January 2016 – Book Review

The first month of the year is over, and I thought it would be fun to review the books I’ve read in January. Here it goes:

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A thin volume with reimagined, modernized fairy tales, along with some original stories by Cunningham. Some of these reimaginings work rather well, and some of them fall a bit flat, unable to conjure up any magic. While Cunningham’s writing is superb–and his ability to humanize previously simple and two-dimensional characters is quite impressive–some of these new tellings feel somewhat short and incomplete. I did, however, enjoy a few of them, including the stories “Little Man,” “Steadfast; Tin,” and “Ever/After.” Additionally, the illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are beautiful. A Wild Swan is good but not great. 3/5

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I saw the film version ofThe Perks of Being a Wallflower when it first came around in 2012, but I hadn’t ever read the novel before. However, I decided, on a whim, to pick up a signed hardcover copy at Barnes & Noble (to treat myself; I do love signed editions) and made plans to read it. Stephen Chbosky’s novel is just as grand as everyone says. I tend to find epistolary novels, though told through letters, to be awkward, but I didn’t find that here. It was very easy to relate to Charlie and travel with him on his journey. I now know why everyone loves this book. 4/5

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I’m sure some people will truly love this book. They’ll find it captivating, interesting, fun. I am not one of those people. First of all, I’m not the intended demographic; I am not a teen, no matter how youthful my appearance may be. (Not that you need to be a teenager to enjoy teen books.) I also don’t read fantasy/adventure novels. I just don’t. I think the last ones I read were The Hunger Games trilogy when they first were published, and then The Hobbit, which was about nine years ago.

So, why did I choose this book to read? Plain and simple, it was the cover. I think it looks pretty cool, and the pages are black, which I’m a sucker for. Once I started reading Six of Crows, though, I got a little flustered. Tons of information and lingo were thrown at me at the beginning, making it rather difficult for me to actually get into the book, the story, and the characters. Once I did pick up the lingo and figure out what was going on–around page 70 or 75–things started to pick up. Now, I do think the characters were generally well-written and fleshed out; each had their own personality and humor, so I do appreciate that. But then it felt like the story just went into a standard/recognizable rhythm, which made the heist seem less exciting/dangerous and more predictable. I also felt a disconnect between the ages of the characters and the occupations of those characters. Sixteen and Seventeen year olds aren’t spies and business owners. Though, I’m guessing these types of occupations are more common for teenagers to possess in this genre (I still don’t like it).

Just because I didn’t necessary care for Six of Crows doesn’t mean that others won’t. (And, in looking at the other Goodreads reviews for it, I’m clearly not in the majority.) For me, it was simply fine, and doesn’t necessarily make me want to read any other (popular) books in the teen fantasy/adventure genre. 2/5

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Last year, I decided to collect all of Haruki Murakami’s fiction writing, including all of his novels and collections of short stories (and now I own all but one, The Strange Library). I decided to do a Murakami Marathon, which is somewhat punny as the author runs marathons (I had a laugh), and this collection of his first two short novels, newly released here after 30 years of being out of print, was where I’d start my marathon. To preface: I’ve read Norwegian Wood before, which is probably his most famous and well-known novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was hoping for the same reaction to these novels. Alas, these really weren’t the same.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts, and they seem like it. I can only compare these short novels to the magnificent Norwegian Wood, and so I have to say that I wasn’t overly impressed with them (and, apparently, Murakami wasn’t either, which is why they’ve been out of print for thirty-odd years). Nevertheless, I feel as if there are inklings and certain feelings that will emerge in his later works, and I’m excited to see how he builds upon those; and, surely, his work will become more impressive.

