February 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net


Guaranteed: many spoilers


            “Up in the Air” (2009), directed by Jason Reitman, is about as smart as a Hollywood movie gets. George Clooney plays a man whose job is to travel around the country, firing people whose own employers are too chicken to do so. As if that isn't bad enough, his employer, aided by a brainy geek girl consultant, come up with a plan to fire people by remote video hookup—ending the one part of the job Clooney's character really loves, the travel. (Reminds me of the old scatological joke of which the punchline is, “Lady, its people like you who make this job disgusting.”) Clooney is fine, thoughtful and believable as always, and the movie works as comedy and social commentary. Unfortunately, there is a big underwritten enigma at the center, a character played by the also smart and fine Vera Farmigia, who (like Jennifer Connelly) rarely gets roles that are good enough for her. She plays a fellow traveler who has an affair with Clooney; but when, after a lifetime of detachment from women and everybody, he starts to fall for her, he finds that off the road she is married, with children, and has just been role playing with him. Unfortunately, Farmigia delivers not one character, but two: the woman who sincerely would like to settle down with Clooney, and then, after the reveal, the one who was just joshing. This is a script problem, and kills the flow of the movie.


            Some further thoughts about “Avatar”. It was a failure on my part not to put it in political context. It took David Brooks, writing in the Times to do that. First, he related it to a long line of movies in which the white person, the American, is the savior and leader of the natives (a genre I have written about but did not emphasize in my review). He also pointed out how queasy it is, in the current environment of war and terrorism, to see a mass market movie in which hundreds of people indistinguishable from present day American marines are joyously killed (and in fact are the villains).  I think he is right that “Avatar” is one of the last eruptions we will see of a 1960's consciousness, about imperialism and the third world,  well enough disguised as a science fiction entertainment that even I (who think of myself as somewhat able to decode these things) did not really pay attention.


            “Heading South” (2006), directed by Laurence Cantet, attacks an interesting theme but is slow moving, awkwardly acted and unsatisfying. It is about American and European women who gravitate to a Haitian beach resort to sleep with younger local men. Two of them share, and bicker over, one named Legba (appropriately after the god of the crossroads). However, the performances throw you out of the movie; one of the women, played by Charlotte Rampling with a British accent, is supposedly from Boston, while the other, who sounds French, is from Savannah. Long interludes in which the actresses speak directly to the camera do not help. In the end, the small core of the movie is about the vestiges of colonialism, and the inability of these wealthy white women to help Legba, even though they love him; he is killed by the police. One of them returns to Boston, the other sets forth across the Caribbean in search of more Legbas.


            “Water Lilies” (2007), written and directed by Celine Sciamma, is a quirky, fine little film about three  teenage girls flirting with same sex attraction. One, the central character, is tomboyish and never has a moment of confusion or interest in boys: she is obsessed with a beautiful member of the synchronized swim team, who gives in to her energy by befriending her. The third girl is another swimmer who is heavy and plain. The pretty girl and the plain one become involved with the same boy, who sleeps with the heavy one when the other fends him off. There is a climactic kiss between the tomboy and the beautiful swimmer. The movie ends poignantly at a party, where the latter, rather than following her heart, dances alone, ignored by the jocks, who are ignited by their testosterone fellowship. In the pool, the other two young women hold hands and tread water. One curious feature of the movie, which works, is that parents are never seen. Young men range from being rather hapless to being monstrous harassers and exhibitionists; but all share one attribute, that they are all over the girls, demanding attention and sex.


            Revisiting “David Copperfield” for the first time since I was a teenager was rather thrilling. I  dislike Dickens for his commercialism and too obvious manipulations, but recognize his mastery as a story-teller. I enjoy studying how he does what he does. As he himself recognized, this is one of his best (and most autobiographical). David's mother dies young; his father passed away before he was born; he is tormented by a cruel stepfather; runs away to a loving but eccentric aunt; is betrayed by a charming but faithless school friend; marries a girl who is beautiful but infantile; she helpfully dies (essentially of movie star disease), leaving him free to marry the beautiful, intelligent, mature friend of his childhood, whom he has always adored but never thought of as a spouse. If you don't remember, this is the novel which contains several famous characters: Mr. Micawber, for whom something is always about to turn up; Barkis the coachman, who woos Peggoty the servant by relaying the message “Barkis is willing”; and the chillingly obsequious Uriah Heep, whose cold, clammy skin you can practically feel in Dickens' description. Dickens, a creature of his time, really only breaks down in the  creaky scenes dealing with fallen women, which take a pious and unrealistic tone at odds with the rest of the novel.


