Friday Recommends, movies

Friday Recommends: The Trip

Come, come, Mr. Bond, you derive as much pleasure from killing as I do.

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In the annals of buddy road trip movies, none feature as many Wordsworth references, Michael Caine impressions or scallops as The Trip. Steve Coogan plays himself, or a version of himself, setting off for a week-long tour of northern England’s finest restaurants. His original companion, his girlfriend Mischa, has not only backed out — she’s gone to the States. Steve calls up his friend Rob Brydon, playing himself, or a version of himself, and — after making a point of telling his friend how many people he asked before settling on Rob — asks Rob to join him.

So begins The Trip, a meandering, hilarious expedition that’s surprisingly moving for a film in which not much happens. While the brooding Coogan and overbearing Brydon only occasionally amuse the other, their constant stream of impressions — which run the gamut from Al Pacino to Roger Moore to Stephen Hawking, and seem to comprise over half the movie — are a riot for the viewer. This game of seemingly meaningless one-upmanship works on two levels. For anyone who’s ever spent a week-long road trip with someone, this is exactly what the conversation devolves into: running gags, sophomoric humor and inside jokes that are bewildering to outside company (as when Coogan’s assistant Emma and a photographer join Steve and Rob for lunch).

But the weight of the film, and its occasional wistful tone, come from the unspoken competition between Steve and Rob to convince the other of his own contentment. Whereas Steve is always calling his agent for reports on more artistic roles (he dreams that Ben Stiller tells him all of Hollywood’s “auteurs” want to work with him), Rob spends his nights calling his wife, doing a Hugh Grant impression in a mock attempt to arouse her. One is restless, bitter, searching; the other settled, happy, content.

Director Michael Winterbottom, adapting his TV series of the same name, gives both men a fair shake. The film is Coogan’s, but the last scenes we see are of him alone in his London apartment, while Brydon is sharing dinner with his wife, cozy in domestic warmth. The Trip also features gorgeous scenery, making England look like the Rocky Mountains.

It’s hard to pick our favorite scene, but if pressed, it’d be this one:

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Friday Recommends, parenthood, television

Friday Recommends: Up All Night

Gob Bluth and Veronica Corningstone, parents.

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The dustbin of history is littered with bad parenting sitcoms. “Baby Talk.” “Family Matters.” “My Two Dads.” “Baby Bob.” “Small Wonder.” (You remember this one. It was the one where a family created a robot named Vicki but treated her like a normal little girl so the neighbors wouldn’t know. Remember?) “Up All Night” is, thankfully, not one of them.

Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) are first-time parents to Amy (one of the cutest TV babies ever). Their travails are familiar to any new parent: Balancing the demands of work and family. Maintaing a romantic relationship with your spouse. Finding a reliable babysitter. Outclassing the other parents in Mr. Bob’s Toddler Play Class.

Throw into the mix Ava (Maya Rudolph), Amy’s boss and the host of an Oprah-like talk show, and reliable guest stars/supporting actors like Will Forte, Jason Lee and Molly Shannon, and you have a gently understated comedy that’s less zany than “30 Rock” but far funnier and less saccharin than, say, “Full House,” or, well, any of the sitcoms listed back in the first paragraph.

Like “30 Rock,” “Up All Night” was created by a “Saturday Night Live” writer, Emily Spivey, balancing work and motherhood. The show was retooled after the success of Bridesmaids to give a greater role to Rudolph’s character, and she’s the wild card. Whereas Applegate and (especially) Arnett underplay their roles (which makes them more believable as average parents, though a sitcom with Veronica Corningstone and Gob Bluth as parents would be pretty awesome), Rudolph spins out of control, like an ego hurricane. Threatened by a potential burglar while she’s babysitting Amy one night, Ava shouts into the dark, “I have got a glock in my purse and superb night vision!”

The best episode so far, “Birth,” flashes back to Amy and Chris preparing for and then going to the hospital. You get a glimpse of their pre-baby lives — Reagan and Ava coming to terms with how a baby will change their relationship at work and outside it, Chris weighing the decision to leave his law firm and become a stay-at-home dad — and a depth to the characters beyond simple parenting stereotypes. Perhaps being new parents themselves helps, but Applegate and Arnett hit the right notes and make “Up All Night” a rarity: a non-terrible parenting sitcom that even non-parents can enjoy.

