31 December 2008

Towelhead

Coming of age stories have been done to death, so I suppose you can't blame people for trying to spice it up with a little controversy. And in some ways, I suppose this is a brave, and relevant movie. Unfortunately, it's also terribly written and riddled with painfully stereotypical characters.

I have to give Towelhead credit for being bracingly honest about the sexual awakenings of young women - within the first 20 minutes of the movie, the main character has masturbated to orgasm. Ok, kudos. Unfortunately, this movie suffers from the same flaws that a lot of other works that depict graphic sex do - it can't have graphic teenage sex without having plenty of disturbing, abnormal sex as well. It's like some unwritten law of movies, that any teenage girl who enjoys masturbation and is willing to have sex with her boyfriend MUST also be sexually molested AT LEAST once. Actually, pretty much every male in the movie (with one exception) is obsessed with sex, from her touchingly eager boyfriend to her anguished molester neighbor, so with all these sexual predators trolling around, it'd be a miracle if Jazira DIDN'T get molested. The movie, in what I suppose is an effort to be complex and controversial, makes her a somewhat willing, albeit confused and scared, participant in these events. It's disturbing, and unpleasant to watch, and all for what? 

It's a pity, really, because there's actually a kind of a clever sub-plot, where Jazira dreams of being a Playboy model. This could have been a subtle, playful, interesting way to explore teenage desire and cultural hypocrisy (there's a great scene where she and her friend go to get glamor photos done at the mall). But instead, it got saddled with molesters and trauma. What a disappointment.

But that's not the real problem with the movie. The real problem is that pretty much all the adults in it are cartoonishly awful. Her mother's boyfriend molests her, her mom then tells her it's her own fault, her dad is stereotypically horrifically strict and vicious, and her neighbor - although very well played by Aaron Eckhart, or at least, as well as possible with such a terrible script - is a racist pedophile. Actually, equally preposterous are her neighbors, who are practically saints. Which actually, I didn't mind as much, because hey, it's always nice to have positive role models, but it's part of how ridiculous the whole movie is. 

And then there's the racism, both of the people in the neighborhood towards Jazira and her father, and (the sadly predictable) racism of her father towards her black boyfriend. Which is all pretty much about as cliche as it gets. 

The last 15 minutes of the film are slightly more interesting, in that all the tensions of the film come to a head, but it's also kind of preposterous. You've got to love (SPOILER ALERT, SORRY, I CAN'T RESIST) a girl who tries to make amends for getting her rapist arrested by handing him his deep-frozen dead kitty that her father ran over, and after all the grimness of film, it's kind of touching that it goes for such a super-duper über happy ending. It's so outrageous that I actually kind of loved it. 

But it's still not a very good movie.

29 December 2008

Rachel Getting Married

This movie, hailed as incredible upon its initial release back in September, is enjoying an extended run and a spot on many Best of 2008 lists, so I figured it was finally time for me to check it out. Obviously, I had rather high expectations, so I was surprised when, an hour into the movie, I found myself constantly checking my watch and desperately hoping it would end soon. It was boring. And then I thought to myself, why on earth did I want to watch a movie about a recovering drug addict thrown into the mix of her sister's wedding? What made me think this would be interesting? But a few days later, oddly enough, I found myself relenting, and appreciating the movie more and more. It's actually kind of fascinating. But it's still somewhat boring.

The plot is pretty banal. Kym comes home from rehab for her sister's wedding. Kym is a self-absorbed nightmare. Weddings are somewhat nightmarish in and of themselves. But they're also supposed to be joyful happy times, and, big surprise, this one is too. The process of everyone in the movie coming to terms with the premises and gradually becoming better people isn't nearly as ham-fisted as it tends to be in such things. And the movie certainly is remarkable in portraying its characters in a deeply sympathetic way, but without shrinking in the slightest from their faults. They appear at their best and their worst, and you may not like them very much, but at very least they're pretty realistic. Well, maybe slightly on the saintly side - personally, I would've let Kym have it a lot earlier in the film, but hey. 

I think what's most interesting to me about the movie is the way that early on, there's this really elegant juxtaposition of two scenarios - an AA meeting and a wedding rehearsal dinner, or more specifically, a series of wedding toasts. I loved this, because it very subtly points to how similar they are. Both are situations in which people are called upon to stand up in front of a large group and relate somewhat humiliating things about themselves and/or others. But, because it's a socially sanctioned thing, nobody is actually really appalled or offended by the related events, and people are, for the most part, not actually ashamed to relate them. The similarities are striking, but then - and this is kind of brilliant - Kym delivers a toast that adhere more to the conventions of AA than to that of a wedding, and you realize the difference. Weddings are all about the people getting married - AA is all about you. A somewhat trivial conclusion, but the process of getting to it - for me at least - was quite interesting. 

But that's the thing about the movie - scenes like those described above are conceptually interesting, but not much fun to watch. Boring at best, cringe-inducing at worst, it just doesn't make for entertaining screen time.

There's another interesting aspect to the film that I haven't really thought about much, namely, the wedding itself. Some friends of mine found it obnoxious in its insistently interracial, intercultural, so-liberal-it-hurts-ness, whereas A O Scott, in his review, seems to suggest that its utopian aspects are part of a delicate balancing act in the film between joy and despair, sentimentality and melodrama. He points out that, for all its seeming naivete about cultural division, it comes across as remarkably realistic, which is true. Which isn't to say that I loved it - I really appreciated that the interracial aspect wasn't that big of a deal, but the whole smorgasbord of cultural traditions wedding was kind of annoying. But it's an interesting aspect of the movie that deserves more thought.

So ultimately, is it a good movie? Yes. Do I recommend it? Kind of? 

Netflix recommendation program competition

You may have noticed how often I watch movies purely because Netflix recommends them. I was of course aware of the million dollar competition to improve their recommendation system, but Martin just forwarded me this fascinating article that describes the problem in more detail. Interesting stuff.

25 December 2008

Frost/Nixon

I was unfamiliar with the story of the interviews, and actually, I'm shamefully ignorant of American history as well, so I wasn't really prepared, in a sense, for this movie. But I was absolutely blown away. It's an incredible film, complex, fascinating, thought-provoking, and quite timely and relevant to current politics. 

First off, the acting was absolutely phenomenal. Frank Langella, in particular, was absolutely riveting as Nixon. One of the impressive things about the movie is the way in which it manages to convey a deeply human sense of Nixon, without excusing his behavior at all. He's a lovable old eccentric, yes, but he's also a criminal. 

The pacing of the movie is excellent, as is the blend of gravity and humor. I laughed out loud multiple times (occasionally though, I seemed to be the only one in the theatre who did...), but also found myself on the verge of tears at moments. Emotionally, it was an incredibly gripping film. 

I think that one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is the way that it reflects on television - how it works, what it does, the role it plays in society. As is pointed out in the movie, tv can do things that an investigative journalist, or even a trial, can't. The movie attributes this ability to the power of the close-up, which is really interesting. In a sense, it's that tv has the power to enshrine a particular moment. The film further remarks that it's a power to simplify and essentialize everything to that given moment, and make it stand for the whole. You can have 20 hours of crap for 10 seconds of profundity. This is compelling, but I wonder what else there is to say about it. The importance of widespread availability, I think - that millions of people are watching - seems also vital to me. And the way in which tv seems to be for everyone, and in a way, for no one more so than for good old Joe Sixpack. The idea that it's ultimately tv that holds politicians accountable for their action is intriguing, and somewhat troubling. 

On the timeliness of the film, I think it's fairly incredible, the way the movie manages to subtly point to these parallels in the situation. Forgive me for being political for a moment, but I would argue that the three things that Frost tells Nixon that the American people want from him - 1. An admission that what he did went beyond error and into wrongdoing, 2. An apology, 3. An admission that he gravely harmed the American people in the process - apply just as much to George W. Bush. And the way the film sets up, in the beginning, the importance of due process and justice to American democracy, and the need to hold Nixon accountable, not only for legal reasons, but also psychic ones, is also, I think, fully applicable to today. One wonders whether Bush - or Obama - will grant full pardons to all the criminals of the Bush administration, and say that rather than investigating the criminal activity of Darth Cheney, America needs to move on. I sure as hell hope not. 

The only weakness of the film, I think - and I don't think I'm giving away too much by discussing it - is the late night phone call that Nixon makes to Frost. Or rather, not the phone call, but its consequences. It's plays a major role in the plot, giving Frost a brief upper hand, but I think that ultimately, it goes too far in that regard, making the final interview seem unfairly weighted. Also, in the very end when it resurfaces, it paints Nixon as a confused and infirm old man, which could easily be used to partially excuse his behavior, or at very least, present him as simply mentally unsound. That's unfortunate, and doesn't, I think, do justice to the subject, or the film itself.

Aside from that one blemish though, it's a phenomenal film. One of the best I've seen this year.

21 December 2008

The Thief and the Dogs, by Naguib Mahfouz

I wasn't that taken with Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days, though it's quite likely that it was my fault, and not the book's, but in any case, I was quite impressed by The Thief and the Dogs. In a strange sort of way, it actually reminds me a lot of The Informer and Miałem Tylko Jedno Życie - hopefully something I can think about more when I finish my PhD... In any case, what's curious about it is that it's a revenge story, but one where everything goes wrong. I don't want to give away too much, so I guess I'll stick with saying that things don't work out the way they should (in a standard revenge plot), and in the process, the whole premise of revenge is questioned. It's really kind of fascinating. At the same time, there's this kind of subtle reflection on ideals and beliefs, a quiet juxtaposition of religion and politics, and the kinds of truths they offer, that was really interesting. And then there's the socio-political element, a look at life in Egypt - something that I know nothing about, really.

