Friday, November 29, 2013

Oldboy (2013)

Oldboy (2013) (3.5/5)

Hollywood has been threatening to remake Oldboy for some time now.  At one point Stephen Spielberg and Will Smith were supposed to team up and tackle the Korean revenge drama, which suggested to many that any American remake of Oldboy would be a watered down remake of Oldboy.  But I don’t think anyone suspected that Spike Lee would be tapped to helm the American version of the cult classic.  Like others, I love Lee’s work because he is such an idiosyncratic auteur, capable of plastering all of his thoughts, concerns and fears across a movie screen.  The idea of Lee working on what is essentially a genre exercise seemed counterintuitive, but it was also the incongruous meeting of director and film that made me interested in an American version of Oldboy a decade after the release of the original.  If nothing else, Lee’s Oldboy shows people that he can deliver the goods when it comes to blood, guts and action.  If he didn’t have so much to say, Lee could have been a damn good director for hire.

Of course, I was never a huge fan of the original film, and I think Chan-wook Park has made better movies, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate the movie as a collection of bizarre and engaging images.  For me, the original never coheres as a whole, but it is a great series of disconnected segments.  Lee’s remake stays relatively true to the broad outlines of the original’s plot.  And while in interviews Lee is quick to stress that he thinks of the film as a “reimagining” rather than a remake, his film is a lot more faithful than that word suggests.  If nothing else, the 2013 version of Oldboy is an interesting genre exercise that is likely to be just as shocking as the original to the uninitiated but probably only an odd curiosity for those of us who caught the first film ten years ago. 

For those who haven’t seen Park’s film, the protagonist of Oldboy, in this version named Joe Doucett, is an overworked businessman.  Early in the film we see Joe not so clandestinely take a few chugs of vodka out of one of those flask sized containers, made for those who are committed to being day drunk on a semi-regular basis but don’t want to go all the way and buy an actual flask.  Later Joe blows up at his ex-wife after she suggests that he show up for his daughter’s third birthday, and then proceeds to clown his own business dinner by hitting on a prospective client’s date.  Lee’s version paints a far more desperate and depraved image of its protagonist as a member of the corporate good ol’ boys club.  While some might take issue with this change, complaining that Joe’s eventual entrapment seems more justified in the remake, it does add another layer to Joe’s determination to get revenge.  Tracking down those who imprisoned him seems as much about making amends for who he was as it is about plain old vengeance.
After a major bender that finds him yelling in the middle of the street and vomiting on the sidewalk, Joe wakes up in an unsettling hotel room with little more than a television, creepy photo of a bellboy, and an adjacent bathroom.  Joe’s captors provide him daily meals every day, including a small container of vodka and the ever present dumplings from the original film.  Here Joe spends the next twenty years of his life, barely holding on to his insanity.  Lee actually extends this portion of the film, and he arguably improves on the original by including little details like Joe’s attempt to befriend a mouse and her brood.  Like much of the film, the sequence is born on the shoulders of Josh Brolin’s surprisingly engaging performance, which spans the gamut from confusion to rage to debased desperation. 

Joe does eventually get out, but instead of following through on an escape plan he has conjured, he is unceremoniously released.  From here, Joe starts to plot his revenge with the aid of an old friend played by Michael Imperioli (a Spike Lee regular) and a young medical assistant played by Elizabeth Olsen.  The remake follows the guideline of the original, and if anything it actually spends more time wallowing in the Grand Guignol twists this time around, perhaps as a rejoinder to those who believed an American remake wouldn’t have the guts to follow through with some of the more revolting aspects of the first movie.  Lee evinces a clear love of Park’s film, and there are a handful of visual allusions throughout the film, which seem to pierce the thin membrane separating the original and the remake.

As always, Lee brings his consummate visual eye to the proceedings, and he often garnishes his dark and seedy cityscapes with bright flashes of color.  He even films the action with aplomb, besting other directors who supposedly direct action movies as a career.  (Rumor has it that Lee filmed an even longer version of the single shot hammer sequence, but that the studio forced him to cut it down, perhaps the only real concession to American audiences in the film).  And as I mentioned, Brolin’s varied performance carries the film along with the same magnetic pull as one of Lee’s double dolly shots.  In all the film is well made.  I’m just not completely certain it’s a necessary film.  The 2013 Oldboy is like a good cover of a song that stays pretty close to the original.  The new band knows what made the song great in the first place, and they dutifully reproduce that.  But in the end those who love the original will always prefer listening to the original. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why the Hell is Best Buy Staying Open for Thanksgiving?

