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Strange snow this. I like it not.
Strange snow this. I like it not.

Couch Potato

The dragons they are a-dancing: George R.R. Martin, king of all media

The mainstream finally embraces A Song of Ice and Fire

Well, it’s official: the latest installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is at the publisher and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it except wait patiently for it to be published. Until then, we’ve got HBO’s TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones to tide us over—which I’d sure have a hell of a lot more to say about if they hadn’t sent me that mean DMCA copyright infringement notice the other day. (It’s really hard to watch stuff that isn’t on your computer’s hard drive and never, ever was in the first place.)

As it is, I have to base my observations on that partially-cheesy, partially-compelling, pre-DMCA-notice first episode that I also did not download from anywhere at any time and which, despite its charms, totally failed the crucial can-I-watch-it-with-my-wife litmus test. Sadness. Some thoughts:

1. The snow is not cold at The Wall. Breath is not visible. Wish I hadn’t noticed that, but I just watched Quintet where everyone is really, truly, convincingly cold (as well as really, truly, convincingly stoned out of their gourds).

2. The show, like Martin’s book, throws a lot of characters and cryptic references at you without explaining them. In a fantasy novel, this works. In a 60-minute TV show, it bugs. E.g., casual viewers might not get that Jaime Lannister and the queen are twins (this is dashed off in a single line of exposition and become very important later in the episode) or who the hell the Targaryens are. On the other hand, the only way to solve this problem is to make the show twice as long and I’m not sure I want that either.

3. The dramatic theme song and SimCity-style title visuals: nice. The canned medieval lute music during the feasting scene: aarrrgh!

4. Every scene not pulled directly from the book: aarrrgh!

5. Casting is largely pretty good. Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Ned Stark, Jorah Mormont: yay; Arya Stark: we’ll see; Jaime Lannister: not crazy enough; Cersei Lannister: not evil enough; Khal Drogo: too much mascara.

6. Pentos = Penthouse. Half-naked women submitting to the lust of barbarians is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a prurient Heavy Metal-magazine gloss to these scenes that makes them a bit ridiculous and pretty much substantiates critic Ginia Bellfante’s claim that the story is “boy fiction”. Yet if nipples are inherently entertaining (they are), these scenes rock.

7. I guess we’ve decided that every quasi-medieval fantasy world is filled with miscellaneous British accents. OK, I guess I’ll have to accept that.

8. Who the hell keeps all those candles lit in Winterfell? They must have a Captain of the Candles who runs his staff ragged.

“Lord Snow,” Game of Thrones episode 3, airs in New Mexico Sunday, May 1, at 7 p.m. and immediately thereafter throughout the universe on torrent sites that I do not now and will never visit.

Portrait of the artist as a young real estate investor
Portrait of the artist as a young real estate investor

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): The Landlord

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

The Landlord (1970)

Directed by Hal Ashby

Cast: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Louis Gossett Jr., Susan Anspach, Robert Klein, Trish Van Devere, Hector Elizondo

Oscar-winning editor Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) cut his teeth as a director on this exuberant satire set in a pre-gentrification Park Slope, Brooklyn that no longer exists. By turns whimsical, dark, slapstick and surreal, The Landlord is both a hopelessly dated artifact of its times and a total dead-ringer for the kind of relentlessly quirky films guys like Wes Anderson have been passing off as original work. The script by Bill Gunn (writer-director of the cult classic black vampire film Ganja & Hess) drips with juicy irony as mop-topped Beau Bridges buys a slum tenement building as an act of rebellion against his upper-crust family and (wouldn’t ya know it?) finds himself drawn into far more intimate relationships with his tenants than originally planned. Lee Grant is a standout as Beau’s waspy mother (in an Oscar-nominated performance), but this is a true ensemble piece with great character work throughout. Netflix copy is a nice widescreen transfer, but not HD.

Barelas Coffee House: yum, yum.
Barelas Coffee House: yum, yum.

Food

Welcome, Balloonist: Eat Like a Local

Fifty-two tasty dining options for visiting humans

To me, the fluttering plastic banners all around town that say “Welcome Balloonist” (singular) conjure up an image of a solitary traveler arriving in his lonely airship. I mean, it just seems like a paucity of hospitality to welcome only one. Imagine the awkward situation of two balloonists showing up at the same time. Which is the welcomed balloonist and which the unwelcome? I suppose “Yankee Go Home” is singular too, so maybe I’ve got this all wrong.

For balloonists, Yankees, and out-of-town visitors of all kinds, our Chowtown Restaurant Guide offers a special hand-selected list of 52 local restaurants from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and parts in-between for your dining consideration. Full contact info, menus, maps and more are available for your iPhone, iPod, Android smart phone or any old web browser. Delicious!

