2014年12月24日 星期三

20 Great Novels

In the spirit of listing things, here are 20 books that I happen to think are great.  I know that listing things can be a frivolous occupation, but I really did put some thought into this list!

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The story of a serial killer, or a man who thinks he might be a serial killer, told from the serial killer's point of view.  Often cited as an example of "transgressive fiction," this book is still banned in many countries, and remains controversial today.  It is, nevertheless, a great book, and is much better than anything else Ellis has written.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

"Ubik" is derived from "ubique," the Latin word which gives us ubiquitous.  The plot is hard to describe, and the ending of the book feels like a hallucination.  It's not Dick's weirdest book (I'd give that honor to "Lies, Inc.), but it is probably his best.

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas

I've read a lot of books set in the 1700s, but this is one of the few that made me feel like I was somehow present during that time period.  It's also a great adventure story with some gruesome turns.  Based (to some extent) on an actual person.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maughaum

Maughaum wrote several great books, and his life has inspired a literature of its own.  "Of Human Bondage" is regarded by most critics as his masterpiece, and many of the story elements present in this book are autobiographical.  It is the story of a man born with a club foot who joins the medical profession.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

During his lifetime Theodore Dreiser was perhaps more famous for another novel, "An American Tragedy," but in my opinion this novel is far better.  It is the story of a girl from the country, the man who loves her, and the consequences of a robbery.  It is often cited as an example of "naturalism" in fiction, and there is a realism to the motivation (or lack of motivation) behind the characters that continues to elude many modern authors.

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

The last book in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, this book explores a doomed love affair in Mexico.  In this novel McCarthy combines the literal elements from "All the Pretty Horses" and the more existential elements from "The Crossing" into a powerful story of human frailty.  The climax of this book has stayed with me.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Verne wrote a lot of great books, but this one is probably my favorite.  I will agree that in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" Verne found both a more interesting protagonist and a more fully realized villain, but something about "Journey to the Center of the Earth" seems more essentially Verne.  The album by Rick Wakeman is also pretty good.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil visits Soviet Russia with hilarious results.  This novel is my favorite Russian novel ever, and it's only too bad that its creation was surrounded by so much personal tragedy for the author.  Parts of this book are so over-the-top they had me laughing out loud.  An absurd book with a lot to say about human nature.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

I think that Toni Morrison is slightly overrated, but "Jazz" is nonetheless an excellent book.  It is the story of a love triangle that develops between three black New Yorkers with deep ties to the South.  The more impressionistic passages mimic the style of music that gave the book its name.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

With regard to Stanislaw Lem, one of my favorite science fiction writers, I am torn between "Solaris" and "Peace on Earth."  "Solaris" is a more serious meditation on how mankind might interact with a truly alien consciousness, while "Peace on Earth" is a more comedic book exploring the theme of paranoia.  This book will have you thinking.

The Godmakers by Frank Herbert

"God Emperor of Dune" is perhaps my favorite of Frank Herbert's many books, but this one is great as well.  The title describes the story perfectly: the making of a god.  Herbert was perhaps at his best when exploring more philosophical themes, and in this book he writes to his own strengths.  Very original and thought-provoking.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

If you were an extraterrestrial visitor wanting to understand Western science fiction, I would heartily recommend "Foundation."  More a loosely connected series of short stories than an actual novel, it remains one of the most influential science fiction novels ever written.  Asimov certainly had his faults as a writer, but this is a great book.

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

Required reading for anyone into Fantasy, and still one of the best examples of world-building in literature.  The "good vs. evil" motif might wear on modern readers, but I think that Tolkein was in keeping with the sagas that inspired his books.  The decades of abysmal fantasy writing that followed would only be relieved by George R. R. Martins "Song of Ice and Fire."

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

This is one of the most tortured books you'll ever read, describing a doomed love affair between the author and another man's wife.  Graham Greene wrote a lot of great books, but this one would have to be my favorite.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Something of a dark horse here, James Ellroy is famous for his crime/noir novels.  He has often described himself as "a modern-day Tolstoy," and while I wouldn't agree I do think he's a great writer.  "The Black Dahlia" is by far the best of his books, and is somewhat autobiographical in nature.  Don't waste your time with the movie.

Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams

This book is part of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series.  All of the books in this series are good, but I think "Life" is the funniest.  The plot for this book was originally intended as a six part story for the Doctor Who television show, but the BBC rejected it.  Proof that TV executives don't know much about anything.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Probably Faulkner's best known book, and another look at the decaying South.  This is also an early example of how Joyce's stream of consciousness technique translated into an American context.  This book is often singled out as being "difficult," but it's nothing compared to some of Faulkner's other books.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Despite his reputation, Fitzgerald really didn't write all that much.  He left behind five novels - all of which I've read - and "The Great Gatsby" is the only of his books that I would describe as "classic."  It is, nevertheless, a great book.  Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald?  In my opinion, Hemingway never wrote anything half this good.

1984 by George Orwell

Orwell's prophecy about the future of authoritarianism.  Several million North Koreans are living this book right now.  It's dark, it's political, and it's very human.  Even so many decades after its first publication, this book packs quite a punch.  Let's just hope that 1984 remains in our past, and not in our future.

2014年12月20日 星期六

"The Winds of War" by Herman Wouk (1971)

Herman Wouk was born in 1915, and somehow, 99 years later, he continues to be alive.  He is almost a work of history unto himself.

He wrote a sequel to this book, "War and Remembrance," in 1978.  Both "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" were also adapted into television miniseries back in the 1980s.  None other than Robert Mitchum starred as Pug Henry.

"The Winds of War" is the story of Victor "Pug" Henry, a naval officer with hopes of commanding a battleship.  At the beginning of the story he, his wife Rhoda, his sons Warren and Byron, and his daughter Madeline are living in the United States.  Pug is then called to serve as the naval attache to Berlin.  His wife Rhoda is a rather venial woman, and Pug's assignments around the globe put strain on their marriage.  As tensions increase between Germany and England their sons are married, join the Navy, and become the fathers of sons in their own right.  The daughter, Madeline, pursues a career in New York.

The whole thing is very (soap) operatic, with a series of improbable events leading America's entry into the war.  Pug Henry is a likable enough character, but I found his romantic dilemmas inconsistent with his character.  Most exasperating of all is Byron's wife, Natalie, who at several points in the story puts both herself and her unborn child in harm's way.  She is so annoying, in fact, that at several points in the story I wanted her to die.

But the true weakness of this book lies not in characterization.  Its true weakness lies in the author's compulsion towards historicity.  His need to narrate certain historical elements pulls one right out of the story, and this book would have been a lot better if it hadn't got bogged down in details.  The chapters featuring the musings of the fictional General Roon were particularly pointless, and could have been excised without hurting the novel.

This said, it's easy to see why "The Winds of War" proved to be such fruitful subject matter for a TV miniseries.  It practically screams "TV miniseries" from beginning to end.  In this it strongly resembles other such books from the 1970s, books like James Clavell's "Shogun" and Colleen McCullough's "The Thorn Birds."  

Reading "The Winds of War" now, one wonders what happened to such historical epics, and why they have fallen out of fashion with modern readers.  Perhaps it has something to do with modern sensibilities, or perhaps books like "The Winds of War" just oversaturated the market.  Having waded through this book, I am inclined toward the latter opinion.

So do I recommend this book?  Not really.  It's just not very good.  But if you're on a train or an airplane, and happen to find a copy of it lying around, you might use it to divert yourself for a few hours.  If nothing else, it's REALLY long, and it will help you pass the time as well as any other historical epic from that era.

2014年12月16日 星期二

20 Great Movies

I realize that I lean a bit too heavily in the direction of superhero and horror movies.  By way of addressing this imbalance, I'd like to talk about some of my favorite movies.  Some of these movies will of course fall within the superhero and horror genres, but I'm thinking about quality here, and not genre.

1. The Wrestler

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.

I've been a fan of Aronofsky's since "Pi," but this is my hands-down favorite of his movies.  Mickey Rourke stars as an aging professional wrestler, and Marisa Tomei is his would-be love interest.  Rourke's performance in this movie is stunning, and he really ought to have won the Academy Award for it.  I've seen this movie more times than I can remember.

2. The Departed

Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.

Scorsese has been directing feature films since 1967, and many of these have gone on to win multiple Academy Awards.  "The Departed" is one of his more recent films, and certainly one of his best.  The Boston city police square off against organized crime.  It's a move full of memorable lines and excellent performances.

3. Unforgiven

Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman.

Clint Eastwood has done a lot with Westerns over the years.  In Unforgiven he stars as an aging outlaw out for one last score, and the buildup to his confrontation with Gene Hackman is a masterpiece of pacing.   I'd be hard put to say which is better - this film or "Pale Rider" - but both are great films.

4. The Doors

Directed by Oliver Stone, starring Val Kilmer and Meg Ryan.

