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Monday, February 28, 2011

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts is often referred to as a novel despite its extreme brevity. At only 58 pages it is shorter than most novellas. This lack of length might seem enticing but in the end proves a befuddling decision. Mr. West's "novel" is a muddled mixture of bitter musings and pronoucements of pain. Its philosophy is impossible to discern, and its lack of compassion is alarming.

This is all a shame, because by anybody's estimation, the premise here is an absolute winner. Miss Lonelyhearts is the title character, but he is a he, not a she, and he's employed at a newspaper writing an advice column. It's all a little joke perpetrated on the paper's readers, orchestrated by the viciously cynical Shrike, who torments Miss Lonelyhearts with his mocking disregard for Christ and humanity.

Miss Lonelyhearts initially seems to be a sympathetic creature. In the novel's heartbreaking first few pages, he reads some of his mail as he struggles to say something meaningful in his columns. The letters are passionate pleas for help from the helpless, the abused, the trapped. Shrike mocks Miss Lonelyhearts by telling him to suggest these people take up hobbies such as art appreciation.

However, after the wonder that is the first five pages or so, West's novel bogs itself down in opaque inner dialogue about Christ. It is never made clear what Miss Lonelyhearts really wants or feels, and as he is shown to be a rather unsavory character himself, it is easy for the reader not to give a damn what happens to him.

It is almost an achievement in its own right that a novel so short can be so lacking in energy and momentum. What should be a rush to the conclusion is instead a slog.

There's just a lot missing in Miss Lonelyhearts, which is inexcusable in such a short work.

Twitter, Snark, and the Oscars

Last night I watched the first half of the Oscars with other people, and I watched the second half while on my laptop. It really was an amazing difference. It’s true that I found James Franco’s hosting a little withdrawn and unengaged, but the show wasn’t going all that terribly. Every little thing that felt a little off was just brushed aside until the next one. Oprah Winfrey lingering by the microphone a few seconds too long was just a funny little thing.

But when I logged on to Twitter I was surprised to discover that I had been watching the worst Oscars telecast of all time. (Quick question: How many moments from the last five Oscars do you vividly remember?) This, I was told, was a train wreck, derailing the careers of its hosts and threatening to kill Kirk Douglas with its length and tediousness.

What gives? It’s the Twitter model. Twitter is less a site for conversations than it is a venue for one-liners, with the best ones being retweeted by others, leading to more followers and thus higher prestige. It’s a market that only rewards extreme opinions. Would you be wowed by the wit of someone who tweeted, “That was ok” after the host’s opening monologue?

Even most of the people tweeting their little jokes about the telecast had to be doing it without truly believing what they were saying. Everyone who complained about how long the show was going had to know that the Oscars always go long. This year was pretty good, actually, running only 15 minutes long. You try timing a live event where 24 people are invited to give speeches.

The point is, that much negativity bubbling up so quickly and so unanimously can’t be a good thing, especially with almost no optimism to counterbalance it. Can social media really be a valuable tool if it almost by necessity demands cynicism and shuns sincerity? I don’t think I’d like to live in a world where the people who panned the Oscars had to plan the show themselves.

P.S. Please don’t take this to mean we shouldn’t criticize Franco’s performance. He was dreadful in the worst way imaginable, as if he knew what he was doing would piss most people off, and he didn’t care. That’s unforgivable in an event that it supposed to be fun.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Picks

Okay, it's time to announce my highly-anticipated picks for the Oscars, which are being handed out this Sunday night on ABC. But first, let's clear up a few matters. First, I don't care if you don't care about the Oscars. For some reason there are certain topics in this world of ours that just cause people to feel the need to chime in with their disapproval, and celebrity awards shows are right at the top of that list. We get it, you don't like seeing rich people congratulate each other. Good for you. No one cares if you watch, so please don't bother informing us.

Second, I don't really care what will win, so I'm not going to tell you what I think will win. To me the most frustrating thing about the Oscars by far is the all-powerful consensus that starts to build even before the Golden Globes and suffocates all the drama out of the actually revelations of the winners. I understand that this is inevitable as long as there are all these different guilds giving out awards, and as long as there are entertainment journalists with column inches to fill, but what I don't get is why this leads to a dearth of discussion about what should win. Obviously more people have an idea what will win that have a well-informed opinion of what should, but it just leads to the same "Colin Firth will win" column being written a million times.

