Friday, October 24, 2008

a very small grand tale

Against a pastiche of manicured lawns and devotional religious artwork, beautiful people with incredibly refined accents smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and steal illicit kisses in shadowy alcoves. Julian Jarrold's Brideshead Revisited is the ambitious and flawed story of three young people coming to terms with reality surrounded by mid-century interwar decadence.

As a first-year at Oxford, middle-class Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is drawn to the lifestyle and companionship of the foppish Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), who takes a shine to him in turn. Sebastian is a fairly straightforward character, tortured by alcoholism, deeply conscious of his inadequacy in his mother's eyes, and fond of his stuffed bear Aloysius. When Charles visits Sebastian's home, the vast estate of Brideshead, he is intoxicated as much by the luxury and beauty as by the copious amounts of wine he and Sebastian guzzle. It's Pemberley Syndrome. Charles loves Sebastian, but they both know he will never return the romantic attraction Sebastian displays toward him. That doesn't make it sting any less when Sebastian catches his sister, the Louise Brooks-styled ingenue Julia (Hayley Atwell) kissing Charles.

Meanwhile (for there's always a "meanwhile"), the family matriarch Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) has ingrained herself in every aspect of her children's lives, as well as Charles'. Herein lies the story's major conflict. While Brideshead Revisited spans continents and years, and touches upon the subjects of class relations, terminal illness, war, infidelity, and filial piety, it is really nothing more than an illustration of Catholic guilt. According to Evelyn Waugh, the author of the novel on which the film is based, it is about "what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself."† While both the novel and the film are told from Charles' perspective (though I've yet to read the novel, myself), the film takes a particularly unilateral view of events, and so favors Charles' staunch atheism over the Catholic persuasion of the family with which he has become entwined.

The film seemed as if it were perpetually on the edge of being a grand, sweeping epic, but there was really never any tension or drama beyond personal decisions or discussions of what it means to be a Catholic (pre- Vatican II, of course). I suppose this is fitting, given that the individual's relationship with faith can be considered the weightiest of all, but it gave the film a strangely unbalanced feeling. The impact of the characters' choices on others was deemphasized, the significance instead being placed on their adherence to the rules of Catholicism (personified by Lady Marchmain).

Waugh wrote the novel in 1945, so the setting of the film as a period piece is true to the source material. I would also imagine that the impact of the wars on the characters is more explicit in his version than in Jarrold's. But, I could easily have imagined the same story playing out in the early '80s in an urban setting, or a small film set in modern day. Of course, the structure of the bicurious love triangle is nothing new lately, so maybe that's why I'm getting that feeling. Or, it could have been the occasional use of shaky handheld camerawork, which is a trope of more modern cinema, and was literally jarring in the glossy and dated setting.

It was a decent watch, but unless you're a devotee of Emma Thompson (understandable), or enamored of Matthew Goode (very understandable), I'd reccomend renting Atonement instead. Better yet, I'd reccomend reading Ian McEwan's novel, Atonement, which should be required for anyone with an interest in the written word. I'll say it again: what McEwan is able to do with language, about language, is inspirational.

† Quotation taken from Wikipedia, so take that for what it's worth.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

< the sum of its parts

Last night I saw the Coen bros.' latest outing, Burn After Reading, which was a decent way to spend a couple of hours, but did not feel like a worthwhile way to spend $15 (even after a student discount!). Before I get into the movie itself, I have to digress briefly in re: the movie going experience.

