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Aug 26/12

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Amundsen, The Golden Vanity, Permission to Enter (Short Stories); Altered States (Article); Ted (Movie) Moneyball, Page One and Meek's Cutoff (DVDs)

New Yorker Notables:

Amundsen (Short Fiction) by Alice Monro; August 27/12

Improbable as it might seem, we may as well accept the situation: Alice Munro has an inexhaustible supply of stories about odd characters in small Ontario towns. This one’s about a woman who comes to teach school for children at a TB San located somewhere in the woods on a rail line from Huntsville. It takes place during the Second World War – which makes you wonder how Ms. Munro can come up with such material, since she would obviously have been too young for the kind of experience the first-person narrator has in this story. But we can take it for granted that Ms. Munro is a past master at handling this kind of thing. As always, you get the full flavour of the place, the sense of the strange, off-the-wall characters and the quiet, observant, almost tentative quality of the narrator.

What strikes me as most notable about this story is that the climax isn’t seen or heard directly. We get our first hint of it in something that the narrator hears in the voice of another character; it’s not what’s being said, it’s the speaker’s tone that tells our ultra-sensitive narrator that something momentous has happened. A few lines later, the turn of events is spelled out more explicitly, but only a little. For the most part, the main event is inferred. That’s the mark of a genius of a story teller, if you ask me.

 

The Golden Vanity (Short Fiction) by Ben Lerner; June 18/12

A young writer who has just published a very successful novel arrives at a caf to meet a librarian who’s interested in buying his papers. As you’re reading, it’s not long before you’re thinking: wait a minute, this is beginning to sound a bit self-involved, given that the writer of this piece of short fiction is very likely a young author who has just published a novel and who is very likely being courted by a library eager to purchase his papers. Well, I don’t know about the library courtship. But, yes, Ben Lerner is an author and poet, about 33 years old, who has published a highly acclaimed novel. The rest of the story feels very much like the kinds of things someone like Mr. Lerner might run into: encounters with his dentist, a female buddy, his family, and the threat of a potentially serious medical problem. He stumbles through it in a sort of inchoate way, all of it somewhat complicated by his burgeoning fame. Pretty much what you’d expect from a young writer with a droll sense of humour.

But now and then, there’s just a flicker of something else. It’s almost as if Mr. Lerner takes you into an alternate universe. On the way to meet friends at a bar, he stops on a cobblestone street, feeling that he has travelled back in time.

He felt that anyone who had ever paused before the lamp as he was pausing was briefly coeval with him, that they were all watching the same turbulent point in their respective present tenses. Then he imagined his narrator standing before it, imagined that the gaslight cut across worlds and not just years, that the author and the narrator, while they couldn’t face each other, could intuit each other’s presence by facing the same light, a kind of correspondence.

In a discussion with a doctor, the young writer flips away from the actual topic at hand and imagines a conversation they might be having about the art on the wall. When he’s telling his nephews a bedtime story, he starts in the present tense but then gets confused about how to continue in that vein. "The particularly precious author can’t handle the formal complexity of the bedtime story." Those kinds of freaky moments make spending time in the company of this particular young author rewarding.

 

Permission to Enter (Short Fiction) by Zadie Smith; July 30/12

As far as I can recall, I haven’t read any of Zadie Smith’s work. So this could be considered my introduction to the much-acclaimed British author. The piece, telling the story of the friendship of two black girls as they grow up in London, has such a range and expanse that it feels like a sketch for a novel; it may indeed be taken from an as-yet unpublished novel, as is much of the short fiction published in The New Yorker. We get the girls’ mischievous pranks in their early days, their experiments with sex and first boyfriends, then their emergence into womanhood and their responses to feminism and higher education.

