Monday, May 30, 2011

Doctor Who — "The Eleventh Hour"

So much happens in the first episode of Doctor Who's fifth series that there's no way I could address everything I wanted to in a season-encompassing review, so I'll lay out some thoughts in a separate post.

I had anticipated Steven Moffat hitting the ground running as creative head of Doctor Who; were I to list the 10 best episodes of New Who, all of his penned episodes would make the cut. As I've said in previous Who posts, Moffat's style combines wit, edginess and an atmosphere that relies on suggestion over confrontation to unsettle the audience. His approach was an antidote to the sometimes cloying sentimentality of Russell T. Davies, who stuck to the child-oriented side of the program while Moffat gave kids something to think and fret about.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Brian De Palma: The Untouchables

No one in The Untouchables, either cop or criminal, seems to have anything in the way of a moral code. Their lives are far more existential: the criminal steals because he is a thief, and the cop upholds the law because it is his job to do so. When a reporter asks Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), dedicated defender of Prohibition, what he would do if the government repealed the 18th Amendment, he replies without hesitation" I think I'll have a drink." Until that day, however, "It is the law of the land."

As for everyone caught in-between, life under a system of legislated morality has seemingly divorced individuals from a sense of right and wrong. Ness' efforts to conduct raids on bootleggers fail because of corrupt cops tipping off Al Capone's men in order to get a few drops of the material they're helping to hide. The title refers to the team of uncorrupted policemen Ness and Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) recruit straight out of police academy to ensure their unblemished records, but it just as well describes Al Capone and his empire, which has such control over the desires of the common American that the boss can openly chat with reporters about bootlegging.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)

If the best sequels build off their predecessors in ways that progress and deepen the shared material, then good sequels must at least avoid simply rehashing the original. In many respects, Kung Fu Panda 2 feels like the first installment of a franchise that, to be frank, never needed to be a franchise. But apart from a too-comfortable relationship with fat jokes in times of crises, the film never comes off as a retread. My favorite aspect of the first film was its respect for Chinese culture, incorporating its art and architecture—the latter, in my opinion, being the most beautiful in the world—with reverence as it played around in the digital sandbox. That sense of appreciation of the culture, even if it is a background for Jack Black's decidedly non-classical style, extends to the sequel, and I found it funny how the faithfully rendered Chinese palaces and pavilions almost seemed a flight of fancy on the part of the animators because of their beauty and grace.

If the first film occurred in tucked away villages and training halls, Kung Fu Panda 2 moves deeper into the urban sprawl of feudal China, massive collections of homes under the watchful eye of a pagoda so large that, were it any taller, God would strike everyone in it with different tongues to stop all communication. But the religious elegance of the pagoda, like the rest of Gongmen City, also carries a grim sense of oppression, one heightened when a wrathful prince returns to reclaim the throne his horrified parents denied him so long ago.

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)

The success of Bridesmaids prompted the usual round of hollow "Why doesn't Hollywood make more movies like this for women?" hand-wringing on the part of critics and commentators who immediately answered their own rhetorical question by stacking it against the upcoming sequel to The Hangover. The comparison is not totally unjustified, of course; both films revolve around an impending marriage and the far-fetched, manic trials of the wedding party leading up to the date. But to posit this movie, featuring a sharp, human script by Annie Mumolo and star Kristen Wiig, as a rival to The Hangover Part II is to implicit stage it as a rip-off of a far more generic movie.

To be sure, Bridesmaids itself has its predictability—no wedding movie can hold much in the way of outright 'surprise'—yet it approaches even the most tired, overdone twist from a fresh angle, and not simply because it is entirely from the women's perspective. Each character, however exaggerated and caricatured, has moments of three-dimensionality that add depth without shifting into the maudlin and sacrificing humor.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2011)

My brief review for Sofia Coppola's excellent Somewhere is up at The Final Girl Project. Coppola's most stripped-down film to date, Somewhere admittedly mines the same territory as Lost in Translation, but this is less a deadpan comedy than a wistful-yet-critical drama about the blurring ennui of Hollywood life, albeit one without sneering damnation. It's hard not to think of the film as autobiographical, but the relationship between a charmed but world-wise Elle Fanning (in a magnificent performance) and her anhedonistic actor father (Stephen Dorff) feels like a stand-in for all emotionally distant relationships. Still, the personal nature of the film adds layers of meaning and emotion to Coppola's indefatigable empathy for her characters. In her minimalism is a genuine emotion that makes this far more than some dry rant about childhood frustrations.

