I don’t want to set the world on fire

This holiday season, give the gift of a media blow.

Philip Marlowe: Private Eye: One of the very earliest HBO original series, starring a young but still jowly Powers Boothe as Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective. The series adapts Chandler’s short stories – not all of which involved Marlowe originally – and formats them as hour-long teleplays. The show suffers from the dated cinematography that afflicted every TV show in the mid-80s; it comes off a lot like Murder, She Wrote, if Jessica Fletcher hung out with heroin addicts and occasionally shook a broad if she got mouthy1. But the dialogue’s still pretty sharp: a good pastiche of Chandler and the intervening decades without sounding like self-parody. And Boothe has the attitude down.

The Tailor of Panama: I don’t have a lot of faith in anything le Carre wrote after Smiley’s People. He fell in love with the ornateness of his own descriptions, leading to entire chapters that recounted about five minutes of action. But The Tailor of Panama not only revives le Carre’s classic cynicism, it ramps up his sardonic eye at the absurdity of his former profession – espionage – and the politics that enable it. Harry Pendel has thrived in Panama for decades, cutting bespoke suits for three successive Presidents (including Noriega) and countless foreign parties interested in the Canal. He also has a secret – a secret which makes him vulnerable to British spy Andrew Osnard. Osnard quickly puts Pendel to use as a source for South American intel, and Pendel makes use of Osnard’s resources in turn. Clever, tense and regularly surprising. One of the few le Carre novels I felt could have been longer.

Tropic Thunder: Funny enough, but I felt it could have spent another 15 minutes in the oven. You worry a film like this will wear out its welcome early: a concept strong enough for an SNL sketch strung out to a 90-minute run time. But Stiller et al give the premise just enough room, while exploring a variety of other action movie tropes as well. The trailers that precede the movie left me rolling; Tom Cruise’s cameo entertained me but didn’t rock my world2.

Boomsday: Christopher Buckley once again takes a premise, gives it just enough room to stand on its own, and sets it loose on the bizarre world of Washington, D.C. This time around, it’s Cassandra Devine – a smart, hip blogger who catches America’s eye with the ahem modest proposal to solve the Social Security crisis by offering tax rebates to seniors who volunteer for euthanasia. She doesn’t mean for anyone to take it seriously; merely to spark some debate. But then it catches the eye of Senator Randolph K. Jepperson, whose path she’s crossed before and who’s looking for an issue to make a name on for his Presidential bid. It also draws the fire of the Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule, the AARP, the Vatican and a dozen other D.C. factions too ludicrous to be fictional. Boomsday’s pure farce, with nary a prescription for change (to say nothing of prescription drug coverage) in sight. But it’s a diverting few hours.

Burn After Reading: A Coen Brothers pot-boiler, in the original sense: something to keep the fire warm between projects. The Bros. don’t seem to know whether they want a screwball comedy – Tilda Swinton’s sleeping with George Clooney, while her husband John Malkovich writes his CIA memoirs, which he loses at the gym where Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand work, and then Clooney meets McDormand, etc. – or a black comedy, where (like office politics) the fighting is so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Despite the word “comedy” appearing in both, they are very different animals. Still: entertaining and worth a rental. I laughed several times.

Anansi Boys: When Gaiman’s being grand – writing sweeping paragraphs about the importance of Song and Story – I don’t like him very much at all. But when he’s writing about natural people dealing with supernatural things, like a nebbish discovering his father’s a West African god and his brother has inherited dad’s powers, then he shines. He invests the ordinary with magic and horror and suspense, and there he has few equals. Reading this, I couldn’t help casting Hustle‘s Adrian Lester as Fat Charlie and LL Cool J as Spider. Trust me, it works.

Fallout 3: Wow3.

1 Now that I think about it, this would be awesome.
2 Watching Tom Cruise in heavy prosthetics made me realize: Tom Cruise only has one setting, and that’s Tom Cruise. That’s all he ever plays. Cocky guy with a ready smile and occasional psychotic intensity. It’s fun to watch – I’ll never get tired of seeing it – but does that really speak to a lot of depth? Will we ever see Tom Cruise play a grieving, mousy widower? An emotionally repressed wage slave? A villain?
3 I mean, holy shit, wow.


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