Lost in Translation (2003)

220px-Lost_in_Translation_posterDir. Sofia Coppola, 101 min., Netflix Instant

I first saw this film in 2003, but watching it again reveals the tight and brilliant composition by the director, Sofia Coppola. It’s a shame that it was robbed of it’s rightful “best picture” status by premiering in the same year as the bloated, bombastic third entry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has nothing to do at all with good film making; while LoTR III is just another cog in the wheel that Jackson established years earlier, this film is an original piece of art that stands alone (without the scaffolding character and story development of preceding entries).

Murray and Johansson both play isolated and lost figures, but no one seems to key in on the somewhat masculine fantasy of the film. Murray’s character is long past the age where he is a bona fide player (or even talented actor), but his charisma and limited stardom (sparingly doled out with painful humility) make him the ideal object of the abandoned Johansson’s affections. Murray’s character is often mistaken for “gentlemanly” when he is actually quite paternalistic early on (notice the way in which he carefully puts Johansson’s character to bed).

Only after his *spoiler* tryst with the lounge singer and his reconciliation with Johansson does he come across as (not necessarily a romantic interest, but) the identifiable soul mate (though I hate that term) for Johansson’s character. It’s a well-considered pivot, showing both the ease with which he could have many women in a superficial sense transition back to his desire to form a deeper connection with someone who both understands his ennui and equals (or surpasses) his own penchant for sarcastic banter. While they meet at widely different ages, their backgrounds allow them to appreciate the same verbal interplay; it’s a relationship that’s doomed to last but a brief moment in their life arcs, and that’s what makes the final parting so heart wrenching.

If you watch it only for the scene where Murray and Johansson first go out on the town and get chased out of a bar by a pellet-gun wielding bartender, then sing karaoke and return back to their hotel enclave, you will have seen enough to enjoy the film.

RT: 95%
me: A

Pop culture roundup

I’ve been busy with dissertation writing, but I have had time for a few odds and ends in the pop culture department that I wanted to share.

In my Shakespeare in Film course that I offered last year, we debated the merits of digital versus 70mm and whether one would supplant the other. An article from WBEZ raised the issue again, and after I read that article Nicole and I ended up seeing Vertigo at the Music Box Theater’s 70mm Film Festival.

Vertigo was not technically a 70mm film, as it was shot in 35mm and a conversion/restoration print was made some time ago. The film received mixed initial reviews, but from what I’ve seen of Hitchcock it was one of his better films. Considering that he had little formal training in cinematography, he gets some iconic shots and (of course) the Vertigo effect on the camera that has been endlessly replicated in other films. The film sounded great as well, possibly another byproduct of the restoration.

In terms of the merits of the film itself, there are issues of believably and somewhat shallow supporting characters (as well as some plot continuity, as the film was hard to follow at times). Rating it I would say around a B+.

I started watching the show Cult on the CW network. There’s probably no jumping into this one if you haven’t seen the first two episodes. While the acting is subpar and the pacing of the show is not done well (especially the second episode which had sections where a whole lot of nothing happened), the premise is intriguing. It’s essentially a show within a show, where characters in the show watch a show called Cult which doles out clues to a rash of disappearances and crimes happening to the main characters, most notably the disappearance of the protagonist’s brother who had strong connections to the obsessed fans of the show within the show. It’s a little confusing to try and explain, but I think that’s why I like it so far. Plus it’s not a reality show nor is it about post-war advertising executives, meth dealers, zombies, or vampires, which is a plus in my book.

Possibly due to that last point, I’m guessing this show will be cancelled very soon. Also, it is overly ambitious and probably on the wrong network, but I don’t know much about television or the politics of television so I could possibly be wrong. I was a big fan of The X-Files as a kid and I even watched the less entertaining Millennium for most of its run, and this is the first show I have seen in a while that comes close to that level of ambition.

