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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

The author as critic and vice-versa.

Admiring John Updike Admiring Haruki Murakami


I am myself familiar with the reviewing cliché, from both ends of the business, so I say deliberately that Updike’s scope is rather breathtaking (from Isaac Babel straight to James Thurber on successive pages), and I add that he seems almost incapable of writing badly. When I do not know the subject well — as in his finely illustrated art reviews of Bruegel, Dürer and Goya — I learn much from what Updike has to impart. When he considers an author I love, like Proust or Czeslaw Milosz, I often find myself appreciating familiar things in a new way. I enjoy the little feuilletons he appends, for example on the 10 greatest moments of the American libido.


Christopher Hitchens reviewing Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism by John Updike in The New York Times


Hitchens quotes the “highly affable preface” to the book which has Updike wondering if he’s not critical enough, or critical in the wrong directions. “Should he perhaps have been a little kinder to E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo and Norman Rush or (by implication) a fraction more harsh with Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami?”


But it’s Updike’s calm and discursive attention to the details in Murakami’s second most recent novel, Kafka on the Shore, that provides a context for what can seem to be allegorical non-sequiturs in the Japanese novelist’s books. A man who might have come to life from the label of a Johnny Walker whisky bottle, and the fast food icon, Colonel Sanders are characters in Kafka on the Shore, and Updike muses on their mythological relevance. 


In a prefatory chapter, Crow promises Kafka a “violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm,” with “hot, red blood.” He assures him, and the expectant reader, “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. . . . But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.” At the center of this particular novelistic storm is the idea that our behavior in dreams can translate to live action; our dreams can be conduits back into waking reality. This notion, the learned Oshima tells Kafka, can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” the early-eleventh century Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki….Read in context, in the first section of Arthur Waley’s translation of “Genji,” the episode borders on the naturalistic. Within the tight, constrained circles of the imperial court, emotional violence bursts its bonds. ...


From the inarguable truth of the second observation the possibility of one’s spirit leaving one’s body could be plausibly deduced in a prescientific, preëlectric age when, Oshima points out, “the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.” In Murakami’s vision of our materialist, garishly illuminated age, however, the boundary between inner and outer darkness is traversed by grotesque figments borrowed from the world of commercial imagery: Johnnie Walker, with boots and top hat, manifests himself to the cat-loving simpleton Nakata as a mass murderer of stray felines, jocularly cutting open their furry abdomens and popping their still-beating hearts into his mouth, and Colonel Sanders, in his white suit and string tie, appears to Nakata’s companion, Hoshino, as a fast-talking pimp. The Colonel, questioned by the startled Hoshino about his nature, quotes another venerable text, Ueda Akinari’s “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”: “Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.”...


In “Kafka on the Shore,” the skies unaccountably produce showers of sardines, mackerel, and leeches, and some unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined. The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.” Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as “gods” or “spirits” but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as “anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.”


John Updike. The New Yorker.



In a New York Times Essay Haruki Murakami reviews his own writing, describing the affinity he feels with jazz:


I had practiced the piano as a kid, and I could read enough music to pick out a simple melody, but I didn’t have the kind of technique it takes to become a professional musician. Inside my head, though, I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.


Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.


Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.


Haruki Murakami. New York Times. July 8, 2007


Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) by Francisco Zurbaran. The cover image for

Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) by Francisco Zurbaran. The cover image for “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” by Jack Miles


The Spiritual Journeys of L.A. Times and N.Y. Times Book Review Editors


Richard Bernstein had been Time’s first Bejing Bureau Chief, and Chief at bureaus in Paris and the United Nations, as well as a national cultural correspondent for the New York Times, before settling into a role he acknowledges as privileged and wonderful in the book reviewing department at the New York Times. He had reached the age of fifty without any significant hardships and his spiritual crisis came about through ennui, not hardship. He maintained his cultural and spiritual ties to Judaism but was absorbed by the pilgrimage made by an ancient Chinese Buddhist monk, who travelled into India and back to visit sites significant in the life of the Buddha.


