Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: In Praise of Hatred (2008) by Khaled Khalifa

The setting for this novel is Syria during the early 1980s when the Assad regime cracked down on rival sects and political protestors with mass killings, political assassinations, and large-scale arrests. It was a brutal time in Syria's modern history, although now dwarfed by the current civil war. The conflict of the '80s has no name to fix it in history, but tens of thousands were killed by the government before the protests died down.

The central character in Hatred is an unnamed teenage girl living in a typical upper-middle-class Aleppo household who becomes radicalized and joins an underground group distributing anti-Assad leaflets. Khalifa is writing about a violent political upheaval, but he hasn't written a political novel. Taking a page from fellow Syrian writer Rafik Schami's playbook, Khalifa has written a novel about the psychological underpinnings and motivations of the troubles that afflict the Arab world. Khalifa also follows Schami's lead in creating a multiverse of stories that weave in and out of the central story, in this case the progress of the heroine from troubled teenager to political prisoner. Khalifa is nowhere near as good a writer as Schami. His prose isn't as magical or imaginative, and at times his writing is more polemical than literary. Like Schami, however, he argues that Syria's tragedy (and that of other Arab states) is a reflection of suffocating traditions, tribal loyalties, sectarian hatreds, and a political class that sees self-aggrandizement (for the individual and his clan/tribe/family) as the raison d'etre of political power.

Khalifa, Schami and Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz have used the role of women in Arab society to symbolize and explain the anxieties and injustices of their respective countries. In Schami's The Calligrapher's Secret (my review), the calligrapher of the title wants to modernize the Arabic language but fails spectacularly due to his brutal, and traditional, treatment of his wife. In Hatred, the heroine's drift into fundamentalism and loathing for other sects and those she sees as being insufficiently pious, is clearly shown to be a symptom of her sexual frustration and sense of confinement as a female walled in by restrictive customs and a savagely patriarchal culture. This point is made very clear in a section of the novel called "Embalmed Butterflies", which is a neat description of the kind of life lived by the novel's female characters, almost all of whom suffer from the cruelties of gender slavery. Novelists like Khalifa, Schami and Mahfouz show that the gender slavery imposed on women in some Muslim countries has an equally pernicious influence on the overall health of the country. In their novels we can see that all the tyrannical orders and blind, spiteful crimes of tradition and honour that women suffer within the four walls of their fearfully guarded homes, are transferred to the population as whole, only with far more devastating effect. The protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square are a neat example of this: the authorities responded to protests against the old order with brutal violence, and both sides took advantage of the chaos to sexually assault women participating in or covering the protests. It seems that democracy and equality needs to begin in the households of Syria and Egypt before it can spread to the body politic.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Justin Trudeau: The Face that Launched a Thousand Attack Ads

In the world of politics, the mud your enemies sling at you can sometimes say more about them than it does about you. Such is the case with the Conservative Party of Canada's ceaseless attack ads aimed at Justin Trudeau. Ever since Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberal Party in April of 2013, the Conservatives have kept up a steady barrage of radio and TV ads that portray him as someone who's unfit to be a leader.

The first item of interest with these ads is that the Tories seem to have no interest in going after Thomas Mulcair, the actual Official Leader of the Opposition. If you weren't familiar with Canadian politics you'd swear that Trudeau was the opposition leader. All of the Harper government's fear and fury is directed at Trudeau, which is an admission that he's the one most likely to cause damage to the Conservative majority in the next election. The Tories were so concerned about Trudeau that they began the attack ads within days of him becoming Liberal leader, which is a bit panicky since the next election won't take place until 2016. But on the other hand it's not very surprising given the Stalinist character of the Stephen Harper regime. Harper seems to be filled with loathing and fear when it comes to opposition or dissent of any kind. He has famously muzzled government scientists from saying anything that might contradict the official Tory line that global warming is a fairy tale, oil pipelines are underground nature trails, and the tar sands are run by Willy Wonka. Harper believes that his real and perceived enemies must be harried and slandered constantly. All this is in addition to the equally constant Tory propaganda ads that masquerade as info pieces about government programs (my piece on that scandal here). The air of cold sweat paranoia that hangs over Harper's government and its attack ads is breathtaking in its intensity. Here's a sample:

The anti-Trudeau attack ads have three goals; the first is to argue that Justin is simply too inexperienced for the role of PM. One ad blends Trudeau quotes that make him sound shallow or clueless with snippets from his CV that purport to show he's unqualified for the country's top job. A comparison with Harper's CV reveals that Harper came into office with even less to recommend him. After graduation from university, Harper went straight into the warm, amniotic fluid of right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups. For a  brief time he headed the National Citizens Coalition, a single-purpose lobbying group that only exists to write screechy press releases about the horrors of big government and taxes. In short, Harper has never callused his hands with anything other than work for various right-wing entities, and his most famous quote from this period is his complaint (to an American audience) that "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it." And a quick glance through a list of his public utterances before he was elected show that he was happy to flirt with the idea of a separate Alberta. Trudeau has never made any anti-Canadian statements, he has two degrees (he was working on a third when he quit to go into politics) to Harper's one, and he spent a few years working as a high school teacher. Although to be fair, Thomas Mulcair wins any battle of the CVs between the three leaders.

More curious, and more revealing of Harper's psyche, is the attack ad's attempt to portray Trudeau as weak and effeminate by showing him strolling some kind of catwalk (a charity fundraiser for the Canadian Liver Foundation), and then having his name drawn across the screen in a font normally found on the covers of women's romance novels. This is the Justin Trudeau who has a wife and three kids, and who in a charity boxing event beat the crap out of Patrick Brazeau, a senator with the burly body of a bouncer (and a Harper appointee who has since been suspended from the Senate on fraud charges). One look at Harper tells you that the worst beating he ever handed out was to a box of butter tarts. Harper likes to do his manliness by proxy; previous PMs made do with minimal security details, but one of Harper's first moves was to give himself a security crew befitting a Third World tyrant: armoured limos and lots of muscly guys with mics in their ears. Add in the Harper government's fondness for military adventures and ceremonies, and you have a portrait of a PM who seems to be overcompensating for something. And let's not forget his narcissistic rebranding of the Government of Canada as the "Harper Government", or his taste in decorating which includes wall-to-wall portraits of himself on every available surface. Harper comes across as man who never got over being wedgied in high school by members of the football team, and who has troubles on the home front that a deferential Canadian press has swept under the rug. All of Harper's repressed anger and resentment seems to come out in the attack ad, which screams out as an example of the revenge of the nerds against the cool kid in school.

The Dear Leader happily contemplates pictures of Himselfness.
The most recent attack ad (I've only heard the radio version) has a "mother" (actually an actor) worrying that Trudeau wants to make it easier for kids to get marijuana. The worried mom concludes that Justin isn't the kind of person who's fit to be a leader. Ironically, days after the attack ads aired the Tories floated the idea of softer penalties for cannabis possession. Hypocrisy in politics isn't new or exclusive to the Tories, but this latest ad shows their pathological fear and hatred of Trudeau, who is in line with public opinion on the issue of marijuana.

I'm no fan of Justin Trudeau (as usual, I'll be voting NDP in the next election), but the unending vilification of him by the Tories speaks volumes about the bullying, juvenile attitude of the party and its leader. The treatment that's being meted out to Trudeau is just one more symptom of Harper's essentially anti-democratic philosophy. Whether it's proroguing Parliament or bringing in an unfair "Fair Elections Act" or deriding Trudeau's ambition to lead the country, Harper is making it clear that he's the one lacking leadership qualities, but he's perfect in the role of ruler.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Film Review: Reality (2012)

There's a certain sub-genre of films that takes a caustic look at people's lust for fame on the small screen. Titles like The King of Comedy, A Face in the Crowd, EDtv, and Being There come to mind, and now Reality, an Italian film by Matteo Garrone, the director of Gomorrah, stakes a claim to being the best of the bunch. Set in Naples, the central character is Luciano, a fishmonger who fancies himself a bit of an entertainer, largely thanks to his wife and extended family who think his silly drag act is hilarious. The film begins at a massive and eye-poppingly garish hotel/wedding hall/banquet centre, the kind of place that provides one-stop shopping for all your tacky wedding needs. Luciano is there with his wife and kids to attend a wedding, and he's about to make one of his beloved appearances in drag when a "celebrity" comes upon the scene. Enzo is the celebrity, a recent winner of Italy's Big Brother TV show (called Grande Fratello in Italy and insanely popular). Enzo has been paid by the hotel to press the flesh at the various weddings, sign some autographs, pose for pictures, and generally bless the weddings with the fairy dust of his fame. Luciano is smitten by his exposure to Enzo and, egged on by his family, he ends up auditioning for Big Brother. He actually makes it through to the next round of auditions, and his neighbours in his working-class area of Naples greet that news by treating him as a celebrity-in-waiting. It's from that point on that Luciano begins a slow and sad descent into something just short of madness. He starts to believe the show's producers are spying on him to find out what he's really like as a prelude to making their decision on his suitability for the program.

