30 December 2010

The Gastronomical Me, by MFK Fisher

I'd heard that Fisher was one of the all-time greats of food writing, so I was really excited to receive this book from Santa (and my parents). I had extremely high hopes for it, and I wasn't let down - the book was every bit as wonderful as I'd expected. Fisher's prose reminded me somewhat of August Kleinzahler's (Cutty, One Rock is still one of my favorite books) - there's this lyrical, simple beuty to her writing that is just so wonderful. Here's a bit from the foreword, for example:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?
(...)
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mingled and mixed and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied... and it is all one.
I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.
I am stopping myself, because otherwise I'd just type out the rest of the foreword, and maybe the rest of the book too. It's such a wonderful, beautiful work. There is such passion in it, but also a sense of privacy and restraint, where you don't get every sordid detail, but a really elegant contouring of the world. The descriptions of food are not especially flowery, but they're tremendously evocative ("The solid honesty" of a borscht, for instance - can't you just taste it?), and there's such feeling in the book, a kind of intensity that hums through the pages, with a touch of wistfulness as well. I can't wait to read more of her books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I only got through half of this book. I'd been switching back and forth between wanting to read it and thinking it might be kind of terrible. Sometimes you're in the mood for zombies and sometimes you're really not. And I really love Jane Austen, so I was worried that my response would mostly be a kind of peevishness over any modifications to the original. But I was also kind of curious to see what happened when you combined Austen and zombies. So I finally launched into it, and was actually quite amused at first.

When Elizabeth stood, she saw Mrs. Long struggling to free herself as two female dreadfuls bit into her head, cracking her skull like a walnut and sending a shower of dark blood spouting as high as the chandeliers.

You kind of find yourself giggling over moments of extreme gore in Austen's generally well-manicured world. And you sort of suspect that Austen herself might have gotten a kick out of it. But as the book wears on, you get sort of inured to it, and it becomes a lot less entertaining. Austen's sparse descriptive style doesn't really let you get too detailed on zombie attacks without clearly deviating from the overall tone of the original, but zombie attacks are really pretty bland if not described in detail.

Meanwhile, the constant, droning reiteration of how important combat is to Elizabeth, how she was trained by the Shaolin, bla bla bla... oh man, does that get annoying. I GET IT ALREADY. Her violent fantasies of beheading the Bingley girls seems like a clanging hyperbole of her willful character, making her seem more like a petulant child than a high spirited young woman. She's unbelievably contemptuous of everyone, and really smug about her fighting abilities, and it makes her really annoying - which basically destroys your sympathy for her as a character, and makes the book completely ineffective.

So I plowed halfway through the book, and then gave up - not worth my time.

27 December 2010

Shower

This is kind of a simple film, in a way - it's about a guy who goes home to visit his father and retarded brother, who run a bathhouse together. The main character is a businessman, so there's the somewhat predictable contrast of his high-powered way of life and the more placid everyday workings of the bathhouse. Which is fine, but the movie really isn't about narrative at all. It's more in the characters themselves. I think there must be some kind of name for this sub-genre of films, generally foreign, that are like vignettes about various characters and their woes. There's a kind of anecdotal quality to it - so-and-so is having marriage problems, so-and-so has self-esteem issues, and the central space/character of the film is usually a kind of therapeutic figure who helps all these people in clever ways. You know what I mean? Shower is definitely in that category.

But it's also, I thought, just a beautiful film. There are a couple scenes that, I dunno, just got to me. Though I guess anyone singing O Sole Mio, even (and maybe especially) badly kind of gets me. The guy who plays the retarded brother emanates a kind of warmth and joy that resonates with me on some deeper level. And I think, in terms of portraying characters with disabilities, the movie does a pretty good job? Though perhaps someone could disagree with me, and I'm be curious what they had to say.

Anyhow, overall - a lovely film. Definitely worth watching.

17 December 2010

Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni

I got this book from a free box*, purely because it looked kind of interesting. I was a little skeptical, expecting a book tailor-made for a Western audience eager to hear about the "realities" of Iran, ie, how much better the US is. What a pleasant surprise this book was. The author is an Iranian-American woman who is raised in California, then moves to Iran. She writes about her bi-cultural upbringing with surprising subtlety and insight, acknowledging, for instance, how skewed her image of Iran has been, and how she continues to feel a sense of insecurity about her Iranian-ness. She's surprisingly open to self-criticism, and willing to admit somewhat unflattering things about herself. And she's a good writer, whose prose is enjoyable, if slightly self-indulgent/melodramatic at times.

Overall, there's this weird double bind to reading books like this one - on the one hand, I think people should know about different parts of the world and what life is like there. I especially think Americans should know about life in places they're at war with. And I think they should be confronted with why people don't like them (there's a really impressive moment where Moaveni talks about being shocked by her friends in Iran who were indifferent to 9/11. It's a bit diplomatic on her part, because it allows her to be outraged - not to say that she wasn't - while also presenting their rather seething critique, namely, that Americans have led to the death of thousands in the Middle East and not cared, so why should people in the Middle East care when lots of Americans die?). So anyways, yes, on the one hand, this book is a refreshingly bracing perspective on life in other places, with a bi-cultural narrator who can sort of present both sides of the equation, and I think that's great. On the other hand though, I am slightly uncomfortable with the presentation of the "exotic" Middle East as feel-good reading for a western audience. There's really nothing to be done about this dilemma, and I should add that Moaveni is, in a way, a book you can feel good about precisely because she IS on both sides of the coin, and is very self-aware of what that implies. And she seems careful to avoid the exoticizing tendency or the overly simplistic emotional draws (the kind that make Reading Lolita in Tehran feel so... gross). Overall - a very interesting book. Definitely worth reading.


*Ok, ok, ok. It wasn't a free box. It was a box collecting books for underprivileged children. I've been feeling so guilty about this that I feel compelled to announce my crime to all who will listen. If it helps at all, the only things I took were this and Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity, and I attempted to compensate for it by giving the children a big bag of books in return. One of them was an A.A. Milne book I've owned since childhood - that was the real penance.

15 December 2010

Tiny Furniture

I was utterly charmed by this movie. The path had been paved already by the New Yorker piece on Lena Dunham, which gave me the sense that she's a precocious, quirky, slightly self-absorbed young woman who makes movies with lovable, interesting characters. So perhaps that's why I saw the movie in those exact terms. I know I come back to this often, but once again - I couldn't help thinking of Funny Ha Ha, which I hated. Because this is another one of those movies about an angsty, confused recent college graduate, where there's no real plot or change in the character. Yet it turns out to be highly entertaining, wildly funny, and often quite touching. I don't know if it's because it's set in New York, so life is just more interesting, but I don't think that's it. I think that what makes Funny Ha Ha fail and Tiny Furniture succeed is realism - the thing about Funny Ha Ha is that the characters are annoying and self-absorbed - and I really don't think most people are quite as awful as the people in that movie are. The characters in Tiny Furniture are occasionally annoying, often self-absorbed, sometimes wildly immature and melodramatic - but they're also warm and human and kind of great, even when they're not. You have this sense of recognition - like, oh man, that's EXACTLY what a guy like that would do in that moment. She really nails it, even on minor details. It's so satisfying.

Some things I really liked about the movie:

One, the fact that Dunham, who does not have, shall we say, a supermodel's body, regularly appears in her underwear, or with somewhat blotchy skin, or greasy hair. And has scenes in the movie where she explicitly confronts the fact that people refer to her as fat. And she says it makes her feel bad, but she also doesn't make a big deal out of it. The scenes of her half naked in the movie are there, it seems, for the purposes of realism, not to make some kind of statement. And man, it's nice to see thighs on the big screen.

Two, the characters, who are over the top and ridiculous, but still completely believable. There's a degree of restraint in how larger-than-life she lets them be, and it's brilliantly balanced.

Three, spoiler alert, the whole thing with the jerk chef. He's a jerk, you know it and Lena knows it, but you also both know that she's going to sleep with him (and the film does a great job portraying the lead-up to that, the sense of slight excitement that always accompanies seduction), and that it's not going to work out well. And indeed, they have sex, lousy sex, albeit with some adventure involved, and she feels crappy afterwards. Not traumatized, not raped, not my-life-is-ruined, just crappy. It's so wonderfully true to life, in the sometimes you do dumb things even though you know they're dumb, and you feel kind of wretched about it, but in the grand scheme of things, it's ok. It's not the central plot point of the film, even though it's positioned as if it were a climax - it's just kind of another thing that happens.

Four, her relationship with her mother, especially the physical side of it. I feel like it's pretty rare that parents and children are really physically affectionate on screen, and maybe the world would be a better place if they would.

Overall - it's great. Check it out. And then read the New Yorker piece, because you'll come to love Lena Dunham even more. But don't read it beforehand (though I did), because you'll probably appreciate the movie more if you don't know most of the plot beforehand.

06 December 2010

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

A short, fascinating book containing two essays, one a letter to his nephew, the other a kind of biographical reflection on Christianity's role in African American life that opens out onto broader thoughts on the civil rights movement. I read the entire book in less than two hours, and have been thinking about it ever since. The most powerful aspect of the book, I think, is its reflection on love. To quote:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become.

