freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
We haven't had a proper movie club in ages - movie club being, by definition, a session where we watch two movies with a putative thematic link, back-to-back, while eating Stuff On Rolls and imbibing alcohol to the level prescribed by the quality of the cinematic offerings. Sunday night wasn't technically a movie club, as we only watched one movie, but I propose to follow the principle of thematic linking between unlikely and disparate narratives by comparing the film, which was Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, with my current state of work existence. (I'm glad I checked the director's name, incidentally, I'd remembered it as Boon Jong Ho, which is quite possibly a dreadful insult in Korean).

Given that Snowpiercer is (a) a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, extremely violent semi-thriller, (b) graced by Bearded!Chris Evans doing a surprisingly dark and driven tone which is the antithesis of his American Captaining, and (c) batshit insane and completely surreal, I should hasten to add that it doesn't have that much in common with my current state of work existence. My life right now is tragically missing any iteration of Chris Evans and is neither violent, dark, nor, currently, particularly surreal. What it does have in common with the film is a certain thematic tendency to a habitat characterised by continuous and ongoing movement which is dictated by Powers That Be who are severely above me in a hierarchy and whose dictates cannot be resisted without Negative Consequences. Not that my boss has a machine-gun or anything, but still.

Snowpiercer is (apparently extremely loosely) based on a graphic novel, and has as its bizarre premise a reverse-global-warming experiment gone wrong, plunging the world into catastrophic global winter in which the only survivors are hurtling around Europe/Asia in a very long, very socially stratified train on a circular train track. It is quite mad, and very dark, and very tense, and very beautifully filmed, and its culmination is cathartic beyond belief after the build-up and the increasingly horrific revelations. Its grimy lower-class protagonists fight their way up the train in balletic, impressionistic outbursts of extreme violence, and the upper-class train carriages are surreal pockets of hallucinogenic, heightened colour and bizarrely artificial life - they feel more like Doctor Who alien scenarios than anything else. Bonus Tilda Swinton being an almost unrecognisable caricature, and an overall impression of vivid nightmare. It's a very good film, for a given value of "very good film" which assumes "is a total mind-fuck."

My working life is characterised by a faculty administrative restructure, which has necessitated a sort of frantic game of Musical Offices as we all attempt to keep working while repeatedly relocating. I moved my stuff out of my office on Friday, along with my next door colleague's stuff as she happened to be in New Zealand, so they could knock a new door into the wall between us. My attempts to delay this process by a vital few weeks were steamrollered quite handily by various managers and Deans and what have you, because apparently this needs to be done Right Now owing to the inscrutable whims of builders, and the devil take the end-of-term pressures which have both me and Colleague at the mercy of continual angsty students in all this. The work should have been done over the weekend, but predictably wasn't. We are both squatting in temporary offices in the fortuitous absence of their rightful owners, but may, builders willing and the creek don't rise, relocate by Thursday or so. This will be temporary, as in the next couple of weeks both of us will have to up sticks and move completely to totally different offices in the opposite corner of the building. Since the necessary renovations haven't been done in the new offices, we'll move into offices a few down the corridor from the eventual location, and then move again when the new offices are ready. Colleague's move will be even more transient, as she's resigned and is moving to New Zealand at the end of the year. I am rather discombobulated by the change, and by the weirdness of being in someone else's working space.

Fortunately, as stated, my boss doesn't have a machine gun, and moreover looks nothing like Tilda Swinton, but I am nonetheless more than slightly inclined to see myself as hurtling indefinitely into the cold. Things would be materially improved by Chris Evans, even the grim and grimy version. I find Chris Evans curiously comforting.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I can't say that it was official Movie Club, because Rule 1 of Movie Club is that we compare two movies, however tenuously connected. However, Sunday night's spontaneous movie-watching with jo&stv did fulfil one of the secondary functions of Movie Club, which is to make us watch movies we otherwise wouldn't. I have randomly and without justification re-watched both Star Trek reboots in the last couple of weeks, in an outbreak possibly not unrelated to randomly and without justification reading rather nicely-characterised slow-burn Kirk/Bones slash I happened randomly upon, but there is nonetheless no real way I would have seen Space Station 76 unprompted. However, now I have. And I have Thoughts.

This is billed as comedy, but it's only really comedy in the blackest, most parodic sense; it's satire, verging at times on allegory, and what it most resembles is a dastardly fusion of Star Trek and The Ice Storm, supposing you'd allowed the resulting horrific miscegenation to be scripted by Chekhov, or possibly Kurt Vonnegut. (It also shares some distant, cousinly DNA with both Galaxy Quest and Pigs In Space). It's a 2014 film set on a space station in a future imagined from the vantage point of the 70s. This of course means tacky special effects, plastic asteroids, Tupperware spaceships, sexual liberation, cigarettes, and mad outbreaks of 70s boots and mini-dresses. However, it also allows for the actually quite powerful essentialising of issues - primarily sexuality and gender - through the exaggeration which inevitably happens when you view 70s caricatures through a contemporary lens. The space setting strips away extraneous detail, leaving the deeply dysfunctional relationships to enact themselves starkly against the pastel plastic of the background and the isolation of space. The film was developed from a stage play, and you can see it in its scale, its minimalism, its horrible intimacy.

Space Station 76 is quite often funny, but one seldom laughs without wincing - the humour is close to the bone, frequently productive more of discomfort than amusement. (Some of the few places where both Jo and I unabashedly laughed were the therapist-bot sequences, which are both horrendously cynical and irresistibly funny to anyone who's ever been in therapy). The cast is generally very good, despite representing archetypes rather than actual personalities (the Sad Captain, the Unfulfilled Career Woman, the Monstrous Mother); the whole thing is played with a sort of deliberate, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness which never quite allows you to immerse yourself in the characters. I say "allegory" because the whole thing is so self-consciously artificial that it positions the viewer very interestingly in a space which denies the possibility of willing suspension of disbelief: you are poised in a critical space outside the events, ejected equally by discomfort and unreality.

I wouldn't say this is a great movie, and its black humour at times is deeply unsettling, but it's an interesting one, and one I'm glad I've seen. It's really doing things that are far more sophisticated than they appear at first glance. Also, clearly, sexual liberation does not equal happiness, and in fact exaggerates unhappiness with resentment that pressing sex button A does not produce happiness at the vending machine slot as it clearly ought to. Which is clearly true today, and clearly the point.

