Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mini-Movie Chat: Payback: Straight Up

Payback: Straight Up

So, there's an interview with Donald Westlake on the DVD. It isn't a very well-produced feature, in that if you don't already know who Donald Westlake is or what the Parker novels are you won't be able to figure out what he's talking about. For instance, no one explains that Parker's name has been changed to "Porter" in the movie, so when Westlake starts talking about naming his character "Parker", if you've only watched the movie, you might be lost.

Anyway, he goes on to talk about the two most recent Parker novels: Nobody Runs Forever and Ask the Parrot. He said that Ask the Parrot was a real chore for him to write, that he felt "snakebit" by it, and that the book was "slow". I couldn't tell if he just meant it was slow to write or if he thinks it was a slow read as well. However, as far as this Parker fan is concerned, those two books (which really tell one extended Parker story) are among the best in the series.

As for the movie itself:

Definitely closer to the original novel. The humor is darker and more muted: there's none of that Shane Black-style wacky macho posturing that made the theatrical version feel more like a typical Mel Gibson vehicle. The interesting thing is that though I liked the theatrical version for the most part, I felt that Gibson was miscast as Parker. But in the director's cut, with the goofiness trimmed away, Gibson seems to fit the character just about perfectly. We tend to think of a movie performance as something an actor does and while I don't want to take anything away from the work Gibson did, the two versions of Payback really emphasize how much a given performance in a film can be shaped by the director an editor.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mini-Movie Chat: Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan

So, the trailers for this movie promised a story of Old Testament damnation and salvation, perversity and passion, love and death, sex and murder. And I guess that's all there, but done with, surprisingly enough, timidity. Writer-director Craig Brewer sets up the outrageous premise as if he's channeling Melvin van Peebles and Clarence Carter, but the resolution is firmly in "movie-of-the-week", "everybody learns a little lesson" territory. It's not bad - it's nice, which in a movie like this is probably a worse thing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Inspirational Lyric

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

-"Mississippi" by Bob Dylan

What we talk about when we talk about sports...

My brother watched a documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers and had a question/comment that I thought was pretty interesting:

"Why are they talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers in the same way they'd talk about what happened on D-Day?"

Yeah - why do Americans get so solemn and pompous about sports?

Don't get me wrong: I like sports. I watch around 4-6 hours of sports and a few more hours of sports-related programming (news, etc.) each week on TV, I go to one or two sporting events every year, and I keep up with sporting news every day on the internet.

But, really, watching sports is just a leisure activity. Not that they aren't important (in some way) or that they shouldn't be taken seriously. But we shouldn't treat the story of the Brooklyn Dodgers' last season in New York as if it is as serious and important as, say, the story of the Prague Spring.

Following on things Camille Paglia and Paul Fussell have written, I get that in contemporary American society sports serve a kind of ritualistic function: they provide heroes and spectacle and a sense of community and common cause. Still, though, listening to someone like Bob Costas drone on about the dignity of some overpaid athlete, I can't help but think: "Get some perspective, man!"

I'll focus on what I think are two major "causes" of overly solemn sports talk: one that is sports-specific and one that is relevant to contemporary American culture in general.

First, forgive the armchair psychoanalysis, but I think there's a kind of institutionalized defensiveness in the world of sports journalism. I mean, sports journalists tend to be smart, literate guys who just know, deep down, that what they are covering is essentially frivolous. Not only that, but most - if not all - of them are pursuing a passion for sports that they've had since they were little boys. So, not only do they fear that what they are writing about is frivolous, they fear that caring about it so much is kind of childish. Because of these fears, they must never, ever talks about sports as if there was anything frivolous or childish about sports.

Second, across the board, we've lost perspective as a culture. I'm still not quite sure why exactly or when exactly it happened, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the mass media. The example I gave my brother is A&E's show Biography. Now, because Biography is a basic cable show, it has a standard format: this saves time and money and it lets them (fairly easily) churn out the content they need to fill all those hours of programming. But this standard format means that they end up presenting the life of Madonna the same way they present the life of President Eisenhower. Now, I'm not saying that shows like Biography are the cause or even a cause: rather, they're symptoms of a lack of perspective and they also help to reinforce this lack of perspective.

