Sunday, June 28, 2009

Away We Go

Dave Eggers is just precious, isn’t he? He’s got his quirky memoir, his quirky novels, his quirky monthly magazine, his quirky literary quarterly, and now...his quirky movie. With his wife, the novelist Vendela Vida, Eggers penned this picture about Burt and Verona, two thirtysomethings who are - quite literally, and cue Michael W. Smith - trying to find their place in this world. Now, as you may have noticed above, Dave Eggers is a literary fellow; he edits a magazine (The Believer) and a quarterly literary journal (McSweeney’s) and has written several novels to go along with his best-known work, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Modest, eh?

Also overrated. Not bad, you understand, just not nearly as good as it was made out to be; and the same thing can be said about Away We Go. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) discover that they are pregnant when Burt notices, while performing oral sex on her in the opening scene, that Verona tastes different. Interrupting the act to expound upon this, Burt tells us that he has read that that sort of change is indicative of menopause or pregnancy. Subtlety, it would seem, is entirely foreign to Mr. Eggers.

They embark on a road trip to find the right place to bring up their daughter-to-be, and the odd thing about the way that this story is constructed - coming, as it does, from two authors - is that it smacks of hackery. They moved to Connecticut to be near Burt’s parents for the arrival of the baby, but then find that Burt’s parents are moving to, um...Belgium. And that’s a little wacky. Then Burt’s parents tell Burt and Verona that they can have the house while they are away, as long as their realtor doesn’t find a renter before they leave. In the middle of the dinner they are having when Burt’s parents explain all this, the realtor calls and tells Burt’s parents that they have a renter. And that’s a little wackier. It’s also over the top to the point of being annoying, which neatly sums up my opinion of the humor of Dave Eggers.

I laughed during this movie - the first time he trotted out each joke - but it wasn’t long after he kept each vignette burning by fanning the flames of the same joke with which he started each vignette that I started to feel annoyed. In one scene, Burt and Verona worry to each other that they are fuckups; but as they try to comfort each other in what ought to be a reasonably tender moment, Eggers makes it awkward (and only very slightly funny) by having them repeat the word fuckup over and over again. It’s funny once - maybe twice; but Eggers flogs it (and every other joke in the movie) like he just discovered how to jerk off and doesn’t ever want to come out of the bathroom.

The road trip consists of vignettes that are entirely compartmentalized - complete with big title cards before each one begins, in case you’re having trouble following along - and that each contain Burt and Verona visiting a friend or family member; and everyone they visit is an outsized stereotype, from the quirky nuclear family in Phoenix to the quirky hippies in Madison to the quirky expats in Montreal. And would you believe that when we get to the end, the answer they were looking for was right there under their noses the whole time?

Hackery! Hackery, I tell you! Either that, or Dave Eggers has always been little more than a slightly more sophisticated Judd Apatow and I just never knew it. Of course, I suppose it could be the missus; I don’t know. I haven’t read anything that Vida has written. I have read the Eggers memoir, though, and this movie smacks of the same self-importance as that book.

Which is not to say that the film is entirely without some positives. Those jokes that get repeated over and over again are genuinely funny the first one or two times around, and the music by Alexi Murdoch is pretty good, too. You may remember him from his song on the Garden State soundtrack, which is one of the all-time great motion picture soundtracks not composed by John Williams for George Lucas. Also, Maya Rudolph is excellent - though it’s probably no accident that her character (who lost both her parents at a young age, as Eggers did in real life) is given more emotional depth; and she pulls it off pretty well, with surprising restraint for an SNL alumna. She should not be surprised if she gets a phone call early in the morning on the day the Golden Globe nominations are announced.

Overall, though, I was disappointed, and what I found most disappointing was the writing. Apart from the obvious structural flaws, I got the feeling that Eggers and Vida were extremely hesitant to dig too deep into the serious issues at work in the story without having something vulgar ready to go the moment they sensed the need for a bit of levity. I don’t know that I have ever seen a movie that used the word vagina so many times. Dave Eggers is, if not the most important, certainly the most prominent of the current crop of established contemporary American writers of literature, and his literary reputation obviously precedes him here; but the crude humor subverts the story and renders the characters largely ineffectual. To the extent that this film is not a colossal failure, Maya Rudolph deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Deep Thoughts #2

There are so many things to see and do in the world - even in Indiana! - and yet this is what people like to do with their opposable thumbs.

Summer Hours

And the cinematic coincidences just keep on coming. (I was wrong about Boogie Nights being the second Netflix movie that would finish out the handful I had moved up in order to watch while Amy was gone - but more on that in a minute.) After being oddly productive this afternoon - I cut the grass and pulled some weeds and then went to Lowe’s and bought some miscellaneous items for outdoor upkeep work - I went downtown to the library and hunted around in their CD collection until I found a CD I read about in Newsweek a couple of days ago.

Seems that Jada Pinkett Smith has her own metal band. The band is called Wicked Wisdom, which is also the name of their second album, and the music is...well, it’s awfully metally. It’s the only CD I’ve ever listened to where it actively occurred to me that the band’s drummer is really good at playing the bass drum.