I enjoy going to the movie theater solo. I don't know why some people view it as some sort of antisocial defeat, as seeing a movie is usually not a team exercise, except for those enhanced by audience reactions (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Snakes on a Plane, or even comedies like Zoolander). The majority of movies that I see are able to be judged based on individual reactions, and are meant to stand alone without the help of callbacks and props. The theater I went to was very nice and clean, with big plush seats, little tables for drinks and snacks, and plenty of legroom. I often take for granted the fact that going to movie theaters in L.A. is a unique experience, except that my usual theater in Burbank has signs everywhere reading, "Where the People Who Make the Movies, See the Movies." The projections are clear, the screens are up-to-date, it's lovely. Also, in the U.S. we can sit wherever we want. Here in Australia (and in England and Thailand, I know for sure), the seats are assigned, which is so obnoxious to me. Honestly, it just seems like such a waste of effort. Anyway, I ended up sitting next to a woman who chewed with her mouth open, whose food smelled like a diaper bag, who leaned over to me 10 minutes in and said "Boy this movie's boring!" and then laughed continuously until the credits rolled, even when everyone else was silent. If I could have picked my own seat, I would have been able to avoid this! [/rant]

Onto the film itself. I had heard that the movie would be Seinfeldian, with a lot of slow plot movement punctuated by sudden bursts of energy, and I'm glad I knew to expect that since the trailers and ads made it seem far more rollicking than it was. I guess this was an experience in which I appreciated many small aspects of the movie, but I could not really discern the point of the movie at all. One thing in particular confused me — the music cues built up huge amounts of tension and then diffused for no reason, which led me to believe that the movie is a satirical send-up of the spy genre. J.K. Simmons' small role in particular confirmed this suspicion for me, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Coens' said that there was some other purpose to the movie.

The performances were somewhat cartoonish, but fit the tone of the film, and the cast roster would be impressive in everything. I loves me some crazy Tilda Swinton (who doesn't?) and John Malkovich (looking creepier and creepier as he ages) cursing a blue streak, as well as Frances McDormand, who I would watch opening a jar of pickles for entertainment. George Clooney was, for the first time in my opinion, good-looking and vibrant in his role. What can I say, he's got monkeyface (the beard helps though) and I always think of him as the handyman from The Facts of Life.

And Brad Pitt. I have had a hard time figuring out how I feel about him for a long time as he is the epitome of overrated in the looks department (king of monkeyface, f'real), and a lot of the time I feel like he's trying too hard to be taken seriously. But he is an excellent comedic actor, and I've always loved him in roles like this one. He really did a lot with small facial movements and vocal tics and was the standout actor to me, which is saying a whole lot given his castmates.

The violence was humorous, and somehow those scenes had more levity than the ones where a couple of characters were simply talking. The direction and camerawork was incredibly impressive, as everything seemed very static but was punctuated from time to time with quick pans in tight spaces or sudden cuts to dutch angles (signalling that something is amiss!). Since some of the scenes were pretty boring, I found myself marvelling at the great costuming and set design. For example, when Katie is meeting with her lawyer, her blouse is the same print as his pocket square! Probably the best gag throughout the movie (except for the obvious one of Clooney's character's sex life which felt silly and coke-fueled) is that the MacGuffin is actually pointless – very postmodern, "foregrounding the apparatus."

It's not really worth watching, but there's not too much else in theaters right now that I'm interested in, and I love going to the movies. For certain, it reminded me how much I love Richard Jenkins (Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. from Six Feet Under), and that I should see The Visitor as soon as it's on DVD. Most people ardently love or hate the Coens but I am somewhere in the middle. I think that Raising Arizona and Fargo are modern classics, and I quite enjoyed O Brother, Where Art Thou? but The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and this film were just...alright to me. I didn't love or hate them. I still think you have to be stoned to enjoy The Big Lebowski so maybe that's why I didn't get it or care for it much, but who knows. I do want to see The Hudsucker Proxy before long, so we'll see which category that one falls into.

I know this was a really ambivalent review. Sorry.

the passion of the adolescent

I finally finished Christopher Moore's novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Sometimes when I'm reading a novel (and it kills me that I'm not the girl I used to be - always with a new one in tow) I take it with me everywhere I go and read it whenever my eyes are not needed for some other crucial task. I've nearly been hit by cars more than a couple of times because I was crossing the street with a book in front of my face. Lamb was one where I picked it up and put it down far too infrequently. I think it's a great book for teenagers, and I would have loved it more a few years ago, but I still thought it was a smart and enjoyable novel bringing a fun perspective to a worn-with-overuse story.

