March Reading/Watching Recap

I’m a month behind again! Hey, I’ve been putting more effort into watching and reading than writing. (No, really. I’ve been busting through my goals pretty well this year. I’m practicing for grad school, when I hear I’ll have half as much time to do twice as much work. We’ll see.)

Also, some day I’m going to write about something other than movies and books. Really. I promise.

Reactions, not reviews, blah blah blah jaffacakes.

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Movies

Millions
When I first started watching this, I was like, “whoa, this is sort of weird.” Then I picked up the case and noticed that it was directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting), and then the weirdness all made sense. The story is relatively simple: Damian, a young idealistic boy in Manchester, finds a duffel bag with thousands of pound notes in the field behind his family’s new house, and thinks it’s a gift from God. He shows the money to his brother, who wants to spend it on themselves, but our young idealist (who has visions of saints) wants to give it to the poor. A worthy goal, but as he starts handing wheelbarrowfulls of money out to the neighbors, the charity representative at his school, and even welcomes the creepy guy who shows up at his improvised fort in the field, suspicions rise. Adding to the pressure is the fact that in the story, the UK is about to make the switch from pounds to euros, and the children’s millions are soon going to be worthless. Now, this could be a really routine family film, asking what’s really important in life, money or family, bringing out all sorts of ethical questions about whether they should keep the money, report it to the police, give it to the poor, etc. But in Danny Boyle’s hands it’s not routine at all…it’s also not really a family film. It’s extremely fantastic in presentation, with Damian’s visions of saints and flights of fancy. The manner in which he discovers how the money really came to be in the field (the robbery of a train on a nearby track) is more punk-action style than anything else. It’s a really hard film to describe, and even now I’m not sure I’d say I thought it was really good. It was certainly not what I expected, and it kept me interested and fascinated all the way through, so I suppose there’s that. And there’s a joy of watching Alex Etel as Damian…he’s really brilliant.
Above Average, extra points for visual originality and child acting

Million Dollar Baby
Two movies in a row with “million” in the title! And two movies in a row I’m sort of ambivalent about! Whee! I loved the first part of this…very classic and old-fashioned. It’s easy to see why the Academy liked it enough to award it Best Picture. It has heart, it has spirit, it has a good story, and three highly talented actors. I don’t know how I feel about the end, though. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I can’t say much more. I can’t really think of any other way to have ended it that I would’ve liked better, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. Overall, extremely well done, so I’m in the clear to say it’s quite a good movie. I’m just not entirely sure I liked it. Except the first part, which I thought was great.
Above Average, extra points for old-fashioned filmmaking, points deducted for unsatisfying ending

Alexander
I should’ve known I’d find an Oliver Stone movie to be a boring piece of pointlessness. I’m trying to remember when I decided I disliked Oliver Stone, but I can’t. Most of his more-revered movies (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July) I haven’t seen yet, so I’ll have to look through my lists and see what of his I have seen. Okay, just looked, and it’s weird. The only thing I know I’ve seen is JFK, and I liked that one. No idea where my dislike of Oliver Stone comes from, but it’s there. Maybe it was in anticipation of seeing Alexander. Anyway. Alexander just has such an undeserved air of importance and heaviness, much more so than the film can handle. It’s overblown, overproduced, miscast, uneven, uninteresting, and just generally not very good. And so freaking gory just for the sake of being gory. Not at all worthwhile.
Well Below Average, points deducted for not even giving me anything to work with in terms of adding or subtracting points

Equilibrium
In an indeterminate future, it has been decided that the reason for all the world’s problems with war and violence are caused by the fact that people have emotions…so it is decided to eradicate all emotion, through removing things that elicit emotion–books, music, photographs, heirlooms, families. The main character is an elite policeman, commissioned to enforce the ban on emotion and seek out and destroy members of an underground resistance. One day, however, he neglects to take the mandatory dose of emotion suppressents, and he become susceptible to the very emotion he has sworn to uproot. Soon he is working with the resistance to take down the faceless, all-controlling dictator running the metropolis. Basically, take The Matrix, cross it with Minority Report, and throw in a dash of Metropolis. It’s nowhere near the quality of any of these films–the effects are extremely cool, but the invincibleness of the main character gets old after a while. You’re never worried whether or not he’s going to make it, as you are worried for Neo. There’s no tension between whether or not the system has good qualities, as there is with the Pre-Crime system. Still, it’s not half-bad, for a couple of hours of viewing pleasure.
Average, extra points for cool sci-fi effects, points deducted for sterility

