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Monday, January 31, 2011

Black Swan

Black Swan is a visceral thrill; it is a non-stop feast for the eyes. There is always something interesting to look at. It is a spectacle. The story concerns a ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman) as she prepares to dance the dual role in Swan Lake. Having been cast by her somewhat slimy director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) for her innate similarity to the pure and innocent White Swan, Odette, she struggles immensely to play Odile, the seductive and destructive Black Swan. These struggles are intensified by the calm cruelness of her mother (Barbara Hershey), the presence of a new rival perhaps more suited for her part (Mila Kunis), and by the lingering pall cast over the show by the self-destructive path of the company former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder).

The film is self-consciously concerned with art and artists, specifically whether technical skill or innate ability is paramount. Cassel’s Thomas seems to exist only to remind Nina that she doesn’t have any sex appeal, and it’s a testament to Portman’s acting abilities that you almost believe him. The film layers this concern with art with an age-old psychological question about dual natures: is there good and evil present in every man and woman? Is there always something more than meets the eye, something below the surface, and is it better to keep it there?

Aronofsky expertly steeps the horror of the film in the minutiae of real life, making the terror felt by Nina all the more relatable and chilling. The fright I felt every time Portman picked at her fingertips was greater than any I’ve felt at a masked man jumping out of closet door. These little terrors helped ground the film, allowing for the more fanciful elements later on, as Nina’s psychological torment deepened.

For such a stylish spectacle, Black Swan features great acting from both Portman and Barbara Hershey. Portman’s performance is getting much notice for its physical nature, its cracked toes, rail-thin body, and broken ribs. But there is great underplayed terror present on her face and a whole host of other emotions as well. See the scene where Nina is picked for the starring role and calls her mother from the bathroom. It’s a real killer of a scene, wrenching and convincing, and all based on a look of the face and a single line of dialogue: “He picked me, Mommy.”

Hershey has been criminally denied an Oscar nomination for her performance. She’s a horror movie psychopath of the kind you might actually meet on the street. The kind who know they have to hide their true nature from all but the people they can control. Hershey nails the subtle tones of voice, the carefully chosen phrases, and the threats hidden behind a smile. And when she loses it, she really loses it, and it’s all the more fearsome for what came before. Personally I’m a little surprised that the big story seemed to be on Kunis’ snub. I didn’t really see anything in her role that merited awards consideration. She did a fine job, but the part presented no difficulties that I could sense.

As the film rushes toward its inevitable conclusion the tension ratchets up even further. This is a movie that goes to 11 on a scale of 10.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a horror film for art-house types. Or is it an art-house film with mass appeal? Whatever it is, it is a hugely entertaining spectacle and the best film I’ve seen from 2010.*

*I still have not seen The King’s Speech, the presumptive Oscar winner for Best Picture.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Comedy Night Done Right

It’s just too daunting to review all the NBC comedies that I watch on Thursday night, even if I do skip two of the six half-hour blocks. (I watched the preview episode of Perfect Couples in December but only made it three minutes into the official premiere, and my views on Outsourced are well known by this point.) So I thought I’d offer brief thoughts in one cover-all post. In order, then:

-Community: I’ve seen complaints that this episode was somehow “stale” and “sitcommy”, the latter of which should no longer be allowed to appear in writing about television. Personally I loved the story structure of Pierce’s need for attention and immaturity made him a hit with the middle-school audience, completely thwarting Annie’s anti-drug play. I also appreciated the sight gag of Jeff and Britta in leather jackets and cat ears. And Chang finding a way to step up when the situation called for exactly his type of alienating insanity? Comedic brilliance. Yeah, there was little Abed and practically no Troy, but it was fun to see a Pierce-Annie storyline. There was a tad too much creepiness in the Britta’s nephew plot, but I admired the show’s boldness in not pulling up but going all the way through with a risqué and taboo joke.

-The Office: Michael Scott met David Brent, so now everyone can shut up about that, I guess. I did love the sly reference in Brent asking Scott if there were any open jobs at his company. The rest of the show was what the Office has become these days, a mixed bag of decent gags, cringe-worthy Michael moments, and a useless Jim-Pam storyline. The reveal on Jim’s distress was a major disappointment. I feel like there’s something extremely dispiriting in the tone the writers have taken with Pam and Jim. It’s like they resent them for being happy, and are making them bland and uninteresting on purpose. Only thing I really liked was the Scrabble plot, where Gabe is an unthinking ass, and Andy proves his worth.

Parks and Recreation: Definitely the most deserving of a full review. Lots going on here, with major developments in three separate romantic entanglements. That’s a lot of inter-office romance, and it may soon bog down the show, but it’s a fun ride while it lasts. Has Rob Lowe always been this funny? His two-word pep talk in the mirror was awesome. It was nice that the show let Leslie knock the speech out of the park, despite how funny it always is when she gets loopy and starts rattling off lists. April tormenting Ann was worth it for the payoff of Ann finally breaking as soon as her shift ends.

