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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man is a picaresque novel of the American frontier, structured as the incredible autobiography of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, who claims to be the only white man to survive the Battle of Little Bighorn. Berger’s episodic novel gives the reader a panoramic, microscopic view of what life might really have been like among the rough, hardened types who sought adventure and fortune in the West, and the Indians whose way of life struck the settlers as so strange and uncivilized.

Witness his parents being slaughtered by drunken Cheyenne warriors, Crabb winds up being adopted by the Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins, a wise chief prone to implausibly accurate visions. For the rest of his the novel, Crabb goes back and forth between the white world of his birth and the Indian ways of his youth, never fully at home in either and thus granted with special insight into the faults and attributes of each.

For a while, this homespun anthropology lesson is enough to sustain the novel by itself. Eventually, though, Berger’s episodic ramblings begin to devolve into a “who’s who” name-checking of Old West legends, and the novel starts to lose momentum. The lengthy closing segment devoted to Custer’s Last Stand is astonishingly anti-climactic considering the history involved.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever

How much you like Celeste and Jesse Forever will depend entirely on how you feel about Rashida Jones and her performance. This is her movie, she co-wrote the script with an ex-boyfriend, and she gave herself a really juicy part to play. Celeste is a whip-smart career woman whose marriage to her best friend fell apart seemingly without blowing up the friendship. Now she and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are still spending all of their time together and driving their friends nuts. But when Jesse’s life takes a new direction, Celeste realizes she isn’t ready for him to move on.

The smart woman with a career who can’t seem to find a man is about the most cliché of rom-com staples, but Jones’s skilled acting and nimble script manage to find the real woman behind the myth of so many indistinguishable Katherine Heigl movies. Celeste is a rom-com heroine with real personality defects and real things to learn about herself. Jones and co-writer Will McCormack take her on a meaningful journey of self-discovery, and it is refreshing to see a film where the ultimate destination isn’t the altar but a personal epiphany.

Every other part in this picture is a supporting role, even Samberg’s, but each is a fully-realized piece of the puzzle, and all are ably portrayed by gifted actors. Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olson are the couple whose trajectory contrasts Celeste and Jesse. Elijah Wood is very good as Celeste’s strait-laced, gay business partner, and the suddenly ubiquitous Chris Messina is a charismatic presence as the guy who tries to get Celeste to move on from her marriage.

The film is very well-edited and directed, with several very snappy cuts and arresting images. The filmmakers are smart enough to keep most of the attention directly on Jones. Her expressive, lovely face is a compelling reason to keep your eyes affixed to the screen.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Greater Fool"

There was a moment early in “The Greater Fool”, the first-season finale of The Newsroom, when I sat up in my chair in surprise. Will McAvoy, lying in a hospital bed after being driven to self-medicate by an unflattering profile in New York magazine, is going over the various things said about him in the profile: how he’s self-important, delusional, misguided, bombastic, and doing a poor impersonation of Edward R. Murrow. At the end of cataloguing these insults, Will makes a shocking admission: they’re all spot-on. Will realizes that his changes were driven by egomania, and he seems willing to change again, to become more humble, less incendiary, less convinced of his moral superiority.

And then Mackenzie McHale opened her mouth, and our hero’s path to self-realization was closed forever. Like I wrote last week, The Newsroom could easily be viewed, and more readily enjoyed, as a show about the cult forming around the charismatic figure of Will McAvoy, with Mackenzie the chief acolyte. In the hospital scene, despite assaulting him with a pillow mere moments before, she fulfills her greatest purpose on the show: making sure Will never, ever, questions himself or his superiority ever again.

It’s a scene that is staggeringly easy to read as a meta-commentary on the show itself. Will would here represent the parts of Aaron Sorkin’s psyche that realize the faults of his creation, and Mackenzie his superego, that part of him which believes that he is on a righteous crusade himself.

That, in the end, is the principal problem of The Newsroom. The show is essentially the product of one man’s consciousness, and there is too little to mitigate or improve upon it. Sorkin has achieved so much that HBO is allowing him to do whatever he wants, and he has taken that creative freedom and used it to stage arguments that he knows he can win, settling every old score along the way.

