27 November 2010

White Material

In a fictional war-torn African country, a white woman insists on staying on her coffee plantation and harvesting the crop as everyone around her flees. This is the subject of Claire Denis' new movie, White Material, but that's about as much of a narrative as you get. The movie is a fascinating evocation of atmosphere, strangely gripping despite its opacity. Denis (or her director of photography) has an incredible eye for detail - painted toenails and earrings somehow jump out at you. There's something terrifyingly compelling - and tactile - about objects in this film, and I'm not sure why, or what effect that has on what the movie is trying to convey. Another thing that gets thematized is hair; the protagonist's ponytail and the wispy locks framing her face, boy soldiers hacking off a bit of her son's fair hair, a man noting that blonde hair means bad luck. It's chilling, but you're not really sure why. Isabelle Huppert does an incredible job as the lead, a strange blend of steeliness, determination, and tunnel vision so acute that it borders on insanity. Overall, it's hard to say what exactly the film is trying to convey. The fact that it's set in an unnamed place in Africa tempts you to see it as some kind of broader allegory, and it obviously indexes various colonial tensions, but to what end, exactly, I don't know. But it's definitely gripping, and visually striking, and, I think, worth watching.

26 November 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

I decided to make a holiday of the holiday, take a break from work and read something purely for leisure. Ideally something light and somewhat fluffy but still compelling. Let me tell you now, anytime you're in that kind of mood, Audrey Niffenegger is a good bet - airplane, beach, or couch. Her books are page-turners, definitely not great works of art, but nonetheless quite satisfying. This wasn't, perhaps, quite as gripping as The Time Traveler's Wife, but overall it was quite similar - a somewhat odd but quite clever idea bolstered by adequately amiable, though not exactly lyrical, prose. This was better than TTTW in that it didn't have quite as much science in it, so you didn't have to be annoyed by things trying to sound scientific instead of impossible.

As for the plot - a woman dies, and leaves her apartment to the twin daughters of her twin sister. Hilarious hijinx ensue! Kinda. At first, there's a lot of mopiness and failed attempts at haunting, which is not so compelling, but as the relationships between the characters develop, you find yourself increasingly absorbed into the story. I don't want to say much more about it, because honestly, it's not that great of a book, so the less you know about it the better, if you intend to read it. And it really is an entirely pleasant read - not a bad way to spend a gray winter day at all.

20 November 2010

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

I have really mixed feelings about Lydia Davis - I really liked Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and I HATED End of Story, to such an extent that I kind of started hating Lydia Davis. But now that some time has passed, I'm feeling less hostile. Not to the extent that I want to read any of her fiction, but to the point that I see her as a skilled prosaist who happens to be an annoying person. So I was actually quite excited to read her new translation of Madame Bovary, which I had read in college and not really appreciated, but suspected I would enjoy more now. There's been a fair amount of hubbub surrounding this new version, both as a reconsideration of the original work and as a translation. Julian Barnes has a rather whiny review of the translation that is, however, useful because it actually compares sentences from numerous versions. Barnes intends this to serve as evidence of the flaws in Davis' work, but honestly, in pretty much every case I disagree with him. I haven't read the original, but I'll tell you this - I think this translation is phenomenal. I think Davis' slightly sterile, cold yet ornate prose is perfectly suited to this work. I was completely bowled over by the beauty of the language in the novel, which I did not remember at all in my earlier reading. It's exquisite.

As for the novel itself, it's a masterpiece. Very interesting contrast to Anna Karenina, which I read not so long ago. I think it might require, as a prerequisite, a certain amount of pre-existing appreciation for 19th century fiction. But it's a really gorgeous novel, and incredibly dense and fascinating. I could talk about it for days, but I think I'm going to refrain and get back to work. I'll just say this - it's a fascinating study in irony and narration (which its deservedly famous for), but also in happiness, illusions, emotion, and habit. Very much worth reading.

18 November 2010

Room in Rome

I'm gonna be up front - I basically went to see this because I figured it'd be a hot lesbian movie. It's the same director as Sex and Lucia, which I seem to remember not liking very much but thinking was very sexy. This turned out to be much the same. The sex scenes are great, the dialogue is, mmmph, ok, and overall, the movie is just so-so. But the sex scenes are great.

