Thursday, September 23, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010: My Joy (2010)


An opening scene of a couple of people dumping a corpse into a hole and burying it in cement dispels expectations early on that Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy (2010) will actually live up to its title. Instead, this is yet another one of these grim—and, in the mode of other recent Russian dramas like 4 (2005) and Cargo 200 (2007), bleakly amusing—mazes of miserablism about the evil that men do, the self-interest that allows people to stand by while unspeakable violence is committed and the corruption at the top that seems to trickle down into their underlings. That Loznitsa's film is structurally daring—the film is boldly free-form, with a jarring shift midway through that transforms a road movie into a series of barely related episodes—and shot (by Oleg Mutu, best known for his work on the 2007 Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in beautifully lit and choreographed long takes, isn't enough to distract us from the fact that My Joy—despite a promising first hour that suggests a genuine curiosity about the world, and the people who reside in it, on Loznitsa's part amidst the morass of inhumanity—is ultimately pretty thin, shallowly misanthropic stuff. This is one grueling and eventually monotonous road to nowhere.

New York Film Festival 2010: LennonNYC (2010)


Despite the fact that I found myself having little to say about LennonNYC (2010)—Michael Epstein's documentary about rock icon John Lennon's years in the U.S. during the 1970s—I still tried to say something about it in my recent House Next Door dispatch. It's basically hagiography, but on that level I admit I wasn't entirely unmoved. (If nothing else, it gave me some motivation to finally listen to some of Lennon's apparently hit-or-miss solo work, especially his final complete album Double Fantasy.)

This is scheduled to air on PBS on Nov. 22. Frankly, the film's conventional Ken Burns-like talking-heads style is perfectly suited for the small screen; I say, you could probably skip paying $20 to see it at Alice Tully Hall and just wait for it to appear on your HDTV.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Joyeux anniversaire, Anna Karina!

NEW YORK—A bit of a break from New York Film Festival blogging for this rare celebrity-birthday shout-out.

The great film blogger Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant may have already cornered the market on Anna Karina love by naming his site after the French New Wave siren and Jean-Luc Godard muse...but that won't stop me from paying tribute to her vibrant and beautiful self on this, her 70th birthday!

Operating under the notion that a picture—or, in this case, a moving picture—is indeed worth a thousand words, I offer to you this clip:

This isn't from any of Karina's performances under Godard's direction; it's from Anna, a 1967 TV musical directed by Pierre Koralnik with music and lyrics by Serge Gainsbourg (a film which also featured the late Jean-Claude Brialy as a love interest). I, alas, have never seen the entire thing (if anyone knows where to find a copy of it, by all means, let me know!) except for clips that occasionally pop up on YouTube; plus, I am far, far, far from fluent in French. And yet...just look at her yearn and dream while singing "Sous le soleil exactement" on what looks to be an empty beach of her own imagining. Really: It would be nice to know what exactly (exactement) she's singing about, but in this case, is it absolutely necessary?

Such emotional transparency, such l'aime.

New York Film Festival 2010: Robinson in Ruins (2010)


One thing I'm looking forward to in this year's New York Film Festival is a chance to introduce myself to some of my blind spots in current cinema; avant-garde filmmakers like James Benning and Phil Solomon constitute some of my biggest ones. (It's probably as good a time as any here to give credit to the wonderful film critic Michael Sicinski for introducing me, through his writing, to many of the bigger names in the avant-garde film scene.) In general, I haven't dealt as much with experimental cinema as I would like, and this year, with the festival's annual Views from the Avant-Garde program, I have an opportunity to get a bit of a taste.

I'm not sure if Patrick Keiller's documentary/cine-essay Robinson in Ruins (2010) is considered avant-garde—but it is certainly more formally adventurous than most documentaries I usually see (including a film I saw this morning, LennonNYC, which, aesthetically speaking, fully embraces the conventional Ken Burns-like talking-heads mode, and which I will be writing about for The House Next Door as my next dispatch). Its style also threw me for a loop early on, and so I spent much of the rest of the film feeling like I was playing catch-up; by the end, I still didn't quite feel like I had fully caught up. But I'm fascinated enough by what I think I get out of it that, if the film does get a theatrical release here in the U.S. outside the festival, I will certainly be willing to take another crack at it, in addition to catching up with Keiller's earlier work beforehand.

Anyway, my initial attempt to grapple with it is up at The House. If nothing else, the film has what may be my favorite shot of the year to date, which I mention in the piece. It involves a spider and the global financial crisis. That is all for now.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010: Poetry (2010)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—A new week of New York Film Festival press screenings beckons (and I started it off with a really good one this morning, which I discuss below). Alas, with a couple of major exceptions, this week's a bit of a heartbreaker for me. Apparently, if my boss at work is out—as she is all week long—no one else under her is allowed to take time off? Well, that's exactly what happened when I asked about which weeks I could take off to attend these press screenings—and this, it turns out, is the week that some of my most eagerly anticipated movies are screening for critics: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas and Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy chief among them. My caveman-like way of expressing my frustration: Aaaaarrrrrgggghhhh!!!!!

