28 February 2009

Sunset Boulevard

Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up now...

This movie is every bit as fantastic as people say. In fact, it's better. It's a fantastic dark and creepy noir and you should go watch it like, now. What's really cool about this movie, one of the many things, is how it manages to modernize the Gothic. It's really neato. It uses all these old conventions - the creepy old mansion, the mysterious devoted servant, the crazy lady - but makes them current, sort of. In that they're believably happening at the time the movie was set, but also derive their creepiness partly from the fact that they seem like these strange relics of a bygone time. Which in turn, is an elegant reminder of the political dimensions of the Gothic as a genre. Oh, it's so cool.

I guess film noir tends to have this Gothic dimension in general, but here it seemed more like Gothic plus film noir, ie, scary story with a hard-boiled fast-talking detective type thrown in. Fantastic.

Also, the relationship aspect was really interesting. I don't want to spoil anything, but there's a scene where there's this kind of question of whether you love someone for who they are, or whether you can in fact learn something about them that will change how you feel. And for that matter, whether a person in that position should try to change the way they are, or insist that you love them as is - even if as is happen to be rather anomalous for them in many ways. This is awfully convoluted, but perhaps when you see the movie, you'll know what I mean - there was something kind of poignant for me about the scene.

Anyways, long story short - fantastic movie. 5 out of 5 stars.

a really awesome book blog

My friend Nick has an absolutely awesome blog that we should all read regularly. It's called Forgotten Books, and it's about old awesome books and stuff that he thinks is interesting, and it's really neat. Check it out.

26 February 2009

Brothers Grimm

Movies like this are, in some sense, the raison d'etre of the blog. In that it's a movie that you've probably heard is total crap and had no plans to watch, and I'm here to tell you it's awesome, and tell you why. 

Ok, so admittedly, my expectations for this film were very, very low. To be totally honest, I've got somewhat mixed feelings towards Terry Gilliam. While I love Monty Python, I've never been that into Brazil, I really didn't like 12 Monkeys, and I thought Tideland was, well, really fucking weird. I respect him as an artist, but I don't necessarily enjoy watching his films. I had this sneaking suspicion though, that Brothers Grimm might be the movie for me. What I was hoping for on the basis of the terrible reviews was a kind of watered down, slightly more mainstream Terry Gilliam movie, one that would really piss off his fans, but would still be too weird for most average viewers. And I think that's basically what I got. 

Brothers Grimm is definitely a very strange movie. It's also dark, creepy, and occasionally quite disturbing, but nowhere near as extreme as his other works (seriously. Tideland. oh my god). It also stars lots of big name actors - Heath Ledger! Matt Damon! along with some other good talent like Jonathan Pryce, Peter Stormare (I love that guy!) and Monica Belluci. Aside from being nice and eerie though, it's hilariously funny. Also, the visuals are stunning - it's absolutely gorgeous. And the story, which has been roundly panned, is actually a lot of fun. Ok, so it's probably more exciting if you're kind of a lit dork and really appreciate clever intertwining of text and reality, but whatever, I got a kick out of it. It kind of reminded me of something Neil Gaiman would try to do and fail utterly at. And if you wanna really nerd out on it, it's kind of an interesting reflection on technology, magic, and the art of storytelling. There's this nice transition where the film moves from storytelling as the basis of artificial wonder to genuine wonder as the basis of storytelling, and then back again. It's kind of cool.

Anyways,  it's gloriously entertaining. Check it out.

18 February 2009

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

I loved Gilead, the precursor to Home. In fact, it made my top 10 books I read in 2008 list. So Home was a risky proposition from the start. The idea of writing another book telling the same basic story but from a different character's perspective is an interesting one, but fraught with peril. Although it ultimately works out pretty ok, it's a decided let-down after the first book, and honestly, not really worth the time, I'd say.

First off, if you've read the first book - then you basically know the story. What's worse, you know more about the story than the narrator does. This makes for some interesting moments of dramatic irony, I suppose, and some tension (if you haven't read either, I don't want to give it away), but it's not that compelling. 

Secondly, the narrator of home - Glory, Jack's sister - is far less interesting than the narrator of the first book. It's sad but true. Gilead  is so incredible partly because it's narrator is so compelling; a preacher near the end of his life writing a letter to his young son, thinking about his past and wrestling with his faith. Not to mention, Ames has a beautiful narrative voice; incredibly rich language, gorgeous imagery - it's just lovely. Glory, on the other hand, is a middle aged spinster living with her father, mourning what she perceives as her somewhat wasted life, trying to confront and heal the wounds of the past created by her brother. The language she uses is not particularly wonderful. I suppose that's not her fault really, but it does make her less fun to hang out with. Also, writing the story from her perspective means we don't get most of the stuff that made the first book so interesting; the problems specific to Ames. While Glory's brother Jack was an interesting sideplot in the Gilead, he was a sideplot, and the main focus, Ames' own issues, were deservedly more central. Home gives you another perspective on Jack, which is interesting, but not enough to be central. Meanwhile, what ought to be the main focus, Glory's own problems, are pretty bland. In other words, what you lose from the first book is not amply compensated in the second. 

