Tuesday, January 23, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Inland Empire

David Lynch’s Inland Empire is, to be utterly unoriginal about it, an enigma. I’ve enjoyed his films in the past, most notably Eraserhead, Elephant Man, and The Straight Story. Blue Velvet had it moments as did Mulholland Drive. Of his past films (that I have viewed)Inland Empire shares the most similarities with Mulholland Drive. The aspects of Mulholland Drive that lost my interest are the same elements that take up almost 2 hours of Inland Empire’s almost 3 hour length. Sure, Inland Empire is an enigma, but it’s a candy store Chinese puzzle type of enigma: you can’t work it out and you don’t know why you bothered in the first place.

OK, perhaps not as superficial as the above example. It’s dazzling at times and the cat and mouse with the audience about what is real; what is part of the movie being made within the movie; what is a dream; has this character assumed the identity of that character is fascinating. At first. But on and on it goes with more possible dreamscapes and switched identities and movies within a movie and possibly dreams within dreams. I lustily stayed with all these gear changes waiting for a great sorting out, but as it reached its end, I knew that no narrative conclusion would be found. On and on it went. Even into the credits, where a dance number took place among the characters of the movie. That was actually fun and zany – in a regular zany way, not in the David Lynch zany way.

The story, as it where, is about Nikki Grace, an actress, (Laura Dern) getting a plum part in what could be a comeback role. Cast opposite her in the movie is a womanizing young actor named Devon Burk (Justin Theroux). Nikki also has a jealous husband. And on the first day of the shoot, they all discover that the movie was made once before with terrible ends for the actors involved (due to a gypsy curse). Also, Nikki, before getting the part, meets a new neighbor who tells her about a boy who brings evil into the world and a girl who gets lost at the market. So far, so good. The movie establishes this story thread tightly with limited interruption from the various dreams, motley characters, and settings that will soon intrude.

Then there’s a weeping woman watching a TV and three anthromorphized rabbits on a sitcom set - laugh track and all. Later there’s a bunch of Hollywood Boulevard prostitutes with hearts of gold or sad empty eyes, depending on the scene. Oh, I almost forgot about the Eastern European circus workers who show up at a suburban barbeque. And the odd office of a rumpled man atop a strip club. Somehow the movie moves along undistracted by all these seemingly incongruous elements. It’s actually sort of ingenious how it does move along: Nikki goes through a door and her reality changes. It sublimely done and I’m sure Lynch fans will pay close attention to all the doorways in future viewings and track the various levels of the story that way.

I will say this for David Lynch: he can create a sense of foreboding from familiar situations like no one else. Blue Velvet’s tension between the placid life of suburban America contrasted with it’s seedy underbelly established this foreboding in a way that was miles ahead of its time. While mimicked countless times since, other filmmakers just don’t have the surreal approach of Lynch to pull it off. This same uncomfortableness is on display in Inland Empire. Drapes are blood red, lamps buzz as if they were hives of angry hornets, and living room conversations over tea take on a sense of danger. Lynch cues this with close-ups of reaction shots and quick cuts between the conversation. Much of this is counterbalanced by other scenes that are brightly shot and are sweet or funny or absurd (like the prostitutes breaking into “Locomotion.”) These patented Lynch touches prevent the wheels from falling off. In fact, in some ways, these scenes are the glue between the dreams, the alternate realities, and the downward spiral of Nikki Grace and/or her character in the movie within the movie.

Some of Inland Empire works: what works does so as individual scenes, as wonderful examples of the medium of filmmaking. Much of it doesn’t work. Ultimately, I was nonplussed by it all. It was an interesting ride that kept my attention but I left shrugging my shoulders when it was all over. Too many doors never closed. Too many windows into David Lynch’s mind that remain wide open.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Pale Blue Eye

Gus Landor, a retired New York City constable is hired by West Point to investigate a cadet’s mysterious death in the autumn of 1831. During the course of the investigation, Landor employs the help of another cadet. That cadet, it turns out, is a young Edgar Allan Poe. And thus is the set-up for Louis Bayard’s latest novel The Pale Blue Eye.

