The Stone War
By Madeleine Robins
In something of an odd coincidence, this is the third book out of the last four I've read that was about New York. This one came to me via a co-worker, with whom I've been trading books and DVDs lately. I lent him my copies of Forever, Good Omens, and Neverwhere, and he lent me The Stone War.
The book is set in a dystopian near-future New York City where crime and homelessness have run rampant. Most of the city's residents have retreated into locked-down apartment buildings staffed with armed guards, while the homeless have been granted the legal right to squat in doorways and street-side gardens. The main character, John Tietjen, is one of the few who loves the city the way it used to be and still walks the streets unafraid.
This is the scene as we are introduced into Tietjen's life, and we watch as he interacts with his neighbors, argues with his ex-wife, and tries, unsuccessfully, to get his children interested in the city. Suddenly, while he's away on a business trip, an unknown catastrophe falls upon the city, with thousands killed and most of the rest fleeing as refugees. Tietjen makes his way back to New York, discovering an eerie ruin, covered with damage that no natural causes can explain. He brings together a small community of survivors, who must fend for themselves against the challenges of rebuilding, not to mention darker forces loose in the city.
Overall, The Stone Rose was an enjoyable read, but I kept feeling like it could have been more. It was author Madeleine Robins' first novel, and had many of the strengths and weaknesses first novels so often have. On the one hand, Robins' ideas were strong and she clearly has a passion for writing--older writers often seem to burn out long before they actually stop writing, to their readers' detriment. Unfortunately, her vision just wasn't executed that well. Much of what's set up in the initial parts of the book is dropped completely after the disaster, which left me feeling very unsatisfied with the overall direction of the story. Too, it's never really explained or resolved just what's so special about Tietjen, though numerous references are made to him being so. And the picture of an empty New York City, twisted and ravaged by supernatural forces, is wonderfully evocative and provides an opportunity for some truly dark or eerie scenes, I couldn't help but feel that Robins wasn't able to fully deliver on that promise in the way a more experienced writer might, though she did reach in that direction.
It may sound as though I'm bashing the book, which isn't really my intention--as I mentioned before, it was pretty enjoyable overall. I think the reason for my disappointment is just that there was so much potential for this to be a truly great story, but unfortunately that story never fully materialized.
Started: 4/12/2010 | Finished: 4/14/2010
The Ghost Writer
The Ghost Writer was the second of two movies that Juliette and I saw while we were visiting my parents. Neither of us knew anything about it going in--we'd never even heard of it. But my stepdad said that it was good, so we figured we'd give it a chance.
As it turned out, The Ghost Writer was Roman Polanski's newest thriller. The title character, a nameless writer played by Ewan McGregor, is hired to re-write the memoirs of Adam Lang, a former prime minister of the UK, played by Pierce Brosnan. As you might expect, though, all is not what it seems, and as the writer works, he begins to uncover secrets about Lang's past that put his own life in danger.
The only other Polanski film I've seen is Chinatown, and while there are some similarities--in each film, the protagonist is a lone outsider who is brought in for a seemingly innocuous job, only to find himself caught up in much bigger events. The Ghost Writer, though, falls far short of Polanski's 1974 classic.
There just wasn't much to work with, really. None of the characters are particularly interesting or well-rounded, and none of the performances are inspired or quirky enough to make them work in spite of the lack of material in the script. Instead, the entire film hangs on the plot and atmosphere. That can work when the story concept is original or unexpected, but while this movie does have enough twists and turns to keep most people guessing, it doesn't do it any better than any other conspiracy thriller, nor does it really bring anything new to the genre.
In order to make up for the underwhelming script, Polanski tries to manufacture tension with his filmcraft, presenting us with bleak, forbidding images, everything in harshly desaturated grays. On top of which, the pacing is very slow for much of the movie--there are long stretches with very few lines. The idea must have been to heighten the sense of isolation by making everything seem cold and quiet, but it just didn't work very well for me.
There wasn't anything horribly wrong with The Ghost Writer and I imagine that there are a number of people who would agree with my parents that it was pretty good. But in the end I just didn't feel engaged by it, which seems to me a rather glaring flaw in a thriller. Still, it was nice to spend a little time in a movie theater again, eating popcorn and sitting next to Juliette without any interruptions. That's something I definitely don't get enough of these days.
Viewed: 4/3/2010 | Released: 3/19/2010 | Score: C+
My first instinct as I sat down to write this review was to make some kind of comment about how late it was in coming. But, going back through my review archives, I noticed that an annoyingly high proportion of my reviews start that way, and reading them one after another, it just sounds whiny and self-indulgent.
This review is starting off much better, I'm sure.
I think I first heard about Crazy Heart in the lead-up to the Golden Globes, when everyone was talking about Jeff Bridges' chances at winning Best Actor. Of course that piqued my interest, since Bridges is one of my favorite living actors. Then he won the Golden Globe, and then the Oscar, and I put it on my Netflix "saved" list and more or less gave up on seeing it in the theater.
It turned out, though, that it was still playing at the independent theater down the street from my parents' house when we went out there to visit them, and Juliette and I were happy enough to take my mom's offer of babysitting. We actually considered just staying in and going to bed early, but my mom was so eager to spend time with Jason and so insistent that we enjoy ourselves that she practically shoved us out the door. I'm glad she did, though. (Thanks, mom.)
Most of what I'd heard and read about Crazy Heart said it was an adequate but not terribly impressive film that was turned into something more by the strength of Bridges' exquisite performance. But I think that it really had two pillars holding it up--not just Jeff Bridges, but also the music.
There was a time in my life that I described my musical tastes as "everything but country and rap." Since then, though, I've found something to connect with in both genres. I'm still not much for the sort of country-pop that seems to be in vogue these days, but some older stuff--Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Strait--does resonate. The music in Crazy Heart hearkens back to those earlier styles of country music, I think, and works well largely because the songs really mean something in the context of the narrative. It also doesn't hurt that Jeff Bridges is a surprisingly good singer.
Of course, I can't write a review of this movie without talking about the performances, especially Jeff Bridges'. And he was brilliant. But that's not much of a surprise--in my opinion, Bridges is one of the most consistent actors currently working. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Duvall were both also excellent, and Colin Farrell was also surprisingly good.
Still, for all the talk this movie got and continues to get for its performances, what's really stuck with me has been the music. Juliette commented on the way out that she wanted to start listening to country now. I think it very well may come to pass.
Viewed: 3/31/2010 | Released: 12/16/2009 | Score: A-