26 April, 2005

Review: The Machinist -- Lose Weight Now, Ask Christian How

I'm having a cholesterol test this morning. Ever since I hit forty, my brother has been harassing me to have one done; I've two siblings and a parent currently on anti-cholesterol meds. For the past few years I've been watching my diet, which wasn't that bad to begin with; I tweaked up my consumption of fish and veg, and dialed down the amount of red meat, fast burning carbs (mostly potatoes), and I have cereal for breakfast with a helping of ground seeds for the omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and a probiotic yogurt drink (except for today, I'm having to fast for the test). Questions on the forms I have to fill out of the ilk of "have you experienced weight loss?"

How does one experience weight loss? Short of, say amputation, extreme makeover local anaesthetic only liposuction, or spaceflight. Sure I could ask the shuttle astronaut daughter of my parents' friends, but I'm saving that particular hopeful cache for Canaveral launch day tickets. I'm only trying to review a film here. Christian Bale reportedly lost 63 pounds in order to play the title character Trevor Reznick of The Machinist. Surely he has an inside track on the experience of weight loss.

"If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist," a friend confides in him. He looks like a survivor of a concentration camp. Any discussion of Bale's performance, shouldn't focus unduly on the weight loss (a kind of ├╝ber-method actor stunt), because it's an intense incredible performance that carries the film, ranging from grimly determined, warmly funny to cornered paranoia. But on the other hand, when he takes his shirt off showing his spine and ribcage horribly delineated, you want to say to him, "Dude, haven't you heard of CGI?"

Our first glimpse of Trevor is a gaunt frightened creature, in a dank coldwater apartment, rolling what appears to be a body into a carpet. He then tries to dispose of this off an abandoned industrial area dock.

You wouldn't be blamed for thinking that he's a serial killer. He seems to have the spare, loner lifestyle down, some sort of cleanliness thing that makes him wash his hands with bleach or lye, and take a toothbrush to the grout on the bathroom floor. He leaves himself post-it notes. But on the other hand, he banters amiably with his co-workers, he charms the airport eatery waitress he sees for pie and coffee every night, and he's such sympathetic client to Jennifer Jason Leigh's hooker that she considers a change of career for him.

But why hasn't he slept in a year? Why is he an emaciated ghost? Who is Ivan the deformed arc-welder that Trevor meets at work, but whom no one else seems to know? Who has been swapping Trevor's post-it mementos with a taunting game of hangman? Is Trevor really responsible for an industrial accident at work that maims one of his colleagues? Can Trevor answer the question on his own post-it, "Who Are You"?

The film plays out like a marriage of Hitchcock and David Lynch. Trevor Reznick is either the classic Hitchcock innocent caught in a shadowy conspiracy to frame him for an unnamed crime, or he is a paranoid madman who may be driven to extremes by his own dread and guilt. The film is shot in hyper-real washed out colors, light either harsh, or grimly low. It teases us with clues and questions. Did the "murder" at the beginning take place before or after the events of the rest of the film? Are the inconsistencies he experiences hallucinations caused by his lack of sleep or is he being gaslighted by his enemies?

Unlike Lynch's Mulholland Drive, the clues, and everything else, does add up. Thankfully, we're not just left with an artfully atmospheric recursive mystery. This well constructed film does repay Christian Bale's dedication with a satisfying ending (some may feel is slightly less than the build up, but what would you rather have, something that makes sense, or blows your mind with incomprehensibility?). And despite an intense atmosphere of constant dread, it's probably the safest and most edifying way to experience weight loss.

(Bonus smile: one scene features the most morbidly over the top carnival house of horror ride imaginable.

Sidebar: One hopes for Bale's sake that there isn't a sequel to this film, between the weightloss for this, bulking up for Batman Begins, and possible sequels, there could be serious damage to his health.)


22 April, 2005

Smile of the Day: Vatican Blitzkrieg Bop

I have to say I hesitate to include this, not out of tasteful considerations, you know me better than that! But because I can't remember the phrase verbatim.....

On tonight's BBC topical panel pseudo-game "Have I Got News For You" there was some talk about the new Pope, joltin' Joe Ratzinger. There was an undoubtedly scripted observation from the guest presenter along the lines of "once again the Germans have quickly taken over from a Polish authority."

I'm really sorry I can't remember the quote right, but hell, I was too amused to write it down at the time. Other pope related stuff on the show had Paul Merton referring to him at first ironically saying he has kind eyes, and then progressing to mentioning his "killer's eyes" everytime a picture of JR-B16 was shown.

