Archive for December 2010

My 2010 In Movies: Politics Edition

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Well guys, it's that special time of year, where we get to reflect on the 12 months past and consolidate our learnings (or something to that effect). I've been putting off a top-ten list for ages now, and I've realized that I've put it off for a reason - I don't like the idea that something so subjective can be numbered objectively. In all honesty, my rankings would change based on my particular mood of the moment and by what 'art' stage I'm vacillating between, whether it's 'would-be serious critic' or 'lover of pretty people doing pretty people things on a giant, coloured screen.'

So instead, you get simple desultory philippics (ten points to the first commenter who gets the reference!) on my year in movies. This is just part one, but I aim to cover my entire year in film. Key disclosure, I won't just be talking about movies released in 2010, I'll be talking about what I saw this year).


I seem to have bookended the year with two great movies about terrorists (and terrorists that did actually collaborate for a few years in the 1980s, oddly enough). The year started with a bang (many bangs!) in my parents home theater, with The Baader Meinhof Complex. This movie led to a strange obsession with understanding underground far-left groups that seems to have persisted until today. I suspect next year I'll be reading lots of books about these phenomenon (starting with Heinrich Boll).

One of the last movies I saw this year was Carlos the Jackal, at least the short version. To give you an idea about how much I loved this movie, my reaction at the time: "Wait a minute...there's a 5 hour version? HOORAY!!!"

In both cases, we have terrorists who were also sex symbols, and it was interesting to see the different ways the authorities dealt with this particular variation on a very old problem. In the case of the former, it led to the vast demonization (and civil violation) of youth culture for an entire decade. Of course, teenage rebellion against your parents is a whole 'nother kettle of fish when your parents were the Nazis.

In Carlos, it meant that various nations looked past his most egregious transgressions and tried instead to make him a martyr to their various causes. But of course, they critically misjudged him; Carlos has only one cause - himself.

So now I hear you, you're asking, did all the politics come from foreign countries? What happened to those pinko Hollywood liberals I've heard so much about? I suppose there were overtly political movies released this year, but the only one that leaps to mind is Fair Game, which I can't be bothered to see (I'm not too nostalgic for the Bush era, to be honest).

In fact, the most political movie Hollywood released was shockingly a-political (which some critics apparently conflated with being boring). You know what's coming, don't you? The Kids Are All Right! 

Slight meandering confession: it really irritates me that the spelling they chose was All Right instead of Alright. I keep flashing back to that Arrested Development bit: 

-"He's going to be all right."
-"Oh thank god!"
-"No, you don't seem to understand. He's going to be all right. We had to cut off his left hand."

I keep seeing comments to the effect of "this movie is only interesting because the couple at the center of it is gay instead of straight." Well...yes. That may be true. But that does still mean something in this day and age; lets face it, mass entertainment probably does more to normalize gay marriage than a thousand impassioned pleas in front of state capitols. And there was something simply wonderful about the way it was executed: that being gay or straight doesn't fundamentally affect the fact that when two people grow and change together, circumstances may conspire to pull them apart - not even big picture circumstances like legislation, but just the simple fact of being human.

*I was going to discuss Hurt Locker here, but in all truth, there is zero politics in that movie (which was actually one of its greatest selling points, I suspect). I'll find a way to slot it in somewhere else though, don't worry.

Oscarbait 2010: Io Son Amore (I Am Love)

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I suppose the first thing that really jumps out about I Am Love are the old fashioned titles - everything about them, from the layout to the font, recalls an older, classier era in film.

I've struggled to think of how to describe I Am Love to someone who knows nothing about it without sounding like a pretentious bore, but I think I've found a suitable (though slightly misleading) way of framing it. Imagine if The Godfather were not about the Corleones, but about Kay (Diane Keaton's hapless, voiceless interloper). Kay appears in the story when it is convenient to Michael for her to do so; it's not until the third movie that we are given any hint of an inner life.

So there we have I Am Love: feminist reimagining of the Godfather, minus violence and plus food porn, by which I mean there is lots of food and plenty of nudity. Set in the backdrop of unspeakable wealth and power, the movie tells the story of the two who don't really belong in the family; their attempts to create something apart nearly destroys their whole world. The beauty of the movie is that in the end, we see that no one belongs in this particularly family, at least not in the way it's been constructed from the top-down, except for the pater familias.

I Am Love is a particularly beautiful movie: shots of Antonio's food seduce us just as completely as it seduces everyone in the film. Lust is a very real thing. Happily, the movie takes the view that trivializing it as a sin does not make it go away. In fact, trivializing it transforms it into an indestructible beast, grotesque and unnatural, impossible to remove from sight. Overcoming it sometimes can seem…almost transactional, a necessary deal made to keep various wheels turning, and in some cases, just to keep living.

Tilda Swinton, so radiant for so much of the movie, by the end is the Swinton we all know and fear - a pale strawberry husk with unmissable black orbs punctuating her face. In that antepenultimate scene, she is the White Witch, she is Orlando, she is Emma, she is Kitesh. She is all she has ever been, and unmistakably herself. In the penultimate scene she is…like a rat, undecided about leaving the sinking ship. But in the final scene, she is Cassandra reborn and recognized. She is right in practically every way. I’m not convinced that earns the silly triumph in the final scene, but goddamn it, I’m rooting for her anyway. She is honest. She is beautiful. And she is real.

Reading Today Through Flannery O'Connor: The Geranium


This is the first in a series, as I read through The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor and blog about it.

Read the story here:
"The Geranium" is the first story ever published by Flannery O'Connor, written as part of her master's thesis. O'Connor would go on to rewrite and republish this story four times, finally as part of her most famous collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.

In "The Geranium," an elderly man makes the decision to leave his humble boarding house in Georgia to live with his daughter in New York City. He is lonely and he is obsessed with second-guessing his decisions. He misses his social standing in the South and his "Negro" friend; in his mind, such friendships can only exist under certain social conditions: that black men should know and accept they are not equal to white. In the bohemian equality of NYC, this problem obsesses him and obsesses him until it practically radiates from him, even when unintended, leading to the violent conclusion of the story. A conclusion one might not expect given that the story begins with an old man staring at an empty spot on a windowsill, waiting for a geranium to be put out for sunshine.

I recently read a news-piece about the seemingly sudden backlash against the advancement of civil rights for homosexuals; the essential argument is that normalization was on the increase until actual legislation was passed. Once gay marriage became a reality in some states, new fears crept into a conservative (and usually religious) population that was slowly becoming more tolerant, and then there was a sudden backlash against everything from DADT to anti-bullying legislation.

This story illustrates that conflict perfectly. The old man happily (though patronizingly) co-exists with black men in his homestead; there's an understanding between them, he feels, and as long as that understanding exists, then they may interact, even socially. But when he moves North, and that understanding is removed, then he breaks. Long suppressed prejudices become real and apparent to him, and he even attacks his daughter for what he sees as a violation of principle - how could she live in a place where a Negro is allowed to live next door to her?

Those of you who have read it, I look forward to discussing it below.

Tears of a Wallet: Latest Acquisitions

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As these things inevitably go, I got home to Texas, and priority one was heading to the Half Price bookshop in search of all the books dominating the year-end lists, and a few others. Mainly, I was searching for half priced David Foster Wallace, but had no luck. In fact there were many novels I was searching for where they had the author in question, but not the specific novel. So I decided to hold out, and got only three (three!) books, where normally I'd come home with a cartload.

