Thursday, March 31

Let Me In

For the foreseeable future, I will be contributing regular pieces for my friend Sasha James' blog The Final Girl Project. Compared to the more long-winded posts here, these pieces will be more concise, a full review, excluding a brief plot summary placed in its own section, will only run about 400-500 words. For any movie I've not yet reviewed, I plan to cross-post here with a longer article...eventually (I've still not gotten around to supplementing my Jackie Brown review).

However, I'm linking my review for Matt Reeves' unexpectedly wonderful remake of the haunting Let the Right One In, one of my favorite films of the preceding decade, because I don't think I have much to add to it. Much of what I wrote in my review of Tomas Alfredson's original applies to Reeves' film as well, but key differences make them divergent and equally worthy in their own ways. I did not care for Reeves' Cloverfield despite the valid excuses for its paper-thin writing, bludgeoning post-9/11 culture commentary and infuriating direction, but this movie is as far as you can get from that glorified mess. The clear link that bonds the two is, of course, a love of monster movies, but where Cloverfield was about the monster in blatantly symbolic terms, Let Me In connects with the monster, tries to understand it. In the process, it sees the evil in all of us. I still prefer Let the Right One In, but I was pleasantly surprised by this movie and look forward to revisiting it often.

So, please, check out my review at Final Girl Project, and also take a look at Matthew Zoller Seitz's spot-on praise for the best sequence of the film, and one of the best of any 2010 movie.

Saturday, March 26

Sucker Punch

Zack Synder's latest tribute to slow motion, Sucker Punch, tries so hard to be cool the director might as well have put sunglasses over the camera lens. Maybe he did, as that would explain why everything looked so dim. At times, I wondered if the movie was actually a minor step forward for 3D, one that did not require the use of special glasses. Of course, showing the film in 3D is the only way Sucker Punch could be any more offensive aesthetically: freed from the nominal requirement of honoring someone else's vision, Snyder can now assert his purported prowess to fully serve his own ends. But when you get closer, you find that his sandbox is filled with dried cat turds.

To be fair to the film, nothing that happens in it can or should be taken seriously. Its first moments open theatrical, revealing production and distribution company logos on curtains that rise to reveal a flat, clearly artificial set that only becomes a fully immersed location once the camera spins around the two-dimensional setup as if leaving drywall and furniture behind it to fill the space. This overt suggestion of the film's harmlessness graciously allows one to set aside issues of plausibility and, far more importantly, those of morality.

Following a brief, meaningless narration, the film starts with a wordless sequence set to an obnoxious cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." The near-10-minute setpiece depicts a young woman (Emily Browning) breaking down after the death of her mother. When her abusive father discovers the will left all his wife's money to the children, he plots to kill them both. He succeeds in killing his youngest, but the protagonist fends him off, until he frames her and has her committed to an institution, that is.

This opening allows Snyder to engage in his usual tropes: the entire sequence is slow-motion, filmed in muted, sharp grays and drowned out by exceedingly poor soundtrack selection. Whatever emotional connection a wordless depiction of grief and intolerable cruelty might have arisen from the judicious eye of a competent director gets swapped for emotional shorthand and Snyder's usual reveling in the misery and rage of others. There is no reason to care for Baby Doll, as she will come to be called in the institution, other than out of basic human decency, but for all the crap Snyder has crammed into his four live-action feature films, decency has never found its way into the mix.

Perhaps Snyder thought he was fooling anyone in his setup to the eventual descent into fancy and action one saw in the trailer, and I would have to say he was right, taking into account the dumbfounded reactions of those who could not follow the obvious giveaways 10 minutes into the film pointing to why the film suddenly lurches into a nonstop fantasy sequence. After a brief stay in the rusted metal and grimy concrete of the mental institution, the setting suddenly gives way to an old-school cabaret/strip club where all the orderlies and doctors from the preceding scenes appear as pimps and dance instructors. One woman in the audience lost volume control in her bewilderment and nearly screamed "What's happening?!" to her companions.

From there, the film moves into a series of fantastical, video-game like scenarios involving Baby Doll and the other girls of the institution/brothel: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, looking suspiciously like Snooki). Synder's films have always incorporated a video-game cutscene aesthetic, but here he goes hog wild. Made to find a series of items straight out of an adventure quest by a mysterious sage (Scott Glenn in full on David Carradine from Kung Fu and Kill Bill mode), Baby Doll et al. traverse various setpieces that might have made for a diverse blend of action, had everything not felt so rote.

Seriously, how can a sequence built around skydiving from a WWII airplane into a Helm's Deep-esque stronghold being overrun by orcs in order to slay a dragon to steal its fire be so damn dull? In transposing their 7th-grade notebook sketches into a script, Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya never ground the action in anything. Glenn's character pops up at times to deliver wretched inspirational adages, but he might have turned to face the camera to remind Snyder of the importance of heart: Sucker Punch has none, and thus the frenzy of its quotation exists solely to advance the director's masturbatory tendencies. The film is not even rhythmic enough to suck the audience into the flow, and as we all know, it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing. Right, Scott?

Having disagreed with Rango's detractors over its use of cinematic references as supposedly empty and self-serving, I can now sit back and relax as Sucker Punch attracts all that ire. Snyder's film encompasses references from various fields: fantasy literature, steampunk, anime, video games and, surprisingly, musicals (the influence of Moulin Rouge! can be seen all over the place). But nothing is ever made unique, despite the lack of clear, obvious reference in scenes. He does not quote the lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or restage Lord of the Rings, but each reference only serves to show how much Snyder loves what he incorporates. Not even the mashup of styles in each setpiece -- such as a Great Train Robbery involving a bomb defusion and a robot army -- creates a feeling of originality in juxtaposition.

This is a movie that goes off half-cocked, both in the rush of its action sequences and the orgasmic fetishism freely on display. None of these scenes has any kind of internal logic or cleverness: it assumes that the sight of Nazi steampunk zombies is so cool that the jumbled assembly of the sequence does not matter*. Like any self-absorbed man, Snyder only holds onto these images long enough to blow his wad, at which point he stops caring. Each sequence begins and ends with its establishing shot, a cornucopia of stitched-together genre imagery whose prettiness is instantly subsumed in the garish gloss of the director's staging. And if I saw the women drop from the sky, land thunderously and look up triumphantly and seductively into the camera one more time I swear I'd kill someone. Thankfully, Sucker Punch avoids the offensiveness of Snyder's Watchmen and 300, which makes the aesthetic offensiveness of its conception all the more deeply felt.

Tarantino's name has floated around nearly every review of Sucker Punch, both for the amount of cinematic references and its use of bad-ass women characters. But Tarantino is steeped in trash, as familiar with the specifics of an Australian grindhouse picture as he is with the ideas behind Taxi Driver. Snyder is a product not of the VCR generation but of the YouTube one, aware only of surface-level visuals and lines. Tarantino memorized the names of everyone involved in his favorite movies; Snyder can just check IMDb. Even when he almost stumbles into something so audacious it could work, such as the WWI zombie sequence, he ruins it by unimaginatively filming it in the rapid-cutting shaky cam of modern war cinema -- though I suppose I should be grateful he laid off the damn slo-mo for 10 minutes.

For all the flat banality of the action, the worst aspect of the film is its fleeting sense of self-importance. Dialogue comes in three flavors: 1) bad-ass declarations, 2) inspiration faux-philosophy and 3) laughable moments of ostensibly emotional bonding. As much as Snyder clearly wants to just play with his toys, he would also like to continue trading on the undeserved reputation he got among some for making smart genre cinema when he broadly dumbed down Alan Moore's characterizations and philosophy with Watchmen. As if it did not already sag enough when fully embracing its insanity, Sucker Punch dips into new lows when it makes fitful stabs at meaning. It drains the life out of the cast, some of whom might have excelled in better circumstances.

When I heard the wonderful, electric Jena Malone would be in this film and receive more lines than she ever has in a mainstream movie, I could hardly contain my delight. But that gift is a curse: given more lines than anyone else, she must therefore bear the burden of that atrocious dialogue, and not even her indefatigable spunk can overcome the swill of Snyder's pastiche vomit. Malone and Cornish do their best to enliven the film, but saddled with three unresponsive co-stars and the sheer mega-tonnage of the film's smeared gloss, they too often feel as if their respective defiance and resignation is in response to the movie itself and not anything in its diegesis.

Perhaps Sucker Punch signals a roundabout step forward for women in film, in that it saddles a female cast with all the tired dialogue and phallic violence enjoyed by men since time eternal. But that smacks of the argument that Sarah Palin's political success is good for women despite her platform of policies almost entirely antithetical to gender advancement. Still, to compare the two would suggest that Sucker Punch is anything other than a transparently forgettable and a benign waste of time. I cannot bring myself, especially as a man, to hem and haw over whether Snyder's film is empowering or yet another example of his ability to capture the pain and despair of women without the depth that makes such depictions resonant. I can say, however, that if women got more opportunities to carry a big-budget CGI fest, even a shitty one, we might not have to spend so much time arguing over whether this one does them a disservice.

