27 February 2008

Friends with Money

I didn't really like this movie, but I really can't tell if it's because it's not a good movie, or just not a good movie for me. Chick flicks often have this effect on me - I really can't evaluate them well. I can't tell if they're unrealistic/poorly written, or if it's just that they're true-to-life representations of the subdivision of humanity that I have a hard time understanding and am not particularly fond of. 

This movie is part chick flick, part depressing "indie gem", in that nothing really happens, and it features intensely self-absorbed characters trying to find happiness while questioning if it's even possible, but that quest mostly involves women dealing with relationships. There's an attempt to add some profundity by contemplating class issues in the process - 3 of the women are extremely wealthy while the other one is poor in the Friends kind of way, ie, despite the fact that she works a low income job and scams free samples, she also lives in a fairly nice apartment and strikes one as being pretty bougie. 

So, the characters have some interesting conversations, I guess, but I ultimately couldn't really relate to any of them. I especially had a hard time relating to their relationship problems, because most of them, it seemed to me, suffered from a problem that I think is all too common these days, namely, this notion that one's feelings matter in some kind of fundamental way. I'm not saying that feelings don't matter, but jesus, do people have to talk about them all the time? And this sense that if one is feeling unhappy, that indicates a problem with the world that must be solved, and whoever it is that's making you feel bad needs to not do whatever it is they're doing. I just find it sort of petulant and irritating. Maybe it's a kind of squeamishness or prudery on my part, but I feel like there are things in the world that people should just keep to themselves. I dunno. 

The main critique I've heard of this movie, which I think is valid, is that the friendship between the women is totally unbelievable. Most people seem to think this is because of the class divide, but to me, it was because honestly, they didn't really seem to get along that well. I mean, they weren't very kind to each other. This connects back to the point above, in that the cruelty often masqueraded as caring, or some kind of tough love, but to me, it ultimately seemed like it came out of people being unsatisfied with their own lives and dealing with it by meddling in that of others. Maybe this was the point of the film, to illustrate this casual cruelty, or reflect on narcissism camouflaged as caring, but I dunno, I mostly just found it kind of depressing. 

22 February 2008

She's Gotta Have It

People have told me that I'm a pretty harsh critic. And I know that I do have a tendency to hate on movies from time to time. But my eyes have been opened. I've been spoiled, y'all. These movies I been bitchin' about, they are MASTERPIECES next to the phenomenally awful movie I watched last night. She's Gotta Have It is one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time, in fact, maybe ever. All the more baffling, because it's hailed as a classic. The wikipedia entry on it even quotes the NYTimes as saying it "ushered in the American independent film movement". And it was a big deal, because it was a shift away from Blaxploitation flicks. Well, that's all well and good folks, and I'm glad it managed to do some good things for the world, but guess what? It's still a terrible movie.

Right from the get-go, you know you're in for a lousy time. The minute the protagonist opens her mouth, painfully trite dialogue delivered with the skill of an earnest 12 year old auditioning for her first role floods your ears. It's so stupid that I almost turned it off right then and there. It's completely hollow, and gratingly annoying. And it doesn't get any better.

The plot centers around Nola, a sassy young woman who wants to have her cake and eat it too. In this case, the cake is three guys competing for her affections. Why these guys would want to spend more than 5 minutes in her company is beyond me. In fact, it seems to be somewhat beyond them too, given their testimonials. And yes, testimonials is the right word, because for some reason, the characters speak directly into the camera half the time. Anyhow, so she keeps bangin' these dudes, without actually hiding the fact that she's doing all three of them, and despite the fact that none of them are happy with this arrangement, they stick around. To make it "interesting", they're very different guys. We have Greer, the male model who is also a raging asshole, Jamie, who is generally a nice guy, if somewhat dull, and Mars. Mars, played by Spike Lee, starts out being kind of annoying, but about halfway through the movie, Spike Lee apparently couldn't stand playing such a shitty caricature of a person and decided to make him somewhat interesting. Unfortunately, he did not accord this mercy to the other actors. It's interesting, actually, because for some reason, you have the sense that some of the people playing in this movie could actually act well if they wanted to. It's hard to explain what gives one this impression, but nonetheless, I feel the need to exonerate them for their dismal performances and blame it on the direction.

Anyhow, so after awhile, she's forced to make a choice, and refuses, and then does, and then her choice turns her down, and then he takes her back, and then she appears in the last 30 seconds of the film and tells us it didn't really work out anyhow because she's just not a one-man type of girl. Oh how very empowered. So we're exactly where we started. Thanks for taking up 90 minutes of my life. At least you could have thrown in some good sex scenes, because the ones on offer were pretty damn unappealing.

