Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Angry Family

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - When I woke up early Sunday morning in my hotel room in Bangor, the last thing I expected was to end the day with a big heated family argument. But guess what? That's the way Sunday ended, and that is essentially the sour way our weekend in Maine ended (we arrived home about three hours ago).

So for those of you expecting a humdrum positive conclusion to this vacation: well, welcome to the Fujishima family, I guess.

There was absolutely nothing pointing the way toward such a calamitous conclusion to our vacation. Sure, my father and mother got impatient with each other in the car as they both tried to get us to Maine---but then, they always tend to get impatient with each other when it comes to directions. Otherwise, we all seemed to be having fun, enjoying the beautiful sights of Acadia National Park, taking pics and videos, enjoying the infectious panting of our enthusiastic dog Dusty. It was pretty much all pleasantness, as far as I was concerned.

What in the world happened? I dunno if I could tell you how exactly things transpired yesterday, because at the time my parents were arguing with each other about plans made and plans not made for the day as we drove back to Bangor from a boat ride around Five Islands, my brothers and I were too busy watching Millennium episodes on our little TV in the car. So I only caught snatches of their angry discussion, but those snatches were enough to alert me to some serious unrest going on, especially when we found ourselves back early at Howard Johnson Inn instead of at the Bangor Folk Festival, as we had originally planned.

From the best of my knowledge (I haven't really bothered to confirm details with either my father or my mother), tempers started flaring up when Dad realized that, after our boat trip, we'd only have about an hour or less before the folk festival's last day of festivities concluded. Apparently he had really wanted to see what was going on at this festival. Mom, however, most likely expressed a clear lack of interest in it---and whenever Mom doesn't like something, she assumes no one else will like it. As usual with any major argument between these two, though, that was only a springboard for other issues: money issues, issues of who's in charge around the house. When the argument continued after we had returned to the hotel for the night, Mom even had the audacity to bring up, at the most inappropriate moment, the issue of my father's admittedly problematic smoking habit (Dad: "I'm getting out of here"; Mom: "Go! Go puff your cigarette!")

One of my younger brothers, Masao, left my parents' room while the two were still bickering, but Michow and I sat there listening to them stand off against each other. It was gutwrenching, but I couldn't leave, I guess because I have kind of a personal stake in these kinds of arguments (mostly against Mom, to be honest). Eventually, my mother, disgusted, ordered my dad to just take the kids out to eat and leave her alone; he did, and we followed, although I was pretty somber most of the time we were eating out (we went to a Japanese restaurant, Ichiban). I really wanted to say something to my dad---to comfort him---but somehow I just could never work up the will to say anything, I guess fearing that whatever I'd say would be inadequate.

The worst was yet to come though. Later, after we had all returned from our trip out to eat, my mother (and my grandmother, who didn't say much except telling my mom to leave it alone) came to our room and tried to explain her side of things. (Convenient that Dad isn't around to explain his side of things so we could perhaps decide for ourselves who held the upper hand in this matter.) Usually I would probably let her ramble on and on and not say anything, but that night I felt like I had to try to offer something constructive, to try to be helpful and sincere.

Maybe I should have rethought that strategy. I said to Mom that it seemed to me that these kinds of problems---problems of scheduling and problems of who actually wants to do what---would have been avoided if, instead of only my father and mother were planning this trip, we had all taken part in the planning process. I suggested that we should have made a lot of decisions on this trip as a family unit. I regretted it instantly: her immediate (and, in hindsight, should have been predictable) response was to implicitly accuse me of hypocrisy in that statement by pointing out how uninvolved in family matters in general she felt I was. As usual, she laced her biting criticisms of me---heck, of all three of us---with condescension, and this time, instead of simply sitting there and taking it, I felt like I had to fight back.

So all the old issues came right back into that hotel room, but with a twist that I wasn't expecting. I think she revealed her true colors last night when she basically stated out loud that, because she was the one making pretty much all the money around the house, she deserved to have the final say in most matters, whether it be which restaurants we go to (which is none, since she believes in the goodness of the cheap buffet), which places we'll go to see, etc. Power of the purse. On Saturday evening, in looking for a place to eat for dinner, we were all headed toward the front door of a diner restaurant before Mom suddenly decided that we should all go to eat a fried chicken buffet at a nearby KFC, mostly because it was cheaper and, as she said, "served salad" (like the diner place wouldn't have served a salad at all? Call me naive, but I find that hard to believe). What gives her the right to make that decision for all of us? Just because she "makes all the money around the house"?

Her gall in making such an outrageous (at least to me) claim stunned me into two realizations. First: this is the mother I've been struggling so mightily to try to win over as far as garnering her support for my still-controversial (around here) career path? Frankly, that kind of attitude verges on the dictatorial; why should the fact that she makes most of the money around the house entitle her to have final say in most of the decisions? Just because, as she believes, she's the one paying for everything? Whatever happened to family? (Well, I guess we ungrateful sons pissed that away when we decided not to take a great interest in the affairs of the family, eh?) In the past, I've always tried to see things her way, try to balance my anger at her with an understanding of her position; but with that statement, I think she pretty much forfeited any sympathy she might have had with me. Honestly. Even when she was trying to run my life (well, that's the way it felt to me), I always had to give her grudging credit for having her heart in the right place. But I dunno if I can take her seriously now, knowing that, to me, she has finally laid bare her manipulative heart.

Second: there's only one way that I can get out of her overbearing clutches, and that is to more or less cut all financial ties from her. She thinks she has control over me just because she pays, say, my credit card bills? She thinks, because she's paying for my college education, she should have a say in determining how I spend my four years of college? Eventually I'm going to have to handle my own finances on my own; might as well start doing some of it now.

I would try to detail some of the other points that came up, but frankly, I feel like I'd get too exhausted and demoralized from the effort. The important thing to take away from it, I guess, is that she decided, "No more vacations, if this is the aggravation I'm going to get out of it!"

Alas, that wasn't the end of it. The next morning, she woke us up at 6:30 a.m. and suggested that, if I so wanted to take more of an active involvement in our trip, I should sit in the passenger seat in the front row of our car and direct my father home. When my dad found out about this, he responded, "That's not the point!" This led to more yelling in the car as we headed out of the hotel after handing in our keycards; even Masao couldn't resist telling Mom to "shut up" as she continued yelling at Dad and I. I lost it myself, saying "You think you rule everything around here?" She misheard me and thought I was accusing her of ruining everything (although I think she did, for the most part), and she got loud and defensive yet again.

The rest of the 12-hour-long car ride was, for the most part, quiet. In the end, she did try to help in directing us home a little bit, and I let her, even though I remained in the front seat throughout. If I was charitable, I would interpret that as a sign of goodwill, of trying to "make up." Today, however, she briefly brought up the whole row again when she added a new voice to the mix: my grandmother's. According to my mother, my grandmother---the one from Taiwan who's still here and who I can speak to too deeply because of the language barrier---offered this pearl of wisdom: if I were Kenji and my mother was paying for a trip to Maine, I wouldn't complain.

