Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Warning: Schmoopy Sincerity Ahead. Abort! Abort!

With a post title like that, you must be here for the sappy sentimentality. Well, here you go, as promised.

Today was the final assembly of Elder Daughter's high school career, and it was awards day. Did you know that some high schools actually still give out academic recognition awards? I thought it was something they only did in English all-boy public schools and Monty Python sketches.

But such things still exist at my kids' school, and today was the day. And it was a day of some anxiety, because she is a very smart kid and a very responsible and committed kid, who has struggled with depression and other issues, and still managed to show up every day and be reliable and thoughtful and deeply engaged with learning.

Over the four years of high school, she has been a solid and reliable member of the school orchestra, anchoring the second violin section for four years; one of the few, the proud, the egregiously outnumbered altos in the extra-curricular choir and chamber choir; as the second (or third) level character in the plays. She's rarely been given solos, she hasn't been asked to conduct, she hasn't had showy lead roles, and she's never quite had the opportunity to burst into full color on stage in a way I see her doing at home regularly. She's been solid, reliable, she's always stepped up and performed beautifully, in a supporting role kind of way.
Yesterday, she was anticipating the awards and who would win them, preparing herself to not be recognized with a theater award because other seniors had done slightly more performances, had slightly more hours invested in the program. I saw her struggling to set her own expectations, to rank herself with the other seniors so as to not be disappointed or emotional during this assembly, and my heart broke for her a little bit. Because she is wonderful, but also quiet, unassuming, never self-aggrandizing, and so easy to overlook--as she had been, a little bit.

(I am aware that I am her mother and so of course I think this--everybody's mother feels this way, that their own precious darling specially gifted prodigies are not well served by the education establishment blah blah blah. Sure--that's true. But you try watching your kid preemptively manage disappointment and not get verklempt.)

The drama awards went to all the usual suspects exactly as she had suspected, not to her. Then the orchestra leader stood up and recognized the concert-mistress, and there was an award for a girl who had also accompanied the spring musical. Then there was another award. One that recognized that "You have played in the orchestra since middle school and also played in the chamber orchestra. You sang with the choir and the chamber choir. You have performed characters from tragedy to comedy. I am pleased to present the Somebody V. Something award to--" and it was my girl.

She had no idea this was coming, and I had no idea that it was coming and it felt so right. It was not about her being a diva, it was not about her snagging all the solos, or her starring in all the plays. It captured who she has been--supportive, reliable, talented, dedicated, there. Not only that, but it was awarded by three of the major faculty figures in her life: the choir director, the orchestra director, and the theater director. It was the only award that spanned all three fields.

Back when we were looking at kindergarten programs, we tried to be clear-eyed about her strengths and her weaknesses, and at the time we said "No matter what school she ends up in, she will be fine. But she will always be the kid who does well and doesn't cause problems, and in a large public school classroom, she will be invisible. At this school, she will be seen."

Today, she was seen. And my broken heart broke again a little bit, for the gift that she had of teachers who saw her and loved her for who she is.

[In an anti-climactic coda here, I will also report that she won the highest honor for her Chinese studies as well--the other major academic love of her life. After some serious hard times over the last few years, she got some important validation and she deserved it.]

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Some Things I Like

Okay, in contrast to the last post, I am going to make a list of a few things that I have come across in the last month that I have actively liked and tried to get others into:

  • Sherlock on PBS--the British production created by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
  • The Drowsy Chaperone--a Broadway musical pastiche, presented as a contemporary man playing a record of a (fictional) musical from 1928
  • Tumblr
  • Menchie's frozen yogurt shop
  • Blunderbuss--the new album by Jack White
  • Running on an elliptical 
  • Prime rib and Lillet at Salut
  • Lunch with my girlfriends
Not terrible, right? I'm no Pollyanna, but there are a series of actual things that I get excited about and happy to participate in.

So maybe my heart isn't entirely cold and dead--maybe it's just too small. Like the Grinch.

Checking the Heart--Still Cold and Dead

It has come to my attention that I hate everything.

Yes, that is kind of a sweeping statement, but not untrue.

Over the last month, I have read at least four books and seen three Major Movies, and as I sat down to write my reviews and impressions, I realized that I hated them all.

