Category Archives: Uncategorized

5 Sentences

This is a cool idea.

It doesn’t apply to me as much in terms of getting too many emails. But, like many people, I definitely procrastinate writing things that I know will end up being long, even when they might not even need to be that long.

Would the same principle would work for blog posts? Maybe I’ll try it.

Deathly Hallows – First Thoughts

Nothing but spoilers, be warned!

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Good stuff. While reading I was in the moment pretty much all the time, swept along … Rowling does a fine job of keeping the tension ratcheted way up, but also finding enough pauses in the action, and the right kinds, to keep it from getting downright absurd. When Neville whips out the sword and hacks off Nagini’s head, I do believe I punched my fist in the air and said “Go Neville!”, albeit quietly so as not to wake the sleeping baby.

Each of the latter books has been as much about the past of someone from the elder generation as it has been about Harry and his friends, and this time we get that look at Dumbledore. Maybe a few too many new pieces of information for this late in the series, but it was nice to see him humanized somewhat, and to see his management of secrets and his parceling out of information to Harry as a quirk of his own, sometimes not the best move, and not the blameless prerogative of the Guy with the Beard.

Glad he stayed dead. Glad Harry had to die, if not exactly truly so. In any case his confrontation with death has been inevitable since Book One, and I think Rowling found a way to do it justice.

Who knew that, at the end of the day, one of the most interesting characters in the series would turn out to be Voldemort himself? At the beginning he is just the Dark Lord, then we learn that he is Tom Riddle, who was once a student just like Harry, and upon his return we see him not as a disembodied Sauron figure but a man with a couple very specific agendas – wizard supremacy, staving off death – and some critical blind spots, including a cataclysmic lack of management skills that causes those closest to him, Snape and the Malfoys, to turn against him earlier or later. He’s a lot like James or Sirius or Dumbledore when they were younger, but unlike them he never really grew up, never learned love, and became little more than the inflated version of the playground bully with a pack of followers.

Of course, one running thread through the books is how if you have a staid bureaucracy and a slightly complacent populace, the playground bully type can aggregate a terrifying amount of power. The rise of the Death Eaters to assuming control over the Ministry and even Hogwarts is told step by incremental step over literally thousands of pages, starting with those early glimpses of “Mudblood” racism and Ministry incompetence, and then outright corruption, and then of course the delightfully infuriating Dolores Umbridge, and finally on to the situation in the final book, where Voldemort seizes all the power he needs not because he holds the majority opinion in the wizarding world, but because just enough people are just fearful enough of their own heads to not stick out their necks. The story of those baby steps that lead to authoritarian rule can’t really be told without taking thousands of pages, and I’m glad it’s done here. I just wish it wasn’t so damn relevant.

Snape! Ah, Snape. Always one of my favorites, so I was delighted to find his story arc taking front and center in Book VI, and pleased-if-not-surprised to learn that, yes, he was always on Dumbledore’s side, and yes, he killed Dumbledore so that Draco wouldn’t have to do it. But I was bitterly disappointed that other than those revelations, Snape’s role in Book VII is decidedly minor, and that we don’t get to find out all of those things until after his suddenly and altogether insufficiently dramatic death. And find out through that mother of all plot crutches, the Pensieve, no less. There’s talk about how Snape had the hardest job, keeping his cool as a double agent among the Death Eaters, but we don’t get to see near enough of that job, and we don’t get to see a final exchange between him and Harry at the end.

