23 June 2009

The Gingerbread Woman, by Jennifer Johnston

Huh. This whole "read other books by an author you like" thing doesn't really seem to be working for me. I loved Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon? so I was stoked to find a book of hers in the bargain section of Hodges and Figgis the other day. Perhaps I should have wondered why it only cost 2 euro. The book isn't awful, but, like The Epicure's Lament, it just wasn't that great either.

Politically it's an interesting book, in that it deals with a Northern Irish Catholic and a Southern Irish Protestant, and it takes on this issue of how a Northern Irish Catholic can be affected by Republican violence. So, ok, that's a daring move, and not an uninteresting one, but you've got to fold it into a more compelling novel, you know?

It's a sort of unlikely friendship story, two people meet randomly and end up being pals, which allows them to work through their various traumas. One problem is that while the guy's trauma is fairly intense, the woman's is a bit melodramatic and not really as compelling. I think Johnston doesn't overplay the sort of healing process for them, which is good on her part, but the story isn't really that interesting. Luckily, it's a fairly short book and you burn through it quickly.

Finally, SPOILER, the fact that the woman just had a hysterectomy because of an STD is, well, a bit over the top. I want to give her props for raising awareness about STDs and all, and I don't doubt that this could even be an entirely realistic scenario, but it comes across as completely silly.

22 June 2009

The Epicure's Lament, by Kate Christensen

I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Christensen's The Great Man (though I apparently didn't write a blog post about it, alas). It's a warm, funny, sassy sort of book, filed with sensual, sassy older women and delicious accounts of food. So I was looking forward The Epicure's Lament, a novel about a guy who loves cigarettes so much that he resolves to die of them rather than quit smoking, and also happens to be a fan of good food. I like cynical misanthropes, and I can't help but be happy that someone was willing to take on the stubborn love that smokers have for their drug. But it was a somewhat disappointing novel. Not terrible, but not all that good.

The problem, I realized, is that Christensen is not particularly good at internal dialogue. She's at her best whenever characters are talking to each other - she's got a real knack for depicting conversations. The characters are vivid, convincing, and thoroughly interesting. But this novel is based around a guy filling a notebook with his musings, and, well, they just get tiresome. Whenever he gets around to talking to someone, it's wonderful, but his long rants about Montaigne, which are meant to be sort of grumpy but ultimately sympathetic, are just dull. The charm of his lasciviousness wears off pretty fast, and while you don't condemn his selfishness, it's not that compelling. The drama of whether or not he'll actually go through with smoking himself to death is gradually replaced by a vague hope that whether or not he dies, he'll quit writing. And really, seeing the world through his eyes grows tiresome. There's a vague, kind of interesting sense that he misperceives certain things, and especially certain people, but you're never really given the chance to learn their side of it, except what you can glean from dialogue, so it doesn't really figure prominently into the overall work.

It's not exactly the problem of how do you create a compelling work with an unsympathetic main character - Hugo is a bit of an asshole, yes, but he's ultimately not such a bad guy - it's more a problem of how do you keep a work interesting if your main character is ultimately a little on the droning side.

15 June 2009

Terminator: Salvation

Rarely is a movie such a strange blend of monotony, idiocy, and awesomeness. It's really quite remarkable. Mostly, it's amazing to me how in an otherwise mediocre film, certain moments are totally gripping and fantastic, despite the fact that the characters are ridiculous and the plot is absurd. A lot of the credit here goes to Christian Bale. I used to hate Christian Bale. I hated the first Batman, and I turned The Machinist off within 20 minutes because I found it so irritating. But I think American Psycho and the second Batman are brilliant, so I can't really say I despise him. And apparently I've really come around, to the point where I find his "heroic" faces oddly compelling. 

So I knew this Terminator wasn't going to be nearly as good as the others. Laugh all you like, but I think the first 2 Terminators actually have fairly compelling and intelligent plots. This one, on the other hand, was fairly ridiculous. Which is a pity, because the ideas behind it were actually quite interesting, it's just that their execution made no fucking sense. 

The "meanings" behind it were also mostly vapid - particularly the grating notion that a human is defined by having a heart - so what, anyone with an artificial heart isn't human? I mean, I know the question of how you define what it means to be human in a cyborg age is tricky, but was that really the best you could come up with guys?

