January 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

This isn’t late at all, is it? Nope, not at all. Moving on now. Reactions to Rain Man, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Curse of the Golden Flower, Possession: A Romance, The Emperor Jones and more after the jump. And the next time I need to procrastinate, maybe I can get February’s done. ;)

Movies

Rain Man
I’ve been half-meaning to watch this Oscar-winner (Picture and Dustin Hoffman for Actor) for a while, but I sort of put it off because it seemed like a film about an autistic savant and his greedy brother would just be depressing. Well, it isn’t. It’s funny, and sweet, and warm. Dustin Hoffman does an incredible job as the savant, able to calculate enormous math problems and memorize amazing detail (like, the phone book), yet unable to make it through the day without his set routines. Tom Cruise also does right by the part of the ambitious brother, who learns about Hoffman’s existence only when their father dies and leaves all his money to the autistic brother. Best picture of the year might be a bit much (Oscar, I’m looking at you), but it’s a very good film.
Well Above Average
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Umberto D
Vittorio DeSica is one of the benchmark directors in Italian Neo-realism, and Umberto D is one of his most well-loved films. The story is slight–an old man, the Umberto of the title, has difficulty making his rent payments on his small pensioner’s check, but he doggedly refuses to get thrown out of hisapartment. He and his dog meander through the city, meeting up with old friends who don’t help them, and other men worse off than he is. The joy of the film comes from the absolute naturalness of the acting (both Umberto and the other major character, the landlady’s teenage servant, are played by non-actors) and the raw, real emotion evoked for a situation that must have been all too common immediately following a devastating world war. Fifteen-year-old Maria Pia Casilio, who played the servant, said in a much later interview that she had wanted to get acting lessons to prepare for this, her first role, and DeSica refused to let her–and he was totally right. She’s perfect as she is. They both are. And the dog is, too. It’s not an exciting film, and it’s not a film that sounds terribly interesting. But it’s a very rewarding film if you give it the attention it deserves.
Superior
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Taal
Very standard plot line for an Indian film…rich boy, country girl, parents who don’t approve of their marriage plans, that sort of thing. Aishwarya Rai plays the girl, who ends up becoming a huge pop star and getting caught in the middle of a love triangle with her rich-boy love and her producer. But it all comes right in the end, of course. But we don’t watch Bollywood movies for the plot. We watch them to gaze adoringly at Aishwarya Rai and giddily enjoy the music, and I have to say, Taal has some of the best songs I’ve ever heard in a Bollywood film. I need to try to track down the soundtrack (harder than it sounds).
Above Average for the music
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Children of Men
Very definitely one of the top films of last year. If you didn’t see it, I recommend you do at your earliest opportunity. Alfonso Cuarón takes a lot of liberties with P.D. James’ apocalyptic novel, but comes out with an extremely well-done film. In the very near future (2027 to be exact), the youngest person on earth has just died. He was 18. For an unknown reason, all the women on earth went barren, and by the time our story takes place, England is a police state, deporting “fugees” (refugees) as quickly as they can. But there is hope, for a young girl is somehow pregnant–if only Theo (Clive Owen) can get her to safety. I want to give this film the highest praise. A lot of critics did last year, and several of my friends rank it their #1 of the year. But being completely honest, I have to admit that though it’s essentially a flawless film, it didn’t capture me as much as I wanted it to. It’s a film I admire more than I love. But when you watch it, make sure you pay attention to how meticulously everything is designed, and how incredibly subtly the backstory is made clear with almost NO explication.
Superior
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Pan’s Labyrinth
My accolades for best of the year remain with Guillermo del Toro‘s visionary Pan’s Labyrinth, because it’s not only a flawless film, but it broke me. I wanted Children of Men to break me, and it stayed just a tad detached for that. But Pan’s tore me upside down and put me back together again, and that’s why it’s my pick for best of the year. I’ve talked about it enough, though, so I won’t bother repeating myself. Just see it. See it now. Unless you’re squeamish, and then, uh, don’t. Because it is violent.
Superior
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Curse of the Golden Flower
Total eye candy, but sometimes that’s enough. Zhang Yimou‘s latest historical epic focuses on an attempted coup in Imperial China, with Chow Yun-Fat as the hated Emperor and the wonderful Gong Li as his scheming wife (though not without good reason–he’s slowly poisoning her). There’s not a lot to it beyond the basic “let’s overthrow the emperor” plot–some intrigue with the Emperor’s sons, and some ethical questions about honor towards mother vs. honor towards Emperor. It’s nowhere near as beautiful a film as Yimou’s last couple, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and nowhere near as complex as his earlier, non-epic masterpieces like Raise the Red Lantern, but going in with expectations of eye candy, I got exactly what I bargained for, and I was happy. (Side note: when did IMDb start putting Chinese people’s names in English-speaking order? They’ve got Yimou Zhang, Yun-Fat Chow, and Li Gong listed…yet all of the film listings on IMDb continue to carry the original foreign titles, like Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia for this one. Let’s have some consistency, people! Either be English-centric or original language-centric, but don’t do both.)
Above Average
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Books

