December roundup

It’s the end of the month, so time for little thoughts on everything I’ve read.

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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.

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Mini-review: Push

Who doesn’t love a good action movie?  I know I do!  Especially when people can do sweet shit, like moving things with their minds and yell so loudly things explode.  The whole plot can be summed up in the trailer which is awesome, so just watch that.

The movie is certainly enjoyable.  It has good action, a serviceable plot, and a unique setting to show push-movieeverything off.  Push also manages to do what few other action movies can – not have a silly will they? won’t they? romance.  The two leads meet, they hook up, bam, done.  THANK YOU.

There was a lot wrong with the movie.  The final plot point was a bit convoluted and impractical.  The final action was slightly unsatisfying.  But more importantly, the action wasn’t quite as good as it could have been.  We’ve seen superpower action before.  The X-Men 1 & 2, the first season of Heroes, the vastly underrated Jumper.  When it comes down to it, I would rather watch more compelling superhero action than watch Push.  And a better story.

Mini-Review: The Interview

interview-00294If you were Steve Buschemi, what type of movie would you want your mottled visage to be in?  Would it be (a) a sweet action film, (b) a classic dark comedy, or (c) a movie whose whole purpose is that you get to make out with Sienna Miller?  Well, he’s already done (a) and (b), so why not direct and star in (c)!

Really, this movie seemed to be little more than a vehicle for Steve Buschemi to do some ‘serious’ acting and with a little lechery on the side.  The story is fairly simple: Steve Buschemi is a reporter on the downside of his career, sent to interview a TV star better known for her breasts than her acting.  He’s kind of an ass, she’s kind of an airhead.  They end up, a little gratuitously, up in her apartment to conduct the interview.  The interview is a clash of characters meant to illumine what makes these people the way they are.

What this movie lacks is interesting characters. When the movie is a character study, that’s a pretty serious flaw.  Both characters are a little cliché and the little plot is incredibly forced.  The acting was fine, but that was really the only decent thing about the movie.  I really expected better.

Mini-review: The Lathe of Heaven

thelatheofheaven1stedIt took me months to finish Ricardo Reis and only a day to finish The Lathe of Heaven. I try to take turns with my books, reading one ‘serious’ book and then one ‘fun’ book (ie, something from the genre called ‘literature’ and then something from any other genre out there). I’m on a bit of a sci-fi tear lately, so Lathe was my book of choice.

The Lathe of Heaven is kind of a series of ‘future histories’ by Ursula LeGuin. It is (initially) set in a version of the 1970’s where global warming has run amok, and overpopulation haunts the world. But the best  part has to be that it is all set in Portland! Portland is now a sprawling metropolis of a few million, with the really ‘big’ cities in now-wet Eastern Oregon. The central character is George Orr, a man haunted by the ability to change the world with his dreams. When he dreams certain dreams, the whole world shifts to become like that, and no one but him has a clue otherwise. Unfortunately, he winds up in the clutches of a nefarious psychologist who learns to direct these dreams.  Of course, they never quite turn out the way they’re supposed to. We’re subjected to a series of alternate-histories for the rest of the book, seeing many what-might-have-beens.

The story is a joy to read. Well-written and very interesting, I literally could not put the book down. I’ll say right here that it was a great book and fun read. But let’s get to what I found wrong with it, shall we? Really only a few minor things. LeGuin had a penchant of telling about the world, rather than showing it. That’s understandable once we start switching histories, but it wasn’t really needed for the original one.  Also, the ‘villain’ had a little too much exposition and seemed a bit of a caricature. Most disturbingly, there were aliens in this book. Why? I don’t know. There was no need for them, especially ones that knew about how this whole dream-controlling thing worked. They just popped up, and the book would have been stronger without them. Alas, that’s the curse of scifi.

It was a relief to read a book I enjoyed so much, I was starting to worry that I’d become a TV-zombie. Then I read this book, and saw all these reviews of some of my favorite authors in the New York Times, and I just had a grand weekend. Especially thinking about all these other-Portlands.

Oh, and read the book review about the Wittgensteins. With a title like “suicide squad”, you know it’s going to be good.