Friday, March 25

The Box: 1st & 2nd Conditionals

I love the idea of the movie and its intriguing development. The situation is unsual, perfect for 1st and 2nd conditional practice.

A. Read the passage below and complete the blanks with the verbs in parentheses, using with the first conditional. You have just received the visit of a total stranger who gives you a mysterious box with a button and makes the following offer to you:

If you _________ (push) the button, two things ________ (happen). First, someone, somewhere in the world, whom you don't know, __________ (die). Second, you ____________ (receive) a payment of one million dollars. Tax free. The payment ___________ (be) delivered by me in cash to you.

There are three restrictions:

1. You are not permitted to know any information about who's making the offer.

2. You are not permitted to discuss the details of this offer to anyone except your husband (wife).

3. You have 24 hours to make your decision.

4. Otherwise, the box will be reprogrammed and the offer will be made to someone else.

B. Now watch the first part of the segment (until the visitor leaves her house) and check your answers.

C. Now discuss the following questions with a partner. Remember that you are talking about an unreal situation, so you must use the second conditional. Then write down your answers. Start them with If...

1. What would you do if you were in her shoes?
If ...

2. How would you feel if you pushed the button?
If ...

3. How would you feel if you didn't push the button?
If ...

4. Would you push the button if you needed that money to save your son/daughter's life? Explain it.
If ...

D. Watch the second part of the segment and answer the following questions:

1. What were some of the things they considered before deciding whether to push the button?

2. What did they decide to do?

3. According to her, why did she do it?

Answer key:

A. push / will happen / will die / will receive / will be

B. Answers will vary

Tuesday, March 22


Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's screenplay for Paul reads like the sort of film their characters from Spaced would write. But then, apart from fictional flourishes to make the characters work in a sitcom, Tim Bisley and Mike Watt have always essentially been Pegg and Frost themselves. Some might point to this as a weakness of range, but it takes courage not only to play oneself on-screen but to put a friendship up for critique before the eyes of millions.

And if Paul accomplishes nothing else, it proves that Pegg and Frost share the finest chemistry in contemporary comedy. Married couples do not have the same energy and believability on-screen as these two dorky Englishmen; even when delivering the most obviously set-up punchline, their interplay makes every exchange fresh, natural and, nine times out of 10, hilarious.

Sadly, that may be indeed all that Paul manages. Originally scripted by the two friends to be something vaguely "dark," the finished product, directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), never finds its groove. Essentially a road trip movie that so happens to be set in Steven Spielberg's filmography, Paul uses its stoner take on E.T. to open up endless references of every geek hallmark of the last 40 years. After a prologue meant to recall Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the movie steps outside of referencing other films and moves the action to the San Diego Comic-Con, a real-life event constructed around nerd love for science fiction and pretty much all other genre entertainment.

Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, respectively, two laddish man-children from England using Comic-Con as the first stop on their tour of the southwest United States and its series of reported UFO sightings. As soon as they pass Area 51, however, they get more than they bargained for when a little green man calling himself Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) asks for their help.

The first half of Paul generally adheres to the style of comedy Mottola displayed in Superbad, mixing reference humor, gross-out gags and heat waves of awkward male introversion into a stream of madcap profanity. Paul turns out to be laid-back, sardonic and -- in classic British understatement on Pegg's part -- "a bit rude." Pegg and Frost delve so deeply into their reverence for science fiction that they emerge out the other side by suggesting such major pop culture icons as E.T. and Agent Mulder from The X-Files came from Paul's massive head, repositioning the usual canard of extraterrestrial beings bringing us scientific enlightenment to more esoteric, nerdy foci.

Yet for a creature hiding from government agents hellbent on splitting his skull open after metaphorically picking his brain for six decades, Paul does not seem overly concerned with capture, constantly walking around outside making loud chat in Rogen's booming growl and barking laugh. His attitude clashes with his frequent panic over discovery, and this disconnect marks the first (but not last) time the script sacrifices coherence and consistency for quick jokes.

Just as this looseness with character and narrative threatens to send this movie off the road, however, Kristen Wiig arrives as a Jesus-freak RV-park operator unwittingly lured into the trio's journey, to a smitten Graeme's delight and abject terror. Her Bible-thumping denial of alien life makes for a fresh few minutes of comedy, and some daring humor for American audiences not used to seeing Christians so openly mocked in a mainstream film; in the film's funniest exchange of dialogue, Paul lays out the particulars of evolution in machine-gun lines of withering condescension as Ruth shouts "Demon!" and sings "Amazing Grace." The boys even point out the riskiness of this humor when Paul warns against taking her along despite the necessity of doing so. "This is America," he moans. "Kidnapping a Christian is worse than harboring a fugitive!"

Wiig, perhaps the funniest actress working today, livens the film as the slowly progressing Ruth, her blend of repressed naïveté and budding connection to the world her father hid from her leads to numerous moments of awkward assimilation that would seem clichéd if Wiig were not so deft at playing them. However, too many of her lines play on the joke that she's just learned to curse and loves it, leading to repetitive and dull lines of Wiig throwing together random clusters of naughty words in hi-LAR-ious combinations for the rest of the film. Still, her presence considerably brightens the film, and Wiig's performance will make yet more fall in love with her and only strengthen the crushes the rest of us already have.

The entire cast excels, to be honest. Bill Hader, who, with Wiig, is easily the highlight of the current iteration of Saturday Night Live, gets the chance to show off some more of his underrated range. Known on SNL for his impersonations, Hader here continues to evolve after his wild performance in Adventureland, where he played the hair-trigger theme park owner who could snap at any instant. His hapless rookie agent is a full reversal from that role, but it allows Hader to show how well he handles more straightforward, even deadpan comedy after proving himself a gifted mimic and a manic performer. Paired with the always delightful Joe Lo Truglio, Hader creates an inverse of the buddy relationship between Pegg and Frost with a more classical comic duo setup of put-upon straight man and clowning buffoon. (Hader and Lo Truglio are the best secondary duo since Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody in last year's Cop Out, and they have the added burden of playing against the pure chemistry of Pegg and Frost's actual chemistry.)

Jason Bateman also gets to push his smarminess to the extreme as the head agent in pursuit of Paul. His Zoil does not exude intimidating force and knowledge so much as the ability to break others down through insults. He reminds me of that old Monty Python sketch about the gangster who tortured those who crossed him with sarcasm and bathos. Overseeing all is a not-so-mysterious female voice intent on bringing Paul's body back into the lab for testing; her climactic reveal opens the doors for references of the one major sci-fi franchise not brought up before the end.

Everyone here has such energy and charm that it's surprising how hollow the film ultimately feels. Part of this can be traced to the sudden gear shift in the second half that turns the raunchy drive through the flat, UFO-scanned Midwest into a near-bloodbath with a series of grisly deaths that are too grim to be funny yet too sudden and without context to carry any meaning. Pegg and Frost's original conception of the script purportedly incorporated more of the darker side seen in the last third into the whole film, but the lighter tone of the earlier slapstick makes the final version devastatingly uneven. Paul ultimately takes the key flaw of the Superbad-esque movie -- R-rated juvenilia and geekiness giving way suddenly to serious talks about friendship and one's future -- to its endpoint, careening so wildly between multiple shots of a CGI butt crack to horrifying deaths that one forgets the original point of the movie.

What makes this drastic transition all the more jarring is the degree to which Paul lets itself fall into familiar joke patterns, with some gags simply repeated without alteration throughout. Clive, who once won an award for his own sci-fi book, has struggled for years with the sequel, but he does have a cover drawn by Graeme*. That cover prominently displays an alien woman with three breasts, prompting outbursts of "Awesome!" whenever someone sees it. Paul gets off several boner jokes and Wiig's aforementioned madlib swearing grows wearisome nearly an hour before it finally stops. Paul contains so many clever and unique takes on overdone Star Wars references (even down to a country-bluegrass version of the Mos Eisley Cantina theme) that its eventually stagnation in these repeated jokes disappoints all the more. Clearly, these guys had it in them to keep writing fresh material.

These failings sadly undermine what might have been a slight but fiendishly fun ride from the best double act working today. It is indeed fun for a time, but by the end the references became too broad, too present for the sake of being references, and the repetition of jokes and gags made the film sag. Still, the performances are all fantastic, and Pegg and Frost are so good at what they do that they can turn a sappy expression of man love into something truly touching and make even the most tired dick-'n'-fart jokes funny by dint of their delivery and rapport. By the end, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that, for the first time, I saw Pegg and Frost playing about in their love of other people's movies without any examination or subversion of them. Maybe they need Wright's own writing ability to steer them straight, or at least his intuitive camera.