Well, at least I have David Fincher's The Social Network and Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme to look forward to on Friday (my usual day off). And next week and the week after that, I was able to get the appropriate days off, so I will be able to see stuff like Cristi Puiu's Aurora, Charles Ferguson's new documentary Inside Job, Mike Leigh's Another Year, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff (which received rapturous praise from Toronto International Film Festival attendees—possibly a good sign, considering how little I thought of her last film, Wendy and Lucy) and this year's Closing Night film selection, Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. And I may end up trying to see at least one or two of the aforementioned ones I'm missing at public screenings, if I feel like spending the big bucks or taking chances on rush lines in order to get half-price tickets.

In the meantime...


The title of Poetry, the latest film from South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, is rather misleading. Yes, it is partly about the process of literary creation, following as it does the struggle of the elderly Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee) to find "poetic inspiration" for a poetry class she, at 66, has decided to take. But, if it's actually about that abstract concept of "poetry" at all, it's about the universal difficulty of finding beauty in our modern world. Don't let its stateliness deceive you: This is, at heart, a deeply angry and frustrated picture—though ultimately not a cynical and despairing one.

When Mija is all set to open herself to the world around her, she receive a tragic shock to her system: Her grandson, Wook (Da-wit Lee), has been identified in the diary of a girl who recently committed suicide (and whose corpse is seen floating in a river in its opening scene) as among six children who repeatedly raped her in their school's chemistry lab over the course of many months. Mija finds herself reluctantly roped into the boys' fathers' desperate attempts to persuade the parents of the deceased to not sue them. As she attempts to handle the stress of trying to spare her grandson from jail, she is also forced to deal with the discovery that she is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's. All of this throws her optimistic, happy-go-lucky worldview for a serious loop; her newfound attempt at poetry, is, then, her way of making sense of a world, and possibly a life, turned upside down.

This sense of jarring dislocation is rendered with the kind of patience and delicacy Yasujiro Ozu regularly practiced in his domestic dramas; Poetry abounds in long takes that frame Mija amidst the environment surrounding her—observing that environment as much as Mija herself tries to do, while also visually contextualizing the world outside of her purview. And yet, dark and unsettling currents seethe underneath the surface serenity. One can't fail to notice, for instance, the callousness with which the boys' fathers try to sweep their sons' wrongdoing under the rug; more personally devastating to Mija are the kinds of compromises she is forced to make in trying to keep herself and her grandson afloat, even to the point of finding herself having to fuck a stroke-ridden old man to which she is employed as a maid (thankfully, this doesn't play nearly as outrageously as it sounds). With all this thrust onto her plate, it is no wonder that she has trouble finding that "poetic inspiration" she so desperately seeks. And as events boil to a head, one begins to wonder if, in a world in which self-interest seems to reign over human empathy, it is even possible to find the type of beauty in the everyday that Mija's poetry professor preaches to his students.

But the film finally, transcendently, ends on a note that suggests that that precious ability to look into the heart and soul of another holds the key not only to creating art, but also to negotiating the challenges of living in this cruel, messed-up world. Such empathy doesn't preclude the possibility, however, of having to make hard moral choices. That is all I will say about the film's ending; for now, I will just note that rarely does Lee force any of these themes on us; instead, he somehow manages to let it all hover over the whole film in a way that every once in a while truly carries, yes, the hazy, sublime elusiveness of a work of poetry.

(Poetry will be screened on Sept. 25 and 26 at the New York Film Festival; see here for details.)

New York Film Festival 2010: Carlos (2010)


In his three-part biographical epic Carlos, Olivier Assayas seems to have approached his subject—Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the international terrorist known throughout the 1970s and '80s as Carlos the Jackal—in a manner similar to the way Steven Soderbergh approached another leftist-revolutionary icon, Che Guevara, in his two-part Che. Like Soderbergh, Assayas seems to have decided that the only honest way to approach his enigmatic central figure is to focus obsessively on historical verisimilitude, stand back, and allow us to draw our own conclusions.

So begins my second dispatch from this year's New York Film Festival, in which I grapple with Olivier Assayas's monumental Carlos (2010). It's screening on Oct. 2 during the festival; afterward, last I've heard, the film will be shown in three parts on the Sundance Channel before being released theatrically in both its full 319-minute version and a three-hour cut later in the fall. In whatever form, it's very much worth seeing and having an opinion on. (For a more thorough take on this film, take a look at Nick Schager's review at Slant Magazine proper.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010) and Nuremberg (1948)


In my first dispatch from this year's New York Film Festival, I tackle Andrei Ujicâ's conceptually intriguing three-hour documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010) and the new 35mm restoration of Nuremberg, Stuart Schulberg's film of the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and '46. Both of these are showing as Special Events at this year's festival—and, though problematic and very, very slippery, Ujicâ's film is ultimately worth checking out and having an opinion on, I think. (If anyone in New York is interested in seeing Nuremberg, one could probably wait 'til its scheduled weeklong run at Film Forum later this month.)