Reality succeeds brilliantly because it doesn't give in to the temptation to make its characters or the story too excessive, which is usually what happens when filmmakers take a swipe at TV. Films that take a critical look at TV normally set the ridicule dial at 11 and the subtlety knob at 0. That can make for some loud and preposterous films, Network probably being the best example. Reality keeps its feet on the ground, and becomes all the more powerful because Luciano's transformation from solid worker, loving husband and doting father to deranged wannabe reality TV star carries real emotional weight. Garrone avoids the usual trap of making fun of what's on TV or the people who create programs like Big Brother. We see glimpses of the show and the people behind it, but the emphasis is on how the will-o-wisp appeal of fame can drive the weak, the foolish and the greedy over the edge. In a revealing moment after his second audition, Luciano tells his family that the show's psychologist talked to each potential contestant for five or ten minutes, but in his case the shrink talked to him for an hour. Luciano takes this as a sign that he's on the short list. It's only later that we realize that the psychologist probably sensed something a bit "off" in Luciano's character and decided to give him a more rigorous analysis. Luciano does finally make it to the set of Big Brother, but it's not an appearance that anyone, including the audience, is expecting.

No film about television has ever looked this good. A conventional approach would have been to portray Luciano's world as drab and colorless, in contrast to the bright and shiny land of TV. Luciano lives in a world bursting with colour. The opening sequence at the wedding hotel looks like an explosion in a paint factory, as does a later trip to a water park, and Luciano's home and workplace are both eye-catching, the latter for its decrepit grandeur (it's an apartment in a decaying palazzo) and the former for its location in a lively square. The film isn't offering the tired thesis that its main character is seeking an escape from bland routine. What seems to grip Luciano is the idea of having a bigger stage on which to be himself.

The actors are all excellent, but there has to be special mention of Aniello Arena who plays Luciano. Arena made the film while on day passes from prison where he's serving a life sentence for a triple murder. He was formerly a member of the Neapolitan mafia and his victims (he denies the crime) were rival gangsters. Here's a story on him from the Guardian, and here's a trailer that gives a good taste of the film and it's excellent score.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Film Review: Danger: Diabolik (1968)

I'm not going to say that Danger: Diabolik is a fine film. No film starring John Philip Law, an ambulatory totem pole of an actor, can stake any claim to greatness. It is, however, a wonderful B-movie, even a cult film, and what makes Diabolik special is something that's representative of Italian cinema of the 1960s: a frantic desire to startle and delight the audience with over-the-top visual elements and eccentric soundtracks.

Diabolik (a character from a popular series of Italian comic books) is an anti-hero masterthief who steals from the rich and gives to himself. He wears a ridiculous latex catsuit, kills policemen who get in his way, has an eye-popping underground lair and an equally eye-popping girlfriend, Eva, who wears outfits a stripper would blanch at. The plot has Diabolik stealing jewels and a gold shipment, running afoul of a gangster, and rescuing Eva from a kidnapper. As befits something based on a comic, the action is fast and silly, and the story whizzes by with only a passing wave at logic and the laws of physics. A great many contemporary superhero movies could learn a thing or two from Danger: Diabolik. Here's a taste of what's on offer in the film:


Lots of critics point to the American cinema of the 1970s as a golden age in filmmaking. Certainly from the point of view of storytelling, directors such as Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Francis Coppola, Bob Rafelson, Sidney Lumet and the like set new standards in what kinds of stories could be told, the honest depiction of sex and violence, and the use of actors who looked like the man or woman on the street rather than groomed movie stars. But for my money the Italian films of the previous decade (with some spillage into the early '70s) were a more true golden age. Italian filmmakers of this era were busy playing with the language of film, finding new ways to use all the tools in the filmmaker's utility belt from sound to costuming to set design to music to cinematography (here's a link to my related post on "gesamtkunstwerk" films).

