30 June 2005

I forgive Tom Cruise.

War of the Worlds is a damn fine movie. The first hour, especially, is the biggest, most awesome—in every sense of the world—thing that Spielberg, or maybe anyone, has ever done. It falters a bit in the second half, and the ending is sure to be controversial, and yet I prefer to think of it as a irony so immense as to be almost invisible. It's also the first film that dominates Cruise, rather than Cruise dominating the film, which is a sign, I think, of maturity, even if we're hard-pressed to find that maturity in Cruise's offscreen life.

Anyway, for most of its length, this is a complex, incredibly involving movie. For most of the first act, especially, you aren't just watching it—it's happening to you. I have a terrible track record at making predictions like this, but I have a hunch that War of the Worlds will become one of those huge, immovable tourist attractions of the movies, like Apocalypse Now, that recenters the cinematic canon by sheer force of gravity. Or maybe not. Either way, I'm seeing it again.

27 June 2005

Not surprisingly, Batman fans are now debating who should play the Joker. Among the names being tossed around: Sean Penn, Crispin Glover, Lachy Hulme, and Paul Bettany. None, I feel, are quite right. The role requires a younger actor who is scary, funny, unpredictable, able to effortlessly suggest insanity, violent, charismatic, and weird. I've thought about this all day, and at the moment, there's really only one guy I can see in the part: Benicio Del Toro.

26 June 2005

Batman Begins, which I finally saw, is full of wonderful details, but my favorite moment is a small one: in most comic book movies, every plot development merits a banner headline in the next morning's newspaper, but in this one, the first story about Batman's appearance is a small item on the front page, below the fold. Presumably, there's more going on in the world besides the adventures of just one superhero. In the case of this movie, it's a lot more—a world dense with ideas, characters, and surprises. I could talk more about this movie's virtues and its occasional small shortcomings, but in the end, I'm just grateful—grateful that a lot of people cared enough to make a $150 million sequel this rich, this interesting, and this good. Thanks, Mr. Nolan.
I've recently become fascinated by the "half-tuck." Do you guys know what I'm talking about? Apparently the arbiters of fashion got together about a year ago to figure out whether a man's dress or polo short should be tucked in or left untucked. Judging from my back issues of GQ, untucked is clearly the way to go, but unfortunately, an untucked shirt doesn't let you show off your $200 belt. This led to a solution of Talmudic ingenuity: the "half-tuck," wherein the man's dress shirt is tucked in at one side or in the front only. Judging from my research online, I seem to be discovering this phenomenon almost exactly a year too late, but I've begun noticing it at parties, too. My one problem is that I seem incapable of pulling it off: I just get too self-conscious for words. Moreover, I tend to serve as an inverse cultural barometer: once I've noticed a cultural trend, there's a good chance it's already halfway out the door. So maybe untucked (or fully tucked in) is really the way to go. It's all very middle school, isn't it?

24 June 2005

I think I'm going to skip work on Thursday and buy some of Marlon Brando's stuff.

23 June 2005

Hey, it looks like one of you guys has been messing around with our Blogger display preferences. (First names only instead of full names, and now I've noticed an extra space between each posting and the byline.) Fine with me, but while you're at it, could you fix the page so that the "Deadly Mantis" title isn't hidden by the Blogger toolbar?
Well, it looks like a flag-burning amendment may actually pass the Senate next month. With that in mind, I have only one question: is this flag desecration?
If I had to name the movie that I'm most eagerly anticipating this year, it wouldn't be Batman Begins or War of the Worlds or even King Kong, but The Aristrocrats, which has finally been scheduled for a release at the end of July. I've already blogged about this movie at length, so I won't repeat myself. However, I did enjoy this quote by Michael Medved: "I don't see it as an assault on anything, because it's not a film anybody's going to see, it's not a film that anybody cares about." (Apparently Medved doesn't read this blog anymore. Sigh.)

