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Pseudo-Review: Stardust

If in the near future you find yourself in need of entertainment and possessed of several hours to kill, I can not recommend the movie Stardust heartily enough. It's a delightful fantasy based on a children's novel by Neil Gaiman, who also wrote the screenplay. Cleverly written and fun, it's highly reminiscent of The Princess Bride, and I might even argue it's somewhat better than its spriritual predecessor. It would be a great way to spend an afternoon even if its present competition wasn't Rush Hour 3. As is, it's probably the best thing you can do right now in a darkened room.


Do you find yourself dangerously un-depressed? I recommend a viewing of When the Wind Blows. It's a feature-length animated film by the writer and director who created The Snowman, a charming silent cartoon about the a who goes on a magical adventure to the land of snowmen. In When the Wind Blows, author Raymond Briggs and director Jimmy Murakami decided to go in a rather different direction, subject matter-wise: it's the story of an elderly english couple slowly dying of radiation poisoning following a nuclear apocalypse.

It's an interesting film. The animation is both lovely and harrowing, and it's heartbreaking to watch Jim and Hilda slowly waste away without having any real idea what's happening to them. Jim and Hilda don't begin preparing for disaster until a few days before the bombs fall and rely for their preparations entirely upon a pair of government pamphlets. They expect the experience to be much like World War II, which they both lived through as children. For Jim, particularly, the coming of war is both serious and exciting. He grew up playing at soldiers with Churchill and Goering, Montgomery and Rommel as characters in his imagination, and the prospect of war gives him an opportunity to relive those fantasies. The war lets him recapture his childhood, and his failure to grasp that this war is different makes the couples's demise the more tragic.

Which isn't to say that it makes their death more likely. The film serves as an indictment of the leaders of the time, who are portrayed as having failed their people by giving them too many false assurances and too little useful information. To get the jabs the film is making you should view this public service video, Protect and Survive as context. It's sort of the English version of Duck and Cover, but far less cheerful and far more disturbing. Equally useless, but scary. Yet, in a way, not. The message seems to be "Sorry, there's been a bit of a cock-up and its brought about the end of the world. But don't worry, even after the apocalypse the government will still be there for you to set things right. The wheels of bureaucracy will continue to turn, and the wagon will be 'round on Monday to pick up your dead, so be sure to have them properly labelled, bagged, and tagged."

The animation itself is an interesting mix of live-action film footage, traditional animation, and rotoscoping, which before Richard Linklater rediscovered it was a technique used to give standard animation a creepy uncanny valley feeling. The mix works surprisingly well. I'm normally not a fan of clashing video styles, but Murakami blends things pretty seamlessly. It all fits together to create a film that is both beautiful and bleak.

When the Wind Blows is deeply affecting and powerful. Plus it has opening and ending music by David Bowie, and who doesn't like that? Highly recommended.



For years a peculiar line of dialogue has periodically invaded my brain. It's infuriating because it seems very familiar, but I can't recall where I've heard it. The line goes something like this:

"I've seen the future, and you're not in it!"

I would imagine the context is something like a goofy science fiction movie, probably involving time travel, and that the quote is uttered at some climactic confrontation. But I can't figure out where exactly it's from. Google has been no help; the exact phrase comes up blank, and a standard search gets a lot of hits but nothing I'm looking for. Is this line familiar to anyone else? Is it possible I made it up myself years ago on one of my flights of fancy and have since mis-remembered it as coming from a movie?

Movie Review: Tillsammans (Together)

"I think that loneliness is the most awful thing in this world."


Tillsammans is a difficult movie to sell people on, because the most accurate brief summary one can give of it is that it's a foreign-language film about life in a swedish commune in the 1970s. Yet it's funny and human and real and very much worth the effort to watch.