Hear the Wind Sing is short and sweet, and did remind me a bit of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I read at the end of last year. It’s more of a straightforward story, without too many surprises popping up. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but just a little uninspired. Pinball, 1973 is a bit more creative and unusual. I’d classify some spots as “deliciously weird” (though, I think there will be even weirder stuff to come). The whole conversation with Spaceship the pinball machine is probably my favorite bit. Both are good, and I enjoyed them, but not as much as I’d hoped I would. This collection is a good start to Murakami’s much-beloved body of literary work, though. 3/5

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Right after Wind/Pinball, I decided to read A Wild Sheep Chase. It was as if something finally clicked with Murakami. The third novel in the Rat trilogy, A Wild Sheep Chase continues the story of the nameless narrator and his weird adventure that leads him on a wild sheep chase. The novel is a drastic improvement over Murakami’s first works. His writing style is definitive and a complete change from that found in his previous novels. Style, complexity, characterization, and overall storytelling are just leaps and bounds more impressive. There’s just this mystical and inexplicable quality here that’s refreshing; the oddness of it all is so captivating and special. No wonder Murakami took the world by storm with this book. 4/5

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I’m not one for memoirs, unless they’re by comedians (for some inexplicable reason). I bought When Breath Becomes Air for my mom, and I decided to give it a go because I’m currently stuck on reading another book (Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City). I actually connected with Kalanithi’s book more than I thought I would. Perhaps it’s because I also went into college thinking about majoring in English or biology (I chose English, just like Kalanithi, though I have no plans to go into medicine). He is a rather gifted writer; his words are easy to read but they have a weight to them. It’s probably not as “inspiring” as was intended–or maybe I’m just not one who’s easily inspired–but enjoyable nonetheless. 4/5

75 Must-See Films

This was a daunting task. I’m sure I’m forgetting some of my favorites, and this list will need to be amended several times. Plus, I’ll need to add in any new favorites that come along the way. I believe the 1950s was prime-time for filmmaking, and so that decade is probably a bit overrepresented. But, hey, what can you do? I also desperately need to see films by women; that’s something I’ll certainly change this year (starting with Agnès Varda).

I will say this, though: the world would be a much darker place without these fine films.

75 Must-See Films

  1. Across the Universe (2007) dir. Julie Taymor
  2. All About Eve (1950) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  3. Amélie (2001) dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  4. American Beauty (1999) dir. Sam Mendes
  5. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) dir. Otto Preminger
  6. Atonement (2007) dir. Joe Wright
  7. Beauty and the Beast (1946) dir. Jean Cocteau
  8. Beauty and the Beast (1991) dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
  9. Bicycle Thieves (1948) dir. Vittorio De Sica
  10. Black Swan (2010) dir. Darren Aronofsky
  11. Blue Velvet (1986) dir. David Lynch
  12. Breathless (1960) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
  13. Cabaret (1972) dir. Bob Fosse
  14. Carol (2015) dir. Todd Haynes
  15. Casablanca (1942) dir. Michael Curtiz
  16. Chicago (2002) dir. Rob Marshall
  17. Citizen Kane (1941) dir. Orson Welles
  18. City Lights (1931) dir. Charlie Chaplin
  19. Cloud Atlas (2012) dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer
  20. Day for Night (1973) dir. François Truffaut
  21. Doubt (2008) dir. John Patrick Shanley
  22. East of Eden (1955) dir. Elia Kazan
  23. Eating Raoul (1982) dir. Paul Bartel
  24. Fantasia (1940) dir. Samuel Armstrong, etc.
  25. Fargo (1996) dir. Joel and Ethan Cohen
  26. Frances Ha (2013) dir. Noah Baumbach
  27. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) dir. David Fincher
  28. Gone with the Wind (1939) dir. Victor Fleming
  29. The Great Beauty (2013) dir. Paolo Sorrentino
  30. Hiroshima mon amour (1959) dir. Alain Resnais
  31. Ikiru (1952) dir. Akira Kurosawa
  32. In the Mood for Love (2000) dir. Wong Kar-wai
  33. Jules and Jim (1962) dir. François Truffaut
  34. The Little Mermaid (1989) dir. Ron Clements and John Musker
  35. The Long Day Closes (1992) dir. Terence Davies
  36. The Maltese Falcon (1941) dir. John Huston
  37. Maurice (1987) dir. James Ivory
  38. Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier
  39. Memento (2000) dir. Christopher Nolan
  40. My Own Private Idaho (1991) dir. Gus Van Sant
  41. The Night of the Hunter (1955) dir. Charles Laughton
  42. No Country for Old Men (2007) dir. Joel and Ethan Cohen
  43. On the Waterfront (1954) dir. Elia Kazan
  44. Out of the Past (1947) dir. Jacques Tourneur
  45. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) dir. Guillermo del Toro
  46. Persona (1966) dir. Ingmar Bergman
  47. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) dir. Peter Weir
  48. Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  49. Pulp Fiction (1994) dir. Quentin Tarantino
  50. The Red Shoes (1948) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  51. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) dir. Roman Polanski
  52. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) dir. Wes Anderson
  53. Seven Samurai (1954) dir. Akira Kurosawa
  54. The Seventh Seal (1957) dir. Ingmar Bergman
  55. Shame (2011) dir. Steve McQueen
  56. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) dir. Jonathan Demme
  57. A Special Day (1977) dir. Ettore Scola
  58. Spirited Away (2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
  59. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) dir. Elia Kazan
  60. Sunset Boulevard (1950) dir. Billy Wilder
  61. Sweet Smell of Success (1957) dir. Alexander Mackendrick
  62. There Will Be Blood (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
  63. The Thin Red Line (1998) dir. Terrence Malick
  64. Tokyo Story (1953) dir. Yasujirō Ozu
  65. Vertigo (1958) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  66. Vivre sa vie (1962) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
  67. Wall-E (2008) dir. Andrew Stanton
  68. Weekend (2011) dir. Andrew Haigh
  69. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) dir. Mike Nichols
  70. Wings of Desire (1987) dir. Wim Wenders
  71. The Wizard of Oz (1939) dir. Victor Fleming
  72. Young Frankenstein (1974) dir. Mel Brooks
  73. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) dir. Jacques Demy
  74. 8 ½ (1963) dir. Federico Fellini
  75. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick

“Carol” – Review

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Carol isn’t your nostalgia-tinged, candy-coated, melodramatic, Technicolor dreamland of a 1950s romance. Carol is darker, hazier, more thoughtful, and more particular. Todd Haynes has created a rich, substantial film, and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have perfectly illustrated two characters slinking into such a then-forbidden romance, cautious but hopeful to be swept up in it all.

Blanchett plays the titular character and Mara plays Therese, a lowly shop worker; they accidentally meet, and fate twists upon them. Their connection is undeniable, both for the characters and the actresses. I can’t see any other women playing these roles. Blanchett is always mesmerizing, but Mara truly shines here. To contrast Therese with, say, Lisbeth Salander illustrates just how diverse the roles she chooses and (effectively) plays. Their acting is subtle but powerful. It may come off as wooden or unresponsive, but I don’t see that at all. I was captivated by them. I can imagine both actresses earning Oscar nominations (they’ve already earned Golden Globe nominations for their performances). Sarah Paulsen and Kyle Chandler also play important roles, and do rather well with their characters.

Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. Highsmith is probably most known as the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Now, I’ve yet to read The Price of Salt (something I hope to do in 2016), but it would be interesting to see how Phyllis Nagy adapted it into a script, something that always interests me.

This may sound odd, but I quite enjoyed all the sequences of travel (there are many). The camera usually stays on the outside of the vehicle, remaining on (usually) Mara peering outside, almost as if she’s longing for it. The camera does, however, creep into the interior, and focuses on the passengers’ interactions, their habits, their exhaustion, their happiness. I found this visual motif to be key in understanding Therese’s journey.

It’s interesting to contrast Carol with Far From Heaven, Haynes’ 2002 film which does pay homage, in both aesthetics and script, to Douglas Sirk and his candy-coated, melodramatic, Technicolor dreamland film All That Heaven Allows, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. It’s almost as if Carol is a foil to Far From Heaven (and many of Sirk’s films). Don’t get me wrong, Far From Heaven is a beautiful and effective movie, too, but it’s such a distinct variation on the same theme, a darker realization that I prefer; they each play together and contradict each other, which is fascinating to me. It would be interesting to compare the two further.

Carol is probably my favorite film of 2015. It’s subtle, dark but hopeful. Blanchett and Mara are perfect, and Todd Haynes has simply stretched out his streak of winning films.

The film was also shot in Cincinnati, where I live, so it was fun to spot certain buildings or skylines and see how they were transformed for the film.

Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” – Review

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These days, books are getting longer, and so it’s become nearly inevitable to stumble upon a well-reviewed, brick-sized tome that you’re somewhat leery to read but anxious to do so. I’m not one to quit reading something; I try to persevere, even if it’s not something I particularly enjoy (I hope to find some redeeming quality).

So, after reading such great responses to Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, a 720-page epic (and a finalist for both the Man Booker and National Book Award prizes; sadly, it lost in both categories to Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, respectively—both of which I’m hoping to read this year), I decided to purchase it on a whim, trusting those reviewers that I’d be mesmerized through all of those pages.

And, let me tell you, those reviewers weren’t wrong—not at all.

The novel charts the lives of four friends—Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm—over a few decades, from their college years to their fifties. The main focus, however, is on Jude, a quiet man with a mysterious and haunting past that dictates, or at the very least informs, his every action. I won’t give anything away here as much of the novel revolves around discovering Jude’s complexities. I’ll just say that it rivals—maybe even bests—anything Dickens ever wrote for his child characters.

Never have I so willingly endured such a heart-wrenching journey. Jude endures so much austerity and love. There are several passages that feel like a punch to the gut, but, through all that, rays of hope filter through. Some of these passages are difficult to read through, and many may see the harshness, the severity, the multitude of these sections as overtly melodramatic, or even soap opera-like. I disagree. Each individual event combines to create his complexities. His reactions to each event may seem aggravating—I won’t lie, I reacted with numerous head/eye rolls, as well as “Poor Jude”—but they make sense. In gradually piecing together his psychology, everything comes together; you see his struggles, his reactions, and confirm these to be an accurate depiction of his (little) life.

Willem, JB, and Malcolm are given less attention, especially the latter two. Though, in Yanagihara’s defense, this story is about Jude. (Though, my only qualm is that we learn very little about Malcolm, as he’s given so little page-time.) Willem plays an important role, though, as Jude’s main supporter and friend (among other occupations). Through the ups and downs of friendship, each caters to Jude’s development, and, in turn, their own. It’s a rocky road for this set of friends, but it’s a road to walk on. It’s truly worth it.

As I read the novel, I began reflecting on my own life. I saw a bit of myself in Jude, and I think many will (though I hope many will never experience the hardships he experienced). That’s the novel’s biggest asset. Because Jude is such a rich and complicated character, he seems so universal, even though his life is so specific.

I’m intentionally keeping this vague, as I don’t want to spoil too much. But I will say this: A Little Life is an incredibly exceptional book. It’s been years since I’ve read something so impactful. Don’t let the page count deter you, either, as it’s well worth your time. It’s challenging, thought-provoking, depressing, hopeful, and deeply rewarding. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s currently available in hardcover, and will be available as a paperback on January 26, 2016.

Hiroshima mon amour – Blu-ray Unboxing

Next up is Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, a cornerstone film of the French New Wave. I watched it earlier this year (or perhaps it was last summer), and I absolutely loved it. This new edition has a presentation based off the 4K restoration recently completed, and I’m extremely excited to see the film again knowing this. Here are some photos:

   
    
    
   

The Bridge – Blu-ray Unboxing

Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (Die Brücke) is the next film I purchased during the current 50% off sale at Barnes & Noble. Now, I know very little about this film except that it was the first major anti-war film from Germany. I’ve also heard that it’s just flat-out wonderful. Here are some packaging shots:

   
    
    
   

Autumn Sonata – Blu-ray Unboxing

The next title I purchased was Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful Autumn Sonata, which stars the that other famous Bergman, Ingrid. It also stars Bergman’s multiple time collaborator, and ex-wife, Liv Ullmann. I was lukewarm to it on my first watch, but I’ve decided to give it another go. Plus, there are some great bonus features, including a commentary by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, a new interview with Ullmann, and a mammoth 207-minute making-of documentary. Here are some packaging shots: