August 31, 2009

BOOKS: The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson (2006/US 2009)

Second in the Mikael Blomkvist/Lisbeth Salander series.

As in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson seems to take pleasure in keeping his two protagonists as far apart as possible. As the new volume opens, Lisbeth has severed ties with Mikael for reasons that aren't entirely clear to him. He's too busy to worry much about that, though, back at work at his magazine, which is about to expose a sex-trafficking ring that will implicate several important members of Swedish society and government.

When the authors of that expose are murdered, however, Lisbeth once again takes center stage in Mikael's life (though still only from a distance); she is the principal suspect. He turns his investigative skills to proving her innocence, in which he seems to be the only believer. Meanwhile, Lisbeth is hiding from the law and trying to figure out how and why she's being set up; the two exchange occasional e-mails, but Mikael continues to be frustrated that she won't tell him anything that might help him solve the case.

Lisbeth's ties to the actual murderers turn out to be surprisingly close, and we learn a great deal about her past in this book. She continues to be a fascinating character, combining remarkable intelligence with intense misanthropy and lack of trust in the rest of humanity. (Not that she doesn't have reasons for that misanthropy, as we will learn.)

There's a fairly high amount of violence in this one, so it may not be for those who prefer their mysteries on the cozy side. But Lisbeth's backstory is compelling, and in light of the events here, it will be interesting to see how her relationship with Mikael changes in the third and final volume (due in the US in 2010).

August 30, 2009

BOOKS: No Such Creature, Giles Blunt (2009)

After a series of dark police procedurals set in northern Ontario, Blunt changes things up with a relatively light story set (mostly) in the southwestern US.

Owen Maxwell is 17, and has spent the last few summers traveling cross-country with his uncle Max in a nicely tricked-out RV. They are employed as "gentleman thieves," and they are partial to pulling off their robberies at Republican fundraisers; as Willie Sutton once said when asked why he robbed banks, "that's where the money is."

When Max and Owen's associates begin to disappear, it seems as if they may have caught the attention of the Subtractors, a particularly vicious gang of thieves who rob other thieves. Their cruelty is legendary, and Max insists that they are mere myth; "no such creature," he says. But someone is killing and maiming their friends, and if Max and Owen can't figure out who, they may be in deep trouble.

Max and Owen are marvelous characters. Former Shakespearean actor Max is constantly dropping lines from the Bard, and looks forward to each new "show" that he and Owen put on as a chance to try a new costume and accent. Owen is beginning to long for a more normal life, and worries about how to tell Max that he wants to retire and go to college.

There is, of course, a beautiful young woman who may be less trustworthy than she appears, a crazed ex who's chasing her, and several clever heists to be pulled. There are some terrific comic moments, but Blunt also does a fine job of building tension throughout. Great fun.

MOVIES: Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009)

What a godawful mess of a movie this is, with only a few decent supporting performances to take pleasure in.

It's really two, two, two movies in one. One story features Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a New York office drone who sets out to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blog about the experience; the other gives us Meryl Streep as Julia Child, living in Paris in the 1950s, and shows us how that famous cookbook came to be.

Let's start with the contemporary half of the story. The biggest problem is that Adams is horribly miscast. Her special gift is to play characters who radiate joy and innocence without making the audience want to wring their sunny little necks; while I'm always happy to see an actor try to stretch out of her comfort zone, Powell's disillusionment and ennui are a radical leap from Adams' usual characters, and she doesn't come close to pulling it off. Even if she had, I'm not sure it would help. Julie is so unlikable and whiny a woman that I don't think any actress could have made her sympathetic or interesting.

Then we have Streep as Julia Child. When Meryl is good, she can be amazing, but when she's bad, it's painful to watch, and I think she's very bad here. (I realize that this puts me in a very small minority.) She's so busy working on Julia's distinctive voice and physical presence -- and she does get those things right -- that there's no time left to work on creating a human being to go with them. It's one of those Streep performances that is only about the externals, and I was constantly aware that I was watching An Actress At Work.

By contrast, I was delighted by Jane Lynch's small performance as Julia's sister, Dorothy. In order to be convincing as her sister, Lynch is essentially doing her own version of Streep's version of Julia, but unlike Streep, Lynch disappears into the character; the voice and the physicality feel natural and organic instead of always feeling like conscious choices. It wasn't until the credits rolled, in fact, that I even realized that it was Jane Lynch playing the role.

We're meant to be inspired by the way that food and cooking give both women purpose and fulfillment in life, but all we get is a mound of gloppy sentiment built around one woman we don't like and one woman who never becomes anything more than a tedious acting exercise. A ghastly disappointment.

August 24, 2009

BOOKS: Get Real, Donald E. Westlake (2009)

The 14th -- and sadly, the final -- installment in the adventures of John Dortmunder and his ragtag gang of thieves.

