Midnight in Paris

Perhaps one of the most embarrassing confessions I can make as a person who enjoys film is that up until recently, I had never seen a film directed by Woody Allen.  This is an especially heinous crime because I have spent most of my life as a neurotic, socially awkward male with glasses – a description that should make me the perfect audience for his brand of comedy.  Yet, for whatever reason, I somehow avoided his films.  That all changed a couple nights ago, when I watched Midnight in Paris.  It’s one of his more recent movies and thus not considered a classic (yet), but I heard good things about it so I thought it would be a decent place to start.

For those of you who haven’t seen Midnight in Paris, the main character is Gil, a screenwriter who visits Paris with his fiancee in order to finish his first novel.  When exploring the town late one night, he discovers a way of traveling through time, back to Paris in the 1920s, where he meets his literary and artistic idols.

My favourite part of Midnight in Paris was the film’s portrayal of several classic authors, the most notable being F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda are just as I always imagined them:  intoxicated, extravagant, and completely in love.  It’s fitting that we first see them at a party, considering lavish parties are a main setting in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Hemingway, on the other hand, is sitting alone when he first appears, acting macho and rambling on about how writing should be “honest.”  Seeing Hemingway in Paris, I was reminded of his novel The Sun Also Rises and I felt like the film was trying to explain where that book originated.  At times, I thought Hemingway was more of a caricature of how people perceive him, but I never knew the man and it was enjoyable regardless.

I did have some small problems with the famous authors in the movie, however.  First, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald’s writing in the film.  The two of them were friends in real life and I’m sure he had moments where he liked Fitzgerald’s work, but he was also very critical of it.  Because Hemingway preferred prose that resembled the basic style of journalism, he found Fitzgerald’s writing in The Great Gatsby far too poetic.  My only other problem with the authors was that T.S. Eliot was barely featured. He had one off-screen appearance, but nothing beyond that.  Maybe Woody Allen didn’t think he would be as amusing as the other writers, but I’m a fan of Eliot’s poetry, so I would have liked to see more of him.  Despite my complaints, I enjoyed the attempt to show these famous personalities in Midnight in Paris.  Needless to say, my literature courses definitely paid off when viewing the movie.

A main concern of Midnight in Paris is the idea of “The Golden Age.”  Everyone has a time in the past that they feel nostalgic about, even if they weren’t even born at the time.  Of course, that time is 1920s Paris for Gil, but other characters have similar times they miss.  The Golden Age is simply an illusion, though.  Gil might believe the 1920s were a perfect time to live, but he eventually discovers that the era has its own share of problems.  Gertrude Stein, who is played in the film by Kathy Bates, has a famous quote where she calls Hemingway’s generation a “lost generation” because they were damaged by World War I.  Doesn’t sound quite as perfect as Gil originally believed, does it?

I can’t compare Midnight in Paris with other films by Woody Allen, because this is the first I’ve seen, but I thought it was well-made.  Allen highlights the beauty of Paris throughout the movie, but one of the more interesting choices was right at the beginning; before he even shows a single character, he introduces Paris with a montage of different locations within the city, while Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” plays in the background.  Similarly, there is a long tracking shot early in the film where four characters are walking and having a discussion, while the Palace of Versailles comes into view behind them.  It’s a great scene among many, and shows how much Allen likes the city of Paris.

Woody Allen’s writing in Midnight In Paris is also great.  It’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as other comedies, but I did enjoy his humour and he’s a very clever writer.  I will say, though, that I thought he could have done a better job of building towards a climax.  I don’t expect a predictable romantic comedy, where everything is neatly concluded and Gil lives happily ever after with the perfect woman, but I did think there should be some moment where everything comes together in an interesting way.  It seemed like Midnight in Paris just ended.  I enjoyed the movie anyway, because the journey was interesting enough, but I thought the story could have been structured better.

Overall, I would give Midnight in Paris a 4 out of 5.  The film had some problems that didn’t make it work as well as it could have, but seeing authors I’ve read in a movie like this elevated the entertainment value for me.  The movie did make me want to see more of Woody Allen’s work, but I think next time I will choose one of his older, classic films.

See the trailer for Midnight in Paris below:

The Write Way

Last summer, I began writing a manuscript for a fantasy novel.  I won’t divulge too many details about the plot right now, but the story takes place in a world separate from our own (which makes it more like The Hobbit than Harry Potter).  I was really excited about working on it because I believed the story had enough twists and quirks to make it a refreshing entry into the genre.  The mere act of writing was also interesting to me, because it was the first time that I really made a strong attempt to write an entire novel.  For better or worse, I was adamant that I would finish the book.