Still, I have to like a film that bluntly addresses the absurdity of fears of anal probing ("What can I possibly learn from an ass?!") and also lets its stars, cooped up in an RV for days on end, look like they've actually lived in an RV and not just stepped out of their makeup trailer. These touches almost make the film worth watching again, provided I stop about 2/3 of the way through. But I laughed, dear readers, and often, and I got all the Pegg and Frost I desired. That counts for something; just not as much as I'd have liked.

*I wondered throughout if Graeme's artistic ability was a nod to Pegg's role on Spaced or if Pegg simply likes the idea of being an illustrator for genre fiction.

Sunday, March 20

Déjà Vu: You've Never Seen Something Quite Like This Before

My review for Tony Scott's masterpiece, Déjà Vu, is now up at Cinelogue. A digital version of Vertigo, Scott's film probes issues of obsession, fractured identity and time travel, always focusing on the emotion over narrative. It represents the apotheosis of Scott's poetic chaos, taking his complicated, arrhythmic preference for the subjective, stream-of-consciousness close-up and incorporating it into the always-corkscrewing nature of time travel. Plot holes abound, but Scott masterfully controls the aspects of the film he wants to stress most. For all the film's talk of terrorism and its open acknowledgment of such travesties as Oklahoma City, 9/11 and Katrina, Déjà Vu is largely apolitical. Instead, it gives us the alternative to the false closure of revenge: the desire to go back and prevent the whole thing from happening, saving hundreds, maybe thousands, and especially that one person you'd give anything to see again.

Please check out my review at Cinelogue.

Saturday, March 19

Red Riding Hood

Walking out of Red Riding Hood, I felt a total emptiness in my soul. I could not rage at the absurdity of the story, the effrontery of its capitalization on the Twilight craze or the stupefying lack of direction, nor could I even mock anything. Cobbled together out of cribbed notes from someone's time-traveling Twilight slashfic, Red Riding Hood splashes its milky shots about in shuddering, arrhythmic spurts. In other words, it's an ejaculation, though to call it one would erroneously give the impression that at least one person involved had fun.

Opening with the same computer-animated "helicopter" shots of chilled, remote landscapes pockmarked with medieval villages and fortifications, Red Riding Hood clearly bears the runny, hastily applied stamp of its incompetent auteur, Catherine Hardwicke, who also helmed the first Twilight. Hardwicke brings the same sleepy tedium to this film, maintaining her sped-up yet monotonously droning montage of trees, snow-covered mountains and streams for the whole of the opening credits, devoting minutes to these repetitive, unengaging shots before finally starting in flashback on a young village girl running around the woods with her friend Peter. The two trap a rabbit in a cage, and the girl eagerly pulls out a knife to cut the bunny's throat, eliciting from myself and my two accompanying friends a simultaneous, involuntary cry of "What?!" before the scene jerks away to a calmer shot and a "Ten Years Later" title appears on-screen over yet more damn shots of more damn trees. It was the Surprise Symphony of crap.

The girl, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, inspiring hordes of lazy "My, what big eyes you have" jokes), is now grown-up but still playful, ignoring propriety to slink around the woods all day and tease Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), now a woodcutter (guess. Just guess). Apparently, slitting an animal's throat with relish did not send Peter running for the hills, and he does everything short of getting into Valerie's smock in full view of the town despite her being betrothed to another. (But not to fear, later they cross that thin line in an obvious location begging to be caught.) I did not know that medieval apothecaries made some kind of hair gel, but Peter has clearly found something to perk up his oh-so-gentled messed hair, and for someone who should be working all day with the other villagers, Peter certainly does manage to get away with quite a bit of downtime in which to stare broodingly. Even the men cannot help but be mesmerized by those eyes, it seems.

I've used the term "medieval" twice now, but I may be setting myself up for embarrassment. Red Riding Hood does not fit neatly into an identifiable time period, incorporating modern idioms into generic folk-tale settings as if a live-action Shrek. These crossbow-wielding, log-chopping peasants have "crushes" on people and worry about who in town is richest despite the clear irrelevance of coins in this barter society. The remote hamlet of Daggerhorn operates in feudal fashion but does not seem to have any overseeing lord. In fact, they lack any clear leader at all, operating in such collective "harrumphing" that one's mind drifts to the erudite socialist serf in Monty Python and the Holy Grail explaining the place to any travelers who might happen upon the village.

Bonding the townspeople together is the fear of a werewolf that terrorizes them, though no one has seen it in years. Only when the old rituals of animal sacrifices and boarded-up houses slack with comfort does the beast suddenly return, harshing Valerie's plans to run off with Peter -- seriously, where? You are tucked away in an empty forest that even the Holy Roman Emperor does not want to control -- by killing her sister. So it goes. The townspeople, whipped into a frenzy by Col. Saul Tigh Michael Hogan, head to a nearby cave to hunt the werewolf and come back with what is so obviously an average, everyday wolf that one must choke back laughter. How have these people dealt with a werewolf for generations and learned all the superstitious methods of killing it without having any idea what a werewolf actually is?

To set them straight on their magnificent ignorance, along comes the witch-hunting priest Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) to gently explain to them that a werewolf turns back into a person and lives among people. Hence, y'know, werewolf. Honestly, this is the one time you can't blame Oldman for yelling at people. Flanked by what appears to be a crossover ad with Benetton and Medieval Times, Solomon and his warriors soon take over the town with their accents. Everyone else in the film speaks unabashedly in an American accent, including England-born Max Irons, who plays Valerie's intended husband Henry and always looks as if on the verge of tears. But Oldman sports a vaguely Transylvanian accent left over from his time as Dracula; taken with his dress -- not robe, dress -- made out of purple velvet, Oldman's mad voice pulled me from the dreariness of the film for a moment before the undertow of the movie's relentless slog yanked him out to sea.

Oldman's arrival leads to the proper introduction of the film's broad, blatant themes on female repression and sexual assault. The religious Solomon searches for any sign of witchcraft, his accurate opinion that the werewolf lives among the townsfolk leads to zealous invasion of privacy for the sake of bringing out the devil in the town. Through a series of events, Valerie finds herself targeted, partially because of the flowing red cloak she wears ("the Devil's color," adds Solomon, having inherited none of his namesake's wisdom). Tacitly, her open sexuality with Peter comes back to bite her as the village turns on her instantly, branding her a witch and leaving her out for sacrifice. They've practically watched her eat up her man in public; what's the difference in seeing her eaten*?

The sad truth of suspense movies where truly anyone can be the monster among the rest is that eventually no one cares who the monster actually is. Everyone gets to act either menacingly -- Peter, Valerie's grandmother (Julie Christie) -- or unilaterally weak -- Valerie's alcoholic father (Billy Burke, who, judging from his career, might have brought his own booze), the town priest (Lukas Haas). They're all trying so hard to be both the red herring and the Person You Least Expect that the climactic reveal lacks any weight. Perhaps if anyone looked natural in this environment, I might have bothered to study them more closely, but everyone acts so transparently as if on a set: you can practically smell how artificially clean this muddy, livestock-filled village is, and not even snowstorms can get some of these people out of short-sleeved shirts and flimsy cloth pants.

Meanwhile, Hardwicke continues to fumble tying her sexual symbolism into her murky, monotonous mise-en-scène. If she has captured anything relating to sex in her two fantastical virgin allegories, it's the somnambulant thrusting of Ambien intercourse. So many shots in the film are so out-of-focus I questioned whether the studio hired the cinematographer from The Room. The obvious metaphor of the flowing red cloak flowing behind Valerie at all times, to say nothing of the sexual connotations of a blood-flushed "hood," pops up so often I would expect even prepubescents to say "We get it!" by the end of the film. At least Hardwicke shows young people willing to have sex in this film, proving that even tucked-away Catholics in the Dark Ages were more psychologically and sexually stable than Stephenie Meyer. Yet once again, we get the mysterious, potentially hazardous bad boy wooing the doe-eyed (or bug-eyed, as the case may be) virgin into supernatural passion, and when my friend joked at the end that they set up "Red Riding Hood 2," she may not have been far off the filmmakers' intentions. Too bad the film makes the bloodless anti-chemistry of Bella and Edward look like the timeless romance for which some have taken it.

Red Riding Hood does not even work as good trash. It certainly has the seriousness required of any so-bad-it's-good romp worth its salt; everyone speaks with such gravity and verve that one almost forgives them all for speaking with American accents in their tucked-away European hamlet. Comedy works the same way as tragedy: just as the audience cries more when the characters don't allow themselves to shed tears, so too does comedy come more naturally when everyone acts sternly and does not turn to wink at the camera. And with such lines as "Lock him up in the elephant!" (don't ask) and eye-rolling suggestive phrases like "I could eat you up," the cast deserves credit for managing at least one take where they all didn't burst into gales of laughter, if for no other reason than to ward off tears. But the plot is so dull, so endlessly plodding, so flagrantly stitched together, that this unwarranted gravitas never elevates the film to the best of the worst.

