Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Monuments Men

I approached The Monuments Men with a bit of trepidation.  I’m not the hugest fan of George Clooney, the director.  I love the politics of his films.  I love the intentions of his films, yet I don’t love the films.  To me they’ve come across as a bit preachy without the cinematic chops.

That said, I looked forward to a war movie about art and the importance of art in society an culture.  What’s not to like about that premise?  Ultimately, The Monuments Men experience was an odd one.  Am I glad I saw the movie?  I guess I am.  The story, about an international troop of artists and art scholars trying to save European classics from the hands of the Nazis was not a story I was familiar with.  I learned a lot.  But the movie?  Oy, what a mess. 

It was a movie that could not figure out what it wanted to be.  The tone and tenor of the piece was all over the map.  A plucky, feel-good 50s war movie? A witty, rapacious comedy a la MASH?  An emotional, Spielbergian drama?   It was a real mish-mash of styles that sadly never found its footing.

The editing was equally sloppy. There was lots of narrative confusion. In the big picture, characters are spread out over Europe on certain missions, yet they continually rendezvous and meet up.  As a viewer there’s no sense of timeline.  Did those missions take days, weeks?  Why do they reconvene only to spread back out again?  Was there a purpose to the rendezvous other than to have all the stars back together again?   And many individual scenes also seemed devoid of finesse, leaving potentially dramatic scenes flat and uninspired. I don’t want to hand out any spoilers, but one particular scene that was poorly handled was a scene in which a main character dies.  I’ll only say that there was basic narrative confusion as to the set up of the death, the circumstances of the death, and ultimately no drama to the death. 

The film was devoid of tension, which is just not acceptable for a war movie.  There should have been tension.  The Nazi occupation of France, the Nazi retreat and their scorched earth policy, the brewing showdown between the Americans and the Russian, death on the battlefield.   All those plot points are broached in the movie, but none seemed particularly urgent.  

A frustrating film to be sure.  At the end of the day, I felt like I often do when I see well-intentioned docs that aren’t well put together.  I’m glad I saw it, but I just wish there was more art in the filmmaking. 

Dream #9 and Other Thoughts About David Mitchell

I like David Mitchell. Of modern writers, I think, hands down, he is one of the best.  Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are two of my favorite novels of recent time.  Black Swan Green is a fantastic British coming of age novel set in the early-to-mid 80s and The Thousand Autumns, is a historical fiction of epic proportions that reads like a beautiful classic.

That said, I found Cloud Atlas quite frustrating. Cloud Atlas was composed of vaguely related stories that hopscotch across time and space.  Each story, in and of itself, was stellar.  However, the way the novel jumps from one story to the other, I found frustrating and unnecessarily difficult.  No sooner would you sink into a gripping story, then you would get whisked away from it for hundreds of pages. Eventually you would return to it, but the momentum was shot.  

As I get older, I’m not as interested in these challenging, post-modern styles of writing.  I want me some old-fashioned page turning.  Challenge me with ideas. Challenge me with stories and plot lines I’ve never before seen. Challenge me with daring thematic concerns.   But flashy, stylistic flights of fancy leave me cold and distanced from the story.
For me, Dream #9 falls into the Cloud Atlas camp of Mitchell’s work. There are flashes of brilliance, but ultimately it was a slog to get through.  The first 80 pages were particularly frustrating. I would have bailed if weren’t Mitchell.  The book opens with the main character, Eiji Miyake, camped out in a cafĂ© at a Tokyo business complex.  He’s been estranged from his father and is now set to drop in on his father unannounced. He’s moved from rural Japan to Tokyo to bring this plan to fruition.  For 80 pages he fantasizes about how this meeting will unfold.  The fantasies are endless (80 pages worth). It’s a novel that refuses to get started.  Given the dream like nature of the opening, one doesn’t actually learn that much about the characters, their conflict, or their back story. I had to keep reading the dust jacket to assure myself I’d get out of this never ending scene. Ultimately the novel does move on.  There are some great scenes, but the book moves in fits and starts.  Similar to Cloud Atlas, I enjoyed it while reading it, but I never had much desire to pick it back up once I set it down.

I still think Mitchell is an excellent writer and look forward to the next novel, but as far as Dream #9 goes…I read it, so you don’t have to.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blue Is The Warmest Color/Ender's Game

Took in a double bill of the much hyped, Palme D’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Color and the adaptation blockbuster Ender’s Game yesterday.  Couldn’t pick two more polar opposite films if I tried.  I was on the fence about Blue.  Parts of it I loved.  Parts of it were problematic.  Ender’s Game, I thought, was outright sucky.  Seeing them back to back was an interesting study in contrasts, Blue was quiet, thoughtful, and European, giving the audience plenty of time to study the characters and think about their inner lives.  Ender’s Game  was awash with a heavy-handed score, intent on telling the audience what to think.

