April Reading/Watching Recap

This month, my reactions to Broken Flowers, Thank You for Smoking, Sophie Scholl, Inside Man, War of the Worlds, The Constant Gardener, Crash, Digital Fortress, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and more.

Movies

Broken Flowers
I’d heard some really great things about this film, and perhaps my expectations were raised too high, but I was a little bit disappointed, to be honest. Probably I need to watch it again at some point, because I think I just didn’t get it…usually I’m pretty cool with lack of resolution, but this just stopped, and it didn’t feel right to me. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to. Hence the need to rewatch. I did like a lot of the vignettes, though, and of course Bill Murray is awesome as usual. It was really just the ending that unsettled me. And it was really my expectations more than anything that let me down, so I can’t mark it down too much.
Above Average
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Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
I was expecting to be gently amused by this, but it was actually better than I expected. Of course, Alexis Bledel and Amber Tamblyn are among the most talented of the current crop of teenaged actresses–give me them over Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan any day of the freakin’ week. Anyway. I thought this did a really good job of mixing the four girls’ stories together, letting each of them have the spotlight for a while, but not giving any of them too much weight. There were issues here, but they were handled appropriately and not sentimentally. Absolutely one of my favorite recent films aimed at a young audience. And how much do I want to go to Greece now?
Above Average, extra points for being funny without being vulgar and dealing with issues without using anvils, and for pretty, pretty scenery
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Sophie Scholl: The Last Days
One of the best I’ve seen this year. (Hey, and it’s foreign. Imagine that. *looks pointedly at stoopid Hollywood industry*) It’s set in 1943, and focuses on a German brother and sister who spoke out against Hitler and his misguided war efforts and the trial that follows their arrest for treason. It boils with a quiet intensity, and Sophie’s faceoffs with the Nazi investigator are as well-done as any courtroom film ever. It’s a study in strength of character and faith, and it’s as subtle as it is powerful–there is no beating you over the head with the point here. See my longer review (including a tirade about seeing foreign films) here.
Superior, extra points for everything
IMDb

Inside Man
Hey, a Spike Lee movie I didn’t end up hating! Of course, with Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster, plus a heist storyline, Spike Lee would’ve had to have worked extra hard to make me dislike it…but I wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, this is one of the most accessible Lee films I’ve seen, and it really worked quite well. The heist itself was well-done, and the negotiation segments were brilliant. Lee showed just enough to hint at what the underlying plan was without revealing it too soon. I’m always a little disturbed, though, that heist movies always make me want to root for the robbers. Even more so when Clive Owen is involved–I will say his effect on me was a little lessened by the lack of his British accent. Still. Overall, a solid drama, good performances all around, lots of stuff going on, plenty of things to figure out. My only beef is that Clive’s speech that opens the film is repeated at the end…the speech where he says he isn’t going to repeat himself. Um…okay?
Well Above Average, extra points for calm and collected master thievery
IMDb

Amores Perros
This one requires a rewatch at some point. Not expecting it to be as involved and intricate as it was, I failed to pay proper attention to first half or so…in addition to that, I had to watch it in two pieces due to poor time management on my part. So I got to the end feeling like I had missed a really great film. It’s three (or four…see what I mean?) different stories, all about some sort of love, and each involving a dog. (The title is translated in English as “Love’s a Bitch,” with “bitch” meant to mean both the current, vulgar definition and the original definition as a female dog.) One story concerns a young man in love with his brother’s wife, who enters his dog into underworld dog fights to win enough money to leave town, hoping to take the girl he loves away from the brother who beats her. A second follows a famous model who is crippled in an automobile accident, and her dog which gets lost under the floorboard of her not-terribly-well-made apartment. All the stories, in fact, converge on this automobile accident, which is seen several times from several viewpoints. The film overall is gritty, realistic, painful, harsh, emotional, gripping, raw and intricate. Not a film that everyone will enjoy (I didn’t even enjoy it so much as appreciate it and want to understand it better), but quite well-executed and uncompromising. Oh, and it supports my theory that Gael Garcia Bernal is in every Mexican film. He is. I swear.
Above Average, extra points for visceral-ness and excellent plotting
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War of the Worlds
By the time this one came in to the library for me, I was sort of ambivalent about it. This time of year, I’m almost completely indie-minded, and wasn’t too excited about big summer blockbusters–add into that my current extreme aversion to Tom Cruise (run away now, Katie!), and I wasn’t sure. But it came in to the library, so I had to watch it, right? Anyway, it was actually quite good. I should have remembered Steven Spielberg’s impeccable sense of timing, and his storytelling prowess–Spielberg’s skill blew away whatever reservations I had about the film. Also, Dakota Fanning is outstanding. Best child actress, maybe ever. Anyway. It gets a little over the top at times, and of course there are predictable parts, but it was an enjoyable ride. It’s interesting to see how Spielberg treats the aliens here…there is none of the wonder/curiosity of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the loveableness of E.T. on display here. They are faceless, evil, hateful, imperturbable villains, and nothing more. Is he just tapping into the paranoia of the original story, or has his view on extra-terrestrial life really changed?
Above Average, extra points for suspenseful timing and great special effects and cinematography, a few points deducted for some formulaic moments
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Thank You for Smoking
Very, very, very amusing from start to finish, beginning with the clever title sequence. It’s so rare for movies to even have title sequences anymore, and this one was really well-designed and appropriate, using old cigarette carton graphics as a starting point. The movie itself is fast-moving, clever, and maybe more good-natured than it intends. It feels like it wants to be more provocative than it is, but it really isn’t provocative or offensive at all…it’s just an enjoyable poke in the ribs. The main character (Aaron Eckhart) is the charmed spokesman for the Big Tobacco consortium, and he maneuvers his way through the film fending off medical specialists on national TV, conspiring with Hollywood bigwigs to make smoking on-screen cool again, dealing with hot young female reporters (Katie Holmes), and trying to spend time with his son. Some of the best scenes are when he and the rest of the MOD squad meet for lunch every week–that’s Merchants Of Death, otherwise known as the the lobbyists for Big Tobacco, Guns, and Alcohol. Again, they may be going for mild shock value here, but it’s so over the top that it’s amusing. (My favorite part is when they get into an argument over which one of their industries kills the most people.) I really enjoyed the style, too…it’s sort of Arrested Development-esque, with a voiceover explaining the backgrounds of various people, including graphics and still shots and sometimes short film clips. It’s very cute. Oh, and it also has Maria Bello and William H. Macy in the supporting cast, two people who tend to choose very good projects. This is no exception. It’s light, entertaining, subtle, and really well-done. THIS is what comedy films should be like.
Well Above Average, extra points for the title sequence, being intelligent, and being stylistically interesting
IMDb

