September 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

And I have a new record for most movies seen in a month. Since I’ve been keeping track, that is. But no more, for school, television, and Xbox360 have stolen my movie-watching time, and October’s recap is going to be fairly thin. Which is good, because then I can get caught up on writing and posting them. After the jump, reactions to Death at a Funeral, Celine and Julie Go Boating, 3:10 to Yuma, Butterfield 8, Breakfast on Pluto, The Double Life of Veronique, Starter for 10, Alphaville, The Color Purple (book and film), The Brave One, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights, Eastern Promises, Two for the Road, A Mighty Wind, The Optimist’s Daughter, Atonement, and more.

Movies

Death at a Funeral
Death at a FuneralI haven’t decided yet whether this movie is actually good or if it’s just really good at fooling you into thinking it’s good. I mean, I laughed almost continuously, and yet I also felt highly manipulated into laughing constantly. Matthew MacFadyen gains laughs by being completely deadpan to all the craziness going around, but he’s lost much of the charm that made his Mr. Darcy intriguing a couple of years ago, and that imbued his role in Britain’s MI:5. Meanwhile, Alan Tudyk is perfect as a man marrying into the family, trying to make a good impression on his prospective father-in-law and failing miserably due to the large amount of hallucinogenic drugs he took accidentally. I’ve loved Tudyk certainly since Firefly, and even going back to 28 Days, and he needs to be in, like, every movie. And “everything’s so green!” will likely be a catch-phrase among my group of friends for a while. But outside of Tudyk (and Peter Dinklage, whose larger-than-life persona always belies his small size), I think the film was simply trying too hard, something I blame on director Frank Oz, who needs to stick to voicing Yoda and leave the Britcom directing to actual Brits.
Average
IMDb | The Frame

They Drive by Night
They Drive By NightHumphrey Bogart and George Raft play truck driver brothers, trying to get ahead before they get killed (who knew truck driving was so dangerous?), or, you know, framed into murder plots by Ida Lupino–their boss’s wife who has amorous designs on Raft, despite his much healthier relationship with a young Ann Sheridan (whose acting does, however, leave something to be desired). There’s some interest here–Bogart before he got big (Raft was much the bigger star at the time, which is a bit mind-boggling, because he seems to me to have a very forgettable face, but then I’m coming into the film with an established love for Bogey), Ida Lupino very shortly before she bucked the system and moved into directing, some nice pre-noirish touches. It’s a very good example of the Warner studio style, but beyond that, not terribly distinguished.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

The Desperate Hours
The Desperate HoursIn one of his last film roles, Bogart plays an escaped convict who takes a suburban family hostage in their home until his girlfriend can arrive with the money he needs to complete his escape. Unfortunately, she’s delayed and the hostage situation continues for two days, growing more and more intense. Fredric March is great at the father torn between telling the police and protecting his family by staying quiet.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

One, Two, Three
One, Two, ThreeStarts off fast and the pace only accelerates to keep up with James Cagney‘s fast-talking Coca-Cola marketer in Berlin, charged with keeping his boss’s daughter safe when she visits–a task that quickly becomes more than he bargained for when she secretly marries a communist from East Berlin and plans to move to Moscow with him. This film is not as well-known as many of Billy Wilder‘s other classics, like Double Indemnity or Some Like It Hot or The Apartment, and maybe it isn’t quite as groundbreaking as they are, but it really deserves to be seen and enjoyed. Once I got into it, I was hooked and it never let me go.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

Celine and Julie Go Boating
Celine and Julie Go BoatingFilmbo has been telling me to find a copy of Jacques Rivette‘s best-known film ever since we started chatting about Godard, but it’s difficult to find. Finally I was brilliant and realized that I go to a large university which, although it does not have a large audiovisual collection, DOES have a very efficient interlibrary loan system. So I did that. It was still a VHS copy, which as I’ve said, gets on my nerves to a large degree, but hey. We work with what we’ve got. And I worked with this film three times through, and came up with “I don’t understand it, but I love it.” Which is good enough for me. Celine and Julie meet, become friends, and their identities merge, or something, but in a fun way, not so much in a Persona-esque way. Then there’s this house where some completely other story is going on, which they can put themselves into by eating certain pieces of candy–when they do, one of them becomes the maid in the story, which concerns a man, two women who seem to both love him, and a child whose life is in danger. The two girls take it upon themselves to use their shared position as the maid to save the child. How all this works, I don’t know, because it’s surrealist…however, just coming off watching INLAND EMPIRE, it seems downright logical and orderly. Heh. Anyway. I wanted to watch it more, but I finally just couldn’t stand looking at the crappy VHS anymore–hopefully the company that owns the rights will remaster it and release it on DVD before too terribly long.
Superior
IMDb | The Frame

Broken English
Broken EnglishThere’s almost too much to identify with in this story of a thirty-something woman who can’t seem to meet the right guys and works in a hotel. Not that I’m thirty-something yet, and I don’t work in a hotel, but I’m starting to see myself getting to be thirty-something and working in an office or something and not being able to meet the right guys. Anyway. I didn’t like the movie only because I connected with the main character (we have some similar personality traits, too), but because it’s a very simple, bittersweet look at the difficulty of starting and keeping relationships. The fact that she does in fact meet a wonderful French guy and ends up in Paris may not help me set realistic expectations, but hey. It’s a movie. And I like Paris. The ending is perhaps a little too pat, but there are enough good moments to make it worthwhile, and Parker Posey is great in the lead.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

Red Road
Red RoadSlow-moving but ultimately worthwhile. A surveillance camera monitor sees someone she knows during the course of her job, leading her on a breakneck path to revenge–exactly what or why or how it’s not clear for a long time, but by the end it becomes much more than just a revenge story; rather, it’s a redemption one. I could give a better plot description, but that would spoil the surprises, now wouldn’t it? It’s not really easy to watch, either for the squeamish or the short-attention-spanned, but it’s a really fine example of the indie thrillers our British cousins can put out and we can’t seem to manage.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

3:10 to Yuma
3:10 to YumaThe western genre has been trying to mount a comeback for years, and this might just be the film to do it. It’s about as perfect a western as this modern era can conjure; the acting is wonderful, the music great, the script perfect, the story superb. Russell Crowe plays the bad guy who needs to be taken to the train station for transport to his trial; Christian Bale is the quiet farmer who takes the unhealthy job of keeping him from being set free by his bloodthirsty gang. The western is the American myth–as such, it’s larger than life, and questions of honor outweigh most everything else. These elements tend to be lost in more modern “realistic” film, but 3:10 to Yuma balances generic and modern sensibilities better than almost any recent western. The only, seriously, the only question I have is, could we not have some deep focus photography instead of all the rack focusing? And some wide shots instead of all mediums and close-ups? Those trends in modern cinematography just don’t always work for the western, but I give the filmmakers props for trying to merge some of current action trends into the western–sometimes it works wonderfully here, but other times, less so.
Well Above Average
IMDb | The Frame

BUtterfield 8
Butterfield 8Relatively solid 1950s soapy melodrama gets a little heavy on the suds toward the end, but there are a number of good moments–many of them involving Susan Oliver as Eddie Fisher‘s girlfriend Norma, who fears she’s losing him to long-time friend and call-girl Elizabeth Taylor (who somehow managed an Oscar for this not-her-best role). The love story between Taylor and one of her clients, Laurence Harvey is supposed to be the center of attention, but it’s really just tiring and annoying. The beginning of the film is pretty snappy, with some great dialogue going to Taylor’s mother’s best friend, but that too gets lost in the mix along the way. Apparently Mildred Pierce and Written on the Wind have spoiled me when it comes to melodrama.
Average
IMDb | Amazon

À nous la liberté
A nous la liberteA man escapes from prison and becomes the successful head of a record manufacturing company; his cellmate escapes later and ends up working for the factory. Events come to a head when the successful man is threatened with exposure from various other former prisonmates, but the main focus is a satiric critique of the industrial revolution/factory system by way of comparing the assembly line process to the tedious work the men did in jail. It’s got a lot of similarity to Charlie Chaplin‘s later Modern Times, but in French instead of silent. Personally, I prefer Chaplin, but À nous la liberté is highly respected as well.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

