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December 28, 2015

Hateful Eight review [NO spoilers]

We saw Hateful Eight in 70mm splendor in a packed and enthusiastic theater last night. Totally worth seeing. The three hours went by quickly. But it was less ambitious, and less cinematic, than his recent work. In fact, it is basically a stage play. It’s as if Tarantino was given license to take one of his set pieces — say the phenomenal thirty minute German tavern scene (about the scene) in Inglorious Basterds — and blow it out to three hours, although to be fair it’s actually two or three of those set pieces.

Tavern scene from Basterds

The characters are colorful and well-etched. I loved watching the actors act, as in every Tarantino film. The dialogue is Tarantinesque, although not as memorable as his very best. The violence is explosive and over the top. (“Is it a spoiler to say that there’s violence in a Tarantino film?”Is it a spoiler to say that there’s violence in a Tarantino film?)


But it’s also a genre film in a very unexpected genre for Tarantino. I’d say what genre but I think that really might count as a spoiler. Let me put it like this: it’s as if you’re watching Pulp Fiction and realize that, what the heck?, it’s really a version of Emma. (And that was definitely not a spoiler for either film.) It’s sort of cool that Tarantino did this, but also a bit confining for him. At more than 3 hours and in 70mm Cinerama, this is in some ways a small film.

cinerama logo

While seeing the “Cinerama” banner took me back, oh, fifty years, I can’t say that what he went through — and what he forced theaters to go through — to show it in 70mm was worth it. There are a couple of shots that that had me think “Nice 70mm!” but had I not known that it was in 70mm, I simply would have said, “Nice shot!.” There were a few shots where the color was especially rich and beautiful, but, again, I wouldn’t have attributed that to anything except excellent digital cinematography had I not known any better. On the other hand, I also can’t see any real difference between an ordinary Mac screen and a Retina display. I’m glad Quentin got to do it his way, and I hope it makes him happy.

“Then there’s the question of what it’s about”Then there’s the question of what it’s about. Race and racism? Legal justice and frontier justice? Yes, I think so. But it doesn’t have easy lessons. Tarantino is totally a non-didactic filmmaker, unlike, say, Spielberg. He’s got his values, he’s got his characters, he puts them together, one of them will discourse on an unexpected cultural theory, one person’s brain matter is probably going to end up in someone else’s face, and that’s about it.

Why would we expect there to be more? For two reasons. First, the movie-making is so superbly crafted. We are completely in his thrall. That’s the experience of art. Second, the violence is so extreme that we want it to be justified by significance.


But violence serves the role of humor in Tarantino’s films. I’m not saying it’s funny, although it often is, and last night’s enthusiastic audience burst out in laughter at some of it. Me too. Tarantino uses violence not just to advance the plot, and not, I believe to show us the true effects of violence, for he skimps entirely on the effect violence has on its survivors. Rather, the “violence like a sudden joke snaps the audience out of the comfort that narrative flow provides”violence like a sudden joke snaps the audience out of the comfort that narrative flow provides.


Which is to say that I don’t think Hateful Eight is rigorously about anything, except perhaps the everyday chaos engendered when people who are unalike have to share a space, or, in this case, share a movie — except in this case, the chaos is amplified by people with guns and their own loose-triggered codes of behavior.


TL;DR: Worth seeing because Tarantino.

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December 7, 2015

Jaipur restaurant review: Surya Mahal (plus some doggerel)

TripAdvisor is being wonky about letting me write a review for a restaurant it doesn’t have listed; it has me stuck in a loop, insisting that I confirm that it is in an unlisted city, which it is not. Anyway, here’s the review I would have posted there.

A local resident recommended Surya Mahal (Shop No A, 179, MI Road) as the pure vegetarian place he goes with his family. It is indeed a family restaurant, down to paper placemats with absolutely terrible jokes on them.

But the food was just so good.

The menu includes Chinese and Italian, as well as Indian. We had the King’s Tali: little dishes of malai kofta, paneer butter masala, vegetable pulao (rice), some type of dal, and a raita (spiced yogurt) plus papadam, bread (we got roti) and two gulab jamuns. One tali served both of us.

