Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Watching the Watchers (The Lives of Others, 4/2/07): "Don’t look now,
but there’s a lot of nostalgia around for the straightforward days of the
Cold War. We’re not just talking about sentiment on the dingier side of
the old Iron Curtain. Yes, to face an enemy with defined borders, with a
uniformed army, who can be trusted to behave rationally-­that, as the credit
card commercial wisely observes, is priceless. Even the less appealing
aspects of living under communism, like state-sponsored surveillance of
citizens, now seems quaint compared to today, when we tolerate wall-to-wall
scrutiny by anybody with a cheap mini-camera..."

The Frontlines of Passion (Little Children, 3/26/07): "Evolutionary
psychologists speak of the human mind being specially adapted for
certain traits, such as a taste for animal fat (and, incidentally, Ring
Dings), or for social hierarchies (like ranking those poor suckers on American
). The experts might as well add a predisposition to enjoy risqué, edgy,
well-crafted stories of domestic futility in middle-class America, as
these never seem to wear out their welcome..."

Go Digitally Enhance the Spartans (300, 3/19/07): "It was in John
Ford’s classic 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence that the famous line was uttered, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In
2007, Director Zack (Dawn of the Dead) Snyder goes Ford one better in his
sword & sandal fantasia, 300: he doesn’t just “print the legend,” he makes up
plenty of his own..."

Killing Time (Zodiac, 3/12/07): "Did serial killers exist before
there were mass media? It seems safe to assume they did, but didn’t toiling in
obscurity make their work a lot less rewarding? As it is, the cursus
of the typical serial killer is pretty predictable: first the
feeding frenzy in the print media, then the made-for-TV features like
Frontline or 20/20, followed by the bestselling books. The process is
topped off by the crowning symbol of cultural relevance­a feature

The Creepy Buds of May (Venus, 3/5/07): "I make it a practice not to
pay too much attention to award shows. It must be said, however, that the
news of Oscar passing over Peter O’Toole for (yes, count it) the eighth
time has some troubling implications. Apparently, O’Toole’s
performance in Venus as a septuagenarian womanizer who takes an amiably randy interest in a woman a quarter his age was too “creepy” for some Academy voters..."

Into the Labyrinth (Pan's Labyrinth, 2/19/07): "With a steady output of Eragons and Narnias and Harry Potter installments hitting the multiplexes, you'd think we're living through the golden age of cinematic fantasy. Unfortunately, those franchises bear about as much relation to good fantasy as Star Wars or Star Trek do to complex, adult-oriented science fiction. The techniques of computer-generated imagery (CGI) literally promise us the universe, but all we seem to get are the same cast of dragons, trolls, wizards, and cloaked heroes with pointy weapons. ..."

Twilight of the Republic (Rome, 2/12/07): "There are plenty of TV shows today broadcast in high definition. HBO's Rome, however, is the first that seems designed with the immersive detail of HD in mind. The $100 million HBO/BBC co-production, now in its second season, is the most comprehensive portrayal of ancient Rome put on any screen, big or small. Yet curiously, the program's sprawling set (built at the Cinecittà studio lot, outside of modern Rome) is less grandiose than claustrophobic..."

Dance with the Devil (The Last King of Scotland, 2/5/07): "For those who grew up in the 1970's, Ugandan strongman Idi Amin Dada lived up to the legacy of his surrealist namesake. This isn't to diminish the magnitude of his crimes, or the memory of the 300,000 people he killed. It's merely to say that, in a dull and serious world, his portly, extravagant, strutting brand of dictatorship was nothing if not colorful..."

Women and Children First (Children of Men and Volver, 1/29/07): "In Alfonso Cuarón's fine new futuristic thriller, Children of Men, the day after tomorrow looks a lot like today's Iraq. The British, having sealed off their borders against illegal aliens, have erected a national security state complete with checkpoints, identity cards, and the inevitable insurgency. London looks both tailpipe crusty and hopped-up on digital imagery..."

Going for Baroque (Curse of the Golden Flower, 1/22/07): "It only seems fitting that the great Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has recently turned to directing opera. With his First Emperor premiering at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last month, and a new martial-arts opus, Curse of the Golden Flower, now out in theaters, it appears that his sensibility has gone truly operatic...."

