Sunday, January 24, 2010

Happiness is...

When I was 10, I was a theater geek—in addition to acting in children's theater, I was reading Shakespeare and Edward Albee (didn’t quite "get" what was going on in Taming of the Shrew or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), collecting the annual Best Plays book series, and listening to original cast albums of hit musicals. My other big passion was comics, and these two interests came crashing together in 1967 when I got the cast album of the off-Broadway hit You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts. It went into high rotation on my record player, along with albums of The Music Man, Oliver, and Man of La Mancha (with the Beatles in there occasionally as well). The songs were as funny and inspired as the strip, the adult actors did a good job of sounding like kids, and the music was catchy, being both simple (the primary musical instrument in evidence was piano) and complex (the way multiple voices and melodies wind together in "Book Report"). It caught the tone of the strip as well, pitched between youthful happiness and adult melancholy: though the characters are children, they dealt with grown-up anxieties like loneliness, peer pressure, and love.

In 1985, the musical was adapted for television as an animated hour-long special on CBS. For the network, this certainly made sense since the first Peanuts TV show, A Charlie Brown Christmas, had became an instant classic, and several more shows followed. However, the TV shows were fully-developed half-hour narratives, whereas the musical really had no plot; it was a series of songs and sketches that followed Charlie, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy through an average day. I saw the show on its initial airing and remember being disappointed. I suspect it was not a big hit because it hasn’t become a standard network rerun. Now it’s out on DVD from Warner Home Video for re-inspection.

I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I can see why it hasn’t become a classic. First on the minus side is the aforementioned lack of narrative drive. In fact, the one segment that does build up some plot momentum, the baseball game, in which Charlie Brown writes a letter to a pen pal about participating in a championship game, is the weakest part of the show. Though the cartoon could show action that couldn’t be presented on stage, it doesn’t, so the game is “told” through Charlie's letters rather than shown. This refusal to use the full breadth of animation possibilities is a problem throughout. The couple times they do go fanciful, as in Lucy and Schroeder’s "Moonlight Sonata" number, work well.

The other big stumbling block is the use of children to voice the characters. I understand why they did this: kids were used in the other Peanuts cartoons, and certainly A Charlie Brown Christmas would not have been half as charming as it was if adults had done the voices. But here, having children sing a score intended for adult voices is a weakness. Jessie Lee Smith, as Lucy, does fine, but everyone else is just passable, and Kevin Brando as Charlie Brown can't hit the high notes at all, which caused me much cringing.

On the plus side, though the 48 minute show is forced to cut some of the stage material, the best songs remain, and they still work well. "Book Report," in which we see the kids each dealing in their own ways with having to write a book report on Peter Rabbit, is an absolutely charming number, and it's well-animated—I especially like the touch, fairly early in the digital era, of having Schroeder composing his report, in which he tries desperately to compare the boring Peter Rabbit story to the exciting exploits of Robin Hood, at a computer screen. We see him start sentences, then change his mind and delete them from the screen (indicated in the original score by a slashing sound, like a pencil against paper); then, we see the Robin Hood adventures animated in the style of a primitive video game. Snoopy doesn't speak out loud but he does have an interior speaking and singing voice, and his mellow song "Not Bad At All" is a highlight.

Other particularly enjoyable songs include Snoopy’s joyous ode to "Suppertime," the cheery march-type theme song, and the sweet "Happiness." In an unusual twist for Charlie Brown, he actually gets a couple of happy moments during the last two songs, though he still loses the baseball game, can't get the red-haired girl, and is the only kid at school who doesn’t get a single Valentine card. On balance, it's nice to have this available, but even better would be if a video recording surfaced of the original cast performance (which included Gary Burghoff and Bob Balaban) or the 1999 Broadway revival with Kristen Chenoweth and Roger Bart. The new DVD, available January 26th from Warner Home Video, has one short but disappointing featurette: no video or audio of any of the stage shows, no biographical material about the musical's author, Clark Gesner, and interviews with talking heads who seem to have done about 5 minutes worth of research on Wikipedia. Otherwise, the print on the disc is in very good shape.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Time, time, time, see what's become of me

Time travel stories come in three varieties: in perhaps the most common kind, someone travels forward well into the future and sees wonders or horrors (H.G. Wells' The Time Machine). In the second kind, someone travels backward through time to some historical era and often tries to alter some event (stop Lincoln from being killed, for example), and inevitably one of the paradoxes of time-travel is dealt with: could we change history, or would our efforts be in vain?—Ray Bradbury’s short story "A Sound of Thunder" is an excellent example of this. The third kind involves travel that's not so far-flung, just a few years or months or even days into the past or future; this highlights another brain-numbing paradox of time-travel: what would happen if we met ourselves? The first example of this kind of story I ran across was David Gerrold's novel The Man Who Folded Himself.

