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Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I saw Bridesmaids. It was good.

Why can't it just be that simple? Why is the reaction to the first statement so similar to the reaction at the admission of an embarrassing secret?

I did something Saturday night/Sunday morning, which had it been any other time I probably would not have done, which is post a reply to a comment on an internet message board. A poster had made some snarky, banal little joke about the type of people who went to see Bridesmaids, and because I had heard much the same from my own male friends, and as I said, because it was about 2:00am, I sort of lost it. There was excess use of profanity, and heavy sarcasm. I'm not proud.

But really, I'm getting crap in 2011 for seeing a funny movie, just because it features a mainly female cast? Is the idea here that, even at this late date, nothing that comes from the female perspective can hold any value at all as an entertainment for men? Even after 30 Rock?

Bridesmaids is not a great movie, but for most of it's 2-hours-plus running time it is a very funny one. The story is sporadically compelling, though I got the feeling that a lot of expository material may have been cut, left to the extended scenes menu on the DVD. (The subplot involving Wendi McLendon-Lovey and Ellie Kemper from The Office absolutely needed a third scene to resolve it.)

Kristen Wiig, whom I find only occasionally amusing on SNL, delivers an outstanding performance, using a plethora of facial expressions to convey her character's many emotional swings. It's an honest performance that lifts the comedic aspects of Annie's struggle to further heights.

Is it that committment to emotional realism that will keep this movie from reaching through to traditional male audiences? I hope not. I didn't see too much gender-oriented in the story of a friendship being tested by time and new class distinctions. Well, I doubt two male friends would reconnect to the strands of Wilson-Philipps, but other than that...

Bridesmaids is a well-acted movie with great set pieces, including a surely soon-to-be-notorious bathroom scene (some chick flick, this) and a chaotic scene on a plane mid-flight that just keeps going and going without losing steam. At times, the transistions between these set pieces feel underdeveloped, and a few storylines seem to have been forgotten midway through the film, but if you go see Bridesmaids, you will laugh. A lot. No matter what chromosomes you may possess.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Home by Marilynne Robinson

The greatest compliment I can pay Marilynne Robinson upon finishing her second novel about the Ames and Boughton families of Gilead, Iowa is that I would gladly read a third if it should ever be written. Indeed I truly hope that a third novel is being written, even if, as history indicates is possible, it takes Mrs. Robinson twenty-four years to write it.

Home is not a sequel to Gilead but rather a companion to it, taking place at the same time and place, only changing the perspective. Gilead was told through the letters of the elderly Reverend John Ames to his seven-year-old son. Ames’s letters, meant to be read by his son later in life, are written with the intent of telling him about Ames and his family. However, the return of John Ames “Jack” Boughton, his best friend’s son, slowly but surely begins to overtake Ames’s family history as the focus of his letters. The reader picks up on the story largely through intimation. Home tells Jack Boughton’s story through the closer perspective of his youngest sister Glory, home to care for their father, a minister whose health is failing.

At the start of Home, Jack has been gone from Gilead for twenty years, out of touch and sight but never out of mind. His wayward boyhood, culminating in his abandonment of the child he’d fathered with a miserably poor teenage girl. That act of amorality, compounded by the child’s tragically preventable early death, hangs over every interaction in Home. Glory and Reverend Boughton love Jack dearly and are willing to forgive him, but it’s unclear whether he wants their forgiveness or even believes it’s possible that he could be forgiven.

Home is not a novel of action; most of the big events in the world of this novel have taken place before the prose starts. This is instead a novel of thoughts and conversation, a novel rich with the drama of everyday life. All the really “happens” in the course of the novel is that Glory and Jack help their father with his everyday needs while the three of them discuss God, grace, and predestination. If a film adaptation were made it certainly would not be anyone’s idea of a summer blockbuster.

Some of the theological conversation either seemed repetitive or went slightly over my head, but at its heart Home is a novel filled with emotion, mostly unbearable pain. Jack’s suffering over the state of his soul and the irreparable harm he has done to the father who loves him beyond all reason is palpable and heartbreaking. Robinson renders everything in such vivid exactness that her characters seem more actually alive than any action hero ever could.

