Monthly Archives: August 2011

by Jonathan Yardley



What a great book about books.  Yardley, a literature critic at The Washington Post since 1981, has an infectious writing style; I couldn’t decide what I enjoyed more, the prospect of digging into some of his recommendations, or the reviews themselves.  Yardley praises the majority of “notable and neglected books revisited,” but on occasion he unfurls critical claws, most memorably on Steinbeck (“too often, for me, reading his prose is like scraping one’s fingernails on a blackboard”), Ulysses (“a book I simply cannot read”), and The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and the Sea (“two of the most durable and beloved books in American literature and, by any reasonable critical standard, two of the worst”).  He also has some choice words for the National Book Award:  “I read Morte d’Urban not long after it won the NBA; in those years that prize still occasionally went to books that deserved it.”  But mostly, Second Reading is a love letter to the 60 books and authors in its pages.  I’d say more, but I have to get reading.


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Director Rob Reiner takes a Stephen King story and turns it into movie magic.  Yes, I’m referring to Misery, but unfortunately, that’s not this week’s free movie.  I’ve never quite understood the sterling reputation that Reiner’s first King adaptation, Stand by Me, seems to enjoy.  It’s a pleasant, mildly amusing look at the adventures of four 1950s boys – but not much more than that.  Watch it for free by clicking here.


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Craig Ferguson took his show to Paris last week, and the result was brilliant television.  Ferguson is at his best with just-plain folk, and his tours of French landmarks mixed with man-on-the-boulevard interviews were refreshing.

And whoever decided to send along cute-as-a-button Kristen Bell as Craig’s sidekick deserves a promotion.  What a great team they make.  And what a shame that Ferguson, Bell, and skeletal robot Geoff have to return to the CBS studio.




Dancing at the Moulin Rouge, sliding across the floor of Versailles, chatting up the owner of Shakespeare and Company, dining with French actor Jean Reno, “dropping” expensive wine, and cutting gourmet cheese — entertaining stuff, all of it.  And educational!


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Sarah Rocha had a bone to pick.  Sarah who?

Sarah is a reader of Entertainment Weekly who was unhappy with a recent EW story about Daniel Craig, the film star who suffered the indignity of a media blitz for his crappy new movie, Cowboys and Aliens.  When EW’s interviewer was brazen enough to ask Craig how he felt about promoting his films, Craig growled, “I can’t do the tits-and-teeth stuff.  I’m not hardwired to do that.  I can’t sell.”

When asked about his wedding to actress Rachel Weisz, Craig snapped, “This question answers itself. …  No disrespect, but if you think it through, that’s the reason we’ve said fuck all on that subject.  Because it was private.”  When the journalist foolishly persisted, inquiring about Craig’s wedding ring, the sullen star barked, “You just see a line in the sand and want to fucking step over it.”

Sarah Rocha sent a letter to the EW editor:  “I’m sick of actors who act like jerks during interviews when personal questions come up, like Daniel Craig. … Boo-frickin’-hoo, famous people.”






They are going to eliminate more post offices.  Makes sense to me, since e-mail has all but obliterated snail mail.  What does not make sense to me is all the sniping about the good ol’ U.S. Postal Service.

I’ve been around a long time now, both sending and receiving thousands of letters and packages, and in all my years I can recall one time — one time! — when something I mailed apparently got lost (in Puerto Rico).  As far as I’m concerned, the U.S. Postal Service has done an amazing job, so quit yer bitchin’, people!






About the time Obama was elected president, I heard that he was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, which is about Lincoln’s admirable ability to play well with others in Washington.

I’m afraid that Obama took the book’s message too much to heart.  Some rivals will never be on your team.  Obama might be wise to head the advice of a guy who played on another team, baseball legend Leo Durocher, who famously told us:  “Nice guys finish last.”


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Poor Kirk Anderson.  Pasty-faced, flabby, and bespectacled, all Kirk wanted from life was to be able to wear his Mormon underwear, please his mother, and be left in peace.  And what did he get?  An obsessed southern beauty, that’s what; a former nude model so convinced that she and Kirk were “soul mates” that she hired a pilot, flew to England, (allegedly) kidnapped Kirk, tied him to a bed, and made wild passionate love to him.

Somebody called that rape, and before you could say “Fleet Street,” Scotland Yard got involved, and then the British press, and the next thing poor Kirk knew, his bizarre relationship with this, um, unusual woman, Joyce McKinney, was front-page news.  Thirty-four years later, the strange, sordid saga of Joyce and Kirk is back in the news, courtesy of filmmaker Errol Morris’s new documentary, Tabloid.

Morris tracked down McKinney (not hard to do; the woman seems to love the spotlight), but not Anderson (he declined to be interviewed), placed his camera in front of her, and let her talk.  And boy, does she ever.




The problem with Tabloid is that we live in the age of Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson.  Inevitably, a 1977 sex scandal that rocked England pales in comparison to the more lurid, sensational cases of recent years.  Morris’s interviews with McKinney and members of the British press seem quaint and insignificant, more like an episode of 20/20 than a feature-length film.

