Thursday, December 31, 2009

So very meta--

One last surprise for the old year. Charlie Kaufman is a writer of TV shows and movies. I didn’t like Being John Malkovich, I didn’t like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I hated Adaptation. The ideas behind all those movies are interesting but the films themselves are obnoxious and off-putting and full of decent actors doing bad work (and the dreadful Jim Carrey being dreadful). There were two reasons why I even made a stab at watching Synecdoche, New York; 1) Kaufman hadn’t directed any of the above films—this is his directing debut, so I figured he couldn't do any worse than Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry; 2) ever since my graduate school days, I've had a love/hate thing for works of postmodernism and metafiction. So I gave this a shot and to my almost horrified surprise, I liked it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a schlubby struggling theater director (has Hoffman ever played a non-schlubby character?) who, after having a moderate success with a version of Death of a Salesman, decides to go whole hog on a huge theater project: staging his own ongoing life story, in a huge warehouse set the size of several city blocks, with actors playing the parts of himself, his loved ones, and friends. The unfinished project goes on for years, and eventually Hoffman casts actors to play the actors who are playing real people. His wife leaves him, his daughter grows up, his romantic life suffers, and he becomes paranoid about his health. Still, the show must go on.

The key for me to enjoying this movie was letting go of any ideas of reality or coherence right from the get go. The first scene depicts what seems to be an average day in Hoffman's life while working on "Salesman," but if you pay attention to background details, you see that months are flying by (from September to Halloween to Christmas and beyond) rather than minutes. Not only is time weird here but so are everyday events: his young daughter poops neon-green; years later, after his artist wife and daughter leave for Europe, the daughter's diary, hidden under her pillow, updates itself magically with entries on her experiences; the wife has a successful career creating paintings so small that they can only be seen through a magnifying glass; a young woman whom Hoffman begins dating lives in a house that is perpetually on fire. Rather than being a chore to keep track of, the later doubling and tripling of characters/actors becomes great fun.

Perhaps most surprisingly, amongst all these postmodern & metafictional shenanigans, I actually found a rather sad and almost profound core of feeling at the center of the film, though I can't really articulate what "message," if any, I took away from it all. I think it's probably allied to Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on; I'll go on" philosophy expressed in several of his works. You can feel the weight of Hoffman's problems, real, imagined, or exaggerated, pressing down on him and yet he continues to work (for 17 years!) on his "play." Hoffman is fantastic (not unusual), and the rest of the cast, including Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Dianne Weist, and Tom Noonan, are fine, though no one else is given enough "meat" as a character to challenge Hoffman. I suppose to truly unravel the plot mysteries, you would need to watch this several times, but I'm not sure I want to go back and break the spell of the first viewing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Catch-Up, part 2

A few more notable movies I saw during the past year that I haven't already written up here:

Playing By Heart (1998)--Though over ten years old, this film still feels like an archetypal current-day indie movie: several narrative threads whose connections aren't clear until near the end; quirky characters; a mix of big-name actors, soon-to-be-famous actors, and actors who didn't go anywhere; and conflicting tones of comedy and melodrama. It also has a "newbie" element, in that the project feels very personal for the first-time director/writer (Willard Carroll, though technically this was his second film). The film follows the paths of several couples, some romantic, some not. Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands are an older couple dealing with his cancer diagnosis and with some unresolved past issues; fragile Gillian Anderson dates flippant Jon Stewart; Ellen Burstyn reconciles with her gay son (Jay Mohr) who is dying of AIDS; at the center is the strange on-again/off-again relationship between party girl Angelina Jolie and an attractive but chilly boy toy (Ryan Phillippe). Dennis Quaid also appears as a guy who pops into bars, chatting up strangers of both sexes with clearly made-up tales of his life. Though we don't see the connections until near the end, virtually everyone winds up together in a climactic wedding scene which, despite seeming inevitable, does come off as fairly clever. The performances are all over the map, with Jolie and Anderson faring the best. The comedy is never very effective (the cast members in the above publicity still look far happier there than they ever do in the movie) and the melodrama is often trite, but there is still something winning about this small-scale production.

