Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two films

C.S. Lewis remarked somewhere (I think in The Discarded Image) that real art always gives too much or too little information for the average viewer/reader. Now of course this is pretty smug--gosh we know better than the plebes--and it's also dead-wrong unless you're a true elitist, but still it's something worth considering. Many artists do in fact give us too much, high modernists such as Joyce, Pound, Proust, etc being prime examples. Others keep it spare, Beckett, Glass or possibly Chekhov. And then there are some such as Shakespeare who in their time were perfectly transparent but today are too much. The point that I take from Lewis is more a general approach rather than absolutes - in other words many people have trouble with this type of art because they don't know how to deal with the abundance or the lack. After all somebody who can plow through enormous fantasy trilogies or for that matter the Aubery/Maturin series certainly has the stamina for Proust; it's the mindset that's a different issue.

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch 2009) - For the first 10, 15 minutes I thought Jarmusch had made a completely tedious clunker. Then the film's unique narrative (there really isn't much of one) and texture (repetition, blankness, calmness) started to take over and if by the end I wasn't 100% convinced it still stands as a pretty remarkable work. In the solid, verite-esque making-of doc on the DVD Jarmusch remarks that he's made his big-budget action film with fights, schemes, hot babes, exotic locations, etc and the odd thing is that he's completely right except for the "big budget" part. The catch? The Limits of Control is sort of the film that's left when you take all the stuff we usually see in an action thriller out, leaving us with walking, waiting, driving, sleeping. It's not a Warhol film because there actually are secret meetings, coded messages, an action sequence, clandestine activities, identity changes, it's just that in Jarmusch's world we're watching a pattern not pretending to delve into psychology or causation. And very little of this is ever explained. Why does the protagonist always order two espressos? Personal preference? (We only ever see him drink one.) A flag for his contacts? For part of the film I thought Jarmusch had made Dead Man II and that we'd get the same revelation as there or maybe as De Palma's Femme Fatale. In fact there are a few moments that are completely inexplicable such as a film poster portraying an event that the artist couldn't possibly have witnessed. And in the film's most audacious moment, the protagonist is confronted with the task of entering a building that appears utterly secure and fully monitored. His explanation of how it was accomplished more or less sums up the film and honors the thriller convention of its main character's ingenuity while otherwise utterly violating not just thriller conventions but those of most any form of film. That the moment works shows how much Jarmusch is in control or maybe just willing to trust a lack of control. This is a film that I suspect will improve on a second viewing.

La mujer sin cabeza / The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel 2008) - Another film that withholds or at least doesn't bother with certain information but one centered around a never-resolved mystery that suggests Blow-Up or L'Avventura. A woman on a remote road hits something - was it a dog or the boy whose body is found nearby several days later? The first section effectively creates a sense of anomie and directionless tension as the woman wanders through a hospital, her job and her home in what seems to be a kind of vauge shock. Martel presents much of this in an oblique method. The incident, for instance, is shot with a camera on the passenger's seat pointed at the driver and with one exception there are no edits or camera movements. Even when she pulls the car over to get out we can only see her in corners of the image or sections of the car window. Now the one exception is an unmotivated cutaway (meaning it's clearly not meant to be anything the woman sees) where we see the object in the road behind. It looks mostly like a dog but is in extreme longshot so you can't really tell - other sections of the film support the dog idea but it's clear after a while that resolving what happened isn't in any way the point of the film. In fact after a while I'm not sure what the point was meant to be and I don't mean that in a good way. Many reviewers claim it's an expose of privileged class but that's a difficult argument to make. Yes, the woman is a dentist and obviously pretty well off, and yes she does employ clearly not well-off Indians to garden or clean but that's hardly anything newsworthy, hardly even an observation. In one sequence where the woman drives a worker home the film even resorts to that idea that the lower classes may be poor but they have more fun, they're more open and more alive (or at least have better music). Martel's way of presenting a (non)story through stray bits of dialogue, glancing moments, apparently motiveless actions is one that normally I would love but here just leaves me cold. (And I feel like pointing out that some reviews have over-played the ambiguity - Hoberman says a "ghostly" handprint on the car window suggests the boy was hit but the print was there before the incident, while another reviewer says we're never shown how the woman gets to the hospital which for one thing doesn't really matter but more importantly there's a fairly long shot showing her being driven, a shot that's replicated later in the film. My pointing out thus endeth.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Comics - happy happy joy joy?

"I just like the idea of my escapism actually feeling less oppressive than my real life again."

