29 March 2008

Titus

Titus Andronicus is not one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. In fact, it's generally considered one of his worst, alongside Cymbeline (curiously enough, I've seen both performed on the stage in the last 6 months). It's upsetting and gory and relentlessly brutal - not exactly a crowd-pleaser. Still though, I'm not entirely sure why the play has the terrible reputation it does, but maybe that's because Julie Taymore's film adaptation of it is so damn good that it redeems the material. 

First off, Titus is gorgeous. It is absolutely stunning. I guess this shouldn't really come as a surprise, given that Taymore is also responsible for Frida and Across the Universe, but while those movies were visually complex, I wasn't really as blown away by them as I was by Titus. The whole movie looks like a gigantic art project. It's a fascinating mishmash of aesthetics from different time periods and it's breath-taking. I was trying to find some stills from it to re-post here, but none of them really do it justice (or they're of the gorier scenes...), but here's a nice shot of Jessica Lange's character, Tamora (I dunno what exactly that is in her hair, but it's so neato).


So that's for starters - it's pretty. Very very pretty. I suppose some people will find the blurring of time periods really irritating - it's certainly somewhat disorienting, but also kind of fascinating for it. Ziplock baggies and video games alongside cars from the 20s and suits of armor - huh? The movie is effectively timeless, picking freely from whatever time period is the most visually interesting. One would expect this to be distracting, but oddly enough, it's not. 

Somewhat distracting, however, are the occasional forrays into pure visual masturbation, interludes with flames and writhing women, etc, that I guess are supposed to provide a kind of subtext, but are unnecessary and mostly irritating, not to mention somewhat cheesy. Quit while you're ahead, eh?

The acting is first-rate, and it's a great cast - Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, and even a startlingly blond Jonathan Rhys Meyer. Harry Lennix is phenomenal - and looking at his imdb profile, it seems to have been the highpoint of his career. Anyhow, they deliver the lines well, which is no small feat, when you're dealing with Shakespeare.

And the story, well, yes, it's grim. But you know, for some reason what hits me most strongly in the play, and what I find really moving about it, is the depictions of the love a parent has for his/her child. I mean, in a really charitable reading, Tamora's evil is a result of her pleas for the life of her firstborn being ignored. And to me, the most moving scenes in the entire play are those when Titus is mourning his maimed daughter, and when Aaron is pleading for the life of his only son. The Aaron case is particularly poignant, because he is, in pretty much all other respects, pure evil, yet you find yourself squarely on his side in that moment. There's something about these scenes of parental love that is really powerful, and to me, they seem like the main point of the play. 

It's hard to recommend a movie that's so incredibly brutal and devastating, but as far as Shakespeare adaptations go, it's one of the better, not to mention more creative, ones that I've ever seen. 

28 March 2008

Pora Umierac (Time to Die)

I had the great fortune of catching this at the EU Film Festival here in Chicago - I don't know if it will get a wider release, but if you get the chance, by all means, watch it. Despite the rather grim title, it's a delightfully joyous movie. I think me and everyone I went and saw it with left the theatre feeling exalted and inspired.

First off, the cinematography is just mindblowingly fantastic. The film is in black and white, and the quality of light, the kinds of shots... god, it's incredible. Probably worth watching for that alone.

But the story is also delightful. The film follows an old lady who refuses to sell her beautiful old house to encroaching developers. That's a rather crude summary though. Honestly, most of the movie features the woman talking to her dog, which might sound boring, but absolutely is not. There's something darkly comic about it,  I'm tempted to say Beckettian but it's a bit too warm and human for that. My friend Jen pointed out that a good portion of the emotional tone of the film is set by the dog's expressions and reactions - absolutely true. The dog deserves some kind of acting accolade, along with the cat from 2 Days in Paris

It's rare, as my friend Ruchama pointed out, to see a good movie that centers around an old lady. And this one, played by Danuta Szaflarska (the movie was apparently written for her) is absolutely fantastic. She's sharp, feisty, thoughtful, kind, radiantly beautiful, and generally exactly the kind of woman that I hope to be when I grow up. 