The Constant Gardener
There are many good social problem films. There are many good political conspiracy thrillers. There are many good love stories. Once in a while, movies try to tackle more than one of these areas, usually with uneven and unsatisfying results. The Constant Gardner just shot to the top of my 2005 Top Ten list because it manages to encompass all of these disparate things, and do each of them convincingly and appropriately. The things I’d heard about it before seeing it didn’t seem to fit together…British husband and wife in Africa, on some sort of diplomatic mission; wife wants to help the African people. Okay, we’ve got a bleeding heart humanitarian story. But wait, there seems to be a lot of focus on their relationship, maybe it’s a love story and the rest is secondary. Except she dies, and apparently there’s a big political coverup and conspiracy that he tries to uncover, at peril to his own life. Sounds thrilling–I hope that’s the main part! But, see…they’re all the main part. Their love for each other, her love for Africa, and the danger that her humanitarian activities put them both into is all bound up together inseparably. The balance between the focus on Justin and Tessa as individuals and the big picture of the AIDS and TB epidemics in Africa, (and the drug companies that want to exploit the continent) is kept beautifully. The story is handled surely, with perfect pacing, excellent acting, and a time-shifting script that brings Tessa to life in a way that a linear script somehow never could have. It could easily devolve into sentimentality, but it doesn’t. It could easily turn into a Mission Impossible chase movie, but it doesn’t. It clocks in at 2 hours and 10 minutes, and it felt half that long. Now I really want to read the book.
Superior, extra points for having a very big-Hollywood story, but keeping an indie sensibility
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Proof
Somehow, I was expecting more out of the reteaming of director John Madden and Gwyneth Paltrow. After all, Shakespeare in Love is one my favorite films ever. And Proof has an intriguing premise: a woman deals with the death of her brilliant-but-mad mathematician father, as well as her fear that she shares more in his mental instability than his brilliance. The acting by all the leads (Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal) as quite good. It just felt…inconsequential, I think is the word I want. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not she had written the groundbreaking mathematical proof of the title or not, or whether her father had really recovered his mental acuity enough to have done it himself before he died. In fact, the film seems to indicate that it doesn’t matter, but then why is it so central? Perhaps the point is that she needed to realize that she mattered as a person whether or not she was a brilliant mathematician, but in her mental state, knowing that intellectually wouldn’t have made any difference. The film has a lot of very nice moments (the scene where the father, in flashback, thinks he’s explaining a new proof but is really speaking nonsense is particularly moving), but overall it’s uneven and disappointing.
Average
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Crash
I don’t know what I think about this film. Just so you know. I’m going to throw out some jumbled up thoughts, but as far as a unified response or reaction, I really don’t have one. I love ensemble movies, and so I liked it as far as style goes…the seemingly separate stories connected thematically that are also connected tangentially through character relationships and random circumstances. But the plot was heavy-handed and didn’t quite ring true to me. I was particularly bothered by the lack of a single noble character. I know the point is that everybody has a racist streak, even those who seem the most fair and egalitarian, like Ryan Phillippe’s character. And maybe we need to be reminded of that and not get cocky about the improvement in our interracial relations in our equal-opportunity world. But I wonder if making a film that posits that everybody is a racist whether they know it or not and offers no solution other than a horrible car crash is really helping the situation. It always seems to me that making a big deal out of racism only widens the gap rather than closing it. But then, what do I know? Maybe I’m just terribly naive. As I said, I did like the style, but the ideology is so central to the plot that it’s impossible for me to separate my reaction to it from my reaction to the film as a film…usually I do that without too much trouble.
Average, extra points for style, points deducted for heavy-handed ideology
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Books

