26 August 2009

Quantum of Solace

This entry really ought to be subtitled Get Your Hate On! because oh boy did I ever hate this movie. Apparently I never wrote an entry for Casino Royale - which I also despised - so I can't just tell you that Quantum of Solace took all the things that I hated about the last movie and raised them to the 10th degree. We'll have to start from scratch.

Look, if you want to make a James Bond movie, make one. It's a distinct genre, unlike other action movies. There are certain key features that we know and love, namely, gadgets, ridiculous plots, cheesy puns, Miss Moneypenny, hot chicks, and of course, James Bond himself, the super smooth, ultra masculine, badass ladies man.

I didn't particularly like Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, because I find him sort of bizarrely repugnant in a strange, slimy sort of way. But I have to admit he did a pretty good turn as Bond, even if the movies weren't all that great. To be honest, re-watching some of the old Bond films, they're not nearly as good as you remember. You love them because they're so familiar and similar.**

Now, Casino Royale, I didn't like, because while it had some of the necessary Bond elements - especially the cheesy puns! - I thought it was lacking in a certain kind of masculine vigor. To state it plainly, Bond was way too emo. When he started explaining that he has problems with commitment, my jaw dropped. What?!? Since when is James Bond's lack of commitment a PROBLEM? Since when does he have feelings? And why in the fuck should I give a shit about them? Thus, I thought it was strangely appropriate that 20 minutes of the film were devoted to him being repeatedly hit in the balls, because on a metaphorical level, that had been happening for the entire film***.

I think Daniel Craig could potentially be a convincing Bond (his role in Layer Cake certainly suggests as much). Unfortunately, somebody got it into their head that James Bond needed a more human dimension, which they apparently took to mean angsty and emo as fuck. They worked it in Casino Royale, and apparently decided they hadn't really done enough. So in Quantum of Solace, EVERYONE is angsty. It's kind of a running competition really between Bond and M as to who can have more soul searching scenes. Craig spends most of the movie in exquisite torment, looking for all the world like a man who could use a big hug and maybe a teddy bear. There's another component too, which is that jesus christ, he kept getting clobbered. I suppose some people had complained that he never seems to get hurt and is always spotless and suave. Yes, that's the point. Here, he looks beaten to shit for most of the film. What's especially ridiculous is that it seems like they wanted him to get battered and bloody, but without compromising his general badassness, so rather than have him get beaten up by villains, he just has one mishap after another, where he swings into walls, falls from great heights and hits every blessed protruding thing on the way down, etc. It verged on slapstick at times. I turned to my boyfriend and was like "Is it just me, or does he have the worst luck ever?" Interestingly, my boyfriend, who had complained that Captain Kirk got beaten up too much in Star Trek, didn't think that James Bond's apparent clumsiness reflected poorly on his overall skills. Personally I think it's far more impressive to show that you can take a hit as well as dish one out than to run into shit every five minutes.

So that was my main objection - Bond sucked. Of course, there were others - the dialogue, for instance, was atrociously written. Also, the villain was almost absurdly evil. This was actually kind of interesting. Bond villains are generally bizarre caricatures, and they're generally connected to various political dynamics (especially the Cold War). This time, the villain symbolizes the evil of multinational corporations. So that was kind of intriguing. He still had all these weird personal neuroses and general creepy bad guy traits, but ok. And then they just start making him more and more evil. It starts to get kind of ridiculous. They cement it, though, by making his partner in crime, the Bolivian general, really really really evil, and they make that especially clear with a really disturbing rape scene that's just sort of casually thrown into the film. I'm a pansy when it comes to rape scenes. I don't like them. They really disturb me. I don't wanna watch them unless they're really necessary to the plot. This one was pretty effin' gratuitous, and I resented being made to sit through it - especially because it cuts away from it to something else, then back again, then away, then back. It's like PLEASE ENOUGH ALREADY.