A marvelous movie.

26 March 2008

Exiled

I love spaghetti westerns and I love action movies and I tend to dig mob/gangster flicks, so when you put 'em all together I am one happy camper. But I've never seen it done so well before. The movie not only featured an awesome spaghetti western soundtrack, it managed to seamlessly integrate certain tropes of the western in really brilliant ways. Why wouldn't a bunch of mobsters in Macao sit around a campfire playing the harmonica? Exiled manages to achieve what I think Tears of the Black Tiger was going for - a fantastic bricollage of genres. Although Black Tiger was more visually adventurous, it ended up going overboard and turning itself into Andy Warhol's wet dream, whereas Exiled manages to stay grounded and deliver a kick-ass gangster flick. 

Bullets fly in fantastically complicated action sequences where you're half enjoying the suspense and thrill, half trying to figure out the logistics. Also, there's this really great effect where anyone who gets shot emits a kind of red cloud of blood, which is awfully pretty.

But what I really adored about the movie was its wonderfully sentimental side - it's a really touching depiction of a gang of guys who adore each other. There are some marvelous scenes where they're just playing around and having a great time, as well as some really poignant emotional moments.

A great movie. I found myself getting more and more absorbed in it as it progressed, and loving it more with every passing moment.

17 March 2008

The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis

It's extremely rare for me to give up on a book without finishing it. No matter how bad a book is, I'll generally slog through until the bitter end. And honestly, The End of the Story might actually be a pretty good book. But I just couldn't take it. I've read one of Davis' short story collections, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and while some of the stories struck me as overly precious and got on my nerves, I LOVED others. I was even on the verge of buying copies of the book for several friends of mine, but ended up buying my mom two other books of hers, and was looking forward to borrowing them. Alas.

The premise of this novel is, I think, a worthwhile one - it's the narrative of a woman looking back on a failed love affair. Not even a serious relationship, a brief affair. According to the dust jacket, it contains reflections on the ways in which memory distorts and twists the past, along with thoughts on interactions between people. This sounded quite appealing to me. Perhaps I didn't like it because it hit a sore spot, but I don't think so. No, this book had two major strikes against it, and the second one was particularly deadly.

1. "Reflections on the way memory distorts" etc is a euphemism for "so much meta-language it reads like the blueprints for the text rather than the text itself". 60 pages in, we're still hearing about how HARD it is to write this novel. And there's barely been any plot yet. Mostly, we're told about the writing process, and what's apparently coming up. I am mildly curious whether the things mentioned early in the book are actually fully described later, or whether mentioning them actually serves to describe them. Curious, but not enough to actually finish the book.

2. The narrator is a fussy, self-centered, whiner. It's hard to imagine why on Earth anyone would ever want to date her in the first place. She mostly describes how sorry for herself she felt, and continues to feel. Under the pretense of analyzing her relationship, she explains that she was never really interested in the things her lover cared deeply about, and really didn't even know that much about him. She vaguely realized, for instance, that he was hurt by the fact that she never wanted to ride in his car or spend the night at his place instead of hers, but she was comfortable in her place, and his made her nervous, so she never did. What a jerk. One generally has the sense that she was completely unwilling to ever compromise. While she complains about feeling insecure because she's older than he is, she also uses this insecurity to completely ignore his needs and desires and focus purely on her own. What a jerk.
I don't know if the author is aware of how ungodly self-absorbed and irritating her protagonist is. Perhaps it's a brilliant act of literary creation, that she's so honestly depicted that perspective. But I am completely incapable of sympathizing with someone so wrapped up in themselves, particularly someone who doesn't even realize how atrociously selfish they are. So whether it's semi-autobiographical or not, I dunno, but in any case, it's not a narrator whom I want to spend time with. I tried, I really did, but 70 pages in, I couldn't stand to be in the woman's company any more, even if she does occasionally have a way with words. Actually, this fed into the first problem - not only did I increasingly dislike her because of the way she treated people and only thought about herself, and the way she refused to pull her shit together and take responsibility for her own actions, and was constantly fussy and complaining about her needs, but then to make matters worse, I had to endure her complaining about what a great effort it cost her to even tell me about it. LET ME SPARE YOU THE WORK BABY. Ugh.

