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Friday, July 25, 2014

Computer Chess

Here's an unlikely setting for a terrific movie: a tournament, held sometime around 1980, of computer programmers, competing to see who has the best chess program. But Andrew Bujalski, in his 2013 film Computer Chess, has made a bright, fascinating film about a subculture that basically changed the way we live.

Shot in black and white on a period analog video camera, the film takes place in some anonymous hotel, as men with clunky glasses and pornstaches lug large computer monitors around, talking code and the implications of artificial intelligence (one fellow, fairly accurately, says that the future of computers is dating). There is one woman present, who is repeatedly welcomed, as if her presence was as surprising as a dog's would be.

Slowly the film settles on few characters. There's Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), an obstreperous independent programmer, who spends his nights wandering the hotel, since his reservation was lost. Martin Beuscher is part of the Cal Tech team (he's played by Wiley Wiggins, who was the long-haired Little League pitcher in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused), who discovers a glitch in his program and then resigns before a game even starts, and his student assistant, Peter (Patrick Reister), a glum nebbish.

Bujalski layers the film even more by adding another group at the hotel--an encounter group, who do new age things like restaging one's birth. This leads to a hilarious scene when Reister is lured into the room of a swinging couple. He ends up running out of the room, but will later have an encounter with a prostitute who has an interesting secret.

For those who love computers, this will seem like a trip to a museum. That's where they must have found the hardware, those monitors with the space-age design. One competitor doesn't even have a monitor--he plugs in the moves and then the results are printed. But beyond the computer stuff, the film reaches inside and finds the human heart of a technological pursuit.

I've seen all of Bujalski's films (they're all reviewed on this site) and I've liked them all immensely. This one is a bit different, as it can't really be called mumblecore. Well, maybe it can, as the film was largely improvised, but it is more far-reaching in its pursuit.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Landline

Normally I wouldn't read a book like Landline, by Rainbow Rowell, but a website I read somewhat regularly, Bookriot.com, chose it as its first group read, so I took a chance. I realized why I don't read books like these. Landline, to perhaps unnecessarily pigeon-hole it, is chick lit, and a particularly frothy example. In addition, it's a curiously retrograde when it comes to feminism.

Our heroine is Georgie McCool (the kind of name that sounds good when you think of it, but doesn't look good on the page) is a TV comedy writer. She and her longtime writing partner, Seth, have finally got a meeting about the project they've been working on since college. Problem--this means she'll have to pass on going to Omaha with her husband and kids for Christmas.

Now, I'm not married, but even I understand priorities. Georgie's husband, Neal, in what I suspect would be most couple's conversations, would say, "That's great! You're life's dream is about to come true! Don't worry about Christmas!" But Neal, who is a real pill through the whole book, gives her grief, and Georgie stays behind, feeling guilty.

Then Rowell introduces a supernatural element that turns the book into, I'm not quite sure what. Sci-fi? She uses her old rotary phone at her mother's house and when she calls Neal's parents in Omaha, she ends up talking to Neal in the past--1998, when they briefly separated before he proposed to her. She finds herself unable to understand this, and wondering if anything she'll say something that causes her marriage to not exist (and thus her two girls), like the fading photograph in Back to the Future.

I'm just not the audience for Landline. I didn't find anything about it authentic, most of all the relationship between Neal and Georgie. When they meet he's a cartoonist for the humor magazine she writes for, but he's not funny, and doesn't act like a cartoonist. He's good with the kids and a stay-at-home dad, but otherwise he's a drag. Seth, who it's easy to see is really in love with Georgie, is pretty much a cad. There are no admirable men in this book.

Georgie isn't so admirable herself. Not only does she put aside her career goals because of her husband's boorish behavior, she puts him first--when she questions the relationship, she wonders if she hasn't ruined his life, not for a moment wondering if he hasn't ruined hers.

Besides that, the book isn't very well written. It subsists mostly of dialogue, and when Rowell does write prose, she exhibits a fondness for parentheses. Consider this bizarre string of sentences: "(Kendrick was forty, only three years older than Georgie. Her mom met him when he came to clean their pathetic excuse for a pool.) (These things actually happen.) (In the Valley.)" Subplots, such as Georgie's sister coming out as gay while a pug has puppies in a clothes dryer are clumsy and uninteresting.

