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Total Recall [DVD]
Total Recall [DVD]
Dvd ~ Arnold Schwarzenegger
Price: £3.60

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth recalling, 30 July 2011
This review is from: Total Recall [DVD] (DVD)
I must have come across this film shortly after it was released, and I have watched it a few more times over the years - most recently, yesterday. I find it as entertaining as ever, but by now it has also acquired a retro quality, which imparts a peculiar touch of chic. I think that this is largely due to the lead actors being still fairly young there, but also the overall style of acting, which happens to be both old-school and over-the-top at the same time - they do not do it that way any longer. The combination of mechanical special effects (some of them quite impressive, some crude) with early CGI work also adds to the retro feel: in that respect the film marks the watershed between two technological eras, almost as if this were done intentionally.

I do not share the view that the plot is too schematic nor that it lacks originality. If anything, I find it rather advanced for a film that aspires only to entertain. One nontrivial aspect, which is often commented on, is that the storyline contains several indications that the whole Martian adventure could be a dream after all. Another, which I have not seen mentioned by anybody, is that the orthodox scheme of good triumphing over evil is strengthened in a most inventive way: the good is fictitious (Quaid never existed as a person; he is an implanted false memory), and yet it prevails over the real evil. Fancy that!


No Country For Old Men [DVD]
No Country For Old Men [DVD]
Dvd ~ Tommy Lee Jones
Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: £2.98

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of what is past, or passing, or to come, 8 Nov 2010
This review is from: No Country For Old Men [DVD] (DVD)
Being the arthouse cinema fan that I am, over the last 10 or so years I would occasionally watch a Hollywood movie for entertainment, but I gave up any hope of seeing anything truly artistic from that source. It was about time I was chastened for my arrogance, and sure enough, I came across 'No Country for Old Men' a couple of weeks ago. What attracted me was the title lifted from Yeats; I correctly guessed that it must have been the title of the book on which the film was based, but at that stage I had not yet read the book nor was even aware of its existence.

What a feast! A violent modern western on the surface; a dark and bitter existential meditation underneath; actors working their socks off; solid direction and camera work; a minimalistic soundtrack that is as un-Hollywoodian as they get; all of this works together and keeps one impressed non-stop.

The layered structure of the film is quite ambitious, but thankfully, the directors do not spell things out for the viewer. If anything, certain things were made less obvious than they are in the book, and that enhanced the overall impact. For example, it takes the full length of the film, including the paradoxical ending, to bring the viewer to the realisation that the protagonist of the story is Sheriff Bell - the least likely of the three candidates for that role. This realisation has quite an impact by itself, but it also takes care of the loose ends of the surface plot - not by tying them up in any logical way but by rendering them irrelevant, which is so much better. The film is about the sheriff, and as far as he is concerned, there are no loose ends left: he lost on all counts; the bad guy won. The book is rather more direct about matters like who got the money in the end, and after the film this certainly felt like a weakness: what is the point of trying not to disappoint the readers who do not get the point, if you know what I mean... To be fair, the book is not always direct, but the film is even less so. For instance, McCarthy pointedly avoided describing the deaths of Moss and his wife in gory detail (in sharp contrast to the overall style of the book); the death of the former is even narrated by a third party rather than directly by the author. The film goes further, merely implying both these deaths.

The tense scene where Chigurh and the sheriff appear to be standing at the opposite sides of a motel room door is not to be found in the book. There are several ways of interpreting what happened there, and each of the possibilities enriches the story in its own way. My guess is that the two characters are not actually present there at the same time and that when Chigurh calmly observes the flicker of light through the punched-out hole in the lock, this is in fact just an image in Sheriff Bell's mind - a visual manifestation of his fear, which we are given a chance to see as yet another hint at the fact that the sheriff is, after all, the main character of the story. Of course, this cannot be literally the image in his mind because the sheriff does not know what Chigurh looks like - but the viewer does...

