Saturday, May 31, 2003

Log Cabin Republicans

From the NY Times:
[T]he emergence of gays as a more vocal presence in Republican politics is angering some leaders of conservative groups. In recent weeks, those groups have been sending pointed messages to the White House warning that President Bush's re-election is in jeopardy if he continues to court what they call the "homosexual lobby."
But what is their threat really? Will they vote for the Democrat? Will they pull their support for Bush, who they would prefer over the Democrat, at the risk of splitting the party and letting the Democrat win anyway? I never understand these sorts of threats. Maybe I'm just stupid. Or maybe they are.
This one's for Lily, who returns to New Haven today.

The ACC is saying that a decision on whether 3 Big East teams will join the ACC may come as early as two weeks from now. After a visit to Miami, the committee reported that they "came away very impressed with where the University of Miami is academically, athletically and the potential they hold for the future." That is, the potential MONEY they hold for the ACC. This situation has become such a hullaballoo that nine U.S. Senators have gotten involved.

Personally, I think the whole thing stinks. A big part of sports is competition and a big part of competition is rivalry. Conferences build rivalries and traditions over time, and this sort of move will disrupt those allegiances and the history in both the Big East and the ACC. I hate it when sports teams move. Is there no respect for tradition anymore?
Peep research

From Vanessa Jean comes Peep Research. Yes, Peeps. As in marshmallow peeps. It is not particularly funny, but it is oddly compelling--it is amazing the lengths to which these people went in creating this website. In particular, check out the surgical procedure. I frequently wonder what I did before the Internet. How did I communicate? How did I look up stupid trivial facts, such as "what is art garfunkel doing now"? (I really looked that up one day.) But the more interesting question now is, what did these peep researchers do with themselves before the Internet? Where did they channel this creative, albeit not funny, energy? Pot calling kettle black, you say? Never.

Still, nothing is quite so funny as this blog.

Friday, May 30, 2003

I'm deep in the Virginia countryside for one night following three days of DC apartment hunting. The search was successful, though I found myself fighting to remember exactly why I am going to live in such a congested, frustrating, expensive place. Fortunately, the smell of honeysuckle and the taste of fresh strawberry shortcake were a mere two hours away.

Tomorrow I return to New Haven.
China Watch:

How do they sleep at night!!!?? China is now denying they covered up the SARS outbreak. Didn't they admit to it some time ago? Does anyone have any idea what's going on over there? Do they?

In other Asia news:
A deputy governor in northern Japan resigned Friday under fire for continuing to play pachinko pinball slot machines for a half hour after a powerful 7-magnitude earthquake rocked the region earlier this week.

Takashi Chiba, who was acting governor of Akita prefecture (state) when the quake struck because the top official was in South Korea for business, stepped down citing "personal reasons," prefectural spokesman Hideo Fujii said.
Right. By "personal reasons," he meant "idiocy."
Ah, Mike Tyson. The biggest waste of talent this side of the Greenwich Timeline.
In a television interview scheduled for broadcast Thursday, Tyson again denied he raped Desiree Washington in 1991 in an Indianapolis hotel room. But he said the burden of being labeled a convicted rapist makes him want to do it now.

"I just hate her guts. She put me in that state, where I don't know,'' Tyson said. "I really wish I did now. But now I really do want to rape her.''
Classy.
Road Rage

An article in today's Chicago Tribune (click on it if you like, it's not really that exciting) reminded me of my own personal experience with road rage. My sister and I were in a car in Chicago when my sister (who was driving) became confused and brought the car to a stop at an intersection where the light was green. The car behind us, to our good fortune, comes to a screeching halt. My sister was obviously in the wrong, but what happened next was not warranted. The driver of the car behind us gets out and comes up to the driver side window. She starts screaming and gesturing and stomping her feet. So we ignore her with the hopes of not escalating the situation. She then starts pounding on the window! The light changed, we took off, and the guy behind the raging woman's car laid on the horn. Ah, sweet justice.

It was freaky, to say the least, and I can only imagine what might have happened had she had some sort of weapon or blunt object in her car. I suppose we would have tried to drive away. Some people, I think, just aren't meant to drive. There are those who shouldn't drive for obvious physical handicaps, such as blindness. Then there are those who really just never get the hang of it--inherently unable to master the skills needed to drive. And then there are those people who are just a bit too high strung for driving.

I had an idea the other day--fortunes handed out at toll booths. Maybe we also need mandatory "sounds of the ocean" playing in automobiles, as well. Yeah, that'd go over well--as well as the ignition-lock seatbelts went.
What on earth is wrong with kids these days?

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Hey Sports Fans

For those who have not been following the story, FIFA has agreed to have the Women's World Cup come back to the United States this year in an emergency move. China was slated to host the Cup, but SARS has led FIFA officials to move the tournament elsewhere.
Organizers hope to come "very close to a break-even situation," Flynn said.

With little time to prepare, organizers will not attempt to recreate the magnitude of the 1999 Women's World Cup, which drew 660,159 fans for the tournament and 40 million American television viewers for the final, won by the United States on penalty kicks against China. American organizers, however, still believe the tournament can be a success. And they believe the event was too important to risk postponement or cancellation.
For those who missed the 1999 World Cup, you missed a great experience. Our women are phenomenal, and there is no experience like cheering "USA" at an international sporting event. I've done that at both the 1999 Women's World Cup and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah and it really is something I cannot even describe to you--you have to be there yourself to know what it's like to get caught up in the excitement and to feel the stands bouncing up and down. Imagine the time you cheered the loudest and were the most invested in something. Now multiply that by ten.
According to FIFA, soccer's world governing body, the Americans had first proposed to hold the tournament at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington; Columbus Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio; Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif.; and the Home Depot national training center in Carson, Calif.

Crew Stadium and Spartan Stadium would have to add temporary seats to meet FIFA's requirement of a minimum capacity of 30,000.

American officials are also considering larger stadiums like Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.; Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.; Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia; Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.; and Seattle Seahawks Stadium. Giants Stadium and Seattle Seahawks Stadium would have to temporarily cover their artificial turf fields to meet FIFA's requirement for grass fields.
If you're anywhere within driving distance (and by "driving distance" I mean four hours or fewer), buy yourself a ticket. Sponsor a trip for the local Park District soccer teams. This is an experience not to be missed.

The tournament will be played from September 23 to October 11. I will post when I find out about ticket purchasing. If you would like to volunteer to help with the tournaments, check out this link.

"U.S. Soccer has proffered mid June as a target date for announcing venues and dates."
The Fourth Circuit

The CS Monitor discusses the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals:
The federal court that sits on a gentle slope down here from the former capitol of the Confederacy is nothing if not genteel. The judges who sit on the court are so rooted in civility, in fact, that they step down from the bench after every oral argument and shake hands with attorneys.

It's an atmosphere where southern manners are as common as lengthy legal briefs.
As most people in the legal field know, the Fourth is know for being the most conservative federal circuit. And it is all but reviled here at YLS. It is no surprise, therefore, that I never learned the following in my three years here:
The Fourth Circuit's current posture somewhat belies its past. In the 1960s and '70s, the tribunal earned a reputation as a leader in civil rights. But many judges of that era ended up retiring during the Reagan years, allowing the former president to restock the court with more conservative jurists.
Here's to hoping I can get one of the hard-to-come-by Fourth Circuit clerkships...

From Quare (who I hope will have something to say about Cat TV when she returns from Europe): a surprisingly fascinating blog.
It's nice to know there are people who miss you. I apologize again for the extended absences...
Yankees

At the Yankees game last night, some cops made a Yankees fan turn his shirt inside out because it said "Boston Sucks." (Anyone who knows about Yankees baseball knows that "Boston Sucks" is practically synonomous with "Yankees Rule.") So, here's the question: Why? Is the word "sucks" offensive?

Let's assume for a minute that the police even have a place promoting a "family" atmosphere in the Yankee bleachers. This is not a given, but it's arguable, especially since Yankee Stadium has made the bleachers non-alcoholic. Given this assumption, is a "Boston Sucks" t-shirt really non-family? Isn't sports about rivalry and competition?

So, option 2. Maybe the shirt was not licensed. This is probably true. I've never seen officially sanctioned "sucks" paraphanelia. But plenty of stuff is not licensed. It hardly seems efficient to have police enforcing intellectual property rights in the bleacher seats.

So what was going on? I have no idea. But it did turn out to be a great game.
From reality TV to cat TV

There are two astonishing things in this story: (1) The Oxygen Network still exists. (2) Cat TV.
"Meow TV," developed by the Meow Mix Co., debuts Friday at 6:30 p.m. on the Oxygen Network. It's the first show targeted at cats. Not cat lovers. Cats.
Whenever I see absurd programming, movies, or ads like this, I try to imagine to myself the creative "genius" behind it. I picture the person waking up and being struck by this idiotic idea and thinking to himself, "GENIUS!" For instance, what was the developer of "Kung Pow! Enter the Fist" thinking? Did some movie exec look at the script and say, "DAMN! This is genius! We MUST HAVE IT!"

We have a cat. I kinda think the cat would rather be outside chasing birds and chipmunks than watching TV. But then, can we draw a parallel to children? Would children rather watch TV or go outside and play?
China Watch:

From the NY Times:
Four young friends who met on university campuses to discuss their progressive politics and posted occasional essays on the Internet were sentenced here to long prison terms on Wednesday, accused of "subverting state power."

