The Moment that Infinite Jest Broke Me

In my first official Infinite Jest post, I discuss the moment I could finally relate to Hal Incandenza, junior tennis wunderkind and dictionary memorizer extraordinaire. Reader, I wept.

Sandman Re-Blog Issue #15

Into the Night, or, Sandman meets Infinite Jest.

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Friday, 31 December 2010

Hey guys, all pages now consolidated at Come on by!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010)

Review originally written for  The 405, here:

Let me begin by telling you what Monsters is not. It is not Skyline, this year’s entry into Hollywood’s annals of over-marketed bad ideas. It is not District 9, last year's big low budget sci-fi success. Monsters, like great indie classics such as Before Sunset and Lost in Translation, uses a fantastical setting to tell an essentially human story. It starts when the horror story is long over and other stories begin to take precedence.

Monsters jumps off from a classic sci-fi springboard: a space shuttle finds alien life on one of Jupiter’s moons, then crash lands on Earth, leading to alien invasion and widespread disaster. The film picks up six years after the threat has been ‘contained,’ and shows how a world adapts to its new reality, where quarantine zones and seasonal ‘infections’ disrupt daily lives in multiple ways. The actual containment is achieved by a clumsy metaphor for US immigration policies, a gargantuan stone wall separating the United States from Mexico.

Following a new breakout of infections, a wealthy businessman enlists photographer Andrew Calder (Scoot McNairy) to bring his stranded daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back home to her fiancé. While they had the money to get back by sea and completely avoid the infected zone, a Random Plot Contrivance leads to the theft of all of their money, and so this improbable couple set off into the danger zone.

What makes Monsters unique is its intent to find moments of true beauty amongst the devastation and horror. Traveling through the most dangerous infected zones in Mexico, Edward's camera pays loving attention to our first encounters with the alien offspring, which have a gorgeous bioluminescence that calls Avatar to mind. Filmed in various parts of South America, director Gareth Edwards takes full advantage of the exotic locales available to him. The use of a cheap ‘pro-sumer’ video camera makes you feel that you’re right there with Calder and Sam. The camera moves with glorious close-ups of indigenous flora and fauna, making maximum use of available light.

Apart from the two leads, all the roles are taken by locals conscripted to join the film as it went along. This leads me to one of my chief complaints about the film: Edwards allow his actors to improvise dialogue, and this often feels, well, improvised. Not all of it rings true, and many of the ‘observations’ made, especially by Sam, feel inane or trite. But this isn’t a talky film, so it doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

The monsters themselves don’t actually appear until the final ten minutes of the film. In my favorite scene, Calder and Sam have finally made it into Texas and are waiting for the military to retrieve them from a gas station in the middle of nowhere. When a monster finally appears in full view, so big that even fear seems pointless, terror transforms into curiosity. Calder and Sam know they can’t win in a fight, so instead they wait and watch as one alien meets another in a sort of interpretive dance. This moment of unexpected humanity brings tears to our heroes’ eyes, and to ours.

Much has been made of how Edwards essentially created all the CGI effects on his own, on his computer, rather than relying on green-screen. Somehow, with an overall budget circling $15,000, he has managed to create one of the most visually engaging films of the year, where you feel that the only thing separating our reality from theirs is a screen.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

To Made In Dagenham, An Apology

Now that Made in Dagenham has arrived in the US, I revisited my original review (here). I am quite disappointed in myself, in that I find it a bit patronizing, which absolutely does not reflect how I feel about the movie now, upon reflection, and it CERTAINLY does not reflect how I felt when I actually watched it. I loved it, and had never felt so full of positivity. And would tell anyone to see in a heartbeat. Again and again. The power of its story is more than enough to overcome certain stylistic choices.

That review was one of the earliest I'd written in this blog about 'new movies,' and I suppose I was trying to mimic the more sarcastic variety of professional critic (even now I'm still experimenting with various styles). Well, apparently I succeeded, but I ended up imitating the wrong guy. Many of the reviews written by males (and some females, to be fair) focus on the movie's twee-ness, jauntiness, and general frothiness. On the other hand, most of the reviews I've read by females focus on celebrating the film, its open feminism, and the strength of these women's accomplishments.

There is a sad irony that, the same week that this film was released in the US, the Senate declined to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Bill. The bill already passed in the House, it just needed Senate approval. In the face of failures like these, the value of an uplifting celebration of female revolt increases tremendously. In some ways, it's a more political statement to create a joyful story of success that keeps our eyes on the prize. Why? Because it's inspiring. It keeps us fighting. There comes a point when tales of strife only break our morale and our will to continue. Of course we need to be realistic. But we also need stories to remind us of the powerful impact of success based on collegiality and togetherness and leadership.