The camp factor was minimal - though half the theatre laughed out loud when Christian Bale declared he'd be back (myself included), and we were fairly stoked to see Arnie make an appearance, even in creepy CGI. Actually, that was really awesome. But overall, the movie seemed determined to take itself very seriously (unlike, say, Star Trek), which was unfortunate.

The special effects were neat, but at the same time, the movie had a bewildering tendency to abandon a scene - especially a fight scene - halfway through. CGI Arnold, for instance, is kicking some serious ass, and then the film cuts away to another character for a minute, and when it cuts back, he seems to have been defeated, because he's nowhere in sight. Did I blink? Did the director think there was no convincing way to have Christian Bale kick Arnold's ass? Was he out of ideas for managing to avoid showing Arnold's genitals despite the fact that he was nude? Who knows. Very odd.

Unfortunately, the movie is really too dull to be recommended, especially for a summer blockbuster. 

Whores for Gloria, by William T. Vollmann

The premise of this book is sort of interesting - a man haunts the streets of San Francisco, talking to and having sex with prostitutes, trying to recreate a woman named Gloria, who may or may not be real. At first it seems he's trying to remember her, then the text sort of shifts and it's more like he's actually trying to flesh her out and sort of reconstruct her. So he talks to these other women and asks them to tell him their memories, then he later retells their stories to himself, but with Gloria in the main role. It's kind of fascinating, in that the stories change, so you get this kind of view into the creative process, and indeed their memories do start to seem like hers. The prose is also quite lyrical, a kind of drugged out poetics, with sentences that ramble on and on. The problem is though, that the book gets kind of dull quite quickly, which is odd for such a short text. Ultimately, I think, it'd be better as a short story. 

Actually, one of the more interesting aspects is the end of the book, which includes excerpts of Vollmann's interviews with prostitutes, where you see whole chunks of dialogue from the book, and you realize that he's actually captured the style quite effectively. It's a really nice touch. 

14 June 2009

Gran Torino

Man, Delta has seriously classed up the in-flight entertainment service. You can build your own playlist from a database of cds (including an album of Rare and Unreleased Aretha Franklin that is fantastic), watch a bunch of different HBO shows (for $2 a pop) and pick from a bunch of complimentary recent movies, to start and stop as you please. I was happy to see Gran Torino on the list - I'd been sort of half wanting to see it, but figured that it was probably not so good - ie, perfect airplane movie. So, for the first 3/4 of the movie I was utterly charmed. It's a kind of unlikely friendship story, Clint Eastwood playing a curmudgeonly old man (he literally tells the kids to get off his lawn) with a cartoonishly atrocious family who befriends two Hmong teenagers living next door. I think it was Christopher Orr (one of my favorite movie reviewers) who said that the first 3/4 of the film are like the good old Dirty Harry days, with cheesy lines and grumpy sentimentality. Eastwood voices his inner monologue non-stop, which is great. I can't wait to be old and cranky and talking to myself. It's a grand time. The last 1/4 however, takes a serious, non-grumpy sentimental turn, which Orr said pretty much ruined the movie. I wouldn't go that far. Certainly, the last 1/4 of the film is less pleasant to watch, and lays the nobility, heroism and tearjerker stuff on pretty thick. The comedy pretty much disappears. But it wasn't quite as annoying as I expected. Still, ultimately, it's not a great movie. The plot is a bit inconsistent - Eastwood is alternately a raging badass and a weak old man, complete with my favorite illness of all time***. And then there's the racism aspect, which is, hmmm.

So, at the opening of the movie, we are given repeated clues that Eastwood is a racist. He uses racial slurs nonstop, complains about living next door to Asians, etc. But as the movie progresses, it seems to want to persuade us that he's not really racist, he just, you know, uses slurs all the time. And as proof, he continues to use them even after he and the Hmong kids become friends, lovingly referring to them by all kinds of appalling appellations. To drive the point home, we get lots of scenes of Eastwood hanging out with his friends - and they all call each other by racist slurs too! As if to say, see guys! It's totally ok!

I have really mixed feelings about this. I mean, I have plenty of friends who use racist/homophobic slurs casually, or in jest. But they use the words as empty signifiers really - the terms have been essentially vacated of meaning, and they'd certainly never use them to insult someone who the term actually applied to. Now whether or not that's justifiable is one question, but the Eastwood case is slightly different, in that he also uses the terms in anger, or as an insult. So it's a trickier case. I mean, I imagine it's actually a fairly realistic depiction of how a lot of people use terms like that. And I don't think the movie is actually excusing it. It just, I dunno, I guess it's an odd aspect of the film to me.

