Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pre-Travel Antics--"Dobbiamo lasciare domani per Roma"

"Dobbiamo lasciare domani per Roma": Tomorrow we must leave for Rome.

Here's a glimpse of the madness of packing for a long trip.  Notice Maggie in the humorously large portrait overhead, as if to say, "are you SURE that ALL of it will fit in ONE suitcase?

What follows is as much for my own future recollection of the experience, as it is a sharing of humorous bits of anecdote with those who visit here.  It's a partial list of the tasks that had to be completed to prepare for this journey:

--Passport photos
--Mail passport applications a day before the Federal Government threatens to shut down (April)
--Research tour options
--Find out when both of us could get 2 weeks off of work at the same time
--Commit to a date with a small tour group; we are numbers 3 and 4.  If the group does not have at least six signed up by the next week, it will be cancelled.
--Breathe sigh of relief...persons 5 and 6 are now on board
--Overcome personal family challenges; prepare to cancel if there is an emergency.
--Get the cancellation insurance... for peace of mind
--Teach your fellow employees how to do your job for two weeks. Accept the possibility that you will have two weeks worth of work to do when you get back
--Stop mail  and newspaper delivery
--Buy toiletries, like travel-size shaving cream, toothpaste, sunscreen, and Imodium (you never know)
--Splurge on a new wardrobe, to be stylish in romantic Italy, including shirts, shoes, and even undergarments (YOU NEVER KNOW!)
--Rent a phone from your service provider after you are told that your current phone will not handle overseas calling. (My parents' wall-mounted DIAL PHONE could make calls everywhere...Ah, technology)
--Leave your emergency phone number with the neighbors, your kids, your parents, and your co-workers.  Ask the latter to call only if the office burns down, so that you can extend the trip for an extra week (why not?)
--Do the laundry, the dishes, water the garden, alert the neighbors and all of your social networking friends.
--Get very nice messages and visits from everyone wishing you well
--For the two week trip, pack enough for three weeks... You Never Know

The posts during the first week of August will be a transcript of the journal I will keep on our journey, as well as the best of the pictures I manage to take.

Preview of Coming Attractions:  Dealing with Jet Lag; Character Sketches of our Group Members; FOOD; WINE; What I've absorbed in Rome; Meeting the natives and speaking Italian; The Tuscan countryside; ART, including the Vatican and the Uffizi museum; A Tuscan Cooking Class!; Tales of the unexpected.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Chinglish": A Smart Offering at the Goodman Theater, and Bound For Broadway!

"Chinglish", which has become so popular in Chicago that its run has been extended here, is the fourth and final event in our season series at the Goodman Theater. This smart and timely play came with an excellent pedigree, and was the freshest, most thought-provoking and funniest play in the series.  It's no wonder that "Chinglish" is on its way to a Broadway opening in the Fall.

Playwright David Henry Hwang has created a multi-layered, sexy and cynical work that looks at our global marketplace, specifically American-Chinese business relations, as represented by a naive Ohio businessman who wants to sign a lucrative contract for his sign-making company with a savvy and attractive Chinese businesswoman.  The initial, hilarious mis-translation and social faux-pas committed on both sides soon becomes a spellbinding comic romance between two lovers, whose bedroom revelations and misunderstandings effectively describe the tricky one-upsmanship and intrigue of doing business across insurmountable cultural obstacles.

Hwang has had huge success on and off Broadway, writing about Chinese and American culture and the often uneasy mixture of the two mindsets.  His best-known works include the book of the 2002 revival of "Flower Drum Song", the fact-based gender-bender and Tony-winner "M. Butterfly" (1988), and the Obie-Award winners "Golden Child", "Yellow Face", and "FOB".

The title "Chinglish" refers to mistaken translations between the Chinese and Enlish languages, and the often hilarious mishaps when badly-skilled translators muddle things even more. A simple English statement such as "Ours is a family-run business" can become, in translation, "His business is small and insignificant."  A constant barrage of sur-titles keeps the laughs coming as even more outrageous errors build to a crescendo of misunderstanding.

James Waterston (Sam is his Father) brings a lanky and likable presence to the naive Daniel, an American who is shocked to discover that it could take weeks, instead of days, to cinch a contract to create the signage for a Chinese Cultural Center, and who, at the end of Act One, drops a surprising bit of information that leads to a delicious and equally surprising second-act interview. 

His Australian translator, Peter, played by the awesome British stage actor Stephen Pucci, delivers to Daniel--and the audience--a nicely written crash-course on the Chinese concept of "guanxi", which can be best defined in one English word:  "patronage".  Guanxi is so pervasive in Chinese life and business that it corrupts almost all transactions and relationships. 