I watched the “based on true events” film Compliance (2012) which collapses into one episode the worst parts of a real life “hoax” perpetuated by a man who forced management at a fast food restaurant chain to harass, intimidate, and sexually violate employees by posing as a police officer over the phone. Dir. Craig Zobel attempts to depict the psyche of compliance to authority figures that Stanley Milgram notoriously investigated following the Holocaust, and while he does succeed in presenting several difficult-to-watch moments, many of the characters often come across as rubes who barely stop to question what was wrong with making an employee strip over the matter of supposedly a small amount of cash missing from a purse. The actor playing the false police officer often comes across as apathetic in his line delivery, and certainly doesn’t cut the figure (or voice) of a master manipulator. Perhaps that was part of the point of the film (that this type of manipulation is easily done and ordinary people are mindless and easily bent to the will of a strong personality), but my opinion is that the cheaper route of making the audience uncomfortable was selected over the more difficult route of depicting an uncomfortable psychological truth. If the director felt that those involved truly didn’t stop to question the morality of their actions, I wanted to visually see why that was the case. The best theory I could construct from my viewing was that the obedience factor combined with the non-stop, rush nature of the fast food industry combined to make people blind to their actions. I was left wanting a better depiction of this environment. Punch Drunk Love does a far better job of depicting the grinding, psychological impact of stress and anxiety than does this film.
IMDB: 6.5
RT: 89%
Me: B-

The Room (2003)

Directed, Produced by, Paid for by, and Introducing in a leading role Tommy Wiseau, 99 min., on DVD

I was told of this fine film by an old friend from high school, and was intrigued to learn that it is listed as one of the worst films of all time on Wikipedia, as well as a cult classic. In terms of watching bad films, the true test for me is can you laugh at it enough before you are sufficiently bored and disgusted. In other words, does the campy delight of a film outweigh the awfulness. In terms The Room, it’s a very close race.

Much of the flat out awfulness comes from Tommy Wiseau’s inability to deliver lines in live action. I’m not sure whether his proficiency with English is the issue, or his complete inability to “act” as we know it. His acting style is a cross between faux-brusqueness and Eurotrash sleazebaggery. It’s as if he watched new wave French existential films, gleaned only the most irritating aspects, then tried to translate it into some kind of reading on contemporary American culture. The only comparable misreading of how people actually speak and behave that I can think of is The Conqueror where Howard Hughes casts John Wayne as Genghis Kahn, and attempts to depict how the ancient Mongol “savages” lived. I’ve found nothing that quite compares with Wayne’s wooden delivery, until I watched this film. Enjoy some “highlights” of what some might describe as “acting” ***warning, NSFW***:

Everyone involved in this project, it’s safe to say, was marked for career death by this film. Despite the reported six million dollar budget that Wiseau payed out of pocket (lacking studio support), most of the scenes take place in front of green screens and cramped sets that are not so much built for the action of the scene, but generic spots where something can happen, from casual conversations to an impromptu football match. Consider the following:

When asked in a bizarre interview included with the DVD extras why there is a random tuxedo football match or why they are only three feet apart when throwing the ol’ pigskin, Wiseau responds, “I think people should realize that playing football, without any gear, and a special big, huge field, it’s fun. So you can play football in tuxedos, you can play football three feet apart, and the idea is to have fun, so, I would recommend to anyone to try it.” As with most of his answers in this interview, it would make more sense if he looked drugged out of his mind, but he isn’t. My only conclusion can be that he recognized the camp value of the film and this interview functions as cult-cannon DVD fodder, rather than a serious attempt to justify the film.

There are too many bad scenes to discuss them all here. The disjointed nature of time figures strongly in my mind, as many scenes take place at night, and then there is no segue between dialogue in one room at night and the continuation of the conversation in another room that takes place in full daylight. Likewise, new characters are introduced at regular intervals, and then completely dropped from the film. There no fewer than six or seven subplots, introduced and dropped in a similar fashion. Here is a subplot with the supposedly lovable (read creepy voyeur) moppet Denny, and his neighborhood drug dealer ***warning, NSFW***:

Ultimately, the torpedo in this film’s side is the framing and/or genre. If this were presented on Cinemax at 1:00am as a nudity-delivery system, it would make sense. If it were presented as an extended YouTube parody, it would make sense. As a feature film, taken seriously, it is mind boggling. The crisis of the critic is to accept and evaluate it for what it is (an amateur grade, poorly directed and written trash ball), or admire it for what it might be (the most brilliantly bad film ever made).

In any case, I almost don’t feel like I can critique something so bad. However, when something is bad, even if it is awesomely bad, I’m not above judging it.


By the way, I love getting suggestions for films to watch, so please comment or recommend films on Twitter or Facebook. If I can get it on Netflix, I will watch it and review it on my blog!

Probable reviews:

  • Rear Window (1954)
  • Mrs. Dalloway (1997)

Harsh Times (2005)

DIr. David Ayer, 116 min., Netfilx Instant

I’m not sure what I was expecting out of this film, but it wasn’t fanboy, wannabe, south-central LA gansta fiction.