My friends and I emerged from the screening in a daze. Normally, we discuss the film, gushing over the details of movies we loved or cracking jokes about the bad ones. Yet all we could do was look around, awkward and bewildered, unable to say anything without devolving into stutters or silence. There's nothing to Red Riding Hood, no sensuality in its animal lust, no joy in its deadpan tedium, no pleasure in seeing its talented lead actress continue to waste her potential on projects that do not utilize her strengths. Then again, considering that practically every movie Seyfried makes does not tap into her potential, perhaps I and others of my mindset are simply projecting the thought of talent onto her, willing her to be worthy of whatever aura we see around her. Perhaps my glasses prescription still has not fully fixed my eyes.

This movie is an insult to folk tales that have entertained and scared children for centuries, to the very idea of a fable, even to the experimental film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, from which I guess this film's protagonist got her name. That 1970 Czech movie is a riot, a surrealist depiction of the stress of pubescent womanhood on a confused, repressed girl. Red Riding Hood is itself confused and repressed, too stupid to rise above and navigate the moral waters in which it wades. The entire project feels like nothing more than an excuse for Hardwicke to get back to her roots as a production designer. Her chief artistic contribution to the set design? Putting spikes on trees. Would that I could have run my throat into one of them.

*Probably should have phrased that differently.

Friday, March 18

Up in the Air: Simple Present x Simple Past

This movie is really nice and the scene is perfect to contrast the uses of the simple present and simple past tenses.

I. Work in small groups. Make a list of activities you do every time you travel by plane. Think about what you do during the day until the plane takes off. Make sure you mention the steps you take at home and at the airport too.


I make my bags.
I shave.

II. Watch the movie segment and check which of the activities you listed in Exercise I George Clooney's character did that day.

III. Now write 5 sentences saying what he did in the segment that you did not list in exercise II.

Ex: He took off his shoes at the airport.

IV. Now write sentences saying 5 things from your list that he didn't do before traveling.

Ex: He didn't shave.



Carpenter's Tools: Escape from L.A.

[Note: This is a stupefyingly belated entry in my John Carpenter retrospective, which I intended to go all the way through his canon but could find scant enthusiasm to continue past In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter's last triumph before a series of mediocre-to-awful films leading up to his present condition. But I am curious to see if I can find redeeming qualities in his late-period work, and finishing his whole filmography will make writing about The Ward that much easier when the time comes. So, at last, I resume my retrospective, some two unnecessary years in the making, with Escape from L.A.]

By 1996, prospects had so soured for John Carpenter that he was reduced to making the sequel to one of his finest features, Escape from New York. Naturally, after the gradual "Disney terraforming" of New York that started in the '90s, the Big Apple no longer held the same reputation it did at the start of the '80s when one suspected that Carpenter did not even need to build sets to film in the urban decay he portrayed. In the mid-90s, Los Angeles, home of uncontrollable gang crime and pollution, became the place to be for hellish futuristic cities. Demolition Man presented an L.A. consumed in flames before an ultra-liberal thought police took over and bleached the place, and Escape from L.A. presents a Los Angeles separated from the mainland by a massive earthquake, leading to a theocratic takeover that condemns L.A. Island to the mythic realm of Sodom and Gomorrah. Where neo-hippie pacifism babied up the city in Stallone's action vehicle, Carpenter's film is the last reflection of his disgust with modern conservatism and its incorporation of the religious right into its framework. Los Angeles, it seems, can never win.

Where that political slant might have made the film somewhat clever, however, it instead ensures that Escape from L.A. feels not only like a retread of its predecessor but of Carpenter's late-'80s work that took square aim at Reagan, most obviously with They Live. Opening with an expository voiceover by a computerized female voice that never shows up again in the film, Escape from L.A. wastes minutes of time by going over extraneous details in the flat reading, undercutting the clever construction of the earthquake hitting Los Angeles with dull, fictional facts and figures that take away from the power of the visuals, which are the high point of otherwise laughable special effects.

And when the action finally begins and characters on-screen begin speaking, we must endure even more background as Snake Plissken arrives in chains at the transfer center to Los Angeles island, where he is to be banished with all the other undesirables. One of the military commanders, Malloy (Stacy Keach) essentially summarizes the plot of Escape from New York and pads out that exposition with tidbits of Snake's life before and after the events of that film. At last, the actual narrative comes to the fore when Malloy plays a hologram recording of the theocratic president's daughter, Utopia, seduced and brainwashed by a Peruvian terrorist named Cuervo Jones, stealing codes for a weaponized satellite system to use against her father and the corrupt United States. The president (Cliff Robertson) wants Snake to infiltrate Los Angeles, retrieve the black box and kill his daughter for treason. Oh, and to make sure Snake obeys, the president injects him with a lethal virus that will kill him in 10 hours unless he gets some antidote that instantly cures him. God, at least the neck bombs kind of made sense.

Sequels deserve to be weighed on their own terms, but how can I step back and evaluate solely what is on the screen before me when everything so blatantly recalls Escape from New York? Snake has to retrieve a MacGuffin and he is given a narrow timeframe in which to do it. And seriously, why do these people keep giving him only a few hours? At least in the first film it coincided with the ransom countdown given for the captured president; here it's just because, and the virus weakens him as time elapses. Way to ensure mission success, Mr. President. Everyone in the prison colony continues to have that double-take recognition of Snake, including saying "I thought you'd be taller" when they confirm it's him.

The key difference between L.A. and New York, and the chief indication that Carpenter still had some cleverness left in him, is in the contrast of aesthetics. While the effects themselves pale in comparison to the brilliant, moody design of seedy decay in the previous film (which looked like what Travis Bickle must have seen in his nightmares), Carpenter's conception of L.A. viciously tears down the city's own issues. The project stagnated in the early-'90s, but in the wake of the '94 quake and the Rodney King riots, Carpenter's farcical view of L.A. tearing itself apart seismically and socially no longer seemed so far-fetched. Shots of cars tearing around streets essentially performing drive-bys on each other (an impossibility in New York, where Hunter S. Thompson said one could not even park, much less drive) are on-the-nose, as is the gratuitous incorporation of landmarks, which the last film largely minimized with exceptions.

But the real delight is in Carpenter's view of the people of L.A., an assortment of niks (peace, beat and freak), punks, gang members all united by the same delusion that exists even after Hollywood sunk into the sea. One wonders if the moral majority president even had to ship anyone into the city to fill it with those unwanted in an uptight, Christian country. Where Carpenter's vision of New York was a slimy underground of sewer rats-turned-human who slunk around corners like greasy shadows, everyone in L.A. has that terminal openness. Snake always descended in New York; here everything is above ground, save for a brief spell in a sewer. At one point, Snake gets captured by organ harvesters controlled by a sort-of plastic surgeon version of Josef Mengele, played by Bruce Campbell (who hilariously has done fake surgery to make his own chin even larger). The cult the man operates is all fish lips and silicone breasts, and in some cases you have to squint to make sure it's just movie makeup on these people.

Sadly, these fleeting moments of wit pass by too quickly, leaving the audience with a series of disconnected, poorly executed action sequences that fail to elicit any unified mood. Carpenter was one of the preeminent atmospheric directors of his day, capable of maintaining a sense of dread from the start of Assault on Precinct 13 pretty much through the end of The Thing. Each sequence just happens, usually without justification and invariably involving stunts so ridiculous one can only react to Carpenter's retrospective view that the script was "too campy" with a "Ya think?"

A CGI sequence of Snake's submersible careening around the "San Fernando Sea" lacks the genuinely fun camp of Snake's glide into New York and instead drags on far too long with lackluster effects. A chase sequence involving Plissken speeding after Cuervo's motorcade on a motorcycle lacks energy and is incoherent despite Carpenter's trademark use of longer, steadier takes. A climactic moment places Snake before a screaming mob in a modern day coliseum, where he can ensure his survival not by fighting but...scoring a basketball trick from the other end of the court. I haven't even mentioned the hang-gliding scene. I will, however, talk about the surfing. If Carpenter's goal with his script was to play up all the various inanities of Los Angeles, he might have succeeded, but when he executes sequences like Snake Plissken surfing fast enough to keep up with a speeding car, he overplays his hand and becomes guilty of the excess and stupidity he portrays in his Hollywood stereotypes.

