Archive for ‘Brandon’s Reviews’

April 16, 2012

Drag Me to Hell SUPERCHARGED XL 2000

The Cabin in the Woods: 7/10

Brandon Haffner

“The Cabin in the Woods” is erroneously (although perhaps intentionally so) being billed as a horror movie.  It’s very clearly a comedy.  There’s really no “horror” at all.  And it’s much too easy (and inaccurate) to call “Cabin” a straight parody, too, because it’s much more than that.  It uses humor and whimsy to send a message to horror movie audiences to encourage them that it’s time to move beyond the horror movie cliches.

I don’t know why it’s not doing better at the box office.  It’s great for all audiences.  It’s sort of designed for the long-con, too; there’s plenty of real horror-movie setup for those who actually want to see the horror cliches unfold.  You do get the cliches.  You also get a hell of a lot more than that.  In short, go see it for yourself.

 

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April 16, 2012

Not Hungry for More Hunger Games

The Hunger Games: 3/10

Brandon Haffner

“The Hunger Games” falls into a quickly growing list of big-budget mainstream action films, or BDAMs (for those of you paying attention), that receive positive reviews on movie critic sites yet don’t entertain or interest me in a way that could justify the ticket price.

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Because this trend seems to be rising, I’m becoming less shocked when it happens on an individual basis.  However I still don’t understand the basic cause of the problem.  It isn’t that I’m surprised a film like “The Hunger Games” or “Star Trek” or “Avatar” or “Watchmen” would suck in huge sums of money from the paying public.  Most of the paying public are morons.  If you’ve got a wood block for a brain, and you’re only and always thinking, “that burger looks good” and “that girl is hot” and “those colors are pretty” and “that explosion was big,” then no, of course I’m not surprised when you tell me you liked “Iron Man 2.”  Those people understand the visceral and the physical, not the intellectual or the psychological.

Now, to be fair, although I’m the first one to admit I’m a snob in a variety of ways, of course everyone needs their dumb time.  I like “Evil Dead 2” as much as… well, as much as a few people who liked it a little bit.  Any stupid movies that are clearly aware they’re stupid movies (like “Evil Dead 2”) are much easier to appreciate, in the same way that Novak Djokovic is easier to appreciate now that he’s mature and humble than when he was an arrogant young jackass.  And any stupid movie we grew up with and enjoy for nostalgic reasons also gets a pass.

So why did “The Hunger Games” receive an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes?  Why did Roger Ebert give it 3 out of 4 stars?  In order to make this discovery, let me back up and evaluate what, for me, makes for a successful film.  The ultimate question I ask myself is: 1. Was I engaged, absorbed, and entertained?  Usually that boils down to, 2. Was there rising tension and the ability to empathize?  Usually that boils down to, 3. Were there interesting and dynamic characters I could relate to and root for, and were they put into perilous situations and given obstacles that allow me to suspend my disbelief?  And that suspension of disbelief and uninterrupted tension of the character(s) overcoming obstacles boils down to 4. Are all the basic components and technical aspects of filmmaking coming together (dialogue, sound, effects, makeup, set, cinematography, acting, score, etc.)?

So let’s see.  No I was not engaged or absorbed.  I was bored.

Yes, there is definitely some rising tension, thanks to the constant reminder of impending doom.  The plot vehicle would seem natural for cinema in this way; you start with a group of characters and you know they must battle, be tested to their limits, and only one will survive.  Will it be the protagonist heroine? we’re wondering.  The movie is PG-13, so, probably.  It’s actually a very classic, basic plot, any film teacher will tell you so, despite those who herald the film as “creative.”  Ambitious is another, better word I’ve seen, and it is certainly that in some respects, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The two problems in the first half of the film, despite the tension rising steadily, is that the pace is too slow and that we don’t believe the strange circumstances of our characters.  The information we receive about the hunger games is shallow and insufficient and, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes to us mostly in the form of a kind of educational video, much like the one you might see on your first day of work at McDonald’s.  This new society shoves 24 randomly chosen children into a “The Most Dangerous Game” type of situation in which they must kill each other until one remains.  This sport is televised for everyone’s viewing pleasure, and it seems to be great fun for everyone instead of primitive and horrifying, perhaps save for the relatives of the children (there’s also no explanation given as to the apparent savagery in the blood-thirsty general population; an assumed savagery in a film’s portrayal of a future government is almost expected, but in citizens, I need more information).  Why do they do this?  As a reminder of a past uprising.  So I guess it seems to be that the government very publicly murders 23 of the society’s children to prove a point.  Why no one in the film becomes angry enough to maybe try that uprising again is anyone’s guess.  Surely after years of this, those hundreds of dead children would have touched enough lives for someone to be, at the very least, organizing something in secret.  But there’s no evidence of this either, no discussion of it even, or of the cruelty and insanity of their situation.

