August 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

Time off school in August meant non-required reading yay! For the record, a lawn chair by a lake in Minnesota is a good place to read in August. Especially after 100 degree heat in St. Louis and Texas. After the jump, reactions to The Shining, The African Queen, Hannah and Her Sisters, Becoming Jane, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Dancer in the Dark, Zodiac, INLAND EMPIRE, Stardust, Le petit soldat, The Thirteenth Tale, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, and more.

Films

The Shining
The ShiningOne of my friends was totally flabbergasted when I told her I hadn’t seen The Shining. So she made me watch it, despite the fact that I a) don’t like horror movies and b) don’t like eighties movies. And you know, she was right. How Kubrick manages to take a movie with acting this bad (sorry Shelley Duvall) and so many cheesy moments and yet make it work really well. But he does. My friend suggested that it was because “he’s Kubrick,” which is circular reasoning, but she may be right. In any case, the pacing is perfect (slower than you’d expect at first, but it builds very nicely), the atmosphere is creepy, and Kubrick shows just the right amount of scary stuff. And I honestly don’t know how much of the laughing I was doing was because of the cheesy acting, or because I needed to break the tension.
Well Above Average
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Ride the High Country
Ride the High CountryTwo aging cowboys (Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea), former partners, meet years after they split up due to their differing sense of morality (i.e., one didn’t have a sense of morality) and tentatively join up on a job, along with a young cowboy. Along the way, a young woman joins them, trying to get away from her domineering father and get to her fiance. Before it’s all over, the young cowboy’s in love with the young woman, and gets into a war over her with her fiance and his brothers, who aren’t so nice as she thought, and the older cowboys get dragged into it as well, putting their friendship and their ethics to the test. It’s good stuff, though it takes a little bit to really get going.
Well Above Average
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The African Queen
The African QueenI’ve heard about this for so long and seen so many random clips and heard so many random lines that I don’t know how often I checked it off on lists as having seen it. Even though I hadn’t. But now I have! Go me. Kate and Bogie make this work, because honestly, the story, not all that cohesive. But their star power packs enough punch to make up for it. And also, leeches ugh. *shudder* Remind me that I don’t want to take a trip down an African river on an itty-bitty steam ship. But yeah, overall, I wasn’t as impressed was I wanted to be.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame

Hannah and Her Sisters
Hannah and Her SistersFor whatever reason, I’ve been in a Woody Allen mood lately, rewatching Manhattan and some of my other favorites. I can’t always decide what I think about Allen as a filmmaker, largely because what I think of him as an actor keeps getting in the way (to be clear, I don’t think much of him as an actor). It took Hannah and Her Sisters about twelve minutes to become my favorite Woody Allen film. It’s witty but not silly, warm but not maudlin, deep but not pretentious, neurotic but not annoying. It’s got most of the qualities Woody is known for without the excess of them that he often falls into. It’s wonderful, and THIS is what Allen needs to remember how to do if he ever wants to regain his reputation and success (he’s done it to some degree with Match Point, but Hannah is so far superior to Match Point it’s hardly a competition). Whether you like Allen or hate him, don’t give up on him without seeing this.
Superior
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Becoming Jane
Becoming JaneDuring the first half of this film about a fictionalized Jane Austen’s love life, I wrote a lot of notes faulting Anne Hathaway‘s performance, clumsy editing, muddy and inconsistent sound, and other issues that suggested the film wasn’t quite ready for release. By the end, most of these issues had either gone away or I wasn’t noticing them anymore, which is generally a good thing. The script still suffers due to being written by people much less talented than Jane Austen–the romance isn’t really believable; it attempts to follow the trajectory of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but forgets to include any exploration of the change in Jane’s attitude toward her would-be paramour. Maggie Smith owns the screen for her all-too-brief scenes as the inspiration of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Becoming Jane isn’t a great film, and certainly it does little to illuminate Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice, but it’s a relatively harmless and enjoyable way to kill an afternoon.
Average
IMDb | The Frame