Maybe "perspective" isn't quite the right word. Perhaps it would be better to say that, culturally, we have trouble talking about certain things - sports, entertainment, etc. - with "right sized" language.

(Hey - I think this is related to something I wrote about in the comments section of this great Michael Blowhard post. I'll just quote myself:

There's also a hang-up about how high-arts & culture/academic folks in American talk about pop culture. The short version: the way we're supposed to talk about a piece of high art like, say, a Stan Brakhage movie, doesn't quite work if we're trying to talk about, say, Rio Bravo. Though some writers/critics make this work - see Michael Sicinski, for instance - for most people it just seems to get in the way.

I mean: in Cinema Studies grad school, we paid a lot of attention to American popular movies. But the profs and most of my fellow students did not approach them as popular movies. So, our prof presented Busby Berkeley's movies through the lens of Michel Foucault's theories and the class dealt almost exclusively with the question of to what extent Berkeley's work conveyed a fascistic ideology. There was no discussion of the musical theater/revue elements that Berkeley was drawing from or anything else involving the practical, nuts-and-bolts issues of these movies as entertainments. These issues were beneath discussion and I was shot down by the professor when I attempted to bring them in.

Likewise: Putting hot-rods on display in a museum, next to little placards explaining why they are important, seems to be missing the point. (I'm reminded that Manny Farber wrote that Scarface was one of the best movies ever but also said that it was definitely not art like you'd find in a museum).

This is why, as much as I love Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four comics, Robert Crumb's work in Weirdo, and E.C. Segar's Popeye comic strips - as much as I think these are among the greatest American arts & culture things - I'm not that enthusiastic about cartooning museums or "teaching" these comics in the college classroom, like you'd teach Faulkner. Not that they shouldn't be taken seriously, but part of what is great about them is that they don't come with "high art/culture" baggage - trying to load them down with it is kind of a drag. It's good to have conversations about arts & culture that doesn't assume a high art-centric p.o.v. or that bland "cultural studies" perspective that flattens everything out so that a toothpaste commercial is just as "interesting" as a Robert Altman movie. Personally, I liked that there was stuff out there that I could discover and engage with outside of any academic-high art-museum-"it's good for you"-"because you'll learn something about society" context.

This is definitely a subject that calls out for more discussion, though.)

Movie Chat: Deja Vu

Deja Vu

Note: There are some mild spoilers here. I don't give away the specifics, but if you don't know anything about this movie other than that it is a techno-thriller with Denzel Washington and if you are interested in watching it - don't read on. FWIW, I knew very little about this movie before watching it, which was probably a good thing. If you're on the fence about whether or not you wanted to see it, what I have to say below probably won't help any. I thought it was okay, but I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I mean, if your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife really wanted to watch it, you might as well humour them - it certainly wasn't painful to sit through. But no need to go out of your way.

My guess is that if David Cronenberg's name was on this movie (i.e., if it were the exact same movie otherwise), film critics might have gone into overdrive praising its dissection of the way digital technology has affected the way we deal with the past and the way we relate to each other. Luckily, Tony Scott's name is on it, so we can easily see it for what it is: a thriller that is just barely good enough for the kind of thing it is that you don't feel like you completely wasted two hours of your life watching it.

There are two main problems with the movie.

  1. This may be one of those bug/feature things, but it seems like the premise of the movie grew out new digital filmmaking technology that allows filmmaker's to do all sorts of crazy swooshes and zooms: where the "camera" is no longer something moving through and capturing images of "reality" and is, instead, a our p.o.v. into a digitally created world. On the one hand, it's nice to see an effects-heavy movie where the signature effects actually have some thematic weight*. On the other hand, the movies feels like it was built around this effect rather than the other way around. It stops dead in its track for the big scene where the filmmakers get to show it off. And, unfortunately, the way they show it off isn't really all that clever or engaging.

  2. The bigger problem is that while watching it I couldn't help thinking of similar, better movies. Ugh - I know, I know: the title makes it almost impossible for a film critic not to say something like this, but it's true! Deja Vu is dumber than Primer and doesn't have the emotional depth of Twelve Monkeys.

