Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday movie recommendations

It's finals week, and things have quietened considerably. Fewer students, fewer faculty, still plenty of staff as we begin to scurry about the work of the interregnum.

That's why I had time to finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. In truth, this is probably the sixth or seventh time I've read it, which does help the 846 pages go by much more quickly. The story helps; it's rich in detail and offers endless newness with each reading. It's a pseudo-historical chronicle of England in the early 19th Century and the renaissance in English magic that occurs in that period, thanks to the effort of the two competing magicians mentioned in the title.

Yes, it's a fantasy work at heart, but so superbly executed that you hardly notice that you're reading anything other than a fascinating account of the life and times of Jonathan Strange and his teacher-turned-nemesis Mr. Norrell, as both work to bring dignity back to the practice of English magic by battling Napoleon at Waterloo and socializing with the day's peerage. Along the way, they fall afoul of a mad fairy who takes advantage of their early-on carelessness to entrap the wife of a significant member of the House of Lords and all-out abduct Jonathan Strange's wife, which precipitates the book's crashing end. In the middle of it all, they must navigate a suspicious government, a fickle public, and underhanded toadies with their own agendas. All of it is written in this wonderfully archaic nineteenth-century style that almost makes you feel as though you're actually reading a contemporary account.

The book is filled with innumerable footnotes referring to nonexistent academic documents, conventional-wisdom anecdotes about fairies and magicians, and truly fascinating historical background about an England that almost sounds like it could have existed.

Now, moving on.

This will be the last blog post for a little while -- I'm taking a break for Christmas and New Year's. We'll be returning on January 8 with an eye toward the Spring semester. In the meantime, I thought I'd share a little bit about good movies to watch over Christmas break.

I'm not talking about stuff like A Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life, The Santa Clause, or Christmas with the Kranks. Those flicks are all playing on pretty much an infinite loop on most family-oriented cable networks until December 25.

The funny thing about holiday breaks is that, during the period just before and after Christmas, one usually finds oneself at loose ends. When you have a couple of weeks of nothing to look forward to, it's easy to take up residence on the family couch and start ordering takeout from your mom's kitchen. When you slip into that period of holiday ennui, you need something to watch that doesn't have snowflakes swirling around a network logo in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

One of the best ways to occupy all that time is through the judicious application of movie marathons. Trilogies, series, TV shows on DVD, anything that's at least six hours long. Those films have to be exceptionally absorbing or exceptionally ridiculous to be worth the time, so the following should not be taken too seriously. Here goes:

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King
C'mon. Who doesn't love the Lord of the Rings movies? Lush scenery, expansive battles, beautiful people, and a bona-fide epic storyline tying it all together. Peter Jackson demonstrated his love of monumental scale and created one of the best book-to-movie adaptations of all time. Never mind that The Return of the King has about 12 endings stitched together; Sam and Frodo's bromance makes it all worth it.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1, 2; Grindhouse: Death Proof, Planet Terror
I lump both Kill Bill and Grindhouse together because they're both part of a similar oeuvre. One could argue that flicks like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs fit into this group, but they were earlier movies by Quentin Tarantino, so don't quite partake of that 21st-Century violence-and-horror sensibility. The Kill Bill movies are gleaming and slick, a fantastically-narrated achronological revenge narrative in which a pregnant blushing bride (who works as one of the world's greatest assassins on the side) has her wedding interrupted by her coworkers' killing spree, taking the lives of her groom, the preacher, the preacher's wife, a few of her friends, and a few of his. The incident puts her in a coma and she wakes up four years later with her womb empty and her head filled with rage, and proceeds to go on a bloody rampage until she fetches up against her former boss and lover: Bill.

True to form, the Kill Bill films are bloody, clever, violent, and beautifully-done. On the other hand, the Grindhouse films are somewhat different. Done in the style of 1950s-era B-movies, they're grainy, scratched, and stuttery ... most of the time. Both films were helmed by different directors, but with significant roles for both in each. Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof tells the story of a homicidal stuntman who enjoys killing young women with his specially-reinforced car, until he comes up against a group of beautiful -- but exceptionally bloodthirsty -- women. This film has some of the most fantastic driving scenes I've ever seen, winding through the hills of Tennessee as the hunter becomes the hunted.

Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, however, is a different beast, and far closer to the B-movie archetype; a shadowy group of scientists tries to sell their biological weapon to the Army in a deal that goes spectactularly bad. The weapon is released, an entire Texas town gets transformed into cannibalistic, pus-oozing zombies, and the only hope lies with a one-legged stripper and her estranged lover, a felon/undercover Federale who should not be permitted near a gun.