A few more words about that infamous ending. I always like it when a film ends at an unexpected point, but here this old trick achieves so much more than delivering a parting surprise. Yes, the final sequence comes from the book verbatim, but unlike the book, the film is wide open at that point because of some small changes to the plot, so what the viewer gets is an anticlimax by the action genre standards and a knockout artistically. A character describing his dream is a staple of arthouse cinema, and here we get not one but two dreams, told to us by the downbeat Tommy Lee Jones, alone in the frame, in such a thick Texan accent that I had to rewind and switch on the subtitles. Everything falls into place, except for the things that, as it dawns on us, do not matter. And can there be a better punch line than "And then I woke up", followed immediately by the credits?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 12, 2012 10:13 PM BST


Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (Penguin Modern Classics)
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Jorge Luis Borges
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The search for Borges, 18 Oct 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I am embarrassed to admit that this was my first proper exposure to Borges - though I had seen, and was intrigued by, many fragments of his works quoted by other authors, which is what eventually prompted me to pick up this book. The experience has turned out to be a mixture of joy and disappointment.

Allowance has to be made for the fact that the English translations in this collection are not those revised and approved by Borges. The sparks of stylistic brilliance occurring every now and again in this book made me wonder how different an impression I would get from the authorised translations (which, sadly, cannot be published any longer).

The majority of the stories introduce metaphysical ideas dressed as fiction, which is something that I do not care for - though this, of course, is a matter of personal preference. Some stories appear to be merely jokes of philosophic or literary nature while some closely (perhaps too closely) remind the style of Poe or Bierce. This quality may or may not be an artefact of translation; however, I certainly feel that the central premise of 'The Secret Miracle' is essentially the same as that of 'An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge' by Bierce. I recognised this even though I only ever read the latter story some 40 years ago, in a Russian translation - so the similarity must be real.

On the other hand, there are some true gems in this book - for example, 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', whose intense poetic beauty transcends the metaphysical content, or 'Averroes's Search', which I find quite disturbing.

In the latter, a Moorish scholar writes, "with slow sureness, from right to left", a commentary on Aristotle's 'Poetics' (accessible to him only as a translation of a translation) and struggles with the meaning of the words 'tragedy' and 'comedy' that keep cropping up in this work but are not to be found in any other book in his library. The scholar tries to console himself with the thought that what we seek is often nearby, and later that day attends a learned gathering at a cleric's home. There, a theological and literary discussion takes place and a famous traveller tells, by way of an entertaining account, about a large painted house he visited in China: the house had balconies on the inside and was full of people watching other people who were wearing crimson masks and doing strange things. The whole thing is dismissed as lunacy by the listeners, including the scholar - who thus misses the revelation and remains in the dark about the meaning of the puzzling words in Aristotle: theatre and drama are unknown to his medieval Islamic world.

In the final paragraph of 'Averroes's Search' Borges reveals that his intention was "to narrate the process of a defeat ... of a man who sets himself a goal which is not forbidden to others, but is to him". Borges then ponders over his own difficulty with imagining Averroes based on the scraps of information about him found in various sources. The multi-lingual versions of people's names, book titles and place names scattered around the story also point to the difficulty of penetrating Averroes's way of thinking and understanding the world in which he lived; this mirrors the difficulty experienced by Averroes in the story. Fittingly, an extra layer of the same nature is added in the translation by the fact that the title of the Spanish-language original (La Busca de Averroes) cannot be adequately rendered in English because it has a dual meaning - "the search of Averroes" and "the search for Averroes" - and both interpretations are relevant to the story. Another aspect of the sublime irony of the whole situation is that the Western world largely owes its re-discovery of Aristotle to Averroes, who is also known as Ibn Rushd. Moreover, his commentary was read by medieval European scholars as the Latin translation of a Hebrew translation - not unlike the way in which Averroes reads Aristotle in the first place according to Borges (it is not known whether the real Averroes was able to read in Greek or Syriac).

The description of a failure to understand in 'Averroes's Search' is so compelling that it got me thinking: could it be that I miss the point of some of the stories in this collection in a similar way? I reckon that I will have to return to them one day and try again - and perhaps this time read these stories in the authorised translation if I can get hold of it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 8, 2010 12:43 AM GMT


The Early Stories: 1953-1975
The Early Stories: 1953-1975
by John Updike
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars To sieve or not to sieve, 19 Oct 2009
I am a long-standing fan of Updike's short stories (though less so of his novels), and my three-star rating of this book is not a reflection of my general opinion of him as a writer. Nevertheless, I do have some issues with this particular volume.