The movie is about the residents of a commune, named Tillsammans, and is set in Stockholm in 1975. To start, we have Göran, an amiable pushover who's in an open relationship with Lena, who exploits the relationship's openness far more than Göran would like. The other sort-of couple in the house are Anna and Lasse, who recently divorced when Anna discovered that she was a lesbian. Lasse did not take this very well, but still lives in the house directing vitriol towards Anna and the other residents. Klas, a hapless gay resident, is meanwhile attempting to seduce Lasse. In the middle of this is Anna and Lasse's son, Tet (named after the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War). The house is also home to Erik, a young Marxist who dropped out of school to work as a welder so that he could be closer to the Proletariat, and Signe and Sigvard, a couple that, possibly due to incautious editing, we don't realize live in the house until the scene where they make a big deal of leaving.

The action kicks off when Göran's sister Elisabeth, a housewife with two children, Eva and Stefan, leaves her abusive husband Rolf and comes to live in Tillsammans. We then watch Elisabeth, Eva, and Stefan slowly assimilate into the commune

The director, Lukas Moodysson, doesn't really do plots. Things at Tillsammans are one way when the movie starts and another way when the movie end, and we get to see the events that transpire between the two points, but it doesn't really have a coherent storyline. Instead we have about a dozen characters who interact with one another, and whom we watch grow and change over the course of the film. Moodysson is great at these very realistic character studies. He extracts very naturalistic performances from his actors, such that we can hardly tell that they're acting at all, yet he gives us a real feel for them.

Tillsammans is helped by its ensemble cast. In the other Moodysson films I've seen, Fucking Åmål and Lilja 4-Ever, he takes much the same character study approach, but because he only focuses on one or two characters they tend to drag. In Tillsammans, there are so many characters that Moodysson manages, as I mentioned above, to lose track of a few of them. Still, it means that there's a lot going on in a film that doesn't have any notable plotting.

Moodysson is particularly insightful in his portrayal of lonely characters. There's a notable tendency in most films to cheat with the lonely; the film will make a great deal about how alone a given character is, then hope you won't notice that the lonely character has been given a passel of friends to serve as the hook for forcing the character out of her shell. Moodysson presents us with lonely characters who literally have no friends, who sit around all day doing nothing, who break their plumbing so that they'll have a chance to have a conversation with the plumber when he comes to fix the pipes.

Yet for all this, Tillsammans is a hopeful movie. We watch people leave the commune, we watch people enter the commune, we watch the commune change in character over the course of the film. Yet through it we see the enduring value of togetherness. The residents of Tilsammans are an odd collection of leftists and revolutionaries, yet they're living healthy, fulfilling lives. They're contrasted with the various neighbors and outsiders, living conventional modern lives, who find themselves isolated and desperate and, above all, alone.

At the same time, the film isn't a utopian paean to the glories of the commune, at least as they existed in the mid-70s in Sweden. The film is willing to show us the disagreements that disrupt the commune, from arguments over dish clean-up to Marxist sermonizing. Moodysson takes a balanced view and argues for the communal ideal of human living, without the specific ideological baggage that often comes with real-life communes.

Tillsammans had a very brief theatrical release in the US in the Fall of 2002. I've been looking for a home video release for years without success, but apparently Universal has just put it out on DVD. I can't recommend it strongly enough.

Movie Review: Art School Confidential

I saw Art School Confidential last Saturday.  I was somewhat excited about it, as I loved the previous Zwigoff/Clowes collaboration, Ghost World, enough that I saw it twice in theaters.  Unfortuantely, Art School isn't nearly as fun or cohesive as Ghost World was. 

Like Ghost World, Art School starts off heavily satarical, then transitions into drama and tragedy.  The satire's done with a pretty broad brush, but it's funny nonetheless.  Ghost World made fun of high school and suburban life, while Art School attacks art school in general and artistic personalities in particular.  The first third of the movie is quite funny.