Wow, that seems harsh, like the times I suppose. Two vets (I think–is Freddy Rodriguez’s character a vet?) are pretending to look for jobs but really drinking and getting high all day. In their spare time, they jack the local gangbangers for their cash and guns, then hustle hard around town trying to score cash and look impressive around their various lady friends.

The dialogue sounds like it was written by a team-up of Adam Sandler and Adam Carolla instead of David Ayer. The worst lines from Training Day all congregate in this film, and I think I heard a Chris Rock line from a comedy video about going to prison used as a serious line in the film (I won’t repeat it here).

Between crushing forties and smoking joints, these guys run up real problems, but things become unhinged when Davis’ (Christian Bale) girlfriend in Mexico reveals she’s pregnant right before he’s due to ship out as a NARC in Columbia. He flips out, pointing a gun at her and drinking his way through a drug mule run across the border. I won’t ruin the most exciting span of the film, since it takes only fifteen minutes to play out. The conclusion is exciting, but the emotional payoff is ultimately void due to the poor writing and subpar line delivery of the dyad charged with moving the plot forward.


Takin’ you to school! La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008) and Waiting for Superman (2010)

So I have been way too busy these past couple of weeks to write any entries, but I am back on it since it is spring break and I suppose I can spare (waste) an hour or so to write about some films I’ve seen.

La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008)

Dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfield, 87 min., at a free screening, French with English subtitles

Just as a lead in, I was talking tonight about two different types of education films that are common in our society. In category the first, films where a white teacher starts a job at an “inner city” school (with all of the negative connotations that our society associates with that pejorative term) and the white teacher eventually teaches black and Latino troublemakers that life is oh so much sweeter when you embrace white, middle-class value systems–examples: Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995). In category the second, films where a beleaguered high school teacher takes brutal revenge on the nogoodnik students by transgressing the boundaries of a professional educator, mainly in the form of hitting, intimidating, and even killing the students–examples: One Eight Seven (1997), The Substitute (1996).

Skirt Day is a little from category one and a little from category two, minus the stupidness. In fact, the only comparison between the former films and the later is that Skirt Day highlights how smart films can be that cover the tightly intertwined factors of societal and classroom tensions. Skirt Day, as one of my friends at the screening said, could take place in any country because of the universal nature of the problems that students, teachers, and administrators face: problems of racial tensions, misogyny, classroom and street gang violence, gun control, teacher burnout, administrative unresponsiveness, etc. etc.

Sonia (Isabelle Adjani), an overworked and unappreciated teacher, receives no respect from the foul-mouthed students in her drama class. While students are harassing the poor volunteers who actually try to participate, Sonia notices two students acting suspiciously in the back of the classroom. She approaches them and confiscates Mouss’ (Yann Ebonge) backpack, and in the struggle a handgun falls to the floor, which Sonia picks up. Mouss tries to wrest the gun away, a shot goes off, and Sonia ends up as a hostage taker, simultaneously teaching a class on Molière at gunpoint while negotiating to voice her grievances with the teaching system and the rampant misogyny and violence afforded female teachers and students in her school.

Our guest speaker, a student from France who prepared an excellent discussion session, talked about some of the cultural values and ideas that this film seeks to comment on, including the sensitive nature of immigration, the concentration of poverty in Parisian suburbs, and also some positives about the French education system as well (including their strict adherence to the separation of church and state).

For anyone who is an educator or has volunteered in schools (especially in Chicago), you might be very familiar with some of the challenges and frustrations the anti-hero Sonia faces in this film. There was some commentary on whether the situations portrayed in the film (e.g. vulgar language, classroom violence, screaming arguments between teacher and student) are commonplace or artistic license, amplified to drive home a point. For anyone who has been in CPS and seen not just the triumphs, but also the grinding reality of the daily force-of-will showdowns between students, teachers, and administrators, this film is an education in how public schooling truly is a difficult and consuming endeavor, and how a school environment free of such distractions and dangers is a blessing to those fortunate to experience it, not, as our society sometimes likes to believe, a public guarantee for all. 

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 111 min.

In yet another in a string of slick documentaries targeted for moviegoers who feel just enough compulsion to try to learn something, but lacking the fortitude to sit through a documentary film that doesn’t have lots of animation segues, Waiting for Superman will tell you about the problems in our education system.

I’m not going to once again open up the “what makes a documentary film work” can of worms, but this film doesn’t have it. That’s not to say that there is not a lot of great stuff buried in this film.

Here’s what works: interviews with innovative educators who are trying new things like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Narratives of students and parents struggling to obtain a good education, in their own words.

