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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Family Fang

Halfway through Kevin Wilson’s remarkable debut novel, Buster Fang says, seeking to comfort his parents’ former mentor, “They do love you, they just have some anxiety of influence issues with you.”

Much of The Family Fang concerns itself with this “anxiety of influence”, whether constituted as the influence one artist has over another, one spouse on the other, a parent on a child, or even one sibling on another. In various ways all four members of the Family Fang are forced to wonder whether they are really true representations of themselves or if they have been irrevocably altered by the prevalence of another person.

The novel has a rock-solid and instantly inviting premise. Caleb and Camille Fang are conceptual artists, resistant to traditional ideas about what constitutes art. Defying their mentor’s warnings that “kids kill art”, the Fangs instead incorporate Annie and Buster (known as Child A and Child B in the art world, and all too often to their parents) into their pieces. These pieces are the most bluntly comic aspects of the novel, and Wilson is a master of creating a wealth of emotions in the reader during these scenes. Waiting for whatever it is that Caleb and Camille have in mind to take place, the reader experiences anxiety, nervousness, dread, and severe empathy for the unfortunate Fang children. All while laughing at the delightful absurdity of the Fangs’ artistic vision.

The novel is mostly set in the present day, with Annie and Buster, now in their 30s, watching their lives fall apart and being forced to move back in with their long-abandoned parents. Annie is a successful actress but a series of questionable decisions leaves many questioning her mental capacity. Offered an unpalatable last chance to get her career back on track through the self-congratulating kindness of an ex, Annie instead decides to retreat to her native Tennessee. There her brother Buster has already taken up residence after a mishap on a magazine assignment leaves him horrifically disfigured.

Annie and Buster return home hoping for nurturing support, but Caleb and Camille are too excited to have Child A and Child B back for more performances. Things between the two generations of Fangs are uneasy until the novel’s surprising and reshaping plot twist, which leaves Annie and Buster wondering just how far their parents would go for the sake of art.

Wilson does a supremely admirable job turning his dynamite premise into a memorable and satisfying plot. He deftly paces the story, with Annie and Buster slowly learning more about their parents and the unsettling influence they have had on their lives. Wilson’s resolution to the story balances plausibility with rewarding surprise, and leaves the question of the perniciousness of influence for the reader to decide for themselves.

The Family Fang is an exciting novel, especially considering that it is the first from Wilson. He is hugely talented and it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, follows Will Rodman (James Franco), a man of science seeking the cure to Alzheimer’s because the disease has left his father (the always excellent John Lithgow, unfortunately not reprising his role from Harry and the Hendersons) a shadow of his former self. (Note: In movies scientists never seem to be pursuing anything as tawdry as advanced knowledge, personal glory, or god forbid, cold hard cash.) After his promising new treatment is scrapped because one of the lab apes goes berserk during his pitch to investors, Rodman is ordered to have the other apes put down. But he and the chimp handler, played by Tyler Labine of the recently cancelled Mad Love, conspire to sneak the youngest ape out of the lab and into Rodman’s home. There it bonds with both Rodmans, and displays signs of superior intelligence, a byproduct of his mother’s treatment with Rodman’s drug.

After some further plot developments, including the dreaded necessity of repeatedly using the subtitles “_____ Years Later”, the super-ape, dubbed Caesar, has been forced into captivity in a dilapidated preserve run by Brian Cox and his stupid and cruel offspring. I think from here you can, using context clues and the commercial advertisements, finish the story. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not really trying to surprise you, although one moment, which I won’t spoil even if they might have spoiled it themselves, did catch me off guard and, surprisingly, made my hairs stand up a little bit.

The movie is very pleasant to watch, visually speaking. For the most part the apes were rendered, if not always realistically, at least never distractingly unrealistic. Caesar’s portrayal by the motion-cap expert Andy Serkis is rightly gaining praise, even if the viral marketing campaign to generate Oscar buzz for the performance is a bit unlikely.

Heading into the movie I was wary of what I would see from a James Franco lead performance. Since the Oscars it’s too tempting to view his whole life as a performance art piece. But here Franco disappears into his role quite easily and leaves no lingering doubt as to the sincerity of his performance. I’ve read some criticism of the movie for giving Frieda Pinto’s character so little to do besides look pretty, but this is an action movie, not a tearjerker or something, and she does look very pretty, so I’m not going to complain.