Some moments amused me. Seeing Snake tied up in the background struggling to get free as Cuervo patches in a video feed to the president to taunt him is hilarious, and some of the lines are so stilted that they actually work as comedy instead of weighing down the narrative. When the president offers his ultimatum to Snake, he tells the anti-hero that his freedom is on the line. Russell, jaw clenched around a piece of scenery, growls "That died in America a long time ago!" Carpenter at least had the good sense to make excellent use of Steve Buscemi, who plays the waterlogged remnant of Hollywood's old soul: a huckster who sells post-apocalyptic "star maps," orchestrates captures and always manages to slime his way out of trouble like any good agent, Eddie lets Buscemi run that big-talkin' motormouth of his, even saving him from death a few times just so he can stick around a bit longer.

Every so often, we even get a glimpse of Carpenter's old sense of workman detail. He lights and blocks Russell in an early scene so his shadow breaks along both adjoining walls instead of just one, and when physical objects such as wrecked cars and grimy canvas tents appear for Carpenter to work around, the director flirts with his old atmospheric tone and keen eye for mise-en-scéne.

But it's all for naught. Characters repeatedly use the line "The more things change, the more they stay the same," but the same is true for Escape from L.A. itself. It plays around with the change in setting but ultimately hedges so closely to the original plot that the differences amount to nothing more than tattered, dusty window dressing. Russell purportedly fought hard to get this sequel made, having loved the character and rightly assumed fans would love to see more of Snake, and he is by far the saving grace of the film. Saddled with some of the thickest writing the already-blunt Carpenter/Hill team ever wrote, Russell still has a ball. His series of hisses, grunts and death stares make for nonstop hilarity. Too bad its the only intentional comedy that works. As gung-ho as his dear friend might have been for the project, Carpenter's weariness and bitter attitude toward L.A. and Hollywood roll off him in every frame. But his bark lacks follow-up bite, and Escape from L.A. ultimately feels like a wounded kid sulking off to lick his wounds and curse his tormenting bully under his breath rather than confront him head-on. By the time Snake gets an all-too-familiar last laugh and delivers an absurd final message directly to the audience, one can only marvel at how badly Tinseltown whipped a director who wanted nothing more than to offer solidly crafted material for the studios who spurned him. What a shame.

Thursday, March 17

TESOL 2011 - New Orleans

The TESOL Convention in New Orleans has just ended and I attended very interesting sessions. My presentation was Saturday and I everything worked out. If you attended the convention, please tell us what you thought about it and if you enjoyed it.

Ulysses, Chapter Six: Hades

Sometimes, despite my best effort to get as close a reading as possible, I find myself zipping through a book, so caught up in its narrative and/or style that I find myself so engrossed that I either lose fine detail for barreling through the story or, and this is really weird, I focus so intently on the construction that I sidestep the narrative entirely. (Austen does this to me a lot; I'll be both marveling and laughing at the way she sets up a joke and then go, "Wait, where did Darcy come from? Oh right, this was mentioned in the last three pages I blew through because I wanted to get to the punchline.)

The Hades chapter of Ulysses is the first time I can recall speeding up my reading simply because the thought of spending any more time in its hellish grip. Homer's stanzas in Hades do not communicate actual suffering: Odysseus, wisely wishing not to descend into the realm and further test his sour relationship with the gods, calls up the shades of heroes and relatives to meet him. Tears are shed and horrors related, but so much of it feels like a reunion, a sad one perhaps, but still a meeting of old friends and loved ones. Besides, the dead barge into Odysseus' life so much that one starts to feel as if he really is at a family reunion with "Uncle Agamemnon" reminding him that Odysseus' wife is probably cheating on him or whatever because his wife did. Meanwhile Odysseus probably still smells like ambrosia from hanging with Calypso for seven years.

Even Dante's Inferno, which modernist writers like Joyce and Eliot quote so often, does not achieve the same level of despair contained within the imagery of Joyce's chapter. Dante's cantos contain too much of the righteous fury of the pious, that bloodthirsty vengeance for those deemed unworthy. Dante's hell is one cooked up by the fervent imaginations of persecuted Christians crafting superhuman tortures for their tormentors. It displays the sadism of the warped Christian mind, reveling in the blood and gore of "deserved" eternal punishment. People sometimes forget that the pilgrim eventually makes his way back out of hell and gets to see Heaven in another volume.

Joyce's chapter, more than any outright Christian text, understands that hell in its purest form is the absence of God. And for an atheist, God is absent everywhere, making Earth its own hell. Death rises off the page in putrefying waves, necrotic gases hissing from rotted, burst organs. Even those alive seem held in death's grip, trapped in the same self-aggrandizing and perfunctorily mournful dialogue that marked Odysseus' chats with dead heroes. They are all shades in Ireland, all of them grim, pale reflections of the island's overcast climate.

And my God has the weather of the British isles never been so accurately captured. I have yet to have the pleasure of visiting Ireland, but I did have the fortune to spend two weeks in England during high school, where every single day it rained. I don't mean April showers or even heavy thunderstorms. No, the rain in England was incredible: it falls in needles, thin knives of frigid liquid that seemed to pass through our puny American umbrellas like a knife through Kevlar -- they were made to stop fat drops, not this -- injecting ice directly into the bloodstream. One must never go anywhere on a limb in London; if you're going to walk around in that shit for hours you better be going somewhere.

And yet, Bloom wanders around Dublin, drinking in its sights without clear purpose, and the effect is chilling. Riding in a carriage with other friends of Dignam's, Bloom quickly feels left out of the conversation as the other men know each other better, so he begins to stare outside the carriage and ruminate on what he sees. It's all bleak: an old woman noses around the hearse as if sizing up her future ride; one of the passengers spots Boylan, Molly's potential lover, plunging Bloom's heart into his throat; the carriage moves past where Bloom's daughter, Milly, is staying, and he resists the urge to visit her because he knows barging in might lead to some grim embarrassments.

Inside the carriage, the rapport shared by the other men reveals a familiarity forged in the Church. These men know the customs Bloom curiously thought about in the previous chapter, have shared memories owing to their bedrock of common knowledge, and they begin to speak as if Bloom isn't there. They pass by a moneylender's office, and one of the men jokes that they've all been there before, then makes a quick but meaningful glance at the Jewish Bloom. "Well, nearly all of us." Later, that same man brings out his Catholicism by viciously condemning suicide, an intensely uncomfortable proclamation given that Bloom's father poisoned himself. Yet the statement was not meant maliciously: Mr. Power did not know, and when someone takes him aside after the men arrive and get out of the carriage to tell him, he is mortified. So mortified, in fact, that he cannot even contemplate going to Leo and apologizing (who could?).

It's not that the men hate Bloom or are aggressively antisemitic to him; they just forget. It's funny, Stephen, the passive reactor to the world, is noticed more by those around him. He maybe getting shuffled around without purpose, but more people hold longer conversations with him than they do Bloom, who is an active force but cannot seem to get an equal and opposite reaction out of others. He dotes upon his wife, who barely rises from her bed only to prop up an elbow. In the carriage, he is cut off and ignored at every turn, even by Cunningham, who knows Leo and sympathetically diverts the conversation when Power puts his foot in it over suicide, interrupts Bloom's story and starts telling it himself. The only time he gets noticed is when his different perspective clashes with the Catholics. He expresses gratitude for Dignam's quick death because it spared him pain, but the others stare incredulously. Of course: a quick death for Catholics precludes the possibility of confessing one's sins on a deathbed. What is a few days, or weeks, of Earthly pain compared to eternity in the pit? Bloom might as well be the man in the casket, ignored save for brief moments of perfunctory deference to his being, or lack thereof.

The funeral itself is miserable in every way save the ones you'd expect. Scarcely attended, poorly furnished and lackadaisically noted, only the tears of Dignam's wife and child make the exercise meaningful. Everyone else, without saying it, seems to feel as if they've wasted a day, and their chat soon diverts from the tut-tutting and the crossing oneself over Dignam to Bloom meditating in his boredom. He wonders why the dead aren't buried vertically for greater efficiency, making them more like vegetables than they already are (and recalling that "potted meat" product from the previous chapter). His detailed imagination of maggots breaking down people into manure to grow gardens is repellent yet oddly humanistic. It's an odd Christian tradition, burial, a bit of a waste of space and time and resources to commemorate a body that might as well be burned. And if you're going to put them in the ground, make something useful out of them. "Plant him and have done with him," Bloom thinks. He looks around and sees no God, no potential for afterlife. No sense of going to all this fuss and solemnity in a place that already reeks of death.

This chapter tackles the flip-side of the Catholic Church's effect on people: the Lotus Eaters showed sex clouding the minds of the Irish, driving them to dreamy indecision with repression and desire. Here, we see how death gets manipulated. Everyone has to participate in the ritual for the sake of the deceased, though deep down they all feel the nagging sense that this is all for naught. But because they must worry not only about death but what happens after that, death casts a shroud over Ireland as blinding and disorienting as sex. It is a terrifying national portrait, and the manner in which Joyce can get out this devastating critique of religious influence without resorting to polemics is extraordinary.

