Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Criterion Top Ten

I don't harbor many illusions of one day being famous but if I did become famous, or well-known in some field or another, I think the best perk would be the possibility of being asked to do a Top Ten list for the Criterion Collection website.

I know it's a relatively small dream but small dreams have a better chance of coming true. And just in case, here's what I would pick. A fairly twee list, now that I look at it, pretty short on the big hitter foreign films. But I gotta be true to myself.

No pithy commentary. I'll save that for the real thing.

Mona Lisa


The Rules of the Game


The Lady Vanishes

I Know Where I'm Going!

The Third Man



Monday, May 28, 2012

Contrary Pleasure (1954)

Around this period in the middle-1950s JDM took a few shots at straight fiction instead of thrillers. This one came right after Cancel All Our Vows and traces a few weeks in the life of four grown-children and their spouses in an industrial town in upstate New York. They are all heirs to a failing textile factory, most with marital difficulties.

It's a beautifully written book in which most chapters could stand alone as short stories. There is no real central narrative drive and it hurts the book a little bit, with an abundance of navel-gazing from the multiple characters. Some of it, of course, is a little dated, especially a sequence dealing with a frigid wife. But there's an interesting character, the type of which I've never seen in a JDM book: a teenage boy who might have extreme Asperger's syndrome.

Poetry Monday

This was the first poem I had to memorize, way back when in some elementary classroom. I'm not sure I could recite it now, except for maybe the first stanza.

Anyway, seemed appropriate for Memorial Day.

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Avengers

I don't have much to say about this movie. It's a good movie, the characters developed, the dialogue pretty snappy, and the comic book action has a real nice clarity to it, not to mention some billion dollar fx work. It felt a little long to me but it's an epic, right, since it's about multiple superheroes?

Still, I just have to admit that superheroes, in general, and this includes pretty much any action hero that suits up for the job, are just not my bag. They weren't when I was a kid and they're not now. I love all sorts of hokey escapist entertainment--spy thrillers, Indiana Jones, Tintin, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, etcetera--but super powers and latex suits bore me for the most part.

As I said, though, this is definitely a good movie. The Hulk was probably my favorite character and I thought Tom Hiddleston, my new guy crush, was good as Loki.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Poetry Monday

Arrival at Santos

by Elizabeth Bishop

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and – who knows? – self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.
So that’s the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,

but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,

descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s

Skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Here home, when she is at home, is in Glen Fall

s, New York. There. We are settled.
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
And leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of the soap, or postage stamps –
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

do when we mail letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Last Werewolf

The closest literary version to what is undeniably my favorite werewolf film (and close to my favorite horror movie), An American Werewolf in London. What makes them similar is that they manage to combine horror, humor, sex and tragic romance in equal parts and make it all work.

Glen Duncan's novel is sort of an unintentional response to the recent spate of cuddly supernaturals in the world of YA fiction. Jake, who is in fact the last werewolf in the world, is a two hundred year old monster with a philosophical bent (he's had a lot of time for reading) who likes prostitutes and good Scotch, and has come to a point in his life when he is sick of it all and just wants to die.

Duncan writes a lot like Martin Amis with an abundance of Martian-poetry metaphors. There's also a little bit of Bret Easton Ellis mixed in, especially the lurid descriptions of sex and disemboweling, often happening at the same time. While there's definitely romance in this book I wouldn't call it romantic, at least not in an Edward/Bella way.

I love the American cover art (above) but am equally impressed by this version below. Is it fan made? I actually don't know.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mysteries of Life

I've recently watched Terence Malick's The Tree of Life and also David Lean's This Happy Breed (1944). I was going to write separate posts for each but realized just how thematically close they are to one another. Or maybe I'm just being lazy.

The Tree of Life is one of those films that people like to say you either love or hate. That was not my experience. I was kind of down the middle, although the parts I liked, the flashing memories of childhood, the creation of the universe, were parts that I truly loved. I thought this film caught what it felt like to be a little kid maybe better than anything I'd ever seen. And the cinematography and the sound design were a marvel, especially on Blu Ray.

The parts I didn't like: Most of the scenes with Sean Penn, and certainly the scenes on the beach, and pretty much all of the voice-over, and there was a lot of voice-over. Why do we need breathy intonations of "mother" and "father" when the images of the film are so incredibly powerful. Take out the voice-over and this would probably have been one of my favorite films of the year.

This Happy Breed, on the other hand, is close to perfection. Like The Tree of Life it is an episodic portrait of a family, a working-class family living in a suburb of London from 1919 to 1939. Between the two wars, essentially. Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean I think it does a much better job of presenting the mundane of everyday life with the beauty of mystery of life itself. Coward's script focuses more on the mundane, of course, but there are touches that suggest a larger grasp, in particular the opening and closing shots, where the camera pans in or pans out of the multiple semi-detached houses in which the characters live.

There is a haunted quality about each film, the way they present life as these concrete all-too-real moments that are really just blips in the bigger picture. Terence Malick shows a family in the context of the history of the Universe while Noel Coward has the family's father talk about the next family that will inhabit the house they are leaving at the end of the film.

These films are not in competition, of course, but I'll take This Happy Breed despite the awe with which I watched some of Tree of Life. If for nothing else, there is one incredibly touching moment in This Happy Breed. The grown son of the family has died in an auto accident and the parents have just been told. They wander back in from the garden and sit in their dining room, and the camera pulls back and away as though giving them a private space in which to grieve. Maybe it says more about an English middle-class sensibility between the wars but it was a truly beautiful moment in a pitch-perfect film.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Poetry Monday

Hope is the thing with feathers

by Emily Dickinson (born this day in 1830)

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I've heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tiny Furniture

I guess I'm a Lena Dunham fan now. I really like her show on HBO, Girls, which, after just four episodes, seems to get better and better each week, and I really liked this movie, her debut feature, made for a paltry sum using her mother's apartment and her own family in the cast.

Putting aside stuff like Is she the voice of her generation and Who cares about an entitled post-grad who feels bad about herself and Why are there no black people in her shows and movies, the bottom line for me is that she's funny and the funniness seems to come from a real place. A rare thing. And she is very far from mumblecore despite, I think, sometimes being lumped in with it.

Anyway, count me in the Lena Dunham fan club for now. Maybe I'll leave it if she just keeps making the same movies again and again (it's a possibility). Also, are awkward/terrible sex scenes going to be her trademark the way post-coital conversations are Woody Allen's?