30 March 2010


Like many of Miyazake's movies, Ponyo is first and foremost visually lovable. Cute creatures moving in wonderfully strange yet lifelike ways - what's not to like? Secondly, the English language versions are regularly dubbed by famous actors, and there's just something great about hearing those familiar voices as cartoon characters - especially Liam Neeson and Tina Fey.

The movie is pretty lighthearted and jolly, but there's not much to the plot. It's got some elements of The Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Anderson version, not the Disney one), and a bit of eco-moralizing, but overall it's pretty random. Towards the end it suddenly seems to be about the fate of the universe, but it's never made clear how or why. The main characters are confronted with some kind of dramatic trial, but you don't know what they have to do or what the stakes are really, and you kind of figure it'll work out ok anyhow, so who cares. Fair enough for a children's movie, but it's not nearly so compelling for adults as other Miyazake films.

29 March 2010

Paris in the Twentieth Century, by Jules Verne

Not one of the masterpieces of dystopian fiction, my friends. It's mostly pretty boring, despite Verne's affable style, and pretty crudely constructed. In terms of dystopian speculation, it's pretty disappointing. Basically, it's 1960 and machines do everything, and nobody cares about the humanities anymore. I have some sympathy for this of course, but really, the book just comes across as whining. The one thing that is of some interest is the fact that the only other complaint the book keeps returning to is the elimination of war. Because when people fought wars, there was honor, and glory, and men were manly and things mattered.

One could probably think a lot more deeply about the philosophical implications of this work, but at the end of the day, there are much better dystopian (and utopian) texts that merit the consideration - some of them by Verne himself. This "lost" novel, on the other hand, could probably have stayed lost without too many tears being shed.

Red Cliffs International Version Parts 1 and 2

John Woo made his massive epic in two 2+ hour long parts, but apparently someone decided that Americans didn't wanna watch 5 hours of epic glory and in any case wouldn't be able to keep all the characters straight, so the film was condensed into a single 2 1/2 hour version for US release. Luckily, Netflix has the original version, so you don't have to settle for less.

I watched Part 1 the other night, and oh man. The fight scenes are so fucking sweet. The plot takes awhile to get going - aside from a few (pretty awesome) fight scenes, the first 45 minutes are basically alliance formations, etc. They're still kind of cool - lots of poetic reflections, nice music, some good sex scenes, and surprisingly well developed characters - but what you really want is the actual battle. The battle is SO tight. I haven't seen awesome fighting like that in, gosh, at least a month if not more. There's lots of spraying blood, which seems somewhat campy, but the tactics and maneuvers and general bad-assitude make it all worthwhile. I can't wait to see part 2.

Oh man, Part 2 was even better than Part 1. All the character development pays off, plus the military strategizing gets even more intricate and awesome. And the battle scenes continue to be totally sweet. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire two and a half hours. So quality.

21 March 2010

The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor, by Flann O'Brien

This book is somewhat fascinating in that it's not very good, but you find yourself wanting to keep reading it. I love Flann O'Brien - both At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman are absolutely phenomenal. So The Hard Life is written in the same wonderful voice, though with rather less humor, and the plot is just... ridiculous. It's ostensibly the autobiographical narrative of a young boy, but it's really more about his family. His brother starts a sketchy home publishing company, and then moves to London, and then inherits lots of money. His guardian is a crazy old man, with a daughter who turns out to maybe also be pretty sketchy. Basically the plot is completely random - something preposterous happens out of nowhere, and then the story kind of adjusts for it. So, for instance, the brother inherits a lot of money. Nobody is especially surprised or thrilled, but now he has lots of money, so he can buy them nice things. Ok, cool. Wait, what? It's totally bizarre. In some ways, this seems like O'Brien's usual humor, but it's pretty subtle, and not especially effective.

But the thing is, once you've started it, you're sort of half bemused, and it's a short book, and you just kind of succumb and keep reading it. No, it's not very good. It's not that bad either. Just sort of strange and not especially memorable.

17 March 2010

Utterly Monkey, by Nick Laird

This is one of those superbly affable books, where everyone just seems so decent despite all their flaws, even when they do stupid things, and the narrative is loaded with these wonderful observations - particularly well done in this case because they're actually seamlessly integrated, whereas usually you find yourself thinking ok, author, that's a nice point but quit showing off, eh? - and the story is funny and interesting if not earth-shattering, and well, it's just a very nice book.

What gives it the extra oomph, for me, is the fact that it's also one of the best renditions of contemporary life in Europe that I know of, in terms of racial and cultural relations. In other words, the novel actually registers the presence of immigrants, but without making it seems as though that's the point, or in a token "this is my immigrant friend" sort of fashion - they're just undeniably there. But the power relations underlying them also make an appearance, as when the main character is made somewhat uncomfortable by a Nicaraguan janitor telling him that he's working too hard. Likewise, it's an honest depiction of race relations - the main character is falling for a black woman, and finds himself somewhat hyperconscious when back in Belfast and is wondering whether its because she's the only black woman around or whether it's because she's so incredibly attractive. Later, they meet another woman who has never seen a black person from up close and is enthralled by the smoothness of her skin. It's a really gentle, honest version of how people of different races and cultures interact in a heterogenous world.

