November 25, 2012

The Woman in Black

A truly wonderful, old-fashioned ghost story. And what a great performance by Daniel Radcliffe.

November 23, 2012

The Dead Hour, by Denise Mina

I've read a lot of mysteries series over the years, and Denise Mina's featuring young, female reporter Paddy Meehan is turning into one of my favorites. She's fat and querulous, and how often do you see that in a crime protagonist? Mina has the gift of interesting yet plausible plotting, and she writes compelling scenes and showdowns; you can't predict how they go, but every step feels right when it happens. The scene of Paddy at the review board investigating police conduct in The Dead Hour is perfect. I like too how these stories are small. She's not bringing down the country's biggest multinational or the vice president, so her courage feels even greater and more necessary.

November 17, 2012

Breaking Dawn Part 2

I'm a Twilight fan, so I'm not sure how someone unenchanted would react to this film. But if you have a soft spot for the story, Breaking Dawn 2 is a pretty phenomenal conclusion to it.

Bella is good and vampiry, the humor is back, and the big showdown with the Volturi is a knockout. I was lucky enough to watch it with the perfect crowd: a Saturday afternoon matinee the first weekend, with a theater about half full. Nobody talked throughout, or lobbed jokes at the screen, but the audience reacted to all the big scenes with clapping, horrified gasps, and even outright shouting in complete unity. It was pretty cool. I hope the people involved in making the film have the chance to watch an ordinary audience seeing it for the first time.

November 15, 2012

Elmore Leonard's One Plot

Crime writer Elmore Leonard oh-so-deservedly won the National Book Award's lifetime achievement award yesterday. If you've never read one of the master's novels, pick up Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, or Killshot immediately and get cracking. The truth is, Leonard is one of those writers you don't have to be choosy about. I've never read a book by him that wasn't fantastic.

Martin Amis introduced Leonard at the NBA ceremony and gave this description: "Whereas genre fiction relies on plot, mainstream fiction famously only has about 12 plots. . . . Mr. Leonard only has one plot: all his stories are retellings of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, in which death stalks the land, disguised as money."

November 12, 2012

Pretty, Pretty Candy

You're not going to catch me regretting a Daniel Craig Bond film. I will gladly spend two hours with Craig, Dench, and the cinematography of Roger Deakins (who created such cinematic beauties as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men).

But the story and script? Pfft. It's hard to care about a film in which MI6 blunders its way to disaster the entire movie. Skyfall had something going with its plot, which raised interesting questions about M's morality and her relationship with those she mentors; but the writers are so afraid of portraying her as anything but tough-as-male-nails that she's not allowed a single moment of humanity or affection. And with a genius psychopath on your tail, would you really use a flashlight to cross a field at night? I'm a suburban freelancer, but even I know not to give away your position like that. The idea of defending Bond's childhood home with old-school materials found in the basement was a good one, but ended up resembling Home Alone more than Bond.

These kinds of things might be forgiven if you had a smart script, crackling dialogue, great action scenes, but Skyfall has none of these things. And while I know Bond girls are doomed to a gruesome death, the self-sacrificing behavior of Severine and her quick and brutal disposal were more disturbing than usual.

Luckily Naomie Harris provides a warm addition to the cast, and Craig and Dench are not only great actors but stars, people who are inexplicably engaging to look at for hours on end. So while I would rank Skyfall far below Casino Royale, and even below Quantum of Solace, it will do

November 11, 2012

Storm King Art Center

One of the best things about sculpture is how it gives you new eyes for the world around you.

Photos from Storm King Art Center and the New Jersey Turnpike.



November 5, 2012

The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev directed this knockout of a film, about a couple backpacking in the Caucasus. It's a movie that, like Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, puts the viewer in an unaccustomed rhythm: plodding, quiet, often beautiful, often deadly boring---just like backpacking, in fact.

Loktev wrings an amazing amount of tension and suspense from the plainest of scenarios: the couple walking down a street, having a drink at a local bar, goofing off. This is partly because it's a movie, so you know something is going to happen. It's partly because young idealists and confident women usually get their comeuppance in film. It's partly because of the filmmaker's skill in creating that tension, exploiting the isolation of the settings, the untranslated dialogue, music and lack thereof. Camera angles contribute too: once the couple begins their backpacking outing proper, with the local guide, the film alternates between grand vistas that dwarf the protagonists and tight-angle shots of just their legs and the rocks, which besides feeling claustrophobic mimics precisely the experience of hiking in rocky terrain where you really are just staring at the path directly in front of your feet for long periods of time.

If I had to depict the structure of the film graphically it would be something like this:


That's really all I can say about it except that the filmmaker does not squander your trust, doesn't go off on some crazy tangent, and doesn't fall back on movie cliches. This movie is different, and that's reason enough to see it if you like film.