Bayard expertly maps the rigors of cadet life in the 1830’s as well as the political reasons that the U.S. Military Academy wants to keep the investigation quiet. It’s subtle and comes out through Landor’s observations and conversations. Landor, recently widowed and fairly new to the upstate New York region that houses the Academy, serves as a wonderful pair of eyes and ears for the reader. He is a stranger to military life and his past occupation as a detective allows him to provide his tale with the details of the discipline and mind-set that his investigation runs up against.

Landor immerses himself in the investigation and Poe becomes an invaluable asset. But as a similar death follows, and Poe’s performance as a cadet and sleuth come into question, Landor tests the patience of Captain Hitchcock, the Commandant of Cadets. Hitchcock wants results and views Landor as hostile to a soldier’s life and too forgiving of Poe’s eccentricities. Most importantly, he concludes the investigation to be proceeding at a snail’s pace. And for a while it is.

There’s a certain elegance to how the story simmers and simmers in the mid-parts. The deaths remain at the forefront but move to the wings as we witness Landor and Poe’s bond grow stronger, first as kindred spirits, later as intimates – only in that formal mid-19th century American way, of course – where the pretense of the formal address of “Mr. Landor” and “Mr. Poe” are stripped away to the more familiar address of Landor and Poe. (In a humorous touch added by Bayard, Landor mentions this evolution in his narration, but outside of that mention, he always addresses Poe as “Mr. Poe” throughout the telling, even in the most private of drinking sessions.)

Once the plot does boil over, it does so wearing full Gothic regalia. The mystery opens up peculiar secrets and hard truths with family histories exposed that would have made the Bronte sisters proud. It’s a credit to Bayard’s plotting and writing style that such extravagances meld so well with the personal trajectories of Landor and Poe, both of whom are guarding secrets as well.

Poe works undercover and submits to Landor written reports that are at once informative missives about his findings as well as beautiful odes to whatever topic Poe is pondering (usually involving Miss Marquis, the young beauty he falls for) that includes over-the-top flourishes that only a young poet who doesn’t yet have the life experience to know what to write about would use. Bayard charmingly strikes the balance between the genius Poe will become and the young somewhat defensive eccentric he is at this time (at least by the U.S. Military Academy’s standards of behavior). Unlike some historical fiction that use a younger version of a notable figure, Bayard doesn’t use this as an opportunity to layout a template for Poe’s later acclaim (though Poe does write a poem with a character named “Leonore” and threatens a classmate in a manner not unlike Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado”).

The Pale Blue Eye is the sort of historical fiction I like best. It doesn’t attempt to define a time with broad strokes or fill it up with empty foreshadowing of things to come. Rather, it uses character and human interaction to transport the reader to that time. From the bucolic descriptions of upstate New York to the reserved good manners at a dinner party, Bayard achieves in creating a wonderfully ripe world full of folly, cunning, obsession, and gallows humor. In other words, a world fit for the likes of Edgar Allan Poe.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Tears of the Black Tiger

Tears of the Black Tiger, a Thai film made in 2001 and now only released in the U.S., is a studied compendium of genre. There’s melodrama on par with The Girl of the Golden West and Oklahoma; stoic gunslingers who would not be out of place in 1950’s B-movie Westerns; gun violence worthy of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah; and stylized violence, like bullets going through teeth or removing a skull, that echoes the post-Tarantino world of nonchalant death. From the painted techni-color of the landscapes to the angled close-ups of six-shooters firing to the wonderfully anachronistic use of bazookas, machine guns, and even cars (is this 1880’s or 1930’s Thailand? It’s never clear, and in the end it doesn’t matter) Tears of the Black Tiger works even when the back-story doesn’t quite jibe with the overall plot.

There is, of course, star-crossed lovers and unrequited love: Dum, the son of a peasant, and Rumpoey, the daughter of a local official, first meet as children. Later, after an unfortunate childhood incident involving an oar fight while out on a row, they meet at college. A year later they still pine for each other, although, she is engaged to a young captain of the local police and he is a member of a notorious gang and is known as the Black Tiger. Of course, the police captain must hunt down the gang.