Well, I've seen nine of the ten Best Picture nominees (three cheers for Netflix) and quite a few pictures nominated in other categories, so I'm going to pick the people I would give the Oscars to if I ran the world. Let's get to it.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom

My Pick: These are five fairly strong performances (more people should check out Animal Kingdom, a family crime drama from Australia) but the strongest supporting performance I saw all year wasn't nominated. If I gave out the Oscars, I'd give it to Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother in Black Swan. Out of these nominees I like Amy Adams playing against type the best. Favorite Melissa Leo's performance to me seemed to be making fun of her character a little too much.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

My Pick: Disappointed that there was no representation from The Social Network in this category, as I liked Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake very much. Renner was the best part of the woefully mis-scripted The Town (really bad ending) but I'm giving this to John Hawkes, who played a dangerous man with so much commitment that I was fascinated and horrified every time he came on screen.

Best Actress
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

My Pick: Ok, so I only saw three of these, missing Kidman and Williams in smaller movies that haven't come out on DVD yet. There's been a lot of "debate" lately about whether Portman was really acting, but I think that's sheer stupidity. That role could have easily descended into mockable silliness in less capable hands. I'm giving the Oscar to Portman, and hoping she lets loose another cackle when she wins.

Best Actor
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

My Pick: Again, I've only seen three out of five, having missed Bardem and Franco (one movie is foreigh, and the other just didn't interest me.) I like Bridges in True Grit a lot better than I did in Crazy Heart, but The Dude isn't the best in the category. Everyone knows Firth is going to win, and he did a great job to be sure, but I felt like Eisenberg's performance really created a character with every expression and every movement, so I'm giving this to him.

Best Director
Darren Arronofsky, Black Swan
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

My Pick: It's a damn shame that Russell is in this category instead of Christopher Nolan. I wouldn't give it to Nolan, but he should have been a serious contender. This is the toughest choice for me, between Arronofsky and Fincher, but I'm going to give it to Arronofsky for fearlessly making his movie as balls-to-the-wall psychotic as possible without losing narrative momentum.

Best Picture
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

My Pick: I'm guessing you've figured out that I like Black Swan by now, so let's just give it this award too. Again, Social Network is right there. Let's rank these, for the hell of it.

1. Black Swan
2. Social Network
3. Inception
4. True Grit
5. Winter's Bone
6. The King's Speech
7. Toy Story 3
8. The Fighter
9. The Kids Are All Right
Unseen: 127 Hours

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Regrets Only"/"Heather's Sister"

I'm reducing my carbon footprint by combing Modern Family and Mr. Sunshine into one post.

Regrets Only was a strong showing by Modern Family; an episode that fully utilized its talented ensemble cast and mixed up the three families to amusing effect. It may seem unlikely for Cameron to rely on Luke for party help (really, wouldn't Manny make much more sense?) but it paid off with great sight gags and one-liners. Cameron instantly going into Meryl Streep in "Devil Wears Prada" mode just because he has an assistant was so much fun I decided to forgive the fact that once again the writers sunk Cam and Mitchell into a plot where they had to impress their artsy friends. It's ironic as hell, but they are by far the most sitcom-cliche couple on the show.

The other main plot (Gloria's at-home karaoke was a trifle) featuring Phil and Claire's fight was nicely balanced between the outright comical (spraying each other with the fire extinguisher allowed Ty Burrell to demonstrate his impeccable slapstick) and the heartfelt (the resolution where Phil convinces Claire that he does listen to her opinions was sweet without devolving into treacle.)

I loved how their fight kept Alex from earning her righteous victory over Haley. Alex is really an under-utilized character; I loved the way she grilled Manny to pin down time and date. (Also, how great is this show when they pack the script so full of jokes that you might easily miss Manny breaking a friendship over a bad romantic comedy recommendation?)

