a senseless slumber

January 12, 2007

That’s what this hiatus has been, I have decided. And to think that it might have continued were it not for my fortuitous visit to perennial favorite blog Little Man, What Now…I could cry (but that would be silly). It isn’t that I haven’t thought about writing; I have, many times in fact. But laziness, coupled with the pull of a universe full of distractions (hello, 24) has kept me from it. Well no longer. There are a number of articles bouncing around in this head of mine, each one just waiting for a chance to spring forth onto the Interweb. Over the next few days I hope some small number of them will find their way here–I would begin this evening, but it really is getting late. So, to anyone who may have visited mr_wizard lately and wondered whatever happened, I apologize. Now let me get some sleep.

Update 1/11: Silly me. I should have known that it wouldn’t happen today (far too many other things, you see). Check back tomorrow, won’t you?

Update 4/26: Well wouldn’t you know it, it’s nearly May.  And what, you may ask, is going on?  Not much, unfortunately.  This semester has been much busier than I had anticipated and, indeed, than I had desired.  But don’t lose hope!  SUMMER is coming, and with it the promise of lots of idle time for scribbling down miscellaneous thoughts for you eager masses to devour.  As you can see in the comments, Mr. Edwin Hesselthwite of LMWN has graciously invited me to join his team of Britons, so that’s something I will be considering over the next few weeks.  In any case, a pronouncement on the future of mr_wizard will appear before too long.  I still have a great fondness for the work I’ve done here.

–D. S. W.


review: marie antoinette

November 23, 2006

You might say that Marie Antoinette isn’t about all that much. You would be correct, of course, but that misses the point of the film: Marie Antoinette gives us revisionist history in pictures–exquisitely crafted pictures–from which we gain a brief, impressionistic glance into the world of a very young and impressionable girl who just happens to be the next queen of France. With consciously hip pop tunes to ferry us through its tableau of incredible excess, director Sofia Coppola creates a stridently modern and deeply personal take on love, loneliness, and the perils of growing up.

Much of its power derives from the narrative’s singular focus on Marie: her nervy awkwardness on first meeting new husband Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), her growing delight in the fanciful frivolities of life in Versailles, and her deepening anxiety about, as she says, “letting everyone down”–we see it all, but only in fleeting glimpses, as when cinematographer Lance Acord’s camera follows her into her bedroom, where the smile she puts on for the world cracks as she begins to cry, her pale face, tinted luminous golden-red by the light from the window, commanding the frame for several long seconds; the next shot finds her seeking solace in a new pair of shoes. Marie Antoinette is full of such little moments, and each one elicits a sigh of appreciation for how utterly perfect it is, all by itself.

In between them, we are treated to perhaps the most visually luscious production design ever conceived for a film. Granted exclusive access to film at Versailles, Ms. Coppola spares no detail (and surely no expense) in reproducing courtly splendor in all its charm, beauty, and ugliness, from untold mountains of pastel-hued confections to sumptuous costumes, gilded furniture, and outlandish performances. “This is ridiculous,” Marie quips, exhausted by the interminable demands of “propriety” surrounding the use of all this magnificence. The response? “This, madame, is Versailles!”

But all this beauty would be as nothing were it not for the grace of Kirsten Dunst, whose distinctly American beauty feels (strangely) at home in this streamlined, fictionalized account of events. Perhaps Marie ought to have be French for the sake of “authenticity,” but, recalling the ease with which I empathized with the myriad expressions which played across Ms. Dunst’s face throughout the film, perhaps it is that commonality of kinship which makes her protrayal so accessible and so delightfully familiar. It is a great strengh, I think: this is not a French film, and Ms. Coppola is not French (neither am I, though I wonder how the French have received the film). Nor is Jason Schwartzman, Ms. Coppola’s cousin, who plays Louis, a short and taciturn king-to-be, with such a blissful air of aloofness that we almost don’t take him seriously. Almost.

In fact, Schwartzman grounds the film with a performance that is both understated and, at very special moments, utterly hilarious (I defy you not to chuckle when, after ordering aid to the Americans, he picks up a rolled-up map and begins peering through it intently). The sisterly affection that Marie develops for him is both touching and ironic, as their non-romance fizzles badly–they share a bed, sleeping on opposite sides despite her repeated advances (they need an heir, you see)–and the dark circumstances surrounding the film’s conclusion provide ample evidence for his nobility, standing proudly as he does in the dark of Versailles while a pitchfork-wielding mob rails just outside.

