2018年8月31日 星期五

"The Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel (1980)

"But it was more than the tremendous size of the animal that held the clan spellbound.  This was Ursus, the personification of the Clan itself.  He was their kin, and more, he embodied their very essence.  His bones alone were so sacred they could ward off any evil.  The kinship they felt was a spiritual tie, far more meaningful than any physical one.  It was through his Spirit that all the clans were united into one and meaning was given to the Gathering they had traveled so far to attend.  It was his essence that made them Clan, the Clan of the Cave Bear."

Author Jean M. Auel lives in Portland, Oregon.  She is best known for her Earth's Children series, of which The Clan of the Cave Bear forms the first of six parts.  The Clan of the Cave Bear was also adapted into a terrible film in 1986.

30,000 years or so ago a young girl, Ayla, loses her family in a cataclysmic earthquake.  Ayla, a Cro Magnon and thus one of our direct ancestors, is then adopted by a group of Neanderthals that raises her as one of their own.  As Ayla learns the ways of her adopted group, a rivalry develops between her and the chief's son, Broud, a bully who sees her as both an interloper and as a threat to his own status.

In anthropological terms this book does a good job with what was known at the time.  Of course given our current understanding of when certain human traits developed - or the relative sizes of certain animals - it falls short, but it's never too far off the mark.  Given the anthropological record in the late 1970s it's a very authentic account.

Perhaps more relevant to the story are the gender roles and species (racial) distinctions inherent in it.  After all The Clan of the Cave Bear isn't just a story about cavemen, but rather the roles of women and men in prehistoric society.  Gender is a constant theme in this book, especially given Ayla's perceived "maleness" and Broud's perceived "femaleness."  Ayla largely succeeds because she has transcended the gender definitions laid out for her by the Clan, and Broud fails because he hasn't achieved the ideal of what a man should be.  This type of gender definition, identification, and transcendence is central to the book, and its absence is one of the many reasons why the movie was such a disaster.

Ayla's speciation (or "race") is also an important feature of the story, and one of the aspects of the novel that I most identified with.  As a Cro Magnon living among Neanderthals, she is often viewed as "ugly," "different," or even "unacceptable."  This again was something absent from the movie, and something which it sorely needed.

If I were to criticize The Clan of the Cave Bear I would do so on only one count, this being a slight "sanitization" of the time period under discussion.  There's something to the argument that Ayla's world feels a little bit too much like our world, and the savagery inherent in her mode of existence is in many instances absent from her story.  Just look at a book like The Orenda, for example.  If those times were so desperate and violent, how much worse would Ayla's have been?

This small critique aside, I'd have to say that The Clan of the Cave Bear is an easy read and an entertaining story.  The ending is a bit of a foregone conclusion, but reaching that conclusion is all part of the fun.  It's certainly not Literature with a capital "L," but it might just make you think about your own human nature, and how this nature fits into (or doesn't fit into) the larger scheme of things.

Related Entries:

"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac (1958)
"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres (1994)
"Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

2018年8月22日 星期三

Some Other Movies From 2014

The highest-grossing film of 2014 was Transformers: Age of Extinction, and that just goes to show what the general public knows about good movies.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: Days of Future Past all came out the same year, so if nothing else it was a good year for the superhero genre.

For me the most disappointing big budget movie of that year was Interstellar.  With Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan at the helm it seemed like a sure thing, but it went on far too long, and they couldn't quite tie all the plot threads together into a satisfying conclusion.  I loved the bits set on other worlds, but on the whole I'd have to say this movie was a failure.

Of the award winners that year I'd have to pick The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash.  Michael Keaton was great in Birdman, but the movie as a whole was overrated.  Ditto for Boyhood and The Theory of Everything.

My favorite movie of 2014?  I think it's a tie between a lesser known movie called Predestination and the more familiar FoxcatcherPredestination is a science fiction film starring Ethan Hawke, and Foxcatcher features Steve Carell as a really, really creepy rich guy with dreams of becoming a wrestling coach.