There may not be much serious going on, but I did find myself asking some interesting questions while watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Questions like, will our scientific curiosity someday really lead to our downfall as a species? If apes were capable of speech, would anything justify our supposed dominion? Is this movie asking me to root for the humans or the apes? Am I a bad person if internally, I’m screaming, just start shooting the apes, they don’t even have guns?

Despite the obvious ridiculousness of its central premise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes does an unsettlingly good job making its plot just plausible enough to make you promise yourself that you will move if your next-door neighbor ever buys a pet chimpanzee.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fixing a Hole #1: Othello

One of the biggest factors in my recent decision to buy a Kindle (which is pretty cool, even if I did walk past a bookstore and feel a sort of sadness that I had no real reason to walk in to it, or really walk into any bookstore again; the Germans need to come up with an extremely lengthy word for this sensation) was that you can download pretty much any book in the public domain for free.

This dovetails quite nicely with my ongoing plan to plug up the holes in the dam that is my education. I consider my time as an English major mostly ill-spent, and I am willing to accept some of the blame and all of the responsibility for correcting the problem. While I will be using the Kindle to read a variety of recent-to-new fiction (I plan to start Kevin Wilson’s debut novel The Family Fang tonight) I will balance these contemporary works out, and defray the cost of the Kindle, through free editions of the classics that for a variety of reasons I never encountered in my schooling. After each, I plan on reviewing the work, and also commenting on the reasons I have missed it to date, and whether or not the experience of reading it would have been improved by being in a classroom full of English majors.

I’m taking the title of this series from the song by The Beatles. “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in/And stops my mind from wandering/Where it will go.” The first in the series is Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello.

How I Missed It: This one’s mostly on me. I’ve read more than half of Shakespeare’s plays, but not this tragedy. My high school assigned one Shakespeare play a year, but they were Romeo and Juliet (ugh!), Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet. I signed up for Shakespeare I my junior year of college, which covered 19 of the 38 plays in one semester, but opted out of Shakespeare II.

What’d I Think: Honestly? I’m not sure. It was alright I guess, and I don’t think I had much trouble understanding the language or the plot, it’s just I’ve always heard Othello mentioned in the upper echelon of Shakespeare’s plays, but that was not my experience. Perhaps I should watch a staging of the play as well. On the page (or screen) Othello seems fairly simplistic. Iago is mad about being passed over for a promotion (a pain I know all too well) and decides to enact his revenge by turning Othello against Cassio, the person who got the job instead. He does this through cunningly convincing Othello that his new wife is cheating on him with Cassio.

While the plotting is tight, the play seemed to be bogged down by an extremely simple moral. Jealousy is insidious and bad. At times it felt more like I was reading one of Aesop’s Fables. Of course, part of the pleasure of reading Shakespeare is encountering those coined phrases which have become part of the lexicon, and here we have several, such as “the beast with two backs”, “jealousy, that green-eyed monster”, “wear my heart upon my sleeve”, and “crocodile tears” are just a few.

Do You Wish You’d Read it in Class?: Actually, it might have helped a lot. I’m sure there are themes and symbols I’m missing by doing a quick read while on a commuter bus, and thinking more deeply on the play may have improved my opinion of it. I think there would also be a benefit to hearing parts of the play read aloud, which is of course often a part of lectures on Shakespeare.

Further Fixes Required?: Well, there are still quite a few Shakespeare plays I’ve yet to read. Perhaps the most notable is The Tempest.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

A novel in three parts, Bernard Schlink’s The Reader is a deceptively simple story about maybe the most incomprehensible topic in modern history, The Holocaust. It’s clear, concise prose and light tread over serious topics make it a quick read that will stay with the reader long after turning the final page.

Michael Berg first meets Frau Schmitz when he is taken ill on his way to school. She takes care of him and brings him back home. Returning after his lengthy recuperation to thank her, the 15-year-old boy is seduced by the 36-year-old Hanna. The two begin a passionate and lengthy affair which irrevocably changes young Michael. He is more confident and self-assured as a result, but also aloof and withdrawn from his peers. He is distraught and perplexed when Hanna leaves town without explanation.

