Thursday, March 26, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) [9]

Dense, confounding, mesmerizing, and fantastical could all be used to describe Synecdoche, New York. Yet through all of its meandering is a film that on the surface seems narcissistic and dour but in fact does some interesting ideas on love, death, creativity, and longing. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a local theater director in Schenectady, New York with a none too successful career and a failing marriage to his artist wife (Catherine Keener). When Caden's wife leaves him, it sets off a spiral of physical ailments and psychological loathing in Caden. These series of ailments sends Caden off into a creative fervor, moving to New York and creating an intensely personal theatre project about his life. It's from there that Kaufman's script weaves in an out of a series of events that have no definition as reality or fabrication, of a filmic world where characters and setting merge from the two worlds. Caden becomes involved with two more women (Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton in nice supporting roles) and eventually ages as his project grows and grows to worlds upon worlds. Characters in the film become characters in the play, and all in all, it leaves a product that's difficult to absorb on first viewing. But underneath all its miasma of ideas, the film really does have something to say about the creative process, as well as life and death, love and loss. It may seem like a confusing mess to some, but don't look for them in narrative. The film works in moments and seen like that, those ideas show through.

Monday, March 16, 2009

NCAA Tournament Picks Sure to go Wrong

This year's NCAA tournament means a little bit more because for the first time, my alma mater, Binghamton University, will be in the tournament. The picture above was one of the best of the championship game this past weekend, as fellow alumnus and PTI host Tony Kornheiser has mentioned the school numerous times on the program. It hasn't been all good news for the program, as a hatchet job story in the New York Times on the school cutting academic standards for basketball players in exchange for a winning program. However the situation may look and may be, there's no doubt Binghamton is the only school that has sacrificed some academic reputation for athletic success. As for my two cents, any good making the tournament gives is worth as much as any of the other allegations brought up in the Times. It's about time to realize that collegiate sports have nothing to do with the academic nature of a university and should be seen for the separate entity that they are.

Besides Binghamton, the other team in this part of the country, Syracuse, is back after a two year absence. The Orange are on a roll after the epic 6 OT game vs. UConn but their last two appearances in the tournament have seen them out in the first round. Hopefully, this year brings a change. Here are my picks:

East Region
Final: Pitt over Villanova
Duke vs. Binghamton: I hope Binghamton can just keep it close. The only way they'll have a chance of beating Duke is if they make everything and Duke mysteriously can't shoot threes.
Upset Special: None unless you count Villanova over Duke

South Region
Final: North Carolina over Syracuse
Upset Special: Western Kentucky over Illinois, Clemson over Oklahoma

West Region
Final: Memphis over UConn
Upset Special: Utah State over Marquette and Missouri

Midwest Region
Final: Michigan State over Louisville
Upset Special: USC over Boston College, West Virginia over Kansas

Monday, March 09, 2009


Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009) [7]

All that I really asked of Watchmen is that it stay close to its source material and Snyder delivers, sticking almost religiously close, with the exception of a missing subplot and a modified ending. For the most part, I would recommend the film; it's not perfect but for those who know the graphic novel, it will suffice. For those who go in completely blank, will it work? I really don't think so. The film is just as pessimistic and uncompromising as it could have been, which scores it some points. But it is the film's complete devotion to the world it occupies which give critics an opening to call it closed-off or hermetic, a product of its own reputation. Those who know nothing going in may find it dark and unspectacular. For someone like myself, who wanted a faithful adaptation, it mostly works out.

Snyder's style isn't really my personal favorite but it doesn't overpower the elements of the film. The opening credit sequence is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. The sometimes overly gruesome fight sequences, not so much. The film has its manic moments which could be toned down but Snyder does keep the film on a steady progression. The film is able to move through its dense web of flashbacks, back story, and alternative history to make every little element relevant to the murder mystery which operates as its central story. The character's stories weave in and out, some better than others. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan give the strongest performances. Their characters should as they both have central roles in the structure and storytelling in the graphic novel. On film, the other Watchmen come off as much weaker, either by lax characterization (The Comedian) or flat performances (Malin Akerman basically stinks as Silk Spectre). But as before, they're close enough to the source material that it as good as a representation that a fan could have asked for.

So even though I liked Watchmen, was it really worth it? I don't think the film hurts but it certainly doesn't approve on the graphic novel, which is a great piece of literature. What did I expect of the film? What I really wanted out of it is what I saw of the novel, a complete deconstructionist piece of work. How could you take comic books serious after reading Watchmen? I wanted the film to be something a la The Wild Bunch, a film taken to a place that a film of its sort would never seem relevant again. That film essentially killed the Western. I wanted Watchmen to kill the superhero movie. I didn't expect it out of someone like Snyder and I didn't expect the film to do what I wanted. When all is said and done, Watchmen is not exceptional, nor is it horrible. It's pretty much what I expected.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Monthly Listening Post - February/March 2009

Or whatever month it is. I really can't keep track anymore. Here's what I'm listening to:

Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Ready For the Flood (the long lost almost Jayhawks album I've been waiting for)
Phosphorescent - To Willie
Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Miranda Lee Richards - Light of X
Ben Kweller - Changing Horses
M. Ward - Hold Time

Also some individual tracks worth seeking out: 'Aeon' - Antony & the Johnsons
'Take My Love With You' - Eli "Paperboy" Reed & the True Loves
'Are You Ready' - Catfish Haven
'So Far Around the Bend' - The National

A surprisingly busy and interestingly concert front is on the way for spring here in Upstate NY/NE PA, at least every place but Binghamton apparently. Ithaca has Josh Ritter & Gomez on April 1, Rhett Miller on April 11, and Neko Case April 20. Then there's The Dead reunion show in Wilkes-Barre on April. That will followed by the Snob's annual drinking and gambling binge in Las Vegas, just in time for the Kentucky Derby. Add in March Madness, Hunter Mountain's Summer Jam at the end of May and Bonnaroo, and the next couple months are full of enough diversions to keep my mind off my crappy job and the general destruction of our nation. Happy listening.


Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) [10]

Casablanca is more than likely the greatest film of the classic Hollywood studio system. What more can be said about a film that has so many moments and lines that have become iconic in the history of American film? It is perhaps all the fawning over it that has kept me from seeing it over all these years. Casablanca lives up to its reputation because all of its elements work so well together. The old studio system didn't always create a product as smooth as this, where everything from the casting of the stars to the screenplay perfectly fit together. Of course there's Bogart and Bergman but the supporting performances are just as memorable, especially Claude Rains as Captain Renault. The screenplay, which has received the status over the years as one of the greatest ever written, is great because it contains a little bit of everything. Adventure, exotic locales, romance, noir, and the memorable quotes make it something more than just the standard Hollywood product of the era. That the film has such an anti-Nazi overtone was a little bit surprising since that's very rarely mentioned when discussing the film. It's more the political and noir elements that make the screenplay work, above the romance between Bogart and Bergman. Bogart plays typical Bogart and Bergman isn't that great. If this had just been a romance about Rick and Ilsa, Casablanca would have been another forgettable feature from the 40s. It's well rounded nature has helped it thrive over the years and it stands as a gem from a bygone era.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Still Life

Still Life (Zhang Ke Jia, 2008) [8]

I wasn't overly impressed with Zhang's last feature, The World, but did find great moments within it. Here, with Still Life, he has created a poignant character piece as well as a greater story about the changing landscape of China. A man and a woman have both come to the the city of Fengjie, mostly submerged by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, to find lost spouses. Zhang creates this dichotomy of telling personal stories against a visually impressive and imposing landscape as the Dam project and the demolition of the surrounding villages. These characters move through a constantly changing landscape, of boats and people coming and going, buildings being demolished, of people coming and going. There are some gorgeous images captured in the film that wouldn't be out of place in someone like Terrence Malick's work. Perhaps that's why I like it so much; instead of a film with a driven narrative, Zhang offers up moments of observation and insight into these characters, their attempt to find others and themselves in a vast, constantly changing visual landscape. The Three Gorges Dam is a massive project that has uprooted millions in the name of the greater good of the Chinese people, but mostly for the good of capitalism. Part of these character's existence is to rectify that their memories or nostalgia of the past are going the way of Fengjie, submerged in the name of progress. It's this meditative nature of the landscape, of the character's actions in this vastly shifting world, and the film's ability to subtly say all it needs about its setting.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Some thoughts on Watchmen

I've never been a fan of comic books or films based on comic books. I find the whole idea of "fan boys" as seriously depressing. Yes, I'm just as much of a loser as some would say these people are, but I have found other ways to express my obsessive tendencies. I have nothing against comic fans but I can think of many more other areas to be interested in than super heroes.

This is all meant to be a lead-in to how I actually read and really liked Watchmen. I was taking a class at Binghamton University called Crime Fiction, taught by a professor I much admired, Michael Sharp (he has a crossword blog here). Watchmen was on the curriculum, I had no idea what it was, and when I found out it was a comic book , I was less than enthused. But I gave Professor Sharp the benefit of the doubt and I was rewarded. Watchmen is a work that transcends the pulpy history of comics and deserves to be mentioned as a work of literature. Perhaps the reason I liked it so much was that it was meant to deconstruct the super hero narrative, to make these characters egotists, self-important, and perhaps even delusional. It broke down the myth of super heroes as Puritanical servants of the public good. Alan Moore created a world that infinitely more interesting than any Captain America or Superman story could possibly be, a work meant to confront the comfortable ideals of good vs. evil that comics have come to be seen. It might even be seen to question if super heroes are even necessary.

The same thoughts that I had upon having to read Watchmen, I have now in regards to the upcoming film. To some extent, the book is unfilmable in its structure. That Moore is adamantly opposed to filmic adaptations of his work and that previous efforts (From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) have been lackluster show no real track record for this to be a success. Add on top of that that the Zach Snyder of 300 fame is the director and you couldn't have picked a set of circumstances that inspire less hope in me. Granted I haven't seen any of Snyder's films but he's already made an unnecessary remake of one of my favorite films (Dawn of the Dead) and 300 seemed to be all eye candy without any substance. But I'm willing to cut him some slack, seeing as articles have repeatedly stated how close to the source the film is staying, less one major subplot. I'm only hoping that Snyder doesn't try to cater too much to mainstream audiences by glossing over the film's social commentary. I'm really hoping the film succeeds, not in terms of box office or popular opinion, but in terms that it does the book proud. I won't be out to see it this coming weekend (you know, to avoid the fan boys), but a review will be in before the first week is out. And I secretly hope the mainstream going film person, not the serious fans of the book, really don't like it.