31 December 2009

In Brief: Soseki, Didion, Vonnegut, Moore. And movies.

I resolve to be better about updates in the future, but I read so many awesome books and saw so many movies in the last 2 weeks that writing a post for each one seemed like too much work, so here's a quick recap.

I Am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki
I decided that since I had a chunk of time in which to read over break, I'd tackle a really big book. As it turned out, I flew through this in 3 days or so, because it's delightfully breezy. Especially for a book where nothing happens. It's narrated by a cat, and wonderfully funny and ironic and absurd, but also occasionally quite eloquent. A joy to read.

Slouching Towards Bethelehem, by Joan Didion
I randomly picked up A Year of Magical Thinking awhile ago and loved it, so I was looking forward to checking out more of Didion's books. This one is a collection of essays, mostly about California in the 60s, and it's well worth a read. The first third is phenomenal, the second third is good, and the third third is very good. Didion has this really interesting reflexive writing style, like she's thinking out loud as she goes, and it's really compelling, and somehow beautifully balanced by an odd flatness in her prose. Good stuff.

Armageddon in Retrospect, by Kurt Vonnegut
I was kind of afraid to read this, because I was worried that maybe I wouldn't love it - and Vonnegut - as much as I used to. Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. This is a wonderful collection of essays, drawings and stories, with a fantastic introduction written by Vonnegut's son. One thing that I particularly loved about the introduction was that it encouraged the reader to pay attention to the craft of the works, mentioning that Vonnegut spent hours perfecting his prose. And indeed, although there's a kind of seeming simplicity to his writing, if you pay attention, you realize just how finely written it is. Very enjoyable.

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
A short story collection that my mother lent me. Reminds me a lot of Lydia Davis' stuff, except somewhat less experimental and much less self-absorbed. There's the same acerbic wit, but the characters are much more likeable. The first story in the collection is absolutely phenomenal - the others don't quite measure up to it, but are generally quite good nonetheless.

Avatar 3D
I talked to someone who saw it NOT in 3D - don't do that. There's no point. It's really not that great a movie, but the special effects are fucking sweet. Without them, it's a fairly run-of-the-mill eco-conscious parable about the Iraq War.

Broken Embraces
Visually stunning, but otherwise unimpressive. The plot is sort of silly, a failed attempt at modern melodrama. The characters are flat and generally uninteresting. It's visually striking, but really, that's so common these days that it no longer carries a movie.

Who is Cletis Tout?
Remember how much fun Christian Slater movies used to be? This isn't quite as good, but it's approaching it.

District 9
I expected to love this movie. You'd think it'd be right up my alley. And indeed, I was quite impressed with the first 35 minutes or so, when you get the whole story of the aliens and how first contact is handled. And then the plot got all fragmented and strange, like there were 5 different stories going on at once, and the disarray really threw me off. Hollywood is supposed to tell me how to feel and who to root for, and here I was like, wait, so which story am I supposed to pay attention to? Who do I care about? What's going on? And it just kinda didn't do it for me.

21 December 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Before you venture off to see this film, you should understand that it is, first and foremost, a Werner Herzog movie. It's Herzog's take on the crazy cop on the edge, breaking the law to uphold it type of story. This means that it's not the standard version of this trope, but rather, one that's cranked up to a level 11, with occasional bursts of whimsy thrown in for good measure.

Nicolas Cage is wonderful as the cracked out and wholly crazed officer. It's the role he was made for, one where all his various tics and mannerisms get worked to the max. He's absolutely marvelous, both appalling and humane, sympathetic, somehow, even when revolting. Eva Mendes also does a good turn as the hooker with the heart of gold. Val Kilmer is a bit dull as the caricaturish evil cop, but he gets very little airtime, so it's ok.

The movie is definitely quite a bit longer than it needs to be, and drags a lot towards the end, but the occasional flights of hallucinatory joyful fantasy go a long way in making up for it. I liked the movie a lot, despite it's being a kind of meta-movie, a commentary on what such movies are like rather than an actual specimen of the genre. The ending I thought was particularly clever in this regard, a nice compromise that allowed Herzog to have his cake and eat it too. So overall, though it was ot a great film, and went on far too long, I definitely liked it quite a lot.

19 December 2009

Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge

I really enjoy David Lodge books. They're a bit idiosyncratic, with somewhat random observations about literature and language smuggled into their storylines, but they're generally charming and fun and quite pleasant books. Thus, I cannot help but me somewhat worried about Mr Lodge after reading this book, which is in many ways similar in style to the others, but is also far darker and more grim than his other works - to the point that it's actually somewhat unpleasant to read, despite being for the most part pretty well written, if not quite as winsome as his other books.

