Diego Abatantuono, Claudio Bigagli, Giuseppe Cederna, Vana Barba. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores. Italian and Greek with English subtitles.
The Blockbuster video rental store in Hilo had a good deal: make a twenty-dollar donation to a certain charity, and receive a two-for-one card valid every Tuesday for a year. Combined with a surprisingly large foreign-language film selection and my last few credits of undergraduate study, not to mention friends a few apartments down the hall with similar tastes and a two-for-one card of their own, that deal turned me on to some of the best films (and best memories) of my film-watching life.
But that was twenty years ago, and while I look back fondly on the titles I enjoyed into the late hours, there are a lot of movies I only remember liking without remembering much else. The multitude of streaming options lately means the ability to revisit many of those films of my final college year, one of which is an Italian movie called Mediterraneo.
Seven Italian soldiers in 1941 are sent by boat to a remote Aegean island to look out for enemy aggression. It’s not a very important job, and the men assigned to it, save the brawny sergeant who serves as second-in-command, are not career military men. They are teachers, farmers, and young men who haven’t yet figured out what they are. It’s clear they are given an unimportant assignment at least partly because that’s where they will be useful.
So when the boat sent to pick them up is destroyed while still approaching on the horizon, the men are stranded there for the foreseeable future. It is not news they regret: island life suits them. The lieutenant in command is an amateur painter, and he agrees to do the frescoes in the orthodox church. The others find ways to keep themselves occupied, and since all the able-bodied male residents left to fight the Germans, the Italian soldiers find many ways to remain useful, not the least of which is in keeping the island’s lone prostitute, a beautiful Italian woman with nowhere else to go, in business.
The film is a relaxed, easily-paced movie version of a Jimmy Buffet album, more a collection of moods and grooves than a sequence of events. In many ways, it reminds me of the Japanese film (directed by Naoko Ogigami) Megane, but where that film focuses mainly on one woman’s adjustment to island living, this one kind of lets us see the group of soldiers and leaves it up to us to interpret what’s going on inside. In this way, the film is not quite as rewarding as it could be, but it’s still a nice, pleasant fantasy of a movie, and I can see why I remembered so little of the plot and so few of the details: it’s more about the feelings you get while you watch it, which I remember quite well. I was happy to relive them.
I am no fan of melons, honeydew or any other. However, I was at a hotpot restaurant with friends last year and watermelon juice was on the menu, and it was one of the tastiest, most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had. I’ve since made it at home. So I am rethinking my feelings about watermelon, which I still don’t really like. Yeah, I know that doesn’t make any since since watermelon juice is basically pureed watermelon with a little bit of sugar and maybe some lime juice.
Very clean since I just washed my feet, but slightly sore because I went for a very long (like, four hours in duration) walk this evening. Now that I’m mostly working in a cafe close to home, I don’t get a lot of walking done in the normal course of the day, as I used to when I worked in a Chinatown office. Now I have to take myself on actual walks.
When my friend Arjay took a semester off while we were in college, I borrowed his moped. If you’ve never ridden a moped, you should give it a try. It’s unbelievable fun. And you’d think that it would stop being so after you got used to it, but it never did. Later, when I first got out of college and couldn’t afford a car, I bought a used moped and drove that for about a year. I would often just go for rides, especially late at night and early-early in the morning, because it was a fun way to get fresh air and get some thinking done. I know why motorcyclists love their wheels so much, and I have wanted to own a motorcycle ever since my moped experience in college.
