Monday, April 26, 2010

I Blame Television

Well - this is becoming ridiculous. It has been 2 weeks since I have gotten anything written for this blog. Granted, I did take a long (longer) weekend last week, visiting ye olde homestead - but I've been back a week from that, and ought to have found something to say in that time. It is starting to be a problem.... I suppose every blogger has to write a few Whither Blogging? posts, and this appears to be one for me - I've been doing this thing for nearly 6 years, and after the first year, have managed to post less often every single year - and so far this year looks right on schedule. It's frustrating. I can usually find excuses - a class, moving, the weather - and they are usually honest enough - moving has certainly distracted me from doing this.... Not so much the time and effort of moving, though there has been plenty of that, but more the anxiety, distraction, disruption of it all. (Not helped by the fact that I did a lot of it in the middle of a biblical tempest - necessitating a lot of dragging things up and down stairs, even before I actually moved...) It's an excuse - it's an honest reason for not writing anything - but - then it starts to drift, you learn bad habits, you drift....

This is a better excuse - I have started watching TV shows. I have not watched first run television in years - I think the last TV show I watched new was the first season of South Park. Before that - The Larry Sanders Show and Dream On... before that - shoot, I don't know... Twin Peaks? Square Pegs? I use the TV to watch movies, sports, Jeopardy, old TV (Have Gun Will Travel lately...) and things like the History Channel or Mythbusters. I've been doing plenty of that lately, I have to admit - especially since I got the Fox Soccer Channel - I've become addicted to soccer... But I don't watch TV series - in fact, I deliberately avoid them. I'll go back and watch them later sometimes - but for a long time I have not been willing to devote the time to watching television at a given time or place. That has left me out of a lot of the visual culture of the last decade - no Sopranos; no The Wire; no Madmen, etc. (Deadwood, I watched on DVD.) I read critics saying that these shows are better than any movies being made - I think - right or wrong, they must be worth seeing. But the time, effort, etc. to see them is not worth it - it would cut into my movie watching, my baseball watching, something - it is a sacrifice, but I will make it....

But suddenly I find that I have watched the first 2-3 episodes of not one but 2 first run TV shows! How did that happen? Well - actually, it goes back to moving - when I switched by cable to this place, I upgraded the service a bit - added HD, and the new box came with DVR. (Nothing like discovering 10 year old technology today!) But - the HD was having problems - half the channels did not come in - Comcast had to come out and dick around with the wires for an hour to get them to come in properly. So - the technician comped me three months of HBO.

And so I find myself in position to watch Treme every week. And - thanks to the magic of DVR - I can watch it when I want to! Oh, this 21st century is so exciting! And the HBO thing is a very convenient (and welcome) bit of timing.... The other show I've actually caught a couple episodes of is a bit more accidental - I was visiting my brother last week - he is a huge Dr. Who fan so we watched the new Doctor's debut - and last Saturday, I was flipping through channels just time time to catch episode 2. Hard to say if that will last - I certainly haven't bothered to DVR it. BUt right now - I have been keeping up with 2 television series at once - amazing....

So now comes the question: are TV's advocates speaking true? Is television better than the movies these days? I'm hardly in a position to answer that of course, what with 3 episodes of Treme, 2 of Dr. Who (and a whole bunch of random Dr. Who episodes from the last couple years), a bunch of Family Guy and Phineas and Ferb reruns, and the Deadwood DVD set to my credit.... But - whatever. TV is TV after all -Treme and Deadwood aren't doing anything that significantly different from Hill Street Blues did 30 years ago. Better or worse, maybe, but here is the thing - television may be the same medium as film (moving pictures), but it is a completely different art form. At least, series television is. It is a different form - organized differently, and weighting its aesthetic and formal elements differently. None of these TV shows have anything of the visual power of a great film - but they have the ability to draw out and intertwine large stories, whole worlds, they can explore at depth. It is as if TV shows are novels - certainly, Deadwood, and Treme (going on these three episodes) are like novels - big, sprawling, intricate novels - Bleak House or Dostoevsky... Movies are like poetry. At least the good ones - foregrounding the material, making the most of visual and aural patternings, even before the story or content... I was thinking about how something like Treme compares to something like Dodeskaden - the Kurosawa film is a network narrative, like the TV show - but he has 2 hours to work with. Films - especially that kind of film (Nashville, Magnolia, etc.) have to be much more precise, and more "poetic" - to pack more into fewer images. Dodeskaden does that - has to cover whole lives in a scene or two, as the opening scene does (the "tralley mad" boy praying with and for his mother) - it demands a different approach, that makes it very difficult to compare the two...