Jennifer Lim, who is getting raves for this role, plays Xu Yan, the ball-busting official who nevertheless finds something about Daniel worthy of consideration. Slowly, her real motivation fades into view, one that seems sly and self-serving, until one has some understanding of her outlook, a different way of thinking that is foreign to many Americans.

The play is excellent in providing audiences with the information necessary to understand some of the subtleties of Chinese written characters, the spoken inflections that can give one word wildly different meanings, and a divergent cultural mindset. The play gives us a lot of fascinating information and does so amusingly, so that, as the sur-titles come rapidly and the complications of the story grow exponentially, we are squarely inside the story and appreciate the characters behavior from all points of view.  There are no heroes or villains (except, maybe, the crooks of the now-defunct Enron, who happen to figure in the plot). 

One of the more brilliant scenes in the play has Xu Yan explaining to Daniel, who declares his love for her and his intention to divorce his wife, a startling concept about infidelity: she sees her "escape" with Daniel as a way to keep her sane in her partnership with her husband.  More than anything else, this complex but clearly stated monologue allows the audience a clear focus on why, in order to succeed in business, it may be necessary to delve deeper into a culture than we ever imagined.

The cast is brilliant, especially Pucci, who becomes a somewhat tragic figure when his "guanxi" comes back to haunt him.  He is a fine translator, but learns too late that the language alone is only part of the delivery of meaning.  Pucci speaks mandarin (to my ears) flawlessly, and strikes a delightfully authentic pose as he joins another official in a bit from a popular Chinese musical number. 

Lim is amazing in a role that requires a believable clipped broken English and also a flawless fluency in Chinese.  I have heard that the actress is fully American, and in interviews appears much younger than her character in the play. (There are already some whispers of Tony glory for her in this role).

And Waterston, to me, was spellbinding.  Easy to look at for sure, he was also terrific as a nice guy who learns some hard lessons, and maintains his easy veneer even as he becomes a hard businessman with the glad hand and insincere smile.  The play drips cynicism at the end and Waterston walked the fine line well.

This is a marvelous production in every department, from the brisk and intelligent writing, to the amazing characterizations, from the energetic direction to the revolving sets and percussive music. Until I understood its scheme and rhythms, the opening scene between Daniel and Peter threatened to make the play feel static. After a few minutes however, after Peter's initial explanatory lecture is finished, the whole thing takes off.

It's a great mixture; global business, the emergence of China as an economic super-dragon, clandestine love as a microcosm for cultural misunderstanding, the betrayal when one's skill no longer being impressive in the marketplace, the importance of language driven home with big laughs, even the bashing of Chinese acrobats..."Chinglish" is play I wish I had written myself, and one that has given me the inspiration to find the thing I know best, and, like "Chinglish" does, impart that knowledge in a wholly original and terrific, entertaining fashion.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Meditations About Quitting, and then An Act Of Kindness From a Fellow Blogger and Dog-Lover

Lately I have thought about bringing my blog to a close.  Life has become much more complex since I began in September of 2009.  So many things have occurred, things that I have chosen not to write about here. Just so many competing responsibilities.

I love writing here, and I try to do it well.  It takes a lot of energy.  It's harder to honor my readers with my best writing at 11pm, which seems to be my only chance to produce this web-journal.

And yet there would be a huge hole in my creative life if I stopped now. I have a lot I want to share here, like the upcoming Italian Odyssey, my new adventures with dogs, and of course my fist love, articles and essays about the movies.

It has been a dilemma, trying to turn out good work on topics that interest people, without taking short-cuts, or letting errors go by unnoticed due to simple exhaustion.

Reading my favorite bloggers, and commenting on their work and ideas, has always been a pleasure, one that I am sure I would easily continue.

And then, I received an overwhelming surprise, one that made me reconsider the idea of quitting.

Tom, who writes sharp and witty Short-Short stories on his blog, Sophisticated Lunacy, was the very first "visitor" to my blog, and wrote the first comment.  In the months that followed we have established a fun and mutually encouraging friendship through our sites.  We have never met. We know about each others' lives solely through the blog, and occasional e-mail messages.

Tom and his wife Teresa love dogs, like I do, and have reacted especially emotionally to my stories about our departed Bassett Hound, Maggie. Even though she has been gone for a few years, she still manages to establish a spot squarely in my heart, the way she would establish her place on the bed some nights, while I fought to keep from falling off the edge!

An e-mail from Tom alerted me to a package that they sent in care of The Buddy Foundation, where I volunteer occasionally to walk and feed the homeless dogs.   

When I finally retrieved it, after a comedy of errors in which it was moved around the shelter, I was overwhelmed to find a beautiful letter with a home-made tapestry.

