2016-03-31

First-quarter films

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In theaters:


Zootopia (2016): Almost all our going-to-see-a-movie plans have fallen apart this quarter, but I don't regret making it to Zootopia which, I suspect, will be everyone's second favorite movie. (Their firsts will differ, but everyone gonna like Zootopia.) And rightly so. It captures better than any other movie I've seen our mobile world, and it's very funny at times and genuinely moving at others. Its central metaphor also succeeds, although it has to break the central mystery slighlty awkwardly in half to really fully accomplish that aim. In fact, my only real complaint with this film is its mystery---the engine of its plot---which has no real twists because said reveals project themselves a few scenes ahead of time. This damages a first watch, but the value of a mystery film has more to do with all the non-reveal aspects---after all, the second through nth viewings all begin with the ending already clear. Too soon to say if those aspects will hold up to repeated viewings. They seem great, but they all hang off the arms of a plot that's a bit lacking in rigor. So: time will tell.



At home:


Wonder Boys (2000): A colleague was shocked a couple weeks ago when I admitted that I had never seen this movie. As an English teacher and especially as a writer I was guaranteed to love it. Um. Hmm. In fact, I don't even really get it. A bit of thinking tells me it's because I really don't understand any of the relationships in this movie. None of them ring true to me. Lady Steed and I even laughed some times when the narrator talked about how important other people were to him. I don't think the movie was joking though....

Mystery Men (1999): I've been wanting to rewatch this movie for so long and now I finally have and guys! guys! guys! It's so good! It totally holds up! Sure, the effects are a tiny bit dated and sure it's responding to mid90s Batman movies, but it's totally now! This is the comic-book era and this movie has a strong claim on the Best Superhero Comedy prize. It's parody and satire and absolutely earnest and real. And it dates back to that moment when both it looked like Hank Azaria was going to be a big movie star and Ben Stiller was becoming one. And the latter's interaction with Janeane Garofalo's never been better. And William H. Macy's stolid, downhome performance is amazing. And it has one of the most shocking midmovie turns since Psycho (though that shock might be less now than it was a decade ago). Mmmmmm. Any chance we'll finally get a Flaming Carrot movie on the 20th anniversary?

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Well. It's not as good as the first one. Some of the wit feels a bit forced and no matter how hard movies try, I'll never believe Jeremy Renner's anything but a tool. Plus, the CG was grotesque. Nothing about that first fight scene felt part of the real world. (And don't get me started on the use of breasts in this movie.) Even the parts of this movie that felt honest in the moment, in retrospect feel a contrived and manipulative and frankly a bit dishonest. I think part of the problem is the weight of juggling so many characters and ongoing storylines. Ant-Man was more focused and I think that's part of the reason it succeeded. All that said though, it did a good job setting up the next Captain America and I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out.

Help! (1965): This is the kids' first Beatles movie and it's certainly easily accessible madcap nonsense with vocal work that will recur in Terry Gilliam animations for Python. It might be a bit projective of me, but one of the things I find interesting rather than headshaking is the whitewashed acting of a nonsensical Eastern . . . thing. Is it a people? Merely a religion? How many of those white Easterners are maybe known to be white? The film feels like a parody of all-white casts of people of color. The only actual people of color are the Bermuda police---who, it might be pointed out, are by far the most competent people to help the Beatles in their hour of need. (And this is without mentioning the satirical barbs at 1965 Britain.) At any rate, it's one of the high points of 60s film-comedy madness. I would love to see this kind of creativity in current film comedy. (I'ld also love to dress as a 1965 Beatle.) (They can keep the hair.)

Inside Out (2015): Did I weep? Yes I did. Now I'm off to watch Riley's First Date and weep some more. [UPDATE: That short's not really a weeper.]

The Princess Bride (1987): First time for the kids! And it's apparently been over a decade and a half since Lady Steed's seen it as well, so she was gasping and laughing along with them. You know what for me is the most emotionally resonant line in the movie is? The last one. And knowing it's coming gets me teary-eyes in anticipation.

