Friday, April 27, 2007

Zazie has come from the countryside to Paris to stay with her uncle Gabriel, because her mother wants to spend the weekend with a lover. And as we all know, a precocious 10 year old is not the kind of distraction you want around when you're with your lover, right? So Zazie is in Paris with her uncle, and all she wants to do is ride the Metro, one of the oldest in the world, if not the oldest... hang on... the oldest one is in London, but that's not the point. Zazie wants to ride the metro, but there's a strike going on, so she can't. And being a precocious 10 year old, she complains. A lot. She's like a precursor to South Park, though not as vulgar, because this is 1958 we're talking about here.

Thus begins Zazie in the Metro.

This is one of those books that's a bit misleading. It's slender, and since it's about a kid, you might think this is a children's book. But it's not. Not really, anyway. Zazie's uncle is a cross dresser who performs in a gay bar. He's straight, but Zazie doesn't believe him. He gets accused of being a homosexual fairly early on, and for a good part of the book, she asks him what a "hormosessual" is. I thought the best answer is a man who wears perfume.

Gabriel works at night, and he expects Zazie to sleep through til morning while he's out and his wife is home. But Zazie sneaks out, and of course gets into all kinds of trouble. Trouble includes "blewgenes," sexual deviants, hormosessuals, German tourists, a fish-faced widow, traffic cops, kidnappings, and a cabaret show. It all makes sense in the book, which you should be reading. It's a romp of a read, because the author, Raymond Queneau plays around the language, as does the translator. Words are run together, changed to phonetic spellings (like "ksplained"), and so on. Usually this can make a book a tough read, like Trainspotting, but in this case, it's used relatively sparingly, and since the overall pace of the book is fast, it still moves.

My only complaint is, well, the pace. Because it's so fast, sometimes characters get lost in the mix. Because the cast grows and grows, and the action gets more and more manic, it's easy to lose a sense of who is saying what to whom, and what these people look like. But there's a part of me that thinks that's the point. Am I letting Queneau off the hook? I don't know. I don't think it really matters with a book like this.

After the book came out in 1959, it became a big sensation (deservedly so), and a year later, it was released as a movie directed by Louis Malle. I plan on seeing the film as soon as I sign up for Netflix, or at my local arthouse video store.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nothing is more Punk Rock than a Japanese girl with a guitar...

Except maybe Bikini Kill...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

So I waited to see Grindhouse, because, you know, I was expecting huge crowds over the Easter weekend when it debuted. Silly me. Grindhouse hasn't been the succes that pretty much everyone was expecting it to be. There are so many theories going around, including the running time of three hours, the fact that its release weekend was Easter, and so on. Those are probably all right. But Grindhouse should have had a better opening. It should have had a bigger audience.

In case you've been living under a rock for the past few months, Grindhouse is the pet project of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez, a double-feature that harkens back to the 70s and early 80s when schlocky movies played in grimy theaters in urban centers, films that were shot on the cheap, with sex, guns, and gore. The scripts were usually pretty bad, the acting worse. But the taboo of what was on screen usually - and I stress usually - made up for it.

Rodriguez and Tarantino created their own grindhouse movies, Planet Terror and Death Proof, respectively. Between the two, I preferred Death Proof. It seemed like Tarantino crafted a real grindhouse style film. Not that there's anything wrong with Planet Terror, but there's a bit at the end that would probably exceed the budget constraints of a real grindhouse picture. You could argue that by using such high list talent like Rose McGowan, Kurt Russel and the like that the filmmakers have already gone beyond the constraints of the "genre." But I would disagree, mainly because that's not the point. The filmmakers seem to be trying to recreate something they loved.

Or it would seem that way. It was mentioned in a review - I forget which one - that Rodriguez's film seemed like it was made by a guy who had read a lot about grindhouse films and then made one, whereas the Tarantino offering was a real grindhouse film. I don't know, mainly because I grew up while the grindhouses were disappearing. I never saw a real grindhouse film in a theater. Still, Planet Terror seemed closer to something Troma would put out for most of its running time, which is perfect for a grindhouse cinema, until the end, which, as I wrote above, seemed to be out-of-the-grindhouse in terms of budgetary constraints.

Death Proof on the other hand, was certainly the better of the two, and deserved top billing. It's basically two stories, both starring Stuntman Mike, a killer with a car. He goes after young women, God only knows why, but that's not the point. I wanted to see car chases and dead bodies. And that's what Tarantino gives us. Twice.