"Makes sense, doesn't it?" Mom said.


All in all, I can't say that this trip was a total disaster---for two-thirds of it, it was genuinely relaxing, and I for one was having fun. But, far from what my mother claims to have intended for this trip---"Who cares about the folk festival? When you remember this trip ten years from now, you'll remember Acadia"---I think I'm going to remember the bitter yelling as much as I do the pretty sights and sounds of nature in Acadia. Somehow, the yelling hits so much closer to home; it's probably part of the reason why I've felt strangely depressed so far today.

Look: I'm not going to claim that I'm a perfect son or anything. I'm not one to dispense with the "I love you's" and the "I appreciate you's," especially if I don't mean it. And, in spite of the great effort my mom has admittedly made over the years in order to help us out, put food on our table, etc., I've never felt it. So I've never really said it all that often; none of the Fujishima men have, really. And if one needed more evidence how bitter my mother really felt about it, her outburst Sunday night and Monday morning was it.

Am I coldhearted? I really wish I had the heart to apologize for years of what she probably feels is a lack of appreciation of her efforts. Maybe I'm just pathetically justifying being a total asshole to her, but there's just something else that bothers me about that disgusting sense of entitlement she exudes: she seems to assume that, just because we don't say anything, we must not appreciate her. Now look, I understand that perhaps all mothers need to feel that their sons and husband appreciate her. I'm not blind to my failure to come through in that regard.

But, in my heart, I feel as if all the bad things she's done to me has outweighed the good, to the point that now, I can safely say that I really can't stand being around her anymore (and she's off from work this entire fucking week!). She's the one that has almost succeeded in giving me feelings of nausea whenever I even think about watching a movie in her presence, knowing that she thinks so little of my ambition to become a film journalist. She had a huge hand in allowing my acne to flare up again because she felt she was soooo much smarter than my previous dermatologist, figuring that he was really wasting my time and her money by asking to see me every month even after my acne was calming down. (I've restarted a different skin care regimen with a different dermatologist; it looks like it's working a little bit.) In short, I blame her (at least in part) for a lot of things: the fact that I feel so inadequate about facing real-world challenges; the fact that I have such low self-esteem regarding my career ambition; and more.

Hearing her explicitly admit to all of us that her opinion mattered more than anyone else's because of how much she was doing for this family---paying the bills, mostly---was perhaps the last straw. Forget about trying to get on her good side; forget about trying so hard to see things from her point of view. Mom, believe me, deep down I still appreciate all you've done for me---for all of us---in helping us stay afloat. Really, we owe you our lives up to this point. But anyone who's willing to flaunt her power in the family in such a ruthless way---well, I think such a person deserves only conditional respect at best.

Yeah, as you can tell, I'm pretty angry about this. But what does it matter? As with all family arguments, everything is left floating in air until the next outburst. Nothing gets resolved at all. (In that respect, the late sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond got family life absolutely, harshly right.) The best thing to do is just get out of harm's way. I should have realized this long ago.

In the interest of fairness, however, anyone who's willing to disagree with anything I've said---say I'm being too rash, say I'm making her too much of a one-dimensional enemy, or even go so far as to say that my mom might actually have a point in what she said (and I've tried the hardest I can to say it in her terms, without exaggeration)---by all means, feel free to do so. At least that's way more than my mother would grant to anyone holding a point of view different from hers.


By the way, congratulations to Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow, Kiefer Sutherland, and the rest of the marvelous cast and crew of 24 for their Best Drama Emmy victory on Sunday night. It was about time this show got some recognition for the gripping and groundbreaking work that it is---even if, for my money, the show really deserved the award three years ago, for its still-unequalled second season, when its geopolitical commentary and high-octane thrills were still relatively fresh. Still, this was probably one of those "make-up" awards: to make up for past neglect. Better late than never, though, right?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Greetings From Bangor!

BANGOR, Maine - Hey all! I'm currently sitting in the corner of a Howard Johnson Lounge at the Howard Johnson Inn here in Bangor, Maine, listening to Johnny Cash playing on a jukebox and a preseason football game playing on a big projection TV, typing up this update on the first day and a half or so of my weekend trip to Maine.

Not sure if I have much to report, really, to be honest. We got a head start driving here yesterday evening in our Rocky Ridge cruiser (not an RV, alas), entered Maine early this morning, did some driving and sightseeing around Acadia National Park, took in a bite of some of Maine's good old seafood---lobster, to be specific---and then came here at Howard Johnson Inn to stay the night.

Perhaps the only real reason for this entry is just for the novelty of being able to begin an entry with a dateline other than EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J., hehe. Isn't it...well, novel?

It's been pretty fun so far. I've tried to spice things up on my end by using this trip opportunity to bring out a digital video camcorder my dad had bought for me last year and play around with it: taking beautiful moving nature shots of it, more or less, and trying to frame them in inventive ways---some medium long shots here, some wide shots there (especially with people standing atop high rock formations). My favorite kind of shot so far: the slow zoom-outs of the sort Stanley Kubrick used often in Barry Lyndon. Perhaps Kubrick overused the effect just a tad in that film (arguably his best post-2001: A Space Odyssey feature, but that's just me), but I like the effect it creates: the sense of human figures being dwarfed by their surroundings. Nature is so vast that it probably is greater than us measly human beings anyway.

Don't worry; I'm just experimenting and having a little bit of fun with the camcorder. Nothing ambitious about it. It would be nice if I did have a true-blue high-definition digital video camcorder, though: if I was lucky, maybe I could come up with night shots equalling some of Dion Beebe's nocturnal shots in Michael Mann's Collateral in near-surreal beauty. (It got pretty foggy last night; the fog gave the streetlights a haunting halo effect, an effect increased by the fact that there were so few cars on the road. Eerie. Too bad I didn't get any of it on video; it would have been a keeper, I tell ya!)

None of us got a whole lot of good sleep last night, suffice it to say: notwithstanding a few rest stops here and there, my father basically drove on throughout the night, and our vehicle---again, not an RV---isn't necessarily conducive to deep sleep, to say the least. So tonight is supposed to be our "catch-up-on-sleep" night. We'll see about that, heh.

It can sometimes be...well, interesting (to put it charitably) to be in the same car as my father and mother when we're going to an unfamiliar area: somehow they almost always seem to end up exasperated at each other when it comes to directions. Usually it's the result of my father not quite understanding a direction my mother gives, or my mother not making herself clear to Dad. Sometimes I feel as if I should try to intervene; then I remember that I myself haven't had a great deal of experience with map-reading and stuff like that. Sometimes it makes me think how I'd fare if I was either being given driving directions or had to try to direct my wife or someone else; would I become as easily irritated as my dad sometimes gets?

