Added Parks & Recs Season 6 to my DVD shelf, and Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves to my book shelf.
At the Movies: The F Word - or as you sensitive souls in the US and UK rather more lamely call it, What If - is a Canadian romcom starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who play friends with an unspoken attraction between them. Unspoken and unspeakable, which often hits quite close to home, enough so I can forgive it its formulaic (though not TOO formulaic) ending. The principals have great chemistry, the dialog is quirky and feels true to life (especially since I interact with people exactly the same way, i.e. saying "yes" to any proposition no matter how ludicrous as if it were stated fact, just to see how far we can take the "sketch"), and supporting star Adam Driver is, as freakin' usual, freakin' hilarious. Plus, Toronto as Toronto. I love that. Always have. So yes, a romantic comedy with all that entails, but a quirky, funny, sometimes brutal, entry in the genre.
As Above So Below is the most recent example of the "found footage" genre, a story that owes as much to The Blair Witch Project as it does to treasure hunting films from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Ninth Gate or National Treasure, with a wink towards Dante's Inferno. Essentially, an archaeologist looking for the fabled Philosopher Stone assembles a team in Paris (which includes a documentarian) to go down into the catacombs looking for an alchemist's hidden chamber. What they find is a gateway to Hell itself. Though it has some dialog that sounds like improvisation, most of it seemed rather too written to make me entirely believe in the found footage conceit, but it works as a strange archaeological puzzle with a great many jump scares and creepy elements, eventually allowing for character and audience catharsis. The immediacy of the found footage format takes you on that journey with them, and may well prove uncomfortable for anyone who has claustrophobia. In fact, I still can't figure out where the real catacombs end and built sets begin. It has a seemless sense of place. The ending is enigmatic, but is definitive, unlike most food footage movies which end in a kind of abrupt ambiguity.
DVDs: Dan Harmon returns to Community for Season 5, which manages to do better than Season 4, but perhaps not as well as Season 1 through 3. Part of the problem is the loss of certain characters, which is very well addressed, but at only 13 episodes, we seem to be dealing with those changes for its own sake a lot. Still, some lovely additions to the cast with the now-ubiquitous John Oliver expanding on his role and Jonathan "can do no wrong in my book" Banks as a curmudgeony criminology professor. The "repilot" is actually ingenious and doesn't feel like cheating, and though there are some lulls, it's mostly LOLs. Stand-out episodes include the lava floor postapocalypse (think of it as this season's paintball), the meow meow beans social experiment, and a new D&D episode. Some will get more mileage out of the G.I. Joe parody than I will, but that's because I get my animation spoofs from other sources already (the live action bits are brilliant though). The DVD includes fun cast and crew commentary on every episode, uncensored outtakes, a featurette on the making of G.I. Jeff, and a making of from the point of view of the behind-schedule writer's room trying to finish the last three episodes, a harrowing journey into Dan Harmon's famously dark soul.
Blue Hawaii? Yeah, we watched Blue Hawaii while eating pineapple and drinking LITERALLY two buckets of mai tai-like drinks (blue monkeys, I think it was?). Anyway, somebody overshot on the necessary ingredients. But how was the film? Not good, objectively speaking, but a fun piece of nonsense nonetheless. Elvis plays the "worst boyfriend ever" and I guess you only find him sympathetic because he's Elvis (or maybe you don't), the sexism is risible (guys, Elvis gives a "teenager" a good spanking) in the same way Mad Men's is (definitely made in 1961), and the racism isn't quite as strong as I expected it to be when the comedy Asian called Ping Pong came on the scene. Mostly an excuse to sing his own hits, or riffs on his songs with Hawaiian lyrics thrown in, the movie nonetheless does a good job of showing off Hawaii, its culture, and its music. For me, the highlights were the comedy stylings of Angela Lansbury (who is deeply ashamed of her performance in this film, haha) and Howard McNear (who might as well be one of Michael Palin's Monty Python characters).
Books: After watching Enemy based on José Saramago's The Double, I got interested in the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author. Someone recommended The Gospel According the Jesus Christ, and I went for it. So I'll start by thanking @abrissverlierer for that. Thanks Megan! As the space hippies say: We reach! I was immediately taken by Saramago's high wire act, which critics have called a kind of skeptical humanism. Telling the story of Jesus without contradicting the four accepted Gospels, he nevertheless reminds us of how far from the Bible's original context we now stand. His Jesus (and his Joseph and Mary, as the book is far more interested in his origins and early life than the Gospels are) lives in a real place and time, made real by sensual detail and cultural norms now alien to us. The novel is irreverently ironic, consistently shocking us with questions of how true any given account can be given human interpretation, but Saramago so loves his characters, it never turns into a take-down. He gives the story a literary bent with leitmotifs, for example, which are ironic in and of themselves (revealing Scripture as literature rather than History, which itself is an interpretative genre), and provides logic and psychological truth to the characters and events. Not to me it debunks the Bible - God and the Devil are manifest - but it does test your faith in the best way possible, by showing literal truth as improbable, and requiring a more thoughtful kind of faith that isn't about believing in "facts" but in ideas and ethical philosophies.
Saramago's last novel before his death, Cain, is like a prequel to his Gospel. Though 18 years separate them, we find here the same skepticism and humanity. I loved the Gospel, but I think I love Cain more. Taking a similar tack, it starts with Adam and Even and their fall from Grace, but soon gets us to Cain and the first murder. From there, Cain is condemned to wander for eternity and the book that's a strange turn, becoming a kind of time travel adventure through the books of Genesis and Exodus. Cain goes back and forth through time, interacting with Abraham, Job, Noah, Moses, Lot and so on. Every incident makes him wonder why he was punished for a single murder, while the Old Testament God commits or encourages genocide. Skeptical Saramago attacks the Old Testament's hypocritical double standards, again asking literalists to question their beliefs, while Saramago the humanist paints the portrait of Cain as a psychologically believable character so he can act as reader identification figure. And no spoilers, but the twist ending is remarkable. Especially considering it was the writer's last book. I won't say any more. It's just 159 pages, you should check it out for yourselves.