31 July 2011

Uncle Silas, by Sheridan LeFanu

This is a classic of Gothic fiction, so I'd been feeling obliged to read it for awhile. Gothic novels are especially appealing in the summer - the heat pairs really well with dark, "chilling" fiction. Stifling heat seems just right for reading books densely packed with trauma and ghosts and tension. The best is to read southern Gothic, where you get all of it pre-mixed for you. But the Irish do a pretty good job of it too, and reading about rain is very pleasant when it's 38C outside.

It's an odd book. It's all atmosphere and suspense, but it's quite convoluted. A large part of the suspense would appear to be whether or not the main character (Maud) survives, but given that she's the narrator of the book, it seems pretty clear that she will. The other aspects, whether or not certain characters are villainous or not, would be interesting, if not for the fact that a. They are SO many ambiguous characters that you can't really care about all of them. b. Maud repeatedly tells us that she's of a nervous disposition and overreacts to things - ie, she's somewhat unreliable.

The writing is good, the characters are sympathetic, it's just that the overall plot is kind of meandering and somehow not compelling, despite being strange and mysterious. There are plenty of references to Radcliffe, and it's honestly hard to tell if they're meant to be parodies or not.

Overall, meh. Not a must-read, sad to say.

23 July 2011

Transformers 3

If you want to read something entertaining about Michael Bay, go read this. It's absolute genius. In fact, the whole blog is quality.

I genuinely enjoy Michael Bay movies. I am perfectly happy to watch a 3 hour long movie that is largely incoherent but has lots of splosions and plenty of cheesy jokes. And regardless of how you feel about Michael Bay, you must admit that the man has a flair for blowing shit up in epic fashion. So I was really excited about Transformers 3. As a bonus, a lot of it was filmed in Chicago, so there's the pleasure of seeing how it turned out after having walked by the filming a few times, and the general enjoyment of seeing my city on screen. And seeing it get blown up*. The trailers made me gasp, they were so thrilling. Then, I read A. O. Scott's review in the NYTimes and got even more excited! This movie was gonna be AWESOME!

Well, it was not awesome. Not at all. Like all Bay movies, it clocks in at almost 3 hours. Unlike his other movies, however, there is basically no action at all until the last hour, at which point I was quite literally struggling to stay awake. This was no hyper caffeinated, adrenaline rush thrill ride. This was a painful slog through a preposterous plot with lame characters and nothing to hold your interest. It was so bad that I started thinking about what was so bad about it, when the whole joy of Michael Bay movies is they allow you to stop thinking and not care about how bad it is because you're having so much fun. Shia the Beef spends the entire movie basically whining about how no one appreciates him, and negotiating his relationship with his ridiculously hot girlfriend**. The relationship is a chaotic jumble of various tropes. He's jealous of other men who hit on her! He's insecure about the fact that she makes more money than him! She doesn't mind, except when she maybe does? She is sympathetic and supportive, but maybe not? She is proud of him for being a hero! She is freaked out by the idea of him doing anything remotely dangerous because she lost a brother in the war! She is cute and kind of ditsy! She is highly capable and a raging badass! Omg stop the ride and let me off. The fact that the relationship is a garbled mess really shouldn't matter, but unfortunately, the movie has so little else of interest doing on that you actually find yourself thinking about how bizarre and incoherent her character is. I suppose you could think about the plot instead, but really? You think that's gonna be more rewarding?

The highlight is indeed the Chicago stuff, but honestly, I was strangely aware of it being computer generated. Maybe because it's a familiar landscape. But maybe because it seemed like they mostly just superimposed large burning holes onto buildings. My bf was like "well, now we know how Chicago will look when the Happening comes", but... I don't think it will look like that? I can't explain really. It just looked kind of fake. Like I said though, I did actually doze of a few times. I was really bummed with myself, because it was clearly the best part of the movie, but I just couldn't keep my eyes open. Though I really don't think missed much.

Finally, despite what people have told me, the 3D really didn't add much. I mean, sure, it was nice, because 3D is generally neat. But a friend of mine told me it was better than Avatar, and this is not true at all. I think seeing it regular style would be fine, but really, I think there's no point in seeing it at all. It's seriously terrible.

*Though I have to say, there is a part of me that finds it really weird to enjoy that. There's a lot to be said about this - I went to a really fascinating lecture by Joe Cleary a few years back where he wondered if Americans enjoy this sort of thing more because they a. have never actually experienced historical trauma on the home front the way Europeans have (the exception being Oklahoma and 9-11) and b. have some kind of weird fascination with the apocalypse as a seen of rebirth, which does in a weird way echo the dawn of the nation. It's a line of thought I frequently return to, actually. Joe Cleary is an incredibly smart guy. If you don't believe me, check out his book, Outrageous Fortune. It's so smart and well written, it's a real pleasure.

** I actually don't think she's that hot. But I was kind of amused by the fact that a lot of her scenes actually look like Victoria's Secret commercials. The lighting, the make-up - all the same.

21 July 2011

The Illusionist

(I'm talking about the animated one that came out last year)

I was looking forward to this one. I figured the director of Triplets of Belleville directing a Jacques Tati scripted film was bound to be lovely. And indeed, there are a lot of lovely things about it. The animation is beautiful (I'm still unclear as to whether the original script was for animation or live action, and I'm really curious). The film moves at a languid pace, with almost no dialogue (I'm not sure if the subtitles weren't turned on or there just weren't any), but it's a pleasurable sort of experience, for the most part. Unfortunately, the plot isn't all that compelling. And because it's so sparse, a lot of the nuance was lost on me.