Flannery O'Connor - Complete Short Stories

I took a number of short fiction classes in college (probably because I thought there would be an easier workload), and they ended up being some of my favorite classes. There were three stories we studied that particularly stood out (apart from all the Russian stuff that I was predisposed to love). First was "The Enormous Radio," by John Cheever (I still recommend this to anyone, creepy creepy science fiction of the Twilight Zone variety). Second was "Cathedral," by Raymond Carver (Oh, how I love Raymond Carver).

Finally, there was "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," by Flannery O'Connor. If you've read short fiction, you've probably read this famous tale of murder and mayhem in the antebellum South. It's the sort of thing that might be turned into a Coen brothers movie, except that it's way too dark.

You all know I love Southern Gothic, so this was an obvious choice at the bookstore - (This is Me: "OOOOH SHINY!").

And for the benefit (or boredom) of all of you, I'm going to blog about each story as I read them.

Connie Willis - Passage
I've been looking forward to Connie Willis for a long time. Everything I've read tells me that I would love her greatly - sci-fi of the Neil Gaiman mould, humanistic stories involving weird science and time travel.

They didn't have the ones I wanted, which were either Doomsday Book (medieval history student accidentally ends up in 1320), or Blackout (Oxford historians from 2066 are repeatedly sent back in time to change the past during the most crucial horrors).

But Passage is also quite well regarded (and shockingly has no time travel in it. I think. But I secretly hope it does.)

Henry James - Daisy Miller and Washington Square
I am taking it on faith that I'm going to love Henry James (dont ask me why). But this was a dollar, and has his most well-regarded novels (in one book!) I was going to read Turn of the Screw first, but I left it in London. There's every possibility that I will get to Washington Square first, and fill another important gap in my personal canon.

The Political Journey of Winona Ryder

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I recently rewatched Heathers for the 100th odd time (though it's been years since I last saw it). This film is every bit as subversive, clever and witty as it was when it was first released, and this is due to a number of things: Daniel Waters' whip-smart screenplay, young Christian Slater at the height of his outcast mystique, but mostly because of Winona Ryder's scarily humanistic portrayal of a complete sociopath.

Fast forward through Generation X, where she was one of the big stars, and look at her now. She's consigned to irrelevant roles like her 2 minutes in Star Trek or her Norma Desmond grotesque in Black Swan. But in many ways, the character she plays in Black Swan is the perfect reflection of herself. She dazzled the world with her artistic talents in her youth, then she's shoved aside in favor of the younger star, but she definitely does not go quietly.

It's astonishing to think that an entire archetype would not exist without Winona Ryder: the moody outsider who flies dangerously close to the dark side but never loses her firm belief that the world has no purpose except to provide a vehicle for her sarcasm and narcissism (there have been many male characters of this nature, but Ryder's take is uniquely female, and infinitely more strange than the Holden Caulfield type). Teen girls would never be the same. There would be no Mean Girls or Buffy without the road paved by many classic Ryder characters.

But all this got me thinking: what the hell happened? Where did it all go wrong? I don't have a definitive answer, but one thing is obvious; Winona Ryder is making the same journey made by many a politician.

So Winona starts out angry and ready to take a stand in Heathers. But she quickly learns, thanks to Christian Slater, that direct action is initially life-affirming but can end up blowing up in your face (quite literally in this case). You live life on the edge and you want as many people to know about you as possible (Wino Forever!).

Then, In Reality Bites, we're basically watching phase II of Veronica's growth as a political activist. We see her compromise her ideals in the hopes that compromise can lead to actual movement. But just as the day-to-day business of politics seems to corrupt its essential participants, this means that Lelaina sells out (to Ben Stiller!), and ends up destroying her budding career.

So as we all know, politicians have three options when they get voted out of office: you can attempt to redefine your identity, you can turn to a life of crime in the form of lobbying, or you can go straight to jail. Winona Ryder managed to do all three. Redefining herself took the form of period dramas such as Age of Innocence, Dracula and The Crucible, all of which are terrible. They are terrible mainly because Winona has to play fragile characters, flowers hiding from the sun, so they waste her particular appeal (and also there are multiple dodgy accents). (Little Women is great though). Repeated failure can make politicians crazy (see John McCain), and so went Winona - she ended up in the loony bin (Girl, Interrupted). But she wasn't the looniest in the loony bin, so people only remember Angelina Jolie from that movie.

So, just like McCain, this apparently inspired Winona to ramp up the crazy. Which brings us to the Free Winona! phase of Winona's journey (aka life of crime and straight to jail, all in one). A career crash of such epic silliness is hard to imagine, and hasn't been matched until Britney Spear's similarly unforeseeable breakdown. Supporting evidence for craziness: co-starring in an Adam Sandler movie.

So the inevitable followup to a highly publicized flameout is steady obsolescence. And so it seems that after this rollercoaster journey, Ryder is doing the actorly equivalent of the quiet retirement to the ranch - character roles. I for one can't wait to see her next act. Which, if I had to predict using this labored metaphor, probably means she'll become a pundit on CNN or Fox News.

The Town (2010)

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I feel like I've been waiting all year for this movie to come out. No really. It may not be the finest piece of auteurship to grace cinemas this year, but 2010 has been a little light on quality mainstream drama that's both unpretentious and engaging.

The movie opens with a heist, led by Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck). It's mostly successful, except that the loose cannon of the group (Jeremy Renner) gets a little too punch-happy and they're forced to take a hostage - the lovely bank manager (Rebecca Hall, in a perfectly undetectable American accent). Thanks to that now standard crime-film trope of silly masks (a glorious tradition that I'm pretty sure began with Point Break), she doesn't actually see anything or know anything. But the boys get a little spooked anyway, and so Affleck naturally volunteers to keep an eye on her. Gradually, this evolves into not only keeping an eye on her, but hands and lips all over her (this is not a spoiler, it's in the trailer).

No new boundaries were broken here; after all, there is a predictable line such stories have to follow:

Key incident #1: Boy meets girl

Key incident #2: Boy must spy on girl unless she gives the cops any information, but they fall in love.

Key incident #3: She finds out the truth.

Of course what makes these movies interesting is not whether they hit these points or not, because truthfully it's inevitable (if the girl doesn't find out, for example, the viewer feels cheated). But we watch to see what weight these points are given, why she doesn't find out the truth, and what happens AFTER she finds out the truth.

It's easy to see why she doesn't find out: Ben Affleck is utterly charming (and strangely - some might say improbably - Jon Hamm has not the slightest bit of charm in his role as the FBI investigator). It's so good to see Affleck back in roles he actually shines in - I've always thought he was a good actor - instead of getting sucked into Bennifer shenanigans and other garbage. He's not really meant to be a romantic hero. He's something else, more off-the-cuff, less predictable in his motives (which is probably why he utterly failed at being Jack Ryan). Also, Claire wears her trauma on her sleeve - she carries it everywhere she goes for that first week. It's easy to understand why she's desperate to find someone who will help her make sense of her terror, especially when the FBI failed to do so.

Of course, things do not go smoothly. MacRay's associates do not take well to the news when they find out; Gem in particular feels betrayed, though not as betrayed as his sister (in a surprisingly tolerable performance by Blake Lively). Renner is fantastic as Gem - he carries much of the foolish bravado that embodied his character in Hurt Locker, but with even less restraint. He can turn from still to busting heads in a millisecond, and is terrifying.