One thing that I’m glad clicked for me from the beginning of the series is that these books, for all their fantasy trappings, are structured like mysteries. Not “whodunits,” per se, but in each one there’s a riddle or riddles, a question of identity, something to be unraveled, and the attentive reader will find at the end that all those disparate parts will fit together nicely at the end, aided most of the time by a long dialogue between Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore tying up the remaining loose ends. It was clear that in Book VII this was happening on a grand scale, across the whole series, and I’m sure my appreciation for the last book was impaired by the fact that references and connections were coming fast and furious that I only had vague recollections of. (Not once did I ever follow through on my intention of rereading the previous book before starting the new one.) It did make me want to go back and read all the books again to get a deeper sense of how everything fits together. Rowling’s audience for all of this, of course, is the kids who have been reading these books since they were even younger kids, reading them again and again, and whose attention to every last minutiae is rewarded in the end by the fact that all those things they noticed, like how the bartender resembles Dumbledore or how Harry one time put that statue with that diadem on top of that chest, all actually matter in the end. Good for her.

Theodore Tonks Lupin: A new kid in the wizarding world, friend of the Potters. His parents are dead. He has werewolf blood in his veins. Groundwork being laid for future works, anyone?

About Time

The folks at wordpress.com, bless their hearts, introduced MX support for Google Apps locally.  Without getting too technical, it was previously impossible to have polytropos.org mail via Google and also redirect the url to the new blog home without paying someone for hosting.  Now it’s possible.

So the old url for the blog is working again.  And if you missed the fact that it changed and haven’t been here in a while, don’t worry, you haven’t missed much.

All Roads Lead to Her

One of my failed blogging intentions was to do a review of Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road. (A while back I did do a review of his previous novel, No Country For Old Men, as well as a short McCarthy primer.) But lately it’s been on my mind again, for bizarro reasons that I’ll get to in a second.

The Road is a great book. Father and son wander a postapocalyptic wasteland, the geography of which is the same as McCarthy’s earliest novels, at least on a map. The funny thing is that they’re kind of recognizable, even though everything now is covered in a layer of dust and almost nothing is left. The sere prose that describes the scenes is the connective tissue that links them. This wandering pair are two rare souls that have managed to hold onto their humanity; most of the people they run into have become, to some extent, monsters. McCarthy traced one man’s journey from man to monster in macabre detail in Child of God . . . kind of neat to see him coming back to this theme so very many years later. But for all the connectedness to his earlier works, the bulk of The Road‘s actual text reads like some sort of survivalist primer. Just as NCfOM was taken up with the nitty-gritty of one man’s attempts to stay a step ahead of the law and the bounty hunter, this one makes you feel every pang of hunger as the protagonists try to scrounge for food for just one more day.

Anyhow, there’s plenty more to be said that will take a second reading to properly bring into focus in my mind. I’m not surprised that The Road has achieved quite a measure of popular success. “The apocalypse happened, and a father and son are trying to survive afterward” is, after all, quite a hook. Good Pulitzer prize material (which it won). But I was surprised to walk into the bookstore a few weeks ago and see copies of the book on the counter with big Oprah Book Club stickers on them. Surprised but not flabbergasted. It had already been Pulitzered, after all.

Then yesterday, my head exploded, when I learned (from loyal reader and friend Adam) that . . . but let me back up. Cormac McCarthy, while not a recluse of Pynchonesque proportions, is not a public writer. He steers clear of discussions of his work. His last interview regarding his fiction, to my knowledge, was the one for the New York Times Book Review in 1992 or 3 — and that was given in a car on the way to or from some airport. He’s the kind of guy that’s probably a familiar face at his local bookstore, and shows up for the neighborhood barbeque cheerfully, but just doesn’t go in for the whole national-exposure thing.

Except that on Tuesday, Book Club day, he’s going to be appearing on Oprah.

Cormac. McCarthy. On. Oprah. Oh what a strange, strange world we live in.

Needless to say, this I gotta see. Anyone know when Oprah is on?

(As a footnote, No Country for Old Men was made into a movie — no surprise there — by the Coen brothers — pleasant surprise there — and it was well-received at Cannes. I’m betting that even the quirky Coens gave the thing the filmic ending that the novel carefully skirts, and if so it should make a fine movie. Looking forward to seeing it.)

