Thu, Jan 23, 2014

: Innocent

Author: Scott Turow

This is a follow-up to Turow’s classic Presumed Innocent, about a lawyer having an affair being tried for murder when his mistress ends up dead. This story is set some twenty years later with the main character now an appellate judge about to be appointed to the state supreme court. He’s remarkably stayed married to his wife from the first book, but their marriage is very troubled: she’s got mental problems and he stays with her out of guilt for his first affair. Then he gets really stupid and has another affair. This time it’s his wife who dies in a questionable manner, and the same prosecutor that fought him in the first book, is back to nail him again.

Overall, it’s a good story: the plot isn’t exactly innovative, but the way the trial is handled is interesting and dramatic, with tiny details the key. The ending is too long and goes all over the place, but it does wrap up all the loose ends nicely.

I found it hard to get into the story at first because the book is all first-person, but each chapter is told by a different character, and the chapters jump throughout time. So the prologue is “present day” while other chapters flash back to before the trial and during the trial. That made it very confusing, particularly with the audiobook where I couldn’t look back to compare the dates. I couldn’t figure out which character was which and since the voices were all by the same reader, it was confusing. Eventually this problem settled down and went away, but it was a rough beginning.

In the end, it’s a capable sequel. It was fun seeing how characters had aged, and the implausibility of the same guy making the same mistake twice is handled about as well as it could be (he himself marvels at his own stupidity). I did find it weak in terms of those characters — even though they’re first person narratives and we’re supposedly in the heads of people, because of the nature of a suspense novel, some info had to be withheld which made it difficult to really understand who these people are. There was a lot of more telling rather than showing. Still, it’s an interesting book, though I suspect that people who haven’t read the first book (or seen the movie) won’t be nearly as entertained.

Topic: [/book]


: The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese

I was leery about this because of its three hour running time and supposed graphic excesses, but it turned out to be a fantastic film. Yes, there are quite a few explicit scenes, and the language is horrible, but the scenes are very brief and important to set a tone and make a point. There’s little here that’s gratuitous.

The story, which I hadn’t realized is true (I thought the main character was a fictional compilation of real people), is about a sales guy in the 80s who hits it big on Wall Street. He plays fast and loose with the letter of the law and has no qualms about selling suckers crappy stocks in order to put more cash in his pocket. He spends lavishly (his bachelor party in Las Vegas cost $2 million) and is a serious drug addict.

On the one hand, the story’s a simple tale of the rise and fall of a bad guy, but the reality is more subtle and elaborate than that. It’s really a moral lesson about what one wants out of life. Is money really the ultimate goal? Should it be? Is money itself evil? How much are we morally responsibly for how we earn money? The film seems to be a scathing commentary on Wall Street, which makes money without making anything, but even there the film doesn’t shy away from making that seem appealing. In fact, that’s the film’s real power: despite all the awful behavior we see on the screen, we the viewer still want that lifestyle and power, and the film makes us feel ashamed for that desire.

I did think there were flaws. The ending is too long, though somewhat satisfying, and there’s way too much emphasis on drug use. Several elaborate scenes show drunken, stoned people stumbling around and acting like idiots and it got old after the first time. We really didn’t need to dwell on that (though that could be just me: I’ve never understood the appeal of getting “wasted” — it sounds like a nightmare to me). It’s possible Scorsese was just wanting to emphasize the disastrous consequences of drug use, but in a way it was also glorifying it.

I also found the movie a little confusing because it was never very clear exactly what laws the main character broke. He himself speaks of some of the things he was doing as being shady or technically illegal, and it’s clear he did a lot of tax evasion to keep more of his wealth away from the government, but he operated a huge stockbrokerage firm with the SEC checking in on him so surely the stuff he was doing wasn’t that blatant. Not knowing exactly what he did that was so wrong severely weakens the movie’s moral compass as we aren’t sure just how evil the main character is or isn’t. It’s not like he was murdering children or even stealing from people (it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme). He was simply using aggressive sales techniques to sell people crappy stocks that he got a hefty commission on. I guess he lied to people — but shouldn’t those people bear some of responsibility for buying stocks based on what some stranger on the phone told them?

In the end the story’s a fascinating character study of wealth and excess. The casting is perfect, the film’s direction is excellent (you don’t really notice all the subtle things Scorsese does with the camera which is the way it should be), and it’s definitely a film worth seeing. It’s not for the faint of heart as there are lots of disturbing scenes, and I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from the ending, where the main character isn’t punished very severely for his crimes, but the bottom line is that it’s entertaining and it will make you think.

Topic: [/movie]