Tech

Jaron Lanier, inventor of virtual reality, critic of progress, to speak Thursday

Virtual reality pioneer (and native New Mexican) Jaron Lanier delivers a public lecture at Albuquerque Academy this Thursday, Sep. 30 at 6:30 p.m. The content of the talk—entitled “You Are Not A Gadget: What Happens When We Stop Shaping Technology and Technology Starts Shaping Us?”—seems likely to be drawn from his new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, a highly critical look at how the Internet of today “aggregate[s] the expressions of people into dehumanized data.” Expect fiery rhetoric and large-scale ideas, if his recent op-ed in the New York Times is any indication:

“Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.”

Tell it like it is, brother. The lecture is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

Alakazam the Great
Alakazam the Great

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): Alakazam the Great

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

Alakazam the Great (1960)

Directed by Daisaku Shirakawa, Taiji Yabushita

Cast: Frankie Avalon, Sterling Holloway, Jonathan Winters

Now this is what I like to see on the Netflix Instant Watching roster: another digital-only release of an otherwise almost-impossible-to-find film—and in its original “Toeiscope” ultra-wide aspect ratio to boot. This highly inventive 1960 anime adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s Monkey King manga remains forever burned into the brains of Gen X children who happened to see it in their formative years, and it continues to hypnotize kids with its compelling imagery, archetypal quest narrative and loads of transforming magical beings.

Despite the heavily Americanized redubbing (Jonathan Winters!) and rescoring (Frankie Avalon!), Alakazam (née Saiyu-ki) remains a high water mark in animation. This film is nothing more nor less than the epic Journey to the West, with Buddha renamed to King Amo and the Monkey King to Alakazam. Certain story elements are glossed over or awkwardly repurposed, but the English-language script retains a certain cracked logic that more than suffices to glue together the fabulous animated set-pieces, and the songs aren’t half-bad either. (Once you’ve seen Alakazam, you’ll instantly spot the film’s reference in the 2006 anime Paprika.) Sadly, the Netflix copy, while properly widescreen, is emphatically not HD. If you wanna borrow my laserdisc, drop me a line.

Ponyo
Ponyo

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): Ponyo, Astro Boy

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

Ponyo (2008)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White

Ponyo is a great film. Some have dismissed it as sub-par Miyazaki, but those people are wrong. The intrusion of a cosmic magical force into an everyday community could be terrifying, but here it is only a source of joy and playfulness as the normal rules of reality are temporarily suspended. I saw this film five times in the theater, mostly just so I could watch the scene where Sosuke’s toy pop-pop boat grows big enough to carry him (and Ponyo) on a journey through a flooded town as prehistoric fish prowl through the water below. Wow.

So I have mixed feelings about Ponyo being on Netflix WI. On the one hand, this criminally-underrated and under-seen film should be viewed by as many people as possible. On the other hand, the delicate seaside pastels and fluid animation gets short shrift from the non-HD version available. Actually, it probably looks fine on the Roku, so go for it.

[ more >> ]

Tongues and orifices feature prominently in “Aeon Flux”
Tongues and orifices feature prominently in “Aeon Flux”

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): Aeon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

Aeon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection (1995)

Directed by Howard E. Baker, Peter Chung

Cast: Denise Poirier, Matt K. Miller, John Rafter Lee

In the early ’90s the first handful of Peter Chung’s “Aeon Flux” shorts totally blew the minds of flannel-clad, bong-huffing, MTV watchers everywhere, and it’s easy to see why: They still stand up as quite unlike anything before or since.

Totally non-verbal, these mini-non-episodes delight in carefully setting up audience expectation, then sadistically subverting it by killing off the heroine (a trope in these early shorts) or suddenly depicting the army of pursuing bad guys as abused victims crying out for help. And what about the transgressive depiction of tongues and orifices and oozing alien eggs? Oh yes. The biological gross-out, as with David Cronenberg’s yuckier films, is high art here.

Unfortunately, whatever temporary autonomous zone that was in effect to allow Chung the freedom to make these uncompromising experiments evaporated as the character and her dystopian world were suddenly crammed into a 22-minute format burdened with tedious dialogue and labored plots, in effect becoming what the initial “Aeon Flux” incarnation had been parodying. Aeon Flux died a final and permanent death after that, except for a crappy in-name-only film from 2005. Oh well.

You can watch all the episodes on YouTube, but the Netflix WI versions are higher quality (as good as a fresh VHS copy from 1992 anyway) and commercial-free. You can watch all the good ones in slightly over 30 minutes. If you want to taste just one, try “Tide” (my personal favorite).

Repo Man
Repo Man

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): Repo Man

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

Repo Man (1984)

Directed by Alex Cox

Cast: Olivia Barash, Harry Dean Stanton, Fox Harris, Tracey Walter, Emilio Estevez, Sy Richardson

In 1984, British director and self-proclaimed "radical filmmaker" Alex Cox managed to get the backing of Mike Nesmith and Universal Studios to make what is probably one of the great American satires. By Cox's account, nobody was watching over his shoulder as he hand-assembled an eclectic dream cast and shot his highly subversive, anti-nuclear, magical-realist, science fiction, punk rock black comedy until a new studio boss came in and almost scuttled the whole project. The cult-favorite soundtrack and a highly successful New York run saved the film from direct-to-video obscurity, and for this the world can be thankful.