30 Rock: I love that this show, which could probably use the ratings bump, didn’t actively promote Robert DeNiro’s cameo because it was so much funnier as a surprise. I hope Bobby gets to use that Cockney accent in a movie someday. So much else to appreciate as well, from the meta-humor of Liz being able to say “fart” at 10 to her and Tracy singing their argument to the tune of Uptown Girls so it can’t be used on TV.

On "O: A Presidential Novel"

Rampant speculation as to the true author of the anonymously-published “O: A Presidential Novel” has settled on one candidate, and if true, I have to cry foul. The lead suspect is none other than Mark Salter, who was a key adviser to the McCain campaign and has co-written five non-fiction books with the Senator.

The reason this is so odious is that the novel is clearly a literary hit piece on President Obama. Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times mentioned that the fictional O is portrayed as arrogant, superior and vain. Though some, writing before knowing the true author, praised the author’s intimate knowledge of campaign lifestyle, Kakutani described the prose and the story as “lackadaisical” which is certainly a word you wouldn’t want turning up in reviews of your work.

The topper is that the novel’s editor and publisher tried to play up the salacious aspects of such a work, promising that the author was someone who “has been in the room with the President.” I’m sure this is technically true, perhaps they were in the same debate hall, but the implication was clearly that the novel was by someone who knew Obama intimately. To find, then, that the author is a political rival with obvious, transparent motives for discrediting him renders such a promotional gambit disgusting in retrospect.

If you want to trash the sitting President of the United States, there are literally limitless opportunities to do so. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but no one is sitting in jail right now for saying the President is doing a bad job. But to do so in a piece of fiction, and then give your imagined ramblings some false credence by hiding behind the “Anonymous” ruse, is purely unconscionable. Sign your damn name to the book so everyone knows what they are getting. The bitter railings of an unemployed hack.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


That's WTF as in Win The Future, the nascent buzz-phrase emerging from last night's State of the Union, which, as someone who feels no need to validate his citizenship through meaningless aural torture, I did not watch. Nor have I made any particular effort to acquaint myself with the proposals, promises, pledges, or concessions to circumstance that our Commander in Chief might have uttered last night. I say this not to brag, I have never taken any particular pride in either ignorance or stubbornness, but to explain why this post will be so light on substance.

With that caveat out of the way, let me just say this and move on. Win the Future? Really, that's what you're going with? Does this echo the Ford "Whip Inflation Now (WIN)" campaign? Are we going to start seeing little buttons with WTF printed on them on the President's lapel? More importantly, wouldn't the energies of the people who presumably spent time crafting and focus-testing this trite little boosterism have been better spent, I don't know, doing anything else?

Rant over, state of apathy reassumed, you may no go back to your daily routine. Sorry for the interruption.

Fidelity in Movies, vis a vis The Kids Are All Right

Yesterday, I saw a discussion of the ten nominees for Best Picture which took the unexpected turn of criticizing the plot of one of the nominees, The Kids Are All Right. The movie, which centers on a rocky period in the family of two married lesbians raising children they conceived through artificial insemination, was being criticized by an actual lesbian for its plot, which I will spoil in my next sentence. Julieanne Moore’s character, feeling unloved and unwanted by her partner, played by Annette Bening, begins an adulterous relationship with the biological father of her children, Mark Ruffalo.

This woman was criticizing the movie on this basis. As a lesbian, she said, it offended her that this movie depicted her orientation as so easily fungible. She stated that unsupportive relatives might be convinced by such a movie that there was still hope she could “switch” back to the right team, as it were. She had not seen the movie, only read the plot online, and refused to see it on this basis.

I understand that in a minority community, especially one that has been denied a lot in mainstream society for a long time, this is not something to scoff at. These are real concerns to this woman and, I’m guessing, a lot of others. Still I think it is inherently unfair to demand that any movie correspond with your worldview, and to judge it poorly for not doing so seems short-sighted.

No movie owes its fidelity to your experience, or even, if one can be said to exist, to the general experience of a whole community. Its fidelity is owed wholly to the characters. Whether their actions would be the ones you would undertake, or most people would undertake, is irrelevant. The question is whether the character, given what we have been shown of them, would undertake such action. I believe that this question is debatable in regards to Ms. Moore’s character’s affair, but in my own mind I accepted it as plausible, if legitimately surprising. The movie took time to depict the stasis she was experiencing in her marriage, her desperate need for affection, and her state of confusion as to her own behavior.

It seems as though we only bring our own experiences to bear on fictional characters in certain genres. The Kids Are All Right is billed as a family comedy, and so some people have rigid expectations for what to expect. But try to carry this to its farcical conclusion. Most websites don’t make their operators billions, so therefore, no Social Network? Most teenagers don’t chase after their meth-maker father, or seek to avenge a father’s death in the company of a one-eyed U.S. Marshal? Well, I guess that eliminates Winter’s Bone and True Grit.