Federico Fellini would be the poster boy for Italian films of this period. His films are studies in artfully combining all the visual and aural qualities available to a director. If you were asked to think of a memorable moment from any Fellini film from this period you'd most likely recall a scene with extravagant sensory appeal. Ask the same question of, say, a Coppola film from the '70s and you'll most likely think of a scene that's important to the plot or defines a character. To put it another way, American directors were novelists, Italian directors were conceptual artists. Check out this "fashion" show from Fellini's Roma:


Fellini was far from the only Italian director creating films that used everything in the filmmaker's toolkit. Sergio Leone redefined and deconstructed the western almost entirely through his use of visuals and Ennio Morricone's iconic music. As with Fellini, Leone's most memorable sequences in the Dollars films are those that combine bold cinematography and even bolder music, such as this one:

What the two clips show is that Italian films of that era often seemed to put the cinematography and music in competition, with each element trying to outdo the other in originality and power. American and English films of the time generally don't do this; the music supports the visuals in these films, whereas in Italian cinema it sometimes seems the music is trying to elbow the visuals aside and vice versa. Composers like John Barry and Maurice Jarre composed soundtracks that complemented the film. Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Nino Rota and Carlo Rustichelli produced soundtracks so distinctive it was though they were daring the director to create visuals that lived up to the music.

Michaelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertulucci, Pier Pasolini and Elio Petri can be added to the list of Italian directors maximizing all the possibilities film has to offer, and that brings us to the question of why the Italians and not so much everyone else? I don't really have an answer for that, but I'll toss out a few theories. The first is that many Italian directors came to film after having attained success in other fields. Bertolucci, Pasolini and Fellini were writers first, Petri a political activist, and Mario Bava, the director of Danger: Diabolik, began as a painter. These were people who brought more to the party than a degree from a film school. And then there's Catholicism. Did the intense visual symbolism and pageantry of Catholic churches and religious processions create a strong appreciation for meaning and story transmitted entirely through visual means? Finally, there might be a technical reason for the visual strength of Italian films. It was customary in Italian cinema to "loop" or post-dub all the dialogue. This meant that directors didn't have to worry about the position of sound equipment when framing shots or mapping out camera movements; and because there weren't any flubbed lines to worry about, or time spent coaching actors on their line readings (actors were often told to just count out loud during on-camera dialogue scenes, all the director needed to see was their lips moving), more time could be spent on the look of the film.

Contemporary Italian cinema is a shadow of its former self, but recent films such as Il Divo (2008), Le Quattro Volte (2010)  and Reality (2012) show that there's still some artistic life left in the industry.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Book Review: The Son (2013) by Phillipp Meyer

A lot of the reviews of The Son have labeled it as The Great American Novel. I won't give The Son that award, but it's definitely a great American novel. It's tempting to call it The Great American Novel because Meyer has taken a hard look at his country through the prism of Texas' history and decided that America's past, when reduced to its ugly essentials, is a story of rapacious colonization and the ruthless exploitation of labour and natural resources, with the wheels of both processes greased by violence and racism. The history of Texas provides plenty of examples to prove Meyer's thesis.

The Son is the story of the McCullough family, from their arrival in Texas as settlers in the 1830s right up to their eventual status as oil barons in 2012. The story is told through the voices of three different generations of McCulloughs: Eli, Peter and Jeanne. Eli is the founder of the family fortune. Captured by Comanches at the age of thirteen, he eventually bonds completely with his captors and becomes a warrior, happily taking white scalps along with his fellow braves. The Comanche, along with other Indian tribes, succumb to disease and white expansion, and Eli rejoins the white world and becomes a Texas Ranger. The grubstake Eli uses to make his fortune comes courtesy of his armed, and bloody, robbery of a Union supply column carrying gold. Soon after that he begins acquiring land in west Texas. Peter, Eli's son, is born in 1870 and his section of the saga covers the years 1915-17, during which the Texas Border Wars with Mexico are raging. Eli is still alive at this time (he lives to the ripe age of 100) and uses the wars as a pretext for slaughtering his neighbors, the Garcias, and stealing their land through a legal subterfuge. Peter is appalled by his father's actions and the moral character of his peers and state, and eventually makes a complete break with his family by disappearing into Mexico. Jeanne is born in 1926 and completes the family's transition (begun by Eli) from land and cattle to oil.