After that, I took a short walk around downtown and then it was time to treat myself to some movies. First was Herb and Dorothy, an intimate, endearing documentary about two art collectors in New York who set the art world on fire by meticulously putting together, over the course of more than forty years, a collection of art that no one ever believed would set the art world on fire. The collection becomes so vast - they have stored all of it in their tiny rent-controlled Manhattan apartment - that they wind up donating it to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

So it goes. There’s even “extra” footage during the credits, showing Dorothy doing what all high-quality, artistically-oriented people do when it’s time to buy a computer - namely, buying a Mac laptop. That movie ended in just enough time for me to dash up to the theatre to catch Summer Hours, a new film by Olivier Assayas, which is largely concerned with - wait for it - the dispensation of a large collection of art and other highly valuable objects such as armoires and desks.

The trouble with Summer Hours is that it hops from scene to scene - sometimes with no connective tissue other than lines in the script that let you know that certain things foreshadowed in the preceding scene actually came to pass between the two scenes. Following the progression of the story isn’t the problem - the problem is that the bits Assayas decided not to show almost certainly would have been more interesting than the bits that he did decide to show.

Factor in a couple of inane subplots, that add nothing to the movie other than minutes to the running time, and an ending that only barely works in a certain way while being mostly disingenuous and slghtly forced in every other way, and what you wind up with is a movie that just can’t possibly end too soon.’s about this really old house and all the stuff that has accumulated in it over the years. Hélène, the owner of the house, is getting older and knows her time is short, so she tasks her three children with either keeping the house or selling it and its contents.

So the movie is really about the house and its contents, and what those things means to Hélène’s children; but the inconvenient script has each of her children living on a different continent, so that much of the story is disjointed and rushed, which is bad, Olivier - and it makes me think that maybe Assayas doesn’t even know what his own movie is about. Of course, it’s also possible that I should not have tried to watch two movies about what to do with the collectible objects of old people in the same day.

And that coincidence that I mentioned, the one that had to do with Boogie Nights not being the next movie in my queue? Well, the cast of Summer Hours includes Juliette Binoche, so the movie that was in my queue where I thought Boggie Nights was supposed to be, wound up being, naturally, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


It was pretty much a given that I was going to like Tyson - the only thing in question was how much was I going to like a movie that is basically ninety minutes of Mike Tyson sitting on a couch and talking about himself. He wasn’t exactly eloquent when he was in prime condition, back in the days when he had never even been knocked down, never mind knocked out. Now, however, he’s been to prison, been knocked down half a dozen times, and knocked out at least a handful of times. His boxing career is over, the end having come four years ago in a match he fought for no other reason than to get the paycheck.

So whence a feature-length documentary? Part of the answer to that question lies in the fact that Tyson’s friend James Toback directed the picture, but I don’t know if that’s enough to sell a movie all on its own; no, the bigger answer to that question is that former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson is still a compelling figure, though I don’t mean that in an entirely good way. Tyson’s personal life was pretty much always a train wreck, and made the requisite tabloid (and legitimate press) headlines back in the day; but you have to remember that this is a cat who was heavyweight champion of the world at the age of twenty. The number of people who have been heavyweight champion of the world earlier in their lives than Tyson is zero.

This is a puff piece, to be sure - none of the players in his life at whom he hurls invectives - mostly Desiree Washington and Don King - are given the opportunity to defend themselves - but it doesn’t smack of the hagiography of a Beyond The Sea or Gonzo, either. It’s also not exactly a mea culpa for all of the bad behavior that he indulged in, both inisde and (mostly) outside the ring; but there is an acknowledgement on Tyson’s part - not only that there was bad behavior, but that it was this bad behavior, which he brought largely on himself, that kept him from achieving all that he should have achieved in boxing.

And what he should have achieved in boxing is the designation as the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. Much attention is paid early on to Tyson’s first trainer and manager, the legendary Cus D’Amato, who took the young street punk from Brooklyn - who cops to his first arrest at the age of twelve - into his home and honed Tyson into such a ferocious fighter that first round knockouts came to be de rigeur. During the Olympic trials in 1980, Tyson knocked a dude out in eight seconds. Eight years later, in what is considered the peak of his career, he dispatched former heavyweight champion Michael Spinks - who had never been knocked down prior to his fight with Tyson, never mind knocked out - in 91 seconds. Spinks’ record going into the Tyson fight was 31-0. He never fought again.

The film progresses chronologically from Tyson’s early days as a fighter to the present, which finds him the father of six children - though since the film wrapped, one of his daughters died in a tragic accident at home, less than one month ago - and doing the best he can to get on with life after boxing; and the film is what it is - almost entirely Mike Tyson telling his own story. Other than some odd visual frames - oddly reminiscent of the itself-odd Mike Figgis picture Time Code - that create sort of an echo effect during portions of the narration, there is little evidence of any attempt to manipulate what we see. There is editing, of course - Toback gives us the picture he wants us to see - but aside from presenting only Tyson’s part of the story, the film doesn’t really pull any punches, so to speak. There may be different versions of how he got to where he is in life at the moment, but the person speaking to the camera is clearly a beaten man; and to hear the former so-called “baddest man on the planet” speaking with such candor is often oddly startling.