Excellent also is the extensive supporting cast, from British comic actor (and personal favorite) Steve Coogan’s wry turn as “Ambassador Mercy,” to Rip Torn’s pompous, grandiose Louis XV, to the button-cute Lauriane Mascaro’s two-year-old Marie Therese: each has a part to play in this swirling array of color, laughter, gossip, and eventual decay.

And decay it all does, though the film spares us the nastiness of the royal couple’s gruesome end. Rather, it closes gracefully, a peaceful carriage ride giving us a farewell glimpse of Versailles in the fading light of the evening. In one instant, Marie leans forward; her face, previously a deep reddish-orange, is suddenly a blindingly bright white in the sun; seconds later it is gone. Would that I had had a camera to record that frame for posterity, I think now. Such great beauty is frightfully rare.

–D. S. W.

review: casino royale

November 20, 2006

It’s not just a Bond movie, not just an action movie: it’s an honest to goodness movie movie. Yes, rescuing the franchise from the plains of camp is a whole new take on the iconic character, an origin story in the style of Batman Begins that gives British actor Daniel Craig free rein to show us just how cold, menacing, and ruthlessly efficient James Bond can be while deepening our conceptions of his vulnerabilities and uncertainties. While not entirely forsaking the series’ trademark formula of girls, gadgets, and improbably large explosions, Casino Royale begs you to take it seriously as it goes about spinning its tale of intrigue. And so we do.

Without demeaning Pierce Brosnan’s version of Bond, his was always more superman than man, traipsing around exotic locales with shirt strategically ripped and face cut just so: it screamed “hero,” but seldom were we meant to feel that our superspy was ever in any real danger. The brutal fight that opens Casino Royale immediately erases any memory of that fantasy, with Craig fighting for his life in gritty, washed-out black & white; he succeeds in his errand, of course, but that, his first kill, establishes this Bond as one unafraid, even eager for the unpleasant and dirty business of defending queen and country. Acutely uncomfortable scenes of torture and poisoning hammer the point home further: no “nice guy” could survive as 007, and James Bond is no nice guy.

He does, however, have a soft spot for women, in particular Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, a disarmingly attractive agent of the French Treasury. Ms. Green, best known for her role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, holds her own against Craig’s commanding presence in their many shared scenes, playing a character both powerful, as in her formidable exchange with Bond on their first meeting, and fragile, as when she lies, quietly weeping, under the jets of a hotel shower after a harrowing escape. Their relationship has subtlety, passion, and even tragedy, a far cry from Mr. Brosnan’s supremely assured seduction of Rosamund Pike in 2002’s Die Another Day, a dalliance that ended as carelessly as it began. No, Vesper means something to Bond, and I get the sense that their relationship will continue to influence the character going forward.

Also mezmerizing are Mr. Craig’s steel blue eyes, which radiate with alarming intensity that director Martin Campbell uses to quiet effect in the mostly thrilling high-stakes poker game that is the film’s dramatic centerpiece. Built, brief, and impeccably attired, he strides about with a touch of arrogance justified by how dangerous he seems. So too does the terrific Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre ooze the sort of squirmy desperation that any good Bond villain must, though (refreshingly) this one’s plans don’t quite stretch to the usual “world domination or bust.” Instead, he’s a mathematically-inclined banker to terrorists with an iron will and a serious bone to pick with Bond, whose meddling has cost him dearly. Frustratingly, however, the expected climactic confrontation never takes place, the action instead shifting to a “shocking” betrayal and lots of shooting in a collapsing building.

The action is, incidentally, first-rate as always, from the aforementioned opening to a kinetic chase through a construction zone to a stunningly choreographed multi-stage foiling of a terrorist plot in and around the Miami airport (jet fuel + bombs = a good time). With the best stunt people that money can buy, sitting back and watching it all unfold is a genuine pleasure, albeit one without the putative delights of car chase this time, sadly, as Bond’s custom Aston Martin DBS crashes in an eye-rollingly ridiculous fashion–seven full revolutions–seconds into a high-speed pursuit; the built-in defibrillator and weapons cache sure do come in handy, though.

