Poirot 3

In what has unexpectedly turned into a quest, I’m watching the David Suchet Poirot series via Britbox on Amazon Prime Video.

Because the short stories are too short, or the novels too long, they are often significantly reworked to fit into the Procrustean bed of 51-minute episodes. Particularly in the early years, there’s also a desire to establish a family of established characters: Poirot, Miss Lemon, Hastings, and Japp. So the supporting cast often feature in their own B or C storylines to pad out an episode to 54 minutes.

Example: An early series episode, “The Chocolate Box,” where Japp and Poirot travel to Belgium for Japp to receive an award, and Poirot relates an early case from when he was a policeman. In the original story, Poirot simply retells the case to Hastings. In the TV episode, the expanded world created by the producers offers scope for great scenery, and enlarges both Japp and Poirot’s inner and outer lives, and their respect and affection for each other. Christie never imagined such character-defining moments because such moments were never really her concern.

The TV shows often significantly change the stories, and not only by adding B and C storylines that don’t exist. Again, in “Chocolate Box,” the short story features the murderer correcting Poirot’s deductions by confessing, and the young woman Virginie leaves to join a convent. But in the TV episode, Poirot correctly deduces the murderer, he secretly loved Virginie, and she marries his best friend.

Events planted in the early years – Hastings’ marriage and his move to the Argentine to be a rancher, Poirot’s first retirement – return and are played up or played down as needed in later years. While these threads don’t always work, they provide a sense of a continuing story despite several years’ gaps between series.

So, the three periods of TV-Poirot.

“The Cozies”

The early seasons of single-episode “cozies” that established the theme music and style aesthetics. The production qualities are at a comfortable and uniform level: Art Deco-inspired sets, impeccable costuming and set designs, and a generally high to medium-high quality of acting. It’s also great fun to see young actors starting out, like Christopher Eccleston and Jeremy Northam.

The stories look as if they take place on a grand stage, with Poirot the most dandified character on set, and very much belonging to this world. The direction is four-square and conventional, though the opening scenes sometimes show a dark playfulness and imagination (i.e., the opening of “One Two, Buckle My Shoe”).

I’m assured of a dependable and cozy, if unexciting, standard of viewing pleasure. For that reason, I only rewatched episodes I remembered favorably, or hunted for particularly interesting stories from the first 5-6 years.

“Why Are We Here?”

The middle period, beginning roughly with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is deeply uneven. Only the opening bars of the Poirot theme, and a few seconds of the original credits are used; so a rethink of the stories’ presentation is taking place, but the choices don’t go deep.

The TV family appears now and then, the sets and costuming don’t look as good, the direction is even more boring, and the acting ranges from OK to embarrassing. The drop in overall quality from the early years is rather shocking.

“Roger Ackroyd” seems to mark the beginning of something new, with Poirot’s silhouette in the framing credits promising a more interesting visual style. Given the source novel, a little more imagination is needed to tell the story and they pull it off, even if Japp is brought in by the scruff of the neck. The framing is clever, but the story is told unremarkably.

However unfair the comparison between this period’s “Evil Under the Sun” to the Ustinov movie, the comparison highlights this period’s deficiencies in setting, acting, and direction from its previous dependable standard. (“Murder in Mesopotamia”? “Lord Edgeware”? Tres crap, especially the acting, which is usually one of the most dependable aspects of British TV.)

“Ah, This is Why We’re Here”

I’ve now entered what I think of as the last period, as exemplified by “Murder on the Orient Express,” which I saw out of order before my rewatch. This period, overseen by new producers, is a breathtaking and daring revision of the Poirot world from Period 1, and not only visually. Especially so as compared to Period 2, which left no clue that such a vast boost in quality, atmosphere, and storytelling – an older, darker, richer vision – was possible for the series.

Seeing Poirot in what is recognizably a more naturalistic world, he now stands out as less a stage dandy, and more a weird creature, a deep eccentric clothed in the fashions and morals of a different time and place. This tension provides a meatier subtext for Suchet. His Poirot, ever the outsider, is assaulted more by the modern world, its noise, its ill manners, its neverending brutal violence and stupidity, and its inability to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions.

Example: “Five Little Pigs” (gah, a terrible title; the original title “Murder in Retrospect” is a little better but not much). Time is taken to establish the characters, the direction and script are breathtakingly modern despite having to hew to the genre tropes, and best of all is the acting: total commitment from all the players, which makes the interviews – potentially the dullest part of the story – absolutely riveting.

The next story, “Sad Cypress,” is also long on mood, with again excellent acting and an involving denoument; I watched this twice just to make sure I saw everything I missed on the first watch. What turned my head here was a dream in which Poirot sees the victim’s face bulge, reshape, and transform itself into another face before peeling back to show a skull. I jumped in my chair almost as violently as Poirot did in his bed. It was a bold and wonderful way of giving Poirot a clue (i rewatched that bit three times because I couldn’t quite believe it, but even so, I could see the face horrifically reshape itself into that of the victim’s mother).

And “Death on the Nile,” while not as luxurious as the Ustinov version, is also remarkably good and atmospheric.

I’m really enjoying this series.

Poirot 2

Follow-up to my 2023-01-29 diary post on Hercule Poirot.

From reading Poirot’s Wikipedia page, I discovered that the stories do document that he is Catholic, and a few nods are made to it in a few of the episodes in the early years.

I was also pleased, on watching David Suchet’s “Being Poirot” that he also highlighted the end of the Murder on the Orient Express, which I found so moving.

I’ve been icing my ankle in the evenings after Liz goes to bed, so I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up on the Poirot episodes via Britbox. I’m not watching them all, but there are a few – “Chocolate Box” is one – that are nicely done, even if they destroy certain elements of the original story. I’m surprised at how many of these old episodes I remember from their first runs.

Seeing them in a batch like this, Christie’s devices become noticeable: an older character is revealed to be the unknown parent of a younger character, the murder always happens earlier than the timeline suggests.

It is fun to see the bits of business inserted for the actors to do to flesh out their characters. My favorite bit: Hastings is washing dishes, Poirot is drying them. As they speculate about the case, Hastings absent-mindedly hands over a washed saucer to Poirot, who examines it, and passes it back to Hastings for further cleaning. The same saucer is washed and passed back through the entire scene and this absolutely delighted me.

It’s also fun to see young actors like Christopher Eccleston and Damien Lewis in their very young and slim incarnations.

I’m working my way through the seasons, watching the few stories that really interest me, and then finishing with Curtain, which I’ve never read nor seen.

Booknotes: Christmas Stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Finished reading Christmas Stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery 📚

A light-hearted book of stories from the early 1900s by the author of Anne of Green Gables. One of the stories is an excerpt from the novel, but the rest are all stories of children, or young families, or young woman on their own. Hard hearts are softened, family strife is healed, there are no villains, everyone is kind to each other in the end. They are good old-fashioned well-made stories, very sweet and a little melodramatic, done with lightness and humor.

The stories typically turn on coincidence or mistaken identity or God throwing a wrench into someone’s plans that turns out to be just the wrench that someone needed to see that God knew what He was doing all along.

I read these via Serial Reader, which was probably the best way to read them. They each take only 10 or 12 minutes to read, perfect for these dark evenings leading up to Christmas night.

Booknotes: Life Admin by Elizabeth Emens

Finished reading: Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More by Elizabeth Emens 📚

Another of those books that could have been served by a long article–but my obsession with producivity and organization colors my view. And maybe I was reading for the wrong reason.

My friend Bob, another productivity nerd, after one of our discussions of how we organize our software and physical environments to remember the myriad stuff we have to do, once asked, “How do normal people do it?” Life Admin is a book for the normal people who have never heard of and don’t care about GTD or Pomodoros or Bullet Journals. It’s a book for people like the author: an overworked, overbusy, single working mom who faces a world of administrivia and wonders, “How do people do it?”

Emens’ chief innovation, for me, was really separating the idea of “admin” as a concept and type of work all on its own, from the tasks that it supports. Grocery shopping is a task; figuring out what the meals will be this week and creating the grocery list is admin. Admin is the work around the work.

For instance, she breaks household projects down into three key parts: “planning/research, decision-making, and execution.” She writes:

If you want to share a project, decide who does each part. For instance, one person can do the front-end research, and the other can do the back-end implementation. You can make the decisions together or make one person the decider.

This example illustrates one of the key differences of Emens’ book from typical productivity tomes. The latter are focused on how the individual can organize and optimize their environment. But Life Admin focuses on how people deal with admin while in relationship to other people, and how some partners–no matter how they feel about admin–bear the burden of domestic admin, child care admin, meals admin, etc. These are mainly women in heterosexual unions, but even in gay or polyamory relationships, Emens makes the point there is typically one person who does the admin. Somehow making that admin visible–or seen as relevant–to partners who deny or simply don’t care about the importance of admin, is also a key theme of the book.

Really thinking about all the jobs and projects one has to do systematically, like a project manager, breaking a project down to its component parts, is a skill that can be learned. But as Emens discovers in her surveys and focus groups, and in her own life, people vary in their emotional reactions to the idea of admin, from dread to denial to grim stocism to not-a-big-deal to actual enjoyment.

I resonated with Emens point about how admin can be “sticky”: whoever does a particular admin chore first is often stuck with the job whether they like it or not, whether it’s dealing with the landlord or planning the kids’ play dates. In my own life, Liz did all the admin related to the utility bills because they were in her name when I moved in with her.

The book has helped me see the admin in my life–and who does it–differently. So while I can’t say it was a great book (I skimmed and skipped whole sections of it), I can say it was a very useful book and it has affected how I think about and approach the work I–and others–do.

William Preston's The Old Man stories

I spent most of the pandemic reading comics. For whatever reasons, my mind and mood preferred the comics medium during those years. They held my short and distracted attention span in a way “real” books did not.

I figured I’d return to reading fiction whenever it was time for me to do so. A biography of Arnold Bennett got me back to reading long-form prose via Kindle. Then I rummaged through my Kindle Oasis to re-read some fiction, as I have found that re-reading helps stoke the reading habit. And I found just the medicine I needed.

It was through a review in Steve Donoghue’s column on the old Open Letters Monthly site that I heard about the “The Old Man” stories by William Preston. As Donoghue explains, the stories are a homage to the pulp-age hero Doc Savage, whose reprinted adventures I read in junior high school. I was deep into comics and the pulps at that age, and even read Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life, a fictional biography of a fictional character, although I had no idea what “apocalyptic” meant. I’ve not read any Doc Savage books since then, but that character is deep inside my readerly DNA.

The “Old Man” is Preston’s Doc Savage figure, although he is not officially named in the stories. Preston’s device—used throughout the series—is to tell the story through a character close to or on the periphery of The Old Man. The reader is never privy to the Old Man’s thoughts; instead, the narrator observes the Old Man and describes his actions. The evocation of past times, and of a shadowy otherworld whose events affect our world, suffuse the stories like smoke.

Preston’s prose is as steady, measured, and even-handed as his protagonists. This deliberate pace affects the action in the stories to the point where the pulse never quickens with thrills, as I think he intends them to. What the prose lacks in action, it more than offsets by evoking darker, layered, richer flavors of regret, melancholy, wonder, and mystery. These stories stand up to multiple re-readings.

Preston also takes a leaf from the revisionist superhero comics of the last 20 years by bringing this pulp-era action figure into a world toppled over by 9/11. How would such a shadowy figure of myth operate in a world of constant surveillance where anyone can be locked up as a potential threat? It opens new themes for exploration in the stories, and Preston tackles them head-on.

