A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

A place for FF's to write and read brief reviews of books and films for the benefit of other FF's.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Father of the Bride

Kimberly Williams' eyebrows are ENORMOUS CATERPILLARS in this movie. One of them is visible in the poster:
I wish that "cute" women could still get away with eyebrows like that.

This movie made me cry at least twice. And it's pretty funny that B.D. Wong's character is named Howard Weinstein.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The 1978 remake of well-loved science-fiction classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is only available on Netflix streaming for a few more days. It's very good so you should probably watch it. Also watch the original, and if you have some spare time, watch Them!, which is also good.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

A New York City kid is stressed out at his elite private school and all the demands on him so he checks himself into a psych ward. Zach Galifinakis is a charming mental patient and there are a few funny crazy people moments, but all of the montage-y parts about the main character's stressful life are pretty boring. There are sort of two movies here: one is a pleasant indie movie about a basically sane teenager becoming friends with a wacky fringe character, and the other is a bad, zany comedy in which the protagonist suffers from random, fake-looking projectile vomiting. Still, very watchable.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

If you are like me, meaning your brain refuses to understand or remember scientific facts, this is a great book. It is very "big picture" about our understanding of the world, and made me want to do some more science reading. I was always frustrated in school (particularly during physics) when we spent a long time on ideas that we now know to be wrong, but Bryson makes the history of science interesting by giving details about what strange (and often petty) people scientists were and are. It also helps to show that we have so much left to learn.

There is no thesis to this book, so unlike Guns, Germs, and Steel, which hits you over the head with a point over and over again, this one just keeps moving. If there were a thesis it would be: scientists are weirdos. Bryson's writing is easy and enjoyable—many of the blurbs refer to his wit, and here is one more:

"Bryson's wit is as sharp as his tongue: pink, and covered in beard hairs."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two Recommendations

1. A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis (1971): This book has been adopted by the Brooklyn Fetishist movement as an early fable about gentrification (Jonathan Lethem prefaced the edition I read), but it's really just a dark, sometimes very funny story about a failed writer lamely battling against his own creeping nihilism.

2. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, by Nathan Englander (1999): I'd had trouble with Englander's novel (The Ministry of Special Cases), but thought these short stories were pretty great. Unlike much of the inauthentic, maudlin garbage that passes for popular Jewish-American literature these days, these stories have a lot of, for lack of a better word, soul. Particularly good are "Reunion," which reminded me a bit of Cheever, "The Twenty-seventh Man," which Englander is now apparently adapting into a play, and especially "The Tumblers," which was one of the best short stories I've read in a long time.

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (1932)

I had never heard of Erskine Caldwell or his book Tobacco Road but it was on the "100 Greatest Novels" list I have been using as one of the references for my own historical reading list. And the jacket copy called Caldwell "the world's most popular novelist" so this would at least be good for seeing what people used to enjoy back in the day.

This book is ridiculous and should not be read.

The 159 pages — with lots of horrible period illustrations – follow an implausibly pathetic Southern white sharecropper family where the father is so lazy "he won't get up for an hour when he trips on things," constantly makes fun of his daughter's harelip to her face, can't remember half of his children's names, and likes to burn stuff, which ends up being his undoing. A some point these laughable hicks buy a car, which they trash immediately in myriad ways and run over and kill at least two people, which is only mentioned in passing. The first 40 pages is all about a bag of turnips. The other female in the book has some horrid nose deformity that everyone talks about endlessly.

If you want to read something "Southern Gothic," avoid this and read As I Lay Dying or even Winesburg, Ohio, even though that's not technically the South. Faulkner follows very similar people but gives them at least some sliver of dignity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam

Been re-looking at this book which I read a long time ago. I highly recommend at least the first hundred or so pages. It is amazing at conveying not just the facts and story but an attitude, a sensibility. That seems like a trait of the best non-fiction. The articles in LA Weekly, say, often try for this and don't nail it.

The book is about the men, largely Harvard-associated men, who controlled foreign policy as America drifted into the Vietnam War. Many of the characters described are attractive in some ways, brilliant and stylish and confident, but their blind spots and their massive arrogance helped the country slip into tragedy. Much of the book is in the form of mini-profiles: McGeorge Bundy, for instance, who almost became president of Harvard when he was 34.

But it's also a story about how tiny errors, misunderstandings, and biases accumulate into enormous disasters - the French experts at the State Department were considered cooler and more prestigious than the Asia experts, personal status battles kept some people out of key meetings, people had fixations based on their WWII experiences, egos and political debts had to be soothed or paid off with important appointments, on and on.

Anyway, I can't recommend the whole book, which gets pretty detaily, but an interesting thing to flip through at the bookstore or library.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Six Shooter

I've been reading the plays of Martin McDonagh. The Beauty Queen of Leenane I found to be the most gripping. I also watched - and would invite you to watch - his Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter, available on YouTube. Relevant to our discussion of sociopaths, it sticks with the trademark McDonagh themes of human cruelty played for comedy and horrific violence also played for comedy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Source Code (2011)

I agree with my worthy colleague EAP that Source Code is a good time at the movies. Source Code is a great retelling of the Majora's Mask legend. Vera Farmiga is a charming Tatl, and Jareth the Goblin King is an elegant gay Link. Eli Vance's performance as Dr. Doom is also laudable. I do wish that Hollywood would cast a lead with a giant hole in his skull who, for once, doesn't have magical mental powers. These kinds of stereotypes have dogged the hole skull community for years.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller

This is both a group biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon and also a social history of the mid-60s to mid-70s. It is awesome.

I generally tend to dismiss the culture of this era as strident and misguided (or just drug-addled and dumb), so it was great to be reminded that smart/creative people then were largely just like they are today -- some privileged/educated, some not, all searching for their voices and trying to be impressive and getting wrapped up in their own status games. The main differences were that, back then, they were just discovering female sexual freedom/empowerment, and drugs, and they earnestly believed that the Revolution was coming. It's fascinating to read about.

Weller's writing is great and direct, such as here: "Where Monterey Pop had been a bellwether boutique, Woodstock would be Wal-Mart."

The level of detail is perfect, in my opinion (would I want to read a 527-page biography of any one of these women? probably not) and contains lots of great gossipy info. For example, a young Carly Simon met a young Sean Connery on a cruise ship, and he "tried to pursuade [my sister] Lucy and me to do things we had never heard of." She also had romances with Terrence Malick and Milos Forman (the latter's accent and personality inspired SNL's "Two Wild and Crazy Guys" sketch).

Carole King's husband and songwriting partner had a barely-concealed affair with one of the girl-group singers they were writing for, and intentionally had a baby with her. Carole knew, but stayed in the marriage and the professional partnership for years after that. Much later, when Carole was far along in one of her own pregnancies, Warren Beatty begged her to have sex with him, saying he'd never had sex with a very pregnant woman and wanted to know how it felt. (Beatty pops up many times in the book, as a beyond-belief lothario and all-around ridiculous human being.)

Joni Mitchell comes across as an intolerable Borderline Personality Disorder type. Carole King comes off looking pretty good, though there was a rather tragic decade (or maybe even longer?) when she took up with a series of abusive mountain men in Idaho. Carly Simon seems like an oversexed, neurotic delight.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason

I was wary of this book because I had read a review that said it was sort of glib, but I didn't find it to be that at all. The premise is that the author found these lost books of the Odyssey, which are variations on stories from the Iliad and the Odyssey, in no particular order, and in my opinion, it works really well for the first half of the book. There are some interesting, dreamlike variations that deal with fate and storytelling and one or two that reminded me of Stephen Millhauser stories (which is the highest praise I can give something). At around the halfway point Mason loses steam, and some of the stories become repetitive and others seem to not fit as well with the rest. A bunch of stories also sort of felt like descriptions of the game "Mist." In sum, the first half is great, the second half isn't as good.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Saturday Night Fever

This movie is really tragic and good. A little slow, as '70s movies can be, but there are several wrenching scenes. Has anyone else seen it?

