Monthly Archives: June 2010

Following by Christopher Nolan

Following is the first movie made by Christopher Nolan, who you probably know as the guy who made the new Batman movies. If you’re a little bit of a film nerd, you probably also know him as the guy who made Memento. He also made The Prestige and that movie where Al Pacino couldn’t fall asleep. Following is mostly only interesting to film nerds, like me.

Consider this: In the early 2000s, Warner Bros. was looking for someone to revive the Batman franchise after directer Joel Schumacher had made two cartoonish Batman movies wherein Batman’s suit was made into something horrifically homo-erotic with rubber nipples. The studio was looking for a director who could make a Batman movie that was actually good. The leading contenders were two independent directors: Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.

Aronofsky had directed the brilliant and groundbreaking Requiem for a Dream, a visually engrossing and atmospheric film about heroin addicts in Coney Island. His first movie, π, was a neo-noir film about the mathematical discovery of everything. It explored the mystery behind the number pi, Kabbalah, life, the universe, and everything else. It was also shot with a tiny budget on grainy black and white film.

Aronofsky didn’t get the job of making Batman. Instead he made The Fountain, an ambitious and underbudgeted film that was brilliant despite its flawed, and which flopped at the box office.

Nolan got the Batman job. But before he made Memento, a structurally engrossing and atmospheric movie, he made Following, which was shot on a tiny budget on grainy black and white film. The similarities between the two filmmakers’ early careers are interesting to film nerds like myself.

Following starts with a young man explaining to someone about how he is a young, unemployed writer in London who took to following people he thought were interesting. He began following a man who befriended him in a cafe and revealed that he was a professional burglar. The two of them burgled a beautiful woman’s apartment, who the young man later encountered at a bar and fell in love with.

The film follows conventions of film noir. The woman the young man falls for is the femme fatale. Neither she nor the burglar he befriends are who they seem to be. The ending, when their intentions are fully revealed, is trite and not as interesting as the setup.

But Nolan keeps things interesting through a non-linear plot structure, which allows for dramatic revelations and two or three plot twists. He used non-linear storytelling artfully in Memento, and also to great effect in Batman Begins, The Prestige. In Following, the lack of linearity isn’t necessary, except to allow for plot twists. Here, Nolan is essentially prepping himself for his later films.

But it is interesting how he uses sets to define people. In an early scene, the burglar takes the young man on a venture breaking into someone’s apartment. He speaks about how people’s personal space can define who they are. Nolan takes advantage of this idea by having different characters enter apartments with recognizable landmarks. These apartments indeed define the characters. The young man’s apartment is small and stark, like an employed person’s would be. The femme fatale’s apartment is well-furnished and has a piano.

Interestingly, Nolan used his friends’ apartments as location. All of the actors are amateur, but some of the apartments may actually belong to them, and may actually define them.

And Nolan’s film is furnished with his characteristic plot structure. Despite the grey and the grain, it looks visually similar to his other films, especially Memento. One idea behind Following is that we cannot escape who we are. Nolan is no exception.

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Chew

Chew is a culinary comic. That is to say, it is a comic book about food.

It’s main character is a little fellow named Tony Chu (get it?). Tony Chu is a ciobopathic. That means that he gets a psychic impression of whatever he eats. He can eat a banana and get an impression of the tree the banana grew on, the worker who picked it, what pesticides were used, etc. Or, because Chu is a law enforcement officer, he he can eat the flesh of murder victims to find out who killed them.

Chu exists in a world where the American Food and Drug Administration is the most powerful law enforcement force in the world because not long ago several million people died ostensibly from bird flu. Chu comes to work for the FDA so that his boss, Mike Applebee, can make him eat disgusting things to fight crime. He partners first with Mason Savoy, a ciobopathic, and then with John Colby, a cyborg. He falls in love with Amelia Mintz, a food critic who is a saboscrivner, which means that she can write about food so accurately and so vividly that people get an actual sensation of taste when reading her reviews.

I wish I could do that with my reviews. Chances are you don’t have the actual sensation of reading Chew right now.

Stories ensue. Often they contain biological grossness. Sometimes there is gore, and it’s funny. The book is zany.

Chew is drawn by Rob Guillory, whose drawings are always silly. Guillory keeps the gross parts of book from being too nauseating by using a cartoon caricature style. His style is spicy, piquant, and more detailed than most cartoonists’. He also knows how to make characters act.

Guillory works from scripts written by John Layman, who has an intuitive sense for saporous stories. He seeds elements of story well before they come to fruition. Each chapter’s plot is full-bodied, and structured exactly as it should be. Layman letters every issue of Chew himself, so the dialog boxes are more creative zest than any other comic’s. He even has a sense of humor.

