War Machine.

Three new Insider pieces for you to check out this week: scouting notes on Yu Darvish, more notes on Aaron Nola and some young Phillies hitters, and my annual look at players I was wrong about.

War Machine, released briefly to theaters this spring but residing in perpetuity on Netflix, is a thinly fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book The Operators, itself an expasion of Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal from his post as Commander of the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan in 2010. It is a decidedly unflattering depiction of just about everything and everyone involved in the endless war against the Taleban, although it succeeds more in its portrayal of individual foibles than as an indictment of the war effort as a whole, laying more on the comic end of the scale than on the satirical side.

Brad Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, the movie’s pseudonym for the McChrystal character, a tough-talkin’, f-bomb-droppin’, let’s-go-kick-some-terrorist-ass general brought in to replace the last let’s-go-kick-some-terrorist-ass general who couldn’t win the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. It appears that this is what McChrystal was really like, although he feels like a walking cliché, a Hollywood-ized representation of what a no-nonsense military leader should look, act, and talk like. He comes to the coalition with his group of acolytes and toadies, including the rah-rah Major General (based on Michael Flynn) played hilariously by Anthony Michael Hall, who largely cheer him on or at least avoid contradicting him, and has somewhat predictable conflicts with American diplomats, notably Karl Eikenberry stand-in Pat McKinnon, played by Alan Ruck (whom you know as Cameron Frye). McChrystal comes across as well-intentioned but largely naive about how unwinnable the conflict really is, although he does have moments of clarity – like the talk he gives to the European Parliament where he explains how killing insurgents likely creates more insurgents in the long run – amidst the standard military maneuvers.

Pitt seems so focused here on doing his impression of McChrystal that any nuance in the character is lost. The portrayal is all accent, facial expressions, and gait – his jogging scenes are just strange, as it seems impossible that Pitt could appear that unathletic – and lacks any depth, which is shocking because Pitt is capable of so much more. His performance is indicative of the misuse of so many talented actors in two-dimensional roles here – Ben Kingsley as the drug-addled, feckless President Karzai; Topher Grace as McMahon’s “civilian media adviser,” who sets up the ill-fated Rolling Stone article; Meg Tilly, looking disturbingly old in short grey hair, as McMahon’s ignored, adoring wife. Only Tilda Swinton, given one scene as a German politician who interrogates and questions McMahon during the talk to the Parliament, gets any material with which she can work, and it’s all of one scene. (There’s also an uncredited cameo at the end of the film that I won’t spoil but that did generate one of the many laugh-out-loud moments I had.)

War Machine has been reviewed and marketed as a satire, but I think it works better as a straight comedy with tragic elements. It’s too close to real events to work as farce; the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was destined to fail, at least once the initial goal of removing the Taleban, who harbored al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, had been achieved, and everything after that was theater. The script certainly hones that to a fine point – the value of the war effort to politicians and the political cost of increasing the engagement both come through – but without parodic exaggeration. Instead, the script succeeds by crafting comedy against an unusual backdrop, including two scenes where Kingsley’s Karzai gets probably the biggest laughs of the film, without telling the viewer anything s/he didn’t already know about the circular nature of the war effort.

(The film contains a clip of President Obama’s speech at West Point, announcing a troop surge in 2009; just last month, almost eight full years later, President Trump announced the same thing. The effort to train Afghan forces to protect their own country has already cost us $70 billion and costs another $4 billion every year, while parts of the country remain within Taleban control or “contested” between the government and insurgents.)

The magazine article that eventually led to this film toppled a general and drew back the curtain on a little bit of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but ultimately led to no substantive change in our policy there. Even if this film had become a massive hit in theaters – Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, so we have no idea how many people have even seen it – it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind on our policy there. War Machine is often very funny, and it may increase your weariness of the war, or our country’s repeated, failed attempts at nation-building (even where our intentions were good) abroad, but I don’t think this movie tells us anything about the war or the politics thereof that we didn’t already know.

The Sense of an Ending (film).

