29 May 2008

Sleep With Me

Sometimes, on Netflix, I pick an actor or actress whom I loved in one movie, but haven't really seen in anything else since, and check out what else they've done. It's kind of an entertaining thing to do, especially if it's an actor whom you've come to identify very strongly with the particular role you first saw him in. I think that this movie ended up on my queue because I had a HUGE crush on Eric Stoltz's character in Some Kind of Wonderful when I was a kid. I then encountered him again in Killing Zoe and The Passion of Ayn Rand. Sleep With Me though, was a two-for-one - not only does is star Eric Stoltz, but it also features his co-star from Some Kind of Wonderful, Craig Sheffer! What a deal! And it gets even better! You know who else is in this movie? We've got Meg Tilly, who from the looks of her, must be Jennifer Tilly's sister. And we've also got Joey Lauren Adams and Parker Posey. And that's not all! Quentin Tarantino shows up too! And those are just the ones I can name! The rest of the cast is composed of eerily familiar faces, people you know you've seen on an episode of some old tv show, or some really bad late night tv movie. It's amazing. I have no idea what all these people are doing in this movie - especially because - are you ready for this? The movie is TERRIBLE.

Apparently there were like six people writing the script. And you can tell. I'm thinking they did it stoned at a party. Because the beginning is doing that old standby of GenX flicks, the person walking around with a videocamera collecting testimonials (why were people so into that in the 90s?), and then we've got some random narrative interspersed to fill in plot detail (Fuck, he thought. Why did I do that?). And then there'll be some long scenes of other minor characters discussing what's going on. The plot is pretty basic - Craig Sheffer is madly in love with his BFF's wife, played by Eric Stoltz and Meg Tilly. Their other zombies-from-B-movie friends are the standard confused Gen-X crowd, all involved in miserable marriages as well, mostly because they're emotionally immature, narcissistic assholes. Anyhow, Craig has the hots for Meg. She kinda gets off on this fact and sort of teases him about it, tormenting him by telling him that she'd also had a crush on him. Oh no! Missed opportunity! Is it really too late? Fueled with this new information, he decides to make a move on her. DRA-MA ensues. Well, kinda. The film gets a bit caught up in the Gen-X ethos, getting Parker Posey topless, and finding a way to cram in a few charming songs performed by Joey Lauren Adams.

This movie is awful. But if you're feeling nostalgic for those GenX days and can't bring yourself to watch Reality Bites again, this one might do it for you. It's not quite bad enough to be ridiculously entertaining, but there's something kind of bizarrely fascinating about the movie. It's such a cobbled together piece of crap. Quentin Tarantino, however, is hilarious. But just when you think he's the best thing in the entire movie, you get the very last scene, which is so absolutely audaciously ridiculously appropriate that you almost don't regret the hour and a half of your life you just wasted.

27 May 2008

American Splendor

This is an intriguing case of a movie that completely failed to appeal to me, despite being quite interesting and very well made. I find myself recommending it to people and saying "I didn't like it that much, but it's really worth watching". 

Maybe it's my interest in lifewriting in general, but as far as biopics go, it's a really fascinating case. Not only does the movie intersperse documentary footage of its subject, Harvey Pekar, he also does the voice-over narration. Occasionally there are scenes of the man himself, or other people from his life, hanging out in the studio chatting with the actors playing them, or watching the movie being filmed. It's neat. Delightfully pomo but quite clever, especially when Harvey Pekar is narrating as the actor who plays him is watching a play made about his own life. 

But much as I enjoyed the way it was made, the movie itself totally failed to engage me. Part of it might be that I just can't stand Paul Giamatti, who plays Pekar (I HATED Sideways, if you're wondering). Though he didn't bug me as much in this movie as he normally does, I still can't really muster up much sympathy for any character he plays. And honestly, Pekar isn't all that sympathetic of a guy. He kind of grew on me in a loveable curmudgeon sort of way, but then, alas, the movie headed down the "brush-with-cancer-makes-you-a-better-person" path. 

I understand that it might sound heartless to criticize this aspect of the film, because after all, it really did happen to the guy. And certainly, this movie doesn't do nearly as cliche and treacle-y job of portraying illness as many others do. Furthermore, I understand that people's experiences of illness - and especially cancer - may well be shaped by predominant narratives of illness in our society. But unless you're treating it in a particularly innovative way, I'm not that interested (pardon the pun - I mean aesthetically, not medically. Though I suppose innovative medical treatments could be interesting?). 

