Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Collateral (Movie Review)

Not even in my laziest coach-potato fantasies did I ever expect to enjoy this film. I was so determined to not watch it, in fact, that when it arrived on MCR's doorstep via Netflix, I recommended he watch it while working out, rather than reserve it for a stay-at-home Friday evening. I have a pretty rough time stomaching any films that involve not Tom Cruise himself, but rather Tom Cruise's ego. I tend to avoid his ego's films, as a result.

As luck would have it, though, I caught a few minutes of Collateral while MCR sweated away on my elliptical machine, and was sufficiently hooked. And though I want to place all of the kudos at Jamie Foxx's feet, I must admit that Cruise wasn't bad, either. For once in his film career, there was a twist to his usual, ego-maniacal character: in Collateral, he plays a bad egomaniacal character. So rather than a heart of gold at the center of his self-assured exterior, there was something far more calloused. The finished product was not so much your typical action/adventure, as a result, but rather a psychological journey into the mind of the Everyman (Jamie Foxx's character): a pushover with big dreams he'll never fulfill.

You can see Foxx's character struggling to cope with Cruise's presence... Foxx is a cab-driver who picked up a hit-man (Cruise) out on the town for a night of organized killing. When Foxx realizes that his own life is at stake, he essentially goes through all of the stages of anxiety. He finds consolation in the idea that the people being killed are themselves "bad." He relates to his captor (Stockholm Syndrome). Does what he is told. They have a sort of mutual respect, though Foxx's character is slowly evolving from a one-dimensional face in the crowd into a complex human being. You can literally see him struggling to break out of himself (and then retreating, and then moving forward again), testing waters and attempting to overcome his quiet resignation. I enjoyed watching this inner battle, which manifests itself in conversations between the cab-driver and his captor.

And I wasn't entirely appalled by Cruise, either. I had a difficult time believing the gray on his head (he seems to defy all notions of time), but otherwise find the sociopathic mean streak to suit him. Watching him reminded me of how irritated I often am by Cruise films; how I often like them, despite my gut telling me I shouldn't.

Which is a long way of saying there's something more to this film. Not the blatant philosophical statement you'd find in Waking Life (which I enjoyed) or even My Dinner with Andre (also a great film). This is still an action flick, and the script isn't really that great. But I appreciated the fact that this film uses action a vehicle to show the protagonist — the Everyman — exhibiting grace under pressure (to misuse Hemingway). It was just good enough to let Foxx strut his stuff.

I'm certainly not adding Collateral to my list of favorites. But if I were to compile a list of "movies I thought I'd hate but didn't" — it'd be near the top.

Monday, February 27, 2006

On Skiing (A Nevillian Adventure)

Funny how sometimes you love to do things you can't do. Take skiing, for instance: prior to this weekend, I had only hit the slopes twice in my life: once on a snowboard and once, two winters ago, on skis.

And so, this past Sunday marked my second skiing adventure. I was, as predicted, dreadfully comical. I fell (twice) while waiting in line for the ski lift. I hit my head and elbow on said ski lift. I fell countless times going down the slopes before I remembered the most valuable lesson taught to me two years ago: how to get up quickly and easily after falling.

Until that wonderful piece of information recurred to me, I was a floundering mess... relying on MCR to help me up, and nearly knocking him over every time he tried. During these moments, I realized that skiing is nothing like riding a bike: once you learn to do it, you better keep at it... or you'll most assuredly forget.

But it wasn't all bad. Due in large part to a natural fondness for snow, I didn't mind falling much. And the more I skied, the less I fell... this was unlike my first skiing experience in Michigan: on that first ski trip, I fell a lot... and I fell hard. The source of these falls wasn't clumsiness, so much as my inability to control my speed. I was zipping past experienced skiers as I made my way down the slope, and so adopted "falling" as my own "braking system." I crashed countless times at terrible speeds; all without broken bones, but NOT without covering my thighs in black, blue and green patches.

I loved it, despite the bruising. By the day's end, I was still known as "Pizza Girl" for my unfortunate ski form... but I was fast. And I took on all the slopes that Michigan resort had to offer — including the most difficult.

