Monday, August 11, 2014

Salinger *** (2013)

The documentary Salinger went in search of the man who wrote The Catcher in the Rye.  Interviews with former friends, colleagues, and writers shed some light on an enigmatic personality seemingly nowhere and everywhere on the corners of the American conscience.

Who was J.D. Salinger?  As the troublesome son of a wealthy Jewish family, he gained a reputation for trouble and found himself in military school.  The structured setting of the school unleashed a desire to write.  Obsessed with getting published in The New Yorker, Salinger aspired to write prose on the level of Fitzgerald and Hemingway,

He served in the Second World War as a counter-intelligence officer in Europe. He took part in the landings at Normandy and saw some of the harshest fighting following the invasion.  Later he helped the liberate the death camp at Dachau.  These experiences in the war shaped his writing and forever haunted him. In a bizarre episode following the war, he fell in love with and briefly married a former Nazi, a women he claimed had telepathic powers.  Their marriage fell apart when they returned to the states.

Salinger probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It may have explained his erratic behavior and penchant for cruelty to those around him - usually directed towards women.  

Accounts differ on Salinger as a husband and father.  His daughter wrote a wrenching memoir of a neglectful father who ignored his family.  He would disappear for weeks in his writing shed.  Writer Joyce Maynard who lived with Salinger in the early 70's recalls a sentimental, but spiteful personality.  His neighbors remember Salinger as friendly, but distant.

After the war Salinger emerged as major voice in American literature.  The publication of "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" in the New Yorker imagined an encounter between a little girl and a traumatized veteran.  The story's themes of innocence and trauma instantly connected with readers.

In 1950, he published his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye.  Without a doubt, it's the most read and controversial American novel of the 20th century (many school districts banned the book).  The 16 year old protagonist Holden Caulfield served as prototype for the rebellious anti-hero the counterculture would embrace.  Several commentators noted Salinger's ability to create a mystical intimacy between reader and writer.  Nevertheless, a few disturbed fans saw the book as a justification for violence against the "phonies" walking among us.*

The overwhelming success of The Catcher and the Rye seemed too much for Salinger. He abandoned the New York literary world and settled in Cornish, New Hampshire. Interviews and public appearances came to a halt.  His output sputtered, there's strong evidence he left a vast archive of unpublished work behind.  Much of the writing appears to follow the saga of the Glass family, who appear in several of his short stories.

Salinger adopted Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, which influenced his approach to work.  Unfortunately the film neglected his spirituality, which may be a major part of the mystery.  Cynics see Salinger's "reclusive writer act" as a public relations ploy, but I detect something more complex was afoot.

Questions are raised such as: Should a gifted writer share their work with the world?  Does great art require commercial and critical success to be considered as such?  Many writers would give anything for recognition.  Quite possibly, his spiritual beliefs influenced his decision. Salinger certainly is and will remain part of the conversation of 20th century American literature, despite his small amount of work. His choice not to publish either reveals a massive ego or an astounding act of humility.  Probably both.

With any writer, regardless of their eccentric personas, all that matters in the end is the work.  Charisma only goes so far.  Over the next five years the film promises the vaults will be opened.

Despite the inclusion of celebrities and other non-literary experts, Salinger is a fine biography and speculation on a difficult, but fascinating subject.

*The deranged fan who killed John Lennon and the man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan both claimed their interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye justified their acts of violence.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Conspiracy * (2012)

The Conspiracy is a mockumentary about two knuckleheads who infiltrate a secret society. Basically, it's The Blair Witch Project with a tinge of Eyes Wide Shut.  Bad acting and a comically predictable story sink the attempt to merge the found footage and paranoid thriller genres.  Where is Oliver Stone when you need him?

The film opens as two young men are profiling conspiracy theorists for a documentary. They come across a man with all the calling cards: wild hair and beard, apartment walls covered with newspaper headlines, and a street megaphone.  One day he comes up missing and what started out as a joke starts to get freaky.  Men in black driving SUV's start to follow them. Their investigation leads them into the world of elite secret societies.  

Today, there seems to be a "theory of everything" among conspiracy theorists. All believe certain elites have always controlled history - as far back as the ancient Egyptians.  Aliens might be involved as well. American history is replete with hostility towards secret societies, most famously the Anti-Masonic Party in the 1830s and 1840s. Apparently the "documentarians" in the movie never picked up a history book or are even aware of America's proud history of paranoia.