So there's also the question of the movie's politics, which are really strange too. Eastwood initially befriends the neighbors because he steps in one night when there's a conflict between them and a local gang. He threatens them, they go away and vow revenge. Things escalate, and ultimately, there's this whole question of whether or not Eastwood is gonna kill the gang members. I don't want to totally give it away, but basically, at the end of the movie he basically delivers them to the police. It's really kind of strange, because the film spends most of its time basically advocating vigilante justice, and then ultimately seems to say that it doesn't really work, and that ultimately the law is the best solution. There's also this curious emphasis on the medal of honor he received in the military, which on the one hand seems to emphasize this rule of law message, but on the other hand is problematized by the fact that he says that he received it for doing something he spent every day of his life regretting. So is the movie trying to redeem what he did then as well?
The film also seems to implicitly be a plug for Catholicism, which is even more strange - maybe he's trying to get in good with the Church after the whole Million Dollars Baby debacle? There's this whole side-plot about the local priest trying to talk to Eastwood and bring him into the fold, which Eastwood of course adamantly refuses to do. So he ultimately does go to confession - but doesn't actually confess his major crime, just some of the other things he's done that still bother him (which are actually kind of interesting). And he does seem to get some kind of comfort from religion by the end of the movie, which is also a bit odd. Finally, while he earlier tells the priest that he doesn't know shit, but the end, he seems to acknowledge his wisdom. It's rather inconsistent and out of character, and is part of what makes the later part of the movie so crappy.

 Man, it's a weird movie, message wise. In this, it plays into the generally odd trajectory of Eastwood's political project as a filmmaker - see this fascinating article for more on that. The oddity of the ending, by the way, is only emphasized by the closing song - Clint Eastwood crooning some lounge bit about a gran torino. I'm not kidding.

Anyways, so yeah. Entertaining for awhile, but then kind of peters out into highflown drama. Not a bad movie to catch on tv, but I can't really say it's worth renting.

***I star it because I suppose it could be considered a spoiler, and I'm trying to be conscientious about those - but seriously! TB! I love how TB is always represented in the exact same way - a series of coughs and then a shot of the bloody white hanky. Why did they give Eastwood the 18th century diva disease? I LOVE IT.

11 June 2009

The Middleman and Other Stories, by Bharati Mukherjee

I've been wanting to read something of Mukherjee's ever since I read Days and Nights in Calcutta, a book she and her husband wrote together about a year they spent living in Calcutta. it was an interesting book - while I found a lot of his portion obnoxious, albeit with some interesting observations, I really enjoyed her writing and wanted to find some of her fiction. So when I saw this collection on sale for $5 at a book fair, I figured the time had come. As with many short story collections, it's a mixed bag - some of the stories are really wonderful, some are so-so, and a couple are disappointing. 

The book's schtick, if you will, is that all of the stories are about immigrants. I suppose one could find this mildly problematic or objectionable, but it's a fact of fiction that authors make people up, and there's really no reason why they can't imagine the inner world of people from different countries. So relax. At the same time, the fact is, some of the portrayals are just a lot more convincing than others. Mukherjee is best at describing women who are - from what I know of her, based on her other book - rather more similar to herself. When she tries to write from a male perspective, for instance, it's noticeably less realistic. Though there was one really lovely story that featured an American guy, called Fighting for the Rebound, that I quite liked. Actually, it was probably the best of the bunch. 

So overall, yeah, it's not an amazing book. But I have faith that she could potentially write something really phenomenal, so I'll probably read another book of hers someday. She's written several, so if anyone can recommend the best one to check out, please, leave a comment.

04 June 2009

Revolutionary Road

Soon after seeing the previews for the movie, I read the book, and quite liked it. I then decided to hold off on seeing the movie, thinking I would be more critical of it, having just read it. Nonetheless, having seen the previews before reading produced this curious effect whereby I actually pictured the protagonists as Kate and Leo. So in a sense, I was perfectly primed to watch the movie. And I must say - it was better than I expected, by far. And is just as good as the book, actually, or very nearly so. The cuts for length are mostly intelligently selected, the visualization of the text is well done, and the acting is pretty much just right. In other words - it's an extremely successful adaptation. My only reservation is the ending, which feels a bit rushed, but actually, I wasn't so crazy about the ending of the book either, and I think in some ways it's actually more poignant in the movie. Then again, I wonder if my favorably opinion from the movie is dependent upon my familiarity with the book - it's possible that it's a bit too rushed, and doesn't delve into the emotional lives of the characters (which is, after all, the point) as well as I think, it's just that having read it, I can fill it in? 