Funny moment of the day: we were at a beach in Acadia briefly, but since the beach didn't allow pets, someone had to stay behind and watch after our dog Dusty. There was also another dog there, a much bigger one, being held back by his owner. This led to a bit of a standoff between both dogs as they both stared each other down and made plays at each other. And guess what? Our dog "won"; the bigger-size dog slunk away and Dusty came back to us panting in what I interpreted as triumph. Well, maybe my description takes the humor out of it, but it made me laugh (and no, there was no deep message or introspective thought I got out of it). I did catch some of the "fight" on video; if I could somehow place it on my blog...

Anyway, tomorrow looks to have more sightseeing on the menu, as well as a possible trip to a folk festival that's currently going on in this area (until tomorrow). So I might be able to squeeze in an update tomorrow night for all of you interested (or so I assume) readers.

But boy, am I tired tonight, from all the non-sleeping I did last night!

Oh, and no Stephen King sightings. But then I'm not really expecting any. (Sucks, though, that my family didn't decide on this vacation earlier in the month; we could have perhaps taken a "Tommyknockers and More" bus tour that would have passed by King's house if we had been around the area on August 13, according to this website.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Note to Readers

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This weekend---tomorrow evening until Monday night---my family and I are going to be going up north to Maine for a brief getaway. We definitely plan to visit Acadia National Park, but not sure what else we plan to do there. We did reserve a place to stay in some inn in Bangor. Bangor---isn't that Stephen King's hometown? (Wouldn't it be awesome if we spotted Stephen King there---or at least saw his house?) In any case, the inn is supposed to have internet access, so I might be able to make an update in Maine. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Monday Morning Quarterback?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - At the risk of sounding like a Monday morning quarterback: I knew it!

That was my reaction to reading about the disappointing box office returns for the much-hyped Snakes on a Plane, which, over the past year until its release on Friday, had generated a lot---a lot---of buzz on the Web---enough early buzz, certainly, to lead the filmmakers to turn what was originally a PG-13 flick into an R one---and was expected to make big bucks for its studio, New Line, this weekend. This, as it turned out, was not to be: even though it debuted at No. 1 in the box office standings, it earned only a bit over half as much as Hollywood analysts were expecting ($15.2 million as opposed to the $20-$30 million predicted).

Surprise? Maybe to someone like Exhibitor Relations president Paul Dergarabedian, but not quite a big surprise to me. Remember, Megamovies employee?

Yeah, Megamovies had two night screenings of Snakes on Thursday night, but one of my managers told me on Friday evening during a shift that only 100 people showed up for those two altogether. And over the weekend---and I pretty much worked there all weekend, with shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, a first for me---I couldn't help but notice that the movie wasn't playing to exactly sellout crowds or anything. In fact, on Friday night, the fake-college comedy Accepted got down to front-row seating at an evening show, not Snakes.

What happened? Not sure I could tell you for certain. All I can suggest is that maybe this time people weren't fooled by the media coverage hyping up the film. I mean, what kind of movie would you expect with a title like Snakes on a Plane? I've heard it suggested that, because of all the media hype, people already felt like they had seen the film (especially with those now-famous reports of star Samuel L. Jackson being called in after the initial wrap to say "I want these motherfuckin' snakes off this motherfuckin' plane!"---as if he needed more angry-black-man obscenities in his repertoire). But maybe people just saw the film for what it is: a breezy B-movie with an enormous amount of Web-generated buzz. Nothing more, nothing less. Proof, maybe, that people's moviegoing tastes aren't always governed by what the media suggests is popular? That, unlike what the studios may think, we can actually intelligently think for ourselves? Well, I hope so.


I didn't watch Snakes on a Plane this weekend. (Curiosity might tempt me to catch it sometime this week, although I suspect the news about its disappointing box-office returns might convince me to simply wait 'til this appears on video.) Instead, I decided to catch Little Miss Sunshine (**½ out of ****), the Sundance favorite that was finally released nationwide this past weekend (not to mention the film I had wanted to see at Princeton before a 7:40 p.m. sellout forced my friend and I to catch something else instead).

Perhaps I've written about this in a previous blog entry, but comedies are always a tricky thing with me. It's tempting to simply acclaim a movie comedy for doing what most regular moviegoers expect it to do: make you laugh. But, as a wannabe "serious" moviegoer, I expect myself to find something more interesting to say about a film other than whether it made me laugh or not. Often, I expect myself to be able to figure out why a comedy made me laugh, or---even more complexly---why I feel a little bit indifferent about a comedy that nevertheless made me laugh.

Well, I can safely say that Little Miss Sunshine didn't make me feel indifferent, and that it did make me laugh. I can also say that, after two days of reflection (I saw it Sunday evening), I don't feel like I got much out of the movie other than 1-3/4 hours of quirkily amusing and occasionally touching fun---not much to think about, ultimately, for all its satirical jabs at self-delusional motivational speakers, kiddie beauty queens, and hate-filled sons.

Of course, you may be thinking: why should a movie comedy have to be deep or satirical or even insightful to be great? Can't it just be funny? Which is why I guess I'm struggling a little bit to come up with a confident critical response to Little Miss Sunshine: it made me laugh, but I also found it just a little soulless.

First, a few words about the "plot." This is yet another episodic road-trip movie, this one with a dysfunctional family headed to a kiddie beauty pageant in California, where the daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has been nominated for the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine contest. This family is quite a bunch: the patriarch, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker who desperately tries to live by his own nine-step program even as he meets with failure after failure; the son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a deliberately silent, introspective person who hates everybody and yearns to be a flyer in the Army; the grandpa (Alan Arkin), recently kicked out of an old-folks home, snorts heroin and looks at porn without shame; and the mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is basically your usual long-suffering housewife looking to her husband for hope for a better financial situation. Oh, and one cannot forget the suicidal gay uncle, Frank (Steve Carell), who basically pissed away his reputation as the "leading Proust scholar in the world" out of sexual frustration---a lover who eventually left him for a rival, the "second leading Proust scholar in the world."

Little Miss Sunshine is essentially a portrait of a bunch of losers who, as it turns out, don't really turn their fortunes around by the end of the film: in spite of its faux-happy ending (high-spirited dancing and all), the various members of the family are, if anything, in worse shape (to varying degrees) than when they started the trip. One of the things I liked about the film is how screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don't condescend to their messed-up characters, don't make them easy objects of ridicule. Sure, Richard's attempts to live by his win-at-all-costs philosophy is clearly seen as self-delusional and tiresome, but one can also sense the desperation in his incessant repetition of his own philosophy to himself---it's as if he wants badly to believe it in spite of all that goes wrong (his book deal, for instance, goes splat). All of the family members want to come up on top, ultimately; I guess it's supposed to be seen as subversive that, in the end, none of them really do. That's life, right?

