April 13, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 13 April 2008

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire blog entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found alphabetically in CCLaP's main list of mini-reviews.)

The Name of the Rose
The Name of the Rose (movie; 1986)
Written by Andrew Birkin, from the novel by Umberto Eco
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

This is one of two movies I've recently watched specifically because of reading the original book versions not too long ago; in fact, in both cases it was for the CCLaP 100 series of "classics" essays I've been writing here this year. And in fact this 1986 European adaptation of the brilliant original novel by Umberto Eco is quite a fine version unto itself, an utter surprise given not only the relentlessly dark and complex portrait the original book paints of Medieval times, but also that the novel is a surprisingly complex postmodern one as well, one that sneakily has as much to do with the academic subject of semiotics as it does with the lurid murders of a series of Dark Age monks. This is what you get, I suppose, when you put your faith in European visionaries like Jean-Jacques Annaud (who also made Enemy at the Gates and Seven Years in Tibet); you get an uncompromisingly great film, a stunningly ugly one (and I mean that in a good way) that uses Sean Connery's unique talents to the absolute best of his abilities, and that by the way provided one of the first great parts to the career of unique character actor Ron Perlman (playing here the hideous ex-heathen freak Salvatore). Fans of the book will definitely be fans of this movie adaptation; and fans of this movie are sure to be fans of the book as well, if they ever choose to take it on.

Out of 10: 8.5

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (movie; 1954)
Written by Earl Felton, from the novel by Jules Verne
Directed by Richard Fleischer

And then this is the other movie I watched this week because of recently reading the original novel, a fantastical Victorian action tale by French genre godfather Jules Verne originally published in the late 1800s, adapted here in the 1950s by Walt Disney into a visually stunning big-budget blockbuster, which also happens to be a primary source and inspiration behind much of the "steampunk" subgenre of our contemporary times. And yes, this version of 20,000 Leagues is pretty much what you would exactly expect from a '50s Disney big-budget actioner; it is gorgeous, it is silly, it is slightly racist at lots of different moments, and the soundtrack contains enough lush string music to make anyone eventually vomit from all the syrupy sweetness. It's a historically important film, although not one that could even hold a candle against contemporary big-budget action movies, and I'll warn you is also full of the kind of old-timey cheesy Disney stuff that will make you want to kill someone by the end -- for example, Kirk Douglas' performance here as a salty harpooner definitely goes into the eye-rolling hall of fame, and there's a pet seal along for the ride as well that you will definitely wish to see turned into lamp oil by the end. Still, not a bad experience all in all, and still chock-full of wildly imaginative visual details; it's definitely worth checking out on cable television on a lazy Sunday afternoon, if you should ever find yourself in such circumstances.

Out of 10: 6.9

Closer (movie; 2004)
Written by Patrick Marber, based on his stage play
Directed by Mike Nichols

I've heard the movie Closer described by several people now as a sophisticated look at adult relationships, which is the reason I wanted to see it in the first place; but now that I have, it occurs to me that such a statement is equivalent of calling a snuff film a haunting meditation on the dignity of dying. Because this is an ugly movie, a very ugly movie, and you deserve to know that going into it; that by "sophisticated" I guess these critics meant "shrill, needlessly cruel, and filled with contempt for humanity," and by "adult relationships" I guess they meant "the same old immature crap from high school, but with nicer apartments and better drugs." A real disappointment, given that I am not only an obsessive fan of director Mike Nichols (a dramedy legend who also brought us The Graduate, Silkwood and Regarding Henry) but also three-quarters of the main cast on display here.