....

The four were first detained on March 13, 2001, just months after they had formed the "New Youth Study Group," a small coterie of like-minded friends who met occasionally outdoors at Beijing University to discuss political change in China, according to friends. The meetings involved well under a dozen people.

While group members generally agreed that China needed a multiparty democracy, press freedom and free elections, their discussions and their Internet essays were about political theory. The group had no plans to actively foment change.

....

The four were detained after another member of the group informed China's State Security Bureau about their activities. It is unclear why the verdict took nearly two years to decide, since the initial hearing took place in September 2001.

While China's criminal procedure code stipulates time limits to prevent such extended detentions, these limits do not apply in cases where the police claim that breaches of state security are involved.
Of course they don't.

Back in action

Graduated. No degree conferred yet (the faculty doesn't vote until Tuesday), but commencement is over, finals are finished, and parents have come and gone.

This means posting will return to normal as of tomorrow. Thanks for bearing with us these past few weeks.

I found this tonight: "I think since people are living much longer ... the 22nd Amendment should probably be modified to say two consecutive terms instead of two terms for a lifetime," says Bill Clinton. Hmm...

Is there any real logic to this statement? Was the 22d Amendment written with any consideration of lifespan? My hunch is no. I can see a very attenuated argument about how eight years was seen as a good limit not in absolute but relative terms. So, the point was not that eight years was a good limit, but 15% of the human lifespan (8 out of 64 years) was a good limit. This seems ridiculous to me, but if someone has some good legislative history to point to, please send it this way...

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

A poll finds that 91% of American drivers have engaged at least one risky driving activity in the past six months, including speeding (71%), talking on a cell phone (37%), eating (59%) and reading (14%).

The most reckless group was 26-44 year olds.
After reading about the visitors Kate and I had during our exam, reader RH shares this story of much greater mid-exam excitement:

Great story of exam trauma. Last year, your classmate, [name deleted], took and finished his [course name deleted] exam AND attended the birth of his second child -- all within the 24 hour period his exam was checked out. He drafted the exam, went home, his wife went into labor later that night, went to the hospital and gave birth, and he dropped by the law school, printed the exam and turned it in on his way home to pick up his son. At that point, he had no real interest in proof reading it. I'd prefer that over the FBI.
Indeed. A classmate of ours was at graduation yesterday six days after giving birth, looking calm and fabulous. Kudos to her.

And no, no bail money needed, though it's good to know Steven Jens missed us that much.
Just went through some old mail. Thanks for the graduation and post-bombing wishes.

Reader AB, a law professor, has this to say about the death of Jesse Dukeminier, which I noted here:

Thank you for posting those kind comments about Mr. Dukeminer. I think they underestimate his influence, however--not only did he bring clarity to the once-archane subject of property law. He also helped revolutionize the field of property casebooks. Shortly before his death I was comparing the first edition of his property casebook with others published around the same time. It's simply amazing how much change the field of property (at least as a first-year teaching endeavour) has undergone since 1982 (I think that's the date of his first edition) and today. Another way of judging the change--from property as a subject concerned with rules abstracted from their social context--to property as a subject that deals with the allocation of rights between interest groups and with trying to get modern, rational rules to solve everyday problems is to look at first year property exams over that time period. Of course, there were other books--like Curtis Berger's on property--that shared similar concerns. But I think Dukeminier will be remembered not just as a great teacher (including of thousands of students whom he never met), but also of a great reformer of property law, the way property is taught, and the questions that property scholars ask.
Well said.
Where We Are

Kate, Alan, Iris and I graduated from law school yesterday. Please bear with us as we deal with families, travel, and settling into our summer routines (which will include more regular posting).

I am off to Washington, DC later today to find an apartment. If you know of any 2br/2ba places within walking distance of an orange, blue or red Metro stop (and preferably with W/D), let me know.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

So Kate and I are in my apartment, taking the very last exams of our educational career, and about an hour ago my doorbell rang. It was the FBI.

I probably shouldn't say at this point what it was they were looking for, but it was very interesting and it wasn't us.

I will say this -- Kate and I are both writing at the top of our exams that we were interviewed by the FBI during them. This is one crazy day.

More later.
Here is reporting on the explosion from the New York Times and the Yale Daily News.

And OxBlog has summary here.

I'm off to bed. Tomorrow should be interesting.
Quote of the Day:
"In three words I can sum up everything I have learned about life: it goes on."
~ Robert Frost

Song of the Day:
Jann Arden, "Insensitive"

Happy Birthday:
Mary Cassatt
Arthur Conan Doyle
Laurence Olivier
Richard Wagner

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Tim Schnabel was an eyewitness to the explosion:

I was in the student lounge this afternoon working on my last exam when I heard a large boom, very close by. I looked over into the alumni reading room and saw the wall collapsing inwards, the portraits falling down. Dust was flying everywhere, and I could see a large fireball in room 120. Fortunately, it appears no one was in either 120 or the reading room, and only one other person was in the student lounge with me.
Tim and the other YLS dorm residents will be sleeping elsewhere tonight.

JURIST's Paper Chase has a roundup of news on the bombing.
Well, the dean of the law school has sent out one update, indicating arrangements for the dorm students who are temporarily homeless and that the law school will be closed tomorrow. No word on exams from him. Linda Lorimer, Secretary and Vice President of the university who has been quoted this evening, sent out an update to the whole university. She indicated that business would go on as usual for law students--exams would be distributed from an alternate location. This seems awfully odd given the huge number of factors militating against business as usual (psychological trauma, disrupted exams, computers left in the law school at evacuation, books left in the law school, temporarily homeless dorm students, poor alternate exam accomodations). Where is our dean? I am lost without his guidance.

But above it all, at least this is what we are talking about and not an injured (or worse) classmate, staff, faculty member, or administrator. Thank goodness for that.

I guess I will continue to study until I hear otherwise.
Professor Balkin was on the scene.

The alumni lounge is full of portraits of famous alumni. It sounds like the wall that collapsed was the one with the portrait of Bob Bork, among many others I can't think of offhand. A portrait of Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Carolyn King was put up earlier this year on the other side of the wall, in room 120. The Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford portraits are also in the alumni lounge, but on another wall.

Some people on TV have been making much of the fact that President Bush was in the state earlier today to speak at the Coast Guard Academy's graduation ceremony. That doesn't seem relevant at all, but that doesn't prevent people from speculating wildly about it, and about that fact that his daughter Barbara is junior at Yale College.
Our early reaction to the bombing is that the news coverage, and the mayor's comments, seemed very uninformed. The NBC TV station here was showing a shot of the city skyline, with "smoke" supposedly rising out of the law school -- but anybody who knows anything about New Haven would know that wasn't even the law school building. They were showing a shot of steam coming off of the power plant across the street!

It sounds like the explosion took place in room 120, a classroom off the main hallway that seats about 90 people. Next door is the alumni lounge, and on the other side of the alumni lounge is the student lounge. Part of the mailroom is located above room 120, so it's possible that the explosion actually was in the mailroom, and collapsed the floor of the mailroom into room 120.

While the undergraduates are done for the semester, our finals period lasts till this Friday at 4:30. No word yet on how that's been affected. Kate and I are both supposed to take finals tomorrow.

More updates soon...
Explosion at Yale Law School

We are all fine. More to follow as details develop...
Movie Review

Down with Love is a self-consciously stylized, updated version of the romantic comedies from Hollywood's late-"classic" era in which men try to trick independent-but-starry-eyed women into bed and end up falling in love with them just as the gals figure out what sneaks the men are. The reference point here would be Pillow Talk (1959), starring Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall, and Thelma Ritter, and the coordinated set and costume design should probably be listed as a fifth co-star. These "big" comedies of the late '50s and early '60s are as decadently overproduced as the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk, but have considerably less fascination.

Romantic comedies don't benefit as much from expensive production values; all you need is a quick-witted script and performers with timing who flirt in dialogue. You probably notice the surroundings in inverse proportion to how captivating the central elements are. (And are the clothes in Doris Day movies really that great--the tight dresses with the cups that look like they could fire 21-gun salutes and the sculpted insulation-like hair?) Like the Sirk melodramas, comedies such as Pillow Talk broadly hint around their racy subject--always female chastity--which is what makes them feel so dated, especially since the counterculture, but there were always plenty of sensible people who groaned at this leaden fluff.

Still, these movies have stirred a lot of affection, much of it camp disbelief, but not all of it. Men and women have always gamed each other; these comedies turn that fact into a splashy display of what the players try to hang onto as the game changes on them and the stakes go up. The double meaning of the title Down with Love, the echo of a political slogan in the '60s sense (as in the title of the Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg standard that we see Judy Garland sing in TV footage), and the sense of finding something acceptable in current usage (as in "I can get down with that"), indicates the movie's notion that in sex relations the old can always become the new. There are only so many games you can play, and only so many ways to play them.

Down with Love is much more enjoyable than Pillow Talk. First of all, it not only is much less coy in its own terms, but it turns the older movie's coyness inside out. Renée Zellweger isn't trying to hang onto her virginity, she's a best-selling author who advocates that women treat sex as casually as men in order to focus on their careers. The doctrinaire in the audience may complain when she inevitably falls in love, but the plot is trickier than that, and in any case I've never met an honest career woman who didn't express contrary feelings about romance and work. (I thought the whole point of feminism was that there shouldn't be a single right answer to this essentially modern quandary. See Maureen Dowd's 18 May 2003 New York Times op-ed commentary on Down with Love for a reminder of the educated elite's inability to wrap their theory-addled brains around the biological and anthropological bases of traditional male and female identity. It's a classic of kitschy liberal portentousness, a sitting duck for a parody itself.)