Digital Fortress by Dan Brown
Oh, my. Where do I even start? Here’s a place: Worst.Novel.Ever. And not in the so-bad-it’s-good way, either. Maybe in the so-bad-it’s-fun-to-mock way. I was hoping to like it, because even though I disagreed with The Da Vinci Code‘s theology and historicity, I did enjoy reading it–and Digital Fortress concerns cryptography, which is one of my favorite sub-sub-genres. Now I need to reread DVC to see if I was overlooking huge errors in the writing itself, because Digital Fortress is the worst-written piece of crap I’ve ever read. How do I mean, exactly? Well…let’s just pull out my handy-dandy little notebook, of which I used some six or seven pages just outlining the problems with this book. Laying the background: main character Susan is the head cryptographer at the NSA. She’s brilliant. Good thing Brown keeps telling us that, because everything she says or does is idiotic. Her fiance David is a professor of languages, but he’s been commissioned by the NSA for a single mission: to head to Spain to recover an encryption key that will break an otherwise unbreakable code, a code which is meant to cripple the NSA and its bohemoth decryption computer, TRANSLATR. He apparently speaks Spanish perfectly, but has to also say everything in English, because Brown gives us both Spanish and English for almost everything he says. Actually, no one “says” anything…they “shrug” or they “intone” or they “spout” or they “frown” or they “muse” or they “sigh”. It’s positively exhausting. Every chapter or so is a cliffhanger. Except, not, because the cliffhangers are so anvil-obvious that you’ve anticipated them pages before they happen. Some more issues with Susan’s brilliance: she doesn’t understand what “who will guard the guardians” means. Granted, she’s not a language genius, but still–here’s another similar one: The antagonist sends a message saying “Tell the world about TRANSLATR–only the truth will save you now.” Susan’s response: “The truth about what?” Uh….TRANSLATR? When one of the bigger plot twists occurs, she’s shocked speechless–which would be okay, had she not predicted that exact plot twist in an earlier chapter. Her boss talked her out of it, but when it turned out to be right, she’s all “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it” instead of “I told you so.” Note that all of the events of the story happen within a 24-hour time frame. Oh, and the passwords. You’d think cryptographers would be really good at passwords. Their workstations are protected by a five-character alpha password. That’s about the level of security our laundry room has. And the deputy director’s private elevator? Five-character alpha password also…and not random, but rather, the name of his head cryptographer. Seriously folks. And I’m not even going into all the issues of technology and cryptography…I’m not well-versed enough in those areas to have picked up all the errors myself, but the people over at Wikipedia have done a nice job, if you want to check that out. It’s interesting that Brown took the same general approach to this as to The Da Vinci Code–take an interesting subject, make up a bunch of stuff about it, and then treat it as fact. Forget this and read some Neal Stephenson. His Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon cover a bunch of the same ground, but with infinitely better writing and knowledge. Unless you just feel like mocking the Worst.Novel.Ever.
Dismal
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Batman: Year One by Frank Miller
I’m not a comic book person. But I secretly want to be. Comic book people are geeky and obsessive, and I’m geeky and obsessive…just about different things. But things that invite geekiness and obsession intrigue me for that reason alone, and I keep thinking that one of these days I’ll get hooked on comics/graphic novels and be able to add that area to my geek quotient. Hasn’t happened yet. Graphic novels are a challenge for me to read, believe it or not…my mind just isn’t trained to follow the sequence of panes and easily understand what’s going on, although I can tell it’s getting easier over time. I picked up Batman: Year One from the library after liking Batman Begins so much, and I did really enjoy it. I will tell you that anyone trying to claim that graphic novels aren’t art doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It’s a beautiful work. Now I’m having trouble untangling the story from Batman Begins, but that’s probably okay.
Above Average
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Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Let’s see, why did I pick this up? Oh, yeah, it was on various college reading lists and, uh, it’s short. :D A day in the life of a man who’s at the end of his rope…he’s lost his job, has no money, has an ex-wife hounding him for money, his father has money but won’t give him any, and he’s sunk his last bit of change in the stock market, hoping against hope he’ll make a killing. I liked it okay while I was reading it, but the fact that I can only remember the premise and not the ending may not bode well. On the other hand, as I’ve stated before, conclusions tend to fade from my mind a long time before the processes leading to the conclusions do. I did enjoy the stock market parts, largely because I knew more about it than the character did, due to my dad’s interest in it. He kept thinking of things, and I was like, “no, don’t do that, that’s dumb.” Now I’m going to annoy myself by not remembering how it turned out. Oh well.
Average
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If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” Thus begins the best opening chapter I’ve ever read, ever. It goes on to give suggestions about how to best enjoy reading the book, as well as a recap of how you went to bookstore to buy it, and bypassed all the other books lying in wait for you there–Books You Haven’t Read, Books You Needn’t Read, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written, Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered, Books Made For Other Purposes Than Reading, Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, and many many others. It’s delightful. The rest of the book is quite good as well, but it’s not quite as wonderful. After this first chapter, If on a winter’s night a traveler begins, but just as its story of spies gets interesting, it breaks off…the copy that “you” have bought is defective, and the first 32 pages are repeated over and over. As the story continues, the second-person narrator (The Reader) tries to find the rest of the book (soon in the company of The Other Reader) to finish it, but is repeatedly given different books instead. These books are also interrupted at the crucial moment, and The Reader is returned to his quest. The whole thing is extremely post-modern, very self-referential, and in fact, plays upon a lot of literary theory, especially Reader-Response Theory, and theories involving The Other, which is obvious even from this synopsis. (Also, as you read the intermingled stories that The Reader is given, you’ll notice that they each take off from a recognized genre, too…the spy novel, the seedy romance, the memoir, etc.) Calvino is easily one of the most fascinating writers I’ve discovered recently, and now my quest is to read all of his books.
Well Above Average
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