Friday, December 31, 2010

Silver's Bakers Dozen of 2010

Yeah, so it's a little embarrassing that this is the most recent post since my last post about the top films of 2009. Hopefully I'll be a little more consistent over the coming year, a New Year's resolution.

Once again, I find it hard to limit my favorite films of 2010 to a list of just 10, so 13 it is. While I thought that 2009 was an excellent year for movies, 2010 was quite underwhelming to least at first remembrance. Many of the blockbusters that came out failed to live up to their own hype and it was a spring and summer of sequels and remakes...most of which were not very good. Movies that you will not find on this list such as Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, The A-Team, or most especially The Last Airbender (more on that right before the list). However, even with these disappointments, this year had many incredible original films if you were willing to search for them, a fact that I was reminded of when I was compiling this list. But first, on to the biggest disappointment of the year, possibly decade.

Dishonorable Mention. The Last Airbender

In a year filled with disappointments we come to the biggest one for me and the final fall of M. Night Shyamalan. Like many, I had been let down by M. Night's recent films, but was curious to see how he would handle adapting a story that he didn't write. The trailers only got me more excited to see the film. The film is an adaptation of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon which aired on Nickelodeon. As the film came closer to release, I kept hearing amazing things about the show from reviewers and sites that I respect. So, even though it was a "kid's show" I felt I should at least watch a couple of episodes. The show hooked me after the pilot and I watched all 3 seasons in two weeks! Needless to say I was now really excited for the film...and then it released. I have not been so bored in a film in my entire life. I wanted to cause myself physical harm just to see if I was still conscious and not in a coma. M. Night, may your career have a swift and painful death for doing this to one of my favorite shows. Short story; please, please watch the show as it is incredible; please, please save yourself the agony of watching the worst film of this year.

So, with that off the proverbial chest, let us dive into the wonderful films that came out this year. On to #13!

13. An Education

It feels a little odd placing this film in the 2010 selection since it was nominated for several Academy Awards this past year, but the film didn't release wide until early February, it's in this year. Carey Mulligan delivers an incredibly nuanced performance, and one that I believe deserved the Oscar over Sandra Bullock, but that's neither here nor there. She grounds this coming of age story in her performance, and through it we learn the joys and hazards of being swept into a life that she didn't know existed. We watch her discover new aspects of life, make mistakes, and in the end come out a more mature woman. Come for Carey Mulligan, stay for a story well told.

12. The Fighter

This film is so much more than the trailers lead you to believe. It seems like it's just going to be another Rocky like story...and to some extent it is, and it's also much more. The film covers "Irish" Micky Ward in his rise to become a boxing champion. But the film is about the relationships around Micky and how they are both good and detrimental to him. The most inspiring part of the film is not his success, but his family putting aside their selfishness to stand behind him. Christian Bale delivers another fantastic performance as his cocaine addicted brother Dicky.

11. Exit Through the Gift Shop

How on earth do I even introduce this movie? Hmm, well, first off this one surprised the hell out of me. For those that don't know (like myself before hearing about this film) Banksy is a well known and controversial street artist (or graffiti artist) who lives in London. The film follows a man named Thierry Guetta who began documenting street art from it's lower levels until he finally met Banksy. Now at this point, the film goes from Thierry behind the camera to it pointed at him as he tries to break onto the street art scene. A truly fabulous documentary that defies expectations and explanations.

10. 127 Hours

Danny Boyle has played in so many genres now, that it's nigh impossible to know what the man will tackle next. After Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, he decided to show the world the story of Aron Ralston, the man who amputated his own arm that was under a boulder in order to survive. Boyle captures the hubris of Ralston leading to his predicament, as well as his pathos in his will to survive. Like Slumdog, you will exit the film feeling exuberant about life. The amputation scene is intense, but much less graphic than anything you've seen in a war film. James Franco turns in what is essentially a one-man performance and is one to check out.

9. True Grit

Chalk another one up for the Coens. One of my favorite parts of a Coen Brothers film is their penchant for dialogue. Once again, they do not disappoint. I could listen to the characters in this world talk for hours. For all the talk going around about Jeff Bridges, which is true, Hailee Steinfield truly steals the entire move. It truly is something when you have a movie with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin, and yet whenever Hailee is on the screen you cannot look at anything else. Everything in this movie is meticulously done, from the screenplay and acting to the cinematography and music.

8. Winter's Bone

This is a movie that nearly flew under my radar, but kept hearing about Jennifer Lawrence in the film. The film follows her in a search for her deadbeat, meth cooking father who skipped bail, and she and her family will lose their house unless she finds him. What follows is an intense journey through the underbelly of Missouri. At a time when strong female characters are largely absent from films, the likes of Winter's Bone, An Education, and True Grit come highly recommended.

6(tie). How to Train Your Dragon

Continuing their streak after Kung Fu Panda, it seems that Dreamworks has finally discovered how to capture some of that Pixar magic. This movie may be the most fun that I have had at the movies all year. While watching the flying scenes I was laughing just from the sheer joy coming from the film. A great film to see with the whole family.

6(tie). Toy Story 3

What more can be said of the best reviewed film of the year? I thought that the film was going to be good, but I had no idea what emotional devastation awaited me. It is an unflinching look at life and death, and yet is joyous and life affirming. If you can watch this movie without tears coming to your eyes, you may not have a soul.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Okay, so I may have fibbed a little when I said that Dragon was the most fun I had at the movies all year, because Scott Pilgrim is right up there with it. I have seen the film at least ten times, and I would watch it again right now. It has the most rocking soundtrack of the year, and the film just incredibly exuberant and fun. Bravo Edgar Wright, bravo.

4. Inception

Count on Christopher Nolan to deliver a thrill ride of an action film that is also intelligent. In a summer of poor sequels and adaptations, Inception was like a breath of fresh air. Watch it again (or for the first time) and thank whatever movie gods allowed such an adventurous film in a climate of safe sequels and adaptations.