In the year 629, a greatly revered Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang, set out across Asia in search of the Buddhist Truth, to settle what he called the “perplexities of my mind.” Nearly a millennium and a half later, Richard Bernstein retraces the monk’s steps: from the Tang dynasty capital at Xian through ancient Silk Road oases, over forbidding mountain passes to Tashkent, Samarkand, and the Amu-Darya River, across Pakistan to the holiest cities of India—and back.


Jacket blurb from Ultimate Journey by Richard Bernstein (2001)


In last Sunday’s Times he mused on why news of the uprisings by Buddhist monks in Burma has largely disappeared from the news, contrasting it with how Buddhist monks seized, and kept, the attention of the press during the Vietnam war.


Anybody old enough to remember the Vietnam War will remember that day in 1963: it was June 11 when newspapers around the world carried the shocking image of a 73 year-old monk named Thich Quang Duc sitting in the middle of a Saigon street and maintaining his rigidly erect lotus position even while his body was engulfed in flames.


It was an image that changed the United States and Vietnam forever, a stunning, shocking and, in its way, sublime protest against the heavy-handedness and tyrannical capriciousness of the regime led by Ngo Dinh Diem being supported with the blood of young American men. Among its consequences was the American decision a few months later to engineer a coup leading to Diem’s assassination, though the Buddhists continued to protest against later regimes as well, contributing to those governments’ weakness and instability.


A self-immolation that nobody knew about would have no effect, of course, but in South Vietnam a young American reporter for The Associated Press, Malcolm Browne, was on the scene that day, snapping away with the camera he always carried with him, winning a Pulitzer Prize and changing the course of history.


We know from William Prochnau’s excellent book of 1995, “Once Upon a Distant War,” that Mr. Browne was present at that historic moment because he had been tipped off in advance by the Buddhists’ clever and skillful press relations representative.


Richard Bernstein. A Modern Buddhist Uprising Strikes a Quieter Chord. New York Times. November 4, 2007



Jack Miles spent ten years (1960 - 1970) training at a Jesuit Seminary. He was literary editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1985 to 1991 then spent five years on the paper’s editorial board, writing editorials. His books God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God examine God and Jesus Christ as a literary figures. In May this year he lectured on the soul in modern literature at the Getty Center.


For imaginative reviewers, especially poets, no less than for scientists and a for few more far-sighted religious leaders, including, notably the Dalai Lama, recombinant DNA is our era’s understanding of soul. We are matter organized in a way that has both life and spirit as effects, so long as the organization can be prolonged or reproduced. In a remarkable way, this notion—with its distinction between the phenotype and the genotype—combines the Semitic assumption that as each man or woman has but one life to live with the Indic or karmic assumption that something is passed on that reflects experience passed on over many more lifetimes than one. That DNA is recombinant, its ultimate origin unrecoverably multiple and remote, seems particularly congenial to the belief in “co-dependent origination” associated with the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna.


To say this much is certainly not to claim that science is a religion or religion a surrogate. Yet, granting that there is no moral to the story of evolution, there are choices capable of moral construal as the human species becomes “evolution conscious of itself.” Evolution as such makes no moral judgements, in other words, but you may. 


Jack Miles. Soul Searching. May 23, 2007.


Pankaj Mishra’s Career Begins With Admiring Edmund Wilson’s Criticism


Pankaj Mishra is famous for having discovered Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things while working as an editor at Penguin Books in India. As well as writing his own books of fiction and non-fiction he reviews books for newspapers and magazines around the world. While gathering the courage to become a writer and looking for something to write about, he read the criticism of Edmund Wilson at a University library in Benares. He feels that his career properly began when he came to write for the New York Review of Books after meeting co-founder Barbara Epstein.


I first met Barbara Epstein in New Delhi in 1997. She had come to India to give a talk on Edmund Wilson, whom I had idolized since discovering his books in a neglected old library in the North Indian city of Benares. I never expected to meet anyone who had known Wilson; the young Americans I met in India had barely heard of him. Such youthful idealism as mine does not usually survive its encounter with reality. Yet Barbara’s graciousness, wit, and ironical intelligence more than matched my fantasies of the remote American world of Wilson.



In an obituary for her when she died last year, he wrote:


It was while working with her that I learned the most valuable lessons of our friendship. I began to see more clearly how literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; how it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; how it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.