Then the pace is too slow getting us to the hunger games.  The uninteresting barbie-like characters prepare to enter “The Hunger Games” without much internal or external conflict.  Most are walking into certain death yet their emotions don’t reflect this from scene to scene.  In fact some of them become rather casually excited about killing other children.  “Did you see the look on her face?” one says to a group of others after they stab a young teenage girl to death.  Maniacal laughter ensues.  Really?  One minute these kids are just typical kids in a blue-collar town, now they’re diabolical killers with no emotions or remorse?

Roger Ebert, despite his inexplicably positive review, touched lightly on this particular issue, if you will, when he cited an absence in the film of an engagement of the clear moral issue that is tossing children of varying ages, genders, and physical ability into a fight to the death.  I might take it a step further and say that’s not just a film flaw, it might actually enter the realm of bad taste.  Instead of the film taking the approach of being critical of society in a dark, brutal way, the film completely ignores the tension created by the moral crisis.  Maybe this side-stepping is an awkward effort to be family-friendly, and it’s certainly in an awkward effort to focus on being an action movie for young adult audiences instead of a psychological or political thriller for thinking people.  Which, to me, makes the depiction of children being mutilated by each other to be kind of offensive, because the film makes the child killing seem like light fare.  The film isn’t sure how to say what it has to say about government or society.  There’s no message.  Is it saying government is too big?  Too small?  People are cruel?  People are dumb?  I couldn’t answer even the slightest vague question about where the movie is pointing its critical finger.

So in that case why are we watching children hack each other to pieces with knives and swords?  For pure action value, like we might watch Bruce Lee or Jason Statham?  I don’t know the answer.  That’s why I couldn’t empathize or suspend my disbelief; I didn’t understand the complacency of the characters, nor did I buy their seeming lack of moral comprehension.  They live in an oppressive society, but do seem to have normal desires and typical interests.  The society clearly hasn’t broken its citizens completely, which to me, would be a requirement for such terror to not only take place at all without an uprising, but to be actually enjoyed by those very citizens.

Speaking of empathy, I’m getting tired of casting crews that seem to sift through the entire population to find the most chiseled, picture-perfect human beings (regardless of their acting abilities) to feature in their action flicks.  Let’s save that for Disney cartoons, shall we?

Dialogue was flat and predictable, the camera was unnecessarily and sickeningly shaky, the effects were mostly bad and cheap-looking, the acting was artificial.  Each character was assigned an adjective and told to behave that way and that way only.  “Strong,” “innocent,” “mean,” etc.  There’s not a single complex character in the film.

So why did “The Hunger Games” receive an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes?  “Top Critics,” those great men and women at the very top of their professions college educated and all, give “The Hunger Games” an 80%.  8/10 of the nation’s best movie critics, not woodblocks or sheep, found this film to be more enjoyable than unenjoyable.  What am I missing time after time?  Is it that the critics have begun to temper their expectations?  Maybe I’m just not old enough yet for that.  I look forward to when I’ve reached movie critic success and I get old and wrinkly and my vision starts to blur and I find everything enjoyable.  Sounds peaceful.

January 18, 2012

“These Numbers Don’t Look Good”

Margin Call: 4/10

Brandon Haffner

“Margin Call” is “Wall Street” without the character development, or Glengarry Glen Ross without the dynamic script.  Not that it doesn’t have intriguing intentions.  It’s essentially a fictional representation of the 24 hour period in which wealthy wall street tycoons make a major decision that causes, in part, the major financial recession of 2008.

An appetizing premise.  But the main course never comes.  The film is all tension, all hype, all lead-in, and no substance.  The central character, a rocket scientist turned wall street trader (“the money here is considerably more attractive” he explains), stumbles across some numbers on his computer in the office one day that are, in so many words, bad.  He shows his buddy co-worker, and they speak generally and vaguely about the direness of the situation.

And I don’t exaggerate when I say that this scene embodies what the film relies on entirely for entertainment value.  It starts with the young traders (Penn Badgley and Star Trek’s Zachary Pinto).  We see their young, serious faces reflected by the computer screens.  They’re worried about what they see, but they don’t go into any details.  They bring up their superior, Mr. Emerson (Paul Bettany).  Surely he will explain what is going on so we, the audience, can understand more clearly what’s at stake.