3. The King's Speech

This movie hit a little closer to home than the others on this list. I have stuttered from a very young age, and while it has lessened as I have aged, it is still something that I struggle with. Colin Firth makes it seem like he has stuttered his whole life, which I consider one of the greatest accomplishments I have witnessed, since I have experienced how the disability works. While the premise of the movie is somewhat formulaic, like The Fighter, it is so much greater than the sum of its parts and is an absolute must see here at the start of a new year.

2. Black Swan

Black Swan is a movie that works on many different levels. On one, it is about a young woman's descent into madness as she tries to train for Swan Lake; on another, it is a modern retelling of Swan Lake, using Swan Lake as a plot device for its characters; it can also be about the dangers of seeking perfection. The film works on all of these levels. It is a dark dark film, but Aronofsky once again delivers a tour de force.

1. The Social Network

This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. When this film was first announced, I was disappointed that David Fincher was "wasting" his time on the Facebook movie. Boy, I could not have been more wrong. Aaron Sorkin delivers the best screenplay of the year, with the most rapid dialogue I have ever heard. Fincher directing at his most subtle, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails delivering one of the finest scores of the year. No matter what your reason for not seeing this film, you should rectify that as soon as possible.

Well, that's about it for 2010. As 2011 enters in, this site should be updated more frequently as I hope to post at least 3 to 4 times a month. May the following year be a great one for entertainment for all of you. Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Silver's Baker's Dozen of '09

First off, this is a little bit late for my best of '09 (since it can't be called a Top 10 list), but as it's still within the first week of January, I'll let myself off the hook. In response to the title of this post, I simply could not whittle down my favorites of this year to a mere 10, I could have gotten to 11...maybe, but this frees me up a little bit more and allows me to say that I'm bucking the trend of nice even numbers and going with a prime number!

I thought that 2009 was a fitting way to go out of the aughts. While surprisingly sparse on the one massive "must-see" film (of course excepting Avatar, but I'll get to that) 2009 had a surprising amount of quality films to see over the entire course of the year. Like previous years it had it's fair share of inane drivel, but for that you'll have to go to other sites for the "Worst's Lists". So without further ado...On to #13!

13. Taken
I know that I will probably receive flak from this, and truthfully, there are better films than this released this year that aren't on this list, but for thrilling action and a balls-to-the-wall badass action hero who is in his mid 50's there isn't a better title. If you haven't yet had a chance to watch last January's surprise thrill ride, you owe it to yourself to watch Liam Neeson unleash hell on all who stand in his won't regret it.

12. Coraline
Do you remember when kids films used to have actual peril in them and would be scary? Prime examples of this would be Sleeping Beauty, The Brave Little Toaster, and The Great Mouse Detective. I remember seeing these films as a kid and getting downright frightened, but that didn't prevent me from loving these films any less. Coraline is a fantastic return to having a family film that has peril for it's heroine which makes her all the more heroic. It doesn't hurt to also have a fantastic story, utterly superb stop-motion animation, and a sublime soundtrack. Coraline will haunt your dreams in the best possible way.

10. Moon (tie)
This year saw the return of sci-fi films with a vengeance. Some of these were good, several were bad, and more than a few were superb. It also saw the release of a bunch of fantastic films that were criminally under marketed and under released. Moon fits into the latter category on both counts. It is a phenomenal debut by director Duncan Jones with the best acting I've seen come from Sam Rockwell, yet did not find the market for anything close to resembling a wide release. The story covers a the end of a three year contract, one-man mining operation on the dark side of the moon and the questions of morality, loneliness and sanity that being alone for that amount of time can raise. I won't ruin the story, but every part of this film is of the highest quality, from the cinematography to the music, which is Clint Mansell at his hauntingly best.

10. Public Enemies (tie)
When I first saw this trailer, I sincerely hoped that it would be return to form for Michael Mann a la Heat, but I was bracing myself for an epic fail like Miami Vice. Thankfully, I needn't have worried as Public Enemies is easily Mann's best film since the superb crime caper Heat. You can veritably feel the grit and grime of these robberies in the early days of the FBI. Come to see fantastic set and action pieces, stay because you can't tear your eyes away from watching the inevitable destructive end of the most charming (real life) anti-hero of the year.

9. Star Trek
I am a self-professed UNtrekkie. Pretty much none of the films did anything for me, and for the most part I did my best to avoid any Trek TV show. Needless to say, I was very upset that J.J. Abrams was going to "waste" his talent by working on Star Trek after M:I:III. Fortunately for myself and everyone who saw this film, my fears were baseless. This film was one of the most fun summer joyrides I have had in a while. The pacing is breakneck, the visual effects are fantastic, and the story and characters are just a blast to watch. Live long and prosper, indeed.

8. Up in the Air
No current filmmaker is a master of satire like Jason Reitman. Both of his previous films, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, are intensely funny, while maintaining a genuine heart about the characters. Up in the Air proves to be his most intimate film yet. It is a poignant look at corporate firing culture, relationships, and the cost of willingly being on the road for 90% of the year. George Clooney is at his subtle best as a man whose job is to fire people when their bosses don't have the guts to do it themselves. In our "plug in, tune out" culture, this film is a real wake up call to the costs and joys of real relationships.

7. The Brothers Bloom
For all two of you who somehow accidentally stumbled onto this blog, you already know of my love of Rian Johnson and his newest film, The Brothers Bloom from my previous post. This was one of the most delightful times that I've had at the movies. The movie is a con movie that doesn't focus on the con. Why see it then? I'll tell you why, because in this case the characters are so interesting to watch and see the emotional payoff for them, that the actual con is only there to serve the characters. If all of this sounds somewhat subversive to the con man genre, it is. But, it is also an incredibly fun and intelligent film that begs to be seen.

