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Monday, June 22, 2009

Screwball Comedy

When I got Netflix, one of the things I enjoyed most was seeing which movies and tv shows the service recommended to me most highly, based on my ratings of those I had already seen. While it is a little unnerving to have a machine know so much about your tastes and perhaps extension your personality, the advantages of discovering new titles never heard-of beforehand is adequate consolation.

One of the movies most highly recommended was "One, Two, Three!" a 1961 comedy by Billy Wilder starring Jimmy Cagney. I'd never heard of it before, but was intrigued enough to put it far down on my queue. The other day, fate intervened and I came across it on TV. It was marvelous.

Cagney plays Coca-Cola's head man in West Berlin, in the days of partition but before the construction of the wall. He's put in a jam when his boss's daughter, left to his protection, runs off and marries an East German communist. Cagney schemes to get the groom arrested and the marriage expunged from the records, but the girl's pregnancy and the protestations of his own wife make him reconsider. Cagney is further put-upon when his red-hating boss announces that, having heard about the marriage (but not the groom's politics) from Cagney's wife, he is flying to Berlin himself to meet his son-in-law.

What follows is a farce that hits the highest highs of screwball comedy. In dizzying fashion Cagney sets about converting the groom into a capitalist in good standing, and a German aristocrat to boot. After a mad rush of tailors and elocution lessons, the film climaxes with a mad rush to the airport, involving the groom trying on a dozen hats, a painter hanging out the window putting the groom's new coat of arms on the side door, a tailor sewing his torn pants, and Cagney frenetically warning him about phrases to avoid with his father-in-law while tallying up all that he's owed for the suits, hats, and the family name he has gone to the trouble to procure.

It's a testament to the madcap nature of the film that it constantly employs the classic "man spinning plates on sticks" music and that those familiar strains never feel out of place.

Seeing the movie made me wish that screwball comedies were still in vogue. I was surprised by this movie's 1961 release, because despite the film's topical subject, it belongs to an earlier era. The heyday of screwball was in the late '30s and early '40s. Films like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby featured incredibly complicated plots and fired off jokes at a mile-a-minute pace. To watch them is to marvel at the ability of the people who wrote them to come up with so much material.

I wish there was still a place for a little screwball in the comedy world right now, there are obviously some very talented people in the comedy business now and I'd love to see what they could do with something like "One, Two, Three!" Unfortunately, knowing Hollywood, they'd rather remake a screwball, dumb down and slow down the jokes, and completely suck the charm right out of it. Oh well.

Midnight's Children

Note: I feel bad about my lack of posts, so I'm hoping to quick blitz a bunch over the next few days. They will all be short and are shameless attempts to cover up the large gaps between my older posts from June and May.

I said on Twitter, (yes, I have a Twitter account, jeverett15 if you care to follow) that I didn't feel up to writing a review of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Here's a shot anyway.

It took me about a month to read the book, because I had to detour to read Love in the Time of Cholera for a book club. But it would have taken a long time anyway, because the work is massive. Here is a sentence that I think will sum up my opinion of the novel:

Midnight's Children is clearly the work of a genius, but I don't know if he's a genius I'd ever care to read again.

There is a curious distance to the novel, in my humble, non-genius opinion. Rushdie knows what he's doing from the start. Throughout the novel he makes it clear that the plot is all worked out, that he has it figured out and you're just going to have to come along for the ride. But he also makes it abundantly clear through the personal deficiencies of his narrator Saleem Sinai that he doesn't care as much for the complex story he so effortlessly weaves as for the underlying statement about the nature of fiction and narrative itself. Thus there is a missing element in Midnight's Children, and I think that it is joy. Once you've caught on to Saleem's failures, the rest of the novel becomes an aggravating game of watching Rushdie finish out his pre-destined plot. The only surprise comes from his utter side-swiping of Indira Gandhi in the novel's last hundred pages or so. This feels less pre-ordained and more risky, and more frisky than the rest of the novel.

It would take a genius to write a book like Midnight's Children, but one that probably doesn't care too much about his readers. I don't care to grade Midnight's Children, and I'm not going to recommend it either.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Away We Go

Has any film suffered a critical revision as quick and abrupt as the one currently being performed on Juno? When Juno came out, and this is just an impression, but a strong one, it was heralded near universally for its quirkiness, originality and candidness about teen pregnancy. When it gathered momentum heading into Oscar season the Academy was congratulated for recognizing it despite its meager budget and lack of big-name stars.

