Show Case

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The Americans

Another brilliant show that ended not long ago (and I only recently caught up with the final seasons):

er-theamericansThe Americans (S1–6)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A period drama, happening in Washington of 1980s, it focuses on a pair of KGB agents working under the disguise of a typical American married couple. The show focuses on the question of lies and deception, imagining the mentality of people whose entire life is a facade and what happens when this facade begins to crumble. Also, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes spy stuff, if that’s more your jam.

How I found it:
When it first aired, I saw a trailer and found it interesting – though it was a trailer for an entirely different show, a sort of action-packed satire and not this existential psychological drama that we were eventually graced with. So I’m glad both that the trailer got me interested in the show and that it misrepresented it.

Summary judgment:
That might be the most thought-provoking, truly adult show I have seen in recent years.

Best things about it:
No show ever has made me and my husband discuss it as much as this one. We would pause the show to vent our emotions about the story and the characters and we would carry the conversations after we finished watching, analyzing the motives and illusions of the protagonists. Of course, being from Central Europe, we can’t look at KGB as a stock action-drama Agency but we have a more visceral reaction to the issue.
The show’s focus on the inner drama of the characters: their psychological motivations and limits, their humanity (or its lack sometimes) catapults the show so, so far away from any James Bond-nonsense that the theme might suggest.

Worst things about it:
Sometimes, rarely enough, the show will veer into more action-packed Cold War thriller one might expect (particularly badly in season four) and while this would be fully acceptable and maybe even enjoyable somewhere else, on The Americans it feels like a wasted opportunity for further moral explorations.

Other pluses:
✤ What I said so far will probably sound to some of you very much as anti-praise and a recipe for a perfectly boring show, sort of Bergman about Russian spies. But that would not take into account how tight most of the story is and how invested one feels in the plotlines.
✤ Matthew Rhys as Philip is breathtaking. He creates such a nuanced, heartbreaking performance that you want to hug him, shake him and slap him, sometimes in the same scene. But mostly you just keep rooting for him to do the right thing.
✤ Most of the other performances are also very convincing and memorable.
✤ Perhaps most importantly this is such a smart show. It never tells you too much, at the risk of confusing you or allowing for different, conflicting interpretations of the characters’ motives and feelings. Instead, it allows you to draw your own conclusions.
✤ The 1980s work in this vision – the period feels lived-in not caricatural, as it is often shown. I read that the producers had to limit the 1980s fashion so as not to make it distracting and in the first season I was a bit surprised to see this visually calmer version of the 80s but then I really got used to it. Also, the show has a distinctive visual style, with the muted color palettes (so much brown).

Other minuses:
✤ Keri Russell as Elizabeth does not, unfortunately, rise to Rhys’s standard (but calling this tour de force “standard” is probably unfair) and her character for most of the series is odious in her blind devotion to a child’s notion of communism.
✤ That’s not a minus exactly but the show does not give a lot of historical background for its political plots. I wonder if people from other areas of the world realize just how bad Philip and Elizabeth’s employers are. But again, it’s part of the smartness of the show, letting you figure things out for yourself.

How it enriched my life:
I rarely watch shows with such excitement and so many emotions about whatever’s going on. This was also a bonding experience for me and my husband because of all the discussions it provoked.

Fun fact:
Philip and Elizabeth constantly wear disguises and most of them are unbelievably silly. You would think they couldn’t possibly work but then again I have no idea how people are ever able to describe anyone to the sketch artist so they would certainly work on me. (Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to accurately describe things like the chin or nose of my closest friends from memory.)

Follow-up:
We had a huge break between seasons 3 and 4 so not everything happening was crystal clear and this is a great reason for a re-watch some time in the future. Also, I’m possibly there for Matthew Rhys’s next project (unless it’s something awful).

Recommended for:
People looking for a smarter kind of show.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The 50 States

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Wonder Woman

Here’s another movie I’m watching a bit after the raving has finished.

er-wonderwomanWonder Woman

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
DC’s attempt (somewhat successful, even if not from my point of view) at catching up to MCU. It shows the origin of Diana, aka Wonder Woman, a lasso-wielding, short-dressed Amazon who comes to regular, non-mythic Earth to help solve WW1.

How I found it:
For a while it was all the rage, remember?

