25 December 2007

Here's the most astonishing cinematic rumor I've heard in a long time: is Alfonso Cuarón directing an adaptation of In Search of Lost Time?
I hope that everyone got what they wanted for Christmas! In my stocking, among other things, was a copy of Emmy Rossum's new album, which I presumably received because Santa (or one of his helpers) noticed that I watched this video way too many times...

10 December 2007

A blessed event in Vancouver: The X-Files sequel begins filming today!

05 December 2007

The New York Times finally addresses an issue that Torrey and I have been arguing about for years. Except in our case, both of us would be trying to throw the softball game. Perhaps we could put it to an internet vote...one of the choices would have to be Nat's suggestion, "Manman."

02 December 2007

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes: "It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm."

I love the image and the sentiment, but come on—"a logarithm?" What does that mean? (It's worse than saying that something represents a "quantum leap"—which, as one of my former roommates never tires of pointing out, is the smallest leap there is...)

28 November 2007

This clip and this clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going nuts are officially my favorite viral videos of all time. They're a couple of years old, but if you haven't seen them, they're new to you!

20 November 2007

My favorite reporter at the Chicago Tribune has an excellent article about Kindle, Amazon's new electronic book reader. The coolest thing about this gadget, as far as I'm concerned, is that it includes free lifetime access to Wikipedia. Why am I so excited about this? Well, think about it: it's a convenient, paperback-sized device that gives you instant access to a universal encyclopedia of dubious accuracy. Yep, you've guessed it: it's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy...

19 November 2007

I never thought that Tom Cruise would ever release a movie that I wouldn't want to see in the theater, but life is full of surprises. Adjusted for inflation, Lions for Lambs is on track to be lowest-grossing movie of his career. (Even Losin' It has sold more tickets.) As an obsessive completist, I'm sure that I'll rent it eventually, but sadly, it doesn't sound like a movie that I'd pay money to see—and I've paid to see Southland Tales.

14 November 2007

It's been a while since I've posted an item about the bond market, but this article from the Times, about an MIT professor's study of Iraqi bond prices, is too interesting to pass up:
Comparing the yields on Iraqi bonds from the start of the surge in February to late August, Professor Greenstone calculated that the bondholders implicitly raised the chances of an Iraqi bond default by 40 percent. Over that period, Iraqi bond prices fell about 14 percent—as much as the Confederate cotton bonds fell after the battle of Gettysburg.
Oh, and if you're interested in those Confederate bonds, there's a study about them, too. Until Gettysburg, the odds of a Southern victory were priced at 42 percent...
It took a force as powerful as Bill O'Reilly to get me back into blogging. I spotted his lastest work, Kids are Americans Too, in the bookstore last week, and I was hooked - I spend the next forty minutes devouring it (this wasn't very difficult - the book is 130 pages long and is double-spaced with generous margins). I even wrote an Amazon review, the first time I've ever done that with a book.

While I won't repeat what I said on Amazon, suffice to say that this book is an awful embarrassment. I usually don't read books about current events by people like Bill O'Reilly because I already know what they're going to say, but they're just giving opinions that people can accept or reject. What makes this book so fascinating/infuriating is that it purports to be something of a treatise for young people about their constitutional rights. I am quite certain no lawyer ever read this book before it was published, and the legal analysis is astonishingly inaccurate. (To take one example, O'Reilly asserts that the Constitution protects the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which of course it does not. He then frames a hypothetical to analyze how different people's rights to "happiness" might conflict and how courts resolve those conflicts. Quite bizarre.) Shouldn't publishers at least feel some responsibility to ensure that informational guides for children aren't filled with falsehoods?

13 November 2007

You've probably heard this already, but No Country for Old Men is an absolutely sensational thriller, with sequences of extraordinary suspense and excitement, a consistently dazzling level of craft, and one of the four or five best villains in movie history. At its best, it shows how simple, and excruciating, good suspense can be: all you need is a darkened hotel room, a light in the hallway, and knowledge of who is waiting on the other side of the door...

10 November 2007

As for Norman Mailer, for all his posturing and insecurity, he was a mensch, too, my hero and role model. For much of my life, I wanted to be like him. In the end, he showed that the line between exemplar and cautionary tale is fine indeed—and that, my friends, is a life to envy.

07 November 2007

As we were leaving the screening of Blade Runner a few weeks ago, Wailin and I noticed Ethan Hawke exiting the same theater. Ethan and I haven't spoken in a few years (okay, I interviewed him once about his performance in Hamlet), and I found myself unable to even remember what he'd done recently. (Training Day was the last of his movies to come to mind.)

Well, it turns out that he's been busy doing the best work of his career. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is just about the darkest, bleakest thriller in years, and among its many triumphs is that it casts Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hawke as brothers, of all things, and somehow makes it plausible: there are even moments when you can see a family resemblance. The plot is classic noir, with a deceptively simple premise—one that I wouldn't dream of revealing—that grows inexorably more complicated with every scene, and provides wonderful moments, like arias, for all of its leading actors.

The fact that this uncompromising, searingly entertaining movie was directed by 83-year-old Sidney Lumet only makes it more astonishing. A.O. Scott, as usual, gets it right: "The screen may be full of losers, liars, killers and thieves, but behind the camera is a mensch."

06 November 2007

Watching American Gangster last weekend, there were moments when I thought that it was the first movie in a long time that deserved to be compared to L.A. Confidential. In the days that have followed, my memories of the movie have faded a bit (due partly to the film's only major flaw, an oddly listless color palette that had me squinting at the screen), but it's still the most muscular job of acting, writing, and directing that I've seen this year, a movie that absolutely nobody should miss.

Between this film and the final cut of Blade Runner, which I saw last month at the Ziegfield, I may need to revise my opinion of Ridley Scott, whom I've always found hard to love. David Thomson seemed to get it right: "He has no character: it is as difficult after fifteen years and eight films to guess the kind of person he is as it was before he started." But Thomson also points out that, for Scott, collaborators are vital. As a case in point, Steven Zaillian's screenplay for American Gangster is the best that Scott has ever had—it's also the best script of the year—and he turns nearly every scene into something bloody and glorious.

05 November 2007

Is this the greatest YouTube video of all time? Maybe. It's certainly in the top hundred...

03 November 2007

Earlier this week, I finally had the chance to see Across the Universe, a movie that inspires highly divided reactions, and for good reason. There are sequences (especially "Because" and "Hey Jude") that I wouldn't have missed for the world, and other scenes (notably Eddie Izzard's cover of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite") that play like something from the notorious '70s version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Julie Taymor, who is possibly the leading female director in the world today, has delivered an ambitious, lovingly constructed movie, but it suffers from a general absence of humor, which seems profoundly antithetical to its source material. After all, the Beatles themselves made a number of musicals that were irreverent, fast, and cheeky, which reflects the spirit of their music more than this sometimes lugubrious tribute. I'm always heartened by the fact that the last song on the last album that the Beatles ever recorded wasn't the glorious "The End" but the goofy "Her Majesty," a reminder that everything was always, ultimately, meant to be in fun—a fact that Across the Universe doesn't quite understand.

(Of course, I also believe that the greatest rock movie ever made is Pink Floyd The Wall, an astonishingly pretentious film that perfectly fits the personalities of its creators. There's a time and place for everything, I guess...)

18 October 2007

I just got back from conducting a short seminar on The Red Shoes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which went surprisingly well. (A friend of a friend is teaching the class, and I was invited to come in as a guest lecturer.) I did a shot-by-shot analysis of a couple of scenes and had a great time. The timing was especially appropriate because Deborah Kerr, star of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus and a longtime companion of Michael Powell, died earlier this week. Kerr was discovered by Powell and Pressburger, and was far more interesting in her early work with the Archers than she was later in Hollywood. The obituaries give scant attention to this period in her career, which is a shame. In particular, nobody who has seen her in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (in three roles!) has ever forgotten it. If you've never seen this movie, well, this is as good a time as any...

04 October 2007

I've just found out that NetBank, the online bank where I used to keep a good chunk of my savings, filed for bankruptcy last week as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis. (It's the first savings and loan to fail in more than fourteen years.) As you probably know from the fine print on your banking statement, deposit accounts are covered up to $100,000 by the FDIC, but a lot of people seem to have been keeping savings in excess of that amount, which means that they get to be creditors in NetBank's worthless receivership. As for me, I switched to a different bank a couple of years ago, but if nothing else, the situation serves as a good reminder of why you shouldn't keep all of your eggs in one basket.

01 October 2007

Last weekend's activities were among the more crowded and culturally diverse in recent memory, so you'll need to be satisfied with a précis. Highlights included:

1. Lust, Caution. Along with Zodiac, Ang Lee's NC-17 epic is one of the most technically accomplished movies I've seen this year, and seems likely to score Oscars for its cinematography, art direction, and costume design. It's long and emotionally reserved, but always absorbing, and it serves as a reminder that Lee is a director who can do just about anything. The level of craft displayed here is astounding, and it's enough to move the story past moments of implausibility that would have wrecked a lesser film. (If Lust, Caution and the amazing Eastern Promises are any indication, the fall movie season is off to a great start.)

