Category Archives: Movies/TV

Quintet (1979) review (and a n.b. on THX1138)


This movie is ready for a reassessment. Take the film on its own terms–if you are expecting high science fiction Mannerism you are going to be sorely disappointed. People have talked about the one-dimensionality of the characters–but the whole POINT of the film is that humanity, at this decrepit, terminal stage of their existence, has become one-dimensional. It’s more than the need for survival. The people living in this icy city have literally lost the ability to feel…anything, both individually and collectively. Essex (Paul Newman) is in this world but not of it; having ventured south for a decade and come back to the city with his lover, he sees just how much what society is left has devolved.

The lack of younger actors also gives this a compelling, otherworldly feel, similar to Children of Men–but fast forward that movie twenty years in the future. Because of the breakdown in society, no one is younger in the city than their mid to late 40s–indeed, Essex’s wife who is in her mid to late thirties maybe, is seen as a marvel in the city. Maybe this lack of young actors is why American audiences responded so poorly to it. The younger the better for American sensibilities–so to create this world as it was made was truly a bold choice, and in that sense, the casting of Newman is perfect.

The sets and the cinematography are absolutely amazing–again, taken in terms of what the movie is trying to do (create a metaphor for the game of Quintet), it absolutely works. The weird isolation, the dogs, the broken down architecture and the ice–you get the sense that this city was once, when the cataclysm started, humanity’s last great hope, and the current residents are living in a shell of that dream.

So few American science fiction movies actually put their money where their mouth is with the worldbuilding–to create a consistent worldview and stick with it. Most visual SF is based on spectacle–and that’s great, I like well-done spectacle too. But to decry this movie because it is not a spectacle is kind of missing the point. I knew nothing of the maligned critical history of this film and was quietly blown away by this minor masterpiece–and I think more than 30 years from its creation, Quintet has a lot to tell us about our age of environmental devastation and desensitization.

p.s. It’s interesting watching George Lucas’ THX1138 some time after Quintet. The color palette–all those whites–seems to have bled between the two movies, and the set design (for the former, the as-yet-uncompleted BART tunnels; for the latter, the detrius of Montreal’s 1967 World Fair) has some uncanny similarities in parts. Though, of course, the world of THX1138 is divided from Quintet’s by one major chasm: time. Not between 1971 and 1979 but the epochs of the two movies. THX1138 is still living in a “city of the future”, albeit one sheltered away from the raging red sun. Quintet’s city is THAT city’s dying embers, when barely anything works, and everyone waits to die. They are different tropes of nihilism–one controlled from external (albeit shadowy and highly networked) forces and the other being devoured from the inside. Anyway, two seminal works of 70s science fiction, there.

Review of Avatar (3D)

The question should be seriously asked, how do [cognitive sciences] compel us to redefine the most basic notions of human dignity, freedom? That is to say, what we experience as dignity and freedom is it all just an illusion, as they put it in computer user terms, a user’s illusion. Meaning, for example, when you write a text on a computer, you have this user’s illusion scrolling up or down that there is text above or below. There is no text there. Is our freedom the same as a user’s illusion or is there a freedom? —Zizek

I saw Avatar in 3D tonight. Avatar is a great movie, a groundbreaking movie in many ways (conventional in others, but let’s stick to the groundbreaking for now), and more complicated and tricksy than some of its critics, I think, are giving it credit for.

Warning, serious spoilers! Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

Avatar can’t be separated from the technology used to create it, and this push and pull of the wonders and devastation of technology ripples throughout the entire movie. It’s the Avatar Project, after all, that allows the movie to come into being in the first place (okay, and a lack of single payer health care for our hero–but that’s a different story!). And it’s the death of the Avatar Project at the end that brings about Jakesully’s rebirth. But, more than that, the audience is continually reminded of this dynamic by the fact that we are all sitting in the darkened theater wearing this funny little glasses, which allow strange creatures and landscapes to uncannily “pop” out of the screen. As a matter of sheer worldbuilding bravado (if not plausibility–though I love me some Magritte floating mountains, it was a lot of handwaving to describe them as buoyed by flux. But hey, whatever, it was cool), we are plunged into ethereal heights and soar through phosphorescent forest canopies. Or is it the other way around? No matter–that synesthesia is an intentional byproduct of having a world come out at you all at once, in all its inviting glory. There has been, of course, unadulterated land that needs protecting before in film, but never has the argument been made for it more beautifully and convincingly than in this 3D.

With new applications of mediums comes new forms of storytelling, and so it would be a disservice to the movie to call it “Dances with Wolves in Space,” or whatever. The movie is as much about scientific malfeasance as it is about brash imperialism as it is about love.