A new collection of Wilson’s criticism was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times last weekend:


At his best, Wilson has a novelistic drive and intensity so hypnotic that you forget you’re reading criticism altogether. He once wrote of great novelists that they “must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another,” and he did exactly that in “To the Finland Station,” his epic 1940 study of socialism and its founders. ...


An independent man of letters, Wilson mastered the difficult art of freelancing while writing for Vanity Fair, the New Republic and the New Yorker, his home base after World War II. Wilson approached his trade as a journalist: He would find a group of subjects or books that interested him and write up his findings in his articles and reviews. He didn’t compose his books so much as assemble them from this vast output, expanding and trimming his pieces where needed. His method, which he outlined in 1943, is still instructive (budding critics, take note!): “You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject.”


Matthew Price. Los Angeles Times. November 4, 2007.


In 2005 in the New Yorker Louis Menand described the scope, and selectiveness, of Edmund Wilson’s interests:


Wilson had no interest in criticism as such. He wrote a few essays about the critical literature that had influenced him—Marxist and historical interpretation—but he paid little attention to the criticism being written by his contemporaries unless they were good writers themselves, in which case he read their criticism as a form of literature, which is how he preferred to read everything. He detested what he called “treatise-type” books—theoretical or social-scientific works—and avoided them, unless, again, they seemed to him to have literary or imaginative power. He read Marx but not Weber; he read Orwell but not Hannah Arendt. It was his practice, when he took up an author, to read the whole shelf: books, uncollected pieces, biographies, correspondence. When he lost patience with a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame. “I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through ‘Don Quixote.’ ” Though he wrote well-known essays on Dickens and on Henry James, he was uninterested in most Victorian fiction and didn’t bother to finish “Middlemarch.” He had a good knowledge of the theatre (he wrote a number of plays, and his first wife, Mary Blair, was in the Provincetown Players, Eugene O’Neill’s company); he had a selective knowledge of art, a very selective knowledge of classical music, and virtually no knowledge of the movies. He loathed the radio.


“A history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them”: this was the way Wilson described his ambition in his first major book, “Axel’s Castle,” in 1931.


Louis Menand. Missionary: Edmund Wilson and American Culture. The New Yorker. August 8, 2005.



Gary Giddins and the Impossibility of a Negative Review


Gary Giddins has published two collections of jazz criticism drawn mostly from a column he used to write for the Village Voice: Visions of Jazz: The First Century and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century, and brings to his reviews elements of literary criticism.


To borrow Harold Bloom’s conceit, Armstrong invented the human in American music, supplanting the mechanics of ragtime and traditional polyphonic jazz as well as classical alloys (from Gottschalk to Dvorak to Gershwin) that attempted to create “serious” music from American folk sources, with a fluid, graceful, rhythmically unparalleled model on which a durable art grounded in individualism could flourish.


In Armstrong’s world, it was no longer sufficient to merely master the trumpet or saxophone; instead, jazz musicians adapted their instruments as extensions of themselves, making each solo as distinct as a signature or a fingerprint. At a 1966 concert on Randall’s Island, Edmund Hall and Pee Wee Russell played a duet, and I could scarcely believe they were playing the same instrument, so utterly distinctive was each man’s approach to the clarinet. By then I had learned, with immense satisfaction, that not only is character fate, but also style, timbre, and attack. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman and Herschel Evans all played tenor saxophone and were of similar age and background, yet announced themselves unconditionally in the space of a few notes. Nor was this generational: for the same could be said of their successors, tenor players like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse, Wayne Shorter, Zoot Sims, Booker Ervin, and—here is the thing—many others. This apparently infinite well of personal expression quickened my fixation and deepened my resolve.


Gary Giddins. Introduction. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century.



And he explained at length how the changing fortunes of the recording and media businesses contributed to him rarely writing negative reviews.