He looks at the screen and, again, gives it a serious look, and says, “that’s bad,” and not much else.  No explanation, no insider specifics, no attempt to clue the audience in.  There’s some ominous music.  More serious glances.  Then, you guessed it, he brings the information to his superior, Sam (Kevin Spacey).  Again, it’s bad.  Sam brings the information to his superior (Simon Baker).  He to his (Demi Moore).  And so on and on, until we’re at the very top (Jeremy Irons).  Strangely, the higher we go, the less each person seems to know.  I’m not sure how Wall Street could possibly be run with this kind of set up, but maybe that’s the point.  I can’t count how many times an executive says something like, “explain this to me in English, please, you know I don’t understand this stuff.”

By now the movie is almost over.  Irons’ character (who, according to Emerson, pulls in 84 million dollars a year) delivers a flat speech to the wall street traders that I believe is supposed to awe with callousness and/or sharpness, but because we’re so worn down by the lack of substance—or specifics— to that point, we just don’t care anymore.  Especially because his speech, surprise surprise, goes into no more specifics than we’ve received the whole movie.  His little jabs and rich-person wisdom are not funny or even menacing, they’re borderline cliche.

I wanted to like Margin Call.  The acting is good, the intentions are good, and the premise and atmosphere are enticing enough.  It has the feel of a good movie.  But I just can’t get into a movie that’s keeping me at bay with such vague dialogue.

December 12, 2011

Melancholia: One Planet is Better than Two

Melancholia: 8/10

Brandon Haffner

Melancholia is possibly the most flawed great film I’ve seen.  The opening shots are mesmerizing.  The first half of the film is intimate, fully immersive, dark, familiar but alien all at once.  The musical score is intense and appropriately sparse.  Inside my head, I was leaping out of my seat and declaring Melancholia the greatest film I’d seen since “No Country for Old Men.”

But alas, there is always a second half.

Let’s start with what Lars von Trier, controversial director of “Dogville,” “The Five Obstructions,” and “Antichrist” did exceedingly well.

Our star is Kirsten Dunst, who plays the girl “Justine” with a fierceness we’ve never seen from the actress before.  The film would have you believe that her character’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is of equal importance; the first half of the film is subtitled “Justine,” and the second half subtitled “Claire.”  But make no mistake— this is Justine’s movie, 100%.

The first half is composed of one long night; Justine’s wedding night.  We’re introduced to many characters.  John Hurt plays the kind but perhaps emotionally injured father, Charlotte Rampling plays the terrifying mother, Alexander Skarsgard is Justine’s unfortunate husband, and Keifer Sutherland plays the incredibly wealthy step-brother (husband to Claire) who hosts the gathering in his enormous estate.  Lars von Trier shows off his ability to render the humor and complex pains of a dysfunctional family forced to spend an evening together.

It’s hard to describe why the first half is so successful.  We spend a good deal of of the wedding party with Justine alone.  We learn she’s ill, and I don’t mean the coughing kind.  She’s mastered how to behave around others, but we can tell on the inside that something isn’t right, and that she’s not used to keeping up the act for such long periods of time.  She grows weary of smiling.  The night pushes on and her sociability act begins to unravel.  She makes biting comments.  She tries to leave the party several times to compose herself for her return, but it doesn’t work.

Justine is incredibly smart, which makes her dark wit and her mental instability increasingly nauseating yet also captivating for us.  We want her to succeed and make it through the night.  We want her kind, helpful husband to be rewarded for his patience and misguided care.  We want her weary father to feel proud on his daughter’s wedding day.  It’s not a pleasant thing to watch, but the first half of “Melancholia” is as immersive and brilliant as any piece of filmmaking I’ve seen in years.  Kirsten Dunst deserves a nomination for this role, but I’m not sure she’ll get it; the critics are largely ignoring this film as a serious Oscar contender, and I’m about to tell you why.

The screen fades to black after the insane night party, then the name “CLAIRE” pops up on the screen.  Claire, to this point, has shown herself to be a stern but loving sister, one who clearly knows how to get through to Justine most of the time but is too exhausted and confused by her sister to do anything about it.  She has her own life, after all, with her rich husband John (Sutherland) and her young boy, Leo (played well by Cameron Spurr).

Where do I begin.  Can you tell I’m procrastinating?  Even now I want this movie to be better than it was.

