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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Quick Thoughts

First and foremost, I want to apologize for the lengthy delays between my posts on this blog, for anyone who might be reading. I just haven't really had any ideas on what to write about, so here's a bunch of uncollected thoughts on matters diverse.

I'm moving back to Chicago to try and get a job there. I'm going to do things differently this time around, in that I'm going to go all out trying to get anything at all, just to be doing something with my time. I wasted far too much of my time the last go-around, and the situation, while not necessarily desperate, isn't far from it now.

I don't get the negative hubbub surrounding the Mets right now. Is it just me, or have they won 10 out of 12 with Santana staked to a 3-run lead already this afternoon. I understand that the Mets contributed to this atmosphere with their miserable performance in the last two Septembers, but can we at least wait until they are giving credence to the criticism? And I think people need to realize that Jose Reyes is one of the best players in all of baseball, and his "alleged" lack of hustle on a ball he thought was going out of the ballpark isn't that big of a concern. I was there in person and I never thought he could make it to third.

I finished Season 2 of Weeds the other day and it was just as good as the first. The cliffhanger season finale was one of the tensest I've ever seen, and I'm moving Season 3 up to the top of my list. The show so capably builds the relationships between the characters and increases the drama of the story-lines.

How often do you give up on a book? I'm severely struggling in my attempt to read Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, pressing on only because of the book's reputation. (Last year it was named Best of the Booker, as the best book out of the 40 that have won the Booker Prize.) I give up on books fairly often for a variety of reasons, but I never like doing it. The only way I can justify it to myself is with the thought that there are so many books that one will enjoy reading that it really is a shame to waste so much time boring through the wall of a massive classic just because other people have wanted to sound smart by saying they've read it.

I recently had a Coen Brothers double feature courtesy of Netflix, watching Fargo and Barton Fink. Fargo was even better than I expected. One of the things I like most about the Coens is their playful nature with their movies. Fargo takes a scenario straight out of the noir/Hitchcock tradition but instead of creating a drama featuring suave and charming heroes and scenic locales they set the movie in Minnesota and populate it with a bunch of desperate morons and assorted other quirky folks. Frances McDormand won the Best Actress for playing a pregnant police chief who puts together the pieces of a fake kidnapping turned deadly. 9.0 out of 10.

Barton Fink is one of those films that, depending on your philosophy and temperament, will make you angry or make you feel dumb. John Turturro is the titular character, a playwright with noble ideas hired to write a humdrum Hollywood movie. Fink checks into a seedy hotel and develops a bad case of writer's block and befriends his next door neighbor, a dimwitted insurance salesman played perfectly by John Goodman. Fink's ideals, career and life are all threatened when he becomes involved in a murder investigation and has to beg Goodman to help him. From there the movies becomes surreal and overtly symbolic. The ending is maybe the most confusing I have ever seen, and makes the ending to No Country for Old Men seem revelatory in comparison. Barton Fink is rarely comprehensible but always fascinating, but loses points for the former. 7.6 out of 10.

30 Rock seemed to have a bit of a ho-hum finale, especially considering the hype put on by NBC about the episode's song becoming a youtube sensation. I was impressed at the show's ability to attract guest stars, even though I was only able to recognize a few of them. Best of the bunch was Elvis Costello, or should I say, Declan MacManus, international art thief. The highlight of the episode to me was the meta-humor about the MASH finale, when Jack's father, played by Alan Alda, passes a crying Tracy Jordan and says "A man crying over a chicken and a baby? I thought this was a comedy show?"

On that note, what the hell am I going to do with no new TV shows until September? All I've got is one How I Met Your Mother to go until the idiot box becomes useless to me, outside of the Mets, naturally.

Lastly, my heartfelt condolences to the Class of 2009. You don't have any idea how much it sucks not to be in college. Seriously, you just don't.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Howards End

Spending four years as an English major has made me leery of novels which are described as being about one of the major "issues" that get grad students over-heated and leave people who want to enjoy books in the lurch. I learned the hard way that college courses featuring the words Class, Labor, Gender, or The Other were to be avoided at all costs, especially as there is such a high incidence of Jane Austen in them.

Howards End refers to the ancestral home of Mrs. Wilcox, who on her deathbed decides to leave the home to Margaret Schlegel, rather than to her own family. Because the request is not in her will, the family ignores it. This sounds like a set-up for much conflict and tension, but really it isn't. It is some 250 pages before Margaret ever finds out about her dead friend's final request. Instead the novel focuses on the relationship between the two families after the widower Wilcox decides he wants to marry Margaret, upsetting his children and Margaret's emotional sister Helen, who had once been spurned by the younger Wilcox. Along the way there is much in the way of dinner-time conversation and social events, but dreadfully little activity.

E.M. Forster's Howards End isn't quite so Austen-tacious as to make me run for the hills, but it is clearly about Class, and the difficulty of relations between people of different social levels, even though in this case the difference between the industrious Wilcox family and intellectual Schlegels seems rather small. Much like the novels of Austen and The Other Women Writers I Avoided Like Hell in College, there is much too much in this novel about manners and social graces, and because of the time in which it was written, there is an artificial unreality surrounding these characters. Most of the characters seem stuffy, stilted and unhuman, even though Forster does nobly struggle to introduce though intimation the unmentionable.