Enjoy! (New York Film Festival screening info for The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu is here; for Nuremberg, here.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New York, New York...Film Festival, That Is!

NEW YORK—On Monday, I picked this up at Lincoln Center:

There it is, folks: my first film-festival press pass ever (and hopefully not the last one I'll ever get!)

Don't I look all professional in that photo? (Actually, don't answer that...)

Starting tomorrow, and within the next four weeks, I will be covering this year's New York Film Festival (running from Sept. 24 to Oct. 10) for Slant Magazine's blog offshoot The House Next Door. That is where you'll see my dispatches—and maybe I'll find some time to pool some of those initial impressions on this here blog, especially for films I see that I am not covering.

I've never covered a film festival before, but I've been told that this is a far more relaxed kind of festival than, say, the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival (which I hope to one day attend, after plans to do so this year fell through). Hopefully, then, I'll be able to handle the pressure of pooling my impressions in a reasonably timely manner. (I'm not the only one covering the festival for The House, so I'll have some help in that regard.)

Besides: Isn't that the kind of pressure that actual journalists have to deal with day-in and day-out? (Hey: If I can pull this off, anyone want to hire me to cover film festivals full time? Anyone?)

So if substantive blog updates here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second are sparse in the next few weeks...well, that's why. But, of course, I will link you all to my House Next Door posts as soon as they go up.

Wish me luck! I'm looking forward to whatever discoveries, pleasurable or not, await me in the next few weeks of film-festivallin'.

P.S. I know, I know: I haven't written much about my big move to Brooklyn this past weekend. Short version: I encountered the usual stresses, but overall it went pretty well; now I'm just trying to get myself all settled in, not to mention comfortable with the idea of living on my own. Longer version of that to come...eventually.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Video for the Day: How Asian Parents React to a B+ on a Report Card

NEW YORK—Someone at work directed me to this hilarious (if unabashedly amateurish) video that comically exaggerates the kind of life-and-death reaction I always got from my mother when I got anything less than an A- on a report card. (That said, academically, I was always one of the more middling students in a super-smart high-school graduating class, so B's on a report card eventually stopped fazing my mother and me. And no, my mother never spanked me for inferior grades.)

I'm sharing this with all of you, then, on the assumption that someone among my reader pool has had a similar experience with their parents:

RIP Claude Chabrol (1930-2010)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Thanks to some internet-connectivity issues here in my new Crown Heights apartment, I wasn't able to post this in as timely a manner as I would have liked. But better late than never, I suppose.

Following the momentous passing of Eric Rohmer, Chabrol appears to have become the next French New Wave luminary to bite the dust.

Many have remarked upon Chabrol's blistering critique of middle-class repression, and there's certainly something to that, most notably in films like La femme infidèle (1969; later remade by Adrian Lyne in 2002 as Unfaithful) and Le boucher (1970), where his technical precision and ironic detachment suggest twisted desires lurking underneath innocent-looking exteriors. And yet there was always a deeper empathy lurking underneath Chabrol's chilly façade. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol understood that, whether we'd like to admit it or not, such dark emotions are a part of what makes us all human.

The two aforementioned films are great, but the one film from his 1960s and '70s (the period of his work with which I'm more familiar) that really sticks out to my mind is his 1969 film This Man Must Diea revenge drama that manages to portray vengeance's destruction of one's soul with the kind of cold humor, emotional/moral complexity and mournful poetry that Chabrol delivered at his best (a height which Chan-wook Park can only dream of reaching). Revenge thrillers seem to be all the rage these days (I've been seeing trailers for yet another big-budget thriller about one man's quest of revenge, a film starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson with the not-terribly-intriguing title Faster), but Chabrol, with unnerving clarity, challenged us to stare down vengeance's moral abyss. That was the kind of challenge Chabrol consistently, masterfully issued in his vast filmography, all the way up to his sharp 2007 black comedy A Girl Cut in Two (which, by the way, I reviewed for The House Next Door here).

His now final feature, Inspector Bellamy, is slated to open in New York on Oct. 29, by the way.

May he rest in peace.

In the meantime, chew on ace video-essayist Kevin B. Lee and film critic Dan Sallitt's insightful take on both La femme infidèle and Le Boucher:

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Is What I Will Be Doing All Weekend...


This is it: my last day as a regular East Brunswick, N.J. resident.

By next week, I will be situated in an apartment in Crown Heights and thinking about the upcoming New York Film Festival, which I will help cover for The House Next Door for the next few weeks.

Until then, however: I will be doing box-loads of packing. So I will likely not be taking in many, if any, movies this weekend, theatrically or at home.

Wish me luck, everyone! Considering how much I've packed as of the publication of this post—not at all, really—I will most likely need all the luck I can get.