The world (spoler!) ends.  Yes, I said it.  The second half of the movie, instead of focusing on those complex and tantalizing relationships, or instead of treating us to a true 2-act masterpiece in which the first half complicates, then the second half pursues and resolves the tension, we get the classic bail-out: the world explodes (spoiler!)— yes, literally explodes, into our faces at the end of the film, followed by blackness and silence.  My theater reacted with tepid applause (how else do you react to an ending like that?)  I guess that’s a reliable way to finish a movie you don’t know how to finish.

To be fair, there are a couple of mentions of potential impending doom during the party.  And despite my cynicism, I don’t believe Lars actually bailed on his plot; I believe he wanted to create an apocalyptic science fiction resolution to a specific, human dilemma.  But he fails in making us feel that way because of huge logistical holes in the plot.  See below.

A planet is nearing Earth and threatens to collide.  We don’t get any real details on this matter.  Claire inexplicably relies entirely on John— who is shady and indirect, and forbids use of the internet to learn more, also inexplicably— for information on the impending planet.

Further, Claire buys a large number of pills just in case they need to kill themselves.  What?  Why? I ask.  Never mind the missing justification for the purchase— John actually does kill himself when he realizes he was wrong about the planets not colliding (oops)— what about Leo, the child who now must face certain death without his father?

And why does the power go out in the house?  Why do the gas-powered cars stop starting?  Why does the electric golf cart work, then fail to work?  John tells Claire something like, “they said this would happen.  The power will be back on in a few days, after the planet passes.”  Any chance we could get some science on this?  Why aren’t we privy to this before it happens?  Why is John manipulating the strings, jerking us around?  Where’s Claire’s resourcefulness in a time of crisis?  If she can’t find out for herself what’s going on despite her suspicions, if she can’t ride a horse down to the village and ask around, if she can’t sneak onto the internet or the news channel, if she’s too trusting and blind that she can’t ACT, then why are we following the plot from her perspective in the first place?

Which brings me to my next point.  What we lose when we switch to Claire’s point of view isn’t just our incredibly interesting, driving, strong character, Justine, but we also lose a correlating intimate involvement in our primary character’s mind.  With Justine, we’re at one with her, we know her so well we can almost sense what she’s going to do next, even as unpredictable and crazy as she is.  But with Claire, we feel much more distant from her mind and her decisions.  I don’t know why this extra distance necessary, apart from perhaps that if we were deep in Claire’s mind we’d be bored out of our skulls.

At first I thought, maybe Justine’s illness has progressed, maybe a story told from her perspective would be incomprehensible.  But to the contrary, Justine (who does arrive at the estate in the later part of the film again), seems more lucid than ever after an initial bout of sleepiness.  She is the reason Leo can face the impending planet with a calm smile on her face, while his mother Claire whines like an animal.

Couldn’t we have found a way to end the film with Justine? Certainly she was more than capable to carry us home.  Perhaps paradoxically, we identify with the heavily depressed Justine more than with the fairly “normal” Claire. Justine feels human, and Claire often feels empty, almost puppet-like. So I was unsurprised to learn that Lars von Trier himself suffers from depression. According to the Danish Film Institute, he came upon the idea for this film after being diagnosed. Apparently, “A therapist told [von Trier] a theory that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while ‘ordinary, happy’ people are more apt to panic. Melancholics are ready for it. They already know everything is going to hell” (See the full interview with Film # Magazine here).

Thus, I suppose, the inspiration for “Melancholia.”  Maybe he wanted to juxtapose medically “normal” and a medically “abnormal” personalities in a time of crisis, but how can anyone say he succeeds?  Roger Ebert apparently believes von Trier is trying to “exchange” personalities across the halfway mark— in essence, the insanity is transferred from Justine to Claire as the impending planet comes closer, so we viewers follow the insanity, not character.  But is this true?  Is Claire’s inability to make autonomous discoveries, and a consequential absence of responsibility to her son, and to herself and her sick sister, insanity?

The answer I don’t know.  All I know is how I felt when I watched the film, and I felt less interested when we moved to Claire’s perspective.   Even apart from the shift, I don’t understand why we couldn’t get more grounded validation of the science behind our fabulous apocalypse, so that we could trust the obstacles in the plot as genuine.   It’s a waste of a perfect hour of filmmaking.  Lars von Trier should have taken a step back, breathed in, and spent another year hacking away at that second act.  If he had, we might have finally had our 2011 Best Picture frontrunner.

November 21, 2011

Most Boringest Tree Ever

The Tree of Life: 4/10

Brandon Haffner

To tell it straight, “The Tree of Life” is a pretentious and overly ambitious mess.  I generally admire Terrance Malick’s approach: intimate, imagistic, careful and sparse dialogue.  But “The Tree of Life” feels like a collection of all the weak points of his other films.  “The Thin Red Line” fed us too much obvious narration.  “The New World” was a bit too slow.  “Badlands” was overconfident, too quiet.