Everything was exceptionally delicious: richly flavored, nicely textured. We ate all of everything and left satisfied in every direction. I’m no expert on Indian food, but I’m going to stand by what I just said.

Plus the children running around were adorable.

The owner (or so we assumed) was very helpful and enthusiastic. He honored our counter-cultural request that the food not be very hot in the peppery sense; one of us is a wimp.

Total cost, including a large bottle of mineral water, was under 500 Rs. — about US$7.00.


One night when we woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep (thanks to the lag of jets), I was thinking how, in my limited experience, almost all northern Indian food comes in lots of sauce or is a sauce itself. The following doggerel popped into my head:

Put on your galoshes
‘Cause everything sloshes.

Except the banan-
a, which is second to naan.

I had a third verse as well, but I eventually fell asleep and forgot it.

Just as well.

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October 18, 2015

The Martian

My wife and I just saw The Martian. Loved it. It was as good a movie as could possibly be made out of a book that’s about sciencing the shit out of problems.

The book was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. So I was ready to be disappointed by the movie. Nope.

Compared to say, Gravity? Gravity‘s choreography was awesome, and the very ending of it worked for me. (No spoilers here!) But, it had irksome moment and themes, especially Sandra Bullock’s backstory. (No spoilers!)

The Martian was much less pretentious, IMO. It’s about science as problem-solving. Eng Fi, if you will. But the theme that emerges from this is:

Also, Let’s go the fuck to Mars!


(I still think Interstellar is a better movie, although it’s nowhere near as much fun. But I’m not entirely reasonable about Interstellar.)

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February 12, 2015

“Whiplash” better in memory

[NON-SPOILER ALERT: There are no spoilers in this that you wouldn’t get from the most general discussion of what the movie is about. Less, probably.] I saw the movie Whiplash on a plane yesterday. I thought it had some bright-colored acting and fantastic music, but was predictable. Every ten years or so there’s another movie about an inspiring teacher,. Sometimes the teacher is kooky or lovable. Sometimes the teacher is crusty or tough or very tough, but it’s all for the kids. Whiplash is a spin on that overall genre.

The acting was pleasantly hammy, as is the mode these days. And I’m longtime fan of J.K. Simmons. (Let’s not forget Cave Johnson.) But I ended the movie a bit disappointed. Elements of it were terrific. Overall: Saw it coming like a bridge after the second verse.

But today I’m remembering it more fondly. I’m going to suggest to my wife that she see it, and I’ll watch it again with her. Mainly because the music is fantastic: great performances, and great presentation of those performances. If you think you don’t like jazz, you should watch Whiplash just to make sure.

Just be prepared for some predictable cheese.

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January 20, 2015

Fargo: an open outliner

Dave Winer loves outlines. I do, too, but Dave loves them More. We know this because Dave’s created the Fargo outliner, and, in the way of software that makes us freer, he’s made it available to us to use for free, without ads or spyware, and supporting the standards and protocols that make our ideas interoperable.

Fargo is simple and straightfoward. You enter text. You indent lines to create structure. You can reorganize and rearrange as you would like. Type CMD-? or CTL-? for help.

Fargo is a deep product. It is backed by a CMS so you can use it as your primary tool for composing and publishing blog posts. (Dave knows a bit about blogging, after all.) It has workgroup tools. You can execute JavaScript code from it. It understands Markdown. You can use it to do presentations. You can create and edit attributes. You can include other files, so your outlines scale. You can includes feeds, so your outlines remain fresh.

Fargo is generative. It supports open standards, and it’s designed to make it easy to let what you’ve written become part of the open Web. It’s written in HTML5 and runs in all modern browsers. Your outlines have URLs so other pages can link to them. Fargo files are saved in the OPML standard so other apps can open them. The files are stored in your Dropbox folder , which puts them in the Cloud but also on your personal device; look in Dropbox/Apps/smallpicture/. You can choose to encrypt your files to protect them from spies. The Concord engine that powers Fargo is Open Source.

Out of the box, Fargo is a heads-down outliner for people who think about what they write in terms of its structure. (I do.) It thus is light on the presentation side: You can’t easily muck about with the styles it uses to present various levels, and there isn’t an embedded way to display graphics, although you can include files that are displayed when the outline is rendered. But because it is a simple product with great depth, you can always go further with it.

