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My thoughts about movies and TV shows I've been watching

See also my blog on books: Elliot's Reading

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The difficultly of William Carlos Williams's Paterson and the failure of Jim Jarmusch's film thereof

William Carlos Williams famously wrote (paraphrasing): "I wanted to write a poem/that you would understand." Paterson, the book-length poem he wrote over the course of about 10 years, roughly 1942-52, is famously not that poem. The concept is simple and elegant: a man named Paterson represents the soul and spirit of the eponymous N.J. city. The poem or collection itself is not simple. Although the poem includes the repeated dicta "no ideas but in things" - which could serve as the guiding principle of almost all of WCW's writing - e.g., Red Wheel Barrow, the bowl of plums in the refrigerators, asphodel the greeny flower, and on and on - most of the lyric verse in Paterson is elusive and abstract. WCW, however, makes Paterson more accessible by constructing its as something like an anthology of found poetry, including many news items about the history of the city and also letters and messages WCW has received, notably several significant letters from an acolyte, the then very young Alan Ginsberg. The work is a success almost in spite of itself - a success as an idea or concept, but less so as a collection of verse - probably not read today by many other than true Williams' devotees. Which brings us to Paterson the movie, from 2016, by NY indie writer-director Jim Jarmusch. JJ had the smart idea of a film in contemporary Paterson on the same theme and model, a man named Paterson lives as the heart and soul of his city. The man, played well by Adam Driver, is a bus driver and aspiring poet, who jots down his poems in a small journal while on lunch break at the Paterson falls (a key setting in WCW's poem) and otherwise learns about the city from overheard conversations while driving and at his nightly visits to a neighborhood bar. Good idea, but, sad to say, lousy film. First, JJ is in no way interested in conventional narrative or plot; good for him, but it makes for an extremely flat and unengaging film. In fact JJ toys with the conventions of narrative, disappointing all of our expectations; e.g., a car pulls up to P as he's walking his bulldog and the toughs in the car say the dog is in danger of being "dog-napped." But that never happens (confession: I didn't watch the last 40 minutes of this 2-hour film). Strangest of all is P's marriage to an artistic stay-at-home, Laura. They live in a small, undistinguished house w/ a pink door and a slanted mail box; inside, Laura has gone wild w/ b/w decor, showing it seems a real talent for fashion and design (how she does all this work in one week and how they can afford the materials is unanswered). She has grandiose visions, e.g., she sweet-talks P into letter her buy a $400 guitar (they live on a shoe string) so that she can learn to play and become a c/w star. She does sing for him - a pathetic rendition of "I've been working on the rr." Seriously? Worse, in a way: She encourages him to publish his writing, the world needs to see these poems, etc. Well, in fact, the poems are vapid and inane: one for example is about a brand of matches, and written with neither wit nor verbal insight - not even close to WCW or to the Beats or to any published poetry. JJ seems to know that these poems are amateurish (he has P meet a young girl in a scenes that on a realistic level is truly disturbing - why would she talk to a stranger in an alleyway? - who reads him a poem that's good, at least for her age), so what's his point? Maybe the film itself is the poem, but JJ seems to have a hipster disdain for the shortcomings of his own characters. [Note: This post also appears on Elliots's Reading]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Held our interest but major problems with the Icelandic series Case

Persisted with the Icelandic miniseries Case right to the end of season 1, nine episodes, mostly out of curiosity, maybe also out of inertia; as noted in earlier post, Case can be commended for taking a close look at the problem of teenage sex slavery and addiction - but, seriously, to watch this series you'd think, A, that Iceland is the most corrupt place on the planet, B, that Icelandic officials are among the stupidest in the world in that they can't see a crime or a criminal staring them right in the face, C, that the force behind the exploitation of young, vulnerable girls who get addicted to Rx and sell their bodies to get a fix is always a church deacon or a prominent white-shoe attorney, and D that there's not a single kid in all of Iceland who's just a healthy, ordinary teen. We eagerly followed the series to see how the plot strands would tie together, but more than once just had to say: Ridiculous. Yes, you can make a seemingly innocent and upright guy monster of perversion and squalor, but, really - nobody notices this over the course of decades in the small city of Reykjavik? We feel the heavy hand of a screenwriter at work. The series neatly - too neatly - opens the door at the end of another season, seemingly on the same theme - sexual abuse by an upstanding citizen. One was enough.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A lurid tale from Iceland: Is this miniseries exposing a social ill, or exploiting it?

