Friday, May 31, 2013

Guest Post: Tryst Finds Something of Merit in Spanglish

It's been awhile since I've featured anyone else's thoughts but mine around these pages, but Tryst has returned to offer up some alternate takes and real world applications from films I'm otherwise just here to hold up or beat down.  Her past entries can be found here, and you should expect more from her in the weeks to come.

Cooking a proper meal everyday can be hard. Going out every day to eat is also hard (and often not good for the wallet or digestion). As much as I enjoy cooking, there are days it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. But, since I have a family to feed, food must be prepared. Enter the Spanglish sandwich.

Everyone I know who has seen Spanglish (2004) comes away with two things:
One: that wasn’t as bad as I expected
Two: I want that sandwich
Adam Sandler’s character very lovingly creates a sandwich in the film that I literally thought about for years after seeing the montage Then one day I looked it up on YouTube and decided to create my own version.


Bagel or bread
turkey bacon
plain cream cheese
sliced pepperjack cheese
butter or oil
salt and pepper

Sear the bacon in a skillet with very little oil or butter. Pat dry with a paper towel and set aside. In the same skillet add a little more butter and cook the egg sunny side up with the heat on low. When cooked, sprinkle the egg with some salt and pepper. While the egg cooks toast the bagel or bread (I have also tried this with grilled eggplant for a tasty twist). Smear some cream cheese on one side of the bagel (or mayonnaise also works in a pinch) and place the pepperjack cheese on the other. Then add a generous pile of spinach. Place the egg on the bed of spinach and top it off with the turkey bacon and a sprinkling of dill. Top it off with the other half of the bagel. Then cut it in off to see the fun spurt of yolk and gobble it up.

Our guest columnist and special fashion consultant Tryst is your one-woman guide to filmtastic styling, easy to spot on the sartorial street because of her excellent taste in tutus and expertise balancing in ridiculous footwear. With a degree in English and Biology, she is officially certified to make up both words and diseases, but prefers to make fashion judgments. While she does enjoy curling up on the couch with a movie and her English husband, she will be the first to tell you that pajamas belong on the inside…not outside…of your abode.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Love: Only God Forgives

There's a part of me that hopes Only God Forgives does not slip into American wide release. The audience of leather-jacketed Parisians packed into my theater seemed to give the film a chilly response, piling out before the credits had begun to roll, scoffing at its stilted, sparse dialogue, disappointed by its concluding scenes.  Everyone had come, of course, hoping for another Drive and looking to ogle Ryan Gosling. I suspect they'll do the same in America, though perhaps it's a film best left in the art house; there for those who knowingly seek out its horrors, stowed from those who will virulently loathe it. Though there's much to actively (and aesthetically) appreciate about Only God Forgives, there's perhaps significantly more to pull even the most indiscriminate of viewers towards a spasm, knee-jerk declaration of the film's own ineptitude and decrepitude.  Five days after watching it, I have decided to push against some of my own mixed emotions on the film and list it as a troubled, minorly flawed, very visceral success. Where director Nicolas Winding Refn hit it big with Drive's blissful, brutal collision of genre 'car' pictures and burned-out indies, here his influences meet in a way that doesn't quite mesh, but which is somehow fascinating nonetheless.
As I watched Only God Forgives, any number of other films and disparate sources came to mind, most from the far end of the average person's measure of 'disturbing' cinema. There are countless instances of a saturated Lynchian surrealism, call-backs to dizzying sequences in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, to brutal Korean crime dramas (I Saw the Devil, anyone?), the revenge sequences of Chan-Wook Park, Stanley Kubrick (this film shares its cinematographer with The Shining), Freudian psychoanalysis, martial arts films, and - most interestingly, in my opinion- Shakespearean and Grecian drama. If you can imagine Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus modernized, fractured, and centered, perhaps, on Tamora and her sons, it might look quite a bit like this. Refn himself dedicates the film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, and while the connection to the Chilean master's work may not be immediately apparent, the way each shot simmers in its own atmosphere and picks, relentlessly, at its own thematic overtones makes its dream life more active than its tangible story. The film is entombed in its own drive towards symbolism, and struggles to make excessively brutal acts of violence fit at its jagged edges.  Only God Forgives is an Oedipal fever dream that seems to strive towards using the visceral to reach towards the cerebral, to conflate space and time with dreamlike bouts of gore, but which may succeed only for those willing to put the effort in to think and talk about it.

