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: The Good Place

It took me a while to see the show despite the impressive people involved in its production but I’m now up to date and we can talk (with spoilers! if you don’t know the big twist and don’t want to, please don’t read on)

er-thegoodplace1The Good Place (season 1)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
It’s like that Sartre play No Exit, except bubbly, funny and colorful. (And this was a spoiler, of course.) A bunch of people end up in the afterlife, which turns out to be very different from what they expected, but against all odds they manage to evolve and build relationships. It’s created by Michael Shur, of Parks and Recreation fame, and Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, a truly awful person who learns to be not necessarily good, more like human.

How I found it:
I saw a trailer before it started and I really didn’t like it. I thought the jokes simplistic and couldn’t imagine how they would keep up the premise in any interesting way at all.

Summary judgment:
It surprised me! While it’s not as funny as Parks and Rec, it’s funny enough but, most of all, the ongoing arc turns out really interesting.

Best things about it:
It’s a smart show, with little ongoing jokes and meaningful background details. It’s got a consistent visual style that is pleasant to watch with the bright colors and the theatrical artifice. The actors are great and make you slowly learn to like the characters. But most of all, while it has a lot of funny ideas, it also manages to get you invested in the long-term story.

Worst things about it:
You really need to wait through the first two episodes or so to become invested in the characters because Eleonor is truly awful at first and impossible to root for. Luckily, the episodes are short and the whole thing quite breezy so in no time you find yourself excited about the developments.

Other pluses:
✤ It doesn’t fall flat on its not-that-exciting premise and finds new things to do with it. In this it differs from most “Status Quo Is God” sitcoms.
✤ It has so many quotable lines though I will need to re-watch it to cite anything specific.
✤ I enjoyed Adam Scott’s appearance so much, especially because he was so different from Ben. I hope to see more Parks and Rec alumni in the future.

Other minuses:
✤ Sometimes the philosophical part is a bit clunky, especially when the shows is trying (?) to teach the viewers about the studies of morality. But that didn’t really bother me, to be honest.
✤ Not all the characters work for me equally well. I’m not a fan of Jason’s because the idiot trope is one I don’t generally care for.

How it enriched my life:
It was fun to watch and made me think more than I ever did about the concept of frozen yoghurt.

Fun fact:
I knew the big twist that happens in the end of the season from the very beginning but it still didn’t affect my pleasure in watching. In fact, it mattered very little to know about “the bad place” and it might’ve made the whole thing less flat.

Follow-up:
I will watch season two with my husband, who got interested in the show after looking over my shoulder for a while and scoffing that I’m wasting time. And then we’ll probably re-watch the first season that he partly missed.

Recommended for:
People who still miss Veronica Mars and/or Parks and Recreation. People who like their eschatological ruminations kept light.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Loving Vincent, maybe

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons

er-iamcharlottesimmonsI Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Tom Wolfe takes on an American model of toxic masculinity as it shows itself in Ivy League colleges. Through the story of Charlotte Simmons, a prodigy from a small mountain town with a scholarship to Dupont, a fictional college, Wolfe examines the superficiality of college culture and its lack of moral grounding. He also makes a few jabs at college sports through a story of Jojo, a basketball star, and at fraternities through sociopathic Hoyt.

How I found it:
I probably liked the blurb because college stories are second best to high school stories in my world.

Summary judgment:
It didn’t bore me but didn’t particularly enrich my life either.

Best things about it:
It reads really well. I stayed curious as to what was going to happen and all the dramatic turns made me read greedily.
Also, with the quasi-scientific introduction and the first two chapters you think you know where the story is going and at first it feels like waiting for a train-wreck which really shouldn’t need so many pages. But that train-wreck never exactly happens and Wolfe manages to draw something more from the premise.

Worst things about it:
It’s true I am reading this book at a specific moment when toxic masculinity is very much a part of everyday’s discourse and that makes me focus entirely on this aspect of the novel. But with this laser-sharp focus I also notice that while Wolfe tells us that the vision of masculinity that his characters cherish doesn’t work, he doesn’t really give us any alternative or positive role models.
That ties in with the fact that you can’t root for any of the characters. In fact, the sociopathic frat boy, Hoyt, at least doesn’t vie for the reader’s sympathy at all and you feel good disliking him, while Charlotte and Adam, who should be more nuanced, seem maybe even more repelling in their superficiality and egotism.

Other pluses:
✤ Jojo is the only character I actually sort of liked but his progress remains somewhat mechanical and his storyline marginal to the main narrative.
✤ The campus seems like a real (albeit gloomy) place.
✤ Millenial Mutants works as a term.
✤ I learned a few new words from this book because it insists on choosing very sophisticated vocabulary.

Other minuses:
✤ However, the big words are used in all situations, without much differentiation and while they work fine in Charlotte’s or Adam’s stories, in other cases they sometimes sound false.
✤ I am so done with anti-heroes. I wish Charlotte had one good quality. One. (Other than the virginal status written apparently on her forehead so that everyone immediately saw it and fell in love.)
✤ I find it hard to believe that no students in top colleges show interest in anything other than clothes and sex. Call me an idealist.

How it enriched my life:
It introduced me to a new author and gave me a vision of college very different from either the one I know or the one I read about in other campus novels.

Fun fact:
One of the words I didn’t know was “cenacle.

Follow-up:
I’m sort of interested in Wolfe’s biggest novel, The Bonfire of Vanities, but with reservations because 1980s novels often put me off.