That mostly sums up the point of Will 2010 Be The Year Of Superheroic Niceness?, an accurate piece about The Big Two's plans to turn their lines lighter, less grim (marketing hooks are Heroic Age at Marvel and Brightest Day at DC). Though the piece avoids laying any blame on the actual comic writers that's really where it goes (and I'm including the editorial staff here since in this world they're far more a creative force than book publishing editors). They're the ones who seem incapable of moving beyond the status quo and whose collective idea of "serious" is determining which character dies next. So we get a constant stream of Big Events where Nothing Will Ever Be the Same (though it always is), heavy-handed preaching (do good, people) and sheer jaw-dropping stupidity (not the fun kind either). Just so we know that the creators are serious.

Some of this is almost built into the system. Since each company has to produce a significant number of issues each year, most featuring tentpole characters, after a while it's hard to keep that interesting. So there have to be changes though usually not ones that will alienate the readers (though the widely disparaged Kyle Rayner and One More Day events show that no matter how much fans complain they won't completely abandon characters). This is where the grim 'n' gritty comes in. Ever since the double-whammy of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns most comics creators have assumed that what gave those works their power was the violence and sex and took them as a license to go wild until we end up with the traditionally light DC giving us a teenaged girl tortured to death with power tools (though she got better) or another stuffed into a refrigerator. Or over at Marvel the entire Ultimatum mess.

Admittedly those are extreme examples but the general feel has been that comics creators think they have to engage with The Real World though the results are rarely worth the trouble. These are after all stories about grown people in colorful, tight costumes and boasting magical powers - there are limits to realism before they just become silly. (One of the nadirs is the Iron Man movie when in blatant Bush propaganda he trots over to the "Middle East" to vanquish the bad guys, though almost anything Judd Winick writes is also a good candidate.)

So in a way to move from the kids stigma that always haunts comics, many creators push to be more grown-up though apparently without really understanding what that might mean in this context. Just look at Identity Crisis which took a "real" novelist for writer and gave us a stupendously misjudged moment with the entire rape sequence. (The tiny footprints on a victim's brain was also misjudged but in an entirely different way.) This isn't the place to discuss why murder is acceptable for pure escapist entertainment (just turn on your TV or see the walls in libraries & bookstores) but not rape, or at least not in Anglo-American culture. In fact it's a little hard to imagine what the creators were thinking but the clear point is to, y'know, keep it real and apparently rape, murder and forced lobotomies are the only ways they could think to do that. Just recently in the Blackest Night event Kyle Rayner died and the forums were full of comments about how successfully DC managed to keep this quiet. The reason as it turns out is that he was resurrected the very next issue with The Power of Love just like T'Challa in the current Black Panther series. (And as much as I defend superhero comics it's stuff like this made by adults in all apparent seriousness that make me want to jump ship.) On a broader level that's why we're also getting this constant stream of dead characters or why potentially substantial stories such as Civil War end up being yet more one-sided blather - the creators are so blinded by an idea of "reality" that they can't think of anything else to do. (It's also why so many stories take five issues when one would really be enough - they want to tell every little moment.)

I'm not saying that we should go back to the Silver Age - that ship has, as they say, sailed. But it's notable that the kids comics released as Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC (most apparently cancelled now) have been more imaginative, substantial and plain fun than the regular series. And there are some that can be considered "grown-up" without falling into this grimness trap - at the moment I'd point out Brubaker's Captain America as an example even if he did kill off the main character. Perhaps this is in some way related to the constant need to point out a moral that tends to infect so much mainstream comics (though it's possibly even more prominent in TV). The creators don't entirely understand how to tell a story or at least don't feel comfortable if that's all they're doing.

I'm not suggesting that comic writers need to bone up on Henry James or Chekhov but certainly they appear to have read too narrowly. Geoff Johns is a perfect example of somebody intimately familiar with comics (at least superhero comics) but seems to have little beyond that. Just check out his recent Green Lantern run for an example of how turgid and insular a writer can get. It's enough to drive a reader over to Ware and Tomine and etc. Honestly though I don't expect anything to change. There's still going to be some good work done amidst the flow of junk and while some people will claim that's always the case for anything I can't help but keep hoping otherwise.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Being Human

When I first heard about this show a few months ago it was described as a vampire, werewolf and ghost are roommates. Pure sitcom fun, right? Well imagine my surprise watching the pilot ep to find that it's a fairly dark, quasi-existentialist drama, though admittedly with bits of low-key humor. (And I should point out that I watched the original BBC eps - apparently the ones airing on BBC America are heavily edited for content and time.) One interesting quirk is that after the pilot all the main roles except for one were recast but the entire pilot is still the beginning of the story. It's peculiar to see the story continue with different actors, though clearly part of the intention was to lighten it up just a bit. (Bunuel tried the same tactic in Tristana, definitely one of his lesser films.)

