June 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

I did not watch or read a lot of great stuff in June. I think I gravitated toward somewhat mindless fare on the movie side due to the effort of reading (skimming?) two novels a week for class, and the reading was dictated completely by the class–which was on Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. I’m glad I read the Conrad and the Lawrence for the experience of it, but I didn’t really enjoy either of them. Woolf, of course, I’m in love with. Her writing. That is. After the jump, reactions to Babel, Pretty in Pink, Dogville, Anchorman, Zoolander, Ocean’s Thirteen, Borat, A Woman is a Woman, Paris, je t’aime, Ratatouille, Nostromo, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, To the Lighthouse and others.

(There are a lot of links in the post…let me know if you try one and it’s broken, okay?)

Film

Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque
Henri Langlois: Phantom of the CinemathequeIf you like classic films, especially film noir, crime film, and B movies, or if you like the French New Wave filmmakers or any of the films they influenced–in other words, most films made since 1965 and many of the best films before that–then you owe a great debt to Henri Langlois. A Parisian cinephile, Langlois began collecting (often at personal expense) cast off film reels that studios felt weren’t worth anything, saving hundreds of films that no-one else seemed to care about. In the early 1950s he created the Cinémathèque Français, composed of both a screening theatre and a museum, which became the gathering place for budding Cahiers du cinéma writers and future directors like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Luc Godard. This documentary highlights Langlois’ place in film history, from the creation of the Cinémathèque to the riots in the late 1960s when the French government took it away from him. As a piece of documentary filmmaking, there isn’t too much special about the film, but it is a solid introduction to a figure who may not be as well-known as high-profile directors or actors, but whose work as a curator and exhibitor is every bit as important to film history.
Above Average
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Babel
BabelUsually when I go into a film with low expectations, it allows the film to make a favorable impression on me, thus increasing my enjoyment and opinion. However, I pretty much expected to dislike Babel and I pretty much hated it. I respect Alejandro González Iñárritu for Amores Perros and 21 Grams, both of which I liked and both share an ensemble cast/multi-storied approach with Babel. I expected Babel to be a message picture (something I usually dislike), but really it isn’t so much the message–which has to do with the difficulty of cross-cultural and interpersonal communication–that bothered me as the utter sadism which seems to pervade the story. And I don’t mean there’s literal sadism in the story, but the writers and directors appear to have a nearly sadistic urge to put their characters through every single horrible situation they can think of and never let anything good happen to any of them. Especially in the Mexican border story, which just piled worst case scenarios on top of each other to an almost ridiculous degree. In addition, the Japanese storyline was hardly at all connected to the Mexican or Moroccan one (which were linked fairly well), except by an offhanded reference. I’m sorry, but that was just lazy. I’ll grant that Iñárritu has a great eye, and the cinematography is good. I’ll grant that Brad Pitt does a good job, though Cate Blanchett was underused, since her role largely called for her to lie still and nearly die of a gunshot wound. But this is one of the rare cases in which the style and technical skill of a film were not even close to rescuing it (for me) from its story, tone, and narrative issues. Fire your scenarist and screenwriter, Iñárritu, and do better next time.
Well Below Average
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Pretty in Pink
Pretty in PinkThis is one of my best friend’s favorite movies, so I overcame my anti-80s bias enough to watch it. But not, unfortunately, enough to add it to my favorite movies. Molly Ringwald inhabits the role of the “different” girl at school, as characterized by her apparent lack of fashion sense (I think I was supposed to identify with her homemade, thrift-store style, but I just couldn’t–it made my eyes burn). But her friend (would-be boyfriend, if she’d ever notice notice him) Duckie steals the show completely. He is utterly worth the film–much as the gangly next-door neighbor raises My So-Called Life from very good to great. In fact, I couldn’t help comparing Pretty in Pink to MSCL, usually unfavorably, which probably didn’t help my opinion of the film. Still, as eighties John Hughes-inflected teen films go, it gives The Breakfast Club a run for its money.
Above Average
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Dogville
DogvilleThe first of Lars Von Trier‘s proposed U.S.A. trilogy (the second is Manderlay, the third has not yet been made), Dogville detachedly tells of an isolated small town thrown into confusion and suspicion when a stranger with a mysterious past (Nicole Kidman) stumbles into town. The town finally votes to protect her in exchange for her helping out each family with various chores. However, as time goes on and she seems to present less and less of a threat, the townspeople treat her more and more poorly, eventually devolving into the image of human depravity. Given that description, and my just-stated hatred of Babel (for being sadistic), one would think that I would also find Dogville sadistic and distasteful. I’ve asked myself why I don’t over and over, and I’m not sure I have an answer. I’ve also been unable to decide if Von Trier’s extremely stylized set design is pretentious or inspired, but I’m leaning toward inspired. What I can say for sure is that I cannot, even two months later, get this film out of my mind. The spare visuals, bleak outlook, subdued acting, and noncommital narration ring in my head at the most random times. However difficult Dogville is to watch (and don’t get me wrong, it is), I’m more and more convinced that it’s brilliant.
Superior
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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron BurgundyEh. I know a lot of people who love this film inordinately, but I found it underwhelming, to say the least. Will Ferrell is obnoxiously amusing as Ron Burgundy, the inappropriate anchorman of a popular news show. The rest of the cast is mostly just obnoxious, while Christina Applegate has the thankless job of playing the woman who tries to break into the boys’ club of a 1970s network and ends up (inevitably yet inexplicably) romantically involved with Ferrell. I’ll admit that it’s fitfully entertaining, but not enough to make it really worthwhile.
Below Average
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Living It Up
Living It UpA journalist looking for a human interest story seizes on Jerry Lewis, a young man with a terminal illness, and plans to fulfill his dream of a trip to New York City. The only snag is that Lewis is not, in fact, dying–a difficulty his doctor Dean Martin helps him hide in order to get the trip (and the pretty journalist, hopes Martin). Zany hijinks ensue. I actually enjoyed this more than The Nutty Professor (though it may not be as good), but I believe it’s a pseudo-remake of Carole Lombard‘s Nothing Sacred, which is a much better film. (Actually, it’s completely a remake–Lewis’s character is “Homer Flagg,” while Lombard’s was “Hazel Flagg.”)
Average
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Foul Play
Foul PlayGoldie Hawn picks up a stranded stranger by the roadside, then meets him for a movie–only to have him die in the seat beside her. Unbeknownst to her, he is on the run with a precious role of film which he secretly deposited in her purse. Now his pursuers are after her, but she’s unable to convince laid-back police detective Chevy Chase that her life is in danger. Full of humor and suspense and silliness–not in the same league with a Thin Man or a Charade, but an enjoyable successor to the hybrid crime-comedy genre.
Above Average
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Zoolander
ZoolanderI’ve had many people tell me I should watch Zoolander, but I didn’t for a long time because I dislike Ben Stiller and figured I would thus hate the film. Maybe my low expectations worked in this case, because I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Stiller is Derek Zoolander, a supermodel whose star is beginning to fall in favor of up-and-coming Hansel (Owen Wilson). He’s recruited as an undercover agent because they need someone who will fail his mission, and it’s assumed that Derek will be completely incompetent–enter somewhat predictable but still hilarious plot twists, a partnership with Hansel, and a totally over-the-top villainous Will Ferrell. And also, Milla Jovovich, who I somehow always think is awesome. This is more what I was expecting from Anchorman; Zoolander is a high point in the Frat Pack comedy sub-genre.
Well Above Average
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Ocean’s Thirteen
Ocean’s ThirteenDanny Ocean and Company (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, etc.) are back, this time teaming with nemesis Andy Garcia to take out the new casino on the strip, whose owner (Al Pacino) ripped off Reuben, a senior member of the Ocean posse. All the elements are here, from ventilation system infiltration to super-suave high roller impersonation. Neither Julia Roberts nor Catherine Zeta-Jones are in attendence, but the film may be better off for their absence; the boys can keep their focus on the heist, which is more interesting than their romantic entanglements ever were. In any case, Thirteen doesn’t quite live up to the bar that Eleven set, but it’s loads better than the bloated Twelve.
Above Average
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Borat
BoratI’m not sure what to write about Borat. I weren’t familiar with the character (beyond knowing that he was an established character before the film), so I just knew from the trailer to expect somewhat offensive humor as Kazakhstani Borat visits the United States and tries to learn about American customs and supposedly, promote good will between the countries. And it is hilarious, don’t get me wrong. However, I’m not sure the humor here was worth the level of offensiveness (and often, just plain annoyingness)–and I don’t usually offend that easily.