Movies are meant for telling extraordinary stories, no matter what their genre. If you can’t suspend your disbelief to allow for coincidence, improbability, or unlikely behavior, you are not going to find them very rewarding.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

True Grit by Charles Portis

My father has this theory that the reason people so often prefer the book to the movie adaptation is because in the majority of cases that is the order in which they encountered them. According to him, when someone reads a book and then watches a movie they are preoccupied with the differences, which tend to involve simplification and cutting details, instead of just appreciating the movie. He further contends that if people read a book after seeing the film they would instead be impressed by how concisely the filmmakers told essentially the same story.

For reasons which could probably be called snobbish, I tend to read books before I see films or not read them at all, so I have had few opportunities to test this theory. Ironically, the test that most proved his theory was the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed more than the book, which was also good. I put the theory to the test again recently with True Grit, which I finished reading last night. I have actually both movie versions of the story, but I’ll mostly refer to the Coens’ version here.

Portis’ novel tells the same story as the film. Narrating from chronological distance, Mattie Ross tells the tale of how she, at 14 years old, came to hire a one-eyed U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to track down and possibly kill the man who had shot her father dead and how she joined him on this mission, against his wishes.

The novel starts out strong. Mattie’s voice is a remarkable literary achievement. She is cold, strict, morally uptight, and absolutely unaware of how hilarious she sounds. It is incredible how much humor Portis is able to wring from this character. Cogburn’s introduction in the novel, as he’s being cross-examined on the stand and excoriated for his shoot-first method of law enforcement, is just as funny on page as it is on screen.

Unfortunately, the novel, in my opinion, stumbles in the middle section, after the group (Mattie and Rooster are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf) lights out after the murderer, Tom Chaney. During this part the humor becomes sparser and less riotous, as the story basically calls for them to ride through the woods without much happening.

The last fifty pages, though, absolutely redeem the novel. Once Mattie comes into contact with Chaney, the writing and the absurd humor reach heights greater even than the novel’s opening sections. The ending is also quite satisfying, perhaps even slightly more so than that of the film.

So, which is better? As it stands today, I have to give the film credit for better distributing the humor throughout the film, and for making LaBoeuf a more interesting character. However, so many of the lines which stood out while I was watching the film are in fact taken directly from the novel, which is pretty telling. I would like to go back one day when the film is further from my mind and see if the book improves that way. If I say I like the film just a little bit better, does that mean that my dad is right, or just that the Coen Brothers are just great filmmakers?

And Now a Word About the Oscars

Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and it seems like a requirement that if you have a blog, you have to say something about them.

Due to a few more trips to the theater than usual this past year, as well as the quick turnaround date for DVD releases on Netflix, I have actually seen seven of the ten nominees for Best Picture. The exceptions being 127 Hours, Black Swan, and The King’s Speech. I plan to catch the latter two before the ceremony, but I have no interest in watching James Franco saw off his own arm. Of the ones that I have seen I think I liked Inception best, but The Social Network would also be a worthy winner.

If you believe in the fairly coherent logic that the five Best Director nominees are the “real five” Best Picture nominees, than things look bleak for Inception, as Christopher Nolan was passed over, seemingly in favor of the Coen Brothers. Also nominated were David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Arronofsky and Tom Hooper. I still can’t believe a movie about a website could be thrilling, so I think Fincher is the most deserving nominee, although again, I missed two of these movies. Hopefully Nolan will be able to console himself with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

As for the only other categories most people care about, the acting awards, I am at present supporting Jesse Eisenberg to win for Social Network, Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes for Winter’s Bone, and Amy Adams for the Fighter. Best Supporting Actor seems like a loaded category. I liked the performances of Bale, Renner and Ruffalo very much, and I haven’t even seen Geoffrey Rush yet, but he’s always fantastic. Again, I haven’t seen favorites Colin Firth and Natalie Portman yet, either.

Also, I liked True Grit a lot, but I'm shocked it got 10 nominations, and a little worried it could go 0-10, which would leave it just short of the record 0-11, shared by 1977's The Turning Point and 1985's The Color Purple. If Jeff Bridges does win he would be the tenth man to win two Best Actor Oscars, and only the third to do it in consecutive years, joining Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks.

I think that adequately fulfills my contractual blogger obligations.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Parks and Rec- "Go Big or Go Home"

See, what did I tell you? Since I know you all treasure my sage counsel and would thus never go against it, I can assume that you all tuned into NBC to watch Parks and Recreation last night for their first new episode of the season. What you saw was a well-crafted show featuring some of the best comic characters on television. When you tune in next week, and you will, I’m sure you’ll see more of the same.

Whether the idea developed organically or was foisted upon them by the network, I think the opening voiceover was a smart move. This show needs a wider audience, and if that means letting people catch up, so be it. (The show continued in this bent by underlining its callbacks, such as Leslie explaining to Ben why she is revered at the gay bar- she married two male penguins in the Season 2 premiere.)

