28 April 2009

Sexy Beast

I want to love this movie. I really do. I feel like the fact that I don't is an indication that there's something wrong with me. It's not that I didn't like it, or thought it was crap, I was mostly just... indifferent. 

Certainly, Ben Kingsley is amazing. Really fantastic. I mean, I feel like it's stupid at this point to be surprised when he reveals once again that he's an incredible actor, but my god, he really is an incredible actor. Also, the movie is well-directed, and the editing is really clever. The characters are complex and nuanced, the interactions between them are realistic and interesting - really, it's an undeniably solid film.

So why didn't I like it that much? Why did it seem so arbitrary to me? A lot of the plot just didn't seem to make sense. I mean, it did in that I understood what was going on, but I didn't really understand why the movie would spend time telling me about it. It just seemed sort of abrupt and awkward and strange, it was really weird. 

But like I said, it's not you, it's me. I'm not worthy of your love, movie. You deserve better than me. 

25 April 2009

How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

The first thing that must be said about this novel is, quite simply, that it's beautiful. There's something so eloquent and moving about the prose, it's just gorgeous. I don't generally really visualize scenes while reading, but there was something so evocative about the writing in this book, I could practically smell the air. The best way I can think of to describe the experience of reading it is: it's like lying beside a lake at night, looking at the stars and talking to a very close friend. It sounds strange, I know, but this book really got me on some kind of sensory level. 

The prose, I would describe as Beckettian - not in the sense one usually hears it (which generally seems to mean anything "weird"), but in the sense of that peculiar detached voice that is simultaneously incredibly poignant and strangely elegant while being immersed in the shit of life. There's a kind of hushed reverence alongside an awareness of horror, I don't even know how to explain it. It's also, of course, darkly humorous while being frequently tragic. This is the kind of sentimentality I can really appreciate - not cheap and treacly, but rather more hard-won and bittersweet.

The plot is also quite fascinating. It's actually kind of a modern take on Of Mice and Men, but with Irish soldiers fighting in World War 1. So one thing that's interesting about the book is that it depicts the experience of Irish soldiers fighting on the British side - something you've probably not spent much time thinking about (I sure as hell haven't), but it's a knotty issue, fighting alongside your oppressors. It's also, more generally, the story of two boyhood friends, and even more so, a kind of coming of age story of a really compelling narrator. 

Really, a riveting book. Highly recommended.

16 April 2009

Y: The Last Man, by a whole bunch of people

A mysterious plague kills all the men in the world... Except one.

If this doesn't sound particularly appealing to you, then we have something in common. But what if I tell you that the last man alive is a fairly average guy named Yorick, an English major who has spent most of his time since graduation learning magic tricks - particularly escape art, a la Houdini? What if I add that he's kind of pathetically in love with his girlfriend, who's doing some work in Australia when the plague hits, and mostly wants to track her down (what? The two of us can repopulate the world! Leave me alone!). If this is more appealing (especially theEnglish major part) then we have something else in common.

I've only read the first couple books in the series (I think there are 10 total, but don't worry - they're all super quick reads, an hour tops per book), but I'm totally hooked. The art isn't particularly thrilling (did I mention these are graphic novels?), but certainly gets the job done. 

What's fantastic about the books is the way in which they subtly explore the intricacies of the problem from a number of different angles, including some aspects that really hadn't occurred to me. For instance, almost all the religious leaders in the world are men. So what would happen to organized religion in a woman's world? Also much appreciated is the text's global perspective - it's not just how AMERICA handles the crisis, but how the WORLD does - always refreshing, but especially in graphic novels, which tend to be somewhat obnoxiously US-centric. There's also a lot of amusing mirroring of various literary works, a kind of play on various hypothetical post-armageddon scenarios from literature or film, which is really entertaining if you're as nerdy as I am. Ultimately though, what makes the books so compelling are the characters, who are warm, friendly, funny, and generally likeable people who you're honestly interested in. Lots of fun. Highly recommended.

Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle

I've been a big graphic novel kick lately, and randomly picked this up in the library while searching the shelves the next volume of Y: The Last Man. As it happened, the Y books had to take a seat on the bench for a couple days, because I was totally enraptured by the Burma Chronicles. 

The work is basically a kind of travel diary of the author's experiences living in Burma for a year with his wife (who works for Doctors Without Borders) and baby son. It's part quotidian adventure, part general culture shock, part history/documentary of Burma itself, and part reflection on life under oppressive dictatorship. Apparently this is a genre Delisle is well versed in - he's also got a book about North Korea, and one about China (which amazon reviewers say is decidedly inferior to the others). Anyhow, Guy is a sympathetic character and amusing narrator, with interesting observations about seemingly mundane details, and a nice eye for detail. The artwork is more complex than it appears at first glance, and is well done. What I also really appreciated were these occasional moments of vulnerability - he describes, for instance, grand plans for political protest, elaborating them over several frames, and then immediately gives a single frame that shows how rapidly he abandoned the plan for no particular reason. There's something touching about both giving the dream and admitting its failure, I was impressed. Finally, I learned a lot about Burma itself, which is nice - I knew pretty much nothing about it beforehand. 