Baldwin argues that the root of racism is white delusion, an inability of white Americans to see themselves as they truly are. They project their fears and anxieties onto black people in order to avoid facing them within themselves. Thus, Baldwin argues, what is necessary is not only for blacks to realize that what they are taught about themselves is untrue - they must also make whites see the world as it really is, and they must do this with love. He doesn't really explicitly spell out how this will work (the love part), but in a way, this is what I liked about the book - that it lays the groundwork for all these really complex philosophical reflections in extremely plain, but enormously suggestive, terms. It's also quite radical in its insistence that blacks and whites must learn to live together, and stop seeing themselves as different. There's also a really fascinating moment where he discusses the wisdom that comes from suffering, and the way in which black music can be both joyful and melancholy at the same time.

Almost 50 years later, the book is still a classic, and still, I think, relevant and worth reading, with insights that remain valuable and even timely. Check it out.

27 November 2010

White Material

In a fictional war-torn African country, a white woman insists on staying on her coffee plantation and harvesting the crop as everyone around her flees. This is the subject of Claire Denis' new movie, White Material, but that's about as much of a narrative as you get. The movie is a fascinating evocation of atmosphere, strangely gripping despite its opacity. Denis (or her director of photography) has an incredible eye for detail - painted toenails and earrings somehow jump out at you. There's something terrifyingly compelling - and tactile - about objects in this film, and I'm not sure why, or what effect that has on what the movie is trying to convey. Another thing that gets thematized is hair; the protagonist's ponytail and the wispy locks framing her face, boy soldiers hacking off a bit of her son's fair hair, a man noting that blonde hair means bad luck. It's chilling, but you're not really sure why. Isabelle Huppert does an incredible job as the lead, a strange blend of steeliness, determination, and tunnel vision so acute that it borders on insanity. Overall, it's hard to say what exactly the film is trying to convey. The fact that it's set in an unnamed place in Africa tempts you to see it as some kind of broader allegory, and it obviously indexes various colonial tensions, but to what end, exactly, I don't know. But it's definitely gripping, and visually striking, and, I think, worth watching.

26 November 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

I decided to make a holiday of the holiday, take a break from work and read something purely for leisure. Ideally something light and somewhat fluffy but still compelling. Let me tell you now, anytime you're in that kind of mood, Audrey Niffenegger is a good bet - airplane, beach, or couch. Her books are page-turners, definitely not great works of art, but nonetheless quite satisfying. This wasn't, perhaps, quite as gripping as The Time Traveler's Wife, but overall it was quite similar - a somewhat odd but quite clever idea bolstered by adequately amiable, though not exactly lyrical, prose. This was better than TTTW in that it didn't have quite as much science in it, so you didn't have to be annoyed by things trying to sound scientific instead of impossible.

As for the plot - a woman dies, and leaves her apartment to the twin daughters of her twin sister. Hilarious hijinx ensue! Kinda. At first, there's a lot of mopiness and failed attempts at haunting, which is not so compelling, but as the relationships between the characters develop, you find yourself increasingly absorbed into the story. I don't want to say much more about it, because honestly, it's not that great of a book, so the less you know about it the better, if you intend to read it. And it really is an entirely pleasant read - not a bad way to spend a gray winter day at all.

20 November 2010

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

I have really mixed feelings about Lydia Davis - I really liked Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and I HATED End of Story, to such an extent that I kind of started hating Lydia Davis. But now that some time has passed, I'm feeling less hostile. Not to the extent that I want to read any of her fiction, but to the point that I see her as a skilled prosaist who happens to be an annoying person. So I was actually quite excited to read her new translation of Madame Bovary, which I had read in college and not really appreciated, but suspected I would enjoy more now. There's been a fair amount of hubbub surrounding this new version, both as a reconsideration of the original work and as a translation. Julian Barnes has a rather whiny review of the translation that is, however, useful because it actually compares sentences from numerous versions. Barnes intends this to serve as evidence of the flaws in Davis' work, but honestly, in pretty much every case I disagree with him. I haven't read the original, but I'll tell you this - I think this translation is phenomenal. I think Davis' slightly sterile, cold yet ornate prose is perfectly suited to this work. I was completely bowled over by the beauty of the language in the novel, which I did not remember at all in my earlier reading. It's exquisite.

As for the novel itself, it's a masterpiece. Very interesting contrast to Anna Karenina, which I read not so long ago. I think it might require, as a prerequisite, a certain amount of pre-existing appreciation for 19th century fiction. But it's a really gorgeous novel, and incredibly dense and fascinating. I could talk about it for days, but I think I'm going to refrain and get back to work. I'll just say this - it's a fascinating study in irony and narration (which its deservedly famous for), but also in happiness, illusions, emotion, and habit. Very much worth reading.

18 November 2010

Room in Rome

I'm gonna be up front - I basically went to see this because I figured it'd be a hot lesbian movie. It's the same director as Sex and Lucia, which I seem to remember not liking very much but thinking was very sexy. This turned out to be much the same. The sex scenes are great, the dialogue is, mmmph, ok, and overall, the movie is just so-so. But the sex scenes are great.

The movie is about a one night stand; when we first meet the two women, they're already past the initial phases of the operation and one is persuading the other to come to her room. We have Alba, a sexy Spaniard, and Natasha, a sexy Russian who has apparently never been with a woman before. Over the course of the film, they tell each other stories about their lives, some clearly lies, some that might be. They have lots of very sexy sex and, maybe, they fall in love.

Initially, the dialogue struck me as hollow, the acting as terrible, and the whole thing as rather disastrous, but brightened by nudity. As it progressed, however, I found myself drawn into it. What is ultimately really fascinating about the movie is that it makes you realize how astonishing love really is, and how much trust it entails. It's made more vivid in this case because the two women are constantly lying to each other, and catching each other at it, so that by the end, you really still have no idea if they are who they say they are. So the question of whether or not they're actually in love, or whether they're simply living out a fantasy, becomes completely nebulous - and this makes you (well, me at least) think that actually, it always is. And it takes an incredible leap of faith to trust another person enough to set off down that road. The movie does a really good job of illuminating that, but then it sort of loses steam and towards the end it drags.

Worth watching though, especially if you like seeing pretty ladies get it on.

On a different note, I don't generally say much about music, but isn't this cover of Baby Be Mine incredible? The video is nice too. Quadron, check 'em out.

02 November 2010

Dispatches from the International Film Fest

I know, it's long overdue, and these movies deserve more than a brief mention, but hey, I'm busy. And I went to a lot of movies. So, in brief:

Love Translated
A fantastic and extremely entertaining documentary about men who use an internet service to find wives in the Ukraine. The service sends them on a group field trip where they get to meet women (and judge a local pageant), and the film chronicles the adventure from both sides. It's really, really interesting, and quite well done. Definitely watch it if you get the chance.

Red Hill
Meh. An Australian Western that wants to be No Country for Old Men, but kinda drags.

Cold Weather
Indie flick about a guy and his sister who find themselves involved in a mystery when the guy's girlfriend disappears. It's fairly standard Generation Q type stuff, though better than usual. It was a little on the slow side, but I liked it a lot more than most movies of this kind, because it didn't have quite the rampant self-indulgence and angst that these things tend to. The director wants it to be a Portland movie, but honestly, there wasn't much Portland in it to me, aside from a scene at the Montage. But it was cute and kind of charming.

Besouro
A Brazilian martial arts myth type film, except with capoiera instead of kung fu. Not great, but I dug it. The main flaw was occasional jarringly cheesy music. Also, the politics of it were kind of... I dunno, odd.

All That I Love
A lovely Polish coming of age paean to punk rock. Not mindblowingly good, but sweet and definitely worth watching.

King's Road
Totally bizarre but lots of fun, albeit slightly on the long side. Daniel Brühl is in it. I love Daniel Brühl. I dunno if it's him or his agent, but he tends to star in great, quirky films. Anyways, yeah, loaded with dark humor, but strangely touching. Reinforces my suspicion that people from Iceland are insane.

My Joy
Oh man. People HATED this movie. I kind of loved it. Definitely for advanced art film viewers only, heh heh. Totally impressionistic, non-narrative style, basically a series of vignettes of encounters between strangers, most of which end in extremely brutal violence. The cinematography is breathtaking, and I thought it was kind of a fascinating reflection on storytelling overall. Like, there was this great moment where there's a scene in a crowded marketplace, and you're following the main character, and then suddenly the camera randomly starts following some other woman who walks off into the woods, then shifts to some random dude, then kinda seems to say "well, I guess they're not doing anything interesting", and goes back to the main character. There are also completely inexplicable jumps in time. I was tickled. The audience was enraged.

Faith
I have very little patience for movies that feature a large cast of characters and interwoven stories, because I find that the attempt to basically tell 5 stories instead of one leads to cliches as shorthand to make up for the lack of character development. This movie does exactly that. And to make it more annoying (to me) they're mostly cliches about Muslims.

Asleep in the Sun
The description said the movie was about a guy who has his wife committed so as to treat her depression, and she comes back different. Attention to the everyday, they said, was what made this movie stand out. I expected a thoughtful film about depression. What I got was a bizarre, quasi-sci-fi slow-paced thriller. But I dug it.

