Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top 10 'Movie Stuff' of 2013

10. Europa Report
Not to be confused with (let alone dismissed as) a 'found footage' film. One could argue otherwise in the general sense, but the actual premise and presentation of what you're seeing is something else fundamentally. This is indeed a video "report" of the events that take place aboard the shuttle Europa on its mission to the ice moon of Jupiter, which is different from the forced happenstance of someone capturing the footage randomly. As a viewer, you never have to stop and rationalize or measure the credibility of what you’re seeing. This is classic expedition science fiction in the vein of Destination Moon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Where Gravity dumbed over the masses with showy FX spectacle and mawkish sentimentalism, this film keeps its human drama clinical while mission hazards are viewed objectively in relation to various onboard cameras. The story steers clear from both self-help 'feel good' conclusions and simple space monster trappings, instead depicting with realism (yet not without certain weirdness) the possibility of alien life and tackling the theme of Man’s willingness to sacrifice himself for profound discovery. The final images transmitted from the Europa are truly exhilarating on all these accounts.
09. The World’s End
Edgar Wright blows the doors off his Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy in all manner of action, humor, humanity and whip-sharp editorial moxie. The sheer density of the film, and in in proportion to its two predecessors, is simply too much to cover in one brief summary. So, rather than attempt to highlight everything, I will simply reference the 1987 single 'This Corrosion' from The Sisters of Mercy, which is featured quite dramatically in the film’s climax and epilogue, before being heard in full (or at least the 4:27 version) during the end credits. I reference this song in how it perfectly encapsulates the alternative rock, counterculture idealism of the film’s lead character, Gary King, and how its propulsive, rhythmic blast reflects the film’s wild exuberance as a whole. It also anthems the increasingly anarchic, borderline libertarian, attitude beamed by our heroes during their climactic act of defiance against cosmic overlords who mask tyranny with bullshit appeals to "peaceful unification" and dreams of eternal youth. I love this movie for the way it builds to an insane, 'all-bet’s-of' conclusion of party-hardy medievalry amidst a post-apocalyptic world, right down to its snap-closing shot of Simon Pegg grinning a berserker’s grin before lunging into battle.
08. The Wolverine
The best comic book movie of the year. Why? Because it’s neither an overblown, jokey gimmick nor is it bloated with dreary self-importance. This is a straightforward movie with good old fashioned storytelling. It doesn’t aim to outdo previous superhero blockbusters with bigger and more relentless CGI destruction and spectacle. You know the endings to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers and Man of Steel that feature flying monsters and/or giant alien death rays destroying entire cites for their climax? Yeah, that doesn’t happen here. There are no gods or apocalyptic invasions or toppling skyscrapers or city-wide terrorist anarchy or chemical clouds mutating the masses into giant lizards ...or any kind of cheap 9/11 placating. Nope. In this movie Logan fights Japanese dudes -- some Yakuza, some ninja and some corporate samurai -- but mostly just dudes all the same. At work here is a much simpler genre: a criminal underworld thriller that just happens to take place in an X-Men universe. It’s a skillfully directed action brawler, but one that is laid out evenly with measured narrative that takes its time establishing plot and characters. People sit and talk in this movie, chafe personalities, challenge each other with life-notions and clash convictions as much as they do katanas and claw.
07. Leviathan
Verbalizing anything about this documentary of a North Atlantic commercial fishing boat would almost defeat the purpose. For starters, it’s not much of a documentary, at least not by any conventional standard. There is no thesis or exposition. No interviews or narration. No declarations about the fishing industry or environmental issues. There is only raw footage and sound of the very environ that is a fishing boat out at sea. It is, quite simply, an anthropological artifact in media form, using small, waterproof digital cameras to capture the immediate 24-hour functions of the ship and her crew in contrast to the surrounding ocean expanse. Yet, the intent here is not simply for one to experience working on a fishing boat. Fixed POV shots that last for minutes (up to 20) at a time expose the viewer to a visceral world up close, from all angles of life and death -- animate and inanimate -- often to such a degree that any rational context of the situation begins to waver in lieu of a more primordial state of awareness. We’re privy to the mechanical cranking of trawl nets in the dark, crew hands sifting through huge buckets of fish, a seagull on deck pecking for scraps, portside at surface level etc. And water. Constant water, be it sea, rain or a hot shower. It’s a powerful glimpse of existence filtered through digital sensors.
06. Computer Chess
In simplest terms, this is a sci-fi comedy that is wholly "indie" in spirit. However, it manages to sidestep many contemporary "indie" clichés, in part, due to its 1980 timeframe, wherein a two-star hotel in Austin, Texas plays weekend host to a chess tournament. Only here the players are homemade/business enterprising computers, as obsessively hovered over by their nerd programmers. Filmed in a black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio and using an appropriately dated Sony AVC 3260, this storied microverse exists in rough videographic analogue. In-camera, the authenticity far exceeds nostalgia gimmick as something almost frighteningly accurate in both look and naturalistic atmosphere. Yet, as the narrative unfolds, awkward social interactions amongst programmers and late night, corridor journey subplots reveal an ever-stranger unreality lurking just beneath. The movie itself gradually assumes the form of coded gaming gone awry, and the presence of a possible artificial intelligence leads our main, four-eyed protagonist down the proverbial rabbit-hole. What follows is an early definition of 80s pop-paranoia concerning the onset 'singularity' of all things and bizarro visions of future android incognita. It makes for quite a head-trip viewing experience where you’ll find yourself probing every other scene for the emergence of encrypted data.
05. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Yes, the narrative of what is a rather digestible children’s story has been overstuffed with Middle Earth mythos out-sourced from Tolkien’s later writings and appendixes, inflated to grandiose filler and, in some cases, concocted entirely from scratch. This isn’t the book; it’s the book retrofitted as a prequel story proportionate to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. What’s done is done. So many sci-fi/fantasy/comic book endeavors in recent years either fail at creating immersive worlds or worlds that are genuinely interesting to explore. To give Jackson and Co. credit where credit is due, this movie continues with one of the most fully realized and engaging fantasy realms in the history of the medium, right up alongside Star Wars. If that means the storytelling goes a bit aimless within, so be it. The payoff is wondrous FX escapism & spectacle of the highest order, and I for one proudly champion Jackson’s 3D, 48fps vision: Middle Earth re-imagined as a live, televised event writ epic or a theme-park attraction akin to the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride, where I feel as if I can almost step out of my little boat and tour the Wood Elf fortress, feelings its textures and smelling the cool misty air, or stand among Bilbo and his Dwarven company as they dutifully act-out their parts for my benefit. The whitewater barrel riding is cheery fun and the extended Smaug set piece is Jackson the virtuoso action director firing on all six cylinders.
04. Byzantium
Consider this the accumulation of Neil Jordan’s auteur genre filmmaking, from archetypical horror-fantasy to heavily plotted neo-noir; from classical, windswept period to seedy urban sprawl. The 200 year misadventure of two mother-daughter vampires through English seaside towns is rife with equal parts lurid sensuality and forever youthful innocence, while the vampire mythology itself averts Eastern European Gothicism in that the source of said immortality is revealed to be something more anciently Celtic and mystical. This undoubtedly pro-feminist tale is built not on mere hip notions of female entitlement, but a grander historical backdrop of female exploitation in which our heroines survive via deeper instincts for the maternal. On display is Jordan’s innate gift for infusing his films with literary sophistication that nonetheless remains in service to cinematic imagery rather than at the expense. One of the highlights sees Gemma Arterton’s character vampirically reborn when bathed in a cascading island waterfall of blood; the metaphors overflowing. And yet, despite such poetic enormity, the story concludes with a comparatively mundane (though gory) skirmish at a dilapidated boardwalk carnival, thereby keeping one-half of the film firmly planted in aforementioned noir-ish genre, which makes for a dynamic mix.
03. The Bling Ring
This is not a "message" film, because Sofia Coppola is not a "message" filmmaker aiming for biting satirical commentary. Satire isn’t even necessary here, for there is no need to satirize that which is already so obscene to any average viewer with the slightest shred of tact and common decency. Watching these blithely superficial teens as they illicitly shop Paris Hilton’s walk-in shoe vault with 'oohs' and 'aahs' and 'like, oh my god!' makes for an absurd circumstance on its own; Coppola’s minimalist approach simply presents this at face value. It is but one escapade of many in this alternate, remote world where after-hour house raids of the rich and famous, and the celebrity/fashion worship by those involved, remain impersonal. These titular Ringers are not characters to be mocked or dramatized, but subjects to be studied coolly, hence the lack of character development: vacancy. is. the point. But not the experience. Coppola chooses her scene-by-scene, Hollywood Hills environments carefully and her concentrated visual framing explores physical spaces and open distances with such depth as to convey the story through mood, tone and atmosphere; altogether, through immersion. The effect is one of dry, ironic farce and languid surrealism ...and fun-–moments of material emptiness that are vaguely liberating, as chimed in one scene of accessorizing and a car ride through Beverly Hills by Rye Rye’s 'Sunshine'.
02. Under the Skin
Warped. Utterly, completely warped, down to its very core. The term 'cinematic masterpiece' is typically said with sarcasm or as a point of reference for some near-impossible standard. I simply use it here to describe a movie that has since left me fascinated by its properties and deeply stirred by its wondering narrative, one centered on Laura (Scarlett Johansson, muted but alert), an alien in human-hooker form who roams Scotland to feed on the flesh of seduced hitchhikers. Names like Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Lynch will come to mind when watching this film, but director Jonathan Glazer only skims them for inspiration; this is ultimately his own vision. And what a vision it is, pushed far beyond Nicolas Winding Refn’s smug posturing of actors or Lars von Trier’s dopey digital screensavers and shock-schlock grabs for attention. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its art-house pretensions, but that it lives up to them with abstract imagery that actually beckons one’s imagination instead of merely assuming its own importance. Various on-location settings are either alive and moving or too bleak and naturalistic to be weighed down with overly deliberate staging. There is no artifice here, but a real world that is conversely, inescapably, oneiric. Logically, Laura remains a cypher, though her journey is all-too human in its sense of alienation.
01. Jurassic Park 3D
I first considered ranking this in at No. 10 purely as an honorary inclusion and thereby giving the rest of the lineup over to the new entries of 2013, but that would only confuse the fact that it remains my favorite film on the list, as it is one of my favorite films of all time. Not as artistically challenging, you say? Hold that thought. Showmanship is as much an art form as anything else; the art of presentation, delivery, reveal; the art of constructing thrills, generating excitement and leaving audiences glazed over with awe. To that extent, Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur adventure stands as one of the absolute best showpieces of his career. Seeing it again in theaters this past Spring I was amazed at how well it holds up after 20 years. And while the 3D upgrade wasn’t necessary, it was by no means a hindrance either. Spielberg’s deep focus framing already lends itself to stereoscopic dimensions anyhow, so the actual 3D conversion merely feels like a natural extension. The 3D release was also color graded with a softer image and muddier, amber glow as opposed to the video-grainy, brighter blue tint of the 2011 Blu-ray (DNR vs. excessive sharpening, take your pick), which is significant as it more faithfully adheres to the darker and more cinematic contrast of the original 1993 theatrical release. Re-experiencing this cinematographic look 20 years later was a treat all its own, 3D or not.
The Wolf of Wall Street 
47 Ronin
Pacific Rim
Inside Llewyn Davis
Side Effects
Machete Kills
The Book Thief

