October 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

My movie-viewing stats have gone way down this month, due to school (to a small degree), but mostly television and becoming addicted to Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Guitar Hero II. But this means I’m all caught up on posting these! Yay. After the jump, reactions to Black Book, L’Avventura, Blood Diamond, Across the Universe, Gone Baby Gone, Away from Her, The Road, and others.

Film

Black Book
Black BookWell, if the point is that everybody has ulterior motives and can be expected to both betray and be betrayed, then I got that. Main character Ellis is a Jewish woman hiding from the Nazis during World War II; when she’s approached with the opportunity to join a group of Jews escaping out of Nazi territory, she seizes it. However, the escape turns out to be a trap, and Ellis is the only survivor. Back in Nazi territory, she joins the Resistance, and takes on the task of infiltrating the Nazi headquarters via seducing the captain. However, no one is who they seem, and virtually every alliance and friendship is reversed, sometimes reversed again. Generally, I really like stories with a lot of twists, but the cumulative effect here makes it nearly impossible to care about any of the characters, even Ellis. There are a lot of things to like about it–Carice van Houten‘s performance as Ellis, for example, is great and she did all she could to counter my growing apathy with the script. Still, as a whole, it just didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped, and there were several moments that just felt indulgent on director Paul Verhoeven‘s part.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

L’Avventura
L’AvventuraA group of friends takes a boating excursion out to a bunch of islands off the Italian coast; while sunbathing on the shore, Anna disappears. This isn’t completely unusual, since she’s sort of a restless character, and her wandering off to be alone would be fairly normal. However, she can’t be found. Her boyfriend Sandro and her best friend Claudia lead the search for her, which starts by canvassing the island, then moving to nearby islands and finally to the mainland. Meanwhile, everyone else gives up the search and Sandro and Claudia become attracted to each other. Don’t expect to find out what happened to Anna; the film never reveals whether she ran away, committed suicide, accidentally drowned, was kidnapped, or whatever. Rather, the film is about isolation, sophistication, and whether connecting with another human being is possible. L’Avventura is Michelangelo Antonioni‘s best-known work, the one that thrust him onto the European filmmaking stage in 1960. It’s somewhat cold and distancing, but that’s intentional and effective. I’m looking forward to more Antonioni.
Superior
IMDb | Amazon

My Life as a Dog
My Life as a DogIngemar is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying; he and his brother tend to be disruptive, so they’re separated and sent to live with other family members to give the mother a chance to rest. Ingemar goes to a small town and befriends the local denizens: an infirm old man, a beautiful young woman, a boy with unnaturally blonde/green hair, and especially the tomboy who fears her growing breasts will reveal her gender and force her off the football team. It’s not hard to add Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar to my list of great child performances–he captures the joys and pains of his situation very well. I do find the emphasis on sexuality to be a little disturbing, especially among such young children, but the film is still worth watching for Glanzelius’ performance and director Lasse Hallstrom‘s convincing slice-of-life realist style.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

Blood Diamond
Blood DiamondThis tale of African political turmoil, genocide, and diamond smuggling is beautiful to look at, and highlighting the plight of African refugees is certainly a noble goal, but overall, Blood Diamond is heavy-handed and overwrought. And I’m sorry, Leo, I think you’re a really good actor, but that South African accent was painful. Really, diCaprio’s best work last year was in The Departed, and when he was nominated for an Oscar for this instead, I was shocked, and still am. Anyway, the major reason I’m giving Blood Diamond an Above Average instead of an Average is because the cinematography is gorgeous, and it’s worth watching just to see the beauty of Africa even through the ugliness of so much of the current political situation.
Above Average
IMDb | The Frame | Amazon

Across the Universe
Acoss the UniverseJulie Taymor uses Beatles songs (many, many Beatles songs) to hold together her story of a working class Liverpool boy (Jude) who comes to America in the 1960s and meets and falls for preppy teenager Lucy. When her brother is drafted for Vietnam, the film takes a decidedly political turn and Jude and Lucy’s relationship is tested by Lucy’s devotion to the anti-war cause. Along the way are plenty of psychadelic detours and sweet duets. Basically, the entire Beatles oevre is covered, from the rollicking early 60s hits to the LCD-infused late 60s and political/philosophical 70s, which is great if a little on the gimmicky side. This film has split critics as much as any this year, and it’s easy to see why. It isn’t completely successful, largely because Taymor can’t decide what she wants to do with the political elements–she’s clearly anti-war, but she also appears to be anti-protest. Which could actually be the case, since an appeal to “All You Need is Love” appears to desire an alternative to violence perpetrated by both pro- and anti-war advocates; still, such a solution is pat at best. Still, even if Taymor doesn’t quite achieve her goals here (if indeed, we can discern her goals), there’s so much about the film that’s just plain enjoyable and enough that’s deliciously risky that it’s hard to deny it was worth trying. Generally, I’d say that a gutsy attempt at art is much better than staying safe and avoiding risk. Taymor has certainly made that attempt, and I applaud her for it.
Well Above Average
IMDb | The Frame