Landline is a dud, but it was easy to read, so it didn't bother me for long.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Caped Crusader

In case it's not circled on your calendar, today is Batman Day, recognizing the 75th anniversary of one of the most iconic characters in American culture. This date seems rather random, since Batman's first appearance, in the pictured Detective Comics No. 27, was in May 1939. Maybe someone in the DC marketing department just became aware of this.

Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, although it's touchy on who gets the lion's share of the credit. It seems that Kane had the idea for a "Bat-Man," in the rush to create superheroes following the popularity of Superman. Finger gave him the name Bruce Wayne, which came from the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce and American Revolutionary War general "Mad" Anthony Wayne.

Batman has been unique in superhero comics in that he does not have superhuman powers. In a sense, he is the capitalist hero--a plutocrat who has great intelligence and superb martial arts abilities. But as the many incarnations of the hero have proved over and over again, he'd be nowhere without his wealth. He has a mansion with an extensive lair underneath, and several gadgets, ranging from a utility belt to his own plane, to battle crime.

The other notable thing about Batman is that he is basically the antithesis of Superman. As noted by many, Superman has religious overtones, both Christian and Jew. He fights for truth, justice, and the American way. Batman, as he was created, was a creature of the shadows, a vigilante who initially killed without remorse. If anything, he was Satanic. Not only does he take his image from one of the most reviled mammals in the animal kingdom (even if that is unfair), but consider his home city, Gotham. Though described as "Manhattan below 14th Street 12 minutes after midnight on a cold November night," it is its own entity, a Gothic swamp of crime and corruption. Gotham has long been a nickname for New York City, taken from a story by Washington Irving, who take the name from an English village populated only by fools. Other locations have just a macabre association. Arkham Asylum, where Batman's enemies are locked up (however temporarily) is taken from a town used often in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

Since his creation Batman has changed with the times. In 1940 he was given a sidekick, Robin, who primarily function as Watson did to Sherlock Holmes--someone Batman could talk to, so the writers could eliminate all those thought balloons. After the comics crisis of the 1950s, when Batman was attacked for its homoerotic overtones, the character became sunnier (he had lost his gun and stopped killing in the early '40s). This led to the satiric television show of the 1960s, which angered many Batman fans but made the character world famous, as it was, however, briefly, a smash hit.

After the show fizzled, Batman was kind of in mothballs, still in comic books, and in animated series. It wasn't until the Tim Burton film of 1989 that the character was back in the forefront. This was mostly due to Frank Miller's retooling of the character as The Dark Knight, which dragged Batman from camp back into the darkness. The character has been in seven films since 1989, and right now it's likely that we will see him in perpetuity in some way or another.

What has made Batman so popular? For one, he taps into the difficult to define notion of cool. He was jazz compared to Superman's easy listening. He is much more psychologically interesting than Superman--spurred to vengeance after the death of his parents at the hand of a mugger. Of course he had antecedents, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, but there is something uniquely American about him. He is a self-made hero (despite getting his wealth through inheritance), the perversion of the "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" ethos. While a kid, I much more wanted to be Batman than Superman, even if the latter was much more powerful.

I think he also taps into the dark side of the American dream, the secret (or perhaps not so secret) sense of frontier justice. Batman, over the years, has killed, and doesn't get too broken up about it. He dangles people from balconies, and though extremely intelligent, doesn't hesitate to use his fists. Americans, deep down, love a vigilante, though we may be outwardly horrified. During the Bernhard Goetz case, when a mild-mannered man gunned down thugs on the New York subway, Goetz was heralded by many, and I suspect that even those who denounced him inwardly had a fantasy about doing the very same thing.

Batman was also the first Freudian superhero. Not only is he an analyst's feast, but the villains he fought also were the stuff of psychology. The Joker, Catwoman, the Penguin, all freakish psychopaths that made Lex Luthor look normal in comparison. The decades long dance between Batman and the Joker can be interpreted in many ways, and I think it's the most consistently dynamic superhero/villain combination in comic book history (maybe even in American literature, dare I say).

Batman is right up there with Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Natty Bumppo, and Holden Caulfield as the greatest and most enduring of American fictional characters. Even if he does originate in something as low-brow and disposable as the comic book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Justified

I've just finished watching the first season of Justified, from 2010. It's a series that airs on FX that is now heading for its sixth and last season, but I hadn't seen any of it until now.

I was attracted to it for some basic reasons. First, it's based on a character created by the late great Elmore Leonard. Raylan Givens, who appeared in the Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, is a U.S. Marshal who, as the series begins, is based in Miami. But after he shoots and kills a drug cartel member, he is reassigned back to his home state, Kentucky, which he is not happy about.