In a fit of impotent rage, I decided to run off a letter to Best Buy in response to the fact that they have decided to stay open during the Thanksgiving holiday. I know that this is a widespread issue that extends far beyond Best Buy. It truly is a systemic problem born out of consumerism and commercialism run amok. If these workers had adequate union representation, then they could more effectively advocate for time off during the holidays. I tend to believe that this recent trend of stores staying open during Thanksgiving is indicative of larger economic issues. I’m certain that this single letter will have no real or lasting effect, but it made me feel good, and I believe that concerted writing campaigns can in fact have an impact. Feel free to steal any of this for your own ineffective expression of anger and despair.

Dear Best Buy,

My name is Tom Birkenstock, and I am writing to express my dismay that you have chosen to stay open on Thanksgiving. Keeping your store open on a holiday is harmful to your employees who wish to be spending time with their families as well as to Thanksgiving as an American tradition. I believe that your choice to stay open on Thanksgiving cheapens the holiday and hurts those in your employ.

I have been a customer of your store for well over a decade. During that time I’ve been attracted to Best Buy because of the convenience of your selection and the helpfulness of your staff. But because of your decision to stay open on Thanksgiving, I have decided to stop shopping at your store. Recently I needed accessories for my laptop, but I purposefully chose to shop at one of your competitors specifically because you decided to stay open during the holiday. I will also refuse to do any shopping at Best Buy in the coming months.

This may only cost your company a few hundred dollars this year, but I don’t think I am alone in my belief that you are harming America’s holiday tradition. I hope that in the future you will decide that not only is staying open on Thanksgiving a poor economic choice, but it is an immoral choice.


-Tom Birkenstock

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne (1/5)

Popular history is a strange genre that often seems suspended between genuine academic rigor and amateurish quackery.  For every book of popular history written by a well regarded historian and aimed at educating the general public, there are at least a hundred written by a layperson that, even if he or she does the appropriate amount of footwork, usually ends up reproducing antiquated historical narratives.  While a professor of history might understand how to read nuance into old sources, an amateur too often takes the word of a writer from the past at his or her word.  S. C. Gwynne’s book on the Comanche’s, Empire of the Summer Moon, is just such a book.  Gwynne’s lack of understanding of the past causes him to repeat racist tropes from the 19th century that have no place in the modern day.

I knew little about Empire of the Summer Moon when I picked it up, except that it provided a lengthy history of the Comanche tribe alone with a recounting of the raid of the Parker family homestead, an incident that would go on to influence the John Wayne and John Ford film The Searchers.  While reading the book, however, something seemed off.  There was a certain leering quality to the way in which Gwynne described Comanche violence.  There’s nothing inherently wrong about describing Native-American violence against white settlers.  Across the centuries and over the course of many wars between whites and Native-Americans, atrocities were of course committed on both sides.  But Gwynne often presents these acts of violence with little historical context, especially early on, and more troubling he continually returns to the word “savage.”  While he applies the term to the violent actions of the Comanche and not necessarily to the Comanche themselves, the word has such a charged racist history that it would have been best to avoid.

But I soon realized that the language and the manner in which Gwynne decontextualized Comanche violence presaged a shockingly racist book.  Even after this early warning sign, I continued to read, expecting popular history to offer its usual Eurocentric bias.  But as I got deeper into the book, Gwynne’s racist attitudes became even more prevalent.  The attitudes and beliefs that Gwynne espouses about the Comanche people are almost certainly relics of the 19th century, and it became a fascinating, if at times deplorable example, of how 19th century discourse has survived into the 21st century. 

Like many writing in the 19th century, Gwynne represents the Comanche as a chronological throwback, an image of Europeans translated back into time.  In recounting the impact that the introduction of the horse would have on the Comanche, Gwynne writes of the “astonishing change” that occurs because of “what this backward tribe of Stone Age hunters did with the horse” (28).  You can see from Gwynne’s language how he moves from what he believes are merely descriptive terms, like the use of savage to describe incidents of violence earlier on in the book, to pejorative, qualitative language, like the term “backwards” in the above excerpt.  This pattern repeats itself again and again in the book.  It is an intriguing example of how racism simmers underneath Gwynne’s writing until it finally reaches a full boil and settles down once again. 

Gwynne further explains that despite the Comanche ability to incorporate horses into their culture, “[t]hey remained relatively primitive, warlike hunters; the horse virtually guaranteed that they would not evolve into more civilized agrarian societies” (31).  Here, in language that is oddly reminiscent of how some English spoke of the Irish’s dependency on potatoes during the potato famine, Gwynne points to the horse as a detriment, preventing the Comanche from becoming farmers (which should be read as assimilating to white American culture).  Any cultural development that does not eventually lead to Anglo-American style agriculture and socio-political institutions are perceived as headed in the wrong direction.

