Sunday, February 28, 2010

Up (2009)

USA, 96 minutes, animated 
Directors/writers: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson 
Production companies: Disney/Pixar 
Music: Michael Giacchino 
Cast: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson

I can't claim any special insights into Pixar and all that it may or may not have done for the art and industry of animation. People everywhere get wacky for this stuff and then (the most encouraging sign, I think) cite all different titles as the place to start and/or best of all. But I've only seen a few of them—Toy Story, Ratatouille, this. And I didn't see this in 3-D. Heck, I didn't even recognize Ed Asner's voice until the credits ran. The ones I've seen all seem to have in common that they are marked by a glowing attractiveness and that they work on a kinetic level, transcending the usual problems of feature-length animated films related to something like suspension of disbelief or a general lack of engagingness. But, honestly, here's what I liked best about Up: It's funny. I mean really funny—laugh-until-I-hurt funny. And the funny comes from one of the most suspect sources of all: pet humor. That's right, on this you're going to have to take the word of a person who frequently visits and laughs very hard at and has even been known to forward some of it along to loved ones who never really ask for such things. Yes, the opening montage is a lovely swirling example of summary storytelling at its best, animated or otherwise. Yes, the story is captivating throughout. Yes, the action sequences are nigh on to spectacular. All that, yes. Even so, it's those dogs that are killing me here.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Trans-Europe Express (1977)

"Showroom Dummies" The train travel theme that runs throughout is pretty much just a variation and continuation of the 22-minute "Autobahn" of a couple of years earlier (Kraftwerk: Music Made for Travel™). But that doesn't mean this doesn't mark a giant step forward not only for Ralf, Florian & crew but for all of electronic pop music as well, a departure from previous form itself equally rooted in the warp and woof of "Autobahn." From aimless boop-boop-bip-boop-beep to melody-driven toonage rich with lush flourishes and lovely hooks and, most surprising of all for this bunch, at least to me, cracking good humor, just about everything here is nothing less than perfectly splendid. A fun way to pass time: contemplate the cover art while "Showroom Dummies" plays loud (inspirational lyric: "We are showroom dummies"). "The Hall of Mirrors" manages the same kind of stunt, but then finds a way to wedge in an inescapable sense of profundity while they're at it, viz., "Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass." Train leaving the station. All aboard!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Adventureland (2009)

Director/writer: Greg Mottola
Photography: Terry Stacey
Original music: Yo La Tengo
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Wendie Malick, Matt Bush, Paige Howard, Dan Bittner

This tender and lovely romantic comedy is an endearing fantasy set among the disaffected of the later Reagan years, who toil for minimum wage at a seedy suburban Pittsburgh amusement park. It's 1987, and James Brennan, played in nicely brisk and nerdy manner by Jesse Eisenberg, meant to spend the summer in Europe before starting a graduate school liberal arts program at Columbia. But his plans are upended by the Reaganomics-derived financial setbacks of his parents, and instead of Europe he has to stay at home and take a job at Adventureland. Love, camaraderie, jealousy, and of course wacky antics ensue among the carnies. Brennan falls for Em Lewin, played by an admirably restrained and proficient Kristen Stewart, who can't possibly be this good in the Twilight movies, which I have not seen. But she is very good here, a waif coming of age, with a brittle shell, lost in her father's various bad choices, her mother MIA due to death. Em likes Brennan for all the right reasons (and also for what we dweebs like to think are all the right reasons, such as his unerring musical taste) but has already cast her lot before she met him with an older, married coworker at the amusement park. The standard disclaimer goes approximately here that this follow-up to director/writer Greg Mottola's first movie, Superbad, is actually way more nuanced and understated. The soundtrack, in the tradition of teen movies since approximately American Graffiti, frequently contributes snips and snatches that are emotionally pitch-perfect, from the likes of the Velvet Underground, Big Star, the Cure, the Replacements, Nick Lowe, the Stones, New York Dolls, Jesus & Mary Chain, the inevitable Wang Chung, so on and so forth. Overall a nice little treat.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Mark Boal, Paul Haggis
Photography: Roger Deakins
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher

Another sobering movie about the Iraq War, this one taking on the casual atrocities of the enterprise, the inevitability of them, the planets of psychic distance that separate the quiet homes soldiers leave for their projects of honor from the fields of battle where anything can happen, and does. Tommy Lee Jones, perfectly suited craggy face pointed forward, plays Hank Deerfield, of Monroe, Tennessee, an ex-military man in a family with a long history of military men. Deerfield intrudes himself into a police investigation of the disappearance of his son shortly after the son's return from a tour of duty in Iraq. The hook is well in by the time this story settles into the soothing rhythms of police procedural, peeling back the layers of the story as forensic and other evidence is uncovered and analyzed, all of it amid the conjectures and misgivings of characters who say most by saying little. Paul Haggis, who has previously given us a lot of flash and bombast with Crash and acres of TV work ("Walker, Texas Ranger," "L.A. Law," "thirtysomething"), has some predictable tricks up his sleeve here—notably the ubiquity of digital media—but for the most part wisely lets the cast, particularly Jones, carry the weight of the drama, which ultimately transcends Iraq and other time-bound elements and finds something to say about the larger issues of war and honor and internal peace. Jones really outdoes himself with a masterly, circumspect performance. I've never been a big fan, but he is what makes this work so well.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood (1991)

For this book, Julie Salamon won a surprising amount of access to Brian De Palma and other principals behind the film version of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, including all the stars and representatives from every phase of production. The expectation apparently was that the movie would be as spectacularly successful as Wolfe's book, and that Salamon's account would document that success from the inside out, no doubt providing one more successful promotion and merchandising cornerstone of the coming success empire. Instead, circumstances dictated that it turn into a fascinating chronicle of how a flop comes into existence. Films notoriously require colossal levels of collaboration, with thousands of moving parts set into motion on competing tight deadlines, which make them completely fraught with peril. Who can say, in the moment, what's right or wrong? That's what I appreciate most about Salamon's book—we know, from inevitable benefit of hindsight, what a disastrous mission these people are on. Yet for the most part their decisions rarely seem catastrophic in themselves (beyond that first one of ever pinning any hope on making a movie out of something written by Tom Wolfe, whose work is so entirely driven by a fever swamp of words on a page; even Wolfe, as Salamon shrewdly if quietly catches on early, knew enough to stay the hell away from it. At the same time, this is just rank second-guessing on my part). Salamon's tale is so compelling that I was driven to finally take a look at the movie just for the small victories she reported. And, yeah, it's bad all right—but that brief shot of the jumbo jet touching down is as good as promised.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

USA, 96 minutes 
Director/writer: George Seaton 
Photography: Lloyd Ahern, Charles G. Clarke 
Cast: Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge 

I saw this last fall shortly after a visit to New York—hence, I suppose, in the mythical New York state of mind, thankyouverymuch Billy Joel—and what impressed and surprised me first was how genuine to the city it felt, with its Thanksgiving Day Parade and casual references to the geography, even the title, and indeed the whole Macy/Gimbels rivalry plot point, all of which makes sense given that it was shot on location. I also recall this one, growing up in the '60s, as among the older, generally second-tier Christmas fare that aired every December (each one a must-see classic according to one person or another, though the ardor, not to mention the opportunities, always passed as quickly as the season). I always meant to see it, as so many of them prove perfectly worthwhile (though not all of them—this Christmas entertainment is a tricky business), but I never did through all these years. It was actually better than I expected, nicely low-key and almost somber as it goes about the usual business of attempting to reclaim the "real" "spirit" of Christmas. Natalie Wood is suitably adorable as a precocious 6-year-old, Edmund Gwenn is a better Santa than Burl Ives himself, and John Payne reminded me weirdly of John Cusack. Always nice to see William Frawley in anything. Merry Christmas all!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Utero (1993)

If Kurt Cobain is John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain's oppressive punk-rock superego is Yoko Ono, then this is his Double Fantasy. When the superior pop instincts get to hold sway, as on approximately half the tracks here, I think this is about as good as it ever got for Nirvana. When, on the other half, his internal punk-rock taskmaster takes over and runs the show—talking now about the guy who hired Steve Albini to produce in the first place—the going gets a little tougher. (The poor guy, with fans and critics grumbling about degrees of purity and his lack thereof, with a harpy shrieking away non-stop in the background of his life, and on top of everything with a wicked drug habit that wouldn't let go. How was he ever supposed to concentrate?) Also as with Double Fantasy (following which I will immediately cease the comparison and never bring it up again, and that's a promise), it's not easy to separate this final missive from the events that followed in its more or less inadvertent wake. My advice is to just get picky about it. If you like that noisy stuff, and despise the tuneful work as craven selling out, stay focused on that. Turn it up even. If, like me, you like the pop tunes, remember that CDs and most music players are programmable and you really don't have to bother that often with "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" and its ilk. Above all, I say, keep in mind that anyone who could write things as transcendent as "Heart-Shaped Box," or "Pennyroyal Tea," or "All Apologies" (which you may believe, and perhaps you are right, that you have heard enough in your lifetime by now), or "Dumb," or "Rape Me"—well, that's someone eminently worth remembering and honoring and loving. God knows he could have used it when he was still breathing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Incesticide (1992)

