Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Alright, I admit it. I added one more mini-review to the four I originally intended to post just so I could use the word as I’ve wanted to do since freshman year of high school when I first encountered it.  Comments follow on three movies on DVD and two books on paper (both delivery systems being obsolescent technologies) I’ve encountered in the past week.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
There is a type of raunchy broad comedy that doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t mean to get on a high horse about it, for I profess no high standards. I object neither to graphic sex nor low humor in movies, and often enjoy the presence of either. There is just a peculiar blend of the two that leaves me waiting patiently for a scene to end while (when viewed in a theater) much of the audience around me guffaws loudly: for example, the scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which couples in neighboring hotel rooms try to outdo each other in noisy sex in order to make the other jealous. The gag goes on wearyingly long, but apparently not for the target audience. Many of these movies not only please audiences but get good critical reviews such as Superbad, Knocked Up, and the remake of Neighbors. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in the least offended by movies of this type; they simply don’t make me laugh. I even like a few (e.g. Clerks), but always because there is something else going on in them, too.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of the better movies of this type. It mysteriously bombed at the box-office, which has the advantage that it might be new to a present day viewer. Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is a TV sitcom star with almost too perfect good looks. She dumps her boyfriend Peter (Jason Segel). Peter does the music for the TV show, which makes the break harder for him. The devastated Peter tries to get over Sarah with nights of mindless sex with women he picks up in bars. This doesn’t help, so he takes a vacation in Hawaii to clear his head. In a standard movie-comedy coincidence, Sarah books into the same hotel with her new boyfriend, pop singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The hotel clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis) feels sorry for Peter, which squares off the comic quadrangle.

There are some genuinely funny moments in this movie. Although Peter is not nearly as sympathetic a character as he is intended to be, we can relate to his melancholy anyway. Most of us have learned the hard way just how disorienting ending a truly heartfelt relationship can be.

A grudging Thumbs Up: not my kind of movie, but by the standards of its genre it’s pretty good.

**** ****

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Alternate universes have been a staple of science fiction for 80 years. They’ve been central to a multitude of books, movies and TV shows (e.g. Sliders and Fringe). For this reason it’s a little irksome that in Crouch’s 2016 novel Dark Matter, the protagonist physicist Jason Desson doesn’t figure out he isn’t in his own world until page 126. It has been obvious to the reader since the first few pages that another version of himself has swapped places with him. But if we overlook this initial pigheadedness by a character who should know better, Crouch provides us with an enjoyable, fast-paced, and well-written adventure story.

The protagonist Jason had youthful promise at the cutting edge of physics, but settled into a professorship in order to provide securely for his wife and son. This prevented him from putting in the necessary time to achieve anything professionally remarkable. His wife Daniela similarly has limited her career as an artist. Naturally both wonder what would have happened had they made other choices, but they are happy. One of Jason’s counterparts in a parallel Chicago isn’t happy even though his career (and the single life) did lead him to scientific breakthroughs including interdimensional travel. He does something about it by taking over the life of our Jason whom he envies. After our Jason finally realizes what is going on, he escapes the alternate world where he was exiled with the help of a woman named Amanda who was a colleague of Jason 2. Together they try to find their way to the world of Jason 1 using the tech invented by his other self. During their search they visit various versions of Chicago including postapocalyptic ones. Jason develops an idea as to how to choose the door to the right world out of the infinite number of them.

Entertaining. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

High-Rise (2015)
I am a big fan of English author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009). He was primarily a science fiction author if one uses the term “science fiction” expansively. His early work, though off-beat, was unmistakably scifi, but in the 1970s his emphasis shifted. He came to believe that increasing numbers of people – especially in first world economies – already existed in a futuristic scifi world. They lived in artificial technological environments in which interactions were mediated by electronics and machines.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents said that civilization was maintained by repressing natural human impulses to destructive behavior emanating from the death instinct; this suppression of nature causes people unhappiness, but it is a price worth paying so as not to live amid savagery and violence. Ballard similarly believed that our artificial worlds are deeply at variance with our animalistic instincts and natures, but he was less optimistic than Freud about our ability to contain the destructive ones. This was the theme of his novel High-Rise, published in 1975. It was set in a modern high-rise structure that included homes, stores, offices, and recreational facilities so that a person in principle could live, work, and play entirely within the building. The result was so at variance with human nature that it instigated a breakdown of civilization. The residents’ ids ran wild. It was much like Lord of the Flies, but with adults and triggered by an opposite circumstance.

Ben Wheatley’s screen adaptation of High-Rise is set in the 1970s and captures much of the feel of the building and its occupants as described in the novel. There is one big difference. Ballard is not blind to class, and it does play a role in the way people break down into tribes and then feed on each other in the book. But class is not central to his point; his focus is on much more fundamental human drives and instincts. The movie High-Rise, by contrast, is entirely about class as the lower floors revolt against the higher ones; the movie is capped by an ironic overvoice of a speech by Margaret Thatcher on the virtues of capitalism. It’s fine that Wheatley made a movie about class struggle, but I think it’s important to note that his vision is not the same as Ballard’s. It is something much simpler.