Best of all is what the movie does with the split-screen scenes in Pillow Talk, in which Day listens in irritation on the party-line while Hudson sweet-talks his harem, or else coos directly to the soft-mannered cowboy he pretends to be. Here the split-screen phone conversation between Zellweger and Ewan McGregor turns into an extended series of visual double entendres, as if Penthouse magazine had a fold-over back page like Mad's. Good, open raunch works miracles for suggestive material like this, rooting it recognizably in our bodily experience on this planet. I laughed without embarrassment. (Pillow Talk does strike some burlesque notes with Ritter's commentary, but she's kept on the side, pickled.) And I prefer this "blue" sequence to the tart-romantic one in which the stars dress for their date to Astrud Gilberto and Frank Sinatra's contrasting versions of "Fly Me to the Moon," which is a little too elaborate for the notion the moviemakers are playing out. (It was done with more effective simplicity in the Margaret Sullavan-Henry Fonda picture The Moon's Our Home (1936).)

The handling of homosexuality is the clumsiest aspect. In Pillow Talk Hudson "pretends" to be homosexual to lull Day into a sense of security, a sick in-joke for the moviemakers. In Down with Love, David Hyde-Pierce in the Randall role is accused by the girl he wants to marry of being gay, but the director hasn't shown us her suspicions mounting so the scene doesn't have much impact. (Plus, Hyde-Pierce seems even gayer than Hudson did, so we still feel as if we're being treated like hicks who can't be told everything that big city folks know.) The moviemakers signal to the hip crowd with an openly gay art director, but his material is considerably less than hip. Altogether the normally terrific Hyde-Pierce is too on top of the material. He makes the script look very TV indeed and it returns the favor.

The script is clever enough, both parody of and homage to the older movies. And when Zellweger explains in a long monologue to McGregor what she's been up to, it turns into an even sillier kind of meta-self-parody. The script relies on a character's being able to guess how the other characters will react--the plot turns out to be an entire chess game conceived in advance--which makes it similar to Doug Jung's script for James Foley's Confidence except that it acknowledges the artifice. If only Zellweger's monologue were a little more entertainingly manic. She needs some of Carole Lombard's breathlessness when she explains to William Powell what a scavenger hunt is in My Man Godfrey (1936), one of the comedies from the 1930s that make Pillow Talk look so bloated, like a dead purple cow in the middle of the road.

The problem is that this kind of material doesn't suit Zellweger. Doris Day's high-gloss, tick-tock style comes out of her sense of herself as a worker in the family entertainment industry. To her, stardom means a clearly defined image that you put over on call, a branded commodity really. She's very definite, never seems like a victim (even when she plays one) or even soft, and yet her voice can go breathy, can mime dreaminess, but it's always clearly and completely motivated, all on the surface. She's a decal of sunshine, without real joy or a sense of discovery, and there's certainly nothing remote or unlighted in her, no unresolvable internal conflicts or seething unrequited ambitions. Miscast, she will fall short of the demands of a particular picture, but nothing about a Day performance ever exceeds those demands. She may have been the most efficient star the movies have ever known.

Zellweger is all about confusions, about having the drive to pull yourself together despite your treacherous softness. (The mark of that softness is the way her lip pulls down to the right, indicating how steady she's trying to remain.) Her weirdly hopeful wince could so easily qualify her for dishrag roles, but her drive saves her, makes her, in fact, a heroine. There's some resemblance to Dianne Wiest in her expression; I don't know if she'll turn out to be the actress Wiest is but she has a better shot at stardom. And, yes, sex has a lot to do with that: the drama of a young woman's self-discovery, humid with the heat of restlessly slept-in sheets.

Before I saw Chicago I thought she'd be all wrong for the material, which seemed to require shellacked high style. Catherine Zeta-Jones fills that order, however, and Zellweger transforms the role of Roxie Hart in contrast to it. She plays her as a dupe who becomes a vamp by soulless tenacity. She has a Barbie doll body with a baby doll head, and a high-pitched, scratchy-breathy voice, but a more intuitive grasp of technique than other squeak-toy stars, such as Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Melanie Griffith. In Chicago her determination as an actress to use her cuddly assets in a new, harder-edged idiom fuses with the small-time flapper's determination to be noticed. Her Roxie, cheeks flushed and wistful-watchful eyes on the operators she wants to emulate, seems like a girl who's gone straight from infancy to adultery with no stops in between, and that's just the beginning of her education.

Zellweger, both yielding and driven, is infinitely more interesting than Doris Day. (You can compare them head-to-head by watching Chicago alongside Day's '20s period-piece musical Love Me or Leave Me (1955). People still praise her performance though she launches her lines and numbers in such an unrelenting manner that she makes nonsense of Ruth Etting's masochistic life story.) Zellweger, however, doesn't have the poise for what she's attempting in Down with Love. She looks like she's having fun pursing her lips and moving her shoulders rhythmically as she makes entrances in designer doll outfits, but she doesn't create a character out of it. She doesn't achieve a new effect and we can't detect the Zellweger we know, either, until too late in the movie.

She ends up looking locked into many of the getups. The pink suit she wears in the opening scene is particularly bad--the collar too high, the hat too big: she could be the incredible shrinking woman in the first stages of diminution. Plus, throughout the movie her fake eyelashes are so thick you can't always see the whites of her eyes. (When McGregor plucks an eyelash off her cheek so she can make a wish, you wish he'd kept plucking, by the fistful.) As a result, the orangey foundation she's wearing makes her teeth look unnaturally white. She looks like a misprinted character in the Sunday funnies.

Am I just being bitchy? No, because the movie sells itself as an exercise in style. (It does, at any rate, represent an improvement over director Peyton Reed's previous movie, Bring It On (2000), a travesty of high school cheerleading that untwists itself for an embarrassingly p.c. conclusion.) To be fair, I don't know if any young female star has the kind of couture-chameleon style the movie is going after (Gwyneth Paltrow can wear clothes, but hasn't figured out how to open up on screen) and I'd as soon watch Zellweger get it wrong as anyone else. (Mira Sorvino can morph into highly stylized characters, as in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997), but those girls were dopes. She wasn't so impressive in Clare Peploe's slightly too fluid adaptation of Marivaux's Triumph of Love (2002), in which she needed to create a character out of a command of theatrical space, and in which she looked swamped in her royal duds.)

At times Zellweger seems to stare out at us, as if waiting for help to arrive. If there was a means by which this actress, with her intense way of pushing past doubts, could have played a woman who falls into doubt from a perch of certitude, she doesn't find it. But stick around for the music video played during the credits in which, singing and dancing with McGregor, she shows the reserves of energy and style the movie fails to call on.

McGregor does much better, moving effortlessly among his roles as a skirtchasing Scottish magazine writer, the shy Southern astronaut the writer impersonates in order to trick Zellweger, and the magazine writer in love (though the switch to the last is the weakest link in the script). McGregor puts an extra facetious twinkle on everything (in the manner of Peter O'Toole in What's New Pussycat (1965)), so that the writer's fatuousness and the astronaut's earnestness don't attach to him as a performer. Yet he never comes across as a celebrity guest star, or acts too cute, or disrupts the movie to let us know he's too cool for it. He uses his talent for self-conscious sketch acting to both heighten and hollow out the role he's playing. This means that the character doesn't really linger in our heads--the movie is too thin for that--but McGregor as comedian and star does. His performance is rococo in the expertise it applies to frivolity.

Previously McGregor was best in romantic comedy as an inexperienced boy: a frantic, criminal loser in A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and a slightly obsessive introvert in Little Voice (1998). This is the first time he's scored as the star of a comedy playing a confident grown-up, and he's in such high form--getting a laugh from the delivery of a single word: "Tang"--that his funniness makes him more desirable. It was a rare ability back in the day for a male lead to come across as both hetero and attractive in this kind of smarmy farce. O'Toole did it; among Americans Jim Hutton was probably the champ. McGregor not only takes the crown but makes it seem worth the winning.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.org.

Monday, May 19, 2003

One more week before posting is back to normal.

The web is a weird weird place. Just found the website of an old, old friend with whom I had lost touch.
Are the state quarters cursed? Misfortune has befallen many of the things depicted on the coins, most notably New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain. Link via Jens.

I'm still looking for the current hot new quarter -- Alabama.
Well, that final's over. This was probably my least favorite class this semester. Didn't do the reading (didn't buy the books!), took a somewhat loose approach to class attendance... but the exam was okay.

It's gorgeous outside, so I'm going to try to get out there again before shutting myself away for the evening with another nutshell.
Quote of the Day:
"What kind of a society isn't structured on greed? The problem of social organization is how to set up an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm."
~ Milton Friedman

Song of the Day:
Eric Clapton, "After Midnight"

Happy Birthday:
Nancy Astor
Nora Ephron
Jim Lehrer
Malcolm X
Ho Chi Minh
Pete Townshend
Good morning! I'm back from a lovely wedding in North Carolina, and I have a final in half an hour. Many thanks to Alan for his excellent exam-period blogging. (Scroll down for his reviews of A Mighty Wind and Better Luck Tomorrow.)

