June Reading/Watching Recap

After the jump, reactions to Thumbsucker, Elizabethtown, Winchester ’73, Junebug, A History of Violence, Smiles of a Summer Night, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and more!

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Movies

Sholay
This movie title has been popping up everywhere since I started to get into Indian film last year. It’s from 1975, and is one of the earliest Bollywood successes, from what I hear. At the very least, it’s a Bollywood classic that is referred to often, especially in the few academic publications that have begun to deal with Indian film. It’s a Western, really, from the reliance on horses as a means of transportation to the shootout showdown. Two best friends, who also happen to be outlaws and considered to be the area’s most dangerous criminals, are hired to protect a town from a group of bandits–the story is reminiscent of The Seven Samurai, with the addition of a strong revenge plot on the part of the town’s leader, whose family was brutally murdered years earlier by the bandit leader. And, being an Indian movie, there’s singing and dancing, and an innocuous love story (well, innocuous until it threatens to tear the best friends apart). It’s expansive, fun, has cheesy acting (but not as much mugging as modern Bollywood tends to have), and it’s a very pleasing cinematic experience.
Above Average
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Thumbsucker
I really wish I had written about this right after I watched it. Although, if I recall, I specifically didn’t because I wanted the chance to reflect on it. And now, it’s not as though I have forgotten it, but that I remember more about how I felt watching it than what actually happened in it. The title refers to the fact that the main character, a shy and insecure teenager, has never stopped sucking his thumb. There are counseling sessions, and the kid joins the debate team, gaining a new confidence as he excels more and more at rhetoric. And here’s where my memory fails me, and I need to rewatch the film. It’s again my chronic issue of being more interested in the moments and the development of the story than in the conclusion. Jon may be able to help me out with the denoument. Anyway. The actor playing the kid is absolutely amazing in the part–very real and natural. It’s worth watching just to see his performance. The other elements of producation are quite good, as well, and the film is filled with the sort of lingering moments that I think generally characterize good indie film; but without a rewatch, I can’t say for sure how much substance is beneath the wispy veneer.
Above Average
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Domino
The song over the closing credits goes “Am I really that bad? Am I really that bad?” over and over and over. The easy answer? Yes. Yes indeed. Why do they make it so EASY?! Of course, I didn’t really expect much from a Tony Scott film, and he delivered pretty much what I expected, only more so. He’s got this thing where he thinks that handheld camera+edits so fast you can’t see anything+gritty green filters+overexposures+double exposures+slow and fast motion interspersed constantly+lots of guns = cool film. What it really is? Well, it would be nausea-inducing if I hadn’t been expecting it…since I was prepared for that, it was merely mock-inducing. Dear Ridley: Stop letting your brother make films, at least under your label. It’s doing nothing for your reputation. And uninstall all the filters from his copy of FinalCut Pro. Dear Tony: Watch your brother’s films. They’re actually good. Style for style’s sake, IN EVERY SINGLE SHOT, does not necessarily a good film make. Dear Keira: Please refrain from appearing in any more of Tony’s films. I like you, and I want to see your films, but I don’t know how many more of Tony’s I can take. In fact, to help me recover, send me a free copy of Pride and Prejudice to make up for Domino. Dear Domino Harvey: According to the title card at the end, this film is in loving memory of you. I know nothing about you, except that apparently you were a bounty hunter, but since the film explicitly claims that it isn’t truthful, I don’t really know. In any case, no human being deserves a film this bad to be their memorial. I am truly sorry.
Well Below Average, points deducted for not having A SINGLE SHOT WHERE TONY SCOTT DIDN’T THINK HE WAS SOOOOO COOL.
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The Exterminating Angel
Okay, Luis Buñuel was a freakin’ weird filmmaker. I did know this already. He’s a surrealist, which is a code word for “freaky weird.” In this film, a group of twenty-five or so upper-class people gather for a dinner party. The servants of the house skedaddle before dinner, driven away by some urge they can’t explain. It’s a good thing for them that they do, though, because in the early hours of the morning all the houseguests lose the willpower to leave the drawing room. So they all sleep in there. The next morning, they get up, but they still can’t leave…some unknown force is keeping them from crossing the threshhold. (Don’t think in science fiction terms here; there’s no “force field” or anything like that.) As the days go by and the food and water runs out, these ladies and gentlemen are reduced to bickering, sickness, suicide, tearing up the tables to make fires, and eating anything that seems remotely edible, from wads of paper to the neighborhood sheep who randomly come wandering in. They all want to leave, but they can’t, and it seems the longer they’re there, the more they just accept the fact that they can’t leave. It’s bizarre, and yet strangely compelling. Bunuel claims in an opening title card that he’s not making any direct correlations or symbolism here, but it did make me think about times when I’ve just accepted circumstances that I didn’t like because I didn’t want to put forward the effort to change them, even when it might’ve been just as easy as stepping through a door (or making a phone call *g*). Interestingly, as strange as this film was, it’s probably more accessible than the other Bunuel titles I’ve seen (Un Chien Andalou, which is most famous for its contextual cut between a cloud cutting across the moon and a blade slicing an eyeball (*shudder*), That Obscure Object of Desire, in which the main character is played by two very different women, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which also dealt with a dinner party, but it was the most random thing I’ve ever seen in my life).
