Saturday, November 27, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

Though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is a blockbuster about teenage wizards, the seventh in the Harry Potter series is more ambiguous and thematically relevant than many movies about adults. The plot will baffle those who have either not seen the previous film or read J. K. Rowling's bestselling books.

The wicked Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) gathers his band of Death Eaters to create a world where muggles (non-magical humans) are subservient to wizards. Voldemort himself echoes Hitler's makeup in that he is half-muggle, and pamphlets strewn throughout the film (including one titled "when muggles attack") resemble Nazi propaganda.

Meanwhile, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) abandon their final year at the magical school of Hogwarts to embark on a quest to destroy Voldemort. To do this, they must find six horcruxes, objects containing pieces of Voldemort's soul.

Deathly Hallows: Part One, the second to last film, is more appropriate for teenagers than young children. From the barren scenery to the shuddering, downcast portrait of Harry on a wanted poster, a sense of despair pervades the atmosphere. As our three young heroes struggle with uncertainty, their friendship is put to the test.

Seasoned British thespians including Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter have little more than cameos, but most minor characters are well handled. Memorable roles include Alan Rickman's icy Snape, David Thewlis's kind werewolf Lupin (in human form), and Imelda Staunton's creepy interrogator Dolores Umbridge.

Voldemort's hosts, Death Eaters Draco (Tom Felton) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), exemplify the crumbling upper class. Humiliated by Voldemort and lower-class thugs, the snobbish Malfoys discover how overturning the social order can negatively affect them.

The odious but helpful house-elf Kreachure, a CGI creation, is marvelously voiced by Simon McBurney. The more heroic house-elf Dobby (Toby Jones) is less successful. He comes across as more cartoonish than inspiring.

But the heart of this film is the trio. Due to the amount of material crammed into each movie, Hermione and Ron have often felt more like sidekicks than complete characters. Here their acting, especially Ms. Watson's, has improved and their conflicts are fleshed out.

We see Hermione's sacrifice as she erases her muggle family's memories in order to protect them. One of the youngest and least powerful in a large family of strong wizards, Ron and his insecurities also emerge, as does his resentment about the relationship between the famous Harry and overachieving Hermione.

Ron and Hermione's unspoken romance is humorous, frustrating, and sweet. While Hermione notes that she is "always mad" at Ron, she and Harry have a more harmonious and platonic connection. Their closeness is demonstrated in the film's most moving scene, when Harry dances with Hermione. Though not in the book, this moment of joy is a counterpoint to the darkness that takes up so much of the film, and the dance dissolves when they recall the complexity of their situation.

The most creative part of the film, arguably of the entire series, is a curious but fascinating animation of The Tale of the Three Brothers. Nicely read by Ms. Watson, the story of Death's encounter with three brothers is grim, eerie, and hauntingly beautiful.

The film is by no means perfect. It has its share of melodrama, and Alexandre Deslpat's usually lovely score can be laughably over-the-top. Long pauses prolong an already lengthy movie. Part One's abrupt ending isn't particularly satisfying; the audience will have to wait until Part Two for a real conclusion.

Still, it is touching to see the tired and worn triumvirate walk past charred trailer homes as they listen to death tolls on the radio. Hardly older than children, they have to learn that heroism is more tedious than glorious. With only one more film to go, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One manages to be the most emotionally resonant Harry Potter movie yet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Though The Kids Are All Right never surpasses the threshold of greatness, the film is an intelligent take on familial and romantic relationships.

While Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) struggle with their marriage, their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) faces graduation. Meanwhile, their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) contacts his biological father, the free spirited Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who donated sperm when he was a young man. As Paul is increasingly intertwined in his "children's" lives, his role in the family becomes more complex.

There are no villains here. Nic's controlling nature is somewhat overemphasized, but Bening remains sympathetic and humorous. Moore is likewise engaging as the appealing but insecure Jules. Ruffalo is excellent as the laid back Paul. His unexpected reactions to having a family of sorts are fascinating but a tad underdeveloped.

Joni and Laser are perhaps the most well drawn characters. In fact, their stories could have been explored more. The siblings have a close but imperfect connection. They are sarcastic, naive, endearing, and a refreshing departure from unrealistic teenage stereotypes.