I do a lot of swimming in the ocean, and of course there are sharks out there and down there, but I never think about them, so they don’t really frighten me. What really frightens me are box jellyfish, which invade Oahu’s south shores every month, ten days after the full moon. I keep an eye on the calendar so I know when jellyfish days are, but sometimes I forget, and once you get it into your head that you don’t know whether the day you’re in the water is a jellyfish day or not, all the fun is taken from the experience, and you’re kind of in a hurry to get out. The lifeguards put out warning signs, but I’m usually in the water hours before the lifeguards are on duty. *shudder*
If it’s on the menu, I get pretty excited about a good Cobb salad. Those hard-boiled eggs! Yum. However, few dining experiences rival a good Caesar Salad, prepared at your table, by someone who knows what he or she is doing. Oh my goodness. I have a good Caesear Salad story to tell about when I was at UH-Hilo, but I’m saving that for another time, so I’ll just say now that R is the pickiest eater I know, and she doesn’t like dressed salads. Since you normally have to have two orders for a table-made Caesar, in all the years we dined out together, I never got to order it, and it’s one of the very few complaints I ever had about her particular eating preferences. I still don’t think I’ve ever had one while on a date. That might be a good goal for next year.
Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, LeBron James, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, Tilda Swinton, Randall Park. Written by Amy Schumer; directed by Judd Apatow.
Amy is a writer for a Maxim-like magazine, and because she hates sports, her editor assigns her to a story about a very successful surgeon who specializes in sports-related leg injuries. The surgeon’s name is Aaron, and he’s so good at what he does that his patients, including LeBron James, become his friends, and he is greeted at Knicks games by all the players. He’s clearly a really nice guy, but he doesn’t seem to have much time or energy for dating. Amy has her own issues: at a very young age, her parents divorced, her father explaining to Amy and her sister Kim that the reason for the divorce is that monogamy doesn’t work. Amy takes it to heart, and although as a grown-up she has a steady boyfriend (a cartoonishly hilarious John Cena as a musclebound meathead), the relationship is open, and Amy has an active and varied sex life.
Amy gets to know Aaron while interviewing him for the article, and while Aaron seems to see in her the woman he’s always wanted, Amy seems to view him as a sex partner she also likes hanging out with. The self-destructive lifestyle she’s curated for herself makes it impossible for her to accept a truly loving relationship, but she can’t help the growing feelings she has.
Amy Schumer (the actor, not the character) is one of the most important voices in comedy these past few years, a feminist voice that plays by her own rules while working within a male-dominated profession. I say this with no irony or hyperbole: Amy Schumer is the emerging Taylor Swift of comedy. She challenges expectations, calls out hypocrisy, and repeatedly zigs when even her closest observers think she’s going to zag. It says something that this is the first film directed by Judd Apatow that he did not at least co-write. Today’s leading director of comic film broke character in deciding to work with her.
Yet Schumer and Apatow seem to favor the same aesthetic: each of them is clever and crass in a way that has you looking over your shoulder to see if your parents or kids are within earshot because what you just heard was filthy, but the creative raunchiness is really just a different palate of colors for a story that pretty much stays in the lines. Sometimes it works really, really well, as with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but usually, as with This is 40 and, alas, Trainwreck, it feels a little empty and unsatisfying. Despite some really excellent pieces and some creative moments, Trainwreck doesn’t earn its emotional payoff honestly. Scenes with Amy’s father (Colin Quinn) and sister (Brie Larson) are well done and quite moving, but the film expects that to carry over to the romantic storyline, and it simply doesn’t.
We want Amy and Aaron to connect in a meaningful, lasting way, but how and why they do is never satisfactorily established, and that can mean everything in a romantic comedy. It’s a genre that is largely connect-the-dots, but if that last dot isn’t earned, it doesn’t matter that the final picture is a duck: it’s a dishonest duck, a duck that’s never earned.
Apatow has a habit of working with combinations of the same people from movie to movie, which bodes well for future projects. Another shot with the same cast and writer could be brilliant, even groundbreaking, and Schumer is a perfect candidate to make that happen. I want to see more of the thinking that birthed an intervention involving Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, LeBron James, and Marv Albert, because that’s a hilarious concept. But man, it takes a lot to pull that off and tell a good story, and Trainwreck, while interesting and entertaining, doesn’t quite do that.
Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Bobby Canavale, Michael Douglas, Judy Greer, Michael Pena, T.I. Directed by Peyton Reed.