Two years have passed since then, however, and as time moved along, I worried my "ability" — earned over the course of a nine-hour day — was dissipating exponentially with every fleeting winter afternoon.

I was right.

Because I forgot my contacts yesterday, I was perpetually worried that a nasty spill might deprive me of my much-needed spectacles. So I knew I needed to learn how to slow down without needing to crash. And though I started to get the hang of "going slow" I have to admit it's nowhere near as fun as going "dangerously fast". But I was at least proud of myself for developing a better understanding of mechanics. After a few runs down the easiest non-bunny slope, in fact, I was better able to control my direction and speed. But, much to my chagrin, I could never quite break out of the Pizza Girl form until my very last run down the slope: I didn't fall. I didn't tilt my ski blades in to form the outline of a pizza slice. I simply... went down the slope. Neither too fast nor too slow. And precisely in the direction I intended.

This was my last run because MCR and I had already determined to leave the Wisconsin resort well before the 4:30 checkout time. We wanted to beat the equipment return rush and, because sore feet had pre-empted his early retirement, I promised my next solo run down would be my last. I was half sorry to have to quit after just getting the hang of it... but nevertheless thrilled to end on a high note.

The Third Worst Blog (From the Third Worst Poet)

In the words of Ross Perot's haplessly senile running mate: who am I? And why am I here?

If You Know Me
...then you also know how lousy I am at regularly e-mailing, calling and the like. Which isn't to say I don't want to stay in touch with friends — I do — but rather, it's not easy to do as often as I'd like.

Which brings us to what I'm doing here. In keeping with the current trend (we all know how trendy I am!), I thought I'd use fiber optics as a means of keeping everyone abreast of everything by posting the occasional life rant or movie review. I can't guarantee fine writing... I'm too out of practice for that. But I'll certainly do my best to keep everyone entertained and in touch. Not to mention, I'm hoping this will help me get back into the (creative) writing habit.

On Privacy
Given the nature of "blogging" and how such things tend to erase the boundaries between "public" and "private," I'll likely still be cryptic... i.e. I'll keep names and addresses on the down-low (perhaps I'll develop nicknames for everyone?). But, feel free to write or call if you'd like more details about any such posts.

Types of Entries
Movie & Book Reviews: No, I'm not trying to appear erudite or anything of the sort. I do these mostly for myself, as a means of remembering what I watch and read. I tend to commit things to memory better if I jot down a few thoughts after the fact. If you happen to get something out of them, all the better.

Haiku/Gesundheit: Relax, these are meant to be funny. They're not serious attempts at poetry though, yes, I realize a "real" haiku is quite serious (and relates to nature). I'm taking some poetic justice here, using the form as a means of cataloguing actual life events, all the while challenging myself to capture an experience in 17 syllables.

Nevillian Adventures: Whenever you see this tag on an entry, think "misadventure." I have a sort of a love/hate relationship with the great outdoors: I love it, but it hates me. This results in a variety of hiking / biking / camping / exploring outings that invariably lead to bleeding / limping / thirsting / itching / ranting / raving / burning and — above all others — laughing.

Faux Toes: When it comes to photography, I don't know what I'm doing — I just know I like doing it. I.e. If I find something to be aesthetically appealing or remotely amusing, I take a picture. I try to compromise for my lacking ability by taking a camera with me just about everywhere I go. I'll post a few such photos here from time to time, whether as a single entry or as a complement to haikus or observations. If for some bizarre reason you want to use one of my photographs for something, please ask first.

If You're Just Passing Through...
(A Grand Summary of My Life Thus Far)

I was born and raised in a small town in the Midwest. Moved around said small town enough to understand the life of hermetic nomads. Small town created desire to see big cities, so I went to grad school on the East Coast. Got hopelessly lost numerous times (country girls don't understand city streets), and learned the mysteries of the "compass" and "road maps" before moving back to the aforementioned small town to report on life events. Missed city life. Relocated to a nearby big city (even bigger than the East Coast mecca) to write in a very different vein (Other stores kill kittens! Not shopping us is un-American!). Got lost countless more times.

Am still trying to find my way.

