Thursday, June 25, 2009

Just finished reading The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe over lunch today. What a relentlessly sad story. Very good though, I need to watch the movie again now.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Artists I Like: Michael Haneke (pretentiousness warning!)

"My films are intended as polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus."

Funny Games (2008 film)Image via Wikipedia

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24:  Director Michael Han...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Michael Haneke is an Austrian director who has grown famous as a director of films which often are aimed at pointing out what he perceives to be problems and failures in modern society. He often shows the banality and tediousness of suburban life and intersperses that with extreme violence. This blend of boredom with terror sometimes leads to very conflicting critiques of his work. I have read often on the internet observations from "real people" who watched his films and felt they were terribly boring, "nothing happens" is a phrase you see over and over when reading user reviews on Netflix for example. On the other hand, professional critics, those who don't like his films anyway, often describe his films as overly violent, The New York Times described Funny Games as "a sophisticated act of cinema sadism." It's these exact same extremes that have made me a huge admirer of his work.

My introduction to his work was the U.S. version of Funny Games. This version of the film is a shot for shot remake of an earlier, Austrian one. The movie is the story of a well-to-do family visiting their lake house who are accosted by a couple of seemingly upper class young men who throughout the movie terrorize the family. The plot is similar to a number of "home invasion" films such as The Strangers or Them but Haneke's goal and style are much different. There is no onscreen violence in Funny Games at all, aside from one very important scene late in the movie but the effect of the violence when it does happen (offscreen) is chilling. The focus is on the people being hurt, their faces as they watch family members being terrorized or their reactions after the violence occurs. There are no action sequences, violence happens in short bursts but the impact lasts for several minutes after. The violence is never explained either, the antagonists throughout the story offer stories a few times but always immediately contradict themselves just moments later with an alternate reason for their terrible acts. In the end viewers have more questions than answers and are not offered a nice wrap-up that is normally given at the end of a thriller or horror movie.

Initially after seeing the movie I wasn't sure what to think and really didn't think I liked it at all. It took me several days to realize that I couldn't stop thinking about it and the effect it had on me. Funny Games is a film that is aiming to inspire a different sort of emotion in the viewer than your typical film. Generally speaking, movies are looking to amuse or thrill or possibly shock, Funny Games inspires a feeling of dread and, oddly, guilt. It's this difference that makes Haneke one of the most artistically successful filmmakers in the world. After having my interest piqued by Funny Games my wife and I decided to seek out a few other Haneke films. We started with the original version which had been made 10 years earlier in Austria. The original version is shot for shot the same movie as the American one and because this movie was always intended to be a critique of American cinema I prefer the U.S. version but both are great and even after the seeing the movie a second time I had almost the same reaction as the first time.

Cover of Cover of Cache (Hidden)

Next up we watched Cache (Hidden) which was, at the time, his most recent Austrian film. Like Funny Games, Cache is, on the surface, a straight forward thriller and really shows off Haneke's skills in cinematagrophy and building tension masterfully. The plot of Cache involves another terrorized family of three who discover one day, via a videotape left on their doorstep, that someone is watching them. Not long after the video tape the family begins receiving drawings that take the husband back to some events during his childhood.

Here again, Haneke is taking what could have been a relatively typical movie and inverting our expectations. The idea of who is the protagonist and antagonist in this film is a tough one as it flip flops a couple times during the movie. The last scene in particular is mysterious and casts doubts on nearly everything that had happened up to that point. Cache is easily Haneke's most critically acclaimed movie and it's easy to see why, everything about it executed to perfection. It's his best "looking" film with a great cast and, in a rarity for Haneke, it actually has a plot and a story to tell. Cache is presently being remade for American audiences and we'll see how that turns out.

We watched Le Temps Du Loup next which really reminded me more than anything of The Road, the novel by Cormac McCarthy. (Just to be clear though Le Temps came out years before The Road, it just so happens I had read The Road first). It's a dark, depressing story (that part could probably go without saying for Haneke) set in a post-apocalyptic future. A mother and father are attempting to navigate this new world with their two children and the story deals with their everyday life just trying to survive. This film is a good example of what a lot of people

Cover of Cover of Le Temps du loup [Region 2]

dislike about Haneke which is that he is, some would say, boring. I can see this point of view, for example in Les Temps there is a point in the film where he focuses his camera on a group of people at a funeral from the waist down and just leaves it there for three or four minutes. Nothing happens at all here, no talking, no music (there is almost never any music in a Haneke film) and no action, just standing. For me, by the time he starts pulling stuff like this in his films I have generally already bought into it completely. These scenes, and he does stuff like this frequently, add to the general sense of doom and dread that his movies inspire, others disagree and they say it's just boring and I guess I really don't have much argument for that but I do think there is a point to it which I believe he made very clear in his first film The Seventh Continent.

The Seventh Continent is Haneke's first movie but the last I watched and here again he is dealing with another relatively well-to-do family who are terrorized. The difference here is that they are not being terrorized by any outside forces, rather they are being gradually beat down over the course of three years by the sheer mundanity of their own lives. There are endless shots of members of the family eating breakfast or shopping or going through the car wash with little or no dialogue. Eventually small cracks start to appear, the mother begins crying for seemingly no reason for example. The family falls deeper and deeper into depression or "emotional glaciation" as I've read Haneke say in interviews about his early films. The movie builds to a climax which is in no way surprising but is still one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen in a movie. Haneke states in his description of The Seventh Continent that it is "a story of mental short-sightedness" which makes sense. His characters don't see any way out of their emotional rut aside from the extreme route they choose.

There are other Haneke films I've yet to see. I will work my way through them slowly, I would never subject anyone to a Haneke marathon. Just in the past couple weeks a new Haneke film was shown at Cannes, The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d'Or. If you've seen any Haneke let me know what you thought and if you haven't give it a shot some afternoon when you feel like something a little different, I can guarantee you won't have fun but you will definitely have an interesting experience.

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Books of 2009 so far...continued

With only one exception so far this year (Rock, Paper, Scissors) every book I've read has been very good. These are the best four I've read so far and I would say all of them are excellent.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Murakami's books always have a dreamlike tone, it seems half the action takes place while the main characters are sleeping. Kafka, of the books I've read, makes the best use of this type of writing. Kafka on the Shore is the story of Kafka Tomura a 16 year old boy who has run away from home in order to escape an incestuous and murderous prophecy foretold by his father. Kafka runs to a small town in Japan where he meets a colorful cast of characters including a hemophiliac transvestite and a ghost of a young girl who may or may not be his mother. The book is intentionally vague with the story and messages but to me it is about destiny and our ability to choose our own way in life. There are parts of the book that, to me, were inexplicable but that did nothing to take away from the fact that the writing is great and even when I don't completely understand a characters actions I am still able to enjoy the ride.

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I've already reviewed this book on this blog so I will just leave what I've already written. Denis Johnson is one of my favorites.

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

I just finished this book very recently and I absolutely loved it. Galchen's book is often compared to Murakami and like in Kafka above it's not always perfectly clear what exactly is happening in this book. There is a good reason for this however as it is written in the first person from the point of view of a man who is possibly insane. I have my own ideas about what is happening here but, regardless of that, what made this book work so much for me were the characters. I don't know what it says about me that I was able to empathize with the main character, Leo Liebenstein, more than just about any character in any book I've ever read. He is going crazy but in a way that seems perfectly logical to me, it was riveting and slightly scary to read about him falling further and further into his obsessions and into his own head. You really should read this book, it's a quick read and is highly entertaining.

2666 by Roberto Bolano

2666 is easily the best book I've read this year. It's quite a time investment, the version I received as a gift came as three separate paperback books. It took me a few months to read as I read one of the books then a couple other books and then the next which was a great way to read this book in my opinion. The book tells the stories of a large cast of characters who all either have or develop ties to the fictional city of Santa Teresa in Mexico. Santa Teresa in the novel is a stand-in for the real city of Juarez where, in the last twenty years, over a thousand women have been murdered in unsolved crimes. The book explores the madness that could lead to such a situation. Bolano writes about a group of critics who are obsessed with a reclusive writer, Achimboldi, who they believe is in Santa Teresa. They travel to the city to find him and all have different reactions to the atmosphere of degradation in the city and the cheapness of life there. Also in the book are stories of a professor in the city, an american reporter who visits to cover a boxing match and the police in the city who work in a dysfunctional system that really, for many reasons, has no interest in ever solving the crimes. Lastly, there is a section about Archimboldi, the mysterious writer mentioned above that (sort of) serves to tie the whole thing together.

I loved every section of this book, it's absolutely full of amazing characters and great writing. The Part About the Crimes in particular is fantastic and unlike anything I've ever read. This section is written in a police blotter type style with cold hard facts about each of the murders laid out in shocking detail interspersed with scenes of the personal lives of the police who are working the crimes and the suspects in the crimes.

