Sunday, February 01, 2004

I've been way far behind on my movie-going; I run in such cycles. My one-track mind that cannot deal with balance. You either read all day or watch movies all day. You either smoke and eat high-fat food, or you quit and exercise. A life of virtue or a life of vice. Ideally, I think I should constantly watch films, read books, and listen to music and create whatever of my own I can, but I don't -- I just choose one of the above and stick with it over long periods of time. I suck at multi-tasking.

Around this time of the year, I always try to catch up on movie-going; see all the Best Picture nominees, not because I place any stock in the awards or anything as a guarantor of quality but because I like watching the annual Oscar pageant, and having seen the Top Five at least gives you a little of an investment in it. A few weeks ago I saw Cold Mountain, which I thought was moderately entertaining if not particularly gripping at an emotional level. It seemed like just the kind of film that would get nominated, sort of for the reasons Out of Africa was, or Director Anthony Minghella's previous The English Patient was: epic love story, historic background, big stars. But like Out of Africa -- if not The English Patient -- Cold Mountain was just a bit on the hollow side, as a whole: it never quite reached the kind of grandeur it was aiming for.

Saw two other films this weekend: Ed Zwick's The Last Samurai and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, both quite absorbing. The Last Samurai is reminiscent in theme of David Lean's Bridge Over the River Kwai and in style of much of Kurosawa, if only because of the exciting battle scenes with all those charging horses, warrior masks, and spewing blood. Set in the late 1870s, it's about this American Civil War hero who is hired to get Japan's army into shape to fight a rebel army of samurai warriors -- only to be captured by the rebels, and find himself bonding with them (a little like the Alec Guinness character in Lean's masterpiece.) Tom Cruise is his usual reliable self as the disheartened Civil War vet, and Ken Watanabe is most captivating as the rebel warlord who befriends him, and who is as willing to be his teacher as his student. How true the story is, I have no idea.

Mystic River got fantastic reviews -- more than it deserved, really. If there is greatness in it, it eluded me, although it is an above-average crime drama.

Three boyhood pals -- Jimmy, Sean and Dave -- are united by a painful event from the past: Dave’s abduction and rape by a pair of men posing as a cop and a priest, an event the other two are helpless to prevent. Fast-forward thirty-some years later: Dave, played by Tim Robbins, is scarred by his experience and ambles about slowly; Jimmy (Sean Penn) is running a convenience store, and Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a cop with whose wife has just left him. Dave comes home one night bloodied up, and tells his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) that he thinks he may have killed a mugger; on the same night, Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter is murdered. Sean and his police partner, played by Lawrence Fishburne, arrive to investigate, and naturally find that the present horror will have a connection to the past one, if not quite the one we expect. (Pay close attention, by the way; the plot gets comp-licated, and I lost a few of the details toward the end.)

As a devoted Irish Catholic dad with a criminal past and a twisted moral code, Penn is perfect, particularly in scenes where this kind of hardened, volatile character finds himself trying to bear up, to pretend not to feel what he’s feeling, to shoulder more anguish than he wants to deal with; there’s one scene in particular where he hears some especially horrible news and expresses himself with just the slightest exhalation of breath -- slight because if he gave it anymore room he’d lose all control. Excellent support from all the others; Laura Linney's in it, too, and she's not bad physically -- less fresh-faced than we're used to, her natural good looks made fleshy and suburban -- but I think she's just along for the ride.

Clint Eastwood reminds me in a way of Sidney Lumet: he’s made some excellent films that don’t seem distinguished by any particular style. The working-class Boston he shows here reminded me a lot of Lumet’s in The Verdict -- bluish as a pair of faded jeans; wintry; a place where the family ties are strong and you get through life with hard work, hard liquor, cigarettes, the church and maybe guns, if it comes to that. Eastwood seems to have hewed closely to Brian Helgeland’s script (based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, which I haven’t read) and he nicely captures this world without ever really expanding it.

Also this weekend: picked up two CDs. Television’s The Blow-Up is a two-disc live set, certain early selections of which are so badly-recorded they ought to be marked "For hardcore fans of the band only." Television flourished in the studio, and the Tom Verlaine's guitar loses a little of its shimmer when it's released into the great outdoors. It improves though as it goes along, and I'll probably wind up liking it more than I do now. It also has two nifty cover versions: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" -- surely the most covered Dylan song outside of "Blowin' in the Wind" -- and the Rolling Stones' "satisfaction."

Also got the SACD version of Dylan's Desire, which yields no new audio revelations but is nice to have on CD, considering it was the first Dylan record I ever bought.

What I'm Reading: Goya by Robert Hughes, which I ought to resist saying anything about since I'm reviewing it, but damn is it ever good. Written with that distinctive, conversational, wholly personal and impassioned voice of Hughes, it makes you care greatly about Goya even if you never gave him two thoughts before picking the book up.

What I'll Soon be Reading: Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Boll, for my book club.

Also got a new battery on Saturday.

Missed church today.

And, try though I might, I'm having a hard time putting together any reasonably coherent thoughts on Absalom, Absalom! Maybe I ought to scrap coherence. Shit, Faulkner did.

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