Stray observations filter through Bloom's eyes and make for evocative reading. Apart from the gloom of everything around him, Bloom fixates on a stranger at the funeral, a man in a brown macintosh. His arrival makes him the 13th person there, "Death's number." Swathed in brown, Joyce's color of death, the man simply hangs around and creeps out Bloom and a few of the others, though he disappears as suddenly as he arrived. Who is this man? Perhaps he is death, there to claim Dignam. Vladimir Nabokov suspects it is Joyce himself. I've heard he pops up again later. I shall have to see what information those subsequent appearances bring...

Oh, I nearly forgot: Joyce nearly has Bloom and Stephen meet in this chapter. Stephen's father, Simon, rides in the carriage with Bloom, and Leo spots Stephen walking around Dublin. Simon grumbles something about Buck Mulligan, but the carriage moves on. Intriguingly, Simon, a somewhat appealing figure in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, suddenly comes off as inferior to Bloom. He's short-tempered, sarcastic and a bit childish. He actually reminds me of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, initially appealing because he compares favorably to those around him (specifically his superficial, boorish wife and all his daughters younger than the refined Jane and Elizabeth). Later, however, Austen reveals him to be not as clever as he thinks he is and, in his own way, as rude and vain as his wife. The same holds true for Simon, and we finally see why Stephen might be searching for a father when he still has one.

By the end of the chapter, Bloom seems as appalled and sick of the sights as I was, and he bustles out of the cemetery the way Odysseus backs out of Hades. Joyce's vision of Ireland incorporates its future split without overtly hinting at it through dramatic irony. He just lets an ill wind churn the cold air, creating a sense of doom one cannot quite place. Sex and death hang over this island like those wooden blocks that manipulate marionette strings: sex and death undid Parnell, and they could undo anyone gathered at Dignam's funeral. The heart first gets referenced in this chapter related to Dignam's broken one, the sudden coronary that killed him. And yet, by the end of the chapter, Bloom reveals his still-beating heart by turning away from death to think of preserving life. Let us not dwell in Hades but help those still here. For all his cowardice and invisibility, Bloom at last begins to display traits that break him favorably from those around him, and it suggests he might be a worthy guiding light for Stephen after all.

Wednesday, March 16

Ulysses, Chapter Five: The Lotus Eaters

Well, dear readers, we move from the waste management system to the playground. Yes, where the digestive system formed the anatomical reference of the Calypso chapter, Joyce now swivels round the pelvis to focus on the genitals. Funny, considering that the organs would actually correspond with their Odyssey counterparts better if swapped, the the kidney for the Lotus Eaters and the genitalia for Calypso.

The Calypso episode of Homer's epic reset the narrative to introduce Odysseus, who'd spent seven years as the lover of the demigod Calypso (meanwhile Penelope hasn't stopped crying for 20 years; women through the ages have probably, and so rightly, referred to this as "a crock of shit"). Joyce's Leopold does not set out from his lover to return to his loyal wife. Rather, he fears her infidelity but does not say anything, too nervous to broach the subject. Already, the link between cunning, strong Odysseus and meek Bloom seems ironic. Yet both have the power of observation, though where Odysseus uses his ability to read people and situations to serve him well, Bloom still cannot apply his sensual connection to the world to any change. He's more active than Stephen Dedalus but just as unable to get where he wants with his more direct approach to life.

In The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters episode refers to Odysseus and his crew landing on an island populated by people who forget everything when they consume lotus flowers, thus keeping them on the island eating the flowers for the rest of their days. It might make more immediate sense to link the digestive system to the notion of eating to forget, but then Joyce never intended Ulysses to line up perfectly with Homer's poem, and the alterations reveal an ingenious insight into his thought process.

Sex dominates Bloom's thoughts in this chapter, which go beyond the stream of consciousness into the fragments of dreams, appropriate for the Lotus Eaters chapter. On his way to his friend's funeral, Bloom begins to wander around Dublin a bit, laying some of the framework for the novel's touted exploration of the city. Sights, sounds, smells, conversations, thoughts, all of them mash together on the page, fractals of ideas jumbled in snippets. Though we know he ultimately aims for Dignam's funeral, one cannot tell where Bloom is at any moment.

The only remotely clear thoughts come from his fixation on the women around him. Bloom tries to sneak peeks at these women, even getting annoyed with an acquaintance, McCoy, for interrupting him as he watches a rich lady prepare to enter a carriage. To add to the insult, just as Leo thinks she might bare her leg getting inside, a tram moves by and obscures her. Bloom receives a letter (written to his pen name Henry Flower) from what amounts to some early-20th-century version of a phone sex operator. The penpal, Martha, chastises him for not following some decorum, then flirts with him despite knowing he's married. Her hypocrisy matches his own; after feeling sorry for this seemingly loving man who so attentively prepared breakfast for his ungrateful, potentially disloyal wife, now we see him writing erotic letters to another woman and spying on every lady within eyesight. Perhaps he's not so different from Odysseus after all.

But part of Bloom recognizes his errant ways, and he begins to think about physical repression. He sees gelded horses on the streets and wonders if those castrated stallions "might be happy all the same that way." He briefly turns to thoughts of Hamlet and whether the Danish prince was actually a woman. Then he spots a priest, and his ruminations shift to the Church and thoughts of eunuchs.

At this point Joyce's intentions become clear, hilarious and piercing. Ireland, one of the most stereotypically Christian nations in the world, attains the dreamy, forgetful nature of the Lotus island because of its fascination with sex, an obsession rooted in the repression set down by the Church that lasted among both parties even after the Catholic-Protestant schism. Bloom's view of the Eucharist is astonishingly erotic, imagining a priest telling a supplicant, devout woman to "shut your eyes and open your mouth," suggesting not only sexual invasion but that the Church has conned people into swallowing their brand of restrictive social order.

By placing these thoughts inside of Bloom, the Jew, Joyce can successfully step outside the structure of the Church in the way he can't with another character, not even a Protestant, nor Stephen, who grew up in the Church before rejecting it. Seen through Leopold's eye, the Church's ways seem so absurd he cannot come to terms with them. He spots the priest cleaning out the chalice that holds the wine and wonders what makes the wine so special. It's just alcohol, after all; why not use Guinness (if only Christ had been Irish)? Bloom seems to understand that most people cannot seriously believe that a cracker and some wine turn into the body and blood of Christ in them, and he guesses that some come to churches like the one he sees because they actually give out the wine and not more temperate liquid -- remember that church attendance in America under Prohibition skyrocketed, though likely not for the reason those crusading moralists had hoped.

Because Bloom has all these thoughts on his way to Paddy's funeral, imagery of sex and death coexists, and in some cases they overlap. When Leo thinks, "O, surely he bagged it" at the start, the context is muddy enough to suggest that the man he's thinking of either died or bagged himself a woman. Later, he reads a newspaper ad for something called "Plumtree's Potted Meat," a goofy name that could work as some hysterically vague innuendo -- "Where have you potted your meat, Leopold?" -- or as another idiom for kicking the bucket.

With sex and sexual repression on the brain, even a straightforward, not to mention dour, journey can stretch and fade into ethereal circularity on this island, an island about to suffer the throes of partition (the book is set in 1904, though when Joyce finished Ulysses Britain had already made the Irish Free State but had not yet seen Northern Ireland rejoin the UK). Even then, however, sex will still cast a pall over the island, obsessing and terrifying everyone in equal measure.

Amusingly, the sciences used here for imagery are botany and chemistry, which line up sexually. Chemistry can of course refer to physical attraction in addition to the makeup of compounds, while the flower imagery naturally makes visual reference to female genitalia. Men's too: the chapter closes with Bloom taking a bath, staring down at his "bush" and the flaccid penis on top of it like a wilted flower. Without saying anything on the subject, Joyce clearly implies Bloom's impotence, something hinted at with his cowed dealings with his wife and his willingness to flirt with Martha but never to meet with her. After already jumbling our view of Bloom, Joyce complicates him a bit further, also suggesting the ultimate toll of stressing over sex in a society that makes it all-important by demonizing it.

Ulysses, Chapter Four: Calypso

Each chapter of Ulysses comes with its own corresponding color for the imagery, and the "Calypso" episode filters its descriptions through orange. A hue with deep cultural ties to Ireland, orange is a somewhat controversial choice for Joyce. For, in Ireland, orange represents protestantism and unionism. In Joyce's time, it symbolized the conservative sect within Irish society demanding to remain under the crown. Today, it reminds everyone of the horrifying sectarian violence that made Ireland and North Ireland a war zone for the latter half of the 20th century. By this stage in the book, or even just this stage in Joyce's career, it must be taken for granted that the writer knows exactly what he is doing, and by incorporating orange into his descriptions he highlights a rift in the book.