How much did I like it, then? I have to say that I liked it a lot, even if it might not have been, ahem...fair and balanced; and really, though, everything other than the sordid details of what went on in that hotel room with Washington has been pretty well aired out in public. This is Tyson in his own words, and it’s not meant to be perfect, or necessarily complete; it is meant only to be a brief look into the soul of a complicated, troubled person - and in that regard it’s a tremendous success.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lust, Caution

I read the short story this movie was based on, but it was back toward the end of 2007 - probably around the time we played the movie. I don’t remember the story being as involved as the story in the movie, although the pace of the film is close enough to plodding that one could certainly imagine the story having been condensed into relatively few pages. It’s the old saw with the Ang-ster, but it works a little better here than it does in other pictures.

Briefly, the story revolves around a group of Chinese dissidents working underground to destabilize the emerging Chinese government during the time when Japan occupied China during World War II. The plan is for the resistance to get close to one of the Chinese leaders and assassinate him, but this is - wait for it - Easier Said Than Done. The “getting close to” is the hard part, because trust builds slowly (like plaque), especially when - again, wait for it - The Stakes Are High.

The group plans to use one of its own, a pretty girl with whom the targeted leader, a Mr. Yee, is clearly smitten, to seduce him and put her in place to take him out when they get their orders from the higher-ups. And oh, boy...does she seduce him. The third act is pretty much a Chinese Kama Sutra, with some shots of people smoking cigarettes very artfully, just to let you know that this whole thing is Very Serious.

Let me just stop for a second to rein this thing in here - because I think it’s starting to feel like I’m trashing the movie, and I don’t mean for that to be the case. I liked this movie, and if it had been 30-40 minutes shorter I would have really liked it; but it’s easy to poke fun at because it takes itself so seriously. This pretty much comes with the territory when you’re watching Ang Lee movies - they’re very pretty to look at, but they think awfully well of themselves, and alacrity is clearly a concept with which Mr. Lee is unfamiliar. This is one of those movies to which it is very easy to apply the MST3K treatment.

Interestingly, though, the plodding pace works here more than in other Ang Lee movies - because of the fact that trust and loyalty both build slowly. It’s necessary to show this trust building over the course of passing days, shared glances, lingering conversations, and some impressive feats of sexual endurance that are, quite honestly, a hair’s breadth away from being porn. It’s almost gratuitous, except for the way in which it revelas the dichotomy of Yee’s character - which gives us the title of the story.

The ending bothered me, though. For reasons passing understanding, Lee pulls his punches with two scenes that could have had a very powerful impact as the story draws to a close; and it seems an odd way to wrap up the story, given the very explicit nature of the sex scenes. There’s no ambiguity to the scenes, but fully realizing them might well have made the difference between a good picture and a very good picture.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Deep Thoughts #1

One hundred forty characters or less isn’t challenging. Try for exactly one hundred forty each time without extra punctuation to fill it in.

The Small World of French Cinema

Two Saturdays ago after I got off work, I stayed to watch Shall We Kiss?, which stars Virginie Ledoyen, a distinguished young actress in French cinema.

Then, a few days later, Late August, Early September came in the mail from Netflix. It also stars Virginie Ledoyen – though that had nothing to do with that film’s inclusion in my queue, nor with the timing of its arrival. Many moons ago, when Scott and I would spend inordinate amounts of time at the Slippery Noodle Inn - due largely to the fact that he was dating someone who worked there – it was recommended to me that I should see Late August, Early September, but I never got around to it because back then there were just video stores, and finding obscure French movies at Blockbuster is a task so difficult that it should be named after a figure from mythology.

I moved Late August, Early September up in the queue so that I could knock it out while Amy was gone. She used to teach French, and so likes French movies well enough – but it seemed like this one was a little too indie for her. I have also knocked out Lust, Caution in her absence, and I think I’ll probably get two more pictures watched before she gets back – which will be Unfaithful and Boogie Nights (which will complete the magic P.T. Anderson trifecta).

So what does all of that have to do with anything in particular at all? Not much – it’s just a vaguely amusing French film coincidence. But when you add to it that we’re opening Summer Hours on Friday, it becomes a triple coincidence – because Summer Hours is directed by Olivier Assayas, who also directed Late August, Early September. Still doesn’t have much to do with anything – it’s just funny how things work out sometimes.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Birds And Snakes And Aeroplanes...And People Riding Dinosaurs!

While I was setting up the grill in the backyard on Sunday, for Jackson’s birthday party, I called Steve to see if he wanted to swing by after work; and he told me that it was funny I had called because he had been planning to call me later that night, because he was planning the field trip to end all field trips for the following Tuesday - today - and he wanted to know if I wanted to go along.

