Saturday, December 31, 2011

Where I'm Spending New Year's Eve 2011

Grouchy John on New Year's Eve!
At the corner of Charleston & Casino Center, in the alley between the Arts Factory and Artifice, we will be slinging our unique brand of caffeinated happiness to ring in the new year.

Join us!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Departures (Okuribito)

Available from Amazon
My diet of art & entertainment is a lot like my intake of food. I am an avid daily consumer (hence my ever-expanding waistline), but, frankly, most of my meals are pretty forgettable. They serve a pragmatic, minimally-pleasurable function that just keeps the machinery moving.

Still, I fancy that I have a somewhat discerning palate, and, every once in a while, as I forage and feed and view and read, I happen upon a real treat, something that is both delightful and deeply nourishing and that showcases exquisite craftsmanship.

Departures is just such an offering. It's a movie that works on many, many levels. Honestly, I can't recommend it enough. After all, it did win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 (as well as such august laurels as a Golden Rooster and a Grand Prix des Ameriques.

Departures tells the story of Daigo, a thirty-something cellist in Tokyo who finds himself unemployed when his orchestra suddenly disbands. Confronted with a crushing (and symbolic) debt, he and his cheerfully demure wife, Mika, agree to move back to Daigo's hometown, where he finds quick & lucrative employment after answering an ad in the newspaper. But Daigo soon figures out that his new job isn't what he thought. It's the result of a huge misunderstanding. Or is it?

All of this is shown in flashback after some opening scenes that are stunning in their beauty and import. Two men drive across a snow-covered landscape to arrive at a house where a family waits in mourning. The fascinating ceremony that follows, with its exacting precision and ultimate humaneness, serves as a masterful prelude for the tale to come.

The ceremony of "encoffinment," from the beginning of Departures.
Director Yojiro Takita exhibits a deft touch throughout, though he lingers a bit on some set pieces, perhaps proud of his nicely-arranged compositions. And all of the actors, especially the principals, are outstanding. Tsutomu Yamazaki, as the laconic boss who takes Daigo under his wing, delivers a master class on how to convey so much in the slightest change of expression.

I hesitate to reveal much more about Departures, except to say that, among its many themes, this movie is about how we deal with death, both as a society and as individuals, and about how the end of one life can be a catalyst for change in others. The movie is also about the romance between Daigo & Mika, a romance that continues to evolve and develop even after they've exchanged rings. I could go on about what else this movie is about, for it is one of those films that is exactly as complex and varied and beautiful as life itself.

Of course, like life, this film is far from perfect. It's a bit overlong, and its sentimentality runs thick at times. Also, certain turns of plot are agonizingly telegraphed. But such nitpicking belies the staggering achievement of Departures. It's a movie that moved me.

I urge you to see it.

directed by Yojiro Takita

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

Available from Amazon

I have to be careful here. See, Jim Harrison is something of a hero of mine, and I approach each new book of his with a certain reverence.

Harrison is what people call "a writer's writer," being more respected than famous, although he's also enjoyed the kind of commercial success that few writers ever achieve. Besides having doggedly (and almost single-handedly) kept the novella form alive in American letters with collections such as The Woman Lit By Fireflies and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, he's also an accomplished essayist and poet. He's even "gone Hollywood" at times, being responsible in one way or another for Legends of the Fall, Revenge, Cold Feet, and that grandiose & star-crossed mess, Wolf.

A Writer's Writer
Now comes The Great Leader: a faux mystery, a novel which I'm happy to report is strong & entertaining, if a bit shaggy & idiosyncratic.

Ostensibly, this novel is about Sunderson, a recently-divorced, about-to-retire detective with the Michigan State Police whose working one last case, trying put away an elusive, pedophiliac cult leader. Harrison has subtitled the book a "faux mystery" because it has all the trappings of a crime novel, but these trappings are a bit of red herring. Sunderson's real investigation is in a deeper and more personal vein. He's a man trying to figure out who the hell he is, amidst other rambling musings, like the nexus of "sex, religion, and money."

Thus, the narrative, whose viewpoint is almost entirely from inside Sunderson's head, is ruminative and recursive, occasionally yielding pithy gems such as "it was up to each generation to be duped into lassitude by their own music." Sunderson, who is an avid brook trout fisherman and reader of history, is in constant conversation with himself, as each new incident in his life recalls past episodes, which bubble up from Sunderson's memory, often baffling him.

You'd think that a man of Sunderson's age & experience would be more sure of himself. But, no, Sunderson is essentially a dithering mess. "Life moment by moment is so unforgiving and I'm a slow study," he tells himself at one point. His divorce has blindsided him, and his retirement has further unmoored him. To make matters worse, the paternal bond he has forged with Mona, the teenager next door, is constantly sullied by his lecherous libido, something she disconcertingly encourages.

