27 December 2007

Waitress

Ok, so this movie has been cropping up on quite a few Best of 2007 lists, so let me take a minute to explain to you why I _hated_ this movie. I've been a slacker this year in terms of writing reviews, and its times like this when I'm annoyed with myself about it, because goddamnit, people need to hear the truth. I've got a good long rant about that racist piece of shit Darjeeling, Limited, too, that's long overdue. Anyhow, Waitress.

First off, the whole food movie thing is old news. It's been done, and way better, plenty of times. So stop going all gaga about the delightful originality of the pie thing. Go rent Like Water for Chocolate, or Eat Drink Man Woman, or even that ridiculous Penelope Cruz movie, Woman on Top if you wanna see this trope used properly. Not to mention, I dunno if it's the way its filmed or what, but those pies just don't look appealing. If you're banking on food to carry some kind of nonverbal meaning, make it look delicious. I had no desire to eat any of those pies. But that might also be because I'm really not a pie person. Perhaps pie is a deep part of the American psyche in ways that I can't understand, and whatever godawful concoction she creates actually speaks volumes to your average viewer, but watching green goop getting slopped into a pie crust does not convey some kind of deeper metaphor about heartbreak to me. Hmph.

Moving on, my major beef with this movie was that I had no sympathy for any of the characters. They were all petty, mean-spirited, self-centered people who, so far as I could ascertain, had gotten themselves into messes and weren't doing a whole hell of a lot to improve their situations other than to complain and feel sorry for themselves. Take the main character and her awful husband, for instance. Ok, so indeed, her husband was pretty atrocious. But first off, she married the guy. Why? Did he suddenly change after the nuptuals? What happened? Secondly, the dude is nothing if not communicative. His main beef is that his wife doesn't give a shit about him - a complaint he is perfectly entitled to, because she doesn't. She gets really annoyed when he is hurt because she hasn't asked him how his day went, and I suppose we as viewers are supposed to agree with her, but personally, I felt bad for the guy. Yes, he's a jerk. But she never makes any kind of effort to tell him what he's doing wrong. And it honestly seem like he'd be kind of receptive to a bit of constructive criticism. So sure, he's awful for basically trying to imprison her, but at the same time, you can kind of see where he's coming from.

Really, from what I recall, pretty much all of the characters were these awful, insincere two-faced jerks who were pretty much horrible to everyone around them, even the people they ostensibly cared about. The love affair between the main character and the doctor also infuriated me, in that it was simply a continuation of the selfishness that characterized everyone in the entire movie. So I wasn't exactly cheering for things to work out from them, nor was I sympathetic to the plight of the good doctor who was fooling around on his lovely wife.

I walked out of the film depressed and enraged, both at the people in the movie, and at the movie itself for making me depressed, though I'm sure it wasn't really intending to do so, which pissed me off even more. Because what's worst is, I'm sure that plenty of people in this world are just like the people in that movie. And probably, most of the people watching the movie don't even see what terrible, terrible people these characters are. The film itself seems completely unaware of it - unlike movies like, say, The Squid and the Whale, where the characters are jerks, but the film seems somehow aware of this and the consequences of it - no, here, I'm pretty sure you're just meant to care about Keri Russell and her unborn child, and hope things work out well for her. The final straw, for me, was when that selfish bitch made bank because of the kindness of an old man whom she didn't even bother to visit in the fucking hospital. Gah!

Bad News Bears

It's generally great fun to watch an old movie and its modern remake, but this is a particularly intriguing case because so much of the humor depends upon political incorrectness, which means that the films are fascinating glimpses into particular historical moments.

The story is pretty basic - a deadbeat guy gets hired to coach a little league team composed of hopeless misfits. Of course the underdogs become the heroes, though both films engage in a kind of balancing act between being heartwarming and being pure sap. Both end up a bit too far into sap territory for my taste, but then, I'm a cold-hearted jerk who hates to see anybody happy. Heh heh.

What's also kind of fascinating, to me, is how incredibly awkward both films are. The stories are clunky and abrupt, and generally not too concerned about cutting straight to the interesting parts or having random scenes that are purely there for amusement. In the remake, this leads to a ridiculously long segment that might as well be a music video, but what the hell, watching Billy Bob Thornton accidentally crowd-surf a skater punk show is funny, right?

What's also kind of neat about the movies is that they're both keenly aware of the fact that having an adorable angel-faced child swear like a sailor is at once hilarious and touching - it's the sleazy version of hallmark, and it totally works. You get the warm fuzzies of adorable kids combined with the cynicism of profanity. I'd rather watch a kid mix the perfect cocktail than play with a puppy any day.

Then there's the intriguing aspect of the kids casually issuing forth horrifically politically incorrect dictums. Of course it's funny. But what kind of laughter is it? As per usual, the question comes up - is the film critiquing this worldview or just laughing at it? Are we laughing because we're uncomfortable, or because we're being given a context where it's acceptable to find racism amusing? I suppose in this respect, the contrast between the original and the remake is comforting, in a sense, because one sees how certain forms of discrimination just aren't in vogue anymore. The contemporary viewer could easily miss the humor of the Jewish kid on the team, because our culture isn't really that anti-Semitic anymore. It's kind of curious, too, how easily one can slot in the immigrant Indian kid for that role and keep many of the same jokes - ethnic caricatures are surprisingly interchangeable. Likewise, it's kind of interesting, the way the remake handles the jokes about the black kid on the team - now they serve more as a commentary on the ridiculous racial assumptions of the coach, and, perhaps, a subtle dig at the earlier film ("What do you mean, Mark McGwire is your favorite player? But he's not black!").

Also interesting is the way the character of the coach has changed, ie, the differences in what constitutes a sleazebag then and now. Instead of being a pool-cleaner, he does pest control. The team sponsor is a strip club, not a bail bonds company. Both drink a lot, but now we have the added lasciviousness of the coach who is sleeping with the players' mothers. Makes you think, because I suspect the film would have a much chillier reception if being of the lower classes was all it took to be scene as scum, these days.

But ultimately, are these good movies? Well, no, not really. Amusing, sure, but as I suppose is clear from what I've written, ultimately far more rewarding for the cultural commentary than the narrative pleasure. The cheap laughs do outweigh the gag-inducing cheesiness, but not by much. Still, not a bad way to spend an evening.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

This is one of those conscientious books that fuzzy green liberals like me adore. It starts from a very simple premise; looking at the dinner table and figuring out where its contents came from, and expands into a thoughtful account of what we eat and why, and what that tells us about the world we live in. The book is divided into three parts; part one examines fast food and the mass industry of eating, part 2 focuses on "organic" foods, first from the mass perspective of stores like whole foods, then on a smaller scale, in local organic farms, and part 3 sets itself the ambitious task of going back to the basics - hunting and gathering.

The writing is not particularly amazing, but it picks up speed as it goes, and whatever the book lacks in prose, it makes up for in content. Because it's truly fascinating to learn about how corn has gradually become a major part of the American diet, and to discover the major economic and political influences that have been behind this shift. So despite the fact that the writing in the first third is somewhat lackluster, it's packed with incredibly interesting information. The writing perks up in the latter portion of the book, whether this is because one simply grows accustomed to the style or because the author finds those parts more interesting is hard to say. Certainly, the first third is more dry in terms of contents - its more about history and politics than it is about getting elbow-deep in the experience of producing the food, and there aren't as many quirky characters.

Overall, the major strength of the book is the amiable, curious narrative voice. Pollan isn't self-righteous or judgmental about the topic, though one certainly gets a sense of his own stance. He occasionally allows himself long detours of somewhat sentimentalized reflection on cycles of life, etc, but they're not too over-the-top, and are actually quite compelling. He is very equitable in terms of allowing his informants to give their own accounts and interspersing a minimum of authorial commentary. He's wonderfully self-aware, particularly in the final section, where he recounts, for instance, the thrill of pleasure he feels after killing his pig, and the later revulsion for that very pleasure, and reflects on how the actual experience has led him to a different view on literary accounts of hunting.

What is also quite interesting is the introduction, which reflects upon American eating habits. Pollan considers the Atkins craze, and why it was that an entire nation suddenly turned away from carbs overnight. It's interesting, because he sort of implies that the reason Americans are so trend-crazy when it comes to food is because they lack a particular culinary tradition. This is kind of intriguing, to me, because one of the things that I so much love about America is that it's one of the only places I know of where one can really eat marvelous food from all over the world. In Chicago, where I live, you can get absolutely amazing food from a whole plethora of countries. But Pollan's point is perhaps valid, that this cornucopia of options may lead to a kind of schizophrenic attitude towards food, and furthermore, it may actually be somewhat unhealthy. Personally, I tend to think that the American obesity epidemic comes from the fact that most American food is over-processed junk and that if people went to their local taqueria when they were looking for something fast and cheap instead of to Wendy's, they'd be much better off, but who knows.

What's really lovely about the book is that rather than exhorting one to begin eating a certain way, or to feel guilty about particular foods, etc, it simply encourages one to reflect upon the contents of your meal and where it came from. It's not starry-eyed or utopian, and neither is it particularly programmatic. Why it's being called "an eater's manifesto", I have no idea, because it is no such thing. Quite simply, it's an inquiry into the contents of one's plate and its origins, and really, that is quite enough.

10 December 2007

What Would Jesus Buy?

I'm honestly somewhat amazed at just how bad this movie was. It's kind of impressive. I mean, first off - I knew what I was getting into, and I was looking forward to it. I _like_ documentaries. Secondly, I'm pretty much the choir being preached to here - I'm so anti- the consumerization of Christmas that I'm happily leaving the damn country and missing the holiday altogether. Nonetheless, about half an hour into this movie, I started losing interest. After 45 minutes, I started checking my watch. After an hour, I was actually making mental lists of what to buy my loved ones for Christmas (no joke). An hour and 10 minutes in, my mother and I started having whispered conversations about how bad the movie it was (there were only 5 other people in the theatre, and the only one near us was snoring loudly, so it didn't seem that bad...). An hour twenty, I covertly used my cell phone to check how much longer the movie was. We started debating just walking out, but couldn't quite bring ourselves to do it, on the off chance that something _really_ good happened in the last 10 minutes. At 1:28, we started putting on our coats. We were that eager to get the hell out.