Mini-review: The Hidden Fortress

Oh Kurosawa, you fickle fiend you. Some of your movies are simply amazing (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), others have deceptively misleading titles (Throne of Blood), while others are kind of a wash. The Hidden Fortress is one of those movies that, while nothing is seriously wrong with it, never really pulled together for me.

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The story is a simple one. Two peasants are returning home from a war they failed to fight in, and discover hidden gold. A man appears who claims to have the rest of the gold in his ‘hidden fortress’, and wants to follow them back to their country so they can all have a safe trip. In reality, he is the recently-defeated general who, along with the surviving princess, need to flee to safety. Since they must cross enemy lands to get there, the way is full of danger.

And so it goes. The opening scene with the two peasants was quite clearly lifted wholesale by Star Wars – they whole little story is exactly R2D2 and C3PO’s when they land on Tatooine. Lucas admits that they were the inspiration for his two characters, especially how the story of The Hidden Fortress was told through two minor characters. But our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there mainly for comic relief and the biggest problem about the movie was, to me, their humor wasn’t quite funny enough to lift the whole two hours of the movie. Their routines wore thin, so the slow pacing really caught up with the movie by the end.

Other than the requisite bad acting from a lot of the cast that you will always see in old movies, there’s nothing else wrong with the movie. The cinematography is, of course, amazing. It’s Kurosawa! The story is interesting and the characterizations clever. Really, everything else was quite good.

But that’s why the movie was a wash. I was enjoying everything – except when our two peasants were bumbling around. And the bumbling around happened a lot. Kurosawa evidently made this movie to be a ‘popular’ movie in appreciation to the studio for letting him make plenty of experimental films, and it shows. Whenever a great director makes concessions, the finished product is nowhere near as good as it should be.

Mini-review: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

yearofthedeathFinally, a book review! It’s really depressing to me how little I read (for pleasure) in comparison to how much time I spend watching TV/movies. Part of that, though, may be my book selection! I spent the first month or so of 2009 reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago. Having read Blindness in the past and loved it, I was excited to read something else by him. Alas, my faith was naively placed.

Saramago writes in a fairly distinctive style. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness but has similarly long, meandering sentences and multi-page-long paragraphs. There is no punctuation aside from the occasional period. For instance, opening the book at random:

The traveler heard the harsh screeching of a tram going up the street. The taxi driver was right. It seemed ages since the traveler had left the taxi waiting, and he smiled inwardly at his fear of being robbed. Do you like the room the manager asked with the voice and authority of his profession but ever courteous, as befits someone negotiating a rental. it’s fine, I’ll take it, How long are you staying, I can’t tell you, much depends on the time it takes to settle my affairs. It is the usual dialogue, the exchange one expects in such situations, but on this occasion there is an element of falsehood, because the traveler has no affairs to settle in Lisbon, no affairs worthy of the name, he has told a lie he who once declared that he despised inaccuracy.

Whew! That was quite the little passage. And normally, I love writing like this – I’ll read Faulkner at the drop of a hat. But it didn’t quite come off as well in this book. The writing seemed quite perfunctory and boring. The book is as much a description of Portugal as it is a story per se, but his descriptions of the country sound like he is attempting to copy Calvino without much success. He also has little ‘philosophical’ digressions. Sometimes they are playful:

All of us once possessed a father and a mother, but we are the children of necessity, whatever that means. It is Ricardo Reis’s thought, let him do the explaining.

But more often they are serious and, well, kind of dumb. They reach at profundity without coming anywhere near it.

Oh yes, I should probably mention the story. Or, ‘story’. Ricardo Reis is a poet returning to his native Portugal from Brazil. Europe is in decay, falling inevitably into World War II. Reis hears that his good friend, Fernando Pesoa, has just recently died. Reis then lives out the next months in Lisbon, staying at a hotel and having an illicit affair with a maid and also pseudo-love affair with a fellow guest. Nothing much happens as Reis floats through Portugal, his life becoming more insubstantial as the book goes on.

And this is a book with a Point. It is more of an intellectual exercise than an interesting story. This primarily is seen through Reis’ interactions with Pesoa. Apparently, in the real world Reis was a heteronym of Pesoa. But this idea – is Reis real? is he the shadow of the ghost of Pesoa? – isn’t terribly interesting especially when the story is bo-ring. I read it to the end in the hope that something really interesting was going to happen, that it would all be worth it because the ending made me think. But it didn’t. Not really a book I’d recommend.