Normally I have to work on Tuesday, but this week is odd because one of the other managers is on vacation this weekend, so some of us are working - or not working - unusual shifts; and Amy and Jackson went to Scranton with her parents today, so I pretty much have the run of the place for the next couple of weeks. So not only did I not have to work, I also didn’t have to worry about missing out on any time with the fam by going on this field trip.

Now...what exactly is the “field trip to end all field trips,” you ask? Well, friends and neighbors, we’re talking about a trip down to see the Creation Museum (website here and Wikipedia entry here), in Petersburg, Kentucky. Yeah...the Creation Museum - that monument to the idea that what’s in the Bible - particularly in Genesis - is both true and literal, the place where they have exhibits depicting humans and dinosaurs living on Earth at the same time, the place where they have a diorama of Noah’s Ark that has two dinosaurs going up the ramp to get onto the ark.

Steve cooked up the idea mostly for the hell of it: so his brother could report back to some co-workers on questions they had about the museum (and I wish I had thought to write some of those questions down when he was telling them to us on the way to the museum, because they were pretty funny - maybe Steve will comment below and note some, if he remembers them); and so his wife could enjoy the anthropological wonder of it all (as that’s what she’s studying in school); and because he considers himself a doubter and was curious about what he would see. I reckon he asked me along because he wanted to see if I would burst into flames immediately upon setting foot in the place. There was no Atheist Alarm at the door, though, so I was safe.

I was conflicted it about it, honestly. The idea of a road trip sounded cool, but the admission was way high ($21.95, plus tax) and the thought of spending my money at a place like that - which would be a de facto show of support - was a little nauseating. This place is basically a temple to the abortion of reason and critical thinking, a citadel of ignorance and selective interpretation - and now my admission dollars have helped to further that cause, to perpetuate the brain atrophy that these partially-evolved sub-humans claim is a valid belief system.

But the end, I handed over my money and took the tour. Part of it was sheer morbid curiosity, but mostly it was just to have a good time with some friends; and, I suppose that, if anyone ever tries to call me out for trashing the ultra-religious mouth-breathers who subscribe to this utter nonsense, I can say, “Oh, no, Mort, sorry...I have been to your Dumb of the Rock, and I have seen firsthand the overwhelming evidence that you ‘people’ believe what you want to believe and conveniently ignore what you have been told to ignore. That story about the lamb of your god so moved you that apparently you turned into an obedient little sheep who chooses to abdicate common sense in order to be ‘saved.’ You should consider donating to science whatever remains of your functioning brain and turning that empty space into a flip-top storage space so you’ll never forget your car keys again.”

And we took the tour. We spent about three hours there, I guess, including the walking tour, a badly written short film, lunch at Noah’s Café, and a short walk of part of the grounds to get to the petting zoo. The vast majority of the clientele was old and white, which is usually the case when you get into the realm of things that don’t make sense - ultra-religious matters, conservative thinking, and Republican politics, to name a few. Also the persistence of Matlock as a viable entertainment option.

Nothing really changed for me after going through the museum, though. I thought these people were lunatics going in, and I think the same thing now that I have survived a tour of their compound unscathed. I will say, though, that the museum is awfully well put together and has a good flow from the beginning of the narrative - concerning the “seven C’s of creation” - to the end (remember, of course, that the target demographic here is a group of people who are easily led, or manipulated, and who never question authority, even when that authority is blindingly, obviously wrong); and the exhibits are all bright and colorful and...I hesitate to use the word informative, simply because so much of the information is false and misleading - but the quasi-information they provide is pretty well presented. For the people whose neural synapses are so badly damaged or underperfoming that they actually go in for these lies, this place is probably heaven on Earth.

Did I learn anything? Well...I didn’t learn any actual facts; but I did learn a few things that these people think. To wit:

1. The reason that ice floats is because if it sank, it would kill all the fish.
2. Clothes came about because the original covering Adam used, a fig leaf, was insufficient to pay for sin. The wages of sin, therefore, is both death and a leather toga.
3. There were no carnivores before original sin, because in a “very good” creation, no animal would die. Also, there were no weeds in the perfect creation, because the Earth produced exactly the amount of vegetation needed to feed its inhabitants.
4. Adam ate of the tree of knowledge and died. I don’t remember it happening like this in the Bible, but this is what they say.
5. Inbreeding in biblical times was okay because there weren’t enough people in the world for the genetic mutations associated with inbreeding to take place. Since we’re all descendants of Adam and Eve, everyone who gets married is marrying a relative. This museum is located in Kentucky, remember.
6. Noah’s flood lasted for a year. I don’t remember this in the Bible, either. I remember reading something about forty days and forty nights. It’s sort of funny how these people insist that everything was created perfectly in six days, according to a literal translation of Genesis - but that they are okay with fudging the numbers on the flood. Not that any of their arguments hold water, you understand - but it makes one wonder how badly retarded a person must be not to be able to spot these contradictions and denounce them.
7. We may yet find a living dinosaur somewhere in a remote corner of the world.