You had to be charmed by the “let’s get the gang back together” vibe to the first few scenes. Notice how capably, and subtly, these also inform the casual viewer to the character types. Ron Swanson’s lack of enthusiasm at going back to government work, Tom’s ego and sleaziness, Donna’s outsized personality, and the gang’s comi-tragic undervaluation of Jerry and his talents.

The writers seem to have a plausible answer for everything. I wondered if Rob Lowe’s upbeat character would be a realistic match for Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins, but their connection on their date, as he shared his admiration for nurses and the source of his sunny disposition (he treats like a gift because he wasn’t suppose to live more than a few weeks) struck all the right chords.

I’m so glad that Parks and Rec is back that I probably would have greatly appreciated even a so-so episode. I’m so glad the show didn’t have to rely on my own (temporarily) sunny disposition.

Here's maybe the ultimate sign of this show's strength. I've gotten this far into this review without mentiong Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness, his Wooden-esque teaching tool for molding his youth-league basketball team into winners. You have to look up the full version online to appreciate the care this show's writers take, but even the bits they showed on TV were golden. "Fish: only for sport. Fish meat is practically a vegetable." "Capitalism: God's way to determine who is smart and who is poor." I'm laughing at my desk just remembering it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Parks and Recreation Tonight!

Watch Parks and Recreation tonight at 9:30/8:30c on NBC, directly after The Office. This show is great, trust me!

Purr-fect Casting

Okay, okay, that’s a terrible and unoriginal pun in the headline, but forgive me, I’m still distracted by the potential of seeing Anne Hathaway in a catsuit for the better part of two hours.

Yesterday’s news that Hathaway had been cast in the pivotal role of Selina Kyle (Catwoman’s alter ego) in the supposedly last film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise brought about a mixed reaction from the Internet community. Many doubt Hathaway’s ability to play the traits most popularly attributed to Catwoman, sultriness, danger, etc. There was also mixed reactions to the announcement that the previously cast Tom Hardy (Inception) would be playing the villain Bane (but again, I’m a little too distracted by the Hathaway news to care much.)

I have little to no credibility on this issue since I am an unabashed Hathaway fan. I think she’s the best combination of beauty and talent working in the movies today. So it’s no surprise that I think she’ll do wonders as Selina Kyle, but I think there are other reasons than sheer admiration to have confidence.

First and foremost, I think we should by this point all be trusting in Christopher Nolan’s judgment. When I first heard that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker, my first reaction was bemusement. Him? The guy from 10 Things I Hate About You? Gimme a break, right? One (sadly posthumous) Oscar later and I think the time for skepticism has passed. No one on the Internet has seen Hathaway audition for this role as Nolan has, and his past performance indicates that he must have seen something he could use.

Remember, Nolan has made his corporate backers untold millions of dollars. He has, to be crude, “Fuck You money” which means he doesn’t face the kind of pressures less proven directors may face in terms of casting. Hathaway is the hottest name in the business to be sure, but it’s extremely unlikely, bordering on preposterous, to think that any studio boss’s pressure could have put her in the movie over another actress favored by Nolan. That means he must have thought her the best for the role.

Secondly, if you look at Hathaway’s filmography, you see that she has an incredibly broad range as an actress. She’s played goofy and awkward, she’s been rebellious and uninhibited, she’s done cold, and in Rachel Getting Married she was bitchy, selfish, and vulnerable. It was a tour de force performance. I think she’s capable of anything, and I’m excited to see her try.

Modern Family- "Caught in the Act"

There were a lot of sins committed in “Caught in the Act” none of which occurred in the Dunphy marital bed. (The Dunphys do not live in Alabama.) No, we are talking here of sins of un-originality. An “oh no I didn’t mean to send that e-mail but I totally did” plot? A couple trying to hide a stain? Wacky misunderstandings leading to innocuous dialogue being mistaken for sexual innuendo? Not a lot of new ground being plowed here. (Sexual innuendo intended.)

Still, it’s all done with a certain panache that carries the day. The show often tries to combine sweet and funny, but it is not often as successful as it was in the scene where the three Dunphy children together come to the realization that it’s a good thing their parents love each other enough to still have sex. Still gross, though, as their horror in the cap whenever the new, loud bedroom lock goes off shows.

The Dunphy family is generally solid ground for comedy, but the other two branches are showing signs of wear and tear. It seems like the writers are straining to find new “old man with hot wife” jokes and Cameron and Mitchell seem relegated to thrown-in rehashes of I Love Lucy plots. I think these two branches may work better when mixed-in with the rest of the family. On their own their weaknesses shine through too much.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

United States of Tara: Season 2

I burned through the second season of Showtime’s United States of Tara over the long MLK weekend. I know a lot of people got burned out on Diablo Cody after they realized “hey, wait, nobody talks like that” a quarter of the way through re-watching Juno, but for the most part she keeps her idiosyncrasies a little more in line here.

To me “Tara” is a show that really takes advantage of its premium cable status without falling into the concomitant pratfalls of overreliance on nudity and swearing. Pay cable allows you to do stories that the networks would never consider, but it takes creative discipline to use that freedom well. On “Tara” that freedom accounts for the unconventional and dysfunctional nature of the Gregson family. This is a show that gets that families can go through a lot of shit together and still come out of it loving each other.