Unifying the film is the work of editor Stuart Baird and cinematographer Phil Meheux, whose experiments with eccentric camera angles, quick cuts, and brilliant close-ups are consistently engaging even when the film drags a bit in its middle sections. Pacing is certainly a problem at times, admittedly, as the story progressing in fits and starts with action sequences liberally sprinkled throughout. The actors’ fine performances more than make up for any failings, though; this reborn Bond is full of surprises and ready to put its sometimes-embarassing past behind it. Now isn’t that nice?

–D. S. W.

it’s the phoenix teaser!

November 19, 2006

See it below, thanks to YouTube. An official version will be out tomorrow.

–D. S. W.

review coming soon

November 18, 2006

This evening I will be taking in a screening of the latest Bond flick, Casino Royale, a film which has garnered impressive reviews from critics across the country. Can it make me forget the awfulness of Die Another Day. With a new Bond and a new look, it just might–look for a review tomorrow. This next week I should also be able to see a few films I have been meaning to see, including Marie Antoinette, For Your Consideration, Babel, The Prestige, and perhaps Volver or The Departed. Things really have been too busy lately.

–D. S. W.

the phoenix alights

November 18, 2006

Quite a bit of Order of the Phoenix news to report today. Those of you interested in seeing the teaser trailer immediately should run (not walk) to your nearest multiplex for a screening of Happy Feet–the trailer is attached. Those of you uninterested in a movie about talking penguins will have to wait until Monday, when the trailer will debut on the Happy Feet website at 12:00 p.m. PST (3:00 p.m. EST). In the meantime, ComingSoon.net has a bevy of newly released official photos from the film, viewable here (my favorite is below). Finally, the new (and creepy) teaser poster is viewable here. I must say, it does look rather exciting.


–D. S. W.

book review: the end

November 18, 2006

When I first read The Bad Beginning, I was struck not by the pluckiness of its young protagonists–though they are certainly so–or the largeness of the type–for it is quite large–but by the effervescent wit that flowed forth from every page of Daniel Handler’s (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket’s) morbidly hilarious prose. For thirteen (!) volumes now, I have followed the darling Baudelaire orphans from one improbable scenario to the next, each ornamented with a bewildering array of puns, obscure literary references, shocking deaths (really), and shadowy conspiracies and bound by the Baudelaires’ search for their missing (and presumed dead) parents and their struggle to escape the clutches of the vile Count Olaf, a villain so wicked that he sports a unibrow. It was with great interest, then, that I sat down to absorb the final book, The End, published in September by Harper Collins.

Faithful readers of the series will have noted the increasing trend towards the darker and more disturbing aspects of the series in the latest volumes, and this is no exception. Though full enough of the odd humor that we have come to expect–indeed, some of the most rib-tickling moments in the series are to be found here–the going is treacherous here, each page building towards a conclusion that is surprisingly serious and mature, bordering even on the profound, and deeply felt. So, not much to joke about on that end of things, though the plot’s trappings remain, as ever, endearing and engaging.

Much of the book takes place on an anonymous island overseen by the mysterious “facilitator” Ishmael, a man with more than a few secrets to hide, inhabited by a curious community of uniformed and single-minded colonists who seem quite content to subsist on a diet of seaweed salad and ceviche (eaten, of course, with runcible spoons), and littered with all manner of…things. As several island dwellers ominously note, “everything washes up on these shores sooner or later.” They mean it. Taking care to remain cordial to avoid “rocking the boat,” which is all that anyone on the island seems concerned with, the Baudelaires investigate strange goings-on, wrangle with their “moral compass,” finally conclude their dealings with a tragically desperate Olaf (permanently), meet a few friends like Kit Snicket (!), and finally learn the truth about their parents and V.F.D., a truth that may prove somewhat disappointing depending on your expectations, but not, I think, on recognition of what Mr. Handler is working towards.

Indeed, it is the “great unknown” that makes the series, and life in general, all the more interesting. One might expect that all secrets would be revealed here, but the book wisely leaves elements of central mysteries up to the imagination, a faculty that can operate unconstrained by such bothersome things as reality. What was that giant question mark on the radar screen in The Grim Grotto? We will never know now, and so we must go on wondering; it could be anything, or nothing. Or perhaps something.

