2018年10月30日 星期二

"McTeague" by Frank Norris (1899)

"After the two had drunk together Maria produced the gold tape.  Zerkow's eyes glittered on the instant.  The sight of gold invariably sent a qualm all through him; try as he would, he could not repress it.  His fingers trembled and clawed at his mouth, his breath grew short."

Frank Norris was a journalist and author during the late 1880s and early 1900s.  He lived in San Francisco for most of his life, wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle, and died very young at 32.

McTeague is perhaps his most well-regarded novel, though Norris and his works have fallen out of fashion in recent years.  The novel details an oafish dentist's love affair with a friend's cousin, and bears many similarities to Shakespeare's Othello.

Norris the author was very influenced by French writer Emilie Zola, whose works he encountered while studying art in Paris.  Zola was a big proponent of the naturalist approach to literature, which explains Norris' championing of Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie.  I was often reminded of Dreiser's work while reading McTeague, given the flawed nature of the characters and the mistaken choices they often make.  A character in Sister Carrie engages in impulsive theft the same way that a character in McTeague decides that she's in love.  No one in either book really knows what they are doing, or what their choices will lead to, even though they make frequent attempts to rationalize their actions.

But where Sister Carrie succeeds in taking a step back from its characters - by not judging them for their actions - McTeague often tries too hard to make a point.  Instead of letting the drama play out, and instead of leaving conclusions to the reader, McTeague often interjects philosophical conclusions into the narrative. I think the result of this "tampering" is a much weaker, much less modern book.  Something about the way in which McTeague was written speaks to a lack of trust in the reader's judgement, and even a kind of condescension.  This condescension isn't pervasive enough to be annoying, but it did pull me out of the narrative at several points.

This, and there are parts of this book where even Norris' naturalism seems to break down, and in which his characters' actions verge on the irrational.  A young bride becomes a miser for no perceptible reason.  A young man develops an equally unfounded grudge.  It's not so much that such transformations couldn't develop out of earlier whims, but that they would proceed in stages.  Inserting them into the narrative out of the blue makes them seem less natural, rather than the opposite.

More worrying still are the racial stereotypes present in this book.  In McTeague one finds a clear divide between the Caucasian characters and non-Caucasian ones, with the latter often described in animalistic and/or negative terms.  The grasping Jew lusts after gold and exhibits "claws" (see quote above), while the resident "Mexican" is a thief and a fraud in equal measure.  The white upper-class inhabiting this book - for all their idiocy - are still superior to the Jew and the Mexican.  Othello again, but even more specifically racial than Shakespeare intended.

This said, McTeague is a well-written book that made me wonder what Norris would have come up with if he had lived longer, and if he had somehow overcome his racist mode of thinking.  He was definitely a good writer, and the portrait of old San Francisco one finds in McTeague is fascinating.  The characters that aren't stereotypes are also equally compelling, though the characters that are mitigate the quality of the overall story.

If you like Steinbeck you might find in Frank Norris an interesting precursor.  There are many parallels to be drawn between the two authors, not least among which are their naturalism, their relation to California, their journalistic backgrounds, and their concern for the working man.  Steinbeck is (of course) a far better writer, but one could argue that he wrote upon a template that Frank Norris helped set out.

Related Entries:

"The Awakening" (and Other Stories) by Kate Chopin (1895-1899)
"The Unconsoled" by Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)
"A Woman's Place" by Edwina Currie (1996)
"April Fool's Day" by Bryce Courtenay (1993)

2018年10月22日 星期一

Some Other Movies From 2015

The top 5 movies of 2015 were Star Wars: the Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions.  I loved none of these movies, and I don't think any of that year's other highest-grossing films were particularly good.

2015 was the year Leonardo DiCaprio finally won the Oscar for The Revenant, though if you ask me he probably should have won it earlier for The Wolf of Wall Street, Blood Diamond, or The Aviator.  

