May 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Rome by Robert Hughes (2010) is a bit of a potboiler, and seems to have been dashed off or maybe slapped together by an author capable of equally lively, better researched and footnoted work such as "The Fatal Shore". Still, this history of the city of Rome from its founding through today, concentrating on its art and architecture, would be a fine book to read when planning, or actually on, a trip to Rome.

I watched the first season of the cable series The Killing (2011). Its high quality television, unusually cinematic, great characterizations without the glitz or superficiality of most television. At its center, a female protagonist who is fascinating without being beautiful or consummately put together, and played by a fine actress, Mireille Enos. It covers a wide swathe of society like "The Wire" (but without that show's encyclopedic and didactic ambition). There is a teenage murder victim whose father is a former Eastern European gangster; the protagonist, Linden, a homicide detective, is a single mom and former foster child, whose closest friend is her social worker; one of the suspects is an apparently very ethical mayoral candidate. The Seattle setting--ferries and rain--is used to great effect (directed by German filmmaker Agnieska Holland). Sadly, the writing is a little uneven, and towards the end of the season I stopped believing some of the events and decisions (the father, released from prison, is able to stroll into the intensive care unit where a suspect he has beaten is being cared for) and there is a certain amount of manipulative, confrontational stuff engaged in by the detectives, more like the plot twists on lesser shows. I wasn't bothered by the cliff hanger at the end of the first season, but it seems doubtful the show can (or should) stretch out one murder investigation across five seasons. One investigation per season would be satisfying enough.

I'm a little embarassed to admit I also watched three seasons of Sons of Anarchy, the motorcycle gang drama. Ron Perlman, who plays the gray eminence of the gang--a man whose hands are seizing up and who knows he won't be able to ride much longer--is one of my favorite actors, and it is is rewarding to see him when he's not in a creature suit. The premise and writing is nowhere near "The Killing" in quality and its interesting to conrast this show with the much superior "Breaking Bad". Both series have bad guys as heroes (as did "The Sopranos" and large chunks of "The Wire"). "Breaking Bad" never forgets that its anti-heroes are doing evil things. "Sons" (like "The Sopranos") wants you unreservedly to applaud scenes like the ones in which the gang successfully intimidates a judge or frightens a witness into not testifying. I couldn't help thinking that the big difference is this is a Fox show, created in Rupert Murdoch's universe, in which there is a firm belief that some people are higher on the evolutionary scale and don't have to play by anyone else's rules. The writing on this show also started to seriously jump the shark towards the end of the third season, in which a heretofore respectable if mean DEA agent framed one of the characters for murder, and an IRA member for no very good reason kidnapped a baby (leading the dad, the younger and prettier motorcyclke gangster Jax, to play one of the least convincing slump-to-the-ground-screaming scenes I have ever watched).

The Dardenne Brothers' Kid on the Bike (2012) contains one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen in a film. A boy from an orphanage, who has escaped to search for his absconding father, is being pursued by officlals who want to take him back. He runs into a doctors office, and seizes a woman's legs so hard she falls from her chair. Instead of screaming and hitting him, the woman stays completely calm, and tells him: "You can hold me, but not that hard." Later, she comes to the home to bring him the missing bicycle she heard him describe, and they form a relationship that might have been hackneyed, but in the hands of the Dardennes, is nearly unsentimental, a surprise given the age-old set up (I vividly remember a movie called "The Two of Us" from my childhood, gruff French peasant and Jewish child during World War II). The story is very stark and simple: the kid's father simply left without forwarding address. The kid refuses to believe his dad would have sold his bicycle. In his peregrinations, his legs pumping the pedals-- every time we watch him ride, we are frightened a car will hit him, he is riding so fast in traffic-- the kid finally finds the poster in which his father advertised his bicycle for sale. It is the most intense and un-nerving performance I have ever seen by a child actor: he is like a coiled spring, ready to run away, to jump out a window unexpectedly. The woman, Samantha, finds the address and drives him to a nearby city. The father tells Samantha he cannot manage his child and never wants to see him again. A local gangster, who seems to be barely twenty recruits the kid and befriends him, plays video games with him and then plans and rehearses a violent crime. The kid stabs the woman in the arm to get out of the house and commit the crime with his new mentor. The movie has continually morphed from one thing to another, very effectively--a large part of the intensity and drama is in trying to understand what kind of movie we are seeing. Is it about hope and redemption, or a sociological case study of how a child joins a gang? The answer comes when the kid returns home to the woman after a nightmarish night in which he has botched the crime, been rejected by the gangster and a second time by his dad. Samantha opens the door unquestioningly, a bandaid over the puncture wound in her bicep, and tells him they must go the police. He locks the bike away and comes with her uncomplainingly. We realize we are watching a movie about the people we don't deserve who surge up in our lives one day and love us, the ones who show up and will keep showing up for us, no matter what. Beautiful.