Primer
Now this one I had to watch twice. Seriously. In between the two viewings, I scoured the internet for information about the film, and one review I read described it just about right: (not direct quote) Most movies about time travel either ignore the science necessary for time travel machines or make up outlandish but lay-person-comprehensible theories explaining how it is possible. In Primer, the science is central, and the science isn’t explained. There is no one involved in the time travel experiment who wasn’t intimately familiar with the necessary scientific ingredients, so watching the film feels something like being thrust into a conversation between post-doctoral scientists. It’s heady stuff, and yet fascinating. One would fear that it would end up sounding like a jargon-filled thesis or something, but it doesn’t…it feels real, not forced, as are so many movies and TV shows that have to introduce a novice character to explain everything to so that the audience has someone to identify with as they learn the ropes. Watching Primer is like jumping in to the deep end when you can’t swim. The intricacy is astounding, as the plot folds back on itself multiple times, and the narration is given much like the science–as if the audience should already know who is speaking to us and the basics of how the story plays out. It’s a movie that refuses to compromise an inch, and assumes its audience is intelligent enough to enjoy the attempt to figure it out. Honestly, it was refreshing in its complexity and its complete lack of condescension. Do I completely understand it even yet? No. But I’d rather be challenged by a movie that assumes I’m smarter than I am than condescended to by a movie that assumes I have the brain of a pea, like most Hollywood offerings do.
Well Above Average, extra points for expecting an intelligent audience

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Note to Disney, Fox, Dreamworks, and every other studio who attempts to make animated/kids movies (except Pixar, who gets nothing but my undying love): THIS is how you make a family film. You start with a story that doesn’t necessarily turn on a life lesson, and can’t be summed up by trite little maxims. If you want, you can include some things like this, such as “getting rid of pesky, garden-killing rabbits in a humane way is better than shooting them all,” but don’t beat it over the head…in fact, you may want to gently lampoon the bleeding-heart animal lovers even while you agree with their position. Basing the story on well-known horror legends is a little risky, but as long as you keep the balance between homage and reworking, you’ll be fine. Keeping the emphasis on character is a good idea, too. Humor is a good thing, of course, and if you can manage to make both the kids AND adults laugh, you’ve got a winner. In fact, this last is possibly the most important thing. It’s not horribly difficult to please either kids or adults…pleasing both, while keeping the film agreeable for parents to let their kids watch, is much more difficult. Oh, and this especially directed to the movie-in-joke-laden Madagascar: References to other movies are awesome; I love them. They’re my favorite. But subtle is better. Wallace and Gromit smacks in twice the references as you did, and they’re beautiful…obvious to film freaks, but they won’t be noticable at all to people who don’t recognize them, as opposed to your “darn them all to heck!” Planet of the Apes scene recreation. It’s one thing if the viewer knows Planet of the Apes, but if not, it doesn’t fit and is more of a distraction than anything else. In short, Wallace and Gromit films rule, other kids movies drool!
Superior, extra points for British humour, claymation with more expression than many real-life actors, and tongue-in-cheek subtlety

Paths of Glory
Ahem. I did get one classic in this month. Only one. Pretty pathetic. Still, it’s a Kubrick classic! So that makes it count for like, two average classic films, right? Okay, seriously, though. Paths of Glory is early Kubrick…1957, which puts it after The Killing (which is awesome, BTW, I highly recommend it) but before almost any of his other classics. And it’s good, as I expected, but it wasn’t wow. It’s about equal parts war film and courtroom drama, as an upper commander in the French army during WWI orders his unit to make a suicidal dash across no man’s land to try to take out a German pillbox. After the attack inevitably fails, the commander finds three soldiers to bring up on charges of cowardice, claiming that they had disobeyed the attack order and retreated, thus undermining the morale of the rest of the unit. The second half deals with the mockery of a trial that follows, as the captain of the unit defends his men against the trumped up charges. It’s a good study of WWI and the total disconnect between it and the way wars were fought before WWI (the wars the upper commander was trying to emulate)…the pitched battle with its “glorious” charges just doesn’t work in the face of machine guns. And the trial was strikingly similar to the mockeries put on by the Nazis and the Soviets as pretenses to a justice system that they no longer adhere to. Beyond those two points of interest, though, I wasn’t as awed as I’d hoped to be.
Above Average, extra points for courtroom outbursts and historical perspectives