2. The Lincoln Center premiere of The Darjeeling Limited. We didn't actually go inside, but we lingered on the red carpet long enough to catch glimpses of Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton, and Leelee Sobieski (who is infinitely more stunning in person than she is on screen).

3. High School Musical: The Ice Show. Don't ask me how I ended up at Madison Square Garden with thousands of screaming six-year-olds, but I did. I'll say this much: Disney puts on a good show, the songs are pretty catchy, and at least now I'll have something to talk about with my cousins at Christmas.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. A midnight showing at Landmark Sunshine Cinemas on the Lower East Side. Yes.

20 September 2007

This tribute is several months overdue, but I was saddened to learn that Colin Fletcher, one of my heroes, passed away in June. Fletcher was the greatest and most eloquent author ever to write on the subject of camping and hiking, and although I've never backpacked in my life, Fletcher occupied a prominent place in my pantheon of writers on literary merits alone. (As one measure of my respect, several years ago, I wrote the original version of Fletcher's wholly inadequate entry on Wikipedia.)

If I were forced to reduce my library to only ten books, the third edition of The Complete Walker, which has been one of my favorite books since childhood, would have to be one of them. It's been a constant companion for more than fifteen years, a source of wisdom and entertainment, a book that nourished my dreams. I'm grateful to Fletcher in ways that I can barely express, and I can only hope that his spirit lives on.

18 September 2007

Thanks to Gawker for this rather remarkable Craigslist ad, which is already making the rounds at Harvard. (You can see a screenshot of the original posting here.)
Harvard senior seeking female companion - 22
Date: 2007-09-17, 3:37PM EDT

My final club has a reunion this fall, and my relationship of two years ended disastrously earlier this summer. I have an invitation for myself plus one, and am willing to show you a great time. It is a private party, in an extremely classy setting. There is no real way to describe how ornate the club is, but I guarantee that it will be the most upscale experience of your life. Think back to your high school prom, take away the terrible music, and multiply the experience by ten.

You must be white, 5'6"-5'9", young, blonde, attractive, and intelligent. You must be in school, preferably Tufts or Wellesley but BU and BC are acceptable (definitely not MIT).

You should be able to hold a conversation, know when to be quiet, and polite in all your behavior. I have seen unruly guests embarrass members before, and I hope this won't be a problem. This event is black-tie, and I am willing to procure an evening gown for you.

I hate to sound so harsh, but I have expectations to live up to. No Asian, overweight, or unattractive women please. Ages 18-22 only.
I had always assumed that final clubs had more discreet ways of handling this sort of thing. Isn't that why they pay $40,000 in annual dues?

10 September 2007

After years of effort, Almea emerged victorious at the 27th annual Seton Village Pie Baking Contest, held yesterday at my old neighborhood in Santa Fe. (I've blogged about the contest before.) While I'm not going to give away all of her secrets of success, the winning pie was a vegetable curry pie. We're already planning for next year - suggestions are always welcome.

09 September 2007

From today's New York Times corrections: "A report on Oct. 24, 1988, about the marriage of Amy Levine and David Abrams, misstated where the bride received her undergraduate degree. She graduated from Brown University, not Boston University. Amy Abrams only recently called attention to the error."
I'm sad that I'll never have a chance to see Pavarotti, but on May 18, 2008, if all goes well, I'm going to see Domingo. (And maybe, someday, I'll see the other guy!)

07 September 2007

Madeline L'Engle died yesterday at 88.

In a way, she was more responsible than any other author for making me realize that I wanted to become a writer.

I owe her more than I can say.

31 August 2007

It's always disorienting to find a ticket stub for a movie that you don't have the slightest memory of seeing. Did I really pay ten dollars to watch Bulletproof Monk?

28 August 2007

It's something of a hassle to register to view the R-rated trailer for No Country for Old Men, the new film by the Coen Brothers, but it's worth it. Wow. Javier Bardem is the ultimate badass.
In my current break between drafts, I'm reading The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers, a novel that I've been intending to read since I was sixteen years old. It's essentially the work of fiction that Doug Hofstadter might have written in his Metamagical Themas days, if he were a little less dilettantish and a lot more literary. I have mixed feelings about it so far (it's very cute, overripe, and excessively amused by its own cleverness and wordplay, much like Hofstadter), and I've also been slightly sidetracked by its dedication, which reads as follows:
According to a rather old quote from Powers, the dedication remains undeciphered. I was going to ask some of the cryptographers on this blog to have a crack at it, but I have a hunch that this "code" isn't precisely what it seems. For one thing, there are exactly thirty-two triplets, which seems a bit too neat in a book obsessed with Glenn Gould, and the big tipoff is at the very end. Look closely at the last two triplets (or search for them on Google). Clever, huh?

24 August 2007

You find out interesting things when you look at peoples' bios online. For example, I just found out that our new university president has a mouse named after him.
I learn from the pages of the New York Times that the demolition company hired to oversee the dismantling of the doomed Deutsche Bank building at Ground Zero is named, inexplicably, the John Galt Corporation. I guess we can be glad that they didn't hire the Howard Roark Corporation, right? Or has that joke already been made?

17 August 2007

The undercover reporter who was outed by a mob of angry nerds at DefCon turns out to be one of Wailin's friends from journalism school. She was there on assignment, and I don't think she deserved the treatment that she received from a bunch of heckling hackers (hacklers?). I hope that she can take some consolation from the widespread consensus, in the comments, that she was too hot to blend in.

15 August 2007

I just spent some time in Southern California hanging out on the beach and in traffic jams. I also went to my first Dodgers game in about fifteen years. One of the reasons I went to the game was to experience firsthand their "all-you-can-eat pavilion," a special section of the stadium where your ticket gets you unlimited food.

It was everything I was hoping for, and more.

Right when you walk through the turnstile, you're greeted with a distinctly atypical concession stand; they don't have any prices, or lines (because you don't have to wait for the person in front of you to fumble around for a credit card). You just walk up and order food and they give it to you instantly, with a smile. (Non-alcoholic drinks are free as well.) The one downside was that the all-you-can-eat pavilion is basically caged off from the rest of the stadium; that way, no one else could come and take our food. You got the feeling that you were in a dog pound. The food selections were a bit limited; we didn't get Panda Express like the rest of the stadium, just Dodger Dogs, Nachos, Popcorn, and Peanuts.

I was expecting the other fans in this section to all be very large people, but there were lots of families and normal-looking fans who weren't too interested in eating until they were sick. That didn't make much sense to me, but whatever. The brilliance of the all-you-can-eat section, though, is that while the large people do tend to eat a lot, they tend to drink a lot too, and beers were 8 bucks. I think the Dodgers are probably doing very well with the promotion, and I hope it's still around the next time I get to Southern California.

03 August 2007

After my post about basketball shoes I read this article on Slate that details how Chinese shoe companies are picking up some high-profile athletes for endorsements, including Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes, and the North Korean table tennis team. The article notes that these Chinese brands are "often made in the same towns and the same factories as [Adidas and Nike]." I'm sure Wal-Mart is salivating at the prospect of importing these shoes. (Not that this would alleviate the problems outlined in my earlier post. You can get cheap shoes at Wal-Mart already. The problem is that they fall apart. I'd try out Chinese shoes if I had some indication that Chinese companies cared about quality more than the cheap U.S. brands do, but the point of this article is that those companies are following Nike and Adidas in focusing more on marketing than design. Ah, consumer capitalism.)

02 August 2007

In what may be the single best use of the Internet in history (and I'm not entirely exaggerating here), every episode of Siskel and Ebert, as well as its more recent incarnation, has been uploaded to a gorgeous, searchable online archive. I plan to explore this site for years to come, but there's probably no better place to start than with Siskel and Ebert's divided (and heated) review of my favorite American movie. (Ebert is wrong here, but he makes some good points. I've always felt a little sorry for Isabella Rossellini...)

01 August 2007

I'm one of the most anti-consumer curmudgeons I know, and I only buy things when I absolutely have to. Today I went out to buy new basketball shoes, which was without a doubt one of the lowpoints of the week. I had the following criteria when I set out:

1. Don't spend over $100.
2. Buy from a reputable company (in the hopes that the shoe won't fall apart).
3. Get a shoe that fits.

In the end, I had to sacrifice on #2 after going to four different stores and becoming progressively embittered in the process. The first problem in the basketball shoe market is that Foot Locker has effectively become a Nike fashion boutique. They have almost no other shoes besides top-end Nikes, and the walls are filled with rows of the same models in different colors. This would be ok if someone else were stepping into the void of selling shoes to people who care about quality/performance instead of looks, but at least in Albuquerque no one is doing that. I would also be able to bear the current state of affairs if Nikes were wide enough for my feet. Alternatively, if I had arches, I could probably get away with buying crummy shoes without my feet hating me. Instead, I have to go to general sporting goods stores and department stores (where they sell low end models and sketchy brands) and hope I luck out with quality and fit.

This is in marked contrast to the running shoe market, where shoes are priced and marketed based upon performance/quality. Companies sell shoes in various widths. Top end models are expensive, but non-elite consumers without specialized needs can find servicable shoes for a bit less. Also, decent running shoe stores abound where they have a variety of shoes to fit different kinds of feet.