(My subject line is David Bowie, because that's where I am in the Great Car Sound System Alphabetical Trek. Arcade Fire, Bed On Bricks, Belle and Sebastian, Crowded House, David Bowie. (Apparently all my Clash is under The rather than Clash). We're going to be here for a while. The quote is from "Slip Away", quite my favourite track on Heathen, which is sort of early late-period-Bowie. The alphabetical order of album is disconcerting me slightly as I do prefer listening chronologically, particularly with Bowie; as it is, we've gone Aladdin Sane (later early-period rock(ish) with jazz bits) to Diamond Dogs (early middle-period apocalyptic glam rock, Black Tie White Noise isn't on this mp3 player because it annoys me) to Heathen (early late-period, lord I don't know, regressive alt-rock with an electronica element?) to Heroes (late middle-period Brian-Eno-shaped Berlin Years) to Hunky Dory (early early-period folk/rock/pop/who the hell knows, at any rate I've wandered around the department all day singing "Quicksand", as one does because it's a bloody earworm of note). As whiplash goes it's rather enjoyable, in fact. Weirdly enough, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Bowie.)
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
The weather is officially absurd: Cape Town traditionally does February heatwaves, but usually not for so long, or so hot. It was pushing 40 for a couple of days, and I survived the weekend only by spending a portion of it submerged in jo&stv's pool, sipping champagne. I'm insomniac and headachy and stressed and tend to lie awake in my superheated bedroom panting gently and wishing for a nice comfortable death, preferably by hypothermia or freeze-ray. It's like the sultry heat before a highveld storm, only continuously, relentlessly, and without the catharsis of the actual rain. Am not happy. Am clearly on the wrong continent. I know the northern hemisphere is having a horrible winter, and I'm sorry if you're frozen or flooded or snowbound, but honestly, this is its own kind of unspeakable.

I shall proceed to avoid the horror by somewhat belatedly chronicling our last Movie Club, which was the weekend before last. Jo's choice: theme, Abused Sexualised Girls Strike Back And Kick Butt, although to variable effect. The films, in a classic whiplash configuration, and encompassing frankly improbable extremes in terms of thoughtfulness and political acumen: Sucker Punch, and Hard Candy.

Sucker Punch is a terrible film. I'm really glad to have seen it, because as a pure distillation of ingrained Hollywood sexism and exploitation it's an extremely powerful document, but it's an astonishingly bad piece of storytelling. I have to admit it has a certain amount of visual style and the germ, somewhere in the putrid depths, of a potentially interesting idea, but it's otherwise without redeeming feature. The most terrifying thing about it is, I think, the fact that watching it gave me the sneaking, inescapable fear that Zach Snyder, its perpetrator, is actually under the delusion that he was celebrating female empowerment. Which he really wasn't. The premise involves skimpily-clad girls incarcerated in a variety of institutions under highly sexualised threat, and escaping from it into layers of fantasy in which they fulfil video-game-style quests with the maximum possible amount of stylishly-shot action sequences, guns, swordfights, leering villainy and massive explosions. Given that the film skips between giant samurai statues, Nazi steampunk zombies, orcs, dragons, planes, zeppelins and Bioshock-style Big Daddies, the whole thing boils down to what Stv defined as "MashCeption: The Music Video". Or, possibly MashCeption, the Video Game. Something entailing lots of mash-ups and multi-levelled dream sequences and loads of visual style at the expense of plot, at any rate.

And in the final analysis it's about absolutely the opposite of female empowerment. It does no good whatsoever to take abused women and give them big guns and swords and allow them to kick butt if (a) all said women are vacant, childlike blanks whose abuse at the hands of lecherous monsters is dwelt on with slavering fascination, (b) they're all hyper-sexualised and skimpily if not fetishistically clad, (c) their every move in the "empowering" fantasy is dictated by benevolent, rescuing male figures, (d) the bulk of them end up dead, and (e) the whole thing is shot like a particularly hyperactive and clichéd wet dream. It's ultimately a deeply ugly film that spat me out the other end in a state of stunned disbelief. But also with a sort of horrible satisfaction, because after all the film simply takes to the logical extreme the kinds of objectifications and exploitations which are actually at the heart of a frighteningly high proportion of Hollywood blockbuster movies, in which women are ravaged, empty things splayed across the screen for the gratification of a gaze which is assumed to be entitled, unconstrained, heterosexual and male. Our cultural systems are pretty broken; this film should not be excoriated as an aberration but as a symptom of a system whose darker corners, thus mercilessly exposed, are nauseating.

Hard Candy is a very good film. We watched these in the right order, because after Sucker Punch it was a bracing blast of fresh air. Its take on the theme highlights Sucker Punch as the bizarro mirror world thing it is: Hard Candy is still about male sexual predator versus pubescent girl, but the power poles are ruthlessly dissected, examined and reassembled. I'm not going to talk about the film's plot detail, because its effect is very spoiler-vulnerable, but it's exquisitely cast, shot, paced and constructed. Compared to the gratuitous CGI sprawl of Sucker Punch it's a minimalist work of art, effectively two characters and one set. Ellen Page is revelatory (also, mad props to Ellen Page for her recent coming out as gay, both a brave and an important thing), and Patrick Wilson is as good as he always is, which is very. The cinematography is amazing: the house which forms the set is all clean lines and modern, blocky colours, and the camera lingers on these for moments of full-screen primary colour which punctuate and pace the action, underlining the film's overall mood of analytic contemplation. It's also a very tense viewing experience, full of build and shock and horrified expectation and, I have to say, a fair amount of vindictive satisfaction.