Proceed with caution: Minor spoilers ahead!

Let’s start with Blue.  The film’s lead, Adele, is a high school student whose friends are obsessed with boys, sex, and dating.  From the outset, it becomes clear that Adele fancies girls.  I love the way the film captures that awkwardness of budding sexuality.  Adele swings wildly from cockiness to insecurity.  It has a natural feel in that regard.  She is a riveting character in the early goings.  She comes across as someone fully engaged with the world.  She’s bursting with enthusiasm for literature, philosophy, music. She attends political rallies.  She chides a fellow classmate for not reading books.  She does have insecurities, but those stem from her confused feelings about her sexuality. The only part of her life where she treads cautiously, revolve around sex.  She can’t fully be who she wants to be amongst her boy-crazy, narrow-minded girlfriends.  This is a person, who presumably will blossom when she meets the right mentor.  And meet the right mentor she does.  Emma is an art-school college student with a shock of blue hair.  They fall deeply in love.  They have lots of hot sex and then the film skips ahead several years. For me, that’s where the problems arise in the film.  Once we skip ahead a couple of years, Adele is no longer the girl we met at the film’s open.  Instead of being fully realized, she’s become a shell of her former self.  She lives only to please her hotshot artist girlfriend.  She has no life outside their relationship.  She lives to cook, clean, and entertain for Emma and her friends.  She can’t converse with Emma’s friends, because she knows nothing about art.  I just don’t buy this transformation from vital youth to dependent lover.  Yes people change and relationships can do screwy things to people, and yes Adele fell in love with an older woman, but Adele was ready to take off.  She’s set up as someone ready to fully embrace the world.  She meets the right person, and then she backslides into a stereotypical school girl in love.  It was a puzzling transformation for me.   And when the relationship goes south, she turns into a blubbering mess, producing mounds and mounds of snot.  As the film skips further ahead in time, the relationship has been over 3 years, and Adele is still pining away and blubbering for Emma.  Her life is an empty void without the love of her life.  I just didn’t buy it.  It bugged me. 

Were there things I liked about the movie? Absolutely.  I loved the early goings.  The navigation of youthful feelings.  The quiet, contemplative European styling’s of the film.  I love that the film discusses art, literature, and philosophy. And I love that the director presumes his audience will understand and embrace these topics. I loved the scenes of Adele feeling awkward around Emma’s friends. I thought those scenes expertly captured being around those who one can’t relate to.  But for such a controversial film, I was a little disappointed by the somewhat conservative and stereotypical turn the movie takes when delving into the world of relationships.

As for Ender’s Game, I just plowed through the Orson Scott Card book to get ready for the movie.  The problem with Ender’s Game is one that plagues many adaptations.  It simply moves too fast, trying to cram too much plot into a 2 hour time frame.  The result is a lack of character development.  The book expertly tracks Ender’s state-of-mind, his slow realization at how he’s being used and manipulated, and how he comes to terms with his fate.  The movie blasts through the subtleties as the movie blitzkriegs from major plot point to plot point.  Also, one of the main tropes of the book focuses on how those in command, especially Colonel Graff (played by Harrison Ford), continually isolate Ender, leaving him to fend for himself.  While the movie hints at that, too often Graff and associates come across as paternal, nurturing, and working with Ender.  That’s a big shift and one I didn’t like.  The book drips with Ender’s isolation and the resultant frustration and internal conflict Ender experiences.  His friends are hard-won and don’t materialize right away.  In the movie he finds his posse quickly and they have an all-for-one and one-for-all mentality right from the start.

So there ya have it.  Short, oversimplified, with much less angst and isolation than the book.  I was pretty bored.  But still, who doesn’t love sitting in a movie theater for 5 hours over the course of the day.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Lucking Out by James Wolcott

I'm a sucker for reading about NYC in the 70s.  It's an endlessly fascinating era.  The dirt, the crime, the art, and the culture have an amazing allure.   That fascination drew me to James Wolcott's memoir, Lucking Out.  Wolcott cut his teeth in the art and culture world of New York City in the 70s.  He got a break from Norman Mailer, wrote for the Village Voice, was part of Pauline Kael’s inner circle, and was on the ground floor of the CBGB universe.  Wolcott also turns his attention to the sleazoid universe of Times Square before falling in love with the ballet. 

