Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

By Vladimir Nabokov

I'd never read anything by Nabokov before, and perhaps this wasn't the best book to start on. Nabokov's last book, Ada, or Ardor is also one of his longest. Given the man's dense prose style, it's a wonder that I finished in a mere three months. (I had actually anticipated that it would take me another two months.) One of my favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, is often compared to Nabokov and now I can see why. Both authors have a passion for language, for the written word. Both write complex characters set in rich worlds and use dense, amazing prose to show them to us. Ada is an amazingly beautiful book, a real pleasure to read. But I hesitate to call it a beautiful story, because even though it is an intriguing, romantic, erudite, sexy story, it is also a rather disturbing one. The book follows the love between Van and Ada Veen from beginning to end, a love that is passionate and complete but nonetheless wrong as it is an incestual love. I found myself completely drawn into this story at the same time that I was slightly repulsed by it. The love story would have been enough, but there's so much more to Ada, a lot of which I didn't fully understand despite taking nearly three months to read it. For example, the book is also an examination of the nature of time. Part of this is made explicit later in the book as we read a lecture that Van gives on just that subject, but it's actually interwoven into the very structure of the book. I'm sure there's a lot I missed, and some day I'll have to come back to it. For now, though, I think I'm ready to dive into something nice and light.

Started: 5/26/2005 | Finished: 8/24/2004

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Without a Paddle

Seth Green has been in some movies that I really liked. This was not one of them. The basic outline of this movie is one that we've seen work time and again, in movies from The Goonies to Stand By Me. So why was it so bad? There were plenty of opportunities for this to be a really funny movie, but the writers never took advantage of them. I'm fine with cheap laughs, but this movie had precious few of even those. To make things worse, they kept beating us over the head with the "message" part of the movie. I didn't come see this movie to learn a life lesson; I came to laugh. And I did laugh, but only a couple of times. Most of the rest of the time I was just kind of bored. The only really good thing about this movie was the soundtrack.

Viewed: 8/21/2004 | Released: 8/19/2004 | Score: D

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The Manchurian Candidate

I should preface this review by saying that I have not seen the original Frankenheimer film, so I don't know how well this one measures up. Still, it's pretty easy to see where this one must be different: terrorists and corporations instead of communists, and RF implants in place of simple brainwashing. All in all, this wasn't a bad movie. The film had a pretty clear political bias, but the pacing was good and there was a good feeling of intensity to the movie. Actually, it was kind of surprising to me how well the story could be updated, and I think if it hadn't been a remake it still would have been able to stand on its own. I found it interesting that Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep were two of the main characters, as I don't consider either of them to be great actors. But where Streep always strikes me as very needy and fake on the screen, Washington's passion and energy always seems appropriate for the roles he takes. The real actors of note in this one were Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright. Schreiber is the kind of actor who you've seen plenty of times but can never remember where. He brings a kind of self-effacing dignity to this movie that I liked. Wright is a real chameleon. I've now seen him in three films and he was so different in each one that it took me a while even to recognize him. The sad thing is that he's so good as a character actor that I doubt he'll ever be big. In any case, I did like this movie, but I'll have to see the original before I can really make up my mind about it.

Viewed: 8/19/2004 | Released: 7/21/2004 | Score: B

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The Pretender

I've been listening to Jackson Browne's album The Pretender since I was a very small child. It's actually one of the first albums I can remember hearing; I have memories of listening to it from a carseat, singing along even though I didn't really know the words. I grew up with it, and as I grew, my understanding of the songs also grew. The song "Daddy's Tune" brought me to tears shortly after my grandfather died. But as I listened to it a few weeks ago for the first time in many months, I felt a revelation, almost as though I'd never really heard it before.

The Pretender was Browne's fourth album. Despite the fact that he was a mere twenty-eight years old when it was released, it portrays a very world-weary songwriter. The songs on the album are about failed or failing romances, regrets, mediocrity, hope, understanding, a harsh world, and, more, finding your way in that world.

I think, perhaps, we all go through a period in our lives as we head toward our thirties and realize that we're not kids anymore but haven't really hit our strides as adults. How else to explain how much the songs on this album resonate with me right now? The feelings he describes--like something he says in "Your Bright Baby Blues": "No matter where I am / I can't help thinking I'm just a day away / From where I want to be"--are so familiar it almost seems like he was writing just for me.

Browne's albums always seem more the just a collection of songs; they have a theme that each song builds on. The title track, which ends the album, really brings it home. "The Pretender" is a song about the choices we make in life, about being, as Browne puts it, "Caught between the longing for love / And the struggle for the legal tender." I think a lot of us can in some way relate to the figure of the Pretender, a man "Who started out so young and strong / Only to surrender." And though it seems that there must be something of the songwriter in this sort of tragic character, we can also see that Browne separates himself from it. Indeed, Browne became quite an activist later in his career.