Preston has so far written four intertwined stories (he’s been writing the fifth—and he says final—story for years) and he recommends they be read in the order they were published:

  • “Helping Them Take the Old Man Down”—The first Old Man story and for me, the most memorable, as it marvelously hints at other untold stories and untold adventures. It juxtaposes that long-ago world of pulp with the modern world of surveillance and suspicion. A beautiful setup for the stories to come
  • “Clockworks”—Set during the heyday of the Old Man’s adventuring, it wrestles with a disturbing trope from the Doc Savage stories in which Doc surgically altered his enemies’ brains to make them good citizens. The climax of this story I found very hard to visualize and follow.
  • “Unearthed”—Set during the Old Man’s youth as he is starting out on his mission. Another story where I had difficulty visualizing the geography and landscape of the action sequences. But again, the pleasures of the prose and characterizations are stellar, and also the way it re-architects the series in a way that made me re-read the first story again.
  • “Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key”—the longest story and the most interior, where the protagonist broods on what he’s seen and done, and what he would prefer to see and do. Donoghue describes the story in his review so I won’t recap it here.

The Old Man stories are available as cheap cheap cheap ebooks on Preston’s Amazon Authors page.

Preston’s writing was done in the odd corners of his working day as a high-school English teacher. His personal blog had great notes and mini-reviews of the books and stories he was reading, but he has not updated it since 2017.

Eight Books, Audiobooks, Comics

Encounters With an Enlightened Man by Linda Quiring. Of the three books written by Quiring about Sydney Banks, this is probably the best. It misses the freshness of the first two books, which were written in the early 1970s when Banks started sharing his enlightenment experience, but it tells a beginning-middle-end story and paints a more complete picture of the place and time. Of interest mainly to people interested in the history of the Three Principles and Banks' personal history. I am drafting a bigger post that takes a look at all three books.  

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt, read by Patton Oswalt. A memoir by Oswalt of the movies he compulsively watched during his first years in Los Angeles. It's a story of being in the grip of a mild obsession well-known to those of us with a geeky/nerdy bent. His girlfriend at the time asks him to walk her out to her car from the theatre, and his first, absolutely natural, response is, "But I've never seen the start of the next movie and I don't want to miss it." Exit one relationship. 

Parallel with his obsession is the evolution of his standup, writing, and acting career and how he tries to juggle that with the nightly movies shown at the New Beverly. The most chilling and haunting story to me is of a long-ago standup comrade who imposes on Oswalt for a shot at becoming a star; Oswalt has already become a character of fiction in someone else's movie. He introduces and returns to the idea of special, sometimes dark, moments that propel one forward in life or work. He wrote this before the death of his first wife, so listening to those passages struck me as especially poignant.  

The Correspondence by JD Daniels. A collection of laconic essays and two short stories that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Here's a passage from a short story: 

She'd gone to school for years to study library science. He didn't see how it could be so complicated. It seemed like a hoax. 

All the essays and both stories have that terse, dry flavor; the humor is almost an aftertaste. A rather short book, too -- I read one essay or story a night in about 30 mins or so. 

Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett, read by Simon Vance. Bennett finds a loophole in Dickens' story to spin a tale with 19th-century flavors, coincidences, and voices. It's a clever reworking of the original material that exploits unexplored nooks and crannies, though he does get a bit bogged down as the spirits explain the metaphysical mechanics of the afterlife and what is required for Scrooge's reclamation. Though, if I heard the story right, it's Marley's sacrifice that redeems Scrooge rather than Scrooge's own change of heart. If so, that makes Dickens' story subservient to Bennett's, which does not sit well with me.  

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, read by Michael C. Hall. I had never seen the movie nor read the book so this was new to me. It is very much a book of the 1950s -- rather gray and  naturalistic, the secondary characters all stagey and one-note -- except when Holly explodes into the narrative with unnatural color and life. Holly is clearly the most interesting character and the mysteries surrounding her are the ones I cared about the most. Hall's reading was fine though I didn't care for his expression of Holly's voice. For further reading: an excellent Open Letters Monthly essay compares and contrasts Sally Bowles and Holly Golightly.

Just Keep Going by Jeanette Stokes. Disclaimer: Jeannette is an acquaintance we run into at random cultural events here in Durham. The book is part of her ongoing memoir series; this one focuses on how her relationship to writing, art, and creativity marked key passages of her life. A compact memoir with a good collection of basic advice and resources for the new writer and timely reminders for the experienced one.  

Tales of the Batman: Alan Brennert, Archie Goodwin (Comixology). Archie Goodwin had a long career in the comics industry and was a much beloved writer, editor, and mentor. His Batman stories in this volume span the years 1973-2000. They tend to the pulpy and the "well-made." He also seemed interested in expanding the canvas on which Batman stories could be told; many of the stories delve into character histories and motivations -- with lots of exposition -- making Batman almost a secondary character.  

They're good meat-and-potatoes Batman stories that color in unnoticed areas of Batman's universe (who did design the Batarang and Batmobile?). The highlights for me are the six or so Manhunter stories that ran as backup to the main Batman series and that I still remembered from when I was a kid; so glad they've been collected at last. Goodwin's updating of the 1940's Manhunter character to the cynical modern-day prefigures work that Alan Moore would take to another level a decade or so later. It's Walt Simonson's artwork that made these stories instant minor classics. 

Alan Brennert has been a successful writer in many media: stories, novels, TV, even the book for a Broadway musical. He only wrote nine stories for DC, his first in 1981 and his last in 2000. Yet they include some of the most interesting takes on the Batman mythos, mixing the pleasure of nostalgia with the character development he used in his scripts and novels. For me, his stories pay the best dividends every time I re-read them. I remember buying these comics back in the day and noticed even then how different his stories were, how he pulled out details or emotional colors that I did not see elsewhere.  

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Brennert had a particular fondness (as do I) for the "golden age" or "Earth-2" Batman and my favorite story of his -- maybe one of my favorites of all time -- is the Earth-2 Batman teaming with Catwoman to hunt down the nefarious Scarecrow ("The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne"). Joe Staton and George Freeman drew the chunky Batman from the '50s, a style that instantly evokes the light-hearted adventures of that era. But Brennert adds a moment that stops that feeling dead in its tracks.  

