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Archive for the ‘Books’

Weekly Report Card 10: An upteenth movie reboot, and a truly original novel

March 18, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 1 Comment →


Movie: Kong: Skull Island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ reboot of King Kong is not bad—it’s an entertaining way to pass two hours plus, and the monsters are properly monstrous. Samuel Jackson is just parodying himself now—I guess he’ll only bring it for Quentin Tarantino—but the extended hommage to Apocalypse Now is amusing, down to the name of the ex-SAS tracker played by Tom Hiddleston (Conrad). The Marlon Brando-Kurtz character is divided between Jackson who does menacing bonkers and John C. Reilly, who lives with the locals and does benign bonkers. All fine actors, as is Oscar-winning Brie Larson, but the best actor in the movie is Kong, motion capture work by Toby Kebbell. He wins the macho power pose-off paws down. (Kebbell, a memorable Koba in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is the heir apparent to Andy Serkis’s mocap throne.)

But as those of us who dutifully sat through the end credits were reminded, Kong: Skull Island is the beginning of yet another franchise—I gather Mothra and King Ghidorah are in our moviegoing future. This upteenth reboot was not necessary, it’s just business. The 1933 original by Cooper and Schoedsack is still the essential version, though I have a special fondness for the King Kong remake of my childhood starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Lange was so fabulous, as my friend Raul puts it: “Sana ako na lang ang kinidnap ng unggoy.”


Book: Autumn by Ali Smith

A very old man wakes up, thinks he is in the afterlife, finds his body is young again. A woman tries to get her passport renewed, is told her head in the photo is the wrong size. When she was a child she was great friends with the old man, who lived next door and collected “arty art”. Now he lives in a hospice, where he is expected to die, and she visits him regularly and reads to him. The Brexit vote has just happened, and a pall has descended over the land.

These are some of the elements of Ali Smith’s latest novel, part of a series on the seasons. It’s been called the first great Brexit novel, and it captures the queasy aftermath of that event but is so much more. Like her previous novel How To Be Both, Autumn is about time itself. It’s astounding. Every other page there’s a paragraph, a turn of phrase that seems to open up a portal to another place, another era. It’s time travel disguised as a novel. I love it. I would work for free as Ali Smith’s typist, just to read her work before everyone else does.

Weekly Report Card 9: True story movies and The Smiths of contemporary lit, Zadie and Ali

March 13, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 4 Comments →


Natalie Portman in Jackie

Movies I’ve seen in the past month

Logan – A (See review)

American Pastoral – D. For his directorial debut Ewan McGregor had the nerve to adapt a Philip Roth novel, but not the grasp of Roth’s fury or the chops to do the material justice. Devoid of Roth-ness, American Pastoral is a family melodrama that could’ve happened anywhere at anytime. The usually luminous Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning come off as shrill, and Ewan is his charming self, but empty.

Denial – C. The real-life case of an American historian (Rachel Weisz) who takes on a Holocaust denier (Timothy Spall, who can go from repulsive to almost sympathetic in a snap) is rendered as an earnest TV movie of the week, and by TV I mean pre-21st century television, before TV took over from movies as the primary medium of the visual storyteller. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott are the lawyers who counsel the historian not to speak at her own trial as it would legitimize the denier’s lies. Or as they are called today by the White House, alternative facts.

Loving – B. Another factual case: In the 1960s the interracial Mr and Mrs Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) break the state of Virginia’s law against mixed marriages and their case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Like Hidden Figures, Loving reminds us of how recently the civil rights movement happened, and how quickly its gains might be undone by a lunatic on Twitter.


Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving.

Jackie – A-. When Natalie Portman opens her mouth and that breathy baby voice with the strange enunciation comes out it’s unnerving, but a quick trip to YouTube will show that that is exactly how Jackie Kennedy spoke. Driven by Portman’s awesome technical achievement, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is the story of a woman underestimated by everyone, who at the worst time of her life demonstrates that she understands better than anyone how history is made.


Book: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Like her more experimental previous novel NW, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time follows kids who grow up on a council estate in London and make their way in the world. This time the kids are two girls who meet in dance class. One can really dance and makes it to the chorus line; the other becomes a personal assistant to a hysterically famous pop diva who decides to use her money and influence to do good in Africa. Swing Time is a riveting, insightful and often moving study of female friendship through the lenses of race, education and money. It hits all the hot topics of the moment: feminism, cultural appropriation, pop stars trying to change the world, and makes them intimate and personal. If literature’s job is to explain us to ourselves, Smith does it beautifully.


This week’s reading: Autumn by Ali Smith

Logan is Wolverine unleashed on the big screen for real, for the first time

March 06, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

The more I read about how bleak and wonderful Logan is, the more I put off watching it. Was I ready to see an old, weakened, weary Wolverine scraping by as a limo driver? Or worse, an old, fragile Professor Xavier with dementia? Or a broken-down world of the near future where the other X-Men are dead and institutions are at the beck and call of evil corporations? Dammit, why is pop culture so political now that even popcorn movies remind us of the mess we’re in? Whatever happened to escapist feelgood movies where all we had to worry about was whether A would get together with B—oh right, we don’t want to watch those because most of them are idiotic.