Caché (2005; aka Hidden)--A comfortably upper-middle class French couple (Daneil Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are terrorized by a stranger who constantly videotapes their comings and goings and leaves the tapes on their front porch--the above picture of the couple's neighborhood becomes very familiar to the viewer. The husband soon connects the threatening surveillance to a shameful secret from his boyhood involving an Algerian man who, as a boy, had been briefly adopted by his family. This is a fairly effective thinking person's thriller, using Hitchcockian tension to tell a story of suppressed guilt and politics. There's not a lot of action or violence (except for two short scenes which are quite shocking) and the long takes become a bit wearing, but overall this kept my interest, and its ambiguous ending works well.

Brick (2006)--A film noir homage set at a high school, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a drab loner who plays private eye when his ex-girlfriend vanishes and is later found dead. He goes through his paces as a downer Bogart and most of the noir cliches are present, including hard-boiled slang, violence, and a femme fatale, but it just doesn't come together. Gordon-Levitt is good, as is Lukas Haas as a kind of tall and skinny Sydney Greenstreet figure, but the other performances, the plotting, and the visual style are all forgettably bland. This probably sounded good on paper but it's not worth catching.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 Catch-Up, part 1

I suddenly realized, as I scanned the magazine covers at the newsstand last week, that in addition to the usual year-end lists of favorite movies, music, etc., everyone is also making "Best of the Decade" lists as well. My consumption of popular culture these days is decidedly odd, skewed away from both the stuff at the top of the box-office or record charts, and the stuff that winds up being critical faves. I tend to watch and listen to the stuff that ends up in the vast middle, stuff that might make a small splash but then vanishes from the radar.

I don't know that I feel moved to do a decade-encompassing list or post, though I will probably make a year-end list soon. But as I looked over my movie and book journals, I noticed several works I found notable (for reasons both good and bad) that I haven't mentioned here yet, so I'm going to try and cover those very briefly over the next week.

Up (2009)--As a rule, I don't care for Pixar movies; as with the products of the Harry Potter machine, I can appreciate that they are well-made and even clever, and yes, they may be more than "just" kids' stories, but I find them uninteresting and uninvolving. This one, I enjoyed, mostly due to its visual style. An old man, under pressure to sell his property so high rises can be built, ties balloons to his house and floats away, along with a Boy Scout stowaway, to find an adventurer he had admired in his childhood who has been missing in South America for years. The plot is standard-issue moralizing about hero worship and fulfilling our dreams, but almost wordless opening sequence, which encapsulates the old man's life from childhood to the present day, is lovely, and the colorful balloons that fill the screen from time to time are delightful eye candy.

District 9 (2009)--Aliens who look like tall insects make an emergency landing on Earth, in South Africa, and are soon relegated to ghetto camps, despised and distrusted by humans. They can't seem to leave--it turns out they are working on producing fuel needed to get back home. A human, just as prejudiced as anyone else against the aliens, winds up wounded and slowly begins transforming into a human/alien hybrid. The authorities, who are doing grotesque experiments on sick and dying aliens, want to get hold of him and he throws his lot in with the aliens. A rather heavy-handed allegory for any number of intolerance atrocities (slavery, Nazism, apartheid). The digital creatures (actors in motion-capture outfits who are then erased out of the frame and replaced by CGI) are effective, and Sharlto Copley is very good as the human-alien. The production was relatively low-budget but doesn't look it.

The Invasion (2007)--Dreadful remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; despite the presence of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeremy Northam, this movie barely kept me watching to the end, and 2 weeks later, I could barely recall a thing about it. Watch the 1956 and 1979 versions, both excellent, instead.

Whatever Works (2009)--Woody Allen just keeps on keepin' on, making variations on his earlier, more inspired movies, even if audience and critics don't follow. Here, Larry David (above) plays the Woody Allen character, an aging misanthrope whose life is changed when he falls for a very young girl (Evan Rachel Wood). Yeah, the pairing is a little creepy, even without knowing Allen's real-life situation with the almost 40-years younger Soon-Yi Previn, and there is absolutely nothing new here; even the gimmick of David talking directly to the camera is a re-heated Allen technique. But David makes a somewhat fresh substitute for an on-camera Allen, Wood and Patricia Clarkson are good, and the handsome Henry Cavill (below) is a treat.