Isabelle Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), about the great internal migration of black people from the South to Northern cities during the 20th century, is "narrative nonfiction", centering on three people the journalist author interviewed at length: a doctor, a man with two years' college, a female field hand, all of whom experienced both freedom and a more insidious racism in the North and West. The writing is sometimes creaky, but the story is fascinating, especially for a white guy who was dimly aware that most of the black people he met in New York were a generation or two removed from the South, as I was from the Ukraine; but never knew the details.

Red Road (2006) written and directed by Andrea Arnold, is a strange little combination of a movie. A woman sits watching the displays from numerous security cameras pointed at every street in her town; she seems to be a sort of cop, though this is never made clear. When she recognizes that a man who has served nine years in prison for a horrendous but unstated crime has returned to town, she makes excuses to leave work, stalks him, meets him and has sex with him. The movie is made in the "Dogme 95" tradition, with no artificial lighting or soundtrack music. The actress has a prominent nose and wears little makeup, but when she strips, has a perfect, buff actress body, while there was never any implication that the character works out. The sex is on an uncomfortable line where it may be real, not simulated. The final reveal is that the man, who we suspect must have raped her nine years ago, actually ran down her husband and small daughter while driving under the influence. She frames him for rape, then recants, and they have a somewhat intimate scene talking things over. And that's all. For the first half, when we are mainly in the room with the monitors, we feel we are watching "Blow-Up"; then, for a while, "Fatal Attraction"; then a mini-Hitchcock done in the Dogme style, when we realize the director has toyed with our expectations much like the master did. The man we think is a stone killer for much of the movie turns out to be unexpectedly nice; when the woman gets up to leave immediately after sex, he is disappointed because he liked her and wanted her to stay.

Manning Marable's Malcolm X (2010) is an accessible, compelling portrait of an ambiguous figure. Growing up, I was not much aware of him (he was killed when I was ten), but later, when Spike Lee's movie came out and I listened to some of Malcolm' speeches on tape, I recognized his charisma. However, his life, in my mind, had an aura of sadness and ineffectiveness because his origins were in a strange cult (the Nation of Islam with its science fiction dogma that the white race was a Frankenstein creation of black scientists in prehistory), and because he never actually took any courageous action until, under constant death threats, just leaving his house at the end of his life became an act of consummate courage. Martin Luther King, whom he derided, put his own body on the line, got arrested constantly; but the methodology of the Nation, which Malcolm followed as long as he could even after he left, was to talk aggressively and never take risks. Elijah Muhammed, a leader with supernatural pretentions, may have been most concerned to protect the Nation's lucrative businesses and real estate operations; when an unarmed member was killed in California by a police bullet to the back, Muhammad's orders were to do exactly nothing about it. In the end, Malcolm X was more an icon, a representation of a way of being African American, than an activist. But a fascinating figure nonetheless.

I just watched the second season (70 minutes) of a web show, The Guild, a gentle comedy about a group of people who interact mainly online in a role playing game. I have acquired a major crush on Felicia Day, who was also wonderful in smaller roles in "Buffy" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog". This is her project, and she is wonderful as a very geeky girl. She is a master of a modern version of the double and triple take, the changing and very funny expressions on the face of a woman who is enjoying the spectacle of two men fighting for her but knows that is intellectually disrespectable. The writing and timing of this bare bones production improved over the first season, an I am delighted there is now a third available. I wish her a bigger career.