Being Human does go a bit overboard on underlining what "being human" might mean rather than letting that come out of the events. Doesn't help that most of the eps open with voice-over musings that suggest Mohinder wandered over from Heroes to lend a hand. But that's easy to let slide considering that it otherwise manages to be clever, reasonably surprising and sometimes even effectively moving, perhaps a result of spending a bit more time on daily life than the Big Plot Points. The ending seems a tad forced but mostly it effectively wraps up the stories by the end of the season without feeling arbitrary. Season two just started a week or so back.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And the world's best-selling author is....

...James Patterson? Then again his books are always on the new release tables and I couldn't tell him apart from Michael Connelly, John Sanford or any of those, though it seems likely they're imitating Patterson (even down to jacket design). This profile is actually pretty interesting even if it doesn't make me want to read any of his books. The journalist might have added a bit more context - this type of industrial fiction production dates back at least to Fantomas and American pulps and runs up through 50s/60s paperback originals and series like Mack Bolan, Perry Rhodan and The Executioner with companies like Harlequin coming from a less author-centered angle. Ever notice how people whose work is critically disparaged tend to fall back on the "well lots of people like it" defense. There is some truth in that but it's also worth remembering that Hitler won an election as far as the wisdom of crowds (if we didn't need reminding). It's hard to tell how much Patterson actually uses this himself and how much is just the journalist picking quotes.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A few links

* Newspaper articles are too long (and follow outdated stylistic ideas).

* The New Yorker on Neil Gaiman. (Though one error: the original Sandman did not wear a zoot suit, just a trenchcoat.)

* Creepy unexplained broadcasts.

* Top 10 Victorian detective stories.

* Dirda on Auster and Highsmith.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fantasy Noir

There's talk (is that vague enough?) about a new sub-genre called fantasy noir. This inevitably raises images of hardboiled PIs cruising the mean streets of Faerie Town and in fact there's already a long line of such works, most famously Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but also including Jonathan Lethem's first novel Gun, With Occasional Music, Hjortsberg's Fallen Angel, Steve Niles' Cal MacDonald books, Garrett's Lord Darcy series, far too many vampire detectives and so forth. But fantasy noir is supposed to be something different, apparently familiar fantasy elements re-arranged and pumped up but is most likely somebody trying to rope unrelated books together.

One of the most commonly referenced, even acclaimed, is Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains (2009). I wasn't impressed by his Altered Carbon, mostly a routine detective story with SF elements tacked on or to be more accurate since the SF elements are the core of the set-up, it's a story that could have been told as easily without the SF. He also did a Black Widow mini that was neither here nor there.

The Steel Remains isn't much of a departure. It's yet another story of a down-and-out soldier and some buddies who have to prevent a take-over of their world - that's way too simplistic but is basically what's happening. That it's considered "noir" is because of the cursing, violence and sex (two of the three main characters are gay though since one never acts on it that's mostly theoretical). Just shocking, I'm sure. But none of this is new and compared to, say, Martin's A Game of Thrones this looks like the work of a 12-year-old. It's also worth noting that Morgan hedges his fantasy by providing a kind of SF explanation for what might be "magic" though that's never entirely clear. All this noir-ness doesn't add anything to The Steel Remains which is at heart very conventional, even predictable, and I certainly won't be reading the next book in the series.

More successful is Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim (2009) which places an escapee from Hell on the trail of the people who put him there. In some way this is also predictable but for an even more obvious reason than The Steel Remains. Sandman Slim is more or less a rewrite of The Hunter, the first book in Donald Westlake's Parker series (filmed indelibly as Point Blank and too delibly as Payback). At least Kadrey doesn't try to hide this - Westlake used the pseudonym Stark for the novels and Kadrey's protagonist is named Stark.

I believe I read Kadrey's first novel, 1988's Metrophage, back when I was plowing through anything even vaguely cyberpunkish but after looking up some descriptions online can't be sure - in any case it definitely didn't leave too much of an impact 20 years later. In Sandman Slim the "noir" aspect is more conventional since it's set in L.A. and has that familiar first-person narrative tone. But it's a book filled with demons, black magicians, talkative severed heads, white-power thugs, Victorian criminal Vidocq himself, etc, all done with just a bit of humor that comes from realizing how silly this is even if we won't admit it. Escapee Stark does have his goals but is somewhat amoral, not enough to seem psychopathic but enough that his idea of the right thing to do doesn't always match the reader's - John Constantine is an obvious influence. Some of the cultural references (Esquivel, Martin Denny) are so dated that it suggests this book was in Kadrey's drawer for the past decade and he over-does the wisecracks at times. Still, the story is completely wrapped up and has a surprise at the end that it would be impossible to guess but means the next book might be even better.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just too many books

In a moment of synchronicity (add your own quotes to the word), I happened across two different pieces about having too many books. Apart from the intrinsic interest of each they're an illustration of work by somebody who writes and by somebody who is a writer, perhaps a too-cute distinction but one that's real, or at least defensible, enough.