"Hate" might be too harsh of a word for how I actually felt, but "negative" is accurate. Dark Shadows--can't recommend it, because it has no idea what it wants to be. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel--great cast, shoddy script that the best talents of British acting can't save. The Avengers--a lot of sound and fury, but to very little point. Yet if asked, I would say "I love to go to movies."

Books are worse, in part because now I have read so many of them that I see their problems more than I see their strengths. Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown--fails to create any real conflict, fails to create characters I care about, fails to master the small innovations that Brown attempts. Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel--extends the brand she established in Wolf Hall but fails to achieve anything with it. Boring. Fifty Shades of Grey--do I even need to say anything? Okay--in brief, it makes Stephanie Meyer look like a master of suspense and plotting, and is boring porn on top of it. There is better stuff out there, even for free.

Wait! you say. You said there were four books, and that's only three. What is the fourth?

That's the exception that proves the rule.  The book I am currently reading is Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened and I am really loving it. She is funny, while recounting a childhood that could make you cry. (I believe Jeanette Walls took that approach in her own book, The Glass Castle.) A (young! still so young!) woman who was raised in poverty, has battled anorexia, crippling anxiety disorder, multiple miscarriages, and rheumatoid arthritis still manages to make me laugh out loud. I may be able to represent her life and her writing in two sentences about the first time she brought her (now) husband home to meet her parents:

(1) This probably would have been my exact worst nightmare of brining a boy home to meet my parents, if I'd ever had enough creativity to imagine my father throwing a live bobcat on the boy I was trying to impress.
 (2) In my father's defense, it was a smallish sort of bobcat that my dad was nursing back to health so he could release it back into the wild, rather than one of the full-grown ones from the backyard.
 (pp. 88-89)

Not only does her father--for no discernible reason--decide to throw a wild animal at an unsuspecting young man, but this animal is only one of several wild animals he could have chosen for the task.Is there any need to go on and explain that Lawson's father keeps the bobcats in the yard in order to collect the urine? No, I didn't think so.

But this is where I think I have perhaps gone over the line into privileged, spoiled, unpleasant bitch territory. Jenny Lawson grew up with tap water from a well poisoned with radon, subject to the humor of a father who makes hand puppets out of squirrel road kill, wearing bread wrappers stuffed with newspapers in the winter. Meanwhile, I sit back watching movies and reading books that hundreds of people have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars to create, and all I can do is say "meh--it wasn't very good. It could have been better."

Could it have been better? How? Okay, you over-privileged jerk--why don't you try to make something one tenth as good. Once you really experience the difficulty of actually creating something that is as good as you expect it to be--then you can come back here and bitch about other people's failures. Until then--shut up!

Is it too late for me? Has my heart really turned into a lump of singed carbon in my chest? Can I possibly raise my cultural response to something more than a tepid "Well--it wasn't a complete waste of time." I think I can, because there are so many things out there I don't know about. I could read novels from other countries, about lives wildly different from my own. I could read non-fiction. I could engage in other art forms that are not so familiar as to be boring--painting, dance, classical music, sculpture, photography. I could learn to read foreign languages and pursue their literature. I could read drama, poetry, experimental fiction. I could study business, economics, politics, rhetoric, history, theater arts. I could start a theater company, learn to program computers, write my own damn books.

But will I?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dark Shadows, a Review

Cut to the chase--is it worth seeing? Well, all the jokes are already in the trailer, so save yourself 110 minutes and watch that instead.

Or, go see more of it, but it's not any different, or any better--it's the same as the trailer, just longer.

While it's fashionable to blame Burton for needlessly prolonging a creative partnership with Depp that has gone stale, the real problem here is the script. It's clear that Burton wanted to do "Dark Shadows" without the glacial pacing and chintzy production budget of 1960s television soaps--but he needed a story, and he didn't really get one. Instead, he got a script from Seth Grahame-Smith, the instigator of the current fad of mashing up classic (public domain!) literature and monsters. So the man who gave us "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is the writer of what passes for a story in this movie.

[Just a comment on "PP&Z"--the idea is very funny; the execution is tedious in the extreme. Appreciate the concept, but don't bother trying to read it, since it doesn't go anywhere from the premise. Just like the movie!]