Here’s what doesn’t: bossy voiceovers accompanied by what amounts to cutesy educational cartoons, cramming meaningless statistics and visualizations down our throat. Here’s a stat: 60 percent of the time, 100 percent of your audience either isn’t paying attention or knows enough about rudimentary descriptive statistics to know that your stats are garbage filler designed to fog up the mind of the viewer. Just leave the infographics at home please.

Still, the interesting discussion about educational reform, societal factors that impact childhood education (which is everything), and a different take on teachers unions (which is no doubt very unpopular right now) make this film worth seeing. I won’t get into my union opinions, but there are negative sides that deserve exploration, and this film gives a somewhat unbiased platform for those issues.

I meant to write about this film a couple of weeks ago when I saw it, but totally forgot. However, I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking that it was worth the spot in my Netflix cue.

That’s all for this week friends.  I will hopefully be writing at least two or three more times this semester, but who can say…

Oscar Nominated Film Roundup (Part One?)

So I am going to try to watch as many Oscar nominated films as possible before the big day two weeks from now. Who knows what the future will bring in terms of my schedule, however, so I may not get to blog about it. If all goes well, I will be able to write at least one more post which will mean I’ve had time to watch at least one or two more films before the big night.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Dir. Tom Hooper, 121 min., in theaters

Hooper is not stranger to period pieces, directing two period television series that involve the personal trials and tribulations of great men and women of history. I was fortunate to catch a bit of Terry Gross’ interview with Tom Hooper and it may have biased my viewing of the film since Colin Firth’s (King George VI, “Bertie”) method approach to embodying the character and speech manner of George VI was fascinating. The big buzz in method acting this year centered around Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Christian Bale in The Fighter, but Firth deserves at least as much if not more credit for his performance in this film.

In a nutshell, George VI (Firth) becomes king of England in the period leading up to WWII after his self-absorbed and definitively un-Royal brother Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) abdicates to marry a divorcee. George’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Louge (Geoffrey Rush) to help remedy George’s debilitating stammer which prevents him from confidently performing his functions as the figurehead of British society.

The film benefits from an inspiring real life story, and the storytelling within the film keeps a brisk pace and lends a dire gravity to what would ordinarily be yet another Oscar-bait, palace intrigue story. Rush was much maligned for chewing up the scenery in this film, but I found his performance to be within the bounds of the character, whose flamboyant therapeutic methods were a perfect match for the actor. Touching moments abounded throughout, and I found myself genuinely in suspense of the outcome and desperately rooting for his success.

An additional bonus was the gorgeous cinematography. Most every shot was a visual treat. This would ordinarily strike me as a film that need not be seen in theaters, but viewing this film at home will not do it justice. In a bit of cinematic irony, we see characters in the film spacing themselves out from microphones only to have the camera bossily push its way into the faces of Firth and Rush. Dividing the screen into thirds, the film presents close ups that juxtapose visually intriguing patterned backdrops with Firth’s (and Rush’s) pained facial expressions.  One of my favorite releases of 2010.


The Social Network (2010)

Dir. David Fincher, 120 min., on DVD

Two things: First, just because it’s about Facebook doesn’t mean it will be interesting or that I’ll care. Second, no one talks like this in real life.

Going from a touching rendition of one man’s brutally difficult struggle to be heard to a Aaron Sorkin script hardly seems fair to this film, but life isn’t usually fair, as the characters of The Social Network find out.

If you have to explain to me why I should believe that the dialogue you’re presenting to me is believable as human intelligible speech then perhaps it needs to be toned down (“Having a conversation with you is exhausting. It’s like dating a stairmaster”–just one instance of many awkwardly explanatory lines).   If Sorkin has tried to prove one thing with his writing, it’s that people hash out ideas in fast-paced, borderline maniacal speech sprints that shove rapid-fire witty retorts down your throat. Putting my dislike of Sorkin’s view of the world aside (if I can), the film still was a disappointment to me, perhaps due to excessive buildup.

The Social Network is less the story of Facebook and more the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and the film really struggles to come to some conclusions about his character. The events that happen throughout the course of the film were mostly window dressing for a character analysis of, as the film’s closing captions tell us, the world’s youngest billionaire. As such, everything has to be extreme: extreme work sessions, extreme Harvard snobbery, extreme coincidences (Zuckerberg happens to move in next door to Sean Parker, Napster creator played well by Justin Timberlake) and, of course, extreme partying (a zip line from the chimney into the pool, really? It’s like a Mountain Dew commercial, a beverage which was product placed right into the movie, EXTREEEEEMMMMEEEEE DUDE!).