But where Ghost World started funny then gradually introduced painful elements until the entire world fell apart, Art School goes from making fun of emo-types to being melodramatic in itself.  We're introduced to a score of comic characters in the first third who abruptly disappear right when the movie decides it's time to be dramatic.  Whereas Ghost World moved seamlessly from comedy to drama, Art School changes abruptly, as though they shot two different movies and spliced them together at the first reel change. 

The movie's also disappointing for being put together somewhat artlessly.  The character development is poorly handled, such that we have little idea what motivates the main characters, even the ones that we spend 90% of the movie watching.  Most of the dialog comes in the form of truly ham-handed exposition.  There's one scene that had the most excruciatingly obvious exposition that I cracked up.  Apparently the filmmakers realized they needed to explain the big art exhibition that is the movie's climax, so we have a professor telling his students about it, followed by the following questions:  "Isn't it true that our entire grades for the semester are based on this one exhibition?"  "Isn't it true that the person with the highest grade gets a special prize?"  "Isn't the student who wins the prize each year given an exhibition of their work at Broadway Bob's art gallery?"  "Hasn't every student who's won gone on to incredible fame and fortune?"  "I've heard that none of your students has ever won the prize, and that you're afraid you might lose your job if one of us doesn't win this year.  Is that true?"  I do not exaggerate; these are verbatim quotes from the movie. 

It's a shame, because there actually is a good movie hiding in here.  Clowes and Zwigoff are very adept at showing a certain kind of pain, of showing smart, talented people watch as their lives slowly fall apart and come to realize that their dreams of glory will go unfulfilled.  Most everybody dreams of being at the top, but only a few people can get there and they aren't necessarily the most talented or deserving.  Zwigoff and Clowes are probably the best in the business at portraying intelligent losers, people who miss their chance at fortune and give up on life.

There's a lot of interest in this movie, but it's poorly edited, has terrible characterization and dreadful dialog.  It's worth seeing getting when it comes out on Netflix, I think, but not worth spending money to see in theaters.  Not recommended.

Yet Another Reason to Hate David Lynch

I recently got The Elephant Man from Netflix. I sat down to watch it about a week ago. I was drowsy when it started, but quite enjoyed what I saw. After about forty minute my sleepiness overtook me and I decided to turn it off and pick it up later. Today I returned to it. I turned on my DVD player, put in the disc, and waited for the title menu to load.


Shit, shit, shit.

I had three options on the menu: Special Features, Set Up, and Play. I checked Special Features. Theatrical Trailer, production featurette, interview with David Lynch. Try set-up. Language and subtitle options. I tried selecting Play and hitting the chapter skip button. No dice.

I had forgotten that David Lynch thinks very highly of himself and his films. So highly, in fact, that he does not appreciate the idea of folks watching his films willy-nilly, in manners that he does not approve of. Therefore, The Elephant Man, like Eraserhead before it, has no scene selection and no chapter stops. If you wish to watch a David Lynch movie, you must watch it the way David Lynch intended: Starting with the first frame, you must proceed through to the last frame, viewing each frame in order and giving it its proper due. If you wish to leave a David Lynch film that's your prerogative, but if you ever wish to see the ending you must start over at the beginning again and appreciate the genius of its totality.

I'm getting a bit hostile. DVD players aren't well-designed for fast forwarding, so it took fifteen minutes of holding down the "search forward" button to get to where I left off. This left me somewhat peeved. I very nearly took the DVD out and sent it back then and there.

It would have been a shame if I had, because The Elephant Man is actually a very good movie. I recommend it highly, though I'd also recommend setting aside the two hours, four minutes needed to watch it in its entirety, because David Lynch doesn't want you leaving in the middle.