Why was the movie so bad? No really. Why? What in the hell happened?

Ok, so first off, it was straight-up boring. Long shots of shit like the light changing at an intersection - wtf? What does that have to do with anything? I ain't tryin' to watch the goddamn grass grow while some voice-over whines about credit card debt, ya heard? Secondly, it was mind-numbingly repetetive. Bla bla bla don't shop so much. Yeah. Ok. I got it the first 20 times. Meanwhile, the message was strangely rambling and unfocused. It started with Stop Shopping! And then almost immediately, it was admitted that they only say that to get your attention, but you know, you can't _really_ just quit. Just, you know, slow it down, or something. Also, they never really lay out why you should stop shopping. I mean, you get these obviously extreme (or at least, they seemed extreme to me...) examples of people who are in catastrophic amounts of credit card debt, or are addicted to shopping, or have closetfuls of clothes, together with designer handbags, for hideous little dogs named Lola, or have way too many toys, but yeah, those are obviously extremes, ie, not particularly compelling. Then there's the requisite "Wal-mart is taking over the world" spiel, and the foreign workers are getting abused bit, and finally, the lecture about how family owned businesses are tanking. Well, ok. But that seems like an argument to buy stuff - local stuff, from small family businesses. That's kind of a different issue, n'est-ce pas? It's only tangentially related to Christmas itself. Finally, there's some lip-service paid to the idea of giving more meaningful gifts for Christmas, like, you know, love, and time. This doesn't really get developed or explored at all. So in terms of liberal propaganda, the film is kind of a failure. In fact, it was a pretty major failure, in that my mom and I, who are both fairly conscientious types who never set foot in malls and are generally not wildly materialistic, ran right to the bookstore afterwards and between us, blew $300, mostly on Christmas presents for people. Whooops.

Then there's the issue of Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. The film is ostensibly focused around Reverend Billy - he's supposed to give us a way to think about the consumer spirit of Christmas, while keeping things upbeat and peppy. Reverend Billy travels the country imitating a holy-roller tv reverend (with the highly lacquered blond hair and all) and preaching against consumerism. Ok, so problem one - the shtick gets old real fast. Especially because, no offense, his choir sucks, and he's not so good himself. I actually love watching tv preachers because my god, they've got soul! They BELIEVE! They are enthusiastic and passionate! They are melodic! They know how to move you! Reverend Billy is a cheap imitation, and his delivery seems largely insincere. Furthermore, he seems like a bit of an asshole. And his style seems pretty counter-productive. Being a public nuisance has its place, but not if you're just nagging at people and telling them they're jerks. You're not gonna persuade anyone that way. For goddsakes man. Learn a bit about the art of a good sermon.

Worst of all, is the movie can't seem to make up its mind as to how big a role Reverend Billy should play. Is he the main focus, or is it just Christmas at large? Should the other people get more air-time (why in the hell do you introduce them all if only see most of them for 30 seconds? By the way, listing one woman with her name and "grandma" - that was effin' obnoxious.

Secondly, the movie can't seem to make up it's mind as to how it really wants to tackle the issue, and especially whether it wants to complain about the decline of spiritualism or not. It seems to start out that way, then backs off, probably for fear of alienating its target audience of liberals. Ultimately though, the final effect is a lot of waffling. Likewise, it Grow a pair, movie. Man up and figure out what you're doing. Pick an idea and go with it.

What in the hell happened to Morgan Spurlock? I really thought this movie was gonna be his sophomore smash hit. Instead, it was just sophomoric (wacka wacka).

Seriously though, this movie sucked. Bigtime.

09 December 2007

Atonement, Ian McEwan

A marvel of a book. Well-written, engaging, and really quite impressive.

The most amazing thing about the book, for me, is the prose - McEwan is a master of free indirect style, a mode that blends first and third person narration (Flaubert is a master of it). This allows for this fantastic ambiguity, whereby you're not sure whether the character is really aware of all the things you are, despite the fact that events are being related from his/her perspective. Furthermore, it gives you this exquisite irony, these casual judgements passed on the characters that make you feel as if you know them better than they know themselves. It's gorgeous on its own, but is particularly suited to this novel, which could be summarized as an exploration of the ethics of storytelling.

I don't really have much more to say about it, honestly. I haven't decided yet if I'll see the movie. I mean, on the one hand, there's Keira Knightley, and generally, I'm sure that it'll be visually stunning, but on the other hand - re-read the previous paragraph and tell me if there's any way that film can convey that successfully.

02 December 2007

Transformers

A lot of people have hated on this movie for a number of reasons, and I will admit that some aspects of it are totally whack, but still, I enjoyed the hell out of it. It hit all the right notes for me. I mean, look, it's just awesome. It's a movie based on toys for goddsakes, and goddamnit, it's a great time.

First and foremost, the action sequences are fucking bad-ass. Watching them transform just never gets old. It's neato. The 'splosions are totally sweet. The high speed chases are cool. It's big budget and beautiful and just really fucking neato. If that's not enough for you, then don't bother seeing the movie, because at the end of the day, that's really what it's all about.

Now, a big part of the reason that I enjoyed the movie is because, like many of my favorite action flicks, it seems to have its tongue firmly in its cheek. If you really take this movie at it's word, then sure, it's stupid. But I am fairly convinced that you're not supposed to. Wayne Booth sort of argues that if ascribing irony to a work makes you appreciate the work more than you have license to proceed (which I think might be a somewhat dangerous claim, in other realms), which is an interesting approach to take, and definitely something I find myself doing. I love action movies. I love them even though I realize that they are often ridiculous. I would like to think that the people who create this thing that gives me so much pleasure are like me, and realize how ridiculous this stuff is, even if it is enjoyable. But the other marker of irony is disjunction between what is expected in a given context and what is delivered. Excessive praise, lofty rhetoric in quotidian contexts - good indicators of irony. It seems to me that the movie is obviously being ironic because at moments it's so goddamn ridiculous that I just don't believe that you're meant to take it seriously.

Case 1: One of my friends was protesting how preposterous it is for the autobots to be hanging out in a kid's backyard undetected. He found this really irritating - "What? Like nobody is gonna see them? That's just stupid". But that, I think, is exactly the point, and that's why it's funny. It's totally absurd for a 2-story tall robot to hide behind a lamppost. That's why it's amusing. Stop taking it so damn seriously.

Case 2: Meanwhile, with the autobots lurking in the yard, aforementioned kid and his parents are having a family moment. The kid starts spewing pop-psych babble. His mom, half-cocked, starts discussing masturbation. His Dad is jumping into the bathtub (what's the bathtub doing there?) in fear of earthquakes. The characters are so exaggerated and caricatured that there's no way they could be meant seriously. The drop-dead gorgeous girl who has a juvenile record, knows everything about cars, and is worried that she seems superficial? She wears her narrative functions on her sleeve (as does everyone else in the film). There is no way that anyone could see these characters as real people. At every moment, they are obviously saying and doing whatever it is that will be most entertaining and/or most useful to the plot. There's no attempt at realism. Two words: John Turturro.

Case 3: Every time one of the characters starts waxing profound on the human race, freedom, etc, the camera starts checking out cleavage. Ok, you can see that as some kind of subliminal attempt to promote the ideology of freedom by unconsciously triggering pleasurable associations, but the simpler explanation is that the director knows as well as I do that this stuff is garbage, and finds a way keep the viewer entertained during this necessary formality. I don't want a more rhetorically glamorous or more well-thought out articulation of the autobot ideology. I want it to be short and sweet and served up as necessary to advance the plot so that we can get back to the 'splosions, and hey, I'm more than happy to look at boobs while we're doing it.

Ok, that said though, there's one mildly disturbing aspect that I only realized retroactively. This movie made me, for the first time in my entire life, cheer for the armed forces. For one brief shining moment, I was fully within the mode of idealizing marines, the air force, whatever, as the epitome of the heroic. I suppose that's easier to do when they're fighting alien robots instead of people, but wow, I was sitting there thinking, my god, these are extremely brave people who do very dangerous things (and are totally badass). I've never really felt that way before. And it was so transparent, that well-worn trope of the soldier eager to meet his baby daughter for the first time but serving his country first, but for once, it totally worked on me. Kind of odd.

Secondly, man, the more I think about it, the more appalled I am by the depiction of black characters in the film, which was, I suppose, a continuation of the caricaturing in general, but much more problematic to me. Definite minus. Enough of a minus that I can't recommend the movie to others without that qualification. It's pretty effin' racist.

But man, the action sequences are sweet as hell.

20 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

The attention to detail in this movie is absolutely astounding. Its just incredible, the meticulousness of it, and well suited to the film's graceful subtlety. You may be surprised that I describe such an unrelentingly violent film as subtle, but that's exactly what it is, and the extreme nature of the gore in it only serves to highlight
that.

What I really loved about this movie way in which it coupled a kind of hardcore, grittiness with a down-home story spinning. It's amazing, the way it manages to balance the taut tense thriller mode with a drawling yarn kid of style. So you alternate between on-the-edge of your seat scenes and slow rambling ones, and the contrast is exquisite.

There was only one weak moment in the film and that was towards the end, a rather painfully predictable car accident. It was clumsy, not just because of the overdetermined way in which it was depicted visually, but also because of the way it seemed sort of inevitable in a narrative that plays with the idea of contingency and accident. It's odd, actually, in that it's the kind of thing that to me, who has spent a whole lot of time reading about narrative and determinism, seems like sledgehammer symbolism, but for most people will probably seem totally random. So I suppose it's not a really valid critique, and I guess I actually kind of appreciate the way it illustrated the kind of thing I've spent a lot of time reading about, but all the same, in a movie that was mostly marvelously new and surprising to me, it was a bit of a let-down.

All in all though, amazing acting, great story, wonderfully complex characters and some badass hardcore ultraviolence makes for one hell of a movie.