Watching it in tandem with Sucker Punch highlights the differences, particularly the extent to which Page's character is almost entirely unsexualised, with a matter-of-fact thoughtfulness about her which undercuts potentially flirty moments and allows her to swing between childlike innocence and tomboyish determination. But the juxtaposition also demands that the film be subjected to the same questions: is this about female power? does it escape the exploitative presentation of women seen in the blockbuster? And of course you have to be aware that the highly-charged power relationship the film depicts is fully capable of being sexualised even given Page's performance; of mining the young body under the lens for purposes of titillation rather than thought. It also, despite the film's plot twists, runs the risks of demonising the victim, presenting her as damaged and inhuman: the film's violence is both more restrained and more real than Sucker Punch's. But on the whole I think my vote is for success rather than failure on political grounds. It's an uncomfortable watch, but for the right reasons - because it shakes up your assumptions, explores and redefines rather than adopting, externalises the rot in our cultural constructs rather than either eliding or exploiting them. I'm not sure "enjoyed" is the right word, but this is a good film, and I respect and admire what it achieved. Although, my pervy fairy-tale fancying heart being what it is, they could have done a lot more with the Red Riding Hood motif. I'm just sayin'.

My subject line is from the Eurythmics, "Wide Eyed Girl", mostly because I automatically think of Annie Lennox when I think of women kicking butt. Also Buffy, River, Phryne Fisher and Captain Marvel, but song lyrics are traditional.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Much-Ado-About-Nothing Branagh Much-Ado-About-Nothing Whedon

We have this rather erratically-implemented movie club thing, where we select two movies with a related theme and watch them back-to-back, with a break for food, traditionally something on rolls. (In this case, chicken prego, and a dashed good thing too). Finding thematic links between films is actually ridiculously easy, on account of (a) humans are pattern-recognising animals, but mostly (b) there is nothing new under the sun, particularly in Hollywood. This time my choice cannot be said to have stretched our comparative ingenuity to the utmost: we watched the Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing, mostly for nostalgia, kicks and to establish a baseline, followed by the recent Joss Whedon version of same. It was a deeply Shakespearian afternoon, and a fascinating juxtaposition which achieved in spades the kind of enriched viewing through comparison and emphasis which is the whole point of the exercise. (Although, note to self: I possibly need to invest in a hearty supply of toffees for our next movie club, I can't seem to stop myself from commenting out loud while we watch and it has to be maddening to my co-watchers. Gluing my jaws together probably beats an actual gag.)

I adore Shakespeare because of his language, which practically defines the category of "the good shit" for my dodgy getting-high-on-words proclivities. Much Ado is simultaneously one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, because of the hyper-linguistic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, and one of my least favourite, because that flow of (slightly undergraduate, insult-based) wit isn't ever quite enough to mask the brutality and basic misogyny of the Hero plot. To a greater or lesser extent both the Branagh and the Whedon versions modernise the play, but there's no updating that beastly subtext of women as objects of exchange whose value is in the male perception of their virginity. For a comedy the play is surprisingly cynical about romantic love: Beatrice and Benedick's re-negotiation and rediscovery of each other is drastically undercut by the absolutely superficial nature of the Hero/Claudio relationship, which slides continually in the language of its representation into purely venal images of value and wealth. And that aborted wedding scene is simply brutal.

It feels more brutal in the Branagh version, I think perhaps because it's such an exuberant film and the contrast in tones is thus particularly cruel; Whedon's film is moodier, not just because of the black-and-white, but because of slightly darker undercurrents of unease and unhealth in the relationships, and less emphasis on the spark and snap of the language. If nothing else watching the two films together made me realise how utterly, beautifully trained British actors are - they inhabit and embody the words in a way that even brilliant American actors don't. American mumbling is probably more naturalistic, but I'll take enunciation any day. The tonal contrast is very strong in the different settings as well - the Branagh has that idyllic pastoral thing going and a strong sense of relaxed, exuberant peasantry as backdrop, whereas the Whedon is a tighter, smaller, rather restrained setting, more mannered and less earthy. Whedon's black-and-white format is effective, as is the weirdly unspecific periodicity - it often feels 50s in costume and manners, but there are cellphones and very modern cars. We decided in the end that the hints were towards a sort of Mafia setting, which is a nifty interpretation of the names (Don Pedro etc), but also one of the few modern Western milieus in which that nasty feudal-structure / violence / women-as-objects vibe is realistically present. Also, it has to be said - I covet Joss Whedon's house, which is where the whole thing was filmed. Beautiful spaces. Jealous.

It's very telling, to watch not just two different directors' interpretations back-to-back, but two different sets of actors in the roles. High points: both Beatrices are amazing, with enormous emotional strength which made both Benedicks feel weaker by comparison. On mature reflection I don't think that's entirely to do with the actors, though, Shakespeare's play simply constructs Benedick as a bit of a twit, a resonance which both versions pick up on with rather entertaining slapstick elements. (Although I have to say Amy Acker is also very good at these). I loved Clark Gregg's Leonato, but Whedon's film gives him comparatively less to do (although he was particularly great in the Hero denunciation scene). Nathan Fillion's very funny Dogberry was a far more restrained and nuanced interpretation than that egregiously horrible Michael Keaton one; the security guard schtick was fun, as was the presence of those two lads from Britanick (they do Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses and Trailer For Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever), who appear to have a mutual fanboy thing going with Joss. Hero doesn't have much of a presence in the play, but Kate Beckinsale's version (wtf? Kate Beckinsale? Good grief, I'd completely forgotten this was her first big role) is far better acted than Jillian Morgese's, which was a complete non-event. Sean Maher's Don John is beautifully, slitheringly evil and makes you realise how utterly dismal poor Keanu was in that role, my peculiar fondness for the match between the character and the actor's tongue-tied physicality notwithstanding. (I also really enjoyed the gender-swapped Conrade).

I love both these movies, enough that my feminist spluttering at its nastier bits doesn't overcome my simple joy both at Shakespeare's language and wit, and at the directors' and actors' enjoyment of same. It was lovely to see all the old Whedonverse favourites trotting out their Shakespeare stuff, it gave the play an intimacy and immediacy which was very effective. But I came away from the watching experience mostly with a sort of nebulous wish for a time machine and a cohort of RADA trainers, to spirit Whedon's cast away for some forcible re-education in diction and emphasis for about a year before they actually filmed. Shakespeare's language is brilliant, but archaic and at times convoluted; you have to spit it, not swallow it, if you want to convey its nuance to a modern audience. Half the time I had to seriously concentrate on making sense of it, to an extent where I wondered sometimes if the actors themselves were making sense of it, and that's not a feeling the Branagh version ever gives you. I fear I'm still a pervy Brit-fondler at heart.