Batman removes his shirt so Catwoman can attend to his wounds. She gasps at the scar tissue covering his back; it's key that we see only her horrified reaction and Batman's stoic response. That scar-tissue detail is so unexpected in the context of a "retro" Batman story, yet such a common-sense detail considering his life of fighting, that I am still amazed Brennert was the first to conceive of and use it. It's a telling detail that's now accepted as a given and enshrined in the movies.

Brennert had that freedom of approach -- perhaps from his work in other media -- to give his characters time to breathe amid the action and feel the weight of emotional moments. That's not something you see in comics very much, and it's always appreciated when it happens.  

"More Fool Me" by Stephen Fry (audiobook)

Cover of

More Fool Me is Fry’s third book of memoirs, and covers roughly the years 1986-2001, when he was professionally and personally flying high, not least due to incredible quantities of cocaine and vodka that fueled his addictive, rather needy personality. I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Fry, and it’s a far better experience than reading it would have been, I’m sad to say.

The recording starts with an hour of him recapping the events of his first two memoirs (and mock-apologizing for it frequently) and ends with almost three hours of him reading his daily diary entries from three typically busy months in 1993. Had I read this on paper, I’d have been furious about reading a book that seemed assembled from parts rather than written. But hearing it performed took a bit of the sting out of it. When he tells his stories, he acts out the characters, takes on the voices (his impersonation of John Cleese, if impersonation it was, was spot on), and it feels as if one is sitting across from him as he expertly paces and tells his stories.

That said, three months of daily diary entries is asking a bit much of the casual reader.1 Fry includes the passages as an example of how fast and frenetic his life had become and how, looking back, he could see that a breakdown was inevitable. But it does not avoid becoming a long recitation of name-dropping, self-indulgence, and snobbery. Trey Graham’s review sums it up this way:

In barely three months of diary entries, from August to November of 1993, Bad Stephen writes a novel; sits for a portrait; attends the London premiere of The Fugitive and is embarrassed to be seated with the B-list celebs; attempts [writing] the book for an Elton John jukebox musical; races about England benevolently signing books and meeting blushingly with personal bankers; does a speechy thing or two for Prince Charles; tries out a new bespoke tailor; dines with Dennis (aka Mr. Margaret) Thatcher at the Garrick Club and pronounces him, with a blithe arrogance worthy of any Cambridge grad, “better read than I had ever imagined.” Eventually he purchases at auction two letters in Oscar Wilde’s hand — but not without both citing and complaining of the price, and not before dropping roughly as many names, familiar and obscure, as he does pounds sterling. Fear not, he footnotes the obscure ones so as to evoke suitable awe.

Graham concludes: “A misguided, misspent early midlife is one thing to recount and repent. The blithe snobbery, the casual cruelty, the condescension to those less gifted that’s on such vulgar display in this all-too-dense diary of excess — they all demand more examination, more reflection, more humanity than Fry provides.”

During the period described in this book, Fry was enjoying immense visibility from appearing in “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” and the movie Peter’s Friends. It was entirely unforeseen for the schoolboy described in his first memoir, Moab is My Washpot. There, Fry felt like an outsider due to his increasing awareness of his homosexuality, being Jewish, and whatever other unknowable demons drove him to skip school, steal from fellow students to feed his cravings for sweets and cigarettes, take advantage of everyone around him, attempt suicide, and otherwise transgress shamelessly.

His second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, sees him begin to explore relationships, act, write and perform, and become addicted to applause and attention. Though clearly an intelligent and self-aware man, that knowledge doesn’t stop him getting addicted to cocaine as chronicled in More Fool Me and indulging himself by snorting the stuff not just in the private clubs that became his second home but also in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Buckingham Palace. Though he never snorted at Hugh Laurie’s house, knowing Laurie and his wife disapproved; even Fry’s inner demons respected Laurie and his friendship too much to transgress there.

Fry makes no bones about it: he enjoyed himself tremendously and did not see himself as an addict. He details the little kit he assembled to carry and snort 3-5 grams of coke with him whenever he went and is pleased to describe in detail its compact stylishness. (When I smoked a pipe in my 20s, I also happily indulged in all the paraphernalia that goes with that pastime. There is pleasure in the fetish of the ritual.)

Fry throughout feels himself to be the outsider still, even when the evidence of being a tremendous insider explodes all around him – the private clubs, the celebrities, the parties, Lady Di telling him a secret: he loves every drop of it. Cocaine is the thick icing atop a very yummy cake, the soundtrack to the exclusive A-list parties.

Moab is My Washpot remains his best book-length narrative to date because he was able to see young Stephen in toto, forgive him, see him from his childhood into young adulthood and a new beginning, and thus shape the story into a satisfying whole. It’s a touching and affectionate book.

A key reason for the weakness of More Fool Me is that Fry’s larger story has yet to come to an ending. The book is reportorial, brimming with surface details, bright anecdotes, and, as said, an entertaining vocal performance. But not enough time has passed for Fry to really understand who he was and what happened so that he could shape the material into a story that could stand on its own. Fry begins the story bewildered and beleaguered, and ends the same way; there is no change or transformation, just incident after incident.

Much waits in Fry’s future after this book ends: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a continued and apparently unquenchable thirst for vodka, and several suicide attempts, including a very close call from 2012. Fry’s demons are still in there. Maybe one day, Fry (if he is still in there as well) will be able to tell the whole story.

To his credit, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, just a chance to tell his side of the story. I don’t demand an answer to the mystery of his behavior but I do need more than a raconteur’s dinner stories.

Stray observations

  • Fry lists his early literary heroes as Wilde, Wodehouse, Waugh, and Doyle. You see their influence in his sometimes baroque, ornamental style. I wouldn’t say he loves the sound of his own voice so much as he loves the music he can make from his words.
  • Fry is stung by Alice Faye Cleese’s remark that she and John prefer his shorter pieces, such as the Telegraph and Listener columns and essays he wrote that were collected in Paperweight, over his comic novels. Fry thinks they’re wrong, that Cleese believes comic novels cannot treat serious topics. But Cleese is right: the shorter length tamps down Fry’s natural discursive style and forces him to focus. In that smaller container, he says a lot more. I stopped reading his fiction after his third novel; they were OK but not memorable.

