Saturday, August 27, 2011

Man Vs. Machine: Guess who wins

Over the years I have attempted to adjust to the constant challenges of the media. I finally gave up on my vast lp collection, but not before transferring them to cds or my i-pod with a neat lp converter. I have one tape player which gets used only when the radio refuses to play decent music. And now we have a Wii, which supposedly will save us from complete devotion to re-runs of LAW AND ORDER and its off-shoots (it hasn't).

The Wii is a strange bird. It has a somewhat dictatorial format and often scolds its user for lack of improvement or performance and laxness in exercise (It's been 45 days since you have been on Wii Fitness). We started with Wii Sports because of its promise of becoming proficient in bowling, boxing, tennis, baseball, golf, etc., all in the privacy of your own den.

I admit that I enjoy the bowling and tennis and have made small improvements. As for baseball, the system seems rigged against the batter and for the pitcher. Surely few real pitchers get that many strike-outs. I always enjoyed actual tennis, particularly doubles (less responsibility) and found it a socialble activity, if you didn't take it too seriously. On the Wii Sports version, you can play with others but it's still virtual and you still have an avatar. You create your own avatar and can even give him or her facial features; in my case, gray hair, a scruffy beard, and a scowl. When playing competively, you are often reminded of your inadequacies. Often, the game ends with my avatar bending toward the ground in shame, as the narrator intones "You Lost." Then you are shown how you rank against your kids, wife, and grandkids, which only adds to the humiliation.

My two older grandsons from California recently spent a week with us, or should I say, our Wii. Their expertise on every game and on Wii Fitness was astounding. So now when I play a game, I am reminded that my grandsons have scores that triple mine. More humiliation, but what the heck, Wii is still a great deal of fun, and on really hot days (May-September) in Georgia, you can actually get some exercise and fun.

But what's with those little people with no lower bodies who look like warped bobble creatures. And why can't my partner in tennis ever hit one back while the opposing team is a team. Ah, more exercise for you, Gramps.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

ONE DAY, a modern love story

I receive a lot of my reading recommendations from my daughters, and last year one of them raved about a novel in which two opposites manage to sustain some sort of relationship by seeing each other every year on the same day. Yikes, I was suddenly thrust into the distant past in which a Harvard preppie falls for an outspoken and much smarter Italian scholarship student. So, I hesitated, since LOVE STORY had been one of the worst novels I had ever read; even the movie was better.

But when I did read David Nicholls' ONE DAY I loved it. Its witty conceit of a couple not quite being a couple for 20 years works. The dialogue had a delightful reality and the author catalogued the changes in British culture in the last two decades. Even more, there were believable characters who grew or fell in stature and whom you cared about. When a contemporary novel can achieve these feats, we get nervous when the film comes out. Yes, a film is not a novel; it's a different medium, a visual medium. But the best adaptations (see my review of THE HELP) keep the heart and spirit of the original. ONE DAY is no exception.

The American actress Anne Hathaway (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) plays Emma, an aspiring writer who enjoys her Oxford graduation night with a privileged playboy named Dexter(Jim Sturgess). Something clicks, and each St. Swithin's day they meet and catch up on each other's lives. At first Dexter is giddily successful as a flashy telly host for mindless music shows while Emma struggles to find her place. However, as Dexter's fortunes fall (his mother's death, loss of job, divorce, and addictions), Emma becomes a teacher and publishes successfully. Some of their meetings are fraught with longing, and others with loathing. But their need for each other never abates. All of this sounds heavy, but the film's clever structure and pacing (the author adapted his own novel), and its smart direction keep it from ever being maudlin (aka, LOVE STORY and its ilk). Hathaway grows from an awkward overchiever into a lovely, caring adult in a fine performance. Sturgess bravely shows Dexter's immaturity and even cruelty, but he is also poignantly real when he suffers. The supporting cast shines, particularly the elegant Patricia Clarkson as Dexter's long-suffering mother.

Directed by Lone Sherfig, who gave us the droll AN EDUCATION, ONE DAY succeeds on many levels. Not only is it a touching love story but it is also an examination of the bonds of friendship in a modern, distracting world, a world that discourages romantic love.

Monday, August 15, 2011

THE HELP, a movie that lives up to the book

By now almost everyone knows the success story of Kathryn Stockett's best seller THE HELP. This heartfelt, well-plotted novel spread by word of mouth and loving reviews, but no one could have predicted that a story about black maids and their white female employers in Mississippi during the birth of the civil rights movement could touch such a national nerve. But, almost immediately, some hostility surfaced on the left and among black critics. How could a white person understand and portray the emotions of black people? Do we ask how Tolstoy and Stendhal understood their doomed heroines? Or how the many great female authors made men live in their pages?

Similar nay-sayers have objected to the film version that opened last week. They have also suggested that the film is a bit too rosy for such a socially dramatic time. After all, how can a movie be taken seriously when the audience breaks into laughter on a regular basis? Tate Taylor's adaptation (co-writer and director) of THE HELP manages to answers these objections with serious drama and human comedy. The story centers on Skeeter Phelen(Emma Stone), an Ole Miss grad who wants a writing career instead of an immediate wedding. When she returns to Jackson, she begins to notice in a new way the maids in the well kept homes of her Junior League friends. Her friends discuss the "Negro problem" openly as their maids wait on them or debate whether a maid should be allowed to use the indoor bathrooms. As she becomes torn between her old friends and her new interest in the plight of the maids, the conflict grows to a boil. Secretly, Skeeter sets up a series of interviews with the two other major characters, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) and eventually twelve other maids. One might expect that their tales would all be negative, but there are many stories of love and family, especially from those who raised the white children. This seems to be the crux of the film. Ironically, these children grow up to be like their spoiled mothers, and the culture of repression triumphs.

