31 December 2008


Coming of age stories have been done to death, so I suppose you can't blame people for trying to spice it up with a little controversy. And in some ways, I suppose this is a brave, and relevant movie. Unfortunately, it's also terribly written and riddled with painfully stereotypical characters.

I have to give Towelhead credit for being bracingly honest about the sexual awakenings of young women - within the first 20 minutes of the movie, the main character has masturbated to orgasm. Ok, kudos. Unfortunately, this movie suffers from the same flaws that a lot of other works that depict graphic sex do - it can't have graphic teenage sex without having plenty of disturbing, abnormal sex as well. It's like some unwritten law of movies, that any teenage girl who enjoys masturbation and is willing to have sex with her boyfriend MUST also be sexually molested AT LEAST once. Actually, pretty much every male in the movie (with one exception) is obsessed with sex, from her touchingly eager boyfriend to her anguished molester neighbor, so with all these sexual predators trolling around, it'd be a miracle if Jazira DIDN'T get molested. The movie, in what I suppose is an effort to be complex and controversial, makes her a somewhat willing, albeit confused and scared, participant in these events. It's disturbing, and unpleasant to watch, and all for what? 

It's a pity, really, because there's actually a kind of a clever sub-plot, where Jazira dreams of being a Playboy model. This could have been a subtle, playful, interesting way to explore teenage desire and cultural hypocrisy (there's a great scene where she and her friend go to get glamor photos done at the mall). But instead, it got saddled with molesters and trauma. What a disappointment.

But that's not the real problem with the movie. The real problem is that pretty much all the adults in it are cartoonishly awful. Her mother's boyfriend molests her, her mom then tells her it's her own fault, her dad is stereotypically horrifically strict and vicious, and her neighbor - although very well played by Aaron Eckhart, or at least, as well as possible with such a terrible script - is a racist pedophile. Actually, equally preposterous are her neighbors, who are practically saints. Which actually, I didn't mind as much, because hey, it's always nice to have positive role models, but it's part of how ridiculous the whole movie is. 

And then there's the racism, both of the people in the neighborhood towards Jazira and her father, and (the sadly predictable) racism of her father towards her black boyfriend. Which is all pretty much about as cliche as it gets. 

The last 15 minutes of the film are slightly more interesting, in that all the tensions of the film come to a head, but it's also kind of preposterous. You've got to love (SPOILER ALERT, SORRY, I CAN'T RESIST) a girl who tries to make amends for getting her rapist arrested by handing him his deep-frozen dead kitty that her father ran over, and after all the grimness of film, it's kind of touching that it goes for such a super-duper über happy ending. It's so outrageous that I actually kind of loved it. 

But it's still not a very good movie.

29 December 2008

Rachel Getting Married

This movie, hailed as incredible upon its initial release back in September, is enjoying an extended run and a spot on many Best of 2008 lists, so I figured it was finally time for me to check it out. Obviously, I had rather high expectations, so I was surprised when, an hour into the movie, I found myself constantly checking my watch and desperately hoping it would end soon. It was boring. And then I thought to myself, why on earth did I want to watch a movie about a recovering drug addict thrown into the mix of her sister's wedding? What made me think this would be interesting? But a few days later, oddly enough, I found myself relenting, and appreciating the movie more and more. It's actually kind of fascinating. But it's still somewhat boring.

The plot is pretty banal. Kym comes home from rehab for her sister's wedding. Kym is a self-absorbed nightmare. Weddings are somewhat nightmarish in and of themselves. But they're also supposed to be joyful happy times, and, big surprise, this one is too. The process of everyone in the movie coming to terms with the premises and gradually becoming better people isn't nearly as ham-fisted as it tends to be in such things. And the movie certainly is remarkable in portraying its characters in a deeply sympathetic way, but without shrinking in the slightest from their faults. They appear at their best and their worst, and you may not like them very much, but at very least they're pretty realistic. Well, maybe slightly on the saintly side - personally, I would've let Kym have it a lot earlier in the film, but hey. 

I think what's most interesting to me about the movie is the way that early on, there's this really elegant juxtaposition of two scenarios - an AA meeting and a wedding rehearsal dinner, or more specifically, a series of wedding toasts. I loved this, because it very subtly points to how similar they are. Both are situations in which people are called upon to stand up in front of a large group and relate somewhat humiliating things about themselves and/or others. But, because it's a socially sanctioned thing, nobody is actually really appalled or offended by the related events, and people are, for the most part, not actually ashamed to relate them. The similarities are striking, but then - and this is kind of brilliant - Kym delivers a toast that adhere more to the conventions of AA than to that of a wedding, and you realize the difference. Weddings are all about the people getting married - AA is all about you. A somewhat trivial conclusion, but the process of getting to it - for me at least - was quite interesting. 

But that's the thing about the movie - scenes like those described above are conceptually interesting, but not much fun to watch. Boring at best, cringe-inducing at worst, it just doesn't make for entertaining screen time.

There's another interesting aspect to the film that I haven't really thought about much, namely, the wedding itself. Some friends of mine found it obnoxious in its insistently interracial, intercultural, so-liberal-it-hurts-ness, whereas A O Scott, in his review, seems to suggest that its utopian aspects are part of a delicate balancing act in the film between joy and despair, sentimentality and melodrama. He points out that, for all its seeming naivete about cultural division, it comes across as remarkably realistic, which is true. Which isn't to say that I loved it - I really appreciated that the interracial aspect wasn't that big of a deal, but the whole smorgasbord of cultural traditions wedding was kind of annoying. But it's an interesting aspect of the movie that deserves more thought.

So ultimately, is it a good movie? Yes. Do I recommend it? Kind of? 

Netflix recommendation program competition

You may have noticed how often I watch movies purely because Netflix recommends them. I was of course aware of the million dollar competition to improve their recommendation system, but Martin just forwarded me this fascinating article that describes the problem in more detail. Interesting stuff.

25 December 2008


I was unfamiliar with the story of the interviews, and actually, I'm shamefully ignorant of American history as well, so I wasn't really prepared, in a sense, for this movie. But I was absolutely blown away. It's an incredible film, complex, fascinating, thought-provoking, and quite timely and relevant to current politics. 

First off, the acting was absolutely phenomenal. Frank Langella, in particular, was absolutely riveting as Nixon. One of the impressive things about the movie is the way in which it manages to convey a deeply human sense of Nixon, without excusing his behavior at all. He's a lovable old eccentric, yes, but he's also a criminal. 

The pacing of the movie is excellent, as is the blend of gravity and humor. I laughed out loud multiple times (occasionally though, I seemed to be the only one in the theatre who did...), but also found myself on the verge of tears at moments. Emotionally, it was an incredibly gripping film. 

I think that one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is the way that it reflects on television - how it works, what it does, the role it plays in society. As is pointed out in the movie, tv can do things that an investigative journalist, or even a trial, can't. The movie attributes this ability to the power of the close-up, which is really interesting. In a sense, it's that tv has the power to enshrine a particular moment. The film further remarks that it's a power to simplify and essentialize everything to that given moment, and make it stand for the whole. You can have 20 hours of crap for 10 seconds of profundity. This is compelling, but I wonder what else there is to say about it. The importance of widespread availability, I think - that millions of people are watching - seems also vital to me. And the way in which tv seems to be for everyone, and in a way, for no one more so than for good old Joe Sixpack. The idea that it's ultimately tv that holds politicians accountable for their action is intriguing, and somewhat troubling. 

On the timeliness of the film, I think it's fairly incredible, the way the movie manages to subtly point to these parallels in the situation. Forgive me for being political for a moment, but I would argue that the three things that Frost tells Nixon that the American people want from him - 1. An admission that what he did went beyond error and into wrongdoing, 2. An apology, 3. An admission that he gravely harmed the American people in the process - apply just as much to George W. Bush. And the way the film sets up, in the beginning, the importance of due process and justice to American democracy, and the need to hold Nixon accountable, not only for legal reasons, but also psychic ones, is also, I think, fully applicable to today. One wonders whether Bush - or Obama - will grant full pardons to all the criminals of the Bush administration, and say that rather than investigating the criminal activity of Darth Cheney, America needs to move on. I sure as hell hope not. 

The only weakness of the film, I think - and I don't think I'm giving away too much by discussing it - is the late night phone call that Nixon makes to Frost. Or rather, not the phone call, but its consequences. It's plays a major role in the plot, giving Frost a brief upper hand, but I think that ultimately, it goes too far in that regard, making the final interview seem unfairly weighted. Also, in the very end when it resurfaces, it paints Nixon as a confused and infirm old man, which could easily be used to partially excuse his behavior, or at very least, present him as simply mentally unsound. That's unfortunate, and doesn't, I think, do justice to the subject, or the film itself.

Aside from that one blemish though, it's a phenomenal film. One of the best I've seen this year.

21 December 2008

The Thief and the Dogs, by Naguib Mahfouz

I wasn't that taken with Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days, though it's quite likely that it was my fault, and not the book's, but in any case, I was quite impressed by The Thief and the Dogs. In a strange sort of way, it actually reminds me a lot of The Informer and Miałem Tylko Jedno Życie - hopefully something I can think about more when I finish my PhD... In any case, what's curious about it is that it's a revenge story, but one where everything goes wrong. I don't want to give away too much, so I guess I'll stick with saying that things don't work out the way they should (in a standard revenge plot), and in the process, the whole premise of revenge is questioned. It's really kind of fascinating. At the same time, there's this kind of subtle reflection on ideals and beliefs, a quiet juxtaposition of religion and politics, and the kinds of truths they offer, that was really interesting. And then there's the socio-political element, a look at life in Egypt - something that I know nothing about, really.

The prose is marvelously evocative for such a sparse work. I tore through the novel in fits and starts during the day today* - I had a hard time putting it down. Maybe it's because I knew a little better what to expect, but I really appreciated the mildly opaque quality of Mahfouz's storytelling. Especially intriguing is the way he plays with the reliability of the narrator - the text is so close to first person that some people describe it as stream of consciousness, but in actuality, as the novel progresses you move further and further from him, and you become more aware of how his mind works, wondering, for instance, if he isn't deluding himself when he thinks he's in love, and beginning to question whether the justice he seeks is actually so virtuous. Really, quite a remarkable book.

*Ah, the pleasures of immersing yourself in a good book while traveling (I'm currently on vacation in Florida with my parents. Florida is neato! Crocodiles! Dolphins! Manatees! Sharks! Blue herons! Bald Eagles! Great food! Palm trees! What fun!). I mentioned this in my review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Really, there's something so wonderful and decadent about it. While you end up missing out on a lot of things you ought to be looking at during your travels, that book ends up being far more firmly enshrined in your memory than the ones you read at home. It's so glorious.

20 December 2008

Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Genty Explained by August Kleinzahler

My friend Dustin lent me this one, and oh boy is it a treat. It's just gorgeous. I absolutely adored it. One could call it an autobiography, but I think the subtitle describes it best - it's about low characters and strange places. The book is a collection of short pieces, some about the author's family, some about his friends, some about his opinions. Kleinzahler's prose is wonderful, and there's this marvelous tenderness in the way he looks at the world. Which isn't to say it's sappy or touchy feely, or that he loves everyone and everything. I suppose here, again, the subtitle puts it best  - gently explained. There's a bracing honesty in the book, but also a sweet affection, and periodically a touch of disdain. It's somewhat reminiscent of Bukowski, but with more elegance and less misery. One of my favorite passages, on two young ladies eating fried chicken:

I love to watch a good-looking woman eat. Forgive me. It is, I think, not so much a salacious thing as an aesthetic one. It is, quite simply, one of the spectacles in this life that I hold dearest to my heart. I did not wonder if the batter was peppery or crisp, or if the meat was tender. I didn't speculate on whether their undergarments that day were sensible or naughty. I was transported by the way they worked over their respective drumsticks.

If that passage doesn't fill you with a love of life, then I honestly don't know what will. 

02 December 2008

3 Times

This is definitely an expert level foreign film. It's for the hardcore. This is not to say it isn't a good movie, it's rather that, well, it's not for everyone. Which isn't to say that it's not a good movie. I think it probably is. But it's not easy. The pace is glacial, and it's ungodly subtle. The pay-off is there, but it's not earth-shatteringly spectacular. Watching the film isn't a transcendental experience, but nonetheless, as you reflect on it later, you find yourself appreciating it more and more.

3 Times, directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou, consists of 3 love stories, set in three different times, with the same actors playing in each. The first story, A Time for Love, takes place in 1966, the second, A Time for Freedom, in 1911, the third, A Time for Youth, in 2005. An interesting premise, and despite my occasional mild annoyance and what seemed like slightly cliche/predictable choices, quite well executed. 

What's absolutely amazing about the film is the narrative mode. The stories are told very, very gradually - each segment is 45 minutes, and for at least 20 of that, you're not entirely sure what's going on. As it progresses, your initial assumptions are refuted, and you gain an increasingly complex perspective on the characters, despite never learning much about them. It's amazing how much of the movie is told through facial expression and body language. For a person used to exposition that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it's hard, hard work. And not always rewarding as you might hope. 

Still, though, despite the fact that watching the film was equal parts work and pleasure, I have to acknowledge, despite some flaws, it's a pretty incredible movie.