Obviously, I don't mean to be so critical of the story of Jesus' life as I think it's a wonderful collection of parables which should serve as a good influence on everyone's life. I think what Moore realizes is that the jumbled accounts of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have been sanitized after years of being pounded into us from all sides since childhood. With Lamb, he endeavors to provide a personality and a relatability to the young Son of Man, so that the climactic Good Friday is that much more affective. Lamb concludes before the Resurrection because it is about the young man Joshua, not the heavenly Jesus that we can learn about in the aforementioned Gospels.

Which brings up the novel's interesting format. The narrator is Levi who is called Biff, Joshua's best friend since infancy, who accompanies him (Him?) throughout the missing decade and a half of adolescence, travel, and study. Their buddy comedy plotlines are interrupted by brief glimpses of Biff in a modern-day hotel room, having been brought to life by the angel Raziel who has commanded him to write down his Gospel. Biff and Joshua travel throughout the East learning about philosophies which tie in very well to the teachings of Jesus that we know of today. Because the purity and capabilities of the young Savior make him a somewhat boring literary character, he is well balanced by the lusty loser Levi who is called Biff, and who is allowed to make all the mistakes that Joshua isn't.

The P&T in the story comes, as it always has, from Mary Magdalene, or Maggie, who is the object of both Biff's and Joshua's affections from childhood. Their love triangle is innocent, as Joshua does not intend to know women (if you know what I mean), and Biff and Maggie find comfort in each other from loving and losing their best friend. I found myself frustrated on behalf of Biff that Maggie would never love him exclusively, but I guess her character is an archetype for the ideal Christian, who will always love Jesus more than any person.

Lamb is a good read for anyone with an interest in Christianity as it pertains to culture and/or fiction, and is best for people who have a basic knowledge of the Bible. Some scenes were funny because I remembered the Biblical allusion, and others inspired me to revisit the source text and remind myself what the original story was. Though it wasn't an enthralling page-turner from the start, towards the end I remembered where the story was headed and felt a sadness for the supporting characters in Joshua's life, knowing that despite the Resurrection or their place with Him in eternity, they were losing their friend to a violent and painful death. The epilogue is a nicely crafted bow on the story, and left me satisfied.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"No it wasn't. It was my blood."

Today I saw a chilling film I have been anticipating, Alan Ball's Towelhead, the story of a teenage girl's sexual victimization through the paradigm of a Middle Eastern living in the suburban landscape of Texas during the Gulf War. The film is adapted from Alicia Erian's novel of the same name. Thirteen year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) moves in with her Lebanese-American father (Peter Macdissi) after an incident with her mother's boyfriend. In her new life in Texas, Jasira's days are plagued with her father's indifference and constant judgment, racist epithets from her classmates, and inappropriate attention from her redneck neighbor Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). In her confused search for affection and normalcy, Jasira befriends a concerned neighbor, the pregnant Melina (Toni Collette), and gets involved with an African-American classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones III).

I grimaced and squirmed uncomfortably throughout the film, feeling the whole time as if anything bad that could happen, would, and worrying that there may be no redemption at the end. On a scale of how much dread I felt in the pit of my stomach, I would place Towelhead higher than Babel, but lower than Dancer in the Dark. For all the horrible things that happened to our female protagonist, I might have thought I was in fact watching a Lars von Trier film, but this film carried Ball's wry perspective on suburbia's seamy underbelly, and was reminiscent of Todd Solondz's Storytelling. More on that later.

