The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Wed, 02 Feb 2005 Paul's Current Viewing

So, we've started up a trial membership with Netflix. Actually, I think it is now a real membership. It has turned out to be a great service! So far, we have borrowed the following movies:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The third. Pretty decent, but not spectacular. I enjoyed the Night Bus. I expected the Dementors to be portrayed more originally. The time-twisting sequence was done much better in the second Back to the Future movie. I could not figure out why Harry and his friends were no longer wearing school uniforms. The kids are getting older; I'm not sure just how they are going to manage doing the next few movies. The movies are not being finished once a year, which means that the cast is aging more rapidly than in the storyline. Will they use a new cast? It was also sad to see Dumbledore replaced; the actor who played Dumbledore in the first two films died. Isaac rated it 4 out of 5, and that seems about right.

Uncovered: the War on Iraq I expected this to be a little better. It is a competently assembled documentary, and has a good selection of people interviewed, but it feels rushed and wasn't edited to a fine point. About 3/5.

Trekkies Grace has never seen the science fiction fandom subculture up close, so she was quite stunned by this. I've been to a convention, so it was not quite a shock, but rather touching. I want to see the next one.

The 1900 House This was great. The premise is that a London home is rennovated (dennovated?) back to 1900 standards: no electricity, only technology and decor available then; the women wear corsets, etc. They hire a "maid of all work." Life hasn't changed as much as we might think. Especially fascinating was how the family members dive into their roles, doing their own research and putting together puppet shows, little plays, and other activities. Amazing how much time is available when you stop watching TV.

Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light I used to have this album. It's a great show; Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Lyle Mays all perform with her, along with the Temptations. I was fascinated by the video clips that were assembled over some of the songs. Mitchell's voice is perfect.

A Prarie Home Companion (it doesn't say, but I think this is the 30th anniversary show from the Fitzgerald Theater). It turns out I've heard this one. It's worth seeing, at least once, just how charmingly funny-looking Garrison Keillor actually is, and how funny it is to see the mundane-looking sound effects guys doing their ridiculous stuff. Once you've seen it, though, you don't need to see it again; listening is better. I'd like to see the "Farewell" show that aired sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s again, though.

Life and Debt This is a great documentary about Jamaica, and why it has failed to thrive economically. The contrast between the Jamaica the tourists experience, and the Jamaica that the natives live in, is staggering. Particularly grim and disturbing is the "free zone," the garment district where neoliberal globalization plays out its "race to the bottom."

Big Top Pee-Wee This was a pick for Isaac. He thought it was very funny.

In order to prevent any allegations of unfairness in selection, and floods of kid's movies, I actually broke our membership into 3 separate queues; they allow that. This means that each of us -- myself, Grace, and Isaac -- can manage a separate queue. The DVDs are addressed to the individual person who chose them. Isaac's is age-restricted. It also slows down the process a bit - since Isaac has to return one and wait for the two-way mail before he has another one to watch. That's not a bad thing, actually; it keeps him from piling on the movies.

Purchases

I spent a little money on the backlog of DVDs that I wanted to buy last month. The bulk of them were the 3 Extended Edition Lord of the Rings movies. The new cuts are much more coherent, although there are some new bits that I dislike. The extras really are worth watching.

We also picked up the second season of Monk. It is off to an uneven start, but "Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus" was one of the best ever. It does, though, have a disturbing scene in which an elephant trainer is killed when the elephant steps on his head. It was rather horrifying. Isaac had to sleep in our room after watching that. It seemed a little manipulative, but the rest of the episode, especially the banter, which had a real ad-libbed feel in this episode, was superb.

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Fri, 10 Dec 2004 The Incredibles

If you haven't seen Pixar's film The Incredibles, go. Go now. I'll wait.

I loved this film. The level of detail in the world-building tops everything Pixar has done to date. The interiors, the jungle sequences, the hardware. The cars. The kitchen appliances (I'm not kidding). It's just stunning.

What we've got is basically a cheerful rip-off of just about every super- hero comic out there, including the Fantastic Four and X-Men, combined with a touch of the darkness of Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It's all set in a kind of blended 1950s dream-time.

Holly Hunter's character, Elastigirl, steals the show by virtue of her pragmatic motherly ass-kicking, and best of all is rendered not like a wasp-waisted, giant-breasted Amazon, but like an only-slightly-idealized, fit, fortyish mother of three. That means she's got thighs and a rear end. Somehow, that's more appealing than any Boris Vallejo brass-brassiered fantasy girl.

I also really liked Sarah Vowell's character Violet, a nervous and insecure teenage girl. She's portrayed as pre-sexual, pretty much a flat- chested stick figure, but is really engaging as she develops confidence, and learns to use her superpowers for more than just becoming invisible around boys.

