Monday, May 30, 2011

The Moviegoer: Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen created a love song to Manhattan in his movie of the same title, filling it with beautiful images of the city. Over thirty years later, he has created another love song, this time to Paris. The opening images before the credits are glorious images of the city from morning to evening. If you have never been to Paris, this opening may just convince you to go.
In his latest romantic comedy, Owen Wilson plays Gil, the Woody Allen persona, complete with all the introspective quirks and delivery we’ve come to expect from Allen on Allen, but I found myself charmed by the premise—the would-be novelist, currently Hollywood writer, yearns for the “moveable feast” that Hemingway described in the 1920s Paris, a world he sees as much less hectic than the present. One night, as he wanders alone, the clock strikes midnight and voilĂ , he finds himself in that same 1920s Paris, with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, young Hemingway, Cole Porter, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and many others.
An article from the New York Times explains that background that some viewers may not know, since part of the fun of the film is recognizing the cultural cast of characters who helped create the modern art world.  (Similar to identifying James Cameron’s Titanic characters before they speak.)
There is a salute to that wonderful moment from Annie Hall where Marshall McLuhan appears out of nowhere to put down a pompous Columbia TV media teacher. Here a pedantic friend of Gil’s girlfriend, also a teacher, is going on about a painting of Picasso’s that Gil had actually heard discussed by Picasso and Gertrude Stein. He is able to put the teacher/art critic in his place.
Wilson is engaged to Rachel McAdams, who we can quickly see is not for him. In his 1920s adventure he falls in love with one of Picasso’s mistresses, played by Marion Cotillard. When they discover they love each other, she reveals that she wants to leave the frantic world they live in and be in La Belle Epoque. And at the stroke of the clock, she gets her wish. She wants to stay in the past. Gil realizes as much as he likes the past, he wants to remain in the present.
Many of Allen’s themes are there: the struggle for fidelity to another, fear of death, the role of art and the artist, the tribute of a great city. One critic has stated, “Old men shouldn’t make movies.”  I think he’s wrong. I found the film charming, and I’m looking forward to going to Paris someday.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Lost Books of The Odyssey: A Novel

The Lost Books of The Odyssey: A NovelThe Lost Books of The Odyssey: A Novel by Zachary Mason

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In The Lost Books of The Odyssey: A Novel, Zachary Mason tells and sometimes retells new versions of the familiar and unfamiliar from The Odyssey and The Iliad. As someone who enjoys Homer immensely, I loved this book.

Here, unfettered by Homer's version, Penelope marries Menelaus, Telemachus has a sister, Odysseus marries Nausicca and makes no attempt to return home until Athena appears to tell him it is time. Odysseus is more than once seen as a bard, willing to embellish any truth until the story takes hold with a life of its own.
My favorite story tells of a youthful Odysseus sent by Agamemnon to bring Achilles to join the Trojan War. Unfortunately Achilles has died from an illness and Odysseus is forced to create a crude Golum which will take Achilles' place. Produced from clay, with "Life" written on his forehead, the animated warrior spends much time in his tent working, making life comfortable for Achilles' friend Patrochlus, who had come along to assist in convincing the Acheans that this was indeed Achilles.

In the end, when the Golum realizes what death means, Odysseus obliterates the "Life" on its forehead, and the clay is given to the Trojans as a lifeless statue commemorating the "dead" hero. For me, reading the book is worth this one story.

The book reminds me of the inventiveness of Neil Gaimon's graphic novel series, The Sandman, where he has stories which re-imagine familiar stories--many incarnations of Morpheus, god of dreams or one whole graphic novel on Orpheus.

Mason's book is peopled with Odysseus, Penelope, Helen, Agamemnon, the Cyclopes, Scylla, Theseus, Eumaios, Telemachus and many others. In the last story, Odysseus, now an old man, returns to retrace the journey he took, only to find Troy has become a tourist trap filled with actors and souvenirs. It is a fitting and quite poignant close to the book.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Moviegoer: The Double Hour

In The Double Hour, an Italian film from 2009 but just released here, Sonia is a bored chambermaid. Guido, a former cop, is a bored widowed  security guard. They meet at a speed-dating club. He's drawn to her and they begin a romance. Gradually conventional story-telling is disrupted when we suddenly learn that Guido was killed in a robbery attempt where Sonia was also wounded. Dead Guido suddenly appears to her at night. Then again on a security camera at the hotel where she works.