One thing I really love about the show is that it allows actors who are normally stuck in comic relief/rom-com best-friend hell to be leading lights. Toni Collette is the headliner, and does terrific work, but John Corbett (Tara’s husband) and Rosemarie Dewitt are just as awesome. Dewitt in particular is adept at making her character, Tara’s sister, a relatable bitch. She’s selfish and sympathetic at the same time. It’s not an easy trick, but it’s one Dewitt seems particularly good at. (See also her turn in Rachel Getting Married.)

The Gregson children, played by Brie Larson and Keir Gilchrist (who are both in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) are wrapped up in admittedly far-fetched escapades, especially Larson’s Kate, who over the second season finishes high school early, befriends an artist with a checkered past, and assumes the role of her comic book creation, Princess Valhalla Hawkwind in order to receive gifts from strange men online. (Try getting away with that plot on CBS.)

Gilchrist’s Marshall Gregson has the comparatively smooth character arc of trying to figure out whether or not he’s really gay, and how he can still be normal either way. Oh, and he has a girlfriend the whole time, who seems not to mind if he is gay.

Along the way, Tara’s relapse into her alters after a long absence creates trouble in her marriage while also bringing her closer to revealing the childhood trauma that may her caused her dissociation in the first place. There are some big revelations near the end of the season, which makes the wait until the third season premieres (or even longer, since I don’t have Shotime, until the DVD comes out) a very hard one indeed.

The Dain Curse

Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse feels like six novels jammed into one, not sure which it really wants to be. This is a big surprise coming from Hammett, whose prose is so renowned for its spare, tight, suspenseful nature. Hammett’s novels are usually grounded in psychologically real characters in a violent world, and while there is violence a plenty in The Dain Curse, Hammett indulges in such outlandish plot elements that the result is, ironically, quite dull.

The novel starts as a straight detective novel. Hammett’s anonymous Continental Op arrives on scene at a diamond robbery as an employee of the insurance company on the hook for their policy. After becoming convinced that the job is an inside one, the scientist entrusted with the diamonds turns up dead of an apparent suicide.

It is at this point that the book goes off the rails, not always troublingly so, but still. First it veers into family melodrama, as deep, dark secrets are revealed about the dead man and his life. Then it becomes an occult narrative as the action shifts to a kooky California cult. Then it becomes a modern western, set in a Northern California ghost town. There are more shifts in store, but they would involve spoilers.

It’s a confusing book to read in spurts, since you can close one kind of story and pick up a completely different one. The Op is an appealing hard-boiled detective, but he seems out of place in a lot of these elements. Also, by way of warning, there is an uncomfortable level of racism in this book, which is technically accurate to the period but does little to raise the literary value of the text.

I’m a huge Hammett fan, but this is not in his top shelf. It still beats the crap out of Philo Vance, though.

The Town

Ben Affleck’s The Town has so many elements of an entertaining, watchable movie. There is strong acting from the whole ensemble cast (especially Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlewaite, Rebecca Hall, and Blake Lively.) The action scenes are well-directed and suspenseful, even as the robberies depicted become increasingly ridiculous. However, The Town has a fatal flaw which lingers over the film until it inevitably ends up destroying any good will the rest of the movie may have engendered.

The Town is the story of a gang of bank robbers based in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, an apparently real hotbed of violent criminal activity. Ben Affleck’s Doug is the details guy, knowing the names of the security guards and their weaknesses. His best friend (played by Jeremy Renner) is an unhinged wildcard who is quick to violence and has served nine years in jail. During a bank robbery they and their gang briefly take Rebecca Hall hostage. Worried that she might have seen something, Doug takes to spying on her, until he begins to feel bad for her and then fall for her.

Of course, eventually Hall’s character is going to find out that Affleck was part of the gang that terrorized her. But the film totally forsakes emotional realism in its depiction of her and Doug’s reactions.

The first sign of trouble is that the film seems to expect us to feel sorry for Doug, despite the fact that he’s an active and willing participant in several felonies, during which he is seen firing weapons indiscriminately into a crowd. Affleck never seems to realize that his character is a monster, an unforgivable error in judgment for both the actor and the director. The film goes to absurd lengths to try to convince the audience the Doug is incapable of leaving this lifestyle, but they fall flat.

Rebecca Hall does her damnedest to sell her character’s patently inexplicable actions, but it too falls short. And the film’s ending, which I have gone perhaps too far toward spoiling already, is among the most objectionable and stupid I have ever seen. It renders the whole film an exercise in amorality, misogyny and frivolity. It’s a damn shame, but The Town amounts to significantly less than the sum of its pieces.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How I Met Your Mother- Last Words

Here’s a word I’ve never used on this blog before: Bravo.