Friday, May 6, 2011

All That Jazz

I liked this movie. Roy Scheider is very convincing as a womanizing, hard-living director/choreographer. There is some pretty weird fantasy-sequence stuff in here, like Jessica Lange playing a flirtatious angel of death, and some people dressed as circulatory systems dancing to a jazzed-up version of "Bye Bye Love" in front of a giant plastic curtain. Both of Roy Scheider's love interests are interesting and his relationships with them feel real. (Ann Reinking is so beautiful!) Watching this movie reminded me of a very strong desire I once had, to be an aspiring Broadway dancer in the late 70s/early 80s and wear matte leotards and sheer black tights and have a cloud of beautiful frizzy hair. It also made me wish there were more crazy autobiographical movies like this one and fewer bland biopics.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

KCE and DAK were super into this, but it was maybe twice too long as I needed and I found the structure - cutting back and forth through various story-threads before and after - a little difficult. It is thoroughly well-reported, and in a strange way inspirational, but I don't think it was worth reading. Here are the main things I took away (possible misrememberings):

- The principal of Columbine seems to have been a devoted, noble kind of guy who was doing a great job running the school beforehand, and did an even better job after. His story, and the story of a teacher named Dave Saunders, were quite moving. The best details were just about these guys' ordinary lives - drinking a rum and Coke every night, getting together with a high school sweetheart after a divorce.

- Eric Harris was apparently a straight-up, born evil sociopath (or psychopath, the term Cullen seems to prefer). The chapter about psychopathy was the most interesting, and better than the book The Sociopath Next Door.

- Dylan Klebold seems to have just been a tragic, depressed kind of kid. It almost seems like he might've gotten through it and into stability if he hadn't met Harris. Cullen suggests that the combination of a depressive and a psychopath has been noted before in criminal "dyads," like Bonnie and Claude and the DC snipers. I would've liked to hear more about this.

- Both the Klebold and Harris parents were neither abusive nor inattentive. Eric Harris' dad kept a journal where he tried to figure out what was wrong with his son, and did everything he could for him. After the shootings both sets of parents seem to have behaved with great dignity - they met with parents of victims, they did their best to understand this. The Harris parents have never been interviewed. The only journalist the Klebolds ever talked to was David Brooks (although I think Mrs. Klebold since wrote an article in O magazine). I found their stories really tragic.

- Klebold and Harris made a video right before the shootings where they listed a bunch of kids they were gonna kill. They didn't kill any of them.

- Their goal was to blow up the whole school, and they came pretty close. If their bombs had gone off, they would've killed maybe 500 people. Their plan was to stand outside and shoot kids running out after the bombs went off. But the bombs didn't work.

- There were several minutes where Klebold and Harris just stopped shooting, and walked around the school, past roomfuls of kids, without shooting anybody. Cullen attributes this to a psychopath getting bored, the thrill going away.

- The stories about how the Trenchcoat Mafia and "do you believe in God" myths got started are interesting case studies in media hyping.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

This history of al-Qaeda has been on my long list pretty much since it came out and I figured this week was as good a time as any to read it.

The premise of the book's approach is that even major historical events are ultimately just a function of the actions and decisions of individual men and women. Personalities and relationships matter as much as, and likely more than, broad social forces.

Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, puts it this way: "One can ask...whether 9/11 or some similar tragedy might have happened without bin Laden to steer it. The answer is certainly not. Indeed, the tectonic plates of history were shifting, promoting a period of conflict betwen the West and the Arab Muslim world; however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of this contest."

Wright takes a similar view of the law enforcement agencies tasked with fighting terrorism, although he can't quite seem to decide if specific personal enmities or organizational rivalries and long-established bureaucratic roadblocks were most responsible for the failure of the FBI and CIA to share intelligence and perhaps prevent 9/11.

Wright puts quite a bit of emphasis on single fateful decisions and their inevitably unintended consequences. The appeal of his logic is the reassuring suggestion that horrific acts can be prevented, that evil is not a force of nature but something that lives only within the hearts of evil men.

This week, Wright wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden:

"Democracy and civil society are the cure for the chronic misery of Muslim countries that has fed the rise of Islamic extremism. The death of the most notorious terrorist the world has ever seen, whose mission was to create a clash of civilizations, will allow the door to open more widely to the tolerance, modernism, and pragmatism that is so badly needed and so long awaited in a part of the world where despair, corruption, brutality, and fanaticism have laid waste to so many generations."

Anyways, this book made me think about a lot of stuff. It's dense with names and dates but not a tough read. It's basically a really, really long New Yorker article.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987)

1) I had never read any Lester Bangs but found this for ¥500 at a local used bookstore buried near the staircase.

2) Lester Bangs is probably the only writer I know who most celebrates amphetamines out of all drug options. Even HST and Irvine Welsh seem to relegate speed to a lower echelon. Bangs drones on and on about how great speed is. Needless to say it also sets the pace of his prose.