I should note that the superficial similarities of this book to Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo strike me as more than coincidental. Both books feature an older man hunting down a perpetrator who victimizes young girls, as well as a plucky young female hacker with, shall we say, a "non-normative" sexuality. But, where Larsson's book is a straightforward crime novel, Harrison's book is an altogether different organism. Indeed, I'd be willing to believe that Harrison wrote The Great Leader: a faux mystery as a kind of corrective response to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but what the hell do I know? The workings of Harrison's inspiration & talent are beyond me.

Of course, The Great Leader: a faux mystery isn't just a catalog of the abashed musings of a retiree. It's also a rollicking picaresque, offering more than its share of violence, sex, and wry absurdity. Its achievement is that Sunderson comes off as a flawed but fully-realized human being. What's more, since the novel is by Jim Harrison, it also features some breathtaking natural vistas, rendered beautifully by a true master of the word.

In any case, Sunderson intermittently chases and retreats from his prey as he deals with the complications of his own changing circumstances, which include a hilariously lewd spectacle at his retirement party and a primitively violent ambush out west. We follow our erstwhile detective from the lush Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the bewilderingly alien deserts of Arizona and back in a haphazard investigation that finally comes to a brilliant, blackly-comic conclusion that throws all of Sunderson's efforts into sharp relief. It's a conclusion that's perfectly of-a-piece with Sunderson's own judgments about the larger issues of life. Still, a kind of rough justice is served, so that even the most morally-rigid of readers (who would probably never finish this book anyway) would be satisfied.

But it's not the destination of this novel that offers its best rewards. Like life, it's the journey itself that enriches.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Descendants starring George Clooney

The Descendants is directed by Alexander Payne and stars George Clooney.
Lots of people go to the movies to be mindlessly entertained. They go to movies that are full of fantasy and special effects, letting the spectacle of such big-screen creations take them as far away from their own lives as possible -- hence, the meteoric career of Michael Bay.

But there are other kinds of movies. Some of these movies eschew spectacle in order to seem as realistic as possible, focusing instead on creating characters who could be actual people, not just action heroes.

The Descendants is just this kind of movie, telling the story of a dysfunctional family coping with a catastrophe that may not be as cataclysmic as an giant asteroid striking the Earth, though it is no less life-changing for the characters involved. The man at the center of this drama is Matt King, played with amazing subtlety by George Clooney.

Is there an actor with a more expressive face than George Clooney?
The set-up is this: Matt's wife has suffered an accident that renders her comatose, and Matt is forced to reckon with his two daughters as they deal with the aftermath. It turns out that Matt is like lots of men who have allowed their careers get in the way of their parenting, so that now, when he most needs to reach out to his daughters, he finds that there's some distance between them. This isn't exactly cheery stuff, I know, but the story also juxtaposes this drama with the idyllic setting of Hawaii, whose climate and history also play a large role.

It turns out that Matt's family is descended from royal Hawaiian blood, and they are beneficiaries of an astounding inheritance whose ultimate fate Matt himself has to decide in his role as trustee. Of course, there's money involved, as well as a horde of kinfolk who all have their own ideas on what to do with their inheritance. How these disparate storylines (his wife and his inheritance) play off each other gives the movie a lot of its thematic heft. We are all, after all, the products of our past.

As happens in times of crisis, long-simmering tensions boil over, as Matt attempts to hold together a family that harbors its share of secrets and slights. His oldest daughter, played with wonderful sass by Shailene Woodley, goes toe-to-toe with him, taking a certain adolescent pleasure in rubbing her father's face in unpleasantness and then seamlessly switching into the role of dutiful daughter when Matt finally decides to act on what he's learned. The youngest daughter, played by newcomer Amara Miller, brings a touching rawness to her role as the putative baby of the family, with an innocence and ignorance that serve as both burden and corrective to the machinations of her sister and dad.

The Descendants is about how these 3 people cope
with what's happened to the fourth member of their family.
Yeah, it's a comedy.
Now, all of this makes The Descendants sound like an utterly serious drama, but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, every moment of this movie is infused with wry humor, and what could be more realistic than that? Life itself often plays out as a kind of joke (albeit a cruel one), and even the most dire situations give rise to a few chuckles.

Director Alexander Payne has given us such character-driven gems as Sideways, Election, and About Schmidt, and, for me, The Descendants is of-a-piece with those earlier films. I urge you to see it. It's one of those movies whose every moment rings true.

directed by Alexander Payne