Hamlet 2 (2008)--A high-school drama teacher who is about to lose his department stages a wildly irreverent musical version of Hamlet. The YouTube teaser for this, a production number called "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus," is great fun, but nothing else in the movie even comes close. Steve Coogan, a big comedy star in England, has done nothing for me in this or Tristam Shandy. I'm not sure where this goes wrong, but it sure does. Possibly of interest to Glee fans, as it seems like it might have inspired that show.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"We are your overlords"

Though I can't call myself a Led Zeppelin fanatic, the band was important to the development of my musical tastes in my teenage years. "Whole Lotta Love" came out when I was 13, just after I hit puberty, and it was a revelation to this kid who had really just discovered rock and pop music that very summer. In the late 60's one could listen to the radio and hear The Archies, The Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, and Led Zeppelin all in one half-hour--the kind of diversity that hasn't existed on commercial radio for years now. I liked all the bands I heard on top 40 radio, but my only real exposure to what would become "heavy metal" (or just "heavy" in the late 60's) would have been Steppenwolf and Cream. Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" changed everything: it was, to quote myself from an earlier blog post, "a strikingly strange piece of music for mass consumption: blues riffs, sexual references like 'backdoor man,' and that crazy explosive middle section." Not to mention that "every inch of my love" line, which was like hard-core porn to a freshly sexually-aware teenager who was pretty sure he was gay.

I tended to buy singles back then, but I knew the AM top 40 radio version of "Whole Lotta Love" was missing that orgasmic middle section (that you could only hear late at night or on the FM progressive rock station) so I bought the album. I never took to it as a whole, though I did like the beginning of side 2, with the triple-threat piledrivers "Heartbreaker," "Living Loving Maid," and "Ramble On," but I sure enough wore out "Whole Lotta Love." (Years later, I read that you could literally wash albums with warm soapy water, and Zeppelin II would be the first one I would subject to that treatment--I think it kinda helped...) I liked Zeppelins III and IV, though after that, they would mostly fall off my radar (with the exception of a handful of songs on Physical Graffiti).
Now I feel my own private Led Zeppelin renaissance happening in the wake of having read a new biography of the band, When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall, a British rock journalist. This one is less sensationalistic than an earlier best-seller about the band, Hammer of the Gods, and manages to humanize the group a bit. Yes, they trashed hotel rooms, did loads of drugs, and had sex with oodles of groupies; yes, guitarist Jimmy Page was into "magick" and the writings of occultist Aleister Crowley (and even owned an occult bookstore in England for a time); yes, Robert Plant wore skintight jeans and thought a lot of himself; yes, John Bonham's death from too much alcohol seemed, like Keith Moon's end, predestined; and, yes, John Paul Jones was the quiet one, though he is on record as being unhappy that he wasn't asked to join up with Plant and Page for their 90's collaborations.

But like Papa John, the John Phillips autobiography, this book presents the cautionary aspects of their story (more money and more fame don't make you happier) and presents the sympathetic real people behind the legends. To me as a teenager, Plant and Page always seemed like dark gods who could do no wrong, but they've both had tragedy touch their lives (above and beyond the death of Bonham which brought an end to the band). Plant's 5-year-old son died suddenly of an infection while Plant was on tour in America, and a year later Plant was in a car accident which took him a year to recover from. Page, who everyone hailed as a musical genius, got wrapped up in heroin to the detriment of his health and creativity; though he's gone straight since then, he's never managed to even come close to getting out the Zeppelin shadow (unlike Plant who has had a major solo career which has hit a new peak in the last couple of years in his recordings with Allison Krauss). Instead Zeppelin is an albatross around his neck. Perhaps most interestingly, the role of their blustering and vicious manager Peter Grant is given full coverage here.

