No Country for Old Dogs

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”

—- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

I am so tired when I come home from work – it’s a struggle to do anything other than fall asleep.

So I try to do something on the way home – anything remotely useful, fun, or interesting. Today I stopped off at a tea place, Kung Fu Tea, to get some milk tea and write a bit on my netbook.

Everything worked out, except I couldn’t think of more than a few interesting words – and once my tea was gone I packed up and went home. I sat on the couch to decompress and turned on the great mind-eater… the television.

Flicking deftly and expertly through a long-learned series of channels I ended up watching the last twenty minutes of “No Country for Old Men.” I love that movie.

First, I’m a big, big fan of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read pretty much all of his books. I put “No Country for Old Men” in the middle of the pack… but middle of the pack for McCarthy is still better than pretty much anything else in the world.

I’m even a fan of the screenplay he wrote, “The Counselor.” Everybody else hated that movie. You see, the average moviegoer saw the previews and thought they were in for a drug deal-fueled thriller. And that isn’t what it is. It’s a Cormac McCarthy movie. The plot is merely a distraction, a feint that the magician waves in front of the audience to distract the suckers from what is really going on – you have to pay attention to the long bits of boring dialog – that’s where the real story lies.

Oh, and as for “The Counselor” – it doesn’t help that it has two scenes – one violent, one sexual – that are so far over the top that ordinary moviegoers are appalled to the point that there is no way they can enjoy the film. Again, that’s McCarthy. Read his masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” if you want over the top. I read that the proposed Russell Crowe / James Franco movie version has been shitcanned. Probably just as well – “Blood Meridian” is unfilmable… as the best books must be.

Back to “No Country for Old Men.” I’m sure a lot of moviegoers thought that film also was a drug deal-fueled thriller… even after they had seen it. It isn’t. The movie is about the Tommy Lee Jones character and his inability to soldier on in the face of overwhelming modern evil. The rest of the plot is, again, a distraction… or more accurately a colorful backdrop against and armature holding up the story of the aging sheriff – the last of his line – as it plays out.

The movie ends with the defeated and retired Tommy Lee Jones telling of his haunting dreams. To end this way – it must also start this way or the whole thing is unfair. On my television, right after one showing ended, another began. So I stayed for a few more minutes. Sure enough, the movie starts with a five minute monologue voice-over spoken by the sheriff while scenes of beautiful West Texas desolation slide across the screen.

That voice-over, ignored and forgotten by most viewers, tells the whole story… before anything actually happens.

Our old dog, Rusty, slept on the couch through all this… as he does for pretty much everything. He has to get his solid twenty-three hours a day of sleep in or he isn’t happy. Right in the middle was a commercial for Burger King. Apparently, they have decided to take all the guts of a Whopper and wrap it in a tortilla. They call it a Whopperito.

This truly is the best of all possible worlds.

I couldn’t help but look at the sleeping dog and think about how happy he would be if he could ever get his paws on a Whopperito.

It would be the best day of his life.

PS – If you really want to see the two horrific scenes from “The Counselor” – and I hesitate to do this – you can watch them… here and here. But please don’t blame me – you were forewarned.

Cruise the Boulevards Of Regret

“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

So, last September I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon because… well, because it is Thomas Pynchon – but more specifically because I had read that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) was making a film based on the book and I wanted to experience the text first.

Pynchon has occupied a great many of my thoughts and a large part of my time ever since I first picked up a paperback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the KU Bookstore in 1976 or so (I was not able to finish it for a quarter century – not until a summary, an online page by page annotation, and wiki helped me keep the characters straight). I have read most of the rest of his oeuvre (still have an unopened copy of Bleeding Edge on my bookshelf) and am most assuredly a fan.

Up until I read Inherent Vice I considered Pynchon’s fiction to be unfilmable. After reading it, I agreed with PTA in that Inherent Vice was only almost unfilmable. He had tried to adapt Vineland into a movie, but realized that was impossible.

Because of business and inattention to the Internet, I missed the Dallas showings of the film in December, but finally a wider release was in the offing. My son and his friends saw it over the initial weekend, but I wasn’t able to fit the time in so I decided to go after work.

On Monday I logged into the Alamo Drafthouse website (it’s only a stone’s throw from my house and my work) and bought a ticket for that evening. I was tired and it was bitter cold and I knew that if I didn’t buy it ahead of time I would wimp out after work and go home and sleep.