Bravo, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, for setting up a difficult challenge and then rising to it. After the death of Marshall’s dad, I wondered how the show could proceed. It would have to take the death seriously while at the same time providing at least a few laughs. “Last Words” certainly wasn’t the funniest episode ever, nor should it have been, but it was an emotional, heartfelt, and resonant half-hour.

Last Words smartly emphasized the gang’s predicament in trying to find ways to be there for Marshall. Even Lily wasn’t entirely sure where she was needed. Each character’s response seemed to fit in with their personality. Robin was self-assured, Ted and Barney sweetly juvenile, and Lily willing to do anything for Marshall.

Marshall’s obsession with his father’s absolute last words to him was believable, despite the fact that we saw a heartfelt conversation between them in Bad News. It also perfectly set up the dizzying emotional trip of discovering the voice mail, thinking it’s just a pocket dial, and then the glorious sound of his father’s voice coming on the phone to apologize for the pocket dial, say “I love you” and ask if he left behind his foot cream.

Marshall’s anger at the universe for the sick joke of the pocket dial was fantastically acted. The horror on Lily’s face was also resonant, especially when he said that his father would never meet their children. I’m not going to lie, I cried pretty hard during this scene.

So again, Bravo, How I Met Your Mother, you proved that you are still capable of knocking one out of the park.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Glass Key

I have always been a fan of Dashiell Hammett, but I have only now come up with the perfect way to praise him. He is the antidote for Philo Vance (see previous post.) Where The Benson Murder Case demonstrated the mystery genre in all its silly, frivolous, dismissible absurdity, The Glass Key shows that crime writers can transcend whatever limitations some would seek to impose on their genre.

Ned Beaumont is the trusted advisor of a political boss in a corrupt city. The mayor, the police chief and the District Attorney all fall into line when Ned shows up at their doors. Things begin to get out of hand when Ned finds a senator’s son dead in the street, an apparent murder victim. Ned’s boss, Paul Madvig, has been campaigning hard for the senator in order to endear himself to the senator’s daughter, despite the fact that his own daughter has taken up with the senator’s son.

Suspicion for the murder surrounds Paul, especially when the police he controls seem to be doing little to solve the case. Ned’s efforts to find out what is really going on become complicated when his political rivals use some very rough tactics to keep him from interfering.

Hammett is a master at creating and sustaining an atmosphere. His prose is so economical and yet lively. He creates memorable characters simply through sparse description of their features, actions, and of course their dialogue. Ned encounters crooked bookies, foul-mouthed women, and scheming politicians as he tries to keep his boss out of jail.

The Glass Key was an inspiration for the Coen brothers film, Miller’s Crossing, and though the plots are not overtly similar there is in the film the same mood that Hammett creates, of a place with little resembling hope, where power rests with those daring enough to grab it and cagey enough to maintain it, and the rest of the world is just trying to stay out of their way. Friendship, love and family are depicted as impermanent and fleeting, and though Ned gets his man the novel’s ending is anything but happy.

The Glass Key is not just a great crime novel but a great novel by a great novelist. There’s nothing frivolous about it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Philo Vance #1

I feel like every book I read deserves at least a few words in this space, and yet it has taken several days to gather up the energy to write about The Benson Murder Case, the first of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels. Vance was an enormously popular detective in the 1920s and ‘30s, inspiring many film and radio adaptations. His popularity has declined precipitously, and upon reading, it is not difficult to discern why.

Many people categorically dismiss mystery novels as silly and frivolous affairs and Philo Vance lives down to all of their expectations. The conceits in this novel are absurd. Vance is described by Van Dine (which is actually the fictional narrator’s name, and serves as a pen name for the true author, an art critic named William Huntington Wright) as a dilettante and a man about town. He is of independent means and lives a luxurious existence, flitting from art gallery to dining club. He is prissy, fussy, and entirely aggravating.

Nearly all of the worst aspects of detective fiction are present in The Benson Murder Case. The police are incompetent beyond measure, only the outsider with intelligence can actually solve crime. Vance believes in psychology as opposed to physical evidence, except when he has to use physical evidence to actually solve the crime. Oh, and he does that annoying thing where he figures out the murderer instantaneously but doesn’t reveal any of his thoughts until the last minute.

Looking up Vance online, it was amusing to hear how detested the character was by some of my favorite detective writers. Both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett found the character asinine and Chandler even wrote in mocking references to Vance in several of his novels.

The Benson Murder Case was a complete chore to finish, despite its relatively short length. I can’t imagine fighting my way through another one.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Huckleberry Finn and a Certain Word

Yeah, I know, the internet has pretty much covered this one already. Most sane people, who somehow seem to be too busy to run for school boards, don’t like the idea of sanitizing perhaps the pre-eminent American novel just so as to avoid offending our modern sensitivities. It is truly sad that as the structural institutions of our society are so afraid of serious discussion that they would purge the historical record to refrain from it.

