Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)


Title: Synecdoche, New York
Release Date: October 24, 2008
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Production Company: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment | Likely Story | Projective Testing Service | Russia Inc.
Summary/Review:

When you watch a Charlie Kaufman film, you know things are going to get weird.  This was the first film Kaufman directed as well as wrote after writing the screenplays for movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life begins to crumble after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him taking their young daughter.  Not only does Caden suffer various physical ailments but he becomes obsessed with staging a large-scale dramatic work inside a massive warehouse.

Caden isn’t a very appealing person but seems to attract the attention of a lot of attractive younger women (male writer’s fantasy?)  Hazel (Samantha Morton) is a woman who works and the theater and lives in a burning house who is attracted to Caden and becomes kind of a lifelong companion.  But Caden actually marries the actress Claire (Michelle Williams).  Then he hooks up with Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel. Finally, Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest) takes over playing Caden and directing the play.

If that sounds confusing, the whole play becomes a simulacrum of Caden’s life with the actors and real life figures commenting on and interacting with the actors.  And yes, then they need to get actors to play the actors.  I get what Kaufman is doing here, reflecting on the meaning of life and mortality, but the film can get tedious and disturbing.  Then again life – and death – can be tedious and disturbing.  Roger Ebert recommended watching this movie multiple times.  Maybe I’ll return to this film, but I find on my first viewing of Synecdoche, New York that I veer between finding it profound and finding it pretentious.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004


Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Release Date: March 19, 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Production Company: Anonymous Content | This is That
Summary/Review:

The premise of this film is made clear in the trailer: After ending their troubled relationship, Clementine (Kate Winslet) uses a service provided by a company called Lacuna to erase all memories she has of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey).  When Joel discovers what she’s done, he decides to erase her from his memory as well.  The brilliance of the movie is that knowing this does not spoil the movie, and in fact the opening scenes defy the moviegoer’s expectations.  In fact, the movie plays with chronology to support the central idea of memory being lost. It all works in visually presenting a metaphor of how the mind works while Joel’s experience makes him realize that memories, even the bad ones, are what defines him.

Carrey and Winslet are great in their roles and their performance captures both the little things that are great about a romantic relationship as well as the little irritants that can build up and cause a relationship to fail.  The typically manic Carrey is reserved, even introverted as Joel, but even as the film’s straight man his comic instincts are well served, especially when he has to play his character as a child.

The supporting cast is mainly the crew of Lacuna who turn out to be a messed-up and unprofessional bunch.  Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo) is the technician assigned to erasing Joel’s memory who uses the time to invite his girlfriend and Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over for marijuana and sex.  Mary meanwhile has a crush on Lacuna’s director Dr. Howard  Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has skeletons in his own closet.  And Patrick (Elijah Wood) is the creepiest of all, using knowledge gained from the procedure to pursue women.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I revisited it after many years. Bonus points for having significant scenes set on the frozen Charles River.

Rating: *****

Book Review: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Last Olympian: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5
Publication Info: New York : Disney/Hyperion Books, 2011.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorThe Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s CurseThe Battle of the Labyrinth
Summary/Review:

The final book of the series leads to the culminating battle to save Olympus from the Titans in the streets of Manhattan. The book builds well to get to that point with a natural ebb and flow in the narrative between fightin’ and more contemplative stuff. Themes that have been building across all five books play out hre and Percy, Thalia, Grover, Annabeth, Tyson, Clarisse, and Nico all show great character development.  I particularly like how Percy plays his reward from the gods.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Battle of the Labyrinth: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4
Narrator: Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: [New York] : Listening Library, 2008.

Previously Read by the Same AuthorThe Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse
Summary/Review:

The Battle of the Labyrinth is another great quest story, this time primarily underground in the mysterious labyrinthe.  Annabeth leads the quest with Grover, Percy, and Tyson with an angry and dangerous Nico playing a part as well.  The book is well constructed as each characters has a role to play that leads to a specific goal.  The war with the Titans begins in earnest with a battle at Camp Half-Blood that concludes the novel.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Titan’s Curse: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3
Narrator: Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: New York : Random House/Listening Library, [2007]

Previously Read by the Same AuthorThe Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters 
Summary/Review:

Book 3 of the series once again features a coast-to-coast quest (literally Bar Harbor, Maine to the Bay Area of California) as Percy Jackson seeks to find his friend Annabeth and the goddess Artemis.  The book introduces half-bloods Nico and Bianca di Angelo, features Zeus’ daughter Thalia for the first time, and brings in Zoë Nightshade and the Hunters of Artemis.  All of these characters will be significant to the course of the narrative in the ensuing novels.  But I feel The Titan’s Curse doesn’t work as well as a stand-alone adventure and feels a bit formulaic.  It’s still clever and fun, though.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title:The Sea of Monsters: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2
Narrator: Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: [New York, N.Y.] : Listening Library, 2006.
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Lightning Thief
Summary/Review:

The second book of ancient Greek mythology adapted as American teenager adventure and drama is just as it’s fun as its predecessor.  In this book, Percy and his friends have to travel to the Sea of Monsters (now in the Bermuda Triangle) to rescue Grover and find the Golden Fleece.  Adventures include dodgeball with cannibal giants, a ship full of dead Confederates, escaping Circe with the help of Blackbeard’s pirates, and Grover trying to escape marrying the cyclops Polyphemus.  This book also introduces the dim but brave and kind Tyson, one of my favorite characters in the series.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan


Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1
Narrator: Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: Listening Library (2005)
Summary/Review:

Percy Jackson is a troubled preteen whose life is turned upside down when he learns that not only are the pantheon of Greek gods are real, but that he is a demigod (or Half-Blood).  The premise is similar to the Harry Potter series but Riordan comes up with some creative adventures and clever worldbuilding.  This is also my daughter’s new favorite series.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Sophie’s Choice (1982)


Title: Sophie’s Choice
Release Date: December 10, 1982
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Keith Barish Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Sophie’s Choice many years ago and then read William Styron’s novel and loved them both. So I was happy to revisit this movie. It’s the story of a young aspiring writer, nicknamed Stingo (Peter MacNicol playing a character much like Styron), who moves from the South to Brooklyn. At his rooming house he meets and befriends the tempestuous couple upstairs of Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline).

While Stingo sees Sophie and Nathan as glamorous, they each have dark secrets. Sophie survived the Holocaust in Poland and over the course of the film reveals her shame over her actions there in long flashbacks. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic which manifests in extreme jealousy and abuse of Sophie. Most heartbreaking is that Sophie, because of her guilt over the past, seems to believe she deserves the abuse. The story ultimately leads to tragedy.

I remember watching this movie the first time and being utterly charmed by Nathan in his early scenes. This time I was more weary because I knew he was an abuser and it the patterns of abuse were more clear to see. Oddly enough, Kline’s portrayal of Nathan is very similar to his portrayal of Otto in the later film A Fish Called Wanda. We can laugh at Otto because he’s in a comedy, but since Nathan is in a drama, he is terrifying.

Meryl Streep’s performance is excellent, of course. She does a great job of portraying a person inexperienced with speaking English as well as the nuances of someone dealing with trauma. I was surprised that MacNicol portrays Stingo since it is very different from his later roles in things like Ghostbusters II and Ally McBeal. The one thing that bugs me about this movie is that when Stingo and Sophie have sex, Stingo narrates it like he’s in a frat boy comedy and he just made a great conquest. It really jars against the tone of the film and makes me wonder if Stingo learned anything from his experience.


Rating: ****

Photopost: Cooperstown


My son and I took an overnight trip during spring break to Cooperstown to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  This is my fourth trip to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame.  I have mixed feelings about Cooperstown.  On the one hand, Cooperstown is an absolutely gorgeous village and its fun to drive the winding roads through scenic farmland to get to the town and its excellent museums.  On the other hands, the story of baseball being invented in Cooperstown is completely fabricated, and places with much better claims on being the place where baseball was invented in New York City, New Jersey, and New England would be a lot easier to get to for most visitors.  Cooperstown needs the Hall of Fame more than the Hall of Fame needs Cooperstown.

That being said we had a great time walking through the town that was largely empty of people, visiting the baseball memorabilia stores, and taking in the exhibits at the Hall of Fame.  I took a lot of photographs including the plaques of all my favorite Hall of Famers and posted them in this web album.

A stately church building.

A cheerful yellow house.

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League uniforms.

The hats worn by Nolan Ryan for each of his no-hitters.

Statue of Ted Williams.

The Phillie Phanatic trapped in a glass box.

Peter pays due reverences to the 2018 World Series Champion Red Sox exhibit.

 

Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto


AuthorRussell Shorto
Title:The Island at the Center of the World
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2004.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Summary/Review:

Shorto composes a brief, popular history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, specifically focusing on the settlement on Manhattan island.  He contends that the Dutch colony is often overlooked in American history and what is known about it is generally based on English sources that downplay the significance of the Dutch. A decades-long project to translate and publish Dutch records in the state archives at Albany has opened a new understanding of the times when “old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him.  Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored.  Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York.  He’s remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.

Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States.  Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2