My second curmudgeonish consumer lesson of the day is that rental car prices go up like airline prices as you approach the date of rental. I had assumed that they stay stable, more like hotel prices. (I'm going to a wedding in San Diego in ten days and just now bothered to rent the car.) On the plus side, Hotwire gives discounts on rentals with none of the downsides you experience with their plane fares (i.e. not knowing when your departure/arrival times will be and not knowing what kind of layover you'll have).

31 July 2007

According to Wikipedia's biographical article on Harry Potter, Harry was born on July 31, 1980, exactly two months after my own birthday. I'm always jealous when I hear about someone my age who has accomplished slightly more than I have...

27 July 2007

There's no Sideshow Bob. Mr. Burns is criminally underused. And on some level, any version of The Simpsons Movie was bound to be a disappointment, if it wasn't the funniest movie ever made. Yet there's something sinfully satisfying about replaying the best jokes in your head afterwards. There are ten or fifteen moments in this movie as good as anything The Simpsons has ever produced, which mean that they occupy the highest, most rarefied levels of comedy. (I'm also drooling at the prospect of the inevitable DVD. With its deleted scenes and ultimate commentary track, there's a good chance that this will be the greatest DVD ever released.)

I don't normally quote other critics on this blog, but I'd say that A.O. Scott gets it about right: "The Simpsons Movie, in the end, is as good as an average episode of The Simpsons. In other words, I’d be willing to watch it only—excuse me while I crunch some numbers here—20 or 30 more times."

26 July 2007

I was very sad to see that Ulrich Mühe, who recently gave one of the decade's richest performances as the Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, has died of cancer. This is a major loss, but it's some consolation to know that his career ended on the highest note imaginable: "It's for me."

15 July 2007

I have a new hero - Maurice Flitcroft, a man whose claim to fame was sneaking into Golf's British Open and playing terribly. After his first entry in 1976, where he shot a 121 (the worst score in British Open history), officials became vigilant to prevent him from entering again. But like all great heroes, Flitcroft beat them - not once, but twice. In 1984 he entered as Gerald Hoppy from Switzerland, and then in 1990 he entered with the last name of Paychecki. Flitcroft passed away this month, and we can only hope for an Errol Morris retrospective.
This NY Times article is a good follow-up to my post of a couple of weeks ago speculating that lots of school districts might soon try income-based integration plans.
Patton Oswalt, the voice of Ratatouille, has a sensational interview over at the Onion A.V. Club. Check it out (and make sure that you listen to the audio clips, too). This guy is really cool.

11 July 2007

That mysterious trailer, or whatever it is, is finally online. (If this turns out to be nothing but some weird promotion for the new season of Lost, I'm going to be really mad.)

08 July 2007

"I'll bet those leeches are real," my friend whispered halfway through the amazing Rescue Dawn, referring to the repulsive creatures clinging to Christian Bale's bare torso. Well, yes. It's a Werner Herzog movie. Of course the leeches are real.

05 July 2007

Transformers is a lot like Babel, except with giant robots. Oh, and it's better than Babel. The best reason to see Transformers on the big screen, though, is for the chance to watch one of the best trailers I've ever seen. I only wish I knew the name of the movie. I don't think the trailer is officially available online, but you can see a lousy bootleg copy here, and then read some of the speculation, which is pretty, uh, interesting.

I have a feeling that this movie, whatever it is, can't possibly be as good as its marketing campaign. But wouldn't it be great if it was?

03 July 2007

Half an hour into Live Free or Die Hard, I was thinking glumly, John McClane is no Jason Bourne. An hour later, I was thinking, Jason Bourne is no @#$%ing John McClane. By the end, I was convinced that even with a PG-13 rating and a villain who can generously be described as nonthreatening, there hasn't been an action movie like this in years. Why the reversal? I'm not sure, but maybe it was on account of the scene where McClane, driving a semi-truck with trailer attached, takes on an F-35 fighter jet, and wins.

02 July 2007

I could have guessed this would happen - Bush commutes Libby's prison sentence, and leaves his fine intact. Apparently this is a Solomonic compromise so Bush could say he didn't grant Libby a full pardon (and thus he's respecting the rule of law), but he can placate political supporters who say Libby got a raw deal.

All I can say is, I have experience in this line of work, and the general public has little or no appreciation for the subtle differences between a commutation and a pardon. It all looks like the same thing - someone got special treatment and is evading the sentence imposed by the judicial system. (That's not to say commutations are never justified, just that you can't easily tell the public that a commutation is justified where a pardon isn't).

As for the propriety of this particular commutation, I think it's only fair to commute sentences when the justice system is incapable of adequately addressing the underlying issues of fairness and compassion in the case. Libby paid millions of dollars for the best legal representation he could get, and it's not like there was hidden evidence that only came to light after his conviction, or some horrible human tragedy that would compel an early release from prison. I think the justice system did its job in this case, and commutation is a slap in the face of the hardworking people involved in the case.

29 June 2007

Sorry for my prolonged absence from the blog.

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision striking down the Louisville and Seattle de-segregation plans weren't a huge surprise given the Court's 30-year unease with affirmative action. I think diversity in schools is an important goal, and I think a lot of school districts feel the same way. One mechanism for achieving diversity that would pass constitutional muster, and which I wouldn't be at all surprised to see enter the limelight, is school placement (and affirmative action) based solely upon wealth. Given the unfortunate fact that wealth correlates strongly with race and ethnicity, some school districts will look to wealth as a proxy for race/ethnicity when devising school placement plans.

I don't necessarily like the idea, in general, of government officials using one categorization (wealth) for another (race) because it seems dishonest, but I think there will be a strong temptation to do so. Personally, I think integrating students of different economic groups is educationally and socially desirable in its own right.

I haven't yet read the opinions to see if any of them address this issue specifically.

28 June 2007

Corinne Crawford, a UC Berkeley graduate student and a good friend, was killed earlier this week in a senseless accident. I got to know Corinne as a fellow Classics major in college, and was as impressed by her as anyone I ever met at Harvard. (Among other things, Corinne could read nine languages, including two forms of Akkadian that I didn't know existed.) We met at a college production of the play Wit, and a few days later, Noah and I went with Corinne to see a quirky little psychological thriller that had been getting some excellent reviews. She was an important part of my life for the rest of the year. I lost touch with Corinne after graduation, but she made occasional appearances in the lives of the people on this blog, and I'm bitterly sorry that we'll never know what else she might have achieved, if only she had been given more time. The world has lost an extraordinary person, for no good reason, and far too soon.

26 June 2007

The Guardian's list of the 100 most memorable moments in movie history is possibly the best movie list I've ever seen. The most glaring omission, aside from the absence of anything from Citizen Kane, is the hotel room scene in Vertigo. Still, this is close to a perfect list, and gets extra points for giving plenty of love to The Third Man.

My own favorite moments range from the cut to the sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia (which, with apologies to 2001, is the greatest cut in the history of cinema) to Kevin Spacey's valediction in L.A. Confidential (which thankfully makes the Guardian's list). In the end, though, my favorite movie moment has got to be this one.

25 June 2007

Harrison Ford finally dons that fedora again, and you know what? He looks pretty damned good.

24 June 2007

Another surprising thing about the AFI 100 list is the unexpected resurgence of director Alan J. Pakula, who scores two movies on the list for the first time. One wonders if this has something to do with the fact that Pakula died in a freak accident the year after the original list was released. In any case, All the President's Men is a great movie that deserves to be here, but Sophie's Choice? Really? Maybe this is like comparing apples to oranges, but is there anyone in the world who thinks that this was a better movie than The Third Man?

(The Third Man, incidentally, was dropped from the revised list, which is so outrageous that I'm not going to waste another word complaining about it.)

21 June 2007

Oh, and I didn't see My Blueberry Nights after all. My friend and I stood in line for an hour, only to be told that the screening was full. We were offered tickets to see Mr. Brooks instead, which, to put it mildly, was something of a comedown.
The revised AFI list of the top 100 movies of all time contains some good news (especially the huge leaps forward by Vertigo and The Searchers), but more than anything else, it gives me an excuse to talk about the most overrated movie in history, which is currently at #5. Ready for it?

Raging Bull.

Before you start throwing things, I should make it clear that I've done my best to love this movie. I've seen it on the big screen. I own the DVD. I even had the poster on my dorm room wall, for chrissake. But the more I see it, the more I agree that it represents, in David Thomson's words, "artistic will rising far above experience." I don't think that Scorsese understands boxing, or Jake LaMotta, and I think that by creating such a stark, schematic, obsessively designed movie, he slights his natural gifts for life, humor, and teeming movement, which are so much in evidence in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, and The Departed. Sure, there are great things in Raging Bull. But more and more, whenever I watch it, I ask myself, along with Pauline Kael, "What am I doing here watching these two dumb f—ks?"

17 June 2007

Last night I caught a preview screening of Ratatouille, which is easily the best Pixar movie since Finding Nemo. The plot's a little thin—it feels like the premise for a great twenty-minute cartoon stretched out to two hours—and it lacks the rich supporting cast of the best Pixar features, but in its ambition, intelligence, and respect for its audience, it stands as a massive rebuke to such movies as, say, Shrek the Third. No gimmicky celebrity voices or snarmy pop cultural references: just good storytelling and amazing animation—probably the best I've ever seen. And Remy, the central character, is the most charismatic rat (or mouse) in the history of the medium.

