Search This Blog

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Terminal Man

The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
352 p Harper Publishing 1972

After going back for a second look at my favorite book from the seventh-grade, Sphere, I figured I would dip into the bucket of unread Crichton novels. I had not read a novel by Crichton in a decade, the last being Timeline. Shortly after reading Timeline, I began college, read The Sun Also Rises, decided maybe my life would be better enriched by reading more "serious" fare, and slowly forgot about Crichton's work. After going back to Sphere, I can understand his appeal--that book is a seventh-grader's fantasy put to paper. A recent couple of afternoons with one of Crichton's lesser works, The Terminal Man, reminded me of why I moved on. The Terminal Man includes pretty much any problem one can find with Crichton's fiction. Paper-thin characters make forehead-slapping decisions for the sake of the plot. An undercurrent of sexism runs throughout, which may actually only be a lack of attention to detail. Crichton's great strength, combining cutting-edge technological marvel with a shocking skill at page-turning efficiency, is only in its infancy here. The science at the center of The Terminal Man is far more exciting than say, Airframe, but Crichton hasn't quite put together the blueprint he enforces in that later work to make what he is saying gripping. The pages turn, but I found myself looking at my watch more. Though I was disappointed in this book, and despite my proclivities for a challenge (again, I read Ulysses for fun and had fun reading it), I can still see myself returning to Sphere or Congo or Jurassic Park for a delightful, relaxing time. If you can't enjoy a tub of popcorn and well-rendered explosions every now and then, you need a joy-injection.

A Serious Man

2009 106 minutes
Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
***.5 out of ****

The Coen brothers unleash chaos on the unsuspecting title character of their latest film, A Serious Man. The people in Larry Gopnik's quaint, 60's suburban Jewish life push him around to the point of exhaustion, every hope he has seems to be dashed, and his prospects look, at best, dim. The Coen brothers comically probe Gopnik (Stuhlbarg, in a performance of wonderfully slow-burning plainness) like a doctor's fingers poking around in misery, yet the film becomes unexpectedly poignant and universal. In his overwhelming normalcy, Gupnik and his problem's are as easily identifiable as the central question of the film: Why do things happen? This musing is capped by one of the most memorable closing images in recent memory, one that suggests that the cursed and the blessed will all share the same fate...or maybe it suggests something else. While the setting and subject matter suggest this is deeply personal material for the Coens, they have done a good job of making a film that is ponderously relatable and uncomfortably hilarious.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cruel Shoes

Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin
128 p Putnam Publishing

In the spirit of this book, I will tell a story:
The other day I was sitting on my front porch, and I was sitting on my front porch and I saw this duck.
"Hey, I'm a duck," he said, and I said "Hey, I'maduck."
"Your shoes are untied," he said, and then we played hopscotch with My cousin Marnie, and Marnie made us hot cocoa.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Boys are Back

2009 104 minutes
Clive Owen, Laura Fraser, George McKay
Directed by Scott Hicks, Adapted by Allan Cubitt from the Novel by Simon Carr
*** out of ****

We've seen the movie about a man suddenly thrust into single parenthood many times before. The Boys are Back does two key things differently: It is extraordinarily well-shot, taking full advantage of the scenic possibilities of its Australian coastal setting, and it does not attempt to portray its protagonist (Clive Owen) as a buffoon or a hero. He is simply a flawed but decent man slapped into a situation he is not ready for. This approach is refreshingly realistic (and it should be considering this is based on a true story). The Boys are Back also deftly explores the effect of divorce on children, and the conflict does not feel contrived in the least. Performances are solid all around. The kids seem to be playing actual children instead of badly written adults in child bodies, so often the case in this sort of film, and Owen (who also produced the film) turns in his expectantly solid work. It is nice to enjoy a film made for adults that actually assumes most adults are not slobbering, sentimental idiots.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sphere