22 June 2005

By the way, as I've just discovered, Nicole Kidman is Diane Arbus. Yep, this should be a fun one.
Last posting about movie quotes, I promise:

As I've mentioned before, my favorite lines from the past year were all from Closer. The runner-up is a line that I'd be quoting all the time, if only, alas, it were from a better movie: "Way of the future...way of the future...way of the future..."
Looking back at recent postings, I realize that I somehow neglected to blog Roger Ebert's review of The Longest Yard, which is a masterpiece (the review, not the movie). Ebert saw The Longest Yard, liked it enough to give it a muted "thumbs up" on his television show, and then immediately flew to Cannes, where he saw twenty-five movies, "most of them attempts at greatness"—and then found himself in front of his computer, trying, without a lot of enthusiasm, to justify that vertical thumb for The Longest Yard. His response, chronicled at length in his review, has been a bit controversial, but I think he solves the problem brilliantly.

I've probably said this before, but I really do think that Roger Ebert is one of the best writers in America, and one of the sanest, most generous, and most literate guys around. (He also seems to have put together a pretty nice life for himself, judging from a recent profile in the New York Times.) I've been reading him regularly since I was seven years old, and owe him an awful lot—my love of movies, maybe, and my love of criticism, certainly. We don't always agree—he famously hated Blue Velvet, for example—but it's hard to think of a writer, of any era, for whom I feel more affection.
A fun sublist is the films that have multiple quotes: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Sunset Blvd., The Graduate, Streetcar Named Desire, and ... Jerry Maguire??

Where'd that come from?
I don't approve of their using famous quotes that aren't famous from the movie. E.g. "Houston we have a problem," "My precious," and "Elementary, my dear Watson."
It's notable, but not at all surprising that Casablanca has five quotes in the top 50 before any film other than The Wizard of Oz has picked up its second. How is that possible? How did they get that screenplay so right?

They don't even have my favorite Casablance quote: "I remember Paris perfectly. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue" or the two quotes I've had occasion to use more than any other quotes "Maybe not today, maybe not tommorow, but soon, and for the rest of your life" and "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here."

(Well, maybe 2nd and 3rd after "I've read books, like The Unberable Lightness of Being and Love in the time of Cholera...")

Rewatching that film recently I was particularly struck at just how rapidly the famous lines come at the end. "We'll always have Paris," "Maybe not today," and "beautiful freindship" are all in about a minute.
AFI has released yet another movie list, this one of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time. The biggest omission, even though it was nominated: Harry Lime's speech about the cuckoo clocks.

As I've noted before, all of my favorite movie lines have been spoken by Sean Connery. ("Isn't that just like a wop. Brings a knife to a gunfight.")

21 June 2005

Stephen Metcalf has a thoughtful contrarian take on Nick Hornby in yesterday's Slate. (My favorite line: "Hornby's genius isn't for despair; it's for quotidian disappointment in an epoch devoted to pop bliss.") He also refers to him as "hedgehoglike," which I assume is a learned reference to Archilochus.

20 June 2005

Sports Illustrated's main headline right now is:
As Maria Sharapova gets ready to begin her Wimbledon title defense, SI.com looks back on her career in an extensive photo gallery.
Looks back on her career? She's 18. Here career is about 1 and a half years old.

19 June 2005

Don't ask me how I ended up on www.sugardaddyforme.com (I was researching my novel—honest!), but it's much more fun to read than other dating sites. Instead of clever headlines, the personals get right to the point: "Can you pay my bills?" All in all, it's a little like browsing Herm├Ęs online: I keep saying, "Hmmm, that's cute...but I probably can't afford it."

18 June 2005

Noah's comments on Curtis Hanson (which, I think, are a bit unfair, since there's something fascinating about Hanson's ongoing refusal to be pigeonholed) got me to thinking about a tough question, namely: who is the world's best living director? My personal list of the ten best movies of all time contains films by four living directors: Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, Curtis Hanson, and Martin Scorsese. Yet I sometimes worry that their best work is behind them. Wong's recent films have been gorgeous and interesting, but a long way removed from the messy, spontaneous, unpredictable, and brilliant stuff that he was doing ten years ago. Lynch's best movie (Blue Velvet) was made almost twenty years ago. Since L.A. Confidential, Hanson seems committed to doing finely observed, lively, but ultimately very minor work. And Scorsese, while still the greatest genius in American film, hasn't been the same since his mentor, Michael Powell, died in 1990. (My pet theory is that it was Michael Powell's hidden influence that made Scorsese's glorious run from Taxi Driver to Goodfellas so unmatchable, even by Scorsese himself.)