Then, minor things - it kind of irritated me, for instance, that every so often there were accidental omniscient narrator moments. You can't write the book from Glory's perspective and then occasionally tell us what's going on in someone else's head. Sorry. You surrendered that right when you chose the first person voice.

Secondly, the plot itself, and Glory as a character in particular, just got old. Especially towards the end of the book, when it seemed like Glory was crying all the gdamn time. Either crying or cooking. Because I do have to admit, the descriptions of food were pretty mouthwatering. 

Anyhow, overall, honestly, it's not a bad book, but I'd skip it. Read Gilead, and then read something else. 

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here

I don't know if it was the particular mood I was in or what, but this movie really knocked my socks off. For all its oddities and cheesiness (Katherine Ross in "Native"face is particularly gross), it's a really fascinating movie. Apparently based on a true story, the film traces the tale of a Paiute man named Willie Boy who's on the run from the law. The Law, as tends to be the case in Westerns, is part legal entity (ie, the sheriff, played by none other than Robert Redford) and part murderous posse who's really just interested in killing injuns. The usual debates of law, honor, justice, etc are somehow more compelling than usual in this film, and I'm really not sure why. Perhaps because they're working in tandem with a kind of inquiry into the ways in which people humiliate each other, and the force of shame. On the one hand, there's racism, masculinity, saving face and maintaining authority, which would be intriguing enough, but gains an added dimension in this film by a meditation of how this works in relationships. 

Alongside its chase narrative, the movie examines two romances - that between Willie Boy and Lola, ie, the fugitives, and that between the Sheriff and a very curious character, a frontierswoman/doctor/anthropologist lady who runs the Indian reservation. It is the latter relationship that is really fascinating, and kind of horrible. It's sheer power play. It's like something straight out of Ayn Rand, actually, except taken up a notch. It's like watching a sort of train wreck, and it's so fascinating that the rest of the movie almost pales in comparison. But then there's this amazing contrast between the two relationships that becomes totally absorbing.

Oh man, it really is an amazing movie. Highly, highly recommended. 

For those on Netflix, it doesn't seem to be available as a dvd (I saw it at my wonderful campus theatre, on 35mm), but it IS available for Watching Instantly. 

14 February 2009

Billy the Kid

The day after a friend of mine recommended this movie to me, I came across it again in this piece in the Onion on quality movies about love. The Onion list, incidentally, intrigued me - I've decided to make it a project. I've seen 14 of the 29 movies already, and aside from Once and Sideways, neither of which I particularly liked (mostly, I suppose, because the male lead in both sort of irritated me), I am inclined to agree that they're all very nice movies about love. So I'm looking forward to the rest.

Anyhow. Billy the Kid is actually not really that much about love. I mean, there is a romance involved, and in some ways it seems to be the focus of the film, but really the movie is about Billy himself. Billy is a fascinating guy, totally worthy of his own film. In some ways, he and the people in his life remind one of Napoleon Dynamite - they're awkward and strange but also largely very sweet and sincere. One is kind of surprised and relieved to realize that Billy can actually make it in the real world - or rather, the world of American adolescence, which is really far worse than the real world. Thus, the movie makes one think about societal norms and how they get reenforced - or how sometimes, they allow for exceptions that one wouldn't expect (Lars and the Real Girl also comes to mind in this regard).

I think what's lovely about Billy is the way he gravely discusses anything and everything and has very fixed, clear opinions about pretty much anything he encounters. There's no ambiguity in Billy's vision of the world. There's something kind of precious and perhaps even appealing about that. Though I bet it's annoying as hell in person.

Anyhow, all in all, a very pleasant movie. Strangely enough, it doesn't feel exploitative at all, despite the camera being up close and personal for all kinds of private moments. Though I did appreciate that Billy gets to have a romantic moment with his lady friend off-camera. I assume he must have been wearing a mic or something? Because you get the sound, but the camera is trained on the side of a building they've just ducked behind. It's a nice touch.