The Kids Are All Right touches on everyday questions of patience, disappointment, and love. The movie sometimes strains to find the right amount of quirk, but it's a rare film that is both enjoyable and smart, and thus worth seeing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Daniel & Ana

Daniel & Ana is named after the wealthy siblings Daniel and Ana Torres. Daniel attends high school as Ana prepares for her wedding. Daniel tentatively moves forward with his girlfriend. His biggest concern is not owning a car. Ana's problem is that her fiance Rafa has been offered a job in Spain. He wants to take the job; she wants to remain in Mexico City with her family. Then three men kidnap the brother and sister and sexually assault them in a way that makes them feel especially culpable. They are released physically unharmed but in a state of complete shock.

The acting is excellent, especially by Marimar Vega as the sexy and confident Ana. The scene in which she and Daniel are kidnapped is chilling and graphic. The also beautiful Dario Yazbeck Bernal successfully conveys Daniel's vulnerability. However, though their initial paralysis is portrayed with painstaking realism, the audience sees absolutely no line between the initial assault and Daniel's eventual actions. His later reaction comes across as unbelievable and sensationalistic. The clueless parents are not at fault, but they are pushed to the background and thus not particularly sympathetic.

Clinically shot and scored with overplayed bits of classical music, this attempt to raise awareness about coerced victims of pornography is ostensibly a true story. Unfortunately, this tale of close siblings forced apart is more disturbing than moving, thanks to muddy psychology.

Spanish with English subtitles

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Young Poisoner's Handbook (1995)

Benjamin Ross's gruesome but hilarious The Young Poisoner's Handbook is based on the true story of Graham Young. Played by Hugh O'Conor, Graham is a teenage genius whose fascination with chemistry doesn't bode well for those who rub him the wrong way. The movie's cast of cartoonish characters are as unlikeable as Graham, though not nearly as intelligent. Graham's awful family is a macabre parody of an ideal British 1960s household. A psychiatrist played by Antony Sher is the only character with any sign of subtlety or decency. In spite of its disturbing content, this fast paced film is filled with humorous juxtapositions and ironies. Still, The Young Poisoner's Handbook is, at the end of the day, a strangely believable portrait of cold madness.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Originally distributed in 1992, Sally Potter's film Orlando was re-released last summer. Ms. Potter adapted the screenplay from Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography about an individual who changes genders halfway through her over four-hundred year long life. The movie is divided into seven sections: Death, Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex, and Birth.

Excruciatingly slow and cryptic, Orlando is nonetheless a gorgeous work of art. Its enthralling music, mostly composed by Ms. Potter and David Motion, contributes to the film's dreamlike ambiance. Orlando's color palette is also extraordinary. Cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov shoots the Rococo period's pastel blues and pinks in muted light. Candles illuminate the Renaissance's bold outfits and elaborate rituals.

Tilda Swinton looks the part of the androgynous Orlando, but the movie's acting and writing are stilted and bizarre. Amongst the film's many unsubtle messages, its most powerful theme is that of identity. Though difficult to get through, Orlando has an entrancing originality.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network is a classical tale of power and revenge. It begins in 2003 at Harvard, where undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg invents the vast social networking website Facebook. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) intersperses Mark’s upward trajectory with scenes from two lawsuits against him, one from his friend and co-founder Eduardo Saverin and one from classmates Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

Aaron Sorkin, also a playwright, adapted this outstanding script from Ben Mezrich’s mostly true book The Accidental Billionares. Language is as central to this film as it is to any play. Conversations are the equivalent of car chases. In spite of its cleverness, the dialogue remains remarkably natural.

The fast talk is aided by snappy editing and pumping music, which sometimes turns as ominous as the darkly lit Harvard campus. Even glamorized scenes of elite parties are shot in somber tones. Further visual ingenuity is evinced in one scene in which the camera makes the world of a rowing race look like a perfect toyland. This athletic struggle mimics the characters’ overarching business battles.

Impeccably cast, The Social Network is also a fascinating character study. Played by Jesse Eisenberg, Mark’s intelligence and drive dominate the story. So brilliant he occasionally comes across as an evil genius, Mark is lonely, self-centered, and contemptuous. (His outfits consist of hoodies and sandals.) This protagonist’s tragic flaws allow him everything but friendship.

The film is tilted towards Mark’s former friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield). While his decency and victimization are overemphasized, the character is quite believable and certainly sympathetic.