The problems are many--the movie fails to be scary at any level, fails to be funny most of the time, fails to offer any insight into why the Collins family believes that family is important--they just keep saying it, but is there any reason to believe them? After all, fully half the remaining family can hardly stand to be around the place at all. The snotty teen played by Chloe Moretz and the loathsome brother played by Johnny Lee Miller don't believe in the family. That leaves Michelle Pfeiffer (looking DAMN FINE) as the impoverished remaining Collins, the little boy who sees ghosts, and Johnny Depp.

And really, the only reason you are going to see a Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie is to see Johnny Depp. And he delivers a variation on the many foppish, mannered, fish-out-of-water characters he has played in all the Tim Burton movies. His Barnabas Collins has creepy long fingernails, lacy sleeves, a walking cane, and a grudging acceptance of his need for blood. He does pull off looking like a callow teen in the early moments of the film, when he first rejects Eva Greene's affections--is that acting or post-production that gives him that dewy-skinned look? He manages to look both repellent and attractive as a pasty vampire, which is kind of a sweet spot occupied only by Jack Black in my personal pantheon. Differently, of course.

The plot is stupid, and only sketched in as necessary to allow for Burton's patented artistic design. The docks at Collinsport are suitably nautical, the decaying Collins plant is creepy and then fixed up just in time to be gloriously burned down. The Collinses put on a "ball" or a "happening" which is an excuse to get Alice Cooper to perform. He's about as creepy as the rest of "Dark Shadows"--the man may be in his mid-sixties, but he doesn't look bad in the make-up. The Collins mansion, despite having ostensibly been built in 1775 is full on Edgar Allen Poe Victorian gothic, full of hidden panels and subterranian vaults. Not sure how this was done in pre-American Revolution Maine on the proceeds of a fishing business, but it's best not to ask.

Also, don't ask how the Revolutionary era Collinses amassed a treasure hoard of gold and large gems either. Fish must have been a better business back in those days, back when Maine was still part of Massachusetts.

But with the treasure hoard and vampire hypnosis, Barnabas manages to rebuilt the Collins fish cannery and supposedly re-establish the family as the premiere social force in this incredibly tiny town. But his old spurned lover Eva Green (okay, her character is Angelique) is still around and still immortal, and still holds a grudge. She tries to seduce him, tries to re-bury him, and finally tries to kill him and destroy everything he loves. There is the obligatory final battle scene, most impressive for the way Eva Greene's skin cracks like the shell of a hard boiled egg as they fight. There is the completely superfluous element of Chloe Moritz's character also being a werewolf, which--wha? Why, and who cares, and don't even bother.

There is a governess with wide eyes and a Christina Ricci-ness look to her who is the double of the woman Johnny Depp loved back in 1775 and Eva Greene killed back then--so of course she is going to get killed again, except that Depp manages to bite her in time to turn her into a vampire so she survives the fall that her predecessor didn't. Helena Bonham Carter does some fun stuff with a character that is as superfluous as the werewolf thing. In fact, she seems to be around mostly because she is in every Burton film, and because there was a psychologist in the original soap. Other than that, she pulls off a few funny bits as a drunk who wants to use Depp's blood to stop her own aging.

Mostly pointless, only for people willing to overlook the lack of point, or die-hard fans of the original series. The entire project smacks of being an American version of the Doctor Who reboot--a director with a deep love of a neglected original, wanting to give the property the kind of attention possible with a decent budget and the advances in CGI. However, Russell T. Davies got some good storytelling into his reboot--Burton didn't.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a Review

The pedigree on this movie is amazing--directed by John Madden, the man who directed Shakespeare in Love, which is fashionable to hate but I still really love. The cast list is full of lovable English actors: Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judith Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, and Celia Imre. The trailer is gorgeous, full of the color and life of Jaipur, India. Take a look--how could this movie fail?

All the elements were there--except the script. Predictable, cliched, manipulative, boring. Honestly, these actors deserved something much better than they had, and they are good enough that they managed to make it seem like more than it was. It's not offensive, exactly, but it's not inoffensive either. More damningly, it hasn't got much to say, and it doesn't say that particularly well.