Scott Lang is just out of prison for stealing from some kind of tech corporation after the firm has been discovered to be ripping people off. Lang used his computer savvy to return the ill-gotten money to customers’ bank accounts. His combination of technical aptitude and cat-burglar dexterity make him an ideal candidate to wear the Ant-Man suit, which not only shrinks him to the size of an ant, but also enables him to command ants to do his bidding.
The suit is the property of Hank Pym, who apparently was once involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. but left after a disagreement about how to use it. His estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne, has worked with his former protege, Darren Cross, in the company Pym used to run. Cross is close enough to duplicating the technology to worry Hope, who turns to her father to intervene. This is where Scott comes in.
Ant-Man is an origin story, so we are treated to extended sequences of Scott learning to control the suit and the magnified strength he has in his tiny form. He also learns to control ants of various species, each with its own abilities.
Rudd seems to be everyone’s favorite everyman (if that title doesn’t go to Jason Bateman), which makes him just right for this role, and he plays it with a nice vulnerability that sells the Ant-Man transformation better than a more machismo-laden actor might have. The film aims for several layers of sentimentality that, with a less sensitive actor, would never have worked. As it is, performances by Bobby Canavale and Michael Douglass work against that, but it might be the fault of the script, whose dialogue often comes right out of the comic book cliche factory.
Rudd’s likeable portrayal holds the movie together, and creative effects playing with the shrinking-enlarging technology keep things from getting too serious even in the midst of some pretty heavy action sequences. I’d welcome a sequel.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
There are two things to know about Shaun the Sheep Movie: It’s from Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for the Wallace and Gromit films, and it has no dialogue. These two items are enough to tell you whether you want to see it or not, really. I wanted to see it. Although Aardman’s output isn’t reliable (I didn’t think much of Chicken Run), its writing is usually clever enough to take a chance on. I wondered if it would still deliver the wit in the absence of any dialogue.
It’s not as clever as its Wallace and Gromit brethren, not even judging strictly by visuals, but it’s cute enough, and the pacing, which can be everything in a movie with no narration or dialogue, is pleasant. The film is delivered mostly from Shaun’s point of view, making it a real challenge to feel anything for any of the characters, and this is its greatest shortcoming. I was amused and entertained, but I didn’t feel invested in the outcome.
You could do a lot worse, but my guess is that whatever your options on any given day, you could also do a lot better.
There appear to be a lot of people who enjoy autumn, something I’ve only recently discovered. Man, autumn is easily my least favorite time of year, especially October, which is my least favorite month. I don’t see how autumn can be anything but a disappointment, coming after summer, the best time of the year. That’s automatically a let-down, but consider also that between Labor Day and Veterans Day (Hawaii doesn’t have Columbus Day as a state holiday) are two ridiculously long months of no time off, the longest stretch of the year in this state.
My high school and all of my undergrad schools began their school years in August, so by the time October rolled around, everything was old and tired already, and everyone was looking forward to the holiday months. And since I also taught for most of my career, October has always been kind of a drag in my post-collegiate life as well.
Maybe it’s because Hawaii doesn’t have a true autumn. We basically have the rainy season and the dry season, so autumn doesn’t feel noticably different most of the time, half of it behaving more like summer and half more like winter. I guess that’s another factor, perhaps the defining factor. Honestly, though, to give autumn its due: the weather here this past summer was dreadful for a longer stretch of time than I can remember. When October 1 leapt upon us, it suddenly felt like Hawaii again, with cool tradewinds all day and bright sunlight, with a fair amount of evening drizzles. It’s been nice, these past few days, a welcome relief from a super super super uncomfortable summer.
The one true, consistent blessing of autumn is what happens in sports. Baseball enters its glorious post-season, and football is just getting warmed up. It almost makes me wish we had lots of snow, just so I could lock myself in the house with some hot soup, gigantic plates of nachos, and sports on TV all day and night.
Not much else to look forward to this month. I’m seeing Testament in concert next weekend, and Slayer the night after in the same venue, so that should be fun. I have never been much of a Slayer fan, but it’s so seldom that bands of this stature in the metal world pay us a visit. I really had to get tickets as kind of a message to the promoters. It’s kind of cool, seeing two thrash bands on consecutive nights, when thrash acts just about never come by here. Testament, to its credit, comes here kind of often, but this is the first time I had the finances and timing to check it out. I made a Spotify playlist of their most-played songs on this current tour, and it’s pretty exciting. They’re a solid live band, judging by their concert albums.