Unfortunately, summer ended and classes returned before I was completed; I was only 50,000 words into the manuscript and I would not have time to finish it for months.  Frustrated, I tucked the story away and hoped for the best.  I didn’t want to lose interest in the project, having come so far, and if I did complete it, I didn’t want there to be a big stylistic difference between the first 50,000 words and the remaining 30,000.  The anxiety of finishing the story was enough that I didn’t even start immediately when school ended this April.  I not only had a lot of writing to do, but I wanted to revise about half of the chapters that I did write before.  I was worried that if I started again, I would fail again to finish the manuscript by the end of summer.

Then, about a week ago, I dusted off my manuscript file and went to work.  I revised first to immerse myself in the story once again, and because I wouldn’t be confident in writing new chapters until my previous ones were in order.  Of course, because I had to reorganize some story sections, there was a lot of writing to be done in the midst of revision anyway.  I had a productive first day, having revised about 40 or 50 pages of text, and realized several things:

I don’t hate my writing.  This is a phrase that all writers should repeat to themselves about a hundred times a day.  If you’re writing a story, you’re not going to know if it’s good or not the first time through.  More importantly: it’s probably not good.  Every great book you’ve ever read was once a badly written first draft, and its current greatness only exists because the writer kept editing (“Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott is a good essay about how you can’t expect the first draft to be good).  Anyway, upon re-reading the beginning of my book, I found out that there was something good there that’s worth writing (and reading) behind the mistakes.  Plus, I made it better by fixing the problems.

I missed my characters.  When I put my manuscript away at the end of last summer, I didn’t just set my story aside.  I let the fates of all my characters just hang there, waiting for resolution.  As I read, the story made me care about the characters again and now I want them to succeed just as much as I want myself to succeed.  That’s another reason I’m more confident in my skills: at some point, interesting characters formed from the assortment of words I chose.  I owe it to them and myself to continue.

I can do this.  When you’re a writer, having belief in your own abilities can make the work easier, and reading the beginning of my book again definitely restored my faith in my writing.  I not only mean that I have the ability to finish the manuscript, but I also believe that I can complete it before the summer ends.  It’s hard to say how long the finished novel will be, but if I write a thousand words a day or so, it shouldn’t take long for me to finish the book.

I think I finally reached a point where I feel like a writer and I’m still riding the positivity that I received when I started working again.  I believe everyone can feel good about their own writing if they push themselves and try hard enough.  Of course, I haven’t been published yet, so perhaps my excitement is a bit premature.

Do you write, or have you ever had a dream about being a writer?  If you do write, how do you push yourself to keep going when the work is difficult?  Are you overly critical about your first drafts?  Do you find the act of revising annoying?  Let me know what you think below.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

What happened to Rachel Solando?  Who is 67?  What is really happening on Shutter Island?

Shutter Island

I don’t usually like book covers taken from movie posters, but I found this copy at a good price.

These vague, confusing questions and more are answered in the book I’m reviewing this week, Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller Shutter Island.

Shutter Island begins with two U.S. Marshals named Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, who land on the titular Shutter Island in 1954.  The island is the home of the Ashecliffe Hospital, an insane asylum and the Marshals are there to investigate the mysterious (and seemingly impossible) escape of one of the patients.  From there, the mission takes them through a series of clues, twists, and turns in the search for the real truth behind the patient and the hospital itself.

I can’t tell you much more than that, because most of the excitement of the novel comes from the mysteries and surprises in the story.  I know some people like to try to figure out the plot twists in thrillers, but my favourite way to experience books or movies like Shutter Island is to turn off my mind and let the story take over.  That’s the way I recommend reading this book:  you will enjoy the surprises more if you let them come to you, rather than analyzing every single page for hints.

Shutter Island was written by Dennis Lehane, who is probably most well-known for his other books that have been adapted to film, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.  This is the first book I’ve read by him, but from what I’ve heard, his other books are usually gritty, realistic crime novels, rather than mind-bending mysteries like Shutter Island.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from his style as I began, but I was impressed with his work.  He has a very basic prose that allows the story to unfold without much interference from the author.  Lehane only forces the direction of the story when he has to reveal the internal emotion of Teddy or give us an important flashback.  Another one of Lehane’s strengths as a writer is his use of dialogue.  The conversations between the Marshals is entertaining, but still natural and realistic.  The two characters cuss, joke, and argue just like real adult men would on an island under bizarre circumstances.