Here's an NYT article that says blogging has changed the social fabric of the 20-30 year old crowd because "every clique now has its own Matt Drudge, someone capable of instantly turning details of their lives into saucy Internet fare."

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Movie Review

When a friend of mine in L.A. used to get stuck behind slow drivers she'd start hollering, "Slower, please! Can't you go any slower?!" That's how I felt during Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind, a pseudo-documentary about a reunion concert at New York's Town Hall of three of the (fictional) star groups of the '60s folk music scene. This is the fourth fake documentary by Guest, who also directed, and his team, which includes actor and co-writer Eugene Levy, and, at various times, the performers Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgins, and Michael Hitchcock. The first, and most famous, is This Is Spinal Tap (1984), about a heavy metal rock band on tour, written by Guest but directed by Rob Reiner. Guest took over directing with Waiting for Guffman (1997), about provincial amateur theatricals, and followed it with Best in Show (2000), a take-off of New York's Westminster Dog Show.

The hallmarks of Guest's style are a satirical outlook more affectionate than harsh; an interweaving of the bustling ensemble as they converge for the big show; a transparent treatment of the characters as they reveal their obsessions or quirks (that is, they talk as if they were perfectly normal but we can see they're freaks); longish takes that leave a few extra seconds of dead space after choice bits, so the jokes don't seem like professional comedy material but like something "caught" by the filmmakers. It is said that the cast improvises but the movies don't feel improvised to me. If the approach was ever experimental the experiments have by now been reduced to practice and Guest has taken out a patent on the method. A Mighty Wind, which features performances of songs written for the movie so dead-on they make you do a cognitive double take, feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch expanded nearly to the scope of Robert Altman's panoramic satire of the country-music scene Nashville (1975). What's lacking is the magisterial style to make the ersatz world at once chaotic in a lifelike way and idiosyncratically visionary.

A Mighty Wind is likable, but I realized after about 20 minutes that my face ached from the same kind of effort I make at a dull dinner party to be polite when I'm not having a good time. The extra beat in the takes gives the movie a dead air feeling that is different from the inertness of something like Legally Blonde because it's intended. But that doesn't help if your experience at the movie isn't pleasurable. Fred Willard repeats his Best in Show specialty as a show biz automaton who spouts inanities and catchphrases. You may appreciate his energy and still feel that when he comes on once again with not only the same kind of routine but the very same lines, the fact that it's being done on purpose doesn't relieve the predictability (or the obnoxiousness). "Offbeat" just becomes the beat.

I realize that a predictable style is part of what makes a comedian a star, but it can also trap him. The best comedians struggle against the trap of repetition. The most successful heroic effort has been made by Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988) and Quick Change (1990) and, best of all, Groundhog Day (1993), in which the comedian's hell of endless repetition became the subtext. (And, no, I'm not forgetting Chaplin when I praise Murray, who remained true to his comedy in expanding it and wasn't so fussily self-conscious about his reputation as a great artist.) Guest is very generous to his troupe, but he overrelies on them. And because he isn't shaping what they do, they keep doing it at the same level of pressure and thus don't have the impact of the character actors in Preston Sturges movies, for instance, where the director's control could make a little go a long way.

The work Guest gets from his actors is hit or miss. He doesn't begin to get what Parker Posey can do (see Jill Sprecher's Clockwatchers (1998) for her most complete and intense performance so far). He does get Eugene Levy but lets him go slower than slow here. I'm not sure what any director could do with this high-concept-zombie performance except give it to us in smaller, more shrewdly administered doses. Oddly, Catherine O'Hara as Levy's singing partner and ex-wife mimes true unself-consciousness in front of the camera, as if the actress were reaching for emotion, and I can't understand why she would. What would emotion do for an enterprise like this where the point is to trace the original picture faithfully but still have it come out more cartoon than portrait? At the other end of the spectrum, when Jane Lynch speaks, her patter seems to preserve her self-image with an aerosol fixative. It's uncannily like when real people are being phony for the camera, but her manner is more entertaining than the jokes about her past as a porn star or her current, literally self-centered religion of color. The only performer who did something really unpredictable was Jennifer Coolidge. Weirder than any special effect.

It isn't that I dislike slow timing across the board. The silent slapstick comedian Harry Langdon was fabulous at it, really dragging it out. (See the sleeping potion bit in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and his violent reaction to the man on the bus in The Strong Man (1926)). W.C. Fields knew how to fumble a scene out to amazing lengths (see his short The Golf Specialist (1930)), and Laurel and Hardy's routines of escalating payback are built as carefully and patiently as a pyramid. By comparison, Guest's slowness is just slow. Deliberately obvious routines require more structure, and maybe more madness, than he brings to comedy.

But then, I'm generally an impatient person; I prefer the breakneck pace of '30s comedies, or cartoons like The Simpsons. People in the theater were laughing right on cue, and generally I think Guest's fans watch these movies differently from me--they hear the high notes regardless of the metronome settings. I had a friend who harvested some one-liners I didn't even recall from Spinal Tap and incorporated them pretty amusingly into his personal repertoire. (You have to be picky when you do this, however, because some of the material in A Mighty Wind isn't so fresh. The way the Swedish character played by Ed Begley, Jr. peppers his speech with Yiddish is particularly bad. In the '60s it was American Indians rather than Swedes and it was lame then, and is, I think, inherently lame.). And the slowness seems to induce a ritual appreciation in certain fans. My mother watches Best in Show repeatedly to revisit her favorite scenes. If I don't want to endure it when I visit her, I have to hide the tape.

I just want to say on the one hand that I was a big fan of folk music as a kid and still listen to it with pleasure, and on the other that I am perfectly aware of the preposterousness of much of the music, whether ominous ("A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"), political ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"), or chipper ("Green, Green"), so I'm neither hostile to the subject of A Mighty Wind nor defensive about it. Here is some information about the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, Richard and Mimi Fariña, and Richard and Linda Thompson, actual groups the movie's acts are based on.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.org.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Quote of the Day:
"Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real."
~ Iris Murdoch

Song of the Day:
The Police, "King of Pain"

Happy Birthday:
Henry Fonda
Jill Harper
Janet Jackson
Olga Korbut
Christian Lacroix
Liberace
Billy Martin
Elswyth Thane
Debra Winger

Thursday, May 15, 2003

I have a final tomorrow, but that's not stopping me from going with Kate to see The Matrix Reloaded tonight.

And tomorrow evening I'm leaving town for a wedding in North Carolina. Two more finals next week, and then the graduation festivities commence.

It's been a gorgeous day in New Haven -- way too pretty to spend the afternoon indoors studying easements and variances.
This has probably been blogged all over the place today, but I've got to note it. "Pro-family" leaders met with RNC Chairman Marc Racicot to take him (and President Bush) to task for not being anti-gay enough:

"We urged party leaders not to put President Bush's re-election at risk in 2004 by shrinking from the cultural wars now," said Gary Bauer, a Reagan White House domestic policy adviser, who attended last week's meeting with Mr. Racicot.

Social conservatives at the meeting also criticized the "tepid response" by the RNC to attacks on Sen. Rick Santorum after the Pennsylvania Republican was interviewed about a Supreme Court case involving a Texas sodomy law. Mr. Racicot "insisted that they had been stout in their defense of [Mr. Santorum], yet they did not issue any statement defending Santorum," Mr. Weyrich said.

Mr. Weyrich said he warned the RNC chairman that "if the perception is out there that the party has accepted the homosexual agenda, the leaders of the pro-family community will be unable to help turn out the pro-family voters. It won't matter what we say; people will leave in droves."

One participant at last week's meeting who asked not to be identified said, "Racicot at first was a little hostile, saying, 'You people don't want me to meet with other folks, but I meet with anybody and everybody.' "

Mr. Bauer retorted, "That can't be true, because you surely would not meet with the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan."
Fortunately, Karl Rove is a lot smarter than Gary Bauer. Don't look for this White House to start gay-bashing any time soon.
Movie Review

In director Justin Lin's second feature Better Luck Tomorrow four Asian-American high school students in California get involved in crime and come undone. The difference between these four boys and the boys in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), the current model for all such movies, and in the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society (1993), is that Lin's boys are examples of what has led Asian-Americans to be called the "model minority." They are so disciplined that doing well at school--in class, on standardized tests, in extracurricular clubs, and at part-time jobs in addition--is easy, natural. Earnest, open-faced Ben (Parry Shen), the movie's narrator, looks like a straight-A student and guides us through his regimen of activities, official and unofficial (memorizing a new word every day, shooting 200 freeshots), intended to land him in the Ivy League. Even Virgil (Jason Tobin), Ben's skinny-goofy sidekick and the kind of kid who can barely keep a lid on his horniness and turbulent resentment, is an academic standout. But doing well leaves them bored, and fails to express their adolescent hormonal urges. Sports might do that, but though Ben has hustled to get on the basketball team, everyone suspects the Coach put him on as a token, and in any case he never gets to play. Daric (Roger Fan), a tall, cool organizer, writes an article for the school newspaper about this and protestors start coming to the games. As a result of this minor stir Ben quits the team; soon he's writing cheat sheets for Daric at $50 a pop.