I adored Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, a spare and unsparing look at how one impetuous act could ruin multiple lives yet leave the actor unscathed until he discovers the consequences decades later. Barnes’ protagonist, Tony Webster, is bright and can think critically except where he’s involved; his lack of self-awareness is the central theme of the work, and Barnes unfurls the history to Tony as he does to the reader, allowing us to share in the main character’s befuddlement, denial, and rationalization in a sort of literary real time.

The film version of The Sense of an Ending came out earlier this year and is now available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes, and it is excellent but falls just short of the book. The acting is superb, and the story largely hews faithfully to Barnes’ concepts, but alters a few key details in ways that muffle the impact of various revelations – and utterly alter the meaning of the book’s ending.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced, very slightly grumpy old man who runs an antique camera shop in his semi-retirement, maintains good relations with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Wheeler), and is on call for the imminent birth of his first grandchild to his unmarried daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). Tony gets a certified letter saying that a woman he knew decades earlier, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has died and left him an object, but it turns out that Sarah’s daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor), whom Tony briefly dated, refuses to part with the object – the diary of Tony’s friend and later Veronica’s boyfriend Adrian. Tony becomes obsessed with obtaining the diary, largely because it’s legally his (rather than any expressed interest in its contents), and his efforts to acquire it lead him to an encounter with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling) and revelations from their shared past that will discolor Tony’s entire understanding of his own actions and character.

This is in so many ways a very British movie, from the way almost everything in it is so understated and even under the surface to the murderer’s row of a cast all delivering sparkling performances. The filmed Tony is less self-aware than the literary one, and Broadbent infuses him with aloofness in manner and accent, as if he is constantly flummoxed by the existence of other people and their feelings. Rampling absolutely seethes in her few appearances in the film, an angrier Veronica than the one in the book, who holds herself above Tony in word and deed because it is the only victory available to her this late in the match. Mortimer also gets limited screen time, only in flashbacks, but the subtlety of her performance as Sarah is more evidence once Sarah’s role in the events that followed becomes clear.

The novel on which this is based is only about 165 pages, but it felt like the film still rushed past some of the book’s flashbacks to Tony’s time in school with Adrian and his dalliance with Veronica. It also changes several major details from the story, not least of which is dispensing with Barnes’ structure, where the book starts with the school days, and the bequest doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the book, starting part two and causing Tony to reevaluate the story he has narrated in part one. Tony follows Veronica from one of their meetings, somewhat creepily, whereas in the book Veronica shows him what he discovers by stalking her in the movie.

The most unforgivable sin of the film’s script, however, is the ending, which is much kinder to Tony than the book’s conclusion – and kinder than the film version of Tony deserves. He set this all in motion, but the movie’s ending doesn’t make his culpability sufficiently clear, and concludes his story on a somewhat hopeful note – even as we hear the text of a new letter he has sent to Veronica that left me thinking that even after he’s learned the truth, he still doesn’t get it, and at this point, he probably never will.

I don’t usually give grades or ratings of movies, especially since I often write about them months after their release, but in this case I’ll make an exception. This is a good movie that falls short of a great book – a 55 film from a 70 novel, in scouting terms – buoyed by a tremendous cast and that very British way of letting the audience work out a lot of details on its own. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it like I did, however, you may find the deviations distracting, especially as they’re all to the bad.

A Man Called Ove.

A Man Called Ove was one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, won by the preseason favorite, the Iranian movie The Salesman, whose director had won previously for the amazing film A Separation. Ove was Sweden’s submission for the award, and it is a perfectly serviceable movie but not remarkable in any way. It’s just very well-made and well-acted, but it’s based on a best-selling book of the same name that seems like the sort feel-good pablum that offers a superficial meaning-of-life message like “be nice to others.”

Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, obsessed with following and enforcing rules, making enemies of everyone in his little planned community. He’s utterly miserable and tries multiple times in the film to kill himself to be with his beloved wife, Sonja. When a new family moves in, with the father Swedish and the mother, Parvaneh, of Iranian descent, they interrupt more than one of these suicide attempts, and the mother seems totally immune to his misanthropy, forcing herself into his life, making him teach her to drive and even to watch her kids one night, to the point where she cracks his exterior and gets him to tell her (and us) his life story. In the end, Ove becomes a changed man, a friend to all, a grandfather surrogate to her kids, and I’m sure you can guess what happens after that. (It’s available to rent on amazon and iTunes.)