I may as well drop in a few other thoughts about the papacy (like as a jew-ish guy, it's any of my business, my wife's family are English Roman Catholics). Whatever my objections to JP2's stand on contraception/AIDS prevention, etc. I do credit him for the dignity in his passing, and perhaps a little bit grateful that this example of facing the inevitable peacefully came at a time when Jihad is being waged on behalf of Terri Schiavo et.al. (On the other hand, didn't he or one of his minions coin the dreaded "culture of life" phrase?)

I was also surprised, and greatly disappointed, that the British Papers were so restrained and that none of the tabloids used "Pope Pops" as their headline. Apropos of almost nothing, I was also wondering if Benedictines do benediction, do Carmelites caramelize? do Jesuits Jezzercise? (possibly to Cistercians are doin' it for themselves?) Transubstantiate your replies, here, under "Comments"


20 April, 2005

Smile of the Day: Whither Dormouse?

On my way to the Verderer's Court this morning, I cut through the churchyard of Lyndhurst Church, St Michael & All Angels, which includes the grave of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. On one side of the path there was a park bench, directly opposite it a small cardboard sign had been pegged into the ground with wire. It read:

"Please Do NOT feed the birds.
Rats EAT the food."

Writing this down, I'm also minded of the math problem where you feed the rats to the cats, and the cats to the rats, and get the skins for free.


10 April, 2005

Review: The Edukators -- The Idealist's Manifesto

Two Berlin slackers Jann and Peter are secretly "the Edukators" an agitprop duo who, using their knowledge of alarm systems, break into mansion of the wealthy not to steal, but to disconcert by rearranging furniture and belongings into artful and bizarre displays, and leaving behind obtuse warnings "Your days of plenty are numbered." When Jann brings Peter's girlfriend Jule along things start to go wrong, a third side to a romantic triangle clicks into place, and the prankster houseraid turns inadvertently into a kidnapping.

The rest of the film plays out the tensions within the love triangle, and between the amateur political kidnappers, and the rich businessman who has had his own radical youth. The businessman's motives are kept unclear, is his reminiscing over his glory days sympathetic or is he just playing a game of cat and mouse with his captors?

It is pleasurably hard to classify this film, which is ultimately a wistful reflection on youthful idealism vs adult realism, with some thriller elements in the mix. If I found the twist at the end which gives hope that idealism may live on, erm, unrealistic, or at least, erm, unsustainable, well, that's just me being an old cynic. Exactly.


03 April, 2005

Review: The Assassination of Richard Nixon -- The Loser's Manifesto

To some of us this may seem a familiar story by now, it has many fictional antecedents, most notably in Scorsese's masterpiece "Taxi Driver", and the sketch based on the same events as this movie is a non musical centerpiece of Sondheim's Assassins. Sam Bicke, a disaffected, disgruntled loser seeks infamy not fortune by seeking to kill the biggest crook in the land. He obsesses over a celebrity (Leonard Bernstein), to whom he sends tapes of his polemics against all that is wrong with USA incorporated. This manifesto completed, he plans to hijack a plane to fly into the White House.

Sean Penn has visited this territory before, the absurdly delusional mafia lawyer in Carlito's Way, the casual coke dealer in over his addled head in The Falcon and the Snowman, and the jazz guitar prodigy who constantly wrong foots himself by following his penis, his music and his alcohol fueled self-pity in Sweet and Lowdown. His fine performance in this film distills many of the tropes of these characters and produces the ultimate loser's loser.

Who of hasn't, at one time or another, sneered at the plastic optimism of the Dale Carnegie How to Influence Friends and Win People worldview, railed against a system where racism and other more subtle forms of prejudice restrict the fates of its victims, or looked down on those who knuckle under to the bullshit and play the game with all its unfair rules? Sam Bicke's mind obsesses over these sorts of ideas with a self-perpetuating self defeatism.

He self-righteously decries the falseness and lies of his furniture salesman employer and his similarly business minded tire shop owner brother, yet he lies to both of them and also to his estranged wife. He deludes himself into thinking that his honesty is of ultimate importance. His dream mobile tire selling business is based on giving his customers an above the board view with a discount up front (sort of a nascent Saturn dealer), yet when his black business partner to be almost begs Sam to leave race off the loan application, he shoots them both in the foot by sticking by his honesty.

Yes, he's 70's liberalism gone crazy. He almost gets his wife fired from her waitress job by showing up and objecting to her degrading uniform and sleazy customers. He is so desperate to identify with and join in the struggle of the downtrodden, he tries to join the Black Panthers suggesting they should have an arm of white supporters called the Zebras. His stand on race on the loan application gets him a refusal.

The story is by turns comic and tragic, the downbeat and inevitable disintegration of Sam Bicke into would be hi-jacker/assassin (he can't even get that right). A very good character study of a man whose idealism and self-pity removes him from reality. It is well structured around Bicke's tapes to Bernstein (nowadays, he would probably have just started a Blog, and worked for the Dean campaign.). Not everyone's cup of misery, but fascinating and well done. You, too, could be a loser, but don't be afraid to see this film, that's just what "the man" wants you to think......