13 October 2010

Bitter Feast

I had heard about this awhile back and was intrigued, so when I saw that it was playing at the International Film Fest, I was stoked. The premise of the movie is that a chef loses his job because of a vicious review written by a food blogger (and also because, well, he's kind of a douche) and he then takes his revenge by kidnapping the blogger, torturing him and making him cook. Intriguing, right? You kinda wanna see it, don't you?

Well, so it's not great (yes, I'm mindful of the irony of writing a not-entirely-glowing review of a movie whose premise is that a vicious blogger gets tormented). It's not bad, but it's not quite as fantastic as I wanted it to be. This is partly because the the guy who plays the chef is somewhat wooden, but also because the movie overall feels kind of amateurish, like a first time film. Which is not a deadly sin, but, well, you do notice it. There's a sense that the movie is trying to do too many things with various sideplots - a private detective (although here there was one clever aspect, I don't want to give it away, but basically, something that I expected to be formulaic and predictable actually wasn't, and I appreciated that), a cooking show with an annoying hostess (who you fully expect will become a victim, which by the way is a sign that you see the chef as actually a psycho killer) who sort of dilutes the villainy that the chef is confronted with in a not-particularly-productive-way, and just, I dunno, a lot of stuff that you don't really care about. But if you cut all of it, you wouldn't have enough movie. So I dunno.

But, to prove that I'm not just writing negative things about it because I'm a narcissistic blogger (like the monsters on Yelp - have I mentioned lately how much I hate yelp?), I'm going to share some of my thoughts about the film. SPOILERS ABOUND.

The movie is actually framed by a kind of scene of originary trauma. Namely, the chef's older brother is some kind of bizarre, vicious child who quotes William Blake (I asked what the text was in the Q&A). The chosen quote is about two kinds of people, creators and destroyers. It's a little heavy handed for a movie that sets a chef against a blogger, but also slightly raised my hackles, because I resent the implication that criticism is purely parasitical or destructive. But that's my own beef, I suppose.

What's kind of fascinating about the movie is the way your sympathy is essentially flip-flopped over the course of the film, from chef to blogger. Now, this is apparently not what the director had in mind - he wanted the chef to be sympathetic throughout, he claimed in the Q&A. If so, well, sorry. But it's more interesting the way it is, I think. It is arguably also somewhat heavy handed - though the chef is not 100% sympathetic at the outset (like I said, he's sort of a douche), the blogger is an absolute monster - much more than he needed to be. He's an arrogant, hateful jerk, not only via blog, but also in his personal life, as evidenced by his unbelievably callous treatment of his wife. He sort of makes up for it with a cute apology, but it hardly redeems him. By the end of the movie, however, it's the chef who's a monster, and the blogger who you're cheering for. This is not purely because one is a killer and the other is a victim. Actually, at first, you're kind of enjoying watching the blogger suffer, despite the fact that it's pretty grisly stuff. What's interesting is how the shift happens. My boyfriend and I disagreed on when the chef became more evil, and thinking back on it, I'm really not sure. But there's a point at which his vengeance begins to seem more self-serving than reasonable, like he's starting to just enjoy sadism for the sake of it. What I found fascinating, however, is that the blogger, for me, was redeemed in a moment when, upon eating the chef's star dish spiked with poison, he gives it a bad review. This is interesting, because it's exactly the behavior that made me dislike him in the first place, but in this new context, it seems like some kind of triumphant affirmation of humanity, the ability to say fuck you in the face of death. By far the best scene in the movie.

The final scene, I have to say, was overdetermined and somewhat groan inducing. It's not the original ending, I learned, but from what I heard, it's better than the original ending - it's just not that good.

Anyways, overall - would I go see it in theatres? No. But it's definitely worth renting, especially if you're a foodie.

10 October 2010

Tuesday, After Christmas

So, I saw 4 Months, 3 weeks, etc etc, and yes, it was a great movie. I also saw Police, Adjective, and while the premise was interesting, man, it was sloooooow. I haven't seen 12:08 East of Bucharest or Death of Mr Lazarescu, but from what I've heard, they conform to my gradually developing sense of what is typical of Romanian cinema. Ie, slow, gray, and a bit of a downer. So I wasn't exactly rushing to see this at Chicago's International Film Fest, but somehow, my friend and I decided to go, so I attempted to shelve my somewhat snarky attitude about what the movie was likely to involve, and off we went. And wow. I'm so glad we did, because the movie is dynamite. Yes, it is kind of gray, and somewhat gloomy. But despite its emotional intensity, it doesn't feel like a downer. And it's not as relentlessly gray as a lot of Eastern European movies - maybe partly because the characters are upper middle class (which, my friend pointed out, is a nice change). They have macbooks and iphones. And a sporty car.

So, the movie is basically about a guy who is cheating on his wife. Sounds grim, and yes, the movie definitely does an incredible job making you conscious of how painful affairs are, for everyone. At the same time, what's impressive about the movie is that every single character is sympathetic and likeable. Even when they're being somewhat less-likeable - they're flawed, yes, but not in the narcissistic, inconsiderate way that most people mean when they say flawed, but in some kind of normal and not (to me) immoral way. In other words, at no point in the movie do you really blame anyone, nor do you have a clear sense of what should be done, or a notion that someone isn't doing it. The movie is oddly suspenseful, in that you really don't know what will happen next, and you're not really sure what you want to happen either.

As my friend pointed out, the success of the movie is partly dependent on its first scene - right from the opening, you're completely drawn into the world. It's so compelling (though I can't really say why), and that pull never lets up for the entire film, and does some really important work in terms of establishing both the characters' personalities, and they way you respond to them.

Seriously - it's a fantastic movie. Do not miss the chance to see it, should it come up.

27 September 2010

City Island/ The Kids Are All Right

I saw The Kids Are All Right awhile back and never wrote about it, but was inspired to return to it because in a way, it belongs in the same category as City Island - both are basically mainstream, fairly standard "wacky family" movies, except they're not, because mainstream movies these days are such crap. So both of them mostly played at "artsy" theatres, despite the fact that they're not particularly challenging or highbrow. They're just a little more candid and open about certain things that "mainstream" America is prudish about. Of the two, I actually liked City Island a lot more - it's a clever, sweet movie, and well constructed. The Kids Are all Right was a little harder for me to love, because of the politics involved. But we'll return to that.

City Island is a movie about secrets. It stars Andy Garcia as a correctional officer who's covertly enrolled in an acting class (predictably leading his wife to suspect that he's having an affair). At the opening of the film, he's just discovered his son is in jail, but can be freed on the responsibility of a family member - so he brings him home, but of course, without revealing their connection. Everyone in the movie has a secret, be it big or small, and of course, the work of the movie is to ultimately bring them out into the open or somehow resolve them. It's pretty predictable, but nonetheless quite enjoyable. It's also pleasantly restrained in its drama, resisting the impulse to veer into catastrophe, ultimately espousing a kind of live-and-let-live mentality. This includes the seemingly "devious" proclivities of its cast, and in that, it comes to seem like a progressive or liberatory work, though it's a sad state of affairs that one would even think of it that way. It's not great, but it's fun and has plenty of laughs, a very pleasant way to spend an evening.

The Kids Are All Right is a little touchier, because there's the baggage of being an indie movie about a lesbian couple and their kids that's clamouring for mainstream attention in a moment when gay marriage is such a fraught issue. So of course, you can't help but be disappointed that one of the women has a fling with a guy - I respect the reviews that celebrate the film's fluid depiction of sexuality, and I agree with them to a great extent, but that doesn't stop me from rolling my eyes and kind of wishing it didn't go down that way. More than that though, I was annoyed by the fact that the lesbian sex scenes in the movie were SO unappealing, and the hetero ones were so hot. I understand that it's also a married/illicit sex difference, and that given how hypersexualized girl-on-girl action is anyhow, it's arguably a smart move to make it seem mundane and downright sterile, but still. I also would've liked Annette Bening's character to be a little more likeable - she was by the end of the movie, but man, she's an uptight, hypercontrolling jerk for most of the film.
I don't, however, begrudge the movie it's strictly normative ideology when it comes to the family unit. In a way, I like that the movie kind of writes off any possibility for a healthy alternative family structure, and thereby slyly smuggles lesbian couples into the normative family category (where they belong). Politically speaking, I can understand the utility of a seemingly extreme group professing its conservative impulses. But I wouldn't have minded if the movie made it a little more clear that the ultimate resolution it came to was a concrete, individual one, not a template. I dunno.
In any case, in terms of all the buzz about the movie - overrated. It's not bad, it definitely had its charm and there were a lot of things I liked about it. It's unfortunate that my opinion of it was so strongly tinted by the political context, because there are a lot of aspects of general family dynamics that were well captured.

Still, of the two, I'd rather watch City Island again.

26 September 2010

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I was going on vacation to Belize with my family, ie was about to spend a lot of time on airplanes, so I decided it was time to tackle the monster. To my surprise, it was a quick, light read - I made it through all 817 pages in 4 days. And for the first 600 pages or so, I thought it was one of the most fantastic books I'd ever read. But as it started to wind down, I found myself a little less taken with it, and started thinking over the whole thing and being a little more dubious. My friend Ruchama put it very well - she said that in general, reading the great Russians, she finds that the agony and angst are very compelling and well described, but the resolutions are invariably unsatisfying. I think I agree, kind of, but that's not really what my problem was. It was more that, thinking back on it, the changes in the characters are actually pretty extreme, and not sufficiently motivated, or rather, kind of skimmed over. I know it seems strange to want more development in an 800+ page novel, but seriously, what happened to Karenin? You know?

