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.