Aside from The Revenant, other award-winning films of 2015 included Spotlight, The Martian, Room, and the forgettable Steve JobsThe Big Short, my favorite "awards worthy" movie of 2015, was largely overlooked.

My favorite movies of 2015 are probably Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Get Hard, and SicarioTerminator: Genisys and Fantastic Four count among my least favorites.  I regard Quentin Tarantino's Hateful Eight as the most overrated.

Some Good Ones

1. A Walk in the Woods

Robert Redford stars as the travel writer Bill Bryson.  After his friend's death he decides to trek the length of the Appalachian Trail.  It's a very funny movie, full of Bryson's characteristic wit.  Critics were pretty hard on this film, but I think it's better than most reviews would have you believe.

2. Woman in Gold

The title of this movie refers to a painting done by Gustav Klimt.  Helen Mirren stars as a Jewish-Austrian refugee returning to Austria to reacquire a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis, with Ryan Reynolds as her attorney and confidant.  It's not bad, but the tenuous connections between Mirren, Reynolds, the Klimt painting and the Holocaust are never fully assembled into a complete film.

Fun Fact: After Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren's character) won back her family's five paintings, one of them was purchased by Oprah Winfrey.

3. American Ultra

You know those big black and white graphic novels that cost a fortune?  Written and drawn by someone you've never heard of?  The kind a certain friend is obsessed with, but which fail to impress you?  American Ultra is just like that.  Jessie Eisenberg stars as a sleeper agent on the run in small town America, with Kristen Stewart as his girlfriend.  If you're bored enough it's ok, but I wouldn't seek it out.

4. Trumbo

Bryan Cranston stars as the legendary screenwriter accused of being a communist spy.  Cranston is excellent in the role, and Helen Mirren is particularly memorable as Trumbo's sometime adversary.  

Fun Fact #1: Louis C.K. is in this.  Trumbo was released two years or so before his sexual misconduct scandal.

Fun Fact #2: Dalton Trumbo also wrote and directed 1971's Johnny Got His Gun, excerpts of which appear in the video for Metallica's "One."

5. Concussion

Full Disclosure: I'm an (American) football fan and I probably would have liked this movie regardless of its quality.  I'm also a Steelers fan, and that compromises me even more.

The above said, the actor that plays "Iron" Mike Webster probably deserved both an Academy Award and a bigger role.  Will Smith?  Not so much, especially as  Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin upstage him at every opportunity.  Even so, Smith is... acceptable as the Nigerian doctor who made the rather obvious discovery that getting hit in the head thousands of times during your football career can give you brain damage.  The movie's chief flaw is that it simply loses steam during the second half, and events which ought to have been momentous just aren't.

One of the more jarring things I about this movie is the courtroom scene in the beginning.  Not to nitpick, but if anyone had hemophilia that serious they would have needed regular blood transfusions, and their condition would have been obvious to all.  It's not the sort of thing a doctor surprises a jury with in court.

6. The End of the Tour

I read Infinite Jest not long ago, so I was a bit surprised to come across a movie featuring David Foster Wallace so soon after his death.  Jason Segel stars as the famous author, with Jesse Eisenberg as the Rolling Stone reporter interviewing him.  People not into books will probably be bored by this movie, but I enjoyed it and thought it was very thought-provoking.  Eisenberg was also much better used in this film than in American Ultra.

7. Dope

Ok, so if he really wrote a letter like that for Harvard there's no way he's ever getting in.  Not even with the check cashing guy's dubious assistance.

But aside from that Dope is a funny and engaging movie, even if it starts to drag once the hero starts dealing drugs.  There are also two achingly beautiful women in it, so beautiful I had to go look them up on the Internet afterward.

Fun Fact: One of those achingly beautiful women is Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny.  She appeared in Mad Max: Fury Road the same year.

8. Irrational Man

A philandering philosophy professor takes Crime and Punishment a bit too seriously.  I'm still not a Woody Allen fan, but Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone make this movie better than it ought to be.