To end this week, then...naturally, some Billy Joel is in order:

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Question for the Day: Time to Leave?


Is it just me, or does it seem like more and more people are actually fleeing, or at least thinking about fleeing, the United States and settling abroad these days?

In the past few months, I've seen one co-worker leave for a new position within The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong; a couple of favorite film critics/fellow cinephiles decide to pack up and settle in foreign cities, presumably for good; and another well-known film blogger voice a desire on Facebook to leave the U.S. for Canada.

"Anyone with a longing for civilized society should be leaving the U.S.," wrote that Canada-yearning film blogger. In a similar vein, one of those fellow cinephiles posted a long explanation on his blog in which he expressed deep disillusionment with the state of film criticism and independent-film distribution and his hope that relocating to a new locale overseas would rejuvenate his heretofore dwindling passion.

I suppose I shouldn't draw any broad conclusions about the state of this union from what may well just be an insignificant trend among this small-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things group of people within which I interact. But with the rise of the Tea Party movement, the astonishing ubiquity and popularity of fearmongering demagogues like Glenn Beck, the apparent incompetence and arrogance of both political parties in Congress and this sense that the American people have only gotten more divided since Barack Obama swept into the U.S. presidency in 2008—well, it can't be a coincidence that, with all this going on right now, people I like and respect are apparently giving up and leaving the United States for good.

Whatever happened to all that "hope," "change" and "reaching across the aisle" Candidate Obama promised during that memorable 2008 election? I vividly remember the excitement Obama inspired in people my age all around me; many of them were so happy to find a relatively young and electrifying presidential candidate that seemed to speak directly to them, stirring them to cast away their apathy and get involved. And hey, I won't pretend that I didn't get swept up in it, too (I voted for the guy, after all); the glow of history being made when the election returns flowed in on Nov. 4, 2008, and indicated an Obama victory is still something I will never forget.

Two years later, midterm elections are coming up, and despite a handful of major victories in the Obama presidency—healthcare reform and Wall Street reform chief among them, both of which are not inconsiderable, by any means—things just seem like "same shit, different day," with things, if anything, seeming even worse than before. Has President Obama simply run up against the brutal realities of the American political system? Or did we all just get rooked by the usual politically calculated sweet talk?

In any case, it's sad to think that, for some, living in the United States has become such a burden and an embarrassment that people are seriously thinking of fleeing it in droves. But I suppose when confronted by ignoramuses like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, both of whom are contributing to the dumbing down of political discourse; or the Gainesville, Fla., pastor who plans to publicly burn copies of the Quran this coming Sept. 11 despite denunciations and warnings about the dangers of retributive religious violence such an act would cause—well, I'm not sure I can entirely blame them.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

(Late Labor Day) Weekend Film Round-up, Procrastination Edition

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I know, I know: I should have been packing during the long Labor Day weekend that just ended, because this coming weekend I'm going to be officially moving into my new apartment in Crown Heights. But no; mostly I just stressed out upon realizing just how much I needed to do before pulling off such a move, and how little experience I've had with all this moving stuff. So as of now, my room isn't filled with boxes filled or waiting to be filled; it's, as David Byrne famously sang, "[the] same as it ever was."

I will do some packing during this week, folks, I promise! If you want, I'll even offer photographic proof of my progress.

In the meantime: I saw a really mixed bag of films theatrically during my long weekend. Since I can't really find a thread linking them all, capsules follow.


Animal Kingdom (2010; Dir.: David Michôd)

In his feature debut, Australian writer-director Michôd envisions a (crime-)family unit so insular and protective of their own that, when outside forces threaten to cut it down, some of the family members—chiefly, the sociopathic Andrew "Pope" Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), and later the coldly calculating, kindly-on-the-surface matriarch (Jacki Weaver)—are willing to kill within the family in order to shield it from outside harm. It's "survival of the fittest" writ large; fitting, then, that the opening credits unfold over shots of details from a panorama depicting animals in the wild.

Impressive for the ways it builds mounting tension with the sparest of means and a welcome emphasis on character, Michôd's deterministic take on family might be oppressively bleak were it not for its focus on Josh, the outsider that the rest of the Codys fear threaten their survival. The character's arc from innocence and fear to wariness and anger is rendered by talented newcomer James Frecheville with the same kind of intelligent subtlety that distinguishes Michôd's filmmaking. Though its larger metaphor of the Codys as a miniature "animal kingdom" may be a bit too on-the-nose, the execution thankfully invites you to feel your way into this cruel world. Against all odds, Michôd's vision manages to get under your skin.


Machete (2010; Dir.: Robert Rodriguez)

Though this feature-length extension of Rodriguez's opening fake Grindhouse (2007) trailer has a few inspired moments of exploitative ultraviolence—where else are you going to see someone swinging out of a window holding onto a guy's intestines?—mostly it features the same kind of deadening self-consciousness that made Planet Terror, Rodriguez's half of the Grindhouse double-bill, as monotonous as it was outrageously violent. In such a context, it's not much of a surprise that the film's pro-immigration social commentary, however deeply felt it may be on Rodriguez's part, barely creates much of a stir except as window-dressing for the blood, guts and sex.