This movie goes nowhere without the performance of Rolf Lassgård as Ove (pronounced “OOH-vuh”), a turn that won him the Swedish equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Ove is the only nuanced character in the entire film, a grumpy old man whose grumpiness is a cover for misery, loneliness, and a return to the chronic shyness that plagued him pre-Sonja. There’s something inexplicable in his resistance to kind overtures from neighbors, or simple requests from one woman he’s known for decades to help fix her radiator. (The reason turns out to be both funny and stupid at once.) It seems like Lassgård had a harder task because he was playing a character whose complexity was compromised by the absurdity of his behavior.

The story itself is faintly ridiculous, not least because the movie never gives us a single reason to think that Sonja, who is kind, intelligent, and very pretty, would have the slightest interest in the insular, moody, and unromantic Ove. He doesn’t so much pursue her as stalk her, and she responds by more or less leading him around by the nose. They have almost nothing in common, and their personalities are dead opposites. I can see why she illuminated Ove’s life to the point where he says there was nothing before Sonja and there is nothing after her, but what exactly did she see in him?

(Incidentally, part of why I found Sonja so compelling was her taste in literature. When they first meet, she’s reading The Master and Margarita, my favorite novel ever.)

Parvaneh is too relentlessly positive to be realistic, and the fact that she’s already very pregnant at the start of the movie means we know that baby is going to pop out before the film ends, probably at a dramatic or inopportune moment. (It’s like Chekhov’s gun.) The story checks all the boxes about modern prejudice – we see Ove get over his casual sexism, racism, and homophobia over the course of the film. And one of the various subplots in the story, the fate of Ove’s neighbor and former rival Rune, has an utterly ridiculous deus-ex sort of resolution that undermined all of the details that came before it. None of this made Ove’s revival in the film’s final 20 minutes any less emotional to watch, but when A Man Called Ove was done, I had the distinct feeling of having consumed a lot of empty calories.

Hidden Figures.

The story of the three African-American women who broke through color and gender barriers at NASA in the 1960s makes perfect fodder for a Hollywood movie, and Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name, has become a surprise commercial success, earning more than any of the other eight nominees for Best Picture this year. The story itself is wonderful, a fairy tale of talented women of color whose good work was recognized for what it was and who persevered through an era that didn’t respect them as people to help develop the American space program. But this movie … this is a movie for kids. Even with lots of great performances, it’s incredibly bland, and it’s hard for me to believe that the truth was this simple.

The story revolves around Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, the three women, all black, all working at NASA, all relegated to the “colored computer” room – a time when a computer was a person who computed, not a machine that did it for you. Goble (Taraji Henson, who gives the film’s best performance) was a child prodigy in math, according to the film, solving quadratic equations when most kids were doing arithmetic, and has become an adult who can, apparently, do trigonometry in her head. Her story is the most central of the three, as she’s drafted to fill an opening in the Space Task program, one that no white man was able to handle, working for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, who’s pretty fantastic as well), a character made up for the movie. (NASA has a brief FAQ that explains that several of the white characters in the film aren’t real, but that John Glenn really did ask for “the girl” to double-check the calculations.) Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) ran the colored computer room and ends up teaching herself Fortran, one of the earliest programming languages, so she can run the new IBM mainframe NASA is installing. Jackson (Janelle Monae) has the least to do in the film, but became the first black female engineer at NASA, thanks in part to her challenge of a whites-only rule at the school where the classes she needed to take were offered.