“The Tree of Life” is all of these things, plus possesses an unwatchable quality that’s hard to describe.  It’s like we’re watching that one film studies grad student’s project, you know, the kid who writes papers 30 pages longer than the requirement, and whose movie is 3 hours long instead of the required half-hour.

The film centers on a family in Texas, in particular three young brothers who learn to deal with a borderline abusive father.  Brad Pitt plays that father as a very traditional 50s patriarch, a stern and unforgiving man who believes that discipline is the best tool for growth.  We learn in a forward flash that the oldest son we’re watching, the one who suffers the brunt of the father’s “discipline,” dies at the age of 19 while serving in the military.

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Suddenly the film transports us to outer space!  We’re listening to grandiose operatic music and we’re traveling through stars and planets!  A bang!  We find Earth.  We’re in the ocean, following jellyfish.  Then there’s a fish!  Then a lizard on the land!  Then dinosaurs!  We’re back in outer space.  Asteroid hits the Earth.  You can see where this is going.

Eventually we come back to the suburbs to our familiar house.  During the entire movie the kids stay around the 8-12 age range.  Yet because of the reveal in the first scene, we know that the eldest dies in the future.  Why we don’t get more scenes in that future is anyone’s guess.  While in a workshop class with Scott Russell Sanders, I wrote an essay about my brothers when we were younger.  It alternated between past and present, and ended in the past.  Scott said never do this.  I disagreed at the time but agree completely now; there was a missing resolution, my audience had a hard time missing the point.

That’s the greatest flaw of “The Tree of Life.”  I sense great effort from everyone— Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, the other actors, the editor, art director, cinematographer, everyone— but what do we gain?  The film is such an odd mix of subtle and grand that the real meat of the film is lost somewhere in between.  Save for a couple of decent scenes between father and son, there’s no tension to be found.  Is it asking too much of an artsy fartsy guy like Malick to include a little bit of tension to sustain my interest?  I am, after all, dedicating two hours of my life to watch a screen, and have spent a valuable Netflix rental to send the DVD to my house.

October 23, 2011

They Know We Know How it Ends

Jane Eyre (2011): 7/10

Brandon Haffner

This new version of “Jayne Eyre” stumbles out of the gate and takes awhile to recover.  The opening frames follow Jayne alone on a cliff, crying in the rain with sappy music backgrounding.  We don’t know why she’s crying, so we feel nothing.  Every rainy second feels like an eternity.  Then she crawls into a house, soaking wet and out of sorts, where a man and two girls nurse her back to health.  She remembers her childhood with her ruthless aunt—ruthless to the point of caricature— and her time at a boarding school for misbehaving girls.

The school, too, is a cliche.  We’ve seen these hateful teachers a thousand times, those who take out their own numerous insecurities on their children with physical and emotional abuse.  The portrayal of these evil teachers is so flat and predictable, and so clearly intended as a device to boil our blood, it’s impossible to feel sadness when Jayne is abused, or when her only friend at the school falls ill, dies, and is coldly taken away by a staff person.

But when the plot catches up and we finish with this (probably largely needless) backstory, what remains is actually a fairly engaging blend of horror, romance, and wit. Jayne is played well by Mia Wasikowska, although in the film, she’s supposed to be unattractive.  They left themselves a challenge if you ask me:

The movie’s intrigue stems primarily from two key factors: the sharp dialogue (sometimes too sharp; I’ll get to that in a second) and the balanced, careful cinematography.  The camera plays a lot with light against dark, orange/yellow-toned frames against grey/blue-toned frames. The quiet, dim atmosphere of the school Jayne governs is very important in “Jayne Eyre.” Darkness is not always negative; in fact, Jayne seems to embrace the dark rooms, the associating cold, the intimate, lonely spots of candle light. Jayne and her intimidating employer, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), have some of their most fierce and revealing conversations in this environment.

On top of the building tension that rises from their complex relationship, there’s an underlying sense of dread in the film. In one scene, everyone in the house is awakened in the middle of the night from a fire in Mr. Rochester’s room. In another, Jayne hears voices and other sounds in the dark.  Eventually we learn the source of these spooky happenings. For those of us familiar with Jayne Eyre’s story, we are of course not surprised, but the movie does a nice job not spending too much time dwelling on the reveal. This movie isn’t about plot twists.  It’s about atmosphere, conversation, and intimacy.