There's something about the movie that bothers me, though: some of the details, details that may seem trivial or plain amusing at first glance, but, when you think about them, add up to suggest that the filmmakers were less interested in honestly satirizing real human behavior than in being as quirky as possible, and---worse---stacking the deck in order to make this already weirdo family seem normal compared to the insensitive or just plain strange oddballs they come across. In one scene, for instance, a "bereavement liaison" in a hospital is painted by the film as insensitive and impossibly rigid, even though, if you think about it, it's obvious---to me, anyway---that she's really just doing her job. Another scene has a suspicious policeman let the family go after noticing a bunch of Grandpa's porno mags. But most of the easy shots come at the concluding beauty pageant, which pretty much ridicules nearly everybody involved---including the bitchy registrar lady, who, tellingly, is done up in some retro '50s hairstyle that clearly strikes me as a condescending touch. The filmmakers may not condescend to the main characters, but to everyone else in the film's vision of the world, they spread their smirky venom.

But should we be necessarily looking to comedies for representations of real-world behavior? I mean, no one watches a spoof movie like Airplane! looking for human comedy of the Jean Renoir variety. The thing is, Little Miss Sunshine is done in a "realistic" manner that's meant to amuse us into thinking it's a human comedy, so it's disappointing to discover that, for all its moments of genuine pathos amid the admittedly funny dysfunctional-family hijinks, the film essentially wants to be a crowd-pleasing quirkfest of the Wes Anderson variety. It seems to me more like Wes Anderson without genuine awareness of real-world pain (and certainly without Anderson's obssessive attention to visual detail and adult fairy-tale atmosphere).

The filmmakers are lucky that they have such a great ensemble cast to give each character at least some basis in reality. Greg Kinnear, for instance, could have made his character a caricature, but he projects that palpable sense of desperation that makes his "loser"/"winner" speechifying almost sympathetic instead of merely sad. And I was impressed by Carell, who somehow commands attention in scenes without seeming to do all that much except stay in perfect deadpan character (he begins the movie in a hospital after a suicide attempt). Even little Abigail Breslin manages to be cute without making a big show of it: you can believe that the family would see her as some kind of beacon of, uh, "winner"-dom, such innocence she exudes even as she obssesses over her looks.

And, as much as I have trouble with the film's smug vision of the outside world, I must concede that the film contains finely-detailed characters who act in ways that may be surprising at times, yet seem reasonable in context. When you finally see what little Olive has cooked up with her grandpa for the talent portion of the Little Miss Sunshine contest, it'll make all the sense in the world.

I suppose I can't hate this movie too much, because I did enjoy the film as I watched it, and it is so well-acted and well-written. Look, I enjoy oddball characters and dark humor as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that when just about everyone in a movie is turned into oddballs---not just the main characters, but side characters as well---then the film ceases to be human comedy and simply becomes a collection of precious quirks with barely a connection to recognizable human behavior. To a certain extent, I think that's what happens in Little Miss Sunshine, and why, as entertaining and sweet as it is, it doesn't really stay with you the way something like, say, The Royal Tenenbaums---to cite another recent offbeat dysfunctional family comedy---does. No insight is provided into why some Americans are so obssessed with winning or coming out on top at whatever cost; it's just yet another quirk to be cataloged.

And if that means I'm taking yet another comedy way too seriously---well, then so be it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Home Sweet Dusty

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Funniest moment of the day, although I think you'd have to be there to get the humor of it: today my entire family went to JCPenny's to do some clothes shopping, and we left our dog Dusty home alone. When we came back about 45 minutes later, we were treated to the spectacle of seeing Dusty literally going batshit crazy with what I assume was happiness at seeing us home again. In fact, he was so happy he was literally stamping his paws at our return, as if he was involved in some kind of hoedown. I'm surprised he didn't jump two feet in the air and try to land right into our arms or something.

Guess I shouldn't be surprised; he does seem to like company whenever he's up and alert, to the point that he'll bark whenever he feels like he's being neglected. Still, when I saw how happy he was to see us, I couldn't help but laugh out loud and say "Holy shit!"

Boy, I wish someone would actually greet me with that kind of boundless enthusiasm whenever I opened the door.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Thank You, Mr. Karr

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Boy, those 24-hour news networks couldn't wait for a John Mark Karr to throw himself into the news landscape and divert attention away from all the violence going on overseas (and, if not violence, at least the threat of one, as has descended over Lebanon after a cease-fire was agreed upon a little less than a week ago in that war-torn Middle East region).

Karr, of course, is the man who recently stepped into the limelight confessing to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. You might remember that that murder took the country by storm ten years ago, especially when both people and the press started speculating that her parents might somehow be involved. Well, now this English teacher with a shady past living in Thailand has stepped forward, and CNN and its ilk seem to be eating it up, even though there hasn't been much physical evidence to actually support Karr's claims.

The online magazine Slate had a fairly interesting article a couple days ago discussing why someone might lie about committing a murder; in Karr's case, it brings up the possibility that maybe he somehow got so obssessed with the case that he subconsciously deluded himself into thinking that he actually did it. How true that is, I obviously can't say for sure. I would think, however, that maybe the news media might be a little more circumspect about how much attention they give this guy before they implicitly indict him, the way some people accuse them of doing to the Ramseys years ago.

And yes, it's sad to see any young girl killed---especially one as angelic-looking as JonBenet---but seriously, there are things going on in the world arguably so much more important than this case that it seems like yet another instance of excessive sensationalism in the media.

Someone tell me I'm way off base here.


How in the world did Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats become such a Broadway phenomenon?

I saw this show for the first time Thursday evening at a Plays in the Park production of it---their final show this summer---and while it had its moments---few and far between, but they were there---for the most part I found myself pretty bored. Maybe I was just in a less than receptive mood...?

Look, I won't say anything against Lord Lloyd Webber's gift for melody and orchestration: he has a knack for catchy tunes and an imaginative way of orchestrating them to maximum, memorable effect, especially in a surrealistic (nightmarish?) show like Cats. But he never seems to develop any of his melodies in any interesting way; in a song, Lloyd Webber seems content to simply repeat them over and over again (an attempt at theme and variations structure?). He doesn't even really develop them interestingly throughout an entire show: his repetition of "Memory" throughout the show seems less a Wagner-style motif than simply a way of bludgeoning the tune into your skull. I suppose I should give him points for experimenting with different musical styles, though: the tunes range from torch songs to swing numbers, which gives a kind of variety to the show.

There's a larger problem, though. It's probably deeply ironic to complain about soullessness in a show about singing and dancing felines, but the main point of this show---if there is any point to it at all---is that cats are basically just like us. And the many cats in Cats seem like a fairly unengaging bunch, mostly vehicles for the composer's quiltwork musical pastiche. It's all meant to be playful, but somehow it has too heavy a touch---too much of an attempt to dazzle, I guess---to be the kind of whimsical light fun that T.S. Eliot---whose poems Cats is based---might have intended. The only character I had any feeling for was poor old Grizabella, the former "glamor" cat fallen on hard times (and the one who's eventually chosen to ascend to some higher plane at the end). "Memory" is arguably the only truly great tune in the entire show, and---surprise---it belongs to Grizabella (and the actress who played her on Thursday night burned with it, as I'm sure Betty Buckley did when she originated the role on Broadway). But she is only one of many, and her moments are sparse---but moving they are.