6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson makes a return to the heartfelt and dysfunctional family pictures! This film shocked me. After watching the trailers, I knew that I would end up seeing the film, but was fairly certain that I would end up not liking it. I thought this primarily because of the jerky animation style and I was worried that Anderson's self-aware film style wouldn't work well in an animated children's film. Luckily for myself and everyone who had the opportunity to see this film, I was wrong on both counts. The story is surprisingly heartfelt and very mature in how it approaches the family unit and the inherent dysfunctions thereof. The animation reminded me of Aardman Animation's Wallace & Gromit films. These films are not an example of pristine animation, but they are an example of animation that has charm absolutely oozing from every loving frame. Fantastic Mr. Fox dares you to not fall in love with its's impossible not to.

5. Inglourious Basterds
I, like most people, went into this movie expecting a violent love letter from Quentin Tarantino to the "Dirty Dozen" WWII movies of old. What I did not expect was that it was a violent love letter to those films, but was also be an incredibly taut, personal, verbose thriller. Only Tarantino could have his opening scene be a half-hour of the an SS officer talking to a farmer be the most nail-biting intense scene I'd seen that year...only to have the tension increased during a drinking game at a local bar between undercover agents and drunk Nazis. Intrigued yet? You should be. You should also check out this film.

4. The Hurt Locker
Once again, if you've read my previous post, you know that I'm a little upset at Summit Entertainment for screwing over the distribution and marketing for both The Brothers Bloom, and also The Hurt Locker. DO NOT let their stupidity keep you from seeing this movie. It is hands down one of the most thoughtful looks on military life over in Iraq. Shockingly for a Hollywood film, it also doesn't preach at you or take sides on the war. The film just shows you what a day in the life of the bomb squad is like...and damn, it's intense.

3. (500) Days of Summer
Normally, I hate Hollywood love stories. I also feel this hate is somewhat justified. The typical film is telegraphed so far ahead, that I know how the movie will play even before the opening title rolls. I also hate how the "Hollywood" version of love is so incredibly far removed from how life works, that it just makes wishing for anything like the movies completely ridiculous. Fortunately for everyone involved (500) Days of Summer is the antidote. It portrays love in a completely believable manner, with the ups and downs that naturally happen in a relationship. This film makes the punch-drunk, love-sick, die hard romantic in me just stand up and cheer. Favorite scene, Expectations vs. Reality.

2. District 9
You will not see another film like District 9 over this past decade. One reviewer called it the most important sci-fi film in the last 10 years. I'm inclined to agree. It combines an excellent story with near perfect CG character work to create an incredibly tense and immersive movie. Made for $30 million (less than the budget for Julie & Julia), the experience is as immersive as Avatar, but with important and razor sharp storytelling. District 9 will blow your mind and influence science fiction for the next 20 years.

1. Up
Really... Why are you reading this? If you haven't seen this film, shame on you. Each year I wonder if Pixar will be able to pull it off, and every single amazing year I'm ashamed by my doubt in Pixar. Up is the most soul touching film you will see all year. This film has me in tears every damn time, and I love it. You'll be laughing, crying, and cheering along this hour and a half of brilliance. Pay attention to Michael Giacchino's score, which is my prediction for the Oscar for Best Original Score. Marvel at the 6 minutes of silence that perfectly sums up the life of Carl & Ellie. But most of all, let yourself be taken away by the majesty that is Up.

And because I feel obliged to explain:

Honorable Mention: Avatar

That is correct, Avatar isn't in my top 10. It didn't even make the Baker's Dozen list! "But how can this be?!?!" you ask. Well, I'll give my answer to the best of my ability. Whether it's valid to you is not my concern. Avatar contains some sumptuous eye candy...ok a ton of sumptuous eye candy. Avatar is by absolutely no means a bad film, it's actually pretty darn good. However, it is not Best Picture quality, simply due to the story. The story is a rehash of every "man goes to fight natives, lives among them, comes to love them, ends fighting with them against own people" story ever told. This in and of itself is not a detractor, if Cameron would have made the story in a new and fresh way...he didn't. The villains (and actually, most of the cast) are two dimensional, the story is incredibly preachy, and the movie just didn't immerse me. I always felt like I was watching a pretty film with 3-D glasses on, not like I was being drawn in through a window into another world. Which is a shame, it's such a beautiful world.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Summit Entertainment Rant: The Brothers Bloom DVD Delay

First things first. I quite, loved "The Brothers Bloom" this summer. I thought that it was criminally under-released and unviewed by the majority of the public, but I thought that the fault of that was the distributor to a large extent. And they are screwing over the movie for a second time with the DVD/Blu-Ray release. Now we come to the rub, Summit Entertainment. Otherwise known as the studio that can't make money unless it involves soap opera-ish, oversexed, whiny vampires. I understand the Twilight saga and why Summit clutches it closely like the cash cow that it is. I especially understand this since it is the only group of movies that is making the company any money at all. This is because nearly all of the other films in their repertoire are complete and utter crap: Knowing, one of the lowest reviewed movies of the year; Push, kind of a fun superhero film, but highly derivative and ultimately a bomb; Band Slam, seriously, do I even need to comment; Sorority Row, another slasher film, also a bomb and poorly reviewed; the list goes on. As you can see from the list, all of these films came out in wide release and then were slammed by the critics, public, and box office alike.

This is not to say that Summit only releases crap and Twilight. The two other films that they released this summer were "The Brothers Bloom" and "The Hurt Locker". "The Hurt Locker" has been recieving rave reviews for months before it came out, and is one of the most highly rated films of this entire year. Was it put into wide release where it could be successful? No. Was there even a strong marketing campaign for it? No. Having seen the film, there was absolutely no reason why the film would not have succeeded with a mainstream audience in wide release, yet for reasons only known to the movie gods, Summit decided to keep the film as a limited release only. Nearly the exact same thing happened to "The Brothers Bloom". First the film got delayed 6 months, then it was nearly uncermoniously dumped into an extremely limited release. Now, the film wasn't as highly praised as "The Hurt Locker", but recieved astronomically higher praise than the debacles listed above. Yet despite all of this, Summit leaves their two most highly praised films to wallow and starve, while releasing utter drivel for the masses to tear apart and then not see. What the hell?!?!?