Speaking of which, the movie does climb out of the hole it digs in the first half hour largely because of the smart, intense dialogue.  Some of the lines feel slightly over-the-top, but it’s the dialogue, as well was some incredible acting across the board (including a great performance from the reliable Judi Dench), that convinces us viewers that Mr. Rochester and Ms. Eyre are falling in love.  Neither of them come out and say it until well after we know it to be true.  That’s a sign of solid filmmaking.

October 18, 2011

An Earthquake, a Tiger-Fighter, and a Chicken Shop

The Bridegroom: 6/10

Brandon Haffner

Ha Jin, previously an author I’d not read, is said to be one of the finest contemporary fiction writers alive.  A Chinese-American writer, most of his stories, both in this book and elsewhere, are set in Muji City, China (a fictional city).

Click to buy a copy

In “The Bride-groom,” I see glimpses of a real master.  As far as I can tell, Ha Jin specializes in two storytelling elements: plot and description.  Take for instance his story “Alive,” in which a successful businessman is caught up in an earthquake when away from his family and friends.  He suffers multiple injuries and is hospitalized, then experiences memory loss.  He has no identification so no one can get him back to his home.  He starts a new, simpler life, and begins a new family.  Eventually something triggers his memory, he recalls his past wife and child, then he sets out to find them.  So the story takes on an interesting shape; the protagonist begins with everyday aspirations— to be promoted at work, to buy a bigger apartment, to please his wife— then suddenly a natural force renders the whole thing worthless.  The sharp turn refocuses the story on how the protagonist reacts to starting from scratch without knowing he’s starting from scratch.

Such is the genius of Ha Jin’s plots.  They can take us anywhere.  His balance of summary and description move the stories along quickly and easily.  Every scene feels relevant; there’s not a line wasted.  In the final story and one of my favorites, “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” the young characters admire large sums of money coming into their American fast food joint, much more than any similar Chinese owned shop.  It’s a novel idea and explored richly, told from the perspective of curious young characters who helplessly yearn after the lives of their managers.  The yearning becomes harping, the harping becomes stealing, and they realize in the end, of course, that as unskilled laborers in a western restaurant, they’re entirely disposable.

If I have complaints, it’s that the terse description is often so plot-based that I often find it difficult to become emotionally involved.  But there are, as I said, glimpses of a dynamic writer fully capable of these insights.  Take for example this descriptive passage from “Broken.” It’s precise, beautiful, and provides a clear set of expectations for us in regard to her character.  Of course, as with many of the best descriptions in literature, it’s delivered through a slightly biased narrator.  This time it’s told in limited third person, the “he” at the beginning of the passage being our male protagonist Chen Manjin, who works in the same building as she:

“…but he was also  eager to know more about Tingting, the pretty girl who was being courted by several sons of the top officials of the Muji Railroad Company. To him she seemed to flimsy, coquettish, and expensive, like a gorgeous vase only good for viewing. She rode a galvanized Phoenix bicycle, wore a diamond wristwatch, and was dressed in silk in summer and woolens or furs in winter— during which season she changed her scarves every week and sometimes even put on a saffron shawl. Manjin had been to her office a few times to deliver documents that needed typing. She seldom said an unnecessary word to him. When they ran into each other in the building, she would tilt her head a little, just to acknowledge that she saw him.”

An almost cinematic character introduction, if you ask me. And such is the way of Ha Jin.  Any of these stories could be translated to the silver screen with relative ease. He has a natural eye for setting up his readers. He paints Tingting as a dainty little thing, precious, reserved, maybe a little snobby. So that when she is exposed for carnal sins at the end of the story, her shame is all the greater.  Again, a cinematic arc in its dramatic, almost manipulative construction.

Ha Jin

I use the word cinematic here both praisingly and constructively. I sense a kind of fairy-tale or yarn-like approach, one that enchants the impatient part of me but leaves the intellectual part empty, one that pushes the story forward at a galloping pace while also leaving important possibilities in the dust, one that provides all the wide-reaching plot events one could hope for in a story yet, because of the broad scope, sometimes sweeps over more delicate subtleties. Here’s a passage that represents much of what I mean.  The final lines of the title story:

“Guhan became reticent and gloomy.  He couldn’t resist wondering whether he should have stayed with Shan and Mo in Taifu and let people here believe he had left this crowded world for good.”