This time around, John and the gang are approached by Doug Fairkeep, a reality TV producer who wants to build a show around the planning and pulling off of a theft. Dortmunder can't quite figure out how this is supposed to work; his objective is normally not to get caught, and having every moment of the heist on film would seem to be an insurmountable obstacle. But Doug convinces them that he can manage that part of things, and John and the gang agree to go along with the idea.

Naturally, they're almost immediately scheming to find a way to pull off their own real caper while pretending to go along with Fairkeep's TV heist. Westlake piles on the complications in his iminitable fashion, and his writing is as droll and lively as ever.

Some of the Dortmunder novels end with the gang in complete frustration, as one final obstacle keeps them from making any money at all. It doesn't spoil too much, I don't think, to say that there is a payday at the end of this one, and I think it's nice to have the series end on a happy note for John and friends.

Westlake was a master novelist, and his recent death was a great loss. Get Real is a fine farewell, and if you've never made the acquaintance of John Dortmunder, this is as good an introduction as any.

August 23, 2009

MOVIES: Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

There are all sorts of reasons that people will be infuriated by Inglourious Basterds. It's too long, it's too talky, it's too violent, it's too self-absorbed, it rewrites history. Ignore those people; this is a terrific movie, one of the year's best.

Inglourious Basterds is a delirious, giddy, and deadly serious movie about the power of the movies. Movies are a weapon in this movie, not only in the metaphorical sense -- a Nazi propaganda film is central to the plot -- but in the spectacular action climax of the movie, a literal weapon as well. (Remember that old silver nitrate film stock was extraordinarily flammable.)

There are three central characters in the movie, and their stories weave around one another, with the three coming together only at the end. Brad Pitt (who is not nearly as much the star of the movie as the advertising would suggest) is Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine, who assembles a team of Jewish-American soldiers -- the Inglourious Basterds -- to go into Nazi-occupied France and kill as many Nazis as possible; "we in the Nat-zee killin' bidness," says Pitt, drawling broadly and hamming it up in grand style. Mélanie Laurent is Emmanuelle Mimieux, the owner of a Paris cinema that is the setting for the movie's epic ending; Laurent is delightful as a woman out for revenge at any cost.

And the spectacular Christoph Waltz steals the movie as SS Col. Hans Landa, latest in a long line of suave movie Nazis, oozing equal parts of charm and menace (in four languages, no less). He's featured in two of the movie's best set pieces; an interrogation of a French dairy farmer is almost Hitchcockian in the way it maintains and builds tension, and a restaurant scene with Laurent's Emmanuelle balances dry wit and terror in unexpected ways.

In smaller roles, Daniel Brühl is excellent as a German soldier determined to ride his war-hero celebrity as far as it will take him, Diane Kruger shines as a German actress, and Michael Fassbender has some fine moments as (only in a Tarantino movie) a heroic film critic.

There are relatively few moments of violence in Inglourious Basterds, but those few moments are quite intense, and if you're like me, you may be wincing and covering your eyes at two or three points in the movie.

The less said about the plot of the movie, the better. The final 40 minutes or so are a brilliant sequence, a spectacularly good buildup to an ending that rewrites history in a way that takes great chutzpah; some, no doubt, will find it inappropriate to the point of being offensive. But the movies are another world, Tarantino tells us, and if you can't have a happy ending in the movies, then what's the point?

August 12, 2009

BOOKS: The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich (2009)

The story of the creation of Facebook. Sort of.

Mezrich calls this a "dramatic, narrative account," a phrase which he apparently thinks allows him to get away with all sorts of stuff that doesn't really fall under the usual definitions of nonfiction or journalism.

He acknowledges that he has "changed or imagined" the settings and descriptions of various scenes, changed details about some of the people in his narrative, and "re-created and compressed" dialogue. Mezrich was unable to interview Mark Zuckerberg, one of the central players in the story, but that does not stop him from writing entire chapters in which he describes Zuckerberg's actions and thoughts at times when no one else was present who might have given Mezrich such information. (Given Zuckerberg's refusal to be interviewed for this book, it is no surprise that he is made the villain, and that Eduardo Saverin, who was interviewed, is portrayed as Zuckerberg's victim.)

In short, Mezrich admits that he's making a lot of shit up.

The story of Facebook is probably an interesting one, based on what we can tell from Mezrich's creative imagining of events. But this version of the story is so clearly slanted, and so filled with Mezrich's fantasies about what might have happened, that it's useless to consider it as anything other than cheap fiction, and not very entertaining fiction at that.

August 10, 2009

BOOKS: The Devil's Company, David Liss (2009)

Third in Liss' series of historical/financial thrillers featuring Benjamin Weaver.

The setting is London in the 1720s, where Benjamin works as a "thief-taker," sort of a cross between a bounty hunter and a modern private eye. His reputation as a former champion boxer helps him get clients who might otherwise be reluctant to hire a Jew.

His client this time has hired him to pull off what should be a simple con game at the gambling tables, but things go very wrong, and Benjamin finds himself being blackmailed into taking part in a complicated scheme involving the East India Company. It becomes clear very quickly that there are many different hands pulling strings, and Benjamin is even less sure than usual who's on his side, or even what side he's supposed to be on.