What is clear, though, is that the book’s tries hard–too hard, perhaps–to be meaningful and significant in its message of hope in a world that can seem dreadfully hopeless, especially considering all the unfortunate events that can befall a person. The ending pages are idealistic and fantastical, true, but appropriate for a trio of children so conspicuously noble as the Baudelaires. They also shroud A Series of Unfortunate Events in a veil of timelessness which defies attempts to pin its contents to any one era. At the same time, it stands as a hopeful fable acutely aware of the cynicism and darkness that we face all too often in this modern era, all of which is beautifully expressed in this short passage from page 316:

“‘The night has a thousand eyes,’ Kit said hoarsely, and lifted her head to face the villain. The Baudelaires could tell by her voice that she was reciting the words of someone else. “‘And the day but one; yet the light of the bright world dies with the dying sun. The mind has a thousand eyes, and the heart but one; yet the light of a whole life dies when love is done.'”

Count Olaf gave Kit a faint smile. “You’re not the only one who can recite the words of our associates,” he said, and then gazed out at the sea. The afternoon was nearly over, and soon the island would be covered in darkness. “‘Man hands on misery to man,'” the villain said. “‘It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can–‘” Here he coughed, a ghastly sound, and his hands clutched his chest. “‘And don’t have any kids yourself,'” he finished, and uttered a short, sharp laugh.

Not exactly light, is it? As a fantasy for adults, The End it’s a masterful success. For children, less so.

Thank goodness I’m not a child, then.

–D. S. W.

is it too early?

November 18, 2006

Is it too early to proclaim the doom of the Nintendo Wii? Probably, but when has that ever stopped anyone (least of all me)? Yes, the Wii has a huge battle to win if it is to garner even a fraction of the market in the next-generation console wars. Let’s look at a few of the reasons for this:

  1. Microsoft is now turning a profit on each Xbox 360 sold, negating Nintendo’s supposed advantage in that area, and with standout titles like Gears of War, it stands to sell at least three bazillion units this holiday season.
  2. Early reviews of Wii launch titles Zelda: Twilight Princess and Red Steel say that the console is promising in the gameplay department but only slightly better than last-gen consoles in terms of graphics (“nowhere near the latest Xbox 360 releases,” says one). Noting that Zelda is also available on the GameCube, is the “Wii Remote” really compelling enough to justify a $250 upgrade? Graphics may be superficial in the end, but it is difficult to see the merit in buying a new console to play games that could have been done just as well on older hardware. So, the console boils down to the Wii Remote, innovative uses of which are few to be seen at this point in time–can I call it gimmicky?
  3. The Wii’s lack of any sort of disc-based movie playback is also disappointing, especially considering that Blu-ray comes standard on the PS3 and that Microsoft has just announced a stellar upgrade to the X360 in the form of a $200 HD-DVD drive. This forces us to judge the Wii solely on the merits of the gameplay it can deliver, whereas both Sony and Microsoft have embraced their products as broad platforms for digital media playback and storage. And yes, I am fully aware of Nintendo’s stated goal of attracting more “casual” consumers to their products; I am still waiting to be convinced of that plan’s efficacy
  4. A potentially interesting feature allowing the purchase and download of “classic” games from Nintendo’s previous consoles is also lackluster: only 12 games are available at launch, with a total of 30 expected by year’s end. Out f a library of hundreds (thousands?) of titles, this a weak showing.
  5. Assuming that Sony can manage to drive down its component costs to a more reasonable level–the company is losing more than $300 for each 20GB PS3 sold–and ramp up production, the PS3 could easily emerge as the dominant force in the market, especially if analyst projections are even close to accurate (remember, the PS2 was, far and away, the winner of the last round). That is, once the insanities surrounding launch day diminish to a more reasonable level.

But don’t let that stop you. The Wii cometh nonetheless.

–D. S. W.

the playstation cometh

November 4, 2006

For lo, the heathen executives at the place called Sony did send unto Engadget the thing called “test unit” (says so right on the box). And Ryan Block saw that it was good. And it was good. Thus the fanboys were sated for a time, their googly eyes glazed over at the sight of CELL vapor made flesh–at least until they drew out, for the zillionth time, their pre-order receipts from their collective pockets and cried the tears of unattainability.

Not long now, fellas.

–D. S. W.

the wiz is back…

November 4, 2006

…from its semi-unplanned hiatus. Apologies to all those who have been compulsively reloading the site, hoping for some tasty nugget of sweet nothingness on these pages in the last week. On the plus side, a more regular posting schedule should now resume.

–D. S. W.