Best of all, I also managed to snag a free pass to a test screening of this movie on Tuesday. Needless to say, I'm a little excited.

15 June 2007

Maybe you've already seen it, but this clip from Britain's Got Talent makes me absurdly happy. (And he's made it to the finals!)

13 June 2007

The excellent 33 1/3 series, which was mentioned on this blog long ago, recently published a volume devoted to 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, which I guess is my favorite album. I picked up a copy of this little book (written by L.D. Beghtol, who designed and contributed to the album itself), and was generally pleased by its quality. However, I was somewhat nonplussed by the author's curt dismissal of the song "Sweet-Lovin' Man": "My least favorite song on the album," he writes. To be honest, I was shocked, shocked by this—because there are times when I firmly believe that "Sweet-Lovin' Man" is the best song ever, cowbell and all. (The only thing it really needs is, yes, more cowbell.)

Incidentally, looking at the titles of the books in this series, which cover every band from the Smiths to Neutral Milk Hotel, fills me with a strange sort of jealousy. I know for a fact that I could write a helluva book about, say, Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Maybe I should talk to my agent about this...

08 June 2007

According to the New York Times, there's a new art installation in Queens that allows visitors to physically transport themselves into the movie Blue Velvet. Obviously, I'm going. Hopefully I'll survive long enough to report back...

06 June 2007

A mere 6 months into 2007 I've finlly accomplished my resolution for 2006: Malia and I had a crossword accepted by the New York Times! We don't know how long it'll take to appear, but it'll probably be on a tuesday.

28 May 2007

"When I die, it's going to read, 'Game Show Fixture Passes Away.' Nothing about the theater, or Tony Awards, or Emmys. But it doesn't bother me."

—Charles Nelson Reilly, 1931-2007

27 May 2007

How did Keira Knightley become so annoying?

23 May 2007

I recently bought David Mamet's new book, Bambi vs. Godzilla, which purports to be an "exhilaratingly subversive" look at Hollywood. It isn't. In fact, it's pretty boring, with a minimum of anecdote or gossip, a lot of heavy-handed theory, and a disinclination to speak poorly of anyone except the dead (e.g., Laurence Olivier). You do, however, learn that Mamet's favorite movie is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and his wonderful wife's favorite movie is I Know Where I'm Going! Say what you will about the Mamets, but they've got excellent taste.
Nothing ruins a lovely spring day quite like the arrival of the fifth anniversary report from your college class. Flipping through this red-bound tome, I realized that I spent way too much time composing my own entry, and it isn't nearly as cool as Noah's, which reads, in its entirety, "Unknown."

14 May 2007

For the first time in over three years, I'm back at the scene of our original crimes. I'm producing the Igor Stravinsky Orgy back at WHRB. It runs 8 am to 10 pm (eastern) today through Wednesday. Tune in wherever you are on whrb.org!

11 May 2007

I saw six cities and countless museums and monuments, but my favorite memory of Europe is probably my visit to St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Thanks to Lawrence of Arabia and Powell and Pressburger, I'm a devoted Anglophile, verging on a High Tory, and this is the British equivalent of the Holy of Holies. All the same, I'm not sure how to reconcile this with my equally vehement love of Napoleon.
Well, I'm back. One of my more interesting experiences occurred right at the end, when I was randomly detained at U.S. Customs, which searched all of my luggage and even forced me to open the candy bars that I'd bought at Heathrow. Apparently their suspicions were aroused by the fact that I'd spent three weeks in Europe with only a bookbag, and had bought nothing but postcards. (Come to think of it, it does sound a little strange...)

I was also subjected to a random bag check in the London Underground, by a constable who was considerably more courteous than his American counterparts. He even gave me a copy of his report, which noted, to my great satisfaction, that I was 5' 9" tall and "of medium build."
I enjoyed Spider-Man 3 far more than the lukewarm reviews had led me to expect, and it's infinitely brisker and more entertaining than the lugubrious Superman Returns. Afterwards, though, I found myself reflecting on the many missed opportunities, of which I'll only mention one.

The casting of Topher Grace as Venom, which seemed curious at the time, turns out to be a conceptual masterstroke. Clearly, he was cast for his resemblance to Tobey Maguire, which is uncanny, but he's much more than a doppelganger: his approach to acting is wonderfully mannered and quick where Maguire is reserved and sly, and the contrast between their acting styles, combined with their physical similarities, could have resulted in the most interesting comic book confrontation in years.

Alas, they're kept apart for most of the movie, and when they're onscreen together, the results feel lukewarm. Maybe it was the distraction of so many villains, or the need to keep Venom offscreen until the third act, but we're left with frustrating glimpses of a movie that would have outdone Face/Off in its hero/villain dynamics. It isn't clear if Venom will return for a sequel, but it's obvious that somebody needs to make a more fully realized version of Tobey vs. Topher. And it would probably star Elijah Wood.

08 May 2007

I'm currently in London, by the way, and my only guide is a waterlogged copy of the 2000 edition of Frommer's Guide to England, which I found on the sidewalk in Park Slope a couple of months ago. (Or, more accurately, my only guide are the ten pages that I excised from the center of the guidebook before my departure, in order to save weight.) It's pretty accurate, I guess, but I still had to go online to verify that there was such a place as the Tate Modern.
Part of me suspects that I went all the way to Canterbury merely to verify that they sell the DVD of A Canterbury Tale in the cathedral gift shop. Thankfully, they do.
The trouble with spending a few weeks abroad is that you start sounding like the caption to a New Yorker cartoon. Seated at an outdoor cafe on a gorgeous day in Florence, looking out at the Palazzo Vecchio: "I miss Brooklyn."

29 April 2007

Hey, Google (or Alec) managed to fix whatever was broken so I can log in to Blogger again! I thought I'd post to break up Alec's monopoly, though I don't really have anything to say other than Happy Birthday Noah. Also, check out Torrey's and my kittens.
Apologies for the recent lack of posts, but I've been traveling in Europe for the past ten days. Not a lot to report so far (no dead dogs, for example), but I will say that Venice exceeded my high expectations. It's Disneyland for grownups, as artificial and anachronistic as colonial Jamestown, but it's also the most beautiful city on earth.

15 April 2007

The box office failure of Grindhouse has broken my heart, by the way. This may be the greatest loss to movies since Peeping Tom destroyed Michael Powell's career. Why? No sequels. Darn it, but I was really looking forward to Tarantino's next kung fu epic...

11 April 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007. He was one of the best, and another person I thought would never die. So it goes.

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"

09 April 2007

In the latest dispatch from the Twilight Zone, I've discovered what appears to be a complete Russian audiobook of one of my short stories on this site. After ninety seconds of dance music, the reading begins, and lasts for about two hours. The story is credited to "Алек Невада Ли." I'm not sure what else to say about this.

08 April 2007

Now that I've finished the final draft of my novel, I can read for my own pleasure for the first time in more than a year. I just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was recommended here by Nat a while back. I was annoyed by some of the material about classical philosophy, especially the stuff at the University of Chicago, but overall, it's one of the most beautifully structured books I've read in a long time. Along with the first two chapters of Walden, I have a feeling that it's going to be a useful guide and resource for the upcoming year.

Next up, I'm hoping to read The Dyer's Hand by W.H. Auden and The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly, which are two books of random notes and observations by a great poet and a great literary critic, and the novels Winter's Tale and The Gold-Bug Variations. That should take me to my upcoming trip to Europe, where I'm going to be visiting Dublin, Venice, Florence, Rome, Canterbury, and London, in that order. I'm planning to bring all of Montaigne, with Spinoza as a backup, along with the Italian original of Foucault's Pendulum, which I'm going to read cold.

My real discovery, however, has been John Updike. I'd been avoiding Updike for most of my life, and was less than impressed by the small amount I'd read (although his essays are excellent). Recently, though, during my stint on a Kings County jury, I decided to read through the Rabbit series, and my opinion of Updike has been rapidly revised upward. Rabbit, Run reads like a novella expanded to fill an entire book, with a few brilliant sequences and a lot of fussy writing, but Rabbit Redux is amazing, one of the best American novels I've read. (I even recommended it to Haiwen.) Many thanks are due to Nicholson Baker, whose book U and I (sort of a recasting of Pale Fire with Updike as Shade and Baker as Kinbote) got me back on Updike in the first place.

07 April 2007

At its best, Grindhouse is insanely wonderful, and even when it doesn't work, it has more good ideas than all of last summer's movies combined. Since it's a double feature, most viewers will come down on the side of one movie or the other, but the energy that they generate together exceeds what either could produce by itself. Planet Terror is the more fully realized of the two, and the presence of Rose McGowan (along with my discovery of Jessica Biel in The Illusionist) makes me realize that I should have spent more time watching the WB. It's my favorite of the recent run of zombie movies, even if Rodriguez's innocent appetite for gore is beginning to wear thin.