Mr. Sunshine's third episode relies a little too heavily on the type of stories that got people talking about the death of the sitcom in the early 2000s. The episode used both the dreaded "double date" AND "visiting friend who is really a rival". That's a bit distressing so early in a series, but the acting does elevate some weak material. I was laughing fairly regularly, which of course covers a lot of sins in comedy. The show was helped by how far it is willing to go with Heather's character, who is both frighteningly insane and sweetly demurring. It's an impressive combination.

I also just like Matthew Perry and his line readings. It's a cleverly constructed character; insecure, selfish, and self-aware. It lends itself to a lot of great line readings and reactions. I hope the rest of the show grows into something more interesting creatively.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Appointment in Samarra

John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is one of those second-tier American literary classics, the kind which self-appointed guardians of culture will insist is better than their more popular contemporaries in order to gain points in their own obscure circles. Indeed, my copy notes that Fran Leibowitz, self-styled epigrammist, referred to O'Hara as "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald." Meaningless palaver such as this can be unseemly and off-putting, but O'Hara's novel earns the praise more than most.

The novel is set in the fictional Gibbsville, PA, a town with a lot of old money wealth built on coal, and new money wealth built in the stock market. O'Hara sets his story in the world of the country club set, investing his story fully in their trifling distinctions and frivolous diversions. O'Hara is of this world and it shows. The chief pleasure of then novel may well be its anthropological dissection of these people and their lives. There are elaborate rituals evident in their country club parties and dances; taboos and mores as rigidly enforced as in any cultural tribe. It is also fascinating, at this chronological distance, to read O'Hara's frank depiction of the sexual politics of the time. O'Hara depicts a world in which neither men nor women are allowed to be open about they want, and shows their reliance on secrecy and deception.

The plot, then, becomes really just a vehicle to propel the audience through O'Hara's evisceration of this upper-class world. The main character is Julian English, a rather unserious young man of 30 who runs a car dealership and enjoys a position near the top of the social scene. On Christmas Eve 1930 he throws a drink in the face of a powerful man and shortly finds himself a pariah. His dizzying descent seems impossible, but is so well-drawn by O'Hara that it becomes frighteningly plausible.

There are sections of the novel devoted to other characters, but these are more anthropological in nature. The best of these involve Caroline English, Julian's wife. It's just interesting to try and think of the world at that time from a woman's perspective. A subplot about a lackey for the local mob leader falls a little flat but has it's moments.

This is not a complicated novel, but it is a well-written, clear-eyed look at a world and the way it is. Ernest Hemingway, who has a little more credibility on what deserves to be included in the first-tier of American literature, may have said it best: "If you want to read a novel by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

I am naturally suspicious of any artform whose excuses are built into its very framework. Such is most obviously the case in the war novel, which can increasingly leer at its critics with the dismissive “you weren’t there.” This rejoinder, meant to silence all opposition, is indeed daunting, but I think unfair to the reader and to the bevy of novels on the subject which are accessible, comprehensible, and moving.

Going After Cacciato, a novel of the Vietnam War by the author of the more renowned The Things They Carried, is only moving in parts, and seems intentionally inaccessible and incomprehensible. O’Brien’s meandering, circular prose and narrative structure are daring you to critique them, so that he can spring his “you weren’t there” trap.

Unfortunately for Mr. O’Brien, the best argument against Going After Cacciato is his other novel, which tells a bunch of loosely interconnected stories in a much more palatable manner.

Going After Cacciato is the story of a soldier who goes AWOL determined to reach Paris, and the rest of his unit, who are dispatched to retrieve him. The story of their search is told through the point of view of Spec Four Paul Berlin, a mild-mannered and withdrawn Midwesterner who seems more haunted by the deaths of his fellow soldiers than the other men on this mission. Most of the men on the mission are merely suggestions of characters, but a few are more fully developed. Doc Peret is a world-weary crackpot medic, Stink Harris is a bully with thin skin, and Oscar Johnson is a pot-smoking African-American with an aversion to needlessly risking his life.

At the first the men believe they will recapture Cacciato in a matter of hours, but they find him harder to track down. He also seems to be intentionally leading them to him, leaving behind clues as to his next destination.

The novel becomes more surreal when the troops reach the Laos border and, against all regulation, cross it. After that, the chase is really on, as they follow Cacciato through Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and finally, Europe. Along the way they encounter strange characters, and Paul Berlin falls in love with a refugee. They have several narrow escapes, including one from an Iranian prison.