Now just a few short years later films are derided for "sounding like Juno", "being quirky just like that ball of pretension Juno" and so on and so forth. Wha' happened?

This Juno-bashing reached a height it had not yet seen with the release of Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by popular novelists/husband and wife Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. There was much wailing and wringing of hands over the films depiction of "hipsters" replete with vintage clothes and lack of financial stability, there was excessive dismay over the films employment of a soundtrack loaded with unpopular college-radio rock songs, and there great consternation over its use of outrageous and silly side characters, as though it were a crime for a comedy to be unrealistic. The movie was castigated for its similarity to Juno on the sole basis that each movie features a pregnant female.

The thing about all of this is that it just isn't very accurate. Away We Go isn't Juno, and it is more than possible that whatever opinion you had of that film, you might think the exact opposite of this one.

For one thing, the couple at the heart of Away We Go are in their mid-thirties, and despite not having kids or a great big house and such, they mostly act like it. Burt (John Krasinski) holds down a job selling insurance futures, and despite his goofy-looking beard-and-black-rimmed glasses combo, he is very professional. Verona (Maya Rudolph) earns a living as an illustrator of medical textbooks. Despite the preconceived notions of America's armchair film critics, they do not think they're better than anyone else, they don't put down hard work, and they are not some easily categorized stereotype.

What they are is a couple very much in love, and about to have a baby. When Burt's parents announce an impending move to Belgium, the couple decides that they need to find a new place to raise their child. The movie thus takes the form of a road trip to see old friends and relations, in Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and with another surprise trip that I won't spoil here.

These first few of these encounters are comedic in tone, and extremely well done. Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan are hilarious as Verona's ex-coworker and her husband. Janney is a profane, uninhibited harridan and Gaffigan is bitter at being rejected by all the local country clubs. In Madison, Burt's cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a New Age mother who won't use a stroller because she doesn't want to push her children away from her.

It's here in Madison that the film thwarts the snap judgments of those who haven't seen it. Rather than go along with the craziness in a live-and-let-live manner, Burt and Verona actively confront the inanity of the character's parenting habits. It's a feel-good moment for the audience, because Gyllenhaal is so good at making the character unbearable.

In Montreal the film takes a more dramatic turn, and confronts like few other comedies would, the realities of loss, unhappiness and despair. There are some gripping and disturbingly real moments near the end of the film, and while it does end on an up note it is not a trite one or an unearned one.

The real treat of this movie is the pairing at its center. It is refreshing to see a movie treat as realistic the possibility of total and unadulterated love between two people. Krasinski and Rudolph are great at establishing their characters' intimacy and need for each other. Their inability to stay mad at or even effectively criticize each other is adorable, and makes for some very funny moments, especially after Verona complains that Burt never gets mad about anything, and he spends the rest of the movie intermittently exploding into mock outrage.

Away We Go is a small movie, but a very touching and endearing one. It does not sink into a quagmire of quirkiness or intricate itself too deeply into an "indie" sensibility. It is the kind of movie that could be enjoyed by a mass, mainstream audience, if that audience would stop comparing it to a movie based on inaccurate prejudices and surface similarities. Away We Go gets a 7.4 out of 10.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is an impressive display of commitment to a bit. The novel is told from the perspective of a classically-trained English butler, as he reflects back on his years of service to a tarnished lord. Ishiguro's narrator Stevens is a perfect exemplar of the unreliable narrator, blinded by his loyalty and unwilling to admit the truth about anything. By the end of the novel, he will have almost unwittingly revealed the true nature of his employer to the reader. But that's not at all what he's trying to do.

Stevens is writing what amounts to a dissertation of the butler profession, spliced with his reminiscences of the pre-war days at Darlington Hall, when Lord Darlington would host the most influential figures in Europe, and it was up to Stevens and the housemaid, Miss Kenton, to ensure that all went smoothly.

What Ishiguro accomplishes through his unusual narrative is impressive, but it is of questionable entertainment value. The problem with a narrator who is unwilling to tell you the story you want to hear is that the book becomes weighed down with nearly unbearable (and unbearably repetitive) digressions on the "dignity" of Steven's profession, of the worthiness of him and his father, also a butler, and the relative merits of certain brands of silver polish. It can be extraordinarily frustrating to read Stevens dither on about the most inane thing while wishing that he would just tell you what it is that caused Lord Darlington's downfall.