There are two trade paperback collections of Chew that have been released so far. The first, Taster’s Choice, collects five relatively self-contained stories that set up the ongoing saga. They are all clever. The second, International Flavor, sends Tony Chu to a Pacific island nation where a strange fruit that tastes just like chicken has been discovered. Such a fruit is valuable in a world where poultry is illegal.

Both of these collections are affordable, entertaining, and mouth-wateringly good. They may also make you hungry. You should buy them. Partly because John Layman is better at using food-related verbiage than I have been in this review.

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Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” Music Video

There are an awful lot of writhing naked male bodies in Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” music video. This is a departure from most music videos, which usually feature writing naked female bodies, and from Gaga’s own music videos, which have generally not featured writhing naked bodies of any type – save hers – and have generally been more tasteful and better produced than this one.

The song “Alejandro” itself is not bad. It can be interpreted to be about a woman begging Hispanics not to cat-call her, a peon for lost Freudian love, or whatever. The lyrics are clever, but, as with Gaga’s other songs, become needlessly repetitive. “Alejandro” and the other Hispanic names Gaga uses in the lyrics may have meaning, or they may have been chosen for their syllabic value. The song leaves itself open to interpretation, though very few people who listen to Lady Gaga interpret her words.

The actual music, as with Gaga’s other songs, is heavily reliant on techno artist RedOne, who is a clever composer of pop beats.  The vocals are good; Gaga’s recording studio knows how to use pitch correction technology and synthesizers. But Gaga has written and sung better songs, and she has made better videos than this one.

The video is shot by Steven Klein, a fashion photographer who is best known for his work at Calvin Klein and with celebrities like Brad Pitt and Madonna. He has photographed many nudes before, though he almost always covers up the naughty bits. In some shots posted on his website, for examples, penises have been cleverly covered by guns. This may be a commentary on sexuality, but in an interview Klein once said, “I will never consider what I do art.” I do not believe that he really thinks that.

Klein has never shot a music video before. His first attempt is not bad. His photographs are usually shot with vibrant, hypersaturated colors. Here, the colors are muted, often to full black and white.

The video starts with and prominently features male dancers in form-fitting black underwear.  They dance, as dancers in music videos do, in perfect choreography. At first it seems that they are dancing for Gaga while she looks on in one of her Gaga-esque costumes, but later she joins them.  These dancers’ bodies are athletic and beautiful. Their dance incorporates the full prowess of their muscled bodies; they flip on the floor and occasionally hold their bodies up with one hand. When they dance with Gaga, they adapt to the femininity of her motion. Both the dancers and their choreographer are talented.

But despite Klein usually working in controlled studios to great effect, this video has terrible production value. It looks like it was shot on a sound stage. Gaga and her dancers exist inside an empty warehouse, and not to any artistic effect. In several shots, the latticework of the warehouse’s roof is visible. The dancers often move in front of a projected screen, and it looks cheap.

As Gaga’s other videos, the music and lyrics have very little to do with the imagery. This video incorporates fetishized fascist imagery, which is disturbing. When the dancers aren’t mostly naked, they wear sexy versions of SS uniforms. They are all meant to be soldiers from some strange, Gaga-esqe universe. They all have bowl haircuts. Toward the middle of the video, Gaga wears a nun habit with a symbol evocative of the Spanish Inquisition. At several points, Gaga wears cloth underwear sans underwire that evokes Cabaret. This costume is not flattering, and emphasizes her imperfections. Not surprisingly, this makes her seem sexier.

But Gaga is not the focus of the sexuality in this video. The nearly naked, fascist, athletic men with bowl haircuts are. Their writhing bodies are admired by the camera more than Gaga’s. Steven Klein excels at this sort of imagery. Gaga has many gay fans and has said in interviews that she made this video for them. I, as a mostly straight man, can find little that is sexually appealing in this video. Maybe that’s the point.

Gaga makes some homages to Madonna in this video. She wears a bra with gun barrels attached that evokes Madonna’s notorious cones. Soon after, she sings on a stage with her shirt open in a pose that references Evita. These moments are heavy-handed and unnecessary.

The best part of the video comes when Gaga dresses in a costume like the ones Liza Minelli often donned. She dances by herself against a black backdrop. Klein seems to enjoy photographing her this way. She’s a phenomenal dancer, and is very sure of her body. Moments like this are pleasant to watch, but rare.

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Net 10

I fucking hate cell phones.

People do not need to be in constant communication with each other. Believe it or not, we do not need to have devices that enable us to speak to each other on our persons at all times.