What's odd about this feeling is that it's exactly the opposite of my initial sense of the work, where I was enthralled by the way the characters were drawn. It's absolutely incredible, the way Tolstoy seems to know exactly what it's like to be all these different people, and how skillfully he manages to convey it, sometimes with just a few small details. The plot sort of progresses through vignettes, and each of them is worthy of being a short story of its own; they're so vivid, and seem to index so much more than what they concretely describe.

Another thing I appreciated was how un-melodramatic it was, in contrast to what I was expecting. While it's ultimately a novel about passions, it allows the characters some margin of self-awareness, such that they're never on a complete tailspin - even when their actions are. I really, really valued that - the moments when they questioned their thoughts and feelings, even though their behavior was totally hostage to them. Thus, for instance, Levin finds himself jealous, and knows that he's being unreasonable, but just can't really help himself - which is EXACTLY what it's like to be jealous, unlike the usual portrayals where the person seems completely irrational and unaware of it.

The historico-political aspect of the novel was also fascinating, and really well drawn. It was the spiritual side I found rather less compelling, and it's kind of hard to say why. Unfortunately, that's what the culmination of the novel really hitched its wagon to, so the book ended on more of a whimper than I would have liked.

Still though, it's a great, great book.

13 September 2010

An Experiment in Love, by Hilary Mantel

I guess I never wrote a review for Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, which I read in the late-winter/early-spring. A friend of mine had absolutely loved Mantel's Wolf Hall (many people did) and when I bought it from amazon, I discovered Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution. I was trying to learn more about the French Revolution at the time, and the novel seemed like a good way to do it. It was not a revelatory book, but it was quite good. Amazingly dense with historical information - I can't imagine how much research went into it - but also wonderful, lively prose and well-drawn characters. It was, however, quite long. It needed to be, but still, I was reading it for weeks, and it kind of wore me out.

So I was happy to see An Experiment in Love at Costco, a nice short Mantel novel about British women in the 60s. The back implied that it would be all about the struggles of feminism and femininity and academia, which sounded just great to me. There was also some kind of suspense and/or gradual buildup to an explosive climax promised, which seemed iffy but ok.

But you know what? It wasn't very good. There was a climax. It was not very explosive or exciting. And there wasn't much of a build-up to it. In a way, I suppose, one could appreciate the subtlety of the book; the way it allows most of its characters their privacy. Unfortunately, they have so much privacy that they're basically shrouded in mystery - you have no idea what's going on with them, and you never really find out. Couple this with the main character's lack of self-awareness, and you get a novel where everything is kind of chaotic and unclear, but not in a particularly compelling way. Thinking back on it - and I only finished reading it a few hours ago - it's hard to say what even happens in the book, what occupies the pages and keeps the story moving. There's a lot about food (the main character, rather annoyingly, gradually becomes anorexic, except that she doesn't seem to do it consciously - at first she's just broke, then she seems to want to be thin, but the transition happens in a single paragraph). The whole reflection on feminism in the 60s part that I was so looking forward to was more like an afterthought, a bland generalizing sentence here and there.

Overall, a great disappointment - I like Mantel's prose style, but I barely kept reading this book, and if it wasn't so short, I would never have carried on.

23 August 2010

What's Your Rashee?

Bollywood is kind of like a guilty pleasure for me, but this movie seemed worth writing about because a few days later, I find myself still thinking of it and what it says about love. The movie is in many ways fairly standard bollywood - long, with a somewhat bizarre, convoluted plot, some pleasing song and dance routines (more song than dance), etc, but there was something intriguing about it, namely, the way it took on the question of tensions between models of arranged marriage and romantic love.

The main character, because of plot machinations we don't really need to go into, needs to get married, quick. For somewhat random reasons, he decides to meet one girl of every astrological sign and pick one as a wife. This is explained by him saying that he had always thought he would marry for love, so he wants to at least make some attempt to find it - if each astrological sign represents one type of woman, he can at least take a sampling of the lot. Curiously, all the girls are played by the same actress (the beautiful and charismatic Priyanka Chopra), a perhaps unnecessary bit of randomness that seems to be done just for fun, and is half-heartedly justified when someone tells the protagonist that they all look the same because they all have the face of the true love he seeks. Why not.

So, what's intriguing about it is that the protagonist is committed to getting married - he WILL pick one of these women. He also wants to find love, but he's ready to marry even if he doesn't. So with every meeting, he seems to be sort of juggling two questions: how do you go about picking a wife (in the practical sense) and how do you go about figuring out if you're in love with someone whom you've just met? The women seem to be wrestling with a similar set of questions, and while it isn't really something explicitly discussed in the movie (though you get moments where they say to each other "Jeeze, what should we talk about?" and one great scene where the girl basically makes him act out various scenarios playing the role of someone who is in love with her - especially interesting because she tells him exactly what to do, and then seems to fall for him when he deviates from the script), the film nonetheless provides plenty of occasions to contemplate it. What's so interesting to me about it is that in some ways these questions overlap, and in some ways they don't. I mean, on a basic level, there's a kind of tension between romantic love and practicality. But at the same time, in a sense we identify "true" love by its ability to survive and overcome (practical) obstacles. But we're also aware that it's easily confused with plain old lust, or some kind of delusion, and we suspect that maybe the best relationships are ones with a more practical foundation. Then, of course, there are the more mythical dimensions of love, the sense of fate or a cosmic connection between two people who are "meant" to be together. Our protagonist pretty straightforwardly seems to reject those. Lust he wrestles with a bit more. But he's also a bit put off by the sheerly practical side as well. The neat thing about the movie is that by having 12 girls, it gets to model a bunch of different aspects of the issue. It's really cool. And you genuinely don't know who he will (or should) pick. And while the ending is satisfying (or was to me), it doesn't foreclose the possibility of alternatives, or try to insist that this is the best possible ending, thus guaranteeing for itself that this is REAL true love of the one and only variety.

On a more idiosyncratic level, I also enjoyed all the Chicago in the movie. Although it's set in India, the protagonist lives in Chicago, so there are some lovely shots of the city (including one of the new Trump Tower - I believe it's the first time I've seen it on film, and testifies to the incredible speed at which Bollywood films are made. Obama gets mentioned too. And the University of Chicago makes an appearance - they have some gorgeous footage of the Business School building). Incidentally, there is an understated reflection on immigration as well. There's a great rant from one character about Indians who leave home, come back, and suddenly develop stomachs "too sensitive" for the local water, which is kind of fascinating. Also, a subtle critique of people who leave purely to make money - as one character suggests, perhaps there are more important things?

Overall, it's also just an entertaining movie to watch. It's not perfect, and a lot of plot points don't really work. But what makes it really worthwhile is all this stuff going on just below the surface, in really fascinating ways.

20 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Ok. There are gonna be some spoilers here, I'm telling you now. Sorry. I am going to talk about the ending of the movie, so if you haven't seen it, you should probably stop reading.

So, for the most part, I found Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to be a highly entertaining, delightful film. It's a lovely homage to old school video games, and a lot of fun. I was amused. All was well. But as it progressed, I felt a growing sense of impatience. Then, at the end, there was a brief moment where it looked like salvation was on the way... only to be cruelly disappointed.

Here's the thing. The movie is about Scott fighting off his love interest's exes. That's all well and good, but the problem is - you're not really sold on why he's so interested in this girl Ramona in the first place. And the more you get to know her, the less you like her. And you start to think about who these people are, and what their deal is, and you start to feel a little... uncomfortable.

(What follows is basically a plot summary with running commentary. I realize I said at the outset of this post that you shouldn't be reading it if you haven't seen the movie, which means that if you're reading this, you've probably seen it and have no need of plot summary, and in fact, this kind of summarizing with commentary is exactly what I'm constantly telling my students not to do, but you know what? It's an easy way to work out what you think about something. That's why they do it. If I were turning this into a paper that I'd be handing in to myself, I'd use what follows as fodder and distill it into an argument about the film. In fact, if I were writing a professional review, that's what I'd do. But I'm writing a blog post, and I have less than 10 minutes to finish this before going to play poker, so if it's gonna be posted today, this is what it's gonna be. Sorry.)

So, at the opening of the movie, we meet Scott, played by the wonderful Micheal Cera in typical fashion. He's been brutally dumped by a girl named Envy, and has just started dating a girl named Knives. This is suspect to his friends, because Scott is 22, and Knives is 18. We also find out that Scott might have left a trail of wounded women in his wake. But we don't really think about this too much, we just sort of enjoy the humor of his interactions with Knives and wonder, albeit slightly uneasily, what's coming next. Then, he has a dream about a girl he's never met. And the next day, bam, he meets her. Ramona. She is literally the girl of his dreams. He starts pursuing her like mad. We're kind of sympathetic, because he's so pathetic, and also because Knives has always seemed like kind of a joke anyhow. Besides, Ramona seems so cool.