14 November 2007

Breach

This movie is highly tense but surprisingly subdued. You know, from the outset, that Chris Cooper, ie Robert Hanssen, is going down. So it's not exactly suspenseful, but nonetheless, the movie manages to keep up an ethos of extreme discomfort throughout. It's sort of a strange film, in that it kind of lends itself to certain questions, but doesn't really do anything with them. Ultimately, then, it leaves me with the following thoughts:

1. It's kind of fascinating how hierarchical government intelligence organizations are. This movie captures that beautifully, these power plays and ways of putting people in their place. One of the first encounters between Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe involves them walking down a hallway together, and Phillippe repeatedly has to stop short, or pause, in order to avoid running into things. Subtle, but effective. Likewise, in Phillippe's first meeting with Laura Linney, she puts him in his place, _hard_. The thing about intelligence work is that the amount of power that you have is directly tied to how much information you have. And at times, obviously, it makes sense for the people below you NOT to have certain information, in order to do their job effectively. But geeze, you don't have to be such a jerk about it, you know?

2. There's this interesting aspect to this movie, this question of readable people are. Cooper plays Hanssen, who was apparently some kind of genius for reading people. Of course, Ryan Phillippe proves to be his downfall, which kind of makes you wonder, but all the same, there's a nice scene where he proves his mettle by playing that "tell me 4 truths and one lie about you" game and nails it, twice.
What makes him a particularly interesting case is that he not only can read people, but he himself is unreadable as well. Underneath the controlled, heavily Catholic surface, he's a total perv, apparently. One question that inevitably comes up, and is never answered, is whether the Catholicism is a fake. I don't think it is. I don't think the movie does either. But it does make you think about false consciousness, etc. How people can happily, and devoutly, hold several totally contradictory beliefs at once. And act on them, too.
Likewise, at moments, you obviously know that Phillippe is lying, but at other times, you really don't know. Is he faking it? Is he being honest, but for instrumental purposes? How does he really feel about Hanssen?
I'm still contemplating this essence versus action issue in my own speculations on identity, and I feel like scenarios like this muddy the waters, though I'm a bit hard pressed to explain how.
Anyhow, as the movie progresses, you find yourself initially believing that Cooper actually _does_ have this incredible ability, both to read people and to lead this hardcore double life. And then you start to see his weakness - which has the effect of humanizing him. You realize, in the end, that he's an extremely bright guy, but still just a guy, in the end. And you realize, or I did, that you had been thinking of him as some kind of superhuman, robot type, purely because he has these abilities. Which is kind of interesting.

There is more to say about the movie, like the subtext about "gun culture" vs "intelligence culture" in government agencies, but those were really the two main things that I found interesting about it. I think, at the end of the day, I'm just not that into straight spy-thriller movies? I dunno.

Fun trivia though, Phillippe's wife is played by Caroline Dhavernas, whom I had only ever seen before in the delightful tv show Wonderfalls, but for whom I have a decided fondness. Somebody should give her some better roles - she did this one quite well, I thought. Impressive, given what a cliche role it tends to be; the stressed out wife, angsty and frustrated about being unable to be let in on the secrets, etc etc etc. Nice German accent, too.

11 November 2007

Running Scared

This movie is off the fucking hook. It is crazy.

Goddamnit. I watch action movies because I want some goddamn escapism, not because I want to be confronted with the evil in the world, ok? I want bad guys to be bad, yes, but I don't want them to synecdochally refer to truly horrific things in the world that are actually happening. If you show me a truly appalling scene of a guy beaten his wife, or abusing children, it doesn't make me wanna stand up and cheer when he gets capped, it just depresses the hell out of me. wtf.

This movie is bad. The acting sucks, the dialogue is weak, and it resorts to incredibly cheap tricks to manipulate the emotions of the viewer in a totally mindless way. Yes, visually, it's well done. There are a few really excellent scenes. But it's also incredibly brutal and upsetting. For no good reason. The movie isn't showing me these horrible things in order to reflect on them or make some kind of statement about them. It's doing it for cheap thrills and heightened emotion. I resent that.

The thing is, on the one hand, this movie wants to be a badass action flick. And when it's doing that, it does it well. It's a bit on the brutal side, but that's not unreasonable. But why does it need to drag children into it? It is not uncommon to have kids serve as a motivating factor in action movies - usually a kid has been kidnapped and it's up to the hero to save him/her. Fair enough. The horror of people abusing children is always in the background, but it's sort of left there unexplored, rather than built up. Which is just dandy, because, as I said above, I'm not trying to think about the horrible things people do to children. It's not a happy topic.

What I'm so pissed off about is a sequence in this movie that features this totally outrageous plot twist - this kid, fleeing his abusive male guardian, gets into a random van. Surprise! Turns out owners of said van are super fucked up pedophiliac murderers. The whole segment is completely unnecessary to the plot, but it is truly horrific. It's terrifying, and upsetting, and really just awful. Why put the viewer through that? Why? I can't forgive the filmmakers for that scene.

09 November 2007

Mixtape, Inc.

This documentary is a lot smarter than you might expect, but not quite as smart as you might like. It raises a lot of really interesting questions about hiphop culture and mixtapes, but it doesn't quite dig into some of the questions it raises, and other parts drag a bit. Overall, it runs just a bit too long, and gets somewhat repetetive. Still though, it's a pretty fascinating movie.

To start with the negatives - the voice over is kind of painful. Walter Bell wrote and directed the movie, but he should have found someone else to do the talking, because his voice is annoying as hell. And his commentary is rarely as interesting as that of the people he's interviewing - he tends towards a "fight the power! you can't stop us!" kind of thing, but delivered without much passion. His voice is very flat. It's especially notable because so many of the people he's interviewing speak with the easy rhythms of those who have learned to use their voice as a musical instrument in ways that are extremely pleasing to the ear, so his droning comes off all the worse in contrast.

Secondly, the documentary trick of zooming in on newspaper headlines, etc, to provide a visual counterpart to the narrative is wildly overused and starts to seem like a cheap gimmick. For the most part, the film has a pretty cool aesthetic that is well-rooted in hiphop culture, the visual aspects of which don't generally get as much attention as they deserve. But at times one wishes the film had a slightly bigger budget, because some of it looks like it was made by somebody who just started a class on graphic design.

That said though, the film is quite well done, and takes a really interesting perspective on some of the questions it raises.

For instance, the main focus for discussing the legal crack-down on mixtapes is this guy Alan Berry, a record store owner from Indiana. This is not a dude whom you would expect to be facing jailtime over his love of hiphop. He's a flannel shirt wearing type dude who admits early on that in his earlier life, he was a die-hard Ozzie fan who thought that hiphop sucked. listening to him talk about his conversion to hiphop is great, and takes on stereotypes of hiphop fans with brilliant subtlety. He's a really fascinating voice in the film, not least because so much of the movie is about how hiphop is the music of the ghetto, the streets, etc - and this guy is just not a part of that scene. So he has this curious perspective that is simultaneously insider and outsider, with a liberal, and justified, dose of bitterness.

Another thing that I found really interesting was the discussion of mixtape culture alongside bootleg culture. This is an area where the film really could have delved a bit deeper. Because what really struck me about it is that this is another one of those fascinating cases of marginalized subgroups at odds with each other, and the fact that the bootleggers are almost entirely poor immigrants trying to get ahead in America is not irrelevant. There's a subtle tinge of xenophobia beneath some of the discussions of bootleggers, and perhaps in the perspective of the film at large? This could just be my beef though. I get really annoyed when filmmakers feel the need to provide subtitles for a person speaking accented English. Give me a fucking break. You don't need subtitles to understand what the guy is saying.

The bootleg issue connects also to the music piracy question. To me, it is completely obvious that mixtapes are a completely different sort of animal, but I think it was a smart move on the part of filmmakers to take these questions seriously, and the resulting discussion of the current state of the music industry was fascinating. Raises some interesting issues about the clash between art and industry as a whole, about what art is for, etc. There's a great moment, actually, when this incredibly sweet-faced kid compares himself to people in business school, talking about how he's gone out and read all these books, he's an enterpreneur, he knows what he's doing - damn straight he does. Likewise, the discussion of 50 Cent's success focuses partly on his talent, but mostly on the fact that dude is a hustla'. He's very fucking smart when it comes to making money.

Finally, there's the interesting issue of what happens when something underground goes mainstream. Because although no one ever says it, in some ways, making it big was the worst thing that could have happened to mixtapes. This is most forcefully brought out, for me, by the interview with Kanye West. Because here's the thing, is once your mixtapes make you a name, you gonna start saving your best stuff for your albums, because that's where da money at (though personally, I thought that thePrelude to Graduation was a lot hotter than the actual album).

Hands down though, the best thing about the movie is the way it manages to capture the people being interviewed - the film is intimate and chatty, you feel like you're just sitting around shooting the shit with the people involved. Random non-sequitors, dirty jokes - none of that gets cut out. The movie honors the people in it by allowing them to talk about what's closest to their heart, and it's much more rewarding as a result. Seeing DJ Boogie's first mixtape, not to mention his adorable smile, melts your damn heart. And Kanye, of course, is an irreverent delight as always - "but with mixtapes... it's like fast food. It's like pussy. A nigga get too much pussy, they don't know it's tight no mo'". The man's got a way with words. Though I can't help but wonder wtf is going on with homebody to his left, who appears to be sound asleep with his mouth open for most of his scenes. Heh heh.

All in all, it may be on the long side, but it's a good time. I'd put it on the definitely ought to see list for any hiphophead, but even somebody who's not into the scene could find it interesting as social and cultural commentary. Check it out. IMDB, oddly enough, doesn't have an entry for it, but it's available from Netflix.

08 November 2007

Last Life in the Universe

This movie was oddly stupid. It's a strange pastiche of features, like when you're trying to cook dinner with leftovers and you find yourself throwing together things that just really don't work because you can't decide what in the hell you're making, so you end up with a big gooey mess that is made of lots of delicious things but tastes kind of bland and vaguely unpleasant.