Note: I listed the film as a 2010 release on Sasha's site, but since it didn't receive wide release until this year, I'm going to consider it among this year's releases when I tally my favorites in Decemeber. At the moment, it rates in the upper echelon of the movies I've seen this year.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Brian De Palma: Wise Guys

After the veiled satire of Scarface and the open assault of Body Double, Brian De Palma finally caved to pressure and made the sort of film he'd spent the last few years tearing apart. It is unclear whether Wise Guys is the more devastating indictment of '80s mainstream cinema. No, that's mean: there isn't enough to Wise Guys to pick on one way or another. Everything about its concept and execution (not to mention the presence of Joe Piscopo during his brief flare-out in Hollywood) suggests it was one of the first films to deserve the critical shorthand "would have worked better as a Saturday Night Live sketch than as a full movie).

The premise is, admittedly, amusing: in the insular, self-contained underworld of the mafia, self-sufficiency must be such a priority than even worthless errands cannot simply be done by someone else without ties to the Family. Then again, enforcers and soldiers aren't going to waste time fetching the don's laundry or getting him groceries, so the poor schmucks assigned with these tasks must be so low on the totem pole they must be the part buried in the ground.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011)

There's no point in even trying to write a pan for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, not after Ali Arikan used his walk-out as an excuse to vent his splenetic fury on the society that would allow it to happen. I sympathize with objections to the piece that cite its lack of hard facts, but then the article openly states it is not a review (and couldn't be, since he walked out) and reads more like an account of the proverbial last straw. Those raising hell over his piece, however, must not have seen the movie, because even if Arikan wanted to discuss the film, I don't see how he could. The fourth installment of this bloated, long-since tired franchise barely qualifies as a movie. In a literal sense, of course, its production value is enormous, worth some $150-250 million depending on the estimate (and that's not even counting the marketing, which has been so overwhelming and seemingly endless I begin to wonder if ads for the movie came with the first pressing of the Gutenberg Bible). Artistically, however, Rob Marshall's insipid, scattershot behemoth is nothing more than a ludicrously expensive cash-in and a woefully safe bet on the presumption that Americans will never ask for anything better.

Through its own ineptitude and transparent avarice, On Stranger Tides ultimately condescends so thoroughly to its audience it's all the more troubling and saddening that so many will cheer it. Marshall, one of the least talented directors to be a star director in Hollywood, pieces together such a disjunctive movie it betrays its apathy on the assumption that the people who see it will be too attention-deficit to care about scenes simply starting and stopping without care for flow or continuity. What am I saying? You need a story to be able to adhere to it.

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011)

Meek's Cutoff is an arduous trek through purgatory, the cracked and arid plane of reality separating the paradise a group of Oregon settlers seek to find and the hell to which they seem hopelessly destined. When the travelers change altitude on the bleached-bone plains of the Oregon High Desert, they always seem to go down, down, down deeper into this unforgiving pit of land. The expedition's guide, Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood, though you won't know it until you see his name in the credits), foretells the contents of hell, warning that it is full of bears, Indians and mountains. But those always seem to be just outside the frame, suggesting that they will fall into the bottomless maw of fire and pain at any second.

Of course, purgatory itself is a punishment meant to cleanse its prisoners of sin, and Kelly Reichardt opens her film with mood-establishing shots that set a tone of repetitive, grueling labor meant to deliver the three families (Will Patton/Michelle Williams, Paul Dano/Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff/Shirley Henderson) to their Eden. Long, static shots show the settlers moving across a river, descending down the sloping riverbed as if being swallowed at the start. Later, this vaguely disturbing scene will seem idyllic as the party moves further and further away from the fresh water they waded through to continue their journey west. Already, the seeds of dissolution, resentment and panic are setting in: before heading on with a few barrels of water to last them, one man carves "Lost" into a fallen tree nearby.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Doctor Who — Series Four

Russell T. Davies' final series as showrunner of his triumphant revival of Doctor Who encapsulates the full range of his highs and lows. Its optimism is infectious, but at times its on-the-nose moralizing and weak plotting border on the insufferable, even if it is a family program. Davies looked to Joss Whedon for guidance, but he could never find a way to incorporate Whedon's thematic richness or attention to character in a children's show primarily built upon standalone episodes, partly because of his own love of preaching over subtlety.

After a rocky start, however, Davies accomplished something with his last batch of episodes for the series: he maintained an emotional arc that worked in tandem with the show's usual style. Armed with a foreknowledge of both David Tennant's and his own departure, a desire to leave one lasting imprint on the show and the Doctor's finest Companion yet, Davies overcomes his own limitations bring out the full potential of Doctor Who, using his final episodes to wistfully look back on the show he loved so much and worked so hard to bring back.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Female Fight Club: Jane Campion's Sweetie

Up at Cinelogue is a new and improved version of an old review I did for Jane Campion's debut feature, Sweetie. A tale of superego pitted against id, Sweetie is one of the finest dysfunctional family movies ever, a blistering comedy and an astonishing demonstration of a visual stylist's innate gift for composition. This is a hopelessly grim movie, one that initially shows isolation, fear, contradiction and spite in a woman before expanding to show how all are affected by these close-minded circles of perception and interaction. It's one of the best films of the '80s, and one of the finest feature debuts out there.