Bewitched
The concept was cutesy to start with…Will Ferrell as an actor set to play Darrin in a TV series remake of the classic sitcom “Bewitched,” only lo-and-behold, his unknown costar turns out to be perfect for the part because she actually is a witch. But it gets worse. Not only is she a witch, but she has an aunt who bungles her spells. And a too-smooth-for-his-own-good warlock father. And the actress who plays Endora on the new show? Also a witch. And Nicole Kidman plays the whole thing in her breathy-dumb-blonde style. Not her best style, let me tell you. Ultimately, it takes a gimmick with enough substance for about fifteen minutes and stretches it beyond the breaking point. The original show is on DVD now. I recommend you get that instead.
Below Average, points deducted for saccharine poisoning

Walk the Line
I’m not really familiar with Johnny Cash or his music, but with all the accolades this has been getting, I had relatively high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did excellent jobs in their parts–Reese especially surprised me (yes, even after she won the Oscar; you know I don’t put much store in those), since I’m used to her in Legally Blonde/Election-type roles. And they can both sing! Even better. It was maybe a tad overlong, but I was enjoying the experience so much that I didn’t care.
Well Above Average, extra points for actors who sing

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
They totally need to give the squirrel his own movie. See, the squirrel bits are classic Looney Tunes-style sight gag humor. Cartoons have done nothing in the last fifty years that tops the pure hilarity of Looney Tunes, and maybe recapturing some of that would be good for modern kids movies. The rest of Ice Age 2 is relatively routine, though the story asks for some pretty outrageous stretches of the imagination (in the first movie, they were at the beginning of the ice age, and now the ice age is ending? But that’s millions of years! But they’re the same characters! Not to mention, even beyond the whole mammoth-thinking-she’s-a-possum thing, possums are not that energetic. Trust me. They should have designated them ferrets or something). Generally, it was more than passable for a family outing. And the squirrel wins at life.
Average, extra points for Looney Tunes imitations

Books

BFI Film Classics: In a Lonely Place by Dana Polen
I read this because I was in the midst of writing an article about In a Lonely Place (you may remember how much I raved about it after I watched it for the first time last month), and the BFI Film Classics books are such excellent resources, I couldn’t pass up at least seeing what it had to say. You may consider this a review of the entire BFI series, really…they are written by various well-known film scholars (some better known than others…a few that stand out are Peter Wollen on Singin’ in the Rain and Laura Mulvey on Citizen Kane) and sometimes other writers, like Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz. Because of the use of different writers, each book has a different tone, which is refreshing. But they all do a great job of looking at a film from a number of perspectives. Dana Polen, a film professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, considers In a Lonely Place as a work by Nicholas Ray (auteurist perspective) and places it within Ray’s oevre, introducing a lot of Ray’s biographical background as he does so. He also considers In a Lonely Place as a melodrama and as film noir (genre studies perspective), as well as bringing a bit of psychological theory to the film. Not to mention all the anecdotes and insights about the film’s stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, and their interpersonal relationship with Nicholas Ray. All in all, a very informative and interesting 80-page read. I do recommend the entire series, as well, if you’re interested at all in film. BFI now also puts out a “Contemporary Film” series, and a series looking at television shows.
Above Average