So it seems like here we started with a suicidal main character (which allows for random flashes of death scene fantasies) who also happens to be highly obsessive (cue shots of labeled sock drawers, neat stacks of things in apartment), threw in some Mob action (cue gory murder scenes), then decided to to pair him with a quirky chick whose sister is a callgirl (cue sex club scenes). Just for fun, let's have them not really speak the same language (cue adorable translation problems, also long scenes where they both speak charmingly accented english). And she'll be leaving town in a few days, to add that fleeting love affair feel. Let's also make her ex-boyfriend an abusive asshole, to add some tension. Oh, and we can make her a stoner, so that there's at least one scene where she's really high and things can randomly fly through the air in a charming magical realism sort of way (because that's what happens when you're high?). So we throw all those together, and see what happens, eh guys? Right?

So what happens? Not a goddamn thing. These various features play themselves out in a rather disinterested fashion, albeit with very lovely visuals, and then the movie just kinda ends. Oh wait - they play themselves out _very_ slowly. I watched the entire movie in 1.4 time (god bless my dvd player) and it was still too slow.

It's strange, because the characters are actually quite sympathetic, but there's just no momentum to the movie at all. It's beautiful, but lacks any kind of emotional pull. Really not worth watching, sad to say.

29 October 2007

Funny Ha Ha

Next time someone complains about about a movie not being realistic, tell them to rent Funny Ha Ha. It's realistic. It's too realistic. It's the perfect wedding of form and content. It's a painfully awkward and apathetic movie about painfully awkward and apathetic people.

The main character, Marnie, is an aimless and vaguely depressed 23 year old who has graduated college and is, in her own words, 'just kind of drifting along'. Marnie is a stunning representative of what is known as Generation Q, the legion of hyper-conscious yet largely apathetic youth (though the youth in the linked article, at least, have high paying jobs...). It's not that she doesn't _want_ to do something more meaningful, it's that she can't seem to figure out how. There's a great scene where she makes a To Do list for herself, with entries like "go to the museum", and "learn chess". She obediently sets out to do these things, and seems to kind of realize how completely stupid and pointless they are. It's kind of devastating to watch her and her friends move through the world, completely unable to grow up and do something worthwhile with themselves. They are desperately trying to figure out how to be grown-ups, and for the most part, they're failing. So they kind of flail around, getting married, cooking dinners together, going through the motions, but that's the thing - it's all posturing. This is brilliantly paralleled by their largely vapid conversations, many of which are stuck in some kind of fantasy realm, or are ridiculously meta. For instance, another great scene, when a terrifically dweeby guy is trying to hit on Marnie, and goes with "So hypothetically, if I were to ask you out on a date, what would you say?" and they actually discuss this for awhile, then he says, ok, wait, so not hypothetically, I mean, I know we're just having dinner as friends right now, but would you like to go out on a date sometime? Jesus, it's so painful to watch. Because the thing is, these kids mean well, they really do. They're just dumb kids. The tragedy of it, though, is that they're not kids anymore, and it's actually kind of difficult to figure out what in the hell they could do with themselves.

Kind of brilliant, and fascinating to watch in a train wreck sort of way. Not at all compelling or entertaining, just, well, sadly accurate. It's so well done that I honestly can't tell whether the people who made it are just like the characters, or whether they just managed to somehow brilliantly portray them. I mean, obviously the guy who made the movie is skilled, it's well done, but it's just not much fun to watch. Nothing really happens. There is no redemption here, and I wonder if that's because the guy thinks that there really isn't any, or just thinks that his characters are incapable of seeing any? It's the same problem I was confronted with in my review of Clerks 2, actually. Basically, it's a movie that is a totally realistic portrayal of a certain sub-group. As such, it is hard to say whether or not it is ironic - whether the person making the movie actually endorses this worldview or is depicting it in order to say something about it. Is there some kind of critique of these people buried in the film or no? An interesting example of this in literature, incidentally, is a Polish novel by Waclaw Berent called Prochno - I believe the English translation is called Deadwood?).

The one odd thing about this movie is that it is set in the past - Marnie has a landline and an answering machine, and even uses a pay phone at one point, although at least one other character has a cell phone. This is kind of odd, because the characters seem so very contemporary. I guess this suggests that it isn't, in fact, cell phones, MySpace and the blogosphere that are to blame for the predicament of today's young adults, eh?

Anyhow, so once again, interesting to watch, but not exactly entertaining...

27 October 2007

Save the Green Planet!

This is one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time. It is absolutely incredible. Before you run out and rent it, however, be forewarned: it's not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It's quite brutal and incredibly gory. In this, actually, it certainly occasions reflections on violence in movies and whether people like me have been desensitized to horror, because the violence is extremely aestheticized, and is actually stunningly beautiful in a really disturbing way.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because actually, the way it unfolds is one of the best things about the movie. One should enter into the film, I think, knowing as much as I did: that there's a guy who is convinced that aliens are about to destroy the planet, and in an attempt to thwart them, he kidnaps a man whom he believes to be their leader. Part of what drew me to the film in the first place, incidentally, is my fascination with horror movies where the monster looks just like a normal person. Zizek got me fascinated with this idea, that the ultimate horror is not the creepy green creature, but rather the evil that is nearly indistinguishable from the everyday. This movie handles the theme beautifully, weaving the theme of insanity into the film with incredible grace.

It's hard to explain what makes this movie so amazing - it's something about the way it uses cinema as a narrative mode. Plenty of movies look pretty, but what this film manages to do is use the actual image to produce meaning in the way akin to an incredible painting. It's really quite mindblowing. There's a bit towards the end that is especially amazing, throwing in visual references to other films and some documentary footage - it's one of the most incredible reflections on cinema as an art form that I've ever seen, and raises these really interesting issues about the relationship between film and reality. God, it really is an incredible movie. This is exactly what an amazing artwork does, I think - it shows you things in a completely unique way, producing meanings that cannot be articulated in any other mode. In other words, I cannot tell you in words what this film tells me via film, because the things it expresses cannot be fully translated into words.

In sum, wow. Absolutely amazing.

21 October 2007

Genesis, translated by Robert Alter

Oh blog, I have been neglecting you. I will strive to be better. Which means that the quality of entries may well slide, because instead of writing a bit and deciding it's not worth posting, I'm gonna go ahead and throw it up anyhow. You've been warned.

So Robert Alter has done an absolutely incredible job translating Genesis. And writing a marvelous introduction to it. I suppose it's somewhat self-serving -translator's introductions tend to be a long explanation of why one's own work is so much better than anyone else's, but anyhow, he certainly makes a convincing argument. The really incredible thing about this edition though, is the army of footnotes that directs your attention to wordplay that may have gotten lost in translation, offers some insights derived from critical work on the text, points out repetitions in the text - they're fantastic.

So as you probably recall, Genesis describes the creation of the world and then the early exploits of people living on it. It's essentially a collection of stories, linked geneologically. What really struck me, reading it this time, is that the majority of the drama of the text comes from sexual politics. Who is sleeping with who, who is fertile - this motivates most of the action. And you realize, you know, in the early days of civilization, this probably was a pretty big deal. In other words, regulating sexual politics is probably one of the big steps of founding a civilization. Also, upon this reading, with a little nudge from Alter, I started wondering how many of these plagues and spells of infertility were references to epidemics of stds...

Another things that's kind of wild is how totally different many of these texts are from their more popular, widespread versions. Onanism, for instance, commonly refers to masturbation, but the story is actually about pulling out. And the _reason_ that Onan pulls out is because he has been instructed to impregnate his dead brother's wife, and he doesn't want his children to be raised as someone else's. Which seems pretty reasonable to me, honestly. But The Lord disagrees, probably because The Lord is a real stickler for obedience. Likewise, the Tower of Babel - it's commonly conceived of as men trying to build a tower to reach heaven, and God punishing their ambition. But actually, they're just trying to build a tower as tall as heaven, because they want a monument to themselves - and that's what pisses God off (or so one could argue) - their pride in themselves, not their ambition.

Whenever I read texts like this, that have had a major impact on people, I'm always kind of surprised at how they've managed to leave such a massive legacy. Genesis especially, is an incredibly fascinating work, but how it ended up being such a cornerstone of civilization is sort of beyond me.

09 October 2007

3:10 to Yuma

I hated this movie for the first 20 minutes of it. Then slowly, slowly, I began to warm up to it, and then, about 40 minutes in, suddenly I loved it, and remained riveted to the grueling dramatic finale.

As with most Westerns, the most likeable and interesting character is the villain, here played by a genially badass Russell Crowe whose intellectual, sensitive side is repeatedly emphasized by lengthy quotations from the Bible and sketches of nature that he leaves on bushes like little calling cards of the ephemeral. Of course we are treated to the mind-numbingly dull hero, played by a typically angsty Christian Bale, trying to claim that Crowe, too, has goodness in him and the attendant reflections on whether good people can do bad things, but in this case, it's actually somewhat interesting, in that what makes Russell Crowe good is his ability to respect and recognize good (which basically boils down to integrity) in others. And by golly, we like him for his vigilante streak, which allows him to righteously slay the more irritating "good" guys who are in fact clearly scumbags.

The most annoying feature of this movie is its anachronisms. Goddamnit, couples just didn't discuss their relationships and mutual decision-making processes in the aftermath of the Civil War. No they did not. When Gretchen Mol was bitching about Christian Bale not consulting her opinion, I mentally added, "Gawd, life is so hard being a character in the Old West theme park! Ugh!" But there's something kind of charming about it too, perhaps, in that its the attempt to revitalize an old genre for new times?

One particularly amusing feature of the film, for me, was the way in which all of the action was immediately parsed and narrated. Russell Crowe blows away a few guys in rapid succession, and a minor character helpfully notes, "He's fast", thus making it perfectly clear for anyone who wasn't paying enough attention that this scene was meant to introduce them to a specific character trait. "Are y'all in a posse?" BAM BAM BAM. "I don't like posses." Check. All clear.

As my friend Ruchama pointed out, the plot is seriously flawed, because sure, Russell Crowe could have escaped whenever in the hell he wanted. BUT THEN THERE WOULD BE NO MOVIE. SO SHUT UP ALREADY.

Also amusing is the heavy dosage of homo-eroticism, common to Westerns but here so delightfully blatant that at time you find yourself thinking "God, just fuck already."

As a final note, Ben Foster, who plays the second fiddle villain, has one of the most fascinating faces I have ever seen. It's phenomenally vacant and expressionless and yet seething with emotion. It's amazing.