But I couldn’t not see Logan. And as I sat there watching Hugh Jackman, even ropier than usual, in the role that he has embodied so well in ten movies, many of which did not deserve him; the great Patrick Stewart as King Lear as Prof. X; Stephen Merchant as Caliban, illustrating my belief that if you want to get the job done exactly right, cast a comedian; and the mostly silent but brilliantly expressive Dafne Keen as young Laura, I thought: Why should we be so upset that our superheroes have grown old? We’re older—it’s seventeen years since the first X-Men movie with Stewart and Jackman. Everybody grows old. Age and death will get us all, but as Logan demonstrates we can tell age and death to go fuck themselves.

Logan is Wolverine unleashed onscreen for the first time, the Wolverine of the best timelines in the comics—ill-tempered, brutal, unwilling to join the fight but doing the right thing anyway. And paying for it—he may regenerate, but he feels all the pain. James Mangold’s superhero western, with its homage to Shane, left me exhausted but exhilarated. The good guys may be in hiding, on the run, isolated and mocked, but they’re around and they will do what they must.

Plus I really like the explanation of how the mutation is manifested in the female.

Don’t take your kids to see Logan, no matter how they insist. This X-Men movie is for you. If you grew up in the peak Chris Claremont era of X-Men, it may feel like the end of your (over-long) childhood. You are your own mutant now.

Weekly Report Card 8: Hidden Figures remembers, Modiano forgets (again)

March 05, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 1 Comment →

Movie: Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi

Hidden Figures is the rousing true story of three African-American women (played with maximum warmth and badassery by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) who were vital to the success of NASA’s programs at the height of the space race, who did their jobs at a time when racism was the law in the United States. At a time when reality has come to mirror dystopian YA narratives, I think Hidden Figures should be shown to all schoolchildren. The future is full of possibilities, kids, no matter what the grown-ups say.

This is the kind of movie that makes you regret not paying attention to your math teachers. “If only I’d put in the effort instead of having out of body experiences in pre-calculus,” I heard myself say. And then I remembered that I am mediocre in math, unlike my classmates who were snoring in their seats when they were called on by the teacher, and then went to the board, derived the formula, and solved the problem correctly. I can grasp the concepts well enough if they are explained to me in words, and sometimes I can intuit the answer but I could not tell you how I arrived there to save my life. But there’s always a need for popularizers, and if you have to make science sound romantic, email me.


Book: So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

I thought I’d read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence before watching the movie by Martin Scorsese, but gave it up at page 40 because I have no appetite for suffering right now, esp. suffering for one’s beliefs. Someday I’ll pick it up again—it took me several attempts to get through Jane Eyre (because I could not see why she’d go for that).

So I ended up reading another short novel about remembering stuff you forgot and then wondering if you are yourself: So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano. It reads like his other novels, so I started wondering if I’d already read it and just forgot. It starts with the narrator, a writer, getting a phone call from a stranger who says he found the writer’s address book. The writer didn’t even notice he’d lost the address book, and he doesn’t need it, but he agrees to meet the stranger and get it back. The stranger is very curious about one of the names in the address book, but the writer cannot remember who that person is and why he has his number. The thick plottens, the stranger’s associate insinuates herself into the writer’s life, and then the writer starts remembering the individual in question…It’s melancholy, and haunting, and you are transported to some grotty little café in Pigalle where it’s always raining and everyone looks like they’re pondering the meaning of existence even if they’re just trying to split the tab. France, your elections are coming up, in the words of Princess Leia, you’re my only hope.

I’ve been steeling myself for days, and tomorrow I’m going to watch Logan.

Benedict Cumberbatch is adapting our favorite books, what an excellent idea

March 02, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

He stars in the BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes (Hated the fourth season, by the way, frantic and incoherent) and is the screen incarnation of Stephen Strange. We first noticed him as the villain (Not Briony Tallis) in the film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. He was Peter Guillam in the 2011 version of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Christopher Tietjens in the miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (teleplay by Tom Stoppard). He was the voice of Smaug in the Hobbit movies, Hamlet onstage, and a mesmerizing Richard III in The Hollow Crown. Benedict Cumberbatch is Literary Adaptation Guy, sort of a male equivalent of Helena Bonham-Carter.

Last year he announced that he would produce and star in an adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male

our favorite spy adventure thriller featuring a cat as a major character.

Earlier this year it was announced that he would star in the BBC adaptation of what may be Ian McEwan’s finest novel, The Child in Time.

And now Cumberbatch will produce and star in the adaptation of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn.

Patrick Melrose, there’s a character to push an actor to their limits. (When I first saw the headline I thought they meant a reboot of Melrose Place haha.) Abused by his domineering father, left alone by his wealthy, passive-aggressive mother, he goes through all the self-loathing, addiction and bad behavior money can buy. It’s a harrowing, oddly hilarious read and I can’t wait to pick it up again.

What other literary adaptations can Cumberbatch star in? Denis Villeneuve (Arrival!) is adapting my favorite SF novel Dune, and while it will almost certainly not be as gorgeously bonkers as the movie Alejandro Jodorowsky never got to do, I expect great things of the project. Cumberbatch is too old to play Paul Atreides, but maybe Duncan Idaho? Thufir Hawat? Hasimir Fenring?

Against Amnesia

February 26, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Current Events No Comments →

Thirty-one years ago we were part of something so extraordinary that it ignited movements for freedom in the rest of the world. We didn’t do it for any families or personalities; we did it for ourselves, to reclaim the dignity and the rights that had been denied us for so long. It was the right thing to do. No one can take that away from us.

At the rally I ran into one of my teachers, and we remarked on the renewed relevance of Yeats.

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Democracy is a work in progress.