Check out my review at Cinelogue.

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

Nailing down an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film is as hard (and futile) as assigning "answers" to a Terrence Malick film. Like Malick, Weerasethakul builds on ideas from previous films, but Joe goes even further: he reuses not only themes and motifs but actors and even characters. Yet for all his variations on similar, even identical, material, Joe has never made two films exactly alike. Tropical Malady may be the clearest illustration of this, as it comprises two wildly different halves that, when viewed correctly, reveal themselves to be flip-sides of the same subject, approached with such a marked contrast that the two sections seem to share nothing but the same actors.

Coming to Tropical Malady after seeing the films that followed it, I can instantly see what Joe took with him to Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The foundational idea of the latter comes from this film, in a tossed-off line by the illiterate country boy who would return to ease his uncle's passing years later, and the opening scene of soldiers lining up for a photo prefigures the La jetée-inspired still photograph sequence in Joe's latest triumph. Its ties to Syndromes run much deeper: Syndromes split its narrative between rural and urban, capturing the prosaic and poetic in each. Tropical Malady, on the other hand, moves between city and country (in one half, at least) but clearly demarcates a realistic first half from a magical, allegorical and abstract counterpart. This suggests two things: that Weerasethakul had not yet perfected his technique of blending the stark with the searching, and also that he marked such distinct divisions between the two to illustrate the potential and limitations of both.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

Thus far in his slim corpus, each Terrence Malick film has solidified and purified Malick’s transcendentalist belief in the connection of man and nature, even when he shows horrible, destructive acts. The murder spree in Badlands fits with uncomfortable harmony with the flat plains and scattered, gnarled grass lining the sides of Midwestern country roads. Days of Heaven moved deeper into that territory to bask in the glow of our amber waves of grain, yet the mangled love triangle and plot to steal the farmer’s wealth contrasts to the invasion of locusts naturally laying waste to the area. The Thin Red Line builds further on this contrast, presenting even the monstrous environmental and human cost of war as an exaggerated of the destruction inherent in an ecosystem even as it pushed gently and spiritually for an end to such horrors.

Malick’s films, like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry, make me want to walk in a field, palms outstretched, letting leaves and blades of foliage brush against my fingertips. When I experience their work, I feel that I can go outside and be jolted by the current running through nature, running through us as well if we’d stop breaking the circuit. Their conceptions of the universe are heady, allegorical and concerned less with what’s before their transparent eyeball than its spiritual essence (even the romance between Smith and Pocahontas feels like an encapsulation of the pure love of nature for those who can tap into its grace). Yet they also are some of the most tactile artists to ever live, offering intoxicating panoramas of nature and the past, present and future it contains. Unlike Emerson, however, Malick lacks the self-absorbed narrow-mindedness that undercuts his own idealism. Malick seeks to capture it all, even when he leaves out one side entirely (as he did in The Thin Red Line). His view of destruction as but one facet within nature is but one example of his more universal belief in the force that connects us.

That Malick would make a film about Native Americans seems so obvious it’s a wonder he didn’t find the inspiration to do it about 30 years before he released The New World in 2005. Perhaps it was for the best, though: by building off the moral, philosophical and natural themes he’d refined to that point, Malick crafted unquestionably the most singular film to chart the English settlement of America and the interaction with the tribes already there. It is not about environmentally indifferent white settler vs. the attuned native, though certainly conflict and discrepancies exist, as do moments of horrific violence that destroy so much that nature csually covers over in a season. Nor is it a Disneyfied version of John Smith’s romance with Pocahontas, a symbolic union of an open-minded Englishman bonding with a purer spirit, though elements of that exist as well.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"That's a great idea, mom, and it's very in-keeping with our image."

My review for Todd Haynes' vicious, bewildering, surprisingly emotional short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is now up at Cinelogue. An experimental docudrama of the life of late singer Karen Carpenter, Haynes' 43-minute film hits upon the inspired idea of using Barbie dolls instead of actors, making for blatantly symbolic implications on the commercial, pre-fab nature of the group's image and how everyone from label suits to her own family drove Karen to despair and eating disorders. This is one of Haynes' finest works and one of the best displays of an artist's rapidly-coalescing themes, motifs and identities in short film I've ever seen, up there with Scorsese's The Big Shave and Jane Campion's An Exercise in Discipline: Peel.