9. Stonewall

A young man runs away to New York and gets involved in the struggle for gay rights.  It's on the long side, but the characters remain interesting throughout.  I couldn't help but tear up a bit when the protagonist's mother and sister show up at the pride march.  Critics got worked up over the racial aspects of the film, but in my opinion they were overthinking it.

10. Legend

Tom Hardy stars as twins taking control of London's underworld.  The first half of this movie is awesome, but the second half is somewhat boring.  Of the two brothers played by Hardy the insane one is much more interesting than the sane one, and the insane one doesn't factor into much of the second half.  

Fun Fact: This is actually the second film based on the infamous Kray twins.  The first was 1990's The Krays.

One Which is Good, But Which Will Probably Make You Uncomfortable for Any Number of Reasons

1. The D Train

Jack Black stars as the chairman of his alumni committee, trying to organize a 20-year high school reunion.  James Marsden co-stars as a classmate who sought fame and fortune in Hollywood.  Black gets serious points for trying - there are some truly cringeworthy scenes in this movie - but the ending is something of an anticlimax.

Some Bad Ones

1. Blackhat

I think Michael Mann was out of his depth, and Chris Hemsworth's uncharacteristic lack of screen presence isn't helping matters.  Blackhat is the story of one hacker trying to catch another, burdened by unnecessary cgi sequences in which the virus "takes hold," and a ridiculous romantic subplot involving Hemsworth and Tang Wei.  The U.S. law enforcement officials are all thundering idiots, and Hemsworth's character is seemingly the only person in the movie with half a brain.

2. True Story

Real life buddies James Franco and Jonah Hill star as a killer and the reporter interviewing him for a story.  It starts out well and the acting is good throughout, but there's not enough of a story for two hours.  It also takes a couple retarded twists near the end.

3. Last Knights

If Blackhat is a lot of action at the expense of plot, Last Knights is a lot of plot at the expense of action.  Something-something war happens and then the middle ages get played out again with a multiracial cast of characters.  Morgan Freeman struggles with some truly bad dialogue, Clive Owen tries to look heroic despite the fact that he has very little to do, and the bad guy is such a terrifically bad actor that one almost wishes they'd cast Tommy Wiseau in the part, just to make it that much worse.

4. Poltergeist

Sam Rockwell (!) takes his family to live in a haunted house.  This movie was already effectively remade much better by The Conjuring, so the stakes were high for this 2015 update of the 1980s classic.  It's less overwrought than the original, but it fails to build up any kind of tension.  It just kind of ends, and that's it.

5. Love

First shot of this movie: a woman jerking off the protagonist until he ejaculates into her mouth.  

The plot?  An American living in Paris has a threesome with his girlfriend and a neighbor, later (accidentally) has a child by said neighbor, loses his girlfriend, and then spends an unhappy day at home reminiscing over the girlfriend.  In between pretentious voiceovers he remembers all the sex they had, and yes the sex is very graphic.  The trouble is that everyone in this movie is so damn unlikable, and it's not like graphic sex is that hard to find elsewhere these days.

I liked what director Gaspar Noe did with his previous film Irreversible, and I'd still like to see his newest film Climax, but this one wasn't doing anything for me.

Related Entries:

Superhero Movies From October 2018 Onward
Some Other Movies From 2017
Some Other Movies From 2018
Some Other Movies From 2016

"Fear: Trump in the White House" by Bob Woodward (2018)

"'Mr. President, can I show this to you?' Cohn fanned out the pages of data in front of the president.  'See, the biggest leavers of jobs - people leaving voluntarily - was from manufacturing.'

"'I don't get it,' Trump said."

Bob Woodward is the famous "Woodward and Bernstein" Woodward.  He remains an assistant editor at The Washington Post, and his career in journalism stretches back decades.  His bibliography extends from Nixon to the present day.