            I admired but had some ambivalence about Barbara Ehrenreich's “Nickel and Dimed” (2000). She is a confident, smart and amusing writer and a pleasure to spend time with. But the book is essentially stunt nonfiction: she traveled around the country taking menial jobs to find out how the working class lives. Certainly the book will stick with me longer than a dry paste-up of statistics on the same topic; but she never really had much at stake, as she had her own health insurance and could retreat to her secure Key West life any time she ran into trouble. Still, her stories of people waiting table and cleaning house are interesting, especially the insight that they mostly don't resent their exploitation, sold as they are on an American dream most will never realize. For me, the biggest revelation in the book was Ehrenreich's own possibly unconscious sense of class: her description of blue collar people as having yellow teeth, wearing their hair in pony tails, etc. This also describes a lot of the people I hang out with, who work in white collar jobs, own several vehicles and real estate (but don't actually live on the Upper East Side).


            “The Lovely Bones” (2009), directed by Peter Jackson, is relatively faithful to Alice Seybold's novel, and fails for the same reason. The unusually structured story of a girl who is murdered by a neighbor/serial killer, and who then watches her family from an in-between after-life and seems to assist them in reaching closure, it is a kind of post-modern Hallmark card. On the one hand, a lot of the information is rather skilfully left out; on the other, the information which still comes through is saccharine and sentimental: Persist. Love each other. Things will make sense again someday. Even the title-inspiring line of narration contains less than seems to meet the eye: “The lovely bones created by my absence” suggests that eventually there is something beautiful about her being dead. Families may go on, but loss via murder is never beautiful. In the meantime, while we are getting to closure, every character has a rather stereotypical arc—grief-stricken abandoning mom, dad obsessed with solving the crime, hard-drinking coping grandma (amusingly played by Susan Sarandon, who can redeem almost any movie but doesn't quite save this one). But no-one has enough screen time to make sense in the end. Like the novel, we keep switching back and forth between so many characters—the lovelorn almost boyfriend, the strange girl who has a Sixth Sense-like ability to see the dead—that some of the roles (the homicide detective who doesn't accomplish anything, then vanishes) are quite thankless. Many of the moments in the movie and novel either don't make sense, or so much of the information is withheld that they become incoherent. For example, when the killer takes the girl's body from his house and throws it into the local sinkhole, the ghosts of his other victims appear and try to lead her to heaven, as if the mere moving of the body—from his basement to the earth—would give her some kind of release and closure. The final mistake—in both movie and novel—is to drop a magical and fatal icicle on  the killer (identified but not caught). Reading the book, I felt this was the moment it “jumped the shark”, and at the theatre last night, a giggling audience agreed with me.


      “Moo” (1999) by Jane Smiley, is an exemplary comic college novel, the antidote to all those overly serious and self pitying “adultery in academe” works by Saul Bellow and a thousand others. It is like a supplement or salad which is not only good for you, but also tastes good—a bracing corrective which is unabashedly entertaining. Smiley, with equal expertise, wields characters at every level of her anonymous agricultural university (Moo U.) in a midwestern state: the dean, many professors, many students, the secretary who not so secretly runs the place, the born again Christian woman serving food in the cafeteria, the paranoid local farmer who has invented a brilliant variation on the tractor, the woman whose job it is to track down the grants. Among the professorial community, she gives us the various familiar and necessary types, with all their vanities and failings, yet manages to make them mostly sympathetic as well: the insecure, middle of the field novelist hoping for tenure; the ex-radical chairman of the horticulture department; the chillingly selfish and capitalist rock star-economist; the dean of the extension school who, also born again, decides (without really consulting her) that he will marry the cafeteria server, father six children and take his family to Poland to assist in the birth of the post-Communist agricultural economy. Smiley is so expert that she gives us no fewer than three mcguffins: a secret memo by the economist advocating gold mining under the last surviving cloud forest in the world; a huge hog, being raised in secrecy in an abandoned college building, as a proof of concept as to how big pigs can get if you overfeed them; and the mislaid plans for the innovative tractor, whose inventor has had a stroke and can no longer speak. Boy meets girl, the hog escapes, the forest is saved, the plans are found and Smiley's ultimate Shakespearean intentions are confirmed when (the plot finished) she lingers for two more chapters to give us two marriages. By far her most memorable and delightful character is Mrs. Walker, the tough, scary, middle aged lesbian Menominee Indian secretary to dean Harstad, who outs the economist (and also audits his expense budget), reallocates funds from the sports program to her own pet projects, faces the charging hog unfazed, and trades the missing plans for her own re-hiring when about to become the token sacrifice for all the tumult which has occurred.