The second reason to love this series is that Givens is played by Timothy Olyphant, who was so good as Seth Bullock in Deadwood. Givens has some similarities to Bullock--they are both by the book law-and-order guys, tough as nails, don't waste words, and are quick with a gun. Givens is a bit more louche, though. Not only does he leave quite a trail of dead, but he can't keep is hands off a witness, which ends up getting his number one nemesis sprung from jail. As played by Olyphant, he is a kind of update of the classic hero, typically played by Gary Cooper.

I warmed to the show as it went along. The first few episodes are stand-alone and fairly routine, but as the season progressed it boiled down to a running storyline that paralleled two father-son relationships. Givens' father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) is a longtime crook, something of an embarrassment to Givens. In a bit of a twist, the disgusted son has rejected his father by hewing the straight and narrow.

The other relationship is between the Crowders. Boyd Crowder (an excellent Walton Goggins) is Givens' old friend, but, as the season begins, is running meth in the Dixie Mafia. Givens shoots him, but doesn't kill him, and Goggins has a jailhouse conversion. But Givens (as well as the audience) can't ever be sure Boyd is on the level or not. His father, Bo (M.C.Gainey) leaves prison and attempts to back to running the drug market, but Boyd tries to put a stop to it. This all leads to a terrific showdown between both sets of father and sons in the last episode.

The series, created by Graham Yost, is credited to being based on Leonard's story "Fire in the Hole," but I recognized other sources. One episode is a very truncated adaptation of Riding the Rap, and an episode with Stephen Root as a gun-happy judge is loosely based on Leonard's novel Maximum Bob. Leonard wrote mostly about south Florida and Detroit, though, so this Kentucky setting seems fresh. At its heart, its about criminals who aren't that smart and heroes who are flawed but stalwart.

A few things are handled a little clumsily, such as Givens' relationship with the witness (Joelle Carter) and his ex-wife (Natalie Zea). A few characters disappear after a few episodes. But some episodes are drolly funny, such as one about how Givens loses his beloved cowboy hat and how he gets it back.

I will definitely take a look at the subsequent seasons.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lone Survivor

Sometimes it's a mistake to watch the extras of a DVD. Lone Survivor, directed by Peter Berg, is an above-average war film, with almost nonstop, pulse-pounding action and superb editing. But, on the other hand, in telling the true story of a Navy Seal who was the only survivor of a failed op to capture a Taliban leader, the film puts the viewer in the position of having to feel some kind of swelling patriotism. It's like fans at Yankee Stadium being forced to sing "God Bless America."

The DVD extras bend over backwards paying tribute to the fallen Seals who are represented on screen. That's all well and good, but when we are told repeatedly that the director and actors "had to get it right," I felt a little queasy. This is a movie, not a documentary, and while I appreciate the families of those who lost their lives wanted to see their sons represented accurately, this was a film for mass consumption. Lone Survivor edges too far into jingoism. I'm no supporter of the Taliban, for sure, but the black and white nature of the film was off-putting.

The film recounts Operation Red Wings, which had four seals, played by Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hirsch, being dropped in to take out a Taliban leader who had just killed 20 Marines. They are discovered by three goatherds, and a debate takes place over what to do with them. Kitsch, as the senior officer, lets them go and aborts the mission, but the goatherds scramble down the mountain and soon our heroes are surrounded and vastly outnumbered. They get in a shooting fight, and before Wahlberg is the only man left many Taliban are killed (some of this looked a bit too much like a video game).

Wahlberg ends up being taken in by friendly Afghans, to whom he owes his life. This part kind of got to me, because at least the film showed that not every Muslim in the world hates Americans. There was even some humor here, as when Wahlberg asks a small boy for a knife, and the boy returns with a waterfowl. "That's not a knife, that's a fucking duck," Walhberg says, exasperated.

The film opens with Navy Seals in training. These guys are tough--I wouldn't have lasted two minutes when I was their age--and I'm thankful that they're there when they need them. What these four guys went through is brutal. Not only were they all shot several times, but they survived not one but two ass-over-tea kettle falls down a mountain slope. But I'm also leery of anything that plays to patriotism--as Oscar Wilde said, "Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Here's a good way to realize you are watching a great movie--by the time the movie is well into the action, you don't even think of how good or bad the movie is, because you're too in the moment. That's how I felt about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which just might be the best summer blockbuster since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I liked a lot, Dawn outdoes it in every way. Most of this is due to an extremely intelligent script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, which, dare I say, even manages to be profound. Of course, a lot of credit goes to Matt Reeves, who manages to keep this thing from degenerating into a Michael Bay explosion fest, and the acting of Andy Serkis, who I will elaborate on below.