The Tingler (1959; Dir.: William Castle)

All throughout this past weekend, Film Forum—as a culmination of its recent William Castle series—screened Castle's 1959 film The Tingler with his original theatrical gimmicks intact. In this case, that meant "Percepto"—in which select seats in a theater were wired with a buzzer to simulate the titular creature's effect on one's spine while in a state of extreme fear—and "Psychedelorama"—a riot of colors projected onto the screen during the main character's scientifically minded experiment with LSD. Alas, I was not one of the lucky few who got buzzed by "Percepto," but the gimmick was effective enough: By not knowing which seats were wired, the moments in which The Tingler figured prominently gained mounting tension in ways the film might not have contained without it.

That is not to say that The Tingler doesn't have its points of interest without the gimmicks. The film's premise—revolving around a creature that grows in all of us when we become especially scared—is mined for a delicious meta-movie exercise, climaxing with the image of The Tingler interrupting a screening of Henry King's 1921 silent Tol'able David and literally crawling across our screen. Scary? Not really. But delightful? Absolutely! If nothing else, that William Castle was quite the showman.


Last Train Home (2009; Dir.: Lixin Fan)

The intimate nature of Lixin Fan's documentary is deceptive. By following one family that is ultimately torn apart by (what else?) China's recent attempts to globalize its economy and modernize its society, Fan manages to touch on a subject broader in scope: the tragic generational gap that results from these changes, and the damage they end up inflicting on the family unit. Thus, the mother and father of the Zhang family—both of whom, as it the case with 130 million other migrant workers, barely see their children except during the Chinese New Year—desire a better future for their kids; while the older daughter Qin rebels against their well-meaning intentions, resentful of their absence and desiring to discover a path for herself, not one dictated by two parental figures she barely knows.

Does that dilemma sound somewhat familiar to readers of this blog? Except for the "parental-figures-she-barely-knows" part?

Putting aside personal identification, however, the beauty of Last Train Home lies in both Fan's humane evenhandedness in his observation of the members of this family and the low-key visual beauty with which he captures this world and these complicated emotions. Fan's generosity even makes room for a chilling fourth-wall-breaking moment in which Qin, in the midst of a heated family argument, looks straight at the camera and yells, "You want to film the real me? This is the real me!"—a moment that is, frankly, more viscerally devastating than any of Jia Zhang-ke's plays with illusion-versus-reality in his fiction-doc hybrid 24 City (2009).


The American (2010; Dir.: Anton Corbijn)

People are comparing this slab of tedium to Jean-Pierre Melville's late existential thrillers? Just because it's quiet, moody, spare and all that?

The thing about Melville's emotionally reserved characters is that, by denying us much backstory and observing them completely in the moment, Melville somehow brought us closer to these seemingly detached people, allowing us to draw conclusions about them from their facial expressions, their movements, their manner. In other words: Characters like Le Samouraï's Jef Costello usually carried an aura of mystery about them, one which Melville, with his love of genre and lack of sentimentality, exploited to masterfully hypnotic effect.

Alas, there isn't a whole lot of mystery surrounding the main character of The American, and there isn't even much of an animating love of genre—but there's certainly a whole lot of sentimentality underlying its self-serious demeanor. Actually, it becomes pretty obvious early on what troubled emotions lie underneath George Clooney's generally steely exterior (the film's prologue—in which he is forced to shoot a lover in the head—provides a big clue), which makes much of the rest of this European-style art-film exercise more draggy than hypnotic. And director Anton Corbijn, as film critic Michael Sicinski adeptly points out, never really does much with the Italian countryside settings other than make pretty picture-postcard shots out of them with cinematographer Martin Ruhe—unless, instead of Melville, Corbijn was aiming to evoke Antonioni's penchant for framing small human figures against vast landscapes? In which case: Nice try, but Antonioni made his wide shots as unnerving as they were beautiful, a tricky combination Corbijn is never able to pull off.

I suppose I should admire The American more than I do for being just about everything most American movies this summer have not been: slow, reflective, serious, thoughtful. But in this case, I'd just be damning it with faint praise. Corbijn may stylistically be derivative of the "right" filmmakers, but it's still awfully derivative, with nothing personally distinctive brought to the table.