It's unfortunate, because I think the whole experience has really turned me off her work in general. I imagine that anything of hers I read now, I'll be predisposed to see it as narcissistic posturing, and I'll have a hard time enjoying it. Maybe with enough time off, I can return to her. We shall see.

16 March 2008

The Band's Visit

I don't really have that much to say about this movie, but I feel compelled to mention it because it's a GREAT movie, and you might not have heard of it. It's an Israeli film about an Egyptian police orchestra that ends up spending the night in a rather desolate Israeli town. There's a nice blog entry about this movie here that includes a director's statement, worth checking out.

The movie is mostly in English, with moments of Hebrew and Arabic as well. I wonder if it's coincidence or a feature of cross-cultural interaction, but I was reminded of another excellent film, The Cuckoo, not only because of all the humor that arose from people not speaking the same language, but also because of the curious gentle and yet determined way that people dealt with each other. People treat others in ways that are tender, curious, but also somehow authoritative, but without being patronizing. It's kind of fascinating. Also, why exactly are these scenes where people are talking about each other in different languages so funny?

On the other hand, the cinematography reminded me of the Israeli Palestinian film, Divine Intervention, with its long, slow takes that are absolutely fascinating despite the fact that almost nothing is happening. It worked particularly well in this film because so many of the characters had such marvelously expressive, not to mention beautiful, faces.

Really though, it's a great movie. Highly recommended.

15 March 2008

Where You're At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet, by Patrick Neate

I almost quit reading this book after the first 30 pages. The author seemed like an annoying, somewhat arrogant jerk who didn't know shit about hiphop. His writing style seemed pretentious and self-indulgent, and I wasn't having it. But I kept going, and I'm SO glad I did, because in the end, it turned out to be an absolutely fantastic, fascinating book on hiphop around the world and, more generally, the phenomenon of globalization, especially as related to cultural production, as well as one of the best examples of academic writing for a mass audience that I've ever seen. Highly, highly recommended, even for people not particularly interested in hiphop.

Neate investigates hiphop as a global phenomenon, travelling from his home in England to New York, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Rio, and including reflections on France and Italy as well. One could think of his project as an attempt to understand what hiphop _means_ to the people in these places, which involves in-depth inquiries into their socioeconomic, cultural and political histories. He is to be applauded for the brevity and clarity with which he conveys these histories, as well as for his total openness about his own limitations. The book is equal parts personal reverie and hard-headed analysis, and it's a highly appealing combination. One of the things that I really appreciated was the way in which he engaged with various social theorists - rather than simply name-checking them, he actually reflects on their ideas in fascinating ways. And best of all, I think, he does it in a manner that both academics and the average reader can follow and appreciate. In other words, whether or not you're familiar with Appadurai's writings on globalization on not, you'll understand the points that Neate is making, and if you are, you'll actually find yourself reflecting on Appadurai from a new, invigorated perspective. For indeed, it's ultimately globalization (and its discontents) that takes center stage in this text, and hiphop is one way in which to explore it, because it's both a part of it and a critique of it. And the book is not only an analysis, but also a kind of manifesto - it certainly contains a call for action and a belief in the possibility of change.

Oh man, such a phenomenal book.