The book gets a bit weird in structure, bouncing back and forth in time, sometimes without sufficient clarity, and a few minor errors are problematic (Plant's Honeydrippers project came years after his first solo albums, not before; the album is called In Through the Out Door, not Outdoor). Wall completely fails at his strange fictitious interior monologue chapters, supposedly from the viewpoints of the individual members, but overall the book is a success, largely because he has interview all the living members of the band in recent years, so this is several notches above a slapdash bio pieced together from press releases and magazine interviews.

As for the title of my post, it comes from a line from one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, "The Immigrant Song." I never knew the lyrics except for the crystal-clear opening ("We come from the land of the ice and snow/From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow"); it turns out one of the most ominous-sounding lines, which I always took to be "We are yours, over and over," is actually the fabulous and truly ominous "We are your overlords." Below, that very song.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A worthwhile Christmas movie

For as much as I love Christmas, I do not enjoy recent Christmas movies. The made-for-TV variety have mostly become romances which often have little to do with the holiday (except that some network exec thought that snow and Santas would make a good backdrop for an otherwise routine and forgettable love story), and the theatrical holiday movies, often about Santa Claus, are all about action and overkill. The new Disney/Jim Carrey Christmas Carol looks just dreadful.

I have found one little indie Christmas movie (from 2007, available on DVD) worth watching. It's called Noelle, and some online critics have issues with it because they believe it has a pro-life agenda. Honestly, a Christmas movie without some kind of moral or spiritual agenda isn't much of a Christmas movie, so that wouldn't automatically be a strike against it in my book. Though the movie does involve the issue of abortion, it is handled with restraint, and the pro-life lesson is not the only moral situation covered in the film.

Father Keene arrives in a Massachusettes seaside village a week before Christmas to make a decision about closing down the local parish. The congregation is small and aging, and the priest, Father Simeon, is a drunkard who says during a sermon that his church has become a mausoleum. Keene suggests that Simeon make one last stab at respectability, namely, a living creche to be held on Christmas Eve, which unfortunately will conflict with a traditional party thrown by a local town hotshot, Mrs. Worthington.

This gets Keene involved with Marjorie, a Worthington daughter, who is involved in an affair with Seth, a rich snob who, unbeknownst to anyone, is actually engaged to someone else. Marjorie seems unhappy and Keene wants her to be Mary in the nativity, but eventually it comes out that she is pregnant with Seth's baby and has been considering an abortion. This triggers a crisis of conscience within Keene (for reasons unknown to us until the end, though you'll figure out why early on) and he tries to get her to set her life in order.

Father Simeon's plotline is also important. He's not an old man; in fact, he and Keene were in seminary at the same time. Keene thinks Simeon has lost his calling, but Simeon throws that accusation back in Keene's face when the rather cold Keene admits he's not a "people person." For all of Simeon's faults, he does care about his parishoners; he's been secretly using church money to pay for an old fisherman's medical bills. All the story threads climax on Christmas Eve, and though the writer fudges some plot details, specifically how far along Marjorie's pregnancy is, the outcome is satisfying.

Keene is played by David Wall, a Robert Redford look-alike, who is also the director and writer, and I'm thinking he should have left one of those jobs to someone else. Kerry Wall (his real-life wife) is nicely understated as Marjorie; Sean Patrick Brennan as Simeon (pictured at left) is handsome and gets the worn-down feeling of his character right, but the less said about his acting, the better. Still, I like this movie if only because it's not a froufy romance or Santa Claus fantasy. It looks good--somewhat surprisingly, it was filmed on location in snowy Cape Cod, not Canada, which seems to be the go-to location for TV and movie locations these days. The title refers, I think, to a little girl whom Keene keeps seeing in misty visions all over town, and she's the main clue to the final outcome. The movie's serious tone (with some unobtrusive humor mostly involving the aging parishioners) is just right. As I said before, the moralizing, though central to the movie's action, is never heavy-handed (except for the one line of dialogue that Noelle has at the end of the film). I'd much rather watch this 4 or 5 more times than have to watch even 10 minutes of the new Jim Carrey Christmas monstrosity. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A caveman walked into a cabin...