Subject line is obviously Much Ado, Leonato describing the Beatrice/Benedick relationship. Shame on you if you didn't recognise it.

not really cloud nine

Wednesday, 24 July 2013 02:22 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Movie club! Last weekend we watched Jo's choice, which was a pairing of Cloud Atlas with The Nines, the purported theme "films composed of separate, vaguely connected stories using the same actors as different characters and with weird science fictional elements". The food pairing: fancy artisanal sausage and mash, for no good reason other than it was good. (Usually it's something on rolls).

cloudatlasI'm glad movie club prodded me into seeing Cloud Atlas, I've been rather afraid of it. It's one of the averagely intimidating David Mitchell novels (i.e. very), and despite having read it a couple of times I cherish only the vaguest recollection of some of its detail. (The futuristic Asian setting and the 19th-century composer bit stick out, for some reason). The buzz on the 'net has also been somewhat varied: some people thought the film worked, others really didn't. I would have thought it fell into the general category of "cordially unfilmable", personally, but on the whole I was agreeably surprised. It kicked in as slightly over-long and slow to start, but the editing of the various strands of story together, and the highlighting of the thematic links between them, was brilliantly done. It was visually very powerful, and its images have stayed with me since I saw it. It was also very well cast, and while the weird re-racifying of characters jarred me a lot (white actors as Asian characters, black as white etc), I finally conceded that the blurring of racial boundaries was a sort of deliberate thematic effect which wasn't entirely lame. It's absolutely worth sitting through the first part of the credits for the quick picture gallery of the actors in their different roles - some of them are completely unrecognisable. It has a rather slow start, but on the whole it's an interesting and absorbing film, often cruel and tragic, but achieving a surprising level of fidelity to the mood, tone and focus of the novel. If something as disparate as Cloud Atlas can be said to have a focus. Discuss.

ninesI'm not entirely positive about The Nines. This was an odd indie thing starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom are extremely likeable actors; it featured three separate stories, all present-day LA, with RR and Melissa as different characters, and some really odd connections and resonances between the three scenarios. Overall, though, this felt like an interesting idea which the film-makers singularly failed to develop in any ultimately satisfying way. The first two thirds or so were creepy and interesting, the moments where the scenarios blurred together were genuinely strange and threatening, but the film's explanation of itself really didn't live up to the promise of the set-up. It felt both over-explained and unconvincing, somehow. But I enjoyed its self-consciousness about narrative, its focus on characters who were storytellers and worldbuilders, and whose lives and skills reflected the way in which the movie tried to deconstruct itself. I don't think it succeeded, but it was an interesting try.

Next up, possibly: random Shakespeare adaptations. Julie Taymor's version of The Tempest, and Ian McKellan's weird fascist Richard III. Or, if that seems too indigestible, one of the above plus something unlikely and only tangentially related. Taking suggestions.

Drive-in Saturday

Sunday, 28 April 2013 10:08 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Movie club! As you know, Bob, we (being me and jo&stv, occasionally with the EL) have a technically monthly movie club, whose simple and stated purpose is to watch two movies back-to-back, preferably films none of us have seen before, with a common theme or possibly "common" "theme" and excellent food of the eat-on-your-lap variety. The proceedings (and discernment of theme) tend to be well lubricated by lots of relaxing alcohol, which is very rewarding to the critical facilities. We rotate the responsibility for choice and cooking. We're terribly erratic timing-wise, but have managed to actually achieve two movie clubs in the last two months, the first of which I didn't ever get around to blogging on account of general wossname. I shall now proceed to Catch Up, TM. Reviews lurking under a cut, on account of length. )

Movie Club: dislocating your neck with rapid thematic transitions since 2009. Watch this space for further updates!
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Today I appear to be listening only to music from bands in the letter C. Reading from the top in the pile of random CDs which recently arrived from Loot and still need to be ripped to my work machine, these are The Cure, King Crimson and The Carpenters. I accept no responsibilities for muscle trauma resulting from your conceptual whiplash, thank you very much.

Talking about concatenations by odd thematic link, we had Movie Club on Friday night, with a theme of vampire movies which was - gasp - not actually chosen by me! Stv was, in fact, guilty of the choice, probably more accurately described as "really odd and thoughtful semi-art-house vampire movies", with a side order of "human emotional realism and pathos arising from unnaturally prolongued life". When I say that The Hunger wasn't in the mix but darned well should have been, you will (if an educated vampire-fancier) immediately realise that the movies we watched must have been Guillermo del Toro's Cronos, and the Norwegian Swedish Let The Right One In. Neither of which I'd seen, incidentally (although I have a copy of the original Let The Right One In novel, which I haven't got around to reading yet, does it count?), so I consider my vampire-fondling street cred to have been materially raised by the evening's watching.

Cronos made me realise exactly why Guillermo del Toro was keen on a Mountains of Madness adaptation, and why he'd be perfect for it. While being considerably beyond my ick-barriers in terms of the usual delToroid gaping wounds and peeling flesh, Cronos made me incredibly happy because it's completely and perfectly Lovecraftian. It has the fascination with the past, with ancient tomes filled with occulted, terrible, secret knowledge; the greed and blind obsession of men desperate for particular kinds of power at any cost; the occluded mystery and inexplicable significance of supernatural manifestations; and the inevitable self-destruction which results from grasping at the forbidden. No-one does "hideous things man was not meant to know" better than Lovecraft, and del Toro gets that, perfectly. He's materially assisted by the cinematography, which is atmospheric and often oddly beautiful - the framing of the last scene in particular was heartbreaking. (Guillermo Navarro, the cinematographer, also shot Pan's Labyrinth and both Hellboy films, and, oddly enough, From Dusk Till Dawn).

Cronos was particularly fascinating, though, because del Toro also has a far more real and meaningful grasp on actual human emotion than Lovecraft ever did (other than fear, of course); the grandfather/grand-daughter relationship at the heart of the film is warm and vital and often endearingly sweet, which makes the bloody horror of the film's denouement all the more telling. Mad props to the child actor playing Aurora, who speaks precisely one word in the entire movie, but manages to convey volumes through her silence. (Also, Ron Perlman is always watchable, if hammy beyond ham. Seeing his cheerfully dim lout stumble through the film somehow made me want to see him play Bulldog Drummond). As a vampire movie it's also interesting in its ability to render explicit the costs of immortality, and the abject, bodily grossness of an addiction to blood-drinking.

