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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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sci-Fi Sunday: Sunshine

Sunshine is Danny Boyle's meditative and haunting imagining of a future where the sun is ailing, but can still be saved. The movie was sold as a sort of science fiction thriller, when really it's a much slower affair.

A team of scientists have been sent aboard a spaceship called Icarus II to blow up the inside of the sun to reignite it (wibbly wobbly timey wimey). The issue didn't rankle at first, but really there was no internal logic to the selection of the team members, who were basically one essential physicist (strongly played by Cillian Murphy, in a role similar to his in 28 Days Later), and a bunch of expendables. As we were reminded in numerous conversations about people being expendable.

Chris Evans was surprisingly tolerable in his American flyboy hothead role, and was given slightly more of an inner life than his compatriots. In a typical Hollywood action movie, he would probably have been the hero of the day, instead of gamine Cillian Murphy. Rose Byrne has almost no purpose in the movie, apart from being slightly more intelligent than her crewmates. The rest of the characters are literal ciphers: the crazy one, the honorable commander, the psychiatrist who gets lost in his own humanity, eco-obsessed Asian, etc. So when characters die, it's hard to feel too sad. Oh look, there goes another stereotype!

The visuals are absolutely stunning; this must have been real eye-porn in the theatres. Every shot is calculated for maximum impact. The sun, which is normally a giver of life, has never been scarier, or more larger-than-life. Which brings us to another of the problems with the film. The sun is a powerful character, beautifully presented, representing both threat and hope. When our heroes face the more menacing aspects of it (the brightness, the heat) the crew's fears are understandable and constantly present.

But when the villain shifts to Pinbacker, the captain of Icarus I, (the name Icarus just conjures up hope, eh?) the plot becomes more fragmented (as do the visuals, the space-shift whenever Pinbacker's around is irritating). We don't really know why he became so warped, how he faced the sun and lived, or why he's so committed to making the mission fail. In the end, he is no more a character than any of Boyle's zombies in 28 Days/Weeks Later. The original fight between man v. nature is much more compelling, as is the internal tension between saving humanity v. maintaining your own humanity.

If I sound a little too negative, it's only because the movie was frustratingly close to perfection. If we just knew a little more about Pinbacker and what happened on Icarus I, and why he became a glorified Reaver. If we got just a little more backstory about the characters, not too much, but just enough to make us care. As I mentioned, the direction was stunning and the soundtrack was moody and evocative.

3/5 stars

Actresses Who Take Stabs at (and Usually End Up Stabbing) Music Careers

Some of the most respected actresses of the past 15 years have made attempts to launch music careers. The lucky ones never got off the ground, so people don't remember their mishaps. I'm here to correct our collective amnesia. Please, please, please listen to these songs. And then, for your own sake, forget them immediately afterwards. This article seemed like a good idea, but there is one very significant downside: I had to actually LISTEN to these damn songs.

Ok, we all know she can sing. But did you know she had two top 40 hits in the UK before she ever became a successful movie star? The voice is there, but the songs are not. Youtube For All Time for a far more hilarious video, where she's apparently dancing with Spartacus. I posted this one mainly because it's 'slightly' less embarrassing.

Godawful. Maybe the worst of the lot. I'm trying to imagine what was going through her head: "Uh, hey guys, I've had four unsuccessful Oscar nominations, so maybe I can win a Grammy instead?" This particular act of musical violence reached #6 six on the UK charts (I am starting to think that absolutely anything can make it onto the UK charts!)

She had two minor hits, Everything in My Pocket and Invisible Girl. The former is very much of its time but not offensive. It has the shoegazy quality of Ivy or early Dido. I am embarrassed to say though, I really like Invisible Girl. She sounds a bit like PJ Harvey singing a song by the Corrs. Which really is much more successful than Winslet and Zeta-Jones embarrassing Mariah Carey impersonations. (Really Driver's songs still aren't great, but in comparison they are masterpieces.)

Unfortunately EMI will not allow me to embed the video (sucks for you!) but here's the link should you still be intrigued:

Invisible Girl

Do you remember the duet she did with Huey Lewis, "Cruisin?" It was from some movie that no one actually wanted to see, but this song was EVERYWHERE. No offense to Gwyneth, she actually has a singing voice I wouldn't mind hearing more of, but the SONG IS DULL AS PAINT! She did also butcher "Bette Davis Eyes," rom the soundtrack to the same movie. More recently, she  performed on stage with Jay-Z for some reason. Street cred? God knows. Gwyneth is less forgivable because unlike the other actresses mentioned so far, she hasn't actually been in a decent movie in like ten years. Too busy writing about crazy diets.