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) is a low-budget Spanish film from 2007 which follows in the footsteps of the American indie film Primer (2004). Both are small scale sci-fi time travel movies which use virtually no special effects, but also need multiple viewings in order for the viewer to keep track of the various temporal comings and goings. However, having seen Primer, I was prepared to let go of the need to know exactly where, when, and why everyone is where they are, or why they should or shouldn’t be someplace.

Hector (Karra Elejalde) is relaxing in his backyard, scanning the woods with his binoculars, when he sees a nubile young woman taking her clothes off. With his wife off on an errand, he goes into the woods looking for the girl and finds instead a sinister figure with a bandaged head (above) wielding a pair of scissors and darting about in the trees. Hector takes refuge in a isolated research laboratory and runs into a handsome, bearded scientist (Nacho Vigalondo, at left) who tells Hector to hide inside a large pod-shaped device, which turns out to be a time machine which sends Hector an hour into the past, which means there are now two Hectors running around in the woods, and thus begins a frantic attempt on the part of Hector and the scientist to get Hector's life back into one timestream.

The rest of the movie doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense, but if you go with the flow, it's interesting and sometimes tricky fun, though ultimately a shallow and somewhat depressing exercise in convoluted storytelling. If you've seen Primer, you'll figure out generally where this is heading. Vigalondo, who also wrote and directed, has a solid screen presence, but unfortunately Elejalde, his leading man, does not, and I found it difficult to care much what happened to him, or the two female characters who are basically just plot devices. Still, a diverting time travel fantasy which you should see before the big stupid inevitable Hollywood remake gets it totally wrong and turns it into a big-budget film with Bruce Willis and Christian Slater.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Not quite a buddy movie

Humpday is an indie film about two old college friends who reunite after a few years apart: middle-class Ben is married and he and his wife are trying very hard to have a child; the unsettled bohemian Andrew, who fancies himself an artist, in town for a while, is invited to stay with Ben, and winds up shaking up Ben's life with a drunken proposal that the two of them enter a homemade porn movie contest by shooting the heterosexual friends having sex.

This sounds like fun, but it's not. It's a comedy in that it's not a tragedy and it's not terribly serious in tone, but it's also not very funny; there are very few jokes or punchlines here, and scenes that have potential to be humorous wind up being just uncomfortable. That's actually kind of admirable, I guess, but it's not very entertaining. I suppose in tone it's kin to the films of cringing discomfort made by Sacha Baron Cohen (I haven't seen Borat or Bruno and have no plans to do so).

Many critics believe that this plot took the modern buddy/ bromance movie to an awkward extreme, but that's not quite accurate. Ben and Andrew aren't really buddies anymore; in fact, they seem to barely know each other. It would have been more interesting to take two real friends, guys out of a Seth Rogen movie, and subject them to this quandary. These two guys have little intimate chemistry (unlike, say, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes) and once they're sober, there seems to be no good reason for them to even think about going through with their plan, aside from Ben's weak reasoning that it's a chance for one last stab at something crazy.

Indie stalwart Mark Duplass (pictured) is very good as Ben; Joshua Leonard, one of the guys in The Blair Witch Project, is fine as the unlikeable Andrew. Ben's wife, played by Alycia Delmore, is also fine, and has perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie when Andrew lets their plan slip to her, thinking that Ben had already told her. Though the film had a written screenplay, much of the dialogue came out of improvisation, and I'm sorry but I'm through pretending that improv is arty and honest and all that; improvised acting makes my ass tired. Humpday was written by a woman (Lynn Shelton) and I give her points for heading into territory where few male filmmakers would probably tread without Jim Carrey or Will Farrell in tow, but it's still a disappointment.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Brilliant Darkness

It seems lately that even non-fiction books I enjoy I bitch about because they're badly written or badly structured or badly edited or not proofread at all. So I definitely want to write a short post about A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age by João Magueijo. I don't know what possessed me to pick up the book as I have no affinity for physics and had never heard of Ettore Majorana, but I did and I'm happy to report this is that rare treat of a non-fiction book that is both very interesting and very well written.

In 1938, Majorana was a promising young nuclear physicist, ultimately seen as responsible for discovering the neutrino, who had spent several years off the radar due to depression or madness or just plain stubbornness. He was teaching at a university when he vanished, last seen on a ship to Naples. Some evidence suggests he may have been suicidal (and some of today's revisionist thinkers want him to have been upset over forecasting the terrible potential of nuclear power), but the last written communications from him indicate he had gotten past his darkest moments and was feeling more optimistic. In any case, he was never seen again, though he has had an Elvis-like afterlife, with sightings around the world and persistent reports that he dropped out and joined a monastery.