Summary judgment:
I expected to dislike this film but for different reasons (or fewer reasons) than I eventually did.

Best things about it:
We watched it during a long train ride and it lasted about 6 hours like the ride itself so we had something to occupy the time without feeling like we’re wasting a good movie on that.

Worst things about it:
I don’t like war movies and that’s why it took me a while to watch this one, even though everyone was raving about the feminism of this film, which should’ve been enough to pick my interest. Well, the war part wasn’t the worst part. In fact, what I disliked most was the predictability of the plot, as if the script was written by a complete beginner. I knew the “twist” from the first line the actual Ares spoke (if it sounds like bragging, you have no idea how transparent that “twist” is) and the “mystery” of Diana’s origin is equally easy to figure out from a thing she says super early on. Additionally, the movie bored the hell out of me: once she gets to the front line there’s absolutely no reason to keep watching.

Other pluses:
✤ Kid Diana was adorable.
✤ Diana’s arrival to London and her meeting with the new team were the least awful parts of the movie – which the producers fully knew because they filled most of the trailer with these scenes.

Other minuses:
✤ Where’s the feminism? I’m glad they let a woman direct a superhero movie but that’s not enough. There was nothing in this story that wouldn’t work with Captain America in Diana’s place: he would also opt to save the village and feel sorry for the children and probably even didn’t like the way people treated women.
✤ I’m sure Gadot is a lovely person and what not but I found nothing charismatic or convincing about her performance. She still mostly functioned as eye candy and the creators of the movie didn’t make any interesting choices about her character (like at least updating her costume). What’s revolutionary about her ability to kick ass? Literally every other well-known female superhero can do that.
✤ A mandatory action scene complaint: this time I hated how prolonged and full of pathos they were. Seriously, with the slow motion. Apparently it’s something characteristic of DC? I don’t like it.
✤ I wish they came up with a more interesting visual language for the mythical island. Look at what Black Panther did: they also didn’t have a very interesting story to tell (they didn’t) but the visual style with which they told it! Wonder Woman just has a lot of obvious choices and wasted potential.

How it enriched my life:
It helped us pass a train ride. And it re-convinced me I’ve got nothing to look for in the DC movie universe.

Follow-up:
For now I’m not interested in anything else from this franchise but I’ll probably be misled again in the future.

Recommended for:
Personally, I don’t know, but judging by the enthusiastic reviews this movie got, I’m sure there are many people who enjoyed and will enjoy this. Good for them.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Fun Home

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Hide Me Among the Graves

Sometimes my book finds are so random that for a while I don’t even know what I’m reading.

er-hidemeamongthegravesHide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A vampiric gothic story taking place in Victorian London. Vampires (known as Nephilim here) are prehistoric creatures trying to demolish London with the help of the Rossetti siblings, of all people, and some lesser known poets. This is also a second part in a series, which I didn’t know until later (but it didn’t seem to matter a lot).

How I found it:
Actually, I had it on my to-read list but forgot what kind of book it was and got it mixed up with something more serious. So while reading the prologue I was all set to reading Serious Literature (and actually the writing didn’t set me straight for a while, so good for Powers, I guess) and it was only later that I realized “Wait a minute, it’s vampires in Victorian London, not Big Issues.”

Summary judgment:
For the genre it’s impressively ambitious, if not exactly exciting to read.

Best things about it:
It paints the period quite well and focuses on building the gothic atmosphere, rather than on simple horrorific scares or fantasy adventures. The characters are written carefully, with a lot of attention given to their motivations and dilemmas and the vampires do not turn out to be your usual dark, broody gentlemen.

Worst things about it:
For all its pluses, it remains a bit heavy with all the attention paid to descriptions. It takes quite a lot of reader’s concentration but doesn’t necessarily pay off with such an intricate story that would explain the plethora of details.

Other pluses:
✤ The (literal) underworld of London is memorable and carefully imagined.
✤ If you’re like me, you might enjoy the facts taken from actual history, like the exhumation of Rossetti’s wife and how it becomes a part of the plot.

Other minuses:
✤ At times it becomes repetitive, adding to the great length of the book. Of course, the length is relative to its contents: I read longer books without feeling their wordiness but here I had the sense that the novel would gain much from shortening.
✤ It kept me wondering about the morality of using real people (even if long dead) for this kind of story. Neither Rossetti nor Swinburne are drawn in a very flattering way and while they had their faults, consorting with vampires probably didn’t count among them.