(Sidebar -- I wonder if the real Sam Byck's tapes to Sondheim's friend Bernstein had anything to do with the genesis of Assassin's or the nature of his inclusion in that great musical piece? Anyone know, or have more time to Google than I, please comment here........)


Rebuke: CSI NY missing evidence

Science has improved our understanding of many things. Chemicals can instantly show the presence of invisible blood stains. Gases and vapours can reveal fingerprints. DNA can conclusively place suspects at a crime scene. Nothing short of morbidity, and the spurious recall of otherwise useless high-school science, can explain our fascination with the CSI series.

As big fans of the original (Vegas) and the first spin-off CSI: Miami (except for David Caruso, pretty much playing the same humourless, self-righteous dud he's done in at least two other series), I was looking forward to CSI: NY when it made it's belated debut on British terrestrial TV. I must say that I was disappointed. There's something really lazy about this series.

Exhibit one: Theme Tune. Like the other CSI's they've picked a classic from the back catalog of the Who. But where both "Who Are You" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" both had lyrical hooks that made them both relevant and cool choices, imagination has failed here. "Baba O'Reilly"? Are they being ironic, showing the urban landscape of NY NY with "out here in the fields...." antheming out of Pete Townsend? Couldn't they think of another Who track? "See me, feel me" or even "Pinball Wizard"'s line about "plays by sense of smell" could have fit the subject better without sacrificing the classic rock coolness.

Exhibit two: Cast. Nothing against the actual cast, just the re-run of the types that make up the casts of the other CSI's. Just because you are repeating a formula, well, you don't have to be this blatantly formulaic. Two women, check. A black, check. A couple of local ethnic types, check. In fact, on ethnicity, they've gone into overdrive. Almost everyone's a two-fer, italian and hispanic actors play polish and irish characters. One of the female CSI's is half-greek half italian, and who knows, later on they can establish that her character is a dyslexic bisexual surrogate mother, so the quota humping can go really crazy. I don't begrudge them multiculturalism, certainly it reflects NY, with the exception that they all seem to like each other, like normal people. Real NY'ers are fiercely proud of their ethnicity and may like others 'despite' their differing backgrounds. This lot are so politically correctly bland, their ethnic identities are defined as thinly as those Barbie's of color, where just a slightly ethnic color of plastic is used. (Apparently "Superfly" Ken is still a highly sought rarity, but I digress)

Exhibit Three: The Twist. I had hoped that perhaps they'd try to spin a different twist on the formula, particularly I think it would be good to have a few cases that continue as story arcs through a series, reflecting the reality of CSI work that science takes time, the turnaround time that allows cases to be wrapped up neatly in each episode is the only real niggle against the original shows. Where the original shows make up for this with continuing story arcs and character development of the CSI teams, CSI NY seems to have added the twist of, well, subtracting the characters.

We're half way through the first series, and all we seem to know about the characters is that Mac, an ex-marine, the lead CSI, lost his wife in 9/11. A seriously exploitive ploy, and not even original, the FBI based series "Line of Fire" has an ex-marine, FBI trainee who signed up when she lost her husband in 9/11. Otherwise it is soooooo stylized, bland characters, impossibly clean and clinical lab rooms that look as if they've been designed as trendy SoHo lofts doubling as clean-rooms for Intel chip manufacturers.

On the production line, this makes incredible sense, a page out of the long running Law & Order formula. Every episode self contained, perfect for syndication, you could see them in any order, it wouldn't matter.

Even the Law & Order people decided to do something different in the excellent L&O Criminal Intent, which I think is wonderful almost entirely because it is a reincarnation of Columbo with a taller, less schleppy protagonist, and without the overly clever second rate star cameo criminals (Mrs. Columbo will be so impressed that I interrogated you, George Hamilton....). And, just one other thing.... isn't the original CSI just Quincy revamped (Gentlemen you are about to witness the most fascinating aspects of police work - the world of Forensic Medicine....)

The one hope that CSI NY may belatedly provide us with less than 95% cardboard characters occurred in the tenth episode, aired here last week. Two characters actually argue over whether to put down a police horse to get at evidence conveniently next to it's spinal column. This may not seem like much, but this far into a series of unremitting blandness punctuated by the usual cool science, cameos of New York scenic locations (it appears the victim was smothered by this fur cup from the MOMA, so what was he doing in the Expressionist wing?), and same formulaic, good cop/overwhelming forensic proof cop routine, we'll hang our case for continuing to watch on the slimmest of evidence.