This all unfolds in settings rich with a full palette of blue and pink and golden hues. Rain also falls and lighting strikes at the appropriate moments where needed. The camera races in on Dum’s face to better collect his reaction to situations. Fai, the gang leader (played by Sombat Metanee, who must be Thailand’s version of Fred Ward) sows disharmony among his ranks by elevating Dum so quickly much to the chagrin Mahesuan who formerly enjoyed that privilege. The big battle scene between the police and the gang plays out like a cartoon. In fact, much of it is cartoonish: Mahesuan laughs with a deep villainous bellow and adorns his lip with a dastardly thin mustache and his body with garish cowboy attire.

All in all, Tears of the Black Tiger just doesn’t let up. It’s smart enough to know how to incorporate years and years of genre exercises without overplaying its hand and smart enough to also know how not to over-stylize it. It’s small when it needs to be as when it fleshes out the love story of Dum and Rumpoey. It’s over the top when it needs to be as when it intrudes on that story. Most importantly, despite the inconsistencies throughout, it’s simply grand fun to watch.

COMIC BOOK REVIEW: Shock SuspenStories

EC Comics collects the first 6 issues of Shock SuspenStories, originally published in 1952, as part of its EC Archives editions. Included with the stories are the editor’s columns and letters page as well as the ads that ran in the original editions. The influence of these stories can be seen in so many comics, movies, books and TV over the last 50 years.

Shock SuspenStories served as EC’s “sampler” comic. It contained horror, crime, science fiction, and war stories. In addition, they also included another category: the “shock” story. These tackled social issues from racial injustice in the southern United States to the Red Scare. I’m no comic historian, but these, to me, are eons ahead of their time than other 1950’s comics in the message of tolerance. Of course, to live up to the billing of being a “shock” story, many aspects are bluntly and crudely portrayed, but with only 7 or 8 pages to work with, I’m sure the reading audience didn’t mind the intrusion of a political viewpoint in their horror stories.

Even at it’s silliest – and there are some silly stories in here – there’s always at least one panel of artwork in each story that is just amazingly presented. The larger size of this hardback with glossy paper in full color really brings the artwork home. There’s even a short essay about the innovative lettering style some of the EC artists employed.

Many of the stories rely on the twist or surprise ending, many of which are telegraphed way ahead of time, mostly because in the last 50 years, this method has been copied many times over. Regardless, it’s always fun to get there. This collection is essential reading for any comic book fan.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Late morning on the last day of the year. I jump on a Brooklyn bound D-train. I have a bad feeling in the back of my head concerning the amount of water I have drunk this morning. I have an hour-long trip on the subway I should have made sure to go to the bathroom before I left my apartment.

The train pulls into my stop just as I am walking down the stairs and onto the platform. Off to a good start. Not many people around either. It’s one of the trains that in the middle of the cars the seats are arranged three in a row against the wall with a set of two perpendicular to the aforementioned three. The set of two has another two connected behind them in tandem, which are again perpendicular to three and so on. I sit closest to the wall in one of the paired seats. I could have sat anywhere, as the car was fairly empty, but I felt like being in a corner where I can just immerse myself in the book, The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster that I am reading. Right when I sit down, I begin to question my judgment. The seat is terrible. There is hardly any legroom even with the train near empty. I glance around. I understand the purpose of mass transit but I now realize how completely utilitarian a subway car is. The only concern is carrying capacity and efficiency. I’d be surprised if comfort ever came up in the discussion. I feel contempt for the soulless engineer that designed it.

I make myself as comfortable as possible by stretching my legs to the side, placing my elbow over the top of the seat, and having my backpack on the seat next to me. I usually try to take up only one seat while riding the subway. I don’t worry about that now because I got on the train at the West 4th station, which can be busy, so if the car is empty now, it is not going to fill up. I begin reading, ignoring my bladder, and sure enough, within a few stops there is maybe three people in the entire car. I can now concentrate on my book rather than looking up every stop to see if I need to straighten up or move my backpack to the floor.