So I had worked myself up into a proper froth of hateration fairly quickly in this movie, and this is probably why I found the action sequences incredibly irritating as well. Why? Because they were unbelievably pretentious. There's a long scene that takes place during an opera, and the movie cuts between the shoot-out and the action onstage. Now, aside from the fact that this was already done in The 5th Element, my main feeling was - give me a fucking break guys. This is not high art you're making here. Get off your high horse and gimme some 'splosions. In fact, the cinematography is the movie is generally quite fancy and high brow. Unfortunately, given the plot and dialogue it's working with, it comes across as clunking and ridiculous. On a better day, I might even have appreciated it, but as it was, I hated it all the more.

So yeah, basically, I hated this movie. That's probably more to do with me than it is with the movie, but still, man, I really, really hated it.

** I have heard the argument that the point is to modernize the James Bond franchise and make it more like today's action films. Again - if I wanna watch today's action films, I will. But when I'm watching a James Bond film, the only modernizing I really want is more cooler special effects and bad-assitude. And even those, I don't want too over the top. There's a reason there are a zillion James Bond movies that are all very similar - because people like them. They will continue to watch new ones. They will be perfectly happy if they are just like the old ones. If you dilute them so much with other general action stuff, they will become just like all other action films, and then they will be less, not more, compelling.

***I had a similar reaction watching XXX, the movie that was supposed to make Vin Diesel the hottest thing in action movies. When he tells his new lady that he's gonna try to get her American citizenship, his action career ended in my eyes. Look, I'm all for falling in love and having relationships. But that's just not what an international man of mystery does. It's not that I whole-heartedly approved of Bond's womanizing ways, it's just that they were given as a fact not to be questioned or contemplated. If you start getting into the psychology of it, then, well, he just comes across looking like an asshole who treats women like shit.

24 August 2009

Shakespeare Behind Bars

This movie is good enough to give you a taste of just how incredible the material that it presents is, but not quite incredible enough to be a really amazing movie. It's strange - watching it, I thought it dragged a bit, and wasn't all that effectively presented, but at the same time, there are some incredibly powerful scenes in it. I had this sense that if the narrative framework that held it all together was a bit more organized, it could have been a really phenomenal movie, but at the same time, I appreciated that it didn't necessarily try to push those moments into an overly intrusive sort of plot line.

The movie is about a program in a prison that has convicts performing Shakespeare plays. There are two aspects about it that are really amazing: one, the convicts themselves, and two, the Shakespeare aspect.

First, the convicts. I don't know much about convicts and what it's like to be one. I have strong views about the prison system and how messed up it is, etc, and a strong belief that society presents prisoners as thoroughly evil people, and denies them a real chance at rehabilitation (an amazing film that deals with this, by the way, is The Woodsman), but it's pretty powerful to actually hear the prisoners themselves talk about their lives. One very clever aspect of the film is that it doesn't tell you about the crimes people have committed right off the bat. As the film progresses, it gradually introduces clips of the men themselves revealing their crimes. These are often absolutely devastating moments. And their accounts, and how they make sense of their lives, is really fascinating. It kind of makes you think about how people make sense of evil, to put it in rather extreme terms. One guy, for instance, describes the multiple crimes he committed, and how he tried to become "good". But he always seeks an external cause for his actions - it was the people he was with, the place he lived, etc. Another guy describes his crime and then talks about wanting to achieve some kind of redemption, and contemplates how he could do that. It's intense stuff, and all the more so because it's interspersed in these moments where they're just going about their everyday lives in prison, and really seem for all the world like "normal" guys. Although the film doesn't really push the point, the movie does also illustrate how messed up the prison system is - indeed, I suppose it would be difficult NOT to.

The second aspect is that it makes you realize just how brilliant Shakespeare really is. I mean, the way these guys relate to these plays and the various themes in them, and how one can use the plays to consider what it means to be human, and the nature of good and evil, is just amazing. The friend who recommended the movie to me was saying how it made her want to go out in the world and teach Shakespeare, because it made her see how doing so could make the world a better place. Watching the movie - I completely understand why she felt that way, and I absolutely shared the sentiment. It's a really powerful example of how literature can inspire philosophical and ethical reflection in these really amazing ways.

Like I said though, the movie somehow doesn't quite achieve the greatness that its material deserves, and it's sort of hard to explain why. Nonetheless, I think it's absolutely worth watching - I just wish it were better.

19 August 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

This is one of the worst movies that I've seen in a long, long time. And that's saying a lot. Especially coming from me, who generally has a lot of time for big budget Hollywood action movies, and plenty of patience for their flaws and foibles. But GI Joe pushed me over the edge almost immediately. I pretty much hated every minute of it. I was so annoyed that even the special effects bugged me. It was that terrible.

The big problem with the movie is the dialogue. It's SO bad. There bad that's so bad it's good (aka, The Room), and then there's just bad. This movie was firmly in the latter category. If you want a taste, check out Christopher Orr's piece on the movie - he gave up on reviewing it and just provided a series of quotes. I mean, I usually love cheesy dialogue - I enjoy puns, for goddsakes - but this was horrific.

But bad dialogue won't sink your film, so long as you somehow manage to make at least some of your characters likeable. Or at least something akin to human. But the people in this movie are such absurd pastiches of poor dialogue that there's really nothing even remotely believable about them, which made it basically impossible to engage with them on any sort of human level. There's Duke, the totally wooden and humorless "hero". There's Shana "Scarlett" O'Hara, who's supposed to be an intelligent woman, which apparently involves being an android, because, you know, emotions are irrational, so therefore she as an intellectual cannot have them. There's McCullen, the deranged Scot who's hellbent on destroying the world, because that's just how Scots roll. The movie clearly establishes this by setting up a tradition of arms dealings and atavism going back to 1641. There's the token black guy, who comes action-packed with plenty of self-deprecating humor (he's dumb! and inept! he gets arrested!) and lots of slang so that he can keep it real***. And of course, there's the deformed evil scientist. We don't really ever find out why he's evil. I won't spoil the plot by lingering over some of the many other plot problems connected with him, but I shouldn't need to - if you do see the movie, they'll be clear enough.

Look, I don't demand that action movies be realistic. But within the constraints they set themselves - digging a hole to the center of the Earth, fighting a race of evil robots, an ancient shark, a mummy, etc - I do expect them to be at least somewhat consistent. If you are attempting to steal a case full of warheads, it is really, really dumb to go about it by blowing up the vehicle transporting it, because, well, that seems likely to destroy it. If you are an elite fighting force pursuing somebody who intends to release a warhead containing metal-eating nanonites somewhere in Paris, it should not be a startling discovery that their target is the Eiffel Tower. If someone is brainwashed by nanonites in their body, they can't just get kinda partially unbrainwashed by suddenly having flashbacks of cuddling scenes. Ugh. I could go on, but why bother.

Ok, so finally, the special effects. The fighting scenes were pretty badass, I have to admit. If I hadn't been so irritated and had cared even a smidgeon about the characters, I probably would have been perfectly happy with them. The technology was pretty neato but to me, it was a little too neat and shiny - it just looked cartoonish and fake. I wasn't as thrilled by it, because it just wasn't believable, even if it was kind of cool. As the movie progressed, I found myself rolling my eyes - especially at the costumes, which were just preposterous and impractical. I know that's standard, but like I said, I had lost all willingness to suspend disbelief.

Overall - worst. movie. ever. 2 hours of my life I will never get back.

***I honestly am not sure what bothers me more, his character or Michael Bay's illiterate afro-bots. I mean, Micheal Bay is racist as fuck, but he's so over the top about it that it becomes kind of ludicrous and extravagant. For instance, my boyfriend and I were discussing the scene in Bad Boys II where Will Smith does this amazing parody of a dude from the 'hood grilling his niece's date. That scene is completely over the top and absolutely hilarious, as it is clearly intended to be. Now, if you want to be extremely charitable, you could argue that the over-the-top minstrelsy of the Transformers movies is intended in the same way. Myself, I'd say it goes too far and crosses a line, but let's pretend for a minute. That, to my mind, is far preferable to Marlon Wayans' character in this movie, which does not in any way signal itself to be a parody or exaggeration. Whereas in the Transformers movies, pretty much EVERYTHING is. Nothing in those movies is taken seriously, it's all tongue in cheek and poking fun at all kinds of stereotypes. Or at least, one can see it that way. There's just no charitable reading of this one. It's perhaps less blatantly offensive, but that's part of what's so infuriating about it. It's so nonchalantly stupid.