3) If you want to read Lester Bangs, have Wikipedia open and be ready to do some book learnin' on obscure 1960s garage bands and mid-period Lou Reed records you've never actually heard. The opening essay on The Count Five is hilarious only if you have an incredibly tight grasp on the musical career of The Count Five, which no one does and probably didn't back in the day either. You are probably not huge into the band Slade, I am guessing. Add that to the research list.

4) Bangs' episode with the J. Geils Band is probably the only good thing ever written that includes the J. Geils Band.

5) I had to go back and listen to a lot of Stooges records, which reminded me of New York around 2002.

6) Bangs' writing about Lou Reed is great even if you aren't into Lou Reed.

7) Finally someone creates literature about Tangerine Dream!

John dos Passos - The 42nd Parallel (1930)

This first book of the U.S.A. Trilogy manages to be lots of fun and explicitly "Modernist" at the same time — eat that shit, Joyce. The secret is that dos Passos separates the Modernist passages out from the main narrative as "Camera Eye" and "Newsreel" sections of contextless headlines and oral histories, which can mostly be ignored or skimmed. They're short and painless anyway. The actual narrative follows five or six different individuals, all of whom start off as salt of the earth and most of them end up that way too. The writing is highly colloquial.

The book provides an interesting social history note in that all of the men in the book are forever trying to figure how to find sexual satisfaction, and have few choices: either going to a brothel (and picking up a bug) or pressuring their girlfriends into pre-marital sex, which in this book always, always leads to pregnancy. Good to read a book from 1930, however, that very openly discusses that people actually have sex and get up to no good without it being clouded in oblique language. Not exactly "gritty" social realism but feels like an accurate version of living in the 1910s.

Dos Passos was a big leftist in this era but he should be commended for not being too heavyhanded. He is constantly drawing labor leaders and Wobblies as fuck-ups and fuck-offs.

I recommend the book as a breezy read that also qualifies for literature. Anyone read the next two installments 1919 and The Big Money?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Solar, by Ian McEwan

I was reluctant to read Solar, which I assumed would be full of preachy monologues about melting ice caps and whatnot, but it was the only palatable option left on the fiction table at Borders during their going-out-of-business sale. Turns out I should have given Ian McEwan the benefit of the doubt, because this book is pretty good. It includes the two key elements of every Ian McEwan novel I've read: highly intelligent-sounding technical science writing and a totally zany major plot point. (I've read two of his novels.) There is one preachy monologue, but the speaker is problematically drunk and the audience is universally bored, so the scene itself is entertaining.

Maybe read Saturday first, though.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Two more questions

Anyone have any Terry Southern recommendations?

Ross Macdonald favorites?

Philip K Dick

I've never read any Philip K Dick. Anyone have a favorite book by him?

Whoever answers that question might be interested in this list.

Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer

This book has been out for so long that you probably already made a decision about whether to read it. I think I'd already even skimmed through it once. But I was watching Touching The Void, which is great, decided to continue my mountaineering buzz, and read this book. It is amazing. So compelling. Much of the action takes place at an altitude where even an experienced climber might suddenly start bleeding from their face and then die, or their heart might stop. Tiny errors compound. A Sherpa risks death to carry a New York society lady's satellite phone. A bottleneck forces people to wait while their brains die of oxygen deprivation. Krakauer's own role in the story is incredible.

This might've edged out Into The Wild as my favorite Krakauer book, but hey - read both!

Win Win (2011)

Charming but not amazing. A lot of good set-ups without great punchlines. Giamatti is not at his Giamatti-est, which is fortunate. Jeffrey Tambor is underutilized, but Bobby Canavale is funny and lovable. I might be in the minority, but I would have been happy with 60 percent more footage of high-school wrestling matches. Go see it, you saps.

Fast Five (2011)


Lost In America

This movie has a few pretty funny scenes but completely loses its narrative drive at around minute 45 and then becomes incredibly slow and boring and one-note. LONG shots of Albert Brooks walking down a small-town street. Just walking, not expressing any sort of feeling or interacting with anyone. Julie Hagerty's character is grating and dumb without any charm to balance her out. Her "yuppie" wardrobe is so odd and dowdy and unflattering it's pretty riveting in and of itself.