Part two of the novel opens with Michael in law school assigned to follow a war crimes trial. The case involves five female guards who refused to unlock the doors of a church where female prisoners were being held even though it was on fire. Michael is stunned to see that his former lover Hanna is one of the guards on trial. Hanna’s defense is confusing as well. She readily admits some things that the other guards deny, and yet often seems incapable of understanding the proceedings and assisting her attorney.

Watching the trial progress and reflecting back on his time with Hanna, Michael realizes a secret about Hanna, something that apparently shames her even more than her participation in the war. That secret should be pretty obvious from the title or at least from the coverage of Kate Winslet’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Hanna in the film adaptation.

As Michael deals with the effects of his discovery, his inability to help Hanna, and the outcome of the trial, he meditates on the unique fate that has befallen on his generation. Berg and Schlink are about the same age and so this can be seen as autobiographical ruminating. It is also incredibly fascinating. Both men, the fictional narrator and his creator, are members of a generation of Germans born into a world where their parents generation had been complicit, willingly or otherwise, in the greatest atrocity the modern world has known. Berg’s thoughts on repudiation, blame and reconciliation are fascinating for their real-world implications.

For a slim novel, The Reader is packed with real emotion and weighty thoughts. And it is all presented in the guise of a resonant and compelling story. This is truly a masterful novel.

Baseball Trivia Answer: HR King and WS Champ

The last two men to hit the most home runs in all of baseball and win a World Series in the same year were Ryan Howard (2008) and Mike Schmidt (1980). Both were members of the Phillies. These are the only two times the Phillies have ever won the World Series.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I had written off Jonathan Safran Foer after reading an interview he gave to promote his book about vegetarianism, Eating Animals. Diet is a personal choice, and I don’t begrudge anyone their cauliflower, but Mr. Foer seemed incredibly hostile to the large majority of the population that consumes meat. He also struck me as incredibly pretentious, twee, and insufferable, which are not usually traits I am looking for in a novelist.

But whether or not I have done a disservice to Mr. Foer himself, I was wrong to pre-judge his fiction. His 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is a masterful novel which does a tremendous job of capturing the voice and consciousness of its narrator and protagonist, a brilliant child grieving the loss of his father in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Oskar Schell, whose business cards list his many interests including jewelry-making and astrophysics but not his home phone number, is a curious and imaginative young boy. In his spare moments he “invents” things, meaning only that he thinks them up. Unsurprisingly, many of these inventions are things that would keep people safe in the event of a building collapse, like a shirt made out of birdseed so that people who jump off tall building could be rescued by birds.

Oskar tells the reader about the games he and his father used to play, such as finding grammatical errors in the New York Times and finding clues to an unsolvable mystery in Central Park. This sets the stage for the quest that will be the heart of Oskar’s story. One day almost two years after what Oskar calls “the worst day” he finds a key in an envelope hidden in a vase in his father’s office. The only clue is in the name Black, written in red ink. Oskar sets out to ask every Black in the phonebook if the key belongs to them.

It’s the kind of premise that might make you think the book is going to wrap up with some nauseatingly life-affirming, mystery of the universe style ending, but Foer is way too smart for anything like that. Oskar’s quest manages to reach an unlikely, but satisfying, partial resolution.

The novel also follows the story of Oskar’s paternal grandparents and their shared experiences of terror and loss. They first knew each other in Dresden, where he was her sister’s lover. The firebombing of Dresden during WWII killed their families. Years later they meet in the U.S. but he has lost the ability or willingness to speak. To facilitate communication he has tattooed Yes and No on the palms of his hands and carries daybooks with him wherever he goes.

For many readers I suspect this will be a quirk too far, but even when Foer has the grandpa devolve into typing numbers into a payphone to try to communicate, the connection to real and plausible emotion is strong enough to make reading about the character a visceral experience.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a book I would strongly recommend to anyone. It is everything a first-person narration should be and more. It is inventive, witty, honest and moving. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t judge a book by the author, no matter how hipstery his glasses.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Super is an oppressively indie film that confuses misdirection with originality. The filmmakers want credit for zagging where mainstream movies zig, and vice versa, but fail to account for the fact that, upon much repetition, their zags become as predictable and formulaic as the zigs they snub their noses at.

Rainn Wilson (The Office’s Dwight Schrute) plays Frank D’Arbo, a short-order cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) slips back into drug addiction and leaves him for a heroin dealer and strip-club owner named Jacques (Kevin Bacon, who must be in on the six-degrees game by now and is just being helpful.)