Let me then, just say this, since, as an ardent admirer of Twain I feel it would be wrong to stay silent: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a novel marred by its use of racial epithets. The inclusion of the “n-word” is not done through some blind insensitivity. Rather, the novel is enhanced by the considered, though frequent, use of the word. Its prominence, more than being a matter of accuracy, also serves the story perfectly.

Huck Finn, despite all his other divergences from society, is at the beginning of the novel still locked in the same mindset as the rest of his world, that blacks are lesser human beings and therefore justifiably kept as slaves. It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances before he can begin to break through this imposed mindset and finally see Jim as a real person.

Twain uses the n-word to establish the pernicious nature of the world of the novel, the way society can ensnare even the best of us in its prejudices. Taking the epithets out of the mouths of Twain’s people lessens the power of the narrative. It’s just wrong.

It’s not hard to guess what Twain himself would have thought of such an edition of his work. One of his most famous and truest quotes says: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How I Met Your Mother- "Bad News"

First, allow me to congratulate myself for catching on to the numbers gimmick immediately. This is no small accomplishment, considering my tendency toward distraction and the puny dimensions of my TV. But I caught the number on the doctor’s pamphlet changing from 50 to 49 and paid strict attention the rest of the way. (I still missed a large string, because I didn’t notice the winning lotto numbers.)

For the first, say, twenty-nine minutes and thirty seconds, the numbers added a fun little dimension to a pretty good episode. I really enjoyed NPH as a bearded doctor, especially as it brought back the Sensory-Deprivator 5000, to allow Lily to see Barney and the gyno at the same time without Barney seeing anything.

Robin’s new job is building slowly as a comedic arc, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the highlight reel of all her pratfalls and missteps. I don’t know how much time we’ll spend with Robin’s co-workers, but it was funny to have them learn everything about her so quickly when it took Barney and the gang years.

But of course, how you feel about this episode ultimately comes down to what you think about the last second revelation of the death of Marshall’s dad, and what that revelation made you think of the numbered countdown that led up to it. I must confess that after my initial reaction of being impressed by the acting of both Segel and Hannigan (when she stepped out of the cab she looked so distraught I thought one of her parents had died) was anger at the manner in which the gimmick was used. It felt discordant and misplaced, especially as they were clearly having fun with working the numbers into the sets (such as the 9 being an upside-down 6, or the high-five counting as the 5.)

I can’t, obviously, state for certain what the show was trying to do with the numbers. Upon reflection, I think they were trying to heighten the blow of the last minute revelation. It’s kind of like in a snowball fight when someone throws a snowball high up in the air and then hits you in the face with another one. The blow hurts all the more because you were distracted.

The numbers, then, become the show’s attempt to recreate Marshall’s shock in the audience. Here Marshall is, he’s still young and having fun, even if he is worried about having a kid. This news comes up out of nowhere for him, just like it does for us, and just like it very often does in real life. Marshall, especially after receiving great news about his and Lily’s fertility, expects the good times to continue. The audience has expectations based on the fact that the show is a comedy, in addition to the buildup of the countdown. Both are sucker punched by reality, which is often just as unwelcome on television as it is in real life.

Still, though, the episode gets a grade of incomplete for now. The true test is in how it handles this development going forward. Marshall can’t just move on from this in a week, and the audience wouldn’t respect it if he did. Allowing the characters to deal with this blow, while also wringing some appropriate humor out of these next few episodes, seems a daunting task to me. I hope the show is up to it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Charlie Chan #2

The Chinese Parrot is the second novel by Earl Derr Biggers to feature his famous (and in some circles, infamous) Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan, of the Honolulu police. The first novel, The House Without a Key, was only a so-so mystery, but was sort of a fascinating curiosity since it was written about Hawaii before statehood. Chan was a sort of a sideshow in that novel, coming in to the scene only occasionally to speak in his curiously stilted English and deliver ancient wisdom.

Here the setting has moved to the mainland, where Chan is traveling for the first time, assigned to play caretaker for a valuable string of pearls during their transfer to a cantankerous magnate named P.J. Madden. The jeweler selling the pearls becomes suspicious due to some last-minute changes in the arrangements, and sends his son and Chan down to Madden’s ranch to investigate. With Chan posing as the hired help and the son stalling, the two determined whether something is amiss, and what.

It wouldn’t be much of a mystery novel if there wasn’t, would it? Biggers plot does nicely spread the revelations, and creates many diversions. It’s a nice twist not knowing what crime has even taken place, though it opens the door for a fairly outlandish solution.

Chan is today mostly known due to the movies, where the screenwriters indulged in the less favorable parts of his portrayal. On screen Chan’s English is the source of much fun, which seems especially mean-spirited in light of the fact that he was most often portrayed by a Swedish actor in make-up. The Chan of the novels may appear politically incorrect by our modern standards, but in the context of his time he was actually a groundbreaking figure. It’s noteworthy that Chan is the most able and bravest of the characters in the novel, and commands respect from the others through his ability.

