A Serious Man

[Screenshot]The Coen Brothers have two basic modes. They have gritty realistic frequently bloody works like Fargo and Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men, and they have works piled high with circumstantial weirdshit and/or outright fantasy like The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou?. The latter often has this vaguely paranoid touch, as if some cosmic entity or conspiracy is engineering tribulations for whatever unlucky everyman is the protagonist of this particular film.

That having been said, A Serious Man is the Coen formula in the particular mold of ’60s Jewish-American life, which adds a certain wrinkle: previous Coen protagonists have been drifters and convicts and naïfs, disinclined to try to attach a purpose to their sufferings, but a middle-class American Jew is a different kettle of fish philosophically, and much more energy is spent on why trouble rains down on Gopnik than they usually devote to it, and the lack of a satisfactory answer is probably intentional, both from a philosophical and a film-structure viewpoint: Judaism has a process for answering questions, which is no guarantee of actual satisfactory answers.

This is a moderate departure from the Coens’ usual surreal-mode fare, but recognizably of the same genus. If you like Coen Brothers films, or like put-upon Jewish Americans, this will please. They capture the era and the society well, and layer over it their own special brand of wacky.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Ninja Cheerleaders

[Screenshot]I was pretty certain I’d already seen this movie, one night at Epsilon Theta in a double feature with But I’m a Cheerleader, and that it was awful. But actually I hadn’t! The movie I saw then was Cheerleader Ninjas. You can see how that might be confusing, so I had to watch this movie to get it straight in my mind. Cheerleader Ninjas was irredemably awful. Ninja Cheerleaders is simply very bad.

The redeeming light of this film is George Takei, who has enough of a sense of humor that he finds being in this piece of crap pretty entertaining and delivers a delightful performance. It puzzles me that Netflix’s summaries claim Tim Curry “starred” in Alice because he had about 5 minutes of screen time, and don’t even mention George Takei with reference to this film. The three ostensible leads were chosen more for visual appeal, AFAICT, than any sort of acting talent; they definitely aren’t delivering a nuanced performance (not that this is a nuanced film. The plot: bad guys kidnap George Takei, the head honcho of the ninjas’ dojo/strip club*, and steal the ninjas’ college fund. The ninjas rescue him, after cheerleading and winning a stripping contest devoid of actual stripping).

Not much to say about this film, because it’s mostly pretty awful. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but unlike Cheerleader Ninjas doesn’t wallow in its own immaturity. It has gratuitous nudity on scene transitions, presumably for those who are disappointed that the leads don’t actually strip. I kinda could’ve done without the “scene’s over! have a random breast!” myself.

One odd side note: I am relatively certain that there was an 11th hour character/setting change in the script. The girls are cheerleaders at a well-attended basketball game, they take classes in small lectures, and they’re eagerly awaiting their acceptance into Brown. The reasonable context for all of this would be that they’re seniors in high school, but the film makes it clear they’re at a local community college (and attempting to transfer). Apparently someone involved with the film decided that high school strippers weren’t smewhere they wanted to go.

* No, really. It’s a dojo and a strip club at the same time. Would I make this up?

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I managed to miss most of the sci-fi series of the past few decades. I read Asimov’s series, and a lot of serial fantasy, but mostly missed out on recent serial sci-fi large series, although I’ve certainly heard of the Vorkosigan saga and the Honorverse and suchlike. But the Baen free library has some of the Honorverse books in it, so I finally got around to checking what the fuss is about.

It’s very much operations-and-logistics-oriented, and assumes a certain degree of familiarity with naval convention. I don’t know much about naval convention or naval history, but I get the impression that all the folderol about missile tracking ranges and impeller sidewalls is an attempt to make the ship-to-ship combat in this book resemble 18th or 19th century capital ship battles. The justifications used are reasonably solid if you buy into the particular technologies posited, and it steers clear, in spite of the naval metaphors, of most of the obvious flaws in quasi-nautical sci-fi space settings.

Plotwise it’s not deeply imaginative: our Fearless Heroine, set up to fail, turns the disadvantages of her situation into an opportunity, earns the respect of her subordinates, &c., but it does the job well enough and endears the cental character to the reader. The characters and situations are reasonably believable and it’s an entertaining enough page-turner.

I was vaguely reminded of Dan Brown’s bad habit of beginning each chapter with an occupational modifier before a name, since Weber dos that too. But it’s somewhat more natural in a military setting.

See also: Wikipedia, Baen Free Library.

Mr. Darcy’s Diary, by Amanda Grange

Ah, to be paid to write fanfic.

Jane Austen has experienced a resurgence of interest, and every possible mining of her intellectual property (particularly Pride and Prejudice and Emma, with occasional attempts to redeem Sense and Sensibility) seems to have been tried over the past few years. Thus one can achieve mdoest success by lifting the plot — and much of the dialogue — of Pride and Prejudice and changing the viewpoint character.

The best bits of this work were the ones copid verbatim from the original work, which is not wholly surprising. There’s not much new information, as such, in this book, and stylistically it’s nothing to write home about, but it was as good a way to kill time when I rad out of other books on a trip than anything else would be.

Oh, and one more quick note: more recently, Amanda Grange wrote Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. Trying to cater to every single trend simultaneously, are we?

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

This is surely Wells’ best-known work (followed, but not all that closely, by The Time Machine) and arguably one of the genre-defining works of modern sci-fi; particularly modern “hard” sci-fi. Edgar Rice Burroughs and suchlike folks would later carve out “soft” sci-fi, where the technological aspects play a secondary role to the story, but Wells took a more-than-passing interest in exposition, and the heavy hand of attempted scientific realism casn be felt here. There’s significant glorification of technology and wonder at the unverse (the latter albeit tempered by the sense of menace), all of which remains within the bounds of the understanding of science as it stood at the turn of the century. Some of that realism has been diminished by future contradiction of the contemporary state of knowledge, but for the most part the science has aged well. Stylistically it’s rather flat, but that appears to be by design, as if the work were meant to be a report (not unlike Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year).

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s something of an easy target, if you read his unabridged works. He does tend to go off on a ramble, as was particularly evidenced by Les Miserables, whch at the drop of a hat would launch into 50-page discursions on the convent system or the sewers of Paris or the battle of Waterloo or whatnot. This expository prolixity is in evidence in Notre-Dame as well, but is used more to the point, and less haphazardly. In a significant sense, this work is an extended passionate ode to the architecture and urban design of Paris, with the cathedral of Notre-Dame as its nucleus and the mazes of streets and plazas accreted around it under the jurisdiction of the various factions therein: the Church, the King, the University, the seedy underworld elements: on one level, this book is a love song to a Paris-that-was (or a Paris-that-never-was; I’m not sure how well Hugo’s perception of 15th-century Paris actually coincided with the reality).

Under that all is the actual narrative, a moderately tangled romance of far too many characters with peculiar motivations. Particularly the Phoebus subplot, although critical, is a bit damaging to the character of Esmerelda, whose naïve and unshakable fait in a character who has fairly evidently not earned it seems surprisingly stupid for as practical a character as she had previously seemed. The story as a whole is engaging, though, and woven in among the architectural and urban elements to a degree which makes both neither the story nor the illumination of its setting drag.

It’s probably Hugo’s best work, and skillfully constructed. There’s a major revelation at the end which was probably supposed to be dramatic and worked for his audience, but was rather telegraphed from my point of view.

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

Breaking Away

[Screenshot]Breaking Away was recommended to me as pretty much the only feature film to really be about bicycling. There’s more than bicycling in there, though: it’s a classic coming-of-age story, as Dave (and to a lesser extent his friends) experiences graduation, disillusionment, romance, and determination; it’s an exposition on town-gown conflicts in university cities; and it weaving together these elements with a healthy dose of comedy.

It’s very feel-good, like many solo-sports films are, but it’s not rose-colored, and the generally straitened circumstances of the townies (or of the town as a whole) aren’t glossed over, and one gets a real sense of place from the iconic locations on campus and in the quarries. At some point in the next year, I’ll actually be heading up to Bloomington, and I expect it to be exactly as depicted in this film.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.