18 August 2009

The Saragossa Manuscript

I'm currently working on a chapter about the novel this film is based on, so I figured I oughta check it out. Also, I was kind of curious how it could be done - the novel is a 600 page behemoth of stories within stories within stories. I have seen one adaptation of it, the Looking Glass Theatre's theatrical version which was, it must be said, absolutely dismal. The thing is, it's a massive text and there's a lot going on. There's no way you can do justice to that complexity in 3 hours. So you have to pick out some key themes and just stick with them. The Looking Glass went with lots of touchy feely religious tolerance stuff with some mommy issues on the side, which involved butchering the text and slapping on an ending that undoubtedly has the author clawing the inside of his grave. The movie, I'm happy to say, did it far more justice. In fact, although it somewhat shows its age and feels a bit theatre-y, it's a pretty well done movie. Then again though, it's hard for me to assess whether it would be of any interest to the average viewer, because I've basically been totally immersed in the book for what feels like eternity.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is the cinematography, which is gorgeous. The second thing that's done well is the overall tone - funny and cheerfully absurd (the material is in the text, but the actors ham it up to the max), but also dreamy and surrealistic, which is fitting. They do change the ending of the book, but honestly, I think it's kind of an improvement. They also do an interesting job on the interspersed stories. While many a director would throw on some Wayne's World diddlyoops or some kind of fade out, here it just cuts to a new story. This might be confusing to people less familiar with the text, but actually, that might be a good thing, because the multiplicity of narratives in the novel is truly dazzling, and this might be the closest the film can get to producing that effect.

The main minus is that the movie is really long. 3 hours. And it kind of drags at times, as does the book, because really, it's just a big collection of random stories. Still, it's an interesting movie, I think, and well worth watching if you can gets your hands on a copy.

*Fun fact: the movie was made in the 60s but re-released in the 90s thanks to Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsesee and Francis Ford Coppola, who financed its restoration and distribution, apparently out of great love for the film.

11 August 2009

The Hurt Locker

Three entries in one day! I know! And this one will probably be pretty weak, given that I'm feeling a bit pooped. But I felt like I couldn't not mention The Hurt Locker, which is really a fantastic movie, destined to be a classic.

The film follows a bomb squad in Iraq. There's a kind of overarching narrative that revolves around a bomb specialist, but it's not overbearing - the movie is more episodic in nature, showing a series of day in the life of the characters. There are three main guys that the movie is focused on, but also a cast of surprisingly well defined minor characters. It's a really subtle, well done film, with the various characters contrasting with each other in really fascinating ways. It's through the characters, and their interactions, that the movie investigates the nature of modern warfare, the clash of cultures, and the meaning of heroism. I was really impressed by Jarhead (the book, rather than the movie, though that was aight) for the way in which it reflected on what being in war, and the training to go there, does to people, but I have to say, this movie does it in a much more interesting way. Finally, the film's eye for detail is incredible, and the cinematography is poignant. It's a really, really good movie.

P.S. I am, by the way, totally fascinated by Kathryn Bigelow, the director. She is also responsible for K-19: The Widowmaker, which I believe is the most expensive film ever made by a female director, Strange Days (added to the Netflix queue), Blue Steel, and Point Break. If that doesn't intrigue you, then, well, you're very different from me. I would love to know more about her - I've looked around for interviews, and this one is kind of interesting, but very short. Not that I have any idea what I'd like to ask her, and I suppose she sort of speaks for herself through her films, but yeah, I wanna hear more of what she has to say.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, by Sebastian Barry

This is the first Sebastian Barry book I've read, but I must say, his prose is wonderful. Sparkling, lively, evocative, lots of wonderful descriptions, and generally quite entertaining.

The content doesn't quite live up to the style, I think. Or maybe I'm just being snippy, I dunno. But I almost want to say that there's something too lighthearted and good-natured about the book. Even when it's describing something utterly horrific, it's strangely cheerful.

