Wednesday, April 23, 2014

poet of the week: Ilya Kaminsky

One day in 2004, I was contentedly wandering around in Pegasus Books in Berkeley when I came across a book of poetry titled Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky. His poems are so expertly wrought, so tender and alive, it seemed like a book that would be important to me at that moment and a decade from then.

So I bought it and came to an event at Pegasus with the author. I came expecting to be enraptured, and it was in fact church. I still remember the stillness and the motion in the sound of his poetry as he read it. Quite remarkable for a poet whose first language is Russian, not English--and who's deaf.

It's 2014, and indeed, the writing still moves me in both new and familiar ways. Kaminsky creates works that show me how I've changed and grown as much as it shows me who he is himself.

Clearly I'm not alone in my appreciation:
"Like Joseph Brodsky before him, Kaminsky is a terrifyingly good poet, another poet from the former U.S.S.R. who, having adopted English, has come to put us native speakers to shame... It seemed to take about five minutes to read this book, and when I began again, I reached the end before I was ready. That's how compulsive, how propulsive it is to read. It wraps you in a world created by a new and wonderful poet." --The Philadelphia Inquirer

"With his magical style in English, poems inDancing In Odessa seem like a literary counterpart to Chagall in which laws of gravity have been suspended and colors reassigned, but only to make everyday reality that much more indelible.  His imagination is so transformative that we respond with equal measures of grief and exhilaration." --American Academy of Arts and Letters Citation for Metcalf Award

I want so much to share some of his work, but of course can't do that here. There's so much evocative, unforgettable imagery and phrasing that makes me want to read and read forever. Don't forget about this one next time you're in a bookstore or browsing titles online.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Gravity' Behind-the-Scenes Featurette Takes Audiences From Script to Sc...



This featurette about the film made my throat close, my eyes tear. I don't know why yet, exactly. I think it's because when I saw the film, there was so much talk about how thrilling it was. And I just didn't connect with that aspect of it very deeply.

But as a metaphor for life, for loneliness, for survival, for growth, it moved me very much. This featurette was the first time I got to hear the filmmakers talk about that. That was gratifying.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

What I really thought: Third Star

Having decided to take more time for relaxing with films and tv, and having poked around on Amazon Prime streaming, I found what looked to be a gem--and free! Third Star is described on IMDB this way:
James and his three closest lifelong friends go on an ill-advised trip to the stunning coastal area of Barafundle Bay in West Wales. What follows is a touching and comical adventure dealing with friendship, heroism and love.
Sounded intriguing, especially learning that James has terminal cancer at age 29. But I'd rewrite that description quite a bit. There are several factors that I think thwarted the movie from being touching and comical. (And if you're into them, these professional reviews said it more succinctly than I did, but I think we're on the same page.) You probably guessed, but-- SPOILERS AHEAD.

* Pacing that doesn't let you get immersed in the story. They could have cut out the first twenty minutes and several scenes and shots throughout.

* Conflict that rings false. There are several instances throughout the film where we're set up for what's supposed to be a tense situation but that you know can't end up badly. If you've ever thought to yourself, "They can't kill him off yet! We're only twenty minutes into the movie!" then you'll recognize these situations popping up often in this movie.

They're not all life or death. And of course it'd make sense to include conflicts that show how the characters deal with difficulties. Many of the interpersonal conflicts in the film do provide that insight. But several other conflicts don't do that. Somehow they don't serve to get the audience to care more about the characters, to reveal much about the nature of the characters, or to move the plot forward.

