Quick Hits: January 2012: Miscellaneous Edition

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
I tried, I really did, but I eventually gave up. I tore through the first two books, but I just couldn’t get into this one. I made it about a third of the way through before I started skimming and flipping around. I enjoyed the bureaucratic and procedural elements to some extent, but there was nothing like the tension or mystery of the earlier books.

The Map of Time
This one I read a little further back than January, but I don’t seem to have written about it and it deserves a mention. A clever, delightful, romantic Victorian time-travel romance novel. A really playful tone, which is particularly notable since the novel was translated into English from its original Spanish.

Sherlock, both the original stories and the BBC show
Quite a lot of fun. The first episode of the second series was fantastic. Quick and clever and tense. The second episode, the Hound of the Baskervilles adaptation, was less successful. There just didn’t seem to be enough going on to sustain the episode. The third was a good ride, but hit too many false notes, like the absurd trial, and the pack of international assassins moving in next door. But the climax was well executed, which was especially hard to do given how well-known the source material is.

Speaking of source material, a read the first Holmes story – A Study in Scarlet – as well as A Scandal in Bohemia, upon which that fantastic first episode was based. It’s made me appreciate the series even more. It’s remarkably faithful to the original vision of the character. I do have to say, for those who haven’t read it, the middle portion of A Study in Scarlet is bizarre. Right as Holmes has captured the murderer, the story cuts to this whole other scene in Utah with Brigham Young’s pilgrims rescuing the survivors of a failed settler caravan. Eventually, this connects back to the Holmes story, but it takes forever, and shifts the focus of the story in this weird way.

I ploughed through the first half of the season in a matter of days, and am now up to date. I’m still not on board with the fact that the characters aren’t actually quite the same characters we’ve gotten to know in the earlier seasons. It gives the whole thing a bit of a Buffy Season 5 vibe. But there have been some good stand-alone episodes, and I’m willing to trust that the creative team behind the show knows what they’re doing.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the film)
I really liked it. It was really nice to watch a difficult movie, one that doesn’t spoon-feed everything. I’ve never been a big Cold War buff, or a 70’s nostalgist, but that didn’t matter. It’s a great period piece, yet it still feels relevant. It says the same sorts of things as the fantastic and funny In The Loop does about the bureaucratic instinct towards self-preservation and the intelligence failures which can result. And beyond that, it’s smart and tense and satisfying.

American Idiot (the musical)
I have an emotional attachment to the music. I listened to the album a lot during a rough time in my life. As a result, I actually ended up quietly bawling through significant portion of the show. Live performances do that to me some times. It’s great, but it leaves me feeling drained, so it’s good that it’s only a once-in-a-while experience.

Having said that, from an objective perspective the actual performance wasn’t all that great. As H pointed out, staging owes a lot to Rent, and had a feeling of being done on the cheap. The performers were solid, it’s more the writing and production that I found questionable.

They butchered one of my favourite songs from the album – She’s A Rebel – by mashing it up with Last of the American Girls from 21st Century Breakdown. Last of the American Girls is a fine song too, on its own, but the mash-up just didn’t work at all. It drained the energy from She’s A Rebel without adding anything.

Speaking of not adding anything, that’s more or less how I’d describe the story. It’s fine, but at best it adds nothing, and at worst twists and distorts the songs to fit its own whims. I think of American Idiot as firmly a post 9-11 work, associated particularly with the Iraq war, and the War on Terror, and the failure and frustration of the Bush era. I actually made a point of listening to it on the afternoon of election day in 2008 as a way to calm my nerves while waiting for the results. The musical is set in 2001, with most of it pre-9/11 (despite which, one character signs up for the army apparently in the spring of ’01, and then is somehow wounded in action that summer). It gave the production a weird, incongruous feel.

I didn’t really know much about it going it, but as it turns out, this is the play upon which You’ve Got Mail was based. Despite that strike against it, the play was pretty entertaining. In this case, the two leads carrying on the anonymous relationship by mail are co-workers in a perfume shop in 1930s Hungary who don’t get along in person.

I love the choice to pick up the action after the characters have already been corresponding for quite a while and are on the verge of meeting in real life. Watching characters fall in love can be awfully tedious. I also like that the characters are smart. They pick up on the identity of who they’re corresponding with almost as soon as they possibly could. Instead of playing too much with dramatic irony the characters find out more or less contemporaneously with the audience.

And I like that the story is as much about the perfume shop as it is about the letter writers. There are a bunch of other subplots going on about the workers and owner of the shop. I’m a big fan of multi-threaded storytelling in general, and it’s quite well executed here. The different plots intersect and overlap and share themes, without coming to any sort of convoluted climactic convergence. It helps that the acting was uniformly great.

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