The Alamo Drafthouse is such a nice experience. You get a reserved seat, craft beer (Temptress Baby!) and the food isn’t bad at all. I ordered a hamburger – a Royale With Cheese, of course. Alamo’s policy of no talking and no cellphones is certainly a welcome perk.

So… how was the film.

If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson you will be disappointed. This isn’t a PTA movie; it is a Pynchon movie. PTA’s movies can be weird (Frogs!?) but this one is WEIRD. What makes it crazy making if you don’t know what to expect is that he sets the stage with so many familiar tropes and then abandons them without a moment’s hesitation or regret. From the trailer you might think that it is a detective story – about a search for a missing billionaire and the detective’s old girlfriend – hoary old familiar plot devices -, but from the book I knew that this is a feint – that nothing is going to be explained, nothing is going to make sense, and the mystery will fade away rather than be resolved. What the hell exactly is The Golden Fang anyways?

You might also think that this is going to be a druggie comedy in the style of The Big Lebowski. There are elements of that – but the comedy is overshadowed by Pynchon’s signature paranoia and despair.
But, that said – I thought it was great. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Despite the ending being changed and large sections of the novel excised (you have to do this to get a tolerable running time) it is amazingly faithful to the book – for good and bad.
What was crazy for me is the way the characters speak. I have been reading Pynchon for so long I am very familiar with the unique language a Pynchonian character uses – his cadence, style, and subject matter. I have been reading these letters on the page and hearing them in my head for decades.

Now, to hear these words coming out of another human being’s mouth was astounding. I could only shake my head at this ephemeral world of imagination now come to life on the silver screen.

Afronauts

I look everywhere for ideas to lie about… to write fiction about. One of the worst, but most tempting, sources is this internet thing.

Surfing around a few weeks ago I stumbled across a series of photographs that referred to the Zambian Space Program of the 1960’s. Further research revealed that it was for real. This guy, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, from 1960 to ’69 claimed to have a program that would send a seventeen year old girl to the moon before the Americans or the Russians.

He called the members of his program “Afronauts.”

This story seemed to be a fertile source for a fictional story. I moved the location to Latin America and the Zambians became descendants of escaped Jamaican slaves – the voyagers became “RastaNauts.”

But my momentum stalled about a third of the way through and the little pile of text sits in its file unused, waiting, about as fertile and useful as the Zambian space program itself.

Meanwhile, Candy and I bought tickets to a new film that is premiering at the Dallas International Film Festival about the heady days of the Starck Club here in Dallas… and looking through the festival catalog, I saw a showing of a short, experimental film called, Afronauts.

Maybe this could give me a kick in the pants… I was there.

I bought my ticket online and discovered the film was showing at 10:45 PM on a Sunday at the Angelika as part of a collection of five odd works in a “Late Night Shorts” exhibition.

Even Better.

I showed up at the festival box office with my receipt in plenty of time and talked with the people behind the counter.

“I’m looking forward to this, I have always liked short films, but it’s hard to see them now,” I said.

“Back in the day,” I said, showing my age, “When HBO first came out, they would show short films between the feature movies. Sometimes I would enjoy the shorts more that the full-length fare.”

“You know, they have a Short Film Channel on cable now,” one of the guys said.

“Yeah, I saw that once tuning around. But it isn’t in our package. I’d probably have to pay for the volleyball channel or something like that to get it.”

“What’s wrong with volleyball?” asked one girl working there. She obviously didn’t get the point.

After waiting around, I traipsed upstairs to wait in line. I was one of only a couple folks that had a ticket, everyone else had a big film festival badge draped around their neck. It was a film nerd-fest. One guy beside me in line was espousing on the subject of proper punk attire – criticizing one guy with a leather jacket and bright red Mohawk because he, “was trying too hard.”

“How can you be showing off your uniqueness when you are wearing something that has become, in essence, a carefully regulated uniform. I’ve seen that exact jacket a half dozen times.”

He had a point.

The conversation then turned to rude animation. To illustrate his point, “I don’t know how they were ever able to get this stuff on the air,” he showed everyone a particularly obscene clip from Ren & Stimpy that he happened to have saved onto his phone.

For educational purposes only – this was the clip. NSFW – Not safe for anything… really. You were forewarned.

At this point, the doors opened and we went in. The films we saw were:

Flesh Computer
USA, 2013, 14 min., Color
Director: Ethan Shaftel
When his cybernetic pet project is put in jeopardy, the handyman of a decaying apartment building is forced to take a stand, blurring the lines between human and machine.

