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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher’s take on the immensely popular Swedish mystery novel is a movie that contains multitudes. It’s nearly three-hour run time allows it to do a lot of different things, and do most of them very well. Ultimately the only thing keeping it from being a great movie is the limitations of the source material itself. No blame for this should attach to Fincher or anyone else involved in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is the best adaptation of a novel I didn’t like that I could possibly expect.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a left-wing journalist embarrassed and financially ruined after being successfully sued for libel by a wealthy industrialist. Blomkvist’s dogged investigation draws the attention of another magnate, Henrik Vanger (the great Christopher Plummer) who hires him to investigate the forty-year-old disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. When Blomkvist asks for an assistant, he’s introduced to the researcher who checked into him for Vanger, the titular tattooed lady, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).

I’m already getting ahead of myself, because that meeting between Blomkvist and Salander doesn’t happen until well into the movie. Instead we follow them separately, as Blomkvist begins his seemingly hopeless investigation and Salander goes through some terrible mistreatment at the hands of the state.

Any adaptation would necessarily hinge on the actress playing Lisbeth. For a while I didn’t quite buy Mara in the role, she seemed too vulnerable. I suppose that is a part of the character, but it honestly seemed like she might start quivering any second. That all changed in the revenge scene, when Mara tapped into the dark side of her character, and played it to the hilt without being at all cartoonish or unbelievable. No, it was a scary, barely-controlled performance. It was brilliant. And even that earlier vulnerability comes back around to contribute to an emotionally resonant final scene.

The film is a little hampered by adhering to the book’s plot line, which to me felt full of inconsistencies, gaps in logic, and implausible occurrences. Fincher handles the plot as well as he can, ramping up the tension and increasing realism wherever he can. In a lot of ways “Tattoo” reminded me of Fincher’s last film, The Social Network. In both the director faced the unenviable task of wringing thrills out of some decidedly unexciting acts. In The Social Network it was computer programming, here it is computer hacking and research. (Granted, here he does have a lot of violence to build around.) It’s amazing what he can do with some quick camerawork and some pounding tones on the soundtrack.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a compelling film, even though the central mystery is not particularly well developed and the reveal should come as no surprise. It’s good enough to do two things: a. forgive the obscene amount of product placement within the film, and b. maybe even take another crack at getting through Stieg Larsson’s other two novels.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

The second novel in Maj Sjowall’s and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke takes one interesting plot twist and pads it out to novel length, creating a short read which feels a lot longer.

The Martin Beck series is set in the world of the homicide unit of the Stockholm police. Detective Martin Beck is the best man in the department, but the series refreshingly portrays police work as a team exercise instead of the work of a singular genius. Here as always Beck is assisted by a bevy of capabale, flawed officers, including the sarcastic Kollberg and meticulous Melander. The mood of the novels is dour and melancholy, the men who solve crimes are real people with real problems, ranging from the medical (Beck often has headaches and ulcers) to the emotional (most of the officers are in unhappy marriages.) Sjowall and Wahloo never miss an opportunity to darken the mood. In these novels, the weather is always dreary.

In The Man Who Went Up in Smoke Beck is called away from his island holiday to take on a sensitive investigation into a missing journalist. A Swedish magazine’s Eastern European expert has gone missing in Hungary, and there are no clues whatsoever.

The rest of the novel follows Beck’s journey to Budapest. The novel gets bogged down in his seemingly hopeless investigation, taking too long to get to anything that really matters to the overall story. In a nod to reality that never the less doesn’t exactly make for great fiction, the case essentially comes to him instead of anything he does leading to a break in the case.

That final revelation is an interesting twist, but left alone it is not enough to build a whole novel on.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s 90-minute riff on the irresistible lure of nostalgia, and it’s point, a point which the film itself acknowledges is a minor insight, is that none of us can recognize the present for the golden age it will appear to be to our successors. In Allen’s vision, each of us is doomed to gaze into the past with longing.

But Allen doesn’t seem to be condemning nostalgia, especially since his version of the past seems so much more fun than the present. The protagonist and Allen stand-in Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter turned frustrated novelist traveling in Paris with his fiancĂ© Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. There they run into Paul, an old friend of Inez’s and a maddeningly annoying pedant. Put off by Paul’s lectures and his fiance’s recriminations, Gil begins wandering the streets of Paris late at night, hoping to harness his romantic notions of Paris and channel them into his writing.

There, through some unexplained phenomenon, Gil is transported back to the Paris of the ‘20s, with the Lost Generation of American writers, and a host of assorted artists, poets, and luminaries. This aspect of the film is charming and cute, and provides ample opportunity for the kinds of in-jokes that the liberal arts majors of the world (counting myself among them) can chuckle at knowingly. It’s also a chance for the large and talented cast to go a little crazy, playing up the eccentricities of their famous roles.

There’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill) drinking and arguing, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) making bombastic assertions with outsized bravado. Stoll is drolly hilarious in the part, going on about love, sex, death, and lion hunting. Kathy Bates is solid as always as Gertrude Stein, who agrees to proofread Gil’s novel. (It’s almost like science fiction, she says.) Adrien Brody shows up as surrealist Salvadore Dali, and his ridiculous patter about rhinoceroses is delightful. (If there were an Oscar for Best Actor in a Performance of Less than Two Minutes, he’d be a real contender.) Oh, and a couple of names you might know stop by for a while, guys like Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and Cole Porter.

Eventually, because who couldn’t fall in love in ‘20s Paris, Gil finds himself competing for the attention of Adriana (Marion Cotillard) with Picasso and Hemingway, and longing more and more to be able to stay in the past. Gil’s interactions with Inez become more strained, and the script shows signs of weakness as McAdams fails to keep her character from appearing shrewish. As for Wilson, he’s one of the more palatable Allen-imitators of late, certainly more so than, say, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity or Will Ferrell in Miranda & Miranda, but it’s still disappointing to see that Allen still insists on his protagonists speaking just as he does.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s biggest commercial hit in years, but the film’s imbalance between present and past keeps it from achieving anything beyond modest charm.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (book)

I am hesitant to write a review of John le Carre’s seminal spy novel, for at least two reasons. The first is that I can’t quite tell how much seeing the movie beforehand impacted my enjoyment of the book. Knowing the identity of the mole may have made the book seem more tedious than it would have otherwise. The other thing is that this is really the first spy novel I’ve ever read, so I have no handle on how it stacks up to other novels in its field. My preferred genre is mystery, and le Carre’s prose style and plotting do not stack up with many of the mystery writers I have read.

The novel follows a former member of British Intelligence named George Smiley as he is pressed back into service in search of a mole. Smiley is essentially an anti-Bond, unglamorous and slightly dull. It is likely a more realistic portrayal of the life of a spy, but for the purposes of fiction it is an unpromising choice.

As he investigates his former co-workers Smiley must decide who and what to believe. There is a returned defector telling an improbable tale about a beautiful woman willing to inform against Moscow. Smiley’s former boss Control, now dead, believed there was a mole, but he may have been losing his edge while trying to maintain his position. Then there are the Young Turks who were eager to supplant Control: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Toby Esterhase, and Roy Bland. Smiley’s investigation focuses on these men, and after some mild intrigue about stealing files out of the MI6 office and other little ruses, the mole is revealed.

In the film version, the four main suspects were lightly characterized, something which could be excused for the sake of brevity. But it is inexcusable in a nearly 400 page novel. Characterization seems to be an afterthought to le Carre. When it is done at all it is haphazard, blunt, and inept. Smiley is giving a cheating wife, potentially to humanize him, although this too factors into the plot. The others are variously said to be small-minded, artistic, untrustworthy, or what have you. It really doesn’t matter much, the adjectives may just as well have been picked at random for all they have to do with the way the characters are written.

I can’t definitively say that my opinion wouldn’t be different if I had gone into the book fresh, but as is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a plodding non-thriller. So much so that I find myself wondering how anyone ever thought to turn it into a movie.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Mike Mills’ Beginners is a melancholy film about pain and sadness and the ways people have of holding themselves back. For all that there is still a lot of joy in the film, as well as a message about what it might take to be happy.

Oliver Fields (Ewan MacGregor) is a graphic artist who expresses himself best through his sketches. The film bounces back and forth in time, mostly between the film’s present day 2003, where Oliver becomes involved with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent), and an earlier time where he is taking care of his terminally-ill father Hal (Christopher Plummer). Adding a further level of emotional trauma to Oliver’s situation is that Hal has come out of the closet at 75, after forty-four years of marriage. Hal really commits to the gay lifestyle too, trying to make up for lost time in what little he has left. He starts dating a younger man, joining gay social clubs, and becoming active in gay causes.