The truly distinctive thing about the story is that it consists of very short, numbered paragraphs, sixty-seven of them in total, each with a title like "Uncertainty," or "Some Answers," or "That Obscure Object of Desire." Each item is like a brief bulletin; there’s little connective tissue from one to another. It’s up to you to put the pieces together in order to get the arc of the story. It’s as if the author is saying: why should I bother providing all that explanatory stuff that writers typically use to stitch incidents together? Why, indeed? This strikes me as a very effective, possibly revolutionary, way to tell a story.

 

Altered States (Article) by Oliver Sacks; August 27/12

In this article, the prolific Oliver Sacks reveals his prodigious experimentation with mind-altering drugs as a young man. It’s astonishing to see what the man subjected his brain to and still came out of it sane: hashish, LSD, cannabis, morning-glory seeds, amphetamines, morphine and Artane (a synthetic drug linked to belladonna). Most of these were taken for what might be called recreational or research purposes. But he became seriously addicted to chloral-hydrate to treat his depression and insomnia, taking up to fifteen times the usual dose every night.

Maybe it’s informative and helpful (in some way or other) to humanity to know about the vast quantity and variety of drugs that Professor Sacks took and what their effect on him was. But I’m beginning to be bothered by a glib, voluble, self-obsession in his writing. Some of his earlier writings didn’t focus so much on himself, admittedly. Still, the slick writing made you wonder about the ethics of making entertaining stories about people’s suffering. I’ll leave it to his peers to settle the question that some of them raise, as to whether Professor Sacks is more of a showman than a true scientist. But there's no question that articles like this one display too much ego for my taste. Professor Sacks seems to find himself endlessly interesting. Am I the only person who is starting to feel that maybe we’ve heard enough from this man?

 

Ted (Movie) written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild; directed by Seth MacFarlane; starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi; with Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Aedin Mincks, Bill Smitrovich, Norah Jones, Sam J. Jones, Tom Skerritt.

A movie about a talking teddy bear – hardly my kind of thing. (I put as much distance as possible between myself and that Mel Gibson movie about the talking stuffed beaver.) And yet Ted is by Seth MacFarlane, the evil genius behind the tv series Family Guy. I’ve never seen that but The New Yorker recently reported that Mr. MacFarlane’s brand of humour has made him the highest-paid writer/producer in the history of tv. So it looked like this might be the time for me to catch up with the work of the person who’s reputed to be one of the smartest, wickedest, most cutting-edge humourists of our time.

Ted, as it turns out, lives up to its author’s reputation. It’s offensive, in-your-face and witty. (But I do think the fart jokes are overdone.) No chance of the talking-bear-shtick getting cute, because this Ted is one very foul-mouthed bear (voiced by Mr. MacFarlane, as it happens). He gets away with saying things that would be far less tolerable coming from a human being. And the relationship he has with his owner, John Bennett, played by Mark Wahlberg, isn’t all warm and fuzzy. They’re the kind of male buddies that do drugs together and call each other "asshole," among various other insults. They also have a thing about Flash Gordon reruns.  (In case you’re wondering how Ted’s sexual addiction squares with his anatomy, he mentions that he has written several letters of complaint about the matter to the Hasbro company.)

Beneath all the macho bluster, though, Ted and John do bond in more sensitive ways. Their mutual fear of thunder, for example. Whenever it happens, they try to chase the thunder away by means of a song -- which just happens to end with some really obscene language. Ted and John can share a hug and say that they love each other, as long as, like any red-blooded American males would do, they immediately break apart and declare: "But we’re not gay, so that’s ok."

That touch of social satire is an example of what raises the movie above the level of asinine jokes. You get your first taste of the movie's subversive intentions during the opening. An unctuous narrator (Patrick Stewart) is intoning the glories of the Christmas when little John first received his teddy bear. In the midst of his rhapsody about how lovely the season is, the narrator happens to mention that it’s the time when little boys beat up Jewish kids. A few moments later, it turns out that John’s wish has come true and that his teddy bear has come alive. The bear walks into the kitchen and greets the family. John's parents are freaked out and his dad does what does any good-ol-American dad would do. He calls for his shotgun.