Also interesting are the amusing Winklevoss twins, played by Armie Hammer (thanks to incredible special effects). Tall and gorgeous, these Olympic class rowers resemble Olympians. They may be entitled, but their plight is understandable.

Even Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster and the man who seduces Mark into a larger life, comes across as more pathetic than villainous. Sean has surface charm and appreciates Facebook’s potential, but he is at best unreliable and sophomoric.

Smaller parts are likewise well acted, including Mark’s level headed and thus brief girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the twins’ furious friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The only misstep is Rashida Jones as a (gorgeous) lawyer who is bizarrely compassionate to Mark, in an apparent attempt to make him more likable.

Certain aspects of the story are sexed up and simplified. Only the exclusive side of Harvard is explored. Most disturbing is that the characters on which The Social Network is based are still alive. Though mixing fact and fiction can be dubious, the creators of the film performed extensive research and invited everyone to give their input. Understandably, Mark Zuckerberg declined to participate.

Fast paced, hilarious, and parabolic, The Social Network will ensnare many into its world of competition and self-destruction. It is an excellent portrayal of Internet and youth culture in all its innovation, imagination, selfishness, and insolence. Amongst questions of class and control, we watch Mark and others chase after a sense of happiness that is ultimately hollow.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Am Love

The intoxicating I Am Love (Io sono l’amore) begins in winter. On a gray Milan day, snow encases the Recchis’ villa. But inside, the abode is glorious and bustling. Emma (Tilda Swinton) works with her servants to prepare a dinner in which her father-in-law (Gabriele Ferzetti) will name the successor to his business. Emma’s beautiful family arrives one by one, and the banquet proceeds.

No one seems to fit more into the Recchis’ immaculate lifestyle than Emma, a Russian transplant. She is close to her children, especially her confiding daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) and oldest son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). He works for the Recchi business and supports his best friend Antonio’s (Edoardo Gabbriellini) efforts to start a new restaurant. Emma attends Antonio's family restaurant where his cooking affects her like an aphrodisiac.

I Am Love is a hypnotic addition to the oft told story of a woman’s awakening. As the film moves into and through the heights and depths of summer weather, several characters embark on a journey of self discovery and freedom. The dazzling score, featuring many pieces by John Adams, is as much a part of the movie as its imagery. While there are subtle commentaries on character, globalization, and classism, much of the symbolism is obvious. Birds flutter against church ceilings; moths fight against lamp shades. Gourmet food, naked bodies, and edenic scenery are lovingly illuminated.

Because the dialogue is occasionally cliché, I Am Love works best when no explanations are given. Tilda Swinton is superb, and the attractive supporting cast is excellent. Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s highly dramatic film is not for everyone, but some will adore this sweeping symphony of transformation and love.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Winter's Bone

Though Winter’s Bone builds an atmosphere of dread, self-consciousness undermines its resonance.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her family in the Missouri Ozarks. Her drug dealing father, nowhere to be found, has put up their house and land as collateral for his bail. Ree vows to find him even as she cares for her younger siblings and mentally ill mother. She must face down hostile relatives to get to the truth behind her father’s disappearance and, more importantly, save her home.

Winter’s Bone (an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel ) feels like a cultural lesson in rural poverty. Close ups accompany tense moments. A shaky camera conveys the area’s rawness. Winter is captured in rare beauty, with its dead leaves, barren trees, and back roads. Scenes of everyday survival (including wood chopping and squirrel hunting) are interspersed with Ree’s search for her father. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ obvious (but largely successful) attempts at authenticity come across as manipulative. The unusual filmic setting is the foreground, which makes the characters somewhat secondary.

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Ree, but her character is difficult to identify with. A youth with troubles beyond anyone’s years is not unrealistic, but Ree is nearly perfect. Unselfish, wise, understanding, tough, and above all determined, Ree is willing to sacrifice everything for her wards, without ever losing her temper with them. She has bouts of insecurity and naïveté, but she is more admirable than interesting.

The acting is quite good, though little liveliness is shown. Characters’ pinched cheeks, chapped lips, and grim faces are realistic, but few leave an impression. In fact the only fascinating presence is Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree’s coke addicted uncle. Ambiguous and scary but loyal, Teardrop is not someone you want as an enemy.