Yet the color scheme for this chapter could just as easily been black and white, which Joyce references several times (the cat, the various sausages of the butcher shop). It makes sense, for the Calypso chapter announces a sharp break from the preceding chapters, one that not only shifts focus to an entirely new character but makes that character markedly different from Stephen Dedalus.

Leopold Bloom shares some similarities with Stephen, though chiefly in the manner in which Joyce resets the clock to start the same day from Bloom's perspective. Bloom sees the same cloud pass overhead that Stephen did in the first chapter, he feels ousted from his home (Buck taking over the Martello tower, Leo's wife Molly remaining in bed and making him go out), and both are in mourning, Leo preparing for a funeral and Stephen having recently come from one.

Then, the differences set in, and they are vast yet still harmonic with the other character's traits. Where Stephen drifts through his life pondering the aesthetic and philosophical significance of all around him, Bloom is the active agent Stephen needs to become. Though by no means a dim-witted or unread man -- he explains the concept of reincarnation at one point to his wife, complete with literary references -- he has no time to contemplate the metaphorical significance of anything. He worries Molly might be cheating on him with her friend Blazes Boylan. Adding to his stress is a letter addressed to her from Boylan, which she tucks under her pillow in front of Leopold to read later privately.

But if Stephen sees through everything to weigh upon its meaning, Bloom (who has the added benefit of not suffering broken glasses) pores over everything in his line of sight with exacting detail. He may not analyze anything beneath its surface element, but he captures his world with precision. Because Bloom focuses on that which is before him, that which is tangible, this chapter -- set in his head the way the previous three were told from inside of Stephen's -- makes for much easier reading than the last chapter. By structuring the last episode around Stephen's sensory deprivation, he makes the contrast between Dedalus' analytic thinking and Bloom's sensual connection to the physical world all the more apparent.

But let us return to the color orange: though not the color associated with the separatists (that would of course be green, which was the dominant color image of the previous chapter), orange does connote a lack of national identity. More so than the nationalists, in fact, who rallied around the green flag of a separate nation. The orange faction, on the other hand, prefers to remain under the rule of Britain.

How does this relate to Bloom, who appears to be as uninterested with politics as Stephen? Bloom is a Jew, a third party in the sectarian split starting to tear Ireland apart. It is easy to forget that Ireland, a place where people once died for being the "wrong" kind of Christian could be hospitable to anyone of another religion entirely, and Bloom might feel that himself. Though Bloom, at least at this point in the narrative, may have no remote ties to unionism, he has the same lack of identity, subsumed into the whole of an area that does not grant him an individual identity. I know not the degree of antisemitism he will or will not face as the book continues, but Joyce sets Bloom apart here by virtue of his ill-fitting relationship with his wife, personally isolating Bloom before socially isolating him.

Joyce called his novel "the epic of two races (Israel - Ireland)" and I find it interesting yet oddly logical that he would link the two. The people of both lands are defined less by their nations than the wandering they have done through others. The old British joke goes "Why is the grass so green in Ireland? Because you're all over here trampling on ours." Hordes of Irish abandoned their land during the famine, only to find themselves working wages that qualified them for the social class just above slave. Jews, of course, have wandered away from their seized home for much of recorded history, settling where they may and enduring unspeakable hardship at every turn. They are the only people who, in mass terms, can be strangers in their own homelands, and I shall be interested to see how Joyce works with this connection further.

(I confess I've occasionally slipped and lumped in Joyce with American literature, wondering if my anthologies for both American lit classes I've taken at Auburn will contain anything by him until I remember his nationality. Maybe it's just because I'd like to "claim" a genius of his might for America, but I wonder if my own status as a multi-generation Irish immigrant makes me one of those shameful Americans who feels some nonexistent camaraderie with the Irish who remained in Eire.)

One final note about this chapter: it delves into the scatological humor I've seen in Joyce's private letters. At the start of the chapter, Bloom thinks about what he might like for breakfast and settles upon the idea of a fried kidney (God damn you, cuisine of the British Isles), and part of the allure of kidneys for him is the "fine tang of faintly scented urine." After getting kidney from the butcher's, returning home and making conversation with his terse, bored wife, Bloom eats his breakfast and promptly heads to the outhouse for a crap, which Joyce helpfully describes. I swear, Leo Bloom might be in my extended family because it sometimes seems as if everyone in my family but me cannot have a conversation without touching upon the subject of bowel regularity. Bloom delights at the end of his constipation and enjoys a momentary respite from his woes with Molly, but underneath the absurdity of this scene and the description of "feeling his water flow quietly" is the suggestion that maybe the stress is loosening his intestines. It's a hell of a way to introduce a character's worries, but sometimes you've jut got to go straight for the horse's mouth. As it were.

Tuesday, March 15

The Darjeeling Limited (& Hotel Chevalier)

In his video essay for the film, critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls The Darjeeling Limited "Wes Anderson's 2001." It is an apt description: like Kubrick's space odyssey, Anderson's spiritual journey not only displays but summarizes all his themes, styles and motifs. Furthermore, much of Anderson's movie visually recollects Kubrick's magnum opus, particularly in its use of wide-lens framing of confined areas, epic composition that makes characters small and meaningless within the sets than contain them. However, that space is a double-edged sword, as the lens is so wide that it captures the edges of the sets: in pulling back to minimize the power of the individual, the camera also sets down the dimensions of the rooms and corridors. These areas are big enough to dwarf a person, yet because we can see their ends, we know they cannot support free-roaming human life.

All of Anderson's films operate in this mode, of course, but this is the first one to think of the world outside luxurious but lived-in hotel rooms and train cabins. The compartmentalized, ultra-detailed set design that makes all of his films resemble immaculate dollhouses is suddenly thrown against the real world. What's more, it's a world opposite to his Western, privileged settings. The Darjeeling Limited, and its short-film prologue, Hotel Chevalier, represent Anderson's first attempt to take his theatrical and literary characters off the stage and page and into something grander. Unsurprisingly, where previous films owed stylistic ties to theatre (Rushmore) and literature (The Royal Tenenbaums), The Darjeeling Limited must directly invoke the cinema, and not in the "movie about movies" manner of The Life Aquatic.

Perhaps that explains why Anderson prefaces his movie with another one, the short Hotel Chevalier. When the film and short came out in 2007, I fixated on Hotel Chevalier for the same reason that every other male in the 16-24 bracket (and that's a conservative estimate of age range) heard about it: to see Natalie Portman naked. What the audience gets instead is a morose comedy, so glacial that the deadpan delivery found throughout Anderson's corpus seems as animated as Tarantino dialogue in comparison.

The short does offer some background information relevant to the feature -- Jack (Jason Schwartzman), one of the three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited, resides in Paris, where the ex-girlfriend referenced throughout the full-length film comes to visit him -- but it also works as the whole of The Darjeeling Limited condensed into 13 minutes. Anderson opens on Jack lying in his bed, his yellow robe matching the almost offensively bright primary color of the walls and bed sheets. It might seem sunny but for the look of misery on Jack's face and the slumped posture of his resigned body on the bed. In this context, the yellow becomes jaundiced, ironic, and Jack comes off like a toned-down Willard at the start of Apocalypse Now.

He receives a phone call from his ex, who announces that she's arrived at his hotel without invitation. Yet a sense of inevitability hangs over the conversation, and Jack tersely but wearily gives her his room number. She barges in, brushes her teeth with his toothbrush, takes a bath he drew and generally peruses his stuff. Portman appears with her hair still growing back in after V For Vendetta, her short 'do recalling Manic Pixie Dream Girls of time past, specifically Jean Seberg in Breathless. But Seberg's character was as much an anti-MPDG as the embodiment of one, a siren using the guise of the alluringly quirky woman to tempt men to their doom. Portman's character follows in Patricia's footsteps, inextricable from Jack's life yet clearly a harbinger of his misery.

Not that she seems to be too pleased with herself either. The sex scene that sent so many racing to the Internet to shout "Natalie Portman nude!" is one of the saddest, most despairing sex scenes I've seen outside a Tsai Ming-liang or Antonioni film. It isn't even a sex scene, as the two of them are so broken and lonely that they cannot even fuck the pain away. In the end, Jack just reaches for his robe to clothe his ex, unwilling to add to his misery later for a moment's respite now. The short ends with the pair standing on the room balcony, forgetting their pain in admiration of the architecture of Paris, not finding anything of themselves until they completely surrender to the outside world.

Follow up that piercing revelation with the opening shot of The Darjeeling Limited, which trades its predecessor's frigid wit for a frantic opening that borders on the slapstick -- later, Anderson and co. will pole vault over that line. A cab tears through Indian streets, the real bustle outside clashing with the calmly horizontal movement orchestrated inside the vehicle, which is decorated enough to be a set but not so outlandish that you could not expect to see a similar cab interior if you looked in the right car in New York City. The cab's passenger is Bill Murray, racing toward a train station. He arrives too late, and as he lumbers toward the departing train bearing the film's title we know he won't make it. Then a younger man, played by Adrien Brody, runs past, also late, but he makes it as Murray looks on helplessly.