The tapestry included the entire poem called The Rainbow Bridge, which was written as a comfort to pet owners whose beloved animals had passed away.. (You can read more about The Rainbow Bridge here).  Also on the tapestry was an image of a Bassett Hound with the name Maggie stitched underneath.

Mark and I were overwhelmed, and appreciative, of the thought and the beautiful keepsake, which Teresa made herself.

I have received so much from my followers and friends on this blog; from many of you I get kind words and praise about my work; from others I get a friendly challenge to go deeper into my thoughts and improve my persuasive skills. I have received a chocolate treat as a contest prize from my friend Ben in England, who loyally follows my reviews.  I have bonded with Walter over our love of "Nashville" and other movies. Stan and David still check in to pleasantly surprise me with appreciation for my animal stories.  Luke is always complimentary of my lengthy movie essays, even when we don't agree.  So too, is Andrew.

To everyone else who drops by occasionally, to read, even to comment, once again, I do appreciate it!

And Tom still checks once in a while to boost my writer's confidence.  And now he and Teresa have acknowledged the importance to them of what I have written by sending us this surprising and wonderful gift. We can't thank you enough.

I leave for Rome mid-week.  I'll have a few more posts before then.  In Italy, I won't have a laptop, nor a computer or i-Pad, and no way to connect to the web, or the blog.... I will continue with the journal with good old-fashioned pen and paper, take pictures, and post the highlights upon my return to the States.

This was a personal choice, to disconnect for two weeks, and let the experience of being in a different part of the world transform me. 

I hope it will help me find new reserves of creative strength. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Opera + Puppets = A Unique Attraction

Next week I am departing for Italy, home of some of the world's best and most famous Operas. 

So it's a funny coincidence that I just became aware of an unusual, 50-year-old opera theater, unique in the entire world, right in my own back yard.

While visiting a local Performing Arts Center for a Business Meeting, I picked up an Arts brochure and found a listing for Opera in Focus.  I had never heard of this theater, located just "next door" in the suburb of Rolling Meadows, Illinois.  I looked at the web site (click here for the performance repertoire), and found that it is an intricate puppetry performance, in which scenes from famous operas are carefully staged and delicately perfomed by special artists using specially-designed puppets that apparently don't exist anywhere else in the world.

And tonight, a local PBS program called Chicago Tonight offered a wonderful segment about this amazing and little-known art. 

William B. Fosser, who founded the theater in 1950, was a movie art director and set decorator, with films like "Home Alone", "Backdraft" and "Ordinary People" among his credits.  As a youngster he developed fascination with opera and obsession with puppetry.

Soon he developed intricate rod-puppets with such amazing detail of design and movement, that it remains one-of-a-kind in the world. 

Fosser, who died in 2006, expressed a wish that the puppets be destroyed if the theater ever closed down. His apprentices, Justin and Shayne Snyder, who joined Fosser in the early 1980's and now operate the 60-seat basement theater in a nondescript building of the Rolling Meadows Park District, admit that they could never destroy these amazing puppet-"performers".  So they hope to keep the tradition, and the theater, alive.

I can't believe I have missed this!  But I will rectify that life-error very soon.

Check out this extraordinary 9-minute video, which I found unexpectedly moving.  I'll be attending my first performance, after I return from the opera capital of the world. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The End of a TV Era: A Three Hour Tour, and Three Times Two

"Just sit right back and hear a tale...
...Of a lovely lady...."

Once these songs get into your head, you're hooked for life...

"Gilligan's Island", and "The Brady Bunch"....Two of arguably the most recognizable sitcoms (and theme songs) in American television history. Both still have lives of their own, still going strong in syndication, decades after their original broadcasts.  Both were the creations of Sherwood Schwartz, who died this week at age 90.

Schwartz, who gave up the study of medicine to write jokes for Bob Hope in the 1940's, went on to great success in television.  He created these two popular shows from the 1960's and early 1970's.  Schwartz also wrote the lyrics to the theme songs which laid out the premise of each situation. The ideas and their finished products were simple and simplistic, but nonetheless brilliant for being so memorable and so iconic.  Schwartz lived and worked in a time when it was admirable to reach as large an audience as possible, when appealing to a broad common denominator was respectable, even desirable, and inclusive. 

"Gilligan's Island" sent six hapless characters adrift after their "three hour tour" boat is shipwrecked.  The fun of the show was watching such disparate characters; a millionaire couple, a starlet, a genius, a girl-next-door, a birdbrained captain and his bumbling mate--survive all kinds of wacky incidents, and coexist.  It's  a slapstick version of "Lost" and "Survivor",  before this premise took itself so darned seriously.  The episodes bore no resemblance to "reality", and everyone knew it: that was part of the innocent fun. Mind-numbing yes, and for me, a little went a long way.  And yet, a lot of respectable people grew up enjoying this stuff, and regard it with pleasant nostalgia. It is part of our pop-culture fabric.

