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Lincoln and Les Miserables are both impressive movies. Visually arresting, dazzlingly produced, even reasonably entertaining. Oscar fodder and all that. But in the end, both feel a little empty. Like eye candy. No nutritional value. Not especially memorable. Lacking in soul and story, and ultimately sort of disappointing.
The best thing about Lincoln (B) is Daniel Day-Lewis. So often when a Famous Actor portrays a historical figure (or any character, really), you never forget that you're watching a Famous Actor. But Day-Lewis disappears into Lincoln. It's pretty impressive. There are a few moments when the Acting (in the Jon Lovitz sense) is evident -- that stumpy walk feels pretty self-conscious, for instance -- but mostly, this is a virtuoso performance. In fact, most of the acting in this movie is a pleasure to watch. Lots of good actors all over the place. Unfortunately, the story is less enthralling. If I want political bickering and jerks in the House of Representatives, I don't need a movie.
As for Les Mis (C+), it's a disaster. An overwrought jumble of bombast and sentiment. A waste of the big screen (I mean, seriously? I've never seen so many close-ups. We get it, Anne Hathaway's emoting! That does not mean we need to see inside her nostrils.) The love story is as thin and juvenile as they come: rich, cute kids fall in love at first sight and oh by the way don't let our bloody failed revolution get in the way of your happy ending, you two. (Yes, I realize many people disagree with me about this movie.) Look, the music is fine, and the movie is pretty (if a wee bit on the DARK AND GLOOMY side), and Borat and Helena Bonham-Carter offer some dandy comic relief. I didn't hate the whole movie; I just hated the love story. Plus, my favorite characters (Eponine and Gavroche) died; now, it's okay for appealing characters to die, but here you just had the sense they needed to be gotten out of the way. You know, so the cute kids can get on with their happy ending.
Also, I agree entirely that both movies go on too long.
Didn't mean to swear. Well, I did, but now I sort of regret having done so. Only sort of, because I still get fired up at the constant griping about The State of Poetry. Look, having a critical eye matters. Setting the bar high is important. Finetuning one's aesthetic, asking for poetry that lives up to one's standards -- sure, fine, go for it. Good, valuable activities, one and all.
But to suggest that poetry is somehow "in trouble," or "dying," or "drowning in a sea of mediocrity" or whatever, that I just don't get. Example, you say? Okay then. Here are three poems that I think are worth reading. (Your mileage may vary, of course, but I still believe you will be a better person for having read these.)
If You Re-write Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” by Jeff Kass: Found this one because a Facebook friend linked the other day to this journal, the museum of americana, of which I had not heard. I like the spirit of the poems I read in this journal, and this poem in particular grabbed me. Kass is a fellow Michigander, and he's writing about stuff that's in my wheelhouse, in that Thurman Munson and Dave Righetti and Reggie Jackson are iconic figures from my childhood. Villains, of course, because, hello, Yankees. I remember watching the 1981 World Series with my friend, a fellow Dodgers fan, and chanting "Make spaghetti out of Righetti" and thinking how clever and original we were, an opinion of ourselves that was somehow heightened when the camera showed a poster in the stadium that said essentially the same thing. What I like about Kass' poem is the blending of personal and cultural, the way it pulls in baseball and music and death and adolescence as if to suggest of course all these things belong in the same breath, why wouldn't they, and after you read the poem you will feel the same way.
Poem Interrupted by Whitesnake by Timothy Donnelly: First Springsteen, then Whitesnake. It's like the '80s all over again, right? I am so strongly drawn to poems that co-opt pop music. I love Donnelly, and to find another poet who not only listened to hair bands but was sufficiently moved to write about them years later is a joy. This poem is so smart, and uses language so compellingly. Yes, yes to the sentiments here, and to this linebreak: "...I keep making the same / mistake over and over, and so do you ..." Donnelly's poems wrestle explicitly with the challenge of trying to make sense of the world through language, and there's always an underlying sense of the futility of such an exercise -- yet the poems belie that futility with their very success.
Next Door by Jessica Greenbaum: More sports, and more growing up, and more futility. This time it's human connection we cannot ever fully achieve, and still that desire is tied up in language. The way Greenbaum connects the body and the page and the knowing of another person is lovely: That silence / is also like the space between the reader and the page, / the little nation between the writer's words and our / particular way of receiving them, or the blank station / we fill in between ourselves and passing strangers, / or between ourselves and people we presume to know, / but most achingly in the ones we try to know." One of the things I talk about with young writers is that a poem doesn't have to keep its meaning a secret (too many of us grow up thinking of poems as locks to which only our teachers held the key), and Greenbaum balances the explicit and the evocative in this poem, the image and the meaning working together. I think it's easy to overstate the value of "accessibility" in poetry, but I do believe in the value of clarity. Clarity of expression. Precision of language. This doesn't mean a poem should not be difficult, or even hard to fully understand on a literal level, but to my mind a poet should not hold back -- keep to herself what she really means because of some notion that a poem needs to be a mystery. Here, Greenbaum tells us what she really means and in doing so does not limit her piece's meaning but expands it.
Poetry is not dying.
It is easier right now, at this second, to find a good poem you've never read before and read it than at any point in the history of written language on this planet. Seriously. Go to Poetry Daily. Verse Daily. Rattle's website. The Academy of American Poets site. Any of dozens of other websites. If you cannot find a poem that's new to you and worth reading, then my guess is that you just don't like poetry.
So enough with all the goddamn hand-wringing over the state of American poetry. It's different than it used to be. You know what? Everything is different than it used to be. Fucking everything. It's how the world works. Shit changes.
Television, for instance. Once upon a time, there were three networks and a very very limited amount of new programming. When you got to work on any given morning, people would all be talking about the same show from the night before, because everyone watched Bonanza, because there was nothing else fucking on. So, yeah, maybe it was easier to identify the best shows. The golden age of television and all that.
Now? A million channels, and no two households have the same remote control. We all watch different shows, and maybe you can't find anyone at the water cooler to talk about last night's Amazing Race or Hoarders or Deadliest Catch, because everyone else was watching Breaking Bad on Netflix or old episodes of The Office on Hulu or whatever. But is anyone arguing that television is dying? That consumers of television shows are worse off now? That AMC threatens the purity of television by making its own new shows? That we were somehow better off when three networks filled 18 hours of primetime per week and that was it?
Yet that's essentially where we are in poetry. And for some reason, a lot of people hate it. Pine for the good old days. Want everyone to write like Shakespeare or Keats or John Crowe Ransom.
The thing that all those who complain about the state of American verse seem to have in common? They don't seem to be paying attention to what's actually being written and published. Not everything is a "woe-is-me journal entry" or a slovenly uncrafted bit of free verse. They prefer to rely on stereotypes about self-indulgent MFA classrooms and hastily thrown-together online journals. And while such stereotypes might have their roots in reality here and there, they do not represent the bulk of the poetry world today -- and certainly not at all do they represent the best of what's out there. And I just don't see the merit in judging the state of American poetry by its worst tendencies. Not when so much good art is happening. Not when it's so easy to find a good poem, to discover a good poet.
So my entry wasn't picked as a finalist in the Grantland fantasy columnist competition. Which, on the one hand: No writing time-intensive weekly previews and reviews for free all season. On the other hand: No getting to write about fantasy football for lots and lots of people. So, yay and boo or whatever.
Anyway, since I spent some time on this silly piece, I figured I'd post it here. Y'know, for my thousands of readers. (Even though for all I know it's the intellectual property of the Disney/ESPN Industrial Complex despite the fact that they didn't choose to use it; there was a LOT of fine print in those contest rules, mostly along the lines of "ALL YOUR WORD ARE BELONG TO US AND WE WILL NOT PAY YOU.")
OF SLEEPERS, SIMULACRA, AND STORY-TELLING
“Today, it is the real which has become the pretext of the model in a world governed by the principle of simulation. And, paradoxically, it is the real which has become our true utopia—but a utopia that is no longer a possibility, a utopia we can do no more than dream about, like a lost object.”
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard,
debating when to select Tony Romo in his fantasy draft1
We are a species of storytellers, we humans. We crave narrative, with its beginnings and endings, its heroes and villains, its story arc and climactic moments. It’s how we make sense of the world, of books and movies, of politics, of Dance Moms.
Like Baudrillard, we draft Tony Romo in the third not only because we missed out on the elite quarterbacks, but also because we can imagine this is Romo’s redemption season, the year he joins Brady and Rodgers and Brees. We select Randy Moss because we anticipate the feel-good coverage of his return to glory or Maurice Jones-Drew because wouldn’t it be great if he popped in at the last second and showed ’em all with a huge season?
We draft players we imagine will be portrayed by a handsome leading man, or at least by Shia LaBeouf. We picture the closing scene where they are lifted onto teammates’ shoulders as confetti pours down on their heads – and on ours, because, after all, it’s our fantasy.
Alas, as Baudrillard suggests, utopia isn’t real. Drafting players because we can imagine how things could work out well for them leads to more misses than hits. The best advice I can give you: focus on the most likely outcomes, not the most uplifting.
We all want to be the Mighty Ducks or Bad News Bears – we want not only to win, but to pull off a miracle. Truth is, the Hawks and Yankees come out on top most of the time. Far better in fantasy football to be the black-jerseyed jerks with all the good players than the rag-tag squad of underdogs.
With that in mind, here are my top five fantasy players for 2012 – the ones who won’t shock the world when they lead your team to fantasy triumph. Not an underdog in the bunch:
- 5. LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles: Does it all.
- 4. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans: He’s back.
- 3. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens: Rock solid.
- 2. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: Yup, still great.
- 1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: Highest floor and highest ceiling in the league.
The good folks at Grantland also demanded one – and only one – sleeper pick. Problem is, I don’t believe in sleepers. Baudrillard, our favorite philosopher/fantasy guru, writes about the simulacrum: something we think is real but that’s essentially a copy of something that never existed in the first place. A grass lawn in Phoenix, say. This is the fantasy sleeper. It’s the great white whale of fantasy football, and we are all Ahab. But in case you never got to the end of Moby Dick, things don’t turn out so well for the obsessed captain. The chase kills you, you see.
Sure, there are always players who exceed projections, but in info-happy 2012, there’s no one we haven’t heard of. Everyone shows up at the draft with 300-player cheat sheets. For each one of those 300 players, we can imagine how the dream season could happen. About the best we can do is look for those late-round flyers – low-risk picks, in other words, with at least some potential for high reward.
I’m going with Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery. ESPN has the second-round pick out of South Carolina ranked No. 200 overall and WR64, likely undrafted in most leagues. He was a beast in college, with the size and hands for the NFL. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeffery emerged as the clear No. 2 receiver for a team with a potentially potent offense. In other words, I can imagine the narrative that ends with Jeffery helping my team to a glorious finish.
Of course, it also wouldn’t be exactly shocking if he struggles to adjust to the pro game, gets lost in the Bennett-Hester-Sanzenbacher crowd and winds up on my roster’s cutting room floor by Week 4. Not every story ends with confetti fluttering down from the roof of the dome.
The literary world is going nuts these days over how we respond to other writers. We're too mean. We're too nice. We respond to writers' Twitter personae instead of their work. We're jealous of their success. We're marketing for friends so they'll market for us in return.
And so on.
The latest hullabaloo is over William Giraldi's piledriver of Alix Ohlin in today's New York Times Book Review. (It's online here.)
This is one harsh review, no doubt. If I had a book published, and if that book were reviewed in The Times, and if the reviewer took me apart the way Giraldi takes apart Ohlin, I would probably weep for weeks. Anyway, writers and literary types have been blowing up Twitter and Facebook and their blogs with responses to this piece. I'm joining the herd with these five thoughts:
1. There is value to negative reviews. Look, taste matters. Aesthetics matter. Not all art is created equal. Not that any one critic or reviewer gets the final say, but it's important to explore why things don't work just as it is to explore why things are awesome. It's also entirely disingenuous to pretend everything is awesome. I've written about this before on this blog, and while I do mostly come down on the side of writing good things about work I like, I also think if you put your work out there, it's entirely fair game for readers not to like it -- and to say why they don't like it, if they want to. If you don't want anyone to dislike your work, show it only to your mother. Otherwise, thicken up your skin.
2. A well-done negative review is fun to read. Part of it's trainwreck-reading, where you enjoy the carnage (and are grateful it's not about you). Part of it is that a well-crafted insult can be itself a thing of beauty. Part of it is that we learn a great deal about effective writing by intelligent examination of ineffective writing.
3. The review in question is mean-spirited. It comes across as a bit of a rant. It seems to take delight in its tone. It comes across as condescending, even smug. Giraldi appears to have been waiting to make a point about a particular kind of writing that bugs him, and Ohlin appears to have been just a convenient target.
4. The review in question leaves itself open to accusations of gender bias. His initial examples of good writing are almost all by men: Arthur Miller, Cervantes, Saul Bellow, Pound, Thoreau, David Lodge (George Eliot, at least, makes the cut). And there's a distinct macho tinge to his insults, as he compares Ohlin's writing to soap operas and Harlequins and Danielle Steel. (At the end, Giraldi compares Ohlin unfavorably to Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, as if 99.9 percent of all writing in the world doesn't fall short of Munro.)
5. The review in question is convincing. When I finished reading this review, I was pretty sure I would never read either of Ohlin's books. Giraldi makes salient points about language. The phrases he singles out for ridicule are, indeed, evidence of weak writing: moments where the author took the easy way out, grabbed the most familiar phrase instead of stretching for something more artful, more insightful, more original. (One of my responses upon reading this was that Ohlin could have used a talented editor to steer her away from the trap of the shopworn phrase.)
Other takes on this whole thing can be found all over the web, of course. At Salon, J. Robert Lennon offers some thoughtful advice for how to write a negative review. (Guideline No. 5? Don't be a dick.)
Andrew Scott blogs smartly about it all, giving Giraldi's review the same kind of fisking Giraldi gave Ohlin. (He also sums up why movies are much fairer game for takedowns than most books.) My favorite line of his: "I think most writers would welcome an explosion of smart, thoughtful reviews in prominent publications, even if it came with a dose of negative reviews. Not all negative reviews are nasty, after all." And you know what? I would trade not having a book published for having a book published and publicly shredded in the NYTBR in an instant.
The Dark Knight Rises (A-): Saw this twice. Enjoyed it more the second time, oddly. Guess I got all of my nitpicks out of the way on the first viewing. I do have some nits to pick, but I do love the Batman. Can't help it.
The Avengers (B+): Hey, this is the Marvel-verse movie I've been waiting for. Funny, action-packed, entertaining. Yeehaw.
Safe House (C+): Grabbed this at Redbox the other night. As generic a thriller as you've ever seen: "There's an important file! Both sides want it! There's a young agent who wants to do the right thing! The right thing isn't always as obvious as it seems! Someone's a double-crosser! Things turn out OK in the end, after lots of people get shot!" It gets the C because it had no plot and no character development. Gets the plus because at least it isn't ponderous. There's nothing worse than a crappy action movie that thinks it has something important to say.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (A): Watched this with my son. He had the good sense to think the scene where Indy shrugs and shoots the guy with the two swords was the best moment in the movie, and the good sense to be kinda freaked out by the part where the face melts. I was surprised at how well this holds up 30-some years later, to be honest.
Marjorie Perloff is, no doubt, More Important than I am or ever will be. Marjorie Perloff teaches at Fancy universities and write Fancy Articles about poetry that are published in Important Places and say Important Things. But for someone who has spent so much time reading poetry and thinking about poetry and writing about poetry, Marjorie Perloff doesn't seem to like poetry all that much. In a recent Boston Review essay, Marjorie Perloff participates in that most favorite critical activity of decrying the State of Poetry Today.
There's really not much in this piece you haven't read before: Too many MFA programs this, way too many literary journals that, too many poets, too many poems, and does no one care about verse anymore? Also, Rita Dove is dumb and her anthology is dumb. Perloff knows this anthology is dumb because she gives Dove's introduction a cursory fisking, and because she opened the book "at random" to find a Larry Levis poem that had three lines that to Perloff's ear sounded like prose. Also, there's a Natasha Trethewey poem that Perloff doesn't care for. And that's how reading works. If you can find three lines "at random" that you don't like, plus another poem that's sort of weak, THE REST OF THE BOOK SUCKS. ALSO, ALL OF POETRY TODAY SUCKS.
Honestly, I'm not all that crazy about that particular Trethewey poem, either. I think Perloff's critique of it is about right. But give me a break with the complaining about the state of contemporary poetry. There is plenty of ridiculously good poetry being written right now, and it's easier than ever to find good, exciting, new poems to read. I do not understand the compulsion of the Perloffs and Dana Gioias and John Barrs and their ilk to focus on poems they don't like and to extrapolate therefrom that we live in a woeful era for verse. Look, if you don't like a poem or poet, move on. Find the ones you do like, the writers whose work speaks to you. Focus on that. Tell others about it. Celebrate it. Make sure the good stuff (or at least what you consider to be the good stuff) gets noticed. Become an advocate. For example, I might not love the Trethewey poem Perloff pointed out, but her poem "Liturgy" is spectacularly good. You can go here and listen to the poet read it, and you should do so.
One of the chief complaints of Perloff et al seems to be that it's difficult to get everyone to agree about which poems are worth reading -- which poems will transcend our time and be remembered. Perloff notes happily, "When it comes to the great poets of the early century it seems that there really is consensus: Who, for example, would claim that Eliot was not a major poet?" Then she laments that since World War II, "there has never been a fixed American poetry canon." Seriously? This not a poetry problem. This is a critical problem. Poets should not be writing in order to be canonized, and readers shouldn't give a shit about whether the critics (you know, Fancy ones who write Important Articles) agree on the merits of a particular poem.
Today’s poetry establishment -- Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Glück and Mark Strand, all of them former poets laureate -- command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted and continue to greet such counterparts of the previous generation as [Frank] O’Hara.
First, with all due respect to these four excellent poets, citing Pinsky, Hass, Gluck and Strand as indicative of everything that is happening in poetry today is rather like complaining about the state of pop music and using Paul McCartney and Aerosmith as your examples. Second, what the hell is she talking about? Who exactly is throwing undergarments at Frank O'Hara these days? Again, all due respect, but this whole sentence is nonsensical.
Look, Perloff's article (titled, provocatively, "Poetry on the Brink," though on the brink of what it isn't clear) is not without its salient points. The "po biz" has plenty of problems (not least of which is that phrase, "po biz," which sets my teeth on edge). The MFA system has evolved, as systems do, toward self-perpetuation as one of its chief goals. There are lots of shitty poems being published. There are half-ass literary journals out there, and many of them spring up and fade away without ever developing a real editorial or artistic vision. We blurb each other's books and award each other prizes and pat each other on the back. I get it.
You know what else is out there? A fuckton of good poems. Poems that chill the skin and sharpen the breath and change the way you see the world. Going back to Perloff for a second, she writes:
... the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.
I will grant that most of what we see these days is free verse. But I will call bullshit bullshit bullshit on the specious claim that there is "little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself." Come on. That's ridiculous and insulting. Counting feet or scanning iambs and dactyls is not the only to build a successful line. Line fights with, engages with, contradicts, complements, and plays with sentence and syntax and meaning and sound, and any poet worth her salt does all of these things with every line she writes.
I will grant, too, that much contemporary poetry over-relies on that "profound thought or small epiphany," and that some poems reach too desperately for "extravagant metaphor."* I would suggest, though, that these issues are nothing new in poetry. Also, they are not the hallmarks of the best of today's poetry. And I fail to see why we should characterize the entire era by its lesser lights. Since there are so many poems out there, why waste time railing against those that fail to engage us?
I recently received my contributor's copy of RHINO 2012, a lovely 150-page journal of poems, and I would love to sit next to Perloff on the couch and flip through it together. As presented here, the current poetic landscape is far from the homogenous and contrived scene she describes. Rather, the poetry seen here is expansive and compelling. There are long poems and short poems, love poems, prose poems, translations. On page 64, Cindy E. King's language-y "Dry Spell" stutters down the page, using white space inventively to argue with syntax and spelling; on the facing page, Alyse Knorr's "Tu fui ego eris" uses the right and left margins to create a remarkable dialogue. I would be curious to see whether Perloff can, with a straight face, accuse either poet of lack of concern for "the word as such." Similarly, I wonder whether she would hear the music in Vanessa Haley's "Six Horses," which opens with these lines: "Blue bottle flies reverberant among / sparrows pecking for sparkling gems / in the wheelbarrowed bounty O beautiful / the shit abyss ..."
Look, Marjorie Perloff is brilliant and insightful and cares about poetry. I have nothing against her, and am vastly unqualified to get into a critical shouting match with her. But when I look out at the world of poetry today, I just don't see what she seems to see.
The poems in this issue of RHINO do not build toward clever little epiphanies or pithy bits of wisdom. They are not unified in subject matter or style. They evoke and echo our times. The recession is in here, and so are punk rock and Don Knotts and sex and death and autumn and childhood and longing and Pound and James Wright and macaroni salad. These are meaningful, interesting, intelligent poems, deeply concerned with language and the world around us. It is a remarkable journal. And, for this reader at least, it confirms that contemporary poetry is alive and in love and thriving. On the brink? Only to dance there.
- - -
* For a far funnier takedown of contemporary poetry, read The Onion's inspired poets' press conference. Now that one is hard to argue with.
Amorak: The Hunger Games. Go.
Mark: Great book. Good movie. Probably as good as it could have been, given that so much of the book is in Katniss’ head/thoughts. I wonder what the experience of seeing the movie would have been like if I hadn’t read the book?
Amorak: My first instinct is to say it would be less pleasurable to watch without having read, because of all that’s glossed over or merely hinted at -- the depth a book has but a movie cannot provide. But then I think maybe it would be only different. That your expectations would be different, that your imagination would fill in the blanks that we fill in from our knowledge of the book. For me, I can’t help but feel like the book is the *real* story and the movie is a gloss on that.
Mark: Yes! For example, I felt like the book makes it clear that Katniss *thinks* Peeta is just playing at being in love with her for the Games, and she is doing the same thing. But we understand that he really is in love with her, and we get to see her struggle with her own feelings about him (the play-acting morphing into something more real). I thought the movie had a tough time playing those subtleties, and that it would be easy for someone coming fresh to the movie to misunderstand the interplay and interpret it as them simply falling in love. But perhaps without the knowledge of the book, I would have been less distracted by such thoughts and would have filled in the blanks myself?
Amorak: I thought the movie handled that particular aspect reasonably well. She was trying to win. He was in love. Though perhaps he was too plainly in love -- there wasn’t enough of a question whether it was a strategy on his part as well. Again, impossible to separate the viewing experience from the I’ve-read-this-already experience. Here’s the essential question for you: Team Peeta or Team Gale?
Mark: I don't wanna choose! They're both so dreamy.... Again, I feel like the movie misses the nuance of the Katniss-Gale relationship. They seem more couple-y on screen, versus the book where we know that Katniss thinks of him as more a kindred spirit and trusted friend with a tinge of budding feelings she doesn’t quite understand.
Amorak: Agreed. When I read the first book, I was wholeheartedly Team Gale. But then by the end of the series, Peeta seemed like the right choice. I actually think this was a weakness in the writing. I thought some things got a little muddy as the trilogy progressed. Like, Collins lost a little control of her characters as she tried to resolve the story. For me, I love the first book, like the second one, and by the end of the third am mostly just reading to see how things turn out for Katniss, whom I adore from start to finish.
Mark: Hate to agree with you yet again, but I felt the same way about the trilogy. Though, I really do remember liking the second book, pretty much right up to the end. I liked the return to the Games, and how weird and different it was for our heroes. And we got to know more of the Tributes, so the stakes were higher. Then it ended. Abruptly. And I had to read back through the last several pages, trying to figure out what I missed. It was a thrilling way to end it, but it almost felt like not an ending at all, just a setup for the third book.
Amorak: Then Katniss is asleep or at least very sleepy through much of the action that follows. Um, fail. We care more about Katniss than the convoluted details of the revolution. Collins got caught up in the working-out of her plot and forgot one of the fundamental rules of storytelling: your characters come first. Especially when your character is an awesome ass-kicking badass. Katniss needed to be central to the outcome of the third book, not waiting around on the periphery until it’s time for her closeup at the end.
Mark: Yeah. So we’re agreed: Hunger Games = Great, Catching Fire = Okay, Mockingjay = Disappointing. And note to Suzanne Collins: we will happily offer our story consulting services before your next blockbuster literary phenomenon. You clearly need our help.
Samneric is Mark D. Orr and Amorak Huey, who would totally win, like, The Amazing Race or something. But probably not the Hunger Games.
My new favorite* TV show is The Pitch, on AMC. It's Mad Men in real life, only, like, without the sex and smoking and lawnmowers running over people in the office. In other words, Mad Men boiled down to the client meetings. You know, where Peggy talks about bean ballets and the grumpy guy from Heinz says, "You're going to show someone taking a bite of the beans and smiling, right?" It's awesome.
The reason it's awesome has something to do with all the stuff I said in the previous post about narrative structure and rooting interests, but it also has to do with the insight the show offers into creativity and the marketplace.
Like Storage Wars, The Pitch immediately establishes its central conflict, as two ad agencies are ushered into a room and sit side by side to listen to a briefing from a potential client. Then the ad folks rush back to their fancy-ass offices to generate ideas for the client. They come back, make their pitches, and the client selects a winner. Along the way, we pick a side to root for, or one to root against. We like the agency with the sweet, dedicated owner who really needs this client to save his business. We dislike the agency that makes the young father leave his crying daughter at the doorstep so he can go back to the office and finish his work. We like the agency that thinks of itself as a family. We dislike the arrogant agency with the pretentious name. And so on. Sometimes we think the best idea wins, sometimes we're outraged by the client's decision.
So, yeah, effective structure. Once you invest a few minutes in an episode, you'll want to stick around to see how it turns out.
The other reason to watch is the chance to spy as creative people try to be creative on demand -- and to balance their own ideas with what the client wants. It's a pretty fascinating clash of art and commerce. Which, you know, is basically advertising in a nutshell. But it's also more true than we probably want to admit about other forms of art. Poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, novel-writing -- the audience matters, right? For me, I think about all these issues in terms of my writing life. This isn't diary-writing I'm doing; I want people to read what I write, to connect with my poems. I want to communicate something. And communication is a two-way deal.
As an artist, you have to be true to yourself. You have to believe in what you're creating. You can't pander. And yet you have to get outside of yourself. You have to connect what you're doing to the outside world. You have to engage readers, or viewers, or listeners. Or, in the end, what you're doing is therapy, not art: meaningful to yourself, valuable as a process of self-discovery or self-improvement, but that's where it stops. If all you do is navel-gaze, your art is going to look a lot like belly-button lint.
In The Pitch, of course, the audience is more urgently present than it would be, say, when I'm writing a poem. Even before the client, the copywriters have to please their bosses. There was a recent scene where a young copywriting duo threw out idea after idea to the agency honchos only to get totally crushed. "Is that all you've got?" asked the clearly displeased boss. It was kind of devastating to watch, especially because you could see that the copywriters clearly had fallen in love with some of their ideas. In the end, I guess, it's not that different a process than writing a poem and sending it out to journal editors. At least I don't usually get rejected face-to-face, so I don't have to see the look of disappointment on the editor's face as she sets down my poem. Of course, I'm also not competing for super-lucrative contracts, either. Poetry falls a little farther down the food chain on the commerce side of the equation.
Later in that same episode, the two copywriters have a frustrating meeting with their boss that leaves both sides irritated. The two young, eager, energetic, creative types say, in essence, "We're tired of talking about this, we just want to go make something." The boss says, in essence, "Fine, go make something, so long as it's brilliant, and meets my expectations, and is also something the client wants." Watching, I could see both sides so clearly. How can you be creative while people are shooting down your ideas? But also: What's the use of being creative if your idea isn't good enough?
Over at the always enjoyable McSweeney's Internet Tendency, there's a series of columns called Dispatches from a Guy Trying Unsuccessfully to Sell a Song in Nashville. The author, Charlie Hopper (who happens to work at an ad agency for his day job), offers a ton of insight about how the real world can throw a wet blanket all over your creative impulses.
As you read Hopper's columns, you see him struggling to figure out how to balance what he wants to write with what people want to listen to -- or, at least, what the country music industry gatekeepers think people want to listen to. It's not an easy equilibrium. And then he's also trying to figure out the limits of his own talent and dedication.
This feels like the part of the blog post where I'm supposed to bring it all together, to wrap things up with a pithy bit of the wisdom I've gleaned from The Pitch and from Hopper's columns, maybe rally our collective creative spirits with a call to keep working until we figure it out. But I'm not sure I've actually figured anything out, not sure I ever will. There's not a particular moral to this story. This post is going to lack a satisfactory resolution. Sorry about that.
Anyway, The Pitch is a pretty good show. Give it a watch sometime.
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*I throw this term, "favorite," around pretty loosely. It means, roughly, "something I recently discovered and like at the moment and am willing to use a superlative for, even if I might only watch a few more episodes before I move on to the next favorite." Probably "fave" would be more what I mean.
My son was reading to me last night, a book called Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days, about a boy and his dog in the wintertime. They play in the snow, they enjoy Christmas Eve dinner, they sit by the fireplace with the boy's parents. It's a fine book, but perhaps not the most sophisticated piece of literature ever crafted. When he finished reading, my son said: "I wonder why there's no problem in this book? There should be a problem."
At 7 years old, thanks in part to the most awesome first-grade teacher ever and thanks in part to his own innate sense of narrative requirement, my son understands that for a story to hold our attention, there needs to be a "problem." Conflict. Tension. Without the problem, there's no reason for the story. The problem is the catalyst, the trigger, the starting place. It's what sets a piece of writing in motion. Otherwise, the writing just sits there, like a boy and his dog in front of a warm fire on a wintry eve. Which is a nice experience to have, like, in your life, but it's not especially interesting to read about.
What we want from a story is simple: Conflict, action, resolution. If we have those things, we'll forgive almost anything else. My two most recent television addictions, Storage Wars and Criminal Minds are excellent illustrations of this concept. If you watch these shows, you understand something important about storytelling.
Storage Wars, for instance, is proof that structure is king. If you build a story right, you can get us to watch anything. Junk dealers buy junk and then sort it out to see how much it's worth? Not exactly the most stirring premise, on the face of it.
But the show handles itself brilliantly. It offers central characters to root for (or against) and labels them things like The Young Gun, The Mogul, The Gambler -- even though, really, the people aren't that different from each other. They're all just junk dealers, and likable enough. Then the show pits those characters against each other (and sometimes against others) in bidding wars over abandoned storage lockers. Instant conflict, instant drama. Who will win? Will The Gambler outbid The Mogul? Will the Young Gun abandon his plan to bid no more than $1,500 for a particular locker? One episode features an outsider wearing shades and white pants furiously outspending our favorites on locker after locker -- he looks like a villain from Miami Vice, and we instantly hate him and are thrilled when Barry finally outbids him.
After the bidding wars are settled, we get to the sorting phase of the show. You wouldn't think watching people move old furniture and moldy boxes out of a storage locker would be good TV, but now we're hooked. Once you establish a mystery, your audience will pretty much always stick around to see how the mystery turns out. In this case, the mystery is: What is in the locker? How much will it turn out to be worth? Every cut to commercial in the middle of the show comes as one of the junk dealers reaches behind an old dresser and says, "Wow, look at this!" We have to wait three minutes to see if the discovery is a long-lost Picasso or a pile of soggy newspaper. Once in a while, a locker has a fancy trunk or even a safe that must be ripped open -- high drama, for sure.
Storage Wars always ends with a tallying up -- whose lockers turned out to be worth the most? Who lost money this week? The numbers are always kind of contrived, but it doesn't matter. The structure of the show demands this kind of reckoning, this resolution. Catalyst, rising action, climax, resolution. It's narrative 101. Works every time.
Speaking of works every time, there's a classic piece of advice for thriller writers: put a dead body in the first chapter, if not on the first page. The creators of Criminal Minds definitely take this to heart. Every episode starts with a killing. Usually a stalking and a killing. There are lots of shots of the outside of someone's house at night, with creepy music and shadows. Often the victim is on the phone, and we see a reflection in the sliding glass door behind her, or a ski-masked intruder slipping out of the closet. There's not one single original second in these openings -- every scene has been done before in 1,000 movies and TV shows.
Then, after that first gruesome killing (this show is almost always needlessly gruesome, and you could write a dissertation on the way women's bodies are repeatedly mutilated for our viewing pleasure), we cut to Our Heroes, the special agents in the BAU, which stands for something or other having to do with profiling. Doesn't matter exactly what the initials mean. What matters is that these are impossibly attractive, impossibly smart FBI agents who have exactly what it takes to catch a serial killer in 58 minutes, every time. They will also always, always save the very last potential victim. Oh, yes, there's always a Very Last Potential Victim™, and usually some sort of deadline. It's the narrative rules in action. There has to be something at stake. If that something is a beautiful woman who spends most of the episode begging for her freedom, so much the better.
This show is one of the most predictable things ever. Every episode is structured the same way. The outcome is always pretty much the same -- oh, sure, every once in a while the team is a few seconds too late, or the killer gets away for now, but we barely notice. There's some incidental soap-opera stuff with the lives of the team members, but that's all just window dressing for the narrative. Once again: catalyst (dead person or sometimes dead people), rising action (rush to stop killer in time to save the Very Last Potential Victim™), climax (showdown with killer), resolution (team flying back to D.C. on its fancy special-agent plane, reflecting on how smart and attractive they all are). Every time.
Admittedly, there's a lot you have to forgive if, like me, you're going to get kind of addicted to Criminal Minds. The blatant implausibility of, like, everything (the requisite tech-geek character has instant access to the most complete database in the world, and she can cross-reference anything in about three seconds, all while tracing bank accounts and cell phone calls with a few clicks of a mouse. "How many people have checked out these three movies from their local library, dropped out of high school in the 1980s, were recently laid off from a job as an electrical engineer and have a criminal record? Why it looks like five people fit that profile and one of them JUST FILLED UP AT A NEARBY GAS STATION!"). The number of times they say "unsub" (even more often than Olivia Benson says "bus"). The relentless expository dialogue. The aforementioned exploitation of the female body. Etc.
But once you get past all that, the show is fairly entertaining. It is the definition of formulaic. The thing is, the formula itself is solid. If you are a writer, I'm not saying you should be aiming at Criminal Minds as your ideal creation. In terms of realism, character development, dialogue, complexity, artistic merit, insight, wisdom -- on all these fronts, you can do better. At least, I hope you can do better. But in terms of understanding how to structure a narrative to hold your reader's attention, this show's got you covered.
Thanks to a link from PANK, I found this 2009 post from VQR in which they offer the most common titles of the submissions they receive. I've never left a poem untitled, but it's quite possible I've used most of the rest of them. I try to be more original, though.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I'm doing that thing where I write a poem a day. Here are my twenty titles so far:
- “Mick Jagger’s Penis Turns 69 This Year”
- “Measured in Hours”
- “Guitar Player, 1986”
- “Lita Ford Explains Epistemology”
- “Orgasms at Nineteen”
- “Possible Titles for a Self-Portrait at 42”
- “A Study of Frost”
- “The Things We Did to Save Our Lives”
- “Earl Scruggs and Adrienne Rich Share a Cab to the Afterlife”
- “Status Updates”
- “Life Story”
- “Dungeon Master’s Guide to Eighth Grade”
- “The Song-and-Dance Comic’s Near-Death Experience”
- “All Anyone Should Ever Want”
- “We Claim to Be the Only Species Aware of Our Own Mortality”
- “The Witch in Love”
- “The Poker Player Deals with a Broken Heart”
Some will surely change during the revision process, but before I get to that, I've 10 more poems to write this month.
Spring is my favorite season. Always has been. Of course, I grew up in Alabama, where spring starts in February (and winter is a long weekend or so in January). Admittedly, this has been maybe the mildest of all possible Michigan winters, but it's still nice to be walking around in short sleeves again.