Meanwhile, what could have been the fascinating part - though admittedly, it would be much more difficult to capture in film - was the way Pekar turned his life into comic art. This was the focus of the first half of the film, and somehow it came off as rather hollow and superficial to me. I dunno. I just didn't care that much. 

Pekar has had an interesting life, and this movie featured some really creative ideas for depicting it, but somehow it just never came together for me. But still, I recommend checking the movie out. I was reading the recent review in the NYTimes of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and discovered that some people on goodreads.com (oh how I adore that site) have done me the big favor of compiling a list of all the books mentioned*, and it seemed to me that the purpose of the list wasn't so much a "best of" as a broad sampling of different literary styles. In keeping with this idea then, I recommend American Splendor as an interesting example of a unique style, even if it's not that great.

*I haven't bothered to count how many of them I've read. But I must say, one of my biggest gripes with the list is that includes multiple books by the same author. In any list of this nature, I'd argue, you're allowed maximum 3 works by a single author, but after that, you're pushing it. If that author is really so great, then an intelligent person will be moved to seek out more works by them on their own time, later.  And anyhow, Ian McEwan, much as I like him, does not deserve 8 slots. Be for real. Not to mention, a lot of the books on the list that I've read, I don't much care for, and I really don't think they're worth the time, even as a showcase of style. Which makes me somewhat hesitant about taking its recommendations on faith. But we shall see. I stuck a bunch of 'em on the ol' To Read list (which can be viewed in that handy GoodReads box to your right) anyhow.

24 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I am going to try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but if you really don't want to know ANYTHING about the movie, then you have no business reading a review of it.

I have a pretty high tolerance for crappy movies. I manage to derive genuine enjoyment from films that most people feel are a complete and utter waste of time (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III - they travel in TIME!). That said, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, quite possibly, the worst movie I have ever seen. It was awful. It was so bad that it didn't even manage to become so bad that it was actually good (a la the second Matrix movie). No, it was just straight up terrible. And I didn't have particularly high hopes for it - I had heard it was a pretty crappy movie, so I went in with the bar set real low, but clearly, I had completely underestimated the suckitude of this cinematic feature. 

The film basically fails on all counts. Plot? Stupid. Not just dumb, but totally inanely irritatingly stupid. Oh my god. How can a plot be so ridiculous and yet so boring? Dialogue? Painful. Again, not so dumb that it's actually entertaining, just bland and dull. The acting? Meh. Whatever. Harrison Ford seemed like he just didn't give a shit. The sparkling charisma that is so appealing about Indiana Jones was completely absent. In fact, he only flashes that charming crooked smile once in the entire film. For the most part, he delivers his lines as though he were reading a box of cereal. The fight scenes - boring. But worst of all - the special effects. My god. I can't believe that anyone can produce such crappy looking special effects in this day and age. I was astounded. The opening shot of the film is of a prairie dog, and I literally was confused - wait? It's a cartoon? I don't get it. Oh, and of course, the whole ethnic/racial exoticization/stereotypes, but really, that was pretty much a given from the get-go. Though man, they take it to the maxxx. The dancing Russians, the random capoeira graveyard ninjas, the natives that apparently just wall themselves into statues and wait until someone happens by to attack... Oh, though I will grant the movie this - the Russian language stuff isn't bad. And Cate Blanchett's Ukranian accent isn't bad, when she's using it. Occasionally she trades it for the more standard British. Just to liven up whatever bland piece of dialogue she's delivering, I suppose. And then there's the category of "thing that were done so badly that you actually notice them, even though you would never notice that type of thing otherwise". To begin with, the movie is riddled with inconsistencies and minor flaws (most glaring - what a dazzlingly diverse college classroom! In the 50s! Who knew?). Then, there's the jarring issue of the horrific costumes. Both Shia the Beef and Harrison Ford are wearing godawful old man pants for the entire movie. Seriously. Somebody find that tailor and slap him across the face. Also, whoever did The Beef's hair, sweet christ. And the extras! Even the extras were awful! Or maybe one should say they were the best part? Because in scene after scene, the main characters are having some kind of important conversation, and meanwhile you find yourself peering into the background like "Wow, I wonder what's going on over there?" The shots are so poorly framed that it almost seems intentional. There's an extended scene in a diner where Indy and The Beef are having a conversation that is highly central to the plot, and meanwhile, between their furrowed brows is this ASS. IN THE VERY CENTER OF THE SCREEN. Whenever one of them moves, you actually do the whole sideways motion trying to peek around them so as to continue being hypnotized by that skirt-encased butt. But luckily this turns out to be unnecessary, because it almost immediately reappears smackdab in the middle of the screen once again. You could bounce a quarter off that thing. It's incredible.