Ultimately, the movie flops because it fails to make its protagonist into anything more than an emotionally immature and self-centered drama queen who doesn't develop or change at all over the course of the film. Oh, that, and the dialogue sucks, the plot is stupid, and the cinematography is underwhelming. I understand it did good things for cinema as a whole. But honestly, I can't for the life of me understand how anyone has watched the movie and enjoyed it.

17 February 2008

The Edukators

This movie had its way with me. It's actually kind of embarrassing, how well this movie had me pegged. I was helpless against its charms. It's not that it's a brilliant movie - though it's beautifully shot and definitely interesting, its leisurely pace would probably drive the average viewer crazy, and I suspect that a lot of it would seem melodramatic and self-indulgent to a lot of people, but me, I loved it.

The story centers around 3 incredibly attractive disaffected youths. They're all smart and likeable and wonderfully earnest in their revolutionary, anti-capitalist fervor. While they arguably toe the line of extremism, they genuinely strive to be ethical people, which makes them highly appealing. Of course, the ethics of their particular breed of revolution is highly questionable - they break into rich people's houses and re-arrange the furniture and mess the place up a bit (not stealing anything) and then leave a note saying either "You have too much money" or "Your days of plenty are numbered". The movie doesn't really call this behavior into question or really investigate its more problematic aspects, seeming content to set them up as heroes in this regard, but I was willing to go along for the ride. But then, there's a twist, and they end up in a ridiculously gorgeous cabin in the mountains with one of the fat cats they're fighting against, where they settle into a delightfully contemplative companionship. There's an added twist of some romantic drama, and from there the movie basically soars happily into a blissful pastoral idealism that would probably strike the average person as preposterous, but that had me hopelessly enthralled.

Though admittedly, I was already hooked long before, for entirely personal reasons. See, the first portion of the movie is set in Berlin, which might be the closest thing I have to a home (it's a long story), and so I was just happy to be roaming familiar streets and hearing German. And the characters reminded me so much of me and my friends, even down to the way their apartments were decorated. It would have been eerie if it hadn't been so lovely, that's how accurate it was. It was like watching a potential version of my life, had I not left. So yeah, critical faculties went mostly out the window for me on this one.

But on a more reasonable level, one thing that I found really interesting about the movie was the fat cat, Hardenberg. His character is handled in a really fascinating way. You never know, ultimately, what he's really like. All of his monologues could easily be bullshit. He reminisces about his revolutionary past and how he strayed so far from his former ideals, and it all seems quite compelling, but at the same time, the movie clearly shows him to be adept in deceit. And actually, I don't think the ending of the movie sheds light on the status of his sincerity either way, which is part of what I find so fascinating about it.

I really can't say whether or not I'd recommend the movie. Part of me feels like I'd be embarrassed to - it's a fantasy so perfectly tailored to me that recommending it almost seems like offering to let someone read my diary. Also, like I said, I'm really not sure that the movie would be appealing to anyone who couldn't identify with it so strongly. Though I do think the movie does a good job of complicating its narrative with other perspectives, rather than simply setting up the protagonists as heroes in an uncritical fashion. So I dunno. If you've seen it, leave some thoughts in the comments, eh?

13 February 2008

Hannah and her Sisters

I'm not entirely sure why this movie has the status of much-loved classic, because honestly, it's pretty ho-hum. Simultaneously though, there's a kind of tenacious merit to it. While I didn't particularly enjoy watching it - not that I actively disliked it, it just didn't really grab me - I have to admit that it's a well-crafted film. There's something strange about that.

The plot seems like ready material for melodrama - you've got Hannah, the seemingly on-top-of her shit woman (who of course turns out to actually need love and support from the people around her) and her husband, who is in love with her sister, who dumps her much older boyfriend to have an affair with him. Then there's Hannah's other sister, a lovable trainwreck who ends up hooking up with Hannah's ex-husband, the hypochondriac Woody Allen who has an actual brain tumor scare. So it's a soap opera, but somehow it's not - the characters have a surprising level-headedness and depth despite their angst, and are thoughtfully portrayed. You genuinely sympathize with them, even in their less flattering moments, which is quite an accomplishment.

Then, of course, there's the Woody Allen-ness of it. The marvelous evocation of New York, which is like a beautiful love letter to the city, and of course, the Woody Allen inner monologues which, like it or not, are brilliant. He's the master of a phenomenal blend of high and lowbrow - his comedy is like fart jokes for nerds. The genius of it is to refute the notion that people who appreciate high culture are stuffy, monocle-wearing, 'oh how droll' assholes. Which also, incidentally, unsettles the idea that familiarity with the high culture canon turns one into a Great Person. What's wonderful about it is that he's NOT denying the worth of these texts, or the benefit of reading them for any given individual. Rather, he's showing that the popular idea of the intellectual is garbage, and replacing it with a more human version. Something that I (big surprise) really appreciate.