I continue reading and the train moves along making its regular stops. Suddenly my elbow is pushed off the top of the seat by another passenger’s back. Someone has just sat directly behind me. I look up from my book. There is no one else on this half of the train. Why in the world would someone sit right behind me? I am confounded. I turn around to get a look at this person. I don’t know if this is a universal feeling but whenever I am completely annoyed by a stranger I need to put a face to such annoyance. Whether it is talking loudly during a movie or bringing extra-large carry-on baggage onto an airplane I just need to see exactly what the offending person looks like. But this person is right behind me. I can’t make out specific features. I crane my neck to look and as I do I see their head turning as if they know I am trying to look at them. I don’t want to be rude about it but I am now determined to get a gander. Frustrated I look across the aisle, out of the far window, hoping the grimy tunnel wall passing by outside provides some insight. To my surprise, I realize that I could discern the features of this personal space intruder from the reflection in the glass as we travel through the darkness. I set a lingering gaze onto that window and become a subway peeping tom. I bypass rude and step squarely into creepy.

From the reflection I can tell that this passenger is a stocky, older woman of Eastern European or, perhaps, Russian descent. She wears an old, heavy wool coat and a kerchief wrapped around her head. She could have walked through Ellis Island eighty years ago dressed like that without raising eyebrows. None of this explains why she would sit where she did. Now, I could have gotten up and moved to another seat. But why should I have to move? A stubborn force deep inside me that I neither question nor contemplate makes me stay put. I try to make some sense of it. Maybe this was the first seat she spied upon entering the train, and used to rush hour traveling where seats can be a rare commodity, she just sat down. Now that she realizes the rest of the car is empty some stubborn force within her is holding her in that seat. We are the subway version of those Dr. Seuss characters – the North-Going Zax and South-Going Zax - steadfastly holding onto our seats, refusing to budge.

I try to concentrate on my book but to no avail. I am way to annoyed. In fact, I am doubly annoyed as I realize I really should have gone to the bathroom before I got on the subway. Every stop I look up from the same page and wonder if she will finally get off. I try to think of more reasons why she may have sat there. Perhaps, in her dotage, she feels vulnerable and sat close to me so I could act as her protector. I mull this over, almost coming to a point where I feel valuable, even proud that she would think so highly of me. I look again in the window, see her reflection, and realize the ridiculousness of this assertion. I assumed she is of Eastern European or Russian heritage due to her stout, earthy stature. She won’t need protection from me. If any interlopers did board the train, I imagine her reaching into the expansive handbag sitting on her lap under her folded arms, taking out a wooden rolling pin, brandishing it high over her kerchiefed head, yelling threats in a strange tongue, and chasing them away. On second thought, maybe I should be glad she sat near me.

I now notice she is sleeping. In the window, my seeing-glass to all that annoys me, I can see her head tilted forward, bobbing slightly up and down. My annoyance grows. She sits down, ruins my train ride and now has the temerity to sleep. I decide I need to make an extra effort to bury this annoyance and just read.

I am able to do so. Quite successfully. Pages turn and I become more engrossed in the story. A chapter ends as we roll into a station. I look up to see what stop it is and she’s gone. Sometime over the last few stops she exited the train without my noticing. I should be elated. I can now read unencumbered. But disappointment envelops me. I attempt to analyze this new feeling. Am I disappointed in myself? This whole time I never looked at her as a fellow human being. Her annoying me was the only reason I even noticed her. Have I become that type of city person who, walking around in a self-involved stupor, never acknowledges another's existence unless they cause affront?

These thoughts quickly dissipate as I pinpoint why I feel disappointed. I never got to recognize her leaving, as it happened. That’s why I’m disappointed. Her sneaking away didn’t allow me gloat about her not being around to annoy me anymore. Even in her absence she finds a way to annoy me. But, then again, maybe I’m annoyed because I really have to go to the bathroom now.