Death Proof, by contrast, doesn't feel like a whole movie, and it wouldn't play as well on its own, but the two-for-one format allows Tarantino to tell a long shaggy dog story, the cinematic equivalent of one of the extended, shapeless monologues from his other films. (He did something similar in Four Rooms.) This may not sound promising, but in its rambling abruptness, it does things structurally and emotionally that would be impossible in a more well-rounded movie. It also has the best fucking car chase I've seen in years, and its closing freeze frame, which I applauded, stands as a rebuke to the denouement of every horror movie ever made.

Oh, and please don't Netflix this one. It begs to be seen in a darkened theater, on its opening weekend, with a thousand rowdy strangers.

29 March 2007

This qualifies as great news: director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie are finally joining forces for the first time since The Usual Suspects. And guess who the star is?

22 March 2007

Between the final draft of my novel and a long stint as an alternate juror in the Kings County Supreme Court, I haven't had time for many movies, but I finally saw Zodiac this afternoon. I'm still trying to piece together my own reactions to this huge, obsessive film, but I'll go on the record as saying that this is one of the most technically accomplished movies I've ever seen, and that its astonishing digital photography makes it emphatically worth catching on the big screen before it disappears. On its own terms, it's awesomely perfect; I'm just not sure if those terms are the same as mine.

Stanley Kubrick would have been proud to have made this movie. Make of that what you will.

17 March 2007

I guess I can finally shut up about the Arcade Fire: Neon Bible has debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200. According to this article, thirty percent of these sales were online downloads. If you haven't bought this album yet, what's your excuse?

14 March 2007

I was going to post something about the homoerotic subtext of 300, but I figured that we've been over this ground many times already. As for the various political readings that have been proposed, I'm skeptical. The only message that I got from this movie is that I need to work out more.

13 March 2007

This article on Vegas bookmakers confirms what I already knew: I don't care enough about sports to be able to make money betting on them, at least with neutral oddsmakers. These guys just know more than me, and always will, unless I were to make it a full-time job (and I only foresee that happening if I wake up in a David Lynch movie where I randomly wind up destitute, in Las Vegas, with nothing but an internet connection). I'm glad my money goes to other things, like food and rent.

10 March 2007


[Instead of catching up on schoolwork, I spent a couple of hours last week jotting down my thoughts on impeachment. I then decided to post them here. I hope some reader finds them interesting. If not, accept my apologies.]

Democrats around the country are pushing Congress to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Their arguments, as best I can determine, are that Bush and Cheney are doing a terrible (even heinous) job, and that their conduct in the lead-up to the Iraq war (during which they misled the American public regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as well as Iraq’s links to terrorists) constituted “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

As an active Democrat who was against the war from the beginning and who believes that the Bush administration actively sought to mislead the American public, let me explain why I believe impeachment is a bad idea.

First, I choose not to dwell on practical considerations like the utter impossibility of the U.S. Senate actually convicting the president. Resting on these practical impediments to impeachment was one of the main excuses Democrats in office gave for not supporting impeachment while the Republicans were in power, but such excuses leave them on shaky ground when those impediments are removed - for example, when Congress changes hands. I also dislike using practical excuses because if someone is really deserving of impeachment, I believe Congress has a duty to attempt to impeach them, even if the chances of success are slim.
I will also leave aside political calculations, which members of Congress should not (indeed, cannot) completely discount but which I believe are secondary issues. I do not think that mainstream Americans support impeachment and I think they will punish Democrats for the effort, but again if it is truly the right thing to do, then Congress should at least contemplate risking political losses in order to protect the Constitution.

Instead, I focus on whether impeaching Bush and Cheney is the right thing to do. As I mentioned above, I generally believe that they misled the American public regarding WMDs and Iraq’s ties to terrorist organizations, and even if I did not believe the allegations, I would assume them to be true for the purpose of this argument.

Impeachment is a grave matter. It is fundamentally anti-democratic – it removes someone from office who was elected and placed there by the people. Supporters of impeachment might argue that Bush wasn’t properly elected; while such claims might have some force regarding the 2000 election, Bush absolutely won the 2004 popular vote and allegations that that election was stolen are, to me, far more speculative. Even considering those elections, however, I believe that our democracy needs to be strengthened, not weakened. Impeachment, if used sparingly, strengthens democracy because it removes from office those who have committed crimes against the state. If used too often, it weakens democracy by crowding out political debate and demeaning the will of the people.

In a democracy, political questions, even the most contentious ones, should be resolved peacefully in accordance with accepted procedures. We accept elections as legitimate and then allow our elected officials to combat each other, within the rules given to them by the Constitution. Impeachment isn’t designed to be one of the tools for partisan combat; it is for removing someone who has strayed outside the Constitution’s order by violating the laws of the state.

As an example, I believe the impeachment of President Clinton was one of the most shameful political spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. Yes, he technically committed the crime of perjury, but that was to cover up an affair, and could hardly be considered a crime against the state. My missive, therefore, is not only targeted at those who seek Bush’s impeachment; it is very much targeted at those who sought Clinton’s impeachment as well.

The Clinton impeachment has led indirectly to the Bush impeachment movement, precisely because the Republicans of the late 1990s brought impeachment into the fold as a partisan political weapon. Before Democrats scream at the unfairness of Republicans using impeachment and Democrats not being able to respond in kind, they should recall that Republicans, while they were able to distract Clinton severely, never removed him from office and, indeed, suffered electorally for their witchhunt. (I realize that this position is open to debate.) Clinton, in the end, was able to complete his term in office with a long and distinguished list of accomplishments. So if Democrats decide not to push for impeachment, they should not be too worried about the Republicans having secured some political advantage that the Democrats are unable to secure.

But even if the Republicans had gained substantial political benefits from impeaching Clinton, I still believe that current Democrats (indeed, all current politicians) have a duty to strengthen our political institutions, not weaken them.

Impeachment is a distressing prospect for Americans as a democratic (small D) people. By their nature, they rally behind people who win elections, and are willing to support them, even if they themselves did not vote for the candidate. The 2000 election furnishes a good example of this – a certain segment of the population simply wanted the electoral uncertainty to end, even if that meant placing a person for whom they did not vote into office. This support is not a totally bad thing (as long as it does not become blind obeisance), because it indicates a faith in the democratic institution of the popular vote to decide the legitimate ruler. Democracy is based upon trust. We must trust the electorate to select candidates who will govern in a competent manner, and the electorate must also be able to trust the people whom they elect.

The breach of this trust is, coincidentally, the crux of the “impeach Bush” argument – he betrayed the trust of the American people. I submit, however, that this breach, which I agree occurred, should not be remedied by a partisan political impeachment. I believe that the proper remedy, and the one which is occurring right now, is for the American people to punish those who betrayed their trust by withdrawing electoral support. This is the nature of a functioning democracy – if a candidate fails to deliver on promises, or makes assertions that are later proved false, the American people can withdraw their political support.

This political correction is as great a deterrent as impeachment in terms of forcing candidates to stick to their word. My own personal observation of the Bush presidency is that its single greatest preoccupation, certainly through the 2004 election, has been maximizing electoral gains. Preserving in the electorate the power to punish officials for lying is the best we can do to ensure truthfulness in a democratic society.

I would also like to address one argument I have heard regarding impeachment – that, no matter what else it means, at least it will remove these men from office, and certain policy benefits will accrue from that result. It is true that policies would change following a double impeachment, although the ensuing chaos and power vacuum would have serious, unpredictable, negative implications as many federal programs would be thrown into states of flux, and, likely, paralysis. But more fundamentally, I reject the results-based argument because it is not proper to abuse the constitutional process of impeachment to arrive at politically favorable results. Instead, impeachment is an extraordinary remedy that should only be employed when the constitutional order must be protected from crimes committed in office. If it remains part of our mainstream partisan political culture, our democracy as a whole is weakened. In the long run, impeachment deprives the American people of their right to be served by those whom they elect, and thus threatens their ability to determine what direction they want society to take. I can think of very few interests that supersede our interest as a democratic society to govern ourselves.
This article on Jared Kushner, one of our former classmates and the 26-year-old owner of the New York Observer, makes the Citizen Kane parallels even more explicit than before. For one thing, although the article doesn't mention it, the name of the Observer's previous owner, Carter, is the same as the name of the man whom Kane replaces at the head of the Inquirer. Weird. I have a feeling that our paths will cross one of these days...
I only have time to see one movie this weekend, and I find myself torn between Into Great Silence, a 162-minute documentary about Carthusian monks, and 300. Let no one say that my tastes are not diverse.
Well, maybe I can think of a few more things to say. If Neon Bible had been released fifteen years ago, I might have decided to become a rock star instead of a novelist. It just seems tremendously cool to be someone like Win Butler. He's incredibly talented, he puts on amazing live shows, often with the likes of David Bowie, and he seems to have a rewarding artistic relationship with his own wife. He's also 6'5".

07 March 2007

The sophomore album by The Arcade Fire was finally released yesterday. 'Nuff said.

04 March 2007

Why didn't anyone tell me that Google Earth was this cool? Or that it was free? It's up there on my list of all-time, must-have computer applications. It's more than a little disturbing, and I'm not sure I'll ever have time to do homework again.
Here is (I hope) a working link to the Berkshire Hathaway annual report. I haven't been able to read it yet (I've been spending my time driving through places like Florence, Kansas) but I'm looking forward to it as well. I can't say I schedule my life around it, though.