The prose is marvelously evocative for such a sparse work. I tore through the novel in fits and starts during the day today* - I had a hard time putting it down. Maybe it's because I knew a little better what to expect, but I really appreciated the mildly opaque quality of Mahfouz's storytelling. Especially intriguing is the way he plays with the reliability of the narrator - the text is so close to first person that some people describe it as stream of consciousness, but in actuality, as the novel progresses you move further and further from him, and you become more aware of how his mind works, wondering, for instance, if he isn't deluding himself when he thinks he's in love, and beginning to question whether the justice he seeks is actually so virtuous. Really, quite a remarkable book.

*Ah, the pleasures of immersing yourself in a good book while traveling (I'm currently on vacation in Florida with my parents. Florida is neato! Crocodiles! Dolphins! Manatees! Sharks! Blue herons! Bald Eagles! Great food! Palm trees! What fun!). I mentioned this in my review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Really, there's something so wonderful and decadent about it. While you end up missing out on a lot of things you ought to be looking at during your travels, that book ends up being far more firmly enshrined in your memory than the ones you read at home. It's so glorious.

20 December 2008

Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Genty Explained by August Kleinzahler

My friend Dustin lent me this one, and oh boy is it a treat. It's just gorgeous. I absolutely adored it. One could call it an autobiography, but I think the subtitle describes it best - it's about low characters and strange places. The book is a collection of short pieces, some about the author's family, some about his friends, some about his opinions. Kleinzahler's prose is wonderful, and there's this marvelous tenderness in the way he looks at the world. Which isn't to say it's sappy or touchy feely, or that he loves everyone and everything. I suppose here, again, the subtitle puts it best  - gently explained. There's a bracing honesty in the book, but also a sweet affection, and periodically a touch of disdain. It's somewhat reminiscent of Bukowski, but with more elegance and less misery. One of my favorite passages, on two young ladies eating fried chicken:

I love to watch a good-looking woman eat. Forgive me. It is, I think, not so much a salacious thing as an aesthetic one. It is, quite simply, one of the spectacles in this life that I hold dearest to my heart. I did not wonder if the batter was peppery or crisp, or if the meat was tender. I didn't speculate on whether their undergarments that day were sensible or naughty. I was transported by the way they worked over their respective drumsticks.

If that passage doesn't fill you with a love of life, then I honestly don't know what will. 

02 December 2008

3 Times

This is definitely an expert level foreign film. It's for the hardcore. This is not to say it isn't a good movie, it's rather that, well, it's not for everyone. Which isn't to say that it's not a good movie. I think it probably is. But it's not easy. The pace is glacial, and it's ungodly subtle. The pay-off is there, but it's not earth-shatteringly spectacular. Watching the film isn't a transcendental experience, but nonetheless, as you reflect on it later, you find yourself appreciating it more and more.

3 Times, directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou, consists of 3 love stories, set in three different times, with the same actors playing in each. The first story, A Time for Love, takes place in 1966, the second, A Time for Freedom, in 1911, the third, A Time for Youth, in 2005. An interesting premise, and despite my occasional mild annoyance and what seemed like slightly cliche/predictable choices, quite well executed. 

What's absolutely amazing about the film is the narrative mode. The stories are told very, very gradually - each segment is 45 minutes, and for at least 20 of that, you're not entirely sure what's going on. As it progresses, your initial assumptions are refuted, and you gain an increasingly complex perspective on the characters, despite never learning much about them. It's amazing how much of the movie is told through facial expression and body language. For a person used to exposition that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it's hard, hard work. And not always rewarding as you might hope. 

Still, though, despite the fact that watching the film was equal parts work and pleasure, I have to acknowledge, despite some flaws, it's a pretty incredible movie.

25 November 2008

The Rabbi's Cat, by Joann Sfar

I had intended to spend my Sunday in dissertation la-la land, but then I decided that a good breakfast would kick-start my genius, and Harold and Ruchama picked me up to go to Chicago's House of Chicken and Waffles, Ruchama had brought this book (and the sequel) with her. After an amazing breakfast, I was somewhat incapacitated, and I couldn't resist the urge to peek between the covers. 2 hours later I was closing the book with a sigh of bliss. This book is so fabulous. I want to go out and buy copies for everyone I know. Please, please buy this book, and read it, and give it to your loved ones. It's wonderful, not in that "omg it'll change your life" sort of way, but in that "it will make your soul hum with contentment" kind of way. It's just wonderful.

The Rabbi's Cat is a graphic novel about... a rabbi's cat. After eating a parrot, it miraculously develops the ability to speak, and so its adventures begin. Although there are moments of dialogue, much of the text is actually given in the form of voice-over narration from the cat with accompanying illustrations. The cat is fantastically snarky and hilarious and generally a delight, particularly when he's learning about Judaism: I tell him that even a kitten would not buy this nonsense. He says that's what his master taught him. I tell him what I think of his master. But for all his sarcasm, the cat is also a thoughtful, loving creature, and there are plenty of moving moments in the text. Also some really interesting insights into culture shock - the story is set in Algeria, but they also travel to Paris at one point. The work ends up being a really beautiful complex reflection on love, religion, and culture. 

Also, the artwork is fantastic. Really wonderfully rendered images, that serve as marvelous accompaniments to the text. It's a really stunning example of the artistry of the graphic novel, where the images aren't just illustrations, but are themselves an instrumental part of the narrative. 

Oh, I love this book. Go buy it. 

20 November 2008

Dummy

Kudos to Netflix recommendations - I had never heard of this movie, despite its star-studded cast (Adrien Brody, Illeana Douglas, Vera Farmiga, and, in an amazing role, Milla Jovovich), and it's SO much fun. Fairly typical quirky indie fare in many ways, but done well. Definitely worth checking out.

Adrien Brody plays a shy dude who gets into ventriloquism and develops a romantic interest in his employment counselor, Vera Farmiga. Illeana Douglas, in her usual typecast sort of role, is his frustrated older sister, and Milla Jovovich steals the show as his punked out best friend who learns Yiddish so that her band can play klezmer at a wedding. All the characters are awkward and somewhat pathetic, but in that delightful charming tragicomic, over-the-top way that ensures you'll laugh, albeit with sympathy, at their various woes. There's nothing particularly profound about the plot, but it's a thoroughly entertaining film. 

18 November 2008

Clash of Civilizations of an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, by Amara Lakhous

This was an impulse buy on a recent trip to the bookstore, and it was a bit of a disappointment. This is a bit tangential, but it's such a pretty book. I thought we were destined for each other. It's got this fabulous purple cover (which, combined with the description on the back, called to mind The Westing Game, a book I ADORED when I was younger), and those oh-so-sophisticated unevenly cut pages, and it's a story about immigrants in Italy written by an exiled Algerian who hold degrees in philosophy AND cultural anthropology, and it's already won some prestigious Italian literary prize - doesn't that sound like the kind of thing I'd love? Right? 

Unfortunately, I didn't love it. The idea is clever - a tenant in an apartment building is murdered, and we're given the testimony of other people in the building (or neighborhood). It's never made clear who the people are talking to - we presume the police - but it is made clear that it's recorded dialogue, as they occasionally acquire new pieces of information while talking. So it's a murder mystery and a "slice of life" book. Fabulous. Except it's not, really.

I think the best way to describe it is that it comes across very much as a novel written by a grad student - there are lots of nice ideas, but very little subtlety. Yes, there are some sly, and quite fabulous, literary allusions (though you probably need to be a serious lit dork to pick up on some of them), but the novel also wears its politics on its sleeve, and it gets grating after awhile. The characters are caricatures. The fact that they all know each other and talk about each other doesn't create a sense of intertwined lives - it just seems repetitive. At first, the various misunderstandings between people are kind of interesting and cute, but they rapidly become predictable, usually because the author can't resist using the same trick again. 

So while it's meant to be this thoughtful consideration of immigrant life in Italy - which is a really worthwhile topic, and one that deserves more attention, and especially, more literary description (Roddy Doyle does a good job of it, I think, in The Deportees and Other Stories), this book doesn't quite live up to its promise.


16 November 2008

The Wackness

This movie was pretty disappointing, but it's my own fault really for having such high hopes for it. The premise is fabulous - Ben Kingsley as a psychiatrist having a mid-life crisis, trading therapy for pot with a kid who goes on to fall in love with his daughter. Set it in NYC in 1994 and make it an ode to hiphop, cast Method Man and one of the Olsen twins in minor roles, and boom, I'm sold. But it was not to be.

So to begin the griping, casting Method Man - genius. Casting Method Man as a Jamaican - boo. It's not that his accent is terrible, it's that there's no way I can take Mr Meth seriously when he's talking Jamaican. Sorry.

One big problem with the movie is that it drags. There are long sequences, for instance, of the main protagonist selling pot. It's kind of a nice way of putting in lots of footage of the city, but it gets old. 

Secondly, for a film that's basically a study in the emotional evolution of two characters, there's a startling lack of character development. It's all a bit flat, much like the washed out colors of the film, which perhaps were meant to give it an aura of back in the day, but ultimately highlighted the lack of depth. Ben Kingsley was strong enough to make it work, mostly, as was Josh Peck, but still, they were both barely clinging to compelling. Meanwhile, the female characters in the film weren't graced with any sort of understanding, rendering them into cold, inscrutable, and ultimately cruel creatures. Famke Janssen is almost brutal in her indifference, and the few moments where she seems, maybe, to have something resembling a heart aren't nearly enough to compensate for it. Worse yet is Stephanie, who ultimately comes off as a capricious, self-centered princess, which is a real pity, because she started off so charming and understanding. 