Friday Recommends, marital tension, movies

Friday Recommends: Not Seeing Contagion On Date Night

This should have been our first warning.

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Date nights come around only so often, and they get to be pricey once childcare is involved, so by no means should you make the same mistake we did tonight by squandering your romantic evening out on the movie Contagion. This is especially true if one of the people in your marriage is a hypochondriac.

Contagion begins with a cough. Then we see Gwyneth Paltrow looking a wee bit under the weather. Within ten minutes, she is dead. In another five, her head is being cut open for an autopsy. The director, Steven Soderbergh, who clearly hates us, films Paltrow’s face so we can hear the saw but not see the cut … until a doctor folds her scalp down over her forehead. The elderly woman in front of us leaned over to the person sitting next to her and said, “What’s going on?” Someone behind us laughed heartily. Someone else muttered, “At least somebody is enjoying this.”

Contagion proceeds to track the rapid spread of a bat/pig virus that has ruthlessly mutated and begun wiping out our finest Oscar-winning actresses. It is a creepily satisfying thriller — the virus goes global, and we are informed of all the cities and their populations being introduced to this lethal outbreak — but you will not want to do any cuddling or hand-holding during or after the movie, and possibly you will never want to touch another human being ever again. For that, you would be better served going to see 50/50 (our second choice), or perhaps even Moneyball (sold out).

If you insist on seeing Contagion, however, you will be treated to Jude Law’s truly awful teeth; a delicately restrained performance from Matt Damon; many pensive looks from Marion Cotillard; lots of coughing Asians; some sharp editing work that makes everyday objects like a drinking glass radiate germs; and the implicit message that government is a force for good that should be trusted in times of crisis. You’ll also get a good laugh any time Jennifer Ehle or Demetri Martin put on their hazmat suits. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but who can resist laughing at people with big, goofy balloon limbs? Not us.

books, Friday Recommends

Friday Recommends: George Pelecanos

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If you’ve never read George Pelecanos, his new novel The Cut is a good place to start. It features a new Pelecanos character, Spero Lucas, but the setting is the same: Washington, D.C., where Pelecanos has set all seventeen of his crime novels. (NPR recently profiled Pelecanos’s D.C. in its Crime In The City series.) Lucas is a young Iraq War veteran turned private investigator whose cut, no matter the job, is forty percent. A drug dealer approaches Lucas about recovering stolen merchandise. Lucas is a smooth operator — he conducts himself, even as a civilian, with military precision — but his willingness to deal with risky clientele soon endanger his life, and the lives of those closest to him.

Pelecanos is a pleasure to read for many reasons. One is his sense of place. Esquire famously called him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” His D.C. doesn’t showcase memorials or tourist attractions. He writes about “the three-quarters of Washington D.C. that tourists never see,” as Lee Child put it. (Pelecanos gives the reader a wink in his new book when Lucas drives past the office front of another Pelecanos character, Derek Strange.)

Another is his mastery of the form. Pelecanos has written for both “The Wire” and “Treme,” and not only does he get the technical aspects of the crime novel right — the details, conflict, pacing and payoff — he elevates the material with his sure-footed handling of racial dynamics. (Most of Pelecanos’s books feature black-and-white partners, mixed-race marriages or multi-racial families, and sometimes all three.) Plus he delivers fantastic dialogue, right up there with Richard Price (another “Wire” alum).

Pelecanos also makes his books breathe with culture. His characters are always listening to a specific genre of music, wearing a certain label of clothing, driving a make and model of car he’ll describe to you in detail. A little of this can go a long way, and at times he can go overboard. The cumulative effect of all these details, however, is to paint a very vivid picture, not just of where these characters are and what they’re doing, but of what’s happening at this moment in time in this city and the world beyond it. His books work on both a large scale and an intimate one too. When he tells you what song is playing on the jukebox in the bar where two characters are drinking, you can practically hear the crack! of the pool table break even though he doesn’t put that part on the page.

My personal favorite in the Pelecanos canon remains The Night Gardener, a stand-alone, but you really can’t go wrong with any of his books. That’s one more reason to recommend him: his consistency. Like Derek Strange and Spero Lucas, you know you can count on him.