Shroud, John Banville

John Banville is an absolutely incredible writer. He crafts these amazing sentences that are sheer gorgeousness. But for some reason, the books of his that I've read just don't grab me. This one was no exception. While I loved the writing, the plot failed to really engage me. It started off intriguing and then kind of meandered, to the point that I actually set the book aside for a week or so and had to force myself to return to it, at which point, I had really lost touch with the novel and forgotten about some of the seemingly minor portions, which ultimately left me a bit confused and totally unable to appreciate the subtle complexities of the narrative structure. Alas. It's not that the plot is dull or anything - for the first third of the book, I actually found it rather gripping. But it ended up going in a rather different direction, turning to a portion of the story that I was less interested in, and abandoning the really fascinating part. In a way, I admire the fact that the plot is centered around a secret and never really reveals it - it's a bold move. And I suppose it's part of a grander reflection on privacy and perspective and if I really took the time to delve into the text, I'd be blown away by it. But it was just buried a bit too deep for me, I suppose.

All the same, I have every intention of reading more of his books, because I'm convinced that at least one of them will give me the satisfying plot that I need to really love it (my next attempt, I think, will be The Sea). Because the writing is such an incredible pleasure; these poignant observations in beautifully wrought prose, that I feel like at some point, he must come up with a story worthy of his telling it.

13 March 2008

Idiocracy

Mike Judge _hates_ stupid people. It's funny that his work, especially Beavis and Butthead, is popularly seen as catering to (and fostering) the lowest common denominator, because for the most part, it's a vicious lampooning of stupidity and anti-intellectualism. While I appreciate his work, I occasionally find it somewhat uncomfortable, in that he tends to prey on the lower classes, which verges on a type of elitism I find particularly distasteful. This movie, co-written with Ethan Coen, teeters along that line as well, but nonetheless, it starts from an interesting premise - imagine that in a military experiment gone wrong, two "average" people wake up 500 years in the future and discover that they are the smartest people alive. How did this happen? Well, as the movie points out in the beginning, the people with the highest iqs aren't the one having the most children. While this is an interesting problem in its own right, it tends towards the slippery slope of eugenics, so let's just leave it to the side. So the movie isn't all that great - the story is kind of lame, the humor is good, but, I think, would be more suited to an inebriated audience, and the vision of the future is pretty half-baked, especially by being limited to the US alone, and riddled with inconsistency. However, the focus on stupidity is kind of intriguing. I actually first heard about the film on NPR, where it was reviewed alongside another movie (whose title I unfortunately have forgotten, which sucks because I was actually far more interested in checking it out than this one) as part of a discussion about a rising interest in what it means to be dumb. As the program pointed out, there are plenty of studies that examine what it means to be smart; how an intelligent brain solves problems, etc. But the opposite end of the spectrum, or more importantly, the lower middle part of it, is relatively unexamined. And while one can generally kind of imagine what it's like to be smart, it's actually _very_ difficult to understand what it's like to be dumb. I mean, think back to when you've been talking to someone and have explained something in what you think are very clear terms, and receive a blank stare in response. You assume that the person either hasn't been paying attention, or you haven't explained it clearly - but it's hard to imagine the perspective of someone who just does. not. understand. What does that mean? Why does that happen? How does such a person see the world?

Though I guess that's a bit of a tangent, because the film doesn't really provide an inquiry into it, or any kind of explanation. Rather, it features a lot of stupid people. And one thing that I found kind of fascinating about it is the way it depicts their stupidity. There are aspects of it that I thought were kind of brilliant. For instance, the movie does an amazing job of casually portraying people who use words that "sound smart" without actually understanding them. Or the mimicry of logical processing that produces inane tautology. This, in the film, is also caught up with the power of advertising and brand identity, though the connection isn't fully fleshed out. This is all kind of fascinating, and at times, quite amusing.