When all was said and done, though, I had a pretty good time. I would never do it again, and I’d take a bullet in the head before exposing my child to this nonsense; but forewarned is forearmed, and now I don’t have to just believe that this is no place for a thinking person - I actually have the evidence. What a concept.

Photos from today's adventure here.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Shall We Kiss?

It takes a little while to get going, but once it gets its farcical legs under it, it dives in head first with an affinity for the absurd that tops even the wackiest of the Coen brothers pictures. As the story progresses, though, things get a little bit unwieldy as the story buckles a little bit under the weight of its several heavy layers.

I smelled trouble from the beginning, because the story is told in a frame, which can be very effective when done well, but it’s hard to pull off. Gabriel runs into Émilie on the street, and she asks if he can help her in the right direction to catch a cab. At first he says he can’t help her, but then he doubles back and offers to take her wherever she needs to go. Then they spend a nice evening together and he wants to kiss her goodnight, but she stops him because she is with someone and doesn’t want to give in to the temptation of an illicit kiss with an interesting new person because she knows a story of two people who experienced something similar, with dramatic ramifications.

She frames the story of Nicolas and Judith, two best friends (each romantically linked to someone else) who inevitably develop feelings for each other without at first knowing it. It is then revealed that Nicolas needs to be able to kiss a woman first in order for the standard progression of physical intimacy to progress - and he’s been having trouble getting over this hurdle lately. It’s not quite the same as impotence, but it’s close - a trouble with subjective potency rather than objective potency. He convinces Judith to help him out, and even though they are both with other people, they conduct this little experiment by rationalizing it as something that friends would do for one another.

Subconsciously, of course, they’re giving in to the feelings that they have for each other but which they have never consciously acknowledged. Their kiss solves Nicolas’ problem, but creates a new one - namely that, having finally given in to each other, they are no longer satisfied with their original partners. What follows is an increasingly absurd series of encounters wherein they try, almost clinically, to purge themselves of these new feelings by indulging in them.

At first, I was a little bit put off by the way the camera just seemed to sit there and watch Nicolas and Judith talking to each other and trying to talk their way to a solution to their problem, because the dialogue seemed a little shaky and all of the white in the background lent an unnatural brightness to conversations that were just sort of...dull; but then I reminded myself that it was just this sort of hands-off approach that went a long way toward making Wendy and Lucy the excellent picture that it was - so I tried to sit back and just let the thing go and let myself be taken away by it.

Not that I was going to walk out or anything - but sometimes a thing can start to get to you and just not let up, and it can ruin the movie for you; sometimes this is external, like the woman in the row behind you who makes a worried sort of sound - oh no! - every time something happens that will get one of the characters in trouble (for those who have seen the film, the scene where Claudio goes back for his scarf is a prime example); and sometimes it’s internal, to do with the film itself, which is what all of that campy dialogue started to do for me at the outset. I also reminded myself that the original dialogue was written in French, and that it was entirely possible that the sub-titles just weren’t a good translation. French is the only language I know well enough to be able to tell (sometimes) when the English sub-titles don’t exactly say what the words spoken in French do.

And I really did let it go, and the machinations became so absurd that I found myself laughing - and found that I was often the only one in the theatre who was chuckling; and it wasn’t just that what was happening - let’s do it, but try not to make it good, so that way we won’t want to do it again; okay, now this time since that first thing didn’t work, let’s really try to make it the very best ever, so that there won’t be any need to ever do it again - was absurd. It was also that Nicolas and Judith seemed completely oblivious to just how absurd were their actions. They played it like their eyes were completely closed to the possibility that what they really needed was to be together, and they put so much effort into not seeing that one particular point that the effect became that of someone with OCD dancing over every tiny little crack in the sidewalk (think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets).

Eventually, they come to the realization that what they need to do is break things off with their other people and make a go of it together; and the story begins to buckle here when they cook up a scheme to get Judith’s boyfriend to leave her, but an odd thing happens after the story starts to buckle under its own weight - they throw a couple of curve balls at us, one each involving Gabriel and Émilie, the characters from the frame.

And now I’m sitting here trying to decide if I should reveal the ending or not, and part of the reason for my indecision is that revealing the ending is the only way I can really describe what an impressive job they do with the frame, which is something that I have always thought is very hard to do well. The more I think about it, though, the more I think that it’s not just done well here; it might actually have been done perfectly, or at least it’s as good a use of the technique as I have ever seen.

I don’t think I can do it. I’ve scrapped three different attempts at it now, and I just don’t see a way to describe what they do with the frame in a way that doesn’t reveal the ending. About the best I can do is tell you that the frame actually winds up becoming a circle - or, probably more accurately, a Möbius strip. The last image you see on screen isn’t quite haunting - which might be more than the makers of a French farce want to achieve - but it’s awfully close. And awfully good, too.

