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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (book)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Adult

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2011

How I Met Your Mother: "Symphony of Illumination"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Month

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

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

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

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

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

Everything is Illuminated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Parks and Recreation: "The Trial of Leslie Knope"

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

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

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

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

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

Community: Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Clarence Thaddeus Foos.