28 October 2013

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad

Conrad's prose is reliably gorgeous, but I didn't find this novel particularly compelling. All the things you might expect -- suspenseful double-crosses and deceptions, or penetrating insights into the mind of the terrorist, or the tensions between his political and domestic life -- are completely absent. In fact, one has the sense of a fog hanging over the book. It's the same kind of thing you get in Heart of Darkness, but there, it's the arises and part of a meta-reflection on knowledge and storytelling. Here it's indirection and vagueness. Events are almost never related outright, but usually rough a prism of secondhand information or newspaper reports. The minds of the characters are amorphous and confused; this initially makes them seem complex, and later does the exact opposite. Specific scenes, such as the descriptions of Stevie, the musings of the Chief of Police, or the anguish of Winnie, are completely incredible, but overall, the story drags and seems clumsy in its construction.

Incidentally, I also re-read Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday today, and it remains a totally fantastic metaphysical story about being a double agent. Such a great book.

23 October 2013


This was both better and worse than I expected, knowing almost nothing about it. It perhaps helped that I spent two hours discussing Deleuze and film theory beforehand -- I was primed to really appreciate thoughtful cinematic composition, and oh boy did this movie deliver. Especially good, because I did not realize that I was going into a movie that was largely monologue (and by monologue I mean Sandra Bullock saying oh shit oh shit oh shit), and might have been annoyed if I were in a less pensive mood.

So, the flaws first. The dialogue is pretty weak. The characters are pretty annoying, to the extent that you don't quite care enough about them. The plot is kind of one damn thing after another: essentially, it's a movie about flailing around. You can't help but feel vaguely frustrated that the only woman (admittedly, there aren't many people period, but it's still notable to have a female astronaut after all) is sickly, complaining, anxious, emotional, uptight, and basically everything a stereotypical annoying girl would be, in space. And of course, whenever possible, she strips down to her skivvies, and we watch her (quite attractive) butt float around. Meanwhile, the movie also gets quite sappy in the most American, Hollywoody way, and seriously why did it need to do that.

But! But. Wow. What a brilliant meditation on space. Both outer space, relative space, the way that film portrays space... Best use of the 3D medium ever, perhaps. Absolutely ingenious use of sound. I actually want to watch the movie again, and pay attention to it more carefully. Fantastic, for instance, the way the focus shifts, and gives you a sense of the enormity of space through a kind of reverse relativization: here you have Sandra Bullock, who is freaking out, literally in an echo chamber of her own panicked voice, and suddenly, the focus pans to a single tear she is crying, wobbling through the gravity-free area before her. So clever. And the movie does it a few times, jumping between the vast space around her, the claustrophobic space immediately around her, and the microcosm of an entirely uninterested object in its own little world beside her. It's really, really interesting. So that's what I mean by relative space; how the movie manages to evoke entirely different scales and shift between them.

Relatedly, there's outer space, and just how amazingly vast it is, and how that gets into a level of unknowability/abstraction that you kind of start to drift, and who knows what the rules are any more. And the only thing that can even compare is the labyrinth of your own mind, and the two start to collapse into each other.

And then, there's the way film portrays space, namely, the way the 3D makes you feel all floaty and weird, and like things are coming at you, and you're awkwardly fumbling for them.

Yes, it's sappy, and yes, the characters are annoying and the dialogue is dumb. But you need to see it, and you should do so in a theater.

03 October 2013


Fun fact about me: I will see any movie Daniel Brühl is in, on general principle. The dude is fantastic, and most of the movies he's in are too. And even if they're not, they're worth watching just for him. So yup, off I trotted to check this one out. Overall - it's a so-so movie. But you should go see it anyways, because he's great.

The premise is made for cinema - the rivalry between two Formula 1 race car drivers, one the classic bad boy, the other an anti-social nerd who knows how to drive good. The bad boy character is pretty much the same one we know from many many other movies, though good ol' Thor is certainly pleasant to look at and manages to play it reasonably well, with only the occasional eye-roll-inducing descent into utter cliche. The filmmakers are canny enough to give him a genuinely interesting scene that serves to completely redeem and humanize his character and make you root for him, but it comes rather late in the film.

Brühl, meanwhile, is a character we are less familiar with, and not quite sure what to make of (and oh man his Austrian accent is SO spot on, both in German and English). A genius of sorts, but also thoroughly unpleasant, personality-wise. We can't quite decide whether or not to like him, and attempts to humanize him are shaky and not entirely convincing. He also throws a real wrench into the typical trope of sports biopics. What is it that drives him, really? It's hard to say, but Brühl manages to make this seem complex and subtle rather than undeveloped. What I really liked about the movie was how it managed to deliberate between the nerd and the popular guy in what to me at least was a genuinely compelling way.

Unfortunately there's a fairly lengthy bit in the middle that is way more gruesome than necessary -- one really wonders why the filmmakers insisted on such wrenchingly grotesque stuff; to shock? To make us realize what we're really dealing with here? Just 'cuz? -- and his wife is shamefully undeveloped personality-wise. But I will say this for the movie -- it actually gave me a glimpse of how Nascar might be genuinely interesting. It definitely captures both the thrill and the terror of racing, but also the utter stupidity and the wreckless disregard that the organization has for the people involved. As a bonus though, they do something at the end that I really like in this type of film, namely, they let you see what the real people look like, which is neat.

Overall, I'd say it's worth watching, but as should be clear, when it comes to Mr. Brühl, I am not even a little bit objective.