Next: Gia, or the Mayor goes to see Star Trek

Saturday, June 06, 2009

NPR Interview With Kelly Reichardt

I was listening to NPR on the way back from Jackson's birthday brunch yesterday, and the program Fresh Air had a really interesting interview with Kelly Reichardt, the writer-director who made Wendy and Lucy. Click here to listen to or download the interview from NPR's website.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Happy Birthday, Jackson!

So little Jackson turned two years old today - and promptly began behaving like the so-called "terrible" two-year-old. We took him to Petite Chou in Broad Ripple for a birthday brunch, and as soon as Amy tried to put him in his high chair, he started kicking and screaming. She ended up walking him around the village twice during the course of the meal, so he could burn off some energy. The following pictures are one shot each from his first three birthdays.




Thursday, June 04, 2009

Top Ten Films 2008

Just in time for summer!

10. The Wrestler
I wanted to like this one way more than I did, probably in part because I was expecting more of an I-can-still-wrestle-damnit kind of story, rather than the I-can’t-wrestle-anymore-so-now-I-want-to-Earl-myself-back-into-your-good-graces story that I got. There were some really good moments, but mostly I think this was just over-sold (not a surprise, coming from Searchlight).

9. Man On Wire
When people say that 2008 was a weak year for movies, what they probably mean is that it was a weak year for fun movies. Even the reliably upbeat crew at Pixar threw us a dark curveball with WALL-E. Man On Wire was at least as much fun as Philippe Petit’s stunt was audacious (and was very well edited, too). Plays like a heist movie, but the emotions are so well captured that there is little doubt about the story's veracity.

8. Revolutionary Road
I’m biased toward this picture because I loved the novel so much, but apart from that I think it’s actually pretty good on its own merits - despite being too melodramatic. The score is excellent, as are the supporting roles (particularly Michael Shannon), and the art direction. And then there’s Kate Winslet, whose presence is commanding, even in lesser films. I think this picture might have gotten more of the attention it deserved if Harvey Weinstein hadn’t made such a diabolical push to get The Reader out in 2008.

7. Milk
A clumsy frame kept this from landing higher on my list, making the film longer than it needed to be and less powerful than it should have been. Sean Penn was excellent, as he almost always is; and Josh Brolin was really good, too; but Harvey Milk is the real hero. I would think that it takes courage to fight for gay rights even today in this country, and I can’t even imagine what it must have taken for Milk to do what he did thirty years ago. The meaning of what he achieved - and by extension the power of this picture - will only grow, as more states strike down their illegal and discriminatory laws that violate the United States Constitution and restrict the rights of gay people.

6. Synecdoche, New York
Don’t ask me to explain this one. I don’t know if I could, even if I went back and read my review and a whole bunch of other reviews, too. This is just one of those movies you have to watch and appreciate in whatever way you as an individual will appreciate it. I could say a few things about the story, but you might watch it and see a completely different layer of meaning. It goes without saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman is a joy to watch, but it’s probably less well known that Samantha Morton can hold her own, and then some, next to a talent such as Hoffman’s. Charlie Kaufman’s nearly impenetrable story is both metaphysical and circular and rapidly turns into something like a metastasizing tumor, growing more and more out of control; but it’s an awful lot of fun, too.

5. Frozen River
I think the best thing about Frozen River is that it takes a story that most people would probably think of as very, very uninteresting and turns it into a powerful cautionary tale about the death of the American Dream. Also, it never veers down the path of didacticism (that might not actually be a word), never judges the characters or casts aspersions upon them; and it doesn’t cheat at the end, either. An exceptionally well made film that juxtaposes desperation and hope without confusing or conflating the two.

4. The Visitor
Ryan called this a “pat yourself on the back for being a liberal” movie, which I liked; and while I’m sure that this story is an easier pill to swallow for the reasoned souls who understand the shades of grey that the neocons see only as black and white, it’s also a damn good movie if you dig on music and character development and excellent acting. So, uh yeah...sign me up. It may be stylized fiction, but it’s feel-good stylized fiction that takes a good faith stab at authenticity. And I loved loved loved the ending.

3. Moscow, Belgium
Speaking of authenticity, this is a love story that eschews every “true love” covention in the book. It’s ugly and unpleasant in places, but it’s really well acted. I’ve seen a lot of foreign language films over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen where I could almost tell what the characters were saying just by watching them speak, by watching their emotional responses to a scene. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s a welcome switch from love stories that end with people climbing fire escapes and girls watching their would-be suitors freeze to death and then drown for good measure.

2. Wendy and Lucy
This picture does so much with so little (if Kevin Smith paid for Clerks with his credit cards, then Kelly Reichardt could surely have written a check for this one) and does it so well that it sort of makes my heart ache for all of the great little pictures that we never play and that I will never even hear of. If it weren’t for the combination of the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards last year and a nice article in Newsweek - I think back in December - I might well have missed this film altogether. It’s a simple story with a powerful theme, and it restores my faith in cinema the way that Cormac McCarthy restores my faith in literature. Of all ten movies on this list, this is the best of them.