Gone Baby Gone
Gone Baby BoneBen Affleck‘s directorial debut has been getting rave reviews from all quarters. I had to check it out to see if the hype is because the film is actually good, or if it’s just surprisingly good for Ben Affleck. And I think it’s mostly because the film is good, but also a little of the other. Ben’s brother Casey plays the lead (and very well, too), a private investigator called in as auxiliary help in locating a kidnapped five-year-old girl. His input is valuable because he’s from the same South Boston neighborhood as the girl’s family, a neighborhood that’s rather difficult for outsiders (like policemen) to infiltrate and get straight answers. The film has a lot of complexity, covering everything from police corruption to the ethics of leaving a child in a home of the type she was abducted from at all to the question of whether or not killing is ever justified. Casey’s character sees morality as very black and white and absolute, while some of the other characters see more shades (especially detective Ed Harris, whose performance is too great not to mention); who is right? The film suggests that Casey’s devotion to the law isn’t always right, but doesn’t really answer the more abstract moral question, which is perhaps a strength. The depiction of Boston was very convincing, too; raw and sometimes hard to watch. Yet despite all these things I can marshall in support of the film, I still found myself not quite as positive about it as a whole as many other reviewers have been. And I think it’s this: the complex issues I mention above don’t really come up until the last twenty minutes or so, leaving us watching some two hours of relatively straight-forward detective work. Sometimes that sort of pacing can work, lulling you into thinking you’ve got a film figured out and then upsetting all your expectations, but it doesn’t work here as well as it could. If the complications had been introduced or hinted at more strongly earlier in the script, I think the whole film would’ve been more effective; as it is, mostly the last twenty minutes are effective.
Well Above Average
IMDb

Away from Her
Away from HerAnd now Sarah Polley‘s directorial debut, which has gotten rave reviews all year. I still find it most interesting that Polley, a twenty-something indie actress, would choose to make her directorial debut a film about an older woman (Julie Christie) suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the strain it puts on her husband (Gordon Pinsent). It’s an unusual move, but one that really works well. Fiona commits herself to a home when she fears that her lessening mental abilities make it too difficult for her husband Grant to care for her; however, the home requires a 30-day period of isolation for new residents to integrate them into their new community (which I think is dumb, but I am not an Alzheimer’s doctor), and it’s unclear how well Fiona even remembers Grant by the end of it. The film is as much or more about Grant trying to deal with losing his wife as it is about Fiona, and it’s heartbreaking at times. The acting is wonderfully understated, and Polley has a sure hand with the pacing and script. Especial kudos to Christie for an absolutely incredible performance in depicting the knowing descent into the disease. It starts to lose itself a little near the end, but there’s simply so much good here that it’s mostly easy to ignore the very few missteps.
Well Above Average, very close to Superior
IMDb | Amazon

The Thing
The ThingWhen I agreed to go to my friend’s Halloween movie-watching party, she promised me that John Carpenter‘s The Thing was schlocky enough that I wouldn’t really be scared. And she was right. A group of scientists in Antarctica come in contact with an alien life form that can take over other living things and assume their form; soon, they realize that any of them could actually be infected with the alien DNA. We all had a few nice screams each time the alien revealed itself (the blood, man, the blood); Carpenter definitely has a great sense of timing. The script was pretty laughable, though, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing to a bunch of horror-shy people like most of us at the party were. ;) All in all, not an out-and-out classic, but perhaps a classic of the schlocky horror genre.
Above Average
IMDb | Amazon

Troll 2
Troll 2Okay, I don’t even know how to rate this. I’ve been debating for days. So I probably won’t. This is widely regarded to be one of the worst movies of all time, and I can’t argue with that. The basic storyline is this: Young Joshua is visited by his dead grandfather, who tells him stories of goblins who turn humans into plants so they can eat them (vegetarian goblins). When Joshua’s family goes on vacation to Nilbog (“Nilbog! It’s goblin spelled backwards!” – Joshua figures out LONG after the audience), Grandpa’s stories start coming true, and then things just get weirder and funnier. But not on purpose. Although, one wonders how anyone could have gathered a group of actors THIS BAD and a script THIS BAD not on purpose. Seriously, the script must’ve been written by a seven-year-old; that’s the only explanation that makes sense. So yes, it’s a terrible movie. BUT. It’s incredibly entertaining, and I had a ton of fun watching it. I’m not alone in this; it’s a very popular midnight-show film at indie theatres and revival house. So, if I rate it purely on objective quality, it’d be a bomb. But if I rate it on enjoyability, it’d definitely be Above Average. And I’d definitely recommend seeing it late some night, preferably with friends to help you mock. (Side note: Michael Paul Stephenson, who plays Joshua, is now all grown up and making a documentary about Troll 2 called Best Worst Movie, looking at the production, I think, but mostly the cult status the film has gained. There’s a trailer for that here.)
IMDb | Amazon