Reading Home after Gilead allowed some of the knowledge acquired by reading the latter to inform the former in interesting ways. In Home, Jack is keeping a secret from Glory and his father that he revealed to Reverend Ames near the end of Gilead. Conversely, the revelation of the name of Ames’s son in Home makes for an interesting irony.

The two novels fit well together and combine to create a remarkably fine portrait of two families. I heartily recommend reading them both.

Modern Family: "The One that Got Away"

Modern Family’s somewhat uneven second season closed on a promising note last night with “The One That Got Away.” Indeed, the episode at times seemed like an actual promise to viewers to address some of the valid criticisms levied against the show throughout the year. The episode was a success, producing lots of laughs and great gags, but it was more interesting for the things it seemed to say about the series going forward.

First, it seemed to promise to be more unconventional and self-referential, a la Community. There were a lot more callbacks than typical in last night’s episode, some of them obvious, like the broken stair, but a lot of them subtle, like Luke asking for his chocolate milk with extra salt, something Manny did earlier this season. And of course, there was the birthday tape Haley and Alex made for Jay, which featured several reminiscences of other plots, from Haley in her catsuit, Gloria yelling at the neighbor’s dog, Mitchell practicing for his flash mob, and Cam getting into character as Fisbo. It was a nice reward for loyal viewers, from a show that has tended to treat each episode as a stand-alone occurrence. It was a tad similar to Community’s recent “Paradigms of Human Memory”, though clearly not as outrageously unconventional.

Second, The One That Got Away seemed to hint at the closing off of certain recurring jokes and plot archetypes that had worn thin through overuse. I for one sure was glad that the show finally had Phil realize, through the help of his college rival Glen Whipple, that his fascination with Gloria was ridiculous in light of how hot his actual wife is. The constant jokes about his fantasizing about Gloria were not as funny as they were creepy. I got a big laugh out of Phil’s “I’ve got Claire” as she and Gloria both started to fall into the pool.

Similarly, I know I’m not the only one tired of seeing Mitchell and Cam spend every week getting into petty fights that even Lucy and Ricky would find hackneyed. Having them adopt another child might at least give them something to do together, even if, coming after all their fights, it seems as though the baby is an attempt to patch together their relationship.

There were of course lots of other funny things in The One That Got Away, things that had nothing in particular to do with the future of the show. I loved Ed O’Neil’s slow burn as his plans for the day went awry, especially his gruff phone conversation where he told the dog groomer she could be replaced by a hose. Claire and Mitchell drunk in Jay’s backseat was quite a treat, especially Mitchell whining that at least they got to have a dog for a while. Perhaps my favorite was the shot of Phil’s recreation of a childhood photo, featuring adult Phil with a bowl of spaghetti turned over on his head. It was just two-seconds, but it got a tremendous laugh out of me.

Even when it’s at its most trite and familiar, Modern Family has always been capable of great one-liners and sight gags like that. If they live up to their tacit promise to be more inventive, the show will live up to all the hype that has surrounded it this year.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Justified: Season One

To give you an idea just how awesome the first season of the FX drama Justified is, let me tell you that I am incredibly upset that the second season, already aired, won’t be on DVD for many months. I am going to have to find some way to see it, because I am hooked on this show.

Justified is based on a character created by crime writer Elmore Leonard. Even if you haven’t read any of his stuff, I’m guessing you’re at least somewhat familiar with the man through previous movie and TV adaptations, from Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Karen Sisco. Leonard’s stories tend to feature complex characters with clear motivations. He has a way of making all of his characters witty in a way appropriate to their relative intelligence and social standing. Unlike some other writers, he is just as humorous when writing for rednecks as he is for the upper classes, without sounding any false notes in either direction.

Justified tells the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), transferred to his home state of Kentucky as punishment for his quick-to-shoot style of law enforcement. It’s an extremely unwelcome assignment for Raylan, who has reasons to leave the past behind, including an remarried ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), and a mischievous father with a lengthy criminal past. The first case Raylan is assigned involves his old coal-mining buddy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who has apparently become a bank-robbing Neo-Nazi and the heir apparent to his father’s criminal empire.