But I digress. Ultimately, the thing about this movie is that I have a hard time saying anything negative about it, and can think of plenty of good things to say about it, but at the end of the day, it just wasn't that entertaining to watch. I dunno. It's odd.

10 February 2008

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

There's something strange about reading books by writers who have a very particular style. I really like Winterson's writing, but it almost becomes cliche after awhile. The first book of hers I read, Written on the Body, blew me away, and I still think it's the best of her books. Because the thing is, you sort of have the feeling that once you've read one, you've read them all. I still enjoy reading something of hers from time to time, but I often come away feeling mildly disappointed.

What's great about her books is the curious blend of naivete and cynicism, matched by a keen intelligence for language. She's fond of clever, overarching statements like "What constitutes a problem is not the thing, or the environment where we find the thing, but the conjunction of the two; something unexpected in a usual place (our favourite aunt in our favourite poker parlor) or something usual in an unexpected place (our favourite poker in our favourite aunt)." It's charming, but it can get old. Another beloved technique of hers is re-telling fairy tales or legends from a rooted individual perspective, thus capitalizing on their mythic powers while using them to make a point. Again, lovely at first, but it can get somewhat grating, especially when they always seem to come back to the same wounded feminist moral.

This book, which I take it is highly autobiographical, starts out strong but fizzles as it progresses. It begins with the life of a precocious young girl in a community of religious fundamentalists, and is quirky and lovable. But then it gets increasingly bitter as the girl discovers her lesbian tendencies and is cast out by her family. The problem, I think, is that the material hits too close to home for Winterson, and she's unable to maintain a narrative distance. She also seems rather unwilling to really delve into the plot, and increasingly turns to allegorical fairy tale anecdotes to convey the plot, which begins to feel like she's avoiding the story rather than developing it. Time quickens and suddenly months and even years are flying by as she seems unable to finish the story, not really knowing where it's going, until at the very end she sort of lamely reflects on what seems to be a visit home for Christmas.

It's not a bad book, but it's definitely a first attempt, a writer still trying to really get a handle on things. Her later works are more mature and self-assured, and thus, more finely crafted.

09 February 2008

Killer of Sheep

This movie reminded me a lot of Soy Cuba (although that film is, I think, far better, and has much more impressive cinematography) - both films have an extremely intimate feel to them. It's quite incredible actually - there's a way in which you constantly feel as though you're getting a glimpse of people at their most private moments, even when you're watching them at work in a crowded slaughterhouse. There's something very poignant about the footage, despite the fact that most of it is actually quite mundane.

There's not a lot of plot to the movie, but it's of interest just for the documentation of life in Watts in the late 70's. What kind of intrigued me about it was the way it was simultaneously urban and curiously rural. It occurs to me, once again, that America is actually a very young nation, and a lot of its major metropolitan areas have only really become big cities in the last 50 years or so. So it's almost like the people living in them are inadvertently finding themselves there, and are still kind of figuring out how it works. I dunno, there's something interesting about it.

06 February 2008

Tears of the Black Tiger

A restless, meandering sort of film. It's a kind of pastiche of comic books, old westerns, 1950s melodrama and neon day-glo color, set to a Thai soundtrack. While visually, it's quite incredible, it ultimately fails to come together into a really compelling movie. There's something about the way it tries to balance a kind of playful parody with tragic love that doesn't quite work. While the hybridization of East/West is interesting, the movie just doesn't DO that much. For instance, you get a scene that looks like this:

It's two guys on a stage, with some wheat and a beautifully painted back-drop. It's shot as though someone were filming a play. Fairly standard stand-off, but you can't really get into it, because it's so awkwardly staged, but it's played entirely in earnest. What is one to make of it? Is it a parody? Is it an homage? It's difficult to really engage with the film emotionally at all, because the characters are such caricatures, but aesthetically, the film seems so advanced. It's a strange juxtaposition. You can't really take it seriously, but it doesn't seem to be a critique either, and you're not quite sure what the point of it is, so all you can really do is appreciate the striking colors and sort of dumbly watch it play itself out.