I don't think Cronos is a great film in absolute terms, but I think it offers an almost perfect rendition of its chosen tropes. Let The Right One In, on the other hand, is a great film. It's exquisitely shot and beautifully paced, and the story-telling has a minimalist restraint which is peculiarly satisfying and deeply evocative. Once again the film is carried as much by its child actors, who are wonderful, as by the stark chill of its snowscapes which so powerfully underpin its exploration of childhood themes - innocence, trust, dependence and, ultimately, power.

I loved Let the Right One for its exploration of the vampire myth. For such a deliberate and thoughtful film, it's actually using an extremely conventional version of the vampire - supernatural strength and speed, sensitivity to light, inability to enter without an invitation. All that's missing is the fangs. Nonetheless Eli is anything but a stereotype, a fascinating construction skating with exquisite poise on the liminal edges of child/adult, predator/vulnerable, monstrous/pathetic. One responds to her with a curious mix of terror and empathy, as does Oscar himself. In fact, empathy is a powerful device in the film; you cannot help but sympathise with the dogged, desperate incompetence of Eli's protector, with the narrow but likeable world of her victims, even with the abusive home life of Oscar's main tormentor. Ultimately, though, the film suggests that Eli is not the monster; her violence and her disturbingly drifting identity (this film does incredible things with gender) are simply an externalisation of the strange undercurrents of alienation and violence and eroticism which underlie Oscar's everyday world.

The vampire in the twentieth century has become internalised, psychologised; rather than othering the monster with proper terror, we seem to be driven to understand it. Both these films represent a highly-developed form of that impulse. They deny the easy erotic appeal which motivates many more popular versions, in their empathetic address to the unnaturalness, the loneliness, the physical distastefulness of being a vampire. If the monster is not in the vampire, disturbingly, it must be in us.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Among the approximately twelve million things I haven't done this week is to blog about the Sunday evening movie club - it was good! The quest for Ever Greater Values Of Rolls Filled With Stuff led me to simmer an entire gammon ham in cider for a couple of hours and then coat it with honey mustard and brown sugar and bake it until the whim took me to stop, thereafter serving thick slices with caramelised red onions and baby greens on wholewheat or Portuguese rolls. We ate the entire bloody thing. I'd made chocolate mousse, but it was entirely redundant, there are still four servings in the 'fridge. Anyone who visits has to eat one before they're allowed to leave. Sorry. I will not tolerate waste.

So, as you may recall, the theme of this movie club was "Popcorn movies we managed to miss on circuit but rather wanted to see", although I'll take a side bet on "Conflicting groups of supernaturally enabled individuals searching for meaning and identity with the dubious assistance of betraying father figures, and partially under water".

We started with Pirates of the Caribbean number the whatever, infinite, what is it, four, now? Huh. Jack Sparrow is becoming an ever-more-tic'y caricature of himself - he is now, in fact, considerably more like Jack Sparrow than Jack Sparrow is. I also don't think he works as a romantic or heroic lead, as Jo pointed out - he's more of a supporting character, he needs a straight line to bounce off. I never thought I'd say it, but I missed the overly pretty gormlessness of Will and Elizabeth; without them the film feels off centre, unbalanced. Attempting to revolve around a staggering eccentric is a mission doomed to failure, or at the very least drunken acrobatics. The missionary/mermaid romance was not a substitute straight line, it was cute and gormless but insubstantial, and seriously lacked payoff. What, you can't tell us what happened to them, film? Not cricket. All of which notwithstanding, it's still a fun movie to watch - slightly less slapstick than its predecessors (to which I say, woe, I have a reprehensible fondness for slapstick), slightly different vibe with all the London bits (grime! wigs! kings! swinging from chandeliers!), an indecent plethora of captains (Blackbeard was cool, as were the bottled ships), and some seriously dishy Spaniards, all goth and driven. I also completely approve of any storyline involving Ponce de León, if only because he has such a ridiculous name. And the mermaids were beautiful.

X-Men: First Class was a considerably better film, and a more than respectable entry into the superhero stakes. It was unexpectedly serious - I mean, I thought I'd come out of the film needing to research obscure mutants, not the Cuban Missile Crisis. I now know rather a lot more about the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby remedying a lack caused by the fact that I had to choose between history and geography in my second year of high school and went for geography1, so that there are wide swathes of the last four hundred years which are a dimly-sensed fog of vague impressions to me. (I also had to research the mutants, of course. Riptide! He's cool.) That underlying seriousness is, of course, absolutely intrinsic to the X-Men mythology, which grapples continuously with issues of prejudice and social control, and which is why Brett Ratner should be fired out of a missile tube into concrete. This film is carried not only by a solid script, but by the lead actors - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are compelling and believable, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw is genius casting - and by the high stakes and tension of the crisis, which becomes absurdly heightened by the injection of superpowers into a potentially catastrophic stand-off. The young mutants are an enjoyable bunch, and I rather liked Rose Byrne's Moira. Weak links in the acting chain were Mystique and Emma Frost, sadly, as both are, I think, pivotal to the story's themes and shape. Magneto's hat is, however, still silly (although not as silly as Wolverine's hair, spotted in an extremely enjoyable cameo); most of all, I wish the bloody Americans would pronounce "Xavier" correctly.

Right! I know blogging has been a bit intermittent of late, mostly because I'm tired and unable to think; since my copy of Skyrim arrived this morning, you can confidently expect that I won't blog much for a while, either, other than to whinge about whatever Skyrim's equivalent is of the cliff racer sneaking up behind me again. My state of non-brain means I've been swearing at Dragon Age II, on more or less masochistic principles, for the last couple of days, so a change of scenery is very much indicated. Skyrim beckons! I believe it's pretty.

1 My experience of school history had been shaped entirely by a terrible teacher's version of a terrible curriculum comprising politically re-jigged Zimbabwean history and an entirely dry version of ancient Greece and Rome accessed by copying out our textbooks. The geography was terribly useful in the DMing stakes and a certain facility with map-reading, but I still deeply regret the moment's hesitation in the corridor outside the third-form classroom, which ended up with me going left instead of right more or less on a whim.