Charlie Brooker in The Guardian has just realized that he has more books and DVDs that he can get through in the rest of his life. I came to the same realization about 15 years ago but without the same crisis.

Where Brooker goes with this is that he's buying stuff he just thinks he wants and that the freedom of choice is confusing. It's an indication that he's fairly superficial about this when he claims that from his computer he can download nearly any film or piece of music ever made which is simply wrong. Dave Kehr seems to have calculated that only about 4% of American films have been released on home video (see here) which I'll assume is more a rough calculation than a thorough review. But just for argument let's say Kehr is way off and that 20% of American films have been released and that the Internet has a ton of bootlegs that triple this up to 60%. That's still a lot of films not available and it gets even worse when we look outside American borders.

But really Brooker just wants to vent a bit about all the stuff he's acquired but not read, watched or heard. True readers, watchers and listeners don't really care about this, in fact the accumulations tend to be a by-product of intense involvement with whatever artform you prefer. Clearly some of us may take it to extremes (I haven't stopped purchasing books in the past 15 years) but even his idea of not wanting a "cultural diet" is hardly the response of somebody who really cares.

The piece by a real writer (dated the same as Brooks though I found them about a week apart) is Roger Ebert's "Books do furnish a life". Ebert is specific, doesn't leap to general conclusions from his own experience and just writes with more fluidity and interest. His piece also sounds very familiar to me despite a lot of obvious differences (for me no wife, no house, no residence in another country). But I know what he means about this: I have about six or seven translations of Don Quixote that clearly I will never read, three or four of Homer, two editions of Aubrey (admittedly they're practically different books), both abridgements of The Golden Bough (though at least not the entire thing), two complete Shakespeares along with single editions of several plays, and so forth. Plus literal piles of books that I need to read right now but tend to hang around. Ebert is to some degree simply explaining the situation but it's one where many of us are fellow travellers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two books

It seems logical in some non-pc way to put these together.

Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children (1981) - It took me a few months to get through this, not because I didn't like it but because it's so richly textured and also so nonlinear that it didn't have much of a narrative drive to keep pulling me back every day. So I'd go through a chapter or two then set it aside (unintentionally) for a week or so then pick it up again until finally going through the entire last half in about three days. It's an odd book with a central conceit of children born at the same time with special powers that could have come straight from a comic book (such as Rising Stars which may have well taken its idea from Rushdie though it's certainly not an uncommon one). Or more likely Tristram Shandy with the novel being more or less the narrator's autobiography, taking a long section to even get to his birth, commenting on the wayward story, the oddball family and even the narrator losing the tip of a body part when a door/window shuts. What's most attractive is Rushdie's dense, very "written" style that draws all sorts of pop culture, historical, legendary references into what are nearly prose poems. Not for Rushdie an unobtrusive, supposedly clear style that just focuses on events. That also does tend to be a problem at times when I was trying to figure out just who somebody is supposed to be. Rushdie makes a huge miscalculation for the final third of the book (which I'm not revealing but you can't miss) that's pretty much a what-was-he-thinking moment. I believe the intention was to show some of the arbitrary changes that can happen in life but in practice it so completely derails the story that I'd very nearly recommend not even reading that last section. On the other hand so much of the final part is devoted to the idea of India and what it means to be Indian that unless you care about that (and frankly I don't, my apologies to the entirety of India and its diaspora) then it's especially rough sledding. Midnight's Children does make me think some of his later novels might well be more controlled and successful than this one.