The Eli section of the novel is one of the great western stories in American literature, albeit one that probably owes a debt of inspiration to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man. Eli's story is exuberantly raw, bloody, violent and cruel. You could call this America in its proto-capitalist phase, when all you needed to do to get ahead of the other guy was to kill him and steal all his belongings, as well as slaughtering his family. Eli is the "son" of the novel's title. He's cursed with being a product of two patriarchal cultures. From his Comanche side he gets a high tolerance for the suffering of others and a fierce sense of tribal loyalty. From the American side he gets a burning desire to own and possess everything, and from both influences he receives lessons in the utility and pleasures of violence.

Peter is the first in the family's history to realize that their clan and caste are a curse upon the land. His tragedy is that his moral viewpoint isn't backed up by a high enough degree of moral courage. Peter makes an attempt to prevent his father massacring the Garcias, but, by his own reckoning, he doesn't do enough and finds he can't live with the guilt until an opportunity comes to redeem himself. Peter is the most complex character in the novel, and if it sometimes feels like Peter has wandered in from a William Faulkner novel, that's intended as a compliment to Meyer because parts of the novel are the equal of Faulkner.

The Jeanne section of the novel is the weakest of the three. It feels like Meyer just isn't sure what to do with this character or the story and ends up, well, faffing about a bit. Eli started his fortune entirely through violence, while the events of 1915 in Peter's part of the story shows the McCulloughs expanding their wealth through a combination of violence and legal trickery, and I think Meyer wanted to show how, over time, American capitalism was able to engage in thievery without the use of violence. At one point we learn that Jeanne has profited enormously from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, and there are hints she's involved in shady dealings in the Middle East, but this idea isn't fully developed. Instead, the story flits around without settling on a theme or central issue, and the climax, which involves a distant, and unknown, Mexican relative feels contrived.

Even with some bumps along the way, The Son is always compulsively readable. Like Texas, Meyer's writing is big and bold, but at the same time he can deftly and poetically describe the beauty of western landscapes or the intricate details of daily life in a Comanche camp. Parts of this novel are very raw and cruel, but this fits into the author's goal of showing the savage roots of American expansionism. I should walk that last statement back a bit and point out that Meyer also argues that violence and ruthless acquisitiveness are part of the human condition. Meyer does this by not sugarcoating his Comanche characters with any kind of  "noble savage" nonsense. They, like the invading whites, have a taste for theft and violence, and as several Comanche characters point out, long before the whites arrived the indigenous peoples were enthusiastically slaughtering each other. This isn't the Great American Novel, but if you paired it with Charles Portis' Masters of Atlantis (my review) you'd have the yin and yang of America, or perhaps what could be called the Great American Reading Experience.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) by Sujit Saraf

All the cool kids are writing historical fiction. Check over the long and short lists for the Booker Prize over the last ten years or so and you see a lot of novels set in the past, including winners like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the BodiesThe Luminaries and True History of the Kelly Gang. I don't know why this is so, but it seems to be a relatively recent development. It's hard to think of many celebrated writers from the 1920s through to the '50s who tried their hand at historical fiction. Sujit Saraf's previous novel was The Peacock Throne (my review), a big and brilliant novel about life in the Chandi Chowk area of New Delhi. The Confession of Sultana Daku is based on a true story and is set in the United Provinces of India in the 1920s. Saraf follows the titular bandit's short but spectacular criminal career from sneak thief to leader of a large and murderous gang. The activities of the gang eventually led to the British authorities taking notice. The army was called in, and after months of pursuit Sultana Daku was captured and hanged.

The novel is written in Sultana's voice, on the eve of his execution, as he tells his life story to an English officer who writes down everything he says. Sultana wants his life recorded so that the son he's never seen can learn what a great bandit his father was. Sultana's narrative is interrupted at times by entries from the officer's journal that describe some of the background to the manhunt.