At first their crimes are in the model-minority vein--cheat sheets and, to a lesser extent, figuring out how to return computer equipment and keep it, too. Along with Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang; the least developed character), they join Daric's "academic decathlon" team, which then becomes the center of operations for more conventional criminal, and generally sociopathic, activities. The joke is that although they use academic decathlon meetings for planning crimes and unhinged partying, they're still a championship team.

Menace II Society had sociological underpinnings; the boys came from a stratum of African-American society in which disruption of socializing human relations is the normal state of affairs. Their lives were so hopelessly disorganized that crime didn't represent that much of a slide. Mean Streets was the opposite--the Italian-American boys followed an older generation into crime, which had the formality of small business in their circle. Mean Streets is far more than a sociological dramatization, but in both pictures you understood that the moviemakers were showing you situations with some statistical validity.

That's not so clear in Better Luck Tomorrow. Lin is highly conscious of having made the first Asian-American film to be picked up for distribution, and he talks about the four boys and their criminal life as if he were documenting a social phenomenon, for instance in this 27 December 2001 interview with AsianAmericanFilm.com:

"Better Luck Tomorrow" is really exploring the whole youth culture of today, specifically Asian American, but also just the general mentality of teenagers today. I mean, I work with teenagers, I grew up in the 80s, and already it's very different, the mentality. You go to suburbia, you look at upper middle class kids, and through the media they've literally adopted urban gangsta mentality…. Specifically it's very interesting when you put it within the context of Asian American males. I mean, what's more empowering than being a gangsta with a gun? I don't think I'm doing justice to it, but that was the theme that I really wanted to explore, about the fact that [teens] don't have the patience to search for things and so [they] start adopting things and then potentially this identity could swallow [them]....
What we see, however, doesn't feel real. It's highly detailed, and in that sense technically realistic, as are the performances (by an accomplished set of actors, including Karin Anna Cheung as the girl Ben likes, and John Cho, who has a wonderful face for the movies, full of fascinating, inchoate cross-currents, as Ben's rival), but I still felt that Lin was working something out in his head rather than in any California town.

Where, for instance, are the parents? In one scene Virgil gets upset thinking about what his dad will do when he hears about his son's behavior, but we never see the father or hear what happened. Likewise, the academic decathlon team never meets with a faculty member and attends the championship meet in Las Vegas without a chaperone. Lin may talk about the pressures on teens in the real world, but Better Luck Tomorrow is a romance that, I'm guessing, isn't fully separable from his feelings about himself. (In this 2 April 2003 interview with Asia Source he says of himself in high school: "I was the rebellious kid. I hated being labeled. I was this short Asian guy on the varsity team and eagle scouts. It's funny because it was good I did all these activities but I did them for the wrong reasons. I just wanted to prove people wrong.") It may sound like I'm knocking the movie, but this half-emerged quality is actually what makes it interesting and coherent, and enables it to avoid the squishiness of an autobiographical coming-of-age film.

I would further guess that Lin's concern with the images of Asian men in American movies led him as an artist more than his concern for Asian-American teens in the world. Asian male characters have been sages (detectives, such as Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan, and kung fu masters, such as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) in the positive mode; and mysterious, sly, manipulators, such as Dr. Fu Manchu and the Chinese brainwasher in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in the negative); stuttering comic relief (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles (1984)); peasants; house servants; and, of course, during World War II, sneaky, cruel "yellow monkeys."

All these types are outside the range of most lead roles played by dramatic movie stars. Generally speaking, the harder a minority's struggle for equality in our society, the more restricted the types of characters they've played in our movies. Thus, Irish- and Italian-American characters could regularly display the full moral spectrum of passion and self-assertion long before Jewish, black, and Asian-American characters could. (Though you have to recall that the moviemaking industry, the average star who wants above all to be liked, and the audience for pop entertainment have all played a part in keeping all forms of complexity out of our movies.)

At the same time, the image of Asian men wasn't as desexualized as that of Jews and blacks. However, with the same kind of prurient-racist projection that you saw in the treatment of the black rapist in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), the most sexual Asian-American male type was the predator, such as Sessue Hayakawa's blackmailer in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915), or, more often, a warlord threatening a white woman, such as Warner Oland in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932), Nils Asther in Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and Mike Mazurki in John Ford's Seven Women (1966). Some of these movies are terrific entertainments, but just the fact that the majority of the characters have been played by non-Asians indicates they haven't been any bonanza for the race.

(While we recognize the perversity of Hollywood in the legendary miscasting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), we also have to recognize the perversity of fate in distributing talent and acknowledge that John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock (1955; showing this Saturday on Turner Classic Movies at 6 pm), a melodrama about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, without a single major Asian character, is a better movie than Alan Parker's Come See the Paradise (1990), an epic treatment of the same splotch on American history, with a large Asian cast.)

The juxtaposition of Better Luck Tomorrow with Mean Streets and Menace II Society is especially relevant because Italian-American men and African-American men have both found ways to express full-blooded masculinity as performers in American pop culture, Italians in music and sports and movies, and blacks in sports and music. Jewish-American men, members of an earlier model minority, had a problem similar to that of Asians. They did at least have an outlet in comedy, but one that presented them as harmless neuters, except when it presented them as burlesque satyrs--either infantile (Danny Kaye) or grotesque (Groucho Marx), or both (Jerry Lewis).

This was the situation that fueled Philip Roth's great comic outburst of a novel Portnoy's Complaint: Portnoy feels that being trapped as the son in a Jewish mother joke in one stroke emasculates him and prevents this mutilation from having any tragic force. Portnoy feels diminished by the very nice-boy image that made Jews assimilable into the larger society, and his anguish is inescapably comic--even he presents it that way.

Lin seems to be struggling with a similar diminishment of the Asian-American male in the pop imagination. Better Luck Tomorrow is not as original as Portnoy's Complaint. Except for those aspects specific to the model minority blessing/burden, almost every episode and character type has been done elsewhere with other ethnic groups. (In addition, Ben's action at the climax exceeds what we've seen building up in him.) Lin does avoid the liberal trap of making the boys unbelievably virtuous victims, avoids, in fact, all melodrama. In the Asia Source interview he says, "I don't want people to think of them strictly in terms of good or bad. These characters are just kids who have made bad decisions." What's interesting is that in the gap between the fresh details of the story and the shopworn incidents, you sense something that Lin hasn't been able to resolve. I felt as if Lin were not showing the criminal path these boys go down with a liberal's dismay, but fantasizing about going down it.

He's not a flagrant fantasist, which may be why the movie hasn't got the attention it deserves. The movie falls between the I-know-I'm-a-sinner flamboyance of Mean Streets, which is so much bigger an imaginative experience than its sociological grounding, and the responsible probing that Lin claims in interviews was his goal. Lin may be caught in the trap for Asian-American men that he wanted to dramatize--a fear of asserting his identity without regard to the implications. He steers clear of the truly vicious, post-Malcolm X attitude that oppression justifies any response, but neither does he seem to have full access as an artist to what's driving him. The good news from an aesthetic point-of-view is that it isn't readily articulable themes that drive Lin, but expression. The bad news is that the expression is obstructed.

The best scene in Better Luck Tomorrow shows our four young men just after a party where they overreacted to ethnic slurs with brutal violence. They're riding in their car next to a carful of Chicanos, young men with a well-known culture of machismo, who are openly carrying guns. Nothing happens, and we can't hear what the Chicanos are saying in their car, and we're not even sure to what extent the Asian guys, their heads swirling from the incident at the party, are aware of the other car or what they think about the Chicanos. Lin masterfully lets the moment float--masterfully because it's floating in his brain fluids. In this one scene the movie isn't half inside his head, it's all the way in there, and the audience, too. I like Lin for being able to fantasize without losing sight of who he is, but it gives most of the movie an in-and-out quality--equal parts novel and romance--that muffles the experience.

People don't always know where their own talent lies. Again, in the Asia Source interview Lin states, "I wanted to explore [teen violence] even though I don't have the answer, but bringing up the questions might bring us closer to it." We don't have to take this at face value. He may flutter like a sparrow for journalists but the movie's good to the extent he swoops like a hawk. Lin's direction of Better Luck Tomorrow doesn't ask questions at all; it responds to a widespread perception in a personal way. Which is even better. Maybe that's why there's no resolution to Ben's story. Lin's fantasy isn't over; he's only at the beginning of his career.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.org.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

An article on blogging from today's CS Monitor. The spin is educational: How can blogs be used to help teach? Here's a very good point:
"The format of blogs is written, which means the thoughts tend to be in bigger chunks and nobody can interrupt you," Mr. Weinberger says. "It favors a different class of people, people who don't like to talk in class or think out loud, people who like to write things down before they show it."

Meg Hourihan, cofounder of blogger.com and author of the enormously popular weblog www.megnut.com, says blogs can actually level the playing field.

"It's a great way for quieter, shy kids to participate, just as a mailing list can be a great outlet in a corporate environment for the nonvocal to make a lot of contributions," she says. "[Blogs] take away the advantage from the loudest person and highlight people who actually add something to the conversation."
I've also found that an advantage to blogging is that it helps slow writers become much quicker in formulating arguments.

