24 September 2008

I'm Through With White Girls: The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks

I HATE rom-coms. You know this. Even when I kind of like them, I hate them. I hate the way they oversimplify human interactions and make it seem like all anybody needs is love to be happily every after, and especially how they tend to feature self-centered whiners who I'm supposed to like and cheer for. So I really wasn't expecting to like I'm Through With White Girls. But the title, which apparently made some people uncomfortable (give me a break), appealed to me. I first heard about the movie via a review on okayplayer that piqued my curiosity. And you know what? I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It's one of the smartest romantic comedies I've ever seen. In fact, it might be the ideal romantic comedy.

I mean, if you think about it, romantic comedies are basically all the same - boy meets girl, they overcome some obstacles, they end up happily ever after. The art of the romcom is finding a way to spice up the stock plot while keeping the movie light-hearted and not making anyone think too hard. Often, this is done by making the obstacles really bizarre - think 50 First Dates - or by making the characters really odd - think Punch Drunk Love, though I guess that's not really upbeat enough to count as a romcom. Whatever. Find your own example. Or, you can make it a bit more profound by using it as an opportunity to reflect on some aspect of society, or love - When Harry Met Sally might - MIGHT - qualify in this category (and no, I don't like that movie either). I'm Through With White Girls takes this third path, and as it's traveling the well-worn road of the romance plot, takes the time to think about race and stereotypes.

So first off, it's quite clever and often very funny. Sure, at times the subversion of stereotypes is a little over the top - one scene in particular lines up a whole array of caricatures only to give them the surprising twist; the biker who turns out to be gay, the frat boy who turns out to be dating a very elegant looking black woman, etc. So it occasionally oversimplifies, but hey, so do all romcoms, and this one has its heart in the right place. Actually, the only surprise was that there was really no poking fun at white girls, which I was actually kinda looking forward to. The most interesting inquiry into racial stereotypes is the investigation of the clash between two black families, one upper and one middle, who are about to be united by marriage. Both sides are caricatures, sure, but it's nonetheless a good-natured treatment of both sides, full of lovable foibles. Race satire is tricky, at least for me, because if it's too bitter, it's not really funny at all and it just makes me angry and depressed (Black People Love Us) and if it's too snide, it's more obnoxious than amusing (Stuff White People Like, which at first I found funny, then it got REALLY tired). I'm Through With White Girls, at least by my standards, struck the perfect balance - amusing but thoughtful. It never got preachy, nor did it ever get overly feel-good.

Aside from the two families, there's also some consideration of interracial dating, though not nearly so much as you'd think, given the title. There's one particularly interesting moment, actually, when the main character, Jay, calls his girlfriend out for saying he looks like Gary Coleman. It's the standard cringe-inducing line, but the exchange between them is interesting: (approximate quote) "You can't tell black people they look like famous black people. We're sensitive about that." "I didn't tell black people. I told you. A guy I'd been fucking for 5 months. Besides, it was a joke!" It's a subtle way of pointing out the potential minefields in interracial relationships - or any relationships that cross lines, for that matter. Shit, maybe it's just a danger in any relationship, now that I think of it, it just takes a more readily identifiable form when it's crossing race, ethnic, or class lines. You're bound to offend the hell out of your partner at some point, it's just a question of whether they can refer to an overarching principle when they call you a thoughtless asshole.

The social commentary aside, I actually really appreciated the romance in the movie too, which was probably the biggest surprise of all. It's strikingly genuine. Both characters are likeable but flawed - they seem like real people. Actually, the same can be said of all the characters in the movie - they're extremely realistic. Even in appearance. Apparently some people complained about the white girls in the movie not being hot enough, but I guess they didn't notice that most people in the movie are pretty average looking, aside from the two leads, who are attractive but not preposterously so. They look like normal attractive people. It's refreshing. Anyways, yeah, so what's also nice is the way their relationship (and its problems) is portrayed. Again, highly believable, so much so that it almost seems mundane. So although you find both characters a little annoying, you kinda like 'em anyways, and you do find yourself hoping they can get their shit together and make it work. It's nice. I mean, I wasn't moved to tears or elation, but we all know I have a heart of ice so really, when it comes to this genre, placid, vague interest is about the best you're gonna get from me anyhow.

Let me be clear - it IS a rom-com. It's not an epic, moving experience. Rom-coms are by definition light fare, so it's hard to get really worked up about them. But it's a decidedly pleasant film, and far more intelligent than pretty much all the mainstream garbage that gets put out these days.