Effed!
USA, 2013, 19 min., Color
Director: Renny Maslow
Two friends pedal across a post-apocalyptic landscape on a tandem beach cruiser and face the question: when oil runs out, where exactly is the line that society can cross before it ceases to be a society at all?

Beasts in the Real World
Canada, 2013, 8 min., Color
Director: Sol Friedman
An experimental mixed-media short exploring the tenuous connections between a naturalist, a rare land-mammal, some ghosts and a pair of sushi chefs.

Afronauts
USA, 2014, 14 min., B/W
Director: Frances Bodomo
On 16 July 1969, America prepares to launch Apollo 11. Thousands of miles away, the Zambia Space Academy hopes to beat America to the moon. Inspired by true events.

Mr. Lamb
USA, 2013, 15 min., Color
Director: Jean Pesce
A dark comedy about a lonely waitress who is in love with her pen pal — the convicted murderer, Charles Lamb.

Flesh Computer was really good – probably the best of the lot. It successfully tread the fine line between weirdness and a comprehensive plot with characters you cared about. Fantastic use of special effects.

Effed! Was a fun romp through a dystopian future with some surprisingly recognizable actors. Especially notable was the ultimate bad-ass road warrior vehicle – a solar powered Segway carrying a helmeted rider armed with a baseball bat.

Beasts in the Real World was my least favorite. It had a good premise – some laughing hipsters place a small camera on the conveyor belt of a fast food sushi restaurant. The entertainment comes from the camera as it winds around and ends up back in the kitchen. There are a couple amazing scenes, but the story falls a little flat – especially when the most compelling character is a blobfish about to be sliced.

Afronauts was the most serious of the selections. A stylized look at the Zambian astronauts. An unforgettable vision, especially the mesmerizing Diandra Forrest as the young pilot, Matha. The drama is played out as the Apollo eleven landing bursts from a transistor radio. What happens? I’m not sure. But it is haunting.

Finally a hilarious, scary, and ultimately uplifting portrait of a woman infatuated with a jailed serial killer, Mr. Lamb. This was especially enjoyable because the director, Jean Pesce, was in attendance and enthusiastically answered questions about New York theater actors, heavy cameras, and shooting in extreme cold.

Then it was time to bundle my way home and get some sleep so I could show up at work early the next morning.

I’m not sure if I found any inspiration for my story but I did have a good time. Maybe next year I’ll buy a pass, take some time off work, and see a whole boatload of movies.

I don’t get to the theater as much as I would like any more.

Now, of course, I realize that I can find more short films that I could ever possibly watch on the internet. Even beyond youtube and vimeo – past hulu and netflix – there are sites and sites dedicated to collections of them, from the prosaic to the sublime.

Another rabbit hole to fall down into.

The Perverse Lucidity of Nostalgia

“In her final years she would still recall the trip that, with the perverse lucidity of nostalgia, became more and more recent in her memory.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

When I was a little kid I, because I was an army brat, saw a lot of movies. A lot of movies. You could see them on base for a quarter. A quarter was worth more then than it is now, but it was still pretty cheap. I thought everybody went to movies all the time for a quarter. It was a shock when I started college and realized that not all movies started with a playing of the Star Spangled Banner (like all films on military bases did – no matter where you moved, the movies would start the same way, with the same film behind the music).

In my isolation, what I didn’t realize is that these films were at least a year old. They were the equivalent of a lower-tier dollar theater today. The other thing is that I didn’t realize how bad some of these films were.

And as a movie-loving child, I didn’t realize how bad these films were, even after I saw them.

And, like a curse, I still remember so many of these films. I forget my ATM PIN number with regularity but hundreds of movies still well up from the stratified thick mists of memory up to a half-century fossilized now – still clear and sharp. But I remember them not as I am now, but as I was then. I recollect them as a wide-eyed child, sitting in the dark, in amazement and wonder at the flickering images on the screen.

Given the time, not surprisingly, a lot of them are of the cheap, second-rate, third-tier, science fiction, monster-riddled, space opera genre. In those days I thought The Green Slime was the greatest piece of art the world had ever seen. I remember enthusiastically hauling all my friends back the next day for an encore showing.