And one of the newfound joys of the season? Spring issues of literary journals start showing up in the mailbox. This week brought three new issues of journals that were kind enough to feature my work: Barbaric Yawp 16.1, Yemassee 18.1&2, and Poet Lore 107.1/2. Always a pleasure to see new writing show up with the afternoon mail.
This is the second time I've had work in Poet Lore, and I am thrilled to be part of such a good journal. Dozens of poems in here, too many good ones to single them all out. I notice that many of the early poems seem to be about issues of boyhood and male identity and maybe fatherhood: "I wished for a hammer / more than I wished for a father," writes Dara Barnatt. Josh Rothkamp's "Read with Dick and Jane," which opens the journal, ends with his daughter forced to "break the box of her smile in half / to land in the arms of a man / no better than her father." Anya Silver writes in "Junior Assembly" about the segregation of boys and girls in the school parking lot during a fire alarm: "... the boys, shut out again, threw / imaginary balls at an imaginary net." James Scruton's excellent poem "Bang Bang" is about the power of playing guns.
There are also lots of dying parents in this issue of Poet Lore, and history and music and place and religion. Denise Duhamel and Maxine Kumin and Richard Robbins have poems here, and Afaa Michael Weaver and Jim Tilley and Melissa Morphew. So much to read. I'll give the last words here to the final line from Michelle Turner's terrific (and seasonally appropriate) poem "March Equinox": "I am my own best offering. It lasts but a moment. Call it a minute."
My most favoritest poem in this new Barbaric Yawp is the fun piece "Applesauce" by Michael Keshigan. It's a witty re-telling of the Adam and Eve story. Other highlights from this issue include "Comfort of his Arms" by Ann Howell and the raucous "Her Vagina Can Bench-Press More Than Your Vagina," by Nancy Henry, which totally reminds me of the song "Eight Miles Wide" by Storm Large.
Yemassee is another journal chock-full o' reading goodness. My Grand Valley colleague Chris Haven has a killer haibun-like poem in here called "Red Pear, Washed": "Three drops of water / cling to a red pear / like a Braille letter." Mark Wagenaar's "Nail Bed Gospel" is a gripping piece.
The issue includes the journal's prize-winners from its prose and poetry contests. Ray McManus picked the poetry winners, and all three pieces he singled out for recognition are political, timely, memorable pieces: Anna Sutton's "City Planning," Rachel Andoga's "Supporting the War Effort" and Marc Johnston's "reconnaissance."
Amorak: Let’s talk about The Wire and Grantland’s bracket thing. I mean, Omar is almost for sure going to win, but what do you think about the contest?
Mark: Well, first of all, how the seeds and characters were picked are big questions I have. Some of the ones they left out: Slim Charles, Gus, Beadie, Carver. And instead, they've got Sergei? Cheese? How do they make Bubs a 7-seed and Clay Davis a 2-seed? I love Wallace, but he shouldn't be a 4. McNulty is too prominent in the show arc to be a #3. I don't know how you even begin to evaluate each matchup. Love for the character? Ruthlessness? Power? Impact on the show? No Valchek, Templeton, Burrell, The Greek, and where are all the women (except Snoop and Kima)? They should have done a full field of 64. Top seeds: Omar, McNulty, Stringer, and Avon or Bubbles.
Amorak: Yeah, this is a bracket where the idiosyncratic taste of the selection committee has too much influence on the outcome. Although, I predict Omar would win almost no matter how it was set up. Everyone loves Omar, right? I know I do. But you could maybe argue that he’s the least realistic of the major characters. The “outlaw with a code” thing is probably more of a literary and Hollywood convention than a kind of person you’d run into (or away from) on the street.
Mark: Totally, plus, he’s rather larger than life, and a bit ridiculous when you think (not too hard) about it. The duster, the shotgun, the homosexuality, the abhorrence of profanity--he’s basically the “gangster with a heart of gold.” But I thoroughly enjoyed watching him navigate the world of the show. Did you see Mike Schur’s alternate bracket? Much closer to what I would have liked to see. And there’s a ham-handed attempt at providing an explanation of what they thought they were doing. Here’s another article that tries to put a finger on how one might evaluate the match-ups and determine winners.
Amorak: It is interesting, though, to think about what makes a character good. The Wire is definitely built around good characters, whatever it is. Some combination of lovabilty or hate-ability and charisma and memorableness. I mean, we both love Davenport, and he’s also larger than life. Good-looking and charming and the smartest guy in the room? Besides you and me, how many folks like that do you encounter in everyday life?
Mark: Certainly not many. Yeah, same with Reacher. Except maybe the good-looking part and probably the charming part. Substitute "mysterious" and "bad-assiest." And yes a variety of things factor into creating a good character. Take Bodie. Season One, by all rights, you have to hate him. But something happens over the course of the rest of the show--you come to admire his brashness and loyalty, and you see in him qualities you can identify with (thinking specifically in terms of doing his job, playing his role in an organization). And he's just likable. Despite what we learned and hated about him in Season One. Strange and interesting.
Amorak: When I read a thriller/cop story novel I don’t like, it so often is because I don’t care for the main character. You gotta have a compelling central figure to make a reader or viewer pay attention. In The Wire, it’s interesting, because at the start of season 1, you think it’s McNulty’s story. And it is, in a lot of ways, but it’s not only his. Lots of stories have a strong protagonist and a strong antagonist, and some have decent second-tier characters. But not many pull off what The Wire did, with so many characters we know so deeply and care so much about. Bodie’s a good example. Like, on the show, he’s character No. 15 or 25 or 45, and yet he’s more memorable and meaningful and real and complex than anyone from, say, CSI or whatever.
Mark: Agreed. Part of the fun and frustration of this whole Wire bracket-thing is the wealth of characters the show created that you love, remember, admire, marvel at, and even hate (but not because they weren’t interesting). It’s really incredible how many different characters they were able to develop over the course of 10-13 episodes per season for 5 seasons. And developed in such a way that you can get worked-up about particular characters not being included in a goofy, purely subjective “contest” like this one. I know it had me thinking a lot about how it should’ve been done--I even grabbed Schur’s list, added some of my own choices, and tried coming up with a way to split the characters into “regions”: Police, Street, Schools/Port, and City Hall/Newspaper. But it was hard to come up with 16 legit characters for the last two regions. And the Cops and Gangsters regions had the opposite problem--too many, too strong.
Amorak: One of the things the Wire writers got right is that these strong characters have to be in motion. Character and plot have to work together. I tell my students that story requires change, or at least the possibility of change. For so many of the characters in this show, it’s the latter, right? I mean, you want so badly for some of these people to change, to get out of their circumstance, to grab control somehow, and yet in the end most of them can’t do it. The environment is too strong. Pretty goddamn bleak. I’ve heard the show compared to Dickens, Bleak House in particular, and the analogy makes sense.
Mark: Yeah...I never read that. I blame Mrs. Roby.
Amorak: Well, if it ever comes up in conversation, just tell people you think of Bleak House as The Wire set in Victorian England, and then go on to talk about the show and the nature of serial storytelling. People will think you’re deep.
Mark: Good idea. Well, as expected, Omar won the “tourney.” A fun little diversion before the “real” bracket madness started. And now I want to do another re-watch of the series. Care to join me?
Samneric is Mark D. Orr and Amorak Huey, who have always thought of themselves as the protagonists.
The lovely Mrs. Amorak (she likes it when I call her that) has spent the past couple of weekends out of town at conferences, and I've taken advantage of that fact to stay up too late and watch movies that I don't think she'd be especially interested in. Cue the crummy dialogue and stylized violence!
Columbiana (C-): A child witnesses the murder of her parents. That child grows up to be relatively famous actress Zoe Saldana and also a bad-ass who can climb walls and disable security cameras and acquire vast amounts of weaponry in short order. That child has a thirst for revenge and a boyfriend who doesn't know anything about her. She also has a highly developed ability to ignore assorted plot holes and implausibilities. Also, there's some stuff going on with the war on drugs in a half-assed attempt to add depth to the story.
Killer Elite (F): The highlight here is Clive Owen's ridiculous mustache. It's like he's embarrassed to be in such a steaming pile of a movie, and he thinks the mustache will keep him from being recognized. Hilariously, if you type "clive owen killer elite" into Google, it prompts you to add mustache to the search query. Clearly, I am not the only one for whom this is the only part of this movie worth talking about.
Thor (B-): I continue to have higher hopes for the Marvel movies than I guess I probably should. Like the others I've seen, this was enjoyable enough. It suffers, though, from a leading man obviously chosen for his appearance, as opposed to, say, screen presence. For someone so strapping and handsome, whoever this guy is (I looked up his name -- Chris something -- but don't remember it, and it's not worth looking up again) feels overshadowed on screen by nearly everyone around him in pretty much every scene. A pity.
Green Lantern (C+): Ryan Reynolds is better than I expected as Green Lantern. This movie, like Thor, is a reasonably entertaining origin story. Suffers, though, like so many of these comic-book-origin-story movies, from a lack of attention to plot. Look, it's not hard. You establish a conflict early on. Something has to be at stake. Then rising action where the stakes increase and increase until we reach the climax. That happens here, but only in the most perfunctory of ways. In addition, this movie can't make up its mind about tone. It's partly snarky-sarcastic about superheroes, partly in thrall to the notion. That's a tough balance to pull off. Here, it winds up feeling pretty ragged. (There is a pretty funny joke about the idea that that little mask could conceal Green Lantern's identity: "I've known you my whole life, Hal. Did you think I wouldn't recognize you because I can't see your cheekbones?" His response: "Well, that mustache worked for Clive Owen in Killer Elite, didn't it?")
Real Steel (B): I feel like what I'm going to say now is utterly absurd, but here goes: I really enjoyed Real Steal. I know! I can't believe it, either. Boxing robots? Hugh Jackman? Really-really-really contrived dialogue from start to finish? Paper-thin characters? Entirely predictable plot? Yup, all that. And yet it manages to be a fun watch. It's Bad News Bears meets Rocky meets Terminator 2 (the kid even looks like John Connor). I admit, this movie might have benefited from my impossibly low expectations, but that didn't help, say, Killer Elite*. Which means just reading this paragraph has probably raised your expectations to an impossibly high level and ruined any chance that you will enjoy the movie. Sorry 'bout that.
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* Okay. I guess I need to face the fact that deep down, part of me thought maybe Killer Elite would be good. I know, I know: Jason Statham. But c'mon. Spy-thriller meets action flick? DeNiro? Owen? You can't blame me for harboring secret hopes.
Spring break is known 'round these parts as "see as many movies as you can while the kids are in school week." This year, we got to the theater twice and saw four movies on DVD. Not bad. I will say, though, that this was not the most rollicking happy fun time group of movies ever. We didn't set out to make it this way, but it turned out to be a fairly earnest, self-serious group of films.
In the theater
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (B): The fear with translating a John Le Carre book to film is that you can't replicate the intricate details of Cold War spy tradecraft and Byzantine plot, and the story will become too difficult to follow, especially once you throw in the thick British accents, at times challenging to our American ears. Well, this movie manages to pull it off pretty well. It was a complex but fairly compelling plot, and I never felt lost. The sacrifice the filmmakers made, though, was that in order to keep the plot twists and turns navigatable, they had to cut out character development. As a result, you watch the mystery unfold, and you can follow along as it is solved, but you don't particularly care how it turns out. Makes for an enjoyable enough movie experience, but not one that's especially memorable.
Mission Impossible 3: Ghost Protocol (C+): Turn off your brain and enjoy the spectacle, right? The high tech gadgets, the explosions and stunts and special effects. This was reasonably fun and had some cool moments, if you didn't, you know, think too much. For me, the hardest part was pretending that Tom Cruise running isn't a thing. Like some weird version of the Wilhelm scream, one of those things they put in movies as an in-joke, only everyone seems to in on the joke except for Tom. Like, for real? No one has ever mentioned to him that NO ONE RUNS WITH THEIR HANDS OPEN LIKE A CRAZY FAKE ROBOT KARATE CHOP? He's never searched for himself on the internet? Can you imagine that day when he finally does and sees how many people have made fun of this? (Hi, Tom!) What a holy-shit moment that will be. He will have to fire all of his people. Katie is going to be in soooo much trouble. ("Honey? You knew about this running thing? You couldn't have pulled me aside and said something? Also, it says on these 'blogs' that many people think I'm a complete lunatic?")
The Debt (B): In the 1960s, a trio of Mossad agents went into East Berlin to capture a Nazi doctor and bring him to justice. Things got complicated. Now it's the 1990s and they're still dealing with the fallout of those complications. Not a bad premise. Well-acted (duh, I mean, Helen Mirren? Tom Wilkinson?), compelling enough. But somehow duller than it should be. I don't know.
Moneyball (A-): Baseball! Brad Pitt! Aaron Sorkin's patented extra-clever walk-and-talk patter! The concept of using data to make informed decisions about the world around you! Jonah Hill! Scrappy underdogs battling impossible odds and the New York Yankees! This movie has literally every ingredient you want from a movie. Oh, I kid because I love. Well, maybe not love. But like. Yeah, I liked this.
J. Edgar (C-): Clint Eastwood is veryvery good at making slick-looking, well-acted, carefully-rendered, slow-paced, gloomy-ass movies. Look, J. Edgar Hoover was undoubtedly one of the most interesting people of the 20th century. He was involved in so many fascinating and important events that trying to cover all of them in two hours is impossible. What you end up with is like the watered-down SparkNotes version of the story. Also, note to everyone in Hollywood: AGE MAKEUP DOES NOT WORK. IT LOOKS LIKE MAKEUP. I CAN STILL TELL LEO DICAPRIO IS NOT 60.
The Whistleblower (D): It's not a good sign when you spend much of a movie reading about the real-life events the movie is based on because the real events are 600 times more interesting than the movie. Just sayin'. (I did this during J. Edgar, too.)
Oh, but it's so fashionable to make fun of AWP. The panels are lame, the people are pretentious, and whether anyone admits it or not, what we all secretly want from our time there is to find someone to A, tell us we're awesome, and B, pay us lots of money for the screenplay rights to that prose poem we once published in PANK or somewhere. If A and B don't come through, we'll compensate by getting rip-roaringly drunk at the hotel bar. Or, we'll do that anyway. We are writers, after all, with stereotypes to uphold.
Right now, as the conference approaches, 'tis the season for blog posts about the conference. Writers who are more famous than I am show their world-weariness by pointing out the foibles of the conference and its attendees. Journals plug their tables and their authors and hope you'll stop by to subscribe. Other journals post survival guides for conference newbies. People Facebook and Tweet links to Kay Ryan's misanthropic 2005 piece in which she essentially eviscerates the entire notion of a community of writers.
There's some truth in all the sarcasm, to be sure. I have my own set of complaints about many of the panels. No one at AWP has ever paid me any money for anything. The beers at the hotel bar are the price of a six-pack back home in my fly-over state. And, you know, there's lots of other shit to make fun of, too. For instance, here are five true things about AWP:
- Everyone else will seem busier than you are, with more places to go, more obligations. "Lunch? Oh, sorry, my panel's at 1, and then I told [famous writer] we could meet for tea after her reading, and then I'm doing an offsite reading for [magazine that keeps rejecting you], and tomorrow I'm blowing off the conference and spending all day at the Art Institute with [people you've heard of, though you may not know exactly what they do]."
- The bookfair is awesome. The best part. I spend way too much money there every year. (All those people complaining about how poets don't support the biz by buying books or subscribing to journals are NOT talking about me.) And yet there's some inherent awkwardness in the whole thing. The people behind the tables want to sell their books and journals, while the people on the other side of tables are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping to be recognized and told, "Hey, I was hoping to see you. Can we publish your [novel, poem, story, 10-minute play, hybrid-lyric-language-experimental-fragment]? I have a contract right here with your name on it, just in case you came by." (I can tell you from experience, this rarely happens.)
- Most of the readings are great. The audiences are generous, the readers happy to be heard. However, it is almost inevitable that someone whose work you have long loved will turn out to be a giant douchebag. So be prepared to have at least one illusion shattered. What will make up for it is discovering someone else you didn't know whose work is a joy and who turns out to be quite lovely in person.
- This isn't so much a true thing, but a bit of advice: If you walk by someone whose work you like, stop them and say so. It'll make their day. (Probably, at least, unless they're the one fated to be your giant douchebag for the year.)
- Some of the panels are overly specific and underwhelming. "Using the Theories of Neuroscience to Explain the Lyric Essay in an Introductory Multi-Genre Classroom at a Regional Teaching University" got accepted and my brilliant panel proposal was rejected? I know, right? Other panels sound great but when you get there, it quickly becomes clear no one has prepared a thing, and everyone's just going to talk off the top of their head about whatever until the 75 minutes are up. But you can pick and choose your spots, and find some good moments all over the place. Plus, like I tell my students, you'll learn more if you go in looking for what you can learn rather than what you can make fun of on Twitter (hashtag #AWP12) or in next year's blog post. Attitude matters.
You should not go to AWP with the expectation that it will get you published, or that you will be told how awesome your writing is. You should not expect to make a lifelong friendship or mentor relationship with a super-famous writer or editor or agent. These things might happen, but if they don't, it needs to be okay.
Maybe I'm the uncool kid in the class, too naive to be properly jaded. Next week, after all, will mark only my fourth AWP (I'm a bit of a latecomer). But I am exhilarated about the upcoming trip and about the conference.
Every year I leave AWP feeling like I learned something -- something that will help my writing, something that will help my teaching. I also leave feeling inspired. I come home with new books and journals and new authors whose work I want to swim around in. I feel like I am part of a community, like there are others out there who value what I value, who are working at the same things I'm working at.
And this: I come home eager to write. For me, that is exactly enough.
Amorak: Let’s start this thing by talking about movies. Specifically, the Oscar nominations. This is a good topic for me because I don’t see movies anymore, so you’re going to have to do all the heavy lifting. It’s much easier to snark on movies I haven’t actually seen.
Mark: Well, that’s where you’re wrong, my friend! I am decidedly behind on the Oscar noms this time around. I have also not been a big moviegoer as of late. This time last year, when the noms came out, I think I had seen like 5 of 10 on the Best Picture list; I saw 3 more before the ceremony; and there were 2 I knew I didn’t want to see. This year, of the 9 nominees, I had seen 1 (Moneyball, which has no chance of winning, nor should it), and since the announcement, I have seen The Descendants (which I thought was OK). I am interested in seeing The Artist and mildly interested in Hugo (I guess--word of mouth from friends is swaying me). I am disinterested (at best) in the rest. So, there that is....
Amorak: I was counting on you listing all of the nominees, but no, you made me go look them up. Darn you. I’ve seen exactly one: Hugo. I want to see The Descendants, The Artist, Moneyball. You could not drag me to The Help. Have you seen that site where they make “honest” movie posters? They call that one “White People Solve Racism,” with the tag line: You’re Welcome, Black People.” Also, I am not interested in Extremely Sentimental & Incredibly Cheesy. Or whatever it’s called. Did I tell you my War Horse joke? War Horse walks into a pub. The bartender says, “Why the long film?”
Mark: Okay, so we've barely started this, and I am already over-analyzing how it's supposed to work. Do I respond specifically to your queries and statements? Do I continue with my own thoughts? Is it a reproduction of a face-to-face conversation? Or is it its own "thing" that allows for me to continue my narrative thread, even if you have shifted thoughts? Do I apply the rules of Improv: listening, adding, heightening? Or do I fall into the annoying conversational habit of "waiting to talk" ("Who cares what you said? Listen to my brilliant thought!")? Anyway.... I also will not be dragged to see The Help. Or Extremely Manipulative and Incredibly Sappy. Yes, I have seen that website--I might have clicked through to it from your Facebook post--and I thought they were quite funny. You did not tell me your War Horse joke. But now you have. And I think it is also funny. I can't really think of other movies I saw this year that I thought were "more Oscar-worthy" than the ones nominated--I'm thinking it was just a bad year for movies. I guess? I dunno. OK, now you talk....
Amorak: I don’t think there are rules for this. I mean, seriously, I’m posting it on my blog. You know who reads my blog? Me. So we’re good. You can end every one of your sections with ellipses without fear of embarrassment.
Mark: I deserved that....
Amorak: Amazing how quickly this devolves into metacommentary. Not surprising, considering our favorite topic is ourselves, let’s face it. Um, topic. Is Moneyball any good?
Mark: Yes, it's pretty good. Better if you are fuzzy on the details of that baseball season, especially the A's team. I genuinely liked it while watching and immediately after. Unfortunately, the more I heard about it, the less I liked it. Pitt and Hill do fine jobs, and the filmmakers make the geeky stat stuff compelling. You should absolutely see it, and then I can ruin it for you. Now that I think about it, I often like a movie as I am seeing it, only to like it less and less after. I finally get around to paying attention to the critical response, and my admiration fades. Perhaps I am too easily swayed by arguments. Well, maybe good ones. Does it ever happen the other way around? See a movie, think it stinks. Then later come around on it (not counting seeing it again and gaining an appreciation for it)? So, Hugo...do I have to be a parent to appreciate it? So far, the buzz I get from Facebook posts is good, but everyone I know that has seen it has kids (well, maybe one doesn't). It's based on a kids' book, right? I know next to nothing about it, which is my m.o. Like Frank Costanza, I like to go in fresh! Give me the spoiler-free scoop, and I'll spare you any further ellipses.
Amorak: I think you can enjoy Hugo without being a parent. The reason your parent-friends are the ones commenting on it is that it’s a movie we can see without the rigamarole of planning a “date night,” paying a sitter, etc. It also has a youthful protagonist, and there’s not like lots of sex or violence or whatever. And it’s based on a book that’s part novel, part picture book; my daughter’s third-grade class read the book this fall. But it’s also about the movies, and it’ll call up some things you remember from Abe’s film class back at BSC. It’s relatively innocent in tone, I guess, but one of the things that separates it from most kids movies for me is that it’s not condescending. Most movies aimed and kids and/or parents are incredibly condescending. Hugo is about imagination and adventure and appreciating the world around you. It’s beautifully put together, it’s well-acted, it’s sweet-natured, it’s touching. Will you love it? I don’t know. But I think at the least you will like it. And I wouldn’t say this about every allegedly family-friendly flick I’ve seen. For instance, I see that Puss in Boots is nominated for best animated feature. It’s a straight-to-DVD piece of junk. Some funny moments that are EXACTLY as entertaining as watching 75 minutes of LOL Catz videos. And Kung Fu Panda 2 is an extremely slick production of every animated movie ever. Ditto for Rango. Lovable oddball anthropomorphic main character voiced by big star, lots of other big names as side characters, threat of world domination by bad guy, battle against the odds, our hero triumphs in the end, and roll cleverly rendered credits. So, yeah. Even though I see lots of these family movies, I can still be a little discerning. Speaking of discerning, what was the best movie you’d say you saw in 2011?
Mark: Yeah, I'll probably see Hugo. I had heard it is a love letter to film, and I figure Scorsese's a good guy to do that. I think the only animated movie I saw this year was Tangled? And now that I think of it, I saw that Christmas of 2010 with my niece and nephews and my mom. And it was alright. Not bad, as movies for children (and the adults who take them) go. Love your synopsis of PnB. Will think of that if I see that category on the Oscar broadcast. Remember how I said it was a bad year for movies? I've just scrolled through a list of all 2011-released movies. Man, I couldn't find any that I'll be making an effort to see again. There were some decent ones: Horrible Bosses, Super 8, The Adjustment Bureau, The Ides of March, Cedar Rapids, Bridesmaids, Friends with Benefits. And a short list of good ones: Moneyball, The Descendants, The Debt, and even MI4 (a really fun action flick, in spite of my feelings about Tom Cruise). I don't think I saw anything I would consider "Great". Closest would be two indies that I'll say were the best I saw: Another Earth and Win Win. ... ... If you've seen a trailer for Another Earth (and let's face it: you haven't unless you've been to your local art house theater) then I'm not spoiling anything by saying that there's a sci-fi bent to it, though not as much as you might think. The over-arching conceit is that what appears to be an exact copy of Earth suddenly becomes visible in "our" sky. But the film is really about two people whose paths cross and how they interact. Big canvass, small story. It can verge towards some familiar movie tropes, but the leads play the hell out of their roles, and the film stays with you. It's a bit "arty" at times, but not obnoxiously so. Win Win is written and directed by the most despicable character on The Wire--no, not one of the murderous thugs on the corner, or one of the morally bankrupt cops or scheming politicians. It's Scott Templeton, the contemptible fabulist newspaper reporter! (aka Tom McCarthy) It's also a small story of a schlubby small town lawyer and part-time wrestling coach played by Paul Giammatti, who I almost always like, and the high school wrestling prodigy that falls into his lap. It's a bit of a "pupil teaches the teacher" story, again moving into familiar territory at times, but it gets the wrestling scenes right. The kid (Alex Shaffer) is a real-life wrestler/first-time actor, and in him, you will see some of the HT wrestlers of our day, mixed with the teen attitude and experience of the current day. Sort of a Walter Tipton with bleach-blond hair, and more withdrawn. His performance feels very real, and you marvel along with Giammatti at the kid's talent--as an athlete and an actor. There's a plotline that is fairly coincidental, and the ending is somehow both not what you thought it would be AND neatly tied up in a bow, but again, the performances--Giammatti, the kid, Amy Ryan, and Bobby Cannavale--are solid enough to carry it past the flaws. See both movies; I think you will like them.
Amorak: Okay, so I just scrolled through a list of 2011 movies, too. What’s sad is how few of them I’ve seen. In alphabetical order: The Adjustment Bureau, African Cats, The Adventures of Tintin, Cars 2, Contagion, Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gnomeo and Juliet, Hugo, Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Muppets, The Other Woman, Puss in Boots, Rango, Rio, Zookeeper. Of these, my favorite three were Tintin, Girl, Hugo. If I had to pick a best picture, it would be Hugo. If I had to pick a worst? The nominees are Drive and The Other Woman. The winner … Drive, because it’s bad in that special take-itself-seriously way that inexplicably convinces a certain percentage of the audience to proclaim it THE BEST FUCKING THING EVER. When it’s so not.
Mark: Here’s my complete list: The Adjustment Bureau, Another Earth, Barney’s Version, Bridesmaids, Captain America, Cedar Rapids, The Company Men, The Debt, The Descendants, Friends with Benefits, Green Lantern, Horrible Bosses, The Ides of March, In Time, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, Pearl Jam Twenty*, Source Code, Super 8, Take Me Home Tonight*, Win Win. You know my two favorites (coming in third would probably be The Debt)--my worst? Nominees: The Company Men, Green Lantern, and In Time. And the winner is … The Company Men! It had a rare combination of a laughable Costner BAH-stun accent, a douchey Affleck, and a ridiculous plot that is meant to be the filmic representation of “life in these hard economic times”, but in reality asks the viewer to feel sorry for rich white dudes who fall off the gravy train and have to live within their newly-adjusted financial means. Boo-hoo, Ben Affleck gets laid off and has to eventually sell his fancy sports car, give up his golf club membership, and move back in with his parents because he overextended himself on his way-too-large house in the affluent suburbs. He couldn’t possibly lower his standards and take a job that pays less than his last job to avoid some of his financial hardships! Then he finally hits rock-bottom and, horror of horrors, he has to accept a job hanging sheet-rock with his salt-of-the-earth brother-in-law (Costner), where he finally learns the lesson of blue-collar work being therapeutic and inspiring and stuff--which gets him off his ass and helps him start a new company with Tommy Lee Jones, the untouchable executive who was forced into early retirement (and whose wife spent 5 figures on a piece of living room furniture when they were riding-high). It’s a pretty insulting movie, especially since I’m sure the filmmakers thought moviegoers would see themselves and their lives represented by the protagonists. Wow. Reading back through our lists, I couldn’t help but notice that 1) I only saw 3 more 2011 movies than you (and 2 of them* were not in theaters)--so if you were worried that having kids keeps you from going to the movies, here’s evidence that you don’t see that many fewer than those of us who are childfree; and 2) we only overlapped ONE. SINGLE. MOVIE. I don’t know about you, but I find that reeaaallyy weird. I would have thought our choices would have been more similar, even taking out the kids fare. Are our tastes diverging that much? There were a few on your list I wanted to see, but just never got around to. As much as I enjoy the movie-going experience and film in general, I thought I would have at least averaged one movie every two weeks. Maybe the fact that I didn’t make more of an effort speaks to the overall quality of 2011 movies. Or maybe I was just saving my money to avoid the pitfalls those “Company Men” encountered!
Samneric is Mark D. Orr and Amorak Huey, who have been using popular culture as an excuse to talk about themselves since the 1980s.
Okay, so Mike Meginnes at HTMLGIANT has made me all self-conscious about the praise I sometimes bestow in this little blog. Am I being sincere? What are my motives? Am I doing this just to call attention to myself in the end? Do I have this fantasy that I will say nice things about some writer, and they will stumble across it someday while searching for their own name, and say, "Hey, that Amorak said nice things about me. I will ..." well, and that's where the fantasy kind of drifts into nothingness. They'll follow me on Twitter? Link to my blog? E-mail me? What am I hoping to gain, anyway? (I guess the same kind of nebulous approval-seeking validation I hope to gain when I write anything. It's not like there's any money in this.)
So, after reading Meginnes' piece, I'm thinking: Do I need to be meaner? Should I say negative things about shit I don't like so that people will believe me when I say something nice? Because, sure, I read shit I don't like all the time. Sometimes I actively, aggressively dislike stuff. Other times -- far more often -- I have that shrugging-meh-whatever-I'd-rather-be-watching-Hoarders reaction. Meginnes suggests that maybe I'd be doing the lit world a favor by calling out pieces that aren't working, so their writers could learn and grow from the criticism. And then the killer, really-close-to-home zinger comes in the comments, where someone named Dave K. calls out people who "get so wrapped up in marketing themselves as a Supportive Community Member Who Also Writes (Hint Hint) that they almost forget how to be honest about what really motivates them, and what doesn't." Jesus. Is that what I'm doing here?
Man, paralysis and self-doubt come easy, don't they?
But also they are (mostly) pointless.
So this is where I am. I am probably not going to be all that mean in this blog. (Except to movies. Which are asking for it.) There's bad writing in the world, and there's mediocre writing in the world, and I'm not going to waste too much of my time writing about it. What I will do is be honest. I won't tell you I love something when I don't. I'll try not to partake in the "vague hyperbole" Meginnes decries. I won't say I've read something I haven't, or promise to buy a book and then not do it. (Behaviors that seem to enrage Meginnes.)
All of which is a long, meta, navel-gazing way of getting to what I came here to say, which is that I recently received in the mail the latest issues of Epiphany and The Journal. And there's a great deal to admire in each of them.
Epiphany -- well, Ep;phany, according to the cover and title page and table of contents -- has a cool, odd index on the back that highlights some connections between the pieces inside, citing such topics as "hillbilly lunatic" and "clown who punishes with love songs" and "Lady Gaga," who has three appearances. Nate Pritts has two solid poems here, and Lucy Ives' "Poem" is a fun piece: "I was a terrible person but I didn't care." Michael Martin Shea's "Rough Draft of a Poem About Heartbeats" is a creepy, violent poems that ends with a chill: "Think of her neck as a part of a body that can never taste itself." But my favorite poem in the issue is Ben Purkert's "Promotion," which splashes its words across the page in a way that I usually don't care for much, but that works here because the words are so just-right. This poem, I'm pretty sure, is about having a bit of a crush on one of those giant inflated people used to call attention to a business, in this case a car wash. It's odd and visceral and surprisingly, surprisingly tender.
The Journal doesn't have a handy-dandy index, but it does have some fine writing inside. Jesse Goolsby's "No Curves No Junk" is a terrific essay about baseball, family, and LSD. Dock Ellis features prominently, natch, but it's really a personal piece about the author's Uncle Joe. Quite moving. And there's so much good poetry I know I'm going to leave some of the stuff I really liked. The ever-excellent Traci Brimhall has two poems here. Brittany Scott's "Mystique" is a keeper. Hala Alyan, with whom I am not familiar, has three poems I admire: "Libra," "Osiris," and "Aquarius." Sally Wen Mao's sectioned poem "After Yoshitomo Nara" is also a stunner. Its first section opens: "Our heads rise from the waters, faking / heartbreak. No one with a body can stand // to submerge like we do." And the poem ends, in a section called "I Don't Mind, If You Forget Me": "I love my tininess, / but it is the only thing I love."
So, there, Mike Meginnes. Lots of praise. And, yeah, Dave K, I'm being the Supportive Community Member Who Also Writes (Hint, Hint). And I'm pretty much okay with that.
"This world tries to bore me to death, but not hard enough."
-- Timothy Donnelly, "Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow"
Timothy Donnelly this week won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his second book, The Cloud Corporation. This award brings with it a prize of $100,000. Yup, there are the right number of zeroes there. A hundred grand, like the candy bar. For a book of poems. Every poet in America secretly thinks they will win this prize some day (or maybe that's just me).
At any rate, I'm taking this opportunity to proclaim here my love and respect for this book. I bought it at AWP* last year and I've read the whole thing probably three times by now. It's long (150ish pages) and more than a little challenging, which I mean in a good way. It challenges readers, and it challenges societal power structures.
At a time when "occupy" was one of those words of the year, when we're all talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, when people might just maybe be paying a little more attention to just how powerful the powerful are, The Cloud Corporation is a great choice for a major award. It's not preachy or dogmatic, or even really devoted to a particular message, but its language is infused with an awareness of the power dynamic in contemporary America. It is at times conversational, colloquial -- but also entirely formal in terms of its control over line and diction.
Every review I've read of this book has singled out "Dream of Arabian Hillbillies," which blends (or at least claims to) the words of Osama Bin Laden with random words from the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, as a signature poem here. I would also point out the piece "Advice to the Baboons of the New Kingdom," which opens: "When they approach you with plates of soft fruit / and erotic subjects, they have already singled you out // for worship." I'm not sure I've ever felt more indicted. But the poet is gentle with you, even as he's calling you out: "Resist the impulse to play along, but if you can't, // and few can ..." The poem concludes with these double-edged words: "In this manner, you will pass / months, whole seasons, possibly years, until you are / possessed of a god at last, and this one means business."
You cannot skim the poems in this book, nor should you. This book asks more of you, as a reader; it asks you to commit. When you do, the payoff is substantial. I don't think I'm overstating to suggest that this book can change the way you look at language, change the way you look at the world around you.
One of my least favorite things is the constant snarking over the state of contemporary poetry, how workshops and MFAs and academics have killed the art, and how today's verse is all navel-gazing and disconnected and boring and bloodless. For the most part, I think that's bullshit. There is some terrific goddamn poetry being written right now, and so many poets who look at the world with clear eyes and render it in unflinching language. The Cloud Corporation is a prime example.
- - -
*I always buy lots of books at AWP, and probably the two best books I bought last year both came from the same publisher: Wave Books. They were The Cloud Corporation and Mary Ruefle's Selected Poems. Just outrageously good, both of them. And such attractive physical artifacts, too.
In the mail today came a chapbook by Chuck Carlise with the seriously awesome title of A Broken Escalator Still Isn't the Stairs. And you know what? As great as the title is, the book is even better.
This chapbook won the 2010 Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Award. I entered that contest, too, and (duh) didn't win, which is why I received the book in the mail. Now when you don't win a contest, and then you see the book that did win, you often grumble to yourself that your book was far more deserving (by "you" here, I mean, of course, "I"). Well, though I still (immodestly) think my manuscript was pretty darn deserving, too, I certainly can't feel too bad about being overshadowed by this series of prose poems.
Actually, I'm not sure "series of prose poems" is quite the right label. Each piece starts with an asterisk rather than an individual title, so really, it's more like one longer piece in segments. An essay, perhaps, or a very lyrical short story. (The acknowledgments calls them vignettes, and says that some of them appeared together as a lyric essay in Pleaides.)