Then, when you think back on it, the whole movie is basically a big long sob story, these two somewhat messed-up guys who granted, are quite sympathetic, but can't really seem to get their shit together, and meanwhile life is crapping all over them, and oh boo hoo. Meh. The glimpse of redemption at the end of the film manages to be simultaneously cheesy and unconvincing. 

On the other hand, there are some fabulous moments in the movie as well, whenever it can resist the urge to spill over into cheesy triteness or pretentiousness. While it made me cringe a lot, I have to admit that it's a pretty fantastic rendition of adolescent awkwardness. When it's not painful to watch, it can actually be kind of sweet, in the standard coming-of-age sort of way. 

At the end of the day though, the best thing about the movie is the music. The soundtrack is back-to-back classics, and it's awesome. It beautifully evokes this image of the golden era of New York hiphop (no, I wasn't there for it. But that's pretty much exactly how I imagine it.), and the excitement of discovering these amazing albums that speak to you on a profound level. It's so lovely. 

But honestly, unless you're gonna appreciate the hiphop aspect of it, you can probably safely give it a miss. 

EDIT:
My friend Trevor sent me a link to this entertaining review - we're in agreement, but this version is much more amusing.

10 November 2008

Jonathan Swift and the Art of Raillery, by Charles Peake

This is a tiny little book, barely 30 pages long. It's actually a lecture that someone was thoughtful enough to publish on its own, and I'm so glad they did, because it's a delightful piece. 

It's a fairly simple work, but highly satisfying. The basic thrust of it is that raillery is generally defined as either 1. Cheerful ridicule, banter; or 2. Reviling, castigating. But these meanings, though by virtue of popular usage they may be considered correct, do not do justice to the earlier meaning - what could be seen as a lost art. Raillery, according to Swift, was a kind of reverse satire - rather than the usual satire, which appears to be praise but is actually critique, raillery is that which appears to be critique, but is actually praise. Peake explains this a bit, giving some background on Swift (who generally worked by opposites), then turns to a consideration of the simultaneous use of raillery and satire, focusing on the bookseller's dedication in A Tale of a Tub. It's not earth-shattering, but it's a nice, thoughtful treatment of an interesting aspect of Swift, and I heartily enjoyed reading it. Kudos to Mr Peake and to the publishers of this fine work. If, by some random chance, you happen to read this, please accept my thanks. Reading this book was the intellectual equivalent of receiving a nice bouquet of flowers completely out of the blue.

Oldboy

This is the most notorious of Chan Wook Park's vengeance trilogy, and I was expecting something seriously horrific. I mean, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance was pretty grueling, gorgeous as it was. So I was surprised at how NOT traumatizing this was. Maybe it's a sign that I'm watching too many disturbing movies and I've just become desensitized, but honestly, this movie struck me as a kind of ultra-violent Amelie. It's a similar kind of whimsical feel, with this chain-of-association logic to the plot, quirky characters, cheerful music, and curious settings. I dunno. 

Though I do wonder what the big deal with teeth is. Aside from how they keep getting yanked out, there were a couple random shots of toothbrushes, and overall, I feel like there was a lot of focus on dentistry. 

Really, for all its horrific brutality and misery, it was a surprisingly upbeat film. Maybe I'm just really susceptible to light-hearted music?

05 November 2008

Dogtown and Z-Boys

I'm exhausted, but I feel like I've been neglecting this blog, so...

Honestly, I dunno, meh. This movie didn't do that much for me. I mean, the skating footage was cool, and the story was kind of interesting, but overall, I was much less impressed than I expected to be.

I suppose what was fascinating about it was, first off, this idea of skateboarding as more of an art than a sport. What's emphasized repeatedly in the film is that every skater has an individual style, and how, especially in the early day, it was all about creativity and innovation, and figuring out what you could do on the board. People think of skating as an athletic thing, and it is, but it's also very much about what it looks like. Sort of like figure skating, heh heh.

Secondly, the story itself. I'm not sure what the film was really trying to say about how this group of skateboarders became international cultural icons - and highly commodified creatures - but it was definitely interesting to think about. I've been thinking about capitalism and it's creative genius a lot lately (ever since I heard about this. Wow. Really just wow.), and this movie is definitely good food for thought in that regard.

So here are these guys who live in a crappy area and skateboard a lot. They're on the fringe of society. They're cultivating their own kind of aesthetic. It doesn't seem to be a conscious thing; they just really like skating and surfing. And then people start to get interested in them, and then this reporter writes a series of articles, with photographs, and voila, next thing you know, they're doing tours, promoting products, and generally being businessmen. And, to be fair, turning their fringe sport into a major event. Henry Rollins does a cameo and tells us about how all the kids in his snowy town were living vicariously through these guys. Tony Hawk tells us they inspired him. Ok, cool.

So on the one hand, there's the whole, what does it mean to become massively popular, and is it really a good thing? There's this curious moment where one of the guys talks about how he sort of regrets it, because it led to lots of drugs and partying, crazy stupid youth, etc. And how perhaps if he'd been better at marketing himself, things might have turned out differently. Then another guy comments, saying "Man, he could have had it all. And it's such a tragedy that he didn't". So then I wonder to myself, what does he means by `have it all'? What is it the guy could have had? More money and fame? Isn't that the part that he pretty much regrets in the first place?

Also, there's this whole issue of becoming a commodity. So these guys become massively popular, and it seems obvious to me that the major reason for this is because other people figure out there's money to be made by them being popular. So for awhile, other people are hiring them to do appearances, promote products, etc. Sure, the guys make some money, but whoever is hiring them is making WAY more. This actually reminded me of Hoop Dreams, in that again you see talented kids being exploited financially by people who pretend they're helping them make their dreams come true, and in actually don't care about them at all. But then, curiously enough, a lot of the Z-Boys seem to have figured this out and gone into business for themselves. And this, in some ways is cool - they're promoting this thing they love, and spreading it to other places, and meanwhile doing well for themselves. But still, it's a whole new thing now. At one point, a kid who's dying of cancer, as his dying wish, asks his Dad to empty out their pool and let the Z-Boys skate there. And they talk about how this is so great, because a. they have a stable location in which to work, and b. it's just them, skating, like back in the good old days. In other words, it seems to me, what they really loved all along was what they were doing in the first place - everything that followed, in many ways, wasn't nearly as satisfying. Well, except for Tony Alva, who was stoked because he got to officially be the best in the world. But then again, ahem, when you pretty much invented the sport, you know...

Then, there's this repeated refrain that it wasn't just about the skating, it was about the culture. This is particularly fascinating to me, because the culture seems to be pretty superficial - I mean, yes, there are socioeconomic factors that the Z-Boys generally share, but that's not really what they're exporting. Nor, for that matter, are they really embodying a specific set of beliefs, or an approach to the world (though the idea of skater as urban guerilla is frequently mentioned, it's also never really discussed in depth, other than some loving stories of trespassing and vandalism). At one point, they it's the attitude. But what they really seem to mean by this is a general kind of tone - a way of playing it cool. They redefined cool. But it seems to me that this is an early example of a kind of cool that is basically an empty signifier - kind of a foreshadowing of more recent commodified coolness (think Naomi Klein's No Logo) or the hyperbolically bemoaned hipster phenomenon. I mean, this is obviously a far cry from that, but, yeah, I dunno. It does seem somewhat similar, at least as presented by the movie.


Finally, there's the mythologizing aspect to it. Mythologization and commodification obviously go well together, but really, it's a little weird how nostalgic these guys are, and how much they've built up their past in these epic terms. Especially given that they don't really seem to have formed lasting, meaningful friendships, and they all basically jumped the shark the minute they had the chance to.

Some interesting material, but the movie didn't really do much with it, I guess.

31 October 2008

Conversations With Other Women

Sometimes a good gimmick is enough. I strongly suspect that Conversations With Other Women is adapted from a play, because it has the weakness that many such things do, namely, ALL THEY DO IS TALK. And have sex, ok, but really, it's a LOT of talking. And not particularly well written talking, too, though it does have its moments. If it weren't for the actors doing the talking, and the way it's shot, it would probably be a fairly dismal movie. Instead, it's an occasionally dull, but nonetheless fascinating film - definitely worth checking out.

The stars of the movie are Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, both actors whom I very much enjoy and appreciate, and both of whom do a really fantastic job in this movie. They're alternately tough and vulnerable, jealous and detached, cynical and tender, bold and morose. It's really, really well acted.

And this phenomenal acting is fully showcased by the creative way the film is done - the entire movie is in split screen, with two screens of action at once. Sometimes, both screens are focusing on the same thing, and really the split is hardly noticeable. Other times, one screen is showing you the past while the other is on the present. Sometimes you get the same event but from different angles. It takes a bit of time to get used to, but it's brilliant once you do. Particularly the moments when you see the same scene from different angles - it really makes you see how much the way that a shot is framed matters. And, related to that, how much body language affects your understanding of a scene (though I may be particularly capable of this because I was just talking to an artist friend of mine, Rine Boyer, about her latest series of works, which are all about body language and gesture). So it's a gimmick, yes, but it's a really interesting one.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because I think one of the pleasures of the film is the way that it slowly unfolds, so I'll limit myself to saying that for every hackneyed, clumsy aspect to it, there's a moment of poignancy. It's basically a love story, and while it requires a pretty serious suspension of disbelief, I think there's a pay-off in the form of these moments of encounter between the pair that are rendered in an insightful, and often touching, way. I suppose, actually, it's also kind of a movie about getting older - and in a remarkably honest sort of way, quite different from the usual Hollywood treatment of the topic. Though I wouldn't be surprised if someone disagreed with me on this, and they could probably convince me - I wasn't really focused on that part.