The three actresses who play the three women do well with what they’re given, but the characters we see on screen are just a little too cute and the story created a bunch of fake obstacles for them to overcome. The “colored” bathroom detail is inaccurate, but forms a big and very silly part of the story. (Plus the script makes Goble appear to be a klutz.) I wouldn’t want such a script to create fake racism for the women to face, but at the same time, I find it very hard to believe that this was the height of the interference for three black women in Virginia circa 1960, a state where many facilities were truly still segregated and mixed-race marriages were still illegal. Did Goble’s white male colleagues in the Space Task program really go no further than asking her to use a separate coffee pot? And did we really need the white savior figure in the pastiche character of Harrison to force everyone else to accept Goble as part of the team?

There are a lot of recognizable faces among the remainder of the cast, delivering mixed results. Kirsten Dunst, also playing a character contrived for the story, plays the garden-variety Southern white racist woman who seems to think she’s not racist. She was just missing her Sunday hat to make the stereotype complete. Mahershala Ali, who appeared with Monae in Moonlight, appears as a very one-dimensional love interest for the widowed Goble. (The scene where his character proposes is more saccharine than a case of TaB.) Glenn Powell, who was so damn good as the philosophical Finn in Everybody Wants Some!!, is incredibly charming as John Glenn, but that character was written with less nuance than anyone – he’s the Great American Hero, so let’s not tarnish him in any way.

The truth behind Hidden Figures had to be more interesting than what we’re getting here on film. This version feels like it was made for kids – and my ten-year-old daughter absolutely loved it across the board. She loved that the women outsmarted the men, that racism took the L, that science and math were at the heart of the story, and that it says women can do STEM jobs just as well as men. But it didn’t exactly give her a fair picture of race in America at the time of the story, either, and when she asked if it was really “like that” afterwards, I told her that it was probably much worse. These three women deserved a better story than the one they got here, even if the truth is uglier than we’d like it to be.

Sherlock, season four.

New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.

I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.

I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.

And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.

That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.

If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.

That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.

However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Love and Friendship.

My latest Insider post discusses why September prospect callups are a thing of the past.

If it’s possible for a Jane Austen work to be unknown, her novella Lady Susan likely qualifies. Written before her six completed novels but unpublished until fifty years after her death, the shortepistolary work tells the story of the widowed Susan’s attempts to marry off her daughter to a wealthy, amiable dunce, as well as her own juggling of affairs with two men, one the married Lord Mainwaring, one her sister-in-law’s brother Reginald de Courcy. As in most of Austen’s works, Lady Susan is full of dry wit, and the pressing need for women of that era to marry well for their own financial security is a major plot point.

American director Whit Stillman adapted the work for the 2016 film Love & Friendship (amazoniTunes), which peculiarly takes its name from an entirely separate work written by Austen as a teenager (with the title misspelled as “Love & Freindship”) and stars Kate Beckinsale as the conniving seductress of the novella’s title. Stillman’s direction is heavyhanded at times, but the dialogue is sharp and sparkling, while the key performances, especially Beckinsale’s, absolutely carry the film.

As the movie opens, Lady Susan is seen leaving the Mainwarings’ estate, having been thrown out by Lady Mainwaring – who is in hysterics every time she’s on screen – and arrives at Churchill, the estate of her late husband’s sister and her family, having nowhere else to go. Shortly after her arrival, she begins her temptation of Reginald, the young, handsome brother of Lady Vernon, an eligible bachelor who is intelligent but naive and quickly succumbs to the beautiful and more worldly Lady Susan’s efforts. The plot thickens when Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, arrives, trailed by the amiable dunce Sir James Martin, who has £10,000 a year and is as dumb as a sack of hair (although one of the script’s greatest strengths is making comedy gold of Sir James’ stupidity). Frederica wants no part of Sir James, while Lady Susan, who cares little for her daughter except as a means to a lucrative end, tries to put her maternal foot down, a move that eventually causes a conflict between her and her late husband’s entire family.

Austen’s plots are all straightforward, but she never crafted another central character as venal as Lady Susan, whom Beckinsale plays to the hilt as by turns coquettish and condescending. Beckinsale, now 43, fits Austen’s description of Lady Susan (“from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older”) quite well, but given her history of playing one-dimensional characters in mass-market action films, her acting prowess here came as a pleasant surprise; her performance drips with disdain for just about everyone around her, except her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who appears to live vicariously through her avaricious friend. (The character’s nationality is unspecified in Austen’s novella, and Sevigny’s American accent is jarring amidst all of the upper-class British characers.) Beckinsale has to drive the film, as she’s at the center of every strand of the plot, but she does so with alacrity.