In a very non-critical appraisal, I just wasn’t feeling the film. I again admit that I dislike Sorkin’s unique style of writing, but that wasn’t the only thing bothering me. Most of the reviews I read/heard were praising this film for making a deposition interesting, but it just wasn’t. The two depositions could have been struck from the film for all I care, as the storyline proceeded in chronological order anyway and didn’t need any added layers of commentary telling me when to feel what. Why were they included? I guess for more Zuckerberg character development.

Was the timing right for a biopic of Zuckerberg either? Where is this source material coming from? Like the litigators in the film, is someone picking through the Harvard Crimson for this stuff? There were a lot of wasted opportunities for commentary on the ways that Facebook has changed our lives (with the notable exception of a great relationship status message bit). This film was less a study of the triumph of a megalithic social networking site than a character study on why Mark Zuckerberg is an ass (with one lawyer at the end regrettably spelling it all out for us: “You’re not an asshole…you’re just trying to so hard to be one”). I don’t know many billionaires, but I’m guessing that being an ass is par for the course, and I didn’t need a two hour lesson in why that’s the case.


Restrepo (2010)

Dirs. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 93 min. (unofficial), on Netflix Instant

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes that “a true war story isn’t moral.” Hetherington and Junger’s Restrepo tries to buck that trend by interjecting a lot of sentimentality and positive story trajectories into their film. However, as a documentary, whose to say that isn’t the way the story went?

Firstly, the only way you can really review a film like this and criticize the artistic merits of the film is to first separate the subject from the presentation. There’s no shortage of respect for the sacrifice of armed service members here, which is really the only way you can tell the story. However, along with an accurate representation of modern warfare and the struggles that our soldiers face fighting in Afghanistan, there are some disturbing undertones of how the story is presented.

This film comes off like a gnomon, leaving me with a sense that something more profound is missing from the presentation; perhaps out of respect for the sacrifices made by the soldiers, or perhaps to mitigate the senselessness of war. In either case, the filmmakers do themselves no favors by holding back. Surely the brutality of war is well represented in the film, but the sanctimonious justifications of the soldiers is not, as one would expect, thrown into sharp relief with the hopelessness of their fight. It seems like everything the soldiers in this film built will fall apart, but the film tries to go out on a high note, which I felt was undeserved given the climate surrounding the Afghanistan war this year.

I’m not sure my full attention was arrested by this film either. In terms of subject matter, the film comes off as disorganized and thrown together (dates might have been helpful in laying out the storyline). Perhaps this was a commentary on disorganized nature of human conflict and war.

However, the film ultimately redeems itself in the raw footage that the intrepid filmmakers were able to capture and put together. Funded by Nat Geo, this film (as in all of their projects) has a “being there” quality that makes it worth the experience. As a closing thought, this really is an experiential documentary, focusing on putting you in the shoes of the subjects and leaving the explication of the issues for post-viewing homework.


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Dir. Robert Aldrich, 134 min., black and white, on Netflix Instant Watch

I suppose when I think of the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s in cinema, I am usually weary of being bored to death. I know that is really stupid, but that’s just the way I feel. Allow me to bore you by elaborating.

As a child, we did not really have television as you might know it today. We had a TV in our family room (a massive cathode ray tube Zenith that had channel buttons reminscient of the buttons you would find on an early touch-tone phone) and a TV in our finished basement (a VHF/UHF television with separate dials for the channels 1-13 and 14-74, or however high the UHF band went). Since we lived in between Chicago and Milwaukee we were able to pick up both city’s broadcast channels, but most of the channels that came in clearly were from Chicago. Also, we had a large antenna mounted to our roof that rotated 360 degrees by manipulating a control dial in our living room (it actually looked something like this). We called it an “aerial.”

To watch one station or another, the aerial had to be pointed in a very specific direction, which seemed to change based on channel, time of day, and phase of the moon. What all of this meant is that watching a different channel on each TV was relatively pointless since the aerial had to be adjusted for the channel to come in, and my parents were the masters of the aerial control box.

To wit, I mostly watched what my parents watched. Our local public television affiliate, WTTW, used to show a myriad of films from the golden era of Hollywood, but for whatever reason the films that they showed were mostly not what you would call “classics” (maybe they were really short on funds back in the day??).

