Entertainment I have encounteredWhy are children's films so much better than those for grownups? When I look at the cinema schedules, I groan with disappointment because there's just nothing to watch, but when I take the kids to the pictures, I often see something at least enjoyable. The other evening, we all watched The Fantastic Mr Fox on DVD. It was great. I'm a massive admirer of George Clooney and that colours my judgement, but Mr Fox was the kind of animal you wish you were yourself. He personified brio. Like most good children's stories, it ran quite deep: themes of the rise of the underdog (or underfox), inequity, the prodigal son and the desire for a father's love, the impulse to act according to one's nature. Was it a parable about working-class rebellion? Don't be silly, it's a bunch of animals getting up to high jinks. But still, among the fun was some thinking material.
It's not alone in its quality. Wall-E is a wonderful environmental parable that shows insight on love and the human condition that few Hollywood films can match. Shrek is much funnier than any comedy I have seen recently (although I don't watch many comedies because, frankly, I don't find sexual mores very rich material for laughter and most Hollywood actors are close to unwatchable).
While I was away, I also watched Heart of Darkness, the film version of the brilliant BBC series. Like State of Play, it took the original material and Hollywooded it (which, I'm sad to report, does mean dumbing it down), adding a star name. In State of Play, Russell Crowe mugged and grunted in a role John Simm had illuminated. He's an awful actor, with one tone and one expression. He always looks like he's straining to get out a difficult turd. In Robin Hood, he denuded Robin of humour and left him a lumpen boor who it was difficult to sympathise with. He wasn't helped by plainly lacking chemistry with Cate Blanchett. It was flatout impossible to believe that she even liked him, let alone felt any tenderness towards him. But don't get me started. Historical films infuriate me at the best of times because I have no ability to suspend disbelief. People need to at least approach acting in a way consonant with their times and capabilities for me to be able to buy the history.
Anyway, in Edge of darkness, Mel Gibson is the protagonist. I wasn't expecting much because he's such a terrible actor, but he didn't seem to be willing to make any effort at all. I lost count of the number of times his expression and behaviour didn't match what was going on. He was also unconvincing as a hard man. Compare with Liam Neeson in Taken, which made no pretence at being any good but provided what it promised: mindless thrills. Edge of Darkness wasn't dark enough or twisty enough to satisfy as a thriller, and it wasn't hard enough to satisfy as an actioner. Compare with Casino Royale, where Bond kicks people's arse hardcore.
I also saw The road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. I haven't read the book because I find McCarthy unnourishing. I suppose that's the point but how much of it do you need to read? Blood Meridian is a decent book, for instance, and the sense of place and characterisation are beautifully delivered, but it doesn't include any meaning. The same is true of The Road, if the film is at all faithful to the book. Viggo Mortensen is astoundingly noble and stoic (he's quite brilliant in the role in my view) but to no real purpose. McCarthy is not saying anything. Does he have to? I guess not, but it makes a two-hour film a bit of a grind if you don't have anything to take away from it. I'm quite conservative at heart, and I like films to have a moral core.
I watched In the loop too. It was quite funny in spots, like the show it derives from, The thick of it, without ever really reaching any great heights. When you've seen Malcolm Tucker once, I'm afraid, you've seen the whole joke. The hapless minister was fantastic though, and the slimy ladderclimber works for me soooo much because I've spent quite a lot of time in the company of similar people. And I don't need to tell any heterosexual male that anything with Gina McKee in is worth watching. She's also a very decent character actor.
The Steve Coogan thing with the wall is top class though. He has an unparalleled ability to inhabit the characters of men you would not allow in your house.
I have also been reading some fiction for a change. While in the UK, I basically read only nonfiction, and not much of that, but I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's much-feted The accustomed earth because it's a book club book that I haven't read for once.