Conspiracy theory has now gone mainstream in pop culture in TV shows like The X-Files and many, many films.  The late night radio show Coast to Coast AM with George Noory includes guests every night who see manipulation behind everything.  Coast to Coast is a fascinating mirror into the subterranean angst floating through America - and also very entertaining.

All their clues lead to the fictional "Tarsus Club", a shadowy group of rich middle-aged white men who meet in the forest every year.  To those hip to conspiracy mythology, the "Tarsus Club" is a stand in for the Bohemian Grove, a group of world leaders and businessmen who do meet every July outside of San Francisco.  Allegedly, they stage mock rituals to an owl.   

In recent years many have tried to crash their party, most notably the Texas Radio host Alex Jones. Jon Ronson, a British journalist who accompanied Jones to the grove, wrote a hilarious account in his book Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson concluded the Bohemian Grove extravaganza consisted mostly of aging frat boys taking part in silly drinking rituals.  

Without spoiling too much, the climax features some serious overacting you might see on the WWE.  I guess were supposed to leave the film and ponder what's really going on in the world?  The pretentious "message" at the end falls completely flat.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy **1/2

If the Marvel films have accomplished anything it's this: people actually stick around and watch the credits! There's no getting around it,we now live in the Age of Marvel.  I believe they're developing scripts up till the year 2150 or something like that.  Can't wait for the ninth reboot of The Submariner!

Guardians of the Galaxy is a witty space opera that doesn't take itself too seriously.  Chris Pratt has the right amount of humor and swagger to carry the film.  The plot involves some crystal thing everyone's after. 

The repartee between the Guardians who include, a sexy green skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Salana), a giant named Drax (Daniel Bautista), Rocket the Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and finally the walking tree Groot (Vin Diesel) all provide a charm lacking in most superhero movies.  Then the action scenes start and it gets boring.  It's like watching someone else play a video game.

Critics have compared it to 70-80s Sci-Fi like The Last Starfighter and Flash Gordon.  Not sure I wanna be in that company. I can detect an influence from Star Wars as well - a good thing!

Of all the Marvel films I've watched this year, Guardians has much more going for it and I wouldn't mind revisiting these characters.  

Don't get me wrong, I love Marvel Comics.  But their movies tend to leave me nonplussed, Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy being the exception.  Quite possibly, maybe by 2041, I'll begin to see their cinematic brilliance.

(Final Note- the soundtrack is perfect)

Wish I Was Here **

In his follow up to Garden State, Zach Braff has crafted a disappointing family drama.  He's the married father of two.  He's an out of work actor.  His estranged father is dying.  He's in full mid-life crisis mode ( in today's economy, you thankful to even have one). Seriously, by watching current Hollywood films you'd believe the middle class is still thriving. Kate Hudson's the supportive wife.  There's indie rock music (yes Zach, we know you have awesome taste in music).  Braff's scenes with his children have a phony sitcom feel.  Mandy Patinkin plays the grandfather.  He says awful things to his children about their life choices, but they love him anyway. There's a spiritual element to the film that feels painfully contrived.  Braff raised over 3 million on the website Kickstarter to make the film. Unfortunately the end result feels like yet another slick product from Hollywood. Think I'll go watch Kramer vs. Kramer again.

Deliver Us From Evil **

As a summer horror film, Deliver From Evil will barely make the grade despite a predictable script and some hokey acting. A sincere, brooding performances from Eric Bana as a skeptical police detective somewhat compensates for a predictable plot line. (based on a true story!)

The movie opens with a brief prologue set in Iraq where a group of soldiers stumble upon a haunted place and discover evil spirits.  Then we meet "Sarchie", a dedicated, but cynical cop. Joel McHale plays the doomed wisecracking partner. They investigate a series of crimes with connections to a group of soldiers who served in Iraq.  They consult the charismatic Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who quickly makes a believer of Sarchie.

At several points, we get drawn out sequences of guys sneaking around in basements and narrow, cobwebbed hallways that culminate with the inevitable jump scare. These chases never seem to lead anywhere, except to . . . yet another chase. And of course we get climatic exorcism scene that's mostly whiz bang special effects.  Have we reached the point where filmed exorcisms have lost their shock value?  Nothing's ever come close to the intensity of William Friedkin's gut wrenching theatrics in The Exorcist.

In saying that, Deliver Us From Evil isn't a complete bomb.  There were some thoughtful scenes between Sarchie and Father Mendoz.  On location shooting in New York gave the film the right urban feel.  Too many films today dilute their power with bloated action sequences at the expense of characterization.  Horror works best when you can engage with the characters. Then we actually care about them.