The major flaw of the movie though, is that it's just boring. Most of it is filler, as in, long scenes that don't drive the plot or contribute to the whole in any way, other than to push the movie over the 2 hour mark. Perfect example, the opening sequence. A bunch of army cars, and a car full of teenagers. The teenagers drive alongside the army guys and are somehow goading them on to go faster? Or something? It's rather unclear. And then they drive away. Wait, what? What was the point of that? Oh, there wasn't one. Alrighty then. Some scenes seem to be going somewhere, but turn out to be dead ends, leading to ridiculously bizarre contrivances just to get all the people involved back on track. Though that apparently isn't a huge concern, because there's a long chunk one of the characters vanishes for maybe 10 minutes and then reappears, no questions asked.

This movie has apparently been a good 10 years in the making, but the script was apparently written at the last minute by someone with a bad hangover. Various things seem like a spur-of-the-moment addition, like Ooooh! I know! How about, the Beef gets all pissed off when Indy and his mom are about to kiss! That'll be funny right? Let's do that! It'll add DEPTH. Or, oh! Hey! Let's have a swordfight! Ok, so for that to happen, we need to drop a line in there somewhere about how this guy took fencing in school, and, well, shit, we'll just have his opponent carry a sword around all the time anyhow. Why not? Or there are these gaping holes in the plot that the film rather inexplicably draws your attention to, but leaves unresolved. "Quartz isn't magnetic." "Neither is gold." "Weird. So how... Hey what's going on over there?"

WORST MOVIE EVAR.

22 May 2008

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Another recommendation from Netflix. So, it's not a particularly great movie, but oh man, there's something highly satisfying about it. The film follows three women trying to make it in Moscow, and then jumps ahead 20 years to see what happened to them. It's a whopping two and a half hours long, and is delightfully sprawling and colorful and kind of ridiculous.

So, at the outset, you've got Tonia, Ludmila and Katya. Tonia immediately finds herself a nice country guy and marries him. Katya has just failed her entrance exams for the university, but intends to keep studying and hopefully get in the next year. Ludmila, on the other hand, wants to marry a rich guy. Of course, this involves a lot of scheming and a complex web of lies. Because men don't want a simple factory worker for a wife - they want a cultured, educated, independent woman with a career! Wait, what? They do? GODDAMNIT. I was born too late. Anyhow, conveniently enough, Katya's uncle goes out of town, so Ludmila and Katya set themselves up there and pose as wealthy educated socialites. It's highly reminiscent of How To Marry a Millionaire, the classic 1953 comedy starring Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, except that where that movie is kind of ironic and gently pokes fun at its heroines, this film seems far more earnest. Anyhow, the usual complications arise, except maybe more so, Katya is crying herself to sleep at night and then... fast forward into the future.

Now it's 20 years later! Katya has actually made it big, and is the director of a factory! Ludmila's husband has turned into a worthless alcoholic! Tonia, predictably, leads a fairly bland but largely happy life. Then, BAM, Katya meets a man on a train. And it's LOVE! Except that he most certainly is NOT looking for a career girl. "It's very important, in a family, that the man make more money than the woman." Ooops. Guess things have changed a bit in 20 years, eh? (Sigh). Anyhow, highly satisfying plot arc. 

