Wine-dark seas

We are prepared to see, and we see easily, things for which our language and culture hand us ready-made labels. When those labels are lacking, even though the phenomena may be all around us, we may quite easily fail to see them at all.

— Douglas Hofstader


We are dying creatures in a dying world. Our place is among the dead, and happiness comes when we acknowledge this, and strive to recreate in imagination, and to some small extent in reality, the moral order that has been established over more than a lifetime for the sake of life.

— Roger Scruton

Scruton, an old-school British conservative, so old-school that this quote comes from a book about fox hunting, makes this unabashed cri de coeur without irony or self-deprecation. I appreciate the spiritual clarity. I sometimes feel the same way, but not always.

A Sea of Troubles

There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.

— Peter Altenberg

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XIV

January, 2020

Knives Out (2019)

Watched Knives Out (2019), Rian Johnson’s ensemble murder mystery set in a country home. Interestingly, everyone is not a suspect, since the sequence of events around the murder are revealed pretty early. Some good references to murder mystery movies, including the animatronic sailor from Sleuth (1972) . Too many of the jokes in this movie will not make sense in 20 years, and were not necessary. James Bond (Daniel Craig) plays Benoit Blanc, the gentleman sleuth, and manages to be great even with a preposterously bad Kentucky accent. Knives Out is a great title for a murder mystery, but it’s clear they came up with the title first and then wrote in scenes to justify it, including the (very predictable, even by me) final beat. Chris Evans did a good job playing against type. Lots of vomit jokes. Jamie Lee Curtis was great. People give Don Johnson a lot of credit for his fun performance, but he did it exactly the way you’d expect Don Johnson to do it. Michael Shannon had nothing to add except one brief yell. I think Daniel Craig likes to do bad southern accents, because he did one in Logan Lucky (2017) too. I give it 4 knives out of a possible 5 knives.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Shane Black’s Los Angeles noir movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a man auditioning for the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008). Val Kilmer is so good. There are a few films that are from the 2000s that feel like leftover scripts from the quirky crime movies of the ’90s: In Bruges (2008) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006) for example. This is another, and it feels weird. Some good jokes. On the whole I think I prefer The Nice Guys (2016), the other Shane Black movie that is this movie, but I do like this one as well. I give it 3.5 severed fingers out of a possible 5 severed fingers.

Is Paris Burning (1966)

Watched Is Paris Burning? (1966), a movie about the French resistance to Nazi occupation in Paris. This is an unexpectedly grand scale movie, with tons of stunts, and an ensemble cast I didn’t expect to see — not only every French actor I’ve ever heard of who wasn’t in Leon (1994), Green Card (1990), or Amelie (2001), but lots of Americans like Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, and Anthony Perkins. Robert Stack as Eisenhower. Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal wrote the script, but I’m not sure how much of that script is what I saw filmed. Charles de Gaulle had complete oversight, and did things like declare that the red and black Nazi flag could never be shown flying over Paris, which is why the film is shot in black and white (they used green flags even while filming to get around this declaration). Being in black and white did allow them to mix in actual footage from the liberation without being too jarring for me. It’s surprising, though, that covering fire had not been developed before WWII. There are a lot of genuinely great moments in what amounts to a propaganda film, and in that respect it could be paired with The Longest Day (1962) even more than a darker, less literally flag-waving movie about the Resistance, like Army of Shadows (1969). I give it 3.75 trout mousses out of a possible 5 trout mousses.

1917 (2020)

Watched 1917 (2020), a Roger Deakins film about WWI. The plot is Saving Private Ryan (1998), only moreso, with two lance corporals traveling through no man’s land to save one of them’s brother, and 1599 other doughboys from an ambush. This clearly isn’t a one-take movie: there’s a straight up fade to black in the middle of it, and the 40 other hidden cuts are not always subtle. Mark Strong should play Benedict: not Cumberbatch, the guy from Amber. The best day in a cinematographer’s year is when he gets to light a scene with flares. I think I understand the symbolism of the cherry trees. Everything audio-visual about this movie rules. I give it 4.5 rats out of a possible 5 rats.

Parasite (2019)

Watched Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho’s satire about work and dependence in a pre-post-scarcity economy. This story would make absolutely no sense to Captain Picard of the Federation: I wonder what the Ferengi would think. Similar to Edgar Wright movies in at least one way: the fact that everything in the movie pays off eventually means the director is an obsessive. Similar to 1917 (2019) in at least one way: both owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock, as we all do I guess. A partial list of things which have symbolic value: stairs, smart phones, scholar’s stones, plans, plum extract, the underground, pure water vs. sewage, native Americans, buses, lightning, concrete, sunbeams, the Boy Scouts, and flickering lights. The movie recapitulates its own story, by pretending to be something it isn’t and revealing itself halfway through! Lee Jung-eun, as the former housekeeper, has the best performance, or at least my favorite performance. Why did they think the family was abetting the driver Kim if they didn’t know he wasn’t really the driver Kim? This isn’t my favorite movie of the year (1917 (2019)) or my favorite Bong Joon-Ho movie (Memories of Murder (2003)), but it’s close. Great carpet in this movie. I give it 4.5 peaches out of a possible 5 peaches.

Uncut Gems (2019)

Watched Uncut Gems (2019), an elaborate, nerve-wracking movie about sports betting. Adam Sandler plays a diamond seller who get sexual pleasure out of taking ultimately self-destructive risks. Like the second shot of the movie, he is a complete asshole. This movie was directed by the Safdie brothers, who I hear have their own dance. Kevin Garnett plays himself, and just as in real life, he is obsessed with a fire opal he believes has magic basketball powers. Most people only know fire opals as a spell component for casting Fireball, or as the result of rolling 91-99 on the random treasure table for gems, where it is worth, on average, 1000 gp. In this movie, the fire opal symbolizes both Africa, Judaism, and the rejuvenation of lost potency. The movie ends abruptly, but in a way that makes you say yeah, that’s what would happen. I give it 4.25 bedazzled Gizmos out of a possible 5 bedazzled Gizmos.

King of New York (1990)

Watched King of New York (1990), Abel Ferrara’s crime movie where Christopher Walken is the crime boss. The twist is that Walken’s character thinks he is Robin Hood (1938) but he’s actually Scarface (1983), depending on where you stand. Laurence Fishburne plays the Joker. He’s at an 11 most of the time, but gets some quiet moments where he can take it down to about 8. Wesley Snipes is in there too, and so is David Caruso. I guess the message of the movie is that the city swallows good intentions whole while slowly sliding into ruin. Lots of nudity and late 80s hip hop in this movie. Lots of ketchup blood. Some very good lines, and memorable scenes. In an alternate timeline, there are posters of this movie on college dorm rooms. I give it 3.25 barrels of MSG out of a possible 5 barrels of MSG.

Boldness, taxation

Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States, for we have given this program a high national priority—even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240 thousand miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25 thousand miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun … and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.


The dawning of mankind

[At] some point in history, human beings realise that they will all die. To small bands of roaming hunters this was not self-evident; it was possible to view death as something unlucky that happened to other people.

Diane Purkiss