One interesting aspect of the film is that it has a decidedly theatrical feel, as though it were a filmed version of a play. Sometimes this is slightly awkward - at the beginning of the movie especially. The timing is sometimes a bit off, which makes a scene feel like a scene - as though the characters were frozen and waiting until the camera came and they were brought to life. I think this subtly underscores their penchant for drama, and desire to be exciting, in a subtle sort of way, but it does take some getting used to. 

And while it may seem like a melodramatic movie, I think it's actually somewhat reserved in comparison towards the book - and more heartfelt. Because the book is pretty much unbridled angst, and I think honoring that would lead to a slightly ridiculous movie. I think that while the book's focus is the end of idealism, shattered illusions, etc, the movies is actually rather about the relationship between this married couple, and it does a good job with it. 

A worthy film. Not Oscar worthy, I'd agree, and it wouldn't have made my Best of 2008 list, but it was a fine film nonetheless. Incidentally, I have since then seen all of the contenders I mentioned not having gotten to yet at the time of making that list - Man on a Wire, My Winnipeg, Milk, and Let the Right One In (which goes to show what a pitiful job I'm doing updating this blog, because I didn't post about ANY of them), and I think the list still stands. I might - might - swap in My Winnipeg, which I really liked (I'd probably demote Mamma Mia! if I had to pick one), but the rest, nah. Let the Right One In was charming and had really awesome special effects, but I wasn't that blown away. Both Milk and Man on a Wire I thought were way overrated - though I probably would have been more impressed by Man on a Wire if I weren't already familiar with the story. Milk I thought was timely and well acted but also rather annoyingly over-determined, which I've pretty much come to expect from Gus van Sant. So hey, good job, me. 

02 June 2009

Dont Tempt Me

This is kind of a silly movie, but it's also sort of fun and amusing. It's the age old tale of heaven and hell battling for souls, but set in modern Europe - well, a kind of futuristic, hardcore looking Europe anyhow. The movie doesn't rely belabor the bureaucracy of the afterlife, or rather, it doesn't really explain it - you just get the sense that it's complicated. And the plot doesn't take itself too seriously, though it's not complete camp either. Actually, the more I think of it, the odder the movie seems. But first, the merits:

This may seem like a strange thing to like in a movie, but it's something I really appreciate - the multilingualism. There's something fantastically refreshing to me about a movie that doesn't pretend that everyone in France speaks English. And that bounces around between languages without a care. Though come to think of it, which languages the characters speak doesn't necessarily make sense. Most puzzling in this regard is Gael Garcia Bernal, who occasionally breaks into English with what I think is meant to be a regional accent, but I'm not sure which region, and neither is he perhaps, but it sounds somewhat peculiar and is decidedly at odds with his own Spanish accent. Heh heh.

Which brings me to my next point, namely, the cast. It's lots of famous faces, but most notably, the lovely Penelope Cruz, who's smoldering and sexy and fun as usual. It was awesome to see her in a movie where she played a character who's attracted to women (Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn't count, despite the threesome). And by awesome I mean totally hot. Not least because her character was so blatantly meant to be hot, and they just kinda went all out without a trace of shame. There's a fantastic scene of her looking at a porn that's totally fabulous. It's actually kind of a pity that the movie later ends up explaining away what would appear to be her lesbianism, but so it goes.

Which is what's sort of great about the movie - yes, it's kind of silly, and occasionally a little too earnest (name a heaven vs hell movie that isn't though - ultimately all of them have to pay some kind of lip service to the good vs evil issue) but it's also kind of committed to itself. It's hard to explain. You just have this sense that the filmmakers were like, ok look, this is what we wanna do. Yes, it doesn't entirely work with the plot, and maybe the movie would be better without it, but please? Please? I really wanna. I'm not sure what gave me this sense, but there was something  really lively about the movie, and a kind of dogged persistence in its bizarrely convoluted plot. It's definitely not a great film, but I give it 4 stars anyhow, the extra star being for novelty and enjoyability.