Friday, October 28, 2016

Two by Two

Reviews of two flicks and two books:

Café Society (2016)
To say that Café Society has the flavor one expects from a Woody Allen movie is enough to let most readers know whether or not they will like it. The minority who lean one way as often as the other, however, probably will lean toward this one. It is not one of his home runs, but it is a solid base hit. Much of the credit belongs to the actors Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. (The two had worked together before on the non-Woody dark action comedy American Ultra.) Not all Woody’s screen alter egos fit the role well, but Jesse wears it comfortably; Kristen Stewart is so appealing that we finally can forgive her for Twilight. Also, as a period piece Café Society is a good-looking film.

Basic plot (with a few *spoilers*): In the 1930s Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), son of an NYC jeweler, moves to Hollywood and gets a job running errands for his Uncle Phil, played by a surprisingly well-cast Steve Carrell. Phil is an agent with major film industry clout. Bobby becomes enamored of Uncle Phil’s secretary Veronica, aka “Vonnie” (Kristen Stewart), unaware she is Phil’s mistress. Vonnie returns affection but her heart belongs primarily to Phil. Bobby decides to move back to New York and manage a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben. Bobby becomes successful and marries another Veronica (Blake Lively). Bobby and Vonnie cross paths again when Phil and Vonnie, now married, show up in New York on business.

Many film reviewers have commented on a deep cynicism regarding romantic love that pervades movies made since the start of the new millennium. Something outlandish has to be introduced in order to sell the idea to a skeptical audience: he’s a vampire, she’s an alien princess, he’s a werewolf, one or the other is a time traveler, or (as in Silver Linings Playbook) they’re both crazy. “Ah, that accounts for it.” Even Disney is on board. The movie Maleficent never questions the contention that true love in the romantic sense doesn’t exist: Prince Philip fails miserably to wake Sleeping Beauty. Whatever the cause of this cynical audience mood and however commercially wise it may be to cater to it on screen, the underlying contention is in fact wrong. Love doesn’t often turn out well, but that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t exist.  Of course it exists: people will ruin their lives over it – I surely damaged a good part of mine. Percy Sledge had a 50 year career singing the same song because we know what he meant. Woody knows the cynicism is wrong, too, and isn’t reluctant to say so in his movies, but he also knows the likely outcome: “Unrequited love kills more people in the year than tuberculosis.” Even if it is requited, the odds are big that there will be other reasons why things won’t work out. (That things generally don’t work out is a separate point entirely: recognition of this is not cynicism but observation and experience.) So, Woody’s movies, including Café Society, tend to be bittersweet – thoughtful, too. As one character remarks, “Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' But the examined one is no bargain.”

Thumbs Up, but if you usually don’t like Woody, this one won’t change your mind.

**** ****

Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare
By Isaac Asimov – 1970
As mentioned a few blogs ago, I occasionally pluck a book at random from my home library for a re-read. This one is proving especially pleasurable the second time around. (I’m still in the midst of it.)

Though best known as a science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a polymath, a professor of biochemistry, and an author of more than 500 books. Besides his fiction, he wrote nonfiction on almost every imaginable subject. Few people were better at elucidating complex ideas for a popular readership. This 800 page guide to the plays of Shakespeare is both accessible and erudite. Let’s face it, William can be a bit daunting for modern audiences and most of the volumes of academic treatises written in professor-ese on his work only make matters worse. But Shakespeare wrote some pretty good stuff, and with a proper non-pedantic overview he can be great fun.

Asimov in his introduction comments on several of the advantages that native speakers of English have, largely due to the accidents of history. He then adds, “But most of all, we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived – in any language.” Hyperbole? Maybe, but Asimov’s enthusiasm serves him and us well.

Highly recommended. In particular, if you are going to catch a performance of one of Will’s plays, first reading Asimov’s relevant chapter on the play is sure to enhance enjoyment.

Thumbs way Up.

**** ****

The Revenant (2015)
This is about as far away from a Woody Allen movie as it is possible to get: wilderness, survival, revenge, and brutish manly men in a harsh environment. 156 minutes of it.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the film is based on a real event in 1823. Fur trappers in the Rockies have a problem when one of them, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is badly mauled by a grizzly and is unable to travel. While the others go ahead, three of the team – Fitzgerald, Jim, and Glass’ half-Pawnee son Hawk – stay behind with instructions to wait until Glass either dies or can travel. Fitzgerald kills Hawk and convinces Jim to leave Glass for dead. Considering how badly Glass is mangled and how unforgiving the mountain winter is, his death seems surely imminent. Instead, motivated by revenge, Glass somehow survives and struggles to find his way out of the mountains and back to the trading post. The handful of people with whom he crosses paths along the way are as dangerous as the bear.

The Revenant is beautifully filmed amid spectacular scenery. The bear attack – though computer generated fx – is utterly convincing.