It's a sly gag, Anderson leaving behind his bread and butter, Murray, forcing the actor out of his picture. Perhaps the director felt he said all he could with Murray, having made him by some degree the most versatile player in his recurring casts, employing him in radically different contexts across their three collaborations where other actors generally riffed around the same type of character. By abandoning Murray at the station, Anderson must focus fully on the exploits and feelings of his tried and true characters: spoiled, highly educated yet yearning elites. In so doing, the director makes a prolonged joke with a wry punchline but also sets up what will be his most personal film.

Brody's character, Peter, makes his way inside the train and finds his brothers, Jack and Francis (Owen Wilson). Francis, head bandaged from serious injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident, organized the trip as a reunion for the brothers, the first time they've seen each other since their father's funeral a year ago. Francis wants them to go on a spiritual journey through India to try to repair their relationship, using the supposed healing power of the country to provide clarity.

However, Anderson immediately calls the spirituality of the trip into question. The three brothers lug around their father's luggage, a blatant visual symbol but also a recurring gag in the sheer amount of crap dragged along for a journey to find oneself. The layout of the train itself adds to the absurdity of the white men's delusion: far from being exposed to the wide breadth of India and its culture, they wander through the ridiculously tight corridors of the train, long enough to be Kubrickian but compressed, as if the Overlook Hotel, among its many other horrors, suddenly compacted its walls to crush its residents. One person walking through the lanes has to turn sideways; when multiple people attempt to navigate them at the same time, as they do frequently, these hallways become quagmires of frustrated limbs scraping against one another. Francis plans out a micromanaged itinerary of their enlightenment, and the brothers stare at that as India passes them by outside their window.

Naturally, being cooped up in a cabin the whole time does not inspire bonding but hostility, and soon the brothers reveal why they drifted apart in the first place. Peter uses all his father's effects, such as his razor and glasses (even using a prescription that doesn't fit Peter's own), because he feels he was dad's "favorite." Francis aligns with their mother by controlling every aspect of the trip, even ordering food for his brothers, whose resentment is only heightened by the fact that he always guesses exactly what they want. Jack, the runt, sits back and displays a Machiavellian edge, pitting the other two against each other (though this is a trait shared by both Francis and Peter).

Upon seeing the film in 2007, I fatally misunderstood the satire at work in Anderson's construction, taking the racism and ignorance of his characters at face value and fussing over the fussy design. Of course, Anderson tackles that same racism and clueless cultural appropriation, and if his satire lacks bark in its careful compositions and flatline comedy, its bite still stings. The Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia), looking like the Western image of an Indian man with his turban and thick beard but speaking in perfect, Western-trained English, politely asks the puffing brothers not to smoke in their cabin, and when he leaves the room they immediately lower their window and continue to smoke as if defying their father. In the dining cart, they each take out medication they bought from vendors without prescriptions and pass around painkillers as if pills and drops were a part of Indian cuisine to be shared among the table.

In every instance, the culture of India is ignored and everything turned to what feels convenient for the boys. They even get annoyed with listening to other languages: Peter chastises a German couple for chattering in their language while he tries to converse in English with his brothers. How does the staff feel, one wonders, to listen to all these shallow invaders all day, and to have to speak their languages because it is somehow incumbent on the visited nation to cater entirely to the visitors? Where other films would highlight the language barrier, Anderson depicts nearly every native character speaking English. They've managed to twist everything to their comfort, even the spoken words of others.

And yet, they cannot enjoy that comfort, and they might share more than they realize with some of the locals. Jack, still reeling from his ex's visit in Paris, turns in his sadness to the beautiful "sweet lime" girl, Rita (Amara Karan), who seems to get out her own pain over a failing relationship in sex with the American. With her British accent (Karan is English), Rita does not seem to fit in either with the Western or Eastern passengers, and when the brothers' fighting eventually gets them kicked off the train, her tears suggest she too wanted something out of the meaningless tryst they shared. When Jack flippantly says, "Thanks for using me," the cynicism in his voice cannot belie genuine gratitude, even if neither came close to finding themselves through sex.

Getting thrown off the Darjeeling Limited proves the turning point for the brothers. Free of their yellow and blue cage, the brothers must finally come to terms with each other, and the lack of iron and glass allows them to finally experience India as a traveler instead of a tourist. Anderson's gradual pacing allows him to gently deepen these characters, always orbiting them, getting a bit closer with each gravitational shift. Being out in the desert ekes out information from them in bits too small, too casually tossed-off, to be considered exposition. The artificial yellow of the interiors give way to the genuine yellow rays of the sun, which in comparison do not seem as oppressive as the golden hues of hotels and train compartments despite the men wandering a desert. It brings warmth that spreads through the men, who apologize and begin to consider each other instead of scheming around the other two.

Anderson's eye for detail and borderline fetishistic view of objects has never served him better. More than any of his other films, The Darjeeling Limited concerns letting go of all those immaculate trinkets and accessories, and Anderson can turn anything from a comic prop to a vital symbol on a dime: Francis, the one most absorbed with the idea of the spiritual journey, walks around a bazaar in $3,000 loafers, and when a poor street urchin steals one he can only fume at being ripped off. He keeps the other shoe on but replaces the stolen loafer with an Indian shoe, splitting his fashion between West and East -- Jack likewise starts wearing an Indian shirt under his robe. The brothers' slow reconciliation is contrasted with the actual stakes of three young brothers on a capsized raft in a raging river. Freed from their own petty squabbling for a moment, the grown men rush into the water to save the boys, and the outcome drastically changes the men by finally introducing them fully to the country they bypassed with all the fluidity of Anderson's camera.

The more ingrained the Whitman family becomes in India, the more Anderson borrows music from the India-set films of Merchant Ivory and Indian master Satyajit Ray. Filmic reference have always been a part of Anderson's repertoire -- everything he's done up to an including Hotel Chevalier heavily incorporates the French New Wave -- but this being the director's most inherently cinematic movie, the references here take on a grander importance. Anderson acknowledges that he knows India only through film, either from films set there or the film that brought him to the country to make it, and he traces his way to Indian culture through film the way the Whitman brothers eventually acclimate to the world around them through rejecting their own objects and incorporating those of their surroundings.

Anderson's references extend to the self: that opening usage of Bill Murray clearly relies on one's prior knowledge to the director's films and the roles Murray has played in them. In a shop bathroom, Wilson cuts the bandages off his face in a grim reversal of his brother Luke's actions in The Royal Tenenbaums: both stand in front of a mirror to shave, but Luke's character shaved then inflicted his wounds, while Owen's Francis must remove the bandages of his self-injury to cut his stubble. (It also makes for disturbing prescience in light of Wilson's subsequent suicide attempt.) Anderson even works Hotel Chevalier into the film, not only in its larger-yet-smaller recreation of the short's mise-en-scène (the bigger yet more cramped train, blue/yellow palette, deadpan comic agony) but in its outright quotation of lines. Jack spends the film constructing a short story and uses lines and details from his meeting with his ex, and though his brothers see right through it, he denies the story is autobiographical. When he finally acknowledges this, he matures, suggesting that reflexivity is not a trick if one addresses it directly and seeks to genuinely learn from it.*

None of the director's other films so fully displays Anderson's ability to evoke gentle emotion and growth from broad technical skill. His slow-motion shots, occasionally twee elsewhere, are judiciously used here, always communicating exactly where the picture and its characters are at that second, be it the smug, self-absorbed look on Peter's face at the start of the film when he makes his train and does not have to stay and experience India to the obvious but raucous metaphor of the heavy baggage being left behind at the end so the brothers can catch their next train. The primary color scheme is bright and childlike, but the more blue and yellow bleed into each other and red begins to seep in, the more complex the film seems to get. Even the detours into slapstick, such as the fight that gets the brothers thrown off the Darjeeling Limited or the flashback of them trying to pick up their father's broken car on the way to his funeral, dig beneath broad comedy to expose something about the three men and their stunted inability to cope with each other. Though not a talky bunch, they love to interrupt each other or bury their feelings by oversimplifying their predicament in terse but vague language. As with Hotel Chevalier, only when they (including their flaky mom, played by a striking Anjelica Huston) shut up and just look at each other and the world around them do they finally gain some understanding. They see their pain reflected in the others, and that allows the healing to begin.

*Anderson's chat with James Ivory on DVD shows that film reference is not unique to the modern upstarts: all artists think through other art, and Ivory recollects every film Anderson took his music from with fondness, as if remembering an old flame. He too sees the purpose of incorporating old cinema into the new.