Among the many other delicious jabs at the contemporary scene, there's the time when John and Ted are visiting an aquarium and Ted starts riffing on those "fucked-up fish" behind the glass, assigning to them typically neurotic American personalities. When John and Ted are having problems with an obnoxious fat kid (Aedin Mincks) who has a silly grin, Ted dismissively refers to the kid as "Susan Boyle." Ted acquires a trashy, blonde, buxom girlfriend (Jessica Barth) and asks John to guess her name, whereupon Mr. Wahlberg rattles off a list of some fifty of the most trendy names these days. You marvel at the actor’s feat of memory; the list must have been harder to learn than a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.

What helps very much to make all this work is that Mr. Wahlberg plays it very straight with his wide-eyed, innocent, boy-man look. Most other actors would fall back on charm and smiles to try to make the relationship believable. No such coy tactics for Mr. Wahlberg. There’s something ingenuous about his John; he recoils when his girlfriend uses a particularly bad word. And you never for a minute doubt his involvement with the bear. The major problem between Ted and John is that the bear’s presence in John’s life makes for difficulties with his girlfriend, an upwardly mobile business woman. She doesn’t mind that her under-achieving lover has a talking bear for a buddy; it’s just that the bear’s needs often take precedence over hers.

It might seem, then, that the movie is an allegory about a theme that’s very much in the air these days: men who refuse to grow up, to put away their boyish things and pay proper attention to a woman. Except that that would be to reduce the movie to a thesis. It’s warmer, more humane than that. A lot of the credit for its appeal in that respect must go to Mila Kunis in the role of the girlfriend. She has a warm, engaging onscreen personality. The chemistry between her and the Wahlberg character, even with the goofy underlying element, makes for one of the most enjoyable movie romances I’ve seen in quite a while.

It’s only towards the end of the movie, when the plot is ratcheted up in terms of suspense and danger, that things get a bit unwieldy. You can imagine the script writers sitting around the table and wracking their brains to come up with something that will bring the tale of Ted and John to a dramatic climax. I don’t think that the method they came up with works very well. The relationship between Ted and John gets stretched a bit thin by the highwire stakes. The fantasy of the talking bear can’t quite be sustained when we move into thriller territory. It’s hard to take seriously what’s going on, even though Giovanni Ribisi introduces a marvellous new element of creepiness into the genre of the movie bad guy.

Capsule comment (in lieu of a "rating"): Offensive fun of a kind that you won’t find at the Exotic Marigold Hotel

 

Holidays provide an opportunity to catch up on DVD versions of some movies we've missed:

 

Moneyball (Movie on DVD) written by Steven Zallian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin; based on the book by Michael Lewis; directed by Bennett Miller: starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman; with Chris Pratt, Kerris Dorsey, Robin Wright and many others.

Before you start muttering about the fact that this review looks like it was written by an ignoramus about baseball, let me tell you that it was. I know the basics of the sport but all nuance, subtlety or complication is wasted on me. And yet, there’s lots even for me to like about this baseball movie. It’s the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics who, in 2002, revolutionized the way baseball teams are managed. Till then, scouts and managers looked mostly for star players who were outstanding for certain skills. But Mr. Beane’s team couldn’t afford those guys. Then he met a guy, named here as Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who convinced him that the way to build a winning team was to select less spectacular players whose complementary skills would add up to a win. It was basically a matter of number-crunching: running statistics through computers to see what the less-expensive players had accomplished and how their reliable, if seemingly dull, performances could be combined in a winning way.

That much I could understand. Still, some of the movie was lost on me. For instance, one trading session in which players were being swapped in a series of very rapid, aggressive phone calls. No doubt true baseball fans would get much more than I from scenes like that. Same for scenes where the fine points of players’ performances were being analyzed. And those fans will get tons more of that in the special features on the DVD. The same viewers (mostly male, I’m guessing) will probably groove on the ethos of manly, locker-room swagger than permeates the movie.