Seven Samurai (1954): You know, for a three-and-a-half-hour movie, this sure did not drag. It just kept on going. Even the slow and quiet moments were laden with below-the-surface action of one sort or another, whether scene-setting or character-building or what. It's beautiful and moving and even the most absurd characters are slowly invested with pathos and reality.

A Hard Day's Night (1964): Has some classic moments and captures an era and comes first, but besides those---call me a philistine but, well, I like Help! better. Probably even the music. Still. Given that I'll spend most of my time middle-aged and old , the least I can hope for is to be clean. . . .

Spy (2015): Totally lives up to the billing. A brilliant new take on the spy genre and this is the showcase Melissa McCarthy has now proved she absolutely deserves. It's also a good example of how over-the-top vulgarity can be used like a paintbrush rather than a bludgeon. Though that's hardly the correct simile for this movie.

Life Itself (2014): This life of Roger Ebert is a bit so-what in its first act, but ultimately, it finds a lot to say. It has genuine emotion and finds a way to be about love and family and friendship and kindness and art. It takes some interesting chances too, such as extended outtakes from Siskel & Ebert, that do more storytelling than, for instance, the filmmaker's voiceover that was much of the problem in the first act. But I imagine it's hard for a director who no doubt owes Ebert's love of Hoop Dreams at least in part for his career, to be dispassionate. And would you want him to be?

The Magnificent Seven (1960): Maybe it's because I just watched Seven Samurai but . . . it's no Seven Samurai. Although the individual scenes are paced much as in Kurosawa's film, those scenes are crammed together. And for a long time it has a tortured relationship, uncertain what to borrow, what to leave, and what order to put them all in. The film's strongest when it goes off to make its own path---the third act, notably. Final analysis? A bit slight in its development (perhaps the director was relying on our [formerly] preexisting knowledge of what sort of characters the bit actors tended to play?) but it ends strong---we learn more about many of the characters in their final moments of action than in the preceding ninety minutes.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008): Having been watching the six new episodes and trying to answer questions about things we'd forgotten, we discovered there'd been two movies. Two movies! Why don't we remember the second? Anyway, we'd seen it before. In fact, all our memories about the two movies were off. Me, for instance, I remember going to the theater and watching the first movie with Lynsey. But when it came out, we hadn't met yet. And no memory of having seen this one before, yet we had seen it. Maybe we forgot because it was more like an overlong episode than a movie? I don't know. I don't know. Pretty good episode, though, even if it was a bit long.




Elsewhere:


It Follows (2014): What a great movie. I was squirming in my seat the whole way through. A note on interpretation. The obvious one is that it's a commentary on modern sex culture and, you know, kids having sex too easily etc etc. That's too simple, though. Because once they have their supernatural STD, their behavioral options diverge. So I think it deserves a variety of readings. Make it about youthful error in general, for instance. Try reading this movie as a comment on student-loan debt and never sleep again.

Romeo and Juliet (1968): As I grow more and more familiar with the play, I find any given director's choices all the more interesting. For instance, why drop all references of Rosaline until Friar Lawrence? And that's not the only thing rendered nonsequitery by this script. But no matter. Yet I love it.

Romeo + Juliet (1996): I am rather predictable, am I not? Maybe if any other play had two movies so different yet so true I could make a change...?

Stranger than Fiction (2006): Will Ferrell is incredible in this movie, don't you think? And Emma Thompson! Emma Thompson, everybody! And Maggie and Dustin and Queen (do people call her "Queen"?) are no slouches either. The acting is great. It's well written. The play with image is terrific. I just tried out using it as a companion to The Princess Bride with the freshmen (metafiction, yo). I need to refine it a bit, but this trial run was a huge success.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1998): My brother has been promoting this movie to me for years. His general pitch is this: "This won't be your favorite movie, but everyone I've ever recommended this movie to found it to be time well spent." And he is right. It's not my favorite movie, but I certainly enjoyed myself. The first third was a bit slow and I saw the final reveal just before it happened, but the latter in particular I don't mind, because it had a secondary payoff that was greater than the first. I love me a good con (in film, not real life, stay away), and this one lets the matchsticks pass by each other, work together, work against each other, etc. And seriously: Michael Caine and Steve Martin? Come on!