Also, the book treats history and politics with a rather broad stroke. There's a real underlying bitterness about the violence of the IRA and the coercive nature of nationalism that is perhaps not unwarranted, but it stridently ignores the other side of the story. I suppose maybe that's a worthwhile aspect, to give the other (Irish) side of the story, but I couldn't help but feel a touch irked by it. Nonetheless, it does cover an interesting portion of history, and draws a vague though intriguing parallel between Irish and Nigerian liberation movements. I suppose its pessimism is a valiant corrective to the normal postcolonial ebullience.

Anyways, politics aside, as a story, it's entertaining and sympathetic. I'm not in a huge rush to read another Barry novel (I've got Long Way Home on my to-read shelf) but I did really enjoy the descriptive passages, especially the ones about sex. There's something wonderfully vibrant about the words he uses to describe things, it's really lovely.

Political Readings

Perhaps you have seen this article in the BBC about Venezuela's Revolutionary Reading Program, instituted by Huge Chavez as part of a larger project to instill socialist and humanistic values in the masses? Personally, I think it's a really neat idea, a government book club. I think it would perhaps be even more effective if it were combined with something like Book It! Corporate sponsored socialist consciousness raising! What an idea! Seriously though, I think it would be fabulous if the US government put out a list (and perhaps also distributed free copies) of books they think everyone ought to read. Then I realized that I guess this is kind of what, you know, high school government classes are for. But those, I think, mostly focus on history? I was in Germany that year of high school, so I dunno.

Anyhow, I was quite upset to discover that the Venezuelan list is nowhere to be found online - how am I supposed to become a Revolutionary Reader if I can't access the syllabus? But I have, in the meantime, been amusing myself by contemplating what books I would encourage every American citizen to read. One that comes to mind is Whiteness of a Different Color, by Matthew Frye Jacobson; or at least excerpts from it. I think it'd be nice, particularly given American obesity and junk food culture, if everyone read Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, but I guess those aren't as necessary. It's a nice thought experiment, anyhow.

Meanwhile, my friend James just sent me a link to a list of books that Obama has been sighted reading. I haven't read any of them, actually. I personally can't stand Dave Eggers, so I was surprised to see that one on there. Walcott is wonderful. The rest seem to all be non-fiction - I'm most curious abaout the Zakaria book. I read an interview with him in Playboy awhile ago, he seemed like a really smart guy.

Anyhow, fun stuff. People are so obsessed with role models for the youth and all that - I think that actually, role models are especially important in creating future readers.

09 August 2009

Pather Panchali

My friend Dustin summed up this film pretty well - it's powerful but devastating, one misery after another but so well made that you feel genuinely present, totally absorbed in the story. There's something about the way it's shot, I think, and the sparse, unaffected story telling style, that makes it seem sort of simple and everyday, despite the fact that for the most part, the everyday isn't exactly a barrel of laughs.

02 August 2009

Daimons, by Nina FitzPatrick

The final collaboration between Nina Witoszek and Pat Sheeran is a charming, hilarious novel, a wonderful send-up of Irish culture and society. It's sparkling, witty, and quite amusing, characterized by the same sort of humor that one finds in their other books, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia and The Loves of Faustyna; in other words, a kind of raunchy enjoyment of well worn cliche.

The Polish-Irish aspect is in some ways most visible in this book. You could sort of see it in Fables, which were stories of Irish life, and Faustyna, whose titular protagonist was a Polish woman, but in this novel it's more curious, in that it's set wholly in Ireland, yet there are occasional, often unexplained references to Polish things.
Of course, there are also great references to Irish stuff - I particularly relished seeing Declan Kiberd get namechecked - and really, the book is a very smart take on Irish culture overall, I'd say. In particular, it raises some really nice points about society's relationship to (and commodification of) the past in amusing ways. It's also a nice satire of the West of Ireland overall.

But that's sort of beside the point. As a novel, it has to be admitted, it's not perfect. It definitely loses steam towards the end, and generally, the sprawling cast of characters is a bit more than is manageable, but nonetheless, it's a charming, entertaining book. Not the best Nina Fitzpatrick work - I think that honor goes to Fables - but great fun in any case.