The Bourne Ultimatum
The Bourne UltimatumThe Bourne series is quickly jumping to the top of the “best action series ever” list. Each entry has been both smart and action-packed, which are two adjectives that most Hollywood filmmakers apparently think are mutually exclusive. Jason gets drawn back into his past by flashing memories of his initiation into the black ops program, and seeks the truth about how he got pulled into it. Perhaps a little heavy on the hand-held “queasicam,” but beyond that, I don’t have much criticism.
Well Above Average
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestOkay, this won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Someday, someone will explain this to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but it isn’t that good. The other two films that have won these top five Oscars are that good (It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs), but this isn’t. Criminal Jack Nicholson gets put into a psychiatric hospital to see if maybe he’s crazy, and he ends up shaking the place up a bunch, especially the extremely strict by-the-book Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). I enjoyed watching most of it, but I don’t really understand its reputation, that’s all.
Above Average
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Oldboy
OldboyA man gets captured and put into a room for fifteen years (undergoing physical, but mostly psychological, torture) without ever being told why he’s been put there. When he’s suddenly let out, he devotes himself to finding out who put him there and why, and exacting revenge. This got put on a lot of top ten lists the year it came out, and is one of the best-reviewed Korean imports I’ve read about, but I was a bit concerned about what I’d heard about the level of violence (yeah, I watched it with my hand on the remote control)–really, though, it’s no bloodier than, say Kill Bill or Sin City. The conclusion was very unexpected, and yeah, okay, rather sick. In terms of a well-done crime/revenge thriller, it certainly is that. But it won’t be to all tastes.
Above Average
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Crimes and Misdemeanors
Crimes and MisdemeanorsThis movie has been recommended to me more than any other Woody Allen film, I think. One main plot thread involves Martin Landau‘s attempts to get rid of a long-term mistress when she threatens to reveal their affair if he doesn’t marry her; the other follows Allen’s attempts to retain his integrity when the documentary he wants to make about a philosopher gets derailed in favor of a profile of a successful television executive. The threads intersect thematically more than physically, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to discuss the themes after only one viewing. There is so much going on, and most of it is not on the surface. It’s definitely one of Woody’s best, and I hope to return to it many times.
Superior
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Once
OnceSO. MUCH. LOVE. For this movie. I wrote about it when I used the soundtrack for Music Monday several weeks ago, so I’ll just let you go read that instead of repeating myself. I will only note that my regard for it has only grown over the two months since I saw it, and I want to watch it again NOW. It will be one of the very few DVDs I buy new, that’s how much I’m loving this movie.
Superior
IMDb

Johnny Guitar
Johnny GuitarOkay, I may need to make a no-VHS rule, because watching things on fuzzy VHS seriously tampers with my ability to judge the film apart from its picture quality. This is a cult-film favorite from director Nicholas Ray (best known for Rebel Without a Cause, but best-loved by me for In a Lonely Place), and it’s a bit of an odd one. Joan Crawford plays the tough owner of a Western saloon who Mercedes McCambridge is trying to run out of town. McCambridge’s character seemed to lack motivation to me, and I’m not sure what all Ray was trying to do or if he succeeded, but there are some interesting things going on, especially in the subversion/ignoring of Western genre rules. He was also doing some interesting thing with color, but like I said, the VHS copy was pretty bad, so a lot of the visual nuances were lost. I’ll try to watch it on DVD sometime (you know, after it’s released on DVD, ’cause it looks like it isn’t yet) to look more closely at that.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame

Idiocracy
IdiocracyThe scariest thing about this comedy is that its basic premise is actually plausible. In the present, the people with the highest IQs aren’t reproducing as much as the ones with lower IQs–because of this reverse natural selection, the average IQ five hundred years from now is about 60. Which means that Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph, chosen for a present-day cryogenic experiment because they’re completely average, are by far the smartest people on the planet when they wake up from their cryogenic sleep somewhere around the year 2500, and they have to singlehandedly stop the world from crumbling under the weight of its own stupidity. Once you get past the intriguing premise, though, you basically have a pretty dumb comedy, which is both suitable and disappointing.
Average
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Dancer in the Dark
Dancer in the DarkAfter being so very impressed with Lars von Trier‘s Dogville a few months ago, I was psyched to see Dancer in the Dark. I’m sorry, but I didn’t really get it. Bjork plays a factory worker whose increasing blindness threatens to keep her from being able to do her job, which will keep her from earning the money she needs for an operation that will prevent her son from suffering the same blindness. Add in the relationship with her not-as-happy-as-they-seem neighbors and a trenchant critique of the justice system and death penalty, and you have a pretty interesting story. And I did enjoy the way musical numbers were interspersed in the film, as her joyful escape from her joyless existence. But ultimately, this isn’t a von Trier film, which was what I was expecting. It’s a Bjork film, and her personality is so overpowering that I felt like the film couldn’t really breathe. I found her character difficult relate to because her mannerisms were incredibly distracting, and mostly she just seemed insane rather than joyful in the face of adversity. It’s an interesting experiment of a movie, but I don’t think it was wholly successful. At least not for me, not right now.
Above Average
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Cashback
CashbackThe main character finds it difficult to sleep after his girlfriend leaves him, so he gets a night job at a convenience store to fill up the extra hours. He notes that different people have different ways of passing the time when there’s little to do–his way actually involves stopping the clock, freezing time, which allows him to fantasize, dream, and sketch. And fall in love with one of the other clerks. There are a lot of interesting visuals here, especially when time stops (and no, it’s never really clear whether he can actually stop time, or if it’s sort of a waking dream phenomenon), and it’s a sweetly quirky story, but there’s not very much substance to it.
Average
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The Petrified Forest
The Petrified ForestAKA Humphrey Bogart‘s first real Hollywood film, playing the tough-guy criminal role that typecast him until the early 1940s. As Duke Mantee, he takes a desert gas station hostage when his getaway car breaks down. The station/diner is run by Bette Davis, who recently met and became enamored of philosophical traveler Leslie Howard. They are ostensibly the main characters, but honestly, Bogart owns the film. Davis is quite good as well, but the film would’ve been better if Bogart had shot Howard’s character immediately to save us from his inane ramblings.
Above Average
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Too Many Husbands
Too Many HusbandsSometimes I wonder about Hollywood. In 1940, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made a film called My Favorite Wife in which Dunne was shipwrecked for seven years, and just when Grant had her declared dead and remarried, she showed back up. Also in 1940, this film was made, in which Fred MacMurray gets shipwrecked, and his wife Jean Arthur, after waiting seven years and declaring him dead, marries Melvyn Douglas–only to have MacMurray show back up. The weirdest thing to me is that My Favorite Wife is really careful not to push the censors too far–Grant never consummates his new marriage, since Dunne returned the day of the wedding. But Arthur had been married to Douglas for six months before MacMurray came back, and the first night MacMurray is back is basically spent with the two men trying to figure out how to get into Arthur’s bed without the other one stopping him. So it’s more risque, but it’s not as sustained as My Favorite Wife–in fact, it would be relatively dull if it weren’t for Arthur’s impeccable comic timing. (Suddenly imagining this story with Grant and Arthur, and wishing that film had been made instead of these two..)
Average
IMDb