For some reason, they only seem to substantially give any marketing and wide release strategies to their utterly worthless films...and Twilight, which is better than most of their crap, but still not fantastic. Now, normally I wouldn't even write this post as this is often the case with limited release films, but Summit didn't stop there...oh no, they decided to make history with the film. And the history that they decided to make was to release the film on DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of September '09 as a rental release ONLY! Well, technically they will still release it to own, but not until sometime in 2010. The rational of Summit Entertainment is that they are considering this as an extension of the theatrical campaign to build up buzz for the movie for its "real" retail release! Once again, "What the hell?!?!?" Studio exec Steve Nickerson states that using the rental channel will increase awareness of "The Brothers Bloom". "You need to look at ways to differentiate yourself with the consumer, and with the different channels," says Nickerson. He also is making it nearly impossible for any of the people who liked the film to get a copy. “We will work closely with the distributors that sell to the rental channel to make sure it’s for rental only,” Nickerson said.

My one question is this; what were they smoking, and where can I get some? Because this strategy makes no financial sense at all. First off Nickerson, yes, having the movie in video rental stores will increase awareness of the film, but why, oh why are you then limiting your profits by preventing the very fans that you are creating from giving YOU their money to buy the film. There is absolutely no reason why you couldn't have a small production of DVDs and Blu-Ray for retail, and then gradually increase that production to meet demand once the rental channels create more buzz for the film.

This move by Summit has royally pissed me off. The very fans who tried to get the movie support and wider release are now being punished by not being allowed to have their own copy of the film for the next several months (Summit hasn't even released the date at which the film will finally be available for retail in 2010). The studio hides their excellent films, displays their inane drivel for the world, then punishes the people who like the films that have merit. This is absolutely NO way to run a movie studio. To finish off this post, do not let Summit keep you from checking out two of the best films of this summer (certainly the only two good ones from Summit). "The Hurt Locker" and "The Brothers Bloom" are absolutely worth your time and are each fantastic films. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then I'm going to be in a near frenzy of love for Bloom when it finally comes back into my waiting arms.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (For the 9-year-old in you that you forgot existed)

So, we come to the release of a movie that has been in development in some form for nearly 20 years. Spike Jonze's version was also stuck in relative development hell for some time as well, and the film switched studios. Was the wait for this beloved childrens book worth the wait? Very much yes, but not in the way many people might expect.

For anyone who hasn't read the book, it's about a 9ish kid named Max who is out of control at home. He has a wolf costume that he wears and causes mayhem around his house. He ends up being sent to his room without dinner, where he imagines himself going to a far-off land which is populated by "The Wild Things". He declares himself their king and spends time enjoying his life there, but eventually longs to go home, so he does where dinner is waiting for him, and it's still hot.

The book has something like 15 sentences in all, so one question going through my mind was if there was enough material in the book to justify a feature-length film. Jonze wisely chose to develop the script based on the spirit of the book, which is Max processing through his anger, rowdiness and feeling rejected at home by using the Wild Things as representations of his id. The trailer gives the somewhat false impression that the film will be a lighthearted romp with Max and the Wild Things. This film is a very deep and will remind you of the confusion that life held as a 9-year-old looking at a grown-up world. The confusion in Max's life stems from his mom being a single parent, his sister growing up and not having as much time for him, all of this makes him act up to get attention.

So during a particularly tense moment at home Max bites his mom, and as she freaks out, he realizes what he's done and runs away. He comes to a boat tied up to the shore of a lake and he takes it out and it eventually brings him to the land of the Wild Things. Best things first, Spike Jonze's work with the Wild Things is absolutely phenomenal. You never doubt their believability for a moment. All of this is due to a brilliant combination of physical suits and unparalleled facial digital work. Each of the Wild Things represents a part of how Max feels in real life, from his anger, to his feeling ignored, being a downer, his creativity. The cool part of the film is that in dealing with the Wild Things as their king, he learns the value of his family, in addition to the pain that he has been causing by acting up. The acting of Max Records, who plays Max, (ironic, I know) is absolutely fantastic. He had to hold the entire film up on his shoulders and he does a fantastic job showing every emotion that a 9-year-old must deal with while growing up. The other high points of the movie for me were the Wild Things named Carol and K.W. voiced by James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose respectively. Carol is an exact representation of Max with all his excitement and faults whereas K.W. is more accepting and loving representation of Max who is often at odds with Carol. The film made me fall in love with these two characters due to the character work and voice acting.

The film would have benefitted from being slightly shorter, it drags a little bit in the middle, although I understand why Jonze put in many of the scenes that I thought slowed the pace of the movie. Another minor complaint that I had was that I wanted to see Max get sent to his room and from there go to the land of the Wild Things. My favorite line in the book was "That night a forest grew" and talks about the forest growing out of his room and imagination. The peril that Max put himself in took me out of the movie a bit because he was so reckless to run away in the middle of the night and winter. To demonstrate the unbridled anger that is within Max, one of the Wild Things accidentally tears another Thing's arm off. The moment is played without gore, or pain, but the moment is still quite jarring since it is permanent for the rest of the film. For a "childrens" film, I thought that the moment was a little extreme to use as an example of how anger out of control can cause serious damage to those we love.

To finish up this review, you absolutely owe it to yourself to check out this film. The slight negatives of the film are overweighed by the sense of wonder that it brings back looking at how the world was when we were all young and how it wasn't necessarily a simpler place. Also you will come away loving the Wild Thing within yourself, in addition to two Things named Carol and K.W.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What I Learned from Infinite Jest

I apologize in advance for this post. Even though it's been in the works since August 18, two days after I finished the novel, there is no way I could sum up the entirety of what I have learned from Infinite Jest in a succinct manner. The following is a sampling and probably won't make a great deal of sense to someone who hasn't read IJ (sorry! But maybe it will make you sufficiently curious). Also, I apologize for any accidental spoilers. Item number 6 may be dangerous in that regard.