Every so often, a disc will arrive from Netflix and I have no memory of putting it our queue (oh, what the hell, it's really my queue since Don rarely adds anything to it, though he is very good about watching the movies I pick). What has usually happened is that, in reading an online source, like a blog or the New York Times, I'll come across an interesting flick; I then immediately open a new tab, go to Netflix, add it to the queue, close the tab, and keep net-surfing. Then I forget about it until it shows up a couple months later. That seems to be what happened with The Man from Earth, a 2007 low-budget indie which is usually described as science fiction, though it's just as much a philosophical fantasy as sci-fi. After the disc sat around for a few weeks, I came close to returning it unwatched, but this vacation morning, I finally popped it in and was glad I did.

A college professor, John Oldman, is leaving his school after 10 years of climbing the academic ladder, getting tenure, and becoming next in line for chair. A handful of friends have gathered with him for one last evening at his rustic cabin in the woods--he's giving all his furniture to charity and is only taking a couple of pieces of luggage with him. His only reason for leaving is that he's restless, but when his friends press him, he finally takes them into his confidence and tells them his secret: he was born 14,000 years ago, in the late Stone Age, and has remained alive and healthy (and has never aged past 35) ever since. Whenever people start noticing that he hasn't aged, he picks up and leaves to begin a new life somewhere else.

For a time, his announcement creates a fun drawing-room diversion. One professor claims that, if the human body regenerated and detoxified itself perfectly, such a thing could be possible. Another wonders if John could be a vampire of sorts, drawing life force off of those around him. He claims to have met the Buddha and Van Gogh (and does in fact have a rare Van Gogh painting). But no one really takes him seriously until he makes another startling claim: he is Jesus Christ, or the man who was taken to be Christ, spreading Buddhist teachings in the Middle East; he survived the crucifixion (his body heals perfectly and doesn't scar) and has lived to see his teachings, via the New Testament and Christianity, somewhat distorted over the centuries.

This causes most of his friends to react in one of two ways: to assume he's gone mad (or showing signs of early Alzheimer's), or to get angry at him for carrying a intellectual joke too far. One character calls in a psychiatrist who, at one point, threatens to have John committed and even pulls a gun on him to get him to admit his story is an elaborate prank. A religious woman gets furious at John for his "blasphemy." John's girlfriend Sandy remains the most neutral but even she can't quite believe either possibility. Of course, there's a third option: he's exactly what he says he is.

This script was the last thing that science-fiction author Jerome Bixby (Twilight Zone, Star Trek) finished before he died. It's been done essentially as a stage play or an old-fashioned television play--a single set, all dialogue, little action, no special effects--so this will not be for all tastes. I enjoyed it, for its interesting premise and for the performances of two of the actors: Tony Todd (from the Candyman movies, pictured below) as the most open-minded of the friends, and David Lee Smith (pictured above) as the "caveman" professor. Smith reminds me of Mad Men's Jon Hamm, in looks, in the way he carries himself with a kind of weight-of-the-world heft, and in his intensity. Most of the other actors are OK (Ellen Crawford as the religious woman, William Katt as the prof who's sleeping with a student), but one, Richard Riehle, as the doc, is almost amateurishly over-the-top. Luckily, Smith has the lion's share of dialogue and he is up to the task of keeping the viewer's attention when the director is doing little to help.

Some of the problem is with the script. The characters are not always consistent; for example, Crawford is referred to as a "Biblical literalist" and goes the most bonkers at John's debunking of Christianity, yet she also says she doesn't believe in things like the Nativity (wouldn't that mean she's not a literalist?). Todd's character, who seems to be trying hardest to believe John's story, brings up out of the blue the possibility that John is a drug addict. And the climax, which involves a wild coincidence and the death of one of the characters, is disappointing. Some critics don't like the fact that the story doesn't end in ambiguity and instead gets resolved. I don't mind the resolution, but the way it's achieved is awkward.