Next thing we know, Scott is dueling Ramona's exes. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but whatever, it's entertaining. Things are going pretty well, overall. But this is when the movie starts to imperceptibly shift. First off, Scott starts getting annoyed at having to fight these exes. Why in the hell was she dating these jerks anyhow? Hey, good point, we think. What's the deal? Then Ramona starts getting kind of... angsty. Oh, woe is me, my past that hangs over me. Meanwhile, Knives is still in the scene, which is initially milked for awkward humor, etc, and then an apparently absurd revenge quest that you start to realize, isn't that absurd after all. He jilted her. The movie initially tries to play this off as amusing, like how on Earth could Knives presume to challenge Ramona? But you start thinking, gosh, you know, Knives is pretty cool. And Ramona is kind of a flake. Huh.

Then we get to the denouement, which happens twice, and seems to involve a kind of epiphany where both Ramona and Scott realize that when it comes to relationships, they've both been selfish jerks in some ways. This is sort of interesting, but ultimately not all that compelling, not least because it seems so hollow. But then, when the dust settles, Ramona does this whole self-sacrificing, you can do better than me, and besides Knives loves you act, and walks away. And Scott does actually turn to Knives, who he's been seeming a big more snuggly with. And you think, hey! YES! This is awesome! This is totally how this movie should end! And then Knives unloads the SAME self-sacrificing bullshit and tells him to go with Ramona, and he DOES! GODDAMNIT!!! I was SO pissed. And you know what? I honestly do feel like there is a subtle racism to it, of him picking the goth white girl over the badass Asian chick. And then I started thinking about how throughout the whole film, Knives was basically a caricature, more so than any of the other characters. And I found myself liking the movie less and less. And realizing how closely it adheres to basic stock plots of hollywood cinema, albeit dressed up in a cute way.

So yes, I was entertained, for the most part. But still, ultimately, I'm disappointed. In other words, I'm not saying don't see it - it's a fun movie, worth checking out. But I invite you to share my disappointment. SHARE IT. Join me in bemoaning the stupid cliche of the stupid mainstream, and in yearning for something more interesting. I want to say more true to life, but the thing is, I have this suspicion that movies like this ultimately serve to reinforce the mainstream, and to keep guys believing that they're right in picking Ramonas instead of Knives. And I guess that's a step forward from the days when they were supposed to pick the cheerleaders who had no ostensible personality whatsoever, but still, lame. So I guess, I want movies that are more true to life as it should be (what can I say, I read Marcuse's Aesthetic Dimension a few years ago and it changed my life.).

I will say though, that Kieran Culkin was absolutely fabulous as the deadpan gay roommate. A real treat. His career has been following an interesting path. While I wasn't really a huge fan of Igby Goes Down or The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, they're certainly interesting choices of roles. It'll be interesting to see what he does next - I bet this performance will get him some positive attention.

11 August 2010

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I had heard of this novel quite awhile ago, and then someone posted this video on facebook, which I thought was riveting, and I connected the dots and went out and bought the book the next day. It took another week or two for me to actually start reading it, but once I started, I could hardly put it down - I flew through the book in just a few days. To be simplistic, one could say this is the Nigerian Kite-Runner - ie, a gripping novel about politics and war that reels you in with its characters and imparts a bit of a history lesson along the way. But ultimately, the thing about this book is that the writing style is just... readable. It's not the most amazing piece of literature you've ever read, but it is absorbing and heart-wrenching. Definitely recommended.

05 August 2010

Tokyo!

Of all the city movies (Paris Je T'aime, New York I Love You), this one seemed to have the least to do with the city itself. But it was by far the best. It's 3 short films, one by Michel Gondry (who I have very mixed feelings about), one by Leos Carax, and one by Joon-ho Bong. And all of them are just great.

The first, the Gondry movie, follows a young couple who has just moved to Tokyo. It's a well done portrayal of a relationship slowly falling apart under pressure, but then (I don't want to say too much) it takes a turn for the wonderful. The second, the Carax movie, is about a swamp monster who terrorizes the city and his subsequent court case - not as good as the other two, I think, but interesting, in that it made me think about what it means to be a prophet. The final film is about a hikikomori, a recluse, and it's just kind of beautiful. It also though, makes you think about the whole hikikomori phenomenon, which is absolutely fascinating (and terrifying).

Overall, the movies were lovely and strange and I was totally charmed. Much recommended.

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

This is certainly a very clever book, but it somehow failed to really engage me emotionally. Bechdel writes about her childhood, focusing mostly on her relationship with her father. Her father was a closeted homosexual with a penchant for younger men. Alison is a lesbian. Her father killed himself when she was in college. These are the three main issues the book orbits, and the thing is, after awhile, you start to feel like everything comes back to one of those three things, and it starts to feel kind of ponderous.

You know what? I think I might be tired of stories about closeted homosexuals who have a penchant for younger men. The shame, the guilt, the nastiness, I dunno, it just seems like I've been over it so many times that I just don't find it all that gripping anymore. Isn't that strange?

Likewise, the whole torturous figuring-out-that-you're-gay thing. I should have more sympathy for this, but gosh, it gets kind of self-indulgent and boring after awhile. Not to mention, cliche.

Meanwhile, however, there's a nice use of old letters and interspersed literature. Of course I enjoyed the literary interpellations (one of those things a graphic novel can do very well, that other genres would have a hard time with) though Bechdel's own commentary on them often left something to be desired.

One of the reviewers on goodreads.com points out there's more narration than dialogue in terms of moving the plot, and that's true, I guess. The same reviewer complains that the intertextual references make the protagonist seem like a character, and that overall the whole thing seems too abstract rather than like you're actually accessing emotion. I dunno about that. But the point about narration is a good one. Most of the text is basically narration - like a voice-over - with scenes that sort of illustrate the point, but don't really add to it. Only rarely does the comic actually stand alone without that - there's very little dialogue. Which probably contributes to the sense of distance that aforementioned reviewer feels, and indeed, that I feel.


01 August 2010

The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick

I think I heard about this book around the time it came out, or maybe I've picked it up in bookstores before, but I had a vague sense that it was good but not that good. I saw it at a bookswap awhile ago and grabbed it with a feeling of "well, it's about time". I dunno. Anyhow, my vague sense, wherever it came from, turned out to be mostly right. The book is a collection of 5 or so novellas, as it were, centering around the same character. The first one is fantastic, and then they start petering out. If you really want to harp on the book, you might note that the central character doesn't really seem consistent throughout. But really, the thing to do with this book is to read the Puttermesser and Xanthippe episode and skip the rest.

Puttermesser and Xanthippe tells the story of how Puttermesser created a golem and took over New York. It's wonderful, whimsical but not frivolous, with lovable characters and a wonderful dry humor. Ozick has a very enjoyable style, but this novella shows it to the best advantage, because it has the most compelling content. The other ones kind of try to skate by on the strength of the characters, and they're just not as good. Her romance (Puttermesser Paired) is initially kind of touching but rapidly becomes both grating and pathetic, her family troubles (the Muscovite cousin) feel obsolete (Soviet humor is just... not that funny anymore? I dunno.), and her demise and afterlife are just stupid.

Still, for a book acquired at a bookswap, I'm pretty happy with it.

30 July 2010

New York, I Love You

This movie often gets unfavorably compared to Paris, Je T'aime, but honestly, I liked it more. The vignettes are shorter, but I enjoyed them. There's a decided whimsicality to it and a whole bunch of plot twists, so much so that they arguably become predictable after awhile, but still - I was charmed.

My only real complaint was the ending. I know it's hard to wrap up a series of unrelated sketches, but the whole montage of bits of all of them was just lame.

23 July 2010

Inception

I think A. O. Scott's review basically nailed it*:

So “Inception” is not necessarily the kind of experience you would take to your next shrink appointment. It is more like a diverting reverie than a primal nightmare, something to be mused over rather than analyzed, something you may forget as soon as it’s over. Which is to say that the time — nearly two and a half hours — passes quickly and for the most part pleasantly, and that you see some things that are pretty amazing, and amazingly pretty: cities that fold in on themselves like pulsing, three-dimensional maps; chases and fights that defy the laws that usually govern space, time and motion; Marion Cotillard’s face.

I found the movie quite amusing and entertaining. I didn't mind that it was long - it didn't really feel long. Visually it was pretty cool, though not that impressive. The action sequences were neat but not amazing. There was one scene - the one where the city folded in on itself - that was really awesome, but the rest was actually not as cool as it could have been, I thought.

The plot, on the other hand - meh. I guessed the ending pretty quickly - the movie spells out an obvious contradiction rather blatantly pretty early on, which ought to make the ending obvious, if you haven't guessed it before even seeing the movie.

Overall though, the thing is - the whole dream/reality and omg how do you ever really know?!? thing just isn't all that exciting to me. I mean, it's an interesting idea, sure, but it doesn't really create much dramatic tension for me. Or maybe this movie just didn't do it all that effectively, I dunno. In any case - overall, it wasn't particularly tantalizing or mentally engaging. The makers are to be praised for articulating it relatively succinctly and in a somewhat interesting way, but still, the dialogue occasionally induces some eye-rolling, as does the acting. The characters are just a wee bit more than straight types, enough so that the whole thing doesn't feel totally wooden, but not enough to make you really care about them.

Overall, it's a fun movie, and it's definitely worth seeing, I think. But it's really not all that fantastic.