Thusly we reach a breaking point: MacRay is pulled by tensions coming from every direction: the FBI raise the heat on him, his mob boss reveals an uglier side than his bruised face already betrayed, Blake Lively goes a little crazy. The film deals with these questions and many others - whether you like the final act is a matter of personal taste, but I happened to love it. This may not be the most important movie of the year, but there's something to be said for quality films with less fanfare that just get on with the business of giving mainstream viewers a good time without insulting their intelligence.

I'm also glad Ben Affleck's back into making quality fare, and look forward to his next project.

All Is Quiet On New Year's Day


I have many thoughts today, mostly related to productivity, but also related to particular points of interest.

I'm starting to eat, sleep and breathe island adventures, which is good I suppose. This is the end goal, the novel. I've never come so far and I've never been so excited about where it's going. When I look at notebooks and notebooks filled with half-written ideas and false-starts, I'm amazed that I've come this far, and I'm more amazed that the momentum is carrying through, and I'm learning more about these characters and this world everyday. I'm certain this momentum will drive me through the completion of the first draft at least. We'll reassess then.

I read a DFW article in Slate today that blew my mind about the utility of language - I've never followed the relativity of language and philosophy before in any substantial way. I want to learn all about Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin and the rest, but I think this ought to wait until the novel is finished.

I am also trying to work out my thoughts on Berlin, the way I once organized them on Prague. There's so much to cover, but there's one fundamental question that I wish to solve: how can Germany move past it's Nazi legacy? How can ten-odd years of a country overshadow everything before or since? I'd argue that communism is much more relevant and emblematic of that nation, as it was created there and nearly destroyed the nation and its people. Again, it's not particularly relevant to today's Germany, but its legacy is present and affecting in many parts of the world. What about philosophy? Germany may not have had great (or at least not as numerous) contributions to the literary canon (fiction, to clarify), but I think that's directly related to its utilitarian philosophy (see what I've done there? Tied this question back to what I've learned today about the theories of Wittgenstein and Austin.)

I'm thinking precisely where I want to be in the New Year, of the many goals, personal and professional, that have been hounding me and that I hope to resolve: I want to find an employment solution that's both personally satisfying and enables me to pursue things that are MORE personally satisfying. I want to turn this website into something real and something significant, and I think the next step is to get more people involved to ensure a steady stream of interesting and well-thought content.

Also, the morning started with a bit of wonderful news. Sady Doyle (author of Tiger Beatdown and active twitterer) started the #Mooreandme campaign one week ago, in order to get him to retract his unfair dismissal of the sex crimes charges against Julian Assange (I've already written elsewhere about the charges, and you know I am not judging guilt in this case, but I am fully in support of any person's right to habeas corpus, whether it be Assange himself or his accusers.) Well, after days and days of radio silence, where Keith Olbermann stood in as his knight of honor to fan the online flames, Moore finally retracted his more egregious statements and apologized publicly on the Rachel Maddow Show.

This is in full credit to the tireless efforts of Sady Doyle, but in many ways I think it was more meaningful because it united feminists and non-feminists in a very honorable cause - the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of justice. Dear God, if we could unite and get Michael Moore of all people to apologize about something, imagine if we put aside our petty differences and worked for real change, all together. It does give one hope, and should remind us all what can happen with strong leadership that is delegated effectively and efficiently.

So I could leave you with a list of New Year's resolutions, but we know what happens with those. This is just a set of questions I hope to answer and problems I hope to solve.

The #1 Beneficiary from Wikileaks

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The Guardian!

The British newspaper has won back a lot of respect as it seems to be the only mainstream English publication in the world that is publishing every single one of the Wikileaks revelations, as well as covering the accusations against Assange separately and objectively. Michael Moore may have launched a bit of a crusade against the Guardian because of this, as such coverage does not fit his myopic view that journalists cannot also be rapists, but that can only be a mark in the Guardian's favor.

All the other media are running around chasing their tails, trying to argue that Wikileaks doesn't follow good journalistic protocol (whatever that is). Mainly, they're pissed off they didn't get there first. Just think if Bob Woodward had been asking hard questions with his top level access to the White House instead of writing puff pieces about how cuddly our politicians are.

Best Discoveries of 2010: Part I, The Oldies

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2010 has been a good year for discovering bands I never paid attention to before, or discovering parts of their catalog I never bothered to. All of the artists on this list have been around for at least 5 years, and usually much, much longer. I'll try and explain a little about the cause of the delay, and a bit more about why it's worth your while to check these bands out for the first time if you haven't heard them, or for the second time if you'd dismissed them.

Welcome to Part I, about the evergreen Oldies.


Tom Petty had two massive massive hits in the 1980's: Free Fallin' and Don't Come Around Here No More. Both videos were mainstays on MTV and VH1, especially the latter, with its creepy interplay between Tom Petty's Mad Hatter and little Alice. I liked it, but I admit that I was not too hot on Free Fallin'; I always thought it was a pretty annoying song, and it was ALWAYS on the radio. I knew that Tom Petty was in the Traveling Wilbury's, the legendary folk supergroup.

Then, earlier this year, I can't remember where, when, or how, but I came across an early track of theirs called American Girl. Now, when I heard this song, I thought, is this Razorlight? Or some other generically awful British indie-garage band?

I went to my friend Google, and lo! It was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, recorded in 1977! The Strokes actually admitted to ripping off the guitar riff for their first hit, Last Nite. So I was intrigued, how such a quintessentially American band basically invented this genre that's come to be identified with British indie-pop, and I dug deep into their catalogue.

The first thing I noticed was how many more songs I recognized than I thought. Great rock and roll like Refugee and I Need to Know, more sultry stuff like Mary Jane's Last Dance (which Red Hot Chilli Peppers admitted to ripping off, and I don't mind pointing out that the Hives also ripped off a riff in THEIR biggest hit).

The second thing I noticed, and what really impressed me, is how diverse their sound is. So go check them out, and forget Free Fallin'.

Recommended Tracks: American Girl, Mary Jane's Last Dance, Listen to her Heart


You may not recognize the name, but you definitely know one of their songs: the rollicking theme song to That 70's Show! Don't go by that though, that song is a bit of an anomaly in their sound.

I first came across Big Star years and years ago, in the midst of my obsession with the Bangles, who did a fantastic cover of September Gurls. I checked out the original Big Star recording then and there, but didn't like it nearly as much as the cover, so I kind of ignored the band (unfair, as the Bangles have done tons of covers that are better than the originals, but those songs don't always represent the original band at their best. See Simon/Garfunkel's Hazy Shade of Winter).

They came back into the news this March when lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton died, just days before he was meant to reunite with the band at SXSW. A lot of musicians and media personalities I admire published extremely personal memories about how they came across Big Star and what the band meant to them. And so it was time for me to give them a second chance.

The band were a very minor act in the 1970's, and only came to be known when REM and other popular bands promoted them heavily on college radio in the 1980's. Their sound was a mix of sentimental acoustic numbers (like fan favorite Thirteen) and their particular brand of melodic, jangly guitar rock and roll. Combining elegant harmonies with strong lyricism, they are considered today one of the most influential bands of all time. 

Recommended Tracks: O Dana, Give Me Another Chance, September Gurls, Ballad of El-Goodo

Like most people today, I have a healthy amount of disdain for Bruce Springsteen's 80s output (apart from Dancing in the Dark, which I've loved since I was a kid).

While I know that Born in the U.S.A. is the exact opposite of a patriotic song, it still leaves a Reaganite bad taste in my mouth (probably owing to the fact that then as in now, Republicans have no sense of irony.)

But as I've posted elsewhere, I'm On Fire is one of my favorite songs of all time, and I kept thinking, how could a man who has written one of my favorite songs not have written other songs I could fall in love with?