Much of this episodic rambling is just pointless stalling, delaying the inevitable, but no less disheartening resolution of the novel. The fact that Mr. O’Brien decided to end his novel in the fashion that he did does not speak well of the level of respect he has for his audience. Without spoiling it, let me just say that Going After Cacciato is pointless, repetitive, and ultimately unrewarding.

And yes, I can already hear the defenders calling, “but that’s what it’s really like. It’s brilliantly evocative of the true nature of war. Don’t you see!”

If true, I don’t care. A novel has to be more than just realistic. It has to be worth my time.

Mr. Sunshine- "Pilot"

Mr. Sunshine is a new sitcom with a great premise and a deep, talented cast. Even though the pilot wasn’t great, I’m willing to bet that the show will grow into a reliable source of amusement.

Matthew Perry plays Ben, the manager of the Sunshine Center, a sports and entertainment complex in San Diego. The pilot takes place on Ben’s 40th birthday, a fact Ben would rather nobody knew. Ben is also dealt a blow when a co-worker named Alice (Better Off Ted’s Andrea Anders) decides to end their commitment-free relationship and move in with Alonzo, an unrealistically optimistic ex-NBAer who works for Ben.

Ben’s talk with Alice, and a similarly dispiriting pep talk from his pill-popping boss Crystal Cole (the amazing Alison Janney, aka C.J Cregg from The West Wing), leave him questioning his admittedly selfish philosophy.

(Oh, and he’s also frantically trying to melt the ice from a hockey game before the circus starts, looking out for a stray elephant, keeping his boss from being publicly outed as a racist loon, and trying to find a suitable job from her emotionally stunted and naïve son, Roman.)

Pilots typically take on a lot of weight, as they have to really set the stage for what’s to come. Mr. Sunshine has a lot of balls in the air, and drops very few of them. (Crystal’s fear of clowns, a sitcom cliché, leads to a scene which is almost too ridiculous to actually be funny.)

What I especially liked about the show was its realistic take on Ben’s personality shift. This is no Ebenezer Scrooge transformation. Instead Ben is sort of pretending to be nice, and hoping the real feeling will come along later. It’s kind of like the Jesus Prayer in the “Zooey” section of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. It’s also an intriguing way to allow Ben to be both sympathetic and mean.

It’s interesting that one ex-Friends star’s success seems to come at the expense of another, as Mr. Sunshine is pushing Cougar Town off the schedule for the next two months. I’m cautiously optimistic that Cougar Town will be back, and that Mr. Sunshine is here to stay. It’s hard to imagine ABC resisting an opportunity to have Chandler and Monica (partially) re-united on their airwaves.

Modern Family- "Bixby's Back"

Something about this episode felt undercooked to me. Like the network asked the producers to do another Valentine’s Day episode and they couldn’t say no. At least I hope there’s some explanation for the lackluster “Bixby’s Back.”

To be fair, though, the most re-hashed element of the show was the one that worked best. Ty Burrell’s ill-fated attempt at playing the mysterious stranger was just as hilarious as last year, and the script brilliantly showed Phil creeping into Clive’s character as he tried to say things like, “I’m an expert at catching things from woman at bars” and “You’re hot enough to cook a pizza on…in.” Still, the whole key mix-up was a little tiresome.

Jay and Gloria’s plot strained credulity to the breaking point, since it asked us to believe that somehow Gloria planned to get out of that restaurant even after she insisted on being seated, stealing Cam and Mitchell’s reservation in the process. It really only featured one joke, Gloria’s assertion, “now we know that you are romantic and I am smarter than you.”

It’s amazing to say it, but it’s also true. The writers just have nothing left to do with Cam and Mitchell. Nearly every one of their plots this season has required a hackneyed misunderstanding, a one-shot guest star, or both. ( This week we are “treated” to Mitchell’s previously unmentioned assistant Broderick, and the spat the couple has over whom Broderick has a crush on is just empty silliness.

I know Arrested Development did something similar with very humorous results, but I find Manny’s open attraction to Haley way too creepy to be funny. Maybe if it tortured him to feel that way, it would lend itself to more laughs, but at present it just diminishes his otherwise amazing character.

