Monthly archives of “May 2006

Breakfast on Pluto, Neil Jordan (2005)

Oh my, what a perfect charmer. This is Jordan doing what he does best: intimate, wincingly funny stories about little people on the margins who are filled with hope for no good reason. Anyone who’s ever worn green on St. Pat’s could have directed Michael Collins and anyone who’s ever passed a DMV eye exam could have directed Interview with a Vampire, but only Jordan could have made Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, and this. Cillian Murphy is brilliant as Kitten (nee Patricia, nee Patrick) Braden, an orphaned (da’s a priest, mother’s the washerwoman) Irish transvestite steel magnolia (steel shamrock?) who adores sequins and love songs, and fearlessly throws a cache of IRA rifles in a lake after his friend is killed by a car bomb. Yes, that’s “and,” not “but”; Kitten’s not strong in spite of her sensitivity, she’s strong because of it, and that’s what makes her character so compelling.

It would be interesting to watch this movie in a double bill with Almodovar’s All About My Mother. Both films feature heart-of-gold and tough-as-nails transvestites, an overarching plot structure dependent on a search for lost parent(s), love/hate relationships with the Church and its representatives, and totally giddy, far-out, campy-as-hell-and-then-some art direction. Hm. Gets you thinking. England:Ireland :: Franco:Spain?

As in The Crying Game, transvestitism is used here as a juicy metaphor for Anglo-Irish relations. Issues of crossing, passing, identity, and fear of the other tear up Kitten’s personal life while at the same time those same issues are tearing up public life of both England and Ireland. The film manages to be sweet and smart at the same time. A lot like Kitten herself.

Sidebar: Stephen Rea has a terrific cameo as Kitten’s magician lover. Where is this guy’s star turn? He’s so excellent, but aside from his roles in Jordan movies, he seems to get nothing but minor parts. Or am I forgetting something?

I realize just now that I watched this, coincidentally, the same week that Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, also starring Murphy, also dealing with Irish troubles, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Mission: Impossible III, J.J. Abrams (2006)

I really need to start bringing along earplugs when I go to see the summer blockbusters. I seriously watched much of this with my fingers in my ears, and since much of the dialogue is shouted over gunfire and the theater sound system was turned up to eleven, I could still hear perfectly well.

Anyway.

The standard action movie “crack team” concept is in place here, but poor Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, and Billy Crudup don’t get much to do, since Tom Cruise is a walking, talking, shooting, leaping, flying Swiss Army knife of a guy, who can handle with casual grace everything from a rocket launcher to his fiancee’s friends’ probing questions about his job. He speaks German, Chinese, Italian, and even a little English!

The plot is absurd; its only purpose is to provide an excuse for explosions. Cruise is irritatingly bossy and self-satisfied. The movie treats Michelle Monaghan, the fiancee, like a twelve-year-old girl treats a Barbie, with condescension and arbitrary violence. The great Phillip Seymour Hoffman is made so one-dimensionally evil by the puerile script that not even an actor of his talents is able to make a human being out of his character. Some details–using an automatic baseball pitching machine to create a diversion, a desperate running gun battle in search of a cell phone signal–are so flat out ridiculous they make me wince in embarrassment.

On the plus side, some of the set pieces–particularly a helicopter chase through a field of windmills ending with a karate chop writ very large, and an extraction from the Vatican involving a cassock, rubber mask, Lamborghini, and manhole (it’s not as kinky as it sounds)–are conceived with some wit and style. And the exteriors shot in China (Shanghai and Zhouzhuang) are interesting to look at. Watch for the amused faces of the extras in the crowd scenes who can’t keep in character as Cruise sprints past them on his way to save Monaghan.

But none of this is particularly surprising or insightful, is it. It was 126 degrees outside and my AC at home was on the blink, so it was nice to pass 126 minutes in the cold noisy dark. That is pretty much all.

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Crash, Paul Haggis (2004)

Turns out everyone in Los Angeles, with the single exception of a gentle Latino locksmith, is corrupt, racist, misogynist, desperate, enraged, terrified, and/or armed. And can’t drive for shit. Doesn’t this seem slightly overstated? Haggis doesn’t raise issues, he inflates and exploits them. As Wendy points out, it’s impossible to sympathize with anyone here, because everyone is introduced in extremis, so there’s no way of knowing who they actually are in normal life, and so there’s no way of knowing what they’ve lost. No one falls from grace, health, prosperity, or virtue here; everyone arrives on screen pre-fallen. This is how a movie so packed with moments of crisis (five minutes can’t go by without someone screaming at, running over, shooting or threatening to shoot someone else) manages to be boring.