The one other key performance is Tom Bennett’s turn as Sir James Martin, looking and sounding a bit like Discount Colin Firth but managing to pull off his performance of an extremely likable, well-meaning dimwit, to the point where the viewer has real empathy for him even while understanding why Frederica might balk at his companionship. Although the trailer highlighted Sir James’ confusion over Churchill boasting neither church nor hill, his scene around the “twelve commandments” was the film’s real comic highlight.

We get just a bit of Stephen Fry as Lady Johnson’s husband and Lady Mainwaring’s guardian, but he’s woefully underutilized, as are Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as DeCourcy’s parents. But the novella itself comprises mostly letters from Lady Susan, so Stillman’s script had to invent much of the dialogue and reimagine most of the characters beyond hers. He was more deft with that than with some of the peculiar shots in the film, from the odd way the characters are introduced to the strange close-ups we get of characters (one near the end of Lord Mainwaring looked like a mistake) at various points. Lady Susan is a trifle of a story compared to Austen’s novels, so the challenge for Stillman here was greater than it might have been in adapting Emma or Persuasion, but he and Beckinsale in particular have developed it into a fast-paced, often hilarious movie where no one gets what they want yet Lady Susan still seems to come out on top.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (miniseries).

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 best-selling novel and winner of the Hugo Award, in November of 2008, an experience so immersive and enjoyable that I can remember specific places where I sat and read it. It’s as perfect as any contemporary work of fiction I’ve encountered, with numerous complex characters; a soaring, multi-faceted plot; and the highbrow British-English prose style appropriate to its early 19th-century setting. I’ve read at least a half-dozen novels of a thousand pages or more, including some considered among the greatest novels of all time, but I’d still take Jonathan Strange over all of them, not least because there isn’t a wasted word among the over 300,000 in its text.

That experience with the book raised my expectations for the BBC adaptation of the book to unreasonable levels, even though the network chose to adapt it as a seven-hour mini-series rather than trying to cram its bulkl into a single two-hour film. The resulting series, available on iTunes for about $20 (it’s not streaming anywhere I can see; amazon has the Blu-Ray for $25), is one of the best TV series I’ve seen in years, better even than season one of Orphan Black or Broadchurch, even on par with The Wire for giving viewers so many well-acted, complex characters intimately involved in the central plot.

The titular characters of the novel and series are magicians in the early 1800s who endeavor to restore English magic, which has been lost from the land for about 300 years. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the mousy, pedantic, egotistical magician of learning who sets off the book’s events when he restores a dead noblewoman, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), to life by summoning a creature known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), making a bad bargain that reopens the door between England and the otherworld where magic resides. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is the young prodigy whose innate talent for magic draws the interest of Norrell, who wishes to tutor Strange in book-learning rather than in “practical” magic, only to set off a rivalry between the two when Norrell’s acts exact a very high cost on Strange and his young, beautiful wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the Gentleman, having regained access to this realm, lays his claim to Lady Pole, enchants the servant Stephen Black (Arikon Bayare), the “nameless slave” who is to become king under the prophecy of the fairy/magician known as the Raven King, who appears only briefly on screen and looks like a refugee from a Norse black metal band.

The series is remarkably faithful to the original text, preserving all of the essential characters, including many I didn’t mention above such as Norrell’s servant (and occasional practitioner of magic) John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, whose voice I wish to steal) and the vagrant street-magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), while limiting diversions from the book’s plot to minor changes of convenience. Yet the series is powered primarily by the command performances of its two leads, Marsan and Carvel, with Marsan playing Norrell as a sort of upper-class Peter Pettigrew, simpering yet also dismissive, while Carvel imbues Strange with the passion and exuberance befitting his character’s youth before the character’s disillusionment drives him to madness. The great performances extend to the actors I’ve cited here, playing secondary roles, particularly Warren as the predatory charmer The Gentleman, with clawlike fingernails and “thistledown” hair, and Kaye apparently having the time of his life as the staggering, filthy Vinculus.