However, even within this fallow soil of vast film awfulness, a few jewels would fall. For example, I remember First Spaceship on Venus – an amazingly odd East German – Polish film adapted from a Stanislav Lem novel. How this came to be featured on American Military bases during the height of the cold war is a mystery. I was excited a few years ago when I was able to get a copy from Netlix. Now, the thing is readily available on the internet and, although dated, is still an effective piece of entertainment. I always liked the look of the rocket.

Movie Poster for First Spaceship on Venus (Silent Star) - I remember the excitement of seeing this poster, even though I was probably six years old at the time.

Movie Poster for First Spaceship on Venus (Silent Star) – I remember the excitement of seeing this poster, even though I was probably six years old at the time.

Then, a few years ago, something came along to through those old memories back into my face. Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you don’t already know, the idea behind MST3K is that an ordinary everyman is trapped by evil scientists on a space station and forced to watch horrible old movies. He builds a few robot sidekicks to help pass the time and this motley crew are shown sitting there in silhouette, throwing up witty insults while the execrable cinema offerings are running across the screen.

My kids always said I should be on that show because of my bad habit of insulting the television to its face.

What the problem was, is that a lot of those films from my childhood showed up on MST3K – and, instead of the glorious examples of moving picture shows they were revealed for the celluloid crap they really were. I suffered from a terrible rejection of the beloved icons of my childhood.

Even First Spaceship on Venus showed up there. What a sacrilege.

I was reminded about this humiliation last night when Paste Magazine published a list of The Ten Most Unwatchable Films Featured on MST3K. I didn’t realize it has been 25 years since the show started… time flies. One good thing is that a lot of these are now available on Youtube – if you have a lot of time to waste.

Of the ten Paste Magazine reviled films – these are so bad they are in a world of their own and I only remember one of them from my childhood.

I won’t tell you which.

I will own up to one film, though. There was one movie I was that, although I didn’t remember the title, I did recall many scenes… the beautiful french temptress turning into a horrible monster with glowing green eyes, the dragon, and most of all, the spinning yellow spiral that burned the brave knights to death. I had always wondered what movie that was – and then, one day, I saw a bit of MST3K and there it was… The Magic Sword.

And now it’s out there on the internet and I can watch it whenever I want to.

You know, it isn’t as good as I remembered it… but it isn’t really all that bad.

MST3K Version

Unmessed-with Version

First Spaceship on Venus (more accurately known as Silent Star)

The Hunger Games and Battle Royale – Compare and Contrast

I have not been watching enough television… no, no, no, that’s not right. I’ve been watching too much television (isn’t watching any television too much television?) – what I mean is that my television watching has been too unfocused. I waste my meager allotment of precious time with sports or my obsession with How It’s Made/How do They Do That/Modern Marvels (por ejemplo – do you have any idea how much work goes into making a tennis ball?). I want to stop that and start working my way down my Netflix Queue – especially the twisted obscure crap that feeds my imagination.

In that regard, I watched too similar (yet completely different) films that I’ve been meaning to check out. I finally came around and caught The Hunger Games on Netflix, and then, last night, stayed up too late and watched a wild and controversial Japanese film from a decade ago called Battle Royale.

I had not read the books from The Hunger Games and now, I’m know I won’t. I had heard a lot of good things and, sure enough, The Hunger Games was a well-acted, slick, excellent production of a popular story and it was a serious disappointment to me. It was simply too Young Adult for my tastes.

Then there is Battle Royale. People say that Battle Royale is the inspiration for The Hunger Games – though the Suzanne Collins claims to have never read the book or seen the film. The overall concept is similar – a group of teenagers trapped in an isolated area and forced to fight each other to the death.

However, there are more differences than similarities. The Hunger Games is a carefully calibrated teen vehicle where the most horrific aspects of the godawful situation are concealed and glossed over – making a tale which is unsavory on the surface palatable for the masses. Battle Royale, on the other hand, pulls no punches. It is an unfettered tsunami of death… a tornado of gore, terror, and raw emotion. It is deeply disturbing. The ultra-violence makes A Clockwork Orange look like Barney.

Both films have political overtones. The Hunger Games concentrates on class warfare in an Occupy Wall Street inspired tale of the wealthy versus the poor – the monied, powerful elite oppressing and suppressing the unwashed, starving masses. Battle Royale has a more subtle, complex take. It is, first of all, a conflict of generations. The young people are out of control – it starts with a student stabbing his teacher – and the older generation decides to take revenge.