The collection opens with this sentence: "To say one is missing is to speak of perspective," and that idea informs and organizes and drives these pieces. The phrase "to say one is missing" becomes a sort of refrain, opening a number of the vignettes. This is part mystery story, part meditation, part love story. And all great. There are so many killer moments, so many sentences that any writer would drool over with envy. You can flip open the book to any page and find moments of utter clarity and wisdom.
Here are just a few of my favorites:
- "This is where you are, the walls say. It's all they ever say."
- "When you enter a room, you already know the quiet. You know it & know it."
- "Sometimes it's hard to believe you'll ever die."
The end of the book is about as pitch perfect as it gets. I actually got chills a bit, reading it. Like I said, this chapbook just came in the mail today, and I've already read it cover to cover, plus browsed through it. This one's a keeper, no doubt.
Thing is, I like Ryan Gosling when he, like, talks and emotes and stuff. I thought he was really enjoyable in Fracture, for example.
But then he was in Lars and the Real Girl, which I also liked, but it seems to have gotten him typecast as the weird silent type. Which is really too bad.
He's definitely working that role in Drive (D+), where he's a guy who drives and keeps his mouth shut. Sometimes he drives for his mechanic boss who wants to start a stock-car team. Sometimes he drives for robbers. Sometimes he drives for the movies. Sometimes he drives for ex-con husbands of his cute neighbor. This last one, predictably, gets him into some trouble. It has to do with the gangsters to whom his mechanic boss owes money, and to whom the ex-con husband also owes money, and a weirdly complicated robbery plan that involves ripping off a pawn shop and the East Coast mob, except no one knows it, and the characters involved devote a large chunk of their time to expository dialogue so that we can keep up.
The movie has a very strange '80s vibe, complete with pink-script titles and synth-heavy musical montages that take the place of, like, well-written dialogue and coherent plot development.
Albert Brooks is reasonably pleasurable to watch as one of the gangsters -- the coolheaded-but-violent one, as opposed to the wild-and-unpredictable-but-violent one played by Hellboy. Gosling somnambulates his way through the film, pausing every now and then to flash that oh so mysterious Lars smile. The ever-delightful Carey Mulligan plays the cute not-quite-single neighbor, and she looks nervous and touches her lips a lot. It's an entirely underwhelming role.
In fact, it's an entirely underwhelming movie. The only thing over- about it is the over-the-top violence. It's quite gruesome, and not in a good way. If you ever want to illustrate the word "gratuitous" for someone, you could use the violence in this movie. When Albert Brooks randomly stabs some dude in the eye with a fork, you're thinking, "Wow, I know exactly how that guy feels."
Contagion (C-) has everything going for it. Big-name, likable star in the prime of his career? Check. Disaster that's all too possible? Check. Believable characters, well-crafted dialogue, solid performances, excellent production values, smarmy English-accented bad guy played by Jude Law? You got it.
The movie tells the story of a virus that goes global, killing millions of people. It's sad and scary and plausible, and you walk out of the theater going, "Goddamn, that would REALLY suck if that ever happened in real life. I should be sure to wash my hands more often."
Then you never think about any part of the movie ever again.
Just now, as I sat down to write this, I was like, "Oh, yeah, Gwyneth Paltrow was in it! I forgot." SPOILER ALERT: She plays the Outbreak Monkey. But don't worry, she gets what's coming to her. A clear subtext of this movie is that women who cheat on their husbands -- especially handsome, well-meaning husbands like Matt Damon -- die. Also, women who work outside the home. Also, women who go to casinos and carry on and have a good time. Also white women who shake hands with Asian men. Of course, almost everyone else dies, too, so maybe that isn't exactly the point the movie's trying to make.
But there's the problem. It's not at all clear what the hell the point of this movie is. Or why we're supposed to care about any of these people. I mean, sure, that one doctor is played by Kate Winslet, so we know we're supposed to care about her. And Laurence Fishburne is the virtuous head of the CDC, so we should probably care about him, too. But ... well ... we don't. Some stuff happens, and some people die, which is sad, and there are little moments of excitement and looting and martial law and so forth, and some other people work really hard to find a cure, which they eventually (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN) do. And it comes in time for Matt Damon's lovely daughter to slow-dance with her prom date in her living room, but not in time for anyone else they know, or millions of people around the world, so it's not exactly happily ever after time.
The movie starts with this very dramatic series of title cards that keep announcing what day in the outbreak it is. Day 3, Day 4, etc., but then the filmmakers realize they don't have time to show every single day of the thing, so they skip a bunch of days. Then the movie ends by showing us what happened on Day 1, which we already kind of knew anyway.
There are also some unresolved, and largely uninteresting, and at times needlessly complicated, side plots involving Jude Law as a rabble-rousing blogger and Marion Cotillard as a kidnapped World Health Organization doctor. Attractive people with foreign accents make any movie better. Except maybe this one.
I really wanted to like this movie, and as mentioned above, it certainly seems to have all the ingredients needed to be excellent. Unfortunately, it's missing something key: What happens in a movie has to matter to the audience. When I teach Introduction to Creative Writing to college students, we spend a lot of time talking about the difference between plot and story. Contagion, alas, is all plot and no story.
The Southern Review's Spring 2011 issue is devoted to Americana, and it turned out to be the last issue edited by Jeanne M. Leiby, who died in a car accident in April. A really, really sad thing, and a real loss to the American literary world. She was, by all accounts, a terrific person and talented, inspiring editor. (I did not know her personally, aside from a brief e-mail correspondence when she accepted a poem for this issue of TSR; I wish I had known her.)
At the beginning of this issue, Jeanne and Jen McClanaghan have a Q&A about the assembling of the issue and about the nature of Americana. It closes with these words from Jeanne:
"Maybe this sounds odd, but what you just said about Americana is an almost perfect articulation of what a literary magazine can be, what I hope The Southern Review is, and what I hope our readers will experience with this and with every issue -- a landscape continually resettled and redefined."
It's a great way to think about a magazine, about literature in general. And this is a terrific issue. "Americana" as a theme could easily lend itself to cliche, or at least an overabundance of familiarity. But it doesn't happen. The stories and poems and essays and photographs in this issue are unsettling, surprising, provocative. They are familiar only in the sense that once you've read them you realize they've revealed something about the world around you that maybe you've always known (or should have known) but never said aloud.
Some of the highlights in the issue are Jake Adam York's poem "Letter Written on a Record Sleeve"; Jane Springer's series of, I guess, unusual definitions for phrases like "Looks the Hound Who Caught the Car" and "Don't Know a Stranger"; Michael Garriga's awesomely titled story "Custody Battle for Chelsea Tammy: At the Toys R Us, Aisle 6, in a Suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, December 24, 1983"; and David Kirby's poem "Roy G. Biv." Rodney Jones has a killer poem called "The End of Practice," which I wish I'd written, about the bittersweetness of youth and competition and confidence: "I had the male dream. If I did not rise above the field, I would be eaten." Pat Jordan's essay about a haircut is a nice read, as is Bonnie Jo Campbell's story "What There Was." Edward Keating's black and white photographs are beautiful; my favorite among them is called "Stripper on Break, Amarillo, Texas, 2o00."
But my most favorite favorite thing in the issue is a sprawling, brilliant, multipart poem by David Wojahn called "Watching Fox News on the Holiday of Martin Luther King Jr." It's political, it's smart, it opens with an epigraph by Blind Willie Johnson, it's funny and sad and a little scary. It is a serious goddamn piece of Americana, is what it is.
The Southern Review has long been a top-tier journal; even so it is, I suspect, much the better off for Jeanne Leiby's stewardship. So far as this issue represents her legacy, her ideas about resettling and redefining the landscape, that legacy is indeed a fine one.
Like TSR (though younger), Subtropics stands as one of the most consistently impressive journals around. Always plenty of good things to read in here, and the Winter/Spring 2011 issue is no exception. The issue has two covers; reading from one end, you get prose; flip the journal over and you get the poetry.
There are only four prose pieces, but man are they good. Edna O'Brien has a poignant story called "Inner Cowboy." Erik Reece has an essay memorializing Guy Davenport, whom I'm ashamed to say I hadn't heard of, especially inexcusable since he was at the University of Kentucky and I lived in Lexington for three years. Davenport was an interesting and complicated artist, and Reece's essay is illuminating. Lauren Groff's "Eyewall" and John Weir's "Katherine Mansfield" round out the prose side of the journal.
On the poetry side, there are plenty of poems by poets you've heard of, of course. Billy Collins is in here, as are D.A. Powell and G.C. Waldrep. Travis Marsotti's "Trivial Pursuit" stands out, as does Corey Ginsburg's "A Follow-Up Poem to Sex with My Ex." Elizabeth Langemak's "Your Laugh" is a really great piece in five couplets, ending by comparing the laughter to "an airplane / returned from a bright, dusty country" that "gooses the runway and then touches / down, bounces, and skips on the strip."
Kyle Dargan's "Reverence in the Atomic Age" is sexy and science-y. Erin Murphy's "Dear Fringe" and "Dear Winged" are also seductive. Jeffrey Thomson's "Jokes" is another highlight, smart and funny and structured around farmers and bartenders and guys and ducks walking into bars. It's the kind of poem that when you've finished reading it, you think maybe you understand the human condition a little better, even if you're not sure quite why.
A common theme of my movie-related posts lately has been the lack of originality in Hollywood. Alas, the previews playing before Kung Fu Panda 2 offer little reassurance about the situation.
Coming soon to your local megaplex: a movie based on a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. A sequel to an animated movie about talking cars. The FOURTH movie in the Spy Kids franchise. A spinoff of the Shrek franchise. Mr. Popper's Penguins, about the least franchise-y on this list, and even that's based on a children's book. The first installment in a trilogy based on a 1930s series of graphic novels.
(Actually, that last one I'm excited about. It's Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson taking on Tintin, one of my favorites from childhood. Love Tintin. Apparently, from what I've read, Spielberg loves Tintin, too. Here's hoping they pull it off.)
Anyway. I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised. After all, I was there to see Kung Fu Panda 2 (which Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said sounded like a series of randomly strung-together words). Back when I wrote about the first one, I complained about the way our hero Po skipped all the hard work of, you know, actually learning kung fu, and jumped straight to Dragon Warrior status (I think that's something like a black belt) and saved the valley.
As I said three years ago, I have no problem with the notion that every one of us has a Dragon Warrior inside. I know I do. But really really wanting your dreams to come true isn't usually enough. You have to have all that want combined with, like, hard work and stuff. Except in the movies, apparently.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (B-) is a fun, even charming, follow-up. It's visually slick and pleasing. It clocks in at an efficient 95 minutes. It's funny, lighthearted, a sugary treat for both kids and parents. It also has the same basic message as the first movie: Effort is irrelevant.
When we first see Jack Black's Po, he's living and working with the Furious Five, although his training consists of seeing how many bean buns he can cram in his mouth. It's funny, sure, and it confirms what the first movie suggested: Dragon Warrior is something you are, not something you do.
Clearly, at the start of the sequel, Po is enjoying having become the Dragon Warrior, but his work ethic hasn't changed. His master -- the Dustin Hoffman-voiced Shifu -- advises him that he needs to find inner peace. (Po's response: Piece of what?) Before Po finds tranquility, though, he has to head off to save China from a villanous peacock who has discovered gunpowder and also has an army of wolves and gorillas at his service.
One beef about this movie: The action sequences are too fast. It's zippy and energetic, but it's TOO zippy. The effect is disorienting, and as a viewer, you just sort of check out: Okay, action seqence here, some punching and jumping, can't quite tell what's happening, let me know when the good guys win. Another beef about this movie: the very last scene is a condescending copout. (It also gives a hint about what might be to come in Kung Fu Panda 3. Sigh.)
Anyway. You know how this goes. Bad guys, good guys, happy ending, all that. There's plenty of fighting, there's some reasonably enjoyable slapstick that's mostly about Po being klutzy and fat, ha ha, and there's some cursory backstory about Po's childhood. If you wondered how a panda ended up with a goose for a father, never fear, your questions will be answered.
Po becomes interested in figuring out where he came from, which, he thinks, will tell him who he is. He gets the answers he seeks, and achieves that inner peace, or at least enough of it to triumph over the meanest peacock in China. What he never quite figures out, though, is that who we are is what we do. Sure, everyone wants to be the Dragon Warrior, but in real life that takes work.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer. It was a distressingly long time before I figured out that you can't be a writer unless you do writing, and in fact the doing is way way way more important than the being.
Malcolm Gladwell proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice, combined with a natural talent, to be great at something. In the world of Kung Fu Panda, you can get the same result in about an hour and a half.
In a recent post, I linked to the Mark Harris piece lamenting the dearth of middle-tier (as in non-blockbuster) movies aimed at grownup audiences. It's tempting to agree wholeheartedly. Hollywood does send some by-God flat-out junk into the local metroplex, for sure.
Plus, it's always in fashion to tear down the current state of things. (Just ask anyone who writes about contemporary poetry, for instance. It's all "bloodless workshop poem" this and "too much shite being published" that and "where are all the Frosts and Shakespeares" the other thing.)
At any rate, the three movies we saw in the theater over spring break -- The Fighter, The Adjustment Bureau, and The King's Speech -- as well as the four other movies we saw on DVD, give some lie to the premise that Hollywood is impossibly broken. It's not at all that I loved all of these movies, or thought they were all awesome. It's that they were all intended for adults, they were by and large enjoyable (with a couple of exceptions), and some of them were even smart. (Others, perhaps not so smart as they thought they were.) I know The King's Speech won 200 Academy Awards, and The Fighter was nominated all over the place, too. So it's not like I'm the only one noticing these movies. Sure, there's a ton of derivative crap movies being made, but so what? There's also some decent entertainment out there. I guess what I'm saying is that, in this one post at least (don't hold me to this attitude forever), I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness*.
Here are my nuanced, in-depth, carefully-thought-out reviews:
127 Hours (A-): It's time for your closeup, Mr. Franco.
Unstoppable (C+): Based on a true story. Also based on The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. Also also based on Training Day.
The Road (D): The dreariest motherfucking movie ever.
Date Night (B): Jokes about old married people are funny, if you're old and married.
The Adjustment Bureau (C): This almost worked.
The King's Speech (A): British people make awesome movie characters.
The Fighter (A): Wow, Batman has really let himself go.
* -- to quote Evelle Snopes.
Look, I get it. Intellectually, I understand why The New York Times is moving to a subscription model for its website. I know newspapers are in trouble, and giving away all those stories isn't helping. High-quality, original content is expensive to produce.
But emotionally, I hate it. I can't stand the idea of paying for an online subscription.
You know what? Reading content online ALREADY costs me money. I have to buy a laptop, or iPad, or smartphone, or some kind of gizmo. I have to pay Comcast for home internet access, or T-mobile or AT&T or whoever for a data plan for my smartphone/tablet/gizmo.
Paying for online newspaper access would be like paying for a subscription to the print newspaper -- only, in order to read that print newspaper, I first have to pay for an expensive table to set that newspaper on. Then I have to pay every month for a special sidewalk in order for the newspaper to arrive at my house in the first place (unless I want to take my special table to a newspaper hot spot, where someone else has paid for the special sidewalk). Then, if my wife wants to read the paper, too, I either need to let her borrow my table, which I was hoping to use myself for, say, eating breakfast, or I have to pay for a second subscription.
Okay, it's not a perfect analogy, but it's not far off. Between our cell phone plan and data service, our internet service, and the data plan for my wife's iPad, we spend in the neighborhood of $200 a month for access to the grid in its various forms. Not to mention the start-up costs of our phones, our computers and the iPad. (If you spend $720 on a laptop or iPad that lasts you three years, that's $20 a month.) Adding $15 a month for full nytimes.com access might not seem so bad, but then what if I also have to add $10 a month for, say, espn.com, and $5 for cbssports.com, and so on and on? Subscribing for access to individual sites is simply not feasible. Especially if my wife and I have to subscribe separately; whether that's the case is not clear to me, but it certainly seems likely. And there are already separate charges for smartphone and tablet access, which makes little sense (as this blog points out, that seems like a surefire way to kill the tablet app).
You know, I used to read the online magazine Salon all the time. I thought it was smart, literate, funny, timely, relevant. Then the site moved to a subscription model and put a huge chunk of its content behind a paywall. There was exactly zero chance of my paying for a subscription. I don't remember the last time I went to that site. I have no idea whether it's still charging for most of its good stuff, or if the stuff it publishes is still as good as it once was.
I read New York Times content online a lot. Every day. Way more than 20 articles a month. News, opinions, book reviews, movie reviews, politics, the arts, everything. The thought of giving up all that content saddens me greatly. But I really do NOT want to pay for it. It's a problem, isn't it? I don't pretend to have the answer. But this subscription plan just doesn't feel like the solution. At least, not the solution for me.
UPDATE: I like The Times and its website too much to give it up. So I subscribed to home delivery of the Sunday edition, which gives me unfettered access to the site. Totally worth it. However, I still feel this is not a sustainable across-all-websites model. There's a limit to the number of sites I'd pay for.
I'm this poetry-writing group where each month we write a poem in response to a prompt given by one of the group members. This month's prompt was to write a "first poem" -- the first poem of a new project, or a poem intended as the starting piece for an in-progress project. Which, of course, begs the question: What is a first poem? What does it look like? How is it different from, say, the seventh poem of a project, if it's different at all?
In order to explore these questions, I decided to read the opening poems of a bunch of poetry collections. What I found was that first poems often do indeed have a distinct "first poem" feel to them. Some of them make promises to the reader about what's to come, such as the confident final lines of "Sweet Jesus," the opening piece in Matthew Zapruder's American Linden (Tupelo, 2002): "I vow I will touch you / always more distant stranger." Bobby C. Rogers' Paper Anniversary (2010, Pittsburgh) begins with the poem "Meat and Three," which muses on work and language and closes thus: "...our work right where we left it, laid out so carefully, but still just words / darkening a page. I'll have to look at them a long time before they turn again to sounds on my ear."
Often, maybe always, the opening poems establish a subject matter and stance for the rest of the collection. In Jim Daniels' Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), the first poem is "The Complete Lack of Home Movies," which clearly positions the poems in the book as taking the place of those non-existent reels of film, with all the power and fluidity of memory and language: "We can change the background from sepia // to neon ..." Dean Rader's Works & Days (2010, Truman State) starts with "Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother's Funeral, I Write a Poem About Wallace Stevens," a piece that perfectly sets up his book, which is both deeply personal -- as in the grandmother's funeral part of the poem -- and thoughtfully engaged with literature, art, and philosophy, as in the "poem about Wallace Stevens" part of the poem. Christina Olson's Before I Came Home Naked (2010, Spire Press) starts with the title poem, and tells us this is where "the story of us begins."
Many of the opening poems I read had a feeling of invocation. Tracy Brimhall's Rookery (2010, SIU Press) starts with "Prayer for Deeper Water." Megan Snyder-Camp's The Forest of Sure Things (2010, Tupelo) similarly opens with "Sea Creatures of the Deep" and the incantatory lines "O sockeye O rock sole O starry flounder / O red Irish lord O spiny lump sucker." Monica Youn's Ignatz (2010, Four Way Books) starts with the poem "Ignatz Invoked." Frannie Lindsay's Mayweed (2009, The Word Works) begins with the title poem, and these words: "Rise now from kneeling / in front of your east-facing window / lamenting your sins aloud / to the slugs in your garden."
These opening poems are sometimes explicity about opening events, new places, new seasons, new things. The first words of Julia Kasdorf's Sleeping Preacher (1992, Pittsburgh) are "The first day of false spring ..." Bob Hicok's Words for Empty and Words for Full (2010, Pittsburgh) establishes time and place quite clearly with the poem "In these times," where the speaker finds himself "under a new sky." Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation (2010, Wave Books) begins with a piece called "The New Intelligence." Nancy Eimers' Oz (2011, Carnegie Mellon) opens by dropping us into "Grassland": "There is something furtive about the water here."
When I was in the MFA progam at Western Michigan, Bill Olsen talked to us about about what he called the "lyrical contract" established by the opening lines of any poem. My own clunky interpretation of this concept is that within the first few lines, a poem establishes how it's going to use language and syntax, how it's going to break lines, how it's going to engage with the reader. (The poet is free, of course, to break that contract later, but must do so knowingly, intentionally, with full awareness of the effects and risks of that break.)
It seems to me that the first poem of any collection fulfills a similar role: establishing a relationship between poem and reader, creating a bond for the journey ahead through the rest of the book. The poems in the books I've mentioned here all achieve this -- in a variety of ways, of course. There's not a one right way to craft a first poem, obviously, any more than there's a one right kind of any poem, but I think that first poems are bound by the desire to open, in all the senses of the word: commence, launch, initiate, unfold, unfurl: to lead into possibility.
The poem I ended up writing for this month's prompt is called "Love Letter During the Opening Scenes of Law & Order," and at this point, I have no idea whether it accomplishes any of the things I want it to. But I am well pleased to have spent this time considering first poems -- at the very least, it was an excuse to look closely at some excellent poetry, and I might have even learned something along the way.
I didn't get as much work done over spring break as I'd planned/hoped, which should surprise exactly no one. However, on the plus side, we did manage to see a ton of movies (by "we," I mean "my wife and I," not the royal we, even though we did see The King's Speech). I'll start my recapping by breezing through three of the movies we saw on DVD:
The Town (B): Fun little bank-robbery flick directed by and starring Ben Affleck, playing essentially the character he played in Good Will Hunting if he hadn't had the calming influence of Matt Damon. This movie was basically Heat Lite. A talented robbery crew, a law enforcement dude obsessed with taking down said crew, a love interest, a relationship built on lies, one last big score, shootouts and car chases.
No real surprises here, and a particularly implausible (and unfortunately predictable) ending, but it's a solid enough concept and the acting is good. Jeremy Renner is in fine form as Affleck's more impulsive, more violent sidekick. Renner does pain-in-the-ass about as well as any actor working today, if you ask me. He also handles the Boston accent with aplomb, a requirement for membership the Hollywood in-club these days. (Is it me, or is this a fairly recent development? Like, since Good Will Hunting? I don't remember Boston accents being all over the cineplex until the past decade or so.)
Easy A (B+): Another fun movie. Juno without the pregnancy. Mean Girls without the bite. Clueless without Alicia Silverstone. Glee without the lukewarm cover songs, if Glee were at all watchable. (Sorry, fans of that show, but I simply do not get it. I gave it a good shot, but holy cow was it painful.)
Emma Stone's Olive is a charming, smart high schooler who inadvertently acquires a reputation as promiscuous. It's not true, but she tolerates it, in part because the newfound attention is kinda fun at first (we're asked to believe that someone who looks like Emma Stone could slide through high school unnoticed). Girls judge her and boys, predictably, swarm, and of course what starts out as simple misunderstanding leads to various shenanigans and high jinks.
It's all entertaining stuff. Stone is delightful. The supporting cast, including Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson Olive's eccentric parents, is amusing. The plot doesn't always make complete sense, and the movie often glosses over any real emotional punch, which ultimately is what separates it from the 1980s John Hughes flicks it makes explicit reference to throughout. Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink were silly and fun and overwrought, sure, but ultimately the emotions were real: those movies captured just how damn painful it was to be that age when everything in your life MATTERED, in all caps like that.
For the most part, the characters in Easy A glide through the movie untouched. There are hints of the trauma beneath the surface, as when a boy named Brandon laments how hard it is to be gay in high school, but these moments are quickly brushed aside before anyone really feels anything. Too bad.
The Kids Are All Right (A-): Not feeling anything certainly isn't an issue in The Kids Are All Right, a well-acted and at times wrenching portrayal of modern family life. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore play a couple with two kids, Joni and Laser, via an anonymous sperm donor. The four of them are stuck in the kind of malaise that happens to a family when kids are teens. Joni and Laser get in touch with their donor-dad, played with a pitch-perfect blend of ego, playfulness and regret by the ever-excellent Mark Ruffalo, and his presence complicates things for everyone in the ways you'd expect and some you might not.
In some ways, this movie is an almost-overt argument for gay marriage. For all the apparent non-traditionality going on -- lesbian couple, sperm donor, two moms, etc. -- the core family dynamics here are almost Leave It to Beaver-esque.
Benning is a doctor, the breadwinner of the family, the pragmatic counterpart to the more scattered Moore, a not-quite architect and sometime landscaper. Their relationship is not quite on the rocks, but not quite smooth, either. This movie nicely captures the malaise of a couple whose kids no longer need them the way they once did, a couple lurching through the transition to middle-age.
Benning's Nic is the least sympathetic character early in the movie. She's worn out by work and responsibility, and a bit short-tempered and unsupportive at home. But when things get rough for a while for this family, Nic is the one you feel the most sorry for. By the end of the movie, little is fully resolved, but things have sorted themselves out into the kind of hard-won peace that is achieved only after years of love and support. Which, really, is the measure of a family, right? No matter how many moms are involved.
Making good on my pledge to read and recognize work I like in journals that publish my writing, I've spent some time with the current issues of Thin Air and Naugatuck River Review, as well as the online journal Ramshackle Review.
I'll start with the web journal. Ramshackle Review appears to have an aesthetic that is part gritty realism, part playfulness. The poems and stories in this issue do feel connected, by and large fitting well together. They offer real-world problems, pop-culture awareness, a wry understanding of how hard things are sometimes. The 1936 dust-bowl Dorothea Lange photo that leads the issue seems, somehow, to fit with almost every piece. Poems by Jim Davis, John Tustin, Susan Tepper and Heather Abner were among the hits for me.
Moving on to the print journals ...
My favorite poem in Thin Air is "Sounds Like Home" by Delicia Daniels. It's a taut, sensual love poem in seven couplets, at once grounded in place: "when Ames and Tallahassee / move closer together" and floating breathlessly above the earth, as in the excellent final lines: "the way we language lust / again and again." I like this poem so much I'll forgive it its lowercase i.
Other highlights from this issue include "Lisped in Numbers" by Christopher Mulrooney, as well as Korkut Onaran's "Intercourse."
Naugatuck River Review focuses on narrative poetry, and the winter 2011 issue is the contest issue, with the winning piece judged by Patricia Smith. Smith herself also has a poem in here, a powerful piece titled "Jumper." There are lots of excellent poems here, including Phil Gruis' scary "Mother Rubber." Christine Hamm's "Neighbors" is also a highlight, as is Naomi Lore's "Sunday After New Year's."
One of the cool things about reading this journal is the chance to explore the range of pieces that qualify as narrative poetry. Of course, some poems in here are more conventionally story-telling than others, but it's nice that the urge to tell a story doesn't have to overrule the urge to play with language and syntax, to evoke and mystify and undercut.
M's "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Knees and Toes" is a dark and masterful mystery story about the things -- specifically, severed right feet, still clad in socks and running shoes -- that float up on beaches, and why "their buoyancy / is infinitely more fascinating / than the small matter / of why there are so many of them ..." A pretty nifty metaphor that works on many levels, of course, including being a statement on poems themselves. Yes, there are a lot of poems in the world these days. But the complaints that the proliferation of places to publish somehow works against the quality of the work. No, not every poem out there is buoyant, unsinkable, transcendent. But those that are will make their way to shore.
Mark Harris has an article at GQ titled "The Day the Movies Died," in which he laments the state of American cinema. He blames Top Gun, in part, as well as the way that movies have to be brands now, instead of, like, you know, well-made stories.
Harris also points out the proliferation of movies aimed at youthful audiences, and I have to admit, part of that is my fault -- I love movies, but I have kids, so I don't have time to go the movies as much as I used to. That means that when there's a movie I can take the kids to, I will. Hollywood knows this is true of me and a gazillion other parents, so it takes full advantage. This is a good thing when I get to see a Shrek movie, or something by Pixar. This is a bad thing when I end up at, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks the Squeak-quel. (Shudder. You'll have to excuse the post-traumatic twitch I get when someone mentions that movie. I consider it the Car 54, Where Are You?* of animated movies.)
As a result, the two most recent movies I've seen at the theater are Gnomeo and Juliet (C+) and Rango (C+). Both were completely ordinary, basically harmess, reasonably enjoyable, largely forgettable. The kind of movie where you walk out going, "That was pretty cute," and then you don't think about it again for the rest of the day, or the rest of your life. There wasn't a scene in either one that hadn't been done before, nor a line of dialogue you hadn't heard in some other movie.
Gnomeo and Juliet gets points for making jokes about Shakespeare. Rango gets points for its cinematography, or whatever you call the animated version thereof -- its desolate dust bowl of an Old West setting is beautiful to look at. Far more interesting than the brighter animated worlds of movies like, say, Megamind.
Both movies are doing that thing movies do these days where they're half-ass committed to satirizing their genres -- love story and Western, in this case -- but they're too chickenshit to do a fullblown critique, so the whole thing ends up with this wink-wink take, aren't we all ironic these days, everyone's in on the joke, etc., etc., but when you get past the one-liners on the surface, there's no there there.
One thing I found odd about Rango was its relatively liberal use of the word "hell." Rango, the lead lizard, voiced rather oddly by Johnny Depp, refers to himself as a hellraiser and "the hell that's already been raised." The villainous Rattlesnake Jake threatens to send someone to hell. And "Go to hell" makes an appearance as a one-liner before a bad guy is dispatched. I guess the folks who make animated films these days are trying to push the language envelope? I can't quite decide how I feel about this. On the one hand, as a dad sitting in the theater between my 8-year-old and my 6-year-old, I cringed a little bit. On the other hand, I do get a little weary of every kids movie seeming all sanitized and whitewashed and relentlessly smiley-faced. But this felt a bit forced, and, well, gratuitous. Using the word "hell" a half-dozen times doesn't make your cheesy, predictable movie gritty, Hollywood people.
I've already spent more time writing about these movies than either of them really deserves, so I'll stop now. The good news? This is my spring break week, but the kids are in school. So we're going to see some movies intended for, like, grownups. Up first: The King's Speech. I've heard good things.
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* Car 54, Where Are You? remains my all-time standard for movie awfulness. One of three movies I've walked out on in my life. The other two: Vanya on 42nd Street, which we left because my wife HATED it, and it was Valentine's Day, so I figured I'd better keep her happy; and some movie I don't even remember that my brother, dad and I left when I was 12 or so. We left Car 54 with about 20 minutes left to go. One person in our group was asleep, and the rest of us were miserable. On our way out, we ran into someone coming back from the bathroom, and he asked hopefully, "Is it over?" When we said no, he was visibly disappointed. The Squeak-quel, which I did not leave early, is also that bad.
A couple years ago, I enthusiastically reviewed R.E.M.'s Accelerate album. However, I confess the album has largely dropped off my listening radar. Nonetheless, I was pretty excited when I saw the band had a new album coming out, and excited again to discover that you can get a full listen to the thing at NPR's website.
Once upon a time, back in my college days and for a while after, I loved R.E.M. Seriously loved them, man. The albums from Document to Automatic for the People remain some of my favorite music, like, ever. So I'm always hoping to recapture the feeling I associate with that music. Unfortunately, I'm not sure any music released when you're 41 can have the same impact as music released when you're 17 to 22. It's like Christmas morning will never again be as wrapping-paper-and-tinsel-awesome as it was when you were 8. It's like baseball players will never again be as good as they were when you were 11. I mean, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981? How can you top that level of awesomeness, 2011, with your Tim Lincecums and Zack Greinkes? C'mon.
So it saddens me a little but it probably shouldn't surprise me in the least to report that I'm not especially blown away by Collapse Into Now.
I've listened to the album twice now. Going song-by-song, here are my kneejerk reactions:
- "Discoverer": One of those mid-tempo songs that's certainly not a ballad but doesn't quite rock, either. I enjoyed the first 90 seconds or so, but then I sort of stopped paying attention. Same experience both times I listened to it.
- "All the Best": "It's just like me to overstay my welcome," Stipe sings, and it would be oh so easy to crack jokes about that line. I'll resist, but I confess to not enjoying the staccato hammer-the-rhyme thing this song does. (The lyrics also include "Let's give it one more time, let's show the kids how to do it fine," which strikes me as rather too much on the wink-wink side.)
- "Uberlin": I liked this song the first time I heard it, when it was called "Drive."
- "Oh My Heart": This song confuses me.
- "It Happened Today": Finally, a song that feels fully thought out and carefully composed, where the music and vocals work together in a pleasing way. My favorite one so far, for sure.
- "Every Day Is Yours to Win": This is an oddly compelling, spare song that shows off Stipe's mournful warbling to good effect. Another good one.
- "Mine Smell Like Honey": Nice title. What, exactly, smells like honey? Just askin'. Has a kind of generic-R.E.M.-song vibe going for it (or against it?). Like, in five years, if you heard this one, you'd have no idea which album or even which point in the band's career it came from.
- "Walk It Back": A slower, more vocals-focused piece, but it leaves me a little cool. Stipe's voice just doesn't seem to have the raw emotional power it used to.
- "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter": This song's kinda fun. Has some energy, doesn't take itself too seriously. They're in silly-pop mode here, and it's working pretty well. Thumbs up.
- 'That Someone Is You": Another song in that lighthearted poppy-rocky groove. Short and effective, if not particularly memorable.
- "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I": Channeling "Man on the Moon" for this one, in a good way.
- "Blue": If you're old like me, you remember back when albums came in physical form. Like, records or tapes? And they had sides, and the really good songs, the popular ones that convinced you to buy the album, were mostly on side A. And side B had maybe a couple of songs that you learned to like after listening to them enough times, and then it also had some weird shit. Stuff that sounded like nothing else on the album, stuff you didn't get at all, and didn't really enjoy. Well, "Blue" is one of those weird-shit side B songs.
My overall impressions of the album: Starts a bit slow (not in tempo but quality), has some good moments in the second half. "Every Day Is Yours to Win" is my favorite song here, along with the Marlon Brando one and "It Happened Today." Do I love this album in the way that I love the R.E.M. songs of my youth? Alas, I do not. But then, I could hardly have expected to.
Sometimes, it is clear, Hollywood's barely trying. Sign an A-list star, film a car chase or three, throw in a plot twist or six, bam, you've got yourself a thriller. Whether anything about the movie actually qualifies as "thrilling" or, say, "plausible" is rather beside the point. These are movies in which, inevitably, watching the trailer is more entertaining than watching the movie. About the the most you can hope for from these explosion fests is that they're at least kind of fun. Unfortunately, too many of them fall short of even that threshold.
Angelina Jolie has established herself as one of the go-to women for these high-concept, high-budget flicks, and while her bank account is surely better off, it hasn't done much for her body of work. Salt (C-), which I saw on DVD the other night, is a tiring, predictable mess of a movie.
Jolie is fine in the leading role, as CIA uber-agent Evelyn Salt -- one of those leading characters who can beat up anyone who gets in her way, even if that anyone is a dozen Secret Service agents or a whole shipload of Russian militia. She also has a heart of gold, which we know because she's married to a European guy who has a beard and studies spiders. She also might be a Russian mole, like Kevin Costner. We know this because a Russian defector tells everyone she's a Russian mole, like Kevin Costner, and that she's going to kill the Russian president when he's in town. Then he kills a bunch of CIA agents with his pointy shoe and escapes. Then Salt escapes, too, because CIA agents are powerless in the face of MacGuffins and Hollywood superstars, and there's a chase scene that takes up the first third of the movie. Then Salt heads to New York to, I guess, kill the Russian president, but I assure you it spoils nothing about this movie to mention that THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM. YOU DON'T KNOW WHOM TO TRUST. Etc.
Some more things happen in the name of this pointlessly complicated conspiracy that could not possibly work unless 47 things fall into place in exactly the way the conspirators thought they would, but of course they do fall into place, and it's supposed to be suspenseful, but it isn't because we the audience have seen Tomb Raider and The Tourist and Hackers and Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Kung Fu Panda and therefore already know all about the one thing the conspirators didn't count on: the unstoppable star power and top-billing status of one Evelyn Salt. She kicks ass, takes names, and sets up the sequel. Yippee.