Though I have to say - the different approach means that films (at least the good films) almost inevitably look almost infinitely better than TV can. Treme - like Deadwood - is very well made, well directed and shot and all the rest - but it is completely conventional looking. There's nothing special being done in the shooting and editing - and elite films almost invariably make sure the shooting and editing are memorable. Just a simple example - Treme might give me characters to think about and stories and teach me things about New Orleans I would not otherwise have known... but there are no Iguanas...

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Whole Bunch of Films

I seem to be reduced to review posts, but I suppose if I can keep those up, that will constitute a victory. So then:

I've actually had a decent couple weeks on the movie going front, almost back to normal - though only one of those films turns out to be a new release - Peter Chan's Warlords. (7/15) - which as the number tells you was on the bland side, though watchable. The plot is your basic Chinese war film - 3 men form a blood brotherhood, which is eventually betrayed for various reasons... here, this is tied to an actual historical setting, the Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century. (A setting that seems to be something of a novelty - I haven't seen too many films set then, at least not acknowledging it.) Jet Li plays a general who has survived the slaughter of his men by less than honorable means; Andy Lau and Takeshi Kinoshiro play bandits he joins and then convinces to join the Imperial army. They fight - they win - they turn on one another, sort of. There appear to be 8 people listed as screenwriters - that must be for numerological significance, because what's on screen looks like it could have been written in a napkin in a restaurant. (IMDB notes that the battle scenes received most of the attention - that I can believe.) It does have a nice gritty look, and the three leads bring their usual charms and competence (though they seem a bit distracted... or maybe I was distracted...) - and it pays closer attention to the ways most of Chinese history is a complete disaster from any perspective - but overall it is still a bit of a drag. The fight scenes are perhaps shot a bit too grittily, somewhat obscuring the choreography, which is by Ching Siu-tung, who is one of my favorite artisans in the entire film business, a genius in his field.

Everything else I've seen, in theaters as well as video, have been older films:

The Sun: 11/15 - Alexander Sukorov's third dictator film, after Molokh and Taurus - this is about Hirohito, becoming a man. Starts in the waning days of the war - he is attended by servants in a bunker; he goes above ground to play at marine biology; he meets his generals. Then he takes a nap, has a vision of hell (his country on fire) - then the Americans arrive (skipping the middle, the end of the war, etc.) He meets MacArthur, who is imperious in his way - the people around him are shocked that he interacts with the Americans - but he is strangely flattered, bragging of his education, happy to be compared to Chaplin, etc. And then - he begins to act human, opening his own doors, making decisions. He is freed - though the rest of the country seems half stuck in the past. Ends neatly - he hears that the engineer who recorded his speech killed himself - he and his wife stare at the chamberlain, then turn and walk away, as if leaving him, and his world, behind. It's a quiet, understated film, elliptical and dreamlike - skipping the middle part is, in fact, a pretty radical move. It jumps over what is, in fact, the defining moment of Hirohito's descent from divinity, his speech calling on Japan to stop fighting. It is a crucial speech - the emperor's voice coming over the radio... it is given prominent play in a great many films, not just Japanese films. (It plays during the opening scene of Hou Hsiao Hsien's City of Sadness, for example.) Here - though it is the moment he becomes human, in a symbolic sense - Sukorov skips it, playing everything around it... A lovely, fascinating film.

The Brattle theater has been showing Kurosawa films, in honor of his centenary - I have been going to the ones I have seen the least - including one I had never seen. Red Beard: 12/15 - A young arrogant samurai doctor finds himself posted to a clinic for the poor - he hates it - but after a bout with a madwoman and her knife, starts to thaw - a variety of educational experiences follow - an old man dies, his daughter tells a tale of woe; one of the patients, a saint, dies, and tells his backstory (love, lost, death, etc...) - all this wins the samurai over, and he becomes a disciple of Red Beard. There are further adventures - Red beard and the samurai rescue a 12 year old girl from a whorehouse - he nurses her, then she nurses him; later, she starts caring for a poor boy who steals food for his family.... And along about here, the samurai's plot kicks in - a woman had jilted him, her father got him posted here (at Red Beard's request) - though she has a sister.... All told, this is Kurosawa at his most sentimental and portentous, though it's still all handled with great strength. Kurosawa lays it on thick - the music cues, the significant staging, things like the girl sitting up into a spotlight that catches her eyes just so... It's a tear jerker all right, but Kurosawa plays it like he means it and he's good enough to make it work.