My vote for biggest waste of an academic career: "According to Clayton the blueprint for the perfect film is for it to have: 30 percent action, 17 percent comedy, 13 percent good versus evil, 12 percent sex/romance, 10 percent special effects, 10 percent plot and eight percent music."
Funny money

I posted about this last fall when the story first leaked out. Now the new colorful design for the twenty dollar bill has been unveiled.
From Jon Stewart:

The vice president and President Bush have renewed their vows, or so to speak, when Cheney agreed to stay on Bush's running mate in the 2004 election. Cheney's position on the ticket had been the subject of speculation because of his heart condition but in a recent interview he insists he is the picture of health, and not as some have suggested, the picture of Dorian Grey....

As Cheney told CNN, he has been 100 percent heart-attack-free since ascending to the vice presidency. He added, "In fact, rather than giving me stress, being vice president has actually fueled my blackened soul allowing me to gorge vampire like on the bloody nectar of unlimited power." I'm sorry, that should have read "I've never felt better."
One exam down, three more to go. It's amazing how long one's day is when one wakes up at 8:00, as I did today. I'm off to the grocery store.
Apologies for my absence. I have entered the home stretch--literally--of my academic career. Three more exams stand between me and the end of class, forever. So bear with me and posting by me will be intermittent over the next two weeks as I get my blog legs back, and then back in full force in two weeks time, right after graduation. In the meantime, thanks for coming back despite the paucity in posting.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Quote of the Day:
"One man by himself is nothing. Two people who belong together make a world."
~ Hans Margolius.

Song of the Day:
George Michael, "Fast Love"

Happy Birthday:
Yogi Berra
George Carlin
Emilio Estevez
Gabriel Fauré
Katherine Hepburn
Edward Lear
Florence Nightingale
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Movie Review

In his 11 May 2003 AP story "'X2' Still Tops at Box Office," David Germain reports:

By Wednesday, ''X2'' should pass the $157.3 million that ''X-Men'' took in during its entire run three years ago, said Bruce Snyder, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox, which released both movies.

The improved box office indicates fans of the comic books drove the first film, while its exposure since then through home video and TV airings has broadened the franchise's appeal, Snyder said.

''It's grown in stature, plus this one got the kind of reviews that drove more of an adult audience and a female audience to see it, people who might not normally go to see a comic-book-based story,'' Snyder said.
But for the supposed broadened appeal of X2, the sequel to X-Men (2000; both based on the Marvel comic book series, in which mutants with amazing specialized powers live in tense integration with normal humans), there would be relatively little point in reviewing it. Saturation advertising ensures that everybody will have heard about it, and the people who like such movies don't really need criticism. If X2 is good enough for somebody on a Saturday night, you hate to spoil the sport by disagreeing. Maybe it's more accurate to say there's relatively little point in someone like me reviewing a movie like X2, but the truth is I've seen so many of these summer blockbusters lumber off into oblivion that if I don't bring a natural taste for the movie to this review, I do at least bring some perspective.

Stan Lee and the artist Jack Kirby brought out the first Fantastic Four comics in 1961; they then started the X-Men series in 1963, which expands the earlier series's concept, with this difference: whereas the Fantastic Four got their powers as the result of an accident, the X-Men were all born that way. I did love the Fantastic Four as a kid, which I knew from the television cartoon rather than the comic books, so God knows I wasn't responding to the craftsmanship. I responded to their assortment of mutant powers, but also to way the superheroes formed an outcaste family and the fact that the very things that made them unassimilable made them heroes. Since such a response draws on a big reservoir of self-pity, I'm not sure that a truly adult-oriented feature-length movie can be made from this material.

The expansion from the Fantastic Four to X-Men is considerable in every way. A quick count from memory gave me at least sixteen mutant characters in X2, and quite a number of them are children and teenagers, for whom, as we all know, life is tough enough without a supernatural skill to make you stand out from the crowd. The self-pitying trick about the X-Men lineup is that although all the mutants belong to one group, no two mutants have the same mutation, so each is alone within the larger group. And the group's relationship to non-mutants borders on open hostilities. They're like the Polish Jews at the beginning of The Pianist: superior, indignant, even defiant, yet deeply unsettled by imminent conflict. The mutants have this advantage over the Jews: powers that suggest the battle, if catastrophic, will at least be evenly matched. Feelings of difference and isolation and victimization are difficult to dramatize effectively, especially when you have to squeeze them into hyperbolic melodrama and in between special effects set pieces, and the natural audience isn't there for drama, anyway. The "emotional" scenes in X2 don't feel organic to the material but as if they were put in to be noticed; they didn't do much for me. The teenaged Rogue and Iceman's tremulous fear of contact is of much less interest to me than the wit with which the filmmakers have Rogue exhale a cloud of frost after their first kiss.

A movie like X2 almost repels meaning and yet it's inevitable that in the absence of some sustaining poetic vision meaning of some sort will cluster. Here it forms around the status of the mutants. In one scene the script plays it as if mutantness were like homosexuality, something Iceman has to sit his parents down and divulge. (They never noticed he can throw up a wall of ice with one hand?) In another, Mystique, a blue-skinned female mutant capable of taking on the form and voice of any human or mutant, is asked why she doesn't take on a human form permanently, and she replies, "Because I shouldn't have to." This makes mutant status more like race, with the Azure-American militantly refusing to pass. In another scene, children are rounded up and secretly put in a prison cell, which calls to mind Nazi internment. When you add to this that Brian Cox's archvillain, who attempts to start a human war against mutants, is a reactionary military man with a Southern accent, you realize that a dreary liberal paranoia is as far as the director Bryan Singer's intuition has taken him into the material.

The large cast of characters may be a big plus in a serial format like comic books, where they can take turns coming forward but the reader can review his favorite parts at will, can, in fact, stare at a single pane for as long as he likes. Stage-managing that many characters, however, gets to be too much for the movie. It's like an overcrowded vaudeville program. Each major character gets a chance to show off, but by the very same token the dramatic excitement is leveled. Nightcrawler's opening attack on the President is a standout--the speed at which he can move, scattering Secret Service men like skittles pins, and the way he can instantaneously disappear, leaving swirling wisps of black haze, is genuinely frightening. With his spiked tail he's like one of the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz with paranormal martial arts skills--beyond creepy. Other showstoppers of varying quality follow but don't build on each other; they could come in reverse order and it wouldn't matter. What should be the peak moment, when Patrick Stewart has a lethal mindlock on every single human on earth, is particularly limp. (We see only the President surrounded by his prostrate protectors; I'm a patriot and he wasn't the even first person I thought of, let alone the only one.) Singer, who made his reputation on the basis of the work of the actors in the trickily plotted The Usual Suspects (1995), is here doing nothing that he's especially talented at.

Clearly, movies like this aren't to my taste. The effects aren't elegant enough, and the characters and story aren't visionary in any meaningful way (the religious mutant Kurt Wagner makes this painfully clear). It isn't drama and it isn't comedy and it isn't even camp. It's melodrama set in a parallel universe where magic is everyday and yet conveniently spotty--when a passel of characters capable of such things as telepathy, telekinesis, and self-healing of lethal wounds have to escape from the archvillain's underground headquarters before it floods they have to hoof it, like frightened cattle. Shortly afterwards one of them shows that indeed her powers are able to hold a wall of water back, but if she had been able to do it earlier the movie wouldn't have had the suspense when required and thus wouldn't be like every other movie in this category.

In addition, the dead earnestness with which the action is played out really limits the actors. (For contrast, think of the vibrant, weird performances Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were able to give in Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976), a movie that parodied its own genre while using that self-consciousness to heighten the experience. DePalma's ability to make you identify with poor pitiful Carrie and laugh at yourself for doing so at the same time is something close to miraculous.) Regardless of fidelity to the X-Men comics, this movie could use the focus of a star performance, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine actually seems as if he could function as a star in this material. The movie certainly doesn't waste any time stripping him down to a wife-beater so we can see his deltoids strain, but he's a lot better than beefcake. For one thing, he has alert big-movie comic timing, like Mel Gibson's but not so wired. Unfortunately, in the few bits in which we see it--when he asks Iceman to chill his soda, for instance--Singer's timing undermines the actor's.

For another, Jackman has an unusually strong sense of gesture and delivery for a slab-of-muscle star--Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all became stars without evincing much technique or any subtlety. (Lancaster developed it later, in his work for Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Louis Malle.) When Jackman, cornered by local cops in a suburban house, shoots his hands down, driving his metal claws out of his knuckles, and roars, "If you want to shoot me, shoot me!" you sense that he has the power as an actor to hold the center of a much more challenging movie.

Let's not ask for the moon--how about a more challenging melodrama? There's a subplot in X2involving how Jackman was made into Wolverine that is lifted from the wonderful-junky movie Conspiracy Theory (1997) starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. (The romance is surprisingly intense--it is by far the number one date movie among paranoid suspense thrillers.) In Conspiracy Theory (written by Brian Helgeland and directed by Richard Donner, who is the husband of the co-producer of X2, Lauren Shuler-Donner, and in which Patrick Stewart takes the role played by Brian Cox here) Gibson's hopped-up comic delivery doesn't just microwave a stale movie, as in the Lethal Weapon series, it expresses the character's anguish and confusion. When we finally figure out what he's been talking about, his romantic gallantry is fulfilled and Roberts glows in its presence. Gibson uses those big, soulful eyes to bestow emotion on an idiot plot (about nefarious government ops) that you wouldn't think could hold any. Nothing you see Jackman do in X2 indicates he couldn't step into Gibson's shoes in a movie like Conspiracy Theory, or something even better.