"The Brady Bunch"  is perhaps even more well-loved.  Two single, widowed parents, each with three children, get married, and the children's initial resentment eventually turns into a bond, and mischief ensues.  The fun of this show was also how these two families, along with their wisecracking housekeeper, got into dilemmas that were neatly resolved in a half hour.  Even though it was a "contemporary" look at a typical middle-class family, everyone knew even then that it was all sugar-coated absurdity, not at all a reflection of real families.  And therein lay its appeal, the same as comfort food, not always nutritious, often bland, but predictable, safe, and good for some laughs.

As far as innovation and groundbreaking television was concerned, these were barely passable shows in general, but they were harmless, and fun.  They never went beyond the mildest level of tension, and that predictability was appreciated.   

And many regard them with a lot of affection, as a symbol of an era where folks across generations and demographics could enjoy something knowingly cheesy; and everyone across the country had these shows in common, and bonded over them.

(You didn't have to vote people "off"; no one was humiliated except in a gently comic way; no one feared having to see a ripped open corpse, or suffer through "hip" banter that elicits the laughter of degradation instead of joy.  The public did not require TV to establish its "street cred" in order to be acceptable, and TV didn't pander to that idea, either. We knew it was fake...we loved it for its artifice.)

And everyone was in on the joke, producers and audiences alike.  These shows have a following unlike anything that is currently broadcast. And nothing on TV now, I predict, will have anything like the longevity or staying power of Shwartz' creations.

Perhaps you  have heard the trivia regarding the little boat in "Gilligan's Island" called The S. S.Minnow...It was an in-joke, named after former FCC Chairman Newton Minnow, who, in a 1961 speech about media, ranted about the state of television, and coined the now-famous phrase "Vast Wasteland" to characterize it. 

Well, if Newton Minnow could do today what he urged media experts to do then, which is to spend an entire day in front of television with no other form of media input, he might find the reruns of "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch" to be welcome oases in a wasteland he could not have imagined 50 years ago.

I suppose if I were older when these shows were released, I would have cast a jaded, snobbish eye on them.  But then, things are different now. Maybe I like these shows because they have, in all of their innocence, endured, and are pleasing new generations of viewers. 

Fellow blogger Andrew of Encore 's World of Film and TV has asked readers to select their favorite episode of a "scripted" show from this past season.  You know what? I honestly can't think of one. But if I said something like "The Minnow would be lost", or "pork chops and applesauce", a lot of folks could launch into an entire song...or give a complete episode description.

The question that begs is: which of this season's episodes--and TV theme songs--will everyone remember, fondly and completely, after 40 years?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Beginners": A Film Review

"Beginners" is a lovely little film about living a life free of artifice, and the anxiety of finally dropping the shield of our pretenses.   It's also a low-key, boy-and-his father's-dog story; a celebration of leaving the closet to live life openly gay, at any age; and a charming and funny look at the start of a tentative love affair between two damaged yet caring individuals.

It's a movie that speaks in even tones.  It doesn't draw attention to itself, which will likely give it a short theatrical run, until possibly Oscar season, when one or two names will likely be called out as nominees: (writer-director Mike Mills for his wise screenplay, and actor Christopher Plummer in excellent support.)

"Beginners" doesn't flash its intentions; it presents stories of different characters in different stages of relationship to one another, but offers no tidy resolutions.  What it does offer is an absorbing slice-of-life, one that is cleverly dissected and reassembled in an original way.  Mills story is a loose retelling of some of his own life experiences and family dynamics, and it is to he great credit that "Beginners" is such a fascinating picture to look at, and think about.

Ewan MacGregor is Oliver,a cartoon illustrator who is dealing with the recent death of his father.  The dad here is played lovingly by Plummer, who, in his seventies and a widow, decides to finally come out of the closet and find fulfillment in a love he had always denied himself.  Neither actor has been better.

Plummer's role as Hal is a small but potent one, seen all in flashback from MacGregor's point of view.  Plummer's gentility and lack of irony make for a hilarious and concentrated portrayal of one whose life suddenly is filled with color and music and possibility.  There's no Captain von Trapp here.  He infuses his character with fatherly love, and gives giddy play to his new-found bitchiness and pop-culture sense.

MacGregor does not overplay depression, but moves naturally, and relaxedly, and uses his posture, and his eyes, to captivate the viewer. His expressive face helps us see his confused yet loving adjustment to a father he must learn to relate to in a new way, while honoring his mother's memory.   I think this is the start of a new career for MacGregor on-screen...his appeal here is amazing.