In Fear Woodward attempts to cast light on the secretive goings-on within Trump's White House.  He begins with the final days of Trump's candidacy, and the book ends - somewhat anticlimactically - with Trump's legal troubles and the FBI inquiry into Russian electoral meddling.

I learned about this book through American news reports, and based upon both the glowing and scathing reviews figured it would be nothing if not interesting.  To my discredit I didn't vote in the last election, and like many people I've been in a state of perpetual dismay ever since.  

I can't say that I've cultivated any serious dislike for Trump.  I can't stand to hear the man give speeches, and he seems woefully under-qualified for the job, but I generally find him to be a much less threatening, far more comical figure than Hillary Clinton.  Prior to Trump's surprise win, Clinton brought thoughts of a New World Order to mind, whereas Trump was always someone I have trouble taking seriously.  No, I don't want him to have access to the nuclear codes - or Twitter, for that matter - but Clinton seemed to portend invasive laws, and other nations continuing to infringe upon U.S. sovereignty.

So is the book good?  I don't know, I found it a little disappointing.  It's not as weighty as I was expecting.  I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the Trump administration, but what I got instead was a breezy few hundred pages on how members of his cabinet continually try (and fail) to prevent Trump from making a fool of himself.  It does make for entertaining reading, and I did learn a few things, but on the whole it feels like this book needed more detail, and perhaps - in a larger sense - the author was just too close to the events he's describing.

Living as I do in Taiwan, I'd have to say that the Trump presidency hasn't been all that bad so far.  Arms sales have increased and the U.S. has distanced itself from China, but it's hard to say whether this state of affairs is traceable to the Commander in Chief or not.  Some of it may have to do with larger geopolitical goals and military leadership in the region.  I will say, however, that the details of Trump's relationship with the Chinese were very enlightening, and one wonders how much of the current "trade war" is really Trump's doing, or if he's only taking credit for things he had little to do with.

I doubt Fear will be the defining book of the Trump presidency.  If nothing else this presidency isn't over yet, and gaining a fuller picture of it will await future developments.  Fear is a good book, but I doubt it will change anyone's mind in terms of whether they're for or against Trump.  It simply lacks the evidence to do so, and the account it offers comes off as largely anecdotal in nature.  I'd recommend it if you are, like me, fairly clueless as to what's going on with the U.S. right now, but it's definitely not as insightful as some are claiming it to be.

Related Entries:

"Political Order and Political Decay" by Francis Fukuyama (2015)
"What Money Can't Buy" by Michael Sandel (2012)
"The Anatomy of Violence" by Adrian Raine (2013)
"The Nature of Sex" by Dr. Carin Bondar (2015)

2018年10月16日 星期二

"The Awakening" (and Other Stories) by Kate Chopin (1895-1899)

"Edna felt depressed rather than soothed after leaving them.  The little glimpses of domestic harmony which had been offered her gave her no regret, no longing.  It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui.  She was moved by a kind of commiseration for Madame Ratignolle - a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul, in which she would never have the taste of life's delirium.  Edna vaguely wondered what she meant by 'life's delirium,'  It had crossed her thought like some unsought, extraneous impression."

Kate Chopin is often viewed as a forerunner of 20th century feminist authors.  She lived and wrote during the second half of the 19th century, and she is best remembered for her short novel The Awakening.

In The Awakening, a member of Louisiana's aristocracy develops feelings for a man who is not her husband.  These feelings cause her to question the constraints placed upon her by society at large, and as she questions these accepted values she begins to change her way of living.

The other stories in this collection vary in quality, and all fall far short of The AwakeningDesiree's Baby, a story of miscegenation, is probably the most memorable, but it's so short that it feels more like an outline for a story rather than the story itself.

