In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Our Last 50 Referrers

Friday, July 29, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Many thanks to Brian, who pointed out that Carroll Ballard's new movie, "Duma," will be released on August 5. Released, but in a very limited way: The film's official website has some information about the very few theaters and cities where the film will be viewable. I hope the film is a doozy, and I hope it makes Warners look like jerks for not giving it more enthusiastic backing. Ballard -- who is best-known for "The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf" -- is an amazing filmmaker. He's of the George Lucas/Francis Coppola generation, and he attended film school with these guys. Coppola -- who produced "The Black Stallion" -- has gone on record with the opinion that Ballard was clearly the most talented of the bunch. Yet Ballard has never received anything like his critical due. This is probably for a number of understandable reasons: Ballard is an ornery, headstrong guy who avoids the limelight; he has made movies that focus on children and animals; he isn't great with narrative; and a number of his feature movies haven't worked out very well. Still, that's no reason not to do what you can to see his new one, or to catch up with his earlier movies -- especially "The Black Stallion." (Pauline Kael once wrote that "The Black Stallion" "may be the greatest children's film ever made.") And why hasn't Criterion anthologized Ballard's legendary early short films on DVD? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 29, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, July 28, 2005

"House of Flying Daggers" and "The Mystery of Rampo"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A couple of days ago I wondered out loud why so few films take interesting chances with color. As it happens, the two films I've watched in the days since I wrote that posting have both showed a lot of daring with color. Now don't I feel like a foolish whiner! Yesterday we caught up with the widely-praised Zhang Yimou martial-arts period drama "House of Flying Daggers." As a production, "House" is nothing if not astounding. An emerald-green ambush in a bamboo forest ... A swordfight between love-rivals in a storybook snowfall ... Lovely, and gasp-eliciting, scenes. Still, I found "House" a bore. Its story, situations, and characters seemed as remote to me as those of every other Chinese film I've seen. And Zhang Yimou's direction, however effective, struck me as heavy-handed -- stiff and regimented, and far more redolent of the will than of the imagination. Still, that production ... those colors ... OK, so the film's look is like Asian calendar art gone cyber-gargantuan. That ain't nothin'. Tonight we watched a Japanese movie I hadn't heard of before, the 1995 "Mystery of Rampo." It's an elaborately produced art-thing: an involuted, Cocteau-esque, reality-and-fiction game that improvises on the life and work of a Japanese novelist who idolized and emulated Edgar Allen Poe. I stayed alert through most of the film thanks to its audiovisual design. Where "House of Flying Daggers" is a hyper-squaresville (if impressive) crash-and-slash action opera, "Rampo" is decadent, arty, languourous, and fetishistic. Unfortunately, the film is also overdetermined, slow, and stilted -- I found it as unengaging on a story/situation/character level as "House." But as a ponderous flip through an especially sumptuous issue of Tokyo Vogue, the film is quite something: Bertolucci meets Miyazaki, at least in terms of look-and-feel. The light, the fabrics, the decor, the compositions, the ultra-subtle sounds ... Lordy, lordy, where "evocative" and "exquisite" go, the Japanese can make the French look like Americans, if that makes any sense. "Rampo" manages to be both amusingly overwrought and annoyingly over-delicate. Yet as a showcase for the kind of poetic things modern film stock, CGI enhancements, and sound recording are capable of, "Rampo" is hard to beat. The Wife reports that she preferred "Daggers," thanks to its kickass action. Arty weirdo that I am, I had an easier time sitting through "Rampo." But anyone curious about the kinds of fun Hollywood might be having with color, light, computers, and sound could do worse than check out these films. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2005 | perma-link | (5) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Illustration Friday -- what a great idea for an illustrators' website. A theme is announced once a week. Then, every Friday, illustrators from all over the world link to the visuals they've created in response to the week's theme. There's much in the way of amusement and bliss to be experienced in surfing these links. God bless self-motivated talents, eh? * Broadcasting and Cable's J. Max Robins says that he's never seen the TV news business in such a state of disarray. * I loved the French director Olivier Assayas' recent cyberthriller "Demonlover." (Fair warning: Lots of people considered the movie a pretentious bore.) It turns out that Assayas can write about movies as well as he can make them. He started out as a film critic, and in the Telegraph he offers a lovely and clear-eyed appreciation of the work of the great German filmmaker (and Friedrich von Blowhard fave) Fritz Lang. * Sony laid out a lot of payola to turn cuts by J. Lo and Jessica Simpson into hits. Now Sony is having to fork over yet more -- a $10 million fine. Small question: Who the hell is Jessica Simpson, and why should anyone care about her? (Link thanks to ChicagoBoyz's Mitch Townsend.) * I always want to spit when a critic comes out with the kind of over-large, over-categorical judgment that some critics can't resist: "Such-and-such is the best novel of 2004," for instance. Earth to critics: Since no one has read (or will ever read) every novel published in 2004, please do us all a favor by speaking a little more modestly. There is more to the arts than anyone shall ever know. Speaking of which, here's an amazing collection of photographs of Chinese watermelon carving. I know nothing whatsoever about the artform, but color me impressed and delighted. * Plum has just about had it with the whole low-rise jeans thing. Plum is quite something. Her list of "100 Things You Don't Need to Read" is funny in itself; it also comes together as a cute and fast autobiography. My fave entry on Plum's list: "I have a crappy memory. If I don't write stuff down, I forget it when I see something shiny." #77's a winner too: "I worked in an art gallery when I got out of college, even though it meant I had to eat ramen." There's more life in this collection of short confessions than there is in some literary novels I've read. Plum seems to be one of those amazingly rambunctious and uninhibited young women it's hard not to notice these days. She's also a spirited, sweet, and funny blogger. (California-bred and now living in Pittsburgh, Plum writes a plaintive and touching little posting entitled "Fuck Winter! Fuck Winter Right in the Ear!") The mostly-gal crowd that visits Plum's blog is sweet, foul-mouthed, and funny too. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2005 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sole Creators?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the biggest surprises I experienced on settling into the culture/media life was how messy questions of attribution often turn out to be. Teachers (as well as our own romantic fantasies) sometimes lead us to think of artworks as being the products of unique individuals. In fact, coaches, friends, technicians, spouses, editors, producers, and even corporations often play immense roles in the creation of cultural works we think of as having been created by one person. A quick handful of examples: Katharine Hepburn was a great actress, but she didn't write her own lines or block her own scenes. George Lucas' movies were certainly better when he was married to Marcia. The editor Michael Korda elicited, shaped, and published the novels of Jacqueline Susann. The British mystery writer Dick Francis stopped writing when his wife died; although the mysteries had always been marketed as being "by Dick Francis," he and his wife had in fact been a creative team. (Small personal note: To my mind, one of the bigger puzzles of the reading-and-writing game is the question, Why do so many readers enjoy imagining that the book they're reading was created by only one person? Why should this matter? Weird.) But perhaps the existence of the blogosphere is blowing some doors open. DesignObserver's Michael Bierut writes a good-natured posting confessing that he hasn't always been the sole creator of his own work, and spelling out how it is that the design process often works. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 28, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

