Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: We Are Sex Bob-Omb!

The bands that populate Brian Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim books, like all great fictional bands, are so well realized that you can hear them through their lyrics, through the way the sound is drawn coming out of their instruments, through the way the other characters react to the music.  Sex Bob-Omb is a noisy garage rock band, Crash and the Boys are an even noisier, surlier band (their songs are only seconds long). Every band has its own personality, and the music is essential to the story.

For a film adaptation, translating the experience of "reading the band" into hearing it can be a tough trick to pull off.  The worst reaction, I would imagine, would be for the fans to say "that doesn't sound like Sex Bob-Omb." Luckily, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World sounds exactly like Scott Pilgrim, with the help of Beck and Broken Social Scene.  The soundtrack is pretty exuberant (much like the movie--full review coming Friday), and the songs written specifically for the movie are the strongest parts.  I particularly love Sex Bob-Omb's Garbage Truck.

If there's one criticism I have, it's that the soundtrack is missing some songs, like a few Legend of Zelda themes that are only in the movie (at one point, when Scott sees Ramona in the subspace highway inside his head, the Zelda "Great Fairy" music plays.  There, that's the geekiest sentence you will ever see on this blog.  At least until Friday).  But the songs that are on here more than make up for what's not.  This is one of those soundtracks that is much, much more than a collection of songs featured in the movie: it's a stand-alone album, like Karen O's soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are, or one of Wes Anderson's. 

The one song I really wish they had included (and this is true for both the movie and the soundtrack) is one of my favorite jokes in the first comic book, when Crash and the Boys introduce a song: "This song is called 'Last Song Kills Audience,' and it'll be our last song tonight."  But as a whole, this album is so carefully put-together, and so much fun to listen to, that it's hard to dwell on any complaints.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex was one of those books I started to read while I was in college, only to be interrupted when the school year started up.  I enjoyed the two-thirds of it (approximately) I read several years ago, so this summer I reread it.  I actually think I liked it more than I did on my first attempt.  Maybe approaching it with more experience as a reader and a writer added to the enjoyment.  The voice of the narrator and the presentation of the story unfolding across several generations was a tough trick to pull off, and Eugenides definitely accomplished this feat.

The story is narrated by Cal Stephanides (born Calliope), a Greek-American raised in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s.  Cal begins the story by explaining that he was born twice, first as a girl and then, fifteen years later, as a boy.  The opening is half David Copperfield and half Tristam Shandy; We get hints of Cal's conception and birth, but before that story begins, the novel's action leaps backward and forward in time.  Forward to the adult Cal, living as a man in Berlin, and backward to the war between Greece and Turkey in 1919, where Cal's story began in his grandparents' genes.

I don't think it spoils anything too much to reveal that Cal's grandmother, Desdemona, and his grandfather, "Lefty" are siblings who marry one another (acting like strangers) while they flee their war-torn village. On a boat to America, Lefty pretends to court Desdemona, and they are married by the ship's captain. When they get to America, they move to Detroit, where they live with a cousin who keeps their secret.  Lefty begins to work at Ford's factory, and Desdemona eventually finds work with the Nation of Islam. They have a son, Milton, who joins the army to impress the girl he goes on to marry, and the family witnesses the rise and fall of Detroit in the 20th Century. They get into the restaurant business, starting franchises of "Hercules Hot Dogs" across the country (the hot dogs are sliced so that they "flex" when they're cooked). They make enough to move to the suburbs and join the upper middle class, and the parts of the story that take place in Grosse Point are about maintaining one's identity through shifting situations (a recurring theme through the book).

For the first third of the book, Cal is more of a presence than a character.  We see him as an adult, explaining his life in Berlin, working for the State Department, and he explains the genetic anomaly that made him a hermaphrodite. As the family's backstory unfolds, Cal interrupts, omniscient and wry, throwing in allusions to Greek myth and previews of what occurs later in the book.  I loved the narrative voice in the story, and having read both this novel and The Virgin Suicides, I think it's a voice the author is getting better with.  It's really engaging, and there's a warmth and intelligence behind it that draws you in and compels you to follow the story.

This is a very ambitious novel, as much about a transgendered character as it is about the experiences of American immigrants in the first half of the 20th Century.  It's about putting down roots in a place, transforming to become a citizen, and the idea of transformation echoes between each narrative unfolding over the course of the story.  Even outside the story of Cal's own transformation, the changes in Detroit (most notably the 1967 riots) affect the direction of the story.  Eugenides attempts to draw lines between past and present, personal and national history, and on the whole he succeeds.

The last scene, which turned out to be my favorite in the book, reflects on Cal's place in his family after he starts to live as a male. The story comes back to a Greek funeral tradition, mentioned early in the book, in which a man stands guard at the house.  It was a resonant way to end the story, and I'm glad that I finally finished reading this book, even if it did take a few years to get back to it. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Films: "In Bruges," or, The Importance of Knowing What Kind of Movie You're Making

This week, I watched In Bruges, a movie that failed because it didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be.  It begins as a kind of crime-comedy, but at some point turns into a tragic bloodbath that finds each of the major characters dead (well, one is unclear, but still).  And it doesn't fuse these halves together well enough to work.   

I enjoy dark comedy, and I think crime comedy is a great niche that hasn't been done to death.  Big Deal on Madonna Street, Pulp Fiction, even Guy Richie's first two movies, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  These are movies that manage to have the criminal elements and the comedic elements at somewhat of a balance: the trick is that they are primarily comedies, I think.  The violence and the crime are played for laughs.  Half of the Coen Brothers' movies run on this concept.

In Bruges focuses on Ray and Ken, two hit men sent to Belgium to wait for further instructions after a botched job.  They're supposed to act like tourists and try not to draw attention, but Ray is impulsive and bored and quickly finds himself mixed up with a drug dealer, her boyfriend, and a dwarf named Jimmy.  There's a great scene where Jimmy goes on a racist rant, leading Ray to karate chop his neck. Ken drags Ray around the city, sightseeing, and finally, their boss Harry calls Ken and orders him to shoot Ray.

In alternating scenes, Ken and Ray get philosophical about heaven and hell, and in a brutal flashback, the job that went wrong is revealed: Ray was assassinating a priest and shot an altar boy in the head on accident.  He is consumed by guilt, which Ken tries to assuage by telling him that he too has accidentally killed an innocent bystander.  Ray has increasing thoughts of suicide, eventually stealing a gun to kill himself.  It's almost like getting a glimpse into another, more dramatic movie.

Up until this point, the movie maintains something of a balance, although the flashback to Ray killing a child is so jarring that the movie loses its comedic momentum.  When Ken decides he can't kill Ray, he sends him away on a train and the movie really falls apart.  Ray gets sent back to Bruges by a credibility-destroying deus ex machina, just as Harry arrives to dispatch Ken.  From there, the movie gets a lot louder and bloodier, and the characters are kind of thrown aside in favor of a gunfight.  Harry even says "This is the gunfight," which felt so inorganic and outside of the movie itself that it almost didn't register in my mind as being an actual line of dialogue.  Everybody--minor characters included--get swept up, and some meet violent and pointless ends. 

The fact that the end of the movie is pretty much an action movie bloodbath isn't my big complaint, though.  There are many movies that end with (or contain) a huge bloodbath that I really enjoy.  Almost anything by Tarantino, for example.  Shakespearean tragediesFargo.  But these movies seem to arrive at it more organically, and I think that's why they work.  And they know what they are.  Kill Bill is a revenge-action-comedy, where things are so over-the-top that the director's intentions are very clear.  Same thing with Fargo, which is a dark and violent comedy all along.  But In Bruges just didn't work, because it didn't pick a side in any clear enough way.

I think a better movie would have focused more on Ken and Ray, without ever showing Harry.  As a voice over the phone, or a profanity-laced note left with the hotel owner, he was a much stronger presence than he was as a character.  It could have been a kind of criminal Waiting for Godot, instead of an uneven, patched together mess.  Or it could have gone the opposite direction and been a violent action movie all the way through.  But I never got the sense that anyone knew which movie they wanted it to be.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: New Albums?