As an aside, I think it would be a great idea if every Hollywood director, actor, writer, crew member, producer, etc. who wanted to work on a film where a character gets shot would first be required to him/herself get shot. Just once, in the leg or the arm or something, nothing life-threatening. Just so that forever after, when they work on a scene where a character gets shot, they can have that sense memory of what it actually feels like.

The Gift of Stones, Jim Crace (1988)

Small agreeable fable set in a village near the sea in the era when the stone age was giving way to the iron age. The villagers are flint knappers, hardworking and good at what they do, and so prosperous. The narrator has lost an arm and so can’t contribute. He becomes a storyteller and adventurer instead. Ruminations about the relationship of the imagination to the material world ensue.

04.30.06

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Munich, Steven Spielberg (2005)

Revolting, ridiculous cartoon about Mossad’s assassinations of the Black September Organization members who plotted the Munich Olympics debacle in 1972.

Everything I read about Munich yammered on about how it was all morally conscientious and shit. What that really means is this. First twenty minutes of the movie show us the Munich disaster and the decision by Golda Meir to assassinate the Palestinian planners. The next two hours are totally bankable straight-ahead Mission Impossible-style hunting down and murdering of Palestinians. I guess the morally conscientious part is that the assassins sit around and talk about how bad they feel when they get done killing someone. Eventually, too, they become unhinged by their guilt, but that, for a while at least, just makes them more focused, intense, scary killers.

We’re meant to feel doubly sorry for the Israeli agents: they’re constantly in danger of being killed by the Palestinians, but if they kill the Palestinian guys first, then they have to feel bad about it. Nasty double bind. You can tell when the Mossad guys are having a Moral Moment™ to consider this quandary, because they stare silently into space. Eric Bana’s particularly good at this. Spielberg was a genius to cast him here, since his role is basically identical to the one he played in Hulk: a moody self-hating revengeaholic.

Most revolting of all: we see no—none, zero—Palestinians who have complex inner lives. Jews get to feel conflicted. Arabs are one dimensional killers. I love how Spielberg says in his introduction on the DVD that he really didn’t mean to disparage Israel in any way. Um, yes, I caught that.

Second most revolting of all: guilt-crazed Eric Bana wearing his Hulk face, violently fucking his wife while flashing back to the Munich perpetrators getting their heads blown off. Holy shit—who can watch that? Am I supposed to be feeling sorry for this bizarre monster man? And then his wife looks up and says, “I love you.” Ugh!

Which is a nice segue to my ridiculousness accusation. I am confident that the Mossad agents assigned to these tasks did not sit around at cafés and debate the morality of their mission. I’m further confident that all the hacky devices Spielberg asks us to swallow—last minute escapes, melodramatic flashbacks, stock characters, amazing coincidences, comic relief, formulaic dialog—have absolutely no relationship to reality. I am aware that reality itself can sometimes seem cliché, but no way could it ever be as cliché as this. The characters aren’t people; they’re walking repositories of characteristics. You feel like it would be helpful if they’d all just wear name tags: “Hi, I’m Elderly Inscrutable Dignified French Crime Lord,” “Hi, I’m Comically Worried Portly Greek Innkeeper,” “Hi, I’m Sexy Dutch Assassin,” “Hi, I’m Slightly Incompetent But Ultimately Good-as-Gold Sidekick.”

In short, Munich does for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict what The Color Purple did for race relations in America: it makes of it a sentimentalized cartoon. Everyone loses when complex issues are reduced to mawkish soundbites.

How creepy that Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for this. I thought he was smart.

Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabokov (1938/1959)

That’s a picture of the first page of the Nabokov’s draft of this novel.