The first sentence is classic telling.  The second is a summary of our characters final sense of conflict.  Could we not have been shown these things?  Mostly, I think we all want sentences that don’t tell us what’s going on so directly.  If that’s what we wanted, there’d be no need for good writers, because the bad ones would do just fine.  Anyone can summarize.  Now don’t get me wrong, “The Bridge-groom” has plenty of the good stuff.  I simply wish, because he clearly possesses the talent and eye for detail required to write complex character as well as complex plot, for Ha Jin to combine all his strengths all the time.

 

October 7, 2011

Baseball < All Other Things

Moneyball: 6/10

Brandon Haffner

Tepid. That’s the best word to describe Moneyball, a lukewarm film about a man who helped transform the lamest sport ever invented. Sure, Brad Pitt as Billy Beane is good, maybe even more than good, but he can’t provide what this movie needs, which is excitement. The best moments, those of the greatest tension, rise suddenly and fall quickly. And unfortunately, those moments you’ve already seen in the previews. Most everything between is fluff.

Billy Beane, the general manager at the Oakland Athletics, is a likable enough character.  He’s an abrupt speaker, quirky, and compassionate. He likes his family and his players, but he seems to love the team the most; that is, the franchise of the Oakland Athletics— its history and lore. He wants to win a championship there and cares little about anything else. Like many down-on-his luck male protagonists these days, he has an ex-wife with custody of his only kid. It’s a cliched, lightly explored, and uninteresting portion of the plot.  Like Billy, all we really care about is his job.

His job involves convincing many baseball traditionalists that statistics work best as the primary, not secondary tool, when building a team. Because this is something we in the present day already know works, all the time spent on Billy’s desperate persuasion feelsoverlong and exhausting. There’s a conversation near the beginning of the film in which Billy is arguing what appears to be the same point over and over but just with different people at a table. I began to wonder, does the filmmaker really think we don’t get the point?

I heard this would be a movie for all folks, sports fans and non, baseball fans and non. Well I’m a sports fan, but I loathe baseball, from the game itself to what it represents, which I think is probably the worst combination as a viewer for a film like this. The sports terminology, approach, and enthusiasm is all old hat to me, yet the sport of baseball is about as interesting to me as a tomato.

I did think the art design and settings were created with care. The cinematography and set design make an impact; we feel quite at home in the homey, run-down Athletics stadium, yet feel in awe when we enter the office of the Cleveland Indians, or enter the stadium offices of the Boston Red Sox.

I also appreciate some of the mild humor, and some of the details of the “moneyball” system— “when you hit low pitches, you’re only batting this well, so wait until the pitch is high” type lines— but overall there just wasn’t enough new in “Moneyball” to coax it out of mediocrity. Apart from Pitt’s performance, the film is average in every sense.  Which, sadly, puts it as a front-runner for best picture in 2011.

October 4, 2011

Now A Major Motion Picture

The Road (the novel): 8/10

Brandon Haffner

Several years ago in a fiction writing class of mine, one of my professors passed out a sheet of paper on which were listed several sentences. Each sentence represented an exceptional example of descriptive efficiency, inventiveness, and precision.  He did not cite authors or book titles. One of these lines was, “The rain fell hard and slant.” I’d not thought much of it at the time, being a sophomore in college and still having much to understand about writing in general.  Then, a few weeks ago, years after graduating, while in the middle of enjoying “The Road,” I stumbled across the line, “The rain fell hard and slant.”  I stopped reading and was instantly struck with the memory from class.

Years had passed between my first and second reading of this line, during which time I’d of course read thousands and thousands of other lines, and my memory is not a great one. Yet this sentence rose from the page like Mt. Everest. I read it over and over. It’s so pared down, each word only a single syllable. Yet would you or I have the intellectual reach and the writerly confidence to compose a book built with such simple, easy lines such as, “The rain fell hard and slant”? The answer is no, because if the answer were yes, you and I would be rich and famous.

It got me thinking about Cormac’s general economy of language in “The Road,” which I believe is its greatest feat. I don’t think the plot is anything to get excited about. Nor do I believe the dialogue is really any good, nor do I think the characters are all that dynamic or interesting, nor do I find the backstory well-imagined. But its present-day descriptive language is so richly evocative that I couldn’t help but turn page to page. However cliched the environment and story and characters are, the description of that environment and our character’s day-to-day actions is raw yet refined, simple yet elegant, and enables any reader of any level of academic snobbery to become deeply immersed.

The story, then, is not one to spend a good deal of time on. As most of you probably know, “The Road” is a kind of post-apocalyptic tale, one that doesn’t explain where the “apocalypse” came from or how it happened. That’s not important. What’s important is the survival of our two main characters, a father and a son, who both go unnamed.