So, so what if it's more like a two-hour celebration of women instead of a hard-fought journey to victory? The sad truth is, the only people that are vocally celebrating women publicly in the US are Sarah Palin and the Mama Grizzlies.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Oscarbait 2010: The Kids Are All Right


I used to love Julianne Moore, but it's no secret to those who know me that I think Julianne Moore's Boston accent to be the biggest travesty that 30 Rock has ever inflicted, and that happened in a season that was already fairly terrible. Since then, I can't really look at her without squinting angrily and thinking "I Hate You." So it certainly helped that she was sort of the villain of the piece here (inasmuch as this type of movie has 'villains.') Though her presence did give me the chance to spend an unnecessary amount of time wondering why someone had apparently left Julianne Lewis in an oven before shooting the film (JOHN BOEHNER LEATHER-FACE TAN).

The Kids Are All Right tells the tale of a married lesbian couple whose children have come of age and want to know about their biological father. That man turns out to be a hippie motorcycle god of virulity played by Mark Ruffalo, whose pheromones are so strong that he can apparently turn lesbians (at least ones with bad Boston accents). He gets on immediately with the kids, and then gets it on with Julianne Moore. His presence as an interloper has all sorts of effects, turning the family upside down by bringing various insecurities into play. Also it's Mark Ruffalo, and he is hot.

The movie also has some of the funniest scenes in recent memory, including a brilliant bit where the son, hilariously named LAZER, discovers his parents' penchant for gay cowboy porn of the exceptionally cheesy variety. We watch as Annette Bening alternately try to fob off and explain their peculiar amusement in a scene that escalates quickly into HORRIBLY AWKWARD.

But the best thing about the movie is Mia Wasikowska, an actress whose last name I hate because the end vowel makes no sense, but I'll get over it (some day). I'm pretty sure she's destined for great things, as she has the right mix of vulnerability, relatable good looks and actual talent. In fact, the trailer has just leaked for Jane Eyre, and I'm fairly certain it's the best casting yet (Jane Eyre baffles me, as I think it's a fairly straightforward novel to adapt, but they've screwed it up everytime).

Oscar Chances:
-Maybe Annette Bening?
-I think a Screenplay nod is in order

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Stephen Shainberg, 2006)

Nicole Kidman really gets a bad rap these days. While in many ways it's deserved (has any actress of quality made so many TERRIBLE career choices?), it saddens me, knowing how good her more left-field movies are.

Fur is Stephen Shainberg's follow-up to Secretary, and shows the same tenderness and respect to subjects that may disturb society. While Fur is ostensibly a biopic, Shainberg opts for a more fantastical approach, creating a fairytale imagining of what might have gone one in Diane Arbus's head when she shifted from being a moderately content housewife to developing a one of a kind career as a chronicler of the weird and wondrous.

Left is from the movie, right is an Arbus original.
Nicole Kidman plays Arbus beautifully, as Alice descending into the rabbit hole of Robert Downey Jr.'s Lionel Sweeney, a man suffering from an obscure condition where he is covered in fur. Kidman excellently plays the processes behind the way that Arbus transforms every fear into curiosity and develops an overwhelming desire to not only study and document the freaks but to understand them and join them.

The movie makes no concessions to reality, which I suspect may irritate some people, but I enjoyed the dreamlike (and extremely erotic) atmosphere, where Arbus goes back and forth between a normal, sepia toned family life and Lionel's colorful carnival world.

Not!Modern Family with Phil Dunphy
Swimming pools in la-la land (also pretty shot!)
Just as in reality, people are left behind when when one life transforms into another, and our constant reminder of this is Allan Arbus, played with great pathos by Ty Burrell (in a serious role, natch!). You really do feel his pain again and again, as Diane leaves him to manage the business, the house and the children, while she pursues her odd 'fancies.' Nevertheless, and maybe it's the way Kidman plays Arbus, you can't fault her for it, and you can't but help being seduced into that other life yourself (though for the seduction Robert Downey Jr. is to blame, with his lovely, lovely voice).

Oscarbait 2010: The Social Network

I know that for many of the people in my generation (the so-called Facebook generation), the main reaction to the announcement of this film was "meh" and a shrug. For whatever reason, the establishment movie-sphere and media (at least 20 years ahead in age) are completely enamored by the topic, while for people my age it's just one tool that exists in our lives (and often a hassle requiring eagle eyes on privacy settings).

