Sunday, August 30, 2009

New Photos #7

Some of these go all the way back to the middle of July (which actually isn't all that long ago, now I think about it - just seems to have been awhile back). Just a whole bunch of random stuff, all in one convenient place, which is here. some shots of Jackson playing with a blow-up George Bush weeble I got at Half Price Books, one of those Battling Bush things where you can pretend to be boxing against an artist's fairly generic rendering of the 44th best president in the history of all these great united states that are just so great and united and liberty here in this average American country of ordinaries. Hopefully this will be the first step in teaching Jackson the important lesson that you should never vote for Republicans.

We've also got some shots of Jackson spinning around in my desk chair upstairs. The early indications seem to be that he's going to enjoy roller coasters like his dad does. He didn't like going way up in the air when he was very, very small - but he seems to have shaken that off, and it's pretty hard to upset his equilibrium these days.

There are a few pictures of Jackson going up and down a small bridge in Ellenberger Park (one of the few good things about my house is that it's situated so close to Ellenberger that you can walk to the park in about two minutes). He discovered that he likes to grab a rock from the gravel path, then walk up the bridge and chuck the rock into the creek, for the satisfying splashing sound that it makes.

The day after that, we went to the Middle Eastern Festival, which is going to replace the Greek Festival for us - now that the Greek Festival has left its soulful environs at 40th and Pennsylvania and moved to Carmel (mayor Jim Brainard's motto: "Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!"). LIke all good-hearted people, I try to avoid Hamilton County as much as possible. The pictures of the Middle Eastern Festival are only of Jackson eating, but he does still like to mug for the camera (and I think he ate some pita and hummus that day). If you dig on Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food, what you get at the Middle Eastern festival is way better than what they have at the Greek Festival - and the prices are comparable.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

A lot of reviewers are using the word “audacious” to describe this film (sort of like how the synopsis on the back of a Kurt Vonnegut novel disproportionately contains the word “apocalypse,” or some derivative thereof). In keeping with that spirit, I’m going to begin my comments audaciously:

This film is perfect.

Say what you will about Tarantino and his subject matter, his style, and how unapologetically brash he is - this film, at least as far as the technical aspects are concerned, is a masterpiece. His touch with slow motion isn’t as spot-on as it was in his earlier films, but his revolving pans - including one, the first, which is actually a revolving helix pan - are simply a joy to behold. The film is more linear than his first two (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), but the storyline is considerably more complex and does not lend itself to a non-linear construction. There are digressions, but they are brief - unlike the extended digressions that filled in the back story in Reservoir Dogs; and they are done with hard jump cuts that make the digressions work more like exclamation points than wordy Faulknerian appositives. And then, of course, there is the acting.

Christoph Waltz, a heretofore relatively unknown Austrian who plays Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder where he’s been all your life and how many of his previous movies you’ll be able to find on Netflix. He dominates the film’s first extended scene, during which he conducts a very polite interrogation of a French dairy farmer whom Landa suspects of harboring Jews on his property. Landa is courteous and polite, practically to a fault, and all eyes and smiles until he gets around to asking the farmer directly whether or not he is hiding Jews. At that point, the smile has slipped completely off of Landa’s face, which has become a stone mask; and yet all of the courtesy and respect he has shown up to that point practically guilts the farmer into confessing that he is, in fact, hiding the Jews Landa is looking for. Once the confession is effected, Landa is back to eyes and smiles, even as he orders the Jews killed - and he switches from English back to French, which was how the conversation started. Throughout the film, Waltz switches effortlessly between four different languages - German, French, English, and even a little Italian toward the end. You’d almost want to give him a prize just for being able to do that so well; but it’s the way he delivers his lines that really makes the role. This is a guy whose job it is to round up Jews for execution in the worst ethnic cleansing in human history - and yet Waltz crafts a character who is oddly likable.

Brad Pitt is U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a gruff American roughneck with “a little bit of Injun” in him, who recruits a group of Jewish-American soldiers to be dropped into Germany and France with him, for the express purpose of hunting Nazis. Tarantino’s knack for making even the most gruesome dialogue sound extremely funny is concentrated almost wholly on this particular character - and Pitt delivers the goods with considerable aplomb, clearly relishing the license to go over the top in order to achieve the absurdity that this character has to have in order to shoot well past any possible political statement, drifting toward the magical land of parody.

And yet the film itself is not a parody, despite the fact that so much of its style and characterization is so over the top as to be almost cartoonish; nor is it a straight action picture, or a comedy, or even a drama. It might actually be closer to a fantasy. (And now you definitely think I’m round the bend, if you have not already come to that conclusion earlier in this piece.) See, the conceit here is that cinema - the concept - is such a powerful thing that it could have, in the right hands (say, those of a Jewish woman who lives in exile in Paris after her family is massacred by a milk-drinking Nazi colonel nicknamed “The Hunter”), ended World War II a couple of years before it actually ended.

The idea, of course, is ridiculous; and if taken too seriously, it might make one think that all this film is really doing is making light of a horrible time in human history and exploiting that horror for monetary gain - never mind the coy role reversal when Raine’s Basterds start hunting down Nazis to scalp them (or beat them to death with baseball bats). And there’s the rub - you simply can’t take this movie too seriously, even though it is, in its way (like all of Tarantino’s movies), a serious movie.

More importantly, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. Any melodrama it generates (and I didn’t get a lot of that) is more than tempered by the elements of parody that range from the totality of the Aldo Raine character to the way that Landa eats his dessert in the French restaurant to the way that the character of Hitler bangs his fist on the table while wrapped in the swastika and screaming “No! No! No! No! No! No! No!” Tarantino understands the weight of the material he’s working with - Hitler and the Holocaust - and I think that this is most clearly illustrated in the character of Landa who, as I mentioned before, is drawn as oddly likable. It’s patently absurd that a Jew-hunting Nazi could be likable, of course; but that’s the way he’s drawn, and what Tarantino paints as ridiculous here, he paints with broad strokes. The Holocaust cannot be minimized or laughed off (except by retards like Mel Gibson and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who both share the trait of being addled by religion - which is surely not a coincidence), but its seeds - racism and the delusion of religious superiority - are ridiculous; and it is altogether appropriate to show how dangerous those two things can be. In the real world that we live in, can cinema defeat racism? Of course not. But what if it could?

Not on the level of locking the racists and religious zealots in a room and barbecuing them with ultra-flammable nitrate film. No, you have to move up a level and think of the idea metaphorically - what if the power of movies, as an expression of ideas and of art, could help to end the long-held (by some), manufactured fear that those who are different from you are in some way bad? Is that what Quentin Tarantino meant to say with this film? I don’t know; but I think that the seeds of that idea are in this movie - and that that, combined with all of the ways that Tarantino has matured over the years as a director and a storyteller, make this film an absolutely colossal achievement.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ichabod's Sketchbook

While at Lazy Daze a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a flyer calling for submissions for a literary journal called Ichabod's Sketchbook, which will publish out of Irvington. The deadline for submissions is December 18, 2009, and the reading fee is $15 for three poems up to thirty lines each or two pieces of short prose up to 1000 words each. The journal will launch at Bookmama's (date and time yet to be determined), and each writer who pays the reading fee gets one copy of the journal at the launch party. More information (including complete submission guidelines) by e-mail at

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Deep Thoughts #6

Rest in peace Robert Novak...the covert agents at CIA will sleep much more soundly tonight knowing there’s less chance of their being outed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is set in Baghdad, 2004 - which was five years ago. It seems so unlikely that we could already be talking about the “definitive” movie concerning the war in Iraq - but that’s what some are calling the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow. And yet, hard as it may be to believe that such a conversation could be taking place, consider that Apocalypse Now bowed in 1979, only four years after the last (living) Americans in Vietnam fled by helicopter from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

Apocalypse Now is not the definitive movie concerning the Vietnam War, but it is a damning indictment of an America that sticks its nose in places where it doesn’t belong. The war in Iraq is evidence that our elected “leaders” are both cosmically arrogant and took away no lessons from Vietnam. (It might have been easier to learn those lessons had some of those leaders actually, you know, served in Vietnam - but whatever. In retrospect, though, you can sort of see why they might not have wanted to go. You serve in Vietnam and you get to be slandered by Republican rednecks and lose a Presidential election in no small part because millions of stupid Americans believed those lying Republican rednecks.) The Hurt Locker, however, is not a damning indictment of anyone.