Maybe it's all relative, though: compared to many action-thrillers, this might come off like Vertigo. Denzel is pretty good, even he's not doing anything new (which I guess is kind of a bummer after how exciting he was to watch in Inside Man).
Hmmmm... I'm so "meh" about this movie it's kind of depressing. I mean, in lots of ways it's better than you're standard Michael Bay fare, but at least Bay's movies have their own personality. They're full of lousy filmmaking and empty spectacle, but they're also kind of quirky. I find myself rooting for something like The Island, just because it's such a misguided idea. And, though I was bored at first by Bad Boys II, I can do nothing else but stand up and applaud a movie that decides to, almost out-of-nowhere, at its hour-and-a-half mark, invade Cuba.

*As opposed to technology there for its own sake. Earlier this year, I wondered why Monster House had been done as an animated CGI film and came up with the unsatisfactory response: because the filmmakers could do it that way. Likewise the new Robert Zemeckis-directed Beowulf movie: Zemeckis seems to be in love with this motion capture technology to the extent that he wants to use it even on projects where it doesn't really seem to fit.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Summer Reading: Insomnia by Stephen King

I'm not sure that I'd self-identify as a Stephen King "fan", because I've only read around half of the books he's written and I've never really felt the kind of intense connection/devotion/desire-to-read-them-all that I do with books by authors who I am a fan of (Donald E. Westlake, Philip Roth, Ross MacDonald). But I am a Stephen King defender: I'm a big booster of three of his novels - The Shining, Pet Semetary, and The Dark Half - and I've (more-or-less) enjoyed most of the other ones that I've read (especially The Stand, Bag of Bones, It, Dreamcatcher, and From a Buick 8). While it's not an argument I'd want to get into with people who think like Harold Bloom, I do think that King is one of America's greatest, contemporary pop novelists.

But if Insomnia was the only one of his books I had ever read, I'd probably agree with his critics. It isn't a terrible book as far as these things go: it's an easy read if only intermittently compelling. It did have one moment that genuinely freaked me out. For the most part though it was disappointing. However, it's flaws are characteristic of the problems that even King's best books have.


King is really good when he's writing about creative guys who are more-or-less his own age from more-or-less his own background (see Jack Torrance in The Shining, Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half, Paul Sheldon in Misery). He's, um, less good at writing characters that are different from him - working man characters (Paul Edgecombe in The Green Mile), African-Americans (John Coffey in The Green Mile), or, in the case of Insonmia, senior citizens. Specifically, his problem seems to be that while he keeps a critical distance from characters that are "Stephen King-like" which allows him to bring real insight to bear on them, he tends to get sentimental and fuzzy about characters that are different from him.

If this was the only problem with the book, I might be willing to overlook it. For instance, his Hard Case Crime novel The Colorado Kid is unfortunately marred by his dopey and sentimental characterization of some way down east Maine old-timers. But The Colorado Kid is otherwise a very nice meditation on mystery novels and it is very short. Insomnia is long and, even apart from the sentimentality, most of it is just "bleh".

King is such a prolific writer - both in terms of the number of books he writes and the size of each book - that it's not surprising that he isn't always "on", but it's when you're halfway through something like Insomnia that you wish he didn't feel he needed to publish everything he writes. Especially, since lots of Insomnia read like a warm-up for the (much better, not to mention more consistently frightening) Dreamcatcher.

Still, even some of his best books have too many pages. Dreamcatcher would probably have been helped if it had been 100 to 200 pages shorter than it was.

But King's biggest weakness may be that his set-ups always tend to be a lot more interesting, exciting, and engaging than his endings - which often feel too similar to each other: the action wrapping up with some vague supernatural, super-powered, mumbo-jumbo-flavored battle.

Hey - slogging through the final scenes of Insomnia I was reminded that I had a very similar problem with Neil Gaiman's American Gods and then an epiphany: as you take the overtly scary stuff out of King's books they start to look an awful lot like a Neil Gaiman story. So much so that a book like Insomnia - which really doesn't have many scary moments at all - might as well be labeled "fantasy" instead of "horror". Anyway, both King and Gaiman have an annoying habit of reverting to a lot of hand-waving whenever they start to deal with magic/psychic/supernatural effects. I'm not suggesting that their books need a fully-worked out "magic system", but I think they would benefit from their authors writing about magic with a bit more specificity and a bit less of the philosophy that magic just happens to do whatever is most convenient for the story at that point.