December Reading/Watching Recap

You know, having neither school nor work does wonders for media consumption, as does access to St. Louis libraries. Nineteen movies and six books, including Stranger Than Fiction, Before Sunrise, The Queen, The Wrong Man, Volver, V for Vendetta, We are Marshall, The English Patient, Eragon (book), and Ficciones after the jump.

Movies

Stranger Than Fiction
This should have been better than it was. An IRS agent living out his days according to a strict methodical structure wakes up one morning hearing a voice describing his every movement. Which is merely mysterious and annoying until the voice mentions his upcoming and inevitable death, a pronouncement which leads him to seek out his narrator, who turns out to be an authoress writing a story about him. The blurring of fiction and reality is one of my favorite plot points, and with Will Ferrell (who is sometimes overly goofy but always entertaining) and Emma Thompson (who is just plain good), not to mention Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is enough to make me want to see a movie all by herself) and Dustin Hoffman, how could it miss? And the answer is, it doesn’t miss by much. It is so so close to being a really great movie, but it just didn’t follow through on its premise. And Maggie was wasted. Just sayin’.
Above Average
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Flushed Away
This is Aardman Animation’s first attempt at computer-generated animation, though it shares enough stylistically with the Wallace and Gromit claymation films to be unmistakably Aardman. The story is pretty routine for a family film–the main character, a pet rat in a posh London family gets flushed down the toilet accidentally and has to make his way through the sewers to get home, picking up a spunky girlfriend, learning the importance of community, and thwarting a plan by an evil toad to destroy all the rats along the way. However, as usual with Aardman films, it’s still worthwhile for adults due to the very tongue-in-cheek British humor (though it’s not quite as delightful as in the Wallace and Gromit films) and the many film and literary references. I knew to be expecting them, and I went in with pad and paper and counted at least ten or twelve nods to earlier works. My favorite was a book reference, though…a sink gets pulled off the wall due to some fight or something, revealing a beetle reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” It’s not a great film, by any means, but it’s unassuming and entertaining.
Average
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Before Sunrise
Beautiful film. Not showy, not spectacular, just very quiet and honest and sweet. Ethan Hawke is an American about to spend his last day in Europe in Vienna when he meets a French girl, Julie Delpy, on her way back to Paris. He convinces her to get off the train with him in Vienna, and they spend all night wandering the streets and talking. And talking. If a film made up almost entirely of snippets of conversation between a man and a woman doesn’t sound attractive to you…you may want to avoid Before Sunrise. But its very simplicity is a large part of the charm, and the conversation is so well-written (by director Richard Linklater), and Hawke and Delpy are so appealing that I found myself unable to look away during the film, and unwilling for it to be over.
Well Above Average
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Before Sunset
Thankfully, I was able to get this sequel to Before Sunrise almost immediately. :) And in one sense, yes, it was very nice to be able to spend more time with Hawke and Delpy’s characters. Nine years after they parted in Vienna (and failed to keep their date to meet up again a year later), they run into each other in Paris and wonder if this is their second chance. Again, it’s a long conversation…but this time, instead of having all night, they have only 80 minutes before his plane leaves, and the film plays out nearly in real time. There are a lot of lovely touches here, as in the first film, yet I’m not sure the loss of the ambiguity left by Before Sunrise is worth what we get in Before Sunset. I still enjoyed the film, and both writing and acting are every bit as wonderful as in the earlier film, it just seems a bit…pointless. But not the “I wish I’d never wasted my time on that dreck” sort of pointless; rather, the “I’m glad I saw that, but I think I’ll continue to think about the first one as a standalone film if you don’t mind” sort. Rather like the director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso.
Above Average
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The Queen
This has been hitting nearly every critic’s top-ten list for this year, and with good reason. The week following Princess Diana‘s death was a testing point for the viability of the monarchy, its ability to deal with the outpouring of love and grief toward Diana from people around the world, and the relationship between the monarchy and the new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, openly committed to modernizing England. Helen Mirren does an incredible job as Queen Elizabeth II, and she’s supported admirably well by those around her. Stephen Frear‘s script and direction are probing into the question of the value of a constitutional monarchy, giving a pretty balanced perspective to both modernity and tradition, all while maintaining a light and entertaining atmosphere. It is, quite simply, fantastically good.