If that all sounds like an unbearably twee indie premise, well, you’re not totally wrong, although the film manages to keep itself grounded largely through the gravitas of Christopher Plummer. Interestingly, it’s the Anna half of the movie that is more problematic. The initial meet-cute between Oliver and Anna is ridiculously precocious. They meet at a costume party where he’s dressed as Freud and she’s dressed as Charlie Chaplin to cover for laryngitis. Laurent is not nearly as good in this film as she was as Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds, but to be fair she is not given much to do here except alternately laugh and cry.

Essentially, the film is just about Oliver learning to apply the lessons of his father’s late-life renaissance, instead of repeating the mistakes his parents made. The film makes this point a little obviously at times, with flashbacks to Oliver’s difficult relationship to his mother, a woman he realizes in retrospect was obviously wounded by knowing the truth about her husband.

Beginners is a small film, and a quiet one, except when it rather unnecessarily beats you over the head with some political point. Without the extremely capable performances of MacGregor and Plummer it would be extremely slight; as is, it is just pleasant enough to work.

Oh, and there’s a dog that talks, at least in subtitles. It feels like I should mention that.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Help

The Help, based on the mega-bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, is an uncomplicated movie buoyed by the strength of its largely female cast. It manages to overcome some potentially irksome race-issues of its own (understandably, many people thought this might be another movie about racism that focused inordinately on noble white people) by confronting them head-on and taking them seriously. While some characters, white and black, are unnecessarily broad or reductive, on the whole the film manages to tell its story with an inviting grace.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is an unconventional young Southern woman (this is signaled to us by the fact that she is unmarried and not overly-concerned by that fact) with dreams of being a writer. In search of a story worth telling, she stumbles upon the idea of telling the story of Jackson’s black housemaids, who are entrusted to raise white children but are still cruelly mistreated by their employers. She finds her way into the story through the courageous Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and the spirited Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).

The three women meet in secret to put their stories on paper, while the town around them struggles to maintain the status quo amid the tumult of the larger Civil Rights Movement. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the town’s active society leader, trying to pass further restrictions on the maids (in particular she wants to keep them from using bathrooms that white people may use.) Hilly is the film’s most virulent racist, the rest of Jackson’s white women seem mostly complacent with the system or unwilling to change it. This includes Skeeter’s mother Charlotte (Allison Janney) who dismissed Skeeter’s beloved childhood maid in order to keep up appearances.

Jessica Chastain also has a large supporting role, largely as a plot device, and also, curiously, to remind us that white people have problems too, which seems rather beside the point. Chastain’s character is a good-hearted ditz, and the script calls for broad, and Chastain rises to the occasion, especially in a scene that calls for her to stumble drunkenly at a social occasion and vomit on the floor.

The plot moves briskly along to exactly where you know it has to, but the journey is still made worthwhile by all the talented actresses. In my book, there are three performances that could be considered Oscar worthy. Davis will almost certainly be nominated for Best Actress (it’s arguable whether or not she’s the lead, but she does narrate the movie, so that argues in her favor), Octavia Spencer should be a nominee for Supporting Actress, as should Bryce Dallas Howard for her remarkably convincing portrayal of a committed racist. Jessica Chastain has already received a nomination for a Golden Globe, but this seems to fall under the category of most acting as opposed to best.

The Help is smartly constructed (although one plot point, involving a pie, is so silly as to be objectionable, it at least works as a plot construction) but unchallenging material. It is a feel-good movie that fails to make you feel great. Whether this is due to a lack of ambition or a too-weighty sense of grandiosity is hard to tell. Either way, it's still worth watching as a showcase for some remarkably talented women.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Things I've Noticed About Online Dating #4: Where's the Beef?

Just about every female profile I have a high match percentage with lists herself as a vegetarian.

I ask because I honestly do not know: is it that something in my profile makes me a better match statistically with vegetarians, or is it that an alarming percentage of women either are vegetarians or feel that it benefits them to say they are.

Would it be weird for me to date a vegetarian? If we went out to eat, would it be rude to order a steak? It’d be weird if I found myself using my alone time to go grab a burger.

The cynic in me (meaning me, essentially) thinks that a lot of these women are probably aspirational vegetarians, in that they eat a lot of salads but every once in a while they probably order chicken in a restaurant and feel guilty about it afterwards. But what do I know?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

During its early stages, Jesse Peretz’s comedy Our Idiot Brother works too hard to establish the quirks of its characters’ lives. From the “obviously, I’m a lesbian” glasses that Rashida Jones is forced to wear to the excessive uncomfortable sex-talk from Zooey Deschanel, Our Idiot Brother aims for something akin to The Royal Tenenbaums or J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, but falls short of those fictional clans’ realism.

Ned (Paul Rudd) is the kind of guy who’ll sell pot to a uniformed police officer because he trusts that the guy is really just having a bad week. When he gets out of prison he finds that his girlfriend has moved on, taking his dog Willie Nelson and kicking him off their biodynamic farm. With nowhere to go and a parole office to appease, he winds up relying on the kindness of his three sisters, Liz (Emily Mortimer), Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel).

These sisters are kind of clichĂ©d rom-com caricatures of urban white women, with their first-world problems and media jobs, so the stakes of the film never seem too high. None of the three sisters, nor Steve Coogan as Liz’s documentary filmmaker husband or Rashida Jones as Natalie’s girlfriend gets enough to do. The film might have too large a cast to fit into its ninety-minute run time. The very talented Adam Scott is almost wasted in a very small role as a love interest for Miranda.

That leaves the movie in Paul Rudd’s hands, which is actually just where it should be. Even when the film gets too touchy-feely about Ned’s easygoing lifestyle, Rudd never makes the character cartoonish. It’s a warm, friendly performance that shows that it takes someone smart to believably play dumb.

And by the end, when the film elevates the level of conflict between Ned and his sisters and gives Rudd some fine dramatic moments to play, and Rudd nails those too.

The movie probably goes too far with its “hey, maybe everybody should be more like this happy idiot” message, but it doesn’t seem to really take that message seriously, even slyly winking at it during the film’s tidy conclusion. That might not make it a great movie, but it is a movie exactly as charming and likable as its lead actor.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Adult

Young Adult has just about the bleakest view of humanity I’ve ever seen in a movie billed as a comedy. Every character in it is either selfish or stupid or both. That’s certainly true of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a divorced ghostwriter of young adult fiction who returns to her hometown on a spur of the moment mission to rescue her old boyfriend from his happy marriage and family.

It’s fun for a while to watch Theron play the bitch to the hilt, and most of the laughs come from her line-readings, which manage to capture the fractured logic and self-delusion endemic to her character. Theron is clearly having a lot of fun on screen, it’s just a shame that that fun doesn’t really extend to the rest of the movie.

Patrick Wilson plays the object of Mavis’s affection, Buddy Slade, and he’s such a blank slate that it’s hard to tell what his character is really supposed to be. Whether this is the fault of Wilson or of Diablo Cody’s script is hard to tell, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What Cody’s script is responsible for is the fact that Slade is allowed to look like an idiot for so much of the movie, only for a last minute revelation which just makes someone else look like an even bigger idiot.

Patton Oswalt plays Matt Freehauf, a high school classmate of Mavis’s whom she doesn’t remember at first, until his tragic past comes up. Oswalt’s character at first seems a little heavy-handed, although Mavis certainly needs someone to tell her how crazy she is behaving. But to the credit of the filmmakers and to Oswalt, his character later reveals his own flaws and selfish perspective.

This is not a feel-good comedy. It is a feel-awkward and occasionally feel-bad comedy. It made me squirm more than it made me laugh, and its brave story decisions don’t quite overcome a lack of real laughter. Theron and Oswalt are fun to watch, but the movie itself doesn’t cohere into something enjoyable.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The neatest trick in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the classic John le Carre spy novel is to put you, the viewer, right into the action. The film puts you in the mind of its protagonist, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), as he goes about his job, which is to determine which of his former co-workers is a traitorous mole feeding sensitive information to his Soviet nemesis Karla.

There is a tremendous amount of plot in the movie, but to try and summarize the main trappings: Smiley and his boss, known only as Control, were forced out of the intelligence service (which is referred to as the Circus) after an agent named Jim Prideaux was shot in Hungary while trying to discover the identity of the mole. The main action of the film takes place a year later, after Control has died and suspicions of a mole still linger. Smiley is asked by the undersecretary to investigate, aided by an inside man at the Circus he trusts, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Looking through Control’s papers, Smiley determines that he had narrowed the list of suspects to five men: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) the current head of the Circus, his lapdogs Esterhase and Brand (David Dencik and Ciaran Hinds), suave Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and Smiley himself. The scene where Smiley discovers that his mentor and friend suspected him is one of Oldman’s best. Throughout the movie he manages to capture Smiley’s thinking with a modicum of movement, and the very slight reaction he has to seeing his picture on Control’s chessboard is an exemplary moment.