Maybe the immense popularity of this show---it was the longest-running show in Broadway history before Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera eclipsed it last year, I think---simply comes out of the fact that it transports you to a total fantasy world, one with barely much of a connection to real-world people and emotions. Nothing much wrong with that, I guess, although, with the exception of Grizabella's few appearances, I found little to care about except as sense-tinging spectacle. But spectacle seems to be Lord Lloyd Webber's stock in trade.

At least no cat started wiggling their butts in my face or anything when some of them ran off the stage at the end and danced around in the audience.

By the way, there is probably another subconscious reason for my fond memory of "Memory": in fifth grade, when I actually still had a passionate interest in piano playing, I played the tune at a talent show, and seemed to get an enthusiastic response to it. (My piano glory days, I guess, before I got demoralized by frustration and immaturity, and by a lack of parental support. Same with violin too.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 6: Day of Nostalgia

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I was going to update earlier this week regarding a trip I took on Sunday, but time was short and my will was weak. But, since it feels like I haven't updated this in a while, I figure that I owe some of you faithful readers an update.

Basically, I think I'm currently in one of my "recharging" phases: a lot of introspection, a lot of worrying, a lot of hanging around before I'm forced to focus my mind on the coming barrage of Rutgers-related business. In slang terms, I'm "chillin." I think I need it.

One of the things I did as part of my "chillin" is accompany my family on Sunday on a nostalgia trip: a return to my old home in Queens. Recently the tenants that were living there moved out, and so my family decided to return to our old home to see what kind of repairs and stuff needed to be done.

It was actually one of the more genuinely fun days I've had in quite a while, mostly because of the nostalgia factor: I didn't realize how much I remembered---however faintly---of my old hunting ground in Queens. As we drove through Main Street---Queens' main drag---I kept seeing old buildings---a car wash here, a Queens Library there---and feeling subliminal flashes of familiarity in my mind. It was a pleasurable feeling, actually.

My mother also filled in on details I had forgotten. That school on the right as we went down Main Street, for example, wasn't just a regular big elementary school, as I had thought all these years: it was actually a branch of CUNY, the School of Law. And the predominantly Jewish area of Queens eventually transformed into the predominantly Asian area of Flushing.

There was a library in Flushing that I remembered fondly, a Queens Library which housed a whole lot of Asian pop cassettes that I was very much into when I was young. Shame that it was closed on Sunday; I really would have liked to have gone in and see if anything changed (especially now that tapes are out and CDs are in). But somehow I don't remember traffic being so bad in that Flushing area, which my mother informed me headed down to Chinatown. Driving in New York traffic: it's a bitch, especially with drivers cutting each other off in jammed quarters and not even knowing where they're going. (We witnessed a near-accident happen right in front of us as a car almost collided with a bus as the former vehicle tried to change lanes to the left.)

As for my old Queens house: well, it's certainly not quite as nice as my East Brunswick house---it's a lot smaller, like a bigger-than-usual apartment---but it seems to be situated in a nice neighborhood, and the people that passed by all seemed personable. (Queens, it seems, certainly ain't Brooklyn or the Bronx.) It almost seems like the kind of neighborhood I wouldn't mind living in in the future, if I had a family---or heck, possibly even if I didn't.

Kinda-amusing moment: there was an old framed Fujishima family tree that we all thought had been lost, but which turned out to be still around the joint and kicking. Unfortunately, we forgot to bring it home with us. Maybe next time.

Well, that's all for now for this update. (Told you it'd be brief!)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I Killed the Electric Car

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I finally caught up with filmmaker Chris Paine's eco doc Who Killed the Electric Car? (*** out of ****) today after finding out that the movie my friend and I wanted to see tonight---Little Miss Sunshine at the Princeton Garden Theater---was sold out. (I guess the 7:00 hour is a popular one over at the Princeton Garden; when we went to see An Inconvenient Truth maybe a month or two ago at the same theater at around the same time, we were forced to sit only a few rows from the front, so packed it was. But then it's a theater with only two screens anyway, so I guess we should have expected it.)

Not sure if I have much to say about the movie except that it's mostly gripping and pretty effective at getting you genuinely upset about what could have been if car companies hadn't been so unenthusiastic about the electric cars they created, if oil companies hadn't been so fearful of losing business as a result of electric cars, if the California Air Resources Board (CARB for short) hadn't lost its spine in repealing its 1990 Zero Emissions Mandate, if people had been more informed, etc.

This is hardly a nonpartisan documentary; Paine is clearly angry about the fact that an apparently environmentally friendly, safe, and efficient vehicle, the electric car---which uses no gas and thus produces less emissions than gas cars, and is much more efficient to boot---was eventually brought down by forces to the point that it's become basically a footnote in history (or, at least, a display at an auto museum in Detroit). And, through all the facts and personal testimonies and expert analysis he throws at you, I'd say you're likely to feel that same anger too. I know what I was thinking as I watched the film: How come I didn't hear about this? (Did my ignorant self somehow contribute to the death of the electric car?) I suppose a part of me would have liked to have seen a bit more testimony from the people who are part of the forces that Paine indicts as contributors to the death of the electric car; one interview subject, Alan C. Lloyd---the CARB chairman who helped contribute to the repeal of the Zero Emissions Mandate, and the future chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership---is brought in in a perfunctory gesture of "evenhandedness," but who basically functions as a sitting duck (he states on camera that, given all the information he has, he would still have made the same decision). Still, the film basically achieves its effect: it gets you mad and reflecting once again about how much of a contribution you are or aren't making to the welfare of the environment we live in.

Consider this the more wired-up, jazzed-up, energetic cousin of this summer's other eco doc An Inconvenient Truth, especially considering that gas emissions are one of the major causes of global warming, as both the Al Gore film and this one note. On a technical level, Electric Car? is much more vital and "cinematic" than Truth, which is basically a filmed slideshow interspersed with moments of Gore introspection. In the end, though, it seems to me that An Inconvenient Truth will be the eco film that will last, mostly because of its cautionary message regarding the dangerous direction our environment is headed if we don't take great steps to curb global warming. Electric Car? is more like an angry elegy for an environmentally friendly, safe technology that could have been, if greed and ignorance hadn't brought it down. (Heck, in its attack on general greed and ignorance, I'd say it's a hell of a lot more effective than the fiction film Syriana, especially considering that the latter film tried to make oil addiction its major focus point, while Electric Car? basically relegates it to brief documentary allusions, including a President George W. Bush soundbite.)

Friday, August 11, 2006

Facing 9/11

EAST BRUSNWICK, N.J. - New Pulse article here---and then some thoughts on Oliver Stone's new film World Trade Center (*** out of ****), which I got to see Wednesday evening.

