09 September 2008

In Brief: Quick Reviews (One Up, Four Down)

I. Movies

The Pool. Set in the small seaside city of Panjim, this film centers on the lives of two adolescent migrants, Venkatesh and Jhangir (played by Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah, respectively), who struggle to make a living and a life working in the service sector of Goa’s tourist economy. Director Chris Smith (who made the independent classic American Movie) does a wonderful job of depicting the friendship of these two boys and the world they inhabit, helped by amazing performances both from the young actors and from Nana Patekar who appears as a wealthy visitor from Bombay.

It’s opening in select areas over the next two months, starting with Film Forum in New York right now. Check the film’s website for more details and if it's playing near you, go see it. You won't regret it.

Red Belt. How could I resist it when I read that David Mamet was directing a mixed martial arts-themed noir? Well, I wish I had been able to. Aside from a solid job put in by Chiwetel Ejiofor and a few interesting scenes along the way, there is little to recommend in this film. The plot never quite comes together and the characters’ motivations remain obscure. I can forgive Mamet his completely unlikely scenarios and lines of development when these curiosities serve a greater plan for the movie. Even when I disagree with whatever nutty point he may be making about human nature or cultural politics. No forgiveness was earned on this one.

The Traitor. I watched it for Don Cheadle and he did me wrong, even worse than he did in Talk to Me. When a movie manages to be both predictable and illogical at the same time, you know that something is rotten. I think the writer (Steve Martin) was trying to make some point about moral ambiguity and the dilemmas of faith and politics in an age of terror. But the film gets so lost that the ending comes off as the build-up for an unimaginable sequel (Traitor II: Which Side is He On This Time?); presumably it's just that Martin couldn’t wrap up this convoluted fable with any suitable conclusion.

II. Books

Ask the Dust by John Fante. This semi-autobiographical portrayal of an aspiring Italian immigrant writer in down-and-out Los Angeles on the eve of World War Two was the last of my summer subway reading. Despite the novel's fine crafting and page-turning readability, I have to admit I was a little disappointed, what with all the hype since the Fante’s rediscoveries (first after Charles Bukowski’s enthusiastic endorsements in the late 1970s and then with the more recent cinematic adaptation starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek). Maybe when I was younger I would have had more patience and sympathy for the author's repeated rummaging through the insecurities and excesses of Arturo Bandini. But now I just felt frustrated by the tendency to introduce elements of the fascinating interethnic social life of immigrants in pre-war Los Angeles but then leave these facets of Bandini's life undeveloped and instead diving into the protagonist's moral and psychic contradictions time and again. I suppose this tack accurately reflects Bandini's lack of interest in the lives of other people. After all, young writers are predisposed to egotism, male ones especially so. I just don’t know that I need to read about it.

Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States by Chris Fair. I picked this cookbook from the "new books" section of the Brooklyn Public Library to read after a day of brushing up on my history of Pan-Africanism with some provocative essays on Garveyism by Tony Martin, Stephen Howe’s cantankerous rejoinder to Afrocentric thinkers, a dry biographical monograph on Henry Sylvester Williams and a solid, albeit sleepy German overview of a century of Pan-African ideas. My thinking was that this little book would provide a bit of levity. But this terrible attempt at political humor and cultural commentary didn’t just fail to amuse me. It completely annoyed me. I won’t bother to explain the premise of this book in full—basically it’s an excuse for a think tank policy wonk to try to make some points about international politics while dishing out poorly constructed recipes from the “bad boys” of the international scene—Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Israel, India, Pakistan, Cuba, Burma, China and, to prove her cosmopolitan impartiality, the USA. Sprinkled throughout the work are ubiquitous, irritating acronyms and abbreviations, witty asides that have to be punctuated with exclamation points so we know that they are funny, and culinary reflections that led me to wonder if Fair suffers ageusia. Not worth the hour I spent with it.


lizzie b said...

My MTBE-related thought upon leaving the theater where I'd just watched The Pool:

Here's a white American director -- Chris Smith -- who, during his travels, became fascinated by a hard-to-access culture and place he knew little about. He decided to make a movie about it, include some very poor characters interacting with some others on the other side of a class line, and give it a neat, bittersweet (but mostly sweet) ending. Hmm, sounds like Courtney Hunt and Frozen River, right?

But no. Instead, Smith wrote a story about Goan and Mumbaiite characters living and interacting in a very specific and detailed city. In Goa, he hired non-actors -- a real-life "hotel boy" and restaurant worker respectively -- to play the parts of the two boys. In the interest of using the right players for the parts (these two (non)actors don't speak English), and making the movie as accessible as possible to Indian audiences, it is acted in Hindi, a language the director doesn't even understand.

Furthermore, while Smith's story treats the characters' poverty and lack of opportunity forthrightly and in rich detail, he doesn't let those circumstances overshadow their capacity for relationships, for humor, and generally joyful engagement in their own lives.

In contrast, while watching Frozen River, you almost feel that Hunt, in her ignorance of the details of the texture of life and characters in her chosen setting, just substituted the most grinding images of poverty and desperation she could muster.

All in all, The Pool just made Hunt's effort seem all the lamer.

JM said...

read Ask the Dust this summer as well. While I was tugged enough to finish it, ultimately it adds up to too much nada.