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Umberto Eco has spoiled me for academically-inclined thrillers. Not that I ever expect anybody else to be as good as Eco anymore, but I always hope anyway. And really, The Historian isn’t bad. It’s heaps better than the last entry into this field that I attempted, The Rule of Four (which royally sucked). And it’s also Kostova’s first novel, and you can sort of tell…a good editor would have helped tremendously. She can’t decide completely whether she wants to be about the narrator’s father’s search for Dracula in the 1930s, or about the narrator’s own youth, as her father renews his dangerous studies on vampires. So she includes too much of both. She wants the quiet moments while the narrator enjoys a night by the Mediterranean and contemplates the sky and the ocean to be soothing and thought-provoking. They’re merely filler. They don’t lead us to a greater knowledge of the narrator or of her world. The search for Dracula is better handled, especially when the father (back in the 1930s) is hopping around Iron Curtain-laden Eastern Europe, in danger not only from the vampire and his minions, but also from the Communist government. Overall, the book had a lot of good things in it, but it was top-heavy. Oh, and the climax? Just a tad on the anti-climactic side. Just so you’re warned. I also knew quite a lot about Vlad the Impaler before reading this, so I felt like she went into too much explanation about him…but that might not’ve been the case for the casual reader. (I considered doing a thesis on vampires at one time, so I spent an entire summer one year reading up about them.)
Average, extra points for mysterious books and Eastern Europe, points deducted for unnecessary rambling

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Not as amazing as Tender is the Night, but still quite good. Really, I think a lot of it is that Dick and Nicole are somehow more relatable than Anthony and Gloria. Dick and Nicole were tortured by their own uncertainties and their mental instabilities…Anthony and Gloria are spoiled children who refuse to accept that their social class is disappearing and that they might have to *gasp* stop partying and work for a change. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely understood their resistance to it, but there were so many times I just wanted to smack them and tell them to grow the hell up. It would have been interesting to read it back when it was written…I kept finding my 21st-century perspective skewing my reation to things (which is rare, actually; I’m usually pretty good at putting myself in the appropriate mindset for what I’m reading). I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t kept comparing it to Tender is the Night as well. There were a few passages that were heavenly, and overall I liked it, but if you only ever read one Fitzgerald, make it Tender is the Night. (Not counting Gatsby…you had to read that in high school anyway.)
Above Average, extra points for Gloria’s tirade about historic places as tourist traps

Egil’s Saga
For some reason I’ve been hankering to read some Icelandic sagas…it’s the budding medievalist in me, as well as wanting to find out more about the influences on Lord of the Rings. I picked Egil’s Saga because, well, it was the first one in the massive “Sagas of the Icelanders” anthology. I don’t really feel qualified to write about it, though, before I’m exposed to several more of these tales for comparison’s sake. Basically, these sagas are the history/legend of the Norse people (mostly Iceland and Norway), set around 900A.D. For some reason I was expecting more mythology, but though the mythology comes into play a teeny bit (mostly in poetry), it’s really about the Vikings and their families running around, feuding and raiding. It was very dense, full of people and place names (and all the people had the same name, almost…usually some variant on “Thor”), a very long time-span covering the life of Egil’s father and then all of Egil’s life, and mostly dealt with a long-standing feud between Egil and King Harald of Norway. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever read, but it got to be rewarding by the end. Freakin’ violent in places, too. Egil was pretty brutal. (Example: “Then Egil…gouged out one of [Amrod, his enemy]’s eyes with his finger, leaving it hanging on his cheek.” Eeeeeewwww!!!) Yet he was also a poet…that was the most interesting thing to me, actually. Even the most battle-hardened warriors were expected to be able to produce some verses at every banquet in favor of the king or earl or whoever happened to be being honored. I definitely want to read more Icelandic stuff, but I may take a break first. ;)
Above Average, extra points for a sophistication of storytelling that I wasn’t expecting, points deducted for the apparent lack of Icelandic naming creativity, although I suppose I can’t blame that on the anonymous author of this tale


A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf can write more evocativally than almost anyone I’ve ever read. There. Got that out. This is a piece of freakin’ criticism, even, and it’s beautiful. It’s not pedantic, it’s not dry, it’s not academic, it’s not arrogant. And though I’m not what you might call a feminist, this piece of feminine criticism was needed when it was written, and it has a lot of things to say that are very true. To the extent that women should have the same opportunities, the same tools, the same support, and the same freedom as men to express themselves in writing, perhaps I am something a feminist. Anyway. This is a great read, both the theory and the style. There were whole pages I had to write down in my quote book. I *heart* Virginia Woolf.
Well Above Average, extra points for making me fall in love with language all over again