Today marks the end of Infinite Summer. It's officially fall, reading Infinite Jest together as a community is now officially over. I finished IJ in August, but I will definitely miss the insightful commentary of Infsum.
IJ truly is a masterpiece, not just an over-hyped novel. I heartily recommend it to other determined readers.

Now, not in any particular order, things I have learned from IJ include:

1. New words for Scrabble *
These include (from the top of my head) onanism, nictitate, post-prandial, agnate, lordosis (almost used this last night during a fierce game in which a dad-assisted eight year old sister took home 1st place), micturate, bradykinetic, brody

The only problems with using DFW words for Scrabble are your letter limitations and the likelihood that no one else with whom you're playing will know OED-rank-palabras offhand.**

*plus new slang (like "demap," "Unit," and "eating cheese") and euphemisms ("to hear the squeak")
**AND the official Scrabble Dictionary will have the same problem.

2. That I never want to take drugs.
This was the first novel I've ever read in which drug abuse (aside from alcohol, which is also rampant in IJ) is prominently featured. Wallace does not condone drug/alcohol abuse in any fashion; he addresses the issues (and addicts) in his novel from a standpoint that is as compassionate as it is realistic. Wallace not only describes the actions of addicts but also their mindsets; I found myself cringing throughout most of the novel during his powerful descriptions of the physical and mental "cage" created by Substance abuse (as well as the scenes of Withdrawal where addicts would just as painfully attempt to escape the "cage").

After experiencing these narratives, I know for me it would be redundant to actually try drugs (plus ignoring everything Wallace said). Alcohol, narcotics, cocaine, X, Bob Hope (marijuana)-- these and more and MORE are/were consumed by characters. DFW's endnotes often consisted of the full medical/chemical names of the drug compounds and their original pharmaceutical companies.

DFW's compassionate approach to his "encaged" characters (and that includes more than just the characters who were at Ennet House, a half-way house for addicts) was one of the most moving elements of the book to me. Wallace did not glamorize them; I daresay DFW didn't glamorize any character in this novel. It had been too long since I'd last connected strongly with characters in a novel. Somehow, somewhere in all those endless blocks of text Wallace made me love the people of Infinite Jest. In the back of my mind, I realized how strange it really was to be cheering on and caring for these nonexistent people as they battled against their bodies' respective Diseases.* It was also wonderful.

*Disease being one of the terms used for addiction by counselors at Ennet House.

3. That interfacing is always better.
I read this statement from one of the main characters of IJ and felt that heart-in-mouth truth sense start throbbing:
"...that the worst kind of gut-wrenching intergenerational interface is better than withdrawal or hiddenness of either side."

Wallace's protagonist Hal and his family, the Incandenzas, suffer from acute communicative dysfunction.* Only Mario, the most physically disabled of the Incandenzas, seems to possess health in this regard. If not a pathological liar, Orin is an unreliable source of information and a manipulator thereof; Hal closes himself off from everyone behind his intellect and tennis prowess; their overbearing mother Avril has something about her that gives everyone (including this reader) the howling fantods** and make true communication (which of course involves unpleasantries) impossible.

Wallace stresses the importance of relationships (interfacing) over entertainment, openness and honesty with others instead of being wrapped up (or "encaged" even) within the self. In his Kenyon Commencement Address of 2005***, Wallace also calls this being stuck in the "default setting" where you believe you are the absolute center of your universe and act accordingly.

I can Identify (as they would say in AA) with Hal's problems with openness with others and definitely valued this message in IJ. It was actually eerie at times to see parallels between myself and Hal. At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I remember feeling proud of myself for "being open" with my three roommates--the previous year had been difficult in this regard and I felt I'd grown. To my surprise they approached me and said gently, something to the effect of "We want you to be open with us because we love you. You're still pretty closed off."
So when Hal experiences the unsettling feeling of the disjunction between his inner and outer self (being told to stop smiling so grotesquely when to his knowledge he wasn't smiling at all), I understood.

Like other contributors to Infinite Summer, I too want to try harder with interfacing and getting out of the cage, particularly with my family.

*To say that Infinite Jest is a book chiefly about entertainment and communication is very simplistic but also very true.
** Really awesome way to say heebie jeebies or "an ill-defined state of irritability and distress"
*** Which basically sums up the main moral thrust of IJ in a way that gives me chills.

4. "Do not underestimate objects." -Lyle, the sweat guru
I found myself chanting this phrase while negotiating the semi-terrifying inclines in the local park on my (new) rollerblades. Actually, I'm not sure if this phrase is directly applicable to blading or if I even understand what Lyle means.
Thinking abotu this along with what other characters (Coach Schtitt) have said in the novel, I think this means that you need to know your own limits and fears and act accordingly.

Related: "Don't try to pull a weight that weighs more than you do."
The fact that Lyle (a man who meditates on top of the towel dispenser in the weight room at Enfield Tennis Academy and survives off of students' sweat) is one of the major spiritual counselors at ETA is one of IJ's wonderful quirks that make it so GOOD.

5. AA and the Gospel
I've read Christian literature before that's compared the openness/brokenness that's present in AA meetings to how the Gospel should free us to be open with our fellow Christians about our sins and shortcomings. DFW's AA completely validated that comparison. I didn't know that much about AA before IJ, or rather I knew its raison d'etre but not many specifics. On the copyright page of the novel, DFW thanks the AA groups that allowed him to come in and ask questions: "Besides Closed Meetings for alcoholics only, Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston, Massachusetts, also has Open Meetings, where pretty much anybody who's interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciation to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name."