Bob Parr, Mister Incredible, played by Craig Nelson, is also really entertaining as a gone-to-seed superhero, struggling to fit into his tights. While kids will enjoy it, there is an awful lot here to appeal to adults.

The villian, Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee, is a classic Bond villian; a cheerful psychopath, who has to explain his brilliant plan before killing the hero. Syndrome's secret volcanic lair is a better Bond villian hideout than I've seen in any of the real Bond movies. There's also a great high- speed chase through the jungle that quotes the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi, but blows that sequence out of the water.

The story is engaging; it is a long and detailed film, with lots going on, and the music is fantastic too: a marvellous pastiche of period jazz, lounge, and tiki, but the real reason I'd pay to see it again is another opportunity to gawk at the, well, incredible amount of detail that went into the design of every object and set. You're looking at a fully realized future past: a world that never came about, but feels very close. It's really a thing of beauty, especially if you appreciate retro design.

Since I should mention at least a few weaknesses of the film, I'll point out that the film may not work very well for children, at least not young children. Our son, age ten, seemed to be very confused by the rather elaborate plot and somehow did not "get it." The character of Frozone is a bit of an uninspired stereotype, especially when we hear him interacting with his wife. The villain, Syndrome, is not handled very artfully in the end, which seems too cruel and glib, like a wasted opportunity to write something better for his character. The film may feel a little too long to some viewers, especially children, with one or two too many smash-bang fight sequences. But these things do not really lessen the joy I got from this film.

The single most amazing thing about this film, to me: read the credits. Hundreds of artists and animators worked on the thing. But the design language is as beautifully consistent as if the entire thing, beginning to end, was the product of one visionary auteur. It's hard to imagine how Pixar achieved that kind of design discipline, but it shows in every frame.

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Fri, 14 May 2004 To Be and To Have

On a whim, I picked this film out from a brief capsule review, having heard almost nothing about it, and took my wife and son. She's a Francophile, and we're home-schooling our son, so I thought a documentary about a tiny French school might be interesting.

I was right. Isaac complained about boredom during the movie, but I think it gave him some him material to think through later, and he still remembers the students. Grace was fascinated. What is amazing here isn't any particularly gripping interpersonal drama or angst, but the way the camera lingers so effectively on the faces of its subjects. There are no actors here. Structured only by time and simple editing, we get almost painfully real glimpses of the lives of a dedicated, middle-aged male teacher and his students, most of whome seem to come from farming families somewhere in rural France.

We see a teacher of almost infinite patience, Georges Lopez, working with calm dedication to provide each student not with short-term gratification but with what the student needs. Lopez by turns teaches a whole range of ages in one classroom, covering coloring, handwriting, cooking, writing, and math. We get to see the aftermath of a playground fight, a couple of parent-teacher conferences, and an inadvertently funny scene in which a child's entire extended family winds up trying to help him slog through a difficult multiplication problem. Any adult trying to help a grade-school student with long- since-forgotten long division will surely laugh out loud in sympathy.

Beyond teaching, we see Lopez as counselor, confidante, and friend. It is fashionable to believe in the U.S. that a teacher can be effective while maintaining complete "professionalism" and emotional separation from his or her charges. What emerges here is a different kind of professionalism; he counsels a boy whose father has cancer, and a painfully introverted girl. When the students leave for the summer, they each give and receive kisses on the cheek. Some are crying; they will miss him, and he will miss them. I miss all of them already; it was was a privilege to be able to pretend that I was briefly part of their lives.

Unfortunately, it will probably be hard to catch this film on the big screen; the theater was empty. It was the opening night of Van Helsing and the only other people watching had probably picked it as a second choice after being unable to get tickets to that splatter-fest; as we left, we heard them muttering a refund. I left feeling saddened by both what has become of both American teaching and by the ruins of our national attention span.

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The Triplets of Belleville

We just rented the animated film "The Triplets of Belleville." It is absolutely fantastic - easily one of the best animated films I've ever seen! I'd rate it right up there with the best of Miyazaki including his masterpiece Spirited Away.

It is in French with no subtitles, but that hardly matters because there is almost no dialog whatsoever. It is almost a silent film except for great sound effects and music.

The settings are very dark and somber, but the caricature-style drawings of the people are done with a fantastically light and deft touch. One of the best characters is a fat, elderly dog who barks at trains; we even get to go inside the dog's surreal black-and-white dreams.

The action is extraordinarily silly, but not just in a slapstick way; there is a remarkable attention to detail, and the funniest parts are played out in absolutely deadpan silence, just as they should be.