Most of the book consists of alternating chapters which focus on Majorana's life and on his physics (and the physics that came after him); try as I might, I couldn't grasp the science chapters, even with cute little illustrations of subatomic particles. But really, the narrative story of Majorana and of the author's interviews with various family members and conspiracy theorists is fascinating and crystal clear, and remarkably well-written.
He stretches a bit to come to a thematically appropriate conclusion, but overall Magueijo, who is a physicist, is also a damned good writer (and, incidentally, quite good looking [see below], which is maybe why I picked the book up in the first place ;-). Whether you have a science background or not, I recommend this as a good read.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

An Elementary New Year

I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes, though not a fanatic. Mostly, I like the series of 14 movies made between 1939 and 1946 with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. I've read perhaps a dozen of the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, but I don't feel compelled to forge on through all 56 short stories or the 4 novels--in fact, I enjoy Holmes' homages and pastiches by other authors more than the Doyle originals. I more like the idea of Holmes that has been established in popular culture: the eccentric bachelor whose prodigious skills of observation and reasoning always lead him to solve the crime, sometimes going undercover, sometimes without even leaving his digs at 221-B Baker Street.

Over the New Years' holiday, we had a mini-marathon of Holmes movies (some on DVD, some courtesy Turner Classic Movies), virtually all ones I'd never seen before: 3 of the later Rathbones (Pearl of Death, Dressed to Kill, Pursuit to Algiers), one early British talkie (Sherlock's Holmes' Fatal Hour, with Arthur Wontner, who looks more like the original Holmes illustrations than any other filmed Holmes), and the new Hollywood blockbuster with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

I don't automatically object to tinkering with or updating Holmes and his world; after all, in the Rathbone movies, Watson is turned into a blundering, blustering fool, which he was not in the stories (his portrayal in Fatal Hour as a staunch assistant is much closer to how Doyle wrote him). Also, aside from the first two films in the series, Hound of the Baskervilles & The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the other twelve Rathbone stories are all updated to wartime England. When the previews for the new Sherlock Holmes made the character look like an action hero, I was intrigued--after all, the character does engage in the occasional fisticuffs in the stories and earlier films. But sadly the director, Guy Ritchie, goes beyond action hero to superhero, and Holmes' legacy is the worse for wear.

The plot of the new film has promise: Lord Blackwood, who has killed several young women in occult sacrifices, is caught by Holmes and Watson and put to death, but seems to return from the dead to finish his plans to use the dark arts to conquer England and the world. Downey, though far fitter than any other Holmes I've seen (I have missed Jeremy Brett's TV portrayals, which many fans like more than the Rathbone movies), is a little too eccentric for my taste. Yes, Holmes was an odd duck, but Ritchie has not bothered to tone down Downey's twitchy intensity, which actually worked well for him in making Iron Man stand out a bit from the superhero crowd. Still, Downey (above) is not the main problem. Neither is Jude Law (below) who is quite wonderful as Watson and even manages to subtly steal some scenes from Downey with his reaction shots.

The real problem is the use of the computer in the film's look and style. This is yet another movie with a grungy gray color-leached palette, lots of computer-generated fog and smoke, artificial fast- and slow-motion fight scenes, and wildly improbable and very artificial looking set pieces involving CGI structures and a vertigo-inducing swooping camera. None of these things is necessarily bad, used in moderation and for particular effects, but we get an overdose of them here, at the expense of dialogue and character. Downey and Law work well together, and there is an occasional good witty exchange, but fistfights, body blows, pistol shots, and concussions (and all the rollercoaster Dolbyized noise and vibrations that go with them) are the rule here, so for the climax to be climactic, Ritchie has to go all X-Men and Spider Man on us, and the last 15 minutes or so, set on the unfinished Tower Bridge, are just dreadful. The movie is also, in general, badly directed; many scenes look off-center or framed on the fly, with more attention paid to the fast editing of the action scenes than to coherent dialogue scenes.

The women, admittedly not a big part of the original Sherlock's world, get incredibly short shrift here: Rachel McAdams moseys through the thankless damsel-in-distress role of Irene Adler and Kelly Reilly, interesting looking though she is, has nothing to do as Watson's fiancee; we don't get to know her at all, though I was thankful that she was not presented as a hapless harpy, jealous of Watson's relationship with Holmes. Speaking of which, this may be the gayest Holmes ever; Holmes seems to physically want Watson every minute of the day (well, yeah, he's Jude Law!), and despite Adler's supposed romantic history with Holmes, the two have zero chemistry.

Still, I can't say I'm sorry to have seen this. There is fun in fits and starts, and the Satanist plot provides some good moments for Holmes' rational puncturing of supernatural baloney. Unfortunately, Ritchie cares too much for visual baloney. This isn't a movie I can imagine wanting to see a second time.