So in I went, into the catalogue. I get the working class appeal of his 1970's output, and how inspiringly raw those performances must have been live. I learned that he was the one who turned Patti Smith's Because the Night into something timeless, as she was trying to record it in the next studio but just couldn't get it right. But I admit, what really moved me is some of the stuff he did in the 1990s that came and went before I became musically aware, and weren't successful enough to be modern radio mainstays. I think everything he did in the 1990's is absolutely worth revisiting, but especially the album The Ghost of Tom Joad. 

Recommended Tracks: The Ghost of Tom Joad, Streets of Philadelphia, The Rising


We all know Son of a Preacher Man. It's possible you hated it. I certainly did. I did not for even a moment understand the appeal of Dusty Springfield as I only knew that song. But she was MASSIVE in her day, with 18 top ten singles in the US alone in the 1960's. Yet the only song that's really made it into modern memory is the aforementioned. That and Wishin' and Hopin', which is even worse.

I became curious again when I learned that she was one of the main singers that Carole King wrote for before launching her own career. I heard Dusty's version of You've Got A Friend, and suddenly I understood everything. That voice. It's so unique. She had also done the original version of Bacharach's Look of Love, which had been outshined by numerous covers afterward.

Many of her songs are a little slow for my taste, but the sultrier tunes really hit the spot.

Trivia: John Paul Jones, drummer of Led Zeppelin, was a good friend of Springfield's and had backed her in concerts. The band was signed to their first label purely on her recommendation.

Recommended Tracks: Cherished, Breakfast in Bed, Just A Little Lovin', Goodbye


I think for me, my route to discovery with Bowie takes a similar route to Springsteen. I have no fondness for Bowie's 80's work, apart from the songs from Labyrinth (which I love for no respectable reason or any kind, but I do love unconditionally). And Modern Love. And Let's Dance. (The last 2 were never hits in the US, so I didn't grow up with them).

I'd always known and loved the Rise and Fall Ziggy Stardust album, but found much of the other 70's albums weren't really for me, despite the occasional superb song. Man Who Sold the World is a little too repetitive sonically. Hunky Dory is a lot of fun, but not particularly memorable. Aladdin Sane is too much a product of its time in my opinion.

The Berlin Era produced one of the best songs of his career - Heroes - and one of the worst - the Bing Crosby duet (BLECH!)

But let's fast-forward to the 1990's, or Bowie's 'electronica' period. This is another case where very close friends loved Bowie's 90s work as they happened, but for whatever reason, I never investigated. Earthling is one of my favorite albums now; you'd know it because it spawned a massive hit with Trent Reznor called I'm Afraid of Americans. Bowie creates his own brand of industrial funk that's impossible to ignore when you hear it, melodic and forceful.

But this album doesn't come close to Outside, which is harder and faster and a whole lot weirder. It has a darker sound that's exotic and beautiful, blending middle eastern melodies with the techno that he'd long experimented with.

There's so much more Bowie that I haven't gotten to, and maybe he doesn't need any more advocates, but I think Americans have a reflexive dislike of him because all we know about is his gender-bending and weak songs like China Girl. So go forth! Discover!

Recommended Tracks: Dead Man Walking, Hallow Spaceboy, Under Pressure, Ashes to Ashes

That's it for Part I. Stay tuned for the next post, about newer acts that have gone under my radar for whatever reason (though I confess, they're not really THAT new).

Virginia Woolf, Inveterate Prankster


I'm sure some of you looked at that headline and went, huh? Virginia Woolf? Not a woman associated with a sense of humor, to be true. But she is the 2nd from the right in the picture above (beard and all), in the middle of a legendary prank that scandalized London and even had diplomatic consequences.

The "Dreadnought Hoax" was the brainchild of Horace de Vere Cole and was carried out by himself, Woolf (then Stephens), her brother, and two others who go on to be part of the Bloomsbury Group. Four dressed as Abyssinian royals, while Adrian Stephens played the role of the interpreter.

To start off with, Cole sent a telegram to the H.M.S Dreadnought that the Crown Prince of Abyssinia and three of his most trusted advisors were making an unexpected tour of the ship, and Admiral was ordered to greet them warmly and in high style. The Dreadnought had great standing as a symbol of Britain's military might, so offered a tempting target to this group of pacifists.

The group then went to Paddington Station, where Cole posed as "Herbert Cholmondeley" of the Foreign Office, and managed to score the group a VIP coach to Weymouth, where the Dreadnought was moored.

Once they arrived in Weymouth, the fun really started.

As the Daily Mirror reported at the time (the hoax was not revealed until significantly later): "All the princes wore vari-coloured silk sashes as turbans, set off with diamond aigrettes, white gibbah tunics, over which were cast rich flowing robes and round their necks were suspended gold chains and jeweled necklaces . . . They also all wore patent leather boots which, Oriental fashion, tapered to a point, the ends projecting fully six inches beyond the toes. White gloves covered the princes’ hands, and over the gloved fingers, they wore gold wedding rings – heavy, plain circlets, which looked very impressive."

However, the group couldn't find an Abyssinian flag, so they substituted the Zanzibar flag instead.

The group were given an exhaustive tour of the fleet. Only Stephens spoke in English (in his capacity as translator), and then he communicated to the others in bastardized Latin (intentionally misquoted passages from the Aeneid). The three male 'royals' frequently shouted 'bunga bunga' in approval of what they saw, from lifeboats to uniforms to electric light bulbs. (Virginia would intermittently mutter "chuck-a--choi, chuck-a-choi," as she felt those syllables better covered her female voice.) The group managed to fool the best and brightest of Her Majesty's Navy, who were even thrilled at the fake awards they were given by the group. Embarrassment upon embarrassment, one of the fooled Navy men knew both Virginia and Horace socially.

Upon their return to London, they were stilled greeted with oohs, ahhs and general adoration.

The prank was never discovered. In fact, the truth only came out because Cole sent a scathing letter to the Daily Mirror, with the picture above, detailing the group's triumph. Scandal ensued; various public officials called for arrests, caning, and more egregious forms of violence. But the only actual crime was the forged telegram originally sent to the ship.

The Navy became a total laughing stock. Children would approach them on the street and shout BUNGA BUNGA. The ship was sent out to sea due to the humiliation and wasn't allowed to return until the whole affair blew over. The real Abyssinian Prince came to visit England a few months later and requested to see the Navy, and was denied. But in a lovely twist, the H.M.S Dreadnought sank a German submarine in WWI, and received an anonymous telegram that said, you guessed it, "Bunga Bunga."

Poem of the Day: Sylvia Plath's "Daddy"

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Fascism and Germany have been on my mind lately; it's no secret that actually I've been more than a little obsessed with the whole thing since I went on a guided London walk that illustrated how close Britain came to becoming a fascist state itself during the fervor and uncertainty of the 1920s. And given the wonder and joy of cross-referencing and hyperlinks, that obsession led into an obsession with the Mitford sisters, which led to a brief passion for new journalism, which led to Joan Didion, and so it goes.

These days I flit from obsession to obsession like a butterfly to a flower, taking what I need before moving to the next. But when I was younger, perhaps I did flit, but I spent far more time on each subject of interest, far more focus and holistic study before I tired of it. One particular interest was Sylvia Plath. Perhaps I made myself romantically damaged to be like her. Perhaps I already was damaged and saw a kindred spirit when I read Bell Jar. But I am not Sylvia Plath, though if I so desired, I could cross Regent's Park and stick my head in her very own oven. Luckily I have grown past such desires.