Anyhow, all in all, it's a kick in the pants. Worth seeing.

26 September 2007

Ghost

Ok, call me a cynic, but the inefficiency of this movie made me crazy. It's like two and a half hours long and it could easily be cut down to, oh, 45 minutes if people weren't so fucking stupid. Once Swayze figures out that he can move physical objects (which he should have done right after his first train ride! hello?!?), there's really no need for all these ridiculous plot machinations. He could easily handle things on his own. But hey, it's a good thing he doesn't, because honestly, Whoopi Goldberg is hands-down the best thing about the movie. She is fantastic.

Also, it ought to be said, the sex scene is hot. The giant clay phallus is hilariously ridiculous, and yes one can't help but notice that the clay magically disappears from their glistening slender bodies, but goddamn. They just don't make sex scenes that are so beautifully intimate like that anymore. There's a fascinating kind of individuality to it, it's sort of hard to explain.

And then there's the oh-so-kinky Moore/Goldberg/Swayze scene. Hats off to a movie that manages to combine necrophilia with interracial lesbian love. How taboo! Too bad they weren't braver about it.

The special effects on the other hand, oh man. Maybe they were mind-blowing at the time, but now they're delightfully kitschy. As is the whole movie, really. It's definitely aged, not least because you can't really watch both Swayze and Moore in a movie without thinking of them as Swayze and Moore and making Nobody puts GI Jane the Striptease Wonder in a corner! I kind of wanted John McClane to burst in, guns blazing, with Ashton hot on his heels yelling PUNK'D! And the hair, good lord, it's wonderful. This incidentally, serves only to reinforce a point a friend of mine the other day, that much of what we think of as 80s fashion is really from the early 90s. But as stated above, the movie has so many extended scenes that serve no ostensible purpose. I couldn't help but wonder if the whole scene in the crowded elevator when Swayze and Tony Goldwyn pretend to have highly contagious diseases just to freak people out wasn't an unconscious reference to cultural anxieties about the spread of AIDS.

All in all, a perfect late-night tv movie.

15 September 2007

Vanilla Sky

So, I had remembered this movie as being a total mind-fuck, but it turns out it's actually quite straightforward. What's funny though, is that I'll bet you remember it as a total mindfuck. I certainly did. Shall we? Yes, I think so.

The movie opens with Tom Cruise being awoken by Penelope Cruz's voice on his alarm clock, then driving down the streets of a totally abandoned New York City, climaxing in a solitary moment in Times Square. Except it turns out it's just a dream. There isn't really any point to this sequence, except that it's really cool and probably cost an outrageous amount of money. Ok, that's unfair. The purpose of the scene is to establish this motif of strange things happening that turn out to be dreams. But then he wakes up for real, except this time, it's Cameron Diaz's voice, and she's there too, but other than that, he does pretty much exactly the same thing as he did in the dream sequence, except without the lack of people, and then we're off. Then, woah, next surprise, none of this is actually happening at all; it's actually being narrated by Tom Cruise to Kurt Russell. Tom Cruise is wearing a creepy mask. So we know that some serious shit is gonna go down.

So after, I think, some foreshadowing type questions from Kurt Russell, we proceed with the story. Tom Cruise is sleeping with Cameron Diaz. He's best friends with Jason Lee. Then, on the night of his birthday, he meets Penelope Cruz, who happens to be Jason Lee's date. They, of course, fall madly in love. There's some tension with Jason Lee. But Tom is a ruthless guy, so he goes home with Penelope, where they have a magical romantic night. He leaves her apartment, and finds Cameron, who is kind of obsessed with him. He decides to get into her car. She goes a bit batshit, tells him he needs to learn to live with the consequences of his actions, and ends up driving off a bridge. The accident kills her and leaves Tom disfigured. Well, that explains the mask.

Story continues, interspersed with moments that remind us that this is Tom telling the story. Which kind of makes you wonder about the scenes that he isn't in and how he would know what is happening in them, but hey, whatever. Also, we keep seeing commercials for a company that cryogenically freezes people called Life Extension. It comes up so many times that you'd have to be a fucking halfwit not to realize it must be significant, and probably not purely because it reminds Tom of Penelope. But anyhow, after a night of hard drinking, he is found on the street by Penelope Cruz, and like magic, they embark upon a beautiful love affair. Then, woah, next mind-fuck, Kurt Russell tells him his face is actually fine. Tom refuses to take off the mask. But sure enough, as the story continues, we find out his face did in fact get fixed. But then, things went weird. At some point here, we learn that a murder has happened. So we're getting pretty invested in Tom's story, because we know that some really, really strange stuff is gonna happen.

Indeed. Tom is convinced that his business associates are trying to destroy him. Then there's some weird, weird stuff where Penelope keeps turning into Cameron, and this is of course freaking Tom out big time, and well, he ends up killing her. Then he meets a guy in a bar who tells him they've met before, and shows him that he can control reality. Oddly enough, he just runs out of the bar and carries on. How he actually ends up in the prison where he's talking to Kurt Russell is never made clear, but Kurt keeps asking about Eli, who Tom apparently cries out for in his sleep. Eli turns out to be LE, and the guy in the bar is from the company. They go to the company. There Tom learns that he has been cryogenically frozen, and opted for the lucid dreaming option that would allow him to be living in a dream world. In fact, everything since that night of hard drinking is actually not real. He is told how his real life actually went - he never saw Penelope again, he built up his business, got depressed, decided to freeze himself, committed suicide. Incidentally, his suicide really bummed out Penelope, who apparently never got over the fact that what they had was true love, like, for realz. Woah. Your mind is blown, right? All the crazy stuff that happened afterwards, the murder, etc, is Tom's subconscious going wonky. It doesn't have to be like that. They can reboot and start over. Tom decides to wake up from his frozen state to face the real world. To do this, he has to face his biggest fear (of heights) and jump off a building. He does it, of course, but before he does that, he sees Penelope, kisses her, apologizes for getting in that fateful car ride with Cameron Diaz, and re-establishes their undying love for each other. The final shot is of Tom Cruise opening his eyes to a new world.

Now, let's talk about what's wrong with this picture. First off, minor points: why in the fuck is it Penelope's voice on the alarm clock in the first scene? Why did Tom opt to begin his fake life after the night of fake drinking, instead of, oh, I dunno, before he became hideously disfigured? I'll tell you why: because it makes you think that the movie is a total mindfuck. It's disorienting, which makes you think you haven't quite figured it out. Don't worry, you had it right. It's just that well, it's more satisfying to just lose yourself in the dream/reality vertigo and not think about it too much.

In fact, in this respect, perhaps the most philosophically intriguing moment is when we find out for sure that this lucid dream thing is actually real. It would be much more of a mindfuck if the film spent some time playing with this idea, because after all, it's an interesting question - how do you know, for sure, that reality is real and not a dream? The movie wants to play with this question, by having, for instance, moments where we are shown dreams and then jarred into realizing they're not real, but then, at the climactic moment, it makes it rather simple. Because Kurt Russell finds out that he's a figment of Tom's dreaming mind. His identity is defined, largely, by his having two daughters. Whose names he does not know, because apparently, Tom never bothered to think of some. Kurt takes this revelation quite well, limiting himself to merely howling: "Mortality as entertainment? Is this the future?" I guess Tom's subconscious didn't want to contemplate the existential dilemmas of a dream that realizes itself as such. Pity.

What's really interesting in this respect is the love story. The movie seems to really want to be about this amazing love between Tom and Penelope, and her final
but the fact of the matter is, most of that relationship is actually just a very pleasant hallucination. The movie seems to be wanting to compensate for this by claiming that even in reality, Penelope never got over Tom, but you know what? HOW COULD ANYBODY EVER KNOW THAT. Is it perhaps not worth pointing out that both Penelope and Tom were completely wasted during their one night together? I mean, call me cynical, but seriously. So the whole love story, which seems to be the main point of the film, is really just a beautiful dream. I guess it's fitting? Still though, I defy you to watch the movie without falling in love with Penelope. She's one of those fantastic Amelie types, who says profound, whimsical things like "I'll tell you in the next life, when we're both cats" and makes incredibly cute faces.

All in all though, it's an entertaining movie. It's just that I suspect that people remember it as being far more mind-blowing than it really is. It's kind of funny; it's an incredibly rich and complex philosophical problem that is highly simplified but then rendered in a seemingly complex way. Good times. Worthy of watching again, if only to realize how simple and straightforward it actually is.

30 August 2007

2 Days in Paris

I really did not expect to like this movie. I figured it was gonna be like Before Sunrise/Sunset, and was chuckling to myself that it could be subtitled "Sometime Around Mid-day". Maybe it's because I'm in my mid-twenties, maybe it's the particular state of mind I've been in lately, but I've got to say, with only a slight twinge of embarassment, that the movie totally won me over.

It started, curiously enough, with the previews. It was the first time in a long time that I have actually wanted to see the movies advertised by the previews (with the exception of Ira and Abby, which looks like absolute crap*). I had this strange feeling like, wow, these are previews geared towards a specific target audience, and what do you know, apparently I fit into it quite neatly. Yowza.

But anyhow, the movie itself is surprisingly hilarious.

In many ways, it IS similar to the Sunrise/Sunset films, in that it's basically following a couple around and watching them interact. But, as my friend pointed out, whereas those films are about these escapist fantasy relationships that never have to encounter reality, this movie is quite the opposite - it's a couple who is attempting to go on vacation but can't really escape the reality of their day-to-day relationship.

More importantly, though, is that this movie has those same kind of pseudo-philosophical reflections of the Sunrise/Sunset movies - but with a pinch of cynicism. So, for instance, Julie Delpy saying that she learned recently that women use more toilet paper than men because they wipe when they pee, and good god think about the waste and destruction, because she mourns it everytimes she's on the toilet, is something that in the earlier movies would have been uttered earnestly, in a way that would imply that this is a profound thought that the viewer should also consider. Whereas here, it's delivered in the middle of a neurotic outburst and is portrayed as perhaps kind of interesting and charming, but ultimately somewhat silly and melodramatic. Likewise, Julie Delpy responds to Adam Goldberg's obsession with the small world theory not with rapture, but by rolling her eyes and saying, "yeah, ok, it's kind of interesting, but come on, get over yourself". But these ideas aren't totally scoffed at and dismissed (the small world theory, for instance, is cleverly interwoven into the film in a very elegant way, rather than the heavy handed treatment one would expect).