The story here, as we come to understand it, is outlined more clearly in the press release synopsis than it is in the film itself.  Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American criminal hiding in plain site in seedy Bangkok. He and his despicable brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a kickboxing ring as a front for their malicious mother Crystal's (Kristin Scott Thomas) drug-smuggling empire. When Billy turns up dead after raping and murdering a teenage girl, Crystal descends on the city in all her garish mob-wife finery to collect his corpse and carry out the revenge she believes Julian incapable of enacting.  The hitch there, of course, is that their target is also their hunter: Detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the rather merciless 'god' of the title. He has the power to forgive, yes, but his brand of justice is a little bit more Old Testament.  Much of Only God Forgives blurs in a slightly disconnected fugue state powered by the raw intensity of its pigments and its jarring, incomprehensible violence. The dialogue -when we get it- is at times laughably over-the-top, pushing its explicitness at best towards camp and at worst towards scenery chewing. Burke delivers it the worst, Scott Thomas the best as she plays deliciously against type.  Crystal's dialogue tends towards the darkly, acerbically comic (though her chilly "I'm sure he had his reasons" hits with a loud note of audience discord) that allows the viewer to understand the deliberate, muscular purpose of the dialogue's sparse stylization. The same cannot be said of several of the other English lines, but thankfully, there's not much chatter here.  Instead (as with Drive), we receive the story primarily through immaculately rendered images and \a rumbling score (from Cliff Martinez) that punches through to the pit of your stomach to fill you with dread.  
I mentioned earlier that I read the film as partially rooted in a largely classical revenge drama, a sort of hybrid of the tales of Oedipus and Titus Andronicus (with some Hamlet thrown in for good measure), and this is perhaps the most satisfying (and accessible) way I've found of grappling with a story that's otherwise a bit frustrating. Yes, you can break this down to pay attention only to crucial formal elements, and yes: there are any number of textbooks and term papers yet to be written about what Refn is able to communicate via near silent images alone. What we find in Only God Forgives is something ferociously primal painted in a rich color palette that weighs heavy on our intake system. Refn pushes at our limits here, at times drifting towards the realm of Von Trier to draw out torturous scenes just two steps too far towards the gratuitous. In his hands, on the screen, all the violence and sickening incestuous themes seem new. There's a whiff of that 'fall of Rome' thing to the film; the sense that we're too deep into the minds of the sociopaths, that this violence is more violent than what we've seen before, that this sexuality is more depraved than the stories that have come before it. While the reason for that is perhaps the simple absence of a redemptive character, the irony is that the film's acts and themes are positively ancient.  In a bizarre twist, Only God Forgives is perhaps a more valid example of truly "old school" storytelling than anything else. Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Marlowe; they knew how to deliver a revenge saga.  What Refn does here is something similar, but with the verbage transmogrified and manifest. It's an old, old story stripped of its stage limitations and updated in a way that's exciting.  This is how you use film as a medium.  This is what you do when you take old stories and do them up in fancy, glowing trappings.  This is what it looks like when you can rely on gore and revenge without wit or pandering to the audience. We can see it now. And for many, it will not be pleasant.  
Only God Forgives won't be released until mid-July here in the states, which means it's really much too early to subject people to a full Freudian critical analysis of the film's twisted psychology, but much can and will be made of the story's distinctly Oedipal nature. Julian has killed his father, we learn, and seems emotionally married to the idea of his mother. He's silently devoted to her in a way that Refn manifests in a disturbing, slow reaching visual pairing.  At one point, after a thorough public chastising, he's asked why he allows Crystal to treat him so miserably.  His answer, plainly, is "because she's my mother."  That's the long and short of it, for Julian, and he is possessed by her malignant influence.

Gosling seems to do very little with his character, but it's evident that what Refn needs him to do is to establish a surface placid enough for images and ideas to be projected upon.  What we watch, ultimately, is an emptying of Gosling as pop culture 'personality' to the point that he's unrecognizable: a blank slate for pummeling, bleeding, and suppressing the familial id.  In a bizarre way, he is transformed and made invisible. Crystal attempts to puppet his character, assigning him the role of son, husband, guardian, servant, and father even as she demeans him repeatedly by holding the wretched Billy on a pedestal. Though Julian has, supposedly, killed his biological father (likely at the behest of his mother), it's unclear whether he has truly assumed that paternal role.  He is haunted in his dreams by images of a wrathful Detective Chang wielding his samurai sword, and those visions of his punishment interfere, repeatedly, with the erotically suggestive depictions of his desire to return to the womb. Within rooms of deep, dizzying red he is forever attempting to suppress his urges to reach back into the female form, forever combating them by imagining the severing of his own limbs by a furious 'father'.  The colors, the atmosphere, and the themes all carry a tremendous weight, and the film feels heavy, burdensome, and somehow personally troubling. We are being punished too, but for what exactly? For wishing it into existence?