In the Email Wilderness

DNS migration taking place now. In the near future use nbruinooge at gmail dot com to get a hold of me.

UPDATE: Well, that was less painful than it could have been.  Normal email is working fine again.

Oscarblogging

Another year gone by now, now with two kids in the clan: even less theatergoing time than before. In previous years I’ve used that as an excuse not to talk about the Oscars, but where’s the fun in that? This year’s game: see if you can pick out which movies I’m talking about but haven’t actually seen!

The Nominees

Leading Actor

Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) is an easy win for this category, and reasonably well-deserved. Props to the Academy for giving Ryan Gosling the nod for a brilliant performance in a film that some might have seen as too hot to touch. And it’s delightful to see Leo nominated for his brilliant work in . . . Blood Diamond?! WTF! Give the man credit for his masterful performance in The Departed, where, as my buddy Nate pointed out, he had to show that he was tough enough to fool Jack Nicholson and his thugs while simultaneously channeling to us, the audience, that he is scared utterly shitless, all the time.

Supporting Actor

Eddie Murphy, nice to see you back in some sort of form, dude, but still: overrated. I am prepared to see The Departed a third time solely in order to watch Mark Wahlberg in it again. But Alan Arkin must ultimately get the nod here for playing the crass, heroin-snorting grandfather and somehow, through this, achieving the sublime.

Leading Actress

Can we just give it to Helen Mirren and get on with our lives? I swear, the British could make a movie about bread pudding and as long as their was some dignified elder actor headlining it, we’d still drool. Kate Winslet is the truly deserving one in this lineup, though overall I remain angry that Little Children got made into a film, thereby making it even more awkward for at-home dads at the playground than it already was.

Supporting Actress

Two fine performances from Babel get the nod here, which is nice, but we can still give this one to Jennifer Hudson for the Famous Film Moment of the Year. We know that moment will get overhyped on Oscar Night; let’s just hope it’s not over-over-hyped.

Animated Feature Film

Cars. C’mon.

Directing

The man is so long overdue it’s not even funny anymore, people. Quit screwing around and do your duty. If Eastwood gets it for Letters From Iwo Jima it won’t be the end of the world because, hey, he’s freakin’ Clint Eastwood. But if Frears sneaks this one away I am going to punch my TV screen, I swear.

Best Picture

If The Queen wins, see above. So nice, so very nice, to see Little Miss Sunshine make it to the short list, though decades of Oscar tradition dictate that the spunky little film gets nominated but doesn’t actually win. But now I’m torn, because as much as there is to like about The Departed, it is a flawed film. A ten word review might read: “Everybody dying doesn’t make it Shakespeare, dude. And the rat?!” The way out of this dilemma: give Scorcese Director and give Eastwood B.P.

Best Screenplay (Adapted)

Children of Men, no contest. So-so novel becomes an astonishingly good film.

Best Screenplay (Original)

Little Miss Sunshine has a superb ensemble cast and it would be a delight to see it win B.P., but I won’t be torn up if it’s doesn’t win Screenplay. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth has some fantastic visuals and had darn better win Best Foreign Film, but doesn’t absolutely need to win here. That leaves The Queen — kidding! I guess it leaves Babel, really, but it’s always side awarding an Oscar via process of elimination. So we’ll leave this one open.

No Fair!

Driving past Pittsburgh, I came across 91.3 WYEP, and heard, in the space of an hour or so, The Flaming Lips, Cassandra Wilson, Elvis Costello, The Housemartins (?!), and the Shins. Plus a bunch of artists I had never heard before but were really cool. Oh, and it’s a public radio station, so there were no commercials and they had NPR news on the hour and half-hour.

My question is, why the heck does Pittsburgh get a cool radio station like that, when D.C. is a radio wasteland? Unless I’ve missed something that’s come along in the last few years — if so, please tell me! As far as I know we got nothing much when it comes to eclectic/indie tastes like that, and one of our two public radio stations (WETA) just dropped their strong lineup of BBC/local news shows and went back to all-classical, all-the-time.  Sigh.