(originally posted 2016-10-29, updated for

  1. If this book had been billed as Fry’s journal entries for these years, I would react differently. I love reading collections of diaries, letters, and journals. I object when verbatim diary entries take up room in what should be a shaped narrative, as this memoir purports to be. [return]

What we've been watching (and reading)

In response to Michael’s post of recommended films, here’s my list of the various media we’ve been ingesting (movies, TV, books, performances) the last several months. Not all are enthusiastically recommended. But maybe you will get a sense of what I like and don’t like, and can then judge whether to trust my appraisals. This is one value that critics and reviewers provide, if nothing else Movies were seen via Netflix, Amazon Prime, or at the mighty Carolina Theatre.

Movie: "Enough Said"

Warning - Mild spoiler alert. I don’t reveal plot points, but if you read this post, you’ll be able to put it together.

We’ve had an astonishingly good run of movies this summer, apart from the abysmal – dare I say Pepto-Bysmal – “Blue Jasmine.”

Our latest was “Enough Said,” a small, sweet romantic comedy from writer-director Nicole Holofcener that is a terrific star vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose acting and energy I’ve always liked. It’s also one of James Gandofini’s last movies and what a nice note to go out on.

How rare is it to see a romantic comedy between two middle-aged adults (we’ll skip over “Before Midnight,” which is a different beast altogether and which I didn’t love as much as “Before Sunset”)? Although Gandolfini clearly breaks the typical leading-man mold, Louis-Dreyfus as the masseuse Eva is Hollywood-thin and Hollywood-pretty; when Eva complains about being flabby, my eyes rolled out of their sockets and fell into the popcorn. Still, she and Holofcener are not afraid to show the lines and wrinkles. I also thought it was great seeing a middle-class character living in a smallish home and wearing jeans and flip-flops the way most people I see in life do.

Enough said poster

Why do I call it a “small” movie? The story’s concerns stay within a rather tight orbit of family and friends, and the stakes at first seem small – no one is going to lose their house because they can’t land the deal, the Empire will not fall if the Nose-ring of Aggraddorr is not destroyed. But in the end, I was so swept up in the everyday concerns of love, friendship, family, and broken hearts that these characters’ attempts to find happiness left an oh so pleasing aftereffect. The movie’s pace is casual, the music understated, the costumes and settings unextravagant. It’s a recognizable and comfortable world.

I’d even hedge my description of it as a “romantic comedy” as Holofcener strenuously steers the movie away from the standard genre tropes. They don’t meet cute; Gandolfini’s Albert actually asks for Eva’s phone number – like a grown-up would do! Their dialogue in the movie line and at a restaurant is not the sparkling cut-glass banter of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Instead, their badinage is playful, gentle, funny, tentative – clever, but in the way that intelligent people can be clever, not Hollywood-clever. And there are no stupid misunderstandings where one starts out not liking the other and then must be swayed to fall in love. These start out liking each other, but then doubts creep in; they’re both divorced and the memory of old mistakes starts affecting the new relationship.

It’s a movie about relationships – wrecked ones, strong ones, parent/child, man/woman, older/younger, boss/employee, lovers, ex-lovers, friends. The movie is full of people needing a connection, or losing a connection, or needing to renegotiate a connection; it’s a theme that is masterfully played out and subtly done.

But the movie can’t escape its genre handcuffs in the way that Eva holds on to information she should clearly divulge yet clings to while stringing along both her boyfriend and her new friend and client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet who lives a kind of beautiful life Eva envies.

The movie pretty much demands that Eva’s deceptions be revealed in the most humiliating way possible and they are. Eva weasels and squirms and tries to evade her responsibility for the situation, but the script doesn’t let her off the hook. And while the deception plot seems just like the kind of slapstick setup for Elaine on the old “Seinfeld” show, Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t go for laughs. Eva deserves to be put on the spot; she knows she’s hurt people she’s come to care about and who care about her. It’s a devastating moment because life will not be the same afterward for anyone.

I liked how Holofcener did not give Eva an easy out. When she goes to Albert’s house to apologize, there’s no shouting, no banging on tables, no big scenes – just honesty and sadness played out in an ordinary kitchen. When Albert’s daughter, who has been an obnoxious snob for most of her scenes, gives Eva a gift of unearned and undeserved kindness, there should not be a dry eye in the house. It’s one of the most real, and also one of the most touching, moments I’ve seen in a movie in a long while. (Always be skeptical of a reviewer who really loves something, kids; it means his love for the material is overlooking flaws. But in this case, I care not.)

One of my few complaints about the story is that Keener’s character is left high and dry by Eva’s betrayal. As I think back on it, it’s pretty clear that Eva was awed by the poet and is flattered to be considered her only friend (really? her only friend?) but the liking is only one way, from the poet to Eva. Keener does a good job of conveying her liking for Eva, and she looks devastated at the revelation of Eva’s betrayal. But we don’t see Eva attempt to apologize or try to set the matter straight with her. It’s as if Holofcener is saying that a loving relationship with a man is more important than an affectionate friendship with a woman. That may be an artifact of the genre or it would have unbalanced the story of Albert and Eva, with whom we’re more invested by the movie’s end. It’s one part of Eva’s story that really bothered me afterward.

In compensation, though, there are many other lovely moments, one of which is Eva and her ex-husband saying goodbye to their daughter at the airport, with tears flowing from the women as they check her through security and then see the escalator take her away. Holofcener holds for a time on Eva and her ex-husband as they walk away, clinging to each other tight and reassuring each other – such a beautifully done moment. Again, a real moment, with respect paid to the emotions these characters are feeling and not chopped short by a wisecrack or witty quip.