It’s the ambiguity of the Avatar Project that drives the story forward. The linchpin character in the whole film is Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver, who has a chain-smoking Helena Bonham Carter as botanist thing going). As a diplomatic and scientific mission, the Avatar Project is something of a failure. Sure Grace and her protege collect their samples at one point, but there’s a disconnect between that mission and the, uh, mining of unobtainium (which actually has a wider use as a term than I had thought possible). The science (whether soft or hard) is continually triangulating with the military and the privateers. The latter two, naturally, are slavishly intertwined–with the continual reference to mercenaries being the entire fighting force, this is hard to ignore–but this doesn’t mean that the scientists’ relationship with the two opposing forces are the same. With the military, it’s entirely antagonistic. Not so with the Resource Development Administration’s commercial arm. Its liaison on Pandora is not unconcerned with Na’vi casualties, mentioning the possibility of “bad press.” So are the scientists, and although there is some vague mentioning of a mission school that met some untimely end, Grace’s ultimate mission to convince the Na’vi to move. The movie is as much of a critique of neoliberalism as conservatism (or neo-conservatism, I guess)–having a “human rights” apparatus being wielded as a weapon to achieve some material gain.

Something happens, though. Closer to the climactic battle, Grace tries to explain to the peckerhead Colonel and the asshole mining manager about the interconnectedness of all life on the planet. Rather than being a pure impassioned Gaia-tastic plea, however, there’s something unsettling on Grace’s face. She can’t help but see the wealth in this. Screw the minerals, she’s saying, what we have here is bigger than raw materials. In a way, it’s similar to the utilitarian arguments made to “save the rainforest”: who knows how many cures to natural diseases are in those weird plants and funny little frogs that we don’t even know about yet–that is, until they are run over by clear-cutting bulldozers!

You can see Grace calculating, even then. And as she’s brought, wounded, to the Na’vi’s ancestral home, she jokes (paraphrasing): “I wish I could be taking samples of this.” The tribe tries to save her, by transferring her fully into her avatar. They take off her mask, and she dies; the transfer (going through the “Eye of Eyra”) didn’t take because she was “too weak.”

But what does this weakness mean? Weakness from the bullet wound? Or weakness because she couldn’t, in the end, fully let go of her own sense of scientific identity to fully become one of the Na’vi? (And yet, even still, she doesn’t entirely dissipate–more on that a bit later.) It’s truly unclear.

This is driven home perhaps even more forcefully at the very end of the movie. Simply put–Jake dies at the end. There is no exact equivalence between Jake and Jakesully. The human is dead, though the memories of Jake are uploaded into the planet. Witness, at one earlier point before the final battle, how our hero actually requests to Eyra to access Grace Augustine’s memories of earth and the human species. Who, or what, is in Eyra, then? Information. Code. The world, through this information management, has an Avatar Project of its own. That, at last, is what’s so fascinating about this movie–not the simple clash of cultures but the variances in the relationships the cultures have to their own bodies, and how they retrieve information about those bodies. It’s telling that the last shot of the movie is Jakesully opening his eyes, with his corpse laying beside him.

He will certainly not be what he used to be.

We, too, have more opportunities to plug in, and leave ourselves behind. The flow is two-way. Even the Avatar action figures–long the hallmark of the science fiction blockbuster!–replicate the uplink and downlink movement of the movie. With a webcam, one can scan in the I-TAG of an action figure to receive downloadable content. Not on the screen–on the toy itself. Encased in their plastic casings on toy-store shelves, much like the living caskets that the human bodies in Avatar rest within, the toys become cybernetic apparati of the imagination.

All of this isn’t to say that the toy marketing of the film is somehow necessary for understanding and enjoying the film (though I’m sure the interactivity was part of some strategic planner’s “creative brief”). It’s more of a sense that–this is the world we find ourselves in. Not only one of environmental devastation, but one of identity slippage. This isn’t Kevin Costner sleepwalking through being Kevin Costner, but rather a grandiose adventure with two world-interfaces, and how a broken soldier rejects the one and embraces the other.

We’ve begun with Zizek; let’s end with him:

Catherine Malabou wrote a wonderful book called What to Do With the Human Brain. She develops, in a very nice way, that plasticity can have two meanings. One meaning is this neoliberal plasticity. Basically, it’s an accommodating plasticity: how to succeed on the market, how to adopt new identity. But there is a more radical plasticity, where the point is not just an adaptive plasticity. It’s a plasticity that not only adapts itself to existing circumstances but also tries to form a margin of freedom to intervene, to change the circumstances.

