QUICK HIT: Waitress (Shelly, 2007)

•February 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Jenna (Keri Russell) is a waitress and pie maker. (*) Whenever Jenna becomes stressed or otherwise consumed with emotion she closes her eyes and thinks of new pie recipes. Adrienne Shelly is the writer/director of Waitress. Whenever Shelly concocted the script I imagine she followed this recipe:

4 parts annoying stereotypes
3 parts cliché
2 parts cutesy ideas
1 part typical ending

Mix until slightly congealed. Place the mixture into a preheated oven at 500 degrees. The high temperature will ensure that the outside cooks much faster than the inside, leaving a burnt exterior containing a sloppy interior.

Slice and put on decorative plate. Have Keri Russell serve. She’s attractive enough that maybe the customers will ignore the crap they’re about to eat.

Rating: 41

* Has anyone ever been to a restaurant where the waitress is also the head pastry chef? I didn’t think so. So how is it that Jenna is both a waitress — and there are only three — and a chef? Does she work 14 hours a day, 6 baking pies and 8 serving them? (Answer: no) Moreover, the restaurant in Waitress is a pie place. Its main draw are these pies Jenna makes. So Jenna is both head waitress and head chef. This makes no sense.

FILM FORUM: Oscars Edition #2

•February 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Read Edition #1

Joel,

I think any conversation I have about the Oscars should be prefaced with the statement “Halle Berry? Really? Really?” Or perhaps a more fitting: “Crash? Are you being bloody serious?” Or “Tita?” Actually I could do this for a while. That being said I actually watch the Academy Awards every year so… Continue reading ‘FILM FORUM: Oscars Edition #2’

FILM FORUM: Oscars Edition #1

•February 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Sehban,

I know we agreed to inaugurate this feature by discussing Charlie Wilson’s War. Certainly that film offers much to discuss — Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mumbling genius is worth 2,000 words alone. However, I thought that it might be fun to widen the focus a little bit. So instead of talking solely about Charlie Wilson’s War I think we should talk about the Oscars (an award for which PSH has been nominated, and deservedly so). I think we’ll be able to squeeze a few sentences about CCW into a conversation of the year’s best films. Continue reading ‘FILM FORUM: Oscars Edition #1’

NEW FEATURE: Film Forum

•February 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

In the coming days I’ll be blatantly ripping off my favorite feature from Slate by starting a running movie club. The first installment will be a retrospective on the previous year in film with an eye towards the upcoming Academy Awards. Joining me will be filmmaker Sehban Zaidi. I’ll be posting our exchanges on a regular basis. My hope is that they’ll provide a good read and perhaps spark a little conversation.

ACADEMIC BULLSHIT: Destination Tokyo (Daves, 1943)

•February 14, 2008 • 1 Comment

Disjointed thoughts on Destination Tokyo

* Rhetorical structuring and presentation of the modern, and in particular how the machines of war are inscribed within an ambiguous position. On one hand these machines are glorified. Early in Destination Tokyo there is a montage of the weaponry available to the US Military that at the very least can be described as glorifying. Weapons are quite literally held up for admiration, suspended in the air as they get loaded onto ships and filmed from a low angle. They are handled carefully, but the careful handling does not come across as precaution–these are bombs, after all, and a misstep could lead to probable death. Instead, the careful handing is best read as a mix of wonderment and excitement. The soldiers look at once focused on the job at hand and full of esteem for that job and what it means within the larger context of the war. They are cogs all right, but what glorious cogs they are, coming in contact with the very weapons that will, they hope, win the war. This somatic experience for the soldiers finds an analogue in the audience. The display of machinery is viscerally stimulating rather than intellectually inspiring. In the final battle sequence, when the last torpedo is loaded into its slot–a process that seemingly takes the entire crew, all of whom help guide the missile with something like gritty jubilation plastered on their faces–the messages written on the bomb glide across the screen, accompanied by the hands of the crew members. The individual messages are directed at the Japanese, but certainly they’ll never have the opportunity to read them (they’ll get the larger message, though, which seems to be more important). So the putative significance of the messages is as an outlet for the emotions the men feel. That the outlet involves imprinting on the bomb a physical trace from each man seems to be precisely the point. The torpedo becomes the fetishized object in the strict Freudian sense of the term, with all the attendant emphasis on the object-ness of the torpedo intended.