The conflict with Boyd and the rest of the Crowder clan forms the continuing story line for season one, as Raylan tries to protect Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), who justifiably killed Boyd’s brother, while commencing an affair with her that will have serious legal repercussions. The series also has many one-episode plots involving escaped criminals, ambitious low-lifes, crooked gamblers, and the like.

Justified is truly exceptional television. It does everything it tries to do exceptionally well. The plotting is impeccable, the dialogue note-perfect, the show is funny when it can be and deadly serious when it has to be. The acting is superb; Olyphant is the star, but all there is no dead weight in the supporting cast. Nick Searcy hits the right note as the beleaguered boss, Raymond Barry as Arlo Givens is the right kind of gruff old man, Walton Goggins is fascinating to watch, and the format provides ample opportunity for great guest performances by character actors like Stephen Root, Alan Ruck, Tony Hale, and Brett Cullen to name just a few.

I can’t say enough about how good this show is. I can’t think of a person I wouldn’t recommend it to. Watch it. Now. Or be smarter than I am and wait for the second season to come out on DVD, so you can watch it all at once.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mildred Pierce

James M. Cain is a Damn Good Writer. A Damn Good Writer is someone who writes brisk, terrific prose with which seems effortless but which of course requires painstaking effort. A Damn Good Writer creates characters through action and dialogue, implanting those characters’ personas directly into the reader’s brain. And a Damn Good Writer tells a story with a beginning, middle and an end, none of this post-modern unresolved meditation on reality for him, damnit.

Based just on the title and a brief synopsis, Mildred Pierce seems like an odd departure for an author like James M. Cain. His two best known works are classic noir stories, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both of which became classic noir films. Mildred Pierce is about a Depression Era divorced mother who makes sacrifices for her snobbish, ungrateful daughter. Mildred finds success as a restaurant entrepreneur but can’t find a way to make her daughter Veda love her as unconditionally as Mildred loves her. That sounds more like a recurring plotline of a daytime soap, but in Cain’s surpassingly capable hands it becomes a pathway into the darkest recesses of the human mind, a shocking portrait of greed and unrelenting ambition, and one hell of a story.

However, it does take some getting used to. There isn’t a character in the story that is easy to root for. Mildred’s toughness and resolve are admirable in some respects, but her need to impress Veda leads her to make awful, impractical decisions that render her character fairly unlikable by the middle of the novel. It’s not much fun watching someone burn through their money, in a depression, just for reasons of pride.

Veda, even as a young teenager at the novel’s open, makes the reader squirm through her incomparably sinister nature. Veda is manipulative, selfish, prideful, and downright mean. These facts are emphasized by the story being told primarily from Mildred’s perspective, leading the reader to wonder at a mother having these thoughts about her own child despite loving her intensely, loving her even more than her other daughter.

By the end, Veda’s early forays into meanness, such as encouraging her father to drink expensive alcohol Mildred was planning to sell, will seem downright charitable in comparison. Veda’s descent into total evil, coinciding with her ascent as a successful entertainer, is as chilling as any pulp novel murder ever written. That’s an accomplishment only a Damn Good Writer could achieve.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Breakfast of Champions

The last time I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I finished the novel in a Chicago hotel room the day before heading to Notre Dame for Freshman Orientation. That fact lends a special poignancy to rereading the novel now, nearly seven years (seven years!) later.

Surely it has been said somewhere before that rereading a novel can be less about rediscovering the book itself than about rediscovering the person you were when last you pored over its pages. Rereading Hemingway and Fitzgerald in college would help me realize what a moron I was at 16, when I dismissed A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby with sneering disdain. So what does Breakfast of Champions, a novel which I loved unconditionally, and which solidified my belief that Kurt Vonnegut was the best author I’d ever read, tell me about 18-year-old me?

At 25, I’m now trying to figure out what I was so angry about, and how I could possibly feel so righteous about it. That’s no comment on the Vonnegut novel, which is still quite humorous and bleakly entertaining, even if it’s morals seems a bit less groundbreaking and insightful these days. In seven years Vonnegut has gone from someone with unparalleled insight into humanity to someone who has an interesting, if corrosively angry, take on things.