Also, as stated, there are some uproariously funny moments in the film. About 20 minutes in, there's a sequence with the pet cat that is sheer genius. That cat should earn an Oscar for his performance. Seriously, he's amazing. There are so many scenes that, while they may stretch credibility a bit, are wonderfully witty and marvelously amusing. The humor alone makes the movie worth watching.

Finally, though, and here's where my twinge of embarrassment comes in, I think the movie is actually an excellent portrayal of relationships. Aside from the sex scenes, which I found rather obnoxiously ridiculous, I thought that the film captured something really essential about the way that two people in a relationship interact. Not to mention some nice, albeit exaggerated, points about the awkwardness of meeting your partner's family, and the trials and travails of cross-cultural romance. The final scene, especially, which some critics have panned, to me was so incredibly life-like that it was almost uncomfortable to watch.

The New Republic's review (which one should not read before seeing the movie) dogs on the ending of the film as an overly simplistic rushjob, and deplores in particular the way that voice-over narration plays a major role, but in my opinion, the ending is actually quite ambiguous - elegantly so. And I quite appreciated the voice-over, both here, and throughout. I thought it was a clever way of cutting through what could easily have been tedious plot development and condensing it in a really apt way. Actually, re-reading the review now, I'm kind of blown away by how totally off it seems - the guy who wrote it just didn't get the movie at all. Interesting.

I'm curious (maybe for once someone will leave a comment...) how much of my own reaction to this movie is dependent on the stage of life I happen to be in. I can well imagine that in, say, 5 years, I'll look at it the way you look at things you loved when you were 15, but at the same time, what can I say, I think it's a quality flick. Julie Delpy as a director is still, at times, a bit amateurish, and seems like she's trying a little too hard to be artsy, but she also seems to be aware of it and poking fun at her own affectation for much of the film, which goes a long way towards making up for it. So I suspect that while I may, in coming years, look back on the worldview that the movie comes out of with a sense of indulgent nostalgia, I bet I'll still find the funny scenes hilarious.

*Ok, I need to bitch for a minute about Ira and Abby. It's made by the same people who did Kissing Jessica Stein, which is your first red flag. Much like that movie, it seems to basically be a film in which two people are put in a completely preposterous romantic situation and try to actually live it out. The only vaguely interesting thing about it is that it's this attempt to be overly cerebral about love and relationships - like in Kissing Jessica Stein, where the main character decides to try dating women because she's sick of men, as if it were actually that simple. What's really obnoxious about this is that it gets billed as a "modern romance" - as if this completely ridiculous approach somehow captured something authentic about this day and age. Give me a fucking break.

19 August 2007

This is England

A phenomenal movie. This is one of those incredible films that manages to be about one boy, an entire nation, and a moment in history all at once. It's brilliant. It's basically a good hard look at the Skinhead movement in England in the 80s. What's so impressive to me about it is the way in which it very subtly shows the ways that a working class movement becomes inflected with racism, and how this is linked to Britain's actions in the Falklands, which in turn is a reflection on Britain's imperial identity. The characters are complex and multi-faceted and extremely realistic. There's no simplistic villification, but also no apologia for some of their more hideous actions.

It's also interesting in its portrayal of a young kid growing up and being sort of indoctrinated into a political movement. It's not that he's being brainwashed, but at the same time, obviously, he's a kid, so you can't really say that he's making a fully informed rational choice. It's not that he's getting pulled in by promises of lollipops, though certainly there's an element of this being a community that is giving him a kind of love, acceptance, and support that he very much needs, but it's also that they tap into some of his emotional needs that have political consequences. It's kind of an interesting way into thinking about politics and feelings; how closely held and dear to you your political beliefs are, how emotionally engaged you are with what is happening in the world. And how those things that are happening far far away may have tangible effects close to home that you aren't even fully aware of.

Then there's just the beautiful depiction of being a kid, being a skin, having fun with your friends, goofing off. It's so wonderfully done, you have to laugh in recognition. Just marvelous. The acting, by the way, is absolutely fantastic in this movie. Really incredible.

Anyhow, really a must-see film. Highly recommended, though to be fair, I ought to warn you that there are some disturbing scenes.

Incidentally, the movie also has a pretty kickass webpage that includes the main actor's audition tape, which is pretty rad.

14 August 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Not the most amazing action flick I've ever seen, but a kick in the pants all the same. My one real beef with the film was Julia Stiles, who looks more and more like a pug dog every day and has one of the worst dye-jobs I've ever seen in my life. How in the hell are you gonna be a covert CIA agent when you're sporting a hairstyle that makes everyone within 20 feet of you gag? Not to mention, when you're obviously a bumbling, pouting idiot? When she's attempting to elude an assassin by weaving through crowded marketplaces, it's all you can do not to jump out of your seat and scream "SHOOT THE BITCH ALREADY!"

There's also the ridiculous globe-trotting factor, which for some reason I found inordinately amusing. There's something so brazenly ridiculous about it, I dunno. It's like a paean to globalization or something. The world is at our fingertips! We can go anywhere! There's one moment late in the film where Bourne has been given a numeric code indicating a location, and the team follows him first attempts to decipher it by locating the indicated latitude/longitude, placing it in Cameroon. Unfortunately, they dismiss it as unlikely, but I really would have appreciated a random segueway to a crack team of snipers busting down some random doors in Cameroon. This, incidentally, does point to the lurking power dynamic in our supposed world-era, namely, the way that some places are implicitly seen as important, locations where "things happen", and the rest of the world is just kinda filler. Jason Bourne never goes to, say Tulsa. But anyhow.

The action sequences are sweet as hell. Matt Damon is a raging badass. Not only can he kick the crap out of whoever in the hell he wants, but he's crafty. Part of the joy of the film is watching him work his way out of sticky situations with the precision of a killbot while everyone else runs around like beheaded chickens.

What follows is heavily dependent on spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, and by some miracle HAVEN'T figured out Jason Bourne's mysterious story, stop reading now.

So in this film, we finally find out how Jason Bourne became Jason Bourne. The answer is so mindblowingly simple and obvious that it's a wonder it took 3 movies to get it out. How did it happen? HE VOLUNTEERED. Yeah. Astounding, eh? Basically, for reasons the film doesn't go into, Bourne, formerly known as David Webb, volunteered to become a government killing machine. He knew exactly what this would involve; that he would lose his former identity, probably not even remember it at all, and that he would basically be a tool of the government, killing whoever they wanted without even knowing why. So what happened? Well, I guess something went wrong in his programming, because it seems he woke up one morning like, "whoa whoa whoa! wtf? killing people is wrong! did i really do that? who am i? am i an evil person? holy craptown! what in the holy hell is going on?" And now suddenly, he thinks the government must be evil and corrupt to have created people like him. Typical shifting of blame, eh?

This raises some interesting points though.

One, the problem of the contract killer. Basically, the question is whether governments need people like (the original) Jason Bourne. Somebody who will go kill somebody that the government has deemed an appropriate target without asking questions or having guilt issues. Is it necessary to violate the rule of law in order to preserve the law itself? A pressing question in our current times, n'est ce pas? The movie ends up trying to claim something like, well sure, there are some people that need to be killed, but there ought to be a WHOLE LOT of oversight and double checking to make sure the right people are getting capped. Also, maybe the people doing the killing shouldn't be trained killing machines who won't feel guilt or, you know, have identities. At one scene at the end, Bourne/Webb looks at the dude aiming a gun at him and says (something like): "Look at what they're making you do. Do you even know why you're supposed to kill me?" Does the film really intend to suggest it would be a preferable state of affairs if government assassins were fully informed about their missions and had the opportunity to evaluate whether it was _really_ a good idea? Because, um, that doesn't seem like a very good idea to me...

Secondly, the problem of action versus identity. Are we what we do, or do we have some kind of essential core of identity that is separate from, albeit occasionally reflected in, action? And of course, how much can a person really change? (a question handled far more brilliantly in the incredible History of Violence, by the way) In other words, is our poor tormented hero a bad guy, just because he's done a lot of things that he now thinks of as awfully bad? Does that fact that he was programmed to do them make a difference? Does the fact that he volunteered to be programmed to do them make a difference? The movie doesn't have much to say about that, though I suppose the idea is that Bourne is redeemed by blowing the whistle on the bad guys. Whether or not it'll turn out that he just can't help but kill people when he gets pissed off remains to be seen.

All in all, a fun little movie.

11 August 2007

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

The genius of Gary Shteyngart is the way he manages to perfectly embody a particular worldview. He's the poster child for the cosmopolitan postmodern subject, cheerfully irreverent in his blending of cultures, relentlessly hip* and up-to-date on the latest technological developments and cultural trends, blending crude jokes and pop culture references with highbrow theoretical banter, ironic in that delightful way that manages to both adore and poke fun at his object simultaneously, yet with a kind of touching naivete at the same time. Probably I love it so much because it's so close to my own worldview, but there you have it. A novel that refers to DJ Assault's "Ass-N-Titties" as a seminal work in the genre of ghettotech is bound to win me over. The juxtaposition of a series of cultural groups that many would consider distant from each other is delightful. To illustrate: "Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice-T do in this situation? I reached for my mobilnik, ready to dial my Park Avenue analyst, Dr Levine, to tell him that once again I had been insulted and injured, that once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian."

Shteyngart indulges in a loving, but cynical adoration of America and all that it represents. Another marvelous quote: "This is what happens when you don't learn English, by the way. You're always at a loss for words." What I particularly appreciate about this is the way that he positions himself as the outsider who insists that he is a native. He has the exile's perspective, the doubled vision that allows him to truly appreciate what it means to be American, an awareness of things that Americans take for granted. Yet he proudly embraces this American identity, while nonetheless being well aware that to do so is to indulge in a kind of immorality, to partake in an arrogance that is normally sustained by ignorance. At the same time, he points out that ignorance at every turn, poking fun at it while marvelling at its effects.