What interested me mostly was the acting. Take the first encounter between Billy Beane and Peter Brand. Here you have the charismatic, charming sex symbol (Brad Pitt) up against the fat, nerdy introvert (Jonah Hill) who has information he’s timid about divulging. The undercurrent of push-and-pull between the two actors is phenomenal. (And by the way, we’ll never again make any snarkey remarks about Jonah Hill’s acting.) Philip Seymour Hoffman also amazed me as the team coach. At first, I had trouble recognizing him in the bald, disgruntled, grumpy ole boy who seemed nothing like the sensitive, more sophisticated type Mr. Hoffman usually plays. The genius of his art is that he seethes attitude without seeming to do a thing. You can imagine another actor playing up this grumpy guy but Mr. Hoffman seems just to stand there and still the message about who he is comes through clearly.

The movie’s too long (about 140 minutes) and it has a lot of the clichs of the sports movie genre. We get the dark scenes where Billy Beane’s alone and brooding about setbacks. For sentimental effect, there are the scenes where he, as the divorced dad, shows his sweet side to his twelve-year-old daughter (Kerris Dorsey). The music, in the fashion of all sports movies, seems to be urging us on to the typical triumph – except that it isn’t. And that ends up making the watching more worthwhile than you were expecting it to be.

Capsule Comment: Enjoyable in spite of the baseball.

 

Page One (Documentary on DVD) written by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi; directed by Andrew Rossi

Movies about newspapers typically evoke enthusiastic response from the media. As I remember it, though, this 2011 documentary about a year in the life of The New York Times received lukewarm reviews. Why that would be, I’m not sure. It’s crammed with interesting information and it raises lots of crucial questions.

If there was a problem about the movie’s reception, it might have had to do with the fact that there may be too much information. An awful lot of facts about many disparate issues go flying past and it can be quite a challenge to grasp the essence of each of them. Sometimes, you just don’t know what’s going on. Subtitles are, thankfully, provided for some of the muttered dialogue, but more would have been helpful. (This is one case where seeing a movie on disk can be an advantage, thanks to the opportunity for back-tracking.)

What documentary-makers sometimes do to pull material like this together is to provide someone whose commentary provides a kind of thread through the maze. In this case, that person would David Carr, a former drug-addict who writes a media column for the NYT. He doesn’t make an especially congenial companion, however, in that his voice is raspy and he projects a somewhat ornery, cantankerous persona. Still, his thoughts are interesting and provocative.

Most of the film takes place in 2010. The Times, like every newsprint organization, is trying to cope with the drastic drop in advertising revenue due to the proliferation of news sites on the Internet. In addition to the comments from some of the paper’s staff and management, you get observations from people outside the Times, like Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. In terms of more specific day-to-day issues, you see the Times’ reporters and editors dealing with problems like the Wikileaks revelations of military and dilpomatic secrets, and threats of lawsuits against the paper regarding its coverage of the collapse of the Tribune media empire. There are references to the misinformation the Times published about Saddam Hussein’s supposed accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and to Jayson Blair, the Times reporter who was fired for plagiarizing and fabricating stories. We also witness the sad spectacle of farewells as a result of layoffs at the Times.

What’s most interesting to me is to see how the Times editors struggle to find the right balance on stories and, indeed, whether or not some stories should be reported. A case in point was the supposed withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq. Was it really, as the TV networks were treating it, the end of the war, or was it just a photo op? The Times editors weren’t sure that it wasn’t just an empty gesture that didn’t have any meaning in terms of the US administration’s true intentions.

The message that ultimately comes through, not least through the opinions of Mr. Carr, is that, granting that the Internet has made a big difference in the way news comes to people, it would be a great shame if the world lost a mighty organization like the New York Times with its vast resources for research and in-depth reporting. Hard to argue with that.