“I composed the Russian original . . . in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.” Thus Nabokov instructs us in his foreword to the first English translation of his Russian novel Priglash na kazn’. We are not to read the story of Cincinnatus C., imprisoned and sentenced to die for the ill-defined crime of “gnostical turpitude,” as any kind of political allegory. The thing about prohibitions, though, is that they’re so much fun to violate. And in fact it’s not hard at all to read Invitation to a Beheading as political allegory, though not of the individual-at-mercy-of-unfeeling-and-incomprehensible-monolithic-power variety, but rather the the-state-decides-what’s-real type. Cincinnatus’s crime is that he’s interested in the actual that lurks beneath the apparent. (Thus his crime’s name. “Gnostic” is that which pertains to knowledge, and Cincinnatus wants to know.) His misfortune is that he’s found himself in a novel by Nabokov, who enjoys nothing more than the idea that what we take to be the actual is in fact imaginary. Nabokov, of course, means to—such trepidation, beginning a sentence in that manner, since Nabokov would almost certainly insist that he doesn’t mean anything at all—suggest, as Wallace Stevens did, that this is good news, since the imaginary is a lot more fun than the real anyway. But we mustn’t forget that totalitarians, too, often find it useful to offer up the imaginary and call it real. While Cincinnatus awaits execution, a whole cast of characters parade through his cell—wife, mother, sympathetic jailer, cunning fellow prisoner, respectful warden, and even a Lolita-like nymphet—but it becomes increasingly clear that all of these are simply actors playing roles, ala The Truman Show. The only real things are Cincinnatus’s desires to know the hour of his death, and to record for posterity, in writing, his thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The fun conundrum for Nabokov (here and everywhere) is that artifice and imagination are the only available entry points into the real and/or are themselves all the real there is. But this can be construed as a political problem as well as an aesthetic or philosophical one. By convincing Cincinnatus that the imaginary world constructed to delude him is the real world, his jailers cut him off from the actual, and, worse, lead him into a space where he can no longer tell the difference between the real and the imaginary. This, I’d argue, is pretty much exactly what any totalized political structure does for—or rather to—its citizens. And, frankly, while I enjoy Lolita as much as the next aesthete, and adored teaching Pale Fire in my Reiteration class, Nabokov’s jewelly prose is harder to take when the context evokes political prisoners instead of suburban Lotharios or kooky professors.

Damn. Nearly got through an entire paragraph about Nabokov without using some effing fancy adjective, only to blow it in the very last sentence.

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Vanity Fair, Mira Nair (2004)

Given the fact that Thackeray’s novel is nearly 1000 pages long, it’s not surprising that you feel Nair rushing through the narrative in her film. Episodes in the life of Becky Sharp which took 100 pages in the book are here conveyed in ten minutes or so. Remarkably, the film is never incoherent; if you can keep track of the large cast of characters, the plot will present no confusions. Nair, annoyingly, makes Victorian England look absurdly luscious: every animal, vegetable, and mineral is carefully color-coordinated. Worse, she orientalizes the hell out of India at every opportunity. It’s not nice to say so, but it does occur that Nair’s a bit of a Becky Sharp herself in this outing, readily adapting her conscience to whatever the Marquess de Hollywood asks of her in order to solidify her station. I learned from IMDB that the “Indian” singers in the film are actually singing Arabic. That about sums it up. Give me Salaam Bombay any day.

Vanity Fair at IMDb

05.24.06

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

A perfectly acceptable airplane book. It’s eerie how easily the author can take up a subject (hermaphroditism) so rich with possibilities for metaphorical development (gender, identity, consciousness, family, exile, sexuality) and then avoid them almost completely in favor of telling a fairly straightforward coming-of-age/family saga. Sort of seems like using a combine to mow your lawn. But OK, nice read, sweet & tender, etc.

07.01.04

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Le Petit Soldat, Jean-Luc Godard (1963)

Less exciting and delightful than Les Carabiniers, due in part to the fact that this film is so much more convoluted. Convoluted very much on purpose, of course, since this is Godard’s version of a political thriller, and he wants us to feel as exhausted as he is by the machinations of the powerful. Political intrigue, here, is not particularly intriguing; it consists mainly of driving around in heavy traffic, trying to find an address. The scene where the “hero” is tortured must have resonated strongly in France in 1963, during the Algerian war, as it should today in the USA of Camp X-Ray and Abu Ghraib. A fine example, in both form and content, of the banality of evil.

Le Petit Soldat at IMDb

08.27.02

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Les Carabiniers, Jean-Luc Godard (1963)

Fantastic end to my Godard mini-festival. Two peasants are duped into fighting for “The King,” and go happily, since they are promised Maseratis, locomotives, rhinoceroses, etc. Of course, in the end, they’re double-crossed and shot by the very comrades that drafted them. Godard keeps up Brecht-like constant alienation from any kind of narrative pleasure or coherence, but the anti-war feeling is clear and strong here, much more so than in Le Petit Soldat. By far the best moment is when the soldiers come home with their “spoils”: a suitcase full of postcards showing the treasures of the world. Or maybe the best moment is the scene where one of the ignorant peasant/soldiers goes to the movies and tries to climb into the bathtub with the woman on the screen. This is Godard’s war movie like Alphaville is his sci-fi movie. I adored this; it’s near the top of my list of JLG favorites.

Les Carabiniers at IMDb

08.25.02