July 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I read three novels in the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, The Snowman, The Leopard and Nemesis. These are well written investigative noirs in the depressive Scandinavian style, much better books that the "Dragon Tattoo" series, without some of the flash but also lacking the over-writing, vanity and digressions. Harry Hole, like his predecessor Martin Beck in the '60's, is a rather dull man who is good at one thing: catching murderers. Nesbo is good at the research piece, serving up surprising murder weapons like the Leopold's Apple in "The Leopard". A novel element in the series is that Hole gets maimed in every book, always sacrificing a piece of himself in pursuit of a murderer, losing a finger in one book, sustaining a huge scar to his face in another.

I watched five seasons of Weeds, the series about a suburban mom who deals pot. Mary-Louise Parker is sublime in the lead role, and Elizabeth Perkins, an actress I had a huge crush on a quarter century ago, is wonderful as her sidekick and comic foil. The show, though its a half hour skewed more to comedy, thrives in the same dark zone as "Breaking Bad", in which ordinary people cross the line from economic necessity and discover extraordinary capabilities. When family members decided that an elderly comatose relative should be released from suffering, they turned to Parker without a second thought as the one family member who could do the act without hesitation, and they were right ("Bring mommy a pillow"). A set piece, in which she has a rogue DEA agent and a Mexican assassin chained to a bedframe while she decides what to do with them (they keep kicking each other like angry six year olds) raises the stakes on a similar scene in "Breaking Bad" where Walter White had one Mexican gangster chained up while determining his fate. "Weeds" assumes everyone will be bad if given the opportunity--city councilmen take bribes, cops extort, CPA's embezzle and finance drug operations. Parker shines through it all, becoming tougher and more devious each season, but always ready to do anything to protect her family.

Meeks Cutoff (2011) directed by Kelly Reichardt, is an interesting Dogme-95 style understated movie from the director of "Wendy and Lucy" which also starred the incomparable Michelle Williams, an actress who seems to specialize in quiet intelligence and aloneness. This one follows a wagon train of devout Christians,more women than men, who follow a guide, the bearded, chattering Meeks, into desert area of Oregon where they start running out of water. They capture an Indian and debate whether to kill him and Williams saves his life by holding a shotgun on the others. At the end, in a "Limbo" moment, it is left to us to decide whether the newly freed Indian will take them to water or into a trap. At the end of Sayles' "Limbo", it almost didn't matter what happened, because the protagonists had found themselves as a family; but "Meeks" means you to discover something about yourself by supplying your own ending. I believe the Indian led the party to water.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012), directed by Wes Anderson, continues his successful run of charming, fey movies. He keeps it light, human and believable--fey is not usually a good quality, as some directors, Tim Burton for example, easily shade over into the phony-elephantine end of that spectrum. This one is about a twelve year old boy and girl who run away together to camp out at the far end of what appears to be an island in the North Atlantic, and the efforts the community goes through to find them and bring them back. The children are strange and charming, everyone around them is humane, funny and flawed, and the movie is unique and memorable (the boy gets struck by lightning at one point, but with no harmful consequences).

I almost really liked Tiny Furniture (2010), directed by Lena Dunham. This story of a young woman who crash lands in her quirky artist mom's apartment after college is slight, fey and charming--some points of similarity to "Moonrise Kingdom". It didn't really end, just petered out, leaving me reflecting that these young people nowadays ignore the importance of endings, and also that Ms. Dunham probably thinks her life is slightly more charming and interesting than it really is.