What I always find surprising, though, is that she's still with me. That I can find beauty in her work despite the fact that I've grown up and am stronger than her in so many ways, better blessed in so many others. I still carry my small hardback everyman collection of her poetry everywhere I go, so that I may take quick sips when thirsty. (This is the same reason I always have at least one Tori Amos song, one Abba song and one Bangles song on my iPod, in case of emotional emergencies.)

Desultory am I, it is obvious. But here we journey towards the point. Why did I choose "Daddy" instead of a hundred other less obvious choices? Because it's impossible to get the first stanza out of your head. It's impossible not to be drawn into the strange rhythm of her words, like a steady march. It is superficially evocative but still rewards study.

This won't be the last Plath poem I feature, but this is the right one for this moment.

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time---
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been sacred of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You----

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two---
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Never Let Me Go: Bleakness Without a Heartbeat

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Disclaimer: This story is almost impossible to discuss without spoiling it. So I'll talk about it in general terms, then put up a big bad spoiler warning.

"Life's a bitch, and then you die." Is that the moral of this story? If so, I can scarcely think of anything more anti-human. I've just read twenty glowing reviews of Never Let Me Go, and while I agree with many of their points, I can't help it. I just didn't like it. Try as I might, I have a reflexive distaste for movies that are completely humorless, lacking even the bad taste appeal of unintentional humor.

Unrelentingly bleak, there were no tonal shifts at all, which muted the horror that is the basis of the story. From beginning to end, the movie is bathed in unsaturated colors, the piano tinkles melodramatically, and even the seaside looks drab and unsettling.

Keira Knightley was wasted in the only potentially interesting role, reduced to big dramatic scenes without emotional hooks. All three actors do a splendid job, but the job description was apparently to look blank while hinting at an undercurrent of sadness.


I think the fundamental point for me is that there was nothing to cling onto as the audience. We learn the truth early on, that these characters are factory children whose only purpose is to donate organs to their originals until their own bodies fall apart and they die. Then, with that premise, 3/4 of the movie attends to this bizarre love triangle which is impossible to care about when you know that there's this not-so-secret darkness propping up society in alternate Britain.

The characters never show any curiosity about what life on the other side is like, there's no interest at all except when Ruth is told that someone else spotted her 'original' in town. And once she sees that the spotter was wrong, back they go to their self-enforced imprisonment. It boggles the mind that the clones are allowed to move through society freely, and yet they never choose to, not even once.

Also, once they learn their fate, they don't bother fighting it. The movie seems to suggest this is some sort of British period piece stiff upper lip nonsense, but no one is that accepting of their fate. No one. After taking such pains in the Hailsham scenes to establish that these children are as human as any other, how could they then behave in a manner so inhuman?

The only scene that remains in the memory is the one and only time Kathy H. and Tommy try to do something about their fate. They hear that the donations can be deferred if they are a couple in true love. So they visit their old headmistress in an attempt to persuade her, and then the really dark truth comes out. That they were the last batch to be 'educated' as normal human beings. That the public is more comfortable thinking of them as science freaks trapped in a lab than living, breathing humans. That there is no such thing as deferral, for any reason. That the whole experiment was to test if the clones had souls. And once that was found true, then the public decided to deny that knowledge entirely.

See that's dark. There could have been a truly human story told there. But there wasn't. And that's why the movie is so disappointing to me.

Poem of the Day: Pablo Neruda's "I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You"

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Like many people, my entire knowledge of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda comes from the lovely film Il Postino, about a postman in Italy who's only job is to bring Neruda mail from all his swooning female fans. As the friendship grew between the two men, the postman gains the confidence from Neruda's words to woo the woman he loves.

Power of words, eh? For some reason, I never tried to read Neruda afterwards. But this morning, in a Dorothy Parker inspired frenzy of reading, I stumbled across a few, and was particularly enraptured by "I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You." Talk about love that eats you alive.



I do not love you except because I love you;
I go from loving to not loving you,
From waiting to not waiting for you
My heart moves from cold to fire.

I love you only because it's you the one I love;
I hate you deeply, and hating you
Bend to you, and the measure of my changing love for you
Is that I do not see you but love you blindly.

Maybe January light will consume
My heart with its cruel
Ray, stealing my key to true calm.

In this part of the story I am the one who
Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.

Contender for Favorite Movie of the Year: Rabbit Hole

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People in mourning are freaks, outcasts, often a bit ridiculous in their self-inflicted isolation. When circumstances force you to join their tribe, do you automatically become one of them? That's the question at the heart of Rabbit Hole, which I'd describe as an absurdist take on the self-perpetuating theatre of mourning.

When someone tells you they've lost a child, a gallery of eggshells appears between you and the bereaved. Eight months after losing her only son in an unfortunate accident, Becca (Nicole Kidman) loses patience with, well, patience, and decides that the time to move on is now, whether she's emotionally ready or not. And if that means breaking every one of those eggshells, then so be it. Like the title character in Rachel Getting Married, you can't stop watching Becca because you never know what explosively inappropriate statement she might make next.

When the movie was first announced, I think the general question was "Why is John Cameron Mitchell directing a relationship drama?" You may recall Mitchell from the masterpiece that is Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as the less successful Shortbus. But in many ways the choice was perfect. The film, and the play it was based on, were never meant to be mawkish. It was intended to find a bit of humor in a horrible situation.

I haven't mentioned Aaron Eckhart's character until now. Essentially, he's a key player in the theatre of mourning. He is not ready to move on, in fact he's quite the opposite, he's clinging on to every last bit of the dead son, down to the fingerprint stains on the wall. The most tense scenes in the film come from Becca basically going "La-di-da, delete, la-di-da, erase," followed by Eckhart freaking out.

But saying all this, there's one important thing to note: you never hate Becca. For all the electric shocks she delivers to her therapy group, to her mother, and to her husband, there's a tenderness there. She is not acting out of bitterness or anger, this is just her way of coping. Her way of getting to a better place. This is never more clear than when she meets the teenager who killed her son. He's also breaking at the seams, and she has every opportunity to destroy him, but instead gives him peace.

I love movies where the filmmaker actually manages a fresh, believable take on a story that's been often told, and usually told badly. Films like Rabbit Hole remind me why I love indie movies; they reveal uncomfortable human truths during events that are often represented in completely one-sided ways. Sometimes the smallest moments have more day-to-day impact than the large scale disruptions that take you by surprise.

Movies Bad Enough to be Good: Equilibrium


Equilibrium is a movie I've tried to watch on at least five separate occasions, but some distraction always halted the viewing (boys, sleep, college, you know how it is). For whatever reason, I never got past the bit where Taye Diggs comes on screen (and continue to believe it's a tragedy when Sean Bean is killed off in the first ten minutes of any movie).

It's an incredibly silly movie that makes very little sense. So naturally I loved it, even though it's essentially a strange pastiche of every dystopian classic you can think of, with a dash of The Matrix thrown in for flavor. Society burns art and literature! Color is illegal! Emotions are banned! There's an omnipresent floating head of Sean Pertwee! It uses a newly created fake martial art called Gun-kato that was invented by the director in his backyard!

Christian Bale plays Preston, a Cleric of the Tetragrammaton (say that one time fast), who runs around catching so-called 'sense offenders' who have the temerity not to take their daily dose of super-prozac to kill their feelings. The first victim we see is Bale's partner, played by Sean Bean with far more gravitas than this movie deserves. W.B. Yeats brings tears to his eyes, so Bale brings bullets to his brain.