There are basically two major "stories" here. One is that the illusionist is gradually becoming obsolete, along with other circus performers. The other is that a young woman sort of attaches herself to him (the wiki entry on the film says that it's because she believes he has supernatural powers. I don't think that was at all clear in the film), and he buys her presents and has this odd sort of friendship with her. It's hardly a spoiler to tell you that they ultimately part ways for the exact reason you would guess they do. The first of the two plots, I have a lot of sympathy for, and I appreciated, but it's not really enough to carry a film. The second, I enjoyed less. The relationship between the two of them is nice enough - there's something really appealing to me about the kind of companionship that develops between older men and younger women - but its gradual dissolution is too hastily sketched, and somewhat cliche. Apparently, the movie is a kind of love letter from Tati to his estranged daughter. If that's true, it's odd, because you definitely start to resent the young woman in this movie.

Overall, I do not regret having seen it, it wasn't wasted time, but I did feel a bit let down. It's very pretty, but in the grand scheme of things, there are better versions of this kind of movie out there.

03 July 2011

Bridesmaids/Bad Teacher

I had read a fair amount about how I, as a good feminist, should be going to see Bridesmaids. It's the female answer to The Hangover! It's proof that women can be funny! It's a movie about female friendships and experience and we should support it because there are so few movies that show what its really like to be a woman. Ok, you know what? If this is what movies about women are like, then I'm totally ok with there not being very many of them. Because despite its humor - and let me pause to assure you that there are a lot of very, very funny scenes - this movie sucks. Why am I bringing it up alongside Bad Teacher? Because in some ways, Bad Teacher is actually a much more compelling movie about what it's like to be a woman. It is unfortunately not quite as funny, I think, but it lacks all the things I hated about Bridesmaids, which gives it a distinct advantage.

Let me substantiate this somewhat. Bridesmaids is about a women whose life sucks - her business has gone bust, she's broke and working a job she hates, her roommates are insane - shes basically treading water, and now her best friend is getting married and she is a bridesmaid, forced to share her friend's affections with some new bitch she's never met before and doesn't like at all. Side plot: lacking even ONE other friend she can talk to about all this, she ends up befriending/romancing the cop who pulls her over. That was really my biggest gripe about the movie. A. What woman has only one friend??? One! Not even a co-worker or acquaintance she can grab a drink with? Seriously? B. The cop is of course a saint, pretty much, and is wildly attracted to her despite the fact that she treats him like crap. When he finally calls her out on it, she basically acts cute to get him to forgive her,without ever acknowledging how totally narcissistic and inconsiderate she's been. That kind of thing drives me nuts. The rest, the friendship and jealousy and bla bla bla, ok, sure, whatever, it was fine, though one could complain about the fact that the only time women are apparently entertaining is when they have each other. The jokes were indeed very funny for the most part, and I appreciated that they didn't all look airbrushed all the time. But I don't like melodramatic sob stories about self-centered swine that I'm supposed to feel sorry for. If you want a crude movie about female friendships, rent The Sweetest Thing. I don't actually remember it that well, but I'm pretty sure that it's better than this.

The case for Bad Teacher as more honest evocation of female experience is obviously tricky. To be honest, the female part is pretty irrelevant (as it arguably is in Bridesmaids, except that it's written by women and really only has one dude in it). But on a basic level, the reason that I liked Bad Teacher is because the main character (played by Cameron Diaz) was pretty heinous bitch who realized that she was and got better. Also, despite doing some pretty awful things, she was never 100% vile. There was always something redeemable about her. Even though she's not very nice to her dweeby co-worker, you can see that she does actually care about her on some level, and occasionally wants to help her. And its this good side, it is made clear, that partly attracts Jason Segel, along with her looks of course, and also her devil-may-care attitude. In other words - we understand why he likes her. And although he's in some ways too good to be true and perseveres in pursuing her for way longer than is warranted, he's not an utter doormat.

Do I want to claim a woman who is doing what it takes to make enough money to get a boob job so that she can hook a rich man and never work again as a paragon of femininity? Not really. But if you liked Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, you'll like Cameron Diaz in this. It's an enduring trope, the character whose enormous skill is only leveraged towards avoiding work. It's not necessarily a female one, but I am tempted to say it's more frequent among women than men, and related to using sexuality to getting what you want? But it requires that the protagonist be somehow a good person underneath their scheming - and this movie pulls that off.

I want to add that the movie is assisted by Jason Segel and Justin Timberlake, both of whom are just great. The plot is silly, but who cares. One only wishes it were a bit funnier. I will admit that I felt slightly squeamish about the premise of this movie - a teacher who could hardly give less of a shit, and who manages to whip her students into shape when she has to - at a moment when funding for education is so contested. Though I guess it's implicitly arguing for increasing funding - motivate teachers properly and they'll be great?

Anyways, if you enjoy raunchy humor, rent Bridesmaids and fast forward through the emo stuff. Actually, I don't know if that's possible. They might be somewhat inextricable. Ugh. So annoying. The humor is crude but pretty hilarious, but I can't quite bring myself to recommend the movie because it annoyed me SO much. Bad Teacher, watch on video on a lazy night at home when your standards aren't too high. It's reasonably entertaining. Personally, I'm edging towards seeing anything Justin Timberlake puts out, because I find him mesmerizing.