For example:
  • James and a friend are nearly dropped down the side of sheer rock wall fairly early in the adventure. As a metaphor it works, but it seems like a lot of tension building for nothing.
  • The bag of James' meds is lost fairly late in film, as the camera winkingly reveals by showing it falling off a backpack into the tall, tall grass. James has to get through an excruciating night without meds before his friends miraculously find them. In the knee high weeds. At night. (A reviewer pointed out that this may have changed the friends' minds about James decision to take his own life, and indeed it did seem like a climactic turning point. But to have the meds be conveniently lost and then conveniently found rang false for me.)
  • One of their tents is set ablaze (this one does reveal something about the characters' natures but this, along with losing their things over the side of a cliff, felt a little too obviously about 'getting rid of baggage' since they start losing things left and right at some point. Maybe that's a pacing problem again.). Which takes us to...
* Metaphors that sledgehammer you instead of subtly contributing to the story. In one instance, a mischievous boy wearing angel wings makes off with a timepiece and throws it in the sea. (GET IT?) Later, one of the friends finds a feather left from that mishap in his pocket and sets it off on the wind. A solitary bird breaks away from the flock and flies in the opposite direction. There are many various and nature metaphors and images that back up the circle of life theme. They're very beautiful, but some are more subtle than others.

* Characters that are not sympathetic. It's not just they say or do unlikeable things, though there's that. But their motivation isn't always clear or even subtly implied. It's sometimes even hard to feel a connection to the main character, James.

And there is the relatability factor, which is a term I use with care and a precise meaning. Relatable doesn't mean likeable to me. It doeesn't mean that I would be friends with the character, am like the character, or have the same motivations as the character. I don't necessarily watch movies because the characters are just like me (or I would probably never, ever watch movies or tv).

By relatable, I mean the film communicates something about our commonalities in the human condition. It means that I can come to understand why a character does or says or feels something and why they communicate or reveal it the way they do.

The four central characters are pretty different from me. They're white male Brits who actually use the word "Chinaman" in the year 2010ish, pick fights, take dumb risks. There are important things we have in common, too: loving the outdoors, having interest in doing fulfilling work, prioritizing friends. But whether or not I have anything in common with them, they still should be relatable. I should still get a sense of who they are and why they do what they do, especially the lead. Had they been able to take characters who are pretty far from my life and still give me that sense, that would have been impressive. The fact that they weren't relatable wasn't surprising, but was still a disappointment.

I get the feeling we're supposed to be contemplating our common mortality and the way we ourselves think about death. But that wasn't enough to create engaging relatability for me.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like about this movie. There are beautiful, wild shots of nature, some interesting dialogue, and some effective emotional moments. A reviewer remarked that it makes an excellent modern retelling of "Peter Pan," and I found that to be intriguing. I don't mean to be a total downer; I know it's a lot easier to criticize than to bring together a team to pour out hearts and souls into making beautiful art. I just think there are ways this good film could have really resonated more.
 
At the end of the day, I think this movie wants you to care about it because James has terminal cancer. But it hasn't provided enough context about James' primary relationships with friends and with family to carry a two hour film about what his loss will mean. There's a joking reference in this film to "Brokeback Mountain," but I would actually recommend that movie over this one if you're looking for a film featuring a male relationship that reveals deep, complex layers of humanity and emotion. Or "Into the Wild" if you're seeking a film featuring stunning scenery, a young guy's adventure, and untimely death. And if you're looking for a Benedict Cumberbatch movie that's a strong character study but that leaves you thinking rather than bludgeoned, try "Wrecked."

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Friday, March 14, 2014

What I really thought: BBC Sherlock Series 3

BBC Sherlock series 1 and 2 were surprising and brilliant, emotionally resonant and with storytelling flair far beyond what I remembered from reading the original stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Series 3 took the show in a very different direction for me. A friend asked why I didn't connect with it as strongly as with the first two series. I ended making a list of reasons:

- I felt like the over-the-top fanservice took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. I admit it was fun in the moment, but the next morning I felt a lot more sober about the whole party. I thought the in-show fan club was winky fun, but when I know I'm only getting three episodes to last the next two years, I want to skip the winks and get down to the mystery-solving. 

- That said, I appreciate the way this show develops relationships. Mystery solving is boring if you don't care much about the characters at the heart of the mysteries, and the show has for the most part made each episode's characters sympathetic. As the fans know, the most well-developed and engaging relationship is, unsurprisingly, the ongoing one between Sherlock and Dr. Watson. Surprisingly, then, not a lot of time was spent in S3.1 on the actual reunion. 