Some Good Ones

1. Wild

A woman goes in search of herself along the Pacific Coast Trail.  Is this Reese Witherspoon's best movie?  I think so.  It's is also one of director Jean-Marc Vallee's best films, sitting right up there with Dallas Buyer's Club and the more recent Demolition.

2. Chef

John Favreau stars as a chef at a transitional point in his career.  It's a very heartfelt movie.  After directing the first two Iron Man films and the less well received Cowboys and Aliens, Chef was Favreau's attempt to go "back to basics."  In this respect it was an admirable success.

3. Welcome to Me

What a weird and excellent movie.  Kristen Wiig stars as a mentally disturbed woman who uses lottery winnings to fund her own talk show.  Wiig put her heart and soul into this film in the same way that Adam Sandler put his heart and soul into Punch Drunk Love.  A great dramatic turn from someone you'd expect to be funny.

4. This is Where I Leave You

Jason Bateman leads an ensemble cast in this movie about a family taking part in a Jewish funeral rite.  The performances are good, and it's definitely watchable, but the script is a mess and certain plot developments feel very forced.

5. Leviathan

Russia.  Is it all the government corruption, or all the damn vodka they drink?  Whichever it is, Leviathan is a weighty film about two men embroiled in a property dispute.  It's not popcorn fare, but if you're looking for a movie to think over this one's for you.

6. Love and Mercy

A movie about Brian Wilson?  Starring Paul Dano?  How did I not know about this?  I guess it just slipped by me.  These things happen...

It's a good (not great) movie about one of the best songwriters ever.  Its main flaw, in my opinion, is the fact that Paul Dano (young Brian Wilson) and John Cusack (old Brian Wilson) look absolutely nothing alike.  Aside from this the supporting cast is great - especially Paul Giamatti - and the director makes some interesting stylistic choices.

Fun Fact: This movie has a history stretching all the way back to 1988, when William Hurt and Richard Dreyfuss were set to star.

7. The Raid 2

An Indonesian cop goes undercover to bring down a notorious gangster.  The fight scenes are awesome, but between those fight scenes is a whole lot of talking.  A half hour could have easily been edited out of this movie and it would have been WAY better.

Fun Fact #1: Iko Uwais, the star of this movie, appeared briefly in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Fun Fact #2: The martial arts style featured in this film is silat.  There are hundreds of different styles, spread between the Indonesian and Malaysian archipelagos.

8. The Good Lie

Excellent movie about Sudanese refugees trying to make new lives in America.  It's the kind of movie xenophobic Trump supporters should be forced to watch.  Does the U.S. have enough room for these kinds of people?  Can we feed them?  Can we support them?  Can they contribute to our society?  I think the the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes, and making room for them doesn't just enrich their lives, but our own as well.

9. Ride Along

Laurence Fishburne and John Leguizamo were wasted on this comedy version of Training Day, but Ice Cube and Kevin Hart are funny together.  Not hysterically funny, mind you, but funny in the way that all decent comedies are funny.

10. The Drop

Tom Hardy puts it on a slow boil in this story of small-time criminals.  There's a scene in which Noomi Rapace's accent slips a bit, but other than this small glitch the movie's excellent.

11. Selma

Martin Luther King Jr. leads the crusade for black voting rights in the South.  There are moments in it that are so perfectly timed, and the performances are as convincing as they come.  If DuVernay ever actually does direct that New Gods film for the DCEU, I'm sure it will be impressive.

I only wish more of the descendants of those who marched on Birmingham would get out and VOTE more often.  By doing so we'd be taking the first step on that long, difficult road to taking our country back.  Sorry to get all political, but there it is.

12. Still Alice

A woman discovers she has Early-Onset Alzheimer's.  It's very moving, and I'm sure it's one of Julianne Moore's best performances, but JESUS CHRIST it's depressing.  My grandfather went out with Alzheimer's, and this movie brought back some painful memories.

One Which Isn't Very Good, But Which You'll Probably Watch Anyway Because the Concept's Somewhat Novel

1. Unfriended

Several high school students get cyberbullied from beyond the grave.  The entire movie's set on someone's laptop, with the various screens flitting between Skype, YouTube, Google, and Facebook.  I admire it from a planning/programming standpoint, but it's still fairly tedious and never manages to build up any real tension.