As the investigation proceeds the film manages to capture the eerie uncertainty and near absurdity of the spy game. The machinations of the characters are explored in a way that simultaneously plays up the life or death importance of their work while also questioning its necessity. Strikingly, the consequences here seem mostly constrained to within the community of spies themselves. What, if any, impact these complex and coordinated efforts have on the lives of ordinary citizens is unexplored. In the end the viewer is left wondering what these people are really accomplishing.

The script also does an excellent job of portraying the various modes and motivations of character. The men at the Circus are variously depicted as vain, selfish, greedy, blindly loyal, or worse. And yet they are all shown to be proficient and exceedingly capable. The movie really explores the profession of espionage and the toll it takes on the people involved. Flashbacks to a Christmas party at a supposedly happier time help to make these characters relatable as humans and further deepens the tragedy of where they are led by their profession.

The plot is not so heavy on twists and turns, although frequent distortions of time and place may befuddle those audience members who do not pay careful attention. The investigation itself takes on the character of Smiley, eminently competent, professional, and thorough. Smiley is someone who has managed to successfully hide the impact of his life’s work on his life, despite the likelihood that it led to his estrangement from his wife Ann. The solution to the mystery is both unexpected but entirely plausible, and seems subtly preordained in hindsight.

The epilogue to the film is one of the most satisfying I can recall, and made me hope fervently that Alfredson et al are planning to adapt the latter two-thirds of le Carre’s Karla trilogy.

As to my chain of 2011 movies, as of now Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy moves to the top of the list, and it will be very hard to knock out of that spot.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays is a novella about an inscrutable, psychologically damaged actress dealing with (or more accurately, failing to deal with) a controlling, unfaithful husband and his amoral Hollywood friends. Separated from her mentally imbalanced daughter and seemingly incapable of standing up for herself, Maria Wyeth spends the entire book running away from conflicts, avoiding decision-making, and frustrating her supposed friends to no end. She’ll frustrate the reader as much before it’s all over.

Didion’s prose reads quickly, making an already short book feel even shorter. The book’s short chapters are frequently only a page or two in length. The book is practically taciturn, and it’s demonstrably clear that Didion has planned out exactly what she is going to tell the reader and when. The problem is that, even after finishing the novel, it’s not clear to this reader what was withheld and why. To get into specific examples would be to spoil the book’s already slight plot, but just as a for instance, I wish Didion had at least made it a little clearer just who was fucking whom. That would have been appreciated.

I actually enjoyed reading the novel as I was going along, but that was with the expectation of greater reward at the end. The prose here is fine, although a little too flighty and Zen for my tastes. Some of Maria’s conversations are particularly inscrutable, like Zen koans. A conversation she has with her friend BZ, just before the novel’s climax, is a presumably meaningful, but impossible to decipher discussion on the meaning of nothing.

Play It as It Lays is a frustrating read about a frustrating woman, and no amount of talent or brevity can redeem that combination.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How I Met Your Mother: "Symphony of Illumination"

At this rate How I Met Your Mother is going to have to stop calling itself a comedy. I felt a wide range of emotions throughout “Symphony of Illumination” but joy, mirth, what have you were not among them.

There was excitement, when the episode opened with Robin telling a story to her kids. (And a brief laugh at her “cutting straight to the chase.”) And that they seemingly revealed the fact that Barney was their father. Also, Barney’s son wearing a suit was a nice touch.

There was anger, when the show abandoned Robin’s pregnancy within minutes. Admittedly, this would have been an extremely difficult plotline to pull off, but ditching it so soon calls its very existence into question. Really, there was no reason to make Robin pregnant, the show wasn’t headed into that direction at all and it wasn’t a natural outgrowth of recent events. Rather, the pregnancy was written in as a dramatic, out-of-nowhere surprise. The events of this episode render the last episode’s ending utterly meaningless. It makes the whole thing seem like a cheap ploy, which, considering how strong the ratings have been all season, is absolutely mystifying.

There was confusion, at the sudden turn to “Robin can’t have kids ever!!!” This felt like an unnecessary way to permanently fix a problem that didn’t really exist. Robin’s fierce independence was a defining character trait, and it always makes me uncomfortable when they tear her down.

There was boredom, mostly, at Marshall being stranded on the roof by generic evil suburban teen who apparently had an exceptionally detailed plan hinged on an unlikely series of occurrences. I guess Segel at least has the possible excuse of being busy promoting a movie.

Then, surprisingly, there was a palpable sense of sadness. Even though the plot was so ridiculously contrived, was such an unnecessary sidetrack, well, Robin crying in Ted’s arms got to me. I guess I’m just an easy touch after all. The preceding argument about whether it was Ted’s job to cheer Robin up felt real and poignant too.

Outside of the end, with its fine work by Smulders, this was a really uneven episode of How I Met Your Mother. A lot of the jokes felt a little off, like Robin’s pole-vaulting lie, or Marshall’s over-interest in Robin’s medical condition, or Lily’s overwrought crying. I enjoyed Barney’s inability to tell a joke under duress (“A priest walks into a bar carrying a duck. And he’s Polish. The priest, not the duck. Well, the duck could be Polish, it doesn’t matter. Yes it does. The duck’s not Polish”) and Robin’s LeBron joke (“I wouldn’t go to Cleveland for $125 million paid over 6 years.”)

Overall, I think “Symphony of Illumination” is irreparably harmed by the preceding episode’s huge, meaningless surprise. It cheapened the potentially resonant moments of tonight’s episode and made the whole thing seem a little too tacky. And I think they have to be careful of making Robin seem crazy for wanting what she wants.

Maybe next week they could shoot for some laughs, if that’s not too much to ask?

Movie Month

You may have noticed a slight uptick in the number of movie reviews showing up here on the site. (You being a term referencing my largely imaginary readership.) This is intentional. Every year I ramp up the pace on my movie viewing beginning after Thanksgiving and lasting through the winter. There are several reasons for this:
1. It’s prestige movie season, and as a snob this appeals to me.
2. I have an unhealthy fixation with the Oscars and like to have valid opinions on who should win.
3. Most of the movies I missed in the theaters earlier in the year are coming out on DVD.
4. Pretty much every TV show goes on hiatus between mid-December and mid-January, and god forbid I fill that time by doing something active.

This year I thought I do something fun with this. I went to the trouble of putting every 2011 release I’ve seen so far in order, and as I see more of this year’s movies I’ll slot them in. This will continue through the Oscars on February 26. At that time, I’ll pick my official Movie of the Year, and maybe hand out some other awards. Here’s how the race stands so far:

Win Win
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Cedar Rapids
The Descendants
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Artist
Source Code
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Adjustment Bureau
Horrible Bosses
Bad Teacher

Right now I’m planning to catch the following movies either in theatres or on DVD: Moneyball, The Ides of March, Beginners, Our Idiot Brother, Hugo, Young Adult, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, 50/50, Contagion, Carnage, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Let me know what’s missing from this list that I really need to see.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

I don’t have a lot to say about Captain America. In fact, only some kind of compulsion to review every recent movie I see leads me to write about it at all. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie, it’s just that it doesn’t really lend itself to much critical thought. This is a professionally-made big budget popcorn movie, but it has something a lot of its brethren in that arena lack: charm. There is no irony or crassness in Captain America, the hero or the movie, and that makes this movie, directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer), a pleasant breath of fresh air.

The story is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but nuance would be unwarranted in this environment any way. It’s World War II, one of the only eras in history where it’s even possible to speak in straight-faced terms about Good vs. Evil without too much historical revisionism. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 98-pound weakling trying to sneak into the Army when he has a chance encounter with Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) a German expatriate working on a classified project with the United States Army in conjunction with a scowling colonel (Tommy Lee Jones). You probably already know how that experiment goes. Along the way Dominic Cooper shows up to do his impression of every other actor’s impersonation of Howard Hughes, and Haley Atwell shows up as a woman in a man’s world who serves as a love interest for Steve/Captain America, because this is the movies and two attractive people of opposite sexes can’t just have mutual respect for each other.

All of the actors do an admirable job delivering their occasionally very cheesy, and never particularly strong dialogue. They are all well cast, which helps. Hugo Weaving is an appropriately hammy, accented supervillain.

The movie is just too simplistic to leave much of a real impression, and its by the numbers plot speaks to a lack of interest in doing anything challenging or different. This is a movie that knows it has a valuable property to caretake, and does its best to keep the brand profitable in advance of the big Avengers movie. Again, nothing to complain about really, but nothing to write home about either.

Everything is Illuminated

Some words are moreimportantthanothers. Some thoughts arejusttoodeep fornormaltypography. Sometimes when you are ayoungwriterofpromise who has been excerptedintheNewYorker you feel the pressure to stand out, to be different, and most important, tobebetterthantheotherwritersinyourMFAprogram.