Guess what happens next? Bale accidentally misses a dose, and is all, whoa, sunrises are colorful and people are human. Which also leads to one of the most ludicrous scenes I have ever seen on film ever: Bale blows his cover over puppy dog eyes. A PUPPY DOG! Even in humanity today, less than half of the world believes that dogs are anything more than food. There is absolutely no basis for him to find dogs adorable without the societal conditioning that might make you value domesticated animals more than any other animal. I swear, the dog takes up the entire middle third of the movie. Culminating with a fight scene worthy of Neo, but mercifully more brief than anything in the Matrix.

So, I'm guessing this just sounds pretty awful to you so far. Well, it has a lot working in its favor. To save money, rather than use dodgy CGI, director Kurt Wimmer filmed the entire movie on location in East Berlin, and made full use of the brutalist architecture that dominates the landscape. The movie just generally looks amazing. The cast also helps in elevating the movie from being completely inane. Christian Bale in his first action hero role, Taye Diggs, Emily Watson, Sean Bean, William Fichtner. Also, and this is important: the action scenes are few, and they are SHORT, keeping my eye-rolling to a bare minimum.

So why does this movie round the circle of bad to come back to good? I just find it intensely amusing that all these very good actors looked at this script and still took the film seriously. So you get these scenes with no dialogue that have Christian Bale acting his heart out even though there's no emotional payoff or plot justification for the gravitas.

I would never have heard of this movie if one guy hadn't insisted it's the best movie ever. While that is highly revealing about his taste (or lack thereof), I'm glad I saw it. And if you watch it, just go along for the ride and don't try to think too hard.

I am not a Pakistani Muslim Cunt

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I am not a Pakistani.

I am not a Muslim.

I'd add that I'm not a cunt, but if the first two statements failed to register, why should the third?

You said that your daughter can't get a job because of me. Because of me? Really? I'm sure I am personally the one who stopped your daughter from succeeding at school or at university.

I'm sure that I'm the one who suggested that backpacking abroad is more important than learning a trade.

I'm sure I'm the one who gave her an unjustified amount of self-esteem in the form of "It's OK. I'm wealthy. Your performance is irrelevant."

You said, "Don't worry. I won't touch you. Because you're filthy." I thank you for that. Who knows if I'd have the courage to speak back if you hadn't said that. But all it took was for me to say "I'm not a Muslim," for you to charge down the street after me. You said that you wouldn't touch me. But why should I trust you?

And so the conversation progressed, all too predictably:

"You fucking Paki Muslim cunts have ruined this country!"

"I am not a Pakistani. I'm American." You can surprise yourself at the oddest of occasions. I've never identified myself as American before. Too many contradictions.

"You're a fucking Muslim cunt!"

"I'm not a Muslim either. I'm Hindu."

"No, you're a fucking Paki Muslim Cunt!"

Now there's a logic I cannot argue with.

It was 11:00 in the evening in Islington, on one of the clearest, most beautiful nights London has ever seen. You can complain about the cold, but you can't deny how beautiful the stars are on any icy evening. And all this from a black man.

Sci-Fi Review: Robert J. Sawyer's "Factoring Humanity"

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So here we go. I'll be honest, this is the first science fiction novel I've ever reviewed (and actually the first I've read in a long, long time, unless you count the odd Philip K. Dick). I am no stranger to sci-fi, I gobble up the movies and the television shows.

The reason I've avoided science fiction novels for so long is that so much of it is in the 'space opera' tradition, which I find indulgent and irritating. For some reason, while I have no problem with the world building that goes on in fantasy novels, world-building in sci-fi is off-putting. Even in television/film, I tend to prefer sci-fi where the fictional world is different from ours in one key respect, rather than in every respect possible.

So Robert J. Sawyer seemed like a good place to resume. You may remember him as the creator of the novel that inspired the series Flashforward, which had a great concept but hilariously dire execution (though it was worth watching for Joseph Fiennes' "acting" alone). But I liked the setup: a normal world, hit by an inexplicable event, followed by human stories about how we deal with knowledge we were never meant to have.

Factoring Humanity is a much more small-scale story: we have two married (but separated) scientists at the University of Toronto working to decipher two of the most complex scientific problems of the day: Kyle works on building a quantum computer, and Heather works on deciphering cryptic alien messages from Alpha Centauri. The inciting incident, however, is much more down to earth: their estranged daughter, Becky, returns to accuse of Kyle of sexually molesting her when she was a teenager.

Naturally Kyle denies it, and Heather is inclined to believe him but is torn between the two people she loves. So what do they do? They appeal to science. Kyle's only friend is the AI test robot he calls Cheetah. In some of my favorite scenes in the novel, they have playful and witty conversations about the meaning of humanity. Heather, on the other hand, finally has a breakthrough in deciphering the alien code, which leads her to incredible discoveries that I will not spoil here.

Heather's story is certainly more compelling; we spend more time with her, get to know her desires and her quirks. And of course she's the one to build the alien machine. We get to know Kyle mainly in the reflexive sense: his character is defined mainly by how he reacts to his daughter's accusation and by how he interprets humanity for Cheetah.

There were many scenes in the novel that I enjoyed that I suspect might grind the reading to a halt for more experienced readers of science fiction. Every theory posited is explained at length, from the Many Worlds Theorem to Jungian psychology to the importance of prime factors in code-breaking. Each of these explanations were educational and interesting until they made the leaps necessary to go from, for example, hypercube tesseracts to MANIFESTATION OF ALIEN OVERMIND. I do appreciate the attempt to not just wave a magical wand and go 'wibbley wobbley timey wimey,' but I do wonder if undermines suspension of belief to explain everything so clearly up to a point and THEN wave the magic wand.

Now I couldn't put the book down; I love learning about scientific theory, and I was genuinely curious about what would happen to these characters. However, an issue I had throughout the first half was what I mentioned previously about its small scale, about the magnifying glass on one family. In a sense, this issue is resolved satisfactorily because the book maintains its humanist focus until the end, and does not try to be bigger than it is. This really is a story about one family (and first contact with aliens). But at the same time, I wish Sawyer would go further.

It's an excellent introduction to the concept, but I want to see that concept drawn on a more macro scale. The book seems to end just as it was getting started: a barely alluded to threat made by a powerful banking consortium materializes only in the final ten pages of the novel and then disappears just as uneventfully. Factoring Humanity does succeed as a stand-alone novel, but I can't help but think how much better it would function as the first novel in a trilogy or series.

On the 'Trumped Up' Rape Charges Against Julian Assange

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Fair disclosure: I myself had a suspicion that these charges have been overblown as an excuse to bring Assange into custody. However, I did not feel remotely comfortable with that suspicion, and I'm glad I took the time to find factual justification before contributing to the caravan of dervishes whirling around this case. I definitely would not want to contribute to the 'blame the victim' culture that surrounds allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Now that Julian Assange has been apprehended by the police in London, the blogosphere has exploded with ill-informed opinions about the charges brought against him, ranging from hysterical misogyny to anti-government cynicism to glorification of conspiracy theories. And now for some devil's advocacy to augment this witch's brew.

Having done a little bit of research into the exact nature of the charges and of new information that has come to light, I have concluded that if the allegations are true, then under the letter of the law, Assange absolutely should be brought to trial (on the sex crime charges only). I'm going to leave aside my opinion on the 'correctness' of related laws, and merely discuss them in relevance to the case.