And now matter how far you go, you’ll never be locked in.

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December 25, 2014

Instant review: The Interview

I watched The Interview tonight in part because for $6.00 I wanted to see it, and in part because I want to encourage this mode of distribution — no, not by the intervention of terrorists but over the Web.

Given the build up, I was surprised that it’s not a political satire at all. It’s a media satire. The butt of the jokes are the media, with Kim Jong Un there merely as a convenient villain.

The first two thirds were pretty funny. The last third is more predictable and pointlessly violent. Sort of like Pineapple Express. I don’t get why that sort of violence is supposed to be funny. It’s like the Three Stooges with hatchets.

Anyway, I liked it more than I expected to.

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October 2, 2014

What does Men, Women & Children think it’s about?

I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]

I liked Reitman’s Up in the Air, detested his Juno, and had mixed feelings about his writing on Thank You for Smoking. I wanted to like Men, Women & Children. But it is one of the most intensely unlikeable films ever. Some of that is on purpose. Most of it is not.

The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.

So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.

It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.

But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?

In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?

Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.

Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.

Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.

Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.

There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.


Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.

You’re welcome.


So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.

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July 17, 2014

Julius Caesar in Lenox

We saw Shakespeare & Co.‘s Julius Caesar last night. What a rich production! And certainly not because of its production values: the performance was in the tiny Bernstein Theatre with a cast of just seven and an almost bare stage.

The acting was up to the company’s high standard. New to me was James Udom as Marc Antony. He gave the famous address — which stands out for its devious plainness amidst the torrent of language in which it is embedded — brilliantly. Eric Tucker made the noblest Roman, Brutus, human. I could listen to Jason Asprey all day long. (I embarrassed myself after the performance when he came out to the lobby.) Kristin Wold switched characters on stage instantaneously and before our eyes, nevertheless bringing us along.

It is a hard play. It never lets you settle. And it has perhaps the most despairing final words of any Shakespeare play. We may not be 100% sure that Caesar was so ambitious that he needed to be killed for Rome’s sake, but he at least had the good sense to mask his ambitions. When Octavius stands amidst the carnage and celebrates the “glories of this happy day,” we see what naked ambition truly looks like. It was a devastating moment last night.

The small audience consisted almost entirely of people over 60. Such a shame.

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June 26, 2014

“Oradell at Sea”

To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.

What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.

Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.

This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.

Until July 31, you can get the e-version of Oradell for free. (It’s $2.99 at Smashwords without the secret code in the previous link.)

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January 3, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street: a review

I saw it on New Year’s Eve and liked it a lot. But, I think it’s best taken as a series of brilliant set pieces. String them together and you have a fairly predictable narrative arc, and a thematic point ( [SPOILER] Greed is bad) that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But the set pieces are incredibly well done because Scorcese. And Leo Dicaprio is just great in it.

Some people are upset because the movie doesn’t condemn the behavior it depicts. Yikes. Scorcese is obviously showing us behavior he finds so extraordinarily bad that he was motivated to make a movie about it. To tack on some moralizing elements would only lessen the impact, because that would imply that we need to be told that the behavior depicted is bad.

Mike Ryan at HuffPo writes about this question and, citing Chuck Klosterman, compares Leo’s character to Archie Bunker. But there’s very little to understand about Archie. He’s a bigot and ignorant. Haha. Wolf of Wall Strett instead shows us a sub-culture that is twisted and extreme, but is coherent within its own little world. There’s something to understand there, which is why Leo is able to give an Oscar-worthy performance. In that it’s much like The Godfather or The Sopranos, not to mention Good Fellas. It is also more like American Psycho than like Wall Street. (And speaking of Oliver Stone, one of my very least favorite directors, if you want to be hit repeatedly with a gigantic Morality Hammer, watch Platoon, if you can get through it.)

Good Fellas is a better movie than Wolf (in my opinion, natch) because it is less predictable, the main character is more morally nuanced, there are more unforgettable characters, etc. But I thought Wolf was very good, very entertaining, and treated us like moral grownups.

Not that all of us are.

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