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Toyota MasterAce Tarago Space Cruiser – Model F

In Japan it was called the MasterAce; in Australia, the Tarago; in Europe, the Space Cruiser; in China, the Model F. In America it was lamely titled Van (points docked for us). Whatever the name, this "Wonderwagon" was mass produced from 1982 to 1989 (the Keaton years) and, during my childhood, was the very automobile that would cargo me to Jujitsu class three nights a week, among other destinations. Later, in my 20s, I drove one through the Pacific North West. I even lived in it, or out of it, sporadically during that time. The windshield was huge and you sat up high behind the steering wheel. It was like driving a bus. 



Sunday, December 8, 2013


Something needs to be said about Charlyne Yi. I’m not sure what, exactly, but something. For starters, any categorical analysis proves a bit tricky. Is she an actress? Sort of. She’s appeared in movies to varying limited degrees; she was on House. Is she a comedian? In her own way, sure. Is she a musician? She plays before crowds, but has no official albums. Truth be told, she’s all of these things, and with a flagrantly off-kilter style. Description? Eh, at best, "ethnic", though her up-bringing and manner is wholly American. 
Short, dorkish, vaguely asexual and genuinely (as in, no faking) awkward during interviews, on the red carpet or whenever unscripted in front of the camera. Awkward yet equally fearless. Any glimpse of Yi in the media and right away you’ll sense the impulse of an artist–-a constant performer, a beatnik, a dilettante, a suburban garage band-style bohemian of the Millennial Generation (Y, maybe? I can never get 'em straight) that has attained some legitimate success in show business while still maintaining a low key, grassroots career as a both modern day minstrel and Youtube exhibitionist.
I'm weird.
On her Youtube page Yi has done a number of skits, music videos, unplugged-shorts, stop-motion animation and poetry readings. Search her up on Conan doing one of the more clever knock-knock jokes ever attempted, and spy the movie Paper Heart, if you get the chance. Yi is the kind of girl I would marry the setup for some wacky scheme involving an obscure tax write-off or interstate fruit trafficking, or as the result of a drunken night in Vegas. Cue comedic hijinks and possible awkward sex scene.    
Spirit animal
Rare achievement

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

A story loosely based on the young adult life of Frank Abagnale Jr., a kid turned conman circa 1960s, and the FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, who tracked him down.
Except, it isn’t much of a story in the plot-oriented sense; more like a series of episodic exploits that at-once detail the talents of con artistry while arcing the main character and the pains that motivate him. And yet Catch Me If You Can is never really all that significant or dramatic. It isn’t much of a suspense thriller or brooding, psychoanalytical crime-drama. No American-Greek tragedy here. This isn’t Scorsese or Coppola or De Palma or Leone. But then, the movie never tries to be any of those things either. With Spielberg at the helm, it’s all a dreamy game of smiles and charm. But it’s also a very emotional journey, as young Frank constantly struggles to escape the cold reality of a broken family by forging a new reality of his own, gliding from one check-cashed enchantment to the next, moving through different professions and lifestyles, reaping the sugary exteriors but without conscious aim.