The trade of writing about music hasn’t changed in the nearly 200 years since it became a journalistic sideline. The trick is still to find concrete images to describe and appraise non-verbal art and the feelings it engenders while sustaining one’s youthful ardor and openness—despite the mellowing or wisdom or crankiness or despair or revelation that comes with age. The death of jazz, movies, literature, and civilization is as confidently predicted as the end of the world and the second coming. Sidney Bechet, in his posthumous memoir, offered a more realistic credo: “You got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It’s that way with music, too.” It’s that way with everything. Criticism is often a battleground between empathy and disdain. A musician once complained that my work is too emotional. He’s right. Much as I admire the writing of categorical intellectuals, feeling is the only arbiter I completely trust. Like everyone else, I aspired to join William James’s tough-minded tribe—just as I determined to be one of those who, in Bertrand Russell’s dictum, braved the future rather than retreat to the past. It didn’t work out that way: As a critic, I am chiefly an enthusiast mired in the past and reliant on sensibility. This confession is not an apology, just fair warning to anyone who wandered out of the rain into these pages.


A vigorous art deserves and requires a disputatious criticism. Better to be wrongheaded and punitive from time to time than reliably soft, predictable, and accommodating. But with the eradication of antitrust laws, and the selling out of the FCC, not to mention the retailing of art to corporate interests (through an insidious extension of copyright protection of what amounts to perpetuity), jazz has all but disappeared from commercial TV and radio. I concluded some time ago that I could not justify using the space allotted me in the Village Voice or any other venues to caution readers against records they’ve never heard of. Much of my time was spent searching for performances and recordings I liked well enough to explore in essay form and that exemplified the art’s liveliness. As a result, enthusiasm became a safe harbour and disputation a matter of personal grousing, except once in a while, usually when covering festivals that guarantee excuses to pick nits.


Gary Giddins. Introduction. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century.




 


 


 




 


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Friday, Nov 9, 2007


For the weekend of 9 November, here are the films in focus:


Fred Claus [rating: 7]


Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas

Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special – a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.  read full review…


P2 [rating: 6]


Sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner – and this describes P2 perfectly.

Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair. read full review…


Sleuth [rating: 5]


Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless.

The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting. read full review…


Lions for Lambs [rating: 4]


For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points.

There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes - conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc. – that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.  read full review…


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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

LIONS FOR LAMBS (dir. Robert Redford)


There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes—conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc.—that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.


And then there are the arguments at the center of Robert Redford’s surprisingly inert Lions for Lambs. Floating somewhere between the obvious and the impossible, this anti-war diatribe wants to be as fair and impartial as its left leaning capacities will let it—and it wants to accomplish this by using the mightier pen, not the far more cinematically interesting sword. Scribbled—literally so—by Kingdom writer Matthew Michael Carnahan and wearing its well meaning intentions as far out on its sedentary sleeves as possible, this is a thinking man’s thriller, except both the brain and bravado are hardly engaged. We are meant to see the three intertwining stories here as all possible paradigms surrounding the War on Terror. Sadly, not a single one adds up to a moment of significant clarity.


We first meet seasoned Washington reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) as she prepares to meet Senator Japser Irving (Tom Cruise). He has set aside an entire hour for a one-on-one “interview” over a new military strategy in Afghanistan. It turns out to be more of a con job than a confab. At the same time, a wise old college professor named Stephen Malley (Redford) is having a meeting with one of his more promising students, Todd Hayes. He hopes to convince the boy to do more with his college career, and his options afterward, than merely selling out and seeking a cushy, cash heavy career. He does this by explaining what happened to a previous pair of outstanding underclassman, Ernest Rodriguez and Arian Finch. They took Malley’s words to heart—and ended up joining the Army. Now serving in Afghanistan, we see how the new policy in the Middle East, as outlined by Irving, has the duo dealing with issues they never anticipated. In the end, all involved must decide which side of the fence they reside on, and how that determination will affect their ethos, and their life.


From the above description, Lions for Lambs should be a barn burner. From a more than competent cast to a whirlwind approach to the subject (think Babel by way of the John Birch Society), the idea of paralleling fates tested with those behind the scenes marginalizing said destinies has enough aesthetic potency to plow through any number of clichés or jingoistic jolts. And for a while, one gets the impression that this film will pull it off. Redford, who deservedly won his directing Oscar for the pristine Ordinary People, gives us impressive set-ups, complicated cross cuts, and a feeling that we are about to enter a Category 5 human hurricane of politics, personalities, and philosophizing. All we have to do is ride it out and enjoy the metaphysical life or death experience.