Previous films watched

2015

2014

2013

Reading books like a sloth, yo.

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014) The Little World of Liz Climo by Liz Climo, finished March 29

Not my fault! Lynsey brought it home! Many of these are very very funny! Check her out!

evening



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013) Forgive me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine, finished March 26

I have gone
and checked out
some poems for kids
from the library

which were witty
and played
games with much
of children's literature

Forgive me
the concept was tempting
so clever
and bold.
two days



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012) Fences by August Wilson, finished c. March 14

Any week spent reading Fences with an AP class is a week well spent.
about a week



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011) The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, finished March 19

It took me a while to find our copy of this book so I could read the parts we skipped during our road trip. So I found those parts---and a few more that Lady Steed remembered but apparently I dazed through.

Some of the happiest moments of my reading life have been with Bill Bryson. I don't know if I've ever laughed harder at the printed page than at his dog story in his Australia book. While this book wasn't all that for me (because I am older?), it was a lot and a bit more.

I miss the days, sometimes, of focusing on filling in the gaps of my favorite writer's oeuvres.... is breadth all it's cracked up to be?
a month





Previously in 2016

2016-03-26

Poetry out of the present, week 4

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I haven't skipped all the previous missed weeks. I've decided that if I like a poem enough, I'll keep tweaking it post-rejection and try to place it elsewhere.

This particular poem I didn't get started on until less than two hours till doomsday. I didn't successfully juggle all the conceits I threw in the air. There's something here, but it's not here yet.

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Holy Week, 4 –1


We share a national past-time–La Pelota–and later today our players will compete on the same Havana field that Jackie Robinson played on before he made his Major League debut.
Barack Obama
March 22, 2016
Havana, Cuba


Forty-one days ago, ancient cubano cars felt at peace
as their masters arrived with foreheads marked in holy ash.
We are aging and smoking and we are together,
the cars said to each other. We are Cuba!

Four days yet to la crucifixión de Jesús
and the Americans have arrived to take the field,
black paint under their eyes. Leading off: Varona,
native son, outfielder, defected, yet returned intact.

Before Movimiento cast casino-happy Americans
from the garden, gods like Home Run Johnson and
Cool Papa Bell wintered on these islands, picking up scratch
and setting records unrecorded. Jackie Robinson was here.

And once long ago, mis hijos, he took his lead from third,
believing somehow the tomb would open
and he could buy the same Ford Pilot
we are so anxious to shed.


2016-03-14

The First Book of Samuel, chapter eight

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6 ¶But the thing displeased Samuel, when [the elders of Israel] said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord.

7 And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.

8 According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.

9 Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.

10 ¶And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king.

11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

19 ¶Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us;

20 That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.

21 And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the Lord.

22 And the Lord said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king.



2016-03-09

Overdue: Fringe Folk


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010) Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card, finished March 9

I don't know when I first heard of this book. Certainly well after it was published. Certainly long before today. I purchased my copy new from the BYU Bookstore on some occasion . . . my graduation? last time on campus before leaving Utah? something like that. It seemed an appropriate choice given it's significance in Mormon lit. It's still, in some respects, arguably the best very Mormon book from a very Mormon writer. At least to hear people talk about it. It's part of your first $17 investment in the field, after all.

Perhaps it's the weight of great expectations that explains why I don't love it like I'm supposed to. After all, not only is this allegedly the Best Mormon Book ever, it's also short stories from one of my all-time favorite short-story writers. That's a lot of expectations to be saddled with.