DVD Journal: "Cellular"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not sure why the small action thriller "Cellular" wasn't a big hit. Right from its opening couple of minutes, I found it whizbang enjoyable. It delivers a pinpoint focus on great-ride style entertainment; hypercompetent chases and crowd scenes; and fun and attractive performers showing off lots of performing pizzazz. I wonder if the film's marketers made the film appear to be too edgy. In fact, it's a squarer, more eager movie than the film's campaign made it appear. It seems, in other words, like the kind of film audiences love to make their own. For one thing, of course, it has a fabulous exploitation-style thriller hook: A kidnapped woman frantically dials a random number and connects with a shallow beachboy. To try to save her (and, later, her family), these two strangers have to stay in touch via his cellphone. If their connection breaks, it's all over. Wowee: This hook is cheap, it's sleazy, it's too clever by half -- and, I don't know about you, but it's got me watching. Good grief, but I do bow down before an effective narrative hook. Larger question: What's not great about a great hook? Is the creation of an effective hook a trivial achievement? I can't see why we should think so. And "Cellular"'s hook strikes me as being in a class with such classics as "D.O.A." and "Speed." ("D.O.A." -- he's been poisoned; he's got only two hours to live; but in those two hours this hero who, for all intents and purposes is already dead, is going to track down the man who killed him. "Speed" -- if the bus dips below a certain velocity, the bomb goes off.) So: a great hook, a lot of professionalism and energy � But, as it turns out, more than just that. The movie is also full of ingenious twists, turns, double-backs, and surprises; it hustles you past the unavoidable implausibilities very enjoyably; it's canny about judging its changes of pace; it knows when and how to jack the stakes up; and it maintains a cheerfully knock-it-around and enthusiastic tone. It's lean and fresh; it's short, it's exciting, and it's occasionally quite funny. It ain't much -- a B movie with a live spark. But that's a kind of ain't-muchness that I adore. "Cellular" may just be a nifty thriller-exploitation concept well-fleshed-out. But this movie makes that kind of plot-and-concept-driven approach look like the way to go. The writers, directors, actors, and stunt/action teams all gave the film much more than they needed to. David Ellis -- a longtime stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second-unit guy -- directed with a lot of alertness to where the fun might be found. Chris Morgan wrote the superduper, resourceful final script from an original idea by Larry Cohen, with input from the director, some of the actors, and -- who knows? -- maybe the film's caterer too. All the film's participants seemed to be having a virtuosic amount of creative... posted by Michael at July 27, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments