30 May 2009

Waltz With Bashir

Man. I'm sorry. I just didn't like this movie. 

For those who are unfamiliar, the film is an animated documentary of sorts - I'm hesitant to call it an actual documentary, because some of the characters aren't real people, but composites - about one man's memories of the 1982 war in Lebanon, and particularly the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. The protagonist of the movie is a guy who was fighting on the Israeli side at the time, and now (in 2006) realizes he has no memories of the events. So he goes around talking to people and trying to reconstruct what happened. The motivation for this search is a dream he has of bathing in the sea with some of his army buddies. The movie dutifully follows him around for these conversations, which are not only with friends and others who fought in the war, but also with a psychologist, a journalist, etc.

So, why didn't I like it. The movie has been roundly adored by critics, who see it as a gripping and compelling portrayal of the war, and are enthralled by the use of animation. They see it as a powerful combination of memoir and historical reportage, as well as an aesthetic marvel. And I just can't seem to agree. Which is odd, because in some ways, you'd think I'm damn near the ideal viewer of the film; I'm interested in history, but I also really like animated movies and experimental works on memory, etc. 

So for starters, while I thought the artwork was beautiful - had it been in graphic novel form, I probably would have loved it - I really didn't like the animation. It's alternatively choppy or too smooth, which gives the characters an eerie bobbleheaded doll kind of effect. It registers as totally lifeless for me, which makes it hard for me to sort of get absorbed into it. 

Secondly, the psychologizing, and overall kind of narrative of the film, seemed extremely trite and simplistic to me. The pseudo philosophical musings on memory and dreams and war weren't at all provocative to me. Actually, they were mostly boring. And that's really the biggest problem of the movie for me - it was dull, not particularly profound, and simultaneously quite upsetting. 

Also, I found myself wondering why the movie was animated. What was the animation doing that live action couldn't? So yes, there were dream sequences, but it's not like those could have been done in live action. No, I think the real motivation behind the animation was that it allowed the filmmaker to show lots of really graphic, upsetting stuff which would simply be overwhelmingly violent in live action. But this seems to me like an effort to have it both ways - if the animation makes it palatable, it also anesthetizes it and makes it less real. The constant dream sequences, and endless talking about dreams, as well as the style of animation (all of which reminded me a lot of Waking Life, which I think this movie owes a lot to) made it hard to remember that these were real events. Which made it less interesting, because as a story it's just not that compelling, and then you would suddenly force yourself to remember that it WAS real and feel guilty/irritated.

I dunno. I guess I could keep trying to list reasons I didn't like the movie, but ultimately, it boils down to I just didn't enjoy it or find it compelling. I don't want to argue that it's a BAD movie - it's just not one that I particularly care for.

29 May 2009

Ghost, by Alan Lightman

I loved Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, which does for time what Calvino's Invisible Cities did for space - a rather more impressive feat, I think, because personally I find it much more difficult to conceptualize different kinds of time than different cultures, and Lightman manages to create a text that's simultaneously explanatory and lyrical. So I had high hopes for Ghost. The back of the book tells us that it's about a guy who sees something out of the corner of his eye that "no science could explain", which sets him off on a "thought-provoking exploration of the divide between the physical and the spiritual, between science and religion". Now, this kind of exploration tends, in my opinion, to be really poorly thought out and uninteresting, or worse, trite and cliche. It's often poorly disguised conversion propaganda. This is a pity, because it's actually an interesting topic, and, handled well, could be fascinating. And I believed that Alan Lightman was a guy who could handle it well.

Unfortunately, I was not entirely correct. I mean, I was to some extent, in that as far as the science-religion question goes, the novel does an excellent job presenting different sides of the issue. The problem is, it's not at all compelling as fiction. The characters are sort of wan and uninteresting, their interactions are unconvincing, and you basically don't really care about any of them. Which makes it that much harder to care about the metaphysical portion. The novel attempts to show how unacceptable such self-exploration can be in society, which is a worthwhile point, but seems exaggerated - not because it is, I think, but because it's hard to believe that these characters could ever stir up such a ruckus. 

What the novel gets right, I think, is how a perfectly rational person who believes in science, etc, but has a "supernatural" experience, can be conflicted about what they've perceived, and strongly resist simply dismissing something they feel so strongly to be true. There's this moment where David, the protagonist, really feels like he's affecting a random number generator. And the prose, for once, kicks in, delivering a really visceral sense of some kind of powerful feeling moving through his body. Later, arguing with his scientist buddies, he wants to agree with them, but also can't help believing that the feeling was real. It's an interesting point - one that the novel doesn't really get at - which is that this debate is often one of emotion versus intellect. Some people feel that supernatural stuff exists, others don't, and it's a. hard to argue someone out of a feeling, and b. hard to think of an example where one has feelings that confirm, rather than refute, science. This latter point is kind of curious, I'm going to puzzle over it some more. 

But to get back to the book - mostly, the novel is boring. And it's not even that long. It's flat and overly talky, but without delivering the intellectual pay-off that one would expect from so much deliberation. Really, it can best be described as tepid. 

26 May 2009

Angels and Demons

I had zero intentions of seeing this movie, but this weekend my dude and I went to a friend's wedding in a teeny little town by the lake, and the tiny movie theatre there was not to be resisted. $4 tickets! Forget about it. Perfect lazy Sunday.

So yeah, I did not expect this to be a good movie. BUT I was surprised by what an entertaining movie it was - I had a grand time watching it. Granted, I had slaughtered a serious amount of brain cells the night before, so that may have played a role, and my sense of irony was certainly heightened, but yeah, I got a kick out of this movie. I laughed so hard in the first 10 minutes that I almost cried, purely because of all of the SCIENCE! ANTIMATTER! RETINAL SCANNERS! hilarious. 

The plot is immensely complicated and makes very little sense. I haven't read the book, maybe it's more clear, but without giving anything away - if you're gonna have an evil plot, it needs a clear purpose. You gotta have goals son! So that's probably one of the biggest problems - that the story is ridiculous. 

Second major problem, the dialogue. Yowzers. 

Final big problem - Tom Hanks. I was talking to someone at the wedding about this, and he was saying that the problem is that you just don't buy Tom Hanks as this Indiana Jones type character, and indeed, he's a colossal failure. He's unconvincing as an action hero, but he's also (no offense) unconvincing as an intellectual - he's unpersuasive as a thinker. Really, about the only thing that does come through is the snark and sarcasm. 

Really though, despite the fact that the movie was ridiculously heavy-handed (the director obviously loves "profound" scenes of backgrounds, flickering candles, etc - the movie is over 2 hours long, and you could EASILY cut a good 30 minutes) and generally completely stupid, and went on way too long, it was fun. 

Is the movie anti-Catholic? Not really. It's definitely not completely flattering to the vatican as an institution, but I think it clearly implies that the Church COULD be a force of good, and presents plenty of people in it who would like to make it so (as well as others who don't). So naw, I don't think it's too bad. 

19 May 2009

Next Day Air

So, my parents and I were looking for a good Sunday afternoon movie, and I'd been seeing a lot of posters around for Next Day Air, which I was drawn to because of the cast, premise, etc*. So I was really baffled to see that it had gotten mostly terrible reviews. I say mostly, because there were a couple outliers, critics who described it as clever and entertaining. What was intriguing about this was that the critics who viewed the film favorably were the NYTimes and Roger Ebert**. So we decided to check it out.

So, it's not a great movie. But it's an entertaining movie. Hilarious at times, generally amusing, some hardcore stylized violence and bad-assness. It definitely drags at times when it really ought to be a fast-paced movie based on the plot and overall aesthetic, and some of the jokes don't work as well as you'd like them to. When it tries to be a little more serious, it comes off kind of dumb. But it makes up for it by having lots of sympathetic characters. Interestingly enough, all but one of them are basically good guys who are rather inadvertently pitted against each other, which is kind of interesting. So you really like them all and enjoy spending time with them, even if you're just hanging out playing videogames and talking shit. It kind of reminded me of Smokin' Aces, in that you mostly like the movie because of the people in it. Though Next Day Air has the more complex plot, Smokin' Aces definitely wins out on pacing. But ultimately, both are enjoyable films that one is inclined to rate 3.5 stars.

*One reviewer pointed out that it's sort of disingenuous to put Mos Def front center of the poster when he has one of the smallest parts in the film. This may be because white people love Mos Def. Or because he probably is the biggest name in the film - Donald Faison is cool and all but Scrubs sort of cost him his cred, and Wood Harris is only exciting if you're into The Wire (which you should be), and most everyone else sort of looks familiar but you have no idea what their names are. 

**So looking around now, there's something really weird going on with these reviews. Rotten Tomato gives the movie a 19 - pretty dismal. Most of the reviews tear the movie to shreds - it's boring, it's too violent, the jokes aren't funny, etc. But then the more "intellectual" reviewers - Ebert, NYTimes, Nathan Rabin in the Onion - praise it as "a surprisingly tight economical thriller" that "nears neo-Blaxploitation perfection" with characters who are "almost poetic in their clockwork dialogue". Homeboy from the NYTimes compares the film to Wu-Tang in its hey-day. Which kind of gives you pause, like he's trying a little too hard. So you start to wonder. Then Rabin points out "the absence of Caucasians in speaking roles". And perhaps this is the missing piece of the puzzle for this mysterious reviewer situation. Because the movie, to my mind, is nowhere near as bad as some reviewers say, but nowhere near as good as others do. And I can't help but wonder if the aforementioned "lack of Caucasians" doesn't have something to do with that. I don't really wanna read too much into it, it just seems somewhat curious and noteworthy. It could just be that film reviewers really like to be either wholeheartedly positive or negative, and this kind of in-between film just baffles them. I dunno. I ain't sayin', I'm just sayin'. 

Star Trek

I've never seen a single episode of Star Trek. None of 'em. I've seen bits and pieces of some of the movies, but I honestly don't remember much of them. So I arguably have no idea what I'm talking about. But I enjoyed the hell out of the new Star Trek movie. 

Or, well, most of it. It took me awhile to warm up to it. About 45 minutes, I'd say. The beginning was slow and cheesy and kind of boring. It was a lot of background anecdotal, rather cliche type stuff about characters I'd heard of, sure, but didn't particularly care about. But as I got drawn into the plot, all that background started to come together, and suddenly I found myself in the midst of a group of characters I'd gotten to know and care about. It was actually kind of brilliant, because not only did I want to see what happened next in the movie - I totally want to start watching the series. 

So the time traveling plot is tenuous, of course, and doesn't entirely check out (really, what time traveling plot does), but whatever, it's entertaining and suspenseful and has lots of 'splosions. The dialogue and relationships between characters are a little cheesy, but it's exactly the kind of cheesiness that I like in an adventure movie. I do action-corny. I don't do romance corny. On a side note, I wonder if people generally are willing to put up with or even enjoy either one or the other but not both. Anyhow. Some of the corniness comes from the nostalgia factor. This is actually kind of interesting, because it has the potential to work both ways - for people who know and love the series, they get to hear the lines they know and love and have an "Awwww" moment. For people like me who have never seen it, but have inevitably heard those lines a billion times, they suddenly have a context and character for these random quotes in their head. Neato!

I feel like prequels are generally stupid origin stories, or character filler - how this person got to be so dark and mysterious (ie, the site of original trauma, a la Batman Begins or Casino Royale - BAAAARF). And this one certainly has its share of that (the first 45 minutes), but a. it then moves right into regular old action plot, and b. manages to use some of that earlier material as background for the action plot, making it seem less useless. 

Also, to people who complain that Captain Kirk isn't badass enough because he's getting beat up all the time - yes. Yes precisely. I like that in an action hero. It's funny. It adds some suspense. It makes him more sympathetic. And badass. 

The overall tone was fantastically well balanced between silly and cute and tough. Homeboy who played Harold in the Harold and Kumar movies was great, as was the guy with curly blond hair and an outrageous Russian accent - geek as hero. Fabulous. It may not live up to the original series, but it seems to me that it's at very least an appropriate homage, and will probably do a lot to reinvigorate interest in the old series. It certainly did for me. I wonder if it'll hold up to scrutiny.

13 May 2009

Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Assad

I knew absolutely nothing about Muhammad Assad before seeing this movie, other than that my friend Ruchama had written her BA thesis about him. So this movie was particularly fascinating, because let me tell you - Assad was a very interesting guy. Born Leopold Weiss, raised a Jew in Lwów, he headed to Vienna and then Jerusalem where he became... Muslim. From there it's a camel ride to Mecca, then on to Pakistan, which he helped to found, and then New York, then Morocco, where he set to work translating the Qu'ran.

So, the story itself is fascinating. The man had some really interesting ideas, particularly about religion and the interaction between Eastern and Western culture. And the movie does a pretty good job presenting them, though it doesn't tell you as much as you'd like to know (I am definitely adding Assad's autobiography, Road to Mecca, to my to-read list). And it definitely romanticizes him as a figure, not perhaps as much as other such films might, but enough that it sort of makes you wonder what they're NOT telling you.

But what's really interesting about the movie is that it takes the tired trope of following in its subject's footsteps and actually makes it interesting. So the movie starts in the Ukraine, with a museum and a talk show, then continues to Vienna and the attempt to name a street or public square after Assad, then goes on to Israel and the Bedouin communities Assad fell in love with, etc. At each point, people discuss Assad and his legacy, and their takes on him are very, very different. The movie also subtly examines what these places are like now, often with very distressing results. Most jarring is the discussion of the construction of the wall on the west bank, and the view of Bedouin life today. But the scenes in Saudi Arabia and Lahore are also rather melancholy. There's a somewhat less interesting interlude in NYC that kind of talks about September 11th, but honestly, what really struck me about that portion was how absolutely revolting and tasteless, and politically instrumentalized, the various processes of memorialization are. There's a subtle implication throughout that while there certainly exists a subgroup of Islamic fanatics who believe in violence, their presence seems to serve primarily as justification for appalling hate rhetoric directed at the remaining (majority) of peaceful Muslims.

The underlying theme in these exchanges is a question of how Assad's vision of religious tolerance and coexistence has survived, and what kind of lessons his thought has for the problems of the contemporary world. Ruchama said later that she doesn't really think that Assad is necessarily such a role model for today (hello Orientalism), but I think the movie did make some really interesting points about how, for instance, the Crusades have left a kind of permanent mark on Western thought, which still sees Islam as dark, savage, and dangerous, and really doesn't bother to learn more. I hadn't really thought about the Crusades as historical trauma, but it's a good point. 

Anyhow - a fascinating and well made documentary. If you can find it (it just came out), definitely check it out.

02 May 2009

The Old and the New, by Marthe Robert

This is probably pretty much for specialists only, but it's a really fascinating book, and wonderfully written. Old school criticism.

Robert sets out to compare Don Quixote and Kafka's Castle, using Homer as a kind of bridge between them. It's incredibly persuasive, and really interesting. In essence, she's tracing an alternate genealogy of the modern novel and its relationship to epic. But more intriguing, she contemplates what this says about the relationship between literature and reality, delineating two strains of thought, one that says that books mirror reality, and another that says they create an illusion of it. Related to that, two approaches to literature - one that demands naive faith, regardless of the context or pragmatic value of a work - in other words, a view that espouses a work's epic truth, even if this truth is not literal or readily discernible,  and another that demands skepticism, seeing books as dangerously seductive, and leading one to error or sin. She then examines how Don Quixote and The Castle sort of struggle between these two perspectives. Really incredible stuff.

Though I will say, the section on Kafka was weaker, in my mind, then the rest. This may also be because I had just read this article, and was feeling somewhat annoyed with how often reflections on Kafka's personal life bleed into readings of his works. But I did think it went a bit too far in this work, though not nearly as far as many others go. Also, I haven't read The Castle in a good couple years, so it was less fresh in my mind. And a lot of what she said about it was really compelling, it just struck me as less absorbing then the rest of the text. All in all though, a really wonderful book.

For the Bible Tells Me So

I was extremely impressed with this movie. In fact, I think it ought to be required viewing in every church. Not just for its take on homosexuality, which, big surprise, I'm in favor of, but more broadly for the really fascinating questions it raises about Biblical interpretation.

Ok, so let me back up. The movie is essentially about how Christians understand/deal with homosexuality, particularly those who are extremely conservative and understand it to be a sin. More specifically, it looks at what happens when they, or one of their children, come out of the closet. At times heartwarming, at times heartrending, it's a really, really powerful movie. 

Some of the things I really appreciated about it:

It considered the issue from a number of angles and perspectives, some of which were new to me. It had a brief educational segment about the science, for instance, which was really interesting and informative, even for someone quite familiar with the topic. 

Related to that, it showed different extremes, but also quite a few more middle ground positions - one family, for instance, where the parents remained opposed to their daughter's "lifestyle" while simultaneously remaining extremely loving, close parents who were very much involved in their daughter's life. It's a controversial position, and I really liked that the movie included it.

Related to that - it wasn't patronizing or preachy, or at least, it didn't come off that way to me. Certainly, it was extremely heartfelt, but it didn't talk down to the audience.

Actually, it was often humorous and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, and quite amusing.

It clearly came from a deeply Christian and devout perspective. In other words, it didn't set up an opposition between Christianity and homosexuality - it made it very clear that one can be deeply Christian and gay. 

It went back to the text! Oh my gosh, this was so satisfying. It gives QUOTES. It considers CONTEXT. It's scholarly and informed! Oh, it was wonderful.

There was a really interesting moment where one of the mothers said that she realized that part of what made her uncomfortable about the situation was that she was suddenly thinking about her daughter's sex life, and seeing that as who she was. Parents don't generally spend a lot of time thinking about their children's sexual habits. Hence, it's bound to be a bit awkward. And this returns me to thinking about how this is part of the tricky aspect of this debate, is that America has very fraught attitudes about sex in general, and sexual preference therefore opens up a massive can of worms that causes discomfort in myriad ways unrelated to the gender of the person you're going to bed with.

For all it's warm and fuzzy moments - which there were many of, and I mean that in the best possible way - there were also some extremely upsetting scenes in the film, such as a montage of images of hate crime victims. Part of me thought, hey, why are you making me see this awful stuff? And then I realized, well yes, it's extremely important to realize that homophobia doesn't just cause hurt feelings, it also causes death. Literally.

Related to that, I think this is one of the best counterarguments out there for the claim that homosexuality erodes families, destroys society, etc - pointing out how many teenagers run away from home, or kill themselves, or are victims of violence - not because of their homosexuality, but because of the horrible, violent side of homophobia. That's what destroys society. 

So, my own, nerdier take on it - 

The movie opens with the extremely provocative question of who the Bible's intended readers really are. It discusses how back in the day, the faithful weren't really supposed to read the Bible, they were supposed to listen to their priest. And the movie says, well shit, maybe that's a good thing. Because the Bible is an extremely complex text, and an uninformed, or unthinking attitude towards it can really do a lot of harm. That, to me, is an extremely, extremely problematic stance to take. 
  On the other hand, having taught Genesis to college students, one of the big things you reflect on is the status of truth in the Bible, as opposed to symbolic or allegorical interpretation. This is a complex question in Genesis, but only gets more complex as you get into the New Testament. As the movie points out, while many people are happy to say that Leviticus says gay sex is wrong, they don't seem to mind eating pork or shellfish, or wearing wool and linen together, which you'll find strictly forbidden a few passages earlier. 
  In other words, part of what's at stake here is textual interpretation. Now, I actually don't fully agree with the film's reading of Scripture at some moments, though I understand that rhetorically, it was occasionally necessary. The film does mention that the Bible needs to be understood in the context of nation-building and a much smaller population, but then ultimately turns around and says that the Bible is about loving your neighbor and inclusiveness. Well, ok guys, kind of. Certainly, Jesus advocated such things. But overall, I think the Bible was actually not inclusive at all, it was about defining and propagating a race of chosen people, and formulating strict rules for them to live by, and was pretty ok with excluding/massacring everyone else. But I don't think that would go over so well in the film... And indeed, I think as the Bible progresses, it evolves in various ways, but at the end of the day, it is an extremely complex and often contradictory work, and I certainly don't envy the task a person is faced with if they choose to take every word of it literally. 

I actually ended up thinking that I might be in the wrong career path, and considering the similarities and differences between literature professors and preachers. So as a preacher, the downside is that you're lecturing on the same text week after week. I think that would be kind of difficult, no matter how complex the work is. On the other hand though, you've got a captive audience who really BELIEVES in the text! What a treat! I try to get my students to believe in Nabokov, or see the relevance of Eva Hoffman to their everyday lives, and they look at me like I'm crazy. 
However, I realized that probably any religion that is going to bring the amount of devotion to a text that I do is also one that probably isn't interested in having me as a member. So academia it is, heh heh.