On Oscar Day: Cold Souls as the Antidote to Avatar (and Facebook tonight)

Ann saw Cold Souls for the first time last night and loved it. This was my second viewing, and it held up for me. Basically, the movie has Paul Giamatti, playing himself. Giamatti’s hung up on playing a role in a Chekov play, and after seeing an advert for Soul Storage in the New Yorker decides that the answer might be to divest himself of his soul. As a result he comes into contact with a Russian mule, played brilliantly by Dina Korzun, who is carrying souls into the U.S. for resale.

What follows is both serious and absurdist humor, and most definitely SF-Fantasy. The plot becomes more complicated, the characters gain nuance and depth. There are plenty of laughs in Cold Souls, but there is also plenty to think about, and plenty that will move you. In its thematic resonance and devotion to its characters it’s much more like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than the relatively bloodless Being John Malvokich.

Cold Souls is an indie film, but it’s not a small film. The way the first-time director and writer Sophie Barthes extrapolates the idea of storing and harvesting souls, hardwires it to real-world parallels like organ harvesting, and gives the apparatus involved with extraction the sleekness of Apple design is truly impressive. The movie fails if you don’t buy into the premise, no matter how interesting the situations and characters. But Barthes’ approach is flawless, in my opinion–and a great example of how you make a viewer (or reader) suspend disbelief.

Frankly, I thought this was the best SF movie of the year, not the awful Avatar or the good but ultimately disappointing District 9. So, if you want an antidote to the three hours of mindnumbing dumbness, recycled Cameron plots, and faintly veiled Dances-with-Wolves condescending, makes-no-sense bullshit that is Avatar, try Cold Souls.

Also, if you’re a facebook friend note that I’ll be facebooking about the Oscars tonight while they’re going on. Probably a couple of anchor status messages and then commenting in the thread. Hope you’ll join me–from the red carpet on.

District 9–Some Questions

I meant to post this awhile back, forgot about it, and then read this wonderful analysis by Nnedi on her blog. In addition to the stuff about Nigerians, this really resonated in her complaints about the movie: “It bothers me that this film has gotten such stellar reviews. But I guess that just shows how low people’s standards for Hollywood films are. The problem with setting your standards low so you can enjoy movies is that it allows them to get away with some serious irresponsible rubbish. And it makes directors, writers, and producers very very lazy. I want to see an SF film set in Africa as much as anyone but I don’t like to see things done half-assed.”

A few legitimate questions that came to mind, considering the ultra-realistic/documentary style of the movie, at least at the beginning.

Warning: The questions suggest spoilers.

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Ideal and IT Crowd (with Arctic Monkeys)

Two new comedies on IFC (although old hat to fans of the BBC not living in the U.S.) have had me watching and in stitches for a few weeks now. One features Moz, a drug dealer, the other Moss, an IT guy at a corporation.

Ideal is set mostly in the apartment of Moz, a low-level drug dealer. A succession of bizarre characters, including a guy named Cartoon Head (who has a cartoon head), parade through, seeking a fix, or sometimes something more dangerous. The series is dark humor at its finest–truly hilarious but you have to adjust to the vibe of the show. I watched two episodes, decided I hated it, but watched a third anyway. Then watched a fourth and it suddenly all clicked into focus for me. It’s hard to explain just how funny (and at times disturbing) Ideal is, except to say that when the next door neighbor admits to necrophilia it’s a laugh-out-loud moment, or that when Moz, trying to comfort her says “don’t go down on yourself” when he means “don’t get down on yourself” it’s worth a huge chuckle. No, this show isn’t for kids, and it’s gloriously tattered, decaying around the edges, realistic in its approach, foul, and yet hypnotically watchable. Moz makes it work because even though he’s a drug dealer, he’s much more sensible, sane, and moral than anyone around him. There are also odd moments of sweetness mixed in. Although I’ve included a clip above, I don’t know if any single clip can really convey how the show works, because it’s almost a cumulative effect. More clips here.

The IT Crowd, on the other hand, is sillier, and not as darkly funny. It’s instead just outright hilarious beyond belief, as Moss and the other members of the IT department at a seriously screwed up company get entangled in mess after mess. In a favorite episode, Moss develops the perfect bra for his boss, except it has one flaw: it tragically overheats. In another episode, a fire breaks out and Moss methodically goes through various processes to fight it; when the fire extinguisher doesn’t work, he starts typing an email for help while the flames are blazing all around him. For anyone who’s worked in an office or with computer, this is a must-see. More clips here.