Out of 10: 3.4

Zeroville, by Steve Erickson
Zeroville (book; 2007)
By Steve Erickson

This is one of two books I've recently read that I didn't care for enough to finish, but weren't exactly terrible so didn't want to include them in my snarky "Too Awful to Finish" series of essays. And indeed, the premise behind Steve Erickson's Zeroville is a compelling one, which made me want to pick it up in the first place -- it's the story of a magically strange seminary student in the 1960s who gets exposed to movies late in life, immediately falls in love with them, quits the seminary and moves to LA (after first getting a giant tattoo from a classic film tattooed across the top of his head), realizes that all the so-called "mavericks of the new school" are mouth-breathing morons with no sense of film history, and ends up in Forrest-Gump style accidentally stumbling into a high-paying career as a script-fixer and film editor for all of them. Ah, but then I started actually reading the book, and realized that Erickson is one of them high-falutin' academic writers, and I confess that I have a low tolerance for so-called academic writers and their delicate award-winning novels. Oh, you know what I mean: "Look at me! Look at all the big words I know! Everything's so droll and terrible! Look at all the metaphors I know! We're all miserable! Hooray! Okay, wait, now I'm going to insert a mini-essay about some obscure movie from the 1930s most of my readers have never heard of! It's meta! It's meta meta! Look at me! I have a Master's degree! Give me a National Book Critics Circle award now, please!" Bleh. Like I said, not necessarily bad, just certainly not my cup of tea; buyer beware.

Out of 10: 5.0

Beautiful Children, by Charles Bock
Beautiful Children (book; 2008)
By Charles Bock

And then this is the other book in the last couple of weeks I wasn't able to finish, although didn't think was exactly terrible; it's the high-profile Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, which I actually read electronically because of his publisher Random House giving away the digital version recently as an online promotion. It's a supposedly edgy and gritty look at the various losers and junkies that make up the underclass of society, set in this case in Las Vegas but really examining the wrong side of the tracks of any large city; but I'm warning you, this book is "edgy and gritty" the same way a movie on the Lifetime Channel is edgy and gritty, and those who are not necessarily shocked by Valerie Bertinelli playing an abused wife are sure to greet Beautiful Children mostly with disgruntled yawns. Like, did you know that sometimes people are actually forced to sell personal possessions to make ends meet? Did you know that many teen boys enjoy reefer and x-rated comics? Did you know that some people enjoy having sex with other people without even knowing their names? If your answer is yes, then you're probably going to want to skip Beautiful Children; and if your answer is no, dude, seriously, you are not reading my other reviews closely enough.

Out of 10: 5.6

The Illusionist
The Illusionist (movie; 2006)
Written by Neil Burger, from the story by Steven Millhauser
Directed by Neil Burger

For those who don't remember, this was one of two movies that came out at the same time in 2006 that people were always getting mixed up (the other being Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, which I've also reviewed here); and that's because both are complex dramas about magicians in the Victorian Age, both shot in a highly stylized way that made their trailers look eerily similar. Now that I've seen both, though, I can easily tell you the difference between the two: The Prestige is in fact an astonishingly complicated look at the nature of genius and egotism, and the frailty of human emotions in the face of legitimate mental brilliance, while this film is not much more than a melodramatic potboiler about how spooooky everything was in 1800s London, how very spooooooky it all was. It's a great-looking film, don't get me wrong, a visually inventive one that makes full use of its medium-sized budget; it's just that there's a reason Scarlett Johansson is in The Prestige and Jessica Biel is in this one, and also a reason that fans of the otherwise excellent Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti have tended to forget about this film as well. Not a bad thing to catch randomly on a slow weekend on television, but don't go to any more effort than that to see it.

Out of 10: 6.8

Funny Games
Funny Games (movie; 1997)
Written and directed by Michael Haneke

Okay, I'm not saying that Michael Haneke's Funny Games should necessarily be banned, either the original 1997 German version (which I saw) or the 2007 shot-for-shot American remake starring Naomi Watts. What I'm saying, though, is that if you ever meet a person who actually liked this movie, YOU NEED TO RUN THE F-CK AWAY FROM THAT PERSON AS FAST AS YOUR LEGS WILL POSSIBLY F-CKING CARRY YOU. Because this movie, ladies and gentlemen, is basically an excuse for a person to sit in front of a screen and legally enjoy scenes of torture for two hours; it contains no plot, no character development, no motivation for the torturers' behavior, simply two hours of gratuitous senseless violence committed against a completely random middle-class family while on vacation at their lakeside cabin (including a scene where a ten-year-old boy gets shot in the head in front of his parents), all of it done for absolutely no discernible reason whatsoever. It's sick, and it's pointless, and it's utterly and completely lacking in any artistic merit whatsoever; it may have the right to exist, and Haneke may have the right to make such trash, but I certainly have the right to call Haneke an inhuman monster, and to declare Funny Games unwatchable torture-porn fit only for war criminals with cruelty fetishes.

Out of 10: 0.0

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:38 AM, April 13, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Movies | Reviews |