July 29, 2009

BOOKS: The Believers, Zoe Heller (2009)

A New York lawyer has a stroke, and his family begins to crack under the strain. That's really all there is to Heller's novel, but the characters are so precisely drawn and the writing so viciously witty that we don't need much more.

The Litvinoff family matriarch, Audrey, is a nasty piece of work, cold and uncaring, with never a kind word for anyone, so it's not surprising that each of the three Litvinoff children is massively screwed up. Rosa has spent years drifting from one chic revolutionary cause to another, and has currently convinced herself that perhaps she should return to the family roots by becoming an Orthodox Jew. Karla finds herself increasingly attracted to a local newspaper stand operator, even as she and her husband embark upon the process of adopting a child. Lenny has the occasional period of responsibility, but his drug addiction means that they never last too long.

These four characters dealing with the stress of Joel's illness are all that Heller needs, and I wish she'd left out the silly soap-opera nonsense about the woman who reveals a Secret From Joel's Past (if you don't have the secret figured out by the end of the page on which she appears, then you haven't watched nearly enough bad movies); it's unnecessary clutter.

Still, The Believers is terrifically entertaining, a ruthless look at a family whose members seem incapable of growing up.

July 27, 2009

BOOKS: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter (2008)

Most histories of English, McWhorter says, are written from the perspective of vocabulary. Why did we see an influx of French words at this point in history, and Latin words at that point? In this short book, McWhorter looks at the history of the language through its grammar.

There is a strong case, McWhorter argues, that our language owes a larger debt than most linguists acknowledge to the Celtic languages, Welsh and Cornish in particular. So strong is the evidence, in fact, that McWhorter practically accuses his fellow linguists of willfully ignoring it and suppressing any research that would support it.

Why has it been so easy to overlook? Largely due to the differences between written and spoken English; in an era when written English meant formal English -- there were no Twitter or blogs to demonstrate more casual use -- some influences on the language were less likely to be documented than others.

Along the way, McWhorter explains why English has changed so much faster than other languages in the Germanic family, and offers a thorough demolition of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- the notion that our language shapes our perception of the world.

He closes with the suggestion that very early English may have been influenced by the now-dead Phoenician language. This, he acknowledges, is more speculative than his arguments on the Celtic influence, but he offers it as an area deserving of further study and research.

McWhorter's writing is lively and not too heavy; he's very skilled at presenting complex linguistic ideas so that they are accessible to the layman.

July 26, 2009

MOVIES:500 Days of Summer (a supplemental rant)

But there is one thing...

The gimmick of 500 Days of Summer has us bouncing back and forth through the 500 days of the central relationship, with each scene being introduced by a title card showing us which day this is -- day 17, day 483, day 129, day 6, and so on.

Three days during the movie are specifically identified as particular days of the week. Day 28 is a Friday; day 442 is a Thursday; day 500 is a Friday. If you do the math, you'll that those day-of-the-week assignments are mutually incompatible. That is, if day 28 is a Friday, then day 442 is actually a Saturday and day 500 a Monday. A minor thing, certainly, and one which most people won't even notice. But when your movie is built around one structural gimmick, surely you should pay attention to such details.

And how much effort was needed to fix the problem? Changing two title cards (days 28/31 to days 26/29) and one word of dialogue (Day 442's "It's Thursday" to "It's Monday") would have made the movie's numbering internally consistent.

It doesn't keep 500 Days of Summer from being a worthwhile movie, but it's a shame to see a movie that's otherwise so smartly written marred by such a lazy bit of sloppiness.

MOVIES: 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in a marvelous romantic comedy that leaps through time to show us the 500 days of a couple's relationship.

It's clear from the beginning that Tom and Summer are not fated for long-term happiness; she makes it clear that she's not looking for a serious relationship, but he's such a hopeless romantic that he either can't or won't hear what she says. But Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are so charming, both individually and as a couple, that it's great fun watching them go through the familiar romantic comedy motions.

And there's no doubt that it is their movie; none of the supporting characters are particularly interesting or memorable. But the writing is sharp and lively, and the structural gimmick of leaping back and forth in time (though not nearly as original as the writers think it is) is cleverly used.

There are scenes in 500 Days of Summer that are standard romantic comedy scenes that have annoyed me immensely in lesser movies, but are handled with enough freshness and energy here to make them feel new. A happy walk that turns into a musical number with every stranger on the street joining in; the "what I expected vs. what happened" split screen; the embarassing drunken karaoke bar scene -- this movie gets away with all of them. Gordon-Levitt is saddled with a pre-teen sister who gives him romantic advice, and the writers miraculously make even that work.

An absolute charmer, and happily recommended.

July 24, 2009

MOVIES: Humpday (Lynn Shelton, 2009)

Ben and Andrew (Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard) are old college pals who haven't seen one another for a few years when Andrew unexpectedly in town. The two are at a party, having had a bit too much to drink, when the subject of the upcoming amateur porn festival comes up. The guys decide that they should enter a film of themselves having sex; since they're both straight, the movie will be "beyond gay," and therefore an inherently profound artistic statement.