At any rate, I do recommend seeking out this little gem if you're in an adventurous, thoughtful, anti-rollercoaster-movie mood. It's not much to look at (and the the late-night scenes in the last third are grainy and smudgy), but it's philosophical fun.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A 50's TV Christmas

My mom picked up an early Christmas gift for me, an 8-DVD set of Christmas movies, cartoons, and TV programs. Called Holiday Family Collection, it features mostly material which is in the public domain, meaning that movie-wise, it's the same old tattered flicks you can buy for 5 bucks at a Wal-Mart holiday bin (the 1935 Scrooge, Beyond Tomorrow, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). But the 4 discs with TV shows are worth having, if you like the holidays and don't mind mediocre prints of early television shows. There are Christmas episodes of relatively well-known shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Ozzie & Harriet, and Red Skeleton, but what I'm enjoying are the shows that I'd never heard of, mostly from the late 40's and 50's. Who knew there was a Scarlet Pimpernel TV show with Marius Goring (the romantic lead in The Red Shoes)? Based on the vaguely Christmas-themed episode included here, it seems to have been a low-budget affair with lots of talk and little action, but as a novelty, it was fun to watch, and that's pretty much how it goes for the rest of the shows on the discs.

The most interesting thing I've watched so far is The Nativity, a 1952 hour-long episode of the Westinghouse Studio One anthology series. Notice I said "interesting," not "compelling" or "exciting" or "fun." It's an adaptation of the Nativity story put together from various mystery plays of the Middle Ages, presented in verse and intoned in a faux-Shakespearean spirit by a cast of slow-speaking, dreadfully serious actors, none of whom I recognized (there were no credits and the cast list on IMDb is woefully incomplete). The sets are shadowy and minimal, like I imagine an off-off-Broadway play would be like. The show was probably broadcast live; there are no noticeable dialogue flubs, but there are loud clunking sounds off-camera every so often--someone tripping, I presume.

The plotline is straightforward and traditional, with Mary and Joseph in a Bethlehem manger, angel visitations, three kings, four shepherds, and King Herod. Joseph has a whiny voice and Mary looks 30 if she's a day. A bright spotlight and echoey off-camera voice indicate the presence of an angel. The only real plot twist has the shepherds (three older guys, one younger "Gilligan" type) bringing humble gifts of their own to the Christ child. Most descriptions of this show online call it a musical, but the rhymed dialogue is spoken, not sung. The Robert Shaw Chorale does provide a more or less continuous flow of carols and hymns in the background, and they are well chosen to match the narrative. The writing is not the strong suit here (there are lines like "Kneel we down on knee" and "Heartily I pray with all my heart"), and neither is the acting. Actually, there is no strong suit; this isn't really very entertaining to a 21st century viewer, but I did stick with it, imagining I was a 50's TV viewer with only a couple of network choices available.

I also watched a half-hour 1949 production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (oddly titled "The Christmas Carol"), narrated by Vincent Price. It hits most of the high spots of the story (the Cratchits, Marley, three ghosts, Christmas morning redemption) but given how much it has to cram into thirty minutes, it still drags along in the middle. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Nelson Leigh) is the most effective of the ghosts, despite being clad in pretty much just a sheet. Scrooge is played by Taylor Holmes, father of 30's leading man Phillips Holmes (pictured above with Leigh), and he's about the worst Scrooge I've ever seen--it's not that he's bad, but he commits the sin of making the character dull. His transformation at the end is OK, and I gave thanks that Tiny Tim's presence was kept to a minimum.

Lastly, I saw the Liberace Christmas show from 1953. It's a half-hour of Liberace mostly alone at his piano (complete with candelabra), playing and sometimes singing songs like "Sleigh Ride," "Jingle Bells," and "Silent Night." He's accompanied occasionally by strings, and the episode ends with his large family arriving, as through having come over the river and through the woods, and his brother George dressed as Santa Claus--see the picture at the top of the blog post. I mostly remember Liberace as a campy over-the-top schmaltzmeister, but here he plays it pretty straight (no pun intended) and the music is quite pleasant. He even gets all serious and tells the Christmas story. He introduces his mother, Frances, as his producer, and apparently she really was. There's a Thanksgiving episode included on the set which I haven't seen yet, but I hear it features a genuine Pueblo dancer performing to something called "Ritual Fire Dance," so I'll have to make room on my busy TV schedule this month to see it. I may report back later if anything else in the boxed set is worth noting, but I'm already happy I have it so I'll have some new holiday treats to indulge in this year.