*Though I do disagree with all the hating on Dark Knight, which I thought was a phenomenal film, and a genuinely interesting moral drama.

22 July 2010

The Houekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

I picked this book up completely randomly - I had seen another book of the author's at the bookstore yesterday and been intrigued by it, and when I went to find it in the library, this one was there too. When I read the description and learned that the main character was a mathematician, I of course had to read it, and for whatever reason, I decided that I'd do it today.

The novel is about a housekeeper who comes to work for a mathematician who has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember things that happened more than 80 minutes earlier. It's a quick read, very simple and pleasant for the most part. I suppose that the amnesia is meant to be the hook, but I loved the book for the math. There are these absolutely gorgeous explanations of various mathematical concepts (some of them, I actually had to stop and think about for awhile to fully understand), and, well, as a child of mathematicians, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. People talk about the beauty of math all the time, but this is one of those rare books that really makes you SEE it.

Honestly, so far as I'm concerned the rest of the story is actually probably somewhat meh, though it's a pleasing read, but thinking back on it (having finished it all of 5 minutes ago), it's really the math that kept me riveted. Here's an example - the idea of amicable numbers. Amicable numbers are two numbers whose factors add up to each other. For example - 220 and 284 -- 1+2+4+5+10+11+20+22+44+55+110=284 and 1+2+4+71+142=220. Amicable numbers are extremely rare. If that doesn't seem interesting to you (though it should be mentioned that the book sets it into a much more appealing, literary context), well, then maybe this book isn't your cup of tea.

Oh, ps - there's baseball in it too. But I have to say, the baseball part isn't really as compelling as you might want it to be.

Between, by Christine Brooke-Rose

This was a really interesting book. Basically an extended monologue, but in 10 or so languages. A dazzling bit of experimental fiction. It's fascinating, in that even if you don't know all the languages (and you'd be hard-pressed to find a reader who did), you still basically understand what's being said. But of course, the more languages you know, the more enjoyable the book - mainly English, French and German.

This is one of those books that you appreciate on an abstract, formal level more than anything else - which isn't to say only analytically, because really, the ultimate enjoyment is in just kind of immersing yourself and letting it wash over you. But it's not a plot driven story. Though there IS a kind of plot, in that various phrases or fragments recur with various modifications and start to form some kind of story - we learn that the narrator is a translator, that she was born in France but sent to live in Germany, that she has some vague romantic entanglements, etc - that's not really the point. It's more of an experiment in multilingual mood, I guess. Which you may find interesting (as I did) or horribly pretentious and frustrating.

So here's my plug for why it's not just self-indulgent - unlike Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands, which also shifts languages, but out of a more self-serving desire to express in the most self-authentically possible way, reader be damned, this seems like more of an attempt to consider what the differences between languages really do. Often, the same word will be recited in 5 different languages, as if to see if it really is the same. There are moments that, to me, evoked the experience of being in a foreign country and encountering things in a different language, where even if you know what it means, it's still just different somehow. Being a person who has travelled a lot and had the somewhat alienating experience of not knowing the language at all, or of knowing it but still feeling rather alien, there was something really familiar to me about this book, and I kind of loved it. But it's definitely not for everyone.

14 July 2010

Football Against the Enemy, by Simon Kuper

I'd picked up a copy of this awhile ago - amazon.com reviews of How Soccer Explains the World
said this was a far better book, so I bought it instead. Then, what with World Cup frenzy (seriously, what am I supposed to do with myself now? Write my phd?), it seemed like a good time to finally read it. In a sense, the book is exactly what you expect - a series of essays about the links between soccer, politics, local culture, etc. There's not really much surprising in it (to me at least), honestly, but there's plenty of interesting stuff there. However, I found myself liking the book less as it progressed. As a side note, I should mention that I read the first edition, not the new updated American one (where football is called soccer and there's a chapter on 9/11). I found myself slightly annoyed by the author's vague air of snobbery. It had a bit of that awful kind of travel writing, where the narrator expresses a subtle contempt for the poverty/savagery of places he visits. Also, the second half of the book is quite uneven, with chapters varying from 3 pages to 30, and structure falling entirely by the wayside. Not really a terrible thing, but noticeably somewhat sloppy.

Still though - there were a lot of chapters that I absolutely adored, in the way that any soccer lover appreciate a good soccer story. They're just charming and wonderful and kind of interesting.

Would the book be interesting to someone who doesn't know much about soccer, or care about it? Probably not. But if you do, it's not a bad read, and occasionally great.

09 July 2010

Predators

I was betrayed by the Washington Post with this one. Their review said the movie was a rollicking good time, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek action. Which is the kind of thing I love. And while the movie's outright absurdity and bizarro plot does make it occasionally entertaining, it's ultimately just too stupid to merit the time - especially the last half hour.

The opening is vaguely interesting, and at first, it's kind of like action on Lost island - all kinds of weird shit is going on, and the characters are vaguely mysterious. They are also ridiculous cliches, but that's sort of fun. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and some quite amusing ones as well, when the film just turns to deadpan outright ridiculousness ("It's 5:00. Time to go rape some fine-ass bitches."). But then it attempts to get somewhat philosophical (moral quandary! Save yourself or work with others!) and then it realizes that it can't figure out how to solve the dilemma its set for itself and ends, clearly threatening a continuation.

One vaguely interesting aspect is the gender dynamic and the way it works against the power dynamic. Adrien Brody (who will hopefully be getting a large paycheck out of this one, because that's gotta be the reason he did it) sets himself up as alpha male pretty much immediately. The only potential challenge to this is the token female, who is thankfully pretty badass and quite attractive. She also, of course, is a team player, but this gets justified throughout the course of the film, and we're also shown that when it comes down to it, she does put survival first. So she's kind of the second-in-command, and what's intriguing to me about that is that I think her gender is crucial to that fact. I mean, it helps that she IS badass, and that the other characters might be but that's irrelevant because their real purpose is to be expendable and/or create suspense, but nonetheless - I really do think being female allows her to sort of sidestep the power struggle and be second top dog, so long as she's under the alpha male.

But yeah. While it's fleetingly entertaining and occasionally creepy, and the plot is wacko and the mystery guest star appearance is indeed amazing, there's ultimately not enough bad-assness or, well, quality, to make it worthwhile to spend the money on seeing this one instead of renting the original.

06 July 2010

Meditations on First Philosophy, by Descartes

I know, you're probably thinking boring, dry philosophy, I think therefore I am, bla bla bla. That's what I was expecting myself. But I'm working on a chapter on Beckett, and having re-read The Unnamable for the umpteenth time, I realized that it behooved me to check out what is obviously a source text. I had also, not so long ago, attended a lecture where the speaker talked about how the thing about Descartes is that his works aren't so much about the claims or conclusions, but about the process, and ought to be read as a kind of activity of contemplation. So I decided to give it a shot. And it turns out - I loved it.

The joy of reading Descartes is indeed the process, the lyrical unfolding of a solitary mind trying to understand itself and the world. If you enjoy angsty first-person narrators (Sartre, Dostoevsky, Beckett), then you really must do read Descartes. Not that he was the first to invent the practice - there are plenty of contemplative mind at work bits in Augustine's Confessions, for instance - but he does it so beautifully, and it really does set the stage for the later versions.

One of the astonishing things about the narrative is how tangible it is. He's trying to figure out whether the universe exists, and meanwhile, you have these scenes where he's looking at a piece of wax, and it's so shockingly vivid, it's gorgeous. A nice example, incidentally, of the power of literature and its ability to evoke, and how it can be in a tension with the ostensible claims being made.

The argument itself is interesting, though flawed at moments. Though I probably should be giving some kind of analysis of its points, I won't, partly because I'm not really prepared to make one yet, and partly because I'd rather tell you, dear readers, about the beauty of the book instead. There are many arguments out there to read this work, but pleasure is generally not among them, and it turns out to be the best one of all.

26 June 2010

Be With Me

This is not a very good movie, but there are a couple interesting things about it.

To begin with the weaknesses - the film is meant to be three interwoven stories. The interweaving is the least compelling bit of it - the characters do appear in each other's stories, but in a highly coincidental, and not particularly interesting fashion. Secondly, the fact is, the movie isn't really that interested in two of the stories - they're really just kind of there, it seems, to beef up the primary one, namely, the story of a woman named Theresa Poh Lin Chan, whose autobiography provided the material.

Theresa is indeed a fascinating individual. At the age of 10, she became blind and deaf. Yet, she somehow managed to learn English - this completely blows my mind - and even to SPEAK it. The portion of the film dealing with her is ostensibly about her friendship with a lonely widower, but really, it's mostly about her. And she is really interesting. Curiously enough, she spends a lot of time talking about how miserable her life has been. But she's also sort of resigned to it, and puts her faith in God. This may sound uninteresting, but when you watch her, there really is something magnetic and tremendously inspiring about her. The movie is almost worth renting just to see her.

The other somewhat interesting aspect is the narrative mode of the film. In that a lot of the story is conveyed non-verbally, through text messages and internet chats, or a letter that one character is trying to write. In fact, most of the speech in the movie is Theresa's. But there are also a lot of shots of people speaking to her, namely, signing into her hand. There's something really neat about the way the film propels itself through all these various modes of communication. It makes me think about realism and storytelling, and what the most appropriate form of a realistic story would seem to be.