Sphere by Michael Crichton
384 p Ballantine Books

Michael Crichton was by no means an excellent composer of prose. His characters were for the most part, paper thin. Despite this, Crichton was a master storyteller and could make complex ideas easily understandable. Almost every book he wrote was a page turner, and Sphere is considered by many his best. Personally, I read the majority of his books in junior high, loved them at the time, and never revisited them. Most of the fiction I wrote in junior high was in the style of Crichton. He was my favorite author. Throughout my high school, college, post-college wandering, and married with child life, I have focused more on "serious" literature. Hemingway took Crichton's place a decade ago and has never been dethroned. After the birth of my son, I have been more reflective on my early years, and decided to pull out some of my old favorites. Sphere was the first. Sphere uses the description on its back cover to twist expectations and continues to twist the reader's conception's of what it is actually about until the final pages. This is easily one of the least straightforward and ambiguous of Crichton's plots. More is left to the imagination of the reader, and maybe that is why it captured mine. The protagonist, Norman, is also one of Crichton's most memorable. He is remarkable because he is so unremarkable, a slightly overweight middle-aged man of average ability and only slightly above-average intelligence. This makes him more endearing, a solid center to the maelstrom swirling around him. Also interesting that as a seventh-grader I found it just as easy to put myself in Norman's shoes as I did a few days ago. I did not notice how finely tuned Crichton's populist sensibilities were until now. Still, in Crichton plot is king, and this is about as exciting a concoction of events as anyone could want. I did find myself noticing two disturbing things about myself while reading Sphere the second time: 1. My imagination is not as active as it was during the seventh grade. There are so many reasons this might be so, so I will not even speculate here. 2. I could read so much faster in the seventh grade. This book flew by in a quick night back then, but not this time. Maybe this is because I did not dissect every sentence then as I do now, but I definitely think current self would beat seventh grade self in a fight.

Adam

2009 99 minutes
Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher
Written and Directed by Max Mayer
***.5 out of ****

Adam refuses to hold its subject matter with kid's gloves. Adam revolves around the titular character's attempt at a romantic relationship with a young schoolteacher, Beth. Adam has Asperger's Syndrome, and in a lesser film he would prove to Beth that he is actually a beautiful person, and Beth, radically changed by this revelation, would ride off with Adam into the sunset. Adam is not a lesser film. It is a brave film, not afraid to explore the idea that being in a romantic relationship with someone who has Asperger's can not only be trying, but for some people impossible. Most romantic comedies are lucky to be half as graceful and humorous as this one, and few if any do it while tackling a subject matter as difficult as Adam.

The English Patient

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
320 p Vintage Publishing

The English Patient is a beautifully written novel, using language as paint on an impressionistic canvas. Though the book's title lends several preconceptions, the book actually centers around four quite different characters sheltering in an Italian villa at the apex of World War II, when the war had moved far from Italy. The characters' one similarity is a crisis of identity: an Indian bomb-diffuser who has been assimilated into British culture, a Canadian nurse hiding from her past, a thief who has lost his thumbs, and the English patient who may not actually be English. The plot's twists hold few shocking revelations, but the book's greatest joy lies in the dreamlike atmosphere it creates and the beautifully abstract sketches of characters it presents.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Avatar

2009 162 minutes
Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Written and Directed by James Cameron
*** out of ****

Avatar is easily one of the most aesthetically appealing films ever made and should be seen for just that reason. As 3-D film experiences go, Avatar is easily the most immersive. Beyond the beauty, Avatar is not a great film. We have seen Avatar's plot in a hundred different films, and many of those used it to better dramatic effect (The New World immediately springs to mind). The special effects, while revolutionary, are at points mind-numbing--extended action scenes have the tendency to fall into video game cutscene territory. All the pretty colors are enough to wash away the yucky taste of unoriginality, though, and the near three-hour running time flies by at a brisk pace.

From Hell

From Hell by Alan Moore (with art by Eddie Campbell)
572 p Top Shelf Production Publishing

Alan Moore takes the holistic approach in his dissection of the Jack the Ripper murders, From Hell. While Moore's assertion that Jack the Ripper gave birth to the 20th Century is tenuous at best, he does an excellent job painting a vivid portrait of Victorian Era England. Though the recent hipster movement to proclaim it as Moore's best work is hypnotic, in truth From Hell does not eclipse the heights of Moore's more well-known Watchmen, or even the less heavily hyped V for Vendetta. It is, however, his most readable work, despite the intensely gruesome subject matter, cut by cut artwork, and laughable conspiracy theories. The 572 pages are deeply felt, but flip as if turned by the wind.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