This played with Throne of Blood: 13/15 - which I have seen. MacBeth on Mr. Fuji - Mifune in full cry, Noh stylings, odd blend of abstraction (those bare sets and broad, gestural performances) and naturalism - the trees and horses and black sand. Odd blend? brilliant blend - Shakespeare purified, stripped down to the plot points and enacted around a series of strange set pieces - Mifune and best friend Miki riding in circles in the fog - 2 meetings with a spirit - his Lady urging him on motionlessly - the ghost at the banquet - the final confrontation...

This week brought a couple of Kurosawa's more downscale dramas - The Lower Depths and Dodesukaden - two films set in slums, a century of so apart. They made a good double bill, covering similar material, in ways that illustrate the changes in Japanese film between the 50s and 70s. Dodesukaden is an interesting project - his comeback after a few years off in the late 60s, which coincided with something like the collapse of the film industry. This was an auteurist attempt to deal with the new economies - 4 major directors (Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Kobayashi and Kinoshita) collaborated, supposedly (if I remember the story right) on 4 different films they would develop together and each direct - I think a total of 2 made it to the screen, this and Ichikawa's Dore-Heita some 30 years later. This is also, I think, a fairly direct attempt by these older filmmakers to address and incorporate the Japanese new wave - the setting, look, performances, and use of more artificial, experimental style, links it to filmmakers like Imamura, Shinoda, Oshima, Teshigahara. This is particularly noticeable in this double bill - the films' similar settings tend to highlight their stylistic differences. The Lower Depths is the old fashioned kind of film - a prestigious, foreign adaptation (Gorky), shot in Kurosawa's customary style. Naturalistic sets and costumes, unity of space, strong use of deep space, staging and framing in depth; it uses longer, more unified speeches, ensemble acting, very fluid, and continuous scenes. Dodeskaden's style is post-new wave: shallower space, telephoto lenses (though Kurosawa still exploits depth when useful), flattening effects; more disruptive editing, more fragmentary speeches, a different kind of stylization in the acting - chorus scenes, for all intents and purposes, with the women around the well... and some extremely artificial moments - painted backdrops, extreme lighting effects, and so on (especially for the beggar and his son.) It looks and feels like the work of the new wave directors - it's not always a perfect match, though the fact is, Kurosawa was good enough to absorb anything, and make it work. The truth is - on balance, I don't think this is his forte - either of these films. For me, he is at his best in the action films and thrillers - not necessarily the samurai pictures, but the "Langian" pictures, call it - I think Kurosawa at his best (Seven Samurai, High and Low, Stray Dog, notably) comes as close to being the true heir of Fritz Lang's German films as anyone. Still - even lesser Kurosawa is thrilling, and these two are better than that...

And finally, DVD brought Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharoahs: 9/15 - a bloated cinemascope epic with gorgeous colors and striking sets, in the service of a silly melodrama with some neat twists. Cheops wants to build the greatest pyramid ever - gets a slave to do it - 20 years later - marries a young ambitious princess who plots to kill him, killing the queen first, then the Pharoah... but the priest has a surprise for her - bringing her into the tomb, where she thinks she will get the king's treasure once he is committed to the ground - but wait! how will she get out? for all that, it's a handsome film, a bit off from Hawks' style, though with plenty of decent moments.

And The Sheik: 10/15 - actually, shown in the Orientalism class I am taking - and a notable example of orientalism it is. Valentino plays an Arab sheik - he spots a lively english girl, who sneaks into his casino when she gets annoyed that he bans westerners - he shows her the door, but he likes her, and soon arranges to kidnap her. He thinks she will melt - she resists him (sort of) - he seems a bit surprised, and turns a bit noble, and decides to wait her out rather than simply ravish her. She hangs around his camp, moping, but making the best of it, until a Frenchman arrives - that is too terrible a humiliation, she thinks, and she tries to run away and is almost kidnapped again, by a far less noble bandit. But she is saved, for the moment - she mopes some more, but befriends the Frenchman, and meanwhile, falls genuinely in love with the Sheik - but oh Noes! here comes the bandit Omair again! will Valentino save her in time? In the end - even the Hays code gets a happy ending, as it is revealed that the sheik is actually a foundling, not an Arab at all! Allah be praised! All this is standard fare, but not half bad - Valentino is, after all, gorgeous, and charming, and more than able to carry the film - the lady, Agnes Ayres, nearly holds her own with him - she's a lively presence in the film. There are some nice details - she is a lively character, and doesn't quite get punished for it - amusing that the sign of the Sheik's real love for her is when he gives her back her pistol... she may need to be rescued, but it's not for lack of trying - she empties the pistol into her attackers before they get her... There's no lack of cliches and stereotypes, but they are held fairly lightly, and it's almost believable that these two people are drawn to each other not only by their respective beauty, but because they are both thoroughbreds.