Instead, it’s a paean to the troops who have served and are serving and who - regardless of how they wound up there - understand that the most important thing for them to do is to get the job done. The most political line in the whole movie comes when Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) forces an Iraqi cab driver at gunpoint to back away from an area where he and his Explosive Ordnance Disposal crew are conducting an operation. The cabbie eventually backs up, after James holds his pistol flush up against the cab driver’s forehead (after shooting out his windshield), and he is subsequently detained by other American soldiers on the scene. Later, James laughs about the incident and says of the cabbie, “Well, if he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure as hell is now.” The line underscores the obvious point that we are doing far more harm than good in Iraq - but then again, we never had any business there in the first place, so it sort of goes without saying that we’re doing more harm than good.

The film moves from one bomb disarming scene to another, mostly showing how James and the two soliders under his command learn to work together in spite of James’ cavalier attitude toward rules and protocol and what sometimes feels like a disregard for the well-being of his fellow soldiers. The bond of trust between the three is realized in an extended scene in the middle of the film that puts James and his group in the middle of the desert with a group of men who look at first as though they might be insurgents, but turn out to be British bounty hunters with a flat tire. A somewhat standard courage-in-the-face-of-death scene then takes place when the two groups are pinned down by a sniper.

Actually, you know what? It’s best if we don’t think too much about the story here. James’ Bravo Company has about as many days left in its rotation as the imaginary Noah had on his made-up ark, and James might be drawn as such a cavalier just to lend enough interest to the story to keep us watching - who’s going to get the team killed first, the Iraqis or their commander? The accolades raining down on the script and screenwriter Mark Boal are for the crisp dialogue and the staging - not for the story itself.

Oddly enough, that’s not really a bad thing. One of the first things I thought when I came out of this movie was that it was one of the more technically proficient films I had seen in awhile - the sound, photography, and direction are all excellent - even the handheld stuff. This is not one of those movies where it’s good for the director to ease up and let the camera roll so that the actors can let the story unfold; instead, this is a picture that needs its multiple cameras and multiple angles, a picture that needs for its crew to be embedded, as it were, with the actors, because the threadbare story is just the admission ticket - it’s not the show.

The show is the smart-ass cowboy disarming bombs - and if we know practically nothing more about Sergeant James at the end of the film than we did at the beginning, well...that’s okay. Normally I’m all about character development, but this is one of those rare instances when the characters come to you already fully formed. Instead of character development, which involves a process of change, there is character revelation - wherein the audience is allowed to see certain things about the characters, as those things pertain to the story. (Much the same thing took place in No Country for Old Men.)

We see a few chinks in his outward machismo, but that’s really the extent of it; this is a meat and potatoes, Marlboro smoking, whiskey drinking sumbitch, pardner - and again, that’s okay. You sort of want your guys in uniform to be the ones who can kick a lot of other people’s asses. Is the movie saying that only a crazy redneck with a deathwish can make any kind of sense of the war in Iraq? I don’t think so. The message is more along the lines of that it takes a person with a certain kind of mentality to get the job done in an Army being run by corrupt, lying Republicans. (Corrupt, lying Republicans might be a redundancy. If I can get Tom DeLay off the dance floor to take a call, I’ll ask him.)

And Jeremy Renner does a fantastic job as Sergeant James - the performance is so good that I suspect I’ll be hearing the voice of Sergeant James at least the next few times I see Renner in anything. (I just sort of assume that his schedule is going to get a lot more hectic now - and that it may well get worse after the Oscars.) He tosses off the lines like he’s been reading this script his whole life and waiting for Kathryn Bigelow to call - and this is also a testament to the strength of Mark Boal’s script. A screenplay has to be awfully good (and awfully well performed) in order for the film to work when story and characterization take a back seat to action and dialogue - Die Hard, anyone?

The ending is unnecessary, though - it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or suspect about Sergeant James, and it just adds minutes to a running time that, at two hours and thirteen minutes, starts to feel long toward the end. Then again, Bigelow could have dramatically reduced the number and length of the slow motion shots, and saved us some time that way. These are minor quibbles, though. The Limits of Control was awfully good, and at the end of the day I liked it better - but The Hurt Locker is easily the best film I’ve seen this year.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rudo y Cursi

I suppose that if you’ve seen or read one story that trades on the classic Faustian bargain, you’ve read or seen them all; but what you may not have seen or read is a story that borrows from both Faust and a story like Bull Durham that substitutes sports for religion. Rudo y Cursi doesn’t go all in on either tack, but bits of both are clearly on display - more Faust than Bull Durham, but that’s okay. Rudo (Diego Luna) and Cursi (Gael García Bernal) are brothers and footballers who want to make it big in the wide world, when along comes an oily-looking customer who says he can make their dreams come true - after taking fifteen percent off the top. Can it be a coincidence that he comes rolling into their lives in a shiny, red, gas-guzzling Corvette, made by that fading American icon, General Motors?