It's worth noting that The Awakening is/was largely autobiographical, and mirrors many of the struggles Chopin encountered in her own life.  Chopin herself dealt with both depression (which she probably would have termed "melancholy") and family issues similar to those of Edna, The Awakening's protagonist.  To some extent, writing helped alleviate Kate Chopin's depression, and the negative reception that The Awakening initially received was a devastating event in her later years.

All of which makes The Awakening and Chopin's other stories sound VERY heavy, but they're a far cry from Tolstoy.  The Awakening is, moreover, one of the more interesting things I've read lately, and I think that through this novel Chopin painted a realistic portrait of what someone like Edna would have gone through.  

As for Chopin's short stories, when they're not very good they're at least very short, and when they're good they're even shorter.

Related Entries:

"The Unconsoled" by Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)
"A Woman's Place" by Edwina Currie (1996)
"April Fool's Day" by Bryce Courtenay (1993)
"Teacher Man" and "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt (2005 and 1996)

2018年10月12日 星期五

"The Unconsoled" by Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)

"'I do hope I'm not intruding,' he said, 'But when I saw you just now I simply had to come over and say how excited I am you're here.  You see, I'm a pianist myself.  On a strictly amateur basis, I mean.  And, well, I've always admired you terribly.  When father finally got word that you were coming, I was so thrilled.'"

Kazuo Ishiguro is a British novelist born in Japan.  His most famous book is probably The Remains of the Day, which was adapted into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins.  He received the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

I got 1/4 of the way through The Unconsoled and had to stop.  It seems to be about some guy walking around a city he's unfamiliar with (or is he?), and him having painfully polite conversations with strangers (or are they?).  MAYBE this book gets better, but after 100+ pages of NOTHING HAPPENING I'd had enough and it was time to move on to another book.

I can't tell you much more than that, aside from the fact that this novel merits the term "Kafkaesque" and that its "magical realism" reminded me of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain - another weighty tome I failed to finish.

Related Entries:

"A Woman's Place" by Edwina Currie (1996)
"April Fool's Day" by Bryce Courtenay (1993)
"Teacher Man" and "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt (2005 and 1996)
"The Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel (1980)

2018年10月6日 星期六

Superhero Movies From October 2018 Onward

For reviews of older superhero movies click here and here.  It felt like time to get rid of the "baggage" those older entries carried, so I'm starting again from October 2018's Venom.


What I Liked: After a really clunky beginning there are some great action sequences.  Everything after Venom shows up is much better than the 15 minutes that try (and fail) to set up the story.  The fight between Venom and Riot near the end is very good.

What I Didn't Like: That beginning part.  It feels like they weren't sure what kind of movie they were making.  Horror?  Action?  Science fiction?  Going more for the "body horror" elements would have improved the film, and the spaceship/alien invasion subplot could have been dispensed with altogether.

As clunky as the beginning is, the dialogue throughout the movie is by far the worst part.  None of the actors seem at ease with what they're saying, and a couple of lines are unintentionally hilarious.

Future/Sequels: There are plans for a sequel with Woody Harrelson's Carnage in a bigger role.  I think that after setting up the general premise, a sequel is bound to be better.  Harrelson would also make a great villain.  Last I heard, Sony's next comic-based movie will be Morbius the Living Vampire, with Jared Leto as Morbius.  There may be some crossover between Venom and Morbius.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 2017
Some Other Movies From 2018
Some Other Movies From 2016
Some Other Movies From 2014

2018年10月5日 星期五

Some Other Movies From 2017

The top 5 movies of 2017 were Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, The Fate of the Furious, Despicable Me 3, and Jumanji 2: Welcome to the Jungle.  It was a good year for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and NOT such a good year for Star Wars fans.

Critically lauded films included Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, and the horror film Get Out.  I failed to understand the love heaped upon The Shape of Water.  Michael Shannon was memorable in it, but the rest of the movie didn't seem too unlike stuff we've seen from director Guillermo del Toro before.  The "fish guy" might just as well have been Abe from the Hellboy movies.