So have a look at my review and tell me what you think. Incidentally, the film, technically banned because of the Carpenter estate cracking down on illegal song usage, can be found in an instant simply by searching for the title. YouTube is swimming with bootlegs of this film. Please do watch it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011)

It's a shame that Takashi Miike's reputation in the United States is based almost solely on his double whammy of extreme gore, Ichi the Killer and Audition. Those of us without the constitution for such horrific displays of excess turn away from the director, walling off the considerable corpus of one of the world's most prolific, varied and stylish filmmakers. Able to work in seemingly every genre and put a unique stamp on such worn tropes as the yakuza movie, the detective film and even the spaghetti Western, Miike guarantees to have at least one movie in his vast catalog for everyone.

13 Assassins, a remake of Elichi Kudo's 1963 film of the same name, may be one of his most broadly pleasing efforts. Spotted with a few examples of Miike's twisted imagination and caked with blood, 13 Assassins nevertheless proves engaging enough not to wallow in its occasional dips into the hellish realm Miike established with his two most famous films. Clocking in at just over two hours (in the version released internationally, at least), the film covers considerable ground, introducing the 13 characters plus supporting players and antagonists in half the time before unleashing Miike's pent-up ferocity for nearly a solid hour.

Steven Spielberg: The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Having filled my viewing gaps in Spielberg's filmography, the status of The Lost World: Jurassic Park as one of the director's weakest films, if not his worst film, has never been less in doubt. Other low points in the director's career have at least shown promise or intriguing premises: Hook may rely far too much on its regrettably hip version of the Lost Boys' hideout, but it sports two great performances and a high concept floated it through many of its glaring flaws. 1941 showed the director's first major, explicit attempt to revive the films of his youth for the modern multiplex, an approach that would soon bear fruit with the Indiana Jones franchise. Even the forgotten Always, with its too-broad combination of haunting movies A Matter of Life and Death and Only Angels Have Wings, had moments of beauty worthy of those wrenching melodramas.

In comparison, The Lost World seems such a cynical cash-in for Spielberg's biggest hit that hardly any visible reason exists as to why he would do it. It's not like the world's richest and most powerful director needed to do this to get approval for another film. His previous two films, the first Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, eradicated whatever sliver of doubt remained that Spielberg was King of Hollywood. The knowledge of the uselessness of the sequel makes its wretched, slapstick construction all the more grating.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)

Forough Farrokhzad, generally regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century, made her first film in 1963. It proved her last; she died four years later. Yet the movie in question, a 22-minute documentary made to increase awareness of leprosy in Iran, prefigures not only the essay film but seemingly the whole of the Iranian New Wave. "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world," says the male narrator who opens the film before Farrokhzad takes over the reading. "If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."

The House is Black certainly contains "ugliness," featuring shots of diseased colony residents in various states of physical decay, but Farrokhzad never turns away from these people. Just as important, she does not look upon them pityingly, either. The film, in black-and-white with bright frames from the desert sun, uses subtitles without outlines, making reading them practically impossible. Throughout the film, she reads from the Old Testament, the Koran and her own poetry, the words so haunting, grim yet hopeful that I downloaded a copy of the subtitles to read along with the YouTube video. However, I could have gotten by without them: this is a film told with such simple visual grace it's no wonder one of the world's great modern art movements practically sprang out of it.

Falling for the First Time: Gremlins

So I'm a guest at the Mad Hatter's The Dark of the Matinee today for his recurring series "Falling for the First Time," in which he discusses '80s and '90s films with those of us who, by age or neglect, never saw them. Believe it or not, I'd never sat down with Joe Dante's Gremlins, so we chatted about Dante's first big hit.

Though not on the level of his masterpiece, Small Soldiers, Gremlins is a lot of fun, and I had a great time talking about it with Hatter. So head on over to his site and read our discussion of this wicked parody of the studio system and '80s culture.

Brian De Palma: Body Double

In some respects, Body Double may be the quintessential Brian De Palma film. This is not to say that it is his best, and it may not even mean that I even like the damn thing (there are too many clashing perceptions to sort out a coherent view on the first go). Instead, it summarizes the director's strengths and flaws to such an extreme that the film does not veer between brilliance and garbage so much as jump between the two without transition as if using wormholes for transportation. Only one film removed from Blow Out, Body Double develops the ideas of that film to their apex, mixing De Palma's anarchic form of brutalized Godardian experimentation with his corkscrewing thrillers.