39 Steps (Pseudo Movie Review)

It's hard to knock a classic... but it's also difficult to not notice the holes in Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps. I was consumed by one such hole for much of the film, as the inciting action (the stabbing of a female) happened indoors, and carried with it the threat of her guardian (also indoors) being likewise murdered (though the murderers were outside). How does one stab another being when separated by stairwells and brick?

Still, a decent building of suspense as is typical of Hitchcock films... but if you must see something of his, stick with better films such as Birds, Vertigo or Rear Window.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Pseudo Movie Review)

Yes, it's true... I wanted to watch this film. But MCR and I made the egregious error of renting the "uncut" version which lasted an eternity longer. I have no experience directing or editing films... but even I could tell which scenes were whittled down or cut altogether for the theatrical release. The film is funny in parts, and generally "cute," but I'd strongly advise against watching the extended version. Use the time you'll save to do something productive, like trim nose hair or polish your shoes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Pigeon (Book Review)

As with Patrick Suskind's The Pigeon, so it goes for much of human existence. Even those who don't shut out people block themselves off from something. If there's anything I can say in defense of the main character, Jonathan, it's that he was at least content for those 30 years. His may have been a false security, but most people never find even that.

But it's hard to not feel sorry for him, even before the pigeon... even as he's enjoying his quiet little existence; his wine and soup; the books on his handmade shelves. He's quite alone, and is terrified of anything that breaches from his routine. He's content so long as everything is the same.

Seems somehow crude to reduce The Pigeon's moral to a simple "Don't cry over spilt milk," insofar as I know from experience that some days are filled with little else. There's a puddle at both feet; a sticky spot on our otherwise clean shirt; and a crusty residue we can't seem to wipe from our lips. In short: everything is spilt milk. But it only takes a few drops to make a puddle. And a few puddles to fill a creek. And so on, until before you realize it one tiny, infinitismal thing serves as a scapegoat for all that has gone wrong in our life.

Jonathan doesn't have a bad day post-Pigeon sighting. He undergoes a much needed enlightenment. But it's hard to say, ultimately, what will come of it. Either way, Suskind's prose flows beautifully (I wish I could read the original German), and some of his descriptions are poetry. Two passages that stand out with me: Jonathan's visit with the seamstress, when her fingers touch the flesh of his thigh (likely his first human contact in years), and the sound of the rain falling on the hotel rooftop.

It did remind me an awful lot of Henry James' "Beast in the Jungle," which I've always thought highly of. A very different writing style (though nevertheless well-crafted) to a similar end.

White Teeth (Book Review)

The worst part about "White Teeth": the characters. While author Zadie Smith did a fair job molding each player into a firm, clearly indentifiable type, I had a hard time believing in the existence of any of them.

Five year old children speak like naive 23-year-olds. 15-year-old teenagers act like angry, self-righteous 23 year-olds. And grown men and women act like betrayed 23-year-olds who refuse to grow up (no coincidence that Smith was 23 when she wrote this).

The common element? The similarity between these otherwise well-defined stock characters? You can tell the same person is speaking through them, even as their independant actions define them (i.e. good character development... poor execution). To me, a great author shapes characters in such a way that you forget  there's simply one person supplying the dialogue. One person sitting behind the computer screen, or scribbling notes onto the napkins. I never felt this way with "White Teeth." I never truly escaped, but rather found myself being repeatedly pulled into an agenda.

I imagined myself back at grad school, hearing my contemporary British fiction professor attest to this book's merit. Analyzing it with Said in one hand; Sinclair's "White Man's Burden" in the other.

But what good is a review, without a point of comparison: "The English Patient." A brilliant, well-crafted book, save for one passage towards the end that nearly ruined it for me: an Indian man seeing himself through the white men's eyes, speaking not as the person we almost believe him to be... but instead as a mouthpiece for the author. We hear Michael Onddatje, not Kirpal Singh. Which isn't to say that there was no merit to Kirpal's anger (there was), but that for one weak moment in an otherwise amazing text, Ondaatje failed to let the characters actions speak for themselves. The scene was, in culinary speak, overdone.