And finally, Sleeper: 13/15 - I'm not, I'm afraid, a big Woody Allen fan - I was once, in college, and he was, in fact, one of the first filmmakers I paid attention to, as a filmmaker. But he lost me somewhere in there - I stopped seeing all his films for a couple years, and when I went back, I found him underwhelming - even to the point of finding films I once loved bland and dull... But Sleeper never lost me. It's as funny now as ever, and may even seem cleverer - and even looks good! It might be a cliche, a joke, to like his early, funny stuff more than the later stuff - but what can I say? I admit that a lot of the early, funny, films are very crudely made - I watched Take the Money and Run (for the first time in a couple decades) a few weeks ago, and though I could imagine he meant some of the crudeness to be funny - it didn't quite cut it. Sleeper is still cheap and slap-dash looking - but now, he has gotten to the point that the cheap sets and special effects are very funny in their own right - those cars; the tin foil cryogenic wrapping - it's fun to watch. I wish he had stayed with this style - it seems to me that when he started making "serious" films, he tried to make them look like serious films - and they come off looking like Bergman impersonations. Flat, drab Bergman at that. Sleeper (and the films he made around it) have the loose, irreverent tone of the new wave (though the French knew how to make films that were loose and casual, but also gorgeous looking - Woody Allen never comes close to the pure cinematic chops of Godard or Rivette or even Luc Moullet) - he's celebrating film history, sending up film conventions, having fun with the process of making films - as well as telling jokes and staging ridiculous bits of physical comedy. This is a damned great film...

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Baseball Preview, 2010

Ah me.... Spring is here - and today is that glorious day - Sox and Yankees, kick off the 2010 season.... And that means, it is time for my annual Baseball Prediction post - a great source of comedy come October, usually. It's turning into a source of - maybe not comedy - something - now - as this will be the third attempt to write it. Started yesterday, finished half of it, then broke for supper (rice and beans! simple, nutritious, tasty!) and a Howard Hawks movie, and when I returned, found Comcast extremely uncooperative... So I finished it this morning - and then, in the process of trying to spell check the thing in word, somehow manamed to delete half of it. (No idea how - command-A, cut, paste, command-A, cut, paste - I can see how I could have lost it all, but how did I just lose half of it? weird, man!) So third time a charm, I hope.... though I imagine this will cut down on the prosification, at least of the AL half of the post.

AL East:

NY Yankees - not that I want the Yanks to win, but they are the defenders and, I suppose, the default pick. They shouldn't be much different - Granderson should be a nice addition, though switching out Matsui and Damon for Nick Johnson and - Randy Winn is it? - doesn't seem like a step up. And they are old, and - there is hope! Though in the end, I suspect it will be just a question of who wins the division and who gets the wild card...

Red Sox - they have what should be a superb pitching staff - even with the kinds of niggling injured Lackey and Beckett always seem to end up with, they are dominant - if those two are 100% all year, they will be formidable. They have shored up the defense, possibly at the expense of the offense (lots of room for failure from Beltre and Cameron), though they should still score enough. Again - odds are the Yanks and Sox will be 1-2 in the division, and the teams to beat in the post-season...

Tampa Bay - every bit the equal of the first two on the field, maybe a tick down in the pitching, though with plenty of upside. Thinner, though, and less likely to pick up a superstar at the trade deadline. BUt perfectly capable of winning the division or taking the wild card, even if the first two don't collapse.

Baltimore - seem to be inching back toward respectability - especially on the field. The pitching, not so much - it is tempting to scoff at Kevin Millwood's presence, but he has been a nice stabilizing source of innings on a couple developing teams lately, so he might serve the same function here. Not yet, though - they have a couple years to go before even thinking about contending in this division.

