on old TV like mine. DVDs have twice the resolution of VHS videotapes, plus there’s no rewinding! Most DVDs have extra content (director’s commentary, making of featurettes, delete scenes, music videos, etc.), too. I also like the fact that since they are the same size as CDs, they take up a lot less space! (Come see my tiny house, which is filled from floor to ceiling with videotapes and you’ll understand. One of these days I want to put my movie collection on my website. I suspect I’m approaching 1500 movies by now.) But DVDs are also about sound: they include Dolby Digital surround sound, just like you get in the movie theatre! Surround sound is amazing — it really puts you in the middle of the action. It changes the whole movie experience.

Topic: [/technology]


Sun, Dec 12, 1999

: Cold Fall

Author: John Gardner

I love audiobooks. They’re especially good for thick classics that are too intimidating to read (like anything by Faulkner). I listen to them in my car and it’s amazing how they change the way you drive. Suddenly stoplights, instead of being an aggravation, are a delight, because they mean you get to hear more of the story! I normally make it a point to only buy unabridged audiobooks, but every now and then I’ll try a popular book, just for fun. This one was cheap, and it’s a James Bond thriller, and I love James Bond. The book, however, was forgetable. An airplane’s brought down by a bomb and Bond is sent to investigate — but it turns out that has nothing to do with the plot of the book! We’re vaguely told later who did the bombing, but it’s confusing and lame. There’s no real excitement to anything. Bond is rather feeble and human, unlike the Bond of the movies (whom I prefer) — he walks right into the lion’s den and gets attacked (and seems surprised). The worst aspect of the book for me was that this Bond is back to his old tricks, sleeping with every woman he meets, but the author, instead of just letting these one-night stands be one-night stands, describes the love scenes as though Bond is really falling in love each time. So we’re supposed to feel sympathy or something when the woman turns out to be a criminal, or gets killed by the bad guys. Lame, very lame. I’ve read some of the original Ian Fleming novels and liked them (though they are very different from the movies). This book has reminded me that no one does it better than Fleming. I shan’t bother with another non-Fleming Bond book.

Topic: [/book]


: The X-Files (TV)

Wow, two weeks in a row of great episodes! This one, about a man “cursed” with being lucky (he falls 30 stories and walks away), is a classic. See, the man is lucky — he could win the lottery easily — but bad luck follows all those around him, so he’s forced to live a sheltered, isolated life. This episode is hilarious, witty, inteligent, and thought provoking. The ending is so cool you’ve just got to see it! Highly recommended, even for non X-Filers. The Rube Goldberg sets are pure genius.

Topic: [/television]


Sat, Dec 11, 1999

: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Author: J. K. Rowling

Well, Rowling’s done it again! I thought the first two were amazingly well plotted, but Azkaban is even more complex. The plot deals with an escaped convict who’s out to kill Harry. He’s Harry’s godfather, the man who betrayed Harry’s parents to You-Know-Who and got them killed. Of course, nothing’s ever quite what it seems in a Harry Potter novel. This third book in the series wears a little, and many aspects of Harry’s school are familiar and rather boring. (The subplot to win the sporting match was routine and not the least bit exciting.) Still, we learn a lot more about Harry’s father, meet some interesting new characters, and there’s plenty of magical mayhem and mischief to keep us hooked. All-in-all? A little uneven. Certain aspects I liked better than previous books (I loved the concept of the Dementors, the horrible prison guards from Azkaban), but there were other parts that felt flat. I especially didn’t like the very end, which didn’t really resolve anything and left a huge opening for a sequel. Still, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, this book isn’t to be missed!

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Dec 10, 1999

: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Author: Guy Ritchie

Director: Guy Ritchie

What an interesting movie! Set in Scotland, this starts off in a blur of incomprehensibility (a combination of fast pace, lots of slacker-type characters that all look alike, and thick accents), but soon it settles down into a neatly plotted criminal caper. The plot centers around four dudes who pool all their money so one can participate in a high stakes (100,000 pounds) poker game. He emerges ashen-faced, not only having lost the hundred grand, but owing a mobster 500,000! They have week before they start losing fingers, so they plan a robbery. That’s where the fun starts, for nothing goes quite as planned, and you have robbers robbing robbers, crooks shooting each other dead, botched drug deals, crazy hitmen, and much mayhem. It’s a quirky, fun, violent film, similar to Pulp Fiction. It can be confusing a times, but everything makes sense in the end. The continual plot twists are clever and fun. Neat movie from first-time director Ritchie.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 07, 1999

: Call of the Wild

Author: Jack London

What a book. I believe I read this when I was twelve or so; it’s even better now. In fact, it’s even better a century after it was written, as our society is less wild and (presumably) more civilized. Few of us know the rawness of the pure struggle for survival. It’s amazing to read this book, written from the intimate perspective of an animal, and relate it to the petty concerns of my own life. Modern society, gripped by the madness of political correctness, is mocked by London with brutal reality, for the wild knows no mercy. I found it a breath of fresh air. The book reads quickly, like a flowing brook; there’s not a false step anywhere. It’s truly one of the best books ever written, full of truth and reality. Here’s my favorite quote:

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.”

