30 August 2007

2 Days in Paris

I really did not expect to like this movie. I figured it was gonna be like Before Sunrise/Sunset, and was chuckling to myself that it could be subtitled "Sometime Around Mid-day". Maybe it's because I'm in my mid-twenties, maybe it's the particular state of mind I've been in lately, but I've got to say, with only a slight twinge of embarassment, that the movie totally won me over.

It started, curiously enough, with the previews. It was the first time in a long time that I have actually wanted to see the movies advertised by the previews (with the exception of Ira and Abby, which looks like absolute crap*). I had this strange feeling like, wow, these are previews geared towards a specific target audience, and what do you know, apparently I fit into it quite neatly. Yowza.

But anyhow, the movie itself is surprisingly hilarious.

In many ways, it IS similar to the Sunrise/Sunset films, in that it's basically following a couple around and watching them interact. But, as my friend pointed out, whereas those films are about these escapist fantasy relationships that never have to encounter reality, this movie is quite the opposite - it's a couple who is attempting to go on vacation but can't really escape the reality of their day-to-day relationship.

More importantly, though, is that this movie has those same kind of pseudo-philosophical reflections of the Sunrise/Sunset movies - but with a pinch of cynicism. So, for instance, Julie Delpy saying that she learned recently that women use more toilet paper than men because they wipe when they pee, and good god think about the waste and destruction, because she mourns it everytimes she's on the toilet, is something that in the earlier movies would have been uttered earnestly, in a way that would imply that this is a profound thought that the viewer should also consider. Whereas here, it's delivered in the middle of a neurotic outburst and is portrayed as perhaps kind of interesting and charming, but ultimately somewhat silly and melodramatic. Likewise, Julie Delpy responds to Adam Goldberg's obsession with the small world theory not with rapture, but by rolling her eyes and saying, "yeah, ok, it's kind of interesting, but come on, get over yourself". But these ideas aren't totally scoffed at and dismissed (the small world theory, for instance, is cleverly interwoven into the film in a very elegant way, rather than the heavy handed treatment one would expect).

Also, as stated, there are some uproariously funny moments in the film. About 20 minutes in, there's a sequence with the pet cat that is sheer genius. That cat should earn an Oscar for his performance. Seriously, he's amazing. There are so many scenes that, while they may stretch credibility a bit, are wonderfully witty and marvelously amusing. The humor alone makes the movie worth watching.

Finally, though, and here's where my twinge of embarrassment comes in, I think the movie is actually an excellent portrayal of relationships. Aside from the sex scenes, which I found rather obnoxiously ridiculous, I thought that the film captured something really essential about the way that two people in a relationship interact. Not to mention some nice, albeit exaggerated, points about the awkwardness of meeting your partner's family, and the trials and travails of cross-cultural romance. The final scene, especially, which some critics have panned, to me was so incredibly life-like that it was almost uncomfortable to watch.

The New Republic's review (which one should not read before seeing the movie) dogs on the ending of the film as an overly simplistic rushjob, and deplores in particular the way that voice-over narration plays a major role, but in my opinion, the ending is actually quite ambiguous - elegantly so. And I quite appreciated the voice-over, both here, and throughout. I thought it was a clever way of cutting through what could easily have been tedious plot development and condensing it in a really apt way. Actually, re-reading the review now, I'm kind of blown away by how totally off it seems - the guy who wrote it just didn't get the movie at all. Interesting.

I'm curious (maybe for once someone will leave a comment...) how much of my own reaction to this movie is dependent on the stage of life I happen to be in. I can well imagine that in, say, 5 years, I'll look at it the way you look at things you loved when you were 15, but at the same time, what can I say, I think it's a quality flick. Julie Delpy as a director is still, at times, a bit amateurish, and seems like she's trying a little too hard to be artsy, but she also seems to be aware of it and poking fun at her own affectation for much of the film, which goes a long way towards making up for it. So I suspect that while I may, in coming years, look back on the worldview that the movie comes out of with a sense of indulgent nostalgia, I bet I'll still find the funny scenes hilarious.

*Ok, I need to bitch for a minute about Ira and Abby. It's made by the same people who did Kissing Jessica Stein, which is your first red flag. Much like that movie, it seems to basically be a film in which two people are put in a completely preposterous romantic situation and try to actually live it out. The only vaguely interesting thing about it is that it's this attempt to be overly cerebral about love and relationships - like in Kissing Jessica Stein, where the main character decides to try dating women because she's sick of men, as if it were actually that simple. What's really obnoxious about this is that it gets billed as a "modern romance" - as if this completely ridiculous approach somehow captured something authentic about this day and age. Give me a fucking break.

19 August 2007

This is England

A phenomenal movie. This is one of those incredible films that manages to be about one boy, an entire nation, and a moment in history all at once. It's brilliant. It's basically a good hard look at the Skinhead movement in England in the 80s. What's so impressive to me about it is the way in which it very subtly shows the ways that a working class movement becomes inflected with racism, and how this is linked to Britain's actions in the Falklands, which in turn is a reflection on Britain's imperial identity. The characters are complex and multi-faceted and extremely realistic. There's no simplistic villification, but also no apologia for some of their more hideous actions.