And then the storm never comes. Instead, it just drizzles for 90 minutes before turning dull. What should be aggressive comes across anemic. All the high minded ideas being tossed around like buoyant buzzwords end up aimed squarely at the smallest percentages of the lowest common denominator. For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points. It’s high school level forensics, novice division vs. big time verbal firefights. The most compelling element of the storyline—the gifted if disenfranchised young men who decided to use the military as a means of making a difference (their logic is suspect at best)—is marginalized by a movie that wants to pound us over the head with “Bush is Bad” pronouncements until we acquiesce. While such a sentiment may be valid, it could be handled in a far more rational manner. Indeed, all the animosity Cruise and Streep spit at each other over the media coverage of the war and the GOP response to same could very easily apply to Redford and Carnahan as well.


You see, Lions for Lambs might appear to play fair, but if one could glimpse behind this Wizard of Fixed Odds’ curtain, they’d see a bunch of high minded hippies holding “Down with LBJ” placards. This is a movie using Vietnam as a slightly skewed way of describing our current Middle East policy, and while the analogy might have some play, the conclusions are clearly light years apart. No Asian country plowed two commercial airliners into our New York skyline, and while the Domino theory had very little long term regional resonance, our current thickheaded policy in Iraq has put us in a catastrophic Catch-22 dilemma. We can’t win, but we can’t leave—at least, not cleanly. As some pundits have suggested, we are no safer than when our bedeviled President declared “Mission Accomplished. But the fear of post-evacuation havoc has us so spooked, we can’t see a logical way of leaving.


Lions for Lambs plays these particular cards, and Cruise is so expert at delivering these carefully crafted swindles that you wonder if Scientology automatically disqualifies an actor from seeking higher office. Unfortunately, his cohort in conversation (for the first time in her career, Streep is a cipher here) constantly low balls his ludicrous pronouncements. Instead of challenging him, she keeps waiting for Irving to step on his own dicta. It never happens. It’s the same when Malley takes on Hayes. Redford is dermabrased and ready to dig in. He’s got his conceptual combat boots on. But as the role of up and coming idealist, Andrew Garfield is as blank as a fart. Watching his vacant, disconnected performance, one’s not sure if he’s playing a slacker, or simply inhabiting the personification of sloth. He is intellectually dead, emotionally sparse, and above all, unworthy of the movie’s championing.


Which, of course, leads us back to Rodriguez and Finch. While their storyline sinks along predicable military missteps, there are some genuine moments between the characters. As played by Michael Pena and Derek Luke, we get a real sense that both are the kind of individual who deserve our motion picture attention. They don’t come across as forced and feigned—though, again, their rationalization for becoming grunts leaves a lot to be desired—and we sense in them the gravitas missing from almost every other aspect of the film. By the time we’ve reached the anticlimactic conclusion to the other two tales (Cruise and Streep at stalemate, Redford and Garfield purposefully vague) we find ourselves wanting more of the dedicated duo. In a film filled with half-assed heroics, they remain the only victors.


This is why Lions for Lambs is so inexcusable. It shouts the loudest, pounding its flimsy fists on the desk for ineffectual dramatics. In a season which has seen equally limp interpretations of our life and times (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition), Robert Redford and his well meaning company of civil shills have a big fat, slightly damaged, diatribe to sell you. It doesn’t get great mileage, and isn’t very dependable, but if you like your positions on the retractable side of extreme, this overly verbal vehicle will get you to where you want to go. It’s stagey and talky, more off Broadway than broadminded, and there will be some who cotton to such expositional exercises. If you want to see superstars yak on endlessly however, Inside the Actors Studio is still on—and it’s a lot more politically astute than this overdone discussion group. 



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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

P2 (dir. Franck Khalfoun)


Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair.


It’s Christmas Eve, and go getting executive Angela Bridges is stuck smoothing out the wrinkles of an important client contract. In constant contact with her eager to celebrate family, and warding off the wounded pride of office lothario Bob, all she wants to do is get finished, get home, and get partying. Unfortunately, when she finally makes it to the parking garage and her car, the darn thing won’t start. Even worse, the creepy facility security guard, a guy named Thomas, keeps asking her to stay for his own personal holiday dinner. Without warning, she is suddenly kidnapped and confined. Apparently, Thomas is far from harmless. In fact, he apparently wants to be “friends” with his longtime obsession, and he’s not about to take “No” for an answer. It will take cunning and courage to escape this unhinged villain, and to make matters worse, the entire building is locked down tight. It’s just Angela, Thomas, his vicious Rottweiler, and any unfortunate bystander that gets in their way.