Too much of this show is devoted to establishing the church of Will McAvoy, and even worse, doing it by merely having other characters constantly talk about how great he is. When Will has to step up and actually show us his greatness, he just seems like any other man, only more so. He is egotistical, self-righteous, ill-tempered and consistently unappealing. His lack of actual charisma (so curious from an actor as charismatic as Jeff Daniels) has the effect of weakening every other character on the show by making their devotion to him seem misplaced and unconsidered.

The Greater Fool is all about re-establishing once again how great McAvoy is, but don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time for the love quadrangle to fittingly become Satan’s love pentangle. Yes, because Sloan Sabbith took her fancy job offer and decided to use it to throw a sexy grenade in the middle of Don’s plans to move in with Maggie. But because everyone on this show is an idiot when it comes to their personal life, Don chooses Maggie over Sloan, Maggie chooses Don over Jim, Jim chooses to be gallant about that (perhaps finally realizing what a bullet he is dodging) and everyone should really be more focused on saving America from the Tea Party, no?
Excuse me, make that the American Taliban, natch. Because of course the most important story for NewsNight to cover isn’t the debt ceiling after all, it’s just how rotten those Tea Partiers are.

Curiously, though there was plenty of time for awkward half-confessions of true feelings, there was hardly any time to pay off the phone-hacking plot, meaning Solomon’s suicide and the resulting blackmail negotiation took up only a few minutes, and really only served to set everything back to the status quo.

With Season One in the books, what can we expect going forward? Probably more of the same, unfortunately. There are elements of the show that are extremely interesting and compelling, but Sorkin seems less interested in them. His script for the finale shows that he is aware of what some people might think about these characters, and that he just completely disagrees. He finds their flaws charming and their goals noble. He thinks of them all as Don Quixote, and doesn’t seem to consider that in order for a drama to work, there have to be characters to offset and balance Don Quixote. Watching a bunch of people tilt against windmills isn’t nearly as much fun.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ten Favorite Classic Movie Actors and Actresses

As it has for the last several years, Turner Classic Movies has devoted its schedule this August to showcasing one star a day. This has been hell on my DVR, and I’ve had to make some difficult decisions about which movies I can afford to wait until TCM decides to show again. Of course, some stars are bigger than others. Inspired by Summer Under the Stars, here are my ten favorite classic movie actors and actresses of all time. Later on I’ll try to get to my favorite “current” actors and actresses.

Ladies First:

1. Katharine Hepburn: Headstrong, willful, independent, and proud. Her superior, patrician exterior belied a warm, vulnerable person inside. Too many great performances to list them all, but I especially love her in The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib, Woman of the Year, and Holiday.
2. Barbara Stanwyck: Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and Sorry, Wrong Number.
3. Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Murder on the Orient Express.
4. Grace Kelly: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Dial M for Murder, High Noon.
5. Faye Dunaway: Chinatown, Network, Bonnie and Clyde.
6. Bette Davis: All About Eve, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Mr. Skeffington.
7. Lauren Bacall: The Big Sleep, Key Largo, To Have and Have Not, Murder on the Orient Express.
8. Maureen O’Hara: The Quiet Man, Miracle on 34th Street.
9. Shirley MacLaine: The Apartment alone would put her on this list.
10. Myrna Loy: The Thin Man series.
Honorable Mention: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Thelma Ritter, Rosalind Russell, Deborah Kerr, Teresa Wright

Now the Gents:

1. Cary Grant: Effortlessly charming, breezily funny, impeccable line reading and comic timing. A remarkably physical actor. My favorite movies of his include His Girl Friday, Arsenic and Old Lace, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Notorious, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, and Holiday.
2. Jack Lemmon: Incredible range, lovable everyman, wonderfully funny. Love him in The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, Some Like it Hot, The Odd Couple, and Mister Roberts.
3. Jimmy Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take it with You, Rear Window, Rope, Vertigo, Harvey, Anatomy of a Murder, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
4. Paul Newman: The Hustler, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict, Cool Hand Luke.
5. Spencer Tracy: Inherit the Wind, Boys Town, Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
6. Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Caine Mutiny.
7. John Wayne: The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder.
8. William Holden: Network, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard.
9. Walter Matthau: The Bad News Bears, The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Sunshine Boys.
10. Marlon Brando: If Brando had only been in On the Waterfront, he still might have made this list. It’s the best performance I’ve ever seen by an actor.