Overly poetic dialogue jars with the rest of the film’s painstaking attempts at realism. Saintly Ree gives her brother advice such as “don’t ask for what ought to be offered,” and notes that she is a “Dolly, bred and buttered.” Also, Ree’s search gets rather repetitive as she is told by person after person to give up her quest.

Since images of barren trees and a haunting, gorgeous soundtrack evoke an ominous mood from the beginning, any darkness that lies within the community doesn’t come as a shock. More surprising are the displays of genuine kindness. More astonishing still in this gothic tale would have been expressions joy or dynamism.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Devastating War Zone

Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is an adolescent, which means he is as internally tumultuous as Devon’s weather. He and his family have transferred from London to an isolated country house near the sea. His pregnant mother (Tilda Swinton) quietly misses London, but his father (Ray Winstone) and older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) stay occupied with work and college searches. The family spends their days trudging through rain or cozying up at home. They hardly notice when Tom, already sullen, discovers something that shakes him into near silence.

The War Zone (based on a book by Alexander Stuart) depicts a situation that is theoretically simple and in actuality anything but. Told from the perspective not of a knowing outsider but of innocence as it is being lost, Tim Roth’s directorial debut is uniquely powerful. Its most appalling moments are justified, even crucial.

The camera lingers on small figures surrounded by green and gray and pummeled by the elements. The ocean’s rhythmic violence and the setting’s physical remoteness clearly reflect the family’s emotional trials. The repetitive, sometimes sentimental soundtrack is still effective.

Tom’s impenetrability ultimately works, but Cunliffe’s lack of expressions is off-putting in comparison to Belmont’s harrowing performance as Jessie. Thespians Swinton and Winstone are understated and excellent as the parents. The sparse, mumbled dialogue is naturalistic if occasionally heavy handed (and difficult for Americans to understand).

The film offers no explanations and leaves on an ambiguous note, forcing viewers to identify with its tender protagonists. In spite of its bleak portrayal of youth overwhelmed by confusion, The War Zone has changed lives. Realistic in a way few movies are, its very existence dispels myths, fosters sympathy, and inspires confessions. The film’s flaws do not detract from its rare significance.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Combine an innovative director, idea, and cast. Add to that a story that questions reality, physics defying fight scenes, and wonderful special effects. What do you get? Unfortunately, with Inception, not much.

Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento) directs this complex blockbuster about mental espionage. Using fancy technology, expert thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is able to sneak into a subject’s subconscious to steal information. Inception’s plot involves an even more difficult, nigh impossible, assignment: planting an idea. At the behest of the shady Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb and his crew plan to give Saito’s economic competitor Fischer (Cillian Murphy) the impulse to dissolve his company. Complicating matters is the projection of Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who violently haunts his every entry into dreamland.

The film is more interested in muddled sequences reminiscent of Tomb Raider than characters. In an attempt to build suspense, scenes move from one shot to another and back ad nauseum.

Nolan’s measured character studies and puzzle-like plots are often superior to his action scenes. But here characters, one of Nolan’s strengths, are subtle to the point of dullness. They come across as mere plot devices. This may be intentional, a metacognitive device, but it doesn’t make our heroes any more interesting.

Slightly unhinged and haunted by a dead wife, Cobb is distractingly reminiscent of DiCaprio’s role in the movie Shutter Island. Cobb’s psychosis isn’t enthralling enough to emotionally anchor the plot. His right hand man Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks smashing but is lifeless. Ellen Page as Ariadne, the dream architect, looks lovely but is likewise uninteresting. Tom Hardy’s Eames is the cheeky but two dimensional “forger” who can change his appearance once in a dream. Watanabe’s Saito is at first mysterious, but ultimately opaque as anyone else. Dileep Rao as Yusuf, the apothecary, is intriguingly amoral – or maybe not; his character is hardly developed. In an unsatisfying part, Murphy, whose subconscious everyone enters, excels. He stands out as the only one who evokes sympathy. Cotillard as the dangerously multifaceted Mal is also excellent.

None of these characters hold many, if any, surprises. In fact, there are few twists in the entire movie , which is bizarre for a Nolan flick. Also unusual for one of his films is a lack of moral exploration. Our protagonists break into someone’s mind. This isn’t really questioned. The cast’s remarkable chemistry makes a lack of humor conspicuous. They all remained so cool, it’s difficult to feel suspense.