1. Rachel Getting Married
I’ve flogged this movie quite enough since I saw it, so I won’t torment you with any more of it. I fully admit that I am biased toward Jonathan Demme and that I liked this film extra-lots because of his adept direction and unique style; but it’s also an awfully good movie on its own merits, if for no other reason than it proves that Anne Hathaway has tremendous acting chops and that those unfortunate pictures she did early on for the Mouse House may well have been nothing more than a dalliance to get a foot in the door.

The Brothers Bloom

This picture subverts itself with the endless refrain of “Everything’s a con, everything’s a con, everything’s a con,” and the flaw is damn near fatal. It’s the story of brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), con men extraordinaire who cook up the last great con because Bloom has had enough and wants to do something else with his life. Or something. I couldn’t really tell. Bloom says that he wants out, but it’s sort of hard to get a bead on what he’s feeling and why he’s feeling it because he wears the same expression - think Eeyore - throughout pretty much the entire film - even after he meets Penelope (and director Rian Johnson is winking at Homer here, right?), a free spirit trust fund baby who conjures an image of what Rose from Two and a Half Men might have been like if she had originally been written by Lemony Snicket.

See, Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is the kind of girl you want to make it home to so desperately that you lash yourself to the masts to avoid dashing your ship to pieces when you pass the Sirens; she’s the girl you meet in college who does all of the impulsive things and smiles at everyone and eats life and personifies the Garth Brooks lines “Life is not tried / It is merely survived / If you’re standing outside the fire.” She’s a little bit Victor in The Rules of Attraction, except that she never leaves the house.

So when Stephen writes up a con involving her and one million of her dollars, he tells Bloom that the only thing he has to make sure to do is not fall in love with her, which Bloom inevitably does - but you know it’s going to happen pretty much from the moment he lays eyes on her, though this is more because of how long Johnson lingers on Brody looking at her than because of any change in Bloom’s expression; and since we’ve already heard Stephen say that everything is a con, there’s not a whole lot left for us to look for, is there? After all, if you say that everything is a con, then that pretty much gives you license to twist and turn the plot in whichever way seems most expedient.

This Johnson does, and he lays on the symbolism thick and heavy - what color is dried blood again? The subversion comes toward the end when Bloom comes clean and tells Penelope that everything - their luring her into their game, the plot to fence the book, the way he feels about her - is a con; except that during that whole stretch of telling her the truth about what they’ve been lying about, he lies about the one thing that has been authentic all along - the way he feels about her. But they’ve got their Get Out Of Jail Free card!

Everything’s a con!

This may be true, but it doesn’t automatically mean that everything is also interesting. The brothers themselves are so two-dimensional that if you looked at them in profile they would seem to disappear. Ruffalo, ordinarily pretty dependable, plays most of the movie like he has some kind of cramp (possibly caused by anxiety at having lost his razor); and Brody looks like he should be in an ad for Cymbalta, not a would-be wacky crime caper. Penelope is more developed, at least during the early part of the movie where she’s playing a latter-day non-suicidal Emily Dickinson; later, when she turns into sort of a distaff version of Leo Getz, she trades interesting for annoying, to the detriment of the film. Weisz does a good job with the role, though, for the most part; but the film starts to sink under the weight of its overwrought intrigues, and the revealing symbols at the end come off as simpering fluff. If there was a good idea for a story here, it got lost somewhere along the way in a frenetic attempt to do way too much at once.

Next: Hell, I don't 2008 top ten movies?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Limits Of Control

I try not to read reviews of pictures that I plan to see until after I’ve written about the pictures because I don’t want someone else’s ideas to get into my head when I’m trying to do my own writing; and no, there’s no Joe Biden joke here - I just prefer not to have someone else’s opinion, whether favorable or unfavorable, cluttering up my head when I’m trying to organize my own thoughts about a movie. However, I was helpless to keep from reading Roger Ebert’s review of The Limits of Control, because of the one-half star that he gave it.

Here’s the thing about Roger Ebert, whether you like him or not: ever since the cancer, this cat has been positive about the lion’s share of movies he’s reviewed. Not so with the new Jarmusch movie, though the review itself doesn’t exactly spell out things about the movie that are bad or that Mr. Ebert did not like; in fact, he spends the entirety of the review writing from the point of view of Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé), one of the characters - and the whole thing comes off as a backhanded slap at the film.

I also understand, having seen the picture, how some people might hate it. I used to love watching movies with Justin and Jason after work at Clearwater, especially when the film was a comedy with lots of low-brow humor - because even if the movie (say, the Deuce Bigalow sequel) wasn’t funny, listening to Jason and Justin laugh was funny. I’d like to sit down and watch The Limits of Control with my buddy Steve for the exact opposite reason. It’s not a comedy, so he won’t be laughing - but when the lights come up, Steve would have this look on his face that is meant to indicate that he thinks I have quite the high amount of mental dysfunction to have thought that sitting through this movie was a good idea. I can’t really explain it - it’s sort of like the reaction shot when Archie Bunker looked back at Edith when she said something that proved that the point he was making was asinine.