While Gwynne manages to acknowledge Comanche skill at riding, he simultaneously robs them of the ability to reason when discussing the Comanche horse culture.  Discussing the shrouded introduction of horses into Comanche country, Gwynne writes, “Whatever it was, whatever sort of accidental brilliance, whatever the particular, subliminal bond between warrior and horse, it must have thrilled these dark-skinned pariahs from the Wind River country” (32).  Relying on the assumption that Comanche human beings must have had some kind of mystical relationship with their horses, Gwynne can only imagine that the incorporation of horses into Comanche life and subsequent technological development to tame and breed horses must have been “accidental.”  It never even occurs to Gwynne that the Comanche could possibly observe the natural world around them and logically manipulate both nature and their own society in order to better fit their own needs.

Gwynne never provides a full and complete image of contemporaneous white culture.  He seems mostly concerned with comparing military technological and tactical differences between American settlers and whites (like a lot of popular history, Gwynne is often obsessed over military matters to the exclusion of the social, cultural, and economic).  He decries how the Comanche treat their women, which is certainly fair enough.  But he never notes that because of coverture laws, women in antebellum America had the legal status of property.  He lingers on images of Comanche violence, but nowhere does he discuss the fact that American settlers in Texas were importing slavery and its systemic sins of forced labor, torture, rape, and extra-legal execution.  Nowhere does he mention that the violence of slavery imposed by whites dwarfed the violence committed by the Comanche on almost every level.  

It’s truly incredible how racist discourse from the 19th century influenced Gwynne’s writing.  He even uses the term “barbarian” in what is presumably an anthropological sense.  This is an outdated term popularized in the sciences by Lewis H. Morgan, John Lubbock, and Frederich Engels, all 19th century scientists.  The continued use of this single word long past its expiration date characterizes Gwynne’s writing and mindset.  At one point he defends his project by noting that we shouldn’t pretend as if American-Indians were naïve innocents who lived in a perfect state of nature.  I agree.  And if Gwynne were more familiar with academic research about Native-Americans, then he would realize that the image of Native-Americans as a culture of Adams and Eves has been out of fashion for decades.  I also don’t think the alternative to describing Native-Americans as pure innocents is to resurrect racist ideas from hundreds of years ago. 

If Gwynne’s book were just an isolated piece of poorly written popular history, then there wouldn’t be too much of a story here.  But S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon was actually a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  This means that a large number of journalists not only did not see a problem with the racism of Gwynne’s text, but they believed that this was the sort of historical work worth celebrating.  If nothing else, Gwynne’s book and its apparent success is an instance of discourse’s inertia.  We like to think that language and ideas are always changing, moving forward and, ideally, improving.  But the inertia of discourse suggests that backwards concepts from the past will remain with us unless there is a strong concerted effort to push against them. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (4/5)

Of all the superheroes who have made the leap from page to screen, Thor has been the biggest surprise, if only because he breaks so clearly from the most well established superhero narratives.  The most common blueprint for the superhero film finds an altruistic young man struggling with doing the right thing only to be given extraordinary powers that change his life and the world around him (see Spider Man and Captain America).  This narrative nicely fits within the hero’sjourney narrative Hollywood has loved at least since Star Wars.  And then there’s the popular superhero narrative of a billionaire deciding to give himself to his community by mustering his extraordinary talents and wealth (see Batman and Iron Man).  The advantage of this kind of story is that the hero’s astounding wealth can ground the events in a world that looks a lot like our own, minimizing the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  But the world of Thor is a strange amalgamation of superheroes, mythology, fantasy, and science fiction.  In short, it is a bizarre hodgepodge of influences that only seem to fit together within the logic of comic books.

And yet somehow the first Thor film worked.  A lot of the credit goes to Kenneth Branagh who embraced the loopier aspect of the hero, but still managed to ground the narrative with a combination of mythological family drama and a 1980s fish out of water comedy.  Despite the first film’s laborious finale, the movie succeeded on the merits of everyone involved.  The sequel, Thor: The Dark World, continues to expand on Thor’s universe, spending more time off earth and in the various Nine Realms. 

Thor: The Dark World opens once again with that ponderous signifier of the fantasy genre: the voiceover.  (I understand how this might be necessary in some situations, especially with the overwhelmingly large universe of J.R.R. Tolkein, but there has got to be a better way to build a fantasy world in the medium of film).  Odin’s voiceover introduces Malekith, the film’s villain who hopes to destroy the universe using a powerful weapon known as the Aether, a maroon sometimes liquid, sometimes solid object that also appears to have a mind of its own.  Malekith’s plans are stymied by Bor, Thor’s grandfather.  But he wakes thousands of years later, at a time when the Nine Realms are in alignment, which, lucky for Malekith, is apparently the ideal time for their destruction. This Convergence has shred the boundaries between worlds, which leads Thor love interest and scientific expert in technobabble, Jane Foster to become infected by the Aether. 