Plummer's lover Andy, energetically portrayed by "ER's" Goran Visnic, is a carefree fireworks expert, and a generously loving person, who eventually helps unlock MacGregor's perceptions, and helps Oliver find new appreciation for the loneliness his father endured in life, mostly for his family's sake.

MacGregor's normal mourning is complicated by his incomplete adjustment to this new aspect of his father's life.  It causes him to question the genuineness of his parents' marriage, and raises issues of trust and openness in his own romantic relationships, which have been short-lived.

But this isn't sounding nearly as fun as "Beginners" really is...Which is why I admired the fragmented style of the screenplay and editing, in which the stories flow easily back and forth in time, finding unexpected humor and small epiphanies. 

I especially liked how MacGregor's character, emotionally repressed to start with, tries to deal with his feelings by categorizing the world in wildly illustrated monologues, or lists, in a style that reminded me of early scenes in "Amelie".  He also fills his professional illustrations with melancholy, even going so far as to ruin a music company's potential commission by turning an album cover into a "history of sadness".

Once again, this is not at all depressing, and is likely to make a viewer smile.  Mills, who was an illustrator, shapes these quirky segments and finds much forgiving humor in them.

Two individuals come into MacGregor's life.  At a costume party in which Oliver is dressed as Sigmund Freud, he connects with Annie, played by Melanie Laurent, who herself is dressed like Charlie Chaplin.  In character, he does all the talking, questioning really, and she responds silently, a small message pad providing "titles" for her speech.  Because she sees right through MacGregor's sadness and gently reflects it back to him, he feels immediately comfortable with her, and love begins to bloom.  Both characters need time to be forthright and direct, to be able to honestly deal with the complicated feelings each arouses in the other.

Laurent's character is the least-developed of the three protagonists, as she exists in the film primarily as MacGregor's love interest.  But there is an ethereal and playful quality that Laurent brings to her character, so that she lights up most every scene she is in.

Enter the second "individual" in MacGregor's life. It is Plummer's Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur, who comes to live with MacGregor.  For this viewer, this little critter is alone worth the price of admission.  With an eager expressive face, and a frisky loyalty, he stole every scene.  It's funny, too, that the dog, such as he is, communicates more directly than any other character.  Oliver can actually "talk" to the dog, whose "thoughts" are occasionally shown in subtitle.  But this is not some cutesy kids-film dog-speak; he asks penetrating questions about Oliver and his new love Annie, such as "Are we married yet?"

Three characters and a dog reinvent their lives to varying degrees.  All of them find a new beginning to their lives. One, who lived his new beginning most fully, has passed on.  The others, guided by his memory, are left to start a new journey together.  We cannot help but wish them well.

An unorthodox film which calls for an unorthodox review.  I recommend this film for all of you who enjoy human stories with a shaggy-dog flavor.....

Saturday, July 9, 2011

First Photograph...Late Bloomer, A Saturday Photo-Journal

*        *        *        *        *        *

This is the first photograph I took with my brand new camera...

There's a reason why I wanted my inaugural picture to be of this pot of African Violets. 

This plant has been on our living room end table, next to the picture window, for two years.  In all of that time, no flowers ever bloomed.  We watered its light-green leaves faithfully, and kept it in a spot with lots of light and a comfortable temperature.  And then, several weeks ago, we noticed buds.

Soon, the plant was covered with luminous light-purple-and-white flowers with tiny yellow centers.  They continue to bud and bloom still.

If you click on it to enlarge it, the delicate detail of the purple blossoms is more beautifully pronounced. I took care to compose the image, without moving the plant from its usual location, so that nothing around it would distract from it.

It was cause for some small celebration to see this pot in full bloom after a long nurturing.  I  hope that my budding re-discovery of love for taking photographs, which has been long-dormant, will soon blossom, and make people want to look and respond to whatever beauty unfolds.

From one late bloomer to another....

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Little Gem For Chicago Visitors

Our birthday fell midweek this year, so we did our traditional  2-night "outing" over the July 4th holiday weekend. We took a chance on a little Bed and Breakfast we had seen in our many trips to Evanston.  The rates proved  reasonable, the drive was quick, and it would be a refreshing change before the post-holiday work- week started again.

To our friends who will someday visit the Chicago area, we definitely recommend the Margarita European Inn in Evanston (the town just north of the city limits, on Lake Michigan, and home of Northwestern University).

Originally known as The Margarita Club for Working Women, it served as  a hotel/apartment for young business women needing proper housing starting in 1927.  Father David O'Leary and his sister Margaret Lynch purchased the land and built the facility. They named it after their mother Margaret.

Margaret O'Leary, after whom the Margarita Club was named, was the first female resident of Evanston, and was active in the Evanston community for 60 years, until her death in 1900 at the age of 99.

The Margarita European Inn now houses 42 rooms, each of them uniquely decorated, most containing  appointments and antiques found in the original Club. 