While Shutter Island is built around mystery, that is not to say that it is the only reason to read the book.  I like a good plot, but it’s hard to care about a story when none of the characters are interesting.  The two Marshals initially seem to be shallow stereotypes, with Teddy as the intense protagonist and Chuck as the humourous partner, but as the story progresses, the characters reveal the many sides of their personalities.  I had moments where I was more interested in the friendship between Teddy and Chuck than their next plan in the investigation.  Minor characters, such as the doctors, patients, and orderlies in the asylum, are not as developed, but serve to build the ominous atmosphere on the island.  Of course, because the story has so many twists, a reader can expect that some characters might not be everything they seem.

Another aspect in the novel that surprised me was the humour.  Because Shutter Island is a tense story that takes place in an eerie setting, Chuck’s comic relief is a welcome escape from the dark and serious side of the plot.  The whole book is not a comedy, but I found myself laughing just as much as I was grimly focused, reading the details of the case.  The comedy not only works to lighten the mood, but also makes the story more realistic, because many real people would use humour as a defense when faced with the strange, difficult situations in Ashecliffe.

It would be difficult to write this review without mentioning the 2010 film adaptation of Shutter Island.  Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the quality of that movie as I have yet to see it (I wanted to read the book first), but Martin Scorsese directed it, it’s probably in good hands.  I plan on seeing the film soon, because I loved the book so much.  Here is a trailer for the movie:

To conclude, Shutter Island is a fantastic book with interesting characters and a story that will have you turning pages, wondering what will happen next.  The novel’s ending kept me thinking for days afterward, trying to figure out what it all meant and wanting to re-read the whole story all over again.  Because it entertained me from beginning to end, and left me with interesting questions to ponder, I give Shutter Island a solid 4.5 out of 5.

All That’s 90s is New Again

I don’t typically write about music here, but I do love music and I have noticed an interesting trend that excites me.  First, let me mention that, for the most part, my musical tastes formed in the late 1990s.  I like music from all decades, but the alternative rock in the 90s came at the right moment, when I was nearing the age where I could explore music in a complex way.  As years passed, the mainstream radio focused more on pop and hip-hop, leaving me disappointed and nostalgic for the 90s again.

A group of rock bands who were popular in the 90s – Third Eye Blind, Eve 6, Matchbox Twenty, Everclear, Blink-182, among others – seemed to drop off the radar roughly around 2003 and stopped making music for most of the nine years since.  Third Eye Blind finally released their fourth album, Ursa Major, in 2009, and Blink-182’s 2011 album Neighborhoods came after an eight-year hiatus, but so far 2012 is topping them all with four albums from bands who have been silent for a while.  I thought I would focus on them:

Eve 6Speak in Code (released April 24th)Often incorrectly labeled a one-hit-wonder band because of “that heart-in-a-blender song” (It’s called “Inside Out,” okay?), Eve 6 was able to maintain a dedicated following between their 2003 album It’s All In Your Head and this year’s Speak in Code.  The new album sounds a lot like their second effort Horrorscope, though, which works out well because that was a fantastic record.  The first radio single from Speak in Code was “Victoria,” but I actually prefer “Lost & Found”:

 

Matchbox TwentyNorth (coming out September 4th).  I just heard their new single “She’s So Mean” this morning, which was good enough to inspire this post.  Matchbox hasn’t been completely out of the spotlight in the past decade, having released five new songs on Exile on Mainstream in 2007 (then there are the Rob Thomas solo albums, which don’t sound entirely different from Matchbox Twenty), but it’s good to see the band back together to make a new full-length album again (their first since More Than You Think You Are from 2002).  After the first listen, “She’s So Mean” was stuck in my head.  It doesn’t sound like a specific older song from the band, but it’s catchy and it has their signature sound. If the other songs are just as good, North could be really great.  Listen to “She’s So Mean” below:

 

EverclearInvisible Stars (coming out June 26th).  I have to be honest, I haven’t been as excited about this release compared to the others.  Everclear had one of my favourite albums from the 90s, So Much for the Afterglow (featuring such hits as “Father of Mine” and “I Will Buy You A New Life“), but they have been in a slump in the past ten years.  After two of the members left in 2003, frontman Art Alexakis decided to replace them with a random assortment of other musicians, whom he also replaced a few years later.  He then made two albums that seemingly consisted of remakes of his old hits and covers.  Needless to say, Everclear is probably the band that should have been on a break for nine years.  But, hearing their new song “Be Careful What You Ask For,” it’s hard not to be nostalgic and hopeful.  Perhaps the original excitement of Everclear could re-surface after a decade of underwhelming decisions.  Listen to the song below:

 

LitThe View from the Bottom (coming out June 19th).  Lit is known best for their late-90s ode to self-destructive behaviour, “My Own Worst Enemy,” but they continued to make records until their self-titled release in 2004.  The band has experienced some changes in their line-up between that album and this year’s The View from the Bottom, with the band adding an extra guitarist and hiring a replacement for drummer Allen Shellenberger, who unfortunately passed away in 2009 from cancer.  However, the band’s sound and attitude have appeared to survive unscathed.  In their slightly-crude new single “You Tonight” (guess which word is omitted from that title), Lit rock out with the same energy that they had over a decade ago:

These albums might not live up to the past works of these bands, but I’m just happy they’re releasing music at all.  Eve 6, Everclear, Matchbox Twenty, and Lit all represent an important time in my life, and even their new songs make me nostalgic about that time.