Superior
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The Wrong Man
One of Hitchcock‘s lesser works, The Wrong Man does have its points (which grew on me as I thought about it more), but nowhere near a masterpiece. Manny (Henry Fonda) is a mild-mannered bass player at a nightclub, barely bringing in enough money to support his wife and two young sons. Needing to collect funds to cover a medical procedure, he goes to his insurance agency to borrow against his wife’s policy–but the clerks mistake him for a hold-up man who had robbed the agency (and several other businesses) a few weeks earlier. This leads to his arrest and imprisonment, generating an almost Kafkaesque treatment of the justice system. Several things bothered me, mostly the complete failure of the police to do their investigatory jobs (they never even asked him if he had alibis for the dates in question) and the sense that this might be conspiracy rather than mistaken identity. Hitchcock isn’t usually given to overt red herrings, but this sometimes veered dangerously in that direction. After thinking about it more, obviously both of these elements are meant to add to the random pointlessness of the whole ordeal as seen from Manny’s perspective, yet they still bothered me because it seems Hitchcock gave in here to his own distrust of the police. It is, I think, an interesting film rather than a good one.
Average
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Powaqqatsi
Godfrey Reggio‘s first “-qatsi” film was Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, a dazzling display of images and music (by Philip Glass) comparing the quiet beauty of nature with the hectic pace of modern life. Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation takes the theme a bit further, again using only images and music to show the effect of western modernization on developing nations, specifically in terms of the mechanization of work (the “cog in the wheel” mentality). It doesn’t work nearly so well as Koyaanisqatsi. The earlier film was beautiful, whether or not you agreed with its implicit message or even if you could discern the message in it. Powaqqatsi is not really beautiful (though it does have its moments) and its point is incoherent. The third film in the series, Nagoyqatsi, is about the nature of war, I think, but with the falloff of quality between Koyaanisquatsi and Powaqqatsi, I’m not terribly excited about it.
Below Average
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This Gun For Hire
Early noirish film (1942) depicts a hitman (Alan Ladd in his first big role), trying to revenge himself on a former-employer-turned-police-informant, while evading the police (led by Robert Cummings), with the help of the policeman’s girlfriend (Veronica Lake), who also happens to be a spy trying to ferret out information on the informant, who is smuggling bomb plans out of the country. Confused yet? It’s intricately-plotted, but most of it makes sense, and the shifting alliances make for engaging viewing. Throw in a sultry magic act for Lake, posing as a showgirl, and This Gun for Hire comes off a good example of a 1940s B-level crime film.
Above Average
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Wit
Wow. It’s getting more and more rare for a movie to affect me so much that I cannot do anything but sit and stare at the screen for minutes after the credits end. That a made-for-TV film would do that, much less one that originally appeared on HBO, is even more surprising. Wit, from the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, tells the story of an English professor diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer who agrees to undergo experimental chemotherapy. Professor Bearing’s academic specialty is John Donne, and I have to admit that the class I just finished in Metaphysical Poetry actually was useful, because it helped me to better understand the use the film makes of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The Holy Sonnets are Donne’s struggle with the idea of his own mortality and sin, his crying out to a God who often seems not to hear–in his book Reformation Spirituality, Gene Edward Veith contrasts George Herbert‘s Calvinist confidence in his own salvation to Donne’s Arminian uncertainty. I would tell you about the greatest moment in the film, but I don’t wish to spoil it. Suffice it to say that the film isn’t overtly Christian, but you could certainly read it that way, and in this moment most of all. Parts of Wit are difficult to watch–the agony of Bearing’s physical decline is acute and harrowing–but it is well worth it.
Superior
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We Don’t Live Here Anymore
Pointless and dull tale of infidelity. You’d think a story about two couples whose close friendship is threatened by the affair of one husband with the other man’s wife, and the reciprocal spiteful affair between the other pair would at least hold a perverse interest, but it doesn’t. It tries to be deep and is boring, it tries to be passionate and is lifeless, in the end it tries to be noble and is just ineffective. It’s based off of short stories, which explains some of the lack of exposition, but the best short stories glean vitality from starting in media res, and gain thoughtful ambiguity from their lack of resolution. I can’t claim to judge the stories beneath this film because I haven’t read them, but the starts in media res and gives no motivation for the first affair, and ends with the first couple’s reconciliation, again with no discernable reason other than the filmmakers thought it ought to end that way. Granted, I’m all for stopping affairs and reconciling with spouses if that’s possible, but in terms of this story and these characters, it didn’t make any narrative or motivational sense at all, especially since we learn too little about the characters to care what happens to them. Good cast (Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Peter Krouse, Laura Dern) totally wasted.