All in all a down week for Modern Family, despite the return of Clive Bixby.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Traffic Light- "Pilot"

You’ll hear a lot of people comparing this show to Perfect Couples and Better With You, two shows with admittedly similar premises. Like those predecessors, Traffic Light divides its stories amidst three separate but inherently connected groups. Here, the groups revolve around a trio of friends, Matt and Adam, two ex-college baseball players and their British buddy Ethan. The title, whose explanation is somewhat forcibly shoved in at the close of the pilot, refers to the station each man finds himself in his life. Matt is married and has a kid (red light), Adam is moving in with his girlfriend (yellow), and Ethan is a single guy who loves his freedom (green.)

That seems pretty reductive, and the pilot does seem to indulge in too many of the tired stereotypes and inanity that plague network sitcoms. But there is faint sense that the people behind Traffic Light are at least struggling to do something slightly different with their show. For most of the pilot Matt just seems like a bad father trying to get out of helping his wife, Lisa. Lisa veers a little too far into harridan territory at times but redeems herself nicely at the end.

More promising is the relationship between Adam and Callie. After some typical shenanigans involving Adam lying in order to get some free time away from Callie, the show pulls back to show that she too is feeling anxiety with the big lifestyle change. It’s a nice switch from the clichéd plot of woman having to rein in her overgrown adolescent.

It’s not really clear from the pilot what the point of Ethan’s character is going to be, other than to be How I Met Your Mother’s Barney with an English accent.

The pilot unfortunately relies on an absurd coincidence to drive the plot, but in between there are nice character moments, and jokes that arise from the plot and people and not from some gag machine. I think Traffic Light has promise as a light, un-ambitious, but solidly crafted comedy. At best it could be a more male oriented Cougar Town, but it does have a ways to go to get there.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How I Met Your Mother- "Oh, Honey"

There was so much to love in last night How I Met Your Mother that it negated any questions I might have about the show’s long-term plans and sustainability. “Oh, Honey” was filled with classic-HIMYM-style jokes, strong sentiment, and even some incredibly clever references which I have to confess I did not catch. (And I’d been so proud of having noticed the numbers in “Bad News” right from the start. Damn.)

Let’s get the episode’s biggest gimmick out of the way first. I’m always apprehensive about HIMYM’s big-name guest stars, especially the non-actors. But I’ve come to appreciate that this is just the way the show is; they like to have fun with their audience. Like Britney and Carrie Underwood before her Perry wasn’t given much to do, and her lack of acting experience was apparent, but she was better than Underwood and I loved the way the show sort of built-in her novice acting by having her play gullible and simple. I enjoyed the recurrence of the “oh, honey” tagline.

The real artistry in the episode is having the story shown through the filter of Marshall’s consciousness. He’s hearing the events at some distance, both chronological and geographical, and on top of that relying on multiple narrators of dubious veracity. I got a kick out of his Minnesotan need to answer every call on call waiting, and of course his insistence on proper telephone etiquette, which separates his kind from Wisconsinites.

The beauty of the framing device was only revealed to me by a commenter on Alan Sepinwall’s review at Hitfix. You can tell that Marshall is imagining the events in his own fashion because he is conflating his friends with the characters in the board game Clue. This is more obviously done in his demonstration on the corkboard for his mother and brother, where Ted is Professor Plum, Zoe is Miss White, and The Captain is Colonel Mustard. But it is reinforced more subtly in the fact that Ted is always wearing purple, Zoe in white, Barney is Mr. Green, Robin is Miss Peacock in blue, and of course Katy Perry’s Honey is Miss Scarlett.

It’s just awesome that this far into their run, the creative minds behind How I Met Your Mother are this committed to finding new ways to tell their stories, and adding in as much detail as they can.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Animal Kingdom

Right from the opening shot, Australian David Michod’s Animal Kingdom steeps viewers in the curiously uncurious, disaffected life of Josh “J” Cody. That shot shows J watching Australia’s Deal or No Deal while his mother lies unconscious next to him on the couch. When the paramedics walk in he calmly informs them that his mother has overdosed on heroin. Later he bluntly informs his grandmother Janine, whom he calls “Grandma Smurf” of her daughter’s death before asking to go live with her. It’s only when he asks if she still remembers where they live that we get a hint at the complicated family dynamics about to come into play.