I gave myself the month of September to be depressed about the job thing, so that’s another positive for October: no more being mopey about what happened. There are no updates on that front, so I have nothing much to say, but I’m feeling pretty unstressed about the whole thing, for now.
Amazon Prime went on sale two weeks ago, and the $67 price was too good to pass up. Although I do a lot of shopping on Amazon, the price of Prime membership has never been appealing, mostly because (a) the free two-day shipping doesn’t apply to Hawaii residents (we get free standard shipping, but standard shipping doesn’t add up to $99 in a typical year for anyone) and (b) although the streaming content is appealing, I already pay for Netflix DVD membership and Spotify Premium, so I already have more content than I can reasonably get through. Especially now that it’s football season.
$67 is five bucks and change per month. If I only stream two movies per month, I kind of break even, and the sale came up just a week after I rented When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep on Amazon video. It’s not on iTunes, Netflix, or Redbox, so I kind of took it as a sign.
So far, I’ve watched two films (reviews later), plus the first season of Veep (Amazon Prime only streams the first season, but Netflix DVD has the rest of the available seasons, so I’ve already moved them to the top of my queue), some of the first season of Girls (better than I expected), and some of the first season of The X-Files, which Prime has every season of. I’m going to watch the whole series in anticipation of the new stuff at the end of January. I was a devoted weekly viewer, but I didn’t start doing that until after the first movie, so I kind of have a lot to catch up on. Like, seven seasons or so.
I stayed up far too late last night, mostly working on a review of the new Ken Jeong TV show, Dr. Ken. It hasn’t posted yet, so I’ll link it next time. Got up early to get breakfast and get a little bit of work done. I’ll probably walk back to Kalihi when my wifi time expires, take a nice long nap, and do some house chores I let pile up. Here’s to Saturdays, even Saturdays in October.
Mistress America (2015)
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Tracy has just begun her frosh year at Barnard, and college isn’t turning out quite the way it was promised. She’s rejected from the literary society, her roommate is unfriendly, her professors aren’t happy with her contributions in class, and if the fun campus life that was illustrated in the viewbook still exists, she can’t seem to find it. But her mother is about to remarry, and her future step-sister, the thirty-something Brooke, has an apartment, a life, and several jobs in New York City, so Tracy gives her a call one evening after finishing dinner by herself. So needy is she for caring companionship that when Brooke asks if she’s eaten yet, Tracy says she hasn’t, and meets Brooke for dinner and drinks.
Brooke is free-spirited and adventurous: she jumps on stage and sings with the band in one of the bars she visits with Tracy; she lives in a huge apartment that’s zoned for commercial use; she has a boyfriend who’s helping her open her own restaurant. Tracy sees in Brooke a life lived outside the lines, someone who inspires her to stretch herself as a person and as a writer.
When things go a little crazy, Tracy comes along for the ride, bringing a frosh Columbia student and his girlfriend along, too. The foursome meets an ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend at the mansion they share.
Greta Gerwig as Brooke is flighty and charismatic, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s smart or just really good at acting smart, and Tracy as her wide-eyed future stepsister is involved but not really involved, a kind of Nick Caraway to Brooke’s Jay Gatsby. It’s an interesting relationship, and the character’s conversations are fascinating, but not for how well they connect Brooke with Tracy. Instead, each character’s lines seem to be inspired by the other’s, without actually being responses, as if each is only vaguely aware that there is a topic of conversation, not really listening to the other except for jumping-in points where they can share their next thoughts.
Add a few more characters to the dynamic, and you have a truly bizarre situation with non-sequiturs galore. Conversations sound like two or three different plays are being performed at the same time in the same space, and at times the blocking and set resemble those belonging to a stage play, each actor playing to an imaginary audience. I was reminded of several of David Mamet’s films, all adaptations of his plays, and wondered if the script wasn’t first conceived of as a play.
It’s more strange than funny, but it’s funny enough to keep one engaged.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno. Written and directed by Alex Garland.
Caleb is a programmer working for the most-used search engine in the world. He wins a contest whose prize is a week spent with the company’s founder at his private mansion, a compound so top-secret that the helicopter flying him there must land in a field from which the house cannot even be seen. “This is the closest I’m allowed to get,” says the pilot. “Just follow the river until you see it.”
On his arrival, Caleb is informed that he’s there to participate in a test of the company’s latest artificial intelligence. As the human component in the tests, his goal is to determine whether the human-shaped container for the AI, whose name is Ava, can interact with a conscious being in such a way that the human cannot tell he is conversing with a computer. But Caleb voices one of the problems with this kind of testing: a chess computer might be able to beat any opponent, apparently thinking better than a human, but does a chess computer know that it’s playing a game? Does it even know what chess is? How do you interrogate a computer so that you can be convinced the computer knows what it is? And once a computer is intelligent and self-aware enough to pass that test, how do you know you can trust any of its responses? And once it starts to ask you questions, how do you know you’re not the one being tested?
As science fiction, Ex Machina is interesting and thought-provoking, if not quite as provocative as better films in the genre. As thriller, it’s a lot more successful. Not as good a science fiction as Oblivion, for example, but as good a thriller as In Time. Oscar Isaac as the billionaire founder and Domnhall Gleason as Caleb are an excellent combination, and the set design is wonderfully cold and glassy. Everyone’s talking about Alicia Vikander nowadays, and now I can see why. She’s sort of the Mara Rooney of 2015.
A better film than its advertising hinted at, and a nice surprise worthy of its critical response.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep (2012)
Chen-tung Ko, Man-shu Chien, Shu-yao Kuo. Directed by Chi-jan Hou. Mandarin with English subtitles.
A young man looking in the mirror one morning sees that a sticky note has been attached to his forehead. The message, written by his girlfriend, says “I’m off to the cram school.” His first response is to do nothing, for days on end, his apartment falling more and more into slovenliness, but when he finds himself with nowhere to live, he sets out for the area of Taiwan where the cram schools are, hoping to find his misplaced love. Instead, he meets the proprietor of a copy shop, whose clients include the cram school he believes his girlfriend is attending. The shop owner offers him a job and a place to live; the job offers multiple opportunities to visit the school and interact with its students, examination proctors, and instructors.
The copy boy befriends some interesting people, including a recovering alcoholic Christian minister whose hobby is selling noodles from a booth late at night, a cute young woman driven only by her love of money, and a proctor who likes to draw sheep in the margins of the tests he photocopies for her. She, too, is recovering from a lost love, counting the days to the deadline she’s set herself for getting over his absence, but she’s not the only one. It seems everyone in this film, perhaps everyone in the city or even everyone in the world, is dealing in some way with some kind of separation, some actively seeking resolution, some passively waiting for conclusions they can only imagine. The noodle-seller, the money-hungry girl, the garlic rice vendor, even the people who’ve left their belongings in the rental lockers that are soon to be torn down: each has a story, and if there are happy endings around here, they’ve yet to be realized.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is mostly lighthearted fare, a romantic comedy with deeply bittersweet undercurrents. It tells its story simply, with very creative visuals including stop-motion photography to quickly show the passage of days and crudely animated sequences to illustrate some of the narrative. I laughed aloud a few times at clever editing and surprising details, and although the film’s conclusion doesn’t quite pass the would-this-happen-in-real-life test, the visuals it produces are worth the small dent in believability.
Is there such a thing as “forever and ever,” and should we be concerned about that if we cannot be sure of its existence? Or should we accept what we’re given today, when the only things we can be sure of are within sight of this moment? Here’s a film that, while not delving too deeply into the philosophy, delivers its take through the eyes and hearts of one small group of young people. It’s a fun exploration with a visually pretty climactic moment.