This is a choice we all make: whether to try for passion and greatness or to settle for a life of mediocrity. I wonder for myself if my reason for feeling so much from this music is because I really want more from my life. Maybe it's the books I grew up on, or maybe it was all the expectations of success people always had of me, but I think I always sort of wanted a big life. Is that true, though? Because, really, the stresses that come with being in the spotlight would wear on me, and, as it is, I have a lot to enjoy and be proud of in my life.

There's no easy answer, really--and even if I had an answer there wouldn't be room for it here. But if a song can bring these kinds of questions to mind, to inspire the kind of self-examination I've been doing lately, it must be a great song. Your mileage may vary, but I invite you to check out Jackson Browne, whom I consider to be one of rock's greatest poets.

Garden State

It's obvious when you watch Garden State that it's Zach Braff's first film--and by that I mean the first film that he's written and directed. There are a lot of things wrong with it, from sloppy cuts to dialogue that becomes a little pedantic at times. But behind these beginner mistakes is a story that is incredibly personal and honest. Garden State is a movie about growing up, about the lost feelings that people get in their mid-twenties after their childhoods have ended but their adult lives have not yet begun. Braff wrote this movie straight from the heart, and so even though it wasn't perfect, there was a lot that really resonated with me. Braff, himself was only so-so for me as the main character--although my wife thought he was very good. The really interesting performances for me were Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman. Sarsgaard has this sort of Malkovichian quality to his voice that has been hit-or-miss for me in previous roles, but he was so natural in this role that it makes you forget that he's even acting. His character, an old friend of Braff's, is wonderfully complex, at once a complete scoundrel and a caring friend. As for Portman, I think that at some point between Attack of the Clones and Cold Mountain she must have taken acting lessons. Gone are the one-dimensional, wooden performances that have haunted every film she did after Beautiful Girls. In their place is an actress who I intend to keep my eye on.

Viewed: 8/10/2004 | Released: 1/15/2004 | Score: B

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Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. Now, if all you're looking for is another stupid comedy, you've got it. I may be alone on this one, but there wasn't a single part of this movie that was too stupid for me to laugh at. John Cho and Kal Penn as the title characters made one of the best comedy duos I've seen in a while. Yes, the movie was crude. Yes, it was stupid. But I still laughed my butt off. On a completely different level, though, Harold and Kumar was actually a good movie. Underneath the typical dumb comedy was an interesting, somewhat progressive movie. You see, this sort of comedy would normally go to a pair of white teens or twenty-somethings. Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott, for example. But the writers of this film decided to put two "ethnic" guys in the lead roles, which becomes an integral part of the story. Harold and Kumar deal with issues that were remarkably familiar to me, things like finding one's identity as a minority citizen who is fully a part of the majority culture, or the shift in culture between immigrant parents and assimilated children. The movie takes on these issues in such a subtle way that you are hardly even aware they are present. In fact, you just see these two characters as regular American guys. And that in itself is kind of remarkable; you don't see ethnic characters often portrayed as normal, everyday, average joe types. Don't get me wrong, this movie isn't some grand statement on race in America; it won't change your life or anything. But there's more to it than meets the eye. Thumbs up from me.

Viewed: 8/8/2004 | Released: 5/19/2004 | Score: B

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Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite seems like the kind of movie that happens when a couple of college students put together a film based on a comic strip character they invented when they were in high school. The end result is a movie that seems to have no point about a character who has no apparent redeeming qualities (he's socially inept, rude, arrogant, not very bright, dishonest, and unattractive, to boot). The movie was obviously meant to be a comedy, and it succeeded in being just as quirky as I'm sure it set out to be. But I just didn't get it. There was really nothing compelling about the story or characters for me. Still, I'm sure that it will become a sort of cult classic, and that years from now (or perhaps just weeks from now) there will be hordes of college undergrads playing Napoleon Dynamite drinking games.

Viewed: 7/31/2004 | Released: 1/16/2004 | Score: D

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The Village

I think M. Night Shyamalan is slipping. The problem is that his signature "twist endings" become harder and harder to pull off the more movies he makes. With The Village, Shyamalan seems to have forgotten about making a good movie and just focused on trying to make a surprising ending. What we're left with is a script that presents a number of interesting characters with interesting characteristics about which much is said and never resolved. The central idea is cool, but not cool enough to make it a great--or even particularly good--movie. The acting was pretty hit or miss for me. Joaquin Phoenix was alright and Adrien Brody was pretty good (although several of my theater-type friends found his performance too "actorish"), but William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver were, as usual, terribly flat. Bryce Dallas Howard was probably the best of the cast, but even she was hindered by the incredibly wooden dialogue. Which brings it all back around to the script. By the end of the film, you understand why things are they way they are, but the fact that you don't know for the first three-quarters of the movie makes it just annoying. I kind of hope that Shyamalan can break out of his format and prove that he's not just a one-trick pony, because I'm starting to get bored.

Viewed: 7/30/2004 | Released: 7/25/2004 | Score: C

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