Apricot Jam and Other Stories, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (2011). This is a collection of nine short stories written by the legendary author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn wrote them after his return to Russia in 1994, and they are mostly about life in Russia during World War II and going back even further to the days of the civil war against the Bolsheviks. But a couple of stories also show life in modern (1990s) Russia after perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. I liked all the stories, but probably the ones about WWII the best, and my favorite of all was a very interesting sketch of the life of Georgy Zhukov, who was apparently the USSR’s greatest general in WWII but whom I had barely heard of. Of course, it left me wondering how accurate Solzhenitsyn’s account of Zhukov’s life was, but it felt very real. Anyway, I thought this was an interesting read.
American Hustle (B). Here’s the much-anticipated new movie from director David O. Russell, whose films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook I liked a lot. He unites four of the main cast members from those movies for this fictionalized tale about the “Abscam” scandal of the late 1970s–Christian Bale and Amy Adams plays a couple of small-time con artists, and Bradley Cooper plays a loose-cannon FBI agent who traps them into helping him set up a sting operation that gets increasingly crazy as it goes along. Current It Girl Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s wife, and she’s more than a bit of a loose cannon herself. There’s a lot to like about the film. It’s got a lot of energy, and the actors and actresses are at the top of their games. But I didn’t love it, or like it as much as Russell’s last two films. I think I just don’t like movies about con games. Most of the time I get totally confused and have no idea what’s going on. The con games going on in American Hustle aren’t as complicated as some, so I think I basically followed what was going on, but the movie just didn’t grab me. Still, it’s a decent flick, and it apparently got seven Golden Globe nominations, so by all means, check it out and see what you think.
Nebraska (B+). It’s time to cram in some end-of-the-year Oscar contenders, and I started with the latest film by director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt). It’s the story of a middle-aged man named David Grant (Will Forte, MacGruber) who tries to connect with, or at least do right by, his aging, alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern, The ‘Burbs). Woody has gotten convinced that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, and since he can’t drive anymore he keeps trying to walk from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to collect his prize. David, who’s at sort of a dead-end in life himself, decides to drive Woody to Lincoln to dispel his father’s delusion once and for all. The heart of the movie, though, is the extended detour they make to Hawthorne, Nebraska, the little town where Woody grew up and where his surviving siblings live. There are some very touching scenes, as well as some very funny ones–the latter usually involving Woody’s scold of a wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), who has almost nothing good to say about anyone. Most critics seem to like the film, although I think some find Payne’s treatment of these taciturn Midwesterners a bit condescending. Maybe it is, a little, but it wasn’t off-putting enough to make me dislike the movie. I thought Forte, Dern, and Squibb were all great; it may have helped that I have never seen Forte on Saturday Night Live, which he is apparently best known for, so I had no trouble accepting him as the straight man at the center of the piece. Check it out.
Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman (2009). I think I picked this little volume up through Daedalus, a dealer in discounted books. It’s a pretty good little book, if you’re into Jane Austen. It gives a little biography of the author, focusing on the titular topic of Jane’s fame as an author. Turns out she did manage to sell some of her novels during her lifetime, and they were apparently reasonably popular, if not runaway bestsellers. But she died so young, and with such a small output, that she seemed destined for obscurity. And yet, somehow her novels continued to interest enough readers to keep her in print, and by the end of the 1800s she was popular enough to justify more and more editions of her works. Critical attention followed, and of course by the end of the 1900s Hollywood had done its part to propel Jane’s popularity into the stratosphere. So, it’s a reasonably interesting book for Janeites. Other folks probably would not find it quite so interesting….
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (B). I finally made it back to the theater after the Thanksgiving break and the Great Ice Storm of ’13. Instead of battling the crowds for The Hobbit, I decided to check out this new Italian movie, which got an A in the Dallas newspaper and has an impressive 86 score on Metacritic.com. I enjoyed it well enough, although it is sort of depressing. The movie is about Rome and about a fellow named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who is celebrating his 65th birthday at a party resembling an ancient Roman orgy when the movie begins. It seems that Jep moved to Rome as young man, wrote one phenomenally successful novel, and never wrote another book. Instead, he decided to live the high life among the Roman glitterati, and now, 40 years later, the decadence of his life is beginning to bother him just a little bit. The movie (almost two and half hours long) mostly just follows Jep around, and, since his life is aimless, the movie is fairly aimless itself. There are big parties and small gatherings at Jep’s fabulous villa overlooking the Colosseum. A few scenes involve a woman Jep loved and lost in his youth. A few scenes involve the ridiculousness of modern and performance art. For a while, Jep hangs out with the middle-aged daughter of an old friend of his, and then he doesn’t anymore. Naturally, in a movie about Rome, even decadent modern Rome, the Catholic Church has to put in an appearance. There’s an elderly cardinal, rumored to be a shoo-in for pope, who talks about nothing except recipes and cooking. And there’s a truly desiccated and ancient nun, a sort of Mother Teresa type, who takes a break from helping the poor in Africa to visit Rome and Jep’s own villa. The photography is amazing, and there are a few laughs, but the overall tone of the movie, to me anyway, was rather sad, and Jep struck me as a sad if not pathetic creature. The film is not rated, but I imagine it would be rated R for nudity, profanity, and some drug use.
The Big Trees (D). Another day, another dollar DVD. Alas, it was still a waste of money. This is a 1952 release starring Kirk Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives) as Jim Fallon, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century con man whose racket is lumber, of all things. The ins and outs of his scam were lost on me, but basically he goes to northern California with an eye to making a killing by logging the mighty redwoods through some shady but barely legal shenanigans. There he discovers that a large community of peaceful Quaker-types is already living in the woods, including the lovely Widow Chadwick (Eve Miller, April in Paris). He gets set to kick them out and take the lumber, but then a second gang of lumber thieves wants a piece of the action, and they’re really mean. Kirk Douglas exudes charisma, but he can’t save this pedestrian quasi-Western. Alan “Skipper” Hale of Gilligan’s Island fame has a bit part as one of Fallon’s cronies. You’ll probably never have a chance to see this movie, but if you do, be sure to skip it.
The Last Time I Saw Paris (C). Here’s another DVD I liberated from a dollar bin at some discount store long ago. This 1954 release was actually based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Van Johnson (Brigadoon) stars as Charles Wills, an American who is shown wandering nostalgically through Paris in the opening scene. Almost all the rest of the movie is an extended flashback of the last several years of his life, starting with his presence in Paris on V-E Day as an Army journalist. As the city goes mad with celebration, Wills meets two sisters–the sensible and severe Marion (Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity) and the giddy gadabout Helen (Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). He falls for Helen, they marry after a whirlwind courtship, and their marriage is, shall we say, not entirely successful. Eva Gabor (TV’s Green Acres) turns up as a much-married socialite, and a very young pre-007 Roger Moore (Moonraker) also puts in an appearance. The story is melodramatic but watchable enough, and Taylor is impossibly beautiful. It’s funny how I (and I imagine most Generation Xers) tend to remember Liz as a has-been movie star who hung out with Michael Jackson and got married a bunch of times, but when I see her in her old screen roles, her star quality is quite amazing.