When we got cable when I was 14 years old, my television life was revolutionized. I used (or perhaps squandered) my new found freedom to watch MTV and endless amounts of hockey games on ESPN2. There was a channel, however, which plagued my existence on family vacations where only one television was available. A channel whose mission must be to inhabit the cultural space that exists as an antithesis to everything hip and cool in the world of a teenager. That channel is Turner Classic Movies.

As a young lad, TCM was the embodiment of everything boring in cinema. When you consider the channel’s mission, however, it doesn’t and shouldn’t bode well for capturing a young audience. They show only gilded era films, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Given the amount of garbage that exists in almost every era of film making (even those prepended with the word “gilded”), you are almost never likely to watch a film that you had the remotest interest in seeing.  Also, there is a 99% chance you will start watching in the middle of the film: remember, there were no DVR’s in 1994.

However, as I progressed out of my 14 year old “I think everything old is stupid” phase, I started to really appreciate some films from that era. I could name check a few black and white classics that opened my eyes to early era cinema, but I’ll save it for later.

If you are weary of entering the black and white era, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? could be a possible gateway (term admittedly stolen from AV Club’s gateways to geekery). The story begins with two children: Baby Jane, a child star (Bettie Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford), a successful adult actress. While Blanche has a stellar career as an adult actress, her sister Baby Jane is unable to parley her darling child act into a successful career. After many years of bitterness and jealousy, Baby Jane is responsible for an accident that costs Blanche the use of her legs. As adults, Blanche is a prisoner in her own house and subject to the bitterness and abuse of the emotionally regressive and alcoholic Jane. The film follows their relationship as the tensions between them escalate to violent and dangerous levels.

What really stood out to me in this film was the casting. According to my go to sources (IMDB and Wikipedia) Crawford and Davis didn’t much care for each other, and both were actresses whose heyday was well behind them at the time of filming. In an real-life parallel that seems too close to be accidental, Baby Jane takes an ad out in the paper looking for a piano player to revive her act; Davis took an apparently famous work wanted ad out one year prior to the release of this film. The animosity between the two is palpable in nearly every sequence, and Davis’ mocking impression of Crawford’s line delivery is either scarily good, or, if a voice over was used, an impressive technical trick that elevates what would be an ordinary moment in the film into truly disturbing sequence. The emotionally disturbing appearance of Davis resonates and reminds me of a similar performance by Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Especially disturbing is the soundtrack, which plays off variations of a hauntingly sweet song entitled “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” written for the film. The mix of delusion, frenzy, and hopelessness that Davis brings to her performance of that song as a broken down and embittered late-life failure provides a moment in the film that leaves the view with a singular sense of pity.

The film has quite a few Hitchcockian moments (Rear Window comes immediately to mind as the wheelchair bound Blanche desperately tries to attract the attention of a neighbor). There is also some heavy commentary on the nature of the film industry itself. This film might not pack the same amount of suspense into two hours as some of it’s better contemporaries, but it is still relevant and gripping today. If you share my apprehensions about classic film this would be a good place to start working your way into the black and white era.


New year, new look, new blog / The Fighter (2010)

If you’ve had a chance to read my blog, you know that I said in my very first post that I would generate 100 reviews of film and writing that I enjoyed during the summer. As with most endeavors, I wildly overestimated the amount I would be able to accomplish in the time that I had.

However, my boundless enthusiasm prevails in the new year, and with some encouragement and the sense of enjoyment I get from thinking about and writing about films and entertainment, I will endeavor to restart my blog and give myself an excuse to avoid more serious work, and maybe, just maybe, help you waste five to ten minutes a week of your employer’s time this year.

As a side note, while this blog will remain hosted on blogger, I plan on eventually moving the business end over to my website (andrewroback[dot]com) where I will eventually start another blog related more to my research. Without further delay, my first review of the new year.

The Fighter (2010)

Dir. David O. Russel, 112 min., in Chicago theaters

When I went to see the visually beautiful Black Swan (2010)* I saw the trailer for The Fighter and leaned over to say to my wife “I think I’ve seen this film before. Wasn’t it called Rocky?”

Boxing films in general seem to typify the underdog storyline trajectory that we crave so very much when we go to the theaters. This type of plot line is embedded in almost every film that we pay to see, especially in films about sports, and most especially in films about boxing. As most film watchers will agree (I think?): you go to a film to see that film, but you take with you every film that you can remember watching (amongst other things).

I am a huge sucker for most sports films, so I don’t need a great deal of convincing to watch one, but I have to say that boxing films don’t quite do as much for me since they seem to be so heavily interested in the build up to the final fight sequence that the rest of the movie becomes window dressing. The Fighter spices things up with two exciting fight sequences, while introducing concurrent plot lines of family drama and a love interest story.