Interestingly, I think this is also one of the first novels I've read that has Unionist characters - I've read books from the North, but pretty much always from the Catholic side. Not that this novel is especially partisan (though some of its characters are) - if anything it registers a kind of weary sadness about the whole thing. Again though, I was impressed by the way that the novel drops these political observations or memories or just a kind of awareness of politics into the flow of its story. It captures, I think, the actual experience of living in the world - where politics isn't necessarily your central concern or THE drama, but it's still sort of present in your mind and pops up here and there.

Overall, though, this is basically just a very pleasant read - but an intelligent one.

16 March 2010

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle

I had read Delisle's Burma Chronicles and loved it, so I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, it let me down. In a way, it's similar to the other one, except there's less of the place and more of Delisle. He never hides the fact that he finds the government idiotic - unfortunately, this comes to extend to the people as well. Korea is, he says "a country deprived of common sense". If statements like that don't make you lose trust in him altogether, then, well, you might like the book. It definitely didn't work for me.

15 March 2010

Fantastic Mr Fox

So here's the thing - I don't really like Wes Anderson movies. I don't particularly remember Bottle Rocket; maybe I liked that one. I hated Rushmore the first time I saw it, and after seeing it a few more times thought maybe it might be ok. I didn't like Life Aquatic or Royal Tenenbaums, and I straight HATED Darjeeling Limited. But I love Roald Dahl, so I figured, hey, let's give it a shot. And for the first hour, it was actually really good. The animation is neat, the characters are wonderful, the plot was pretty good - everything was fine. And then it became less and less a Dahl story and more and more a Wes Anderson story. At first it was ok, kind of cute and clever, and then it became increasingly annoying, and then I got totally fed up and thought GOD WES ANDERSON DON'T YOU REALIZE YOU'RE A PARODY OF YOURSELF AT THIS POINT?!?

Still, there were moments of beauty, even towards the end. There's a scene with a wolf that's really wonderful. Overall though, yeah. Anderson ruins it by being so very Anderson. I have absolutely no sympathy for his vision of the world. Learning, at the end, that the movie was co-written by Noah Baumbach, who also wrote The Squid and the Whale (which I also didn't like) made perfect sense. Both men share this vision of the world in which people are self-centered, inconsiderate jerks, and we're supposed to find some kind of touching beauty in the way they interact with each other. So when Ash, who has been an absolutely vicious shit towards his cousin for most of the movie (because his parents are sort of casually oblivious to his feelings, is the implication) finally apologizes, and his cousin forgives him, I guess we're supposed to feel warm and fuzzy. Me, watching people like that, I just feel completely numb emotionally. I hate all of these characters, and I don't especially care what happens to them.

That's an extremely negative spin on it though - like I said, I actually enjoyed a lot of the movie. As far as Wes Anderson goes, it's definitely a cut above. But ultimately, yeah, no so much.

Oh, actually, one more thing - while watching it, I was thinking about how it stacks up against Where the Wild Things Are (which I also sort of liked and sort of didn't). In a way, they're quite similar. It's this whole group of dudes who have this vision of the world that involves fetishizing childhood in a way, but also transplanting some of the grossness of the adult world onto it. I like Spike Jonze's version most, but still, I see Anderson, Eggers, and Jonze as all being just kind of wrong about the world.

09 March 2010

Last Station

Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, I suspected there'd be trouble. The film opens with these strange intertitles that are meant to bring you up to speed on the plot - "This is Tolstoy. He is famous". And you think, huh. Could they really not think of a better way to do this? It doesn't get much better from there folks. This movie has two things to recommend it - some absolutely incredible performances and gorgeous visuals. Plot-wise, however, it's in shambles.

Helen Mirren and Christopher Guest do a fabulous job playing Tolstoy and his wife. James McAvoy is delicious as the young secretary (I swear he has one of the most expressive faces on the planet) and Kerry Condon does a very nice job as his love interest. The sex scenes between them are warmly lit and very sweet. Paul Giamatti, whom I don't particularly care for, does a perfectly adequate job, I guess - it's entirely possible that it's not his fault that his character is such a cliche. Also, when they show footage of the actual people in the credits, its astonishing how much he resembles the guy he's meant to be.

The problem is, first off, the movie drags. A lot. It clocks in at about two hours, and I was checking my watch a lot. This is mostly because the movie is kind of incoherent - it really can't decide what it wants to be about, and where the drama is in the story. So it kind of rambles from one point to another, stacking up half-developed ideas (there could be two young lovers! kind of like the old married couple! let's... do something with that! maybe later?) and never really generating any momentum.

It's a great pity, because the relationship between Mirren and Guest, ie the Tolstoys, is fascinating. One could in fact make an incredible movie about them. But this is not that movie.