Toy Story 3

People fawn over Pixar for their ability to make kids’ movies which appeal to adults, and deservedly so, but they mostly concentrate on the movies’ emotional resonance and mature subject matter. (Mature being used her in its true meaning, not to convey prurience.) Not enough attention is paid to their ability to craft thrilling adventures. For my money, Pixar actually makes some of the best action sequences around.

There are several such scenes in Toy Story 3, culminating in a fantastic escape sequence, which transitions into a life-or-death situation. The tension is ratcheted up throughout the film’s climactic moments, producing a top-notch thrill. It’s really something to realize you’ve been concerned over the peril facing a bunch of animated toys.

As for the film’s much-vaunted sentimentality, I have to confess that I found the ending just a little over-the-top verging on maudlin. But then again, I have been told that I have no heart.

Winter's Bone

There’s a real danger in making movies about the destitute. Sometimes the attempt to be realistic and brutally honest, well, it comes off as exploitative and mean. Such is almost the case in Winter’s Bone, which takes an unflinching look at the community of meth-makers in the Ozarks of Missouri. However, the compelling nature of the plot is enough to help the film avoid any pitfalls and succeed as a drama.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, 17-year-old daughter of a meth cook named Jessup who has not been seen in several weeks. Jessup is out on bail and expected back in court in a few days, and the sheriff warns Ree that her father put the family house and land up for his bond. If he doesn’t show, they will lose their home.

Ree sets out to find her father, leaving her two younger siblings at home with their catatonic mother. Her extended family is unwilling or unable to help, warning her to mind her own business lest she attract the wrath of Thump Milton, the head of the meth trade in the Ozarks. Eventually, Ree gets into real trouble, until her father’s brother Teardrop, a hard and violent man, decides to help her despite the consequences.

To say much more would spoil it, but let it suffice to say that the film is not about to let everything come up roses for Ree and Teardrop.

John Hawkes turns in an unbelievable performance as Teardrop, capturing the monster just below the surface. Credit must go to the casting director, who somehow found people with acting ability who could be made to look like they’d be doing meth their whole lives. Winter’s Bone is not for the squeamish (if the thought of watching someone skin and disembowel a squirrel makes you blush, you’re in for a ride), but it is a tense drama worthy of its Oscar buzz.

Easy A

The script for Easy A sacrifices realism and a bit of coherency for the sake of ‘80s movie
references and a tenuous connection to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (English major
confession: I’ve never read this book. I blame the education system, since it was never assigned to me.)

That being said, the movie is a clear success, if only for the incredible likeability of its star, Emma Stone. As Olive Pendergrast, a high-schooler who lies about losing her virginity, only to see the lie turn into a pernicious rumor that won’t die, Stone is charming, witty, and magnetic. The screenplay calls for Stone’s character to narrate the proceedings in retrospect, via webcam, a smart decision which allows even more of the focus to be on Stone.

A lot of the humor outside of Stone is rather frivolous. Her parents are wacky and liberal (they are played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, who are very game to say the least.) The guidance counselor (played by Lisa Kudrow) is foul-mouthed and promiscuous. There’s a cult of religious conservatives (led by a fairly annoying Amanda Bynes, who may be retired involuntarily soon), and they hate Olive. The best character outside Olive may be Thomas Haden Church’s English teacher, who is given very little to do, unfortunately.

The movie is a very breezy 90 minutes, which helps alleviate some of its sins. One day, this will probably best be remembered as the film which turned Emma Stone into a star.

True Grit

I’m not really sure what I saw, but it was damn entertaining, I’ll tell you that.

Seriously, though, I’m trying to figure out whether True Grit was really as straightforward as it seemed. The Coen brothers are usually a bit trickier than this, but perhaps I’m letting their most recent picture, A Serious Man, overly influence my thinking. If I were forced to use other Coens as a guideline, I would say True Grit is like a cross between the violence of No Country for Old Men and the verbiage of Oh Brother Where Art Thou, without the former’s heavy philosophical nature or the latter’s literary allusions and banjo music.

The chief attractions here are the cinematography and the dialogue. On the first count, the film just looks great. The town of Fort Smith, where Mattie Ross arrives to handle his father’s funeral arrangements, looks incredibly authentic, from the dilapidated general stores to the disreputable saloon outhouse where Mattie and the audience first encounter Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn (in voice only, thankfully.)

The dialogue is highly stylized, and archly conservative, especially coming from Mattie. Hailee Steinfeld does a better job at her line readings than you would ever expect from a 14-year-old. But even Rooster and Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LaBeouf (pronounced, by him, as LaBeef) speak in unusual dictions.

Bridges and Damon are clearly having a lot of fun with their characters, and that sense of amusement is shared by the audience. There are more laughs than you might expect in a tale of vengeance, and most of them come from the absurdity of the situation and Rooster’s deadpan reactions.

The ending was a little more conventional than Coen brothers fans are used to, a fact which will come as a relief to all those frustrated by the ambivalence at the close of No Country for Old Men. Overall, I think I will need to see the film multiple times to fully gauge where it stands in the brothers’ canon, but it remains a fine entertainment on its own.