My favorite movies of 2017 were probably Downsizing, It, the overlooked War Machine, and Spider-Man: HomecomingProfessor Marston and the Wonder Women was also pretty good.

Picking my "least favorites" of 2017 is MUCH easier.  They are Justice League - that steaming pile of a film - and Darren Aronofsky's mother!  ...and say what you like about Justice League, at least it wasn't half as pretentious as mother!

Some Good Ones

1. All the Money in the World

The grandson of the world's richest man is kidnapped.  Ridley Scott directed, with Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, and Mark Wahlberg starring.  Ridley Scott's output has been a bit uneven in recent years (I direct your attention to Alien: Covenant), but this movie finds him on solid ground.  Scott has always done well with crime thrillers and this is yet another example.  Michelle Williams is notably great as the hostage's mother.

Not-So-Fun Fact: Kevin Spacey was originally set to star in this movie, but after sexual abuse allegations his role was given to Christopher Plummer.

2. American Made

Occasionally Tom Cruise appears in a movie just to remind you what a good actor he is.  Also to remind you that he doesn't.  Freaking.  Age.  In this one he stars as a pilot who gets caught up in the Iran-Contra Scandal.  He's thoroughly charming throughout, and the cinematography is excellent. 

3. Star Wars: the Last Jedi

What?!?  I liked the Last Jedi?  What's WRONG with me?!?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I never liked the Star Wars franchise that much to begin with - not even back when I was 7 and playing with the action figures.  Star Wars always seemed like a watered down version of everything: fantasy, sci-fi, action, mythology, you name it.  I have friends who worship this franchise (at least up until recently), but their efforts to convert me have failed.

Another reason I enjoyed this movie was that I wasn't taking it all that seriously.  I put it on for forty minutes at a time, took frequent breaks to play with my cell phone, and never attempted to reason out the plot.  To me it was just a big noisy distraction.  I was never looking for dramatic tension or high art.

So yeah, Luke Skywalker's dead now.  In case you're the one person left on the planet that still hasn't seen this movie, sorry to ruin it for you.  His death in the movie is even less of an event than Han Solo's in the first one (again, sorry), but this failed to infuriate me because I identified with NONE of the characters.  I was also not bothered by the derivative and/or "progressive" elements because, well, it's not the 1980s anymore, and, of course.

Episode IX, the sequel to the Last Jedi, will hit theaters in a little over a year from now.  J.J. Abrams will be directing.  Will I bother to see that movie?  Will I have even seen Solo: A Star Wars Story by then?  It's anyone's guess!

4. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

Maybe instead of spending so much time with American superheroes we could start spending more time with the Indian variety?  Baahubali is such a film, wherein the hero has all of the Avengers' powers, and there are some pretty cool fight scenes to boot.  Unlike Padmaavat, another expensive Indian film reviewed here recently, Baahubali 2's producers spent their money in all the right places, and what results is an entertaining movie about power politics in ancient India.  The leads are all great, and the film has enough humor to balance out the more fantastic parts.

Fun Fact #1: the two Baahubali movies are "Tollywood," not Bollywood productions.  This means that they were two of the Telugu-language films produced in Hyderabad, southern India.

Fun Fact #2: Prior to filming, lead actor Prabhas met with several WWE superstars for advice on training for his role.

5. Logan Lucky

A group of good ol' boys set out to rob a Nascar venue.  Steven Soderbergh directed, with Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig in the lead roles.  If you liked Soderbergh's Ocean's movies you'll love this one.  The soundtrack is also great.

6. Battle of the Sexes

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) play a tennis match to decide the fate of gender equality.  Stone is convincing in the lead role, but neither her nor Carrell's characters are very compelling.  I couldn't help but wonder what costar Elizabeth Shue might have done with the role of Billie Jean King.  I have the feeling that whatever she might have done would have made the movie more interesting.

7. Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman proves once again why he's in every other movie since the the dawn of time.  He all but vanishes into the role of Winston Churchill, and the story's told in very unconventional terms.  This movie would make a good double feature with Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and is, in many respects, a far superior film.  If anyone deserved the Academy Award in 2017, it was Oldman for Darkest Hour.

8. Lady Bird

A Catholic school student tries to get into an East Coast college and out of Sacramento.  In tone it reminded me a lot of Napoleon Dynamite, though it's not nearly as funny.  I think Laurie Metcalf was perfectly cast as the mom, but I had trouble staying interested in the main character.  It's a good if not exceptional movie.

9. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Four high school students are beamed into a video game.  The Rock, Karen "Nebula" Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart star.  It's a good mix of action and comedy, and the director did a good job with the pacing.

10. Hostiles

Christian Bale stars as an embittered officer charged with escorting an Indian chief back to Montana.  Wes Studi and Rosamund Pike appear in supporting roles.  It's watchable, but I'm just not buying certain characters' changes of heart, and that shootout at the end really doesn't need to happen.  A couple scenes in this film also bear unfortunate similarities to more famous Westerns, making the whole thing feel like a retread of what's come before.

11. I, Tonya

A kind of spiritual prequel to Dumb and Dumber, and also one of the best (if not the best) movies of 2017.  Margot Robbie stars as the ice skater everyone loved to hate, with Sebastian Stan as her husband, the clueless Jeff Gillooly.  This movie would make a good double feature with Blades of Glory.

Some Bad Ones

1. Leatherface

This movie goes wrong from the very beginning.  Leatherface just doesn't seem damaged enough.  His family seems too normal.  And to top it off the movie's pulling its punches.  It needed to be more violent, and more than that it needed to be disturbing.  It's neither of those things.

Lili Taylor, who garnered horror cred in The Conjuring, plays Leatherface's mom.  The rest of the cast?  No idea.  Oh yeah, Stephen Dorff plays a vengeful sheriff.  But the circumstances in which his daughter dies are so stupid it's hard to feel sorry for him.  It's also hard to understand how he could vengefully place Leatherface into custody in front of several other officers.

Here's the thing about Leatherface and his fucked-up family.  What really makes them scary is their barbarity, and their distance from civilization.  Once you take them out of that shack in the woods, once you have them interacting with normal people in normal places, you diminish them considerably, and from that point on it's an uphill battle to make them even marginally frightening.  A lot of what generates the fear surrounding Leatherface is the idea that you'd be stranded on his property in the middle of Texas, surrounded by his weird relatives, and looking for a way out.

This movie takes a more conventional course after the lunatics escape the asylum, but by that point it's already too late, and this film has already exhausted what little atmosphere it built up in the beginning.

I'm just wondering, has going back and telling the psycho-killer's origin story ever worked?  Even if they had done a better job, would it have amounted to a satisfying movie?  When telling stories centered around characters like Leatherface or the Joker, maybe it's better to leave a bit of mystery around who they really are and how they came to be.  They are creatures of the shadows after all, and such creatures always lose a lot of their appeal when shown in broad daylight.

Fun Fact #1: Finn Jones, from the Iron Fist TV show, is in this movie.

Fun Fact #2: That ain't Texas!  This movie was actually filmed in Bulgaria.

2. Detroit

It's just boring.  I know that everyone involved was trying hard, but it's just boring.  As a movie about a city, or as a movie about race relations, it's all over the place, and I found getting through its 2+ hour runtime was a real struggle.  The centerpiece of the film, the hallway interrogation, was done much better in The Stanford Prison Experiment, and the courtroom drama at the end feels like an afterthought.  I'm sure there's a great story to be told around the riot and its aftermath, but this isn't it.

One So Bad That It's Good

1. Wolf Warrior II

The Mainland Chinese version of Rambo.  Dude gets convicted of murder, goes to prison, and winds up in Africa.  Really bad acting throughout, and some truly laughable action scenes besides.  My favorite bit is when the hero manages to catch an RPG with an old mattress.