The money and luxury is wish fulfilling for a while, but life on the lam soon proves to be a hollow existence. Frank just wants to be with people who will embrace him. He seeks household warmth, or at least a friend. Again, there’s no real unified story structure to support this, only a kind of carrousel narrative that jumps timeframes and takes audiences through different vignettes of Frank’s ever-changing adventure. There’s also Carl Hanratty, who counterpoints said venture as the lowly bank fraud agent for the FBI, playing cat to Frank’s mouse. He, too, is isolated, defined by his clerical pursuit. It’s a familiar 'cop and crook' dynamic.

Paranoid, angst-ridden characters that do a lot of shouting have since become a staple for Leonardo DiCaprio, and also a source of criticism for those who dismiss him as a one note actor. His performance as Abagnale Jr. shows a different angle. Here, DiCaprio is a sweet natured wonder boy possessing a real knack for comic reactions. His ability to portray Frank with open honesty, even when knee-deep in fabrication, exhibits both charisma and vulnerability that sheds the self-absorbed camera mugging of today’s method acting in favor of something more innocently Capraesque. Screen time shared with Christopher Walken sees the two -- a father and son relationship -- beaming for one another’s attention on different levels; Walken coolly conveys Abagnale Sr. as a once-master of the game whose waning ability to cheat the world with is 'Yankee pinstripe' philosophy reveals but a sad and feeble man.

In contrast is a turn from Martin Sheen as a southern drawl district attorney with a soft spot for romance that passes through Frank’s life fleetingly as a source of paternal affection. You’ll also spot the familiar feminine faces of Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Pompeo, each given roles (some brief, some not) with dazzling personality before hitting their own stardom. That leaves Tom Hanks as the odd man out, so to speak. Hanks does everything in sturdy, reliable fashion, servicing the character of Hanratty with his effortless low-key mannerisms; if nothing else, delivering what is arguably the greatest performance ever while eating an éclair. He chases Frank doggedly, with procedural paperwork instead of uncanny brilliance, only to then engage the conman with a fronted indifference that hides genuine curiosity. Their interaction changes over the course of the film into a lax mutual understanding.
Catch Me If You Can is as immersive of a period film as you’ll find anywhere, as its 1960s settings are replete with immaculate production/costume design. A palette of primaries, creamy pastels and Christmas ambience is radiated not through heavy saturation (as is the norm for making "colorful" movies) but with light artifacts. Spielberg and Kamiński have crafted a world where vibrant colors are filtered and slightly blown out through halos, light refraction and reflective surfaces, thus accentuating depth of field with dramatic shadows and filmic textures. It’s a stunning work of cinematography.  
Spielberg is at the top of his technical game. The visuals pour across the screen like liquid in the way moving actors are micro-blocked within single takes: watch closely as Hanratty and his men enter an Atlanta penthouse with snub-nosed pistols drawn, the close-up POV shifting from one revolver to the next, each with a playful sting from John Williams’ score. Spielberg’s camerawork zigzags from cinéma vérité handheld to low, Wellesian perspectives; with classic Curtiz push-ins and even a few carefully placed Dutch angles. The director is so visually nimble here that, at times, it practically becomes a dance, one that is announced from the get-go in jazzy fashion with the opening, animated title sequence.

Key details per shot informs certain scenes with specific character traits that can be charted over the course of the film, such as Frank’s tic for tearing off labels from condiments and champagne bottles or the way Hanratty fidgets with his gun holster and flashes backward credentials. Clever editing delivers match-cut segues, including a moment where Hanratty rebukes criticism with a 'Knock Knock' joke setup that is humorously robbed of its punch-line but nonetheless rhythmically answered in the following transitional shot as two Alka-Seltzers plop into a glass of water—Who’s there?

 Whole scenes that are internally funny are also juxtaposed as a means to illustrate characters and innuendos: Frank’s double-win hotel encounter with an exotic woman of the night (Garner) parallels Hanratty spending his evening alone in a Laundromat, plagued with a pink shirt gag. The movie is alive with such invention. One of its most dexterous set-pieces involves Frank’s clever evasion via misdirection at a Miami airport; a scene that dazzles the senses with visual exuberance as a party of beautiful, giggling flight stewardess prance their way down the terminal to the music of Sinatra, ending with a duped Hanratty turning to the skies above just in time to see Frank’s plane fly away.
There are some missed opportunities, I think. Spielberg can never fully pull himself away from the familial issues to explore the more capitalistic themes inherent in Frank’s monetary wizardry and manipulation of the social status. We’re privy to the process, well enough, along with a few evanescent moments of commentary, including a scene where young Frank, upon receiving his first checkbook, is told that he is now part of a "special club", but there was perhaps a greater subversive or satirical jab at the American dream (system) that was never really seized. Alas, Spielberg remains largely one tracked, but he does indeed follow it through to the fullest extent and with all cinematic prowess and influences accumulated over the course of his career.
On an adjacent note, this film continues from Saving Private Ryan to War Horse the director’s love for, and aspiration to, French cinema, seasoning his films with accents, locales, music or certain filmmaking motifs in the name of. Frank’s mother is played by French actress Nathalie Baye who appeared in a number of 1970s, post-French New Wave films under directors Pialat, Godard and Truffaut. A scene in the movie even takes place in the quaint town of Montrichard.