Junot Diaz The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) - This might also be described as "promising" though admittedly the promise is pretty well hidden. Diaz's story of the sufferings of three generations of Dominicans does have some heft and covers history unfamiliar to most Americans. However he's chosen to tell this in a slangy, faux-speech style full of n-words, SF/fantasy references, Spanish phrases, etc that it's hard to take seriously. It's almost like Diaz watched a few months of MTV, copied bits of dialogue and stuck them into his book. Whether in fact this is how young Dominicans talk is irrelevant (and probably not true) because the result is artificial in the most annoying way. Trying to copy speech in writing anyway is always problematic; even Twain had difficulty pulling it off. The nerd culture references feel second-hand, mostly drawn from Lord of the Rings and the most obvious Marvel comics, though there is one reference to Marvelman that even most comics fans wouldn't get. He also misspells Gorilla Grodd. Diaz has also oddly decided to focus on Oscar's virginity with an intensity that would rival any teen sex comedy, almost like American Pie: The Dominican Years. Too bad he also has the same sensitivity and emotional depth as such a comedy. I'll have to admit one thing I do admire about the book is that Diaz so completely ignores the writing-school platitude to "show don't tell". That advice is useful if you're writing a specific type of fiction and possibly to focus beginning writers but in general just ignores so many types of writing. In this case Diaz uses several narrators to tell the story and in fact it actually is telling just as you might get in an oral tradition. This is part of the point, however clumsily he may have done it. There is enough of interest in the book that I did finish the whole thing but it's really a trivial effort.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wednesday Comics

Though it finished a few months ago I finally got around to reading the remainder. I don't really understand DC's fascination with weekly comics. I stuck with 52 for pure fan appeal (Super-Chief! Ambush Bug!) and inertia but passed on Countdown and Trinity. This past week they just announced two alternating bi-weeklies as well as a separate weekly about the DC Online game. Who on earth reads all that?

Wednesday Comics seemed different since it was far more limited (just 12 issues) and in an unusually large newspaper-format that offered the possibility for something quite different than the usual run. The end result was predictably mixed with a couple that could easily have been done as a backup story in a regular comic but others that really pushed the limit.

A run-down:

Batman (Azzarello & Risso) - The 100 Bullets team does a decent hard-boiled tale that's more interesting than most of what's been in the regular books these past couple of years.

Kamandi (Gibbons & Sook) - Doing this as a Hal Foster tribute was inspired, especially since the story is otherwise fairly familiar.

Superman (Arcudi & Bermejo) - Very slight with art that's merely larger instead of using the potential space.

Deadman (Bullock & Heuck) - Our hero visits the underworld, tangles with bad people - the twist ending is so obvious that the real twist would have been to not do it.

Green Lantern (Busiek & Quiñones) - Another story that's much better than anything in the regular books even if it is fairly straight-forward.

Metamorpho (Gaiman & Allred) - Allred was born to draw this - too bad Gaiman wasn't born to write it. Some cutesy fourth-wall pushing can't disguise how much Gaiman was working on autopilot.

Teen Titans - (Berganza & Galloway) - Completely forgettable but done with some hideous computer graphics.

Adam Strange (Pope) - I don't know if Paul Pope was the right person for this character (maybe he should have done Deadman) but he doesn't completely disgrace himself.

Supergirl (Palmiotti & Conner) - The undisputed highlight and exactly the kind of thing that got me hooked on comics. Krypto and Streaky are having bouts where they run out of control and Supergirl has to figure out what's happening. It's imaginative, cute and funny.

Metal Men (DiDio & García-López) - A routine tale about a clash with a supervillain but at least decently done.

Wonder Woman (Caldwell) - A complete botch - in fact the text is so difficult to read that I gave up around the fourth issue and didn't even bother trying. To Caldwell's credit he at least used the full page to an extent that it would be almost pointless to reduce the size.

Sgt. Rock (Adam & Joe Kubert) - The story is pretty slight but something other than superheroes is always welcome and Kubert pere hasn't lost anything over the years.

The Flash (Kerschl & Fletcher) - A very clever piece that starts with Barry's story done superhero-style and Iris' done as a romance comic and then mixes and matches from there without ever becoming too forced or complex.

The Demon & Catwoman (Simonson & Stelfreeze) - Though I would much rather have had Simonson's art this mismatched match still works reasonably well.

Hawkman (Baker) - Another decent and somewhat unusual story (and the second with a guest appearance by Aquaman).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Jack Did

Jack Bauer is the ultimate ends-justify-the-means guy. Part of the fun of 24 is seeing just how far he'll go though admittedly by now the creators are having to dial it back a bit because there's not much else he can do and still be considered even borderline sane.

So in connection with tonight's start of the new season here's some of the stuff he's done over the past seven seasons, in no particular order:

Stole a helicopter. Twice.
Hijacked an airplane. Twice.
Committed first-degree murder. Twice. (Nina Myers and the prisoner at start of Season Two.)
Robbed a convenience store.
Shot a woman he knew was completely innocent in the thigh.
Executed his boss. (Though on the president's orders.)
Faked a terrorist attack.
Participated in a real terrorist attack (the bombing of his own headquarters).
Kidnapped the president of the United States.
Chopped off his partner's hand with an axe.
Shot and killed another partner.
Faked his own death.
Tortured his brother almost to death.
Got addicted to heroin as part of an undercover operation.
Started a prison riot.
He invaded a foreign embassy (technically an act of war).
He forced a doctor at gunpoint to stop an operation, dooming the patient (his girlfriend's former husband) to death.
Left the country to avoid a Congressional subpoena.
And he's broken so many prisoners out of custody or escaped himself that these are barely misdemeanors in 24-World.