The book is most exciting as Wolcott recounts his time with Kael, going to press screenings of countless seminal films from the 70s.  His view into Kael’s universe is worth the price of admission for the book alone.  But from that point forward, Lucking Out covers material already covered in greater depth in other NY 70s memoirs/scene overviews.  If you’ve already read Please Kill Me, Just Kids, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, Tales of Time Square, The Other Hollywood, then you are already pretty familiar with the material covered here.  Maybe I'm hitting my saturation point with hearing about this era.

At a personal level, I've definitely reached my saturation point on the glorification of Patti Smith.  Don't get me wrong, I love Patti Smith.  I love her book.  I love her music.  I love what she stands for.  But I don’t need to hear anyone else deify her in print.  I'm over it.

As far as Lucking Out goes, not a bad read, but not a mind-blower.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas—The Book

I’m a big David Mitchell fan.  I love both Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Hands down, those are two of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past couple of years. With the imminent release of the Cloud Atlas movie, I decided it was time to tackle this tome.  

I must admit, it's been a bit of a slog.  I’m pretty mixed on Cloud Atlas.  On the one hand, the writing is great and the individual stories are compelling.  On the other hand, I can’t say that I enjoy the structure…at all.  To me, the book’s post-modern trappings, the nesting doll structure of the stories, bring it down. I loved the individual stories, but because those stories get broken up over the course of the book, I found it hard to get back into them when they roll around again.  

Structure aside, I found the connections between stories tenuous at best.  This book reads like a bunch of short stories to me.  There’s a flash of excitement when elements from the stories resonate off of each other, but I was then very quickly left with a “so what” feeling.  I just never felt like the conjunction of stories added up to anything.  Maybe I missed the point.  I certainly know a lot of folks who love this book, but I remain skeptical.

Fortunately, the writing is excellent and the stories themselves are strong, so it’s good enough to keep reading, but this is certainly not the David Mitchell book I’d recommend.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The 1975 Tigers vs. The 2012 Giants: A World Series Preview

A Tigers vs. Giants World Series.  Ah, what a thing of beauty that would be.  My hometown team vs. the town I’ve lived in for the last 25 years.  It’s win-win. Though to be frank, I’ll be bummed if the Giants lose.  I’m sure all my childhood friends are incensed to even think I could root against the Tigers, but there you have it.  Go Gigantes!

I still love the Tigers, but the reality is, I rarely see them play, and just follow them in the box scores.  I don’t really have a deep connection to this particular team. It’s cool Miggy won the Triple Crown, but I didn’t see any of those hits, RBIs, or homers.  When Valverde takes the mound, I don’t experience that sinking feeling like my Detroit friends.  I hold my breath when Timmy takes the mound, but not Valverde.  That’s the reality here in 2012.

However, if the 1975 Tigers were playing the 2012 Giants, I’d want Joe Coleman to outduel Matt Cain.  I’d like to see Aurelio Rodriguez outplay Pablo Sandoval at the hot corner. I’d like Mickey Lolich’s beer belly to get more camera time than the Panda’s paunch.  I’d like Gary Sutherland to run circles around Marco Scutaro.  And sure, Buster won comeback player of the year, but he won’t get a movie made about him like The Ron Leflore Story! Now that’s a comeback! The biggest thrill of the game, of course, would be watching Jon Wockenfuss bat—good lord, that batting stance—perhaps even weirder than Brian Wilson.

Of course a World Series between the 1975 Tigers and 2012 Giants would never happen--not because of time space continuum issues--but because that Tiger team was horrible.  One of the worst ever. They lost over 100 games and finished 37.5 games out of first place.  They would have never swept the Yankees.  In fact, they would have been lucky to win 4 games against the Yankees all season.  

I looked at that team’s Wikipedia page, and in the Awards and Honors section, here was what was listed.

* * * *
League top ten finishers
Joe Coleman
  • AL leader in wild pitches (15)
  • #2 in MLB in losses (18)
  • #2 in MLB in earned runs allowed (124)
  • #4 in AL in hit batsmen(9)

Ron LeFlore
  • #2 in AL in strikeouts (139)
  • #2 in MLB in times caught stealing (20)

Mickey Lolich
  • #2 in MLB in losses (18)
  • #6 in MLB in complete games (19)

Dan Meyer
  • AL leader in at bats per strikeout (18.8)

Willie Horton
  • #3 in AL in game played (159)
  • #4 in AL in at bats (615)
* * * *

And those are the awards and honors!

But that’s the team I grew up watching and loving. 

Sure I spent $40 on a Giants cap this year, but if these two teams squared off in the World Series, I’d wear my Bill Freehan t-shirt to the game.  You know my Bill Freehan t-shirt, the one I kind of made myself, back when you couldn’t buy merchandise with players names on it.  I had a white Tigers t-shirt with the cool circled Tiger logo on the front, and I took a black magic marker to the back and wrote “Freehan” and a big “11” on it.  I immediately realized I messed up and it looked like crap and I ruined my Tigers shirt…but I wore it with pride anyway, cause that’s how I rolled when I was 10.

