Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Few Awesome Things

A lot of the bloggers I read and love regularly have posts where they list what they're reading, watching and listening to on a given week. It's a great way to peek into someone else's life and to learn a bit more about their personal tastes and interest, and I've often stumbled onto something I ended up loving from these posts.

I would love to have a weekly feature like this, but it's rare that each week I come across something new that's good enough to recommend. It takes me a long time to get through pleasure reading during the school year, since I have to spend so many hours each day reading books and articles for classes. I have a few TV shows I watch each week, and usually only pick up new ones at the beginning of the season. And while I love music, I can't say that my tastes are interesting or sophisticated enough to recommend to others (is it terrible that I've been humming "This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race" all week? Okay, it is).

Basically I'm totally boring, and when I fall in love with a book or movie or TV show, it's usually something that everyone was talking about like 2 years ago. BUT, this week was very different, as I came across three totally amazing and underrated things that I felt compelled to share with all of you.
I read the many positive reviews of Dave Eggers' biographical novel What Is the What when it was released last fall, but I let it sit on my Amazon wish list for months because I was intimidated by the book's size and depressing subject matter (the story follows the life of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, from his village in Southern Sudan in the early 1980's to his life in Atlanta today). It probably was a good thing that I waited to buy and read it until my spring break last week, because if I'd read it any other time I probably wouldn't have gotten any work done as I spent 2 days glued to the book. I was in beautiful, sunny Florida, but all I could think about was wanting to finish "What is the What" and find out what happened to the incredibly likable and compelling protagonist, Valentino.

I was totally wrong about the book being depressing; while the protagonist's story is no doubt harrowing at times, Eggers carefully lays out the story in a way that acknowledges these events without dwelling on them. The story is so uplifting, and because early on it's established that the protagonist ends up moving to the United States, you're always aware that there is hope for Valentino. And if you've read Eggers' other novels (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a great one), you know how adept he is at drawing the comedy out of ordinary situations and people. It's been a long time since I've read a book that affected me as much as this one did, while simultaneously teaching me so much about a culture and historical event, and I can think of no better praise for a novel.
I've been waiting for Volver to be released at a movie theater near my school, but I lucked out when I came home and found that it was showing at the local independent theater near my family's home outside Detroit. Pedro Almodovar is my favorite movie director, and when I heard that Volver was possibly his best film yet, I couldn't wait to see it. I'm happy to report that Volver lived up to all the raving reviews, and it's surpassed "Talk to Her" as my favorite Almodovar film ("All About My Mother" is a close third though).

I knew that Penelope Cruz was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the film, but I had no idea that she had a performance like this in her. She and Salma Hayek are always pigeonholed into the role of "sexy Latina bombshell" in American movies, and it's strange at first to see her playing an intelligent, mature, complex character. But she totally kills this role, and her character has stuck in my mind weeks after I saw the movie.

Volver is also one of the richest and most intelligent female empowerment films I've ever seen, and Almodovar is so skilled at showing the complexity of female relationships that I left the theater looking at my relationships with other women (mothers, sisters, neighbors, friends) in a whole new light. Despite the language and cultural differences, the story and the characters really resonated with my relationships and experiences (which may be Almodovar's point- that the female experience is universal in many ways).While it's a movie that any reasonably smart guy should be able to appreciate, you'll probably have a better conversation on the ride home with a group of women.

I normally don't watch TV shows on the basis of reviews, but I was at the gym a couple of weeks ago and every magazine I read had a rave review of "The Riches," the new FX series starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver. I downloaded the first couple episodes on iTunes to watch on my flight back from Florida and I was floored by how good the show was. FINALLY, cable TV has picked up on the fact that HBO and Showtime have been kicking their butt when it comes to creating high quality shows (which is why cable channels end up syndicating premium channel shows). "The Riches" is definitely on the level of HBO favorites like "The Soprano's" and "Six Feet Under" (granted, I've only seen three episodes at this point and I have no idea if it can retain this kind of momentum, but it's very intelligent and well-written). Like both of these shows, "The Riches" follows a quirky family in a unconventional line of business (in this case, they're Irish Traveller con artists) and explores and challenges the idea of the American Dream. The show's discussion of class and what it means to be outside of mainstream society are very interesting, but it's the dry, often sarcastic humor (particularly from Eddie Izzard, who's fantastic) that keeps the entertaining. I don't want to give any more away, but I highly recommend downloading the first episode from iTunes (it's only $1.99) and checking it out for yourself.

So tell me, are there any great books, movies, TV shows or albums that you've gotten hooked on in the last few weeks? Share your recommendations in the comment section, I'm always on the lookout for a new obsession.


Anonymous said...

I definately recommend watching the show "Dead Like Me." This show is a bit old, I think the last season ended in like 2003, but it is suprisingly good and extremely addicting! It's about an 18 year old girl who is extremely apathetic towards life, until one day she gets kit by a toilet seat which fell off a space station and dies. She then becomes "undead" and comes back to live as a grim reaper, helping others reach the afterlife when they die. The quirk is that she has to get a job and live just like any other human. She aquires a sort of "family" of other grim reapers who meet regularly to receive their reaping assignments. All the while, her family is falling apart afte her death. The show follow's her development and the development of her family who must know deal with the death of a daughter who was never really "there. It's sort of a coming-of-age story, but it's also so much more. I would probably classify the show as dark comedy.

I was a bit hesitant when my boyfriend bought the DVD set and made me watch the first episode, but it is really good!It touches on a lot of issues like family dynamics and the importance of feeling like you belong. The show is sort of like an answer to the thought of "What would I do if I could get another chance to start life over?

I really don't do this show justice with my review, so I would definately check it out on Amazon if you are intersted. It's hard to explain what makes it so good, I guess you just have to watch it. It's one of the most thought-provoking shows I have seen in a long time. It will make you laugh and cry at the same time.

Distar said...

Volver's out on dvd this week, and I'll finally get around to watching it. Also, thanks for the review of Eggers. That's been on the to read list forever, and maybe I finally will get around to that too.

Beauty Bug said...

Meg, really surprised to hear that you liked Volver better than Talk to Her. I left the movie thinking it was just OK, definitely not one of Almodovar's best. Talk to Her is my favorite, with Women on the Verge coming in a close second. If you like foreign films rent "I'm Not Scared"- it's an Italian film that I caught at the Kendall last year and it sticks out in my mind as one of the best from 2005/2006 (now I forget the year). All I know is, I loves me some movies!

Meg said...

Anon- I remember hearing really good things about "Dead Like Me," but I never got around to watching it. Your review was very convincing, I'll add it to my Netflix queue. I love shows that are funny and sad and touching at the same time.

Distar- Based on what you've talked about on your blog, I think you'll love What is the What and Volver. Let me know what you think when you're done!

Meg said...

Beauty Bug- I think I just felt more of a connection with the characters and the message in Volver, though I love both movies dearly.

I saw "I'm Not Scared" a couple of years ago and LOVED it, such a wonderful, moving film. I'd forgotten about it, but now I want to rent it again, I really enjoyed it.

One side note- there's a point in the film where the boy in the hole jumps out when the other boy finds him, and I'm so easily scared that I literally screamed out loud. The whole theater turned around, looked and laughed at me. It was embarrassing but I was glad to have broken the tension.

Aruek said...

I love The Riches, too! I like that it's on at both 10 and 11 on Mondays but I don't like that it runs late so when I turn on the TV at 11 I end up seeing the end of the episode.

Also, just in case you haven't seen a schedule, Volver is playing in the film series on April 27th.