Rubber

[Screenshot]I thought a movie about a sentient tire going around killing people was a pretty oddball premise, and one that had some promise. I got a rather stranger movie than I expected. I’m not even sure whether it’s supposed to be about the tire or the people watching the tire, and the central horror-element plot ends up as a sidelight to a strange but internally self-consistent set of rules governing observers and actors.

All in all, Rubber is one odd duck of a film. It is more than it might seem but also less than the sum of its parts, and the overall effect is of an intriguing experiment which is something of a stew of not-entirely-cohesive ideas. The whole is mostly clever, teetering on the edge of self-indulgence and only rarely falling on the wrong side, but whether it actually ends up “good” in spite of its flaws is a trickier question. Unmistakably it’s doing something different, and throws out some spoofing of the horror genre with a liberal larding of extradiegesis games and a quasi-Dadaist philosophy. Certainly a lot of the actual individual elements have been done before, and the whole is a splattery ball of unblended bits, but there’s a scale between “individual conceits” and “the whole film” at which a lot of the elements seem pretty imaginative and well-done.

On actual technical issues this movie doesn’t exactly shine, and “low-budget” seems to be the phrase of the day. I’m sure there’s some neat trickery involved in making the tire move around, some of which, I assume involves just plain rolling it in from off-camera, but the sets are pretty bare and the acting honestly fairly wooden most of the time — although a good half of the cast has the excuse, perhaps, that their acting is supposed to be terrible.

On balance, it’s mostly worth the watching. It’s not heinously long, it’s occasionally funny, and at its high points it’s actually rather interesting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

BOB

This is another show from the 35th Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre, so bear in mind that it’s experimental and modern and such. BOB is a much more straightforward play than A Devil at Noon, which was the other work that I got a ticket to with my season pass. It is an easy play to like, filled with light humor and absurdity, with enough drama and poignancy to feel like more than a trifle. It’s sweet and sentimental and silly. It might not be the deepest work out there, since its message is ultimately a fairly pedestrian one, but it’s entertaining and a pleasant way to spend an evening, full of hope and celebration of human connectedness and spirit.

It’s not without its flaws. The inter-act dances smack a little too much of aggressive experimentalism for its own sake, and the softball teasing leveled at institutions like the Chicago Cubs and Starbucks somewhat reduce its otherwise strong sense of universality and timelessness. There were a few rough patches in the performances where actors stumbled over their lines (rather a surprise to me, since Actors generally has solid casts), although this was largely redeemed by the strength of the chorus members’ performances overall. One excellent aspect of the play, which might be either an aspect as written or of this specific performance was the characterization synchronicity which individual chorus members maintained through their various roles. Particular props to Danny Scheie, whose flamboyant and exuberant performance very nearly upstaged the protagonist.

Oh, and an aside to someone who is probably not reading this: my deepest apologies to the unfortunate whose bike I apparently managed to block in when I parked mine. I have no idea how that happened but I’ll try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, to you or anyone else.

See also: premiere at Actors Theatre.

Red

[Screenshot]I knew, based on the reports on Warren Ellis’s blog, and by a quick look at the trailer, that this film would not be entirely faithful to the themes of the original comic. But I figured I wanted to see it anyways. If Warren Ellis was OK with it, I figured it wasn’t my place to say otherwise, and the reasons why it couldn’t be faithful were fundamentally sound: the original work was, among other things, far too short to actually make a satisfactory feature-length film.

But I’m afraid “Not entirely faithful” is a bit of an understatement. Taken on its own merits, it’s a fun comic action-caper flick, with wisecracking, quirky, supercompetent secret agents sticking it to the man and executing elaborate, complicated plans; which is one of the most extraordinary subversions of themes in the original work I’ve seen since Mankiewicz’s adaptation of The Quiet American. The comic had a fair amount of exposition and philosophizing about monstrosity and loyalty and responsibility which is notably absent, either in dialogue or plot, from the film. In this movie, Moses and Co. are just Big Damn Heroes, going out and doing what is right, for justice. Which is enjoyable in a brainless kind of way, but it wasn’t really what I expected to see at all.

