Archive for December, 2002

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December 10, 2002

Poking My Head In

I caught the monkey kung fu episode of Kim Possible again this weekend. I’ve seen the show maybe seven times, but that episode at least three times. Typical.

Speaking of kung fu, it is in the best interests of all persons reading this to visit the site of Kagan McLeod, author and artist for the fabulous martial arts romp Infinite Kung Fu. It’s stylish, funny, exciting, handsome and happily unpredictable. If you like animated drawings that don’t move or fu-tastic moves like Fury of a Thousand Fists, you should be enjoying McLeod’s website right now. Good stuff.

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December 6, 2002

cess
\Cess\, n. 1. A rate or tax. [Obs. or Prof. Eng. & Scot.]

cesspool
\Cess”pool`\ (-p[=oo]l`), n. A cistern in the course, or the termination, of a drain, to collect sedimentary or superfluous matter; a privy vault; any receptacle of filth. [Written also sesspool.]

Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, � 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

Audience Precipitation
Should a movie review consider the specific theater experience or should it concern itself only with the movie itself? Since a review is biased anyway, is it right to acknowledge the way in which the reviewer’s bias is increased or diminished by the surrounding audience, or does that just shine more light on the bias? Is a movie review written like a travel story at all useful as a movie review?

I have to say that sometimes it’s fine for a review to encompass the entire theater-going story. This isn’t a formal analysis of the movie, anyway. This is like travel writing. My feelings about this film were strongly swayed by the audience I saw it with. Without them, I suspect I would have felt almost the same way, but less so. Consider this prologue and warning.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The Harry Potter stories are full of charming little features. Wizened wizards with mythical, magical companions and elaborate laboratories are a classic fairy tale element. Proper British schooling is a traditional feature of children’s literature. Fused with folksy English superstitions and loveable, wacky characters these warm and familiar tropes take on a certainnew energy that’s nice. The people and places introduced to us in a Harry Potter film are a lot of fun to spend time with. It’s all a charming little idea, with an unsatisfying execution, in my opinion. These things are full of wit but light on narrative. It’s all very clever, but it’s not a work of genius.

I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on videotape and fell asleep. That’s unusual for me. When I finally finished it, I was moderately engrossed until the ending, wherein the story is solved seemingly by inescapable fate without any risk to the protagonist and no hard choices to make. The titular MacGuffin appears magically in his pocket and his touch is death to his enemies. I was very disappointed.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a magnification of everything that made the first film wonderful and disappointing. New, terrific characters. Spookier locations and more dangerous magic persuade me to think harder about the story and the mythological fibers it will sew together.All the mystery, all the comedy and all the adventure boil down to another deus ex machina ending that resolves itself with only the slightest bit of work on Harry’s part and without any lasting ramifications for the school. The mysterious ne’er-do-well we chase through the whole picture turns out not to have much to do with any of the clues we were given. There is no dark tale of personal choices that has haunted the school for decades. The evidence we are given to identify the living culprit points equally to every student at Hogwarts, so the revelation means nothing. We were not given enough information to fairly solve the puzzle. After all of this, an arbitrary magical intervention gives Harry a fighting chance that results in a brief and unsatisfying bit of daring that’s over in two breaths. Once again, the solution to his trouble is an item of power dropped into his lap exactly when he needs it. No life-altering choices are required for Harry to come out of this adventure, and half of his heroic deeds are done for him.

Seeing this movie on opening night, at ten o’clock no less, was like being at a taping of Happy Days. Every time a character walked through a door the theater erupted in applause. Whenever someone said something remotely funny, the audience cheered for one minute. When Hagrid (strangely underused in this picture) got his unexplained standing ovation at the end of the movie, the audience threw him roses. I accept that the Harry Potter stories are doing one great thing especially well, and that is they get kids reading. Let me say, by the audience I saw, it is nice to see high-school studentsare finally reading at the junior-high school level. I think an entire sorority house was in the row in front of us, absolutely giddy at everything. (It’s not like there was a jetpack or a whip-wielding archaeologist on the screen, remember.)

Yes, it’s nice to see elaborate fiction written for a younger audience. I don’t want to belittle the good that the Harry Potter stories really do for bringing readers together. At the same time, I’m sure most of these kids could be getting their hands on a copy of The White Mountains or Treasure Island, too. The Harry Potter tales are nice, they’re good stories, but they don’t seem to be great storytelling. Harry Potter has an awful lot handed to him and is constantly being rewarded for believing that he is not subject to the same rules as everyone else. These signals, delivered over and again through two feature films, are not enough, in my opinion.

Worst of all, and this is the thing that really irks me, is that I am sure to see the next film. If the climax of that film is somehow based on choices and actions on the part of the main characters, I will be genuinely surprised. I expect it will just be more charming, more mysterious, more spooky and, at the end, more disappointing.

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December 5, 2002

Not Collaboration, But Coincidence

My brother and Drew Carey have written work appearing in the same forum. Admittedly, these are testimonials, but I thought it was noteworthy. This is what you get when you search for my brother on the Internet.

