Friday, January 31, 2014

Books: Nine Inches. Short Stories by Tom Perrotta

Perrotta knows his suburbs. The stories in this collection sound like studies for a TV series - and he is making one based on another of his books "Leftovers". He has found his genre and this is not a condescending statement. BTW, Election, based on Perrotta's novel is one of Alexander Payne's best films.
Suburban life according to Perrotta is deeply disappointing. His characters are under-performers who struggle to regain their life after a single faux pas; their stories - light versions of "after the Fall"...His male characters are infantile, his female characters -- bitches with hearts of gold.
The book jacket quotes a critic's definition of Perrotta as the "Suburban Steinbeck". This is an oxymoron! He is nothing like Steinbeck and neither is he a Chekhov - lacks Chekhov's contempt for human pettiness...

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Books: A Glass of Blessings. Novel by Barbara Pym

I read this novel because it was recommended by Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and author of "Americanah". I can see why she was interested given Nigeria's anti-gay laws.

This is the type of British fiction where you come across sentences like this: "I was glad to be alone in my room, with the view over the garden, well polished mahogany furniture, pink sheets and towels, and  a tablet of rose-geranium soap in the washbasin" or like this: "He is the kind of person who ought to have a steady unearned income." There is a Jane Austin feel to it and the whole plot revolves around a mysterious Mr. Darcy type of character who disturbs the church going and charitable tea party routine of the heroine, a young rich bored Londoner. The great twist here is that Mr. Darcy is gay. A delightful reading. A very subtle novel about sexuality and homosexuality without these topics ever being mentioned or touched explicitly - a 70s novel...

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Film: Inside Llewyn Davis. Coen Brothers

A very good film by the Coens and co-produced by Scott Rudin (who I don't think has a bad film to his credit).

Loved the opening shot - a man with a guitar in the spotlight, small stage, people smoking in the audience...A nostalgic statement for the art scene of the 60s...

Oscar Isaac's understated performance (and this coming from a theater actor!) is one of the alluring features of this film. His slightly retro look, expressive presence, facial features that could be associated with opposing qualities, somewhere between sensitivity, integrity or depravity and decay -- definitely an actor with a future. Two great scenes - one, when he performs a very inspired song for a record producer who tells him "there is no money in this"; and the other, when he performs for his senile father. The camera (Bruno Delbonnel) in that latter scene is fascinating! This cinematographer is one heartbreaking story-teller.

Did Van Gogh know he was great even though he was not successful? How does an artist know if he is making great art or if he should just quit because he sucks. How does he know if he can't even get to an audience... And he can't get to an audience because there is always a "middle man." There is always someone who thinks he "knows" if "there is money in it" and who decides the fate of art. Someone - who owns the pub, the stage, the label, or the studio. And, of course, there is always someone hungry - literally and metaphysically, someone desperate to make art, desperate to get on that stage, unable to quit.

Thankfully, there are artists like the Coens who can afford to make films like "Inside Llewyn Davis".

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Film: American Hustle. Directed by David O'Russel

"The Fighter" is David O'Russell's best film so far. He has been trying hard to emulate his past success but in  vain."Silver Linings Playbook" was a sugar coated interpretation of a not so bad debut novel by Matthew Quick. The book had more dramatic potential than the film could make use of. It threw out the drama and stayed on the level of  kitschy romance drama cliches.

"American Hustle" is another disappointment. It is not an important film, it is just another (among many) genre picture. It does not rise above the level of a con-scheme film and there are far better con films than this one. And no matter how big and powerful its PR campaign is and how many awards the film will win -- this is not going to change. 

The story is contrived and the characters are contrived - hence the stress on physical disguise - the actors have nothing to play, at least they have to look different... Their performance is hinged on physical things - they are trying hard to impersonate some psychological types or to mask the lack of drama or psychological motivation using superficial trickery. They are trying to conjure up the psychological via the mechanical. In the case of Ms Lawrence it works -she is playing the trashy nagging wife cliche after all. Amy Adams' character presence on the screen most of the time is dramatically and logically not justified. Her character's relationship to the over-zealous FBI agent is illogical to the point of puzzling and mired in tasteless erotics. 

The film's anti-corruption political pathos is so tired and unoriginal. 
There are films like that - all the components of good film-making are there but the aftertaste of having watched something futile and phony remains. 
The hype about "American Hustle" -- inexplicable!

By the way, "The Fighter" was not co-written by D. O'Russell while for both "Silver Linings" and "American Hustle" - he co-wrote the screenplay. May be he should stop doing that.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Film: Frances Ha, Directed by Noah Baumbach, Producer: Scott Rudin

Of course, I would never expect a bad film from producer Scott Rudin...