The demands on the editors of this series must have been huge, with a variety of sets and settings and impressive special effects for a television series, leading to many potential points of confusion as the focus shifted from Strange to Norrell to the King’s Roads (the “otherworld” of magic and fairies) and back around. I’m of the lay opinion that editing is a lot like umpiring in baseball: you notice it far more when it’s bad than when it’s good, and if it’s really good, you forget it’s even there. It was only while watching the final episode that it occurred to me how seamless the transitions from scene to scene or even shot to shot were, even though the pacing had increased in the final two hours of the series. Once Strange has entered the King’s Roads and descended into the madness that drives all of the related subplots toward one huge conclusion, the story starts flying and the use of more magic within the story could easily create confusion for viewers unfamiliar with the story, but strong editing and camerawork ensure that the viewer never loses the perspective required to keep pace.

One of you mentioned some dismay that Strange’s time serving as the official army magician under Wellington was given relatively less time on screen than on the page, an understandable disappointment at a choice that was likely made either for budgetary reasons or because the writers didn’t want to bog the story down in a segment where Strange and Norrell are completely apart. I thought the portrayal of the sycophantic fraudster Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) was too much of a caricature, and the relationship between Strange and Flora Graysteel in Venice required some more on-screen explanation. On the plus side, the series did a better job portraying the book’s ambiguous conclusion than Clarke herself did on the page, and while I still wanted a happier ending, at least the series turned the vague resolution into clear images the viewer could take away.

I would still suggest anyone interested in the series start with the book, both for background and for the sheer pleasure of the experience. The novel has much dry wit that can’t translate to the screen, as well as copious footnotes that mostly add humor to the story, and Clarke’s prose sparkles in ways that will never come through on film. But the adaptation here is so thorough that I believe any viewer could approach it without the background of the book and still follow the entire story without any trouble, which, for a work this dense, is a major achievement. I know in the time of “peak TV” there’s tremendous competition for your eyeballs and nowhere near enough time to watch everything you want – I might see a tenth of the series I’d like to see – but if you’re going to binge anything this offseason, put Jonathan Strange on your list.

The Killer Angels.

Michael Shaara only wrote four novels during his life, one of which, the baseball book For the Love of the Game, was published posthumously and turned into a critically panned movie, but his magnum opus was the Civil War novel The Killer Angels, for which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That book, which takes its title from one general’s father’s reaction to a line in Hamlet, served as the basis for the four-hour epic film Gettysburg, and Joss Whedon has said it inspired him to create the series Firefly.

The book retells the Battle of Gettysburg in substantial detail, using memoirs and letters from the generals involved where possible, narrating from the perspective of five of those generals and showing the discord on the Confederate side on how to attack the Union’s positions. General James Longstreet wrote an extensive memoir after the Civil War and we get much of his view on the South’s ill-fated decision to hold Gettysburg rather than retreating to more favorable ground; instead, Robert E. Lee, who is depicted here as in failing health and of a distracted, stubborn mind, chose to attack Union positions on two hills south of the town that provided the blue troops with a decided defensive advantage. (Longstreet was roundly criticized for decades afterwards for these failures and his request to delay the assault until an additional brigade arrived for support.) The main voice for the Union, Joshua Lawrence Chamberain (called Lawrence by his brother, Tom, throughout the book), led the defense of one of those hills, Little Round Top, and became one of the war’s primary heroes after the battle, commanding the Union troops at the surrender ceremony at Appamattox and later serving four years as Governor of Maine.

