November book and movie roundup

The main reason I started this blog was to catalogue everything I wanted to remember. Primarily, I needed a way to remember my opinions on certain things such as why I did or didn’t like certain movies. I’ve been bad about it the last year or so, but I’m going to start doing quick micro-reviews of movies and books I’ve read each month. If you care, here are my opinions for the month of November.

As a prelude, these reviews are written in reverse order of being consumed. This is because I only started to write them up at the end of the month when I was already forgetting what I did and didn’t like about them!

The Thin Man
I’ve been reading a lot of pulp noir recently, and have been working my way through the complete Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man is Hammett’s fifth and final book, which is a pity. He was on a great run, almost all of his five novels being classics in hardboiled fiction – and then he just stops.

Anyway, The Thin Man is the story of a wisecracking (what else?) former detective on vacation in his old stomping grounds, New York City. Due to old acquantinces, he quickly gets caught up in the middle of a murder case. It doesn’t really fall to him to crack the case, but in between evening shows on Broadway, large dinners, and even larger numbers of drinks, the case is solved.

This is tied for my favorite of Hammett’s books (the other being Red Harvest). It displays all his greatest strengths – wit, pacing, and a complex but interesting story – without his weaknesses – the appearances of supercriminals, for instance. It’s worth a quick read through, though I’m not sure how “deep” it would be on rereading. But we don’t always need that, do we?

Oryx and Crake
When I started reading this book, I was a little wary. The only other book by Margaret Atwood that I have read is The Handmaid’s Tale which I considered badly written scifi trying it’s hardest to be deep – just amateurish, really, easily corrected had she read more scifi before writing it.

Oryx and Crake, however, is nothing of the sort. It’s a book that will grip you and leave you unable to put it down, with a complex and interesting (though not incredibly original) world. The novel follows one character – Snowman – as he lives in the shattered remains of a postapocalyptic world. Snowman was unfortunate to have been close to the events that caused the end of the world, and is the shepherd of a flock of humans genetically engineered to be, well, naive (although they quickly show signs of overcoming this). The world from before is one of rampant genetic manipulations, constant cyber attachments, and literal walls between the well-to-do scientists and the “pleeblands” (yes, they’re actually called that).

As I said, the book is gripping and interesting – definitely something I recommend reading. This leaves the flaws all the more unfortunate. I think Atwood aims for something loftier than plotboiler fiction, so the incredibly unsubtle ways she goes about that is irritating (see: pleeblands.) She also seems to forget about the possibility of evolution; the ‘genius scientist’ at the center of everything genetically designs creatures to survive after the apocalypse – which would work great, in a vacuum. Surely a genius scientist should know better than that? The book also sometimes felt like it was written straight through, leaving the continuity feeling a bit off (heightened by the next book). So overall: great to read, just don’t think too deeply about it.

The Flood
Captivated by Oryx and Crake, I quickly picked up the sequel only to be cruelly dissapointed. There’s nothing worse you can do in a sequel than change characters and past events. See, in this book you go through the same time period as in Oryx and Crake but seen through the eyes of other characters. And they manage to be intertwined with the characters in the previous book – but somehow never really mentioned there…

Anyway, the book suffers from a brief and infuriatingly boring character section written in a way to ensure the reader skips the passages. Atwood also changes major events and characters from the previous book, making a world previously devoid of people now suspiciously filled with them. And gone is the gripping read: even the characters that are non-boring are kind of uninteresting, and exploring the least interesting part of the world. I definitely would have liked it had Atwood stopped at the end of the last book, leaving the cliffhanger never to be resolved.

The Road
Last on the postapocalyptic novel extravaganza is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’ve never read McCarthy before, but I started this book just after reading The Reader’s Manifesto. One of the main targets in the Manifesto is McCarthy, so I was all set to dislike The Road (note: I love Paul Auster, so the Manifesto doesn’t carry that much weight with me.)

But hey, I’m a convert. McCarthy has a poetic prose that manages to evoke a feeling of the scene with a brutal directness. I don’t know how else you’d write this book without his prose – as the movie disastrously tried to do and failed (see below). The Road is about a father and a son heading south for warmth in a dying world, encountering barbarism and canibalism and worse. But primarily, the story is about survival in a harsh world and the strained relationship between a dying father and a distant yet captivated son. Seriously every paragraph is dedicated to either searching for food, hiding, running, and attempting to bond, practically in that order of frequency.