Frank may or may not have been a little off even before his wife left him, but he has a full break with reality in its aftermath. Inspired by an Evangelical TV superhero called the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) and a vision wherein he is touched by the hand (and tentacles) of God, D’Arbo decides to become a superhero himself.

After some false starts, D’Arbo takes to the streets at night as The Crimson Bolt, whacking drug dealers over the head with his trusty wrench. His exploits captivate the local media, but he goes too far when he starts whacking people for cutting the line at the movie theater. Eventually a comic-book store employee and budding sociopath named Libby (Ellen Page) guess D’Arbo’s secret identity and becomes his sidekick, Boltie. Page goes full-throttle playing the violent and psychotic Libby, but somehow she fails to become as unsettling and scary as the part requires.

The movie misguidedly tries to shock the audience through excessive gore and violence, but this works against the movie as the body county runs higher and the viewer becomes desensitized. The ending is another example of the film wanting credit merely for being different. Its violent outcome is certainly atypical, but here the movie also tries to have it both ways, achingly straining for a happy-ish ending it does not at all deserve. The Crimson Bolt is neither truly hero nor anti-hero, and the movie surrounding him is neither memorable nor amusing.

Baseball Trivia: Home Run King and World Champion

Who are the last two men to lead the Major Leagues (not just their own league) in Home Runs in a year in which their team won the World Series?

Hint: The two men both played for the same team, but not together.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Big August Novel: V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. and books like it present the critic with something of a conundrum. If I tell you I found it unnecessarily confusing and obscurant then you might justifiably charge me with not being equal to the task of reading it. On the other hand, if I praise it effusively, intimating that I understood all of it, then you would probably realize I was full of shit.

So let me say this, then. The parts I understood, I mostly enjoyed. The parts I did not understand, I did not.

The question that remains is, would I enjoy the book more if I were smarter? If I were, say, as smart as the man who wrote it? Maybe, but I doubt it. It’s probably not worth leaning Maltese over, at any rate. To me, V. reads more like an author pouring out the whole of his consciousness on the page in an attempt to bewilder the reader into being impressed with his intellect. As a reader I find this an irredeemably hollow reason to write a novel.

I hesitate to even try to summarize the plot of V. The novel’s two main protagonists are Benny Profane, a discharged sailor who believes that he is a schlemiel through-and-through and is in a private war against inanimate objects, and Herbert Stencil, the aging son of a diplomat who is on a lifelong search for the mysterious woman referred to in his father’s journals only by the single initial of the title. Profane and Stencil both become involved in the antics of a group of lost young people that calls itself the Whole Sick Crew.

About half the chapters are told as Stencil’s versions of V.’s history, taking the reader through episodes in world history when situations seemed on the brink of disaster. From the Fashoda crisis in 1899 through the German cruelties in Southwest Africa to the Suez crisis, Stencil follows her trail. Some of these episodes are compelling, none more so than the Southwest Africa chapter, which takes place at a surreal house party that lasts for months due to an uprising of the oppressed local tribes. Others are deliberately confusing and/or alienating, such as a chapter taken from the journal of one character’s Maltese father, which is so boring and pointlessly long that I even considered abandoning the novel, though I was more than three-quarters through it.

The Whole Sick Crew chapters are kind of fun for a while, but increasingly frustrating as they fritter away to no real resolutions. There are far too many characters in the Crew and few if any of them really jump off the page and become real to the reader. Most of them are just funny names with one or two signifiers, if that. (For a while I wasn’t sure whether one character’s name referred to a person or to a cat. I suppose this could be my fault, but I still think it’s symptomatic of the novel’s aversion to straight-forwardness.)

I tried before writing this review to find some discussion online of the important themes of the novel. But then I realized that the fact that I needed to do that said it all, from my point of view. There are recurring tropes, of course, but I honestly have no idea what any of it is supposed to represent.