Oh, and don't be fooled by reviews from Mainland China claiming that the special effects in this movie are on a par with Hollywood.  This is definitely NOT the case.  The cgi blood looks incredibly fake, and during some of the stunts the dummies are glaringly obvious.

Fun Fact #1: This is the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time.

Fun Fact #2: Frank Grillo, who you might remember from The Purge and Captain America movies, is the bad guy.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 2018
Some Other Movies From 2016
Some Other Movies From 2014
Some Other Movies From 2012

2018年10月2日 星期二

"A Woman's Place" by Edwina Currie (1996)

This book is very different from the kind of book I usually read.  Let's just say that I sometimes like to get a more feminine perspective on things.

My copy of this novel has had an interesting journey.  It was first sold in the U.K., and then someone took it to Australia.  It was sold a second time to a used bookstore there, and was subsequently taken to Bali, Indonesia, where my wife bought it.  She tried (and failed) to get through it, and after learning more about the author I began reading it in Taiwan, where we now are.

"There was a tap on his shoulder.  It was the former Minister who had spoken before him, whose own days of glory were long passed.

"'Nicely done, lad.  You'll get plenty of Brownie points for that.  One little problem you'll have to watch, though.'

"Anthony craned around and looked enquiringly into the rheumy eyes.

"'Just remember this.  If you're going to take your stand on 'Back to Basics' and all that, you'll have to be like Caesar's wife.  If not - if you're only human like the rest of us - bear in mind the eleventh commandment.  D'you know what it is?'

"Anthony waited politely.

"'Don't get caught.'"

Edwina Currie served as a Member of Parliament.  After leaving her office amid controversy she became an author.  Her first novel, A Parliamentary Affair, is her most famous work.  Her Diaries, detailing a long-standing affair with fellow parliamentarian John Major, were also a major success.  I haven't researched her career in any depth, but I feel like her fiction is very autobiographical in nature.

In A Woman's Place, Elaine Stalker, newly elected to government office, attempts to negotiate the parliamentary bureaucracy and the pitfalls of male chauvinism.  Along the way several other Ministers rise and fall, with the plot culminating in Elaine's disillusionment with government and her finding romance in the arms of an older man.

At 651 pages, it's the kind of novel designed to take up time, and I doubt that many of its readers would take much time to reflect on its overall quality.  In the hands of a differently-minded editor this book could have been edited down to 400 pages or so, and the result would have been far more concise.  But of course 400 pages isn't really enough for someone pursuing reading for the sake of diversion, and I understand the reasons for making it longer.

This aside, A Woman's Place suffers from four major weaknesses, which are by no means particular to its genre: 1) most of the characters are inadequately described, and are virtually indistinguishable from one another, 2) the settings are likewise inadequately described, 3) the workings of British government are never adequately described for those unfamiliar with them, and 4) the ending, although largely predictable, is something of a non-event.

Weaknesses 1) and 2) aren't particularly damning given the genre, but 3) and 4) are.  Because the procedural aspects of parliamentary life are taken as understood by the book's readers, I'll assume that the author only intended this book for people within the United Kingdom.  Some of the intrigues present in the plot were completely incomprehensible to me, and as an American I often found myself wondering what the big deal was.

The book's conclusion is the biggest problem.  Near the end Elaine has an encounter with a deranged man, and even though the development is (somewhat) foreshadowed earlier in the book, the shape that this encounter takes is so out of left field that it threatens to derail the entire novel.  One gets the feeling that this story thread was inserted after the fact, to make the novel seem less "dry," but because it's not built up effectively it's at best perplexing, and at worst off-putting.

So, did I enjoy A Woman's Place?  No, I can't say that I did, but at least it wasn't as terrible as I thought it would be.  I can't recommend it, but anyone considering it probably wouldn't put much stock in my advice anyway.

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