Three episodes into the Icelandic crime series Case (Netflix), and will probably continue despite many reservations. This story centers on a 14-year-old ballet student who hangs herself over the stage in the theater. The Icelandic police conduct an investigation, and all evident signs point to depression, pressure from parents, boyfriend troubles - but the lead investigator thinks there's more to the story and pushes hard to keep the case open. When she hits a wall, a law firm that takes pride in fighting cases of child abuse, takes on the case and brings in as an associate a down-and-out attorney who may be ruthless enough to solve the crime. As the first episodes unfold we see that the dead girl and many of her friends were involved in sexual relations with the leader of a youth group and that he and his brother have been filming videos of the sexual encounters and posting them on the web, perhaps for a profit? OK, so this series "exposes" a serious social problem and criminal enterprise, but we can't help but feel that the series thrives on the very sensationalism and criminal cruelty that it professes to abhor - much like the Dragon Tattoo series. There are many, many plot strands to this story, and as a result the lead investigators - of whom there are at least 3 different agencies (police, the law firm, social services) don't really emerge (yet) as characters. Also, it seems Icelandic police and media practices are very different from this in the U.S.: for ex., the police immediately interrogate the parents of the girl who hanged herself as if they're investigating a crime scene and the parents may even be suspects. And: the media cover the death in a highly lurid manner, one outlet going so far as to writing a page-one story about how these parents pushed their kid too hard to succeed. Maybe that's how it's done in Reykjavik, but I'm guessing that's a socio-cultural inaccuracy on the part of the filmmakers.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Swom quibbles about The Night Manager - but it is entertaining

The Night Manager continued to hold our rapt attention right through to the end, not so much because we liked any of the "good guys" (well, we did like the British agent, Angela) as we loathed the "bad guys," especially Hugh Laurie's Dickie Roper. The plot throughout is taut and tense, with a lot of surprise twists - hats off to le Carre there - but ultimately, as w/ many other works in the spy genre and le Carre's in particular, at the end you just say: Really? Is anything about this story line probable or even possible? We see the most elaborate scheming across international borders with embedded agents - an amateur agent no less - surviving all sorts o misfortunes and betrayals. Isn't there an easier way to stop this illegal arms sale and delivery? And for that matter. why would a guy as shrewd and devious as Roper not realize from the get-go that something's amiss about the protagonist, John Pine - that he's got to be a spy for someone? Why would he entrust this near-stranger w/ a $3000-million illegal arms deal? Also, to put it kindly the romantic subplot is not le Carre's forte, and in this series in particular we can't buy for a second Pine's attachment to the statuesque bubblehead, Jed. Putting these quibbles, and maybe they're more than quibbles, aside, though, the series is entertaining over the course of its 6 episodes, which is much more than I can say for most of what's out there, so it may be worth your time.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Impossible to convey in a blurb the appeal of The Tree of Wooden Clogs

It's impossible to convey in a blurb or a summary how interesting and compelling this movie actually is: the 1978 film Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (even the title is a bit off-putting). The film is "about" a year in the life of a peasant village in rural Italy (Lombardy) circa 1910, and over the course of the film will follow three peasant families that share an apartment-like dwelling on a stretch of farmland; 2/3rds of the profits from the labors in the fields goes to the landlord. Sounds pretty dull, but I can only say that from start to finish this 3+-hour film is captivating and informative in every frame. It feels like a documentary about life in that time and place but of course it's a beautiful re-creation of a lost way of life. We see inside the rustic housing of these people, the difficult farming with handheld and horse-drawn equipment, the clothing, the meals, the entertainment - in some of the most beautiful scenes the families gather at night around a communal fire for singing and story-telling. We also see the home of the wealthy landowner, and the comforts of the parish church. Most of all we get a sense of how hard life was for these people: the birth of a child, the sickness of a cow, the slightest turn of events could put any of the families on the verge of ruin - and of course there were no social services whatsoever (and the church blithely turns its back on a family in true need) - though there are many references to and glimpses of social radicals pushing for a democracy and, I think, a united Italy. Like all great films, this one presents what feels like a whole world - and in this case a world unfamiliar to us. There re so many great moments in this film, including the town festival, the slaughter of a pig, newlyweds leaving for a honeymoon in Milan, and the sad story of the little schoolboy - sent to school at great family expense (the father can't understand why his son needs an education) who has to trudge home through mud and sleet and do his homework by candle-light. The film's almost flawless, but sharp-eyed M did pick out in one shot (at the 2-hour mark) a car passing in the far background. Even a "flaw" like this makes the movie seem more "real," as we recognize that it's filmed not in a studio but in a small farming village that stands today (or did in the 1970s).

