July 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

In an effort to get caught up on these recap posts, I did shorter write-ups on some of the films I didn’t care about as much (and I’m going to do the same thing for August, hoping to get it out by, you know, the end of September so I can, you know, do September’s). I intended there to be more shorter ones, but it turned out, I cared about a lot of the films this month. Ah well. If I give a quickie reaction to something you’d like to hear more about, let me know and I’ll do a more detailed writeup on it later. I doubt most people read all these anyway. Not that that’s why I write them; I write them so in ten years I can look back and see how stupid my reactions to thing were when I first saw them. ;)

After the jump, reactions to Happy Feet, Orlando (book and film), Vivre sa vie, The Fountain, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Three Colours Trilogy, Winter Light, Renaissance, Little Children, Sophie’s World, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and more.

Movies

Happy FeetHappy Feet
Cute and innocuous animated penguin movie, with all the usual kids’ movie “be true to yourself” sort of messages. It isn’t as overly annoying as I for some reason expected it to be, but it didn’t deserve its Oscar either. I’m not sure what did…last year wasn’t a great one for animated features (and I haven’t seen other two nominated, so heck, what do I know).
Average
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Hum Dil De Chuke SanamHum Dil De Chuke Sanam
You have to synopsize Bollywood films in two parts, because really, they’re all two movies mashed up into one. The first half of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam concerns Sameer (Salman Khan) coming to visit Nandini’s (Aishwarya Rai) family and the two of them falling in love; unfortunately, Nandini’s father has already arranged for her to marry Vanraj (Ajay Devgan), a man Nandini has hardly met. Unwilling to go against her family’s wishes, she marries Vanraj and Sameer returns to his home in Europe. In the second half, Vanraj realizes that Nandini isn’t going to be happy with him and takes her to Europe to try to find Sameer. I’m going to give away the ending, because it’s the part that conflicts me. After seeing how much Vanraj cares about her (enough to give her up to another man if necessary for her happiness), and how everything he does is for her, she ultimately decides to remain with him even after they locate Sameer. Now, I had made a similar move during the film, and by the end I was rooting for Vanraj, too. Add in my general belief that marriages should stay together, and I was initially very pleased by the outcome. However, when I thought about it more, I became a little bit concerned by the way Nandini phrased her refusal to reunite with Sameer as a duty she owed to Vanraj and her family rather than a true realignment of her love to Vanraj. Now, this is all tied up with Indian culture, too, and I think my discomfort stems from the sense that the film is portraying “if you’re a good Indian girl, you should end up obeying your male superiors because that’s your duty as a woman.” It’s much more complicated than that, because Vanraj really is a better man than Sameer, but I’m not convinced Nandini really recognized that when she made her decision. It’s also complicated by the fact that her marriage with Vanraj was never consummated, so I don’t have quite the moral/ethical commitment to the marriage that I otherwise might. In other words, I think she made the right decision given the individuals in question, but I think she made it for the wrong reason–a reason that reinforces India’s sense of patriarchy in a negative way. There. I did gender criticism. Sort of. As far as a film experience, it’s not the best Indian film I’ve seen, but I did enjoy it quite a bit.
Above Average
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OrlandoOrlando
It’s a little unfortunate that I watched this film during the same month in which I read the book; because I put all the movie reactions before all the book ones, it seems as if I watched the movie before I read the book, which is untrue. Basically, Orlando a nobleman born in the 16th century whose life encompasses the following three centuries. And, oh yeah, sometime in the mid-19th century, he becomes a woman. These two things are never explained. And the book works, but the movie works less well, largely because director Sally Potter decided to make it about how much better it is to be a woman than a man and thus the early part of the story is dark and ugly, while the second part is brighter and airier. I don’t have a problem with directors making adaptations their own, but in making the film the way she did, she sucked out almost all of the humor from the book (which is tremendous) and we’re left with a dry feminist tract. That said, Tilda Swinton does quite a good job portraying Orlando, and a lot of it is well-done. Generally, though, I’m all for the director making her own choices, but I don’t think her choices helped the film a bit.