Honorable Mention: Henry Fonda, Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Gary Cooper, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, James Mason, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Fix Campaign Ads

The major party presidential candidates, with assists from their running mates, spokespeople, advisors, and friends, have succeeded in uniting the country. We are all of us, right and left, sick and tired of this campaign. Anyone who is even half-way informed about the issues and the problems facing our nation knows that the Republicans and Democrats are forsaking honest debate for just about the lowest, most mean-spirited and intellectually vacant campaign in memory. (Yes, I know things got heated in Cleveland v. Blaine, but really.)

This year the campaign ads in particular have been a low-point for both Governor Romney and President Obama. How much control or input each man has over the Super PACs running ads on his behalf is a matter of some debate, but with the revelations that most are run by people with close ties to the candidates their content is fair game for criticism of the candidates themselves. Which of course the candidates are already doing, since at this stage of the game anything is more appealing to them than stating their own ideas or positions for the record.

If campaign ads were your sole source of information, you might not even be aware that there is a war on, for all the candidates are willing to talk about it. You probably know that Mitt Romney doesn’t like the President’s spending, but you’d probably be hard pressed to figure out how he plans to cut it. You might know that President Obama claims Mitt Romney will raise taxes on the middle class, but you probably don’t know how or even if he plans to address the deficit.

How can we fix the commercials? Well, Super PAC ads are going to be impossible to fix, since the rules governing them are practically non-existent and the deniability they lend to campaigns has proven extremely enticing. Short of an outright ban, they’re likely here to sully our airwaves for the foreseeable future.

As for the ads actually put out by the campaigns, there seems to me to be a simple fix. A step in this direction was taken a decade ago through the Stand By Your Ad provision, the source of the now-famous “I’m [Candidate X] and I support this message.” My plan would go a few steps farther. If I had my way, every campaign ad would have to read entirely by the candidate, and he would have to appear full-screen for at least part of the ad.

I think a lot of the more outrageous elements of the campaign ads would be ameliorated by candidates not wanting to actually have to say them aloud. It would also cut down on scary animation, quotes pulled out of context, and those expertly crafted low-tones of voice, you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones where the narrator manages to make even the opponent’s name sound frightening.

This solution would probably lead to the ads featuring more content about the candidate’s own plans, which would be a plus for everybody. Finally, something good can come from politicians talking about themselves.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What Should Akin Do?

"Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." -Mark Twain

Todd Akin said a really dumb thing, which happened to fit the truest definition of a gaffe since it let people know what he really thought. Now he's the best fundraising tool in the Democratic arsenal, and his own party is calling on him to withdraw and threatening to withdraw key funding for his race against Claire McCaskill, a race that had looked extremely winnable for the GOP until Akin's gaffe.

So far Akin has remained defiant, pledging to stay in the race and even trying to use his new-found outsider status to rile up his supporters to make up the funding gap he'll now likely face. Recent quotes from him have tended along the lines of (to paraphrase) "the liberal elites are trying to force me out". (Imagine how shocked Sean Hannity, Karl Rove, and Paul Ryan were to find out they now belong to the liberal elite.)

However, the question of whether or not Akin should get out of the race is more interesting than either party would have you believe. Predictably, political advantage is driving principle in a lot of quarters. McCaskill and many Democrats want him to stay in the race because he represents the best chance they have of winning on Election Day, while the national GOP wants Akin out because with him as the most prominent Republican Senate candidate the news-cycle isn't likely to be favorable for some time.

To me, it seems a little distasteful to have national party leaders trying to control who can and can't appear on the ballot. Whatever his flawed understanding of anatomy, the position Akin has arrived at on abortion and the rape exception isn't really out of step with his party. (Banning abortion, even in instances of rape and incest, is officially part of the platform to be presented at the GOP convention in Tampa.) The Missouri voters who cast their ballots for Akin knew what his position was on this issue, even if they didn't know how he justified it. Whether Mitt Romney or anyone else like it, he won a plurality of GOP voters in Missouri, and used a lot of his own money to do so. If he wants to continue his campaign I say he should be able to.

If the Republican party no longer supports Akin, that is fine. They can and should continue to disparage his statements, and clarify the distinctions between his positions and theirs. If they want to encourage GOP voters to write in someone else for Senate, that would be fine too.