Some Bad Ones

1. A Most Violent Year

One of the most bafflingly titled movies ever.  This movie has only the barest hint of violence, and seems to take place over the course of a single New York winter.  In tone it reminded me of The French Connection, yet where The French Connection dealt with drug smuggling this one deals with... the heating oil industry.  Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain give it their all, but this movie's still boring.

2. Jessabelle

Jessabelle?!?  Don't I mean Annabelle?  No, but Annabelle did come out the same year.

In Jessabelle a young woman goes to live with her crazy f%$k of a dad after a car accident.  It gets weirder from there.  The first half is decent, but it gets pretty silly toward the end.

3. Mary Kom

Priyanka Chopra stars as a female boxer.  As beautiful as she is, this isn't another Bollywood romance and Chopra is a very unconvincing boxer.  The director really should have watched a few Hollywood boxing films before filming started.  Not just movies like Rocky, but also lesser known films like Girlfight or even The Fighter.  The ending comes closer to the ideal represented by those (much better) movies, but the first 1 and 1/2 hours of this 2 hour movie are really dull.

Critics in India heavily praised it, yet praise from other sources is few and far between.  I think this is due to the patriotic nature of the film, and the fact that it was heavily promoted in other countries.  Members of the Indian media are often quite sensitive about how their country is portrayed outside of India, and the glowing reviews were probably more wishful thinking than a reflection of this movie's overall quality.

4. The Pyramid

Sigh.  Found footage thing in which several stupid people get stuck in a pyramid with a monster.  The dialogue is bad, and the acting is even worse.  Had they cut a half hour off this thing it would have qualified for "so bad it's good" status, but they spend way too much time walking/running around the inside of the pyramid.

5. Pompeii

Gladiator meets disaster movie.  It's a shame because the ash-covered remains of the victims is such a stirring image.  Unfortunately everything leading up to that is completely derivative nonsense.

Fun Fact: Director Paul W.S. Anderson has directed better movies.  Event Horizon, Soldier, and Pandorum are all listed in his filmography.  He's married to his Resident Evil star Milla Jovovich, with whom he has two children.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 2012
A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of July 4, 2018)
Some Other Movies From 2010
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2018年8月20日 星期一

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)

"'Look,' I said, 'You'd better put that goddamn blade away and get your head straight.  I have to put the car in the lot.'  I was backing slowly towards the door.  One of the things you learn, after years of dealing with drug people, is that everything is serious.  You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug - especially when it's waving a razor-sharp hunting knife in your eyes."

Hunter S. Thompson was a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine.  He was a pioneer of "gonzo journalism," a style of reportage in which the journalist forfeits all claims to objectivity.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the most popular example of this type of writing.

In the book, Thompson and his partner in crime journey to Las Vegas, ostensibly for the purpose of covering a dune buggy race, and later attending a convention of drug enforcement officers.  But really their purpose is to do as many drugs as they can during their stay in that city.  Marijuana, cocaine, mescaline, adrenochrome, uppers, downers, ether - they do it all.

Beyond that, there's not much to say about this book, save for the fact that it's been adapted into film twice, once by Terry Gilliam, and a decade or so earlier as part of a movie featuring Bill Murray.  I think the Gilliam version was very faithful to the book.  I haven't seen the Bill Murray version, but I do remember a friend who raved about it.  Maybe that one is even better?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is funny, it's an easy read, and if you feel that you're stuck in a rut as far as reading material goes I would recommend it.  It's not as deep as Kerouac is (or pretends to) be, but it's a fun ride and it left me wanting more.

Related Entries:

"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac (1958)
"Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
"Papillon" by Henri Charierre (1970)
"Political Order and Political Decay" by Francis Fukuyama (2015)

2018年8月18日 星期六

"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac (1958)

"Japhy leaping up: 'I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming..."

The Dharma Bums is the second of Kerouac's books I've read.  My review of On the Road can be found here, along with more historical context for this author.

