Saturday, July 4, 2009

This Weekend in Entertainment

Note: When I give any sort of review on the blog, I will assign the subject a grade on my unique scale. I think that the two primary purposes of entertainment/art criticism are: the economical purpose, to indicate whether the work in question is worth one's limited time, and the appreciative purpose, to enhance one's understanding and enjoyment of that work. Grades serve only the former purpose and I name them accordingly.

The grades: Essential, Worthwhile, Not Worthwhile, Unpleasant. I think that the extremes are self-explanatory. A "Worthwhile" work has high entertainment value but little artistic significance, or considerable artistic significance but low entertainment value. A work labeled "Not Worthwhile" might serve as a pleasant entertainment, but has little or no artistic significance. This label might apply to works that are essential to a series that is worthwhile on the whole, but are in themselves lacking.

Mystic River: Murder is a casual subject in contemporary entertainment. Perhaps this statement needs revision - murder is a casual event in contemporary entertainment. In the television subgenre of forensics procedural, death is a de rigeur catalyst for plot contortions, but there is little exploration of its meaning and impact. This is why Mystic River is so startling. There are but two deaths in the film and their depiction is not graphic, yet they are so upsetting that I seriously considered turning off the film within the first half hour.

When Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) first learns of his daughter's murder, seven police officers are required to restrain his aimless lashing, an event more visceral than the grizzliest act of screen violence. The film is something of a murder mystery, snaking through the past and present lives of Jimmy's family, friends and acquaintances to determine the killer, but the plot machinations provide occasion for deep investigations of the characters. The film is thoroughly somber and there is no artificial attempt to break this tone, and its darkness is not nihilistic, as director Clint Eastwood does presents his tragic ending, whose irony attains Shakespearean proportions, as the unique result of character and circumstance.

Usually when I view a film, I have comments to make its visual style, its score, its pacing and other formal aspects, but Mystic River so engrossed me that I did not play close attention to any of this. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially those of Penn and Tim Robbins, who both received Academy Awards. I noted related themes of burial and silence, with the moral that sin and tragedy, even buried and abandoned, cannot remain hidden.

I also note that the film was nominated for Best Picture in 2003. I have seen 4 of the 5 films nominated that year - I will probably never watch Seabiscuit - and it deserved to win, though nothing was going to defeat the final and weakest Lord of the Rings film. Essential

Public Enemies: Newest Michael Mann film, stars Johnny Depp as bank robber John Dillinger. It tells its story with great style and pacing, and Depp's Dillinger possesses an artless cool, but the film is also curiously weightless, ignoring opportunities to build in some significant subtexts of historical context and the nature of American law enforcement and folk heroes. Worthwhile

The Great Hunt: The second of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels is a tremendous improvement on the first in most aspects. It now seems as if the first novel was a necessary cliche to set the scene for the story Jordan really wanted to tell. Two aspects of his storytelling are worth discussing.

First is his mastery of interwoven conflicts. Whereas his first novel was essentially a long chase, here there is political intrigue, an object-directed quest, tangled and truly uncertain romances, enslavement, madness and the greater conflict with the supervillain. Jordan takes a series of limited third person perspectives to expand the scope of his story, and one can now see the story developing on a grander scale. Indeed, this is what I have enjoyed most about the novels so far, their promise of weaving together so many threads into the tapestry of apocalypse.

Secondly, Jordan is a thorough world-builder. Every city and every country stopping place has a peculiar culture and heritage. Sometimes this is incidental detail, but often it fosters interesting plot developments, as characters struggle to grasp the customs of the many cities they visit. Again, this is a substantial improvement over the first novel, in which the many villages were essentially interchangeable.

There are still problems with the novel. Jordan foreshadows extensively, and while sometimes his hints are appropriately tantalizing, often it is too easy to guess at plot twists well in advance of their occurrence. He's batting about .500 in this regard, with two brilliant bits where the foreshadowing is only realized after the fact, and two that were nearly spoilers. Furthermore, his characters have developed very little over the course of these novels, and while some are spirited and unique, more are types. The lack of development is most obnoxious in that several characters have stock lines and patterns of thought repeated ad nauseum. Finally, one aspect of the novel's final conflict is essentially a rehash of the first novel, and I dread its continued and pointless recurrence. Nevertheless, I enjoyed The Great Hunt very much and immediately after finishing, put the third novel on reserve at the library.

Now on to Homer's Odyssey.

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