Perhaps Inception is difficult “to get.” It’s easy to ask, whose subconscious are they in? How did they get there? Why? What’s at stake? This confusion prevents you from enjoying the film, but the real problem is not caring about the explanation.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

Misfortune and malevolence plague the German village of Eichwald. Its inhabitants are more concerned with local vandalism, maimings, and deaths than the impending Great War. Yet events in the town foreshadow an even deadlier war. Designed to represent innocence, the titular white ribbon actually serves as a punishment for naughty children and raises questions about guilt, pretense, and purity. In The White Ribbon, director Michael Haneke has created a film whose horrors are enveloped in silence and uncertainty, provoking in viewers both thought and terror.
The black and white cinematography conveys the era’s severity and façade of simplicity. There is no music to direct or alleviate tension. Instead, long, sometimes self-conscious, shots develop a sense of dread until evil appears to inhabit every scene. Acting, from the youngest child to the oldest patriarch, is outstanding.
Through the social structures of a claustrophobic town, The White Ribbon examines death, persecution, religion, and vengeance. These far-reaching themes make Eichwald eerily universal.
At the conclusion of the showing I attended, a man whispered, “My God, what a movie.” Grateful for a chance to relieve tension, and perhaps in unspoken accord with the speaker, the audience burst into laughter. Still, an unsettling feeling lingered. And lingered.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why I Like 'The Vampire Diaries' (television)

I thought the show would be worse than Twilight. Its setup is identical: a vampire falls in love with a high school girl. To my surprise, The Vampire Diaries kept me tuning in every week.

Our heroine Elena (Nina Dobrev) lives in the historic Virginia town Mystic Falls. Her parents recently died in a car crash, leaving her and her dope-head brother Jeremy (Steve McQueen) in the care of their young aunt Jenna (Sara Canning), a lovable pal but sucky guardian. Elena’s grief causes her to bond with the - unbeknownst to her - nice vampire stalker Stefan (Paul Wesley). Unfortunately, he has a vampire brother who is not so nice. Damon (Ian Somerhalder) enjoys making his brother’s life miserable and has no qualms about eating humans. He also notices that Elena looks exactly like their (yes, their) ex who lived more than a century ago.

Other cast members include Elena’s cute ex Matt (Zach Roerig), his a-hole best friend Tyler (Michael Trevino), and Tyler’s druggie girlfriend Vicki (Kayla Ewell). She is also Matt’s sister and Jeremy’s love. The town is incestuous. Then there are Elena’s best friends Bonnie (Katerina Graham) and Caroline (Candice Accola). Bonnie is sweet and supportive; Caroline is blond and bitchy.
It’s… Believable
For a cheesy show about gorgeous townsfolk and creatures of the night, it’s surprisingly realistic. (Note: I am used to television-hot actors not CW-hot. These people look like no one I've met.) The most initially stereotypical characters turn out to be some of the most complex.

It’s Funny
The Vampire Diaries doesn’t take itself too seriously. The heroine’s best friend matter-of-factly explains why she is psychic. They laugh at such a preposterous notion. (So does the audience, for other reasons, of course.) One vampire advises another: “You’re dead, dude. Get over it.”
It’s Surprising
Even though the series borrows heavily from previous vampire/teen stories, it follows its own path. It uses and plays with formulas. The pilot features Elena running through a foggy graveyard, complete with an ominous crow. It also quickly dissolves a budding love triangle cliché because a character actually acts sensibly.

It’s Consistent
They’ve done a darn good job with the vampire mythology. The explanations, including questions of vampire morality, have a basic logic. Not only that, but the tone, pacing, and character development are dependable. Unlike many shows, actions (usually) have consequences. Characters have motivations and don’t forget about what they did the previous week.
The vampire “look” is perhaps the best I’ve seen. When vamps get blood hungry they sprout fangs. Eyes become bloodshot and veiny. These immortal serial killers are scary twists on their human selves, beastlike and vicious.

The writing and acting are respectable. Nina Dobrev can be grating in a teenager-y way, but her Elena is an appealing character. Paul Wesley is somewhat one note, but he brings a wisdom and tenderness to the role of Stefan. That he manages to be less than creepy is a remarkable feat which alone elevates the show far above Twilight. Ian Somerhalder clearly relishes playing Damon, who is funny, flirtatious, and wicked, but perhaps not irredeemable.