Breakfast on Pluto
Breakfast on PlutoPatrick is a young Irish boy who before very long becomes Patricia. My friends and I watched this for Sunday Movie Night, and it was funny because it ended up being about the third movie in a row that in some way involved cross-dressing. Not that we planned it that way. Anyway. His story is about more than just his attempts to get people to accept him as a her; his quest for identity and his lost family (he was abandoned on a church stoop as an infant) is played out against the backdrop of the early years of the Troubles, as his friends get more and more involved in IRA factions while he does his best to keep from getting involved in things that are too “serious.” There’s a lot of heart to the film, yet it never gets overly sentimental or stops being fun. There’s a tough-to-find sweet spot between hilarity and tragedy, and hilarity that masks tragedy, and director Neil Jordan and actor Cillian Murphy found it with this film. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a really well-done indie-type Irish film.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

The Double Life of Veronique
The Double Life of VeroniqueIf Krzysztof Kieslowski didn’t win my award for MOST BEAUTIFUL FILMS EVER with the Three Colors trilogy (see reactions), he’s definitely got it now that I’ve seen Veronique. Every single shot of this film is absolute perfection. In fact, every moment of the film is absolute perfection. The colors, the framing, the reflections, Irene Jacob‘s face, everything. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful films, but this is the most gorgeous one yet…every single ordinary object is imbued with extraordinary wonder. And the music, oh, the music. With Blue, the music was the main thing that kept me engaged with the plot. Here, the music is what ties the film together, and it’s even more successful. Oh, plot. Right. Irene Jacob plays Weronica, a Polish girl, as well as Veronique, a French girl. The film is playing with concepts of doubling–the girls don’t ever meet, and they aren’t the same person or separated twins or anything like that, but they do share some sort of mystical/spiritual connection. Don’t ask me exactly how that works, but it makes for a very intriguing meditation. And even if you don’t get the plot, did I mention it’s TOTALLY GORGEOUS? Mark me down as a Kieslowski fangirl.
Superior
IMDb | Amazon

Look Both Ways
Look Both WaysEnjoyable Australian film about a woman who always fears the worst, leading to paralysis in her life as she imagines (in wonderful little animated bits) horrible things happening to kill her and thus she never does anything. It’s not just her story, though–there’s also the photographer she meets who just found out he’s got cancer (and he constantly worries about the things he’s done that may have led to it), the journalist who believes that most accidental deaths are really suicides, the journalist’s pregnant pseudo-girlfriend, and the newspaper editor whose role I’m not entirely clear on. The point is, life passes you by if you’re too cautious to live it. The animated bits that illustrate the woman’s mental processes and the photographs that illustrate the photographers are great, as is the music chosen as the soundtrack of their lives, which elevate this above its somewhat trite message. Plus, accents!
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

Starter for 10
Starter for TenPretty much all of my female friends have crushes on James McAvoy. So we all greatly enjoyed watching this one Sunday night. McAvoy plays a young man headed to Bristol University, taking part in the University Challenge trivia contest (which he and his dad had watched on television all during his childhood), and falling in love with the hot blonde girl while failing to notice the girl who really cares about him. Yeah, the story’s routine. But it’s still quite delightful, and we all agreed that it was markedly superior to what the equivalent American film would’ve been–for example, in an American film of this sort, the hot blonde girl would also have turned out to be mean and stupid, but here she’s actually quite nice and pretty smart. Rebecca Hall is really good as the other girl; she was Christian Bale‘s wife in The Prestige and did a great job there as well–I’m hoping to see a lot more of her in the future.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

Alphaville
AlphavilleOr, Jean-Luc Godard does sci-fi. Sort of. Lemmy Caution arrives in Alphaville, which has been taken over by a gigantic computer, which runs and regulates everything in the town. All the details were a little hard for me to grasp, even though I watched it twice (I never did get what exactly brought Lemmy to the city in the first place), but there are, as usual for Godard, a lot of interesting things going on. My beloved Anna Karina is here, as the girl who becomes both Lemmy’s way to get into the computer to destroy it and his love interest. There’s a good bit of 1984 in it, especially linguistically–what the inhabitants of the city term “the Bible” turns out to be a dictionary, which is replaced daily with a new one, as the list of approved words changes. There’s a great scene where Natacha (Karina) and Lemmy discuss words which have been deleted from the city’s vocabulary, suggesting that if the word for something doesn’t exist, than neither does the thing itself–Natacha can no longer feel emotion because the necessary language no longer exists. And the weapon Lemmy brings against the totalitarian computer? Poetry. Awesome. Anyway. The lighting scheme and set design are great too, very minimalist, and very obviously 1960s-era Paris. The plot may be futuristic, but the setting isn’t…a purposeful move on Godard’s part, who in 1965, when this was made, was moving into a more politically-charged section of his career. (Just after I posted this, Anne Thompson of Variety posted a clip from Alphaville in her blog, Thompson on Hollywood.)
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

