May Reading/Watching Recap

Including my reactions to Rize, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Downfall, The Canterbury Tales, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, among other things.

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Movies

Rize
This is the non-school-sponsored, street-born, hip-hop-inspired, LA-based version of Mad Hot Ballroom. Instead of middle-school mostly underprivileged kids learning ballroom dancing at their schools and going to city-wide championships, these are teenaged underprivileged kids freestyle dancing in an effort to control something in their lives and let out their frustration and aggression in a way not related to gangs and drugs. Rize documents these real kids and their community mentors, mostly Tommy the Clown, who is credited with starting the whole movement with his “clown-dancing”–basically he’s a children’s entertainer who incorporates hip-hop rhythms and dancing into his entertainment routines. He’s gathered a whole group of younger kids around him, helping him entertain and more importantly perhaps, keeping them off the streets. Later, the documentary moves onto the “krump,” a style that evolved from clown-dancing, but is more visceral and more aggressive. It’s an interesting subject, and one that I didn’t know anything about, and it’s great to see some grass-roots community movements that are keeping kids out of the ubiquitous gangs, but overall there’s not enough material here for a feature-length film.
Above Average, extra points for interesting subject, points deducted for repetitiousness
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The Greatest Game Ever Played
This would have been the boys’ choice when my cousin, his wife, and their friend and I had a movie night while they were visiting. It’s sort of a compromise between their sports fanaticism and mine and Beth’s, uh, lack of sports fanaticism. It was actually on my “see sometime when I run out of other stuff to see” list, because I do tend to like underdog stories, especially ones with historical background. Of course, once I saw it was directed by Bill Paxton, I was all set for the mocking. :) Overall, it wasn’t bad…the class distinction between those who can play golf and those who can only carry golf clubs was interesting, and one that I hadn’t really though much about. I mean, even know, golf is sort of a rich-person’s game, just because golf clubs are expensive, and membership to country clubs is expensive, etc., but the idea that a poor kid couldn’t play the game was…yeah. And the British vs. American sentiments were interesting, too. Paxton totally got overexcited about directing, though. The thing where he followed the golf ball with the camera as it’s hurtling through the air was cool the first time, but by the seventh or eighth time it got really old.
Average, extra points for underdog story, because I’m a total sucker for them, points deducted for directorial indulgence
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Brick
There are many reasons I loved this film. One of them is the theatre-going experience I had going to see it. But the film itself was also very, very good. The main character is a high school student who is something of an outsider (though it’s unclear why at the beginning…synopses of the film say it’s because he’s too smart for everyone else, but while he is smart, I don’t know that the film credits his outsider status to his intelligence). When his ex-girlfriend calls him with a strange message about a “brick” and a “pin”, and then disappears, he is drawn into the underbelly of the para-school drug ring. While it may not look like traditional noir, or even neo-noir, it definitely has the same sort of feel. It’s gritty, it’s harsh, it’s complex, it’s seedy, it’s got it’s own language style, it’s got corruption, it’s even got a femme fatale. It was a little difficult to follow, especially because the dialogue goes so quickly and is often muttered, but the attention it demands is well worthwhile.
Superior, extra points for evoking noir sensibilities without being annoyingly overt
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Salaam Namaste
Omigosh, they kissed! In a Bollywood film! No, you don’t understand, this doesn’t happen. There’s no kissing in Bollywood films. Wow. I’m not sure what I think about that. I always, like, want them to kiss (because people who love each other collapsing into a hug instead of a kiss seems odd to my westernized sensibilities), but when they actually did, it was sort of weird. Anyway. Other than that, this was a pretty routine Indian film…the two main characters start off hating each other after he doesn’t show up to an interview on her radio show, and she thinks he’s a careless jerk and he thinks she’s an uptight prig. Of course, all that soon changes when they decide they might love each other and move in together (in separate rooms) to see if they can stand being around each other all the time. Then the kissing starts. Overall, it’s a less manic than a lot of Bollywood (thinking especially of the Shah Rukh Kahn oevre), which is refreshing. The hospital scene at the end is ludicrously out of place with its slapstick sillyness which gets old about two minutes into the fifteen minute segment. Other than that, it’s quite enjoyable, but nothing super-special.