As you can see with the Pulse article, it's meant to be a brief critical survey of sorts regarding how Hollywood has already, in some ways, addressed 9/11 both emotionally and politically in indirect ways even before this year's two mainstream attempts at dealing with the tragedy directly---Stone's film and Paul Greengrass's United 93, released earlier this year. There were many other films I wanted to mention in the piece: V for Vendetta, for instance (a skillful piece of anti-Bush allegorical agitprop), and, heck, even Mission: Impossible III, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman's character revealed a plot that had something to do with forcing America to go to war over false information. (That little plot complication also has echoes of the war-concocted-by-oil-companies plot that eventually revealed itself in the latter third of the second season of 24.) But Steven Spielberg's two films last year---the unjustly maligned War of the Worlds and Munich---were, I thought, good examples of the two ways many filmmakers have taken to dealing with the world after 9/11.

Obviously, one of the major concerns of any mainstream Hollywood movie tackling such a generation-defining and sad event in our history is that it'll exploit the tragedy for the sake of pumped-up suspense and theatrics. That's the risk Paul Greengrass took with United 93 in detailing, in something close to real time, the confused response of air control stations on the ground to the 9/11 attack and the heroic response of the passengers on the doomed Flight 93, the one that went down into a field in Shanksville, PA as the passengers tried to overpower the terrorists and regain control of the plane. Personally, I think Greengrass mostly avoided exploitation, although I could see some people looking at it and saying, "Isn't this simply 9/11 as deglamorized Hollywood action spectacle?" I suppose one could reasonably argue that there was limited value and insight offered by Greengrass' faux-documentary style in United 93, although I think there were some valid issues raised indirectly in the film, especially in depicting the way bureaucracy seemed to tie up the possibility of a quicker response to the unfolding tragedy on the ground.

If United 93 was a more distanced and "intellectual" approach to tackling 9/11 directly, Stone's new film presents a more spiritual and emotional approach. Ultimately, I'm not sure if either film goes far enough in really tackling head-on the implications of 9/11 in an inquisitive, insightful, and meaningful way; nevertheless, I do think both films present laudable baby steps for Hollywood to deal with the realities of 9/11 in a way that doesn't smack of exploitation or meaningless "entertainment." Consider both films two sides of the same dark coin.

There's a lot to admire about World Trade Center, so let me get my reservations out of the way first.

Oliver Stone has consistently said that he consciously made sure that his film was resolutely "apolitical": no conspiracy theories, no preachiness, no grandstanding in the manner of, say, his JFK or Nixon. This was going to be strictly a film about people, not about making any grand political statements about 9/11 or the War on Terror or anything like that. (Maybe Stone saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and figured the 9/11 conspiracy theory market had been cornered?)

Still, making an ostensibly "apolitical" film that mines uplift out of tragedy is still, I'd say, a political act. It's the same political impulse that led Steven Spielberg to focus on the Schindler Jews instead of the rest of the six million killed in the Holocaust in Schindler's List and led Terry George to focus on Paul Rusesabagina's heroism in the midst of otherwise horrible ethnic cleansing in Hotel Rwanda. Political and also maybe a bit too...well, "Hollywood." It often seems that, faced with the possibility of devastating an audience in exploring the full extent of a real-life atrocity, Hollywood would rather try to send an audience out happy with stories of "triumphs of the human spirit" instead of really bothering the hell out of them---arguably a more appropriate, more lasting response to something like the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, or 9/11. If one were in a more cynical mood, one might also go so far as to call it "cowardly," since such films---as much as they may contain moments of sheer horror and backhanded recognitions of the tragedy surrounding these uplifting stories---ultimately seem less interested in facing the horrifying realities of a tragedy than in gaining mass acceptance and favor by trying to mine tears of joy out of tragedy, by trying to tell a "happy" story about survivors instead of taking the more politically resonant angle and look into the eye of the abyss and make sense of how such a terrible event could happen.

For that reason, I must admit that there were some moments in World Trade Center that couldn't help but feel a bit cliched or Hollywood-fakey to me. As much as I'm willing to grant that perhaps the real John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage in the film) or William Jimeno (Michael Pena) experienced their ordeal---being trapped under WTC rubble for 14 agonizing hours---in ways similar to what Stone depicts in this film, I just can't help feeling that scenes like Jimeno singing the Starsky and Hutch theme to McLoughlin or McLoughlin's near-death dream sequence with his wife (Maria Bello) telling him to remain steadfast seems just a smidge like Hollywood melodrama leftovers---corny, in other words. Its most problematic aspect, though, is the way Stone characterizes ex-Marine Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) as an ultra-religious Marine who hears about the rescue effort at Ground Zero and, as he says, feels compelled by God to act. As "apolitical" as Stone says his movie is, its characterization of Karnes is probably his most overtly political touch, unsubtly celebrating these noble rescuers as heroic children of God. Call me heartless or insensitive, but such moments seemed to me as if Stone himself were trying to resist the impulse to lapse into such corniness while giving into said impulse. (The Karnes touch, especially, struck me as just a little over-the-top.)

And yet...there is no denying the sincerity and spirituality behind such seemingly melodramatic gestures, because they are part and parcel of what I think World Trade Center is really about. No, the film doesn't evade the fact that it takes place on Sept. 11; but, take away that fact and what you're left with is Stone's abstract meditation on the way we grieve, the way we handle impending death, the way we all react to grand-scale tragedy (and certainly the 20th century wasn't lacking in mass atrocity). In that, World Trade Center gets at emotional truth in a way that United 93, for all its skill as filmmaking and for all its tastefulness, never really did.

And damned if some of it wasn't genuinely touching or moving---because we all grieved that day, in our own ways. Will Jimeno, for instance, sees startling visions of Jesus as he's trapped under the rubble when he seems to be losing hope---visions which Stone visually depicts onscreen as bathed in spiritually fortifying light, as Jesus seems to extend something out to Will to hold on to. McLoughlin generally tries to be more realistic and calm, but his saving grace eventually comes in a near-death vision of his loving wife Donna (a halo seems to form around the edges of the frame in this sequence). Jimeno's wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs around frantically as she worries about the safety of her husband, while Donna is sometimes as calm as her husband, even as she deals with one son who insists on going to Ground Zero to find his father ("don't you want to find him?" he asks---a gut-wrenching moment). In World Trade Center, Stone seems to be aiming for some kind of intimate yet epic panorama of emotion engendered by the 9/11 tragedy, and, if it doesn't necessarily have more to add about our understanding of what happened on 9/11 (that's something I think United 93 does provide, at least in small moments), it's still a valid artistic response---even more startlingly artful than United 93, admittedly---because it delves into the vast array of emotions inspired by the event and taps into a kind of ineffable deep spirituality that no news broadcast or documentary has come close to evoking. World Trade Center may be a slightly compromised effort---compromised by the need to satisfy the mass appetite for uplift---but it has moments of emotional truth, enriched by Stone's eye for expressive imagery (9/11 rubble as a vision of purgatory) and a sincere emotional vision, that should not be gainsaid.

