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  • Micro-Review #140: 11.22.63
    Based on the Stephen King novel

    I reviewed the novel (somewhat unfavorably) a few years back and decided to give the TV mini-series a chance because of its high imdb rating.

    English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) finds a portal to 1960. This gives him three years to stop the Kennedy assassination. He tries his damnedest, with many complications along the way. If you can suspend disbelief and accept the tired time-travel story device, you might decide Jake’s journey is worth following. This is a rare case of the TV adaptation being better than the novel. The era comes alive, the suspense is well placed, and there are worse kinds of unchallenging entertainment available to stream.

    The downside: The Stephen King habit of exaggerating character traits transfers to the screen. The last two or three episodes of the eight-part miniseries lapse into soapiness. Rather than building to a breathless crescendo, the story plateaus before a somewhat predictable ending. Still, the acting is good, and if you like time-travel stories, this one is bound to satisfy.

  • Micro-Review #139: I Am Legend
    by Richard Matheson

    This 1954 novel bears only a passing resemblance to the Will Smith movie. It’s considered a classic of the genre, and it ages fairly well. The story—about a man who might be the last man in a world full of vampires—is timeless thanks to its clarity and its focus on the character, Robert Neville, rather than on jump scares and horror-shtick action. There’s even some good science that modern readers won’t see as dated. Couple these qualities with a thought-provoking ending and refreshing brevity (the story is more novella than novel), and you have a great read that’s likely to remain relevant for a long time to come.

  • Micro-Review #138: Anxious People
    by Fredrik Backman

    If you’ve read the brilliant A Man Called Ovie, resist the temptation to compare the two novels. This story about a hostage-taking at a realtor’s home showing is a different beast. Who’s our mystery hostage taker? How did he/she/they elude the police? These questions intrigue, but they don’t carry the freight. The real draw is the array of characters, all of whom, to varying degrees, live up (or down) to the book’s title.

    The story is quirky and life-affirming. The writing is at times hilarious and at other times overbaked (maybe too much of a good thing?). Despite the narrative’s faint, developing sense of teachy repetition, the chance to spend 300 pages with people who are probably more like us than we might want to admit is rare, because we still want to spend the time. This is a good book about real people—a deft, breezy bit of humanistic optimism.

  • Micro-Review #137: The Zone of Interest
    directed by Jonathan Glazer

    This cinematic portrayal of the first family of Auschwitz is serious and well-intended, but it drowns in its own devotions. The story is direct and largely factual: Commandant Rudolf Hoss works long hours running the camp, while wife Hedwig prunes azaleas and overseas their brood of Aryan offspring. She luxuriates in the midst of horror—and even calls her home “paradise.”

    This is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, atrocity without emotional engagement. Trains arrive around the clock. Gunshots ring out. Prisoners scream just beyond the wall, but Rudolf and Hedwig rarely acknowledge them. The job is the job, and home is home. For a while, we even question whether Hedwig really knows what’s causing the smoke in that chimney.

    Character shading aside, that’s pretty much it: the Hosses as efficient German compartmentalizers, at least until (spoiler alert) the horror grows too heavy and Rudolf suffers a crippling physical reaction. Is there a good artistic reason for suggesting that one of history’s worst schizoid psychopaths suffered wrenching guilt? If so, I can’t see it. The humanizing of Rudolf undercuts the good stuff in this film—and there’s plenty of good. Sandra Huller’s portrayal of Hedwig rings disturbingly true, and the movie’s background sound provides a jarring counterpoint to the stern sterility of the Hoss household. But sometimes evil is just evil, banal or otherwise. The application of poetic license only muddies the historical waters.

  • Micro-Review #136: Women
    by Charles Bukowski

    First published in 1978, this biographical compilation of the author’s x-rated experiences with women has survived decades of accusations of misogyny and egocentrism. It strains our notions of coequality, but it’s also disarmingly honest, laugh-out-loud funny, and at times poetic. The book is a 300-page extrapolation of the line, “Love came hard and very seldom. When it did, it was usually for the wrong reasons.”

    Also included: plenty of booze, poetry readings and coitus that once or twice borders on rape. Sensitive readers should look elsewhere to satisfy prurient curiosity. More poetic types will appreciate Buk’s phrase-making ability and his take on the absurdities of life in the 1970s (or the 2020s, for that matter). A dark fatalism underpins the entire enterprise.

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