So when the critical hoopla about the film reached a fever pitch, I started to question why it was that I had no interest in seeing the movie (not in the theater, at least). Once I enumerate them, I will answer them in the next section, having seen the movie (loved it).
  1. Oversaturation: I was sick of every move that FB makes being front page news, especially when it was starting to be seen as more of a menace than a tool (anonymous bullying, data mining, privacy violations, etc).
  2. Accusations that the film is rabidly misogynistic: these criticisms were loud enough that Aaron Sorkin actually issued a formal response to people criticising the film on this level. Given that he felt a need to respond, it suggested to me (falsely, mind you) that there was some truth to the accusation.
  3. The Aaron Sorkin Factor: I love the West Wing, I LOVE Sports Night, but lets face it: Sorkin's movie output hasn't been that appealing, and I was worried about the fact that, much like his Charlie Wilson's War, he admitted upfront that he invented most of the story.
  4. I kinda assumed it would be boring: This probably ties back into point 1, but having heard so much about Mark Zuckerberg, and yet so little of actual substance, I assumed the movie would suffer the same failing.
Ok, and then, as I was busy riding on my obviously superior lack of need to see this film, my boyfriend got two tickets to see it, and naturally I went. And loved it. Point by point on my own assumptions:
  1. Oversaturation: The greatest thing about the movie is that while it's ostensibly about Facebook, it's really more of a Greco-Roman tragedy of brotherhood. The central line running through the film is the foundation and destruction of the friendship between Zuckerberg and Saverin, and the betrayals and interlopers seeking to hasten that destruction for their own devious ends. That said, I still wish it wasn't 'about' Facebook. The way the story was structured, it would have been interesting no matter what it was about. The acting, the directing, the story itself would have been better served without the distraction of 'facebook.'
  2. Accusations that the film is rabidly misogynistic: I think I'm pretty attuned to (and some might say over-attuned to) slights against the feminist body politic. That said, as with most cases where things just get out of hand, I suspect the accusations were made without any reference to the text: many of the protesters cannot have seen the movie. Those that make the argument in good faith seem to be confusing the admittedly rabid misogyny of the lead characters with some sort of point behind the writer. 'Nerd doesn't get the girl which then drives his messianic desire to take over the universe while maintaining a healthy hatred of women' is a fairly timeless plot, and no one really thinks Star Wars or Buffy is misogynistic because of that theme, for instance. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg treats women like dirt, but to be fair he treats everyone like dirt (except for his idol, Sean Parker)
  3. The Aaron Sorkin Factor: While I dwelled on my worries on this point, apparently I forgot to consider his main strength: cracking dialogue. The dialogue is sharp all throughout, especially Zuckerberg's and the Winklevi's.
  4. I kinda assumed it would be boring: Wrong, wrong, I was oh, so wrong. Did I mention destruction, betrayal, interlopers and hatred? These are strong characters, played by very strong actors (and yes, Justin Timberlake fits into that camp). And of course the soundtrack really strengthens the suspence in the movie. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done a fantastic job, drawing from what sounds like lost tracks from The Downward Spiral. The technoey beats with the soft piano licks is perfect for what's happening in the development scenes: you have the classical desires for greatness and revenge, and the modern weapon known as the internet.
The best thing that has come out of this movie is that finally, FINALLY, people will stop confusing Jesse Eisenberg with Michael Cera. I've seen 4 movies with Eisenberg where he effectively plays completely different characters, while Cera is trapped in George-Michael hell (sad but true).

So, in a nutshell, see it or don't, but I think it's only fair to tell you that it's probably not what you expect. It's certainly not perfect, but it's entertaining and interesting, and you barely notice the time passing by.

Rom-Com Central: L'Arnacouer

Rumors of the death of quality romantic comedy are greatly exaggerated. They're just not made in English. Romantic comedies are meant to be fun, which seems to be an element lost in the equation recently.

L'Arnacouer is essentially a heist movie, but instead of robbing banks, Romain Duris and his gang are in the business of stealing hearts. Specifically, concerned fathers and brothers hire him to break up relationships they see as unfit for their sisters/daughters. So while he is generally pretty successful in his business (providing us with lots of hilarious montage sequences showing his methods and his victims), he inevitable gets the one client who is impregnable to his charms, Vanessa Paradis, better known to us as Mrs. Johnny Depp.

His early failure is a blow to his confidence, perhaps making him a bit more vulnerable, until the inevitable happens. The movie moves in fairly predictable directions (there are certain expectations in a rom-com, after all), but what sets it apart is how much charm its leads have, and how delightful individual sequences are. There were scenes where I was sporfling with uncontrollable laughter, and others where I smiled so widely I was about to break my cheeks. Duris is funny and sexy, and his energy leaps off the screen. His sidekicks are equally charming, especially his sister's husband, who aims to be a suave heartbreaker like he is but instead comes off as a creepy stalker.

Please rush out and see this, because Hollywood is already remaking it, and they are guaranteed to ruin it (I'm not a hater of Hollywood, but they have lost their way in making sweet romantic comedies that are witty and light without being cloying and unbearable. Case in point, Kate Hudson is still hired in leading roles).


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