The film takes place ten years after the end of Rise. Most of humanity is dead, due to a disease that was tested on apes. Called the "Simian flu," it spread around the world. Meanwhile, a colony of intelligent apes, those experimented on, live peacefully in the forest north of San Francisco. They have advanced, learning to use fire, domesticate animals, and build shelters. They are led by Caesar (Serkis), and have a strict moral code--"Ape Not Kill Ape." (So they haven't completely mastered English grammar).

Caesar and his friends think that mankind must be wiped out, but one day out hunting a pair of chimps stumble upon some humans, and one ape gets shot. The humans have survived the plague, living in a colony in Frisco. They are trying to see if a hydro-electric dam can still be used to generate electricity, so they can find out if there are any other surviving humans. Problem--the apes don't want them around.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, on a small scale, a primer on diplomacy and the folly of both man and ape to fuck things up by prejudice and stupidity. While watching, you feel a crushing sense of sadness at how things play out, feel embarrassed at being human, and also see how ape and human are pretty much alike. At one point Caesar says, "I thought ape better than human. Now I see we are alike." Ouch.

Both sides have the good guy and the bad. For the humans, we have Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, who understand that the apes are to be reasoned with, while on the bad side we have Gary Oldman, who thinks they are just animals and is inclined to kill them. For the apes, Caesar is badly assisted by Koba, an ape who so maltreated in captivity that he hates humans, and accuses Caesar of loving them more than apes. This earns him a thrashing from Caesar.

The film is extremely rich. Not only is it gripping, but it thought-provoking. We can think of all sorts of real-life situations that the film alludes to, right up to the current headlines in Gaza, where two sides just can't get along. There is also a scene that is daring in its execution. Koba, on a mission from the apes home, penetrates the humans' home. In order to appear nonthreatening, he adopts typical chimp behavior, as if he was a circus animal. I thought of how many groups have resorted to cultural stereotypes, such as Stepin Fetchit or Charlie Chan, to assimilate. It's a funny scene, but it has powerful depth.

I was impressed also that my bullshit detector didn't go off much, given that it's a movie about apes with superior intelligence. At one point I wondered why they didn't smell humans who were hiding, but I see on a few web sites that the sense of smell of chimps has deteriorated over generations (just like it has in humans). There is a pretty whopping coincidence when Clarke finds just the ape he needs at the moment, but given the overall smartness of the script, I'm willing to forgive it.

In closing, I must comment on Andy Serkis, who is given top-billing. He is the actor who has now specialized in these motion capture roles, from Gollum to King Kong. There is never any question in the mind of the viewer that Caesar is a real ape, even if he is completely created out of computer effects. Serkis is masterful not only in moving like a chimp, but in his facial expressions. In fact, I was amazed that I had no trouble differentiating between the different apes, a testament to all the motion-capture actors.

My grade for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs' latest album, Lost in the Dream, is a curious hybrid. They sound very much like Arcade Fire, and employ a space-agey Pink Floyd sound, but also reminded me of Bob Dylan, if he had a band that played a lot of reverb guitar.

This album is mostly the work of Adam Granduciel, who writes, produces, and sings lead vocals with a nasal twang reminiscent of Dylan. According to Wikipedia they are included in the "shoegazer" genre, but I dispute that, as most of their music is not doleful, and despite having a song called "Suffering" is rather joyous.

The Arcade Fire influence can be heard in a couple of tracks. "Red Eyes," in fact, is the best Arcade Fire song of the past few years, including everything on Arcade Fire's last album. "Burning" is also faux Arcade Fire. The Dylan influence can be heard most strongly on "Eyes to the Wind." There's a harmonica and pedal steel guitar on that track, but also something called space rhodes and arp omni II, which I doubt Dylan has ever used.

Pink Floyd can be heard in tracks like the instrumental "The Haunting Idle," and "Disappearing," which has a wonderful Floydish guitar riff.

All in all this is a luscious, pleasant disc to listen to, but since I've mentioned so many other acts in this post I can't call them incredibly original. I would discuss the lyrics, but the lyric sheet is written in a handwritten scrawl that is impossible to read. As the title suggests, it's mostly about dream states, and maybe about hallucinogenics.