The ending is tentative, reassuring, and the right words are said. No big emotions, no big music, no big Hollywood-anything – just two people sitting on a porch, trying to get back to each other. So yes, a small movie, and I loved it.

Although Gandolfini doesn’t get the set pieces that Louis-Dreyfus does, his presence throughout is solid and grounded and it would be a lesser movie without him. He’s a big teddy bear , with a rumbling voice and gentle manner, and enough steel to let Eva know that she’s crossed the line. But even then, he treats her with respect.

Update: The reviews that I’ve scanned also like the movie, and use “bittersweet” to describe its tone, which is a word I wished I’d thought to use. This brief New Yorker review by David Denby says a lot more in a lot less space (I really should learn to write sometime). He also uses a word I should have used to describe Gandolfini’s performance: “dignity.”

Movie: "20 Feet From Stardom"

The movie starts on a sunny note as a trio of backup singers reunite after not having seen each other for decades. The tracks of songs they sang are played underneath, and you notice the names of different girl groups appear for each song. Their voices were everywhere, it seems, but they remained anonymous. 20feetfromstardom movie poster

"20 Feet" tracks the fortunes of several singers from the first generation of girl backup singers. The first half of the film is fun, vibrant, and star-studded: the girls sing backup for the big names of rock and roll, with occasional solo duties on the records or duets with the stars. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Sting contribute both raves for the singers who work with them and grounded, thoughtful perspectives on the life of a backup singer and why stardom sometimes eludes them.

Because, make no mistake, these singers gave everything they had to music and -- not without reason -- they'd like something back. As the girls grow into women, and the '60s become the '70s and the '80s, their attempts to crack the mainstream become more and more futile and their feelings about music turn bitter. The movie becomes heartbreaking by slow degrees. There's a particularly disquieting moment when the camera pans down a stack of solo albums by backup singers who saw these records as their ticket to mainstream success -- none of which were successful.

Did they not work hard enough? If you love something enough that you give up your life and youth for it, isn't it supposed to pay off? Where's the line between persistence and banging your head against a wall? Or is it also, as Sting and Springsteen say, a matter of luck, circumstance, and a thousand other variables that no one can control? The up-and-coming singer Judith Hill, who was all set to break out into superstardom, suffers with a tragic setback that she could not have planned for or even imagined. The movie follows her as she continues trying to execute her solo career, while also accepting backup jobs when she has to or wants to.

One of the profiled singers, Lisa Fischer, is at peace with her life as a backup singer. She knows the price big stars pay for their stardom, and she's happy that she never paid it. The occasional moments of her singing solo showcase a deep, jazzy voice; the respect that the other artists in the movie have for her and her voice are strong and stirring. She may not be out front, but she's never taken for granted.

The movie, however, belongs to two women: Merry Clayton, a powerhouse singer with a "kill spirit" who worked single-mindedly to become a star and who still feels the frustration that her dream eluded her, and Darlene Love, whose voice was used in dozens of hits produced by Phil Spector, who cruelly exploited her talent. Darlene's story has a happy ending, of sorts, but I could not shake the story of her years away from music and how narrowly she missed the chance to be welcomed back into its arms.

Book: "Slowing Down to the Speed of Life"

I picked up this book in Kenosha on my vacation, and it jibes well with Michael Neill’s The Inside Out Revolution. This is not surprising as both describe the 3 Principles, which was conceived of and taught by Sydney Banks. But Slowing, written by Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey, was originally published in 1997, long before the Web and podcasts made it easier to disseminate Banks’ spiritual and psychological teaching. Carlson and Bailey focus on a rather narrow piece of the 3 Principles philosophy, without ever mentioning the principles by name, and citing Banks only once. Neill’s book, by contrast, was published in 2013; he discusses all the principles and frequently cites Banks’ words and teaching stories. That sounds like I’m sniffing at the book, and I don’t mean to. Slowing Down to the Speed of Life is quite good at emphasizing a few key points and then reiterating them, ringing changes on them, showing how they can apply in many different areas of life. The section on Work and Office is terribly skimpy, though the chapter on Family Relationships is terrific. It’s quite readable and I sped through it on the train to Chicago and in my spare moments.

Instead of writing an exhaustive and exhausting review, here are the key things that got my attention.

Key Takeaways

  1. It’s not what you think, it’s that you think. A lot of self-help books, methods, and training – such as cognitive behavior therapy – teach you to dispute the contents of your thinking and disprove them. However, what’s most relevant is that your mind is kicking up a thoughtstorm of beliefs, feelings, expectations, etc. When an event happens, the feeling you experience is not about the event; rather, what you’re experiencing is your feeling about the event. It’s as true for internal moods as it is for any external event. When the water in a pond is agitated, you can’t see to the bottom – it’s doesn’t matter why it’s agitated. When the water in the pond is still, it’s easier to see to the bottom.
  2. We have two primary thinking modes: analytic and free-flowing. The analytic mode is our typical Western habit of thinking it through, figuring it out, and so on. It works great when the problem is well-defined and logistical. But it’s a tool we use to solve most every problem we see (if we think that what we see is a problem – it’s all thought, remember). The free-flowing mode is the slower, deeper, not-much-on-your-mind thinking that is where you should stay as much as possible. This is where all of your good ideas come from when you’re in the shower, while driving, etc. When you put things on the back burner, the free-flowing mode is where they’re processed until you pull them out to examine them again in analytic mode. Know which mode you’re in; you’ll feel better in free-flowing mode. Trust it.
  3. Thinking=feelings. As Neill says often, we don’t live in the feeling of the world, we live in the feeling of our thinking. If we’re feeling anxious, we’re thinking anxious thoughts. If we’re feeling stressed, we’re feeling stressed thoughts. Using analytical thinking to figure out why you’re feeling crappy will only make you feel more crappy. You’re stirring up an already agitated system. Realize that your feelings are like the weather – wait a while, let your mind and thoughts calm down, and your feelings will also settle down. With those distracting feelings settled, your free-flowing thinking has a better chance of offering you a solution to your problem.