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why The Night Manager is fun though kind of ridiculous, too

The first three (of six) episodes of The Night Manager, adapted from le Carre's novel, have a nice pace, a lot of action, some smart dialogue, some delightfully menacing characters, some international intrigue, some frightening sequences, and some extraordinary scenery (supposedly Egypt and Mallorca, not sure where these scenes were actually filmed), in other words, it's le Carre's world. The series has held our interest so far, though it does suffer the flaws that are characteristic, at least to me, of le Carre's work: needless complication that serves no logical purpose other than prolonging and accelerating the action. (Friend AW, a huge le Carre fan, argues that the book is far better than the miniseries, in part because there is full explanation regarding the bewildering complexities of the plot.) To give an example: the main character, Pine, under and assumed name and in partnership with the British secret service, insinuates himself into the inner workings of a corrupt arms dealer (Roper). Pine does so largely because, when he was the "night manager" in a lavish hotel in Egypt he was informed about Roper's corruption and tried to blow the whistle - but Roper was tipped off (it seems pretty obvious to us who tipped him off, but none of the characters seems to have figured that out) leading to the death of an Egyptian beauty w/ whom Pine has a one-night fling. OK, so how is it possible that Roper will not figure out that Pine was the whistle-blower in Egypt a few years back? To cover the tracks the British invent the most elaborate ruse, in which Pine (under another name) poses as the toughest guy in all of Devon (I'm not kidding), then shows up in time to "rescue"Roper's son in a staged kidnapping, and so on. As w/ far too many spy (or crime) dramas involving a sting, it's needlessly complex, a ridiculous plan in which so much could go wrong, but convenient for the plot. No matter - a movie (unlike a novel) carries us forward at its own pace, and we don't have time or inclination to question the veracity - until later.:Fun while watching, though kind of ridiculous, in the long run.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Yet another high-school misfit movie - but this one has some original angles

Is there room for yet another movie about a high-school misfit, loner, weirdo, friendless victim of bullying? Yes, of course, the supply of such movies will apparently never end, the latest being On the Edge of Seventeen, which features a protagonist, Nadine, who is all of the above and, like many such protagonists (see Juno) speaks more like a Hollywood screenwriter than like any teenager, much less a loser-misfit. This film also suffers from the flaw that besets many teenage-loser movies: almost without exception, the lead characters are never convincing as the misfit victim; as in this movie, they are almost always cute, attractive, intelligent, most likely to be widely popular or, at the least, far from friendless. So, OK, with all these flaws acknowledged, let it also be noted that this is a pretty good and entertaining film about Nadine's struggle to find her place. The writing is intelligent, sometimes witty, and the writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig finds a few new angles to explore on this familiar turf: Nadine has had a life-long jealousy of her handsome and popular brother (Darian), and when he starts a relationship with her one and only friend that upsets everything in Nadine's life and in their family of 3. Craig also goes against convention by having Nadine confide regularly in her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) who, against expectation, is acerbic and cynical - the development of his character and his relationship with Nadine is the highlight of this movie. As in all comedies, Nadine grows over the course of the film, learns about the high-school pecking order and learns to live outside of same, and earns her way to social inclusion and a happy ending - orchestrated, yes; believable, not quite; but a feel-good movie that takes some original pathways on this very well-trodden ground.