After getting that look - which is a funny one by design, I think - I would then like to go immediately to either the Chatterbox or the Slippery Noodle - or maybe Nicky Blaine’s for cigars, because they were out of the Arturo Fuente Short Story, which I love, the last time I was there - and talk about the film with Steve over the course of one hour and two or three glasses of beer. I have no illusions that I would convince him of anything, but I would love to do the back and forth.

Has it escaped your attention that I haven’t said anything about the actual movie yet? That’s sort of by design, too - because I’m not sure exactly what to say about it. It’s the only Jim Jarmusch picture I’ve seen, so I can’t compare it with other things he’s done; and I get the feeling that not having that sense of his style probably kept me from getting everything that was going on in the picture in the way that Jarmusch intended it be gotten.

On the other hand, I know what I like; and I liked this movie - probably because it was hard, and I like hard movies even if I don’t get every single thing that’s going on. (That’s why I was able to enjoy Mulholland Drive as much as I did.) The Limits of Control is about a guy doing a job, but it’s not even really about the guy doing the job or the job that the guy is doing; it’s about the doing of that job, with tremendous attention to detail paid to where Lone Man must go, whom he must meet, and what he must do.

This is the cinematic equivalent of reading a great book almost entirely because the writing, the actual prose itself, is what moves you to the reading. It’s why people rave about Marcel Proust - not because the things he writes about in In Search of Lost Time are interesting (they aren’t - I’ve started Swann’s Way three times and never finished it), but because the prose flows from page to page and you get lost in the rhythm. When you talk to someone about the water park at King’s Island, what do they say is their favorite ride? Lazy River. Why do they like it? Because it just carries you along, just like Proust (and Roberto Bolaño in his remarkable novel, 2666), and just like Jim Jarmusch in The Limits of Control.

And yet there’s a difference, because reading a novel is always a linear progression - even when you’re reading something by Mark Danielewski; but with film, it’s much easier to form circles out of lines (think Groundhog Day) because you can’t look down at the book and see how many pages you’ve left behind and how many you have left to go. There is the vague sense of time passing, but the change from one scene to another, done a certain way - say, by watching the sunlght coming through the blinids and gradually increasing while the camera holds on a man in bed who is fully dressed and not sleeping - can neatly cut the linear progression and form a loop.

The scenes begin the same way, but the characters in each scene change; all the questions they ask of Lone Man are different, but each of them ends with the words “by any chance.” No accident, that - and not just repetition for the sake of repetition; the word chance invokes a faceless spiritualism and vaults a seemingly innocuous conversation into the realms of the metaphysical. Each of these scenes is a doorway into another part of the story; getting their isn’t just half the fun - it’s practically one hundred percent.

And to where do we get? Some satisfactory place where all of the ends are tied up nicely and you aren’t left with any questions? Well, no - we don’t. You didn’t really think we were going to get that kind of place, did you? No...we get to a place where Lone Man is asked, “How did you get in here?” He replies by saying, “I used my imagination.” That’s a figurative expression meaning to be creative; but it takes a literal meaning here, too, and that sets at least as many questions as it answers. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind pondering the kinds of questions that a movie determines it’s not going to answer, you might find a winner here.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

That's Great, It Starts With An Earthquake

I can't be reading this, correctly. Can I? Can I possibly be reading an article on (from AP) that leads off with the headline, "Cheney backs gay marriage, says it's a state issue." It was a speech at the National Press Club, and most of the article talks about how he spent most of the speech defending Bush-era war policies - which means he's still mostly a retard.

He's also wrong about it being a state issue. A Federal law making same sex marriage equal to opposite sex marriage is necessary because states that ban gay marriage will inevitably try their best to violate the United States Constitution and either invalidate or fail to recognize same sex marriages performed elsewhere - in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

But have it on the record that the neocon poster boy supports gay marriage. Somewhere in the Great Plains, Jim Dobson is having a stroke - which will make Falwell happy, because he needs a playmate down in that special circle of hell where he's burning.

Next (for real this time): The Limits Of Control

Love Liza

Ugh. I watched this years ago at a trade screening at Eastgate. At least...I think I watched it years ago at a trade screening at Eastgate. The reason I'm no longer sure is that I thought I remembered liking the part I saw at the trade screening - for some reason, I wasn't able to watch the whole movie. I added it to the ol' Netflix queue, it came up, and I watched it this afternoon...and, damn. This movie is terrible. I'm wondering if there's another Philip Seymour Hoffman movie that has him lamenting a dead wife and huffing gasoline fumes - and if maybe that's the movie I'm thinking of. I cannot imagine how I would ever have thought any part of this movie was good. Even the usually-excellent Hoffman was bad, and so was Kathy Bates. The mind-numbing score was like something out of a pre-NES video game played on a Casio synthesizer from Target. I added The Shape of Things, with Rachel Weisz, to my queue for the same reason I added Love Liza - hopefully that will be a better Weisz picture than The Brothers Bloom.

Next: The Limits of Control