Saturday, August 25, 2012

BERNIE...A Delightful Surprise

If anyone had told me that a movie starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine would be a delightful surprise, I would have laughed. But, sure enough, the dark comedy Bernie, closely based on true events in the small town of Carthage, Texas, provides great characters, quirky humor, and a real sense of local color. Jack Black stars as Bernie, an assistant funeral home director who has won the love and respect of the entire town with his generosity and good nature. Everyone loves Bernie, whether he is singing at a funeral or at church, directing the local theater group, leading the boy scouts, he is always available to help with his cheery and unselfish good will.

So it comes as quite a shock when the town learns that he has murdered his benefactor and long-time companion Marjorie Nugent, a widowed millionarie hated by the entire town. Shirley MacLaine is irascibly perfect as Marjorie, a demanding, lonely, untrusting biddy who becomes dependent on Bernie while he becomes dependent on her wealth. They take cruises together, hit the spas together, go to church with each other for years until she finally demands his full attention and drives him to shoot her in the back in her garage after one last demeaning order.

The film is set up with "witnesses," in the style of movies like When Harry Met Sally. These are real citizens of Carthage, most of whom still love Bernie, despite his crime. The director, Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset),  infuses the film with genuine appreciation for small town relationships, Texas mores, and clever touches. What could have been a scathing satire like Election instead becomes a gentle ribbing of easy targets. We like these people, even Marjorie Nugent. Jack Black gives his best career performance. His character is a gentle, caring man who borders on a gay stereotype but resists that obvious temptation for laughs. Instead, one feels for him, as do the good citizens of Carthage, Texas.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jane Austen with a hint of raciness and race

We just watched the 1999 version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park with a capable English cast, few of whom we had seen before. The heroine of this story is Fanny Price, played with wit and grace by Frances O'Connor. As a child Fanny is taken from her impoverished family to her aunt and uncle's estate to be raised with their children. As she grows up, she writes history, novels, and opinions and is befriended by the second son Edmund, while the other children look down on her. As an adult, Fanny is pursued by a charming cad whom the family pushes her to marry. Fanny, like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, is honest, out-spoken, witty and far superior to those around her. But, as in other Austen novels, it takes her a long time to bring these assets to the fore and realize what to do with them. This is the strongest element of the film.

I wonder what Jane Austen would say about some of the expansions the film makes on her plot. Sir Thomas Benton, her benefactor, seems a good and caring man, but Fanny and we discover that Mansfield Park is paid for by slave labor in Antigua. His eldest son Tom made sketches of the brutal treatment these slaves received, even from Sir Thomas. Another interesting suggestion in the film is that of a lesbian desire on the part of Mary Crawford, the somewhat amoral sister of Fanny's ardent suitor Henry. There are two not too subtle scenes in which she seems to be seducing Fanny. There is also a scene which did definitely not occur in the novel. When Henry fails with Fanny he takes one of the Benton girls to bed. Unfortunately for all, she is married and Henry bails. The scene itself is risque but necessary to reveal truths about the major characters. Would Jane have approved?

Mansfield Park does not have the star power of bigger productions like Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth on Masterpiece, Keira Knightly in the film) or Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and the wondrous Kate Winslett). But it has solid performances and strong story-telling. I highly recommend this little seen jewel.

Another film now on dvd features a very different young woman from what Austen imagined. Margaret, a long delayed film by director Kenneth Lonergan (the wonderful You Can Count on Me with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo giving superb performances) is a portrait of a high school girl who witnesses a tragic bus accident and believes that she and the driver were responsible. This idea becomes an obsession with Margaret, played with gutsy aggression by Anna Paquin (Oscar winner for The Piano), who alienates her friends and family. The film takes its good time in developing her character. Part of the problem is that director Lonergam, who originally insisted on a 3 hour cut, can't resist moody shots of the New York skyline or of Margaret wandering the streets where the accident occurred. The supporting cast is almost flawless, especially Mark Ruffalo as the broken bus driver and J. Smith-Cameron as her highly strung but loving mother. Margaret could have been as fine a film as You Can Count on Me, if restraint and fewer plot elements had been used. Still, it is still worth seeing for the performances and for one of the most riveting accidents I have ever seen in a movie.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I heard the news today, oh, boy

Mitt Romney's choice of Representative Paul Ryan for Vice-President is a clarion call to action for anyone who cares what happens to this country in the next decade. As affable, charming, and intelligent as Ryan seems, one has only to listen to what he proposes in his GOP budget plan to realize that he is not in touch with American needs.