The Expendables (2010; Dir.: Sylvester Stallone)

Based on its cast of action-genre has-beens and newcomers, Sylvester Stallone's latest auteur piece promised to be something of a throwback to gloriously absurd and ultraviolent brainless macho bloodfests of the '80s like Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985), Commando (1985) and the like—to which I said, without shame, "bring it on." Alas, The Expendables isn't really smart enough to follow through on the suggestions of depth one glimpses now and then—Mickey Rourke's tearful Bosnia reminiscence; Eric Roberts's climactic speech to Stallone about how soulless they both are, deep down—and it's certainly not technically competent enough to make the action sequences anything more than barely watchable feats of (by now standard) ADD editing, spatial incoherence and noise. (It's a bad sign when I couldn't even tell it was Randy Couture battling Steve Austin towards the end until about halfway through their fiery scuffle.) Also, this particular Asian-American couldn't help but get just a little pissed about what Stallone did with Jet Li: basically emasculating him until he gets one big martial-arts fight with Dolph Lundgren...and then emasculating him again by depriving him of the victory he was on the verge of achieving! (But then, what would you expect of a filmmaker who names his sole Asian character "Ying Yang"?)

In short, The Expendables turns out to be just another brain-dead summer action spectacle. That's not to say I didn't entirely get my money's worth, however. Some of the male-bonding humor did make me laugh a few times; Stallone and Jason Statham do some fine work together. And Stallone's three-character church scene with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger is a hoot. Three of the biggest action stars of the '80s verbally sparring in one location? (Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker!) If only the rest of the movie had been as cleverly self-aware.


There are a few other movies I've seen recently that I could say something about: the so-so Angelina Jolie action machine Salt (2010); the still-majestic Patton (1970), seen for the first time on a big screen in glorious 70mm.; the brutal psychodrama of John Cassavetes's Faces (1968), seen for the first time ever on DVD. But I really should probably do some packing, shouldn't I?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Out of the Past, and Into the Present: Scott Pilgrim and Life During Wartime

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I was originally going to post a dual review of Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime (2009) just before I headed out with my family to Yellowstone/Grand Teton. But the review took longer than I hoped, and I decided against working on it during my vacation—'cause, you know, it's a vacation after all.

Now that I'm back, I figured I might as well finish it, even if the immediacy of responding to Scott Pilgrim right after its release is inevitably gone. Because, believe it or not, these two very different films have at least one common thread worth elaborating on.

Wright's film is a bright young-adult comedy, adapted from Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel, that renders its title character's romantic travails in a flashily postmodern visual style that can quite possibly be described as a deliberately overscaled media mashup. Solondz's pitch-black comedy/drama, however, dispenses with overt stylization—save for cinematographer Ed Lachman's ironic deployment of bright pastel colors—and revisits characters from his earlier Happiness (1998), unflinchingly explores the pain and regret of those characters years down the road.

In matters of plot and style, there's little to connect them...except, that is, for this theme of ghosts—literal ones, in the case of Life During Wartime—of our past festering, persisting, coming back to haunt us in the present.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) begins Wright's film in the throes of fallout from a painful break-up with Envy Adams (Brie Larson), who is now a major pop star; he's carrying on a kind of rebound relationship with 17-year-old schoolgirl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). At a party, however, he glimpses and then pursues the tantalizingly elusive Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—only to discover that Ramona herself has some baggage from her past in the form of "seven evil exes," all of whom Ramona has moved to Toronto in order to escape, all of whom come back to haunt her and Scott, all of whom Scott is forced to fight in order to have Ramona all for himself.

To his credit, Wright doesn't allow his consistently, deliriously inventive style—fights shot like video-game/Japanese anime mash-ups; edits that collapse space and time; even a seemingly unremarkable sequence that plays like a sitcom scene, complete with laugh track and Seinfeld bumper-music cue—to completely obscure a palpable strain of regret that suffuses parts of the film. For all its pop-art multimedia spectacle, Scott Pilgrim, at its most visually unhinged, remains grounded in Wright's affection for both the media-savvy visual tropes and for his characters.

But does Wright possibly have too much affection for Scott Pilgrim and his media-saturated consciousness? Cera—following his attempt earlier this year in Youth in Revolt to play at least somewhat against his typical fey image—doesn't shy away from showing Scott's self-absorbed and immature side, but as the film progresses, one might begin to wonder if perhaps Wright is, however unintentionally, coddling his main character's self-absorption through his visual style, enshrining it rather than maintaining a necessary distance from it for the film's supposedly redemptive conclusion to come off. As it is, though, the film ends in a manner that makes its main character's arc from neediness to "self-respect" seem rather disingenuous. Maybe Wright got so wrapped up in creating his singular cinematic world that he eventually lost track of the real people populating it.

Todd Solondz—that ever-unsparing satirist of passive-aggressiveness, perversity and hypocrisy—is not the kind of artist to enshrine anyone's self-absorption, and when he's on top of his game, his wounding satire is laced with real compassion. Life During Wartime features many of the same characters from Happiness, but where in that film Solondz threw all sorts of "shocking" material at us and wrapped it all in a cruelly ironic and endlessly condescending freakshow, in his latest film Solondz looks beyond his own resentment and dares to wonder whether people like child molester Bill Maplewood (here played, in surely one of the finest performances you'll see all year, by Ciarán Hinds) can ever be forgiven for their previous transgressions, or even if they deserve to be. In Life During Wartime, Maplewood—recently released from prison, and feeling out of place in a totally changed, post-9/11 world—seems unable to even forgive himself.

