Sunday, January 28, 2007

Film: Idiocracy dir. Mike Judge

directed by Mike Judge

I was frustrated as hell last year when Mike Judge's Idiocracy was dumped into only a handful of theaters and never played the Greater New York area. I was pissed. I love King of the Hill. I was one of the twelve people who went gaga over Office Space before it was released on video. I'd been waiting for this movie eagerly ever since I'd seen it listed in Entertainment Weekly's Summer Movie Preview. I scanned the horizons, ever watchful that it would soon splash across screens on the isle of Manhattan. Nothing. The jeezly flick never played here. In New York!

So, when I saw that it was coming out on DVD, I moved it immediately to the top of my Netflix queue. This weekend, at last, I saw this movie to which I'd been looking forward for ever so long.


The premise of this movie, I think, is ripe with comic potential. The over-breeding of dullards in today's society leads to a future world inhabited by utter morons? Awesome! What a great comment on the sad intellectual state of the world we live in. The sequence in which the evolution of this catastrophe is laid out is hilarious. But, once we get to this future world, there's only so many different ways it can be hammered home that these people are stupid.

My wife didn't feel that there was really anything you could do with this premise to give it a longer shelf-life than, say, ten minutes. I think Mike Judge could have done a whole lot more with this, if he hadn't been saddled with a number of other problems.

First off, he attempts to stick fairly closely with the post-apocalyptic movie genre story beats. Massive threat to civilization; our hero manages--somehow, in this crazy, mixed-up world--to restore some semblance of order. Throw in futuristic product placement here and there, as well as a gladiatorial scene; blah blah blah. It's not something that works if played straight with a goofy type of apocalypse grafted on.

Second, Luke Wilson is just kind of boring. I like him. You put him in the right movie, with a strong cast supporting him, and he can pull off a leading man with some credibility. But he's just not strong enough to anchor something like this.

Third: Maya Rudolph. Ugh. I've never understood why she lasted more than a season on SNL and I have no idea why anyone would hire her for a movie. NOT A GOOD ACTRESS.

Do I think this movie is a brilliant, underappreciated gem? No. Hell no. On the other hand, I still don't understand why it didn't get a wider release. There's a whole bunch of crap put out on a regular basis that is five times stupider than this and doesn't even try to make a comment on our society. Epic Movie was the number one film in the country this weekend. I rest my case.

Reviewed by Joe Wack, 494 words


Saturday, January 27, 2007

BOOK: The Exquisite by Laird Hunt

The Exquisite by Laird Hunt
Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Using an unreliable narrator is tricky – dangerous and enticing for the novelist. It reeks of literariness, and can become a crutch used to save a shaky story, mask a writer’s lack of control over the narrator, all of which makes Laird Hunt’s masterful use of such a narrator in The Exquisite, Hunt’s third novel, all the more impressive.

One of the effects of the unreliable voice is distance, freeing the reader from any necessity of identifying with or liking the narrator, and that serves Hunt well. The story’s narrator and protagonist is Henry, a mentally unstable, larcenous drunk drawn into a world of odd characters, ersatz murders and twisted identities. Henry is the type of person interesting at a distance, repellant up close.

And yet, even this was insufficient risk for Hunt. The Exquisite is pointedly post-9/11 fiction, set mainly in Manhattan in the aftermath of “the unpleasantness downtown.” The fall of the towers was the catalyst for Henry’s descent into homelessness and fractured self. But, because Hunt handles 9/11 so tactfully, with bits of imagery and brief asides, focusing not on the event itself but with its aftermath, the novel rises above the clambering mass of mediocre art that horrific day has inspired.

Henry, his frail grasp on reality shattered by the terrorist attacks, wanders the city until he is discovered and befriended by Aris Kindt, an enigmatic old man with a fetish for herring and an interesting proposition – help him carry out fake murders of paying customers, themselves so rattled by the attacks as to need to face their own deaths in more detail and proximity. Told concurrently is Henry’s stay in a hospital, of which Mr. Kindt is also, or so it seems, a patient.

Hunt uses the intertwined narratives to exert Henry’s unreliability to its maximum benefit. In the early going, characters sharing names and attributes (though whether they are in fact the same people remains open) shimmer in and out. Job’s identity in particular is fluid, appearing as bartender and orderly and occasionally others, becoming so indistinct as to appear to be more a role in Henry’s head to be filled than a real person. And then there is Tulip.

Tulip’s name is drawn from the novel’s other key figure: a Rembrandt painting called “The Anatomy Lesson” (full title “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp”), which details a seventeenth-century etching of the autopsy of the corpse of a man named, pointedly, Aris Kindt. The painting sits at the center of the question of Mr. Kindt’s identity, as well as serving for the inspiration of Henry’s hospital’s institutionally cold Dr. Tulip, and by extension the winsome Tulip that binds Henry to Kindt.

Above all, however, this novel is engaging, even riveting. Hunt’s language is both tight and evocative, and the themes of death and identity are well-served by Henry’s rambling, troubled, all-but-self-loathing voice. Hunt weaves dark comedy and intricate thematic exploration into a dynamic read that rises above the categories it might otherwise fall into.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 500 words