The Main Lobby/Ballroom is not only beautifully furnished with antique rugs, furniture, mirrors and dishware, it is also one of the most comfortable spots to relax in town.  Breakfast is served here every morning.  Small groups can gather around a baby grand piano for entertainment, read a book from the Inn's gorgeous library, or work on their laptops using free Wi-Fi provided.

More "adventurous" guests may climb to the 5th floor to enjoy the view from the rooftop deck.

In the evening the Pensiero on the garden level serves authentic Italian delicacies.  On a mild day, you can't beat the atmosphere on the small outdoor patio.  On Sunday there was a fixed menu served family-style. We were treated to homemade bread, a variety of bruschetti, pasta with pork, meatballs and "Sunday gravy" (red sauce), lemon chicken, seafood stew, and a banana-chocolate bread pudding. Bellissimo!

Within walking distance are the beaches by Lake Michigan, myriad shops and eateries, including the awesome Bookman's Alley Antique Bookstore, and one of the best movie theaters in all of Chicagoland.

Guests from all over the world are attracted to The Margarita European inn for its historic charm, comfort, and reasonable rates.

I'm sure we willl start a tradition of visiting here.

(Photos courtesy of the Inn's Web Site.  Next time we visit, I will have ORIGINAL PHOTOGRAPHS!!)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Movie Review, "Super-8": 1970's Nostalgia Lost In 2010's Commercialism

A couple of weeks ago, amid all the excitement surrounding the release of J.J. Spielberg's "Super-8" (no, that is not a typo) I wrote a personal essay about what it was like for kids to make Super-8 movies in the 1970's
(Recollections of a Super-8 Filmmaker, June 18). 

As my enthusiasm grew, I shared another story about the making of one film in particular (The Exorcism: Our Super-8 Masterpiece, June 20).

So naturally I was ready to be entertained and have a nostalgic laugh or two at Steven Abrams' (that's right) new "Super-8", a film that so ineptly failed to explain its title, that some (mostly younger) viewers still don't know what it means.  While the filmmakers may have thought that using the name of the old home-movie format would lend a "District 9"-like gravity and mystique to this film, they missed out on an opportunity to tell a great story about a group of kids having the time of their lives in an activity as simple, yet fraught with drama and humor, as making an amateur movie.

I don't understand why this movie was set in 1979: apart from some period music and styles, and the fact that this is an homage to 1970's sci-fi movies that we were all supposed to have loved, very little is done with the era.  It seems to exist in that time because "ET" and "Close Encounters" were from that time, and because super-8 film was used then. 

"Super-8" could have been updated with the kids using a digital video camera, and it would have been a better fit with Abrams' contemporary filmmaking style here, with wisecracking, loud youngsters running and shouting and puking, overblown explosions, a score that invades one's consciousness without one memorable tune, and lackluster CGI that already looks inauthentic.

I don't want to trash this movie, because the inner child in me was entertained by some of it, and compared to a lot of the supernatural slam-bang blockbusters marching lockstep across screens this summer, this at least has an original premise.  I liked some of the performers, and a few of the set pieces were interesting, if typically overdone.  And of course my favorite scenes were those in which the kids were working on their zombie movie for a film competition.

If I could have retooled the script, I would have made the kids' filmmaking the focus of the whole picture, and jettisoned the sci-fi aspects, or at least toned them down somewhat.  Their finished movie, shown over the end credits, is far and away the most entertaining scene in this entire picture, and "Super-8" deprives us of participating in the making of most of it.

True, "Super-8"was not the movie I would have made, and it's unfair to hold it to my own image of what it could have been.  But even within its own logic, it goes off the rails as spectacularly as the train that carries a horrifying secret early in the movie.  It's little more than a checklist of Speilbergian elements as a sap to the baby-boomers in the audience, buried in a preposterous suburban humans-vs.-alien-in-peril scenario that, too, is a Spielberg mainstay.

The plot's "checklist" introduces so many elements that "Super-8" nearly doubles over on itself resolving them all.  There's the boy in conflict with his father, the girl in conflict with her father, the fathers in conflict with each other, and of course boy and girl defy their fathers and remain friends.  There's the overweight, bossy kid (who directs the zombie film), the nerd with braces who blows things up, the nerd with glasses with the weak stomach, the likable protagonist, and the girl all the boys like.  There's the scientific secret gone awry, the evil authoritarian military figures, and the precocious kids who solve everything.  There are the unexplained phenomena, the mysterious blue lights streaked across the lens, and a creature that turns out to be benign, to ensure a lump in the throat when the earthlings help it get "home". 

Scriptwriting 101, even in a tribute to films of this genre, dictates that it would be impossible for the characters, let alone the audience, to form a bond of affection with a creature as ugly as this one, one without human facial expressions, that is seen for barely five minutes. 