Recommended for:
People who want to tell themselves that it’s good they didn’t get into the Ivy League. Anyone who hates students and wants arguments why. People who want to read a soapy drama with a veneer of a serious book.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: The Good Place

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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 in 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 them 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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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

er-scottpilgrimScott Pilgrim vs. the World

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Based on a comic, this cult adaptation tells a story of a Canadian slacker Scott Pilgrim, who falls in love with mysterious Ramona Flowers and to win her heart has to battle her seven evil exes. The story uses a very characteristic visual language, calling back to arcade games and comics, and the whole thing looks like a love child of a blockbuster and an indie movie.

How I found it:
I sort of knew it existed but heard of it anew on one of the podcasts I follow and when our pop-culture-savvy friend A confirmed it was okay, we tried it.

Summary judgment:
This is a surprising little gem, unlike most things I ever watched.

Best things about it:
The visual choices make the movie quite original – and they both look good and add a whole layer to the humor of the movie. Little things like the pee bar and coins and big things like ingenious scene transitions more than make up for the banality of the story.

Worst things about it:
I have some problems with the representation of women. It’s not tragic but could use tweaking here and there.

Other pluses:
✤ Great cast full of big names playing small roles.
✤ Did I mention the visuals? Because it’s hard to stress them enough. One rarely finds such a consistent, fun, striking vision in a movie. I’m not usually one to prize looks over the story but here I am.
✤ So many quotable lines! I like Short answer: being vegan just makes you better than most people.
✤ I know I’m harping on the story a little bit because it’s so… insignificant, I guess, but it’s still enjoyable.

Other minuses:
If someone told me they found the movie unbearably trite and empty, I would certainly see where they came from. It wasn’t my experience of it though.

How it enriched my life:
Like so few movies do, it restored a bit of my faith in the modern cinematography. Apparently, it can still be fresh, even working within popular, colorful aesthetics.

Fun fact:
So Toronto doesn’t necessarily look all that exciting in this movie (kind of the point, I know) but it’s still very much on my shortlist of places I want to visit some time.

Follow-up:
I’m sure I will re-watch it more than once. I’ve also started reading the comics since then so stay tuned if it’s something you’re interested in.

Recommended for:
Geeks and geek-wannabes (there are those?). Gamers. Neo-punkrockers. Comic readers. People who seek originality in the movie industry.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Lost in Austen

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Rotten Tomatoes

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Penelope

The leaves are no longer green (except some still are) and the days are short. Halloween is over but Christmas is coming. It is Penelope season, guys. This movie gets some bad rep but for me, it’s one of my favorites. Let me tell you why.

er-penelopePenelope

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 2006 fairy tale starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy (before he was Xavier). Ricci plays Penelope, a girl born with a pig’s snout because of a family curse and only a marriage to a “blueblood” can lift the curse (or so the story goes). McAvoy plays a down-on-his-luck ex-piano player, who falls in love with Penelope, snout and all. However, as in any rom-com worth its salt, both need to do a lot of growing to deserve a happy ending.
Also, let’s get this out of the way: I heard this movie criticized as one that tells girls they have to be pretty to win a guy and that’s their whole job… this movie says just the opposite. Now, I’m not saying it’s deep and complex but this kind of shallow it isn’t.

How I found it:
I don’t even remember but it was quite random. I like re-watching it in fall.

Summary judgment:
You might have already inferred that I’m a big fan of Penelope.

Best things about it:
It’s a charming visual delight. Everything about the world of this movie is thought-out and designed, like in an old Tim Burton movie: take Penelope’s insane house, especially, but not only, her room and most other locations, even such minor ones as the hotel she’s staying in. Penelope’s clothes are another example. Everything is so stylized that it immediately codes the story as a fairy tale. I also like how out of time the whole world feels, with bits of technology from different periods. And if you’re a visual person at all I challenge you not to be seduced by the colors.
On top of how great it looks, the movie manages to tell a fun, optimistic story in a somewhat original way.

Worst things about it:
It’s not a very profound movie, of course, and if you’re a certain kind of person you will see it as simplistic. But personally I don’t mind.

Other pluses:
✤ I’m not that interested in McAvoy but he delights as Max/Johnnie, even despite the hair. But Peter Dinklage and Simon Woods also do a great job.
✤ Let’s talk the beauty thing. Of course, whenever a movie will choose to focus on its female character’s looks, it sets itself up as regressive. But that is still the reality that women are judged for their looks more than for anything else, even if they run for a freaking president, so why not tell a story with this premise? I used to make fun of how little of a problem the snout actually is on Christina Ricci but when you think about it, that’s the whole point. Women obsess over all kinds of little problems in the way they look so it actually makes more sense than if she looked like a real monster. And in the end the movie makes it clear that there was nothing wrong with her appearance in the first place. I wouldn’t even spend so much time writing about it except I saw many negative reviews focused on the very issue.

Other minuses:
Witherspoon’s character is fun but possibly more could be done with her. Other than that, I’m coming up empty.

How it enriched my life:
It gives me a warm feeling and makes me smile every time I watch it. It is also one of too few things that make me look forward to fall.

Follow-up:
See you next fall, Penelope.

Recommended for:
Fans of romantic comedies with a slight twist, people still in touch with their inner child and those who like to look at pretty moving pictures.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: Scott Pilgrim, the movie

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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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