DFW does a LOT with AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous) in Infinite Jest; as heart-rending and horrifying as some of the stories the AAnons told (being abused as children, how they hit Bottom, the way they'd hurt those around them, etc ) these were among my favorite parts of the book. The openness and Identification of their fellow AAers and the cliches "Keep Coming Back" "Hang in There" "Fake It Til You Make It" "But for the Grace of God" and the invocation of a Higher Power to help them through...were immensely encouraging to me. It's funny how Don would be thinking about how it didn't make sense why AA worked when it was mostly platitudes and Meetings. Sometimes it feels that way to me in the Christian life, that I don't understand exactly how I am justified and sinful at the same time, but it WORKS. The baking-a-cake metaphor comes to mind--you don't have to understand the chemistry of how a cake comes into being in the oven, you just have to follow the instructions and it works.

6. You don't always get all the answers.
You gotta learn to live with this or you go crazy. In some ways, IJ felt like real life: just like reality there's more than one explanation for something and you don't always get to know what the real answer is. In this novel, DFW doesn't give all the answers. It was tempting to be infuriated, to feel like reading this book was a waste, that I didn't even know what happened to Hal and to Don and to Pemulis and to the freaking AFR and the Entertainment. I think DFW's just reminding us that some degree of mystery is the reality of things. Plus there's all these theories about tides and annulation and how the novel is constructed that I won't go into here.
And why the hell Stice's bed would end up on different sides of the room when he woke up in the morning. A mystery among mysteries...but one worth mulling over.

Other bloggers (conveniently linked to InfSum) have speculated that DFW's lack of answers have to do with the theme of entertainment that overmasters its partakers. By not supplying all the facts and intentionally having a non-linear, fragmented narrative (with ambiguities! e.g. re: Mario's parentage), Wallace forces the reader to wrestle with this book. There is no passive way to read IJ and enjoy it for all its worth.

One of the first posts on InfSum suggested that when reading IJ, one must swim deep or stay at the surface. Even though I opted for the snorkel-view of IJ, I felt myself being stretched as a reader-- my sense of syntax, my optical attention (blocks and blocks of text= not particularly eye-friendly), my suspension of disbelief (stretched beyond all recognition), my memory for holding details that would string seemingly disparate characters together not to mention abbreviations, etc etc etc. This book made me want to discuss it with others, hear theories, laugh about horrifically funny bits; it made me want to talk to others who were also "wrestling." In this way, DFW's warning in IJ about entertaining ourselves to death by being so self-absorbed we're emotionally dead (or literally with The Entertainment) also came with a solution--this prompting to discuss.

7. In IJ, Don Gately and Mario are my heroes.
Yes. Yes they are.
Don is my hero for the "realness" that comes through in his character--he's working so hard on turning his life around. He does all the things AA says to do: repeating cliches that don't really make all that much sense until you just accept them for what they are (Fake It 'Til You Make It), every morning his huge knees hit the floor and he Asks for Help from his personal Higher Power. Don's also a counselor at Ennet House trying to help others beat their addictions; I love his conversations he has with the residents.

How can you not love Mario? There were so many notes in my journal where I simply wrote a page number and "Yay Mario!" He is wise, loving, and self-forgetful as he is deformed. I think DFW has to remind the reader throughout of Mario's physical challenges because his heart is so pure and emotionally he's got it together the best of any of the characters. Towards the beginning of the novel, DFW writes that the ETA kids consider Mario the kind of person you just like to have around. I love that he has a passion for filmmaking (and was close to J. O. Incandenza, patriarch and deceased as of the beginning of the novel) and that he's also a spiritual guide to the students of ETA. Mario embodies the person whose life is lived without the default setting--he's quite inspiring (I think I was almost reduced to tears during the Barry Loach episode near the end of the novel).

8. I want to have an awesome radio show like Madame Psychosis.
Simply having a DJ name that neat and not feeling pretentious about it would feel like a good start. Though I am extremely tempted to read aloud from the pamphlet of the Union for the Hideously and Improbably Deformed with strange, ambient music playing underneath, I'll have to figure out my own way of communicating what I deem is important and noteworthy to my listeners.

This of course presumes that I will have listeners. Ha.

9. I know next to nothing about tennis.
Even after reading a book largely about a tennis academy, I still don't really understand it. Except that Schtitt's conditioning programs for the ETA'ers were as tough as his views on the abstracts of tennis were fascinating. Now, however, whenever I walk past tennis courts I can hear that tennis balls being hit do really make a sound like "thwok."

DFW was a tennis player (not medicore, either) and I've heard his renderings of on-court events in the novel are absolutely excellent.

10. "The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you." - DFW
As a Christian, I believe that God is the source of all truth and He places an awareness of truth in the hearts of human beings (see Romans 1 for more on that), even in those whose hearts are not regenerated. When instances of truth occur in the works of people who do not claim Christ, these can be called Common Grace Insights (or at least my Christian college calls them by that: "All truth is God's truth, wherever it is found.")

IJ contains an astonishing amount of CGIs (haha), actually. A couple years ago (oh narrowminded high schooler that I was) I would have worried about how much this book affected me while I was reading it: "Oh no, a non-Christian's work is impacting me... I must not be contaminated!" But really, if DFW's work is pointing me back to the Biblical truths I hold dear (such as "dying to the old sinful self" = getting out of the "default setting"), there's nothing wrong with treasuring this book. Because I have a feeling I'll be treasuring it for a long time. Other bloggers who are long-time fans of IJ have written about how it stays on their bedside table almost like a Bible and they have read it over and over. It's taking everything in me not to immediately start it again but unfortunately I don't have the time I'd want to devote to the novel right now with a new semester upon me.
But I will return to it. I know I will.

I feel like I drop DFW's name into any conversation I can (particulary with friends who have read him before). I admire his compassion, his excellent writing, his vocabulary, and the way he challenges his readers' abilities and normal habits of living (i.e. being encaged to self or addictions). His work makes me want to be a better writer and a better person (and I know I'm not alone in this feeling or else I might feel a little strange).

