Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

It shouldn't bother us much when big screen stars patronize us daily with their moral superiority, or when they sound off on politics with inflated self-importance, or when they do all of the above while sporting the latest fashions trademarked by murderers like Mao and Che Guevara. It's all part of that frivolous pageantry that forms the background static of our national culture and without it we'd have to go back to thinking about something meaningful. It should only cause annoyance when the seriousness employed when sounding off in the public square inspires film. The "war as irrationality" stance taken by so many Hollywood elites may make for good posturing in the public eye, but produces terrible drama. Anyone who saw Troy, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, or Jarhead knows that the theme of alienation doesn't translate well to the screen. Who wants to see Achilles mope around like a disaffected teenager mourning the irrationality of war? Alienation may work in a Camus novel, but not in a movie. Combine the theme of alienation with the inflated sense of seriousness and self-importance and you have Paul Haggis' latest movie In the Valley of Elah. Haggis admittedly wanted this movie to be an important statement concerning the Iraqi War. I just wish Mr. Haggis would have confined his serious statements to the background static that we live with daily rather than awkwardly converting it to film. Read this interesting Variety article about the flick.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fellini's 'La Strada'

Martin and I recently watched Federico Fellini's La Strada (stay tuned for his more sophisticated opinions), on a special edition DVD introduced by Martin Scorcese. Scorcese cites Fellini as a seminal influence; watching La Strada, it's easy to see how.

La Strada (meaning The Road) tells the story of a young, simple woman, Gelsomina (played by Fellini's wife Giuletta Marsina), who is sold to a travelling circus strongman to work as an assistant clown, cook, and concubine. She is simple-minded, innocent, sweet, and loving; he is brutish, arrogant, and very angry. The film was mostly about him brutalizing her in spite of her efforts to love him, and his eventual self destruction because of his own anger.

Sound familiar? It was very much like Raging Bull, only this one at least had one sweet and likeable character. Gelsomina stays with Zampano despite being given opportunities to leave him; the idea, I suppose, is that her love will ultimately redeem him. The tragedy of the film, however, is that it doesn't; at the end we see Zampano miserable and, we can assume, remorseful, but is that enough after Gelsomina has sacrificed her life loving him?

The story was practically the definition of tragic, but I couldn't help wanting to give Gelsomina the most basic piece of advice ever given to a young girl: you can't change that man! I suppose,though, that wasn't the point - we were meant to watch her tragic innocence trampled by the brutal cruelty of a world that doesn't care how sweet your intentions are.

What it comes down to, then, is that this is just a genre of film that I don't like - I don't enjoy watching angry self-destruction and pointless tragedy. I'd rather see a compelling story or some sort of anecdote to the anger and sorrow of daily life. There are so many angry people in the world - you only need to go as far as the grocery store to see people yelling, shouting into phones, suffering from the angst and anger of going through life concerned only with yourself. I think I'll avoid Fellini's and Scorcese's furious, 'raging' characters and turn to cinema for beauty and something uplifiting - escapism, I guess, but isn't that the point of film anyway? It's what I'd prefer, at least.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Michaelangelo Antonioni, RIP

Check out this video of Monthy Python making reference to Michaelangelo Antonioni, another great film director who died on July 30, the same day as Ingmar Bergman. Anontioni was a mid-century Italian neorealist, whose desparate dramas focused on characters suffering from ennui and malaise. (Keep listen to the character speaking after the credits and music start to roll).

And speaking of dead directors, Alfred Hitchcock was born on this day in 1899.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Becoming Jane

While Martin was on business trip to Wichita, I went with my sister to see Becoming Jane. It's a biopic (sort of) about the early life and romance of Jane Austen. (It's very much a fictional tale, based on a relationship mentioned in about two sentences of Austen's letter.)

It wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't great. One of the biggest problems was the male lead, Tom Lefroy, played by James McAvoy. He's introduced as a sort of rogue, and his first scene did not endear him to me at all. It also didn't help that he looks too young and scruffy for elegant Jane. So, I knew they wouldn't end up together (the real Jane never married) and from the very beginning I was happier for Jane that way - the whole time I was thinking she was being saved from making a huge mistake. Lefroy does get better, and we see his sliver of a good side. He's supposed to win us over with his witty comments and sharp mind, but the writing didn't really exhibit this and was not very clever.

There's also a lack of a narrative thrust carrying the entire movie. When Jane first meets Tom, she overhears a disparaging comment he makes about her writing. Although she's a strong, independent proto-feminist, the offhand comment of a complete stranger wounds her so deeply that she destroys the particular piece of insulted writing. This bizarre event leads to what one assumes will be a major story arc - worldly Tom helping sheltered Jane with her writing. But after he suggests to her in a rather nauseating way that she needs to widen her horizons through sexual encounter, and recommends the novel Tom Jones, that storyline disappears. It's not an extremely obscene encounter, but the aforementioned scene suggests that sex is a singular gateway to acquaintance with the world, without which a novelist must remain prurient and obscure. Ironically, Jane Austen describes romance as affection, honesty and genuine love, without extramarital sex - what love is meant to be, in other words. It's a ridiculous insinuation and a pointless scene.

So after Tom criticizes her writing, recommends Tom Jones, and listens to her criticisms of his favorite novel/justification of his promiscuity, and then they're in love. The story then ambles over their ensuing romance with its predictable hurdles, and - well, I won't tell you what happens to conclude the movie, but let me just say that knowing Jane never gets married really punctures what little suspense there was.

The filmmakers were clearly trying to arrange Jane's life to parallel her most popular work (especially popular of late, with two new film adaptations and a 10th anniversary of the best one), Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, Becoming Jane is much the worse for the comparison. Darcy, supposedly modeled after Tom, follows the pattern of jerk-turned-lovebird, but Darcy really was a noble man underneath his brusque prejudiced exterior, whereas Tom seems like he's truly just a jerk, who does some nice things. Elizabeth Bennett seemed so much more mature that Anne Hathaway's Jane, who is played like a petulant teenager making irrational decisions. It's hard to sympathize with a character you think should really just grow up.

The film's major flaw is its adopting of the mistaken modern notion that love must be passionate, and to be rational when making decisions concerning marriage means one is cold and dull. This, of course, is the antithesis of Jane Austen. Overall, the film wasn't terrible, but its ambling pace and dull story lacked a compelling narrative that could have turned the sparse story of Jane Austen's single romance into an interesting film.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Gospel According to the Simpsons

Here we go, another Simpsons post....

This morning talk show host Laura Ingraham was talking about Mark Pinsky, a journalist with the Orlando Sentinel and author of the book The Gospel According to the Simpsons. The book is about the religious nature of the Simpson family - they pray, go to church, and turn to God in need. According to a quote from Pinsky posted today on Laura's website, "For 'The Simpsons,' [religion] is just a part of their lives, but in that way it's in marked contrast to most commercial television where religion is almost wholly absent."

I had never really thought about that before, but it struck me as very true. As I complained in my review of Evan Almighty, it seems that characters can't pray or attend church without the film being labelled "Christian" and therefore not mainstream, but of course it's different in the Simpsons. (For better or for worse: that doesn't mean that their portrayal of God or religion is something I endorse or even always enjoy, but perhaps it's better than nothing.) Either way, the book might make an interesting read. Another interesting tidbit: although the Simpsons are Protestants of the Western Branch of American Reformed Presbo-Lutheranism, Pinsky is Jewish.

And here's a short Simpsons' take on where Catholics fit into all this (an excerpt from the Season 16 episode "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star," in which Homer and Bart convert to Catholicism).