I admit to being somewhat skeptical about The Social Network (A-) before I saw it. The movie had garnered positive review after positive review, and yet I kept thinking, really? I was worried, mostly, that it would be one of those based-on-a-true-story pieces that was more devoted to being based on a true story than to being, like, good. And in this case, we already know the bulk of the story: Young Harvard genius creates website in his dorm room. Website turns out to be Facebook (maybe you've heard of it?). Friend requests and likes multiply like bunnies. Genius becomes billionaire. Some people sue him, but no one can stop him from taking over the world.
Turns out, happily, that the critics are right, and this is indeed an excellent movie. Propelled by Aaron Sorkin's West Wing-style walking-talking-saying-smart-things-really-fast banter, The Social Network offers compelling characters in difficult situations. Much of the enjoyment of watching comes from the experience of seeing a really huge idea being born. Facebook is so big now that it's almost like television, or the internet itself -- it's difficult for most of us to imagine the world without it. And yet, the idea came from somewhere; it began small, as possibility or promise or potential. There are lots of ideas like this, but only a few of them deliver. Watching those early moments in which Mark Zuckerberg, played terrifically by Jesse Eisenberg, sees the future is a real thrill.
Of course, real life rarely moves directly from Point A to Point B, and that's the underlying truth in this movie. Maybe some of Zuckerberg's idea was borrowed from other people. Maybe he tricked his best friend and co-founder out of his share of the business. The movie is framed by depositions in the lawsuits over these very issues, cutting back and forth from the testimony to the events in question -- and even when we're watching things happen, it's hard to know the truth. The movie deftly avoids the trap of oversimplification. There are no real villains. Even the ridiculously handsome and privileged Winklevoss twins, party in one of the suits against Zuckerberg, aren't entirely stereotyped; their claim that Zuckerberg ripped off their idea seems to have at least some merit to it. Eduardo Saverin, who funded the initial iteration of FB, certainly seems to have been unjustly frozen out as the business grew; but he also seems to have been too timid, not enough forward-thinking -- so cutting him out might well have been the only way for FB to realize its potential. Sean Parker, the pretty-boy, party-boy, genius co-founder of Napster played by the ever-entertaining Justin Timberlake, is the foil to Saverin: brilliant, fearless, forward-looking, and a bit ruthless. No easy answers here.
The core of the movie is Eisenberg's inspired portrayal of Zuckerberg. It's not an entirely sympathetic picture, but it isn't exactly unsympathetic, either. The script hints at his motivations -- jealousy of those for whom social interactions come easily, difficulty interacting with women, desire to be cool -- but again, avoids settling for too-simple explanations. Eisenberg offers a performance that is at once vulnerable and inscrutable. It feels like an in-depth portrait, but in the end, we know little more about Zuckerberg -- either the character or the real-life version -- than we did at the beginning. Which is rather a neat metaphor for Facebook itself, and this world of online interaction: it so often feels more intimate than it really is.
I have been fortunate enough to have some journals take my poems lately. It's easy, sometimes, to think of being published as accumulating lines on your C.V., to think in terms of numbers of credits, or the relative prestige of the various journals that say yes -- and it's disingenuous to pretend these things are irrelevant. However, the real reason I want to be published is that I want to be read. I think I have something to say, and I'd like my words to appear in places where people can, y'know, read them.
Along with my desire to be read, I believe, comes a responsibility to read. If I'm not reading what others have to say, I have no right to expect that anyone will read what I have to say.
In particular, I'm applying this responsibility to the journals that my work appears in. If I -- a writer, a reader, someone who wants to be engaged with the world of words -- can't be bothered to take some time to examine the work that appears right next to my own and shows up in my mailbox, for goodness sakes, just who do I think is out there reading my stuff? So I've made a commitment to myself that when my contributor's copies arrive, I will spend some time with their pages. The benefit to this, of course, is that I get to read some really excellent writing.
Now I want to take it to the next step and take the time in this blog to highlight the pieces that really move me, the writing that reaches out and grabs me and won't let go, the words that create that wistful, envious ache in the back of my throat, the poems and stories and essays that lift me up and break my heart, sometimes in the same moment. It's always a popular thing to do to decry the state of contemporary poetry, to claim we're in a literary crisis for this reason or that, but you know what? There is some goddamn good writing happening. Lots of it. I think it's incumbent on those of us who appreciate that fact to point out what we like, to highlight the brilliance we stumble upon.
So I'll start with the most recent issue of Redivider. (Or, reDiViDer, I guess.) There is plenty to like here, indeed. The writing is smart and entertaining and often funny, as in Matt Leibel's short story "God's Girlfriend," which is about exactly what it says it's about. Scott Garson's excellent story "Desultory" reminds me of the year I spent working at the newspaper in Elizabethtown, Ky., although my experience was somewhat less bleak, thank goodness. Lindsey Drager, who graduated from the university where I now teach, has a complex and moving story about a photographer and a deaf mathematician. Ed Bull has a nonfiction piece about Charles Whitman, better known as the Texas bell-tower sniper.
My favorite prose piece in this issue, though, is Rob Roensch's "Henry," which is about Henry David Thoreau -- or someone who might be, or maybe thinks he is, or maybe just wants to be -- trying to make sense of the 21st century. It's a dialogue-driven story, a series of conversations between Henry and a young woman:
"There is a strange buzzing here," said Henry, sitting at the small white kitchen table, watching the young woman pick at her well-peppered eggs. "It is all around me and it is inside of me. The very molecules are a-hum."
"It's the refrigerator, Henry," said the young woman.
You can see the possibilities here, and Roensch smartly takes full advantage of them. It's funny, and it's also an incredibly tender portrait. The ending of the story is sweet and understated and devastating. Devastating in a good way, of course.
Similarly, the issue's poetry offers many highlights. Ben Shurtleff's " 'Dear Miss November 1852,' from the Unopened Fan Mail," Randall Mann's "Control," Alyson Iott's "Prey Depredation" and Catherine Champion's "The Rainstorm" all made me stop and re-read them and savor their lines. Brittany Cavallaro's "Mesocyclone" is a natural born killer:
& when then windfall comes, it brings down
our ceilings. A peeling whine, & our house
unhouses itself. Tonight -- nothing
standing. My body first his, then yours.
Joseph Capista's "Aubade Written While Someone Peels an Orange on the #11" is another stunner: "Always, what is ripe falls. / What is that called?" Matthew Schwartz's "The Fortuneteller Said" has a rockin' opening couplet: "In another life I was / a blind violinist." Weren't we all?
So much good writing here, and some words that will stay with me, for sure. I've only touched on some of the pieces; anyone spending time with this issue will surely find others worthy of their attention.
So, yeah. Americans abroad are not always the most well-behaved. We're arrogant, judgmental, entitled, pushy, loud, snide, childish -- and that's just our diplomats.
Two recent DVD viewings and one movie I saw in the theater over the holiday break drop some very famous Americans into foreign lands to see what kind of mayhem they can stir up. Results vary, for sure.
I'll start with the one I saw in the theater: The Tourist (D+). This movie can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a heist movie, one of those action-comedy flicks that are all the Hollywood rage, a romantic adventure story, or I don't know what. Wikipedia calls it a thriller, but that is a serious misnomer. In the end it settles for the least ambitious route of all: an excuse to spend 103 minutes watching Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp run around.
Alas, even that offers small pleasure here. Jolie doesn't really act in this movie so much as bless it with her presence, gliding through untouchable and untouched, as if she's afraid that moving even a single facial muscle would give away what she really thinks about this script. Depp, meanwhile, is a twitchy, nervous, mustache-scratching shell of his usual self. I hope they spent their paychecks wisely.
Depp is the titular vactioner, a math teacher from Wisconsin on a self-pity trip to Italy, where he gets caught up implausibly in a needlessly complicated plot involving Jolie and a mysterious ex-lover, who stole some money from a mobster and is now on the run from an obsessed Scotland Yard detective who's chasing the invisible fellow because -- get this -- he didn't pay taxes on the money he stole. There are Russian gangsters, corrupt Italian police officers, chase scenes across red-slate roofs, a fancy-dress masquerade, cryptic notes being passed, boat chases through Venice, and a handful of "plot twists" you probably already have figured out. Of course there are these things. It's quite pretty and glossy and formulaic and dull. This movie is all about the pitch: "We'll take two of the most iconic movie stars in the world and put them in one of the most iconic cities in the world, and then --" at which point the starry-eyed studio exec greenlights the film and no one bothers to finish the sentence.
The American (C+) is a film of decidedly different mood, though a somewhat similar formula: Famous movie star in beautiful setting, with some conspiracy stuff going on, and let's hope no one asks too many questions.
George Clooney is the star of this gloomy movie, playing a strong-but-silent type who might be an assassin, or just a weapons maker/supplier to other assassins. The movie starts in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo country, where George is tracked down and shot at, and then he has to kill his girlfriend (I guess once she's seen people shoot at him, she's seen too much?), and then we head off to the hills of Italy, where George has to do "one last job" for his mysterious employer. The job involves making a really awesome sniper rifle for a mysterious and (obviously) beautiful hit woman. Along the way, George befriends a priest who talks to him about his soul, and falls in love with a prostitute, who falls in love with him, too.
It's all very leisurely paced and pretty to look at it. Then there are some shootouts, and then the movie ends.
Green Zone (B+) drops Matt Damon into Baghdad to hunt for weapons of mass destruction around the time George W. Bush was declaring mission accomplished. This is a hard movie to watch, even eight years after the events; it drives home just how corruptly our own government dragged us into a war, and how complicit our media was in the whole thing. You can't watch without thinking over and over, "My god, we're still there. People are still dying in this stupid 'war.'"
Damon's character -- think Jason Bourne with a conscience -- leads a team of soldiers inspecting potential WMD sites. His earnest approach to each site is painful, given what we know now -- you know, that the big, bad WMD DID NOT FUCKING EXIST. Damon comes to this conclusion on his own and begins to shift his focus to figuring out who was lying to us all -- and how to fix things, so that the war doesn't end up screwing up Iraq forever. Of course, the main obstacle to his quest is from his own side: a Defense Department backroomer played with perfectly maddening smarminess by Greg Kinnear. The movie is tense and exciting, and extremely frustrating.
A recent New Yorker article describes the famous toppling of that statue of Saddam, and how manipulated and manipulative the whole scene was. As Green Zone drives home, the whole damn war was that way from the start. After being stymied at every turn, at the end of the movie, Matt Damon's character does manage to achieve some small measure of justice. But for the viewer who knows all too well how things have gone since 2003, it's faint consolation.
One of the awesome things about teaching for a living is Christmas break. One of the awesome things about Christmas break? Having time to go to the movies. Before my break ended, I was lucky enough to see two good movies on back-to-back days recently, followed by one not-so-good movie on the third day.
On the face of it, these particular three movies -- in the order I saw them, Tangled, True Grit, Black Swan -- would seem to have little in common. But it turns out they share a theme: a young girl making her way in the big bad world with the assistance of an older man who is some form of ruffian, scoundrel or cad.
Tangled (B+), Disney's retelling of Rapunzel, is a lot of fun. One of those animated movies that the whole family can enjoy, only it doesn't have to resort to over-the-kids'-heads pop culture references or ever-so-slyly-sneaked-in bits of sexual innuendo to keep the parents entertained, nor sink to fart-and-belch humor to make the children laugh. Instead, it relies on -- get this -- a compelling plot line and smartly written, interesting characters.
Quick plot summary: Baby princess born with magic hair. Baby princess kidnapped by crone who wants to use the magic hair to keep herself young. Crone keeps princess locked in tower. Princess grows up, befriends the gecko from those car-insurance commercials, dreams of seeing the world. Enter the dashing young thief (pursued by the coolest film horse ever), who helps her break out of her shell (and that tower). Adventures ensue. Princess charms everyone she meets along the way, from babies to all manner of outlaws and thugs. Princess resolves her mommy issues, winds up reunited with her real parents, and, of course, in love with the dashing young thief and living ... well, it's Disney. You know how she lives.
You might say this movie is Aladdin told from Jasmine's point of view. Despite the familiar formula, though, this movie doesn't take itself too saccharinely. Nor is it consumed with the winking, have-it-both-ways self-awareness of so many kids movies these days. It's a largely straightforward tale that can laugh at itself without undercutting its own emotional tug.
True Grit (A) now ranks with Unforgiven as my two favorite Westerns. But unlike Unforgiven, this movie does not try to provide the all-too-self-aware critique of the genre you might have expected from the Coen brothers. This film forgoes irony almost entirely in favor of telling a good story with interesting characters.
I have neither read the novel nor seen the John Wayne version of the movie, so I was not familiar with the plot. Mattie Ross -- played with unswerving confidence by 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld -- seeks to avenge the death of her father, so she hires a broken-down drunkard of a U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn, not so much played as embodied by the brilliant Jeff Bridges, who slurs and growls his way through the movie as if he is speaking through a mouthful of whiskey-soaked gravel. Matt Damon is along for the ride as a self-important Texas Ranger pursuing the same man. Barry Pepper shows up as a the leader of an outlaw gang, and the always-excellent Josh Brolin renders the hunted man as a dim, unlucky, self-pitying and altogether realistic numbskull for whom the murder of Mattie's father was less an act of evil than yet another situation in which he could not catch a break.
With a cast like that, just as you would expect, the men in this movie are thoroughly enjoyable to watch. But the film is held together by Mattie Ross. She is a force of nature. She knows precisely what she wants, and she refuses to be cowed in the least by the man's world she inhabits. She demands to be treated as an equal, and eventually, reluctantly, the men around her concede that she is, at the least, their equal.
Incidentally, I have nothing against irony or self-awareness. Done smartly, such a stance can offer a complex, entertaining commentary on the world around us. But all too often, it serves merely as a shield to protect a storyteller or filmmaker from criticism ("I know that character is shallow, I did it on purpose, it is a comment on society, don't you see?"), with attitude acting as stand-in for the hard work of crafting a genuinely good story. True Grit, refreshingly, takes on that difficult task with gusto.
Black Swan (D) is ... well, what's the best way to put this? It's an underwritten, overblown, self-adoring ode to sexual assault and the mutilation of the female body. It's a stalker/Lolita fantasy all dolled up in pseudo-intellectual clothes: dressed up for a night at the ballet. It's the kind of movie that dares its audience not to like it; the undercurrent of the whole film is that if you don't like any of this, if any of these scenes makes you uncomfortable, well, that's just because you're not deep enough, not smart enough, not awesome enough to grasp the awesomeness of this awesome movie. And you probably live in the middle of the country somewhere. It's the kind of movie that you're supposed to walk out of saying things like, "Wow, that really makes you think and question reality."
But here's the thing: It's easy to make it hard for an audience to tell what's real and what's not. You know what's not easy? Making the audience care about the answer.
Natalie Portman -- whom I love -- plays a ballet dancer who dreams of stardom. She's some undetermined age, but she lives with a Joan Crawford of a Mommy (embodied disturbingly by Barbara Hershey) who's scarier than the kidnapping old hag from Tangled. Fairly early in the movie, Natalie gets the lead role she's always wanted -- playing the black and white swans in Swan Lake -- at the expense of the too-old-for-the-marquee Winona Ryder (am I the only one who noticed that this movie basically stole its plot from Showgirls?). But of course, being the prima ballerina isn't all it's cracked up to be. She must deal with jealous rivals, her mother, her own increasingly unstable mind, and a way-creepy company director who plays the scoundrel/mentor role in this movie. He gives her the role because she bites him in response to an unwelcome kiss. He tells her to go home and masturbate. He jams his hand between her legs, uninvited, in the name of "seduction" and, I suppose, "teaching her to dance better."
All the while, Natalie grows crazier and gaunter and crazier and gaunter. She has serious eating-disorder issues. She apparently has a history of scratching herself. She peels off strips of skin. Oh, and she's also turning into a swan. For real. You know, with feathers poking through her skin and, yes, webbed feet. The scene where she picks at the skin growing between her toes has to be one of the most unintentionally hilarious/gross/ridiculous scenes in cinematic history. (I know, I know, my lack of awesome deepness and my Michigan residence are showing.)
Of course, we don't know how much of this, if any, is really happening, because Natalie's our p.o.v. character, and she's increasingly unreliable. The problem is that we also don't care whether any of it is real. Nothing's at stake. Real or imagined, it's all quite ridiculous.
Much of the movie has the feeling of watching Natalie from just around a corner, or from behind a door. There are some grainy subway scenes that could have been shot by a stalker on his camera phone. This movie is guy-fantasy all the way. Women masturbating, hot girls making out (and more), cat fights? Mee-ow. The plot here isn't the thing borrowed from the Showgirls playbook.
These three movies go exactly as far as their main characters take them. Rapunzel is delightful, funny, sympathetic, entertaining. Mattie Ross is a revelation, a no-nonsense whirlwind of contraction-free speech and sheer force of will. Black Swan, though, breaks down even as its main character -- her name is Nina -- crumbles. Not that you can't tell a good story with an unstable, even unsympathetic, character at its heart. There are plenty of examples. But at some level, in some way, the audience still has to care about what happens to that character. It's pretty clear that the movie itself doesn't care about Nina, not as a person. She is a symbol, a toy, an object.
Black Swan culminates with a beautifully filmed dance in which Nina's transformation (real or imagined) is played out on stage. It's an impressive, gorgeous scene, dazzling to the eye. But, like the movie itself, it leaves the viewer cold -- it has no emotional core, no depth of character at its heart to make us care.
Despite my recent waxing mediocre over a handful of the season's cinematic offerings, I did get to see two movies in the theater this summer that I quite enjoyed for more than merely the popcorn: Inception and Toy Story 3.
I'll start with Inception (A-). There are about a kajillion bloggers and fanboys out there dissecting this movie's every scene and nuance. I'm not going to do that here. I've seen it just the once, so I'm not especially qualified to do so anyway. But I also have the feeling that the more I dig into this movie, the less I'm going to like it. If I spend too much time poking at the movie's Deep Hidden Meanings, I'm pretty certain I'll come away less impressed. I know, I know. We don't know what's real! We might be dreaming right now! Et cetera. Got it. Don't care.
What I liked about this movie: Cool visuals. Interesting cast. Fairly original concept. Fast-moving plot. Suspenseful climax. In short, a fun heist flick. I love heist flicks.
As for the ending of the movie, well, I'm on record as being opposed to those quick-cut endings where you're supposed to make up your own mind what it all means. I'm certainly willing to make up my own mind about this, but I don't need you to hammer me in the face with the concept. I remember there was an episode of Law and Order: SVU that did that once -- it was a he-said, she-said, consensual-sex-or-rape plot. Benson and Stabler disagreed about the issue (of course), and the show ended as the trial concluded, cutting abruptly to black as the jury foreperson said, "We find the defendant ..." Dumb ending. I don't watch Law and Order so that I can be tricked into thinking more deeply about my stance on complex social issues or some such. I watch Law and Order for a decently told story. That ending strikes me as the director trying too hard. Reaching too far. And ducking the responsibility of ending the story in a nuanced, complex, interesting, thought-provoking, narratively consistent way.
I feel rather the same about the spinning top/cut to black at the end of Inception. (OMG! Did it fall?! Was it wobbling? Was there a clattering sound as the credits started? How do we know? WHAT'S REAL???? AM I DREAMING??!!?? OMGWTFBBQ!) But I'm willing to let it slide (meaning the issue, not the top itself) because I liked the bulk of the movie.
Toy Story 3 (A) was the other best movie I saw in the theater this summer. Saw it once in 3D, which was pretty cool, but dude? Expensive!, and once in regular D, which was fine, too. It's a terrific film. Sweet, moving, exciting, tender, scary, excellent. Not that I would expect anything less from Pixar. I mean, when your worst movie is Ratatouille*, you're doing pretty damn well.
Big-screen animation certainly has come a long way from the days when we (at least, we guys) thought it remarkable that we were all so attracted to Jessica Rabbit. Now it's not surprising in the least that a theater-full of kids and adults alike can get all lump-in-the-throat over the fate of some cartoon toys. There's an incredibly powerful moment in Toy Story 3 when you think it might actually have a dreadfully unhappy ending, and it's one of the most tender, believable, memorable scenes you'll see in the movies.
And the end of the movie is certain to get the parents in the crowd at least a bit choked up. Kids grow up so fast, don't they? And like us parents, all the toys can do is watch. Not that this movie is all weepy-emo-sappiness, though. Far from it. Ken of Ken and Barbie fame is one of my favorite comic-relief characters ever. He steals every scene he's in, and he has some killer lines (voiced awesomely by Michael Keaton): "Barbie, no one else around here understands clothes!" Also, it turns out that Buzz Lightyear has a "Spanish mode" that is particularly entertaining.
So, to sum up: Funny, sweet, intelligent, enjoyable. Oh, and the final scene wraps up BEFORE the movie cuts to black. Just saying.
*Or maybe A Bug's Life? I don't know. None of Pixar's movies is bad. But to paraphrase Violet Parr, if every Pixar movie is special, then none of them is special, right?
It's easy to make fun of Dan Brown.
Literary types -- and I do sometimes fancy myself something of a literary type -- can look down their noses at his overwrought sentences, his dissertationesque dialogue, his conspiracy-theory plots. And, of course, his popularity. Anyone who makes that much money from his books can't be a real writer, can he?
Listen. Dan Brown is up and writing at 4 a.m. When he's working on a novel, he writes five to eight hours a day. (Or so he says in various interviews, and I see no reason to doubt him.) If that doesn't make him a writer, I don't know what does.
So make fun all you want. Just respect the fact that he does the work. Lots of people talk about writing. Lots of us have this great idea or that partially finished manuscript or the other big plans for something we'd write if only life would give us large uninterrupted blocks of time for writing. Hey, you know what? A writer writes.
Just finished reading The Lost Symbol, which I actually thought was better than The Da Vinci Code. Yes, the plot is remarkably similar -- Robert Langdon finds himself thrust into the middle of a high-stakes chase through a historical city (in this case, Washington D.C.), a pretty woman at his side, following a series of mysterious clues rooted in history and/or religion. Yes, the action stops frequently for lengthy conversations about the meaning of various arcane symbols or monuments. Yes, the dialogue is often implausible at best. Yes, some of the sentences are best described as tortured ("Neckties had been required six days a week when Langdon attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and despite the headmaster's romantic claims that the origin of the cravat went back to the silk fascalia worn by Roman orators to warm their vocal cords, Langdon knew that, etymologically, cravat actually derived from a ruthless band of 'Croat' mercenaries who donned knotted neckerchiefs before they stormed into battle").
But you know what? It's all pretty fun anyway. It's easy to see why his novels are so popular. We like conspiracy theories, and we like stuff that makes us feel smarter (even if it's smarter in a superficial, pseudo-academic way). And we like heroes who dash around with pretty women at their sides and save the day at the last minute. (Plus, the novel has the advantage of not having Tom Hanks' hair distracting us from the action.)
I admit that on a word/sentence level, Brown's writing isn't something I'd turn to for inspiration. But his work ethic? His writing habits? The fact that he's done the work? All that is to be admired. He's a writer. He writes.
Ah, summer. Time for tee ball, fresh blueberries, sandals, kids at camp, slip-n-slides killing the grass in your lawn, reading thick novels you might be embarrassed about in the winter, and of course a multiplex full of popcorny blockbustery big-budgety cinematicy offerings. A little while back, while the fam was out of town, I had the chance to take in a quartet of action (or at least action-ish) flicks.
My overwhelming reaction to these four Hollywood gems? Meh. Shrug. Like, whatever, mostly.
At any rate, I'm finally getting around to posting the reviews. Read on!
The A-Team (B-): This is most certainly NOT a movie that grades itself. Sorry, filmmakers. The most pleasurable moments in this movie come from the callbacks -- those scenes and gestures that spark recollections of the halcyon days of a youth spent watching prime-time TV back when everyone had the same three channels (four if you count PBS, five if you count that fuzzy one way the heck up the UHF dial): Hannibal lighting a cigar and observing how much he appreciates the fruition of a good plan; the team finding creative ways to circumvent B.A.'s fear of flying; the unveiling of that familiar black van with the now insanely-dated-looking red stripe; the opening and closing credits, complete with voiceover. The plot is merely okay, the bad guys aren't all that compelling, but there are some fun explosions and whatnot, plus enough one-liners to qualify this as one of those "action-comedies" everyone's talking about. Basically, harmless fun, or at least, fun enough. Which is pretty much how I remember the show, too.
Jonah Hex (B-): This movie has been so devastatingly panned by critics that I think it qualifies as underrated. Maybe it's just because I like Josh Brolin so much, but I didn't think it was all that bad. It's a comic book adaptation in which Brolin plays a chewed-steak-faced Civil War soldier-turned-bounty hunter with the nifty power to bring the dead back to life long enough to learn their secrets. Or, in one case, long enough to kill the dude all over again. Which, you gotta admit, is pretty bad ass. John Malkovich's facial hair plays the dastardly villain, and Megan Fox vamps around foxily as the hooker with a heart of gold and a derringer tucked in her petticoat. Is this a great movie? No, but it's not too long, it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it also doesn't roll around smugly in its own sense of irony. At the least, I liked it as much as I liked The A-Team. And certainly more than I liked ...
Knight and Day (C-): The action-comedy isn't a new genre. Think Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, etc. As far as I can tell, though, the new installments in this particular canon are using the hyphen to let themselves off the hook for the concepts on either side of that hyphen. If I think your movie's not that funny, then you say to me, "But did you see that plane crash into that field and then blow up in a huge fiery ball? And did you check out that machine gun battle slash high speed car chase? Those were awesome, weren't they?" And if I think your movie had a paper-thin excuse for a plot and was chock-full of over-acting, implausible situations, plot holes you could drive a movie star's ego through, and undeveloped characters with unclear motivations, you say to me, "C'mon! You're taking it too seriously. We know it's dumb; that's part of the point. It's supposed to be, like, ironic and stuff." Which, if you're going to respond that way, leaves me with nothing really to say about Knight and Day.
Iron Man 2 (B-): Speaking of, like, irony (get it?) and stuff. The entire time you're watching this movie, it feels as if the executive producer is sitting beside you in the theater, constantly elbowing you in the ribs and whispering, "Get it? Get it?" Yes, we get it. Yes, we know the movie's telling us that we're all in on the joke. Yes, we recognize that allusion to some other Marvel character, and we catch this reference to some movie your studio's going to make later. Yes, we understand that all the over-the-top hero worship is some kind of ironic (get it?) commentary on something in our real life society. Problem is, if everyone's in on the joke, it's not really a joke anymore, is it? If everything is ironic (get it?), then nothing is. Some kind of commentary about something winds up being no kind of commentary about anything. When I watched the first installment in this series, I remarked that it felt like watching the pilot episode of a TV show, where the creative energy is largely devoted to introducing lots of characters and establishing a certain tone for the series, rather than, you know, telling a compelling story or entertaining the audience. Well, this second movie feels exactly the same way. There's a certain amount of pleasure, of course, in watching Robert Downey Jr. strut and mug and pout, but the plot is both vaporous and muddled, there is way too much going on, and Mickey Rourke offers a scene-chewing, overamped, over-accented, over-muscled mess of a bad guy. I know the studio's busily setting up this whole Marvelverse thing, but I do hope at some point they move past the setting-up stage and get to the part where they actually, like, make good movies.
So my wife goes out of town. First night she's gone, I feed the kids pizza and then once they're in bed, I pop in two movies I figure she has no interest in: Terminator Salvation and Sin City. Now, if you happen to've seen these movies, you can guess what the punchline is: Turns out, I wasn't all that interested in them, either.
Terminator Salvation (C+): Would've been much better to see this one in a theater, I think, because the explosions and all were pretty nifty. This one's set in the future Terminiverse, when the mean old machines are in charge, before they've invented Arnold Schwarzenegger and sent him back in time to infiltrate the Kennedy family through marriage. Christian Bale stalks around and mutters important things about the resistance. (And, apparently, gets really pissed when someone makes a noise during his backswing or whatever, and goes all Tiger Woods' caddy on some poor dude.) Unfortunately, the movie is ... well, it's kind of boring, in the end. Sam Worthington (dude from Avatar) is pretty likeable in a role that ends up feeling way more substantial than Bale as John Connor, but the plot manages to pull off the unlikely combo of generically familiar and needlessly complicated. Too bad. I wanted to really like this movie. But at least it wasn't the worst movie I watched that night ...
Sin City (F): I would say this was an unwatchable mess, but I did actually watch it. Although by the end, I was probably more focused on whatever random distractions I found on the internet (Hey, look! Kittens on a slide!) than on the movie. Holy cow. Based on Frank Miller's series of graphic novels, this flick is a cartoonish, clumsy, self-serious pile of poo with a million "noir" cliches and seventy-eight tangled storylines and twenty-three voiceovers and exactly zero reasons you should ever let this thing near your DVD player, lest your whole home theater system catch some kind of disease.
Here's what I have learned from the movies: Living happily ever after sucks.
At least, it does for Prince Charming. The fair maidens among us are better equipped for the domestic life. See, for guys, being married and growing up means giving up our true selves. The self that likes to burp and fart and roar and roll around in the mud. Like, say, an ogre. Or Jonah Hill.
Shrek: The Final Chapter (A) fits smoothly into a long line of recent movies -- think most anything made by Judd Apatow or starring Seth Rogen or featuring Paul Rudd -- that depicts the modern American male as a beast and the American woman as his tamer. For a guy, being his true self means acting like an idiot. But eventually, he has to give up that self in order to find a mate. Then he becomes domesticated. Grown up. Mature. Responsible. And has a heck of a lot less fun.
This is what has happened to Shrek in the current (and allegedly last) installment of the quite-pleasurable, fun-for-the-whole-family series. (It actually kind of already happened to him in the made-for-TV Christmas special "Shrek the Halls," but maybe that's outside the canon?) He's a grown man, with responsibilities. His villager-terrorizing days are behind him. His life is predictable. He is, as he says, "a jolly green joke." So, of course, he makes a bad decision to try to recapture some of those glory days by signing an ill-advised contract with Rumplestiltskin. (Never trust that guy! Seriously!)
I don't need to tell you what happens from there. It's all pretty standard stuff. Holds the kiddos' attention, offers a handful of laugh-aloud moments for the moms and dads -- another well-done, pleasingly animated, thoroughly enjoyable movie. And it ends the way you'd expect: with Shrek realzing he doesn't know how good he has had it and embracing his new, de-ogre-ized life.
The thing is, though, just as in, say, The Hangover, or Knocked Up, you don't quite believe the ending. Because all that other stuff on the way to the ending -- all those reckless, rollicking adventures on the way to happily ever after -- all that stuff sure looks like a lot more fun than changing diapers and unclogging outhouses. These movies draw a pretty clear line between fun (all that misbehaving) and not fun (being married with kids). Even Fiona's a lot more lively when she's not burdened by children and dear old hubby. (It is worth noting that in most movies, it's the guy who's not cut out for that boring old domestication, and we're expected to understand his frustrations. When a wife can't handle the quiet life, she's usually nuts. Think Revolutionary Road, for one example.)
I guess I just think it's a false choice. You can be your true self -- your youthful, vigorous, happy self -- without acting like a moron. And you can grow up and take on responsibilities and a family without becoming a boring shell of a person. Sure, it's a nice shorthand way for movies to create conflict, to present column A as lively and exciting and column B as dead and dull. There's a reason fairy tales end when the high jinks are over, after all. But -- and I know I'm gonna sound way cheesy here -- growing up doesn't mean you have to stop having adventures. Just like your true deep-down self doesn't have to be a responsibility-shirking, video-game-playing frat boy.
Once you figure all that out, you can set about living happily ever after.
One of the great songs of all-time is "Death Letter" by Son House. Bone-shattering lyrics, blistering guitar, the works. I could rave on and on about it, but why don't you just judge for yourself. Here are three versions for your listening pleasure on this fine Tuesday.
Son House, the man himself:
Here's a face-melting live cover by The White Stripes (with some "Grinnin' in Your Face" thrown in for good measure):
Another live one, from a Norwegian guitarist named Bjorn Berge (he's changed a lot since his tennis-playing days).
True confession time: I have never been particularly good at videogames, even through I came of age in an era when I probably should have been, and plenty of my friends were. I always liked Centipede. And Track and Field, you know, with the rollerball. My brother and I used to walk from my dad's apartment to a Western Supermarket that had a Punchout. I enjoyed these games, but I was never adept at any of them. I don't think I ever even got past Bald Bull.
The only game I've ever been legitimately good at is NBA Jam, back when I was 23 or so. There was a machine at a mini-golf place in Tallahassee, Fla., and a couple friends and I used to play with a frequency that in retrospect is perhaps a bit embarrassing. (The Hornets, with Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill, were always a good choice, if that tells you how long ago it was. The Charlotte Hornets.) The three of us were consistently ranked in the top four on the machine, along with a middle-school-age kid whose handle was MBH.
I also played a good deal of pinball in late college and the years following. My favorite machines were T2, The Addams Family, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a battered old Funhouse at the laundromat, back in the days when we had to pack our dirty clothes into the backseat and drive them across town, then spend a whole bag of quarters and three hours waiting for one of the good dryers in the back to open up. Don't miss those days, that's for sure. But I do kind of miss that Funhouse machine.
I am the right age to remember arcades in every mall and watching the kids who were really good, the ones who could sometimes draw a bit of a crowd as they cleared level after level on some machine. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (A-) is a fairly delightful documentary about those kids, only now they're all grown up -- but still sitting behind those joysticks, jumping over barrels, evading fireballs, setting all kinds of high scores.
As you might imagine, the pond of world-class classic arcade gamer is a pretty small one, and the biggest fish living therein is one Billy Mitchell, a hot-sauce and chicken-wing-restaurant kingpin with a ridiculous haircut who becomes this movie's supervillain, as unlikable a character to strut on screen as you've ever seen. The movie plays up the contrast of his smugness and entitlement and insecurity with the sweet, unassuming nature of Our Hero Steve Wiebe, a nebbish but handsome fellow whose entire sense of self-worth seems to be tied up in his chase of Mitchell's insanely high Donkey Kong world record. Along the way, we meet a full complement of supporting characters, folks who take this classic arcade-gaming stuff REALLY damn seriously, most notably Walter Day, a well-meaning cartoon character of a fellow who's the self-proclaimed arbiter of game records.
The movie follows the stereotypical sports-flick plot: sweet underdog tries to beat uber-powerful bad guy. There are scoring controveries, blurry videotapes, questionable officiating decisions, conspiracy theories about doctored Donkey Kong motherboards. Fun stuff, from start to end. It's not the slickest production you'll ever see, but it's fine entertainment. The filmmakers clearly want you to be cheering on Wiebe, but you mostly end up rooting against Mitchell. Which is, of course, its own kind of fun.
Jake and the Fat Man was a TV show, right? Like some kind of a private detective thing, maybe from the early 1990s? I'm totally guessing here, because I'm pretty sure I never watched it at all. It must have been on CBS. At any rate, in this case, Jake refers to the dough-eyed (meaning cash money) Mr. Gggyyylllenhhgallyyll, and the spat man? flat man? whatever man refers to Mel Gibson, who carries gats in lots of his movies? Gets in spats in lots of his movies? Is flat on screen? Yeah, I got nothing. Sorry. Clearly, I should have tried something else for my word play, but I'm committed now.
Brothers (B+): This is one of those movies that while you watching it, you're thinking, hey, this is really pretty good. Hence the B+. But then when you think about it later, you can't really remember what you liked about it. It's a war-at-home story about Peter Parker and his no-account brother. Tobey Maguire is a military dad with an awesome wife, played by Queen Amadala, and two adorable little girls. Tobey walks around all bug-eyed so you believe he's related to Jake Gargoylenhall, who is newly out of prison. Their dad tells everyone 100 times that Tobey>Jake. Then Tobey goes off to war, where his helicopter crashes and he's PRESUMED (spoiler alert!) dead. So back at home, Jake rises to the occasion. He remodels a kitchen, plays with his nieces, and smokes dope with his sister-in-law. Then Tobey comes home, and thanks to the rigors of war, he's even MORE bug-eyed and his neck tendons twitch and flex like they're trying to get their own SAG cards. Plus, he's paranoid and angry. So things around the house are pretty awkward for a while. And then it looks like maybe things might get better someday, and then the movie ends.