It is the story of a traditionalist society unraveling, of personal vendetta and obsession, of child abuse and the sins of the fathers’ hoisted on the young. Above all, it is about the Zero Sum Game and the idea that none of us, really, gets out of this alive.

The Hunger Games is modeled after television reality shows, while Battle Royale takes the form of an adolescent fever-spawned nightmare.

The Hunger Games has beautiful model-like specimens of perfection running around in a well-lit carefully manicured park-like setting, while Battle Royale is gritty, dark and more than a little rough around the edges. Instead of a shiny bow and arrow, the contestants in Battle Royale are each given a random weapon – some useful, some not. Some get submachine guns while the hero gets the lid from a cooking pot.

Model-like appearance of the contestants from The Hunger Games

Model-like appearance of the contestants from The Hunger Games

The class from Battle Royale

The class from Battle Royale

The Hunger Games contestants are carefully selected and trained, while in Battle Royale a class of forty students (half girls and boys) are gassed while on a school trip and thrown together on an island with no preparation other than a cute, silly instructional video. That means they all know each other well beforehand – and the usual alliances, crushes, and hatreds of the young come forward as a matter of life and death.

The Hunger Games is broadcast as an entertainment for a worldwide audience… like the ultimate Roman Gladiatorial Extravaganza. It is a spectacle for and about the media. On the other hand, the Battle Royale itself is not even televised. The authorities seem to stage the Battle Royale mostly because… well, because they can.

One interesting section of Battle Royale is when the members of the school’s Cheerleading squad are shown hiding out in the luminous whitewashed lighthouse. They are organized, have set up a watch schedule, a kitchen, an infirmary, and have settled into what appears to be a polite, happy, domesticated, and insulated clique. They are shown cooking and carefully cleaning – wiping down the tables before a meal. However the horror of their situation is running right under the surface and all it takes is a plate of spaghetti eaten by the wrong person to set everything off. Minutes later, they have all slaughtered each other – with the last survivor throwing herself off the lighthouse into the rocks below. One exclaims while dying, “I at least thought I’d live until tomorrow.”

Don't mess with the Cheerleaders

Don’t mess with the Cheerleaders

In a movie with an ensemble cast like this it is fun to try and spot actors you’ve seen elsewhere. Sure enough, playing Takako Chigusa (Girl #13) in Battle Royale is Chiaki Kuriyama who played Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1. I’ve always thought that the fight to the death between Gogo and Beatrix Kiddo is the best fight scene in pretty much any movie. It’s no coincidence; Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Battle Royale and based Gogo on Chigusa. I kept expecting Chigusa to pull a chain with a spiked ball on the end out of her weapons bag.

Takako Chigusa  (Girl #13)  from Battle Royale - in this one, she gets to wear the yellow jumpsuit

Takako Chigusa (Girl #13) from Battle Royale – in this one, she gets to wear the yellow jumpsuit

The same actress as Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1

The same actress as Gogo Yubari in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1

Now, the important question… what to watch next? I haven’t decided but I have it narrowed down to two that I have on DVR – Sharknado or La Traviata. They’re sort of the same thing… aren’t they? La Traviata is basically Sharknado plus tuberculosis.

Cloud Atlas

“Our lives are not our own, from womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”—- Cloud Atlas, Sonmi 451

Near where I work, across the highway, there’s this neighborhood that’s really run down. Tucked into the NorthWest corner of the gigantic High Five interchange, there are a few square miles of apartments that are nowhere to be wandering late at night.

When they were built – I imagine in the late 1970’s – they must have been nice… full of young folks hanging around the pools, new wave music pumping out the sliding glass doors, Coors Beer and big hair everywhere. When I moved to Dallas in 1981, a lot of my friends lived in an area just like that, a few miles to the south, around Park Lane and 75. A lot like right now the economy was horrible everywhere in the country except Texas, and young folks were streaming from everywhere to get work. The difference was that interest rates were in the double digits and nobody could buy a house, so the apartment complexes were teeming with these ambitious newcomers. It was an exciting time to live in Dallas.

Within a short few years however, the interest rates dropped and all these people could suddenly buy themselves a house in the exploding northern suburbs. At the same time a new interpretation of federal law made it illegal to have a “singles apartment complex.” Rents fell below the cost of maintenance and these apartments across the city fell… and fell fast. Within a few years it was crack city. Nobody seemed to care, there was plenty of land to the north, but to me – it marked the passing of something special.