03 February 2008

Sweeney Todd

Let me begin by saying that I went and saw this movie because everything else was sold out and I lost on a coin toss. So, be forewarned, I may not have gone into it with the most winning attitude. Secondly, I don't like most Tim Burton's movies. Actually, a quick check on imdb reveal that this is not so true - I really like some of his movies. I love Beetlejuice, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and Big Fish. On the other hand, I can't stand Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sleepy Hollow. Aka, the goth bullshit. Beetlejuice manages to work somehow, partly, I suspect, because I first saw it as a little kid, before I had seen the other movies and realized that they're all the same gloomy grayscale aesthetic. Anyhow, point being, the "look" of this movie not only doesn't appeal to me, it straight up pisses me off. When the movie opened with the ridiculously fake looking blood drop careening through some mysterious dark machine, I rolled my eyes and sighed loudly (earning an elbow to the ribs and hiss from my companion). But seriously - the gothic, as an aesthetic, was actually politically meaningful in its time. Sure, here there's a bit of lip service paid to class conflict, but it's really all about the look, and this ridiculous nostalgia for a romanticized past. Seriously, if you really want women to go back to wearing corsets all the time, you're a moron. If you walk around in black velvet and dye your hair red and you're over 15, then it's time to roll for initiative to grow the fuck up.

But the point of this is, I was probably a lost cause from the get-go, so maybe you shouldn't take my word for it.

That said, this movie sucked, bigtime. It was a steaming pile of crap. Actually, to be fair, I did doze off for about 20 minutes in the middle, and apparently missed one of the best songs, so maybe I'm not giving it proper credit. Fuck that, no, this movie sucked.

First off, it's boring. I mean, it drags. You pretty much know exactly what's gonna happen, and lo and behold, it does. Whoopee. Second off, it's ridiculous. When Johnny Depp starts killing his clients, for instance - ok, the first time, you're a little taken aback at how brutal it is, but after 6 victims in a row, you're mostly desensitized, and also a just struck at how poor his business sense is.

Here's the real problem - the music, for the most part, blows. I dunno why it's gotten such good reviews. The lyrics are so appallingly stupid that it makes your head spin. Not to mention, as a musical it suffers from the usual strategy of every character getting a particular tune associated with them, ie, every time you see them they're singing the same damn chorus over and over, which is all the more annoying when that chorus is so incredibly lame. The music is ok, at best. Some of the duets are actually kind of neat, but I think I just kind of like duets in general, because they're kind of interesting.

Now, the music being bad is a major problem, because this movie has the one virtue of being a true musical. The songs are not superfluous. They play an instrumental role in the film, in ways that few other musicals really dare to do, namely, they carry the entire burden of character development. When someone bursts into song, it's to share their inner thoughts and feelings - which you simply don't get access to at any other point in the film. What this means though, is that if the songs are cliche trite bullshit, then the characters are too, which means that you don't give a fuck about them. So, not to have a total spoiler, but let me put it this way - the final scene of the movie left me nodding in satisfaction. Actually, I would have taken it a bit further and cooked up a nasty end for the two other characters who are basically left hanging, but I was willing to settle for what I got. Mostly, I was ready for the credits to roll so that I could get the hell out of there.

In summary, ugh. I wish I had not contributed to the financial gain of anyone involved in this movie.

02 February 2008

Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, by Jonathan Lear

This is an interesting book, a kind of philosophy underpinned by anthropology. The devastation referred to in the title is that of the Crow Nation, as voiced by Chief Plenty Coups. It takes as a starting point Plenty Coups words, describing his history to his biographer, that after the buffalo were gone and the Crow moved to the reservation, "nothing happened". Lear doesn't presume to attempt understand what these words meant to Plenty Coups, or to describe the truth of the Crow culture, but rather, he reflects on what it could mean for nothing to happen after a certain event in a philosophical sense, what happens when a group of people has basically been robbed of their ability to make sense of the world. This is the first third of the book, and its as terrifying as it is compelling.

He goes on to describe how the Crow coped with this apocalypse under the guidance of Plenty Coups. This is incredibly fascinating, and part of what makes it so incredible is the methodology. Lear doesn't presume to be an authority on Crow culture, and is very careful about the kind of claims he makes. He's mainly interested in the kind of formal structure of things within a given system. He tells you what he can about Crow culture in order to situate things in their proper context, but he's very careful to avoid anthropologizing, which I really appreciated. It's hard to explain, but it's a very individual kind of account - in fact, in a way, the last 2/3 of the book are basically dream interpretation. Plenty Coup had two major dreams in his life that warned him of the impending disaster and gave him advice on how to cope with it. Again, Lear does not claim that these dreams were in fact sent by the gods, as Plenty Coups believes, but rather, looks at how the symbolism of the dreams was translated into real world action, and thus, how Plenty Coups found a way to adapt to White culture in a manner that was in keeping with his Crow customs. This leads one to think about assimilation and cultural integration in really interesting ways. For instance, we learn that Plenty Coups basically encouraged people to stop practicing certain rituals that no longer had any utility, because doing so would actually vacate them of meaning and make them nothing more than tributes to nostalgia. So the question becomes, if a people are deprived of the opportunity for meaningful cultural expression, how can their culture survive?

A fascinating work.

Edit: Lear has an essay about the book online that is quite nice, albeit very short.