And yet: I list "English Patient" among the best novels of recent time. I savored nearly every page of it. I underlined everything. Made notes in every margin.

I didn't do that with "White Teeth" — mainly because the copy was on loan to me from a friend. Partly because I had no 20 page papers to craft after-the-fact. And partly because "White Teeth" is no "English Patient."

Rather, the scene that bothered me in "Patient" keeps happening in "White Teeth." I could never catch my breath long enough to suspend disbelief.

At least... not at first. I started to actually get into the text about midway through (enough so, at least, that I was determined to finish). And the last 40 pages were even better: I was eager to see how the parties would come together (or kill each other) in the end. I didn't so much care about any of them (save maybe Archie and Irie), but I awaited an end to the plot in much the same way you might read a folktale, awaiting a summization of the story's moral.

I appreciated that, at the very least. I was hooked just enough to want to know the "endgame." I saw a few snippets of fine writing and deep insight. I marked pages in exactly six spots with post-it notes. I wanted to finish it. I'm glad I'm read it. And now: I'm most eager to move on to something else.

(Which compares to a long list of books I would've chucked aside after the first chapter, had it not been for the impending threat of class discussion.)

In short: there's potential with Zadie Smith. And, to be fair, my impression of the book was perhaps colored by a single plug on the front cover: "White Teeth just may be the first great novel of the century" —The San Francisco Chronicle.

This wretched line set an expectation the book was doomed to not live up to. If ever I publish, all I want on the book jacket is this: "Not a bad read" or maybe "Like to read in the bathroom? Take this with you!"

Now that's the sort of book that doesn't disappoint.

Born into Brothels (Movie Review)

The notion of a "happy childhood" is a relatively new phenomenon. Post World War II, in fact. I've not done the pile of research necessary to confirm this hypothesis, but I suspect photography played a crucial role in refashioning adolesence.

I developed a fascination for photojournalism when I was 11 or 12, flipping through a photography book purchased for $1 from a clearance bin at the nearest bookstore (25 miles from home). I was fascinated by the photographs, gripped by the images of children huddled into coal mines. Images of kids lining up in front of machines, the cogs and wheels of the Industrial Revolution. Their cold, grease-stained stares served as a stark contrast to everything I knew about childhood. I felt a certain sadness for what I suspected was a painful existence, and found solace only in thinking that, perhaps, the 100 years that had since passed brought improved conditions for the generations that followed (though I knew even then that everything is relative, and just as the kids in those photographs certainly laughed and played from time to time, I too had my own quiet miseries).

Watch a documentary like Born into Brothels, and you realize the exploitation is constant. That just because you don't necessarily see it when you round street corners, there exists a certain brutality we too often ignore.

Which isn't to say it doesn't exist, every day, to some degree on every street. It's just that our suffering is... different.

I'm glad I watched Brothels, though I was surprised by how incredibly short it really was. I want somehow to glance into the future and see just what becomes of these children, and suspect a sequel may be in the works 10 years down the line.

Either way, the film is proof enough that a well-crafted photograph (the angle, the light, the lens, the paper) sometimes speaks more than any treatise. Makes me wonder if perhaps the camera is mightier than the pen...

Grizzly Man (Movie Review)

"[In these bears eyes] I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell this bear was a friend, a saviour.” (Werner Herzog, director and narrator of Grizzly Man)

i work two rows over from the nearest window; in the world of cubicles, that means i see only a slant of light from behind my back whenever i turn around and look up. natural light is limited, and much of my existence thrives on fluorescence. i can't work in the dark and, as much as i despise artificial light, i need it to stay awake.

today, due to ongoing consruction, we've had no ceiling lights — at all. i was tired when i got here this morning, but the day has since been impossible. headaches. absolute fatigue. etc. imagine being tired, and then showing up to work in the dark. it's cold in here, to boot, and i've been relying on my personal space heater to keep warm (the sound of which is a lullaby for anyone with tinnitus). all of this to say if the following spiel on grizzly man makes little to no sense... blame my employer.