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Movie club again last night! stv's choice, which was ostensibly "Road Movies" but in fact turned out to be "non-Hollywood politically sub-texted road movies set in rural areas of third-world countries and focusing on revelations of sexual infidelity". This is, of course, because there are no new ideas any more, but mostly because humans are pattern-recognising creatures and will make links between any two anythings juxtaposed. It worked very well last night. We watched Y tu mamá también and White Wedding, both of which were thoroughly enjoyable. Food check: abandoned the rare beef fillet in favour of giant cooked gammon on post-Christmas special, plus various Things To Put On Bread (snoek pâté, roasted red pepper hummus, camembert). Yum. Also, cold, which was necessary as Cape Town continues to continue hot.

I didn't see Y tu mamá también when it first came out, possibly because of the hype, but mostly, I suspect, because it looks like a Serious and Emotionally Difficult Film, and I avoid those like the plague most of the time. I am incredibly glad to have seen it - it's an amazing piece of cinema, which manages to be funny and filthy and affectionately real about teenaged boys while also delivering large quantities of pathos and insight, as well as ongoing political commentary which is all the more punchy for being hands-off and in the background. As represented, Mexico is scary, both in its poverty and its privilege, and horribly familiar. (As, in fact, are the teenaged boys - it's a bit odd, to watch this kind of film with my kind of job, where I am in daily contact with teenaged boys. I find it all too terribly believable that this lost, stoned, hyper-sexual ineptitude might go on in the bits of their lives I don't see). Mostly, though, I loved the way this film was made. It's real and gritty, the (good lord, wildly frequent) sex scenes are disturbingly un-soft-focus, but the whole thing is framed with a beautiful restraint and minimalism which delineates with a kind of detatched and rueful affection but doesn't insist on interpretation. Wonderful film.

I really didn't expect to enjoy White Wedding, which is a 2009 South African film about a hapless groom's attempts to get to his wedding in Cape Town, via the Eastern Cape. In fact, it's a blast to watch - a good-humoured, well-made, fast-moving romantic comedy which manages, in passing, to nod to, pillory and affectionately deconstruct a whole host of South African political subtexts. I'm amazed by how well they get away with some fairly howling stereotypes; black wedding couple negotiating the generational gaps between Westernised and traditional township weddings; black player best friend; white English tourist; rural black grannies and township mothers; and the delirious scene with the drunk black hero singing "Delarey" in an Afrikaner pub. It's full of happy little throwaway moments, characters and jokes which makes it busy and vibrant without actually detracting from the coherence of the overall plot. This movie honestly shouldn't be as much fun to watch as it was. Also, Cape Town scenes cause all onlookers to cheer and punch the air in civic loyalty.

gotta dance!

Monday, 13 December 2010 05:12 pm
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Movie club last night, this theme mine, and it finally settled out at "Movies about dance under extreme weather conditions": Singing in the Rain and White Nights. Secondary theme: conceptual whiplash. Also, Really Good Seared Rare Beef Fillet On Rolls, which seems to be establishing itself as another recurring motif in these evenings.

I'd forgotten how much fun Singing in the Rain is; how much of it is slapstick (mostly courtesy of Donald O'Connor, who suffers from an intriguing combination of hyperactivity and a rubber face), and how incredibly, incurably self-aware and ironic the whole thing is - about musicals, about film-making, about acting. It's not so much a musical as a commentary on musicals, which I think accounts for some of the more over-the top elements - the hamming, the goofiness, the extended, excessive musical numbers wedged into the plot at the drop of a hat belonging to the faint shadow of an excuse. It also made me realise that I've been spoiled by Fred Astaire, who is an accomplished dancer to an extent which makes Gene Kelly look rather sloppy. But it was a hugely fun watch, and sent all three of us wandering around thereafter singing "Singing in the Rain" joyously and largely unconsciously. I'm still doing it.

White Nights is an altogether different kettle of fish, assuming they're depressive Russian fish with dancers' muscles and half-assed political pretensions. It's a truly weird movie which I cannot actually say is "good" on any meaningful level, but which has managed to haunt me all day with its images, sequences and oppressive atmosphere. I wanted to re-watch it because the only thing I remember about it from my schooldays (I think I may have seen in the theatre with my mother when it came out, which was, whoa, 1985) was that incredible, blissful, unbelievable sequence with Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov doing a sort of modern dance/ballet/tap fusion in perfect step despite completely different body styles, in an empty practice hall, for no other reason than the hell of it. To me this is what dance is about - mutuality, synchronisation, the sheer pleasure of moving in harmony. It's the stylised and publicly acceptable embodiment of good sex. This film is scripted in giant, half-formed clichés; it has "Russian Communism Bad!" written all over it in letters of fire; its actually very good cast struggles against chronically poor pacing and the uneasy mixing of dramatic tropes with those of a spy thriller and a dance movie - but its dance sequences are pure joy. Neither Hines nor Baryshnikov are any good at all as actors when you give them actual words to say, but they communicate incredibly powerfully when all they have to do is move. Also, bonus points for the most deliriously decontextualised performance of Porgy and Bess I have ever seen.

I think White Nights may have weirded jo&stv out far more than the classic musical I was afraid they'd hate, but I'm very glad I saw both films again. Now I'm going to go home and load up that dance sequence, just because I can. In fact, here it is now. I love the discipline here, the mutuality, despite the fact that the body language is poles apart - Hines all loose-limbed and floppy, Baryshnikov perfectly controlled, but with the unbelievably evocative power which only a top-flight, classically trained dancer can impart to steps which are, technically speaking, slumming it.

And then I'm going to watch my entire Fred Astaire collection. While regretting, with every fibre of my being, that I stopped taking ballroom dance classes, because people flying with their feet on the ground is beautiful to watch, but it's better if you can do it yourself.
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Latest movie club last night, Jo's theme, that being "unsuccessful superheroes" (and, I have to say, supper consisting of superlatively good rolls with rare fillet steak and salad, on the Whole Earth Market principle, and tiramisu, because I felt like making it). We watched Mystery Men and Kick-Ass, which was an extremely interesting experience despite the fact that neither are great movies. Both are highly uneven in tone and effect; both have glorious moments of humour, commentary or heart, and inglorious moments of slapstick, camp, gross-out, or predictable, glossy Hollywood stupidity. They make me realise how much of a steel-boned electric eel the superhero mythos is; how it twists and turns in the film-maker's grasp, and frequently turns to sink its six-inch teeth into the unsuspecting camera's eye.