2666 is a great novel that, I believe, will stand the test of time as a classic and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Books of 2009 so far...

My wife and I joined two book clubs this year which has led to me getting in quite a bit of reading this year. Because I'm a big fan of making lists and also because it is something to do I thought I'd make a list of the books I've read so far this year with a few thoughts about each one. I'm ranking in order of preference because that's just the way I am, I rank everything.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Len Fisher

This book wasn't very good. I read it for the Big Bang Book Club which is a non-fiction science related book club I attend. It sounded interesting, it's about Game Theory something I knew next to nothing about before reading this book but in the end I found the book to be more annoying than anything else. The writer's attempts to be funny fell flat for me nearly every time and his examples for explaining the theories discussed were weak. Not recommended, if you're interested in Game Theory there has to be something better out there than this.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

This was another book I read for a book club, Books and Bars, but this time I'm glad I did. The book is basically what the title implies, a mashup of the original novel Pride and Prejudice and a zombie movie. The idea is comedy gold and it did have quite a few funny scenes but in the end the zombie stuff was pretty uninteresting and the only thing keeping me reading was the original story which I had never read before. I had been meaning to try and read an Austen novel already and now I've read one (sort of) and, honestly, probably won't be reading any more. It wasn't bad or anything just not my cup of tea. The book club discussion was great though! Books and Bars was able to set up a Skype video chat with the author Grahame-Smith which was a lot of fun. He seemed like a genuinely funny and thoughtful guy and I will defintely check out his next book to see if it's funnier. His next book by the way is apparently another mashup of sorts, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map is the story of a cholera outbreak in London in the 1850's and the people who worked to discover the cause. Lot's of good stuff in here about the history of disease and medicine and also the history of cities and the problems that come with people living close together. This isn't for the squeamish though this book has endless passages of people shitting and tainted water supplies and just other generally disgusting subjects. London in the 1850's does not sound pleasant at all!

Dirty Little Angels by Chris Tusa

This is the first book on the list that I read outside of a bookclub! I was contacted by the author of this book, who apparently must have seen some book reviews I posted somewhere or something. He asked if I would be interested in reading his first novel and writing some reviews for a couple websites. Obviously, this is a sweet deal for me! He sent me a free copy of his book (an electronic copy) which I read nearly right away. This is the review I wrote on Amazon:

Dirty Little Angels is the story of Hailey, a young girl living in New Orleans, and her (very) dysfunctional family. The book details her growing detachment from reality and her struggles to attain something of a normal life. The content here is thoroughly depressing I suppose and some of the other reviewers here commented on how dark the book is based on the story but I guess I had the opposite reaction. Yes, the story is dark but what kept me reading was the style which I found to be exciting and often darkly funny. Tusa writes with a gritty, noir-ish style which reminds me quite a bit of one of my favorite authors, Daniel Woodrell. I really enjoyed all of the phrasing and great lines in the book. Sure, a lot of lines didn't really work for me but there is so much clever writing here that if you don't like one line the next one will probably work for you. I read this book in one sitting without even thinking about the time spent and I would think a lot of readers will do the same thing. Based on story alone I would have rated this only a three but Tusa has style in spades here and I am really looking forward to his future works.

Bonk by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is really funny. This is the second book by her that I have read, Stiff being the other one, and from now on I'm on board with whatever she does next. Her books may not be the most substantial books in the world scientifically but they are packed with information and top-quality writing. I don't know what else you could ask for from popular non-fiction. This book is about sex research and the places she goes and the things she does in order to write this book are truly impressive. I don't know what else to say but you really should just read the book, it's a quick read and it's very entertaining and informative, a perfect mix.

Lush Life by Richard Price

Lush Life is like the novelization of HBO's The Wire and in my opinion you couldn't possibly have a better review of a crime novel. I love The Wire and so I also loved this book. Richard Price's previous novels are said to have been the main inspiration in the creation of the show and eventually he was brought on to write several episodes and you can see the connections in this book. It's the story of a murder in New York and it is told from several points of view, the murderer, friends of the victim, witnesses and the police who are working the case. Highly recommended for fans of The Wire.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I had been meaning to read this for a long time but been putting it off because I had the impression that Dawkins was sort of an asshole. After reading the book though my mind was changed (somewhat) he comes across as pretty funny and welcoming to me. I'm sure a lot of people have no interest in the book or would possibly find it offensive but I don't think that is what he was going for here. He simply makes his argument for his understanding of the world in a calm and joking way. It probably helps that I basically agree with him in most ways but I think even some of those who don't would be interested in the thought processes of one of the most highly-respected biologists in the world.