If Scarface represented a sort of warning shot across the studios' brow, Body Double is outright war. De Palma views his opening shots as a means of putting the audience on-guard, never easing them into a movie via what he views as the boring, wasteful helicopter shots of city skylines or montages of neighborhood life.* Here, he opens in such transparently schlocky terms that for once no one can seriously believe what we're watching is not a put-on. With dripping blood titles and midnight-feature mise-en-scène, De Palma goes for broke, establishing a film-within-a-film so unbelievably campy that it's all he can do not to walk out like Alfred Hitchcock at the start of The Wrong Man and warn the audience what they're in for.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brian De Palma: Scarface

That Scarface enjoys a position in the pop culture lexicon that only strengthens with each passing year serves as a validation of its deliberate excesses and its transparently critical view of upper-class decadence in the '80s and the yuppie love for this outrageous lifestyle. Scarface updates Howard Hawks' 1932 original in a way few remakes do: it truly guts the original and places the update firmly within its own time period not only in its references but its aesthetics. In the process, it continues the mounting sociopolitical dissatisfaction creeping its way back into Brian De Palma's work, peeling back the veneer glossed over the whole decade and marking the start of the director's open hostility to the changing social landscape of the 1980s.

What De Palma does best with Scarface is demonstrate that those old gangster films (which his protagonist openly acknowledges as an influence on his young mind) were as much glamorizations of violence and decadence as anything being shunned by contemporaneous critics. Those pre-Code pictures came out during the Great Depression, times of hardship and desolation; yet the films showed well-dressed criminals living the high, fast life. When the film came out in 1983, America was just starting to recover from its worst economy since the depression, and De Palma films inside ritzy clubs and absurdly lavish mansions. And like the mainstream culture looking to flashy pop culture touchstones like Miami Vice for comfort, so too did the masses in the '30s enjoy those gangsters up on the screen (hell, they liked real-life gangsters like Dillinger). Scarface was De Palma's way of showing the public face of the '80s, and it's no wonder so many viewers hated being shown their cultural "values" in such harsh terms.

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux, 2011)

"It's not real life. Look at you, you have a stuffed toy alligator under your arm."

For an 89-minute film based around a one-joke premise, Rubber proves surprisingly hard to pin down. On one hand, it proves the most riotous example of an openly meaningless film since the Coen brothers made their After Hours with Burn After Reading. On the other, director Quentin Dupieux's transparent overexertion to make Rubber into a cult film subtracts from its loopy charm, and for all the clever jokes that arise from its meta-humor, I wish he'd played it straighter.

But the tangled web of ironic filmmaking makes figuring out what I think of a movie as difficult as sussing out its intended and unintended dips in quality, so maybe it's fitting that the best scene of the film is also a summary of what's wrong with it. Opening on static shots of chairs bizarrely arranged on a remote desert road, Rubber gets underway with outright fourth-wall breaking as a car drives over every chair on the road, stops and pops open its trunk to reveal a sheriff who promptly gets a glass of water. He begins asking rhetorical questions to the camera, such as "In Spielberg's E.T., why is the alien brown? No reason." Eventually, examples of reasonless moments in cinema have clear reasons indeed ("Why does the president get shot" in JFK?). He gives the audience a vital, if self-absolving, key to this movie, calling it an "homage to 'no reason,' that most powerful element of style." You've been warned.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Eighteen: Penelope

[Link to previous chapters here]

With "Ithaca," Joyce achieved such breadth of language, so infinite, so microscopic, that you'd be forgiven for thinking the book was over. Where else can he go? It is at that point that the author addresses the one missing link, the one area not covered in his melting pot of language, perspective and dimension and the one that, if deleted, would render Ulysses the most broken and incomplete: the input of a woman.

I read "Penelope" one sentence at a time, to which some might say, "Yes, well done, Jake. Hope you didn't get any headaches." But do please keep in mind that there are eight sentences in this chapter. The chapter is 42 pages long. There are no periods, and my edition only has paragraph breaks in-between the 8 sentences because some kind soul followed the schema and inserted them later. Otherwise, I'd be left with nothing but un-punctuated block text for 42 pages. You'd be amazed how appreciative a person can be for 8 presses of the tab button.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Seventeen: Ithaca

[Link to previous chapters here]

In a way, "Ithaca," the penultimate chapter yet the proper summation of Ulysses' "plot," is as gorgeous and revealing as its final entry. Joyce's own favorite of the 18 episodes, "Ithaca" is one of the most profound things I've ever read, despite (and in many ways because) of the banality at the heart of it. It achieves a simultaneous microscopic and macroscopic view, soaring above the characters yet summarizing and concluding their quirks, beliefs, attitudes and fleeting connection with such precision that, were the prose not such a challenge that only those who've endured the strongest passages of the novel to this point not prepared to handle it, this chapter might serve as a study guide for the rest of Ulysses.