Anyhow, all in all, an interesting movie, if not a great one. But definitely worth renting.

22 October 2008

Lanzarote, by Michel Houellebecq

I wrote a review of Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles - which I really liked - for the upcoming issue of Caterwaul Quarterly. I believe I said something in the review about it being better than his other books, and Lanzarote illustrates my point. It's short and to the point, but unfortunately, Houellebecq's point gets tired pretty quickly - expressed once well, it becomes shrill and paranoiac upon repetition. It's a pity, because Houellebec is an excellent prose writer - though admittedly, I read him in translation - his writing is sharp and wry and funny. The first 20 pages or so of Lanzarote are great. The narrator is a cynical jerk, but oddly sympathetic nonetheless. But then the focus shifts to the usual graphic sex and "the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of all these religious freaks" stuff that makes Houellebecq so controversial. I suppose he'd argue that his self-absorbed protagonists, while they may be repellent, are not wreaking havoc on nearly so large a scale as the "religious freaks" he loves to hate, but I still find the vitriol off-putting. It reminds me of this in some ways - I'd have sympathy for the project, perhaps, if it weren't so vicious and hateful. I'm not advocating turning the other cheek or anything, but it doesn't make any sense to me to attack people for being small-minded and intolerant by being small-minded and intolerant yourself. I prefer this kind of approach, myself.

Uh... point being, I was underwhelmed by this book. Maybe it's because of all this stuff going on in politics these days (see links), but more likely, it's that the book just loses its shine half-way through. 

21 October 2008

Time Out

Having recently watched With a Friend Like Harry - a fantastic movie - and being lately immersed in spooky Gothic novels (Castle of Otranto: AWESOME. In the first few pages, a man is crushed to death by a gigantic floating helmet. If that doesn't win you over, what will?), I figured I'd continue the streak with Time Out, which purports to be a suspenseful psychological thriller about a man who gets fired from his job and can't bring himself to tell anyone, embarking on a strange double life. Netflix promised that it's "positively creepy". Well folks, it's not creepy. It's long and mostly boring and it took me a good three days to actually get through the entire movie because I kept falling asleep.

The thing is, there's not much to do with that premise. I mean, at some point, obviously, the truth is gonna have to come out. And it's kind of hard to really sympathize with the main character. Especially once he starts stealing money from people close to him. But the real problem is, the movie just drags on and on and I just wasn't at all invested in what happened next. At the same time, I felt compelled to watch it to the end, and I honestly can't say why. 

What is, I suppose, mildly interesting about the film is that on the one hand, you've got this unemployed guy who basically does nothing all day and is pretending to live this typical bourgeois existence. Not only is he pretending to be at work, but he's pretending to be there all the time, spending long hours away from home, witnessing his relationship with his son fall apart. In fact, he mostly fakes the most miserable aspects of gainful employment, the way it erodes family life. Meanwhile, the job that he pretends to have is somehow related to NGOs and developing nations in Africa. So it's kind of ironic in the Alanis Morissette-ean sense, that this guy who basically ought to be on welfare is pretending to be helping poor nations. 

The main character is totally opaque - it's strange, for a movie that seems to be invested in psychology, how little we actually understand his inner state. He's got this brick wall of a face that's completely impenetrable. I hadn't the faintest understanding of his desires and motivations. It just made no sense. Maybe that's what was supposed to be so creepy? But yeah, final answer: snore.

12 October 2008

Trans-sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian

Lately I've been thinking about how one of the reasons I love novels so much is because I like learning about the world.  This is, I think, one of the most amazing things about fiction, the way it allows you to experience what it's like to be someone, or somewhere, else. Wayne Booth has this beautiful observation, worth quoting at some length:

In life we never know anyone but ourselves by thoroughly reliable internal signs, and most of us achieve an all too partial view even of ourselves. It is in a way strange, then, that in literature from the very beginning we have been told motives indirectly and authoritatively without being forced to rely on those shaky inferences about other men which we cannot avoid on in our own lives.

What I take this to mean is that fiction gives you the sense of having a kind of knowledge about the world that is actually impossible. It's kind of amazing. 

I start with this observation as a long way of getting to the point, namely, this book. I wanted to like this book. It's a topic I find really fascinating, and important, and I was really looking forward to experiencing the inner worlds of the people involved. The center of the novel is the story of a romance between a woman named Allison and a man named Dana. They fall madly in love, and then Dana informs Allison that he is about to undergo a sex-change operation. The novel, in shifting perspectives, describes what the two of them are going through, as well as the people around them - mainly Allie's ex-husband and her daughter. 

So, there are many really excellent things about the book. I do feel like I learned a lot about transsexuality, and that it changed some of my thinking on the issue. While I've always supported the rights of people to have whatever body they choose, etc, I don't think I had ever really understood the burning desire to have the body of the gender you feel you are, and I think this book really helped me in that regard. And for that fact alone, I'm tempted to recommend the book to other people. 

I was also really interested in the discussion of sexuality in the book - the central one being, if Allison loves Dana when he has the body of a man, will she continue to love (and be sexually attracted to) Dana in a woman's body. The book actually doesn't really give you backstage access to Allie's thought process about this, which is kind of interesting. It does talk about Dana's gradually growing sexual interest in men, but Allie's feelings are curiously left aside on this matter. 

Meanwhile, the book is also really focused on the fallout in the small Vermont community where they live, which is depressing and unpleasant. But also, sadly, rather predictable. 

I guess the main problem that I had with the book was all the attention devoted to Allie's daughter, Carly, who no offense, I had damn near zero interest in. Then there was the way it was told as a kind of expanded NPR special, which isn't a terrible plot device, but for some reason, kind of annoyed me. 

The real issue, sad to say, was that the prose was decidedly underwhelming for the most part. 

But to conclude on the novel's strengths, because, like I said, I really wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did, it does have some really fascinating insights and observations on gender identity and performance which I found quite fascinating. I tend to fall pretty strongly on the gender as constructed social identity, not biological fact, side, and I'm ever fascinated in how that social construction works. So I very much enjoyed that portion of the book. 

Ultimately, I guess, it's a really noble project, and an important book in many ways. The author is clearly really intelligent and has some very interesting insights on the world. Unfortunately, the prose didn't quite live up to them.

08 October 2008

Martha Quest, by Doris Lessing

One of the most marvelous experiences one can have, I think, when reading literature, is a kind of shock of recognition - where you read a passage and think, yes. That's exactly what it's like, and I never even thought about it or realized it, but my god, there it is. It's an incredible feeling. I wrote about it a bit in my entry on Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, but that was a fairly specific, constrained kind of emotion being described. Whereas reading Martha Quest was like re-experiencing the last 10 years of my life. It was amazing, and even slightly embarrassing. The novel tells the story of young Martha as she matures from a grumpy adolescence to an even grumpier adulthood, and while I imagine that a lot of readers would find her rather difficult to get along with, I immediately sympathized with her peculiar sort of anguish. She's desperately unhappy, but equally desperately longs to be happy, and the world just never quite works out the way she wants it to. She's both fiercely intelligent and assertive and strangely passive, in a way that I think many women are. If you ever wonder why so many of the fantastically brilliant women that you know seem to date absolute clods, I think the answer is hidden within the pages of this book. 

Also, though, it's a really interesting text in terms of colonial literature, in that it's a very nuanced exploration of racial and nationalistic attitudes in South Africa before the Second World War. In that, it's a valuable text for any student of race, post/colonialism, etc. 

All that said, it's not an amazing novel. It's nowhere near as brilliant as The Good Terrorist, which I maintain is absolute genius. The plot line is fairly bland, and it trails off rather suddenly at the end - though it's part of a series, as I understand, so perhaps it's meant to encourage you to pick up the next one. But in any case, it's not a magisterial book so much as a rather brilliant character study. 

05 October 2008

Black Book

I had heard good things about this movie, and I was kind of curious to see what Paul Verhoeven, known for directing such phenomenal films as Total Recall (one of my favorites) and Basic Instinct, would do with a, shall we say, weightier topic. In fact, the result was almost exactly what one might expect - a fast paced thriller set in World War Two. The thing is though, it's somewhat problematic (to me at least) to use the position of Jews in the 1940s as fodder for your action porn.

Allow me to explain. The movie centers around an extremely attractive Jewish woman who is in hiding, then joins the Resistance, and ultimately infiltrates the Gestapo as the head boss' lover. In some ways, actually, it's not unlike Ang Lee's wonderful film, Lust, Caution. Both are lush, tense films, with lots of tension and very hot sex scenes. But while Lee's film is erotically charged, the sex scenes never lose their somewhat disturbing edge. Verhoeven's, on the other hand, are purely for the purpose of titillation. They're there to get you hot, and the risk factor is supposed to add, not detract, from that. Same goes for the violence and degradation of the movie - it's upsetting, sure, but there's a sense of relish behind it (a la Thomas Hardy) that is really kind of gross. It's gratuitous. It's not meant to illustrate or heighten the moral aspect, it's meant to excite. So you see the main character get put into all these situations where there's an awful lot of pressure on her to have sex with someone, and she does, and hey, it's all good because she seems to be enjoying it. The fact that she could just as easily not have been enjoying it is sort of irrelevant. Because, you know, that wouldn't have been nearly as much fun to watch. This way, sure she might seem a little unwilling at first, but she's just being coy. Or at least, that's the feeling that I got from it. It was war porn.