To end this post, I thought I would share a recent mashup of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and the 90s hit “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind.  The mashup is made by Dan Chamberlain, also known as Chambaland.  It’s not an entirely new song, but to me it shows how good the music of the 90s was, because I prefer this version over the regular “Call Me Maybe”:

That’s it for today.  Don’t worry – I will talk about books again soon.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

This past weekend, I plowed through the last 300 pages of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, so now today I can finally post my review of the book.

Since the HBO adaptation began, the covers for the books have been updated to a more current look.

A Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel that focuses on a variety of different characters, but the chief among them is Eddard “Ned” Stark.  After King Robert promotes Ned to be the Hand, a position second only to the king himself, Stark begins to uncover a conspiracy that involves the mysterious death of the former Hand and a plot to kill the king.  The plot builds as each character vies for political, personal, or moral power in Westeros.

I came to A Game of Thrones in a different way than most, I expect.  By the time I read the book, the world had already gushed over the book series and the HBO adaptation.  As a fantasy fan, I was suspect of Martin’s nickname: “The American Tolkien.”  Tolkien for me is the epitome of fantasy literature; he is not only the best author of fantasy, but he played a central role in defining the genre.  Calling Martin “The American Tolkien” is a bit unfair, because there is no way he can live up to the label.  He was not there at the inception of modern fantasy, and thus cannot have the same impact.

Let me reveal my bias here:  Martin is not Tolkien and I don’t even consider him an equal.  However,A Game of Thronesis a great book in its own right, and when I became invested in the story, the comparison between the authors was the furthest thing from my mind.  George R.R. Martin creates a complex world full of different characters who each have their own agenda, and he builds tension by showing how the motivations of the characters play off each other.  Martin uses the characters to drive the story, which allows the plot to flow naturally.  Each chapter is from the perspective of a main character, which helps the author develop the protagonists fully.

Martin attempts to make the story realistic in A Game of Thrones, which has some consequences with how the characters and plot are portrayed.  Anyone looking for a predictable fantasy book, with clear heroes and villains engaged in a conflict that reaches a climax, should be wary when reading the novel.  Eddard Stark might look like the hero initially, but as the story progresses, it becomes harder to distinguish between good and evil.  Similarly, the book is only the first in a story that spans several books, so the ending does not appear complete (although it will make you want to see what happens next).

A Game of Thrones is not without its problems, though.  I did appreciate the fact that Martin focused on one character in each chapter, but that approach also has its drawbacks.  Martin would often begin a chapter in a random moment without much information to set the scene.  He would then go back and describe what happened to the character since his or her previous chapter.  If he had started the chapter at the beginning of the action instead of in the middle of it, he wouldn’t have to go backward as much.  In addition, I just think there are better ways to tell a fantasy story.  I’ve seen the same kind of chapters in a Jodi Picoult book, and while it’s not my favourite technique, I think it works better in a present-day setting.  When you’re creating a fantasy world, it’s hard enough to describe it without choosing a style that doesn’t work well with it.

Another problem I had with the book was the sexual content.  I’m not against sexual scenes as long as they serve a purpose and are written well, but the amount of prostitution in the book is kind of ridiculous.  Even the characters who were too honourable to pay for sex still found themselves in brothels at some point.  Martin seems like he enjoys writing the sex scenes a little too much, which occasionally makes him sound like a horny old man.  Furthermore, a lot of the sex involves violence against women or at least women in subordinate positions.  I understand that Martin was using medieval England as a basis for his fantasy world and he does work to empower women in the second half of the book, but some of the violent sex scenes are written as if he enjoys them or wants to arouse us with them.  I hope Martin included these moments to support feminism, but I feel like the book had some mixed messages.

Overall, I give A Game of Thrones a 3.5 out of 5.  I enjoyed it and I definitely want to read more of the series after finishing this book, but Martin could have made some better choices in the way he told the story and in how much sex he included.  The novel would probably be entertaining for people who like epic fantasy narratives, but people who like dark, realistic books might also find enjoyment in it, because Martin uses historical fact to build his story, rather than whimsy or imagination.