Once again, as in Happiness, the focus is mostly on a trio of sisters. Joy (Shirley Henderson), in the film's opening scene discovers her husband, Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams, taking up the role Philip Seymour Hoffman played in the earlier film), is still engaging in the kind of sexual perversity that he's been struggling to overcome; upon discovering, she decides to flee from the marriage, visiting her sister Trish (Alison Janney) in Florida and Helen (Ally Sheedy) in Hollywood. And yet her guilt and inner turmoil cling to her, especially as she is also haunted by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens), who has apparently killed himself after their brutal break-up in the opening scene of Happiness.

Trish herself is trying to run away from traumatic memories of her husband, the aforementioned Bill Maplewood, with the help of a new boyfriend, Harvey (Michael Lerner), who, she says to him with delight, is "so...normal!" And Helen—who, tellingly, takes up far less screen time than Trish or Joy—has fled the difficulties of becoming a successful writer to sell out to Hollywood luxury as a screenwriter. (Helen's anguished speech in which she lashes out against how hard it is on her that people find her "cruel and condescending"—dialogue which recalls Solondz's self-defensive posture in his 2001 film Storytelling—is the one unfortunate moment that recalls Solondz's old Happiness-style contempt.)

All three of them are trying to move on from troubled pasts, but eventually...well, it's not so much that their pasts catch up to them, but that their pasts simply refuse to go away, as they may hope it would. As with Ramona's seven evil exes in Scott Pilgrim, the past, both Wright and Solondz suggest, will always hang over us, whether we want it to or not. That's a fact of life, and the only way to deal with it is to truly face it, head-on—which Solondz does in Life During Wartime even when some of his characters either refuse or are afraid to do so. Because what is it worth to "forgive and forget"—a mantra which is repeated quite often in this film, often skewed in a critical context—if the act of forgiving and forgetting is simply done in a de rigueur fashion, not sincerely from one's heart?

Unlike Wright in his ebullient consideration of the ways people deal with their past, Solondz keeps just enough of a distance from his characters to be able to both empathize and condemn in equal measure. In other words, he doesn't make it easy for us to rush into quick judgments. The result is a film that reaches discomfitingly funny and deeply moving heights that the frenetically busy Scott Pilgrim is perhaps too emotionally stunted to approach.


And on that note: All of you enjoy yourselves this Labor Day weekend, and try not to do anything you'll regret later!

Instead, relax. Experience pleasures you never imagined existed.

My namesake, Kenji Mizoguchi knows what I mean:

Ugetsu (1953)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Clash of the Generations, or First Exit to Brooklyn

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I was thinking a lot about generation gaps yesterday, and the reason for this has something to do with that second major development in my life that I alluded to in this recent post.

The development (which I announced on Twitter and Facebook during my vacation, but which of course I will repeat here)? In about a week and a half—and after I sign the lease and pay first month's rent—I am officially moving to Brooklyn!

Yes, folks: After all the complaining I've been doing in person and on Twitter and Facebook about my mother, about my increasingly agonizing commute and about just generally feeling too spoiled and sheltered at home, I finally got off my lazy/hesitant ass and did something to, as Michael Jackson famously sang in "Man in the Mirror," "make a change."

Most of the people I interact with either in person or online support my desire to fly my parents' coop and try to make it on my own. And when I told some of my friends and acquaintances about how much I'll be paying a month to live in this four-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights—$700 a month, plus approximately $50 extra for utilities—just about all of them agreed that that was a pretty reasonable monthly sum for living in New York.

The only dissenter (or maybe not the only one, as you'll see below)? My mother, of course.

But I come here not to trash my mother—I've already done that too often this year, and I don't know if I can take any more guilt over it—but to try to understand where she's coming from. And the more I think about her reasons for believing this to be a bad move on my part, the more I'm convinced that this is probably yet another instance of a clash of generations at work.


In the mornings, whenever I'm waiting at a nearby bus stop for a NJ Transit bus to take me to New Brunswick, every so often I will be waiting next to a fairly feisty elderly woman, who looks to be in her 60s, if not older. We usually greet each other, and sometimes we even briefly discuss things pertaining to our lives as we wait for the bus to arrive. 

We saw each other again yesterday, and after I mentioned to her that I was moving to Brooklyn in about a week and a half, and that my mother was less than pleased about the decision, she told me right off the bat that she thought my mother was right in this matter. Even bringing up the $700/month rent figure didn't sway her. "That's a lot of money," she said. "At your young age, you should be saving money, not spending it away on rent. Why would you want to leave home and spend all that money away like that? Doesn't make sense to me."