01 August 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

I'll be teaching the Mahabarata to freshmen in the fall, so I figured I'd start gearing up by checking out this movie, which I missed when it was playing last year. Sita Sings the Blues is an animated feature that combines a retelling of the Ramayana with the story of the director's (Nina Paley) divorce. A curious idea, and the end result is worth watching, if somewhat disappointing.

First, the good part - the Ramayana portion is pretty delightful. Irreverent, certainly, but charming and quite clever. It's narrated by three characters who also provide a running commentary ("And then it turned out she was pregnant. Maybe they joined the Mile High Club?" "So what, she's just a bloodthirsty woman?") which is really well done, a very intelligent take on the text. It's also accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack of old jazzy blues songs by Annette Hanshaw that are just terrific. FYI - you can buy Ms. Hanshaw's complete best of, 47 (!) tracks, for only $9.99. I'm downloading them as I type this. So, yeah, Ramayana - lovely. Lots of fun.

The problem with the movie is the "parallel" story, that of the director's divorce. First off, there's not much there - to summarize, she and her husband are apparently madly in love. He gets a 6 month job in India, and he seems to grow a bit distant, metaphorically speaking. She comes to India, and he is quite clearly distant (this is conveyed, however, in just one scene of her in a bra and panties in bed, and him going to sleep instead of making love to her). She flies to New York for a meeting, and receives an email from him telling her not to come back. She is very sad. Very very sad. Then she starts reading Ramayana. End of movie. Seriously. It's actually even sparser than I'm making it sound. So, I guess there's sort of a parallel to Ramayana, in that Sita ultimately tells Rama to take a leap because she's tired of his bullshit, but that's a pretty weak parallel. Then, there's the fact that her husband was in India, so I guess that's kind of a link. But really, it seems like the point is, Ms. Paley read Ramayana while all this stuff was happening, and probably related to it on some kind of deep level, such that she decided to make a movie of it, and then she figured she'd keep the part about her relating to it in the movie.

Now, I don't want to be harsh about this, but here's the thing - either give me a solid reason why I should find your story as compelling as the Ramayana, show me how your own personal experience with the text illuminates it and brings out meanings that simply reading it on its own wouldn't, or - leave your story out. I'm sure it was a very difficult time for you. I imagine working on this film was a comfort. But putting in the story of your marriage ending comes across as pretty self-indulgent. Sorry.

Meanwhile though, as a cartoon version of the Ramayana - it's a lovely film. Worth checking out.

Dead Snow

An unrepentantly goofy, gory, and utterly delightful zombie flick.

I honestly don't have all that much to say about this movie other than that it was a blast. Nazi zombies! In the snow! Nonsensical plot! Very funny stuff!

The two movies that come to mind as related to this one are The Descent, for the nature element - although Dead Snow doesn't do as much with it, there is an avalanche scene that could have been pushed a lot further. It seems curious to me to have a zombie movie that simultaneously pits the protagonists against nature itself. It kind of highlights the strange non-naturalness of zombies, not to mention the fact that really, nature is way more badass than any monster. Though I guess the humans do triumph over it, sort of.
It also sort of makes one think of Shaun of the Dead, mostly for the whole zombie movie that self-consciously references zombie movies aspect. This is actually something that bears thinking about, in that it seems increasingly common. Is this the sign of a genre dying out, that it becomes a kind of accumulation of references while still repeating the same old tricks? Or is it a sign of its perseverance, an impressive registering of a long noble heritage, and the fact that even though the audience pretty much knows exactly what's gonna happen from the get-go, it's still enjoyable to watch? Has fright simply transmogrified into new forms? Are we more afraid of terrorists than monsters?
Actually, there's another interesting point there, in that some would say that it's old school American horror that's died out, whereas Japanese horror, for instance, is going strong (or at least it was a few years ago - the fad seems to have passed now). So it's interesting that this movie is a clear throwback to American cinema - especially given that it's apparently one of the first Norwegian horror flicks, a rare specimen.

Oh - one weird aspect of Dead Snow is its obsession with poop. There's a big focus on intestines. And there's an outhouse scene that's just gross. Is this its bold, original take? Zombie film - now with Nazis and poop!

Anyhow. Entertaining movie.