Anyhow, really a lovely book, much recommended.

12 April 2009


A charming film, no relation to the disappointing Gary Shteyngart novel. I suppose some would argue that it performs a whole host of stereotypes about backward Eastern Europeans, and that's it's name and geographic vagueness is an offensive mishmash of Eastern Europe a la Borat. But you know, it really didn't strike me that way. Maybe because I saw it with my parents, rather than with a group of non-Eastern European friends, so I wasn't inclined to be defensive, maybe it's because it's actually homegrown (not that one can't create offensive caricatures of one's own people), maybe because it was lovably close and affectionate and familiar in so many ways, I dunno. But it didn't bug me. 

ANYHOW, what I kind of loved about it was that the film is, in essence, an epic, which you don't see much these days, and is rarely done well. In other words, the characters lack any real psychological development - not that they're flat, it's rather that their interiority isn't really explored, it's only expressed through action. The form isn't realism - the plot is more fairy tale than documentary, and definitely requires a major suspension of disbelief. Yet it has this kind of epic quality - it's about life and death, and love and sex, and primal human needs and urges. But ultimately, it boils down to a man's quest to win a woman's love, gallant knight style. It even features the key plot point, the hero's journey to the Underworld, albeit in a modernized fashion.

And that's what's so intriguing about it, is that the quest revolves around water supply, which in some ways, is a quintessential trait of emerging modernity. So there's this lovely juxtaposition of old forms and modern contexts, or rather, proto-modern contexts, one could say. It's kind of brilliant. Bringing water, and the technology associated with it, ISN'T portrayed as the starting point of Westernization and massive change. In fact, it's organically interwoven into an existing culture and way of life - one that is perhaps primal, but isn't by extension "backwards" or "uncivilized". I'm sure one could develop a more complex and nuanced reading of the film in terms of nationalism and modernization, but that's all I've got for now.

Oh, I should also mention, like all good fairy tale love stories, there are some gorgeous romantic moments, wonderfully imagined and beautifully rendered. Very sweet, very unrealistic, but very touching.

04 April 2009

A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, by Langston Hughes

Of historical rather than literary interest (though there is the occasional lyrical phrase), this short monograph is Langston Hughes' glowing description of a trip around the USSR in 1934. Hughes sees the USSR as a kind of paradise; a cultural melting pot with universal education, no discrimination, and an inspired population committed to the nation's political goals. The contrasts to the US are biting, but it can't be ignored that Hughes clearly missed a lot of what was going on in the USSR at the time. He says that one man "refuses to speak of the pogroms", for instance, but himself doesn't really mention them, or allow them to blemish his view of the population as being open and tolerant. When traveling in Uzbekistan, he strives to learn about folk art and music, and is surprised that no one wants to talk about it: "Whatever the reason, they would talk only about the new dramas and their political importance and Soviet meaning", he says. It doesn't seem to occur to him that maybe there's a more sinister reason for this, or if it does, he doesn't mention it. Given that the text was published in the USSR, it's possible he really couldn't have given anything but a good review. The book reads rather like pro-Soviet propaganda, but simultaneously, the attacks on the US are indubitably honest, and perhaps could not have been so strongly voiced in an American publication. So in that sense, it is perhaps a more valuable book in terms of its depictions of the US than of the USSR. Of particular interest is the scathing critique of the Church in the US and its hypocrisy. I'm increasingly intrigued by this issue; the way that Christianity has simultaneously been a kind of backbone of African American culture, and a great comfort, while also often being a tool of oppression. And the awareness of that fact in so many authors. I still don't quite know what to make of it.

01 April 2009


Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole is probably one of the more bad-ass events of human history, and is absolutely fascinating. So I was stoked to see this documentary, made at the time by a cameraman who was on the ship. And I was not disappointed, though it wasn't at all the movie I was expecting. Filmed in 1919, it's a silent movie - be forewarned - and while it does feature a lot of fantastic visuals from the expedition, it also features an astonishing amount of a very different sort of footage, namely, long segments with ADORABLE ANIMALS. Oh man, it is fabulous. 

The film is remarkably blase about the trip itself, with a cue card blithely stating that they were then trapped in the ice for 9 months, and briskly proceeding on to describe the various cute faces that the dogs made. Which is simultaneously surreal and delightful. Though it occurs to one that in 1919, images of penguins were probably as remarkable as those of the ship, and of equal interest? But while the scenes of seals scratching themselves are riveting, the shots of the ship trapped in ice really are incredible. And what you do see of the crew is kind of marvelous, though it has that eerie sped up quality of silent films. 

So ultimately, I didn't learn much about the expedition (I plan to rent the more recent take on it, Endurance, soon - I wonder if/how it'll incorporate the original footage), I did enjoy the film tremendously. Definitely worth checking out.