You're Not Doing It Right is proof.
Like his previous book My Custom Van: And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays that Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face, You're Not Doing It Right is a series of vignettes, this time loosely connected by themes of love, sex, family and fatherhood. The title is a clever blanket description of the many awkward situations Black seems to have found himself in throughout his life, but it's also a warning to the reader. Black never attempts to tell the story of how he became a husband and a father in a typical way, because in his mind he didn't experience it typically (if there is such a thing). The result is a comic memoir of often astounding honesty.
The stories in You're Not Doing It Right range from tales of how Black first met his wife to how they came to opt for children to what their fights are like. The book is unflinchingly confessional, full of dark moments and uncertainties with very deep roots. The comedy stems both from Black's dry delivery (which comes across just as well in print as it does live) and from a sense of absolute sincerity that comes across on every page. He talks about how often the word "divorce" comes up in his house without flinching, but his love for his wife is never far from the reader's mind. Likewise, when he talks about the maddening sleeplessness that comes from having children, there's never doubt that he loves his kids. It makes for a remarkably real reading experience, something other comics might have preferred to gloss over with silly slice of life exaggerations or fantastic metaphorical rants comparing life with kids to something bizarre. For Black, his life is bizarre enough without the metaphors.
The point is that You're Not Doing It Right is a rarity among comic memoirs in that it never feels that Black is trying to be funny. He just is. His life (like everyone's, let's be honest) is filled with mishaps and disappointments and frustrations, and as you read about them you may find yourself often laughing in spite of how close to home those things hit you. But Black counterweights all that with a sense of sincere bemusement at the way his life has worked out. It's not a surreal treatise of silliness, nor is it a comedic pity party. It's a memoir in the most genuine and brave way, and that's a large part of why it's such fun to read.
You're Not Doing It Right is on sale everywhere Feb. 28.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Friday, February 24, 2012
The political map of Europe seemed to be shifting almost continuously from the fall of Rome to the fall of the Berlin Wall. That means a lot of names and regimes changed along the way, a lot of borders were redefined, and a lot of historians were left with serious headaches trying to make sense of it all.
In the midst of all this some European states are bound to fall through the cracks of history, or at least fade so far into the background that they’re hardly memorable to anyone but the most devoted of scholars. Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations is Norman Davies’ attempt to shed some light on this intriguing, often peculiar historical subset of European kingdoms that, for one reason or another, are lost.
But the book isn’t all some strange journey into obscure kingdoms the likes of which you’ve never dreamed. You’ll likely recognize a few names – CCCP, Etruria, Burgundia – but even if you don’t, that’s hardly the point. What’s happening here is more than just a spotlight on fallen nations.
With characteristic wit, insight and poised prose, Davies uses these pages to remind us that the nations we know now are often built on the broken backs of the nations that came before. If any one of the former kingdoms highlighted in this book still existed, something else likely would not. At the very least the world would be a different place in some fundamental way. Somewhere in the contemporary shape of Europe these cultures are still lurking. Davies knows this, and the greatest achievement of Vanished Kingdoms is his ability to show us so clearly.
This is a book that achieves the remarkable dual feat of being both remarkably entertaining historical writing and an enlightening look at pockets of history often overshadowed. You likely wouldn’t have missed these vanished kingdoms if you never knew about them, but after reading this book you’ll be all too happy that you know now.
Vanished Kingdoms is available in bookstores now.
Friday, February 17, 2012
|Brad Pitt is off camera wearing a skirt...hence the look.|
Films like The Descendants take a rather large measure of courage to make. Simple human dramas free of storytelling or visual gimmicks that actually achieve a measure of heart are harder and harder to find anyway, but what percentage of those ever feel like they capture the messiness of family life and the confusion that comes with loss and new beginnings?
Hollywood is the land of perfect little bows at the end of every story. The ending isn’t always happy (though that’s what audiences always demand), but the conclusions are supposed to arrive without ambiguity, without loose ends. It’s supposed to happen because moviegoers demand that it happens, because no matter how much ranting and raving against the blockbuster establishment you hear, most of the people in the theatre around you really don’t want the movies to be more like real life.
The Descendants never second guesses itself when it comes to the story it’s trying to tell. It never hedges toward Hollywood predictability, never tries to wrap things up simply and neatly. It’s not just a film about how messy the great dramas of our lives can be. It’s a film about why it matters that they’re messy, and why sometimes we need it to be that way.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu attorney in way over his head. His wife is in a coma after a major boating accident, and he’s not prepared for life as a single parent. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out in a number of hostile ways in the wake of her mother’s accident, while his eldest Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) doesn’t want to see her mother at all after a mysterious fight the pair had sometime before the coma.
On top of this, Matt is overseeing a real estate dealing for a large parcel of “virgin” Hawaiian land that his family has maintained in a trust for decades. They’re descendants of Hawaiian royalty, you see, and this is all that’s left of the family legacy. Odds are the land will become a tourist spot, but all Matt’s concerned about is keeping his army of cousins happy with the sale.
Then two bombshells hit Matt over the course of two days. One, delivered by a doctor, is that his wife will never make up, and a provision in her will calls for her to be taken off life support. The other, delivered by Alexandra, is that before her accident her mother was having an affair.
What follows is a funny, heartbreaking and often chaotic journey in which Matt, accompanied by his daughters and a kid named Sid (Nick Krause), attempts to track down the “other man” in his wife’s life, find some closure, and learn to be a better father.
The key ingredient to nailing the tone of such a story was always going to be director Alexander Payne, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne is a master of bittersweet stories, as films like Sideways and About Schmidt prove. Both of those films are about men who have lost something too – faith, a loved one, confidence, youth – but neither of them go quite this deeply into the realms of confusion and dizzying frustration. Imagine needing so badly to confront someone that can’t answer for themselves, but their body is still right there, hovering over every decision you make. Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) never speaks, and she’s only shown with her eyes open once (in a flashback) throughout the entire film, but her presence lingers behind Matt’s eyes for every frame of this film.
Payne chooses to begin the presentation of this dilemma by having his hero spout a brief diatribe about people who think that Hawaiian citizens live out their days in a paradise. Matt King has a few choice words for paradise, and it’s very clear that he’s not living in it. Yet Payne fills his visual compositions with reminders of Hawaiian beauty, creating a duality that only makes the film more fascinating. By the time it’s over, you realize that The Descendants wasn’t just about beauty next to ugliness. It was also about beauty inside the ugliness.
The other key to the film is Clooney, who gives the performance of his career by becoming a believably ordinary man pushed to his emotional limits. The strong leading man melts away here, and in its place is a performance of absolute vulnerability and pain punctuated by subtle but often crackling humor. The other standout is Woodley, who matches Clooney in nearly every scene with an emotional depth many actresses twice her age can’t muster.
The Descendants is a challenging film for some viewers, but if you simply allow it to carry you on its journey of heartbreak, redemption and, ultimately, love, you will be amazed by the genuine heart you find. It’s a film of aching beauty and power from one of our most gifted directors.
Friday, February 3, 2012
Drive here is both a verb and a noun. It’s a film with more than its share of horsepower, but it’s also a film about the driven man at its center.
Ryan Gosling stars as an unnamed driver (his lack of a name may remind you of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars; it’s a worthy comparison) who spends his days working in an auto shop and doing car stunts for the movies and his nights as a getaway driver. His clients don’t know his name and he doesn’t know theirs. He arrives where he’s told to go, gives the client five minutes to get in the car, and then gets them out of whatever trouble they just landed in.
Much like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, this film’s visual and spiritual ancestor, things begin to change for the Driver when he meets a woman. Irene (Carey Mulligan) lives down the hall from him with her young son (Kaden Leos). Their paths cross when he drives her home when her car breaks down. A relationship is just beginning to kindle when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of jail and comes back to mend fences with his family. One problem: he’s in debt to a gangster.
To save the family he’s come to care about, the Driver agrees to help Standard pull off a small pawn shop robbery to pay off the debt. But something goes horribly wrong, the robbery turns out to be not so small, and suddenly the Driver finds himself between a helpless woman and her son and a pair of gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) who are out to get their money back at any cost.
If you’re making a movie called Drive, it’s best if you’re able to do a good car chase. Refn doesn’t make his film about the cars or the major auto stunts, but when they do take center stage he tackles the sequences with elegance, poise and a firm restraint against “shaky cam” action sequences that American directors are so prone to. The action in Drive is controlled, precise and so well-choreographed that the crashes begin to feel like a kind of metallic dance. But here’s the other trick: it never feels like someone’s controlling it.
Refn also manages that all-important crime film balance between violence and humanity. The moments of brutality in this film are swift and resoundingly visceral, but so elegant in their execution that even someone with a weak stomach will stare on with admiration. Refn’s timing is so perfect that you spend the long spans of time between violent moments both shaking and itching for the next hammer to drop. When it hits, there’s a combination of disgust and exhilaration. That’s how on-screen violence should work.
But for all his brilliance, Refn himself can only take this movie so far. His cast is superb throughout, but it’s thoroughly dominated by Gosling and Brooks. As a nameless, often seemingly emotionless man, Gosling once again declares himself as one of the greatest – if not the absolute greatest – actor of his generation. His Driver is played with such an economy of physical expression that it almost feels like he’s doing nothing…until you see his eyes. And as for Brooks, don’t confuse how impressed you are with his work for surprise. Yes, you’ve never seen him in a role like this before, but that’s not why you’re so compelled to watch. This is an actor. This is a bold, savage performance, and that’s why you keep watching.
Drive is easily one of the best films of 2011, but it’s also an uncommonly good – and important – work of American crime cinema. It belongs in the same league as The Departed, No Country for Old Men and David Chase’s The Sopranos. This film goes beyond thrilling and becomes beautiful, and that makes it worthy of true immortality.
Drive is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.