J’s family turns out to be a criminal enterprise, under close watch from the quick-to-shoot Armed Robbery branch of the police. His Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope” professionally, is on the lam. His other uncles include a drug dealer and Pope’s apprentice, while Pope’s partner is a strong presence. J is not kept in the dark about his relatives’ occupations, but he nevertheless lives among them and even brings his girlfriend Nicole into the house.

After a brazen act of violence by the police, J’s uncles plot their revenge, involving an unwitting J in a minor capacity out of necessity. When suspicion alights on the family, J is forced to answer questions from the police. (One of the cops is played by Guy Pearce.) He bluffs ignorance, but his uncles aren’t satisfied that they can trust him.

The rest of the film builds suspense out of J’s well-established character. Having shown his withdrawal and aloofness, the audience believes him capable of anything. Will he turn in his uncles to try and escape this dangerous situation, or become more firmly entrenched in their criminal lifestyle? Pearce’s detective character understands his dilemma and frames the question as a matter of determining his place in the Animal Kingdom, i.e. is J one of the strong creatures who can take care of himself, or is he weak enough to need the protection of the strong?

Jacki Weaver received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this role, and for the first seventy-five minutes or so it was hard to see why. Sure, she had played up her character’s creepy-close relationship with her sons and her sense of righteous denial, but it had been a small part. Then, in one devastating scene, she nearly makes the movie her own. Weaver plays her character’s rationalization expertly, and scares the crap out of you while doing it. It’s a commanding performance.

Animal Kingdom is a very clever blend of crime and suspense, with twists that don’t wrench the plot out of believability but serve the story well.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The King's Speech

Before I get into the problems I had with The King's Speech, let me state for the record that it is a fine film, with fine performances, a fine script, directed, well, finely. It featured a number of laughs, although I thought it rather odd how rowdy the laughter in my theater got for the merest droll quip from Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue. If it wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards later this month, it would not nearly be the worst movie to do so, to be sure. Not that that is such a high bar to clear, but I think it's important to distance myself from some of the absurd backlash against this movie.

That being said, I think some of the frustration evinced against The King's Speech is valid. This film is structured so much like previous Oscar favorites that it can't help but feel like an intentional ploy to ensnare their votes. I mean, you have the sheer Britishness of the movie, and add on top of that the overcoming of a disability through friendship, and then there is the distant echo of WWII and the Holocaust hanging over the events of the film. It's amazing that they didn't shove Judi Dench into this picture just to make sure the Academy would love it. Really, the chief achievement of this film is finding an interesting historical story that somehow had escaped wider knowledge.

There just isn't anything substantially interesting or different about The King's Speech. Following its plot line you find yourself calling out its similarities to any number of other movies. "Oh, here's the training montage." "Oh, here's where the two friends have a falling out." "Oh, here's where he realizes he needs his friend." Even, "here's where they run the title cards to let you know that everything after the movie turns out just fine." It's all very rote and formulaic.

As for the acting, I think all Firth and Rush did very thoroughly professional jobs in their roles, but my two favorite parts in the film were Helena Bonham Carter's Duchess of York and Guy Pearce's Edward VIII. To some extent I felt like these two were the only ones who really created a character in their performances. Firth was pretty much just a stammer, which I'm sure he captured very accurately, and Rush was just an eccentric, which, if you've seen his award speeches, shouldn't seem like too much of a stretch for him.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see in the years to come whether consensus will hold up on The King's Speech as a Best Picture winner. (Make no mistake, this is definitely going to win.) Like I said up top, this may not be Crash or Slumdog Millionaire, but I feel like there are enough really interesting movies this year that in the future people will wonder what we were thinking. That's not the fault of anyone associated with The King's Speech, but it casts a pall over the film nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend is Billy Wilder’s Academy Award winning glimpse into the desperate life of an alcoholic. Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a writer gone to seed, living on the diminishing charity of his older brother Wick. As the movie begins, Don and his brother are packing for a long weekend at the family farm out of town. Wick believes this will be good for his brother who is ten days sober. The discovery of a hidden bottle of rye tied on a string outside the window sets off a chain of events leading to Wick abandoning his brother and advising his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to leave Don for her own good.

