Monday, January 31, 2011

The Book Report

I'm a little behind on my book posts these days so I thought I'd do a quick recap of what I've been reading.

I'm slowly but surely working my way through all of Agatha Christie's books. She wrote this in 1926 and it's pretty great, more of a madcap adventure than whodunit, and to tell the truth, I lost the plotline a couple of times. There's a lot going on: murder, natch, a stolen jewel, the usurpation of power in the fictional country of Herzoslovakia, secret identities, and a country house filled with hidden passageways, and diabolic servants. Not my favorite of her's (I prefer the straightforward murder mysteries) but a very fun read, and her jazz age protagonists--Anthony Cade and Virginia Revel--are particularly charming.

Lent to me (well, to Charlene) by my neighbor Kate, this is a graphic novel by Maira Kalman, a sort of pseudo diary in which illustrator Kalman charts small moments and sad thoughts of her life during the course of the year.
A dystopian thriller about a future country, Panem (it is here in North America), that forces teenagers to fight to the death in a yearly game. It's for young adults but doesn't hold back on the grisly violence and consequences of such a world. And Collins does a great job of creating a world where games such as these make perfect sense. A pretty chilling page turner, and the first of a trilogy. These books have gotten huge and they are currently casting for the first film.

Poetry Monday

Men at Forty

by Donald Justice

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret,

And the fact of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Diminishing returns for me with this series. I enjoyed the first book and the first movie but lost interest in the second book and film. But I thought I'd finish this off and watch the third film (I skipped the book) just to find out what happens to Lisbeth. It wasn't a poorly made film but it wasn't too interesting either. I did like the last interaction between Salander and Blomkvist.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Tourist

There are some films that are greater than the sum of their parts, and then there are films in which the greatness is simply in their parts. Take To Catch a Thief, not a great film in any way, but it's elements are so amazing. Cary Grant in beautiful clothes, Grace Kelly in even more beautiful clothes, and the the South of France setting. The Tourist is exactly this type of movie. It does not have an amazing plot, or anything really to say beyond the surface of things, but it's a movie movie--it actually is all about the surface of things, and its surface, for the most part, is worth looking at.

First of all, I have not seen a movie in recent years that relies so heavily on the beauty of its locations, in this case Paris and Venice (and a few shots of London offices that are inspired by M's leather-bound offices in the early Bond films). This film, at times, feels like a travelogue, the way that 1960s films, once they were freed from the studio, took full advantage of location shooting. In particular, the opening 45 minutes of this movie are particularly stunning. There is a scene where Jolie, as a mysterious woman (maybe a thief, maybe a spy), and Depp (the hapless American she picks up), check into a hotel, and the audience is shown everything. Establishing shots of Venice, then the outside of the hotel, then the lobby, then the ride to the room, then the room itself with its views of the Grand Canal. If you're bored reading this then this film isn't for you.

There are flaws. While it may look like Charade at times, it doesn't have the fizzy dialogue or sharp humor of that particular film, but at least it's trying. Angelina is gorgeous, even though at times she seemed too robotic, especially with her over-skinny body. But she is a true, old-fashioned movie star, and there's a sequence in the film when she is completely channeling Sofia Loren. Johnny Depp was a problem for me, and it was partly the way he looked. He's supposed to be a rumpled math professor from Wisconsin but there was something a little off about his face in this movie--it looked puffy. I know I'm being shallow but it's a shallow film. But he grew on me by the end of the movie.

I know this film got tarred and feathered by critics but I don't really understand why. If it had been made in 1965 it would be a minor classic, one of those great rainy afternoon films when you don't want to think about your crummy apartment, and you just want to watch movie stars in beautiful locations.

One more thing: If I were Barbara Broccoli I would hire German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck for a future Bond film.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ten Favorite Films of 2010

Better late than never.

Even though I didn't necessarily think of this past year as being a stellar one for big screen entertainment, I had trouble making this list, and I feel I left off several movies I really enjoyed. I mention some of them in the Runners Up below.

One decision that wasn't difficult was picking my number one film of the year. I thought it was going to be The Social Network till I saw True Grit. The Coen Brothers have made one of the best films of their career.

Here they are, more or less in order:

10. Shutter Island

Stylistically a B-movie homage but it worked for me, helped along by stellar set-design, cinematography and an unbelievable score of avant-garde classical music.

9. Fish Tank

A beautiful and scary kitchen-sink drama about a girl in a dead-end housing development and her attachment to her mother's boyfriend (a sinister and sexy Michael Fassbender).

8. The Kids are All Right
First half was just okay for me, but the second half, dominated by Annette Bening's performance as a betrayed wife, made this one of the most emotional movies I saw this year.

7. The Eclipse
Ciaran Hinds gets to play the lead in this romantic ghost story that is alternately mysterious, sad and scary.

6. The Ghost Writer
The best-paced thriller I've seen in years, and Olivia Williams should get an Oscar nomination tomorrow. She won't.