None of this, however, has anything to do with the book. Breakfast of Champions is very arresting in its open defiance of traditional narrative structure, something I appreciate more now than I did at 18. Vonnegut deliberately removes suspense from his narrative by announcing, early and often, what is going to happen in his story. The first sentence, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast” refers to the climax of the novel, some 270 pages away. These two men are Vonnegut’s recurring science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout and a Pontiac car dealer named Dwayne Hoover whom Vonnegut incessantly informs us is about to go insane.

The novel takes its time getting to the fateful meeting between Trout and Hoover, which Vonnegut lets us know, will result in a violent outburst unwittingly provoked by Trout’s fiction. Along the way Vonnegut occasionally abandons any pretext at writing fiction, alerting us to where elements of the novel are taken from his own personal life, and later on even drawing attention to the shortcuts he has to take in order for the plot to make any kind of sense. Eventually Vonnegut enters the text as a character himself, as a parallel to the being he and Trout refer to only as The Creator of the Universe.

So what’s with all the chicanery? Vonnegut explains it far better than I ever could. In a scene at a hotel bar, just before the Arts Fetival which brought Trout to Midland City is about to commence, Vonnegut introduces us to a character named Beatrice Keedsler, a Gothic novelist about whom Vonnegut says,

“I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books… Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.”

When this monologue is delivered late in the story it puts so much of the novel’s curiosities into focus. Why did he bother giving so much backstory to waitresses and bartenders who weren’t around for more than a page, why did he keep telling us every male’s penis size and every female’s hip and cup dimensions? Because they’re no less important than any other people or any other facts, no matter what fictions might usually try to tell you. The motto of Breakfast of Champions might well be, “It’s all chaos, here’s just some of it.”

To 18-year-old me Breakfast of Champions was a righteous rant against human stupidity, but now it stands out more as a mournful reflection on its inevitability.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Like the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is an impressive feat of literary ventriloquism. Robinson gets into the mind of her narrator, 76-year-old Iowa preacher John Ames, and tells his story through him. Unlike the rather dry and unexciting works of Ishiguro, the story told her manages to be both compelling and well-written.

That’s not to say it is a whirlwind adventure story. It’s not. But as a near-death John Ames writes a letter to his still very young son (the happy product of a late marriage to a younger woman) the reader sees how outside events change the nature of Ames’ letter, as by necessity he leaves his chosen subjects to explain the tragic life of his godson and namesake.

In its early stages, before the interruption occasioned by John Ames Boughton, the Reverend provides a family history for his son, filled with tales of his grandfather and father, the former an eccentric pro-war Abolitionist, and the latter a pacifist who was ashamed of his father’s violent past. These stories, which include some humorous set pieces involving the grandfather’s days as a settler trying to keep Kansas a free state, are rendered that much more amusing through being told in the straightforward, eminently respectable tone of the Rev. Ames.

Gilead is a novel about a deeply religious man, and as such some delving into theology is to be expected. As a decidedly non-religious person I obviously found some quarrel with certain passages, but I will say that it never felt as though Robinson herself was proselytizing or even arguing for position. It was merely a necessary function of the character. Even at his most dogmatic, the Rev. Ames comes across as a likable and good-hearted man.

The narrator’s religious interludes do slow down the text for a good portion of the middle of the novel, but the reader is compelled to the end by the understated drama surrounding the arrival in town of Ames’ godson, the prodigal son of his best friend. John Ames Boughton, aka Jack, is a ne’er-do-well whose mysterious disappearance informs the central plot of the novel. As his stay in town lengthens, Ames’ letter becomes less and less a letter to his son and more obviously a relation of the events of Jack’s past.

A ventriloquist act is about more than just simple competence. If the jokes aren’t funny people tend not to care whether or not the ventriloquist’s lips are moving. In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson never moves her lips, and most of the time she’s also writing a great novel.

(Note: A follow-up novel, Home, tells Jack Boughton’s story from his perspective and his sister Glory’s. I have ordered that from Amazon and will hopefully be reading and reviewing it shortly.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Community: "A Fistful of Paintballs"

“Modern Warfare”, last season’s paintball spectacular, was such a huge creative success that it cannot have been easy for Dan Harmon and his staff to willingly invite comparisons by doing another paintball episode. The law of diminishing returns is as lethal in comedy as it is anywhere else, and the more you listen to the crowd asking you to “do that funny thing you did again” the more you risk losing the magic of the thing itself. Irony is a bitch.