But enough people have been convinced they do that now phones that can send text messages of limited characters, take and send and receive pictures, access the internet, record and create and play music, play games, work as sex vibrators, pinpoint your exact location on the planet, locate the nearest bar relative to your exact location on the planet, or whatever the hell else some shithead developer who really ought to get laid can dream up.

Because people have been convinced that they need devices that can do this, they are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for such devices. And they are willing to subscribe to plans by companies that tell these people they will pay whatever said companies decide these people should pay at any given time.

I know. About a year ago, I bought a Verizon cell phone. It was the cheapest cell phone they offered, but it still played music, took pictures, and vibrated pleasantly against my groin whenever someone called me. It was really swell until I got the first bill. Instead of $40 for the first month, which I had agreed to, I was charged well over $100 despite using roughly half the allotted minutes in my plan.

A phone call to customer service consisted of an hour of several people at Verizon explaining to me that because of something called “surcharge,” which is defined by Miriam Webster as “an additional tax, cost or impost” or “an excessive load or burden.” I told the Verizon people to go fuck themselves and gave the phone back to the store where I bought it.

I gradually came to realize that in this brave new world we live in, people need to have phones. If only so that prospective employers can call us back.

I discovered Net 10 at a Duane Reade in Manhattan. It was a phone that, for $30 came with 300 minutes. Minutes could be replenished at 10 cents per minute.

It couldn’t light up, dance, do tricks, fetch my newspaper, masturbate me, or work as an electric razor, but the phone was cheap and it could make phone calls.

For a year, I was satisfied. I was paying less than half each month on cell phone minutes than most other people and roughly a quarter than the morons who subscribed to “smartphones.” The phone was easy to use, stored all the contacts I needed, and its minutes were easy to replenish. I just went to a website, filled out a form to buy 200 minutes, and a glitch in the system gave my phone another 300.

Then the phone broke. The screen went dead for no apparent reason.

I discovered that customer support for Net 10 is just as terrible as the support for other companies. Several customer support representatives told me in succession that no, they couldn’t do jack shit to help me transfer my old phone number to my new phone, help me restore my contacts, or transfer the minutes from my old phone to the new one.

But I’m sticking with Net 10 as a provider. Even if their customer support is useless, it’s no worse than Verizon‘s or Sprint‘s, both of which I’ve had unpleasant experiences with. And they won’t make me subscribe to a plan and then decide a month in that I owe them triple the monthly fee.

Because my Net 10 phone is easy. It makes phone calls. It stores contacts. And the only game it has is sudoku.

For those of us who don’t need our cell phone to have the capabilities of a military spy plane, that’s pretty good.

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The High Window by Raymond Chandler


Phil Marlowe is a clever bastard who can never drink enough and plays life with a close hand. He’s not a tough guy, but he talks tough when he needs to. He is a private detective, and he is not bad at what he does because he is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, even when that pursuit takes him outside the law and against the wishes of his clients. It’s not that he’s curious; he just can’t help himself.

Marlowe is probably named after (among other bastards) Joseph Conrad’s character Chris Marlow, who descended in the heart of darkness of the African jungle and colonialist psyche. Phil Marlowe’s life takes him through the darkest heart of Depression-era LA. He regularly witnesses the horrors of pre-modern culture, and takes a drink in response. The drink rarely helps.

The High Window is the third case Marlowe took that he needed a novel’s length of words to yap about. Marlowe rarely talks at any length unless he’s figuring something out, so it makes sense that after a case he’d talk himself through the whole thing, trying in vain to find out the real meaning behind everything – like why the world is full of such bastards.

In the case of The High Window, Marlowe is employed by a rich widow named Murdock whom he describes as a “warhorse.” Mrs. Murdock swills port and demands that he recover a valuable coin, the Brasher Doubloon. She’d also like him to get her son to divorce his lower class wife and not any questions about her family.

The plot, just like real life, is complicated. It involves blackmail, social class disputes, sex affairs, double crosses, pornography, and what have you. Over the course of the book, Marlowe happens across a few murders. He asks questions about the Murdocks and he gets answers.

The plot is so complex it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the writing and now good it is. The High Window is written by Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was one of the best writers to ever use modern American English. Few have written sentences as clear and descriptive and poignant as his. Ernest Hemingway was one of his peers; Cormac McCarthy is another. Both came after Chandler, and Chandler is wittier than both. Chandler can write a sentence like, “She had a smile that I felt in my hip pocket,” and get away with it.

Chandler’s style fully realizes Marlowe’s voice and character. Chandler’s also a smart enough writer that Marlowe’s investigations lead him to realizations of great psychological depth. Marlowe probably didn’t know what psychology was; if he did, he’d think it was a load of hooey. But to him, finding out who did what is less interesting than finding out why. He’s less interested in finding out who stole the Brasher Doubloon and who murdered to cover it up than why Murdock called him in the first place and why she is a widow. He finds out all of these things because he is a good detective.

