Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How bad is this?

The book: Shanghai Girls

The culprit/author: Lisa See

The Deal: OK, here's the scoop: I truly enjoy See's writing, and, ok, I am used to a certain level of grim-itude, which I can usually push past (please see Snow Flower and The Secret Fan for a very harrowing description of the creation of 'lily feet'). But OMG! What happened, Lisa? SG reads like a book written by a very jaded Eeyore...if Eeyore happened to be Chinese. Not only are there bad things after bad things, followed by worse things, followed by killing off the only relatable character in the entire book (but only after dozens more have be maltreated, manipulated, abused, stricken and, then killed), but the 'heroines' of the book are totally unlikeable, in thoroughly toxic relationships, and, although the SG in question are sisters....OY! They are the most hateful sisters ever-although no actual weapons were pulled by either on either. Over and over See trumpets that they are each others' best friends, the one loving situation in their lives. And yet. Two less interesting, more selfish, self-serving and, well, let me come right out and say it, annoyingly repetitious bee-yotches I have not encountered in recent memory.

The Grading Session: F+. The only reason this book got that much out of me was that I learned some stuff that was sort of interesting-in the middle of all that garbagey, annoying-peopley, plotty nonsense- about China and the Chinese people. Which is nice.

Lessons Learned: Even a much-loved author can have a misstep. This one here? A doozy. I will not even finish reading the book- and I have less than 1 chapter to go. I would
consider a second chance for Ms See. But not right away. Maybe not for a while. A long while. AND, if it happens again....well, I am just saying: don't let this happen again.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

But, what does it mean? Really?

The Film: District 9
The players: Sharlto Copley, and many others about whom you know nothing, or next to...
The Deal: Working largely undercover for many months, in South Africa, Peter Jackson et al, developed and filmed a hybrid: part metaphor, part sci-fi. A Statement, with a capital 'S' on both fronts.
See, many years ago, the Sig O (that would be you, Prendie) and I watched and adored a fantastic film which flew so successfully under the radar that pretty much no one ever saw it, despite a borderline A-list cast: Enemy Mine. I want to put it out there that D9 has at least a flavor of this film at its core.
But, oh! what a departure. This movie begins with a dramatic set- up: 20 years ago, an alien craft hoves into view above J'berg, South Africa. Showing incredible forbearance, the earthlings do nothing for 90 days. Then, sending multiple 'rescue teams' aboard the craft, ferry over 1 mill of the malnourished, close-to-dying aliens down to a restricted-and restrictive- zone known only as 'District 9'. It is directly beneath the shadow of the original craft, so, it is not much of a journey. And yet.
I know, I know, this is meant to symbolise many important and meaningful things. People tell me-with heartfelt conviction- that the thinly veiled reference is to everything from Abu Graib to Apartheid. I say: OK. Whatever works for you. I had thoughts of things like the concentration camps (probably d/t having seen Inglourious Basterds yesterday). But, my thought, my major thought, is this: it really doesn't matter. What matters is picking something that has meaning and relevance to YOU. That is pretty key to having this movie strike any deeper core in you. If what you see is simply 'a really bee-chong sci-fi actioner', then have at it. Aces.
Here's what I saw (please, feel free to pelt me with rocks and garbage): I felt that this was the story of a man, (our main dude, Sharlto Copley), who prides himself on being an open-minded, civilised human, who just got handed the promotion of his dreams. And, yet. I couldn't help but notice that he still calls his closest cohort- a man who stands up for him so vehemently that he winds up in trouble with his employers and the law- 'boy'. Who insists that he take the only bullet-proof vest available, while his 'buddy' will be okay without.
Throughout the length of this film, we get to see dramatic- and a bit scary- transformations. As with Enemy Mine. I am not talking merely about the changes, the very real, and frightening, changes that occur within 15 minutes of the beginning of the film. I refer you to the changes that occur when, mentally, when psychologically, our hero finds that, although he is fighting for his survival, basically everyone else is engaged in a similar battle, and their battles pale into insignificance next to his. Ones that mean more than this or that side winning, but whether society can go on without major changes taking place...and taking hold.
OK, ok, I know what you are thinking: did she like this film or not? Here's the answer: 1) 'Like' is inappropriate to this situation. Let me stew on this a bit, and I will get back to you. 2) I learned something from this film. I learned that we all face really tough decisions everyday. We just don't think they are very important until something comes along to knock us out of our rut. 3) Hey, not to be tedious, but you really need to see Enemy Mine. And, if, by the last 10 minutes, you are not weeping like a baby watching Old Yeller bite it......well, I guess you and I have a problem. The Grading Session: 4.5 stars out of 5. After extracting the meaning from this piece, it is important to recall all the celluloid spatter and gee-gaws that could have been pruned from the film without a half-penny sacrifice to the intent of the whole.
Lessons Learned: When all is said and done, we are all saps for innocent child-geniuses, no matter their species. As long as they don't actually kill us. Or wipe out the universe. Also, it is far too tempting, and self-congratulating to see ourselves as fully evolved, prejudice-free spirits...even when our daily lives do not bear this out.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

