February 2008 Watching/Reading/Gaming Recap

Click through for reactions to Them!, The War of the Worlds, Superbad, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Assassination of Jesse James, Sunshine, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, Call of Duty 4, and more.

Films

Them!
Them!
I love a good classic sci-fi film every now and again, and this one hits all the high points.  Radioactive material?  Check.  Mutant insects?  Check. Scientists?  Check.  Nuclear paranoia?  Check.  This is what I love about 1950s sci-fi: for one thing, they’re actually about scientific things and not just tangentially including aliens or some such like modern sci-fi; for another, there’s always such a lovely undercurrent of McCarthyism or nuclear fear running through them.  Them! is about giant mutant spiders ants (created by radioactivity left by atomic bomb tests in Arizona) who start attacking people, first in Arizona, then to Texas and Mexico, and finally in the middle of Los Angeles.  A team of scientists works with the police to take the monsters down.  This is actually one of the better examples of the "atomic mutant" sci-fi films, of which there were many; it builds intensity perfectly (in fact, it’s at least half an hour in before you come close to finding out what’s happening, adding in a very welcome mystery element), doesn’t spend too long on the romantic subplot, and is ambiguous enough with its blame as to not be xenophobic.
Well Above Average
USA 1954; dir: Gordon Douglas; starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn 
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Forbidden Planet
Forbidden Planet
Continuing the classic sci-fi kick, how about the 1950s sci-fi version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest?  Great concept, right?  Instead of mariners shipwrecked on Prospero’s island, we have astronauts dispatched to Walter Pidgeon’s planet, complete with a sexy/innocent daughter and a robot version of Ariel.  As an adaptation of The Tempest, Forbidden Planet is quite interesting, and fits perfectly with my preference for very loose, even displaced reinterpretations of source material.  It’s also not hard to see it as an influence on Star Trek.  On it’s own, though, the denoument is silly enough to take it down a couple of notches as a film.  (For that matter, the denoument of The Tempest isn’t precisely believable, come to think of it…)
Average
USA 1956; dir: Fred M. Wilcox; starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen 
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Superbad
Superbad
After disliking Knocked Up so much, I really expected to hate Superbad.  But I actually quite liked it.  Yes, it’s an Apatow/Rogen film, which I pretty regularly don’t like, but I think Michael Cera’s presence made a huge difference.  He and Jonah Hill play high school seniors planning to crash the last big party of the year and lay the pretty girls by turning up with alcohol bought using fake IDs.  Okay, see, Jonah Hill plans to do that; Michael Cera goes along with him because they’re best friends.  Cera’s sweetness balances Hill’s crassness (and the film is very crass; honestly I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily offended by teenagers swearing and making coarse jokes), a balance sorely lacking in every other Apatow film I’ve seen.  Plus, McLovin is awesome (he’s the kid who got his fake ID with the name "McLovin" on it, because he thought it sounded cool).
Above Average
USA 2007; dir: Greg Mottola; starring: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera
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War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds
The 1953 version of H.G. Wells’ classic Martian attack story.  The alien ships land mysteriously, then start randomly attacking without warning.  The special effects are actually quite impressive for the time period, down to the disintegration rays.  My favorite thing, though, was the March-of-Time style narration and incorporation of actual war/newsreel footage within the film.  Of course, that added realism also brings to mind Orson Welles’ famous 1939 radio version of the story, which actually precipitated an invasion scare.  Anyway, I rather enjoyed Spielberg‘s update of the film a few years back, and it was interesting just how closely some of the scenes were copied (especially when the protagonists are in the house and the aliens are searching for them).  The ending is a little deus ex machina, but up until that, very enjoyable.
Above Average
USA 1953; dir: Byron Haskin; starring: Gene Berry, Ann Robinson
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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Remember when the Oscar nominations came out and I slammed the foreign language category for not including this film?  That was before I had seen this film.  Now I’m even more incensed, because 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of the most impressive films of the year regardless of national origin, and it’s better than 75% of the films that have ever won the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Bear that in mind when I tell you the plot.  It’s 1987 in Bucharest, Romania, and a woman is placing herself in all sorts of legal and physical danger to help her friend obtain an illegal abortion.  Though the story sounds as if it would be politically pro-choice, and I suppose if you forced a political viewpoint on it, that’s what you’d come away with (though it makes little sense considering that abortion is now legal in Romania, and the country has one of the highest abortion rates in the world–there’s no political reason for the film to make a pro-abortion statement), but it’s really neither pro-choice nor pro-life; rather, it’s profoundly ambiguous and refuses to allow the audience to easily choose either side.  