Average
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A Woman is a Woman
A Woman is a WomanAngela (Anna Karina) wants to have a baby. Her boyfriend Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) isn’t terribly excited by the idea and jokingly foists her off onto their friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo)–who is himself deeply in love with Angela. Though there’s real conflict in the relationships, the overarching tone is farcical, and I dare you to watch the film without a smile on your face. And, being a Jean-Luc Godard film, it’s got more of interest than just the story–his experimentation here is largely confined to the soundtrack, which goes from unexpectedly loud and foregrounded to bracingly absent, almost making the film a musical. Because of Godard’s technical playfulness, the film is of interest from a film studies point of view, but it’s also just plain fun. Don’t make it your only Godard film, but it’d be a great place to start. See some clips and commentary in my post here.
Superior
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Paris, je t’aime
Paris, je t’aimeI love Paris! And the title of this film is Paris, I Love You! And it’s composed of short films from eighteen directors, many of whom I love! It’s almost a given that I would love this film. And I did. Is it really even and coherent as a whole? Well, no, probably not–but how could a film by eighteen very individual directors be anything but idiosyncratic? For what it is–a glimpse into Paris from eighteen different perspectives–it’s lovely. Particular highlights are Gurinder Chadha‘s cross-cultural French-Muslim not-quite love-story, Isabelle Coixet‘s bittersweet glimpse into the broken marriage of an aging couple, Wes Craven‘s surprisingly endearing tale of an Oscar Wilde haunting, Tom Tykwer‘s time-collapsing blind Frenchman-and-Natalie Portman romance, and Alexander Payne‘s closing short depicting an American woman writing an essay for her French class about how she fell in love with Paris. In between are gothic vampires, Gus van Sant being less pretentious than usual, Alfonso Cuarón being a bit disappointing for once (though a disappointing Cuarón film is still better than most normal films), the Coen brothers with a quirky tourist tale, and a truly bizarre episode (the only one I actively disliked) involving an elderly gentlemen and an Asian hair salon. There’s something here for everyone, and if you don’t at least want to visit (or revisit) Paris by the end, I give you up as a lost cause. Word on the street is that the same producers are working on New York, I Love You.
Well Above Average
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Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Die Hard 2: Die HarderI marathoned all three Die Hards in one afternoon (and then, uh, didn’t go see the fourth, as I’d intended…), but I’d already seen the first one, which I really like. The second completely failed to match it, in that annoying way sequels have. This time Bruce Willis is trying to get home to his wife and daughter, but uncovers a plot to hijack a plane and ends up working with/against air traffic control to stop it. Lots of chasing around the airport and tarmac follows. Very little of it is believable, especially once he starts fighting people on the wing of a moving plane. I know, an action movie unbelievable, right? But it seriously goes way off the believability scale to an unconscionable degree. I sat through it, but I wished I had just watched Die Hard again.
Below Average
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Die Hard With a Vengeance
Die Hard with a VengeanceAfter Die Harder, my expectations were lowered for the third in the series, and I enjoyed it a lot more–whether it was because of the lowered expectations or the Samuel L. Jackson factor, I’m not sure. He has a way of making everything he’s in seem better. (I also just discovered that John McTiernan returned to direct this one, after someone else did Die Harder–that could also be a factor.) Potential terrorist Jeremy Irons leads Willis and his unwilling partner Jackson a merry chase with a series of phone calls and clues. There’s an element of sillyness, but Willis and Jackson work the buddy dynamic and the puzzle angle to good effect, finishing off the original trilogy with an enjoyable focus on fun.
Above Average
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Ratatouille
RatatouilleOh, Pixar. If you and Aardman Animation and Hiyao Miyazaki (and various innovators in France) would take over animated pictures completely, the film world would be a better place. Their latest isn’t quite as incredible as The Incredibles (sorry, couldn’t resist), but it’s a solid entry in their lineup. Not to mention, the story of a rat with a gourmet palate working his way into cooking for a Parisian restaurant played right into my Paris obsession. But that’s neither here nor there. The story is simple but sweet, the filmmakers don’t go for easy laughs or heavy messages, and the animation is, as usual, absolutely gorgeous.