Mini-review: The Motel

Ugh. Movie #2 in the Netflix debacle. The Motel is the story of a young Chinese-American boy who is growing up in a life he can’t stand. His parents run a seedy motel, where he is forced to do all sorts of dull cleaning duties. He has just gotten Honorable Mention in a writing competition, which only causes his mom to berate him (“Honorable Mention is worse than losing. It’s telling everyone that you weren’t good enough to win.”). He spends most of his time daydreaming, looking through the stuff people leave behind – porno mags, old Popeyes boxes – and hanging out with a down-on-his luck Korean-American guy.

the_motelUnfortunately, literally every single character in this movie is a stereotype: the dorky Asian boy, the Chinese girl working at a Chinese food restaurant, the stern Asian mom, the drunk Korean, the cute-but-naive younger sister, the white redneck. That actually enumerates almost every single character introduced. There are a few other minor characters, also stereotypes, but at seventy minutes there is not much time for that many characters.

That’s not all a bad thing. Some of the actors just nail their characters. In particular, the main Dorky Asian Boy acts exactly like any other boy his age would, which is an amazing performance for a child actor. The younger sister really seems like your younger sister – which means she’s more trouble than she’s worth. The simultaneous surrealty and mundanity of living in a seedy motel seems fairly true-to-form as well.

This is a typical indie flick, though, so it has the usual problems. Some of the acting is lamentable. The story is a short little character study. Even when you leave the main set, the world feels cobbled together and like the filmmakers were just wandering around their neighborhood. But like any good indie flick, the script more than makes up for it.

Love – “A House Is Not A Motel” [mediafire]

Mini-review: 2 Days In Paris

Uh oh, I have recently gained access to Netflix. This was easily one of the stupidest decisions in my life. How will I ever get work done anymore? Especially with their streaming videos. The first video to be streamed was this little gem, 2 Days In Paris. Written and directed by the lovely Julie Delpy, the movie is stylistically a bizarre twist between French and American cinema. It is full of the snappy one liners of an American comedy but the story is told through the conversational meanderings characteristic of French films.

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The movie tells the story of a couple, Jack and Marion, on their way back from a vacation in Italy. They are taking a two day pit stop in Paris to visit the home of Marion’s before returning to New York. Their quibbling turns to anger as Jack meets more and more of Marion’s ex-lovers. As important to the movie as its characters is the city of Paris itself, which is presented as full of nymphomaniacs and racists.

It is not common that a movie is funny all the way through, but 2 Days In Paris definitely is. Even the more emotional parts are peppered with little jokes or incongruities. This is both good and bad; it’s quite entertaining, but it lacks any emotional punch. I guess it avoids the try-it-and-fail strategy of most comedies, but it made the movie seem a tad shallow. Similarly, everybody in Paris is a bit of a caricature. This is both immensely entertaining and slightly disappointing.

In the end the acting was good, the dialogue and situations were funny without being forced, and I’d watch it again anytime. I’d recommend it to anyone with a spare, bored moment.

Ladyhawke – “Paris is Burning (Cut Copy Remix)” [mediafire]

Mini-review: Coraline

Coraline is the latest movie by the director of the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. But more importantly, it was made by Phil Knight’s birthday present to his son, Laika, a (stop-motion) animation studio from Portland. Laika is dear to my heart because one of my classmates’ parents worked at it back when it was Will Vinton Studios, so we would go on tours in elementary school. Way fun.  I had all sorts of Raisins propraganda as a child.

So on to the plot. Coraline is your typical children’s tale: a young girl moves far away from her friends coralineand her parents spend all their time working and not paying any attention to her. Luckily she finds a magic portal that takes her to a land with her Other Mother and Other Father who shower her with mango milkshakes and lavish her with attention. Only problem is the Other Mother wants her to sow creepy black buttons on her eyes.