The film gives us a look into the psyche of the neglected and sexualized Jasira, as well as the mind of her rapist Mr. Vuoso. In this, and its outsider's satire of middle America, the film aspires to Nabokov's Lolita, and of course Kubrick's iconic adaptation. While more menacing and less comedic than Lolita, Towelhead portrays Jasira as a nymphet exactly as Nabokov describes them. It makes the uncomfortable suggestion that the young girl a) possesses a powerful sexuality, b) knows how to use it, and c) is totally compliant with the urges of her "lover." When Nabokov's Humbert Humbert describes the nymphet, it reads like an insatiable man's description of the perfect meal. When Mr. Vuoso looks at Jasira, and when she looks at him, the same feeling is conveyed.

Bishil's performace is convincing, and would be heartbreaking enough if Jasira were only dealing with humiliation at school, the onset of her first period, and parents that just don't understand, but with the constant onslaught of abuse on a racial and sexual basis, it's that much more affective. Some things which she goes through aren't uncommon experiences for girls her age, though perhaps not frequently portrayed in the media. She discovers masturbation on accident while perusing pornographic magazines found by chance, and she endeavors to understand the new sexual feelings. She wants to wear makeup and shave her legs, but everyone else seems more aware of her particularly advanced body than she does, including her parents. These things could be aspects of a typical coming of age story, but in Jasira's life they are perverted by the ways that grownups treat her.

Jasira's parents, white American Gail (Maria Bello) and Lebanese-American Rifat, have been divorced for seven years, but are equally selfish and controlling. As happens so often in abusive situations, Gail blames her daughter when she is touched inappropriately by Gail's boyfriend, and later seeks closeness with Jasira simply to cure her loneliness. Rifat would rather spend time with his girlfriend Theno than offer Jasira a kind word, and hits her whenever she's done something he deems immoral. Both parents blame Jasira for everything bad that happens, and expect only blind obedience to their dicta, with no exceptions.

Throughout the film, the neighbor Melina is Jasira's only ally, but all she can do is offer support and the promise of a safe haven to Jasira until she is sure that there is an actual threat. As the only character with her head screwed on straight, I was convinced that something horrible was going to happen to her at any moment. Once again Toni Collette shines, as she is always able to bring depth to a simple character (see her role as Kitty in The Hours). Of course, Jasira often views Melina as intrusive, as she doesn't know if anyone should interfere with her relationship with Mr. Vuoso.

Jasira's relationship with Thomas is the most complicated one she has. Jasira is multiracial and her father dates a Greek woman throughout the film, but he forbids her from seeing a black boy. Thomas seems as though he must be older than Jasira, though it is unclear if what he knows about sex is anecdotal or a posteriori. He clearly cares for her, but at the same time his lust is his primary motivation, and he is unsettlingly possessive of her. At the end of the film, after the secret has come out about Mr. Vuoso's actions, Thomas acts as though he's been gypped of Jasira's virginal attachment to him. Jasira clearly enjoys sex with Thomas, and doesn't want to be denied a continued sexual relationship with him just because he's made uncomfortable by her experiences with Mr. Vuoso. It's a confusing situation because we know Jasira shouldn't be having sex at 13, but we don't want Thomas to control Jasira's sex life.

There is nothing wrong with a teenager coming to terms with her new feelings about her own body, and modern feminists champion an adult woman's confident control over her own sex life. However, seeing Jasira aspire to become a nude model after she's been prematurely sexualized against her will is difficult to watch. Particularly when Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Mr. Vuoso is so animalistic and ravenous. There is a scene when Jasira is staying with Melina and her husband Gil that strikes quickly and is incredibly unsettling. There is a sequence of quick cuts between Gil's line of sight, Jasira's thigh as her skirt rides up, and an ambiguous look on his face. I must have groaned from discomfort at the skillful editing, until it is revealed that Gil's gaze is not sexual at all.