It's late in the summer, which seems to be a slow time for new music.  I've been listening to the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack today, but not enough to have anything coherent to say about it.  Believe me, I tried. Come back next week for a review of that one. 

So no review this week, just a really funny piece from the Onion:

Desperate Pandora Employees Scrambling To Find Song Area Man Likes

Are there any albums out this week I should know about?  Or are things staying quiet until the weather cools off?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, the second book in her dystopian "MaddAdam" trilogy, is almost more terrifying than the first because it's more familiar.  While the first book, Oryx and Crake, documented a not-so-distant future destroyed by environmental catastrophe and genetic experimentation, the sequel reaches a little further into the past, bringing the story uncomfortably close to our own time.  There are characters in this book who remember the old ways, who know the actions that have led to the destruction, and who may have the best shot to put it back together.

While the plague documented in Oryx and Crake raged through the world, a religious group known as the God's Gardeners were hidden away from society, convinced that the mysterious illness was the "waterless flood" promised by God in the book of Genesis.  This book explores the group's history and way of life, and the reasons they survived while so many others perished.  The two protagonists are Toby, a longtime Gardener holed up in a high-end spa, and Ren, a young woman who grew up as a Gardener and is quarantined in a sex club called "Scales 'n' Tails."  Atwood shifts between past and present in both characters' stories, overlapping until their paths intersect in the post-plague world.

In Toby's story, we get some glimpses into familiarity: she grew up in a house with a white picket fence, in an idyllic country setting, before the growing suburbs, her mother's death, and her father's suicide due to financial troubles forced her to go into hiding with the Gardeners.  When she joins the group, she spends years convinced that she doesn't believe their teachings, even as she becomes one of their leaders.  When a dangerous man from her past learns she is a member of the group, she's forced to go into hiding, where she continues to act according to Gardener beliefs even in her new life.

Ren, meanwhile, gets taken to "the Compounds" (where the giant, evil corporations are based) as a teenager, where the Gardeners' beliefs are pushed out and she finds herself at odds with her mother as she grows up.  Through her backstory, we start to see familiar characters from Oryx and Crake, getting glimpses of the plot from another angle.  Her section is filled with sudden moments of recognition, where the events that led to the plague are witnessed by a character who is much less involved than the characters of the first novel.  In the same way that Toby and Ren's plots intersect and weave together (and apart) in the course of the novel, the way the Year of the Flood plot gets mixed in with Oryx and Crake's is really well-done and believable.

The novel departs stylistically from the first novel, which gives Atwood a chance to draw in her other interests (like poetry and religion) as she writes about the God's Gardeners and their leader, Adam One.  They're a (mostly) vegetarian group, mixing science and theology to arrive at a kind of theory of existence.  A lot of their beliefs make perfect sense, and I think Atwood's intention was to make the group a believable entity, a belief system that could easily take root.  They're mostly harmless, and their survival rate is much higher than that of the regular population.  I get the sense that in the final book, it will fall to their surviving members to decide how to handle the new species roaming the earth after the "waterless flood."  Each section in this book is named for a Saint's Day or a Feast Day, with named saints drawing in famous figures from religion and ecology in equal amounts.  There is a sermon by Adam One and a song, "from the God's Gardener Oral Hymn Book" before returning to Toby and Ren.  I can see how Atwood's hymns were inspired by William Blake, and her take on theology echoes his in certain ways.

I am really looking forward to seeing how she ends the trilogy.  At the risk of spoiling anything, I will say that the end of this book, which overlaps and expands upon the ending of Oryx and Cake, leaves the characters on the precipice of a new kind of world, one which they can remake or ultimately destroy.  Read Oryx and Crake first, and then check this one out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Films: The Kids Are All Right

Last Friday, I saw The Kids Are All Right, the breakout hit of the Sundance Film Festival.  It's about a lesbian couple whose kids decide they would like to meet the sperm donor responsible for their existence.  The donor is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who owns an organic restaurant and rides a motorcycle, two facts that cause Nic (Annette Bening), the more practical of the moms, a lot of worry.  The characters slowly let Paul into their lives, where his presence starts to widen cracks in the family's foundation even as he becomes closer to individual members.