On top of this is the film's more polemical side, namely, a weird sort of moral that seems to be saying that even average people can be pretty smart, and oughta be working up to full potential, and also, that they should have more kids. The main character, played by Luke Wilson, ends up as president, and finally learns to lead instead of following or getting out of the way. I found myself mildly irritated by the fact that the woman who accompanies him into the future ends up as first wife rather than vice president (an honor reserved for the moronic friend he makes), and that no one mentions that she seems to be a hell of a lot smarter than he is. What interesting is that the film does seem to make a point of it, by repeatedly making it clear that Luke Wilson never catches on that she was a prostitute in the past, and not a painter. I wonder why that's such a big thing throughout the movie - is it just to show that Luke Wilson is naive? Is it to show that there's no reason why a prostitute couldn't be mistaken for a painter? Is it to subtly justify why she can't be president herself? I dunno.

What's also creepy about the movie is that, while it's not that good, it's the kind of film that, /i can already tell, will haunt me for ages. Because like all good sci-fi movies, once you've watched it, you start to see the seeds of its vision of the future all around you. To put it bluntly, you start noticing stupidity a lot more, and it makes the movie seem somewhat less implausible.

Ultimately, not a particularly good movie, but still, kind of an interesting one. I see it as part of this larger project that Mike Judge has, a sort of long-running engagement with a particularly American kind of idiocy in various forms, but I feel like this was just sort of thrown together and put out, rather than really thought through. Appropriate to the subject, I suppose. And part of me suspects that really, putting too much thought and energy into this movie wouldn't actually help it - if poked too hard, it would crumble. So this is more like a casual, fly-by what-if scenario. One shouldn't take it too seriously, but all the same, there are some interesting ideas that arise from it.

09 March 2008

Interview

This movie was recommended to me by my friend Dustin, and it's an intriguing sort of flick. It's what I think of as a "what if" movie - it sets up a particular situation and then lets it play out. So it's not so much a story as it is a premise - in this case, what happens when a political pundit is sent to interview a B-list celebrity, or rather, what would happen if you stuck the two of them in one room together for a few hours. So obviously, it has to stretch credibility a little bit in order to keep them in the same place and make them interact, and fuel them with plenty of scotch to ease them into a treacherous intimacy, but it manages to do it without forcing you to suspend disbelief too much. Still though, the characters remain largely hypothetical, and because of the way the movie works, their development is necessarily sketched rather than explored. Ultimately, you don't really know what's actually going on with them, when they're being honest, how they really feel. But it's an interesting movie, though I think it falls short of its true potential.

The problem, I think, is that while the writers had a good sense of what the male lead, played by Steve Buscemi (who also direct and co-wrote the script) is like as a person, the female character, well-played by Sienna Miller, remains somewhat opaque to them, and thus, to the viewer as well. She's believable as a character, but not as fleshed out as one would like. The problem is, she's a starlet, ie, someone who generally lives a tabloid life, and her interiority is extremely difficult to access, not least because she wants it that way. The movie does a good job convincing you that she DOES have interiority, which is already a big step in the right direction, but you feel like the writers still weren't quite sure what it's like. Ultimately, the movie is largely from Buscemi's perspective, and Sienna Miller remains a mystery.

Still though, for a movie that's largely set in one room - it could fairly easily be a play - it manages to have a plot of sorts by shifting the balance of power between the two characters in interesting ways. The sexual dynamic between them is well-handled, and the movie doesn't ever really drag. While I felt like it could have been a better movie, it was definitely far better than similar films of its kind.

Bullet

I rented this movie as part of my project of watching everything Tupac Shakur has ever been in, and I was sort of expecting it to be like all of his other films, which generally get described with "it's an ok movie, but Tupac is AMAZING." Bullet might be the only movie where 2pac does NOT manage to steal the show, which is quite a testament to this film, because 'Pac is, as always, fantastic. But no, great as he is, he remains resolutely minor this time, because the rest of the movie steals his spotlight. Bullet gets described as a "gritty urban drama", which I think of as a euphemism for "a mostly cliche flick where (mostly non-white) stock characters commit crimes and have some deep thoughts." What sets this movie apart is that its characters are really, really interesting. They're almost absurd, and yet somehow seem very genuine, and watching them interact is really intriguing.