Ultimately though - it's not that compelling a movie, mostly because the first two stories are basically tired cliches. So there you have it.

25 June 2010

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

This book is in some ways very similar to another one of Doyle's, The Woman Who Walked into Doors (which I really liked). It's the same stream-of-consciousness, episodic narrative style, where you're seemingly getting everything with the immediacy of the character's perspective. The problem is, unlike the other book, where the narrator is a middle aged woman with a lot to say, the narrator here is a ten year old boy. Who doesn't have a whole lot going on in his life outside the usual 10 year old stuff, except for what appears to be the dissolution of his parents' marriage. So where The Woman has a compelling narrative arc, and a kind of progression, Paddy Clarke just sort of ambles along. The real merit of the book is the voice, which is indeed rendered quite well. But ultimately... I just don't find 10 year old boys all that compelling.

16 June 2010

One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, by Robert Grover

An interesting idea, but ultimately not as good as you'd like it to be. Written in 1962 (and very much of the time), the novel is about a white college fratboy and a black prostitute, and the weekend they spend together. The twist is that the chapters alternate between their perspectives, and the fun of that is supposed to be that neither can understand the other. They're practically speaking different languages. I think it was probably a really important book at the time it was written, but it's clearly dated now.

The thing is though, there's not much in the way of development. Neither of them really learns much from the encounter, and the plot is mostly pretty predictable. There are moments where it seems like they could actually come to some sort of understanding, but they never do. Also, the characters are both basically caricatures - the guy, especially, is so annoying that you get incredibly sick of him (and his pretensions and prudery) very quickly.

Still, it's kind of an interesting read. And quick - I got through it in less than three hours.

08 June 2010

Georgy Girl

Oh man. This movie is so weird. It got some attention recently with the passing of Lynn Redgrave, and shot up to Very Long Wait on the Netflix, but by some miracle, I actually got a copy (despite the fact that I've been waiting a good 3 months for Malcolm X, which is listed as Short Wait).

So, the plot revolves around Georgy, a chubby 22 year old virgin. She thinks no one will ever love her. Her roommate (a very young Charlotte Rampling, which is kind of fascinating) is a party girl. I don't really wanna give away the plot, but basically, 2 men end up vying for Georgy's affections, and she has to decide what to do. But that's not really the point.

There are two really weird things about this movie.
One is that it's this really bizarre anti-abortion propaganda film. It's so weird. There's a scene where a woman casually refers to "destroying" babies and mentions having had multiple abortions. When she ultimately does have a baby, she basically ignores it and wants to give it up for adoption immediately. She has absolutely no maternal instincts whatsoever. It's comedic in its cruelty. Meanwhile, Georgy, as it turns out, really just wants a baby. She's not necessarily asexual, but by the end of the film, it's pretty clear that she really just wants to be a mother. It's so weird, because on the one hand it's really disturbing and kind of disappointing, but on the other hand, she's kind of likeable and quirky so you sort of want her to get what she wants.

The other weird thing, which I actually loved, is the song-and-dance routine in the middle of it. I tried to find it on youtube, but no luck (you can, however, watch Lynn Redgrave on the Muppets show, which is nice). The scene is like this awesome throwback to the silver screen starlets of the 20s and 30s like Rita Hayworth or Lena Horne. The scene is totally random, and rather out of character, but it's just amazing.
It goes along with this thing that I really liked in the movie, which was Georgy's proclivity for randomly shouting sometimes. I have a similar tendency, so I particularly enjoyed it.

But yeah. It's a really strange film. In a way, it's charming, but it's also just... odd. You sort of have the sense that it's capturing a kind of ethos, but one that's in a kind of tension with the film's actual plot. Still, there are some really wonderful scenes. But overall, yeah, I can't really make up my mind how I feel about it.

A Prophet

For whatever reason, the preview for this movie didn't make me want to see it. I kind of thought it'd be gratuitously brutal and just not that good. But it was playing at my local campus theatre, and I kept hearing it was really good, so I figured I'd check it out. I'm so glad I did. Wow. This movie is stunning. Visually, it's jaw-droppingly incredible. It's so incredibly shot, it's just exquisite. The plot, while a little bit confusing (to me at least) keeps you interested, and really, it's particulars are less important than the development of the main character, which is incredibly compelling.

Malik goes from being a basically mute guy who falls afoul of the law to being a self-assured, educated criminal. The simultaneous development of the criminality and the self-assurance is the really fascinating part. You're always cheering for him, even when he's doing some pretty fucked up things. Partly, this is because he retains a kind of innocence - there's an absolutely breathtaking scene where he flies on an airplane for the first time, but there's also this moment in a scene where he's basically executing some guys where it suddenly switches to silent slow-motion and he's just kind of floating in this pile of bodies in a vaguely Christ-like way. It's really impressive.

This isn't something that I tend to notice much, but the sound in the movie was phenomenal. There are, to my recollection, only 3 songs in the film, but each of them is so fantastically effective in setting the scene. Aside from those though, the sound is kind of... barren, in a way, which makes it somehow more powerful. Really impressive stuff.

It's not a perfect film - some of the sideplots are slightly less compelling, and it feels a bit cluttered at moments, but still, it's a really incredible movie. Very much worth seeing - on the big screen if you can, because seriously, visually, it's a masterpiece.

03 June 2010

Breathless

Godard at his best. This is what hipsters aspire to. This movie sets the stage for dismal crap like Funny Ha Ha - it's young self-absorbed aimlessness rendered as sexy and thrilling. The movie follows a young criminal named Michel, who steals a car, kills a cop, and attempts to woo a young American girl (who by the way has a fantastic haircut that I totally want). It's this fantastic French New Wave look at these utterly narcissistic young people who yearn to BE something. Michel stares longingly at movie posters and quotes Bogart and goes around committing crime with absolutely no sense of consequence. Even towards the end, he's totally unable to take life seriously - it's all posturing and gesture. He's a complete asshole, but he's just charming enough to make it work. Patricia, his paramour, is a somewhat vague young lady who's easily swayed by romantic ideas. She's gorgeous, with a charming smile and an adorable gleam in her eyes, but spends most of the movie mooning around trying to figure out what she's thinking about, because she really wants to be thinking about something. This was what reminded me of Funny Ha Ha - her desire to be interesting and intellectual, with no sense really of how to achieve it other than standing next to a poster of a Renoir painting and asking if she resembles it.

What's brilliant about the movie is the way it simultaneously romanticizes the characters and shows how they're caught up in romanticized notions that surround them, such as movie posters, Paris streets, etc. While the movie doesn't explicitly condemn them, it's also not advocating for their life - in other words, the narrative perspective is more clearly distanced from the protagonists (which is often an issue I have with contemporary hipster films - the ambiguity of the perspective). All in all, it's an absolutely brilliant film - a real classic.

31 May 2010

Summer Hours

A curiously meandering sort of film. It's about 3 siblings who have to decide what to do with their other's estate after her death - her house, but more importantly, her incredible art collection. The film sort of ambles along as they puzzle over what to do, and work out various issues they have with each other, but what's interesting about it is how understated everything is. Bizarre revelations - such as the fact that their mother was having an incestuous affair with her uncle - are mentioned but unexplored. There are various tensions between the siblings, but they're just... there. The movie has a plot line, but very little narrative momentum, yet it doesn't feel slow.

What I found particularly appealing about the style was the character development. The wife of one of the brothers, for instance, is a very minor character, but you have just enough information about her to think that you don't like her very much. Not that she's villainous or anything, just kind of off-putting - exactly what a sister-in-law who you don't especially care for is like.

While the movie does open up some interesting questions about art, ownership, and legacy, I can't say that I found it especially thought-provoking. It was a pleasant way to pass an hour on a sunny Sunday, but it didn't really stick with me. Still, I'm glad I saw it.

15 May 2010

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

Huh. I could've sworn I wrote a blog post on I Am Legend the Will Smith movie, but when I tried searching for it, I got nothing. I had really enjoyed that movie, because I went into it expecting some kind of action badass Will Smith fighting monsters flick, and was delighted when the first hour was more like some kind of plumbing of existential angst and loneliness. Then it went into the more standard action stuff and got rather less interesting*. But the inquiry into loneliness was fabulous, and brilliantly played by Will Smith. Anyways. The movie is kind of odd though, because the whole "legend" part is never really explained. And I read somewhere that the film is actually quite different from the original novella. So, hey, I figured I'd read it.

It's a quick read, but not a very good one. The existential angst is there, but because it's all conveyed through monologue, it loses all the subtlety of the film version. One of the movie's most brilliant moves is to have a series of encounters between Will Smith and a mannequin, which do far more to illustrate the misery of solitude than pages and pages of whining.

The book spends a lot of time on the protagonist's sexual desires, which is kind of intriguing (leading me to ask my boyfriend - hey! if you're the last man on Earth, with only crazy vampires and corpses left, which do you prefer - necrophilia, or raping a vampire? He said neither. Bo-ring.). It also goes into more explanations of the cause of the apocalypse, which aren't all that exciting or interesting. The ending is indeed totally different from the movie, but it's also kind of ... meh. I mean, I guess it's kind of a tired trope, but the real problem is that the writing isn't all that good. Not just at the conclusion, but throughout. Also, the plot is actually far less compelling than the one in the film, and does much less with the material in terms of raising interesting issues.