It's also interesting in its portrayal of a young kid growing up and being sort of indoctrinated into a political movement. It's not that he's being brainwashed, but at the same time, obviously, he's a kid, so you can't really say that he's making a fully informed rational choice. It's not that he's getting pulled in by promises of lollipops, though certainly there's an element of this being a community that is giving him a kind of love, acceptance, and support that he very much needs, but it's also that they tap into some of his emotional needs that have political consequences. It's kind of an interesting way into thinking about politics and feelings; how closely held and dear to you your political beliefs are, how emotionally engaged you are with what is happening in the world. And how those things that are happening far far away may have tangible effects close to home that you aren't even fully aware of.

Then there's just the beautiful depiction of being a kid, being a skin, having fun with your friends, goofing off. It's so wonderfully done, you have to laugh in recognition. Just marvelous. The acting, by the way, is absolutely fantastic in this movie. Really incredible.

Anyhow, really a must-see film. Highly recommended, though to be fair, I ought to warn you that there are some disturbing scenes.

Incidentally, the movie also has a pretty kickass webpage that includes the main actor's audition tape, which is pretty rad.

14 August 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Not the most amazing action flick I've ever seen, but a kick in the pants all the same. My one real beef with the film was Julia Stiles, who looks more and more like a pug dog every day and has one of the worst dye-jobs I've ever seen in my life. How in the hell are you gonna be a covert CIA agent when you're sporting a hairstyle that makes everyone within 20 feet of you gag? Not to mention, when you're obviously a bumbling, pouting idiot? When she's attempting to elude an assassin by weaving through crowded marketplaces, it's all you can do not to jump out of your seat and scream "SHOOT THE BITCH ALREADY!"

There's also the ridiculous globe-trotting factor, which for some reason I found inordinately amusing. There's something so brazenly ridiculous about it, I dunno. It's like a paean to globalization or something. The world is at our fingertips! We can go anywhere! There's one moment late in the film where Bourne has been given a numeric code indicating a location, and the team follows him first attempts to decipher it by locating the indicated latitude/longitude, placing it in Cameroon. Unfortunately, they dismiss it as unlikely, but I really would have appreciated a random segueway to a crack team of snipers busting down some random doors in Cameroon. This, incidentally, does point to the lurking power dynamic in our supposed world-era, namely, the way that some places are implicitly seen as important, locations where "things happen", and the rest of the world is just kinda filler. Jason Bourne never goes to, say Tulsa. But anyhow.

The action sequences are sweet as hell. Matt Damon is a raging badass. Not only can he kick the crap out of whoever in the hell he wants, but he's crafty. Part of the joy of the film is watching him work his way out of sticky situations with the precision of a killbot while everyone else runs around like beheaded chickens.

What follows is heavily dependent on spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, and by some miracle HAVEN'T figured out Jason Bourne's mysterious story, stop reading now.

So in this film, we finally find out how Jason Bourne became Jason Bourne. The answer is so mindblowingly simple and obvious that it's a wonder it took 3 movies to get it out. How did it happen? HE VOLUNTEERED. Yeah. Astounding, eh? Basically, for reasons the film doesn't go into, Bourne, formerly known as David Webb, volunteered to become a government killing machine. He knew exactly what this would involve; that he would lose his former identity, probably not even remember it at all, and that he would basically be a tool of the government, killing whoever they wanted without even knowing why. So what happened? Well, I guess something went wrong in his programming, because it seems he woke up one morning like, "whoa whoa whoa! wtf? killing people is wrong! did i really do that? who am i? am i an evil person? holy craptown! what in the holy hell is going on?" And now suddenly, he thinks the government must be evil and corrupt to have created people like him. Typical shifting of blame, eh?

This raises some interesting points though.

One, the problem of the contract killer. Basically, the question is whether governments need people like (the original) Jason Bourne. Somebody who will go kill somebody that the government has deemed an appropriate target without asking questions or having guilt issues. Is it necessary to violate the rule of law in order to preserve the law itself? A pressing question in our current times, n'est ce pas? The movie ends up trying to claim something like, well sure, there are some people that need to be killed, but there ought to be a WHOLE LOT of oversight and double checking to make sure the right people are getting capped. Also, maybe the people doing the killing shouldn't be trained killing machines who won't feel guilt or, you know, have identities. At one scene at the end, Bourne/Webb looks at the dude aiming a gun at him and says (something like): "Look at what they're making you do. Do you even know why you're supposed to kill me?" Does the film really intend to suggest it would be a preferable state of affairs if government assassins were fully informed about their missions and had the opportunity to evaluate whether it was _really_ a good idea? Because, um, that doesn't seem like a very good idea to me...

Secondly, the problem of action versus identity. Are we what we do, or do we have some kind of essential core of identity that is separate from, albeit occasionally reflected in, action? And of course, how much can a person really change? (a question handled far more brilliantly in the incredible History of Violence, by the way) In other words, is our poor tormented hero a bad guy, just because he's done a lot of things that he now thinks of as awfully bad? Does that fact that he was programmed to do them make a difference? Does the fact that he volunteered to be programmed to do them make a difference? The movie doesn't have much to say about that, though I suppose the idea is that Bourne is redeemed by blowing the whistle on the bad guys. Whether or not it'll turn out that he just can't help but kill people when he gets pissed off remains to be seen.

All in all, a fun little movie.

11 August 2007

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

The genius of Gary Shteyngart is the way he manages to perfectly embody a particular worldview. He's the poster child for the cosmopolitan postmodern subject, cheerfully irreverent in his blending of cultures, relentlessly hip* and up-to-date on the latest technological developments and cultural trends, blending crude jokes and pop culture references with highbrow theoretical banter, ironic in that delightful way that manages to both adore and poke fun at his object simultaneously, yet with a kind of touching naivete at the same time. Probably I love it so much because it's so close to my own worldview, but there you have it. A novel that refers to DJ Assault's "Ass-N-Titties" as a seminal work in the genre of ghettotech is bound to win me over. The juxtaposition of a series of cultural groups that many would consider distant from each other is delightful. To illustrate: "Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice-T do in this situation? I reached for my mobilnik, ready to dial my Park Avenue analyst, Dr Levine, to tell him that once again I had been insulted and injured, that once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian."

Shteyngart indulges in a loving, but cynical adoration of America and all that it represents. Another marvelous quote: "This is what happens when you don't learn English, by the way. You're always at a loss for words." What I particularly appreciate about this is the way that he positions himself as the outsider who insists that he is a native. He has the exile's perspective, the doubled vision that allows him to truly appreciate what it means to be American, an awareness of things that Americans take for granted. Yet he proudly embraces this American identity, while nonetheless being well aware that to do so is to indulge in a kind of immorality, to partake in an arrogance that is normally sustained by ignorance. At the same time, he points out that ignorance at every turn, poking fun at it while marvelling at its effects.

So this is the genius of Shteyngart, but sad to say, it works far better in his previous work, A Russian Debutante's Handbook, than in Absurdistan. Because while the prose is delightful, Absurdistan just isn't a very good book. It's sort of like Confederacy of Dunces imagined as political satire. Problem one - the usual issue of whether or not one has any sympathy for the main character. It's hard to have your main protagonist be grotesque and not particularly likeable. But Shteyngart is trying to have it both ways; it tries to force the reader into that position of doubled irony, and it just doesn't work. I can't bring myself to genuinely care about Misha, because at the end of the day, I don't really like him. This means that much of the book's action is robbed of its emotional force, and therefore its momentum. Problem 2 - the political satire bit is sort of limp and uninteresting. It's not really doing or saying anything new, so the potential political critique is pretty blah. Problem 3 - the metameta irony can be a bit tired at times. Making himself the villain in the book, for instance, is amusing at first, but then gets kind of irritating.

So at the end of the day, reading this book is sort of like hanging out with someone really cool while doing something really boring. If you're trying to decide whether or not to read it, think of it this way - if a friend of yours called you and asked if you wanted to go spend 6 hours standing in line at the DMV, would you go?

* Ever since I saw a movie advertised as "relentlessly original", I've fallen in love with this preposterous use of the word. Try it, it's fun.

01 August 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

I will try not to put any serious spoilers in this post...

Holy cow, this book sucks. Seriously. I enjoyed the previous ones. They were good stories, definitely pageturners. Not particularly brilliant prose, but told the tale fairly well. The books were well organized and the characters were pretty well fleshed out, which, given the increasing size and scale of the works, is no small feat.

But this book, on the other hand, seems thrown together. The sequence of narration seems arbitrary, as though Rowling occasionally got bored with the plot and decided to throw in 50 pages of reminiscing from one of the characters instead. The various problems and concerns of the characters have a totally haphazard feel to them, which negates the emotional tension they attempt to produce. It's not that there's too much going on - I wouldn't say that the plot is really that much more jampacked than the earlier books - it's just messy and far too dispersed. The attempt to create suspense by deferring full disclosure of information to the end of the text fails miserably, because there hasn't been enough information given early on to lead the reader to actually care.

Meanwhile, the didacticism of this work, the petty general moralizations, are so blunt that the plot comes to serve as a clumsy device to illustrate how important it is to be a good person. Except that rather than illustrating it, it just tells you over and over.

What I found most puzzling though, were all the veiled references to Nazism and German history. Sure, there's the obvious obsession with racial purity and requiring those with "alien" blood to register, but what about Nuremgard prison, or Durmstrang? Why do a little worldplay with a German Romantic movement? What kid is gonna get that? Shit, most adults won't. Yet I simply can't believe it's coincidental. Did Rowling think she was making the book more powerful, more monumental, by burying references to WWII in it?

In any case, sorry guys, but it's a stinker. Incidentally, the latest movie isn't so hot either. So much for Pottermania, eh?