Capsule Comment: Interesting, if challenging.

 

Meek’s Cutoff (Movie) written by Jonathan Raymond; directed by Kelly Reichardt; starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux

The reviews, as I remember them, proclaimed that this 2010 movie was the most authentic, true-to-life picture of homesteaders venturing into America’s wild west. It’s 1845 and a small group of pioneers with their three covered wagons are trekking through northern Oregon towards the Columbia river. Their guide is a blowhard by the name of Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who may or may not know what he’s doing. Seems the journey isn’t going very well; they’re running short of water. Along the way they encounter a "Redskin" (Rod Rondeaux) whom they take captive, in the hopes that he can lead them to water. Or will he lead them into an ambush?

Having not been on board for any such trip in 1845, I can’t say how true-to-life this version may be. But it sure looks a lot more realistic than most of the movies about that sort of thing. The people are grubby, tired, unwashed and disgruntled. The surroundings are hot, barren and dusty. And yet there’s a kind of bleak beauty to it all; every shot of the sweeping landscape looks like a painting, the women’s robes providing delicate touches of colour against the background of earth tones. There’s hardly any music. Mostly what you get is an eery, evocative hooting, something like an ominous wind.

What you need to know, though, is that this isn’t by any means a conventional movie in terms of plot or drama. Don’t expect anything like a well-developed story or a resolution thereof. It’s more like a slice-of-life, a statement along the lines of this: this is what it might have been like for some people. To appreciate it, you have to accept it as a kind of experiment in terms of film narrative. Most of the characters aren’t clearly developed; you can barely figure out their relationships to each other. I didn’t even recognize Michelle Williams, partly because of the fact that the women’s poke bonnets show so little of their faces; it’s like peering at somebody who's looking up at you from the bottom of a well. Bruce Greenwood’s face is unrecognizable because of the masses of hair surrounding everything but his eyes, nose and forehead. The only actor I could identify was Paul Dano, whose indistinct, not-quite-formed features are well suited to the role of a young pioneer on the cusp of manhood.

The main problem, in terms of connecting with the settlers, is that you can hardly make out what anybody’s saying. For the most part, you get a lot of indecipherable mumbling. (I discovered belatedly that the DVD offers English subtitles for the hearing impaired; maybe you’ve never included yourself in that category but it might help to take out a temporary membership for the duration of this movie.) At a crucial moment, one of the women says, "W’sllwassaschas," which turns out to mean: "We still have a choice." Could it be that, in the interests of naturalism, the crew didn’t want to get the microphones too close to the actors? Given the movie's unhelpful approach to conveying information by means of speech, it takes a second viewing -- or the help of the subtitles -- to twig to the fact that Meek seems to have drawn his little pack of followers away from a larger wagon train, on the illusory hope of a shortcut.

Further on the question of naturalism, there’s the matter of lighting. Many of the scenes take place around campfires or in tents at night and it seems that no extra lighting has been used. Maybe this, too, was meant to heighten the sense of reality. Trouble is, movie cameras weren’t invented to work well under such conditions. Doesn’t it matter that we can’t tell what’s happening or who’s speaking?

And when you do manage to decipher the dialogue, some of it strikes too contemporary a note, to my ears. Things like: "You know what?" and "Now what?" Somebody says: "I don’t like it, but I see your logic." A woman tells a man: "Don’t patronize me." And this: "What does it matter? Let it be." When the film makers have gone to such trouble to make these people believable with their 19th century bible-reading and their praying, it seems odd that more care wasn’t taken to weed out speech that smacks too much of the 20th century.

Capsule comment: Picturesque, ponderous, puzzling.

DVD Special Feature: The "Making-Of" video shows mostly technical stuff, like the building and handling of the covered wagons. The only really interesting aspect is seeing the film company's airplanes and helicopters parked around the spots where the 1845 settlers are moiling along.

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