The style is extremely minimalist (this film and 2006’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu are at the forefront of Romania’s current New Wave, which so far tends toward minimalist realism), and that’s what really made the film so powerful.  The camera moves so little that when it does, it has an almost physical force.  At root 4 Months is a thriller, but a thriller that thrills through the lack of movement rather than an excess of it, as most American thrillers do.  In the final shot, the woman turns and stares straight at the camera for a moment, as if daring us to make sense of the events we have just witnessed, daring us to go back to our lives smug and unchanged.
Superior
Romania 2007; dir: Cristian Mungiu; starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu 
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Sunshine
Sunshine
I mentioned above that I liked classic science fiction films because they’re actually about science; here’s an example of a current sci-fi film which I’m glad to say also counts as actually science fiction.  I was pretty miffed that I never got a chance to see this in theatres last year (after also being miffed that it got delayed about three times), and I still wish I’d been able to.  Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I sense that it would be even better experienced on the big screen.  Anyway, the premise is that the sun is dying, and we have sent up a team in a spaceship with a huge atomic payload in the hopes that exploding the bomb in the sun will reignite it.  A previous ship had tried to do the same thing, but had gone missing; don’t worry, it turns up.  And when I say "don’t worry," I mean from the standpoint of narrative; for the characters’ safety you should definitely worry.  I’m not shy about admitting that I pretty much think Danny Boyle is a visionary director (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions, among others), and this is no exception.  Sunshine is visually stunning from start to finish, allows plenty of time for philosophic contemplation and ethical dilemmas, not to mention the hugely disorienting ending sequence (possibly too disorienting, actually–it’s the one place I think Boyle may have gone too far into self-indulgence).  The downside is that, as evidenced by the delays and short theatrical run, distributors don’t have any idea how to market a sci-fi/action film as cerebral as this one.  But if you like Boyle’s previous work, or 2001, or Tarkovsky‘s Solaris, seek out Sunshine.
Well Above Average
UK/US 2007; dir: Danny Boyle; starring: Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh 
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Operation Petticoat
Operation Petticoat
Enjoyable but not particularly memorable farce.  Cary Grant is the captain of a submarine, Tony Curtis a recently-assigned officer whose entire military experience has thus far involved social planning for at-home military personnel.  Despite his dandified manners, though, he turns out to be quite adept at "requisitioning" needed supplies via unorthodox means.  Along the way, the sub picks up a group of stranded nurses from a Pacific island, which causes no end of difficulty, since, after all, subs aren’t really made for co-ed arrangements, at least not during WWII.  The film continues episodically from these two situational premises.  It was a quite good diversion for the afternoon, and Grant is, as usual, perfect.
Average
USA 1959; dir: Blake Edwards; starring: Cary Grant, Tony Curtis
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Can we talk for just a second about how SAD I AM that I didn’t get a chance to see this in theatres?  Thank you very much, Waco, for only having non-adventurous multiplexes, and Warner Bros., for doing a fairly inept job of marketing this film.  Ah, well, it wouldn’t be an easy one to market, I grant you that.  It has the trappings of a Western and does include a rather spectacularly shot train robbery, but it’s really a study of character and of heroes.  Robert Ford, played with quiet intensity by Casey Affleck (who is turning out to be the most solid Affleck, at acting anyway), idolizes his distant relation Jesse James (Brad Pitt)–but most of his knowledge of James comes from the penny dreadfuls he’s read since childhood.  He first wants to join the James’ gang, eventually to almost become James himself, finally to destroy the man who can’t live up to his legendary status.  The film doesn’t sugarcoat anything that James did as a brutal outlaw, and it doesn’t need to put him forth as a positive figure.  In fact, James is the enigma in the film, the negative space into which Ford projects himself.  There’s so much to think about in the film that I’d need a rewatch even to unjumble my thoughts.  As good as Affleck and Pitt are, the cinematography is possibly an even bigger star, and the film is so wonderfully directed that I’d pretty much vote newcomer Dominick to direct anything ever.  (He’d be so perfect for The Road, incidentally, but John Hillcoat of The Proposition already has that job.)  A number of people might argue that Assassination is too slow, but, like Affleck’s performance, it has a quiet intensity that builds slowly and releases slowly, perfectly matching the rise and fall of the story itself.
Superior
USA 2007; dir: Andrew Dominick; starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
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Books