So, to go ├╝ber nerdy for a minute, what I really appreciated about the movie was the way it illustrated an argument made by Adorno (whom I used to despise, but have now come to appreciate) and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. They have this nice observation in that films feature starlets who invite identification - this could be you! - while simultaneously denying it. "The female starlet is supposed to symbolize the secretary, though in a way which makes her seem predestined, unlike the real secretary, to wear the flowing evening gown. Thus she apprises the film spectator of the possibility not only that she, too, might appear on the screen, but still more insistently of the distance between them." This happens, they argue, through a legitimation of chance. In other words, film stars are people just like you, but they happen to have gotten lucky. Which means it could happen to anyone, but it also means that no matter how hard you try, you have no guarantee of ever succeeding. It's a nice idea, and it's beautifully illustrated by this film. Katya works her ass off, struggles, raises a child alone, is wildly successful but is still sobbing herself to sleep every night until she meets the perfect man on a train, and after some minor problems, lives happily ever after. Moscow doesn't believe in tears, we're told, but only in love. Ie, Moscow has no sympathy for the downtrodden, but adores its success stories. Hard as you may work though, ultimately, it's all up to chance. Ludmila's machinations land her an alcoholic ex-husband who ultimately can't hack it in the big city, Tonya's total lack of effort lands her a bland but happy life, and Katya, through a strange combination of hard work and chance, ends up on top. Nice illustration of the argument, if I do say so myself. Incidentally, isn't it strange how early films seem to lend themselves so beautifully to theorization in ways that current films don't? I suppose it's because those theories were developed with those movies in mind. Maybe in the future, the movies we watch now will seem likewise transparent in terms of their symbolic codes. Fascinating.

So in that vein, another interesting aspect of this movie is the way it reflects on the passage of time. At two points in the film, a character says something to the effect of "in 20 years, the world will be completely different! who knows! And I'll be OLD!" So of course, the film shows you how 20 years later, you still don't feel old. But where it lands on the question of how much the world changes is quite unclear. Both times this conversation happens in the film, it turns into a conversation about new media. The first time, everyone seem to assume that tv will take over and theatre will become extinct, but books will survive too. Second time, again, tv will take over, but this time it's theatre that is assumed to have staying power, and books that are useless. Curious. 

20 May 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I wasn't particularly stoked to go see this movie. I guess I figured it was going to be one of those inspiring, triumph of the human will type of stories, and it just didn't appeal to me. But to my great delight, it turned out that I was wrong - that's not really what it's about at all. Or at least, that's not the point. Actually, one could describe the film as an exploration of interiority - a depiction of what it's like to be inside someone's head. 

The movie is based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, when we meet him, has just woken up from a coma after a stroke that has left him completely paralyzed and unable to do anything but blink his left eye. In the course of the film, he learns to communicate by blinking, ultimately dictating the entire work upon which the film is based. This is an incredibly impressive feat, and the movie certainly makes it clear just how impressive it is, without being over-bearing about it. 

Certainly, it helps that Bauby is gifted with language. One of his first sentences is about the quality of light coming through the frayed curtain of his hospital room - it's gorgeous. The film does due honor to the beauty of the prose by its own beauty - Schnabel, the director, is a painter, and oh boy can you tell. It's a stunningly beautiful film. The greatest pleasure in it, I think, is just the rendering of the text, being able to see the metaphors. In this, its reminiscent somewhat of Gondry's work, especially Science of Sleep. Both films explore landscapes of dreams and memory, and do a lovely job of it. At one point, Bauby says that he has his memory and his imagination, and with those two, he can do anything, a claim that the film beautifully brings to life.

But it's also about the man's experience, what it's like to be trapped in one's own body, the new life he faces. It's surprisingly unsentimental and direct in this regard, and this is probably why it's so powerful. There are plenty of moments of humor, albeit of a rather dark variety. Bauby doesn't throw a pity party for himself - actually, the very first thing he says is that he wants to die, and the furious response of his speech therapist is intense: "it's obscene" she says, and my god, she's right. Given my own occasionally nihilistic tendencies, this made a huge impression on me, and was a really well-done aspect of the film - nor does he conceal the fact that he hasn't always been the greatest of guys, and his accident hasn't changed that. It is, however, about a man confronting his past and trying to be a better person, and poignantly so. It's a conversion occasioned by his changed physical state, but simultaneously autonomous from it, and it really makes up the meat of the film, I think.

Really an impressive movie - highly recommended.