For anyone reading this, I highly recommend you watch or revisit Catch Me If You Can (preferably on Blu-ray release) before the month of December is up. It makes for a delectable piece of entertainment best viewed during Christmas time.

Monday, December 2, 2013

15 and Getting Straight

T-Rex Paddock Explained

For those who always pondered over the specifics of the set piece concerning its immediate geography:

click to enhance

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Electronic Life

Back in 1983 the late Michael Crichton published a non-fiction book called 'Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers'. This was neither a cut 'n' dry home owner’s manual, of which were already bountiful at the time, nor a cutesy 'computer for dummies' type read featuring some illustrated caricature on the cover. It does incorporate aspects of both on a basic level but, in truth, the author aimed to provide readers with an altogether larger, more comprehensive understanding of the very idea of both a home computer and the possible future such commercial technology might bring, speaking from a cultural, social and anthropological perspective--yet, still managing to articulate these ideas in a common coinage easy enough for anyone to grasp. A fine balancing act. Of course, the catch here is that it was written 30 years ago; in terms of the evolution of computer technology, practically an eon.
And that, my friends, is what makes the book rather unique as an artifact shedding insight to a past age, one where the multi-media global network of today could, at the very most, only be imagined -- pipedreamed -- in rudimentary, micro-measurements. Indeed, so much of Crichton’s views expressed here are charmingly dated and naïve, but his broader philosophical bent is quite accurate, and there is perhaps even a wholesome-like core value system concerning Man and his interface with technology that one might take away from the book which has long since been cast into oblivion in favor of our current generation’s at once ultra-sophisticated savvy and dull acceptance of the digital world around us; our wisdom deficiency, if you will, on all things electronic life.
The book is loosely written in the form of a glossary via both PC terminology and more general topics about the computer revolution as perceived at the time. Some random excerpts:
Anatomy, Computer
Faced with an unfamiliar computer, experienced programmers do an interesting thing. They do nothing. They stand and look at the machine. After a moment, they make some simple observation like "Hmmm, it’s got a hard disk drive," or "I see it’s got a built-in printer."
What they’re doing is checking out the anatomy of the machine--finding where things are. This is a logical first step before trying to operate the machine. Beginners skip this step. Either they throw up their hands in horror and announce that computers are beyond them or they plop down at the keyboard and say, "Okay, what do I do?"
What you do first is nothing. Whether you’re in a store or a home or an office, first step back and look. Take your time.
...Don’t worry about any extra equipment. Notice it exist and ignore it.
Art, Computer
Radically different art would literally be invisible. I’ve often been amused to think that domestic dogs practice an art form, right under our noses. After all, a dog walking down a street behaves just like a person in an art gallery, going from picture to picture, alert and interested. There’s a whole world of fascination for dogs that we can’t participate in, because we have no comparable sense of smell.
Less fancifully, Edmund Carter tells how seventeenth century sailors enjoyed inviting aborigines aboard their ships and firing off cannons unexpectedly to scare them. But when the cannons were fired, the Indians didn’t even blink. They had no reaction at all. The loud sound meant nothing to them.
What is truly new does not create shock-–it creates nothing. If we are shocked by art, we are shocked because our expectations are not met. And that means we already have expectations based on previous experience.

If one imagines artificial intelligence programs as an art form, then many objections to them disappear (and perhaps funding). We don't complain that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is not also The Last Supper. The very idea is absurd. Art is inherently limited; we appreciate it for what it is, not for what it isn't.