The novel's main protagonist is a retired linguistics professor, Desmond, who is going increasingly deaf. This in itself is pretty depressing stuff, though well written and poignant. Lodge captures his frustration and sense of alienation as well as the growing annoyance experienced by his wife, who has to repeat everything three times. Desmond seems to be gradually withdrawing from life in a subtle way that's fairly devastating to witness - until he his interest is piqued by a young female graduate student who wants his help on her dissertation. Unfortunately, she turns out to be completely demented. This is taken a bit far perhaps, but it's also written for maximum squeamishness - you read with a growing sense of dread. Luckily Lodge doesn't rely on this for the main narrative drive, because, well, I just didn't want it to keep going, and instead turns his focus more towards Desmond's relationship with his wife and his father, who's growing increasingly demented. The novel definitely starts to flag at this point, and then perks up somewhat with a random trip to Poland (of all places) before chugging to a halt.

The strength of the novel is its portrayal of deafness, first and foremost, evoked in the typical Lodge style with lots of literary references. Secondarily, its a fairly poignant portrayal of aging and retirement, albeit a rather melancholy one. For the rest though, it's a somewhat disappointing book, in that it's not really all that great a read, and definitely falters in comparison to his other books.

18 December 2009

Whip It!

I didn't really expect this to be a good movie, but I did expect it to be a fun movie. Alas, it was not to be. Part of the problem might be that I saw it at the Brew 'N' View at the Vic Theatre which, paradoxically, given that it's a music venue, has such atrocious sound that you can barely hear half the dialogue. Then again, the half that I did hear was so lame that I was almost grateful to miss the rest. This movie is so... bad. The plot is a complete hodgepodge of cliches, like they took 5 different stock plots and rolled them into one to see what would happen. You can imagine the screenwriter going LA LA LA I'M MAKING A MOVIE! WEEEEEE! It's that ridiculous. Most of the characters are completely useless, delivering bizarre off-the-wall lines that there's no context for. Drew Barrymore's character is the worst offender in this case - perhaps Drew was trying to give her character depth or complexity by making her this odd mess that had some strange behind the scenes drama going on, but the effect was just confusing.

Ellen Paige is ok, surprisingly NOT the same as her Juno character, which is nice, but also mostly uninteresting. Same could be said, really, of any other character. It's not that they lack depth so much as context - you don't really understand what's motivating them or what they're invested in, but you also don't really care that much. The plot bumbles from cliche to cliche, partly because all the non-cliche parts are so underdeveloped that you sort of ignore them.

The roller derby footage is ok, though much less violent - and carnivalesque - than actual roller derby - ie, less interesting and badass, really. It's the chick flick version of roller derby.

The most commendable thing about the movie is the ending, which is actually not nearly as annoying as you might think. There's a curious open-endedness to it (I don't want to give too much away here) that I found really interesting, especially given the obvious penchant for treacly sentimentalism in the rest of the movie - it's as though Barrymore decided to avoid the superduper happy ending, but compensated herself by cramming as much feel good chickflick goodness into everything that preceded it as possible.

Seriously though - it's not a good movie. It's not even a fun movie. It's really just kind of a waste of time.

05 December 2009


An absolutely devastating portrayal of a lonely middle aged woman.

Katherine Hepburn is a single woman on vacation in Venice, who initially resists, but ultimately succumbs, to the advances of an Italian stranger. The film is brilliant in its depictions of her isolation and yearning, and the way in which her initial instincts are gradually broken down by her desire for companionship. It's not an earth shattering movie by any means, but the scenes of her alone at a cafe, looking hopefully at the passing strangers, are incredibly poignant. There's an impressive attention to minor detail that makes the film really quite amazing in the way it manages to capture her as a character. Also, the shots of Venice are also absolutely gorgeous - I'd somehow forgotten what a beautiful city it is.

03 December 2009

Paper Heart

A very sweet movie, and not nearly as sappy as you might expect. It's a kind of documentary about Charlyne Yi, whom you may remember from her brief appearance in Knocked Up, and love. At the opening of the film, she "doesn't believe" in love. It's unclear whether this means that she doesn't think it's an actual thing, or just doesn't think she herself can experience it. So she talks to a lot of people about love, and then she meets Michael Cera at a party and they start dating and ... it gets kind of complicated.

Probably the best reason to watch this movie is Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi, both of whom are just kind of great. Michael Cera is (maybe somewhat alarmingly) similar to the character he plays in movies. Charlyne has this wonderful smile and a charming kind of innocence to her - it sort of makes you wonder how much love and heartbreak are actually what make people old and jaded, because she seems so wonderfully free of worldly care. So just watching them, listening to them talk, seeing them on screen, is kind of nice.

It's also interesting to watch their relationship develop, and especially to see the kind of struggle between devotion to a film project and awareness that this is essentially a cinematic goldmine and a desire to just be together. Though who knows, maybe that itself was part of the cinematic plan. It's interesting how the movie regularly breaks down the 3rd wall and makes a bid for a kind of authenticity (and I genuinely believe in it, often) while simultaneously having its character struggle with a desire for privacy. There's something really fascinating about it.

As a reflection on love, it's not all that revelatory. It's cute and charming and sort of interesting, but there's nothing in it that really gave me food for thought. It's kinda peremptory in some ways - aside from a crew of bikers, pretty much everyone interviewed is kinda what you'd expect, though its admirable in its breadth. All in all though, a very nice movie.