What's great about Death Proof are the car chases. Tarantino knows how to shoot one, which surprised me. The second chase is the better of the two, with Zoe Bell hanging on the hood of the Dodge Challenger. She's not the greatest actress in the world (if she had more roles in front of the camera as an actress I think she could get much better and be a decent action actress), but she's excellent as the stunt woman she needs to be for the role. It was edge-of-your-seat excitement! I loved that car chase... better than most of the shit Hollywood's been putting out for years, not the least because it was real, not CGI bullshit.

I'm going to cut this short. I havent' slept well in the last few nights for various and sundry reasons. Let's just say that Grindhouse kicked a lot of ass, and you should go and fucking see it if you haven't.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

I've been a busy little bastard of late. Since I've moved, I haven't watched as much TV as I used to. Mainly that's because my cable has become very, very basic. Besides the big six, I get TNT, TBS and the Food Network. There are, of course, the two PBS's, and various city channels, not to mention the cable access channels. But I've been watching so much less TV of late. Instead, I've been reading.

Right now, it's Zazie on the Metro, but I haven't finished that yet. I have, however, finished Farseed by Pamela Sargent.

Back in either Junior High or right before it, I checked out from my school library Ms. Sargent's book Earthseed, which I loved. It went out of print for a long time, and the copy I own I bought on It's just been reissued by Tor, and I bought a copy, you know, to put some shrapnel in Ms. Sargent's pocket, as it were. Anyway...

Earthseed was about a ship, which had an AI named, well, Ship. It was Ship's job to transport a bunch of teenagers to worlds across the galaxy - if not universe - to seed worlds with human life. Apparently, things had gotten so back in our solar system that it was time to get out of town and save the human race from... well, Ship implied some catastrophe, but it never became clear until the end.

I fell in love with the main character, Zoheret, a girl born of the egg and sperm of two Arab scientists who helped create Ship. Now, bear in mind, back when I first read Earthseed, I didn't realize how "Benneton ad" the kids were. I mean, Zoheret was Arabian, her boyfriend was Scandanavian, her rival was Chinese, another guy was Latino, and so on. But when I read it, I didn't see any of that, mainly because Ms. Sargent didn't broadcast it. And for that, I am thankful, because I wasn't hindered by preconceptions.

By the end of Earthseed, Zoheret, her new boyfriend Manuel, her rival Ho, and all the other teenagers are dropped off on a new planet, now named Home. Ship sticks around for a few years to make sure the kids are all right, and then leaves. Zoheret is one of the leaders of the new settlement. And once Ship has left orbit, Ho approaches her, tells her he's leaving with another group to start their own settlement. An uncertain, fractured future lays ahead of Zoheret, Ho, Manuel and the rest of the settlement. But it seemed hopeful.

Earthseed was published back in 1983. It's been 24 years, and now Ms. Sargent has published the sequel, Farseed. And on Home, 24 years have passed. Zoheret has a daughter named Leila. Ho has a daughter named Nuy. It seems Ho's settlement has taken some very hard hits. He and his people lived by the ocean, but Home hasn't been kind to them. They're starving, hunting small game, just getting by. They've been hit hard by disease. From a group of around 50, there are now only 12 left. And to make matters worse, they haven't been in contact with Zoheret's settlement in a decade because of that disease, whatever it was. According to Ho, it was Zoheret's group that brought death to his settlement. And now Ho is paranoid, and more than a bit mad.

When three of Zoheret's people travel to Ho's settlement, Nuy finds them before anyone else. She leads one of them to Ho, where he is promptly killed for the death he may be bringing, and Nuy is banished for the same reason.

Cut to Leila and Zoheret's settlement. Leila and her friends want to explore the world around them. Home is their home, and the people of the settlement know very little about it. Leila and her friends don't want the involvement of the adults, because they know that if that happens, their expedition will be taken from them. But they don't have much of a choice in the matter. If they are to get the supplies they need, they need to involve the adults on some level.

And when they propose the idea to Zoheret and the other adults, some of their fears come true. The adults do get involved. But since most of the adults grew up on Ship, they're more than willing to let mostly kids - teenagers of course - handle this little trip. Zoheret might be going along and leading the expedition, but Leila is the one who's "in charge."

When Zoheret's people come into contact with Ho's people, of course things don't go well. It's a new world, but old rules still play out. They've crossed the galaxy, but human frailty still determines how the humans deal with one another.