The movie is at least 30 minutes too long, and trades on noise and mayhem to cover up the plot holes and resolve all of the conflicts that are set up.  The parent-child conflicts to me were always the weakest aspects of the Spielberg blockbusters, and here they serve merely to drag things out.

The kids who form the core of the film are generic movie goonies, with two notable exceptions.  Joel Courtney is fresh and honest, and has a cute pixie face and is skilled with dialog. (Watch him deliver the stilted lines in the "zombie film"...it takes real talent to play it this badly). He is terrific.  Elle Fanning is pretty and emotes well.  She is excellent in her scenes in the zombie film.  Much as I liked her, though, it would be a very weak year indeed if this   performance is held up for award recognition.
As I settled in with excitement at the start, and then saw the potential of "Super-8" fall away (why didn't we see what the camera saw immediately after the train wreck?  Why didn't we get included in some of the more hilarious scenes for the zombie film?  Why did the dogs run away in the first place?) I tried hard to abandon all of my expectations and just enjoy the explosions, and the score, and the kids, and the creature, and not take it all so seriously.  I came away having had a mildly good time, and forgot my troubles, but I wished someone would have honored the old activity of making super-8 movies just a little more.

This could have been something super.

Monday, July 4, 2011

July May Be A Significant Month...A Monday Journal

Tom: July 6, 19--
                           Mark: July 6, 19-- (same as above)

Two things promise to make July a significant month, if not a turning point, in the reinvention of this writer.

1) I just received a new camera from Mark to commemorate the birthday.  It is beyond belief that, for the last couple of decades I have not had a camera of my own.  Once upon a time, you could not see me without my Super-8 movie camera.  When that became obsolete, I just never acquired another camera of any kind. I have taken photos with a camera Mark and I have shared.   For a guy like me who often thinks in pictures, this could mean the beginning of a new direction, one that I never followed and perhaps should have.  This camera is HD and allows for up to 1,000 stills and 4 hours of motion pictures on one memory card.
(I can feel the spirits of Bergman and Fellini, Fosse and Malick, seeping into my consciousness....)

2. I am finally traveling to Italy.  At the end of the month we are joining a very small tour group (about 8 people) to immerse ourselves in Roman history and Florentine art, and bask in the countryside and culinary splendors in between.
More...much more...as the day approaches. 

Coming Up: A weekend at a unique inn, named for the first female resident of Evanston, Illinois
Reviews of "Super-8" and "Beginners"!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris" A Fun and Literate Fantasy

"Midnight in Paris", an effervescent comic fantasy, is Woody Allen in top form.  Had anyone else but Allen written this finely layered, clever screenplay, I would have hailed the arrival of a formidable, original new cinematic talent.   For those who have stayed in Allen's corner through his career triumphs, as well as through some of the more recent misfires, "Midnight in Paris" is a return to the "conversation" that fans like myself have enjoyed with him through the years, as he grappled with his characteristic issues of modern love, art in all its forms, creativity, and the wonderful absurdity of life. 

"Midnight in Paris" returns Allen to the wistfulness and fragility of love ( "Annie Hall"), the comedic possibilities of past eras ("Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", "Love and Death"), our relationships to fictional and literary heroes ("Purple Rose of Cairo"), and the complex alchemy of writing itself ("Manhattan").  This is the hopeful Allen of "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Radio Days", blended with a new-found skill at complex plots, and the wisdom of perspective.  Allen even reconfirms his touch for the sight-gag belly-laugh.

"Midnight in Paris" examines the common fantasy that such a thing as "the good old days" ever existed. Who hasn't imagined that living at another time would have been more fun, innocent, whatever?  (I wished I could have been old enough to have attended Woodstock, to have been in the Haight-Ashbury or Central Park during the '60's youth movement, to have protested against Vietnam, to have met and spent time with Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Dennis Hopper, and Pauline Kael, even though I know now how difficult the world was then.)

The vaguely dissatisfied protagonist of "Midnight in Paris" has a chance to inhabit an era that has captured his imagination and interact with the famous people who inspired him (like Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald).  He is surprised to learn that people who live in his ideal time-period  are bored with their "present" and yearn for an idealized past of their own.  And so on.  This is treated with magic and humor, with gorgeous visuals and set-pieces, moving easily and convincingly between past and present, in which both periods of time comment on each other in surprising and hilarious ways. 

Allen has created a valentine to Paris in the same way he declared his love for New York City in his classic movies of the 1970's and '80's.