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity FairThe theme for books this month is "Victorian fiction that I liked better than I expected I would."  Vanity Fair I liked a LOT more than I expected to, probably because my expectations were lowered tremendously by Mira Nair‘s awful adaptation of it a few years ago.  The book, however, is awesome.  Becky Sharp is the consummate social climber, willing to do anything and use anyone in her path as she works her way up from Bohemian painter’s daughter to the inner circle of George IV’s court.  Yet, despite her devious ways, she somehow remains incredibly likeable.  A second plot which is given as much or more time than Becky’s (but is not as well-remembered by cultural consciousness) follows the meek Amelia Sedley through the rise and fall of her merchant father’s fortunes.  The interplay between the two characters, nominally friends, fuels Thackeray’s satire of Georgian society.  But the most delicious thing to me was his narrator, who is almost postmodern in his relish for talking to the reader, anticipating and denying the reader’s expectations, moving in and out of omniscience, suggesting alternate ways of telling the story, and other playful maneuvers.  I do love me some in-your-face unreliable narrators.
Superior
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Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Bleak HouseLet’s air this, in case anyone hasn’t ever heard me say it before: I severely dislike Dickens.  I think I’ve made it through two of his books (A Christmas Carol and Hard Times, which have the advantage of being blissfully short), and started at least four others, giving up before the half-way mark.  I’ve been dreading Bleak House since I saw it on the syllabus.  So, my expectations were very low for this one.  But I ended up not hating it, surprisingly enough.  Despite the title, it’s not really that bleak, though it’s not exactly an upper of a book, either.  He uses two narrators, which makes the book seem like two different but related books that somehow got bound together–basically, I skimmed the third-person narrator parts, which tended toward preachiness and over-extended descriptions (the things I dislike about Dickens), but really enjoyed the part narrated in first-person by the character Esther. The main part of the story deals with a ridiculously long-lasting court case concerning the distribution of an estate; tying in are Esther’s relations with her guardian and cousins (who are all involved in the case) and a mystery involving a neighboring noblewoman.  I would’ve liked less court case and more mystery, but hey.  I’m just happy that I made it through a Dickens book and didn’t want to strangle myself any time during the process.
Well Above Average
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Games

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty 4
Another great entry into a great franchise.  No more World War II; this time you alternate between playing a British SAS operative and a US Marine, trying to capture the leader of a Middle Eastern terrorist cell.  The action is as great as ever, and there are a lot of very innovative sections (both playable and cut-scenes) that highlight the beautiful graphical quality of the game.  One of these has you as a momentary survivor of a nuclear blast–a haunting thirty seconds or so that are unlikely to leave your imagination quickly.  There’s also a very cool stealth/sniper section set in a Cold War-flashback.  The game has been criticized a little for its single-player campaign being too short; honestly, it was plenty long enough for me, and the quality of it is so high that it’s really not worth quibbling about.  I haven’t played the multiplayer side of it, which is supposed to be even better.  If you like first-person shooters and the Call of Duty series, don’t miss this one.  Something you probably don’t really need me to tell you, since if you like FPSes and Call of Duty, you probably already have it.
Superior
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