The extremely interesting parts of V. are all the more frustrating because of how much better they are than the rest of the novel. When the novel has a clear story to tell it tells it in intriguing and arresting fashion, but too often the novel is just a collection of Pynchon’s awful original song lyrics and assorted other juvenilia. (Examples or the author’s much remarked upon humor were hard to find, unless the idea of an artist painting portraits of cheese Danishes is in itself hilarious to you.) It’s clear that Mr. Pynchon is an immensely talented author and a staggering intellect. I just wish that in V. he’d decided to showcase the former instead of the latter.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Kindle Thoughts

I ordered a Kindle from Amazon last night, an unusually capricious expenditure for me: I’d only been thinking about it for months. I won’t get it until Saturday, but already I’m experiencing buyer’s remorse. I looked at my paperback copy of V. this morning and felt like a traitor. I realized with a pang that I had several novels slotted for the next few weeks and I’m not sure when I’ll get to them now. Will it be weird to go back and forth between the Kindle and “real” books?

Anyway, I have a few positives and negatives I’ve been going over.

POSITIVE: Books in the public domain are free.
-That’s right, many books written before about 1922 I think can be downloaded to your Kindle for free. That means the whole of Twain, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Swift, Tolstoy, and even Shakespeare can be yours at the low, low price of nothing at all.

NEGATIVE: The price of newer books has gone up.
-Post-purchase I started looking at a few recent and upcoming releases I am interested in reading. Most new releases are $12.99, which is a little much considering you aren’t buying a physical thing. Still less than Amazon’s hardcover prices, but not by very much. For instance, The Art of Fielding, a new novel by Chad Harbach, is $15.27 for the hardcover and $12.99 for the e-book. A little more galling is that the Kindle price doesn’t seem to go down when the novel goes into paperback. Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You has been in paperback for months, but the e-book still costs $12.99. A paperback copy goes for $10.20 on Amazon. I don’t think I should pay a premium to read on the Kindle.

POSITIVE: All books weigh the same.
-Since my commute I’ve had a decided preference for slim paperbacks. I just haven’t felt like lugging backbreakers around with me on the NJ Transit system. But on a Kindle, The Brothers Karamazov is no more weighty (in terms of mass, if not intellectually) than a 220-page mystery.

NEGATIVE: Lack of community.
-One of the things I enjoy most about books is their ability to engender and facilitate conversation. I’ve had some great chats over the years that started with, “What’s that you’re reading?” To be fair though, this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, or with the books I wish it would. The book that garnered me the most attention in this fashion was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I didn’t even like.

In a similar vein I have always enjoyed lending people books, even if their spotty record of returning them did occasionally rankle me. I’m not about to lend someone my Kindle for a few days at a time.

-I currently live in a room that I believe is ten feet by twelve feet. I have one wall of bookshelves that has been full for years. Books I’ve read since then have either had to force a previous occupant off of the shelves or have been piled up on the floor, the dresser, the headboard of my bed, or anywhere else there was room. I like having them there and like looking at them at odd moments and I love plucking one off every once in a while and looking through it again, but I have to admit: there’s nowhere else to put them. I set myself a challenge this year of reading fifty-two books (I’m almost done with #34). Say I did that next year too and the year after. If I was buying actual books I’d be drowning under them in short order. But on the Kindle they will all fit quite easily.

On the whole I think my purchase, however rash by my standards, makes a lot of sense. It facilitates reading more novels and more different kinds of novels, which is great. But I also can’t deny that I’m more than a little conflicted. My inner Luddite is revolting.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Source Code

I’ve had this page open most of the day trying to think of a way into this review of Source Code, a passable thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal which came out earlier this year.

That’s really it. I think the failure of this movie lies in its inability to make much of an impression on the audience. It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers were hoping to inspire conversations about the film and its ending, a la Inception. I’m taking the fact that not a single person has ever talked to me about the film or even asked me if I’d seen it as evidence that they failed in this mission. In my case specifically they failed because I couldn’t care less for the types of conversations this movie hoped to provoke. It’s all, what if there were infinite universes, what defines consciousness, etc, etc. BORRRRING!

The movie itself is not boring, really. But I was far more interested in the process of catching the bomber than I was in any space-time paradoxes that the film pursued. I also had little interest in the contrived, uninteresting love story between Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan’s character.

This movie just tried too hard to be too many different things. It wanted to be an action movie for philosophy majors and physicists, with explosions and romance thrown in to catch a mass audience. It didn’t feel like a true success in any of these genres, though I hesitate to call it a failure in any of them, either.