(Check out a post of "7 wacky moments" that of course includes the Kim-cougar tete a tete. That's really just peer pressure because compared to most of Season Six it's really not that "wacky".)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Summer movies

Well a few months later seems the appropriate time to comment on summer movies. Listed in the order I saw them over the summer (no DVDs). There didn't seem to be as many interesting releases this year and several times I wanted to go see something but there wasn't anything particularly attractive, especially with matinees at $8.

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams) - Mentioned earlier as something of an ideal summer movie and the only film here that I want to see again.

The Hangover (Todd Phillips) - With its reconstruction of events remembered only in fragments this resembles a comic version of Memento. It's certainly quite inventive in spots and as funny as almost anything I saw this year. The big problem is that even though this is a movie about a bachelor part in Las Vegas did it have to be so blatantly misogynist? I'm not even trying to be pc about it - this was so severe and completely unnecessary that it took the film down a couple of notches.

Land of the Lost (Brad Silberling) - Yes, I know better than to watch a Will Ferrell movie but the original TV show was a keystone in my childhood. Its oddball adventures and twisting concepts burrowed into my young teenage mind and while I'm sure it would be painful to see now it still couldn't be as painful as this film. From just a few minutes in until the finish it's a "what were they thinking" experience with joke after joke thudding flat and no apparent effort to hold anything together. Was all that potty humor really necessary? (No but why were they even trying?) Danny McBride is the only person to bring anything of life. With any luck Ferrell will soon become a where-are-they-now memory.

Year One (Harold Ramis) - I'll admit that the trailer made me laugh and got me into the theatre. Turns out anything of even passing amusement was in the trailer so we're left with a tedious travel story where stuff just kinda happens and soon I wanted Jack Black's normal stupid hyperactivity, usually something to avoid. Ramis is usually much better but everybody falls now and then.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay) - Yep, I've seen the first film again and still think it's a solid action outing. This is something else. It's a bad sign that in the very first scene not only could I not tell the robots apart but it wasn't until later that I realized that some of them were supposed to be the good guys. And it just gets dumber and more anti-sensical from there. A lot could be forgiven for some decent dialogue - during the chase scenes a bit of screwball-esque bickering between LaBeouf and Fox would have done fine but apparently that never crossed anybody's mind. C'mon just hire some sitcom writer for a bit of script doctoring. Then again after a while you just have to shut down and gawk at the purty esploshuns.

Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson) - For a while it seemed like Pixar could do no wrong. Then The Incredibles ended up being entertaining but unimaginative, Cars was a complete misfire that looked like a Pixar ripoff, Ratatouille was their first film that was hurt by being done with computer animation (if anything needed cel work this was it) and WALL-E had a landmark first half and a blandly conventional second. Up is a bit of a return though it's got just a bit too much stop-the-bad-guy heroics to really go back to their glory days. And you have to admire them for front-loading such a sad story.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Carlos Saldanha & Mike Thurmeier) - I saw this in 3D. First surprise was that it was an extra $5 which I would have skipped except I wanted to try modern 3D. It didn't add much if anything to the film. Some of the chases and swinging are appropriately "exciting" but in general I should have watched 2D. Overall the film was a passable time waster, nothing particularly good but not where I kept checking my watch.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann) - I'd hoped for The Untouchables meets Heat but got, well I don't know but something I didn't want. Too much of the story is bogged down in the minutae of the various criminals (possibly a result of basing this on a non-fiction book or at least having paid for the rights and feeling like they needed to use the material). After a while it's hard to tell who's who and harder to much care.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp) - Possibly not really a summer movie but it came out at the end and got strong promotions during the summer so I'm counting it. I'm a sucker for fake documentaries so when the first scenes appeared that couldn't have been in the "doc" that we're watching I was a bit annoyed. Turns out to have been Blomkamp's strategy to move us into a more standard story - the entire thing ends with a wham-bam action sequence that shows us who really should have directed Transformers. Though Blomkamp doesn't completely follow his premise all the way through (that action sequence remember?) he still has enough clever twists and genuine anomie that it's a distinctive film. I think, though, that most of the positive reviews are congratulating themselves for recognizing the political commentary which is really Blomkamp's biggest mistake. Such a heavy-handed reference to apartheid is pretty pointless or even regressive. By now nobody is going to be swayed about apartheid itself and far far less about actual racism here at home. Certainly Blomkamp stacks the deck by making the aliens anthropomorphic and giving them cute lil' babies. Imagine if they had been genuinely alien with breadloaf-sized slugs for infants, inexplicable murders/sacrifices, strange behavior, etc. Or what if they weren't all the same, what if some were the equivalent of worker insects with leaders of a completely different type. Anti-racism is based on the premise that all people are basically the same (and I'm using "premise" not because I don't believe it but because this is a contested and not self-evident idea). What if the aliens were in fact vastly different? Is it acceptable to put barely sentient drones into a camp? Then again that's not the film he made - his is the one where we recognize the essential humanity of aliens and grant them essentially human rights. For a far more nuanced and complex view of this idea check out American Zombie.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best Films of 2008-2009