Cinematically, it’s quite excellent. There was something quite naturalistic about the camera style during non-action sequences: long takes, with smooth and organic-feeling pans and dollies that manage not to seem self-indulgent. The action sequences are, by their very nature, self-indulgent, with a lot of flash and occasional slo-mo and suchlike. It manages to stay mostly on the tasteful side of cheap (unlike, say, Transformers, which was full of wholly unnecessary whoosh and bewildering camera-shake). The actors play the parts they’ve been given well: Malkovitch chews the scenery but believably and Mirrin delivers a delightfully prim ruthlessness so well that they actually upstage Bruce Willis, whose character comes across as pretty colorless and dull by comparison.

On balance, I enjoyed the time I spent watching Red pretty well, although I might feel disappointed if I’d gone to see it in a theater. Mostly my lack of enthusiasm derives from it being pretty far afield of what I expected. A writer with a characteristic style can make a good story, but take away all those signature flourishes and thematic elements and you have, as it were, a tale told by an idiot.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

This is a work perhaps of a very specific historical context, and coming from outside of that context I may perhaps misjudge key points. The setting is very firmly early nineteenth century Paris, with attendant social structures and conventions. On the outside looking in, it appears to be a culture of vastly misplaced priorities; that’s not the barrier to understanding which it might seem to be, though, since Balzac seems to basically concur with that assessment. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the major characters: while Goriot’s blind devotion to his daughters can still be read as fundamentally teetering between farce and tragedy, I found it difficult to know what to make of Rastignac’s character. It’s still quite early in the story when he applies to his family for the means to ascend the aristocracy, a loan which he cannot realistically hope to repay; social status, it is apparent to the reader (and should be apparent to Rastignac) is not remunerative. It seems like there ought to be a parallel between Rastignac’s financial dependency and Goriot’s daughters’, but this theme is not actually explored, and indeed after the initial application for funding, this seeming stain on Rastignac’s character is never mentioned again.

That presumption that Rastignac had incurred a financial obligation to his family colored my entire impression of the book. The engineered match with Victorine, although arguably unethical on entirely different grounds, seems to be all-to-easily discarded: Rastignac’s ostensible purpose in his social climbing is a financially favorable alliance, which would be indeed fulfilled by marriage to Victorine; by my reading he has a familial obligation to make a greater effort in this direction (yes, I may be unromantic). It is entirely possible I am misreading the extent and manner of family expectations in the nineteenth century, but in a way this crucial character issue undercuts a primary theme of the book. Although the book draws a picture of naiveté slowly turned by the corruption of Paris to cynicism, I’d contend that Rastignac is in fact already corrupt, and in almost the exact same way as the world around him which he has ceased to respect, living high and comfortable on the suffering of those closest to him. Perhaps that hypocrisy was intentional, but I didn’t get an indication of it from the story.

To move on from the themes which I found troubling, the work is stylistically well-crafted, with a delightful mastery of rhetoric, even in translation, and a strong sense of mood and minute eye for detail. Our characters and locations, particularly Vauquer’s boarding house and its residents, are drawn with a deft hand towards their appearance and manners. The aristocrats are paradoxically less well-drawn (which is perhaps another reason why I find Rastignac’s unvirtuous obsession with Delphine troublesome; there’s just not a lot to her character), which may be an intentional means towards exhibiting the shallow vapidity of their characters.

Definitely there is a delicious viciousness to this book, but as the previous paragraphs suggest, I’m unclear on how effectively it’s directed. If we’re meant to identify with the social climber, why is he so unsympathetic? If we’re meant to condemn him, doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the extent to which we can give merit to his own disgust?