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December 5, 2002

It was snowing today in Minnesota. Fat, soft snow like cotton with the seeds still in it, loosely laid on the car this morning and hardly cold to the touch. Romantic Hollywood snow. I listened to the “Christmas Commerce” episode of This American Life today at work. Sara’s finishing her final days on the chilly peak of the retail mountain: Starbucks at Christmastime. I stood outside in shirtsleeves and snow to watch the pallet of new books get forklifted into the warehouse. It’s starting to feel like Christmas, earlier than it has in a long time.

My heart’s not in this review right now, but I’ve got to write something to stay respectable, so here it is. Forgive my sloppiness. I enjoyed this movie more than it sounds like I did. For a while, I thought this might be favorite of the Pierce Brosnan expeditions.

Die Another Day
The new Bond movie is an unexpectedly difficult ride for the superspy. Sometimes it’s a nasty, uncertain experience, tense in a way Tomorrow Never Dies never was. Other times, it’s a ridiculous cartoon in a way The World is Not Enough was thankfully not.

First of all, I’m a fan of the franchise mostly because I love serial storytelling, whether the stories in the series really link up or not. The Pierce Brosnan films have been almost like a high-cost television series, with a few recurring characters but self-contained adventures. In Die Another Day, we’re even given an establishing shot of MI6 headquarters and trusted to recall the place from the stellar opening to the previous film. I love the structure of these adventures, from the pulpy stand-alone openings through the pop-high-art title sequences to the live-action, stylized set pieces.

Some of these elements are fabulously tinkered-with in this newest effort. The opening sequence and the finale actually take place in the same location. Bond’s hovercraft chase through the Korean DMZ, and especially its waterfall-and-temple ending, have a high-adventure quality that’s absent from a lot of modern action flicks. The new title sequence actually carries the story straight through itself (is this the first narrative title sequence in the franchise?) as Bond undergoes more than a year of Korean torture techniques. His survival results in a wonderful tension between Bond and M that leaves Bond out in the cold like a less-super spy. These are all nice, especially the opening sequence. It’s scarier than it is sexy, and says something about the weird psyche that makes a guy like James Bond function. More interesting is how Bond’s capture and torture exempt him from the changes in the real world. A wise and clever choice, in my opinion.

As the story goes on, things get more silly. I don’t have a problem with orbital lasers. I love orbital lasers. I like superspy car duels. I certainly enjoy Icelandic ice palaces and ugly henchmen named Mr. Kill. He says, “I kill her with laser.” That’s fantastic.

The superscience goes too far past all of this, in the story and in the effects. First off, the supervillains electrified, laser-commanding power-armor is a bit much. I suppose it does make sense that a rich and insane Korean terrorist would be the sort to bring the weapons of Manga to life, but it’s even too much for a Bond movie. Add Q Division’s invisible, self-repairing car to the mix and the slide from superspy serial to science fiction cartoon is complete. I hope we can take a step back from this for the next film.

Effects-wise, the movie breaks a Bond tradition in a bad way. The World is Not Enough gave us computer-animated saw blades. Die Another Day gives us several computer-assisted stunts, including a complete survival sequence that has no thrills and is wholly unbelievable. Not in the way that Bond stunts should be unbelievable. The thrill of the great action stunts is knowing that someone actually managed to pull off the astounding trick, even with wires and nets. Some of that is lost here. Strangely, these tricks seem fine on a certain level in The Matrix, and even the laser fight in Die Another Day manages to be exciting, but Bond movies have a higher standard to live up to.

That standard gets met, for example, in a roaming over-the-top sword fight in a British gentleman’s club. Real people swing heavy objects at each other, run places, jump on and off of things and scare off all sorts of spectators. This is good stuff. Note, also, the volume of London-based action sequences in the last two adventures. I approve of this.

A quick note: Zhao (Rick Yune) is a villain with diamonds embedded in his face from an explosion early in the film. Within the formulas and conventions of the Bond movies, it is just brilliant. (BOSS VILLAIN: What happened to you? ZHAO: Bond.) Beyond that, folks need to cast Rick Yune in more movies.

Meanwhile, Halle Berry is an American spy with a slender role and not much character. Why, exactly, is she involved in this whole story? Hard to say. Halle Berry seems to be having a good time, at least. A good deal of reviewers have mentioned how nice it is to have a Bond girl that’s a spy in her own right, kicking ass and commanding respect. I enjoyed all of this more, though, when Michelle Yeoh did it last time in Tomorrow Never Dies. She got much less attention for her similar, more logical role in that film, but she had never won an Oscar. So it goes. Halle Berry’s Jinx might be terrifically enjoyable in her proposed spin-off picture, but there just wasn’t much for her to do here.

The other Bond girl in Day (Rosamund Pike) is very appealing. For one, she sword-fights. She’s also smart, mysterious, deadly and sexy. Her gimmick is that she really, really doesn’t want to sleep with Bond. Thus she has a power over him that has rarely been explored in a Bond movie. Admittedly, it’s not explored for very long here, either. It is a Bond movie, after all.

There’s a lot to pick on in this movie, but there’s plenty to enjoy. Pierce Brosnan has never been better as Bond, though he has been just as good, I think. Some of the Bond schticks are underplayed in this movie, but that’s fine. We get to see him do some things that we haven’t seen him do before, exactly. That’s better. If the Bond movies continue in this vein, but with a bit more restraint, the next film could be spectacular.