Saturday, June 26, 2010

Two (very unrelated) reviews

Leon:  The Professional
I've been hearing about this movie for some time now, mostly as Natalie Portman's acting debut.  I finally watched it the other night, and pleasantly surprised does not do it justice.  More like delightedly dumbstruck.  Rapturously amazed.  Exultantly astounded.

It was a really good movie.

The acting, first of all, was superb.  I didn't think Portman would be as believable as she was (her only other young performance I was aware of was in Phantom Menace--not known for its acting by any means), but I was with her every step of the way.  Her portrayal of the abused, disillusioned, neglected, infuriating young girl with nothing to live for was touching at times, funny at others, and often surprising.

Jean Reno's performance was impressive as well, both lonely and enigmatic, but it was Gary Oldman's portrayal of the villain that caught me most off-guard.  He was terrifying and despicable, and but strangely alluring.  I have nothing but respect for Oldman.

The story was surprising as well--when I thought I was in for a long assassin-in-training montage, I got some unexpected character development.  When I thought betrayal was imminent, I saw a strange friendship.  The ending was somewhat predictable--it is the type of story for which I can only conceive three or four possible endings off the top of my head, all of them very similar--but it was tastefully done and kept me interested in the film and the characters.

Overall, I would highly recommend it, especially if you're a fan of any of the three main actors in the film.  A very well-done, surprising movie.

My rating:  ****** (6/7 stars)

The Next American Essay
Edited by John D'Agata
And, of course, my first official foray into the world/genre of nonfiction.

D'Agata arranged the collection by taking a different essay, from a different American essayist, from every year from 1975-2003.  Each year is preceded by a segment of an essay that D'Agata himself wrote, weaving in and out of each author and each year, connecting them all together.  Indeed, D'Agata's essay was one of the most compelling components of the compilation--not only was it a great connector between each collected essay, but in and of itself was a thought-provoking and informative piece about the genre of the personal essay.

I've discovered that the personal essay (and nonfiction in general) is really a hit-and-miss category/genre for me.  I loved some of the pieces in the collection.  Some of my absolute favorites included the prologue by Guy Davenport, "And;" Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse" from 1982; Eliot Weinberger's "Dream of India" from 1984 (which, incidentally, was the inspiration behind the current nonfiction piece I'm working on regarding perceptions of Mormonism); "Notes Toward a History of Scaffolding" from 1990, by Susan Mitchell; and from 1997 David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair."  Each one of these essays either informed and educated me, mystified me, emotionally provoked me, intrigued me, or all of the above.  They were delightful samples of the genre, and pieces that genuinely inspired me to venture my own attempts in the genre.

But there were a few other essays, ones I won't mention by name, that I found boring and overly presumptuous, if not utterly useless.  Whether they're more of an acquired taste or the type of essay that I simply will never appreciate remains to be seen as I continue exploring the genre.

I'll return again to D'Agata's own essay (again, without a doubt on an equal level of the favorites I mentioned earlier, and one of the more delightful sections of the compilation).  Portions of his last entry I found particularly interesting, especially in light of my current thoughts on nonfiction.  To quote D'Agata (p. 435-6):
"Some literature in this genre challenges [the] very presumption of fact."
"What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or--worse yet--leaving the blanks blank?  What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation? . . . There are now questions being asked of facts that were never questions before.  What, we ask, is a fact these days?  What's a lie, for that matter?  What constitutes an 'essay,' a 'story,' a 'poem'?  What, even, is 'experience'?"
"Facts, in these essays, are not clear-cut things.  What is a lyric essay?  It's an oxymoron:  an essay that's also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything."
I'm loving (and appreciating, as this volume is the one that made me seriously question my understanding of "nonfiction" in the first place) the blurring of fact--"statistics, reportage, and observation"--and nonfacts--"image, emotion, expressive transformation."  That, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of creative nonfiction.  It is nowhere near as confined as I once considered it, and this collection (among other things) has taught me that.

My rating:  **** (4/7 stars)

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