I've always liked the world Ms. Sargent created with Earthseed, and I was a bit worried that things would be so different with Farseed because 24 years have passed. Styles change. But somehow, Ms. Sargent has made a seamless transition for fans of the first book. Some of the social interaction between the groups and characters is pretty progressive. One of the illicit thrills of Earthseed was that the kids were having sex and drinking! I loved that! And Ship approved (kind of)!

There will be a third book - this is the "Seed Trilogy" - and I can't wait to see what she's going to put across in that. At the end of Farseed, there seemed to be a balance between the ideas in the books about exploring the world and about change. Each book has always been about the fight between moderation and extremism, and that looks like it will play out in the third book. I personally can't wait.
I've been neglecting my other blogs, but to be honest, since I moved recently, I haven't been hard at work on those things. But I have been doing things, like reading books and watching movies.

Speaking of...

Most people remember Joseph Gordon-Levitt from Third Rock From the Sun, as the oldest/youngest alien in a family of aliens come to Earth to see what life is like here. The acting was broad at times - and by "at times" I mean all the time - and it had its moments. But ever since leaving the show Mr. Gordon-Levitt has had an outstanding run as a dramatic actor. Starting with Mysterious Skin in 2004, through Brick in 2005, he's managed to restyle himself as an amazing dramatic actor. He's shown that he's serious about acting, and he's well worth watching in any film in which he appears.

Which brings me to The Lookout, his latest film.

The Lookout is a heist film crossed with a character study, and it works very well. Don't get me wrong - this is no Brick or Mysterious Skin. In fact, Gordon-Levitt makes it a better movie than it should have been. This should have been run of the mill in a lot of ways. Director Scott Frank wrote a lot of good movies, including Out of Sight and Minority Report. And he knows his way around behind a camera.

The story is pretty simple: While driving his friends down a dark country road one night, promising high school hockey player Chris Pratt turns off the headlights of his car. This is a beautiful image, because the sky lights up with millions of fireflies. The car shoots through the night, surrounded by dots of light, and it is magical. You can see why he'd risk it, but not for as long as he did.

Because at the end of his little joy ride, there's a combine harvester stalled out in the middle of the road, and he doesn't see it until the last minute. There are four people in the car, including Chris. One is his girlfriend. Two people die. Chris lives with severe brain damage.

He needs to keep lists. He needs to put little signs everywhere to remind himself to take the keys for his car, to use soap in the shower, to turn off the alarm clock, and so on, throughout his day. He lives with a blind man named Lewis (played by Jeff Daniels according to IMDB, but it could be Bill Pullman - you know how it is). Lewis and Chris hang out a lot, and Lewis helps Chris make his way through the world.

At night, he works as a janitor in a tiny little bank out in the middle of nowhere. Every night, a local sheriff's deputy (Deputy Ted) stops by with a box of doughnuts. And every season, farmers from across the county come to collect cash to pay their workers.

Chris is trying to make his way through his life after the accident, but he can't forget the way he was before, and he certainly can't forget the results of the aftermath. Those two lives lost hang over him. His guilt is palpable. But he wants to be more. Early in the film, he talks to his boss at the bank where he works about becoming a teller. He has to write down everything he'll need to do, everything he'll need to remember, and his boss isn't impressed. It's an important moment in a tight film filled with important moments.

Later, when Chris is at a bar, he meets a guy named Gary. Gary is slick, charismatic, and when he lets Chris in on his plan to rob a bank - the bank where Chris works - Chris suddenly feels useful and wanted again.

Of course this wouldn't be a heist film if things didn't go wrong. Conscience takes hold of Chris. Plans go wrong. Good people die. Money falls into the "wrong" hands. And we know how this is going to end. We've all seen enough heist movies to know how they end. But in the case of The Lookout, it's not really about that. Because like all great movies, it's not really about the heist. It's about the people.

Because The Lookout is a character piece more than anything. It's about Chris' journey, not the money. And if there were a lesser actor in the role of Chris, this wouldn't have worked. Mr. Gordon-Levitt pretty much has to carry this movie. The actors around him aren't simply plot devices, nor are they one-dimensional. But this isn't about them. Chris is in nearly every scene of this film, and he needs to be. Because, like I wrote, it's not about the money. The payoff isn't the millions. It's Chris moving forward in his life, about finding his way.