P.S. It seems like eerily precise timing that, just after a brand new 9/11 movie opens, we get news that another large-scale terrorist plot---this involving liquid explosives concealed in sports drink bottles to be snuck onto airplanes---had been in the works. At least this one was foiled (though by British police, not by us---perhaps a telling detail to some). I suppose it's cool that the news media is actually giving a sizable amount of TV time and page space to detailing a triumph in the War on Terror; it, at least temporarily, gives lie to the typical view of the news media as fearmongers. Good news, certainly, although horrible things are still going on in Lebanon and in Iraq. Let's not forget that, just as we shouldn't forget about the people that died on 9/11 even as we watch a movie detailing the way two people were rescued. Let's keep some perspective here, in other words.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 6: Thinking About My Future

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm about to get a little Benjamin Braddock-y on y'all for a bit, so bear with me.

So, a couple of nights ago, I was treated to yet another round of lecturing, pressuring and putdowns from my mother regarding how I don't have a plan for my future, how she thinks I'm not thinking enough about how I'm going to make a living after college, blah blah blah. In this lecture, she managed to belittle my Megamovies job, insult my love of movies ("it's fun; that's all it is"), and even suggest that I'd probably never become a very good journalist ("you're not curious enough," she says).

Does she have any idea how much she has a tendency to shatter my confidence at the most inopportune moments? Shoot, even my counselor at Rutgers, when she heard about this, said she felt angry at her for what she said to me. Stupid Asian parents; only thing they seem to know how to be is blunt as a sledgehammer. (Sound stereotypical? So be it.)

But enough about the whining. Some of you have heard it from me a million times before. I guess one good thing came out of my mother's well-intentioned but deeply misguided and unsuccessful attempt at reaching out to me: it got me thinking again about my future. Where am I headed after college? What should I do if I want to get to where I want to be, say, ten or twenty years in the future?

First of all, where do I want to be ten or twenty years in the future? Well, I guess the easy answer is: I want to be writing about movies, being a film critic somewhere. More complicated answer: film critic---and a respected one, not just one of these small-time film reviewers---but also able to make a reasonably steady living to support my writing. (Family? Well, I'm not really thinking about that at this point; I don't even have a girlfriend right now, heck.)

I could probably come up with a variety of different ways to achieve film critic-hood, I guess. Start out as a regular journalist and somehow advance to the ranks of writing about movies on a regular basis. Maybe join up with some film website---or create one, I dunno---and get some experience and exposure there. Something like that.

It's the "making a reasonably steady living" part that worries both me and my mother. Journalists, as most people probably know, don't really get paid all that much: maybe $20,000 a year for small-time journalists, maybe even less. Would I really have to think about doing part-time teaching on the side in order to finance my writing career? The prospect of having to do that makes me nervous; I've never considered myself teacher material. (But then, I'm not sure if I'm really journalism material, either; I'm not the most gregarious person around, and maybe Mom is right when she suggests that I could be more curious and knowledgeable about things other than movies.) But if that's what I have to do to pay the bills, I guess I'll have to do it. And what about health insurance, nice place to live, all that mundane stuff? Those are important things to have in this country; what if I can't afford them because I don't get nearly enough income?

See, most people would probably optimistically tell me stuff like "Oh, don't worry about it. You'll find a way; things always work out in the end." Maybe it's Mom's influence talking to me here, but that's always sounded just a little too sugary to me. Do they? I suspect they do only if the person himself has the wits to overcome such challenges---wits that sometimes I'm not sure I've come close to developing.

You know, I've told myself over these past few months that yes, I have to brace myself for challenges ahead if this is the path I want to take. I chose this path, even when my mother was ignorantly pushing the accounting thing on me (an ignorance that she has apologized for once or twice with only a modicum of sincerity, to my ears). But I sometimes wonder whether I'm just saying that, or if I'm actually genuinely ready to face the challenge of possibly starving for my art. (Am I falling into the Jonathan Larson Rent trap of glamorizing the starving artist lifestyle?)

I guess my biggest worry right now is: am I doing nearly enough right now to prepare myself for my future? Yeah, I'm writing occasional pieces for Pulse, and I'm slated to become an editor at the Inside Beat. But I'm still mostly pigeonholing myself in one field, movies. Shouldn't I be more enterprising, trying to improve, say, my interviewing skills or something? Shouldn't I be a lot more active than I am? And don't even get me started on my laxity in the whole finding-an-internship thing: the farthest I've gotten is finding some listings in an internship book. Little action otherwise. (Boy, sometimes it seems motivation is so hard for me to summon up for myself; perhaps a bad sign for my future success as a wannabe journalist?)


The question of graduate school has come back into my view.

Initially, I was thinking about trying my luck on the job market before jumping into graduate school somewhere. (I was thinking of Columbia; that's where one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, got his Film History-Theory-Criticism MFA.) But I'm starting to think: should I just try for graduate school right after I graduate from Rutgers? Hey, I'd be staying in school, and thus, in the eyes of some people (ahem, Mom, ahem), staving off the "real world" a little bit more.

But keep your options open, Kenji: what if you get some nice internship somewhere and impress your employers so much that they decide they want you to work full time for them or something? Well I guess that's something that I'd have to play by ear.

All these are half-formed ideas about my future that I've never really bothered to explain at length to my mother. Dunno if I care to, really. What does it matter? I have a feeling she'd poke some hole in my plan anyway and then suggest that I still have some more thinking to do.

I just wonder, though, if what I have in my mind is enough...

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Life With Dusty

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Yeah I know, it's been a while since I've updated. Sorry; guess I've just been keeping myself busy (or lazy). So I'm making up for it with what looks to be a lengthy entry, in which I will not only pool my thoughts on two new movies---The Descent and The Night Listener---but also update readers on details about our new family pet, Dusty.

Apparently, Dusty---a shitsu---is eight years old. My family brought him home from a local animal shelter, and so far he hasn't posed any big problems for us.

Well, no big problems. The first couple of nights he was home Dusty woke my mother up on account of his constant barking: it seems as if he doesn't like to be alone at nights. He's gotten better, though (although last night was a mild aberration: as I was ready to drift into sleep, I heard him barking, and I got up and, from the top of the stairs, shushed him. He seemed to get the message).

It seems as if he hasn't been trained to, er, do his business in one place. He's pissed on two of my car tires, and he's dumped on the street a few times. One of my next door neighbors has a cocker spaniel that is trained to properly piss and poop, not just do it anywhere outdoors. I guess that's something we should try to train him to do. (We probably need some kind of pooper scooper as well; for now, we've been using plastic bags to scoop up Dusty's feces.) At least he ain't relieving himself indoors.

(Very savory material for this blog entry, I know.)