5. The King's Speech
Not a surprising film but one that's rich and rewarding, and very well made. Colin Firth brings out the frustration and sadness of a disability.

4. I Am Love
Totally nuts, and sometimes it went over the line, but when it didn't, this was such a watchable film. A Sirkian melodrama with beautiful music from composer John Adams.

3. Black Swan

Riveting psychodrama about the pursuit of perfection. Hardest film for me to sit through but I'd sit through it again right now.

2. The Social Network
Crammed with ideas and human understanding. I spent more time thinking about this film than any other this year.

1. True Grit
An adventure movie, and maybe a classic. The nighttime ride with Rooster, a snakebit Mattie and Little Blackie (I can't remember the last time I got attached to a horse in a film) was the best scene of the year. 

Runners Up: The American, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, How to Train Your DragonInception, The TownToy Story 3, Winter's Bone

Haven't Seen: Another Year, Let Me In, Somewhere, Tangled

Poetry Monday

The Wintry Mind

by Witter Bynner
Winter uncovers distances, I find;
And so the cold and so the wintry mind
Takes leaves away, till there is left behind
A wide cold world. And so the heart grows blind
To the earth’s green motions lying warm below
Field upon field, field upon field, of snow.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Red River (1948)

I'd never seen it but noticed it as a freebie on my On Demand. It was terrific, great in every way that a film can be great. It's Mutiny on the Bounty on a cattle drive with John Wayne getting squirrely and his adopted son Montgomery Clift saving the day. The shots of the cattle drive are reason enough to see this film, but then there's tension and humor and romance, of course, with the lovely Joanne Dru (born Joanne LaCock). Does it hedge its bets at the very end by redeeming the near-psychotic Wayne? A little bit but it didn't really bother me. He's swayed by the woman he doesn't even get to marry. Great, great movie.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Parks and Recreation

The third season of Parks and Recreation starts tomorrow night and it's just as funny as season two. I reviewed it for Slant Magazine here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

A selective biography, detailing the relationship between Evelyn Waugh and the members of the Lygon family, who inhabited an enormous country house called Madresfield. The family of the Lygons, a disgraced Earl and his seven children, were clearly the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited, Waugh's most popular novel, and one of my all time favorite books (a book I will probably read every decade of my life). Waugh went to Oxford (and had a romantic relationship) with Hugh Lygon, the beautiful and alcoholic second son of the family, then, in subsequent years, became close friends with three of the Lygon sisters, often living at Madresfield for long stretches of time. (Evelyn Waugh essentially owned no home during his entire twenties, going from hotel to country house to hotel. Does anyone do this any more? It seems like a reasonable way to live.)

The book is hit and miss, partly because Paula Byrne, the author, keeps feeling the need to explain the connections between the Lygons and Brideshead Revisited. It's best when she just focuses on the Lygon family who are, in and of themselves, a fascinating subject. All the children had fairly desolate fates--this was the saddest part of the book, the way that all their lives were haunted by the fortunes and excesses of the roaring 20s.

About limited biographies, I love the idea. The biggest problem with reading biographies is getting through all the early stuff about the subject's childhood. Some childhoods must be interesting but most aren't. Face it: biographies get interesting when the subjects start sleeping with people.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Poetry Monday

As Much as You Can

by C. P. Cavafy

Even if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hitchcock Directing

My favorite photograph of Alfred Hitchcock. I believe that's Gaetano Ventimiglia as the camera operator, and to Hitchcock's left is assistant director Alma Reville, his newlywed at the time. They married the year before this shot was taken.

But what I really love about this photograph is that the film he is directing, his second, called The Mountain Eagle, is a lost film, with no known surviving prints.  It makes this picture mysterious somehow, that no one living will ever know what these ghosts from the past are looking at.

The Curse of the Demon (1957)

Terrific British horror movie about an American psychologist (a pretty stiff Dana Andrews) who goes to England to investigate a satanic cult led by Niall McGinnis. He's helped in his investigations by Peggy Cummins, a Nancy Drew type whose uncle was murdered by the demon of the title. What I really enjoyed about this movie was the deliberate pace and the way the suspense builds through nothing more than atmosphere and foreboding. It speeds up a little too fast toward the end but apparently that's the fault of the American edit of the film (the British version is fifteen minutes longer and also called The Night of the Demon).

There are some good names behind the the scenes of this film as well. Obviously the director, Jacques Tourneur, but also the production designer, Ken Adams, famous for early Bond films and Dr. Strangelove. It's a good-looking movie and I'm sure Mr. Adams had plenty to do with that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Film Frames Friday

Bonus Edition. When I first started doing these film frames, I just wanted to collect great images from movies I loved but lately I've been obsessing over the themes, and sometimes the images are just so so. So here is a bonus Film Frames Friday, just high quality captures, no theme. And yes, I do love Peter Jackson's King Kong.