There are hardly any humans left. There are no animals, there’s no vegetation, and there’s no plant life. There are no sources of food except for the occasional vacant house or hidden storm shelter with a few unfound canned goods. The weather is unbearable; it’s always cold, sometimes wet. The sky is always gray. They live out of a shopping cart. The two of them travel toward the coast, the father says because he hopes to find more “good guys” like themselves on the coast, but he knows it’s really because they need a goal. The real question that comes into focus is: when a life becomes nothing but a series of miserable moments fighting for survival to continue living those miserable moments, and when there is no hope for a better future, is it right to continue the life?  Cormac I don’t think suggests any real answer.  But it certainly gets us thinking.

As the two of them walk the empty roads, run into the occasional straggler or cannibalistic human, and find stashes of canned goods, the descriptive imagery is undeniably first rate. “The Road” won the Pulitzer largely because of this accomplishment, I have to believe. Every event is rendered immaculately. I could plaster this page with quote after quote, but you will just have to read the book. Anyone who appreciates fiction, whether you’re a reader of Dean Koontz or J.M. Coetzee, will appreciate what the illustrious McCarthy has done here.  It’s not a perfect book, but it certainly breaks new ground.

On a final note, I have a brother who has a gigantic man crush on Cormac McCarthy. That brother is none other than the Logy Haff half of this Haff & Haff empire, so the fact that I’m the first to review his favorite book of all time, “The Road,” may seem a little strange, I suppose. But here it is anyway. I beat him to the punch. I wonder if this means he’ll review “Fargo” before I get a chance.

 

October 1, 2011

Daydream Delusion

Before Sunrise: 8/10

Brandon Haffner

I once took a screenwriting class in college. The class was taught by a talented man, not famous but certainly successful.  One of his plays, he wouldn’t let us forget, was turned into a Hollywood film back in the seventies. As an instructor, he was meticulous about details. He was the type of professor who would send you out of the room if you yawned during a lecture. But the man loved his craft, and he gave us a clear picture of how complex and difficult it is to make a movie from the ground up. You’ve got your screenplay that begins the whole endeavor. Then you need the practical structural bones: a producer to pay for everything, a director, actors, lighting and camera equipment, a cinematographer to run the aforementioned, and an editor. You need someone to be in charge of visual effects, sound, art direction, makeup, costumes, casting, music and stunts. For everything on the screen, you can point to one of hundreds of men and women standing behind the camera who are responsible.

“Before Sunrise” is a rare film that depends almost entirely on only two of those dozens of functions: the script, and the ability of two actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply). Sure, there are other facets; someone had to decide what Ethan should wear, for instance. But it’s truly an infrequent occurrence when a film’s entire success is built singularly on dialogue and acting.

Many of you, even if you haven’t seen the film, know the story already. The camera follows around a young American man named Jesse and a young French woman named Celine for 24 hours in Vienna. They meet on a train, Jesse convinces her to get off with him, and off they go for their now world-famous one-night-stand.

Beyond that, there really is no “plot” to summarize. They meander. They see the sights. They talk philosophically about life and death. They jab and jive. There’s one interesting scene in which they bump into a street poet. The poet asks them to give him a word, any word, and he’ll write a poem including that word; then, if they like it, they can pay him whatever they feel he deserves. The word they cruelly give the poor poet is “milkshake,” but the man’s poem is surprisingly good, unlike many made-for-film poems tend to be. It’s a refreshing exception and a nod to the intelligence of the screenwriter.

The entire time they’re together, we’re wondering the same thing they’re wondering in the back of their minds. Are they going to exchange contact information? Are they going to have sex? If so, is this going to become a long term relationship? We think of these things because of how deep their connection seems to be, how compatible they are, and because a natural tension rises from their relationship. Each scene and conversation, even when Jesse and Celine are discussing shallow, uninteresting topics, has urgency. Like all good films, as my screenwriting professor taught, there’s a hard time deadline for the characters to complete their business. The deadline makes us, the viewers, uneasy, anxious, and most importantly, absorbed.

Frankly, as a writer, I’d be terrified to write this script if someone approached me with the idea. Every word is exposed because there’s nothing in the film except words and facial expressions. No action sequences, no art direction, no wide landscape shots, no fancy camerawork, no background music, nothing.  The film’s life depends on those words and how they’re spoken. Richard Linklater, who wrote most of the script and also directed the film, sometimes dips into a bit of pretentiousness. And sometimes he overdevelops the character histories (these two seem to dig up the perfect stories to tell for every conversation), but all in all you have to give him credit. For a movie that very simply follows two characters around with a camera for a day, there’s not a single dull moment.