Dos Directores Mexicanos

It was down to the wire, but I managed to see the two films I was determined not to miss while in Michigan: Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. There’s been some buzz about these two Mexican directors, each with what is undoubtedly their masterpiece thus far, and both films lived up to the hype.

When I saw Children of Men it was a snowy afternoon in Holland and I was the only person in the theater. (Spoilers of the won’t-spoil-the-movie-unless-you’re-really-picky-about-spoilers sort incoming.) The dystopian future presented will no doubt draw all sorts of comparisons to Blade Runner, but the world of Children of Men is much much closer to our own. As with Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I had a sense leaving the theater that there was a whole elaborate system of color symbolism and other subtle visual clues that I was picking up on only slightly. The whole movie is incredibly intense, but when (OK, maybe the spoilers are a little more spoiler-y, but still nothing that you wouldn’t have already heard if you’re seen/read any of the buzz) Theo (Clive Owen’s character) has to help deliver a baby and then shepherd said baby and her mother through the hell of a disintegrating detainment camp for illegal immigrants, I completely broke down. As in, I was in tears, or near tears, for the last forty minutes or so. No doubt a big part of that is just me having a six week old baby, and therefore responding to Baby Is In Danger storytelling at a visceral level. And Cuaron should be given all due credit for his amazing filmmaking — only when reading about it afterward did I realize that, yes, the whole apartment building scene toward the end was one long, long shot. But I also wonder if being along in the theater didn’t also free me up somehow to respond to what I was seeing emotionally, and physically. It was also shocking how, post-Abu Ghraib, the simple act of getting a hood put over your head can be. Seeing it happen to one of the characters just before the camera pans off was like a punch in the gut.

But hey, even if you don’t have enough of whatever parental horomone makes you weepy at the drop of the hat, you should still see this movie. I haven’t seen very many of them the past couple of years, but this one is easily the best I’ve seen in that time. Go see go see.

I was actually looking forward to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth even more, and maybe because my expectations were so high, I enjoyed it a little less. Del Toro’s horror film instincts are still very much in play here, and while it made for a gripping movie I occasionally found it a bit much. And let’s face it, I wanted to see it because it involved a girl encountering a faun, not because it was a tragic story about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, though it’s ultimately the former that provides the countermelody to the latter, and not the other way around. It is not a fantasy movie — its fantastic elements reside pretty conclusively in the imagination of the protagonist and the “could it be real?” moments don’t add up to much. These facts may make it a little different from the film I was expecting or would have liked to see, but that’s not to say they aren’t exactly what Del Toro had in mind. Like Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth is a tightly-constructed gem.

Both directors are going to be able to write their own tickets after this. If I could write them, though, I’d put them to work on a couple of the future Chronicles of Narnia pictures, doing work that’s true to the spirit of the books but darker and with a bit more of an edge — something that’d make ol’ Jack cringe, but maybe not if he had been born fifty years later. Del Toro should definitely do The Silver Chair, with all those giants and underground monsters — and Puddleglum, oh, Puddleglum! Cuaron could make fine work of Dawn Treader or maybe A Horse and His Boy.

We Welcome Our New Google Overlords

Google is going to conquer the Internet.  It has already largely conquered me.  I use the Google personal page for my homepage, Google Reader for an rss reader, Google desktop for search, scratch pad, and to-do.  Google Calendar is the only calendar I use now, online or off.  I find myself using Google Docs a fair amount.  I belong to a couple Google Groups.  I will shortly be using Gmail with my regular email address, too, via Google Apps.

But the whole Internet — how is that going to work?  For an excellent writeup on that, see this “I, Cringely” essay.  Via Slashdot, though be warned that the summary there bears little resemblance to the actual article, which is more of a “here’s how Google is thinking very big and very long-term” and not “here’s how Google is bent on world domination.”