It's a towering achievement, but in a specific respect. After building and building for nigh on 700 pages, Ulysses damn well better deliver on Bloom's return home to handle Stephen's indirection and his wife's affair. Yet Joyce quickly makes it clear that the humanly observed reality of his characters will not, can not, suddenly give way to the fantastical resolution of complex human issues. This is not an explosive end to the book's story; it is a monumental summary of the book's use of language.

A Life In Movies

Here's my contribution for Fandango Groovers' blogathon "A Life in Movies," in which bloggers choose their favorite films from each year since their birth. For the most part, I was surprised at how quickly I knew what my favorite film from each year was, but in some cases it was a struggle to decide. I also tried to limit directors to one film to avoid piling on too much life for any one person. For some of the more recent selections, you might see that I did not put the film that came no. 1 on my list for that year in the slot. This is not really because my mind changed but because of the aforementioned directorial limitation (also, as I note later, I've reevaluated my selection of year for movies like Certified Copy, which I probably should have considered a 2011 U.S. release despite managing to see it last year). Anyway, onto the picks:

1989 Batman

Not the greatest movie of 1989 by any stretch (Do the Right Thing and Sweetie are two of the best films I've ever seen), but this has the most resonance to my childhood. Born in the summer of Batman, it seems fated that I would have been such a Bat-freak as a child, and I must have worn scratches into our VHS. It had the camp of the mainstream Batman show but filtered it through Burton's then-fresh vision of Gothic pop-horror, making for a spooky, intricate Gotham where anything seemed possible. I have less love for Nicholson's performance now than I do for Keaton's understated but keen work, and Basinger and Wuhl are afterthoughts, but I can't help but love this thing.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

For all its flaws, Tim Burton's original Batman stands above nearly any other first entry in a superhero franchise for one simple reason: it did not waste time with an origin story. Burton had the decency to assume that a defining pop culture icon would be well-known enough even to the casual viewer that spending any length of time on the backstory would take away from getting a new plot underway.

Thor, the first new Marvel franchise of the summer in advance of next year's megablockbuster The Avengers, spends the whole of its two hours repetitively establishing a character who should be familiar to anyone who went had a few mythology overviews in a history class. For this comic book version of the Norse god of thunder is nothing more than a streamlined, Disneyfied version of the actual Norse myths. When scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) picks up an illustrated tome of Norse mythology later in the film, I hoped in vain that this would be the filmmakers' way of acknowledging that they're adding nothing to that origin and moving on. Wishful thinking.

Ulysses, Chapter Sixteen: Eumaeus

[Link to previous chapters here]

Once again, Joyce gives the audience a breather, following up the sexual nightmares conjured by M.C. Escher and Franz Kafka in the previous chapter with straightforward prose that suggests Joyce really could have written a lucid, charming novel if he'd cared to, one that might even have put some money into his vacant, cobwebbed bank account. Then, just to shut everyone up, he sets about sabotaging this structure and pointing out its weaknesses.

For after spending nearly 600 pages entrenched with the foibles, perspectives, fantasies, observations and patterns of Stephen and Bloom, Joyce suddenly acquiesces to all those who would complain of its complexity and pulls back into language that's easily understood. But it lacks the intimacy of the reader's connection to these two characters. Where we used to get the barest flicker of pure reaction to another character or situation, now we get broader strokes. Granted, it's a hell of a lot easier to get a feel for the painting when you see the whole thing and not extreme close-ups of the preliminary pencil sketches, but who would pass up the opportunity to see Picasso revealing his process in minutiae in order to just see the finished product?

The Last Bolshevik (Chris Marker, 1992)

In an attempt to expand my knowledge of Chris Marker, whose La jetée and Sans soleil continue to fill my thoughts long after watching them, I sought out his 1992 elegy/criticism of the Soviet Union, The Last Bolshevik. It is that rare thing: an unabashedly leftist account of the USSR that is unsparing in its detailing of faults. Structured around the life of friend and director Alexander Medvedkin, born in 1900 and died in 1989 as the empire collapsed, The Last Bolshevik personalizes the political and politicizes the personal until something that at least feels like a complete document of the Soviet Union. This is a beautiful film, Marker's ruminations never wallowing in intellectual theorizing but always finding a humanistic anchor. Sorrow pervades the film, for the tangible losses of millions of lives through harmful Soviet policies and for the intangible regret that those policies did not work, could not work to bring about a working Marxist state.