In X2 Jackman is adequately hot, at any rate, and I could get over such imbecilic things as an attempt to generate suspense by having Mystique trying to print from a computer in a limited amount of time (like a secretary trying to catch the 5:10 train to Long Island) if the women looked better. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos comes off best in her one scene as a human, an aggressive chick in a bar wearing a blue snakeskin rubber band for a dress. In another scene she stands next to Ian McKellen while wearing nothing but her defiant blue skin. Did McKellen realize he was going to have to compete for our attention with her left nipple? (To judge from the two young men sitting a few rows ahead of me, he lost, badly.) At times he does seem to be aware of it--that may be why he merely suggests that his acting skills overqualify him for the part without ever proving it. In the end it's moot--when he levitates in order to reverse the evil work that Cox has set in motion, Singer doesn't know how to maximize the moment, anyway. Why should McKellen exert himself?

Finally, unless you're a fan, the only way to engage with the movie is as a consumer. At a certain point I switched from the responses of a hard-to-impress teenaged boy consumer ("That would never happen") to a catty drag queen consumer, wondering whose idea it was to put Halle Berry in a platinum wig, which makes her china doll face nearly unrecognizable and isn't even in an attractive cut. I do hold out hope, however, that some day when the movie's fans have grown up and young people have moved on to other franchises, people watching late night TV will be able to laugh as Berry, piloting the mutants' jet when the air force fires air-to-air missiles at her, gasps, "Ohmigod! there's two of them!"

I think Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing X2 for Salon, has made the best case for it. She really won me with the comparison of Mystique to Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade's serial Les Vampires (1915-16). I just want to point out that what makes Les Vampires so spooky, and made it so appealing to the Surrealists, is its low-tech integration of mysterious doings into real locations. This resulted from the Gaumont studio's budgetary crisis during World War I--no money for big sets or special effects. Imagination filled in where the budget fell short. It shouldn't have to be a zero-sum game, but it usually turns out that way.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.org.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Sunday Miscellany:

* Modern art is crap -- sometimes literally.

* Newsweek looks at a growing trend -- couples where the wife is the main wage-earner.

* Ruth Marcus has a simple Mother's Day request: "at least today, maybe everyone could pick up his own underwear."

* A column whose title is "I Loathe America."

* The happy couple in this week's NYT wedding is named named Perry and Darin.

* Vanessa Jean has new duct tape designs. Check them out!

* The Kitchen Cabinet has received over 50,000 hits since September! I realize this is approximately what InstaPundit receives in half an hour, but I still find it kind of exciting.
I'm back online after a crazy week -- the kind of week where you hate checking e-mail because it just means that there are ten more things you have take care of. With the exception of my bar application, it was happy stuff, but attention-absorbing and time-consuming. At one point last week, pulling an all-nighter just seemed like the sensible thing to do. (It seemed less sensible at dawn, but doesn't it always? Anyway, it was good to know that I can still stay up all night even at my advanced age.)

The good news is that my bar application has been received by the proper authorities, my apartment is regaining something like its normal order, and checking e-mail is a pleasant experience once again. And Kate's Very Important Paper has been turned in!

The YLS graduation banquet was Friday night, and a debaucherous time was had by all, including the Kitchen Cabinet. (One Cabinet member who shall remain nameless inquired yesterday, "Did I make many enemies last night?") Exams start tomorrow, which you'd think would mean a lot of stress -- but after all the craziness around here lately, it actually feels like a very peaceful time. I imagine the stress-o-meter will rise when exams end and KC parents begin arriving for graduation....
Quote of the Day:
"Love thy neighbor as yourself, but choose your neighborhood."
~ Louise Beal

Song of the Day:
Billy Joel, "The Stranger"

Happy Birthday:
Irving Berlin
Salvador Dali
Ben Glenn
Martha Graham

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Movie Review

Aki Kaurismäki is the first Finnish director to develop a reputation in the U.S. He has received most attention here for writing remote adaptations of literary properties--Hamlet, Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, Henry Murger's novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème (also the source of Puccini's opera)--and then as director slowing them down, stripping them of affect. He puts them under glass in self-consciously aestheticized form (his black-and-white cinematography can make you regret the development of color), but also shoots them through with a poker-faced, absurdist comic streak. In the place of involving emotional experiences or even developed literary themes you get a fluky-nihilist sense of life as a random succession of quirky, petty indignities, frustrations, fiascos, and desperate crimes.

Kaurismäki's penchant (or gift, depending on your taste) is for black irony played light, which makes it doubly detached: life is seen as a weird bummer but the director is not going to soothe the suffering by taking it seriously. Samuel Beckett's absurdism in Waiting for Godot was also a form of nihilism in which even repetitive vaudeville patter was imbued with a sense of futility. (If speech weren't futile there'd be no need for repetition.) Such works are always fighting against their own urge to communicate with audiences. How do you invite people back for more of the same bad news, especially when your point is that breaking the news doesn't help?

Kaurismäki's latest movie, The Man Without a Past, isn't a literary adaptation but it is of a piece with his earlier work. (Kaurismäki has the consistently recognizable style required for an international art house career.) A man sitting on a park bench, and identified in the credits as M (Markku Peltola), is brutally beaten by three punks and left for dead. In the hospital a doctor lets him slip away, figuring it's better than a life as a vegetable; the nurse pulls the sheet over his head and leaves. You know he's going to sit up in the bed because otherwise there'd be no movie; he then unattaches himself from the monitors that are registering no signs of life, straightens his broken nose, and stumbles out of the hospital. He ends up prostrate again, by the harbor, and is robbed again, but then two little boys find him and run to get their parents, who take him in. The competent, illusion-free wife nurses him, while her weak, alcoholic husband worries and drinks. He comes around, but can't remember anything about his past--his name, where he's from, what he knows how to do.

At one end amnesia movies are heavily-plotted thrillers the solution to which depends on the hero's lost identity, like Alfred Hitchcock's ludicrous psychoanalytic murder mystery Spellbound (1945), which is the most famous, though I prefer Christopher Nolan's Memento (2001) starring Guy Pearce. At the other end, they're existential movies, with the suspense focused on the question of identity, like Delbert Mann's Mister Buddwing (1966) starring James Garner, which doesn't work not only because it's overwritten but because if there were ever an actor who came across as knowing who he was it was Garner. The Man Without a Past is in the latter camp, but much more sophisticatedly foxy.

The movie takes place at the bottom of society in Helsinki. The people who take M in live in a corrugated metal shed on the waterfront and hope to get a council flat. When the husband offers to take M out to dinner he means to an outdoor Salvation Army soup kitchen. A man has frozen to death in another one of these sheds, so it's available for M. He has to pay extortionate rent to the unofficial lord of the harbor wasteland, an eminently non-threatening tough guy, who claims his dog Hannibal will kill M if he doesn't make good on the rent. (The dog ends up adopting M.) M gets the money by taking a job with the Salvation Army, where he and Sister Irma (Kati Outinen), a prickly, virginal soup kitchen worker, start a flirtation.

Having discovered by chance that he knows how to weld, M goes to a bank because he can't be paid by the shipbuilding firm that hires him if he doesn't have an account. As he's about to fill in the forms, an angry walrus of a man comes in with a shotgun and "withdraws" money from his frozen account. Because of corporate-law complications the robber's company was driven into bankruptcy and he was not allowed to pay his workers for work they'd already done. M comes into the police's purview while they're investigating the robbery, and they don't like the fact that he can't tell them his name. They think he chooses not to because he's an illegal alien from one of the Russian Republics, and so a xenophobic official attempts to trump up charges against him. This suggests a level of (familiar) leftist social critique about Finnish society, but Kaurismäki has the wrong technique as a screenwriter to give it force. The naturalism is all on the surface; the story floats off in other, less obviously organized, directions. M ends up delivering the stolen cash to the workers, and then the police, having posted his photo to discover his identity, tell him who he is, or was, and he goes back to meet the wife he can't remember.

At the very end, M chooses the shed and life on the waterfront. When he returns he sees the same three punks who attacked him at the beginning beating another man. They recognize him and say they thought they'd already killed him, so he picks up a plank to defend himself, at which a legion of poor men appear and take care of the thugs. This all may seem like a lot of plot but it has no propulsion. Still, just before the end all the incidents seemed to fit together in a way I didn't see coming. It suddenly occurred to me that, of course, M was already dead, that's why the hospital monitoring equipment indicated he had no heartbeat. The whole movie, then, could be a view of life after death, which may take us as we're sitting in despair on a park bench. (The thugs are a lumpen tripartite psychopomp for a society and economy crumbling from the bottom.) All the pesky details of your life--the failed marriage, the self-defeating habits--are erased and you're left in your most elemental form with the few things you can truly care about, in M's case, rhythm-and-blues, a faithful dog, a plot of ground, an inexperienced woman as grateful for him as he is for her, and the guardian-angel opportunity to repair a simple injustice. The fact that M falls in with the Salvation Army fits with this, as does the tango sung in the last scene by the Salvation Army leader, played by Annikki Tähti, a classic Finnish chanteuse, about a wonderful place called Mon Repos. ("Repos" is French for "rest" and in the phrase "éternel repos" carries the connotation of rest beyond the grave.) (See this French article for Kaurismäki's explanation of what the song means to him.)