That said, it is a fast-paced and interesting movie, and the lead actress, Carice van Houten, is absolutely phenomenal. I just found it kind of strange to treat the subject matter so instrumentally - and even more irked, now that I think about it, because I bet plenty of people thought it was a profound meditation on the topic. And maybe it was more thoughtful than I'm giving it credit for. I dunno, it just weirded me out at bit. Though one interesting aspect is that the film doesn't end with the end of the war, as most such movies do, but takes the next step of showing the aftermath. This is interesting, because what it shows you is how absolutely horrific some of that aftermath was, how the "good guys" went bad. Not something you see too often. 

So it was a strange sort of movie. Also, how much fun is it to listen to people speaking Dutch? Maybe it's more entertaining if you know German, but I love the way it sounds as a language. It just makes me cheerful, I dunno.

03 October 2008

Total Eclipse

This movie was way before its time. It's kind of a forerunner to Brokeback Mountain, I think, but alas, in 1995, the world wasn't ready to be down with dudes having tumultuous sexual relationships. Or so I suspect, because the reason I waited so long to see this movie (I'm a fan of the director, Agnieszka Holland) is that it was roundly panned when it came out. And I'll admit it, what gave me that extra oomph to finally rent it was the fact that I'd heard that you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio naked (you do). But I was pleasantly surprised by the movie - it's actually really good!

The film chronicles the relationship between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, two 19th century French poets. Rimbaud is in himself a fascinating figure - hailed as a genius at age 16, he stopped writing poetry entirely after 21, took off for Africa and died at 37. I have a particular fascination with depictions of genius, especially in film - how people imagine what it's like to be a genius, how a genius' mind works, and how they attempt to portray that to a mass audience, is really interesting to me. And this film, I think, does one of the best jobs of it I've ever seen*.

2 years before Titanic, back when he actually took risks as an actor, Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Arthur Rimbaud. He's impetuous and moody, brooding one minute and laughing with delight the next. There's a kind of girlishness to both his face and figure - not that he's effeminate, rather that he's masculine in a vulnerable sort of way. He's an absolute tyrant, sweet as sugar one minute and horrifically cold the next. Repeatedly, you find yourself on the verge of thinking that he might be the cruelest person in existence, and then you remember - he's only 16. He behaves just like the average teenager. Unfortunately, he's also gifted with this incredible wisdom beyond his years. It's really well done. 

Meanwhile, David Thewlis does an incredible turn as Paul Verlaine. Affected, pompous, but also somewhat callow and sniveling, he's most sympathetic in his moments of weakness, and most monstrous when he's trying to compensate for them. His patent insufficiency drives him to viciousness and brutality - some of the scenes between him and his wife are really awful and upsetting - but there's a tragedy to him, namely, he is granted the brilliance to recognize greatness in others (a meaningful talent in its own right), but never to achieve it himself. 

The movie doesn't have too terribly much in the way of plot, and it definitely sags towards the end. But at its best, it's a seething, atmospheric exploration of the interactions between these various people, subtle and elegant. Definitely a movie worth watching.



*The usual approach is that intelligence is largely an effortless kind of thing - think A Beautiful Mind, where the numbers pop out of the wall, or Good Will Hunting where he just starts happily scribbling on the board. Alternatively, there's the freakish approach, aka Rain Man. Neither of these are particularly satisfying to me. The question is, how do you show what it's like to understand things that no one else can in such a way that everyone can understand? 

24 September 2008

I'm Through With White Girls: The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks

I HATE rom-coms. You know this. Even when I kind of like them, I hate them. I hate the way they oversimplify human interactions and make it seem like all anybody needs is love to be happily every after, and especially how they tend to feature self-centered whiners who I'm supposed to like and cheer for. So I really wasn't expecting to like I'm Through With White Girls. But the title, which apparently made some people uncomfortable (give me a break), appealed to me. I first heard about the movie via a review on okayplayer that piqued my curiosity. And you know what? I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It's one of the smartest romantic comedies I've ever seen. In fact, it might be the ideal romantic comedy.

I mean, if you think about it, romantic comedies are basically all the same - boy meets girl, they overcome some obstacles, they end up happily ever after. The art of the romcom is finding a way to spice up the stock plot while keeping the movie light-hearted and not making anyone think too hard. Often, this is done by making the obstacles really bizarre - think 50 First Dates - or by making the characters really odd - think Punch Drunk Love, though I guess that's not really upbeat enough to count as a romcom. Whatever. Find your own example. Or, you can make it a bit more profound by using it as an opportunity to reflect on some aspect of society, or love - When Harry Met Sally might - MIGHT - qualify in this category (and no, I don't like that movie either). I'm Through With White Girls takes this third path, and as it's traveling the well-worn road of the romance plot, takes the time to think about race and stereotypes.

So first off, it's quite clever and often very funny. Sure, at times the subversion of stereotypes is a little over the top - one scene in particular lines up a whole array of caricatures only to give them the surprising twist; the biker who turns out to be gay, the frat boy who turns out to be dating a very elegant looking black woman, etc. So it occasionally oversimplifies, but hey, so do all romcoms, and this one has its heart in the right place. Actually, the only surprise was that there was really no poking fun at white girls, which I was actually kinda looking forward to. The most interesting inquiry into racial stereotypes is the investigation of the clash between two black families, one upper and one middle, who are about to be united by marriage. Both sides are caricatures, sure, but it's nonetheless a good-natured treatment of both sides, full of lovable foibles. Race satire is tricky, at least for me, because if it's too bitter, it's not really funny at all and it just makes me angry and depressed (Black People Love Us) and if it's too snide, it's more obnoxious than amusing (Stuff White People Like, which at first I found funny, then it got REALLY tired). I'm Through With White Girls, at least by my standards, struck the perfect balance - amusing but thoughtful. It never got preachy, nor did it ever get overly feel-good.

Aside from the two families, there's also some consideration of interracial dating, though not nearly so much as you'd think, given the title. There's one particularly interesting moment, actually, when the main character, Jay, calls his girlfriend out for saying he looks like Gary Coleman. It's the standard cringe-inducing line, but the exchange between them is interesting: (approximate quote) "You can't tell black people they look like famous black people. We're sensitive about that." "I didn't tell black people. I told you. A guy I'd been fucking for 5 months. Besides, it was a joke!" It's a subtle way of pointing out the potential minefields in interracial relationships - or any relationships that cross lines, for that matter. Shit, maybe it's just a danger in any relationship, now that I think of it, it just takes a more readily identifiable form when it's crossing race, ethnic, or class lines. You're bound to offend the hell out of your partner at some point, it's just a question of whether they can refer to an overarching principle when they call you a thoughtless asshole.

The social commentary aside, I actually really appreciated the romance in the movie too, which was probably the biggest surprise of all. It's strikingly genuine. Both characters are likeable but flawed - they seem like real people. Actually, the same can be said of all the characters in the movie - they're extremely realistic. Even in appearance. Apparently some people complained about the white girls in the movie not being hot enough, but I guess they didn't notice that most people in the movie are pretty average looking, aside from the two leads, who are attractive but not preposterously so. They look like normal attractive people. It's refreshing. Anyways, yeah, so what's also nice is the way their relationship (and its problems) is portrayed. Again, highly believable, so much so that it almost seems mundane. So although you find both characters a little annoying, you kinda like 'em anyways, and you do find yourself hoping they can get their shit together and make it work. It's nice. I mean, I wasn't moved to tears or elation, but we all know I have a heart of ice so really, when it comes to this genre, placid, vague interest is about the best you're gonna get from me anyhow.

Let me be clear - it IS a rom-com. It's not an epic, moving experience. Rom-coms are by definition light fare, so it's hard to get really worked up about them. But it's a decidedly pleasant film, and far more intelligent than pretty much all the mainstream garbage that gets put out these days.

20 September 2008

Gang Related

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, then you know that I have a "thing" for Tupac Shakur and decided to watch all of his movies (you may recall my posts on Poetic Justice and Bullet). Gang Related was his final film, and is in many ways similar to the others. Most of his movies can be seen as investigations of evil; how people struggle to do the right thing, with a particular interest in the way their past or their milieu plays in this struggle. Gang Related is perhaps somewhat notable for the fact that 2Pac plays a cop, which apparently some people found ironic, given that he'd been arrested a number of times even in the year preceding the making of this film. But it's not really that strange: 2Pac was always interested, I think, in the blurring of the lines between good and evil, and recognized the law and its officers as occupying an ambiguous position in that dichotomy. Particularly in the case of crooked cops, one of whom he plays in this film.