Toronto - they've finally given up on their attempts to compete without the resources of the teams ahead of them and started rebuilding. Probably not going to do much this year, though they have some nice young players up there.

AL Central:

Twins - given the lousy division they are in, they have a pretty easy path tot he post-season I think. They did it last year with some significant injury problems (missing Morneau down the stretch, notably.) They could use some improved pitching - they will have to find something to replace Nathan - but they should be okay. They usually are.

Chicago - they have another pitching staff that oculd be dominant - only Peavy is in the same range as Boston's top 3, but behind him, they have some nice reliably innings fillers, and a decent bullpen - I don't know about the team on the field - they have Juan Pierre, don't they? they might bunt themselves out of the playoffs...

Detroit - retooling on the fly - with Cabrera and Verlander still on hand, they might manage to hang around the pennant race. Valverde will help - Johnny Damon has been washed up for years, though he doesn't seem to have noticed - he might catch on this year, but if not, he should provide a lot of helpful line drives around the kids they have... hard to say where they will land, but they could be decent.

Cleveland - do they have any pitchers? they have some nice players, but probably not enough to bother anyone.

Kansas City - it was madness to pick them to surprise last year - at least this year they have done nothing to give anyone delusions of their competence. Greinke, Soria and Butler are good players - the rest, not so much.

AL West:

Angels - this is a default pick - I don't know if I believe it. Losing Lackey and Figgens (not to mention Vlad) might be too much... I think they will continue to be a solid team, though, and thus the target for the rest of the division - a target the division might be able to hit, though.

Seattle - great pitching, iffy offense - though they might have enough to get into the race.

Texas - last year, they had their breakthrough - will they maintain it? will they improve? If Harden could stay healthy - maybe; if last year's kids develop, maybe - it's a pretty good bet, really - though I'm a bit more inclined to think they will slip a bit, and make their move next year (if they are willing to spend some money.) BUt they are close enough that, given the Angels regression, they could be there.

Oakland - have some nice young pitchers - I think they need a couple years, though, to get into any kind of contention.

NL East:

Phillies - I don't see them going anywhere - Halladay is a force; Hamels is a good bet to come back (I think) - the offense is still loaded - they are the cream of the crop in the NL, and not far off the Boston/NY/Tampa standard of the AL.

Atlanta - a very good rotation, some offense - they need Chipper to hit and Heyward to be the real deal - but it's a pretty good looking team, over all. They are in a position to get back in the playoffs, at least.

Florida - over the Mets? I think so. They are always close - if they actually kept their players around long enough, they could be a major threat every year.

NY Mets - lots of talent on the team, but it isn't very often on the field. Beltran and Reyes are already out - who knows what the non-Santana pitchers will do - or even how healthy Santana is. So - I expect the worst...

Washington - one of these years they might not suck - but this year, I expect they will still suck. They might score more runs, though. Maybe.

NL Central:

St. Louis - again - no reason for them not to repeat. Same rotation, more or less, Holliday is back to compliment Pujols - the rest of their team is pretty decent - they should be fine. They are beatable, especially if Carpenter gets hurt again - but hard to see who will do the beating...

Milwaukee - someone has to finish second - why not the Brew Crew? I like them more than the rest, so there you go.

Chicago - I don't like the Cubs, but have to admit they have the makings of a good team. Or another full on collapse. Or boring mediocrity.

Cincinnati - I'd like to see them do better - it's not impossible. They have pitchers who have had some good runs; they have interesting talent on the field; they have a couple very good players (Votto, Phillips) - it's quite possible. They have lots if ways to fail though, from the inconsistency of their pitching to the unproven youth of their talent - so who can say?

Houston - a theme emerges - a few strokes of luck, and they could be in the thick of something - or not. Berkman's out - that can't help. Whither Roy Oswalt? Etc. I don't expect much, though - which means they probably win the division...

Pittsburgh - who can they trade this year? do they have anybody left? will they have to trade McCutcheon in just his second year? why not? he will be arbitration eligible soon, far too soon!

NL West:

Dodgers - it pains me, but they probably do have the best and deepest team. Don't their rivals all have holes? they may not have the means to respond to trouble (with the financial confusion caused by the McCourt divorce) - but I think they have the best team coming in to the season.

Colorado - this is probably risky, thinking the Rockies could be good 2 years in a row. They do have some talent (some of it young and getting better) - they have pitching (Jimenez etc.) - so maybe... I'm not sure I believe it though.