Audience relationship aside, the questions the film wrestles with are many. What is this punishment?  How can we read this subconscious turn?  What happens when Oedipus does not succumb to fate? When the pins are used for something else?  When Titus Andronicus avenges someone else's daughter? When one of  Tamora the Goth's sons may be repentant against the spirit of revenge? It's some heavy-handed shit, yes, and certainly not for general audiences.  The plot is thin, the violence oppressively senseless, the acting often rigid, but there's something about it that makes you want to talk about it...and to keep talking.

If your heart and stomach are faint, you may need to watch Only God Forgives through your fingers. When you do so, as you probably will, try to appreciate the film's luxurious use of color. Shot on location in Bangkok, there's a hypnotic array of rich greens, reds, blues, and pinks to take in in a setting so foreign it becomes a sort of dreamscape.  The visuals alone are worth a fair shake, though the film is certainly one that I can't recommend to most, and which I have to apologize profusely for dragging my family to in the midst of our travels. All the slicing and gouging felt like the distant past once the film ended, but my poor mother was justifiably angry, as I'm sure many others will be.  All I can offer as solace is a reminder that if this had been Oedipus or Titus Andronicus, things could always be worse.  At least here, you see, nobody gets ground up, baked into a pie, and fed to their parents...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Love: The Great Gatsby

Most of us meet Jay Gatsby in high school. Sophomore year, junior year, the exact date doesn't matter.  After ages knowing of the book's existence, hearing it muttered about and wondering just what's so great about Gatsby in the first place, we read F. Scott Fitzgerald's contribution to the canon of figments known collectively as 'Great American Novels' and we fall under the spell of its tragic opulence.  Guided by a teacher skilled in repetition, we unpack metaphors and translate images: the green light, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, the Valley of Ashes. We become teenagers versed in disillusionment, of failures wrought by the pursuit of some mythic American Dream.  We capitalize this idea, of course, when we write our essays, because it is a concept worthy of being a proper noun. The book ends, we love it because we understand it the most, because we can relate to it the most, because we are teenagers reading the story of a boy who pulls himself up from his bootstraps and builds a Shangri-la of extravagance simply to impress a girl he loves and to fit in with her people.  We are teenagers and this, my friends, is romantic.  We love the idea of change, of transformation, of obsessive love, escapism, alcoholism, coastal mansions, swimming pools present but unused, narrators who observe, lonely, and notice everything as they sit on the fringe.

This is what The Great Gatsby offers us, and this is what we tend to forget.  As we distance ourselves from those lessons and we don't revisit West Egg, Fitzgerald's novel becomes warped and worn by memory. As with all things, it becomes reduced to fragments.  Perhaps we remember that Gatsby is vaguely criminal, that the eyes are all-seeing, or simply whether or not we liked the book much to begin with.  Of all the books on the required reading list, The Great Gatsby seems to be the one most beloved.  Classrooms of kids seem attached to this book, and upon re-reading it I've come to the conclusion that the exact reason many loved it then is the exact reason past adaptations have failed and why Baz Luhrmann's film is currently undergoing a brutal evisceration at the hands of so very many: it's a deceptively simple, empty, straight-forward book.
Pick up The Great Gatsby again. You'll tear through it in only a couple hours, I assure you. The beauty of Fitzgerald's Lost Generation prose is pulled entirely from Nick Carraway's over-attentive narration. It's through Carraway that we receive the wry observations and curious turns of phrase that transform the novel into some sort of plain spoken poetry. These are, however, largely gifted to us in asides on the larger scheme of things and not used to add specificity to the characters, or even to himself. Carraway is a shadow figure. We learn briefly about him and then learn through him as he seems to take on a too-heavy fascination with the man obsessively in love with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan. 

Daisy is drawn as an airy figure, a flighty girl with a charming demeanor who says silly things and makes each person in her presence feel special though Nick can tell, of course, she is deeply troubled.  Gatsby is drawn in whole as a composite of compulsions and lies, a friendly ghost. It is Gatsby's unfinished business which haunts the novel, and we learn of him only what he tells us and what Nick Carraway can deduce from his isolation.  The problem with all of this, of course, is that the novel splits the role of protagonist between Nick and Gatsby, but Nick's role is that of narrator, first and foremost.  A good film, according to conventional wisdom, cannot rely on a voiceover as extensive as The Great Gatsby's, and so - in a way- the simple beauty of the novel is unfilmable.  There's not a damn substantial thing about it, really, just an empty, stupid love story about empty, silly ghosts.  