20 September 2008

Gang Related

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, then you know that I have a "thing" for Tupac Shakur and decided to watch all of his movies (you may recall my posts on Poetic Justice and Bullet). Gang Related was his final film, and is in many ways similar to the others. Most of his movies can be seen as investigations of evil; how people struggle to do the right thing, with a particular interest in the way their past or their milieu plays in this struggle. Gang Related is perhaps somewhat notable for the fact that 2Pac plays a cop, which apparently some people found ironic, given that he'd been arrested a number of times even in the year preceding the making of this film. But it's not really that strange: 2Pac was always interested, I think, in the blurring of the lines between good and evil, and recognized the law and its officers as occupying an ambiguous position in that dichotomy. Particularly in the case of crooked cops, one of whom he plays in this film.

Gang Related is kind of great because it paints its moral dilemmas with a broad brush. Tupac and his partner are cops whose preferred method seems to be sussing out drug dealers by selling them drugs, then killing them and taking their drugs back. It's not exactly subtle, but as Belushi puts it, hey, it's one less drug dealer on the streets. And honestly, I suspect that a good portion of Americans would agree with him on that score (Sarah Palin, for instance, recently attacked Obama by saying that "Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?"). So Tupac and James Belushi are merrily cleaning up the streets of America, until one night, they mistakenly kill an undercover DEA agent. OOOOPS. Now it's a race to cover it up quickly and in a convincing fashion. The following scenes, as they scramble to pin it on the first sleazebag they can find, are absolutely hilarious, as everyone seems to have an airtight alibi. But gradually the tone becomes slightly more somber as they settle on a drunk homeless guy as their perp. At this point, their accomplice, Belushi's stripper mistress, drops the NOT COOL GUYS. And the viewer is tempted to agree. But the film makes an interesting move from here, as the homeless guy flourishes in prison, receiving a shower, haircut, and rehab for his substance abuse. "Prison has done me a lot of good," he says. But then, the plot takes another turn, and the homeless guy is revealed to be... a goddamn saint. A rich, powerful one no less. Bwahaha. Of course he is! From here, our two heroes have one of two choices: to rush headlong into moral abyss, or to shape up and do the right thing. Belushi rather blandly picks the first. Tupac struggles with the second, hampered by the fact that he's got a few skeletons in his closet himself. And so the film works its way to its bracingly matter-of-fact ending. 

Yeah, ok, it's not exactly mind-blowing. But I was really fascinated by the way the movie alternated between exaggerated humor and a rather nuanced moral inquiry, without ever getting really heavy-handed or didactic. It was a surprisingly compelling story, and rang a serious note from time to time, but was also genuinely funny whenever the mood threatened to get too dark.

Tupac, although he's one of the more interesting characters in the film, is quite subdued. It's a performance rendered more poignant by his untimely death soon thereafter, but honestly, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you can really see how much he's matured as an actor, and how much potential he had. Much as I love his other movies, it must be admitted that he shines almost too much - he's so mesmerizing as to be distracting, and you can never really forget that it's him playing a part. In this movie, on the other hand, he finds a way to contain his magnetic charisma and slip fully into the role. One wishes that someone more interesting that Belushi were taking center stage, but in any case, it's a testament to Pac's acting abilities that he manages to stay in the background. The man was a genius. 

14 September 2008

Japanese Story

When I rented this movie, I thought I was getting a lighthearted, clash-of-cultures rom-com. I was completely wrong. Japanese Story is surprisingly moving and quite affecting, largely because of an incredible performance by Toni Collette. I don't want to say too much about the movie, because I think it's actually far more effective as a film if you don't really know what you're getting into. So I'll just say that the pacing is slow, the emotional valences are subtle,  but it's really quite a powerful movie.

What I found especially intriguing about this film is that it really feels like a short story. It's hard to describe, but there's something about the way the plot is framed. I mean, all movies have plots,  but there's something measured and specific here. It's telling you about a particular event in a very focused sort of way. Elizabeth Bowen describes short stories as being like a beam of light concentrated on one spot, surrounded by shadow, and this is what that movie feels like. I don't know if that makes sense at all, but if you watch the movie, perhaps you'll know what I mean. It's awfully hard to explain. 

I was glancing over the Netflix reviews of the movie and they're all over the map, more so than usual. I think this is because of the way the characters are handled. You don't get a lot of access to their minds; you see them mostly from the outside. So if you don't pick up on the sparse information you get about them, you'll probably find them completely flat and unconvincing and hate the movie. Personally, I found them quite compelling, but I think it's because of the actors' performances, which were really phenomenal. 

In any case, really a very interesting movie. Totally threw me for a loop. 