"Sliver" At the time this came out, I admit I was a little offended by the gratuitous nature of following up the mega-nova explosion of Nevermind with this slapped-together package of b-sides, covers, demos, alternative versions, and the like. But when I got a chance to hear it I had to take that back. It's a pretty decent album. What's more, in "Sliver" it has the one song, clocking in at all of 2:17, that I think best captures Kurt Cobain in his glorious contradictions, overwhelming pain and innocence and goofy little unself-concious kiddishness. Because that's what I think he really was about when it's all said and done, and for sure that's the thing I miss the most. Pardon the indulgence: "Mom and Dad went to a show / Dropped me off at grandpa Joe's / I kicked and screamed, said please, oh no" and "Had to eat my dinner there / Mashed potatoes and stuff like that / Couldn't chew my meat too good" and "After dinner, I had ice cream / I fell asleep, and watched TV / Woke up in my Mother's arms" and finally "Grandma take me home (19x)."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Grace Is Gone (2007)

USA, 85 minutes
Director/writer: James C. Strouse 
Photography: Jean-Louis Bompoint
Music: Clint Eastwood
Cast: John Cusack, Shélan O'Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Alessandro Nivola

Another movie on the fallout from George W. Bush's war on Iraq—seems like I watched a lot of them last year (behind as usual). This one is a kind of road move through the looking glass. John Cusack's Stanley Phillips, an ex-military man now a retail sales manager for a big box outlet in suburban Minnesota, learns that his wife, also in the service but still on active duty, has died in Iraq. Not yet ready to tell his two girls, 12 and 8, he simply packs them up, leaves his job behind, and sets out on a family sojourn to a Florida amusement park favored by the youngest daughter. The whole thing skirts the edges of disturbing behavior with a sure and sensitive touch in terms of Cusack's performance; and director/screenwriter Strouse's tone holds hushed and controlled, never hysterical. You're never really sure if the obviously stand-up Phillips is hanging on through the grief or has lost it entirely, as he makes calls from pay phones along the way and leaves messages for his wife on their home answering machine, whose greeting is still her, and continues to delay before finally finding the way to tell the news to his daughters. It's a heartbreaker by definition and the relief is tremendous and palpable. By the closing scenes I suddenly started to notice how invested I had become in seeing the right things happen. A nicely done production, even if the topic now seems suddenly dated and a little tired out—it isn't really.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nevermind (1991)

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" It was clear from first encounter how good this album was—I will say by way of explanation that I was onto it early enough that I ended up with one of the pressings that inadvertently left off the hidden track "Endless, Nameless" (which btw has been A-OK with me anyway). But I, for one, never foresaw or even imagined the full dimensions of the greatest major label sell-out of all time. Ten million unit sales, nearly 20 years, and a generational earthquake later, it still sounds fine, though the debt to the Pixies is clear enough, in terms of its quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, opaque titling strategies, patent damage to vocal cords in process, occasional surprisingly clumsy resorts to cliché, and the overweening air of general disaffection. On the other hand, that singer/songwriter from Bleach, Kurdt Kobain, suddenly demonstrated not only that he could match Black Francis scream for scream and better him right down the line, but that he could write pop music circles around practically anyone within a 25,000-mile radius. Or, as he put it, "I think we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath." Honestly, for all the debts that could be listed (all of the above plus Sonic Youth, Flipper, Husker Du, Saccharine Trust, Scratch Acid, yes of course Iggy, and we're just getting started), I think very few of them actually match Kurt Cobain's songwriting acumen, though I would also argue that the very best of it is not necessarily here. That's no criticism of anything on this album—it's an expression of how big a talent is behind it. (Wait a minute. "In Bloom." "Come As You Are." "Lithium." What am I saying?) Those still new to the various classic stylings of grunge, here's your starting point.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Life on the Mississippi (1883)