Gang Related is kind of great because it paints its moral dilemmas with a broad brush. Tupac and his partner are cops whose preferred method seems to be sussing out drug dealers by selling them drugs, then killing them and taking their drugs back. It's not exactly subtle, but as Belushi puts it, hey, it's one less drug dealer on the streets. And honestly, I suspect that a good portion of Americans would agree with him on that score (Sarah Palin, for instance, recently attacked Obama by saying that "Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?"). So Tupac and James Belushi are merrily cleaning up the streets of America, until one night, they mistakenly kill an undercover DEA agent. OOOOPS. Now it's a race to cover it up quickly and in a convincing fashion. The following scenes, as they scramble to pin it on the first sleazebag they can find, are absolutely hilarious, as everyone seems to have an airtight alibi. But gradually the tone becomes slightly more somber as they settle on a drunk homeless guy as their perp. At this point, their accomplice, Belushi's stripper mistress, drops the NOT COOL GUYS. And the viewer is tempted to agree. But the film makes an interesting move from here, as the homeless guy flourishes in prison, receiving a shower, haircut, and rehab for his substance abuse. "Prison has done me a lot of good," he says. But then, the plot takes another turn, and the homeless guy is revealed to be... a goddamn saint. A rich, powerful one no less. Bwahaha. Of course he is! From here, our two heroes have one of two choices: to rush headlong into moral abyss, or to shape up and do the right thing. Belushi rather blandly picks the first. Tupac struggles with the second, hampered by the fact that he's got a few skeletons in his closet himself. And so the film works its way to its bracingly matter-of-fact ending. 

Yeah, ok, it's not exactly mind-blowing. But I was really fascinated by the way the movie alternated between exaggerated humor and a rather nuanced moral inquiry, without ever getting really heavy-handed or didactic. It was a surprisingly compelling story, and rang a serious note from time to time, but was also genuinely funny whenever the mood threatened to get too dark.

Tupac, although he's one of the more interesting characters in the film, is quite subdued. It's a performance rendered more poignant by his untimely death soon thereafter, but honestly, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you can really see how much he's matured as an actor, and how much potential he had. Much as I love his other movies, it must be admitted that he shines almost too much - he's so mesmerizing as to be distracting, and you can never really forget that it's him playing a part. In this movie, on the other hand, he finds a way to contain his magnetic charisma and slip fully into the role. One wishes that someone more interesting that Belushi were taking center stage, but in any case, it's a testament to Pac's acting abilities that he manages to stay in the background. The man was a genius. 

14 September 2008

Japanese Story

When I rented this movie, I thought I was getting a lighthearted, clash-of-cultures rom-com. I was completely wrong. Japanese Story is surprisingly moving and quite affecting, largely because of an incredible performance by Toni Collette. I don't want to say too much about the movie, because I think it's actually far more effective as a film if you don't really know what you're getting into. So I'll just say that the pacing is slow, the emotional valences are subtle,  but it's really quite a powerful movie.

What I found especially intriguing about this film is that it really feels like a short story. It's hard to describe, but there's something about the way the plot is framed. I mean, all movies have plots,  but there's something measured and specific here. It's telling you about a particular event in a very focused sort of way. Elizabeth Bowen describes short stories as being like a beam of light concentrated on one spot, surrounded by shadow, and this is what that movie feels like. I don't know if that makes sense at all, but if you watch the movie, perhaps you'll know what I mean. It's awfully hard to explain. 

I was glancing over the Netflix reviews of the movie and they're all over the map, more so than usual. I think this is because of the way the characters are handled. You don't get a lot of access to their minds; you see them mostly from the outside. So if you don't pick up on the sparse information you get about them, you'll probably find them completely flat and unconvincing and hate the movie. Personally, I found them quite compelling, but I think it's because of the actors' performances, which were really phenomenal. 

In any case, really a very interesting movie. Totally threw me for a loop. 

11 September 2008

The Dead Pool

I got a tremendous kick out of how fantastically straight-forward this movie was. Not that it was crude or unintelligent, it was just phenomenally cut and dry, proceeding in a step-by-step fashion that had you sort of nodding along going, oh yeah, ok, rather than gripping the edge of your seat. This only created problems in scenes that were supposed to be suspenseful. The famed car chase scene, for instance, borders on ridiculous. SPOILER. Clint Eastwood and his partner are fleeing from a remote control car with a bomb strapped to it. First off, I had no idea that remote control cars were so badass. Secondly, there's an unavoidable comic aspect to a miniature car chasing a full size one. Thirdly, the scene lasts for a really long time, and at no point does it seem to cross anyone's mind to try and catch the guy behind the control, who is closely following in his own vehicle. Fourthly, in the end, they don't actually escape the car. I know right?!? All that just to have it explode you anyways? wtf! I loved it. 

But really, there's a curious matter of fact quality to the movie that is really intriguing.  The murder mystery part was, it must be admitted, pretty basic and not particularly suspenseful. But that's not the only reason - it's something about the lack of character development maybe, such that everything that happens seems somewhat arbitrary, but not necessarily improbable. For instance, sure, Clint Eastwood and Patricia Clarkson can have a romance. We kind of see it coming, but then again, there's not really much in the way of romantic tension. Or romance period - the only real evidence we have of their relationship, aside from one moment when Clint comforts her after they've been attacked, which could just as easily be construed as simple decency - is that he spends the night at her house. We know this because he gets in her car, and his partner picks him up at her place. We never actually see it. It neither adds nor detracts anything from the rest of the film. Same goes, really, for the killer's lunacy. Yeah, ok, he's crazy. Not really surprising. Not really necessary, but hey, it works just as well as any other explanation, right? It's like there's a kind of meh, whatever ethos pervading the film, where the people involved wanted to work just hard enough to produce a movie that wasn't bad, but not necessarily hard enough to make something really good. It even comes through in the way that Clint Eastwood shoots people. Everything he does is careful and measured - there's never a sense that he's in a hurry, even if he's moving quickly. When he shoots people, the gun is always tilted quite low, as though he didn't feel like exerting the effort to point the gun directly at them. It should be acknowledged that the film does hold itself to a rather high standard when it comes to plausibility. There's no real funny business in the plot, unless you count the partner's past with gangs. Again, this isn't to say that it's dull, just that it lacks the over-the-top quality that most movies of the genre possess.

So it's not a great movie. But it's not a bad one either. As far as Dirty Harry movies go, you've got to admit that there are better ones. But as far as movies in general go, there are a lot of much worse ones too. 

10 September 2008

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

This book is practically required reading for anyone living in Chicago. People have been recommending it to me for ages, but for some reason I never got around to it until last weekend. The first 20 pages or so were absolutely engrossing. The next hundred or so were fantastic beach reading. And then I started to get annoyed. And by the last 80 pages, I was rolling my eyes and waiting for it to be over.

So, here's the thing - there's some fascinating information in this book. The picture it paints of turn of the century Chicago is pretty amazing. It's a really interesting story. Unfortunately, it's not told well. At first it's great, fast-paced and full of meaningful portent, and then you realize that it's appallingly formulaic. Larson, as a writer, is a one-trick pony. He just can't contain himself. He loves cliff-hanger sentences so much that he feels compelled to separate them out from the rest of the paragraph just in case you didn't realize how very important they are. Pay attention! For instance:

(...) Later, he recalled, "I told her I thought he was a bad lot and that she had better have little to do with him and get away from him as soon as possible."
For the time being, at least, she ignored his advice.

The suspense is palpable! What do you think, will she come to a bad end? OF COURSE SHE WILL! That obnoxious tone runs throughout the text. When it's not portending doomy doom, it's gloating over the 20-20 nature of hindsight with uncontained schadenfreude:

Bloom regretted his failure to copyright the tune. The royalties would have run into the millions.

Not that this is an unforgivable literary technique, but Larson wields it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Every character, every event, no matter how mundane, is given the suspenseful thriller treatment, and as a result, the whole thing becomes ridiculous. Throw in a few moments where the supposedly electrifying link between characters is pathetically tenuous and bam, the text crumples. When the Titanic reappears at the end of the book, you're waiting for Forrest Gump to jog by. 

It's a real pity too, because like I said, the subject matter is really fascinating. Turn of the century America, especially in a big city, is fascinating enough, but even if you don't live in Chicago, the events surrounding the World Fair and the way they relate to the formation of American identity is worth knowing more about. And serial killers are pretty generally intriguing. So if you think you can stomach the ridiculous writing and you're seriously curious about the topic, check it out. But don't expect the book itself to provide anything of worth besides sheer facts. While Larson is certainly to be commended for the volume of research he did to create this book, he has disappointingly little insight or reflection on what he's turned up. 

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

A strange sequence of events led me to pick up this book - I had heard of it before, but I had absolutely no desire to read it. By the time I picked it up, I was absolutely exhausted and miserable (a long story in itself, but let me just say this - don't EVER take US Airways. May they sink into bankruptcy as soon as possible - and if my experience with them is anything to go by, then they undoubtedly will.). I don't know if that played a role in my enjoyment of the book, but it's worth noting, I suppose.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's account of a really, really bad year. Her daughter is in a coma, her husband dies, her daughter recovers then falls ill again - it's awful. In the space of a week, the two closest people in her life are gone (or nearly so). The book is basically a series of reflections written later, thinking back on this time in her life. It's not exactly an appealing premise, hence my initial lack of interest in reading it, but oddly enough, I found myself absolutely absorbed. I've never read anything by Didion before (any recommendations?), but she is a marvelous writer. Her prose is highly evocative and incredibly moving. There's an intimate feel to the book that isn't just a result of its highly personal subject matter. 

It's strange to enjoy reading such an incredibly accurate evocation of grief. There's a bizarre pleasure in the sense of recognition you have, thinking, my god, that's exactly how I felt, and remembering this awful time in your own life, marveling at how similar it was to what Didion is describing. I've discussed it with various people over the last few days, and the general consensus seems to be that it comes out of a comfort in solidarity and similarity. It's nice to know that other people are just like you. 