P2 is the perfect example of a thermostat style thriller. It keeps its superficial suspense percolating at just the right level throughout its entire 96 minutes of its running time, only stopping on occasion to let the dread’s temperature ebb and subside a few empty degrees now and then. It doesn’t go the rollercoaster route, and it’s unsure about the proper ratio of goofiness to gore. But when you’ve sat through a wealth of grade-Z genre schlock, films that wouldn’t know thrills and/or chills if they rose up from the grave and bit them in their lofty ambitions, this first time feature from Alexandre Aja protégé Franck Khalfoun is an authentic attempt at terror. Certainly it stumbles along the way, and someone needed to inform bad guy Wes Bentley that juvenilia and joking doesn’t really equal insanity, but for the most part, this by the book boo fest serves up some engaging shivers.


As they did with the fabulous slice and dice Haute Tension—Aja, producing pal Grégory Levasseur, and Khalfoun all contributed to this script—these French film geeks are out to prove that they know movie macabre. They’ve studied it, absorbed the many fright flick nuances, and found a way to tweak them just enough to bring the standard stereotypes and formulas into the cynical contemporary era. There is nothing really new here, no attempt at rewriting the rules or deconstructing the format. But sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner—and this describes P2 perfectly. It’s all creepy cat and mouse for about an hour and a half, a by the numbers knuckle biter that delivers the fake shocks, the ineffectual rescues, and the last act beat down we’ve come to expect.


Part of the reason why P2 doesn’t aim (or reach) higher is its less than impressive cast. Don’t get the wrong impression—Rachel Nichols’ Angela and Bentley’s Thomas are professional and far from distracting. Each tries to bring something new to what are basically cardboard cutouts (overworked type-A corporate pawn, insane lowlife stalker), and without much success in that category, still keep us quite interested. It could have something to do with Khalfoun’s direction. There is a purposeful pace to P2, a story structure that moves determinedly through each and every marker on the horror horizon. Getting there may be half the fun, but what happens once we arrive is guaranteed to give you only the most minor amount of goosebumps.


If you’re expecting Haute Tension 2, however, or another dose of overdone gorno (got to love the studios’ bandwagon tendency with even the most mindless of movie trends) P2 will leave you rather disenchanted. What Aja did with his revisionist slasher (and what he managed in the otherwise perfunctory Hills Have Eyes remake) is clarify the potency of certain fear factors. From an unseen force of pure evil that is only glimpsed in small doses to a last act twist that was both predictable and prescient, we were guided through a geek’s official terror talking points. The difference here is that Khalfoun is clearly locked in apprentice mode. He can get away with some solid setpieces (like the fate of the aforementioned Bob), but there are times when the film appears to fade away. And since he’s not trying to bring anything new to the discussion, there’s no novelty to keep things focused and fresh.


Still, in a genre that stumbles more than it soars, where your average camcorder creator can’t figure out a way to properly dredge up the dread, P2 is perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t demand much and gives just slightly more than same in return. It does argue for Aja’s growing status as a horror maestro, and that his sphere of influence is capable, if still a bit basic. Don’t let other macabre marginalizing critics convince you that there are not some solid scarefest pleasures to be had here. They are viewing said subject through some decidedly biased eyes. Take the word of a fellow aficionado of fright—P2 is pretty decent. Not the most glowing of recommendations, but then again, this isn’t the most original of woman in peril plotlines—or motion pictures.


 



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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

FRED CLAUS (dir. David Dobkin)


Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special—a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.


Ever since he was a boy, Fred had to live in the sainted shadow of his practically perfect younger sibling Nicholas. As they aged, the constant doting of their mother and the growing gregarious nature of little “Santa” finally got to his big brother. Irritation turned to ire, and when a prized possession is suddenly destroyed, Fred decides he no longer needs the Claus clan. He winds up in the Windy City, playing repo man. While his woman Wanda puts up with his issues, it’s street kid Slam that really appreciates his cynical poses. After getting arrested in a charity scam, Fred looks for someone to bail him out. Sadly, only Santa is available. He agrees to help his distant relative on one condition—he must come to the North Pole and work in his little brother’s toy concern. Initially reluctant, Fred signs on, and it’s a good thing too, since evil Efficiency Expert Clyde Northcutt has just arrived—and he’s looking to put the jolly old elf out of business.


Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas. It’s a movie steeped in mythos, overflowing with heart, and devilishly deceptive about its contrasting seasonal dichotomy. On the one hand, the narrative wants to champion a theme of “no bad children”, arguing that Santa’s outdated “naughty or nice” judgment misses the much bigger picture. Yet there’s an equally effective subtext which hints that such touchy feely pronouncements have ruined the real spirit of the holiday, a time when giving was based on your approach to life the other 364 days out of the year, not just your status as an annual gift machine. While it may not have been the intention of director David Dobkin, Fred Claus exposes the layers of fake sentiment that tends to destroy every celebration. Instead, he boils Christmas down to its iconic basics—snow, Santa, smiling faces—and then encloses it all in a veil of dysfunction which wants to mirror everyday existence. 


Oddly enough, it’s not Vince Vaughn’s Fred who’s the main culprit. He’s supposed to corrupt our silent night. Capable of playing both way big and too small, he’s just right here—angry but approachable, selfish but not completely self-centered. And Kevin Spacey’s Nortcutt is not the killjoy either. Granted, he’s the stereotypical bureaucrat that manages to stamp out the joy of such a season (he could kill a kitten’s inherent cuteness), but he’s nothing but a bully, a plot point waiting for its comeuppance. Other potential suspects include Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), the very definition of a silent shrew, and the perplexed parents (Kathy Bates and Brit Trevor Peacock) who dote on their gift giving offspring without once considering Fred’s feelings. So who’s the biggest baddy of them all in this film filled with potential problem makers? Why Santa of course.


Fred Claus’s single genius stroke is to make Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of the Christmas fixture a flailing, neurotic mess. Old St. Nick is a walking disaster, a stressed out soul who’s eating away his troubles. As a child, we see how, sometimes, Santa was misguided in his decisions. He believes he can gift issues away, and as he grows older, he keeps toys away from deserving kids because he won’t make quota if everyone gets a present. While it’s very sly and almost too subtle, Dobkin delivers a red suited symbol who’s at the end of his rope. He’s just a single bad business report from going postal—and Fred may be the fuel to start such a shooting spree. Of course, Fred Claus never careens that far over into bleak black comedy, but a great many of the gags here are definitely based in anger, desperation, and interpersonal shame.


Certainly this is not a perfect film. A tiny elf character named Willy, essayed by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, is about as convincing as the CGI used to render his miniature status. We know he lusts after the human sized Charlene, but his motives are really unclear. Similarly, there’s a lot of unexplored potential in the tiny DJ played by rapper Ludicris. The talented artist is more or less wasted in what amounts to an uncreative cameo. There are scenes that don’t really go anywhere (an intervention with Fred falls flat) and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz is a weird choice for a Chicago meter maid. Her relationship with Fred is fine, but her presence in the US is never explained. Some could argue that for a funny business fantasy that intends to do nothing more than make you laugh and enliven your spirit, Fred Claus need not be flawless. But when there’s so much good material surrounding them, the miscues are more than evident.


Still, it’s hard to hate a Christmas movie that allows Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone to riff on and rip on their far more famous siblings, and there is a wonderful montage toward the end that effortlessly captures the reasons for the season. And thanks to the bifurcated back and forth, the constant countermanding of wholesomeness with hackwork, tradition with the tainted and the tasteless, we wind up with a reflection of post-millennial holiday cheer. Some will come in expecting Bad Santa meshed with Wedding Crashers, but Fred Claus is friendlier, more away in a manger manageable than such a hard R conceit would create. This is truly a family film, albeit it one that acknowledges that you too hate the annual ridiculousness of such forced reunions. If Xmas has become a royal pain in the credit, this highly enjoyable romp knows the reasons why. Somewhere along the line, we lost the true meaning of decking the halls. Fred Claus won’t help you rediscover the significance, but it will make forgetting a whole lot more understandable.




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