Despite the reports in the media, the crime that Assange is being charged for is 'sexual coercion and sexual molestation' and not 'sex by surprise.' There is no such thing, I repeat, no such thing as sex by surprise, which is in fact an offensive colloquialism for rape in Sweden.

So what did Assange actually do? All the commentary along the lines of, 'ha ha, now sex without a condom is a crime, gotta get written permission before having sex with a women!,' completely misses the point at best, and at worst exposes a formerly latent misogyny in the left. (Ironically, some of the most virulently anti-women comments appeared as agreement with a Naomi Wolf(!!) article defending Assange).

The legal principle behind the two women's charges is 'withdrawal of consent,' the idea that a woman may consent to sexual relations and then withdraw them at any point. In the first woman's case, she agreed to have sex only if Assange used a condom. In the bedroom he refused the condom at some point and she repeatedly asked him to stop, but he forced himself on her anyway. (In fact, the latest release of the police report states that he used his body weight to hold her down). This is the basis of the sexual assault charge. In the second woman's case, he had sex with her while she was asleep (no consent there!), and did not use a condom on that occasion either, even though she'd also agreed to have sex only with condoms. This is the basis for the molestation charge.

There are two forces at play here. One, it is difficult for many Americans to grasp the very concept of 'withdrawal of consent' as a basis of a sexual assault charge, as it only exists in certain states and is rarely prosecuted. Withdrawal of consent is monstrously difficult to prove in a court of law. Second, making a successful legal case against rape in the United States usually entails proving that the rapist used or threatened the use of force to gain sexual power. Until the recent statement by the Swedish authorities, there was no suggestion of force.

This is my basic understanding of the legal context of the case, and I admit that it is just that - basic. Which leaves one conclusion: the law is responsible for determining the validity of the charges. Therefore Assange must be brought to court. I am fairly sure that 90% of commentators would agree if he weren't such an information hero at the moment.


While it is likely true that Assange would not have been brought in for this crime if he wasn't so badly wanted for other reasons, the fact remains that under the Swedish law, he definitely committed a crime. Assange's lawyers have repeatedly parroted, incorrectly, that the maximum penalty for this crime is the kroner equivalent of $700, as if trying to diminish the crime by saying it's barely punished. This is false. According to the Swedish penal code, the maximum punishment is 2 years in prison.

The facts are these: the charges may be proven true or false in a court of law (that is why a court of law exists). However, it helps no one to misrepresent the nature or seriousness of the charges themselves, irrespective of the political context. Habeus corpus obliges the law to fully investigate and judge the case on its merits. If the charges are proven false, then the law is equally responsible to investigate and punish the perjurers.

"Howl": Or, How to Make the Beats Cool Again

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When screener after screener starts to pile up in the viewing list of two movie lovers, arguments about which film to watch first reach an intensity only a few steps removed from domestic violence (this debate becomes more heated knowing that you only have time to watch one movie in the week).

This weekend, there was a bumper crop to choose from, which we did manage to pare down to two: The Town and Howl. Howl only won due to the fact that I already harbored serious misgivings about it, which meant that if we didn't watch it then, we never would, and it would sink into the deep morass of 'Is that the weird-looking James Franco movie? I kinda remember wanting to see it, but completely forgot about it.'

A good place to start might be my initial misgivings. First, when I first saw the preview, it looked like there was way too much going on.  Second, I have an innate disinterest in the subject matter; the beats are a bit like marmalade, either you love them or you don't. Firmly in the latter camp, I was convinced the whole movement was pretentious nonsense designed to give artistic justification to drug use and unemployment, whether that opinion was valid or not.

On the first point, I'm definitely not convinced Howl works as a movie. Seventy-six minutes (when's the last time you saw a movie so short) just isn't enough time to give due attention to the three parallel threads running through the film. For another, these three threads never really come together (you could say the censorship trial ties the film together, but I think the link is tenuous at best. Near the beginning of the film, Ginsberg directly says the trial has nothing to do with him).

Wonderful actors are brought in for minutes at best, and then discarded. For instance, Jon Hamm, in a top-billed role, has only two duties:the gesticular equivalent of the famous Don Draper 'what?', and a closing argument in the style of Don's Kodak slide-reel speech. Not that I'm suggesting that Jon Hamm is typecast. Oh, wait...

However, the filmmaker succeeds marvellously in creating a love letter to Allen Ginsberg's famous poem. There's something magical about the energy in Franco's voice as he performs the poem to a dim NY nightclub, which is filmed more as old documentary footage than as a biopic 'history in action' scene.

Which brings us to my second misgiving, which the film addressed and defeated. Hearing the poem read in Franco's voice, which sounds nothing like the arrogant voice I'd always imagined, made the work seem more heartfelt and personal, and less nihilistic and cod-philosophy-ish. The structure of the movie works well to aid understanding of the work as well, like the ideal Cliffs notes which not only describes plot, but presents context and clarifies allusions.

Basically, the film juxtaposes four scenes with each section of the poem: Ginsberg being interviewed about a particular period, the narrative context being brought to life, gorgeous animation illustrating the readings of the poetry, and then the obscenity trial scene relevant to the part of the poem that had just been read. In a loop, this structure continues until the whole poem is read, at which point we see the aforementioned night club scene. The trial scenes didn't really work for me, but the package of the other three scenes provides a deeper understanding of the poem. Some critics have taken issue with the animation scenes, as they obviously ascribe to one particular interpretation of the poem, but they were so beautifully done that I feel there is still room for more abstract readings.

After 76 minutes with the poem, I understand why "Howl" was important, and why so many people are deeply moved by it. While it was by no means perfect, a movie can do worse than cultivating love of a previously dismissed work of literature.

Oscarbait 2010: The Kids Are All Right

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I used to love Julianne Moore, but it's no secret to those who know me that I think Julianne Moore's Boston accent to be the biggest travesty that 30 Rock has ever inflicted, and that happened in a season that was already fairly terrible. Since then, I can't really look at her without squinting angrily and thinking "I Hate You." So it certainly helped that she was sort of the villain of the piece here (inasmuch as this type of movie has 'villains.') Though her presence did give me the chance to spend an unnecessary amount of time wondering why someone had apparently left Julianne Lewis in an oven before shooting the film (JOHN BOEHNER LEATHER-FACE TAN).

The Kids Are All Right tells the tale of a married lesbian couple whose children have come of age and want to know about their biological father. That man turns out to be a hippie motorcycle god of virulity played by Mark Ruffalo, whose pheromones are so strong that he can apparently turn lesbians (at least ones with bad Boston accents). He gets on immediately with the kids, and then gets it on with Julianne Moore. His presence as an interloper has all sorts of effects, turning the family upside down by bringing various insecurities into play. Also it's Mark Ruffalo, and he is hot.

The movie also has some of the funniest scenes in recent memory, including a brilliant bit where the son, hilariously named LAZER, discovers his parents' penchant for gay cowboy porn of the exceptionally cheesy variety. We watch as Annette Bening alternately try to fob off and explain their peculiar amusement in a scene that escalates quickly into HORRIBLY AWKWARD.

But the best thing about the movie is Mia Wasikowska, an actress whose last name I hate because the end vowel makes no sense, but I'll get over it (some day). I'm pretty sure she's destined for great things, as she has the right mix of vulnerability, relatable good looks and actual talent. In fact, the trailer has just leaked for Jane Eyre, and I'm fairly certain it's the best casting yet (Jane Eyre baffles me, as I think it's a fairly straightforward novel to adapt, but they've screwed it up everytime).

