Thursday, January 31, 2013

There doesn't seem to be a lack of good fiction these days. Here are several novels I highly recommend:

1. Mark Helprin's long and often beautifully written IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW attempts to give the Manhattan following World War II an aura of glistening hope for the future. Helprin's prose attempts to conjure the magical writing style of F. Scott Fitzgerald who defined a generation in the 1920's and described its and his decline in the 1930's.

Harry Copeland, a World War II veteran who has seen the darkest depths of human depravity, is determined to seize the opportunities of the new Manhattan and achieve personal greatness, not just wealth, but a true mission of personal fulfillment. On a ferry one morning he falls in love with Catherine Thomas Hale and pursues her as if she were a Greek goddess. Along the way he must break up her engagement to a controlling sadist, win over her upper class parents, and fend off the Mafiosas trying to take over his late father's business. Throughout the novel, Harry's actions are propelled by his sense of honor and his overwhelming love for Catherine.

Like Fitzgerald's Gatsby striving for that green light at the end of the dock, Harry pushes forward against almost impossible odds...and we know what happened to Gatsby. Helprin's writing is full of romantic longing, heroic action, and moral imperative, and it is also 200 pages too long. IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is a great read, but only if you have time. Fitzgerald had a great editor; Helprin needs one.

Sebastian Faulks' A POSSIBLE LIFE is called a novel in five parts. That designation suggests a thematic or narrative unity among the five longish stories Faulks has crafted. And "crafted" is the operative word. All five stories or character studies are written with grace and sympathy but also with tough and unsentimental reality on occasionally harsh truths. In the first and best of  the tales, a callow young Englishman volunteers for the foreign service in World War II and eventually survives a Nazi death camp. After the war he returns to teaching but never fully recovers from or understands what has happened to him.

Another story examines an illiterate French servant maid whose life is touched by her encounter with a young priest in the 19th Century. The strangest tale takes place in Italy during the late 21st Century as a brilliant scientist discovers how the brain controls emotion but finds she cannot control her own longing for happiness. A third story seems be from Dickens. A poor boy in a beastly workhouse manages to build a life for himself but forgets some of the lessons of charity he learned as he pushes tenants out to further his business. And, finally there is an obvious nod to singers like Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell. They and other "magical muses" are embodied in one mercurial and gifted singer-songwriter who is loved by an English rocker who supports her and is eventually left to wonder why she deserted him.

So, where, Mr. Faulks, is the unifying theme in these five stories? Is it the longing for deeper emotion or answers that all of the five major characters share? Is it their collective striving for betterment in a world that fights against such aims? I'm not sure I cannot agree with Faulks that A POSSIBLE LIFE is really a novel. But I can say that it is a memorable reading experience where we become deeply involved with five beautifully developed characters.

Monday, January 21, 2013

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK...a quirky, pleasing surprise

I have seen two movies in the last two weeks: GANGSTER SQUAD and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. First, let me dismiss the former with a slight bit of praise. It's great to look at. All those sleek '50s autos, beautiful women in sexy gowns, and a recreated LA back in its glory days. In the foreground we have Emma Stone, a slightly younger and far less sexy version of Lauren Bacall as gang boss Mickey Cohen's moll and smartly fashionable Ryan Gosling as a police officer who seems to wear a completely different GQ outfit in each scene. One knows how Emma affords her smokin' hot gowns, but how does a cop manage Gosling's wardrobe? Well, that about sums up the depth of this movie.

On the positive side, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK doesn't depend on surfaces; instead, it goes for the gut. Directed by David O. Russell who also adapted the screenplay, this comedic drama confronts mental illness and loss with humor and grit. The first half of the movie may be unsettling for some. Bradley Cooper, in a surprisingly moving performance, plays Pat Solitano, a young man who has a bi-polar disorder and has come home after being committed for eight months. Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver play his parents, and Jennifer Lawrence is Tiffany Maxwell, a young widow who has become a sex addict. This is a combustible group. Add the Philadelphia Eagles, a Dancing with the Stars type dance contest, and a cast of warm and shopworn supporting players, and we have a heady mix of genres and character types. Director Russell, who made the screwball comedy FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, the Iraqi antiwar comedy THREE KINGS, and the boxing drama THE FIGHTER, brings his unique knack for character development to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.