But alas, I’m not 10 anymore.  The 10 year old me would be pretty disappointed that the middle-aged me will be rooting against the hometown boys.  But what can I tell you.  I got game seven tickets for this year’s World Series, and if the Giants get to the World Series, and it goes seven, me and my 11 year old boy will be in the stands and we’ll be rooting for the Giants. 

Note: I realize that if the Giants lose tonight, this is a moot post, but a kid can dream, you know.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

RIP 4 Star Video. The Rise and Fall of San Francisco Video Stores

Must say that I’m really bummed about the closing of 4 Star Video in Bernal Heights.  It’s been my video store since moving to the Excelsior 10 years ago.  I’ve held off on entering the Netflix world, in part to support my buddy Ken Fad Shelf, who purchased the store 5 years back, but also because I like video stores.  I like browsing the aisles, bumping into films I hadn’t come to rent.  I like hanging out with the people who hang out in video stores or are crazy enough to own them.  That’s part of being a film junkie.  

In a way, it’s odd that the demise of 4 Star is the store closure that hits the hardest.  Maybe that’s because it’s the one that I frequent now, and whose closure will force me to go to Netflix or a similar rental solution.  Maybe it’s because it’s the store my son has grown up in.  Last month my 11 year old browsed the shelves and pulled three films that we could watch that night—Powaqqatsi, The Phillip Glass documentary, or Broadway Danny Rose.  The choice was mine.  He loves hanging out in video stores, record stores, and bookstores.  I’m glad he’s had the chance to have those experiences, because in all likelihood, there’s a short window left to be moved by those activities.

It’s funny I’m even bemoaning the downfall of the video store.  I was pretty skeptical during the infancy of these stores.  It wasn’t like you could go find the films of Richard Kern or John Waters in video stores.  But then I moved to San Francisco in 1987 and the video stores here were eye opening.

I’m proud to have been one of the first members at Naked Eye, Wild Wild Video, Leather Tongue, Dirty Tongue, and Lost Weekend.  My membership card numbered less than #100 in all those spots.  Naked Eye was my first love.  A mind-bending selection with all the American Underground titles you could want.  All the Russ Meyer movies, Beth and Scott B shorts, and a huge stock of Target Videos.  Me and my friends watched them all.  Of course back then in the group-housing scenario, you all shared a card. Even people you didn’t live with shared your card.  For a good couple of months, every time I went in, Steve, who ran the joint was always harassing me to return Ken Russell’s The Devils, a title my ex-roommate had checked out and never returned.  I never even saw the movie…and still haven’t to this day! 

Wild Wild Video was another great one.  It started over by The Kabuki in Lower Pac Heights, a very bizarre place for a store featuring every psychotronic movie you could shake a stick at.   I don’t even think they carried anything but psychotronic videos.  Talk about a specialty store doomed to close!  Owners Mary and Prax, were great to chat with.  They eventually relocated to SOMA and eventually moved on to other pursuits.

The Valencia corridor came alive in the 90s.  Leather Tongue was first in the door.  Lisa who ran the joint was awesome in a crazy 90s way. You felt like a deviant just walking into that store.  In fact, she ran out of space for her porn titles, necessitating her to open a second store called Dirty Tongue…just for her dirty movies!

Lost Weekend opened a short time later and may end up as the last store standing.  Dave, Kristy and Adam are still carrying the torch.  I was over one of their apartments shortly before they opened.  They had started amassing their collection, and titles lined their apartment walls.  Lost Weekend was/is a true labor of love and passion, and, as a result, has the best selection of all.  The store is curated by film buffs who love it all and know how to put it together and display it.  I can still go in there and chew the fat with whoever is at the counter and always come away with titles I wasn’t expecting to grab.  

In all likelihood it too has an expiration date, but maybe being on Valencia will help stave off the inevitable.  I’ll go there to rent some titles, but certainly not as frequently as 4 Star.  It’s just too far away.  It used to be 1 block from my house, now it’s not so conveniently located, and, alas, I think Netflix is in my future.

I’m sure I’ll love Netflix.  I’ll love the immediacy and the instant access.  I'll love not having to make an additional trip to return a video and being charged a late fee. But I know Netflix is not going to stream or even have every oddball title I want, and I guarantee it won’t have the same flavor of wandering down Valencia Street, popping into a store filled with friends and debating the merits of The Cinema of Transgression vs. Mumblecore.

Note: Please don’t give me grief for not mentioning Le Video.  I know it’s great.  It’s just I’ve never lived on that side of town.