It lost out in the Academy Awards to Finding Nemo. I enjoyed Finding Nemo, and it deserved to make money and win awards, but it is hard to believe that anti-French sentiment surrounding the Iraq war wasn't at least partly to blame for the failure of Triplets to win any awards; as artistry goes, the two films are simply not in the same universe, and can't be compared by a common set of criteria. Nemo is the result of a lot of hard work and craft, but Triplets is a rarity, a true work of art and inspiration.

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Grosser By the Dozen

We rented and watched this Steve Martin vehicle. I was nervous about it, and it turns out I was right to be. It's an extended sitcom. It plays as if an interesting script was butchered beyond recognition. Steve Martin only gets to throw off his leash and make some priceless facial expressions in one or two scenes. The rest of the time he's Mister Wonderful: the perfect, patient, placid, and perfectly unrealistic father/husband, basically every woman's ideal. Post Roxanne, Steve Martin has played sort of post-menopausal male characters, if that makes sense: his Parenthood/Father of the Bride persona is beyond the age where his libido is a threat to any nearby single women; he's a dedicated husband. That's a good personal and positive role model. He's still a handsome and athletic man, though, and it is not unconvincing when Martin's character notices that his wife is unashamedly checking out his buns. Therefore, it makes no sense that this script seems to have inadvertently cut off his dick when he received his well-earned vasectomy following child number twelve; despite his apparent middle-aged studliness, his character is actually a sad, dickless wonder who lacks the testosterone to stand up to even the most junior of his children. And doesn't make him anyone's role model; it makes it painful to watch him.

We're shown the "chaos" that ensues when that many kids run wild -- but it is sanitized, Cosby-show, sparkling-clean chaos. There are only three truly funny moments of mayhem, and they belong in a different movie entirely, perhaps one by the Farrely brothers: one involving a dog biting someone's crotch, one involving vomit, and one involving hanging from a chandelier. The rest are only a pale rehashing of the same things. The two-dimensional neighbor family is an absolute embarassment; the writers should be ashamed. Chevy Chase called: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation wants some of its characters back.

It is all so clean that when there is a little bit of dirt in the spotlessly-clean house, it is disturbing for the wrong reasons; it looks like the director wasn't paying attention, or maybe the dirt was added in post-production via computer rendering; in this perfect home, it is as out-of-place as a turd on the Cosby family's dining-room table. When the kids fight, there is no real fighting; it is kind of a zen thing, really: the fight of no-fight; when a child becomes alienated and runs away, it isn't true pre-teen angst; it is dumbed down with his sadness over a dead frog. (Most real boys that age I know would probably find playing with a dead frog more interesting than playing with the live one). You can almost imagine the dying frog as the father's moribund dream of a coaching career.

The sad part is that there is some real content here; Steve Martin's father character is forced to choose between his coaching job or another dozen years of cleaning up after slobbering brats. His wife doesn't have to make that choice; although she cuts her book tour short, she actually succeeds in getting her book out, and on the bestseller list. She's able to juggle her career dream and her family. But Daddy, moving heaven and earth to do all he can to keep things together by himself, is mercilessly berated for letting a few things get out of hand; the children, even high-school-age children, are never to blame for acting out, nor is it ever considered typical adolescent rebellion; it is all daddy's fault for daring to dream.

One of the cute-as-a-button children actually throws a sharp dart at another kid's head, leaving a bleeding gash; nearly putting his sibling's eye out only elicits a mind verbal reprimand, not the memorable thrashing the child needs to cement the lesson. The kids are never really shown cleaning up after themselves, although there is much griping about chores. There's the usual subtext that dads can't take care of kids, but given that this one seems to do such a great job, we're left somewhat puzzled.

The ultimate message to him is clear: suck it up. Sacrifice everything for the children, and don't expect them to pull together, or move a bit towards responsibility and maturity themselves, or learn to take care of one another; if you don't give up everything for them, they'll become psychopathic, narcissistic drop-outs. No one seems to acknowledge what dad actually gives up; saccharine-flavored tears are shed, but no one learns anything, especially the kids, who are never expected to grasp that there may ultimately be limits to just how fulfilling it is to clean up after children. As I watch the credits, I leave the film with the full expectation that Daddy will have hanged himself from the meaningless plot device by morning.