When book and movie meet, pt 2

Here we go again.
The book: The Time Traveller's Wife
The author: Audrey Niffenegger
The Deal: So, this six year old girl wanders down to The Meadow near her family's home to throw a little informal picnic for herself. Just as she gets to the parcelling out of the sandies, she hears a rustling in the trees bordering the Meadow and demands to know who it is, and for that person to come out. The person asks, first, for the picnic blanket. She, suspicious of the request, passes it over. Seconds later, a 35 year old man emerges, wearing the blanket and proceeds to inform her that he is a time traveller, that this is the first of many meetings, and, please, could she find some man-clothes to hide in The Meadow for 'the next time'. See, here's the dealio: he never knows when and where he'll be travelling, but it will always be sans clothes. Pretty cool, eh? The next 20+ years go by and there are all sorts of inconvenient meetings. But, oh, wait, did I tell you that this is, at heart, a romance, not a scientific discourse on the physics of time travel? Well, it is. And yes, the laws of physics are being suspended for the duration of this book...or, really, why bother?
There were so many smart, witty and perceptive exchanges, esp between Clare (the actual TTW) and Henry (the TT of the title), that I began to enjoy those, without realising that the stage was being set for some pretty logic-defying events. If you are in the mood for a big, juicy, tender-hearted and sweet story (as opposed to one about a serial killer in post WWII Russia), take a chance. Oh, and leave your stubborn adherence to what is physically possible at the title page.

The Grading Session: Gotta be 4.99999 stars out of 5. When you read the book you will understand why I am reserving 0.00001 point.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes, even the most basic things simply can not be explained by love. Also, make sure you have clothing stashed all over town, just in case. PS- time travel is terrific, if challenging, if it leads to true love. However, wouldn't one measly super power go just perfectly with it?

Pt 2
The Film: stop me if you've heard this before: The Time Traveller's Wife
The Folk: Eric Bana (Henry), Rachael McAdams (Clare), Ron Livingston, Stephen Tobolewsky (sp? 'BING!').
The Deal: Please see above.
Confession time: I walked in 90 seconds after the movie began. The initial scene I saw was not in the book. Or, at least, I do not remember it. However, it set things off at a break-neck speed. Then we get the scene of Henry and Clare meeting. The back and forth nature of the storytelling (did I mention that the main character is a time traveller?) may seem needlessly confusing. And, at first, it truly is. Then I saw this as a way for us to understand what Henry and Clare saw, felt and worried about throughout the length of their relationship. NOTE: If you have read the book, the ending is a bit changed. And I liked this tinkering, although usually such editing makes me want to slap someone involved in the production. Really hard. Lots of episodes have been released from Plot Bondage, but not to the detriment of the forward movement of the plot (improved it, in fact).

The Grading Session: 5 stars out of 5. (Although I really did not care for the version of the song used as a leitmotif, as much as the one in the trailer. Hey, such things matter to me; hazards of having two sons who are musicians.)

Lessons Learned: Clearly her parents never taught Clare about 'stranger danger'. Or, as we referred to it at the HQ of the Corporation Prendergast, 'L as in Lunatic'. I mean this dude travelled in the nude! Perhaps, for the sake of plot, this turned out to be a good thing?
Also, to get really metaphysical about it, couldn't we view the time-travel element in this story/film as a metaphor for all the assorted challenges and opportunities (as my boss would say) that face any of us trying to make an important relationship work over the long run? I choose to think so.
Lastly, if you are going to hold the story up to the light, and run a reality-detection pen across its surface, I am pretty sure you are going to miss a wonderful, smile- and tear-inducing experience. As for me, pass the tissues. Pronto.

Back to Ma Russia + a mystery

The Book: Child 44
The Writer: Tom Robb Smith
The Deal: If you like exquisitely fashioned writing with no loose ends left dangling, this is the book for you. It was pitched to me as 'a serial killer running around post WWII Russia- where crime is non-existent, per state order'. So, I hopped aboard. I must tell you, in the first few chapters, I alternated re-reading the back cover and plumbing the depths of the storyline, waiting for the serial murder part to kick in. Then, I got it: Smith is a writer who meticulously sets each player up as a fully-realised entity. Only then does he move forward, stealthy as a cat, to a set of circumstances. Then, connects each as delicately as a brain surgeon. What amazed me was that, even someone mentioned in passing, was not to be forgotten or cast aside in the interests of rapid fire plot devises. No character left behind is the maxim by which this book lives. And live it does. Once you are involved with the major players, the book picks up speed. I found I had to get the book on CD, as well, since I could not bear to be parted for those trips 64 miles up and back, to teach, at night. Whether this is a good thing or, as Prendie would say, an 'other' thing, I had this enormous cast of characters to keep me company on the route home. After dark. By myself.
I had figured that Smith must have been born and raised in Russia (not so); amazingly, he only visited once, after he began the story, to make sure of his geography. I also pictured him, in a tiny room, completely surrounded by post-its, maps and string-connected index cards, carrying important facts and 'persons of interest'. If you enjoyed The Devil In The White City and Thunderstruck, you really need to investigate Child 44.