The earliest designs of any new object reflect older images. The first Pulsar digital watches looked like TV sets; the first home computers looked like typewriters mating with TV sets.
External computer design is still dominated by engineers, and there are a lot of ugly clunkers around. But there’s no excuse for making a machine that looks like a toilet on the space shuttle--and less excuse for buying one. I’m constantly surprised that people who wouldn’t put an ugly stereo on a side shelf will place one of the junky boxes right the corner of their desk, as if they had no choice.
Apple, Atari, IBM, DEC, Espon, Xerox, and Olivetti make pleasant looking computers, although they’re all basically white or gray (I don’t know why computers don’t come in colors; eventually they will).
A set of instructions to make the computer do something. But that’s not a very useful way to think of a program, since instructions purely to the machine for its own use are often brief.
The bulk of many programs is devoted to helping people put data into the machine and get processed information back out again. One’s satisfaction with a program strongly reflects these areas of input and output.
People don’t understand this. When they look at a long program, they fail to recognize how much of it is directly geared to them. Don’t throw up your hands: this stuff matters to you. And it’s always the least computery part of the program.
For example, a BASIC program might begin with:
20 VTAB 3: HTAB 5
60 IF A$ = "N"THEN GOTO 20
[Now, this means in English]
10 Clear the screen.
20 Tab down 3 lines, and horizontally five spaces.
30 Print "What is your name?" and stay on the same line. Wait for something to be typed in from the keyboard. Call whatever is input N$.
40 Print this N$ back out again, whatever it is.
50 Print "Is your name correct? (Y/N)." This prompts the user to answer Y or N. Get the answer, and call it A$.
60 If the Answer is N for no, then you’ll need to start over again, so go back to line 20.
70 If the answer is not N, then the name must be okay, so print "Nice talking with you," and stay on the same line. Print the name N$, stay on the same line, and print a period (.).
Scientific Model
Human beings continuingly create models of reality. These models are always simplified and approximate, although we tend to forget that. Models are integral to our language and our tools. If we say a friend is angry, we ignore the fact that our friend is much more than just the emotion of anger. If we measure with a yardstick, we ignore the fact that the yardstick is inexact.
Because we use models consistently, and because models are built into our language, we tend to substitute models -- simplified constructs of reality -- for reality itself. In minor ways, we’ve all had the experience of seeing our models collapse, as when the furniture doesn’t fit in a room because our measurements were inexact, or when our angry friend tells a joke to his supposed enemy. At those times, we are sharply reminded that reality is more complex than our modeled version of it.
Programs, like scientific theories, can never be proved right--they can only be found wrong. The fact that a program works a thousand times does not guarantee that a bug won’t show up the next time.
Experienced programmers say, "There’s always one more bug."
Test a new program until you’re cross-eyed with exhaustion. And regard every running of a satisfactory program as one further test. There’s no way around this perpetual testing and caution.
It's the nature of the beast.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Haywire (2011)

I enjoyed Haywire as a cool-breeze exercise in spy subgenre entertainment when I first saw it in theaters. Subsequent viewings have allowed me to better appreciate how Soderbergh experimented with his own auteur elements in tandem with said subgenre. More and more his work as a director reminds me of that classic 'falling hats' gag from Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd assuming the personalities of whichever style hat that lands on their heads.
The film’s basic setup and plotline is nothing new; we’ve seen it all before involving the rouge female agent running then counterattacking those who double crossed her. Cliché. But, again, I like the way (and the simple fact that) Soderbergh is tweaking both the genre and the cinematic conventions with which it’s so often associated. Like the Bourne films, this, too, features espionage amidst exotic European locales, but the tone and style are very different. Haywire is no grim affair. Business-like, yes, but also irreverent and coolly nonchalant. For example, Soderbergh supplants the routine and often drab spy-movie musical score, à la John Powell, with a series of upbeat jazzy riffs then further paces a covert mission montage and a foot chase to the same beats.

The fight scenes are unusual. Carano performs a number of elaborate martial arts techniques that are somehow weirdly, even surrealistically, understated by Soderbergh’s detached, borderline clinical presentation, cutting at most between two or three master-to-medium-master camera positions. We’re seeing a yin and yang of sorts: the extraordinary displayed in a manner of the ordinary; the latter not negating the former, but strangely complementing it. We hear the film on the same level as well. Its sound design feels not designed, but captured, documentric. Kicks and punches are acoustically muted. A car chase through snowy woods is heard not as the typical, articulated and over-layered multi-track array of engine accelerations and screeching metal, but as one would hear it sitting in the back seat of the cab. Shots fired and bullet impacts register as *pops* and *clinks*. I’ve read a lot of complaints online that all of these elements lessen the impact of the action but I personally think it has its own quality. I also think interesting Soderbergh's approach to the digital cinematography. Haywire is not a particularly "pretty" looking film, but the gauzy soft focus and the high contrast between shifting, heavy filtered color palettes -- as determined by different locations -- does make for some arresting imagery.
I almost get the sense that Soderbergh was aiming to create a kind of direct-to-video experience, only through calculation of the medium instead of limitation in budget or via simple lack of skill. In other words, he did it artfully, elevating a lowbrow form to something uniquely expressive. A lot of people seem to look past that at what they see as a mere cheaply made film of no consequence. Well, it may indeed be of no consequence -- an unassuming January release -- but I think it works with a genuine novel style nonetheless. I dig it.