I think that it was a mistake to collect over 100 short stories under one cover with virtually no sieving. Updike made his living from writing and, and as far as I understand, he never held a regular job after he resigned from the New Yorker at the age of 25 - so I would be the last person to blame him for having published some short stories that were not quite to his general standard. When a small collection contains a couple of such works, this is usually not a problem. The situation inevitably becomes different on a scale of 100+ samples: the gap in quality between the best 10 and the weakest 10 of them is massive, and it is impossible not to notice this. I do not think that exposing his lesser works against the background of so many great stories found in this volume has done Updike's standing any good. I own virtually all collections of short stories ever published by him, and in my opinion he emerges a better author from each of his individual early collections than from this volume that combines their content.

I did not like the fact that while putting together this book Updike decided to change a few things here and there. In particular, the last sentence of the wonderful 'Dentistry and Doubt' is way too subtle in its revised version, and I suspect that some readers may now miss the whole point of the ending: I probably would, had I not read the story the way it was originally published.

Giving the hardback a deckle edge was a bad idea. This feature should really be reserved for luxury editions; the combination of ordinary binding and artificially deckled ordinary paper looks anything but tasteful; in fact, it looks cheap. More importantly, a deckle fore-edge makes it very difficult to browse through the book; locating a particular story in this volume is a constant source of frustration, so I seldom open it any longer. If the publishers were absolutely set on deckling, they should have molested the head or tail edge (or both); the fore-edge needs to be smoothly cut because it has an important practical function: the reader slides his or her thumb across it when looking for something in the book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 24, 2011 9:35 PM GMT


Problems: And Other Stories
Problems: And Other Stories
by John Updike
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £4.40

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "To witness this miracle", 4 Oct 2009
The 23 short stories forming this collection were written between 1971 and 1978. Seven of them have not been included in 'The Early Stories' published in 2003, and at least two ('The Faint' and 'Atlantises', both of them masterpieces) have never, to the best of my knowledge, been reprinted anywhere.

This is quintessential Updike with all his signature themes: marital infidelity, divorce, solitude, ill health, growing old - the latter being less prominent in this book than in his subsequent collections. I believe that it was Updike's choice of themes that prevented him from getting a Nobel Prize: the establishment never came to terms with his ability to turn these human conditions into life-affirming works of art. Take, for example, 'Domestic Life in America', which opens with the words "The wives get the houses. It is easier for the lawyers this way" and ends with "Above Beacon Hill, in the general direction of his lawyer's, an electric sign announced in alternation, remarkably, 10:01 and 10 [degrees]. Fraser regretted there was no one with him to witness this miracle." It almost feels like Updike is out to annoy the prudes, e.g. in 'Transaction', which is explicit even by his standards, or in 'Here Come the Maples', which starts thus: "They had always been a lucky couple, and it was just their luck that, as they at last decided to part, the Puritan Commonwealth in which they lived passed a no-fault amendment to its creaking, overworked body of divorce law".

As usual, he throws in a few stories that lighten the mood, such as the hilarious 'Minutes of the Last Meeting' or 'The Faint' with its most un-Updikean of endings which is as unexpected as it is logical.


Mirror [DVD] [1975]
Mirror [DVD] [1975]
Dvd ~ Anatoly Solonitsyn
Offered by babsbargains *** WORLDWIDE SHIPPING *Posting Everyday up to last posting day for Xmas**
Price: £39.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do not miss the plot, 29 Sep 2009
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Mirror [DVD] [1975] (DVD)
The points made by other reviewers about this film's nonlinearity and being much like poetry are, of course, valid. I remember seeing it for the first time back in the 70s and realising that I was in the presence of a radically new kind of art: exciting and powerful but also almost alien, as if the film had been imported from Mars. Then the world cinema started to catch up little by little, but as the 80s turned into the 90s the mainstream went simplistic again, and today's young viewers of the 'Mirror' are, in all likelihood, having the very same thoughts about a film from Mars. We can only guess whether the new language of cinema introduced by Tarkovsky 35 years ago will ever be widely adopted.