11 September 2008

The Dead Pool

I got a tremendous kick out of how fantastically straight-forward this movie was. Not that it was crude or unintelligent, it was just phenomenally cut and dry, proceeding in a step-by-step fashion that had you sort of nodding along going, oh yeah, ok, rather than gripping the edge of your seat. This only created problems in scenes that were supposed to be suspenseful. The famed car chase scene, for instance, borders on ridiculous. SPOILER. Clint Eastwood and his partner are fleeing from a remote control car with a bomb strapped to it. First off, I had no idea that remote control cars were so badass. Secondly, there's an unavoidable comic aspect to a miniature car chasing a full size one. Thirdly, the scene lasts for a really long time, and at no point does it seem to cross anyone's mind to try and catch the guy behind the control, who is closely following in his own vehicle. Fourthly, in the end, they don't actually escape the car. I know right?!? All that just to have it explode you anyways? wtf! I loved it. 

But really, there's a curious matter of fact quality to the movie that is really intriguing.  The murder mystery part was, it must be admitted, pretty basic and not particularly suspenseful. But that's not the only reason - it's something about the lack of character development maybe, such that everything that happens seems somewhat arbitrary, but not necessarily improbable. For instance, sure, Clint Eastwood and Patricia Clarkson can have a romance. We kind of see it coming, but then again, there's not really much in the way of romantic tension. Or romance period - the only real evidence we have of their relationship, aside from one moment when Clint comforts her after they've been attacked, which could just as easily be construed as simple decency - is that he spends the night at her house. We know this because he gets in her car, and his partner picks him up at her place. We never actually see it. It neither adds nor detracts anything from the rest of the film. Same goes, really, for the killer's lunacy. Yeah, ok, he's crazy. Not really surprising. Not really necessary, but hey, it works just as well as any other explanation, right? It's like there's a kind of meh, whatever ethos pervading the film, where the people involved wanted to work just hard enough to produce a movie that wasn't bad, but not necessarily hard enough to make something really good. It even comes through in the way that Clint Eastwood shoots people. Everything he does is careful and measured - there's never a sense that he's in a hurry, even if he's moving quickly. When he shoots people, the gun is always tilted quite low, as though he didn't feel like exerting the effort to point the gun directly at them. It should be acknowledged that the film does hold itself to a rather high standard when it comes to plausibility. There's no real funny business in the plot, unless you count the partner's past with gangs. Again, this isn't to say that it's dull, just that it lacks the over-the-top quality that most movies of the genre possess.

So it's not a great movie. But it's not a bad one either. As far as Dirty Harry movies go, you've got to admit that there are better ones. But as far as movies in general go, there are a lot of much worse ones too. 

10 September 2008

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

This book is practically required reading for anyone living in Chicago. People have been recommending it to me for ages, but for some reason I never got around to it until last weekend. The first 20 pages or so were absolutely engrossing. The next hundred or so were fantastic beach reading. And then I started to get annoyed. And by the last 80 pages, I was rolling my eyes and waiting for it to be over.

So, here's the thing - there's some fascinating information in this book. The picture it paints of turn of the century Chicago is pretty amazing. It's a really interesting story. Unfortunately, it's not told well. At first it's great, fast-paced and full of meaningful portent, and then you realize that it's appallingly formulaic. Larson, as a writer, is a one-trick pony. He just can't contain himself. He loves cliff-hanger sentences so much that he feels compelled to separate them out from the rest of the paragraph just in case you didn't realize how very important they are. Pay attention! For instance:

(...) Later, he recalled, "I told her I thought he was a bad lot and that she had better have little to do with him and get away from him as soon as possible."
For the time being, at least, she ignored his advice.

The suspense is palpable! What do you think, will she come to a bad end? OF COURSE SHE WILL! That obnoxious tone runs throughout the text. When it's not portending doomy doom, it's gloating over the 20-20 nature of hindsight with uncontained schadenfreude:

Bloom regretted his failure to copyright the tune. The royalties would have run into the millions.

Not that this is an unforgivable literary technique, but Larson wields it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Every character, every event, no matter how mundane, is given the suspenseful thriller treatment, and as a result, the whole thing becomes ridiculous. Throw in a few moments where the supposedly electrifying link between characters is pathetically tenuous and bam, the text crumples. When the Titanic reappears at the end of the book, you're waiting for Forrest Gump to jog by. 

It's a real pity too, because like I said, the subject matter is really fascinating. Turn of the century America, especially in a big city, is fascinating enough, but even if you don't live in Chicago, the events surrounding the World Fair and the way they relate to the formation of American identity is worth knowing more about. And serial killers are pretty generally intriguing. So if you think you can stomach the ridiculous writing and you're seriously curious about the topic, check it out. But don't expect the book itself to provide anything of worth besides sheer facts. While Larson is certainly to be commended for the volume of research he did to create this book, he has disappointingly little insight or reflection on what he's turned up. 

