Sunday, October 26, 2008

FILM: La Sconosciuta, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore

La Sconosciuta - (ITA, 2006; The Unknown Woman - US Title)
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Written by Massimo De Rita and Giuseppe Tornatore

In the US, Tornatore’s name will forever be linked to his biggest international hit, Cinema Paradiso, largely because that movie’s blend of nostalgia intermingled with a non-explicit portrait of life’s harsher realities is perfectly suited to the US art-house cinephile’s hunger for restrained whimsy.

Audiences expecting more of the same from Sconosciuta will be greatly shocked by the frankness of the opening sequence in the movie: A nod to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with added cynicism, which then plunges into a mood not unlike a Hitchcock-ian thriller that’s sustained for nearly three quarters of the movie’s running time.

The movie revolves around Irena, the titular unknown woman, a Ukrainian immigrant in Italy who is looking for work as a maid for one particular family, though the depths and the reasons for her single-minded violent pursuit of this work is slowly revealed to us as the plot progresses. Irena is played by Xenia Rappopport, in a performance that is every bit the equal to Carice Van Houten’s leading turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, another 2006 foreign movie about a woman struggling to reconcile her past with her motivations in the present. That movie was hailed as a return to form for Paul Verhoeven, whereas Sconosciuta is largely seen as a departure for Tornatore; Verhoeven’s track record in Hollywood greatly abets this distinction.

Bits and pieces of Irena’s exposition are given to us in fragmentary flashbacks, and slowly, the present day segments start accumulating their own resonance, such as when the audience notes the fact that the family’s young daughter does not resemble either of her parents. It’s a testament to the film’s pull that the large holes in the film’s plot could be glossed over by the desire to see the film’s destination.

To reveal more than this would rob a good portion of La Sconosciuta’s power, and that power helps to contextualize the film’s final act, which abandons the thriller component of the movie, and moves into the message portion of its agenda. The issues the film addresses are very real blots on current Italian society, and likely in the Western world in general. Though largely ignored on these shores, there are a small handful of Indiewood directors and producers who have tackled these topics (John Sayles, pre-Ocean’s Eleven Stephen Soderbergh, Maria Full of Grace), though none with the entertaining panache of Tornatore’s most recent export.

As the audience filed out of the screening I attended, a woman noted “that was the most f’ed up movie I’d ever seen.” This woman seems to have been shielded from either version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and perhaps she should remain thus. For me, La Sconosciuta provided the impetus to look into Tornatore’s other films in order to see if I’ve been missing something by writing him off as a purveyor of safe nostalgic fare.

Reviewed by thebeigeone - 479 words

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

BOOK: Got by D

Got (Seven Weapon Arsenal) by D
The Armory (imprint of Akashic Books), New York, 2006

Got is the debut novel from The Armory, the new “urban noir” imprint of independent publisher Akashic Books (Akashic’s tag is “dedicated to the reverse gentrification of the literary world”). The specific genre label seems deliberate, a nod to controversies that swirl around the genre’s other names, “street lit” and “gangsta lit,” questions about the genre’s literary values and social impact.

Which I only mention because it would be disingenuous not to, just as it would be disingenuous to shrug off my white privilege coloring my perspective of a predominantly African-American literary form.

And which I won’t dwell on because it seems patronizing, seems to take a different tone than any teeth-gnashing over the nihilism and questionably literariness of Nick McDonnell or Bret Easton Ellis and its effect on 15- to 25-year-old white kids.

This novel rises above such concerns, or perhaps more accurately blasts past them. It is high-energy, swiftly-paced noir, gritty and violent without being gratuitous, grim but not nihilistic, a narrative pull that understands desperation is another kind of hope.

Got is written in second-person, which works so perfectly for noir that I’m surprised I haven’t come across it before. Second-person is risky, can devolve into gimmick if not handled with a deft touch, and this is the most consistent and effective application I’ve read since Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

The immediacy created by the second-person voice drives the story. You’re a college student and part-time bagman for the city’s toughest boss, and, as the story opens, you’re in the middle of a VIP session with your favorite stripper, backpack of your bosses cash at your side. The moment she concludes your special customer treatment, you notice the bag is gone. A foot chase, shotgun blast to the chest, and violent meeting with your boss later, you’re on the street with the rest of the night to retrieve the cash.

The story is a runaway train from there, barreling through forged and broken alliances, old grudges, and wholesale gang warfare. And yet you, the narrator, remain central, never overcome by events. The narrator is a warrior, has fought for a lifetime against inevitability, unwilling to be defined merely by his abusive home life with his parents, the brutal murder of his loving adoptive parents, the realities of getting by on the streets. He is fighting for his conception of himself as a person of worth, a college student, not just another punk. He fights for his right to self-determination.