Oscar Chances:
-Maybe Annette Bening?
-I think a Screenplay nod is in order

Monsters (2010)

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Let me begin by telling you what Monsters is not. It is not Skyline, this year’s entry into Hollywood’s annals of over-marketed bad ideas. It is not District 9, last year's big low budget sci-fi success. Monsters, like great indie classics such as Before Sunset and Lost in Translation, uses a fantastical setting to tell an essentially human story. It starts when the horror story is long over and other stories begin to take precedence.

Monsters jumps off from a classic sci-fi springboard: a space shuttle finds alien life on one of Jupiter’s moons, then crash lands on Earth, leading to alien invasion and widespread disaster. The film picks up six years after the threat has been ‘contained,’ and shows how a world adapts to its new reality, where quarantine zones and seasonal ‘infections’ disrupt daily lives in multiple ways. The actual containment is achieved by a clumsy metaphor for US immigration policies, a gargantuan stone wall separating the United States from Mexico.

Following a new breakout of infections, a wealthy businessman enlists photographer Andrew Calder (Scoot McNairy) to bring his stranded daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back home to her fiancé. While they had the money to get back by sea and completely avoid the infected zone, a Random Plot Contrivance leads to the theft of all of their money, and so this improbable couple set off into the danger zone.

What makes Monsters unique is its intent to find moments of true beauty amongst the devastation and horror. Traveling through the most dangerous infected zones in Mexico, Edward's camera pays loving attention to our first encounters with the alien offspring, which have a gorgeous bioluminescence that calls Avatar to mind. Filmed in various parts of South America, director Gareth Edwards takes full advantage of the exotic locales available to him. The use of a cheap ‘pro-sumer’ video camera makes you feel that you’re right there with Calder and Sam. The camera moves with glorious close-ups of indigenous flora and fauna, making maximum use of available light.

Apart from the two leads, all the roles are taken by locals conscripted to join the film as it went along. This leads me to one of my chief complaints about the film: Edwards allow his actors to improvise dialogue, and this often feels, well, improvised. Not all of it rings true, and many of the ‘observations’ made, especially by Sam, feel inane or trite. But this isn’t a talky film, so it doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

The monsters themselves don’t actually appear until the final ten minutes of the film. In my favorite scene, Calder and Sam have finally made it into Texas and are waiting for the military to retrieve them from a gas station in the middle of nowhere. When a monster finally appears in full view, so big that even fear seems pointless, terror transforms into curiosity. Calder and Sam know they can’t win in a fight, so instead they wait and watch as one alien meets another in a sort of interpretive dance. This moment of unexpected humanity brings tears to our heroes’ eyes, and to ours.

Much has been made of how Edwards essentially created all the CGI effects on his own, on his computer, rather than relying on green-screen. Somehow, with an overall budget circling $15,000, he has managed to create one of the most visually engaging films of the year, where you feel that the only thing separating our reality from theirs is a screen.

Review originally written for  The 405, here:

Tears of a Wallet: Latest Acquisitions

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I accidentally ended up in an Oxfam bookshop today, and perhaps predictably, carnage ensued. They had a 3 for 2 deal on, and given that most books cost less than 2 quid...

Let's get the preconceived notions out of the way! Maybe if I write them down I can banish them until I've completed the book (this is part of my quest to honor Updike's Rule #6.)

I've been meaning to give Sawyer a go for ages, especially Flashforward. So when Oxfam offered me the choice of TWO Sawyer novels (the other being Frameshift, which sounded a little too Robin Cook for what I expect from Sawyer), I snatched Factoring Humanity.

What do I expect from Sawyer? Hard physics, multiple universe paradoxes, elegant human relationships. Basically I expect Fringe in book form.

I'm already 86 pages into it, and it's very good so far, if a bit heavy on scientific and psychological theory. It seems to be struggling to find the correct balance between it's science and its humanity, but I'm not far enough in to determine whether these currently disparate elements come together later.

I won't lie, this is the random pick necessary to complete the 3 for 2 deal. That said, I haven't read Garland before, and I have heard that his novels tend to be masterpieces of plotting and suspense without being airplane trash. So this was a curiosity pick.  (Basically I have little to write here because for a change I have few ideas of what to expect!)

It's no secret that I really did not like the movie. That said, I keep reading and re-reading about how impressively Burgess recharacterizes the English language in this novel. By all accounts, the themes that the movie seemed only to grasp at are given full attention in the novel.

Also, I have realized that if I really want to be at all authoritative as a blogger, I need to be open to different types of novels that go outside of my comfort zone. While I have no idea what that zone is (I have read multiple books in pretty much any genre you can think of), I thought that the novel inspiring a movie that I hate is firmly outside of it. So when I spotted it on the shelves, I thought it was time to put aside preconceived notions and give Clockwork Orange another try, and maybe to approach it with a more critical eye.

This one needs no introduction I think. Like Clockwork Orange, part of its reputation rests with its fluid use of the English language. But the plot interests me: the main character is a music and sci-fi nerd who is cursed by the Dominican Republican dictator responsible for his family's exile to the United States.

I have a slight concern, based on what I've read, that this book might turn out to be like Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, a novel about teenage superheroes and jazz music that commits the unfathomable crime of being BORING.

But this one comes recommended to me by people I trust, so I look forward to it.
Again and again, I've read about how Henry James is one of the greatest literary stylists that America has ever produced. He is apparently one of the earliest experimenters with form and style, and is also considered a master of transnational social commentary, much like Twain or Moliere. All this is high praise indeed.

Given his reputation, I was shocked to discover I had never read ANYTHING by James apart from a few short stories. Filling the gaps, indeed.

I really look forward to this one as it's a ghost story (who doesn't love a good atmospheric scare), but once I'm done I'll delve into the Merchant-Ivory stuff.

(FYI, I do blame Merchant-Ivory for my lack of desire to read James until recently.)

I actually squealed when I saw this one. McInerney's been in my thoughts a lot lately. Bright Lights, Big City, considered his masterpiece, is a book I loved despite every expectation not to, and more surprisingly, it has stuck with me.

Like that novel, I understand this one is loosely autobiographical. But in a little bit of strange yet recently topical gossip, the model ex-girlfriend McInerney alludes to in this novel is based on *drumroll please* Rielle Hunter! AKA the temptress at the heart of the so-out-of-control-you-couldn't-have-made-it-up-if-you-tried John Edwards scandal.
I've always wanted to read this but never gotten around to it (actually, the same goes for the movie). When I graduated from high school and had that endless summer  anticipating college, it was my mission to be as well-read on the 'canon' as possible, so I could have late night conversations with like minded young aesthetes under romantic lighting in various parts of campus.  (This did happen, but 18th century classics were rarely the topic. Ayn Rand yes. Politics yes. But mostly I seemed to gravitate toward lovers of Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World. And Donnie Darko.)

But this was never top of the list, and it seems to be alluded to a lot more in recent times. But can I just mention how much I loath the cover? Basically I thought, "for God's sake, do we really need to put a bright chick-lit cover on E.M. FORSTER?!? Imagine my surprise when I found out that this cover was printed in 1990, well before the chick-lit genre existed. Still. Ew. Bergdorf font. The end.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the most haunting books ever written, a tale of depravity right up there with Notes on the Underground, and a wantonly unreliable narrator to boot. Before I read Kevin, it had been a long time since I'd read a novel that made me want to shower every time I put it down.

So yes, please, more Shriver. That said, I don't know if she can ever live up to the brilliance of Kevin. But then we'll see.

Also this is a first for me, reading a novel about tennis players. Could hit me too close to home, or be a straight ace (PUN!)

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