To compound the regard for the machinery are the quick cuts and dissolves that initially introduce the machinery to the movie. Though by this point in American cinema the technical achievement of such a sequence was probably not noticed as such, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the technically virtuosic presentation of the technically advanced machines is fitting. This sequence is reminiscent of the clip we watched in class on Thursday in which the engineering tools of the Chinese (antiquated) were contrasted with the tools of the Japanese (modern). My guess is that a careful examination of Japanese films that deal with soldiers and the military will yield sequences similar to the ones in Destination Tokyo.

*There is a strong theme of sacrifice in Destination Tokyo. Immediately after Cary Grant is introduced as the Captain of the submarine there is a scene in which he writes a letter to his wife. His leave has been cut short and so he will have to spend Christmas on the sub. Though he expresses remorse for the unfortunate turn of events, the next thing he tells his wife is that his rank has improved–he now has three stripes on his sleeve–the implication being that the sort of sacrifice he’s subjected himself to by being an ideal member of the Navy has resulted in the gains one would hope would compensate such sacrifice. Of course, those gains only lead to more sacrifice, and its not until Grant has been through a perilous journey into the bay of Tokyo and back that he finally does get to see his family. Sacrifice is ultimately rewarded in the end, but it is telling that Grant’s character has no idea that his wife will be greeting him in San Francisco. So although sacrifice will be rewarded, there is not always an indication of when that reward will come. One must always be sacrificing, then. That said, sometimes the rewards are immediate. The three men who risk their lives to breach the Japanese shores do so on the promise that their actions will enable the US Military to accurately bomb the Japanese. The heroics (synonymous with sacrifice) of a few men lead to the first bombing of Japan.

Other instances of sacrifice are when the new crew member volunteers to disable the unexploded bomb that has lodged itself in the bowels of the ship. Though it is possible to read the sacrificial action as a means for gaining entry into the brotherhood of the crew, an alternative reading is supported by the fact that the boy volunteers after he admits failing to help Mike, who has just been stabbed in the back by a Japanese soldier. In light of this the sacrifice is more to settle the cosmic score than to gain a personal advantage. Grant’s character can’t reach the bomb but he does guide the boy through the steps to disarm the bomb. The two go to disarm the bomb together, the Captain and the rookie, even though the specter of another attack remains a grave and likely possibility. Grant’s character admits as much when he notes that the Japanese soldier probably gave coordinates to where he was shot down prior to ejecting from his plane, which means that more Japanese soldiers are probably on the way. Of course, Grant’s character still opts to go down below with the rookie, though before doing so he informs the crew that should they be attacked they must immediately submerge the sub. Stuck down below, Grant and the rookie would drown, but better that then risk the death of the other soldiers on board. The message is clear: no one is above anyone else and the individual always sacrifices himself to the betterment of the group.

Keeping in mind that no one is above anyone else, it is interesting to think about a) Carry Grant as the star of the film and b) the individual triumphs that lead to the first bombing of Japan. In light of (a) and (b) Destination Tokyo is a quintessential Hollywood film. Valor and sacrifice are encouraged within the diegesis of the film, but the individual will always get his due. World War II might be a huge operation undertaken by a bunch of soldiers that requires all the individuals to be subsumed within a larger whole (such is the ethos of the military) but the heroic deeds of a few could mean the turning point in the war–though part of the whole the actions of any individual can have large consequences–and the star is always the leader, the person who is at once one of the guys–he goes below with the rookie to disarm the bomb–and in charge of everyone (the ethos of Hollywood). The genius of Hollywood is how the narrative smooths the possible contradictions of these two positions out, so that the film can support a reading that encourages sacrifice to the whole while simultaneously emphasizing the individual and reward.

