I dedicate this post to my dear friend, Jill, who is currently residing about three time zones away in California. In honor of your birthday, I wish I could serve you some chocolate mousse and watch two of your favorite movies -- Legally Blonde and Dune. I miss the fact that I don't know what your current favs are! But I like the juxtaposition of the romantic comedy and the Lynch sci-fi epic. I wonder what order we should watch them in.
Speaking of movies, since Oscar season is upon us and since there are TEN nominated best picture films and that most of them are currently available on DVD, I've been lining them up on my Netflix queue. So here goes a couple months of what I've been watching.
Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Couldn't get this from Netflix because it was so popular and I'm just a movie-watching chump that they wish they could throttle. So I rented it from redbox which was pretty easy. A very silly piece of film-making which surprises me that it received such acclaim because I saw nothing really that innovative or moving in this revisionist, fantastic WWII story. Perhaps because it was so surprising that Tarantino could create a film that did not explicitly rely on pop culture references -- unless you call war films and German film-makers part of that culture. Still, I will admit that Tarantino is a master of the scene. He can tease an event out with great tension and flair even though we might have seen them before. I mean, can the standoff in the bar really compare with what he did in Reservoir Dogs? I delight in his dialogue and revel in the post-modern approach of "this is and isn't how people talk" -- see more below when I talk about Mamet and the Coens. And the guy who got the juiciest lines, Christoph Waltz much deserves his supporting Oscar nomination because it's always so much fun when he's onscreen and not at all what I was expecting. I didn't even mind Brad Pitt playing around in the film because Waltz would pop up again. I won't spoil for those who have not seen the film and still want to, but I was disappointed that the two plotlines did not dovetail better except through casual and brutal violence.
A Serious Man -- directed by the Coen brothers. Brutally funny in a way that Tarantino can't even near because the heart of the humor and the agony is the existential crisis. Tarantino's characters are always confident in what they know about the world, but not so in Coen brothers films. These characters get swept up by larger than life events and struggle to stay in that life, much less understand it (I think that was my problem with Burn After Reading because these people were so transparent in their motives and their struggles seemed very petty and mean) . How can a movie so deadly hilarious be so painful at the same time? The ending just made me cry. I very much see it as a companion to No Country for Old Men, where you know where the characters are heading, and it's a very bleak world. No one is rewarded for being decent. I rather long for the sweetness of the dream at the end of Raising Arizona but the brothers seems to have moved past that.
The Hurt Locker -- directed by Kathryn Bigelow (both film and director are nominated for an Oscar). Haven't watched it yet but it's sitting on my coffee table at the moment. I'm looking forward to it.
Avatar -- directed by James Cameron (who is, ironically Bigelow's ex-husband). Blah, blah, blah, so much has been written on it so I'll boil it down to the basics. Visually amazing. It was the first time I was watching a CG film and thought it looked real. Imaginative design. It's, what, like three hours? and I wasn't squirming in my seat. Negatives: Sigourney Weaver very underused. Didn't understand her character at all. Heavy-handed, cliched ridden message. Yeah, we know that corporations are the evil lurking behind the military-industrial complex. And yet another tribute to the noble savage and white guy's guilt. And, I don't know about you, but maybe I've been institutionalized but I was a little disturbed at seeing Marines getting blown up. I just kept imagining some poor soldier, who had nothing to do with the policies that Cameron is critiquing, back from hell sitting through this -- and hearing the crowd cheer at the big explosions. My students did point out to me that the marines were supposed to be "ex" but I seemed to miss that.
District 9 -- directed by Neill Blomkamp. I highly recommend that you see this if you haven't already. Much more thoughtful than Cameron's romp, but still a satisfying action film. Very gory -- I didn't realize how so until someone had pointed it out to me and then I recalled that I had planned to eat dinner in the middle of watching it and thought "yeah, I'll just wait a bit." The politics are also more interesting given its setting in South Africa with nods both to apartheid and current events of Zimbabwean refugees in that country. You'd never know from my review that it's a science fiction tale about a giant space ship with a bunch of aliens stranded? The special effects also made everything realistic like Cameron's film. But where his is squeaky clean, District 9, is muddy, dirty, and violent. You don't always get the answers for how and why, but the villains in this film are exactly how I would think humans would act in this situation. And the hero is not a squeaky clean, All-American guy fallen on hard time. This protagonist is the bane of the universe -- an incompetent bureaucrat (for the horror of competent bureaucrat see any Nazi film or read any Kafka). Not a perfect film but takes more chances than many that I have seen. I wish had seen it in the theater.
Up -- directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. Aren't we in the middle of dire times? Recessions and job losses and wars and the like? What is it with these really sad films? Where are the silly musicals? That being said, within the first ten minutes of Up, I was already crying. The opening sequence was just too wonderful and, while it bordered on sentimentality, it was saved by the fact that it happened in the beginning. If it had been at the end, way too much weight would have been put on it. I don't think it was as good as Wall-E, a charming film with likable characters and enough laughs.
The Lovely Bones -- directed by Peter Jackson (although someone should have slapped him while he was making it). I read the original book a few years ago by Alice Sebold since it had been so popular. The book was fine, but the movie was something else. I saw it with Faye who could barely contain herself during the film. The story, in a nutshell, is the murder of a young girl whose ghost watches as her family copes with her death. In the book, she provided a running commentary and was an interesting exercise in character development. In the film, Jackson has turned it into a ghost story where we spend just as much time in her magical world and in how she tries to affect events in her family life. I thought some of the parts were interesting but - and I have to agree with Faye -- most became really absurd. Jackson could also have benefited from some tighter editing and someone with the guts to rein him in a bit (see above slapping comment). Stanley Tucci is nominated for playing the skeezy serial killer but I think the Academy really wanted to nominate him for his fine turn in Julie & Julia but you know how it goes, if it bleeds, it leads. How many actors playing serial killers have won Oscars -- hmm Charlize Theron and Anthony Hopkins. Anybody else I'm missing?
Okay, I'm going on way too long here but I'll just sum up some of the other things I've been watching in the months I've been not-blogging.
Redbelt -- directed by David Mamet. I just recently watched this 2008 film and I wanted to write a meditation on movie dialogue with Tarantino, the Coens, and Mamet being the holy trinity but I'll have to put that off for now. Again, I don't always enjoy Mamet but his dialogue is hypnotic.
and the obligatory anime series:
Darker than Black (seasons one and two) -- interesting premise and characters which had potential but fell victim to the Evangelion story arc where all stories have to end in a big mystical nothing (talk about your Bloom's Anxiety of Influence). In Japan and in Brazil, two mysterious gates pop up which causes all sorts of havoc. One, the sky is gone and replaced with a false sky with false stars. Two, certain people develop superpowers and cease to have human emotions. They are called "contractors" because after they use their power, they have to "pay a price" -- and this has been a rather amusing part of the show. It can be as simple as pulling out hairs or smoking a cigarette to being forced to spill secrets, kiss someone, arrange pebbles in a particular order, and breaking fingers. Conspiracies abound as various government and NG organizations vie for the power in these Gates, and they hire these contractors to go around and do various nefarious deeds. It's a short series in mostly two episode blocks but we follow a group of characters who work for the "Syndicate." Then it settles into an end-of-the-world arc which did have me watching, waiting for the big pay-off. Not all the questions are answered, and neither will you find them in Season 2 which was dreck for a variety of reasons.
All right, got that out of my system. Will try to post more often so as not to inundate you with my insane rambling chatter, dear friends.