There is a spirit that pervades this book that violence isn’t inevitable, but the product of choice, even when the choices life lays out are dire. It is a short novel that crackles with energy, yanks the reader out of his seat and into a headlong plunge, but leaves in its wake a deeper resonance, meaning that seethes up out of the muscle memories of the sprint.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 484 words


Thursday, April 05, 2007

CD: Avant Hard by Add N to X

Add N To X: Avant Hard
Mute Records

The middle part of my formative years, musically speaking, took place in Nuremburg, Germany. I was there from 1980 – 1984. This may explain why I still have an affinity for European bands whose track lists mostly consist of electronic or synth instrumentals.

The only American counterparts to this music (that I can remember listening to at the time), were Devo, and early hip-hop classics (George Clinton’s “Cosmic Dog,” Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” and Jonzun Crew’s “Space Cowboy”).

I’d been hooked since I first heard Robert Palmer’s “Johnny & Mary.” After that, it wasn’t long before I was freaking out to the sounds of KMFDM, Bauhaus, Kraftwerk, Tones On Tail, and the Art of Noise (both the Trevor Horn influenced experimentia, and the later more commercial work – the “Peter Gunn” cover, Max Headroom’s “Paranoimia” – that Dudley, Morley and Langan popularized).

I am particularly fond of these last two strains of AoN. You can feel their influence in some odd places like Wizardzz (Horn gone minimalistic, and jammy), or Daft Punk (Homewerk captured the early schizoid nature of AoN rather well). However, a number of their direct descendants are found playing under the unlikely and algebraic moniker Add N to X.

Possessing only their last two albums (Add Insult to Injury, Loud Like Nature), and in search of something new, I picked up Add N To X’s third album Avant Hard (1999) expecting to encounter more of their groovy, synth-based, math-y goofiness (or moog-tinged body music, if you will).

What I found was an album that Trevor Horn wishes he had created.

Starting with “Barry 7’s Contraption” (an odd little concept piece that mixes the mouth harp with a Danny Elfman-esque loop, amidst other oddities), Avant Hard takes you through some of the strangest musical landscapes created this side of Aphex Twin’s less aggressive ventures.

Along the way, you’re taken on video gamey joyrides (“Skills”), menacing cartoon parades (“Steve’s Going To Teach Himself Who’s Boss,” reminiscent of AoN’s “A Time For Fear” and MC 900 Foot Jesus’ Welcome to My Nightmare), sped past a dramatic and arid desert landscape(“Revenge of the Black Regent”), until you end up in the breathy embrace of a confused muse (“Oh Yeah, Oh No”), nestled cozily in a lush Morricone cloud (“Machine is Bored With Love”).

If all of this sounds too esoteric, too “challenging,” then I’m simply not doing a good job of conveying the amount of fun to be had listening to this album. Yes, they use a loop of a horse galloping as the basis for one of the album’s more aggressive songs (“Ann’s Everyday Equestrian”); but, they aren’t shy to use a basic punk drumbeat, nor a more traditional rock rhythm section on a number of these songs, though.

There is a considerable evolution between this and the two albums that succeed it (though not necessarily in approach); Avant Hard makes an already difficult to place, yet greatly enjoyable band, even harder to pin down.

--thebeigeone, 494 words.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

PLAY: My Name is Rachel Corrie at Seattle Repertory Theatre

My Name is Rachel Corrie,
by Rachel Corrie, Katherine Viner & Alan Rickman
starring Marya Sue Kaminski, directed by Braden Abraham
Seattle Repertory Theatre, March 15 to April 22, 2007

Ten years ago, I was visiting my ex-girlfriend in New York and she suggested we go see a movie. It was a less painful proposition than talking to her, so we drove to the local multiplex and picked Jerry Maguire, then in its first days of release. It seemed the least objectionable choice, but my expectations were incredibly low. And I ended up really liking the movie, so much so that I recommended it to friends when I returned to Seattle. Most of whom ended up hating it. It was, by that time, the much-hyped sensation we remember it to be.

Such is the power of expectations.

And surely some of that is in play with my reaction to Seattle Rep’s production of My Name is Rachel Corrie. I was underwhelmed by the play as a piece of literature, and further put off by a fawning review from a local critic whose tastes rarely synch with mine. I entered the theater with exceedingly low expectations.

And it blew me away.

