May 3, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 3 May 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 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 Last Opium Den, by Nick Tosches
The Last Opium Den (book; 2000)
By Nick Tosches
Bloombury / ISBN: 1-58234-227-X

This is one of four newish books I recently read mostly so I could finally get them off my queue list, all of which were actually pretty good but are mere wisps of manuscripts, none of them over 150 pages or so in length. And indeed, Nick Tosches' The Last Opium Den was first published as a simple magazine article in Vanity Fair -- it was the edgy and controversial author's attempt at the turn of the millennium to see if there were any honest-to-God opium dens left on this planet, done up right with the seedy beds and the dressed-up Asian women holding giant long pipes and the whole bit, maybe out in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia or wherever. Of course, this being Tosches, the slim story is actually about a lot more than that as well; it's about the cannibalization of global culture, the proliferation of squeaky-clean Euro/Americans into every corner of the world, and incidentally why heroin was created in the first place, as basically a portable form of self-administered opium that precisely didn't need an entire seedy den full of soiled mattresses and dressed-up Asian girls holding giant long pipes. It's only an hour or two of reading, but it's a dense and enjoyable read, something to borrow from a friend or pick up at the library.

Out of 10: 8.5

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (book; 2007)
By Pierre Bayard
Bloombury / ISBN: 978-1-59691-469-8

And then here's the second book, the surprisingly thoughtful How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by a hip French literature professor named Pierre Bayard; because make no mistake, this is not exactly a practical how-to guide to faking your way through cocktail parties, but more a sneaky examination of what it means to "read" a book anyway, if by "read" you mean "understand, relate to, can recall details of, and can discuss with others." After all, if we read a book as a child and then completely forget its story as an adult, do we still get to count that as a "read" book? Bayard gets into all kinds of interesting questions like this, ultimately arguing that the most important thing we can do as readers is understand the entire time period that book is a result of; in the goal of accomplishing that, then, he argues that it's perfectly okay to just read the Cliff Notes of famous huge books you know you're never going to get around to actually reading, perfectly okay to discuss a book at a cocktail party you're familiar with but haven't actually sat down and scanned each and every page. This is how we learn, he argues, how we grow as both humans and patrons of the arts; every Wikipedia entry we read, every conversation we fake our way through, every BBC adaptation we check out, ultimately helps us understand the full-length books we do sit and closely read from the beginning to the end, which is why we shouldn't be ashamed of any of these activities but rather proud of them. Funny, smart, and very French; a very fun afternoon of reading.

Out of 10: 9.2

This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley
This Year You Write Your Novel (book; 2007)
By Walter Mosley
Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 978-0-316-06541-2

And then this is the third short book I got through this week, the similarly nonfiction This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley, an author I don't necessarily like that much personally but certainly respect a whole lot, among other things for being one of the only black authors in history to break through the lily-white publishing barrier of the science-fiction industry. That said, this extremely thin how-to book feels more like a weekend toss-off on Mosley's part than a finished and polished manuscript; a book that purports to show you how to finally get off your ass and in twelve months actually write that novel you've been telling yourself for years that you're going to someday write, but in fact is an odd mishmash of different kinds of literary advice, some more practical and some more craft-oriented, organized a bit sloppily and with not much concrete "real" advice in there at all. It's worth checking out if you get a chance to do so for free, but I'm not sure I'd recommend shelling out $20 to read this not exactly helpful fluff article turned full-length book.

Out of 10: 7.0

The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon
The Final Solution (book; 2004)
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins / ISBN: 0-06-076340-X

And then here finally is the fourth short book I read this week, 2004 Sherlock Holmes tale The Final Solution by literary wunderkind Michael Chabon, again published originally as a magazine story (in The Paris Review; in fact, it won the in-house "Aga Khan Prize" in 2004 for being the best story to appear that year in that publication, according to the editors). This is an entire cottage industry, as a matter of fact, for those who don't know, the writing of new Sherlock Holmes tales now that the copyright on the character has expired; and I'm an obsessive Sherlock Holmes fan, so have now read dozens of these stories by contemporary authors other than Arthur Conan Doyle. And that's why I say that Chabon's take on the subject is bound to disappoint a certain amount of "Baker Street Irregulars" out there; because here Chabon is writing a story more for a general populace, using Holmes in an old-age setting (World War II, when he's supposedly in his nineties and living in the countryside) as an excuse to comment in more general terms on the subjects of dying, aging with dignity, and the onset of dementia. It's an interesting-enough story, I suppose, but ultimately a let-down for me after expecting another exquisitely reimagined Holmesian tale like so many that now exist; and then there's that unfortunate title (the name of the Nazi plan in the 1940s to kill all the Jews before the war ended), which somehow manages to be both offensive and not relevant to Chabon's actual story in any way whatsoever. Again, worth checking out if you don't have to spend any money to do so.