From this point on, Humpday becomes a game of emotional chicken. Neither Ben nor Andrew wants to be the one to back out of their project. Neither one can quite articulate why it seems so important, but it does seem to appeal to some vague, inchoate need for intimacy in both men.

There's an interesting story here, but unfortunately, the movie itself is mostly a mess. The acting isn't very good (Alycia Delmore comes off as Ben's wife, Anna); the shaky camerawork is hard to watch; even the music score is unattractive.

But the climactic scene, in which Ben and Andrew meet in a hotel room with a video camera, is remarkable. There's an intensity and emotional force that has been utterly missing from the rest of the movie, and genuine tension as they try to figure out what it means if they do (or don't) go through with their plan.

So there's the cinematic dilemma: Does one spectacular scene redeem an otherwise mediocre movie? Unless you have particular interest in the subject matter or the actors, I'd say no, at least not to the extent that you should pay full price to see it at the theater. Wait for the DVD instead.

July 20, 2009

BOOKS: Flashforward, Robert J. Sawyer (1999)

ABC will be turning this into a TV series this fall, so I wanted to re-read the book and get a sense of what's likely to be changed.

Quite a lot, I suspect. The basic premise will remain intact -- everyone in the world passes out for two minutes and has a vision of the future -- but that's about all. There's not nearly enough action in the book for TV, and the cast of characters will surely have to be Americanized, as Sawyer's three principals are Canadian, Japanese, and Greek scientists working in Switzerland.

The book is a fine piece of entertainment. As is usually the case with Sawyer, it's not so much about solving a "what happened?" mystery; we know the cause of the incident within the first few pages of the book. Sawyer's take on things is usually much more about "OK, that happened; now what?" And he's very good at imagining the consequences and ramifications of his unlikely event.

One rather remarkable bit of accidental prognostication (particularly amusing to find such in a book about visions of the future): Sawyer's novel was published in 1999, but it's set in 2009. There's a passing reference to the 2009 pope, whose name happens to be Benedict XVI. Nice call, that!

July 14, 2009

MOVIES: Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen)

Even by Woody Allen standards, Boris is an unlikable protagonist. He's a grumpy misanthrope who's made it to the border of middle-aged and old without ever really caring about anyone, and he's convinced that he's the intellectual superior of everyone. And he's played here by Larry David, who doesn't have the talent to make Boris likable, or even tolerable. (Whatever Works was reportedly written in the 1970s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, who could have made Boris a love-to-hate-him kinda guy.) Even if David had the talent to pull off the leading role, though, there are so many farfetched contrivances and unpleasant stereotypes in this movie that it wouldn't be worth watching.

The central relationship is between Boris and Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), a runaway from Mississippi who Boris reluctantly takes into his home. In that instant, whatever credibility the movie had is shattered; the Boris we've met in the first ten minutes wouldn't take anyone into his home, reluctantly or otherwise.

Melodie, being a Southerner in a Woody Allen movie, is obliged to be a drawling dimwit; when we meet her parents (played by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.), they are, of course, fundamentalist Bible-thumping religious fanatics. And because they are Southern Christians in a Woody Allen movie, their religious beliefs are shallow, insincere, and transitory, easily tossed aside as they become sophisticated New Yorkers.

Clarkson's transformation from Southern belle to trendy artist might actually be interesting, but Allen's script doesn't allow her to show us that transformation. We're introduced to Marietta #1; Boris talks to the audience (a gimmick that rarely works, and really falls flat here) with a "can you believe it's been a year?" speech; and now Marietta #2 is on hand. Clarkson does a fine job with each Marietta, but since we don't get to see the transition, they feel like two separate performances instead of a single character.

There are a handful of funny lines scattered among the dreck, but not enough of them to make it worth sitting through the movie. Skip this one.

July 13, 2009

MOVIES: Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)

It's sometime in the not-too-distant future, and Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year stint as the sole human inhabitant of a mining base on the far side of the moon. Most of the operation is automated, but Sam is needed to occasionally repair broken machinery and to send the collected tubes of helium back to Earth.

It's clear that it's been a rough three years for Sam. His only human contact is with his wife and daughter, and due to a satellite malfunction, even that is restricted to video messages instead of live conversation. Sam is on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown, and though he tries to get through the days by adopting a Zen-like calm, even he knows that his patience is mostly an act.

Sam is on a routine run out to one of the mining machines when his rover has an accident, and when he wakes up, he's back at the base, being tended to by GERTY, the ship's computer. And things have changed at the base when Sam wakes up. There's a rescue mission on the way to relieve him early, and his replacement isn't at all who Sam might have expected.

The movie is essentially a one-man show for Rockwell, who is in every scene of the movie, and who does a stellar job portraying the various sides of Sam's increasingly fractured personality. The only other actor with a significant presence is Kevin Spacey, who voices GERTY with a silken ambiguity that marks the computer as a cinematic descendant of 2001's HAL.

This is not a big-budget effects movie like most of the science fiction we get at the movies these days (though the effects we do get are impeccably done); it's a slower-paced, thoughtful movie that asks the audience to pay attention, as some of its key revelations come almost in passing, and aren't explicitly spelled out.

Imagine that -- a movie that actually trusts its audience to think. It's a refreshing change, and Moon raises some ethical issues that I find myself still mulling over a few days after seeing the movie.