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

פעם הייתי/The Matchmaker

I saw this film this evening as part of the Louisville Jewish Film Festival. It’s a largely sweet and nostalgic comedy with some surprising teeth. Like so many films that I find interesting, it’s also a picture of a time, a place, and a culture: there is a specific intergenerational and intercultural dynamic which is perhaps uniquely 60s-Israel, which suffuses the film: even among the young people, there are clear distinctions on a piety/nationalism/radicalism spectrum, with different young people subscribing to different views of what being Israeli really means. Of course that pales in comparison to the distinction between and among the older generation: the Holocaust survivors are a breed apart, and soberingly presented as not pitied but rather shunned. It’s easy to see how people get Survivor’s Guilt, when they’re in a culture full of Survivor Blame, and this film is merciless in presenting the basic rift in communication and understanding between those who survived and those who wonder just how they survived. This is quite possibly the coyest Holocaust film I’ve ever seen: the Holocaust itself is barely mentioned, but the spectre of its legacy hangs pretty heavy, and in unconventional ways.

While this intercultural drama is part of the experience delivery, and a very intriguing part, the film is, on the whole, a comedy, with likable characters bouncing off of each other in clever ways. There are recurring gags, such at Yankele’s overreliance on the exact same lines for every customer, and a tremendous amount of situational absurdity, and it is, for the most part, quite funny enough to keep the film moving in between the dramatic bits. The acting is generally solid: the entire cast is competent, and Adir Miller puts on an inspired performance which is believably sentimental. The only element of the story that really fell flat for me was the Arik-Benny-Tamara love triangle: Benny was fleshed out so sparsely, and even Tamara was fairly one-note, and that particular aspect of the plot felt flat and in large part irrelevant.

On technical notes it was mostly satisfactory, although some of the editing decisions seemed questionable: on more than one occasion a scene cut out without fanfare after a rather non-final-seeming line of dialogue. It didn’t seem that this technique was used with any deliberate purpose in mind; I assume that either the script or the editing was unintentionally abrupt, which doesn’t speak well to the technical aspects.

A word of warning, which may be an issue only of pre-releases and not of the actual stateside DVD: the subtitles are rendered in white (without the usual black border on subtitle script), which makes them very difficult to see when anything white is on the bottom of the shot. On the subject of the subtitles, they are sometimes haltingly ungrammatical or unidiomatic, but only when one of the Holocaust survivors is speaking, so I’d tend to put this one in the “faithful reproduction of aslightly mangled Hebrew” box (unless someone who speaks Hebrew tells me otherwise).

See also: IMDB.

The Lightkeepers

[Screenshot]This one tries so hard to be sweet and romantic and never really seems to get there; the underlying drama and reconciliation feels limp, and the characters feel largely unconvincing in their various roles. The sense of peiod never seems to come alive, either: it felt like this film wanted to very strongly be defined in both time and place, and while the place was excellently brought to life (Cape Cod, with on-site well-chosen scenes and competent cinematography), the time could’ve been pretty much anything before, oh, 1940.

Basically, it left me with very little actual impression, which is a bad thing. Excellent films I can usually come up with something to say about, even if better critics than me have seen it before. Bad films I usually have fun tearing apart. This one didn’t really give me anything in particular to say. It marches through a number of requisite plot elements to the end and never once really engages the mind.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

下妻物語/Kamikaze Girls

[Screenshot]Kamikaze Girls is one of those fun little odd-couple stories, with a young female Japanese subculture twist. It doesn’t have anything extraordinarily deep to say, although it does touch on some themes of friendship and growing up and exploring outside your own box. Mostly it just milks its character archetypes for all they’re worth, bouncing the naïve Momoko and snarly Ichigo off of each other in interesting combinations (note not apparent in the subtitles: “Momoko” means “peach”, and “Ichigo” means “strawberry”. Theme naming!), giving each the upper hand in their own comfort zone. It’s mostly just a fun ride through a somewhat caricatured presentation of the Lolita fashion and Yanki motorcycle subcultures.

Although it’s thematically nothing to write home about, I’m pleasantly surprised by the cinematography. It is adventurous without being pretentious, for the most part, making use of clever time-lapse and scene-transition mechanisms, and flashbacks arise in interesting and fun ways (one of them is an animated sequence, which is about as in-your-face as the cinematic techniques get).

It’s a fun story that clocks in at under 2 hours but still feels meaty, so I liked it a lot. The closest I would get to a substantive criticism is that Tsuchiya overacts Ichigo maybe just a little bit, with all the snarling and banging on tables and whatnot.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.