The Edge of Darkness (D): Back before Mel Gibson was a crazy person, he was this huge movie star who made blockbusters and was actually pretty fun to watch in them. It was a simpler time. This movie offers a bit of a reminder of that Mel Gibson, the one with the screen presence. He plays a Boston cop of a certain age (if you can't chew up a Bahston accent these days, you're no kind of actor; thanks a lot, Matt & Ben) who's investigating the murder of his daughter. And there are some scenes where he gets all Lethal Weapon and kicks butt, and those are kind of fun. Alas, the movie as a whole is a mess. The plot is ripped off from Payback, plus a healthy dose of Ransom and a sprinking of Conspiracy Theory. It's like a Mel Gibson greatest hits medley. The intrigue is more confusing than, you know, intriguing. There's some kind of high-level cover-up going on, with a senator and a weapons plant, and a weird British guy with cancer who switches sides whenever it's convenient, and there's the sourest milk of all time, and a handful of bad guys who are nowhere to be found when Mel's walking around most of the movie in broad daylight but show up with uncanny precision whenever he's having a secret meeting with a witness, and the whole thing is because somebody's making weapons with the wrong names on them. Pretty thin stuff.
Being excited about a movie isn't necessarily a good thing, at least as it relates to the watching experience. High expectations are tough to live up to. I had heard nothing but good things about Iron Man, and I think that dampened my pleasure when I finally saw it. Likewise, I know my hopes were naively elevated for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of that Kid from Project Greenlight.
Similarly I was really looking forward to Wanted (C-), based not so much on anything I'd heard, but on the promise of the premise: a secret cult of assassins, conspiracy theories, Angelina Jolie, curving bullets, Morgan Freeman, cool special effects, Angelina Jolie (or did I mention her already?). Alas, this was clearly a case of the whole being far less than the sum of its parts, done in by a painful script, an all-too-familiar general plot and a series of implausible scenes that push the viewer's suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Look, I don't mind a good fistfight in a train car dangling precariously from the edge of a cliff, but please try to make your plot twists make sense. In this movie, you had the idea that they came up with the story as they went along. Like this:
Director: It's been 25 minutes, we need a surprise here!
Assistant associate producer: How about making this evil character good and that good one evil?
Writer: But then that scene we just shot won't make any sense. In fact, the whole movie up to this point will be rendered nonsensical.
Third runner-up to the executive producer: Who cares? We can distract the audience with some more of those twisty bullets.
Key grip: What about Angelina? Can we show her naked?
Executive super-duper king of producers: Perfect!
Angelina's agent: From behind only. Frontal costs more than you can afford. Unless you can guarantee an Oscar nomination, like Halle Berry in Monster's Ball.
Writer: But ... but ... ah, never mind. Make sure you spell my name right on the paychecks, would ya?
Yeah. Like that.
But for me, there is a certain kind of excitement, a fervent belief that a movie is going to be good, that sometimes pays off. I can think of three examples from the past ten years: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Fellowship of the Ring (the rest of the trilogy, too); and Batman Begins. Those are probably the movies I have most looked forward to in recent years. And they were all I hoped they would be. Now there's another movie that is matching them in terms of my anticipation:
I re-read the graphic novel over the Christmas holidays, and it has definitely stood the test of time for me. It's a terrific piece of art, a triumph, a tour de force of storytelling and illustration. And based on the trailers I've seen (the one above included), the movie is going to render the visuals from the book(s) almost perfectly. I know that there will be some details omitted, some subplots dropped or condensed -- translating a 12-installment novel into a 2-hour movie makes that inevitable. I don't care. I pledge not to nitpick the small stuff. I just know this movie's going to be good enough that the small differences from the source material won't matter.
Speaking of expectations
That first week of March is a big one for me: U2's next album, No Line on the Horizon, drops that week, too. I admit to not being especially objective about U2 -- it's hard for me to imagine a U2 album I would not like. So you can take my eagerness for this record with a whole shaker of salt. At least I know when I'm being utterly biased, right? The first single -- "Get on Your Boots" (you can listen to it at that link) -- is a fun, energetic, poppy, fuzzed-up rocker, and I can't wait to see what the rest of the album holds.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander has taken some heat over her inaugural poem, delivered today in Washington on this historic day. The L.A. Times was particularly harsh, railing against Alexander's "prosaic language" and "strange sentiment," suggesting the poem "simply didn't sing." Fellow poet/blogger Dean Rader is less critical, but not especially enthusiastic.
I am here to defend Alexander's poem.
I liked it. More than liked it. What the L.A. Times book editor calls prosaic -- "Each day we go about our business" -- is in fact iambic pentameter. What a London Times writer calls "unmemorable" (proved by the fact, she proudly proclaims, that she can't remember it), I think is a strong, subtle, non-bombastic poem that will stand the test of time far better than Maya Angelou's 1992 poem from Bill Clinton's inauguration. I remember being swept away by Angelou's rhetoric at the time; now I read the poem and cannot remember why. I think Alexander's poem will age more gracefully.
Angelou is a better, more vivacious performer and reader. I heard several people complain about Alexander's flat delivery. I was teaching during the swearing-in ceremony and the speech and the poem, so I didn't get to watch the video until just now -- and I think Alexander did a very nice job. I think her reading was strong and clear-voiced.
A praise song is the perfect form for an inaugural poem. I wrote an inaugural poem myself recently as part of a challenge with a group of fellow poets, and let me tell you, it's hard. It's a genre that begs for sentimentality and cliche. I think Alexander avoided these nimbly, while still capturing the optimism and inclusiveness that the occasion demands. And there are some lines that will stick with me: "What if the mightiest word is love" and "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun / On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light."
To Elizabeth Alexander, I say, bravo. Job well done. That was the hardest poem you will ever have to write, and I think you got it right.
Dawn Patrol, by Don Winslow (2008): Boone Daniels, a surfer dude who's a former cop and now a lazy but brilliant P.I., investigates the disappearance of a stripper in this novel that's dense with surfer lingo and some Point Break-style mumbo jumbo about the mysticism of riding a killer wave, dude. The book's fine, the plot's solid, the prose interesting, but man, that surfing talk gets pretty deep up in here.
The Walking Dead by Gerald Seymour (2007): A political-terrorism-thriller-police-procedural. Takes a loooong while to get into because it jets around the globe and the English countryside introducing an insane number of characters, whose various stories, of course, draw closer and closer together until they all intersect in not-all-that surprising ways. It's like Bleak House with suicide bombers. Not an unpleasant read, in all, but probably more trouble than it ends up being worth (and it does that "24" thing where it justifies all manner of torture by suggesting it's the only way to get the information Our Heroes need to save the world, and only wimps and nuns should grow squeamish at the notion).
Dead of Night by Randy Wayne White (2005): I dipped back into the series about Doc Ford, superbiologist and fighter of evildoers. I like Doc, and I like White's prose style, but once again the story seemed needlessly populated by characters so eccentric as to be unbelievable -- characters so "interesting" that they are, in fact, quite dull. I like Doc, and I like White's prose style.
Sorrow's Anthem by Michael Koryta (2006): An ex-cop P.I. in Cleveland investigates the death a former friend from the neighborhood. This book reminds me a bit of Dennis Lehane, but it's not quite that authentic, somehow, the plot feeling less organic and more like, well, like the plot of a novel. Some italicized flashbacks border on the sentimental, as such things are wont to do.
Coupla recent movies (one in the theater, one on DVD):
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (C+): This stiffly animated movie takes place between Episode II and Episode III and adds pretty much nothing to the story (except that Jabba has an ugly little son who looks like an overinflated tadpole), and has all the depth of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the animation is kind of ... odd, and there are like 100,000 battle scenes that consist of blips of light flashing back and forth across the screen. At least the animated Anakin Skywalker is more emotive than Hayden Christensen's live-action version.
A Scanner Darkly (D): Another animated movie, done in that style where live actors are filmed and then animated over. It's kind of weird to look at, and as far as I can tell, it's mostly distracting. As opposed to, you know, being compelling or interesting. Two adjectives that don't really belong anywhere near the title of this movie. I wanted to like this movie so much. I didn't.
The third season of Dexter is just beginning on Showtime. Now, I don't have Showtime, but this show makes me wish I did. (I've also heard nothing bad about Weeds.)
Dexter is what CSI: Miami would be if CSI: Miami were any good. And if it starred someone tolerable, as opposed to that redheaded dude from Jade. What's his name again?
Seriously, Caruso must spend hours in front of a mirror practicing taking his sunglasses off and narrowing his eyes. It's such a phony-looking gesture. Reminds me of the way Travolta smoked cigarettes in Broken Arrow. I'm sure I'm the only one who remembers these things, or noticed them in the first place, but he had this very precise way of splaying his fingers into a V when he took a drag. It looked ridiculous. (Yes, I know I'm nitpicking about a minor detail. From Broken Arrow. The one with John Travolta taking advantage of his post-Pulp Fiction buzz to cash a check playing a renegade fighter pilot stealing a nuke because he's mad at the government, but being thwarted by Christian Slater and the woman who played Princess Daisy in the Super Mario Bros. movie. And I'm complaining about the way Travolta smoked a cigarette. Hey, I figure he spent so much time working on that gesture, and I'm probably the only one who noticed, at least this way when he's doing his regular Google search for "Travolta" and "Broken Arrow" and "smoking" and "fingers into a V," he might stumble across this blog on like the 48th page of search results. Hi, John! Sorry I'm making fun of you! Drop me a comment if you want to read my screenplay, okay? I can write the main character older if you want, or you could be the vice president -- a smaller but substantial role befitting a thespian of your many talents. He doesn't smoke right now, but he easily could.)
Where was I? Right, right, Dexter. Good show. You should watch it, really.
Black Widow by Randy Wayne White (2008)
The latest installment in a long-running series about biologist and secret agent-type Doc Ford, and my first venture into the series. In this story, Doc manages the money drop for a woman he's known since she was a girl who's being blackmailed on the eve of her wedding. Of course, things go awry, and the plot, as they say, thickens. Doc finds himself amid a truly bizarre cast of characters on a Carribean island. The plotting is solid, if a touch slow-paced at times, and Doc is an enjoyable, competent protagonist. The secondary characters tend toward the excessively eccentric, which is sometimes distracting, and the plot sprouts more offshoots than it can easily resolve. The prose style is generally clean, although there are several overly expository segments presented as "background material" compiled by Doc or one of his cohorts; I'd have preferred that info be woven more seamlessly into the narrative.
Goodbye Sister Disco by James Patrick Hunt (2008)
This is the second novel featuring St. Louis police detective George Hastings (I haven't read the other one). The plot involves a murder and kidnapping by some kind of radical group of anarchists, and there's the usual whining by the local cops about the intervention of the FBI (nothing you haven't read before a dozen times: the plastic, stuffed-suit FBI guys think the locals are a bunch of yahoos; the streetwise locals think the FBI guys lack instincts and common sense). Hastings himself is fine, if a bit morose for a lead character. The most compelling character in the book is one of the kidnappers, a femme fatale with wicked leadership skills whose portion of the story comes to an abrupt, dissatisfying conclusion. And the resolution of the plot is ultimately slightly disappointing as well; Hastings doesn't really flex his investigatory skills until very near the end, and the group of kidnappers does as much damage to itself as Hastings does when he practically stumbles upon the already-escaping victim. For a police procedural, this is generally well written, but ultimately falls somewhat short on procedure. (And I have no idea what the Who lyrics have to do with anything; it's a serious stretch of a title.)
Bad Blood by Linda Fairstein (2007)
Stepping in late to yet another well-established series, this one about NYC prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Starts reeeeeeally slowly, with an interminable courtoom scene in a case I don't care about. This book sets a record for ridiculously expository dialogue. The characters talk like wikipedia entries, when they're not engaging in overly jocular, fake-seeming banter. At some point there's a way-violent prisoner escape and an exhumation and some mostly-off-screen violence, and the plot gets just interesting enough to hold your attention. But just barely.
Nobody Runs Forever by Richard Stark (2004)
Donald Westlake has written about three million books, including many under the name Richard Stark about a career criminal named Parker, of which this is one -- and the first Westlake/Stark book I've read. This book reminds me very much of Lawrence Block's Hitman series. Parker has the same disinterested (not meaning uninterested), professional demeanor as Keller, the hitman. Parker is a criminal because he's good at it, and he's supremely competent and startlingly unemotional. The book has a dry, detached tone, and super-clean prose. It's well-plotted and interesting throughout; Parker is my kind of criminal. It's not the kind of book that grabs you emotionally, but it's a very, very pleasurable read.
Somewhat recently on DVD:
3:10 to Yuma (B)
Before he was Batman, Bruce Wayne was a disabled farmer in the old west with a son who openly wished his father were more manly, like, say, Russell Crowe, and a wife who secretly wished her husband were more manly, like, say, Russell Crowe. So Bruce Wayne decided to kick Russell Crowe's ass, or at least take him to the train station. Russell Crowe is so manly that he kills 1,500 people and escapes 200 times on the way to the train station, but in the end he is swayed by Bruce Wayne's intense eyes and kicks his own ass. Or something like that.
Four Brothers (F)
Sometimes you're watching a movie and wondering: How many people had a part in making this? A hundred? Four hundred? A thousand? And along the way, no one bothered to say, "You know, this movie we're making just isn't working. In fact, it pretty much sucks. In fact, it's one of the worst movies I've ever been a part of. We should reconsider almost every decision we've made."
The Kingdom (B)
Bomb goes off in Saudi Arabia. Americans die. Other Americans are outraged. Saudis try to stall investigation. American bureaucrats try to stall investigation. Gritty American FBI agent defies bosses, leads intrepid team into danger in the name of truth and justice. Goodhearted Saudi cop won over by American spirit. Guess how this one turns out? Not good for the dude with the dark skin and foreign accent, I'll tell you that much.
The Dark Knight (A)
There's so much positive hype about this movie, and it's making so much money, that a backlash -- a batlash? -- seems inevitable. And, whoops, here it is. You know, fuck Robert Downey Jr., because whatever, dude, but I don't disagee with all of that Detroit News guy's points. The length, for instance. I think this movie was about 30 minutes too long, and most of the padding came at the end -- there was too much going on, between the scenes on the ferry boats and the hostages and the SWAT team and Batman confronting Joker and Dent going after Gordon's family, and then a new confrontation. It feels just a big dragged out.
Batman's voice, too, bugged me. I don't mind the whisper, don't mind the electronic modification. But it was too much. Too deep, too fake. I just don't think this was a good choice by the actor and director.
One more complaint (before I get to the good stuff): I didn't mind the movie's themes of darkness and light, chaos and order, hero and anti-hero. But I think perhaps the movie made them a tad bit too explicit? Particularly at the end, when basically the same things are said over and over. Joker needs Batman, Gotham needs Batman, Batman has to be an outcast to be a hero, check, check, check.
However, I still very, very much enjoyed this movie. I liked it as much as I liked Batman Begins. Heath Ledger, without question, is as good as they say. There has been so much hype over this performance, so much gushing, that it's hard to believe he's as good as they say. He is. He's even better. It's a Michael Phelps effort, it's Tiger Woods on the back nine on Sunday. From the moment we first see him, standing silhouetted on a corner waiting for a heist to begin, he is fully, brilliantly, awesomely in character. He brings such a mix of humor and weirdness and nastiness to the role, which is excellently written. The licking of lips, the multiple versions of the tale of the origins of his scars -- it's all great. It makes me want to go back and insert Heath Ledger into every role Jack Nicholson has had lately. How good could The Departed have been then, eh?
Batman has always been my favorite superhero. This is in large part because he has no super powers and because of his dark side, but also because of his excellent collection of bat-gadgets, his serious backstory, his moral code. This movie takes full advantage of each of these aspects. It also makes me confront the uncomfortable truth of his vigilantism. I have no problem with Batman taking over the telecommunications system and making it his own private spy lab, or with crossing international boundaries to kidnap a suspect and deliver him to the cops. But how do I feel about these activities when a certain U.S. president is behind them? Yeah, it's not the same thing, is it? I appreciate Morgan Freeman's character here, and his immediate realization of the potential for abuse of power. I guess in the end it comes down to the question of whether you trust Batman. And you have to. He's Batman.
- U2's new album is nearing completion, evidently. Due in November? And according to the notes on that link, some people are excited about it, and claiming it breaks new ground for the band sonically, in the same way Achtung Baby did. Interesting. I look much forward to it.
- I'm listening these days to Visiter by The Dodos. The irritating way iTunes punctates the band name (The Dodo's) and the confounding spelling of the title aside (it's apparently intentional, and there's a story behind it, but still), this album is a revelation. It reminds me of the first times I listened to The Crane Wife by The Decemberists or even In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. (That's high praise indeed, if you don't know; I can't say yet that it will have the staying power for me of those albums, but so far I am most impressed.) It's got that slightly askew poetic groove about it. Acoustic guitars and understated drums and drifting-sideways vocals. Terrific, terrific music here.
All right, I've read John Sandford's Phantom Prey now (actually, I read it two months ago, but who's counting?), but before I write about that, I wanted to write about some of the books I read while waiting for it to come out, and in the two months since while wondering when the next one arrives. June 2009? (I think I've mentioned before that I mark my reading life, in part, by the time between Prey novels.)
First, my favorite new discovery: Robert Crais. I learned his name, as it happens, from the official John Sandford web site, because in the FAQ, the webmaster mentions Crais as a friend and favorite of Sandford, and one of the reasons Sandford's not planning to write any more about L.A. So I decided to check out Crais. And I read everything he's written, including his just-released Chasing Darkness, part of a series about wisecracking private eye Elvis Cole and his lethal buddy Joe Pike. Terrific series of books. Sometimes the cracking wise feels a bit forced, particularly early in a novel when character is still being established; the jokes seem to fade into the background as the plots gain momentum. These are straightforwardly plotted, with good characters, easy prose and some nice crimesolving. I actually am a little surprised it took me this long to become familiar with Crais, because it seems he's right up there with Sandford and Michael Connelly for a lot of readers.
I just finished James Lee Burke's new Robicheaux novel, Swan Peak, and it's a bit of a letdown after the utterly brilliant Tin Roof Blowdown, but most anything would have been. There's a lot of Clete Purcel in this one, so if you like Dave's portly, violent, hedonistic friend, you'll enjoy getting inside his head in frightening technicolor. This one's not set in Louisiana, which seems almost necessary after the elegy that was Tin Roof Blowdown. Robicheaux is up to his usual tricks, hating on those who abuse their societal power, although in this novel it seems a bit of a stretch; it's never entirely clear what the rich family in question has done wrong (well, I mean, there is a murder, but that seems almost tangential, and there's also a serial killer, but his connection to what seems to be the main plot is tortuous). I don't know. I liked this book fine, and it's definitely got James Lee Burke's elaborate, enjoyable prose. But the themes of the series are awfully entrenched. Maybe would be nice to see some straightforward detective work by Robicheaux, shake the series up a bit, a crime in which every single demon in his past wasn't fully engaged.
Also read: Open Season, the first in a series of novels by C.J. Box about crimesolving Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. I haven't moved on to the second novel of the series yet, which is probably telling. Something about Pickett as protagonist bugged me. He's a family man, conflicted about his low-paying state job and his small government house and his ridiculous class-conscious caricature of a mother-in-law, but always aiming to do the right thing. I wonder if he's overly moral for my taste. Maybe I just like a bolder flavor of cop: someone more along the lines of Robicheaux or Lucas Davenport, someone willing to break the letter of the law in order to enforce his own private moral code. But I don't think that's exactly it. I think Pickett was just too passive, somehow; not enough pro in his protagonist, too much of a worrywart. Maybe he gains confidence as the series goes along, maybe I should give him another shot.
Just finished in paperback: The Cleaner, a debut novel by Brett Battles about Quinn, a cleaner, who goes into nasty situations and, well, cleans them up: makes bodies or evidence disappear, that sort of thing. As can be expected in that line of work, every once in a while the mess spills onto you, and you have to clean up your own life. It's a fine premise, and a fairly entertaining read, but I was bothered by a couple things. It didn't really feel to me as though Battles offers any kind of inside look at the sort of world cleaners and their employers inhabit. It all feels kind of Hollywoody, with vague references to secret agencies and a character called the mole who conveniently provides necessary information in annoying ellipses-filled phone conversations, and lots of talk about chatter that fills in plot holes being picked up somewhere on the Internet. Chat rooms for hitmen and secret agents? Hiredkillerforums.com? Google? Reminds me of Tom Cruise posting bible verses in chat rooms all over the web until he finds the arms dealer he's looking for. Because, duh. The plot, in fact, isn't all that far removed from the first M:I movie, come to think of it, at least parts of it. The villains aren't very clearly drawn, and the "shocker" ending is far from it.
This is a sweet, touching love story and cautionary fable about the dangers of overconsumption. And it's a terrific movie.
As to be expected with anything from Pixar, the animation is spectacular. Even the pre-movie cartoon, a delightful tale about about a rabbit and a magician and a magic hat, is phenomenal (and why is that a tradition only one studio continues? When it's well done, as it is in this case, it really adds to the whole experience of going to the movies -- it becomes an event, a happening; it makes you feel not-so-bad about the money you're spending -- I mean, $6.50 for a matinee? Geez. And I live in a middle-sized city in a flyover state, even). Fortunately, in this case, the cartoon doesn't overshadow the movie that follows (a complaint a few critics snarkily voiced about Ratatouille).
The beginning of the movie is I Am Legend meets E.T.: In a city that was probably New York once upon a time, a charming, hard-working, bug-eyed robot toils alone with an animal companion, in this case the most likable cockroach in the history of cinema. (Hell, in the history of cockroaches.) Wall-E is left to clean up the literal mountains of trash humans left 700 years ago when they abandoned a planet that had become too toxic to inhabit. Meanwhile, the former population of earth floats through space on a massive spaceship, perpetually plugged into their iPod 2 million-point-ohs, passive consumers to the point where they've actually lost bones from their skeletons through disuse. What's sad is that the bloated, lazy humans of the future who can't be bothered to make eye contact because they're too busy making iContact don't look 700 years removed from ... me. Yeesh.
When a probe from the ship sents a robot named Eve to earth to see if the planet is sufficiently detoxed for human life, Wall-E finds a soulmate. It's one of the most tender film courtships you'll see despite its proceeding largely in near-silence (interrupted by the occasional romantic blip-boop-beep) -- welcome relief indeed from the buffoonery and bickering of most contemporary romantic comedies. Thank goodness the voices of, say, Vince Vaughn and Kate Hudson are nowhere near this movie. Wall-E and Eve fall in love and quite literally save the planet in the process.
You know this movie will have a happy ending, but it's an ending that's also a call for responsibility. Ask not what your earth can do for you, but what you can do for your earth. It's an important message for our time, presented in a simple, straightforward, pleasurable, lovely movie.
Recently on DVD
Vantage Point (B-): The poker axiom holds that if you can't spot the sucker at the table, it's likely you're the sucker. The same principle holds true if you're a member of a vast criminal conspiracy, say, to kill or abduct a world leader, and you find yourself asking, "Who's a loose end?" I'm just saying. Also, did you know that if a movie made in the past decade bills itself as having an ensemble cast, Forrest Whitaker is in it? Walk around Blockbuster someday, you'll see what I mean. Dude is prolific.
Anyway, this is a perfectly enjoyable, basically forgettable thriller. Clever enough premise, which is what salvages the film from being utterly generic: we watch an assassination attempt over and over, from a variety of points of view, moving ever closer to the "surprise ending." It wasn't a "surprise," but it was an ending, so that's nice. A huge chunk of the dialogue was over-the-top expository, particularly early on, but once the action gets rolling, you can kind of ignore most of what the characters are saying and ignore most of the plot holes. William Hurt's talent is wasted as the president. Dennis Quaid does what so many actors of a certain age seem to do: plays an almost-washed-up Secret Service agent who has one more act of heroism in him.
Viva La Vida, Take 1: Smells Like Boring
This is the biggest band in the world? Really?
Someone told me the other day that when he was watching Coldplay's appearance on The Daily Show, he fell asleep during the second song. I'm like, man, me, too -- only I'm talking about the second song on the album. Although it's kinda hard to tell where one song starts and the next one begins, since they all sound EXACTLY THE SAME AS EVERY OTHER COLDPLAY SONG EVER.
Every song has this vague, pop-ish groove and a lot of mumbling. It sounds as if they turned Chris Martin's mike way down when they recorded this album, because it's a huge struggle to understand most of the lyrics. Maybe they did this because the lyrics, um, kind of suck. There are loads of cliches -- "wait until the shine wears off," "you might be the biggest fish in a small pond" "I used to roll the dice" and so on, and lots of pseudo-deep stuff like "I don't want another cycle of recycled revenge" or "night makes a fool of us in the daylight." You know, the kind of crap that sounds like it might be interesting and maybe even thought-provoking until you really try to make sense of it, and it turns out to be abstract and vague to the point of meaningless.
One of the few clearly articulated lines on the whole album offers up the startling insight that snow is ... wait for it ... white. Yeah, no kidding. Great album, guys. Way to really push outside your comfort zone. Enjoy your untold riches.
Viva La Vida, Take 2: Understated Excellence
A friend and I were recently talking about this album (he's probably the most devoted Coldplay fanboy I know), and he said, essentially, "You know, I have to remind myself that they're never going to blow you away on a first listen. That's just not the kind of band they are."
He's right. This album could slip right past you on a first listen. Which would be a shame. It's a terrific record. No gimmicks, no pandering, no shouting -- just simple, well-crafted pop songs. Does it push the envelope or burn down the nightclub? No. But it is a unified, impressive work of art. It reminds me of The Joshua Tree; others have compared to The Unforgettable Fire (hello, Brian Eno, right?).
I will say that it is missing that one killer single, a signature song that might lift the whole album to greatness. I really like Viva La Vida and Violet Hill, in particular, but I'm still waiting for a Coldplay song to be transcendent for me the way Yellow was. To me, that's one of the all-time excellent pop songs. So it's no shame that nothing on this album rises, in my mind, to that level.
All told, this album has few soft spots; every song is listenable and enjoyable. No wonder it's been the only thing I've listened to in my car since I bought it.
Clarification: It has become apparent to me that these two takes appear to be sequential, as in first I thought the first thing, and then second I thought the second thing. Not so. The reactions are cumulative, not replacetive. These are in fact both ongoing, simultaneous-but-conflicting reactions to the album. Sometimes I think one way; sometimes, I think the other; sometimes, both. Response to art is complicated (I know, deep, right?).
Kung Fu Panda (B-)
How dumb is it that I am bothered by the premise of Kung Fu Panda? And I don't mean the plot involving talking animals who are expert in martial arts, from a praying mantis to a tiger, or the main character, a yammering panda who is the son of a soup-making goose but dreams of being a kung fu master. Nope, all that is fine with me. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that.
What bothered me is Our Hero's transition from inept, clumsy, overeating oaf to savior of the known world ... for no apparent reason. Look, I'm all for finding someone's hidden talent, unlocking the secret kung fu master who lurks inside all of us, giving an everyman the chance to save the planet. You know, like Karate Kid. But here, there's no particular reason for it. Jack Black's Po the panda doesn't work particularly hard, or seem to take training all that seriously. I mean, when Daniel-san painted that fence or waxed that car, you could see his progress, his transformation. Po ... is just kind of a clown. And he never really moves beyond that. We're just supposed to accept that he's the hero because the movie is called Kung Fu Panda, after all. I mean, when he fights the uber-villain at the end, it's like when Matthew Modine wrestled that super-buff dude in Vision Quest. No frickin' way, right? One of the ways Po defeats the bad guy is to fall on him. It's one of the scenes from the trailer, so you can see how they were marketing this movie: Ha, ha, look at the panda's fat ass land on the bad guy's face. Hilarious. Or ... not.
Jack Black is reasonably restrained as the voice of Po, but the character's visuals are straight Saturday morning cartoons. There is some remarkable animation here, particularly in the opening credits, which might be the highlight of the whole film, and in one scene early on where the screen fills with fiery arrows filling the sky like rain: simply beautiful. Alas, such moments are the exception here, and most of what you see is standard fare.
Po usurps the hero's spot, pretty much through his clownish ineptness, from a group of five kung fu masters, who are understandably irritated by this. The best of them is Master Tigress, who is voiced by Angelina Jolie, but that has nothing to do with why she's my favorite character. Really. I liked her because A, she's actually earned the right to be the hero of this story through her years of training and skills; and B, her reaction to the notion of Po as hero is pretty much the same as mine. All of the kung fu masters' training and expertise is meaningless; it's actually just getting in the way of Po fulfilling what, apparently, is his destiny. It's either a ridiculously saccharine message about how everyone's special no matter what their external appearance or demeanor (I'm sure this is what the movie intends to say), or a horribly cynical statement about the futility of hard work and dedication.
Iron Man (B-)
Lots of people I trust told me Iron Man was an excellent action flick, funny, smart, exciting, all the usual accolades for a successful summer blockbuster. But for me ... meh. It was all right. Definitely the highlight was Robert Downey Jr., who, not surprisingly, was quite convincing as a slightly maniacal, more than slightly obsessed Tony Stark -- no one does gaunt and sleep-deprived like Downey. Again, this is not surprising. And he manages to do so while remaining ridiculously charming and good-looking. Hardly fair. But the plot was a little too familiar, the bad guys a little too stock (pulled right from the two fave Hollywood villain types of the day: Muslims from a cave in Afghanistan and egomaniacs from a Fortune 500 boardroom). A note about the leading bad guy: I think maybe I was supposed to be surprised, but it wasn't a shocker at all; it's like watching an episode of Law and Order and seeing an actor you know in a seemingly minor role at the beginning -- you know that person will turn out to be the killer by the second commercial break.
The ever-lovely Gwyneth Paltrow is pretty much wasted as Pepper Potts, Stark's girl Friday and inevitable love interest. The script offers her a few mildly clever quips ("Sometimes I take out the trash," she snarks to one of Stark's one-night flings as she hands over the girl's dry-cleaned and pressed clothes), but mostly she's there to react wide-eyed to Stark, and to keep the plot moving while our hero works on his metal suit in his basement. Honestly, the robot mechanical arms in Stark's workshop are more emotive.
As for the action, it's ... all right. The first Iron Man get-up that Stark crafts looks like C3PO on flaxseed oil, which is kinda fun (even though there's an escape scene that's almost as implausible as Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear blast in a lead-lined refrigerator), and then when he perfects the suit, it is pretty darn cool. But there's a long gap in the middle where the action is pretty much Stark learning to use his suit, smashing a few holes in his workshop ceiling and crunching up a pretty car or two. Then, the final battle is largely an unclear, disappointing mess, in which Iron Man defeats a presumably superior opponent, for no discernible reason.
You know, this movie had serious promise. The beginning was very good (despite the fact that, as usual, a person with dark skin and a foreign accent willingly dies to save Our Hero; will Hollywood ever get over this plot device?), and, as mentioned, Downey is quite compelling as Stark. But there is no clear plot, just a couple of weakly tied-together threads that don't add up to much. The stakes aren't all that clear; there loose ends and wasted characters, such as Terrence Howard in an essentially pointless role as Stark's best friend. You know this kind of reminded me of? The pilot episode of a TV show, where the plot is secondary to introducing all the characters. Imagine that, a big Hollywood summer superhero movie that's intended to establish a franchise. Too bad they neglected the whole "make a really good movie to kick off the series" part of the formula.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (B-)
If you were a boy of a certain age in 1981, there's a good chance Raiders of the Lost Ark was an essential movie for you, one of those films that shaped the way you see movies forever. I was, and it was. Raiders was terrific fun, all action and irony. All a boy needed to get through the most harrowing of situations was a sense of humor, a beautiful girl, a whip, a fedora, and, when all else failed, a pistol, which might not have been as straight-up cool as the whip, but, hey, a boy's gotta do what it takes to survive, you know?
Temple of Doom wasn't nearly so good, and Last Crusade didn't do much for me, but Raiders was the pinnacle. Twenty-seven years later, I think of it with nothing but fondness. It remains one of my favorite movies ever.
So I was tremendously excited to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this optimistic, hopeful, almost naive anticipation. Deep down, I knew I was bound to be disappointed. I'm not sure it's even possible for an action movie to make me feel the way Raiders did when I was 11. But a boy can dream, you know?
Alas, I was indeed disappointed. This movie ... it's just not that good. It's not as funny as it thinks it is (and, believe me, this is a movie that thinks it's hilarious). The action isn't as breathtaking as it thinks it is. Raiders was over the top in this pulpy, throwback, entirely entertaining way, without taking itself too seriously. Crystal Skull ... I don't know. The places where it's not taking itself seriously come across as seriously corny -- a stagey brawl between greasers and socs at a soda shop, f'r instance. Or 10 million jokes about how old Indiana Jones is now. It's fine, even necessary, that the film acknowledge the age of its leading man. But then that goes away entirely in the action sequences, when he can brawl with the best of 'em, all without getting the least bit winded. Two movies that do a good job with an aging action hero are the Clint Eastwood flicks In the Line of Fire and Unforgiven. In those movies, the hero's age becomes part of the story, a plot device to be worked around and worked with. Here, there are quips as clever as, "What are you, like, 80?" Har, har. And then when it's time to fight, Harrison Ford might as well be 39 again. This points to a problem with the action in this movie: It doesn't feel particularly integrated into the story. It goes like this: Story, action sequence, story, bigger action sequence, story, biggest action sequence, story, HUGE-ASS action sequence. And, yeah, in the era of CGI and digital movie magic, there's all sorts of amazing stuff they can do now. And none of it, not any of it, not single second, rises to the level of the action in Raiders. Some of the most iconic action sequences in the history of movies are in Raiders: The enormous rolling rock chasing Indy through the temple; Indy pulling himself hand over hand under a speeding truck; the bad guy's face melting when the ark is opened. Nothing in this new movie is anywhere near as cool as any of those scenes.
Shia LaBouef, whom I will forever think of as that kid from that one season of Project Greenlight, joins the series as Jones' son (which could be a minor spoiler, because we don't discover the paternal connection until halfway through the movie, but anyone who didn't see it coming has never seen a movie before), Mutt Williams. I guess I can't really blame LaBouef for how much his character annoyed me, because his acting was fine, but the dialogue the script gives this kid is embarrassing. For example: "Why are we going down here? This is a dead end." I don't even need to give you the context of that line for you to see what a patently obvious setup it is. There's more where that came from, too.
Much as I love Cate Blanchett most of the time, she seems lost in this movie as the bad-gal-in-chief, a Russian scientist who's racing Indy to the eponymous skull. Her accent is all over place, her motivation is unclear, her operatives exceedingly incompetent. All of which makes the stakes seem fairly low here, and while the outcome is of course inevitable, there should at least be a moment or two where you think, How is Indy going to get out of this one?
All that saves this movie from being National Treasure is Harrison Ford. He's still perfect as Indiana Jones. He doesn't look 66, for sure. He's got the charm and physical stature to carry off the dashing action hero, but he's also just awkward enough to convince the viewers that he's an academic, an archeology nerd. He dominates the screen when he's on, and not just because of that familiar hat. I might not believe in this movie, but I definitely still believe in Indiana Jones.