Zodiac
ZodiacSerial killer movies fascinate me, especially the ones where the killer leaves clues to his identity to taunt the police. So I was totally primed to love David Fincher‘s Zodiac. I think without a rewatch, I’m going to say that I liked it a lot, and it was extremely well-done, but I’m not sure I loved it. Probably because I wasn’t quite expecting what I got–which is not a bad thing, and in fact, my guess is that when I rewatch it at some point, I will love it. Jake Gyllenhaal does realy well as the rookie journalist (cartoonist, really), who’s drawn to the puzzle and ends up devoting his life to obsessing over it. I can’t really discuss what threw me off without spoiling the ending, but the doubling and ambiguity that I usually love so much didn’t quite win me over this time, again, probably because I wasn’t expecting it. I was afraid at one point that it was going to devolve into survival horror–I’m very glad it didn’t, but that was also one of the more compelling, interesting scenes. I’m rambling now, because I’m trying to identify what didn’t completely work for me, and failing–which indicates that it was probably my failure and not the film’s, so the benefit of the doubt it gets.
Well Above Average
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INLAND EMPIRE
Inland EmpireI have a longer post about INLAND EMPIRE mulling around in my head, because it’s just that thought-provoking. Laura Dern turns in a tour-de-force performance in David Lynch‘s most surreal, mind-boggling film yet (I say, though I haven’t yet seen Wild at Heart or Lost Highway), playing actress Nikki who’s hoping to make a film comeback in a soapy southern melodrama–a remake whose original was never completed because its actors were murdered, supposedly due to a curse on the story. Before long, Nikki’s identity starts to merge with that of her character, Sue Blue, and from then on, we get a kaleidoscopic montage of scenes, images, pieces of plot, pieces of other plots, further fragmentation of characters, and random musical interjections that defies any sort of linear exposition. While Mullholland Drive, which this film resembles in a number of ways, is ultimately comprehensible at some level once you’ve got the key to it, after two viewings and weeks of reading and thinking about INLAND EMPIRE, I’m more and more convinced that there is no way to fully understand it on a cognitive level. But that doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible and incoherent–it simply uses a sort of holistic, thematic logic that doesn’t try to make every little bit fit into some puzzle pattern dictated by the norms of narrative storytelling, but recognizes the surreal effect of the whole, which is tremendous. (I think I can explicate it a little more fully than this, though, which I may do in the longer post…but I would still refuse to say my interpretation was the “right” one, or that there could be such a thing.) If you like David Lynch films (especially Mulholland Drive), don’t miss this one. If you don’t…you may not enjoy INLAND EMPIRE, but I hesitate to say “stay away” as I’ve seen some reviewers do, because there’s something special going on here.
Superior
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Stardust
StardustCute and sweet tale of a shy young Englishman crossing into the neighboring magical world to find a fallen star (Claire Danes) in order to win a girl, a quest complicated by the aging witches who need the star’s blood to regain their youth and the princes who must find a medallion the star has in order to claim the throne. I’m always a fan of colliding-world stories, and one thing I particularly liked about this one was that everyone was on a quest, but for different things, which made it more interesting than if they were all fighting over the same exact thing. They went a little too far on the Robert DeNiro gay pirate bit, though, for my taste. And the final fight became more ludicrous than swashbuckling. But other than that, quite enjoyable.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame

Inherit the Wind
Inherit the WindOkay, well-acted, well-directed, well-produced fictionalization of the Scopes’ Monkey Trial. As far the story goes, I have conflicted reactions. Reaction one: I believe the Bible and I believe in creation. Reaction two: These Christians are not the kind of Christian I am. Reaction three: I don’t whether to blame that on the filmmakers, the playwrights, or the real people, because I know that there are Christians like this–I just don’t know if these particular ones were (and films tend to gravitate toward negative depictions of Christians). Reaction four: I always thought that William Jennings Bryan did a much better job of defending Biblical Christianity than this–I hope he did and that the film is just being liberal. Reaction five: We are still dealing with this issue; the balance of media still falls on the side of the evolutionists, but the school system does now too–at this point, we need the opposite story to fight for our right to teach intelligent design. So yeah, ultimately, this is one of the few films that I cannot deal with as a film, because the ideological issues are too strong (and biased) to see past. But it is a good example of the strength of the media, because if I weren’t already a Christian and know that this is not really (or shouldn’t be) normative Christian behavior, I would be on Darrow’s side (my thoughts on academic freedom and an open exchange of ideas plays into it too, of course).
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Ladies They Talk About
Ladies They Talk AboutI’m always intrigued by how well the average 1930s Warner Bros. film stands up in comparison to the average, say, 1930s MGM film. I’m not saying that this is a great film; it isn’t. But it feels more real than most films from other studios did at the time–not as mannered, not as plush. Barbara Stanwyck is part of a bank-robbing gang and ends up caught and put in prison; but by the time she’s put away, she’s cozied up to the tough-on-crime man running for mayor. There are escape attempts, and murders, and a few regrettably soapy scenes, but overall Stanwyck keeps the film on track, because she’s awesome. And it’s not quite so “ripped from the headlines” and socially conscious as some of Warner’s other films of the time were, which helps it a lot on the enjoyability side.
Above Average
IMDb

Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier)
Le petit soldatI’m sorry, Jean-Luc, I didn’t quite get it this time. This Godard film was made in 1961, but not released in France for a couple of years because of its unflinching torture scenes and intimation that the French army was quite as unprincipled as the Algerian one during the Algerian War. I don’t know anything about the Algerian War (I tried to gather some info from Wikipedia about halfway through, but it wasn’t quite enough), and while I liked a lot of the moments in the film (especially those involving Anna Karina, because I have a girlcrush on her), the whole thing just kept losing me. I think the main character is a rather ambivalent French spy who gets captured by the Algerians and tortured, and then gets taken in by the French and tortured again, because they think he’s turned or something (and Karina is a spy too, but I forget for which side). Yeah, I just got really confused. And this is after a good three times trying to watch it this month. I’ll try it again later sometime, I promise, Jean-Luc.
Average
IMDb | Amazon

Books

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
WeThis precursor to 1984 and Brave New World explores a futuristic world wherein uniformity is the order of the day; the characters are known by numerical designation, everything is tightly scheduled (from work to “free time” to sex), private property is abolished, and walls are made of glass so no one has any secrets. The main character fully embraces and defends this life in the beginning, until he becomes obsessed with a female number who turns out to be a resistance agent. Yet is it really futuristic? Zamyatin wrote We in the early 1920s, just after the Communist revolution; he was never able to publish We in Russia, because the book is so clearly anti-communist. This connection makes We almost even more trenchant than the dystopian novels that followed it–Orwell and Huxley exaggerated dangers they saw to make them apparent; Zamyatin almost didn’t have to. It’s a shame this book isn’t as well known as the other two.
Well Above Average
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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth TaleA friend has been recommending this to me for months, and I finally found time to sit down with it. The main character, an amateur biographer, gets summoned by an eccentric novelist who wants her to write an official biography–throughout the years the novelist has given many imaginative versions of her own life, but now it seems she wants to tell the truth, which is more than a little strange. It’s quite well-written and interesting–part fictional literary memoir, part detective story, and all gothic mystery which owes more than a little to both Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Props to Setterfield for writing the surprise twist in such a way that I guessed it at the exact same second as the heroine.
Well Above Average
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Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next: First Among SequelsI slammed the first Thursday Next book when I first read it for violating its own principles of first-person narration, and yet I can’t keep myself from reading all the others in the series as soon as they come out, because the idea of Literary Detectives and being able to jump into books is just so darned appealing I can’t resist them. This is the fifth in the series, and it jumps ahead in time several years–Thursday’s son Friday is now seventeen and being courted by the ChronoGuard (oh, yeah, there’s also time-traveling–have I mentioned how irresistible I find time travel narratives?). Fforde has gotten better at not leaving gaping plot holes, so I’m more than ever ready to recommend the series to anyone who loves reading. The books aren’t always as coherent as they could be, but they’re never less than enjoyable, and often delightful. And sometimes, that’s all you need from non-required reading.
Above Average
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Losing Battles by Eudora Welty
Losing BattlesAKA the first novel for the much-dreaded Contemporary Southern Lit class (which became less dreaded as I reconciled myself to it over the summer, and I’m now mostly enjoying it, although I still don’t have a lot to say). And apparently, this is the professor’s favorite book ever, which bothers me a little because it’s probably my least favorite of the ones we’ve read in the class. Or maybe I’m just getting more acclimated to the course and understanding the works in it better. I don’t know. Anyway, Losing Battles is really well-written, and I did enjoy reading it, but I had real difficulty relating to the characters, who are gathered together for a ginormous multi-generational family reunion, a context that I just don’t know very well. I immediately identified with the one character who was an outsider to the group (she married into it but wanted to move away), which I’m not sure I was supposed to do, and I could never tell whether Welty intended to mock the family (which I would’ve been doing) or if she was nostalgic for their way of life. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been trying to figure out something to talk about in class and failing miserably.
Above Average
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