This was a bit of a travesty to me. I felt like the fanservice parts ate into the precious minutes we could have had going a bit deeper into the reunion.

The way they kept changing location was funny but prevented us from sinking deeply into what could have been a very emotionally rewarding scene. Must have been a deliberate choice by Moffatt/Gatiss et al., and I get it given the emotional heaviness of the close of season 2, but this felt a bit TOO light.

- I felt like Sherlock was way too confused about people, like about John asking him to be best man and about his best man speech itself. "Did I do it wrong?" He was practically asking, "What is that salt watery substance emanating from their tear ducts?" I mean, come on.

- I thought the trick he played on John in the tube railcar was *really* weird and such an off, off note. I think I've seen an interview somewhere indicating that the actor made this deliberate choice, that terrible things had happened to Sherlock in the two years he was gone and so he was even less in tune with humanity than usual. But still-- the way he laughed at John's emotional response was so jarring. We did see how he was badly beaten and tortured in the beginning of the episode, but I don't think that was enough to establish how far backward the show seems to want to suggest Sherlock has slipped emotionally. This was basically my issue with the whole season.

- I wasn't that entranced with the mystery of the Mayfly Man in The Sign of Three. I know it may have been based on canon but they usually do a better job of punching those Victorian-era mysteries up. A needle in his abdomen that he didn't notice?

- I thought having such an incredibly long-winded and poorly delivered best man speech, interrupted by "Let's play murder" and ending on a surprisingly loving note, strained even the most accommodatingly credible viewer. I just can't believe that Sherlock would be so terrible at making public speeches, especially given how seriously he took his role as best man (look at how assiduously he practiced napkin folding and how he wrote the music for John and Mary's first dance).

- Speaking of John and Mary, I wasn't sure I believed John and Mary's relationship-- that he was that into her, that she was that into him. (Ironic given their real life relationship, I know.) 

- If I was suspicious of why Mary was so in favor of the two of them spending time together, shouldn't John have been too? How could John have been so easily hoodwinked? I get that he was vulnerable after the death of Sherlock, but still. Her enthusiasm for their friendship just didn't pass the smell test for me.

- I did basically buy Mary as an assassin. But I didn't buy that she'd be that distraught by this Magnusson character. Or that anyone (especially Sherlock) would be surprised that there are no paper files. ?! It's in the cloud, man!! It's more surprising to me that he thought there would be a vault of papers at Appledore. 

- And on Magnusson: I was repulsed by how totally he oozed sleaze, and no one likes a licker, but I didn't find him that scary. Certainly not as bad as Moriarty, who doesn't mind having people killed.

- How did Sherlock leave himself no out but to shoot Magnusson?


Things I loved:

- HUGE hat tip of respect and admiration for Michael Price's scores. How It Was Done, the French waiter, and all the other variations on the Sherlock theme (which is, as we've seen throughout the show, John's theme) brought just the right mood this season seemed to call for: big, brash, emotionally forward.

- I did love the continued evolution of how the deductions and mind palace are visualized onscreen for us. They could have continued the same (initially amazing) way of doing that, but they challenged themselves to keep changing it up and I appreciated that.

- I loved how they showed Sherlock as a boy (although Moffatt has strenuously argued that we'd never, ever hear Sherlock's backstory, not ever in a million years ). 

- And of course, the scene where he remembers Redbeard is ridiculously and beautifully affecting.

- I liked a lot of little callbacks and references. I especially appreciated Mycroft's sadness at Sherlock's "six month assignment." "Six months" seems to be code for "yer toast" -- Irene Adler, Sherlock's female mirror, was also given "six months out there." And so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that, like Irene, Sherlock earned himself a reprieve from someone who loved him.


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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Of all the shows to consider watching

It's actually Brooklyn Nine Nine that's at the top of my list.