Mickey Rourke (a total badass), aka Bullet has just gotten out of jail. He's an interesting guy, a thug with a strong moral code, a sense of weariness, and a severe heroin habit. His brother, played by Adrien Brody, is a somewhat wimpy artist who graffitis buildings and tells his family about Dali's genius over dinner. His other brother is a paranoid schizophrenic paramilitary conspiracy theorist kind of guy who regularly loses his false teeth. The parents have no idea what to do. Then there's 2pac, Bullet's arch-nemesis. Bullet stabbed his eye out in prison, so he's now rockin' an eyepatch and a seething desire for revenge.

The movie doesn't quite manage to build the conflict between 2pac and Rourke into the tense thrill you'd expect, because it gets distracted developing the other characters and creating a vivid portrait of their milieu. It's a setting dense with detail, and it really comes alive. You _care_ about these people. You have a sense of their inner worlds. You want to watch them move through the landscape and see how they interact with other characters. It's fascinating. Yet it manages to also tell a story, and a satisfying one at that.

A totally under-appreciated movie. Check it out - it deserves to be a classic.

02 March 2008

la Vie en Rose

It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to Edith Piaf's music that she had a terrifically tragic life. I mean, one assumes that no one can sing like that unless they've gone through hell. But in fact, her life is SO tragic that it's almost a farce; I mean, one can hardly describe it without a kind of cynicism. This movie actually does a pretty good job of depicting it, partly, I think, because of the curious shifting chronology that it uses. 
The film starts towards the end of her life, then goes back to the beginning, then sort of jumps back and forth between her ascent to fame in her youth and her declining health in her later years. It's interesting, because it sort of works its way backwards and forwards at the same time, which allows it to focus on the peak of her life about 3/4 of the way in, then stay there for awhile to watch things begin to fall apart, and then goes back to her deathbed and indulges in a few flashbacks. At times it gets somewhat maudlin, working the picturesque childhood angle a bit too hard, but for the most part, it packs a powerful punch, emotionally. It allows the music to speak for itself, for the most part - and if listening to Edith Piaf sing doesn't make your heart clench, then you might not have one -  and rarely leans too much on the "her music was so great because she poured her life into it" trope. 
What's curious though, is that what I happened to particularly notice in this film is the way that the cuts from scene to scene worked. This isn't something I have ever particularly noticed before, and I'm not sure what it says about the film that it jumped to my attention this time. It started early on, when I noticed how certain shapes would kind of be echoed between cuts, so, for instance, a ball of flame in the left corner would become a patch of flowers in a field after the cut, thus keeping a kind of formal continuity in the geometric arrangement of shapes on the screen from take to take. Sometimes, it was a different kind of continuity - for example, a scene would end with Piaf talking about a watch, and then suddenly, the next scene would start with a close-up of a large clock. I don't really know what to make of that, but I found it interesting. I also noticed that there are a lot of shots of characters' reflections in mirrors, which, aside from being a nice framing device, which, for instance, in brothel scenes, called to mind famous odalisque paintings, is also a nice metaphor for lifewriting.




Also, the ending of the film was a stroke of sonic genius. The film ends with Piaf performing Je ne regrette rien, which might seem somewhat cliche but actually manages to work well, and then just cuts to dead silence and the credits. Its incredibly striking - a really beautiful kind of elegy to the chanteuse. After what seems like an eternity, a very quiet, subtle piano picks up, but still, you're left with this powerful feeling of silence at the end of a truly monumental life. Quite powerful.

Finally, though I suppose it's obvious, Marion Cotillard is absolutely incredible. A truly epic performance. Her face is just amazing, as are her gestures - she really embodies the subject. I wonder what she'll do next, honestly, because it seems like one of those roles that could easily end an actresses career. We shall see.