13 May 2008

Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky

This is a lovely little book. To call it a novel, even an epistolary novel, seems inappropriate - it's a collection of letters. I always thought you had to be a pretty hardcore dork to really sit down and read someone's letters, but I guess I've become one in the past few years. The thing about reading someone's letters is, for the most part, they're pretty dull. They're generally mundane everyday stuff that happens to be written by a gifted writer. So you have to be prepared to slog through a lot of tedium, and the payoff is a ultimately a few paragraphs that contain some really nice observations or some good anecdotes. If this is the kind of thing that sounds somewhat appealing to you, but you're not quite ready to dive into tomes of Conrad or Kafka (both marvelous letter writers), then this is a good place to start. Well, maybe you should begin with a few proper epistolary novels (why not pick up CLARISSA, Richardson's 1,500 page doorstop? Just kidding. Not that I regret having read it, actually.) to get in the swing of the whole letter-schtick in a more plot driven enterprise. But this book is a good transition point from there, because, inasmuch as it's a novel, there's less tedium, but inasmuch as it's not _really_ a novel, but rather an aesthetic organization of thematically centered letters, there's not plot so much as character development and mood. Shklovsky was a theorist of literary form, so the man knows what he's doing. 

ANYHOW. What attracted me to this book is its curiously lovely conceit - it's a collection of letters written by a man to a woman who does not love him. He wants to write her love letters, and she, appreciating that the man is a genius, wants him to write her, but NOT about love.  So he writes about other things - the life of a Russian exile in Berlin, ideas about literature, thoughts on exile, descriptions of people he knows, all of which are indeed quite fascinating - but of course, the letters are actually all about love. It's marvelous, how descriptions of the weather and the zoo can be so saturated with longing. Elaborate metaphors are constructed so as to write about love without writing about it - absolutely incredible. There's a nice touch, too, of a few included letters written by the lady herself (apparently she was "discovered" and went on to a somewhat successful literary career as a result). They have a subtle way of pointing to the arrogance of the unrequited lover that is an excellent counterpoint to Shklovsky's gorgeous anguish ("This book is being written for you, Alya; writing it is physically painful."), which would otherwise prove so persuasive that the reader might end up thinking of the beloved as a cold-hearted monster - to quote, "You write about me - for yourself; I write about myself - for you."

So while it would seem to be a rather esoteric book, it's actually more accessible than one might imagine. Like letter collections in general, the payoff is more minimal than what you'd get in a good novel, but it's also a pretty short book and worth the effort.

06 May 2008

Venus

Netflix recommended this one to me. It's an interesting movie, particularly in its combination of tenderness and brutality. Although it gets described as a romance, I would say, rather, that it's a curious kind of exploration of the sometimes peculiar relationships people form. 

Peter O'Toole is marvelous, playing a fantastic blend of elegant, dignified gentleman and dirty old man. He embarks on a dalliance, of sorts, with a young woman (also supremely acted by a woman named Jodie Whittaker), the niece of a friend of his who has moved in to serve as a care-taker. She's not much of a care-taker really; she seems to mostly sit around drinking beer and watching tv and generally being a crude dude, particularly appalling to O'Toole and his foul-mouthed but culturally elite buddies.  But they seem to enjoy each other, curiously enough. As mentioned above, it's a peculiar bond, with a gentle, lovely side, and a cruel selfish one. It's a strange power-play, her lower-class, brash youth and sexuality, his age, experience, education and dignity - one couldn't in all honesty describe either one as exploiting the other. And while both are clearly using the other for their own not-so-flattering reasons, they also seem to actually care about each other in a strange kind of way, and ultimately, you can't really blame either one. It's the kind of thing I really appreciate in a film, when it unsettles your moral instincts. There are some genuinely moving aspects to the movie, where it manages to convey a kind of elegant nuance within human interactions that is really beautifully done.

Especially shocking, to me at least, were scenes were Venus, as he calls her, shoves Peter O'Toole, or knees him in the nuts. You can't do that to a weak old man! But as she matter-of-factly points out, eye for an eye - while less explicitly violent, his obviously unwanted gropings are just as much a physical violation. Furthermore, it's a curious testament to his strength and virility, to show that he's much tougher than one would ever think. 

All in all, an intriguing film, if occasionally somewhat unpleasant to watch.