01 March 2007

For better or worse, I've just realized that I structure my life around four events: Christmas, the Oscars, my birthday, and Berkshire Hathaway's annual report. And J. Alfred Prufrock only had coffee spoons...

25 February 2007

I plan on reaping a lot of money from this year's Oscar pool, and since I don't think that any regular readers of this blog are coming to my Oscar party tonight, I'll post my predictions now:
Best Picture: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Director: Martin Scorsese (Note: I've predicted Scorsese every year that he has been nominated since this blog began. This time, however, I'm right.)
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker
Best Actress: Helen Mirren
Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson
Best Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed
Last year, if you'll recall, I picked all of the major categories correctly (including Crash for Best Picture). If it weren't for the toss-up in Best Picture, I'd be almost sure of doing it again. You can thank the shortened campaigning season for a nearly complete lack of surprises. But hey, you never know...

22 February 2007

Maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe I had a lot of free time, which meant that I ended up seeing good movies that I otherwise would have missed. Whatever the reason, after a slow start, this was the best year for movies of my adult life. There were great movies of seemingly every genre, with no apparent theme or connection, except for the prevalence of extraordinarily graphic violence. (Sometimes it seemed as if every good movie this year included a scene in which someone was shot in the head.) Anyway, here they are:

1. Children of Men. I had forgotten what it was like to love a movie this much. Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece is one of those rare movies, like The Red Shoes and Citizen Kane, that is so generous and beneficent that I'm tempted to list each of its wonders, its hundred discrete moments of agony and joy. If I could keep only one movie from this decade, this would be the one.

2. The Departed. Watching it again recently, it struck me that this movie plays like two hours of highlights from the best television series ever. I mean this as a compliment. I only wish that I had twenty more hours to spend in its seductive aura of intelligence and danger. A sequel is apparently on its way, but what we really need, of course, is an interquel.

3. Pan's Labyrinth. Whenever people ask me to describe this movie, I've learned to reply, "It's like The Dark Crystal, intercut with Schindler's List." In a year of violent movies, this was the most unbearable, the most suspenseful, and the most poetic. It has singlehandedly restored fantasy to its rightful place as the most essential and compelling genre in the movies.

4. The Illusionist. It's easy to overlook the enormous amount of skill involved in a film like this, which carries the viewer on a wave of pleasure and excitement for one hundred minutes without quick cuts, flashy camera movements, or facile displays of virtuosity—without anything, in fact, except for its grace, craft and ingenuity, which are everywhere. It has also left me with strong feelings for both Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel. I'm not sure what to do about this.

5. Inland Empire. David Lynch's strangest movie is a triumph of process, an improvised, intuitive epic that works better than it should, thanks to Laura Dern's incredible performance. The monologue by the homeless Japanese woman, as Dern lies dying on the sidewalk (which isn't a spoiler, by the way), ranks with the best things that Lynch, or anyone, has ever done. This is why digital video was invented.

6. Volver. A movie about life, rather than death, in spite of its apparently supernatural premise. This is Almodovar's best movie, a film that I would have no trouble recommending to anyone, including, or especially, my mom. As I've probably mentioned before, it also contains the best overhead shot of all time, and serves as a frightening reminder of how badly Penelope Cruz has been wasted in American movies.

7. The Lives of Others. To flesh out an earlier comparison, this movie reminds me of my favorite scenes in Casablanca, the early ones, in which the viewer is eased into a world of teeming, seething intrigue, and yet immediately feels at home. Here, Rick is crossed with Renault, Strasser forces Ilsa into his bed, and Laszlo occasionally assumes the role of Sam, but the ending, like Casablanca's, makes optimism seem like a convincing stance. What were the odds of that happening?

8. A Prairie Home Companion. I'm not sure how I would have felt about this film if Robert Altman were still alive, but as it stands, it feels like the capstone to the most interesting career in American movies. Like a few other movies on this list, it displays a craft that runs the risk of being undervalued, because it's close to invisible. Time will only reveal how much we all lost when this man died.

9. Letters from Iwo Jima. This is Clint Eastwood's best film, a war movie in which the audience is aware from the beginning that nothing good can happen. After a slow opening, it plunges into unrelieved horror, rescued only by the director's compassion and the presence of Ken Watanabe, who is one of the best five or six actors alive today. A transcendent, incandescent downer.

10. Miami Vice. One of the strangest, most beautiful movies ever made for $150 million. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, not to mention Gong Li, are little more than filmed surfaces in this wild, gorgeous hymn to electronica, bloodshed, and digital video. Watching it, one feels that the genre's aesthetic limits, and limitations, have been reached for good.

And we also have Marie Antoinette, The Last King of Scotland (directed by Emeric Pressburger's grandson!), Casino Royale, The Queen, The Life of Reilly, Stranger Than Fiction, Wordplay, Inside Man, V for Vendetta, United 93, Happy Feet, The Descent, Thank You for Smoking, parts of Blood Diamond, Babel, and Borat, and others that I've forgotten or haven't seen, any ten of which would make for a perfectly remarkable year. It's more than enough, I guess, to make up for Superman Returns.

17 February 2007

Harvard always has to upstage everyone else. Drew Gilpin Faust's name is so cool that it overshadows the amusing name of UNM's new president, David J. Schmidly. Perhaps not surprisingly, this announcement of Schmidly's selection makes no mention of prior accusations of sex discrimination and harassment against him.
Actual commercial during Saturday morning cartoons:

[Woman standing alone, maroon backdrop]

[woman]: The freedom to choose is one of our most cherished rights. So this President's Day, celebrate the freedom to choose by coming to Furniture Row and choosing from a wide selection of furniture with no interest financing!

[cut away to pictures of sofas and whatnot while annoying announcer starts listing off prices and incentives.]

(Don't ask why I was watching Saturday morning cartoons.)

15 February 2007

Moments after leaving a screening of The Lives of Others, I said to my friend, "That movie reminded me of Casablanca. And The Third Man." Further praise, I assume, is not required.

09 February 2007

Drew Gilpin Faust? Best name ever. But how does she look in cowboy boots?

08 February 2007

If any readers have any experience/insight into how to run a law review, I am officially begging for your help because I have no idea how to do it.

03 February 2007

It's fitting, perhaps, that within a week of Molly Ivins passing away, this article appears to remind us of the bizarre beast that is Texas politics. Gov. Rick Perry has signed an executive order forcing middle school girls to be vaccinated against HPV (a virus that can cause cervical cancer) in order to attend public schools. While I'm all for vaccinations myself, I'm guessing Gov. Perry is going to take a hit in his popularity when Texan families find out they have to shell out for a vaccine for an STD for their 11 year old daughters.

I also appreciated Perry's spokeswoman giving blatantly misleading information about the powers of the legislature. Contrary to her assertion, the legislature can effectively wipe out the executive order with a contrary law whenever it wants.

31 January 2007

Warner Bros. is working on a treatment for The Departed, Part II. I'm cautiously excited about this. There are, of course, a few obvious problems with the idea of a sequel, which come readily to mind if you've seen the movie. Still, I can't think of another recent film that has left me so eager for more, and which seems so open to expansion. There are a lot of untold stories that could be written about these characters. Clearly, what The Departed needs is an awesome HBO spinoff with the entire original cast. Those guys don't have anything better to do, right?

30 January 2007

Ugh. I apologize for my absence from the blog - I just submitted the first draft of my law review article, the final draft of which is due in a month. I haven't had this much fun since Noah tried to steal my senior thesis on April Fool's Day by entering my room at about time I always woke up. His plan was foiled when I, in fact, woke up.

I actually contemplated skipping watching the Super Bowl this year, and immediately regretted the thought ever crossing my mind. I always enjoy Super Bowl memories. When I was writing my thesis, Super Bowl Sunday was the single best day in the whole three month writing period. I saw Almea, I almost broke her neck (not) teaching her to tackle, the Patriots won, and it gave me a much-needed day away from the thing. I'm not expecting as much from the Super Bowl this year (who could?) but it'll still be four fun hours away from my article that I'll remember for a while.

27 January 2007

According to Wikipedia, Challenger, a movie based on Richard Feynman's investigation of the Challenger disaster, is currently in production, with David Strathairn cast as Feynman. Philip Kaufman will direct. This is the coolest movie announcement I've heard in a long time.

25 January 2007

Today's IMDb poll topic is "Which film was robbed the most by this year's Oscar nominations?" Children of Men tops the list, followed by Casino Royale and Volver. (Is this blog influential or what?)

24 January 2007

It's also shocking that Volver wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Film. I can't believe that I didn't notice this yesterday.

23 January 2007

As I never tire of pointing out, this was the best year for movies in a long time. So why do I feel so lukewarm towards today's Oscar nominations? Maybe it's because my favorite movie from last year, Children of Men, was a lost cause long before the nominations were announced. (It did get three nods, more than I would have predicted, though none for its spectacular art direction or visual effects.) Maybe it's because my other favorite movie, The Departed, has received plenty of love already. (I have to say, though, that if I had to rank Mark Wahlberg's performance against all of the other actors in that movie, he would rank about sixth. This is less a reflection on Wahlberg than on the amazingly deep bench of talent that Scorsese has managed to assemble.) Or maybe it's because Babel, the presumptive front-runner, is a movie about which I seem condemned to have permanently mixed feelings. (I won't be scandalized if it wins, nor terribly upset if it loses.)