Well Above Average
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Books

Nostromo and Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
Under Western EyesI knew I didn’t care for Joseph Conrad, so once I found out we were reading him for Modern British Literature, I tried to start reading Nostromo early, hoping to get it out of the way while still on vacation. It didn’t work. Nostromo is long-winded, overly descriptive, and fairly boring. Basically, it’s about a silver mine in a fictional South American country, the people who run it and live in the town surrounding it, and Nostromo, the leader of the local militia and something of a local hero. The first half of the book does little but give background on the place and the characters at GREAT length; the second half has more action as the town deals with a military coup, but apparently is really a denunciation of materialism. I did get more out of the book after class discussion, and I’ll admit that Conrad can write (and he’s got some interesting narrative techniques going on), but I still didn’t really like the book. Under Western Eyes I actually didn’t finish reading, and may not, so I thought I’d throw it in here. The only reason I didn’t finish it is that I got behind and I needed every second to maintain a semblance of keeping up with the D.H. Lawrence books we read next; I actually liked what I read of Under Western Eyes a lot more than I liked Nostromo. Main character Rasumov is a student who gets pulled into an anti-tzarist movement (it was written about five years before the Russian Revolution) despite his general apoliticism. He is thought to be a close friend of an activist who was killed for his beliefs, though Rasumov had actually turned him in. The book involves both double-agent intrigue and internal, moral struggle as Rasumov deals with his precarious political position and his own guilt. Cross Dostoevsky with…I don’t know, John le Carre or somebody. I do hope to finish it sometime (and maybe try some of Conrad’s more thriller-style works like The Secret Agent), just to remember that he doesn’t have to write as ponderously as he seems to in Nostromo.
Nostromo: Above Average
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Under Western Eyes: won’t rate the whole, because I haven’t read it completely, but the part I’ve read is Well Above Average
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Sons and Lovers/The Rainbow/Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Sons and LoversThe RainbowWomen in LoveI’d never read any D.H. Lawrence before, so beyond having a vague idea that his books were considered pretty racy when they came out, I had no idea what to expect. Well, I’ll see your “racy” and raise you a “sexually frustrated” and an “unbearably wordy.” I almost had an aneurism when I got to writing this section of the recap, until I hit on the brilliant idea of treating them all in the same reaction–since they’re all basically the same anyway. Nah, that’s a little too mean. Sons and Lovers was actually quite good in its treatment of a nearly overt Oedipal relationship between Paul and his mother, rendering him all but unable to find happiness with a woman of his own. I mean, the story sounds prurient, but it’s well-written, with good characters, and meaningful situations. You know, it has good literary qualities. Women in Love picks up the story begun in The Rainbow, so those two go together. In a way, I’m glad we read The Rainbow because it set up the situations and relationship in Women in Love, but it was by far my least favorite of the three books–there was basically nothing to it except two generations of frustrated and unhappy marriages, and then a generation that tried to find themselves by sleeping around a lot. Women in Love had a bit more to it, but it also had a lot of very long-winded philosophical arguments about love from one of the characters (who apparently is supposed to stand in for Lawrence’s point of view) that made absolutely no sense at all and made him seem like a lunatic–and he was meant to be the sort of grounded character who was good for the heroine to fall in love with. I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that Virginia Woolf hated Lawrence as well, and wrote some scathing notes about his work in her diary. Which made me laugh heartily.
Sons and Lovers: Above Average
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The Rainbow: Below Average
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Women in Love: Average
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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
To the LighthouseI cannot even describe to you how wonderful it was to read Woolf after two weeks of Lawrence. It was like being able to breathe again after being in a hot, stuffy room for days. It was like the clouds breaking to reveal a brilliant ray of sun. To be totally honest, we went straight from Lawrence to Mrs. Dalloway, not To the Lighthouse, but I’d already read it and thus didn’t want to review it again. Although I nearly did, because I love it so much, and I loved it even more this time around. But moving on. To the Lighthouse wasn’t quite as accessible for me as Dalloway, but it has plenty of Woolfian flashes of brilliance. The story concerns a family and various friends vacationing in the Hebrides; in the first half, the children want to go to visit the local lighthouse, but it seems weather will prevent them. In the middle section time passes (fifteen years or so in about ten pages), and in the last section, the trip to the lighthouse is finally undertaken. There’s metaphor and stuff. I really enjoyed how Woolf used the Lily Briscoe character, a painter, to represent herself, a writer–it’s subtle, yet also somehow clear. And the writing. Have I mentioned how much I like Woolf’s writing? I have? Oh well. It’s like you’re just reading along, and all of a sudden, WHAM. A passage comes out of nowhere and just smites you with its beauty and brilliance. It’s like poetry in prose form. It’s like being drowned in gorgeousness. It’s perfection.
Well Above Average
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