Thursday, November 29, 2007

Don't Try This At Home: review of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Moviegoers beware, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet’s new film staring Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, may make you feel like reaching for the aspirin even if you don’t have a headache. Not that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a bad movie. On the contrary, it is an exceptionally well-crafted film with excellent acting and a unique, gritty style that will probably land it in contention for Best Picture at the Oscars; however, some of the movie's moments are so tense and jarring, and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman's character so incredibly repulsive that taken together they may induce a need for painkillers in the audience. Seymour-Hoffman's character Andy displays a disdain for others and a childish self-indulgence that make him overwhelmingly despicable. The only thing equaling his capacity for evil and manipulation seems to be his cowardice and his ability to produce flushed, pig-like smiles in between doses of cocaine and heroin. The moments in which he is shirtless and his pasty, ample flesh occupies the screen are some of the more regrettable ones of modern film, although their necessity in the context of the storyline may be debated. Seymour-Hoffman delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Andy, the older of two brothers who hatches a plan to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Andy cajoles his younger brother, Hank (played by Ethan Hawke), into executing the robbery. In the spirit of many amateur-heist movies, the film traces the fallout of the robbery after it goes awry. Lumet has had veteran experience shooting this kind of picture. In 1975 his directed Dog Day Afternoon, the classic depiction of the true story of a bank robbery in Brooklyn by an amateur criminal and the ensuing police siege and media circus. Dog Day Afternoon developed a portrait of an idiosyncratic amateur’s criminal’s psychology and personality; Pacino’s character was gay, manic-depressive, and a cross-dresser.

Lumet's 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon explored the relationship between crime and an individuals' unique psychological disturbance.

Lumet’s earlier film explored the motivation for a crime from a psychological perspective and used the claustrophobia caused by the police siege to produce a pressure-cooker of a character study. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead abandons the closed-confines scenario (Pacino’s character only exits the besieged bank at the end of the film) that defined Dog Day Afternoon and continued the tradition of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In contrast, we are transported from interior to interior and story to story belonging to each of the characters as the mounting precariousness and desperation of the brothers’ situation maintains the pressure that the confined space created in Dog Day Afternoon. While the earlier film traced the motivations for the crime to the character’s experience and personality, there is little such scrutiny paid to them in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Indeed, the motivations for the crime are nothing less than ordinary: Hank and Andy both need money and a way to escape from their personal problems. The focus of the film is the breakdown of family, relationships, and sanity in the wake of a criminal scheme gone awry.

I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I won’t reveal any more details of the plot. Suffice it to say, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead delivered enough twists and thrills to get me through at least one week of boring temp work (I am currently on assignment at a labor union doing data entry in their member dues database), which is saying a lot.

Marisa Tomei knocks 'em dead as Andy's beleagured wife, while Hoffman and Hawke do most of the actual killing.
Worth seeing for the caliber of the performances by Hoffman and Hawke, as well as the beautiful half-naked body of the stunning Marisa Tomei in the role of Andy’s wife (and Hank’s lover). Among these gems of performance there is also the coolly indifferent presence of a laconic drug-dealer resembling the David Bowie of "Diamond Dogs" days.

I give it 3 ½ out of 4 stars. Recommended for strong profanity, adult situations, and well-crafted drama revolving around morally questionable acts.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Cool Short Film

I found this short film by Chris Vincze online. Charming, succinct, and poignant. Have a good night.

Brand Names and Graffiti

As I read Pelevin's Homo Zapiens, I find myself increasingly fascinated by the concept of brand names, a subject he explores in great detail. The hero (or we might call him an "anti-hero") of the novel is an advertising copywriter in post-Soviet Russia. The story uses the comic exploration of the advertising industry as a window into the psyche of Russia at this historic juncture.

Tatarsky, the novel's protagonist, invents slogans and advertising concepts to promote Western goods in the Russian market. In his writing of spots for television ads, he endeavors to translate the Western name and concept of a brand into a uniquely Russian one. In what appears to be a dream or vision early in his days as an advertising copywriter, Tatarsky ascends a mythical structure which, it transpires, is a sort of tower of Babel, a spiral shaped tower called a ziggurat (a structure he has read about in a book given to him by his advertising boss). Finding himself in a room with "lingering traces of a soldier's life", Tatarsky spots some racy photographs of naked women on the walls. In one poster, a naked woman with a golden suntan runs across a tropical beach. "It wasn't even so much her face and figure," we read, "but the incredible, indefinable freedom of her movement, which the photographer had managed to capture." Transfixed by the beauty of the poster, Tatarsky sits down at a table. He examines an empty pack of Parliament cigarettes that he has found on a landing in the tower:

"The palms on the empty Parliament pack and on the photograph were very similar, and he thought they must grow in the same place, in a part of the world he would never get to see- not even in the Russian style, from inside a tank- and if he ever did, it would only be when he no longer needed anything from this woman or this sand or this sea or even from himself. The dark melancholy into which he was plunged by this thought was so profound that at its very deepest point he unexpectedly discovered light: the slogan and the poster for Parliament that he had been searching for suddenly came to him. He hastily pulled out his notebook - the pen turned out to be inside it - and jotted the ideas down:

The poster consists of a photograph of the embankment of the river Moscow taken from the bridge on which the historic tanks stood in October '93. On the site of the Parliament building we see a huge pack of Parliament (digital editing). Palms are growing profusely all around it. The slogan is a quotation from the nineteenth-century poet Griboedov:

Sweet and dear
Is the smoke of our Motherland

Parliament slogan:


Coupling the verses of a nineteenth-century Russian nationalist poet with the aggressive promotion of Western advertising, the slogan epitomizes the ironic fusion of Western culture and ideology (the promotion of the concept of being "number one" and devoting oneself to consumerism) with idiosyncratic and anachronistic Russian culture. What emerges from this bizarre experiment in advertising is a portrait of the Russian mentality at this juncture, when it is both steeped in the Zeitgeist and cultural meanings of the past - one wonders when the quintessentially Russian experience of place will not be to see it "from the inside of a tank" - and the uncertainty and compulsive consumerism of the present.

A few years ago, while traveling in Argentina, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a young graffiti artist from Brooklyn. As two ex-pats wandering among the antipodes on the other side of the world in the great and mysterious city of Buenos Aires, we quickly stuck up a friendship based on mutual interest in the place and people around us. We met many a time at a place we referred to as "the spot," a local bar whose name I have forgotten that stood on the far corner of the Plaza Serrano in Palermo Viejo, in the middle of a trendy and upscale neighborhood where I once witnessed a knife fight between two young men doubtlessly involved in some dispute over a woman. We gathered there to sit among the small and closely-spaced tables, eat peanuts and drink beer. We talked about women, sex, growing up, and our dreams for the future. Trevor was a photographer as well as a graffiti artist, an activity which, although a kind of serious hobby, occupied much of his time. In a coincidence of fate, we shared the same name. Our lives had unfolded on seemingly opposite but parallel tracks until they coincided. While he had been born and raised in Brooklyn, left home at the age of fifteen, and been in and out of schools and trouble, I had attended a prestigious and exclusive private school and gone on to college. I saw him as my alter-ego from Brooklyn, and I sought, by means of association with him, to experience vicariously those pleasures and experiences which my life had yet to afford me in its conformity.

As I got to know Trevor, he initiated me into the world of graffiti - a demi-monde that I had known nothing of until his introduction of it to me. What I had so often overlooked as garbled non-sense scrawled on walls, bridges, and railways depots, was in fact a secret language of hundreds of writers communicating with one another. Each writer possesses what is known as a "tag" - their identification of sorts, their call-sign and their code-name. Graffiti writers go their entire lives writing the same tag on buildings, trains, tunnels, and gates. The tag serves as the vehicle and sign-post of the writer's unique identity. The essential secrecy of the code - the fact that its meaning is known to the writer alone - forms a crucial part of grafitti's anthropology. To let the meaning out would be akin to a magician divulging the secret to his act.

To Be Continued ...

Pelevin's Homo Zapiens

Victor Pelevin, one of modern Russia's most imaginative and brilliant satirists, has written an excellent novel on the advertising industry in Russia following the collapse of communism. Homo Zapiens first appeared in 1999, and was translated into English by Andrew Bromfield in 2000. The story follows the adventures of one Babylen Tatarsky, a Russian who works at a kiosk in Moscow one day fate leads him to discover a career in the advertising industry. Following this discovery, Tatarsky becomes immersed in the surreal world of advertising, injecting capitalist spirit and Western ideology into the void left by the breakdown of Soviet communism. Tatarsky becomes a very successful copywriter filling this role of "translator" for brands and concepts from English into Russian. He often steps into the role of author, going beyond the work of a mere translator, inventing slogans and scenarios that promote the products of capitalism with bizarrely Russian concepts and copy. The reader of Homo Zapiens will find himself surprised and delighted with the fusion of Western products and Eastern ideology, which often takes a genuinely comic turn.