It's television grade writing at best, edging along the perimeters of racism and mocking the elderly for being old.  It's Enchanted April with less charm and more death.

Even the set up is mostly predictable. We start in England, with the sad stories of our elderly heroes. Tom Wilkinson is a judge (with the red robe and wig on a stand in his chambers) who attends someone's retirement party and realizes it's time to take care of some old business in India. Judy Dench is a new widow, who spent 40 years trusting her husband only to find that she has to sell her home to pay off his debts. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton are married and have lost their life's savings when they invested in their daughter's internet business. Maggie Smith is an obnoxious racist who needs a hip replacement and can get one more quickly/cheaply in India. Celia Imre wants to stop babysitting her grandchildren every night and find some action of her own. There is a seventh old coot who wants to go to India to get laid, played by Ronald Pickup who looks like someone I should recognize, but I don't. They all independently decide to go to India and nobody approves.

Really, there is not a single person in the UK who approves of anybody going to India for any reason. Family members, co-workers, real estate brokers all can't understand why anybody would leave London. Only Maggie Smith's doctors approve of her travel to India, but they don't count because 1) they are Indian themselves; and 2) she doesn't want to go.

So--India=Bad Idea. Did you catch that, because that's the plot, such as it is. Old people will leave England, be horrified at India. Would be you be surprised to find out that most of them learn to love it? Of course not, because you are sophisticated enough to realize that nobody would finance a movie about old people who go to India to find out that England is Better but Unaffordable for Old People who have to go to India to die so they don't clutter up London. That would be a terrible movie and not uplifting in any way.

Back to the "plot." Everyone comes upon the internet ad for the eponymous Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. The idea is that the hotel is looking for paying guests, and will pay for the airfare in return for cheap rates? The idea is that it will be an elegant retirement community that is less expensive and more gracious than these characters can afford at home.

[Oddly, the trailer has Bill Nighy's golf partner comparing India with "the coast of Florida?" To which Nighy replies "Yes, but with more elephants." In the movie, the line is "like the Costa Brava?" Not sure what assumptions trailer makers have about Americans' intelligence.]

After some not at all comical scenes involving airports, canceled flights, and overcrowded Indian buses, our Magnificent Seven arrive at the hotel. But Oh Noes! The hotel doesn't look the brochure, which was misleadingly Photoshopped! Penelope Wilton is irate and demands a refund which hotel owner/manager Dev Patel promises to give right away in three months. So now we have 7 people stuck in India in the Bad Idea Hotel. What will happen now?

To start with, Penelope Wilton proceeds to be a pill in every possible way; she hates the food, hates the crowds, mocks the smells, and refuses to leave the hotel, even though she hates it, because she hates India even more. (She spends her time reading "Tulip Fever," a book by Deborah Moggach, who wrote the novel this movie is based on.] To further make her a complete jerk, she throws herself at Tom Wilkinson in a cringe-inducing display of status climbing, and despite already being married to the charming and self-effacing Bill Nighy.  Wilkinson rebuffs her, not because she's married (or because she is a pill), but because he is gay. Embarrassed, Penelope tries to pack her bags to return to England, but can't afford the plane fare and breaks down as her ineffectual husband stands ineffectually by offering ineffectual bromides like "we just have to make the best of it."

In contrast, Judi Dench manages to find her way to a call center company which seems to exist to make cold calls to sell something--not clear to me what it is. Their goal seems to be to get people on the phone and keep them on as long as possible. Dame Dench seems to be there to get a job? (According to a web site about the novel, the character is supposed to think it is a place where she can call home to England. Not sure this is what the movie is trying to do, but it could be. You tell me.)

Once there, Dame Judi tells some stupid anecdote about dipping biscuits into something called "builder's tea" and the head of the company hires her to be a "cultural consultant" or something. Which is great for her, since she needs the money (her dead husband's debt problem, after all), but what the hell does she know about how to close a sales call? Why does one tedious anecdote about dunking biscuits and one bad experience with an Indian call center make her an expert? Don't worry so much! It just does--take the movie's word for it. Besides, you can tell Dame Judi is a good guy, because she starts to adopt Indian-ish clothing, long tunics over light pants and a decorative scarf/shawl around the shoulders. You see--in India, Judy becomes the person she never was back at home! India turns out to have been good for her! Not a Bad Idea at all!! Surprised?