Well Below Average
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l’auberge espagnole (The Spanish Apartment)
A “Spanish apartment” is a French phrase connoting something into which you put a bunch of varied elements and see what comes out. In the case of this film, it literally refers to an apartment in Barcelona housing seven to nine students from all over Europe. The main character is French, and he goes to Barcelona for a year on an exchange program, and ends up in this apartment with guys from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark, and girls from England, Spain, and Belgium. The film is a delightful mishmash of cultural perspectives, linguistic pitfalls, and romantic interludes. It even manages to throw in a backpacking American at one point, as well as the “ugly tourist” stereotype in the form of the English girl’s boorish brother. Walking a fine line between perpetuating stereotypes and breaking them down, the film may not always succeed, but it is highly entertaining all the way through.
Above Average
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Volver
Pedro Almodóvar is the most renowned Spanish filmmaker probably ever, and I’m beginning to see why. Volver means “to return,” and characters within the film return to their hometowns, return to their families, perhaps even return to life. It’s a return to that which is important. Yet at its center, the film is comic…in the way that only non-American films seem to be able to be comic. It’s impossible to extricate the comedy from the drama–Almodóvar is a master of melodrama and directing women, and this is no exception. Any given moment may be dramatic, but there’s humor in it. Or it may be comic, but there’s a twinge of tragedy. I don’t know why American films do not or can not do this, but they very rarely do. It’s one of the many great pleasures of seeing foreign films. Don’t miss it. The other great reason not to miss this film is the outstanding performance from Penélope Cruz. Cruz’s American films have been, shall we say, sub-par (All the Pretty Horses, Vanilla Sky, not to mention the what-the-hell-was-she-thinking Sahara), but she is phenomenal in Volver. She shines whether she’s breaking down in hysterical tears, calmly cleaning up a murder scene, or singing the title song. If she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, it’ll have to be written off to the Academy’s anti-foreign film bias, because she deserves it.
Superior
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V for Vendetta
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this film overall. Technically, it’s gorgeous. The effects are great, the money shots are nice (I’m particularly partial to the domino effect making the “V” logo), and I’m always glad to watch Natalie Portman in anything. But the story of anarchist V plotting to blow up the English Parliament, now the center of a right-wing Fascist government…I don’t know. Let’s just say that though I sympathize with V wanting to do something drastic to eliminate an obviously corrupt and dictatorial government, but I’m not comfortable that blowing it up is the proper measure, either in and of itself or in light of his apparent complete lack of plan for the aftermath. Fascist governments and dictatorships rise up out of fear of anarchy…by using anarchist ideology to get rid of a government, you’re only letting yourself in for worse. And it especially made me uncomfortable knowing that the fascist government in the film is meant to be a comment on our own government and its ties to the religious right. Again, the narrative worked well, flowed well, and I did enjoy watching the film. But its ideology is rather scary.
Above Average, because my ratings are meant to reflect the film as a film, not its political agenda.
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Glengarry Glen Ross
Geez, who knew real estate was so cutthroat? A firm of investment real estate brokers is cutting back its staff, by giving its worst leads on potential customers to the oldest and weakest brokers; in an attempt to save their jobs, a few of them band together to steal the good leads. And…that’s it. Pretty much. I’ve heard about this film from various sources for a while, but the story just wasn’t one that interested me a lot. However, I will give it a hearty thumbs up for some great acting from Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, and Kevin Spacey. This was late in Lemmon’s career, early in Spacey’s, and the scenes where they face off, arguing over the leads and the jobs, are pure acting gold. The fact that the actors can take a story this slight and a script this talky about a subject that hardly appeals to me and make it interesting at all is a feat.