Almost all of the credit goes to Marya Sue Kaminski as Corrie. She manages to avoid the nigh-inevitable lags in energy and/or narrative that plague one-person shows. Kaminski is immediate and vitally present every moment she is on stage, deftly metamorphosing from exuberant Rachel to terrified and serious Rachel. Her dynamic portrayal of a young woman living the courage of her convictions is enough to pierce the shell of hardened cynics, a group among which I count myself.

The production isn’t, however, without it faults. I found it surprising and disappointing, given the level of controversy that follows the play, that the epilogue, Corrie’s death, would be handled so clumsily. After Kaminski leaves stage, several disembodied voices, presumably of Corrie’s companions, describe the events of her death, laying responsibility firmly at the feet of the IDF with claims that the bulldozer driver “clearly” saw Corrie over the dozer’s scoop, and hesitated directly over her body before withdrawing.

Until that point, the production managed to be bigger than the politics that surround it. Kaminski’s performance is so strong that the play clearly reads as the perspective of a single person. While still a political play, it avoids being a political statement. By introducing a plurality of voices in the end, all of whom share the political perspective of Corrie, it moves from one woman’s perspective to discourse on the facts. Until that point, there was no need for equivalency within the play, but that move to multiple voices demands it. A far more powerful conclusion could have been reached with an objective prologue, reporting her death and the disputed facts thereof.

This and a brief backstory digression about a trip to Dairy Queen with mental health clients that served only to diffuse tension that might better have been directed elsewhere are the only missteps in a strong production, anchored by a stellar performance by Kaminski.

It was worth mounting, and is worth seeing, much to my (delighted) surprise.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 497 words


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Television: Robin Hood

Robin Hood

produced by John Yorke

When I was a fat pre-pubescent growing up in rural Ohio, I wanted to be Robin Hood. I read a book called Locksley: The Story of Robin Hood and decided that living in the woods with a bunch of guys, working against an evil government and fighting for the people would be a cool lifestyle. My dad bought me a bow and I spent a few weeks practicing in the half-assed manner that would garner me so much success in my later years. I lost interest in archery after a short while, but I still have a fondness for Robin.

So I was excited when I saw that BBC America was going to be running a new series about him and I've been DVRing every episode and...meh.

It's nothing I can put my finger on. Their Robin is this pretty boy who's meant to be charming but doesn't actually have enough charisma to carry Errol Flynn's used condoms. They've given Robin this servant who fills the role of comic relief sidekick. Or, rather, he would fill the role of comic relief sidekick if he was at least as funny as, say, yarn. But he's not. In a joke-off, a skein of yarn would win, hands-down.

The writing appears to have been done via Mad Libs. Robin brings ______ (noun) to the villagers. The Sheriff threatens _____ (person). Robin saves them. Week in, week out. Then there's the problems found with every single British action/adventure series I've ever seen, which is that the action is lame and it's not all that adventurous. You'd see better stunts in a Theater Camp stage combat class.

And, like many other things that I've seen on TV this last year, (Studio 60, I'm looking at you) I really wanted to like this. But I just can't. I hate when I want to enjoy something that ends up sucking fifty metric tons of ass.

So then, today, I'm lying pantsless on the couch with the remote in my hand when I saw that HBO was running Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And I thought, "Huh. I wonder how it stacks up against the BBC show."

Turns out it makes the BBC version look like utter genius. If you can get around Costner's mullet and the fact that an English lord sounds like he was born and raised in Oklahoma, then you still have to deal with Christian Slater's mullet and his shitty attempt at an accent. To this, you then add Alan Rickman as the Sheriff, made up to look like one of the Wilson sisters from Heart circa 1987. I mean, the shot where we follow the arrow from the bow to the tree was great and all that, but you've gotta have more than that to build an entire fucking movie.

So great is my disappointment in both of these craptacular takes on the story, I'm gonna do my own version with sock puppets and twigs. And it'll be more historically accurate.

Reviewed by Joe Wack, 500 words


Monday, March 12, 2007

BOOK: The Open Curtain, by Brain Evenson

The Open Curtain, by Brain Evenson
Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Whenever I profess religious tolerance yet feel like being funny, I add, “Except the Mormons. They’re just nuts.” Somehow it feels safe in a way it never would making a joke about another religion. Partly it has to do with Mormonism’s geographical concentration; one is less likely to offend a Mormon outside of Utah. But, more so, it is Mormonism’s alien nature, its status as Other, shrouded in secrecy.

Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain places the reader on the fringes of Mormonism, and the effect is a novel that feels of another culture, referring to a shared narrative and values with which most readers are unfamiliar. Yet, the book is less about Mormonism than it is about Mormons whose lives are transformed by the seductive and destructive powers of violence.