All this sounds too serious for a summer movie, right? Director Taylor infuses the film with rich, often earthy humorous set pieces, the major one centering on a special pie cooked by Minny. The serious tone of THE HELP is achieved primarily through a superb cast. Jessica Chastain creates a memorable Celia Foote, an insecure blonde bombshell who learns how to cook and to live because of her maid Minny. Octavia Spencer gives Minny a warmth and zest for living that she didn't seem to have in the novel, and Viola Davis invests Aibileen with such fierce devotion and love that she, and probably Spencer and Foote, will be Oscar nominees.

THE HELP manages to be the most entertaining yet most serious movie of the summer.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Best Action Flick of the Year! No, it's not a superhero.

We've been bombarded by superheroes this year--Thor, Green Lantern, X-Men, Captain America, and even Daniel Craig fighting Aliens, but none of these compares with the best action movie in some time--RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Yes, I'm talking about the prequel and/or reboot of the somewhat musty franchise that started with a loin-clothed Charlton Heston captured by civilized apes. Well, we know how that turned out.

But this one IS actually different and much more inventive. For starters, it has a strong, emotionally involving story that leads to the terrific action sequences that dominate the second half of the film. The engaging and believable James Franco plays a brilliant scientist hell-bent on discovering a cure for Altzheimer's Disease. His beloved father is quickly degenerating before his eyes. When Franco brings home a new-born chimp who carries the intelligence-producing drug, he injects his father (a moving John Lithgow) with the serum. Not only does Dad improve he becomes brilliant and starts playing piano like Lang Lang. Skip a few years, Dad is still great and Caesar is getting bigger and more dangerous; after all he's a teenager.

I won't give too much away, but this emotional beginning leads to a slam-bang series of suspenseful, hair-raising set pieces wherein Caesar becomes the leader of an ape rebellion. Sounds ridiculous? Driven by superb editing and photography, the apes (all digitally rendered but highly realistic) perform amazing human pet tricks such as a home grown political organization and escape from labs and zoos, all led by the shrewd Caesar. The technical expertise that enables every movement, every grimace is so seamless that, for once, it all seems real, not photo-shopped. Dare I say it? I went ape for this movie!

Monday, August 8, 2011

What's in a song?

Recording artists and wanna-be artists reach a point in their careers when they decide to tackle what's broadly called "The American Songbook." That is a genre or group of songs that seems to take off in the late 1920's with Broadway reviews, grew in the 1930's with Broadway and film scores, and reached its climax and ultimate decline with great interpreters like Sinatra, Ella, Nat King Cole, and other fine singers. But this was the era of change and rock and roll was poised to take over. A few classic songs were on the charts--"Unforgettable," one of the last songs with meaningful lyrics and beautiful styling, and re-makes of classics such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, this time by the Platters. But there was a new King named Presley, not Cole or Sinatra, and in the next decade, the Beatles would assume the mantle. With our splintering popular taste there would never be another King or Queen of popular music. Lo, these many years later, pop music and idols have regressed to such lows that "lyrics" and singers are interchangealbe, and amazingly, dully the same. Singers like Willie Nelson and Barry Manilow have dipped into the American Songbook with varying success. Perhaps the nadir of this trend can be found in Rod Stewart's popular series "The Great American Songbook." One benefit of Stewart's gutting is a renewed interest in the songs themselves. People are discovering that they can be sung better, much better. MORE LATER.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The World According to the Tea Partiers and The View

Some time ago, I scoffed at the possible influence of a bunch of elderly, middle-aged, often over-weight Americans wearing faux 18th Century costumes and waving American flags. They carried ridiculous signs declaring that granny was being shipped to a home or even worse, thanks to our monstrously over-extended Godzilla of a government. Their major theme was the gross indignity of having to pay taxes for government services. I wanted to ask if they were so independent that they wanted no repairs to roads, no traffic lights, no national parks, no free admissions to the National Gallery...well, you get my drift. My favorite moment in their diatribes came when one silly woman screamed, "Don't touch my social security!" These Tea Partiers had the timidity to compare themselves to the "patriots" who protested the English Tea Tax in 1773. But, I was so wrong, as can be evidenced by cowardly crumbling of the Republican Party, especially in the House.

Its slick and over-tanned chief negotiator, John Boehner almost convinced us and his party that he was working well with President Obama to come up with a reasonable debt-ceiling deal. We know how that worked out and we know why. For some inexplicable reason, the Tea Party has managed to bring the House to a stand-still. This next of vipers has dumped Boehner and followed an even bigger slime-ball, Eric Cantor. All of this would be amusing if it were not so dangerous to millions of people who don't have proper housing, jobs, health care, and lives. The next year will be more than interesting. It will be a battle between rational thinking and extreme reactionism. I shudder to think what may happen.

Another note of silliness and pessimism. Several days a week I go to my re-hab center and walk on the treadmill. I take my ear buds and a book, but I am still accosted by a group of five out-spoken women who seem to have an opinion on everything from Obama to who's sleeping with who and how much alimony is not being paid to the rich trophy wife. Yes, my treadmill faces two television sets, both showing ABC's THE VIEW, a hot air bonanza featuring former actress Whoopi Goldberg, former journalist Barbara Walters, talk show host Joy Behar (the best of the group, not necessarily a good thing), Elisabeth Hasselbeck (resident blonde), and Sherri Shepherd who seems to be there to fill up space.

With leaders like McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, Sen. Paul, and commentators like the gals on The View, we are drawn further and further into a quagmire of misinformation and rascals. Where is Mark Twain when we need him?