20 January 2010


An absolutely breathtaking film. You would think that a made for tv movie about a woman with cancer would be absolute dreck, but oh my, how incorrect you'd be. If it weren't for the fact that it was directed by Mike Nichols and stars Emma Thompson, it never would have made it into the ol' queue, and if it weren't for the fact that she plays an English professor, it probably would have languished at the bottom for years. I can't really say what inspired me to move it up, but I'm so glad I did.

Wit is, as mentioned, a film about an English professor - an expert in poetry, particularly John Donne - who is slowly dying of ovarian cancer. The film focuses mostly on her treatment, with occasional lapses into the realms of memory. What makes it an incredible film is the way it brings together poetry, analysis, and mortality, with a dose of simple humanity for good measure. Thompson plays a highly self-disciplined academic who has more time for poetry than people. The movie provides some absolutely gorgeous scenes of literary interpretation, explaining why it matters whether or not Donne used a comma in certain places, and, though it does contrast his abstract reflections on death with an actual woman's experience of approaching it, it thankfully never claims that one needs a "human touch" to understand poetry, or any sort of dreck like that. Though Thompson does regret, at moments, her severity or seclusion, it's never in a way that diminishes her magnificent accomplishments or implies that she has led her life incorrectly. As a portrayal of an English professor, it's a beautiful tribute.

A very nice contrast to this is the character of one of her doctors, a research fellow at the hospital, who has the same intellectual appreciation for cancer that Thompson has for poetry. This leads to some really incredible scenes where he describes cancer cells with loving appreciation to a woman who is wasting away because of them. Yet again, while the movie chastises him for being a bit too cold, it doesn't, I think, demonize him. In other words, it's another example of how the film manages to treat issues that have been so throughly mutilated by cliches that one forgets that they're actually interesting in a way that reminds the viewers that they matter.

Indeed, perhaps the most incredible aspect of the movie is the way in which it portrays human warmth and companionship, particularly through the character of the nurse. There's a scene where she rubs lotion on the unconscious patient's hands that brought tears to my eyes. She represents the humanitarian impulse of medicine, and likewise serves as a counterpoint to the young research fellow, though again, not in a bad way - as she herself puts it, people like him are necessary to the field of medicine. But so are people like her.

Finally, the poetry - literature itself, really - is given such wonderful honors in the film. Beautifully recited at various moments - as reflection, as comfort, and inspiration - the film wonderfully brings to light the power of language, be it in the form of Donne's poetry or in the form of the Runaway Bunny. A wonderful complement to this comes in the music - the use of Arvö Part in the soundtrack is absolutely brilliant.

I really can't recommend the movie enough. I sobbed like a child, but I loved it.

17 January 2010

Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

I was one of the few people who liked the Brothers Grimm, and was therefore inclined to ignore the negative reviews of Imaginarium, because really, with Terry Gilliam movies, you never know. I had high hopes for this movie - the whole subbing other actors in for Heath Ledger aspect was intriguing, plus - Tom Waits as the Devil! Hello! But I'm sorry to say - the movie sucked.

The problem isn't Heath Ledger getting replaced by a host of other actors - I really don't know why people are harping on that. It's like complaining about a dirty floor when the house is on fire. The problem isn't the other actors being swapped in - which in itself is actually somewhat interesting - the problem is the character they're playing is largely uninteresting. Also, there's something a bit odd about how they all seem to be playing their own standard selves, except that when you put them all together like that, the self seems to be a somewhat weak Johnny Depp imitation.

The real problem is that the movie is, quite simply, dull. An hour in I looked at my watch and thought glumly that it probably wouldn't be ending any time soon. After that, I think I was checking every 10 minutes or so, in vain hope that what felt like eternity had actually been a substantial enough amount of time that we were headed for the finish line. The special effects are neat, sure, but the plot is generally kind of inane. Which in itself wouldn't be so bad, if the characters weren't so utterly vapid. If you fail on both of those counts though, the result is generally pretty disastrous, no matter how impressive your landscapes.

The one exception to this is Tom Waits as the Devil - he's every bit as wonderful as you'd expect, and generally a pleasure to watch. He doesn't get much screen time, or even much interesting stuff to do, so it's not a case where the movie is worth watching for his performance alone - it's more like finding a cool patch as you're running out of the flaming house.

