A Slice of Fried Gold

Slices of Fried Gold (Getting Caught Up Edition)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

While out of town, I somewhat predictably inhaled two books. That frequently happens while being forced to spend a lot of time in grand places such as airports or airplanes. Additionally, I went to go see a movie that I would have otherwise seen by myself with a group of people because it turns out in bigger cities, people actually like Miyazaki (crazy talk!). As per usual, I must write up reviews on everything, so check out them out. All three are recommended by yours truly.

Ponyo (written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki)

From the beginning of this review, I must admit I'm an unabashed Miyazaki fanboy. Pretty much everything he produces ends up being one of my favorite animated films, somewhat akin to Pixar. In fact, he ranks right up there with Pixar as being one of the most consistent names in movies today. The fact that his average film is loaded with beautiful animation, wonderful voice acting, pitch perfect music, and magical stories is often lost on American audiences, but not this guy. So somewhat predictably, his new film Ponyo is superb at creating a magical storyline filled with very unique characters, not to mention almost preposterously beautiful hand drawn animation. However, it is definitely a lower tier Miyazaki film, belonging to the group that includes Kiki's Delivery Service and Nausicaa in my mind.

While the animation is once again lush and filled with unparalleled creativity, the story is what really brings this film down. It's the first Miyazaki film that I've ever left and thought "wow...that kind of felt undercooked." It was as if there was an entire act of the film missing, even though everything wraps up nice and tidy. While you have the obligatory Miyazaki moves, including (but not limited to!) the (in this case almost obscenely) young pair in love, the "save the environment!" driven story, and the wizened older characters, it felt like everything this film was rushed. Perhaps that was because it was shorter than usual for Miyazaki, but it seemed like the 20 minutes he chopped off made everything in the film resonate far less. Plus, no one was ever really established as evil. Even the primary villain (as voiced most excellently by Liam Neeson) was really just a parent watching out for his intensely youthful (and unique) child.

It's a hard thing to express really, but if you're a Miyazaki fan and you see this you will notice immediately. This is Miyazaki Lite if you will.

Of course, Miyazaki Lite is still very good, as we're given stunning vistas to observe, wonderful characters (such as Neeson's "villain" and Frankie Jonas' Sosuke), and an occasionally wildly imaginative storyline. Plus, you know it's going to be massively entertaining. Miyazaki's unique brand of bizarre entertainment is on full display once again here.

However, the issue of how rushed it feels combined with some poor voice acting (Ponyo's voice is grating and Tina Fey just doesn't fit) downgrades this film a good amount. While it's always splendid to get new Miyazaki, I prefer my Miyazaki not rushed and fully realized, thank you very much.

Ponyo: B-

Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

This is Chuck Klosterman's debut fiction novel, and like in his non-fiction work it is a piece that is driven by his time spent in North Dakota as a pop culture obsessed youth who understood the human condition very well. Of course, this is more obviously driven as it is about the town of Owl, North Dakota and in particular three highly disparate individuals who live there. You could make the argument that this story is Klosterman proving he can do mundane as well as anyone, but if this is mundane then I can't wait for more of it from Klosterman.

One of the best thing Klosterman does within this story is really create the sense of community and environment, as he makes us fully realize what it's like to live in a horrifically small town in North Dakota. Giving the entire story to us in (mostly) three individuals perspectives who belong to three greatly different archetypes (the outcast high schooler, the fish out of water young schoolteacher, and the wizened life time citizen) was a strong decision, as it lets each reader get a different perspective as to what makes this city tick. Within these pages, Klosterman loads the reader up with every nook and cranny detail of the city and its denizens. Every person in Owl knows everything about person in Owl, except when you get down to it no one really knows anyone. It's a very unique perspective, but one that strangely never seems to be leading anywhere plotwise.

Until it does, in truly cruel and unusual fashion.

Besides what effectively amounts to an entire absence of a traditional plot, this book is excellent as Klosterman is spectacular at creating well rounded characters without subjecting any of them to the singular voice of Chuck Klosterman himself. Each of these characters sound like Klosterman and sound like every person you've ever met. His ability to do this with small snippets about every character allows the town of Owl to really come to life in a truly amazing fashion, and in a lot of ways reminds me of another recent read of mine: David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. While even Klosterman can't turn a phrase like Mr. Mitchell, he has similar aptitude in creating realistic and tragic characters with the greatest of ease (namely my favorite character in the book - Cubby Candy - who is remarkably interesting but only really gets a chapter).

If you cannot stand a book that is a pinch on the aimless side (you have to call a spade a spade...it's pretty much plotless), this is not for you. But if you want a very well written piece of small town Americana with well drawn characters and an all in all stellar example of the English language, look no further.

Downtown Owl: B+

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Generally speaking, I don't pick up books until well after they're released. However, I read a review for Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You and instantly had to pick it up. It 100% absolutely seemed like it would be my cup of tea, and sure enough it was. Tropper has crafted some kind of masterpiece here as he created one of the single greatest representations of modern American families I've ever seen (regardless of medium). Imagine the Bluth family but if you actually gave them a heart and then locked them in the same room together for seven days. I'm unsure if I could compliment something more oddly or better, but it happened all the same.

The story follows Judd Foxman, a recently cuckolded middle child of a family whose patriarch has just died. Evidently the deceased father had a last wish, and that wish was for his entire family to sit Shiva for him. That means Judd and his three siblings (Wendy, Paul and Phillip) will have to live together with their mother (a best selling author on parenting who raised four messed up kids) and everyone else for an entire week, without killing each other (ideally).

That's the central premise of this story, but Judd also takes us on journeys into his memory including what I will eternally refer to as page 23, which is a breakdown of what he does when he discovers his wife cheating on him with his boss. Also known as the single funniest thing I've ever read. I nearly fell over while reading it.

Really, this story is one of an awakening for a devestated man, at times seeming like he's quite possibly the saddest man on the world but always ready for sharp observations and ones of stunning emotional depth. It's about how you not only survive being in a dysfunctional family (as every family says they are but none actually when in comparison to the Foxman clan), but eventually thrive. It's about the differences between being in your 20's and 30's and being an adult.

Every aspect of this novel is almost impossibly well done, as the characters are rich and textured (particularly Phillip, the impetuous youth of the family), every conversation is a loaded one, every moment a monumental one. Not only that, but the way Tropper presents the story is in such a fashion that you can almost read each section as a novella, all little portions that are much more than the sum of their parts.

It's really difficult to write anything about this book, as every aspect of it is so damn good. My friend Jason said that if he ever got a hole in one in golf, he'd quit forever, and if you want to put that into terms of writing, Tropper has a hole in one on his hands. I have no idea how he could ever top it. Tropper really should retire now.

I could not recommend this book enough. It's one of the most funny, touching and real books I've ever read. I had read twenty pages of it and immediately went back and purchased this for a friend as a present. It's that good. Pick it up now or fear my wrath!

This is Where I Leave You: A (for absurdly good)


alotstuff said...

nice blog and have lots of stuff here....


David Harper said...

Thanks for the comment. I definitely do have lots of stuff :-)

My Latte Life said...

I freaking LOVE This is Where I Leave You. It is glorious! Thanks for that excellent bday present...

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