World's Greatest Dad

2009 99 minutes
Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore
Written and Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
***.5 out of ****
That crazy-voiced comedian from the 80s is back with a madcap comedy. I am of course talking about Bobcat Goldthwait, who in the last few years has quite skillfully transitioned from stand-up and acting to writing and directing. Here he gives Robin Williams his best role in perhaps decades, letting him show the sensitive side we already knew he could portray, while also allowing him to revel in the kind of dark humor he came to fame by thirty years ago. The shade of dark here is black, the plot almost impossible not to spoil except to say that it begins with an extremely dysfunctional father-son relationship and ends with Williams naked in a swimming pool. The acting is great all around, particularly that of Sabara, who gives an almost virtuosic performance as an insanely stupid teen. The film, while never dulling it's brutal edge, still manages to be surprisingly poignant and tender, somehow balancing its perversity with well-earned pathos.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

I Am America (And So Can You)

I Am America (And So Can You) by Stephen Colbert (with contributors)
240 p Grand Central Publishing

Stephen Colbert presents a book just as good as the one produced by the show he spun off from. The laughs come non-stop, however, the humor is less broad and topical than that found in The Daily Show's America the Book. Those who don't "get" Colbert's on-air alter-ego, "Steven Colbert", a send-up of ego-maniacal cable news channel hosts, will do well to steer clear: this book is essentially 240 pages of hot-button issues filtered through that character's narcissistic madness. Those who do get it will be delighted to find that Colbert's humor is not lost in the translation from screen to text.

Book/Movie Journal

About five years ago I got a wild idea to make my own entertainment review blog, but it definitely didn't work out. I severely overestimated my desire and will to do such a thing. I think I might just start doing short blog entries on books I've just read and movies I've just seen. I already keep a written book journal but only I see that and I am vain.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Who (Dat) Cares?

New Orleans and I have a complicated relationship. I have been there probably 50 times in my life, and I still can't go there without getting lost. Who designs a city like a crescent? Cities are supposed to be round! One time I got so lost in New Orleans, I ended up driving over a wooden wharf over a canal in a swamp and came out in the only place in the city where you can bury people underground--because most of New Orleans is way under sea level.

That's right, the geniuses who built New Orleans decided to not only build their city along the atypical shape of the river, they decided to build it in a place that should (without the man made levees) be covered in several feet of water.

Did I mention how dirty the city is? There is trash everywhere, if you walk down any street in downtown you will see perverse pictures taped to every wall, and the crime rate is one of the worst in the country.

I won't even bring up Mardi Gras, when the world essentially takes a dump all over the Southeastern part of our state.

Speaking of our state, New Orleans hogs all the attention, so most people don't even realize there is more than one city in Louisiana. So there.

Let's talk about the Saints. When I was a kid I liked the Saints. These were the days when the Saints' fans wore paper bags over their heads because the team was so bad. The Saints had a few decent years where they had a lot of potential. They squandered this and choked in the playoffs any time they actually made it that far, and people started calling them the Aints because they aint good. Get it? At some point I decided that the Saints weren't worth my time. I have no loyalty to the city of New Orleans. I live in Baton Rouge, where we have a college football team that has won three National Championships, two in the last decade, one when I was a student there. Obviously I care way more about the LSU Tigers than the New Orleans Saints.

Now that all the negative stuff has been said...

I want New Orleans to win.

Not just the New Orleans Saints.

The whole city.

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was already having a bad time--political corruption, and in some areas extreme poverty rivaling anything else in the country. Katrina was an extreme insult to injury, and it not only dealt the city a devastating blow--it showed the world just how bad things were for many in New Orleans (especially economically) in the first place.

I worked disaster relief after Katrina, listened to a lot of crying people, and (gasp) cried a little bit myself.

My family and most other families in the area housed displaced friends and family for months, even years after Katrina--some people are still here in the Baton Rouge area. Because it's been nearly five years people assume the city is back in tip-top shape. I can tell you it most definitely is not.

The people of New Orleans deserve better. They have been let down by their leaders, their country, and on a smaller but no less symbolic level, they have been let down by their sports teams. Well, that time is over. The Saints have brought a little sheen back, even more if they win this Sunday. I can't pretend I have a personal connection to the New Orleans Saints because I don't. I don't have a right to fly Who Dat flags from my car. When the Saints' kicker knocked the winning field goal through the uprights to get the Saints to the Super Bowl, my reaction wasn't even a tenth as strong as to The Bluegrass Miracle. I didn't even stand up. I just said "Wow, I can't believe he made it." My father, brother, and I just sat still in disbelief.

Despite this, I really want the Saints to win. Though it doesn't mean much to me, there are so many people it does mean a lot to. I wish our lovable neighbors 60 miles down I-10 a wonderful victory this Sunday.

Go Saints.