Despite being broke and jobless, Don displays a desperate resourcefulness when seeking ways to get drunk. As the weekend goes on, these deceptions will increase in intensity, throwing the state of Don’s humanity into question.

As one of, if not the first, serious looks at alcoholism on screen, there are a lot of speeches by Milland, explaining his need to drink, the overwhelming power alcohol holds over him. Wilder, who co-wrote the film (adapting it from a novel by Charles R. Jackson) does a fantastic job breaking down the “comic drunk” stereotype so prevalent in films from this era and still in use today. Don Birnam is no bumbling wit, he’s a dark, desperate man. There are some moving and powerful scenes detailing the length to which he will go. A scene where Don abandons a barely begun novel, and instead attempts to pawn his typewriter to get some drinking money contains perhaps the darkest joke ever told in a Hollywood movie.

There are also a lot of scenes exploring the lives of alcoholics in general. Even to this day there is a kind of hushed secrecy about alcoholics. Everyone knows some people who drink too much, but no one ever says anything about it. In The Lost Weekend we see how Don’s brother and girlfriend have both been enablers, however unwittingly. There are also the “seen everything” bartenders who know they shouldn’t serve Don but can’t seem to muster up the temerity to turn down his money. A scene set in the “alcoholic ward” of Bellevue Hospital is just as terrifying today as it must have been in 1945. It’s portrayal of the DTs would make anyone think twice about having “just one more.”

The film becomes extremely suspenseful as the audience starts to question whether Don will even make it to the end of the weekend. The ending can be debated but whatever way you take it The Lost Weekend remains a compelling documentation of a personal tragedy and a stunning exploration of an issue that will always hang over society.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

From the very first sentence The Dog of the South pulls you into the cracked world of its amiable, misguided protagonist, an Arkansas cuckold named Ray Midge in hot pursuit of his wandering wife Norma and her lover (and previous husband) Guy Dupree, a political nutjob freshly bailed out of jail for threatening the President. Among other things, Norma and Guy have taken off with Ray’s well-maintained Ford Torino and his American Express card. Armed with the credit bills, Ray follows them south in Dupree’s rusted Buick Special.

In Mexico the credit trail runs cold and his money (well, his father’s money) runs out, but Ray runs into Dr. Reo Symes, “no longer practicing” but living out of a white-painted bus named The Dog of the South. Midge has a hunch Dupree is in British Honduras, and Symes, whose bus has broken down irreparably, is willing to fund the trip in exchange for the use of the Buick.

Symes is a comic creation without equal. He is brusque and rude and refuses to listen. He has a checkered past, having lost his medical license (which itself was of questionable origin) for numerous patent medicine schemes, and is currently on the run due to a misunderstanding about some missing funds for a curious vanity publishing project. Symes is obsessed with a reclusive writer of manuals for salesmen named John Selmer Dix. Symes is convinced that Dix is a peerless genius who has knowledge of the secrets of life and success. He is hurrying to his mother’s religious mission in Belize, where he hopes to convince her to turn over her property in Louisiana to him to use for any number of real estate schemes.

Midge himself is a twenty-six year old perpetual student, freed to pursue his variegated interests by a generous father. He owns thousands of books on military strategy and believes that this gives him an advantage over the great commanders of history. His most treasured possession is a recording of a lecture on the Civil War featuring recreated bird calls interspersed into the history.

Portis shows his genius in his portrayal of these insane characters. The trick is that insane people believe they are totally sane, something Portis deeply understands. Both Midge and Symes casually make revelations about themselves that would convince anyone of their worthiness of institutionalization. Near the end, when Midge reveals the reasons he is writing down his story, it is a perfect encapsulation of his nuttiness.

The plot of the novel sort of meanders once Midge and Symes make it to Belize, but a deus ex machina weather event forces circumstances into place for a walloping finale. Even when you lose the thread of the story, there is enough humor in Midge’s struggles to get through each day that you’ll be laughing too hard to care.