The problem of course is that, other than on an IQ test, many establishment Republicans, including VP nominee Paul Ryan, can't separate themselves in a practical manner from many of Akin's beliefs. Akin and Ryan co-sponsored a bill that limited federal funding for abortion to victims of "forcible rape" and one senses that even that was a compromise. Which is why it rings a little hollow when the GOP acts like Todd Akin is a hideous monster just because he arrives at the same position as they do with worse justification.

How To Enjoy The Newsroom

While rewatching the latest episode of The Newsroom last night on HBO, I had a sudden thought: Why am I watching an episode I panned for a second time?

It’s true. “The Blackout, Part II” was one of the most ill-conceived episodes of dramatic television I’ve ever watched, and it has had some stiff competition from the rest of season one of The Newsroom. And yet within its rambling, idiotic shambles of an hour there was enough entertainment value for me to justify the investment of my time. (Plus the Mets were being the Mets again.)

I wonder how many TV critics secretly agree with me. For as much as they rail about the show’s problematic and irritating character dynamics, the lack of believable chemistry between romantic partners, and the contrivance of having the show take place in the recent past, no critic I know has stopped watching or writing about the show.

But I’m sure a lot of you are on the verge of giving up, being worn down by Will’s odd penchant to reference Broadway musicals, Sloan’s disturbing weight fixation, Mackenzie’s screeching tirades, or Maggie. This Sunday’s episode marks the end of season one, and I’m sure if it isn’t very promising many of you will bail. Here then is the secret for how you too can begin to enjoy The Newsroom.

First, stop comparing it to The West Wing, and not just because the comparison would be unflattering to most dramas ever made. It’s difficult, especially because the show definitely seems to be inviting the comparison, but the key to enjoying The Newsroom is to break free from the idea that the staff at NewsNight are people whose mission is noble and whom you want to see succeed.

Second, disregard the premise and the author’s intent. Sorkin pretty clearly hates cable news and the internet, and not wholly without reason. But his grandstanding and holier-than-thou pontifications are worse than the crimes he condemns. While it is easy and justified to view Will McAvoy as a mouthpiece for Sorkin (despite the character’s strained and incredible plea to Republicanism) to do so is to make him the hero of the show by default.

Try looking at the show this way. On stage at Northwestern, Will McAvoy had a psychotic break with his previous personality, and launched into a bit of persuasive demagoguery that has swept up willing believers like Mackenzie, Jim and Maggie, who have since proselytized this religion to the others on staff. Will’s personal magnetism belies a deeply sick and twisted inner persona, which allows him to mistreat the very people who worship him. He tortures his most devoted acolyte Mackenzie by refusing to allow her to move on from their failed relationship. He plays with the confidence of his staffers by inflating and deflating them at random. He feeds his ego with their approbation, and only outsiders can see the he is a shallow figure, hubristic and monstrous, and dangerous enough to be a threat.

Doesn’t that sound a lot more exciting than watching two-year old news events covered in the most high-handed and pretentious fashion possible?

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Blackout Part I: Mock Debate"

Last week’s promising episode, marred slightly by the cheap power outage gag at the end, was followed by one of the most scattershot episodes of television I’ve ever seen. The Blackout Part II was utterly fascinating to watch, in the same way it would be fascinating to watch a train crash in eight different directions.

The episode veered off into so many divergent storylines that it is difficult to know where to begin. Maybe we should start with how insane Will and the staff at NewsNight must be to think that their mock debate would actually impress the GOP. That “new format” they’ve been hyping up for so long involved nothing more than Will being a know-it-all jerk to the people running for president.

Will has so successfully brainwashed his staff, with the help of Mac, his chief acolyte, that it takes fly-on-the-wall Brian Brenner to call McAvoy out on the sheer hubris such a display required. Hey, even a douche bag down-on-his-luck magazine writer is right once in a while.

The Blackout Part II also dips back into one of the show’s most frustrating wells, having the staff accomplish their jobs only through the sheer luck of knowing someone who happens to know what’s going on. Some of these have been fairly defensible (like Sloan being familiar with the Japanese nuclear plant spokesman) while others have strained credulity past its breaking point (Jim’s sister working for BP and his roommate working at Halliburton. Lisa being a classmate of Casey Anthony’s buries credulity and dances on its grave. (Leaving aside the absurd non-sequitur of Lisa’s pro-choice rant, which had so little to do with the issue at hand that it stunned both the other characters and the audience into silence.)