Key Action Steps

  1. There are no action steps except to stay in the moment, notice your thinking, and calm down. Isn’t it frustrating to read a book only to find that there’s really not much you can do? Neill’s book avoids any prescriptive advice. Slowing provides a few bits of simple advice, but the message is consistent in both books: the key is in recognizing when you’re caught up in a thoughtstorm. When you recognize that you’re thinking, Carlson and Bailey repeatedly say, you’ll almost instantly feel better; the storm will subside and your internal system will reset. I’ve not found that to be consistently true in my case. I can recognize that I’m in a low mood, I can know my thinking is causing it, but it will still take a week for the cloud to pass before I  feel better.
  2. Practice gratitude. They don’t mention this one, but it’s one I use to interrupt my low moods. I used to write a daily gratitudes list and tried avoiding the easy ones like “my loving wife” and “I have a job.” The lower the mood I’m in, sometimes the deeper I have to dig. It turns my attention outward and interrupts the thought spiral.
  3. Set aside time to just sit, with no input. Feel your breathing. Listen to what you can hear in your house, in your backyard, in the world. Feel where the weight of your body is pressing against the chair and the ground. This is like meditation, but maybe a little more natural. When I feel my thoughts about the past or the future, I know I’m not present in the moment. Calming down and being present in the moment can mean simply focusing on doing one thing at a time rather than multitasking.  I’m trying to get out to the back porch more to just sit and look at the yard, the birds, the garden. I leave the iPod and Kindle inside and let my brain and mind relax from all the input I stream into it.I find this can extend time for me, and life slows down, in addition to my thinking.



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Movie: "The Way Way Back"

Jim Rash, Charlotte NC-native and UNC-CH alum -- best known to the world as Dean Pelton on Community -- has been exercising other talents the last few years. He and his co-writer Nat Faxon won an Oscar for their screenplay of The Descendants (with Alexander Payne) and the pair have created a great, light, summertime coming-of-age comedy, The Way, Way Back. An interesting nugget from this article about the film is that the opening scene was drawn from a conversation the 14-year-old Rash had with his own step-father. Which is pretty appalling all on its own. Another appalling fact is that this pleasant, funny,  innocuous screenplay sat on a desk for years because, though it was admired, no one wanted to invest the money to film it. Ad440 the way way back poster

The movie follows the adventures of the sullen Duncan as his mother, her boyfriend, and his daughter occupy a summer cottage near a Massachusetts beach area, in an attempt to foster a "family holiday" vibe. The boy's awakening to his own potential is charmingly done, and I liked that the almost-romance with the girl next door was part of the story but not the whole story.

The all-star cast members -- Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph -- show relatively little of what they're capable of (except for Jim Rash, who gives himself a colorful cameo). The movie is largely driven by the other characters' reactions to Liam James' brooding Duncan or they're behaving in those baffling ways lost adults do when they want to torture their sensitive offspring. James walks around like a slumping caveman; his knuckles would drag the ground if his arms were long enough. So when he starts to look around and participate in the world around him, his delight and excitement is warming to watch.

That said, two performances really got my attention: Allison Janney's brash and boozy next-door neighbor and Sam Rockwell as the fast-talking, mouthy owner of the Water Wizz amusement park where Duncan finds a haven. Rockwell's character is a lazy slacker, but he's accepting of all the misfits who drift through the water park. His needling, cajoling, and ribbing of Duncan bring the boy out of his shell; his loyalty and support of Duncan are quietly done and deliver exactly what I want in a feel-good summertime movie.

Article: Oscar-winning Charlotte native plunges into directing with ‘The Way Way Back’ | Movie News & Reviews |

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth"


Thanks to the glory of Netflix, Liz and I saw this documentary that I can assure you never visited  the Carolina Theatre. It’s a bio-doc on the writer Harlan Ellison, 72 years old at the time of the movie’s release in 2007, and covers an impressive sweep of his life, with samples of him reading from his stories, talking heads quotes from friends and other writers about his influence and the impression he’s made on their lives, and various NSFW-language interviews that evoke the man’s history, philosophy, irritations, annoyances, and, now and then, joys. (The YouTube video here is from the movie; it’s HE in his most typical mode of full-flow righteous anger–well-deserved, in this case.)

I was introduced to HE as a sophomore in high school and didn’t look back for nearly 15 years; his personality and writing were vivid, electrifying, throat-grabbing–uncompromising, is the word that leaps to mind. Uncompromising to the point of lunacy, sometimes, but all in the name of dignity, self-respect, and justice, which for HE are paramount virtues.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth” was a real test, as Liz had never experienced Harlan and was put off by his abrasive and, it must be said, obnoxiously show-offy personality. But she said she grew to like him better as the movie went on; you see the grit, energy, anger and just plain orneriness (an old-fashioned word that Harlan would love) that took a bullied little kid from Painesville, OH (a metaphorical town name, if ever there was one) to Los Angeles and success, of a sort. The movie confronts the fact that, although his writing has always been admired by his peers and lauded by fans, his career never really took off. His labor in the vineyards of genre fiction, teleplays, and short stories won him many writers’ awards, but not mainstream success.

The documentary recognizes the respect that is paid to his longevity and his highest writing achievements–especially some of his most important short stories from the 1960’s, such as “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” But he still remains a marginal literary figure, it seems to me, a miniaturist in a culture that likes The Big Novel, the province of a dedicated few. His legacy, in addition to his thousands of stories and awards, may be more in the writers he has inspired who’ve gone on to produce Babylon5, the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and other TV series, or had more commercially successful writing careers themselves (such as Dan Simmons and Neil Gaiman, who pay tribute to HE).

As Gaiman says in the interviews, HE’s greatest creative act has been this character called “Harlan Ellison.” Partly sincere, partly schtick, with a freakish a memory for cultural and historical details, a fast-talking patter, and in-your-face energy–an electrical storm front on legs–driven by a hair-trigger temper and a determination to prove he’s better and smarter than the bullies around him.