This particular feeling of discomfort is what reminded me of Storytelling. In the "Non-Fiction" segment of the film there is a pervasive theme of racism and classism portrayed between a young boy and his Hispanic housekeeper that was painful for me to watch. It struck me as particularly memorable because I was concurrently aware of how the relationship made me feel, as well as the fact that the filmmaker wanted to elicit strong vehement reactions. It was as though, as a student of film, I felt I should disregard my emotional reaction because I know that the film is actively trying to draw it out, but I was unable to. Compared to, say, the extreme reveal in Oldboy, which didn't bother me as much as the film wanted it to, because the film was less realistic. Apply this to the pedophilia in Towelhead, and this is what I struggled with during my viewing.

In the end, things are left mostly ambiguous. Jasira and her father seem to have reconciled, though there is no dialogue or action dedicated to an actual redemption on Rifat's part. Gail's reaction to the news about Jasira is left out, as well as a conclusion to the question of which parent Jasira would end up living with. Assumedly nothing is different in Jasira's school life, and she will continue a sexual relationship with the lascivious Thomas. Melina is apparently unscathed after a potentially critical accident, and has her baby. And all the while, Mr. Vuoso is out on bail and living at home with his family on the same cul de sac as Jasira. The tone seems uplifting when the credits roll, but I can't help but feel there is more pain in pipeline for Jasira.

I felt this film deserved a deeper exploration than I usually provide, because it brought up so many complicated responses and was very thought-provoking. It was certainly very well-made, though in the end not as important as some of its inspirations which have come before. It brought a new twist to the tropes in Lolita, American Beauty, and some aspects of Six Feet Under, but broke no new ground. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth a watch, thanks to the wonderful performances and the fact that it will certainly spark a discussion.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

there must be a reason...

...why Liam Neeson spent time and energy to be in Taken, the very silly action-drama I saw at Govinda's Indian restaurant & movie house last week. I'm guessing he had some serious gambling debts to pay off. In my last post, I discussed Neeson's Schindler's List costar Ralph Fiennes, who is as excellent an actor today as he was fifteen years ago. Neeson is too, of course, but I guess Taken is his Maid in Manhattan - enjoyable on some very broad levels, but altogether impossible to discern a raison d'être for. So, for those keeping score at home, Liam Neeson : Taken :: Ralph Fiennes : Maid in Manhattan. I love using SAT question format when inappropriate.

At dinner before going into the theater, someone who had heard of the movie (because I certainly hadn't) said "This is the kind of movie that Steven Segal should star in." As a film studies major (code: snob), I figured this guy had no idea what he was talking about, because only in an alternate universe would a role made for Steven Segal go to Liam Neeson. Well, hop on board the S.S. Heart of Gold with me, because this seems to have happened.†

Taken is the story of an ex- C.I.A. agent Bryan who has chosen to retire so that he can finally spend time with his 17 year old daughter Kim (the gorgeous Maggie Grace), who lives with her MILF Lenore (Famke Janssen) and wealthy stepfather. Then, Lenore finally breaks through the mental shield placed on her by Professor Charles Xavier when she was a child, and the newfound power to control matter overcomes her, transforming her from a beautiful and talented woman to a destructive being controlled by her mutation. Oh wait, I'm thinking of the wrong movie.

Basically, Kim and her friend Amanda go to Europe for the summer, telling Bryan that they will be in Paris going to museums and learning French. He lets her go on the condition that she call and check in frequently. Of course their real, devious, reason for the trip is to follow teen sensation U2 on their European tour. PLEASE. What two teenage girls are inspi(red) to buck their parents' authority and follow a rock band around that isn't even popular with their generation? They should be groupies for Fall Out Boy, or whoever the kids listen to nowadays.

OF COURSE, the moment they get to Paris they break every rule of common sense and tell the attractive stranger man exactly where they live, showing them how hot, rich, unaccompanied, and stupid they are. I mean, I know that people do this all the time, and I have cops for parents, but please. You'd have to be incredibly stupid to make all the mistakes that Kim and Amanda do within 30 seconds of leaving the CDG airport. Within minutes, they're kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers, but a chance phone call from Kim to Bryan clues him in on the situation, and he's off to Paris to find her.