Our story begins in New Mexico as J. Frank Parnell, inventor of the neutron bomb, begins his woozy trek across the desert to Los Angeles in a Chevy Malibu with a trunk full of instant death. At the same time in suburban L.A., our hero Otto (Emilio Estevez, in what is easily his finest screen role) finds himself at a crossroads, unfulfilled by work or home life and unrelieved by bouts of anti-social behavior. Happenstance lands him a job as an automobile repossessor. Will these two narrative vectors eventually intersect? Of course they will. What Repo Man has going for it (in spades) is an impressive take-no-prisoners attitude. Everything in '80s Los Angeles gets the shaft, from Dianetics to new age alien conspiracy theories to drugs to vapid consumer culture. And somehow there's even a True Grit-like coming-of-age character arc as Otto learns the "repo code" from crusty old Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). It's profane, energetic, hilarious and a goddamn cinematic pleasure; if you haven't tasted the delights of Repo Man, now is the time. HD available.

The Front
The Front

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): The Front

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

The Front (1976)

Directed by Martin Ritt

Cast: Woody Allen, Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Michael Murphy, Andrea Marcovicci, Remak Ramsay, Marvin Lichterman, Lloyd Gough, David Margulies, Joshua Shelley, Norman Rose, Charles Kimbrough, Josef Sommer, Danny Aiello, Georgann Johnson, Scott McKay

The Front is one of the few films where Woody Allen acts without writing or directing (although I definitely suspect him of improvising), and it stands out as a container for one of his best performances. I realize he’s been making sub-par, semi-stupid films since, what, Radio Days? But as an actor saddled with a screen persona as archetypal as Groucho Marx, he’s never been better put to use than in this heartfelt 1976 comedy-drama exploring the chilling effect the House Un-American Activities Committee had on the entertainment industry. Certainly this is the only film where Zero Mostel and Woody Allen share screen time, which is worth something all by itself.

Allen is the “front” of the title, an unambitious cashier (and bookie) who agrees to pass off his blacklisted friend’s television scripts as his own. The comedy arises from the farce of the masquerade, the tragedy from the human toll of the HUAC witch hunt. It’s a subtle balance that director Martin Ritt (himself a victim of the blacklist) pulls off with flair: there are belly laughs followed by moments of utter grimness. Some people object to that; I don’t. The bookending of the film with Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” is inspired, and the final line is a precious moment of anti-authoritarian wish-fulfillment. I declare this film unjustly overlooked. Netflix rip is not only clean and widescreen but HD.

Risky Business
Risky Business

Couch Potato

I Like to Watch (Instantly): Risky Business

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

Risky Business (1983)

Directed by Paul Brickman

Cast: Megan Mullally, Tom Cruise, Janet Carroll, Joe Pantoliano, Curtis Armstrong, Rebecca De Mornay, Nicholas Pryor

Defending Risky Business from imagined detractors could be a full-time job. It’s the archetypal juvenile male fantasy: easy sex with hot blonde prostitute Lila (Rebecca De Mornay), chase scenes in fast cars (dad has a Porsche), no parents (they’re out of town) and the chance to triumph over Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano). The first line of the film encapsulates this so neatly it’s hard to believe: “The dream is always the same.”

Brickman’s pre-John Hughes sex comedy exudes existentialist ennui, teen hormones and film noir fatalism in equal measure. This is the movie that demonstrates the Tom Cruise star power, now so sadly depleted and misused for Dianetic ends. First-time writer-director Paul Brickman (he directed only one other film) made some excellent decisions, not the least of which was to keep things dark. The Tangerine Dream score telegraphs the director’s intent to make a black comedy, a satire even (Cruise’s character Joel is a member of the Future Enterprisers and he ends up running a brothel). So much the better.

For my money, the two highlights of this entertainment are:

(1) Joel burying his head in Lila’s shoulder after his dad’s Porsche ends up in Lake Michigan; her cold, cruel look into the 360-spinning camera is priceless. He is hers.

(2) The sex-on-a-train scene; Chicago mass transit never looked so much like a boudoir on wheels. The seen-from-a-train voyeurism/exhibitionism is even foreshadowed in the opening credits, a move not usually seen in ’80s teen sex comedies.

I don’t condone this film, but it’s very, very good. Especially considering what it is. If nothing else, it’s the best Tom Cruise film ever made. HD version available, if you got the bandwidth.


Today's Events

Pizza Girl Massacre DVD Release Party at Tricklock Performance Laboratory

Buy a copy of this New Mexico-shot horror flick from filmmaker Jason Witter.

10th Anniversary “Giving Thanks” Open House at Maple Street Dance Space

Neon Nights: Slander at Sunshine Theater

More Recommented Events ››
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RUDER & THE SHOCKWAVES
RUDER & THE SHOCKWAVES11.22.2014