This is not the type of movie I commonly pick – and in fact I didn’t pick this one. It was the majority preference at a get-together. Yet, I have to give it a Thumbs Up simply for the quality of the filmmaking. As survival tales go, this is certainly well done.

**** ****

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves
By Benjamin K. Bergen -- 2016
For words and phrases that make up such a substantial proportion of everyday speech, remarkably few academic studies of profanity exist. Bergen endeavors to make up for that. He employs the modern usage of the word “profanity,” ditching the old distinction between blasphemy and mere vulgarity. The taboo words that constitute profanity come in four types: 1) blasphemy, 2) references to sex, 3) references to excretory functions, and 4) slurs, whether racial, sexual, ethnic, physical, or what-have-you. Slurs aren’t always included by definers of profanity, but I think Bergen is right to do so.

Bergen explores when, where, and how we use profane words and phrases, and how they are processed differently in the brain from other speech. He examines how usage varies among different social groups and classes. Though Bergen is primarily discussing English, he also details differences with other languages as to what is taboo and to what degree. (The title is the only place Bergen avoids using a particular explicit word, presumably so that the book will be displayed openly on bookstore shelves.) He explores how words change over time, becoming more or less acceptable. An example of a word drifting toward profanity is one with which I have personal experience. There are lots of Richards over age 50 who go by the name Dick. My dad did. My parents called me Dick. A few people who have known me since childhood still call me Dick, though nobody else does. Almost no one under 50 goes by that name: they are all Ricks and Riches. In a similar way “cock” is increasingly replaced in common speech by “rooster”; if one uses the former word to complain about being awakened by the chicken next door, one might be misunderstood.

All in all, What the F is a useful light on a much overlooked corner of linguistics. I’m also pleased to see a defense from Bergen of free expression – something on which one not always can count from contemporary academics, many of whom seem bent on ever-lengthening the list of taboo words and phrases. He has little patience for censorship; the damage done by taboo words is outweighed by damage done suppressing them. Bergen also argues that there is no evidence exposure to profanity harms kids.

Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.


  1. Have you ever heard of the musician, Dick Hyman? His parents must have had a odd sense of humor. Queer is a word one hardly hears these days, unless it's used either by a redneck or a gay man, but not much in reference to something being odd.

    I enjoyed The Revenant for the western, adventure yarn it was, but I must admit it's a bit forgettable. When DiCaprio was left for dead, I thought, well that'll come back to haunt them. It almost seemed like a Hollywood cliche, but then if it's taken after a true incident (which I haven't looked to see if that's actually true or not), I guess Glass was made of pretty stern stuff and pioneering spirit.

    I've seen that Asimov book in the books stores. I imagine it would be good to read about one of the Bard's plays before actually watching it as you said. That Asimov was one writing, industrious fellow. I have a book around here that has excerpts from some of his letter writing.

    I'll eventually watch the Woody Allen film, sounded good. I think we are all romantics at heart, whether or not relationships work out for some of us. When I see a couple that seem like a great match or a couple on the news that have been together for sixty years it makes me pause and think that's great.

    1. There does seem to be a Gresham’s Law of language: for words with several definitions, the low definitions over time tend to drive higher ones out of currency. Then there are the cases (frequent in recent decades) of deliberately branding a previously acceptable word as offensive as a political or social strategy. In the teen soap “Roswell” the alien/human hybrid Max backfoots Liz when she asks him if he is an alien: “We prefer the term ‘Not-of-this-earth.’”

      Asimov’s output is astonishing. I don’t know how one writes 10 books per year one’s entire adult life without churning out garbage. Yet, they are not garbage. I have yet to read one that doesn’t have literary merit – whether his Foundation series scifi, his history books, or his Physics textbook, which I used to supplement my poorly written HS physics text.

      As for Shakespeare, his English – more because of its poetic format than because of the occasional archaism – tends to slow down the comprehension of modern audiences just enough that they can lose track of the plot and characters. First reading a guide like Asimov’s prevents that problem.

      Love is strange: Woody and Soon-Yi have been together longer than Woody and any of his previous companions. Who would have figured?

  2. We caught "Cafe Society" on our vacation back on October. We actually didn't know it was a Woody Allen movie when it started (I think we missed the opening credits), and I was wondering why Eisenberg was imitating the famous New Yorker. It was a very solid movie. It felt like it was missing a little extras something to make it really click, but the performances were really good across the board. My wife was especially surprised with Stewart, who she really detested in "Twilight".

    I've seen that Asimov book at a few used bookstores lately. I almost picked it up, because as you say Asimov is one hell of a writer and I'd love to read his dissection of the plays. Your recommendation confirms that I will pick it up next time I see it.

    1. Yeah, I agree on "Cafe Society." It's the second time Kristen Stewart surprised me. She also was really good in "American Ultra"; perhaps being paired with Jesse brings something out in her.

      There are lots of Shakespeare guides, of course, but I liked Asimov's a lot. He is informative but informal -- and never talks down to his readers