I can't say that I've loved every movie that Oliver Stone directed.  "JFK" was trying too hard to make a point.  "Heaven and Earth" was terrible.  "Natural Born Killers" was too hyperactive.  But in "The Doors" Stone managed to tone himself down just enough to make a great movie.  And who would have thought that Val Kilmer would make such an excellent Jim Morrison?

5. Bad Lietentant (1992)

Directed by Abel Ferrara, starring Harvey Keitel.

This movie is not nearly as famous as others on this list, but I've loved it for years.  Harvey Keitel always had the potential for super-stardom, and this film is proof of that.  Abel Ferrara is on firm footing with regard to the subject matter, and Keitel is a revelation as a corrupt police officer.  None other than Werner Herzog directed a later version of this film with Nicholas Cage.

6. Se7en

Directed by David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.

When one looks at recent trends in horror movies, many of these trends can be traced back to "Se7en."  It's bloody, it's atmospheric, and you know from the first act that it's not going to have a happy ending.  Kevin Spacey isn't in this movie for very long, but his brief appearance knocked him up several notches in the Hollywood hierarchy.

7. Sling Blade

Directed by Billy Bob Thornton, starring Billy Bob Thornton and John Ritter.

If you ever find yourself wondering why Billy Bob Thornton is in so many movies, you should see "Sling Blade."  This is the movie that made his career.  Thornton stars as a released mental patient who becomes friends with a young boy.  Thornton and the young boy would also star opposite one another in "Friday Night Lights" an excellent movie about high school football.

8. L.A. Confidential

Directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.

This is still the only movie that captures the spirit of James Ellroy's prose.  It's set in L.A., and the action centers around a corrupt police force.  Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe can both thank this movie for kickstarting their careers, and Kim Basinger is also mesmerizing as the woman caught between them.  I only wish "The Black Dahlia" had been this good.

9. The Apostle

Directed by Robert Duvall, starring Robert Duvall.

A lot of people seem to have missed this movie when it appeared in theaters, but it has built up quite a following since.  Robert Duvall stars as a preacher who might also be a murderer, hiding in the country and spreading the Good Word.  Like "The Wrestler," I have seen this movie more times than I can remember.

10. Traffic

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas.

Great movie about the American War on Drugs.  Michael Douglas makes an unusual attempt to understand the problem, while at the same time coping with his daughter's substance abuse.  It's an expansive film, and shows the issue from many surprising angles.  If you like this one, "Syriana" and "The Insider" are also very good. 

11. American Psycho

Directed by Mary Harron, starring Christian Bale.

The novel that spawned this movie is one of my favorite books.  Before anyone really knew who Christian Bale was, he starred as a self-absorbed psychopath in "American Psycho."  Along with "Se7en" and "Monster" this is one of the best movies about a serial killer ever.  And if you liked this movie, I highly recommend the book.

12. Monster

Directed by Patty Jenkins, starring Charlize Theron.

Charlize Theron stars as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos.  Theron would win the Academy Award for her performance in this film, and I think the Oscar was well deserved.  Christina Ricci, who has also been excellent in other films, costars as her lesbian lover.  Where "American Psycho" is cartoonish, this one is heartbreaking.

13. Borat

Directed by Larry Charles, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

If you haven't seen Sacha Baron Cohen in the "Ali G." show you should really check it out on YouTube.  His "mock-interview" style kicked into high gear with "Borat," and this film was a surprise hit for the actor-comedian.  "Bruno," the sequel to this film, is also very funny.  It's only too bad that the Freddy Mercury biopic stalled.  Cohen would have been great in that role.

14. No Country for Old Men

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem.

Probably my favorite Coen Brothers movie, this one was adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy.  Tommy Lee Jones stars as a small town lawman trying to track a killer, and Javier Bardem almost steals the show as an assassin in the employ of a drug cartel.  Woody Harrelson, an actor who should probably have won some kind of award by now, is also terrific as the bounty hunter. 

15. Eastern Promises

Directed by David Cronenberg, starring Viggo Mortenson.

A movie about the Russian mafia in the U.K.  One of my favorite actors, Vincent Cassell, has a great part in this movie.  This movie still hasn't gained the attention it deserves, but perhaps in the next few years it will build up more of a following.  If you liked this one, Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" is also very good.

16. Anvil!  The Story of Anvil

Directed by Sacha Gervasi, starring Anvil.

The only documentary here, about a Canadian heavy metal band that has seen better days.  Revisiting the rock stars of 20 years ago is usually a depressing exercise, and catching up with Anvil is no exception.  The movie does, however, sound a hopeful note at the end.  Anyone who loves "This is Spinal Tap" will find a lot to like in this movie.

17. Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman.

Like Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," this one explores the intersection of sport and art.  Natalie Portman stars as a ballerina intent on playing the iconic role in Swan Lake, and Vincent Cassell appears as her mentor.  It's not just a movie about ballet, but also a movie about the pressure inherent in high-level performance.

18. Martyrs

Directed by Pascal Laugier, starring Morjana Alaoui.

Along with "Audition," this might just be one of the most disturbing horror movies ever made.  A young girl escapes from sadistic kidnappers and grows up to exact revenge.  The film gets steadily stranger from that point on.  It's super violent but also has a lot to say.  Watch it at your peril, and don't say I didn't warn you!

19. Silver Linings Playbook

Directed by David O. Russell, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

This film is something of a black sheep here, for the reason that although I loved the movie, I didn't love the ending.  Up until that ending, however, this is a great film.  Bradley Cooper tries to adjust to everyday life after a spell in an institution, and Jennifer Lawrence is an aspiring dancer.

20. August: Osage County

Directed by John Wells, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

Meryl Streep should have won another Academy Award for this film.  It's set in Oklahoma, where three sisters return home after the disappearance of their father.  Every scene at the dinner table is unforgettable, and Julia Roberts turns in an inspired performance as the oldest of the three daughters. 

2014年12月5日 星期五

The Suicide Squad Movie

The Suicide Squad movie is due out in 2016.  The identity of the director, David Ayer, has been known since Warner Bros. announced their upcoming slate of DC films two months ago.  Cast announcements date back to this week!

What is the Suicide Squad?

Suicide Squad is one of DC's more underwhelming comic books.  It features a cast of super villains, pressed into serving the US government (or S.T.A.R. Labs, or whoever), by taking part in a "suicide mission" that will likely involve heavy casualties.  Hence the name: Suicide Squad.

The team roster varies, but Deadshot, a gun-wielding assassin, is probably the best known member of the team.  Amanda Waller, the Nick Fury of DC Comics, is also closely associated with the Squad.  In more recent incarnations Harley Quinn, the Joker's female consort, has become more popular.

Who is David Ayer?

David Ayer is the guy who directed "Fury," the WWII film starring Brad Pitt.  He has also directed "Harsh Times," "Street Kings," "End of Watch," and "Sabotage."  He has also written several memorable films, such as the underrated "Dark Blue" the first "The Fast and the Furious," and the excellent "Training Day."  His movies tend to center around law enforcement or military types, and are generally driven by a great deal of testosterone.

Despite the surprisingly mediocre "Sabotage," a recent Schwarzenegger vehicle, his film output is remarkably consistent.  "Fury" is a great movie, and made me even more excited about his next project. 

Which Characters Are in the Movie?

From the recent casting news, we know that Deadshot, the Joker, Harley Quinn, Rick Flag, Enchantress, Amanda Waller, and Captain Boomerang are in the movie.  Lex Luthor will also cameo.

I think putting The Joker in this movie is a no-brainer.  With the next solo Batman film still far out on the horizon, it's a smart move to put one of DC's most recognizable characters in the film.  I'm sure a lot of people will show up just to see yet another actor take on this high-profile role.

Who Has Been Cast?

So far Wll Smith has been cast as Deadshot, Jared Leto will be the Joker, Tom Hardy will be Rick Flag, Margot Robbie will be Harley Quinn, Jai Courtney will be (Captain) Boomerang, and Cara Delevinge will be Enchantress.  There is also talk of Oprah Winfrey being cast as Amanda Waller.

I am particularly excited about Jared Leto.  The guy just won an Oscar, after all.  I've been a fan of his since "Requiem for a Dream," and it will be interesting to see what he does with this character.  Casting Margot Robbie from "The Wolf of Wall Street" is also an inspired choice.

I am far less excited about Will Smith as Deadshot, but then again David Ayer is used to working with major stars, and odds are that he'll bring out the best in Will Smith.  Let us not forget that for every "After Earth" or "I, Robot" there is a "Pursuit of Happyness."  Say what you like about the guy, but he can definitely act.

What Can We Expect?

I have never been a big fan of the comic book, but on the strength of David Ayer and those already cast I'd have to say that this movie is going to be awesome.  I'm expecting Jared Leto to chew some major scenery as the Joker, and the characters easily lend themselves to the kind of stories that David Ayer is accustomed to telling.  Compared to Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," this movie is even further out of left field, and it has the potential to be an even bigger success.