P.S.: I just took a look at some reviews. It seems the critics agree:

"A disgrace. A spineless eunuch of a father allows his children to yell at him and bully him. They destroy a mansion. Their mother must be on heroin." -- Victoria Alexander, COM

"An overstuffed, undernourished Brady Bunch episode, only not as funny." -- Sean Axmaker, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

"You don't so much watch this witless, charmless, pointless fiasco as sit hostage, waiting for it to end." -- Colin Covert, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

"surprisingly unpleasant" -- Sean O'Connell, COM

"Knows no tone between schmaltzy / gooey and slapstick / gross-out." -- Robert Koehler, VARIETY

"OK, so I havenıt read the original book or seen the previous movie. But Iıd bet the family dog never rooted its snout furiously in a kid-hating boyfriendıs crotch." -- Nick Rogers, STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER (SPRINGFIELD, IL)

And, finally:

"'Cheaper by the Dozen' is not only one of the worst films of the year, it is also a perfect example of why so many foreign countries hate America so much." -- Peter Sobczynski, CRITIC DOCTOR

It makes me recommend instead "Life as a House" instead, which although a manipulative and sentimental film in its own right, at least has an interesting script and some memorable moments, and is shot beautifully; it doesn't look like a Brady Bunch episode, and it avoids being a complete waste by having some slight grit to it: adolescent boy tries to engage in auto-erotic self-asphyxiation, sells drugs, gets caught trying to make money giving blowjobs to neighborhood pervert in car, neighbor girl cock tease likes to live dangerously giving hand jobs to naked adolescent boy in shower, Fountainhead-like architect character doesn't really give a damn what other people think any more and actually is capable of getting angry and getting an erection. At one point he threatens to remove his son's piercings with the nail-pulling end of a claw hammer. The adolescent is realistically whiney and prissy, there's not a frog funeral to be found and, for all its flaws, the film is a thousand times more real. Or you could watch "American Beauty." However, neither of these are kids' movies. I've just been watching Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits and Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Any self-respecting child would get much more out of these flights of grim fancy than this crap.

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Fri, 26 Mar 2004 Internal Spotlight of the Shiny Camcorder

Grace and I went to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I can recommend it quite highly. Perhaps it isn't the best film of the decade as some critics seem to be raving, but it does perhaps the best job of any film I've seen in recent years at presenting a consistent and unified vision.

I'd also give it the "best artistic use of a handheld camera" award. (We're not talking Blair Witch Project, running-through-the-woods jerky camera work here). To me it has more of the look of a Dogma 95 film, but without the various restrictions on reorganizing time and space. It also wins my "best use of a disjointed, slightly unsettling soundtrack."

It has some great acting as well, but the best acting in the film does not come from the stars, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. They are OK; if you're frightened that this might be a typical Jim Carrey vehicle, fear not. Carrey is quite bearable here, even more so than in The Truman Show. Winslet is quite good. But some of the supporting cast manage that spooky Zen trick of disappearing entirely into their characters. Frodo also makes an appearance and does a pretty good job, although his role is rather small; I think he's headed for a distinguished career.

Most reviews give away some of the key points, so I'd recommend seeing it before reading about it. There's a related web site: http://www.lacunainc.com, but I'd avoid it until you've seen the movie.

The story is told out of sequence, and it can take a while to figure out what is going on. I'm actually disappointed I knew something about the plot beforehand, because I didn't get the pleasure of utter confusion, and I don't know how quickly I would have figured it all out without any hints.

If you see it, try to keep in mind that it will all become clear, and that even the reason for the disjointed presentation will also become clear. It is really an excellent example of form following function in storytelling. If you go see it, I'd like to hear what you think.

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Tue, 07 Dec 1999 What is The Matrix?

The Matrix is Everything. The Matrix is Nothing. No one can be told what the matrix is - they have to see it for themselves. The Matrix Has You. The Matrix Has Me. The Matrix Has My $7.75.

What is the Matrix?

THE MATRIX AS LIGHT-HEARTED BUDDY PICTURE A LA BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

Lawrence Fishburne is the reclusive but respected and admired master crime lord. Keanu Reeves is the confused but talented petty offender looking for a father figure. They find each other, save each other's lives, and save all of humanity in the process. There are some other minor characters involved such as a love interest for Keanu, but the real bond is between the gruff Fishburne and confused Reeves. Traditional family values win out over evil virtual-reality soul-stealing purple-people-eating giant bug machine aliens, of course. My heart, she is warmed.

THE MATRIX AS A COLLECTION OF COMFORTINGLY FAMILIAR SCIENCE FICTION CLICHES

There are evil probe-things that burrow into your body, just like in Star Trek, the Wrath of Kahn. There are millions of human beings with wires stuck into them and tubes down their throats in mile after mile of vats, just like in V and X-Files: the Motion Picture.