Recently on DVD, or in one case on HBO:
There Will Be Blood (B): I expected to really love this movie. I didn't. I expected to be blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis' performance; at the best moments, I was; but at the worst (the allegedly iconic "I drink your milkshake" scene I've heard so much about), I was reminded of Jack Nicholson's irritating, over-the-top scene chewing in the otherwise-terrific The Departed. There Will Be Blood isn't horrible, by any means. It's lovely to look at, and I don't just mean Mr. Day-Lewis. The cinematography captures the dusty oilfields of rural turn-of-the-century California and makes them look simultaneously unforgiving and beautiful. There are long stretches of silence that capture the mood of the movie perfectly. Mr. Day-Lewis is compelling throughout as oil man Daniel Plainview, and he is especially powerful in a scene when his prize well is burning and his son has been injured. He can do something about the fire, but he can't do anything about his son's injury; his decision to tend to the blaze is practical, therefore, but costly, because his son never forgives him. Plainview seems to anticipate this cost, and it shows marvelously in his expression and body language. The acting here is best when it is most understated, when emotions are concealed. Life on the oilfields is hard one, with little room for self-pity, or any other emotion, for that matter. But as Plainview becomes increasingly deranged and violent, not much is left to the imagination; the conflicts become more overt, more obvious, almost cartoonish -- and far less compelling to watch. More's the pity.
To Catch a Thief (B+): I read recently that the romantic comedy is dead. After seeing this 1955 Hitchcock movie with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, I tend to agree. If this film were made today, it would star Matthew McConaughey and Cameron Diaz and it would end with a wedding scene and it would be unwatchable. But despite its being more than half a century old, it stands up quite well. The chemistry between the stars is enjoyable and real, but not too serious. Hitchcock never asks you to imagine that this unlikely couple is actually in love; they're just playing. Really, this movie is just playing around. It's pretty insubstantial, but it's lots of fun.
Evan Almighty (B): I'd heard little good about this movie. I know it was a box office disaster, and pretty much everyone compared it unfavorably to its predecessor, Bruce Almighty. But I was pleasantly surprised. It helps if you love Steve Carell as I do. I just think he's funny. This is a light, even fluffy movie, sure. Pretty much a cookie-cutter sequel -- take what worked in the orginal, modify it ever so slightly in the most predictable of ways and release. But there are still plenty of chuckles, a guffaw or two, even the occasional full-throated haw-haw. You won't be surprised by anything about the plot. That's fine.
The Last King of Scotland (C+): This movie is more fun to watch if you don't think too much about it. Forest Whitaker is particularly riveting as the psychotic dictator Idi Amin. He captures the public charm and private cruelty of the man. I would have liked this movie far better if it were simply the story of Amin and his rise to power. Instead, the film (which is based on a novel), filters the story through the eyes of, you guessed it, a white man. Because it's not compelling if Amin only tortures and pillages his people? Because having one of his wives murdered and mutilated is only poignant if Our Great White Hero was in love with her? This is essentially the (fictional) story of Nicholas Garrigan (played by the likable James McEvoy), a young physician who travels to Uganda because his privileged life in Scotland isn't fulfilling and his demanding father just doesn't understand him. After he gets laid a few times, he ends up catching the eye of Amin, who taps him as his personal doctor, and eventually a trusted advisor. As you can imagine, this isn't a job you really want, but by the time Garrigan figures this out, he's in too deep (turns out his own father wasn't THAT demanding after all). Pretty much all the injustice and violence Amin wreaks on his people happens off-screen, and we see them only insofar as how they affect poor Dr. Garrigan's state of mind. And then when things come to a head at the end, a black doctor gives his life to save Our Great White Hero, for no discernible reason, and Garrigan escapes Uganda with a few bruises and some bad memories. Meanwhile, the 300,000 (at least) people Amin had killed are relegated to a postscript. It's hard to imagine that one of them didn't have a story at least as compelling as that of Our Great White Hero. Amin, ironically, has Garrigan's number by the end, telling him essentially, "You are like all the British, you come here to fuck and then take away." Sad, but true. And this movie does essentially the same thing.
Lust, Caution (A): A word, first, in favor of the NC-17 rating. There SHOULD be good movies that are made for adults. Filmmakers should be willing to make a movie that ignores the lucrative teen audience. I wish it weren't considered the kiss of death for a movie. If I want to watch a movie that honestly depicts sexuality in an artistic and visceral way, that integrates sex into plot without being coy or cute, I should be able to. So I applaud this Ang Lee movie on general principle. And I liked it, too. It's part spy thriller, part twisted love story, set in Japanese-occupied China before and during World War II. It is not afraid to be cruel -- to its characters, to its viewers. It's not a particularly easy film to sit through, and the lead actress, Tang Wei, is mesmerizing as a reluctant secret agent. The cinematography is beautiful, the plot is compelling. And the sex, the sex, the sex. The sex is intense and dangerous, honest and frightening: difficult to watch, impossible to turn away from.
I can't quite put my finger on just what has been wrong with R.E.M.'s most recent several albums. They are not horrible, not painful to listen to; they're just not ... meaningful. Or memorable. Flimsy, maybe. Empty somehow. The kind of albums I bought because I consider myself an R.E.M. fan, listened to a time or three, and then let gather dust (although I don't think I've ever heard a single song from Reveal; was that really an album?). I haven't even ripped any of the songs from any album since Monster onto my iPod.
Many critics, however, have been hailing Accelerate as a return to form for the band. I have to say, I agree. I very much like this album. Sonically, it's Document meets Automatic for the People, arguably the band's best two records. It rocks. It has soul. It's fun. If, like me, you used to like R.E.M. but haven't paid any attention to them in the past decade, you should give this one a listen.
Lyrically, this album seems in part to be the story of an artist seeking to reconnect with his art. The driving first song, "Living Well's the Best Revenge," seems almost a defiant response to the band's critics, because no doubt the members have been living well regardless of any tepid response to recent efforts. But as a life credo goes, that's ultimately pretty thin, isn't it? Then the songs slow down a notch, and a journey to discovery begins, and a cry for understanding: "Everyone here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget." And then, this, in the plaintive third song, "Hollow Man": "I've been lost inside my head. ... believe in me, believe in nothing, I've become the hollow man. ... You placed your trust in me, I went upside down." This speaks directly to the despair of an artist who's lost his way, his connection to his music. And so the artist begins the hard work of reclaiming that abandoned art, in part by returning to familiar places. From the song "Houston": "I was taught to hold my head high, collect what is mine, make the best of what today has. ... Houston is filled with promise, Laredo is a beautiful place, Galveston sings like that song that I loved, its meaning has not been erased." A valauble lesson for any artist in a funk here: A sense of place can be essential; art is connected to environment; if you have nothing to say, go back to a place you find meaningful. And you can feel the band re-grasping its roots here, refusing to give in to whatever the band equivalent of writer's block is.
And with the reclaiming of those roots comes a new sense of urgency, as expressed in the song "Accelerate," perhaps the strongest song on the album: "No time to question the choices I make, I've got to fall in another direction."
"Until the Day is Done" can be read as almost a prayer for forgiveness for having gotten off track: "As we've written our stories to entertain, these notions of glory and bull market gain, the teleprompt flutters, the power surge brings an easy speed message falls into routine." Sure, it's about our entire culture and politics and our general superficiality, but there's no question the lyrics indict the writer/singer/performer as well. It's that blend of the political and the personal, the universal and the individual that makes this album work so well. This is a coherent, intelligent, inspired album. The lyrics work on multiple levels, and the music feels all part of a single whole. In "Sing for the Submarine," there's a definite sense of achievement, a regaining of the artist's confidence in his voice: "So this is where you trust me, and this where it begins. It's all a lot less frightening, your tear you let it in."
I mentioned Document earlier, and the final four tracks in particular remind me of R.E.M. at that time; there's some of that quirkiness. Remember "Oddfellows Local 151"? "Mr. Richards" and "Horse to Water" have a similar sound, a similar sense of whimsy and fun. Fun ... maybe that's one of the key things that was missing from the previous few records; they weren't particularly fun. Not at all like the final song on this album, for instance, which proclaims: "I'm gonna dj at the end of the world, 'cause if heaven does exist with a kickin' playlist, I don't wanna miss it at the end of the world." The lyrics almost sound like those of a younger band; you can imagine, say, the Arctic Monkeys voicing a similar sentiment. But this song is tinged with maturity, too: "Because death is pretty final, I'm collecting vinyl, I'm gonna dj at the end of the world. ... I don't wanna go 'til I'm good and ready." And there is, finally, a recognition of the importance of art: "Music will provide the light, you cannot resist, you cannot resist, you cannot resist, yeah."
Yes, in some ways, this album is a return to form for R.E.M., a return to roots for one of the great bands of a generation. (Even the CD cover, a crude black and white ink drawing of a futuristic cityscape and the band's name in bubbled letters, looks like some band's first record cover from 1981.) But it's not, by any means, just a remixing of the band's old sound. This is at the least very good music, possibly great music, important not just because it reminds you of how awesome R.E.M. used to be, but because it serves notice of how essential R.E.M. can still be.
So ... the newest John Sandford. Phantom Prey.
I expect that I will never be truly disappointed in a Lucas Davenport novel. I like Sandford's prose and his plotting and his protagonist too much for that. But Phantom Prey, which came out in May and which I read immediately upon getting my hands on it, did not exactly bowl me over. Davenport just didn't seem to be on top of his game here, and neither did Sandford. Without offering too great a spoiler, I wasn't particularly impressed with the antagonist, either; seemed awfully gimmicky. Davenport's investigation is halting, uneven; the great detective seems distracted, to the point that it nearly kills him in the end.
Not long after reading this book, I found Shadow Prey, the second book in the Davenport series, at a used bookstore, and I bought it, because I'm working to backfill my collection. My memory is a bit foggy on this issue, but I think this might have been the first Sandford novel I ever read, choosing it almost at random from the shelves at the Tallahassee Public Library. If it was indeed the first, I certainly know why I became hooked on the series. This story sizzles. Davenport zips around at 120 mph, pulling in sources, kicking ass, taking names, sleeping with a visiting female officer (who's married, no less).
Reading the 18th and 2nd novels in the Prey series in such close succession was a bit jarring, and it emphasized to me my lukewarm reaction to the new one. Now I myself qualify as a member of the fat, old and married club, so I have little room to talk here, but I fear Davenport is falling into the category as well. I mean, good for him. I like Weather (his wife), and I would be mad at him if he ran around on her, and I like Davenport as a dad, but ... it fails to provide the same reading pleasure as when he was stomping on street sources and catting around.
I certainly don't think it's inconceivable to write a great detective/thriller series about a cop who's also a happy homemaker, but I do think there's some challenge for an author to make the books as titillating as they are when your hero can stay out as late as he wants and sleep with whoever catches his eye. Ultimately, I think the problem with Phantom Prey isn't that Davenport is married, though; I think a deeper problem lies in the crime and Davenport's lackluster investigation. In Shadow Prey, he jumps immediately into action, hustling sources, digging for information, getting inside the minds of the perpetrators --- his police skills are on full display; in recent novels, he has become more of an administrator, and his chases are far less vigorous as a result. I fear Davenport is getting soft.
Don't hate me because I have an Ayn Rand story. I was young, I promise.
At any rate, there's an essay over at NYT headlined "It's not you, it's your books" about when a partner's reading habits, or lack thereof, become relationship dealbreakers. Pretty good read. One of the examples cited by a Salon book critic as a reason to break up with a guy is that he is too "keen on Ayn Rand." To which, I have to say: word. Unless you're under 20. Which I say in my own defense, because I was a freshman in college when I read The Fountainhead, and oh my lord, did I love that book (look, I know, okay?). I was a great artist, the world just didn't know it yet, and oh what a cruel world it is for artists, all these powers that be trying to keep us down and cram our individuality into their neat little non-artist boxes.
And there was this girl, see, because there's always a girl in stories like this, and she was a fan of the book, too, and I had this idea that I was Howard Roark and she was Dominique, and for a couple of hours in the middle of our freshman year, she let me think this. And there was a poem, too, a really awful thing I'd written for an interim-term class on fairy tales; in this poem, I tried to be all distanced and nuanced -- the poem itself wasn't a fairy tale, I explained, it was about a fairy tale. And the professor had some suggestions for revision, and I couldn't do it, didn't want to do it, didn't know how to do it, and this girl -- the Dominique girl -- urged me not to give up my vision to please the teacher ... and, yeah, that's pretty much the extent of the story. Whatever happened with the poem isn't even worth talking about, and neither is what happened with the girl, because in both cases the answer is pretty much ... nothing.
I sort of think my Fountainhead stage was an important stage to go through. It's important to begin to define yourself as an individual, to learn the value of your personal artistic vision. It's important to gain a healthy skepticism toward monolithic societal institutions. But there's a fine line between these things and, say, utter narcissism. When you're 18 and chasing some girl and writing terrible poems, your sense of that fine line is nil. The Fountainhead definitely pushes you entirely beyond the healthy stage. I'm not saying there's no value in the lessons of Fountainhead; just that things aren't always that simple, and that naked individualism isn't necessarily the best path to a productive life, or to being an artist.
I wonder how I would read the book now. I still own my copy (it's a first edition, which a Google search tells me is worth somewhere between $13 and $650, depending on I'm not sure what); maybe I should read it again. I'm certain my perspective will have changed pretty dramatically. It's sort of like reading Catcher in the Rye last summer for the first time, at age 37; I recognized that if I'd been 15 or 17, I would have been so captivated by Holden, identified so strongly with his frustrations; instead, I spent a good chunk of the book wanting to slap his face and tell him to snap out of it, things aren't so damn bad.
I haven't lost ALL my sense of youthful rebellion, of me-against-the-world, though I'm certain that I'm sounding like an old codger here, you know, shaking my literary fist at those whippersnappers and their non-conformist fiction running through my yard. And I confess a certain nostalgia for the feelings I had when I read Fountainhead back then, the sense of newness and self-discovery and limitless possibility. But you know what? Books still make me feel that way. Reading makes me feel that way. Writing makes me feel that way. Anything really is possible.
Recently on DVD
The Hunting Party (D): Richard Gere plays a journalist trekking through Bosnia in search of a war criminal that the U.S. claims it wants to find but doesn't seem to. It's based on a true story, which you can read here. The true story is fascinating and complicated and important. This should pretty much tell you what you need to know about the movie: It was DURING the playing of the DVD that I flipped open my laptop and tracked down and read the Esquire article. That's how much the movie held my attention. Talk about some lazy-ass writing ... the easiest characterizations, the most stereotypical characters, the flattest plot structure. What a waste. I've already written more than this flimsy piece of junk is worth.
The Silent Partner (B): This is a 1978 Canadian movie starring Elliot Gould as a bank teller who gets involved in a robbery that turns out more complicated, and violent, than he expected. Christopher Plummer plays the antagonist. It's kind of funny watching a movie from the late 1970s, because it can't help but be dated. From the way people dress, to this odd way of talking that the actors have (it's not quite the all formal, theatrical way people talked in the movies in the 1950s, but it's more like that than the way they talk in movies now; I'm not explaining this very well, but the acting feels more like ... ACTING, in the Jon Lovitz sense). At any rate, the plot holds up pretty well thirty years later, although it drags on a little longer than maybe is ideal.
The Prestige (A-): This is the other turn-of-the-previous-century magician movie (since I saw The Illusionist first). It's actually a pretty good con movie, about two rival magicians trying to one-up each other's best illusions. One of those movies where you sit back and watch the plot twists pile up, and you can kind of see the next surprise coming, but it's enjoyable anyway. What makes it work so well is the depth it infuses into the world it creates; you really feel like you have a behind-the-curtain glimpses at the take-no-prisoners, reveal-no-secrets world of magic shows in late 19th-century London. I don't even know if this really was a world, but I believe it now. Good stuff.
Mr. Brooks (B): This is a movie about that little cartoon devil that sits on your shoulder and pushes you to embrace the nasty side of life. Kevin Costner is a suburban superdad who has that devil in the form of William Hurt, an imaginary friend from hell who rides around in his back seat and urges Costner to do very bad things to (mostly) random people. Unfortunately for Costner, there is no corresponding little angel riding shotgun. So he's a secret serial killer. This movie's more premise than plot, but it is reasonably enjoyable watching Hurt chew the scenery, especially after he gets his feelings all wounded when Costner doesn't want to kill anyone else.
Gone, Baby, Gone (A): This movie lived up to every hope I had for it. Casey Affleck was excellent, excellent, excellent. Love the way the movie is about place ... something about South Boston really seems to lend itself to that atmospheric kind of movie. And of course the Afflecks have a real affection for that area; it shows here. It's a loving portrayal of a not-that-lovable place. Loved this movie.
Horton Hears a Who (B-)
For a long time, it was a point of pride for me that I had never seen a Jim Carrey movie. This was a streak that started with the first Ace Ventura (I wasn't counting his early, smaller parts like The Dead Pool; I'm talking about Jim Carrey vehicles) and ran through The Mask, Dumb and Dumber (I didn't count Batman Forever, either, as Batman is the best superhero, bar none, and all Batman movies must be seen no matter who plays the bad guys, or who plays Batman, for that matter), The Cable Guy, Liar, Liar and the second Ace Ventura movie. In fact, I still haven't seen any of those movies. (And, I just realized, I'm still kind of proud of that fact.)
The Truman Show ruined everything, though.
I also saw Man on the Moon. And Bruce Almighty was funny, and I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So now it seems I'm in a pick-and-choose relationship with Jim Carrey. Me, Myself and Irene? No, thanks. But Horton Hears a Who? Sure, fine, you betcha. (I think I've said before, pretty much anything we can take the kids to, we're all over. What else are movie-loving parents supposed to do?)
Was this really a Jim Carrey movie? Kinda ... there definitely were some scenes where his voice-mugging for the microphone was unmistakable, where the voicework felt somewhat disconnected from what was happening on screen, or at least like maybe the voice came first, rather than being organic with the visuals.
It was a fun movie, cute enough, colorful, harmless, rhymed (most of the time), pretty faithful (y'know, the way an elephant is, 100 percent) to the Suessian vision of the story. The animation was terrific; the feathers on the mean old Vlad the vulture are remarkable, for instance. There were spots, however, where the whole thing felt a bit, I don't know, forced somehow. A weird Japanese-manga-like interlude that I still don't quite get (reminds me of that burning cartoon girl in The Piano; did anyone ever figure that one out?). And the conflict, both in Horton's jungle and on the speck that is Whoville, feels like screenplay conflict. As in, "We need some conflict here, can you drum up a disapproving kangaroo? Or a town council who argues with the mayor for ... well, who needs a reason?" So, on the narrative level, I don't know, it didn't quite hold together for me. And, as I mentioned, there are places where the voices don't quite mesh with the visuals. It's not like, say, Shrek, where you forget there are humans doing voices for animated characters. That's not Eddie Murphy anymore, it's Donkey. But you never quite get that absorbed into this movie.
Maybe it doesn't help that Horton isn't a particularly exciting hero. Maybe faithfulness doesn't play in Peoria ... or maybe he's just characterized inconsistently -- equal parts loyal true believer shlubbiness and eccentric Jim Carrey-portrayed mania. I think that's it. The filmmakers never really decided who Horton was. Or they decided, and then they got Jim Carrey attached, so they had to add some wacky stuff.
Too bad. This could have been a great one. Instead it's just another kids movie that will come and go in my mind. And now my children already have been denied the unique flavor of pride that comes with saying, "Jim Carrey's movies? Don't know, I've never seen one."
In Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book Blink, he writes about the value of snap judgments, arguing that they often stand up as well as more thoughtful longterm evaluations. "There can be as much value in the blink of an eye," he writes, "as in months of rational analysis." It's quite an interesting book to read in terms of aesthetics and art (at least, I'm pretty sure it is; I read only the introduction, but I think I got the point. Heh).
I was thinking about this recently when I read about the flap over the bogus review in Maxim of the upcoming Black Crowes album. And while it's crap that such a review/preview/whatever the magazine is trying to call it was published as if it were based on a complete listen, and I in no way condone what Maxim did, despite their after-the-fact explanations, it did get me thinking about Blink and about how that reviewer's reaction to the album was probably about the same based on a partial listen as it will be once he or she (whoever) listens to the entire thing.
So the other day, we rented the movie Rendition, and my wife started watching it about 20 minutes before I had to go to work. I watched until I had to leave the house, which basically got me through the first act (given the typical three-act structure of a screenplay). Here, based solely on that partial viewing, is my review of the entire movie, presented largely as an exercise for myself and a study in snap judgments):
I enjoyed this movie. Mostly. I always like Reese Witherspoon; she really has become a grownup, even though I still think of her the way she was in Election. I like Jake Gyllenhaal, too, but his languid, doe-eyed sincerity didn't always seem right for this part; sometimes you wish for bit of harder edge from him. The movie does get a bit heavyhanded on the politics, however. Yes, government-sanctioned torture is bad. Yes, denial of due process is awful. Yet this movie bludgeons those points home with the subtlety of a campaign speech. I get it, already. It's as though the film is as concerned with being thought-provoking about real-world issues as it is with being successful, artistically; as dedicated to inspiring moral outrage at a certain American administration as to telling a gripping story. And, honestly, did the poor renditioned guy have to have a white, middle-class American wife? Was the film afraid we wouldn't care about him if his whole family were dark-skinned? Yes, it probably was (even if that's true, it shows a decided lack of courage on the film's part). As for the way the movie ends, well, I don't really know, do I? But I'm pretty sure I saw it coming.
Permit me to begin this review with a pet peeve: parents who insist on bringing their children to the theater. Exposing your rugrats to high culture is fine and all, but why must it happen at the expense of those of us grownups who want to take in a show?
Today, I attended a performance of "My Little Pony Live: The World's Biggest Tea Party," and for goodness sakes, I daresay at least half the audience was under age 8. It was beyond belief. The resulting chaos made it truly difficult for the adults to experience the show to its fullest. Here is but one example: Whenever Pinkie Pie or Spike the Dragon would, in the midst of a dramatic monologue, wonder aloud who liked tea parties, for instance, all these moppets in the audience felt compelled to raise their hands and cry out their answer, children apparently having no instinct for rhetorical questions.
As an example of a mature theater-goer having his time ruined, off to my right, I saw a heavy-set fellow literally asleep in his chair while a little girl jumped up and down next to him in excitement. Clearly, he was a sophisticated viewer of serious theater who was so put off by all the youthful mayhem around him that he saw no point in even trying to enjoy the experience. Poor man, reduced to faint snores and a strand of drool swaying from his lower lip. Why, even I spent much of the climactic second act distracted by a 3-year-old boy sitting directly on my lap, and a 5-year-old girl next to me who put her head on my shoulder and kept calling me Daddy and asking for cotton candy, and who felt the need to constantly point out the shapes of shifting light patterns on the walls and ceiling, instead of just drinking them in in silence (I recognize hearts and stars when I see them, thank you). I can say only, thank goodness they reminded the tykes to put any balloons or pennants purchased during intermission under their chairs for the second act, or it would have been even more of a fiasco.
As for the show itself, it was a masterpiece, a triumphant tour de force, full of both whimsy and sincerity, a study in the power of friendship among small, talking, singing, unusually colored horses. The performers were inspiring, Pinkie Pie and Rarity the Unicorn in particular showing remarkable emotional range, especially considering that they were unable to change facial expressions at all and that all the dialogue and songs were prerecorded and piped in. You'd be surprised at the subtext a brilliant actor can convey with a simple blink.
The clumsy but adorable Minty provided refreshing comic relief throughout, the actor bringing a natural gift for physical comedy to the stage. The scene in which she bumps into a row of her fellow ponies was particularly memorable. A trio of lady bugs, serving as a sort of mischievous Greek chorus, provided similar light moments to keep the story from becoming overly weighty.
The stage was dazzling, in the most literal sense. It served as a perfect metaphor for the play's central thematic elements, which can be summed up in a single word: Pink. Well, two words: Pink and Shiny.
Any musical, of course, is only as good as its music, and "My Little Pony Live: The World's Biggest Tea Party" is no exception, from the raucous good-times disco/hip-hop extravaganza near the beginning of the second act (complete with disco ball and Spike, clad in oversized sunglasses and a huge gold S on a chain around his neck, on the turntables), to the stark, forlorn dirge by Pinkie Pie when she realizes she has let down her friends by forgetting to pack the actual tea aboard the hot-air balloon that carried their supplies to Rarity's Crystal Rainbow Castle in the village of Unicornia. How can they have a tea party without tea? It is a scene that is exactly as powerful and emotional and vital as it sounds. Indeed, one could say the same thing about the entire performance.
Recently in the theater
One of the reasons we go to the movies is to go to places we'd never otherwise see, or at least not see without a concerted effort. The neon streets of Tokyo. The Eiffel Tower. A $3 million Manhattan apartment. The coolest thing about Jumper is that it takes this concept to a new level. If you are a jumper, all you have to do is visualize a place you've seen before, even in a picture or on a postcard, and whoosh, you're there. So Hayden Christensen has lunch atop the Sphinx, picks up a girl in a London bar, then tops his outing by surfing some killer waves in some tropical location. Pretty nifty, eh?
However. That's about where the pleasure of this movie stops. There's this throwaway scene where we are told -- with all the subtlety of a jackhammer -- that Christensen's character is at best amoral, and perhaps immoral, because he uses his jumping to acquire cash (it's pretty easy to rob a bank when you can teleport right into the vault at will) or get laid instead of, say, helping some poor people trapped in the middle of a flooded river. But the movie finds that whole angle as boring as Christensen does, and quickly devolves into a ridiculous chase flick. Turns out Samuel L. Jackson is a crusader who finds jumpers intolerable (it's never clear just why, other than plot necessity) and is determined, with his army of faceless cohorts and a surprising amount of resources, to rid the planet of this apparent menace.
The whole thing is messy and crazily complicated and basically makes no damn sense. The acting ranges from wooden (Christensen) to over the top (Jackson) to muddled (Rachel Bilson as Christensen's along-for-the-ride girlfriend whose primary job is to take things at face value no matter how unbelievable ... come to think of it, that's the audience's job, too) to entertaining but all-too familiar (Jamie Bell in slacker-sidekick-killer mode as another jumper who has dedicated himself to fighting Jackson's bunch, but who gets thrown aside in favor of the big-name star when the climax draws near).
Hey, guess what the best part is? The ending of the movie couldn't be more transparently a set-up for a sequel. Hell, a whole damn series. Actually, maybe that isn't so bad. This was a classic case of decent concept, poor execution (and even poorer dialogue). Get a good screenwriter and maybe there's hope for Jumper II: The Oedipus Complex (don't worry, it'll make sense if you see the movie). Hey, you know what? I'm available. Call me, Doug Liman and 20th Century Fox. I've got some ideas. I've also got a pitch for my timely and thrilling screenplay "Homeland Security." Oh, I'm serious, all right.
Recently on DVD
Breaking and Entering (A-): I loved this movie. I found it sensual and sexy and complicated and well-acted and compelling. I like Jude Law (he's like Hugh Grant without all the twitching and self-effacement, in that women love him and guys dig him, too, you know, in a manly not-at-all-gay way) and I like Juliette Binoche (duh). But it has been a few weeks since I saw it, and as that time has passed, I've sort of decided that maybe I liked it so much when I saw it because it's pretty much a male-fantasy story all wrapped up in a nifty screenplay. Jude Law plays a handsome fellow with a successful, meaningful career. Trouble is, his home life is a pain in his ass, with a bitchy girlfriend who won't marry him and her troublesome daughter. Oh, the way these women a drag a man down, am I right, guys? But then he follows a thief who's broken into his office (because inside our button-down selves, we could all Wyatt Earp up and chase down a street criminal, am I right, guys?) and ends up meeting the thief's mother. Who is the hot and available Juliette Binoche. Who ends up sleeping with him. Of course. Because a dalliance with a hot woman with a sexy accent, well, that's what we guys deserve when the women in our life don't appreciate us enough, am I right, guys? Sure, some complications follow, but in the end Jude does the morally upright thing and confesses his fleshly sins. Oh, and he also saves the merely misguided thief from an overly harsh prosecution. So, guess how this all ends up? Jude is forgiven by his lover, Juliette, because he saves her son. He is forgiven by his girlfriend because ... well, I'm not sure why, but anyway, his home life ends up in a great place, and now she appreciates him, and her daughter seems on the path to being less troublesome. Perfect ending, am I right, guys? Oh yeah, I am so right.
The Queen (A): I knew this movie was about Queen Elizabeth, and I knew Helen Mirren won an Oscar for it, but I didn't know it was all about the royal family around the time of Diana's death. I hadn't realized that week made such an impression on me, but apparently it did, because I remember it pretty well. This movie does a fine job capturing the way the world felt that week, all out of sorts and mournful. Helen Mirren, of course, is a miracle. Her acting is a gift. Here, she so subtly and gorgeously and brilliantly captures the inner turmoil of a woman who doesn't do inner turmoil. Stunning to watch. Also quite enjoyable here is the Tony Blair storyline; the actor doesn't so much play Blair as inhabit him, and the movie takes you back to that time in the Blair administration when everything was fresh and new and full of promise, a new politician who's not yet jaded, who finds, to his own surprise, that he actually believes in Elizabeth and what she represents. It's at once naive and inspiring.
It is advice for writers of mystery-thriller-detective genre fiction that they should put a dead body on the first page of a novel. Michael Chabon isn't what you think of when you think of a typical genre-fiction writer -- but he's most certainly playing with genres in his considered-literary fiction. (I'm no expert in genre theory, but I know that pinning down any genre -- romance, mystery, literary, whatever -- is difficult at best. It's like answering the question: What is a sport? At first it seems easy. You know, it's athletic, it's a competition. Like basketball. But how athletic do golfers have to be? Isn't golf a sport? Sure, golf requires hand-eye coordination ... but so does being a contestant on Project Runway or Top Chef. What about NASCAR drivers? Sure, auto racing requires endurance and quick thinking ... but so does running for president, right?
We all have our opinions about what is or isn't a sport. Baseball is, poker isn't. Football is, spelling bees aren't. And so on. But doesn't poker, for instance, occupy the same cultural spot as a sport? It's shown on ESPN, it's a competition, it appeals to largely the same segment of the American population, etc. So how useful is it to announce with great authority that poker isn't a sport? How much value does the label really have? Is it intended to include or exclude? And yet labels -- genres -- do mean something, do have practical real-life value. The library has a whole section devoted to mystery novels, another devoted to romance novels. Some people know they like mystery novels, others know they like romances. It is useful to them to have their favorite type of books grouped together. Right? And it is useful for an author, as well, to have genre conventions to follow -- or to intentionally subvert. Is it not in those choices that art lives? Which conventions do you follow, which do you stand on their heads?)
I read somewhere that Chabon has said he wants to erase genre boundaries; I'm paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect that he would like a library where Jennifer Crusie and Raymond Carver sat in the same shelf with Charles Dickens and Orson Scott Card. I haven't read everything Chabon has written, but I've read enough about his books to know he's bouncing from genre to genre. And The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a detective story in the tradition of L.A. noir fiction, although its hero, world-weary homicide cop Meyer Landsman, reminds me of no one so much as Robert Wilson's mournful detective Javier Falcon. This book also offers an alternative history, a genre unto itself, although one about which I know essentially nothing; it takes place in modern-day Sitka, Alaska, 60 years after Alaska became the home for displaced Jewish settlers after World War II.
The world Chabon has crafted here is stunning in its detail and realism. The depth of this alternative Alaska is entirely believable, and from a craftsman point of view, it's pretty impressive how much work Chabon does to render this setting and the characters who inhabit it. That said, it's honestly a good thing there's a dead body on the first page. The level of detail and background is so great, and there's so much backstory for Chabon to fill in that without the mystery to pull the reader along, it would be easy to get bogged down in all the description. I have this notion that I once read about Tolstoy that the first however many pages require the reader to do a large percentage of the work, but that the payoff comes in the rest of the novel. I could be making this up; it's possible no one's ever said any such thing about Tolstoy. But if they haven't, they very well could say such a thing about The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The work of creating an alternative urban Jewish Alaska from scratch, complete with its secret societies and ghettos and characters is imposing. Plus, Chabon weaves in Yiddish words and phrases that can slow the reader who, like me, is not exactly from the shtetl. But the deeper you get in, the more you appreciate what you're reading, and then the plot begins to pick up speed, and you're reading for forward momentum as much as for the writing and the setting and the history.
I have to say, too, that the writing in this novel is simply lovely. Really, really fine craftsmanship. Open the book to almost any page, and you'll see something like this:
Landsman uncaps the bottle of vodka and takes a long stiff pull. It burns like a compound of solvent and lye. Several inches remain in the bottle when he is through, but Landsman himself is filled top to bottom with nothing but the burn of remorse. All the old parallels it once pleased him to draw between the guitarist and himself are turned against him. After a brief but vigorous debate, Landsman decides not to throw the bottle in the trash, where it will be of no use to anyone. He transfers it to the snug hip pocket of his own decline. He drags the musician out of the stall and carefully dries his right hand. Last he takes the piss he came in here to take. The music of Landsman's urine against the porcelain and water lures the musician into opening his eyes.
The lyricism and the verging-on-over-the-top introspection are grounded with ferocity by the earthly, the profane, the physical. It is, like this book, a masterful achievement.
There was an excellent New Yorker article last month on Raymond Carver and his relationship with editor Gordon Lish. A complicated deal, no question about it. Did Lish cross the line? How much editing did Carver want/need?
There seems no doubt that Lish deserves credit for helping Carver become the literary giant he was. But was he nurturing Carver's writing style or creating it? I don't have an answer, and it seems there is no easy answer. I think people who love Carver tend to see Lish as the bad guy in the situation, but I'm torn.
As an editor myself, I change people's words every day. Of course, editing for a newspaper is an entirely different thing than editing fiction or poetry. How would I feel if some editor out there latched onto my collection of poetry and decided to publish it -- but also made huge editing changes, eliminating huge sections and writing in words and lines of his or her own? Torn, I guess. Glad for the exposure and the opportunity, and in some cases even glad for the editing. But ... also I'd feel inadequate and unsure of myself. What was wrong with my own writing, my own instincts? The overwhelming critical reception Carver received must have served only to exacerbate both of these conflicting reactions. Would you feel like a plagiarist? Would you feel like you were living a lie? Or merely grateful for the editorial assistance? When does editing become writing?
As for the stories themselves, I find myself liking the Lish-edited versions better. They seem more challenging, more oblique, more poetic. But my reaction could stem largely from the fact that these were the versions I came to first, these were the stories with which I fell in love, this is the spare, unadorned style that drew me to Carver. Part of me feels as though I'm betraying Carver himself for preferring the Lish versions. Ultimately, though, does it matter which version I like better? I am reminded of something I read about a conversation between Robert Lowell and Frank Bidart about the two versions of Lowell's poem "Waking Early Sunday Morning." Bidart was lamenting that the two versions could not be reconciled, that one wasn't merely a better version of the earlier one. Lowell's response was essentially that one wasn't "the real poem," that, simply put, "They both exist." Maybe that's now also true of the Carver stories. It's not necessary to see one version as a more perfect realization of the other. It's enough that they both exist.
Recently on DVD:
The Bourne Ultimatum (A-): Nifty, action-crammed addition to the series. This just might be Matt Damon's best role. He has a gift for make his face at once implacable and emotive. Jason Bourne is a trained super-assassin who doesn't enjoy killing. You can see his weariness as a violent situation develops around him that will require his particular skills, sort of a "here we go again" resignation. There are plenty of these situations here -- but this is a movie about the consequences of such violence, on the perpetrator as well as the perpetrated-upon. The viewer does not escape, either. There's one especially brutal hand-to-hand fight scene in which the camera moves in and through the fight, the audience thrown directly in the path of the savagery, and when the melee ends, the audience feels as wrung out as Bourne himself does.
Some suspension of disbelief is required at times. I don't mind accepting on faith that the CIA can train superkillers like Bourne who can outfight and outsmart anyone who steps in their way. But it is kind of hard to believe that they can summon teams of apparently unlimited size and resources in most any city in the world on about three minutes' notice. Need full surveillance of a Tube station in London, as well as about two dozen agents? No problem. Need about 75 agents for a crash-packed car chase in Manhattan? No problem. Need Julia Stiles to drop in, help Bourne out of a sticky situation or two and then conveniently disappear when she's no longer integral to the plot? No problem. We wish our government were so mobile and flexible and tactically savvy. Apply this kind of energy to, say, stopping the insurgency in Iraq or finding Osama Bin Laden, and it'd be over in a matter of days.
In a scene during that NYC car chase, Bourne finds himself with the upper hand on one of the nameless CIA agents who has been chasing him. He trains his weapon on the man for a long moment, then opts for mercy and moves on. Later, that same agent catches up to Bourne, and this time the agent is the one with the gun. Bourne, obviously seeing himself in the man, says: "Do you even know why you're supposed to shoot me?" The man blinks and does not shoot. Bourne escapes, and the message is clear, a none-too-subtle indictment of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, waterboarding, secret prisons, rendition and other recent American pastimes: Even the most powerful government in the world can't kill our humanity.
Spider-Man 2 (B+): Clearly, I have been a little behind on this series, but now I'm two-thirds of the way there. This is a pleasant, smart, occasionally funny movie that's more love story than superhero action flick. One of the things I like best about it is that the beginning of the movie shows that it can be a real pain in the ass to be a hero. Peter Parker isn't getting enough sleep, he's falling behind at school, he gets fired from his pizza-delivery job (despite a valiant attempt to use his spidey skills to get there in 29 minutes or less) for being irresponsible. Can you imagine if it were up to you to jump into action every time you heard a siren? God, there would be times when even changing into your costume would seem like too much work. Pretty much everyone I know feels busy these days, between work and family and our 24-hour plugged-in lives. Who has time to save the world? Thank goodness for Spider-Man, I say.
I have previously established my fondness for cover songs. Here two links to covers that I judge to be worth listening to:
* Some band whose name I don't know covering In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Nicely done. Different than the original in subtle ways, and just the fact that it's a cover makes it not even the same song. Still, quite pleasant.
* A woman named Holly Beth Vincent covering Led Zeppelin's Good Times, Bad Times. She has a terrific voice. (Her original song called King of Fat is sweet as well.)
An article I enjoyed by the New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott, about taking your kids to see movies that might not be considered entirely appropriate. Sounds like my own childhood, there, because my parents (my father in particular) took us to see pretty much anything and everything. I am grateful for this, too. I happen to think that, f'r instance, seeing Stripes when I was 11 didn't warp me at all. Of course, maybe one isn't the best judge of how warped one might or might not be.
Recently on HBO and hotel pay-per-view:
Michael Clayton (A): It's no secret that I like George Clooney. But, really, does anyone not like George Clooney? Yes, he seems to play some version of the same character in most of his roles, with the only variance being the the degree of smugness, ranging from Ocean's (high smugness, as if greatly amused by a corrupt world) to Syriana (low smugness, as if a corrupt world has beaten it out of him). Michael Clayton definitely lands on the Syriana end of the scale. Clooney is the fixer ("I'm the janitor," he says) for a high-powered law firm defending some megacorporation that killed some people with its fertilizer and is therefore embroiled in a huge class action suit. Clooney is called on to clean up the mess when the firm's chief litigator melts down and starts helping the plaintiffs. Of course, Clooney's soul ends up at stake, as this is one of those "last chance to change" stories. There is some beautiful lighting in this movie, and the pacing is pitch perfect, each scene flowing organically and methodically, like the resolute and world-weary Clayton refusing to be rushed along by the urgency of any situation. One scene in particular has stayed with me, in which Clooney stands stunned by the beauty of dawn in a country field. The very end of this movie is wrapped a bit too neatly in a Bow of Convenient Plot Resolution, but that doesn't lessen the pleasure of all that comes before.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (F): The thing is, this is a decent idea. What happens if you break up with a superhero? Thar's promise in that thar premise. Alas, the movie vastly underreaches. It never misses a chance to grab for a cheap, preferably sexist laugh (usually falling well short of even that limited aspiration ... the laugh part, I mean; the sexist part the movie nails). It's all very Men are from Krypton, Women are from Venus. Even super powers don't keep a woman from being a needy, demanding, jealous, controlling psycho, apparently. Nice message, there.
What a great and wonderful day it is when you finally get your hands on a new John Sandford novel. The shiny black cover. The embossed title with its promises of a fierce world of crime and intrigure. The author's name, larger than the title, a celebrity up in lights that you feel as though you know on some level. You sneak a peek at the first page while you're waiting in line to pay for it at the bookstore. Yes, someone is about to get killed right there in the opening words. Always start with a crime. Someone must die. Yes. And then you're on your way home, the book in its bag on the passenger seat, and you're all atwitter with anticipation. When you stop at a red light, you can't help but grab it and work your way back through the first paragraph, swearing when the light turns green and you have to start driving again. Damn! You can hardly wait, but you know it won't be until later, after dinner and getting the kids bathed and tucked into bed with their ice water, when it will be just you and the book, and you finally can read uninterrupted, fully immersed in the plot until far after you should be in bed, unable to put the book down, the sheer unabated forward momentum of the plot grabbing you and holding your mind prisoner so that you cannot put it down, you cannot close your eyes, you SIMPLY. MUST. KEEP. READING.
Perhaps I overstate.
So anyway. There's a new Sandford novel out, which pleases me; actually, it's been out for two months now, and I did indeed read it immediately; now I'm most of the way through it for the second time. Look, there's not really much of a chance that I'm not going to enjoy a Sandford novel. His clean prose style and his compelling, forward-moving plots and his strongly drawn characters will always get me. It's rather like a U2 album that way. (I even liked Pop.)
This new one, titled Dark of the Moon, is not a Davenport novel, though -- it's something of a spinoff, featuring Virgil Flowers as the protagonist. Flowers is a Minnesota state cop who works for Davenport and appeared in at least one of the earlier novels (I'm too lazy to look up his earlier roles right now); people refer to him as "that fuckin' Flowers." He's got some Davenport in him -- he's fond of a good-looking woman, for sure, and he's got some of Davenport's good cop instincts and fearlessness. But their approach to investigating is somewhat different. Davenport doesn't so much solve his cases as he overwhelms them with the sheer force of his intellect and stature and persona. Flowers is far more unassuming. He circles the case, worries it, picks at it, pokes at it, ponders it, until all the pieces fall together. For the most part, this is fine. One gimmick that doesn't work all that well for me, however, is this schtick where Flowers writes fiction about the case to sort through his theories. It's distracting, not especially compelling, and the excerpts from his writing don't advance the case all that far beyond what we already know on our own. Really, I'm here to read a John Sandford novel, not a Virgil Flowers novel. I've been reading Sandford for years, and, Virgil Flowers, you're no John Sandford.
I'm not a famous writer, and I've never created a character who became the foundation of a bestselling series that made me rich, so I don't know from firsthand experience, but it seems to me that there are a few reasons why novelists who have indeed created such a character write non-series novels from time to time. Boredom, for instance. You write about Lucas Davenport or Dave Robicheaux for so long, surely you just want to write about something else for a while. Or maybe you come up with an idea, a plot that just doesn't fit your regular protagonist. Maybe you even start to resent the character on some level -- like, you're jealous of how popular the character is, and you want to write something else to show the character just who's the boss here -- you're the creator, you're the reason the books sell, you're the one with your name in 240-point Times Roman on the cover, and if you want to go off and write about a woman cat burglar for a while, there's not a good goddamn thing Harry Bosch can do about it. At any rate, whatever the reason, pretty much every novelist who's known primarily for a particular character or series does indeed go off and write these out-of-series novels. With, I would say, mostly good results. I like most all of Thomas Perry's novels, for example, although I reallyreally wish he would bring Jane Whitefield back (he says someday). I've talked about Dennis Lehane in an earlier post. I've talked about Michael Connelly, and how the most recent Bosch novel left me a bit cool; I wouldn't mind a return to the character from The Lincoln Lawyer, or most especially Cassie from Void Moon. Bosch is such a hardboiled son of a bitch he would be hard to write about forever. I can see how having a recurring front man like this would be a mixed blessing for a writer -- mostly just a blessing, especially at first, while you're getting famous and rich off the dude -- but at some point, you would feel trapped by your fans' expectations, and you might feel like your creativity was being stifled. (Or you could be like Lawrence Block and have lengthy series with about six different characters; that dude is fuckin' prolific.)
Dark of the Moon is something of an oddity. It's not a complete departure from the Prey series, the way Dead Watch was (a political thriller with a D.C. fixer as the main character). It's set in the same landscape as the Davenport novels. It's roughly the same kind of crime. But the murder is more intimate, more personal, and there's less of a sense that Flowers is saving the entire state from a deadly menace the way Davenport usually is. So, for Sandford, it's stepping away from Davenport ... but not very far away. And the same goes for the reading experience. It's almost like reading a Prey novel ... but not quite. Look, I'm not going to complain about this book too much. I liked it. I wouldn't say I flat loved it, though, which I pretty much can always say about a new Prey installment. I'm not sure I see Flowers as the kind of character who could carry a series the way Davenport has. But maybe that's because I'm still really just getting to know him. It's been a long time since I first met Davenport; maybe it took a few books for him to grow into the character he is now. It's like when you go back and watch the pilot for a show you've been watching for a while, which I did last night with House. All the characters seem like sketches of themselves (although Hugh Laurie was nailing House's facial expressions and attitude from the first time he's on screen). And of course a pilot has to spend all this time introducing us to the characters; they don't come with all this built-in backstory that regular viewers know. Same with a book; I mean, Sandford has to give a little sketch of Davenport in every novel so as not to lose first-time readers or people coming to the series out of order, but for the most part these books are written for the regulars. But in Dark of the Moon, we spend a fair amount of time getting to know Flowers. Sandford's next novel is another Prey book (due in May), but if the author ever decides to go back to Flowers, I'm willing to go along. I just hope he drops the fiction-within-fiction thing.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets (C+)
I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. That is to say, I didn't utterly hate every second I spent watching it. Hey, it was better than the first one, which is damning with faint praise to be sure.
Here's something about me: I am something of a Nicholas Cage fan. Forgive me; it's all because of Raising Arizona. However, I've sort of forgotten what I liked about him. And NT:BoS doesn't help. Cage pretty much sleepwalks through this movie. The only real acting he does that I could see comes in the scenes where he appears to be posing for the stills that will go on the movie poster and publicity materials. You know: standing atop a giant precariously balanced rock with a flare in one hand, his arms arced widely, his face very serious. That kind of thing.
As for all the conspiracy theory stuff that is the foundation of the movie, it's like the first one: pretty much Da Vinci Code Lite. And since Da Vinci Code is already pretty featherweight, that makes the National Treasure series to movies what Keystone Light is to beer. Or maybe if there were such a beer as Keystone Light Lite.
I Am Legend (B) and No Country for Old Men (A)
I have a confession: I have never read a Cormac McCarthy novel. I know, I know. He's the greatest living American writer and all that. I'm not saying I'm especially proud of this hole in my literary experience, or that I'm avoiding McCarthy on some kind of principle. It just hasn't worked out for Cormac and me, for no particular reason, or at least for a variety of particular reasons that aren't particularly interesting. I do have some idea of what his novels are like, a notion absorbed out of the zeitgeist, from seeing the trailers for All the Pretty Horses and from hearing people talk about McCarthy and from, I think, reading a short story or two of his. I imagine lots of dust. Texas dust. Wide-open spaces that lead to more wide-open spaces. Guns. Cowboys by themselves. Violence. Interior monologues. Lots of purple sunsets and sagegrass and saguaros. Oh, and I know he doesn't use quote marks. Which automatically makes him all literary, right?
Based on the Coen brothers' adaptation of No Country for Old Men, I'm not off by much. This movie had all of the above. Well, maybe not interior monologues. Although, I suppose a film can have implied internal monologues. You know, where the camera lingers for a long time on a character's face, and the viewer sort of fills in the blanks. I think maybe Tommy Lee Jones' face is an interior monologue all on its own. Talk about craggy. ...
Wait a minute.
I don't know where I'm going with all this -- I don't know quite what to say about this movie, and I don't know how to grade it. It's one of those movies that makes the whole grading concept kind of inadequate and reductionist. I could, maybe should, give this movie an A for being well acted. (Better than that, really. The acting was spectacular. Josh Brolin was compelling, just as he was in American Gangster, but Javier Bardem was to this movie what Brolin was to Gangster: When he's on the screen, you can't stop looking at him. Those eyes and that ridiculous haircut. Plus, Jones was a pleasure, as always.) Or for being pretty to look at, with the kind of cinematography you would expect from a Coen brothers movie about a Cormac McCarthy novel (actually, it was somewhat more restrained than many Coen flicks; fewer attention-jarring pans and angles). Lots of ...you know, wide-open spaces. Or for being interesting all the way through; holding one's attention from start to finish is an underrated quality for a movie. Or for complicating its take on narrative: Whose story is this? At first you think it's a story about one character and his interaction with a couple of others; then you decide that's true but you were wrong about which character; then you think maybe it's two characters moving toward each other, or three; finally, you give up and realize it's not quite anyone's story, and sort of everyone's, and it's deliberately monkeying with your craving for a straightforward thriller. Without giving away anything, the movie's ending is certainly monkeying with your desire for closure.
So it's a good movie. Maybe even a great movie.
Unless it's trying to say something important. Because if it is, I don't believe it. If it's trying to make a point about bleakness or the nature of evil, or how we're all alone in the end or whatever, then it feels contrived. And I fear that it is trying to make some kind of point. To, you know, say something.
I still don't know where I'm going with this. I still don't know what to say about this movie. I liked it. I don't think I loved it. I might have loved parts of it (for instance, there's a scene in which Bardem's assassin character proves just how stone-cold sociopathic he is: he's driving at night and spots a bird sitting on a bridge, so he slows down and points his shotgun out the window and shoots at the bird -- it's a definite nod to Raising Arizona and the biker from hell throwing a grenade at a bunny and blasting away at a bird on the roadside, only not played for laughs ... I think). But it strikes me that it's the kind of movie some people might rave about because raving about it makes them look smart and hip and with it. Because they're smarter and hipper and with-it-er than the kind of people who might rave about I Am Legend, with its mega-name Hollywood star and its huge box office numbers and its happy ending.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not going to rave about I Am Legend, either. It was fine. Will Smith is always fun on screen (and he's clearly a workout maniac; holy cow, is he built, even if that was a body double in the pull-up scene, which it might have been). It was Castaway with Manhattan as the island and a German shepherd instead of a volleyball and vampire-zombie-things instead of palm trees. The ending was pure hokie Hollywood crap, but whatever. And the characters are straight out of Central Casting, which is to say, not particularly complicated or interesting. There's some serious creepiness early on, but by the end, you're pretty sure you've seen this movie before. It's one of those movies where you can imagine how the pitch went, and how thrilled the studio types were with the dollar signs flashing before their eyes: It's Castaway meets Outbreak meets Night of the Living Dead? And Will Smith is attached?! Awesome!!! Greenlight that sumbitch like yesterday!!
Yeah. Like I said, it was fine. Ultimately forgettable ... but fine.
Maybe, in the end, I fear No Country for Old Men will be forgettable for me, too. It was missing something. Some warmth, some spark, something. Some wholeness. Something that, say, Fargo had that I can't quite describe. But I'll keep trying.
American Gangster (A-)
In the opening scene of American Gangster, Denzel Washington douses a tied-up man with gasoline, sets him on fire, then shoots the dude to death while he burns and screams in agony. I'm thinking, whoa, this is gonna be one violent fucking movie. I mean, even Reservoir Dogs kind of builds up to that scene.
At as it turns out, that opening is somewhat misleading. Don't get me wrong, there's violence in this movie, some of it even unpleasant to watch, but there's more to it than violence. There are drugs, for one thing. And did I mention there are two HUGE movie stars?
Look, any movie that has Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in it is going to have a hard time being about anything other than Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. These guys are the megastars of all megastars, and no matter how talented they are, no matter how good they are at assuming their roles, you never forget who you're watching. But, in the end, in this case, that works out all right. I don't mind investing a couple hours in a good solid, Hollywood cop-and-gangster flick that has a new take on the history of American organized crime (new for the movies, I mean -- this is based on a true story, after all, but it doesn't let that fact dominate its every scene, unlike some other flicks I could mention; Breach, I'm looking at you). The lead actors (I forget their names) were good.
Crowe is effective as a shabby, goodhearted-but-socially-clumsy cop who's somehow far less good-looking than the actor who plays him. Washington is also solid, but he does always seem to play similar characters: emotionally reserved, extremely competent, extremely confident. I can't really imagine him playing the character Crowe plays here; I can, though, imagine Crowe playing Washington's character, except of course that race is a critical part of the character, and Crowe is, you know, white.
It's worth mentioning that Josh Brolin was utterly riveting as a corrupt NYC cop -- when he was on the screen, you couldn't look away, no matter who was on screen with him. Definitely one of the highlights of the movie, which was highly entertaining, if perhaps a bit too long ... I couldn't necessarily point to any particular scene that dragged, but it was like two and a half hours, and felt it.
Recently on DVD
Murderball (A): Obviously, being a quadriplegic doesn't prohibit you from leading an active life. Apparently, it also doesn't keep you from being a raging asshole. Murderball is the story of some of the guys from the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team, plus a former star in the sport who now coaches Canada, and it's everything you could hope for from that story: Guys to root for, guys to root against, an uncomfortable scene where you learn how to have sex when you're a quadriplegic, and of course plenty of inspirational scenes where you feel like a jerk for ever complaining about anything because, Jesus, at least you can walk. I liked these guys (well, most of them), I like this sport (about which I previously knew nothing), and I liked this movie (a lot).
The Bee Movie (B)
Our standards for animated movies have really soared, haven't they? Ten or fifteen years ago, a movie like this comes out, and we'd have been all dazzled, like, wow, this movie is animated and cute and lighthearted and the kids like it, and it has all these jokes aimed at grownups, too, not in a crude way, but in a funny pop-culture reference way, and it has one of my favorite comedians doing a voice and I just love him, and the whole family can enjoy it, and you know, just, like, wow.
Remember how you felt when you first saw Aladdin?
But now, ALL of these movies are like that. So The Bee Movie comes out, and it's fine, and yes, the kids enjoyed it, and yes, there are plenty of pop-culture funnies for Mom and Dad, and instead of being all wowed, I'm like, yeah, that was okay, I mean, it was better than Ice Age, but it was no Shrek or Cars or anything.
The weakest part of the movie, honestly, was the fact that the lead character, Barry the bee, voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, was kind of dull. Seinfeld is, of course, funny on stage, and I heard him on Fresh Air recently and very much liked him and his sensibilities about art and comedy, but can you imagine his show with just him? With no Kramer or Elaine or George? Yeah.
So, this movie was okay, fine, completely watchable, laugh-aloud funny more than once, but in the end, it was more buzz than sting.
Recently on DVD
The Lady in the Water (C-): An overwrought, implausible, crushingly sentimental, magnificently complicated disappointment. M. Night Shyamalan's career arc certainly seems to have the absolute wrong trajectory. Sixth Sense? Kick-ass awesome. Unbreakable? Very good. Signs? Just okay. The Village? Also okay, probably better than Signs. The Lady in the Water? Crap. Imagine this on one of those stock-market graphs. It would look like the opposite of this. Really makes you excited for The Happening, doesn't it? I mean, we could be talking A.I. bad by this point. (By the way, never in the history of moving pictures have critics been more wrong about a movie than nearly all of them were about A.I.)
I just finished reading Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone, for the second time, in the midst of the hype about the Ben Affleck-directed movie based on the book. As much as hype as there is, at any rate. It's received so-so reviews, some good, some mediocre. I still would like to see it, but it's likely one that'll wait until it's out on DVD. (Let's be honest -- that's true of most movies these days.)
I discovered Lehane's work a few years ago after reading an article at salon.com about the best thriller/mystery writers out there. The author of this particular article seemed to have similar taste to my own, and much praise for Lehane's series featuring Boston detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. I remember the article making particular reference to the violence in these books; I think one line went something like, "Darkness, Take My Hand should have been titled, Darkness, Take Me By the Throat and Throttle the Life out of Me." Naturally, I headed for the library and jumped into the series. Good stuff, I found. Some Lawrence Block-esque humor, some fine, old-style, private-dick cynicism, lots of colorful characters, a super-strong sense of Boston's seedier side. And, yeah, violence. Which I can take or leave. It doesn't bother me all that much; if I can handle Clete Purcel and Dave Robicheaux, I can handle Kenzie and Gennaro. Same level.
And then, of course, Mystic River came along, and Clint Eastwood made Lehane a crossover hit. I felt like a fan of, I dunno, R.E.M. from the days of Radio Free Europe or something, being all like, yeah, what is this "Shiny, Happy People"shit? (Just kidding, Mr. Stipe, sir -- "Shiny, Happy People" is clearly a fun, intelligent, artistically sound little satire and not at all a way to make a whole bunch of money off of morons who will buy anything you put in front of them if the video is neat. Really, it is. Plus, Mystic River is actually a pretty good book, too, even though I like the Kenzie-Genarro series better and wish Lehane would get back to it. Shutter Island? Now that, I didn't much care for.)
So, like I said, I just re-read Gone, Baby, Gone. And I got so caught up in it, I also then went and re-read Darkness, Take Me By the Throat, or whatever it's called. (A note: I wish I'd read them in the opposite order, because GBG comes after Darkness, and sort of gives away a huge plot point in Darkness with a throw-away bit of backstory.) Yes, they're violent as hell, in places, but I can tolerate the violence when I am as drawn in as I am by these books. Patrick Kenzie is a fine lead character, a kind of fallen hero in the tradition of Marlowe or Lew Archer or Spenser or Jake Gittes. He's got the kind of wise-ass sense of humor that apparently is a requirement for the job, at least in books, and he has a finely tuned appreciation for sex and beautiful women, particularly his partner, Angie Gennaro. (Incidentally, I sort of struggle picturing Casey Affleck as Kenzie ... Affleck seems too soft somehow, not world-weary enough, missing the sort of caged-in capacity for violence that Kenzie has, no matter how hard he works to keep that cage locked; I could be wrong, I hope I am, and I have read good things about Affleck in the movie, so I'll try to reserve judgment.)
Even more than the compelling characters, though, what draws me into these books is the world the characters inhabit. The apparently mean streets of Boston are as fine a setting as you could have for a thriller series, and it's this place where violence and trauma and nastiness are all around, plenty of reminders of how much the universe can suck, but decent, smart people like Kenzie and Gennaro make it okay by knowing which rules to follow, which ones to bend, and which ones to kick the living shit out of. It's the kind of world where there's violence that is immoral (committed by the bad guys) and violence that is moral (committed by Our Heroes) ... or at least almost moral, close enough to moral, quasi-moral. It's a world where I don't think I would want to live, but I rather like visiting -- and if I did live there, I'm pretty sure I would be just like Patrick Kenzie. Don't you think?
Covers rock. Musical covers, I mean. I have developed in the past couple years a real affinity for cover songs. Remakes. Taking someone else's art and doing it over again. The best ones inspire a dual kind of pleasure -- they are two songs at once. When you are listening to a cover, you are enjoying the new version as a song unto itself -- and at the same time, in the best of them, you're also hearing the original (and, presumably, enjoying it). The experience, to me, calls to mind the polyphonic chanting of Tibetan monks, where they can create two chords at once with their voice. The best covers are like that. They're not karaoke versions of the original song; they keep what makes the first version great and add something, twist something. Maybe it's an acoustic version of an electric song, or vice versa. Maybe it's a woman singing a song originally sung by a man, or vice versa. Maybe it's a song that had a particular meaning because of the time when it was originally recorded, and simply the act of re-recording it in a new time gives it new meaning. Imagine, for example, if today's artists started covering some of the great war protest songs of the Vietnam era. In fact, why aren't they?
I have this idea about doing a book, or more likely a chapbook, of cover poems. I haven't quite wrapped my mind around how to do it, although I'm still thinking about it. I could just retype the poems and put my name on them, right? Wouldn't that be all postmodern of me? (Yes, I know, postmodernism is dead.) Although, I suppose, not all that artistic. It would be making an artistic statement, sure, in the sense that "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" written in 2007 would decidedly not be the same as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" written in 1922. And it would be making a statement about the ownership of art; how is that poem different with my name on it than it is with Frost's name on it? But doesn't art require some sort of work, some sacrifice, some self-investment? Not a whole lot of that in re-typing a poem. So anyway, I'm still working on that idea. Don't steal it. No, really, don't.
Interestingly, when it comes to movies, "covers" are quite hit and miss. I like the idea of old movies re-made with contemporary technology and actors. But so many of them just seem to be made with contemporary flaws. For example, I remember being really excited about the remake of The Manchurian Candidate ... and then, when I saw it, quite disappointed. But the DeNiro Cape Fear was pretty good (when I saw this movie, in college, with a friend and my future wife, it scared the heck out of all three of us). The Clooney-Pitt Ocean's series is, of course, fun cinema; I've never even seen the original, the Sinatra one. Maybe the difference is that in covering a movie, you get no points for echoing the source version; you have to make a good movie on your own, all over again. Just by virtue of having a good voice, some random person named Jennifer Lettelleir can sing "Hotel California" and make it enjoyable a hell of a lot easier than Frank Oz can make a campy remake of The Stepford Wives successful.
My top nine most favoritest cover songs, in no partcular order, keeping in mind that any top-whatever list of any sort is more like a snapshot of a particular moment or mood than a permanent monument; ask me again tomorrow or next week or next year, and the list surely maybe probably possibly will be different; some songs will fall from favor, new discoveries will emerge and so on and so forth:
- "Stairway to Heaven," by Dolly Parton. This is an amazing creation. It's the best cover ever, or it's a joke on all of rock 'n' roll. It's camp and cute and killer. It's a really, really good song.
- "Wonderwall," by Ryan Adams. I never quite got the hoopla over the original Oasis version. Never quite got Oasis, in fact. I mean, fine, but also? Whatever. Hearing this acoustic cover makes me appreciate the original more.
- "My Generation," by The Zimmers. Awesome. A 90-year-old singing, "I hope I die before I get old"? Awesome.
- "Turn the Page," by Metallica. Love the original, love the remake. Just a good rock ballad about being a rocker.
- "All Apologies," by Sinead O'Connor. O'Connor's voice is so different than Cobain's. It's liquid where his is gravel, sky where his is earth, articulate where his is mumbly. But both work so well with the lyrics of this song.
- "Hurt," by Johnnie Cash. Touching, impressive. Part of that whole multi-album series of cover songs Cash did near the end of his life, all of which are good. This, I think, might be the best of the bunch.
- "Graceland," by Willie Nelson. A good singer for this song. I love me some Willie Nelson. The song has that kind of world-weariness and wistfulness and hopefulness that suits both Paul Simon and Nelson, in different ways.
- "One" by U2 and Mary J. Blige. I am not particularly a Mary J. Blige fan. I am very much a U2 fan. This version of this song totally rocks. Her voice slays. So much energy and passion. There are tons of covers of this song, and I have many of them on my iPod, and this is the version the best captures the fire of the song. So many versions focus on the pain and slow the song way down. This one turns it up.
- "Leila" by Eric Clapton. This is a case of covering your own song and making a whole new creation out of it. The difference between the electric and acoustic versions is remarkable. You might even say it's electric.
For an intelligent conversation about comic books/graphic novels/TV/movies, go here. If you’re interested only in Watchmen, jump to the top of page 7 of the interview. The idea of an HBO mini series seems about right to me. Even, perhaps, a one-season show.
What am I reading right now? The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Also just re-read part of Hit Parade by Lawrence Block, and I’d like to re-read Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone before I see the movie, about which I’ve heard good things. Don’t have any poetry collections in front of me at the moment, although I’ve been skimming through Stanley Plumly’s Argument and Song since I heard him read two weeks ago.
I recently read Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies by Jim Daniels and At the Drive-In Volcano by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and reviewed them both for Third Coast. I’ll post a link when the issue publishes. Both very fine collections.
Blogging about the blog is an easy trap to fall into, and it's the kind of navel-gazing that can make something fast become unreadable. So I will not be writing a lot of posts about my blog (not counting occasionally compiling the accumulated movie grades into one single post) -- you know, apologizing for not posting more often, that sort of thing. What's the point? This blog is about my reading life, using "reading" in the larger sense that includes listening, watching, thinking -- really, perceiving. Being engaged with text, narrative, art.
But this post is about my purpose in doing this blog in the first place. I was inspired to begin it by an article I read about a new surge in online, unaffiliated book reviewers as more and more newspapers trim or eliminate their books pages (sad, sad times for the newspaper business, but that’s another story altogether). I thought, Hey, I can do that. And I think I got infatuated with the idea that I could make myself famous, in a sense, carve out a niche for myself by having this really fabulous book and movie review site where folks came to discover the latest, greatest literary creations, and to be entertained by my wit and insight. Um, yeah. I’m not saying I’m not capable of creating such a site (of course I am!) … but it’s not like I have all this spare time. And of course, I’m pretty sure no one besides me reads this anyway. I have not given up my goal – that’s one thing about me, I never give up on a dream (I mean, I still haven’t entirely abandoned the notion that someday I could pitch in the major leagues, and I’m not kidding about that – if I were a Shakespearean character, my fatal flaw would be something along the lines of delusions of grandeur). But for now, this blog will not, alas, be the world’s great critical site. I mean, my sparkling wit and stunning insight will still exist here (duh!), but right now, my main goal in producing this, other than entertaining myself, is to grapple with my own aesthetic. What do I value in art? What moves me? What bores me? What do I am for when I create? What do I seek when I read/watch/listen?
In the movie Ratatouille (and, no kidding, the more time that passes since I saw it, the more I want to see it again), there’s this food critic who’s not quite the bad guy because he is won over in the end, but he’s certainly a foil to Our Hero, because he revels in crafting bad reviews and his standards are almost impossibly high. But I think the movie is a little hard on him (it takes the usual angle about critics just tearing down the people, er, rats in this case, who are truly creating). His best line was something like: “You provide the dinner, I’ll provide the perspective.” That actually makes a lot of sense to me. I happen to believe not all art is created equal. I think there are successful books and songs and movies, and those that do not succeed. I think there is art that is genius and art that is, well, not.
Are there some critics who get perhaps a bit too much pleasure out of savaging another’s hard-earned work of art? Probably. Is it easier to tear down someone else’s work than to put yourself out there by creating work of your own? Sure. Is reaction to art not subjective and personal anyway? Well, to some extent.
But is there not also value in perspective? Is there not value in a conversation about art? In exploring what works and what does not, what is valuable and what is not? My answer to all these questions is yes. Yes, there is value in the conversation and perspective. And you know what? The best art stands up to the best criticism. Perhaps, in fact, that is the definition of true art: It stands up for itself. It doesn’t mind being examined, critiqued, criticized.
I think this blog is a good indicator of the health of my writing life. When I’m posting here, I’m engaged and thinking and consuming art and writing. When I’m not posting here, I’m working and teaching and being a father and husband. And wasting time on the internet and watching too much television, probably. All fine pursuits, to be sure, but they don’t help me get better at fantasy football (apparently), and they certainly don’t produce any works of art.
Recently on DVD (man, it has been a long time since I saw something in the theater):
The Good German (B): George Clooney looks good even in black and white and smoking like a million cigarettes. That guy just has it. As for the movie, it was a little overly artsy and a little take-itself-too-seriously and a little hard to follow in the beginning, but it was still pretty good.
The Inside Man (A-): Fine, fine bank heist movie. This was a second viewing (my wife swears she hadn’t seen it before, although I was sure she was there when I watched it the first time, also as a rental; but whatever.) Oh, and speaking of guys who just have It? Clive Owen does, too. He does for stubble in this decade what Don Johnson did for it in the ’80s.
The Sentinel (B-): Pleasant enough, but you’ve seen this movie before. Like, it used to be called In the Line of Fire? With Malkovich and Eastwood? Yeah. Like, if how surprising a movie’s plot is was measured on one of those carnival games with a bell at the top and a sliding thing that rises depending on how hard you smack it with an oversized wooden hammer, Mr. Burns would be swinging the hammer at this plot. I’ll give you a buck if you figure out who the bad guy is the first time you see him.*
Derailed (B): Hey, I TOLD you it was a bad idea for movie husbands to try to run off with their movie girlfriends. Even if your movie girlfriend is Jennifer Anniston. Clive Owen learns that lesson in spades here. (You’d think he’d remember from Closer.) This movie ultimately, however, suffers from Call the Damn Police Syndrome. You know, where Our Hero gets himself furtherly and furtherly entangled in a situation all because he doesn’t just, say it with me, call the damn police.
The Contract (D): I love John Cusack (although I’m starting to question some of his script choices). I love Morgan Freeman, too. I love stories about hitmen. This movie has all those things. This movie, I did not love. Too bad. No, I mean the movie is too bad. Blah, blah, slow-paced, blah, blah, implausible situation from the beginning, blah, blah, ridiculously overblown and yet blandly stock minor characters, blah, blah Deliverance rip-off, blah, blah, entirely predictable plot that seemed more suited to an episode of “CHiPs”** than a full-length feature film, blah, blah, etc.
*No, I won’t.
**One of those episodes of a show where the characters go on vacation and end up in a situation much like they face at home. Ponch and Jon go camping. I can see it now.
More recent DVD viewings
All the King’s Men (C)
This, of course, was based on the Robert Penn Warren novel instead of on “real life” like the two movies I talked about in my most recent post, but it ends up suffering from the same sorts of problems. Like Breach and Zodiac, it features good acting, nice visuals and high production values --- yet it ends up feeling more like the outline of a movie. Jude Law’s journalist/political gofer character is so dripping with Big Easy malaise that he offers little in the way of, you know, emotion or humanity. Yeah, there’s this whole love triangle thing with Kate Winslett that I really wanted to care about, but I don’t know. Wasn’t feeling it. No Southern story would be complete without ghosts from the past affecting present events, and this is no exception. By the time they do rise, though, they’re not all that surprising. As for Sean Penn’s Huey Long-type character, his transformation from rube into a serious politician is mildly interesting, but the bullying he is famous for happens mostly off-screen, so mostly what we get to see is a bunch of scenes where he complains about how no one likes him and how the establishment old guard is out to get him. Which they are, but we don’t quite get why. I mean, there’s some perfunctory stuff about how he represents the people instead of the powerful, but it’s all kind of throwaway, and you’re never sure whether you like him or not. Now, I have nothing against complicated characters, or characters you both like and hate, but not when it feels like the moviemakers just left out all the scenes that would help you make up your mind.
Night at the Museum (B+)
This is the kind of movie I hope my kids love when they’re 10. It’s warm, funny, charming. It doesn’t aim to high or take itself too seriously. Ben Stiller is enjoyable, as he usually is. Robin Williams is delightfully understated. Owen Wilson and British actor Steve Coogan are scene-stealingly hilarious as a feuding cowboy and Roman general. This movie reminds me of the Tom Hanks movie Big – it just has that same pleasantness about it.
Little Children (B)
I read the first chapter of Tom Perotta’s novel a few years ago and really liked it. Can’t say why I didn’t get back to it, just one of those things where I got distracted and the book got moved to a shelf where I never see it and then suddenly much time had passed and I hadn’t read it. And then there’s the movie and I’m thinking, well, I really should read the book first, but the movie’s right here in my hand, so I guess I’ll watch it. And I did. And it was okay. Not great, but okay. I just never quite got emotionally involved with the characters, at least the leading man (played by Patrick Wilson). He’s trapped in this unpassionate marriage, he meets Kate Winslett, he falls in like/lust with her – or at least the idea of her, the idea of getting out of his marriage, etc., etc., etc. Then he almost screws up his whole life, of course, because we all know that in movies it’s never really a good idea to run off with your girlfriend. And the whole child-molester-lives-in-the-neighborhood plot is interesting and well done (all the praise Jackie Earle Haley got was quite deserved), but barely feels connected to the other story. It’s the kind of thing that can work well in a novel, parallel, interlocked stories, but in a movie is difficult to pull off.