Grading Session: 4.5+ stars out of 5. I have to 'point down' strictly because I had to wait patiently to download the essentials before we even got to 'Child One'. But, if you crave well-plotted, character-centric mysteries- and be warned, this is not for people who are squeamish about the essential plot device (a serial murderer, after all)- look no further than Child 44.

Lessons Learned: Don't talk to strangers- even if they have this killer collection of stamps you simply must see. Also, don't think that because you have stopped thinking about someone, that they have stopped thinking about you...and not always in a perky, happy to see you! way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

cinema babble

The film: LadyHawke
The Folk: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer, Leo Mc Kern, Matthew Broderick
The Deal: Set in medieval Europeland, in the, I dunno, Renaissance? Middle Ages? Dark Ages? Doesn't matter. Take one gorgeous, innocent woman (Rutger, you know who I mean), one power knight (now we're talking RH), one vile, reprehensible bishop (are there any other kind in the movies?), one priest who inadvertently, while in his cups, sets off a chain of events that include a curse on the aforementioned couple (knight and innocent maiden), a petty thief nicknamed 'Little Mouse'(Broderick), a whole lotta galloping horses, sword play, an errant arrow and some astronomy. Little Mouse becomes embroiled in this tale when he picks the wrong pocket in the marketplace, and then flees, setting off a highly charged adventure. Into this stockpot, toss romance, mysticism, humor, and, quite possibly, the worst-fitting soundtrack since Eyes Wide Shut. (Probably seemed 'of the moment' at the time, but, man! it is the only part of the flick that does not stand the test of time. At all.)

Grading Session: 4.99 stars out of 5 (the soundtrack). However, you simply must see the 'special effects' involving the moon, an eclipse, eye transformations- and a mostly make-up free Michelle.

Lessons Learned: If you are walking past a theater, and there is a movie which sounds intriguing, but about which you know nothing? Quick, go buy a ticket. We did this with 2 movies: Star Wars and LadyHawke. Worked out OK for us.
Also- be careful what you tell your confessor, because he may wind up blurting it out to his confessor, and, the next thing you know, there are special effects involving eye-changes and eclipses involved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Seige of Leningrad...and Florida, together again

The book: City of Thieves
The author: David Benioff
The story: An idea comes to a young Hollywood screenwriter, ('Young? You're 40!' 'Well, 34, actually.'), named David Benioff. Visiting with his grandparents in their retirement home in Florida, not-so-young David decides to sit down, after dinner and follow up on a stray comment his grandfather made about his experiences in 'the old country' during the war. Over some home-made plum vodka, notebooks and a tape recorder, a very bizarre sort of story evolves. Could the Lev in the story- this fearless, adventurous kid of 17, actually be David's grandfather, Lev? Or has time warped a very innocent, tiny event story into a wildly incredible tale swarming with cannibals, frozen German paratroopers, powerful Russian Colonels with a dire need for a dozen eggs in the middle of the worst siege in the history of World War II. And don't even get me started on the student/writer/probable deserter, The Courtyard Hound and a very scary, very tiny red-haired partisan sniper....with beautiful eyes.

Grading Session: 4.99 stars out of 5 -going to have to deduct a touch from the full 5 stars only because of a certain character's obsession with, well, his constipation. The last 2 sentences, though, almost make me put the point back. Read it in 2 sittings.

Lessons Learned: Never assume you know everything there is to know about those nearest, dearest and most familiar to you.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Is It Time For a Book Yet?!

Yes it is!
I would like to offer a short 'n' sweet intro to the one against which all others should be judged (in my humble opinion).
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This is non-fiction. Just keep telling yourself that, as you read along. There are moments of 'What is wrong with these people!?' interspersed with a sprinkling of 'Awwwww! How great is that?' interludes. Your job, as you read along, is to navigate them, as best you can. And discuss amongst yourselves. I found that the reason I wanted other people to read it was so that we could all talk about the thing. Amazing opportunities for conversations, discussions and fevered debates. And, isn't that what makes a great read? Absolutely, the most unputdownable book I have ever recommended. These kids, these incredible kids!