*Though the Japanese are regarded with ill will, there is an interesting scene after Mike has been stabbed by the Japanese soldier (after trying to help the solider out of the water no less! after the soldier literally stabbed him in the back!) during which Grant’s character relates an anecdote about how wonderful a father Mike was. Mike bought his five year old the best roller stakes money could buy and showed his son love, and this is the legacy Mike will leave. The Japanese soldier, on the other hand, was probably given a dagger by his father, as are so many five-year-old Japanese boys. The Japanese soldier stabbed Mike in the back because he had been on a course to do so since he was a little boy. In a surprising twist Grant’s character practically grants the soldier absolution, chalking up his evil deed as an unfortunate character trait and not an inherent part of his being. This is a near total reversal on how the Japanese have been regarded throughout the film. Though no one goes so far as to say that the Japanese are inherently evil, what is said about the Japanese would certainly support such a reading. That is, except what Grant’s character says about the Japanese soldier during his eulogy for Mike. The final words Grant’s character says about Mike is that he died so more kids in the world would have roller stakes, especially the Japanese kids. The Japanese, it seems, are not some evil creatures that must be eradicated but are a wayward people that need to be reformed. Of course, nothing in the rest of the film suggests that the plan is to reform the Japanese and everything suggests that eradication is the plan. Perhaps the rationale is that the elder Japanese are incurable and that the only way for the country to be saved is for it to start over (hence Hiroshima?). This was one sequence of the movie I really do not know what to make of.

*The eulogy of Mike brings me to the final aspect of Destination Tokyo that struck me and that’s the prevalence of family as an organizing metaphor for the crew of the submarine. The rookie crew member upon waking up Christmas morning on the sub–his first Christmas spent away from home–reminisces about how his mom and dad would wake him each Christmas by singing carols. Soon after relaying this story three men walk into the cabin singing Christmas carols.

After Mike dies one of the crew members remembers that Mike was always listening to a record that he kept stashed under his bed. Thinking that the recording might be of something funny or sexual (or both!) a group of men grab the record and put it on. The sound is of Mike’s wife, and for a moment there is hope that she will say something…naughty? funny? It’s hard to say. Instead she delivers a genuine, personal confession of her love for Mike, and upon hearing this the group starts to quickly dissipate. Perhaps entertaining the idea of what it will be like for Mike’s wife to find out Mike is dead is too troubling and so everyone leaves. I would argue that they all leave out of respect for the sanctity of Mike’s relationship with his wife, of which the record is a stand-in and, since Mike is dead, the only physical remnant of that relationship left on board. To listen to the record, especially with the hope that it will entertain, is to mock something sincere and familial, and to do that is to violate not only the bond between Mike and his wife but also the unspoken bond connecting all the men on the submarine. Indeed, this familial structure and longing is inescapable. The lulls in action are almost always filled by the men discussing their family. The problem with the Japanese is that the dynamic of their families are out of whack: the fathers give the sons daggers and the daughters are seemingly sold into prostitution when they turn 12 (or at least that’s the implication). As one crew member says, the Japanese don’t understand the sort of love Americans have for women. The Japanese don’t have a word for it, so how could they understand?

When the Japanese ships are attacking the submarine and things are looking grim for our crew, there is a close up of Cary Grant’s face. Suddenly his face dissolves to that of a young boy–his son’s. In times of great strife Grant’s character turns inward to his family to steel his resolve, and any subsequent action–such as escaping the Japanese attack or perhaps winning the war–can be traced back to the importance of family.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the final sequence of the film–when Grant and crew return to San Francisco–triumphs not the victory over the Japanese but the reuniting of a family, a somewhat curious choice given that this is the first time Grant’s wife is ever shown on screen. Though early on the film establishes how much Grant’s character longs for his wife and kids, seeing his family at the end seems a too-strong counterpoint to what transpired in the beginning.