Looking back I noticed there was no list for 2008 so I'm combining - don't think there was one for 2007 either but that will just be left alone. As always, best films I saw for the first time from January 1, 2008 through December 31, 2009.

1. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966) - I avoided this for a long time, expecting heavy-handed preaching. Instead it's one of the most ambiguous but clear-minded films about violence, politics and personal responsibility that I've ever encountered; a film where everybody is caught in a hopeless situation and struggles to get out, often with uncertain results, sometimes with worse. It must have been something in the water but from the mid-60s to the end of the 70s Italy produced possibly the greatest run of political cinema ever (just think of the names: Bertolucci, Rosi, Olmi, Leone, Corbucci, Monicelli, Ferreri, Pasolini, the Tavianis).

2. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes 2007) - Another one where I had low expectations - multiple actors portraying Dylan? Yawn. But it's actually different actors playing different characters based on aspects of Dylan, a tiny but crucial difference that allows the film to move from the historical Dylan while it also cleaves closely to him. (An astonishing amount of dialogue comes from actual Dylan interviews.) At times a sarcastic attack on celebrity culture, at others an intimate family struggle, the film is far more than a clever trick and repays multiple viewings. Plus Richard Gere's calmly haunted performance is one for the ages.

3. The Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise 1944) - Despite the lurid title, this is one of the most beautiful films ever made, a sharply imagined quilt of childhood, memory and redemption.

4. Il Generale Della Rovere (Roberto Rossellini 1959) - Yeah it's also about redemption which normally means Sunday school lessons but Rossellini is just as interested in what that might actually mean and what kind of compromises might even raise the issue. He's tied this to a character that seems almost like the genial crook (not a real criminal surely) who inhabits so many stories until the mask starts slipping as he realizes the same thing as Homer Simpson: "D'oh, why do my actions have consequences?"

5. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969) - Talk about compromise, this unsettling portrait of the French resistance borders on despair and may be one of the least heroic films about people who were genuinely heroic. It's not a cheap dichotomy since that confusion and suffocation drive the film. That Melville felt this way a quarter century later showed how some things never heal.

6. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell 1944) - Probably nobody made better propaganda films than Powell & Pressburger (unless you're counting Eisenstein). This one was intended to boost British morale during the war but is far more than that. Its small-town England with an offskilter sense of humor, comfortable (though flexible) tradition and sheer humane feeling (not to mention a dash of mysticism) is perhaps utopian but one that we would all like to see.

7. Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch 1943) - Starts like a comedy - after he dies a guy shows up at The Celestial Accountant to see if he's going up or down for the rest of eternity. And yes his misadventures through life are mostly comic but as they accumulate you slowly realize how disconnected this man is, how giving but self-centered, how cheerful but not entirely happy. The film is either beyond category or it's nearly all of them.

8. Crime Wave (Andre de Toth 1954) - One of the most noirest noir I've seen, it almost feels carved from shadows, at least when it's not acting like a pitiless documentary of trapped people.

9. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur 1943) - Another Val Lewton masterpiece but not as recognized as the others. It uses a violent death in a New Mexican border town to build a complex portrait of class differences and folkways; that it does so in a smidgen over an hour is a harsh rebuke to nearly every Hollywood director who can barely even tell a coherent story in twice that time.

10. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson 1966) - I've never understood people who claim Bresson is a deeply emotional director. The end of Pickpocket seems like a joke to me and it's a testament that the film works just as well that way as if it was completely serious. The much-acclaimed ending here is clearly no joke but neither is it a bang nor a whimper - it simply is. That's Bresson's strength - focusing on moments that would be lost in a more conventionally told story and pretty much ignoring the rest.

11. Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch 1933) - Lubitsch's pre-code exploration of a love triangle is both hilarious and heartbreaking even if it exists in a never-never land of starving artist garrets and swanky penthouses.

12. Pigs and Battleships (Shohei Imamura 1961) - It starts as a look at a bottom-of-the-barrel yakuza flunky trapped (or maybe he likes it) in a port town with his long-suffering girlfriend but slowly reveals that "long-suffering" doesn't fit her as she slowly becomes the real hero of the story.

13. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci 1968) - Snow, Mormons, a bounty hunter smarter than the "hero", more snow, a lead role without a single line of dialogue, small-town politics and a jaw-dropping but utterly believable ending that kept the film out of English-speaking countries for almost three decades.

14. Burn After Reading (Coen Bros 2008) - No Country for Old Men is too arch, too underlined but this is what the Coens are best at - darkly comic stories of losers who just aren't as smart as they think they are.

15. Exiled (Johnny To 2006) - Opening with what I'm convinced is an homage to Once Upon a Time in the West this pushes the conventions of heroic bloodshed films in ways that Woo wouldn't have imagined when he made A Better Tomorrow.

16. American Zombie (Grace Lee 2007) - Yet another fake documentary but this time made by real documentarians. This appears to be an examination of race with socialized zombies filling in as a minority but slowly undermines any kind of easy identification, any sort of yes/no politics. Maybe that's in part because the documentary form isn't used here for simple storytelling purposes but as a way to show just how we can or can't know what we think we do, to the point that viewers never find out what happened in perhaps the film's key event.

17. Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson 1945) - Maybe I should have just included the entire Lewton box set but this stark, haunted tale set during a plague in the middle of the Greek civil war is certainly not what you'd expect to come out of a studio at any time in Hollywood's history. Karloff's portrayal of a general who may be slowly going insane is one of his best.

Honorable: Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry 2008), Bedlam (Mark Robson 1946), The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima 1966), Black Test Car (Yasuzo Masumura 1962), Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin 2006), Cloverfield (Matt Reeves 2008), The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel 2006), Diary of the Dead (George Romero), District 9 (Neill Blomkamp 2009), Election (Johnny To 2005), Enchanted (Kevin Lima 2007), The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson 1943), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro 2008), Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog 2005), Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter 1941), Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino 2009), Inside (Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury 2007), Justice League: The New Frontier (Dave Bullock 2008), Keoma (Enzo G. Castellari 1976), Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava 1974), Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston 1978), Made in USA (Jean-Luc Godard 1966), Martyrs (Pascal Laugier 2008), Mr. Freedom (William Klein 1969), Murder My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk 1944), Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul 2000), No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros 2007), Observe and Report (Jody Hill 2009), Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien 1993), Putney Swope (Robert Downey 1969), Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster 2008), Star Trek (JJ Abrams 2009), The Stolen Airship (Karel Zeman 1967), Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton 2008), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini 1966), Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch 1932), Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson 2009), WALL-E (Andrew Stanton 2008), Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov 2008), The World (Jia Zhang-ke 2004).

Crimes: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Celestial Subway Line (Ken Jacobs), D-War: Dragon Wars, The Heartbreak Kid, Hostel II, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Juno, King Kong (Jackson), Watchmen, Leatherheads, Mamma Mia!, Once, Land of the Lost, The Spirit, Throne of Blood, 300, The Whole Ten Yards, Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Best Movies of the Decade

I've often commented on my listophilia but even so making a best-of-the-decade seemed too much. But after reading many such lists I couldn't help it. So a rough list done alphabetically and including only fiction features - these are films that stuck with me for whatever reason.

Before Sunset (Linklater)
Bright Future (Kurosawa)
City of Lost Souls (Miike)
Code Unknown (Haneke)
Decasia (Morrison)
The Devil's Backbone (del Toro)
Donnie Darko (Kelly)
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (Maddin)
The Dreamers (Bertolucci)
Femme Fatale (De Palma)
Ghost World (Zwigoff)
The Host (Bong)
I'm Not There (Haynes)
Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
Spirited Away (Miyazaki)
Unknown Pleasures (Jia)
Y tu mama tambien (Cuaron)

Beau Travail (Denis) and The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami) are 1999 per IMDB but others are including as 2000 - they would be here. And there must be dozens upon dozens of perfectly fine films ("completely realized artistic accomplishments" if you prefer) that just didn't stick as strongly as the list - from In Praise of Love to American Psycho, Yi Yi to Casino Royale, Battle Royale to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.