All in all, even though this question (and others arising throughout the novel) are answered by the end, the book winds up falling into the impressive but un-enjoyable category. Ishiguro is clearly a talented author, one worthy of further reading, but this does not quite rise to the level of its writer. 5.2 out of 10.

Next? I will either circle back and finish Midnight's Children, read All the Pretty Horses or pick up my next Book Club book, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Love in the Time of Cholera

At the heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel is the provocative idea that love is not an ennobling or redemptive aspect of the human condition, but rather that is a cause of our dreadful state. Marquez is nothing short of cruel as he spends a hundred pages or more building a love story so enchanting that it might belong with the great romances of all time, only to pinprick it to death with stunning revelations about the integrity of his characters and the loathsome capabilities of the human soul.

The novel centers around a love triangle of sorts. As a young man Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza, a beautiful girl from a middle-class family. Fermina's father manages to arrange things so that his daughter marries the aristocratic Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and Florentino sinks into despair, waiting for the chance to declare his love for Fermina again.

If that makes you go "Awww" it is understandable, and at the end of 100 pages, even permissible, but not so at page 348. Over the course of the novel we see that the pairing of Love and Cholera in the novel's title is no mere curiosity. It is a deliberate evocation of the similarity of love to a corrupting and lethal pox on the human condition. For love Florentino Ariza mistreats hundreds of women in the fifty-one years he waits for Fermina. For love he leads several others to disaster through his recklessness. And for love he is blind to the despicable state into which he has fallen.

Mr. Marquez is so talented a writer, he describes our own notions of romantic love so prettily, that it is many pages indeed before one catches on to his actual point. A passage where Florentino spies his love across a crowded marketplace speaks our universal idea of attraction in words better than we could ever hope for ourselves: "To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell."

That is a beautiful thought wonderfully expressed. That Marquez is capable of writing like that but chooses instead to focus on the hopelessness of the very love he so convincingly creates makes him a writer with uncommon fortitude and daring. That he does so and still manages to captivate the reader, who may almost rightfully feel tricked and abused, is a testament to his genius.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a book that will have you cursing the power of narrative as you sing the praises of its creator. For that it gets a 9.5 out of 10.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Remakes for Dummies

Look at those two pictures above. One is the villain from the 1974 thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123. The other is a picture of Grease star John Travolta if he were a motorcylist with a meth addiction. Actually, that's a pic of Travolta in Tony Scott's upcoming remake of "Pelham". Now, I hate to be thought of as someone who makes uninformed decisions or judges the book by the cover, but I think those two pictures encapsulate why so many people cringe reflexively when they hear the word "remake" and it's new euphemistic cousins "re-imagining" "revision" or "reboot."

I had never seen the original Pelham, and actually had never heard of it before reading an article on the new movie. The underlying premise (four men hijack a subway car, demanding $1million in ransom, while the police have no idea how they plan to get away with it) sounded interesting, and any movie with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in it must have something going for it, so I recently watched it on TV. What I saw was a cool, off-kilter, understated but very suspenseful thriller. The script was crisp and captured perfectly the dialogue and inflection of New York City officials and citizens. At the heart of the movie was Matthau's gruff but competent transit police officer and Shaw's eerily calm killer. Their interactions for the large part take place over a radio, and the film's conclusion is rather less violent and action-packed than you'd expect.

Obviously I haven't seen the new version, but I'm not shy about saying that I don't think I will. The trailers I have seen and every article I've read about it lead me to think that this is just another case where they are going to take a good movie and jazz it up with more explosions, more CGI and less, you know, plot. I caught an article in Esquire wherein the writer watched both movies, and it basically boiled down to "Me like new film, more things go boom-boom. Not so much talky-talk." The writer goes to great pains to include the fact that he watched a dusty VHS tape of the original. ("Oh my God, it's so old, how could anybody like it!)

All of this brings me to my long-held view of remakes. Every time Hollywood does this they take a movie that was at least pretty good, if not great, and in 99 times out of 100 they make it worse, often significantly. Why don't they find movies that didn't work and try to make them better? This idea has clear advantages. For one thing no one would really be mad that they were remaking Howard the Duck or Battlefield Earth, and Hollywood would get a chance to right some of their more egregious mistakes. At any rate we as a society wouldn't be subjected to the farce that is sure to be Travolta in Robert Shaw's place.