Of course, it was obvious that she was going to thrive in India--because she was already Dame Judi Fucking Dench, to start with. Also, she was no fragile hot-house flower of a sheltered housewife, suddenly thrown into the cold hard world by her husband's death. She found out about his financial mismanagement, and stood up against her children's plans for her with steely determination and packed herself off to India against their disapproval. So of course she was going to come out all right. There was never any doubt.

In a major bit of what-the-fuckery, Dame Judi has a silly C plot about wanting to call home, but the telephones at the Marigold Hotel don't work! Ha ha ha, nothing in India works! Isn't it funny how erratic these developing nations and their technology can be! As unfunny and backwards as that "humor" is, the WTFery is that Dame Judi is keeping a blog. She has a laptop and a wireless internet connection--why the hell doesn't she Skype? Dev Patel makes booty calls to his girlfriend on a cell phone. Who flies off to India without an international cell phone--or doesn't find one? Who waits around for two months waiting for a land line? What is this--1950? (Can't blame the age of the novel--it was published in 2004.)

Tom Wilkinson has a Deep Dark Secret that he has kept hidden for over 40 years--when he was a teen, he fell in love with one of the servant boys who worked in his parents' home in Jaipur. The feeling was mutual, and they spent a perfect night together, and watched the sun rise over a river (somewhere a day's trip from Jaipur?). Wilkinson thought he would never be as happy again, and was right because they fell asleep, were discovered, and the Shameful Secret revealed. The servant boy (Minaj) and his family were sent away, Tom was sent back to England for university, and now he is back. "What could I have done?" He asks, confessing his four decade old secret to Dame Judy after knowing her for about 2 days. "It should have been something more than nothing." So he spends his days trying to find his old lover, which involves playing street cricket with the youngsters. 

Of course, this is showing the Large Point of how India is his True Home--because nothing says India like cricket? It also raises the question of "how the hell did such an idiot get to be a high court judge?" He gets delivered via motor scooter taxi to an address that was presumably his old address? The address of his old teen-aged lover? And not only is there nothing there, but the remaining nothing is covered with wild plants and graffiti. So he asks the 10 year old street cricket boys "What happened to the buildings? And the people who used to live here?" Like they are going to know. So he goes to the public records office and just keeps asking them to search for somebody--Minaj, I assume. But see, he's conflicted. What if Minaj doesn't want to see him?

But this isn't really a problem, because Minaj is a Magical Native Person, who has long ago told his wife that he was gay, and has a life long One True Love with Wilkinson, so that when Wilkinson shows up at his house, the wife knows all about it and Minaj can deliver the Magical Bro Hug of Forgiveness. See! There were no hard feelings, nor overtones of colonialism, or power inequities, or even any other meaningful relationships for Minaj the Magical Native--he just remained in suspended animation for forty years in order to provide absolution to the Tortured White Man. Then, in a surprising twist (not really)--Wilkinson dies peacefully, assured of his forgiveness! Because we don't want to have to deal with gay elderly sex--that is just too much. So martyr the gay and make it a happy ending!

But don't think we won't make fun of straight elderly sex--because that stuff is comedy gold! (No it isn't.) Poor Celia Imre joins a colonial country club, and tries to pass herself off as a member of the royal family, but picks the one who's been dead for nine years! Ha ha ha not funny. She tries to bribe the maitre d' to seat her with some rich royal bachelor, and guess who it is! It's Ronald Pickup from the Marigold Hotel also trying to work the same scam, but smart enough to pick a living royal to impersonate! In about the only plot element that isn't entirely predictable, these two do not end up together. Instead, lovely Celia helps obnoxious Ronald hit on a lady at the bar who certainly deserves better. But after a couple of completely fake and unsuccessful moves, Ronald admits that he's lonely, and the two hit it off. There is a scene where he goes to get Viagra, and a scene where he dances in the shower. The "humor" is apparently in seeing his skinny old body being naked and visible from afar! And we know he's getting ready to have sex--old people sex!