So this is the genius of Shteyngart, but sad to say, it works far better in his previous work, A Russian Debutante's Handbook, than in Absurdistan. Because while the prose is delightful, Absurdistan just isn't a very good book. It's sort of like Confederacy of Dunces imagined as political satire. Problem one - the usual issue of whether or not one has any sympathy for the main character. It's hard to have your main protagonist be grotesque and not particularly likeable. But Shteyngart is trying to have it both ways; it tries to force the reader into that position of doubled irony, and it just doesn't work. I can't bring myself to genuinely care about Misha, because at the end of the day, I don't really like him. This means that much of the book's action is robbed of its emotional force, and therefore its momentum. Problem 2 - the political satire bit is sort of limp and uninteresting. It's not really doing or saying anything new, so the potential political critique is pretty blah. Problem 3 - the metameta irony can be a bit tired at times. Making himself the villain in the book, for instance, is amusing at first, but then gets kind of irritating.

So at the end of the day, reading this book is sort of like hanging out with someone really cool while doing something really boring. If you're trying to decide whether or not to read it, think of it this way - if a friend of yours called you and asked if you wanted to go spend 6 hours standing in line at the DMV, would you go?

* Ever since I saw a movie advertised as "relentlessly original", I've fallen in love with this preposterous use of the word. Try it, it's fun.

01 August 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

I will try not to put any serious spoilers in this post...

Holy cow, this book sucks. Seriously. I enjoyed the previous ones. They were good stories, definitely pageturners. Not particularly brilliant prose, but told the tale fairly well. The books were well organized and the characters were pretty well fleshed out, which, given the increasing size and scale of the works, is no small feat.

But this book, on the other hand, seems thrown together. The sequence of narration seems arbitrary, as though Rowling occasionally got bored with the plot and decided to throw in 50 pages of reminiscing from one of the characters instead. The various problems and concerns of the characters have a totally haphazard feel to them, which negates the emotional tension they attempt to produce. It's not that there's too much going on - I wouldn't say that the plot is really that much more jampacked than the earlier books - it's just messy and far too dispersed. The attempt to create suspense by deferring full disclosure of information to the end of the text fails miserably, because there hasn't been enough information given early on to lead the reader to actually care.

Meanwhile, the didacticism of this work, the petty general moralizations, are so blunt that the plot comes to serve as a clumsy device to illustrate how important it is to be a good person. Except that rather than illustrating it, it just tells you over and over.

What I found most puzzling though, were all the veiled references to Nazism and German history. Sure, there's the obvious obsession with racial purity and requiring those with "alien" blood to register, but what about Nuremgard prison, or Durmstrang? Why do a little worldplay with a German Romantic movement? What kid is gonna get that? Shit, most adults won't. Yet I simply can't believe it's coincidental. Did Rowling think she was making the book more powerful, more monumental, by burying references to WWII in it?

In any case, sorry guys, but it's a stinker. Incidentally, the latest movie isn't so hot either. So much for Pottermania, eh?

16 July 2007

300

Man, when it comes to ideology, holy crap, this movie is so broken. Wow. Who knew that racism could look so damn cool?

Because, it must be acknowledged, visually the film is absolutely stunning. Some have complained that there are so many effects that the whole thing might as well be animated, but really, it's a gorgeous tribute to the comic book origins. It's basically the same aesthetic as Sin City, but I think it's far more suited to warriors, Mediterranean landscapes and Orientalism than to nouveau noir. So on appearance alone, A+. As for the rest though...

So, I was telling my dude about the movie, and how fucked up it was, that it depicts a small hang of white Greeks taking out a shit-ton of minorities, and his response, which totally stumped me, was "Well, isn't that pretty much how it went down?" well... Yes, actually. Huh.

Ok, so if one is making a film about a conflict that was very much racialized, is it just historical accuracy? Well, no. And here's why. Because there are different ways of telling this tale, different meanings to emphasize, different ways of making it relevant to our times. To me, what is fascinating, and inspiring, about the battle of Thermopylae is the sheer logistics of it. It's fucking amazing, and totally worthy of a feature film. But the makers of this film did not share my belief, it seems. Rather, they wanted to emphasize the military culture of Sparta, the notions of honor, tyranny and decadence, heroism, etc. And because the film is so invested in looking dazzling, it goes into overdrive milking the multiracialism for all it's worth in an all-out Orientalist fun-fest. This is not done, however, to celebrate diversity, but rather, to deck out some stereotypes and slaughter them.

Of course, there is a temptation to read the film's pro-logic Spartans as a stand-in for America fighting the exoticized Other. Slavoj Zizek, in his article on the film, points out that in fact, it can just as easily be read as an allegory of the Taliban defending itself against US domination. I would argue that either reading is too facile - in fact, if one reads about the making of the film, it seems that a paramount concern was to avoid making a movie that would be seen as political commentary for our times. The success of this is attested to, I suppose, by a conversation I overheard while leaving the theatre, where some Cornell students pondered which one of the characters was supposed to be Bush. However, the film certainly seems to valourize a sort of stoic rationalism, and most certainly celebrates the Hollywood/Fascist aesthetic of the athletic body. Moral stature is clearly written on the body through boils, humps, piercings, and deformities. The body is basically an instrument, which, though it can be used for pleasure, should ultimately be at the service of the State, as seen when Leonidas' wife unhesitatingly drops her dress and surrenders herself as a bribe. Then, of course, there's the latent paranoid heteronormativity - the Athenians are boy-lovers and thespians, the Persian Empire seeks to penetrate the impenetrable Spartans, Xerxes demands that Leonidas be on his knees, and let's not forget that glorious scene where the tyrant stands behind Leonidas, seductively rubbing his shoulders and demanding servility. And then there's the racism, still - as a friend of mine pointed out, despite the apparent multiculturalism, and the presence of black characters in the beginning of the film (with some imagery that's straight out of Kipling and Little Black Sambo), when it comes to battle, the Africans are represented by - are you ready for this? Elephants. "From the darkest corners of the empire" come these beasts to do battle. Really just wow.

Now, of course one can mount certain defenses here. To begin with, the narrative perspective of the film is resolutely Spartan. This is made explicit by a rather obnoxious narrator who is regularly interjecting stock mythologization. This explains why the film is so overloaded with this obnoxious discourse about the value of reason, and how freedom has a price. The question is, does the film endorse these views? Are we meant to identify with the Spartans? I'm not sure. There is, for starters, the emphasis on the brutality of Spartan culture and upbringing, that Leonidas was raised through violence and can think in no other terms (though we note that the way he educates his own son is far more gentle - a contradiction that robs the potential critique of much of its power), and then there's that one curious moment, as the Spartans are going around converting the wounded into the dead with their spears, and Leonidas says, "we wouldn't want them to think we're uncivilized!" Now, this can be read in a number of ways. Is the irony located in the apparent disjunct between a group of savages assessing the civility of the Greeks, or is it rather that we, the viewers, are meant to see the irony of these brutal killers trumpeting reason and civility? Perhaps the Spartans aren't so great after all? It's hard to say. Certainly, to read the film in an ironic mode requires a will to interpretation that the average viewer may well lack.

In any case, I had a good time watching it. I eagerly await the sequel, where the beleaguered Greeks travel to North America and take out whatever remaining non-white, decadent, crippled and otherwise eugenically unsuitable groups they can find.

02 July 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

So, I went and saw this movie last night, and it was so incredibly awesome that I was rendered totally speechless. For a good 20 minutes or so, I wandered around, dazed, just saying "Oh man. Oh man that was so great. Oh man." People asked me about it today, and all I could do was stammer, "Dude. Dude." My friend Sean asked me if I was going to write a review and all I could think to say was "Holy shit that was the greatest movie ever." Faced with this crippling incoherence, I did the only thing I could do: I went and saw it again.

Seriously, this might be one of the greatest action movies ever made. It is mindblowingly fantastic. Every few seconds, something rad happens, and you think, wow, how are they ever gonna top that? And then they do. Over and over and over. It has subtle visual references to just about every great action movie ever made; from Schwarzenneger to Stallone to Will Smith, executed, for instance, in brilliant moments of composition that elegantly cite climactic sequences from the cinematic badass canon. The plot develops gracefully into an explosive finale, with the action sequences gradually building up, repeating the kinds of maneuvers executed earlier, but on a much larger scale. It's a symphony of awesome, fist flying, cars soaring, walls of flame licking the bloodied faces of the protagonists. It has pretty much everything you could ever want in a movie of its kind (well, except for Samuel L Jackson. And snakes.). Armageddon, hackers, fighter planes, semis, helicopters, badass guns, incredible fighting skills, hot women in lowcut shirts kicking serious ass, massive explosions, cheesy one liners, witty comebacks, crude insults, plotical critique, patriotic rhetoric, romance, family tensions, sarcasm, carnage, destruction, mayhem - you want it, it's there. Scenes that in other films would be filler, connecting points to keep the plot going, get pumped up and rendered exhilarating.

The people in this movie are so incredibly hardcore. Some might complain that the necessary suspension of disbelief weakens the film - they are morons. I'm watching a goddamn action movie. If a dude falls out of a helicopter from 100 feet up, bounces off the concrete, and gets back up, I am appreciative and impressed, not nitpicky.

I will grant you that at times the dialogue could be a little bit stronger. Fair enough. There's some discussion of what it means to be a hero that is a little cloying, especially on the second viewing. But I think that if this movie had been any better, my mind would actually have melted, so it's probably a good thing that it had those slight flaws. Otherwise the viewer would ascend directly to heaven upon entering the theatre. It'd be like The Rapture had hit.

I think I might go see it again tommorrow.

26 June 2007

Black Snake Moan

I know, I know, I'm always sayin' oh man, this movie was weird. But seriously, this movie was weird. WEIRD. I have no idea what to make of it.