Out of 10: 7.2

Cloverfield
Cloverfield (movie; 2008)
Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves

Hey hey, and guess what, it was JJ Abrams week as well here at CCLaP headquarters! Or if by "JJ Abrams week" you mean "I watched the two Hollywood films he's had anything to do with," then yes, it was JJ Abrams week here at CCLaP. First up: the 2008 September-11th-style monster movie Cloverfield, which Abrams technically only "produced" but that has his hands all over, in just about every way possible. And man, am I glad I decided to see this on DVD, instead of making it one of the only films of the year I pay full-price to see at an actual movie theatre (which I had been contemplating doing); because there actually is a really great 45-minute movie here in the middle of Cloverfield, and I'm glad now that I got to sit at home and fast-forward through the rest of the filler crap to actually get to it. But of course, this is a problem almost without a solution, which is why you can't get on the case of Abrams and company too badly; after all, the main point of a monster movie is to show off the monster, especially here where the entire thing unwinds in real-time pacing through the lens of a civilian with a home camera, but you can't just shoot 90 minutes of the monster because that will simply exhaust your audience. Writer Drew Goddard tries to handle the matter by interspersing random ten-minute character-building sequences throughout, not only via the usual down-time but also an ingenious series of "flashbacks" (snippets of old videos on this guy's memory stick); but unfortunately the characters are little more than rich, good-looking, privileged, entitled frat boys and sorority girls, making you actually root for their coming grisly ends quite early on, turning the requisite "you're learning to love these people" scenes into an eye-rolling chore. Do yourself a favor and just fast-forward through any scene not involving a shaky camera and some guy screaming, "Dude! Sh-t! Dude! Sh-t!" You'll be glad you did.

Out of 10: 8.6

Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible III (movie; 2006)
Written by JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci
Directed by JJ Abrams

And then this is the other movie I watched as part of JJ Abrams Week, the 2006 franchise grower Mission: Impossible III, which I have to admit I thoroughly and guiltily enjoyed from pretty much the first second to the last. And the reason for that is simple -- it's a 100-million-dollar episode of Alias, basically, Abrams' old secret-agent television show which got him this gig in the first place, and I happen to have been an obsessive fan of Alias when it was originally on the air, so of course I'm going to love a hundred-million-dollar "BLAM! BANG! WHIZZ! KAPOW!" version of it. As usual, Abrams takes a tired genre here and reinvigorates it, precisely by breaking the story down deconstructionist style and building it back up with real characters in the center and realistic motivations driving their actions; he then backs up this attention to story detail with the hiring of some truly intriguing actors (including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Simon Pegg and a lot more), as well as his magical ability to keep his calm around all those mega-maniacal Tom Cruise Hollywood diva types (something often overlooked about Abrams' success, and why he's making hundred-million-dollar movies and you're not). One of the handful of action movies I actually see and enjoy each year; it gets a big recommendation from me, especially to those who usually don't like action movies very much.

Out of 10: 9.0

Bram Stoker's Dracula
Bram Stoker's Dracula (movie; 1992)
Written by James Hart, from the original novel by Bram Stoker
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Regular readers know that a couple of weeks ago, I finally read Bram Stoker's classic vampire story Dracula for the first time; and that had me in the mood to see a couple of vampire movies I had never seen before, specifically a pair of them that are both supposedly tightly based on the original book in question. But I don't know, maybe it was because of consuming both projects so closely to each other, but I personally think that Francis Ford Coppola should be f-cking ashamed of himself for putting Stoker's name in the title of his 1992 film adaptation; because seriously, there are dozens and dozens of aberrations from the original story on display in this muddled, pretentious mess, and in all cases with the changes ultimately being for the worse. For example, nowhere in the book does Dracula mention some wife who got unfairly slaughtered 400 years ago, nor that Mina Harker looks exactly like her, nor that this is the reason he's secretly fleeing to England in the first place; and given that these events dominate the entire first half of the movie, you can see exactly what kind of joke it is to call this "Bram Stoker's Freaking Anything." A real disappointment; no wonder Coppola's reputation as a filmmaker is in the crapper so badly these days.

Out of 10: 3.1

Van Helsing
Van Helsing (movie; 2004)
Written and directed by Stephen Sommers

And then this is the other vampire movie I wanted to see because of reading Stoker's original book, the 2004 supernatural actioner Van Helsing starring that dreamy Hugh Jackman, which is actually more famous anymore for what it was supposed to be rather than what it is; because it was supposed to be an extremely high-profile kickoff to an entire Van Helsing corporate franchise, with a series of sequels that had already been planned before the original was even released, a new amusement-park ride at Six Flags, an entire line of toys, a Saturday morning cartoon, a videogame, a live-action spinoff show, and a lot more. Ah, but then it tanked at the box office, making all these other elaborate corporate synergetic plans fall apart; bitter irony, I know, given that the movie actually generated $120 million in revenue, a huge success in anyone else's eyes but a dismal failure to the people who spent a whopping $300 million on Van Helsing's budget and advertising.

So what happened? Well, after watching it myself now, I can honestly say I don't know; because this isn't a bad movie at all, to tell you the truth, certainly not a great movie but definitely no worse than any of the other CGI-heavy summer "blockbusters" that Hollywood has been so desperately churning out this decade. (In a nutshell: the famous monster-killer takes on Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man all Mountain-Dew extreeeeeme style over a two-hour period. There, that was literally the entire storyline of this movie.) Maybe just overinflated expectations? If the producers, for example, had simply been able to reign in the amount of money being wasted, the film would now be considered a financial success instead of such a miserable disaster; maybe if they had spent more time worrying about how much all those dog-groomers and yoga instructors cost them, and less time writing imaginary sequels, this movie could've been saved. (And after all, this is the secret to JJ Abrams' success too; for example, the aforementioned Cloverfield ultimately only made $80 million itself, but that's from a total budget and ad campaign of $40 million, making it a huge success in the eyes of Hollywood suits.) A cautionary tale about budgets spiraling out of control, and I imagine a film a lot of people will point to in the future when explaining what went wrong with Hollywood in the 2000s.

Out of 10: 7.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:27 AM, May 3, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Movies | Reviews |