Upshot: Nicely rendered visually, and fans of the book will enjoy seeing the characters brought to life. For me, however, that’s not enough to make up for the deeper changes to the story. A reluctant Thumbs Down.

**** ****

The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese
The first rate author/journalist Gay Talese is still best known for his 1981 best seller Thy Neighbor’s Wife which chronicled the sexual revolution of the 70s just as reaction against the decade’s excesses was setting in. I was impressed with the book at the time. I’ve liked many of his articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere since then. The Voyeur’s Motel is different. After putting it down you might feel the need to wash your hands.

Back in 1980 Gay Talese was contacted by Gerald Foos who owned a 21-room motel in Colorado. He had cut false ventilation vents into the ceilings of six of the rooms. With the cooperation and collaboration of his wife he used them to spy on occupants of the rooms from the attic. He kept detailed records of what he saw and convinced himself he was chronicling something important about human behavior. Gay Talese was unwilling to publish anything based on anonymous sources, and Foos – for obvious legal reasons – was unwilling to go public, so nothing came of their meeting. Foos continued to send Talese updates and pages from his chronicles over the years however. In 2015 with statutes of limitations providing protection, Foos was willing to identify himself publicly, so Talese wrote The Voyeur’s Motel with extensive excerpts from Foos’ notes.

Frankly, none of Foos' observations are very interesting. I think we all have a pretty good idea of what goes on in motel rooms. It is Foos himself that arouses one’s curiosity. He is in almost every way an ordinary person of the sort one meets everyday. Without consciousness of irony he decries dishonesty and loss of privacy from surveillance cameras. Nothing about him screams out pervert. Yet there he was in the ceiling. It makes one wonder about the other ordinary people around us.

Voyeurism to some extent is normal. It is the basis of reality TV shows. If you have a loud fight, you have to expect the neighbors will listen. Yet these are cases of voluntarily accepting exposure, if only by being loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Spying on someone who has a reasonable expectation of privacy is another matter – it quickly transitions to something venal. Just reading this book is enough to cause one to question one’s own propriety by doing it.

Upshot: Well and crisply written as one expects a Talese book to be. Ultimately, though, the subject matter isn’t enough to carry it. Thumbs Down.

**** ****

Much Ado about Nothing (2012)
Performing Shakespeare in a non-traditional setting is not a new idea. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Just last year I caught an off-Broadway version of Macbeth set in a 1920s Chicago speakeasy; the weird sisters were chorus girls and Lady MacBeth was in drag. Against all expectations it worked. Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado about Nothing works far better than that.

There is little Joss Whedon does on screen that I don’t like. Whether it’s a shoestring Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV episode or the $250,000,000 budget Avengers: Age of Ultron, he brings a deft touch and a dry sense of humor to the material. Some of his most interesting work can be found in his small side projects, such as the unabashedly sentimental paranormal romance In Your Eyes (2014) with Zoe Kazan.  Much Ado about Nothing was shot in 12 days in B&W with handheld cameras at an upscale home in southern California – perhaps just as a way of winding down from the big budget Avengers (2012).

The contrast of the fully modern setting with the original script helps to highlight how the world and the relations of the sexes have changed and also how they haven’t. Besides, it is fun to hear the lines delivered by cast members of Whedon’s TV shows Firefly and Dollhouse.

Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy full of romances, betrayals, intrigues, and incompetent lawmen. This is the most pleasant version of it I’ve yet seen.

Thumbs Up.


  1. Yes, I generally don't care for modern comedies or the sitcom cartoons like Family Guy, etc., for the reasons you cited--they're not fun (for me). Others evidently love them. But I did enjoy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I think part of it was the setting: Hawaii, and also it was shot well, and generally speaking had pretty decent jokes.

    Voyeur seemed like it had the makings of a good idea, and I didn't know if it was fiction or nonfiction, but sounded like the latter. However, I wondered how Foos escaped prosecution or if he had ever been charged?

    High Rise seems like it didn't quite make it for you. I might give it a viewing.

    1. Foos was never caught in his peeping activities, and the statute of limitations has run out. The motel has been torn down so there isn't even physical evidence of the peep holes. Even if some legalistic end-run around the statute of limitations could be concocted, for a civil case to proceed someone would have to identify himself or herself as the person in Foos' notes -- and he only bothered to chronicle embarrassing things. He'll probably get away with it.

      High-Rise might work better for those who aren't already fond of the book -- and who aren't Thatcherites.

      I'd regard sitting through an episode of Family Guy as punishment, but it is hugely popular. De gustibus...