The movie is about a one night stand; when we first meet the two women, they're already past the initial phases of the operation and one is persuading the other to come to her room. We have Alba, a sexy Spaniard, and Natasha, a sexy Russian who has apparently never been with a woman before. Over the course of the film, they tell each other stories about their lives, some clearly lies, some that might be. They have lots of very sexy sex and, maybe, they fall in love.

Initially, the dialogue struck me as hollow, the acting as terrible, and the whole thing as rather disastrous, but brightened by nudity. As it progressed, however, I found myself drawn into it. What is ultimately really fascinating about the movie is that it makes you realize how astonishing love really is, and how much trust it entails. It's made more vivid in this case because the two women are constantly lying to each other, and catching each other at it, so that by the end, you really still have no idea if they are who they say they are. So the question of whether or not they're actually in love, or whether they're simply living out a fantasy, becomes completely nebulous - and this makes you (well, me at least) think that actually, it always is. And it takes an incredible leap of faith to trust another person enough to set off down that road. The movie does a really good job of illuminating that, but then it sort of loses steam and towards the end it drags.

Worth watching though, especially if you like seeing pretty ladies get it on.

On a different note, I don't generally say much about music, but isn't this cover of Baby Be Mine incredible? The video is nice too. Quadron, check 'em out.

02 November 2010

Dispatches from the International Film Fest

I know, it's long overdue, and these movies deserve more than a brief mention, but hey, I'm busy. And I went to a lot of movies. So, in brief:

Love Translated
A fantastic and extremely entertaining documentary about men who use an internet service to find wives in the Ukraine. The service sends them on a group field trip where they get to meet women (and judge a local pageant), and the film chronicles the adventure from both sides. It's really, really interesting, and quite well done. Definitely watch it if you get the chance.

Red Hill
Meh. An Australian Western that wants to be No Country for Old Men, but kinda drags.

Cold Weather
Indie flick about a guy and his sister who find themselves involved in a mystery when the guy's girlfriend disappears. It's fairly standard Generation Q type stuff, though better than usual. It was a little on the slow side, but I liked it a lot more than most movies of this kind, because it didn't have quite the rampant self-indulgence and angst that these things tend to. The director wants it to be a Portland movie, but honestly, there wasn't much Portland in it to me, aside from a scene at the Montage. But it was cute and kind of charming.

A Brazilian martial arts myth type film, except with capoiera instead of kung fu. Not great, but I dug it. The main flaw was occasional jarringly cheesy music. Also, the politics of it were kind of... I dunno, odd.

All That I Love
A lovely Polish coming of age paean to punk rock. Not mindblowingly good, but sweet and definitely worth watching.

King's Road
Totally bizarre but lots of fun, albeit slightly on the long side. Daniel Brühl is in it. I love Daniel Brühl. I dunno if it's him or his agent, but he tends to star in great, quirky films. Anyways, yeah, loaded with dark humor, but strangely touching. Reinforces my suspicion that people from Iceland are insane.

My Joy
Oh man. People HATED this movie. I kind of loved it. Definitely for advanced art film viewers only, heh heh. Totally impressionistic, non-narrative style, basically a series of vignettes of encounters between strangers, most of which end in extremely brutal violence. The cinematography is breathtaking, and I thought it was kind of a fascinating reflection on storytelling overall. Like, there was this great moment where there's a scene in a crowded marketplace, and you're following the main character, and then suddenly the camera randomly starts following some other woman who walks off into the woods, then shifts to some random dude, then kinda seems to say "well, I guess they're not doing anything interesting", and goes back to the main character. There are also completely inexplicable jumps in time. I was tickled. The audience was enraged.

I have very little patience for movies that feature a large cast of characters and interwoven stories, because I find that the attempt to basically tell 5 stories instead of one leads to cliches as shorthand to make up for the lack of character development. This movie does exactly that. And to make it more annoying (to me) they're mostly cliches about Muslims.

Asleep in the Sun
The description said the movie was about a guy who has his wife committed so as to treat her depression, and she comes back different. Attention to the everyday, they said, was what made this movie stand out. I expected a thoughtful film about depression. What I got was a bizarre, quasi-sci-fi slow-paced thriller. But I dug it.