Jonathan Safran Foer is someone who comes across, in interviews, articles, and somehow even in photographs, as an insufferably precocious and smug person. Never the less, I still managed to enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I even managed to enjoy the first three-fourths of this novel. But eventually the needless tricks, the galling appropriation of real tragedy to obnoxious ends, and the moral equivocation of his story actually made me angry at a book I had looked forward to finishing. Now I’m left wondering if I was tricked into liking his other book.

Everything is Illuminated follows the voyage of a fictional character named Jonathan Safran Foer (it says something that this is the LEAST annoying metafictional touch the author uses) as he travels to his grandfather’s Ukrainian shtetl in search of a woman in a photograph whom he believes saved his grandfather’s life during the war. If that sounds far-fetched to you, don’t worry, it never really matters within the actual narrative of the book.

Helping Foer on his journey, and with the composition of the novel, is his translator Alex Perchov, a native Ukrainian university student with a shaky command of the English language. By far the best parts of the novel are those in which Foer (the real one) writes through Alex. Reading his fractured, close but no cigar English is pretty funny for a while. Alex uses a thesaurus to disastrous ends, using “rigid” to mean difficult,“guilelessly” to mean sincerely, and speaks of “disseminating much currency”. As the novel progresses, Perchov learns more English, and his sections become less comedic. The intent is to highlight the sadness of Alex’s family life, but this is largely a failed effort.

There’s also a lot of juvenile humor about Alex’s grandfather, who thinks he’s blind but is still hired to drive Alex and Foer across Ukraine, in the company of his “seeing-eye bitch” Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

Of course, this being a first novel, and Foer having an apparently bottomless bag of meaningless tricks designed to annoy, we can’t just have a road trip novel. So inter-spliced with Foer’s trip are sections of the novel he’s writing about his ancestors. Starting with the naming of the village in the late eighteenth century, Foer’s novel within the novel is a bunch of magical-realist ethnic Jewish absurdity. Foer shows some inventive power and a vivid imagination, but he has no control over these talents. His overdone family history just piles one inanity on top of another. And while Foer’s command of the language is impressive and propels the story for a while, the lack of clear purpose to these creations renders them inconsequential, frustrating the reader (me) to no end.

Basically, the whole enterprise just seems like the product of a young man (Foer was my age, 25, when this novel was published) with nothing to say and a desperate need to say something anyway. So he grabbed the biggest, most important event he could find (the Holocaust) and decided to use it for his own purposes, whether or not it made narrative or emotional sense. When you can see the author’s calculated orchestrations, it absolutely undercuts any emotional resonance from the characters’ revelations and resolutions.

At the end of Foer’s and Alex’s journey, when they’ve learned about the village’s fate and Alex’s grandfather’s secret, there are some potentially powerful scenes. It is, after all, hard to invoke a Holocaust narrative without tapping into real feelings. But lack of control sinks Foer irreparably here. This is where he ramps up the precociousness just when it is least called for. This is where thewordsgetreallyclosetogether or very far apart.
Because when you lack the skill to give your words power, you’ve got to make it clear to the reader somehow.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

It’s probably not a good policy to review a movie in direct comparison to the one you saw just previously, but in this instance the lure is irresistible. The contrast between Horrible Bosses and Crazy, Stupid, Love is stark and also quite informative. Whereas the former was a comedy predicated on premise, the latter is predicated on strong, relatable characters. This gives it a much firmer foundation, carrying it past the occasional awkward joke or plot miscalculation and delivering it safely to the other side, a sweet, funny, winning comedy. Most of the time you’re not laughing because of a particularly funny line, but because you’re caught up in these people and their plight, making the film’s moments of comedy and light drama that much more affecting.

Cal and Emily Weaver (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore) are a typical married couple near middle age. When Emily reveals that she wants a divorce, and has slept with a coworker (Kevin Bacon), it sends Cal into a tailspin. That tailspin is alleviated, or perhaps exacerbated, depending on your perspective, when Cal falls under the tutelage of a young, suave ladies’ man named Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Through Jacob, Cal acquires a new wardrobe and a new sense of confidence on the singles scene, bedding a string of women including Kate (Marisa Tomei).

In case you’re worried that you already know where this is going, well, you do and you don’t. The good part is that the screenwriters clearly thought this script out and made efforts to ensure that each characters actions have consequences, and that there would be no easy resets. There is no sweeping of either Emily’s or Cal’s actions under the rug.

Part of what helps the script succeed in heightening the conflict is a wide cast of supporting players who get more to do here than in your typical romantic comedy. The Weaver’s son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) isn’t just a precocious youth with slightly unrealistic knowledge and views on love; he’s also a real kid who’s hurt by his parents’ separation and unsure of what it means for him. His babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) isn’t just an unattainable crush object, she’s also a real character of her own, a confused, awkward teenager.

The large cast of meaningful characters is a sign that Crazy, Stupid, Love is trying to do a lot. It gives them all a perspective, and gives them all an important part to play. This becomes problematic at some points, where contrivances and coincidences rear their heads, but again the overall strength of the characters, and especially of the performances breathing life into them, carries the day. The plot is kicked into high gear by the presence of Hannah (Emma Stone) a woman who causes Jacob to question his belief system.

If you’re looking for a big message from this film, maybe something about the nature of love, you should probably turn your attention to the first two-thirds of the title. This is a movie which kind of just throws it hands up in the air and says, “You tell me, cause I don’t know.” Which in a way is pretty refreshing. So many romantic comedies act like they’ve got it figured out, and pretend that watching them is a way for you to figure it too. This seems like a much more realistic take, hopeful but uncertain. Though it may take one too many wild turns, I think most viewers will enjoy the ride.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Parks and Recreation: "The Trial of Leslie Knope"

What is there to say about Parks and Recreation? It feels like the show is well beyond my feeble attempts to evaluate it. Every time I think the show might be taking a misstep, I am presently proven incorrect. It's to the point where I now just trust that the people behind Parks and Rec know exactly what they are doing and I just enjoy the ride.

On the heels of last week's dramatic kiss, The Trial of Leslie Knope (I don't recall the show ever using a title card before. It really struck a foreboding tone) opened with Ben and Leslie confessing their impropriety to Chris. From there we proceed to Leslie's ethics hearing. The show takes the stakes seriously, but also manages to wring laughs out of the peril Leslie finds herself in. From Leslie's iMovie celebrating her first kiss, to the department looking up arcane town statutes, to asking Ron to silence the key witness against her, the show's jokes were just as top-notch as when the focus is more comedic in nature.

As far as the dramatic aspects, one sign of how well the show is written is how seriously it takes all of its characters. Chris is borderline ridiculous, with his need to pop vitamins and do jumping jacks to deal with the stress, but he has serious reasons to object to Leslie's relationship. He's not the bad guy here, there's no real bad guy here.

The show's climactic moment, when Leslie realized that she had in fact been unethical (she and Ben had bribed a maintenance worker at the memorial for Lil' Sebastian) and Ron encouraged her to own up to her mistake, reminded me an awful lot of The West Wing. When Abby Bartlet was fighting to keep her medical license, Donna Moss boldly reminded her that she had in fact done something wrong. It was a powerful scene, and it forced a character that the audience had found sympathetic to confront herself. The West Wing was a drama that could at any time make me laugh, Parks and Recreation is the even rarer creature: a comedy that can make me really care about characters and what happens to them.

This moment was maybe a little undercut by the turnabout with Ben falling on the sword for Leslie. But I completely bought that as exactly what Ben would do, and I'm sure the writers have a plan. I can't wait to see what it is.

Community: Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism

Even in the midst of arguably its most traditional, accessible episode of the season (one plot featured a few sports movie references, while the other was basically just a meta-commentary on a standard sitcom misunderstanding) Community can’t help but commit to its cult-status. Not to get too elitist, because I do object to the idea that only a small group of self-identified smart people should determine what’s on TV, but how many people who watch Two and a Half Men do you think got the joke about schadenfreude? (Nick Kroll, with a German accent: “I wish there was a word to describe the pleasure I feel at viewing misfortune.”)

This was a very unusual episode of Community in that it left Britta, Pierce, and Chang on the sidelines. (The first two appeared only in the open and the close, while Chang was completely absent. He wasn’t exactly missed.) Instead we got a Jeff and Shirley story that used something completely ridiculous (foosball) to provide a new wrinkle in their backstory. The show has gotten some laughs out of the fact that Shirley is treated as so much older than Jeff despite their closeness in age, and it was nice that the show treated them as peers.

Over in the new roommates portion of the show, we were treated to, on the surface level, a very standard sitcom trope. Annie accidentally breaks something of Abed’s (his ultra-limited edition Dark Knight DVD) and can’t bring herself to tell him. The wrinkle here (because Community can never do anything straight-forward) is that Troy witnesses the accident and warns Annie that Abed’s extensive knowledge about sitcoms means he would see through any attempt to do that sitcom thing where people secretly replace things. No matter how good Annie’s Christian Bale voice is, she realizes Troy is right. And so naturally, she takes it one step further and fakes a robbery.