REVIEW: The King Of Kong (Gordon, 2007)

•February 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

In 1982 Billy Mitchell, then a geeky teenager, set the world record in Donkey Kong. The record stood for 23 years. To fully appreciate this fact and to lay the groundwork for The King Of Kong, a charming documentary worthy of praise, three things ought to be emphasized:

1) Donkey Kong was released in 1981, so Mitchell set the world record only one year after the game was on the market.

2) The people who play these games competitively personify devotion. They are geeky in exactly the ways you’d imagine. They do things like take detailed notes on the games, figuring out patterns that can be gleaned only after years of serious playing, all so that they can increase their high scores a few more points.

3) Donkey Kong is considered the Mount Everest of gaming. The average games lasts less than a minute. Only three people have ever ‘beaten’ it. And anyone who’s taken an interest in competitive gaming has tried to take down Mitchell’s record. Mitchell’s initial record withstood an onslaught of such proportions you’d need a protractor, compass, and flux capacitor to even begin to grasp the enormity.

Any film documenting the extremes of obsession will undoubtedly feature a curious ensemble of characters. The King Of Kong is no different and Mitchell is a prime example. Mitchell is the reigning king of the video game world — a honorific that comes with fawning attention on and cult-like allegiance from the population of Dorkdom. One serf says, in all seriousness, that Billy is “the closest to being a Jedi of any one of the players.” Years of such lavish praise has imbued Mitchell with a nerdy bravado rivaling the harshest clichés imaginable. This makes him a compelling character, but then add to that his personal appearance — long, flowing black hair blow dried to perfection; closely cropped beard; proclivity for wearing USA-themed ties with mismatching shirts — and you have yourself the perfect villain.

Contract Mitchell with Steve Wiebe, who plays the likable foil. A family man of many talents, none of which he’s ever excelled at, Wiebe is the man striving to take down Mitchell’s record. He exists outside of the competitive gaming world. For instance, he doesn’t live in a cabin or with his parents. Also: He has a wife and children, the youngest of whom, a daughter of about seven, speaks the most insightful line in the film while Wiebe is attempting to set the new record, saying, “Some people sort of ruin their lives to get in [the record books].” To which Wiebe doesn’t really have a response.

This might be the only moment of critical distance in the film. But diving into this world full bore is one of the pleasures of The King Of Kong. Who would’ve thought that it could be so fun? Death threats! Scandals! Mustaches! Haunched shoulders! Complete disregard for personal appearance other than the video game-themed tee shirt! The King Of Kong overflows with a liveliness unexpected in a film about people whose sole pursuit requires a stoicism of the sort you’d expect from a deeply focused mathematician. And then you have Wiebe, a guy who living outside of the video game anti-establishment who might be the best Donkey Kong player of all time, who is interesting precisely because he’s boring in a way the regular video game obsessives aren’t.

In many ways the The King Of Kong is your typical underdog/outsider story. Hell, the theme songs from the Karate Kid and Rocky play over stirring montages that will actually make you care about things like kill screens and and platforms and fireballs — even if the idea of being emotionally invested in adults playing old arcade games sounds unlikely. Trust me here. You’ll care. You’ll be involved (and not just because the music will manipulate you into feeling). And while The King Of Kong easily fits the contours of its genre there are a number of twists that come as a surprise, all of which you’d be hard pressed to script and each of which help make the film a pleasantly enjoyable documentary.

Rating: 71

QUICK HIT: The Lives Of Others (Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

•February 13, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The Lives Of Others won the Foreign Language Oscar last year and although I’ve yet to see all of the nominees I find it hard to imagine any other of the nominees topping this film. A number of film critics have remarked that TLOO is an impressive debut from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who wrote and directed the film when he was just 33 years old. There’s no doubt this is true. But it sells the film short. The Lives Of Others is just flat out great: well acted, well crafted, evenly paced, efficiently cut, and wonderfully atmospheric. Ulrich Mühe (who tragically died this past summer) is worth the price of admission alone. He’s the guy in the photo to the left, the counterpart to Sebastian Koch, the playwright he’s spying on for the Stasi. Koch performs admirably, but this is Mühe vehicle and he shines.

Rating: 80