I do understand why stuff like this gets hyped. There is a real dearth of decent American literature at the moment. It's hardly a golden age: if the best you can manage is Safran Foer or Eggers, you are up shit creek culturally. So some nice chamber writing, understated and tasteful, that's what we need, right? Well, I don't know. Lahiri's characterisation is excellent but her stories are so dreary. Compare Dubliners, a benchmark for short stories of this type. Lahiri just doesn't have the mastery of tone and theme that Joyce does, not to mention that she is not a great stylist. Her writing has been talked up, but it's not that good to read. It's quite plain. I know you'll be thinking, Dr Zen, you like plain writing, but what I like is writing that is unadorned. That is a different matter from plainness. Hemingway eschews adverbs but his writing has a unique power because you do not feel there's a word out of place. Lahiri doesn't have too much filler but her writing doesn't have the prettiness of the best. It's quite flat and there are some places where her phrasing is not particularly elegant. That may not matter to you though, so you may enjoy the gentle realisations of place and person that her stories include.
I am currently reading Freedom, the very much hyped Great American Novel by Jonathan Franzen. Now we all know that Americans feel a sense of inferiority because we have Shakespeare and Dickens and they don't, and they suspect that Moby-Dick is no Hard Times. There have been some great American novels: Sabbath's Theater, Harlot's ghost, Thin red line, Gravity's rainbow spring to mind, but there's always that lurking doubt that there's more to give. It's not like those guys weren't trying! So is Freedom it? Hmmm, well you'd have to say no. It's a wonderful read, and Franzen captures our America in a vivid, colourful tableau with bags of insight and characterisation that is stunningly detailed and accurate. But it's floppy, sometimes overwritten and not quite as good as it wants to be. It's not far off, don't get me wrong, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who likes to read. But it won't make you come and that's where the bar is. Roth, for instance, has made me come twice. Sabbath's Theater is genius, and American Pastoral, though flawed, is truly brilliant. He remains for me America's finest writer, although I don't love him as intimately as I do Pynchon.
Also a bit thin is new music. There aren't too many releases that I am thinking, oooh yes, must have that. I mean, it's great that Mogwai have a new album, but I don't like live albums on the whole. It's a good live album, sure, but live music is really about being there. Not that I go there much. I rarely feel my age as much as I do when watching bands.
So there's a new Interpol album, and that has had much better reviews than Our love to admire. But it's not very good. That's really an understatement because it's pretty bad, all in all. Where OLTA was mostly bad but had some great songs, this one is just mostly bad. I can't find even one song that moves or delights me. It's all plodding strained rock, more Editors than Joy Division, and it would be generous to suggest it's as good as the Editors.
There's also new Arcade Fire, much beloved of the critics, who didn't adore the previous one, whose name I can't recall. I didn't adore it either but I felt it was at least going in the right direction. The new album is entirely bland. Nothing stands out. It's all nicely put together but I'm not feeling it at all. I've played it twice and I didn't find anything in it that made me want to play it again.
A host of 10/10s and the promise that it "reinvents pop music" had me slavering at the chops for a piece of Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid. I think I may have the wrong album though, because what I have is utterly uninspiring tuneless and ordinary indie R&B. Monae is associated with the equally overrated Outkast, but unlike them, she forgot at least to include one or two belters. I should have known better. When music critics are raving about a concept album about space and future lifeforms etc, which begins with an overture, for fuck's sake, you should know you're going to be listening to something turgid. I didn't get all the way through, so my apologies if there is something good in the last couple of songs.
Dueting with Monae is Kevin Barnes, known to the world as Of Montreal (she returns the favour on his new album). I am a huge fan of Barnes, so I was delighted to see he has a new album, False Priest. Given the fractured weirdness of Skeletal lamping, I wasn't sure what I'd get, but Barnes is a truly gifted songwriter, and I can easily make mixtapes full of his pop songs that better any dozen by just about anyone else. So do we get psychedelic pop, indie, banging rockers, funk strutters or dreary directionless meanderings into his subconscious? Yes! We get all of that. Compared with Skeletal, it's all good clean fun. Okay, who am I kidding? It's no such thing. It's mostly uptempo bouncers about shagging. He sounds a bit more cheerful though. I'm slightly disappointed at the good song/rubbish quotient (his albums do always feature both) and I suppose it's something of a pity that it's unlikely he'll ever write much pop again, and it's true that this will not gain him the wider audience so much of his stuff deserves, but it's still engaging, mad and often funny (the spoken word about banging his gf's cousin because he wanted to feel closer to her is LOL hilarious). I never feel happier with the world than driving along in the sunshine with Of Montreal jerking, humping and blasting on the stereo.