That's it for now, there's more and I will add those in another post later in the week.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

My Top 10 Movies of 2008

I'm a person who likes to make lists and ranking things. I think that's all the explanation that's necessary here. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am here.

10. Hellboy 2 - The first of two comic book movies on this list. Not as great a film as Del Toro's last film Pan's Labyrinth but every bit as beautiful to look at. A lot of the jokes fall flat but a lot of them work too and the action and cinematography more than make up for sometimes weak dialogue.

9. Religulous - Bill Maher's documentary about religion didn't have much new information for me, in fact he was pretty much preaching to the choir here (which is a totally inappropriate metaphor when discussing this movie but it fits). I agree with virtually everything stated in this movie and Maher actually doesn't come across as a total prick in the film which he almost always does on TV. The movie is a genuinely funny and, in the end, scary look at religion in America today.

8. Burn After Reading - I like almost everything the Coen Brothers have done and this movie is no exception. It's not close to the level of their absolute best films in my opinion (No Country, Lebowski and Raising Arizona) but it is a strong second tier entry. A good comedy with some shocking twists and tons of great actors made for a very enjoyable experience.

7. Wall-E - I'm a fan of Pixar films and this is without a doubt their best film. Maybe it's a little too long but the first half of the movie is near perfect and the satire in the second half is spot on even if it does get a bit tiring by the end. Obviously, it's great looking and I really enjoyed all the physical, non-verbal comedy in the movie.

6. Iron Man - The best superhero movie of the year. Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Iron Man and the supporting cast is great as well. The story is lightweight to be sure but it's clever enough with lots of good scenes. The action was excellent and Iron Man just looked really cool. I'm a little upset that they fired Terrence Howard for the sequel but I still have very high hopes.

5. Doomsday - The biggest surprise of the year for me. A completely whacked-out, insanely violent science-fiction movie in the vein of the Road Warrior. I was absolutely entertained from the beginning to the end of this movie, I don't know how well it will hold-up to repeat viewings but it's fun to watch a movie like this where I had no clue what is going to happen next.

4. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - It wasn't a very good year for comedies. This was, by far, the funniest movie I saw during the year. Alduous Snow (the British guy) might be my favorite character of the year.

3. The Wrestler - Mickey Rourke rules in this movie. I'm sure he will win the Oscar and he deserves it. The movie is just really well made with great acting and a great script.

2. Transsiberian - A thriller set on the train of the title. It's a classic story that could easily have been a Hitchcock film. It feels like something made in the 60's or 70's, a great script, great actors and an amazing location for a movie. This movie didn't seem to get a lot of attention and I really don't know why. It's a story about a couple travelling by train through Russia that get mixed up with drug smugglers and eventually the Russian police. The movie is very intense and unpredictable but still makes sense. Just really great film making on every level.

1. Funny Games - My favorite movie of the year by a long ways. It's the scariest movie I've ever seen. The acting is great and the concept is even better. The idea is to make the audience second-guess why they watch scary and/or violent films and it definitely worked on me. Your mileage may vary. It's a remake of a German movie by the same director Michael Haneke. He chose to shoot the movie exactly the same shot for shot. The movie was always aimed at American culture and I think works best in English (although I did watch the German version as well).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I discovered Denis Johnson first through the movie adaptation of his novella Jesus' Son. It's one of my personal favorite movies and once I found out it was based on a book I was compelled to read it pretty quickly. I'm glad I did as it also became one of my favorite books, and I was encouraged to seek out other books by him. Since then I have read another great novella The Name of the World and now, recently, Tree of Smoke.

Tree of Smoke, unlike the first two books, is a full length novel. Whereas the Jesus' Son and The Name of the World clock in under 200 pages each this one runs to over 700. What it has in common with those other two though is the language Johnson uses, he also a quite prolific poet wih several books published and that really comes through in the writing. The descriptive scenes are fantastic with amazing settings and fabulous characters.

The book revolves around Vietnam and one central character, The Colonel, who is employed by the CIA and has his hand in almost everything happening to the other characters in the book. The Colonel's story isn't straightforward at all however as it is mostly told through all of the other characters and he is a man of myth as much as reality so, especially at the end, the reader never really knows what to believe. Speaking of the end, it DOES get a little goofy there in the last few chapters and there are parts that I can't really say I "got" (and from what I have read from some of the critics, I'm not alone there) but the very last chapter is good and everything leading up to the end is absolutely great.