Cameron has developed a $300 million franchise–a full world, really–to explore that second type of plasticity, and to let the audience become participants in it, to dream about it, just for a few hours.

Go see it.



Alrightey, Twilight.

A hobby of Edward’s is collecting cars. He owns a Volvo S60 R and an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish as a “special occasion” car.

I’m just trying to put down my thoughts about it because when the later books get filmed it’s going to get far far worse before it gets any better. It’s going to be “one month into Bush’s second term and 3 years and 11 months to go ow ow my brain hurts” bad.

John from Cincinnati

“I’m just saying give me the weight. That’s all I’m saying. I’m here. Let me take it.” –Mitch, episode 10

One of the best shows I’ve ever seen, even though the last few truncated episodes (out of only ten) definitely have the echoes of the HBO executives screaming off screen: “Pencils DOWN! Pencils DOWN! Uh…You are weird and unprofitable!”

And, despite the weirdness, it’s not about esoterica but rather is an exploration of the exoteric. John (from Cincinnati, kind of, depends on what you believe the city of Cincinatus) appears in Imperial Beach and sets about letting, and showing, everyone that the end is near. It is. John is the end, and also the beginning. He shows that the need for community is plain and simple, and the signs and wonders that bring the disparate characters together Love your enemies, even if they’re the fuckers who you think have ruined your life. John’s foibles and miracles creep upon the Yost family, broken beyond almost any recognition. But they heal. The show does an amazing job of letting the fantastic elements (the levitations and resurrections) work asymetrically–you think that the characters don’t realize what the heck is going on, until they start postulating on the nature of the supernatural events. For all of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like surfing-town antics, this isn’t a work of magic realism. It’s much more of a Dantean allegory. The Yosts start at the bottom, but hope rises with each episode. Hope becomes incarnate. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. Many reviewers of the show decried the fact of this allegory:

In “John,” you get the feeling that Milch is using the characters as hooks on a pegboard, on which to hang his philosophical wares. The writing in the series just has no pleasure in it, not as it hits the ear or in terms of getting us any closer to these people and their problems, mundane or existential. (source)

A matter of taste is one thing, but to say that the language of this show doesn’t “hit the ear” is that mainstream trick of ignoring all types of non-realism that don’t fit your definition of appropriate, well-measured non-realism. It’s also fucking daft:

“Bill: Sweet enough look to his mug, “I got my eye on you”. [What John constantly tells Bill, a retired cop, played by Ed O’Neill] When he restrains himself from running his mouth. (Bill has an apple, he motions to Zippy to keep it a secret from the other birds) Far as him being stabbed, I’m not doubting it could have been a hoax, I don’t subscribe it definitely was … (He’s slicing up the apple) being I and a bird of my acquaintance know a boy who survived fatal injury, following the bird’s own resurrection. Sole change from what I said to you previous, Zip: Last overlap between me and the Yosts, Butchie asking my help with that search. A P.S., my assistance. An end to the concluding chapter, and final completion and finish. (He’s handing some apple slices to Zippy. Suddenly he reacts to something he has “heard” coming from Zippy) That is senseless and offensive. I deal with that shitbird only to put him in bracelets. And I’m surprised you’d need me to say so. (We see Zippy bobbing on his perch, then squawks)

Is what you envision, relative to those people, I balance the Hawaiian’s bad influence? Well that, Zip, would outstrip by a full triple-somersault every previous unlikely set of circumstances. (He turns, grabs his jacket and leaves)”

Likely makes no sense, I realize, if you haven’t seen the show, but perhaps the greatest conversation between man and bird ever. (Seriously, Zippy the parrot is a wonderful character.)

Same review, different day, in other words.

And so what are we left with? A little less than 10 hours of an uphill climb to redemption. A warning and a promise. Big waves on a border town that humble all surfers, even the ones that manage to catch them. Maybe especially so. Derelicts and criminals and prostitutes building bonds, aware of these times of desperation, and willing to come together to do something about it in the spirit of prophetic imagination.

Oh, and Luke Perry.

a Hugo nominee for sure

I can’t wait to watch that documentary about sending Tom Cruise back in time to kill Hitler.

“We’re Not Corporate Titans”

One of my favorite recent genres of TV commercials is the “passive aggressive, angry oil company commercial.” The tone is “Look, yeah, yeah, you think we’re part of the problem, but we’re actually part of the solution too! So piss off!”

This Chevron extended clip is a minor masterpiece in the genre. It sounds like it’s narrated by Darth Vader’s little brother. I was stymied to find about halfway through they actually used the phrase, and I kid you not, “part time poets.”

This Collection of Mobile Phone Movies Should Be Wicked Cool

Behold, the 1st Ballardian Festival of Home Movies. There are prizes and everything.


The French Crash.

Update: Okay I should probably unpack this a little more. I’d meant the Oscar-winning-film Crash and not the Ballard book, but nudging an analysis of Cache to incorporate the latter would be really intriguing.

First of all, there’s a lot to respect, actually, in Cache. I’m a huge fan of Michael Haneke’s previous film, Time of the Wolf, which I blogged about here. Cache is a kind of domesticated Time of the Wolf, an inner post-apocalypticism.

And in the end, the most shocking scene in Cache (and it is shocking) is a reprise of the most shocking scene in Time of the Wolf. Haneke’s ideas actually worked better when he was able to bounce them off the larger canvas of a giant societal meltdown. The meltdowns that our society faces now are already “hidden”, and Cache is only trying to hide what’s already hidden, if that makes sense. But it fails in this task; it never finds what was hidden in the first place. Nothing “comes to light” in the movie.

Sure, one might say, that’s the point. But it isn’t “the point” because there is no point to be seen in the movie.

It’s a movie about footage that is little more than footage.

I guess you’d have to see this movie to know what the hell I’m talking about.

Finally, answering basic questions at the end about who, what, where, when, and why would have been mighty helpful. But I would have been able to live with a very ambiguous ending if the overt connections to the political weren’t so clumsy.

Fall TV Preview: Burning Question

So which show is worse? Kid Nation or Torchwood?

Both deal with the emotional lives of nine-year-olds–one more intentionally than the other!

Black Book

There’s a scene at the end of Soldier of Orange, Verhoeven’s last Dutch Resistance picture, in which the protagonist, Erik (Rutger Hauer), comes across one of his old friends that he had lost contact with through the war. Erik has worked directly for the Queen, risking life and limb, and ended up becoming a bombadier. His friend laid low, and was none worse for the wear. They met in the old apartment where they had hung out before, with the crowds in the throes of liberation outside their window. His friend pretty much risked nothing during the war, capitulated, went to school, got along, survived.

This is a gut-wrenching coda to the whole movie–and in a way provides the starting point for Black Book, made almost 30 years after Soldier of Orange. You know the movie is going to be a wild ride when the safehouse of Rachel, the protagonist, is destroyed by an Allied bomber dumping its “payload” in order to gain altitude. And she had had to memorize New Testament verses from the family’s patriarch in order to eat! Anti-Semitism ripples under even the “good guys” in the movie, the Dutch Resistance, and Rachel continually has to navigate reversals and betrayals of all stripes that at times stab at her heart, especially during her white-knuckle infiltrations of a German command center. But she soldiers on regardless, even after “liberation.” The fulcrum of the movie shifts after the Germans are defeated, and Rachel has to fight for her life against the “heros”–probably containing some of the most unsettling parts in the movie. (In a way it’s Canadians that save the day, not the Dutch mob.) Carice van Houten really is spectacular as Rachel, who alights her morally gray world with flashes of kinetic brilliance.

See this movie if you can.

“Brush Your Teeth!”

Priceless. I don’t think I need to see the movie now. I’m good.

Flesh + Blood

Saw it this weekend. One of the most fucked up, disturbing, fascinating movies I’ve ever seen. Had a good quotient of Indiana Jones villians (okay, only one, but Ronald Lacey is a doozy). It also has Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson!) in it! Everyone in this film is amoral, but some are more amoral than others. Had a little bit of that mid-80s feathered hair going, but in a far, far smaller degree than many fantasy films of that era, so it gets a pass. Two of the mercenaries were gay and one had a Brooklyn accent! (The accents were all over the place–it was supposed to be set in 16th century Italy…I guess?)

Movie delivers exactly what the title promises, and in this corpulent film there’s real ideas floating around, and bouncing off each other, about loyalty, violence, and power. Full of crisscrossing, lame allegories that somehow add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.