Average
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Capote
I’m of mixed feelings. Part of me knows that I should’ve liked this a lot better than I did. Part of me thinks I need to rewatch and pay better attention. Part of me doesn’t care. Part of me wants to read In Cold Blood and then rewatch. My only exposure to Capote prior to this has been the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I do think that Philip Seymour Hoffman did an incredible job, but then he always does, in whatever part he’s in, so that wasn’t really that revelatory for me. I also found the juxtoposition between the jail cell interviews and Capote’s society parties interesting, but I would need a rewatch to make that interestingness mean something more. It was a well-acted, well-made film, but I just didn’t care about it that much. It did make me want to read In Cold Blood a lot more, though, so there’s that.
Above Average, extra points for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s extraordinary performance
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Downfall
Watching this in such close proximity to Sophie Scholl was great, and invited comparisons, even though the films really aren’t very much alike, apart from setting. Downfall chronicles the last few weeks in Hitler’s Berlin bunker before the Allied forces swept into the city in 1945, largely told through the eyes of Hitler’s youthful private secretary, Traudl (interviews with her from the late ’90s frame the film). It’s pretty bleak stuff, unbelievable and heartbreaking to watch. It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of control Hitler had over his staff, even when he was clearly insane and delusional about his ability to win the war with undersupplied and often almost nonexistent armies. And when Goebbels brought his whole family (including children from ages 2-12) into the bunker, prefering them all to be killed rather than surrender or fall into enemy hands…it’s just beyond my ability to form words. It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it’s really really powerful. And having just seen Sophie Scholl, the comment from Traudl in an interview at the end really brought it home–she escaped from the bunker and from Berlin, and later rationalized her work for the Third Reich by pointing to her youth and ignorance about the concentration camps and the Nazi atrocities–yet, she realized that she should have known when she found out about Sophie Scholl’s story. Traudl was the exact same age as Sophie. In 1943, when Traudlt was recruited as Hitler’s secretary, Sophie was executed for speaking out against Hitler and his regime. Watch both these films together. It won’t be a light-hearted evening of film, but it will be a very memorable one.
Superior, extra points for being a damn good film in every area of production
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November
Note to self: When watching time-shifting, complex, psychological, illusory films, PAY ATTENTION. It’ll save time rewatching. Although, I’m glad I did need to rewatch this one, because even had I been paying attention the first time, I doubt I would’ve caught everything that I did the second time (when I had at least a vague idea of what was happening). I probably still haven’t caught everything there is to catch. At first it appears to be a simple crime drama: On November 7, a woman, Sophie, waits in her car while her boyfriend Hugh enters a convenience store to pick up some snacks; when the store is robbed, he is killed, and she must deal with her grief. But the style is odd and disjointed. The opening credits are intercut with out-of-focus, high-contrast flashes of shots. Sophie is a photographer, and also teaches photography at a local school. When a photograph of the convenience store exterior, taken the night of the robbery, shows up in one of her students’ slideshows (though they all deny any knowledge of it), she takes it to the police, hoping that they’ll be able to discover the identity of the robber/shooter, who fled the scene and was never caught. Shockingly, it turns out that Sophie herself took the photo. The first part of the story begins to fall apart at the seams, and soon it breaks completely, dissolving into a series of abstract colors and lights and finally darkness. Then we start back over again on November 7th. The story repeats, but with differences. This will happen one more time, as section titles tell us that Sophie is moving from “denial” though “despair” and into “acceptance.” The parallels and repeated elements between the three sections are many, and clever. Sophie’s classes seem to be filler, but there’s one key scene where she is discussing “negative space” with her class, and how what’s really important is what’s left out of the shot, not what’s in it. And that’s really the point here–the key to figuring out what’s going on in November is figuring out what we’re not seeing. And I’ll leave you with that. :) (And a warning that it is very experimental in style, and is perhaps a case of style over substance, so if you’re not a fan of ambiguity, you might want to skip this one. But I enjoyed it quite a lot once I kept my mind on it.)
Above Average, extra points for stylistic skill and the post-modern narrative
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Brokeback Mountain
I didn’t really care for it that much. And no, it wasn’t because the material was distasteful to me. I have seen movies and tv shows that focus on gay/lesbian relationships that I liked very much, but this wasn’t one of them. It just felt so self-important, like it was trying so hard to portray something completely new, the Great Tragic Love Story That Couldn’t Be Told Until Now. I’m sorry, but this story isn’t new. The story of two people who love each other but are kept apart by society’s mores is as old as society and stories themselves…the fact that it happened to be two men in this case didn’t make it any more evocative or innovative for me, and the characterization wasn’t strong enough to elevate Jack and Ennis to Tragic Couple, even had they been Jack and Elizabeth instead. (I’ve seen people raving about the characters and actors, and I wonder if I saw a different movie, because I didn’t feel like the relationship was built in a believable way at all.) Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood to see it, but none of it rang true to me. Then again, if the film were really as well-done as I had been led to expect, it would’ve drawn me into the right mood. It was pretty, sure, but pretty only goes so far. Especially when I was getting really close to tearing my hair out if the same four bars of music played one more time. (Seriously, those four bars were lovely, but over and over and over and over and over…) Brokeback goes in the “overrated” category.
Average
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Open City
This is the film that really kicked off the Italian Neo-Realism movement in the 1940s, so of course, I have to give it props for that automatically, because I love Italian Neo-Realism. (I have heard that Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, made two years earlier but not released in the US until later, may be a candidate for proto-Neo-Realism as well…that one’s on my watch-this-year list as well, so we’ll we.) Historically, the film is quite interesting…it was filmed on whatever scraps of film that director Roberto Rossellini (later to be notorious as the man who came between Ingrid Bergman and Hollywood, and the father of Isabella Rossellini) was able to scrounge up in war-torn Italy as the fascist regime was breaking down. The main characters are underground freedom fighters, hiding for their lives from the German police. As far as the film itself goes, it has aged somewhat…the acting doesn’t seem natural, and it’s a bit stagey. Still, there are scenes of absolute brilliance that will tear into your heart. I feel like a traitor to film buff-dom saying this, but if you’re not already an afficionado of Italian Neo-Realism, see La Strada or Nights of Cabiria or The Bicycle Thief before you see Open City. This is a great film, but it’s going to seem antiquated to a lot of modern eyes.
Above Average
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Red Eye
Yo, expectations are important, y’all. I wasn’t expecting much out of this, just figured what the heck, I’ll give it a try. And it’s not really that great, but I was sort of expecting it to suck, or if not suck, I was at least expecting it to be more horror-y than it was, which would lead me to not like it. It ended up being pretty entertaining, though. Cillian Murphy is creepy, muchly so, but the movie is much more a routine suspense thriller than anything horror-related (Wes Craven’s involvement threw me off). And it’s refreshingly unpretentious…it knows it’s not the best movie ever, and it’s content to be mildly enjoyable while it’s on the screen, and forgettable once the credits have rolled. Compare to Flightplan, which could’ve been quite a good movie, but tried too hard to be a good movie. Red Eye ain’t no classic, and you’ll find yourself anticipating things, especially near the end, but if you’ve got a couple of hours to waste, it’s not a bad option.
Average
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Fever Pitch
When my cousin Kevin and his wife Beth were here in April, Beth told me I had to see Fever Pitch, which is her current favorite movie, because it reminds her of Kevin. Kevin is a die-hard Cardinals fan, and we always go see a game when he’s in town. He’s not quite the fanatic that Jimmy Fallon is in Fever Pitch, but the resemblence is there. As a film, it’s a cute romantic comedy, nothing that special, but not bad either. Drew Barrymore and I have a love-hate relationship, in which she often annoys me, but I tend to like her movies anyway. And Jimmy Fallon amuses me greatly, so that didn’t hurt. It was definitely a good Sunday-afternoon film…nice and laid-back, enjoyable but not demanding.
Average
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Way Down East
Note to self2: Do not attempt to watch silent films while also doing other things. You will miss stuff and have to watch bits over. You’d think I would know this by now, but no. I continue to try to multitask at inopportune times. First thing to notice: D.W. Griffith is the original message-picture director. His innovations in narrative and editing technique will forever make him the father of American narrative cinema, but subtle he ain’t. The point of Way Down East is that there should be one man for one woman, which I agree with, but title card after title card about it gets old, even when you’re forgetting to read them half the time. Second thing to notice: Editing for time was not apparently that important a concept, and the film is VERY LONG. The upshot is that Anna, a country girl, goes to visit wealthy city-dwelling relatives to try to get money to support herself and her mother. While there, she is seduced by a Bad Man, who pretends to marry her, only to leave her flat and pregnant a few months later. Back then, that was very NOT COOL, and basically, Anna’s continued existence depends on no one finding out about her indiscretion. The near-final scene, in which a bereft Anna staggers her way onto the increasingly unstable ice on a melting river, is justly famous as one of Griffith’s most developed “last-minute rescue” sequences. It’s scenes like this that remind one of why Griffith is so well-respected. And Lillian Gish as Anna shows why she is still considered one of the finest actresses of early cinema. Sure, a lot of silent movie acting is over the top, and Gish is as well in many scenes, but there are moments here where she can put an incredible amount of pathos into a scene without “acting” at all. She’s a legend for good reason. Overall, good film to show off Griffith’s style and Gish’s acting, routine story, and not terribly accessible for those not used to silent film. (I count myself among them, incidentally…I can appreciate the innovations going on, and I love Keaton and Chaplin, but I have to work to enjoy most silent film.)
Average in pure filmic terms, Above Average in terms of film history
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Books
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Three editions later, and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can say I’ve read The Canterbury Tales. The first edition I had was neat in that it had both the Middle English and a translation, so I could work on learning to read the original. But the translation wasn’t in verse, which annoyed me. And it was only a selection of the tales, and I wanted to read them ALL. So at first I thought I’ll just read the excluded tales on bibliomania.com or something, but the language turned out to be more of a barrier than I’d anticipated without having a translation in easy reach. So I bought a verse translation, which turned out to be very good. But, true confession time, it was still missing two of the tales. But the translator included fairly detailed descriptions of what happened in the tales, so I feel justified in saying I have, at this point, digested The Canterbury Tales as fully as I’m going to until I read it in Middle English eventually. Uh. I don’t really know what to say about them, really. I guess the thing that surprised me the most is how bawdy some of them are…I knew that by reputation, but I was still a little shocked. And also, it was interesting seeing Chaucer critique a lot of the same ecclesiastical abuses that Martin Luther would later point out during the Reformation.
(Also, how do I rate something that’s such an unabashed classic? I mean, it’s impossible to separate it from its historical significance, its literary impact, etc.)
Well Above Average, extra points for still having the capacity to surprise despite being 600 years old
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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Well, I was totally right to switch to this from Ulysses. That would’ve just been Too.Much.Joyce for me right now, I think. I’m more ambivalent than I expected to be…I really liked the way he showed Stephen’s growing maturity through the writing style, from the nearly-infant “moocows” of the first chapter to the highflown rhetoric of the end. Usually I have no trouble with stream of conciousness, but for some reason I struggled to keep up once I got to about the halfway point. I think it was because I’m used to first-person stream of conciousness, and the third-person narration kept throwing me off. It was also hard to concentrate on it…it’s not like he was using hard words or anything, but it just felt really dense (took me much longer to read a page than normal). Anyway. I now understand why English majors have a love-hate relationship with Joyce. And I have yet to tackle his really difficult stuff! Well, I have a class next fall in 20th Century British Lit, so I’ll probably get to read more then.
Above Average, extra points for verbal virtuosity, points deducted for, uh, lack of engagement (which may be my own inadequacy)
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