09 February 2009

As She Climbed Across the Table, by Jonathan Lethem

There's something supremely affable about Jonathan Lethem's writing style, and it goes a long way towards making up for a rather mysterious and undefinable weakness in his novels. For example, I remember Motherless Brooklyn, another work of his, as an absolutely fabulous book, a much better experiment in creating a narrator with a mental disorder (Tourette's) than the somewhat overrated Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime. But I also remember feeling rather disappointed at the end of the book, as though he'd let me down by not writing a better ending. I have a similar attitude towards As She Climbed Across the Table - there are many marvelous things about it that I very much appreciate, and I will indubitably remember it as a wonderful book in the years to come, but it cannot be ignored that it doesn't quite live up to its own potential. It's missing something. The ending feels oddly abrupt but also sort of ridiculous, and for all its abstract musings, it somehow fails to be as profound as it could be. Still, it's definitely an enjoyable read.

The novel details the miseries of a man named Phillip, whose girlfriend Alice, a physicist, has fallen in love with Lack, a man-made nothingness. It's almost boring, really - it's about a guy who gets his heart broken. Part of the problem with the work, I think, is that we never get to know Alice well enough to understand what he's losing, what their relationship was like before Lack came along. From the beginning of the novel she's so remote and cold that she's practically blank. Meanwhile Phillip's anxieties about the relationships initially seem like self-absorbed whining, and later like rather useless desperation. I realize this sounds very negative; I suppose what's amazing about the novel is how interesting it manages to be in spite of all this.

So the real meat of the text is Lack itself, and more generally, the relationship people have to science. This is quite fascinating, though it feels strangely underdeveloped. Strangely because there's an awful lot said about it, but I still feel like I want more. Lack is basically a void that devours some things and rejects others. By writing about different experiments that people conduct on it (or him), Lethem explores the ways in which people relate to things that they don't understand, how they make sense of them, apply metaphors to them, anthropomorphize them - and even fall in love with them.

Meanwhile, there's this side plot about two blind guys, one of whom is psychologically, though not physically, blind, and therefore seems like an interesting opportunity to solve the observer problem in physics experiments. They're fabulous characters, with wonderful dialogue, but they're largely tangential, though strangely necessary.

To restate the thesis - for all its weaknesses, it's a highly enjoyable book.

08 February 2009

Up the Yangtze

This documentary was kind of a big deal when it came out. Maybe just because China is getting to be a hot topic, and people especially seem to enjoy seeing the "real" China, and how awful it apparently is there. It's a kind of lingering trace of the Cold War, this persistent American belief that people who live under Communist rule never smile, and spend their days wailing and gnashing their teeth and wishing for freedom. And if they are happy, it's a kind of wan, deluded pleasure in shiny objects. I don't know if it's fair to say that this movie fosters such views, but I dunno, watching it, that was the impression I got. Maybe it's because I was watching it on my laptop at the airport while waiting for my very delayed flight, and I was in a crabby mood already, but I really didn't like this movie.

It's an interesting problem, how to make a documentary that brings the viewer close to the subjects without triggering their sense of decency and privacy. How do you expose someone to the private lives of others without making it seem as those you're intruding in those lives? I don't know, but neither do the makers of this film. The main thing that I hated about it was how uncaring and exploitative it felt. Firstly, in filming painful moments, secondly, in privileging them above all others, creating an extremely skewed account, and one that milked every drop of suffering out of its subjects.

The Three Gorges Dam project is a really fascinating topic, and documenting the lives of the people affected by it is an important project, but this movie just doesn't do it well.

Darkness Visible, by William Styron

I remembered hating this book when I read it years ago, but I figured I'd give it another try. It's short, only 80some pages, and the topic ought to be of interest to me. The book is an essay on depression - a memoir of madness, as Styron puts it. Now, madness is of great interest to me, particularly in autobiography, because it involves a kind of split in the self, between the crazy self and the sane one who can write about it. Autobiography generally involves a spooky sort of tension between author and subject, but madness greatly exacerbates the problem - the subject may become completely unrecognizable to the author. Depression is particularly interesting, because it doesn't mean going completely bonkers and losing contact with reality, but rather, being really unhappy, which means that your grasp of the world is warped, but not entirely lost. I'm currently finalizing a syllabus for a course on autobiography, and I was hoping this text might be a nice addition, a day of respite for my students in terms of reading load, but full of interesting questions. But as it turns out, I still hate this book.