What’s best about the book is what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say what happened to the world. It doesn’t say where they are most of the time. It doesn’t say what happened to them in the past. It’s just a story in the here-and-now, managing to communicate the feelings and emotions and sense of the situation these people are in. In case you can’t tell, this is really a great, great book. Which leads to…

The Road
I saw this movie the most recently but don’t have much to say about it. I’d read The Road the novel in the 24 hours before seeing the movie which created too much dissonance when I watched it; I just couldn’t get in to it. I will say, though, that everything I liked about the book wasn’t here. As I said, the book told a lot through what wasn’t said – the movie was pretty blunt. Also, I don’t know if this is a consequence of the difference in forms but there was a noticeable departure from the themes of the book. McCarthy emphasized the relationship of the father and son, as well as the struggle for survival. The movie emphasized the post-apocalyptic setting, which was not nearly as interesting.

A Serious Man
After watching this movie, my friends and I were taking the parking garage elevator when we overheard someone say, “You know, it was all about the story of Job.” Cue glances between me and my friends and a silent ooooh. Remember that when you go to see it and everything will make more sense. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t make sense when you watch it – you’ll just understand it on a deeper level if you do.

The movie is basically about being middle-class and Jewish in 1970s suburbia. You follow the main character as his life goes from normal to crap, dragging everyone else down with him. The Coen brothers bring their normal sense of dark humor to the absurdity of everyday life, while keeping everything somehow serious. The whole movie is a stylistic continuation of No Country For Old Men, which comes off in a very positive way. You can easily compare this to their earlier dark comedies (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, etc.) and see a definite progression; I’m unable to say how it’s progressing expect everything felt tighter and better placed together. Maybe they just got a better editor?

Fear(s) of the Dark
A French collection of short films by graphic artists from around the world, the theme here is, obviously, fear. Every short film is in black and white (with some splashes of red in one segment – cheater) and some are chopped up and woven between the others. Overall, it’s pretty good but it’s really uneven in quality.

Quickly, the highlights and lowlights: Charles Burns does his usual style, both in terms of illustrations and theme. I love the art, the rest was meh. Blutch has an amazing series of vignettes; his art really conveys the mood better than anyone else. Richard McGuire was the standout, both in terms of story and in terms of using pure blackness and whiteness to convey a story. Finally, Pierre Di Sciullo has a series of uninspired 2D animations combined with dumb, banal monologues.

Solaris is one of my favorite books, and on my list of Greatest Science Fiction Ever. I’d heard that the Russian movie was supposed to be a masterpiece, and that the author of the book (Stanislaw Lem) derogatively labeled it ‘erotica in space’. Which it kind of is.

Solaris the book was one of the most creative and original descriptions of alien intelligence and environment that I’ve ever read, and is a meditation on man’s place in nature and the cosmos. Solaris the movie is a meditation on scientists as people, and does well at making the science fiction seem unartificial. Be prepared for a slow and fairly dry movie, but one well worth it. This is one of those intellectual pieces that can only be experienced, not really explained.

The Fly
Luckily, this movie has nothing to do with the original 1958 version of The Fly beyond the idea of a man’s transmutation into a human-fly hybrid. Cronenberg did a great job updating the concept using his signature 1980’s biohorror, with Jeff Goldblum giving a terrifyingly amazing portrayal of the descent from man to (brundle-)fly. Unfortunately, Jeff Goldblum’s meaningless incantations to his computer are typical of early movies that assumed their audience was ignorant of computers – something no longer true today. Overall, a great movie with minor flaws.

American Psycho
I don’t remember much of what I liked or disliked about this movie, honestly. I do remember that Christian Bale managed to bring a lot of character to the movie, even though the whole thing slightly bored me. Also, William Defoe was a detective who repeatedly interviewed Bale; each scene was filmed three times, where Defoe was supposed to either be sure that Bale was a killer, sure he wasn’t, or unsure. It added a lot of real-life uncertainty and unease to each interview, which worked wonderfully.

The Virgin Spring
A simple, solid tale of medieval Norway. I haven’t been sold on some Bergman in the past, but this was worth watching. I suppose what drew me in was the realistic feeling – people wore crappy clothes, lived far apart, and life generally sucked for everyone involved. The nihilistic and psychological undertones throughout the movie were what completed the sense of it being a really good movie.

The Company
The Company is essentially a faux-documentary of a theater company through a few performances. I get bored watching dance for more than a few minutes at a time, so the small dance scenes interspersed with dialogue kept my attention.

New York, I Love You
This is a collection of short films about New York; really, though, it should have been named, “Manhattan, I love you (and Coney Island is alright for old people)”. Some gems, a lot of meh films. It didn’t flow great and didn’t really convey a sense of the character of the city.

One thought on “November book and movie roundup

  1. Pingback: November book and movie roundup « My Name Is Legion | detectiveagency

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