The media is adequately covering the major snubs, but, as always, I'm eager to add a few gripes of my own. The Illusionist ought to have received nods for its screenplay, for the score by Philip Glass, and especially for Paul Giamatti, whose supporting role was my favorite performance of the year. Laura Dern really deserved recognition for Inland Empire, clearly one of the most emotionally and artistically taxing female roles since The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Given that Inland Empire was improvised over weeks and months, without a finished script, and that her role encompasses at least three distinct personalities, the coherence of her performance is astonishing.) And nothing for Casino Royale?

On the other hand, my favorite nomination is for Peter O'Toole, in Venus. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I love O'Toole, who nearly turned down his honorary Oscar a few years ago because he thought that he was "still in the game" and wanted more time "to win the lovely bugger outright." At the time, it seemed slightly absurd, but now it seems that the lovely old bugger isn't finished yet...

21 January 2007

I'm excited about the upcoming DVD release of The Departed, and amused by the list of plot keywords provided by Amazon: "Twist in the End," "Undercover," "Severed Hand," "Police Officer," "Racial Slur," "Shot in the Chest," "Shot in the Forehead," "Shot in the Knee," "Thong," "Chest," "Cigarettes." That sums it up pretty well, doesn't it?

18 January 2007

I didn't see it during hunt, so missed it in my puzzle roundup, but One, Two, Three, Shoot! is one of the best mystery hunt puzzles I've seen. Furthermore, it has instructions, so nonexperienced solvers can still have fun with it. So click on through and see where my puzzle obsession comes from.

17 January 2007

Rachel's comment on Pan's Labyrinth, by the way, was "I laughed, I cried, I threw up in my mouth." I think this counts as a positive review.
I'm very happy to say that my team did not win the Mystery Hunt, so I can spend next year writing a thesis, instead of writing a Mystery Hunt. Before the hunt I was very torn over whether I wanted to win or not. I'd like to write one more time, and you can't really choose when you win. But when the word came over Skype that Dr. Awkward had found the coin I was immensely relieved. On top of that, we were a fun good competitive team who can win soon. By next year we'll all be a lot more ready to try our hardest to win, so watch out everyone!

The next several posts will be my comments on the mystery hunt. First general thoughts, second some stuff on the Round 8 meta, and third some particular highlights from the weekend.

And to those of you who are used to this being Alec's movie blog, not Noah's puzzle blog, let me say "go see Pan's Labyrinth." No, really, go see it now. It's that good.
First off let me say congratulations and thank you to the Bombers for putting on a clean, professional, enjoyable hunt. I know from last year just how much effort goes into the little things, and the Bombers had very few errata, and although they had some puzzles I'd call broken, they didn't have any actual significant errors. That's really much harder to do than it sounds.

My initial response to the hunt was that I was a bit disappointed, but in retrospect I've realized that was mostly because I had unreasonably high expectations. It's been 2 years since I got to solve a Mystery Hunt, and during that time I've learned so much about puzzles and gotten so into them. Plus this team was full of puzzle writers whose work I greatly admire. Before hunt I went through all of Dan's puzzles from previous years and they'd gotten better each year. And Puzzle Boat was amazing for the work of one person. Somehow I came into things expecting the best hunt ever: clean, huge, totally innovative, etc. It wasn't really a fair expectation, and the more I look back on it the more I realize it was a very good hunt, despite my initial disappointment. Furthermore, I realized that some of my frustrations with the hunt were due to its not being the optimal hunt for me or my team, but it was better aimed at other teams (smaller, less student-ish, more interested in pop culture).

The best thing about this hunt to me is that it solved the Arms Race Problem. Over the past few years solvers keep getting better, and hunts keep getting longer. Writing a clean hunt that lasts until Sunday noon is increasingly impossible. Plus teams that don't get to see the whole hunt feel disappointed. The Bombers took a different approach. They front-loaded the coolness, and did their best to encourage teams to keep hunting until they saw the end. I think this will be a model for how future hunts will work, and I think it's a great model. Had they gone the other way and written a 140-puzzle hunt life would be miserable for the next few writing teams. They really kept the average team in mind, and deserve great credit for that. After last year's hunt's bottlenecks made life quite sad for the middle-tier teams, I'm thrilled that the Bombers made a great hunt for middle-tier teams.

There were also a lot of other highlights. The activities attached to the metas were a great idea and a lot of fun. From Berkeley we only did one of them (the Illuminati card) but we had a blast with that. The meta-meta was the best meta-meta ever. Really, it was that good. As I'll explain in a future post, there were a lot of individual puzzles that I liked a lot. Furthermore, they did a great job putting accessible stuff at the beginning for inexperienced teams. I hope that doing stuff like that will build excitement among new people for the Mystery Hunt and for puzzling in general.

And I really can't stress enough how professionally the Bombers handled everything. From the error-free nature of the hunt, to how they dealt patiently yet professionally with the Round VIII debacle, to their putting solutions up immediately after wrap-up. That last one is one you really can't understand just how impressive it is until you write a hunt yourself. I was very impressed with how on-the-ball they were. Kudos!

Now for some of the things which I didn't enjoy so much. My main complaint was that in general things felt inelegant. Just counting the number of sin puzzles you solved, instead of having metas for them; long long videos; flavor cluing in long paragraphs; answers that weren't very much like words; putting extra clues or instructions in for puzzles that could have stood alone; etc. Not every hunt can be as tightly and elegantly structured as Monopoly, but I hope that future hunts can try to come closer.

I spent a lot of time working on the metas. I'm definitely partial to the "pure meta" type (see MHs 02,05,06) over the "shell meta" as used here (see MHs 03,04, and Puzzle Boat). However, what I really don't like is the shell metas that don't use their answers in an interesting way. So, Round IV meta (magazines) was great. It had minimal excess information, it was easier as you got more answers, and the aha! felt rewarding. Something like the Round V or X meta, on the other hand, I think is pretty terrible. They used nothing interesting about the answers, it didn't get much easier as you got more answers, and wasn't satisfying to solve. Plus in Round X there was tons of extra information that you weren't sure if it was useful or not (the former jobs). I really didn't like the videos being attached to the metas. Cluing flavor text is sometimes a necessary evil (cf. Rite Awaits Myth), but 5 minutes of tons and tons of extraneous random information with the occasional hidden hint is excruciating. So basically, I know I can't expect to have "pure metas" every hunt, but I hope that in the future "shell metas" are more like the Round IV meta, and that they don't come attached to videos.

The rate of puzzle release was just too slow for our team. I hate to complain about this, because I know our hunt was much much worse in this way, but I hope that future teams can improve on both 2006 and 2007 in this respect. Although my team was half the size of any team I'd been on before, it was very hard to get dibs on puzzles when there were only 5 or 6 available at any given time. Had that number been 8 or 9 it would have made all the difference. The release mechanism worked perfectly in Puzzle Boat where teams had half a dozen people, but it needed to be speeded up for Mystery Hunt. We need to go back to stuff more like the Monopoly/Matrix/Normalville and less like Bandits/SPIES/Evil.

The mix of puzzles also didn't work well for us. Although the individual puzzles were good, the total mix meant I spent a lot of time working on not the sort of puzzle I'd prefer to work on. There was less interesting pattern recognition than usual. There was way too much pop culture. We knew that there were going to be fewer dorky puzzles and more pop-culture, but I wasn't also expecting so few word puzzles. Puzzle Boat had lots of great word puzzles. The word puzzles that were this hunt were very good, but our most 733T people always got to them too quickly. The ratio of IDing stuff to answering crossword-style clues was much too high for my liking. Also, for the MIT Mystery Hunt, starting out with a round of pop-culture and a round of sports was somewhat inappropriate.

Anyway, despite those complaints, I did enjoy myself a lot. And I think I'd have enjoyed myself a lot more if I were on a 25 person team, or if i liked pop culture, or if I had never gotten to see a whole hunt before. And I know there are a lot of teams that fit those profiles, and I salute Bombers for writing a hunt aimed at a different group. Hopefully in the future people will be able to please everyone, but that's notoriously hard.
I hadn't want to discuss the Round VIII meta at all, I figure the Bombers were punished enough during the wait for someone to solve it and we needn't pile on. But there's a disturbing trend among people whose puzzle writing I love and who are on the writing team that this puzzle "wasn't broken" or "wasn't that bad." Yes it was broken, and yes it was that bad! But this is all aimed at future writers, not meant as just nasty stuff about the Bombers. Furthermore, as I said, I'm happy we didn't win. The only thing I'm bitter about with this puzzle is that we didn't install the Wii 6 hours earlier.