Above Average
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Vivre sa vieVivre sa vie (My Life to Live)
Jean-Luc! You’re not supposed to depress me. Of course, take a story about a young woman whose financial difficulties push her into becoming a prostitute, and I guess it’s just sort of naturally depressing. I didn’t think I liked the film much after watching it, what with the depressingness, but now it’s a couple of months later, and I can’t get it out of my head. There’s so much going on: the way he’s using the camera, the use of negative space (both in the visuals and the soundtrack), the mirror symbolism, the influence of silent cinema…it’s absolutely incredible. See more in my video-example-having post about Godard a few months ago.
Superior
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The Good GermanThe Good German
AKA Steven Soderbergh‘s incredibly obvious homage to 1940s cinema in general and Casablanca in particular. (Seriously, look at the posters – Good German, Casablanca) George Clooney investigates the death of a journalist (Tobey Maguire) in post-WWII Berlin and finds it’s tied up with a former flame of his (Cate Blanchett) and her husband, a scientist trying to get out of the country. Shot in B&W on 1940s equipment, it’s an interesting and well-meaning experiment, but not a wholly successful one. It’s never as compelling as you want it to be, but I liked the idea enough to stick with it.
Average
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The PrestigeThe Prestige
Who knew the magician business was so cut-throat? Seriously. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman vie for audiences and women in a 19th century setting, going to lengths that are disturbing at best. Very, very clever, but very disturbing. I think I didn’t figure out the twist ending mostly because I simply didn’t want to believe it was true. Good acting turns by the two, and like I said, very clever script. I think ultimately the cleverness was worth the disturbingness, but I’m not sure everyone will feel that way.
Above Average
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The LetterThe Letter
Bette Davis shoots a man on her front porch, claiming self-defense–but as could be expected, there’s more to the story, bound up in the letter of the title. It’s a good Davis vehicle, but not great. She owns the screen, but I’m not sure it’s worth her. It’s a strange, strange day when I start wishing for Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (see here), that’s all I can say–generally I’m much more of a fan of Davis than Crawford.
Above Average
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The FountainThe Fountain
Critics were split on Darren Aronofsky‘s latest dreamscape of a film; some liked it, but several thought it was incomprehensible, and thus bad. I’m not sure why “incomprehensible” is always a negative judgment, incidentally, but that’s a different issue, because The Fountain isn’t incomprehensible. It’s about a man whose wife is dying, and he’s working overtime on experimental treatments (he’s a research doctor) to try to find a way to save her. In parallel stories, he’s a conquistador searching for the Fountain of Youth, and a space traveler in a bubble with a single tree. Exactly how connected you take the three stories to be (are they only metaphorically connected, are they intersecting parallel universes, or is the man a time traveler) isn’t ultimately the point–the point is the nature of love. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz are both great, and the film is totally, mesmerizingly beautiful.
Well Above Average
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His Girl FridayHis Girl Friday
I rarely include films in these recaps that I’ve seen before, but I’ve watched His Girl Friday twice in the past two months (after having seen it a time or two years ago), and it is seriously one of the best films I’ve ever seen. So I mention it just to exhort everyone who hasn’t seen it to go rent, borrow, buy, steal, whatever you have to, just see it. It’s brilliant.
Masterpiece
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D.O.A.D.O.A.
A man staggers into a police office to report a murder…his own. He’s been poisoned with an antidote-less poison, and he spends the rest of the film trying to convince the police what’s happened and trying to figure out who poisoned him and why. It’s all tied up with various crime rings and such, I forget the details. Overall, it’s a solid but not outstanding 1950s noirish crime film. Definitely skip its 1988 remake, though.