The Open Curtain focuses on Rudd Theurer, a Mormon teen whose father committed suicide years earlier. Rudd is the archetypical Object of High School Scorn, isolated from peers and increasingly distant from his overbearing mother, when two events converge to change Rudd’s life: the discovery of hidden letters of his father’s that imply an unacknowledged son by another woman, and a school assignment that leads him to the 1903 murder conviction of William Hooper Young, son of Mormonism founder Brigham Young.

The injection of these two narratives into Rudd’s life begins a psychological transformation, one that Evenson relates through a three-part structure of shifting perspectives that serves to delay discoveries and preserve the elements of mystery in the story. And it works. This is a novel supported not by evocative language but a taut and driving plot and a psychological exegesis of the notions of secrecy and violence tied up in the disputed Mormon doctrine of “blood atonement.”

Which is not to say the novel succeeds on every level. The female characters are shallowly drawn, including the one, Lyndi, from whose perspective we see the novel’s middle act. Lyndi’s motivations never progress beyond a fear of being alone. The only two other women given significant time are Rudd’s overbearing and self-deceptive mother and Lyndi’s bullying and self-deceptive aunt. Perhaps it serves as a comment on women’s place in Mormonism, but they come off as caricatures.

And, in fact, the only reason I’m willing to conjecture this last possibility is the author’s afterword. Too many graduate criticism classes have left me with a sour taste for overemphasis on authorial intent, but I make an exception here. Evenson explains how writing this book accompanied his separation and voluntary excommunication from the Mormon Church, but he goes on to explain his delicacy in relating Temple practices and his respect for the culture. As a result, the novel has a different resonance than it might have coming from a bitter ex-Mormon.

Coming an an afterword, it allows the fact of Evenson’s ex-Mormonism to frame but not define the book, and where it would have failed as a screed against Mormonism, it succeeds as a thoughtful story told at the fringes of that culture.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 499 words


Saturday, March 03, 2007

PLAY: My Name is Rachel Corrie, by Rachel Corrie, Katherine Viner & Alan Rickman

My Name is Rachel Corrie,
by Rachel Corrie, Katherine Viner & Alan Rickman
Theatre Communications Group, September 2006

[Disclaimer: I work for the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which is mounting a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie that opens later this month. However, this is only in the interest of full disclosure; my job at the Rep is evening/weekend receptionist, and I have no connection or investment in this production. For further clarification, this review is of the text of the play, not of any individual production.]

Don’t be fooled by any of the PR that producing companies sling about My Name is Rachel Corrie not being a political play. It is an overtly political play, and can’t help being so.

Which isn’t to say their protestations are utterly groundless. On its face, My Name is Rachel Corrie can be called one girl’s story, told in her own words. But the simple fact of the matter is that we would not care about the story of this particular girl were it not for the political context of her death.

Rachel Corrie was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA when she traveled to Gaza to join international activists in protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Isreali Defense Force (IDF). On March 16, 2003, Corrie was killed by an IDF bulldozer while attempting to block the destruction of a house; the details of that day are disputed.

Depending on your point of view, Corrie is either a folk hero or a young girl who got herself killed by stepping into the middle of someone else’s fight. The very fact of the play’s existence sides with the former. We are only interested in Corrie because of the controversy that is sure to ensue when the play’s political relevance is recognized. Nobody that would choose to produce this play wants to side completely with Corrie in the incredibly complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet it is impossible to separate endorsement of her politics from the choice to mount it.

Because what My Name is Rachel Corrie really is, is a bad play. OK, maybe not bad, but lackluster and uninspiring in and of itself. What power it has is drawn from the energy evident in Corrie’s writing, the energy of a young woman in the process of finding herself. And, at moments, however brief, it delivers in her wit and earnestness. But, far more often, it comes off as precious or contrived, and during those times, the bulk of the play, the only thing that can potentially draw the audience along is the politics, the pull of her inevitable end, her martyrdom.

As a collection of first-person accounts (edited by Viner and Rickman from Corrie's writings), the play can only truly represent one viewpoint, Corrie’s. The only hints of the complexity of the political situation in which she inserts herself come when she relates the words of a Palestinian doctor, who notes that life in Gaza was good before the Intifada, and the occasional hand-wringing of her parents over suicide bombings as a tactic.

In the end, there really isn’t anything wrong with deciding that Corrie is, in fact, a folk hero, a young woman with the bravery to take direct action in support of her ideals. But, to deny that this play’s merits hang on acceptance of her specific choice, and cannot be viewed in a political vacuum, misses any point the play might ultimately make.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 490 words