El Mariachi, Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Three of Robert Rodriguez's early films, this trilogy spans a period in the life of El Mariachi, an innocent Mexican mariachi player who falls in love. A lot. The first woman he falls in love with turns out to be involved with a local drug cartel, and is killed for her troubles. This incident sends El Mariachi on a lifelong trajectory of vengeance against the rapacious cartels that proliferate in Mexico. Yes, more killing, violence, and rage, but the trilogy focuses much more on El Mariachi himself and his attempts to regain his innocence. Set against the backgroup of the most beautiful Mexico you've ever seen, it's a deep examination of what makes us human and what can cause us to lose that humanity.

Star Wars: Episodes I-VI
Yes, all six episodes. It'll take you a couple of days to get through. It's worth it, though; even though the more-recently-made Episodes I-III are distinctly inferior to the older Episodes IV-VI, watching all six in sequence will give you a much better idea of what George Lucas was trying to do with his space opera. It isn't all ray guns and funny-looking aliens -- it's a work that tried to measure up to the likes of The Thorn Birds or Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, a generational saga that tried to be epic in its scope but instead ended up being a biography of Anakin Skywalker: his rise, his fall, his final redemption. The whole saga probably would have been better had it picked one -- generational epic or focused biography -- or the other. Still, it's a good try, and you see plenty of flashes of greatness, especially as you work your way toward the final episodes.

Heathers, Clueless, Mean Girls
Lest you think I'm all about explosions, death, murder, and war, here's a good collection of three movies to watch in sequence. They're unified only by their genre: teen high-school mean-girl comedy. Why do I recommend this? It's a great way to start thinking about how times have changed. Heathers was released in 1988, Clueless in 1995, and Mean Girls in 2004. Heathers is the story of a popular girl with a heart and her unfortunate tryst with a sociopath, and the tragedy that results. It's chock-full of dark humor ("Heather, what is your damage?") and will have you laughing at the teen sociopath's attempts to rationalize his actions using some faint echoes of Randian Objectivism. Unless you believe in it, in which case, it's got a sympathetic character you can root for!

Clueless takes you into the life of an affluent-but-shallow girl and the unreal world she inhabits, which is shaken by the advent of a grunge-chic chick from the East Coast. There's plenty of goofy humor (the movie that launched a thousand "Whatevers") and most of the high school depicted is populated by stereotypical sketches, but a film like this says much more about the culture that produced it than the one it portrays. The same is true about Mean Girls, although it is much closer to the reality of contemporary high school, mixed in with the snappy comebacks one more typically sees in sitcoms. Still, the ending gives you that "we met the enemy and he is us" moment that can often act as a valuable reality-check.

Anything by Mel Brooks: Spaceballs, History of the World Part I, Blazing Saddles, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, The Producers, Young Frankenstein
One of the original Hollywood spoofers, Mel Brooks has a longstanding reputation for lampooning popular culture in his movies. Most of the humor is juvenile, the acting isn't great, and the special effects are pretty hit-or-miss ... but they're funny! Brooks doesn't take moviemaking very seriously, so don't expect to get absorbed into a whole new world or anything -- a film camera smashes a medieval stained-glass window, a spaceship radar dish gets jammed with raspberry, the most insulting of all jams, and a German woman with a lisp discovers the truth about black men -- but all of his movies are immensely entertaining.

Popular wuxia films: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; House of Flying Daggers; Kung Fu Hustle
Wuxia is sort of a genre of Chinese historical martial-arts films. Not "historical" in the literal sense; although many of those movies are loosely based on historical accounts and/or stories, the operative word here is "loosely." They're more like period pieces, which may or may not strive for plot consistency over historical accuracy.

With that said, all four films are generally kung-fu love stories. The first three are serious and set in actual historical periods that cover around 2,000 years of Chinese history, ranging from the Warring States period (around 400 BCE; Hero) to the Qing Dynasty (sometime in the late 18th Century; Crouching Tiger), stopping in at the decline of the Tang dynasty (859 CE, to be exact, for House of Flying Daggers). All three are beautifully filmed, using sweeping landscapes and some of the most amazing colors you've seen in a long time. The fights are especially well-choreographed and make heavy use of slow-motion filming, as well as lots of gravity-defying stunts.

The one odd duck in the bunch, Kung Fu Hustle, is a total spoof of the previous three. Set in Shanghai of the 1940s, Hustle is the story of a rogue who accidentally foments conflict between one of the city's poorest districts and one of its most notorious organized-crime syndicates. However, the poor residents of the district are much, much more than they seem -- as is the fool who got them involved in the first place. Underpinning the story is this sort of gleefully cartoonish sensibility, one that allows the harridan of a landlady run someone down on foot Roadrunner-style, only to be thwarted by an inconveniently-placed billboard, or the Number One Killer in the World and his taste for cheap pink plastic slippers. It's hilarious and one of the most absurd films I've seen in a long time. It serves as a great relaxant after the seriousness of Crouching Tiger, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers.

And ... that wraps it up. Have a good holiday, everyone!

1 comment:

  1. You're right.

    It is our family's tradition to spend the week between Christmas and New Year at the movies for the afternoon shows.

    This is a period with very few waiting lines.

    Quality time well spent with children.


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