I think the other pleasure to this book is that it's a work in progress - the author is seeking wisdom rather than offering it, thinking through her experiences in order to better understand them herself. So there are quotes from other thinkers and writers discussing love and loss and grief, and brief bits from medical journals, making the book into a kind of tapestry of ideas. Ultimately, there's not much in the way of a plot arc or trajectory, but you don't really feel the lack. I guess the experience of reading the book is kind of like having a long, in-depth and rather intense conversation with a really close friend - it's a kind of bittersweet feeling, simultaneously sad and invigorating. I suppose there is a kind of catharsis involved as well. In any case, a very good book.

02 September 2008

Tell No One

This was a funny little movie. It's supposed to be a suspenseful thriller, and it is, but the thing is, the characters are so wonderful that they almost distract you from the plot. It's really curious, actually. I mean, it's a great movie, but not at all in the way you sort of expect it to be.

The plot is basic thriller stuff - man's wife gets murdered, 8 years later he gets an email that seems to indicate that she's still alive, and meanwhile some new shit comes to light, as the Dude would say, and suddenly her husband is once again a suspect. And then all hell breaks loose.  So it's suspenseful and intriguing and all that, but by the time the end rolls around, you're kind of like, oh, well, ok. The explanation takes way too long, and is a bit overdone. I don't want to give it away, but there's a moment when a character says "But wait... there's more" and that's when you're like OK NO. RED LIGHT IS BLINKING, LET'S WRAP THIS UP. And then it keeps going, and weaves and twists and gawd, enough already. 

But meanwhile, the characters are fantastic. Well acted, and brilliantly rendered. There's an attention to detail in the film that's just fantastic. It's extremely subtle, not so much as to divert you from the plot, but enough to give them genuine depth. One particularly amazing scene involves two police officers discussing a case. As they talk, one of them interrupts the other to angrily transfer something from the trash to the recycling - it's genius. They make ready to leave, and pause to say goodbye, which is when you realize they're over at the guy's house because they've just brought some groceries to his mother and put them away for her. It's absolutely phenomenal. Then there's the thug with the Godfather tattoo and the hemophiliac son, and a strange melancholy woman in his living room. It's these little moments that really make it a great movie. They're really nothing more than moments scattered throughout the film, but they're just wonderful.

Another thing I loved about the movie was the soundtrack. My friend Tommy summed it up best: "At first I thought, well that's a strange choice... but it works..." It's hard to explain, but the effect is that the music forcefully demands to be noticed - it's not just background - but as soon as you do start paying attention to it, you realize why it's so fitting. It's really elegantly done. 

The only thing I found really irritating about the movie was that it ham-fistedly used the fact that the main character and his wife had been in love since childhood to create sentimental tableaus of children doing cutesy romantic stuff. I have very little tolerance for children being milked for sentimentality. At first it was ok, it went with the various flashbacks that filled in plot - which were effective, and well done - but then it just got annoying. Children holding hands does not make me go awwwww. The dog on the other hand, oh my gosh it was adorable. Big and fluffy with floppy ears, I loved that dog. And it's name was Nina! What a great name for a dog! 

It's funny, because it's actually a fairly gory movie - there's this one amazing female character who is creepy as all get out and man does she have a fantastic final scene - but nonetheless, I remember it as a warm, cuddly sort of movie, full of lovable characters and good cheer. In any case, recommended. As I said to Tommy over drinks afterwards, "I approve of this film."

28 August 2008

Elegy

With Philip Roth, you basically know what you're gonna get. There will be a devastatingly attractive younger woman. Against all odds, she will fall for an older man, who will be an aging Lothario who whines a lot and is incapable of thinking of anyone except himself. He will have some kind of brush with death that will lead him to reflect on mortality and the way of all flesh, and in the process, he might learn how to be considerate of others. That's the Roth way. This film, adapted from one of his novels, is no different. So it's a variation on the theme, and it has, within this category, some unexpected strengths (a well rendered older woman character, an entirely decent side-plot with the son) and some predictable weaknesses (the descent into maudlin sentimentality), but overall, if you know what you're getting into, it's an enjoyable film.

What truly sets the movie apart is the acting, which is absolutely magnificent. Everyone - Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson (god I love her) and Peter Saarsgard - are phenomenal. Really fantastic.

There have been some complaints that Kingsley and Cruz have absolutely no sexual chemistry, which is true, but I think this actually contributes to the film. The Onion review claims that this  highlights the fact that they were never meant to be together, but I don't think that's right. Rather, it emphasizes that such relationships, between older men and younger women, are never actually just about sex, no matter what either of them may say. It also makes some scenes vaguely uncomfortable in a really interesting way.

What the film does particularly well is depicting tenderness, affection and comfort. If ever my heart should break again, I want Dennis hopper to make me scrambled eggs and choo choo train them into my forlorn mouth. These various loving moments are some of the best in the film, and they go a long way towards overcoming its weaknesses - weaknesses that, in my opinion, are amply compensated by the superb acting.

All in all, an enjoyable movie. Recommended, albeit in a forewarned fashion.

27 August 2008

There Will Be Blood!

I was really ready to be impressed, I swear. I settled in for an epic sprawling gut-wrenching adventure but... I was left cold, and slightly puzzled. As the final credits rolled, I looked at my friends and was like, "Guys? What was the point?" Curiously enough, while both of them thought the movie was mindblowingly fantastic and were watching it for the second time, their answers were pretty bland. "It's about, you know, greed." "No it's not. No, it's about pride." "Well, no, but..." Now, I'm not saying that good movies are those that one can summarize succinctly, but I think in this case, part of the reason why it's so hard to say is because the movie isn't really saying anything effectively. 

To dispense with the good, the cinematography is gorgeous. Absolutely stunning. I couldn't really make up my mind as to how I felt about the camera lens getting splattered with stuff all the time, whether it was artistic or just clumsy - in any case, it was definitely distracting. And I don't think it was meant to draw attention to the mediated nature of the perspective. So I dunno. But anyhow, yeah, the shots were gorgeous, and I recall thinking a few times that they were really brilliantly framed. At other times I recall thinking gawd why are you filming this from an angle where part of the shot is obscured by trivial crap and fighting the urge to attempt to swat things out of my field of vision, but um, ok, so maybe it was a mixed bag on that front too. Hmmm.

No, but what I didn't like about the movie was the way the story was told. My primary objection was to all the gaps in the story. 10 years elapse, and then a character makes ominous reference to the occurrences of the interim but you never find out what they were. Annoying. "So you're going to tell me where you've been? As if I didn't already know?!?" Um, excuse me, but I don't know, so perhaps you'd like to fill us in? No such luck. There were plenty of moments where I was like, wait, what? Where is he going? Huh? What's going on? My companions, however, didn't have any such problems, so I'm left to conclude that this is some peculiarity of mine - the sequencing of the narrative just didn't make sense to me. So I'd be trying to figure it out, and then when I came to a conclusion it seemed awfully paltry, especially in relation to all the intellectual effort I'd put into it. 

This had the unfortunate side effect of making the emotional valences of the film entirely incomprehensible to me. I had this sense that a lot of the drama in the film was invested in understanding the inner states of the characters and their motivations and desires, and they were completely opaque to me. Therefore, I couldn't make sense of their conflicts or get all that worked up or engaged by them. I think that part of the movie centered around understanding whether or not various people were being sincere or not - whether, for instance, the preacher really believes in his sermons or not. Except that it seemed to me like this issue wasn't really raised until towards the end, so the effect was more along the lines of, oh? So he never really believed that anyways? Wait, what? So why ...? Nevermind. 

Was the acting amazing? I dunno. I guess part of me wants to blame my incomprehension on their poker faces and carefully measured diction. But again, it's entirely possible that the problem is me, not the movie.

So I suppose, ultimately, I just didn't get it. 

25 August 2008

Teeth

I had high hopes for this movie. I expected kind of a ridiculous, B-movie blend of horror and teen drama with some comedy thrown in. Which I suppose is basically what it was, but I nonetheless feel a bit disappointed. The movie is just... stupid. What's strange about it is that on the one hand, I almost want to say that it could have been so much better, but when you think about it, maybe not. I mean, the premise - chaste, pro-Abstinence teenager turns out to have man-eating genitalia - can really only get you so far. 

Still, the film starts out kind of clever, trying to bring together discourses of abstinence, anxiety about nuclear power and pollution, and an interest in horror films in some kind of intriguing way. With a bit of parodying of teen drama thrown in. But then it seems to decide that this is a bit too complicated, and just kind of recklessly starts doing stuff, mostly for the hell of it. There's this totally bizarre side-plot with the step-brother that is completely preposterous, and way too paging-Dr-Freud. And the main character is completely opaque - she's just kind of a walking talking man-eating black box. The narrative style is also really weird, a sort of meandering episodic jigsaw that never really comes together.

What ultimately annoyed the hell out of me in the movie was the fact that, aside from the step father, every male character was ultimately revealed to be a predatory jerk. I suppose the point was that you weren't ever supposed to pity the mutilated males, but I mean, come on, ultimately any male that you get to know a little better turns out to be a rapist. Though it must be said that having a teenager roofie a girl and then bust out the candles and champagne, and then! a vibrator! was kind of fantastic - I totally forgave him for drugging her first. And their sex scene was actually pretty hot. I was really bummed when he turned out to be a jerk. In any case, yeah, while the initial direction of the film seemed like this curious move to make her vaginal teeth a symbol for the horror latent in the Sexual Abstinence movement, it was totally undermined when all men turned out to be brutal jerks who clearly don't deserve to get laid, ever. 