Above Average, extra points for being freakin’ weird (yes, that’s a plus in my book), points deducted for all the women looking the exact same so I couldn’t tell them apart (wait, maybe that was intentional…now I’m confused)
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Wedding Crashers
Yeah, so, I never intended to see this movie. But it was movie night at a friends’ house, and I lost the vote. Oh, well. But I ended up enjoying it more than I’d expected to. I mean, it’s not a great film by any means, and the whole premise of two guys crashing wedding receptions in order to get laid is iffy no matter how you look at it, but it had its moments. And I don’t know what it is about Owen Wilson. He has this way of making me like him and not like him at the same time. It’s bizarre. Vince Vaughn, though, is pure gold lately.
Average, points added for not annoying me as much as I feared, points deducted for including so many unnecessary “ewwww” moments
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Winchester 73
The first in a series of 1950s westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, Winchester 73 follows a Winchester rifle from owner to owner. Or, I should say, from thief to thief. Stewart’s character won the prized gun in a shooting competition, but his closest competitor stole it. As the story continues, it passes to Indians, militia, settlers, etc., all while Stewart is chasing both it and the original thief–and not only for the theft of the gun. It’s a relatively simple story, but it’s very well-realized. All of the Mann-Stewart films are worth watching, not only as great examples of westerns, but also because they’re an important step in Stewart’s development from the aw-shucks everyman of the 1930s into the dark, conflicted Hitchcock hero(?) of Rear Window and Vertigo.
Above Average, extra points for the cyclical storyline and a fine turn by Stewart, points deducted for being rather more routine than I expected
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Elizabethtown
My expectation levels were all over the place for this one. Initially, I was very eager to see it, because of Cameron Crowe and how good Almost Famous was, and the Garden State feeling I was getting from the trailer, plus an attractive if rather light-weight cast. Then it got crap reviews, and I wasn’t sure anymore. So I went in really not knowing what to expect, and I ended up enjoying it, but not *loving* it. You know? Altogether, it was a good mindset to be in. It was slight, endearing, a little overlong, cute, and had some very good music, as you’d expect from a Crowe film. And depending on your mood, that may be all that’s necessary.
Average
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Junebug
Junebug presents an excellent example of the “aesthetic of the moment” in independent film that I’ve referenced before, and hope to expand on soon. In fact, it’s the film I was thinking about when I started formulating those thoughts. If “story” indicates a beginning, middle, and end, with a climax and denoument, then there really isn’t a story here. There’s a premise. There’s a situation. A newlywed couple go to visit his family for the first time, and the wife’s highly-educated, art gallery sensibilities clash with the family’s smalltown, rural manner. There are many threads here–the couple’s relationship to each other as impacted by his family, the husband’s somewhat strained relationship with his family due to his having left the rural environment and become a city-dweller, the budding friendship between the wife and her new sister-in-law (married to the husband’s brother), the sister-in-law’s troubled relationship with her husband, her husband’s reactions towards his soon-to-be-born child, etc. But they don’t add up to a firm narrative, and certainly not to a definite resolution–this lack of resolution bothers some people, but I find that it’s often one of the essential characteristics of the indie sensibility. There’s no resolution because the story isn’t finished yet. We’ve seen vignettes of the story, we’ve seen moments in these people’s lives, we may even have seen the defining moments in some of their lives, but their lives aren’t over yet, and their story isn’t complete. And the moments we see are beautiful, heartbreaking, revealing, and concealing. It’s not a film you can get a handle on, but that’s okay–it’s about people and relationships, two things that we usually can’t completely understand in real life, so why do we expect to in a film? Oh, and if nothing else, watching it for Amy Adam’s performance as the sister-in-law. She’s absolutely amazing.
Well Above Average
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A History of Violence
If the purpose of art is to disturb, A History of Violence succeeded. Beyond that, I’m not sure what I think…partially, I admit, because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to gather all the nuances. What I got is that the main character becomes a hero in his small town for averting an increasingly violent robbery, but then it comes out that he used to be a hitman or something. There’s a whole big part of the plot where he goes and finishes his unfinished business in the world of crime, but what I really remember from the film is the disturbing quality his relationship with his family takes on after they discover his past life, and the sort of darkness that still exists, buried deep inside him–and the way that darkness both repulses and attracts his wife. The ending is incredibly abrupt, too, which only adds to the unsettling quality of the film…there’s no resolution; we don’t know if he’s truly left his old life behind him or not, we don’t know if his relationship with his family will really recover, or what the eventual ramifications of their knowledge of his past will be. When I first watched it, I didn’t like that, but the more I think back on it, the more I do. And the more I want to rewatch it for the parts I missed.