The Color Purple
The Color PurpleI watched this only a few days after I read the book (see below), which is usually a mistake, and this was no exception. The book was amazing, and all the way through I was thinking what I’d do to make it into a film, and then I watched the film (which has a good pedigree, being directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey), and it just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Spielberg indulged his sentimental side, adding in scenes that aren’t explicit in the book to try to make it more affecting (instead it’s just more maudlin). More than that even, it was just too long. When I read the book it felt incredibly short–I couldn’t stop turning pages and then it was over before I was ready. But the movie felt very, very long. The actors all did a fine job; mostly I’m just on old Steven’s case about this. And perhaps seeing it again with some distance between it and the book would help.
Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
The Death of Mr LazarescuI’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. It’s certainly unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen. Romanian cinema is apparently undergoing a “new wave” of sorts, and this film is in the vanguard of it. Mr. Lazarescu is an elderly man who starts throwing up blood one day, and his neighbors finally call an ambulance. Lazarescu insists its just an ulcer, but the EMT thinks it might be cancer or something, and she tries to take him to the hospital. And every hospital turns him away for one reason or another, all night, despite the fact that he’s steadily getting worse. It’s an indictment of the Romanian healthcare system for sure, but I think it may be more than that…precisely what, I don’t know. A meditation on death itself, perhaps. The style, though, caught me completely off-guard. It’s so very realistic that it would be easy to mistake it for a documentary. The actors don’t act like actors at all, a lot of the dialogue doesn’t feel written, and the cinematography is bare-bones. I’m not sure I really liked it, but I’m glad I saw it. (I’ve never seen a Romanian film before, or even heard the Romanian language–I was surprised by how closely it resembles Spanish and Portuguese…once I thought about it, that made sense, because obviously Romanian is a Romance language, but I guess because of where Romania is in Europe, I was expecting it to sound Slavic. Which again, makes no sense.)
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

The Brave One
The Brave OneJodie Foster gets beat up, her boyfriend killed, and her dog stolen by a bunch of punks in Central Park, so she goes vigilante on their asses. Basically. She also goes vigilante on a lot of other people who have done bad things but the police can’t pin them. Her relationship with the cop who’s trying to find the vigilante killer is an interesting one–keep your enemies close, they say, but to what extent are they on the same side? Director Neil Jordan also does some interesting things photographically; especially effective are the scenes when Foster first gets home from the hospital and is afraid of going outside in New York for the first time in her life. That fear is palpable. You also have, though, a sort of tacit endorsement of vigilante justice; Jordan tries to complicate it, but doesn’t really. Plus there are some large plot holes and logical leaps that are quite distracting. Jodie’s expected good performance knocks it up a level.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame

Knocked Up
Knocked UpI wanted to like this. I loved the trailers. I love Katharine Heigl. It got great reviews from most quarters. Maybe my expectations were overly inflated, or perhaps I’m simply not the right demographic for the film. Anyway, it wasn’t so much that the humor offended me as that I simply didn’t find most of it funny; even the scenes that cracked me up in the trailer were paced totally differently in the film, which made them less funny. There were good parts, but as a whole, it didn’t capture me.
Average
IMDb | Amazon

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Talladega NightsOne of these days I’m going to learn to stop renting Frat Pack movies. I really like Will Ferrell, and, as with Knocked Up, the trailers usually amuse me. But they can’t keep it up for two hours. These things need to be SNL skit length, and then they would amuse me greatly. Over feature length, though, they lose steam.
Average
IMDb | Amazon