The story is couched as a fable, narrated here and there by the oily-looking talent scout in voice-overs - an allegory that speaks to two of the classical seven deadly “sins,” pride and avarice. The full range of his character traits is obvious from the moment you see the guy - this is the case with most of the film’s characters - but though these traits are obvious on sight, they are not fully revealed until the story requires them. The use of the talent scout as the narrator (in the first person) is an interesting choice, as is the character himself (in the third person) - because he is both devious and genuine at the same time; and putting such a character in a place of omniscience as the narrator foreshadows a tragic outcome, which is surely the only thing that can happen when two kids are lured to the city by someone whose primary interest is obviously only to make money.

Before the tragedy, though, there is the obligatory meteoric rise to stardom for both of the footballers, which comes with all of the bling associated with making it big in the world of sports - money, women, houses, cars, sweet powders that go in your nose, etc. Rudo and Cursi are just two more players, recruited by this talent scout, who move from rural Mexico to Mexico City, and stay in the same apartment as other kids the scout has recruited, and play for the same teams as the other kids, for the same coaches who pay the scout a little bit off the top for having done the work of finding talented new players. There have been stars before Rudo and Cursi, and there will be stars after Rudo and Cursi.

The situation is not special, and neither are the players, even if they are exceptionally good at what they do; and even though it is so much revered by the talent scout narrator, the game of soccer itself is also not the motive power for the story. The compelling factor then becomes watching how Rudo and Cursi deal with such wholesale changes in their lives, but it’s not especially compelling to watch them marinating in excess as the good times start to roll faster and faster. Fortunately, however - for the story, anyway - things do, in fact, start to go bad; Cursi gets in a goal-scoring slump and his girlfriend leaves him, and Rudo gets into trouble gambling. There’s a touch of melodrama as the downward spirals of the two brothers start to become inextricably entwined; but for the most part, watching Luna and García Bernal emote as their characters try to keep pace when life begins to move too fast is immensely satisfying.

The ending (and some of the falling action) is inauthentic and sloppy, unfortunately, but the structure of the story requires it to be so - it’s tragic, but not precisely a tragedy. It would have been way more gutsy for Cuarón to go for the real tragedy - and that might have been enough to make this pretty good film a great film. Maybe. On the other hand, the part of the ending that involves the oily-looking talent scout works really well. As a fable, the story has to stay within the bounds of certain genre conventions, and this necessarily limits the film’s potential greatness - but Cuarón and company do an exemplary job, given the limited space in which they are working.

One week only.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

This is an exceptionally good film - and that from someone who watched it with English subtitles. I can only imagine how devastating it must be for those who speak Romanian. It’s about a woman trying to get an abortion in mid-1980s Romania, during the reign of dictator Nicolai Ceausescu; and though nothing in the film is particularly appealing, nearly every frame is compelling evidence of how powerful film can be as a medium for storytelling.

I’m not an expert on Hitchcock, but I got the feeling that there were echoes of his kind of suspense in this picture - not exactly misdirection or sleight of hand, but something along that line. On more than one occasion, the camera held on one of the characters while the action taking place in the scene occurred off-screen. Those shots built tension, I suppose, more so than suspense; but the technique was very well done, either way. (There’s probably a name for it, but I don’t know what that name is.)

The ending was quite effective, too - resolving the central part of the story while leaving much unsaid and hinted at, which is often a very good way to end a movie. It works because the movie is less about the ethics of abortion than it is about the freedom to have an abortion if a woman makes a free choice to do so. In mid-80s Romania, a woman did not have that freedom; and while the film is compelling cinema in many of the technical ways, it’s also a compelling object lesson in how morally bankrupt it is to criminalize abortion.

It’s a hard movie to watch, especially toward the end when the ethical dilemmas really start to ramp up; but it’s done so well that it’s very easy to see how even the toughest subjects can, in the right hands, be turned into great art. Nobody is in favor of abortion; no one who supports a woman’s right to choose is sitting around actively hoping that more people get abortions; but the freedom to choose that procedure cannot be denied, and this film - though fictional - is a powerful illustration of why such a prohibition is indefensible.