At first I was worried that the movie was painting its characters and its situations a little too broadly: Ruffalo's character seems at times like a caricature, and Jules (Julianne Moore) is a hippie type without steady employment, starting up a few businesses without any success.  Nic is a physician and uptight.  But as the movie went along, I realized that it was probably the director's intention to set things up in familiar patterns in order to destabilize them down the line.  But more on that later.

The kids are Joni, who is preparing to go to college, and Laser, her younger brother.  While Laser initially wants to meet Paul, Joni has an easier time befriending him.  When they tell their moms that they met their biological father, Nic and Jules decide to have him over for dinner.  He hires Jules to landscape his yard.  And then things get weird when Paul and Jules start sleeping together.  And there's the moment where the director, Lisa Cholodenko, starts derailing things.

There are a lot of touches in the movie that I really enjoyed, and a lot of messiness-as-directorial-choice that I loved.  Every time someone hooked up in the movie, there was this awkwardness about it that felt so authentic, and I thought the fact that there was a sense of unstaged awkwardness was a strong point of the movie.  It's not contained to characters getting together, either: the fights, the break-ups, even the dialogue: they seem completely authentic.  I've said before that I prefer the messy and honest, and that's why I liked this movie.  There were some things that could have been better-developed (Laser is under-utilized, maybe--he has a subplot that doesn't do much other than establish the fact that he kind of gets along with Paul, but most of the time he just delivers moody teenager one-liners), but as a whole I think it's an accessible, appealing film.

I think this movie comes along at an interesting point, politically, because it's about gay couples raising kids, and it takes place in California, and it's being released into a polarized climate.  And it's making a political statement through comedy, in a way that almost distracts you from the fact that it's making a political point.  The characters aren't just mouthpieces for an opinion.  I'm glad to see it's doing so well ($15 million in ticket sales so far), and I think we'll hear much more about it during Oscar season (I'm thinking Best Original Screenplay). 

What stuck with me the most, though, was the fact that so many pivotal scenes took place around the dinner table.  The first scene with all of the major characters together, the scene where Nic learns of Jules' affair, the scene leading up to a conflict between Nic and Paul: these are all around the table.  Even the poster is an image of the characters having dinner together.  I think it's the director's statement on her family values: the kids are all right, like the title says, because they have a functional family and support and they, you know, eat dinner together like a family, and I think she's saying that these things are more important than the gender or sexual orientation of the parents.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows

I will preface today's post by saying this: John Prine is awesome.  His songs are so good that Kris Kristofferson said they (other country and folk songwriters) would have to break his thumbs.  He co-wrote the "perfect country and western song" ("perfect" because it contains mama, trucks, prison, getting drunk, and trains).  He's a country singer who the other country singers look up to; the same goes for folk singers.  He has a hell of a sense of humor and an equally sharp sense of storytelling, which comes out in songs like In Spite of Ourselves and Spanish Pipedream.

This summer, a John Prine tribute album, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, came out, and it's outstanding.  It has tracks by the Avett Brothers, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Old Crow Medicine Show, and many others.  There's such a strong feeling of admiration on every track, not only for the man who wrote the songs, but for the songs themselves.  The artists all interpret the songs only as far as bending them to their sound, and I think the album is better because of it: to diverge too much would take away from the song, while trying too hard to adhere to the originals would make the covers seem pale and boring.  So by my criteria, there are some perfect covers on this album.

Really, I don't have much more of a review than that.  I've had this album on repeat for a few days now, and I intend to keep it in heavy rotation--in all of its twangy, tongue-in-cheek glory--for the foreseeable future.  Even the weaker tracks are saved because the songs themselves are so good.  And the good tracks are incredible.  So for today I'll leave the deep thoughts on John Prine to Bob Dylan, who said this (please read this next part in a Bob Dylan voice):

"Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about “Sam Stone” the soldier junky daddy and “Donald and Lydia,” where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that."

One last thought on the tribute album: if you switched the adjectives in the title, it probably would be just as true to Prine's work.