Certain scenes are ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious, but the camp is part of the fun. Due to historical echoes, intertwining relationships, and flashbacks to the brothers’ vampire births, the show borders on epic. How can you not enjoy a show where vampires play high school football, embarrass history teachers, and attend Halloween parties dressed as – you guessed it – vampires?

Monday, May 31, 2010

The O.C. (Television)

You can tell a lot about a show from one episode.

The O.C. (2003-2007) is a high budget teen soap opera set in wealthy Orange County, California. In spite/because of its ridiculousness, this series is very popular. I enjoy mocking bad tv while secretly enjoying it, so I watched (most of) an episode.

Unfortunately, The O.C.’s terribleness baffles rather than amuses me. The choppy editing gives the impression that sections are missing. A boring, poor kid (Ben McKenzie) lives with a nerdy, rich kid (Adam Brody). The rich guy, who is smart because he is “writing a novel,” is codependent on the poor guy. The poor guy is in love with a rich girl (Mischa Barton) who is neither interesting nor believable. Their extremely original courting scenes involve giggling and falling into a pool.

The rich girl and a girlfriend (Rachel Bilson) discuss their fathers’ credit cards. Her girlfriend makes fun of someone for being poor. The rich girl’s ex (or is he?) boyfriend laughs at a poor person. Remember, they are privileged.

Also, you should know that parties with poor people are hardcore because they feature strippers and guns. Because of this, the poor guy has to babysit his rich friend.

Their parents are busy fulfilling other stereotypes. Mothers are bitchy, backstabbing gossips. Fathers are too boring to watch.

There are a few good lines and a few good actors. Most of the time, the writers’ and actors’ attempted manipulations of the audience were painfully evident. TV really IS bad.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Inglourious Basterds = The White Ribbon

Some might find the comparison bizarre at best. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is grim but humorous, an absurd adventure. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is grim and… grim, a stark, subtle horror. (Its moments of charm are overwhelmed with dread.) Still, the two films have certain similarities.

1. Each is close to two and a half hours.
2. Both received negative reviews from the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor (the two newspapers I read most frequently.)
3. Both were at least 10 years in the making. (Mostly in the mind of the director.)
4. Both were directed and written by the same person.
5. Both were nominated for best movie Oscars (best film and best foreign film). Both lost.
6. Both are oversimplified by critics. (Inglourious Basterds is oversimplified by just about everyone, including fans.)
7. Both are in my top [insert number - let's say, fifteen] movies.
And then there are the obvious:

8. Both are set in Europe.
9. Both include German actors speaking lots of German. Yep.
10. Both occur during or before a World War.

There you have it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor named Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves a best book of the year. Narrated by several individuals, her novel spans the history of Pluto, North Dakota and an adjacent Ojibwe reservation. Evelina, a young half-Ojibwe girl, listens to the tales from her grandfather Mooshum. We also hear from Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, who falls in love with Evelina’s aunt, and follow his ancestor and namesake in Pluto’s early existence. Histories intertwine, and the present repeats and contradicts the past.

The Plague of Doves resembles a short story collection, though its chapters are more interconnected and less complete than short stories. Erdrich lovingly details the mannerisms of individuals and wide-sky thunderstorms, but the use of multiple speakers can distance and confuse the reader. Still, moments of brilliance and humor emerge in situations dramatic and mundane. The delightful but flawed Mooshum is a poignant creation. Holy Track is a haunting but underdeveloped figure. One dazzling section is told by the mentally ill Marn Wolde. She is married to the fascinating Billy, a Messianic (or satanic) figure of terrible charisma.

Unfortunately, Marn Wolde’s wild commentary suffers from a lack of clarity, as does almost every segment. Dramatic events affect characters too little or too much, distracting from what is actually unfolding. Stereotypical characters like the heartless, self-righteous Father Cassidy also detract from the story’s power.