How it enriched my life:
Despite its slowness I enjoyed the book well enough.

Fun fact:
There was a time when I loved Rossetti’s paintings (and I still find them very pleasing) from the moment when I saw a picture in my high school literature book.

Follow-up:
I might give Powers another chance because while this book didn’t necessarily charm me (despite all the ingredients for something to delight me specifically), I appreciate his strengths as a writer, particularly the vividness of his imagination.

Recommended for:
People who enjoy their fantasy slow and historical, with romances and shootouts replaced with character studies and literary references.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: The Tick (Also, if you’re confused about the current scheduling – are you though? – for now we’re down to a weekly review, with Saturday posts on hiatus.)

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Loving Vincent

er-lovingvincentLoving Vincent

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A bold animation experiment by a Polish artist Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, it tells the story of an attempt to discover the reasons for the death of Vincent van Gogh, undertaken a year later by his casual acquaintance. The movie uses oil painting combined with more typical animation and regular live acting in a truly impressive way, pushing forward the formal limits of animation. Van Gogh’s paintings come to life, the people he painted begin to inhabit his own story and the viewer follows an investigatory journey into his last days. Or you can think of it as of a painted, animated version of that Don McLean song (whose cover, appropriately, is used during the credits).

How I found it:
I saw some sort of trailer when it was being made and thought it a somewhat interesting idea and then my friend A asked me to go with her to see it.

Summary judgment:
Whether you like van Gogh or not (I’m not a fan) this is a chapeau-bas impressive work of art – and of love, which shows.

Best things about it:
I’m really impressed with the guts and patience it took to undertake the whole endeavor, and no less with the fact that it worked. Not only does the movie look great and employs actual paintings by van Gogh in an intelligent way – the story also keeps you interested. It manages to recreate the atmosphere of the places where van Gogh lived in France and to breathe life into the people he immortalized in his portraits. The colors live on the screen and I loved focusing on the thick texture in some of the backgrounds. This technique works particularly well for the images of nature.

Worst things about it:
I said already, I think, that I don’t like criticizing things that are obviously labors of love because I know what it feels like to become so obsessed with a creative idea that you push through just to see it done and, frankly, we could always use more of those. So I’ll just put some minor stuff in “Minuses” but mostly I’m writing to express my admiration.

Other pluses:
✤ The colors and how they are used to create the mood of the scenes. You can see what the light must have looked like for the characters.
✤ It’s quite a feat of both the screenwriters and the actors that even the minor characters are lively and memorable, particularly those in Auvers. You also become quite involved in the very mystery of what happened.

Other minuses:
✤ You need to get used to the vibration that stop-motion animation brings: sometimes the screen seems to twitch before your eyes.
✤ The style is slightly uneven in that in some scenes the actors seem to push through the paintings’ layer more than in others. But I do realize that with an experimental technique like this one, there are no conventions the viewers are used to so everything, both good and bad, becomes more visible.
✤ Probably the storytelling might be called sentimental. I don’t mind so much but I imagine some people I know that would cringe so hard at that. Basically, if you like “Starry Night” the song, you won’t mind this either because the tone is similar.
✤ I guess the biggest thing for me personally is that most of van Gogh’s paintings don’t speak to me on an emotional or aesthetic level (and so I actually preferred their animated versions to the originals). A movie in which e.g. Corot’s paintings come to life, that I would love to see even more.

How it enriched my life:
It interested and impressed me, both on a narrative and technical level.

Fun fact:
At the end of the movie as people where getting up you could hear muffled sniffling in the theater.

Follow-up:
I will be interested in seeing it again, at least to pay even more attention to how the whole thing is done. It’s also definitely worth seeing some sort of making-of movie about.

Recommended for:
Painting and animation lovers. Anyone fascinated by van Gogh’s legend or even just by the whole “tragic artist” myth.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Stranger Things

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Lost in Austen

In this year that unexpectedly seems to happen under the banner of Pride and Prejudice, here’s another thing for (non-orthodox) fans of the book, a miniseries called

er-lostinaustenLost in Austen

Category: TV shows

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 2008 4-part miniseries about Amanda Price, a lover of Pride and Prejudice, who discovers the door to the Bennets’ house in her own bathroom (yep) and changes places with Elizabeth. While Amanda tries to save the story she loves, she’s doing a perplexingly bad job of it and changes everybody’s fate, including her own. (She marries Darcy, guys – spoiler.)

How I found it:
I don’t remember. I watched it for the first time many years ago, sick in bed, if I recall.

Summary judgment:
I can see why it rubs some Austen fans the wrong way but I enjoy it: it’s modern and cheeky.

Best things about it:
It captures some of the magic of the original, while remaining quite irreverent. It reinterprets all the characters, giving them different motivations and it also looks good. And it’s simply fun to watch.

Worst things about it:
There is actually only one thing that doesn’t work for me in the story: Amanda. For someone who obsessively re-reads Pride and Prejudice she seems inexplicably unaware of the taboos of Regency society (or, really, any pre-modern society) and insists on behaving in a vulgar way. The way she looks doesn’t help: I wish she had slightly more natural hair and didn’t wear make-up when living with the Bennets (how does she even do that?). It’s hard to suspend disbelief and understand how someone who must look like a prostitute to the locals would be received in society.
And you know, I see the attraction of clashing Austenian society with someone who brings with her twentieth-century values, maybe even showing Amanda that her idealization of Elizabeth’s world was excessive… But for all of that to work Amanda would have to be smarter and subtler. It seems like a wasted opportunity.

Other pluses:
Wickham as a decent person, Caroline as a lesbian, Mrs. Bennet as someone much more skilled at the game of husband-hunting… I like all these tweaks. I even like Lizzie as a modern woman.

Other minuses:
✤ While I like most of the ideas for changes in the characters, I can’t get behind this Darcy. Yes, he looks fine, except for the bad wig. He looks even finer in the wet shirt. But what a mess he is! I don’t understand his sudden attraction to the vulgar girl who comes out of nowhere – it’s as if he preferred Lydia to Lizzie in the book. Most of his decisions make no sense and the love affair seems to happen only because it needs to in every proper fan fiction ever, which this show is, after all.
✤ On that note, everything could have been salvaged with another ending: Amanda chooses Wickham or even to return to her world. But this forced “will they, won’t they” culminating in a weird marriage didn’t work for me.

How it enriched my life:
It’s an entertaining piece of entertainment to entertain one and it also makes me think whether I’d do any better in Regency England but I would probably be too horrified at the lack of dental hygiene. Also, I can’t curtsy, let alone ballroom-dance.

Fun fact:
So yes, I didn’t know people used to rub chalk across their teeth to clean them and whatever else Amanda was brought. Though I do know other things people used (or still use), including salt, baking soda and some kinds of tree twigs. History of hygiene is a fascinating subject, actually, and reveals how much stuff we take for granted though we shouldn’t.

Follow-up:
I will probably re-watch this show some time because it’s fun. I would also watch any similar thing though it would likely disappoint me.

Recommended for:
Jane Austen fans who are not too hung up on the original. People who didn’t read the book at all but think it’s a funny concept to transport a modern character into a book.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Speaking of books, I Am Charlotte Simmons

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Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

If you wondered why there’ve been no book reviews for a while (you weren’t, were you), it’s because one book took all my reading time:

er-jonathanstrangeandmrnorrellJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Clarke’s debut from 2004, a massive novel and, quite possibly, a masterpiece. In three volumes it tells the story of two magicians destined to bring back English magic who take up the task during the Napoleonic wars. It’s alternative history at its best, with the style resembling the classics of 19th-century English novels and the tempo I can only describe as gentlemanly. If there ever was fantasy for adults, this is it (and not a single sex scene in this one, it’s not what I meant).

How I found it:
This was actually my second meeting with the book. First time I found it in a library soon after it was published – and I only finished the first volume. Apparently, as my notes tell me, I found the tone jarring but I suspect it must have been the translation. I’m certainly glad I gave it another try.

Summary judgment:
What a lovely beauty this one is, and unlike anything else I know. Also, definitely my favorite read of the year so far.

Best things about it:
It’s complex. It’s impressive. It knows exactly what it wants to be and adeptly goes about it. The portrayal of the two magicians is magnificent, both in their strengths and weaknesses. I rooted for Strange because he was so likeable but I really understood Norrell (who was anything but) and in the moment when, against his character, Norrell takes Strange on as a student, I realized the book was more than I’d expected.

Worst things about it:
There’s only one thing: I read it for two months (honestly, it’s embarrassing) and it completely ruined my reading statistics for the year. Yes, it’s a long book (and I don’t have nearly enough time for reading these days). But then again, when it’s over you wish it was longer.

Other pluses:
✤ I like the idea of fairies as borderline mad by human standards. The whole supernatural part of the book is so poetic and convincing.
✤ The footnotes work great. I read that some people didn’t like the idea but it’s the right touch and I loved all the semi-historical, semi-anecdotal stories they tell.
✤ The pastiche feels just right to me: not a direct copy of older novels’ style, more of a reverential nod.

Other minuses:
I’m good. No complaints.

How it enriched my life:
It delighted me so much. It shows the value that a slightly older debutante writer brings into their work. It inspires all sorts of Victorian fantasies.

Fun fact:
Yes, I do have reading statistics. They got less impressive in the last two years though.

Follow-up:
I am re-reading this one for sure. Now that I know the story I will be able to focus on closer reading and I’m sure it will reveal many interesting things I overlooked. There’s only one more book by Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I’m going to read that one too. I wish there were more though.

Recommended for:
Me. Or, more precisely, anyone who’s into similar stuff, like Regency/Victorian literature, fantasy, postmodern twists on literary classics… Also, if it’s you, give me a call and let’s hang out.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The wonder of Penelope

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Dangerous Liaisons

It’s time for a classic adaptation of an even more classic book,

er-dangerousliaisonsDangerous Liaisons 

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
An adaptation of an 18th-century epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos. It tells a story of the corrupt aristocratic elite and their immoral sexual lives. It focuses on the corruptest of the corrupt: Madame Merteuil and viscount de Valmont, who run the game – until they don’t. The movie was made in 1988 and stars pretty much only stars, including Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, young Uma Thurman and very young Keanu Reeves – all of them outshined by John Malkovich as Valmont.

How I found it:
Well, it’s one of the classics. You don’t really have to look for those. The first time I saw it, probably in high school, it was on TV. This time I watched it after Cruel Intentions to compare the two movies.

Summary judgment:
It’s one of my favorite adaptations, managing not to ruin the book – which is great – at all.

Best things about it:
It captures the book perfectly, even managing to manoeuver around its epistolarity, which is never a good thing for a movie. The movie looks great, with the costumes and the interiors building the lavish, outlandish world of the 18th-century French aristocracy. The actors, unsurprisingly, deliver amazing performances, managing to be both dramatic and funny, when needed.
Malkovich deserves an entirely separate paragraph in this. When I watched the movie for the first time, he surprised me with his sex appeal, despite his looks. But this time I was more impressed with how sinister he is and how every sentence he says reminds the viewer that Valmont is acting all the time: all his lines are declamations.

Worst things about it:
That is hardly the movie’s fault but it’s very difficult to root for any of the protagonists. This is only an actual problem with Pfeiffer, whose character starts as an irritating prig and ends as an irritating doormat, while she should make us feel sorry for her.

Other pluses:
✤ Glenn Close. Malkovich gets perhaps a more showy part and manages to steal the show sometimes but they play off each other beautifully. The Marquise impersonates hypocrisy and deception but still remains a human being, even with a thin layer of feminism somewhere there. Her failure at the end (spoiler?) does not feel entirely triumphant for the viewer.
✤ Keanu Reeves. He comes as close as the movie has to a likeable character, even if he remains in the background.

Other minuses:
The ending leaves a bit to desire, with the somewhat heavy-handed montage and Valmont’s theatrical death (spoiler?).

How it enriched my life:
This is undoubtedly where great cinema meets viewers’ actual enjoyment and there are way too few such movies.

Fun fact:
Is it possible to watch this story or read the book and not wonder how many characters had syphilis? I’m betting all of them.

Follow-up:
I will probably re-watch it but now I feel I should return to my snaily read of the book in French, which I started a few years ago and then dropped because life.

Recommended for:
People who like period dramas and large décolletages. Fans of the original. Lovers of Rococo. Cynics with ideals still there at the bottom of their hearts.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Cruel Intentions

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