Above Average
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Smiles of a Summer Night
Early Ingmar Bergman, and it’s almost completely delightful. The story is simple, but complicated to explain…it involves an older man, his young bride, his grown son, the actress he loves, the actress’s lover, his neglected wife, and we mustn’t forget the chambermaid and the gardener. The great thing about it isn’t the story itself, but the mood and wit that Bergman uses to put across a story which is basically about people realigning their love lives over a weekend party. The acting is superb all around, with especially fine turns by Eva Dahlbeck as the actress, and by Harriet Andersson as the maid, who really holds the story together. The plot itself is daring, especially for the time in which it was made, but it’s all done with such style and joy that you can’t help enjoying it. And everybody ends up at the end with the people they should have been with at the beginning. ;) It’s also a very good introduction to Bergman…it’s much lighter than most of his films, more accessible. And being introduced to Bergman is a very.good.thing, because he’s seriously amazing.
Superior, extra points for being the kind of movie that you like while watching it, but love upon remembering it
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Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
This book was written for me. The combination of literary criticism, history, cultural comment, personal essay, mixed in with glimpses of university settings and intellectual debates, but written in a very accessible style, is absolutely perfect. Given the number of “summer reads” and “new paperbacks” and “paperback favorites” and “buy 2 get 1 free” tables this book has appeared on in Barnes and Noble and Borders, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t at least seen it…I saw it every few days for months and kept thinking, I should get this sometime. I was half-convinced I would be disappointed in it by the time I actually read it, but in reality I was more captivated than I even expected. Nafisi is an Iranian professor (she now teaches at Johns Hopkins University) who, after she was ousted from teaching in Tehran for her liberal (i.e. non-Islamic extremist) views, started a book group for some of her brightest students to study books that were frowned up in Iran…books like Nabokov’s Lolita, yes, but also F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. The result is one of the most compelling statements I’ve read for the importance of literature, even (perhaps especially) in times and places where the arts might seem extraneous. By the way, don’t be put off by the subject matter of Nabokov’s Lolita. She discusses it, yes, but it’s not as central to the plot as you might expect.
Well Above Average, extra points for connecting literature and culture in ways that I can only hope to achieve someday
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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
I’ve read Agatha Christie on and off for as long as I can remember, but when I was flipping through a book titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and found an Agatha Christie book listed, I must admit I was surprised. I enjoy her books, and think they’re fine examples of the classical detective story genre, but I was a little incredulous at the thought of one of them appearing a list like that. (OTOH, by “books”, the guy really means “novels”, which limits the possibilities way too much…not even Chaucer or Malory is included.) So I decided to check it out, and now I totally understand. Sure, the Agatha Christie-style mystery has fallen somewhat out of vogue, and the “detective gathering all the suspects together to scare them into confessing as he brilliantly recreates the murder scene” has become incredibly cliched. But The Murder of Roger Ackroyd takes the detective story of its time, uses it, then turns it upside down. The particular plot twist has been used pretty often since then, but at the time, it was new. And it’s still surprising, and it’s still wow-inducing, and Christie does a great job of keeping the balance between surprise and inevitability. She’s a master of her craft, and Roger Ackroyd is competing with And Then There Were None / Ten Little Indians for her best. For obvious reasons, I can’t really tell about the plot without the risk of ruining it, so I’ll just recommend it and leave it at that.
Well Above Average, extra points for still being surprising, and for Christie’s delightful writing style
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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
This isn’t so much a novel as it is a philosophical and psychological study in novelistic form. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…in fact, I quite enjoyed it, and wrote down I don’t know how many quotes. The story is of a young man in Prague who doesn’t believe in love, and so treats sex as he would anything else that he enjoys–merely as an innocent pastime. Until he meets a young woman who, for the first time, means something more to him than sex. Of course, she’s not crazy about the fact that he continues to pursue his “pastimes” with other women, even after they’re married, but she can’t help loving him anyway. It sounds terribly tawdry and florid, but it isn’t. It’s a serious examination of people who have lost all external value systems; it’s a look at the way different people define “love” and how they try (and usually fail) to communicate their love in a world where objective universals have been replaced by subjective particulars. In other words, the postmodern state. There are really four sections to the book, one each for this man and woman, and one each for a second couple tangentially related to the first. The story is heartbreaking, both intimate and expansive (at times almost a primer in the Czech political mindset), the language is beautiful, and the philosophy, though not true in an objective sense, strikes a meaningful chord in secular modern life.
Well Above Average
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