The real question, then, is which director is the most reliable and dependable producer of masterpieces now, the one filmmaker whose name is still a guarantee that his (or her) latest movie will be extraordinary. (Solo directors only, please; Pixar doesn't count.) I've thought about this for a while, but I've finally come up with a nominee, and it's this guy.
Looking back at my list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, I'm shocked and embarrassed that I forgot Glengarry Glen Ross and The Winslow Boy.

Sorry, Mr. Mamet.

15 June 2005

It's odd to find quotes that you know very very well in context.

Today I discovered that the "they" in
They were a product of crafts that have, unfortunately, gone out of style, like long dresses, love letters, and the waltz
refers to invitations not to a couple. How strange.
I think I once said that L.A. Confidential was so good that I'd see any film that director ever made for the rest of his life. Some things make one rethink comments like that.
Yesterday was not a good way to begin a week: I got a parking ticket (my first ever) and I left my cell phone charger in Berkeley with no hope of recovering it before the weekend. Today I took a load of clothes out of the wash and lying on top was a Sharpie marker that had been in a pocket -- and miraculously, nothing had ink on it. Perhaps things are looking up.

14 June 2005

I spent the weekend in Epping, New Hampshire hauling lumber on Sharon's farm, where I developed a serious case of hay fever from lying down in some tall grass. Apart from that, it was a fun weekend. A few notes:

1. We watched Lost in Translation, which Sharon hated. My rather uncreative response: "I'll bet you'd like this movie if it was about farmers." Later, I realized that a Lost in Translation for farmers actually exists, and it's called A Canterbury Tale.

2. At one point, Sharon told her cousin that he should try to be more like me. His response: "If I was more like Alec, I'd be less like Jesus."
I caught Nick Hornby reading from his new book at Barnes & Noble the other day. Hornby doesn't look much like John Cusack (in fact, he resembles Todd Louiso), but as my friend observed, he's a perfect version of...well, himself. Very funny guy. I was tempted to harrass Hornby during the Q&A session, like I did with Norman Mailer a few years back, but decided against it. High points included:

1. Hornby on whether his international success has caused him to tailor his books for a global audience, rather than a British one: "Yes, there's much less pickled herring."

2. Hornby on jokes that only a British audience will understand: "There are times when I realize that a certain joke will require a forty-five minute discussion with my American editor. It isn't really worth it."

3. Hornby on William Shatner: All right, I'm not going to quote Hornby directly, but he did tell a lovingly polished anecdote about writing a song for the album that Ben Folds produced for William Shatner, which led Shatner—who had concluded that Hornby was a great British poet—to send him an e-mail with an attachment containing dozens of song ideas for Hornby "to polish into something." According to Hornby, the song itself features Aimee Mann on background vocals while Shatner does "his declaiming thing."

Anyway, his new book sounds like an interesting departure, and he read it very amusingly, so I may check it out soon. One last note: before he began to sign copies of his novel, Hornby announced that he was glad to write personal inscriptions, but no top five lists. (Apparently he's asked for these rather often...)

09 June 2005

Also in the news: While Alec's principal search criterion is Wong Kar Wai and mine is classical, apparently one person's is I love cheese. Or so she would have me believe.
We had an intern orientation session this morning which was deathly boring, but it did lead me to discover that indeed there are other people my age in the Labs; prior to today I had only met the other people in my group, all of whom are fifty and whose lunchtime conversation consists of remembering things that happened at HP ten years ago. I also found out that we're going to be touring the HP Archives, which sounded very cool but made me a bit apprehensive lest someone find out where I spent Memorial Day.