Another reason to see it: the actors. Loktev was smart in realizing that, if you are going to have to stare at two people doing very little for two hours, it helps if they look like Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Fursternberg. Gael Garcia Bernal has got to be one of the most talented actors on the planet, and his performance here is a wonder of naturalistic acting. Hani Furstenberg is maybe a little too expressive; I wish she had dialed it down just a degree or two. But like Gael, she's got a face that's fascinating to look at. Bidzina Gujabidze is not quite as comely, but it's almost impossible to believe that he is not the person he's portraying on screen. He's that good, and his alternating familiarity and foreignness add to the tension, subtly but powerfully.

November 1, 2012

Anna Karenina

If someone's considered a master, there's usually a good reason. I had my doubts with Tolstoy, never having felt the slightest desire to read his novels. But with the movie adaptation of Anna Karenina coming up, I knew my number was up and I'd have to crack its (metaphorical) enormous binding and get to work.

For the first few chapters, work is what it was. Slow, odd, unfocused. But as in so many great novels, a slow start means that the author is carefully building a world whose foundation can be tedious to work through but that eventually results in a damn impressive structure.

Anna Karenina seems to me now like a bridge between Dickens and Woolf. Like Dickens, who wrote slightly earlier than him, Tolstoy provides a panorama of society, if not as broad as Dickens's then still wide. Like Woolf, who wrote after him, he carefully portrays the interior life of his characters, often on a moment-by-moment basis. I don't know if Tolstoy was the creator of the stream-of-consciousness technique, but I can't think of anyone earlier. And he uses that particular third-person omniscient narration in which the narrative style changes with the character being dealt with; it's third person with essentially a first-person perspective or focus.

Tolstoy must be one of the first to create such ambivalent personalities in his work. No one is wholly good, no one wholly bad. It's not a matter of a good character who has a flaw or a bad character who has a redeeming feature. Everyone is completed riddled through with flaws and virtues that roil within them at every moment, completely intertwined. Levin has sincerity but his emotions are out of control; his moods turn on a dime, the slightest perceived insult sending him into a tailspin. He'll walk away angry at some slight, but also angry at himself for being angry, hating that he lets these things get to him. An hour later he'll catch a glimpse of the injuring party, see him do something nice, and think, "What was I thinking? He's a perfectly nice fellow and I was unbearably rude to him." Then he's in a shame spiral (the first shame spiral in all of literature?) and desperate to see the person again so he can make it up. The same can be said of bon vivants like Oblonsky, who are easy to hold in disdain for their frivolity. Then you see them making peace between other parties, deftly managing the tempers of the more difficult souls among them, making the standoffish and the querulous feel welcome and at home, and you think, thank you goodness there are such people in the world.

What most impressed me in Anna Karenina, though, was Tolstoy's deep penetration into the world of women. If there's another male novelist of his time who gives women the dignity of such sustained attention, I don't know who it is. He expresses their values with warmth and respect, and he portrays the  injustice of their position. You see this in, for example, Levin's ignorance of his new wife's needs:

"He ought, as he conceived the position, to do his work, and to find repose from it in the happiness of love. She ought to be beloved, and nothing more. But, like all men, he forgot that she too would want work."

And you see it in passages like this next one, again addressing Levin's lack of understanding of his young wife, who is setting up house away from her parents for the first time. I have to chuckle thinking how this passage is likely to evoke arguments that are still being fought today regarding domesticity. Is our supposed love of linens and dishware and pretty things a sign of our deepest values (the importance of home)? Or is it a sign of our brainwashing? Or is it not even real but instead a false story that society tells about us? Whatever you think, Tolstoy gets into the head of women and sees their domestic concerns as dignified and important:

"He did not know how great a sense of change she was experiencing; she, who at home had sometimes wanted some favorite dish, or sweets, without the possibility of getting either, now could order what she liked, buy pounds of sweets, spend as much money as she liked, and order any puddings she pleased. She was dreaming with delight now of Dolly's coming to them with her children, especially because she would order for the children their favorite puddings and Dolly would appreciate all her new housekeeping. She did not know herself why and wherefore, but the arranging of her house had an irresistible attraction for her. Instinctively feeling the approach of spring, and knowing that there would be days of rough weather too, she built her nest as best she could, and was in haste at the same time to build it and to learn how to do it."

Anna Karenina is not really about Anna Karenina. Anna ends up with the most sketchy psychology of all the characters. Her opposition to divorce feels forced, like she opposes it simply because the plot needs her to. And the weed-like growth of her neurotic attitude toward Vronsky in the second half of the novel doesn't seem in keeping with her earlier psychology. She's Tolstoy's patsy, sacrificed for the greater good. The novel is really centered on Levin, who was Tolstoy's Mary Sue. Always struggling, always trying to do his best and right his (frequent) wrongs, the world is a tough place to be for Levin. I loved the expositions of his depressive tendencies, which made me laugh with recognition:

"I do value my idea and my work awfully; but in reality only consider this: all this world of ours is nothing but a speck of mildew, which has grown up on a tiny planet. And for us to suppose we can have something great--ideas, work--it's all dust and ashes."

"I consider my idea very important, but it turns out really to be as unimportant too, even if it were carried out, as doing for that bear. So one goes on living, amusing oneself with hunting, with work--anything so as not to think of death!"

Poor Levin. But he's saved by love and his determination to do better next time. We should all be so lucky.