The brilliance of this novel lies in its portrayal of Sultana. The bandit is boastful, self-pitying, occasionally delusional, and yet he remains a sympathetic character because we're aware that he's presenting himself this way because his audience is a British officer. Sultana's trying to impress a sahib, show him that his life counted for something despite being a member of one of India's lowest and most reviled castes, and at the same time he's reveling in the chance to have the undivided attention of a member of the one caste that rules all the other castes. In the background of the story, Ghandi and the Congress Party are taking the first steps on the road to winning India's independence and ending the culture and traditions that made Sultana a bandit, and make him feel privileged to speak with a sahib. As zero hour approaches for Sultana his mythomania drops away and he's revealed as a terrified man who'll beg and plead for his life. It's at this point that the novel fully captures the sadness and tragedy of life for India's "untouchables."

The political and social aspects of Sultana Daku give the story added depth, but what makes it additionally exceptional is Saraf's rich, vibrant prose. His descriptions of the land and people, the environment that Sultana swims in, are wonderfully realized, and it's no surprise that in an author's note at the beginning of the novel Saraf gives a mention to the books of Jim Corbett. Corbett was a hunter of India's man-eating tigers in the 1920s, and he wrote several books that are wonderfully evocative of the Indian countryside and sympathetic to India's peasants. Saraf even gives Corbett a cameo appearance in the story.

The only thing I can complain about is that this book needed an introduction to explain some of the historical background. Sultana is a victim of India's Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, and a full description of it off the top would have cleared up some confusion early in the story. A glossary might also be in order, although I don't really mind being thrown in at the deep end with novels about times and places that are foreign to me. But the fact that this novel has been barely reviewed outside of India (The Peacock Throne was widely reviewed outside of India) might be down to the fact that for a non-Indian reader much of the novel is going be tough sledding. Tough, but very, very rewarding.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Film Review: Nebraska (2013)

Somewhere in Hollywood there's a big, colour-coded map of the USA that shows what kinds of stories are permitted to be filmed in various regions of the country. On this map New England (tinted green) gets WASPy warmedies like Hope Springs and On Golden Pond. The South (peach-colored) gets brassy, sassy women givin' folks a piece of their mind in Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes. Big cities (marked with large gold stars) get all the hyper-kinetic action movies and the broadest comedies. This leaves the Midwest and the Plains states (slate grey). They get bleak, austere tales of plain-looking people who stare moodily from car windows, kitchen windows and store windows (the latter typically plastered with "Going Out Of Business" signs) at flat, treeless landscapes, lightly populated with other people staring gloomily out of windows. This is the land of films like Badlands, Fargo, The Last Picture Show and now Nebraska, which has followed the rules of Hollywood's USA map to the letter.

Director Alexander Payne's Nebraska is as cliche-riddled as the most generic buddy-cop action movie and three times as dull. The thin-as-dental-floss plot has old guy Woody trying to get from Montana to Nebraska to claim a Publisher's Clearing House-type prize of one million dollars that he thinks he's won (he hasn't). His son drives him to Nebraska, and along the way there's a family reunion, of sorts, and, inevitably, a tepid father-son reconciliation moment at the very end. All the road movie and father-son relationship tropes are on full display: bickering; surprise revelations about dad's past; quirky characters; scenic detours along the way; and a settling of accounts with old enemies. And just to make sure all the cliche boxes are ticked, Nebraska gives us characters who are uniformly laconic, terse, and unemotional to the point of being catatonic. This, of course, is how Hollywood has traditionally viewed people who live in the "flyover states" and have the kind of jobs that involve manual labour and getting paid by the hour; and so in Nebraska the characters are essentially dead-eyed zombies, only instead of an appetite for brains they seek meatloaf. In short, what we have here are cartoonish caricatures, not characters. Payne wants us to snicker at most every character in his film; in fact, it's not going too far to say that he's actually showing contempt for them.

There isn't one moment or performance that rescues this film from total crapdom. The pace is lethargic, the humour is cheap and obvious, and the acting is all over the place in terms of tone. The key roles are done with professional polish, but the supporting characters give the impression they've been pulled in off the street. The disconnect in style between the two groups of actors is very jarring. Finally, why the hell is Bruce Dern up for a best actor Oscar? Is he nominated in a special category for Best Actors Who We All Thought Were Dead But It Turns Out They Aren't? All he does for most of the film is stare vacantly into the middle distance and say "What?" in a querulous voice whenever he's spoken to. Add this film to the long list of Hollywood products that see working class and lower-middle-class characters as something between buffoons and ciphers.