As I was driving down Division Street here in Rome recently, I had to slow down for a woman walking on the railroad track. She seemed disoriented and eventually shuffled down the sidewalk. I kept wondering what will happen to her and who would take care of her. There are a number of poorer families (white, black, and hispanic) in the same area. Of the group, only the hispanics seem to be making any progress. Each time I drive out Shorter Avenue I see two or three crippled men on scooters, one of whom has no legs. I see people waiting in the searing heat waiting for a bus and looking forlorn. What are their advantages? Who cares about them? These and millions like them are invisible to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. They are on different streets with different destinations. Why should they care?

Romney keeps demanding that we increase military strength, not cut military spending. He does not seem to realize that defense in this century is going to rely far less on ships and planes and more on diplomacy and good will. His embarassing goofs on his European trip are proof of that. Ryan has little or no international experience. As for Ryan's budget proposals, they threaten to end the current medicare program and offer set vouchers for seniors within 10 years. So, the new health care law will be destroyed, and those 40 million or so Americans without care will have to fend for themselves. Never mind that they and millions of seniors won't be able to afford the vouchers. Other cuts will come for women who care about their health and their reproductive rights. If Ryan and his claque have their way, reproductive rights and planned parenthood will be things of the past.

So, I ask that we start noticing the people on the streets, not just the avenues, that we see many of the folks at our local super market, including the checkout workers, the elderly couples carefully counting their coupons, the downtrodden women with too many children, and all those who need help. If we don't see them, it's a cinch that Ryan and Romney won't.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Summer Reading Time!

Since it's too hot to move outside, we've been doing a lot of pleasure reading, some better than others.
Let's start with 2009 Booker Prize Winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,  whose dense and riveting novel about Thomas Cromwell examines the complex and often callous world of Henry VIII's court. For once, Cromwell is not the villainous creep that is described in the play and movie A Man for All Seasons. Here is a multifaceted man who rises from a humble home where he was abused by a drunken father to one of the most powerful positions in England. He does it by listening, learning, and using his knowledge to aid the king and to advance himself. Mantel brings humanity to Cromwell with his personal life, especially the loss of his wife and children. Bring Up the Bodies, the second in a trilogy on Cromwell, is already a best seller.

Tom Perotta has established a reputation as a sharply observant and often cynical viewer of modern middle America. His best earlier novels were Election, a humorously scathing look at high school politics and sex and also a terrific movie, and Little Children, which examines infidelity and double standards in the internet age. Now he has come up with The Leftovers, which imagines what happens when a non-religious "rapture" takes away millions of people of all races and creeds. The fundamentalists are filled with guilt, despair, and wonderment. Why were Hindus, Episcopalians, atheists, and sinners taken, and some of "us" were not? The novel concentrates on a fictional and typical American town, where families are adjusting to new family dynamics after their loved ones have vanished. Somehow Perotta's concept lacks room for his usual humor, and the effort falls flat. He substitutes fringe groups, sexual encounters, and depression for his usual twisty plot interactions, and it doesn't work. For his best work, read Election and Little Children.

Anne Tyler, who wrote acclaimed novels such as  The Accidental Tourist, has a light-hearted and occasionally poignant novel called The Beginner's Goodbye. The protagonist falls in line with her standard characters. Aaron is  self-absorbed, quirky, shy, intelligent, and totally out of touch with social interaction. His wife is killed when a tree collapses on her study, and he is plunged into numbing grief. Eventually he begins to see his wife at odd times and tries to communicate with her. He discovers that they really didn't communicate when she was alive. The characters, especially Aaron, his sister, and his contractor for rebuilding his house are fully fleshed out and provide humorous contrasts. However, the supernatural element doesn't quite work. For Tyler's best work, go back to one of her celebrated earlier novels.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Three unique novels

Every summer the magazines, NPR, etc. feature reviews and teasers for new novels. This past few weeks I have enjoyed three of them immensely. These aren't just beach reads, though they could be for discriminating readers.