And of course, we got more of the plot no one is asking for, the excruciating Don-Maggie-Jim-Lisa love quadrangle. This week, Don gets flowers from another woman he’d seen behind Maggie’s back. Maggie and Jim pressure Lisa to appear on air. Mac tells Jim to gather ye rosebuds, and so he goes straight to Maggie’s apartment, despite knowing that Lisa and even Don are likely to be there.

Seriously, at this point I’m less wondering why these people don’t get together than how they haven’t been institutionalized yet. Maggie is the worst of the bunch. The way Alison Pill plays the character is as if she went straight from 8 to 22 without learning anything about people along the way. Every detail of her performance seems calculated to irritate the viewer, from her tone of voice to her indescribably annoying arm-motions. (Seriously, watch the way she raises her hand in the staff meeting and tell me this is supposed to be a character Sorkin wants us to root for.)

Like every episode of this very frustrating series, there was some good to go with the bad. I continue to like David Krumholtz as Will’s psychiatrist, and find his insights into Will’s misbehavior come close to justifying that drawn-out story. Paul Schneider is doing a great job with a hard character to play with, and Olivia Munn manages to steer her material back from outmoded sexist clichés into winning personality quirks on a regular basis. I also think that the vetting into Solomon Hancock took a nice twist last night with the revelation that Hancock might not be as trustworthy as the staff had hoped.

However, one last note of unpleasantness, since it seems more appropriate to end a review of this fairly dismal episode with a dose of negativity. The idea that Neal’s big idea for a news story is about internet trolls, and apparently not even the semi-important kind like those at Anonymous, but just regular old annoying people on the internet, is just the most preposterous display of Sorkin’s intense disdain for the web we’ve seen. How could any legitimate news show think this was worth anyone’s time? And the retroactive justification of having this be the way that Will’s death-threat sender is discovered is just so much hooey.

There’s only one more episode left this season. One more week to see how much damage Aaron Sorkin can do to his reputation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Real Problem with Being an NFL Fan

Recently, Will Leitch of the magazine New York wrote a very interesting column about the moral implications of continuing to watch the NFL in this era of greater concussion -repercussion awareness. You can read it here.

Leitch’s point is well-taken, and addresses some of my own concerns with being an NFL fan. For a while I have thought about distancing myself from professional football. But if I’m being completely honest, concussions and other serious injuries are not the sole cause of my reluctance.

Really, the broader problem with being an NFL fan is that it is just not as much fun as it used to be. As the NFL has grown into the hegemonic behemoth of the popular sports landscape, as its influence has extended into the general culture (NFL games are routinely the highest rated television shows of each week), the meaning of a being a football fan has expanded as well. The widespread acceptance both of fantasy football as a sort of substitute for sports gambling has also changed what being a fan means.

To be a knowledgeable football fan in this day in age is a lot of pressure. The amount of information out there about football and its immense popularity means that conversation about football is nearly omnipresent. Fantasy football has helped change the equation too. Being a fan used to mean watching your team on Sunday and maybe following them through the week between games. Now, being a football fan now means being conversant with every team in the league, every injured starter, every free agent and their salary cap ramifications. It’s become too much like being a GM.

The effect of tremendous success, and the potential for wealth it creates, is also having a detrimental effect on the league and its teams. You can see the damage that the need to succeed is having on the league’s front offices. In the last few years we’ve had accusations of espionage levied against multiple teams. The New Orleans Saints were found guilty of paying players a bonus for injuring opposing players. The NFL commissioner is now such a powerful figure that he is the one who hears appeals of his own sentences.

Being an NFL fan used to entail watching the highlights of the other games around the league. Now if you watch ESPN looking for football stories you’re likely to get domestic violence, assault, drunk driving, cheating, drug use, formations guarded more closely than state secrets, and of course the bevy of players suffering from dementia and other debilitating physical conditions. Every so often one of these players commits suicide at a depressingly early age, usually making sure to preserve his brain so scientists can use it to prove that football made him this way. Is it any wonder given this context that the media spend so much of their time focusing on a prayerful, charitable backup quarterback with nothing but kind things to say about others?

People used to debate whether football or baseball was the better metaphor for life. That debate is over. Football isn’t just a metaphor for life any more. It is life. It contains all the worst, most exhausting aspects of life. It is all-consuming, and I for one am tired of being consumed rather than being a consumer.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Blackout Part I: Tragedy Porn"

Last night’s episode was the season’s best because it opened up the closed-room airlessness of the show’s premise by injecting some much-needed fictional drama to that of the drama of real-world events. Whereas in past weeks too much of the focus was on how Will and Mackenzie would cover the news, with a little will-they-or-won’t-they sprinkled in because that’s what Sorkin thinks audiences want, here the tension derived from not knowing what was going to happen.

The TMI storyline, intentionally and self-referentially parroting the News of the World scandal, may strain credulity, but that will be forgivable so long as it leads to more confrontations and conflicts like those that we saw last night. Scenes between Charlie and Leona have an extra kick because of the tremendous talents of Waterson and Fonda, but I also enjoyed seeing Will, Mackenzie, and Charlie get into a legitimate argument about the best way to do their jobs.

Also straining credulity while creating dramatic tension was Will’s inexplicable decision to choose Mackenzie’s ex-boyfriend to be the one to write a magazine profile about him and the new direction of the show, right as the show’s new direction is being compromised by sinking ratings. It’s the kind of thing that could actually make for a fascinating article, but the idea that Will wouldn’t realize what a bad idea it really is makes it harder to take. Still, Paul Schneider brings a lot to the role with his low-key manner and air of competence.

It also helped matters that the real world seemed to play along with Sorkin’s dramatic intent. It’s extremely plausible that Mackenzie and the others would be side-tracked by the Casey Anthony trial and Anthony Weiner’s scandal. Sorkin uses these distractions to score some of his easiest, but most important points against the way we are presented with information, while also using history as a backdrop for the drama at the network. It’s an appealing formulation that, if continued, could represent a turning point for the show.

One thing that the show has done quietly, but nicely, is to expand the world of these characters in recent weeks. Terry Crews, David Krumholtz, Natalie Morales, and now Paul Schneider are all fantastic additions who could really contribute on a recurring basis. If things are looking grim inside the newsroom, they are decidedly looking up for The Newsroom.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Les Miserables, Volume II: "Cosette"

Where Volume I expertly built up to its heartbreaking dilemma through extensive use of detail and explanation, Volume II seemed to this reader to be filled with stand-alone details of less importance to the main plot. Hugo’s second volume of five is over-stuffed with digressions and discourses, and very light on character development and plot.

The volume begins with an excruciatingly long examination of the Battle of Waterloo. As chapter upon chapter continued to detail the troop movements, the casualties, the errors in judgment and the role of chance, my eyes glazed over. Hugo’s point is made early and often, and does not wear repetition well. The ending revelation, of Thernadier’s dishonorable nature, is not enough to justify all that came before.

The volume is entitled Cosette after Fantine’s daughter, but her role in the plot is important only in relation to Jean Valjean. After his escape from the galleys by disappearing underwater and being presumed dead, Valjean risks discovery to free Cosette from the Thernadiers. After some difficulty with the disreputable innkeepers, he and Cosette are forced to flee from the tenacious Javert. Eventually they stumble upon the perfect hide-out: a convent where men are typically barred from entry.

All of this takes some 300 pages, mostly due to the inflated Waterloo section and another lengthy discourse on the history of the convent and cloister. Unlike the lengthy personal histories we were treated to in Volume I, these side-trips do little to enhance the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of the story.

Hugo also indulges a little too often in lecturing instead of story-telling. He seems to feel that the novel can be something of a manual for how to live, and he spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing the practices of both the religious and the unreligious.

In Volume II I found myself tiring of Hugo’s moralism and preaching, and less enchanted with his masterful weaving of a wide set of characters. Still I press on, hopeful that the Hugo who dreamt up Jean Valjean and his predicament has more in store for Volumes III, IV, and V.

Go On: "Pilot"

Matthew Perry’s latest attempt to carry a post-Friends series is a conventional, formulaic sitcom wrapped around an unconventional premise. The question for Go On will be one of sustainability. How long can it plausibly maintain its conceit, and how many jokes can be wrung from sadness and loss?

Perry plays Ryan King, a sports talk-radio host who is desperate to get back to work and resume his life in the wake of his wife’s death. His co-workers, including his boss (John Cho) are concerned that he is not adequately dealing with his grief, so they make him agree to attend ten group counseling sessions before he can get back on the air.

This being television, the group is of course stocked with oddballs with broadly defined personalities and defects. There is the lonely woman mourning her cat, the sarcastic old black man (also blind), the type-A woman who has to abide by all the rules, and the bearded weirdo, among others.

King’s first interaction with the group is actually a bit of inspired comedy, probably the bit that got Perry’s attention and that of the network in a crowded pilot season. Uncomfortable with the cooperation and lack of competition of therapy, King overtly pits the group against one another in a contest to determine who’s had the worst thing happen to them. It’s persistently amusing to watch as King imposes the rules and order of sport onto the situation, such as when he disqualifies a woman for taking too long to describe her partner’s death, allowing the cat-lady to move on by technicality. It’s a fresh, funny, invigorating comic set-piece.

The rest of the episode is mostly devoted to laying the groundwork for making the premise more believable. Perry’s initial Cuckoo’s Nest resistance has to be countered by an epiphany wherein he realizes how much help he needs, whereas Laura Benanti’s rigidly focused group leader has to be lightened up by seeing how Perry’s humor and charm can also help people.

NBC is pointedly trying to broaden its audience, and at times Go On shows the signs of being affected by the network’s priorities. It feels a little rote, as though it has a checklist to get through before time is up. For all that though, Perry’s breezy charm and ability with a quip can make the most of any joke, and Go On should have a decent chance at lasting a full season and maybe more.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Best Films of My Lifetime

One of the loudest complaints about the Sight & Sound list is that it skewed too old, or that it was somehow stodgy and conservative since it didn’t have any film made after 1968. (Never mind that all of the films on the list are considered revolutionary.) Well, my own list is not much better in this regard. I do have Network on my list, which was made in 1976. What makes that all the more remarkable is that I was born in 1986, so I don’t have a single film which was released in my lifetime on my own list.

Since there of course have been many great movies released since 1986, I thought it would be interesting to see what my list would look like if confined only to those movies released since then. I have a friend who refuses to watch any movie made before he was born, although he seems to think that every movie released before his birth must be in black and white despite being my age. But if I shared his prejudice against the past, what movies would make the cut?

1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
2. The Big Lebowski (1998)
3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
4. Goodfellas (1990)
5. The Social Network (2010)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
7. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
8. The Princess Bride (1987)
9. Raising Arizona (1987)
10. Kicking and Screaming (1995) – no, not the Will Ferrell youth soccer comedy.

That’s right, three Coen Brothers made the list, and Fargo is not among them. I actually would go with A Serious Man if I wanted to put a fourth on the list. Among the films that came close to making this list: Rushmore, Toy Story 3, Up in the Air, Little Miss Sunshine, Pulp Fiction, A Few Good Men, Broadcast News, Black Swan, Memento, and The Dark Knight.

The Newsroom: "5/1"

Great works of entertainment are often called thrill-rides, but if we’re talking about things like roller-coasters I think the term more accurately describes watching a show as uneven as The Newsroom. There are moments when the dialogue snaps and the sentiment soars, and you forget that Aaron Sorkin is essentially manipulating the recent past to his characters’ advantage. But there are also dizzying descents into cheap gags, retrograde sexism, and treacle.

The best parts of “5/1”, which chronicles the hectic pursuit of the truth on the night Osama bin Laden was killed, are those which demonstrate so forcefully the sheer thrill of finding something out and passing it along. The episode gives us several variations on this theme, as both out normal reporters and several others get to be the ones to break the news. It’s an emotion we can all claim familiarity with: when we get a call that one of our friends or family members is engaged, pregnant, or getting a great new job or something our first instinct is to get on the phone and spread the news. The joy on the faces of the men and women who get to tell others about the death of bin Laden is just that emotion on a larger scale.

I also enjoyed the part of this story where Charlie reflected on the responsibility of reporting the news before the White House gave clearance. I suspect many journalists will bristle at this as being arrogant and pedantic on Sorkin’s part, but I think there is some merit to at least having the discussion.

Unfortunately, even these scenes, which should be a slam-dunk from a dramatic standpoint, are often ill-served with creaky dialogue. I still can’t believe no one excised Don’s ingratiating “for you” when he told the flight crew.