Average
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Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Heh. Anytime the Harry Potter films come up, you get the battle between the book purists (“but they left so much out!”) and the non-book purists (“so? it’s a really good film!”), sometimes with a smattering of non-book readers (“what the heck was going on, and why does everyone care so much?!”). It’s fun times. I haven’t read the book since it came out, so I didn’t remember most of the things that the book purists said got left out, and I fall squarely into the non-book purist category anyway. And taken purely on a cinematic level, Order of the Phoenix is quite possibly the best of the films. I still love Prisoner of Azkaban best, but I was mightily impressed with film #5. The kids are turning into quite the actors, the tone is getting nicely darker, and they struck a nice compromise, I thought, between all the gazillion things that have to happen in the plot with character moments. And LUNA IS AWESOME. Perfect casting.
Well Above Average
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Three Colors: BlueThree Colors: Blue
This is the first of a trilogy, and I watched all the trilogy in the same week (though not sequentially), so my comments may range across multiple entries here. Blue is the first and probably the best known of Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s Three Colors films, but I’m not sure it’s the best introduction to Kieslowski’s work (I might suggest The Double Life of Veronique, which I watched yesterday). Blue is paced more slowly than pretty much any American film could get away with, and it’s unclear at the end if the heroine (who is struggling with the death of her husband and child in a car accident) has been able to move into or past her grief–her reactions are difficult to get a grip on, because they aren’t typical of grieving widows. Yet, Blue is like a placid pool of water–it’s far deeper than it initially looks. I’m not sure I can explicate or prove that statement any more than that without seeing the film again. It’s a feeling more than anything else, that there are vast amounts of things going on under the surface, behind Juliette Binoche‘s eyes, underneath her enigmatic expressions. It’s a gorgeous-looking film, as are all of Kieslowski’s, and honestly, I appreciated it a lot more after having seen the rest of the trilogy.
Well Above Average
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Three Colors: WhiteThree Colors: White
Most people will say that White is the weak point in the Three Colors trilogy, and I completely agree. It’s about a man whose wife (Julie Delpy, who is the best part of the film) leaves him, forcing him to return from their home in Paris to his home in Poland. After a lot of things happen, most which seem relatively pointless and I forget the details, he goes back to Paris to get back at her. It has its moments, but it has nothing of the sense of depth that Blue had, or the joy that Red will have (see below).
Above Average
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The Bourne SupremacyThe Bourne Supremacy
For whatever reason, I started watching this right after it came out on DVD, but never finished it. I figured I had to get it watched before I went to see The Bourne Ultimatum, so I gave it another shot, and I have absolutely no idea why I didn’t finish it the first time, because it’s pretty darn good. Interestingly, I have a note in my notebook mentioning that I wanted to strangle the cameraman to stop him shaking and jumping around so much. A lot of criticism of Bourne Ultimatum has focused on its “QueasiCam”, yet I didn’t really notice it as much in Ultimatum as I apparently did in Supremacy. I mean, I noticed it, but it didn’t bother me.
Well Above Average
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Three Colors: RedThree Colors: Red
I had heard of Blue as an individual film, but I hadn’t really heard of Red except in the context of the Three Colors trilogy. Hence I was really surprised by how much I loved it! In fact, it was really watching this one that made me rethink the first two and appreciate them more. One thing is that I completely fell in love with Irène Jacob at first sight; the other thing is that it’s just full of so much joy. Looking at the trilogy at a whole, the colors correspond to the blue, white, and red of the French flag, which symbolize “liberty, equality, fraternity,” the three keywords of post-Revolution France. Thus, Blue is about Binoche’s new “liberty” after the death of her family; it has a very individual focus–is liberty a good thing, in this case? Can she understand her freedom in a way that helps her come to terms with their death? White is about equality, especially between a husband and wife, or a woman and a man, or a Polish person and a French person. Red is about fraternity, learning to enter into relationships with other people, and as such, it’s a much warmer, much more lovable film. Even though the three films are only thematically related (the stories really aren’t), they should be watched in order because of the way the themes build up. I sense that these three films will reward many repeat viewings, and that I’ll always find things I didn’t see before. That’s the kind of film I like.