The first is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This is a bittersweet, caustic, and often funny story about fame and the often destructive results of its pursuit. Its characters include a lovely young American actress who in 1962 is an extra in Cleopatra, a young Italian hotel owner named Pasquale who runs a remote hotel on the Italian coast, the randy and often drunk actor Richard Burton (yes!), a press agent who becomes a Hollywood big shot, a failed musician hoping for a comeback, and several others. The trick is that the novel jumps back and forth between 1962, World War II,  the recent past and even back to the infamous Donner Pass episode. The earlier scenes lead to unexpected humorous and sad results, and Jess Walter describes them with wit and humanity. In setting up such a complex plot, Walter promises a big payoff, and he provides a great one. Don't skip a word.

Gillian Flynn's third novel Gone Girl is a terrific mashup of genres: romance, mystery, detective, you name it. The novel starts the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary and is told in alternating chapters. First, Amy's voice in her diary and later her own, then Nick's reactions to her disappearance. The reader doesn't know whom to believe and often doesn't care, because both Nick and Amy are beautiful, spoiled, narcissitic liars but totally engaging, no matter their deviousness. Was Amy abducted, did Nick kill her, why did she or someone else leave so many clues (mostly red herrings)? Gone Girl has fascinating, fully formed characters like Nick's masculine twin sister who watches his back while wondering just a little if he's guilty, an oozingly caring Oprah-like talk show host who interviews Nick, a Mutt and Jeff local police couple, and a former beau of Amy's who lives a hermetic life with his smothering mother but still yearns for Amy. Quite a stew pot, but Flynn keeps us on edge until the surprising ending.

John Brandon's A Million Heavens is an engaging mixture of magic realism, naturalism, and hopefulness. In a dying New Mexico desert town, an odd group of people react to the sudden coma of a child piano prodigy. His gruff father keeps watch at his bedside, a group of vigilants stand in silence every Wednesday night outside Simon's window, a California divorcee uses a nomadic 20 year old to father her child while he uses her for refuge, the mayor longs to bring his fmily together, and a young woman grieves for her bandmate who died in a truck crash. And in a waiting cell in heaven, the young musician Reggie begins to write songs only he can create, and in some strange symbiosis his girl hears the songs, a roaming wolf hears the songs, and....This is a novel that seems depressive but redeems itself with hope and fine writing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How the Olympics forced me to see TED!

Mea Culpa! I would never have gone to see Mark Wahlburg's new comedy Ted if NBC had not been so shoddy in its delayed coverage, its dippy heart-breaking stories, its lack of coverage of anything but the main sports (swimming, diving, gymnastics, Michael Phelps), and ace commentators like John McEnroe on beach volleyball (!). As for host Bob Costas, he seems as fresh-faced as he did 20 years ago at his first time as host. Hmmm, Dorian Gray? So, in a fit of ennui, my friend and I took in one of the worst of the inane sophomoric comedies from the Judd Apatow school of grossness. Directed and co-written by Seth MacFarland of "Family Guy," this is a bromance (a 36 year old man-child and his beloved teddy bear who's had a Pinnochio experience and romance with Mila Kunis. Unfortunately, the adult bear is a doped out, crude, totally unfunny bear, and so goes the movie goes from bad to worst. There is one funny bit, but good tastes forbids describing it.

On to better things, in another night of relief from the Olympics, my wife and I watched the BBC's Masterpiece Contemporary Page Eight, a 2011 film in the John LeCarre tradition. Filled with moles, plots and counterplots, betrayals, and references to actual Brit politics, this drama focuses on MIS agent Johnny Worricker, played impeccably by suave Bill Nighy, whose spotty personal life interferes with his shaky standing as a top spy. The cast is full of some of Britain's best actors Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, and Judy Davis. All of them give fierce, committed performances, but it is Nighy's superb interpretation of a man who finally has to decide whether to go along with national policy lies or reveal the truth and lose everything that makes this one THE ONE TO WATCH.

Well, time to get back to the Olympics. The tension in men's basketball is overwhelming, so much so that LeBron sat out the second half, an American cutie has bested the Ruskies, and Michael Phelps has, well, you know....medaled out.