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Steve Martin (#110 of 5)

Review: Michael Palin’s The Truth

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Review: Michael Palin’s The Truth
Review: Michael Palin’s The Truth

Keith Mabbut, the protagonist of Michael Palin’s second novel, The Truth, represents, in this age of climate change and rampant capitalism, an updated version of the failed academic: the failed environmentalist. Like Michael Beard from Ian McEwan’s Solar and Walter Bergland from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Mabbut is middle-aged and full of compromise. He, too, has relationship problems, and his career has failed to measure up to early potential.

One of the advantages, it seems, of the failed-environmentalist protagonist is the way an author gets to confront the character with something much larger than themselves, which both makes them feel small in comparison and forces them to accept their own limitations. In The Truth, Mabbut’s foil is manifold: the destruction and ransacking of nutrient-rich geographies of India, a business of publishing, and a seemingly perfect figure whose life it is Mabbut’s job to chronicle. Once a promising, award-winning environmental journalist, Mabbut now earns money by writing puff books for oil companies, like Triumph in Adversity: The Official History of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal. He and his wife have separated, his daughter Jay has taken up with an Iranian refugee, and his son, who lives with the mother, takes a guarded approach to his father. Sickened with his hackwork, Mabbut decides to finally get serious about his planned trilogy of novels, only to get interrupted by an offer he can’t refuse: the biography of Hamish Melville, a famously reclusive environmental activist. Though suspicious of the publisher’s intentions (the outfit, after all, is ominously called Urgent Books), Mabbut sets off to India to find the renowned crusader.

Summer of ‘87: Roxanne: Smelling the Coffee in Brazil

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Summer of ‘87: <em>Roxanne</em>: Smelling the Coffee in Brazil
Summer of ‘87: <em>Roxanne</em>: Smelling the Coffee in Brazil

Steve Martin’s Rostand adaptation, Roxanne, came out the year after I read its source material. During my senior year of high school, my English teacher, Mr. Kilinski, assigned us Cyrano de Bergerac. Some of my classmates opted instead to watch 1950’s Oscar winner Jose Ferrer as Cyrano. Most of us knew by now that our teachers asked exam questions designed to trap students who substituted film for book. I’ve never seen Ferrer’s version, so I can’t vouch for its faithfulness, but I’d warn any student reading this against using Roxanne as a substitute for Rostand. Mr. Kilinski’s test asked us “what is the eventual fate of Cyrano?” If Roxanne were your only brush with de Bergerac, you were about to fail this exam.

My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival
My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

I suppose it’s inevitable that some of the bloom would have come off the rose that was last year’s first annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I am, after all, a year older, and the time spent in between the first festival and this year’s model has found life getting more complicated, with less room for the study of cinema, classic or not, than my selfish patterns would prefer. But just because I may be mired in a sophomore slump of sorts doesn’t mean that in 2011 the TCM Festival was equally bogged down. Familiarity hardly bred contempt this time around, or complacency. If anything, there was a certain comfort factor built into the festival for me this year, a feeling that, while not radiating the kind of freshman excitement generated by last year’s fun (and my own initiation into the rites of festival film-going), certainly resonated with the buzz of discovery, of learning, about films unfamiliar, and blessedly, seemingly genetically remembered, and even of the value of an adrenaline rush of straight-up nostalgia. Without a doubt, this 2011 edition was the film festival experience of the year for me.

Better than you’ve heard: Firewall and The Pink Panther

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Better than you’ve heard: <em>Firewall</em> and <em>The Pink Panther</em>
Better than you’ve heard: <em>Firewall</em> and <em>The Pink Panther</em>

[Author’s Note: Andrew Sarris once ended a review of the Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan kidnap drama Proof of Life by telling his readers, “See it. It’s better than you’ve heard.” I felt the same way about two mostly maligned Hollywood movies that opened this month, Firewall and The Pink Panther. A review of both movies follows, somewhat expanded from the version that appeared in the last issue of New York Press.]

Firewall and The Pink Panther pose the same problem for critics: how to resist writing knee-jerk pans of movies that look an awful lot like Hollywood Product, and that star aging icons who haven’t connected with audiences in years?

On paper, both films seem like tempting targets. The kidnap thriller Firewall expects us to believe that 63-year old Harrison Ford, arguably the most underachieving A-list star in the history of American movies, and very much an emblem of mid-twentieth-century macho, is believable as an early 21st-century computer security expert and a settled-yet-virile husband to Virginia Madsen, who’s 20 years his junior. Added to that, Firewall is yet another example of what I call a Business Class Thriller, tailor made to engross upper-middle-class dads who spend lots of time on airplanes. The hero is usually, and not at all coincidentally, a married forty or fiftysomething suburban dad who spends most of his time filing paperwork but can still kick ass when the occasion warrants, a role tailored for Harrison Ford. The Pink Panther, meanwhile, asks us not just to accept an actor besides Peter Sellers in the role of bumbling French inspector Jacques Clouseau, but to believe that star Steve Martin, whose career took a sharp left turn into New Yorker country about 15 years ago, can still work magic in the type of deranged slapstick romp that hasn’t been central to his career since the early ’90s. Both films seem like the sorts of films for which critics can start composing their pans en route to the screening room.

But there’s a problem with this stock response: both Firewall and The Pink Panther are entertaining, well crafted, somewhat eccentric Hollywood movies.