That however, was not near the worst part of 5/1. Nor was the worst part the show’s unrelenting meanness toward its female characters, which here is represented by Lisa walking into a pole while looking at her phone, random party guest thinking Christian Bale is an Australian actress, and Maggie being Maggie. (Not much they can do on that last one at this point, I know.) Even having Charlie somehow know right off the bat that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a cousin in the Navy Seals was not the worst part of the episode.

The worst part of “5/1” was when it resorted to having Will being stoned just to increase the tension, only to have it play next to no role in the overall story. Seriously, a sober will, or even just a slightly drunk one, would probably have gotten out of the car to report the story just the same. And having Will inexplicably sober up enough to read touching copy about the meaning of bin Laden’s death was tantamount to having Chekhov’s gun turn out to be a water-pistol.

I suspect that Will’s impairment, however hard to detect on-air, will be the revelation that provokes his final confrontation with Jane Fonda’s Leona Langley. If I am correct, I have to say that Sorkin has perhaps out-smarted himself, as it will be tremendously hard to disagree with Leona if she were to fire Will for cause. If I were in charge of ACN I’d fire Mackenzie too for allowing him on air in that state.

As to the larger issues with the show, having Mac kowtow to Will only further underscores just how submissive and subservient she is to his needs, which could possibly sprout into interesting character growth, although I won’t hold my breath. And having Will’s pompous statements about being a “medical marvel” essentially come true only furthers the impression that Will is a kind of superhuman we’re all supposed to bow down to.

Natalie Morales’s character was a bright spot for the women on this show, as she seemed to be a real person with intelligence and real feelings. Who wants to bet she’ll be revealed as the person who told on Will for being high?

The Everett Sight & Sound Poll

Recently, the British film magazine Sight & Sound released its newest Top 10 films of all-time list, an argument starter that has been published once a decade since 1952. The list made waves this time around because for the first time Citizen Kane did not appear in the top spot. That honor went instead to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which has been surging in critical appraisal for a while now. (The AFI ranked the film #61 on its initial Top 100 list in 1997, only to have it shoot up to #9 on the 10th Anniversary list in 2007.)

Vertigo is a fine film, but it is probably not even in my top 5 Hitchcock films. (North by Northwest, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt) Still, consensus is inevitable in this type of exercise, so I can’t blame the critics for coalescing around one particular Hitchcock masterpiece.

In the spirit of the individual lists, some of which are trickling out online and all of which are inherently fascinating. The directors’ lists are delightfully idiosyncratic. (Quentin Tarrantino’s list is especially interesting.) So I thought I would offer up my own Top 10 list, and I would gladly welcome lists from all of you as well.

Now, not being a professional film critic, I have not seen as many movies as the men and women Sight & Sound polled. I have been especially delinquent when it comes to foreign films. One of the greatest benefits of a list like Sight & Sound’s is that directs viewers like me to the best places to start viewing foreign films. Here, then, is my American-dominated list of what I consider the best films of all-time.

1. Casablanca- the greatest screenplay ever written
2. The Apartment- elegantly constructed, warm, winning, great performances by Lemmon, MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray as the heel
3. His Girl Friday- breakneck screwball comedy, great plot, and great chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance- John Ford directs John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in a western that ably deconstructs the myths Hollywood has erected around the American West
5. On the Waterfront- Brando gives the best performance of his career or anyone else’s
6. The Philadelphia Story- Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn are all magnificent, and the supporting cast is wonderful as well.
7. Network- Paddy Chayefsky’s speeches are given the breath of life by William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and in one spectacular scene, Ned Beatty
8. The Bridge on the River Kwai- David Lean’s epic film about the absurdity of war, patriotism, and the men who give themselves over to it
9. The Godfather- majestic storytelling and an amazing cast
10. The Great Escape- compulsively watchable

Honorable Mention: It’s so hard to leave off films like 12 Angry Men, Chinatown, Citizen Kane (which was on the list for the longest time), The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bringing Up Baby, Patton, Singin’ in the Rain, The Magnificent Seven, any one of several Hitchcock films, and I could not decide which Coen Brothers film most deserved a spot between Fargo, Raising Arizona and the Big Lebowski.

Alright, that’s my list. What’s yours?