Thanks again, DFW, and thank you for reading.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Review: Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki's newest film "Gake no ue no Ponyo" (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea or simply "Ponyo" in the US) entered American theaters today.

As an avid Miyazaki fan (I had the privilege of seeing the Academy-Award winning Spirited Away and later Howl's Moving Castle on the big screen, and own several other H.M. classics including Laputa and Princess Mononoke), I was excited to see what Miyazaki-san had to offer. However, I also had reservations about Disney's choice of voice actors for Sosuke and Ponyo-- the youngest Jonas brother (Frankie) and Miley Cyrus' little sister (Noah Lindsey). Aside from other top-notch talent for the fishy tale (Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, and Matt Damon), Disney seems to be depending on the popstar-wake of the elder siblings to help generate interest in the film. Frankie did an (unexpectedly) good job in his role as Sosuke, while Noah's perpetually excited Ponyo (meaning an almost monotonous half-holler when speaking) made Ponyo seem younger than Sosuke rather than the same age. (Of course, the girl had just been a goldfish and thus should be given a little slack when it comes to human speech).

Here is the gist of Ponyo in 25 words:
Magical goldfish meets boy, falls for boy, wants to be/becomes human, upsets balance of nature with transformation, magical parents test boy's worth of daughter.
The film is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid" sans adult ages of the main characters, witches, daggers, rival love interest, shorn sisters, and relatively sad ending. (At the end of Hans' tale, the little mermaid sacrifices herself to save the life of her prince--who had married someone else--and becomes sea foam. She awakes to find herself transformed into an angel that watches over children, her reward for her selfless act. If only Disney's Ariel had been more like her...)
Ponyo and Sosuke are roughly five years old and are adorable+innocent; Miyazaki's power of detail and rendering believable (though magical) children are delightful. Ponyo's transformation comes not by witches but by the help of her father's potions and sheer willpower; she is lively and eager to help others with the magic she possesses (including healing and changing the size of objects). As Ponyo begins trying out human ways (drinking tea with honey and discovering the joy of ham), she easily produced "awww's" from myself and other viewers in the theater.
Sosuke is the only child I know of who knows Morse code; his love for Ponyo, his parents (including the crazy-driver mother Risa and often absent-but-not-distant father Koichi), and the old ladies at the senior center is devoted and touching considering his age. Ponyo (whether in goldfish or human form or somewhere in between) and Sosuke's scenes together are some of the most enjoyable of the film--aside from Ponyo's post-transformation run on the giant-fish-typhoon.

The fanciful plot requires the viewer to suspend a great deal of disbelief-- as an adult, more disbelief than I am usually accustomed to relinquishing. I found myself asking questions and getting very little answers; to me, it seemed the adults in the film had to suspend their disbelief as well. When Ponyo shows up as a human girl and Sosuke explains to his mother she used to be his goldfish, Lisa seems surprising calm at this news. She says little more than something to the effect of "This world is wonderful and hard to understand, Sosuke" as if trying to convince herself of this fact. The film overall is more visual feast (colored pencils, pastels, and watercolors are showcased as well as painted cels) than a plot fest. It seems to meander rather than charge over the literary hills of climax and conflict, but the film remains enjoyable regardless thanks to its visual strengths. Miyazaki's sea is a veritable cornucopia of nautical life-- crabs, jellyfish, octupi, various species of fish (including fictional and long-gone prehistoric fish), and creatures born of magic. His skill in depicting the movement and wetness of water is wonderful and adds a realistic richness to the film.

As for themes or messages, ecological responsibility and the transforming power of love predominate (the latter having to do with the ending of the film which I will not spoil here).
The local newspaper's review cast the film as one specifically aimed at children with rather a rather overt ecological tone. Earth-conscious elements aren't new in Miyazaki's work; Princess Mononoke is a film largely about the difficulties of human and earth coexistence+interaction; Spirited Away features the spirit of a polluted river who comes to visit the bathhouse; the floating castle of Laputa is transformed from a death-machine into a flying garden with a tree at its center.
The setting in Ponyo is a seaside town, hilly and green with highways right on the edge of the water. The opening sequences of the film show Ponyo in her abode below water with fantastic fishes and her wizard father's magical craft and air-sealing bubbles. However, pollution is present in many of the water scenes nearer the town (bottles, cans, sinks, etc), one glass jar directly affecting Ponyo herself. Fujimoto (Ponyo's father) is a mouthpiece for the environmental concerns in the movie; he complains that humans destroy the earth and treat it with carelessness. He is a magician that has been entrusted with the task of maintaining balance in the ocean and ultimately the planet with his potions. Ponyo's powers violate nature's balance and cause the moon to come dangerously close to the earth; why this is remains one of the puzzling elements of the story (or perhaps I missed something). While the film is not pedantic, the pollution sequences are cringe-worthy and partly justify Fujimoto's hatred of humans.

The art is beautiful and the cuteness level is high in "Ponyo"-- however, to enjoy this film to the fullest (if you are too old to qualify for a child's ticket at the theater), leave your adult filmic expectations at the door. The adult couple in the row ahead of me who walked out in the first ten watercolored minutes. I watched them go, settled back into my seat, intent on enjoying what was turning out to be more Totoro than Howl's Moving Castle. I watched the movie while smiling wryly at my inner struggle-- the incredulous adult and the absorbed kid within me viewing this film together. The former was questioning the plot holes loudly and gesticulating at the screen; the latter was too wrapped up in the sea creature ballet to notice.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Infinite Jest : Book-in-Progress Review

And the test begins now-owowowowow
-"Fight Test," The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

: I'm going to finish David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest before the summer is out.

Important information to know:

Infinite Jest
= 1,079 pages; 388 footnotes; non-linear narrative; more characters than you can count on fingers/toes/skin cells; page-long paragraphs often comprised of one sentence; allusions and abbreviations; and 50 cent words aplenty. (do you know what "scrofulous" means? I didn't.)