For this reason I would not have expected the show to go to back to the paintball well again, but I am shamed today, because I did not give the people at Community nearly enough credit. Rather than simply coast by on the brilliance of the original premise, “A Fistful of Paintballs” maintained the framework of the original but changed everything else, creating a sequel that, through last night’s first half anyway, matched the original blow for blow.

The choice to parody Spaghetti Westerns was highly appropriate. There’s just something inherently humorous about a pistols-drawn standoff ending with someone covered in paint. And the decision to make Annie the star of the show paid dividends as well, and not just to those lucky DVR-owners who could replay Annie’s run through the halls of Greendale in slow-motion.

Of all the nods to the western, from the wardrobe (Abed’s poncho, Jeff’s black hat, Shirley’s frontier preacher outfit) to showdown music ripping off Ennio Morricone, the best had to be Pierce Hawthorne as Gene Hackman in Unforgiven. I loved the way the script explained away his seemingly inexplicable rise to prominence. (A cowardly Pierce hid in the men’s room stall, acquiring bullets in trade from those who needed to use it.) That just about sums up Community’s greatness right there. At its best, Greendale is an absolutely absurd little world that still adheres to its own brand of logic and order.

And even with all the business necessitated by an all-out paintball war, Community found time to maintain season-long plot arcs, with Pierce’s outrageous behavior being partially sparked by the alienation he has felt all season, and the group’s frustration with his behavior boiling over at last, with even Annie against him at the end. This commitment to doing more than is strictly necessary is what accounts for all the critical fawning Community receives, even when its laughs-per-minute ratio falls behind some of the other Thursday night comedies.

“A Fistful of Paintballs” was just pure fun, in a way the show hasn’t always been during its sophomore season. I wouldn’t say sophomore slump, by any means, but episodes like “Critical Film Studies”, aka “My Dinner with Abed” have focused on character relationships at the expense of fun. It’s nice to be shown that the show can still do both at the same time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

I finished reading this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel last Tuesday and have not gotten around to reviewing it until now. This is not due to any difficulty finding enough time to give the novel the time it deserves. Rather, I just didn’t feel like wasting any more time on the book. But something, a sense of duty I suppose, compels me.

Jennifer Egan’s “novel” (it is really more a collection of short stories with some recurring characters to give the thing shape) paints pictures of life among music fanatics from the punk scene of late ‘70s San Francisco to the near future, where she fails to resist the temptation to sneer at modern technology and where it’s heading.

(Sidenote: On the long list of things that irk me, a high place is reserved for novelists who speculate on the future and do so exclusively through the prism of how technology might affect their livelihood. Yes please, don’t apply your supposedly superior insight to economics or geopolitics, but do tell us if anyone will still be reading Austen. The whole tone of such writing is inherently condescending and self-serving, which would perhaps be forgivable. It is also insurmountably boring, which is a mortal sin in fiction.)

The problem with the interconnected story structure is that it becomes difficult to sustain any interest in the characters when they flit in and out of the story, such as it is, for no other reason than authorial discretion. Egan compounds this problem by not creating strong characters, but rather using her characters as vehicles for events. Her characters aren’t people, they’re automatons who will commit adultery, petty crime, or suicide at her beck and call. It may sound like the same could be said of all fictional characters, but there is definitely a lack of refinement to the manner in which Egan handles her creations.

The book is getting a lot of positive press for its supposed inventiveness and genre-bending, the best example of which is presumably the ballyhooed Power Point chapter near the end, which kicks off the futuristic section of the narrative. I must say, as far as inventiveness is concerned, the principal innovation here seems to be a way to pad your final page count to acceptable novel conventions. Seriously, the 80 pages of Power Point (which, by the way, you have to hold your book like a flip book in order to read, and is apparently a disaster on the Kindle) read more like 15 pages of text.

By winning the Pulitzer Prize, A Visit From the Goon Squad seems to have proven the idea that the worst decisions are made by committee.