I also want to emphasize that it's hard to not have any broken puzzles. Our hunt had several. Some were my fault too. Obviously one should take particular care with metas, but in general testsolving and having only clean unbroken puzzles is really hard, and can only be avoided by eternal vigilence. It's one thing to say it's inevitable that some puzzle will be a bit broken, and it's another not to think it's that bad. Behind the second door lies the potential for really bad hunts.

First let me say there is a difference between hard, broken, and unsolveable. A puzzle can be hard and not broken, and it can be broken and not unsolveable. My big complaint with the West Coast puzzleing I've done is that people seem to identify a puzzle being hard with taking a puzzle and breaking it a little bit. An unbroken puzzle:

  • Should not require multiple simultaneous guesses with no confirmation

  • Should seem "clearly the right thing to do" at least in retrospect

  • Should not require extra cluing. If your puzzle was broken before you added some subtle hint somewhere, then it's probably still broken. (I think this is taken from Setec's list of advice to us writing the hunt.)

Any puzzle that stumps so many smart people for so long is probably broken, even if it is ultimately solveable. And when a good clean hunt comes down to solving one broken puzzle, it is a tragedy. Being stuck on one puzzle is a miserable experience. It's bad enough when it's your own fault (say our team during Monopoly) or when its a bizarre hard to testsolve issue (like the Orange Star), but when it's just due to negligence it's really unfortunate. I hope that the members of Palindrome who are saying this was just hard and not broken rethink things, because it would be sad to have this happen again.

The main problem with this puzzle was that there were a lot of red herrings, and little to confirm your progress. A few very small tweeks would have improved the puzzle immensely. First off, there was no reason for it to be a 10 x 10 grid. That was not used in the puzzle, and led to many wrong ideas. Patterns like that shouldn't be there for no reason. Secondly, the main flaw in the puzzle was that there was no way to know which letter referred to the Jr. senator and which referred to the Sr. senator. This discourages looking at the senator<->letter pairing, and it doesn't confirm the initial guess that it has to do with the senate. We hit on very close to the right idea at some point, but didn't like it because there were 2^50 possible choices, and who would write a puzzle with 2^50 possible choices? (We did pursue this lead, but were unable to find a chart after a while of looking and so discarded it. That's our fault, but that's what happens when you have 100 ideas and the right one doesn't seem much better than the wrong ones.) Something like just having one of them be "NY" and one be "ny" would have made all the difference. Even after hearing that the puzzle used the senate floor, several of us guessed incorrectly how it worked (we thought the jr./sr. split would be given by taking the first or second occurrence either reading left to right or top to bottom, which is at least only 4 choices instead of 2^50, but is still too many choices). Yes it is possible to easily read out the sentence out of the 2^50 possibilities, but the point is that there's no confirmation until the very last step.

Furthermore, it seems likely that this was testsolved without the actual video. If that's the case, then it is very very bad. This is one of the reason why subtle flavor cluing is bad, because it's hard to know the difference between a transcript and a video. It wasn't always easy to tell in the videos how much was memorized and how much was slightly ad-libbed. The other metas all stood alone without in-video cluing. There's a rumor that this puzzle was actually testsolved with a picture of the senate floor, but I have to assume that it was also testsolved later without that, because a team otherwise so competent can't really have been that dumb. Rumor turns out to be false.

Finally, this puzzle illustrates the main danger with shell metas. They don't become easier as you solve more puzzles. For a pure meta, they're almost always easy once you have all the answers. So you can either solve the meta, or you can solve more puzzles. Here solving more puzzles didn't help.
My personal highlights included:

  • Bruce's cameo in Encore! Encore!

  • Everything about Unscrambled Cable Porn, a puzzle which proves that you need neither be original (see Seven Days) nor hard to be a great puzzle. You just need to be fun to do. The wit in this puzzle is delightful.

  • Backsolving ATTLEBOROMA as the answer to a puzzle. Sometimes it pays to have a list of city names lying around.

  • The Metas in rounds III, IV, VI, and IX. In particular, my top highlight of the weekend was remembering from back in my christian days that Breakaway is a Focus on the Family teen magazine.

  • I had a good time doing terribly at the golf video game in Going Out Clubbing. Fortunately one of my teammates was actually good at it. I managed to solve the rest of the puzzle though.

  • Rewriting the Record Books was the best sports puzzle ever.

  • Killing the Audience was worth it just for hearing people dictate to each other the text of the clips to google them.

  • Black Bed was a standard hunt puzzle, but people keep going back to it because they're so much fun. This one was a cute one. I wish these sorts of puzzles became a standard puzzle type. I'd be so much happier with the world if newspapers published these puzzles.

  • UN-Speakable was two great ideas shoved into a rather unsightly chimera. Still it was quite memorable.

There were a lot of other puzzles that sounded good and which I wish I'd worked on (the various gridless crosswords, for example). The Kingdom of Loathing puzzle went over huge, and, as I said before, the meta-meta was the best meta-meta ever. I'm sure I'll find other gems when I look through what I didn't get to see, but these things above were the things that stood out to me at the time.

13 January 2007

I think that I've finally figured out the Shamu mystery: it's because the Times just published its list of the most e-mailed articles of the year. It's an interesting list, too. The top two articles are about marriage (although only one involves Shamu), followed by messy living, diabetes, low-fat diets, college e-mail etiquette, evangelical Christianity, Trader Joe's, gay cowboys, and soccer. Clearly, if I can write a book involving all of these topics, I'll have a bestseller on my hands.

12 January 2007

What the...? Why is that darned Shamu story back in the top five of the New York Times most e-mailed article list? If this goes on any longer, I may actually need to read it.

10 January 2007

On a somewhat less exalted level of cinema, this trailer is one of the cleverest I've seen in a long time. It's so clever, in fact, that for a few seconds I thought that it might be for the new Coen Brothers movie. Well, it ain't quite that. But it's still impressive, especially for a movie that I have no plans to see.

09 January 2007

If you're still on the fence about seeing Children of Men, watch this. (It contains some spoilers, so if you're sure that you're going to see this movie eventually, I'd avoid it until afterwards.) Oh, and if you're in New York, and can't find anyone to see it with you, just give me a call.

08 January 2007

The trouble with living in a great year for movies is that you start to sound like a lunatic, or like one of those pathetic shills in the movie ads. In September, I noted that The Illusionist was easily the best movie I'd seen all year. A month later, I raved that The Departed was the best movie since The Illusionist. Then came a little number called Pan's Labyrinth, which, according to this blog's resident critic, was "the year's most powerful movie, and the most remarkable work of its kind in a long time." And I haven't even mentioned Volver yet. (Or seen Babel, for that matter.)

I stand by all of these statements. So how can I possibly convince you that Children of Men is the best movie of the year, and the most cinematically exhilarating movie of the decade? Obviously, I can't. I've gone crazy. But the sliver of my brain that still cares about movies insists that Alfonso Cuaron has just raised the bar for every director in the world. A few friends have pointed out problems with the plot, which I'll grudgingly admit. But this movie isn't about its plot, or its politics, but about the most remarkable sequence of purely cinematic epiphanies—at least one per minute—that I've seen in ages. Like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Cuaron is so far in the zone that he transforms everything that he touches. He keeps showing you things that you've never seen before.

Some trivial examples are in order. This isn't an action movie, but it contains a couple of action scenes that kick the shit out of anything else I've seen this year. Its creation of the near future is sly and unobtrusive, but as persuasive as any movie since Blade Runner, and demands multiple viewings to fully appreciate. The soundtrack is smart enough to use "Life in a Glass House" by Radiohead and "In the Court of the Crimson King." Most impressively, Children of Men contributes a new champion in the extended tracking shot sweepstakes, hands down, and then tops itself in that category less than an hour later. And these are all things that a casual viewer might not even notice. The closer you look, the more you see. The fact that someone gave Cuaron $80 million to make this happen strikes me as insanely hopeful.

Best of all, I've finally found the right director to adapt my novel to the screen. At this point, there isn't even a runner-up. Mr. Cuaron, are you reading this?

02 January 2007

Pan's Labyrinth, which is the year's most powerful movie, and the most remarkable work of its kind in a long time, is also a savagely effective rebuke against the shallowness and cynicism of most "fantasy" films. Fantasy, in the context of movies like A Night at the Museum, not to mention How the Grinch Stole Christmas, implies something harmless, approved for all ages, and suitable for cross-promotion as a video game, even if its vision remains depressingly earthbound. Even a movie like The Chronicles of Narnia, which was at least assembled with some care, begins to look calculated and opportunistic when compared with Pan's Labyrinth, which is not harmless, definitely not for children, and the darkest, scariest, most gorgeous thing on God's earth.

Hollywood clearly has no trouble cranking out prepackaged blockbusters crammed with special effects (see next year's Evan Almighty, for one), but it tends to outsource its most vivid dreams to foreign auteurs like Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Hiayo Miyazaki, and now Guillermo Del Toro, who was previously known for superior genre films like Blade 2 and Hellboy, and who now proves himself to be a truly fantastic director, in all senses of the word. I was lucky enough to see Pan's Labyrinth without watching the trailer or reading any of the reviews, with only two glowing recommendations (from Frank Darabont and Stephen King) to light the way. If you're wise, you'll do the same thing. It's quite an experience, and I wouldn't want to ruin it for anyone, not even by hinting at what you're about to discover.