Superior
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Winter LightWinter Light
The second of Ingmar Bergman‘s informal “faith” trilogy, following Through a Glass Darkly (my reaction). This one follows an older minister who is unable to help one of his parishioners (the always impressive Max von Sydow)W who is in despair and contemplating suicide, at least partially because the minister himself is undergoing something of a crisis of faith. The most interesting thing to me was how similar Winter Light is superficially to Robert Bresson‘s Diary of a Country Priest (my reaction), yet I liked Winter Light a lot more. I didn’t love it, but it affected me more. Apparently crisis of faith stories aren’t really my thing, but I seem more drawn to Bergman than Bresson…which is consistent with my opinions of their other films. I was particularly impressed with the scene of Ingrid Thulin speaking the words of a letter she sent to the pastor, all directly into an unflinching camera. You can see that here if you’re so inclined.
Well Above Average
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Safety LastSafety Last
Harold Lloyd is the third of the three big silent comedians (behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton), and I’m sorry it took me this long to get around to his films. Safety Last is his most well-known film, the one where he ends up hanging off a clock at the top of a building (see below)–a stunt he did himself, by the way. The overall story involves Lloyd going to the city and trying to make good so he can marry his girlfriend, who thinks he’s already made good–when she turns up, he tries to pretend that he’s the manager of a department store instead of a lowly clerk. Eventually his attempts to impress her extend to climbing up the outside of the store building. The whole film isn’t as sustained as Chaplin’s or Keaton’s best, but it’s still quite enjoyable (and the climb is magnificent as a comedic stunt).
Above Average
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Safety Last - the clock

The FreshmanThe Freshman
In this film (not to be confused with the 1990 Marlon Brando film), Harold Lloyd shoves off for college, imitating a popular film in the hopes it will make him popular–unfortunately, it just makes him a dork. He tries to do all the popular things with hilarious results, especially when he joins the football team (he’s pretty scrawny). Again, not as sustained as the best silent comedies, but I actually enjoyed a lot of it more than Safety Last – it had more heart.
Above Average
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Me and You and Everyone We KnowMe and You and Everyone We Know
Okay, indie film about quirky relationships by a woman director (Miranda July). I REALLY wanted to like this film. And honestly, I did quite like the main storyline about a shy woman tentatively pursuing an equally shy man just coming off a painful divorce, but that storyline was surrounded by kids chatting in adult chatrooms, prurient desires, pedophiliacs and idiotic teenagers, all with far too little purpose. The point, such as I could tell, was that making interpersonal connections in a digital age is really hard and we should, I don’t know, value it whenever it happens–but if these are the interpersonal connections that get made, I’m sorry, but they’re not valuable. I try not to judge films based solely on content, but it was hard not to here, although I did enjoy the overall tone of the film, and I won’t avoid July’s next attempt.
Below Average
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Shock CorridorShock Corridor
This is the best-known film by Samuel Fuller, whose The Naked Kiss so pleasantly surprised me a few months ago, so I had high hopes for Shock Corridor. And I didn’t like it as much. A detective pretends to be insane to get committed to an asylum in order to find out who killed one of the inmates. While he’s in there he pretty much goes insane himself. Its more overwrought than Naked Kiss, and what I found so compelling about the latter is the unexpected weirdness of it–whereas Shock Corridor sort of had built-in weirdness from the insane asylum setting.
Average
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RenaissanceRenaissance
I wish the story of this French film were as strong as the visuals. A detective gets the job of finding a missing researcher who was working for huge corporation; but everything is tied up with the research she was working on, which remains part of the mystery until near the end. It’s a good premise (though a bit derivative), but ultimately the corporation just isn’t evil enough, and it’s not clear that the corporation would misuse the technology the researcher had created–and the story rises or falls based on whether this technology is implemented or destroyed. But the visuals are absolutely gorgeous, and totally worth the film. It’s animated, but definitely not a kids movie (note to filmmakers, if you want to please me, make an animated film not aimed at kids), and it’s basically motion capture turned into high contrast black and white–almost no greys. It’s stark, noirish, and I find it captivating. Oh, and don’t watch the dubbed version. I know it has Daniel Craig‘s voice in it, but I watched both, and the original French track is better (and the DVD defaults to the dubbed version, so you have to switch it manually).