       “The Tin Star” (1957), directed by Anthony Mann, is a lesser but respectable entry in his series of noir westerns with damaged heroes. Most starred James Stewart, but Henry Fonda, as a former sheriff turned bounty hunter, leads this one. Its sunnier than most, because of Fonda's presence and that of Anthony Perkins as an idealistic novice lawman seeking Fonda's help.  A female secondary character is the caucasian widow of an Indian man, unique in an era in which Indians were usually portrayed as rapists of white women (“Two Rode Together”, “The Searchers”) but never their husbands.


      “Gone Tomorrow” (2009), by Lee Child is a superior installment in the Jack Reacher series. Child's novels are often unevenly plotted, with occasional howlers (in one, the cultists in a compound identified Reacher as an enemy, then let him wander around at will). This one holds together fairly well. Reacher is a large, tough ex-MP become hobo, with an almost Aspergers-like detachment from society. As a consequence, his analyses of his surroundings are different than anybody else's, and are what make these books so interesting. This one begins with a typically great set piece, in which he identifies a woman on the subway as a potential suicide bomber, based on eleven indications Reacher learned in Israeli training years ago. She turns out to be something quite different, and shoots herself in front of him, involving him in an investigation that will lead to Al Qaeda terrorist women in New York City. The greatest Reacher set piece ever occurred in an earlier novel, in which Reacher was in New York and needed a gun in a hurry. He went to the projects, spotted signs that a particular apartment was being utilized by a crack dealer, invaded it, punched the dealer and took his gun.


     The Scarecrow” (2009) by Michael Connelly brings back his characters Jack McEvoy and Rachel Walling. Connelly's work is most enjoyable for its descriptions of milieus, and this novel has two, the data security and storage company where the serial killers work, and the newspaper which lays off McEvoy on the first page. Connelly's best novel ever was “Void Moon”, a standalone about a woman thief, where his protagonist, Cassie Black, had a finely detailed personality and needs. His novels about homicide detective Harry Bosch are also memorable, because moody and atmospheric. Connelly sometimes seems to be in too much of a hurry to bother with characterization, and “The Scarecrow” is among his worst for that reason.  It feels more like a formulaic exercise. It jumps the shark when journalist McEvoy decides to chase, and eventually kill, one of the killers himself. The ending, in which the other killer is an apparently irreversible coma, is laughable; we know perfectly well he will wake from it and start killing again, in a sequel Connelly will write a couple years from now.


         J.D. Salinger wrote taut, original prose, and “A Fine Day For Bananafish” probably deserves to be up there with “Paul's Case” and “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” in the list of great American short stories. He didn't write enough or long enough to consolidate that reputation—in theatre terms, he didn't really earn the lifetime of silence that followed. Intimations by people who knew him that he drank his urine, used orgone boxes, etc. if true, make him a very unsympathetic character, as did his mutually exploitive romance with the nineteen year old Joyce Maynard in the 1970's.


         The biggest problem I have with his work is that Holden Caulfeld is a whiny little bitch. Seriously: a spoiled white rich kid complaining he doesn't fit in to his exclusive prep school. In  Literary Character Limbo, I would personally broker a death match between Precious (from Sapphire's novel “Push” and the recent movie of the same name) and Holden. Precious, fat, black, uneducated and raped by her dad, has more dignity and less self pity than Holden by an order of magnitude. She would take him to pieces; let him whine then.


         “Great Expectations” (1946), directed by David Lean, is a nearly perfect rendition of the Dickens tale, and an example of a kind of movie which isn't much in evidence any more. Lean, later maker of large screen color spectacles, working on a smaller screen in black and white, gives us cliffs and graveyards against poignant British skies, and shadows everywhere invaded by light at crucial moments, as when Pip pulls down the rotting curtains in Miss Haversham's house. Against this canvas, there move a succession of completely intent and unselfconscious British character actors, born to play Dickens eccentrics without so much as a nod to the audience or their own celebrity. Small movies today by contrast are infected by a sense of self importance, and the actors don't like as much to vanish into their characters as did the professionals of old. When I was a child, local channel 9, not then part of any trumped up national network, presented the “Million Dollar Movie”, and (I am talking 1963 or so) usually ran the same film every week night at 8. Many of those movies were a revelation, that cinema was art, that so much fine work could be done with so much less than was already appearing in the rather boring wide screen spectacles at the cinema I went to on Saturday afternoons. “Great Expectations” was one of those “Million Dollar Movies” I loved as a child, and it was a pleasure to see it again after so many years.