Eventually a sinister character that Sonia and her girl friend have decided has murdered his wife, ends up at her friend's funeral where he drugs her and buries her alive. And then Sonia comes out of a coma. The rest of the film, with the living Guido, the guilty Sonia, and all of Sonia's secrets merge into a world that Hitchcock would have enjoyed playing in.

Don't assume that the trailer gives away spoilers. It's all there, but not what you think.

If you enjoyed Hitchock's Vertigo, I think you'll enjoy Giuseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour.

And in case you wondered, the double hour is that moment when the hour and the minutes line up: for example, 10:10.

The Sparrow

The SparrowThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A group of seven explorers, sponsored by the Jesuits, set off on a mission to the planet Rakhat. Think Avatar with priests, scientists, two Sigourney Weaver characters (one young, one old), and a complex main character priest who becomes the only survivor of the journey. We know from the beginning that things end badly, but the suspense of the book comes from learning not what happened, but why it happened. "You have the facts, but still don't understand," says one of the characters. I found myself at times having to put the book down because I didn't want to end the characters before I was ready. All the characters, including those inhabitants of the planet, were well drawn.

Russell has created a world of lush beauty and harsh realities, which remains compelling even after I've finished the book. It's taking a bit to shake off her world and return to reality.

How do we accept that God leads us in our choices when bad things happen to people that we care about? (It is not surprising that one of the women is of Jewish descent, for the previous question is infused with the horrors of the atrocities of the 20th century.)

The book is on my list of must-reads.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Moviegoer: Lars and the Real Girl

As my class discussed Frankenstein and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, we discussed the question posed earlier on in Speilberg’s film—Could you get a person to love a robot? I pointed out to them how subversive that question becomes in Speilberg’s film because he casts Haley Joel Osment as this advanced child robot who constantlypulls at the heart-strings of the audience. Most  agreed how difficult it was to watch the scene where his mother deserts him in the forest, and when he cries, the audience does also.

In our discussions, I talked about BBC America’s Love Me, Love My Doll, which some of the kids had seen. Guys and dolls also deals with the same subject.

That led to our consideration of Lars and the Real Girl, which I knew only by the trailer. Some of my students watched the film and were surprised at how touched they were.

Lars, played with understated pathos by Ryan Gosling, is so shy, yet so endearing, the people of his small town all seem to care for him. Lars has never coped with his parents’ deaths. He lives in the garage while his brother and pregnant sister-in-law live in the former family home.

One day a co-worker tells him about life-size sex-dolls which leads him to order his own built to order, Bianca. When Bianca arrives, Lars reaches out to others for the first time.

Dagmar, the local doctor, played with great sensitivity by Patricia Clarkson, suggests that the best way to help Lars is to accept Bianca. She “treats” Bianca. Others invite her to join them. She “reads” at the local school. A beauty operator fixes her hair. Several times a week she “volunteers” at the hospital. She is even accepted at church.

As people accept Lars and Bianca, he begins to relate more and more to the people around him, until finally he does find a real girl and finds he has to let Bianca go. That moment becomes surprisingly poignant and Lars moves into the adult world he has rejected for so long.

The film is well worth putting on your Netflix list… and then let me know when you see it.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Moviegoer: Thor

Marvel comic book movies have basic elements one expects: awe-inspiring confrontations, simple plots that even children can follow, two-dimensional characters, adult humor, and good looking male protagonists who fall in love with beautiful women in romantic side-stories which the women in the audience can enjoy. In those areas, Thor doesn't fail to deliver. Production values are high. The mise en scene ranges from high-tech runic Asgard and modern day New Mexico. I enjoyed the twists and nods toward Norse mythology. I haven't read the Marvel comic, but might after seeing this. And of course, you'll have time to see it because the sequel has to be on the way. This is obviously intended as the first in a series.

In case you caught the product placement in the above paragraph, you can also enjoy the funniest thing about the film: blatant product placement. When I finally started looking for them, I noted a Seven-Eleven, a specific bank ATM, Dr. Pepper-- and funniest of all-- at least two children's cereal boxes, one which Natalie Portman holds up for all to see. All I could think of were how people like Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen used to broke the fourth wall in their tv sit-coms to sell products. Perhaps next film they can sell placement on Thor's armor, like athletes and race car drivers have been known to do. I know movies like this cost a bundle and I hope they got a good chunk of change for each product used.