Eastern Promises
Eastern PromisesThank God, an actual really good film. The last two or three sorta depressed me. David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen bring us another conflicted crime tale (after they teamed up for A History of Violence a couple of years ago), this time about a midwife (Naomi Watts) drawn into the Russian Mafia when she tries to find out what happened to a teenage girl who died giving birth and the Mafia henchman (Mortensen) who is more than he seems. The layers are many, the violence is intense, and the humanity is paramount. It’s the best film of the year so far.
Superior
IMDb | The Frame

Two for the Road
Two for the RoadWow. I was expecting to like this, because of the Audrey Hepburn factor, but I really wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it is. I may have to revise my opinion of director Stanley Donen after this. Hepburn and Albert Finney play a couple whose marriage is on the verge of collapsing. As they drive to a party which neither really wants to go to, they think back and remember other times in their marriage, both good and bad; these other times are intercut with the present, but here’s the thing. They’re all the present. Each of these formative periods takes place during a trip of some sort. We get their initial courtship as Europe-hopping students, their honeymoon road trip through England, their vacation with Finney’s former girlfriend and her family (yeah, it’s as awkward as it sounds), and a few other trips. Each transition to a new time period is triggered by a car passing–a car which they will be driving in a different phase of their life. At first I thought this was just a visual trick, but Donen’s thinking much deeper than that. Each of these times has made the couple who they are, and each time is somehow present when they consider whether or not to break up. As a conceit, it’s simple but brilliant, and Donen and the actors carry it out beautifully.
Superior
IMDb | Amazon

A Mighty Wind
A Mighty WindChristopher Guest has gotten the mockumentary format down to a science. I’d been putting off seeing A Mighty Wind because honestly, I wasn’t that interested in folk music, or making fun of it. But friends convinced me, and they were right. Friends are good. I like friends. Anyway, the best thing about A Mighty Wind is that yes, it lampoons folk music groups (the story follows a reunion of various acts upon the death of their producer), but it also clearly has a soft spot for them. It’s always funny but never mean, something that’s very difficult to do in parody.
Well Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

Books

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
The Optimist’s DaughterThis was the other Eudora Welty novel we read for Southern Lit, after Losing Battles (reaction), and I found it easier to relate to, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it focused on one woman, Laurel, and how she deals with the death of her father (and also the presence of her stepmother, who’s basically her own age). There’s a lot more to it than such a synopsis indicates, but it’s mostly character-based. Still didn’t find much to talk about in class, though.
Above Average
WorldCat | Amazon

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color PurpleOkay, I don’t even know what made this book so good, but it was. I think having had the Harlem Renaissance class last year helped, since it’s all from the perspective of a much-abused black woman, from the age of fourteen on. It’s epistolary, which is interesting in and of itself; epistolary novels were really popular in the 18th century, but by the twentieth century, hardly anyone was using the format. And Celie not only writes letters, she writes letters to God, which just brings in a whole other element. Watching Celie move from a barely literate 14-year-old to the woman at the end of the book is revelatory; definitely some Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in there, as weird as that may sound. So I think mostly it was the form that grabbed me, which also helps explain why the movie didn’t grab me…it’s hard to do increasing-consciousness epistolary form in a movie.
Superior
Wikipedia | WorldCat | Amazon

Atonement by Ian McEwan
AtonementYes, I read this in anticipation of the upcoming film version. I was actually going to wait until after I’d seen the film, but a friend warned me that a major part of the book is the way it’s told, and knowing the plot beforehand would ruin some of that. Folks, SHE WAS RIGHT. This is quite probably the best book I’ve read all year, and if you’re going to see the movie, PLEASE read the book first. It’s quite incredible. I didn’t really know anything about the story before I started reading it, and I think I enjoyed it all the more. But for those who always ask “what’s it about,” here’s what it’s about. There’s Cecilia, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in 1930s Britain. And Robby, the gardener’s son who has grown up almost as part of the family. In defiance of the fading class structure, they realize they’re in love. And then there’s Briony, Cecilia’s thirteen-year-old sister, who writes stories and sees Cecilia and Robby when she shouldn’t have. And there’s World War II. And the Blitz. And a focus on characterization and atmosphere that overshadows even these horrific world events. And everything, characters, plot, tone, structure–everything is perfect. I want to read it again for the first time right now.
Superior
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