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[photo: nytimes.com]

books, Friday Recommends

Friday Recommends: State Of Wonder, Ann Patchett

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A while back, I (Ben) promised a review of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. (I got sidetracked by some non-fiction accounts of life in the Amazon.) Several reviews of this novel have noted its nod to Heart of Darkness, which brings me to a brief sidenote about Heart of Darkness and our educational system:

I read Heart of Darkness in tenth grade, and I hated every page of it. Rereading it many years later, I felt ashamed that this had been my initial reaction. I won’t blame all of it on the student teacher, Mr. Howard, who taught it to us, but I do hope, for his sake and those of his potential students, that Mr. Howard never went on to pursue a teaching career. He greeted our frustration with the text with, first, bemusement, followed by exasperation, anger, condescension and, finally, outright hostility.

Sensing his disgust with our inability to decipher Joseph Conrad, we revolted. Classes became shouting matches. Mr. Howard was given over to long soliloquies as he stared out the window. We were no longer his students, simply audience members of a sad, tragic one act titled, “Mr. Howard And The Twenty-One Intellectual Dwarves.”

What I would tell Mr. Howard now, if I could raise my hand and change the course of my tenth grade education (and perhaps his career trajectory), is that he should have just shown us Apocalypse Now. Not only would we have spent class time watching a (R-rated!) movie; just as importantly, we would have understood Heart of Darkness.

Back to Ann Patchett.

Dr. Anneck Swenson is State of Wonder’s Kurtz, laboring deep in the Amazon jungle on a miracle drug that would extend a woman’s fertility into old age. Dr. Marina Singh is her ex-student, before a mistake during delivery changed her career ambitions and sent her into pharmaceutical research for the same company developing Swenson’s drug. When one of Marina’s colleagues sent to check on the project dies in the jungle, Marina goes after him, waiting in Manaus for her former mentor to turn up. When she does, Swenson dominates the page. She’s a tough, compelling, single-minded and utterly rational force, and meeting her again forces a rather listless Singh to snap into action as well as reconcile her past.

Patchett is a skilled writer, and she does a masterful job painting the Amazon as “the beating heart of nowhere.” There are many surprises in store in State of Wonder, and she dispenses them patiently, all in good time. Marina Singh comes across as a flat character for the first third of the book, but it serves to highlight just how great her transformation is by the end. I had heard several people say they were dissatisfied with the book’s ending. I didn’t see the final twist coming, and though implausible, I found it very satisfying. Certainly more so, I should say, than my first crack at Heart of Darkness.

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Nashville recently lost its fine independent bookstore Davis-Kidd Booksellers, where I got my start in bookselling. Patchett, a Nashvillian, is part of a group planning to open Parnassus Books this fall. As Patchett told NPR’s Diane Rehm earlier this year, “I don’t know if I’m opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire, but I can’t live in a city that doesn’t have a bookstore.” For more on Parnassus Books, see here.

books, Friday Recommends

Friday Recommends: The Devil & Sherlock Holmes, David Grann

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Erin has not read this book yet, but she surely feels like she has. That’s because Ben has, after each of the essays in the book (there are twelve), said, “Listen to this — you’re not going to believe it — I mean, this story is bananas,” and proceeded to recap the entire twisty, turny narrative for her. The first in the book, “Mysterious Circumstances,” is about the world’s most renowned Sherlock Holmes expert, Richard Lancelyn Green, who was found garroted in his apartment. Grann takes the reader into the obsessive world of Arthur Conan Doyle scholars while he himself tries to unravel the mystery of Green’s death, applying his own Sherlockian logic to deciphering what really happened in that apartment. (It remains unsolved, though Grann’s investigation leaves you convinced he has solved it.)

The second essay in The Devil & Sherlock Holmes, maybe its finest, is “Trial By Fire.” It is about Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas after a suspicious fire destroyed his house and killed his three daughters. (Terrible things happen in Grann’s stories; he is driven to the dark side of human nature, but what’s remarkable about his writing is how it brings order to chaos. His prose itself is a light in the dark.) Grann walks the reader through an arsonist’s accounting of the fire, then turns that initial analysis — which was the basis of Willingham’s conviction — on his head when another trained eye looks at the same damage and sees an entirely different story. Grann spent six months reporting the story. By the end the reader is saddened, shocked, outraged — and deeply moved.