San Francisco - their pitching is ace; their offense - Sandoval is certainly a real hitter - the rest, though - would not seem to be enough to really compete. Like Seattle last year - or the Giants themselves. I suspect this will be a repeat of that.

Arizona - I'd say, if Webb is healthy, this could be a dark horse - though right now, it looks like Webb is nowhere near ready... They still could surprise - they have some real talent (Haren, plus Upton and Reynolds, maybe LaRoche and Montero) and some guys who have done enough in the past to make you hope they could do it again (Drew, Young, notably) - but it's probably not worth betting on.

San Diego - they didn't finish last last year! that actually surprised me when I looked it up. They have some talent - Gonzalez particularly, and a couple younger guys - Cabrera, Headley maybe - but I don't see much room for a good team to emerge. Maybe in a year or so, since they do have some nice pitching prospects, I am led to believe (I have Mat Latos on my fantasy team, so I hope that is true!), but this looks like a very Pirates west kind of year, complete with the July trade of their best hitter to the Red Sox. (I hope.)

And so? The playoffs? AL - wait, who did I pick to win the east? Sox? No - Yankees (a hazard of rewriting the thing 3 times) - hardly matters - both should be in the playoffs.... So this version says - Yankees, Twins, Angels (I guess) - plus Boston for the wild card.... Tampa should be close enough to get in easily; Rangers and Mariners look like strong dark horse contenders. Sox or Yankees to emerge and win it all.... NL: Phils, Cards, Dodgers (ho hum) - Braves for the Wild card. Giants and Marlins being the most likely other teams to get in. The Phillies look like a good bet to make a third trip to the World Series - to lose to the Red Sox this year!

Individual awards? AL MVP - Mauer again, I suppose - he had a good case for the award 2 years ago, as well as last - with Langoria and the usual subjects (A Rod, Pedroia/Youkilis, etc.) lurking in the weeds. Cy Young? actually a pretty good race - all those Red Sox, Sabathia, Greinke again, King Felix - and don't forget Jake Peavy, who healthy might be the best of the bunch. Rookie? um - not sure; let's say - Feliz in Texas? though he needs a clear job...

NL: MVP - it's Pujols' to lose - if he does, it will probably be to a Phillie, or Ryan Braun, or maybe Matt Kemp or someone like that. Cy Young - Lincecum's to lose, though if Santana is healthy, it might be closer - Roy Halladay will make things more complicated, and Haren, the Cards and so on (Tommy Hanson?) should be in the running... Rookie? there are a few of them floating around - Jason Heyward sounds like the most interesting choice.

So off we go! Happy Easter and go Sox! I'm off to see a Kurosawa double bill... I'd better post before blogger crashes...

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Films Seen Recently

Last weekend I began, tentatively, to return to the wide world, after a couple weeks devoted to moving. Managed to see a couple new films, after not seeing anything the previous week - a rather drastic layoff for me...

Greenberg: 11/15 - Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a depressive ex-musician, turning 41, house sitting for his rich brother in LA. He lurks about the house, not quite able to go outside and talk to people - stalking around LA in his NY regalia, sometimes annoying his old friends... He meets his brother's PA, Florence, played by Greta Gerwig (actually, we meet her first, driving around running errands for the brother - Roger is introduced slowly and off camera), and after some rather awkward attempts at conversation, he seduces her. In a somewhat loose sense of the word "seduce". It is a character study, mostly of Greenberg, though Florence - and indeed several other characters - are neatly limned at the edges of his world - he's a miserable son of a bitch, lonely, passive, paralyzed with a kind of agoraphobia that he hides, partly by joking about it. (A paralysis that always seems about to become literal - and has, in the past... he seems to have had a stint in a mental hospital when his legs stopped working...) He's odd - he seems to know these things, knows what affect he has on people, but can't quite stop himself - he's selfish but too self aware not to hate himself for it - he draws people in then rejects them, almost as if he were trying to save them from getting involved with him. All this is very nicely shot and put together - Stiller is superb, and is surrounded by an ace cast, especially Gerwig, though also Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh in smaller, but sharp, roles. It slots into the current state of cinema in some odd ways - picking up some of the looseness and mannerisms of "mumblecore" (as well as Gerwig) - and at times, resembling the story and characters you might find in one of Arnaud Desplechins' films. Stiller comes off as the passive version of the manic madmen Matthieu Amalric has been playing for Desplechins - the relationship between Greenberg and Florence is a bit like the one between Amalric and "La Chinoise" in Kings and Queens. It's a much more modest film than Desplechins' multi-generational, multi-character, stylistically extravagant 21st century monsters, but works well in its way.

