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


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


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.