The Dharma Bums offers a more mature version of Kerouac, perhaps free of earlier literary pretensions, and more comfortable with his own style of writing.  It appeared on bookstore shelves a year after On the Road, right when Kerouac was on the verge of the lasting fame which would follow the previous year's work.

Compared to On the Road, which is basically the story of a car trip, The Dharma Bums offers more spirituality, less wandering, and something closer to Kerouac's early idea of what it means to be a good person.  The friendship between Kerouac/"Ray Smith" and Japhy is predicated upon their understanding of Buddhist scriptures, and of how one might use an understanding of such scriptures to live in harmony with both other human beings and with nature.

In terms of writing style, I'd say it's a vast improvement over On the Road.  Where On the Road was a more pedestrian offering with brief flashes of brilliance, The Dharma Bums gets straight to the point, and never wavers from the spiritual goals it sets for itself.  I'm not saying that I necessarily agree with all of these goals, and even the book itself expresses some doubts as to their ultimate worth, but The Dharma Bums is nothing if not sincere, and I appreciate that.

I think that ultimately any critique of this book's spirituality rests upon two perceived weaknesses, these being "authenticity" and "cultural appropriation."  I think that on the count of "authenticity" Kerouac is free and clear, given that he's placed the narrative on relatively fictional terms, and that his reliance on the kindnesses of friends and family can be inferred from the text.  The Kerouac seen in The Dharma Bums is a far cry from the Thoreau seen in Walden.  Thoreau was being deliberately deceptive, where Kerouac is avoiding equivocation for the sake of his story.

But cultural appropriation?  Here Kerouac is on shakier ground, given that the Buddhism he employs is less a creature of its cultural and historical context than the creation of his brief acquaintance with a foreign philosophy.  I don't doubt that the spirituality put forward in The Dharma Bums is sincere, but his friend Japhy's "travels in the mysterious East" aren't enough to make their musings on Chinese ascetics and Japanese monasteries entirely convincing.  The "Buddha of the California Coast" put forward in The Dharma Bums isn't nearly as hard to swallow as the spirituality espoused in Eat, Pray, Love, but I doubt it's going to convert anyone who's not already thinking along similar lines.

If you enjoyed On the Road, I'm sure you'll enjoy The Dharma Bums.  It's full of the same wanderlust, it's full of the same sorts of memorable characters, and it's better written than Kerouac's most famous book.  If you don't buy into Kerouac's spiritual ideals it's no matter, you'll still find The Dharma Bums entertaining.

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2018年8月12日 星期日

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres (1994)

"'And another thing.  Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides.  And when it subsides you need to make a decision.'"

Louis de Bernieres is a British novelist.  He has written several other novels, though none have approached the popularity of Captain Corelli's Mandolin.  He counts Gabriel Marcia Marquez as a big influence, and this influence is fairly obvious in Bernieres' most famous work.

In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, an Italian officer arrives on the Greek island of Cephallonia during World War II.  A romance quickly develops between this officer and a local Greek girl, with both the war and village life forming a backdrop to both their changing relationship and the plans they try to make.

I haven't seen the movie, but I have no doubt that the book is much better.  It would be virtually impossible to pack so much historical detail into a movie, and without such detail the narrative would probably come across as very one-dimensional and uninteresting.  I get why Hollywood thought it proper fodder for their usual cast of stars, but only a more impressionistic, less mainstream sort of film would have adequately captured the historical nuance present in the book.

And it is a good book, if not without a huge plot hole near the end.  I don't want to spoil the ending for you - because this novel is indeed worth reading - but two of the characters' failure to stay in contact following Italy's defeat is completely implausible, given the fact that one of them was writing a book which involved correspondence with scholars all over the world, and that the other becomes a celebrated person, whose fame would have certainly reached back to the island of Cephallonia.  That one would have remained oblivious to the other's existence, while the other would have proceeded from an instance of mistaken identity, is really hard - if not impossible - to swallow.

Even so the book ends well, and you'd need a heart of stone not to be a little touched by the way things turn out.  Captain Corelli's Mandolin is a solid effort and an absorbing read.

Related Entries:

"Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
"Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
"Farewell Waltz" by Milan Kundera (1973)