In a movie summer filled with generic super-heroes, computer effects and explosions, it was heartening to be among a packed house, in a multi-plex which is notorious for programming films for adolescent boys, and to hear loud applause at the end of "Midnight in Paris".  It confirms for me that there is a hunger among a large group of neglected moviegoers for summer films that offer laughs, food for thought, and  the drama of recognizable people in more or less real situations, even if the situations are the stuff of fairy tales.

Because, at heart, "Midnight in Paris" is a fairy tale.  It's a knowing, affectionate story of a hack screenwriter and would-be novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) in Paris with his increasingly distant fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams).  As Inez spends more time with friends, including the insufferable pseudo-intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil walks the city at night and accepts an invitation to join a group of sophisticated party-goers in a vintage car.  Soon, to his disbelieving and excited eyes, he is in Paris of the 1920's and his dream of meeting his heroes comes true. 
His midnight visits continue, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how he is re-deposited into the present.  He gets advice from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, learns Picasso's real intent behind a "new" painting, dances to Cole Porter live, and falls in love with a socialite Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Just as Adriana becomes the embodiment of Gil's fantasy of the 1920's, she shakes his illusions by telling him that her world is boring, and she yearns to travel back even earlier, to the Belle Epoque.

Allen takes the threads and complications of the various stories he has created and ties them all together in the most satisfying way possible, so that in addition to reveling in his premise, he gives us the pleasures of classic movie romantic comedies. Gil's discussions with his new-found friends (who accept him with no questions) help him see the wayward path of his own life, and his connection to Porter leads him to unexpected love.  The things he learns "firsthand" leads to one of the film's biggest laughs, as he refutes the know-it-all Paul in an art gallery. 

I think it's possible for those who are unfamiliar with literary and artistic figures from the 1920's to enjoy the characters and situations presented in "Midnight in Paris".  However, for me, having at least some recognition of the "celebrities" involved makes it a deeper--and much funnier--experience.  The fact that Allen's Hemingway recites dialogue in the clipped manner in which Hemingway might have written it himself renders his scenes delightful.  I chuckled when Gil pitches a movie idea to the young Luis Bunuel that would eventually become "The Exterminating Angel", and Bunuel doesn't "get" it.   And who would have thought the utterance of the word "surrealists" would provide a good laugh.

At times, the film becomes akin to literary star-gazing (Oh look! There's T.S. Elliot!  And did you hear Kathy Bates' Gertrude Stein refer to Alice....?)  This is one aspect of the film that may work only the first time through.  The period scenes are so full of energy, and so nicely decorated, that the scenes in which Gil returns to present-day Paris threaten to slow down the film's momentum; but they do work as a way of demonstrating Gil's feeling of being trapped, until his fateful visit to an antique store.  And hey, it's Paris, so this portion of the film still has visual magic.  

(For the uninitiated, or for the lifelong learners among you, here is a New York Times article that provides some brief background on each of the people Gil meets in 1920's Paris.)

As Gil, Owen Wilson is rumpled and completely likable as an artist torn between two worlds.  He perfectly delivers  Allen's dialogue, and instead of giving it Allen's east-coast anxiety, he makes the words his own, sort of California "laid-back" with a strong Allen flavor.  I liked Wilson here more than in anything else I have seen him do (and I admit I have avoided some of the more raucous work.)

In fact, most of the performers here have never looked better.  Adrien Brody is hot as Salvador Dali, with his new pencil-moustache, and his charming obsession with the word "rhinoceros".  Kathy Bates is appropriately brusque and "artsy" as Gertude Stein, who proves to be Gil's mentor and savior. 

My favorite of the literary figures is Corey Stoll's Hemingway.  Stoll commands this role, and I couldn't take my eyes from him when he was on the screen.  If Hemingway was not this sexy and compelling, he should have been.  His best moment is delivering a line that all insecure writers understand: before reading Gil's manuscript, he claims he already doesn't like it, either because it will be badly written, or so well-done that he will be angry at his own inadequacies.  Stoll is perfect, and I will look for more of his work.

And is there a lovelier screen presence than Marion Cotillard is here?  One can see why Gil is instantly drawn to Adriana, and why he panics when she seeks to leave her era to travel back in time.  Cotillard is perfectly cast, almost typecast but to great effect. The camera drinks her in in closeup, and her eyes light every scene. Cotillard lends a lot of authenticity and adds the right amount of bittersweet to her romance with Gil. The film effectively makes use of Adrianna's diary to connect Gil's present with his travels back.  His romantic dilemma forms the central conflict in the film, which Allen resolves in a pleasantly predictable way.

With its intelligent writing, attractive cast performing at their best, and Allen's eye for camera placement and his inherent romanticism, this film scores in every department, and leaves audiences entertained and appreciative. It is too early, for me, to start making lists of the best films of 2011.  All the same, it would be difficult to imagine seeing anything I will enjoy more than  "Midnight in Paris."