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Dec 06, 1999

: Back to School

Author: Rodney Dangerfield (story) and Greg Fields

Director: Alan Metter

I wasn’t really watching this silly Rodney Dangerfield vehicle — honestly — but I saw in the credits that Terry Farrell (Dax of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame, was in it and I just had to see it. She plays the hot girlfriend of Dangerfield’s son. Worth seeing for Trek fans.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Dec 05, 1999

: The X-Files (TV episode)

Did you see tonight’s The X-Files? Wow, what a terrific episode! Definitely one of my favorites! The plot dealt with a teenager who’d discovered the ability to move at superhuman speeds — he could do things so fast the eye couldn’t see him. Unfortunately, he used this ability for evil, and the “high” he got from speed was adicting. It was destroying his body, which was developing micro-fractures due to the extreme pressure of moving so fast, but he didn’t want to listen to the doctors. The ending was classic poetic justice. Very good show.

Topic: [/television]


Sat, Dec 04, 1999

: eXistenZ

Author: David Cronenberg

Director: David Cronenberg

A David Cronenberg film that’s weird. Quel surprise!. Actually, this one was better than I expected. I liked it. It was more action-oriented than I expected. It’s bizarre, but with a rather obvious point. The plot deals with a game designer who’s invented a new virtual reality game called “eXistenZ” (written just like that). Of course, reality gets all subverted and confused, and soon you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. That’s the whole point. The two best parts of the movie were the organic game pods (similar to joy sticks) and the title thought where game designer Jennifer Jason Leigh is in conversation with a boy. She explains, “You must play the game to find out the purpose and goal,” and later he says something to the effect of “But there’s no point, no explanation, no rules. I don’t think people are going to like this game.” and she responds: “But everyone’s playing it already.” That was obvious but still cool. If you’re a Cronnenberg and/or VR fan, you’ll like this trip.

Topic: [/movie]


: Apt Pupil

Author: Brandon Boyce (based on Stephen King’s novella)

Director: Bryan Singer

Interesting, though I’m not sure I quite figured out the point. This is basically a psychological chess game between a 16-year-old student and a Nazi war criminal he’s uncovered. However, instead of turning the Nazi in, he blackmails the old man into telling him gruesome stories of Nazi attrocities. In turn, the Nazi blackmails the boy, and the game escolates into murder and intrigue. Fascinating, with excellent performance by Ian McKellar as the Nazi (and the guy in the bed next to him in the hospital was awesome as a Jew whose family the Nazi killed). But overall we’re left with a feeling of voyerism and no clear explanation of why the boy’s so messed up. Watch this one for the performances and concept, but don’t expect to grow from it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Dec 03, 1999

: Star Trek: Insurrection

Author: Rick Berman (story) and Michael Piller

Director: Jonathan Frakes

A more light-hearted fare than the previous excellent Trek outing, this one deals with a small race of people about to be annihilated because their planet contains the fountain of youth. It’s a good movie, with good performances and some interesting plot points, but overall it doesn’t feel tremendously threatening or exciting. There are special effects galore, but they are so muted that you don’t even realize they are special effects. For most movies this is a good thing, but Trek films are about spectacle and the special effects should be eye-popping. While the many effects made this one of the most difficult and expensive Trek movies ever made, I’m suspect most fans would guess it to be among the least complex! Still, it’s a fun outing, and certainly not a waste of time for fans of the series. There are several other Trek films that are worse than this one, despite it being a bit underwhelming.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 02, 1999

: Along Came a Spider

Author: James Patterson

Hmmmm. I don’t know about Patterson. His books show great promise, but fail to deliver. This is the book where he introduces his arch-criminal, Gary Soneji. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed. The guy’s a nut, and I don’t mean that in an interesting manner. Basically, the moron lets himself be captured by the police. While there’s nothing wrong with that, since this is supposed to be a book about Detective Cross hunting down the insane killer, it’s quite a letdown when the criminal does all the work for him! There are some interesting developments, including a romance with Cross by a Secret Service woman, but the final third of the book leaves you wondering why you bothered. I read this because they’re supposed to be making this into a film. It might make an okay movie as movies tend to compress things — this book drags out the minimal action over far too many pages. For books like this, the more pages, the bigger the payoff. Unfortunately, Spider (the title’s never explained) goes out with a whimper instead of a bang.

Topic: [/movie]