Gina Carano doesn’t appear to be all that great an actress. She doesn’t even have much screen presence in terms of personality. What she does exude, however, is a pure physical, able-bodied presence. She’s like a machine to a certain extent, and Soderbergh has effectively molded the film to her nature. His very choice in casting Carano is a clear echo of his casting porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role of The Girlfriend Experience. Centering the films on these non-actresses is intriguing in the way it challenges Soderbergh to construct storytelling as an extension of their occupations. Grey was a real life fuck toy playing the role of a socialite-specialty escort, an emotional toy for lonely corporate men seeking solace in the company of a perfect, always attentive female companion. Therapy porn.
Here, Carano is a real life MMA fighter who's playing a state-of-the-art, globally operational weapon. Grey’s character was largely internalized, reconciling the economic related stress of her fading clientele with her personal life/boyfriend, which resulted in numerous scenes of her sitting in rooms, deep in conversation, trying to make best sense of it all. Haywire is simpler in that Carano’s character is an external force with a purposeful resolve; ambushed by her handlers for mere profit, thereby justifiably pissed. Hers is a narrative almost entirely tactical: moving, fighting, evading, anticipating. Essentially, her character is her mission, whatever she is doing-pursuing from one scene to the next. And it works.

There’s also a kind of blandness to her countenance that is appropriate for the part. I dig how Carano is not some exotic waif like Jolie or Saldana or Beckinsale or any other female star in their respective action-heroine roles. Instead, she has this homegrown, common place attractiveness, while her impressive athletic bulk and remarkable utilitarian attributes is more than enough to hold the big screen. Given the right circumstances, I could watch her all day.

The surrounding cast lends the film much of its charming personality. Ewan McGregor is dastardly without being ridiculous. He’s snake oil personified, but without succumbing to a second rate Bond villain caricature. I like the way Michael Fassbender is depicted coldly in the first half of the film up until his death, then later through flashbacks conveys the slightest touch of humanity. That was a nice little narrative technique that allowed the audience to retrofit his character after the fact. Channing Tatum is a bit smarter and more likable than the usual dead weight that results from his casting. Bill Paxton does a fine job as the loyal and sympathetic father, and I really liked his brief moment of horror upon realizing just how deadly efficient of a soldier his daughter has become. Veteran Michael Douglas is good as the pragmatic and partially neutral government wise man and a laid back Antonio Banderas gets the funniest moment in the film; the crowd I saw it with gave a cheering laugh at his closing line.

Again, I enjoyed it. It really wasn’t the most dramatic action film in terms of story but the process was experimental and fun. The only thing is, I’m still not quite sure why it’s called "Haywire". Does it refer to something specific or is it just a title that Soderbergh thought sounded rad?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cannon visits The Ward

John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010) is something of a minor masterpiece, or at least a minor great film.

To a degree almost apologetic, what vocal minority there was who approved this film did so by calling it traditional, while the majority of critics and filmgoers dismissed it as tired and cliché. The latter sentiment is not hard to understand. No doubt, scenes of lurking, undead menace, teenage girl murder and various jump-scares feel as if they’ve been trucked in from the stock warehouse of horror cinema from the past 30 years-plus, while the similar themed psychological thriller Shutter Island had already recently stole much of the thunder on the idea of a split/multiple personality twist reveal. However, these aforesaid gimmicks of the film shouldn’t be considered its main draw; they are but a formality. The devil is in the details, as they say, and while The Ward never breaks new grounds in the horror genre, it nonetheless stakes a few acres of unclaimed territory in how its garden-variety premise is appropriated and ultimately subverted. Horror as a whole is a convention almost by necessity, and Carpenter’s gift has always been his ability to do something unique, something exclusive, within such an envelope precisely because he remains a thematic storyteller with a classical approach to onscreen artistry. Like all of his films, the key to really appreciating The Ward is rather simple: watch it again.

Madness is truly terrifying because it is real. Ghosts are not real. There are no haunted houses; no such thing as vampires or witches or werewolves or demonic possession etc. It’s all bullshit. Great for entertaining fiction, but bullshit. Yet, for all intents and purposes, madness of the mind is supernatural, or can pretty damn well evoke a similar effect. A real life person subject to insanity experiences the irrational, the unexplainable, in much the same way a scripted sane character would in your typical horror film. The Ward opens with this state of psychosis creeping about its edges. The nighttime establishing shot of a psychiatric hospital cuts to various empty hallways and corridors of its interior, and immediately there can be heard faint sounds of some inhuman growling or snarling emanating from somewhere nearby, perhaps behind the camera or not too far around some unseen corner. Right away the audience is experiencing what terrors the human mind is capable of. The sequence then finds its way inside a cell where a young girl cowers in fear before being snatched up and strangled to her death by a gruesome figure in the shadows, the first of many schlocky tropes involving said assailant that are actually clever in how they spin the film’s central conceit.

What follows is a rather nifty opening credits that montages a history of mental disorder with shattered glass imagery, and where composer Mark Kilian introduces his main orchestral theme involving chilly female vocals that wonderfully appropriates the "Carpenter sound" while still maintaining its own musical identity, not unlike Morricone’s contribution to The Thing. He follows up with an alternate, recurring motif of a childlike lullaby that echoes throughout the next scene leading into the film’s first act, one that depicts sunbaked rolling hills and a highway stretch of rural North Bend, Oregon, circa 1966, as a tattered Amber Heard darts through brown, dry, wooded areas, eluding a roaming police car and making her way to an abandoned farmhouse; feverish and distressed, she sets the farmhouse ablaze and falls to her knees before the cops show up and haul her away.

For Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese envisioned his asylum with strong, gothic overtones, as did Darren Arnofsky with his various urban settings in Black Swan (also released the same year), albeit modernized. Both directors displayed a considerable degree of influence via European cinema in how they hyper-stylized the psycho-traumatic descents of their respective protagonists: Scorsese, warping his surreal visuals in painterly slo-mo coupled with staccato assaults on the senses; Arnofsky, utilizing a grainy, handheld, 16mm vérité aesthetic for a near constant over-the-shoulder POV. In roughly the first 7 minutes of The Ward, however, and with scarce dialogue, Carpenter reframes from excessive style, opting instead for his signature low-key tone of unease: hypnotic opening credits that give way to a weirdly tinted countryside, which in turn conveys a subtle unreality even beyond the titular ward, accompanying our heroine, Kristen (Heard), no matter where she goes, and is the last time we see any other place on screen. Even the psychiatric hospital itself is less foreboding than it is merely clinical. This marks a similar vibe that goes all the way back to Halloween, where Carpenter feigns an unassuming normality of idyllic America as something to pervert with cold atmosphere.
As Kristen interacts with the four other girls of her ward, any number of tricky visuals could have been employed to signify the true nature of the circumstances, but Carpenter plays it cool with simple gestures in framing and camerawork. If not notably flashy, the director is always careful in how he illustrates the subjective view of a girl who suffers from multiple personalities. It’s a minimalist method that, instead of self-congratulating, pays off in favor of the audience, as numerous scenes of the five separate identities lounging about the rec room, a cafeteria table or strolling the outside courtyard are scanned with, sometimes tracking, master shots and measured coverage that invites us to interpret the physical logistics of what is, in fact, solo behavior. There are select instances when Carpenter does indeed augment or enhance this minimalism. One example involves a scene where the personality of goody two-shoes Iris, played by Lyndsy Fonseca, undergoes hypnotherapy by Jarred Harris, as the experimental Dr. Stringer, that cuts to a single, slow-zoom mental image of herself sitting on an outside bench as she turns and looks towards the camera; a singular exaggerated moment that is genuinely ominous, depicting a fork in the narrative where the mind decides, perhaps coaxingly, to destroy one of its own creations. Another example is the repeating, off-colored flashbacks to a prepubescent girl as the victim of sexual abuse.

Naturally, the movie is pockmarked with jolting frights as a murderous wraith torments Kristen from the peripherals and picks off the other girls one by one, killing them in a gruesome manner commonly associated with lowbrow slasher fare. In a more straightforward story lacking ambivalence between the innocent and the malevolent, these scenes could be considered rote to downright tedious, but here it is better to think of them as a kind of customary practice of horror fun that masks a deeper conflict between lunacy and a radical means to finding a psychiatric cure. The monster in question is revealed to be a disfigured form of Alice Hudson, the true identity of the girl from whom all the other identities have sprung. She herself was figuratively murdered by these divergents as a coping mechanism to avoid reliving her own traumatic past, while Kristen is revealed as the latest invention of this mechanism in its most extreme attempt to deny reality.

Therefore, the heart of the story bucks audiences’ sympathy in a way that is quite interesting, for Kristen is in fact the enemy, the film’s main antagonist, and yet she proceeds only with the most honest intentions. Within the storm of madness there is no axis dividing good and evil. For that matter, there is no good an evil; there are only opposing agents of the mind who fight to survive the real world either by embracing it or avoiding it. Crucial to this theme and the film’s overall counterintuitive nature is the casting of Heard in the lead. Blonde and alluringly beautiful, her open-faced sincerity accentuates a dreamy state that is beguilingly seductive. Kristen is the most naïve figment of Alice Hudson’s psyche, and there is an unshakable sadness to the idea that the former is but a victim in a victimless struggle for the latter’s sanity. A haunting moment comes near the end when Alice looks upon Kristen and the other girls as mere drawings in a sketch book, as lingering phantoms robbed of their own realities. A question arises: was Kristen any less valid -- her right any less deserved --in pursuing her own existence?

Carpenter provides no answers but he does end the film with his trademark closing 'sting' shot where Kristen, reduced to pure fury, attacks an unsuspecting Alice from behind a bathroom sink mirror. Justified or not, she aims to prove herself Darwinian champion of the mind.

With each viewing I’ve since become increasingly enamored with The Ward. It features a lean but astute script, ripe with penetrating themes, from Michael & Shawn Rasmussen, and each of the female cast members bring distinctive traits to their characters, even if those traits  are only surface-level, while Harris plays his role with just the right degree of ambiguity. All of the performances are rather thankless, really. But then, so is the movie as a whole, continuing the modest transparency of John Carpenter’s filmmaking craft. I can think of few other directors who are as consummate yet equally unassuming.