McKinney herself seems garden-variety eccentric, and not all that intriguing.  We all know people like her, even if they don’t share her colorful past.     Grade:  B-




Director:  Errol Morris   Featuring:  Joyce McKinney, Peter Tory, Kent Gavin, Mark Lipson, Jackson Shaw, Troy Williams, Jin Han Hong, Julie Bilson Ahlberg   Release: 2011


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Glancing around the sparsely attended theater where I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love, this is what I observed:  several white-haired couples, aging Baby Boomers killing time on a weekday afternoon; a few young couples, possibly Obama Democrats, probably drawn by the movie’s youthful stars; and one fat guy in his twenties, seated alone and with a gigantic box of popcorn in hand.  This mixed bag of the American populace made me think of the outside world, and of all the unhappy clashes of Tea Parties and gay-rights advocates and Fox News and … never mind, we were there to watch a movie. 

But as the film progressed, telling its story of sad-sack Steve Carell’s divorce from high-school sweetheart Julianne Moore and Carell’s conversion to swinging singlehood by playboy Ryan Gosling, I couldn’t help wondering what my fellow audience members might be thinking.  What did the white-haired couples think of 17-year-old Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who delights a 13-year-old boy by giving him a racy memento – naked pictures of herself?  What did the fat guy with the popcorn think of Gosling’s character, who is presented as one cool lady killer, but whom the script insists must be transformed into a “nice guy” by the time the end credits roll?

It had to be a lot easier to write romantic comedies in the past.  Think what you will about Hollywood sexism and racism in the old days, at least the rules were easy to follow.  Not anymore.  What are we supposed to make of Emma Stone’s character, a “good girl” who decides to have a one-night-stand with Gosling – is she a slut or a liberated woman?  Is Carell a sensitive male, or a lily-livered pansy?  Is Gosling an admirable hunk – or a chauvinist pig in Yves Saint Laurent?  And are drunk scenes still funny?



This movie is a mess, because like me, it can’t seem to decide what to make of its characters.  I don’t like to jump on other critics, but when Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman says that Crazy, Stupid, Love is “the perfect combination of sexy, cute, wise, hilarious, and true,” I have to wonder what he’s been smoking.

By “true,” is Gleiberman referring to the contrived coincidences, such as when Carell’s horny date turns out to be his son’s teacher?  Or when Gosling’s latest conquest turns out to be Carell’s daughter?  Did Carell’s cliched Big Speech at the end of the movie strike Gleiberman as authentic?

Maybe he was referring to the simple truth that none of us can agree on what is wise, hilarious, and true anymore.  I guess I should have asked the fat guy with the popcorn what he thought.        Grade:  C




Directors:  Glenn Ficarra, John Requa   Cast:  Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo, Marisa Tomei, John Carroll Lynch, Kevin Bacon   Release:  2011


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There’s just one word to describe Woody Allen’s latest movie:  pleasant.  OK, let me add a second word:  slight.

Midnight in Paris is like an episode of Bewitched for intellectuals.  Instead of Samantha conjuring Benjamin Franklin, it’s “Hey, look, it’s Ernest Hemingway!  What amusing things might he say?”  And, “Over there – it’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald!  What were they really like?”

Allen’s silly plot, straight out of 1940s Tinsel Town, has downtrodden groom-to-be Owen Wilson – a blonder, younger stand-in for Allen himself – stuck in the City of Light with his bitchy, materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her WASPish, overbearing parents.  To Gil (Wilson), his future in-laws are “fascists.”  To the parents, Gil is “communist.”  Also touring France is Michael Sheen as a boorish rival for Inez’s affections, a role honed to perfection by Ralph Bellamy in Hollywood’s golden age.

All of these antagonists conspire to make Gil’s sojourn in Paris a miserable one.  So imagine his delight when, abracadabra, at the stroke of midnight he is magically transported to 1920s Paree – and the company of the Fitzgeralds and other legendary artists including Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and the gruff Hemingway.



Allen is using a gimmick here, but it isn’t all that strong, which is probably why it was used repeatedly in sitcoms like Bewitched.  The one virtue you might expect from this literary leap-of-faith – witty dialogue between Gil and his heroes – is sadly lacking.  Hemingway wants to fight?  That’s the best Woody can come up with?

Instead, we have Gil battling his cartoonish in-laws.  You wouldn’t think it would take magic to make a guy head for the hills to escape these people.

I did like the girl (Lea Seydoux, a charmer) that Gil winds up with.  There should have been more of her, and less of Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the flapper who gets away.  There is also some gorgeous photography of Paris.  And Allen is always amusing when his characters are making fun of the types of people who, well, go to Woody Allen movies.  Midnight in Paris is making a lot of money (for an Allen film).  I suppose that’s because of the gimmick I just slammed.  Serves me right for making light of Bewitched.               Grade:  B-




Director:  Woody Allen   Cast:  Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Corey Stoll, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux   Release:  2011


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Jack Nicholson has evolved into one of our treasured character actors.  But back in the 1970s, Nicholson was something relatively new to American cinema:  a genuine movie star whose characters were often, well, jackasses.  Click here to see Jack the jackass in his prime in this 1973 gem co-starring a baby-faced Randy Quaid.


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