However, there is a coherent story there too - and its existence is often missed or even vehemently denied. It is essentially the life story of the narrator, who never appears in the frame as an adult, but through whose eyes many of the scenes are presented. The man has his share of human flaws, yet his perception is particularly sharp, and his mind and spirit are attuned to the history and destiny of his country and to the cultural heritage of the humankind - the latter represented in the film by the music and visual references to famous paintings, which elevate the action and place it in the global context. There are repeated hints in the film that these personal qualities - a mixed blessing to put it mildly - run in the family and hence will go on even though the narrator dies in his 40s. The words of the smoking doctor in the deathbed scene (who is played by the co-author of the screenplay) are mistranslated in the English subtitles, but the key part comes across: the man is dying because there are such things as memory and conscience.

The storyline requires a bit of effort to comprehend - not because it was made obscure by Tarkovsky, but because of the impact of the following factors:

First of all, the action moves backwards and forwards between three time planes: 1930s, 1940s and 1970s. Recognisable time markers are provided most of the time, but it is still possible to get confused, so it is important to pay full attention to what is shown and said. This difficulty is not unlike the one that a reader might have in comprehending the storyline of 'The Sound and the Fury' by Faulkner, who at one stage even contemplated a special edition of the novel with fragments set in different time printed in different colours.

Secondly, what we see in the film is not only the supposed reality but also memories (distorted as they always are), dreams (with their own logic that can never be fully grasped) and prophetic visions (one example: a boy on a snow-covered hillside takes in the view which re-creates the 'Hunters in the Snow' by Bruegel, and sees not only the forthcoming end of the war but also the much later border conflict with China). Again, it is not too difficult to figure out which scene falls into which category.

Thirdly, the same actress plays the narrator's mother and his ex-wife. Similar things have been done in many other films; nevertheless, I heard form several people that this, rather than anything else, was what confused them most in the 'Mirror'. In fact, the two characters look, act and speak considerably differently (a credit to the actress!), and in any case the time plane of any given episode makes it clear which of the two women appears in it: nobody is time-travelling in this film, except for the very last sequence where time is warped or rather absent altogether.

Those factors are vital for the structure of the 'Mirror' and contribute to its outstanding artistic qualities and cult status, but they can also put off viewers who are either unable or unwilling to play by the rules laid down by Tarkovsky. But then again, isn't this problem common to all true art?


Eugene Onegin
Eugene Onegin
by Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.44

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classical translation, still unsurpassed in several respects, 17 Sep 2009
This review is from: Eugene Onegin (Paperback)
Nabokov's criticism of Arndt's translation is sometimes cited as evidence of Johnston's or Falen's version being superior to it. This is a misunderstanding: the thrust of Nabokov's arguments is in fact directed at any form-preserving translation of 'Onegin', and the only reason his wrath was not unleashed against later attempts at it is that Nabokov died in 1977 - the year Johnston's version was first published. It is true that the authors of more recent translations of 'Onegin' benefited form access to Nabokov's literalistic rendering (which makes a very useful crib but cannot possibly be recommended to lay readers of poetry) and his painstakingly detailed commentary - but so did Arndt when he revised his translation in 1981.

Form-preserving translations inevitably involve what Nabokov derisively called "arty paraphrase", and a common argument against such translations goes along the lines of "I prefer to know what the poet meant". The problem with this position is that Pushkin meant to create a work of art based on harmonious interplay between the sense conveyed by the words and the music of iambic tetrameters arranged in exquisitely rhymed stanzas. Approximating this interplay in English is a formidable challenge, but it is the only way to get anywhere near the intention of Pushkin. If some readers would rather enjoy the most precise English equivalents of his words, preferably placed in the same order as in the original (where this order, and even the words themselves, were often chosen for the sake of the metre and rhyme that have vanished in the literal translation) - well, that is their choice. Arndt dismissed translations of this type as "sad ritual murder performed for the purposes of an ever more insatiable lexical necrophilia".