There is a band of renegade human survivors piloting a lovably decrepit spaceship held together with duct tape and hope, just like in Star Wars. There are human combatants who battle it out in virtual reality, as foretold by William Gibson and many others. There are GREAT men in black - the first version of the men in black I've seen that truly resemble their alien-abduction-anecdote origin. There are giant robotic bug-creatures that harken all the way back to H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. There's nothing here that will startle you and spill your popcorn. Don't worry your pretty little head.

THE MATRIX AS BULLET-DODGING ARNOLD SCHWARTZENEGGER MEETS JACKIE CHAN MEETS MORTAL KOMBAT SLUG-FEST

We know kung-fu, and the names of several other martial arts. We can flip each other around like poker chips. However, this simply isn't causing enough damage to keep our interest. How about a little more power?

We need guns. Lots of guns.

We are highly selective about what kind of violence actually hurts us. A good punch in the gut can hurt far more than an entire clip of armor-piercing ammunition. We've got a pretty amazing aerobic capacity too. No, it will take a pretty specific kind of blow to do any damage at all, and we'll recover from it pretty much completely in about ten seconds.

Sometimes guns shoot out complete, intact bullets, not slugs and shell casings. We're not sure why.

We will heavily damage nearly every piece of scenery that gets in our way. Don't worry about it. Those extras that die like flies? Don't worry about them, either. Any problem can be solved with sufficient extra firepower. Remember the Harrier jump-jet in True Lies? We've got an Apache gunship helicopter. It's very cool. Just relax. Wouldn't you like to do this much damage to your apartment and not have to pay for it?

THE MATRIX AS ADVERTISEMENT FOR HIGH SPEED DIGITAL CAMERAS

We're going to go reality one better. Let's call it "hyper-reality." Our movie has a far higher resolution than real life. Real life is so - well, it's icky. It's more fun to be digitized and uploaded. The fun is funner, the women are sexier, the violence is violenter, and we shoot from multiple angles with a very wide depth of field and an extremely high frame rate. In the future, everything will be a one or a zero. (You'll probably be a zero; Keanu Reeves will be a one. The one, as a matter of fact... what? He doesn't really know what is going on? Of course not. It's called irony. Or maybe it's called something else.)

THE MATRIX AS A POORLY INTEGRATED BUNDLE OF METAPHORS

The remains of God's chosen people live in Zion at the center of the planet. Moses is black. Jesus is a scrawny white guy. Morpheus is the god of sleep in charge of waking people up from their virtual-reality dream into the nightmare of reality. He's also a kind of Captain Benjamin Cisco-Router of our brave new world here, running some sort of Routing Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perhaps? Keanu = Eon = One. There's an Oracle who seems to be stage-managing a lot of this. We're in a Greek tragedy now. The evil alien bug-machines swim through the planet's fallopian tubes like giant sperm attempting to fertilize the fleeing egg full of the last vestige of rebellious human genetic material. It's all very complex. Or is it just a stupid mess of incoherent references? I can never keep those two straight.

THE MATRIX PRESENTS THE ONLY POSSIBLE BELIEVABLE ROMANTIC SUBPLOT INVOLVING KEANU REEVES

He barely interacts with the heroine throughout the entire film, but she is in love with him.

There's a touching kiss and her love saves him, but he's in a coma at the time.

There are homilies about the power of love.

Wait a minute - wasn't this a dark and edgy film? Maybe that didn't test well with focus groups.

THE MATRIX AS FULFILLMENT OF TED'S ULTIMATE ADVENTURE

Whoaaa! Duuuuuude!

Why, oh why, did he have to be the one? She could have been the one. He could have just been a one. It would have made more sense. The Oracle's plans would have been better integrated, and she would have lied to everyone to manipulate the whole preordained destiny thing perfectly.

Or, as the Oracle puts it, "he's got talent, but he's not very bright."

Perhaps making her the one was just too feminist for the focus groups.

THE MATRIX AS ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE MATRIX: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT

Surely, they could have saved some of the special effects budget for the end?

Oh, wait, maybe they did, but the movie just got too long so they had to lop that part off.

SO TELL ME PAUL, WHAT DID YOU REALLY THINK OF THE MOVIE?

I have no idea. It was really fun at the time. It is visually stunning. The fight sequences are astounding. The back-story is somewhat better than your typical science fiction movie (which brings it about halfway up to the worst of William Gibson, Stanislaw Lem, or Philip K. Dick). I bought the soundtrack album. Don't wait for it to come out on video. Without the surround sound and enormous visual overload, half of the movie's appeal would be lost.

I'd recommend it quite highly. Just try not to think about it too hard while it is happening. The directors didn't.

RATING: 8/10 (4/10 on video)

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