So let's begin with the basics, the plot. Justin Timberlake, who has a serious anxiety problem, heads out of town to enlist, leaving behind his girlfriend, the demented blonde Christina Ricci. She's got a history of abuse, and some kind of strange disorder where every so often she starts twitching and copulates with anyone in arm's reach. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson has just been jilted by his wife. He finds Ms. Ricci beaten up and left for dead on the road by his house, and takes her home to fix her up. Then she has one of her twitchy episodes, and he thinks maybe she's possessed by Satan. Then he finds out she's been giving herself to anyone who'll have her, and proceeds to chain her up in his shack for her own damn good. Ok. So the film kind of chronicles these bizarre messed up people who end up fixing and comforting each other, sort of. Now, what's strange about this is the blend of ultra-violence, sex, and psychobabble. No clue what to make of it. Is Ricci's horrific abusive past a kind of metaphor for Satanic possession? Then how do we read Justified's panic attacks? Is Jackson actually a devout believer? Does he undergo some kind of conversion over the course of the film? Does Ricci exorcise her demons? What kind of narrative/symbolic work are the interjecting reflections on the blues? Is there a moral to this story? I mean, other than a kind of bland, look at how people, even messed up people, can end up supporting and helping each other? Is there a point? Is there a more compelling reason for showing all the messed up sex scenes, other than a kind of pornographic voyeurism? Isn't it odd how race both is and isn't an issue? Shit, when is the movie even set?

That said, while it does drag at times, the movie does keep you on the edge of your seat. The fact that Ricci spends most of the film in a very very small top and some panties doesn't hurt. The opening sex scene between Ricci and Timberlake is H.O.T. The cinematography is amazing. Samuel L Jackson is pretty goddamn great. Justified does just fine, Ricci is hot, but a bit cartoonish.

All in all, a really, really strange movie. I have this sense that there's a clear, step by step explanation of it all that I'm missing. If you know it, please, share.

19 June 2007

Puccini for Beginners

You know, you can get away with an awful lot if your characters are extremely likeable. Because after all, when you're watching a movie, you're basically spending time with a bunch of fictional people. So if you like them, you'll probably have a good time, even if what you're doing isn't that great. It's kind of like hanging out with a good friend of yours and listening to him/her tell and long story that isn't really that interesting, but you don't really care, because you're just sitting around shooting the shit with someone you care about.

This isn't to say that Puccini for Beginners isn't an entertaining flick. I enjoyed it mightily. But it's basically a cheesy romantic comedy, except with lesbian sex and occasionally cerebral dialogue. It's sort of like Sex in the City for bisexual intellectuals. I suppose your average viewer would find it incredibly pretentious to have the main character strolling down the street musing about Freud's views on coincidence, but I, of course, loved it. Not that the ideas were particularly profound; they were just nicely packaged in some intellectual evening wear. You could say the same thing without namechecking Freud and it would come off as standard rom-com cliche, and probably placate people who felt that the movie was just trying to be snooty and elitist, but goddamnit, give credit where it's due, eh?

The movie follows a young woman named Allegra who, after a rather unpleasant break-up, falls into a relationship with a philosophy professor and, coincidentally, also finds herself sort of cheating on him with his kind of ex-girlfriend (played by a very cute Gretchen Mol). Though none of them realize this until late into Act Two of the film. Allegra is absolutely charming. You can't help but like her. She's smart, witty, and has that kind of helpless flighty nature that makes her seem adorable even when she's being a total asshole. She never really means to harm anyone, she's just kind of self-centered and inconsiderate sometimes. In a way, she acts like the stereotypical "average guy" - a fact that the movie does not neglect to point out. Incidentally, she's also supposed to be a lesbian, so this whole relationship-with-a-guy thing kind of freaks her out, and leads to some nice reflections on sexuality and its stereotypes. It's well done, though again, could strike the average viewer as overly intellectualized. To me though, it seemed to strike just the right balance, not too anguished, maybe a bit narcissistic, but really just kind of enjoying the juxtaposition of theory and practice. Then again, I am often told that I overanalyze things, and especially things of this nature.

The film also has the whole "love story in and about new york city" thing going, but this is also done quite well. Random strangers offer commentary on the action - most delightfully, 2 sushi chefs; where, incidentally, the film earns extra points by actually having new yorkers speak foreign languages, a nice bit of realism - or give Allegra advice. I suppose it's a cheap trick, but it's kind of a sweet way of capturing the odd spirit of the city.

The film has been compared to early Woody Allen movies, and certainly the influence is there, with the New York thing, the coincidences leading to hopelessly tangled romantic debacles, the characters busting out fifty cent words like "pulchritudinous", and well-meaning but highly self-centered cast, but still, it's no Annie Hall. It's a fun movie, but ultimately, the characters are just a bit too good to be true, especially in terms of their blase attitudes about their own sexuality, and the plot works out just a tad too neatly. It doesn't quite manage to strike the delicate balance of Woody Allen at his best. All in all though, a fun movie.

10 June 2007

Once

It's somewhat surprising that I enjoyed this movie, given that I really wasn't that into the music, and it is, after all, a musical. But I really have to be in the right mood to appreciate heartfelt singer/songwriter type stuff, and the tracks in this film were a bit too Damien Rice for me. Still, though, I did think this was a worthwhile movie, at very least because it was an interesting take on the genre. Perhaps some of my appreciation also came from the fact that it's set in Dublin, and many of the scenes happen literally around the corner from the hotel I was staying in, so it was nice to be on those streets again. But anyhow, it's a curiously difficult film to describe. It's sort of a musical, and the two main characters sort of fall in love, and it's sort of a happy ending... this isn't to say it's waffling, it's just sort of understated.

In a way, it's kind of about how sometimes two people can be kind of perfect for each other and still not end up together, but that's ok. Even if, perhaps, they would be happier together. The final scene, of the female half of the ill-fated couple sitting at the piano given to her by the male half and gazing out the window as her husband, whom she maybe loves, but not as much as she maybe loves this other guy, plays with their child in the dingy apartment that she shares with her mother, is not so much tragic as it is wistful, yet resigned. Or perhaps better to say, accepting of the current state of things, and grateful for the beautiful moments of the past.

The musical aspect is interesting. The film has been described as a musical for people who hate musicals. I suppose this is because it doesn't have that obnoxious musical quality of everyone suddenly bursting into song and dance numbers in ways that require a strenuous suspension of disbelief. The music is pretty well integrated here - I mean, it's about two musicians for goddsakes. Still, and maybe this is because I just wasn't that into the songs, I didn't feel that it really contributed to the development of the story. I suppose the idea is that these two people express their feelings for each other through the music, but really, it comes across more through the lovesick stares they cast at each other. Come to think of it, I guess that's part of the point - that these characters are so guarded and careful in conversation, but then they really let loose and get all earnest and angsty when making music. But the thing is, I liked them more when they kept all that emotional turmoil to themselves. Their seething inner lives, as conveyed by sounds that occasionally verged on caterwauling, were kind of off-putting. The disjunction between the two was a bit too jarring for me, I suppose.

The character development is sparse, and there are some rather odd scenes that ultimately don't really fit - the opening, for instance, where the protagonist is robbed, chases the guy down, gets his stuff back, and ends up giving the thief some change. I mean, its a cute scene I suppose, but...

Yeah, so in the end, I guess I wasn't as wild about this movie as I originally thought. Hmmm. Worth seeing for it's experimentation with the genre of the musical, but if you really want to enjoy it, get yourself in the proper mindset for some heartfelt, wringing-every-drop-of-emotion-out-of-vocal-chords-that-aren't-fully-suited-for-the-job type of music.

02 June 2007

All That Heaven Allows

This movie got remade a few years back under the title Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore, and was a big hit. Having seen the original, let me tell you what, the remake is crap. This is one hell of a movie. It's the story of a widowed housewife who falls in love with the guy who prunes her trees. Unfortunately, it's the 50s, and nobody is really down with cross-class relationships.

So it's a tricky situation. That people will say vicious things about her behind her back and stop inviting her to cocktail parties if she marries Rock Hudson is one thing, but that her children will cut her off is another altogether. One is tempted, in situations like this, to say, well, screw the haters, do what you want. The incredible thing about this film is that it shows you how selfish such a decision is. Which isn't to say that it might not be the right thing to do.

What really makes this movie a masterpiece, in my mind, is the way that it depicts the fundamental powerlessness of the protagonist. She has almost no agency over her own life. It's not just that she is a member of a snooty upper class that has rigid rules and expectations and relentlessly punishes those who fail to conform; it's also that she has followed a certain path in her life, and it's not easy to deviate from it. And while this illicit love affair looks like a chance at freedom, it's not, really. Rock Hudson is a rebellious kind of guy who lives on the outskirts of society and has an "I do what I want attitude", but the thing is, there's no in-between with this guy. If our heroine takes up with him, it's going to be on his terms. He's completely unwilling to compromise - he's not going to meet her half-way. So basically, she can choose her prison. Some may be more pleasant than others, some might not feel like a prison, but at the end of the day, she's not really in charge.

Part of the reason why the movie works so well is because the main character, played by Jane Wyman, is so incredibly likeable. She's a lovely person. Smart, curious, cheerful, friendly, beautiful, and generally wonderful. She deserves the best. She deserves to be happy, and she doesn't ask for much to be so. But the world she lives in is an awfully cruel and harsh kind of place. And she's somewhat aware of this, and upset by it, but she never wallows in self-pity. She's a fighter. She's tough. She's amazing.

There are some cheesy aspects to this movie. A product of its times, it can't quite resist certain somewhat silly symbols, but you know, I kind of enjoy them. They operate rather cleverly as metaphors, I think. The young deer prancing around Hudson's house is a bit much, but the startled bird that suddenly takes flight at a moment of sexual tension is quite elegant.

Also, there are some lovely moments of dry humor. The supporting cast is portrayed with a sense of irony of the kind one finds in the novels of Jane Austen, or George Eliot. Wyman's daughter, a self-righteous prig who constantly quotes Freud, is particularly delightful in this respect. The old fuddy duddy who also makes a move on the protagonist is another good example.

Finally, there's a rather incredible subtext about the rise of tv in American society. Everyone keeps telling the heroine to get a tv because she's so lonely, and she constantly reiterates that she doesn't want one. And when her children buy her one on Christmas morning, it becomes this horrifying spectre in the living room, symbolizing, to me at least, the terrifying loneliness and boredom of these women, trapped at home with nothing to do.

Really, an incredible film. There's a good reason it's a classic.