The Killer Angels is a war novel through and through, which means there’s very little else in it – including no female characters at all, but also little dialogue or even thoughts beyond the exigencies of the next battle. If you’re interested in military tactics, there’s likely quite a bit in here for you to enjoy and digest, especially with Longstreet’s recollections of the battle informing so much of the text. If you like character development or any plot threads at all beyond the war itself, this isn’t the book for you – or me, as it turned out, because despite strong prose and a quick pace through the action, The Killer Angels struck me as rather dry and, no pun intended, an antiseptic look at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. They came, they fought, some of them died, and those losses – nearly 8000 soldiers from both sides were killed, with around 50,000 total casualties – seem horribly pointless through the narrow lens of the book, which gives no broader context to the battle. (Not that the broader context makes the deaths any less lamentable.) The generals in Washington who were directing the overall war effort are only present on these pages as the idiots the leaders on the ground criticize for their dimwitted direction, while families are off-page distractions mentioned only in passing. There’s none of the substance I’d expect to see in a work of literature, because Shaara chose to make the novel all about the battle itself. That may suffice for many readers, and it does qualify the work for the Pulitzer criterion that the winner “preferably (deal) with American life,” but it’s not my personal preference for higher-end reading.

Next up: Another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West, which won in 1950.

A Scanner Darkly.

I love the works of Philip K. Dick, prolific author of science fiction novels and short stories that often dwelt in paranoia and paradoxes, unrespected during his lifetime but finding a cult following since his death in 1982, with an increasing interest lately from Hollywood. The upcoming Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle (based on his best novel) and the Fox series Minority Report (based on a short story) are both derived from his works, as were the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau. So you know PKD’s writing even if you haven’t ready any.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his least speculative novels, hewing very closely to reality other than its depiction of a war on drugs that has gone even further than it ultimately did, using some futuristic technologies (and yet still relying on payphones) and putting its protagonist narc, Fred, undercover with suspected drug dealers where he ends up a user himself. The drug in question, Substance D, is a highly addictive, synthetic, psychoactive drug that has become hugely popular while stymieing attempts by the feds to discover its manufacturer. Fred, posing as the low-level dealer Bob Arctor, tries to learn the source via another low-level dealer Donna, for whom he also has unrequited feelings. His adoption of these dual roles is exacerbated by his use of Substance D, which can cause the hemispheres of the brain to stop working together and start competing with each other, so that he’s no longer aware of what his other persona has done. When this occurs, the story shifts into high gear, as Fred/Bob’s real role in this charade becomes apparent and he has a chance to carve some meaning out of his experience in addiction.

Dick’s paranoia is still present in A Scanner Darkly, with the government using increasingly invasive methods and technologies to investigate Substance D’s distribution; the novel, written in the mid-1970s, foresaw much of what our government now does in the name of fighting terrorism. But the focus of the novel is on the effects of the drug itself, the terrible spiral into which it sends addicts, with Fred/Bob’s descent into cognitive failure taking over from what appears for the first half of the book to be a demented detective story. Dick even concludes the novel with a postscript that discusses drug addiction and laments the many friends he lost to death or disability as a result of their use of drugs, although he argues that drug “misuse” isn’t a disease but “a decision,” a position on to which modern medicine has at least cast some doubt.

Whereas many of Dick’s novels offer incomplete resolutions or deliberately unsatisfying endings, A Scanner Darkly ties up its story in a neat and clever fashion, but in a bait-and-switch manner that leaves that first half to two-thirds of the novel feeling like it was irrelevant. Perhaps Dick meant for the the structure of the novel to mimic the timeline of a drug addict’s (bad) experience – you’re fine for a while until you’ve gone too far, when everything goes pear-shaped – but the result is a novel that feels disjointed, and not in the good way that many PKD novels feel disjointed. We also don’t get to know any characters, least of all Fred-Bob, in any depth, although characterization was not a strength of Dick’s overall – his greatest attribute as a writer was his ability to craft unnerving settings and scenes that often struck at the heart of metaphysical matters like consciousness, perception versus reality, and privacy. A Scanner Darkly veers away from those strengths, and the result left me somewhat cold.

The novel was also adapted into a 2006 film by Richard Linklater, but I haven’t seen it.

Next up: I just finished Dorothy Sayers’ second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Clouds of Witness, and have begun Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Foreign Affairs.