Average
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Assault on Precinct 13
I didn’t really expect this to be much more than an excuse to shoot a lot of guns, and I wasn’t wrong. Ethan Hawke is a police sergeant about to close down Precinct 13 for shinier digs, when a prisoner transport caravan stops in to stay the night due to inclement weather. Among those prisoners is a highly dangerous murderer, wanted for cop-killing. Before long, the precinct is under siege by people wanting this murderer out. The few policemen in the building have to hold off the attack because the storm has cut off communications; there’s also corruption on the force, a growing bond of trust between the murderer and the sergeant, and several other cliched plot points. It’s pretty much a mess. edited after getting the links: That was Maria Bello? Damn, and she was just stepping onto my list of actresses who always pick good projects! (The Cooler, A History of Violence, Thank You for Smoking…)
Below Average
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We are Marshall
There’s a good chunk of me that responds positively to inspirational sports stories (despite the fact that I don’t care for actual sports), like this one, based on a true story of a college football team rebuilding after losing nearly all of its players and coaches to a tragic plane crash in the 1970s. I like the underdog aspect, I like the overcoming mentality. And We are Marshall certainly pulled out all the stops to make you feel that. Straight off, while watching it, I enjoyed the film. Even while knowing it wasn’t really good. Looked at objectively, it’s trite and cliched, Matthew McConaughey‘s Coach Jack Lengyel is more annoying than anything else (of course, you must factor in my active dislike for Matthew McConaughey in EVERY film he’s in), and every scene is calculated for maximum emotional resonance. Also, Mr. Griffen, the upstanding owner of the steel mill, is the corrupt, foul-mouthed Al Swearengen from Deadwood, which kept distracting me. But anyway. If you like inspirational sports movies and underdog stories, you’ll probably like We are Marshall. And that’s all I’m going to say.
Average
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Mrs. Dalloway
Modernist fiction is notoriously difficult to adapt into film; its shifting point of view, indirect free speech, and stream of consciousness are hard to emulate, and they are a large part of the value and interest of the book. Mrs. Dalloway is one of the hallmarks of the Modernist novel, generally considered Virginia Woolf‘s masterpiece, and sitting down to watch the movie (which I had heard good things about even from my 20th century lit teacher), I wondered how it would manage to convey the story and its dependence on the inner workings of Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh, and Septimus Smith. The answer: very well. A skillful combination of dialogue, voice over, and flashbacks keeps the balance between the inner and outer lives, the present and the past, and the three points of view nearly perfectly. Vanessa Redgrave is simply marvelous as Clarissa Dalloway, capturing her charm and her insecurities. I still wonder, though, how clear it would be to someone who had not read the book…several things, such as Sally’s relationship to Clarissa, were emphasized without perhaps enough explanation for the film to be effective on its own.
Well Above Average
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Talk to Her
After loving Volver so much (see above), I jumped at the chance to see one of Almodóvar’s earlier films when the library had it. Talk to Her twines together two stories, one of a young man loving a ballerina from afar and becoming her nurse when she is put in a coma by a car accident, the other of a journalist and a female bullfighter who is gored by a bull and ends up comatose in the same hospital. The two men become close friends as they care for their charges. The film is a lot more serious than Volver, and involves some events that make it difficult at times to continue to sympathize with the characters, and yet we do…Almodóvar is incredibly good at creating complex characters that elicit complex reactions. It’s a sweet film about friendship and love in non-traditional circumstances. It’s probably actually a better film than Volver, but I didn’t love it quite as much–perhaps because seeing Volver in theatres gave it that extra boost. Rating Talk to Her lower than Volver is a decision that I plan to revisit after a few years.
Well Above Average
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The English Patient
Yup, I’ve never seen The English Patient. Best Picture 1996 (which was, incidentally, about the first year that I started keeping track of the Academy Awards). I’ve always sort of meant to see it, but never got around to it until now. And it was worth it. It’s many films in one, which is probably why I enjoyed it. If it had been just the overwrought love story between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas it would have been nothing special. If it had been just the story of Juliette Binoche nursing a burned-beyond-all-recognition Fiennes it would’ve been dull. If it had been just Binoche and Naveen Andrews in a cross-cultural relationship, awaiting the end of the war, it would’ve been meh. But throw all three of these together, along with gorgeous cinematography (I’ve always been partial the terrible beauty of the desert), an especially effective (and Oscar-winning) turn by Binoche, and the well-structured multiple-flashback narrative, and you’ve suddenly got a very beautiful and affecting film. Now, to read the book.