Above Average (cross between Average story execution and Well Above Average look)
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Little ChildrenLittle Children
Actually, this turned out to be better than I expected. I knew it was about suburban families and adultery and a pedophile, which all sounded like a non-fun film, even if it were well-made and tastefully done (as tastefully as possible). Even while I was watching it, I kept wondering how they were going to keep it from devolving into pointless prurience. But by the end, it actually turned out to be more hopeful and uplifting than I envisioned. It’s sort of American Beauty-esque; not quite as good, but then I think American Beauty is one of the best films of the last decade. Kate Winslet is incredible; if this hadn’t been the year of the Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth, I’d have given her the Oscar. You know, if I were in charge of those things.
Well Above Average
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Books

OrlandoOrlando by Virginia Woolf
By now, you should know, I’m a Virginia Woolf fangirl. I love the way she expresses things, her sense of humor, the beauty of her prose. Orlando is something of a departure, a very tongue-in-cheek imitation of a biography. As I said in the review of the film above, it’s about a 16th century nobleman who lives for at least the next three centuries, and somewhere along the way becomes a woman; and both of these incredible things are taken perfectly in stride by the narrator. The book is hilarious and innovative in its imitation of various writing styles, mostly the biography in general, but also writing techniques common in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Many people consider it a postmodern novel, a pastiche of former styles, for that reason, and I’m inclined to agree with them. I tend to find Woolf amusing in all her books, but in Orlando she really is just having fun, and a lot of it.
Superior
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Sophie’s WorldSophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A novel about the history of philosophy, according to the subtitle. Sophie, a fifteen-year-old Norwegian girl, starts receiving mysterious packages containing “a course in philosophy,” which moves from the Greek philosophers through Medieval Christian philosophy and the Enlightenment to modern times. The book itself ends up throwing in a bit of literary theory and postmodernism for good measure. I was a little put off by how unequivocally the philosophy teacher accepted certain philosophical systems, but the book is a delightful read that is enormously successful at being both entertaining and informative.
Well Above Average
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HP7Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
A perfect finish to an excellent series. I pretty much loved everything about it. No, I won’t say anything more than that in case there’s anybody lurking about who hasn’t read it yet, because I’m not into spoiling HP. At all. The only thing that keeps it from being a Superior is the epilogue, which to me was just unnecessary and read like fanfic. Hopefully that won’t be considered a spoiler. ;) Oh, the other thing–apparently some subset of Christians are still railing on about the series; I absolutely don’t understand how they can after this one, which seems almost explicitly Christian to me.
Well Above Average
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Lost in the FunhouseLost in the Funhouse by John Barth
I picked this up after several of the books I used for a paper about postmodern fiction mentioned it; it’s a set of highly self-reflexive short stories. Most of them are intriguing to one degree or another, but the one that impressed me the most (and the one that got mentioned the most in the sources I was using) is the “Menelaiad,” which is SO FREAKING AMAZING. It has seven narrative levels. SEVEN. Narrative levels. An aging Menelaus (that is, the guy who was married to Helen and started the Trojan War), tells about a feast at which he told Telemachus about telling Helen (while on route back from Troy) about telling Proteus (who he was fighting) about telling Proteus’s daughter about talking with Helen (in Troy) about…I forget all the levels now. But yeah, you get about seven sets quotation marks deep at one point. It’s pretty wild, and the best part is when the Helen from one narrative level starts interacting with people on a different narrative level, and my mind goes kablooey. In a good way.
Well Above Average for “Menelaiad”; the rest of the stories are most Above Average
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