Malekith isn’t a particularly compelling villain.  His motivations are murky at best, and it’s clear that his sole job is to move the plot forward.  But luckily the much more compelling villain from the first film and The Avengers, Loki, has also returned.  For the first part of the film, Loki remains locked up on Asgard for his crimes, and he only gets released when Thor decides he needs his help to hunt down Malekith.  At this point it’s hard to imagine a Thor film without Loki.  His charismatic trickster has become the kind of villain you hate yourself for actually rooting for.  Likewise, Chris Hemsworth excels at being unselfconsciously charming as Thor, and Anthony Hopkins manages to be both grizzled and regal as Odin. 

But if there is one aspect of The Dark War that compares unfavorably with its predecessor, it’s a fumbling of the Thor, Loki, and Odin dynamic.  Kenneth Branagh at first seemed like an odd choice for a superhero film, but watching the first film, it became clear that Branagh’s knowledge of Shakespeare made him ideal to explore the relationship between a family of royals (I’m sure I’m not the only person to recognize parallels between Thor and Prince Hal/Henry V).  This is most evident in the character of Odin.  In the first film, Branagh and Hopkins crafted a complex image of a king who excelled at war and yet hated violence, who loved his sons and yet feared for their future.  When Odin banishes Thor, Hopkins plays the character as stern but melancholy.  In the sequel, Hopkins is given little to do but to stomp around being gruff. 

But in general perhaps the biggest asset the Thor films have is a cast intent on ignoring how downright goofy, if fun, the material is and giving performances that craft as fully realized characters as possible, even if their screen time is scant.  Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, and Zachary Levi (replacing Josh Dallas) all manage to make the most of their archetypal adventurers even while relegated to the periphery.  Each character could potentially anchor an entire film, so long as they also had a comic book named after them.  As for the earthlings, Stellan Skarsgard turns in a more comedic performance this time around, and Kat Denning manages to barely skirt annoying and manages to be funny.  The Thor films have enough characters to fuel five more movies without relying on the larger Marvel universe. 

The Dark World is directed by Alan Taylor who has worked primarily in television, most relevantly directing a number of episodes of Game of Thrones.  His biggest contribution to the Nine Realms is providing a more lived in feel to Asgard and a heavy infusion of sci-fi elements.  Branagh embraced the comic book origins, making liberal use of Dutch tilts and bright colors.  And while these are taken directly from the art of Thor co-creator Jack Kirby, Taylor’s slightly grimier vision works better on the big screen. Taylor seems heavily influenced by George Lucas circa 1977 to 1983.  Not only does he create a world with a little dirt and grime, but he also melds science fiction with fantasy.  The races of the Nine Realms are just as comfortable battling with sword and shield as they are space fighters.  This goes a long way towards really showcasing what a strange, baroque world Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have created, but grounding it for the film going audience.

The Dark World is a case of one step forward and one step back.  Unlike in the first film, the plot moves along lithely, but in order to do so it has abandoned the psychological depth that differentiated the first film from other superhero movies.  But when this superhero craze started a few years ago, no one really expected a Thor film in the first place.  Asgard and the Nine Realms seemed so loopy, so melded to the page that a film seemed impossible.  Comic books have the potential to present an image of unfettered imagination at work.  The Thor films have shown that, despite the odds, this can translate to the screen. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Lou Reed - Berlin

Lou Reed – Berlin (5/5)

Lou Reed’s third album, Berlin, embodies the most beloved narrative in rock and roll history: the lost classic.  Nearly universally despised upon its released, in the last forty years Berlin has gone from pariah to a canonical rock and roll album. And while this is in many ways a triumph—after all, the more accolades an album receives, the more people listen to it—there’s something about Berlin that makes its banishment from polite society seem appropriate, not because the album is a disaster as some critics claimed on its initial release, but because the album spends the majority of its running time mired in the grime and muck of drug addiction, poverty, and domestic violence.  As an album, Berlin is arguably Lou Reed’s greatest evocation of place in an entire career concerned with the territory of the city. 

Ostensibly, Berlin is a concept album.  But unlike most concept albums of the 70s, Berlin isn’t concerned with baroque plotting or sci-fi fantasy.  Instead, the album is an evocative exploration of the cityscape and city dwellers.  Lou Reed acts as flaneur and guide who leads the listener through a kaleidoscopic series of personalities and images.  The title track opens the album with the shuffling sounds of the city: conversations, laughter, a birthday song, and glasses clinking all competing with one another for clarity.  This bundle of white noise soon gives way to Reed’s speak/sing voice and piano, reminiscing about attending a concert in a café with his paramour.  Reed’s lyrics cleverly collapse beginnings and endings.  The date at the café appears to occur early on in the couple’s relationship, a time of open possibilities, but these potential futures are quickly closed as Reed sings, “Oh, babe, I’m gonna miss you now that you’re gone.”  Already Reed is foreshadowing the dark places his tale will take us.

Berlin’s narrative can be simply outlined as a street rat couple fall in love in the city, play power games with each other, have several children together, and separate.  Caroline, the female protagonist, eventually becomes disreputable, loses her children, and commits suicide.  There’s an almost stifling sense of dread throughout the album.  The details of this relationship are not always clear, but it doesn’t matter, because Reed is more concerned with crafting atmosphere and a sense of location than he is throwing together a clumsy plot.  Rather than referring to the actual Berlin, the German city seems to be more of a state of mind, a stand in for large international metropolises, owing as much debt to New York City or William S. Burrough’s fictional Interzone as it does to Germany’s capital. 

Just as the skyscrapers of the city can make residents feel cut off from the outside world, Reed’s characters are also trapped by place and class.  In the song, “Men of Good Fortune,” Reed swings back and forth between those born into wealth and those born into poverty.  Reed sings, “Men of good fortune / Often cause empires to fall / While men of poor beginnings / often can’t do anything at all,” drawing a line between the have and the have nots as well as their attendant agency or lack thereof.  The manner in which Reed’s verses place “men of good fortune” and “men of poor beginnings” next to one another is indicative of how great poverty and great wealth often share the same space in the city.  Several times Reed’s protagonist sings, “it makes no difference to me,” claiming that the trappings of poverty aren’t something that will define his life, but the tragic end to the album suggests otherwise.  In other words, you may not believe in class warfare, but class warfare believes in you.

It’s important for Reed to construct a world around his characters, because they do unsavory things and at times seem completely unconcerned with one another.  The relationship between the two protagonists appears to vacillate between love and hate.  In “Caroline Says I,” Caroline expresses her desire to treat her male paramour as a toy, and he responds by calling her his queen.  And yet two songs later on “Oh Jim,” the titular character is described as “Filled up to here with hate” and beating his lover “black and blue.”  In the song’s coda, sung from Caroline’s perspective, she quietly laments “Oh Jim, how could you treat me this way?”  This is a highly dysfunctional couple, and without an understanding of the world of poverty and drugs in which they live, a listener wouldn’t be able to extend any empathy.  Reed doesn’t ask us to condone the troubled psychosexual and physical power these two inflict on one another, but he does ask us to understand their world.

The album’s longest song at nearly eight minutes, “The Kids” might be the album’s most sympathetic song.  The track details all the reasons why the state wants to take Caroline’s children away, including drug use and perceived promiscuity.  Towards the end of the song, we hear two children screaming for their mother, evocatively representing the toll this separation will have on “the children.”  By questioning the decision to separate mother and child, Reed asks us to question how class affects perception of motherhood.  “The Kids” has also resulted in one of the album’s most intriguing behind the scenes stories.  The two children calling out for their mother are supposedly producer Bob Ezrin’s.  Ezrin knew he wanted the sound of two screaming children, so when his children came home from school one day, he told them their mother had died in a horrible car accident and then recorded the results.  This story may or may not be apocryphal, but it only ads to the mythology of Berlin.

Berlin manages to be both a representative and exceptional album in Reed’s discography.  It is representative in that it recalls Reed’s transformative ability to sketch characters and places.  But it is an exception because Reed relies on orchestration more on Berlin than just about any other album out there.  Amidst the album’s layered strings and overpowering horn sections, Reed’s off kilter, nearly monotone delivery grounds his story of druggies and lovers.  The closing track, “Sad Song,” swirls with arpeggio violins.  The track becomes a mockery of the sort of triumphant ending one usually finds at the conclusion of a Broadway musical.  The album’s male protagonist, Jim is supposedly thinking about moving on after Caroline’s suicide, but he only seems to be going through the motions, proudly exclaiming “I’m going to stop wasting my time / Somebody else would have broke both her arms.”  But it’s to Reed’s credit that buried within this irony is a true sense of despair.  As I write this review, Reed passed away a week ago.  I’ve been listening to “Sad Song” quite a lot, and I can confidently report back that it can in fact double as an authentic expression of loss.