As a big BBC Sherlock fan, I want to check out True Detective. But I don't have HBO. That also shields me from whatever's happening in the world of Girls. Sleepy Hollow looked interesting, but I'm almost having more fun watching their writers tweet than trying to find time for the show itself.

Sherlock comes on once every two years for three episodes. I'm busy, but even I have time for more tv than that. But there just didn't seem anything that compelling.

This tumblr post got me to check out a minute long clip of Brooklyn Nine Nine. My life is better for it! So it's going into the "to watch" list. I might try to watch and tweet on Tuesday nights, something I almost never ever do (watch tv when it's broadcast).


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Cosmos!

Cosmos is here! I have no doubt Neil deGrasse Tyson is doing his friend Carl Sagan proud. On the meta: Isn't this an interesting trailer? Almost no words, just letting the images speak for themselves, and about a million references, many of which I'm sure I missed. Which did you catch?





I'll leave you with:



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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Here are my two steps to quit worrying about people

1. I think of a hero of mine, someone I respect, admire, think of often.

2. I remember that that person was also reviled by countless others. Sometimes more reviled than loved.

In fact, I can't think of a single person I admire who didn't also put up with a lot of nonsense and worse. Not one. Famous, not famous, religious icon, everyday hero, scientific pioneer, they all had to deal. It's a liberating and an exasperating thing to think about.

And it works! I have to do it often, but it always frees up my thinking.

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Monday, March 03, 2014

I have a guess about Matthew McConaughey's Oscar speech

It's no surprise to see Fox and Breitbart throwing together approving articles on Matthew McConaughey's Oscar acceptance speech. But despite the fact that it sounded rambling, here’s why I think Matthew McConaughey was actually giving a very calculated speech that went beyond praising God.

First, I have no doubt that his speech was sincere, that he meant to say just what he said.

But this is the Oscars, a room full of actors, on the biggest stage we have on Earth with a billion people watching. I think McConaughey was taking the opportunity to sell his film to a particular group who may not have seen it yet.

From Reuters:

As Woodroof, the actor brought to life a man who evolved from detestable bigot to a lifeline for fellow AIDS patients, many of them gay or transgender. At the same time, he fought for his own life at a time when doctors were scrambling to find effective treatments for the fatal disease.
I was raised Christian and my spouse and I are bringing our own kids up in a wonderful church. With several pastors among my family members and friends, ranging across the political spectrum, I've learned to "speak church."

And as an immigrant's kid, I can tell when someone is speaking to fit in with or communicate with a certain group. I'm not saying this is a special power only given to immigrants or kids of immigrants, but I'm saying my experience has taught me to recognize this with a fairly fine level of sensitivity.

If you've listened to and analyzed political speeches, your ears may also have been ringing with all the signals he put in there.

Not that you necessarily needed a fine level of sensitivity to get it.

This is among what McConaughey mentioned:

  • God
  • God's scientific fact
  • guy named Charlie (not Charles)
  • family
  • wife
  • his late dad
  • Miller Lite
  • gumbo
  • pie
  • himself as his own hero  (=independent, bootstraps)
Had he mentioned guns, he would have covered all the big signals.

This is what he didn't mention:
  • AIDS
  • the real life person on whom this story is based, in stark (and I might suggest deliberate) contrast that with everyone who spoke for 12 Years a Slave, another Oscar winning movie based on a real life story.
Jared Leto was the one who covered AIDS, as well as Ukraine and Venezuela. I would not be surprised if they'd coordinated on that.

I think Matthew McConaughey was making an appeal to the millions of conservative Christians who probably would not have put this on their Netflix queue on any other day of the year. But now, I'm guessing those whose Recommended list suggests every Charlton Heston film will take a second look and may even give it a try.

I think that was his goal. I think it was an effective strategy. I'm interested to see what happens with the second life of this film post Oscars.

And you know, if you wanted church at the Oscars, for my money that happened with the acceptance speech for Best Documentary. Darlene Love of 20 Feet From Stardom opened wtih "Lord God, I praise you" and belted "His Eye is On The Sparrow." There's no church like gospel. We got CHURCH with that performance.








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