Well, how’s that for a ringing endorsement? And it only took me most of a workday to get around to it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Coen Brothers in Order

For no discernible reason other than that it is August and besides, you know the total collapse of our country’s economic confidence, there isn’t a lot to talk about, Slate has decided to have people rank their favorite Coen Brothers movies in order. You can check out their cumulative ranking here: http://www.slate.com/id/2300656/

So of course I’m going to post my ranking here. A caveat: I have not actually seen all of the Coen Brothers movies. Perhaps I will update my rankings after viewing Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and The Ladykillers, but considering that they are in the bottom three spots on the Slate master list, I will not make a point of it.

A second caveat: I put three Coen Brothers movies on my list of ten favorite comedies, but I would like to now and forever repute that list as nonrepresentational. I made many mistakes in the composition of that list. I have recently rewatched both Raising Arizona and O, Brother, Where Art Thou? I found the former to be far more enjoyable than the latter. O, Brother has too many uneven spots in it, but I still do love the dialogue. But Raising Arizona is just a pure joy from start to finish.

1. Raising Arizona- Great original premise, wonderful script, terrific performances, the whole package.
2. Miller’s Crossing- Really cool, well thought-out homage to Hammett and noir.
3. The Big Lebowski- What if Philip Marlowe was a burned out hippie? No one but the Coen Brothers would even think to ask such a question, and I love them for it.
4. Fargo- Seriously, The English Patient? Fuck you, Oscars.
5. O, Brother, Where Art Thou?- The Odyssey in Depression era Mississippi? Love Clooney’s dialogue and Charles Durning in this.
6. A Serious Man- Not enough people have seen this amazing movie that talks about religious faith and the mysteries of the universe without managing to be condescending, flippant or naïve. Remarkable.
7. Burn After Reading- Spies in movies are always shown as remarkably cool and unflappable. It was hilarious to see a movie about idiots caught up in intrigue.
8. Blood Simple- Their first movie. Notable for great performances by character actors like Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh. Classic noir-style plot set in present day Texas.
9. True Grit- Easily the most accessible of their movies, but still well done. Portis’s novel is extremely well-suited to their style.
10. Barton Fink- I found the ending of this movie too frustrating, but there is a lot to enjoy before that point, particularly John Goodman. Also enjoyed the satire of writers and their motivations.
11. No Country For Old Men- I really liked this the first time, but a second viewing a few years ago had me checking my watch. Cast is great obviously, and suspense works for the first time at least, but once you know what happens it loses momentum.
12. The Hudsucker Proxy- As a huge fan of screwball comedies, and of Paul Newman, I really wanted to like this movie a lot. But Tim Robbins seemed like a bad choice for the lead role, and while the Coens got the dialogue at the right tempo, they didn’t get enough jokes in to make the exercise worthwhile.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

On the surface level, The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi and based quite loosely on a story by Philip K. Dick, offers up a lot to please the eye: the locations are nice, the costumes are neat if a little silly what with the fedoras and all, and Emily Blunt wears some fashionable dresses with necklines low enough to keep many eyeballs fastened to the screen even in the duller moments. If it wanted to be a popcorn thriller with no underlying meaning or message, it would be a success on that score.

But The Adjustment Bureau gives mixed signals on that front, seeming to indicate in a variety of ways that it wants you to take it more seriously than that. And that is unfortunate, because greater scrutiny, or really, any scrutiny, reveals the plot to be just a mishmash of your freshman philosophy course and the questions your stoner buddies used to intone when they got a good buzz on.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, America’s coolest congressman and a candidate for the senate. He doesn’t know it yet, but his life is following a plan maintained for him by the members of the Adjustment Bureau, who are ominously depicted wearing fedoras. After he loses the election, which wasn’t in the Plan, Norris meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in a meet-cute more appropriate to a Katherine Heigl rom-com. There’s an instantaneous connection. They kiss; he’s inspired, and goes off-book in his concession speech, kick-starting his next campaign.

Then one day the Adjustment team member assigned to Norris (Anthony Mackie) falls asleep, and David runs into Elise again, against the Plan. When he gets to work that morning, earlier than the Plan called for, he stumbles upon his coworkers being adjusted to accept Norris’s wishes on solar energy. Norris is caught and John Slattery explains to him what he’s seen, and tells him that he can never see Elise again. Norris promises not to reveal the existence of the Adjustment Bureau, lest he be “reset”.