A friend and I once compared notes on 19th-century writers and found that we had completely opposite reactions to Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. For me, as much as I've tried, even the relatively shorter works of Dickens such as A Tale of Two Cities or even A Christmas Carol are deadly turgid, impenetrable, exhausting to try and crawl through. My eyes glaze over paragraph by paragraph. This was a popular writer? Whereas Twain, particularly in his nonfictional memoir/travel books, is basically as refreshing as a nice drink of water, for me one of those ideal kinds of reading matter for places like airplanes, dentist waiting rooms, and motel rooms late when sleep is impossible. Life on the Mississippi is a later volume of this type of Twain's work (The Innocents Abroad came first, then Roughing It, which I think is the best), chronicling all things Mississippi River, including Twain's own career as a riverboat pilot when he was a young man. (In fact, Samuel Clemens's pseudonym comes from riverboat parlance, which is explained here, though his reasons for adopting "Mark Twain" is only obliquely covered.) It comes with a wonderfully discursive structure—much like the river itself, I suppose, or at least that probably had to be his excuse this time around—rambling easily from factual history to various legends and anecdotes and dipping frequently into the intricacies of the piloting trade.

In case it's not at the library. (If you happen to be flush, do yourself a favor and get the Library of America edition, which also includes Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson in a single volume that is physically a pleasure to read.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

District 9 (2009)

USA/New Zealand, 112 minutes
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Photography: Trent Opaloch
Production Design: Philip Ivey
Art Direction: Emilia Roux
Costume Design: Dianna Cilliers
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt

It's probably no coincidence that the aliens in this Peter Jackson-produced feature film debut for director Neill Blomkamp, late of "Halo," look an awful lot like Alan Moore's old comic book antihero, the Swamp Thing. They are certainly at once as ugly and as sympathetic, in this story of space travelers disabled by some equivalent of a flat tire on the shoulder of the galactic roadway, here on good old Earth, and subsequently marginalized and abused by our friends the human beings. If you can get past the fast-paced verite chaos of the pseudo-documentary style, which is not that much to ask with a story as forward-propelled as this one quickly becomes, your heart will not only find its way in, but likely break as well. I appreciated that, and also the spectacle—the giant spaceship hovering over Johannesburg (yes, Johannesburg) maintained an impressive brooding presence over all the proceedings, not least because, as the narrative found its ways to inform us, it had done so for decades, with no explanation (hence the response of fear and hostility on the home planet). As for the allegory, well, it's about as obvious as it gets, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. Works pretty well, actually. If the whole thing gets a little squishy in the second half—and that's literally as well as figuratively—there's still an awful lot of functioning pathos on display here, and sadly believable too. I only hope that the obvious sequel, if it comes, can measure up.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Bleach" (1989)

"Negative Creep" At the time, for sure, this had its partisans, but I recall the big Sub Pop PR machine tending to lumber more significantly behind Mudhoney's eminently worthy self-titled first album. After Soundgarden, Mudhoney was the band that cognoscenti pegged, ironically or otherwise, as most likely to succeed and deliver them to limousines and the finest crystal (and note: ironic it all turned out to be, just not in the ways intended). As for me, I was busy getting all het up about Tad's God's Balls, which seemed to me then (and now) the ideal shotgun wedding of punk and metal, with no small degree of lovely ecclesiastical white-trash detritus cluttering up the proceedings (hey, head honcho Tad Doyle is from Idaho, after all). All of these albums came out at about the same time, along with product from more or less forgotten entities such as the Fluid, in a shotgun blast of Sub Pop discharge. But of course Bleach is the one that ultimately brands you prescient if you championed it ardently enough and have the documentation to back yourself up when the time comes to apportion credit for foresight. It's good, make no mistake—damn fine sludge all around, in fact. No one I know is arguing against the fact that Sub Pop knew exactly what they were doing in matters of selecting the right bands to record and promote.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sabotage (1936)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Helen Simpson, E.V.H. Emmett; based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Photography: Bernard Knowles
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder

Hitchcock's work in the '30s, most of it based in the UK, often strikes me as a bit stodgy, if not outright soporific. But I put most of that off on the film technology of the time, particularly the studio-centered requirements of the early sound era for static cameras. Setting that aside, this one seems remarkably modern, its focus on mysterious agents with German accents who infiltrate the UK for purposes of "sabotage" standing in surprisingly well for today's ultra-conservative Islamist agents who infiltrate the U.S. for purposes of "terrorism." (The dictionary definition that opens the movie could apply as well to either term.) More surprising perhaps are its refreshing elements of heartlessness—you will see a bomb handed off for delivery to a young boy who encounters all kinds of nice people along the way, including a friendly street salesman, a kindly woman with a devilish cute puppeh, not to mention a whole freaking parade, even as the clock ticks toward the fatal hour. That's pure Hitchcock. The whole production is beautiful, murky black and white set in high-relief contrast, shot frequently from unexpected angles. If the proceedings here grow occasionally clunky, they are as often enlivened by Hitchcock's burgeoning sensibility, which we would come to know so well in subsequent decades after he had relocated to the U.S.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)

UK/USA, 122 minutes, documentary
Director/writer: Mark Jonathan Harris
Photography: Don Lenzer
Narrator: Judi Dench

I generally try to give all things World War II a wide berth, in the spirit of Godwin's Law first and foremost, but also because, truth time, Tom Brokaw's tiresome "Greatest Generation" business gets on my nerves (if its advocates think it was so great back then, why are they so opposed to returning the tax structure of the time, the shared sacrifice that contributed so much to making it work? But now I'm already getting sidetracked). I do appreciate everything accomplished then, the sheer scope and scale of it all, but I've heard about it all my life. All you people born after 1960, how excited are you to hear some more about JFK and/or the freedom marches and/or the Beatles? Thought so. But just when you think there's nothing new to be said about something, along comes something like this to prove you (me) wrong and encourage you (me) to STFU. This one is actually further complicated for me by the very element that makes it work—namely, the children, the presence of which, as with adorable aminals, can so often be used for cheap manipulation. But there's little of that here, and in fact this stark, simple, straightforwardly told account of the rescue of thousands of Jewish children does indeed in the end provide new insights into the unique horrors of the time, the enormous cruelties and the tremendous courage that rose to them. In the face of Hitler's increasing oppression of the Jewish citizens of Central Europe and their subsequent forced relocations (to death camps, as we now know), foster families in the UK in the late '30s opened their homes to children for the duration of the intolerable conditions. The stories of getting these kids out of harm's way and into the UK offer nice doses of intrigue and excitement, but the core of this film is rightly its focus on the agony and the courage of the parents forced to this extremity, giving up their children to save them. Some of the stories are shocking, and all of them are wrenching.

Astral Weeks (1968)

To recap: Van Morrison, at 21 a retired principal of rock 'n' roll pioneers Them intent on leaving the music business, lets Them manager/producer Bert Berns talk him into coming to New York to record demos. Berns advances him a one-way airfare. The results of their sessions included "Brown-Eyed Girl" and tracks that appeared variously on Blowin' Your Mind, T.B. Sheets, and elsewhere. Then Bert Berns dies suddenly; his widow and her lawyers effectively prevent Morrison from recording or performing in the New York area (and no airfare home, remember). Morrison travels on to Boston, where he works out the song cycle that would become this album. Many Van Morrison fans put this on their short list of his best, and I think it's pretty good too. But his recent traumas vibrate from this music like a dentist riding a jackhammer, which in the end amounts far more to anxiety than serenity. I mean, I never listen to this music to relax. It's not a bit relaxing.

Friday, February 05, 2010

T.B. Sheets (1967)

This is not entirely a product of its times, but rather a 1974 release that amounts to a subset of the infamous Blowin' Your Mind (the photo of Van Morrison used for that album cover makes a cameo on this cover). But it's the one I discovered as an uncanny kind of revelation in the early '80s. The title song alone, clocking in at nearly 10 minutes and pretty much about exactly what the title indicates, will be "blowin' your mind" no matter how you interpret that term. Then there's "Brown Eyed Girl," which does the same thing in an entirely different way, this one brilliant salvation delivered from the radio. This and everything Van Morrison recorded on his strikingly odd trip to New York City in 1967, bizarrely abandoned to the fates when he was just 21 and already a seasoned veteran of rock 'n' roll, manages to touch the sacred in any number of profound, deeply unsettling, and beautiful ways. A lot of people do well to touch the sacred once in one way in the course of entire careers.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Stevie (2002)