For all that it pertains to be about, class and art and the inability of human beings to "only connect"- to feel empathy for and see the humanity in others- Howards End still feels decidedly small. The plot is astonishingly thin, and gives the impression that Forster inflated 70 pages of story into a 300-page novel rather than try to trim it down to a short story. There are numerous and unintelligible intrusions from the impersonal narrator, and innumerable philosophical digressions of Forster's put into the mouths of his characters. Allusions are made to a legion of contemporary artists, composers and writers, a scant few of which are names familiar to the modern-day reader. All in all, there is a lot of material to wade through before you get to the good stuff.

There is indeed good stuff here, there just isn't as much as there is in A Passage to India, my previous encounter with Forster. Margaret Schlegel is a very admirable character, strong-willed and determined to stay independent despite her role as a wife. Forster's motto for the novel, the much-quoted "Only Connect" is a good lesson worth remembering, and is passionately invoked in the argument between Margaret and Wilcox which serves as the novel's climax. Overall, though, a largely unimpressive reading experience, which narrowly squeaks into the "tolerable" range with a 5.2 out of 10.

Next? Well, I've already started on Midnight's Children, and I suppose sometime I'll have to go back and finish Rabbit at Rest.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Quick Reviews

Here's a quick roundup of the movies I've seen lately and my disorganized thoughts on them.

The French Connection- I don't know if the ending of a movie has ever changed my mind about it so thoroughly as it did here. Until the final seconds this is just an above-average police thriller with a formulaic plot-line and one or two phenomenal chase scenes. But the closing moments make it so much more. I don't want to give anything away, but Hackman's performance becomes much more impressive in retrospect, justifying his Best Actor and the film's Best Picture awards for 1971. 7.2 out of 10.

A Streetcar Named Desire- I was fairly bored by this movie and repelled by it's two main characters. Tennessee Williams wrote the play and it's clear that the prevalent censorship in Hollywood at the time made this movie much more confusing than it need have been. Marlon Brando is obviously a great actor, and his turn as the brutish Stanley Kowalski is worthy of respect, but the plot is so unnecessarily slow that Brando can't save it. Vivian Leigh chews the scenery as pathetic former socialite Blanche DuBois. I just couldn't get into this movie. 4.8 out of 10.

Suddenly Last Summer- Another Tennessee Williams play turned movie, this film's principal enjoyment lies in watching them try to make an entire movie about homosexuality without saying the word once. In 1937 New Orleans Katharine Hepburn plays a rich widower who wants psychiatrist Montgomery Clift to perform a lobotomy on her niece, Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor has been disturbed since witnessing the death of Hepburn's son, and has been telling crazy stories about what really happened to the beloved Sebastian. The whole movie consists of misdirection and hinting at what really happened. Clift sees that the lobotomy is unnecessary and tries to break through Taylor's resistance and get at the truth. Taylor's over-emotional monologue at the end of the movie is one of the strangest things I've ever seen in a movie, and makes so little sense that it is rather jarringly funny. 5.9 out of 10.

Little Miss Sunshine- I stayed away from this movie when it first came out, because I was sure that I wouldn't like it nearly as much as everyone said I would. Then I recently caught a scene on USA and laughed so hard I decided to give it a shot (It was the scene where Alan Arkin's character is giving advice to Paul Dano.) While the movie only rarely hits that extreme height of hilarity it is still an enjoyable film throughout, and touching at times without being cloying. All the principals are great, especially Carell, Arkin, and Abigail Breslin as the would-be beauty queen. 7.8 out of 10.

Stardust Memories, Mighty Aphrodite- I think I'm going to give it a rest with the Woody Allen movies. These are the last two I saw and I disliked them both. Stardust Memories is a take on Fellini which is just boring and absurd. Mighty Aphrodite was annoying, especially Mira Sorvino's prostitute with a Minnie Mouse voice. 3.8 and 2.0 out of 10, respectively.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Recommendation: Weeds Season 1

I've got to give Jose Duarte credit, he is the one who insisted that I utilize my Netflix subscription to watch Season 1 of Weeds on Instant Watch. This (in addition to his correctness in the cause of promoting WALL-E) just about make up for his over-hyping of Ratatouille.

Weeds stars Mary-Louise Parker, who I enjoyed greatly as Amy Gardner, a feminist foil to Josh Lyman on The West Wing. Here Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a suburban housewife who loses her income and turns to selling pot to make ends meet. She has to deal with a two sons, one a misbehaving teen and the other a ten-year-old with a disturbing pattern of anti-social behavior. The cast is rounded out by Nancy's sources for pot (one of whom is the great Romany Malco), her accountant Kevin Nealon, a good-for-nothing brother-in-law, and her friend Celia. Celia is played by Elizabeth Perkins and is one of the best characters I've ever seen on TV. She's an unmitigated bitch, but sometimes you can't help but root for her. She rules the PTA with an iron fist and torments her daughter to get her to lose weight, but she cuts through all the bullshit and has this aura of righteousness about her.

The great thing about this season was that it kept introducing complications and new characters through all ten episodes. It didn't glorify drug-dealing, although I guess it could be accused of downplaying drug use. It was nice to see Nancy encounter obstacles and struggle to get through them.

The bottom line is that Weeds is quite clearly the product of very talented people. Parker, Nealon, Malco, Perkins and the rest are all performing at peak capacity and it's obvious the writers and the show's producers are all top-notch. Even the people who pick the music do a phenomenal job. The theme song is a catchy song called "Little Boxes" which decries suburban life, but all the other songs used in the series are fitting.

Weeds is a great show, and if I had Showtime I'd be tempted to try and get through all four seasons before the fifth opens in June. As it is I will still watch them, but I can take my own sweet time about it.