Starvation, murders, lynchings, kidnappings, and romances connect in fated coincidences. However, a lack of realism and narrative drive muddies beautiful imagery. Thus the supposed final punch is more hollow than gut wrenching.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Name Is Red

The person who recommended Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red confessed that it was one of the most difficult books she had read. It sounded gorgeous: told from different perspectives, including figures in ancient illuminations, a contemplative murder mystery unfolds during the Ottoman Empire’s sixteenth century. The book won the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a variety of other awards in multiple languages. The likes of The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, and The Economist Reviews cited: “A modern classic,” “a tour de force,” “Astonishing,” “magnificent,” “Shakespearean in its grandeur,” and “demonstrates the patience of … Proust and Mann, [while] his instinctive affinity lies with … Calvino and Borges.”

So instead of getting it from the library, I bought it. I love art and philosophy.

I stopped reading after 75 pages.

The story began from the fascinating viewpoint of a murdered corpse. Yet, my first doubts arose when he cadaver told about the afterlife. Instead of shedding light or adding suspense, the description of life after death merely made me think, “Well, I guess people can make up what they want when it comes to the afterlife.” After several chapters, my illusions that the book was made of interweaving threads fell away. I was reading one story, containing many different stories within it. These tales included lessons that, to me, didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. Even after gleaning the exact same lesson from five different stories.

Any depth of personality eluded me. No character held my interest. The women were objects of wit and desire, and the men were hardly more rounded. Rapists and torturers were described as enlightened and gentle. This may have been an attempt to depict the mindset of individuals at the time. Instead, the vaguely sketched characters are dull.

The translation was also off-putting. Characters speaking in formal settings dropped the f-bomb. Not the foul but the inappropriate language bothered me.

I’m sure that the characters and narration style were meant to imitate illuminations themselves as well as traditional storytelling. I’m also certain that there was a cultural difference that I was unable to overcome.

The person who recommended the book to me said that she had to put the book down for at least a year the first time she picked it up. I will also put it down for at least a year. At least.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorcese's 'Shutter Island' may not be as praised or praiseworthy as his recent film 'The Departed,' but it is nonetheless a successfully tense viewing experience. Leonardo DiCaprio is, as expected (lately), powerful, almost overwhelming, as the tumultuous marshal Teddy Daniels. He has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a woman on an island off Massachusetts that consists solely of a prison for the criminally insane. On the ride over, he meets his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), and at the institute, he encounters a variety of cryptic doctors and disturbed patients.

Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) appears to be a forward thinking psychiatrist, while the German Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) espouses harsher beliefs about the mad. Between unfruitful interviews, Teddy dreams of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) and recalls the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, of which the fenced in island is eerily reminiscent. Kingsley and von Sydow are reliably subtle. Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson are likewise excellent in very different roles.

Progressively surreal circumstances make both Teddy and the audience increasingly uncomfortable. The surprisingly straightforward ending has been criticized as cheap and predictable. However, it has enough substance to make the viewer consider seeing the film twice.

Problems include one too many smiles by crazy folks. Instead of creepy, they come across as cliche. Also, though visually astounding, flashbacks and dream sequences lack intriguing dialogue. Per usual in adaptations of Dennis Lehane novels (Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River), the love interest is more a foil to the male protagonist than a fully developed character.

The movie's slow pace resembles the similarly scored Stanley Kubrick classic 'The Shining.' Though 'Shutter Island' doesn't reach those heights, it is good in its own right, especially towards the middle of the piece, when viewers don't know what to think or hold on to.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (movie)

I have not read David Foster Wallace's story collection "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." As of yet, I have only seen John Krasinski's film of the same name and subject.

This movie is viewed
best as an overview of a certain mindset rather than of all men. Comprised mainly of a series of interviews performed by a female interviewer (Julianne Nicholson). Male subjects include both strangers and close acquaintances. Nicholson is excellent, especially considering she is mostly silent. All women characters lack a voice here. This clearly symbolic reinforcement of women as objects and victims is interesting but also an easy evasion of creating the rare three-dimensional female characters.

The inconclusive interviews are, at times, frustrating. In fact, several cut off when the subject is about to confess his most important theory about himself or women. Perhaps the point here isn't so much what these men believe; it's that they believe they are right. Many stones are left unturned, as there really is only one general theme in a variety of guises, that of objectification. Here, male insecurities and self-hatred lead to misogyny. Men ruminate on the female mystique. One man describes objectification related more to race than gender. The pieces range from humorous, inoffensive, and light, to powerful and truly sickening; some are both.

'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men' has received mainly negative reviews. In spite of its flaws, the movie is
funny, disturbing, and, ultimately, intense.