At heart, the story is nothing original. But it’s done so well! The movie is festooned – and yes, I just used the word festooned – with interesting and imaginative characters. And, much like The Nightmare Before Christmas, this movie is very dark. Heck, they have a character named “Wybie”, which is short for “Whyborn” because his parents didn’t want him. The child in front of us had to be taken out from the movie because she got too scared about halfway through. But the real star of the movie is the animation. It must be a combination of stop-motion and a little computer animation. The detail was amazing and everything was really very exquisitely done. The animation really worked to help with the mood, too. Stop motion is great for a creep movie because the movement is always slightly unnatural and makes everything very unsettling.

It’s rare that I don’t have anything bad to say about a movie, but I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I’m not sure how keen I’d be to see it again, but it was definitely worth it for anyone to watch it at least once. A tip of the hat to you, good sirs, a tip of the hat.

The Coral – “I Remember When” [mediafire]

Mini-review: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road, as everyone who has seen or heard anything about this movie clearly knows, is the story of a young couple desperately unhappy with their lives. Set in the mid-1950’s, April and Frank have settled with their perplexingly absent children into a suburban home with all that entails: a stay-at-home mom and a father who traipses off into the city to work with all the other drones.

But this isn’t a movie deploring the ’emptiness’ of suburban life. April and Frank are both unhappy for a lot of reasons, but very few of them have to do with the fact that they are living in suburbia. Frank hates his job and dreams of ‘finding his taroad-2lent’ and ‘being great’, which is a hard dream for some so clearly mediocre. April doesn’t find housework very fulfilling, is hemmed in by the constant barrage of sexism, oh and her husband is pretty much an asshole the whole movie. They decide the only answer to all these problems is to move to Paris where April can work as a secretary and Frank can fulfill his promise. But it’s not about moving to Paris, per se: as April says, they just need to get away and start over. Unsurprisingly, neither of them is strong enough to bring change to their lives and their unhappiness continues.

I can’t say I understand why this movie is so popular. From the get-go, the acting of DiCaprio and Winslet bothered me; they sounded like two students in a high school play with a weird mixture of over- and under-acting. This might be because the dialogue was absolutely atrocious, too. The story occasionally seemed fairly ham-handed, as well: when Frank and April explain their plan to move to Paris, everyone has the same slack-jawed disbelief you’d find in Pleasantville. When it turned out that the only person to understand their plan was someone who was literally crazy – oh my gosh, are they trying to say that society finds these people insane?? – I almost rolled my eyes.

But the movie wasn’t really as bad as I’m making it out. It did have a lot going for it. The visuals and cinematography are great, for one. For another, the movie is able to capture the way 50’s culture forced conformity on people and how pervasive and destructive the sexism was (and is). And the story as a whole is a good one. Just as a whole, it wasn’t that great – although this was a contentious opinion among the people I saw it with.

I’m going to start attaching appropriately-themed music to my posts. Here’s Beirut’s “My Family’s Role In The World Revolution” [mediafire].

Mini-review: RocknRolla

rocknrolla-0The latest Guy Ritchie film, RocknRolla, is exactly what you’d expect: think Snatch but with Russians instead of Gypsies. The story has something to do with a real estate scam that goes slightly wrong when a painting gets stolen. That’s really the whole plot. A lot of other stuff happens, but it I spent most of the movie confused as to what was happening and why the story was evolving in this way.

As the movie progresses, the number of characters increases exponentially and it gets a little hard to keep track of them all. The plot is a little confusing and not that gripping. I guess Guy Ritchie either needs a new shtick or needs to be able to pull off his shtick as well as he used to. Oh, it is still entertaining to watch at times. It has such a unique sense of self that it is always at least somewhat interesting, and it has his typical dry humor. He has also clearly improved in some aspects of his filmmaking – the cinematography and visuals are better than in his previous films. But other than that, the movie doesn’t have too much going for it.

Mini-review: Amores Perros

Amores Perros, a film from 2000 by the same director as 21 Grams and Babel, has always been my favorite of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s. The story is in the same style, with disparate stories which are connected only tenuously. This style pops up all over the place, in films such as Crash, Traffic, and Magnolia. I had wondered for a long time where this style originated, and so I did a little digging and found out it has a nice and pretentious name: hyperlink cinema.