We also should probably not give in to Dusty whenever he seems to want to go outside. You know, the whole "discipline" thing (Cesar Milian, anybody?). Whenever he sees any of us and really wants to go outside, he's always lunging toward the door and jumping around and panting. And, since someone is always around, we usually satisfy him. Of course, we're not going to be able to do that all the time come September, when my bros and I are off to school.

Overall, though, he's been a nice, cute addition to the family. Maybe, in the future, I'll post some pics for you so you can all gasp in the cuteness that is Dusty. And yeah, I think we'll just keep the name. He seems to respond to it.


"From the studio that brought you Saw and Hostel," trumpets the ads for the new horror film The Descent (*** out of ****). It sets up expectations that the film doesn't entirely fulfill---much to its credit, I think. I haven't seen either Saw or Hostel, but it seems like the sadistic cruelty of both films are what attracts audiences to them: the thrill of seeing torture and violence in such graphically gory detail. In other words, celebrations of cruelty. The Descent has, it must be said, many scenes of gruesome bloodletting, mostly in the film's horrorshow second half. But the difference between this film and other torture-as-mass-entertainment "horror" films of recent years is that there actually seems to be a sense of intelligence---heck, I'd say even moral intelligence---that makes the film, at its best, genuinely scary and even frightening on a deeper level. The Descent, for all its thrill-ride jolts and frequent splashes of red, actually seems to be about something instead of just being an empty barbaric freakshow.

What's it about? The Descent is superficially about six women who decide to explore a cave and eventually find---to say the least---more than they bargained for. But I think the film is about a descent of a different sort: the descent from civilization to savagery. As these six women go deeper and deeper into this cave, they not only encounter these weird pre-human creatures who attack anything that moves (obviously, these creatures are savage from the start); the women start to distrust each other, even attack each other. One of them, in a mad rush, accidentally impales one of the cave-hunting friends and, shocked, leaves her to die; another eventually stabs that same woman in the leg and leaves her to be eaten by the creatures after discovering what she did to her friend. The Descent turns out not just to be us-against-them; some of these six women turn on each other, whether out of survival or, in the case of one of the characters, out of pure bloodlust.

That character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), provides the most interesting character trajectory in the film. At the beginning, we witness the accidental death of her husband and daughter, and we see how much it haunts her, as much as any such would haunt anyone. (Throughout the film, there are surrealistic interjections of shots of her late daughter holding a candlelit birthday cake.) A year later---when the film's titular "descent" takes place---she's still on the mend, and her friends figure that this trip is a good way to get her out of her funk. Boy, it gets her out of a funk all right---but not in the way you'd expect. There's no redemption for Sarah in director Neil Marshall's dark, dank universe: instead, by the end, she's emerging out of a bath of blood, Carrie-like, and wearing a glowering look on her face as she stares into the eyes of Juno (Natalie Mendoza)---the instigator of the trip and the one who accidentally kills her best friend---stabs her, and allows her to die. The trip from stressed-out widow to coldblooded murderer is complete; one trauma has been replaced by another.

No, I suppose the whole idea of a film detailing the descent of an otherwise normal human being into something subhuman isn't necessarily a fresh, new idea. But Roger Ebert has famously said "a movie is not about what it is about, but how it's about it." There is an eeriness and intensity to The Descent that really drives home Marshall's vision of humanity descending into inhumanity in moments of extreme stress. Its skillful, effective use of lighting and framing emphasizes the hell these characters find themselves in, and how it affects them psychologically. Nothing is stated directly; it's all beautifully and frighteningly suggested by the technique.

The first half of The Descent is probably its better half: it's the half with much less gore, instead focusing on generating suspense out of "natural" situations. One of the characters gets stuck under some rocks and must get out of the hole before the rocks collapse on her. Another situation finds our six women forced to cross a deep, dark chasm in order to get to the other side. These are genuinely nailbiting cliffhanger situations; compared to such sequences, the second half descends (pun intended) into the usual modern-day succession of gore effects.

By taking his characters seriously, however, and by taking its violence seriously, Neil Marshall manages to craft one of the creepier, better freakouts of recent years. It's a real horror film, not an exploitive gorefest (or, at least, not merely one).

(Spoiler alert) It also has, I think, one of the more ingenious uses of a horror-movie cliche I've seen in quite a while. It comes at the end, after Sarah has bloodied Juno and escaped from the cave. She rushes to her car, rides out into the road, stops on the side, barfs, and then bam! The ghost of Juno sitting next to Sarah frightens the shit out of her. A close-up of Sarah's frightened eyes, and the film cuts to black. It looks like the usual gratuitous "final scare"---and, for all I know, maybe Marshall only intended it as such.

But I prefer to see it this way: it's telling that it's Juno sitting next to Sarah in the car, not one of the other women (not the one Juno killed, whose name I can't remember offhand). It's the woman Sarah heartlessly allowed to die simply out of vengeance. Perhaps that bleak final image suggests that Sarah will have to live with what she did. Certainly she cannot claim to be a victim any longer. Morally intelligent indeed.

By the way: the U.S. version of The Descent has had its ending slightly chopped off. Apparently the heads of Lionsgate felt that the original ending was too ambiguous for us dumb audience members. If you've seen the film already, judge for yourself. (Personally, I like both.) Here's the original longer ending, thanks to Youtube:

For a more, uh, "tasteful" experience, try The Night Listener (*** out of ****), a slender but mostly intriguing little picture in which Robin Williams plays a radio storyteller named Gabriel Noone who has run out of stories to tell, and who finds one in the supposedly true story of a 14-year-old boy who was sexually molested as a child by his parents. But doubts about the story's authenticity eventually pop up and Gabriel---who really wants to believe this story, although whether out of caring for the boy or simply as fodder for his radio show the movie makes teasingly ambiguous---decides to try to visit the boy and find out for himself. What he eventually finds out ties the film to some of the recent memoir fabrication scandals, particularly the scandal surrounding the pseudonymous J.T. LeRoy with some of his memoirs. (Perhaps that required a spoiler alert.)

The Night Listener ultimately has the impact of an interesting little anecdote rather than a satisfyingly fleshed-out feature film. I was absorbed throughout, but at the end I was left a little hungry for a movie. Still, it's far from a bad one. Robin Williams still manages to hold you with his restraint and sensitivity. And if Toni Collette---who plays the blind woman who is apparently the woman taking care of the 14-year-old boy---never quite fashions the character into a convincing flesh-and-blood person, perhaps that's just as well: she's essentially an enigma anyway.

What The Night Listener adds up to, I think, is a portrait of a man who wants to believe in the reality of the stories he tells, but finds himself disappointed when the best story he's heard turns out to be a sham. Perhaps, just as Donna (Toni Collette's character) turns to making up stories in order to try to connect with people, Gabriel uses his own stories to try to connect with people: with his boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), with his listeners, etc.

As slight as The Night Listener may be, when you leave a movie wanting more, perhaps that's not necessarily such a bad thing.