USA, 140 minutes, documentary
Director: Steve James

I like documentaries for many different reasons—I think they can do all kinds of things that fictional films simply can't—and this to me is of a very particular variety, not often encountered: the variety that has a terrible truth to tell, a truth so terrible that you sense it almost immediately. And then almost immediately wish you didn't have to endure it, coming down on you like heavy weather, like a flood slowly swallowing your house. On something of a lark, filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) detours from his life—now established, with a wife, a kid, a career, though not exactly straight-up American middle-class—to look up a young man, the titular Stevie, whom he had mentored 10 years earlier as part of a Big Brother program in southern Illinois. What he finds is not good. In fact, it's awful, just about every bit of it, raw and blisteringly painful. This is long for a documentary, over two hours, but once in I found myself wishing there were more—maybe just wishing things could be different. Yet in spite of all of Stevie's problems, all his off-putting characteristics, he remains a likeable enough and even somewhat sympathetic character. And more: as James takes pains to show, he is in fact actually liked, loved even. Therein lies the rub. Oh, don't watch this. It will only wound you.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Seymour: An Introduction (1959)

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was among the first novels that opened the world of literature to me. This was unexpected not least because I encountered it nearly 20 years after it was first published, long past its troubled-youth use-by date (S.E. Hinton or maybe Easy Rider were more the fashionable choices of my time). The strong sales across multiple generations is, in fact, one of the elements that make it so unique. For those of us so affected, the three additional slight volumes of Salinger's work available all these years were never enough. Now, with news of his death, speculation is rife that finally there may be more to come, though the rumored 15+ manuscripts could as well be incinerated, or may not exist at all. So we'll have to wait a little longer to see about that. In the meanwhile, I paid a visit to my favorite piece of his, which was actually the last of his I encountered and usually the most frequently derided, the second half of the one with the unwieldy title, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. It's another Glass family entry, about which, honestly, I am mostly indifferent (although if that's what all 15 of those manuscripts contain, and they get out, I'm still going to check into them). The knock is that it's a self-indulgent rant. I don't think so. It's certainly a blast of language, long sentences, long paragraphs, footnotes, asides, digressions, intellectual name-dropping, stuttering and jabbering through to its points, complete with an offering of "this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((())))." That's what first appealed to me about it, back when I adored all things gonzo in writing (Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, Kerouac's The Subterraneans, so on and so forth, bleeding across the mediums with Bob Dylan). Now it reads to me like a shrewd portrait of a writer whose only weapon against the world and all its agonies is words and keyboards and cigarettes deep into the night, madly flailing to make the pain stop, grasping blindly for the sense of it all. In the end, it doesn't end, it only stops—"Quickly. Quickly and slowly"—which, sadly, is how Salinger's life, and perhaps even life itself, feels to me in so many ways at this particular moment.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Star Trek (2009)

Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Photography: Daniel Mindel
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Winona Ryder

J.J. Abrams, as I was mentioning to my brother Joel in a dream the other night, has done something that I and any other reasonable person would have snorted at as impossible: taken the old characters and premise of "Star Trek" TOS ("the original series") and twisted them back into vitality. "Reboot" seems to be what they call such Hollywood projects nowadays. I and any other reasonable person had long since entirely given up on TOS, if not the frakkin' franchise itself, to which I (if not any other reasonable person) clung tenaciously, all the way through "Voyager." (They did lose me with "Enterprise," I think, although I still plan to give it a more systematic opportunity one of these days.) At any rate, I and any other reasonable person should probably have realized that Abrams was the right person for this job, given his competent-plus work on the first few seasons of "Alias" and more importantly all of his work on "Lost." So, in short, here it is all back again as fresh and invigorated as ever: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekhov, Sulu, Uhuru, and the big Enterprise boat itself. Amazing, on those terms alone. The strategy is bold as the original mission itself: an incidental accident of time travel in the first 10 minutes effectively wipes away all of the baggage of TOS except for Leonard Nimoy (a fanboy will be happy to explain the details, whether or not he approves of the move), which leaves the rest of the movie free to rock and roll the chemistry of the new cast. And that is exactly what is done here. The action, refreshingly light on CGI gimcrackery, is fast-paced and energetic and engaging every minute of the way. I don't know what if anything Abrams can do next with the franchise, but then again, I've been saying that for years now about "Lost" and he hasn't disappointed me yet (as close as he has come). For this Star Trek, no colon after the title is required. It's the real deal. I even have to think Gene Roddenberry himself is grinning ear to ear somewhere at this turn of events.