Nicole Kidman wins the contest hands down. She had no pretensions to a music career, but still managed to guest on a fantastic song that was a pretty sizeable international hit. Back in high school, I knew many people who tried to copy the delicate harmonies between Kidman and Robbie Williams on in the hallways. Come What May, from Moulin Rouge, was also a pretty big hit as I recall (it counts because it's not actually in the movie in full!) Here's Something Stupid, for a lovely song and a sexy video. (that's the other thing about the previous contenders, they took beautiful actresses and stripped them of any sexiness!) In fact, I seem to remember this video being censored in the US.

Rule #1: If you are a successful actress and you want to parlay that success into a music career, DON'T!
Rule #2: If you ignore Rule #1 and go through with it anyway, release your singles in the UK, where most of the moviegoing public won't find out about it anyway.
Rule #3: If you simply must have international recognition of your talents, try and tag along with a more famous singer, all the better to cover up your 'talents.'
Rule #4: Really, you should only do it if an already famous singer invites you to join him.
Rule #5: Nowadays, please only try this with smaller indie bands. (A separate post will follow about Marion Cotillard, Carey Mulligan and Scarlett Johansson, and other young superstars making quiet, quiet music instead of pop.)

Friday, 24 September 2010

Oscarbait 2010: Made In Dagenham

Here we go, the inaugural edition of Oscarbait 2010! The legendary voters of the Academy apparently can't remember anything released before the autumn, which has resulted in the natural industry response of not releasing anything decent before the autumn (although this year there may be a few exceptions: see films with Leonardo DiCaprio).

I was lucky enough to get invited to a free screening of Made In Dagenham at the Odeon in Covent Garden. And after a few directional mishaps (the Covent Garden Odeon is nowhere near Covent Garden!), we made it just in time for the opening credits.

"BBC Films!" rolled the screen, before our collective heads are filled with jaunty English pop music of the 1960s. Jaunty is absolutely the right word for the general tone of this film, whose characters exhibit courage, pluck and determination to conquer any and all enemies, including Richard Schiff!

Made in Dagenham tells the true story of a group of female factory workers who strike to protest the reclassification of their jobs as 'unskilled,' despite the fact that no one else knows how to do it. Eventually this fight morphs into a larger fight to mandate equal pay for women, culminating in the Equal Pay Act of 1970. All very well, all very inspiring (and yes, it is very inspiring. I left the theatre wanting to riot for the Equal Rights Act in America).

So let's get the negative out of the way first. As with any story about triumph over adversity, the movie has it's cheesy moments. The characters never really seem to face any actual threat, although there is a very serious issue at hand. Sally Hawkins et al just have a great time facing challenges. But it's a story about camaraderie, so you can forgive scenes of the women bicycling around town like they're in an English slum remake of the Sound of Music.

The cast is fantastic. I'm starting to think that Rosamund Pike makes EVERYTHING better. Even things that are already awesome. From Pride and Prejudice to An Education to this movie, she lights up the screen with intelligence and beauty. 

But even Pike does not shine quite so brightly as lead Sally Hawkins, who plays Rita O'Grady, the leader of the strike. She powerfully conveys a hundred different emotions with little more than a movement of her eye and a bob of her head. Hawkins is one to watch, and is an early contender for an Oscar nomination.

Miranda Richardson has a lot of fun as Secretary of State Barbara Castle, especially when eviscerating her underlings for patronizing her.

The men are superb as well. Bob Hoskins gives a lovable, if predictable, performance as the inciting figure for the striking women. Daniel Mays was surprisingly sympathetic after his awful, scenery-chewing, show-ruining performance on the final season of Ashes to Ashes.

I recommend everyone go see it, for a heartwarming, feel-good type of movie. It'll put a smile on your face, and maybe even make you think about the world a little differently.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Filling The Gaps: "La-di-da" Annie Hall

Future Dirty Old Man syndrome. In the course of this Filling the Gaps series, I have realized that seems to be why I haven't seen MOST so-called classics from the 1970s.

I also had the general feeling that I already 'knew' Woody Allen movies, having seen so many of them, but now I know that most of his pre-London films are watered down versions of Annie Hall.

Diane Keaton is the original manic pixie dreamgirl (see this Jezebel article to find out more about why this type can be completely loathsome if mishandled). There's no other way to explain her profound weirdness in this movie. The original article refers to the fact there's no way a girl like that could be real except as the perfect imagined mirror to Woody Allen's character.

But she's actually likeable, and very very watchable. The interweb reveals that Annie Hall was actually a major style icon who continues to influence designers like Stella McCartney today. No one would actually want to dress like Natalie Portman in Garden State (Which was a direct rip-off of Kate Winslet's look in Eternal Sunshine, which had a practical purpose of illustrating the changes in timelines. Natalie Portman, on the other hand, blech.)