Possession: a Romance by A.S. Byatt
How long has it been since I had to keep a running list of words to look up? A long time. Yes, Possession is thinking-people’s fiction. The main characters are scholars studying Victorian-era poets (independent of each other), and one of them finds a letter which hints at an as-yet-unknown relationship between a two poets who no-one had ever thought of in the same sentence before. The book follows the two academics as they try to uncover the mystery behind this relationship, as well as delving closer to the Victorian poets through letters, journals, and poetry. In one way, it harks back to classic 19th century writing; in another way, it’s gleefully post-modern in its mixing of different forms and genres, often without warning or explanation. The writing is lush and deep, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. People have been telling me to read Possession for years now (Mark…:p). And I’m glad I finally did. It’s a truly wonderful book. Although, an intertextual dictionary might’ve been nice, because the references and allusions are legion (which I love, don’t get me wrong).
Superior
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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
This is not, despite the title, an autobiography. It is fiction. Interestingly, Johnson originally published it in 1912 anonymously, leading many people to think it was an actual autobiography of a biracial man passing as white. It’s still powerful, though, even when you know it’s not true–in fact, it adds a level of irony and self-referentiality that’s really cool. The man is “ex-colored” because he’s light enough to pass for white–in fact, he didn’t know himself that he and his mother were black until he was like, seven. His life takes him from Georgia as a little boy, to Connecticut, Harlem, Europe, the deep south, and eventually back to New York, and allows him to compare the treatment of the race question in all those places and among all classes of people. (Honestly, the range of his experiences should be enough to show the book is fiction…then again, Langston Hughes had similarly far-reaching experiences…) It’s a well-done book, and though it seems really simple, actually has many different layers to it, depending on how you choose to read it.
Well Above Average
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William Cowper by James King
Very good biography of 18th-century poet and hymnodist William Cowper. It’s been a while since I read it, and I really can’t remember a whole lot of detail as far as the way the book was written. (I could give you a rundown on Cowper, but I’m really not in the mood, and besides, that wouldn’t relate directly to this book.) I do remember it being extremely readable, never boring, and very erudite (pulling a lot from Cowper’s letters, which are also excellent, by the way). King is also the co-editor of Cowper’s letters and complete works, along with Charles Ryskamp, so he’s a leader in the field of Cowper studies. If you’re interested in Cowper, King’s book is definitely a great place to start.
Above Average
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The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill
I…didn’t really know what to make of this play upon reading it, and I’m still not sure. Jones is a black man from United States who goes to an island in the Caribbean and convinces the native Negro inhabitants to make him their Emperor. The action of the play concerns Jones’s attempt to flee an impending uprising. I couldn’t say exactly what O’Neill’s message is, but it was an interesting play to read. It seems a bit racist to me, in retrospect, but it was well-received by the Harlem reviewers of its day, so…I don’t know. It also seems as though it would be a lot better and more clear on stage, rather than reading it (there’s a constant tom-tom beat, for example, that obviously doesn’t come across as well on paper). Stylistically, it was very impressive, so I’m definitely set to check out some of O’Neill’s other writings.
Average
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  • Jandy,
    Since you read and watch far more than me, I’ll only comment on the two things I know about in this post. First, Rain Man– I loved that movie when it came out so many years ago. I am glad you liked it, but it makes me feel old to think about when I saw it in the theater.

    Second, Possession–yes, it’s a good book. You are so good to look up the meanings of all the words you didn’t know the meaning to. I take the contextual approach. If I can figure out the general plot without knowing the meaning to a certain word, then I just skim over it. I guess that’s why you’re an academic, and I am not.

  • Jandy,
    Since you read and watch far more than me, I’ll only comment on the two things I know about in this post. First, Rain Man– I loved that movie when it came out so many years ago. I am glad you liked it, but it makes me feel old to think about when I saw it in the theater.

    Second, Possession–yes, it’s a good book. You are so good to look up the meanings of all the words you didn’t know the meaning to. I take the contextual approach. If I can figure out the general plot without knowing the meaning to a certain word, then I just skim over it. I guess that’s why you’re an academic, and I am not.

  • Jennifer – I don’t ALWAYS look up the words I don’t know. If I can get the gist of the meaning from the context I usually don’t look up an unknown word (unless it comes up a lot and just starts to bug me), but if I can’t, I feel like I’m missing something and want to know what it is, because I don’t like feeling left out. And I’m NOT an academic. I just fake it well. Sorta well. Sometimes. ;)

  • Jennifer – I don’t ALWAYS look up the words I don’t know. If I can get the gist of the meaning from the context I usually don’t look up an unknown word (unless it comes up a lot and just starts to bug me), but if I can’t, I feel like I’m missing something and want to know what it is, because I don’t like feeling left out. And I’m NOT an academic. I just fake it well. Sorta well. Sometimes. ;)

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