Most of the drama centers on the tension between our boxer, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his dysfunctional family, including mother/manager Alice Ward (Melissa Leo) and brother/trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) who rides the laurels of a questionable knockdown he scored in a bout with Sugar Ray Leonard that most of the world outside of Lowell, MA has long forgotten. Wahlberg gives us his typical ineffectual line delivery and flat facial expressions, which actually fit the role well since he is a passive punching bag (pardon the pun) of a character both in the ring and out. Amy Adams plays his love interest (Charlene Flemming) who causes the (relative) change in Wahlberg’s character, causing him to finally start working towards what he wants rather than being used as a payday for his white trash, lecherous family.

The camera in the film leers on Adams, stressing the her objectification as a character and woman by her surroundings. Bale’s movements are jerky and erratic, and his line delivery is insufferable (which I suppose was the point). Despite the tawdry attempts at engendering pathos for his character later in the film using his infant son (who really only appears to tug at the heart strings), perhaps the saddest scene is watching him reenact the fight with Sugar Ray that made him the “pride of Lowell” with a fellow junkie in a seedy crack house. The film evolves from a fighting story to a tripartite redemption story, with Adams’, Bale’s, and Wahlberg’s characters all seeking a better existence through his slim chance at success in the ring.

It’s hard not to think of Rocky when watching this film, but after some consideration, this film doesn’t necessarily rely on all of the same tropes (though there is at least one training montage). The fight scenes themselves alternate between typical film and the type of grainy image you might see on a cathode ray tube television in the 90’s, with angles that look like what you might have seen on HBO. However, while that was a nice gimmick, it didn’t do much for me as a viewer. I expect no realism from a filmed boxing sequence. I’m not the biggest boxing fan, but fights I have watched involve about ten exciting seconds when punches are actually landing; I’ve yet to see a fight where the pugilists stand toe to toe in the center of the ring and trade punches in the face like drunken pub brawlers.

Performance-wise, most critics are talking about Bale. He seems to have two gears to his body: gaunt and unbelievably ripped. With most of his gaunt roles, it’s difficult to separate his physical appearance from his performance since he looks like a human skeleton (I’m thinking of The Machinist (2004) in particular). In terms of ethos, the role is nailed; I’m not sure if the clip at the end of the film was intended to confirm his ability to capture the real-life character of Dicky Eklund or not, but that certainly is what it accomplishes. Without spoiling the plot, I would say that I didn’t feel for his character in the level that I thought the film was going for, but his performance was still impressive if only for his ability to make the role so memorable.


*I would have loved to review Black Swan, but I saw it so long ago (opening night) that I doubt I could do a full review justice. If you liked other Aronofsky films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) then it is well worth a viewing.

Well, it’s good to be back. I plan on tossing in more classic reviews this go around since I can’t see myself making it to the theater as often as I would like this year due to my insanely busy schedule. My goal is going to be at least one review per week, maybe more if time allows.

Next up: A classic review of Wes Craven’s surprisingly postmodern Scream (1996)

Crime and Punishment — Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

When I purchased this book, the cashier said, sarcastically, “Nothing like some light summer reading.” She was right. There’s nothing light about Crime and Punishment in terms of plots or ideological conflicts. The book is the equivalent of eating a brick.

However, I never expect to pick up anything written in the nineteenth century and find it to be light and airy. As my mother would say, C&P reads “like a Russian novel,” meaning there are too many characters and too many lines of action to conveniently follow. Originally, Crime and Punishment appeared as a serial in a periodical, as was the style for nineteenth century novels. I was unable to find a visual of the original serialized edition, but a lot of serials had pictures and even recaps to get you back into the story or help you out if you missed an issue and, consequently, a segment of the plot. Hence, reading works like C&P in novelized form (or in my case, the $6.99 “Bantam Classic” edition with small print and no margins) is not how contemporary audiences consumed them originally.

As Poe put it, a novel is of “undue” length and excites the readers for “too prolonged” a period [paraphrased]. Both are true of this novel, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience. The so called climax comes in the first act, where Raskolnikov, our anti-hero protagonist, murders an old pawnbroker and her peddler sister (who walks in unexpectedly during the murder) with a stolen axe. He’s able to escape, despite being detected, and retreat back to his apartment. His panic, which he was sure would be controllable due to his extensive preparation for the crime, not only causes him to flee without stealing the lion’s share of the pawnbroker’s wealth, but also puts him into a state of delirium after the crime which nearly causes his arrest.