Eau de Redhead (Perfume: the Story of a Murderer, 1/15/07): "Did women in the gutters of 18th century Paris smell especially good? This is the unlikely question at the heart of Tom (Run Lola Run) Tykwer's gothic horror, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Given that the answer is certainly a resounding "no!", it is to the credit of Tykwer and producer/co-writer Bernd Eichinger (Downfall, Last Exit to Brooklyn) that their film still has an appealing fragrance, with an earthy head chord and a base that is definitely nutty..."

Lonely Planet (The Road, 1/8/07): "Oscar Wilde once said 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of [Dickens's] Little Nell without laughing.' Mirth may not be the first impulse of anyone contemplating Cormac McCarthy's latest hellscape, but it's probably the one most conducive to mental health. The Road (Knopf, 241 pp.) is a novel with all the transformative power of a true ordeal, so terrible and inevitable and deathly serious that to finish it is to invite laughter..."

A Tale of Two Bodies (The Holiday, 1/1/07): "Nancy Meyers's The Holiday is the kind of comedy that demands a large leap of faith: the faith that charismatic people who look anything like Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet have ever spent a minute of their lives being ignored by the less attractive, less fortunate mortals around them. The key to the film's vague likeability is that it succeeds on this scoresort of..."

Decomposing Beethoven (Copying Beethoven, 12/25/06): "As far as Hollywood is concerned, the name "Beethoven" is more closely associated with the adventures of a certain slobberingly lovable St. Bernard than with history's most formidable composer. Alas, the arrival of Agnieszka Holland's Copying Beethoven will not change that fact. ..."

Love Over Time (The Fountain, 12/18/06): "Darren Aronofsky's films can't be confused with anybody else's. In both Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) he revealed a sensibility both cerebral and mystic, featuring big, primal dramas driven to crisis by repetition and pounding musical cues. His latest, The Fountain, represents more of the same but also something new-the courage to be tender and, in the process, to look ridiculous..."

Apocalypto Now (Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, 12/11/06): "It seems that nobody is afraid to cast the first stone when it comes to condemning Mel Gibson. To my mind, the crude anti-semitism many saw in Passion of the Christ is regrettable, but hardly worse than the sub rosa Jew-baiting in, say, The Phantom Menace, with its hook-nosed, money-grubbing, vaguely Semitic-sounding alien slave-traders..."

It Ain't Necessarily So (Letter to a Christian Nation, 12/04/06): "A lot of things have happened since 9/11, but one thing you might expect largely didn't. In the wake of the largest religiously-motivated mass murder in US history, the tsunami of faith-based sectarian violence in Iraq, and ongoing intimidation of free speech by Islamist zealots, most Americans have not been driven to question the influence of organized religion in the world..."

Never Say Not Again (Casino Royale, 11/27/06): "Like Democratic election victories and US Olympic gold in basketball, good James Bond movies come along so seldom it's easy to forget they're possible. When it comes to Ian Fleming's iconic spy/assassin, the failure is especially puzzling, since everything necessary for success is already in the source material. ..."

Borat for UN Ambassador (Borat..., 11/20/06): "Here's one way to avoid the coming political train wreck over the confirmation of Ambassador John Bolton to the UN: America should send Borat instead..."

God Save the Queen? (The Queen, 11/13/06): "Perhaps the most impressive of Helen Mirren's recent triumphs is getting any work at all, given that Judy Dench seems to be everywhere these days. Judging from Hollywood casting, you'd think that Dakota Fanning, Jessica Biel, Cate Blanchett, and Dench were the only females left on the planet..."

Flag Day (Flags of Our Fathers, 11/6/06): "Clint Eastwood has always had the looks of someone with gravitas, but only lately has he delivered. After what seemed like an endless run of mediocre Westerns and copsploitation flicks, he shocked the critical establishment in 1992 with his complex, compassionate Unforgiven..."

Marie, We Hardly Knew Ye (Marie Antoinette, 10/30/06): "In the face of renewed popular fascination with Marie Antoinette, The New York Times suggested last Sunday that Americans are destined to empathize with a skinny, shopaholic, class-oblivious, faux-nature-loving Queen. In other words, we have become a nation of Antoinettes..."

Double Down in Beantown (The Departed, 10/23/06): "A few years ago Time magazine named Ang Lee the best living American director—a pronouncement that seemed more than a little absurd given that Martin Scorsese is still very much alive..."

March of the Toasters (Battlestar Galactica, 10/16/06): "Those of a certain age remember the original Battlestar Galactica—a post-Star Wars ABC-TV show that was cheesier than gruyere fondue and curdled about as fast. Others may be vaguely aware that the Sci-Fi Channel has been running a "reimagined" version of the series..."

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