At this point it just gets silly. Having only heard one of the Albanians say "good luck" over the phone, Bryan and his C.I.A. contacts discover exactly who it was. The violence is slapstick, the portrayal of the sex trade smacks of Eyes Wide Shut, and the bizarre and unnecessary portrayal of a Christina Aguilera -type starlet reminded me of cinematic gem Music & Lyrics. Bryan's french connection (heh) is clearly going to betray him from the moment he's onscreen, and some of the writing is just laughable. To top it all off, Neeson's American accent is really unconvincing, which was just a letdown. It was kind of funny to watch because of how over-the-top it is (complete with cars flipping and then fireballs coming out of nowhere à la Fear Factor), but kind of disappointing because illegal sex trafficking is a real thing that a fantastic Liam Neeson movie could have been made about, inspiring people to take action against it.

No need to see this career misstep. It might make for a good drinking game, but even then there are better options.


†I realize that this has been a hastily written post, and nerdier than usual. Douglas Adams and X-Men references? I am awesome. Get used to it.

colin farrell looks way better in...

...glasses. A couple of weeks ago I finally saw Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, and I can't believe I haven't reviewed it yet! It's been on DVD for a few months now in the US, but it's still on its last legs in theaters here in Australia, and I am so glad I finally saw it. And Farrell wears glasses in one scene and looks very dashing.

(SPOILER ALERT!!!)

I knew going in that this movie was "sad," so around every corner I was wondering if/when/how one or both of the protagonists would die. I suppose I'm glad I knew what kind of mood to be in to watch the movie, but thankfully the film was engaging enough early on that I didn't miss any of the lead-up to the climactic set piece.

This is the first of Colin Farrell's performances that I've ever liked, and I was impressed with his vulnerability throughout. His character, Ray, had been through such a traumatic experience before the actions of the film that his pain shows through the cracks in every scene. Whether he's being a bored tourist or trying to impress local ingenue Chloë (previously Harry Potter's Fleur Delacour, Clémence Poésy is stunning whenever she's onscreen), Farrell makes it seem as if it would not be a surprise for Ray to break down at any moment.

Brendan Gleeson, as Ken, is a stalwart straight man to Ray's unpredictability. He's lived through enough trauma and bleak situations to harden any man, but he is still level-headed and has the ability to look at the world through optimistic eyes. His pleasure at experiencing Bruges as a tourist was very enjoyable, reminding me in some ways of the "14e arrondissement" sequence from Paris Je T'aime, starring Margo Martindale as lonely tourist Carol.

Jordan Prentice was excellent as Jimmy, the sex- and drug-fueled actor finding himself bored and disappointed by everything he does. Many of the humorous moments of the film had to do with Jimmy, but in such a way as to lampoon the trope of little-people-as-comedy-fodder. I thought that much of the film's comedy came from an exploration of the perceptions of different nationalities in a European context. Irish, English, American, Canadian, and Belgian characters are present and something is made of each of their nationalities. This is a subject I've always been interested in (and has always affected me), and it was portrayed very compellingly.

Then, in the last act, Ralph Fiennes' Harry finally comes onscreen. One of the many ways in which writer-director Martin McDonagh's theatre background comes through is the leak of exposure to Harry throughout the film until he joins Ray and Ken for the denouement. What more can I say about Ralph Fiennes that we don't all already know. He's incredible. His portrayal of a London crime boss is so much more entertaining than anything Guy Ritchie's ever created. And the cherry on top is that his wife is played by Elizabeth Berrington, Tim's pregnant desk-mate in the Christmas special of The Office (UK)!

I highly recommend this movie. I love it when a small film sticks in my craw for a while after I've seen it. It had just the right amount of action and violence, a very sharp sense of humor, and more than enough pathos to go around. The parallel between the two scenes of a "little boy" getting shot was chilling, and as the build-up to the second scene slowly burned down the fuse, I was tingling with anticipation. This one's definitely joining my collection, I can see picking up more and more upon repeat viewings.