Before the summer is out = before the (possibly literal) mound of reading for three literature classes descends upon my desk, acting as a solemn funeral pyre of whatever free time to which I'd become accustomed.

I decided to read DFW's IJ on a well-informed whim. That is, if well-informed can mean "trustworthy-word-of-mouth."
I hadn't even heard of David Foster Wallace until this past year. A good friend and budding DFW fan would continually bring up in conversations some revelatory point the great DFW had made in one of his essays. I'd smile, nod, figure the guy had some good stuff to say/write if this friend kept citing him. Later, this same friend informed me of DFW's death--a fact that saddens me more and more as I progress through IJ.

Many thanks rightfully belong to the lovely people of
The Morning News (one of my favorite websites) for getting me on the IJ bandwagon. The Morning News is sponsoring what I think is the biggest book club ever--Infinite Summer. The idea is to read IJ from June 21 through September 21, endnotes and all. The on-going commentary on the novel by the fearless leaders, forum discussions, and diehard community of bibliophiles at I-S are illuminating, highly entertaining, and encouraging. Someone else is out there struggling through the Maranthe/Shapely dialogues besides yrstruly.

I survived a Victorian Lit course last semester (over twice the number of pages of IJ in the same amount of time), so the length does not frighten me. Also, I lack the reasonable anxiety that I am wasting-time-by-not-reading-something-less-pretentious (?)-and-therefore-enjoyable. It's not simply Hakuna Matata--I trust TMN (more implicitly than I ought).
TMN taught me how to dress a man well , broadened my musical interests (with 6 word reviews of ALL 1,302 songs from the 2009 SXSW Music Festival's website), and has made me laugh so rambunctiously as to cause concern to those within earshot.

TMN all nice and plugged, I believe that the time spent puzzling over this door-stop-sized novel will be well worth it.

This is a "book-in-progress review" because, at 258 pages into IJ, I'm still not sure exactly what the novel is about (if you really want to know about/spoil the novel, you know where to go). The back of the book blurb tells me IJ
"explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to dominate our lives, about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people, and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are."

It goes on to say that IJ is "equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy."

The quest may be more literal than philosophical to the reader as they follow multiple characters (including protagonist Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Massachussetts) through threads of complex, non-linear storytelling. Hurrah postmodernism, even if DFW does not label himself as a postmodernist!
The reader has to hold tight during the first 100 pages or so while multiple characters are being introduced in a parade of (freaking great) short stories, but
eventually everyone connects up with someone else.
The novel could easily become frustrating if DFW's unexplained characters, abbreviations, Boston slang, and essay-length endnotes feel like teasing rather than a grand literary scavenger hunt. Compared to linear novels (which have comprised the bulk of my reading up until now), DFW invests tremendous confidence in the reader's ability to set up a corkboard in their cranium and piece the plot all together with yarn and newspaper clippings, a la Russell Crowe's shed in A Beautiful Mind sans schizophrenia. There is such a wonderful intellectual pleasure that comes from sinking another tack in that board, having questions answered, feeling DFW winking from somewhere beyond the page as he throws another unknown at me. I've heard that IJ becomes more and more wonderful with multiple reads since the reader understands more about the first pages of the novel after finishing it.

I'm finding it helpful to keep a journal for my questions/associations/epiphanies/funny quotes. Especially for the latter, because even in the most heart-rending descriptions of drug addiction
(one facet of entertainment that receives a great deal of focus in the novel--I have learned more about illegal substances than I ever thought I'd know), DFW's descriptions bring little sparks of comedic light to a dark, dark page.
For instance, there is a scene where a new setting is being described, a military hospital area (near the tennis academy) that among other buildings has a center for Alzheimer's patients and as well as a recovery house for people who've been addicted to "Substances." In the Alzheimer's building, a woman habitually sits at an open second story window and yells "Help" from the window. One day, courtesy of some of the irritatedly ironic folks at the Recovery House, a large HELP WANTED sign appears beneath the woman's window. No one fesses up when the authorities become (appropriately) livid.

There are also intrigues with Canadian terrorist groups (The Wheelchair Assassins. YES.), the existence of Subsidized time (years now go by such titles as The Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken to bring in increased revenue for the government), grand allusions to film theory and famous directors, prescriptive grammar and the OED.

In other words, Infinite Jest is a chilly delicious treat for those who enjoy the occasional comedic-intellectual brain-bending ridiculously-long novel.

Sounds perfect for summer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Retro-Review: Oldboy

Strangely enough, I decided to kick off this blog with my thoughts on a movie released a few years back. The movie in question is the Korean film Oldboy. Even though the film was released in 2005 to rave reviews, I have just gotten around to seeing it now. The fact that I wanted to write this post immediately after seeing it should indicate some of how I feel about the film, and it definately is not a desire to write a hate rant.

Chan-wook Park creates one of the most brutally beautiful thrillers that I have ever seen. It is one of those movies which makes you feel completely beat up by the end of the film...and ready to go a second round with it. It is rare to see a movie that has been confusing for the first 2/3rds of the film wrap up with an incredible ending that completely explains everything to the audience without being trite or as confusing as the rest of the movie. The finalé is an incredible end to a powerhouse of a film.

The film is as intense as movies come. It is definately not for the squeamish, however if you watch it you will gain a new appreciation for the many uses of the common household hammer. If you are tired of simple and trite thrillers, Oldboy is just the revitalizing film you need to see.

~The score in this film is absolutely incredible, be sure to pay attention.
~If you didn't get it at the start of this post Oldboy is a Korean film, so if you don't like with it. Don't watch the English dub, the original Korean track is the only way to go.
~The hallway fight scene is shot in one continuous take, and is one of the better fight scenes in recent memory.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Opening of the Arbiters

This blog is created as a method of discussing all things excellent in movies, music, theatre, poetry, and books. Feel free to comment on the discussions and throw in your two cents worth to the reviews and discussions listed. (Film Reviews for "Up" and "The Brothers Bloom" coming soon)