Books

A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines
A Gathering of Old MenIt’s the mid-1960s, but in the rural Southern setting of this novel, the remnants of slavery are still evident; the aging white landowners occupy the plantation house, while the ten or fifteen black families live down in the old quarters. Racial issues come to the fore, but are anything but cut and dried, when a Creole man is killed in the quarters. When the sheriff shows up, he finds a young white woman and several old black men with shotguns all claiming responsibility for the death. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, from the small boy tasked with gathering the shotgun men to the white woman’s journalist fiance, to various ones of the old men (shades of Faulkner). All of this should make for an extremely compelling book; let’s say that it is compelling, but I wish (and my classmates did, too) that Gaines had carried out the sense of race and color variations that began the book out through the end–by the end it turned into much more of a black vs. white battle. The fact that the murdered man is Creole is fascinating; he’s treated as white, but there’s clearly a huge class and culture difference between the Creole community and the older white community. Unfortunately, these issues are not explored as well as they could be. Still, there’s a lot going on here, and the style is definitely evocative.
Above Average
WorldCat | Amazon

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Dinner at the Homesick RestaurantGit yer disfunctional families, right here. The mother is controlling, the father leaves when the kids are little, the oldest son is mean and brusque, the daughter is a commitmentphobe, and the younger son is just a little slow (and actually, their interpersonal relationships are even worse than that suggests). Lots of things happen, as we follow the family from the mother’s marriage on through her death as an old woman, and a lot of it is quite good. I mean, the things that happen are usually bad, but the book is good. I’d never read Anne Tyler before, and I’m not sure I’ll jump right out and read something else of hers, but I enjoyed reading this as much as any of the other Southern Lit books up to this point. The third-person narrator moves back and forth between the different characters points of view, which makes them much more complex than they initially appear.
Above Average
WorldCat | Amazon

Can’t Quit You, Baby by Ellen Douglas
Can’t Quit You BabyHands down my favorite book of the semester so far, and likely to remain so. I can’t decide if I’m just incredibly lucky that I picked this one to write about for my short paper, or if I like it so much at least partially because writing about it made me read it more carefully and work harder to understand it than I did for any of the other books. Possibly some of both, but I think it would’ve been my favorite anyway. (And I’m not alone; at least two other people who didn’t write about this book for their short papers have chosen to for their long ones). Cornelia is a comfortably well-off white woman in the South in 1969; Julia, better known as Tweet, is her black housekeeper. The two women share a kitchen-based relationship characterized by Tweet telling stories from her past and Cornelia pretending to listen (she’s mostly deaf, which becomes one of many metaphors for the way she tunes out the problems and lives of other people). Various traumatic incidents happen which force Cornelia out of her shell. I want to tell more, but I won’t, because it’ll turn into an essay, and nobody reading this site wants that. The best thing about it, though, for me, is the narratorial voice, which is intrusive, tongue-in-cheek, sometimes self-contradictory, and generally complicates everything in the book. I pretty much love it when books are self-aware and highlight their own constructedness, and Douglas does a stupendous job with that. I want to read everything she wrote.
Superior
WorldCat | Amazon

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The RoadOne of my best friends is doing her dissertation on McCarthy, and I’ve been promising her for a year that I’d read something by him. I debated making it No Country for Old Men on account of the Coen brothers film version coming out, like, this week, but Lydia warned me that NCFOM is probably McCarthy’s worst book and that I should read The Road instead. So I did. And I sort of have two reactions. First, wow is this different than anything else I’ve read lately (which has been mostly Southern fiction with lush writing and lots of physical detail), and second, wow is this good. A man and his son (known only in the book as “the man” and “the boy”) walk the road in a postapocalyptic future trying to get to somewhere, anywhere, that isn’t completely burned up and deserted–deserted except for the gangs of cannibalistic killers who are essentially the only survivors still remaining. Really, not much happens in the novel besides a few times when their agonizing journey is punctuated by a tense conflict with dangerous men or by a fortuitous discovery of food that hasn’t already been scavenged. Yet the atmosphere is so wonderfully realized and the two characters so well-drawn that you can’t stop reading their story, their thoughts, their interactions with each other. The writing is very spare, very sparse. Lots of sentence fragments. Very effective. It’s both heartbreaking and hopeful; it sounds as though it would be depressing, and yet it isn’t. I did think the end was a bit abrupt and implausible, but that’s two pages out of a couple of hundred, so I don’t feel like complaining about it too much.
Superior
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