It's such a rich movie that I had to devote ample space after my review to disconnected observations I couldn't work into the review but couldn't bear not to mention. So please head on over to Cinelogue to read my review of this remarkable essay film.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Amistad

Amistad is the last film in Steven Spielberg's corpus I'm visiting for the first time. Surrounded by the more lauded dramatic achievements of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, not to mention colored by certain feelings of its preachiness among those who saw it, Spielberg's middle drama of the '90s never appeared on my radar as anything other than a faint blip. But just as I got to see Always through fresh eyes that countered a number of my expectations for that film, so too did Amistad prove far more than the half-forgotten mainstream consensus would have me believe.

In fact, Amistad might well be the most consistent of Spielberg's triumvirate of '90s prestige pictures. It lacks the overwhelming emotional impact of Schindler's List and the visceral power of Saving Private Ryan, but it makes up for these shortcomings by sidestepping the bouts of moral ambiguity and questionable "mainstreamification" of its serious themes. Amistad does have a bit of typical writing in its construction, but by and large it proves a deftly written, fleetingly problematic return to the issue Spielberg did not treat with full sincerity and conviction with The Color Purple: slavery and racism.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Fifteen: Circe

[Link to previous chapters here]

Did someone tear out what was meant to be the Circe chapter and paste in the screenplay for Bitter Moon hoping I wouldn't notice? Having read some of Joyce's more erotic letters to his wife Nora, I knew he could be astonishingly forthright about sex, but nothing in this book -- not even the graphic description of Bloom's cum-soaked shirt post-masturbation in the Nausicaa episode -- truly prepared me for the explosion of sexual desire contained within this chapter.

In The Odyssey, Circe traps Odysseus and his men when she turns the remaining crew into pigs, which is actually a step up from the usual fate to befall Odysseus' men, which is agonizing death in the name of their commander's quest for welcome-home sex. Odysseus receives an herb from Hermes that helps him avoid this curse, but he still falls under Circe's spell, staying with her for a year and becoming her lover.

A similar spell of sex and drug-induced haze falls over this chapter, which Joyce formats as if a play but structures in any way but a typical drama. This could almost have been written by Hunter S. Thompson after a particularly wild night even by his standards. As Bloom follows Stephen into "Nighttown," the area choked with brothels and whores, he begins having fantastical visions, all of them dovetailing into his warped sexual frustrations and desires. As Joyce moves deeper into the nightmarish (yet darkly funny) vision of sexual excess and the liberated id, he once again casts aside everything we think we know about this man.

Ulysses, Chapter Fourteen: Oxen of the Sun

[Link to previous chapters here]

Let me me briefly summarize how I've gotten through Ulysses to this point. After constantly checking endnotes as I read through the first two or three chapters, I decided to try my best to simply power through each episode, note what confused me, then look up those things afterward. When I get a bit lost in the plot (which happens multiple times per chapter, save the more straightforward Nausicaa episode), I will -- and I refuse to be ashamed about this -- turn to Sparknotes. More recently, I've found meticulously outlined plot summaries here that have proved incredibly helpful. I read the explanatory notes for each chapter and occasionally branch out even further for information about what it all means, usually to Sheila O'Malley's posts on the book, since it was her enthusiasm for Joyce that finally motivated me to take the plunge into the author's work. Her writing on the chapters is, from what I've seen so far, insightful but conversational, perfectly capturing what I think Joyce did with his book: finding a human way to get across its big ideas. Whenever I get well and truly stuck, I immediately defer to her.

I did not make it one full page into the Oxen of the Sun chapter without running to all my little safehouses looking for clues, answers, ANYTHING to help me. What in the Sam Hill was going on? Even when I sorted out some basic facts, such as the chapter being set in a hospital and revolving around the idea of birth in physical and lingual terms, I still could not proceed. This is by leaps and bounds the hardest chapter of the book yet, and I pray it gets no harder from here. I don't mean to make Sheila out to be the be-all, end-all expert on Joyce, but when she opened her own post on the chapter with an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the chapter, I wondered what hope I had. Hell, Joyce himself acknowledged this was the hardest chapter to read. I am not even remotely surprised that it follows what was certainly the easiest episode to that point, one so intuitive and straightforward I never had to look at notes to figure out what was going on.

I don't want to give off the impression that anything I've written on Ulysses to this point is definitive or even all that confident. I've relied so much on other readings because it's so hard to pick up exactly what's going on that I don't even consider my Ulysses posts reviews (hence why I referred to my plans to chart my trip through the book as a "reading diary"). But I've at least tried to pick up on what Joyce is doing and make sense of it through my own set of references and outlooks. Here, I just need to try to sort it out.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Thirteen: Nausicaa

[Link to previous chapters here]

Note to self: stop thinking I have Leopold Bloom pegged down. James Joyce delights in confounding expectations and shaking up his book every time he intuits the reader has found even a sliver of understanding. After pulling back to show Bloom's frustrating weaknesses, Joyce finally gave the man a moment to shine and stand up for himself, only to sink to a new low here.