Recently on DVD
Hey, I dig serial-killer flicks. I enjoy that dreamy, doe-eyed Gyllenhaal fellow (you know, in a very manly Jarhead way). I get a kick out of watching Robert Downey Jr. go against type to play a self-destructive substance abuser. I like the ever-competent Mark Ruffalo, even with 1970s hair. So what could go wrong? For one thing, this movie covered about twenty years’ worth of events. In real time. Okay, I exaggerate slightly. But, dear Lord, it felt like it lasted six and a half hours. And the most (only?) tense scene in the whole movie was a big, fat red herring. It starts with a bang, and by the end you’re wishing the Zodiac killer would pop a few more innocent victims just so something would happen. I get that we’re supposed to be watching Gyllenhaal’s character descend into his obsession with figuring out who the killer is, but you end up empathizing with his poor wife and feeling like, geez, get over it already. It doesn’t help that there’s no puzzle for us to solve along with him, no chance for us to be equally curious about who the killer is. The suspects are just a bunch of random names. Which leads to a movie that feels rather like a bunch of random scenes.
Evidently I have a weakness for movies based on graphic novels. Who knew? Anyway, this was a spectacularly violent and incredibly appealing movie. The visuals were damn cool. The lead actor, whom I’d never heard of and whose name escapes me at the moment, was dynamite. That is what screen presence looks like. After this movie, I was all fired up, like, hell yeah, I could be a goddamn bad-ass Spartan warrior, too. Fun stuff.
This movie makes a huge deal about the fact that’s it’s based on true events. You know what? It would have been better off keeping that fact to itself? The opening scene gives away the ending, and then the movie jumps back in time and progresses inexorably toward that ending. As a result? No suspense. The acting is good, the look of the movie is fine, the production values are high … but there’s nothing pushing against the plot, nothing to make us wonder at all how things will turn out, no place where you really feel the protagonist (Ryan Phillipe, all grown up) has a real moral choice to make or, really, much of anything at stake in the outcome. And it’s too Hollywood slick, too in love with its stars and its self-proclaimed realism, to call itself a character study or something where the plot isn’t the most important thing. This wasn’t a terrible movie or anything, but it was a long way from being great.
I believe I said something in my comments about Ratatouille to the effect that my kids weren’t talking about it a week later, so it must not have made much of an impression on them. Well, not so fast. My son, the two-and-a-half-year-old, has this new game he calls “Playing Mousy,” in which he picks up a stick to act as his shotgun, announces proudly "I'm going to be the old lady," and commences firing away at imaginary rats in the imaginary ceiling of his imaginary cottage in the French countryside.
So apparently something from that movie stuck after all. Kinda makes me want to see it again.
I recently read Stephen Hunter's review of the new Bourne movie. Struck me as oddly harsh, especially considering it's the only really negative review I've read of the film. Pretty much all the other critics seem willing to go along for the speedy thrill ride, enjoying the visuals and taking the movie at face value. Reminds me of my earlier musings on what Hunter would have said about Shooter, had it not been, like, you know, his movie. Because I haven't seen the newest one yet, but I've seen the first two Bourne flicks and I have to say: Shooter wishes it were a Bourne movie.
In the movie Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld talks about how being Jerry Seinfeld buys him no more than a couple minutes on stage. After that, he has to be funny. I was thinking about this before I saw Ratatouille, because I kept telling myself – and heard others say as well – that Pixar has never made a bad movie. I admit to feeling a trifle skeptical about the plot of this one: a rat who wants to be a chef? Seems a bit, I don’t know, esoteric. Not that you couldn’t make a good, even great movie about such a plot, but when you’re talking about an animated feature, toys that come to life, or talking cars, or a family of superheroes – all those things just seem more natural fits than a rat (not the first creature that leaps to mind for a warm and fuzzy protagonist) who wants to succeed in the world of haute cuisine (thank goodness for Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen or we wouldn’t be able to relate at all). But … Pixar’s never made a bad movie, right?
Well, this definitely wasn’t a bad movie. It is, in fact, a pretty successful example of the kunstlerroman – the story of the development of an artist. Remy, the lead rat, is likable enough that you even forget to be squicked out when he’s in the kitchen (but you remember in a hurry when the whole rat clan invades a restaurant – ewwww!). He is an artists, and food is his canvas. The animation is spectacular, maybe as good as animation has ever been. The scuffs in a wooden spice rack, the gleam of copper pots, the matting of wet rat fur – it’s really a joy to look at. The moral of the story – that although not everyone can be a great artist, a great artist can come from anywhere – is certainly an idea worth exploring. The ending is predictably happy, in a satisfying way. And the movie also manages to teach something about food. I was serious earlier when I referred to Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen – those shows have opened our eyes to what goes on behind the swinging doors of a restaurant kitchen, made it part of our cultural lexicon, so that we’re in familiar territory here, we understand the language being spoken.
However, I do finally have some reservations about this movie. Because it’s animated, because the movement of the plot is fairly straightforward, because the bad guys are easily identifiable, because the good guys are all truly good, this clearly seems a movie aimed at kids. And yet it’s nowhere near as much fun as, say, Cars, or Toy Story. Remy’s dream is a little complicated for kids to fully identify with. Not like Lightning McQueen’s, for example – my kids start yelling, “Go, go, go!” as soon as the first flashes of that movie appear on the screen. And the obstacles to that dream are even more complicated – there’s a question of paternity, solved by DNA testing; there’s the reduction in a restaurant’s rating from five stars to three; there’s the franchising of a famous chef’s image to a line of frozen foods. Maybe it’s just that the movie is aimed at kids a few years older than mine. My kids LOVE Toy Story and Cars, though. This one, they liked well enough, I guess. But it’s not like they’ve talked about it all in the four days since we saw it. I wonder if this is a movie that makes the mistake of trying to please the whole family and ends up being, well, enjoyable enough, not really objectionable to anyone, but also not exactly special to anyone, either.
Recently seen on DVD
The Black Dahlia (D): This movie looks like a good movie. It’s positively oozing with film noir atmosphere. You know, the way a bundle of asparagus you’ve left in the back of the crisper for two months oozes this sort of goopy black gunk. Yeah, this was awful. Too bad. Like I said, it looks great. But it’s excruciatingly slow paced, the camera lingering. On. Every. Single. Shot. The acting is sometimes forced, sometimes understated to the point of narcolepsy. Josh Hartnett, who I thought was terrific in Black Hawk Down, sleepwalks through this one. Aaron Eckhart, who I thought was terrific in Thank You for Smoking, aims for smolderingly intense and hits more like uncomfortably grouchy. Scarlett Johansson, whom I adore and was terrific in everything else she's been in, looks as though she’s in one of those parody flicks (Scary Movie, that sort of thing) making fun of the stereotypical 1940s actress. And the third act is a confusing, deeply implausible, unsatisfying mess. Too bad, because I really like the James Ellroy book this was based on.
Shooter (C): Speaking of movies for which I really liked the book, this is based on Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter. I love Hunter and his Swagger books. But whenever you adapt a book for the screen, you have to leave stuff out, and in Shooter, the scars of those omissions show plainly through, in the form of gaping plot holes stitched together with Glistening Threads of Implausibility. Throw in some ham-handed political commentary (with Ned Beatty playing a Cheney-esque senator) and some oh so contemporary name-dropping (including a reference to Anna Nicole Smith? Really, was that necessary? We get the parallels to our current lives just fine, thanks), and you’ve got yourself one generic-assed, forgettable action thriller starring Marky Mark. Stephen Hunter is a film critic as well as a novelist, and if you’ve ever read his movie reviews, he’s particularly good at savaging movies he finds lacking. It would be fascinating to see what he would have to say about this one, if only it weren’t paying the mortgage for his summer home.
I’ve been reading the poems of Muriel Rukeyser for the first time, and when you read about her, she comes with all these labels: political poet, feminist poet, lesbian poet. So many contemporary poets --- at least, so many of those I know personally shy away from political poetry, wary of creating propaganda instead of art. There’s this sense that to be political is to compromise one’s work. My own poetry has been far more personal than political for the most part, but that’s starting to change --- and even faintly political poems tend to raise eyebrows in workshops. I remember once, just the words “vice president” (used in a fairly generic sense) made several of my classmates bristle. “Those words just seem too political-sounding to use in a poem,” one poet said. I’m thinking: Of course they are political, I want them to be, I want you to think of Cheney, of Gore, of Bush the elder, of the concept of vice president. Vice presidents are part of the culture in which I write. They mean something. I don’t know. I don’t want to be a speechwriter, or to engage in the debates you’ll find on the talking-head shows on the cable shout networks. I also don’t want to presume to speak for my social class, or my generation, or whoever. And although I do believe that to some extent the very act of writing a poem is political, I don’t want to make too much of that; the act of buying a car, or a latte, or of watching mindless reality television --- these are political acts as well, in their own ways. But I do have deeply felt political beliefs, and as such how can I leave them out of my poems? And if I can make those deeply felt beliefs part of successful art, isn’t that all the more powerful a triumph? In the introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, the magnificent Adrienne Rich writes of Rukeyser’s “lifelong project of knitting together personal experience with politics,” but adds: “ ‘Knitting together’ is the wrong phrase here; in her words, she simply did not allow them to be torn apart.” That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I aspire to.
Some of these poems, Rukeyser’s poems, are so good it makes me hurt. I could go through and quote lines that open up a wistful ache in the back of my throat. The phrase that has stuck in my head long after first reading it is “audacious landscape.” I want that one, I want to steal it, to use it, to have written it in the first place. With this book arranged in chronological order, you can definitely trace the lyrical arc of her career, and my favorite poems are in the middle. It strikes me that these are the most insistent, the most skilled, the most startling pieces in the book. But there are good poems from start to end. These are poems of the body: the body physical, the body politic, the body of pop culture and high culture. You can feel how she surely influenced more contemporary poets from Sharon Olds to Jorie Graham. One of the weird things about reading poetry backwards through history, which is pretty much what I have done, am doing is that I find traces of current poets in writers of the past, when in fact of course the earlier writers came first; it’s like hearing the echo first, and then tracing it to the original cry and being amazed all over again at the beauty and urgency.
Rich calls Rukeyser “the poet I most needed in the struggle to make my poems and live my life.” Which makes me think about who that poet is for me. I am not sure that I know yet, but forced to pick one and one only, I pick Jorie Graham. I cannot escape her. I go back to her work over and over, and it is so often what gets me writing again when I feel stuck or frozen. Although my work has little in common with hers, something in Graham acts as a trigger for me --- the way she uses language, the way she breaks lines, the way everything she writes seems so important and heartfelt and smart. I envy her. I aspire to her. I crave her words.
Recently on DVD
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (grade?): I confess, I don't know quite how to grade this movie. I saw it so far after its initial release, and it generated so much hype, it's difficult to judge how much I'm reacting to it as a movie and how much I'm reacting to it as a pop-culture phenomenon. Was it outrageous? Sure, in a few places. (Naked wrestling scene, I'm looking at you.) But, really, it wasn't any more wanton than, say, South Park has been for years. Funny? Yeah, definitely a handful of laugh-aloud bits. But also some predictable jokes that fell flat (kids run screaming from bear in ice cream truck, to pick one). So much of what made this picture such a big deal was its startle factor, and it's essentially impossible to recapture that experience a year after it reached theaters. Maybe that's a sign of a shortcoming of the movie: I'm not sure it can stand up over time. Its release was a moment in the zeitgeist, but its very presence erases the possibility of that particular moment happening again. In other words, once a movie like Borat exists in the world, a movie like Borat is extraneous.
I got the new Prey novel and the new Harry Bosch novel for Father’s Day, and have already finished both of them. Nice reads, both. The Connelly novel was originally written as a serial for The New York Times, and it kinda shows. Doesn’t quite have the resonance for me that other books in the series have had, and at times it seems to have been dumbed down a bit in the way that you do when you have to start the story over (to some extent) at the beginning of each chapter. I remember reading the first three-four chapters at the NYT website, and losing a little patience for it. The jacket says the novel was substantially expanded and revised for the print edition, but I still wasn’t quite feeling it in places. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it overall, because I did. I just didn’t think it measured up to earlier books in the series. Of course, I’ve kinda thought that about the past couple installments in the Bosch saga. Maybe it’s run its course? I know I liked The Lincoln Lawyer better than the recent Bosch books. Maybe Connelly can bring back the woman from Void Moon?
The Sandford, of course, is terrific. I can’t imagine a Sandford novel I’d complain too much about. I’m just happy to be reading about Lucas Davenport again. I was thinking about why I like these books so much, and the Bosch books, and the Donald Harstad books, and Lee Child’s Reacher books. First of all, they meet the threshold I have for good writing. There are so many books I pick up in the library or at the bookstore, open to some random page in the middle and know right away I can’t get through it, just because the prose is clunky, or the dialogue weak, or something, just some flaw in the writing. But the second thing, the big thing with these books in particular is that they’re kind of like watching Tiger Woods when he’s on, I mean really on fire. Or watching Ken Griffey Jr. (when he’s healthy) swing. Or Ray Lewis back in his prime. Or watching George Clooney be silky smooth on screen. Or looking at a Da Vinci painting. The main characters in these books are brilliant at what they do. They are superbly skilled craftsman at solving crimes, chasing down criminals. And when the criminal is (almost) equally tough, it’s a chess mass between masters. It’s inspiring. The sheer competence and confidence with which Lucas Davenport and Harry Bosch and Jack Reacher track down their prey (get it?) is a pleasure to watch. I think that’s why Certain Prey remains my favorite Davenport novel, because Clara Rinker totally rocked. Spoiler: I’m still really pissed that Sandford killed her off in Mortal Prey.
This is not to say these characters are not flawed; they are human, which is important. It’s just that their flaws do not lie in their professional abilities. When they are on the job, they have what I think of as grace – the kind of grace a world-class athlete has, for instance, or the grace of a YoYo Ma – when it comes to solving crimes, tracking down lowlifes, winning. And when that grace is on display, it’s enjoyable to watch. Too many books in this crimesolver genre, it seems to me, locate the flaws in their main characters within their crimesolving abilities. So they make unfortunate mistakes; too often, the criminals seem smarter, which means our heroes have to get conveniently lucky to stop them; worse, the criminals make even sillier mistakes, which means I’m reading about dumb cops chasing dumb criminals, and unless that’s played for laughs, I’d just as soon not bother. I don’t want to feel one or two steps ahead of the cops I’m reading about; I want to be impressed, dazzled – the way I am when Tiger Woods rips a two-iron stiff to the hole.
So what's up with the resurgence of surfing in popular culture? Or is it just a couple of isolated instances and not so much with the resurgence?
I'm talking about the new HBO show John From Cincinnati, of which I watched the first episode, and the animated flick Surf's Up (C+), which I saw with the family on Father's Day. Surfing, as you're probably aware, features prominently in both. And surfing is unquestionably the coolest part of each. (Well, that and the return of Dylan McKay to SoCal.) I mean, it just looks damn cool. Even when it’s being done by animated penguins (and an animated chicken). Which reminds me of maybe the biggest mystery of Surf’s Up: Why the hell penguins? (Plus, you know, a random surfing chicken, who seemed clearly intended to be the scene stealer, like the lemurs in Madagascar, the squirrel in Ice Age, Donkey, etc., but fell somewhat short) I hate to be skeptical, but it just comes across as a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. Even if this movie was in development before those were released (I could probably find out whether that’s the case with a little research, but I don’t actually care all that much). Or just random cute animals that look good animated? Surf’s Up was okay, I guess, but it was for some reason presented in documentary style, which doesn’t make much sense for a movie aimed at the under-8 set. And I realize that it’s fashionable in this genre to throw plenty of jokes over the kid’s heads toward the parents who are paying for the tickets, but this movie seemed to have more of those than its share. Sure, some laughs here and there, but there wasn’t the same sense of irreverence you get in the Shrek franchise, and there also wasn’t enough to keep the kids entertained. Maybe my kids are a little young for this one (my 2-year-old got bored halfway through), but even my 4-year-old daughter saw right through it: “Daddy,” she asked, leaning over to me while the characters on screen sat around a campfire, “do they know they’re penguins?”
As for John From Cincinnati, well, the word that comes to mind is inscrutable. The other thing that comes to mind is something I read once about the murder mystery genre: There had better be a body in the first chapter if you want the reader to keep going. Like only every other HBO subscriber on planet television, I watched the first “chapter” of this show in hopes it would replace The Sopranos in my viewing life. Umm … not. At least, not based on the opening episode (and I TiVo’d the second episode, but haven’t watched it yet, haven’t even decided for sure whether I will). Some interesting characters, to be sure, but mostly it seemed dense for the sake of being dense, with that kind of in-your-face avoidance of traditional Point-A-to-Point-B narrative that so often drives me nuts because it also usually means avoiding things like, well, making sense and stuff. Look, I’m all for the experimental. Break with convention. Explore what it means to tell a story. Focus on character and dialogue and small dramas over car chases and melodramatic and clumsy exposition. Good for you. But give me something. There doesn’t have to be a literal body, but there needs to be something. I also do realize it’s hard to introduce a whole bunch of characters in the first episode of a new series and still have a plot, but this show gives you the feeling that plot isn’t its primary aim.
But … back to the surfing. The water is gorgeous, real or animated, and although I’ve never even touched a board, both the movie and the show make me want to surf --- that thing they do where they’re whistling along this tube of water, almost airborne, all graceful and beautiful and poetic and in tune with the environment, body tense and relaxed at the same time? Wow. It’s easy to see why there’s such a mystic kind of culture built up around surfing, and why maybe it’s time we revisit it in our popular culture.
Recent DVD viewings
Superman Returns (B+): You think surfing looks like fun? You gotta try flying. I remember reading a review of this movie back when it was in theaters that complained about how it was too dark, Superman too moody. So I went in kind of with that expectation, but it didn’t really ring true to me. There seemed to me to be joy in the flying, and Brandon Routh sold me. Superman’s not my favorite superhero (that’s Batman, duh), but he’s still pretty damn cool, with that whole more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet thing, and of course the flying.
V for Vendetta (A-): I actually saw this movie in the theater, too, one of those by-myself-in-the-afternoon-with-a-huge-bucket-of-popcorn impulse viewings, and I enjoyed it a great deal both times. It helps that I am madly in love with Natalie Portman and can’t imagine anyone who isn’t, but I also love the rich colors in this movie, the stylized dialogue, the way it so successfully renders the feel of a graphic novel on the screen. Plus, the fight-the-power message matches the tone of the movie perfectly, even if it's not as subversive as it thinks it is.
When I was in college way back when, taking a poetry workshop with Sandra Sprayberry, there was this poem called "Tick Kill." It was obscure and confusing, and a group of us spent a long time before class talking about what the heck the title meant. Then when time came to workshop the poem and the author began to read, she pronounced the title, quite plainly, "Tickle." Groan. The poem sort of made sense then, and it was obvious the writer took some delight in our confusion. Ha, ha, you didn't get what I meant, my brilliant trick worked, I am smarter than you, poor, deluded reader.
I'm probably being too hard on the writer, who as I recall, was a talented poet, and most of her poems weren't deliberately obscure riddles. And, after all, we were all like twenty years old.
But I was thinking of that poem -- and that attitude toward art -- last night and this morning as I contemplate the final episode of The Sopranos. I'm talking here about the final, like, one second. Before that, I'm cool. I didn't mind anticlimax; in fact, that's sort of what I wanted. There was sufficient closure with Tony and Janice, and Tony and Uncle Junior. The mob war was settled in a way that didn't seem all that contrived. Phil Leotardo's death was satisfyingly (and comically) grotesque. Tony's family and his Family seemed to be moving along, continuing to do the best they can given their limitations and a looming indictment. Etc., etc. All good. And the final scene was righteously tense, with the nuclear Sopranos meeting for dinner. Every time Tony looked up, you expected a hitman or an FBI agent to come down on him, and as Meadow struggled to parallel park across the street, the tension grew and grew, with Journey's Don't Stop Believing providing the soundtrack. Then Meadow hurries across the street, and she opens the door, a bell over the door dings, and Tony looks up as Steve Perry sings, "Don't Stop." Instant black screen. Silence. Show over. Series over.
If this scene had lasted three more seconds, long enough for Meadow to slide into the booth next to her family, I would be entirely happy with this ending. I didn't want huge fireworks. I don't need to see what happens to every character, a la Six Feet Under. I don't need some kind of Seinfeld-like cornball ending that wraps up every moment from the past however many years. Not knowing exactly what happened next is fine. But ... but ... but ... the sudden cut to black was like turning the final page of a novel and finding it blank. It's a gimmick. It's outside the scope of the narrative. It's like a practical joke by the show's producers played on the audience. I read on a Sopranos discussion board last night that it was like a giant fuck you from David Chase to the fans. It was self-indulgent. It was so abrupt, so blatant, that you wondered for a second whether your cable had gone out. It allows the writers and directors to duck the question; it comes across as if Chase & Co. are saying we (the show's many, many, many fans) are stupid and shallow for expecting any kind of ending. It comes across as saying, "Oh, you thought I was making this show for you? Simple viewer. This show was for me all along." As pointing out how silly we are to care about the characters; this is, after all, only a TV show.
I'm sure some critics and viewers will call it a ballsy ending and celebrate the fact that Chase declined to wrap everything in a neat package with a ribbon on it for us. Ballsy, maybe. Pissing on your boss' desk is ballsy, too, but that doesn't make it a good thing to do. More importantly, it doesn't make it good art. We watch shows like The Sopranos for the same reason we read novels. We crave narrative. We crave interestingly drawn characters, and we enjoy growing to care about what happens to them; we enjoy rooting for them, or against them. We enjoy being conflicted about complex characters like Tony Soprano. And we don't need neat and tidy endings; in fact, if The Sopranos had tied things up too neatly, it would have been disappointing. A life goes on ending, an ending that my college fiction professor called the "loss of a last chance to change" conclusion (citing Rust Hills, I believe) -- that is perfectly fitting. But the meta ending, the sudden black screen, clearly deliberately intended to elicit a "What the hell?" from viewers -- that lets the writers (and the writing was always a strength of this show, one of the reasons this was one of the best television shows ever) off the hook, saves them the hard work of creating an aesthetically interesting, artistically complex, narratively satisfying conclusion by using dialogue and characterization.
All due respect, D, but that was a fucking cop-out.
Ocean's 13 (A)
I don't remember the last time I saw a movie on its opening day. But things worked out so that I saw Ocean's 13 today. And? Very much enjoyed it. This is a movie for people who love movies. It's kind of like watching the Academy Awards. It's a little smug, full of sexy people and inside jokes, thoroughly pleased with itself -- and an absolute blast from start to finish. (Okay, maybe that last part isn't quite like the Academy Awards.)
Brad Pitt and George Clooney have terrific chemistry, and of course they have about as much on-screen presence and charisma as any two humans could have. Their conversations about relationships (and the explanations for the absence of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts from the movie), while clearly dialogue, capture the real-life rhythms of two friends talking, the pauses and unfinished sentences feeling natural.
The whole cast appear to be enjoying themselves thoroughly. Al Pacino is sufficiently toned down to be entertaining (the opposite of, say, Jack Nicholson's dreadfully cartoonish performance in The Departed, which was my fear when I found out he was playing the antagonist casino owner); plus, his tan is like a whole separate character. Matt Damon seems really to have come into his own, and no longer appears overwhelmed by Pitt and Clooney. Every scene is drenched with color and as appealing to the eye as ice cream is to the palate. The self-conscious look of the film works well with the self-conscious tone of the script.
The plot? Oh, yes, it's ridiculous. Beyond ludicrous. A casino heist complicated to the point of impossibility. It's also perfect.
Because? It doesn't take itself too seriously. Before Ocean's started, I saw a preview for Live Free or Die Hard, and the plot of that one looks every bit as over-the-top ... but you can just tell that's a movie dedicated to convincing us that Bruce Willis is a capital-H Hero, that the bad guys are really bad, like axis-of-evil bad, like kidnap-your-daughter bad, and that what the world needs most is a good ass-kicking. That one's seriously asking you to suspend your disbelief, to accept that if Bruce Willis can drive a car off a ramp into a terrorist's helicopter, all that matters is the bad guy had it coming. In Ocean's 13, your belief or disbelief is beside the point. This movie is about watching very pretty people have a very good time on the big screen. Let's face it, that's what most movies are about. Even the Die Hard movies. This one's just more up-front about it. And that's really what's important to Danny Ocean and pals. Above all, this movie has heart. In the way that The 40-Year-Old Virgin has heart, for instance. The good guys might be thieves, but at least they're honest. They might be all about ripping off lots of money, but it's all for a good cause. They rob because of friendship. Because some people just deserve to be robbed. And because, you know, it's lots of fun.
A friend told me, with some urgency, to listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I said I would.
It took me a while to actually follow through on acquiring the album, but I eventually did. Now I have listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea many times. Enough to write this:
I remember when I was in college and acquired the CD "New York," by Lou Reed, and the liner notes said the album was intended to be listened to straight through, all the songs together, like a book or a movie. It might not have been the first time I considered an album as more than a collection of songs, but it certainly articulated the notion in a way I hadn't before. This album reminds me of that concept in a way that maybe none other has since. It almost sounds like one long song. The tracks are linked thematically and lyrically, and they're also linked sonically: the horns, the distortions, and that voice: Jeff Mangum is part Cobain, part Stipe, part Clapton. There is urgency and plaintiveness and sincerity, and above all, there is honesty. No matter how gimmicked up the instrumentation is at times, that voice is stripped down and raw. The voice is my favorite part of this music.
My friend Nicole said at a reading I recently attended that what is essential in poetry is to keep the pressure on the language, and the lyrics of these songs do that. Something about the forward momentum of the vocals makes you expect some kind of coherent narrative, but that's not what's happening here. It's free association, moving forward by sounds and rhymes and nonsense and surrealism, images jumping around and building on each other. There is definitely a sense of the absurd -- made even more so by those horns and the distorted guitars. Words from one song appear and reappear. The writing is imagistic, imaginative, impressive. The world evoked here is carnivalesque: a freak show rendered tenderly and with great gentleness and compassion.
A confession: I am stone cold tone deaf. I can't sing a note. I can't hum a tune. I can't even keep a steady beat while clapping (I found out after high school that I used to be a source of entertainment for some of my friends at pep rallies, as they watched me try to keep pace with the cheers). But I love music. Love the sound of it, despite my utter inability to understand it the way musicians do. It's a literacy I do not have. And yet I am tremendously moved by music, by the sound of the human voice singing, by melodies and harmonies. It appeals to me the way poetry does. Times in my life are marked by certain songs and certain albums, and there is much even bad music (OK, very bad) that I will always love because of when I first listened to it.
This album doesn't yet have that emotional association for me, and maybe it never will; I think there's a reason many people never move beyond the music of their youth, a reason the 54-year-old I work with loves the Beach Boys and has never heard of Maroon 5, a reason I will always love Poison but don't remember off the top of my head the name of Linkin Park's big hit. However, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea moves me nonetheless. It is easy to listen to; it is also challenging. You can find something new every time you listen to it (is that a bagpipe or what?). It's a concept album, and I did a Google search and started to read about what some of those concepts are, and then I decided I don't care. Maybe someday I'll read more about what the artists had in mind (one disadvantage to buying an album online is not getting the liner notes; what if I'd never read what Lou Reed wrote?), but for now I prefer to discover on my own the meaning in this music. I will keep listening, keep experiencing, keep enjoying. This music is part of my life now.
Shrek The Third (A)
Woot! Another tot-friendly movie hits the theaters, and of course we were so there. The New York Times review of this movie seemed spot-on to me, and I have little to add. I read the review before I saw the movie, and it definitely shaped, or at least informed, my viewing. Sometimes I wonder whether I should avoid reading reviews before seeing a movie in order to view it with a pure, unspoiled mind. But the truth is, reviews only really affect my viewing of a movie when they sort of match what I was going to think anyway.
A grad-school professor of mine way back at Florida State was talking about revisionist texts (think Mary Reilly as a revisionist version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that sort of thing), and she said that someone once asked her if reading Wide Sargasso Sea didn't ruin Jane Eyre for her, and her answer was that no, it didn't, that it certainly informed it, and if indeed she could no longer read Jane Eyre without considering Wide Sargasso Sea, then Wide Sargasso Sea actually needed to be written, that it was a way of considering the original work that deserved to be expressed. Sort of like a valuable piece of literary criticism. Or, for instance, like a good movie review. And I don't mean a positive review, I mean a well-done review. The kind of review that seems to shape the thoughts you already had floating in your head but had not yet articulated. It's like reading Miss Alli's recaplet of Survivor before you've watched the episode you TiVo'd the night before. Yes, it directs the way you watch the episode, but, for me, it's the direction I would have gone anyway. There are plenty of reviews you can read that will barely affect your viewing at all. (I'm just saying.) Writing this makes me aspire to write better reviews myself. But for now ...
Caught on DVD recently:
An Inconvenient Truth (A+): Yes, I'm somewhat ashamed it took me so long. What an important movie.
Art School Confidential (B+): Funny, endearing, clever. I imagine if you're in art school this movie will at once ring all too true and piss you off with its caricatures. Reminded me of Claire's art-school days on Six Feet Under, only even more ridiculous, if that's possible.
I read the other three books in P.J. Tracy's Monkeewrench series this weekend, when I should have been reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. They are good -- I would not say that I love them, but they did grab hold of me, and I read them straight through in the span of 36 hours, almost as if they were a single novel with three consecutive plots. The good news is that the most recent one was published in 2006, which surely means the next one is due soon. Speaking of due soon, what do you suppose Donald Harstad has been up to? He was on the typical book-a-year pace until about three years ago. I hope he's all right, and I hope he's still writing.
Invisible Prey is out! The 17th installment of John Sandford's Davenport series. Woot! Unquestionably my favorite thrillers. I knew it was coming this summer, but I hadn't been paying close attention, so I was pleased as rhubarb pie to check Sandford's web site just now and see that it was already in bookstores. Just knowing it's out there makes me want to head for Schuler right now and pick it up.
I've read a number of thrillers lately while I tried to fill the time between Sandford books:
- Speak of the Devil and Cold Day in Hell (Richard Hawke)
- Find Me (Carol O'Connor)
- Monkeewrench (P.J. Tracy)
- Falling (Christopher Pike)
The Hawke books remind me a great deal of Lawrence Block's Matthew Tanner series. Set in New York, and somewhat light in tone, aiming for the humorous end of the thriller spectrum. Pretty enjoyable, although at times I wished Hawke wouldn't try so hard to be funny. Turns out he's written a bunch of books under his real name, Tim Cockey, and glancing at the first chapters of a couple of those, they look as if they try even harder to be funny.
Find Me is another Mallory novel, and I'm working my way through this series (out of order). Mallory is a ruthless sociopath, except on the side of good. (Think Connelly's Harry Bosch, with less emotion; maybe Bosch is a psychopath to Mallory's sociopath.) She's the best part of the series, no question, and these books are best when they focus on her. Some of the minor characters are rather cartoonlike and (to me) a bit distracting.
Falling is well written enough, and there are some definite high points, such as a character's elaborate, sophisticated plan to fake his own death. This character ends up as the nemesis for FBI agent Kelly Feinman, who's a hyper-literate profiler and field agent, and her investigatory skills are a fine match for Matt Connor's more nefarious brand of genius. Unfortunately, there's not enough of the hunt in this book, and too much focus on a variety of psychologically damaging love stories and relationships gone twisted. The plot -- as well as the nice cat-and-mouse between Feinman and Connor -- gets bogged down in the far less interesting mushiness of the love stories.
Monkeewrench was pretty enjoyable. (Maybe I just like my thrillers set in Minneapolis.) It's written by a mother-daughter team, which sets off some alarm bells for me, but in fact the writing and plotting are smooth. It's a complicated plot, with a handful of twists, and a reasonably surprising ending. I would have preferred a little more competence on the part of the lead investigators; you get the feeling they just luck into the ending, rather than solve the crimes. But that's a minor enough quibble. And I was happy to discover that there are three more books by the authors.
Meet the Robinsons (B)
I read somewhere once that if there is a movie that parents can take their kids to, they will. It's pretty much true. I mean, why else would I have seen Pooh's Heffalump Movie actually in a movie theater? (By the way, it's more like Roo's Heffalump Movie, but I guess that wouldn't have marketed as well.) We parents of small children who love movies are starved for chances to feed our cinema jones. Which is why movies like Cars and Shrek are so great, because we can actually enjoy them, rather than enjoying the movie experience while merely tolerating the movie itself.
So anyway, Meet the Robinsons. Not bad. Not great, but not bad. Not Pixar-good. But not Heffalump-level schlock, either. The Robinson family is remarkably bizarre -- quite imaginative, in fact, with eccentricities you've never seen before. For example: a mother who trains frogs to become Rat Pack-like lounge singers, twins who live in flower pots outside the front door and compete to see which doorbell gets rung, an obese uncle who has an emotional breakdown if his toast isn't quickly coated with peanut butter. But these characters are buried inside a more traditional kids movie, and the main character, Lewis, isn't nearly so interesting. He's lovable and a genuis and all big-eyed adorable-nerd, but you get the feeling you've seen this kid before, and his troubles are pretty familiar.
As for the plot, it's straight out of the original Terminator. No, really. Bad guy time travels to stop future nemesis before he becomes an adult. Good guy time travels to foil bad guy. Throw in some Back to the Future-style manipulation of the space-time continuum, and voila!
You do have to kind of admire the idea of rewriting Terminator as G-rated animation, but in the end, I wished I'd gotten more than an introduction to the Robinsons* --- and to those scene-stealing frogs. My kids would have enjoyed it more, that's for sure. They liked the movie fine, but I think they were a little bored by the primary plot. They did like the frogs, though.
*Since it's Disney, I'm pretty sure we can look forward to Have Dinner with the Robinsons, Spend the Night at the Robinsons and eventually the straight-to-DVD Thanksgiving Weekend with the Robinsons.
Anthony Hopkins playing a Lecter-lite wifekiller. Ryan Gosling playing an ambitious ADA with a charming Southern accent. How long have I been away from movies? Is Ryan Gosling someone I should know? Apparently he was in The Notebook, which I refuse to see because Nicholas Sparks is my nemesis (he has no idea about this ... someday I'll explain what I mean), and some other recent stuff I also have not seen. Anyway, what I liked (a great deal) about Gosling in this movie was that he seemed like a grown-up ... young, but a grown-up. Not a young kid trying to play a grownup, the way David Schwimmer still seems, or Fred Savage, or Neil Patrick Harris, but a regular person who went to college, graduated, became a professional and has a career that means something to him. It was a fairly refreshing performance.
And, you know, the plot of the movie was solid. Wife cheats, Hopkins catches her, Hopkins kills her, frames the cop/cuckolder. Almost-perfect crime, that sort of thing. Moves along at a nifty pace and doesn't get bogged down in those unrealistic, overblown scenes so many movies of this type have, wherein Our Hero does something wrong or gets too close to the crime and then spends all this time trying to dig himself out.
All in all, a solid, enjoyable time at the theater.
A Perfect Stranger (D+)
Speaking of unrealistic, overblown ... yeah, this sucked.
Even with Halle Berry in it. (I know!)
Forget the ridiculous plot, farcical dialogue and the gee-do-you-think-there's-a-shocking-twist-coming direction. What I want to complain about is this: This movie has scenes of IMing and chat-room flirting that are straight out of 1995.
Berry's character is a "journalist" (and don't even get me started on that yet) who is a self-proclaimed "chat-room virgin." Isn't that sort of like me saying I'm a telegraph virgin? I mean, yeah, I've never used a telegraph, but hasn't the world, like, moved on?
And of course the insane movie technique of having characters read aloud as they IM ... sigh. You've Got Mail, anyone? Or, even worse, the idea that you can oh-so-easily sample someone's voice from some random streaming audio on the web and then have your computer read their IMs aloud -- in their voice? Yeah. It's that dumb.
This is one of those movies that has so little respect for the viewing audience it's practically up on the screen rolling around Scrooge McDuck-like in a little pile of the $8 you spent on admission and taunting you with it.