Frankly, with the way he was jumping around on the wet tiles, I was expecting to see him go down with a broken hip. But he gets laid, and gets to brag about it to Gay Martyr Wilkinson, who reveals that he spent the night with this old gay lover--just talking mind you!--so they are totally bonding and then Wilkinson kicks the bucket.

Who's left? Bill Nighy learns how to take something to be repaired, thus teaching him how to be less ineffectual. He also saves Dame Judi from being run over by a motor scooter, thus igniting their True Passion. But they are both Honorable Sahibs, so they don't do anything but behave perfectly correctly. However at some point, Judi gets overwhelmed by the imtimations of mortality caused by Wilkinson's Happy Martyrdom, and she cries and Bill Nighy comforts her. Penelope Wilton gets all obnoxious about it--conveniently forgetting her attempts to do rub herself all over Wilkinson's upper crust. They have a few cross words, and Penelope reveals that their daughter has paid back the money they loaned her and they can go home to England.  Bill doesn't really want to go, but he's decent and loyal, and he packs up but there's a traffic jam! The only way to get to the airport is for Penelope and her suitcases to take a bicycle cab, and Bill can't come too!

In a set piece that Wilton is almost able to sell (but can't quite due to the total lack of script support for her character as anything other than a complete pill before this point), she faces the reality that she and Bill both deserve better and their marriage has been dead for a long time, and he would be doing her a favor if he stayed in India and fell in love with Dame Judi. She leaves, and he goes and smokes some kind of drug, and comes back to make a passionate declaration of love to Judi. And by "passionate declaration" I mean "how do you like your tea?"

Maggie Smith has been mostly forgotten by this movie, and that is probably because her story actually dates from before the invention of movies. It seems she was a housekeeper/governess for an aristocratic family with a stately home, but got pushed out once she was old. I know for a fact that Anne Bronte used this very same plot! She got her hip replaced successfully, but remained stubbornly racist except when trying to tell the untouchable servant girl how to clean. This was misinterpreted as kindness, and servant girl invites Maggie home to meet the 27 members of her family who live in a single room. Maggie has to confront her racism, which she overcomes by being ashamed of being rude to their faces. So now she's become a better person in India too!

Finally, there is the Dev Patel plot--he is in love with a girl who he is willing to sleep with, but won't say he loves her. Nevertheless, she crawls into his bed naked one night, only to find that it's not Dev, but Celia Imre! Because Celia insisted on a room with a door, so they switched rooms and Dev never mentioned it during his booty phone calls. Also, Dev's mother has arrived to squelch his dreams! He is to sell the hotel and marry the girl in Delhi his mother has arranged for him. Fortunately, Maggie's housekeeper job included running the family accounts, so she is able to find financing and save the hotel hurray! And Dame Judi gives Dev a 7 second pep talk that gives him the courage to stand up to his mother! In the final seconds, we see the hotel all spiffed up and running successfully, and boys and girls and old people couples on scooters! Only poor Celia Imre doesn't get her happy ending, which is fine, because women who want sex (especially old women) aren't actually allowed to have that happen, so it's fine. Oh, and Ronald's girlfriend switched his viagra with baby aspirin and he was totally fine--so India is good for male virility too!

Honestly, if Madden hadn't gotten such a great cast (and wasn't so adept at lovely scenes) this would have been a Mystery Science Theater 3000 contender. Poor Maggie Smith is actually forced to utter the line "I can't wait that long. I don't even buy green bananas at my age"--a joke that was stale when the velociraptors told it. And I predicted it two lines before she got to it. (Her UK surgeon tells her that a brown person will perform her surgery, but she's on a waiting list and it will be about six months. Yep--everybody saw it coming.) The first day in India is played for stereotype in an oddly semi-comedic way. Meaning that seeing English old people confronted with scooter taxis isn't actually funny unless you are a racist, so you aren't actually required to laugh at it--but you are kind of expected to. And the dozen other people at the screening did laugh, which made me supremely uncomfortable, because there was nothing actually funny about the scene. The pacing and the scene composition made it look like there was a joke--it was definitely a joke set up--but no punchline other than "Things are different here!"

Final summation--a great cast sold short by a terrible script. Scenery and masterful acting not enough to create substance. Dumb movie made significantly less dumb by the talent involved.