Oh! And we also saw over the weekend Targets (1968), with Boris Karloff. Highly recommended–the perfect antidote to some of the mindlessness of Oscar weekend, and a penetrating, moving study of Hollywood image making, the meaning of horror in contemporary society, and the schisms between real and imaginary violence.

and the lifetime achievement award goes to Gleek

Well, I watched the Oscars last night (or the second half of it, at least) and those shadow-puppet players should have Wonder-Twinned themselves into the shape of a paper bag with eyeholes. Worse even than last year, which I really didn’t think possible. My favorite moment–the last montage (besides the dead people montage). It was kind of like the wisecrack that John Stuart made last year about “a montage of montages”–but rather than seeing that as sarcasm about montage-saturation, the creative department of the Oscars said: “Hey, that’s a great idea!”

liveblogging insanity

We’re watching as we speak the Czech, 1988 version of Alice in Wonderland, with the creepy stop-motion animation–holy jaysus is this movie weird. Has anyone else seen this?

There is a march hare spreading butter onto a pocketwatch. Oh right, he’s in a wheelchair contraption.

Now there’s a ferret-like thing the length of the table who’s licking all the cups!

OMG, Tom Petty! No, just kidding on the last one.

A Tale of Two Prestiges

I really want to see The Prestige in the theaters. (I mean, Bowie as Tesla!!!). However, do check out the two versions of the novel cover. The first is from the trade paperback that came out in the late nineties:

Truly a beautiful cover.

Here is the ARC-lite version that came out for the “movie tie in.”

Alrightey. And btw, they’re both from Tor, so there wasn’t a change in publishers.

Snakes on a Plane

Par for the course, the Monday Morning Quarterback from Box Office Prophets has the best banter about particular hits and flops; in this case, of course, Snakes on a Plane:

David Mumpower: That’s the part of movie promotion that is going to happen for any potential blockbuster, though. What made Snakes on a Plane an attention-grabbing project was the passion potential consumers had with the name. New Line went with that very well.

Kim Hollis: I agree with that, it just felt like their fingerprints were on everything.

David Mumpower: Snakes don’t leave fingerprints!

The Possibility of a Demon

Saw demonlover the other day (and spoilers ahead!!!!!!), and though a few parts of it already seem dated after just a couple of years, I really loved the movie: its clinical textures and oscillating performances. Lost in Translation without the romanticism and a triangle of languages (French, English, Japanese) vying for attention. In Demonlover, fluency is power. Elise (Chloë Sevigny), who we at first take to be an embattled, fairly median-level (and French) assistant, reveals herself to be as American as apple pie and ruthlessness. For the first part of the movie she is willing to hide this. And even people who don’t seem to be hiding their ruthlessness, like Herve (Charles Berling), have more to hide. Yet at the same time, nothing is revealed in revelation. The veneer of the film felt right out of the one Michel Houellebecq novel that I’ve read, The Elementary Particles, in which the people are essentially machines of flesh. It’s a horrifying vision, but it’s also at the heart of what makes contemporary globalism “work.”

There is, however, a subtle shift in the movie that is…I don’t know, inelegant might be the wrong word. The shift is from the virtual avatars of the animation porn to the actual “avatars” of the Hellfire Club, including Diane at the end. The Hellfire Club is very old-skool in its way–in that one has a certain charge towards one’s captives–feeding and clothing them (at least minimally), and hiding their existence from whatever authorities might stumble upon them. And what happens when Diane completely breaks down? Is she killed/set free? All in all, very messy for a multinational corporation! It’s much more…expedient to have a company’s torture victims residing inside a server.

And, thinking about it, maybe that’s where demonlover’s critique of technophilia hits home the hardest–showing this inelegance, showing how–as bad as things seem now–there is plenty more terra incognita for the business world to conquer.

They’ve only just gotten started.

And so that leaves the viewer with the uncomfortable proposition of complicity, in how we buy things and what we watch. Which isn’t to say that we should do away with transnational locii where we can put part of our identities–rather, that the Internet has its own virtual superfund sites and virtual Bhopals –of course it does.

But these don’t have the absence of toxicity. And as Diane is transfigured from alpha-actor to controlled subject, we realize just how little control she had all along. And whatever control she did have, she paid for it, in all senses of the phrase.


(PS. some good macro views of the movie here.)

open questions with answers of “Yeah, maybe”

I wonder if it’s time for a speculative (or otherwise) ezine inhabiting myspace and myspace only.

I wonder if Hex is a better show than Buffy.

I’m really beginning to wonder about both of those.

Friends and Crocodiles

I got the DVD for Friends and Crocodiles yesterday, and I was worried, upon a second viewing, that the movie wouldn’t live up to the first time I saw it on BBC America–that both in narrative and theme it would be gossamer-thin cotton candy. But it held up remarkably well, and might have been even more heartbreaking the second time around.

Alternatively, Thrashin’ happened to be on TV on Sunday, and its profound popularity with males of my generation only speaks to the spiritual and psychic deracination of the 80s that Friends and Crocodiles was exploring.