To start with the good things, an interesting point that Styron makes is that depression is actually very difficult to describe to someone who's never experienced it. Because it's a specific kind of emotion, it's impossible to explain - you've either felt it or you haven't. This means that depression is damn near incomprehensible to a non-depressed person. I found this interesting, because in my experience it's quite true, but also something I find extremely frustrating. Something about the way Styron put it made me appreciate how difficult it is to explain. Although even the happiest person has bad days, the way they process emotion is just different somehow. I dunno. Actually, what clicked for me was that it's a similar problem to plenty of other kinds of literature - how to make someone EXPERIENCE what it describes. How do you make your reader laugh, or cry?

On the the flaws. Great allowances must be made, as Gulliver would say, for a book on depression written over 10 years ago. The cultural landscape of mental illness has radically changed since the writing of this book, more medications are available, and more is known about mental illness. So you've sort of got to take all that with a grain of salt. Ok.

What's infuriating about the book is that Styron doesn't actually try to describe what it's like to be depressed. Sure, as he's said, it's difficult or maybe impossible to do, but at least make an effort, eh? Our view of events is entirely external. "I went to lunch. I was tense and strained. I thought I'd lost a check. Turned out I hadn't." Bo-ring.

That alone would be obnoxious, but as the text develops, it gets worse. Firstly, when Styron describes the "cure" - apparently depression can be cured! Who knew! A week in the asylum and you're right as rain, free of any problems. This artificial happy ending astounded and infuriated me. My ire was exacerbated when Styron went on to hunt down the culprit, the cause of his problem. Well, he tells us pompously, of course there was probably some inherent biological tendency that he was gifted with, and perhaps some psychological reasons to be found in his youth, but there was also this evil crook doctor who gave him sleeping pills and told him to pop 'em like tic-tacs if he wanted. Well! Ok, don't get me wrong - I have no doubts that this sort of thing could, and did, happen. And still does. It's a major problem. But there's something about the insistent, complaining way that Styron keeps returning to it that annoyed the hell out of me. There's a kind of petulant snobbism to it, like how dare he! To ME of all people!

All in all, not a very good book. And makes Styron seem like a real prick, which you know, he might not have been, so what a pity.

03 February 2009

True Romance

You know how sometimes you totally love something, like a band or a tv show, and then someone points out some aspect of it, and suddenly you can no longer ignore this glaring flaw and it's ruined forever? I think that's sort of what happened to me with Quentin Tarantino. Ever since I saw this awful movie, Sleep With Me, I have this new awareness of Tarantino's dorkiness that I can't shake. Tarantino didn't actually write Sleep With Me, but he has this cameo as a guy at a party who is obsessing over, I believe it's Top Gun? and how it's the greatest movie ever made. It's kind of clever, and kind of amusing, and then suddenly, it's like, click, wait a sec - this guy is a total dork. I don't actually want to listen to him talk. Warning: by continuing to read this entry, you risk sullying your own impressions of Tarantino.

I bet if I had seen True Romance 10 years ago, I would have thought it was totally awesome. But watching it last night, I couldn't really get over how gratuitous and self-indulgent it was. Tarantino loves to do this thing where he gets a bunch of characters in an extremely tense situation, and then introduce an absurd digression. Everyone is facing off, guns pointed at each other, and suddenly, they start arguing over some random unrelated issue. The first few times, it's hilarious and brilliant, but I dunno, now I just roll my eyes. Same goes for the general dorkiness, the obsession with Elvis, kung fu movies, etc - it's become a cliche. Move on dude.

Thinking of gratuitous, Patricia Arquette's breasts should be credited on their own in this film, because oh my god, they get SO much screen time. Again, I'm not really complaining, I don't really mind looking at them, but after awhile it was like OK ENOUGH ALREADY. 

The violence, by now, seems passe. C'est la vie. 

Actually, the other thing that bugged me about it was the somewhat hamfisted plot development. I had just been talking to someone about detective fiction and how it operates - the need for visible and decipherable clues - so this was admittedly at the forefront of my mind, but it drove me crazy. IT'S SO OBVIOUS. We're watching, and I'm like, dude! Don't leave your driver's license there! 5 minutes later, it's "how did we know who it was? He left his driver's license there." Likewise, Christian Slater writes the phone number on a scrap of paper and you're like, well, now you're screwed. 5 minutes later, the bad guys are wondering how to find him, and whadya know, there's the scrap of paper with the phone number and blatantly spelled out here's where i am guys! information. This isn't an unreasonable way to make a movie, but here it's just so clunkingly obvious that it made me absolutely crazy. 

Actually, the best thing about this movie was not Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, or even Brad Pitt - it was James Gandolfini. My god he's amazing. The scene where he's torturing Patricia Arquette is fabulous. He's so fantastically evil, and so charming, it gives you the shivers. 

Still, all in all, a decidedly overrated movie.