with werner herzog's documentary, i was torn between the director's commentary and the camera's observations. i thought treadwell's footage said enough, and i was sometimes irritated by the director's voiceovers (which i found to be as superfluous as they were inciteful). i also found myself wanting to diagnose treadwell (asperger's syndrome?), which was disappointing insofar as i think one aspect of our humaness is the desire to diagnose anything that makes us uncomfortable about ourselves.

i otherwise enjoyed the documentary quite a bit. i found it interesting that treadwell harbored such bitterness for human society, but then cursed god or "that floaty hindu thing" when a lack of rainfall drove one grizzly to eat her cubs. he blames humans for being human; but blames negative aspects of animal nature on peripheral factors (or, even, an uncaring diety that -- surely -- must have been the cause of it all).  he failed to connect human nature to animal nature. he didn't see that, unlike the "bored indifference of nature," human cruelty is, at least, often tempered by ethics and social mores.

which isn't to say humans are necessarily any better. quite the contrary, in fact.

which is why i loved those angst-ridden monologues. timothy used expletives as readily as any basic article of speech (though in another, more subdued scene he was careful to refer to grizzly waste as "number 2"); he yelled at the camera; used violent body language. he was upset about more than the park service, i suspect, but i found nothing unordinary in his rants. some of us act in a similar manner during rush hour traffic (spitting and yelling at other drivers); some at their own children or spouses (the build-up & eventual displacement of self-hatred); some throw rocks through embassy windows; others never take anything out on anyone but themselves (suicide).

bears seldom attack humans unless they're hungry or feel their territory has been threatened. treadwell invaded their territory on a daily basis. what happened eventually is that he was still loitering about the grizzly maze when bear-food was out of season. those not yet in hibernation were hungry, and he was a great source of protein. they didn't eat him before then because they didn't need to. and one of the saddest aspects of timothy's life, i think, is that he actually believed he'd reached them. that he could live among them.

or perhaps that was the best aspect of his life. that he actually believed himself to be a success.

Match Point (Movie Review)

[The following contains spoilers... it was originally composed as an e-mail to a friend, who had already seen the film. Proceed at your own risk.]

There was London instead of New York. Opera instead of jazz. Dostoevsky instead of Becker. And humor so far beneath a dramatic surface, you needed a shovel to find it.

In short: I had a difficult time accepting Match Point was written & directed by the same guy who did Annie Hall, Manhattan or even Deconstructing Harry.

Sure, all sorts of thematic connections exist with Crimes and Misdemeanors, and — per the  norm — the protagonist is a philanderer who makes bad decisions based on lust. But he doesn't have the same nervous anxiety more typical of Allen's lead roles. He talks about great life issues in the beginning of the film (which allows us to see how he and his wife are mismatched), but beyond that he's just... a fella who continuously exercises bad judgement. I didn't find him anywhere near as endearing as other Allen leads, including Kenneth Branagh's Celebrity role (proof that a Brit can play a nervous American just as well as a nervous American can). The only hint of this with Match Point was when the protagonist fumbled to piece together the shotgun.

I was consumed with this distraction for much of the film, before epiphany struck: it all boils down to Pepsi & Sprite.

This old experience always seems to come up whenever I think about sensory perception: one night nearly a decade ago, I was out with friends when a waitress served me Sprite rather than the Pepsi I'd ordered. Now, I don't dislike either drink, but my brain had already fired signals anticipating Pepsi when the Sprite met my lips. The result: the two tastes commingled in my mouth, and it took every ounce of etiquette to not spit it out.

Which is to say, I liked Match Point — though it wasn't what I expected.  And the more I think about it, the more I recognize elements of Allen in it. But it's also something else. Something different. And the only truly terrible agony I experienced while watching it was this:

I was so far sucked in to the notion that this wasn't really an Allen film, that I was completely blindsided by the end. I was at once ashamed and pleasantly surprised that I didn't see it coming.

And because the ending was quintessentially Allen, I walked away laughing. Depressed (is there no justice?)... but nevertheless amused.

Or perhaps it's not entirely an Allen ending. His protagonists generally suffer dearly for their decisions. With Match Point, the lead escapes legal persecution, but I'm not so certain he'll punish himself as other characters have. He will, as he implies to his victims, eventually sleep off the guilt and resume his perfect, miserable life.