Still, the book is great, and while the critical majority may be quick to dismiss it as some sort of garish sacrilege, I'd argue that Baz Luhrmann's adaptation possesses its own greatness as well.  Though in many ways this version of The Great Gatsby seems to have been made as a non-musical companion piece to Moulin Rouge, there's something comparatively restrained about its excesses that places a strange damper on the film's relative volume.  

Though many have brutally pummeled Luhrmann's handling of the material, his choices seem to uncover the strange two-act musical theatricality of Gatsby's content: we open on a moment of transition, fall victim to many neat introductions and scene closures (hear about the job, meet the girl, trip to Manhattan, party with the mistress...), hang on for an invisible intermission into the rollicking affair, and amp up the emotions and fireworks until the finale. Luhrmann understands this structure, he understands old Hollywood romance, he understands tragedy.  What he does with Fitzgerald is transition the content so that it becomes a non-musical musical.  We can feel songs coming on, but never get the satisfaction of that release. Instead, everything is suppressed beneath the surface. There's no real joy, no pain, no palpable rage. Unlike Moulin Rouge, this film doesn't swoon, soar, or dip towards the overtly campy.  Though it can be charming, everything is painted up with a false veneer. These characters can't sing. They're incapable of it. So, instead, they speak their ambitions in awkward, throwaway lines (it should be noted, the dialogue is remarkably faithful to the novel) and keep up appearances.
For many, this seems to be what's so thoroughly "grating" about The Great Gatsby: it never hits a soulful note, and makes Luhrmann seem like he has a tin ear. The music, unlike Moulin Rouge! seems to be placed at jagged, odd intervals.  The plasticine shine of the characters and costumes, of Gatsby's amusement park of an estate, reeks of artifice and insincerity.  Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway seems to be more of a sounding board than a character, Carey Mulligan's Daisy is a shiny walking doll, and Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby says 'old sport' enough times to make for a blackout drinking game. For a Great American novel, there's something terribly foreign and fake about it, all the more so if you see it in the immersive, animated 3D.  Not only is Gatsby supposedly a trite film -- all style over substance -- it's also being dragged about as a sort of hulking monstrosity of annoying, ADHD spectacle.  It piles on tinsel-heavy party scenes in montage jump cuts of over-the-top glitter vulgarity; bouncing between flappers, streamers, drinkers, raving hanger-ons, and demonic jazz men to a 21st century hip-hop beat that offends, for some reason, the apparently too-refined sensibilities of so many people that when I say I didn't think it was excessive enough I've really got to question my sanity...

...but, I mean, here's the long and short of it: The Great Gatsby is a movie about a man who is all style over substance, who tries to throw the most decadent, lavish, absurd parties he can, and who - even in his quietest moments - is incapable of letting go of the dream, of dropping the illusion, and of just being real.  The film gets this right. It offers us a dizzying cocktail of desire and upper crust lust. Nothing is truly subtle about Gatsby or about the metaphors of Fitzgerald's story, so who better to tell it than the man who gave you Nicole Kidman belting out love songs on a bedazzled elephant?  The truly odd thing, as mentioned, is that Luhrmann seems to be consciously making the parties tiresome. We're meant to be awed by them, but not to want to stay at them, to understand that we do not belong.

If Luhrmann's adaptation of the novel's ideas seems off, it's because the story has always been off. Everyone is empty, everyone is sad, and when each of your characters suffers from a sort of palpable anhedonia, it seems only right that there should be - always- something between the sentiment expressed and the sentiment felt.  Luhrmann is clearly attempting to draw out the madness of the scene and to visually communicate many of the working theories behind the characters. He finds a way to alter the framework, and that way is to put Nick Carraway in a sort of sanatorium, floundering and hopeless after the tarnishing of that Jazz Age silver spoon. Let's be real: this isn't exactly implausible.
After all of that, I've said much about the big picture and little about the basics. So, a quick final rundown on the cast and mise en scene: the costumes are beautiful, the sets are divine, scene after scene seems perfect for a Tumblr full of gifs.  The soundtrack is solid, but off-putting, the 3D is used in a subtle, lovely way to bring you into the moment instead of projecting the moment out to you.  Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher are a touch cartoonish, Mulligan and Maguire are largely forgettable, as it stands.  That said, the latter duo completes the picture and they do what they can. Since their characters can never truly steal the show, they must recede into the image behind DiCaprio's Gatsby.  We'll pause to discuss DiCaprio, for a moment. Though at times melodramatic and arguably shallow, there's just something about DiCaprio in this role that makes us understand Gatsby's appeal.  During the loudest moments, we're able to read his discomfort and to somehow understand, as he rattles off his lists of  acquired accolades and pretentions, that we are seeing a man's creation and not a man.  In his affecting of artifice, DiCaprio is somehow real; as pathetic as he is magnetic or glamorous.  Scenes spent with DiCaprio draw us back to what it is we loved about this book as adolescents, and are why I sense this film will not be hated by the masses as time wears on: through all the excess, all the artifice, this is still just a story about an awkward guy who likes a girl too much, and the ways the world seems to shatter when we can't make good on our biggest dreams.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Love: Iron Man 3