Pat is a young man who is desperate to get back on track after his breakdown but fumbles again and again with his parents and a strange and abrupt young widow. As a background, Pat's parents are overly supportive but don't know what to do to help their son. Dad wants to connect with his obsession for the Philadelphia Eagles. Tiffany is an angry young woman who is also trying to redefine herself. This oddball assortment manages to keep this film from becoming overly depressing and overly sentimental, a rare balancing act. Lawrence is both abrasive and vulnerable as the young widow, and DeNiro redeems himself after fifteen or so years of terrible movies (Meet the Parents, et al). But the real star is director/writer David O. Russell who has developed such memorable characters in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Good....and Both the Bad and the Ugly

I must confess that I cheated when I went to the movies this week. My friend's choice was DJANGO. When we arrived at the theater, the manager informed us the heat was off. This was a two hour, 50 minute movie, and I couldn't handle Tarantino and freezing temps. The manager was gracious; he gave us free popcorn and a free drink and allowed me to see PROMISED LAND while my friend enjoyed his choice in the arctic.

PROMISED LAND sounds like another message or political movie, but it is much better than that. It deals with the controversial subject of fracking and considers both the pros and cons of that process in obtaining "clean" natural gas instead of coal and oil. Matt Damon has perfected playing the common man, a man with purpose, a conscience, and doubts. He may be the Jimmy Stewart of our time. Here he plays Steve Butler, an advance pitchman for a huge oil company.  His co-worker Sue Thomason is a single mother played by Frances McDormand (FARGO). Both are warm, humorous characters who believe in what they are doing, but things don't go smoothly. The smartest man in town is a crusty old science teacher embodied by who else--Hal Holbrook. He asks for a vote by the townspeople to be held in several weeks. Then a seemingly gung-ho environmentalist (John Krasinski) turns up the heat of opposition. Steve finds himself in a battle for his career but he also finds himself doubting the validity of what he is selling. The film is thoughtful, sincere, and dramatically engaging without being preachy, and Matt Damon (co-writer) deserves the lion's share of the credit.

However, I still had 40 minutes to kill and no book to read, so I sneaked into the icebox and endured the end of DJANGO, a potboiler that is one part spaghetti western, one part MANDINGO (a ghastly exploitation film from 1975), and three parts torture, bloody violence, and sadism. Django has teamed up with a German bounty hunter, and together they plan to rescue Django's wife from a half-crazed plantation owner (hammed to overkill by Leonardo DiCaprio). SPOILER: he achieves his goal only after killing dozens of nasty white slavers, being brutally tortured himself, blowing up the plantation, etc., etc. Like Tarantino's earlier films, this one revels in its excess and leaves no lasting moral lessons. Avoid at all costs...even a free admission. You've got to wonder what the Academy was thinking when this stinker was nominated for Best Picture along side LINCOLN, LIFE OF PI, and LES MISERABLES.

Monday, January 7, 2013


The anticipation in some circles for Season III of DOWNTON ABBEY has been as feverish as children wishing for Santa. And last night fans were not disappointed. SPOILER ALERT. At the end of Season Two, we left the Abbey as Matthew and Lady Mary kissed their conflicts away under a fairy tale snowfall in front of the abbey. In the new season there are continuing problems, new crises, and lush settings and wardrobes. I am somewhat reminded of Ross Hunter's visually stunning melodramas from the late 1950's and early 1960's: Lana Turner suffering in high style in IMITATION OF LIFE (1959) and Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson finding love and redemption in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954) and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1954). The heroines endured heartbreak, but their spectacular clothes and homes never let them down. So is the case at Downton Abbey where the upstairs crowd dresses for dinner each night. No character is as resplendent as Lady Mary in an array of dresses that are simple, elegant, and richly colored. When she walks down the stairs in her wedding dress, we are tempted to rewind and watch again and again.

But there are some problems with the first episode of Season III, one of which is the writing and general shaping of Martha Levinson, played by Shirley Maclaine. It is hard to believe that the classy Lady Cora could be the daughter of this coarse and unattractive woman. This was an injustice to Maclaine and the character. Thomas is his usual venal self. When he offers to help the new footman and spite his former mentor O'Brian, one wants to hiss or warn his prey, again a ploy of good old-fashioned melodrama. But despite these flaws, DOWNTON ABBEY remains one of the most enjoyable, satisfying shows on television.