Mystery Men is actually bearable for a Ben Stiller movie, which from me is something akin to high praise. It has dated rather; I suspect some of its inversions and assaults on heroism would have been fresh at the time, when they seem old hat now. (I can certainly see its influence on Doctor Horrible). It is blessed with a mostly highly accomplished cast who seem to be enjoying themselves to an almost indecent extent, and production values which appear to have consisted of giving the art director a very large budget and a very large supply of very good drugs, and then locking them in a room full of B-movies. I loved the look of it, although it also made me realise that Western civilisation needs to feel very, very embarrassed about disco. And if nothing else, it won my heart by the delirious rightness of a supervillain called Casanova Frankenstein. (Geoffrey Rush, as usual leaving no scenery unchewed).

Kick-Ass is something else entirely; I can now see why there was so much of a furore over it when it came out, although, true to hypocritical type, Western civilisation needs to feel very, very embarrassed about the fact that it got its knickers in a twist about an 11-year-old girl saying "Fuck" a lot when it should really have been chilled to the marrow by the 11-year-old girl merrily and bloodily dismembering people with a dirty great sword. I'm a bit saddened by the way in which this film missed being a very bleak, black, vicious commentary on the nature of violence and moral polarity (what Tarantino could be if he wasn't a dick), copping out instead to a feelgood Hollywood ending which removed most of the teeth from the issues. I am, however, pleased to see that Nic Cage managed to sneak away from Nic Cage's Hair for the duration of the film, and deliver a performance bizarrely able to exist in the same sentence as words such as "nuance" and "restraint". Chloe Moretz was brilliant. Chloe Moretz is always brilliant. We are watching Miss Moretz's career with considerable interest.

To tell stories of superheroes is to grapple with the nature of agency, of individual responsibility, of violence, and no more so than when you attempt to do it ironically. Ironic superheroes lose the glossy, effortless ease of the heroic intervention, and thus deconstruct their own assumptions; they blow apart comic-book innocence to deal, inescapably, with the fact that at base all superheroes are crazed vigilante serial killers. Superhero conflicts dramatise the fact of our own human nature, which is unpleasant. The classic superhero defeats human evil, but it's not so simple when the gaze is ironic. Mystery Men turns that moral spotlight inward to the superheroes, Kick Ass turns it outward to the world, but under both spotlights we have to confront that people are either weaklings or bastards, the world is fucked and needs fixing. The black/white simplicity of the superhero dissolves under the postmodern gaze, and quite right too.

Mystery Men's play with violence is mostly to undercut it playfully (I rather fell for the concept of a "non-lethal tank"), but occasionally to redirect it senselessly - the fate of Captain Amazing was horrible and perfect (and Greg Kinnear is great. Why haven't I run across him before?). Kick-Ass is more interesting: the way in which wrong and right, good and evil, shifted between the characters and the hero/villain axes, was endlessly fascinating. Big Daddy is mild-mannered and says "Darn it!" where his daughter is cheerfully psychotic and says "Fuck", but he's the one who's perverted a child into a killer. The bad guys are murderously amoral druglords except when they're transfixed in front of the Youtube version of superhero violence, in which case they're ordinary guys uncomprehending before the bloodily psychotic. The usual ramifications of identity and masking in the superhero tropes here multiply endlessly out into the world at large: it's no accident that the dweebish central character is playing the Gay Best Friend ploy, it neatly shadows the inherent conflict at the heart of the idea that the immoral becomes moral when you're hiding behind a costume, or a mask, or a label.

Neither film, ultimately, worked particularly well. Mystery Men should have come with a warning label "CONTAINS EXCESSIVE CAMP" on the box; its self-consciously ridiculous extremes too often overcome its heart and humanity. Kick-Ass has the potential to be a genuinely dark and disturbing meditation on violence, our desensitisation to it, and our willingness to accept it under the guise of mythology; it cops out, however, losing conviction and courage to deliver, instead of the warped moral lesson of an eleven-year-old serial killer, a feel-good Hollywood ending. It's a sadly lost opportunity, although I have to admit that any version of the film which remained true to its potential would have been almost unwatchably dark and twisted.

I personally prefer my superheroes unironic; I'd rather be charmed by illusions of agency than horrified by the realities of violence. But these were interesting films, and however flawed, have at least achieved something in that they've made me momentarily ashamed of my investment in the myth.
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Marking ate my weekend. OK, not quite. Marking and trying to write moving, eloquent, sophisticated papers on vampire Snow Whites ate my weekend. Om, nom, nom. In fact, not even. Actually, socialising ate my weekend, so I had to cram all the marking and paper-writing into the edges, where it worried the legs of my trousers, snarling. This three-career lifestyle isn't all that, when you get down to it.

[ profile] friendly_shrink and her Nice Man braaied for us on Friday lunch, it being, of course, Braai Day; for some reason large and delectable meals for lunch - or possibly the gin - knocks out the day totally. Then we did movie club on Friday evening, of which more anon. Saturday was mostly eaten by traffic, as [ profile] first_fallen had her birthday lunch in Hermanus on top of the whale festival, which, while a pleasant occasion full of lovely people I don't see often enough, means two hours to get from one side of Hermanus (Pop. 25 125) to the other, falling over the one horse on the way. Sunday was eaten by resentment, in between marking and paper-writing, because what I really need weekends for is down time, and I didn't get any. Phooey.

Movie club was stv's choice, and the theme was apocalypse. Post-apocalypses. Post-apocalypi? (Very heavy: my next one is going to be dance movies, just to retaliate). Anyway, we watched The Book of Eli and 9, which were definitely both on theme.
  • Book of Eli: interesting film, beautifully shot, lots of desert and bad guys with guns. It was flawed by its attempt at a twist, which it absolutely and completely failed in any way whatsoever to justify with the actual, you know, events of the movie. Phooey. On the upside, rather well acted.
  • 9: interesting film, beautifully animated, lots of ruined buildings and giant evil steampunk machine things with glowing eyes. It was flawed by its attempt at a script, which it absolutely and completely failed to deliver in any way resulting in plot coherence, logical decision making, or anything resembling, you know, enough actual characterisation to create motivation or a reason to identify with these little rag-doll people. On the upside, very cute twin archivists.
I'm glad I saw both movies. I won't be adding them to my collection. But there was popcorn. And a three-day weekend, which was mostly characterised by being over. Sigh.

sparbled and chased

Tuesday, 15 June 2010 12:47 pm
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Today's subject line courtesy of Worthless Word for the Day. "Sparble" is a verb meaning "to scatter or disperse", but mostly I just like the way it sounds. The sixteenth century has a good line in words.