16 January 2010

A Single Man

This is another one of those movies that you enjoy in a guilty pleasure sort of way, while realizing that it's not actually that good. Tom Ford, the director, is a fashion designer, so visually, the movie is pretty fabulous - the 60s have never looked better. At one point, I thought to myself, my god! How glorious to be alive at a time when everyone was so well dressed! Generally, it's well done as a time capsule of that era, particularly in relation to what it was like to be gay at the time, and the general ethos of anxiety, fears of nuclear attack, etc. But it's not just costume that makes the movie pretty - actually, what's most impressive is the use of light and color. Colin Firth's character is extremely depressed, so most of the time, he and his world are a sort of washed out greyscale. But occasionally, when he's talking to someone, he perks up and is gently infused with some color - it's quite clever, and very well done. Really though, one of the most wonderful things about the film is its appreciation for the male body - and how! Wonderful shots of sensual bodies, handled with the loving care that is normally reserved for gorgeous women. Quite nice. And the movie is, at moments, incredibly sexy. This is important, because its story is centered around what is actually a quite depressing subject, and yet the movie never sinks fully into the protagonist's torpor - indeed, even the protagonist himself allows a glimmer of humor to crackle through his wall of ice from time to time. Colin Firth is absolutely tremendous as a miserable man, but he is somewhat outshined by Nicholas Hoult, who is absolutely mesmerizing as an earnest young student. I completely didn't recognize Mr Hoult - though he looked somewhat familiar - until my friend pointed out that he was the star of About a Boy. My god! The years have been good to him!

The main weakness of the film was Julianne Moore - her acting was fine and all, but her character was a bit disappointing, a needy, melodramatic middle aged alcoholic. She's supposed to be Firth's best friend, but it's awfully difficult to understand why they ever became close in the first place, because she's mostly quite irritating. It's too bad - it would have been so easy to give her character a bit more, and at moments the movie almost seems to, but then pulls short.

Also, without giving it away, the ending had me scratching my head a bit. It's a really odd way to end the film, and I'm not entirely sure why it went the way it did. I almost thought it would've been better to end 20 minutes earlier, in a lovely scene on the beach, but then I thought well no, you probably need a bit more - in any case, it was strange.

But ultimately, a very enjoyable film, if a bit melodramatic.

10 January 2010

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger

The idea behind this book is interesting - it's a collection of different translations of one haiku, with commentary on each. It begins with the original, discussing the way the letters look on the page, then provides a trot (what they call a word-for-word rendering, in the translation biz, heh heh), and then 17 different translations.

Now, it is of course (well, to me) fascinating to read so many different versions of one thing. Furthermore, to people such as myself who are unfamiliar with Mandarin, the trot itself is kind of intriguing, just as a perspective on how difficult the translation process is - particularly in the case of poetry.

However, Weinberger's commentary is more annoying than anything else. Yes, he has some interesting observations, but he's so grating that they almost get lost in the mix. As one goodreads reviewer put it - he's just LOUD, especially alongside the tranquil, placid nature of the poem.

I still recommend the book, because hey, it's barely 50 pages - basically the poems, and then a page or so of commentary for each - just be prepared for Weinberger to annoy you, and try to appreciate the good bits.

Julie & Julia

This is one of those cases where I'd set the bar SO low that I actually ended up really enjoying the movie. Nora Ephron generally brings out the worst in me, and everything I'd read about Julie & Julia prepared me to want to slap babies whenever Amy Adams was on the screen - not because of Amy Adams, I should clarify, but rather, because of the character she plays. Apparently she's taken some heat for her performance, but personally, I bet she did it just right. It's just not a very appealing character.

So yes, Julie is annoying. A self-absorbed, whiny, trite woman who wants nothing more than attention from strangers as a way to feel better about herself. But Adams manages to inject some kind of humanity into her, such that I didn't hate her as much as I expected to. Her husband is a bit too good to be true, but is a thoroughly likeable and supportive guy. You don't quite understand what he sees in his wife, but hey. I did really appreciate that they included Julia Child's reaction to the whole project (ie, barf).

On the other hand, Meryl Streep is absolutely transcendent as Julia Child. Believe the hype. And her relationship with Stanley Tucci is SO lovely - just like people say.

My only real beef with the film, aside from the whole Julie portion, is that one would really like a bit more food porn. Nora Ephron seems to have missed the fact that the movie's main audience was likely to be foodies, ie, people who would be happy to watch food cook for long stretches of time. There were many delicious looking things, sure, but no real attention to their creation and consumption. I don't give a crap about the characters, show me the eats.

Turns out the old Julia Child episodes are available from the Netflix - and can now be found at the top of my queue.

02 January 2010

Police, Adjective

This movie could be seen as the exact opposite of Bad Lieutenant, which is kind of amusing. Whereas that film was a sort of exaggerated take on what it's like to be a cop, this was almost painfully realistic, the slow grinding tedium of actual policework. Conceptually, it's sort of interesting, the story of a police officer working a case about a teenage drug user whom he actually doesn't want to bust, but it's so slow that it's really hard to appreciate. The pacing is downright glacial - you have, for instance, a 5 minute scene of the guy waiting to talk to someone and just sitting in the office as the secretary types. There's no background music to distract you from the fact that nothing is going on. The cop follows these kids around, and you're there for every minute of the walk down long, fairly monotonous streets.
I dozed here and there - I just couldn't stay awake for it - but yeah. This is one of those expert level foreign films that I just can't fully appreciate.