Sunday, May 12, 2013

Short Take: The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning adventure novel, is an imaginative and thrilling effort. The story is set in the North Korea of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-Il. The country is described as “a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them.” It’s a ramshackle, fun-house-mirror Potemkin village ruled entirely by the self-aggrandizing and often bizarre whims of its Dear Leader. One’s identity is decided for one, and even that can change from day to day. One can be an enemy of the state in the evening, and a national hero come morning. One may even become yesterday’s national hero today, and replace that person among their family and friends. That’s the experience of Pak Jun Do, the book’s protagonist. He careens from role to role: a non-orphan who is nonetheless treated as an orphan; a state-sanctioned kidnapper of Japanese citizens; a fishing-boat radio operator who spies on other countries’ transmissions; a member of a diplomatic delegation to the U. S.; an ostensible traitor condemned to hard labor in the mines; the official substitute for a national celebrity; and finally a genuine hero who sacrifices all for love in successful defiance of the country's despot. Johnson has crafted a compelling, suspenseful black farce out of Pak Jun Do’s travails, and the conflicts between state-declared reality and the truth of the various circumstances are by turns disturbing and hilarious. The comic high points are Johnson’s treatments of the absurdly fanciful propaganda missives that tell what happens as Dear Leader wishes it to be. They are so over-the-top in their flattery of his twerpy albeit megalomaniacal vanities that a reader often cannot help but laugh out loud. Johnson’s handling of the story’s adventure and humor elements are first-rate, but what really sets the book apart is his evocation of the tragedy of the North Korean people, who endure horrible oppression and poverty in the wake of their ruler’s often lunatic egotism. It’s a terrific novel: hard to put down while one is reading it, and harder to forget once one is finished.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Short Take: Killer Joe

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Killer Joe has some impressive behind-the-scenes credentials: an Oscar-winning director in William Friedkin, and Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts as screenwriter. The film, though, is a piece of misanthropic pulp that congratulates itself on the depths of its nastiness. The title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Dallas police detective with a sideline as a hitman. He’s hired by a young, ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) and the dealer’s father (Thomas Haden Church). They want him to take out the dealer’s mother so they can collect on the insurance policy. They are unable to pay his fee up front, so he offers to let them pay a "retainer": the sexual favors of the dealer’s somewhat addled younger sister (Juno Temple). The dealer and his family, which includes Gina Gershon as his stepmother, are probably the most amoral, indecent, and stupidest examples of working-poor whites in the history of American movies. Friedkin and Letts have quite a time chortling at them. The class bigotry on display is almost enough to make one look back longingly on the hipster-snob sneering of the Coen brothers. The dealer and his family cannot do anything right, which ultimately results in a vicious reprisal from the detective once he realizes he will never be paid. This comeuppance takes up the film’s final act, and the scene is about as vile as they come. (The treatment of the Gershon character is especially despicable.) It’s hard to say who is more demeaned by this finale: the characters or the audience. McConaughey is the only good reason to see the picture. He has an eerie calm as the psychopathic detective, and what is most frightening is how methodical the character’s violence is once it explodes. He is compelling in his quieter scenes as well. His character’s seduction of the dealer’s sister is a particular standout. Caleb Deschanel provided the excellent cinematography. Letts based the script on his 1991 play of the same name.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Short Take: Anna Karenina

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The English director Joe Wright has often treated dramatizing his material as a secondary concern. He often seems more interested in using the script as a springboard for directorial showmanship. He has never before taken this to the extravagant lengths he does in Anna Karenina, and this time it leaves one applauding. Any effort to realize Leo Tolstoy’s enormous 1877 novel as a feature-length film cannot help but be a diminution. Wright treats this stumbling block as beside the point, and he ends up doing the book more justice than a more conservative approach ever could. This Anna Karenina is a series of grandly executed set pieces that illustrate the story far more than they retell it. The basic plot is still there: screenwriter Tom Stoppard follows the general outline of the book and distills it into concise scenes. Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a high-ranking Russian official (Jude Law) falls in love with a dashing young military officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She cannot let go of him, and in turn lets go of her marriage and societal position instead. As a piece of storytelling, the film feels like a summary of Tolstoy's novel. Wright, though, realizes every moment in the most flamboyant and theatrical terms. He seems to relish making the artifice as conspicuous as he can. The sets call attention to themselves as sets--the film deliberately looks as if much of it is being presented on a theater stage--and the action in the scenes is as boldly choreographed as a ballet. The spectacular staging and camera movement are complemented by the gorgeous work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, composer Dario Marianelli, and costumer Jacqueline Durran--the film is a feast for the senses from beginning to end. Keira Knightley is a vivid, compelling Anna, and a few of the scenes are quite well-realized in dramatic terms. A particular standout is the dance when Anna and the officer fall in love, much to the chagrin of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and unmarried hopeful also at the ball. The film isn’t for every taste, but if one can enjoy unbridled cinematic bravura for its own sake, it’s a treat.