Well Above Average
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Books

Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman
This was the last of the thesis play possibilities I read this fall (I think it’s the one that finally got approved). A small college in New Hampshire, largely white in faculty and student body, is thrown into turmoil when a black student begins receiving threats and hate mail. The main character is the Dean of Students, who came to New Hampshire after working at a largely black institution in Chicago, so a lot of pressure falls on her to sort out the racial difficulties. Through the course of the play, she begins to come to terms with her own innate racism. Much of the play is quite good, sensitively handled, though it tends to end up as stereotyped as it tries not to be. It seems particularly odd that the black student who is so important to the play and so marginalized by the administration’s attempts to cover up the problem or ignore the reality of racism never appears on stage. The play tries to be controversial, but…isn’t. Which could be why it got approved by my school’s department, but that’s a different thing. ;)
Average
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The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
This was really, really interesting. I recorded it for the theatre professor, but I vastly enjoyed getting the chance to read it. It’s based on cognition research done in the 1970s that defined the functions of the left and right sides of the brain–the distinction is pretty familiar now, but basically the idea is that the left side of the brain is the center for language and sequential, analytical thinking, while the right side is the center for abstract, perceptual and holistic thinking. Edwards discovered this research while trying to teach elementary school kids to draw, and theorized that analytical/linguistic thinking was getting in the way of the perceptual and holistic skills needed for drawing. The engaging book guides the reader/artist through getting the dominant left side of the brain to stop trying to draw, a task for which it is ill-equipped, in order to let the better-equipped right side have a go at it. It makes sense conceptually, and the before/after drawings from her students are compelling evidence. I haven’t gone though and tried the techniques myself, but I really want to–I’ve never been able to draw, and I’m curious to see if I could learn.
Above Average
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Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Take your farmboy-with-a-special-heritage story from Star Wars, add a dash of psuedo-English-landscape from Lord of the Rings and throw in a few dragons, and you have Eragon. This is essentially what most reviewers have said of the film version that’s in theatres now, but I came to pretty much the same conclusions on my own reading the book. Of course, nearly every fantasy story these days is somewhat derivative of both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and I quite enjoyed much of the book. The relationship between Eragon and Saphira the dragon was well-done, especially in the beginning. It did get to be rather routine by the end, though, and when the final battle came, it was really anti-climactic and I just wanted it to end. I grant Paolini his inexperience (he was in high school when he wrote the story, and just barely out when it was published), but even accounting for that it’s just not a great book.
Average
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Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
I don’t even know where to start with how amazing these short stories are. They’re tantalizing tidbits that make you think for a lot longer than it took you even to read them. The sheer imagination and inventiveness is astounding. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” tells of a world created as an intellectual exercise centuries ago, and how it came to take over the real world–an idea that would resurface in Umberto Eco‘s Foucault’s Pendulum. (Eco explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to Borges; the library in The Name of the Rose is modeled directly on Borges’ “The Library of Babel.”) Other stories question things we take for granted about literature (would a Don Quixote written by a Frenchman in the 20th century be the same as the original written by a Spaniard in the 17th, even if all the words were identical?) and reality. Dazzling and thought-provoking.
Superior
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Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker
I picked this one up because it was listed in the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and had to do with literary academics. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to make it a “must read”, but it was mildly interesting. A Cambridge graduate student working on the novels of (fictional) French writer Paul Michel seeks out the author, who is now in a mental institution, first of all to question him about his literary relationship to (real) philosopher Michel Foucault, but eventually to try to get him out of the institution. I enjoyed the exploration of the relationship between author and reader (Foucault and Michel didn’t really know each other, but they were each other’s most valued reader–when Foucault died, Michel stopped writing entirely), but beyond that wasn’t terribly intrigued.
Average
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Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins
If you want to understand what the internet is bringing to pop culture, read this book. Jenkins is a media studies scholar at MIT (he founded MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program), and he’s also an active participant in fandom activities, which gives him a great perspective on the ways that fans appropriate their favorite shows, films, and books. “Convergence culture,” in his parlance, refers to the increasing way that content is distributed across multiple media platforms (television, books, internet, etc), as well as the increasing importance of grassroots communities and efforts and their relationship to mass media. He covers pretty much all the bases here–the knowledge communities that built around figuring out what would happen on Survivor before it aired, the fanfic writers fighting Warner Bros. over Harry Potter, the marketing monolith of American Idol, the transmedia storytelling of The Matrix (which includes three films, a series of animated shorts, a comic book series, and a few video games), viral marketing, etc. He’s clearly on the side of a more free market for fans to express their love for their favorites, but he’s also understanding of the big media companies’ position and how difficult it is for them to incorporate fannish activities into their business models. He doesn’t go a lot into what will happen in the future, because as he says, no one knows. But he’s definitely right that media companies and vocal fans are rather at a crisis point right now, and the next few years are going to be very interesting as they hash it out. He writes in a very accessible manner, not like an academic at all. Also, check out his blog: Confessions of an Aca/Fan, an “aca/fan” being a combination of “academic” and “fan.” It’s very good.
Well Above Average
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