But there wouldn’t be much of a movie in that, would there? So of course he finds her again, by random chance, and decides, screw the Plan, this chick’s hot. Then the Adjustment Bureau sends Terrence Stamp after him, who pontificates on free will for a while and then delivers an ultimatum: If you stay with Elise, neither of your dreams will come true, but they will if you stay away from her. To prove his point he then breaks Elise’s ankle and threatens to make it worse.

From there the movie sort of devolves. Of course Damon has to get the girl, so the plot has to come up with a way to make that happen. There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo crammed into the last twenty minutes, when Anthony Mackie decides to help Damon and teach him the ways of the men in fedoras. But hey, there’s Emily Blunt running while wearing a plunging neckline, so at least you’re not drifting away from the screen.

The ending is a little too happy to be taken seriously, as all the disturbing implications of living in a world where an unseen being controls every action we take in order to maintain a pre-ordained plan are conveniently brushed aside, seemingly overpowered by the force of pure love. It’s enough to make you gag.

The performances and visuals are appealing enough but they are unsupported by a script which tries too hard to be both thought-provoking and mass-appealing. It is not a particular success at either.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Norwood by Charles Portis

If you think that unintelligent people are by default just absolutely HI-larious, well then Norwood might just be the novel for you. The titular character is one Norwood Pratt, who, aggravated by living in close quarters with his irresponsible sister and her opinionated new husband, agrees to drive two cars to New York for Grady Fring the Kredit King. Norwood is pretty stupid, but eventually even he realizes that the cars are stolen and ditches them to begin the quixotic ramble across the country that is the heart of the book.

This journey is meant to be a picaresque tale of the absurd characters he meets along the way, and presumably the reader is meant to get some laughs from the situation. But unlike in True Grit or The Dog of the South, the humor here is too mean-spirited to be amusing. I didn't particularly enjoy Portis's depictions of stupid people doing stupid things and having stupid conversations with each other. These caricatures were still reliably realistic absurdities (Portis does have a gift for capturing the style and verbal tics of the American idiot) but they aren't given enough to do.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but that doesn't mean the two exist in a direct relation. Norwood is a brief novel, and the concomitant lack of detail weakens the story. The book is really only 150 pages and moves briskly from all the dialogue. The plot would have greatly benefited from more set pieces and extended scenes. As it is the only real action is that of conversation. Some of these conversations are mildly funny, such as Norwood's run-in with a poor freelance-writer living in a rat-trap New York apartment, but they do not a successful novel make.

Indeed, so brief is the novel that I almost felt sure that Amazon had sent me a misprint or something. The story ends so abruptly and strangely that it beggars belief. I enjoyed two of Mr. Portis's novels very much, but I can not recommend Norwood.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries usually blend the comfortable remoteness of English Golden Age puzzle mysteries (locked rooms, country estates, manservants) with the wisecracking prose of the American hard-boiled variety (with its dames, G-men, and crooked coppers and so on.) It achieves this effect through the wonderfully realized partnership between the staid Nero Wolfe, a portly gourmand who detests leaving his house and seems to care more about orchids than murder, and his employee Archie Goodwin, a fast-talking ladies’ man who seems to be having the most fun when he’s withholding evidence from the police.

The plot is set in motion when a rich widow places a check for $100,000 on Wolfe’s desk. That’s just his retainer. The problem is, she’s asking for something impossible. She wants Nero Wolfe to get the FBI to stop harassing her. The Doorbell Rang was written and set during the heyday of J. Edgar Hoover’s dictatorial control of the bureau, when he was using it to conduct espionage on private citizens, often outside the boundaries of the law.

Though The Doorbell Rang contains many of the little touches that make the series so reliably familiar, it stands out for this concentration on political events. The novel was even conceived as a way to promote a non-fiction book called The FBI Nobody Knows, which Stout had read and wanted others to read. The book is integral to the plot of the novel. Wolfe’s client is being spied on because she used her wealth to buy 10,000 copies and send them to important people all over the country. Wolfe is depicted as reading the book and agreeing with many of its arguments. In perhaps the best demonstration of the guts it took to write this way of the FBI, Rex Stout himself became the target of FBI surveillance because of The Doorbell Rang.

So the novel does have a fascinating backstory, but what about, you know, the actual story? There, I am afraid, the novel does rather disappoint. Wolfe and Archie are their usual entertaining selves, and the prose is as lively as ever, but the plot of this short novel is not complex enough to sustain interest, and there is a decided lack of suspense. It seems as though with his focus on the political events of the day, Rex Stout may have neglected his typically sharp plotting.