08 June 2005

Paul Anka sings the Pet Shop Boys. Yes. (Also Nirvana, Soundgarden, Oasis, Billy Idol, et al. But where's "Losing My Religion?")

07 June 2005

Ann Coulter to the rescue! As I'm wondering what new conspiracy to track, I decide to go to a website that she touted to some right-wing mailing list (they still think the Governor of NM is a Republican, evidently). The website, www.discoverthenetwork.org, purports to map out the vast left-wing conspiracy of America haters. It's an amusing read, but it's not without surprises. For instance, they try to draw a diagram explaining where money comes from, where it goes, etc. I was expecting some big arrow from George Soros to Hillary Clinton. Instead, I found a map that apparently shows that the entire American left is funded by the Ford Foundation.

Huh? Who knew that Henry Ford, that pseudo-fascist pioneer of capitalism, would see his fortune go to fund people who want to blow up America.

The website is apparently written by David Horowitz, the crackpot who took out the ads in college newspapers a few years back arguing against slavery reparations. These people are really weird.

04 June 2005

This article in the New York Times Magazine is arguably the best piece about hedge funds that I've seen in the mainstream press. The paragraph at the top of page nine (the one that begins "And what will be left...?") does a pretty good job of explaining what, weirdly enough, I'm supposed to be doing for a living.
A wonderful vacation prevented me from doing a roundup of the Michael Powell retrospective at Lincoln Center, so please forgive the following self-indulgent remarks:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, quite simply, one of the best movies ever made; I left Lincoln Center that afternoon feeling unspeakably sad, because I'd seen it alone and missed the chance to introduce it to someone I cared about. (Fortunately, I have the DVD now, and I'd be glad to watch it with anyone who asks.) Black Narcissus strikes me as the weakest of the Archers' great movies: it has some problems in the narrative department, and it's missing the density of ideas and English values that I love in their other films, but it's clearly a major work of art. One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Small Back Room are the films that bookend the Archers' string of six masterpieces, and they're merely wonderful, especially The Small Back Room, which finds two great directors riffing on expressionism, romance, suspense, and wartime atmosphere in a way that makes Hitchcock seem lame. The Phantom Light, The Spy in Black and The Edge of the World are fine, atmospheric early curiosities. The Battle of the River Plate is simply a bad movie, horribly inert and tedious at times, but occasionally redeemed by bits of Uruguayan color. Ill Met By Moonlight, the Archers' last movie together, is a skillful novelette, and its simple suspense story and beautiful black-and-white cinematography sometimes make it feel like a looser, lighter Wages of Fear. And The Thief of Bagdad is still The Thief of Bagdad.

However, the real discovery, and the second-best movie I've seen all year (after A Canterbury Tale) is Contraband. I feel vaguely silly about raving about a quickie thriller made in 1940 that barely registers a hundred votes on imdb.com, but I can't help myself: this is one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen, a weird, terrifically ingenious comedy-thriller about a Danish sea captain hunting for two missing passengers during a London blackout. Best of all, the sea captain is played by Conrad Veidt, who played the Nazi major in Casablanca—and it's a measure of Contraband's goofiness that it isn't until halfway through the movie that you realize he isn't the villain, but the romantic lead. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Contraband is funnier and more exciting than any of Hitchcock's British pictures, and one of the best movies of the '40s, in its own lightweight, slapdash way. It's apparently on DVD somewhere, and I'm drooling over the prospect of finding a copy of my own.
Apparently there's a new paper that attempts to explain why Ashkenazi Jews are so intelligent. Still a mystery, however, is why Eurasians are so awesome.

02 June 2005

I finally made a math related professional home page for Noah Snyder. We'll see how long until it'll pop up on google.

01 June 2005

You've got to watch those discount booksellers on Amazon. Last week I ordered a copy of Business Plans for Dummies, and yesterday the package promptly arrived—only they'd sent me Dating for Dummies instead. Is the universe trying to send me a message?