Meh. It was a let-down. 

19 August 2008

Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson

My friend Jonathan recommended this to me. I picked it up thinking maybe I'd read the first story or two, and an hour and a half later I was reading the final page with a sigh of content. It's a snappy read and wholly entrancing. 

As one of the reviews quoted in the early pages of the book says, there's an "apparent carelessness" to these stories, a kind of distracted quality that is beautifully complimented by what another review describes as its "almost religious intensity".  The stories have a way of describing the feelings and foibles of humanity in darkly metaphysical terms. One wants to call it noir, but that's not entirely accurate. The events described seem bizarre and surreal but also, somehow, profoundly true, as though Johnson were distilling the human essence from them. For instance:

It wasn't my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she'd done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother. (102)

The plot of the stories is a series of linked episodes about the adventures of an alcoholic heroin addict, but that's almost beside the point. I mean, the fact that he's a junkie isn't THAT important or remarkable, or at least it didn't seem so to me, but maybe I was just too distracted by the incredible prose to care. For me, it was about the situations the book set up, and the surprisingly evocative quality of the descriptions. The people encountered were fantastically rendered, often largely through dialogue, and not much of it at that. 

Really, a surprising and often brilliant book. Quite recommended. 

16 August 2008

Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley

Every time I read the back of a Jane Smiley novel, I think, meh, this sounds kind of dumb, I'm just not that interested. But then I somehow start reading it, and inevitably, I get totally sucked in by her wonderful prose. It's warm and funny and poignant, and the characters are complex and interesting and sympathetic and it's just a thoroughly enjoyable experience, no matter what it's about. This is not to suggest that it's just pop-fluff fun - there's a wonderfully subtle profundity to her novels that makes them really incredible. That's the case with Duplicate Keys, and also with A Thousand Acres, and it's the case with Horse Heaven as well. 

Unfortunately though, Horse Heaven is about 200 pages too long. It's wonderful and lots of fun to read, but at some point you realize that you just kind of want it to go home now. And then you start to feel somewhat exhausted by the gigantic, sprawling cast, and to feel a bit confused and muddled trying to remember who did what when, and then when the end finally comes, it's a bit of a relief. Because ultimately, it's a huge, sprawling novel (it clocks in at 561 pages) with no one particular plot arc. And on the one hand, I really admire this aspect of the book, that it's basically like just hanging out with a bunch of people for awhile and seeing what happens to them, even if it doesn't lead anywhere in particular, but on the other hand, it also makes the cut-off point somewhat arbitrary. So even if you do like the characters a lot - and you truly do, or at least, I did - there's not really a compelling reason to keep reading once you get kind of tired. All the same though, like I said, I do respect the way that Smiley resists the urge to give everything in the text an epic feel, and rather emphasizes the quotidian nature of even the most major events of the text. It's an impressively disciplined realism, no less compelling for being under-played. 

What is truly remarkable about the book are the moments when it's narrated from an animal's perspective. It's utterly believable, and an absolutely brilliant use of indirect discourse. Rarely does one encounter a text that so perfectly insinuates itself into a creature's mind in such a marvelous and convincing way. In fact, my favorite characters ended up being horses.

Also, the book wonderfully renders its milieu, the sub-culture of horse-racing, and in such a subtle way that even days after reading it, you realize that you've actually started looking at the world in a new way, inflected by its perspective. It's the mark, I think, of truly great prose when that happens.

Ultimately, it's an enjoyable book, but not as rewarding a read as the other, shorter works. It's not that I don't recommend it, but perhaps you need to be an advanced-level Smiley fan to find it worthwhile.



Mamma Mia!

If you didn't like this movie, then I pity you, because it's a sign that you probably don't know how to have fun. Laugh at me all you want, but this movie is seriously enjoyable. Even my friend Rich (3 cheers for a man comfortable enough in his masculinity to go see this in theatres, despite being one of the only men present - so hot) who at one point said that it might be "the gayest thing ever" had a good time, and admitted afterwards that it was "actually not a bad movie". It's kind of ridiculous, it's kind of over-the-top, and it's kind of great. 

The most wonderful thing about this movie is that everyone in it is clearly having a blast. It's rare that you get such a strong sense that everyone on the screen is really enjoying themselves, but it's absolutely infectious. The second thing that I adored about the film was its untrammeled and unabashed celebration of sexuality in its many forms. You don't often get to see 40something year old women being sexual on screen, and man is it great. The wonderful thing about it is that it's not sex that's meant to titillate the viewer - it's performative, sure, but it's also wonderfully selfish - it's that I don't care if you find me hot because I KNOW I'm hot and I'm relishing every moment of it type of eroticism that you so rarely get to see, and oh how very refreshing it is. Especially because it's not the bitter, I'm hot in spite of your judgemental attitude kind of thing, it's the hey life is a party and you can stand there and be grumpy or you can come join in but either way ima have a good time type of feel. And it's not just about celebrating female sexuality, which tends to have a kind of exclusive and vaguely jaded feel, it's about everyone. Whether you're male or female, 20 or 50, you can get in on it too. 

I think, also, a big part of the charm of the film is that it's somewhat rough around the edges. None of the big stars in the movie are particularly impressive singers, nor are they especially amazing dancers, but that's what makes it so open and fun and free. 

The ABBA songs (and if you can't an enjoy an ABBA song, then we probably can't be friends) are skillfully integrated into the plot, giving them a kind of ridiculous poignancy that makes you laugh happily instead of groan. The plot is a bit melodramatic, sure, but it never really insists on being taken seriously, or gets in the way of the party. 

Goddamnit, it's a great movie. It's the very epitome of entertainment. And that's all there is to it.

Iron Man

As a disclaimer, I watched this movie on a trans-atlantic flight, which means that it was in just about the least desirable conditions imaginable; in an uncomfortable seat, on a tiny screen, in a half-awake state and as an added bonus, I was decidedly ill from the horrific food that United Airlines provided me with. Also, a warning, spoilers ahead.

Robert Downey Jr was great. He played it convincingly and really quite well, funny, sympathetic, and generally enjoyable to watch. The movie did a good job neogitated his conversion from good-time guy to heartfelt humanitarian, which was clever, because it sort of allowed it to have the best of both worlds in terms of action heroes. Gwyneth Paltrow was dull as dishwater and not particularly credible, hampered partly by the fact that her character was wholly uninteresting and not particularly believable, seeing as she was meant to be simultaneously somewhat mousy, timid and neurotic but also highly efficient. Not to mention, there was something kind of obnoxious to me about the whole secretary-who-turns-out-to-be-totally-hot thing, but that's probably because I was feeling grouchy anyhow. Though any way you look at it, the love story between them was tangential and a waste of my time. Starting with the operation, continuing with the dance at the banquet, god who cares, it was all stupid. 

Moving on to other annoying aspects of the film, I'm pre-disposed to be irritated by Afghani villains and stock imagery of villages torn by violence. Though I did appreciate the fact that the villains spoke 5 languages in contrast to the hero's one. The wholly dispensable assistant who obligingly help Starks construct an escape and then martyrs himself pissed me off, but again, I was grouchy.

I will readily admit that the Iron Man suit was sweet as hell, and the special effects were awesome. Gratuitously smashing sports cars is generally charming as well. And Iron Man didn't look nearly so ridiculous soaring through the sky as one might expect.

No, what I found weird about the movie was its puzzling vigilante message and moral dilemma. So we've got Tony Starks is this genius who develops technology, right, and although the movie makes a point of telling us that he builds stuff other than weapons, obviously the weapons are the most interesting, oh, and ps, all the rest of the development is funded by the military, so take your moral highground and shove it. Or something. Anyhow, so he goes to Afghanistan to show off some badass new weapons to the US army. He gets kidnapped by evil Afghanis who want him to build them some weapons. But by the way, they already have some, which outrages our hero. It later turns out that his company actually sold them the weapons. So he builds this awesome Iron Man suit in order to escape, and later perfects it in order to go back and kick some bad guy ass. Conveniently enough, the US military is also interested in fighting these bad guys, but Starks is not really interested in working with them, for reasons that are rather unclear. And what exactly he aims to accomplish is also never quite explained. In one curious scene, he rolls into this village where the bad guys are doing some bad things, kills most of them, and then delivers the head honcho to the people of the village so that they can deal with him. I don't actually remember what he does to the main bad guy, or if he even does anything to him, because the focus shifts to the homefront, where the main bad guy turns out to be none other than his co-boss at the company, who goes a little berserk and decides to take out Tony so as to preserve the weapons making portion of the company. Though it turns out that actually, Tony's kidnapping was actually orchestrated by this guy in the first place, in other words, the event that led to Tony's wanting to shut down the weapons building portion of the company, and generally to his conversion into caring humanitarian, was actually orchestrated by a guy who didn't have a clear motive to eliminate Starks until that conversion happened. So it's all a bit muddled.

I guess generally action movies, especially ones based on comic books, are generally walking a fine line between plot and action. On the one hand, you want to maximize the explosions part, because really, that's what we're there for. On the other hand, the plots tend to be fairly complicated and you need to have at least some explanatory stuff in order to make the characters compelling and all that. Unfortunately, comic book plots generally don't really condense well. And if you do a half-ass job, as this movie did, it really drags the rest of the film down. So in the end, it was 2 hours long, and despite a lot of potential, it just didn't quite work for me.