All this is pretty much just an excuse to bring back an old favorite (and no, I don’t mean the cop who shot Professor Professorson in “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”). Abed’s Batman first showed up in the series first truly accomplished effort, the season one Halloween episode, and it was nice to see him breakout the gravelly voice and belabored metaphors once more.

After Community goes off the air for good, whenever that may be, I doubt that “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” will be an episode that people immediately recall when they look back on the show. But it’s a really solid, funny effort, with a killer guest appearance by Nick Kroll. (I loved the human foosball bit.) For a lot of shows, this kind of episode would be a highlight, the fact that it registers as a pleasant middle for Community says a lot about the show.

P.S. Clarence Thaddeus Foos.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Raising Hope: "Bro-Gurt"

Greg Garcia, creator of both Raising Hope and the departed My Name is Earl, is a master practitioner of the high art of low humor. It would be very easy for a non-viewer to dismiss Raising Hope as a show about stupid people, but while that may be true, the writers are smart enough to use their characters’ stupidity in clever and original ways.

Tonight’s episode showcases this split between smart and stupid in grand form. The Chance family and the whole community are drawn to an invention fair promising to find the next billion-dollar idea. The audience is let in on the fact that the fair is just a scam run by guest star Patton Oswalt, but we get to watch each Chance family member as they come up with their submissions. The intelligence of the writing staff really shines in these conceptions. They are perfectly attuned to the characters and their personalities. They’re hilariously implausible, but yet believable coming from Burt, Virginia, and Jimmy.

The most inspired is Burt’s collaboration with his friend and neighbor Andrew (Ethan Suplee), which lends its name to the episode’s title. Complaining that yogurt today only comes in womanly flavors like blueberry, Burt envisions yogurt flavored like pork chops or cheeseburgers (but not turkey burgers, too girly.) When Andrew comes up with the name, the group thinks they got the competition in the bag.

“Bro-Gurt” also managed to get a funny performance out of guest star Andrew Dice Clay, playing a Simon Cowell-like judge at the invention fair, appearing via satellite. You can see the affinity, as Dice may be the most successful “low-brow” comedian of all-time. (Whether or not you find him funny, and I don’t, the man did sell out arenas.)

In addition to the normal passel of excellent one-liners and Virginia malaprops (tonight’s: “he’s going to be an albacore around our neck.”) the episode also managed to work in a major plot point in the continuing Jimmy and Sabrina non-relationship relationship, as the two got into a fight which revealed something about each of them to the other.

Oh, and did I mention that the episode subtly set up a Wizard of Oz parody that only came to hilarious fruition in the last two minutes? Now that’s good writing.

New Girl: "Bells"

There were not an exceptional amount of laughs in “Bells” but it was still an enjoyable enough viewing experience. It felt like the show committed to fleshing out its main quartet of characters and establishing potential long-running conflicts between them, which overall is a positive sign for the show’s prospects going forward.

“Bells” mostly split itself into two main plots, splitting the roommates into pairs and pitting one against the other. Schmidt and Nick get into a fairly stupid argument about money which at first seems drawn from the master book of sitcom plot points (one person wants to call a plumber while the other swears he can fix it himself) but turns into something different and more interesting. I don’t think it’s come up before that Schmidt comes from money, but Nick’s disappointment with his life has come up before, and it makes sense to explore that tension in relation to someone else. Schmidt especially makes sense as the target for such anger, since it’s been established that Nick looks down on him and considers him an unserious person. For a while, Nick seemed especially unsympathetic, but by episode’s end his behavior had been satisfactorily explained if not excused.

Meanwhile, Jess enlists the preternaturally-talented Winston to join the handbell choir she’s formed for wayward youths. (I appreciate the ridiculousness of this contrivance, taking it as a sign that the show’s writers are trying to be original.) Jess the free-spirit has trouble controlling her charges, but Winston goes mad with power and starts demeaning the kids, leading Jess to toss him out of the group. It’s a nice way to characterize both Jess and Winston without making either of them 100% right or wrong. Jess’s speech to Winston in which she talks about how much she cares for the kids and doesn’t want to be another person telling them what they can’t do was really well-written and delivered. It made her much more human and more likeable. As for Winston, the show has finally started to explore his character, and I like the direction they’re taking him, as a competitive former athlete struggling to find his place.

There were also some funny moments, lest readers think I’ve given up on comedy in sitcoms. I laughed pretty heartily at Jess trying to dance while playing handbells, and settling for doing the robot, in character as a robot programmed to play the bells. I also got a kick out of the way Nick and Schmidt’s escalating feud carried over into the Jess story, as she and Winston were both perplexed as to what kept happening to all the stuff in their apartment. “Where did the freezer and the couch go? Where we robbed by giants?” And the fact that the handell group was called “Ensembell” was pretty funny.

All in all, “Bells” wasn’t as funny as “Thanksgiving” but combined they give me a lot of faith in the show’s potential.

Things I've Noticed About Online Dating #3: Playing the Percentages

The site I use for online dating matches you up with other users on three levels. The chance that you would be suitable romantic partners is listed as the Match %, the chance that you would get along is listed as the Friend %, and the chance that the two of you would engage in a protracted battle for the soul of mankind, using your extraordinary abilities for either good or evil, is listed as the Enemy %.

Now I’ve been known to have a pessimistic, cynical aspect to my personality (I know, I know, you’re shocked) so maybe I’m just being overly negative when I say that these percentages are, to put it mildly, a crock of shit.
For one thing, there are an inordinate number of women with whom I’m listed as having 90%, even 95%+ chemistry. Now, I’ve met and talked to many real, live women, and I can assure you that there are not untold multitudes of females that similar to me. (I’m not in any sense of the term bragging when I say this. It’s just that people are infinitely varied and complex, and it’s absurd to think there are people who are that similar to us, unless we’re talking genetically, in which case we’re all at about 99.9%+.)

The way these percentages are derived seems to stem mostly from answers to survey questions, some of which are asked by the site itself, while others are posted from members (these tend to be either more ridiculous, more explicitly sexual, or usually both.) The problem is that so many of the questions are base-level personality questions, meaning you’re guaranteed to have the same answer as wide swaths of humanity. It’s really easy to build up a high level of compatibility even with people you would hate in real life. Happily, we live in a world where prejudice is on the wane, or at least it’s a world where people realize they shouldn’t be admitting their prejudices in a public forum. So does it really mean anything to a prospective relationship or friendship if two people both think gay marriage is ok or evolution should be taught in schools? Probably not, although I suppose it could be useful to screen out the proudly bigoted and ignorant.

One thing I really wish I had the answer to is how differently are Friendship % and Match % calculated. Because the numbers are often widely divergent. I guess I can wrap my head around the idea that some people are much likelier to be friends than mates, but how is someone a 93% Match with only 78% Friendship. Is there a fifteen percent chance I’ll be a relationship with this person but just not like them very much?

Never mind, I think I understand it now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Let me make this quick, I'd hate to spend more time on this review than the writers spent on the screenplay. Horrible Bosses is a shameful waste of a dynamite premise. Unfortunately, the movie has no idea how to go beyond that funny set-up and deliver actual humor.

The writing just isn't sharp. The film's jokes are toothless and lame, even when, especially when, they are exceedingly vulgar and crass. This puts increasing stress on the performances of the three leads, would-be assassins Charlie Day, Jason Bateman, and Jason Sudeikis. They are all funny guys, as they have proved elsewhere, but all three are trying to get by on geniality and reputation here. To the extent that any of the film's jokes work, it is to their immense credit, as they can't have been easy to sell.

Another problem is that Bateman and Sudeikis aren't really given characters at all. Both are just kind of regular Joes with little to remember them by. Day's character at least has loyalty to his fiancee and sweet idiocy to play up.

The titular bosses are played with scene-chewing relish by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. These actors are at least given characters, however absurd. But there is just an obvious and jarring disconnect present. Farrell and Aniston are both so clearly enjoying the chance to play against type that they go too far, or are allowed to go too far, and this goes so far past absurd as to no longer be humorous. Aniston in particular seems desperate for attention and approval. "Look at me, I'm saying dirty words! Aren't I the cutest? Why would anyone leave me for another woman?"

On the other hand, Kevin Spacey, playing much closer to his natural range, gives the best performance in the movie as the demanding, angry prick Mr. Harken.

The plot does pick up about two-thirds of the way through, when a genuinely surprising turn kicks the film into high gear. From there, confusions, misunderstandings, and chase scenes capably pad out the film until its moderately believable confusion. Ultimately, though, Horrible Bosses is a film which could have benefited immensely from a heavily revised script and some re-envisioned characters and casting choices.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Artist

In a lot of ways The Artist is a shockingly unambitious movie, or maybe even anti-ambitious, in that it is not trying to do anything new, but actively trying to do something old.