Enough grousing. The Elephant Man is actually a normal movie, which if you've seen any of David Lynch's other works should be a shock. That is, it has a sustained and coherent narrative that starts at the beginning, moves to the end, and almost never makes you want to punch David Lynch in the face for being a self-absorbed pretentious git without the faintest idea of how to communicate his thoughts in a visual medium. This movie, by being as good as it is, actually makes me think less of Lynch: I'd always assumed that he couldn't shoot a movie that makes sense because of some infirmity on his part. Perhaps he had a great story in his mind, but he lacked the ability to put it onto the screen in a way that was understandable to others. I could certainly understand that; it's hard, in telling a story, to be sure that you've included all the parts that are necessary for someone else to make sense of it. Your mind fills in the gaps that you leave out, and you risk neglecting crucial details and thereby leaving your audience puzzled.

I had always assumed, until now, that David Lynch is just one of those people who can't quite tell a coherent story. I had a theory that critics and others had mistaken this for genius and, as a result of their ill-deserved praise, Lynch had never bothered to cultivate the core competencies of story-telling. But now I find out he can make a movie, and this makes all his other movies the more intolerable. Before I could watch Dune and say "...Well, it was certainly a nice try. You definitely put a lot into it, David. Maybe you should pick a slightly less ambitious subject next time." But no. Now I know that when Lynch makes me listen to Paul ramble cryptically over and over and over, he's doing it because he decided consciously that this is better filmmaking than actually providing the context necessary to make what Paul's saying make a damn lick of sense.

Wow. I didn't mean to get this angry. Especially since The Elephant Man is quite good. I recommend it. But, because he took out the chapter stops, I refuse to do Lynch the favor of elaborating as to why I like it.

Nervous Thoughts from Criminal Law

Am I the only one who can't see Christopher Hitchens:


without being reminded of Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:


Why does Word's spell check dictionary recognize the word "Appellant," but not the word "Appellee?" Logically, for every appellant (or set of appellants) there must be an equal and opposite appellee (or set of appellees). What gives?

If I might be indulged to complain briefly about our career services here: Last Fall they corralled us into a large auditorium to introduce us to the services they provide and prepare us for the First Year Summer Job Hunt. Their advice was to contact friends and relatives and explore possibilities working with them. In case that didn't work, they gave everyone a free copy of the National Association of Law Placement's big book of contact information for every legal employer in the country.

In other words: Your two best bets for finding a job are nepotism and cronyism. If that fails, here's the phonebook; get calling.

On the other hand, this is somewhat more helpful than the advice I got from Berkeley career services, which seems to operate on the premise that if nobody knows your organization exists, then nobody can give your organization a bad evaluation.

Well Played, Clerks


You might, perhaps, have noticed that I have a tendency to the hyperchondriacal. It's a rare list of symptoms that I can read without being absolutely sure that I have the disease in question. There was a time in my younger days when I was pretty certain I had ghonnorhea, despite the inconvenient fact that I hadn't, as yet, engaged in the sort of activities you need to engage in to get ghonnorhea (to wit: Sex). I've been certain I had gangrene on at least three occasions. And I have a nice litany of self-diagnosed psychological problems.

My hypochondria (both by its nature and through its existence) leads me to believe that I'm somewhat paranoid. I received further evidence of this paranoia when I first moved into my apartment. I live in a very old, very sturdy building. It was finished in 1907, and the walls and floors are thick enough that you can barely hear noise through them at all. I live on the third floor of the buiding, which is eight stories in total.

As I lay on my unfamiliar bed on the first night in my new apartment, I began mentally cataloging its various positives and negative. On the plus side, near the subway. On the minus, a somewhat janky stove. On the plus side, nice neighborhood. On the minus, no furniture yet. Eventually I came to the subject of airplanes. I decided that a huge plus for my current residence is that it is probably airplane-jet-engine proof. Even should a jet engine fall out of a plane with a trajectory that puts it on a direct course for my bed, chances are that, between the five stories above me and the building's solid construction, its momentum would be stopped before it crushed me in my sleep. I'd be much more nervous if I were on the sixth or seventh or, God forbid, the eighth floor, but here on the third floor I can sleep the sleep of the just. There won't be any scary seven-foot-tall rabbits in my future.

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