There's a very large cast of scheming characters and victims here, and Liss does a superb job of handling them; each character is so crisply drawn that I was never confused about the current state of affairs (at least, no more so than Benjamin is at any given moment). Liss also handles very well the difficult task of depicting period social attitudes towards various minorities -- an Indian watchman, the denizens of a particularly unusual brothel -- without making us hate the characters who hold those attitudes; in part, he does this by making Benjamin and his friends a bit more tolerant than most men of the era.

The prose has enough flavor of the 18th century to be convincing, but not so much that you feel as if you're slogging through some deadly high-school classic. The clues to the mystery are fairly laid out, and the twists and turns of the story never feel arbitrary.

As with the earlier volumes in the series, Liss delights in exploring the early stages of institutions that we take for granted today. A Conspiracy of Paper was set against the backdrop of the earliest stock markets; A Spectacle of Corruption dealt with a nasty Parliamentary election. (The Coffee Trader, a spinoff of sorts from the series which features Benjamin's uncle as protagonist, deals with the birth of commodities trading.) This time, we get an inside look at the growth of the East India Company, a forerunner of today's corporations; there's a very contemporary feeling to conversations in which characters argue that the company's interests should take priority over the nation's interests (or in the extreme case, that the company's interests are the nation's interests).

Marvelous stuff, and highly recommended to fans of historical fiction, financial thrillers, and mysteries.

BOOKS: Sunnyside, Glen David Gold (2009)

As he did in his first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, Gold gives us a mix of historical figures and fictional characters, set in a story that's partly based on history and partly based in Gold's imagination. I find it frustrating that Gold is so disinclined to tell us which parts of the story are real and which are made up; his author's note at the end of the book is marginally less stingy with such details than he was with Carter, but not by much.

Our story this time is set just as America is about to enter World War I, and begins with a mass delusion that swept America -- Charlie Chaplin was sighted in over 800 locations across the country on the same day. (As farfetched as that sounds, it apparently does come from the historical side of the ledger and not the imaginative.) Our three central characters (Chaplin being one) are caught up in that event. Leland Wheeler is a lighthouse keeper with dreams of becoming an actor; he sees Chaplin drown in a whirlpool. Hugo Black is a railroad engineer assigned to crowd control in a small Texas town that's about to be visited by Chaplin.

Wheeler and Black are both historical figures. By the end of Sunnyside, Leland will have changed his name to Lee Duncan and be headed for a career in show business, though not in the way he'd hoped. Hugo is, I assume, the future Supreme Court justice, though I don't believe that Gold ever specifically identifies him as such; he's the right age, and enough of the details of his life are correct. (Some are very much not -- the real Hugo Black never saw combat -- but that's just Gold being Gold.)

My biggest problem with the novel is that the three stories of Charlie, Lee, and Hugo never come together in any cohesive way; that day of delusion that opens the novel is the closest the three men will ever come to having much in common, and their stories diverge from there. Lee and Hugo both end up in the military, Lee in France and Hugo in northern Russia; and Charlie continues to make movies, struggling to find his artistic voice. I found the Chaplin segments the most entertaining, and would have been much happier with them on their own.

There is much marvelous writing here, and Gold is often at his best in long set pieces -- Chaplin at a Hollywood party, Hugo's feast with three young Russian princesses (a meal which may or may not be nothing more than an absinthe-induced fantasy). Gold brings his historical characters to vivid life; I especially enjoyed the rivalry between Chaplin and Mary Pickford, who has all the success he longs for.

Sunnyside is a bit bloated, and feels more like three interwoven stories than a single novel. But when it's good, it's very good indeed, and though it's not entirely successful, I am happy to have read it.

August 09, 2009

MOVIES: a depressing day

After enduring a double feature of The Hangover and Funny People, I am officially declaring myself out of touch with American movie comedy. This was four hours of so-called comedy during which I laughed not once, a festival of men being insulting and abusive to one another, a cornucopia of homophobia and dick jokes. And these are men who are supposedly friends? One wonders how men who didn't like one another would behave.

There's only one significant female character in each movie. In The Hangover, she's a castrating shrew (Rachael Harris has done interesting things with similar characters in the past, but she's given nothing to work with here), and in Funny People, she's merely an object of desire with no personality of her own (Leslie Mann, wife of director Judd Apatow, reminding us why nepotism is a bad thing).

Humor feels so much meaner in the last decade. I think of TV shows like The Office (both versions) or Curb Your Enthusiasm, which ground most of their jokes in awkward humiliation and embarrassment, and now that movie comedy is dominated by Apatow and his imitators, that sort of cruel humor dominates the box office, too.

Maybe it's a generational thing, and maybe I'm just a cranky old curmudgeon, but I desperately hope this is just a phase. Surely it's still possible to make comedies in which the audience can like the characters, and in which the characters actually like one another.