The Grading Session: 6 stars out of 5 (anything less would be just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Lessons Learned: It can be exhilarating to be part of a bohemian family, as long as they don't destroy your bust of Shakespeare and turn your hard work at starting a foundation for the oft-promised glass castle into a garbage dump. Sometimes dull and boring is a far more livable alternative to unpredictable and adventurous.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

the movie: GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
the nitty gritty: 1) At what point when you are paying to go see a movie titled 'GI Joe' did you think you were going to see something profoundly Transformer 2?
2) Explosion, explosion, CGI, explosion, CGI, sci-fi, total suspension of the basic laws of physics (hey! ice floats, y'all!), explosion, 2 minutes of story and romance gone awry, explosion, danger: Paris, Moscow and DC.
3) Since Dale Dye must have been busy with The Pacific, I am sure the producers hired someone equally experienced with all things military, like, um, Michael Bay?
4) Hasbro was one of the producers, (keep that foremost in your mind when you consider how you invest your movie-going bux) and, finally,
5) If you are looking for a lot of (improbable) set-ups without all the nasty after taste of plot and all that stupid, emotional character development, but, rather, a simple, straight-forward vehicle-, landmark- and environmental-destruction- based actioner, look no further, you have GOT to see this one pronto. Go out right now and get a ticket.

Grading Session: 1.31 stars out of 5, mostly for the wardrobe. Gotta love those power suits.

Lessons Learned: Know your film-going needs, and don't get all hung up on probability. Fiction requires suspension of belief, some more so- and for far longer- than others. If this is not a problem for you, don't be so picky about the use of nano-bit technology (nor my spelling of same).

if you can't say something nice....

The suspect: Funny People

The charge: Willful misrepresentation, self-awareness, pretentions of serious art, a huge slice of The Meaning Of Life As Art, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The scoop: All the critics seemed tickled pink and downright giddy over the promise in this flick. So, we rolled the dice. More than halfway through, I was reminded of a basic belief I have about film-making(and blogging?): the big difference between a truly good movie and a heroically bad one often depends on the vigor and enthusiasm with which the editor plies his/her trade.

A bad sign: unless we are actually watching a 'concert-style' film or musical, there really should not be a plethera of musical numbers featured in their entirety. This is especially true of Adam Sandler musical numbers that last 12 years.

We, also, pretty much know that if, after a powerful investment of time, we simply do not care about any of the characters-at all-we are not going to be feeling the love.

Another random thought: if you cast your partner/sig other in your film, are you contractually bound to expend long chunks of dialogue having other characters praise him/her? (You still have IT, still fit into your skinny jeans, are most gorgeous, funniest, most loyal, the only one who absolutely believed in me, made my life heaven on earth, etc). Well bleagh, says I.

What does it say about a movie, when the addition of globs of the funniest people in the US today could not carve an ounce of chuckletude out of this clunker? Aaand, instead, the high point of amusement for us was an off-hand cameo by Eminem!

We were outta there, after 92 minutes, once we started adding up the 'yes, buts' and the total nosed >1000, with the meter still running.

But all this is just one little, old opinion: mine. What's yours?

Lessons learned: There needs to be a new industry-standard quota of no more than 2 complete stand-up routines - and those, only to set up the core premise of the thing.

Grading Session:


Saturday, August 8, 2009

blog baby steps

Decided today, while watching Julie and Julia to try my hand at a blog about two things I love: movies and books. First out of the chute? Well, duh: Julie and Julia and the two books upon which the movie was based. Must say, enjoyed (is that too damning with faint praise?) the book Julie and Julia, but was absolutely absorbed by the film. I could pretty much watch Meryl Streep read from the back of a box of Count Chocula, spellbound. That unselfconscious willingness to assume alien life forms is rivetting. And, oh my word, the food! It is, somehow, so mesmerising to watch someone who excels at what they do, do what they do do so well. (sorry about the do-do part)

Went straight from the theater to the book store and bought Mastering the Art Of French Cooking, (felt like throwing out my old, much loved and previous numero uno go-to cook book- The Joy of Cooking- after the 2 lines in the film spoken by the creator of that thing!), as well as the 2nd book used to launch the film: My Life In France, by Julia Child and her nephew, Alex Prud'homme. Also got An Appetite for Life -mostly for the pix, but Prendie is currently reading it. 'MLIF' reads the way Julia spoke: humorously, enthusiastically and chock full of tiny moments shining through the years, like multi-faceted gems of description, opinion and joy in the minute and the every day. Just know I'll have problems putting it down before I am finished reading it.

Why not try them both? Lesson learned: butter, apparently, is the key ingredient to a happy life. Who knew this?
Grading Session:
Julie and Julia, the book:3.5 stars out of 5;
My Life in France (so far, and subject to revision, pending, I dunno, a surprise attack by zombies, love-starved vampires...or both):5 stars out of 5; Julie and Julia (the film) 5.5 stars (extra credit for casting Streep) out of 5.

Oh, and please comment. It's tough being out here all alone!