When I was in school at UH-Hilo, I wrote for the campus newspaper, whose office was my main hangout during the school day when I wasn’t in classes. I declared upon first being assigned a staff position (editorials page editor) that I wasn’t a newswriter, which in retrospect seems like a stupid thing to announce. I could really have learned some good stuff if I’d been willing to write news, but I was sorta focused on school, and chasing stories didn’t seem like the best use of my time.
So mostly i wrote a weekly column (it was a weekly paper) and copy-edited everything even though that wasn’t my job. The weekly column was just whatever was on my mind that week. I wrote stuff about circus animals, an instructor I observed crying in the library one day, masturbation, politics, sports, music, and relationships. The editor in chief gave me license to write anything I wanted, a freedom that almost never really exists in the real world when writing for pay.
Between that and the writing I did for my coursework, I was always working on something, although I didn’t yet have the discipline to write every day whether I had anything pressing or not. Mostly, I was driven by deadlines, something that continues today in my assigned writing but not my personal writing.
I’ve said this before but I’ll probably keep saying it until I die: the most valuable thing (besides my college degree, I guess) I gained while at school in Hilo was the experience of being appreciated. The newspaper staff liked me and valued what I brought to the paper and to the newsroom. The people in the campus ministry I belonged to, despite my being so different from everyone, loved me fiercely even when I intentionally made it very, very difficult to do so. And among my fellow English majors, I was sorta a middle-of-the-circle guy, instead of a fringe-dweller as I’d been pretty much my whole life as a student. For the first time in my life in school, I didn’t feel like I had to act a certain inauthentic way to gain acceptance, and I didn’t feel the need to shun acceptance in rebellion against inauthenticity (yes, it’s been a struggle forever). I was just me, and what a gift it was to be valued that way.
Somebody (not me, because I don’t have that kind of social initiative) would always start a study group when midterms came around, and we’d schedule sessions in the library, and if I couldn’t make it for whatever reason, they would reschedule. In class discussion, people wanted to know what I thought, and classmates often asked me to look at their papers in progress. And if I was having lunch in the cafeteria, I didn’t have to worry about finding someone to eat with, because I’d just find a table and people would join me. What the heck, right?
There was this guy, a non-traditional student named Johh, somewhat older than most of us working on English degrees, who was the only one of my classmates I was aware of who’d written stuff for money. He was good, and he often complimented me on whatever I’d just published in the paper. Praise from him was special to me, because I knew when he said nice things he wasn’t just talking about my opinions but also my writing, which of course is more important to me.
He was also the play-by-play radio announcer for all the UH-Hilo baseball games (or maybe it was the Hilo Stars, the Hawaii Winter Baseball League team we had, or maybe it was both), which was pretty cool too. He called a good game.
One day, he asked me how something I’d been working on was coming along. I can’t remember if it was a paper for a class, a column for the newspaper, or something else, perhaps a creative piece for one of my directed studies.
I said something about how much I was struggling with it. It sounded so artificial to me, and I was stiving for realism. Or at least believability.
He gave a friendly laugh, and said, “Mitchell, everything we write is artifice. Everything. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t get crippled by that.”
He was right, of course. This writing thing we do is maddening because it’s not a natural thing. Some of it is illusion; we use what we know of language to manipulate emotion or create something that was never there. We try to shape opinion, or simply report the facts of some event, but we do it beginning with a blank page, and we do it linearly, one letter at a time, and we do it without really using any of our senses (except sight for reading, of course0. That’s not the way the world happens, but we try to convince people that it does. All artifice. Most of us who are good at writing learned that when we were young: that we could fake our way through almost any written assignment if we wrote well. Write with authoritative enough a voice, and people think you’re an authority. Or choose some other voice and create some other reality for the reader, including the reality that you know what you’re doing even when you don’t.
John is still in Hilo, a writer for Hawaii Island’s only daily newspaper, and I had occasion to thank him recently for his words of encouragement. He uttered the truth that played a huge part in setting my writing free, and althogh I still struggle for authenticity, I know that it’s all filtered through the reality of creating something where something doesn’t really exist, and it remains some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever received.