Hyperlink cinema attempts to tell a multilinear story, with metaphorical amours chiennes“hyperlinks” between the individual stories. For instance, Amores Perros links three stories through a car crash which effects the lives of all the characters. These kinds of links exist in other artistic forms as well – for instance, Nabokov’s Pale Fire links a story through a poem and its work of criticism.

The three stories in Amores Perros all involve love, in one form or another. The first is of someone in love with his brother’s wife; the second of love under pressure from a major injury; the final of a father for his daughter. The narratives are surprisingly complex and offer a vouyeristic look into other lives.

As you may suspect from the title, all the narratives contain dogs as a major cause for the action of each story. But be careful filmgoers – there is a lot of dog-on-dog violence in the movie. They never actually show any more of the dogs fighting than a lunge and initial quick bite, but you do see plenty of them dead. Unsurprisingly, the producers made the decision to put the “no animals were harmed” disclaimer at the beginning of the film rather than the end.

Overall, Amores Perros stands head and shoulders above the other hyperlink movies. It doesn’t shift back and forth too often between characters. The stories are focused, with small little breaks to catch up on what other events are going on. The acting is great. There is no cheesy “message” pushed in your face. It is more gritty and more real than the others. Its only real flaw may be the incredibly unsubtle music choices through the movie. But we can accept that every once in a while, can’t we?

Mini-review: First Blood

How exactly does one review a movie like First Blood (aka Rambo)? A movie like this, a movie that is kind of a legend, how does one review it? I suppose I will have to take it for what it is, and judge it that way.

firstbloodrerelease1I am a little ashamed to admit that I have never seen any of the Rambo movies before, nor any of the Rockie movies. It should not come as a shock to those who have seen the movie, then, that what the movie actually was like surprised me.  Compared to contemporary action movies, the number of deaths in this film was staggeringly low. I think maybe one person died for sure, and a few more were possible. That is not to say that the film is not violent. Rambo goes around hamstringing people and jabbing pointy sticks into them.

But the movie as a whole was more surprising. I pictured Rambo going around Vietnam, blasting the crap out of people. Not so! This movie is set in the Pacific Northwest as Rambo rambles about, heading toward Portland. He is picked up by an asshole of a cop but has flashbacks of Vietnam while in prison, causing him to run off, chased by some angry policemen. The story is actually surprisingly touching, even if a bit cliched.

Overall, you have to take it for what it is. The acting may be bad and the story a bit hackneyed, but it is pretty entertaining. First Blood is the type of movie that would cause you to halt as you flip through the channels, forcing you to settle in and catch a half-hour of enjoyment on TNT.

Mini-review: Fearless

Jet Li is a badass. That is really all you need to know about him. If you want to know more, just know that he won the national wushu (martial arts) championship after three years of training and retired at the age of 17. I guess it was all just too easy. Fearless is Jet Li’s self-proclaimed final wushu epic, which is something that should sadden all of us.

fearless1Fearless is a movie split into three parts. The first details Huo Yuanjia’s mastering of wushu, and his increasing ruthlessness and arrogance. This leads inevitably to the second part of his life wherein, fallen, he wanders the land trying to find meaning. Of course, in the third part he returns to his home enlightened and intent on doing good. In this case, that means fighting a bunch of westerners to reclaim Chinese pride.

The first part of the movie is pretty good. The only quibble is that the use of Matrix-style camera techniques occasionally distract from the battles leaving one a little confused as to what just happened. Other than that the choreography is pretty decent, although definitely not Jet Li’s finest. It also sets up what could be a fairly interesting story.

The middle part is kind of what ruins the movie. The story is boring and cliched, the acting pretty bad. Unfortunately, the script is not strong enough to carry the movie without the martial arts.

The final part continues to expose the flaws of the central portion of the movie, and carries them further. The ‘moral’ is heavy-handed and silly, and the plot decays further. On the plus side, this is where all the best wushu is done. The fights are pretty awesome and the use of computer effects drastically reduced.

Overall it was an okay movie. Jet Li has done better choreography and had better acting performances, and still would have even if the silly Matrix-rotate-the-camera-in-slow-motion never happened. It could have used a little more extended fighting. But the visuals in general were beautifully done and it was worth watching. Also, I think I watched the directors-cut edition, which is significantly longer and probably a little worse for the lack of editing.