Though the client’s job seems impossible, Wolfe methodically lays a course to accomplish the task. He wants to catch the FBI red-handed at malfeasance and use it to blackmail them into leaving the widow alone. With that in mind he and Archie start investigating a murder that may have been committed by agents of the bureau.

Too many of the breakthroughs in this murder investigation are either implausible coincidences or things that would have come to light much sooner in a professional investigation. Neither Wolfe nor Goodwin seems like the genius they are elsewhere portrayed to be. The case also develops in a very straightforward manner, with little to thrill the reader or leave him guessing. Perhaps it was controversial enough to attract attention at its time, but with the distance of years that hullabaloo has faded, whereas strong plotting would not have. All in all, an interesting curiosity but an unappealing mystery.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

New Name

I've changed the name of the blog, as you've no doubt noticed. I've been meaning to do this for a long time, for a few reasons. The inaccuracy of the old URL (outofworkdomer.blogspot.com) didn't bother me at first, but it began to feel silly as my tenure as a member of the working class grew longer. This blog formed out of a need to somehow occupy my mind, but it has persisted because it is something I genuinely enjoy doing.

I think the new name encapsulates this mindset. For those of you who do not recognize it, "I am not Prince Hamlet" is a reference to the T.S. Eliot poem, "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock", which is my favorite poem. (Remind me to post a list of my ten favorite poems some day.) In the relevant stanza, the narrator accepts his limitations, and also casts off his history of indecision and fear of revealing his true self.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be
Am an attendant Lord; one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool
Deferential, glad to be of use
Politic, cautious and meticulous
Full of high sentence but a bit obtuse;
At times indeed, almost ridiculous-
Almost, at times, the Fool.

This blog will remain as it has been, a fairly unconnected collection of opinions on topics mainly cultural, with occasional trivia questions and lists thrown in for padding. I make no apologies for what I write, or for what I am, which is apparently a person pretentious enough to reference T.S. Eliot on a blog that is most often visited by people looking for How I Met Your Mother reviews.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is a brisk comedy about real people with real flaws. Sometimes these flaws are so brazenly laid bare that the film threatens to alienate its audience, but somehow it keeps winning them back over with its disarming and uproarious humor.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an extremely unworldly innocent who sells insurance in his hometown and is “sort of pre-engaged” to an older woman (Sigourney Weaver) who used to be his seventh-grade teacher. The unfortunate early demise of his company’s top salesman due to autoerotic asphyxiation opens up an opportunity for Tim. He’s sent to a big convention in Cedar Rapids to defend the company’s prestigious Two Diamonds award. Of course when he gets there, intent on soberly pursuing his business, he finds that the convention is a thinly disguised bacchanal, and his fellow conventioneers a bunch of womanizing, drunken louts.

It would be so easy for this movie to go in one of two ways: it could have a saintly Tim convert the others to his side, or more standard for a comedy, the rascals could totally change everything about Tim. Instead, Arteta and the screenwriters wisely take a more nuanced and realistic approach. Tim opens himself up to the world and becomes more accepting of other people, and does it because these people that scared him so much accepted him for who he was.

The script is excellent in this regard, but the performances sell it masterfully. John C. Reilly once again demonstrates his incredible range. I think he could be believable in almost any role at this point. Anne Heche is given a very difficult role to play in that she has to remain likable despite doing something I’m sure most audience members would find tremendously unlikeable. It threw me out of the movie a bit, but eventually I realized it was part of the movie’s central theme, that people are flawed but that their flaws don’t define them. Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. turns a solid performance as a straight-arrow with a surprising appreciation for The Wire (an in-joke since Whitlock was a cast member on that show.) The supporting cast is filled with dependable character actors like Stephen Root, Alia Shawkat and Kurtwood Smith (the dad on That ‘70s Show).

The humor of the film is all the stronger for coming from so many different areas. There is a lot of physical humor verging on the slapstick, and there are plenty of awkward, almost-have-to-look-away type laughs. All in all it’s a warmly funny movie that refreshingly features characters and elements that you don’t often see in mainstream movies, without any of that smug indie movie feel. I hope it finds a wider audience on DVD and becomes the cult hit it deserves to be.