However, there are many things that elevate this above pure dreck like Garden State and entertaining-yet-forgettable fare such as 500 (Days of Summer), which I remember being sold as 'the new Annie Hall.' For one thing, it has cracking dialogue. Woody was at his comedian finest, keeping the jokes fast and furious.

One of the reasons 500 (Days of Summer) failed as a film is that it tries to portray Joseph Gordon-Levitt as 'romantic', when really he's just extremely out of touch with reality, and frankly, a bit stupid. So it's hard to sympathize with him. Annie Hall at least starts from the premise that Woody Allen is a socially retarded maladjust, so his frequent bursts of irrationality fit into the context of his character. We know he can't help it, so we forgive it like any pathology. There's every indication that Annie Hall sees a commensurate spirit in Alvy, so the relationship wasn't actually doomed when it first started, unlike Summer and Tom's.

While Woody Allen is essentially playing himself as Alvy Singer, Neurotic Jew Extraordinaire (which has surely become it's own overused movie trope by now), that character type was still in its infancy at the time. And then again, it seems apparent to us now that Woody=Alvy, given that he's continued to basically play Alvie Singer as recently as Scoop, but was it obvious to moviegoers at the time? Must research old reviews...

Allen also made ample use of brilliant visual gags illustrating how Alvy sees conversations differently from everyone else, he reads into every last shred of subtext. So we end up with the Neurotic Jew version of Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, which I'm fairly certain that Walt himself would never allowed near the building.

  • Unexpected Christopher Walken!
  • Unexpected Paul Simon appearance! Annie Hall has seriously certifiable taste in men, Woody Allen then Paul Simon! Have there ever been less attractive men starring in Hollywood films?

  • Only the second movie I've seen with Diane Keaton, the first being The Godfather, which I just saw last week.
  • First Woody Allen "New York" film.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Filling the Gaps: The Shawshank Redemption

There is no one reason why I have avoided Shawshank until now. Maybe it's because I worried it would be like Patch Adams, not heartfelt and inspiring, but "heartfelt and inspiring." Or perhaps it's because every male I have ever known has seemed to go totally gay for it and tear up if you even mention the word Shawshank.

But, given the opportunity to see it for free on the big screen at the Everyman Cinemas, I decided it was time to bite the bullet (and hopefully watch grown men cry, always a favorite pastime).

The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about family, about brotherhood, but mostly, about time and the passing thereof. We are given vignettes across the twenty year period when Andy Dufresne comes to Shawshank, and brightens the prison world wherever he can (this is exactly the sort of description that totally put me off seeing the film, to be honest.) 

But there are a couple of things that prevent the movie from gliding too far down the slippery slope of mawkishness. After the initial scenes of Andy's trial, the entire story is told from the perspective of Morgan Freeman's character, Red. Red calmly narrates the goings on in the prison almost as a neutral observer of oddities, the biggest oddity being Andy himself. 

Andy is a riddle. From beginning to end, the audience barely gets a sense of what's under the surface, with hints cropping up in the beer scene and the music scene. But everytime he starts to open up, his shell snaps shut again. Or he gets tossed in the hole. (Ah the hole, that magical plot contrivance of prison movies and hockey movies).

The second saving grace is the music. Thomas Newman's melancholy score emphasizes the mystery and menace of the prison, rather than the cheesy 'we are family' themes that are bubbling under the surface, threatening to break through.

However, given how subtle much of the movie actually is, the famous (infamous?) line, "Get busy living, or get busy dying" hits you like a 900 pound anvil on the head. Forgetting the fact that based on everything we know, Andy would NEVER say something so pithy, it's just a terrible line. It personifies Emma Thompson's recent definition of the word twee: 'whimsy without wit.' It makes no sense, and it's not terribly inspired.

Nonetheless, what keeps the movie chugging ahead is that there are a few genuine surprises in the plotting. Surprise deaths, surprise rebirths, surprise ways of dealing.

But, I confess, I was anxiously awaiting the legendary scene that's renowned for making men cry. It never came. Please write angry letters to this BBC writer: 20 Movies that Make Grown Men Cry

  • I actually couldn't think of any other movies I've seen with Tim Robbins in it, but of course there's High Fidelity (but who remembers anything other than Jack Black in that movie anyway). 
    • Oh and he's in Top Gun, but when I think of that movie I am blinded by the homoeroticism. 
    • And Twister! (giant cows mooing while being sucked up by tornadoes. As you can see, strange things stick in my mind from movies I saw when I was young). 
    • And Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me (no comment).

Yes. But keep your expectations in check.


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