As many as eight form-preserving translations of 'Onegin' can be found on Amazon: see my list "Form-preserving translations of 'Eugene Onegin', 1881-2008". Having given a try to five of them, I think that it is only natural that different readers may prefer different versions. For what it is worth, Arndt's translation turned out to be the only one that I wanted to continue reading after a few pages (I know much of the original by heart). His text flows almost effortlessly, his rhymes seldom feel forced, and he manages to put across some of the stylistic brilliance and sheer magic of Pushkin's writing. Arndt is also particularly good at translating passages that involve complex emotions or subtle humour, of which there are plenty in this book.

Some readers are attracted by the contemporary vocabulary and idiom of the translations of 'Onegin' made in the 21st century, and this is as good a reason as any to prefer one translation to another. However, bearing in mind that rhymed metrical verse is inevitably perceived as archaic by today's Anglophone readers, and that the language of the original feels somewhat old-fashioned to today's speakers of Russian, it is not at all clear whether rendering 'Onegin' (written by a contemporary of Byron) in modern parlance has much artistic credibility. The language of Arndt sounds more fitting to me.

Overall, my recommendation would be to read at least two translations of this outstanding work of literature and to choose Arndt's classical version as one of them.


Nativity Poems
Nativity Poems
by Joseph Brodsky
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine translations, beautifully presented, 28 Nov 2002
This review is from: Nativity Poems (Hardcover)
Buy this book for the excellent new translations. While there can be no substitute for reading a major poet in his own language, the efforts by Melissa Green, Seamus Heaney, Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott and Richard Wilbur are arguably as good as translation of poetry ever gets.

Bilingual editions are not to everyone's taste, but in this case the format seems to work really well: even the perceived volume of the two versions of each poem is virtually the same most of the time (which is notoriously difficult to achieve between Russian and English), with nearly ideal alignment of the corresponding lines at opposing pages. Those unable to read what is printed on the left-hand side can still marvel at the beauty of Cyrillic and try to figure out the rhyme scheme of the original by checking the endings...

Why on earth did they have to include an interview with the author? Worse still, much of the conversation there rotates around the nativity poems themselves. It is never a good idea to provoke poets into discussing their own work rationally; as for publishing the transcript under the same cover with the poems in question, this cannot but take away some of the magic.

Editor's Note at the back mentions that "Christmas" and "Nativity" are the same word in Russian. Quite. But can this ambiguity alone justify inclusion of 'Speech over spilled Milk' in this book? The only relation between that poem and the theme of the collection is that Christmas is mentioned in the first line (though it turns into New Year later on). 'Speech over Spilled Milk' is a fine poem, important for appreciating early Brodsky and beautifully translated, but here it sticks out like a sore thumb: both the subject and the style are completely out of place, and its size (nearly a quarter of the whole volume!) violates the rhythm of the piece-to-piece flow which is vital in a small book of poetry. I would probably also drop 'Lagoon', on the same basis as 'Speech...' and also because the recurring image of a ship there doesn't mix well with the desert landscape implied by the overall concept of the collection.

Purely chronological arrangement of poems is generally reserved for comprehensive editions with an academic flavour to them. Nevertheless, it doesn't look unnatural in this book of a very different kind. Besides, this way it is easier to notice that the nativity poems that made it into the book were written over a period of precisely 33 years. Very appropriate; I wonder whether it was intentional.

Sadly, I spotted a few inaccuracies on the first reading. M.V. is printed instead of M.B. in the dedication of '25.XII.1993'. Easy to understand how this happened (the initials got transliterated twice), much more difficult to forgive. Another unpleasant oversight is "Brodsky, Joseph, 1940-" in the Library of Congress Data. The author died 6 years ago; they should have noticed by now. There are also misplaced stanzas in the translation of 'Lullaby' and a misunderstood passage about a villager in the translation of "With riverbanks of frozen chocolate, a city...", p.69 (to be fair, the syntax of the original gets really convoluted at that point).

As far as the look and feel of the hardback edition is concerned, the publishers couldn't have done a better job. It is as books used to be: a visual feast and a sheer pleasure to handle. Tastefully and sparingly illustrated with superb period photographs of snow-covered Leningrad.


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