Not that this is evident at first. The novel, as ever displaying a self-awareness and a humanistic desire to get other perspectives, no matter how flawed, once more dips into someone else's POV, and the style shifts accordingly. The first half of the Nausicaa chapter owes to, of all things in this game-shifting tome, cheesy Harlequin Romance. It's hilarious: James Joyce, King Glot of Everything, casting aside Shakespeare, Latin and Homer for the sort of book Bloom is bringing home for Molly, a flowery, flushed-cheek bit of fluff.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Twelve: Cyclops

[Link to previous chapters here]

Nothing makes me as simultaneously amused and infuriated as a bad (good?) pun. Joyce highlights the fact that the 12th episode of Ulysses corresponds to the Cyclops encounter in The Odyssey by placing the perspective in that of an anonymous first-person narrator, necessitating the frequent use of "I," the homophone for "eye." It's as easy as that. Or so it seems, anyway. Soon, Joyce delves into deeper interpretations of men with one eye, specifically their metaphorical lack of depth perception in their opinions. Windbags have floated around this novel like zeppelins, but here at last Joyce truly sinks his teeth into the self-righteous posturing of the roving bands of Irish drunkards crowding every pub in mid-afternoon.

I thought Joyce's prodding of Bloom in the previous chapter bordered on the cruel, unstoppable visions of Boylan heading off to take his wife. I had not seen anything yet. Those reminders of Bloom's impending cuckolding served mainly as vain motivation to get Leo off his ass and into action. Here, however, we at last see something of genuine contempt in Joyce's humanistic and tempered worldview.

Brian De Palma: Blow Out

Blow Out represents a breakthrough for Brian De Palma. After farcically and satirically pulling apart the bonds of cinema for nearly two decades, the self-reflexive director at last found a way to incorporate cinema into a narrative without breaking up the movie. There are still jokes in Blow Out, but they tend to be of the cosmic variety; the closest anyone comes to an outright punchline is one character's innocent assertion "I don't watch the news. It's too depressing." Instead, De Palma structures his gags as dark, wordless payoffs, all of them carrying a bitter, emotional irony that feel like punches to the gut, something only rarely felt in De Palma's canon up to this point.

As with Dressed to Kill, De Palma does open his film with an extended gag, in this case a POV shot of a mouth-breathing killer stalking a sorority hall, his magnified breathing and racing heartbeat raising tension as scantily clad coeds fail to notice him. At last, he moves into a Psycho pose in the shower, pulls back the curtain, raises the knife, and the woman lets out the most hysterically fake scream you ever did hear. The camera shifts to tripod-mounted third-person in an editing studio for exploitation features as soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) chuckles at how bad it is to his teed-off boss. What was I saying about this not being a funny movie?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Eleven: Sirens

Sometimes Joyce can be so literal I almost don't notice what he's doing. The Sirens chapter is based, of course, on the golden-voiced bird-women who lured sailors to their deaths on craggy rocks with their irresistible song. Because of this, Joyce uses musical imagery: the whole of the first two pages contains nothing but snippets of thoughts and sentences, and it's not until about halfway through this passage that it becomes clear Joyce is "warming up" as if tuning an orchestra. At the end of the segment, he announces to the reader that he's ready to go with a riotous "Begin!"

I took the fewest notes on this chapter as I have any of the other 10. That is not because I somehow had this whole thing "figured out" but because I got so entranced by the rhythm of the prose. In that sense, the writing itself embodies the mythic sirens, lulling me into following it until I finally snapped out of it and said, "Oh crap, important things are happening!"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Ten: The Wandering Rocks

Odysseus never travels through the Wandering Rocks in The Odyssey. Given the choice between the rocks, which pose such hazards that not even birds can make it out the other side, Odysseus opts to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis instead. Joyce, however, demarcates the first half of his book from the second with the Wandering Rocks episode. What gives? And what's with all these characters? A guy breaks out all sorts of addenda and summarizing notes to get through Stephen's absurdly complicated Shakespeare theory, ends up learning a great deal about Stephen in the process, and now suddenly the overriding question on my mind is "Who the hell is Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell?" And is that even one person or does Joyce just not care about commas?

Comprising 18 vignettes and a coda, the Wandering Rocks chapter shatters the narrative of Stephen and Leopold to follow numerous other characters, some of whom we know already (either from this novel or Joyce's other work), others who just sort of pop up. Each wanders the streets of Dublin as the cavalcade containing the Earl of Dudley, his wife and several other members of the nobility works its way through town. With 19 strands in just over 30 pages, Joyce does not give himself much room to develop any one story, and each mini-episode ends just as a narrative seems to be forming.