We did Movie Club again on Friday night, finally, after several months of arbing around being disorganised. It was my choice, with a theme I delineated as "Weird-Arse French Animation", but in fact it might just as well have been "French drawings of boobies!" We watched Les Triplettes de Belleville, which I'd seen before and which is awesome, and Gandahar, which is obscure and trippy but also fairly awesome.

Les Triplettes de Belleville is your perfectly standard retro-animated quest narrative involving Tour de France cyclists kidnapped by the Mafia for an underground betting ring which is subsequently broken up by mad, musical, apparently indestructible old ladies. It's surreal, beautifully understated apart from the grotesque exaggeration of the animation (giant French noses ftw!), almost entirely without dialogue, and completely demented. Stv and I were braced for it, having seen it before, but I think it may have broken Jo's brain a bit. (The dog being used as a tyre seemed to get to her). Also, I find the frog-eating a bit difficult. The boobies come in in the initial "Belleville Rendezvous" 1920s music-hall song, performed by the titular triplets with a Josephine-Baker-style dancer. It's insanely catchy and has been revolving around my head, and in my dreams, since Friday. It's a lovely movie, for a given value of "lovely".

Gandahar was more of a gamble: late-80s French/Korean animated sf directed by René Laloux, who is also responsible for Fantastic Planet, which I haven't got around to watching yet. Gandahar has a dreamy, pen-and-wash style to its backgrounds and a sort of stripped-down simplicity to the characters; it features noble, beautiful Gandaharians, strangely twisted and deformed mutants, armies of metallic men with red glows in their chests, giant insane brains, time travel, incredible quantities of topless women, and an underlying peaceful-existence eco-theme that I darkly suspect James Cameron may have ripped off for Avatar. It's the kind of film that vaguely makes me wish I actually did psychedelics, I suspect they'd help; the plot is fairly tightly-knit and coherent, but a lot of the images are extremely weird.

I enjoyed the film, in a dreamy, detached sort of fashion, and I loved the art. I'm also fascinated that I've managed to hang around on sf blogs and sites and in sf criticism for about ten years and have never actually heard of this film apart from the random mention in passing which prompted me to order it. Clearly French sf flies below the radar. Possibly because of all the boobies.


Sunday, 8 November 2009 08:46 pm
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So, it's been bucketing with rain for two days. This makes me happy. Except, that is, when I dash through the storm chortling in glee, fling myself into the car, wipe down enough interior windows that I can see through the condensation sufficiently to drive, start her up and take off, only to have about three litres of water cascade gently through from under the dashboard, piling up in the centre console and, with a mathematical accuracy I somewhat resent, inside my left boot. I have no idea where it's coming from. Probably from the ventilation grille for the fan, which has always leaked a little bit but never like this - I'm not sure if a new hole has opened up in the space-time continuum, or if the rain was at exactly the right angle to catch the pre-existing small hole. I shall have to Take Steps. In future, I shall park the car in the inverse position. Wheels in the air.

We had Random Themed Movie Club on Friday night, watching "time travel movies" chosen by stv. The Jacket started out all harrowing and ended up all soppy; Primer was almost, but not quite, completely incomprehensible from beginning to end, and made us realise that that XKCD strip could actually be perfectly accurate. That being said, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed both of them; Jacket for its snowscapes, small girl child and Adrien Brody, who does vulnerable/haunted rather endearingly, and Primer for its beautiful naturalism and geek-speak observed in its natural habitat - not to mention the unusual experience of watching a film that's clearly considerably more intelligent than I am rather than, as is more common in the average Hollywood dreck, considerably less. The two movies were also a fascinating comparison: the absolute simplicity of time-travel as a plot in one, versus the absolute mind-bending complexity in the other. I feel much more lateral now.
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So, jo&stv and I invented a new monthly movie club, the purpose of which is to get together to watch two movies selected by theme. Any theme. Preferably not too serious or meaningful, and I have to add for the record my absolute miff that my fellow members rejected two to one my initial suggestion of choosing films with the theme of RDJ. Next time they're getting Fred Astaire. Last night's inaugural meeting, hosted by me and joined by the Evil Landlord with guest status, somehow caused me to spontaneously produce a sort of walls-of-Harfleur motivational pre-watching speech which went something like this:

"OK, people, listen up, let's lay out some parameters here. Our mission tonight is to subject to rigorous scrutiny and analysis the absolutely shitballs-retarded things that Hollywood does while purporting to represent the internet, programming and hackers in its popular films. To this end we are watching Hackers and Swordfish, in that order, which is chronological. I draw your attention to the fact that actual computer professionals have frequently been, and will continue to be, harmed in the watching of these films: I trust you have all signed Form WTFBBQ in triplicate, indemnifying the assembled company from any damage up to and including drooling, choking and homicidal rage. Particularly the Evil Landlord, who is also not allowed to make derogatory comments about any web developers present.

"I am completely unable to remember any notable plot points in these films, other than the aforementioned shitballs-retarded representation of computers, but in the important category of Psycho-Sexual Narrative, eye-candy division, we have Hugh Jackman and that cute blonde boy, wossname, Jonny Lee Miller. Also Angelina Jolie and Hale Berry, if you swing that way, and for Angelina I might. I would suggest a drinking game in which we drink any time anyone uses technojargon incorrectly or we are shown graphic 3-D representations of the Information Highway or a hacking montage including same plus mucho typing of gibberish, but alcohol poisoning often offends so I'll leave it to your discretion. Got that? Right. Onward." Don't say I didn't warn you. )

Tuesday random linkery is random. Dr. Horrible's Emmy hack should be watched by all right-thinking peoples, it's very funny. Conversely, Neil Gaiman's Blueberry Girl is wise and beautiful and moving, and is also the only thing in the whole wide world that has ever made me cry because I don't have a daughter.


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