So, in my mind, anyway, the strands of the meandering narrative all tied up, and in a way that didn't feel too deliberate--no keystone cemented into place telling you that you had got the point (true even of a movie like The Sixth Sense (1999), which I loved). If I'm even close to the writer-director's intentions, then this is probably the least saccharine view of the redemptive afterlife in movie history, one appropriate to Kaurismäki's leftish social outlook and sympathies, a heaven the proletariat would recognize as home.

But even if Kaurismäki intended this neat reading, it doesn't really represent the experience of sitting through the movie, which despite its deliberate deadpan feels uncertain as it pokes along. On one level the Salvation Army setting and the "adorable" tough guy with the sweet doggie may remind you of popular movies made from Damon Runyan material, like Little Miss Marker (1934) starring Shirley Temple, or Guys and Dolls (1955). The purposeful stoniness elicits a different, more rarefied, kind of comic response from its educated audience, but it's still pretty precious.

At the same time, however, that Kaurismäki's sense of absurdism--with its comic timing stretched to what can feel like infinity--gives his bleak movies the feel of divertissements, his direction of the action doesn't cause you to laugh out loud. This is in large part because he directs the actors to respond slowly and mutedly. As a result they're no more expressive in their roles than sock puppets would be, and less so than Nick Park's claymation figures. (Kati Outinen did, however, win best actress at Cannes in 2002 for this role. In the L.A. Weekly Andrew Mann has said it "was widely considered a career-achievement award"; maybe that explains it.) The actors certainly offer Kaurismäki little competition for the audience's attention. Everything is focused on his perspective, his style, his attitude. That's how he's made and maintained his international reputation, but he's taking less of a chance than if his movies offered more heterogeneous experiences. For a director who pointedly uses popular music in his movies Kaurismäki isn't a rousing filmmaker: he has no intention of providing the audience with release, even though The Man Without a Past ends happily. It could work for his entire career or it could be a trap. Being too hip to play anything straight, or even to play anything at all, is exactly what sank Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch's directing careers within a few years of their breakthrough successes, even with art house audiences. It isn't surprising to read in this BBC interview with Outinen that Kaurismäki's movies aren't even popular in Finland.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.org.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Movie Review

James Foley's Confidence is a movie about a group of grifters led by Edward Burns who unintentionally steal money from an underworld kingpin and then, in order to work off the debt, pull another grift in collaboration with him. (Burns's character is named Jake Vig. In street parlance (in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, for instance) "vig" is short for "vigorish," meaning usurious interest on a loan, say from a loanshark, i.e., the plot of Confidence in three letters.) It boils down to the same game as in the Robert Redford-Paul Newman movie The Sting (1973) but without the superstar radiance and the moral justification provided by the fact that the target of their sting had murdered a Negro friend of Redford's. I say "Negro" to underline the archaic melodramatic function of the friend who was introduced only so that he could be murdered. I don't take that moral justification seriously, and I'm not wild about the Redford-Newman pairing, either. Newman works at his comedy routines, especially the poker game, but what does Redford do? All the same, Redford's waxy remoteness as a performer, his refusal to get ruffled, by action or emotion, is clearly integral to his star image, which is as inarguable as a geological formation.

Confidence isn't "cute" like The Sting (with the stars way too palsy-confident of their appeal, and Scott Joplin's stately-stepping ragtime music whipped to froth), but I'm not sure that its lack of star power and its relative amorality (the murder of the friend is integrated into the characters' criminal activities, so Burns's revenge is just gangland payback) are in themselves big plusses. Edward Burns is in the tradition of the handsome rough, Clark Gable being the most famous example. Gable poured his masculine charm on the role, often to the point of smirking, but even when he overdid it he put a lot of energy into it, and softened the boundary between melodrama and comedy, between rascal and hero. He wasn't a complex actor but he was no deadbeat. With a perfectly even face and a tall, muscular frame, Burns is a catalogue stud beyond question, and never false. He doesn't coast on his looks, as Brad Pitt has, but he's not really a sparkplug. He's like broad-shouldered, long-jawed Chester Morris, a tight, efficient disreputable urban hero from the very early talkies, except Morris's vehicles were themselves so tight they didn't call for a more developed star personality. In that context Morris was a hot ingot. (Gable and Morris both did escort duty opposite Norma Shearer in her "daring" modern-woman pictures.) Burns comes across more like Dennis Morgan, an undercharged, second-string studio star of the '40s, really more of a co-star than a star.

It doesn't help that Burns's character is pitched right at the young men in the audience. The script compensates too hard by making the kingpin, played by Dustin Hoffman, into a whackjob: he runs a nightclub with porno-go-go dancers whom he instructs to go down on each other "tastefully"; is eerily intuitive and openly, inappropriately sexual, with men and women; and has attention deficit disorder, so he talks talks talks, everything spilling out; and all of it with a hovering sense of retributive violence. It's a funky creampuff of a role for Hoffman, who chews and chews and chews it. He shows an amazing command of gesture--he can shape scenes just by changing the volume of his voice. Whatever is cheesy in the attempt to make him creepy is more than made up for by Hoffman's late-career vitality. Actually, Hoffman's vitality is so nearly comic that the menace is impaired, but I didn't care, he was too entertaining to watch.

What hurts Burns isn't so much that Hoffman outacts him as that his character recoils from the crime boss's freakiness. There's a deep sense in which Burns is only comfortable appearing "normal," even when he's playing a conman, who by almost any real-world standards would count as some kind of sociopath. You sense that Burns wants young men to identify with him; cautious blandness, however, is not the most reliable way to achieve that in a movie. (He and Ben Affleck could star as twins in a movie nobody would want to see.)

American male movie star's personae have often fallen outside of sexual bounds. There's something recessive about Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty, John Travolta, and George Clooney, and something dominant, even to the point of threatening rape, about Clark Gable and at times Marlon Brando. Even square, respectable Spencer Tracy had a visible sexual hold over Katharine Hepburn--he sexualized her in a way that Grant, a more congenial co-star for her, never could, and she does the same for him just by staring at him with flush-faced adoration. Robert Mitchum could be both passive and overpowering.

Burns is more inert than recessive in the way that beckons to the audience. But he's not sexually imposing, either. He's more what you could call "ready when duty calls." In Confidence he both comes on to the girl and spends much of the movie pushing her away, but not with the anger and cynicism of Humphrey Bogart that explain the resistance (and allow the movie to turn it around in the last act). Burns is also fairly humorless, even in the nutty bits when he gets superstitious about redheads and birds, or at any rate he fails to get laughs (Newman's specialty in both his criminal roles opposite that rugged mannequin Redford). I could stare at Burns for hours (a nude scene would have been a real bonus), I just don't enjoy watching him that much. He's self-protecting to the point of dullness at the center of a fast-moving, tricky, amoral suspense movie.

Still, Burns is the star here, though opposite him Rachel Weisz comes off better because her character has to range more widely for the purposes of the grift. In the scene in which Burns recruits her for the job, there's a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West-green light on her face as she comes on to Burns and tells him to fuck off at the same time. She's no gang moll; Burns chooses her because of her skill at picking pockets, and she turns out to be a talented con, too. Weisz, who resembles Elizabeth McGovern and has a hint of Joan Cusack's cartoony wiliness, makes her impersonations--of a law student's wife especially--almost as funny as sketch characters. You sense the trickster's pleasure in putting the world on while the actress suggests that the person inside there somewhere wants to please Burns.

Foley's direction is thankfully swift. There's involuted narration--we think we're at the end of the line when we're still in the middle of a game--and Foley keeps it all moving with fast wipes from scene to scene. I was never bored, except to the extent that I'm not tempted by economic crime and, unlike the characters, don't feel any thrill in pulling off a big imposture. (I prefer the fantasy of total idleness to that of criminal work, which requires as much time and application and skill as legal work with all the energy given to evading detection added on top.) I also think that to the extent there are holes in the plot (Burns pulls a sting on a guy after revealing to him the details of an identical one) they don't matter. That is, if you're noticing the plot holes then it's probably because the movie isn't engaging you in any other, arguably more important, ways.

Confidence is an exhibition of fancy card-shuffling with no pretensions to more. So it makes Neil Jordan's The Good Thief look like a masterpiece because of that movie's stylistic forms of "more" (though there turn out to be other, more advanced, limitations). (If you really want more in an entertaining movie about conmen, check out Stephen Frears's 1990 movie The Grifters, starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening.) But the kinds of "more" you get with a big-studio product like The Sting, the kinds that money can buy, leave me indifferent.

When Burns and Weisz go to talk to Hoffman, I realized that the movie was doing some of the things that Pulp Fiction (1994) failed to do: show us in face-to-face exchanges the competitive tensions between the head guy and his underlings before those tensions exploded. But then Pulp Fiction has in aces what you'll really miss in Confidence: a host of pungent, elliptical characterizations. Burns plays his conman as straight as an actor could. He has some of the rigidity of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but John Huston knew how to bring out the violence in that repression, in Spade's scenes with Joel Cairo and Wilmer the gunsel, and then at the end with Brigid O'Shaughnessy. I know people who use "heterosexual" as a pejorative term, meaning fearful of straying outside conventional boundaries; you can apply it in that sense to Burns and to Confidence overall.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.org.