The film opens in 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the biggest star in Hollywood. When he makes an appearance after a screening of his latest film, Valentin draws apparently thunderous applause. (This is the first instance where the movie plays with our expectations regarding sound. We open with the end of the silent film, and then the lack of sound from the audience clues us in that we’re still watching a silent movie.) Wordlessly, Dujardin easily demonstrates the way his character feeds off the love of the crowd and needs their attention.

When Valentin leaves the theater to do his interviews with the press, he bumps into a young extra who charms him and the crowd, starting her rise to stardom. First, she earns a small role in Valentin’s next film, where their chemistry on the dance floor causes production problems (he’s so enraptured he forgets to move past their dance scene) and he quite literally leaves a mark on her.

As Peppy Miller, Berenice Bejo is vivacious and winning. She and Dujardin have remarkable chemistry together. Both of their performances are inherently reliant on physicality, and they manage without mugging or emoting (except when the script calls for it, knowingly.) It’s that remarkable chemistry that makes the film’s decision to keep them separate for so much of the story unfortunate.

You see, from their initial encounter, the story of George and Peppy follows a very predictable arc. His refusal to adapt to the advent of the talkie leads to a decline in his star, followed by a decline in his fortune when the stock market crashes. Peppy works his way up through small roles (a montage showcasing her increasing prominence in the credits of her movies is an excellent example of the director Michael Hazanavicius’s ability to replicate the styles of yesteryear) and eventually she passes George on her way up and his way down. This is all too literally depicted in a scene set on a staircase. He becomes depressed, drinks, hits bottom, she remains concerned, tries to help and is rejected, climactic finish, predictable conclusion.

The problem with The Artist is that it is slavishly dedicated to recreation, to the point where creation seems to have been left by the wayside. The wordlessness of the film is its sole reason for existence. It is a gimmick around which the story was formed, not a serious choice for how best to tell the story. There are times when Hazanavicius uses sound to play with the concept of the silent movie, and even teases that he might be going in a new and interesting direction. But these are mere ruses, and the film eventually settles into little more than a painstakingly crafted rehash.

There are moments when the film shines, and uses its wordlessness to high effect. A scene where Valentin gets into character before each take merely by narrowing his eyes is very funny. But other times it is just an inexplicable artifice. Long spans of the movie pass by excessively slowly. The use of title cards to reveal dialogue is sporadic and seems nearly haphazard. Dujardin and Bejo get all they can out of facial expressions but no one’s wink is strong enough to carry a film.

If I had to say what I thought The Artist was about, I guess I would have to say that it’s mostly about movies themselves. It’s very self-consciously a movie, reminding you that even in the scenes set in Valentin’s “real life” that you are still watching a movie. It feels like Hazanavicius is testing the artform itself, using only the elements exclusive to its province to try and capture and engage the audience. Can a movie without words, with only the barest suggestion of a story, win the day using only pictures and music?

By the end it seems like Hazanavicius has chosen to answer that question with “no” but I’m not sure whether he means it or not. The Artist tries to have it both ways a lot. It simultaneously insists that it can communicate without using words, but also plays with how ineffective some of Valentin’s attempts to communicate are. The film relies on Dujardin and Bejo to create their characters wordlessly, but then lets them and us down by giving them flat, unchanging characters to create. Valentin’s self-defeating pride is arbitrary and inexplicable, while Peppy Miller is kind of a blank state, existing exclusively as a foil for Valentin. It’s the kind of female role that would have best been left behind in the ‘30s.

A silent movie gives the viewer an awful lot of time to think, and this viewer couldn’t help but think of ways that this film, so beautiful to look at, would have been more interesting to watch.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Black Friday

Every Thanksgiving, my family is lucky if we’ve even gotten past saying grace (for the only time all year) before the conversation is hijacked by talk of some people’s plans for Black Friday. What time are you waking up? What store are you hitting first? And so on. Judging by the blitz of commercials advertising Black Friday sales I feel confident that we are not alone in this regard.

This is not some screed on preserving the traditional aspects of Thanksgiving. As far as I’m concerned the holiday’s specialness is a myth or a relic or most likely both. For now and likely forever it’s just a random Thursday off from work, where you’re compelled by forces seemingly beyond your control to eat more food than is good from you, watch football, and nap on the couch. It’s a fine observance, but really nothing special.

No, this is a rant about the stunningly effective psychological manipulation that goes on in these ads. The ads show women (their sexism, not mine) game-planning and pumping themselves up for Black Friday the same way the Allied Forces might have strategized over the Normandy invasion. Retail shopping is portrayed as a contest that can be won. The focus is entirely on acquisition, and not just the more benign idea of giving others what they want, or even the still slightly palatable idea of getting what you want. The theme is getting more than anyone else. You “win” the retail game by saving the most money on the goods buy, which of course, actually requires you to buy the most goods.

Well guess what? No one doing the shopping wins on Black Friday. The only people who win are the corporations that have tricked too many people into thinking that we need all this crap. Their everyday prices are so bloated and absurd that the mild discounts they offer one day a year seem like unrivaled beneficence. And not only do we accept the conditions the retail chains have set for us, we’ve started clamoring for more game-like aspects. So now stores like Target are opening at midnight. Gee, I wonder how their worker’s families will feel when their relative has to go to bed halfway through carving the turkey.

I thought we had a shot at corralling this insanity a few years ago, when a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death, but I made the mistake of overestimating people. It’s appalling that some stores still use terms like Doorbuster Sale in the wake of that man’s death in a stampede of well-trained consumer animals.

Don’t let yourself be manipulated into buying things just because retail companies have turned Black Friday into some kind of off-brand holiday. And if you can’t boycott all stores, at least shun Kohl’s. That remix of Rebecca Black’s Friday song is an abomination that must be punished.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How I Met Your Mother: "The Rebound Girl"

Thanksgiving has been surprisingly fertile ground for How I Met Your Mother over the years, giving us the hilarity of Slapsgiving, and its more-or-less successful Slapsgiving II, as well as other highlights of the series' run. But the show is in a decidedly dramatic arc this year, and that overshadows the holiday, which barely figures into the main plot tonight.

The Rebound Girl was, once again, light on outright comedy. I found little to laugh at in Barney’s and Ted’s hare-brained idea to co-raise an adopted baby. I did at least appreciate that they followed through with it to a certain extent, and didn’t leave it in the realm of drunken ideas. The fact that Ted and Barney still thought it was a good idea in the morning was slightly redemptive, as was their married couple sparring as they tried to fill out the online forms. Less humorous was their creepy rejection of “girls” (which, seriously, HIMYM writers, it’s creepy for 32-year-olds to use the world girls to refer to people they want to sleep with) and their fantasizing about the freaky sex they could have if they and the absent Marshall were gay.

The other plotline, featuring Robin frantically trying to keep Marshall and Lily from moving out to Long Island, was a little light on jokes but still managed to wring laughs. I especially liked the sight gag of the Erickson’s shrinking apartment. Robin’s insistence on the apartment’s spaciousness, despite her constantly knocking over lamps (“Don’t you have any overhead lighting?”) was also pretty good, although her put downs of Long Island and list of things you can do in New York at 4am were both pretty lame.

The episode’s initial reach for heartwarming conclusion felt contrived and unconvincing, with Barney’s gay brother James (Wayne Brady) showing up as a living deus ex machine, to relate his tale of also considering starting a fake family. Yeah, I know. But then at the last minute the show threw us a big curve (SPOILER) with Robin’s pregnancy. End scene.

I don’t know where they’re going with this, and I like that. It feels almost certain that Barney is the father, if not logically, than by the show’s internal logic. I just like that the show can still surprise me seven seasons in, and do it in such an organic way. Robin’s anger was understandable even before the revelation of her pregnancy. She’s had a rough year and it’s only gotten worse in recent weeks. I also like that, even if only in the brief second between the reveal and fade to black, it seemed pretty clear that Robin isn’t overjoyed at this new development. That’s a strange place for a comedy to put itself in, but that’s just fine with me. How I Met Your Mother is at its worst when it tries to be a normal sitcom.

The Simpsons: "The Book Job"

I’ve never reviewed The Simpsons in this space before, mostly because it’s settled into an understandable rut in its third decade on the air. But on those exceedingly rare occasions when the writers find a new story to tell and a new way to tell it, The Simpsons shows why I and so many others will be so upset when it finally does go off the air.

The Book Job combines two elements, a satire on young-adult literature and a pastiche of heist movies, to fantastic success. The episode kicks into the main plot when Lisa discovers that the author of her favorite book series (the Potter-like Angelica Button books) is actually a fake, a hired actress paid to front for an anonymous hive of out-of-work lit majors crowd-sourcing bestsellers formulated along market-tested guidelines. (This isn’t so far off from the truth by the way, as evinced by the recent magazine articles about James Frey’s factory-produced teen lit.)