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

A strange sequence of events led me to pick up this book - I had heard of it before, but I had absolutely no desire to read it. By the time I picked it up, I was absolutely exhausted and miserable (a long story in itself, but let me just say this - don't EVER take US Airways. May they sink into bankruptcy as soon as possible - and if my experience with them is anything to go by, then they undoubtedly will.). I don't know if that played a role in my enjoyment of the book, but it's worth noting, I suppose.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's account of a really, really bad year. Her daughter is in a coma, her husband dies, her daughter recovers then falls ill again - it's awful. In the space of a week, the two closest people in her life are gone (or nearly so). The book is basically a series of reflections written later, thinking back on this time in her life. It's not exactly an appealing premise, hence my initial lack of interest in reading it, but oddly enough, I found myself absolutely absorbed. I've never read anything by Didion before (any recommendations?), but she is a marvelous writer. Her prose is highly evocative and incredibly moving. There's an intimate feel to the book that isn't just a result of its highly personal subject matter. 

It's strange to enjoy reading such an incredibly accurate evocation of grief. There's a bizarre pleasure in the sense of recognition you have, thinking, my god, that's exactly how I felt, and remembering this awful time in your own life, marveling at how similar it was to what Didion is describing. I've discussed it with various people over the last few days, and the general consensus seems to be that it comes out of a comfort in solidarity and similarity. It's nice to know that other people are just like you. 

I think the other pleasure to this book is that it's a work in progress - the author is seeking wisdom rather than offering it, thinking through her experiences in order to better understand them herself. So there are quotes from other thinkers and writers discussing love and loss and grief, and brief bits from medical journals, making the book into a kind of tapestry of ideas. Ultimately, there's not much in the way of a plot arc or trajectory, but you don't really feel the lack. I guess the experience of reading the book is kind of like having a long, in-depth and rather intense conversation with a really close friend - it's a kind of bittersweet feeling, simultaneously sad and invigorating. I suppose there is a kind of catharsis involved as well. In any case, a very good book.

02 September 2008

Tell No One

This was a funny little movie. It's supposed to be a suspenseful thriller, and it is, but the thing is, the characters are so wonderful that they almost distract you from the plot. It's really curious, actually. I mean, it's a great movie, but not at all in the way you sort of expect it to be.

The plot is basic thriller stuff - man's wife gets murdered, 8 years later he gets an email that seems to indicate that she's still alive, and meanwhile some new shit comes to light, as the Dude would say, and suddenly her husband is once again a suspect. And then all hell breaks loose.  So it's suspenseful and intriguing and all that, but by the time the end rolls around, you're kind of like, oh, well, ok. The explanation takes way too long, and is a bit overdone. I don't want to give it away, but there's a moment when a character says "But wait... there's more" and that's when you're like OK NO. RED LIGHT IS BLINKING, LET'S WRAP THIS UP. And then it keeps going, and weaves and twists and gawd, enough already. 

But meanwhile, the characters are fantastic. Well acted, and brilliantly rendered. There's an attention to detail in the film that's just fantastic. It's extremely subtle, not so much as to divert you from the plot, but enough to give them genuine depth. One particularly amazing scene involves two police officers discussing a case. As they talk, one of them interrupts the other to angrily transfer something from the trash to the recycling - it's genius. They make ready to leave, and pause to say goodbye, which is when you realize they're over at the guy's house because they've just brought some groceries to his mother and put them away for her. It's absolutely phenomenal. Then there's the thug with the Godfather tattoo and the hemophiliac son, and a strange melancholy woman in his living room. It's these little moments that really make it a great movie. They're really nothing more than moments scattered throughout the film, but they're just wonderful.

Another thing I loved about the movie was the soundtrack. My friend Tommy summed it up best: "At first I thought, well that's a strange choice... but it works..." It's hard to explain, but the effect is that the music forcefully demands to be noticed - it's not just background - but as soon as you do start paying attention to it, you realize why it's so fitting. It's really elegantly done. 

The only thing I found really irritating about the movie was that it ham-fistedly used the fact that the main character and his wife had been in love since childhood to create sentimental tableaus of children doing cutesy romantic stuff. I have very little tolerance for children being milked for sentimentality. At first it was ok, it went with the various flashbacks that filled in plot - which were effective, and well done - but then it just got annoying. Children holding hands does not make me go awwwww. The dog on the other hand, oh my gosh it was adorable. Big and fluffy with floppy ears, I loved that dog. And it's name was Nina! What a great name for a dog! 

It's funny, because it's actually a fairly gory movie - there's this one amazing female character who is creepy as all get out and man does she have a fantastic final scene - but nonetheless, I remember it as a warm, cuddly sort of movie, full of lovable characters and good cheer. In any case, recommended. As I said to Tommy over drinks afterwards, "I approve of this film."