He says, in a poignant reflection, that being beaten up every day by bullies makes you an outsider. I think that, in many ways, large pieces of him are still hurting and still wants a happy childhood.

Another legacy of his childhood is that he sees the world as a big bully that shouldn’t be let off the hook. In fact, the bully should be shamed, kicked where it hurts, and his nose should be rubbed in it. (“Revenge is a good thing,” he says in a 1981 TV interview.) It powered his writing and his political and civil rights activism, his numerous lawsuits against studios and networks, and made him a fiercely loyal friend and ally. But it also meant he couldn’t pick and choose his battles because everything–from a Writers Guild contract to the wrong brand of yogurt at the grocery store–demands a shouting confrontation, and if you cross him, then get ready for screaming phone calls.

While he never got to be one of the writers of great movies, as I think he dearly wished to be, it’s hard to imagine him being happy on a movie set. To have the sort of control he wants, he’d have to do what his acolytes have done: become the producer and helm the entire enterprise. But that would mean he’d have to be the boss, and I’m guessing he’d not enjoy that role. He considers writing his holy chore, not producing or directing. Although I think he’d love meeting and kibitzing with the actors (his life’s wealth could be said to be the devoted friendships he’s gained of rich and famous people), he’d be driven to mania and a rusty chain saw by the thousand compromises and trade-offs that are a major movie production.

And also, he’s always been an outsider; to be a producer/director would mean having to work inside the system, and he couldn’t flatter and cajole the suits whose primary concerns are the budget and the schedule, not the story. HE knows his confrontations and lawsuits have  poisoned the studios and investors against him and made him virtually unemployable except by a few younger-generation writer/producers who see him as a mentor who inspired them when they were teenagers. He says he has accepted that condition–though it’s hard to be sure. Regret and disappointment are other  major themes in his work.

The movie is a wonderful hagiography of Ellison (much better than the similar “The Mindscape of Alan Moore” in 2005) though it does assume that he’s loved by his fellow writers, which isn’t always the case. “The Last Dangerous Visions” issue is lightly touched on and then set aside. There has been some criticism of the movie because none of his enemies are interviewed–HE reportedly told the director, Erik Nelson, that he’s known by his impressive enemies list and they should have a hearing in the documentary–but Nelson replied that HE was his own worst enemy.

I’ve grown up seeing HE’s image in photos and television interviews, and it’s poignant to see how he has aged. The geeky kid in his teens becomes the slim, handsome, dynamic ladies’ man in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is a round matzoh ball who looks like Larry “Bud” Melman. The fire is still there, but the heart attacks, surgeries, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other maladies (none of which are described in the documentary) are catching up with him.

I came to HE’s writing first via The Glass Teat, which a high school friend introduced me to. For the next 15 or so years, I became an Ellison fanatic, read all the stories, interviews, columns, etc. His last great book of stories, to my mind, is Strange Wine. He’s written some remarkable stories afterward–“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was selected for Best American Short Stories 1993–but I’ve not enjoyed them as much as I did his early work. His art has evolved from pulp genre fiction, to his own brand of fantasy, to, in the last 20 years, a Borgesian lyricism and vision, with non-linear stories that are collages, impressions, prose poems, descriptions of mood and interior states rather than character. That I can’t connect to this vision–which eschews the traditional short story and plot props I’m accustomed to–I will take the blame for. As an artist, HE  continues to evolve and follow his muse where it leads him; not all of his old fans can do the same.

I was often struck by the fact that HE wrote two or three novels during his years as a pulp writer, but none afterward. I think this was a shame and a missed opportunity. It could be that his inclination was more for the pointed message, the singular effect, the impatient prophet–maybe he had too many things to say–a sprinter, rather than a marathoner. Of course, the screenplays he wrote (such as his famous unproduced screenplay for “I, Robot”) also took as much time and measured energy to write as a novel. But I think movies called to him as an artist in a way novels couldn’t.

The documentary features television interviews from his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and a small tour of his remarkable pop-culture museum of a house, which is stuffed to bursting with books, ephemera, and toys. It struck me as the magical treehouse his 8-year-old self would have wanted to live in, a very safe and cozy Xanadu (complete with secret passageways and pizza) that’s retreat and recharging station and probably everything HE would have ever wanted.

It will be odd the day I wake up and hear that Harlan is not part of the landscape. I wonder whether he will see death as a bully or a friend.

Where to start. For the fiction,  The Essential Ellison is a good but large and baggy collection; Deathbird Stories is an earlier and more compact volume that contains many of his classics. Dangerous Visions is his groundbreaking SF anthology; I’ve not read it in decades but still remember some of its stories. His Dream Corridor comics are interesting curios, but not essential.

I daresay that his reputation, like Gore Vidals, may rest on his essays, which are remarkably supple yet all of a piece. It’s in these essays (and the introductions to his stories) that the Harlan Ellison voice and “character” were forged, and I can recall more happy moments reading them than I do his fiction. Sleepless Nights in the Procrusteam Bed is the best nice-sized volume that shows his range. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook reprints his 1960s essays and they’re all immediate and throat-grabbing. Harlan Ellison’s Watching contains his fugitive movie criticism; The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat contain his classic dissections of network teevee in the 1960s–truly a snapshot of another era and full of opinions that are still scarily relevant.

In the 1980s, he started a fan club thing called The Harlan Ellison Record Collection, which made available recordings of him reading his work. (This was pre-Internet days, kids – it was all done by mail and Pony Express.) Listening to him performing (not reading, performing) “Prince Myshkin, or Pass the Relish” and “Waiting for Kadak” are more fun than reading them. I also hugely enjoyed the 60-min interview of his “Loving Reminiscences of the Dying Gasp of the Pulp Era”; he clearly has a great nostalgia for that period of his young manhood, and there are times he can sure sound today like a cranky old man lamenting the good ol’ days.

But it’s the recordings of his public lectures that are the most entertaining. Of the On The Road series, my friend Scott says that the preferred order would be vol. 2, then 1, then 3.