Finally, I’ve bought a lot of CDs recently, but the one that’s stuck with me is the new Arctic Monkeys, which I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve liked their prior material, but not loved it. On this CD, however, they deepen and darken their sound, and create additional texture that really appeals to me. It’s a rewarding CD that only gets better with repeated listens. Of course, the single is a little closer to their prior material, but at least it gives you a taste.

The Brothers Bloom: Another Winner from the Director of Brick

When we rented Brick a couple of years ago, we didn’t know what to expect. What we got was an unsettling and often brilliant dark, dark comedy-drama that seemed pitch-perfect from beginning to end.

Director Rian Johnson is now back with The Brothers Bloom, which is billed as a con men comedy but is actually as sad as it is funny and poses some interesting questions about the nature of identity. Ann and I loved this movie, and I’m a little surprised at the reaction in some quarters to it. No, there aren’t a lot of coincidences in the movie. No, it’s not just about the con. In fact, several things go wrong in the cons, and any “coincidences” are with regard to elements under the strict control of the con men.

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John Adams Miniseries

This holiday season, Ann and I watched the John Adams miniseries on DVD. Coming on the heels of having read Paine’s Common Sense and some discussion about humanizing historical characters, it was a bit of a revelation. Following Adams and his wife through more than fifty years of the early history of the United States, and including a fascinating look at, among others, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, this is as moving and sweeping a historical drama as I have yet seen.

At the core of the movie is the relationship between Adams and his wife Abigail. Watching not just the trials and triumphs of a country but a marriage over such a span was an emotional experience. The movie is not just about the formation of a country but the nature of mortality.

Paul Giamatti as Adams makes the man come alive in all of his infuriating complexity. Here was a man as successful as anyone, and yet in many ways an under-achiever because of his temper and his bluntness. Laura Linney as his wife Abigail is an absolute revelation–a performance as brilliant and multi-faceted as Giamatti’s. Stephen Dillane plays a cool, reserved, almost reptilian Jefferson with similar, if understated, verve. Other actors are also excellent, from David Morse (Washington) to Tom Wilkinson (Benjamin Franklin).

The sweep of historical events is masterfully conveyed in this miniseries, but don’t expect to get an intimate view of things like Revolutionary War battles or the War of 1812. Adams was largely on the sidelines during these events–either serving as an ambassador overseas or not in office. This adds a wonderful perspective, though, on the period, as we get scenes not in the history books.

I cannot recommend John Adams highly enough. I didn’t expect to cry, and I didn’t expect to feel so utterly invested in the lives of Adams and his wife. Stunning stuff. Between the Paine and this miniseries, I’ve finally rediscovered a kind of patriotism and pride in my country, even as I still shudder at the way in which we’ve squandered much of the potential we started with in this country.

The Fall–Go See This Movie

The Fall is one of the most visually striking movies you’re likely to see, but the fantasy element is firmly tied to the emotional resonance of the realistic scenes set in a hospital. Some reviewers have complained that the fantasy element is inconsistent, but it is in fact, for the most part, brilliantly inconsistent.

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Movie Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a fun romp of a movie about a not-so-serious man who winds up having a serious effect on American foreign policy–specifically by helping allocation funds to the CIA to help conduct a secret war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. This is a comedy, folks, and as such it eschews the use of nuance and complete historical accuracy. (Books like Ghost War, for example, call Wilson a crackpot who did indeed focus attention on the plight of Afghan freedom fighters, but who also was seen by the CIA as a loose cannon. Also, according to that book, Wilson’s contribution was not as significant as others would have you believe.)

Hanks and Hoffman are fine in this movie, but you begin to wish about a third of the way through that the Roberts character–a right-wing, old-money fundraiser from Texas–would have been played by a non-star. The broadness of acting and the face recognition Roberts brings to the role tends to throw things out of balance. Still, as breezy, fun movies go–and the two qualities are not to be scoffed at with so many bad Hollywood movies out there–Charlie Wilson’s War is a hoot. Just remember you’re entering fantasyland when you rent it.

Movie Review: Anamorph

Starring Willem Defoe as one weird obsessive-compulsive detective, Anamorph almost gets it right. A serial killer who deals in setting up scenes of forced perspective may or may not be the same killer Defoe’s character thought he’d helped kill a few years back. Each new staged murder is more horrific and artful than the last. Defoe is quite good as the detective. The cinematography is outstanding. The tension keeps building. And then, and then…

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