And "Frances Ha" is a nice film. A black-and-white independent, a Nouvelle Vague impersonator, it is a small, cheerful but also sad movie, which does not deserve to be called "charming" as it would be an offensive epithet for this kind of an honest unassuming film. It is a movie about love but without the sex part -- which makes it really original. Frances never quite adapts, she is not too smart or too talented but too good, naive, silly, delusional, inept, spirited, "undate-able," and unselfish to be able to shape her life into something standard. Sophie is her opposite. Frances loves Sophie and this love is not shared, nor is it consummable. Frances just loves this other person but would never be able to share a life with her -- a realization she has to accept as a blessing as she looks across the room at the end of the film to meet Sophie's gaze -- gratefully and gracefully. Don't interpret this as "friendship should be enough", "be grateful for what you can have"... It is rather - well, there are people like this, like Frances Ha (the last name is nonchalantly cut off), they will never settle down as "normal" people do, don't pity them, envy them...

On the other hand, the film seems to be a little scatterbrain like its heroine...It is a life-style movie, the style of life as a mess.

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Film: Blue Jasmine

"Blue Jasmine" is probably the best film Woody Allen has done in recent years. It is a drama with satirical 
overtones dialoguing  with the American drama classics (T. Williams' Streetcar Named Desire in particular) to reflect on the sorry state of contemporary morals. It is a better and more laconic insight into the American culture of "irrational exuberance" than "The Wolf of Wall Street" with its typical Woody Allen morality-play rigid schema transpiring through the lightness of what is happening on the screen. And what is happening is quite comical - on the surface at least. It is the stuff comedies are made off: a rich woman has lost everything and is in a "fish out of water" situation having to share a working-class life-style with her sister Ginger (S. Hawkins). We begin to grasp the tragic side of the story when it becomes obvious that Jasmine (born Jeannette) wants to dig herself out of the hole and climb-back to her previous position by lying and nurturing delusions about herself and her prospects. Eventually, she has to sever herself from reality (read "poverty"). If she can't accept being poor, her only option left is insanity. Her parallel with Blanche ends here: [she] can't accept realism, [she] wants magic!" The "magic" that made her rich in the first place...Her parallel with real-life characters - e.g. the female protagonist of the documentary "The Princess of Versailles" (the wife of a real estate magnate gone broke who eats from a 2,000 dollar caviar box with a large spoon sitting alone on her messy bed) starts here.  Reality offers a lot of proof that people, who are compelled to be or act rich develop a behavior which borders on the insane - check all the "real housewives", Kardashian reality TV or any other reality life-style shows. The life-style media has been driving all kinds of white-trash personas crazy. Those who accept to be "loosers" - like Ginger does - get to keep their sanity and keep stocking the supermarket aisles. Ginger also aspired to "break rich" but lost a handful -- a lottery win (not without meaning in this context). She also aspired to climb socially by falling for a professional man but got duped on this front as well. Jasmine was "lucky" briefly through her marriage to a crook. Both sisters come from the working class. Blanche and Stella in T. Williams' play were descendants of the Southern aristocracy - their problem was to accept the downfall of their class. In Allen's drama, it is the working class who are driven crazy because they can't jump the gap, can't jump the great divide between rich and poor, which is growing wider and wider. And the wider this divide grows, the louder its allure is being blasted through all communication channels into the fragile psyche of those who "dream big."  These are the choices - accept the loss and be content (there is love and sex for you as a consolation) or take Xanax and eventually - there is madness.

To comment on David Denby's crucial question whether the best films of 2013 are also "important": "Blue Jasmine" IS "important" as opposed to "American Hustle," for example, which is NOT. W. Allen put his finger on the pulse of our time. Not frustrated sexuality or fall from aristocratic grace (Blanche's tragedy) are our problems anymore but another type of Desire -- materialistic and beauphoric, premised on instant gratification with a No Exist sign blinking at the end.

Kate Blanchett's performance is superb. The mannerisms of her character mask a deep void that is scary and only occasionally lurks in her eyes and the low tones of her husky voice.

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Days of Abandonment. Elena Ferrante, 2002 (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, 2005)

Ferrante is one ferocious writer. What a tight, powerful prose, a "turn of the screw" narrative! Her style reminds of the classical 19 c novel, most of all -- Tolstoy. The story of an escalating passion-slash-madness brings to mind "The Kreutzer Sonata." Anna Karenina is also invoked by the protagonist herself ("Where am I? What am I doing? Why?") as the thoughts of self-destruction become overwhelming.
This short novel enacts Everywoman's nightmare: the threat of the young blonde, betrayal, abandonment, lost beauty, aging, self-loathing, alienation, hate, loneliness - all fears, complexes and guilt, entangled in one hard knot. Ferrante writes without a shred of sentimentality, she does not nurture illusions or promise happiness. Through all the stages of the protagonist's downfall and madness, Olga remains an honest narrator. She observes herself dissecting herself - and does that not coldly bur rather passionately, mercilessly.

As Olga pulls the pieces of her soul together slowly, it is not hope that she offers at the end, but solace: "There is no depth, there is no precipice. There is nothing."

Looking forward to reading Ferrante's other novels.