DVDs: Richard Ayoade's first feature film, Submarine, is an exception that proves my rule against liking narrated movies. That's because what protagonist Oliver Tate - a disaffected youth in 1980s Wales - has to say is clever, and Ayoade knows how to render that cleverness in the direction, sound and editing. The thrust of the plot is that of a darkly comic coming of age story in which Oliver falls for an equally unpopular girl played by the Sarah Jane Adventures' Yasmin Paige (about as far away as sugary sweet Maria Jackson as can be), but might throw it all away when he becomes obsessed with keeping his mother from committing adultery. And so the disaffected finds things to be affected by. Quirky, interesting characters, situations and thoughts abound in what I want to call one of the best films I've seen this year. Between this and The Double, I want Ayoade to make loads more, and hope he does. The DVD includes a good making of and a some deleted/extended scenes (the full Tedtalk about light is hilarious, well worth it).
Jim Jarmush's Dead Man, a black and white, slightly surreal picaresque western, leaves a lot to interpretation, and I reveled in its ambiguities. Johnny Depp plays William Blake, not the poet but an accountant who becomes a Wild West outlaw after being shot. Is he as dead as the title suggests and are we witnessing a death of the self through the prism of a western? Likely, as the characters we meet are absurd and their deaths could be seen as either psychological resolutions as one reflects on one's death, or else terminations brought on by brain death (note the death of the film's central duality just at the end). But it's more than that. Creating a confusion between this character and the English poet and painter evokes the death of a certain kind of man. Imperialist England gave us poetry and art. In Imperialist America, the only poetry is gun violence. As we move West in the film, modernism seems to slip away. Slow-paced and reflective, Dead Man still remains an achievement in absurdist humor, and should spark some conversations. It's filled with stars and includes a simple, but memorable soundtrack by Neil Young. And full props too for its realistic portrayal of Natives. the DVD includes deleted scenes and a music video.
The Descent is a spelunking adventure that goes horribly wrong when a group of women, thrill seekers all, run afoul of a race of blind cannibal troglodytes. Claustrophobes need not apply. The first half is creates unease very early, giving one character a trauma to get over, and then plunging the cast in darkness and cramped spaces. If this were a survival movie, it would work quite well without the introduction of monsters. Once those monsters show up, the killing begins, on both sides, and we may or may not hedge into a metaphorical space where one woman's trauma becomes everyone's nightmare. In that way, it avoids becoming just a string of jump scares, though it is that too. Admirable for its stark use of lighting and negative space to gives the caves a hellish atmosphere, it's an effective, thrilling monster movie for (ok not) the whole family.
John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness seems of a piece with They Live. The Lovecraftian title is no accident. In the film, an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) tracks a horror novelist whose books are making people go insane. The trail leads him to a fictional town where he is in danger of being absorbed by the fiction, of turning into a character in the Lovecraft/King stand-in's next novel. Even the audience can't trust reality when the protagonist keeps slipping in and out of consciousness. The film has the perfect nightmarish quality to achieve these effects, but at the same time, that arch comedic tone found in other Carpenter movies. Beyond the chuckles and the frights, is the existentialist horror that comes when you realize reality is manufactured, that if enough people believe an idea, it becomes true. This theme returns again and again, not just in the main plot where the book's ideas rewrite people's psyches, but in small details like Neill's inability to smoke in the presence of others, a symbol for changing social mores. In the Mouth of Madness will reward multiple viewings.
In the wake of 9/11, Ken Finkleman resurrected The Newsroom (the CBC one, not the HBO one) and though the "horrible boss" proto-Office elements are still in place, there's a stronger focus on satirizing how news is packaged, especially in the 21st century where the stakes seem (or are made) so much higher. Took me a few episodes to get used to the new cast members, and though not mentioned, it's be great to think the missing cast members were promoted out of there to their satisfaction. Obviously, there's no reference to the group running for election, or of the anchor's death in the previous season from 8 years before. This is a show that does what it likes, and in this case includes a sequence where the fourth wall is broken and the production talks about a scene instead of shooting it, and the last four episodes are suddenly framed as the work of a documentary crew even though there are plenty of scenes talk could not have been captured by that camera, including a hallucination that stars Joanne Kelly as the Virgin Mary. It makes the series seem slightly disjointed, admittedly, but the ugly honesty of the show's more realistic aspects make up for it, I think. The DVD includes a commentary track where Finkleman is interviewed on two episodes, a strong making of, an alternate ending for the last episode (which restarts the episode, so feel free to scan ahead), and three music videos of songs apparently included in the series (I didn't notice them, so they seemed like a strange inclusion when I got to the end).
Books: Philip Roth is a Jewish author who's own community has called anti-Semitic. In Operation Shylock, he addresses the issue in a story in which he meets a literary duplicate of himself, another Philip Roth who is using his name and fame to advance an agenda in Israel. He flies to the Holy Land to confront his double - and speaking of The Double, Dostoevsky's fingerprints are all over this - where he gets entangled in machinations from Jews and Palestinians alike, and works out his own problematic duality. So it's a book about the schism at the heart of the Jewish soul - the wry comedic New York Jew and the militant, even military, Israelite - but also about the part of oneself one has rejected and yet exists. And can one be forgiven for something a "past" rejected self has done? That's universal to everyone and everyone in the book is leading a double life, in a way. On a third level, it's about that part of yourself you've put on the page as a writer. Are his characters not himself? And if they are, can Roth divorce himself from their opinions and politics? Roth's humor keeps the read entertaining, but he does become a bit strident with his themes. If a Jewish State is important to you politically, it might upset or at least provide food for thought, as the idea is intensely examined, attacked and defended. My interest is purely academic, of course, as those aren't really issues in my neck of the woods, but as the member of an ethnic minority, at least some of Roth's thesis carries over into my own national identity, and may yours.