Lisa is devastated that anyone would write just to make money, but Homer, his head full of big ideas from his Jetski Wanter magazine, smells an opportunity. He and Bart concoct a plan to produce their own publishing sensation. After a very cleverly written scene at the arcade, where Homer cryptically promises Bart that this scheme won’t be “another Kansas City”, father and son gather Principal Skinner, Selma, Moe and Professor Frink into a superteam. With the guidance of guest star Neil Gaiman they discover that all the big book world hits are about orphans with special abilities. Dismissing vampires as overdone, the gang hit on an idea about twin trolls who attend a high school under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Along the way, The Simpsons also takes shots at so-called “real” writers. Lisa, spurred by her outrage, sets out to write a true novel of her own. Right after she finishes Friday Night Lights on DVD and plays a few more games of Boggle online. Lisa’s self-recriminations and rationalizations (“A hard deadline will be just the thing to get me to do some real writing.”) will sound familiar to everyone who has stared at a blank computer screen, not sure where to start.

Eventually the show settles into a fairly rote and predictable twist ending, which it then rescues by pointing out how trite that ending is. (Lisa: “I got the idea from every movie ever made.”)

The Simpsons is well past its prime, but it still has many of the elements needed for a great comedy, and it’s cause for celebration when it marshals them together as well as it did in The Book Job.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

In a lot of ways The Descendants reminds me of Up in the Air, to the extent that if I didn’t know any better I would think they were directed by the same person. George Clooney is the star of both, obviously, and in both is trying to disappear into a real person. I’m not sure if either effort is entirely successful, but it seems unfair to hold Clooney’s stardom and the limits of our suspension of disbelief against him. Just as he did in Up in the Air, Clooney performs fantastically the mannerisms of a put-upon, imperfect man. You can never forget that he’s George Clooney, but he resists the temptation to do too much to get you to forget, if that makes sense. He masterfully underplays his role here as Matt King, a Hawaii lawyer descended from wealthy land barons. The film catches King just as he is being hit with conflict on two fronts. His family trust is set to lapse, and his more spendthrift relations are pressuring him to sell their vast land holding to developers and make them all rich. The second and more devastating problem is that his comatose wife is never going to wake up, and her will requires that he pull the plug.

King is forced to confront the idea of raising his two daughters on his own, which the film’s early scenes establish as no easy task. Ten-year-old Scotty is acting out at school, bullying other girls with nasty text messages and testing Matt’s boundaries at every turn. In light of his wife’s condition, Matt takes his older daughter Alexandra out of her expensive, prison-like boarding school, where she’d been exiled for drugs and alcohol use.

Shortly after Alexandra comes home she reveals a disturbing secret about her mother, one that changes everything for Matt. For the rest of the film Matt struggles to balance keeping it together, especially for Scotty’s sake, with letting his emotions take over and lead him to do questionable things. Along the way he relies too heavily on Alexandra, and becomes obsessed with confronting a person from his wife’s past. Clooney gets to play a wide range of emotions in this movie, from quivering rage to draining sadness, and he differentiates the finer distinctions along the way expertly.

The rest of the cast is equally naturalistic, despite not being given quite the same opportunity to showcase it as Clooney. Shailene Woodley is thoroughly believable as the troubled Alexandra. It’s a performance that belies the actress’s young age, and promises great things to come from Woodley, who presently stars on ABC Family in The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Judy Greer has only three short scenes, but her final one is a tremendous display of conflicting emotions, played at just the right level of pathos. Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and Beau Bridges are also excellent. The Descendants is buoyed by its reliance, outside Clooney, on character actors and real people. (The surfer Laird Hamilton has a small role as a beachcomber, for example.) Even the film’s least believable character, Alexandra’s tagalong friend Sid, is given some depth to escape the limits of mere comic relief.

Two years ago Up in the Air came out a little early for Oscar season, and its front-runner status was short-lived, as it disappeared among the flashier films. Whether or not the same fate befalls The Descendants, the movie and its star are to be commended for playing it straight and crafting a real and relatable movie for adults. This feels like the kind of movie that will get better with repeated viewings, and how many movies can you say that about?

P.S. I couldn’t find a spot to include it above, but it absolutely floors me that one of the three credited screenwriters for The Descendants is Jim Rash, aka Community’s Dean Pelton. I’m now really pulling for The Descendants to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Girl: "Thanksgiving"

New Girl hasn't quite finished cooking just yet, but it's getting there, and I have a feeling it's going to be really enjoyable once it's done.

"Thanksgiving" provides me with optimism for the show's future mostly by coming up with a seemingly fresh take on a holiday episode, something that is notoriously difficult for many shows. I liked that the show was confident enough not to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying the fact that their leads would be eating Thanksgiving dinner together. There was also very little cloying sentimentality around the holiday or the fact that these people were apart from their families. The holiday isn't really a big deal to anyone but Jess and her invited guest, Paul (Justin Long, from movies like Accepted and Going the Distance, and of course as the Mac to John Hodgman's PC.)

Jess has been a problematic character in a lot of ways, but if they keep her at the level where she's ditzy enough to plan a first date on Thanksgiving, I think the show can work. It was such an obviously insane, yet curiously believable act. Less believable, but too funny to object to, was her and Nick's conversation about how much she wanted to sleep with Paul and why it was important to her that Nick like him. (I am endlessly curious as to what the sexual act referred to as "giving him the hat" consists of.)

Of course it's a little too obvious to the audience that Jess wants Nick to like Paul because she actually likes Nick, but I think we just have to accept that pretty much every sitcom from now on is going to have a will-they-won't-they relationship at some point.

I got a big kick out of a tyrannical Schmidt getting CeCe all hot and bothered, but then ruining it by trying to be a nice guy. It felt consistent with what we've previously seen of Cece, and it shows that there is room for Schmidt to become a more relatable figure. (Also, we got the triumphant but subtle return of the douchebag jar.)

The dead old lady in the bathroom was probably taking things a bit too far, but it lead to some nice physical comedy from Long trying to avoid the gurney in the elevator, and to the nice bit at the end where he wins over Nick by bringing the gang turkey subs while they wait in line at Best Buy.

There's still not enough for Lamorne Morris to do, but if they can figure that out they'll really be set.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Things I've Noticed About Online Dating #2: The Eyes Have It

She walks in beauty, as the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best in dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
-Lord Byron

There are whole fields within the sciences dedicated to proving that we are poor observers of our own existence. We have biases which lead us to focus on evidence that fits the narratives we have chosen to believe and ignore that which would force us to confront the shortcomings of our belief systems. It is to the eternal frustration of behavioral scientists, statisticians, and the coolly logical that the plethora of studies that have demonstrated this fact have fallen victim to the very conditions they describe, and are thus ignored.

This may explain how the ridiculous idea that you can tell a lot about a person by their eyes has stayed with us for so long. The eyes are the window to the soul, the mass, anonymous, “they” would have you believe. How often have you heard someone describe another person, typically of the opposite sex, as having “kind eyes”, “crazy eyes”, or what have you.

On the online dating site I have recently signed up with, this truism (a word which might as well mean “something that cannot be proven true) has certainly been taken up by the female population, and with great enthusiasm. I have seen myriad profiles which make reference to the subject’s eyes, whether they are Irish, coy, laughing, shady, Midwestern (?), and a whole host of others. Even those who don’t feel the need to put their eyes out there front and center almost always list them in the section asking “What’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Isn’t this pretty ridiculous on its surface? I imagine all of these people have instinctually liked or trusted someone based on their eyes and later been mistreated or betrayed by that same person. Science tells that a person’s eyes change very little in size or shape from birth to death, and yet I’ll bet there are a lot of people who feel like their exes’ or former friends’ eyes changed right about the time they noticed some character deficiency that had been lying dormant all along.

We humans have this need to feel like we can discover everything we need to know about a person right off the bat. Despite all evidence to the contrary, whether in the form of charming used car salesmen, serial killers or other creeps and weirdos, we maintain the illusion that “he has an honest face” is a valid assessment. Why?

And ladies, not to pick on you, but I think this emphasis on eyes is misplaced. Most guys I know aren’t going to be intrigued by what you tell us about your eyes. Don’t get me wrong, we can be fooled just as easily if not more so, but you’ll need to get us in person. And to do that, you better have something more intriguing than a pair of eyes, smiling, Irish, or otherwise.

How I Met Your Mother: "Tick Tick Tick"

Tick Tick Tick is an episode which has a little something for everyone, by which I mean it contains ample evidence for both people who love the show and people who hate the show.

Let's get the hate-worthy material out of the way. Stoner humor is generally too easy to generate genuine laughter, and tonight's Ted-Marshall "sandwich" plot was several degrees too silly and nonsensical. The last second reveal, which was itself pretty funny, came too late to redeem the forgettable plot. The idea that stoned Marshall and Ted are incapable of even reading the sign to the women's restroom was pathetic.