Chandler’s books do not contain one central mystery of whodunnit, but instead explore the intricate and intimate secrets of people who are rotten. His characters are always rotten for more than one reason, and Marlowe finds out what some of those reasons are. Mrs. Murdock, it turns out, is an especially rotten woman.

The genre of detective fiction lends itself to clever investigation of deep, societal truths. It became prominent during the Great Depression, when such investigation was necessary. Raymond Chandler was probably the best writer working within the genre at the time. We could use someone like him today, sending Phil Marlowe into our tortured streets to find out what the hell is wrong with us.

At the very least, he could remind us that we could all use a good drink. Even if it might not help.

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Drank Anti-Energy Drink

Drank is an anti-energy drink, which means that it does the opposite of an energy drink. Instead of  making you more alert, awake and hyper, it makes you relaxed, drowsy, and comatose.

Because of the drink’s cool graphic design and clever advertising slogans, it has been described by a scientist quoted on Wikipedia as, “The worst thing I’ve seen on the street since the making of candy cigarettes.” Apparently it’s a bad thing to market drinks to children that will put them in drugged stupors.

The active ingredients of Drank are rose hips, melatonin, and valerian root. These are natural sedatives. In the tradition of our modern culture, a cleverly named company called Innovative Beverage Group Inc. decided to chemically process them into a carbonated drink.

The drink works. It makes you relaxed and drowsy. But it is no more effective than chewing valerian root or drinking rose hip tea, and it tastes a hell of a lot worse.

It has a faintly artificial grapelike taste, like grape flavored fluoride at a dentist’s office, but more sugary. Fortunately, this taste is relatively mild, and it is mostly overpowered by the carbonation. There is no aftertaste.

The effects of Drank become interesting when it is mixed with alcohol. The effects of the valerian become apparent, and will induce severe wooziness. Wikipedia warns that this combination could be lethal. It is not a pleasant sensation.

Drank can, however, be used as a painkiller. I suffered some severe injuries two weeks ago, and one can of Drank has helped subside their pain. According to those who use herbal remedies instead of chemically processed beverages, valerian and rose hips are supposed to be useful as natural painkillers. They work fine in Drank too. The drink is especially effective when mixed with codeine.

That last sentence is not funny because, apparently, the beverage was inspired as a legal alternative to something called “purple drank,” which according to Wikipedia is a recreational drug “popular in the hip-hop community in the southern United States” made primarily from prescription cough syrup containing codeine. I have taken prescription cough syrup in the past and have never had a particularly awesome time while doing so. I don’t see the appeal.

And so I have to wonder who thought it would be a good idea to mix several naturally occurring sedatives together in a foul-tasting carbonated beverage. Why is this better than consuming valerian or rose hips or melatonin in their natural forms? Why is this drink necessary?

It’s not. It was made because someone thought it would be cool. It was made as an easy-t0-buy alternative to a stupid drink containing prescription cough syrup.

It’s no more necessary than, say, an energy drink.

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Monster Energy Drink

Monster is the only energy drink that works for people who aren’t sissies.

Each can contains 16 fluid ounces of sugar, vitamin B, caffeine, taurine, and amphetamines specifically designed to give heart attacks to farm animals. This concentration of drugs, chemicals, and sugar should be enough to set an average person’s heart racing, perhaps fatally.

Sleep-deprived caffeine addicts like myself are lucky to become mildly more alert, which is more of a reaction than we get from wussy energy drinks like Red Bull.

After all, cans of Monster are twice as big as average Red Bull cans for the same price, which means that they have twice as much energy-boosting power. Also, the graphic design of their logo is twice as hardcore and intimidating.

The stuff that comes inside each Monster can tastes exactly like sugar mixed with assorted chemicals. Once you get past the carbonation, you can recognize that it tastes a lot like bubble gum, except caffeinated.

But the taste doesn’t matter. What matters is the power you’ll get from drinking this stuff. Overcaffeinated people with psychological disorders like myself will perk up after a can or two or three. Normal people will become anxious, agitated, and possibly suffer cardiac arrest after a few sips.

By this measure, Monster is a solid drink. Solid drinks are defined by their being tests of endurance. Whiskey and motor oil are other examples of solid drinks.

Speaking of which, Monster also works well when combined with hard alcohol. It mixes well with vodka, which has no taste, and with whiskey, which makes it taste a bit like cherry cola or cough syrup.

Either way, Monster makes those who consume it feel less drunk and more hyper. This means that they’re more likely to reckless things, which is always fun.

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