The Secret of the Kells: 10/15 - it's Ireland in the dark ages, the Vikings are raising hell, and Abbott Cellach at Kells is building a great wall that he thinks might keep them out. His nephew Brendan, though, is more interested in the books the monks are illuminating, and more curious about the outside world, which he has been forbidden to enter. Then another monk, Brother Aidan, a master illuminator, arrives from Iona, the only survivor of the Vikings raid - carrying a magnificent book, that he continues working on, with Brendan's help. Conflict ensues! as the abbott lays down the law, and Aiden warns that the Vikings will destroy all etc... Brendan has adventures in the forest with the help of a fairy, and things go more or less as expected. The Vikings arrive, with predictable results... But the book is completed (not exactly a spoiler, since this is a story about the Book of Kells)... All told, I suppose it's pretty typical children's film fare - you can see the plot coming a mile away - but it is ravishing to look at, drawn in a style derived from the book of Kells, as well as, maybe, woodcuts and such - all angles and curves and light ands dark. (Reminded me at times of Virginia Lee Burton - all swirls and angles and lines, strongly two-dimensional, very stylized - especially Calico the Wonder Horse, a perfectly gorgeous book, one of the foundational texts for this humble correspondent...) The style alone, avoiding the current vogue for digitized animation and three-dimensionality, makes it a joy to watch...

I did manage to catch a couple other films over the last month - goes back some... saw The Red Shoes (13/15) - Powell and Pressberger, filmmakers I have not seen near enough of (I think this might be the first of their collaborations in color I have seen) - another ravishing film, with an interesting vision of art and collaboration, that raises some intriguing questions about art and gender as well... I have to admit, though, that I saw it in the middle of the first of the 2-3 Biblical Tempests we've recently suffered here in Beantown, and half drowned myself getting to the theater, and spent the film shivering and wishing I could be in Monte Carlo...

The Ghost Writer: 10/15 - I guess I managed to see this since my last post too. Polanski's latest - a fine little thriller, though probably a total fantasy (one of the architects of the Iraq war brought up on war crimes charges? heavens...) Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer hired to replace another writer who fell off a ferry boat in the rain - this new ghost soon finds plenty of information to indicate foul play, and acts on it, generating suspense and folly... It's virtually a Hitchcock cover, North By Northwest specifically, and done with aplomb. Nonsense or no, it's a gripping experience. It helps to have a juicy cast, and it does - Pierce Brosnan as a disgraced ex-PM, Olivia Williams as his wife (both character and actress being maybe the high point fo the film - why is she in so few films?), and McGregor managing a wormy innocence at the center of it all. Fine film.

And finally - on DVD - Byron, the BBC show with Jonny Lee Miller as England's greatest sinner.... I might as well admit to my rating - 6/15 - not good... It has its moments - Byron's life and misbehavior would seem well suited to potboiling film or TV... and there's scandal aplenty... it follows the Lord from Greece to Greece - first he saves a girl from being drowned by the Turks, then heads home to England to mope and write and then become famous and proceed to tup half of London, including Caroline Lamb, a madwoman with a weird haircut that no one seems to notice. Scandal! he leaves London, bangs his sister, then marries a prim schoolgirl who adores him. But he treats her bad and Caroline puts word around that he sodomized his wife and screwed his sister and off to Italy he goes, where he chases whores and talks to Shelley and then goes to Greece and is bled to death. It's all handsome enough, and hard to imagine, really, how you can make all that into dull repetitive cliches, but they somehow pull it off. Most of it plays as a rather standard, if elliptical, biopic, that falls into very dull patterns after a while. The dialogue is particularly annoying, as it seems to consist of the cast taking turns coming on to recite a set of standard lines - Shelly declaims about revolution and hope; the wife mews about god, sin, and mathematics; the sister is earthy and sweet, Caroline Lamb is crazy, etc. etc. - this is particularly notable in the second half - the first half at least has Byron romancing a variety of women, with some stakes in the various relationships. The second half starts with the end of the marriage and never bothers to treat what came after as worthy on its own. Some halfway decent performances are squandered, and a whole host of great writers aren't quoted very often, and given whiny repetitive lines to read. Too bad!