By chance, his crime is not discovered, and he is not immediately suspected. There in lies the surprise of the novel. This will not be a detective story so much as a deep introspection into the workings of a criminal’s mind. The reader will be teased with variations on motives, and will try to understand why the criminal did what he did as opposed to discovering the criminal and ending the story with an execution. The storyline suggests a shift in opinion as to nineteenth century thinking: now that reason dominates over divinity, how can we explain how the world works and what motivates men’s actions? The introduction by Joseph Frank tackles the theoretical workings of the novel by analyzing Dostoevsky’s life and circumstances when authoring the text, but leaves untouched the radical shift from the divine to the secular explanation of society and individual actions. No longer are people tried by a priest or accused of demonic possession: corporeal motives are the root of men’s transgressions against authority.

The atmosphere of C&P is deeply introspective and psychological in nature. As Frank points out, despite the third person narration the book delivers intimate details of Raskolnikov’s thought process, even including (seemingly as an extension) other characters’ perspectives on Raskolnikov’s state of mind, and making excellent use of aposiopesis which results in poignant pauses that allow the reader to mime the thought process of the characters, essentially having the reader think what the characters’ considered unthinkable, all the way to the book’s chilling final conclusions on motivations and actions–the work of a skilled author.

There are political and social implications as well, which a historical analysis would illuminate, but this is summer, and I am not interested in doing that right now; Frank’s introduction to the Bantam Classic edition also discusses these aspects at lenght. I will say that having read very few Russian authors, this book inspired me to take another look at Tolstoy or Turgenev. Due to the heavy nature of this book and the amount of time it took me to read and jump back into the plot (having put it down for days at a time) I am going to try to hit up some lighter works with my remaining pleasure reading season.

Highly recommended

Note: For books and longer readings, I feel the 0-10 point rating system is a little reductive, especially since the time commitment is much higher. I am going to, therefore, use the following pompous scale: not recommended, highly recommended, required reading.

Shattered Glass (2003)

Many of the movies I’ll be reviewing this summer will be from IFC, which I believe is possibly one of the best channels ever, and is partially the reason I live with the inadequacies of Comcast.

Those of you who are educators might have encountered fabricated writings, and felt the anger associated with such. Others may have read a fabricated memoir, or at least watched a reality show which you later found out was fabricated (all of them).

I am no journalist, and, as you can see from this blog, never will be. However, I have always been intrigued with the idea of journalistic integrity as a kind of code of honor, never to be betrayed under any circumstances. The classic idea of journalism being seldom rewarded hard work, long hours, and the occasional, improbable rendezvous with a high-profile insider or whistle blower has always been something that I’ll enjoy without reservation in a movie.

Shattered Glass is no exception to that, but for one problem: Hayden Christensen. Something about his line delivery just ruins it for me. Okay, I get it, he’s supposed to be an attention grubbing people-pleaser who uses his knack for noticing finite details to fabricate his stories, but must he deliver every line with a whiny, adolescent inflection? Apparently, yes.

Luckily, his performance is balanced out by the editor types of Perter Sarsgaard and Hank Azaria. Azaria comes across perfectly as the much beloved father figure holding the writing staff of The New Republic magazine together, while other actors just kind of flatline in the movie. Early tension (which looks like plot driving filler until the pieces come together in the end) revolves around the domineering owner of the magazine overworking the writers and the resulting staff shake up. Sarsgaard, who comes out on top of the whole mess, gets much better as the movie goes on, and his transformation in the movie is probably the best thing I can recommend about the film.

A big source of tension which I suppose is meant to heighten the eventual revelation of Stephen Glass’ fabrications is the prestige of the magazine, with characters mentioning more than once that it is the “In-Flight Magazine of Air Force One.” It didn’t do much for me, however, as I’ve never been on Air Force One. Perhaps a sample of an article that actually influenced national policy decisions would have been useful instead of constantly hinting at it. Maybe the writers felt we were too dumb, who can say?

Another lost opportunity was the the print v. internet journalism tension, which was completely lost in a post-paper journalism era. This movie had the chance to create a really cool cultural artifact, and while the discussions about early 2000’s technology were pretty good, they only elicited a vague sense of nostalgia for things like AOL Member Pages and the once dominant Yahoo! search engine as opposed to documenting a boiling point in the news industry. I wish I had watched this seven years ago when it came out, so I will rate it:

6/10 (not safe if drowsy)