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.

03 August 2008

Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman

I was so impressed with this book for the first 50 pages. I was totally enthralled. The next 80 so pages, my enthusiasm faded a bit, but I still enjoyed the book. It was around page 300 or so that I started being more annoyed by it than anything else. So, here's the thing - it's an interesting story. And it's told in a creative way, it's just that unfortunately, the writer isn't talented enough to pull it off. So there are these nice aspects to it, but ultimately, it gets way too irritating.

The book is divided into 7 sections, each with a different narrator (though some people narrate more than one section). This allows the nice effect of getting to hear different sides of the story, and when done well, allows you to see how people misunderstand each other, and the effects such misunderstandings have. It's a move I'm generally partial too, but its a tricky thing to pull off well, and most authors (and Perlman is an excellent example) who attempt it are so pleased with their own cleverness that they botch the whole thing. Perlman clearly wants to play with the idea of ambiguities in personal relationships - aside from being the title of the book, he makes his various characters talk about it so much that after awhile you're like DUDE. I GET IT. YOU'RE VERY CLEVER. It's kind of amusing, actually, that Perlman clearly thinks he's being incredibly smart by accenting this multiple perspectives story with literary theories of ambiguity, but the book fails precisely because he's unable to leave anything ambiguous - not only does he have to keep calling attention to just how clever he is, but he also insists on ultimately getting every character's perspective on everything, and telling you just what happens to pretty much everybody. 

The real problem, though, is that if you want to be a virtuoso and have seven different narrators, fine, but they have to actually be different. They can't all sound like a slightly angsty, melodramatic, intelligent but vaguely pretentious, self-absorbed guy. This is really why my ardour for the text cooled after the first section. I liked the first narrator. Sure, he dropped a lot of literary references in a vaguely pretentious way, but hey, I'm a lit dork, so I didn't really mind. The second narrator was somewhat similar, but not overly so - he actually, kind of, had a personality of his own. And he's probably the most effective character, in that he is frequently completely misperceived by others, but actually becomes likeable when you get his perspective. Though given how very likeable he is from the inside, it is a bit hard to understand how he can be so detestable to most everyone else. But after that, all of the narrators are basically similar. The female characters are particularly disastrous - their voices ring so false, it's painful. All of the characters are slightly ridiculous, "literary" types who have ridiculously eloquent conversations and thoughts, and unbearably poignant lives (it's the textual equivalent of the kind of performance in movies that makes my friend Jen assume a stiff posture and yell ACTING! in a booming voice), but the women, for me, were even worse. Although I generally believe that gender identity is a social construct rather than a biological one, and I don't think it's true that a man cannot write in the voice of a convincing female character, Elliot Perlman can't. But that's mostly because, it seems to me, Elliot Perlman can't really write ANY convincing character other than a self-absorbed, angst-ridden, over-sensitive pseudo-intellectual one, or at least, not in this book he can't.  But for some reason, it's when he tries to speak as a woman that this becomes so starkly clear. I suppose there is a kind of masculinity to a certain sort of self-absorbed melancholy. It's not that women aren't self-absorbed or depressed, it's just that they tend to do it in a slightly different way. And his women are clearly products of that kind of male imagination. I ain't sayin', I'm just sayin'. I have a sneaking suspicion that the author of this book might be kind of an annoying guy. 

All of this is very unfortunate, because actually, the story is quite interesting. Is it so interesting that it's worth 623 pages? Well... hard to say. I can't unabashedly recommend it, but I can't also say it's a waste of time. There are plenty of worse books out there. All the same, there are so many better ones...

02 August 2008

WALL-E

I've been squirming with excitement about this movie ever since I saw the first preview. And the reviews, and word on the street, were hot. "Transcendent," people said. "The best Pixar movie ever." So having now seen it twice (I kind of fell asleep the first time), I still find this somewhat strange. I mean, it's great. But transcendent?

I think the reason people exalt the movie the way that they do is because of its curious blend of apocalyptic vision and hope. Earth has been virtually destroyed by pollution, which is bound to make liberals happy because they feel like it's sending a nice warning signal (with an obesity rider thrown in - you'll destroy the planet and get FAT! eating junk food! and being glued to your laptop!), but they get to have it both ways, because 700 years later, everything works out ok again so long as people defeat the evil robot (with the help of good robots) and "re-colonize" Earth. Let me just pause here to note that if you wanna go with a political reading of the film, then the fact that they use the term "re-colonize" is extremely uncomfortable. But that's nitpicking. 

Moving on, the movie is extremely, ungodly clever with the way it references other films. It's full of allusions to other movies - most noticeably, probably, in the 2001 reference, or the Lilo and Stitch-like bra scene, but the one that really blew me away, which probably no one will notice, is that there's a little robot who goes around frantically wiping up the trail Wall-E leaves in his wake, and every time he does, the background music is a modernized version of the music that the mysterious broomdog in Alice in Wonderland makes when he's eliminating the path in the forest when Alice is lost. I can't believe I noticed that. But I was extremely impressed.

More bizarre, to me, was the film's obsession with Hello, Dolly! Don't get me wrong - I LOVE Hello, Dolly. But seriously, what was it doing in this movie? I mean, yeah, it's got romance, and the glitter of the cosmopolitan, and it was a nice touch to also throw in a Louis Armstrong song to reinforce the allusion, but seriously, what was it doing there? For as much airtime as it got, I expected some kind of substantive, extended parallel, or something, but I really can't work it out. Please, please tell me if you have any thoughts on this, because it's tormenting me. 

Although I will say that one of the things I liked about the movie was that it had a kind of randomness to it. The objects Wall-E collected, for instance, were so... strange. Some of them were obvious, sure, but some of it was just, I dunno, random. It was kind of neat.

Someday, I will write a paper on lovable robots, and this movie will feature strongly in it. 

I guess what makes this movie strange to me is that it deploys all the tropes and does all these things that beg for interpretation and scream depth and meaning, but then when you try to decode it, you get... nothing. What's with the hospital scene? Crazy robots? Seriously, what's that about? Or the random couple that hooks up, and the moment when they decide to save the children, kinda? And oh my god, what about the penultimate rebooting scene, which seriously made me cry my eyes out? In fact, let's step back a minute and talk about how emotionally traumatizing some of that movie was? When EVE goes into sleep mode and Wall-E is piteously bleating her name, my god, my heart was torn asunder. It was seriously upsetting.

It's a good movie. It's a fun movie. I am highly impressed that someone went out on a limb and made a children's film with almost no dialogue. It's worth watching. But chill out with this greatest movie ever talk, eh?