05 March 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

I read The Kite Runner 2 summers ago (after much resistance) and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it - it was heartrending, yes, but also fast-paced and quite moving. The writing, though not exactly amazing, was gripping - I honestly didn't want to put the book down. I sort of figured A Thousand Splendid Suns would be similar, and at first, it was. But there were subtle differences. Noticing them, I thought to myself - ah, this is the second novel of an author who achieved a HUGE amount of success with this first. He has a little more confidence this time, can get away with more, and also has, I think, more of an agenda. He's realized that he can get hundreds of thousands of Americans to read something about Afghanistan - what will he tell them? It's a pretty terrifying prospect, really, and I'm not surprised that it seemed to overwhelm him. Because Thousand Splendid Suns seems more like a history lesson than a novel - it's background in Afghan history with a plot attached. And the plot isn't nearly as well executed as in the previous book - the characters are flatter, the events are a bit more melodramatic, and the whole thing seems more like propaganda than literature. Hosseini seems to be simultaneously preaching and pandering to his audience, making them learn their Afghani history in exchange for giving them the suffering Muslim women porn that Americans seem to crave.

While I appreciated the history lesson to some extent, there was nothing subtle about the way it was done. Especially as the novel progressed and started jumping ahead in time, without anything substantial happening in the plot. The emphasis changed from characters to history, so instead of 5 years later, this character experienced this, and meanwhile this was happening, it became 5 years later, this happened, and the character felt this way. It's irritating. On the other hand, you think, well shit, with such turbulent events happening around you, how could you not be focused on them? The typical problem of realism in contexts of historical misery. The other problem, of course, being just how much atrocity will you put in? And will the plot seem credible to an audience reading it in utter security? I mean, how can I judge what is probable in a situation like that, when I know so little about what it's like to be in that situation? Perhaps what seems like cliche really isn't? Still though, it's hard not to feel like Hosseini is, to some extent, delivering what he must know is highly likely to be an extremely satisfying narrative to American readers, one that isn't likely to challenge them in any way. Not that The Kite Runner was especially challenging either, but it came across as being more true to itself.

Hosseini is a skilled writer - but it seems that the massive success of his first novel did not have the best influence on his future efforts.

02 March 2010

The Art of the Steal

I have very mixed feelings about the Barnes Foundation's move to Philadelphia. My feelings about this movie, however, are less mixed. It's a histrionic, one-sided, psychologically manipulative documentary. While it makes a strong case regarding some of the more nefarious aspects of the move to Philly, it also discredits itself by being incredibly disingenuous in its arguments. But we'll get to that.

So, the move. I respect that the building that the collection is housed in is part of the art itself. I would love to see the artworks in that setting. But you know what? I've never gotten to. I tried - my parents and I wanted to go when we lived in Jersey, but we couldn't make it happen. It's not a particularly easy place to get to. So I can't help but be somewhat happy to know that it's moving to a place where it will be much more accessible. I hope that the architects designing the new home do a good job.

Now, the movie does not feel this way. The movie sees this move as "the greatest theft of all time" and something nearly akin to dousing the artworks with gasoline and setting them on fire. It will RUIN the greatest cultural artifact that America has ever had, says the movie. Hmmm. Ok.

The big point the movie makes is that the move is not only a violation of Barnes' original vision, but also a slap to the face, given that he particularly didn't want it to be in Philly, because he really hated people there. Fair enough on the second score - it is certainly a cruel irony. And yes, the whole process of getting it moved was extremely shady and involved some serious back-room dealing on the part of several charitable trusts, and Lincoln University getting screwed in a major way. No doubt. Agreed.

But the movie also implies that the SOLE motive of the move to Philly is greed. The issue that the movie desperately avoids is that of accessibility. At one point, when criticizing an earlier Board of Trustees president, Richard Glick, there's a scene where the museum is opened, and one of the "friends of the Barnes" calls another and says "GASP! They've opened it to the public!". The movie then described hordes of riffraff descending on the place and being THOROUGHLY UNAPPRECIATIVE. "I've seen enough naked ladies for today", says one savage. But half an hour later, the movie is bemoaning the fact that people are being deprived of this amazing cultural experience of seeing the works in their original setting. That's the part that I find somewhat disingenuous. The thing is, if they had actually opened the doors of the place earlier, and had the neighbors of the Barnes not been fighting it tooth and nail, they could certainly have saved the place in its current location, or so it seems to me. But they didn't want to do that. They wanted to keep it as it was, and basically, they ran out of money to do that. Then there was some mismanagement, and then there was some straight up sketchiness, and boom, now it's in Philly.

The emotional force of the film relies on the fact that it was in Barnes' will that his art be kept a certain way, and his will was basically taken apart, 50 years later. As a friend of mine pointed out, that's frightening to anyone. On the other hand, yeah, myself personally is happy that the will is getting broken with so as to open up the collection and allow others to see it. I'm not opposed to the art being used for educational purposes - I'm all in favor of it really. But much like Indiana Jones, I think great cultural artifacts belong in museums. Where everyone can have access to them. And it's kind of an abomination for one person to own them.

This brings up the really fascinating question of how art acts as commodity, how we feel about it as private property, etc. The Barnes Foundation is a particularly interesting study in this regard, and the matter of the move to Philly is especially fascinating for that reason. One could make a really interesting movie about it. Unfortunately, the Art of the Steal is not that movie.