Monday, January 01, 2007

MOVIES: 2006 Overview

My list of best movies for 2006 consists of 3 truly great movies at the top, any of which could be considered my favorite, followed by a few other great films then topped off by a handful of near-greats that made strong showings. Not a bad year of movie viewing – and there’s plenty of films that have high recommendations that I haven’t yet watched. Many of these have been reviewed in full elsewhere on the blog. Some may have upped their impact on me since I wrote the original. Others may have lost some momentum. It also seems as if Nimero and I, with a bit of shuffling here and there, have a Top 5 that mirrors each other. I’m sure he wouldn’t argue with my preference, as I fully know where he’s coming from with his. Now, without further interruption, here’s the Top 10:

1. The Fountain: Beautiful in concept and execution, Darren Aronofsky tells a visually stunning and daringly complex story about love. Three stories each set about 500 years apart meld together to describe the life, death, loss and hope. Intelligent and never condescending or pretentious, The Fountain kept me thinking about its story long after I left the theatre. Smart and moving and poetic, it’s all I could hope for in a movie.
Full Review

2. Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro deftly balances the horrors of Spain during its civil war in 1944 and a child’s escapist fantasy. The magical realm a young girl finds herself in mirrors the devastation and fright of the real one, so that it’s difficult to tell at times which one is informing the other. By examining the choices (and the lack of choices) one must make in harrowing situations, and the bravery and loyalty –and innocence and the loss of innocence – involved in those choices, the result is a beautiful, sad and yet hopeful movie.

3. The Prestige: Multi-layered story of rival magicians and their obsessions – personally and professionally and the crossing of the line with each – expertly told with fine performances by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Engagingly paced, with the right elements revealed at the right time like the best of all magic tricks. It’s no illusion that this is one of the year’s best.
Full Review

4. Children of Men: A dystopian nightmare of a story set 20 years in the future in London where immigrants are the enemy and the human race can no longer reproduce. By focusing on character instead of political statements, it makes more of a statement by keeping the story small and rich. It’s thrust forward and the momentum keeps it going to the end with great direction that doesn’t get in the way even after you dare take a breath. Michael Caine gives the best supporting role of the year as an aging radical living in the woods.
Nimero’s Review

5. 13 (Tzameti) : A taut movie in the great noir tradition of the everyman getting in over his head and walking the tightrope of consequences that follows. Gripping and intense, this simply stylized film never misses a beat. A young handyman follows the directions on a note taken from a client’s house, which leads to, well, go see it. I’m not going to spoil it. And don’t watch the trailer if you want to walk into it unawares like I did.
Full Review

6. The Departed: Martin Scorcese’s thriller about a mob informant in the police force and an undercover policeman in the mob is well conceived and tightly done. The set-up to the story unfolds in time, the plot speeds up, and after a slow build-up its denouement is brutally efficient. Initially, I found aspects of it lacking, but over time it settled in as a near-great cops and robbers flick.
Full Review

7. Babel: Interesting and compelling, Babel weaves in and out of three stories loosely hinged together by a single plot device. It covers the world: Morocco, Southern California and Mexico, and Japan. Beautiful and human, it holds itself together without being overwrought or collapsing in on the weight of itself. It’s a moving testament to the unknown connections that bind us all.
Full Review

8. The Proposition: A lawman makes a devil’s bargain with a captured member of a notorious gang: he can save his younger -also captured - brother by killing his other brother, who is the grizzly and amoral leader. A bleak look at justice and duty versus right and wrong. The lonely landscapes of an untamed Australia provide an effective and moody backdrop.

9. Brick: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler hard-boiled noir set in a contemporary high school comes off astonishingly well. Inserting knowing irony or winking at the audience could have easily sidetracked this idea. Instead it plays it straight as a murder mystery unravels and the school loner embarks as the Marlowe-like errant knight to find out hat happens. Smart as a crisp shirt.

10. Night Watch: A well-made, stylistic fantasy / Sci-Fi movie from Russia that is at once straightforward and simple yet full of texture and richly drawn characters. Light and Dark’s uneasy truce triggers the plot and effective use of sub-titles as special effects adds to the enjoyment. A terrific ride.
Full Review

Most Disappointing Movie of 2006

Beowulf & Grendel: Ever since I read Seamus Heaney’s gripping translation of this epic classic a few year’s back, I’ve been waiting for a big screen experience. I’ll have to wait for one of the other Beowulf projects because this Beowulf & Grendel is not it. Beowulf lacks heroic charisma. Grendel is humanized. Grendel’s mother is almost treated as a laughable afterthought. Sarah Polley, an actress who I have admired ever since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is terribly miscast as witch in cahoots with both Beowulf and Grendel! It’s not terrible. It’s not epic in any way either. It’s just blah.