As the apartments fell into disrepair the surrounding commercial district fell too, though more slowly. There was a nice multiplex movie theater right across the highway from my work that hung on until a couple years ago – until it too went under and has been sitting vacant.

Now, though, there are stirrings of revitalization, spates of rezoning, threats of demolition of the more neglected properties, contentious City Council Meetings, rumors of big money beginning to move. And suddenly, the movie theater is renovated in an amazingly short time and reopens as a Studio Movie Grill.

I’ve been prattling on about the cycle of a neighborhood that you don’t care about because I’m thinking about the first film I saw in that Studio Movie Grill, a film unstuck in time, a movie about decay, about cycles and revitalization, about evil crimes and disaster, about friendship and love… I went down this weekend and saw Cloud Atlas.

I was eagerly awaiting this movie. The book, Cloud Atlas, was… is… arguably the best thing I’ve read. It is massive, subtle, complex, and with a unique structure. I clearly remember reading the thing and thinking, “Well, there will never be a movie done of this thing, it could never be done.” I was wrong.

You see the book consists of six separate stories – far apart in time, and in tone. They are arranged from the oldest, set onboard a sailing vessel in the South Pacific in the nineteenth century, and progress through time until the sixth one occurs in the far dystopian future. There is no transition between stories -each one ends suddenly, unexpectedly, literally in the middle of sentences and the text then jumps to the next, where the previous story appears as a work of fiction. After the far future story ends(it is the only tale told in one piece) the book winds back down, finishing the tales, one by one, until it ends where it began. The structure looks like this:

  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
  2. Letters from Zedelghem
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
  5. An Orison of Sonmi-451
  6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
  7. An Orison of Sonmi-451
  8. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
  9. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
  10. Letters from Zedelghem
  11. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

How do you do this in film? I had no idea. I waited for the movie to come out and decided to see it, on opening weekend at the new Studio Grill across from where I work. Ordinarily, I would go to one of the art-house cinemas… but we want to support the place.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Studio Movie Grill. The seat rows are set wide apart, and each seat has a swiveling table built into it. There is something enjoyably decadent about having a nice draft of wheat beer while a waitress brings you some grilled chicken during the opening trailers. It’s not cheap – but I think I’ll go back. They are building an Alamo Draft House near where we live – that sounds even better.

The film – at first I was taken aback. They solved the problem of the complex structure of the book by making it more complex. Abandoning the orderly stair-like nested structure of the book, the movie jumps willy-nilly from story to story… seemingly at random.

Soon enough, though, I realized the jumps were not random. They were stringing the scenes together by theme. This emphasizes the connections between the stories, the eternal ideas across time, and that works in a fast, visual medium. The fact that the movie jumps across such a wide swath of space-time helps in that it is never a problem to figure out where you are.

I don’t know how confusing all this is to someone that hasn’t read the book… but I don’t think you will have a problem. Of course, you could save yourself the trouble by reading the damn thing. Really, read it.

What didn’t work? Well, first, the language. It’s hard to follow sometimes, really tough to figure out what the hell they are talking about. They should have used only a taste of how the characters actually spoke… and then slipped back to contemporary English. The same handful of actors play multiple roles – and that is generally cool. The only problem is that having certain characters jump across racial lines was a bit awkward – some of the makeup is too obvious and distracting. Now, I do have to say that Hugo Weaving makes an imposing and effective evil Nurse Noakes. The credits show all the characters the major actors play (watch for one of Hugh Grant’s performances – you will not recognize him).

The connections between the stories are much more obvious in the movie than the book. Even little things – all the stories (except maybe for one) – at a moment of extreme tension and risk to the heroes – have someone smashed over the head of the bad guy unexpectedly by an off-camera rescuer. Watch for a blue glass button – it ties together the first and last stories.

So did I like it? I loved it. Not everyone will (it doesn’t look like it’s doing well at the box office). It’s a difficult movie, very long (almost three hours – which went by quickly for me), extremely ambitious – obviously an attempt to make a big-budget, big-star, big-time art house film. It’s surprisingly violent and relies a lot on its special effects. It requires work on the part of the viewer, and a lot of people don’t like that.

But in the end, I gave a damn about the characters – and that’s the important thing. The movie is different from the book – less subtle, more flashy – but in the end that’s actually a good thing. Instead of one, we have two… or more accurately, instead of six, we have twelve great stories.