Though these are two of the finest essays in the collection, each of them tells a story so peculiar (a firefighter at the Twin Towers who cannot remember whether he was a hero or a coward; a marine biologist driven, Ahab-like, to locate a giant squid; a 30-year-old con artist who poses as a teenager so he can be adopted; Ricky Henderson) that you have to grab someone close by and say, “Get a load of this.” Whether essays are your cup of tea or not (I, Ben, would say I am a good deal more enthused with essays than the average reader), this collection is a delight. If nothing else, pick up The Devil & Sherlock Holmes the next time you’re in the library or your local independent bookstore and give any of the twelve a read. I predict you’ll want more when you’re done.

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Writing for Slate, Jonah Weiner has this appreciation of Grann’s storytelling skills. The bookseller in the first paragraph of Weiner’s piece says it all: “Yeah, man. David Grann.”

We also read and liked Grann’s The Lost City of Z. Review here.

Friday Recommends, movies

Friday Recommends: Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Once more, with feeling.

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There are a hundred ways the Harry Potter movie franchise could have gone off the rails. Let’s just list a few examples:

  1. Chris Columbus could have directed all eight movies and not just the first two.
  2. Jerry Bruckheimer could have been brought in as a producer.
  3. Jeremy Piven could have been cast as the new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts.
  4. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and/or Emma Watson could have bailed at any point in the past decade, forcing audiences to deal with character doubles, like when Daphne Reid just showed up as Vivian Banks in the fourth season of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and everyone was like, “What happened to Janet Hubert and why haven’t any of the characters commented on the fact that is not their mother??”

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Etc. etc.

That the movies avoided these pitfalls, or any number of others unmentioned here, is a testament to several things. The biggest (and most obvious) is the source material. But Hollywood has found a way to bungle plenty of great books, so it was more than that too. Ironically, taking liberties with the source material also saved the series — from being slavishly faithful in a paint-by-numbers kind of way to the books. Taking a chance (commercially speaking) on director Alfonso Cuaron for the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was another success. (We agree with Dan Kois’s assessment in Slate that the third movie is the finest in the series. It was also our favorite book.)

When we saw the final movie last weekend, we were both struck by how emotionally fulfilling the final chapter was. It’s a cliche that was also quite true of these films: The characters really did grow up before our eyes. When The Deathly Hallows Part 2 flashes back to earlier moments in the series, you realize what a little pipsqueak Daniel Radcliffe was when he showed up at Hogwarts. Where the early films were full of wonder and a little danger, the last film is appropriately weighty and adult, the tone gray and subdued throughout, a measure of the task Harry, Ron and Hermione must complete: finding and destroying the remaining Horcruxes, and then taking down that noseless menace himself, Voldemort. (Another way this series could have gone awry: Casting anyone less awesome than Ralph Fiennes as the baddie.)

There are battles galore in The Deathly Hallows Part 2, and in staging them director David Yates borrows a little from Star Wars, a lot from The Lord of the Rings. If there’s one thing we didn’t like about the final movie — and this could be true of most films in the series — it’s that in their rush to capture all of the plot, they gave short shrift to some wonderful characters. Snape gets his redemption moment in the most moving part of this film, but what about Draco’s? Why couldn’t the filmmakers — any of them — find more screen time for Fred and George? What about Ginny? She’s on screen for maybe two minutes total and may or may not have said a line. We’ve seen cardboard with more chemistry than what she and Harry muster.

These are nitpicks given all the things the films did right, but they’re also invitations back to the books themselves, where J.K. Rowling gave her characters depth and nuance. She also wrote the books as much for adults as she did for kids. The idea that Harry and Voldemort are inexplicably tied to one another — that for all the good Harry has in him, there’s also a little Voldie in there too — is a profound statement about good and evil, with implications that range across philosophy and theology. But nothing about the books ever felt pedantic or dull. The movies, whatever their shortcomings, delivered on that promise too. When Harry and Voldemort raise their wands against each other one last time, all thoughts and comparisons to the books went out of our heads. We just wanted the good guy to win.