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.