This is more or less the stance my mother has taken on the matter. Unlike this elderly lady, though—who went so far as to say, "The biggest mistake young people make today is leaving their parents' home too early"—my mother takes pains to make clear to me that her disapproval is not about her wanting to keep me at home. Instead, for her, it's mostly about money: how I should be saving as much as I can while I'm young; and how she's worried that, based on how much money I bring home every two weeks from my job, I will end up like one of those people living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling.

Believe me, I grasp the parental concern underlying these reasons, and I would be lying if I didn't share some of them, to a certain extent. And I had always assumed that such concerns could be chalked up more to cultural differences than anything else: Asian people are often known (or is it stereotyped?) for being extremely frugal with their spending, as well as for being submissive to the supposed wisdom of their elders.

But if even this elderly American woman is agreeing with my mother on how youngsters should be approaching money and living...then maybe what we have here isn't just a clash of cultures after all. Maybe this difference of opinion can be explained in part by gaps in time, not just gaps in cultural understanding.


Coincidentally, the front page of yesterday's Personal Journal section in The Wall Street Journal featured a "Moving On" column by Jeffrey Zaslow discussing generational differences when it comes to how younger folk these days perceive and process advice offered by their elders. This one spoke to me with an especially powerful personal resonance.

As Zaslow writes:

Older people have always offered advice to younger people, with words of wisdom culled from their memories of youth. And, of course, in every era, young people have found advice from elders to be outdated and ineffectual. These days, however, given how fast the world is changing, there's been a clear widening of the advice gap.

It's rooted in a devaluation of accumulated wisdom, a leveling of the relationships between old and young. On many fronts, people from Generation Y—now ages 16 to 32—assume their peers know best. They doubt those of us who are older can truly understand their needs and concerns.

With my mother (less so my father, by the way, who, despite being born and raised in my mother's generation, seems to have a mindset closer to that of mine in matters of how someone my age ought to live), I sincerely wish I could feel comfortable enough to ask for her advice on matters of life and living. More often than not, though, I end up feeling frustrated by seemingly irreconcilable differences in worldviews. Like most other people I know, I consider living on my own and facing whatever difficulties one might have to face in doing so a natural rite of passage in adulthood; my mother, however, seems to be of the mindset that a parent's job is to provide enough for her children so that they don't have to face the same difficulties she might have had to face growing up. Thus I feel like I can't really talk to her about living on my own because all I'll get is disapproval that I'm even thinking about moving out in the first place. And that disapproval stings; she's my mother, after all.

Zaslow's article even features a quote from someone addressing generational differences regarding the idea of renting versus buying:

Dustin Borg, 28, taught English in Japan for two years and saw a culture in which older people are revered, and their advice remains unquestioned. He admired the respect young people showed their elders there, but wondered about the complacency among Japanese youth.

Now an actuarial analyst in Atlanta, Mr. Borg says he often challenges advice he receives from older people. For instance, they've counseled him to buy a house because prices are low. "Older people think renting is throwing away money," he says. "But I think owning a home is throwing away financial freedom. I couldn't pick up and move to a new city. I couldn't go back to Japan to see my old friends. I'd be tied to the house."

Having been pressured by my mother to co-own a house in Perth Amboy, N.J., with her—and going through with it begrudgingly, with the understanding that I would not actually live there—I sympathize with Borg and applaud him for sticking to his convictions. But, of course, his parents's advice isn't wrong or misguided. It just comes from a different set of values, one that perhaps treasures the permanence of a house over the transience of renting.


One of the things my mother seems to value highly is the idea of a family as a kind of warm respite from the outside world, a unit in which one can come home every night, have dinner around a table and talk about things that occurred during each member's respective days. This kind of tightly knit familial closeness is important to her, to the point that she will not only ask us if we will be home for dinner, but will give off a faint but unmistakable sense of disappointment if one of us tells her that he will not be coming home to eat with the rest of the family.

Of course, I myself don't really feel that same sense of disappointment whenever that happens (which, on most weekends, is quite often). This right here could be one classic manifestation of a generation gap: Whereas an older generation might have prized family above many other things in life, Generation Y feels less tied down to family roots. That, by extension, makes the idea of fleeing the family home in early adulthood to live on one's own seem natural to us but possibly naïve and foolish to our elders, as it seems to be with my mother and that elderly lady.

There is no right or wrong here. As frustrating as generational gaps can be...well, they are an inevitable part of life, a part of history. The only thing one can really do when faced with such major generational differences is to try one's best to understand the points of view involved and decide for oneself how to proceed.

Who knows? Sometimes those elders whose advice you pooh-pooh now will turn out to have been right all along.

Will my mother end up being vindicated in her skepticism over my impending move to Brooklyn? Will I end up struggling like crazy to get by? Will this end up being similar to the mistake I made in living in that overly expensive on-campus apartment-style housing during my third and fourth years at Rutgers—a mistake I'm paying for right now through monthly student-loan payments? All I know right now is, this move feels right for me at this moment in time. If it ends up being a mistake...well, at least it will be my mistake to learn from, whether my mother understands such a mindset or not.

Stay tuned, I guess.