Anyway, I don't have specific complaints. Stories range from the thrilling to the provocative to the familial, and Card's evocation of character and place are as strong as ever. Were I to write a serious review, I would mostly discuss what what great about these stories. But this isn't a review I'm writing---it's a personal response, and that response is disappointment in not being blown away.

Perhaps this feeling is representative of how far the field has come in 30 years. Perhaps 30 years ago, being unprecedented, this book stood so far above its (nonexistent) competition that it was like Chimney Rock. Now it's more like Bryce Amphitheater.

Again: I'm not knocking this book at all. It's only failure is not being as unique as once it was. Perhaps that should be chalked up as another of its successes.
about nine months




Previously in 2016

2016-03-01

Doing great, thanks.

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Before we get into the books I've read, let's review this year's goal of not starting new books:

Sorrrta good. Although I've found new categories of exceptions, I've overcome to start new books in the manner in which I usually start them. And I think there's some evidence that I'm not setting aside books that take longer to finish (this time last year, I'd finished 18 books---double this year's number).

The first book you'll read about (#9) I picked up from a wee free library during a long walk home. I was without anything to read while walking and this fit the bill. I had intended only to read an essay or two during my walk then put it back in a box, but Beck's writing is too compelling to just put down, and the importance of listening across cultural boundaries is just as important now as it was in the early '70s.

Then: two books we listened to during a drive to Utah. Then: two books I read because I'm reviewing them or interviewing the author. So: zero of this books were started prior to January.

I'll get better!



009) The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim by Robert Beck, finished February 29

Throughout my white Mormon upraising, I have never met anyone like Iceberg Slim. His best known book is Pimp: The Story of My Life, in which he lays out how he ended up in that life. The book I read is a collection of essays, many mere vignettes, ranging from forgotten friends to why only people who hate women get into the pimp game, to the problems with being black in "racist America." It's difficult to read about, say, police shooting down unarmed black men, and argue that we've come that far. On the other hand, I can't read his words and really believe it's quite where we are today. Although parts of America are as far apart as ever, I think a serious percentage of us are finding middleground.

Still: I certainly know young black men as angry as Iceberg Slim. Both Ice-T and Ice Cube named themselves after him; I'm not sure how directly he's influencing the current generation, but indirectly he's still with us.

I highly recommend checking him out. His language is not my language, but his anger and pain and fatigue are honest. And current.

eight days



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008) Half Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer, finished Feb 20

This was the third audiobook from our trip (we skipped a few parts of book two, which I'll be finishing in paper form as we have a copy around here somewhere).

This is what I expected from Colfer, only without any fantasy. But it doesn't need to be fantastic. It takes it's hero seriously enough (and puts him into serious enough situations) that reality holds as much weight as a dwarf who rockets dirt out his butt.

The kids dug this even though we were listening to it long past the time they would normally sleep---they didn't sleep as much as they should have.

In short, this is Encyclopedia Brown if his life were more like Sam Spade's. It made the kids laugh and it kept the energy and tension high and although it was a bit overlong, no one thought to complain except the 36-year-old woman.
a long slog all the way from midnevada to home



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007) Bless this Mouse by Lois Lowry, finished February 16

This was the first of three audiobooks we listened to on our drive to Utah. I haven't read any Lowry besides her dystopian fic and this is not that. This is a charming story about mice living in a Church who have adopted the religion but still must fear the day the priest calls an exterminator.
basically nevada



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006) Dendo by Brittany Long Olsen, finished February 14


I loved this book. Long Shimai's daily comics journal is a wonder. I've never read a missionary story that successfully built a new human from the mundane moments of a mission. Even the marvelous amazing moments are shown clearly in their mundanity. And that is one of the most honest things a missionary memoir can do. Expect more from me about this book in he future.
about two weeks



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005) Dream House on Golan Drive by David G. Pace, finished February 5

I'm writing a serious review of this for Dialogue, so nothing much from me here. Just know it will be largely about a symbolic feedback look. Tempting, eh?


couple weeks





Previously in 2016