June 23, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 23 June 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 on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

Educating Peter, by Lettie Teague
Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot; OR, How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert (book; 2007)
By Lettie Teague
Scribner / ISBN: 978-0-7432-8677-0

So unlike a lot of the books I do only micro-reviews of here, Lettie Teague's Educating Peter is not necessarily that bad from a pure writing standpoint, and in fact comes with an instantly compelling hook, which is why I picked it up in the first place: an executive editor and monthly columnist at Food & Wine magazine, Teague recently became obsessed with whether or not she had it in her to write an entire book-length guide to wine geared specifically towards people who know nothing about wines, so ended up getting her next-door neighbor to agree to be a long-term guinea pig, that neighbor by coincidence happening to be Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers. (See, I knew there was some neighborhood somewhere where all the rich magazine editors live!) The only problem with this premise, though, is that the answer to the above question is unfortunately "no;" although technically proficient when checked against an AP stylebook, exactly what you'd expect from a veteran magazine writer, Educating Peter just does not hold together very well as a full-length manuscript, and especially one that is specifically trying to teach a certain amount of erudite details about wine to someone who knows nothing about the subject.

Much too vague at points (I still don't understand what a Chateau is, and why the designation is so important to the French wine industry), much too specific at others (yes, I get it, drink white wine with fish, I freakin' get it), with a glossary that for some inexplicable reason is buried 23 pages in, the book has a bad habit of meandering lazily from one random subject to the next, not a tight collection of related essays like I was expecting but rather like sitting around a dinner party listening to Teague say, "Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention this one thing; and oh yeah, I forgot to mention this other thing too." Plus, the pained and forced film metaphors Teague tries to insert throughout the manuscript mostly fall on their face, and heavily distract the reader from the book's main point; plus, I have to admit, just the very notion of a fluffy nonfiction book with a 25-word title was enough to badly ruffle the feathers of this particular critic. (Here's a little tip, Scribner and all you other presses; if it takes a 25-word title just to explain a book's premise, maybe you need to rethink the very premise itself.) All in all, a pretty bad disappointment even though technically well-written, a book that didn't even meet the lowered expectations I had going into it. Buyer beware.

Out of 10: 6.2

Spun, the movie
Spun (movie; 2002)
Written by Will De Los Santos and Creighton Vero
Directed by Jonas Akerlund

I actually saw this movie originally as a double-feature last week with a 2006 documentary called Meth, both of them ostensibly dealing with the subject of crystal methamphetamine and its impact on American society throughout the '90s and '00s. (And by the way, you can click here for my review of Meth, if you haven't read it yet.) But while that former movie is a brilliant low-budget look at how meth has actually and seriously affected the gay male "cruising" communities of various urban environments here in the US, Spun is sadly not; in fact, it comes closer to a live-action cartoon than anything else, and I'm still having a hard time figuring out how such a trainwreck could've actually gotten financed and made.

Imagine...okay, imagine Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (which longtime readers will remember I didn't like that much to begin with); but now imagine stripping that movie of every single serious moment or even trace of character development, leaving behind instead an entire two hours of eyeball closeups and Roadrunner-style sound effects every time someone inhales a controlled substance. (Boing! Zoom! Splat!) It's too bizarre to be offensive to former addicts, too head-scratching to simply be called terrible; it is in fact a movie that by all rights shouldn't even exist, the feature-film debut of music-video veteran Jonas Akerlund that literally plays like a 106-minute music video, completely and utterly nonsensical but with a hell of a soundtrack. How Akerlund managed to con such stars as Jason Schwartzman, Mickey Rourke, John Leguizamo and Mena Suvari into this disaster of a "movie" is beyond me, but here's hoping that they all learned a valuable lesson from it, and that Spun marks Akerlund's blessedly short career as a feature director.

Out of 10: 1.1

Notes on a Scandal
Notes on a Scandal (movie; 2006)
Written by Patrick Marber, from the novel by Zoe Heller
Directed by Richard Eyre

Oh, and speaking of supposedly serious character dramas that in actuality are simplistic cartoons, may I please present for your consideration 2006's Notes on a Scandal, starring the should've-known-much-better Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench? Because make no mistake, despite the way this movie was sold to the public, it is not a complex psychological thriller at all, but rather a pretty heavy-handed moralistic fairytale, not to mention one of the sillier "psycho of the week" movies that I've seen in a long time. (But then, I don't watch many psycho-of-the-week movies, so that's not saying much.) The two star as co-workers at a British school specifically for criminally violent teens; Blanchett is new and optimistic about it all, Dench a crabby pessimistic veteran who is disliked even by most of her fellow teachers.

The two end up forming an unlikely friendship, which Blanchett thinks of as perfectly innocent; after all, she's merely a failed punk musician, stuck in a soul-crushing domestic life with a much older husband that she never asked for or expected, trying to once again find her identity as she creeps into middle age, and attempting to teach more because of a random whim than anything else. Ah, but this isn't the case with Dench, who turns out to be a Violent Lesbian! and Stalking Grandma! and Insanely Devoted Cat Owner!, a walking stereotype of the Creepy Old Woman Who Might Or Might Not Be A Crazy Killer that has haunted thousands of badly-written melodramas before this one. A whole series of ridiculously labored plot twists happen, then, to set this chain of craziness in motion, which is where the title of this movie comes from but is something I don't care enough about to bother detailing; needless to say, most people will be able to easily guess where things are heading long before they get there, and will be unsatisfied as well once they figure it out. Gah, what a surprisingly bad stinker, given the caliber of talent seen on display here.

Out of 10: 4.5

Diary of the Dead
Diary of the Dead (movie; 2007)
Written and directed by George Romero

Early on in Diary of the Dead, the latest installment of George Romero's now-legendary "Living Dead" series, we hear an anonymous television reporter say over raw footage of rampaging zombies, "People, I'm old enough to remember Orson Welles' War of the Worlds and the chaos that caused." Which sounds like a perfectly fine throwaway line at first, until you stop and realize that that actually happened in 1938; that even if that reporter was only ten years old at the time, that still makes him 80 now, and what local television station out there exactly has 80-year-old field reporters on staff? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Diary of the Dead in a nutshell; one of the biggest collections of logic-defying horsesh-t you'll ever see, one of those fabled debacles that make you just shake your head and say, "See, this is why it took horror films decades to get any respect at all, from anyone other than pasty overweight 40-year-old losers who still live with their mothers. It's movies like this that cause that."

Inspired by such fake home movies as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, Romero tries to do a similar thing with this, the fifth zombie film of his 40-year career, explaining the entire movie as being "found footage" from a team of student filmmakers, who happened to be out in the rural woods shooting a low-budget horror movie when the inner-city zombie virus first appeared, and who basically left the camera on as they made their harrowing way back to the city and to check on loved ones. But unfortunately the layers of "yeah, but what about"s and the "oh right, I'm so sure"s start adding up right from the start, and adding up quickly -- for example, you're telling me that a television news crew just happens to go around shooting everyday local stories in glorious widescreen film format? Or that in the middle of a zombie attack when even basic infrastructure is falling apart, somehow MySpace manages to work better than even when I visit it in real life on a good day? Diary of the Dead is just filled with moments like these, hundreds of them that are bound to make anyone who wishes there to be even a slight sophistication in their storytelling want to beat their head against a wall; the film will appeal to Fangoria subscribers who like watching sh-t get blown up real good, but unfortunately almost no one else.

Out of 10: 3.3

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:09 PM, June 23, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Movies | Reviews |