But Tick Tick Tick was redeemed by the emotional stuff. The show did a remarkable job of portraying the aftermath of Barney and Robin cheating on their partners with each other. It's pretty rare that a show is willing to confront its main characters doing something morally dubious. Which is why I thought for sure both characters would confess before the end of the episode. The fact that they had Barney step up and do the hard thing, while Robin did not, shows that they have ideas in mind about how to develop this storyline.

The writers also cleverly portrayed Robin's decision in terms that make her decision, probably disappointing to so many fans, extremely understandable. Robin's lack of self-confidence led her to ask both Barney and Kevin the same question: "Why do you even like me?" Barney's answer and Kevin's answer were very different, with Barney liking her for being messed up like him and Kevin not believing that she is messed up. It's an interesting divergence, and a legitimate question as to which is better.

Curiously, the attempts at comedy in this plot also felt forced. Sandy Dennis is too cartoonishly evil to be believable in the world of the show, though it was nice to see him get a drink thrown at his face (if not in his face.) Thus we had an episode that was extremely light on actual laughs but was carried through on the strength of its characters and emotional insight. Unusual for a sitcom, but that's How I Met Your Mother all over.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Girl: "Cece Crashes"

I think the people behind New Girl, with one possible exception, are all trying too hard. First, I appreciate Zooey Deschanel's committment to playing this character to the fullest, but in doing so she is achieving very little comedy. Instead she is just kind of frustrating and unrecognizable as a human being. "Cece Crashes" pivots on her complete and utter inability to act like a reasonable person for any length of time. After her best friend Cece convinces her that her roommate Nick has a crush on her, Zooey winds up freaking out at the supermarket and jumping out of his car and running home. Heck, she doesn't even run away in a vaguely human way. She kind of shuffles and hunches while she's running. This suggests that Ms. Deschanel has a pretty firm grip on the character, but that that character is so fundamentally unrelatable as to wreck the show's whole premise.

Similarly, I get that Schmidt is supposed to be kind of a douchey guy. The show has done a somewhat decent job establishing that his obnoxious behavior is mostly a result of previous obesity limiting his experience with women. Still, his behavior around Cece in last night's episode would have cost him his life savings if the douchebag jar from the pilot were still around. (I guess Damon Wayans, Jr. must have taken it with him.)

The show has some interesting ideas for its characters. I like the idea of both Jess and Schmidt as late bloomers. And I enjoyed the look at how Cece's friendship has conditioned Jess not to expect male attention. But the show has to do a better job of displaying these traits in actual stories, you know, the kind where events happen and people react to them, or take actions and deal with the consequences. The oddest aspect of "Cece Crashes" was Nick's sudden and inexplicable anger at Jess for trying to take care of him, which really seemed to come from out of nowhere.

The show needs to do a better job of earning the emotionally resonant moments between characters. I liked Jess telling Schmidt that he was a good guy "if you ignore all the stuff you do on purpose and focus on the stuff you do by accident." But I would have loved it if it had been more earned.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New Girl: "Naked"

With the weather starting to turn and the rest of the fall TV slate starting to round into shape, it’s easy to forget that due to FOX’s postseason baseball coverage, this is actually only the fourth episode of New Girl. (Can someone pinpoint for me exactly when The New Girl lost its article? Was Sean Parker/Justin Timberlake involved?) This early on, character swings and reformulations are more easily forgivable, so even though the Jess of “Naked” was such a disappointing regression from the more realistically eccentric Jess from “The Wedding” I won’t be too critical of the show on that front.

More problematic is the reliance on such a hoary sitcom staple in just the fourth episode. No matter how talented the writing staff it’s hard to do much new with one character accidentally seeing another naked. Thus, Jess’s startled laugh and Nick’s subsequent self-consciousness failed to move the needle much. What laughs there were in this plot centered mainly on the amusing euphemisms Deschanel’s Jess came up with to avoid saying the anatomic terms. Even these, though, were Pyrrhic laughs, as they came at the expense of infantilizing Jess to an unsettling degree. The episode got much better once Jess had mastered the art of saying "penis."

The rest of the episode also didn’t inspire much confidence. It seems clear that the show is suffering for having to jettison Damon Wayans, Jr.’s Coach in favor of Winston. The show deliberately kept Winston in the background and separate from the other characters this week, and it’s a distressing sign that they’re having trouble finding stuff for him to do besides watch The King’s Speech and Human Centipede simultaneously.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Parks & Recreation: "Meet 'N' Greet"

Halloween episodes seem to lean towards character development as opposed to plot development, largely for the simple reason that more than any other time of year the characters are making ostentatious choices of self-representation. In TV as in real life, what you dress up as, or your choice not to dress up, says a lot about who you are.

The urge to fight back against that instinct might have lead Michael Schur and the staff at Parks & Rec to use the Halloween episode for at least one major development: the (not at all premature but still a little disheartening) death of Entertainment 7wenty. Apparently, telling potential customers that you have no bookings available is not the best way to drive up interest in your enterprise.

It’s a little unfortunate that they used the dissolution of everyone’s favorite source for free iPads as a method of turning Tom into a staggeringly obnoxious douche. (It’s also a lot unfortunate his offscreen presence last night harbors ill for future appearances of Jean-Ralphio.) Tom’s douchiness didn’t provide many laughs and seemed designed just to highlight once again what a good person Leslie Knope is. I guess we needed that since she didn’t get to dress up in a costume this year.

The rest of the episode took place at April and Andy’s house party which, like a spring-loaded skeleton, came as quite a surprise to their roommate Ben. Andy, intuitive if not exactly considerate, can tell that Ben is upset but perplexed that he won’t admit it. The show took Ben’s suppression a little too far, but it was worth it for the pay off of Andy, in costume as UFC fighter Chuck Liddell, dragging Ben around the party in a headlock.

A lot of television critics have praised Parks and Recreation by comparing Pawnee and its denizens to the way The Simpsons have populated Springfield, but the comparison becomes unflattering when the real people turn too cartoonish. Such has always been the danger with man’s man Ron Swanson, but here the concern is for Chris Traeger, whose actions made little sense and, outside of his hilarious explanation for dressing up as Sherlock Holmes (he wanted the perfect brain to go along with his perfect physique) provided less amusement than needed to carry this superfluous plotline.

Oh, an Ann was an eggplant, or a beanbag, and she has small enough hands to do some tricky plumbing work. Whatever.

Community: "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps"

Even though they weren’t supposed to air consecutively, “Random Chaos Theory” and last night’s episode of Community complement each other in interesting ways. Whereas the divergent timelines of the former were structured as a glimpse at the way the members function within the group, “Horror Fiction” looked at how they perceived themselves. Unfortunately the episode is going to be unfairly judged in two contexts, as it was neither as innovative as “Random Chaos Theory” nor was it as memorable as either of the two previous Halloween episodes. (I actually might like it better than the zombified “Epidemiology” but I recognize that as a minority opinion.)

The framework is elegant in its simplicity. Freshly-minted psych major Britta discovers that one of the anonymous personality tests she administered to the group shows strong signs of a personality disorder and homicidal tendencies, so she tries to tell a scary story to gauge the group’s reactions. But she Brittas it pretty badly, so the rest of the group, not suspecting her true motive, tries to show her how to tell a real scary story.

The writers did an excellent job of filtering each scary story through the perspective of the character telling it, and it was amusing how they translated that effect onto the screen. Britta’s story suffers from her half-hearted and distracted effort, to the point that the radio announcer warns of an escaped inmate with “a hook-hand thingy, you know what I mean.” Abed deconstructs the whole genre in his story, correcting every logical misstep but neglecting to make his story scary. Annie unwittingly provides a look at the desires and feelings she usually takes care to keep bottled up. Annie’s story, with Jeff as a conflicted vampire who wants to learn how to read, was the most humorous of the stories, with its combination of young-adult vampire lit and terrifyingly visceral carnage.

The other stories were more of a mixed bag. Troy’s was silly fun but nothing special, Pierce’s was clueless and out of touch, and Shirley’s was a version of the rapture where she is the only one ascending into heaven. As for Jeff, his story revealed little except that he has an ability to convince the group to move past things through speech-making.

The episode ends with the group realizing that Britta had Britta’d the test results by putting the scantron through in reverse. Gillian Jacobs is doing exceptional work this season, managing to engender the audience’s sympathy while also making the group’s incessant ribbing of her entirely understandable. Her crestfallen face both makes me laugh and say, “Aww.”

I laughed at the revelation that Abed is in fact the only one of the group to score as sane, but it makes more sense that it might seem. Doesn’t he seem like the kind of guy who’d be perfectly able to analyze the questions to pick the response that seemed most sane?