Normally, when you get to the third official entry in a franchise after a lackluster sequel, you're probably not expecting too much. When the sequels keep coming, we have a strange way of falling into a routine. Our various fandoms carry us through with a keen sense of obligation, and even when we'd rather look away (I'm looking at you Jack Sparrow) we often find ourselves pressing play or buying that ticket with a sigh of resignation.  Marvel, though, seems to have found a way to reverse the normal drag by blending the franchises so thoroughly that they effectively mimic the comic book universe they're drawn from. With the release of Iron Man 3 we no longer know whether we're watching the completion of the Tony Stark trilogy or the sixth or seventh (depending on whether you count The Incredible Hulk) entry in The Avengers saga.  The world has become less linear and more rhizomatic: we're looking at a tangled root system where the events, villains, supporting characters, and possibility for depth become infinitely more complicated than the old formula of throwing down another formulaic hero blockbuster.  Sure, the old hero vs. villain trope remains, but Iron Man 3 finds a way of working beyond the explosions and keeping the story about its characters.  This is Tony Stark 3, and as soon as the credits stop rolling you sincerely hope he returns sooner rather than later.
After the tepid Iron Man 2, we are reintroduced to Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) as an idling billionaire working to suppress his crippling anxiety issues (PTSD?) in the wake of the events depicted in The Avengers.  The film reminds us, once again, that unlike his hero peers, Tony Stark is a comparatively normal human being. He identifies himself as "a mechanic" and his powers, of course, are nothing more than the results of his technological tinkering.  While those results may be nothing short of fantastical, they're nothing compared to the aliens and gods he found himself facing.  Stark has come face to face with the unknown, with the sort of nightmarish shit that would tax even the most fear-mongering conspiracy theorist's outlook on life.  Since placing his girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) in charge of corporate affairs, however, Stark doesn't have to deal with business, doesn't adhere to any sort of schedule, and spends his time obsessively tinkering away at prototype after prototype of his armored suit.  He's left to deal with himself, and can only deal with machines. These are, we quickly understand, what makes Tony Stark feel safe.  The defined split, too, works rather poetically to separate the human being from the costume.  Where Iron Man 2 seemed to revel in the "I am Iron Man" claim and devote as much time as possible to keeping Stark in the helmet, the third film corrects that error and relies more on the skills of Robert Downey Jr. than the special effects team.
Emotions force Stark to jump into action in this film.  While the nation is supposed to be protected by his BFF and proxy Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in the newly christened "Iron Patriot" suit (aka: War Machine (btw: what I sometimes secretly call my car)), a terrorist threat surfaces in the form of a particularly dramatic character known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).  Our mysterious villain is a curious aggregate of 'the other', and when one of his bombings impacts Stark's bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), everyone's second favorite billionaire gets ahead of himself and issues a direct personal threat that winds up tearing apart his world.  And so, we see Stark torn away from his mansion, from Pepper, from Jarvis, and from most of his operational technology and left to his own devices.  The film is written and directed by Shane Black, who previously worked with RDJ on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and who seems to innately understand the actor's flair for witty banter and non-sequitor put downs in a way that no former handler of the character has quite mastered.  If you can excuse some convoluted mad-scientist stuff featuring Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall, this is a pretty straightforward movie about one guy dealing with some issues. Black trusts Robert Downey Jr. to convincingly become Tony Stark.  When Stark has an anxiety attack, the film never jumps to Avengers flashbacks for the uninformed, when Stark talks about being in the shit - his face tells you what he's seen, not some cut away.  When Stark is left with a non-operational suit and "nothing"?  He's still a snarky asshole, but the most endearing kind. 
It's the right move, and exactly what we needed to see to breathe new life into yet another year with a giant Marvel release.  After going bigger, better, and more distracting in so many other places, this Avengers film steps back and reminds us how we got into this whole thing back in 2008.  Sure, the action sequences are still there, but compared to watching Iron Man fight a god in the woods, there's something significantly more old school about the whole approach. The battles are fought on a human scale, more often than not, though the pyrotechnics are kept in tact.  As long as you can get a Stark one-liner in there somewhere?  You've got a satisfying kick-off to the summer season.  Tony Stark will return...

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