So yeah, overall, this is one of those cases where you're really better off watching the movie**.


*Incidentally, I'm led to believe that Hancock is somewhat similar in this regard. I'm curious.

** This is a small list. I'm trying to think of other examples - I definitely prefer The Princess Bride movie to the book, but there are some other cases too, I'm just blanking right now. I know there are two other film adaptations of I Am Legend, Last Man on Earth and Omega Man. I'm not really dying to see them. I've kind of lost interest in the story, for one, and for two, uh, those movies don't have Will Smith in them***.

*** In itself an interesting side point. My friend Russ and I were talking awhile back, and he was saying how he completely doesn't get why someone would watch a movie purely because a certain actor is in it. Well, I certainly do. Now, I haven't seen all of Will Smith's films, especially the more recent ones, which are apparently pretty terrible. But nonetheless - I'm definitely gonna see them all at some point. Because, well, I just like watching Will Smith do stuff. It's not just Will Smith. I also have a Tupac obsession and will generally watch pretty much any Ewan MacGregor movie as well.

06 May 2010

Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, edited by Boris Fishman

So I was already annoyed at the outset by this whole Eastern Europe as "last frontier" idea (as described by Fishman in the introduction), and the notion that this book was going to reveal some kind of truth about Eastern Europe to me (if you wanted to do that, why not compile a collection of stories by Eastern European writers, rather than by Americans and ex-pats?). So I could certainly be accused of being overly critical. A few of these stories, I might have enjoyed if I'd read them in a different context.

... but not that many, I suspect. Honestly, aside from being boringly stereotypical (Eastern Europeans as violent, criminal, money-seeking, hard-drinking, mysterious, yet often charming), most of the stories just aren't that good. Partly, I'm just tired of hearing what Americans think about different parts of the world. But also, there just wasn't much to these, the plots were uninteresting, the characters unbelievable. Much of the violence seemed sensationalized or gratuitous, the one exception being Thomas de Waal's piece on Chechnya, which was really more journalism than fiction, and also, though horrifying - not all that good.

Overall - meh. Not worth the read.

02 May 2010

Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, by David Margolick

I think I'm kind of a snob when it comes to books written by journalists. I generally expect that they're gonna be packed full of interesting information, but probably not all that well written. There are exceptions, of course, but the thing is - most nonfiction isn't really amazing, stylistically. This book does nothing to change this bias of mine. Though it is a case where you kind of wonder why he wanted to make it a book in the first place - he really doesn't seem to have a book's-worth amount of things to say. There's a lot of repetition, and a lot of testimonials from people that basically amount to them saying they really love the song, which by the end, seem increasingly unnecessary.

It's also a bit misleading to call it the biography of a song, because it's really much more about Billie Holiday's version of it. While it does tell you the truth about who actually wrote it, and mentions other versions of it here and there, it really spends all its time talking about Billie Holiday. The book is clearly a little uneasy in terms of how it handles discussions of The Lady, which is fair, because she's a problematic figure. The central "controversy" of the book, one could say, is the question of whether or not Holiday actually understood what she was singing. Apparently there were claims that she didn't. The author seems to say that it's pretty unlikely that she didn't, and leaves it at that. The fact that Holiday lied about the song's origins, and claimed it was written for her, etc, the book clearly refutes, but also cites the true author of the song saying that he understands why she said that, and he doesn't want anyone to focus on her doing so, etc.

Reading it, the thing I was thinking about is this whole power of words versus power of music versus power of a voice issue. To me, just reading the words, I get the chills. As poetry, it's just devastatingly intense. Musically, I don't think it's that amazing a song - I think the music subtly sets off the words, it's a melody that seems pretty simple with a slight jazziness to it. Basically, it's nice, but I don't think the song without the words would be all that momentous. But the argument of the people who love the song is that Billie Holiday sings it in a way that no one else can. That she has this particular vocal genius, where her voice expresses something in the song that the words alone can't.
I guess I have a slightly harder time with this part. In that people tend to speak of it as if it were a fact: "X can convey sadness in their voice in a certain way". And honestly, sometimes I just... don't hear it. I'm not saying this is true of Billie Holiday or her version of this song necessarily, I just mean in general.

One might also add in relation to this, the power of photographs. The book has a photo section in the middle. It's mostly pictures of Billie Holiday. Makes sense. Suddenly, you turn the page, and it's pictures of lynchings. Which freaked me out bigtime, and I still can't get those images out of my head. They're horrific.

Point being, that's kind of an interesting thing to consider, the power of various mediums. And added to that - the power of those mediums for political change.

One thing that's distinctly lacking in the book is a better idea of the context. I mean, there are really good descriptions of the actual performances of the song, which is nice, but it'd be nice to know more about the historical moment. For instance, just how common lynchings were, and how that changed over time. The author gives a few numbers, but you don't really get a good sense of it. And that's really missing.

Overall, meh, it's an ok book. It could easily have been a magazine article though.




27 April 2010

District 13: Ultimatum

I loved the first District 13 movie, so I was totally stoked to hear they were making a sequel. Alas, it basically sucked. Unlike the first movie, which has totally sweet fight scenes, a thrill ride plot, and some compelling political resonances, D13: Ultimatum is just... boring. The plot aims for political commentary, but decides to do it by "revealing" the evil at the heart of Halliburton (cleverly called Harriburton in the movie). So it's not exactly daring. The fight scenes are surprisingly unexciting, and overall, there's nothing of quality that wasn't already in the first one. Except, perhaps, a new badass chick, who wears less clothes than the one in the first movie did, and has a pretty cool tactic of killing people by attaching a blade to her braid and whipping it at people.
Still, it's pretty disappointing overall.

25 April 2010

The Princess and the Frog

Of course I had to go see The Princess and the Frog. Who could resist the urge to see how Disney managed to pull off its first black princess? I went in with my critical faculties at ready, and left in a haze of warm fuzzies, utterly won over by the predictable charm of Disney. It's such a sweet movie. I am such a sucker.

So, to begin though, I should say that I've been skeptical of all the angsting over the whole race issue. I mean, I agree, it's a major issue, and Disney needs to be sure to get it right (I don't remember, though, quite so much angst over Mulan, or Princess Jasmine, or Pocahantas...). And obviously, Disney has a lot to apologize for, particularly in its depiction of black people. But people were critiquing the movie months before it even came out. She's not black enough! She's too black! Why isn't the Prince black? Oh, she can't have a white prince? She turns into a frog?!? From where I was sitting, it seemed like there was really no way that Disney could make everyone happy. No wonder they'd never tried this before. So while I was ready to be attentive to the portrayal of race in the film, I wasn't looking to be quite as hypercritical as some other people (her body language isn't black enough? come on.).

So, to begin with what for many will be the main point - I thought they did a decent job with the black characters. I think in terms of getting the voices authentic versus the dangers of caricature, they maybe played it a hair too safe. So that while Tiana and her family did have a touch of drawl, they sounded a wee bit artificial - especially Tiana as a little girl. But I think that in the interest of not taking it too far, they did ok. Meanwhile, some of the less central characters, like Ray the Firefly and Mama Odie, they felt a little more comfortable going all out on, and did well.

In fact, the only real caricatures in the film were the white hillbillies the heroes encounter in the swamp. They were definitely a fairly appalling caricature of white rednecks. But I doubt anyone really minds that, eh?

Next, the gender issue. This was actually a little heavy handed. Tiana is a hard-working young lady who knows that you can't just sit there and demand your desires of a star, you have to get off your ass and make shit happen. Cool. Tiana's big flaw, in fact, is that she doesn't know how to have a good time. Ok. There's an interesting sort of moment where she has to decide between her man and her career, and she kind of picks career, and then she's kind of sad about it, and then she decides she can maybe have both, and it works out fine! Luckily, her man doesn't have career plans of his own. One could pick on this, but why? It has its heart in the right place.

Actually, one of the most striking things about the movie is its reflection on class mobility. Tiana's father worked his whole life and couldn't rise above his position (but it's ok, because he had a family who loved him, the movie tells us), but he desperately wanted Tiana to. And she manages to save up her money, only to then be turned down in terms that subtly suggest racism/sexism. Ultimately (yes, I'm giving it away a little bit here), she does get what she wants, but the thing is - no amount of hard work will suffice. Ultimately, you DO need to wish on a star/marry a prince. This is a strangely pessimistic moral, but also one totally in keeping with Disney's overall message. In other words, it's good old Adorno again - you get the princess who could be you, and whom you can identify with and live out her fantasies, but all the same, you can't actually be her, because she got a prince. If you can get a prince, you too can join the upper class, but obviously that's not exactly easy.

Anyways. Enough of that. I really wasn't thinking about all that while I watched the movie. I was busy oohing and aaahing and being mushy over all the cute characters and their lovely stories. I didn't cry, but I did laugh, and generally quite enjoyed the whole thing. As a final note, I'd like to add that the movie is a pleasure, visually. Lush colors, lovely scenes, and a very nice nod to other animation in the restaurant dream sequences.

All in all, quite well done.